Category Archives for "film essay"

December 6, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)

Ju-On The Grudge 2002

Even now if you ask people to name a Japanese horror film, if they know any at all, the most likely answer you would get is either this film or Ringu. Both of which were the most popular films of the early 00s J-Horror craze. Not that necessarily makes this film one of the best as many would consider Ju-on: The Grudge to be weaker than some other such as Ringu or Pulse (Kairo) for example. While that maybe there are still many memorable and you can certainly see the films appeal.

The curious thing about Ju-on: The Grudge is that this is actually the third entry in a long-running franchise created by director Takashi Shimizu which is still going to this day and was also the first in the franchise to get a cinematic release. You may assume that you when need to see the first two entries (Ju-on: The Curse and Ju-on: The Curse 2) to view this one, but you do not necessarily. As all of the films work both as part of the franchise and as individual films. The connecting factor being the haunted house of the deceased Saeki family. According to the film's mythology, a curse was created after Takeo Saeki (Takashi Matsuyama) murdered his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji), son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) and the family cat in a jealous rage after finding out Kayako had a crush on another man. This curse follows anybody who enters the house and also turned Kayako into a vengeful spirit and the franchise's central antagonist.

Like all of the films in the Ju-on series Ju-on: The Grudge does not have a plot per se but is instead told in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Confusing matters further, these vignettes do not unfold in chronological order, so you always have to think where you are in the narrative timeline. In the first of these vignettes, we follow Rika (Megumi Okina) as she is sent to Saeki house as a carer for a senior woman. Rika, as it turns out, is the films nominal lead as she appears in more than one of the vignettes unlike most of the other characters.

Each of the vignettes run in roughly the same order with characters ending up in the cursed house for one reason or other, the curse then following with the back home or at work or whatever and then spreading to other characters they encounter before being bumped off by Kayako’s spirit. All of which makes the film sound very formulaic and a bit boring. The former is true as Shimizu has created a blueprint for these films and is very much sticking. The latter, however, is not there is plenty here to hold your attention as there is plenty of tension here to keep you hooked into the story and Shimizu maintains a profoundly creepy atmosphere throughout proceedings.

Arguably the scares have lost some of their initial power as audiences are more familiar with the chalk-faced, twitchy, clicky ghosts that populate many a J-Horror but there is still stuff to get under your skin on the evidence here. Notably in scenes such as the one where Kayako come spider-like out a room and stalks one of the characters down the stairs in the old Saeko home or the scene where you see another set of hands in the back of Rika’s head when she is showering. Also the horrendous croaking noise Kayako is just as unsettling now as when the film was released.

Not all the jumps work, and some of the fake-out (generally cat-based) scares are more funny than scary, but the horror set-ups along with the atmosphere are where the movie, and by extension, the franchise is at its strongest. As discussed there are plenty of weaknesses too as well as the ones already mentioned it would be fair to say there is little in the way of character development and the acting is of variable quality. The movie is also guilty of the Hollywood studio horror thing of laying on the musical cues thick to signpost this is going to be a scary bit, get ready to be scared now!

These were all flaws that critics at the time pounced on, and despite its rather stellar reputation as a horror fan favourite it received decidedly mixed reviews with a current Metacritic score of 48 and an RT score of 64%.

Inevitably for any popular non-English language horror film, there was a remake, just called The Grudge, made in 2004, which is actually the same year Ju-on: The Grudge got its official UK and US release. Unusually the Sarah Michelle Gellar starring remake did not relocate the action to somewhere in the States but is still set in Tokyo. The lack of location was not the only unusual thing about the remake as the director of the remake is none other than Takashi Shimizu. The other curious about the remake is that basically a facsimile of Ju-on: The Grudge with the main difference being the English speaking cast. So if you have seen The Grudge, you have essentially seen this movie.

Shimizu also went to direct a sequel to both this movie and the English language. Confusingly unlike the original and its remake Ju-on: The Grudge 2 and The Grudge 2 have separate storylines although they do follow the same non-linear chapter based. After four Ju-on movies and two American ones, The Grudge movies Shimizu left the franchise but it very much rolled on without him as there was another direct-to-DVD American sequel released in 2009 as well another five entries in the original Japanese series. The last of these entries being 2016’s Sadako vs. Kayako which sees the antagonists of both the Ring and Ju-on franchises face off in a movie that started life as internet joke and was met with a mixed to poor reaction upon release. If you thought that is the end of The Grudge franchise though think again as there is an English language reboot set to hit screens early next month. Proof, if proof were needed, you can never keep a horror franchise down for long.

