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Attack of the Remakes! The Hills Have Eyes (2006)

by Steve Habrat

It didn’t take long for Alexandre Aja’s The Hill’s Have Eyes remake to win me over. All it took was that brutal opening sequence and the spirited, stock footage atomic blast credits to convince me that I was in for one hell of a punishing ride. This zippy, bloody remake based on Wes Craven’s 1977 original has certainly been one of the more polarizing reboots to come out of Hollywood. The gritty original film is beloved for its simplicity but its status as a horror classic remains debatable. In fact, I think this is one of the few instances where I would have to go with the remake over the original film. Certainly not a film for the faint of heart, I would go so far as to say that Aja’s interpretation of this radiated nightmare is one of the strongest, most unforgiving, and confident mainstream horror films of recent memory. I adore the fact that this film refuses to play nice and just coast on autopilot as loud blasts of music startle us rather than scare us. I love that it dares give the viewer a heart attack as it drops a helpless infant into a savage world where deformed mutants attempt to chop it up and eat it. I hold my breath as our desperate liberal pacifist hero tiptoes around a forgotten atomic bomb test village as the savage cannibals growl and snicker from unseen vantage points. And how about that score from Tomandandy, all atomic alerts and static moans as characters are slaughtered in the most horrific ways imaginable. This, my friends, is a horror film that isn’t afraid to get right in the viewers face and stay there.

The Hills Have Eyes introduces us to Ethel Carter (Played by Kathleen Quinlan) and her husband, “Big” Bob Carter (Played by Ted Levine), who are on their way from Cleveland, Ohio to San Diego, California for their wedding anniversary. Behind them, they are dragging a trailer filled with their cranky teenage daughter Brenda (Played by Emile de Ravin), respectful son Bobby (Played by Dan Byrd), eldest daughter Lynn (Played by Vinessa Shaw), Lynn’s liberal husband Doug Bukowski (Played by Aaron Stanford), their newborn daughter Catherine, and a pair of feisty German Shepherds.  After stopping off at a dilapidated gas station in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the greasy gas station attendant recommends a scenic short cut for the family to take. “Big” Bob decides to take the recommended short cut but after traveling a few miles down the beaten path, the family’s tires are punctured by a spike belt. Stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a totaled car, the family begins trying to figure out a way to make it back to the main road and get help. As night falls in the New Mexico hills, the Carter’s begin to realize that they are not alone and that someone is watching them.

After the arresting opening sequence, Aja allows us to really get to know the Carter family in all their dysfunctional glory. They appear to be the typical American family that bickers, fights, but comes together over dinner. Aja lingers on them a long time before he unleashes his nuclear band of mutants that hide out in a dusty atomic test village. When he finally does launch into the carnage, he doesn’t ease us into it. He grabs us by the hair and tosses us in with such ferocity that we almost need a minute to recover. He knocks off three characters half way through and then to make things worse, we have a kidnapped newborn child to worry about. This first attack on the Carter’s has to ranks as one of the most terrifying sequences in a horror film, as one character is burned to death outside, a graphic rape and torture is occurring inside the trailer. This sequence will bring you to your knees as you watch from the cracked fingers covering your eyes. The sequence really leaves a bruise because we care for these characters and we are forced to watch as they are senselessly slaughtered right in front of our eyes. The film has been accused of descending into “torture porn” but I disagree with this argument. “Torture porn” films like Saw really failed to engage me emotionally like The Hills Have Eyes did. Saw was just disgusting where The Hills Have Eyes is scaring, traumatizing, and disturbing while also churning your stomach.

The one flaw that I can find with The Hills Have Eyes is some of the dialogue at the beginning of the film is poorly written. It was far from natural as characters ramble on with obviously scripted conversations. Luckily, we have some talented actors and actresses in front of the camera who can sell the lame dialogue. Levine ad-libbed all of his dialogue and its all the better for it. He is just fantastic as the gun-totting Republican who loves to tease his liberal son-in-law. Quinlan is believable as the loving mother who stews and frets over her children as they tease her with one dirty joke after another. Byrd and de Ravin are nicely cast as teenage hellions who argue with one another over little things that don’t warrant an argument. In the second half of the film, they really come together to stay alive and keep each other from succumbing to inconsolable grief. Shaw is sort of forgettable as Lynn but it is sweet the way she tries to keep Doug’s spirit up even as Bob relentlessly teases him. Stanford is probably the best next to Levine, especially in the second half of the film. Watching him transform from a non-confrontational wimp into a shotgun packing man on a mission is absolutely jaw dropping.

Elevated by strong pacing and a stunning explosion of violence, The Hills Have Eyes certain gets under your skin and fast. The action is complimented by a marvelous score by Tomandandy, who build suspense with a chugging atomic alert when the mutants are about to strike and make Ennio Morricone proud as soaring trumpets punctuate the final showdown. By the end, it almost sounds like Aja borrowed the score from a forgotten spaghetti western. The make-up and special effects on the mutants is also fairly impressive but the less you know about them, the better they are. I will say that I would have liked to see a bit more development out of them but they are pretty spooky as they are. I liked that Aja doesn’t ever reveal how many mutants are lurking out in the desert, which adds another chilling layer to the film. What ultimately makes The Hills Have Eyes into a ferocious winner is its willingness to be as unpredictable as possible. Aja refuses to work from a familiar formula and his addition of the atomic test village at the end allows the film to stand apart from Craven’s original film. Overall, The Hills Have Eyes is an intelligent horror film that isn’t afraid to leave the viewer rattled to their core. If Hollywood insists on remakes, they should all be as good as this.

