Sunday, October 6, 2013

Movie Review: 'Dario Argento's Dracula' (2012)

By Ryan Clark

Dario Argento might never make another great film, and he would still be one of my all-time favorite directors, based solely on the strength of his classic films like Tenebre, Deep Red, Suspiria, Phenomena, and Inferno.  I wasn't expecting much from his Dracula, so it shouldn't have been too disappointing, but I found it to be so regardless, mostly because I could see how this would have been much more interesting had it been made during Argento's peak period.  Actually, it would have been even better if he had written an original script inspired by Dracula, much like he did with Opera, instead of doing another film like Phantom of the Opera that's kind of based on the book, but mostly just crazy shit that Argento made up and added to the story because he felt like it.

The frustrating thing is that Dracula is probably his most stylized film in years.  I can't really think of another film that looks like this one.  Everything in the film, including the sets and all of the props, looks glossy and fake.  I don't know any other way to describe it.  The reason must be the lighting and the cameras they used for the 3D process.  (Oh yeah, did I mention this was released theatrically in 3D?  Unfortunately, I was forced to settle for plain ol' 2D, which is fine with me.  I don't think this film could possibly be improved by thrusting its shitty CGI effects in my face.)  However, this stylized look, while at times strangely visually stunning, is nowhere near as artistic as Suspiria or Inferno – it merely makes the film look incredibly cheap. 

The only element of Dracula that comes off well is the score by Claudio Simonetti.  There is one scene, in which the Count ferociously dispatches several men in a matter of seconds, that displays Argento's trademark flair for gore, but the absolutely terrible CGI does not help matters.  There are glimmers of genius behind certain moments, such as the giant preying mantis, but the execution was quite lacking, to put it nicely.

Another major problem is Dracula himself.  Thomas Kretschmann was very sexy in The Stendhal Syndrome, despite the fact that he was playing a loathsome, psychopathic killer.  Years later, however, Kretschmann just does not have the charisma that is necessary for the part of the Count.  Hell, Richard Simmons would make a better Dracula!  The acting is pretty terrible all around, including, as much as it pains me to say it, Asia Argento (whose work I normally enjoy) and Rutger Hauer – and they're the highlight!  When the corpse-like Hauer finally appears as the most pathetic Van Helsing in recent memory, the movie does pick up slightly, in the same way that your drunk uncle livens up a boring family gathering by regaling you with endless tales of his sexual conquests.

If you view Dario Argento's Dracula as a comedy, as one must also do with his Phantom of the Opera, you're bound to get more enjoyment out of it, because, let's face it, who can possibly take this movie seriously when it features the following line:  "He is evil!  Do you hear me, Van Helsing?!  EEEEEEEEEEVILL!!!!!!"

Let's hope that, for his next film, Argento will go back to making the kind of wild movies he's passionate about – for my money, Mother of Tears was a step in the right direction – rather than lame adaptations of classic novels or tired gialli with as much atmosphere as an episode of CSI.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Movie Review: 'Found.' (2012)

By Leah Cifello

I had nightmares about Found.  Whether it was just because it happened to be floating around in my head at the time or whether it truly disturbed me enough to cause such frightening replay, I'm not sure.  I think, however, that it is a testament to the film's power over me that it manipulated my dreams to the point that I woke up physically shaken.  It left me in a dark mood.  I mulled over its implications for hours.  No doubt about it, it stuck with me and impressed itself firmly enough to color the rest of my day... and my night.

Marty's brother Steve keeps a decapitated head in a bowling bag in his closet.  We know this from the start, because Marty tells us.  Every day he slips on yellow rubber gloves and examines the fresh head deposited in place of the old one.  He tells us how wrong horror films get this, the look of a real severed head.  It makes you think about how right this one may have it.

Marty and Steve are obsessed with horror films. Marty seems to prefer monsters and the more fantastic side of horror, while Steve enjoys ultra-sadistic splatter.  They live in a vacuous suburb with their oblivious parents, their mother who babies them and their father who screams at them.  Eventually, Steve catches on to how much Marty knows about his murderous activities, and that is where I end the plot description, because to say more would be criminal.

Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age story – an extremely horrific one.  Much of the runtime consists of Marty, who is 12, and his struggles to fit in with his peers and stand up for himself against bullies.  We see the tension placed upon his only real friendship when the need to not be harassed comes between them.  There is also a fair amount of family drama as both boys chafe at the constraints their parents place on them; their mother thinks she is helping Marty, but is really hurting him and is too wrapped up in herself to notice.

All of this is done very well and isn’t an excuse for later violence as you might expect.  This is really an integral part of the film, and it is as emotionally painful as Steve’s acts of violence are visceral.  That violence starts to occur around the halfway point when Marty finds a copy of a movie called Headless in his brother’s collection and decides to watch it.  It turns out to be a vicious slasher film full of truly disgusting violence, and Marty envisions Steve as the killer in the film, playing out the acts of brutality and using the film as inspiration for his murders.  This brief portion is the only really explicit part of the film; when the real violence occurs, it wisely happens almost entirely offscreen.