November 22, 2019

NHE’s Modern Classics: 28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later

”28 Days Later” is not only one of the most iconic horror films of the 21st Century’s but also a pivotal one regarding British horror. 2002 turned out to be a landmark year for British horror films as it also saw the release of “Dog’s Soldier’s.” Both of these films led to the re-emergence of the UK horror film scene which it had been mostly dormant in the ’90s. Not that there were no horror movies from our fair isle in the 90s just most of them were rubbish, and it would be uncontroversial to call it one of the worst decades for British Horror, if not the worst.

Funny then, that the film the re-sparked the UK scene did not come from some with a track record in the genre but Danny Boyle who was at that point most known for “Trainspotting” and had not made a horror film before nor has he since. Boyle is now, of course, considered one of this country’s finest genre filmmakers and has long established his “national treasure” status but at this stage, he was looking for a career renaissance after two critical and commercial failure in “A Life Less than Ordinary” and “The Beach.” With even Boyle later openly disliking.

Both “A Life Less than Ordinary” and “The Beach” were glossier Hollywood productions and in the latter cases much bigger budgeted than Boyle had been used too. “28 Days Later” on the other hand saw Boyle come back to his roots not just due to it being a smaller British production but also it has a more rough and ready shooting style. You sense this was as much of a practical choice as an aesthetic one as the use of digital camcorders allowed Boyle’s crew to set up and move on quickly which came in useful for capturing many of the film’s most memorable shots of capturing desolate streets and empty motorways on the hoof.

The most iconic of which is where we see Jim (Cillian Murphy) standing on an empty Westminster bridge with Big Ben looming in the background. In fact, that whole section at the start where Jim wanders around a deserted London is so memorable that many forget that the film does not open with it but instead with a prologue where we see how the “rage” virus escaped in the first place.

The use of digital camcorders did not just help with shooting on quick turnaround, but it also suits the movie, in terms, of giving it a grittier, documentary-like look which makes the action that unfolds feel more visceral and realistic. There is something about this use of digital over film that suits the frenzied energy and kinetic pace that Boyle keeps going over its near 2 hours running time. It also seems to be appropriate for this British urban tale differentiating from glossier American zombie films. Not that "28 Day's Later" is really a zombie film as the hordes are not undead but infected with a virus. This fact did not, however, stop lots of subsequent zombie films take inspiration from 28 Days and introducing running zombies as a thing.

Away from the look of the film, there is a great deal else to admire about “28 Days Later”. For example, anyone who has seen it will remember John Murphy’s pulsating score which greatly adds to the tension of proceedings particularly the instrumental track "In the House – In a Heartbeat" which scores the climactic confrontation in the mansion house.

Director Boyle was also bold in his casting decision with the leads being played by, then, relative unknowns Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris. Both of whom excel in their roles with Murphy playing everyman Jim who has just woken from a coma and Harris playing Selina who, initially at least, is a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners survivor. Murphy and Harris both brilliantly portray their characters journey with Jim becoming more of survivor while Selina comes to show other things are going on underneath all those hard edges. Balancing out the fresh faces Boyle also cast experienced character actors Brendan Gleeson and Christopher Eccleston, both of whom leave there mark on the film although in very different ways.

Gleeson plays Frank a father who, along with his daughter, teams up with Jim and Selina to travel to a potential safe haven in Manchester. Frank is possibly the warmest and funniest character in the film and the relationship with his daughter Hannah is also nicely played. All this plus the brief sunny patch in the movie makes it all the more gut-wrenching when he is killed after becoming infected. Eccleston’s role as Major Henry West is entirely different initially seeming like a possible saviour before quickly revealing himself to be unhinged. The point this is revealed is a scene where our protagonists are welcomed with a dinner by Major West and his soldiers only for it to become one of the most unnerving dinner scenes this side of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Not that Major West think he is doing anything unhinged, in fact, from his point of view his actions, which presumably most viewing would see as despicable, seem not only logical but vital for survival. Something which is a recurring theme both what would you do to survive in a situation like that? Moreover, is there meaning beyond mere survival in a world like that? No easy answers are given. Herein lies another key strength to the movie namely that while you can enjoy it as a pure piece of entertainment with explosive set-pieces, gory deaths, and kinetically charged action sequences, there is also plenty morally and intellectually absorbing elements bubbling under the surface for those inclined to engage with the feature.

