Monthly Archives: April 2020
Monthly Archives: April 2020
In much same way as Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, is a horror director that severely splits opinion. To some he someone putting the blood and guts back into horror in adversary to a lot of sterile mainstream horror. To others, he is a peddler of gratuitous exploitation for its own sake.
Zombie himself sees things a little differently as in the press for this film, he was even quoted as saying: "I'll take everything as far as I can if I still think it's beneficial to the movie and you're still making art. But when it turns into pure exploitation for exploitation, that's where I'd stop. Once it slips into gratuitous for the sake of it, that's not what I'm trying to do.” 
That quote might seem laughable to some critics and horror fans but you do get the sense that Zombie cares about what he is making and is not purely going out his way to push people’s button. That said there are certain scenes in this movie as well as others throughout his career which will likely push even hardened horror watchers.
“The Devil’s Rejects” is a direct sequel to Zombie’s debut “House of a 1000 Corpse’s.” According to all reports Zombie was less than enthusiastic about doing a sequel, but given the success of Corpses’ compared to its budget, Lions Gate was keen for him to produce a follow-up and preferred that to original projects he put forward. Given the position Zombie was determined to make this film very different tonally to his debut saying in the previous quoted interview; “To me, the first film is 'Mad Max' and this one's 'The Road Warrior.'"
Whatever else you may think of the movie Zombie certainly accomplishes his goal to mark clear water between this film and its predecessor. In nearly every department Rejects feels different. Most markedly in its look and tone. Where Corpses’ was cartoony and schlocky, this film is grittier and nastier. Where Corpses’ looked very fake, due to it largely being filmed on soundstages, this film looks more authentic due to being largely shot outdoors as well as that it has a hand-held/documentary filmmaking style. Also, while the grindhouse horror influences are still there, it is clear when watching Rejects that Zombie was as influenced as much by “The Wild Bunch” as he was “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
This Western influence is established pretty much off the bat as a mere five minutes into proceedings we get a standoff between the police led by Sheriff John Quincey Wydell (William Forsythe) and the Firefly family (the villain’s from the previous film) at the family’s decaying house. It is an excellently executed sequence and quickly established that Zombie is not just happy to repeat the previous formula just because it was successful.
Post gun battle two members of the Firefly family, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie), manage to escape and set off on the road after stealing a car. Which pretty much set-ups the rest of the story as we follow the cat-and-mouse game as Sheriff Wydell relentlessly pursues the pair along with Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), who was also one of the previous instalment antagonists. We also learn that the Sheriff determination to bring the family down has a personal edge as he is the brother of the Sheriff the ghoulish group murdered in the original.
Revenge and retribution are the big themes of the plot more accurately how revenge can curdle and corrode the person pursuing it. Not that Sheriff Wydell starts as a by-the-book lawman or anything of the sort but we do see him descend from being an officer of the law operating at the edge of his power to out-and-out vigilante who by the end is everybody bit as psychotic as the Firefly clan themselves. Arguably the theme would have hit home better if Wydell had been more of a likable straight-arrow in the beginning, but the descent is well-played by the ever-reliable Forsythe who plays the later scenes with scenery-chewing relish.
How intentional these themes seem to be a matter of debate as some critics of the time so no depth here at all while a couple of others argued it was an allegory for the USA’s post-9/11 foreign policy with the Firefly’s being Al-Qaeda and Wydell representing the US Miltary. The latter seems like a bad case of over-intellectualising. However to write them off seems equally ridiculous as it seems utterly absurd, to this writer, to think that these were not the type of themes Zombie was playing with, particularly given the amount Wydell quotes from the bible. How hamfistedly he plays with them is, of course, more of a matter of debate.
Not that Zombie probably cares what the critics think. Or certainly, you imagine that is the case based on the scene which lampoons critics in one moment of the film. A frankly bizarro seqeunce where we see Wydell, and his deputies bring in a film critic to verify the family has been using pseudonyms from Marx brother’s films as assumed identities. You will no doubt be able to guess this film expert is a pompous buffoon of a man (who also comes with a Gene Shalit moustache) and ends up being thrown out the Sheriff’s office for insulting Elvis. A petty scene it may be but it is amusing one too made more so as the whole Marx brother character naming thing was thought to be a throwaway in-joke in the original so it is funny to see it become an actual plot point here.