Grade: A

The Hills Have Eyes is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Martyrs (2008)

by Steve Habrat

Way back in 2008, when horror was still in its torture porn cycle, France contributed Martyrs to the orgy of depravity. While Martyrs is much more thought provoking than some of the other genre entries (Saw), at times you can tell it doesn’t have much more on its mind than skin crawling violence. After a nasty yet attention-grabbing opening sequence, Martyrs slowly begins falling apart right in front of our eyes as it begins to resemble Hostel with each passing second. The film does pull a last act twist that you won’t be expecting and that is where the wheels in your brain will start turning and an icy chill will consume your body. Yet I had a hard time with Martyrs because, being a French film, there is strong sense of superiority to the project, like it is under the impression that it is much smarter than it actually is. The problem is the questions it raises will only stick with you for a short while after the film has ended, and then everything dries up or fades away.

Martyrs starts off with a young girl, Lucie, fleeing a gloomy torture chamber, making a mad, whining dash for her life. Lucie is picked up by authorities and then placed in the care of an orphanage where she meets another young girl named Anna, who she becomes extremely close with. Lucie also finds herself suffering from strange sightings of a horribly scarred girl who continuously torments her. Speeding ahead fifteen years, Lucie shows up at the door of a seemingly normal family and when the mother opens the door to greet Lucie, she opens fire on the family with a double barrel shotgun. After butchering the whole family, Lucie (Played by Mylene Jampanoi) makes a call to Anna (Played by Morjana Alaoui) and proceeds to tell her that she thinks she found the people who tortured her. Anna shows up to help Lucie clean up the gory messy, but the terrifying hallucinations become worse for Lucie and there may be more secrets that the family was hiding, including more victims and ties to a sinister organization who sets their sights on young women.

Without giving too much away, Martyrs becomes enamored with the idea of what lies beyond death, an existential proposal that will spark conversation but the film is only half concerned with it. Instead, director Pascal Laugier was more interested in his monster that plagues Lucie and how convincing the make-up work would be on his battered actors. Martyrs is a vile experience and is incredibly sadistic, and I’ll admit, I was impressed by how authentic the violence looked, but that is only half the battle. While I am admittedly a fan of hardcore cinema, I am a little tougher on torture porn because I feel that very little thought has actually gone into it. It’s very easy to gross people out and it seems like a cheap shot. Martyrs definitely feels like a cheap shot, a film that lacks barely a suspenseful moment but is just constantly disgusting and cringe inducing. The monster that follows Lucie is effective here and there, but that largely disappears by the middle of the film.

The film begins with a bang, opening with Lucie’s rampage that is upsetting only because we simply do not know why she is doing this to this seemingly normal family. When the actions on screen are suspended in air without showing the strings, Martyrs is a lot more interesting than the metallic second half of the film that resembles a stainless steel Hostel. I found Jampanoi’s Lucie to be an alluring character despite her vengeful nature. She outshines Alaoui, who finds herself saddled with portraying a character that never fully grabs us. For her run on the screen, Lucie is a car wreck we just can’t stop watching. She runs around shrieking in terror of the monster that likes to stalk her, yet it never becomes the cliché girl in a bad horror movie. Jampanoi’s eyes all do a lot of acting themselves, as they often times seem almost black, possessed by rage and anger for what has been done to her. She is also gripped by guilt, which adds another interesting layer of complexity to her. The scene where she kneels over the dead body of one of her victims and breaks down is a standout scene.

The finale of Martyrs will leave viewers with quite a bit to discuss. On one hand, the macabre climax seems superfluous and senseless but when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, it is a bit unsettling, especially when the motivations of the antagonists are revealed. When the focus shifts from Lucie to Anna, the film becomes a bit of a bore even though it desperately tries to hold us with its consistently horrifying violence. Maybe if I wasn’t so desensitized by previous torture porn offerings, Martyrs may have had more of an impact on me as clearly we are supposed to be sickened by it. When Martyrs stays on course, with its sights set on it’s main focus, the film makes for a brainy horror film but when it takes a detour into the waters of corn syrup and red food coloring, Martyrs becomes a tedious exercise in filmmaking.

Grade: C+

Martyrs is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Deep Red (1975)

by Steve Habrat

Italian giallo filmmaker Dario Argento is most known for his collaboration with zombie godfather George Romero on 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and for his eccentric 1977 supernatural horror film Suspiria. While Suspiria may be his most popular work, perhaps his best film is Deep Red, a pulpy and off the wall serial killer thriller that packs somersaulting camera work, gallons of bright red blood, and a scene involving a puppet that would make Saw’s Jigsaw wet his britches. Now, you’re probably wondering what the term “giallo” means. Giallo, which is Italian for yellow, was the nickname for any suspense thriller, crime, or mystery tale that tended to be a bit pulpy. This term could refer to any thriller from any country but in Italy, it really took off and the film critic turned filmmaker Dario Argento was one of its frontrunners. The Italian giallos tended to be operatic, extremely gory, loaded with stylish camerawork, and huge amounts of gratuitous sex and nudity. The term refers to pulp novels that began in 1929 and featured distinctive yellow covers.

