Monday, December 15, 2014

Scenes From a Marriage

As I said a few years back with the underrated Deadgirl and The Horde, there are, in the 21st century, only two reasons to make a zombie movie:

1. Use the concept of the undead as symbol or means to explore a deeper theme (i.e., male aggression in Deadgirl)
2. Just make a really f*cking good movie (i.e., The Horde)

Ben Wagner's Dead WIthin is an independent horror film in every sense of the definition. To call it a zombie film is actually incredibly misleading, but it does make my point above so we'll go for it anyway.

Quick Plot: A happily married couple with a baby and yellow lab visit their friends in their secluded mountain home. Cut, rather immediately, to some time later when the visiting pair is now alone in the boarded up house, nary a baby bib, dog dish, or pot roast in sight.

Kim and Mike, we learn, have survived what must have been a national, and probably worldwide pandemic. Symptoms are similar to the rage infected victims of 28 Days Later, with mass aggression being the goal. Those who suffer it exhibit black blood and huge dilated pupils. Also, they're dead before the change. 

We don't get a newsreel or montage to explain this, nor do we need one. We piece it together pretty clearly from the completely natural interractions of Kim and Mike, a happy middle class couple whose date nights have become decidedly less sexy. 

Their days are no better. Mike spends most of them foraging the countryside to bring home clean food, batteries, and the occasional slinky gown. Kim is therefore left alone to clean, paint, mourn, and wonder what goes on outside in the sunny landscape surroundings.

Dead Within credits its lead actors along with Wagner and Matthew Bradford for the screenplay, and it's safe to assume much of their dialogue was improvised. This can often be a blessing or curse, but it works superbly here. Mike and Kim aren't the most engaging or clever pair of characters to be centered in a film, but they're completely believable. The conversations they have--and tellingly, the ones they don't--are exactly what you would expect to hear from a married couple whose only company for a half a year has been each other.

This is, at least to me, a genuinely scary and expertly crafted film. Wagner doesn't shove the plague in our faces. Instead, it serves more as a background fact that's for a while less scary than the human horror of being confined to your own thoughts day in and out. As a result, when the virus begins to play a stronger part, it's somehow even more horrifying to witness. Wagner wisely keeps the menace just outside the characters' (and our) walls for so long that the screams and scratches builds so much of the tension.

There's also the growing stress of Kim, strongly played by Amy Cale Peterson. Is she going insane with cabin fever or could Mike really be plotting something on his daily voyages? Credit goes to both Peterson, actor Dean Chekvala, and Wagner for just how effective the uncertainly proves to be. It's rare that I watch a movie and have absolutely zero idea where it's going, and yet I could not decide who to trust or fear. The movie is probably being sold as "wife goes crazy!" but it's far more complicated than that. We stay with Kim the whole film and as a result, we fully identify with her fears and doubts. Yes, there’s clear paranoia at play, but Dead Within handles it so carefully that our own trust in our senses is completely awash.

High Points
Between both its musical score and the specific noises used for its monsters, Dead Within has one of the best sound designs I've ever heard on a low budget horror film

Low Points
Considering most of the action is strategically confined to the cabin, it was a tad frustrating to not have a completely clear understanding of the house's geography

Lessons Learned
One could easily make an apocalyptic cookbook culled from cuisine featured in the film. Meals served that shouldn't be appetizing, but somehow made me hungry included canned peaches seasoned with nutmeg and the crunchy joys of uncooked lasagna noodles coated in Crisco

I loved this movie. Watching it so closely after the equally great, yet very different 13 Sins helped to give me yet another surge of optimism about the state of modern horror. Dead Within isn't perfect, but it's filmed, scripted, acted, and scored so darn well that it should serve as a prime example of how to make a genre film on a limited budget. The movie is so smart in how it establishes its universe and dangers and perhaps more importantly, knows how to build and time them in such a way that they're genuinely scary. I jumped more than once watching Dead Within (and full confession, said jumping was done a crowded bus commute in the Bronx). This is a strong little movie that knows how to use its resources to maximum effect. Well done, kids.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Somebody Got Married

And it was me!

You probably already knew that, but if you want some of the juicier details, then don your finest fringed tuxedo and best pair of literal kitten heels to wander on over to this installment of Offbeat Bridewhere you can read and see all the highlights from the big day.

Our non-puppet heads are even there, I promise!

Monday, December 8, 2014

I'm Going Out of My Mine

The Pretty Young People Go Into the Woods And Die Horribly subgenre is not a small field, especially on Netflix Instant. Like most of its peers, Mine Games sports an attractive cast, 90 minute runtime, and uninspiring poster. Thankfully, it also has a little more storyline (review spoiler alert: perhaps too much storyline) and an admirable sense of ambition. 

It’s almost adorable.

