World War Z (2013)

JUNE 22, 2013


I normally don't read a book that's due to be a movie until I've seen the latter (I've explained why dozens of times; to sum up - I know the book will be better, so why ruin the enjoyment of a new movie by noticing what's "missing"?), but as it turns out, the only thing World War Z takes from Max Brooks' (terrific) novel is the title and the basic premise of a realistic, global account of a zombie epidemic. 99% of all zombie films focus on a small area and leave a few radio/TV broadcasts to fill in the details of how it's spreading (via "Just heard... New York is gone!" type dialogue), but WWZ takes place in the US, Israel, South Korea, and Canada (replacing the original Russian location; more on that soon), and features more airborne sequences than movies about pilots. It is truly an epic adventure that shares just as much DNA with a James Bond movie as a typical zombie flick.

So it's kind of ironic that it's best moments are the ones that are straight out of any Romero wannabe. I particularly enjoyed a bit where hero Brad Pitt and his family stop at a grocery store to find inhalers for one of the daughters (if there was no such thing as asthma or diabetes, a lot of movies would have trouble creating an easy obstacle for their heroes). It's a scene filled with little surprises; when Pitt goes to find the inhalers and a man steps from the shadows with a gun, he doesn't rob/loot Pitt, but helps him find what he's looking for, and when a cop arrives after a scary situation, we see that he's there not as an officer of the law, but as a man desperate to find baby food and supplies for his own family. The best parts of the book were the smaller, personal stories set against the larger backdrop, so while the movie fails to adapt anything specific from it, they at least got the general tone mostly right.

Same goes for the (rare) focused zombie scenes. Those swarms of anonymous (and 99% digital) zombies scaling walls or whatever may look impressive and provide the trailer with its needed money shots, but in the film itself they're nothing more than empty spectacle. I much preferred the scaled down bits, like when Pitt and co. are racing up some stairs to get to a rooftop rescue with a few undead in pursuit, or when he and the other passengers on a plane work together to quietly block their section of the plane off from the tail section, where the zombies have begun biting their way through the other passengers. The larger scenes, such as the siege on Israel (as massive as it gets, really) are fine on their own, but with Pitt being the only character around that we know or care about (and the movie not close to ending), they lack any sense of terror. The PG-13 rating keeps things from getting too violent or gory, and that's fine - but there's not much excuse for being just plain ol' unscary.

Unfortunately, the "Pitt and a bunch of randoms" is a problem that continues throughout the movie. His family is safely kept on a battleship by the end of the first act, and from then on he's always on the go, meeting folks (many of whom don't even have names; David Morse is merely "Ex-CIA Agent") who either die or stay behind as he moves on yet again. The entire third act involves an attempt to locate an important sample from a lab at an overrun CDC type place called the World Health Organization, and the four people on staff who are there are collectively billed as "WHO Doctors" - they are the main focus for a 30-35 minute chunk of the movie and don't even get identifying traits to credit them properly! And poor Matthew Fox ("Parajumper" - a funny name anyway, even funnier when you consider we never see him do that) saw nearly all of his role left on the cutting room floor when the movie was reshot - he was originally a sort of human antagonist but is now only briefly glimpsed in a few shots.

Ah yes, the 3rd act. You can look around for details on what it originally was, but suffice to say (with minor spoilers ahead, but keep in mind this IS a PG-13 summer blockbuster released by a major studio) it's now much different, and less sequel oriented. Not that everything is tied up by the end, but the other "ending" stopped short of ANYTHING that could be considered a proper climax; Pitt was basically still out there looking for his family AND the cure, where at least the new ending resolves one of those things. I can't say which is BETTER since I haven't seen it (it SOUNDS pretty interesting, at least), but I will say that we lost even MORE of the film's already loose ties to the novel as a result, and that the new ending, while enjoyable as its own mini-movie, definitely doesn't jive with the rest of the narrative. For over an hour we're watching this global, epic-scale adventure, and then suddenly we spend the final two reels focused on a few rooms and a basic fetch mission (it's also easy to see that they didn't want to blow much MORE money on their new ending; replace Pitt with some guy from the Syfy channel and you have any Saturday night movie with regards to how expensive it looks).

So it's not a perfect film by any means, and bears more than a couple telltale signs of a reworked production, but it's nowhere near the disaster some folks had feared. Despite the involvement of Damon Lindelof, the plot is refreshingly straightforward - no "vague for the sake of vague" plotting or twist shenanigans. I would have liked them to do a better job explaining why Pitt's character is roped back into the UN (he has retired to be a stay at home dad) when he doesn't seem to possess any special skills beyond the ability to listen while people explain their situation to him, but I guess it's just shorthand - he's Brad Pitt, so naturally we want him to save us all (George Clooney was presumably quickly located and brought to safety). And again, we've never really seen anything quite like this for a zombie movie, so we can forgive a few missteps; if the whole movie was set in an isolated farmhouse or underground bunker, then its low points would be much harder to swallow. Not sure if Paramount wants to pursue it as a franchise as they originally intended after all the problems they had getting this one together (reports say there are, but I can show you a few articles about when Brandon Routh will be suiting up for a Superman Returns sequel too), but at least it paid off - the movie secured a HUGE opening weekend gross (Pitt's highest ever, in fact) and will be the all time highest grossing zombie film by the end of the week. Not too shabby for a movie everyone wrote off as a disaster a couple months ago. And as a bonus, it's a pretty enjoyable blend of typical summer action movie and zombie flick.

What say you?