Deep Red begins with the murder of pretty German psychic medium named Helga Ulmann (Played by Macha Meril) just hours after she picks up the thoughts of a serial killer. Simultaneously, an English pianist named Marcus Daly (Played by David Hemmings) is chatting with his drunken friend Carlo (Played by Gabriele Lavia) outside the apartment where the murder is taking place. Suddenly, Helga’s body smashes through a window and in all the excitement, Marcus dashes up to the apartment to help Helga out. Once inside the apartment, he begins to realize that something is different about the crime scene. Teaming up with a peppy and self-assured photojournalist named Gianna Brezzi (Played by Daria Nicolodi), Marcus begins investigating the murders and attempting to solve what was different about he crime scene. As the investigation continues, the body count begins to rise and Marcus finds himself the target of the mysterious killer with a fetish for dolls and a spine-chilling children’s song.

Unshakably disturbing and unique, Deep Red is Argento at his absolute finest. Everything from Argento’s camera work, to the performance from David Hemmings, to Goblin’s funky score mesh to create something that still stands out today. It’s a special film that seems like something Alfred Hitchcock would have made while he was under the influence of a psychedelic drug. Deep Red also enjoys getting us in on the action and allowing us to play detective along side Marcus. Argento, however gives us one clue that he doesn’t give to Marcus: an eyeball with caked on eyeliner. Because of this tease, I found myself focusing on the eyes of every single character that wore eyeliner from there on out. But Argento is just toying with us and getting amusement out of our detective work. Every time I spotted the thick eyeliner, I would convince myself that I had figured out the identity of the shadowy menace and when the killer is finally revealed, it was the last person I expected it to be. This clue also gives Deep Red a white-knuckle unpredictability. The killer could be anyone and strike at any moment. It generates a colossal amount of dread throughout the course of its runtime. Argento, you clever cat!

Deep Red’s style doesn’t end with its standout score or Argento’s sumptuous touches. He molds the film into a full-blown opera that brings the chandelier down on the viewer. His camera sophisticatedly dances with the death on screen, making us fidget due to his restlessness. When Argento does remain motionless, he springs a creepy doll on us that sent me about three inches off the couch I was sitting on. Argento doesn’t skimp on filling his tracking shots with opulent colors, flamboyant backdrops, echoes of discreet sexuality, and soft melodrama. The finished product is distinctly European with images that belong in a gaudy gold frame.

David Hemming as the protagonist every-man Marcus is another victory for Deep Red. He certainly is the furthest thing from a masculine protagonist! At times, when we really pay close attention to his reactions to the horror playing out around him, he conveys the scared-for-life terror that an average person would in the situations he finds himself in. He was just a man going about his business when his world came crashing in on him (symbolically and literally). At one moment, the killer stalks him in his own apartment and his trepidation makes your arm hair stiffen. He leaps like a flailing madman at his door to slam it shut. Sure that is what most people would do in a situation like that, but his frozen anticipation is what really plays with us. Did he just hear that creak? Is he really hearing that faint music? Is someone really out there in the hallway? It is moments like this that Deep Red flirts with the supernatural. Ghost stories are whispered, superstitions are discussed, and the killers prolonged stalking of their victims are imperceptibly ghost-like in nature.

Deep Red becomes a classic case of style over substance, but this is not to say that the substance isn’t well done. While the plot is bursting with the spirit of Hitchcock and you will find yourself immersed in the whodunit, its Argento’s approach that overshadows the story. The style sticks in your head long after it has ended. But Argento also seems hellbent on playing with the conventions of a masculine hero, one who is bumbling and imperfect trying to operate in a world that is controlled by strong women (get a load of the arm wrestling scene). Baroque, chic, and glamorous, Deep Red is an undisputed classic among horror films from the heyday of the genre. It stands out because it lacks a gritty approach, which was how most directors were approaching the genre at this time. But Deep Red is polished and squeaky clean, then rolled in a whole bunch of glitter and handed a meat cleaver.

Grade: A

Deep Red is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Woman in Black (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Hollywood must have finally understood that America has had enough of the mindless torture porn horror films that they pushed upon audiences for years. I think the Saw franchise finally coming to end allowed multiple demonic horror and haunted house fright films to make their way back into local theaters. Sadly, these ghost films relied too heavily on the mockumentary/found footage technique that also worn out its welcome by the second Paranormal Activity. As far as straightforward horror films go, last year’s Insidious was a stand out and now we have The Woman in Black, a Hammer horror film that retains the gothic flourishes that was popular in films like 1959’s House on Haunted Hill and 1963’s The Haunting. Hammer Productions was famous in the 1950s for giving Universal’s Monsters alluring makeovers. Their hunger for style is alive and well in The Woman in Black as is a whole slew of good, old-fashioned bumps in the night.

Set in the early 1900s, The Woman in Black follows the young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Played by Daniel Radcliffe), who has found himself on rocky terms with firm he works for. Arthur carries a broken heart for his deceased wife who passed during childbirth and he also faces financial difficulties that have put a lot of pressure on his job. The firm he works for assigns him to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned Eel Marsh House, a marooned mansion that sits on an island in the northeast of England. Despite the protests of his young son Joseph, Arthur departs to a small village just outside of where the mansion is located. Despite warnings by the locals, who tell him to leave and forget about the mansion, Arthur stays to complete the paperwork and protect his job. Arthur also happens to become friendly with a wealthy local man named Sam Daily (Played by Ciarán Hinds), who fills him in on superstitions that run rampant through the village. After witnessing a bizarre string of suicides by several local children and the appearance of a disturbing apparition of a woman in all black, Arthur begins uncovering family secrets that are buried in Eel Marsh House.

