Seven Psychopaths (2012)
by Steve Habrat
I wish that Martin McDonagh would direct more movies. We haven’t seen much of the Irish screenwriter and director since his small but darkly hilarious 2008 film In Bruges, the scrappy hit-men-on-holiday thriller that brought out the funnyman in Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. In Bruges turned out to be one of the strongest films of 2008 but it was sorely overlooked when the “Best of the Year” lists were published. After a lengthy wait, we finally have Seven Psychopaths, the equally hilarious and shockingly gruesome send up of the gangster genre and Hollywood action vehicles. With the tongue and jaw of Quentin Tarantino and enough gore to make any member of the splat pack blush, Seven Psychopaths is a minor effort, one destined for cult popularity and late night viewings with your friends. To be fair, there is nothing wrong with its instant cult status but it certainly makes the film a bit alienating to the casual viewer. While there is plenty to love in Seven Psychopaths, there are a few little annoyances with the script that prevent it from achieving the greatness of In Bruges, but the star power is McDonagh’s greatest strength here and he more than allows Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits to unleash their inner freaks.
Seven Psychopaths introduces us to Marty (Played by Farrell), a struggling screenwriter with a massive drinking problem. He spends his days in sunny Los Angeles with his buddy Billy (Played by Rockwell), an unemployed actor who kidnaps dogs with Hans (Played by Walken), a seemingly mild mannered man with a violent past. Hans and Billy then return the stolen pups to their owners and claim the rewards. After Hans and Billy kidnap a Shih Tzu that belongs to unhinged gangster Charlie (Played by Harrelson), Billy, Hans, and Marty go on the run from the ruthless gangster who will do anything to get his dog back. Meanwhile, Marty is scraping for ideas for a screenplay he is writing called “Seven Psychopaths” and seeking out individuals who consider themselves “psychos.” Along the way, he encounters Zachariah Rigby (Played by Waits), who traveled around with his wife killing serial killers and a masked vigilante who targets high-ranking members of the mob. As all of their paths cross, the bullets begin to fly and dead bodies stack up.
While the script is packed with plenty of comedic banter between all these wackos, Seven Psychopath hits a snag in the way it chooses to handle some of the characters. Olga Kurylenko shows up briefly as Charlie’s girlfriend Angela and Abbie Cornish is the in the mix as Marty’s fed up galpal Kaya but neither are given very much to do. While the death of one of these female characters is used to comment on the way that women are handled in action movies (it is hilariously dissected), I would have really loved to see one of them get down and bloody with the boys but that never happens. There is also another main character that I think was grossly mishandled and should have played a bigger part in the film, especially after the taste that we get of him. It is tough to discuss these flaws because Seven Psychopaths is just loaded with twists and turns that add to the fun, especially with its characters. I also think that when the characters step out of the sunny Los Angeles streets, things don’t run as smoothly as McDonagh thinks they do. There is still something to be said about the way that McDonagh spirals towards the ending, teasing us with ideas of a grand gunfight and characters dying in a slow-motion hail of gunfire, all while doing it behind a never-ending sea of hysterical one liners to keep things playful.
Seven Psychopaths is never ashamed to be a bloody character piece, one that has plenty of emotion weight behind each character. Marty wins us over almost instantly as a scribe perpetually recovering from the night before, shaking himself out of a hangover with a freshly cracked beer. He is basically the only (semi) normal one of the bunch and his reactions to the sudden violence thrown into his world are insanely realistic and knee slapping. Rockwell continues to prove why he is a talent to be reckoned with as mile-a-minute Billy, the eager chum who wants so desperately to help with Marty’s new screenplay. McDonagh hands him all the best lines of the film and he’s the one who gets to rant and rave about how he wants their situation to end. Walken is his usual self as Hans, a crafty old bat who just wants to take care of his sick wife. At times, Walken seems to be playing a cartoonish version of himself but he has never been as bad ass as he is at the end of this film (his reaction to someone aiming a gun at him is classic). Harrelson is a welcome presence as lunatic gangster Charlie, who will do ANYTHING to get his beloved dog back. He flits between menacing and hilarious in the blink of an eye, bring that demented gleam in his eye that we saw in Natural Born Killers. Rounding out the main characters in Waits as Zachariah Rigby, who gets probably the most shocking sequence of the entire movie. His character is as inspired as they come and the way that McDonagh weaves history into his character is downright brilliant.
