Blu-Ray Review: The Vampire Lovers (1970)

APRIL 26, 2013


I never got around to seeing Twins of Evil for HMAD proper, but I'll get to it, I swear! In fact, once the initial "Yay, I'm retired!" thrill wears off (and my work schedule gets a little more lax for the summer) one of my goals here is to "plug holes"; finishing off series I saw in part such as this. In the meantime, I took another look at The Vampire Lovers, which hits blu-ray (for the first time in US) in a few days courtesy of Shout Factory, who has been draining horror fans' wallets all year with plenty more to come. They've been compared to "Criterion for horror" by more than one writer, and I'm inclined to agree - the "Scream Factory" line has amassed a truly impressive output in a fairly brief time.

Lovers is a bit of an anomaly in that group; however - it's the first (but hopefully not last) Hammer release to join the line. I can assume they'll also pick up Twins and the 2nd, not particularly good film Lust of a Vampire, and if so the bar for a release is set pretty high with this disc - a gaggle of new extras and a top-notch transfer should please anyone, not to mention inspire newcomers to check it out. It also allows folks like me to reappraise it; at the time I watched (in 2010! Which is to say I barely remembered it and had to consult my own review to see what I thought about it) I wasn't all that impressed, but I admitted that was probably due to seeing the 2nd film (Lust) the day before, as it was basically the same thing.

So now, on its own and with my memories of both films reduced to "some attractive vampire ladies, right?", I can see that it's actually a pretty solid vampire film, if a bit slower than some of the others of the period. The 3rd act is terrific, with the usual race against time stuff plus a fun little subplot about Carmilla (Ingrid Pitt) trying to get the garlic flowers removed from the beside of her target. She's got a "henchwoman" in the house, a countess played by the lovely Kate O'Mara, and the two of them repeatedly try to get the other folks in the house to get rid of them, only to be thwarted over and over - it takes some chess-style thinking ahead for them to finally get cleared. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing, a guy that looks like Jeffrey Tambor, and a handsome young man join forces to deliver exposition and realize that Carmilla needs to be destroyed before she finishes taking hold of Emma (Madeline Smith), the young girl in the "Lucy" role.

But the first hour could have benefited from some improved pacing; because the story tends to get similar to Dracula (albeit with a woman). Yes, I'm aware the "Carmilla" story predates Stoker, but the latter's had been filmed over and over so these beats can't help but feel familiar regardless of who was first, and they might have opted to take that under consideration even if it meant changing the book (which I understand they were fairly faithful to). It starts off with some vampire hunting, but it's just a prologue that gets repeated again at the end anyway, and after that first time there isn't much action until Emma starts getting sick. Plus it's sort of like Shocker (yep, I just did that) in that there's a lot of plot to set up before getting to the stuff anyone remembers; after that prologue there's an extended sequence (actually the entire first act) where Carmilla seduces another girl and kills her before going on the run and meeting up with Emma and starting the process all over again. So it can feel a bit repetitive within itself on top of all the "Dracula"/other "Carmilla" versions (such as the terrific Vampyr, an ACTUAL Criterion release), which is probably why I was a bit restless the first time.

Knowing that already this time, however, made it easier to enjoy while focusing on what worked, like Pitt's terrific performance, and the high def image allowing me to further appreciate the traditionally lush Hammer visuals (courtesy of Roy Ward Baker here) and set designs. The resolution can be a bit TOO good at times - I noticed a seam (or crack?) in the "sky" behind a character during an exterior scene - but for every little glitch like that there are about 10 closeups of Pitt or O'Mara to appreciate, so who cares? The image isn't clear enough to get any more insight as to who the hell the man in black that we see throughout the movie is, however - I had forgotten all about this bizarre, unexplained subplot. Of course now I can just go look up the info and discover that A. I'm not dumb - there IS no explanation for him in this film and B. the sequel (where the actor was replaced) revealed him to be Carmilla's husband, but at the time this must have been one of the most baffling goddamn things in movie history.

They don't talk about him much on the commentary featuring Pitt, Baker, and screenwriter Tudor Gates (moderated by Hammer authority Jonathan Rigby), however. The film was made during a rather difficult period in Hammer's history; the box office was declining and their style was becoming outdated as American horror was in the middle of a creative rebirth thanks to Romero and Polanski. So a lot of the commentary tends to drift toward that element of the production, as well as the sort of "package" process that they stood by - Rigby will ask Baker about a particular cast or crew member and he'll just say it was someone that the studio gave him. Pitt seems to be having trouble breathing at times (she died in 2010 but this was recorded in 2003 at the latest as it was included on a DVD from MGM), so some of her stories take patience as she pauses (or merely gets sidetracked), but her anecdotes are always very lovely and funny, including the one where she talks about meeting Cushing for the first time - during (spoiler!) her death scene where he cuts her head off! Pretty funny. Cushing's role in the film isn't large, but they have plenty of things to say about him, including some truly gut-wrenching stuff about his demeanor after his wife died - he took it very hard, almost to the point of suicide if their stories are to be believed. Cushing's one of those actors you never really hear anything bad about - everyone loved him, and that comes across even though his role is fairly brief in the film itself.

The rest of the extras are solid as well, including a new retrospective featuring some Hammer historians and critics in lieu of anyone from the film (kind of hard to avoid; Pitt, Cushing, some of the other actors, and nearly every principal member of the creative team is dead), complete with some great anecdotes and further explanation of its importance during Hammer's decline (it was a hit and almost singlehandedly kept the lights on for a few more years). I particularly liked the point one guy makes about the film's "Dorian Gray" inspired portrait subplot, as the film featured heavy (for the time) lesbian elements, while Oscar Wilde was expressly forbidden from including any homosexuality in his novel. And then there's a lengthy interview with Smith, one of the few main actors from the film who are still alive. She repeats the sentiments about the others, talks about the nudity, the film's legacy... it runs a bit long but it's worth a look, as is the carried over selection of passages from the book, read by Pitt and played over the appropriate scenes from the movie. Again, her voice is a bit shaky, but it's a unique feature - rare to see the source material being given any sort of reverence on a DVD of the movie. The trailer and some radio spots are also included, though I gladly would have traded them for a proper scene selection menu - there are chapter stops but no way to access them, so if you want to skip to the 3rd act you have to hit play and tap the "next chapter" button over and over until you get there. Yes, it's not the end of the world, but if you're like me and doze off (it took me a few days to get through the whole disc), it's a pain to have to do that just to get to the last 10 minutes of the commentary when you dozed off the night before.

