Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Picking Our Teeth: A Look At Giant Gator Films

Ladies & gentlemen, let’s talk about reptiles. Specifically, let’s talk about crocodilians. Let’s get down to two different families of the order, Crocodylidae and Alligatoridae. These two families of reptile have long been the stuff of legend and childhood fears, why? They don’t hunt or eat human beings with anything like regularity, but they do have the capability and they have eaten people. A good part of human being’s fear of crocodiles probably has a lot to do with the movie Jaws. Crocodiles and Alligators have a bit in common with sharks in that they both dwell in water, both have giant teeth, both are on display for humans to see for pocket change, and they’ve been the subject of more than a few quite dreadful movie. Now, I meant for this little National Geographic-esque retrospective to coincide with Thanksgiving, what with all the chowing down that takes place, but hell Christmas time works just as well (Americans are still stuffing their fat fucking faces, no?). Let’s go back now, like the ghost of Christmas past let’s look at the humble start of this genre and it’s many, many horrid entries. Clarification: the Gator movie ain’t really a genre unto itself, it’s more an order of the family Monster movies, of the phylum body count movies in the horror movie kingdom.

Eaten Alive
by Tobe Hooper
Classifiction: Raperevengicus Crocodsadagingstarae
Something is rotten in the state of Texas. After a prostitute who is clearly a newbie shies away from john Robert Englund’s demand for sodomy, she heads into the bayou looking for a place to stay (incidentally, his opening lines, paraphrase “I’m Buck and my favored activity with women rhymes with my name” was lifted by Quentin Tarentino for his film Kill Bill!). She finds the Starlight motel run by cracked war veteran Judd. Judd seems harmless enough, if clearly off-balance, until he deduces that our girl is a prostitute, or was one at any rate. So upset is Judd that he strips her shirt off her, beats her, stabs her with a pitchfork, and feeds her to his pet Crocodile. Thank god we got somewhere; with Robert Englund’s randy hillbilly routine and the endless prowling about that our girl does this film was starting to look like a backwoods porn movie.

Well, as we connoisseurs of revenge films know, that poor one-time whore’s brother or father is bound to show up. Before said vengeful spirits show up, one the screen’s most crooked family shows up looking to spend the night. Faye, Roy, and Angie stop in…for directions if my interpretation of this batshit craziness is correct, but things take a turn for the bizarre when Angie’s dog Snoopy winds up in the croc’s jaws. What happens next is a little hazy; Faye takes Angie upstairs and Roy follows, Angie understandably upset, and then Roy starts flipping out too. Faye takes some pills and then takes her wig off (…?) and starts berating Roy. Best I can figure, they’re criminals, but Angie is Faye’s daughter. Anyway, Roy starts barking like the dog and then goes downstairs to shoot the crocodile with the shotgun they’ve had in the trunk the whole time, with Judd trying to talk him down the whole time. When talking fails, Judd takes a scythe to his opponents chest and then the gator clamps down on his shoulder. Then Judd ties Faye to the bed and chases Angie under his porch; they’ll both spend the rest of the movie in their respective places. How do we know this, because Hooper and his editor show them there every five minutes, even though their situation almost never changes.
Then Mel Ferrer and a blonde show up to move the damn plot along. Mel is the prostitute from the prologue’s father and the blonde her sister. They’ve come looking for our victimess and Mel gets a scythe in the throat for his troubles (he holds it in place for like 3 minutes to make sure Hooper's camera doesn’t miss it). Then we take a detour to the local watering hole where Robert Englund picks up another girl and brings her to the starlight; this takes entirely too long. Especially because it ends with Englund in the gator’s mouth instead of as the film’s hero. The prostitute gets away from Judd and then our two remaining female characters get the revenge we knew was coming from the start of this sleazy picture. When people discuss the origins of the slasher film, I don’t get why they don’t include this in the discourse. A creepy guy who kills the promiscuous with a scythe...sound like the 80s in a nutshell to anyone else? It is also, best I can tell, the first movie that used a crocodilian as a horror device independent of the odd mad scientist or eccentric billionaire; it even gets it’s own stalker moment. In fact the only scary part of the film occurs when the croc goes after Angie under the porch.

Tobe Hooper was in a tight spot after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; sure he’d just made one of the 8 or 9 most effective horror films ever, but he was in absolutely no position to celebrate. The movie’s rights went to the mafia-front production company that backed it and Hooper, writer Kim Henkle and co. didn’t see a dime. Today if Tobe Hooper had made a film as effective as Texas Chainsaw he’d have two sequels offered, a blank check for his next project and a remake in the works. Back then he incited a fervor that left him utterly offerless. Italians ripped off the film, but didn’t realize they could have scooped Hooper up and had him making Giallos that next year if they’d just asked. So instead Hooper went untouched for two years after until Eaten Alive and its lousy script showed up. Naturally he bit because filmmaking isn’t something a director can cure himself of and to be fair he and Henkle turn what was ultimately an excuse to see Roberta Colins, Crystin Sinclaire, and Betty Cole with their shirts off into a truly unnerving film. He and Henkel decided to base their throw-away bayou murder story on Joe Ball, a bar-owner who fed prostitutes to the crocodile he used to drum up business. Eaten Alive shows Hooper’s interest in creepy serial killers evolving slightly; we spend most of the film’s running time with the killer rather than the heroes, a trap that would lead Hooper into a good deal of trouble when it came time to make Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a movie even more ill-advised than this one.
But I guess, here, why not? Neville Brand is about as creepy a bastard as showed up in American horror in the 70s and his turn as a fascistic, shell-shocked lunatic is a worthy successor to Leatherface and his family (as my dad pointed out, he looks like an older version of the Hitchhiker if he hadn’t been pancaked by a truck at Chainsaw’s end). He works, Robert Englund works, Mel Ferrer, well, he didn’t have much to cheer about, but he doesn’t embarrass himself as bad as Arthur Kennedy does in Taboo Island or Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Marilyn Burns surprised me because I didn’t recognize her until the end when, oddly enough, she’s screaming and crying just like Sally Hardesty but she makes a decent showing of herself. Ultimately, the film is vile and wastes way too much time (it’s 89 minutes feel like 140) and works, like so many late 70s video nasties do, mostly as a curio; it’s a veritable museum of the washed-up never-was: Carolyn Jones, Mel Ferrer, Neville Brand, and Stuart Whitman almost give the cast of Tentacles a run for their money as falling stars go. It’s certainly a more interesting film than say, Tenebre or Don’t Torture A Duckling, but even someone with as big an urge to create as Tobe Hooper can’t hide the fact that the starlight motel is a soundstage, that his croc’s made of rubber, and that he’s making a slasher film. I dare anyone to make a worse rubber crocodile than…

The Big Alligator River
by Sergio Martino
Classification: Jawsripofficus Xenophobodilidae
…rest easy, Tobe, Sergio Martino’s got you licked in the rubber crocodile department.
Ok, so, remember how I said Jaws was the film that gave us the majority of our crocodile films, well here’s how that works. So, after Jaws came out, it sparked a remake/rip-off frenzy the likes of which can really only be compared to Dawn of the Dead. One of the later attempts at Jaws-like success while the iron was still relatively hot, Big Alligator River, is by no means a good film, but I give it credit for three things: two of the most likeable protagonists in Italian movie history, inspiring the next few big croc movies and featuring a decent croc head.

