Monday, May 28, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

Genre:  Creature Feature
Director:  Bradley Parker
Country:  USA
Availability:  Still in theaters

If my horror movie doesn't start off with a group of beautiful twenty-somethings piling into a vehicle to journey out to some unknown and questionable location that will inevitably get them all killed, then I don't want to see it. (I'm only kidding.) (kind of.) Luckily, after your standard montage of video clips which establish that this particular group of beautiful twenty-somethings are fun and goofy and love each other, and after a few short scenes establishing the relevant relationships of everyone involved, we do just that.

Our players are the usual cast of horror movie stereotypes. You've got Ineffectual Nice Guy, Sarcastic Arrogant Guy, Ineffectual Blonde Girl,  Take Charge Brunette, and since we're in a foreign country toss in a few adventurous backpacking Australians and our imposing Ukrainian "extreme tour" guide Yurii, and our players are complete.

As we know from the trailer, they all set off to visit the abandoned city of Prypia, which was near the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster of 1986. Here in the city we have crumbling, hollowed out shells of apartment buildings and dark underground recreational facilities, a decaying ferris wheel, a creepy river which is the home to mysterious deformed piranha-like fish, a disintegrating bridge, a giant field of rusty cars and buses, the nuclear power plant that looms in the hazy distance, overgrown walkways that are choked with vines and trees, and scattered remnants of the lives that used to occupy this space. An extremely potent location for a horror movie, to be sure.

The movie kicks into high gear once they've established that they're stranded in Prypia overnight. It's then, once darkness falls, that the beasts come out and terrorize the shit out of them. It's pretty clear from the get go that the wild animals are aggressive and dangerous. Yurri makes a claim that it's unusual for the animals to come this far into the city, but it matters not, they're here and they want to eat you. One of the aspects that I actually appreciated is that the first night passes relatively quickly, and once daylight comes there's this sense of relief that gives birth to bravery. Usually in a horror movie of this nature the first night is the only night and it's then that all of the action takes place, the coming of dawn means the end of the movie. But in Chernobyl Diaries the story takes place over the course of two days and two nights. Though we never see anyone use the bathroom or eat any food, and no one ever complains about needing to do those necessities, such is the ways of the horror movie.

It's not until day #2 that we're introduced to the mutants, the real threat to our dwindling players. The mutants are apparently camera shy though because we never get a clear look at them, a decision made from the result of a low budget or a storytelling decision, one can't be too sure. But they're there, and they're numbers are great. They lurk in the background, closing in as though a pack of wild dogs, diverting your attention over there so they can sneak up behind you and take you unawares. The tension and scares throughout Chernobyl Diaries are potent, and whether you expect the jump or not there's always another one waiting in the dark corners to catch you off guard.

And then there's the silent threat of radiation. The levels are low in certain parts of the city, safe enough for exposure for short periods of time, and they have a Geiger counter that starts to beep once they enter a place where the radiation is dangerous. This is of course an issue once they're on the run and being drawn out of the city toward the nuclear power plant. The Geiger counter goes off constantly but they can't turn back, they can't run in the other direction because they're being herded like cattle.

The end of Chernobyl Diaries has a nice little twist that I didn't see coming. And it was refreshing to see a horror movie that was atmospheric, intense, and scary, set in a location that was completely unique and offered no shelter, no place to hide. And they made full use of this set. They explored many buildings and and tunnels and rooms, both in the daylight and in the dark, so your senses were always on edge in unexplored, new territory. However, they never explain why the title of the movie eludes to the idea that this is a diary of what happened. It's not a "documentary style" movie, nor is this "found footage". They do use the shaky cam method of filming but the cameraman isn't an actual character so it's simply a stylistic choice of shooting. Ah well, it's hardly a gripe that I will hold against it.

Chernobyl Diaries was written by Oren Peli, the same man who brought us Paranormal Activity 1 & 2, so it's no surprise that the jumps scenes are plentiful and the atmosphere is heavy with the anticipation of all that is bound to come.