You're Next (2011)

JUNE 19, 2013


I thought I had written at least a capsule review of You're Next when I saw at Fantastic Fest back in 2011, but apart from an article I wrote for BadassDigest bemoaning the fact that Lionsgate was sitting on it for too long (as it turns out, I was being optimistic!), I guess I never did. I assume it's for the same reason I'm about to put in words here as a full disclosure - I am friendly with a couple folks from the cast and crew, including the writer and director - but now that I've seen the trailer and marketing for the film, I thought I'd at least offer up my two cents as well as "spoil" a certain thing about the movie (not about its plot, don't worry!) that the advertising ignores. Also keep in mind this is the same team that made my least favorite segment of V/H/S/2, so if you want to claim I'm biased, there's some precedent to the contrary.

Anyway, I quite like the movie, and was happy to see it held up to my initial reaction from that long ago screening. Yes, it's unfortunate that LG sat on it for too long and now idiots will claim it's a ripoff of The Purge since both films deal with a family being terrorized in their own giant home by people with creepy masks, but trust me when I say that this is the superior film. Unlike the other film, it's always clear where the characters are in relation to another, and while the exterior of the house suggests potential for more chase/hide n' seek style scenes than we actually get, the location is utilized wonderfully. It's big enough to understand how something can happen (i.e. a murder) without the others hearing, but not so big that you feel "lost" and disoriented - because it's THEIR home and thus they should know every nook and cranny even if the lights are out (an ability the heroes in The Purge didn't seem to have). And speaking of locations, even though it's an isolated home in a remote area, there's an in-movie reason that the cell phones don't work (a jammer) instead of the usual "there's no service out here!" crap, which I appreciate.

Also, it's scary. Granted it's been a while, but I jumped TWICE, which is pretty rare anyway let alone for one I have already seen. And the crowd (men and women alike) were getting jolted much more often, of course (also if you're not familiar with the site, please don't take this as "I'm too tough to be scared" - it's just something that rarely happens that I chalk up to desensitization due to watching horror at a very young age). I've mentioned this before, but there's something that's more depressing/upsetting about seeing a family wiped out as opposed to the usual gang of teenagers, and even though they're dysfunctional and obviously don't get together too often, the movie is still able to take advantage of that inherent "Oh the boyfriend and the bitchy wife will die, sure, but the family unit will be safe" feeling we have sort of built into our subconscious after seeing so many other horror films that DON'T have the balls to say, let a daughter die right in front of her parents.

But while it works on that typical survival level, it's not without crowd-pleasing moments. A few of the kills are frustratingly off-screen or edited around (so we see a weapon swing in closeup and cut to said weapon already embedded into a person's head), but they often have a Friday the 13th sensibility - I particularly enjoyed the upside down blender attack. Even a couple of the good guy deaths carry that perverse sense of humor you see in the Final Destinations or whatever, like when someone makes a run for it in a big hero moment only to be killed almost instantly. The body count is pretty high by the end, and the movie effectively balances our need to care about the people being killed and our desire to see some splatter and cheer for it - it's a tough act to pull off, and kudos to director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett for getting it pretty close to exactly right.

And that leads me to what I mentioned earlier - the movie is a lot funnier than the ads would have you believe. Yes, it's scary and dark and thus not a "horror comedy", but there's definitely a sense of humor to the proceedings. The dinner scene is damned hilarious, with the brothers (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) sniping at each other, the daughter's filmmaker new boyfriend (Ti West) trying to explain what an "underground" film festival is, etc. And their fights continue even when the killers start attacking; Swanberg can't help but say Bowen's character is too fat (he's not fat) to be of any use to run for help, leading to another fight that you can barely hear because the crowd is laughing so hard. And without spoiling the particulars, the main bad guy's final dialogue moment had this audience laughing just as hard as they were in Austin, where I could hear the reaction from the bathroom because I couldn't hold my bladder any longer and (stupidly) assumed I wasn't going to miss much for the next 60 seconds. I guess in a way it's a smart approach, as it can be a surprise bonus to intelligent viewers, but sadly any horror film will attract some folks that simply aren't that bright, and thus they'll mistakenly assume the movie is just being "retarded" (as the idiot behind me described a moment that was, yes, SUPPOSED to be funny). So I figure if I can just let a few people know that the humor is intentional so that they can appreciate it all the more when they see the movie in August, it's worth the "spoiler".

Really, there are only two things about it I'm not completely on board with, and the first is minor though SOMEWHAT spoiler-y (I'll be as vague as possible) - at the end we discover a certain character was not meant to be harmed, but someone was very definitely trying to kill her/him at one point only to be thwarted at the last second by an outside element. It's one of those things that no one will notice on a first view, but on a second it stuck out as a bit of a cheat, making a scene out of something that logically made no sense (its akin to all those bits on 24 where someone will save Jack Bauer from certain death by anonymous goons in an isolated firefight, only to be revealed as one of the terrorists 3 episodes later). The other, more problematic one is Wingard's obsession with shaki-cam, which is thankfully much improved since A Horrible Way To Die, but in a way just makes it more jarring when he does it. It's particularly obnoxious during the dining room attack, with the camera bobbing and swishing around at random to give a sense of the chaos, but they go way overboard with it. Thankfully most of the big scenes keep it in check, but it's almost like he was saving his strength to jerk it around even more during those other moments.

But those are both dwarfed by what the movie gets right, and again, I'm happy to say it holds up on a second view, something I worry about when I like a movie as much as I did this the first time (where I was also a bit inebriated, hence the bladder problem). Not sure if that's quote-worthy ("I enjoyed it even when I was sober!" - Brian Collins, Horror Movie A Day would look nice on a poster, no?), but it's worth noting all the same. August 23rd, folks - don't let the long delay trick you into thinking this was something they were trying to hide. I truly believe they wanted to make sure that they had time to market this one properly and build up a buzz (no one could have predicted The Purge; hell it wasn't even SHOT until after You're Next showed at those festivals that got it picked up by the Gate in the first place), so let's reward them by packing those theaters in two months.