Let’s meet those protagonists and then I’ll get to point two. Daniel Nessel (what nationality is that name supposed to be? French, maybe?) is a photographer who, along with model Sheena, has just been hired by eccentric billionaire Mel Ferrer (AGAIN?! HAVE YOU LEARNED NOTHING ABOUT DIGNITY, MAN?) to take promotional photographs for his latest brilliant idea. Our evil capitalist had an epiphany, he’s built a theme park and resort in the middle of the jungle called The Paradise. Guess what the theme is? The Jungle! Stunning! So wildlife and a superstitious native tribe aren’t obstacles, they're amusements! How progressive. It doesn’t take long for Mel’s biggest problem to rear it’s scaly head. One night Sheena takes a boytoy out on the lake and the two of them get the bite and their boat washes up the next day.
Not coincidentally, when the boat comes ashore, the natives don’t; not a one of them shows up for work the next day. Mel could give a goddamn, but Allie, the Paradise’s liaison with the natives, hears him out and the two take off down the river to see what has the native’s spooked. Allie and Dan find a crazed missionary who’s carved a giant crocodile head out of stone in a cave (wonder what that’s all about). Also turns out that the natives worship said crocodile and they believe they’re being punished for fraternizing with whites. Dan tries to hit the other white folks with some knowledge, but is Mel having that? Well, if Dan’s our Sheriff Brody, I guess that makes Mel our Mayor, don’t it? So, we know the answer as well as we know that the party-on-a-raft that Mel takes to the water is about to get interrupted by a big crocodile and his bath-toy double. And let’s throw in some angry natives with flaming arrows for good measure.
The Big Alligator River is a mess, alright, and it’s flaws are nearly endless, and it’s been really well preserved, which make its shortcomings especially glaring. On the plus side we have Claudio Cassinelli and Barbara Bach who I like more than any other Italian horror heroes for reasons I can’t explain; maybe because they remain respectful of the natives that everyone, including Sergio Martino, holds in contempt. Then there’s the head of the Croc which comes close to looking as convincing as the big shark head in Jaws (the "gonna need a bigger boat" moments in this film are almost as convincing). Given this film’s budget and it’s 1979 release date, that’s quite a feat indeed. That illusion is shattered when, more than once, we are pulled out of a nocturnal hunting trip to be shown what couldn’t be any more clearly a day-time shot of a croc-shaped plastic toy floating clumsily in a pool. At no time does the body of the crocodile look like anything but a child’s play-thing; the croc even bobs like a toy in the ‘waves’. With competition like that, Mel got off easy in the embarrassment department - when he gets struck with a flaming arrow, he almost looks relieved. No one’s performance is great, in fact the only thing that works the way it should is Martino’s slow-motion shots and this film’s function as a Jaws rip-off. There’s even a Brody-in-the-sinking-boat scene followed by a climax that wants to one-up Spielberg, but simply can’t. Well, at least there’s no nudity.

by Lewis Teague
Classification: Jawsripofficus AlligaBlandheroae
Well, as Sergio Martino could tell you, Big Alligator fared well at the box office. It was the last of his films, and one of the last Italian horror films, to really bank here in the States. It stands to reason; Americans liked Jaws, so why wouldn’t they come out to see the same trick with a crocodile. Well apparently Americans saw the same logic. So producers set about ripping off a ripoff while lessening the impact of both its predessecors by changing the setting, cheapening the protagonists, and loading it with more clichés than a gillman film (which Sergio Martino made, actually). How wonderfully incestuous.

Our story begins with a public service; don’t rage at your children, talk to them. After a tiff, an angry mother flushes her daughter Marissa’s tiny petshop alligator down the toilet. Twenty or so years later, we meet our hero. Robert Forster is David Madison, a cop famous for getting his partner killed. When he gets sent to the sewer with a rookie to look for a missing sanitation worker, the new guy gets a chest full of giant alligator teeth. Needless to say, Madison’s reputation doesn’t improve, but he does catch the attention of Marissa Kendall, who thinks she might know what killed the rookie. An evil corporation has been flushing lab animals stuffed with growth hormones into the sewer and Marissa feels more than a little compelled to stop them and the gator; as you may have guessed, the large beastie roaming the streets was her one-time childhood pet. The plot from here is basically one stalk-and-kill after another, the most impressive of which happens at a wedding that our villain happens to be present for. Thanks to pretty impressive miniatures and real gator footage, our boy looks real, but that's not enough to save this movie.
When I was in, I want to say 4th grade, I got into horror in a big way. I had already seen a number of horror films (John Carpenter’s The Thing being the conquest I had the most pride in being able to endure) but my obsession began in earnest thanks largely to a movie called Terror in the Aisles. Terror isn’t a horror film, but a collection of snippets from several dozen of them. Of these clips were segments of films like Texas Chainsaw, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, and Alligator. I made it my mission to seek out the few films whose segments seemed the most interesting (keep my age in mind). So, I went to the little VHS rental place on the empty side of town with my parents and among dusty laserdisc copies of Freejack I saw the horror films that Blockbuster didn’t carry. Alligator and Texas Chainsaw, the two films I pined for the most, were not what I expected them to be. Texas Chainsaw I admit I didn’t understand until roughly three years later but Alligator just plain left me cold. With the exception of a scene where a child is eaten in a swimming pool, all the allure of the few seconds I’d seen in Terror in the Aisles had vanished. A big alligator in 1980 could only move as fast as the robotics team made it after all. This would all change in a few years, but for now, what I had was Robert Forster as an unlikeable prig and a cast of even more forgettable characters doing battle with a gator that spent half of it’s time being just a regular sized animal hanging out waiting for the editor to make him eat someone. The wedding scene, where our scaly friend finally takes some decisive action and crushes the limousine of the villain was and still is kind of fun, but it’s a little less fun now that I’ve seen some of today’s gator films. In fact most creature films turned to nostalgia after the admittedly bad Deep Blue Sea (yeah, it sucked, but name one American-produced creature feature that had miniatures after this film). Computers changed everything alright, but they can’t change bad acting and listless direction.

Alligator was doomed from the start. Frank Ray Perelli pitched the movie as something like Redneck Zombies meets Jaws. His producers knew this was as good an idea as a root canal themepark ride, and so they hired writer number 2 to salvage their Jaws ripoff from this fool’s pen. John Sayles was a name to small production houses because he’d written the semi-successful Roger Corman-produced Pirana, a Jaws ripoff in its own right. Mark L. Rosen, who would learn a thing or two about plagiarizing when Michael Bay’s The Island was released, and the other producers hired John Sayles. Sayles had a brain in his head and thought Perelli’s idea for beer fueling a mutant alligator was….well pretty fucking stupid. Sayles’ horror films, conscious and reasonable though they are, never account for lackluster direction, which is all it takes to make them boring. Joe Dante’s handling of The Howling is a good example. Joe can do a stalking scene with the best of them, but some of his acting-under-stress scenes don’t measure up; I digress (I love The Howling, by the way). We’re here for big teeth of another kind, which didn’t make much of an improvement throughout the 80s and 90s.
The gator film got a few entries, like Australia’s Dark Age, which maybe a hundred living people have seen. It wasn’t until computer generated effects reached their apex in the 90s that we got a glimpse of how good Alligators could be.

Lake Placid
by Steve Miner
Classification: Crocodynamation Pettybickerous
When you realize that this film was written by David E. Kelly, it starts to makes a lot of sense. Kelly was the writer/creator of many a maudlin TV drama, including Boston Public. I find this incredibly apt as the only catastrophe that never occurred in the fictitious high school of Boston Public was the appearance of an unexplained 30-foot Crocodile. Said Croc isn’t in a high school, but a lake in Maine and his appearance has confounded paleontologist Bridget Fonda, fish-and-game warden Bill Pullman, sheriff Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later was a real break for Brendan), and nature-y asshole Oliver Platt. They bicker and fumble around with what might be killing people until the beast makes an appearance and puts their suspicions to bed. They grill the old lady who lives on the lake, Betty White, the best thing about this movie other than the giant crocodile, and it turns out she’s been feeding it for a while now. Oliver Platt and Bridget Fonda are obnoxious and soft in all the wrong areas and decide killing it would be wrong and coax the others into trying to catch it in an elaborate trap. This doesn’t go quite as they would like it to, but it doesn’t go nearly as awry as it should.

