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Cloverfield (2008)

Cloverfield #1

by Steve Habrat

In the wake of director Roland Emmerich’s reviled 1998 Godzilla remake, the giant monster movie kept a very low profile for many years. The holiday season of 2005 saw the release of director Peter Jackson’s divisive King Kong remake—a three-hour epic that either thrilled fans of classic monster movies or sent them into a deep slumber. It would be another three years before anyone even remotely thought about another giant monster movie. That all changed in early 2008 with Cloverfield, a ferociously intense “found footage” thriller that preyed upon our post-9/11 paranoia. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield re-ignited a bit of interest in creature features—specifically Toho Co.’s “Kaiju” films from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and dared to give the subgenre a bit of its bite back. While certainly not perfect, Reeves and Abrams are able to orchestrate quite a bit of urban destruction on a tiny budget of only $25 million. The special effects are absolutely fantastic, and when briefly glimpsed in the glow of gun and cannon fire, the giant extraterrestrial wrecking havoc in the Big Apple will undoubtedly nab a shiver or two. However, the downfall of Cloverfield are the unlikeable characters we are forced to brave this warzone with, and a painfully slow opening sequence made all the more unbearable through some shaky attempts by the actors to seem natural.

Cloverfield begins with a surprise going-away party for Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David), who is preparing to move to Japan to start a new job. The party—which has been organized by Rob’s brother, Jason (played by Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend, Hud (played by T.J. Miller), who is tasked with filming testimonials from party guests—gets off to a pleasant start, but things take a turn when Rob’s friend Beth (played by Odette Yustman), who he recently slept with, brings another date to the party. The drama between Rob and Beth is interrupted when a large tremor shakes New York City and plunges the city into a blackout. The party guests dash to the roof, where they witness a large explosion that sends debris raining down upon their heads. The party spills out onto the streets, where the terrified citizens quickly learn that an unidentified creature is terrorizing the city. The military quickly begins trying to evacuate the confused citizens, but Rob refuses to leave without Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in Time Warner Center. Desperate to reach the one he loves, Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s crush, Marlena (played by Lizzy Caplan), attempt a rescue mission, but their journey grows even more dangerous as they encounter parasitic creatures shed by the massive monster, and they learn of the military’s shocking plot to destroy the creature.

Despite a brief runtime of only eighty-five minutes, Cloverfield gets off to a relatively slow start. Reeves, Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard force the audience to spend the first twenty minutes of the film with a handful of characters that we never truly grow to like. They are one-dimensional and, frankly, kind of annoying as they bob around their hip soirée and force themselves to act natural. Lucky for us, just when we’ve about had our fill of their high school squabbling, the filmmakers shake the earth, blow up some buildings, and kick the action into high gear. It begins with shaky shots of New York citizens congregating in the street as buildings collapse in the distance and the Statue of Liberty’s head goes crashing down the street. From there, Reeves and Abrams lay waste to familiar sights all around the Big Apple, each one more terrifying than the next. Woven between the scenes of destruction are evocative little moments that call to mind the horrors of September 11th, 2001—a catastrophic event that was still fresh in the mind of many audience members and documented in a similar manner. We get scenes of characters diving into small little shops as rolling clouds of dust creep by the storefront windows, dusty and dazed citizens emerge from twisted piles of wreckage, and people dash away from collapsing skyscrapers, all of which are captured on a tiny little handheld camera.

Cloverfield #2

While the destruction retains a disquieting tone, Reeves and Abrams don’t entirely forget they are making a monster movie. With the “found footage” technique, the filmmakers are able to mask the tight budget, and more importantly, conceal the creature flailing around between the crumbling buildings. For a good portion of the film, the monster is only briefly glimpsed in blurred shots as our protagonists sprint between advancing military men. These moments are wildly intimidating, as deafening gunfire rages from one side and the snapping jaws of the towering beast snarling on the other. Credit should go to the sound department, who crank the noise up so loud that you would swear you left your seat and joined the combat on screen. The creature action gets even creepier when our protagonists flee the war-torn streets and retreat to the abandoned subways underneath the city. It’s here that Reeves and Abrams allow us an up-close glimpse of the parasitic beasts that the main monster has shedding. Through a night-vision filter, the spider-like critters spring around the darkness and chomp at our blind heroes until they are a bloody mess. It’s probably the scariest moment of the entire film, and it sets up a gruesome plot twist that smartly lacks much exposition. Reeves and Abram understand the power behind the less you know and the more you see, but they botch it in the end by providing audiences a clear glimpse of the monster that wipes away any fear you had previously. It’s a grave mistake that leaves Cloverfield falling flat on its face.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Cloverfield is the acting, which is painfully forced and amateurish. Stahl-David is flat-out horrid as Rob, a big baby who is constantly complaining or whining about trying to find Beth. Miller’s oafish cameraman Hud makes clumsy swipes at dimwitted humor and consistently acts like a brain-dead idiot. It’s downright impossible to believe that Rob would consider him a best friend. Yustman’s Beth just whimpers and clings to Rob, while Lucas’s Lily essentially begs Rob to reconsider his hysteric rescue mission. The only actress who really registers is Caplan, who frowns her way through Marlena, a snobby hipster who rolls her eyes as Hud tries desperately to flirt with her. Together, none of them really have any chemistry, and all you can do is roll your eyes as they try to sell the audience tired drunken dramatics. Overall, the characters may get on your last nerve and the finale may spoil a monster that was better left in the shadows, but Cloverfield turns out to be a surprisingly tolerable “found footage” thriller with more than a few flashes of creature-feature brilliance. Much like the classic monster movies that acted as the inspiration, it reflects upon current paranoia, and it does it while respectfully tipping its hat.