While there is not much to criticise here, it would be fair to say the film never quite matches the intensity of its opening 20 minutes. On the other hand, it would be accurate to say that opening is up there with the very best in horror, so it is understandable the film is unable to sustain the same level of ferocity. If there is another criticism to be made it would be Garland script between its environmental allegory, political commentary, and ethical debate is thematically over-stuffed meaning not everything is explored as fully as it could be. In subsequent years this has become a hallmark of Garland’s work, but then again I would rather have that than puerile entertainments devoid of value.

Some of these weaknesses were also picked up by critics at the time but mainly “28 Days Later” was a major critical as well as commercial hit. The film also went to win several accolades and has only gone on to grow in stature ranking seventh in Bloody Disgusting top 20 Horror films of the Decade (the 2000’s). Also in that rarest of occurrences, it spawned a solid sequel in 2007’s “28 Weeks Later” which while no match for the original does a good job of building upon the world established by its predecessor. There has also long been talk of a “28 Months Later” to complete the trilogy but that project never really got off the ground and now seems unlikely to be made.  

November 8, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Pulse (Kairo) (2001)

Pulse (Kairo) (2001)

At the turn of the millennium horror, fans on both sides of the Atlantic were fast tiring of the self-referential slasher cycle kicked off by “Scream.” To the extent that there are horror fans to this day that hate “Scream” not so much, it appears, for anything the movie itself did but because of the wave of poor imitations it inspired. Due to this fatigue with mainstream American horror, fans looked elsewhere for their kicks and the J-Horror craze kicked in gear first off with “Ringu” (which was made in 1998 but did not receive a UK release until 2000) which was a like a breath of fresh air in a sea of generic horrors of the time.

Many believe that “Pulse” could have played a bigger role in that craze where it not for the Weinstein’s who bought the rights for it in order to make a remake. The Weinstein’s then stopped it from receiving a general release in the US at the time. Meaning this 2001 film did not hit American cinemas until late 2005 while in the UK it did not reach the big screen until early 2006 by which time the J-Horror craze had petered out. Despite this “Pulse” still managed to pick up a cult following due to many enterprising horror fans getting it on import DVDs.

 Whether it would have made a bigger splash with a wider release at the time is a matter as in many ways “Pulse” is less accessible than say “Ringu” or “Ju-On: The Grudge.” Both of which with their pale-faced jerkily moving ghost where unique at the time but at least they still have relatively familiar genre pacing and storylines you can follow if you are paying attention. Whereas “Pulse” not only has glacial pacing but narratively, with its crazy tale of internet ghosts which make people commit suicide, is a jumble even if you are watching in close detail. Not that this should come as a surprise to anybody anyone familiar with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who has made his name making genre features but with an off-beat auteurist twist.

So while “Pulse” maybe a ghost story it is one less concerned with scare than it is with mood, atmosphere, and cultural commentary. The latter being the irony that in a world ever closer connected by the internet that people have never been more isolated and lonely. Not an original point or one it drives home subtly but one that seems prescient give this was made in 2001 when the internet had nowhere near the role it plays in people’s lives that it does now. Also unlike many films which have dealt with the same topic of loneliness in the digital age, few have the same impact or feeling as Kurosawa packs in every frame of the movie with a sense of dread and melancholy that resonates and makes it feel more than mere tutting ludditism.

 As well as referring to the effect of the internet the film’s social commentary also specifically looks at Japan and how work and education trump interpersonal relationships with the film given extra resonance given the very real spate of suicides which occurred in Japan, at the time, due to the economic downturn in the late ’90s.

A lot is going on here, not all of which is made explicit which is the same with the plot very little of which is explained. Questions such as how do people end up in spectral/internet realm? How do the ghosts appear in the Forbidden Rooms? What is the significance of the red tape? Why do all the victims leave behind a black stain where their corpse was?