The name Steve Miner in any film is never a good sign. Other than tarnishing George Romero’s scariest film with his pitifully stupid and immature remake, Miner’s other credits include Friday the 13th II & III, House, Warlock, and more bad TV than any self-respecting director could ever sleep soundly with. Lake Placid could be said to illustrate his style perfectly; people argue, get nowhere, act childishly, and then there’s one effective scare scene. Combine that with Kelly’s television-worthy script and you have an hour and a half of childish fun. Sort of like in any episode of House, it’s fun to watch people argue separated by bits of intensity, but this isn’t the film I wanted when I started seeing previews and getting my hopes up. I had been disappointed pretty heavily by Alligator and had long waited for the film that was going to really make a showing for the order giant gator film. Lake Placid features a pretty convincing CG monster in a decade full of pretty miserable ones but Miner has no idea how to handle him. When Bridget Fonda finds herself alone in the lake with our monster croc, we have the film’s one good scene in a film full of missed oppurtunities. And of course because David E. Kelly wrote it, there’s no real tension. Anyway, it was one of the better CG animals of its time and in many respects hasn’t been outdone, at least as crocodilians are concerned.
Lake Placid is fun and it doesn’t totally suck, it just isn’t scary. It also has a few major points against it in that it, like Jaws before it, inspired many bad knock-offs. One of them by the one man who should know better than to delve into an order he doesn’t have the cash or crew to pull off (hint: It’s not Sergio Martino)

by Tobe Hooper
Classification: Madefortvidae Shouldhaveknownbetterus
I can forgive a lot; Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, for example. It was terrible, but Tobe Hooper needed money and he paid for his mistake with more than a decade of shitty jobs. I can forgive Spielberg’s family-friendly instinscts overriding Hooper's on the set of Poltergeist. And I can forgive Eaten Alive because he needed to direct a movie and he needed money and I'm sure Eaten Alive sounded better with a bigger budget behind it. I don’t know that I can forgive a made-for-sci-fi teen sex movie that makes Eaten Alive look like Psycho. I caught this movie during a rash of terrible creature movies made for the Sci-Fi channel back when it was still in its infancy. Though Crocodile is better than Octopus or Python or Spiders it still isn't great. In fact that the movie Komodo is much better than this is not encouraging; when your movie isn't the best of a crop of made-for-sci-fi monster films I think some soul-searching is called for.

Open on two dumbass fisherman whose idea of fun is smashing crocodile eggs. Mama croc shows up and eats them both rightly. Next we meet 8 completely unlikable twenty somethings. Their names aren’t important in the least except that the more silly their name sounds the quicker they’ll get killed - actually their listing on the IMDB is in the order that they get killed. Anyway, Mama Croc is angry about her eggs being smashed and takes it out on the kids, plus the circus freak who imported the croc in the first place and the sheriff. Reasons for watching: 0. Yeesh, Salem's Lot this is not! Because Tobe Hooper is at the helm, the acting isn’t terrible, the effects are alright, and there are a few jump-shocks but this is just not a good movie. This is still about stupid almost-teenagers and the way the croc is outsmarted is so fucking stupid it belittles everyone’s intelligence, Hooper’s most of all. It isn’t funny-bad, it’s just bad.
The hits keep on rolling.

Blood Surf
by James D.R. Hickox
Classification: Frontprojecticus Crocoshitidae

In reviewing for my gator-centric holiday revue, I found a pretty good summation of this South African indie on IMDB in the user quote section.
“Hey, I've found it - The worst horror film of all time.”
I hope you like unnatractive women showing their tits! Cause that's why this film got made. You know when directors try to make sports seem extreme and it never works. Welcome to Blood Surfing, the sport where surfers cut themselves to excite sharks. Well these fucking rejects don’t get eaten by sharks, but by a big front-projected puppet crocodile. And the girls take their shirts off. As vile as Swordfish, as stupid as Hellgate. The conclusion is something to behold; watch it if you’ve never seen a 2D animated crocodile fly. And yet, rock bottom hasn’t yet arrived. For all this film’s problems, of which it is entirely composed, it was an independent film. Guess what was produced by a guy who’d been making movies for 40 years?
by Kevin O’Neill
Classification: Areyoufuckingserious Rogercormanae

I’m just joking, I didn’t sit through this piece of shit, but I did see the last ten minutes on sci-fi. I just thought I’d point out that Roger Corman, the man who’s been around long enough to produce both Death Race 2000 and it’s remake couldn’t recognize that Dinocroc was a stupid idea. Ok, back to real movies for a second. In the years between Eaten Alive and our next film, money was made. Enough money that someone somewhere thought that Alligator, Lake Placid, and Crocodile all warranted sequels, all of which, mind you, I saw. A few weeks ago I was made aware of a phenomenon which floored me, but not before I subjected myself to another filmic atrocity in the Steve Miner school of filmmaking.
by Michael Katleman
Classification: Crueltoallofus Crocodeservetodie
This one claims to be more than just a post-Lake Placid gore fest, cause it’s framing story has to do with a corrupt African government. I don’t personally get why they bothered because for all the awareness they try to raise about corruption and genocide and all that, they undo it by making Orlando Jones act like a complete dipshit from reel 1 to reel infinity. His token black guy schtick is old before you’ve fully grasped what’s going on in the plot. Anyway, our story opens on a big goddamn crocodile that the natives have nicknamed ‘Gustave’. His latest meal was a UN peacekeeper which has gotten the US’s attention. Aviva Masters, a puff-piece reporter for a fake news network, wants to go to Africa to catch it, which she admits is a slightly loaded decision; going to Burundi to catch a crocodile puts them in harm’s way in two big ways. Burundi, as anyone can tell you, isn’t exactly Reading, Massachusets, and the section Masters wants to head into is run by a dictator the natives nicknamed ‘Little Gustave’ because he’s killed just as many people as his scaly namesake. In order to get the story done proper she cons shamed journalist Tim Manfrey and his cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones) to come with him (he just fucked up some important thing with a senator and looks like a jackass so he has to do it to remain unfired). Manfrey may also help Masters get out of bogus-journalism hell and move into the big times. Masters has also arranged to bring along Matthew Collins, a standoffish Australian television wildlife expert. So they arrive, meet their liaison ‘Harry’ who sends them to find a trapper called Krieg (Jurgen Prochnow, who really must be feeling the sting of hasbeendom). Krieg and Collins are immediately at odds because Krieg does very little to cover up the fact that he wants the big croc dead; Collins, being of the Lake Placid school of tree-hugger, doesn’t want any harm to come to the gator. Allow me to clarify my snide comments; I’m not in favor of harming animals and have for a short while now been a vegetarian, but what gets me wound up is when people find themselves in situations that are ultimately going to lead to a lot of people dying and still insist that a big man-eating creature deserves the same care that a small pet does. This is nonsense and I don’t know any animal lover who would get up in arms when people start getting eaten by the dozen. Anyway, so amidst the predicatably ineffective attempts to capture our gator, Steven and his camera happen to witness an execution by some of Little Gustave’s hired guns. Also predictably Little Gustave has men planted in the expedition who find out what Steven has seen and agree that another execution is in order. They manage to escape but do so without weapons or a boat; 10 to 1 this is going to really well. Any takers? Much biting and shooting ensues, but not nearly enough and not nearly in time.

