Tuesday, July 26, 2011

ReMarathon 2011, Part 2

Now, where were we? Oh yeah!

Black Christmas
By Glen Morgan

Ok, finally. Here's a film that not only does something completely different from its namesake, but also uses the story from the earlier film in a clever way. So, this movie retcons the story of Black Christmas into a modern day plotline, or, well, that's not exactly true. For those of you who've seen Black Christmas (which I'll be reviewing before too long), you'll remember that the voice on the phone continually mentions two people called Agnes and Billy. Well, Glen Morgan's Black Christmas has weaved them a backstory. Turns out Billy and Agnes were siblings whose parents were totally insane. Billy responded by cutting his parents up, carving their skin into the shape of Christmas cookies and eating them on December 25th. The girls living in the sorority that used to be Billy's house celebrate this with a macabre little ritual. Mrs. MacHenry, the dorm mother, assigns one of the girls Billy when they do their secret santa giftgiving every year. The eight girls left in the house this Christmas are split about it. Heather the jesus freak doesn't like it, Lauren the alcoholic slut doesn't care for anything festive, Kelli doesn't want anyone to fight, Melissa takes Lauren's side because she doesn't like Heather, Dana doesn't have a personality, Eve is too much of a space cadet to take part in the discussion and both Megan and Clair are already dead. Now, the film plays it cool here. As much as we're all obviously supposed to assume that Billy has had a hand in the deaths of the poor coeds, we're also shown quite clearly that Billy has yet to break out of the insane asylum he's been kept in since cutting up his parents. Make no mistake, he does break out, and violently, but the question remains: who's the hulking blonde in the attic who's carving up the girls of Delta Alpha Kappa?

There are two words that spring to mind when I think about this version of Black Christmas: Fucking Insane. Every oblique angle shouts crazy, every few minute someone is murdered in the craziest fucking way possible, every new plot development makes someone either a suspect or a victim, blood and viscera shoot out of wounds like someone turned on a hose. People don't just bleed in this movie, they fucking explode. The lighting is absolutely nuts and the camera work matches it every step of the way. With Black Christmas, Glen Morgan has effectively out De Palma'd Brian De Palma. The swaths of red that litter the colour scheme, the jaundiced villain, the enormous slant on voyeurism, the presentational lighting, the is-it-stealing-or-homage quality that imbues every angle. Christ on a cricket, no wonder Morgan hasn't worked since. Weirder still, despite its sorority house setting and cast of not-quite stars, there's almost no nudity and none that couldn't be someone's body double. Now, here's where the problems start. I really liked Black Christmas but not without reservations. It has big problems, pacing chief among them; the thing moves at the speed of sound to no real ends. Characters arrive in time to make a hint of an impression before being killed and the girls who make the slightest impression last the longest. And I have to dock some points for the way Morgan so quickly dispatches Leela Savasta, a better and more courageous actress than two-thirds of the girls in the sorority. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, for instance, should have been the lead. She's the most memorable of the girls by far (Crystal Lowe a close second) and attacks her role, making it impossible for her to remain in the single-trait slot tat Morgan wrote for her. Katie Cassidy is the main character basically by default. She's by far the least interesting and charismatic of the girls. And I can't say I'm really on the side of a movie that carves up a bunch of well-meaning teenage girls (especially when the script makes such a huge fucking deal about the bonds of sisterhood), but style does count for something and this film drips with it. I knew Morgan trafficked in the unsettling after his redo of Willard, but this thing leaves that, and frankly everything covered here today, in the dust. It's not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach and it's not a good movie like the original was, but sweet jesus, it's deranged. I'm kind of amazed that there's no force in place to tell people about movies like this and Orphan, because they really need to be seen to be believed.