Found. earns its right to be called a horror film.  It’s about many different horrors:  the horror of adolescence, of family, of loyalty, of betrayal.  The horror of your life becoming just like one of the frightening films you watch.  The horror of watching a young boy’s mind slowly twisted into something dark through actions he has no real control over.  By the last shot, the monstrousness of the story slams into your psyche like a brick to the head; you know the story doesn’t end here, which is possibly the most frightening realization of all.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Movie Review: 'The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh' (2012)

By Leah Cifello

There is something very lonely about The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh.  It’s lonely and dusty and full of regret.  It says less than it leaves unsaid.  It is empty rooms.  It’s a weary voice trying to communicate from beyond death; to convey her life’s meaning to someone who doesn’t care to hear it.  It is mystery, and it is terror.

A son returns to his mother’s home, which is full of religious artifacts, to assess and sell off her possessions.  He is bitter.  His father is dead, having committed suicide when he was a child.  He does not believe as his mother did.  His mother belonged to an angel cult full of frightening and beautiful symbols and idols.  He resents it all – wants it all out of his life.  But his mother’s religion has a much tighter hold on him than he realizes until disturbing events are set into motion that he, a non-believer, is ill-equipped to deal with.

I’ve been vague with the plot of Rosalind Leigh, because the film is not so much about the plot as it is about the emotions behind the players.  Leon, the son, hasn’t seen his mother in a very long time.  We sense he is bitter about his religious upbringing and his mother’s refusal to part with it.  A voiceover is provided throughout the film by Vanessa Redgrave as the titular character.  It is not there to move the plot along; rather, it is there to convey her loneliness, her regrets, and her sadness at the loss of her relationship with her son.  We feel she may regret her strict participation in this strange sect, yet she believes in its power with all her heart.  She believes Leon to be in danger, and, eventually, so might he.

Rosalind Leigh is a story told with images: religious statuary, stained glass windows, and lonely beams of light casting shadows in an empty house.  It is also told with sound; a knock at the door and an unseen voice in this film will chill you more than a hundred jump scares.  Vague outlines of figures in the dark – some human, some not – will haunt you.  This is a quiet film mostly devoid of conventional scares and more in line with the Val Lewton school of horror filmmaking.  It builds an unnerving atmosphere around you until you realize you are enveloped in its clutches. When you think a horrible ghoul will show up, it will not.  When you think things are safe, they may not be.  It is less about ghosts than it is about the awe and terror of religion and religious fervor and unwavering belief; the way belief can shape one’s entire life and one’s death; the terror of never-ending solitude.  These are the things which make up Rosalind Leigh, and they are not light, spooky entertainment.  Watching this film is like experiencing a dusty cough from the grave and bony, withered fingers reaching out as you walk past; a cold chill suspended in the air like a cloud of funereal perfume.

"Someone else is here. You know who it is."

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Movie Review: 'Asylum Blackout' (2011)

By Leah Cifello

I have to confess it took me four tries to watch this movie all the way through, over a period of several months.  It’s not that I hated the movie; I just couldn’t seem to get into it enough to stick with it until the end.  Well, by the fourth try, I was pretty determined to finish the damned thing already, and now I can finally report my findings.  They are decidedly mixed.

Apparently set in 1989, Asylum Blackout concerns four especially hairy members of a garage rock band that seems to be going nowhere fast.  All four work as cooks in a high-tech, high security asylum for the criminally insane where all functions are controlled electronically.  George is the only one of the group who seems to take any responsibility within the band, his job, and his life in general, so he will obviously be our protagonist for the next hour and a half of our time.  One night, a thunderstorm knocks out the power AND the backup generators for the asylum (or something – it wasn’t made very clear), which means the cooks are locked in, but the patients’ rooms are open, and they have taken this opportunity to gleefully massacre any non-inmate they come across.

That’s pretty much the extent of the plot.  It takes a good half hour before anything of real consequence starts to happen, which was actually all right with me, because I liked George and sympathized with his “musician with a grueling day job” lifestyle.  The biggest problem becomes the fact that, even when things have kicked into gear and the murderous inmates are on the prowl, the action remains very sporadic.  Most of our time is spent watching the cooks run and hide and bicker with each other in the dark.  There are some decent scares, but suspense runs very, very low, much to the film’s detriment.  I’m not sure why director Alexandre Courtès decided to film his movie with such a lack of immediacy; rather, there is a feeling of plodding inevitability as we wait for each character to suffer horrible, grisly fates.  The violence for the most part is not overly graphic, but has a really nasty, sadistic edge to it that just adds to the claustrophobic, depressing feel of the film.  That feel could’ve worked in its favor, but instead, the film seems to close in on itself, a cinematic black hole if ever there was one.