Otherwise, you can't ask for a better Blu-ray release; it ports over the existing extras while adding a few others, and tops it off with a pretty great transfer - exactly what all companies should be doing with their high def double dips. I see some blu releases from the studios that strip the film of the bonus material it had on DVD and/or offers nothing new, making it hard to justify buying again, especially if your HDTV isn't top of the line anyway (mine sure as hell isn't). Shout's doing it right - wish the majors would follow their lead.

What say you?


The Lords Of Salem (2012)

APRIL 20, 2013


Earlier this week I had the displeasure of seeing Oblivion, a sci-fi film that stole ideas from any number of genre films (primarily one I can't say the name of without spoiling its central twist, though it also "pays homage to" Phantasm, of all things), but never found a life of its own. It looked nice, and the score, while also a "stew" of other, better scores, was enjoyable enough to listen to on Spotify once or twice, but at no point did I stop wishing I was just watching one of those other movies instead. Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem, on the other hand, similarly cribs from any number of films and filmmakers, but Zombie puts his own stamp on it - I never forgot I was watching one of his films, whereas the only thing to learn about Joseph Kosinski from Oblivion it's that he's got decent taste in movies.

Of course, it's easy to keep Zombie in mind when he casts his wife in the lead role. I don't think Sherri Moon is the greatest actress in the world, but she's a lot better than she's often given credit for, as if it's ONLY because she's married to the guy that she gets the roles she does. Even though the budget is the lowest he's ever worked with, I still don't think the guys putting up that money would sign off on her taking the lead role if she wasn't capable of doing so, especially with a number of other female roles she could have taken instead to fulfill any sort of assumed nepotism. And she's solid here, playing a much quieter character than she did in the Rejects films or even his Halloween - it's only in a few moments at the end we see her indulging in the sort of "girl from a music video" type behavior she was originally known for.

She's also glammed down, sporting hipster glasses and unflattering dreadlocks in her role as a DJ from Salem, MA who receives a mysterious record, plays it, and begins to see things, feel sick, and eventually start using drugs again (she's in recovery at the beginning of the film). Supposedly helping her through this tough time is her landlord (Judy Geeson) and her strange sisters, played by Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace. Yes, Zombie has once again cast his film with a gaggle of genre vets - Andrew Prine cameos as John Hawthorne, and Ken Foree plays one of her fellow DJs (Sid Haig and Michael Berryman also have super quick cameos in a flashback). But the real shocker is Meg Foster as the head witch, almost completely unrecognizable in prosthetics - only those eyes give her identity away.

At this point I might as well mention that the film has been considerably reworked; if you read the credits you'll see names like Udo Kier and Clint Howard being special thanked, due to their roles being excised. Barbara Crampton's role has been reduced to one shot during a montage of women hearing the strange record (I guess everyone in town listens to this station), and I have to assume that Haig and Berryman weren't hired to be anonymous dudes who never even get a closeup. I know Zombie had to trim from his script given the low budget (it's such an unusual film, I can easily see why he'd have trouble securing enough money to completely fulfill his original vision), but it seems it was further modified in editing - hopefully the DVD will have some of that material, but if not we can at least read his novelization (linked below) that is based on his original script.

Don't get me wrong - it's not an incoherent, Dimensionalized mess as a result. I never felt too confused as to what was going on (I assume SOME confusion is part of the design, given the heavy influence of filmmakers like Dario Argento and Jean Rollin), but it definitely feels a bit "cramped", with certain plot points never given much room to breathe. At one point the band (the Lords of Salem) is said to be coming to town for a show, but this subplot never really comes to life - Foree's character just says they're coming and then it's never mentioned again until Sheri Moon arrives at the venue on the final night of the movie (in a nod to Shining, we have titles for each day of the week, starting on Monday when she gets the record and ending on Friday when the band is supposed to come). And the fact that the song only affects women is not only unexplained, but it's never even clear that only women have showed up for the show - were Salem's men turned away, or did they just not care?

Also making it feel a bit small is that they clearly didn't shoot the whole movie in Salem, but on sets elsewhere (Los Angeles, in this case). So whenever someone goes outside, we get a quick shot of them wandering down a very New England (read: gloomy and colonial) looking street which is actually Salem (I recognized some of the locales), but those moments are few and far between, and the shots are compact, like they only had permission to get a few feet on either side of the house and not much else. I mean, it's certainly better than the horrid attempt at passing off Canada as the town in The Covenant, but given the town's unique history and relatively untapped potential for film productions, I was a bit disappointed to see that Zombie and his DP just had Sheri and co-star Bruce Davison quickly walk down a few streets before grabbing a few generic establishing shots and heading back to LA.

However, all of this actually has a benefit - it lets the film be noticeably quieter than anything else Zombie has done, focusing on character over shock value. Not only does this allow those bursts of violence or insanity to really pop and resonate (unlike in Halloween, where we were numb to the brutal violence before Myers even became an adult), but it also lets us give a crap about the characters - something that has never really happened in his movies. I liked Brad Dourif a lot in his Halloweens, and of course Danielle Harris could be playing Hitler and I'd still find her appealing, but otherwise I hated just about everyone in those movies, and the Rejects/Corpses films were populated either by degenerates or people ruthlessly trying to kill those degenerates. But here, almost everyone - even the damn villains - are likable and charismatic, not to mention NORMAL. Davison's character in particular is like nothing I've ever seen Zombie try before - a normal, intelligent guy who is interested in finding out more about the "band" and in helping Sheri's character. Usually everyone in a Zombie film looks like they just crawled out of a gutter, but not here - the three witches just enjoy their tea and take pride in their scones like regular old birds. After the Halloweens I wasn't sure if Zombie had it in him to just make NORMAL people, but he proved me wrong here - he even keeps the F-bombs to a minimum.