The critic scene is also one of the few moments of light relief in amongst an onslaught of sadistic and grim sequences. The apex of these twisted scenes being the one in the motel where Otis and Baby take a travelling country band hostage and taunt, torture and eventually kill them. Due to the way the scene is filmed in tight-focus the scene is undoubtedly effective and is wrung out for every bit of horror. However, it also skin-crawlingly uncomfortably. And the part where Otis forces Gloria (Priscilla Barnes) to strip and violates her with his gun does feels purely exploitative. The scene after this ordeal where the death of a character is played for laughs also seems misjudged.
For all that there is much to like here as well Forsythe’s aforementioned performance, there is a couple of other outstanding performances most notably Moseley and Haig as Otis and Captain Spaulding both of whom seems like better-drawn characters than they did in “House of 1000 Corpses”. Moseley even manages to make Otis seem vaguely sympathetic for a second in the end before you immediately remember what an awful psycho the character is which is impressive.
Zombie also undoubtedly improved as a filmmaker on this one and pulls off the determinedly retro aesthetic he was aiming for achieved through his effective use of split-screens, freeze frames and screen wipes. Though his heavy use of slow-mo in the final half-hour does get somewhat tiresome.The movie proved to be another success at the box office for Zombie but received a decidedly mixed critical reception as touched on previously. Since Rejects Zombie has directed a further five features a couple of which are terrible (particularly Zombie’s “Halloweens II”), a couple of which are pretty good (“Lords of Salem” is criminally underrated) but none have yet to match this. That is up to and including the most recent Rejects outing "3 From Hell" which while okay was essentially a pale imitation of this film
Director: Kirill Sokolov
Starring: Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Vitaliy Khaev, Evgeniya Kregzhde,Michael Gor, Elena Shevchenko
Run Time: 94mins
Due to the international reputations of the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksandr Sokurov, and Andrey Zvyagintsev, certain things are generally associated with Russian Cinema. Namely meditative pacing, deep philosophical themes, melancholic colour palette, and a general level of sombreness to proceedings. None of which can be applied to Kirill Sokolov's debut feature, which is a riotous, vibrantly colourful, ultra gory action-crime comedy that goes for jugular almost from the kick-off.
Just as it is obvious Sokolov has not been influenced by the "giants" of Russian Cinema, it is equally easy to see who his influences are. Chief amongst them is Quentin Tarantino and, in particular, the Kill Bill films, which are nodded too throughout the movie. Also easy to detect is the influence of Sergio Leone as essentially, this is a western spaghetti set in a Russian apartment (complete with bursts of Morricone-esque riffs).
It would be fair to say the storytelling is economical here, and Sokolov wastes little time getting into the action. The basic set-up is a young thug Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) turns up at the apartment of a detective named Andrey (Vitaliy Khaev) claiming here is there to meet Andrey's daughter. But it is obvious he is actually there to kill him. Why? Well, that is revealed in a very Tarantino-esque style in a series of narrative flashbacks.
After some lively exchanges testing each other out, Andrey quickly realises what the script is, and the pair end up in an apartment decimating brawl involving a hammer, a shotgun, and ends with Matvey getting a television launched into his face. Oh yeah, and all this happens inside the first fifteen minutes. After this, there is little in the way of let-up as Sokolov keeps the gore flowing and the action fast-paced.
It should be mentioned while there is a very high level of gore here overall, it is not a gruesome picture as it is hard to take any of the violence seriously because most of the blood-letting happens in almost Looney Tunes-ish cartoon. And there is certainly a lot of fun to be had watching various characters improbably come back from a variety of grotesque injuries.
Of course, the downside of the violence being presented in such a way is there is a glibness to the film, which can make it a little difficult to invest in the plight of the picture's various unlikeable characters. Also, there is little here in terms of character development, with most not reaching beyond archetypes. To see this, you just need to look at Andry's daughter Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde), who is a femme fatale straight out of central casting. The exception to this Matvey himself who is rounded out a little more and you do root for in the end.