What say you?

P.S. The film was preceded by the short "The Apocalypse", which I had seen before but only online - was great to see with a crowd. It was also great to see post-This Is The End, as Martin Starr (who stars in the short) was reduced to a background extra in that film, so this sort of makes up for it. "I made a puddle!". Highly recommended, I believe it's online as well.


Delivery (2013)

JUNE 18, 2013


I may be burned out on the "found footage" concept in general, but that's only because so many movies have done it wrong, and thus giving me a slight knee-jerk reaction to any such title that I stumble upon as of late. But IF they're done right, I can be won over, and thankfully Delivery (which premiered tonight at the LA Film Festival) mostly nails the approach, allowing me to forgive some of its missteps. Hell even if they got it totally wrong, the fact that it's not about a team of paranormal investigators automatically makes me like it more than the last 5-6 that I've suffered through.

To be clear, it's not a traditional found footage movie - our heroes Kyle and Rachel are actually starring in a reality show that depicts the ups and downs of their first pregnancy. To sell this idea, after a prologue that tells us that the mother is now dead and that this is something that happened in 2009, we are treated the the pilot episode of "Delivery", and director Brian Netto totally nails the tone/editing/style of a terrible TLC reality show. The constant establishing shots, the fly on the wall "personal moments" that are bookended by talking head interviews, cheesy music... it's all there, and you could easily strip out the occasional interruption of the horror angle and put it on one of those channels without anyone being aware that it was staged (well, more staged than an actual reality show, I mean).

Towards the end of the "pilot", Rachel suffers what seems like a miscarriage; she's bleeding and the doctors are unable to find a heartbeat. Faced with the choice of letting the miscarriage "run its course" or undergoing a procedure to remove it, they opt for the former - only for the fetus to suddenly come back to life the following morning. Everything points to it being a miracle, but then strange things begin to occur - the dog begins growling in Rachel's presence, and the cameras that are capturing their every move suddenly experience glitches whenever she is in their view. These audio/video glitches get mighty annoying as the film goes on and they occur more frequently - toward the end of her pregnancy I swear we hear the ZZZT! of a distorted audio track between every cut. Netta would have been wise to restrain himself with these things - at first they're actually good for a cheap scare, but they just get obnoxious and mildly headache inducing as the movie goes on, which is a big problem.

See, after the "pilot" ends, there's a lot of filler as we get to the night of the baby's birth (the obvious conclusion), and the attempts to mix things up a bit (like when a priest is brought in to bless the house) will mostly just remind viewers of Paranormal Activity. As it is, the couple is very similar to Katie and Micah, so anything else that might trigger some deja vu is unfortunate, and thus adding in a recurring irritant hurts the movie some - you might start wanting the movie to just get on with it. Some might also balk (spoiler!) that the supernatural element is never really explained - I personally didn't mind (better no explanation that a potentially stupid one that the movie can't recover from), but it's strange that they almost seem to be trying to suggest Rachel is just experiencing something psychological the whole time, but with the glitches and a few other "demonic" moments there's no question that it's something actually wrong with her pregnancy.

Otherwise, it works pretty damn well, and I'm super relieved that I didn't bring my wife along. I'm more excited about having kids than she is as it is (can you blame her? Look at me. She'll have to carry around another one that'll look like me for the better part of a year), and this probably would have scared her right off for good. The miscarriage stuff (which is gut-wrenching; it's the rare reality/mockumentary horror where I actually cared about the characters) is brutal by itself, but then you add in the "oh and your baby might be a demon or something and it'll make you break mirrors and stab the family dog and such" element? The movie should have a warning label for pregnant women - the physical harm of a roller coaster wouldn't match the psychological harm of seeing this stuff play out when you got your own bun in the oven. Even a movie like Rosemary's Baby (a superior film, don't get me wrong) doesn't get into the nitty-gritty of a pregnancy (Mia had too many other things to worry about, really) like this does, and playing on those fears and worries helps the movie clear the hurdle of all horror movies of this type: the "nothing is happening" factor. Kyle gets increasingly frustrated with the camera crew and they start to bicker a lot, but apart from the occasional freak out moment, we know that the movie will be action-lite until the very end. So toss in some real world problems (and avoid too many Rosemary flashbacks by glossing over whatever devilish element might be in play) and viola! The rare found footage horror that rarely bores.

Being that this was the movie's premiere at a festival, I doubt anyone will be able to see it for a while (though if you're in LA - it's playing again on Friday!), but since I've slowed down maybe this review will still be on the front page by the time we hear about distribution. But if not I'll remind you when it does - it's not a perfect film, but it's a step in the right direction for the found footage sub-genre, and I want to champion the films that apply that aesthetic to something besides Paranormal Activity sequels or a bunch of assholes poking around an abandoned building.

What say you?


Blu-Ray Review: The Howling

JUNE 18, 2013


Power of 35mm! I was mixed on The Howling the first (and until now, only) time I saw it in the early days of HMAD, but watching again on a beat up film print with a (surprisingly large) crowd of people at the HMAD screening last weekend, I recognized its power. I still think the 2nd act has some pacing issues (in fact the movie as a whole could benefit from tighter editing), but once Belinda Balaski's character really gets into her investigation, it works like gangbusters all the way until the glorious finale. And yes, this was a screening I myself was hosting, so you might ask why I'd host a movie I wasn't the biggest fan of, but in a way it's a perfect choice: doing HMAD as a whole was a way to reevaluate how I felt about the genre, so if I can't spread the gospel of Alone In The Dark or Of Unknown Origin (prints don't exist for either), why not pick movies that I myself could look at with a fresh(er) pair of eyes?