He also keeps the violence to a minimum - there's only, I think, one on-screen death in the entire movie. Yes, this means that the movie can and will be considered "boring", but it's hardly surprising given the movies he was paying tribute to - Suspiria, The Devils, The Shining... none of these films are exactly wall to wall violent. Even when it doesn't always work (perhaps because of the budget? The moment where she first hears the record is severely underplayed but maybe they couldn't afford to do anything crazier because they needed to save the dough for when it mattered - i.e. the end), I had nothing but respect and surprise for the restraint he was showing.

It's also pretty creepy; there are some dumb jump scare attempts (a witch who appears in corners and such like something out of Insidious), but it's positively drenched with ominous atmosphere, and that bit of music is as haunting as "Tubular Bells" or the piano in Eyes Wide Shut (another film that might pop in your head while watching). Again, it's not too violent, but it's UNSETTLING, which is better anyway. That this was working on me in the most toxic theater in all of LA - an AMC inside the tourist trap ghetto that is Citywalk - made it even more impressive. When this hits Blu-ray, and you're watching around Halloween-time, it's gonna get under your skin if you can get past the minimalist approach.

Some of it feels pretty juvenile, however. The backstory of the town witches and their prosecution by Hawthorne is all fine, but near the end Zombie starts tossing in some of his music video imagery, like a Jesus painting turning devilish and Sheri dancing with a goat - it's like he remembered the desecrated Mary statue from Exorcist and decided to use it as a launchpad for an entire sequence. I also didn't quite get their music show - they do it at night and have guests, but they also play goofy sound FX and talk about each others' sex lives like it was a 2nd rate Howard Stern morning show ripoff. And why is it so popular? As with Halloween, it seemed like Zombie was trying to make a period piece and just chose to ignore it when the plot required a modern touch; no one has a cell phone until near the end when someone needs to call Sheri, and it's not until Thursday or Friday that we see a computer. I thought for sure the movie took place in the early 90s (the year of the Witch Trials being 1693, I thought it was a straight "300 years later" kinda deal) until the final reel when these things popped up. So it exists in a world where a local radio station can still pull in a huge audience and folks still "tape" things (Davison's wife records his broadcast on a 90 minute TDK cassette! They even sell those anymore?), but they have modern laptops with wifi too.

But that's a Zombie thing, I guess (Rejects also felt simultaneously like 1977 and 2005), and again - I like that he was able to inject his own personality in a film that was, by design, a love letter to other films and directors, all of whom had their own very distinct touches that make the usual copycatting that much easier to spot. Zombie's a smart guy and a die hard fan of the genre - he's not exactly trying to pass any of this off as his own idea, and if I were to interview him about it he'd probably gladly namecheck a few influences I didn't spot. I can't wait to read the novelization, because I'm sure some of the more obtuse story points make more sense, and maybe we can get a better handle on the supporting cast, but the film itself is a challenging, uniquely entertaining entry in his output, but retains the polarizing effect he will (hopefully?) always have in his work. Some folks call it boring, but to me a boring Rob Zombie movie would be the one I DIDN'T have 12 paragraphs of stuff to talk about afterward.

What say you?


Scary Movie 5 (2013)

APRIL 12, 2013


If you loved the gag in the Scary Movie 5 trailer where Charlie Sheen got his balls rammed into the door over and over, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is, that bit, along with a few others in the trailer, was excised from the final cut. The good news is there are about a dozen others just like it; Simon Rex in particular seems to take a hit to the groin, gut, or face every 30 seconds or so, and I'm pretty sure everyone in the movie would have been killed from physical trauma by the end (though, I don't think anyone actually dies in the entire thing except for Charlie - remember when these movies were rated R?). However, I myself hate that kind of humor and always have, so the movie was seriously trying my patience during the extended bits of Rex being hit in the face over and over, or an ape being hit in the face over and over, or Terry Crews being hit in the face over and over... you get the gist.

See, I love a good physical comedian - Chevy Chase was (OK, is) my hero and he certainly has made us laugh by falling down as Gerald Ford or knocking over priceless items (Foul Play, Caddyshack II, European Vacation... probably more). But there's a difference between that and getting hit in the face or balls - ANYONE can take (or deliver) said hit, but you need to actually have a gift to pull off the sort of physical humor I actually find funny. Molly Shannon is one such performer, and has a great bit where she is covered in casts and braces (after yet another "getting physically injured = funny" sight gag) and trying to get inside of a bathroom stall - THAT is funny to me (and to star Ashley Tisdale, apparently - the obligatory blooper reel has her cracking up several times at Shannon's exaggerated (and hilarious) movements as she tries to get inside the door). So it's a shame that for every one gag in that vein there's about 20 that involves nothing more than someone being hit in their groin and making a pained face.

In between all that intolerable shit (seriously, any scene with Simon Rex is just a black hole of comedy), there are a surprising number of good gags, and I'm shocked (saddened?) to admit I laughed at least 20 times, which is 20 more times than I did at its trailer - it's important to note that my expectations were very, very low. But if you're keeping score, that's still about 5x as many as laughs as A Haunted House, the last horror spoof deemed worthy of theatrical release (there were more that went DTV. I believe this is the 5th time I've seen a full length parody primarily based around Paranormal Activity). It's interesting to note the jump in quality; while neither of them are even worthy of being in the same section of the video store as Airplane or even Hot Shots Part Deux, the Scary Movie franchise DID begin with Marlon Wayans, who has long since abandoned it. So David Zucker and Pat Proft along with director Malcolm Lee have effectively beat him at his own game this year - not only spoofing the same movie he did, but doing a better job of it - and in the series he started! It's more interesting than anything on screen, at any rate.

Actually I take that back - I was pretty fascinated by the fact that Mama was parodied just as much as Paranormal Activity, given that it just came out less than three months ago and the jokes aren't just copied from whatever they might have learned from the trailer. No, some of them are actually really specific to the movie, like Tisdale (standing in for Jessica Chastain) playing her bass, or the fact that one of them needed glasses. Hell the entire finale is a shot for shot copy of the cliff sequence (and I had to chuckle, as this cheapo Halloween store witch looks scarier than that movie's abhorrent digital thing), so if you haven't seen Mama yet some of the gags might not land as well, which is unusual for a parody as they tend to stick with what people know from the trailers (i.e. when spoofing Ghost, you do the pottery wheel, not, I dunno, Sam kicking the sculpture to get it through the window). Likewise, there's a lengthy bit involving sentient pool cleaners that probably only works if you've seen Paranormal Activity 2.