Moreover, many others are left unanswered. Loose ends and unanswered questions are not necessarily a bad thing but the plot logic, or lack thereof, does test the patience at times. The movie also escalates from ghost story to apocalyptic dystopia without warning.

 The lack of coherence is not the only issue as there is also almost no attempt at characterisation. The ensemble is more character traits than characters as we have the cute nerdy computer girl (Harue), the laidback technophobe (Ryosuke) and the shy plant shop employee and caring friend (Michi). These characters incidentally are the three lead characters. You could take this as a sign of lazy writing, but equally, you can see this is a sign of tieing in with movies theory of the increased atomisation of modern culture due to technology, and therefore it makes a kind of sense we know nothing about the characters inner lives. Not necessarily a theory your writer here ascribes too but a possibility nonetheless.

Despite its flaws though “Pulse” is undoubtedly a film packed with memorable imagery and is likely to resonate long after you watch it. Amongst stand-outs is an excellently composed sequence where we see a woman commit suicide by leaping from a water tower. A woman who we initially see in the background of the frame as Michi (Kumiko Aso) is taking a phone call in the foreground only for her turn round in time to see the woman plummet to her death. What makes the scene more unnerving is the lack of reaction of the people walking down the street with only Michi going over to survey the horrific scene. This scene is not the only one to leave an indelible mark as there is a few other scattered throughout including one which impressively makes hands coming over a couch seem unsettling.

Predictably given the films oblique, even by Kurosawa’s standards, nature the reviews upon its release in the West were mixed with some hailing it a J-Horror classic while others were left baffled but overall the critical reaction it received was positive. The same could not be said for the dumbed-down 2006 remake which was critically savaged upon release for stripping out the creepy atmospherics and adding in a bunch of horror clichés. Possibly the saddest thing about the remake, besides the aforementioned, is that the late Wes Craven has a writing credit although at the time of release he stated: "I have had no influence at all on the film they are about to release.”[1]  After he had been removed as director and replaced by Jim Sonzero, Craven’s screenplay was also rewritten by Ray Wright so we will never know if Craven’s “Pulse” would have been better, but it seems safe to bet it certainly could not have be any worse. 

​Despite the remakes, critical beatdown and the lack of audience appreciation Hollywood decided to make two direct-to-DVD sequels (both 2008) which received even worse reviews. None of this in the end truly tarnished the original as the movie retains its cult classic status while thankfully the remake and especially the remakes sequels have been largely forgotten about.
 
[1] Losing the Pulse, by Calum Waddell, Fangoria Magazine, No. 255, August 2006

October 25, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

the-devil's-backbone

From comic book films like “Hellboy” to the blockbuster action of “Pacific Rim” to the majestic fantasy of his masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” Guillermo Del Toro has proven himself to be one of the best genre directors of the 21st Century. It was certainly difficult to pick one film for Del Toro for the book as most of his films have some horror element. Yes, even his Academy Award-winning feature “The Shape of Water” has a touch of horror about it even although it is mainly a romantic-fantasy.

Del Toro frequent mixing of genre also makes it difficult to establish which of his films you consider to be horror. From his 21st Century filmography, there is two that stand out as being horror films this film and “Crimson Peak.” Between these two it was easy to pick which one should be included on the list. Your writer here would like to state before continuing that I consider “Crimson Peak” to be nowhere near as bad as many people claim. There is much fun to be had with that films brand of overblown Gothic horror, and performance-wise Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston make for an impressive triumvirate.  However, suffice to say it is nowhere near as good as “The Devil’s Backbone.”

Tragic to think then the movie was nearly never made. The reason for this was partly that Del Toro was considering giving up filmmaking after his bruising first Hollywood experience on the Weinstein produced “Mimic.” On that movie, he frequently clashed with Harvey and Bob Weinstein and felt the film had been taken out from under him. The other reason was he could not getting fund for the story in its original form (then set during the Mexican Revolution) which he pitched to the Mexican Film Institute. The film institute rejected it on the grounds it was “too big” of a film. The movie was however saved with the intervention of Pedro Almovodar. Almovodar had admired Del Toro’s work and had passingly said to the director if he ever wanted to make a film in Spain he would produce. In 1997, Del Toro “took a chance and wrote to Pedro and said, ‘Remember that conversation we had?’”[1].. He did indeed, and the rest as they say is his history.

