1 November 2009

Oh the horror! - A random roundup

Being the Halloween season I thought a quick horror film roundup would be in order. I’ve selected randomly out of the films I’ve seen relatively recently, so the comments tend to flit all over the place – from the cheap, very cheap, and cheerful to thrashed-out sequel quickies, and from ‘70s backwoods treks to franchise reboots. There will be more to come in future, but for now here are some thoughts on 11 random horror flicks to help you while away the final minutes of the witching hour...

I did a double-bill of Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (Michael A.Simpson/1988/1989). Part 2 was ridiculous fun, being pretty much a replay of the original (which was fine by me), but with Angela now seeming a whole lot darn perkier whilst on her killing spree; the campers themselves abided by the title and were very unhappy indeed, what with all the drills to the head and knives to the gut. I felt a bit sorry for poor, beleaguered Angela this time around - Pamela Springsteen goes about her grisly business with an air of resignation (whether this was intentional or not is open to debate). Part 3 was the same thing all over again, but seemed more of a lazy rehash than a decent enough replay, like Part 2. One after another the killings didn’t come off as significantly varied enough to be either surprising or interesting for a third time, though the ketchup blood, wobbly angles and haphazard structure kept the laughs coming: one camping victim is seen lying dead next to a previous victim even before he’s actually been killed (he pops up alive and well in the following scene). It’s the sign of something good, whatever the weather.

A good look for the trash-strewn streets (an unfortunate passer-by in Street Trash)

Famed camera operator and cinematographer Jim Muro’s (aka J. Michael Muro) only directing effort, Street Trash (1987), was grim, silly fun. A game of catch the severed tramp’s penis, an obese boss chasing the secretary around the office (resulting in an oddly-faked death) and a nifty exploding head moment in the final fight-off all go toward making it a memorable ninety-odd mins. Muro’s control of the camera is as expert as it should be. At one point – after the proprietor of a store that sells the body-melting liquor drinks some of his own stock and stumbles out onto the street to, er, duly melt – the camera does an incredibly showy slow vertical pan-cum-back-flip-cum-somersault, revealing the process of the guy gradually melting as a series of tumbles. It’s the kind of trick that the Coen bros. pull frequently, but here it has a grubby fluidity all its own. Parts of the film were engrossing (it’s shot in a crisp and vibrant manner - oddly opposing the subject matter), and some parts were plain gross, but everything about it was enjoyable. It's a shame Muro hasn't as yet directed again.

Brian Yuzna’s Beyond Re-Animator (2003) was a good threequel after seeing the original Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon/1985) a while back – I missed out on the second instalment, Bride of Re-Animator (1990), so far (to see what happened in between these two). Both have plenty of wonderfully shoddy atmosphere and a ton of ick to go with it. I prefer Yuzna when he’s working strictly from material he’s generated himself (as in his debut, Society (1989)), but he does a good job of reinterpreting Gordon’s initial idea for this third film. The original, now 24 years old, still fully deserves its cultish following.

The infamous Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato/1979) and Creep (2004) director Christopher Smith’s second film Severance (2006), whilst being entirely different in tone, both warn city folk of the terrors of venturing into the wilderness. Holocaust was book-ended with rather dull scenes of awkward exposition, both of which refer to the main thrust of the narrative (a camera crew’s jaunt into the jungle to film a lost tribe of cannibals), which first attempt to point toward the horrors that lie waiting, then to reflect back to them. By the end, the notorious scenes that make up the bulk of the action have come and gone all too quickly to really merit the shocking tag the film has been pegged with all these years. (I checked out the running times of the version I watched with other versions available, and discovered my copy was cut by about 5 mins.) Whether tamed by over-cautious censors or from it having a curiously disjointed, overly dated feel Holocaust seems less than the sum of its parts now. (It's always been a notorious must-see-at-least-once than an outright classic.) The intercutting between the jungle and a city office – where a TV crew watch the footage for later re-assemblage for televising – does create some momentum and tension. There’s some awful dialogue right at the end, which makes what the film was telling us instinctively through imagery blindingly obvious through verbal means, but bad line readings are, for the most part, part of its knackered charm. It’s a film I might revisit in the future - preferably with friends and alcohol, so as to make the experience more fun. It has potential to be better second time around.