Carried by a damp, nippy atmosphere, The Woman in Black establishes an ambiance and it never budges. There is barely any sunlight in the film and few characters ever muster up a smile or grin. The film only pauses once to give the audience a quick chuckle before it shifts back into gloom. To director James Watkins, atmosphere is everything, giving the scares more oomph. The downside to all of this is that he accompanies most of the scares by loud blasts on the soundtrack to make us jump. To make it worse, half the time it is a fake scare that only turns out to be a raven or a carriage driver. When Watkins isn’t falling back on easy creeps, he composes an image that confidently gives you the willies. The woman in black stands in a graveyard and in the blink of an eye, she is gone. Arthur peers out into the trees from the porch of Eel Marsh House in a storm and he slowly discovers that a group of ghostly children stare back at him, only distinguishable by their silhouettes. Our title antagonist peers down at Arthur from a second story window, resembling a ghostly photograph. It’s these scares that give credibility to The Woman in Black, making the film an above average haunted house treat.

In his first starring role since Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe makes a smooth transition from boy wizard to distressed adult.  I worried I would have a hard time taking him seriously, on the grounds that this film demands, and would instead still see him a kid. Radcliffe has grown up, folks, and here he gives a performance that is safe but allows us a glimpse of his range. I sometimes found him to be a bit stiff as Potter but here, he seems contented and confident, almost thrilled to be in something other than Harry Potter. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe is disconnected and  distant, appearing drained and at times, he could be inches from collapsing from fatigue. There are moments when he’s courageous, racing into the decrepit mansion after an otherworldly sighting in an attic window or grabbing an axe and inching towards strange footsteps that creak behind a closed door. He plays nicely off of Hinds, who makes Sam just as emotionally wounded as Kipps but a bit wiser. He seems to be keeping Arthur level, warning him not to go “chasing shadows”.

The Woman in Black also makes a near fatal error with the haunted mansion it takes place in. It is never good when your friend leans over and whispers, “That house looks like the stereotypical haunted house in every scary movie!” There is nothing setting Eel Marsh House apart from every other haunted mansion expect the location. Sure it is an imposing structure, any given rundown structure will be, but there is nothing setting it apart. The inside resembles an abandoned haunted house that has been left until next Halloween. There are perfectly placed cobwebs and everything has a thick layer of dust covering it. One room does stand out and that is the room the most ghostly activity occurs in. Radcliffe spends most his time snooping around a child’s room, crammed with creepy clown dolls that suddenly burst with chirping music box tunes and a rocking chair that will suddenly rock violently back and forth.

Better than many will give it credit for, The Woman in Black succeeds because it doesn’t embrace the found footage gimmick. Sure, the film has its fair share of flaws including minor plot holes and a final act that begins to flirt with silliness. With horror, I’ve learned to be a bit forgiving to films that get it even half right. Last year’s Insidious also had its fair share of problems, but it gave me the creeps, which is what it set out to do, so I overlooked the sputtering final act. The Woman in Black’s ending doesn’t fall apart that bad and it wisely ends before things can get more outlandish. Ultimately, the film manages to give you the chills and leaves images in your head that you’ll wish weren’t there. And it does it barely a drop of blood to be found! The Woman in Black will restore your fear in those bumps in the night and I promise that you will be sleeping with a night light on for more than a few nights.

Grade: B+ 

Black Christmas (1974)

by Steve Habrat

If you feel like taking a break from all the holiday cheer of the Christmas season, pop in director Bob Clark’s subtle and ominous Black Christmas. You won’t regret it. Well, maybe you will if you are watching it alone at night with nothing but a Christmas tree lit and no one else at home to keep you company. One of the more muted horror films of the 1970’s, Black Christmas is all about sounds, creaky halls, dimly lit bedrooms, faint holiday tunes emitting from radios, soft cinematography, heavy breathing, and some of the most abhorrent and creepy phone calls ever made. You will also find it hard to believe that the guy who made this also went on to make that other holiday classic A Christmas Story and the teen sex romp Porky’s. Miraculously never conforming to a typical slasher flick, mostly from the addition of the hard-boiled detective striving to solve the baffling disappearances, phone calls, and deaths taking place around a mostly deserted sorority. It’s a left of center choice to watch around the holidays because, lets face it, who really wants to get lost in a horror film during the most wonderful time of the year? Isn’t that what Halloween is for?

During a boozy Christmas party one evening, a strange man wanders around a sorority home, ascends a trellis, and climbs into the attic. Soon, a strange phone call interrupts the party and Barb (Played by Margot Kidder) grabs the phone to provoke the vulgar call. Turns out, this is not the first time this sorority has received an enigmatic call like this. The call is all heavy breaths, strange moans, and graphic threats aimed at the girls. This must all explain why the caller has earned himself the nickname “the moaner” amongst the girls. At first, we are lead to believe that this is one of the girl’s boyfriends pranking the skittish chicks but Clark plays this straight and it’s a little too effective when we learn that it’s for real. Soon, one of the girls, Clare (Played by Lynne Griffin), meets a truly grisly demise while she packs her bags to leave for a trip home. The next day, Clare’s uptight father Mr. Harrison (Played by James Edmond Jr.) arrives to take her home but her absence begins to frighten him. He goes to the sorority housemother Mrs. MacHenry (Played by Marian Waldman), Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Played by Art Hindle), and the pregnant and conflicted Jess (Played by Olivia Hussey) to help him locate his daughter. As they team up with the police and a dead body is discovered in a park near the sorority house, the eerie phone calls grow more disturbing and the body count begins to rise.