But my positive take on Chernobyl Diares is not a popular stance. In fact, both critics and audience alike seem to flat out hate this movie. One reviewer's review was a simple, "Fuck you". Normally I don't really address the bad reception that a horror movie gets. As a fan of the genre I have a very deep understanding that the qualities in a horror movie that I find to be enjoyable, others find to be "tired" or "cliched". I know that some people hate too much gore, and others never seem to think there's enough of it. Not everyone is a fan of the "less is more" school of horror movies, and yet others don't enjoy anything too jumpy. Every single person who claims to be a fan of the genre, whether they're a reviewer or just an average audience member, has something that they're tired of seeing, a pet peeve, a gripe. Some are overly critical to the point where I wonder why they watch horror movies at all. It's like shopping at a thrift store and being surprised that everything there is used. I'm not saying that in order to enjoy a horror movie you have to throw out all expectations. That you just have to assume they're all going to be bad or cliched. But a good horror movie, not just enjoyable in the so bad it's good way, but a tried and true good horror movie, is like a diamond in the rough. There are maybe 5 truly good horror movies that come out a year. Compare that to the 80 or so horror movies that are released every year and you can see that the odds are working against them. Was Chernobyl Diaries a great horror movie? No. Was it a very good one? Absolutely. And it doesn't deserve such an onslaught of negativity.

I watch a lot of horror movies. It doesn't mean I have a low expectation when I pop in any particular horror movie, but my expectations are adjusted for the genre. Am I surprised when the dialog isn't stellar or the characters are cliche and making bad decisions? No. Do I hold it against the movie? Not necessarily. Am I surprised when the movie is full of horror movie accessories: flashlight, dark hallways, vehicle that won't start, wounded friend, boobs, no cell phones, pointless arguing etc.? No. Do I hold it against the movie? Rarely. In fact, a horror movie can have all of these elements and more if it does its job effectively - scaring and/or shocking me. And I don't know if I liked this movie because I saw it on the big screen while sitting next to a hefty man who visibly braced himself against the scares whenever he anticipated one, or because the movie was simply doing its job effectively, I can't say for sure. But I do know that once Chernobyl Diaries hits DVD it will be added to my horror collection and will be watched on many a dark and stormy night.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Exorcist III (1990)

Genre:  Satanic
Director: William Peter Blatty
Country:  USA
Availability:  Amazon On Demand

Last night I watched one of my top 5 favorite horror movies of all time, for about the tenth time, The Exorcist III. A movie that, despite familiarity, still gives me chills when I watch it. I debated whether or not to put up a trailer because every "official" trailer that there is for The Exorcist III is misleading. Yet another example of how the studio tried its damnedest to market this movie as a scary horror movie about demons, instead of staying true to what the movie is really about, which is scary enough. More on that later.

There are no less than three different official trailers for The Exorcist III. All of which are mostly a slight variation of each other, none of which show what the movie is really about therefore maintaining its misleading expectations for new viewers more than twenty years later. While perusing YouTube for a fitting trailer to show you I came across this fan made trailer here, which is by far the best Exorcist III trailer out there, if not a little too long and a little too revealing.

The Exorcist III isn't about an exorcism. It's not about the head-twisting, split pea scares that made the first Exorcist movie so memorable. It's not about screaming and crying or chaos or shock. It's quiet. It's stark. It's compelling in its mysteries and it's chilling in its restraint. It's about old friends, and old demons, and a dead serial killer who seems to be back from the grave and killing again. And it's one of the scariest and most satisfying horror movies ever made.

But The Exorcist III was not born easily. It was first conceived as a movie idea by the author of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty. Upon trying to write the script, the creative team dismantled due to conflicting opinions and the project fell apart. Blatty then decided to take his idea for The Exorcist III and turn it into a novel called Legion. It was a bestseller. After the book's success he decided to turn the story back into a screenplay and make the film. And then the real problems began.

After the film was complete the movie studio said, "An exorcist movie with no exorcism? Well, we can't have that. Redo! Redo!" And so Blatty had to reshoot the ending to add in a new climax scene of an exorcism. And then came time to market the movie and release it. After the commercial and critical failure of The Exorcist II (a film which had nothing to do with either the first nor the third movie and was not done by Blatty), Blatty requested that his new movie be called Legion. But, the studio insisted that the title maintain the word "exorcist" in it, and so it was done. The Exorcist III did poorly at the box office and was initially met with mixed reviews. It's not until some time has distanced us from its release that The Exorcist III succeeded in creating favorable impressions on its audience. Now it's a movie that you'll often see on those random "Best Horror Movies" lists that are so popular come October. And by all means, it has every right to be there.

