Sunday, April 13, 2014

Horror Film Review

Haunter (2013):  Between Zombieland and Signs, Abigail Breslin has an impressive pedigree when it comes to original horror.  This offering, however, is a mash-up of other films.  It's part Groundhog Day, part Insidious, part The Conjuring, part The Others, and part The Amityville Horror.  Should be a masterpiece then, right?  Well...no; but the ever-groovy Stephen McHattie plays the baddie, so it certainly doesn't suck.

It's 1985 and Lisa (Breslin) awakens every morning to the same day.  Brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha), dad Bruce (Peter Outerbridge), and mom Carol (Michelle Nolden) are oblivious.  Impenetrable fog enshrouds the house.  The phone is out.  The station wagon won't run.  Each night is meat loaf and Murder She Wrote.  Everything changes when Lisa begins hearing voices and seeing shadows.  She finds a hidden door in the basement which leads to a subterranean hidey-hole complete with jars of personal items (rings, watches, etc.) and a massive crematorium.  She also discovers a scrapbook of newspaper articles detailing 30 years worth of missing girls.  Her snooping results in a visit from a telephone repairman (McHattie) who tells Lisa to knock off the snooping or else.  Turns out the voices are from Oliva (Eleanor Zichy), a teenager from 2013 who's been trying to contact Lisa (who, of course, is dead) for help.  Olivia's normally nice dad's gone psycho and she fears for her family's safety.  Since Lisa's family and many others died in the house under similar circumstances, Olivia figures Lisa's trapped spirit can do something on her end.  Yeah, seemed like a stretch to me, too.  More of a stretch is when Lisa swaps bodies with Olivia. 

McHattie, of course, is the spirit of Edgar, the serial killer who's trapped Lisa's family and keeps possessing fathers and forcing them to murder their wives and children.  We are shown Edgar as a child (David Knoll) killing his parents but his motivations are not explained.  Is he simply nuts or are demonic forces involved?  Dunno.  Anyway, in the end, Lisa begs all of Edgar's victims to "wake up" and help her stop him for good.  She's like a dead Norman Rae. 

This film is way more complicated than it needed to be.  I wish I could expand on that, but it wouldn't make any sense if you haven't seen it.  It's like with superhero movie sequels.  They always add more supervillains and convoluted themes thinking more is better.  That rarely works.  Haunter tries to incorporate plot devices from at least six other films instead of focusing on just one and building around it. 

The Skinny

Acting:  McHattie, who you know from films like Pontypool, brings his usual A game.  Breslin crawls close to the ham line but does not cross it.  She does all right.  I particularly enjoyed Outerfield's performance as Lisa's father.
Story:  Overly complex conglomeration of tried and true supernatural plots. 
Direction:  Well executed despite the narrative challenges. 
Production Values:  I have no budget information, but it was made in Canada with Canadian government money so it looks anything other than cheap. 
Gore/FX:  No blood whatsoever.  A bit of CGI here and there. 
Scares:  One or two that will test your bladder control.
Ending:  Not horrifying at all.
Verdict:  Should you see Haunter?  As far as haunted house flicks go, I've seen worse.  And though I wouldn't label it as wholesome family entertainment, it's about as close as a horror film can get. 

Rating:  3 out of 5

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Horror Film Review

Frankenstein's Army (2013):  Ever wonder what would happen if Hellraiser's cenobites were given the steampunk treatment and then let loose in Nazi Germany?  Awesome, in theory.  The reality is disturbing, odd, and so very wrong (just look at the movie poster).  Weirder still, it was shot single perspective, documentary style.  Did handheld cameras exist in 1945 that filmed in color with perfectly synched sound? 

A Russian reconnaissance squad with a filmmaker (Alexander Mercury) in tow works its way through the German countryside.  They're to call in enemy positions but the radio is on the fritz (so to speak).  A sudden SOS call from another squad leads them to a village where they find a pile of barbequed nuns, empty graves, and a church crammed full of bizarre equipment...but no squad in danger.  Not too much goes well for the recon squad after that.  They are attacked by a number of abominations (the movie poster gives you an idea) and inadvertently herd themselves deeper into a hellish labyrinth where every new discovery is more horrifying than the last.  We eventually learn that Dimitri the filmmaker has a separate, secret mission...to bring the doctor (Karel Roden) responsible back to Mother Russia, preferably alive.  Yeah, that doesn't work out for either of them. 