It’s really quite a shame that Bob Clark didn’t stay in the horror genre because this man is really on top of what makes a film scary. While Black Christmas has plenty of gore to spare (Not the type you’d find in Saw, mind you), mostly everything is oblique. A hook goes through one person’s head but it’s heard before we get a shadowy glimpse of it; another is stabbed do death with a phallic-looking crystal unicorn head. It’s a symbolic rape sequence that I’m sure impressed Hitchcock. Even the killer, Billy, is rarely shown, only once do we get to briefly see his face, but it is concealed with crafty shadows and one beam of light revealing a lone wild eye. We are consistently put in the killers POV, which is actually even more chilling than just seeing him lurk around the sorority house. I found myself filling in his thoughts, what he looked like, and constructing my own monster in my head. I also painted in the gore with my own imagination, with very little help from Clark. He doesn’t underestimate his audience and kudos for that!

Clark also makes glorious use of sound in this film, having the killer call the girls and make gargled sexual threats, perverted groans, and lisping whispers, efficiently making your skin crawl. The effective is enhanced by the juxtaposition of faint Christmas tunes calling in the background. The first time we actually see the girls get a call, the camera never cuts away from the girls. Instead, Clark slowly pans through the group of girls as they huddle around the phone and listen, repulsed by the sounds, their eyes conveying the hope that this is truly just a group of boys playing a prank. In all frankness, I hoped the first call was a prank too, just due the vulgarities uttered to the girls. The big reveal about the phone calls is carefully handled, a demented reveal that would give anyone home alone the willies.

Black Christmas offers up an abundance of rather complex characters for a slasher film.  The heroine here, Jess, is pregnant and has decided on an abortion. She seems like a driven gal, one who refuses to be controlled by any dominating and controlling male force, especially her seemingly sophisticated but volatile boyfriend. She is with out a doubt a product of the Feminist Movement. She rejects pleas of marriage and shows more interest in furthering her education and career than dropping out and raising a child. The housemother Mrs. MacHenry is a sneaky alcoholic who apparently never married and the lush Barb seems to be following in her footsteps. She would rather have an independent love affair with a bottle than a man. Barb is also extremely off putting and direct, two traits that make her hard to root for. She has a shocking disinterest for figuring out what happened to her sorority sister and would rather crack open a can of beer than be bothered to really help anyone. The inclusion of Mr. Harrison as the old-fashioned conservative father was also a nice touch to all these empowered women. He is portrayed as a nerdy, timid, and stern man who needs these stronger women to lead him along.

Black Christmas was remade in 2006, but it made the inevitable mistake that all recent horror films do and tried to give everything a longwinded explanation, sucking all the fear out of the premise. In 1974, there is no explanation for why this is all occurring. Perhaps this is the film that inspired John Carpenter to unleash Michael Myers on the horror genre. It applies the same stationary camera shots of empty hallways, darkened bedrooms, and quite snowny neighborhoods where ordinary people live out their lives. Evil can be anywhere and strike at any moment. Even the police can meet grisly ends without a seconds notice. It has the same faceless killer who could very well be the boogieman. I also found myself drawn to the patient storytelling and the way Clark lets the terror unfold almost naturally. Maybe more prominent that we are willing to admit and an overlooked gift to horror, don’t be afraid to unwrap the gift of Black Christmas come the holiday season. It’s a gift that will keep on giving. Fear, that is.

Grade: A-

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

by Steve Habrat

Although it is not technically a genre of cinema, the “grind house” film has become something of it’s own breed. I don’t mean the recent underground fascination with them. The fascination with this trashy form of film sparked out of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 cult hit Grindhouse and 2010’s follow up Machete. Or how about this year’s Hobo with a Shotgun? I’m also fairly convinced you’ve seen the commercials for recent video game House of the Dead, which oozes with sleaze and depravity, the type that ran rampant in grind house theaters. The influence from those down and dirty pictures from the late 1960’s to the late 1980’s is everywhere and some do not even realize it. One of the most notorious films that played in “grind houses” was the unflinchingly graphic rape/revenge romp I Spit on Your Grave, a film that is the true definition of the word vile. And yet in a way it’s hard to totally dismiss the film because it puts in overtime to earn the reputation that it has. Released in 1978 and the brainchild of Israeli director Meir Zarchi, I Spit on Your Grave can be viewed from many different angles. It could be seen as a female empowerment flick, a criticism of masculinity, or just gleefully exploitative. Stemming from a movement in cinema that I absolutely love, I Spit on Your Grave was one of the toughest films to get through, featuring a gang rape sequence that is agonizingly long and revealing. It pushes the viewers buttons and after witnessing what our delicate protagonist goes through at the hands of four animalistic hillbillies, you can’t help yourself but root for her to exact revenge on her tormentors. You’ll feel this way even if you loathe the film.

Jennifer Hills (Played by Camille Keaton) is a short story writer who ventures to the country to shack up in an isolated lakefront home to work on her first novel. Jennifer appears to be a much more liberal woman, sporting silky, transparent sundresses that illuminate her near perfect figure, also showing the viewer she is not wearing underwear. She stops off at a rundown gas station and meets three local males. She chats innocently enough with the gas station attendant Johnny (Played by Eron Tabor). She also meets the shirtless duo that is Stanley (Played by Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Played by Gunter Kleemann). After arriving at her secluded getaway, she is greeted by the mentally challenged grocery store delivery boy Matthew (Played by Richard Pace), who is an innocent, friendly virgin. Matthew takes a liking to the flirty Jennifer and he runs off to tell his savage pal Johnny, who encourages Matthew to pursue Jennifer. When Matthew doesn’t, Stanley and Andy pluck her from her home while she sunbathes, drag her out into the woods, and proceed to gang rape and beat her. They then tell Matthew to kill Jennifer. Matthew shakily fakes her death and several weeks later, Jennifer heals and returns to exact revenge on the savages who violated her and terrorized without mercy.

