Best of Fest

Knox asked me which films I would recommend from previous After Dark festivals, and whether they were things you could actually view on (e.g.) Netflix. Last question first: Yes, they’re all get-able through Amazon.com and get aired on FearNet and sometimes the Sci-Fi channel, so I have to assume they’re available through Netflix as well.

I wouldn’t recommend watching any horror movie on a network that has commercials, with the exception of FearNet because FearNet only puts one commercial break in, early on. (They do the noise at the bottom of the screen, though, which is nasty.)

Recommending movies is a much harder process, because it’s highly personal (and doubly so for horror) and the experience tends to be different at home which affects some movies more than others.

But assuming you’re not a horror fanatic, there are a few recommendations I can make pretty comfortably.

Borderland is probably the most genuinely frightening film of the three festivals, not because it’s based on a true story (which is usually an excuse for lameness) but because it’s so very, very plausible. Americans down in Mexico end up crossing paths with a violent gang. Sean Astin plays a very creepy role. I remember being concerned that it was going to veer into “torture porn” but the horribleness is mostly kept at a very real level–that is, you know, in real life, we’re more rattled by things that we brush off in horror movies–and is still very effective. (UPDATE: My reviews at the time say it is, actually, torture porn-style violence. So, use caution.)

The Gravedancers is probably the most fun. It stars “haunted house” and goes “Poltergeist”, with more than a nod to “Scooby Doo”.

Rinne (Reincarnation)is probably my favorite movie of the three festivals, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a mystery, you have to be very attentive, and it breaks Blake’s law of movie reincarnation (which is that audiences reject using dramatically different actors for the same characters). But it “made sense” to me. (It reveals “the rules” and “follows the rules” without being predictable.) Apparently some people find it slow, though. Subtitled. Must be relatively immune from “they all look alike” syndrome.

I love the atmosphere in Unrest, which is powered almost entirely by the verisimilitude of the situation. The corpses are not just realistic, they’re real. The writer/director having been a med student gets the feel just right.

In an entirely separate way, I loved the “realism” of Mulberry Street,which comes from the setting and the truly excellent characterization. I get the idea that the writer/director pulled his friends out of the neighborhood and said “Here, be in my movie.” Which may be totally false–because they all do their lines excellently and without sounding stilted–but it feels that way. The movie runs out of steam when it goes into standard zombie/plague mode, sort of ironically, or this movie would be a horror classic.

I can’t really recommend The Abandonedbecause I didn’t like it. But I don’t like this kind of movie. No matter how well done, if I know the characters are doomed from the start and yet the movie is going to make them go through the motions of surviving, I get both bored and pissed off. But for whatever reason, this movie is the only one they show on pay cable so maybe it’s a good example of a kind of movie I really dislike.

In the horror-like-Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-is-horror category, there’s The Deaths of Ian Stone.This is one of the few films that had a real budget, like $14M or something. It shows. And while it’s darker than Buffy, it feels like it could be a pilot for a Buffy-like series.

Butterfly Effect: Revelationhas a similar feel. I mean, the whole premise isn’t far off from “Quantum Leap”, which always threatened to scramble Sam’s brains. They just do it in this one.

Out of the 24 films, then, I’d feel comfortable recommending six pretty strongly. Sturgeon’s Law and all that.

If you’re okay with campy low-budget type flicks, then I can add Tooth & Nail,Nightmare Manand Autopsy.The camp in T&N may be entirely accidental but director Kanefsky (Nightmare) knows the limits of his medium and knows a laugh is as good as a shriek–and Autopsy is so completely committed to the “funhouse” style, it’s unimaginable that they didn’t know exactly what they were doing.

So, those are my recommendations.

Except for Autopsy, there’s not really any heavy gore in any of them (and the gore in Autopsy is right on the line of horrific/comic). Oh, there’s a compound fracture in T&N, that’s always good for an “ew”, and the majority of Unrest features half-dissected corpses as props. (I’m trying to remember if there was a lot of gore in Borderland. If there is, I’ve blocked it out.)