As with Scary Movie 4 (I can't recall a damn thing about 3 anymore), it's not just horror that gets mocked, though it's not as bad as that one's parodies of Brokeback Mountain and Fahrenheit 9/11. The excursions are at least in the sci-fi/fantasy genre (Inception, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), and they stick to Paranormal, Mama, and Black Swan for the most part. There's also a lengthy Evil Dead gag, which has to be a first for a parody - you can go next door and see the WEEK-OLD movie they're spoofing! Curiously, that and (again) the Mama gags are fleshed out and seem to prove that the screenwriters actually saw those films, whereas the Sinister and Insidious spoofs - films that are months/years old - are quick and wholly extraneous, as if they were thrown in at the last minute to keep the film fresh. Even for this woefully flimsy narrative, the Sinister one in particular just doesn't make a lick of sense, and comes/goes out of nowhere, like it was something they shot just for the trailer and accidentally edited it into the film. Why are the newer films more fleshed out than the ones that have been around for a while?

But hey, I can't just list the things that made me laugh like last time, so that's a good thing. I particularly loved the extended sight gag where Darren Aronofsky's penchant of filming someone walking down a street with lots of jerky camera movements is spoofed to a ridiculous degree - it will probably go completely over the heads of the target audience, but I appreciated the effort, same as I did for adding "Gort" back into the obligatory "Klaatu barada nikto" for the Evil Dead parody. And even if the joke was swiped from Spice World (!) the bit where a toy car is shown driving to a locale when they couldn't afford to show it for real was pretty cute. I also found myself laughing more often than not at the fake Morgan Freeman voice that narrated the movie (he even made a fart joke land, that's impressive), and while Tisdale is certainly no Anna Faris, she at least puts the effort in and can make some of the gags work, which is more than I expected from a High School Musical alumni. I couldn't help but wonder if she was supposed to be Cindy, however - especially when she finds herself saddled with a sassy black friend not unlike (read: exactly like) the Brenda character played by Regina Hall in the previous entries.

On that note, they seem to be going out of their way to toss out any existing "continuity" from the older entries - while I understood Charlie Sheen was playing himself and not his character from the others, I was baffled that Rex ALSO seemed to be playing a different guy - yet he's still the brother to Sheen's character, rendering it needlessly confusing for anyone who would give a shit (hopefully not many). But why cast Rex, who can't land a single joke in the movie, if he's not even playing the same guy? Literally any other actor in the world would have made more sense, including Sheen again since it's a Mama spoof (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau played both brothers in that one). With Haunted House so recently spoofing the same thing (it's amazing how many jokes are the same - including a noise from a closet that turns out to be someone in a very tiny bathroom), I can't see anyone but die hard Scary Movie fans (I'm sure some exist; the average gross for a Scary Movie is more than most of the stuff its parodying) turning out for this thing, and even they are likely to be scared away by Dimension's awesome new tactic of hiding the movie from the now-traditional Thursday late shows. Advanced press screenings were out of the question, but when they won't even let the possibility of real critic reviews (meaning: not guys like me) show up until Friday afternoon, they're obviously embarrassed and/or worried. Sadly, it seems they didn't have to be - it's just as "eh, fine" as the others, despite the lack of Faris (who can make anything watchable), which alone is something of a victory.

And if you DO see it, make sure its at a matinee to get your money's worth. The end credits run for a whopping 14+ of its 85 minutes - meaning just under 20% of the movie is not the actual movie, though each full-screen credit is interrupted by a (usually unfunny) blooper, some of which center around gags that were cut, softening the blow some. If you make it all the way to the end you can see an extra scene that (spoiler, but seriously?) reveals the entire movie was a dream Sheen had, which I like to think is their way of leaving the potential for Faris and the others to come back and just writing this one out entirely. As if it would matter.

What say you?


13 Eerie (2013)

APRIL 8, 2013


One of the movies I have been meaning to revisit is Dead Snow, because it's met with such scorn from just about everyone I know that I suspect I was just in a weird mood that day and it's not as good as I remember. But one thing I'll always defend is how it approached the material in a more slasher-film kind of way, and that's the same thing I dug about 13 Eerie, which starts off like a slasher (6 students, a teacher, and a lackey) go off to an isolated locale and start noticing something is "not right". But rather than a masked madman picking them off one by one, the threat comes in form of a few (3-4) zombies... that proceed to pick them off one by one.

Director Lowell Dean says they're not really zombies on his commentary, and while they don't resemble the rotting ghouls you see in Romero films or The Walking Dead, they certainly ACT like the damn things: they're dead (though fast), shooting them in the head is the only way to take them down, and if they bite you you turn into one. What separates them from others (and possibly why Dean wishes to make the distinction) is that they never overpopulate the movie - it's possible for our heroes to take them all out and the world will be safe, so structurally and tonally it feels more like a Wrong Turn kind of movie with a few distinct baddies, but I think we've seen enough zombie movies of late, so it'd be doing a bit of a disservice to say it's NOT one as zombie fans might enjoy the change of pace. It's not going to make my top ten list or anything, but I found it pretty enjoyable; I actually just put it on as background noise while doing some filing at work and found myself engaged enough to pause it when I had a real distraction. And hey, I'm writing it up post "retirement", so that's gotta be something worth a rental, right?

One thing I definitely appreciated is that it's actually kind of scary. No, not enough to make me turn the light on or whatever, but there are a number of times where I felt myself getting tensed up, and it's only by watching the opening credits that I was able to guess who lived or died (because of their billing prominence); if you DON'T read them (or just don't recognize any of the actors) you should be surprised, script-wise, who gets off first and who lives. This allowed for more suspense in many of the attack scenes, as I never was too sure about anyone's survival (except for Katharine Isabelle; not only a genre vet thanks to Ginger Snaps but also the requisite and obvious Final Girl). The zombies themselves are also quite cool - by limiting their number the makeup team was obviously able to dedicate more time and effort into their appearance, and they would ALL make for worthy action figures, a far cry from most of the zombie flicks we see nowadays, where they have one or two hero zombies and then everyone else gets a quick splatter of paint on their face and hands while the DP is instructed not to let them get into clear focus.