A great many things bothered me about this film.  No one in the recon squad is likable (they kill German women and children just for the hell of it).  I think their accents are supposed to be Russian.  Hard to tell.  As for the zombots (yes, the creatures are credited as zombots), the majority are too silly to be scary.  The "mosquito" has a three-foot drill for a nose.  "Propeller Head" has a, well, propeller for a head.  And for reasons passing understanding, the slave girl Jabba the Hutt feeds to his rancor in Return of the Jedi makes an appearance.  There's a scene in which the squad essentially feeds a 10 year-old boy to a zombot.  If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times:  don't kill kids.  Even if they are Hitler Youth. 

As for the film's title, the doctor is a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein and based his work on the original experiments.  Thing is, this current doctor was so batshit crazy, his father had him committed.  As for the work itself...let's just say any neuroscientists who watch this film will have eye strain from rolling them so much.  I can't deny how jarring it is initially to see these grotesque mutations chase after the squad members.  Add a klaxon into the frenetic action and it's pretty damned effective.  For a while.  Once Dimitri navigates his way into the doctor's inner labs, we're simply overloaded with nonsensical gore that I'm sure was intended to appall and disgust.  Unfortunately, my thoughts were, "Oh, more severed limbs.  Oh, a few dozen dead folks hanging from hooks.  Oh, one of the squad's being used as food.  Oh, he turned the 10 year-old boy into a walking tool box."  Doesn't help that Roden plays the doctor with the subtlety of a cement truck.
Ultimately, I just wanted them all dead. 

The Skinny

Acting:  I mentioned Roden.  The others won't win any awards, but the performances won't make you cringe either. 
Story:  It's well-known the Nazis flirted with all manner of insane schemes in WWII.  From that standpoint, the idea is intriguing.  The end product here, though, just seems goofy.
Direction:  It's an 84-minute film that feels too long.  Action revolves around a single conceit which wears thin fast.  Once the novelty of the zombots runs its course, there's not much left to do. 
Production Values:  Filmed in the Czech Republic, the exteriors are gritty and realistic.  The interiors are properly creepy.  You won't for a minute buy that it was filmed with a handheld, though. 
Gore/FX:  Yes, yes there is.  Whoever built the zombots must have had the time of their lives.  If there was CGI, I didn't notice.
Scares:  One or two zombot startle-scares. 
Ending:  Unbelievably, the one person I felt was the least evil lived.  That never happens.
Verdict:  Should you see Frankenstein's Army?  I couldn't get past the silliness of the zombots.  They make Doctor Who's daleks look hi-tech.  I think I would have liked it better if the filmmakers had either gone for total camp or toned down the goofiness and shot a for super-scary, found footage movie. 

Rating:  2 out of 5

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Horror Film Review

Children of Sorrow (2012):  Ever wonder what you'd get if you stuck the DNA from Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and David Koresh into a genetic blender and then created a person from the resulting psycho smoothie?  Probably not.  That kind of thinking would give Stephen King bed-wetting nightmares.  Nevertheless, someone did, and this unnerving if not outright disturbing film is the result. 

The opening sequences with Simon Leach (Bill Oberst, Jr.) and his...associate Mary (Whitney Nielsen) paint a picture of bald-faced insanity.  They discuss the finer points of filmmaking, shoot some folks (with shotguns, not cameras), and soon thereafter, set up a cult compound near the U.S.-Mexico border.  Leach is not a religious fanatic.  He's an imaginative serial killer with a flair for the dramatic; to whit, he covers the compound with security cameras and has Mary tote a handheld at all times.  Serial killers do love their trophies.  For Leach, it's the footage.

The lost and disenfranchised find the compound via Leach's website.  One of them, however, is on a mission.  Ellen (Hannah Levien) is investigating the death of her sister Janet who died mysteriously while in Leach's previous cult incarnation.  Halfway through the film, she confronts Leach but the ever-eloquent "Father Simon" convinces her the police raid of his former compound was to blame.  This, by the way, is how he explains all the cameras to his disciples - to protect himself against any potential accusations of wrongdoing.  Yeah, right.  Anyway, Leach spends the first few weeks brainwashing these poor bastards so when the "transitioning" begins, instead of fleeing in terror, they're pleased as punch for the victim.  Going to a better place and all that.  One guy drinks drain cleaner while another is stabbed Caesar-style by his fellow disciples.  A drill, a rock, a shotgun, gasoline...like I said, flair for the dramatic.  The weirdest by far is the lid off a giant can of peaches.  One guy does manage to escape, which prompts Leach to "transition" the rest of his flock and, as they say, get the flock out of there. 