Primeval is really dumb. Really, REALLY dumb. The only thing reasonably well planned is the framing story, but then things get stupid and lazy. The people are all so odious, not to mention just plain hard to look at, that I could have cared less what happened to any of them. By the time the killing starts, no death could be gruesome enough to give them all what they deserve. Admittedly the croc’s decent, but considering it’s been ten years since Lake Placid, not nearly good enough. There’s one scene that I had to begrudgingly admit looked really cool, when our gator first shows his whole body when he attacks the trapper’s cage with a young boy inside it. A silhouetted gator the size of a school bus crawling on a big cage in the moonlight is the reason to watch creature films in the first place and I’d forgive the rest of the film if it weren’t so goddamned offensive and not just offensive in its portrayal of non-whites. That’s bad, sure, but I mean the little things. You know a movie doesn’t have a proper budget when a ‘war lord’ sends three guys after the protagonists, not the whole army he’s supposed to have at his command. At no point does the reputation of Little Gustave ever seem more believable than Orlando Jones’ character. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but crocs don’t go out of their way to chase after prey; they sit and wait for gazelles in the river, mostly. Gustave spends much of this film sprinting after people, which I just don’t buy. It doesn’t even make him scarier because most of the time he’s being outrun by a starving human being.
The only thing I liked about this movie in earnest was the soundtrack. The incidental Afrobeat songs they chose to play over the scenes of civilization are excellent, and composer John Frizzell uses one theme with a cello a few times that I liked so much that I spent a good deal of time tracking it down. Other than that, I can’t really recommend this. You know why? Cause someone made a much less ambitious croc film at exactly the same time and it’s ten thousand times better.

by Greg Maclean
Classification: Crocofrightenae Finallydecentus
Well it looks the universe has played another joke on a talented filmmaker. Like Tobe Hooper before him, director Greg Maclean had just made a really excellent horror film about a dismembering psychopath (Wolf Creek, which shares a few parallels with Texas Chainsaw, not the least of which is the fact that it’s really good) and the first offer that he took after its success was a crocodile film. It's short on cash, way less ambitious than all of it's predessecors, and you know what else? It’s the best damn croc film anyone’s ever made, so take fucking that universe. What is it they say about saving the best for last?

Rogue follows a group of people on a tour boat who answer a distress flare and have their boat capsized for their trouble. They wash up on a tidal island that will be gone by midnight and discover that they’re being stalked by a giant crocodile. It’s really simple, just enough money went into it and it’s pretty scary. I thought I was in trouble because the cinematography is as far from Wolf Creek’s overexposed grain as could be imagined, and the characters at first seem like one dimensional shitheads, but you know what? They change! People actually change over the course of a movie! Hallelujah there’s someone who knows how to write a script still alive out there! Maclean’s movie, like its crocodile, moves at an even pace and builds a lot of tension. Rogue also has one of the finer creature film conclusions I’ve yet seen. Making expert use of factual information, character-based tension, and an incredibly small space, Maclean manages to craft something pretty goddamn frightening with very little. I guess he figured out that what everyone else was doing wrong was trying to make their movie feel bigger than it is. Rogue feels small but it's successes are because it doesn't ever try to be more than it is. Primeval fails because it tries to seem big and important and it just doesn't have the budget for it. Maclean is honest and knows where his problems are and undercuts them with subtlety. In other words, he's a damn good director.
Radha Mitchell and Michael Vartan are our heroes and at no point does their relationship to one another seemed forced, unbelievable or hackneyed. They manage to make a really strong showing of themselves; I like Radha Mitchell, and she’s good in just about anything, despite the projects comparative awfulness, and her performance in Rogue is nice and even-handed. Michael Vartan does a really good job going from outsider dickweed to reluctant hero and Maclean makes us almost certain that this guy won’t be the hero for awhile with his thoughtfully written script. I like that a lot, when films play the changing protagonist game on you. It worked in Alien and Dawn of the Dead, and it works here. The Croc is good enough that I forgot I was watching an effect during the climax. Ignore the bad box art, watch Rogue. It’s the single greatest giant croc movie ever made and though I admit that isn’t saying a lot, Rogue is fun and harrowing; not quite as harrowing as Wolf Creek, mind you, but it’s still fun and you won’t leave quite as bummed out as you will from that film.
And that concludes our Holiday season's look into the order of Giant Crocodile cinema. Have you learned something? No? Neither have I. After all, I actually watched all these movies! I will say that having seen the dregs of the film world turn out to throw their own entry into this order, it’s especially nice to see that someone gave me the film I’d wished for since seeing those few seconds of Alligator during Terror in the Aisles. I have Greg Maclean to thank for allowing me to walk away from the croc genre altogether knowing that it has a fitting conclusion. Does this mean no one’s going to make another gator film? HELL NO! I just know I can stop watching them.

Monday, December 8, 2008


The French aren’t always associated with horror films, if anything they come up when thrillers and/or fantasy is mentioned. Scholars look to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (Les Yeux sans Visage) when they think of France’s contributions to the genres; neither is overly horrific. Jean Rollin, director of Zombie Lake and Living Dead Girl, was born in Paris, but his films were no more an indication of French horror than Jesus Franco’s were of Spanish horror; everybody knows they really made Italian horror films, no matter what language they’re speaking beneath that dub track. The reason France isn’t always the first title to come up where horror is concerned is because typically their horror films are a lot less…well, horrible than most other countries. Let’s look at their lesser known and much more expertly done foray into the zombie film (not that Rollin’s films were much competition where subtlety and craft is concerned).

They Came Back or Les Revenants
by Robin Campillo
The zombies are up and walking around right out of the gate, but they aren’t after our brains or our guts, at least they sure don’t seem to be. In the film’s first scene we’re alerted to the sort of movie we’ve just tucked into; hundreds of neutrally dressed, non-decomposed, very much alive dead people walk out of the cemetery and down a French street. Authorities are perplexed and house them in large warehouses where they’re examined, identified, and returned to their homes. Those whose loved ones are no longer there to retrieve them, or who, like Rachel, a government employee who works in one of the warehouses, cannot bring themselves to look death in the face, do not come to pick them up. Rachel’s husband Mathieu remains in one of the government’s impromptu YZCAs while she contemplates just what this all means. Isham and Véronique, a couple who recently lost their boy are overcome with…well, a lot of things when they come to pick Sylvain up from purgatory and take him back home. The mayor, who never gets a first name, is so happy he nearly dies himself when he sees his wife, Martha come home. There are a number of other fringe stories, but these three comprise the majority of our narrative, so let’s stick with them.

The dead are incapable of creating much new memories and cannot be called upon to do much other than push shopping carts and so their refolding into society is about as effective as the many stages of grief. Rachel, the most skeptical of all the recently unbereaved, finally consents to letting her husband come home. They share a house again and then the marriage bed before long. Despite trips to the beach, she cannot shake the feeling that something is wrong. That something may have to do with the fact that the dead have been gathering at night, you see, and to all observers, it appears like they’re planning something, but what? The Mayor takes his wife's nocturnal antics the hardest and ultimately suffers for it in worse ways than any of the others. Sylvain brings as much grief as he does joy to his parents, and the final straw comes one night when they hear him scratching at the door like a dog begging to be let out. With the greiving thoroughly suspicious of their undead loved ones, everyone has to step back and ask: what can a group of functionally useless if unnaturally beautiful corpses hope to accomplish in great numbers if gut-munching isn’t on their mind?

They Came Back was one of the first films I watched when I was planning the curriculum for Honors Zombie and it’s long been a favorite of mine, an unsung classic of minimalist terror. Robin Campillo didn’t have a lot of gore in mind when he entered the zombie discourse and I cannot commend him enough for his entry. Campillo is a master of honest portrayals of people who stand in for universal problems and themes; his script for the Palme D'Or winning film The Class is a testament to that. An endlessly quiet, haunting look at loss, Campillo effortlessly explains why it’s best that the dead stay dead and why dwelling in the past can bring nothing but bad fortune and misery. Best of all, he does so with the stillness of a funeral and the tension of a hospital waiting room.