Hannibal Rising
by Peter Webber
Now, ok, I'll admit that this doesn't quite count. Red Dragon can only be considered a remake in the loosest sense, in that it was only following the same novel as Michael Mann's first treatment of the Hannibal Lecter story, Manhunter. But it was clearly supposed to be more in keeping with the newest films on the world's most famous cannibal, because, well, Brett Ratner stole Ridley Scott's aesthetic even if he seemed to have been following Mann's earlier script. So with the last film in the series being as shameless a cash-in as Red Dragon, it was tough not to lump Hannibal Rising (why is my urge to always call this Young Hannibal?) in with the then-novel spate of glossy remakes. In fact it was this and Michael Bay's The Hitcher that I remember causing me to throw my hands up and start avoiding these things as a rule. I didn't realize that Hannibal Rising wasn't meant to grip the coattails of a franchise that hadn't made a dignified sound since 2001. The book that it's based on, however, was. Before it was an indifferent-to-poorly received movie it was a universally panned novel that took all of the mystique out of a character that not even a film as shitty as Red Dragon could undo. Thomas Harris, the book's author, apparently needed a bigger house, because there's no defensible reason for the book, and its written in such breathless, purple prose that you get the impression that he needed to finish it before the movers take the couch he's sitting on. He goes so fast that he fucks up several crucial, already spelled-out details from previous books, one of them kind of crucial as it's the reason he goes on his lifelong killing spree. The book's thesis was simple: Hannibal wasn't the embodiment of evil for no reason, he was evil because some Nazis killed and ate his baby sister. While all the angry literary critics who made up the books audience agreed that its not a bad impulse to suggest that all bad people typically have a reason to be that way, they also rightly posited that Lecter was a fictional character and no one gave a shit how he became evil, they just wanted him outwitting/flirting with Clarice Starling. It might not be morally right but its fucking entertaining, which is why people read the sort of thing Harris writes in the first place. The movie tries hard to stick to Ridley Scott's template and undo some of Harris' blind traipsing around history, trying to account for how someone with a vendetta forgot it and became history's greatest monster.

Hannibal's family is killed at the tail-end of WWII by some nazis played by ringers like Rhys Ifans and Kevin McKidd . He grows up with an awful big chip on his shoulder and outgrows the boarding school that has been set up on his family's estate. He escapes when he gets tired of the shitheads who run the place and the dipshits who go there and goes looking for his uncle. The older man is dead by now, but his mistress (the impossibly beautiful Gong Li, who, like everyone else in this movie, is better than this) takes him in and teaches him how to use a samurai sword in the film's dumbest scene. His killing technique refined, he tests it out on a collaborator who upsets his aunt one day in the marketplace. He escapes but not without arousing the suspicion of Inspector Popil (Dominic West, also way better than this. The way the man looks in his long coat is the second best thing about the film. The way Gong Li looks in a kimono remains the best, even if she looks tired and bored throughout) who can see that Lecter is probably guilty but that he's only killing evil men. It's the kind of conundrum that goes nowhere, because the movie then gets to its real business, Lecter hunting down and Saw-killing the nazis who ate his sister. And as with any prequel, there's no real tension because you know that Hannibal's going to be around for dozens and dozens of years after the events of this film. The only tension is whether he'll rescue his aunt from one of Ifans' traps, but even that ain't much. The movie's more like a grotesque painting than a proper horror film, anyway, pretty, but totally static.

Peter Webber was probably as good as this movie was going to do. But he's not a horror director and doesn't have the stomach for gut spilling. So in lieu of that, he makes the movie and all the characters and their houses as gorgeous as possible and mostly suceeds, but this wasn't supposed to be a sober costume crime drama, it was meant to be about Hannibal, but Webber's camera doesn't really like Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal. He's the only active character in a landscape of well-worn, beautifully passive faces and he doesn't gel with the rest of the film. It's a movie that wants to be about the poetry of murder like Hannibal, but doesn't have enough to say on the subject of murder. It's got the same structure as a Saw film or the later I Spit On Your Grave remake, and so should be a straight-up exploitation film but isn't. So it's all very pretty and perfunctory and boring and I hardly noticed it going by. Interestingly, this was the last film Dino De Laurentiis produced. Back in the day he was so miffed about Manhunter's success that he reportedly gave the rights to Silence of the Lambs up for free, which then went on to be one of the most successful films of all time, anyway you choose to look at it. Fitting that Dino died trying to correct his biggest financial mistake with an even bigger one.