While In Bruges certainly had its fair share of blood, Seven Psychopaths brings the blood, the guts, and splattered brains. There are jolting fits of violence and sudden confrontations that would make Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez as giddy as as schoolgirls. The way that the film introduces us to each “psychopath” is also pretty inspired, some of them emerging from Marty’s own screenplay while others joining the “real world” madness. It may be gratuitous and it may be gonzo but Seven Psychopaths can catch you off guard with its serious moments, a trick that allows the film to linger a little longer than you may anticipate. Be prepared to be knocked down a peg here or there and be even more prepared to actually feel it. Overall, it may get a bit jumbled from time to time and you may need a second viewing just to put it all together (there are a lot of characters and stories here), but Seven Psychopaths is a witty and left-of-center comedic satire that, once again, leaves me wanting more from Mr. McDonagh. I just hope we don’t have to wait another four years for him to grace us with his presence. That is just too long to make us wait!
by Steve Habrat
Ever since Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse ripped through movie theaters back in 2007, there have been multiple attempts to emulate that film’s underground success. Far from a huge hit on release, Grindhouse found an audience in fans of cult cinema, trashy horror, and sleazy exploitation, and has since become something of an unsung classic. A classic that happens to feature melting penises, a serial killer who dispatches his victims with a hot rod, gooey zombies, and go-go dancers with machine gun legs. As a fan of that wasteland of cinema, I have praised Grindhouse for its attempt to transport its audience back to the good old days of sleaze and doing it quite well. Credit should go to Tarantino and Rodriguez, who did it with plenty of gusto and a strong understanding of what made those films so fun. The sleaze films they were paying tribute to weren’t perfect, but they had their hearts in the right place so it was easy to forgive them for the flimsy production value and shock tactics. While some of the copycats have been okay, there is one out there that should have never seen the light of day. Behold Chillerama, another attempt at celebrating sleaze and trash but going about it the complete wrong way. From the wrapped minds of director’s Adam Green (director of 2006’s Hatchet), Joe Lynch (director of 2007’s Wrong Turn 2: Dead End), Adam Rifkin (director of 1999’s Detroit Rock City), and Tim Sullivan (director of 2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams), this D-squad of B-movie fans try to recreate the glory days of the drive-in but end up with an insufferable stink bomb of a movie that complete misses the mark.
Chillerama begins on the closing night of the last drive-in in America. This drive-in, run by Cecil Kaufman (Played by Richard Riehle), is gearing up to show its faithful patrons one final night of long lost horror movies that are so rare, it is the first time they are ever being shown on American soil. As Wadzilla (a 50’s style giant creatures attack flick directed by Rifkin), I Was a Teenage Werebear (a 60’s beach party meets The Lost Boys directed by openly gay filmmaker Sullivan), and The Diary of Anne Frankenstein (an Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS meets Universal Movie Monster knockoff directed by Green) roll on the screen, the audience members begin to suffer from strange symptoms that are turning them into sex-crazed zombies. As the place is overrun with the undead, it is up to Tobe (Played by Corey Jones), Mayna (Played by Kaili Thorne), Ryan (Played by Brendan McCreary), and Miller (Played by Ward Roberts) to band together and try to save the drive-in before it closes its doors for good.
Lacking the big name draw and subtle humor that Grindhouse had, Chillerama is trying so hard that it is almost painful to watch. It is riddled with nonstop movie references that are weirdly distracting or have absolutely no place in a film like this (What is with the Orson Wells nod?). Presented as a collection of short films (they all run about twenty-five minutes), Chillerama is preoccupied with being a relentless knee-slapping romp with so much strained sleaze that it seems like these guys are trying to convince us that they with can outdo what Tarantino and Rodriguez did. Unfortunately, they can’t nor will they ever be able to. The film begins with necrophilia and from there, the directors seem like they are locked in a gross-out competition rather than attempting to make a complete vision. Wadzilla finds its actors sprayed with gallons of fake semen while the homoerotic I Was a Teenage Werebear has a man killing another man with his erect penis. While exploitation films got weird (Have you ever seen Burial Ground?!), a little wild, and more than a little disgusting (Cannibal Holocaust anyone?), they were NEVER this cartoonishly foul. There was still a serious side despite the cringe inducing acting and the pointless nude scenes that filled out there runtime.
When you aren’t fighting back gags, you’ll find Chillerama is a severely disjointed and inconsistent thrill ride. Grindhouse benefitted from smooth sailing from the first frame of the Machete trailer to the final frame of Death Proof. There was never a dry spot in Grindhouse, although the argument could be made that there were a few slower moments, moments necessary to build story. Chillerama does have a bit of momentum in Wadzilla, even if it is a little too disgusting for its own good. It does have a few jokes that land and the hokey special effects really make the film what it is. It is the highlight of the picture but once we hit I Was a Teenage Werebear, things fly wildly off the rails and the handful of giggles that were found in Wadzilla evaporate from the screen. I have to give the idea credit, a beach party thrown by gay werewolves does sound pretty intriguing but the execution is such a disaster that you can’t wait for it to end. This short is done in by poor musical numbers that are eye rolling and severely unfunny. It also has tons of misdirected raunchy moments that blow up in its face. And then there is The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, which is a mind numbing monster movie that features its actors yelling gibberish while making contemporary jokes in a film that is supposed to be dated. Everything culminates with the idiotic orgy of Zom B Movie (directed by Joe Lynch), which finds gangs of sex crazed maniacs roaming the drive-in for an undead roll in the hay. It is here that Riehle gets to really cut loose but the amateurs around him keep things stuck in the entrails.