I Spit on Your Grave has to be one of the most hated films ever made, one that enraged critics and audiences upon its release (For a good seething review, check out Roger Ebert’s famous take on the film) and one that still upsets to this day. It stuns me that this film is sold at Best Buy where a younger viewer can easily obtain it. In an interview on the DVD, Zarchi says he was inspired to make this film after his real life experience of stumbling upon a woman who had been raped and aided her in getting help. It’s good to know this tidbit of information, partly because it relieves the viewer of the suspicion that this film was made out of some sick fantasy. Zarchi’s camera does seem infatuated with Keaton’s physique. He shows every angle of every unmentionable; giving the film it’s exploitative ambiance. Any excuse to get her in the nude is fully embraced here. The grind house films were heavily interested in gratuitous nudity and explicit sex, some of these films branded with an X rating. And just like the multiple grind house films before it, it brings along its fair share of gore and voyeuristic violence. One misconception of grind house cinema is that all of these films were hyper violent. This is true to an extent, as some boasted jazzy, hardcore titles that made lots of promises but never really delivered the gore that audience’s lusted for. Two prime examples would be 1978’s Halloween, which was a grind house slasher film that lacked little to no gore and 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which contained very little of the red stuff. I Spit on Your Grave has plenty to satisfy the gore hounds.

Weighed down by infinite amounts of hammy acting, mostly from its male players, Keaton is the one that really brings the fire. She does her best to avoid being reduced to a hot piece of flesh. She’s a broken ass kicker that is ready to bring the wrath of God upon the monsters that crossed her. Her crowning moment comes during the shocking castration scene, where she lures one of the men into a bath with her and while fooling around, she reaches under the bathmat and pulls out a hulking blade and, with one clean cut, severs the man’s own weapon. She then gets out of the tub and leaves the bathroom, locking the door from the outside as he shrieks in pain and at the act done upon him. She then puts on a classical record, sits down and relishes in the agony just behind the bathroom door. She stares off just past the camera, her eyes conveying a cracked soul yet illuminated with the burning flame of revenge. Who could blame her? Later, she burns the man’s clothes and as she does, she is illuminated in red, a color that engulfs the entire project. Dark red has been said to symbolize rage, determination, and wrath, all which Jennifer brings down on the men. Earlier in the film, light red and some pinks dominate, which symbolize friendship, passiveness, and love, which all radiate from Jennifer. The color scheme is very film school, something that would seem at home in a student film, yet it is probably one of the artist qualities that I Spit on Your Grave has.

The men of I Spit on Your Grave are the scum of the earth, even the mentally challenged Matthew. It is revealed that Johnny has a wife and two children, which makes his act even more disgusting than it already was. Even the men that seem honest and true are animals and capable of inflicting horrible acts. Andy and Stanley both leap around the woods like primates, hooting and hollering with glee in their wanton dance. Yet when Jennifer bears down on them, wielding an axe, they both quiver and cry, stammering, “It wasn’t my idea! Johnny made me do it!” The “It wasn’t my idea!” is an excuse thrown around quite a bit in I Spit on Your Grave, saying that men never truly want to own up to their actions. Matthew’s death is the only one leaving us feeling disheartened, as he is a character who is somewhat unaware of his actions and who tried to do the right thing when the gang rape was taking place. It does not excuse all of his behavior, as he stills has blood on his hands too.

I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, further driving the underground fixation with genre trash. The remake of the film never shook me up and was a largely overlooked upon release. A sign of the times if I have ever seen one, highlighting the desensitized attitude that has been driven into American audiences. The 1978 I Spit on Your Grave is still a much more shocking film, partly because the remake has echoes of torture porn and Saw coursing through its dirt caked veins.  Love it or hate it, it still marks the viewer, never allowing them to forget what they have seen. I found the film had a major artistic handicap, resorting to said film school techniques, all which prance around and bellow thoughtful. It’s definitely an empowering film to women, even if the excessive violence is up for debate. As a piece of grind house cinema, it ranks among the best of them, wallowing in all the filth that made this genre what it is today.

Grade: B-

I Spit on Your Grave 1978 is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Insidious (2011)

by Steve Habrat

In these indolent times that are plaguing Hollywood, it’s such a refreshing experience seeing a film that is not a direct remake of an older, often times superior original. It’s usually an iconic film that studios use to simply milk money from our wallets. They repackage the film, tie it up with a big CGI bow, throw in half-baked 3D, and we flock to see it because we are familiar with it. If they aren’t desecrating an old gem, they are lifting the material from a book, comic book, or graphic novel. It makes me wonder if any of these writers or suits out there in the City of Angels remotely consider picking their own brains for a good story. The genre that especially can’t seem to help itself is the horror genre. It seems that absolutely no one can come up with an original and relentlessly scary little horror flick these days. Instead, studios just look to rebooting tired franchises whose knives and machetes are showing signs of rust (Yes, I am talking about you Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes!).  It seems like every year we get one scary movie that is actually effective. Last year’s stylish American remake Let Me In was a standout. The year before saw the, in my humble opinion, good but not great haunted house thrill-ride Paranormal Activity. We’ve also seen an amped up remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the colorfully blood drenched Dawn of the Dead remake, the tribute to 50’s B-movie creature features The Mist, the claustrophobic monster movie The Descent, and the outstanding British zombie flick 28 Days Later, and the based-on-true-events chiller The Mothman Prophecies. That’s basically what we have had to work with since 2002. And three of those are remakes!!