Everyone’s performance is wonderful; Djemel Barek, Marie Matheron, and Saady Delas as Isham, Véronique, and Sylvain respectively make a tremendous showing of themselves as a family turned on its head. Jonathan Zaccaï as Mathieu is especially great. His zombie is the one we always expect to try something, ominous and attractive, constantly forcing Rachel’s worldview upside down. His scene at the beach, taking in all the sights, you expect him, like a dog not properly reformed, to snap and bite someone’s hand. Campillo and fellow writer Brigitte Tijou amp up the tension and weirdness and just as we, like the characters, think that things will either go back to normal or end in bloodshed, something else wholly unique, unexpected, and yet undeniably reasonable takes place. In a movie about loss taking on a human form, the ending they’ve chosen is really the only one that makes sense; even though they’ve suggested a dozen other eerie things in the meantime. That’s where the film’s greatest success lies, in the things it makes you think. It’s one thing for a film to lock a man and a monster in a closet and make you guess what happens, it’s another to make the monster a man whose only defining characteristic is his quiet refusal to do what you think he’s supposed to. That’s why They Came Back works so well as a zombie film for zombie fans because we have two expectations that are simultaneously torn asunder. First we have people not acting like people, and then we have zombies not acting like zombies, in some pretty troubling and fundamental ways. Seeing They Came Back after weeks straight of films like Burial Grounds and Zombi Holocaust was what I imagine it must have been like for the teenager who first encountered Joy Division in 1979 after a decade of Led Zeppelin and Sex Pistols. Truly a great film; almost nothing happens, per se, but so much more comes across than in most of its predecessors. They Came Back is a zombie film that will stand the test of time.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Into The Woods

A while back in my review of Toxic Zombies, I professed a weakness for backwoods horror films. Films that can easily be described as such have a few common symptoms; low-budgets, sets that scream "we shot where we wouldn't get caught", actors who are clearly just friends of the director, one make-up effect repeated many times over, and a lot of unintentional humour. Depending on your mood, these films can be a blast or they can simply bore you right into third cycle REM sleep. I'm about to go on something of a rant, so let me preface by saying that, despite appearances, I do love these films. The Evil Dead has yet to be surpassed as the backwoods' film's reining champion, but there are many other fine ones. If I didn't love these films, could I have sat through all of Don't Go Into The Woods....Alone or I Drink Your Blood. If I didn't love backwoods horror films, would I have watched The Children, having recently seen Garden of the Dead? No. Sometimes I wish I didn't love backwoods horror films so much.

Garden of the Dead
by John Hayes
Garden of the Dead looks a lot like I Drink Your Blood made for a third of the budget of that film. It also makes Zombie Aftermath look like I Am Legend where budget, professionalism, and ambition are concerned. The plot, when you can tell what's going on is this: all but a few prisoners in a tiny, backwoods prison have two things on their mind. The first, reasonably enough, is escape. The second is getting high by inhaling the fumes from the pesticide they've been given to tend garden as part of their rehabilitation. Wouldn't you just guess that the two are going to mix with calamitous results. Sometimes watching a zombie film is like watching Wile E. Coyote get up to it again with his big box of Acme products; everyone who's seen but one episode knows that there's only one place he's going, and it's the bottom of that cliff, followed by a minute puff of smoke. And so the prisoners stage the least successful prison break in history and most of them are shot and killed. Do they stay dead? No, and they've got blue face paint to prove it.

If you want to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, either make the perfect zombie movie or don't go near zombies. Stay the hell away from zombies! Don't touch zombies if you're being threatened with a machete! John Hayes makes a case here for himself as the director to make as little use of a field full of zombies as possible. When you have one zombie, as many directors found themselves with in the 40s and 50s, restraint could work for you. When you have a chain gang's worth of them, don't spend half of the movie getting to their arrival, and then get coy. Most profound among this film's missteps is the zombie behavior. For the most part they run in and out of the frame swinging tools around in an effort to...I don't know, be scary and kill people, I guess, but they only halfway achieve the latter effect. All it ever really looks like is a bunch of guys in denim jumpsuits prancing around in near darkness. I guess it makes sense that we see so little of the zombies, as they aren't even close to frightening. They don't even come close to not being an embarassment. But still, that's no excuse to sidetrack into the story of the prisoner who has to earn the warden's respect, or the prisoner with the floozy wife. Not when the movie's not even an hour long. Did I mention that?

Garden of the Dead comes with a good deal more head-slapping moments than your average American zombie movie. First of all, the film is so poorly lit it's impossible to tell what's going on for a lot of the film's conclusion. And the fact that John Hayes set the camera up a hundred feet from all the action doesn't help at all. Then there are moments like when the guards come up with the zombie solution involving a nuclear garden light or some nonsense. Our heroes try to run from the main guard house to the barn, for reasons no one bothers to explain, and have to stay in the beam of said light. With these things established, you'd expect some running, right? Well they get halfway between the house and the barn and just watch as the zombies keep trying to stick their hands in and out of the beam. No one moves a goddamned INCH until the light burns out! Not foolish enough for you? How about the ending where the zombies confess that all they want is that prisoner's floozy wife? That's what I thought. So, if you're ever so bored you might hang yourself and literally every other movie on netflix is engaged, prepare yourself for 58 minutes of sheer, unbridled mediocrity! And the saddest part is that clearly someone thought highly of this because the same plot showed up in no less than two other zombie movies over the course of the following decade. Tell me it's a coincidence that both Mutant and Grapes of Death follow rugged losers fighting pesticide-driven zombies!
The reason perhaps that this movie is so outstandingly bad is that it was produced by Troma. I hate Troma. Troma is the production house responsible for trash like The Toxic Avenger and Redneck Zombies, and if I had known that to watch Garden of the Dead I would have to sit through half a fucking hour of executive producer Lloyd Kaufman acting like a shithead during the introduction, I'd have snapped the disc in half and sent that little red envelope right to his house. Troma has what has to be the least success of any production company given their massive body of work. While I'm on the subject, let's take a look at some of their other fare, shall we?

by Chad Ferrin

Are you fucking kidding me? A guy in a black, Matrix-y coat goes on a killing spree cause his daughter dies and...KILL ME! I watched Unspeakable because it was on the same disc as Garden of the Dead and because my netflix envelope told me there would be zombies. This movie, shot on video for saturday's allowance, looks like Boondocks Saints if Troy Duffy's friends and associates had actually abandoned his selfish, southie ass when Harvey Weinstein did and he was forced to make it himself for no money. This is the worst kind of dime horror there is. It doesn't look like Chad Ferrin cared in the least how his movie came out.

Want something a little more lucid? Let's see what else Lloyd Kaufman sank his money into.

by Norman T. Vane
That poster is literally cooler and scarier than the movie it advertises, a trend I'm beginning to pick up on in horror marketing in the 1970s (see Garden's poster above). Not be confused with Pete Walker's film of the same name about a woman who inherits canibalism from her mother. In this one, an aging horror star murders his director in a Giallo-inspired opening, then some reprehensible film students break into his tomb, steal his body, start dancing with it and...oh, sorry, I fell asleep and my head landed on the fast forward button. That was easy. What could have been a decent movie mires in a full half hour of these college kids wining and dining a corpse with classical music playing. No one feels remorse, no one says "hey, we're going to jail and then hell," and no one has any qualms about leaving the man's body in the attic of their frat house. Frat house? Yeah, that's a frat house those SIX FILM STUDENTS are living in. I think their greek letters are Pi Delta Never Gonna Get Laid. This movie, whose plot is a mishmash of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, Theatre Of Blood, and any black-gloved killer movie, is so confused that it hardly matters when the first body gets hacked up well into the second act. Does anyone care why this guy pretended to be dead? Not when his only victims are even more obnoxious than he is. Not a zombie film, not even a half-decent film. Anyway, back to the original point of this review: backwoods horror. So, what's fun is when good ideas make their way into tiny productions, even if they are somewhat poorly executed. Take the main effects used in our next film.