I also realized what may have been part of the trouble my first time around - it's not as funny as other Dante's other films. Gremlins (and its sequel), Innerspace, The Burbs... these are all pretty damn funny films, yet work in their respective other genres as well. But The Howling doesn't have as much comedy as those (or even its friendly rival, American Werewolf in London); there are a few funny lines here and there, plus some great in-jokes (the Corman cameo still cracks me up), but it's not a "horror comedy" by any stretch. So now that I know better, not only can I enjoy the horror (and drama) more, but those rare comedic bits land perfectly. Hell I didn't even REMEMBER the "Mazda" joke from my first viewing, and that's one of the funniest things to ever appear in one of Dante's pictures.

But as I mentioned, the editing can work against the movie at times; it's just over 90 minutes but 85 or so probably would have been the sweet spot. Even the transformation, as glorious as Rob Bottin's work is (and holds up under the microscope of a high-def transfer), could be trimmed some - it actually starts to lose some of its effect by going on so long (why doesn't she just leave?). It's almost hilarious; I'm sure part of the thinking was "This looks great, show everything we got!" and nowadays part of the reason you get these super quick-cut edits during FX scenes it's because they don't want anyone getting too good of a look at the sub-par CGI. No surprise that Jurassic Park remains the benchmark for monster movies of this generation - produced at a time when CGI was primitive enough that it couldn't be relied on entirely, but exciting enough for everyone to bust their ass and make it look amazing alongside its practical brethren. A shame to think that we'll probably never again be sitting there wondering "how did they DO that?", but its a testament to Bottin's genius that 30+ years later I'm still not sure how he was able to pull some of those FX off.

Thus it's a shame he doesn't appear on any of the new bonus features on Scream Factory's otherwise perfect special edition, only in the older ones you may have already seen. As is (I believe) always the case, they have ported over all the bonus features from the previous special edition, and they're all worth a look if you missed them on laserdisc or the 2003 DVD special edition from MGM. The commentary with Dante and three of the actors can be obnoxiously choppy (clear edits when other companies are discussed; MGM must not have had any balls back in the day), and Dee Wallace's constant cackling like a drunk aunt can be grating, but it's a fun track all the same. Dante's motormouth offers anecdotes and jokes in equal measure (has he ever had a lengthy talk with Martin Scorsese? That would be more entertaining than all of their movies put together, I think), and since the track was recorded for the laserdisc quite some time ago (I peg it around 1989 based on a few of their movie references, but it HAS to be before 1995, as that's when Christopher Stone sadly passed away), the memories are still fresh. The lengthy retrospective documentary "Unleashing The Beast" from 2003 is also highly recommended; nearly everyone of note that's still alive is on hand to discuss the cast, the makeup, the script, and the film's legacy - Dante's rundown of the various sequels alone is almost worth the price of admission ("That one had were-kangaroos, or something..."), and thankfully Shout! has edited all of the segments (originally broken up into 5 parts with a "Play All" function) into one piece, sparing us multiple views of its end credits sequence.

Then there's a shorter piece called "Making A Monster Movie" (directed by Mick Garris!) that was made back when the film was released, which is fun but not essential. All of the interviews are promotional, not reflective, and it's got that cheesy "news special" feel to it - plus some of the info (and footage) was used in the full doc, though Dante's haircut alone makes it worth a look (also, check out Bottin - anyone else think his look inspired Kurt Russell's in The Thing?). A collection of deleted scenes is also carried over, with optional Dante commentary on why they were cut (distributor wanted it shorter, pacing, etc - though he can't remember why he cut one scene that explains Stone's absence for a while). Plus some outtakes and other promotional material - this stuff is for the completists only, and while I personally have no use for anything beyond a trailer (which spoils the film's ending!), again, I love that Shout/Scream makes sure every little bit is carried over, making it easy to ditch your old copy to reclaim some shelf space. Anchor Bay almost never bothers to do this, which is why I have multiple copies of all their Halloween titles - they refuse to do "ultimate" editions that render the others worthless. They even brought back the awesome Easter Egg featuring Dick Miller! THAT'S fan service.

As for new stuff, Scream has recruited Red Shirt to provide their usual interviews with a few of the folks that weren't featured on the previous doc, making it well rounded without too much repeated info. Editor Mark Goldblatt and executive producer Steven A. Lane both offer their thoughts on the film, though in the latter's case he also gives some info on each of the sequels (he was around for all of them except New Moon Rising, which coincidentally is the only one I didn't catch during the "real" era of HMAD), which is pretty fun. He is basically OK with all of them except part 4; obviously I (and no other sane person, I assume) would agree with him but if you DO like one of those other entries you at least don't have to have your heart broken hearing the producer slam it. Goldblatt's interview is a bit overlong (irony!) but he's fun to listen to and pretty candid at times, so it's all good. They also tracked down Terence H. Winkless (the other screenwriter; John Sayles appears in the older doc) to get his thoughts on how he got involved and how they changed the original novel by Gary Brandner ("We threw out everything but the title!"). Brandner himself offers a new solo commentary, moderated by Mike Felsher, though those looking for much talk about The Howling (movie OR his novel) might be disappointed; they only directly refer to the screen ONCE in the entire thing, and only occasionally talk about the changes from the novel to the film. Instead, Felsher takes Brandner pretty much through his entire career, so if you're a fan of the author's work you'll find much to enjoy, but if you don't really care about his process behind the novel The Brain Eaters, you can probably skip it.