Grade: B

Evil Dead (2013)

Evil Dead (2013)

by Steve Habrat

I think that most horror fans would agree that Sam Raimi’s 1981 ultra-low budget horror film The Evil Dead stands as one of the scariest and most influential efforts within the horror genre. The very idea of trying to remake the film for modern audiences was absolutely blasphemous. For years, Hollywood threatened to dig out the Book of the Dead and even Raimi himself hinted that he might return to that dingy cabin in the woods for more groovy mayhem, but it seemed like just a bunch of fluff. After years of rumors, horror fans finally have director Fede Alvarez’s ultra-gruesome reimagining Evil Dead, and it arrives in theaters with an overwhelming amount of hype, a giddy blessing from the makers of the original film (Raimi, original star Bruce Campbell, and original producer Robert G. Tapert all serve as producers here), and a tagline proudly declaring it as “the most terrifying film you will ever experience.” That is a pretty bold claim! Well folks, this reimagining (the filmmakers are adamant that it ISN’T a remake) is far from the scariest film you will ever experience. Hell, it doesn’t even come close to reaching the levels of terror that Raimi reached back in ‘81. However, you should be warned that Alvarez’s Evil Dead is without question the most brutal, violent, shocking, and repulsive mainstream movie you will see. Once that howling demon charged out of the woods and the blood started flowing out of that cabin, I absolutely could not believe that this film earned an R-rating. Get your barf bags ready!

Evil Dead introduces us to Mia (Played by Jane Levy), a drug addict trying to go cold-turkey with the help of her estranged brother, David (Played by Shiloh Fernandez), his girlfriend, Natalie (Played by Elizabeth Blackmore), nurse Olivia (Played by Jessica Lucas), and childhood friend Eric (Played by Lou Taylor Pucci). Desperate to make sure that Mia doesn’t fall back into her nasty habit, the group decides to take her to an isolated cabin in the woods, a place where the friends spent much of their childhood. Shortly after arriving at the dilapidated cabin, Mia begins complaining of a horrible odor coming from somewhere within the cabin. After a bit of searching and snooping, the group stumbles upon the macabre basement, where they find a slew of dead cats and a strange book wrapped in a trash bag and barbed wire. Naturally, curiosity gets the best of the group and they decide to read a couple of passages despite the countless warnings scribbled on the pages. Soon, Mia begins suffering from bizarre hallucinations that the group waves off as just another symptom of withdraw. However, after a violent attack with a shot gun and a hair-raising warning that they are all going to die, the group begins to suspect that there may be supernatural forces emerging from the woods.

Alvarez certainly scores points with attempting something new with a familiar formula. He could have easily just served up a bunch of dimwitted teenagers retreating to a cabin for a weekend of drinking and hooking up, but he opts for something more mature and that certainly toys with the audience, at least early on. During the early hallucinations, you can’t help but suspect that maybe this is all just in Mia’s head, but Alvarez hits the breaks on this when Eric mumbles passages from that dreaded book. From that point on, all the emphasis is put on the blood, guts, and gore and Evil Dead delivers it all while wielding an assortment of power tools and, yes, that legendary boomstick. Your stomach will do a somersault as one character slices off her own face, you’ll cringe as nails are shot from a nail gun into another characters arm (and face and leg), you’ll cover your eyes as one character yaks bloody vomit all over another character’s face, and then, in the ultimate gross-out moment, a character pulls a syringe needle from just underneath their eyeball. Just when you are convinced Evil Dead can’t get anymore gruesome, the grand finale finds the lone hero facing off against a yellow-eyed demon with nothing but a chainsaw, all while gooey blood rains from the blackened sky. It is the blood-dipped cherry on the top of this gore sundae.

Evil Dead (2013)

While Evil Dead excels in the effects department, it takes a dip when it comes to the acting. Alvarez appears to be under the impression that audiences will be flocking to his Evil Dead simply for the extreme gore, but he forgets that what made the original film so memorable was the acting, especially from Bruce Campbell. None of the actors or actresses in this Evil Dead come close to giving the performance that Campbell did, but two of the five really stand out. Levy does a fine job as the drug-addict Mia, and she does make you chew on your nails when she is overtaken by the growling poltergeist. She snaps her head around and goes wild-eyed while howling, “you’re all going to die tonight!” In between Levy’s frenzied blasts, Pucci is busy with being hilariously terrified and appalled the entire time. In this humorless and heavy affair, his Eric manages to make us chuckle (his reaction to the self-mutilation in front of him is absolutely priceless). While Levy and Pucci are busy stealing the show, Fernandez and Lucas look like they are trying way too hard to be serious, but there is a nifty little fake out with Fernandez’s character near the end of the film. Blackmore’s Olivia is completely underdeveloped and almost forgotten until Alvarez needs her to start hacking, chopping, and shooting both herself and her chums.

It may be hard to believe, but Alvarez’s Evil Dead is absolutely dazzling to look at. Some scenes look washed out while others are plunged into complete darkness. The film is thick with a grimy and grungy atmosphere that is made all the more surreal through peculiar camera angles and an oddly beautiful score from Roque Banos. When things erupt, Banos cues what sounds like a toxic alarm to announce the snarling ghouls and I must say, it is an effective and icky tool. For a film with so much going for it, it is frustrating to find Alvarez falling back on the same old jump scares and loud music blasts to nab a jolt. As much as I hate to say it, this tactic just seemed cheap and lazy when layered over the rich production. Overall, even though it isn’t as scary as it promised and at times feels completely unnecessary, Evil Dead gets the job done when it comes to nauseating its audience and it does it style. It is an absolutely blast spotting references to the original film and there are more than a few moments that will go down in the horror history books. Make sure you stick around through the end credits for a surprise that will have horror fans everywhere erupting in applause.

Grade: B+