The Children
by Max Kalmanowicz

A school bus carrying five children drives into a cloud of nuclear gas after two careless plant workers shirk their last minute screw-tightening in favor of getting a beer. The sheriff, our dusty protagonist for the evening, spies the school bus, notices that no one's inside, and goes to inform the nearest parent of one of the missing kids. She goes to investigate and when she finds her son, she hugs her boy out of relief, only to have his fingers reduce her to a smoldering, melty corpse. This pattern continues until the only people left in town are the father and pregnant mother of one of the other spooky children and the clueless Sheriff. The Children could have been much better than it is, but I guess I'll settle because of a few points. The first is in its simplicity. The plot is a great one, and the idea that the only thing that changes are your fingernails is not bad, but it looks pretty amateurish and stupid on film. The black talons i was promised by the synopsis would have been cooler, but what can you do? Kalmanowicz clearly had no money. What he did have was a pretty decent melting corpse effect. Or anyway he thought so, cause it shows up every few minutes. As the saying goes "we spent money on this, we're gonna film it!"
The Children has more shortcomings than it does points in its favor, but, I like the idea that all this bedlam goes down because two guys went to lunch when they weren't supposed to. I live near a lot of vaguely named factories and that's one of my bigger fears. Screenwriters Carlton Albright and Edward Terry know about small-town fears well enough as they seem to harp on everyone that I can think of. When you only know a few things and they all turn on you, that has the potential to be pretty terrifying. Like The Evil Dead, this film has a few jump-scare moments; the ending is a good one, even though you'll see it coming the second the character it concerns is introduced. I was embarrassed to still find it scary, but, I guess its to The Children's credit and I'm glad that I can still get scared by something, no matter how simple. You don't need a budget to frighten people and this little movie makes a showing of itself in that regard, even if it does get kinda silly. Still the yokel 'actors' do a decent enough job and the children are suitably creepy when they need to be. Is it just me or have my standards hit rock bottom? I have to go watch the new Gus Van Sant film now and cleanse myself of low-budget trash for awhile. I'll be back soon enough, though.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Big World of Little Films

In the world of independent horror film there is a group of filmmakers, competent and imaginative, who work in a team akin to the Coppola, Lucas, and Spielbergs of yesterday and the Cuarón, Del Toro, Iñárritu, and Almodovars of today. Not that Cuarón and those guys aren’t in a sense independent, but they have the budget and mainstream precedents that will carry them as far as they’ll ever need (in fact Del Toro’s latest job, pinch-hitting for Peter Jackson on the Hobbit, should guarantee that they can all make whatever incendiary films they want until there as old as Alfonso Arau). This small collective of filmmakers can, together, do just about anything that needs to be done. Graham Reznick, Glenn McQuaid, Ti West, and Larry Fessenden (and David Gordon Green, kind of; he’s in there with them, but he doesn’t make horror films), together with regulars John Speredakos, Kevin Corrigan, and Ron Perlman have crafted many effective, moody, and creepy horror films made for next to no money through their production company Glass Eye Pix. Fessenden, being the senior of the group, obviously has something of an edge where quantity is concerned; his work extends back to the short films he started making in 1978 when he was only 15; I don't know about you, but I think it's pretty funny that his first film was called Jaws three years after Spielberg released his film. He started off the rash of no budget shockers with his film No Telling in the early 90s. His films spend a lot of time on character development, spend a bit of time establishing moody atmospheric scare scenes and then the creature arrives at the end. Incidentally, Fessendan really likes the Wendigo story, cause he's used it twice now in the films of his I've seen. The conclusion to Wendigo is one of the more inventive and spooky cheap film endings I've yet to see; it's worth the price of admission. Glenn McQuaid typically does visual effects for the other guys, but his film is the one I’m most looking forward to; it’s called I Sell The Dead and it looks like a blast; it looks like a continuation of a short film he made with Fessendan called The Resurrection Apprentice. Graham Reznick does sound design for these films and he has a feature-length thriller under his belt called I Can See You. Ti West, however, is the man we’ll be concerning ourselves with today. His most impressive entry into this delightfully amateurish crew’s oeuvre is called The Roost and its the one film that fits in with my mission statement. The Roost, is a sort of zombie film, and a great, unpretentious Evil Dead tribute that was a lot of damned fun.

The Roost
by Ti West
Ti West lets us know what sort of film this is right away in the framing story. We meet a TV host (Tom Noonan, the big creepy guy from Manhunter and a few other Michael Mann films and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, NY) who tells us we’re in for a sppoky story. There is no sound design to speak of, his dialogue is clearly being read off a cue card, is full of bad puns, and he wears a Dracula costume. Noonan does a laconic, 60-year-old Criswell impersonation for a few minutes before we enter the story proper. Four kids who clearly have some ties to each other that we don’t need to understand to enjoy the film are driving home when their car careens off the road and they’re forced to find a phone; as is common in horror films, cell phones are not an option. They go to the nearest house to ask to use their phone and surprise, surprise, no one answers. A quick inspection of the barn behind the house reveals no signs of life that they want any part of; where should I start? The bats or the zombies? Well, let’s go with the bats. The four twenty-something interchangeable protagonists will intermittently encounter a horde of almost convincing front-projection bats; The bats’ bite cause ordinary folk to turn into bloodthirsty zombie-type things that make our heroes’ stay at the barn all the more difficult. The sheriff arrives and does about as much good as the one in The Last House On The Left, Night Of The Living Dead, or Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These kids are going to need a lot of luck to get out of this one alive. Meanwhile, back in the framing story, we’re treated to the identity of the ‘master’ that Noonan keeps referring us to.

Like a lot of the Glass Eye Pix stuff and other recent independent horror films (Soft For Digging, Ils, Cool Air) The Roost is set in a desolate location, has refreshingly believable protagonists, and gets major points for atmosphere. Unlike those films, The Roost spends most of its running time giving you Sam Raimi style jump scares heightened with extremely gory flourishes. Like its most obvious influence, The Evil Dead, The Roost has its major stylistic device down pat. Every time West lulls us into a quiet spot he and his undead boogie men burst out of nowhere and scare us stupid. Like other backwoods films (Raimi’s films or grimmer fare like Axe or Just Before Dawn) it spends its time with a tiny group of people and makes with the fright quickly and cheaply.

The cheapness of The Roost adds to its charm in a big, big way. We have Glenn McQuaid’s awesome visual effects (the bats are what they are, but at least they don’t dance on the end of a string). Whenever someone gets their face bit, we know it. West doesn’t flinch when its time to show what his make-up guys are capable of. The Roost has its moments where it achieves scares just as good as many of the ones Raimi got in his heyday. Ti West knows exactly what he’s trying to do and can carry out incredibly effective budget effects like no one I’ve seen in the last 20 years. The gore looks better than even George Romero’s latest efforts. It’s funny how much technology gets in the way of good story-telling. Take for example the switch from miniatures to computer generated effects in the sci-fi genre. With a movie like Aliens, for example, it’s nearly impossible to tell what sets are miniatures and which aren’t, and I for one think we should never have abandoned it. It’s a little like the black hole basement in Sweden or wherever; hey, we have this technology, let’s use it. Does no one think to ask why? We have computers that can simulate blood flowing out of someone’s head like they’ve been shot. Didn’t we just spend the better part of 70 years trying to get this right using real effects? Why would we abandon it when something more expensive comes along? I don’t know, but I do know that Ti West’s The Roost proves you don’t need money to scare people. In fact, the one point in which animation was used (those bats, again) is the one thing I have to complain about. The Roost is a great little film; it feels like a little film but it scares like a big one.

Glasseye Pix recently produced a film called Wendy & Lucy whose musicless trailer actually unsettled me more than most horror films released today. It just goes to show you that less is more in most cases. Sometimes, however, an imbalance in elements can make for a frustrating hour and a half. Which brings me to another independent near-zombie film made by a group of friends. This time, the personalities of each contributor is out in the open; you needn't look to their other work to see who brings what to the table.