While creativity is one portion of the problem, another reason why horror ultimately ran itself into the ground was the work of two men—James Wan and Leigh Whannell. They are the culprits who graced our movie screens with the torture porn clunker Saw. They ignited a frenzy of films that shamelessly bathed in body fluids and they also sparked a line of horrendous sequels that followed. While the only notable film in the series was Saw III, they influenced Hostel, Wolf Creek, and a slew of others that were less concerned about being scary and more concerned with making you squirm. And many of them were successful at making you cover your eyes but the genuine scares were non-existent. Yet in the past few years, torture porn has made itself scarce and horror has been attempting to embrace real fear again. It’s funny that the men who reduced horror to ashes, have played Dr. Frankenstein and risen it like a phoenix. Insidious is that phoenix.

Insidious is one of the scariest movies I have seen in quite sometime and is simply one of the best horror movies in years. Yeah, I said it. And it’s also original! Sure, it’s an unholy fusion of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, but these days, we have to be carful when we criticize something that attempts to break new ground. Alas, Insidious does not but it sure makes a valiant attempt. Instead, Insidious conjures up some truly hellish images that are guaranteed to linger in your head for days after witnessing them. The film follows Josh (Played by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Played by 28 Weeks Later’s Rose Byrne) Lambert and their three children as they move into their new home. All seems well until strange noises are heard throughout the home, objects are moved, and one of their children, Dalton, falls into a coma (Ya know, the usual!). But after a seriously spooky night in their home, they begin to wonder if the reason their son has fallen into this enigmatic coma is supernatural rather than medical. The Lambert’s call in a group of paranormal investigators who quickly determine that Dalton is trapped in a ghostly parallel universe called The Further.

If it sounds like you’ve heard all of this before, you have, as Wan has crafted a loving tribute to the horror films of old. He throws reference after reference at the audience and one could almost make the film into a game of spot that horror reference. It’s all quite fun but it’s the 180-degree shift in the quality of the work here that is really quite impressive. Wan’s chiaroscuro industrial aesthetic still lingers but the film itself is much more patient than Saw. It feels like there is discipline here and I think much of that may stem from the producers who were also responsible for Paranormal Activity. There is no over-reliance on blood and guts (The film is rated PG-13) and instead relies on loud bangs, growls, shadowy figures, and sudden music blasts to make you soil your shorts. But Wan also fries your nerves through some seriously haunting images; most striking of all is a shadowy apparition standing behind a baby’s crib and a demon lurking in the corner of poor Dalton’s room. Even Whannell’s script provides a few blasts of heebie-jeebies. One scene includes a character describing a dream that she had and all I will say is that it turned my insides to ice cubes. It gives me chills just think back to it! This scene demonstrates the beauty of your imagination getting the best of you.

What’s even more impressive about the film is the performances that Wan manages to capture. He has positioned two very talented actors at the core of the film and it doesn’t hurt either that Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) shows up as a concerned grandmother. Lin Shaye pops up and provides a fine performance as the psychic Elise Rainier. While sometimes the acting does dip and head into cheesy territory mostly from his child actors, it’s forgivable. What does end up hurting the film and causes it to loose some of its momentum is the final act, which falls victim to the you-never-show-the-monster syndrome. It causes the film to descend into the fun house realm. Someone should have explained to Wan that it’s what you don’t see that ends up being the most horrifying.

While the ending suffers a bit, the film is still astonishing in how uncompromising it is in its attempts to send you screaming from the theater. It will get you at least once. The film sadly chooses the same path that the final minutes of Paranormal Activity did and embrace the CGI trickery. In Insidious, however, you overlook it because the final minutes of this demon are unpredictable. Just get ready for an I-did-not-see-that-coming twist. But the first three fourths of the film is so good, that Insidious haunts its way onto the must see list. The film also redeems any potential talent that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have and it leaves me intrigued for what they do next. I will leave you with is this: Any film that makes me walk into a darkened room and quickly flip on the light is one you have to see (Seriously, it really did that to me.). Insidious is an inspired creep-out that will haunt your dreams. Grade: A

Insidious is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Scream 4 (2011)

by Steve Habrat

There is something intoxicating about a director who helped pioneer a certain genre way back in the day once again jumping behind the camera. I don’t care if he was making Alvin and the Chipmunks 6, if George “Night of the Living Dead” Romero is promised to direct, it’s a must see for me. But with the horror genre, it becomes something more of an event. It morphs into a holy pilgrimage for fans of the genre. Back in 2005, George Romero emerged from his crypt and served about a hearty dose of gore and stuck it to the hoards of wannabe zombie directors with Land of the Dead. Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi conjured up some demonic spirits in 2009 with the superb throwback Drag Me To Hell. There is just something about the living legend that gets me inebriated on excitement. That’s what I felt when I entered the theater to see Wes “Nightmare on Elm Street” Craven’s newest addition to his Scream franchise, Scream 4. If we stop to review Craven’s resumé, we will find it to be quite hit or miss. Name me a person who saw 2005’s Cursed and I’ll be pretty impressed. Or even last year’s 3D opus My Soul to Take! Yet the man has also provided the horror genre with the grungy grind house flick Last House on the Left and the clammy mutant extravaganza The Hills Have Eyes. Just to remind you, those came out in the 1970s. He’s also the man who is responsible for what I believe to be the most overrated horror film ever made, Nightmare on Elm Street, but that is an entirely different conversation all together.