Oh, and it's largely practical FX, something I feel I've been over-explaining lately - and that's a good thing. In the past few weeks I've seen I think 4-5 films where they favored prosthetics over pixels, so maybe the tide is turning? Or is it just coincidence? Either way, it's nice to see, and there are some great gags sprinkled throughout - I LOVED the one zombie who got impaled (through the mouth) to the wall and kept coming, stretching its cheek and neck out as it tried to pull away without concern for the damage being done to itself. Awesome. Since there are so few of them, a simple gunshot to the head wouldn't be very satisfying, so kudos to Dean and his crew for making each death count.

Another plus is that the characters aren't total idiots - in fact they're pretty smart in many areas. Taking a cue from Mindhunters, they've been assembled in this isolated locale to train for criminal investigations (forensics here; the Mindhunters were profilers if memory serves?), so there are fake crime scenes set up around and everyone is paired off to do their thing. So they're quick to notice that things aren't right, and resourceful when necessary - one even makes a makeshift bomb out of some of their chemicals and powders. But being forensics types, they're not all familiar with guns or even combat, so it's not like they have a huge advantage over their foes. Likewise, the zombies are all criminals (they were used for experiments), so they're imposing enough to make up for their minimal number - a rational thinking human being in a room with a standard slow/bony ghoul isn't that exciting, but one with a hulking brute who can only be stopped by a shot to the head when they don't have weapons training? THAT'S exciting.

It's a bummer that their forensics know-how doesn't really factor into anything in the second half, however. I was hoping they'd at LEAST do some minor digging and find out how these guys were coming back to life and why, but once things go to hell, apart from the bomb bit, there's not much to their actions beyond running and scrambling. When we DO get exposition, it's just their teacher getting into one of the misguided guys' face until he explains what's happening, and that's almost at the very end. Not that I need to have zombies explained (Romero never did), but if they're going to set up the idea that our characters are dedicating their lives to using science and intelligence to solving crimes, it would have been much more interesting if they, you know, did that. Granted they're still in training, but it coulda been like, their ultimate test or something. That said, I like that even though they were kind of in competition with each other, they all got along rather well - the bickering and antagonistic behavior was kept to a bare minimum. They don't even really have any romantic subplots - the two girls are paired off and thus kept away from the guys for a big chunk of the runtime (that's another thing I liked - there's a real reason for them to be split up), keeping the nonsense to a minimum.

EOne's release of the film comes with some decent extras; Dean's commentary with producer Kevin DeWalt is pretty engaging (though they lose a point for doing the "Are people watching this before they saw the movie?" thing) and rarely silent, and thus worth a listen if you enjoyed the flick. They point out the film's few visual FX (courtesy of the team working on one of the Resident Evil movies - the two share a producer), praise the cast, offer some anecdotes... and they clearly WANT to do it, unlike some filmmakers who seem to be recording their track with a gun to their head. And even if you hated the movie you should check out the making of featurettes (running a little over 20 minutes total), as you get a look at one of the more unique forms of storyboarding I've seen in a while: they used action figures to plan out shots! You even get a side by side scene (the one with the "bomb") to get a look at how closely it matched. I normally hate storyboard comparisons but this felt like a fun way not only to carry out the process on their end, but make it interesting for us to look at. There's also a photo gallery, if you don't have an Xbox or a spouse that could use your attention instead.

Oh, and the cover art and DVD menus use the Friday the 13th font, which is awesome. Since it should appeal to slasher fans and zombie fans, it's a nice choice for those who can spot it. And it's not Trajan, so even better.

What say you?


Evil Dead (2013)

APRIL 5, 2013


"It's better than good - it's good ENOUGH."

That's a Community quote that I'm pretty sure I've used before in a review, but I'm not sure how well I explained how it applies to movies like Evil Dead. In the episode, it's used to describe a commercial that Abed put together for the school, which was less impressive than the epic that the Dean was trying to create, and thus the school board is happy. No one will be upset or challenged, it does exactly what it needed to do and nothing more, and you run the risk of coming off like a stuffy intellectual if you point out its very basic flaws. "Who cares? It gets the job done and that's all we need it to do."

See, it's not that Evil Dead is a BAD movie by any means, but I never got the idea that they were trying to be daring or inventive with the audience (the MPAA, on the other hand...), nor did I even get the impression that director Fede Alvarez (in his feature debut) was the sort of guy who would work on the film without sleep for days on end, sleep in the freezing cabin to make sure no one stole the equipment, or put his actors through any real danger in order to get his shot. Sam Raimi's original The Evil Dead is not just a terrific horror movie; it's a testament to the dedication a filmmaker can show on a single movie (if you haven't read the "Evil Dead Companion" book, I highly recommend it) and how much can be created out of nothing.

Obviously, that sort of thing isn't the case this time - Alvarez is backed by a major studio (Sony) and the guiding hands of not only Raimi, but his cohorts Robert Tapert and Bruce Campbell. I'm sure limitations cropped up from time to time as they do on any feature, but it feels a bit like cheating to have this much at your disposal - he may get the same result, but without the elbow grease required for the spectators to sit back and say "Holy shit, he BROUGHT it!" (and with the original creators on board, it's almost like we're supposed to assume it's as good as it can be or something). And that's even worse when you consider how many unnecessary callbacks there are to the original film; yeah, of course you need the chainsaw in there, and I doubt anyone was surprised to see a hand get lopped off, but did they really need to bring back the tree rape? Or someone getting shot in the shoulder with the shotgun? Christ, at one point a character even seems to be playing "guess the card" by himself.

It also brings back the buckets of gore, which is easily the highlight of the movie and also pretty much the only reason to recommend it (even if you aren't impressed with its execution, it's almost just as satisfying if you imagine the censorship board having to watch it - and somehow giving it an R!). It's depressing as all hell to have to praise a horror movie for relying mainly on practical effects, but that's the sad reality - it was a breath of fresh air to see a modern film utilizing the same tricks that were available 30 years ago instead of their inferior "replacements". Original reports had the film at being 100% practical, but that's not really the case - it's somewhere in the 90s, though, which is good enough. A lot of them have an extra bit of nastiness to make them truly impressive, too; I particularly loved the arm hanging from a single tendon, and the way the piece of skin pulls along with a needle when it's removed from a person's face. Everyone goes through plenty of abuse to their person, with Lou Taylor Pucci getting the brunt of it - I actually felt sorry for the poor bastard after a while, as he started to make Bruce Campbell's abuse look pretty tame in comparison.