The Exorcist III is gorgeous. Blatty, who also directed, had a way of capturing a scene that made something like, a building, look ominous and looming, the entire movie has Presence. And then there's the scenes of the religious iconography that solidified the film's religious overtones, giving feelings of security and yet overwhelming menace. There is also a sense of pacing that is like listening to the long whining of the wind through a small crack. It's hypnotic, sensual and eerie. It's calming in its fluidity and yet maddening in its relentlessness. The effectiveness of this measure of film making is remarkable. And it's only for the few impatient horror movie watchers that long for blood and violence and SCARES! that find fault with this method. And it's funny! Intentionally. Man, the dialog in this movie just snaps with sharpness. The characters are aware and don't miss a beat and the chemistry between George C. Scott and Ed Flanders, who play old friends, is a dynamic that helps makes this movie so rich. And you don't get any more original in an idea than you do with The Exorcist III. It's solid and daring story telling at its finest which makes not only for a fantastic horror movie, but for a timeless film.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Splintered (2010)

Genre:  Creature Feature
Director:  Simeon Halligan
Country:  United Kingdom
Availability:  Netflix Streaming

Splintered has a lot of good things going for it. The atmosphere, for one, is dense and dark. It adds to the gritty fairy tale feel that seems so prominent throughout the movie. Our heroine, for two, is strong and resilient. She doesn't let a little thing like captivity keep her down. She's resourceful and thinks on her feet and she's not afraid of the big bad wolf.

Splintered also has a lot of things working against it. Like, they never really seem to commit to any particular idea, instead they give us splinters (hey-o!) of nightmares and lores and then leave it up to the audience to make assumptions. And aside from Sophie, our heroine, the other characters just seem like fodder for the kills. Which is fine, I know the rules of the horror movie, I know these people aren't going to live to see tomorrow. But it doesn't hurt to make them interesting or hell, even likable. Instead we get the generic, hopelessly dedicated best friend who seems more like a whipping dog, and her insensitive, over-reactive dick of a boyfriend. Throw in some half-assed love interest and a random quiet dorky guy and you've essentially got the supporting cast for Splintered. Clearly, they put little thought into this.

For the majority of the movie we're whisked from one scene to the next without knowing the clear motivations for why we're going there. Why do her friends follow her into the woods to investigate a werewolf lore if by when they make camp, they all seem pissed to be there? Why, out of five people, is Sophie the one locked up to be protected? Why does her apparent virginity matter? And is the man-beast really a werewolf or just some feral dude who has lost his mind? We never find out the answers to these things but that doesn't stop the movie from charging ahead and using each one of those points to move the story forward.

Fortunately, despite its flaws Splintered remains a fun romp. It's stylish and intriguing and at times even frightening.  And of course the English accents make everything a little more awesome too.

I didn't catch it at the time, sometimes the dialog is a little hard to understand, but the male character's names are Sam, Dean and John. As in the characters from Supernatural. It makes sense once you know. The whole movie kind of feels like a Supernatural episode - curious twenty-somethings go into the woods to investigate a lore only to get themselves into trouble when they find out the lore is real. Except this time Sammy and Dean didn't show up to save the day. Instead, they were slaughtered. C'est la vie.

3 out of 5 stars

ATM (2012)

Genre:  Slasher
Director:  David Brooks
Country:  USA
Availability:  Amazon On Demand

"This is going to be the best movie ever, I can already tell." - Nat (best friend)

There are certain qualities that one must possess in order to be a true lover of horror movies. Here are a few that came to mind while watching ATM.
1.) You must have an appreciation for formula.
2.) You must have patience for bad decision making.
3.) You must accept motiveless killings.
4.) You must believe the unbelievable.
5.) You must be drunk.

That pretty much sums up the film right there, but seeing as that's not much of a "review" I'll start from the beginning.