Quick Plot: A group of attractive recent college graduates embark on a road trip to spend a few days at their friend's secluded cabin mansion in the woods. Attractive young people include the following:

Lyla, the sensible brunette played by Step Up and a whole lot of horror movies' Brianna Evigan
(No, this isn't from Mine Games, but don't you wish it was?)
Mike, her schizophrenic boyfriend who doesn't like to talk about being a schizophrenic boyfriend

TJ, the jock

Lex, his British and obnoxious cousin

Claire, the blonde

Rose, the medium (every group of attractive friends has one)

and Guy, the other guy

En route, driver Mike swerves to not kill a man flagging them down for help but drives on without helping said flagger. Shortly after, the car breaks down just a few miles from the group's destination. They walk on (passing mysterious Northern Lights along the way)  to find their pal's house empty but welcoming, with a note and plenty of cocktail glasses of all sizes and shapes to ensure a good party no matter what your drink of choice might be.

The next day, TJ discovers an abandoned mine that obviously equals THE best place to take psychedelic mushrooms. Rose senses some evil presence is afoot, especially after something seemingly evil grabs her foot. 

See what I did there?

Things get progressively weirder from that point on. It's interesting because with its pretty cast and out-in-the-woods premise, it would have been fairly simple to keep Mine Games (also known  under the cheesier title The Evil Within) in the realms of the easy slasher. Director Richard Gray, working with a whole lot of writers (probably too many writers), instead makes a rather complicated little horror film that leans more towards Triangle than The Evil Dead.

It's a mixed blessing.

Mine Games ultimately has far more ambition than air-tight quality, but that's not to say it isn't an enjoyable watch. The script gets quite tricky once its third act revs up, and while it's admirably suspenseful and occasionally disturbing, I don't think it actually comes together fully. In some ways, that's absolutely fine. I don't mind a film that keeps me guessing. I just usually like to know that I might eventually stumble upon the right answer.

High Points
It doesn’t all work, but come on: I’ll take a horror movie that goes for a complicated plot twist involving worm holes over yet another found footage slasher any day

Low Points
I can't imagine anyone in the mental health field is happy about how horror films have taken to blaming schizophrenia for all the horrors of the world

I might be in the minority here, but is it crazy to want to be able to see a movie? I get that we're in a mine and overhead lighting doesn't come for free, but you know...cinema is a fairly visual medium and stuff.

Lessons Learned
Splitting up is the number one way to get pack raped

In the words of George Bluth Sr., THAT'S WHY YOU LEAVE A NOTE.

In the amended lesson from this film, THAT'S WHY YOU SIGN YOUR NOTE.

For a straight to Instant Watch horror film, Mine Games is better, or at least more interesting than average. Like a lot of time travel-based films, it falls apart with too much analysis. If you can suspend logic, Mine Games makes for a pretty fun, surprising, and even occasionally scary little viewing. One could do far worse with original horror in the 21st century.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Do You Want To Play a Game?

Cheeky dark humor, likable characters, surprising plot twists, badass beheadings, AND Ron Perlman?

Folks, we might have a winner.

Quick Plot: Nice guy Elliot is a few days away from marrying his pregnant fiancee when he loses his insurance sales job for being too nice of a guy. Saddled with the debt of college loans, looming baby bills, and the financial responsibility of taking care of his elderly father and special needs brother Michael, you could say Elliot is having something of a terrible horrible no good very bad day.

It's about to get a whole lot worse.

A WHOLE lot. A whole lot as in 'eating a dead fly is probably the best of it.'

Elliot, you see, has been chosen as a contestant for a mysterious 'game' that makes Fear Factor look like as easy as Wheel of Fortune. A grandfatherly voice on his flip phone assigns Elliot a task to complete. With each successful finish, Elliot earns big money, so long as he completes all thirteen  progressively more challenging challenges. Digesting a household insect makes it a no brainer; making a child cry and sawing off an old acquaintance's arm are no regular Daily Double.

13 Sins is a remake of a very good Thai horror film called, depending on your translation, 13: Game of Death. Written and directed by The Last Exorcism's Daniel Stamm, 13 Sins takes what worked in the original and smartly adds plenty more, taking great care to craft its lead character as a realistic and sympathetic man in way over his head.

Elliot, played by Mark Webber, is easy to root for. The film establishes him very quickly as a good man taxed with big commitments he, like so many of us normal folks, can’t possibly fulfill. I know that it's something of a tradition to cast your token young pretty people in the horror genre, but as I watched 13 Sins a few days after Crowsnest, I was reminded just how hard I hate said tradition. The characters at the heart of Crowsnest (a typical found footage slasher) were early twentysomething upper middle class brats who had no redeeming qualities other than being human beings. 

Elliot is still a young guy, but he's a NICE young guy. A quick scene with his boss establishes, without overly complex exposition, that Elliot doesn't like to cheat people. He kisses his wife goodbye. He cares for his brother. It's not that he deserves to live because he's a human being, but that he deserves to live a happy life because he’s just a good, if not extraordinary man. See, young filmmakers? It's not that hard!

In addition to tweaking its protagonist's family life, 13 Sins also adds an intriguing subplot using the always intriguing Pruitt Taylor Vince and the always excessively awesome Ron Perlman. Vince plays a man whose past experiences with the game have led to an obsessive quest to uncover its secrets and reveal them to the world. It's a fun side story that gives us a taste of just deep the conspiracy runs (hint: it just might involve a grassy knoll). 