 

The change of filming location did not alter the plot too much, but the backdrop of the story did move from being the Mexican Revolution to the Spanish Civil War. The plot focuses on Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy who finds himself at a leftist orphanage following the death of his father. Carlos soon discovers that the orphanage is haunted and hides some dark secrets.

Given a quick synopsis “The Devils Backbone” may seem like a regular ghost story but this is Del Toro we are talking about and as is usual with his films things are not that straightforward. Far from being your regulation haunted house pic, this films mixes horror with drama, coming-of-age and Western elements with John Ford’s “The Searchers” being one of Del Toro’s touchstones during the film. The Western influence is strong throughout with many of the outdoor shots being composed like a Western, and the orphanage itself is made to look like one of those barricaded forts seen in so many Westerns.

Like with many a Del Toro it is not the supposed monster, in this case, the ghost that is the villain here but human cruelty, the cruelest character being Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Even this character though is not without his sympathies. His actions are frequently despicable and grow more so as the film goes so you actively cheer on his demise, but there are also times you can see Jacinto is a man still viciously lashing out against festering childhood wounds. That is one of the critical strengths of the movie all the key players are given psychological depth and believable motivations in a way often missing in mainstream horror.

Jacinto not the ghost child Santi (Andreas Munoz) may be the real threat in the movie, but that does not mean the ghost doesn’t look creepy, far from it. The design of Santi is very creepy indeed with his ashen white complexion (inspired by Sadako in “Ringu”), cracked porcelain-like face and the blood that emanates from a head wound like a mist. There also some eerily atmospheric scenes involving the ghost before we, the audience, realise he does not pose a threat. Particularly in an early scene where Carlos first catches sight of him in lower reaches of the Orphanage building.

As well as the design of the ghost being outstanding the overall design of the movie is equally gorgeous and gothic. The film’s budget was actually only 3-4 million Euros, but from the look of it, you would imagine that the budget was far higher than that which is a testament to both Del Toro as a filmmaker and the skill of his crew.

The design is not the only outstanding element though as there also many great performances here. Notably from Del Toro favourite Federico Lupe as the kindly Professor Casare. Also in fine form is Marissa Paredes as head of the orphanage Carmen, Eduardo Noriega as the aforementioned Jacinto as well as Fernando Tielves who is excellent as the young protagonist Carlos.

Upon release the film was not met with quite the same adulation as its sister picture “Pans Labyrinth“ (Which Del Toro recommends you watch with this film) it was still met overwhelmingly positive reviews and was a modest box office success. As mentioned earlier Del Toro’s career would go from strength to strength from here culminating, of course, in his Oscar win for “The Shape of Water.” However, this film still ranks as one of the visionary filmmakers finest and up until recently was the one that Del Toro himself cited as his favourite amongst his works.


[1] All Guillermo Del Toro quotes taken from “Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone” by Matt Zoller and Simon Abrams

October 11, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: American Psycho (2000)

Christian-Bale_American_Psycho_hip-to-be-square

​When the novel “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis was released in 1991 it came out to a hailstorm of controversy. As it would turn out the cinematic version would be no different. In fact long before it was released in cinemas in 2000 the project went through various controversies. In some ways it is surprising it reached the screen at all with producer Edward R. Pressman originally buying the property in 1992 and turning various scripts over the years before settling on the script of eventual director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. This process included a script by Ellis himself which Pressman described as “completely pornographic and ending with a musical number”[1] and as interesting as that sounds it is easy to see why they did not go in that direction.

Settling on script, director and lead star Christian Bale did not end the productions troubles. First there was the wrangling with studio who thought the project needed a starrier lead which led to Leonardo Dicaprio been thrust on to the director much to her annoyance. It is easy see why as while in his current vintage it is possible envisage DiCaprio in the part, let’s face it his role in “The Wolf of Wall Street” is not a thousand miles away, back then in his post-Titanic period  he would have been ridiculous in the part. Harron well knew this but her objections only led to her being sidelined, and Oliver Stone put in her place as director. Again as great a director as Stone is satire is not really his forte and given the usual standard of his female characters you figure the film might have ended up in even more hot water than it eventually did. Both Harron and Bale held tight as they felt this version would inevitably fall through which it duly did and saw them both return to the project.