Then, there is the ending.  I won’t spoil it here, because, frankly, I didn’t understand it enough to spoil it.  “Ambiguous” is perhaps not a strong enough term for… whatever occurs in the last ten minutes of the film.  Clearly, the filmmakers were going for some kind of mind-blowing twist, but I can’t tell you what it was, because it is utterly opaque.  Things remain unexplained in this film to the extent of pointlessness, never moreso than in said ending.  I even looked around the internet and tried to find an official explanation for what the ending is supposed to convey and found a lot of conflicting opinions by viewers, but nothing concrete.  There are lots of things in the film that appear to be hints at an explanation, but I couldn’t put the pieces together and, clearly, neither could the rest of the filmgoing audience.  Needless to say, be prepared to be annoyed by the ending.

Trying to give a final opinion about this one is hard.  It sounds like I’m outright panning the film, but I’m really not.  There are far worse films to sit through, certainly.  I think one of the biggest problems is how utterly hope-destroying and depressing the film is, and it doesn’t earn that state of emotion.  To be as dark and mood-dampening as this is, it should be edifying in some way or another.  The viewer should learn something about the world, themselves, human nature – anything.  There is nothing to be learned from this film.  It feels like it started out as an exercise in style, and then someone came along and decided it should become a grim torture movie, and it just doesn’t work.  I won’t tell you not to see it, because it’s entirely possible you may like it.  There is something to like in here; I just can’t for the life of me point it out.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Movie Review: 'You're Next' (2011)

By Leah Cifello

Note: There is no way I can review this film without spoiling several surprises within. If you want to go in cold, I would suggest seeing the movie first (and it is definitely worth seeing) and then reading this review.

You’re Next has been a long time coming.  Impressing festival audiences around the country, horror fans were eager to sup on the latest offering of grue from director Adam Wingard.  Well, it’s finally here, and I can say with absolute certainty that it is worth your time and money.

Plotwise, You’re Next has much in common with one of my favorite films of last year, The Aggression Scale, in which two teenagers with unusual survival skills fight off a group of armed intruders.  The film has a very different tone, however and is entirely its own film.  The story centers around a family of boorish, bratty, backstabbing, passive-aggressive assholes with lots of money who gather at Mom and Dad’s for their 35th wedding anniversary.  Much cattiness and prickishness ensues among siblings and their significant others until a sudden act of shocking violence forces the family into defense mode.  You won’t feel sorry for them in the slightest.

Not only are they assholes, but they are completely helpless and utterly useless human beings who can do almost nothing to protect themselves.  They cower like a frightened herd of sheep and take directions from Erin, girlfriend of family member Crispian and the only one with any sense throughout the whole film.  These intruders are terrifying and kill mercilessly, but Erin has a trick up her sleeve:  she was raised on a survival compound and knows a thing or two about self-defense.  A plot twist halfway through makes the whole affair even more perverse, and never will you shriek with as much glee at brutal murder as Erin slices, dices and pulpifies her attackers into something resembling meatloaf covered in tomato paste.

Sounds intense, right?  Well, it is, except it has a streak of black humor a mile wide running through the entire film like a giant skewer.  Audiences prepared for another take on The Strangers will find themselves laughing and cheering as this cast of thoroughly hideous people are decimated.  There is very little moral ambiguity in the film; you will hate these people so much you will want to climb through the screen and off them yourself.  This works in the film’s favor, because you can laugh along with it without feeling uneasy.  Despite the humor, the scares work.  Boy, do they work.  The feeling of being terrified and immediately bursting out laughing, one emotion overlapping the other, is a very odd feeling, and kind of exhilarating.  This type of comedy within a horror film is rarely done these days, because it’s so difficult to get just right.  Here, they nail it, pun intended.

Speaking of nails, and axes, and crossbows, this is a very violent film.  It may set a record for shattering glass, and the kills are brutal, but Wingard wisely chooses not to linger on the mayhem for too long, which would kill much of the humor.  There’s a wonderfully-crafted scene, lit only by repeated camera flashes, where you are shown just enough to know how thoroughly mangled a victim has become, but not enough to get a clear sight.  This film is tightly-controlled by its director and feels like it.  He is completely at the helm and knows exactly where he wants to go.

This is also a film that ends on a high note.  So many otherwise great films these days bungle their endings and wind up with a wet rag of a conclusion.  This one feels right and doesn’t try to dazzle with a last-second mindfuck.  It doesn’t need it.  This is a film made to entertain, to scare, and to delight with its darkly hilarious grotesqueries.