The transfer, unsurprisingly, is terrific, and I am happy to report that the audio problem that plagued a few earlier Scream releases (where the dialogue was hard to hear on the new 5.1 mixes) has been corrected - it sounded great, as did the 2.0 HD mix. As usual, they don't list their new features on the back for whatever reason, so I hope other reviewers follow my lead in stressing which are new, as if you're just looking at the back of the package you'd probably think it was just a straight port of the ten year old special edition. I'm sure they have their reasons since they do it almost every single time, but with more and more people opting for streaming versions, it baffles me that they wouldn't tout the things that can make these editions attractive not only to new buyers, but to those that already own a previous version. That said, this one does NOT have the additional DVD copy like many of their others; you can buy the DVD or the Blu, but there's no package with both.

So, in short - I'm glad I gave it a second chance. Even with quitting the daily version of HMAD, I still find myself with very limited free time, so I certainly have to be selective for which movies I revisit in the hopes of liking more than I did on my first viewing. The Howling, it seems, made for a fine choice.

What say you?


The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse (2012)

JUNE 10, 2013


If I was a guy who called the shots on anything, I'd have a weekly animated series based on The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse on the air ASAP. The concept is fun, I loved the animation style, and lord knows there needs to be more animated genre fare... but the movie ultimately disappoints, because it seems Justin Paul Ritter (whose name appears in the credits more times than I can count, so let's just sum up and say he's behind it all) tried to cram far too much material from the source comic into his 88 minute feature. With room to breathe and time to flesh out the world created by Ken Haeser and Buz Hasson in their comic, this could be kind of awesome.

Instead, it's just something I'd throw on in the background for a Halloween party; it's frenetic and colorful enough to draw the eye, but never engaging enough to actually distract someone away from conversation (though if they were talking to me, I'd probably just be talking about underwhelming horror movies I saw, natch). The jumps in the narrative are incredibly jarring - at one point (the end of the second act, basically) they just skip ahead 15 years as if it was only an hour or so, and even individual sequences suffer from the same "and now we're over here!" issue. Our hero zombie and villain are seemingly trapped in a lab, but suddenly they're in what appears to be a church. A seemingly important character named Asteroth disappears for the last 20 minutes or so, and even the end is obnoxiously abrupt, as if they were supposed to put in an epilogue but forgot. Having not read the comic, I can only assume that they were trying to adapt an arc that lasted several issues and highlighted their favorite parts?

Another way to look at it would be the cut-scenes from a video game strung together without the gameplay (and "codex" style entries) that would actually give it some context and structure. It's hard not to think about games - some of Ritter's angles seem to be specifically recalling the over the shoulder approach of your Mass Effects and Dead Spaces, while more than once there's a long zoom into a character's back that reminded me of any big open world type game where the first big cutscene transitions to gameplay. The music frequently has that repetitive "boss battle" looping feel to it, and even some of the plot and art style was reminiscent of the Splatterhouse reboot from a few years back. I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad approach - I certainly love games and, as with the animated format, feel that there aren't enough of them that appeal to horror fans - but with the disjointed approach to the narrative, it doesn't work as well as it could.

Which is a shame, because again, the animation style is kind of awesome. No one will mistake the CGI for Pixar or whatever, but the character designs strike a great blend between being appropriately horrific and also "heroic" (it's the sort of thing where most of the good guys are monster and the bad guys are human), and even in the human world there's an appropriately colorful but dark look to everything that I quite liked - sort of Paranorman meets the art of Clayton Crain, I guess. The backgrounds can be sparse, but that's fine - this was an independently made production and quite an impressive one for the most part, so things like that are not unexpected. I was a little more disappointed with the vocal work; not sure if the mix wasn't great or what, but it felt very disconnected, and I had trouble distinguishing voices when I couldn't actually see who was talking.

And it got me interested in reading the comic, so on that level it's a success. The story involves a man who becomes a zombie and turns good when recognizing his son as a would-be victim (his wife and daughter - too late!), and how he lives with the curse (still needs to eat folks to live!) while hoping to protect his son from bullies and mad scientists alike. Not quite sure what the mad scientist villain was up to since it involves a bunch of gobbledygook, but I DO know that in the 3rd act he has an exposed brain in a glass bowl like Bill Moseley in Silent Night, Deadly Night 3, so there's something. Again, the story jumps around a lot, so I had trouble following it on more than one occasion, but assuming the comics make sense, it seems like a fun "good vs. evil" yarn where the sides are swapped - I mean, the movie's most endearing character is a little troll demon named Worthless Merk. I'd totally read an issue about him.

The Blu doesn't have a single goddamn bonus feature, which surprised me - they had a premiere at Comic Con, it's an indie production, and it's based on a comic book - surely there is a wealth of "built-in" supplements, and they don't even give us a trailer? What gives, Anchor Bay? They could at least show us some art from the comic and how it compares with the 3D animated version, or some animatics or whatever. So that plus the underwhelming narrative makes this a tough sell, but they have the elements - let's see about doing a web series or something! I'd even toss in a couple bucks on Kickstarter.

What say you?


Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

JUNE 11, 2013


Most of my nightmares are based on things that I've never experienced, or saw in movies that weren't horror at all - tidal waves and being stuck in out of control cars (my brakes almost never work in dreams!) are far more common than being chased around by Michael Myers or whoever. But one of the most vivid I've ever had was certainly caused by a movie; 6-year old BC saw Ninja III: The Domination at his grandfather's house, and later on was menaced in the middle of the night by the film's ninja villain, perched on my 2nd floor window, pounding on the glass and shouting NINJA! over and over. I even told my mother about it the next morning as if it was just a really scary thing that happened in the middle of the night and not just a nightmare, and to this day I still get some goose bumps thinking about it. Shit was scary, man.