Conversely, though, due in large part to the committed performances from the cast across the board, most of the characters are, at least, memorable. The standouts being Khaev and Kuznetsov. As Khaev is gleefully nasty as Andrey and Kuznetsov manage to give Matvey real personality with little dialogue due to his excellent physical performance. He also has excellent comic timing.
Also, depth and character development are not really the point here. The real focal point is the action, and on that level, the film absolutely delivers, and then some as each set-piece is executed with panache. Sokolov also maximises his environment as there could have been a stuffiness to the film with so much of it set in a single apartment. However, there is not with Sokolov making great use of each section of the cramped space to make it feel much bigger than it is.
"Why Don't You Just Die!" is not a dumb film either as well as the action; there is plenty of one-line zingers, memorable moments, and wry visual asides here. There are even some sly attempts at satire aiming at corruption in Russian institutions.
Overall: An over-the-top gore-soaked black comedy, which is action-packed from beginning to end. Minor quibbles aside, this is an excellent calling card for director Sokolov.
Director: Neasa Hardiman
Starring:Hermione Corfield, Dougray Scott, Connie Nielsen, Ardalan Esmaili, Elie Boukaze, Olwen Fouér, Jack Hickey.
Run Time: 89mins
Well, it is just that typical thing you don’t get a watery creature feature for ages then two come along within months of each other as hot on the heels of Underwater we now have Sea Fever. However, while both have an Alien influence, this film is an entirely more low-key and lower budget affair.
Also, while Alien is an influence on proceedings, the greater influence here is The Thing. Due to most of the story unraveling on a single location, in this case, a trawler. And also, due to the story focusing more on the increasing tensions and paranoia of the crew due to the nature of the threat. In this case, the threat is a parasite that has got into the water supply after an attack on the vessel by a “giant squid,” which drives its victims mad before killing them.
Before we get to that, we are introduced to the various characters who will soon be imperiled. First is our lead Siobhan (Corfield), a young antisocial scientist who is assigned to a trawler for a study on fishing patterns. The rest of the crew aboard are for the fairly generic bunch who can generally be summed up in one line. We have the gruff sea captain (Scott), his stoic wife (Nielsen), a twinkly first mate (Hickey), an eccentric older cook (Fouére), and the young cocksure second engineer (Bouakaze). The exception to this is the chief engineer Omid (Esmaili), who, along with our lead, is fleshed out a bit more. Partly due to this and partly due to the fine performances of Esmali and Corfield, these are the two characters that end up standing out.
Despite the weakness in characterisation most of the cast is solid and as generic as the role may be, Scott plays his salty seadog role with a real relish that is enjoyable to see.
Narratively speaking, the film also goes down some familiar avenues. Although given the current global situation, a story that involves a scientist having to convince a sceptical audience of the scale of the danger they face hits home harder now than it might otherwise have done.
So far, you may have picked up the impression this a feature not worth your time. Here you would be wrong. Yes, there are overly familiar plot elements and some two-dimensional characters. But there are a lot of strength’s here too. Chief amongst them is director Hardiman sure knows how to crank up the tension. Once the threat becomes apparent, this becomes a claustrophobic, nail-biting watch with little let up until the end. Over its runtime, there are several stand-out scenes that crackle with tension. Including one where the crew has to check each other for possible infection. Sure it is much like the famous “blood test” sequence from The Thing, but it works a treat nevertheless.
Another highlight is the effects. Particularly the gore effects. There are certainly some quality moments of skin-crawling body horror on display. And be warned if you’re squeamish about eyes, then this might not be the watch for you. Plus, given the budget level, the creature effects are outstanding. Finally, the production design from Ray Ball provides another highlight as the ship effectively becomes a character in itself.
Overall: Despite its flaws in character and narrative, Sea Fever is an effective sea-faring sci-fi horror that is heavy on claustrophobic atmospherics as well as packing in some pleasingly nasty moments of body-horror making for a solid debut feature.
Director: Andrew Mecham & Matthew Whedon
Starring: Addy Miller, Elizabeth Birkner, Jan Broberg, Philip Brodie, Aimee Lyn Chadwick
Run Time: 91mins
“Behind You” follows in that school of two word warning horror titles much like an “It Follows” or “Get Out”. However unlike those it has less ominous ring to it sounding more goofy than scary. It also feels like it comes straight from the horror movie title generator.