You know, I am more than happy to say that I really dug 13 Sins. Much like The Last Exorcism, the film toes a difficult line between comedy, satire, and true horror. It treats its characters like people rather than genre trope roadblocks (ironic considering the film is essentially about the powerful treating the powerless as pawns), making it easy and natural for the audience to be fully invested in the action. Despite being a remake of a fairly new film, it also manages plenty of surprises by altering the material more than enough for the same audience. 

High Points
Any film that begins with an elite benefit dinner being crashed by an honored elderly man's speech turning into a dirty joke and finger severing can't be bad

The original film involved poop eating. This one does not. For that alone, I am a happy viewer

Low Points

I like the balanced tone of the ending, but the completist in me is stuck wondering "so what now?" 

Lessons Learned
The more guests you invite to your rehearsal dinner, the more chaos you should expect to unfold at the toasting

Homeless men want nothing to do with ostriches

Shoot first. Ask questions after.

The hotter the nurse, the less effective the local anesthetic 

13 Sins is a fine way to spend 90 minutes of your life. The film manages to balance black humor with real stakes so that even if you might chuckle at the sight of mass decapitation, the fact that your lead character reacts to it like a person helps to ground the story in that very vital humanity. You can find the film streaming on Netflix Instant where it exceeds the quality and depth of most of its breezy peers. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Stop Picking At It!

Well that was weird.

Recently, I watched a chilling little Netflix streamer called Dark Touch. You'll have to wait until February's Attack of the Shorties for the full review, but I'll tell you now that I found it fairly great. On the surface, it was an easy killer kid film (my favorite kind) but much like the recent WWE released Oculus, the film proved to be an incredibly sad metaphor for child abuse. With that in mind, I was happy to seek out more films from director Marina de Van.

Quick Plot: Esther (played by the writer/director herself) is an attractive middle class young woman quickly rising through the corporate ranks at her marketing job and about to buy an apartment with her handsome, successful boyfriend. Life's just a bowl of cherries, or, as we're in France, a carton of cigarettes.

One night at the kind of parties French films like this one and Irreversible have led me to believe are daily occasions for attractive Europeans, Esther accidentally cuts her leg on some metal. Thinking nothing of it, she continues to dance and drink the night away, only realizing much later the true severity of the wound. A doctor urges her to get surgery, but for no clear reason, she decides to let it heal on its own.

Kind of.

Before you could open a bottle of red wine, Esther finds herself rather fascinated by her bloody infection. She cuts it open, chews at it, pokes at it, shreds it in order to tan what can be saved--

Yeah. Ew.

Throughout all of this self-mutilation, Esther continues her 'real' life, occasionally with disastrous results. A work dinner with important clients goes south quickly when Esther, after a few glugs of wine, begins to see her arm as being dislocated from her body. It's a fascinating and much-discussed scene that does a surreal job of contrasting this insane body horror with the dull bourgeois conversation held amongst professionals unwilling to fully acknowledge whatever madness might be around them. 

As director, writer, and star, Marina de Van truly gives her all in In My Skin. The term ‘brave’ performance usually just refers to an attractive actress playing a scene naked or without makeup, but what Van does is far more complicated and yes, brave. Esther isn’t fun or even likable, per say. Van puts a distance in her character that deliberately feels cold and almost off-putting. It’s not that we don’t like Esther: it’s more that we, like her fiance, can’t seem to really know her.

In My Skin calls to mind the works of David Cronenberg, a similarly experimental filmmaker whose fascination with the human body has led to some of the genre’s most memorably twisted moments. In My Skin isn’t quite as fulfilling as something like Videodrome, but it’s a strangely fascinating tale that leaves a definite mark on the viewer. I don’t think it’s for every horror fan and I haven’t fully reconciled what it was trying to do, but it’s the kind of film that will challenge you well after its final does of gore.

High Points
At first, I almost felt like the blankness of Esther was  something negative. Why not give us a little more of pre-cut Esther so we get to know and see how far she falls. By the end of the film, however, I realized how purposeful it was for Esther to be utterly ordinary and inaccessible. Any shading on her personality would skew one’s interpretation of what it all means

Low Points
That being said, I’m still not entirely sure what it all means. But I might just be a dumb ol’ Amerrkan

Lessons Learned
Potassium alum is the secret to tanning human skin

How I long to say "go to the doctor when you gash open your leg and find yourself bleeding profusely"...

And yet, dear reader, how can I espouse such a simple direction when time and time again, I find myself slicing a chunk of my finger off when cutting bread, only to power through the blood loss in order to finish dinner? With my multiple unnecessary scars, I say: I am in no position to give doctoral advice on such issues as this

Marina de Van is probably one of the most interesting, yet under the radar new voices in modern horror. I haven’t fully wrapped my head around In My Skin, but I loved the challenge of it and will certainly revisit it in the future. This is an unusual spin on body horror that might not be immediately satisfying, but is certainly worth the effort. It will stick with you.