Given the events leading up to the shoot it is not surprising that the shoot itself was set with difficulty. Not that this had to do with on-set issues but more to do with outside factors such as brands mentioned in the movie pulling out or distancing themselves from it or various people trying to have the production shut down with feminist icon Gloria Steinman prominent amongst them. Another prominent thorn in the side of Harron during production was C-CAVE (Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment) who linked the novel to the case of notorious Canadian serial killer Paul Bernardo. This was due to a copy of the novel being discovered on his bedside table upon his arrest. Although the copy of the novel was later thought to be owned by his wife rather than the barely literate Bernardo. The group also threatened to protest the filming throughout. In the end these protests never came to fruition however that did not stop the protests becoming part of the films myth. As Harron wryly points out “As so often happens, a tabloid frenzy had been mistaken for real life.” [2]

The tabloid frenzy did not abate when the movie was released. This frenzy is more connected with the times than the movie itself as this was 2000 and Post-Columbine there had been much debate about the influence of certain movies and musicians. The movie itself is not the gorefest or the exercise in torture porn you would expect if you were just reading the headlines of the time. For one up until near the end there is not a great deal of gore. Also while there are bloody set-pieces that is not the main thrust here. The movie is more focused on satirising the vanity, greed and obliviousness of this gilded class of Wall Street traders. The central joke being Bateman could get away with committing these murders under everyone’s nose as long as he follows the social conventions of high society. Then again did he commit the murders? While the novel makes it very ambiguous whether he is a murderer or just a sociopath with homicidal tendencies the movie seems to explicitly state it is latter before confusing things with the final scene. Whether or not the murders happen has been a matter of keen debate amongst horror fans ever since.

In the end it does really matter what side of the debate you fall down on as it does little to take away from this excellent. There are several stand-out moments but this personal favourite is the “Hip to Be Square” scene in which Bateman bloodily butchers Paul Allen (Jared Leto) to the sounds of Huey Lewis and the News. This is a scene of perfectly pitched black comedy and is emblematic of the film generally with it mixtures of nasty violence and jet-black. Not an easy balancing act but one that Harron manages exceedingly well. It is a great scene for Bale to show off his acting chops too as he progressively becomes more unhinged during his monologue on Huey Lewis before going completely beserk at the end, only to casually sort himself and light a cigar once the deed is done.

It is ironic that many movie insiders had told Bale the film would be “career suicide” as it turned out to be quite the opposite. As while the feature itself got a mixed critical reception Bale was unanimously praised his performance and, as you will know, went on to much bigger things on the back of it. Most of the criticism focused on the ironic gaze of the violence, misogyny and the satire being repetitive. The latter element is partially true as the story does make some of the same points about 80s materialism and greed culture repeatedly. In terms of the other criticism this seems unfair as the view of the violence is dispassionate as we the viewer are seeing these act through the lens of Bateman but never does the film empathise with that view and there is still scenes that are properly shocking. Similarly while there is a lot of misogyny on display the film never feels itself misogynistic. In fact Harron is clearly satirising misogyny.

In terms of legacy “American Psycho” spawned a truly terrible direct-to-video sequel and there was a mooted TV series that never got made. Funnily enough the former initially had nothing to do with “American Psycho” and was then retconned into being a sequel which is only notable for starring a young Mila Kunis and weirdly William Shatner. Thankfully not many people know about the sequel leaving the films real legacy as being one of the first great horrors of the 21st Century as well being a great snapshot on male narcissism (something that feels even more relevant now).


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/mar/24/fiction.breteastonellis

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/09/movies/film-the-risky-territory-of-american-psycho.html


September 27, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Final Destination (2000)

Final-Destination_Devon_Sawa-Disaster

While this series delves more into the indie side of horror, I thought it silly to ignore some of the more mainstream releases. The reason for Final Destination’s inclusion is, not only did it kick one of the biggest horror franchises of the 21st Century’s first decade but also your writer here considers it to be one of the most fun franchise of the 21st Century so far. There is little doubt these are silly movies right enough, but for pure popcorn horror thrills most of the “Final Destination” films work a treat.