There really isn’t much to say about the acting in Chillerama. It is purposely “bad” but the irony is that it is really bad “bad” acting. As far as familiar faces go, outside of Riehle, the only other recognizable thespians will be Eric Roberts, Ron Jeremy, Kane Hodder, and Joel David Moore, all who should be busy scrubbing this filth from their résumés as soon as they get the chance (yes, even Ron Jeremy). The sets and production design are also pretty bad too, but I’m sure it was on purpose (at least I hope). It seems like the four fanboys who are responsible for this didn’t properly divide up the money and it appears as if I Was a Teenage Werebear got screwed, as it all takes place on the beach with barely a set to speak of. This might hit the funny bone for some but to me, Chillerama just seemed too disorganized, with four people pulling in opposite directions. Furthermore, not one of these men knows who to write a funny joke and should consider stepping away from comedy immediately. If you happen to be a fan of the Golden Age of Trash cinema, my advice is stay away from Chillerama. Instead, pop in your Grindhouse Blu-ray or consider revisiting your 42nd Street Forever Collection. Hell, go with the real thing if you must but just promise me you will never watch Chillerama.
Chillerama is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Spirit (2008)
by Steve Habrat
Imagine if Sin City tried to be funny and refused to take any of its characters seriously. Don’t want to? Yeah, I don’t blame you. Director Frank Miller (Yes, the comic book writer) seems to not be able to shake the visual approach of his 2005 film Sin City (Remember, he co-directed Sin City with Robert Rodriguez) and carries the curious look over to The Spirit, an overly campy and convoluted superhero film based off the comic strip by Will Eisner. Miller so desperately wanted to film a moving comic strip that he pays absolutely no attention to the storyline or the characters and instead obsessively pours over the visual look of his film. The Spirit is a visual knockout, that I can say, but the rest of the film leaves a lot to be desired. The storyline is monotonous and at times almost unintelligible and the hero is so dull that you may find yourself forgetting to root for him. Miller pits this square against the Octopus, a villain that goes through more wardrobe changes in this film than any pop singer at a concert. Stir in a handful of hot babes and you have an over seasoned recipe for disaster.
The Spirit takes us to Central City and introduces us to Denny Colt (Played by Gabriel Macht), an undead police officer who prowls the streets of the city as the Spirit, a masked crime fighter/detective. The Spirit receives a phone call one evening from Detective Sussman (Played by Dan Gerrity) about something strange going on down by an old shipwreck on the outskirts of Central City. The Spirit makes his way to the shipwreck where he bumps in to a femme fatale from his past, Sand Saref (Played by Eva Mendes), who is trying to make off with two mysterious crates. Saref is foiled by the Spirit’s arch nemesis the Octopus (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), a villain in one awful costume after another. After gunning down Sussman and forcing Saref to leave one of the crates behind, the Octopus claims it for himself and calls in his sidekick Silken Floss (Played by Scarlett Johansson) and his army of cloned henchmen (All played by Louis Lombardi). The Spirit confronts the Octopus and the two engage in a massive brawl that ends with the Octopus telling the Spirit that they share a connection. As the Spirit investigates Sand Saref’s reemergence in Central City and his mysterious connection to the Octopus, the Spirit discovers that the Octopus is on a quest for immortality, a quest that could threaten the entire city.
Shallow right from the beginning, Miller never allows us to really get to know Denny Colt, the man behind the fedora and mask. He sprints around rooftops in all black with a fluttering red tie as he explains to us in a voiceover that he is “in love with his city,” she always “provides” for him, and that his “city screams.” As the Spirit, Denny can take quite a bit of punishment because he is, well, a spirit. He spends most of the film outrunning an otherworldly Angel of Death called Lorelei (Played by Jaime King), who coaxes him into the afterlife where he belongs. All of this is supposed to count as character development throughout The Spirit but it is mostly there to lead to one trippy sequence after another. A scene where the Spirit drifts through an afterlife hallucination sure does radiate vision that would have looked marvelous in a comic book but just seems pointless on the big screen. In fact, almost everything in The Spirit is meaningless and silly, almost like Miller just smashed a bunch of images together that he thought would look great. This is even more apparent in the Octopus, who dressed up in one ridiculous costume after another as he paces around plotting how to kill the Spirit. He is just bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, no explanation required.