It’s been eleven long years since Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson have crafted a self-aware stabbathon know as Scream for horror fans. I’ll be frank, it was long overdo, as horror is in such a sorry condition and the Scream films always seemed to be a cut and slash above the rest. So where did we end up in those eleven years that ol’ Ghostface wasn’t stalking a pretty young face around an empty house? Well, we are stuck in a perpetual cycle of reboots, remakes, and torture porn. Thank you, Saw. Funny enough, Scream 4 sets it sights on the Saw franchise in the first five minutes of the movie. It seems like Craven and Williamson were fed up with them too. But the film manifests itself into something else entirely: A brutal and bitter meditation on the current zeitgeist and Hollywood’s refusal to give something new to audiences. It’s just recycle and reuse according to Scream 4, but it also presents some spiffy little homages to the films that started it all and a true master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The film commences with one of the worst opening bloodbaths of the series and then jets off to Woodsboro, the place where all the mayhem began. Sidney Prescott (Played by Neve Campbell, who is aging remarkably!) has returned home after eleven years to promote her new self-help book, Out of Darkness. She bumps into her now married old pals Gale Weathers (Played by Courtney Cox, also aging remarkably!) and Dewey Riley (Played by refined thespian David Arquette). Gale is a has-been journalist struggling with writers block and Dewey is now the dim sheriff of Woodsboro. Upon Sidney’s return, someone has donned the Ghostface mask and is taking aim at Sidney and her little cousin, Jill (Played by Emma Roberts). Of course, Jill and her group of friends are keen on horror films and the new rules to survive them. She gets lots of help from the horror-obsessed tomboy Kirby (Played by Hayden Panettiere, with what could be the worst haircut since Anton Chigurh stalked helpless victims in No Country for Old Men.) and two film nerds who run the film society at their high school, Charlie and Robbie (Played by Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen).

Scream 4 ends up being a mixed bag. The film relentlessly globs on the self-awareness to the point where it becomes sickening for the audience and it’s more interested with being a comedy. There is barely a scare to be found this time around. Craven, however, lived up to his title of the Master of Suspense and does provide some brief moments of pure tension. But the film makes the grave mistake of confusing tension for scares and the tension is fleeting. The film’s most fatal error is the fact that it spouts off the formula for the new generation of horror films but rarely utilizes them. The characters constantly spew hollow mumbo jumbo about how the sequels and the remakes have to go a step further than the original. That’s all fine and dandy if Scream 4 actually took things a step further. Instead, it plays it safe and rarely strays from the original formula.

While the self-awareness weighs the film down, Scream 4 further self-destructs from it’s misguided profundity. It thinks it has something intelligent to say about social media, but instead it just becomes shameless plugs for iPhones. It’s clear that Williamson had absolutely no clue how to actually incorporate it into the film. The film further suffers from the fact that it has no idea what to do with Dewey and Gale. They appear to have only been incorporated to please the die-hard fans of the series, as they are given little to do. Gale stomps around spouting off flimsy one-liners about how she still “has it”. Dewey is reduced to rushing from crime scene to crime scene while looking horrified. The film also implies that they are having problems with their marriage—problems that are never revealed or that we could actually care about. The most glaring problem with the characters is Panettiere’s Kirby. She has to be the most unconvincing horror buff on the face of the earth. She rattles on about Suspira and Don’t Look Now when she seems like the type of girl who would know more about The Grudge 2.

For all of its flaws, Scream 4 gets a few things right. The film has some truly gruesome death scenes that are the best since the original film (This is a Scream film, people!). One scene in particular has a character get stabbed in the forehead and then trying to flee from Ghostface, who calmly walks along side watching the character bleed out and die. Unfortunately, the horror of the scene fizzles out with a crappy one-liner. The film does prove that it can run with the new line of splat pack gore fests. Italso comes equipped with snappy nods to classic horror films. One scene pays blood-spattered tribute to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and another scene tips it’s knife to Psycho. One character is even named Anthony Perkins! One scene in a hospital is eerily similar to the original Halloween II. This entry is probably the most successful in capturing the spirit of the original 1996 film that started all the slashing and gashing. The film refuses to conceal the bitterness from Craven and Williamson, as one character snarls to another, “Don’t fuck with the original”. It’s a line of dialogue that elicits some giddy snickers but also mirrors some frustration that I’m sure Craven has felt, as three of his classics have been remade for modern audiences.

To be fair, Scream 4 is a descent time at the movies. You will not walk away disgusted you just spent nine bucks on the movie. It provides some fun moments and it’s a blast to see Campbell chased around by the iconic killer again. I’m glad Craven and Williamson had the good sense to keep her front and center in all the bloody chaos. The outrageous finale also makes up for some of the film’s weaker moments. Scream 4 is a viciously average time at the movies and if Ghostface should return, as I’m sure he will, let’s hope that Williamson tweaks his script and shrinks his focus down, as this is an overly busy scattershot of a product. GRADE: C+

 

Scream 4 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.