I'm not sure if revealing how evil and bat-shit crazy Leach is at the outset instead of allowing a ratcheting of tension that would naturally occur as the story unfolds was the way to go.  Is it more horrifying to know ahead of time that a group of folks will be killed or to go in oblivious and be horrified because it's so unexpected?  I prefer the latter, but that's just me.  What else...oh, right.  The desk drawer.  A stark naked Leach appears to dangle his privates over an open drawer and then slam it shut.  Repeatedly.  Why?  Well, he's nuts (pardon the pun).  Beyond that, no clue.  You should know the "graphic nudity" disclaimer is solely for Oberst and his full Monty.

I first saw Oberst play the title character in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.  That performance was so well rounded and sincere that to this day I believe it to be if not on par with Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln, damn close.  To then go 180 degrees and deliver an equally impressive performance as a blood-thirsty nutter only goes to reinforce my belief that this Emmy-winning actor is as versatile as he is talented.  Stay tuned...he has over 20 more films coming out over the next few years.  I guess I should have also said prolific. 

The Skinny

Acting:  If I'm honest, I was expecting much less from the supporting cast.  In my own vernacular, no one sucked.  Stand outs are Levien as Ellen, Galen Howard as Alan, and Liesel Hanson as Robin. 
Story:  It's a sound premise for psychological horror and, for the most part, succeeds.  I wouldn't have minded fewer plot holes but since when does a script ever make it onto to film intact?  I'd have liked a bit more background on Leach to explain why he's so fucking crazy.
Direction:  Much has been made of the near glacial pacing of the action.  Some complain of boredom.  It's like this...the pace is appropriate for setting up the denouement.  If you're bored, you're not paying attention to the acting.  I will admit, though, that the editing was uneven. 
Production Values:  No budget information but it was no doubt of a shoestring variety.  Filmed documentary style in the Mojave Desert.  The interiors are just shy of pathetic but then again, they're supposed to look that way. 
Gore/FX:  Lots of blood, only hints of gore when Leach is disposing of corpses with what I believe is a reciprocating saw.  No apparent CGI.
Scares:  There is a jump scare when Alan is "transitioned."  Otherwise, they were going more for tension and disgust than anything else.
Ending:  Walt Disney would not approve.
Verdict:  Should you see Children of Sorrow?  It's worth a look if you're more into subtle, psychological horror than in-your-face, Hostel-style torture porn.  Like me.

Rating:  3 out of 5

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Horror Film Review

Dead Before Dawn (2012):  Zombie flick!  From Canada, eh.  And, for reasons passing understanding, it was shot in full stereoscopic 3-D.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but this is not exactly the kind of film the IMAX folks show in their theaters.  Hell, it's not the kind of film normal theater owners would show, which makes it exactly the kind of film I want to see. 

While trying to impress his friends, and of course a girl, nerdy college student Casper Galloway (Devon Bostick) accidentally breaks an urn in his grandfather's (Christopher Lloyd) occult shop.  The curse that's unleashed is of their own making.  See, Casper freaks out causing much of the following, "Oh, sure.  A curse.  Like anyone we make eye contact with will commit suicide and then come back from the dead to kill you."  So they mock, and the mocking becomes the parameters of the curse.  Silly things, like if you French kiss one of the undead (they call them zemons...zombies created by a demon), it will become your slave.  And not so silly things like if they don't somehow reverse the curse by dawn, it will become permanent.  To reverse it, they must locate a number of items around campus scavenger hunt style.  Their rolling HQ is an old Winnebago.  Weapons vary from a crossbow to a rolling pin to a few grenades (don't ask me why they'd have grenades).  The climax finds them in a cemetery where they must dig up Casper's great grandfather.  They need his watch for the curse reversal. Or something.  The cemetery scene is weird.  OK...weirder.  Do they succeed?  Yep.  Does any of it make a lick of sense?  Nope.

A couple of things:  Bostick seems to be channeling Zachary Levi when Levi played a reluctant CIA agent in the TV show Chuck.  It's really quite spooky.  Christopher Lloyd as Grandpa finds occasion to say "Great Scott!"  Shameless?  Yes, but it still works for him.  One thing that didn't work so well was how they dealt with the death of Casper's loved ones.  Pathos in a horror-comedy works about as well as slapstick in a Shakespeare tragedy.  "To be, or not to be...nyuk, nyuk, nyuk."  Yeah...no.