Then there is the humor and tongue and cheek antics that further make The Spirit the eye-rolling experience that it is. It tries to wink at us even thought it wants you to think that it is really cool. Take things seriously but not too seriously, says Miller! Miller blends together slang from the 1940’s with modern day technology in an effort to really give his universe some pizzazz but you are left wondering why he didn’t just stick to the 40’s all together. The performances by everyone involved seem a bit confused, diffident, or disinterested, no one daring to do the unthinkable and stand out. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been hard considering the lifeless script that Miller provides. The driest is without quest Macht as Denny Colt/The Spirit, who appears to be sleepwalking through the entire film. When he is pitted against Jackson’s Octopus, he practically disappears from the frame but not because Jackson is particularly good, just that he holds the screen better than Macht. Jackson, meanwhile, barks through dialogue like “toilets are always funny” as he smashes the Spirit over the head with a porcelain throne. He is more comical than sinister. The ladies are all there to be sexy, mostly Mendes who gets to shed her clothes in one scene and show off her backside, a scene just to drive fanboys wild. I hate to break it to Miller but this still does nothing to liven things up. Then there is Lombardi as the sea of cloned henchmen who are more irritating than funny like they are supposed to be.
It really became a chore to not nod off while watching The Spirit and I usually never have that problem. This film is like watching glowing white blood dry (trust me, there is glowing white blood in The Spirit). There is nothing in the way of remarkable action, no character worth giving a damn about, and a plot line that was so disjointed and confusing that I couldn’t get swept up in the story. Maybe if you zapped the dialogue out of the film and played a collection of songs over the images, it would make for one hell of a music video (it is just a suggestion). It is obvious that if Miller had a good script, he could make something that would really be a must-see but The Spirit is just not that film. I’d be interested to see if he ever returns to filmmaking but let’s hope he doesn’t write it. Sadly, it feels like Miller ripped off his own material and we are all left wishing that he would have made Sin City 2. Overall, if you insist on watching The Spirit, make sure you down an energy drink, munch on plenty of sugary candy, and maybe even have a pot of coffee on hand. You are going to need it if you are going to get through this dud. I guess the Spirit should have stuck to haunting the pages of comic books.
The Spirit is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
It is a damn shame that the double feature ode to exploitation trash of years past Grindhouse flopped at the box office. It is an even bigger shame that most audience members didn’t even try to comprehend what it was that directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were trying to sell to the audience. The flop turned Grindhouse into a cult classic that, in a way, I’m glad avoided the mainstream and has basically been forgotten by most average moviegoers. More fun for fans of cult cinema. Grindhouse is one of the coolest movies of recent memory, a slaphappy revelry filled with blood, guts, zombies, fast cars, hot chicks, nudity, fake trailers, werewolves, Thanksgiving killers, machete wielding Federales, and more. Can you really argue with any of that? I didn’t think so. The way I see it, Rodriguez and Tarantino came up with an incredibly original idea, harkening back to the grimy double features of the 70’s and 80’s, and in the process, they tried to make going to the movies an event again. How people missed the point of having a little fun at the movies is truly beyond me.
The first half of this bonanza belongs to Robert Rodriguez and his gooey zombie flick Planet Terror. After an opening Go-Go dance from Cherry Darling (Played by Rose McGowan), the rural Texas town that she calls home suddenly is overrun with a nasty virus that turns the citizens from normal people into “sickos”, who crave human flesh. Teaming up with her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Played by Freddy Rodriguez), the syringe shooting Dr. Dakota Block (Played by Marley Shelton), and a slew of others, the group attempts to escape the deadly outbreak but they end up stumbling upon more than safety from the “sickos”. The second half of Grindhouse belongs to Quentin Tarantino and his car chase film Death Proof, which follows a group of hip gals who are involved in the making of a movie. They soon find themselves being tormented by a deranged stunt car driver named Stuntman Mike (Played by Kurt Russell), who enjoys killing young girls with his “death proof” muscle car. Stuntman Mike meets his match when some of the girls begin to fight back against him, turning the tables on the maniac and forcing him into a fight for his own life.
Being a double feature, no portion of Grindhouse is ever a drag but the case could be made that Tarantino’s Death Proof slams on the breaks of this speed demon. The madness hits white-knuckle territory in Planet Terror, which goes for the throat right from the very beginning. It easily outshines Death Proof and is entertaining from the opening Go-Go dance right down to the melting penises at the climax. That does not mean that I dislike Death Proof. Oh no, I absolutely love Death Proof but I feel like it should have been the first film shown and followed up by Planet Terror, which cranks things up to the max. To be honest, I hate separating the two films but it is almost impossible to evaluate Grindhouse without evaluating the films as separate pieces. I do, however, view the entire film, complete with fake trailers, to be one whole movie. It drives me crazy that the films were split up upon their initial release to DVD. I don’t think they hold up well on their own and they desperately need each other for support.