It may seem unfair to pick on the title in such a way but it also speaks to the film as a whole. Everything here feels like it has come from a how-to-make-a-horror-movie starter kit. Creepy kids? Check. Threats written in blood on the wall? Check. A character running themselves into a dead end in order to escape the demon? Check. A character remembering an important plot point they read in a book at just the right time? Check. The list could go on.
In fairness things don’t start that badly. The film opening with a flashback from 1979 (an Amityville Horror reference, perhaps?) showing this particular families first interaction with the entity haunting the home. This establishing scene is effectively creepy and has a satisfying jump scare. Unfortunately there are not enough of these in the rest of the run-time as most jumps any horror fan will see coming a mile off.
After the flashback we skip forward 40 years to sisters Olivia (Addy Miller) and Claire (Elizabeth Birkner) being dropped off at their Aunt’s (Jan Broberg) after the death of their mother. Of course, because of the previous incident, the aunt is initially reticent to take them in but reluctantly agrees. Without going into spoiler territory suffice to say the relationship between the Aunt and the girls develops in the exact way you would imagine.
Pointing this out may seem like harping on the same point but again and again the reliance on cliché and genre convention is the biggest flaw here. From plot construction to character development to the scares the filmmakers continually take the obvious turn. Even the central conceit of having evil been unleashed via a mirror has been done before and much better elsewhere. All of which would be less of an issue if it played with these cliché’s. Or if co-directors Andrew Mecham and Matthew Whedon managed to really crank up the tension. Or if it was just more out-and-out fun. None of which is true sadly.
Perhaps the most frustrating about all of this is you suspect there might be a good movie in there somewhere. Certainly it is for the most part well directed, from a cinematography point of view it looks good and the performances from Miller and Broberg are pretty solid. Maybe with a few tweaks here and there “Behind You” could have been a fun entry into the haunted house/possession movie sub-genres as it stands though not so much.
Overall: Clunky, generic and predictable. If you have watched much in the way of haunted house or possession based movies you will have effectively seen this pedestrian effort.
You can purchase "Behind You" on iTunes here
Eli Roth, is easily one of the most divisive writer/directors in modern horror. To his detractors, he is the purveyor of tasteless pornographic violence that is without substance or merit. To his supporters, he is frequently misunderstood and makes deeper more meaningful films than many critics would have you believe. Probably more than any of his movies it was “Hostel” that cemented these positions. Plus it remains perhaps the most controversial feature of Roth’s blood-splattered career to-date.
Now it must be said “Hostel” is not a movie your writer here is particularly a big fan of at all. However, it would be remiss not to include at least one Roth picture in a survey of 21st Century horror, and in terms of impact and influence it seemed like the go-to picture (with his debut “Cabin Fever” not far behind). Also, it should be mentioned that while I may not be a great lover of the movie that does not necessarily mean I go along with the accusations of its most ardent critics as it being pure trash or “gornography.” No, there is some decent stuff here it just there also some dunderheaded stuff as well. As some things feel like they are there for little other than shock value. This mixture is often the case in Roth film which makes him one of the more frustrating directors to be covered here.
The film has interesting origins too as Roth was considering directing one of the many horror remakes he was offered in the wake of the success of “Cabin Fever.” However, Quentin Tarantino, who produced this picture, advised Roth that he was better developing an original project which he duly did. Coming up with the plot idea after coming across a website for Thai “murder vacations” which the filmmaker was unsure whether it was legit or not. Either way, it provided the seed that would turn into this work.
Now despite whatever flaws there may be here the conceit of the film is a decent one. The concept that there is an exclusive club that offers up torture victims to the highest bidder is both interesting and weirdly plausible. The satirical point it seems to be making is that in this consumerist free market driven world everything can be bought even human life. This satirical commentary may not pierce much further than the surface level, but it shows there is a modicum of intelligence behind this script that is possibly missed by Roth haters.