Maybe that's why I never watched the movie again until now - not-too-subconscious fear of that ninja coming back to get me again. But I am a dedicated reviewer of the stuff I get sent to me, and so when Shout! Factory sent along their new Blu-ray I knew I had to man up and face my 25+ year fear. Which is hilarious, because despite being about a possessed woman and listed as a horror movie in the IMDb (the first two films in the mostly unrelated series - Enter The Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja - have no horror elements whatsoever), this is the furthest thing from a scary movie that I've ever reviewed on the site, I think (OK, maybe Ghost Town). I mean sure, there are a couple of gory kills (ninja throwing stars!), and there's a couple of baffling scenes inspired by Poltergeist, but it's a straight up action/martial arts movie at heart.

I'm not knocking it though - it's awesome in its cheesy 80s way. I don't think you could come up with a more 80s plot if you TRIED; it's about a ninja who possesses an aerobics instructor to get revenge on the cops who killed him - the only thing that's missing from this "80s movie Bingo" is a subplot about drug smuggling. But they make up for it in the details; there's a hot tub, V-8 juice, a giant ugly clock, lots of pastel clothing, an out of nowhere sex scene... in short, there isn't a frame of the film that you can look at and not know for sure that it was from an 80s film.

Plus it's pretty action packed, and with tons of impressive stunts despite the low budget. The opening sequence is a masterpiece of old-school stunt work - it goes on forever as the Ninja seemingly decimates an entire state's worth of cops, all in spectacular fashion. Tossing them out of helicopters, stabbing them as they drive, knocking them off motorcycles - it's super badass. Star Lucinda Dickey isn't as impressive with her fighting skills (her aerobics skills are unmatched), but it's not even a big deal - after a while she dons a ninja outfit to lay waste to more random stuntmen and at that point the film's stunt guys take over for her anyway. Plus the good guy ninja (Shô Kosugi) has an eyepatch and fights a bunch of folks on his quest to kill the bad ninja once and for all, so you're never more than 12-13 seconds away from someone being kicked or killed.

Another hilarious thing about the movie is that every single man in the universe is a stocky stunt guy. It's fine that the cops are inexplicably all well built, but why do random hospital orderlies, aerobics dudes, and morgue attendants also look like brick walls? The movie must have employed every single working stuntman in Hollywood at the time of its production, and they STILL didn't have enough - on the commentary, stunt coordinator Steven Lambert frequently points out scenes where he'd play the ninja AND the guy he was killing (in separate shots) which is just hilarious. The special FX work isn't great (there's a dummy of Dickey at one point that couldn't have looked good even on a murky VHS, let alone this pretty eye-catching blu-ray), but it's kept to a minimum anyway, so it's no big deal - after all it's a martial arts flick with some horror, not the other way around, and thus the effort/skill went to what really mattered.

Lambert and director Sam Firstenberg aren't afraid to point out a few of their missteps or laugh at some of the weirder bits in the movie (like that V-8 scene), but their commentary is thankfully not a MST3k audition tape - they're proud of their flick and the work that they did on it. Lambert can drone for a bit too long at times, pointing out who was who and who did what in a short sequence (paraphrasing here, stuff like "That's me in the closeup, and that's Ted, and that's me doubling for Ted..."), but Rob G from Icons of Fright/Fearnet (and my horror trivia teammate!) thankfully does his job as a moderator and keeps the conversation moving, giving both men equal time to talk (it's a shame Dickey couldn't be located to join them, however). Firstenberg discusses the movie's Poltergeist influence and working with Cannon (who ELSE would make this movie?), and about the differences between the 2nd film, Revenge of the Ninja (which he also directed), and points out that even though Ninja III came out after, it was actually shot BEFORE Breakin', and it was Dickey's work here that got her the job on that fellow Cannon production, and then they worked together on the immortal Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo.

There's also a pretty substantial collection of behind the scenes photos, posters, and lobby cards for the film, which makes up for the lack of the trailer or any video supplements. However, you DO get a DVD copy of the film along with the Blu, so you can keep the high def copy for yourself and pass along this batshit masterpiece to a friend. As I pointed out on Twitter, Ninja III actually sold more tickets than movies like Office Space and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (domestically anyway), and it's a shame that a movie this earnestly ridiculous will never get a theatrical release again, let alone a wide one that allows it to compete with the big budget productions (on the weekend it opened in 1984, it had the highest per screen average of any film in the top 10). So pick the disc up and celebrate a bygone era where it was OK for movies to be silly and nuts, before "grim" took over as the key element for pretty much every other movie that comes out.

What say you?


The Purge (2013)

JUNE 6, 2013


Even before I began making a living by creating them, I always stuck around to watch the end credits of a movie if possible; not only is there an increasing chance that there will be an extra scene, but you can gain some valuable insight on occasion. Such is the case in The Purge; buried deep down in the traditional crawl there's a break to allow for a full-screen credit for an "additional editor" - this is very unusual, and almost certainly a sign of a movie that was edited once and then heavily reworked by a fresh pair of eyes. Since the movie was shot well over a year ago and clocks in at a mere 85 minutes including credits, it's not too much of a stretch to suspect there's a different - and possibly superior - version of the movie buried on an Avid somewhere.

By now we all know the concept - in a near-future, the country's government (never seen, and only briefly described as the "New Founding Fathers") has implemented the titular Purge, where once a year (perhaps not too coincidentally on the first day of spring) for a period of 12 hours, all crime is legal and no emergency services will be available. There are some underexplained exceptions - no heavy weapons (i.e. you can't just go blow shit up, I guess), no attacks on government officials (duh), etc, though the movie curiously only focuses on murder/assault related crimes. Not that I need/want to see rape or torture, but the idea is that people can give into their urges without repercussion and thus be OK for the other 364 and a half days of the year, so what about those who just want to, I dunno, jerk off in public? As presented in the movie, The Purge is really just "Go ahead and kill people if you want".