Rodriguez and Tarantino go to great lengths to replicate a night in an old movie palace on 42nd Street. They both digitally went in and scratched the prints up, making them look like two films from the 70’s that were discovered in a filthy theater basement. Rodriguez throws in a gag with a missing reel, creating a massive jump in his film that is added at just the right time. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror brings to mind the Italian zombie films that were favorites among grind house theaters in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He has continuously said that he found inspiration in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and he throws in a nasty little nod to the film at the end. He also throws in nods to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Hell of the Living Dead, and more, none being left out of all the excitement. He also creates a new cult legend with Cherry, who ends up having one of her legs replaced with a machine gun. It is a nifty nod to Evil Dead’s Ash, who is also forced to replace a severed limb with a deadly weapon.
In Death Proof, things are a little more polished and clean, a bit strange when it set against the crude Planet Terror. Packing very few scratches but having chuckle worthy skips in the film; Death Proof is more of a slow build experience. It’s pure Tarantino, featuring tons of drawn out conversations while the camera circles the actors and actresses like a shark. Death Proof ends up a battlefield for Russell and costar Zoe Bell, who plays stunt girl Zoe. Bell, who was a stunt double for Uma Thruman in Kill Bill, shows off her acting skills and ends up almost stealing the show from Russell, who gets to radiate bad boy charisma every time that camera is turned on him. When Tarantino waves the checkered flags and begins the rough car chases, he proves himself to be a master when it comes to adrenaline pumping action sequences. Death Proof ends up borrowing from such films as Vanishing Point, the slasher genre, and is vaguely evocative of Faster, Pussycat… Kill! Kill! and Thriller: A Cruel Picture, allowing the film to morph into an exotic beast all its own.
Grindhouse would not be complete without the four spectacular fake trailers that have been tacked on and they end up surpassing the greatness of the two films. Tarantino and Rodriguez invited fellow exploitation enthusiasts Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), and Eli Roth (Hostel) to cook up some fake trailers and the results are sheer bliss for horror and exploitation fans. When I initially saw the film, my favorite was easily Roth’s Thanksgiving, which almost pushed the film into an NC-17 rating and it’s not hard to see why. It is so depraved and outrageous, it left me crossing my fingers that they would make it into an actual movie. In the multiple times that I have seen the film since seeing it at the local theater, I have grown like Wright’s Don’t the best. It is hectically comical and bizarre, actually turning out to be pretty frightening despite how weird it is. Zombie leaves his mark with the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink Werewolf Women of the S.S., a nod to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie’s trailer does pack one hell of a big surprise so do not even think about underestimating it. Rodriguez also contributes to the madness with Machete, which opens Grindhouse with a bloody bang, letting us know that Machete “gets the women and kills the bad guys”. Keep your eyes peeled for an awesome cameo from Cheech Marin.
Grindhouse is without question one of my favorite movies of all time. It is the embodiment of why I go to the movies and why I dedicate myself to them. It was nonstop entertainment and lunacy for three fucking hours! I smiled the entire time and happily went back to the theater for seconds and heavily considered thirds. It is a shame the film flopped at the box office, poorly timed with its release (Easter weekend) and languidly marketed, many scratching their heads over the trailer. It didn’t reach a wide audience because mainstream viewers were not in on the joke, missing the point that it was a double feature and the film was purposely bad. As a whole, Grindhouse has a spark that cannot be duplicated and in its wake, there have been a lot of imitators and a minor spike in interest in cult classics and exploitation sleaze. With the spike in interest, it is hard to say that Grindhouse was a dud and hasn’t lived on past its release, rallying new fans everyday to the wonderful trash cinema of past years. The beauty doesn’t stop there, as Grindhouse can also serve as a learning tool, one that introduces viewers to a specific era in cinema and sheds light on an era that was largely forgotten when the movie palaces closed their doors and the drive-ins disappeared. Despite all the intentional mistakes and low budget cheese, Grindhouse is a rare modern film that is perfect, making it a must-see cult-classic.
Grindhouse is available of Blu-ray.
The House of the Devil (2009)
by Steve Habrat
Director Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a fussy tribute to 1980’s horror films, would have seemed right at home in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Perhaps Grindhouse was supposed to be a triple feature and this is a long lost entry?! From the retro opening credits to the coarse camerawork, all the film needed was some digital scratches added in and this could have been a long lost film from the 1980s. For a good majority of its runtime, The House of the Devil is all superb build up. West mounts tension like a pro and leaves the viewer wondering where the film is going to go. Those who have no prior knowledge about the film are in for a shock when the finale roars onto the screen. The climax is both a blessing and a curse for The House of the Devil, satisfying the monster movie crowd while also driving the film into excessively bloody territory. It is the go-for-broke finale that also makes the film seem like it was the forgotten addition to Grindhouse.
Levelheaded college student named Samantha (Played by Jocelin Donahue) is desperate to get out of her dorm where she shacks up with her messy and inconsiderate roommate. Samantha finds the perfect apartment but she is unable to afford the pricey security deposit. The sympathetic landlady agrees to let her have the apartment for just the first month’s rent, which is still slightly a problem for Samantha because she has very little money in her checking account. Samantha soon discovers an odd babysitting job for the vague Mr. Ulman (Played by Tom Noonan), which promises to pay a large sum of money for one night of work. Much to the protests of her best friend Megan (Played by Greta Gerwig), Samantha agrees to take the job, even though the description is slightly suspicious. The babysitting job also happens to line up with a rare lunar eclipse, which has the whole college town buzzing. As the night goes on, Samantha begins to suspect that there is more to the babysitting job than she has been lead to believe.