The Signal
by Dan Bush, David Bruckner, and Jacob Gentry

The film's opening is deceptively disorienting. A woman screams alone in a concrete shack in the middle of the woods covered in blood as a retro title sequence plays out over her pained expressions. We'll never return to this, because it's a clip from one of Gentry's other films. Lame. Just when I thought I was being taken into a shockingly original and gory nightmare world that was both a throwback and unique, like The Roost, the story proper begins and its a dubious melodramatic affair. Chapter one, directed by Bruckner, is called Mad Love. Well, this just wouldn't be a revisionist zombie film without some doomed lovers, so lets bring them out. Meet Ben and Mya, a pair of homely lovers who meet in secret so as to avoid confronting Mya's abusive jagoff husband Lewis. Ben's convinced, as these types generally are, that they can make a go of an ordinary life away from Lewis. Mya, with visions of living of sin in her head, leaves the rendezvous and finds a Let Sleeping Corpses Lie-esque societal chaos waiting for her. People are violent, sick, and ill-mannered everywhere she looks. Why? It has something to do with the signal that's on every TV in town. The icing on the crazy cake comes when her husband, fueled by what at first appears to be jealousy, beats one of his two drinking buddies literally to death. Strangest of all though is the fact that Lewis doesn't show the slightest sign that he is at all phased by his own actions. Mya flees with Lewis' surviving friend Rod and just misses Ben as he storms her apartment building looking to make good on all his "let's leave this place" bravado. He finds more people turned insane by the signal that's all over town.
Chapter 2 starts when Mya leaves her apartment and crashes her car outside a condominium populated by recently crazed buffoons. There's Anna, whose new years party preparations got put on hold when she killed her husband, but doesn't realize she has. There's Clark, her landlord, whose only slightly more with it. There's Jim Parsons, their neighbor, who, with Kramer-like clumsiness walks into a death trap. This is the funny part, in case you were wondering. The second chapter is the most aimless of the three in that Jacob Gentry, who directs, tries to squeeze every last ounce of humour out of the idea that there's bad shit going on outside but no one inside knows it. It's funny at first, but...this isn't really a comedy last time I checked. The film then screws around for 45 minutes establishing what we already know: that Lewis is a jealous asshole who'd kill people to keep them away from his wife. Things end badly for everyone but Clark, who is saved by the last minute intervention of Ben.

Chapter three finds Ben trying to jog Clark's memory about Mya's whereabouts while Lewis tries to hunt them down. Clark decides that the best way for him to regain control of his thoughts is to take Rod's displaced head and attach electrodes to it a la The Brain That Wouldn't Die. Clark finally remembers that a certain blond mentioned going to a train station to leave town with her lover; the two men are off at once. They reach the train station and this segment's director Dan Bush confirms that we're in the psychological horror part of the evening. Instead of the sweaty, grimy, bloody climax we were promised in chapter one, we get 15 minutes of Lewis and Ben trying to out-think each other through voice over and flashes of the signal on a bunch of TVs nearby. Need I say who wins? In the end, however, I can't say I really have any clue what happens.

The Signal was fun while I was watching it, but, as soon as it ended I felt cheated. The performances are all great especially coming from relative nobodies and the editing, production design, and cinematography are extremely well executed. So what we have is a problem of direction and writing, the curse of the anthology movie. Where were all the zombies? Where did all that madness go? Now, my main issue with this movie stems from the fact that a review told me this was a zombie movie. It's not, and so I should just get over it, but that's not this films biggest failing. The first act sets up a perfectly serviceable plot with acceptably trite cliches in a new kind of situation and then acts two and three drop the ball pretty spectacularly. Bruckner put so much time in setting up a great, paranoid first act and his two collaborators were not the least bit interested in picking up where he left off. Here's what chapter one sets up; the signal, whatever it may be, is turning people into violent sociopaths who act on their every impulse. Where does the signal come from? How does Ben keep control of his thoughts? What about the music in Mya's headphones keeps her from going as crazy as everyone else? Why was Rod spared? What is the Signal actually doing to people's brains? What does the rest of the city, or the world look like? Well Gentry and Bush could care less and we'll never learn the answers to any of those questions, save one; Ben's immunity is explained pretty pretentiously by Bush. I wouldn't have found the last two thirds of the movie so disappointing if a much better conclusion wasn't demanded of the first act.

We basically move from [rec]-like intensity to black comedy with no answers to sub-Tarkovskian philosophy with no emotion or violence and vague answers. Bruckner had everything more or less in check, but that balance disappears when his segment ends. Where did the Signal come from? TV signals are exclusively man-made and thus must be controlled by human means or something more intelligent. With the production cost of both acts II and III, they could have explained the origin with a scene. Both Gentry and Bush ladled their styles so heavily onto their segments its like we're watching three different films, which shouldn't be the case. I'm not opposed to being left in the dark, but I'd like a little story with my mayhem and psycho-babble. The urgency is dropped; I for one would have liked to see Ben's bravado take the same form as Jim's in 28 Days Later.

Props must be given to David Wingo, sometime composer for David Gordon Green, whose cover of Joy Division's Atmosphere is the recurring musical theme in The Signal. It is a shimmering, pure, and beautiful piece of music that fittingly accompanies the few positive surviving human values in a world gone mad. Wingo is a wizard with layers, textures, and his soulful voice is fittingly haunting and fits his arrangement like a glove. A beautiful song and he was kind enough to give it to me when he discovered iTunes wasn't selling it as a single. Less is more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My 100 Favorite Films Volume 7: Let The Right One In

Occasionally you’ll know right off the bat that what you’re looking at is a work of art; sometimes it takes a while, sometimes it’s during a backward glance appraisal. Let The Right One In, a Swedish vampire film I read a tiny review of in some magazine or other, was quite clearly an overwhelming artistic achievement from the word go. I was made totally aware of this fact at one moment in particular: our hero, a 12 year old boy, is hit in the cheek with a stick by a bully and for a split second the sound goes in favor of the high-pitched ringing that accompanies unexpected bursts of pain. No one had ever done that before so boldly and clearly and from then on I knew unquestionably that this was bound to be one of the best films I'd ever seen. With all the mishigas being raised over Twilight and the disappointing sting of 30 Days of Night still fresh in my mind, I’d like to choose my words carefully so that readers will understand that this movie is special in ways few horror films ever manage to be; I’d also like to sit the makers of both Twilight and 30 Days of Night down and make them watch this and then smack their noses with a newspaper. I will say though that rather than read my analysis and take my word for it, you should stop now, drive the two hours to the nearest arthouse that’s showing it and see for yourself that there are still brilliant movies being made, and for the most part, if this and Joachim Von Trier's Reprise are any indication, they're being made in Scandinavia. Would you believe me if I told you it was about a cute 12 year old girl who was also a vampire?

Let The Right One In
by Tomas Alfredson
Open on a hopelessly beautiful, hopelessly middle class tenement building in a village outside Stockholm, Sweden. As 12-year-old child of divorce Oskar stands in his underwear practices his tough guy speech to a window, an old man and his young daughter unpack their belongings from a taxi cab and move into the apartment next door. Oskar is the victim of bullying and it’s not hard to see what makes him easy prey: he is pale, gangly even for a 12 year old, has long blonde hair his mother has clearly not looked at in sometime, he walks as if one leg were longer than the other, and his social weirdness manifests itself whenever he’s called on to talk in class. Clean cut bully Conny and his two not-so-brave cohorts Martin and Andreas make Oskar’s life as miserable as possible whenever they can fit it in. It isn’t until Oskar meets his new neighbor that things start to turn around for our young hero.