As a result, once this rushed, only vaguely defined world is explained, the movie merely becomes another home invasion film, complete with masked, ahem, "strangers" and people being silently followed around their own home, albeit with more gunplay than usual (the killers brandish machetes and such, but at least 75% of the deaths in the film are by gunshot). At this point, it's no different than Straw Dogs or whatever - regardless of the "law" that says you can kill someone, Ethan Hawke and his family are merely defending themselves from attackers in their own home, which is legal anyway. The moral dilemma comes in the form of a homeless vet (and, while not explicitly brought up, a black man) who Hawke's son lets into their home after seeing that he needs help. His pursuers, led by a guy who stepped out of an American Psycho lookalike contest, find him quickly enough and offer Hawke a pretty easy deal - kick the guy out of the house and let them have their Purge fun, and they'll leave him and his family alone. Otherwise, they'll tear the doors down and kill everyone.

And this is where the movie's insurmountable problems really begin, and the underwhelming (and, despite what the ads play up, not as scary-leaning as you might expect) home invasion elements certainly can't save it. Yes, it's easier said than done to just hand a guy over to be killed, but he's hiding in the house (which now has no electricity; the security runs on a generator but not a single light, I guess), giving us an entire reel's worth of Hawke and wife Lena Headey (who doesn't get to do anything badass until the last 5 minutes - why hire someone who could mop the floor with everyone else in the movie? It would make more sense to hire a NON-asskicker so that when that moment arrives, it actually shocks as intended) looking around their own house for someone who inexplicably turns on them even before the strangers show up with a reason to do them harm. Worse, their idiot son has led him to a secret hiding spot that they seemingly don't know about, so now we have to believe that Hawke, who sells security systems for a living, doesn't know the layout of his own home.

But then again, neither does director James DeMonaco, apparently - throughout the entire movie I had trouble understanding where anyone was in relation to each other or even what floor they were on, or the passage of time. Yes, it's a big house, but how long could it take for Hawke and Headey to look around not only for the vet but their daughter, who has ALSO gone hiding for reasons that never quite make sense. See, the movie needs an obvious "protagonist" kill, so of course her boyfriend has snuck into the house before they locked it down for the Purge (and yes, despite having no reason to go outside or anything, they wait until the last minute to turn on their security system, for some reason). But how (spoiler!) he dies is completely ridiculous even for this movie, and you have to ask yourself - what exactly did the boyfriend plan to do if his original plan had worked out? Would have been a pretty awkward 12 hours.

Anyway, so it's "Hide and seek" the movie, where no one is hiding for a logical reason, and when they DO find him (via a completely botched attempt at what could have been a decent suspense piece - the daughter decides to go hide in the same spot), more time is wasted on the struggle to get him outside. It's as if DeMonaco thought traditional home invasion stuff was far more interesting than the fascinating sci-fi concept that the movie was supposedly about; every single thing that happens from the moment the strangers arrive until the last one has been dispatched could be cut and pasted into any other scenario. Every now and then someone will mention the Purge, but again - once a guy smashes through your window and tries to lop your head off with an axe, you are free to shoot him in the chest any day of the year. The final few minutes finally come back to the scenario and how it doesn't necessarily come down to a war between the haves and the have nots, but the explanation we get for certain characters' behavior is beyond idiotic - and that's with the clumsy foreshadowing that gave it away in the film's opening scenes.

In short, the movie botches pretty much every good idea it has, and while there are a handful of great moments (I love that one stranger terrorizes Headey by tickling her), it never adds up to anything fully satisfying as a think-piece OR a horror/thriller. Even if the characters WEREN'T idiots (SPOILER - Hawke decides NOT to turn the guy over and instead fight the attackers - but leaves the guy (a trained, able-bodied man) tied to a chair rather than hand him a gun to help), it's nearly impossible to get into the movie when they've left so much unexplained. I've said it a million times; I'll accept ANY movie's plot, no matter how ludicrous, as long as the movie takes the time to at least try to explain its interior logic within that idiotic scenario. Armageddon is the easiest example to use (and fitting, since this was co-produced by Bay's Platinum Dunes - their first film in over 3 years): everyone makes the joke about it being easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts than the other way around, but the movie gives it a "fair enough" explanation (drilling problems come up that you need to deal with quickly or else you'll die; the oil drillers didn't have to fly the damn shuttles, just sit there and do their thing once they landed, etc). So, fine. I'm sure it's still nonsense in the real world, but it's SOMETHING for *this* world - The Purge never even offers us that much. We're told that this thing happens and that's that; any questions you may have about how it WORKS (for example - no emergency services, but what if someone falls in their home and needs an ambulance? They just die?) are left to your imagination, because DeMonaco and his producers (including Jason Blum, so of course there's a goddamn video camera in there somewhere) never made the effort to dig deep into their intriguing scenario because they were too busy focusing on the stuff we've seen done better elsewhere. That, or they edited it out. Here's hoping the Blu-ray (or the already planned sequel) has some of that "fleshed out" feel the movie sorely lacked.

What say you?


V/H/S/2 (2013)

MAY 13, 2013


I liked but did not love V/H/S, having issues with pretty much every segment (some more damaging than others) and being disappointed with the total lack of payoff in the wraparound sequence. But happily, I can confirm what a lot of pals have told me (thanks to SXSW/Sundance screenings and such): the sequel, originally the much better S-VHS but now simply V/H/S/2, is superior in just about every way - hell, they even improved the (already awesome) VHS tracking ravaged/ugly font end credits that simulate a VCR's on screen display. It's not quite Creepshow or Trick R Treat, but any sequel that surpasses its original is always to be commended.