But that's also one of the movie's biggest problems - it almost seems to want the audience to guess who our new Ash is (whole next paragraph is potential spoiler to those who don't know how these movies play out, so skip it if you haven't seen the original. And go watch the original instead), when it's obvious that it's Jane Levy's character Mia... who disappears for the entire second act. There's a hefty attempt to make us think it will be David (Shiloh Fernandez), since he's the brother of the girl who got raped by a tree, but they split his "Ash-ness" with Eric (Pucci), who is the one to read the book and also (again) the one who gets the most abused. But it doesn't quite work, and by the time Mia finally takes over the hero role, we're already long past the point in the movie where they could afford to put any effort into making her someone interesting - she just becomes the hero because (spoiler, I guess) by now everyone else is dead, not because of anything she actually DOES. The two males are the proactive ones, which I found disappointing - I was hoping that the new one would let the girls kick a little more ass (one of the other girls does something pretty badass as a human; the other does something similar as a demon). But Levy only really does so in the final scare scene, and that's only after one of the males sacrifices himself to let her live. They were certainly wise to not try to cast a new Ash, but they SHOULD have retained a few of the others (Scotty, Cheryl, etc) to allow us to A. automatically assign some character to them, and B. let us be surprised by their deaths if they occurred in a different order. "Oh shit, Scotty is the first to go this time?" type plotting would have been beneficial, as opposed to these blank slates being offed more or less in the order you'd expect.

It also lacks any camaraderie or "quiet bits" that would endear them to us. The characters in the original were hardly the most developed in the world, but they had SOMETHING - Ash's cute little "fell asleep" gag when giving the necklace to his girlfriend, Scotty and Ash busting each others' balls in the basement, the dinner scene... nothing spectacular, but enough to give us some reason to care about them when the bad stuff started happen. Not so much here; I honestly can't tell you one thing about Elizabeth Blackmore's character beyond "she's David's fiance", and she's not even the first to go. And it's a modern horror movie, so of course they're all distant from each other and ready to bicker at the drop of a hat, though at least there's SOME rationale behind it - they were a close group until Mia's heroin addiction started to become a burden on all of them, resulting in their present day strife as they try to get Mia to quit ("Let's play cold turkey!" Mia sarcastically says, one of the thankfully few times where Diablo Cody's script punchups were obvious). Granted, we know they're all pretty likely to die, but it still seems unnecessarily mercenary to basically say "Why bother? They're goners!", and it's quite telling that one of the few complaints you could levy at the original (that the characters were one-dimensional for the most part) is not only retained here, but actually made worse.

The other thing that bugged me was the lack of momentum. There's an interesting idea early on, with the other characters assuming Mia's deranged behavior and claims of being raped by a tree are just the mother of all withdrawal symptoms, but almost as soon as they bring it up someone else is possessed anyway. And then it's all fits and starts; there will be an isolated (and terrific) bit of gore and violence, and absolutely nothing scary or exciting in between. The original was RELENTLESS, just tossing one thing after another at these poor bastards, not to mention offering an engaging energy that made up for its shortcomings, but here there's just filler - I found myself just waiting until the next "cool" bit arrived, and never once felt tense or scared in the slightest. I know it was just part of the remake-ness since the original had a similar tagline, but if you're going to put "The most terrifying film you will ever experience" in giant letters on all the posters, you should at least be able to get a rise out of guys like me (and a hefty number of horror-loving pals - it was someone's birthday - many of whom had the same "Yeah, it was fine." response I did). Even my wife didn't find much to scream or cover her eyes about, as she was during the damn TRAILER for The Conjuring.

So, again. "Good enough". It does exactly what was expected from it and nothing more, resulting in a film that will probably play well with the younger audiences who have a. never seen the original and b. are used to their R rated horror films being much more time. And perhaps Cabin in the Woods has deflated some of its appeal the way it was hard to take a straight slasher too seriously post-Scream (something they don't exactly try to make us forget - the book even claims that five souls are needed for whatever the villain wanted! So says the "scholar" to the "athlete"), so I'll cut it a little slack. But ultimately I just don't get why it was made (and produced by the original creative team to boot) - it's pretty much the exact same movie, albeit with even less interesting characters and practical effects work that no longer has the power to impress as much as it once did.

What say you?

P.S. I won't spoil the post-credits stinger, but I can tell you that if you're the type that likes the original a lot more than Army of Darkness, you should just beat the traffic.


HMAD is dead, long live HMAD!

APRIL 1, 2013


I tried to refrain from putting too many "final thoughts" type things in the Return to Horror High post, because I'm still convinced some folks just like the IDEA of the site and verify that there's a review each day before moving on with their web browsing, so I knew I had to make a "goodbye" post to avoid any "Hey, why hasn't the site been updated all week?" type comments, but also not repeat myself too much. Because, of the many reasons I'm wrapping it up, one is that I really, REALLY hate repeating myself. I don't know if it's a disorder or if I'm merely an impatient asshole, but I get frustrated when I have to repeat an order at the drive-thru - so writing the same things about the same bad killer scarecrow or found footage movies is certainly not appealing to me.

And after 2500 movies (well, 2500 reviews - there were actually more since a few of them are "And all the rest" posts from festivals), I've pretty much run out of things to say about movies that I don't have much to say about in the first place. If you know your HMAD history, there was no site when it began - it was just something I was doing on my own, watching a horror movie every day sort of as an experiment - writing an accompanying review each day came later. If someone were to tell me in 2007 that not only would the site run daily for over 6 years but that I would write 2500 reviews about those films, I'd have thought they were nuts. I'd also ask if Mandy Lane was ever coming out, since they knew the future (and yes! It finally is later this year! One of the earliest movies I reviewed, via screener!).