We know things aren’t right when, in what might be the most beautifully composed evisceration ever filmed, the elder of Oskar’s two neighbors drugs a passerby, strings him up on a lamppost and cuts his throat. This might be an ordinary killing save for one thing; he catches the blood in a plastic jug. The old man’s plan, whatever it may be, is ruined when a runaway dog brings its owners to the scene forcing him to flee. This doesn’t make his ‘daughter’ too happy, who after a stern talking to issues what sounds like a hypothetical warning “Do I have to do this myself?” Shortly after this botched incident, Oskar is outside after dark threatening a tree at knife point when he catches the young girl spying on him. It will take a lot of coaxing before he learns her name (Eli), but she wants to make one thing clear; she may be the same age as Oskar, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be friends. This changes after they meet a few times and Eli develops a soft spot for Oskar; perhaps because she has a very adult secret that youthful playtime helps her forget. One night one of the neighborhood drunks stumbles home and Eli lures him under a bridge and savagely murders him with her teeth. Two significant developments then unfold; firstly is that after Eli does her victim in fully, she cries, clearly unhappy about her fate; secondly an old eccentric with a house full of cats happens to witness the murder. Eli’s father hides the body, but clearly things are about to change for the family.

Oskar starts seeing more and more of Eli; she teaches him to stand up for himself and soon he has a crush on her that takes up most of his attention whenever they’re apart. Eli is initially reluctant until the night her dad slips up and gets himself caught while trying to milk a neighborhood boy of his life essence; the old man chooses an incredibly painful method of concealing his identity and covering his tracks so that Eli is left unmolested by authorities. When she visits him in the hospital that night, he says farewell to her and gives her what he was unable to provide while they lived together. Eli visits Oskar that night and agrees to ‘go steady’ as he puts it. Because Eli has to do her own hunting and as she isn’t be as careful as her dad was, she leaves behind a calling card one night when she doesn’t finish off one of her victims; the poor woman’s drunkard boyfriend is understandably a little shocked when she becomes sensitive to daylight, is nearly eaten alive by cats and won’t shut up about a little girl infecting her with something. Time to do some investigating, eh? This guy isn’t any Van Helsing, but he has a pretty good idea who’s behind the whole mess. As if that weren’t enough problems for our heroes, Oskar manages to make yet another enemy. When Oskar takes Eli’s advice about not letting kids bully him anymore and lashes out at Conny with a stick at recess, the little terror’s older brother gets involved; I guess exceedingly stupid and violent behavior runs in the family.

If this movie has one clear precedent, it wouldn’t be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu or its excellent remake, any of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee’s takes on the subject, nor that oft-referenced teenage vampire trainwreck The Lost Boys. It wouldn’t even be some of the more recent child-horror films: your 6th Senses, The Rings, or any of Guillermo Del Toro’s three elegiac fairy tales, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, or Pan’s Labyrinth. No, if I could point to one film most likely to have been an influence on this film, I’d guess it would be Lasse Hallström’s My Life As A Dog. Another famous Swedish export (in fact perhaps the most famous non-Bergman Swedish film yet made; notice I didn’t say infamous; that honor would go to Alf Sjoberg’s I Am Curious) My Life As A Dog has many thematic similarities including a weak-willed boy infatuated with a much stronger female, pubescent growing pains, a lovely romantic story between two youths of starkly different types, a town full of characters on the fringe of the lead's lives who play important roles in the story proper, parents incapable of understanding their children, and adults in general being powerless to put themselves in the mindset of that thing they’re now least like and most afraid of in the world – a child. The film's theme of childhood being as mysterious as supernatural behavior reminds one of Robert Wise's great Curse of the Cat People, only with roles reversed and modernized. The same shimmering innocence pervades both films and Alfredson has Wise's respect for the extraordinary power of the imagination.

Let me digress for a moment and say that if I had an inner child, she would look and act something like Lina Leandersson does here; this 12 year old first-time actress is my hero. Her Eli, on top of scoring points for being an unrelentingly cute murderer, is one of the greatest characters in film history. Oskar and Eli spend most of their time together asking questions typical of 12 year olds, and its clear that they both suffer from arrested development, albeit for two different reasons. Oskar has his absent parents to thank for his naivete (Oskar has ten times more fun with his dad, but dad still hasn’t come clean about his homosexuality and is clearly ashamed of it, which puts a strain on their relationship), Eli has the fact that her life stopped being that of 12 year old years ago. Between Eli’s lack of friends her own age or any other relationships beyond her male caregiver, she is just as clueless about socialization as Oskar. This is most whimsically demonstrated when Oskar buys Eli a bag of candy in a misguided attempt to be kind. Eli, not wanting to seem rude, eats one and promptly vomits behind the vender’s stand; Oskar panics and hugs Eli, something, I gather from her ridged posture, that no one has done in quite some time. Both Oskar's frightened expectations and Eli's confused detachment ring as true as anything I've ever seen on film. Moments like this are what separates Let The Right One In from all of its contemporaries. Alfredson proves himself capable of providing every facet of John Ajvide Lindqvist‘s source novel and screenplay with equal amounts of care and grace. Incidentally, Lindqvist should receive accolade for both staying remarkably true to vampire lore, while still delivering a unique scenario in which to play with it (for every Martin there's a Dracula 2000 waiting to make it irrelevant). I knew that this movie was not simply good but transcendent just after Eli says goodbye to her father. She comes back to Oskar’s room, her mouth still coated in her guardian’s dried blood, disrobes and climbs into bed with him (Maria Strid's costumes really make Eli's malaise all the more palpable). She has never known loss before and thus her turning to Oskar for comfort in her time of greatest need is beyond touching. They never face each other and Oskar is clearly out of his depth, but the two are completely in the moment and this scene’s tenderness is nearly unparalleled; rarely have child actors seemed so unapologetically, wonderfully childish. When Eli slowly takes Oskar’s hand, I thought I was going to cry.

Oh, and those of you who’re reading this going “it’s a love story, pfft! I’ll just see Saw V, thank you very much. We don’t need another Twilight!” shame on you. Please don’t misunderstand me, the movie works just as well as a horror film; Alfredson is just as at home melting a heart as he ripping one out. And oh, the horror! Let The Right One In is like the There Will Be Blood of horror films. It is quiet, unpredictable, wildly visual, gut-wrenchingly tense, and absolutely mesmerizing. So little actually happens, and what does is so masterfully understated that you can’t help but wait with bated breath from scene to scene. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography makes for one of the moodiest portrayals of cold weather in recent memory. As enthralled as I was by the awesomely beautiful story of pre-adolescent love and the search for understanding, I was absolutely spellbound by the scenes where the horror elements come into play. Watching Conny observe Oskar and plan his downfall internally is ten times as frightening because this is a film completely unafraid to put its heroes in danger. His classmates put Oskar in very real peril and it almost rivals the gruesome murders committed by his sunlight-fearing dream girl. Another point Let has in common with There Will Be Blood is it’s truly awesome and orgasmically violent climax. This and 28 Days Later now share the prize for greatest conclusion in any film. No other filmmaker has yet been brave enough to make its romantic peak coincide with harm to children under 12 without losing any of his or the movie's integrity.
It’s funny to note how effortlessly a country enters a discourse and makes the homogenized major players seem like the big, monomaniacal teenagers they truly are. Go to netflix and look at their foreign horror; they have two categories: Italian and Japanese. You’ll find a French film and the odd Spanish production, but the point is that America’s scope is so narrow that it’s a wonder Let The Right One In got…well, let in (to use [rec] as an example, that film’s remake is currently making the rounds of multiplexes across the country, but it’s superior source film has yet to find an American distributor [note: it found a barebones DVD release mid-2009]). Seeing as how Let The Right One In has exactly one historical precedent (Ingmar Bergman’s haunting and hallucinogenic Hour Of The Wolf), it could have been anything less than perfect and I would have been satisfied. In fact I probably would have sung its praises anyway seeing as how America’s idea of a good independent horror film is Teeth and its idea of a revisionist vampire movie ranges from the bad (Underworld, Interview With A Vampire, Lost Boys) to the absolutely unwatchable (Van Helsing, Bordello of Blood, From Dusk Till Dawn). However, not since Near Dark has there been so brilliant a vampire film; not ever has there been a better film about childhood. Let The Right One In is nothing short of perfect and will remain one of my favorite films for a long time.