Severance, on the other hand, was daftly amusing and appropriately gruesome, despite feeling entirely derivative. Although I’m only superficially comparing it to Holocaust, it pulled similar manoeuvres without any expository bullshit. It isn't really too comparable to that film in any significant way, but after a time there are some parallels between the two: chiefly that both feature angry, almost faceless forest-dwellers intent on bringing down urban interlopers (here an office staff's team-building trip to a remote cabin). It was unofficially marketed as The Office meets Deliverance (1972), but I suspect the film it wants to closely emulate is Shaun of the Dead (2004): the mix of brutal bloodshed with darkly comic sequences owe a debt to Edgar Wright’s film, but it doesn’t feel deliberately imitative (though its innate Britishness – through the minutiae of modern, cringeworthy office types – does rather closely match that of not only Shaun, but also Ricky Gervais’ TV show a bit too smartly). It was a lot more fun than recent stuff that runs along similar, though perhaps more po-faced, lines, such as Hostel (2004). There are some dungeon-set torture scenes that sustain a terrifically creepy feel, which work integrally and fluently with the film, as opposed to being look-at-me highlights (hello, Eli Roth), there to simply show how adept everyone involved is at being sick in a smug, post-modern way, as Roth tried and, in my view, failed to do with his film.

Severance's Danny Dyer finding the right fit at Foot Locker.

Smith manages to make Severance both far more level-headed (in that he seems to know just how to create unnerving set pieces without drawing attention to a too-long list of obvious reference points) and unbelievably stupid. There’s little intellect to the film (and thank god for that; any lofty allusions to cleverness would have sunk the ‘gore ‘n’ grin’ atmosphere straight away), but a masked attempt at topicality with a 9/11 reference, which (literally) backfires. It does have a seen-it-all-before feel, but nowadays this tends to come with the territory in such genre-specific horrors. It has spadefuls of cheeky charm, too, in the form of a few likeable characters – most notably Danny Dyer, as a strung-out, wide-boy computer programmer. He’s often very funny and gets the best lines. Although another character, after tasting an overcooked cake (that, unbeknownst to all, contains a severed human finger) made for the starved staff by another, inept worker, spits it out and replies: “You don’t cook every cake for an hour”. It’s full of many such comic asides that are, more often than not, both humorous and grisly at the same time.

Mother’s Day (Charles Kaufman/1980) was something I’d been wanting to see for a fair while. I caught sight of a photo of the mother of the title, played by Rose Ross, and thought it’d be the kind of thing that would usually win me over (I’m a sucker for deranged matriarchs in horror), and it was only Ross alone who proved to be worth the time here. Apart from her gleefully maniacal face the film was a series of tedious arguments between the mother’s boys, (which aimed for laughs, but weren’t terribly funny) and the three female camping victims, who only ever tried to escape v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. I got quickly bored. The location looked like a novice set designer’s wet dream though: a redneck backwater hovel, graffited to the hilt, and styled into a food-splattered den of bones, trash and varying accouterment. It added some colour and had me scanning the background for fun visual details during the dull moments. There seemed to be a lack of focus as far as the story was concerned - God knows I’m not one for too much actual plot in cheap slasher flicks, but there wasn’t much going on in the way of organised scares, frights or generally gruesome incidents. Though when the much-mentioned freak-of-the-woods Queenie finally jumped out, it pointed to the fact that she should’ve sprung into action a lot sooner. The funniest touch was when one character was smothered to death by an inflatable tit. Lovely.