Director West refuses to hold our hand through much of The House of the Devil, leaving us stranded alone with the protagonist Samantha. West understands that by limiting the amount of characters, it ups the horror ante. We aren’t given the reassurance that multiple characters bring to the table, allowing us to take shelter in the thought that at least a few of these people will make it through the horror. Oh no, Samantha endures a night of terror alone with basically no hope for help, a touch that I really loved. It harkened back to the first time I watched Evil Dead, and the agonizing experience of watching Ash fight to see the morning all by himself. But West also refuses to spoon feed the many plot points to the audience, an approach that both aids in the horror of The House of the Devil but also hurts the payoff. One character’s identity is largely unknown to the audience (although you should be able to pinpoint who he is rather quickly if you are pay attention) and the bloody ending is a bit incoherent and left up for debate with what was actually happening. The incoherent ending does have a plus side, mostly because our lack of information at the end does add to the spookiness of the events that we witness.
West also deserves credit for what he does with set direction and accomplishing the task of transporting us back to the eighties with just a few costumes, a car, an old television set, and a dated pizza shop. It’s obvious that the budget was tight on The House of the Devil, something that always is beneficial because when horror gets a lot of money, valid scares and atmosphere are replaced with CGI monsters. Yet with some high-rise jeans, a Walkman, some clever song usage, and the actual appliance of make-up of the climax’s monster, West achieves a lot with very little. It genuinely feels like it is from the heyday of horror, when things were a lot more restrained and we were a much more patient audience. West allows the style to almost work as a third character, allowing it to grow on screen as the film moves along. I was almost anxious to see what little touch he would throw in next. It culminated in a horror movie special on the local channel that plays George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Very cool, West! I call the style in The House of the Devil a character because it is something that older viewers who lived through and clearly remember this era can relate to, have fun with, and reminisce over. West clearly isn’t doing it just because he thinks its hip.
The acting in The House of the Devil is also top notch, always serious and never hammy. The credit falls on the shoulders of Donahue, who does much of her acting alone. She’s a bit geeky but in a cute way. She is studious, driven, and organized, aspects of her personality that we gather both visually (from her dorm room) and verbally (she is kind of a worrywart). I found myself genuinely fearing for because I found her to be such a sweet girl. I also loved her interaction with her pal Megan. Gerwig gives Megan a feisty side, laying on the opposites attract device rather thick. It’s all in a friendship way in this film. Megan seems more interested in going out and having a good time where Samantha seems like more of a shut in. Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman is heavily suspicious from his first appearance, playing a tense and faintly sympathetic bad guy. Mary Woronov shows up briefly as Mrs. Ulman, who seems like more of a threat than Mr. Ulman. AJ Bowen shows up as a mysterious bearded man who stalks the home that Samantha is watching.
The House of the Devil is for the diehard fans of the horror genre. Those seeking a fast paced thrill ride will be severely disappointed with what West serves up. The resourcefulness is focused and regimented and the build up is the work of someone who knows how to generate dread in anticipation, something largely missing in mainstream gorefests. When researching the film, I found out that the film was released in VHS form for the promotional side of the film, something that adds to the character of the style and adding to the forgotten gem from the early eighties feel. West did a great job making me feel like I found the movie on the dusty shelves of a run down video store. I wish that West had tweaked the final twenty minutes of the film and toned down some of the absurdity of it. The House of the Devil is scary; that I promise you (one scene near the end really freaked me out and all that you see is a hand coming out of a cracked door) and it is perfect to watch late at night with all the lights out (which I did). Despite its flaws, it’s the perfect sleepover movie or midnight flick for those who long for a time when horror actually had some balls.
The House of the Devil is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Last Circus (2011)
by Steve Habrat
If you are one of the individuals out there who suffers from coulrophobia, a crippling fear of clowns, you should stay far away from Álex de la Iglesia’s hectic foreign art house flick The Last Circus, a bloody allegory that is a visual fiesta and resembles something from the minds of Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez. For all its visual gifts, The Last Circus falls apart slowly and by the end, is a giant lumbering mess of a film. The load grows heavy with too many characters serving no purpose but to fill up a frame and populate the circus that is the main setting. The Last Circus does succeed as a bizarre genre mash-up, at one moment it’s a horror film, the next second it’s a dark comedy, the next moment it’s a romance film, and the next it’s a perverse action film. Experiments like this don’t always work (Take a look at the western/science fiction action dud Cowboys & Aliens for obvious proof) but The Last Circus balances it quite nicely. Good thing since this film is already walking a swaying tightrope.