The 2000 original started life as an X-Files spec script by screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick way back in 1994. A fact well known by fans but maybe less known was when the first draft of the screenplay, then titled “Flight 180”, was sent to New Line Cinema, the project executive took it to read on the flight to read. A decision he changed upon realising that he was on Flight 180 from LA to New York and praying it would land safely which it did.

The X-Files connection remained as after New Line bought the Reddick treatment and brought him on to write the first draft they then brought in eventual director James Wong and Glen Morgan to rework it both of whom had written for the show. In the end, Wong and Morgan rewrote the script, but Reddick’s story and concept remained.

 In some ways, the movie is quite an inventive mix of teen slasher, disaster movie & X-Files episode. The latter aspect is particularly accentuated by the two FBI Agent characters in the film. That said Agent’s Wiene and Schreck (get it? As in Robert Weine and Max Schreck, there are also several other horror referencing character names in the movie) are no Mulder & Scully. In many ways, it looks and feels like that kind of late 90’s/early 00’s Post-Scream slasher.  You can certainly see this in the casting with many of the cast coming off the back of successful teen movies or TV shows at the time such as Sean William Scott (American Pie), Ali Larter (Varsity Blue), Kerr Smith (Dawson’s Creek) and lead Devon Sawa (Idle Hands). The difference here being there is no monster or physical killer instead these teens are stalked by death itself. Not some black hooded version of death either as the studio wanted but an unseen elemental force.

There may be several outlandish and over-the-top moments in the movie, but it does have very creepy opening effectively using sound and music cues as well as clever edits to make what is really just a scene of someone packing seem sinister. The eerie atmosphere is kept well in the opening act in the lead up to the plane disaster something helped out a lot by Sawa’s performance as lead character Alex Browning who envisages the plane's explosion and set off the events of the rest of the film. Other acting performances in the movie are less decent as is to be somewhat expected in this type of movie. There is however a great cameo from Tony Todd who would go on to be a franchise regular. However, those going to see it for the great acting but the deaths. Here the movie delivers for the most part.

The over-elaborate deaths are the thing that is most entertaining and central to the appeal of the film and the franchise. Now some of these over-elaborate accidents are genuinely effective, and some are just ludicrous. Take the first post plane accident death for example. Here the character of Tod (Chad E. Donella) is killed by a chain reaction of things that lead him to be strangled by a cord in the bathtub. Not too ludicrous you would think but more so when you see the scene where he appears to be stalked by the water that he eventually slips on to fall into the tub. Even more hilariously it snakes away post-kill. That is not the most overblown or convoluted death though that honour goes to the death of Miss Lewton (Kristen Cloke) who dies in a chain of events too convoluted to go into, but it ends with her being impaled with a falling knife and her house exploding. Not that this is necessarily a complaint as it is very entertaining to watch.

The most brutally effective and best deaths though are also the simple ones like Amanda Detmer’s characters death via speeding bus or the decapitation of Sean William Scott’s character. The funny thing about the former is you know it is going to happen, but it still works. Much like a joke that you know what the punchline is going to be but laugh nonetheless.

Upon release, the movie did poorly critically but did pick up the odd positive review most notably from the late Roger Ebert who gave it three out of four stars. Also in 2010, the film was featured on a Metacritic list entitled 15 Movies the Critics Got Wrong. It is easy to why critics took against as, as previously mentioned, this is a silly movie, and few would claim stone-cold classic horror status for it. However it’s also easy to see why audiences liked it as the film has a killer concept, some great deaths and it is just very fun.

The same can be said for the franchise it spawned as, except for the fourth one, all of them are solidly entertaining films. Sure it is the same formula repeated in different settings but each entry has a lot of fun with that formula, and there are several stand-out deaths peppered throughout. The Final Destination is also one of the few horror franchises to go out on a high with many sighting “Final Destination 5” as their favourite one. That film also cleverly brings the series full circle by tying into the original giving the franchise a fitting end. We can only hope this fitting conclusion will not be ruined by the long rumoured but as of yet unmade “Final Destination 6”.

September 13, 2019

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Ginger Snaps (2000)

Ginger Snaps (2000)

​Werewolves have always been the poor relation when it comes to cinematic monsters while most horror fans can name several great vampire or zombie movies they would struggle to come up with a handful of werewolf ones. Certain movies do immediately spring to mind when you think of great werewolf films such as The Wolf Man (1941), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Howling (1981) and The Company of Wolves (1984) however there is not that many more after that. This movie however also belongs in that company and is one of the two excellent werewolf films made since the turn of the millennium, the other being Dog Soldiers.