The Hills Have Eyes 2
by Martin Weisz

Joe Bob Briggs said of Blood Feast that it's a more interesting film to talk about then watch. This is true of the tortured history of the sequels to both versions of The Hills Have Eyes. In 85, a year before Tobe Hooper gave us the much hated sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre under the watchful wallets of Golan and Globus's Canon group, Wes made a sequel to his best film, The Hills Have Eyes. It was...shameful. And just as Tobe's film got something of a do-over sequel wise that was a totally grim and pointless affair (can't make a sequel to a film where the villain's had his chainsaw arm off), Wes Craven got to live vicariously through the sequel to the remake. Wes was a good deal luckier in his directors than Tobe, but ultimately both tarnished their own reputations because the mere idea of a sequel brings down the classiness of the original idea, even if the respective requels were slightly better than they wound up being. Alexandra Aja and Marcus Nispel were more or less evenly matched in America, even if Aja's debut was a touch more auspicious than Nispels. John Liebesman, however, had nothing on Martin Weisz's credentials. Weisz' film Grimm Love might not be the best thing I've ever seen, but it boasted two incredible lead performances and a David Fincher-inspired production design. On the other hand, he's also a fucking music video director, which probably accounts for Hills Have Eyes 2 being totally throw-away. But back to Craven. I think he clearly saw an opportunity to correct past mistakes when Fox Atomic optioned the sequel. He and his son Jonathan even wrote the damned thing. And from the look of the trailer, you'd really think they'd nailed it. Seriously, check it out. It's one of the better trailers I've ever seen. That the film looked so handsome from far away is a little disappointing because there's nothing unique or interesting here. It's a touch better than these typically get, but that's all really. A bunch of guys with guns head into the desert, are hunted by cannibals and most of them get slaughtered. Its Aliens to Hills Have's Alien. Except with a 65% drop in quality and suspense. The best thing you can say about it is that it is markedly better than the first Hills Have Eyes II. But, really so's anything...except this next film.

The Hitcher
by Dave Meyers
Michael Bay productions exist largely to sell tits and bad emo music, which is why his Transformers movies are scored largely by Linkin Park and the sound of Megan Fox's hips swiveling. It's also why when he gets what I'm sure are sticky, sweaty palms on a property, he'll find someone with less scruples than even him to direct it. Bay didn't direct The Hitcher, but it's tough to picture him doing a worse job than Meyers. Meyers' spooktacular CV include the music videos for The Offspring's "Original Prankster" (the one with the shit sandwich), Creed's "My Sacrifice" (the one where Scott Stapp pulls himself out of a river), and Dave Matthews Band's "I Did It" (the one that steals from movies as diverse as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead 2, which proves that he's seen enough scary movies that he should hate his version of The Hitcher and especially the asshole who directed it). And boy does that show; the film is basically one long music video. The first image is terrible and the shittiness never relents. A computer generated hare steps out onto a desert highway and is hit by a car. Then, set to one of the many terrible songs this movie has up its sleeve, Jim Halsey calls his girlfriend and wakes her up. They're supposed to go on a road trip today! OH NO!!!! She's totally making them late! Yeah, it's that kind of film. Fucking shoot me. The movie plays out with exactly the same beats as the original except that Halsey isn't alone, and he doesn't end up being the lead character, though he certainly starts out that way. Already the movie is beyond saving. By giving Halsey company right away, the writers have already taken away the thing that made the first The Hitcher so compelling in the first place: Halsey's complete isolation. Even when Nash shows up, she's more like a mirage than a character and Eric Red's screenplay is pretty fucking vicious towards her presence. By putting Sophia Bush in the car, Bay has neutered the movie to the point of ABSOLUTE Irrelevance. No matter how good Sean Bean's performance might be (and frankly he's been better. He seems faintly embarrassed, like he knows he's being undercut by the dumb movie he's in at every turn), it doesn't fucking matter because Bay doesn't kill the only pair of tits in the movie.