The Skinny

Acting:  Bostick anchors the uneven performances which, if I'm honest, could have been worse.  Surprisingly un-sucky.  Although the screaming in terror every five minutes wears thin in a big damn hurry.  Kids In the Hall alum Kevin McDonald is fun as Professor Duffy.
Story:  While it is a mash up of subgenres, it manages to find its own voice. 
Direction:  Actress turned director April Mullen reins in the chaos competently and keeps the narrative pointed in the right direction.  As this was shot in 3-D, there are the obligatory scenes with stuff flying at the camera but it's not overly distracting.
Production Values:  I have no budget data, but the sets look real and the sound and lighting aren't crappy.  That's all that matters.
Gore/FX:  Nothing excessive beyond a bit of blood and brains.  That is to say, you shouldn't puke.  There's a bit of CGI, and what there is isn't awful.
Scares:  They try a few "gotcha" jump scares. I didn't jump.
Ending:  Ever seen a horror film where no one dies?  Me either.
Verdict:  Should you see Dead Before Dawn?  It's harmless enough, maybe worth a look if you're into hor-coms.  If you were a fan of Chuck, see it for Bostick and his uncanny, if not unintentional, impression of Levi. 

Rating:  3 out of 5

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Horror Film Review

The Catechism Cataclysm (2011):  Just what in the name of all that's holy was that?  I rarely experience a true WTF moment when I watch horror films but certainly did this time.  Repeatedly.  It's not like Coyote where reality itself was in question.  Or is it?  Oh, hell...let me tell you about it:

Father Billy (Steve Little), quite possibly the dorkiest man on the planet, is asked to take a break from his parish duties by the elder priest (Wally Dalton).  Billy has lost focus, spends Bible study class relaying urban legends from the internet.  For his imposed break, he convinces his sister's ex-boyfriend Robbie (Robert Longstreet) to accompany him on an afternoon canoe trip.  Billy grew up idolizing him, thinks Robbie is on tour with his rock band, and can't accept the truth that he's just a spotlight operator. 

On the river, they miss their turn and become lost as dusk descends. As they sit on the bank resolved to wait for morning, Billy and Robbie encounter another group of rafters, two young Asian women and hefty black guy who invite them to their campsite.  The giggly and seemingly harmless women are dubbed Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (Koko Lanham and Ann Maddox) while the silent giant in the beige track suit is, of course, Jim (Rico A. Comic).  A mysterious liquid is passed around in small cups (definitely not sake) and then the weirdness begins.  The girls strap strange looking headphones on the men's heads, don strange looking gloves with wires leading from the fingertips to a set of strange looking glowing orbs, and then proceed to play some strange sounding music.  They like it...at first.  Then it starts to hurt.  And then it starts to hurt a lot.  Billy wakes up to a deserted campsite, goes a  bit daffy, and then runs like hell for civilization.  I can't tell you what happens with Robbie.  Has to be seen to be believed, although you can probably guess.

So who were the Asian ladies, what was the contraption, and what was its purpose?  It's a "beats the hell out of me" hat trick.  To a lesser extent, what had Jim done that warranted a kneeling-in-pee confession and why did his eyes glow red, who sent Billy's Bible back in pristine condition after it was dropped in a diarrhea filled toilet and abandoned, and what did the elder priest want Billy to see over in the corner at the end?  Rarely has a film left so many important questions unanswered.  Or maybe I'm just thick.  It's been known to happen.  Was the whole episode another Father Billy urban legend?  Or was it part reality and part delusion?  If you're reading this and are in any way connected with the movie, let me know, will ya?

A few other things.  The title is superfluous, but as this is at heart a dark comedy, it makes sense.  The opening and closing credits are overwrought and illegible (see the movie poster).  And finally, the music.  There is song at the very end called "Hand of the Almighty" that in itself is worth sitting through the whole film.  It is hilarious, but definitely not for anyone who takes religion too seriously. 

The Skinny

Acting:  Longstreet could be Jeffrey Dean Morgan's brother.  Spooky.  No performance is bad.  Little is annoying as Billy, but that was the point. 
Story:    ???
Direction:  Lackadaisical. 
Production Values:  No budget data, but as the majority was filmed in the great outdoors, I'll wager it wasn't much.  The few interior scenes (church, cafĂ©, convenience store, and bathroom) show no tell-tale signs of cheapness.
Gore/FX:  Only one spot of gore and it's a whopper.  No CGI that I could see.
Scares:  Not really that kind of movie.
Ending:  There are essentially two.  Both are a whole bunch of ???
Verdict:  Should you see The Catechism Cataclysm?  Oh, I don't know.  It's weird, puzzling, and ultimately maddening.  If that's what you're into, I say go for it.  Remember to listen to the song.

Rating:  2 out of 5