And audiences seem to get it.  I wasn’t sure if the audience I was in would get the odd tone of the film and understand that they were supposed to laugh and that it was okay to do so, but they quickly got the hang of the film’s style and had a ball watching it.  It’s a very fun and exceptionally well-crafted movie by a director who keeps getting better as he goes along.  This should be Adam Wingard’s much-deserved breakthrough film – one that will gain him the wide recognition he so deserves. My hat is off to him.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Movie Review: 'Penumbra' (2011)

By Leah Cifello

If there's a type of film that's difficult to get right, and incredibly rewarding when it is, it's what I like to call "spiral tension" films:  films that start out slow and keep ratcheting the coil of unease until the film explodes into insanity and/or violence.  Like Repulsion, The Tenant and Don't Look Now before it, Penumbra is one of those films, and it does get it right.  Penumbra is a film that is wound so tightly it feels as though, when it finally snaps, it may cut you in half.  Layer upon layer of tension is added until you almost feel you are a part of the nightmare unfolding before you.

The story itself is not very complicated.  Marga is an arrogant, snooty realtor from Barcelona; a type-A personality who spits upon those she deems beneath her and is ruthless in her quest for money and success.  As a main character, she is loathsome, and it is to the immense credit of the filmmaking team of brothers Adrian and Ramiro Bogliano that they manage to create sympathy and concern for the plight of this woman.

Marga is in Buenos Aires, a city she hates in a country she despises, to show an old shithole of an apartment she and her sister inherited.  She is greeted by an odd, yet pleasant man who says he represents a very wealthy client who would like to rent the apartment at four times the market value and pay a year's rent in advance, but only if the transaction can be done quickly.  Seeing Euro signs in her eyes, Marga agrees to stay and wait for the mysterious client, Mr. Silva.  

As the day advances, Marga experiences strange occurrences that continue to build one upon the other, until the proverbial wire within the film is coiled so tightly around her, it's a wonder she or the audience can breathe.  "Penumbra" roughly means "dark spot", and is a reference to the upcoming solar eclipse, which the film ultimately pivots around.  The climactic unveiling of the true nature of the film is a stark shock to the system.

One of the best things about the Boglianos' film is that the tension starts so slowly, so believably, that we're caught in the film's trap before we even know it.  Common life stressors and annoyances are layered like tissue paper until the rot starts to bleed through from underneath.  It's hard to like, or even tolerate, a protagonist like Marga, but her performance is so strong that she is a fascinating character, even if we might enjoy seeing her neck wrung.  That dichotomy of course is played on later in the film, and I suppose a good deal of how much you like this film will be how much you can stand Marga.  

Lighting, camerawork, and sound all play huge roles in conveying the nature of the situation.  Lots of tight shots, dark corners and cameras snaking around spiral staircases and creaky old elevators add to the uneasiness of the film.  The pacing is methodical and merciless, marching toward its inevitably horrific conclusion without allowing you to stop and take a breath.  The paranoia is utterly palpable.  

The only part of the film I'm not so sure about is the ending.  While it was set up nicely earlier in the film and doesn't come out of nowhere, I felt it lacked some punch in a purely emotional sense.  Still, even containing that arguable flaw, Penumbra succeeds in creating real suspense when so many films are content only to startle with loud noises and shock scares.  See it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Great Canadian Horror Films #20: 'Curtains' (1983)

Rather than spend hours writing up a gigantic post, I've decided to post my list of favorite Canadian horror films separately, so I can write one at a time and so my blog will appear more active than it actually is.

Okay, so Curtains isn't perfect – it was a troubled production, as is usually the case when the director opts to take his name off of the film, and the proof of that is on the screen.  There were literally two Curtains shoots: one directed by Richard Ciupka, and one directed by the producer, Peter Simpson.  Simpson and Ciupka had differing ideas of what this film should be – Simpson wanted another Prom Night, an efficient terror tale that would make girls cling to their boyfriends, and Ciupka tried to class it up with elaborate lighting and camera moves.

The result is that Curtains is a somewhat schizophrenic film that doesn't know exactly what it wants to be, but the fact that it remains entertaining despite all of this certainly counts for something.  Canadian scream queen Lesleh Donaldson (Funeral Home, Happy Birthday to Me) is blessed with the best and most iconic scene in the movie, the oft-discussed ice skating murder by a creepy old hag.  There's also a wonderful scene in which a female driver finds a large doll in the middle of a desolate road.

Are there Canadian horror films that are far better than Curtains?  Sure, which is why it's at the bottom of my top twenty list.  Despite its flaws, Curtains has a lot going for it, including a great cast comprised of Donaldson, Lynne Griffin, John Vernon, and Samantha Eggar, and a premise that is, at least initially, somewhat unique for the subgenre.  Synapse Films recently announced that they are currently working on a 2K restoration of Curtains for a future Blu-ray release, and I hope that this will further the reputation of this once-obscure cult classic.