And that's all before we consider that Ryder has morphed into a generic boogeyman. He's everywhere and nowhere and he's unkillable and has unlimited ammo. In the dumbest scene in the movie, Ryder appears in a Thunderbird to take down a squadron of cop cars while Nine Inch Nail's "Closer" also comes out of nowhere to score the scene. Man, fuck this movie. By the time we've gone through the most memorable scenes from the first movie, rendered useless because of the high school play level acting from its two charisma-free leads, we get to the conclusion. By this time Sophia Bush is by herself and Ryder has killed all the cops in the van taking him to prison in an impossibly dumb way. So she takes the sheriff's gun to go kill Ryder. But, best part, Ryder fucking takes it from her, and then kills the sheriff. So not only does she fail to kill him when it meant her boyfriend's life, she can't even do it when she has nothing to lose. So she finally gets ahold of another gun, which happens to be a shotgun that would knock her right on her ass if she fired that thing in reality and kills him. So her victory is hollow and the movie it closes has the dubious honor of being one of the worst films ever made. Nice work, everybody. Lunch?

April Fool's Day
by Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores
Now, before we begin, a note. Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores would like very much like it if we called them The Butcher Brothers, which is adorable. After all, their movies couldn't be more harmless if they replaced every actor with a Jack Russell Terrier and called it a gallery installation. Having seen their rather terrible 2010 film The Violent Kind, I knew I was in for a treat when their cute pen name appeared under the words "Directed by." Incidentally that they don't add "Barely" is false advertising that I think could get you a class action suit going. The plot and gotcha twist at the end are in keeping with the original film, but my question is why bother. None of the people in this film are what you could call "actors" or if they are, Flores and Altieri convinced all of them not to act as some kind of experiment. Now eventually they settle into it (what's that they say about broken clocks?) but for the first forty-five minutes, we're privy to a movie in which exactly one person seems to be doing anything other than reading lines from a card. Holy Fucking Shit is it terrible. That exception, in case you were wondering, is Scout Taylor-Compton. She acts circles around these motherfuckers. If she made Chloe Moretz and Lori Heuring seem like they're trying too hard, then imagine how she decimates these clowns. And because the Butchers are such god awful filmmakers, the movie looks for all the world like an overlong episode of One Tree Hill or some damn thing. Even worse, they totally and utterly believe in their terrible, terrible screenplays so that all the non-actors deliver their lines as woodenly and sincerely as possible. Never a good combination. It's never less than absolutely embarrassing, like when the movie spends more than five minutes on a fake talk show discussing something we just fucking saw happen. We know what happened, we were there, yet they perversely go over the events of the crime in excruciatingly full detail. If they were actually related I'd say they dethrone John and Erick Dowdle as the worst family of filmmakers working today. Though try as they might, they don't succeed in making Scout Taylor-Compton look less than professional.

Prom Night
by Nelson McCormick

Speaking of Wicked Little Things, the script for the update of Prom Night comes from J.S. Cardone. This is a little odd to me because Cardone was active at the same time as the first Prom Night. In fact, Cardone's debut film The Slayer, one of the original video nasties, has a plot almost identical to Humongous, the film that Prom Night director Paul Lynch made in the same year. The plot here is a touch different from the oddball Canadian original; It has no name in common with Lynch's film and instead centers on Donna Keppel. About a year ago her whole family was killed by her math teacher who had a bit of a thing for her. They caught him and locked him up and Donna moved in with her aunt and uncle. She seems to be doing better in her new town and the chemistry she has with her friends is believable. The problem there is that it's too believable. Like "who gives a fuck about these vacuous teenagers if they're all going to get killed" believable? I really feel like Nelson McCormick and Cardone are better at the quieter moments in these films. They should really think about making films about the foibles of professionals and their less-than-professional children. I didn't really like the teenage characters (and what was Jessica Stroup doing in a prom dress? She played a commando in Hills Have Eyes 2, how old is she supposed to be?) but I believed that they believed in their own shallow nonsense. The best part of the movie is watching Linden Ashby and Jessalyn Gilsig at home acting like a concerned married couple or Idris Elba acting like a seasoned professional and doing preliminary rounds in the hotel he suspects a murderer might find or Brittany Snow as Donna and Scott Porter as her boyfriend in her bedroom after they think the trauma is over. The moments of calm the movie finds are superb and made me like it despite it being a cash-in with no sex and no real violence. The bitchy prom queen doesn't even get stabbed. What the fuck kinda slasher movie is this, anyway? I'd like to know from the people who really liked this (it made enough money to give McCormick and Cardone their next job, which we'll talk about soon enough) what they like about it? It's not particularly scary, sexy or bloody. If you read this, please go ahead and put that in the comment section because I'd love to know.