Like many a cult success, however, this low-budget Canadian feature took a while before it reached its audience and gained the cult reputation that it has today. Things started positively enough for the film as it premiered to a good reaction at the 2000 Munich Film Festival and based off of that there was a buzz around it when it was shown at The Toronto Film Festival the same year. It was after this it started to have problems as due to poor market handling the movie pretty much disappeared only to resurface for a brief theatrical run in 2001. It was not a disaster at the box office but not a blazing success either. It would be on the DVD/VHS market where it would find its true success though and 18 years after it still holds a cult appeal and is now regularly listed as one of the all-time great werewolf films.

The movie itself centers of the Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katherine Isabelle), who are death-obsessed teenage sisters. Their obsession is on display in the title sequence where we get a montage of photos the girls have taken where they have elaborately staged their own violent “deaths.” It turns out they did this as part of a school project much to the shock and disgust of their teacher. While they are busy doing that there are a lot of strange goings on in their neighbourhood as several dogs in the area turning up mutilated which is rumoured to be the work of some mysterious beast. Inevitably these two things collide as Ginger is attacked by the beast mere moments after getting her first period (which is worth noting as the film plays heavy on lycanthropy being a puberty metaphor). After this Ginger starts changing in attitude and appearance something that most around including their mother Pamela (Mimi Rogers) put down to the onset of womanhood but her sister knows that it is down to something more sinister and suspects Ginger is now a werewolf, which of course she is!

After this, we are soon following the path of carnage that Ginger paves, but the movie is not really about that as this is a horror movie very much rooted in character, namely the characters of Brigitte and Ginger. Both Perkins and Isabelle excel in their roles both in terms of convincing as sisters and making their characters believable teens and not the kind of stock characters you are likely to find in your average slasher horror movie.

Regarding the other characters, it was noted by many critics at the time that Mimi Rogers’s role as the mum is an odd fit and even unsettled the film. There is a certain amount of truth to this as Rogers’s performance is quite bizarre and the wackiness of her character does not seem to fit in with the tone of the movie. That may be the case but for this writer it still kind of works in a weird way and it is a never less than watchable performance.

The film may be character-based, but that does not mean it’s skimp on the horror. Quite the contrary as the film set out its stall in the pre-title sequence where a mother comes across their son playing with something in a sandbox which she discovers to her horror to be a severed dog paw. We then pan to the remains of the dog scored by the screams of the woman. There are several more brutal dismemberments throughout the film. These scenes are generally well-staged and brutally effective. Also while the film has a slow build, it cranks up to some entertaining carnage in the end.

 Further on the horror, it also good that the filmmakers do not show the werewolf a lot. Instead, there is a lot of the monster in the shadows and us as the viewer seeing the aftermath of attacks. Although this was probably done as much for budgetary reasons as it was for stylistic ones, it is done well all the same.

“Ginger Snaps” also stood out at the time due to the fact not only were the central characters female but so was the screenwriter, Karen Walton. This female-ness may not seem unusual now as there has been more and more female horror filmmakers and writers appearing in the last few years, but this was much less common in 2000. Walton did not go on to do further work in horror but is a regular TV writer/producer and was one of the regular writers on “Orphan Black” which was co-created by the director of this film, John Fawcett.

As I mentioned earlier while not a commercial success initially the picture did find an audience on home video. Due to this success, the film got two follow-ups, a sequel, and a prequel. These movies “Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed” and “Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning” were filmed back-to-back in 2003 and were obviously cash-in's. The most surprising thing about them though is while not as good as the original both are solid features. The second film sees Perkins return and, much like “Halloween II” follows directly where the first film left off while the third reunites Isabelle and Perkins and see them as 19th Century versions of the Fitzgerald sisters.

Aside from the follow-ups “Ginger Snaps” also gave us one of the horror stars of the new millennium in Katherine Isabelle. It is only a shame that equally talented Perkins did not go on to such heights, although she has appeared in several films & TV series since this flick. Isabelle and she will also always be fondly remembered for this film which turned out to be one of the first horror classics of the 21st Century.