The Last Circus packs as much content as it can into its hour and fifty minute runtime. It saddened me to find that there are quite a few slow spots in what promised early on to be a nonstop rush. Beginning in 1937 and using the Spanish Civil War as the backdrop, a guttural militia group drops in to a local theater where a sad clown and happy clown are performing for a cheering group of children. Just outside, bombs fall and shake dust from the ceiling onto the clowns. The militia leader is looking for any help they can find and they need every able bodied man to join their ranks. The happy clown is forced into service, handed a machete, let loose on the National soldiers, and in a frenzied attack, the happy clown lays waste to an entire platoon. He is soon captured and placed in a military jail, forced into labor and waiting out a death sentence. His young son vows to free his father and almost succeeds. The film then fast-forwards to 1973, where the son, Javier (Played by Carlos Areces) has now grown up and gotten a job working as a sad clown for a local circus. He is paired up with the happy clown Sergio (Played by Antonio de la Torre), who is married to the striking and beguiling acrobat Natalia (Played by Carolina Bang, who wears multiple wigs throughout the runtime). Javier falls in love with Natalia, who appears to share the same feelings. Sergio is abusive and unwilling to let Natalia out of his site, as he suspects she is cheating on him with another man. Javier and Sergio soon clash with each other for her affection, a clash that escalates into a violent stand-off between the two men. Murder, savage beatings, self-mutilation, graphic sex, and sinister figures from the past all emerge as the two fight to the death for Natalia.
While the only way to describe The Last Circus is a truly bizarre work of art, the film seems unsure what to do with everything crammed into it. Characters get lost in the shuffle or are unrecognizable due to ever changing physical appearances, the ending is too CGI heavy, and the constant grotesqueries mar what could be a thought-provoking event. I’m sure the film is more rewarding for the Spanish audiences, who are the ones who will be able to piece this allegory together. The film also has some cool use of stock footage that was incorporated smoothly throughout the journey. Yet I found glaring problems with the storyline, mostly in the sudden mental collapse that Javier undergoes. Why has he suddenly just snapped? Was he that close to the breaking point? The film never gives a clear-cut answer to this question. The only hint we get is the constant harassment from Sergio. Even this explanation I do not buy, mostly because Sergio isn’t that terrible to Javier in the first place.
The performances in The Last Circus are all quite good; the best is easily de la Torre’s Sergio, who looks like Heath Ledger’s alcoholic stunt double from The Dark Knight. He endures a beating so brutal, it’s amazing he isn’t dead. He looms in the shadows watching Natalia, all of these scenes resembling images out of a comic book. Areces does a fine job when he’s completely lost his marbles but he is astonishingly uninteresting as the sane Javier. When he is randomly firing his machine guns in a small diner, you’ll find yourself developing coulrophobia with each bullet fired. Bang’s Natalia is all deceitful smiles and suggestive lip licking, cleaning blood from her oozing nose. She’s masochistic and does more flip-flops than I ever thought possible. At one second she is shrieking at Sergio’s mutilated mug and the next second she can’t get enough of him. I am still trying to figure out if she was sincere in her interactions with Javier.
I would recommend The Last Circus for it’s Baroque settings and macabre make-up effects. Someone get this crew to the set of J. Edgar and fast! The action is disorienting in the first ten minutes of the movie and then it maneuvers into tedium by the final fistfight. A figure from the past is wasted and would have been a far more lasting villain than Sergio. But for all the smarts this film has, and trust me, it is very clever, it consistently looses site of what it is trying to achieve. At times it felt rather preoccupied and more concerned with its visual stimulants. Sure, I like a film to look pretty and have some nifty sets, boast a crisp picture, and have an aura of impulsiveness, but The Last Circus left me unaffected, the furthest thing from traumatized, dismayed, or charged up politically. I turned it off thinking about how pretty it looked in HD and how disturbing clowns really are.
The Last Circus is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at Anti-Film School! We hope you have an awesome Turkey Day. Enjoy the trailer below from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse!
NOTE: Anti-Film School does not claim ownership of this video.
by Steve Habrat
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead did not strictly send the United States alone into a frenzy over zombie horror. Italy had also taken notice and they drooled over the ultra-gory horror flicks to the point where they went to great lengths to emulate the master’s formula and success. While many of these zombie films made in Italy from 1979 through the mid 1980’s were extremely poor in the quality department, there are still a handful of them that are reputable. They even have a rare scare or three to be found among the senseless nudity, exploitation, extreme violence, and wantonness. The best Italian zombie movie is without question Lucio Fulci’s 1979 fire starter Zombie, which is one of the goriest movie I have ever seen next to 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, and Hell of the Living Dead. It’s also not the level of awfulness that is 1980’s Zombie Holocaust, which used leftover sets and footage from Fulci’s tropical island nightmare. Zombie is the true embodiment of a grind house picture, inspiring Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, which was loaded with nods to the original film. Shock rocker Rob Zombie also borrows the opening visuals of his concert from this film’s legendary trailer, which you can watch below this review. Many filmmakers have expressed affection for this film and remains one of the most talked about cult classics of all time. Not a great film, Zombie proves to be shockingly entertaining and influential.