For hardcore fans, most of the movies have something to recommend them. And for would-be filmmakers, these would have to be interesting if only to examine: a) how much can be done on so little; b) how easy it is to go off the rails.

But for entertainment, the six abovementioned are worth the 80-90 minutes.

FEAR Net…could suck less

FEAR Net is a solely on-demand movie channel (at least here) that specializes in horror movies.

Since it’s free, the movies have commercials. I haven’t watched enough to know the pattern yet. I think the HD movies are commercial free (I imagine the cable companies are thirsty for HD stuff) but the SD movie we just watched had a commercial about 20 minutes into it. And that was that.

That’s not great, especially for a horror movie. Horror movies are hard to watch at home with others around, possibly trying to sleep, since they rely on the big dynamic volume changes. And you need a good atmosphere to build.

Worse though is, besides the bug in the lower right (which is bearable, if needlessly large), is that they put commercials during the movie in the lower band of the screen. Now, I sort of think this is inevitable for commercial television of any sort, since fast-forwarding and commercial removal tend to reduce the value of advertising being spearate from programming.

But it’s bad during a horror movie.

And none of us are really Navy material anyway. (Well, the Barbarienne swears like a sailor but I’m hoping she’ll grow out of it.)

Psycho II: Electric Boogaloo

There was a list linked from IMDB to “under-rated horror movies” but, as always, such things are dubious. It started, for example, with Suspiria, Dario Argento’s classic-for-horror-snobs. Suspiria has some great moments, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also an uneven mess of a film. And it’s far from under-rated. (The argument went something like “These kids today haven’t seen it, so it’s under-rated.” Meh.)

I give them credit for including Arachnophobia. I’ve always felt it was a comedy, but if they say people are scared by it, who am I to argue?

Psycho 2 is under-rated. It’s actually a fairly decent movie that mostly suffers because it doesn’t even touch the hem of the original. But it plays that way: It’s not Gus Van Sant trying to remake the original, it’s a very smart, knowing ripoff. It knows it’s a rip-off, and it knows you know, and invites you to have fun anyway.

A dark comedy with little twitches and quirks that make the Psycho fan smile, if he’s not too uptight.

Not to get maudlin again, but I’m drawn to certain tragedies among the cast. The beautiful Meg Tilly (whom I loved from her performance in One Dark Night) was sexually abused as a child. Perkins, of course, died of AIDS complications while his wife died on Flight 11. Cancer got director Richard Franklin, who did the underrated Road Games with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis prior to this.

Writer Tom Holland’s career is dead. (Rim-shot.) Nah, he created Fright Night and the Child’s Play series (which ultimately would star Meg’s sister Jennifer). Last seen directing a tepid episode of “Masters of Horror” called “We All Scream for Ice Scream”.

As I say, if you’re not too uptight, it’s worth checking out.

Baghead (Not A Story Of A Trooper York 3AM Date)

There’s some well-worn ground in the new little flick Baghead. Four actors who long for bigger and better careers are inspired after watching a (amusingly pretentious) low budget film to go into a cabin in the woods to make their own picture. The sexual dynamics between them are ambiguous on the one hand, and on the other, one of them dreams of a man with a bag over his head, and turns them down the road of making a horror movie.

Until Baghead starts making his presence known and they start disappearing one by one…or do they?

So we have a relationship movie about guys making a movie, that’s also a horror movie about guys making a horror movie.

It works pretty well. Someone on IMDB compared to the Coen Bros., but this is no Blood Simple. That said, it’s not bad.

Our characters are: the handsome one (Matt, played by Ross Partridge), the nebbishy one (Chad, played by Steve Zsiss), the older-and-wise blonde hottie (Catherine, played by Elise Muller), and the new blonde hottie (Michelle, played by Greta Gerwig). Matt and Catherine are “beyond labels” in their relationship, while Chad is crushing on Michelle. Michelle, of course, is crushing on Matt, which pisses Catherine off. Chad is resentful of Matt, who he thinks gets all the girls, but Matt isn’t doing too well, apparently, since he broke up with Catherine.