Not that there is much sign of intellect in the pictures opening act which plays out like a frat-boy comedy; not dissimilar to previous year’s “EuroTrip.” As our protagonists American buddies Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and Josh (Derek Richardson) along with fellow traveller Icelander Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) cavort their way through Amsterdam looking for hook-ups before hearing from a sleazy bloke in hotel if they are really looking to get laid with loads of beautiful women they should head to Slovakia. A land that he alleges has a limitless supply of sex-starved ladies. Our “heroes” duly head off their upon hearing this which is, of course, where their troubles begin. Though not before they have some fun with Natalya (Barbara Nedeljakova) & Svetlana (Jana Kaderabkova) who unsurprisingly turn out to be not as innocent as they appear.
In fairness to Roth, there could be some satire going here too. A commentary on the boorishness of Americans abroad and Roth has even said himself that he made “Amsterdam purposefully look like an X-rated Disneyland.” However that defence only goes so far as while some scenes could be seen as wry commentary much of it comes across as merely being crassly sexist. You also sense Roth is trying to have his cake and eat it both mocking that culture as well as inserting scenes that have no purpose other than to pander to a teen boy audience.
This opening act also initially makes it very difficult to root for these characters that we know are going to be tortured. Granted, it is not essential for films to have likable protagonists but given the set-up it kind of helps. It should be said though the fact Paxton does become a fairly likable hero is a testament to the acting of Hernandez. His performance is by far the strongest on display here, and it is one of the highlights of the film.
There are other highlights too such as Roth’s use of location as the building used for the torture facility, in reality, an unused wing of a mental hospital in Prague, is incredibly creepy and Roth uses it to maximum chilling effect. Also, the headlining catching horror scenes such as the Achilles tendon slashing and the retina snip are truly disturbing and will make even hardened gorehounds sit uneasily in their seat. Away from the torture sequences, there is also some fun scenes particularly those that rotate around a group of homicidal kids who will do anything for bubble-gum.
What is less well handled is the tonal shifts. With the movie moving from its larky knockabout opening act to the torture-based second and then closing in almost action movie style with a daring escape and a car chase. These gear shifts seem clunky and jarring. Although I am sure, some would argue Roth intended it to be jarring the genre-hopping never quite works in the way it does for example in a Miike film. Talking of Miike, it is clear he was an inspiration for Roth with this film in terms of tone. And funnily enough Miike even makes a cameo here.
Despite its many flaws and its off-putting opening half hour “Hostel” remains a cult classic in many horror fans eyes and for those of you reading who have not seen it is probably worth checking out once if nothing more than that. Plenty of critics may disagree with that assessment the movie receiving mixed reviews when it hit cinemas.
The movie also caused a hailstorm of controversy in Slovakia, where it is purportedly set, for the films negative depiction of the country. Roth argued though that the representation was supposed to be seen through the prism of American stereotypes saying: “Slovakia in the movie, it’s not really Slovakia. It’s Movie Slovakia, and it’s based on American stereotypes.”
Not that any of the controversies harmed it at the box office, in fact, it probably boosted it, as the film took in $80million worldwide on a mere $4.8million budget. Given it was such a hit at the box office a sequel seemed inevitable and so it was with Eli Roth returning to make 2007’s “Hostel II” which does the same thing this movie does but worse; the major difference being the protagonists are female instead of male. That looked like it franchise-wise but there was to be one more with “Hostel III” arriving in 2011 but this time there was no Roth, it was direct-to-DVD and went by almost completely unnoticed.
Not for the first time in this series the one film per director rule became difficult when assessing the career so far of James Wan. Wan may not be one of this writer personal favourite horror directors, but it is inarguable that no horror director has been more successful since the turn of the millennium. In fact, in terms of pure box office, he is the most successful horror director of all time. Also, whether you are a fan or not it is pretty staggering that he co-created not one, not two but three of horror’s most successful franchises in the Saw series, The Conjuring Universe and the Insidious franchise.
Which one to go for though? Well, it seemed obvious that it should be either “The Conjuring” or “Saw.” The former being Wan’s biggest horror hit both commercially and critically while the latter being his most influential. What swung it in favour of “Saw” was it was the film that had the greatest impact on the direction of mainstream American horror. In the same way “Scream” had changed Hollywood horror in the 90’s “Saw” changed it in the 00’s ushering in what is referred to as the “torture porn” era. A term both Wan and Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell dislike and don’t associate with the film. A position that is not as entirely unreasonable as for all the originals nastiness it has nowhere near the gory excess of it sequels and is more of a horror suspense thriller than “torture porn.”