Because, and this will come as the polar opposite of a shock to most of you - I'm not a writer. I've taken precisely one writing course in my life, and that was for screenplays (as part of my overall film track, where I was focused on editing), hence why I've probably broken every grammatical rule in the book and made up some new ones to boot. I read the news articles some pals of mine can turn out 3-4 times a day (Evan Saathoff, aka Sam Strange, can make even the least interesting casting announcement into a must-read post) and marvel at their ability to keep everything fresh (and hilarious), and frankly I just don't have that in me. And the movies themselves are no help, to be fair to, well, me - how many things CAN one say about 7 or 8 "different" found footage movies about some jerks investigating a hospital for their ghost hunting show? So add that to the other reasons, and you can see why I'd feel it was time to move on.

But also there's a personal life excuse. When I first started the site, I was able to do so because my work day was pretty relaxing; we spend a lot of time waiting on others and thus have to find something to do with our time (when I applied for the job, my now-boss told me "I hope you have a lot of DVDs and books!"). So I could do the writing and watch any bonus features (and sometimes the movies themselves) at my desk, keep up with my work, and still have free time to boot - I used to watch Colbert/Daily Show every day too. And then when I was home I could do whatever the hell I wanted - I played through major games like Mass Effect and GTA4 back in 2007/08, and kept up with the shows I watched. However, over the years we've had some layoffs, and while I've been safe (cross fingers), I've absorbed some/most of the duties of three people, with the last one being in January of 2012 - not too coincidentally announcing the end of the site shortly thereafter. With each one came less free time at work, which meant more and more of the site was being done at home, cutting into my relaxation time and making me fall behind on everything else. I look back and wonder how it was possible I even STARTED a game like Skyrim, let alone made some decent headway into it, when now even a game ridiculed for being too short like Walking Dead: Survival Instinct took me over a week to finish, and I only did so out of necessity since I was sent it for review (in fact, the last game I finished just for my own fun was Lego Harry Potter, and that took me almost a year). And my DVR is constantly hovering in the 80-90% full range, which is a bummer for a spoilerphobe like me.

Now I know that's all First World Problems to the extreme, but the point is - there's other stuff I want to do with my life, and frankly it's just gotten to the point where I have to choose between watching/reviewing horror movies every day, or using the knowledge (and infamy!) I've gained from doing it to try other things (or option C, win the lottery and retire from a day job. That one's pending). Folks always ask about a book - now that's a possibility (two of them in fact!). I'm also going to expand the sort of thing I do for BadassDigest, because I truly (no bias) think it's one of the best sites on the web, populated with several incredible writers, and I want to earn my place among them with more than just new reviews of stuff I've watched and written about here. And I'm either going to finish Skyrim or die trying, goddammit!

However, I get the sense from tweets and comments that folks think the site is actually going away, and I want to assure you that it's not the case. Not only will it still be up for as long as Blogspot is, but I'll still be updating as well! Badass has Devin, Evan, Meredith, and Jordan to review new movies, so when I see a major horror film (like... Evil Dead, just a few days from now?) I'll "come home" to review it, and since I've gotten on the mailing lists for a few distributors I'll still be getting new DVDs all the time. And it's not like I'm going to stop watching horror cold turkey - if I see something I dig and have something to say about, then HMAD will provide a fresh new review for you. So the site isn't dying or stopping; it's just being scaled down, rendering its name a bit misleading. It's now (in spirit, I ain't actually changing shit) Horror Movie Some Days, essentially. SO RELAX, TWITTER FOLK. :)

But obviously it won't be the same, and I admit I actually got a bit choked up and jittery writing my final "HMAD Today is..." tweet (especially since Twitter was so instrumental in not only expanding the site's readership, but also cutting down the people asking me if I was really watching one every day). And the outpouring of support has been amazing; endless tweets and Facebook wall posts from folks sad to see it go, THIS hilarious video from my friend Mike Breiburg... hell I even got to appear on Dan Harmon's (!) Harmontown podcast talking about it! However the big event was last night; my long-suffering wife conspired with Elric from the Jumpcut Cafe and my buddy Mike Williamson to gather a ton of friends for a surprise "wake" for the site, complete with custom shirts (designed by my besties JiB Sapienza and Jeff O'Brien), a delicious cake, a blanket made out of horror shirts (thanks to Tammy Sutton, Jace Anderson, and Amy Lavigne) and a tribute video shot/edited by Jason Miller. I was truly stunned; even after walking in and seeing like 50 of my friends I still had no idea what the hell was going on, as I didn't think "retiring" was a big deal to anyone but me.

So sincerely, from friends I know in the flesh to ones I only get to interact with online; to HMAD's first ever commenter (Chris) and to the always surprising and seemingly schizophrenic Anonymous and every one in between, to Phil Blankenship and Michael Torgan at the New Beverly who helped me expand the HMAD "brand" to screenings (which will continue!), to Codeblack Entertainment who "legitimized" the site by being the first distributor to send me a DVD for review (Somebody Help Me, which I have kept to this day) and to Anchor Bay/Image/Shout Factory for sending me just about everything they have, to the Blockbuster Video at Fulton/Riverside for being the unsung source of what seems like half of the movies from the first couple years, to Jackie Greed for constantly supplying screeners, to Quint from AintItCool for proving HMAD was a good idea/acronym (heh), to my lifelong hero Jim Steinman for reading the site once and thus making me realize I should probably improve my writing, to all the Twitter followers who talk about the movies with me and share the links, to anyone who has ever donated or bought stuff from Amazon, and especially to my poor wife who's watched at least half of this crap with me, THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! HMAD would literally be nothing without you.

Oh, and I am aware of the date and also my history of tricking you guys (like when I said the site was actually five people - can't believe how many people thought that was true!), but I assure you this is NOT an April Fool's gag. After last year's was such a bust (did ANYONE actually watch the movie?) I decided not to do jokes anymore if the site was still going on April 1st. In fact, I actually added a bonus review somewhere in the past month so that the last movie WOULDN'T be today which would probably arouse suspicion and give false hope to those who actually DO read it daily, because those folks are heroes. I wouldn't fuck with them. But I won't fully abandon them either!!!

See you soon!

P.S. Since someone will ask: Best - INSIDE. Worst - BENEATH THE MISSISSIPPI. Best/worst - of course, CATHY'S CURSE.