My Bloody Valentine
by Patrick Lussier
This has roughly the same story as the original My Bloody Valentine, which was one of the better Friday the 13th knock-offs the early 80s-slasher boom produced. The key difference of course is that this became a springboard for the burgeoning 3D industry, then nearing its apex. This of course means that it looks like shit. I was under the impression that this was Lussier's first film, which would have excused the amateurish camera work (I chalked the look to the shitty 3D cameras, but there's no reason it should be so poorly filmed). But he's been doing this since Dracula 2000. Remember that piece of shit? Yeah, well he also did two fucking sequels. Yikes. Anyway, the movie doesn't work as a horror film and frankly the 3D is wasted as often as its used. For every time the pick-axe comes flying at the camera, there's ten tons of shit thrown by one character or another that isn't 3Dified. And the 3D murders end up looking incredibly lame anyway because they naturally couldn't actually throw a mining tool at their expensive 3D cameras, so instead they CG it in later in post, making the whole project totally useless. And then there are little irksome things littered throughout the movie. A woman is hit in the stomach with an axe and blood hits the wall? The killer manages to run through a grocery store and then out the door and around back in ten seconds and then when another character makes the same trip it takes about three minutes. In one scene the killer's shadow starts close to a character, then gets far away as he approaches her...? That's just shit filmmaking. And then the reveal takes us back through a few murders we've already witnessed and flat out lies to us about things we've seen. You might generously call it unreliable narrator, but I call it lazy filmmaking.

In fact the one saving grace was, like Prom Night, its relationship dynamic. I really enjoyed Kerr Smith as the sheriff being shaken up by wife Jaime King's former relationship with Jensen Ackles. Now Ackles isn't worth shit, but King and Smith are terrific and they're the only reason to watch this piece of shit. When Lussier starts casting doubt about Smith's innocence, it only works because of how firm a grip he has on the character. There's a moment about halfway through when he wants King to rat on Ackles but she won't do it. His anger there is terrifying and understandable at once, and it's probably the best moment in the movie. I wanted a film just about their marriage. Alas, I got a movie about 3D tits and poorly executed jaw removal. Sigh.

Sorority Row
by Stewart Hendler
Now Tayne I can get into. Sorority Row is obviously a remake of The House on Sorority Row but it's really like all remakes in one. The ur text. There are elements of Black Christmas, April Fool's Day, My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night here and it's sleazy and bitchy enough for all of them. Thank christ, says I. If I had to sit through another film that doesn't even best its source material in body count, I was going to snap. Sorority Row starts with April Fool's Day's opening gambit: a prank. Garrett has fucked up, so his sister Chugs and her sorority sisters Cassidy, Jessica, Claire, Megan and Ellie have decided to fake something pretty fucking serious. They convince Garrett that Megan would get with him and to roofy the girl's drink and then film his bedroom as she fakes a reaction. They drive her out to a mine when she plays possum in the car and then take things just a touch to far. Garrett thinks she's really dead, so he opens up her wind pipe with a fucking tire iron, which says to me, he was going to snap sooner or later anyway. So with Megan actually dead, they agree that the only solution is to throw her down the mine and forget it ever happened. Cut to eight months later, the girls start disappearing. Not only that, anyone who even overhears them talking about it, also goes. Now, we know what's really happening: they gettin' fucking murda'd! But who is it? And what do they want?

The one thing you'll hear complaints about, I'm guessing is that there isn't nearly enough sex to make this a grindhouse classic. And the murders could be a little more frequent, but this movie plays the game and well. You don't like any of these girls because most of them go pretty far out of their way to earn the crazy ass fate they wind up with. Seriously the way these women meet their maker is pretty off the wall. In order to let them know that they are being killed because of what happened to Megan, the killer has crafted some kind of crazy fucking knife that's shaped like a tire iron, but consists of several kinds of knife. Between the horrid murders, coed showers, all the sex that's hinted at and Leah Pipes as the consciousless leader of the sorority, you're looking at one hell of a sleaze-fest. It's the kind of film that never looks over its shoulder and I appreciate its efficiency. It's ten kinds of dumb but I had a fucking blast howling at the screen with a room full of like-minded individuals.

Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!


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