Part of the reason it seems to be remembered that way is the scenes with the elaborate torture set-up devised by the Jigsaw killer are amongst the most memorable. Particularly the reverse-bear trap sequence (which also featured in the short which preceded this film and is now referred to as “Saw 0.5”). Not only are these scenes the most striking they are also the most inventive in what could have been a relatively conventional serial killer thriller.
Looking back it is easy to forget that that particular scene and most of the sequences that landed the film with the “torture porn” tag happen in the opening half-hour. Much of the rest the film focuses on Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and photographer’s Adam’s (Leigh Whannell) attempts to escape being chained up in a large dilapidated bathroom and flashbacks to how they got there although there are other nasty moments later on notably Dr. Gordon sawing his foot off near the end.
Torture scene’s aside the thing that stood out about the movie was its brutal, nihilistic tone. The mood here standing in stark contrast to the tongue-in-cheek tone of many horror movies of the time that were still desperately trying to cash in on the “Scream” formula. Here was a film instead harkening back to the darker horror of the ’70s or early ’80s. Also in terms of plot with its complex flashback-within-flashback structure, it cut above your generic killer slashing down teens plot. Not that “Saw” was entirely original as clearly, it owes a great debt to “Seven.” Not only having a very similar visual aesthetic to that film but the scenes where Detectives Tapp (Danny Glover), Kerry (Dina Meyer) and Steven Sing (Ken Leung) discover the bodies of The Jigsaw Killer’s torture victims feel identical to the crime scene scenes in “Seven.”
The likeness to “Seven” extends beyond that and into the central conceit that this is a killer who kills with a twisted moral logic. In the case of John Doe as a biblical punishment for the “seven deadly sins” while in the case of Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) punishing those he believes to be squandering life spurred on by his own terminal illness. The parallels, as demonstrated, are evident but to say it is a simple pale imitation, as some critics of the time did, would be to overstate the case. As not only is there a clear difference in the motive the central killers also feel different too. John Doe’s character comes across a semi-realistic portrait of a serial killer whereas Jigsaw from the off feels more like purely horror bogeyman villain in the model of Jason or Michael Myers even if there is nothing supernatural about him.
Indeed, for all the movie’s grimy and grimly believable trappings there is also some over-top more campy horror elements too. Chief amongst them being Jigsaw himself. This element is most clearly seen in a scene where Detective’s Tapp and Sing nearly capture Jigsaw only for him to slip through their fingers in true comic book villain style. On top of that he is wearing a ceremonial hooded robe for dramatic effect. Granted this is done so as to hide the identity of the true villain of the piece until the twist at the end. Also, what a twist it is with the “corpse” that had been on the floor between Dr. Gordon and Adam suddenly rising up and revealing himself to be “Jigsaw.” We suddenly realise that this is John Kramer whom we had early observed in a blink-and-you-miss-it scene where we see him in a hospital bed.
Now, you could argue the twist stretches plausibility too far. You may also argue that it is annoying because it is one of those twists that there is no real way to guess. However, that being said it is a pretty damn effective twist in the tale and must rank up there with horrors most iconic twists. Curiously, while many saw this ending as the creators leaving a door open for a sequel the creators see it differently. With writer and star Whannell saying in a 2010 AV Club interview: “…there is something about that ending of Saw we thought was quite final, that door shutting and everything going dark.”
Things did not work out that way with the series almost becoming a Halloween tradition for a while spawning seven sequels (Saw II-VII plus Jigsaw). Unusually unlike most horror franchises all of these sequels reached cinemas and turned it into one of the most successful horror franchises ever with only “The Conjuring” and “Alien” franchises drawing more at the worldwide box office. Not that financial success equals critical acclaim as most of the sequels were rightly panned critically. Moreover, for all its status in the horror pantheon now even this film received mixed reviews at the time. In all fairness, though some of these were clearly came from critics who are sniffly dismissive when it comes to horror and “Saw” both now and in times to come will be remembered as a significant entry in 21st-century horror.