Return To Horror High (1987)

MARCH 31, 2013


When I was first asked when Horror Movie A Day would stop, I think I said "a year or so". Later I realized that there were way too many horror movies to just do it for a mere year, and so I came up with a new answer: when I could no longer remember anything about Return To Horror High, which was the first movie I watched - on February 7, 2007 - and never wrote up a review (if you recall, doing a review as well as watching came later in the process, hence why most of the reviews from Feb 2007 are placeholders). Because the site started as a means of talking about horror, and I don't know how many times I've had to consult my own review of a movie when it came up in conversation so I could remember if I even liked it, let alone anything to add to the discussion. Thus, if I couldn't remember the movie I started with and would thus need a review for all those times that it came up, I'd do so and call it a day.

Well, that day has come.

Actually that day came like 3-4 years ago, because I'm pretty sure the part of your brain that can remember details about average horror movies is severely limited - maybe enough for about 200 or so? I bet I could look at reviews from 2010 and have no memory of anything about the movie beyond what's in the review, and as I watched Horror High today it was indeed like watching a movie for the first time. I recalled only two things about it: a sex scene set to an awful ballad that inexplicably had some guys welding in the background, and the hilariously prescient arc for George Clooney's character, as he leaves the movie production (the movie's about making a horror movie - an ominous choice for my first/last movie since I'd see so many of these things in between) because he got the lead on a TV show. This was not Clooney's only low budget horror flick, but once he landed the role on ER you'd never again see him in this sort of thing, and given the movie's meta-nature it's a great little "bonus" sequence that unintentionally became the movie's best gag.

And there aren't many of those; I thought this was more of a comedic slasher but apart from a few background jokes (like an endless parade of crew members and actors coming out of a bathroom stall behind the scene's two main characters) and the awful goofy ending it's played pretty straight. Alex Rocco has some classic bits as the film's shady producer, but a funny character and a funny movie are two different things - if you're looking for a spoof version of this overplayed scenario, stick with Backlot Murders or even Urban Legend 2, both of which are less subtle with their humor. It's probably BECAUSE of that ending that it's usually listed as a "spoof", since (SPOILER) everyone is revealed to have been faking their death, using the "tragedy" (which is believed by the police) as a means of drumming up more interest in the film (sort of like the people who were interested in Blair Witch because they thought it was basically a snuff film). I'm not sure how any of this is supposed to work - not only would several people have to stay out of the public eye for quite a while (including Rocco's mega producer), but how did they fake their mangled corpses? Much is made of the fact that they're all chopped to pieces and thus the police can't even tell how many bodies they have, which makes zero sense since they would still be intact.

Another spoiler in the form of a question - are we led to believe that the screenwriter is in on it as well and simply made the entire movie up? It starts and ends "the next morning" with the cops finding all of the bodies, but it's unclear if the events happened or if the writer - claiming to be the only survivor - is just basically workshopping the script he's about to write. Either way, this explains why the deaths are all of the "show a killer advancing, cut to blood splattering all over the wall" variety - no one was actually being killed! Not sure why they'd go to so much trouble with advanced death scenarios when both the killer and victim would be in on the joke, but again maybe it's all just a fib. However, Clooney doesn't appear at the end and his death is one of the more gruesome, so maybe he really was killed either way.

Probably best not to put much thought into it. Best to focus on the positives, like the small role for Cliff Emmich, best known to horror fans as the doomed Mr. Garrett from Halloween II, or Bloody Birthday's wonderful Lori Lethin as the film's heroine (and only female of note besides Maureen McCormick as one of the cops in the framing scenes). I guess it makes sense that a low budget horror movie in the 80s would be primarily men (though future Freddy's Dead director Rachel Talalay was the First AD), but it's a bit odd at how often you're seeing dudes in this thing - was Lethin's character the only female in the movie they were making?

Speaking of the movie in the movie, it gets kind of confusing, but in a good way, when they have extended scenes that you're not sure if they're real or for the movie. See, the movie they are MAKING is about a real life tragedy that was never solved, so the movie scenes function not just as filler for fake scares for Return To Horror High, but also to fill in the actual backstory for the real killer who is still out there (yeah, even though they're all faking it, there's still an actual killer - told you it's confusing). So even when it's annoying when someone "dies" and then a director yells "CUT!" to reveal it was all staged, the scenes aren't total wastes of time - it's giving us the information on the real mystery that we need to solve. It also allowed me to forgive the same problem that's in all of these movies - those "reveals" always follow five minutes of fake movie that they were apparently filming in one shot? Wouldn't they have had to cut a whole bunch of times during this sequence? Too much suspension of disbelief is required to make this work, and it's never worth it.

But the real joy for me was that it had an end credits song called "Scary Movies", where the singer listed off all the things he loved about these things, followed by a final on-screen text reading "THE END... OR IS IT?" Folks keep treating the end of HMAD as if I was going to walk away from horror (and reviewing) forever, but that's definitely not the case - I love these things too much (and dissecting them in my nerdy way) way too much to just stop cold turkey and never return. I'll have a full post about it tomorrow but suffice to say, if you think I'd let Return To Horror High be the last movie I ever write about, you're nuttier than I am for watching 2500 movies in a row in the first place.

And I like that it turns out the movie is one of the many, many, many enjoyable but forgettable movies I've watched along the way. I wasn't bored, nor was I ever fully engaged (though that industrial fan "death" was pretty great); it gave me a few things to talk about in detail while other things have already (again!) faded from memory, and most importantly - it was the sort of movie that takes watching a ton of these to appreciate. Someone might say this is the worst movie they've ever seen because of the fake out ending and lack of any real gore (or even a killer - it's almost an hour in before we actually see him for the first time), but take it from an expert: this isn't even the worst movie I've seen in the past week. There's obviously a lot of great horror movies in the world (hopefully some I still haven't found), and a LOT of crap (probably a lot more than the 111 I've labeled as such), and it's the Return To Horror Highs of the world that not only provide a control in this grand experiment, but also ensured that I had stuff to watch every day for these past 6 years, so for all its anonymity and blandess, it's sort of the perfect movie for the occasion. Thanks, Return to Horror High.

What say you?


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