Somebody shoot me.

This stuff’s all right. There’s a lot of drinking. And scheming. But it’s a bit slow.

It’s also a bit familiar. I kept wondering if I knew these actors or I just knew a lot of people like them.

Baghead livens up the proceedings but the movie sort of plays with being a horror movie without ever actually being a horror movie. That’s not necessarily bad, except for me finding that, when they finally commit at the climax of the movie, I was curiously unimpressed. I didn’t buy it whole hog. The filmmakers didn’t convince me that they would actually allow the things to happen that I was seeing.

Part of this is the limit of low-budget-ness. The camera’s at a pretty removing distance most of the time. Part of it is the limit of the story, though, too. There’s a sleight-of-hand that’s not very convincing even when it’s all laid out at the end.

But, all-in-all, not bad. Short. Fairly thoughtful. They do manage a few good scares, though I would hasten to point out that that’s a relatively easy task compared to making an effective full-on horror movie.

Nonetheless, no point in critiquing it for not being what it’s not trying to be. It does what it tries to do fairly well. So, good work to the Duplass brothers who wrote and directed.

Page fillers and the horror movie

Long before blogging became popular (or even possible), there were magazines and newspapers. (Unless you’re eight, this should not come as a surprise to you.) Anyway, these printed materials were constrained by certain physical limitations. On the good side, they forced writers to be concise, to not ramble, to get the point across quickly. On the bad side, they forced writers to leave important information out.

On the really bad side, they mandated numbers of pages to be filled. You can’t have an odd number of pages. And you really wanted to keep the runs to the same size to avoid certain costs. And if you went over X pages, it cost a whole lot more, but if you were under Y pages, well, that was bad, too.

In this environment, the filler was invented. The filler seems to say things, but doesn’t, in fact, say anything that isn’t bleedingly obvious–unless it was wrong. Actually, most printed content probably falls into this category.

The filler has survived the physical, tragically, and carried on into the virtual.

I bring this up because of this Times Online article on horror movies. subhed is just awful:

The glory days of Blair Witch and The Exorcist are behind us. Who can save the horror film, asks our chief film critic

What? You have to begin by wondering who the hell considers Blair Witch and Exorcist part of the same tradition. And who thinks that the years from, what, about 1973 to 1997 were devoid of any quality horror. And who thinks Blair Witch was comparable to Exorcist in terms of social impact. (The last is at least debatable.)

The article begins by positing that what scared you as a kid probably still does.

Nah. Sorry. I saw Nosferatu at a pretty young age but I have gotten over it. It seems true that people remember old scares fondly and forget the cheesiness often associated with same. It’s probably also true that we perceive things a lot more quickly than we used to: A lot of modern films (horror and otherwise) would probably look like soup to our great-grandparents. Whereas the “short glimpses”–like the technique used to show Pazuzu in The Exorcist–are way, way too long for today’s audiences. I mean, it’s a chick in some fairly innocuous makeup. (Reminds me of “the brain guy” from the last seasons of MST3K.)

The Boy was positively bored during The Exorcist. He thought Alien was pretty good but he was by no means scared.

All right. We’ll cut the author some slack here. But then he gets real stupid:

But the paucity of fresh ideas in the horror genre is now a genuine issue.

No, it’s not. Or, at least not any more than the paucity of fresh ideas in any genre. And for any time period. IMDB lists three versions of Frankenstein between 1910 and 1921, just for example.

Besides, nobody cares about “fresh ideas” but jaded film critics. Halloween spawned, I feel comfortable saying, thousands of movies about slashers killing young adults. And they all had the opportunity to be profitable. (I assume most were, in fact, and that’s what kept them coming.) He then goes on to suggest that his thesis is proven by the appearance of two foreign-language films in the market. (The Orphanage and Rec.)