Cube²: Hypercube's production designer may have forgotten to get his light fittings PAT-tested

Both Cube sequels regularly show up on the Zone Horror channel and I managed to catch both on one of their current runs. Cube²: Hypercube (Andrzej Sekula/2002) and Cube Zero (Ernie Barbarash/2004) take the first film’s plot backwards, forwards and probably sideways, just like the movie’s shifting boxes of death themselves. Hypercube kept the original’s white space look and merely continued the story, neither changing much nor adding a great deal to it in the process. It was still absurd fun though, peppered with some teeth-gratingly awful acting and a few surprise moments (usually involving the silly methods of entrapment that the actors have to wriggle out of). Zero – a prequel, clearly signalled by its title – answered any outstanding queries about back-story, how the cubes function, who’s behind it all, and so on. The look this time was grungy-dungeon just like in the Saw (2004-09) films. It gets points for veering away from the sterile cocoon setting of the two previous films, though I wondered if the filmmakers were consciously aping the Saw franchise’s style for this third film by downgrading to filth chamber locations (a bit of research told me that Zero came out roughly at the same time as the first Saw - their concepts are uncannily similar indeed). The original did this kind of thing first though, back in 1997 - and I’ll gladly take any number of shoddy Cubes over two minutes of Jigsaw and his human pets any day.

I watched Halloween: Resurrection (Rick Rosenthal/2002) chiefly because having seen Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) some years back I wanted to know how a decapitated Michael Myers managed to ‘come home’ for another night of killing (although it’s not as interesting as I’d hoped - we find out in the film’s first 10 mins). I still enjoy a lot about these sequels - some occasionally contain moments worth waiting for. As soon as the plot kicks in, and Jamie Lee Curtis kicks off, it struck me that the filmmakers were eager to cash in on several notable recent-to-its-time horror successes, as if following Carpenter’s original template (and resulting sequels) weren’t enough. The plot is unerringly simple: a selection of students have to spend the night in Myers’ old house for a reality TV show, which has a live internet feed. The Blair Witch Project (1999), Scream (1996) and My Little Eye (2001) can all be ticked off its list of reference points (even Mike Figgis’ four-screen experimental film Timecode (2000) may have been a slight influence, too). Ideas are paraphrased from these films, and stapled together in the script in an attempt to (surely) appeal to the needs of today’s teens’ expansive viewing habits (though if it were released today there would be an obligatory reference to YouTube and/or Facebook thrown in as well). The doomed students are given cameras to film their night of terror, and I thought that, in a conceptual move, the actors themselves were going to film the bulk of the action themselves (as in Blair Witch) to inject some immediacy and freshness, but it all resorts back to obligatory formal camera set-ups and familiarity soon sets in thereafter.

He's behind you! (yet again)

In one respect all this regurgitating of trends is exactly what’s to be expected. The filmmakers here most likely want to keep as current as possible to grab the audience's attention, but maybe it'd be best for them to avoid the blatant and wearisome pandering that occurs here (though there are certainly worse offenders – Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows (2000), for one). The internet/reality TV slant feels belated (even for 2002) and a rather feeble excuse to pick around for zeitgeist. Carpenter’s directly brutal, no-fuss shocks worked a hundred times better in the original of course (from 1978, when this type of slasher flick was finding its legs), but Carpenter hasn’t been involved directly in the franchise since 1981 with Halloween II. Go figure.

There are a few inspired moments though: one has Myers kill a victim using the end of a tripod, camera still attached and filming his murder live (clearly a nod to Peeping Tom (1960)); the other, which was a nice, genuinely unsettling touch, has Myers walk through a doorway, knife in hand, only to be followed a moment later by another “Myers” mimicking his moves (with an unsettling cutaway to the image of them both on one of the CCTV cameras positioned in the house). The killing shape is doubled and for a moment you almost expect a multiplicity of Myers clones to emerge. This brief sequence stood out as wonderfully surreal and truly intriguing in a way that the remaining film didn’t live up to. The repeated Myers figure was explained away in the next scene, but for a few minutes the film was both nicely baffling and surprising.