I love a good horror movie that traps its characters together in a small space and then puts them in some kind of danger. There's a claustrophobia that comes with not being able to run away, a helplessness that opens up that dark fear within us that tells us, "you are not free". The characters are then forced to be resourceful, to use their wits to get them out of their predicament. Take Misery as the absolute best example of this, here's a guy trapped in a bed at the complete mercy of a mad woman. His resourcefulness was truly inspired. He was not only clever - hiding his pills and trying to drug her with them, swiping a bobby pin and trying to pick the lock, drinking his own urine when forced with dehydration - but he also used his charms to try to win her favor. Other movies that were adequate representations of this type of movie were: Frozen (trapped on a ski lift); Devil (trapped in an elevator); Black Water (trapped in a tree); Hunger (trapped in an underground room); Windchill (trapped in a car).

So when a movie comes out about three people being trapped in an ATM vestibule, I am immediately on board. The writers who pen these silly little movies generally get pretty creative. I mean, you'd have to, right? Otherwise the characters are just standing around not trying to do anything to improve their situation. Oh wait...

The first and most major of flaws with ATM is that they are not trapped. Not technically anyways. So the entire fucking movie you're just screaming at the TV, "Just open the door and run!" Yeah. I guess the writer thought it would be more interesting if he left the door broken and unable to lock so that there's always the threat of the killer dude coming inside. Except, a.) that would make for a really short movie, and b.) he never even attempts to come inside so, why bother? Instead, the characters are trapped by their inability to take matters into their own hands. They stand around and wonder aloud what the ominous dude in the Urban Legend jacket is doing as he hangs out in the parking lot and has a staring contest with them.

Toward the end of the movie the film escalates into a frenzy of bad decision making, which works out well for no one but killer dude. After it's all over, night turns to day almost instantly and a deserted parking lot is suddenly swarming with a hundred people. We never learn of killer dude's motives but we discover that this was not his first rodeo. A fact that, by this point, we don't much care about.

ATM was not a good movie. It had not cleverness nor likability. But it was incredibly fun to make fun of so for that alone I'm giving it three stars. And much like operating heavy machinery, don't do it alone and be sure to get really drunk beforehand.

3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Theatre Bizarre (2011)

Genre:  Anthology
Director:  Douglas Buck, Buddy Giovinazzo, David Gregory, Karim Hussain, Tom Savini, Richard Stanley
Country:  USA
Availability:  Amazon On Demand

Being a regular reader of Rue Morgue Magazine and of various horror movie websites it's always rather a surprise when I come across a new horror movie that I haven't heard of, especially one of such quality like The Theatre Bizarre. I stumbled upon this gem while watching trailers for new horror movies on Amazon On Demand in preparation for my weekly horror movie night with my best friends. Sure, the trailer looked awesome, but so often we are fooled in the horror world by fancy trailers when in reality the movie ends up being nothing more than a regurgitated, underwhelming mess. Not so with The Theatre Bizarre - we get what we paid for, and so much more.

The film contain six stories, each inspired by Paris’ legendary Grand Guignol theatre. Each story is roughly 20 minutes long and each is directed by a different director. The movie begins with an odd looking woman walking into an abandoned theatre only to discover that on stage is a strange looking marionette man that comes to life and starts to perform for her. He begins by telling the story of "The Mother of Toads", which in turn is our introduction to our first film. After each story we come back to the theatre where we watch our host bring out new and unusual marionette people who usher us into the next story. The theatre scenes are all beautifully done and sufficiently creepy, and sometimes it's so dreamlike that they start to remind us of a nightmare we're sure we had once.

The six films, while vastly different in style, all contain the same currents of theme running throughout - betrayal, comeuppance and addiction. Sure, we've all watched these topics surface and resurface time and time again in our entertainment. For the most part they're tired old themes, but they're human themes and the emotions that orbit them - like passion, rage, despair, sorrow, penance and need- are powerful tools for storytelling.

These six films: "The Mother of Toads", "I Love You", "Wet Dream", "The Accident", "Vision Stains", and "Sweets" (probably my favorite) - are all done with such style, force and disgusting gore that they leave you horrified and breathless and wanting for more. Bizarre indeed.

5 out of 5 stars