Huh. So, does the appearance of, say, two foreign-language dramas, war movies or comedies suggest the same thing of those genres? Or is it really just that some distributor thinks enough people will turn out to see these particular foreign-language films and therefore ponies up the money to send some cans around?

I suspect the latter.

I haven’t seen Rec, but The Orphanage isn’t particularly novel. (If the article is to be believed, it’s novel for a Spanish film, since there is no horror tradition in Spain.) It’s pretty standard haunted house/obsession fare, with considerable similarities to the recently discussed Crazy Eights, The Others and the Japanese Dark Water.

Rec is about a group of people locked in a tenement with a flesh-eating virus on the loose. It sounds thematically similar to David Cronenberg’s early work (like Rabid and Shivers) but one only has to go back a couple years to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever to realize, it’s just not very original.

This is not an insult, mind you. It’s just a fact of life: There aren’t a lot of fresh ideas anywhere. It’s part and parcel of having a 4.5 billion year old planet.

Usually, around the mid-point of a filler article, the author will say something that completely undermines his entire premise. In this case, the money quote comes from Scottish movie producer Hamish McAlpine:

“Horror has basically run out of track. It is repetitive, boring and profoundly unimaginative. It does well at the box office because a lot of kids have not seen the recycled horrors first time around.”

Translation: “People are going to see crappy horror movies other people are making rather than the crappy horror movies I’m producing! This suggests something fundamentally wrong with society!” In fairness to McAlpine (shouldn’t that be MacAlpine?) I don’t know if his horror movies are crap since I’ve never seen or heard of any of them.

A quick look at IMDB, however, reveals that three of the ten movies in his credit listing are about real-life serial killers (Ted Bundy, Ed Gein and the Hillside Strangler), while a fourth is a remake of a home-invasion type movie of the sort that were so popular back in the ‘70s.

So, maybe not your go-to guy for complaining about a paucity of “fresh ideas”.

But here’s the real thing about that quote: “It does well at the box office….” OK, so, if the movies are “doing well” at the box office, whence the supposed crisis? I don’t wonder if critics in the ’50s looked at the Hammer studios Dracula movies and said, “Bah! Kids today! Give me Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff over Lee and Cushing any day.”

But the Hammer movies offered color, including blood, cleavage (and ultimately nudity when they wound up in the early ’70s), and modernization. On top of that, some of them were quite good! (The 1958 version of Dracula is well-regarded, for example.)

I liked the 1979 version of Dracula–which isn’t generally well-regarded–but which seemed less cheesy at the time (and had top-notch acting, good effects, and a great John Williams score) than earlier versions of the film. But kids in the ’80s didn’t turn out to see it, and therefore we didn’t get a run of “Dracula” movies like we did in the ’40s and the ’60s.

The piece just gets goofier from here on out. Here’s another priceless quote (Sean Hogan, one credit wonder on IMDB, is being quoted):

“But if the industry does goes bust it’s not going to stop the horror,” Hogan continues. “They are dirt-cheap to make. You don’t need famous actors. The only difference is that there will be infinitely more crap.”

Forgive me if I scratch my head trying to figure out what industry is going to be producing the horror movies after the industry goes bust. “Infinitely more crap?” Oh, I don’t think so, I imagine Sturgeon’s Law will hold at around 90%, as always.

This article’s cred isn’t really bolstered by The Orphanage, which is a solid, well-made film, but not going to set the horror world ablaze. Nor that it references, e.g., the disastrous One Missed Call at the end–but that’s probably just a heads-up, not an endorsement.

The takeaway from this article is that horror movies are mostly crap (true), that this is a new-ish thing (false), that new ideas are needed (false: execution trumps ideas), that the only new ideas in horror over 25 years were The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project (which really defeats the notion that the author’s discontent is new), and that the horror genre is danger of going bust but this will not mean that horror movies stop getting made or making money.

Is that about it?