The wraparound segment is similar, and confusingly unrelated - it's about a sleazy PI and his partner hunting for a missing college student and tracking him to a house filled with VHS tapes, but it's not a. the same house from the first movie or b. even one of the same aged kids who disappeared in the first film. I thought it would be a fun way to build a mythology (a 3rd film is already planned) out of wraparounds, which would be unique for this genre (not that sequels are common to begin with), but it seems they just wanted to keep the idea of VHS tapes and disregard everything else. Nothing against it; it's not like I've been clamoring the IMDb boards to theories on what happened at the end of the first wraparound sequence, but as a fan of sequel mythology in general (see: my love of the Saw movies) I was a bit bummed. Luckily, as a whole it works better than the original's, with a terrific scare and a fun little resolution that suggests something a little more supernatural is at play - which may also explain how all this high tech camera stuff ends up on cruddy VHS tapes in the first place.

The first proper story has a great hook - there's a camera inside the experimental cybernetic eye that has been put into the victim of a car accident, which gives him a bit of a Terminator look at first (but seems to heal quickly). As with Maniac, this means we get not entirely convincing shots of the actor (Adam Wingard, who also directed) looking at a mirror more than seemingly necessary, but it's a great way around the "Why are they filming" thing (something that seems to have been a goal of every short's crew). The horror kicks in when he starts seeing ghosts with his new eye, and then a mysterious girl (and not very good actress) comes over to explain that she has an ear implant from the same people that allows her to hear ghosts talking to her, at which point all hell breaks loose as the ghosts begin their assault. I can't help but think this deserved a feature or at least a longer segment; not only do we know very little about the ghosts (kind of important in a ghost story) but it's never fully clear what the company can gain from doing this. Sadly the film's weakest installment, but the jolts work and the concept itself is intriguing.

Next up is a zombie tale from none other than Eduardo Sanchez, half of the writer/director team behind Blair Witch Project (who co-directs here with BW producer Gregg Hale). I loved the scenario behind this one - a bicyclist with a GoPro on his helmet is bitten by a zombie while racing through the woods, and then we see his transformation and resulting attack on innocent bystanders all from the POV of the camera that's still attached to his head. It's the most fully satisfying of them all in terms of closure - I didn't feel it was too short (or long), nor did I feel it deserved more explanations or backstory for anything that was going on - it was a simple story with a unique idea, done quite well save for a few unfortunate digital blood sprays mixed in with the practical ones.

The third will probably be everyone's favorite, and not just because it's from Gareth Evans - the director of The Raid, the current go-to movie to name check when you want to complain about Hollywood does everything wrong. As with the first story I can't help but feel this could have been longer, as our filmmakers (with a variety of cameras here, though at least one is in a shirt button to explain the "still filming" aspect when things go apeshit) seem to get easy access to this very disturbing cult sect on a day that is apparently very important to them - why'd they let them in in the first place? But otherwise it's an intense slice of WTFery, rivaling the first film's haunted house segment in terms of how insane it gets from where it began. At one point a room full of cult members shoot themselves in the head simultaneously, and that's not even in the top 5 moments that left my eyes widening and muttering "Holy shit..." I heard someone say the final shot was too much, and I won't spoil it, but I will say that I loved it - I'm all for things just going for broke and being as nutty as they like.

And that is why I was left SOMEWHAT disappointed with the final entry, directed by Jason Eisener (Hobo With A Shotgun). It starts off with kids playing elaborate pranks on the older sister of two of them (and her boyfriend), and then things go awry when aliens invade mid-prank. It's certainly intense, but kind of one note - the aliens (standard pale skinned/giant eyed things) just sort of swarm around as a giant white light explosion/loud noise out of a current movie trailer (BWWWARRRRRRRRRM) goes off over and over. It's so chaotic (and lo-fi - the camera is attached to a dog which suggests another GoPro, but it looks like mini DV at best) that it's often hard to tell what is happening and who has been taken (except for the poor dog - UNNECESSARY, JERKS!), so it gets a bit tiresome by the end as it's basically just one long attempt to run away from a not-very-well defined villain. I actually preferred the pranks part - the kids are kind of awesome and foul mouthed (making me wish Eisener would just redo Super 8 and give it a better 3rd act this time around), but since each segment was better than the one before it, I wanted the film to keep topping itself, and it doesn't QUITE get there.

But again, overall it worked better than the original, and each segment had its merits (something you couldn't say about the first movie thanks to that terrible one in the woods); the weakest spots here are as good as the best in the first film, which is commendable. Plus it's shorter, and there was more variety between each one - aliens, zombies, cults, mad scientists... - and I liked that they found ways to attach the cameras to something other than someone's hand as often as possible. Add in the improved wraparound and you just have an overall better experience; the biggest hurdle it has is that it's closer to spiritual remake than sequel, so the novelty has worn off some. Thankfully, since they're NOT related, if you haven't seen the first yet, feel free to just start with this.

What say you?

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I do know some of the folks behind the movie (and it was produced by my old boss from Bloody Disgusting), but I certainly don't know the Raid folks and that was my favorite part. Also, just an FYI, over time my opinions have shifted on the first one; I previously liked the Skype story the most but have come to like the haunted house one above all. And that 3rd story is my least favorite, not the 1st (the "bat girl") as my review states. Should I do a HMAD 2.0 and re-review every movie? (I don't care what you say, I won't actually DO that, but it'd be interesting to handpick a few others and see if my opinion has changed.)


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