Perhaps the most original of all Italian zombie flicks that were sent over from Italy with love, it was it’s own movie from beginning to end. Most of these other zombie films borrowed music from other zombie films (Hell of the Living Dead borrows music from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), actual scenes (Zombie Holocaust), and even smashing together the jungle cannibal flicks (Cannibal Holocaust) with zombie films, making for some strange exploitation concoctions. I love these films, the most unusual that I have seen is without question Burial Grounds, a film that is another cult icon, one that is not sold widely and still is a movie that must be obtained under the table. I found my copy in a record exchange, the guy who sold it to me oozing with delight that a fan of these types of gorehound horror films was in his shop and even showing me other exploitation films I should own like the controversial 1976 film Snuff, a film that many people still argue features real death caught on camera. He practically reached over the counter to hug me when I told him I owned the two-disc DVD set of Cannibal Holocaust. I meet some strange individuals seeking out films like this and I love it. But Zombie is the true freak show of the group because it’s actually good!
The plot of Zombie is basically irrelevant, there only to guide us through disgusting peepshows of zombie feeding sequences, death scenes, and piss-poor excuses for two of the handful of actresses in the film to get naked. The film begins with an abandoned yacht floating into the New York City harbor, on board a handful of zombies, which immediately attack the police officers sent aboard to explore the boat. It turns out that the boat belongs to a scientist currently residing in the Antilles. A journalist named Peter (Played by Ian McCulloch) and the scientist’s daughter Anne (Played by Tisa Farrow) team up with another couple, ethnologist Brian (Played by Al Cliver) and his all-to-egar-to-get-nude explorer girlfriend Susan (Played by Auretta Gay). Once they reach the tropical island, they discover that it has been overrun with the walking dead who are seeking the flesh of the living. The group tries to round up Anne’s father and escape with their lives before they meet their demise.
The plotline is one-dimensional and shamefully foreseeable, but it’s the effects execution that makes this film a true gross-out classic. The film was advertised as coming equipped with bar bags for audience members and while watching it; it’s easy to see why those with sensitive stomachs would be running for the bathroom. Zombie does have its fair share of tense moments, which makes it better than the average Italian zombie flick. The climatic siege on a church can run with the attacks on the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead. Even at its crudest moments, like the looping of one particular scene, it still manages to be inescapably claustrophobic. Another inspired scene is an underwater attack by a zombie that ends with a zombie battling a shark. The cinematography is incisive, the choreography smooth, the editing tight, the vivacious electronic score just right, and the scares pitch perfect. It truly is an essential horror movie moment. Perhaps Romero saw the scene and was inspired for later installments (Land of the Dead) in his Dead series. The shots of abandoned villages are also hair-raising, showing wobbly villages caught in windstorms and billowing dust, rotting zombies staggering through the dirt streets. It’s probably some of the most handsome shots in any exploitation horror film.
This is not a film you see for the acting. You see it for certain moments and for how detailed the make-up and gore is. A scene with reanimated Spanish conquistadors is truly grotesque. The ghouls have worms falling out of their eye sockets, crooked rotting teeth darting at jugulars and ripping skin from throats. The ghouls are covered from head to toe in dirt and filth, blood pouring from gaping wounds. The dispatching of one zombie ends with a cracked skull and jellied brains pouring from it’s broken head. Another scene finds the scientists gorgeous wife getting snatched by a zombie and having her eye gouged out by a giant piece of splintered wood. It has to rank as one of the most unforgettable death sequences ever caught on film. It’s appalling. But Zombie doesn’t stop there. Our group of protagonists force their way into the scientist’s house only to discover a handful of hungry ghouls picking at her shredded corpse, with enough flowing blood and gooey guts to satisfy a hundred Romero zombie films.
Zombie is an experience. That I can say confidently. It’s not all that intelligent and it opts for style every chance it gets. It inspired countless other amateur Italian directors to take a stab at the zombie film. It’s extraordinary ghouls were the blueprint for films like Burial Grounds. The most vivid of all the ziti zombie offerings, it’s flawed (the end scene is absolutely hilarious, proving the budget on this film was not a large sum of cash), but somehow it adds to its allure. It’s not for everyone and I heavily warn those who seek it out. It’s brutal and relentlessly violent. The poor performances and extreme overacting will soften the blow, making the film go down easier for those who have trouble with it. One of my personal favorites around Halloween and a nice break from the complex Romero films, Zombie remains a cult icon. It will have you watching from between the cracked fingers covering your eyes and you may not want to eat anything red for a while after watching it, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a blemished masterpiece. Grade: B+