Friday, September 13, 2013

Horror in 2013: The Year So Far

I must confess I haven't seen a lot of horror films this year — frankly because I will always take a firm stance (as opposed to a wide stance) against the girly-screamy Paranormal Activity franchise and its dumbass offspring Insidious (which has a sequel coming up, of course).

Sadly, the Hatchet and VHS films don't do anything for me either. Those franchises need to put a fresh spin on the Blair Witch, 80s slasher and torture porn genres to make me take notice, but it ain't happening.

So here are a few 2013 horrors I did see so far, for better or worse...

I missed Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End during its theatrical release, so I was excited to be able to check out the veteran cult director's latest horror-comedy when it was available on netflix.

His 2002 Bubba Ho-Tep was such a sublime mixture of horror and strange comedy that I was sure this one would be a hoot, too. Alas, it was not. Where Bubba reached art-house heights of weirdness, this one tried too damn hard to be strange and devolved into a tedious runaround.

Like Cronenberg's 1999 Existenz, it makes abrupt leaps in time periods and situations, but unlike the earlier film, it doesn't add up to much, and the constant shifts become wearying rather than intriguing. Time shifting is fine if the puzzle pieces start to form a comprehensible whole, but in this case you really are quite ready for John to die about 65 minutes in.

Stitches is an English film made in 2012 that made its debut on these shores in April of this year. I attended the Los Angeles premiere at Cinespace in Hollywood, and it was a memorable evening with red-carpet appearances by such cult stars as Bai Ling and Danielle Harris.

The movie itself is a loving throwback to the slasher genre of the '80s, but unlike its American wannabe counterparts (Friday the 13th remake, anyone?) it's done very well. The effects are old school — paint and bladders — and the results are pretty hilarious.

Stitches (Ross Noble) is a burnt-out children's party clown who is accidentally killed at the sixth birthday party of little Tommy (Tommy Knight). Ten years later, he comes back from the dead to wreak revenge at the boy's sixteenth birthday party. Soon, many of the partygoers get snuffed, clown-style. It's refreshing that Noble plays Stitches as more put-out than satisfied when he kills. Unlike Freddy Kreuger, who became a ridiculously immortal wisecrack factory toward the end of his cycle, Stitches groans with exhaustion when he has to exert himself. Near the end of the film, when he has to get on a ridiculously tiny tricycle to chase down his last victims, he wearily mutters, "For fuck's sake..."

The horror comedy Warm Bodies offered a well-cast Nicholas Hoult (who looks so bizarre normally) as a zombie who finds himself coming back to life in a love story that carefully skirts any implication of necrophilia. Hoult plays R, a zombie who falls for human Julie (R and Julie, get it?) after he eats her boyfriend's brains and accesses memories of them as a couple.

Saving her from an undead horde, he takes her back to his man cave, an abandoned mobile home, and tries to make her return his affection — all without touching, of course, because that would be sick. It was too gentle for my taste, and the PG-13 rating prevented it from veering off into twisted territory, something it desperately needed.

Having enjoyed such revisualizations and remakes as Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Alexandre Aja's vast improvement of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, I was interested to see what Spanish director Fede Alvarez could do with Raimi's seminal first film, Evil Dead.

Alas, not much. Aside from some appealing casting, like Thumbsucker's Lou Taylor Pucci (who gets tortured a lot in this film) and Shameless nymphet Jane Levy (Lip's ba-a-a-d girlfriend), it's really just a trudge through the same backwoods with slicker special effects. I really found myself missing the DIY charm of Raimi's original — and Bruce Campbell. And unlike the previously mentioned remakes, which found ways to amp up the horror or turn familiar situations around in surprising ways, this one just dribbled a little more gore on the 1981 original. Oh, well. At least the Oldsmobile got its cameo.

I was intrigued when the critics were wetting themselves over The Conjuring, declaring it the absolutely most horrifying film of the summer. It's directed by James Wan, who made the first Saw and the okay Dead Silence. And, well, Insidious. I really hoped I was going to get the bejesus scared out of me. Plus the cast — Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingston? A-list horror!

Well, the bejesus was bored out of me. The Amityville Horror-style suspense lasted for about 40 minutes and when Farmiga and Wilson showed up as the real-life ghostbusters, I was longing for the stately presence of Beatrice Straight — those two gave me Jim and Tammy Bakker vibes. Even though they were supposed to be earnest and the real thing, they just came off like carnival hucksters.

In fact, most of the dialogue felt really phony. The only truly scary moment happened when a couple of the daughters were in their beds at night and one of them kept insisting that something was behind the door. That was good, but the filmmakers couldn't resist over playing their hand in the style of the girl-screamy genre.

By the time the black-haired J-horror apparitions started hopping around, I would've quoted Stitches and said "For fuck's sake!" but I was at an industry screening. And poor Lily — one of our best indie actors (Dogfight, I Shot Andy Warhol, Pecker) was forced to do another dumbass possession scene in another crap movie (the other one, of course, being Jan De Bont's ill-advised 1999 remake of the classic The Haunting).

This one probably made me the angriest. It promised so much — even the opening credits more-or-less say, "We guarantee you're going to pee yourself!" — and fell back on the stupid-ass  "jumping-spectre-accompanied-by-soundtrack-jolt" trope. Oh, please — Wan, indeed.

Finally — at last! — a breath of fresh air appeared on the horizon. The trailers for You're Next promised that it was "really fucking scary," and certainly the jolts worked (which was refreshing), but the best aspect of the film for me was its strangeness.

It's a familiar home invasion-style story that can trace its history all the way back to Bergman's 1960 Academy Award-winner The Virgin Spring (which is, after all, the film that the notorious Last House on the Left is based on).

A well-to-do family gathers at its country estate to celebrate Mom and Dad's wedding anniversary. When they sit down to dinner, they're attacked by mysterious, unseen assassins and the celebration quickly transforms into a fight for survival.What makes the film fresh are the aspects director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett bring to the table.

At first you think it's going to be bad. The acting seems subpar, the action routine — but that's what the filmmakers intended. It starts like the third feature at the drive-in, when your eyelids are drooping but you're hoping to be electrified by a twist you haven't seen before. And it happens! Hilarious interfamily battles, surprise deaths and a whodunnit that takes a while to figure out — the works.

You're Next has some significant cult star appearances, including Larry Fessenden (Thirst) and Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator), but they're just the icing on this amusing cake. Ridiculously, this film sat on the shelf for two years before it finally got its well-deserved theatrical release in August.

The only horror film remaining on the schedule of interest to me whatsoever is Kimberly Peirce's Carrie reboot. Chloe Grace Moretz already killed it as the undead Abby in Let Me In, and it'll be interesting to see a version with the kids actually played! No offense to the Brian De Palma classic, but those were some mighty old teenagers. And Julianne Moore as Margaret White. the mother from hell, is an inspired choice.

One drawback is that it looks like this one may get "carrie"-d away with the digital effects. But at least it's not in 3D!

1 comment:

Norman M Brown said...

'Carrie'-d away... brilliant! Love this site.


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