Hot Fuzz (2007)
by Steve Habrat
In 2004, director Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost wowed genre audiences everywhere with their fantastic rom-zom-com debut Shaun of the Dead. In 2005, Wright and Pegg had brief cameos in George A. Romero’s 2005 comeback Land of the Dead and in the spring of 2007, Wright, Pegg, and Frost contributed the wonderfully spot-on fake trailer Don’t to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, the severely underrated double-feature ode to sleaze pictures of the 70s and 80s. Their hot streak continued just a few short weeks later with the release of the cop-slasher hybrid Hot Fuzz, a zippy, bloody, gory, and flat-out hilarious adrenaline rush that found the guys returning to the big screen in a colossal way. Riffing on Point Break, Bad Boys II, and almost every other action movie that Michael Bay has ever made, Wright and his double-trouble duo then drive this flashing police car straight into the whodunit slasher genre with guns blazing. Brimming with winks and nods to everything they love, Wright once again smartly tells a highly original story that turns Hot Fuzz into a modern day action masterpiece. It also has the world’s funniest swan and a gunfight to end all gunfights, so that is also a plus too.
Nicholas Angel (played by Simon Pegg) is the best police office in London. He is so good at his job that he is starting to make the other officers on the police force look bad. One day, Nicholas is called into a meeting with Chief Inspector Kenneth (played by Bill Nighy), who explains that Nicholas is going to be transferred to the rural town of Sanford, a picturesque community that is devoid of crime. Upon his arrival, Nicholas meets Inspector Frank Butterman (played by Jim Broadbent) and his simple-minded son Danny Butterman (played by Nick Forst). Frank partners up the overachieving Nicholas up with the lackadaisical Danny and sends the duo out to patrol the quiet streets. Everything seems to be going okay until a series of brutal accidents sends a shockwave through the town residents. Convinced that there is more to these accidents than meets the eye, Nicholas and Danny launch an investigation that brings them face to face with a hooded killer. With prominent members of the community dropping like flies, Nicholas and Danny race to put an end to the hooded figure’s killing spree, but the closer they get to catching the murderer, the more secrets that are revealed about the seemingly peaceful town of Sanford.
Bigger and badder than Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz has studied the action manual very hard and it knows what we have come to expect. The aesthetic is sleek and shiny, with even the smallest moments spiffed up to make our eyes pop. Early on, Nicholas arrests a handful of underage teens sipping suds in Sanford’s pub and as Nicholas books them at the station, Wright cuts quickly, pulling off several flashy camera tricks and even speeding up or slowing down the action for maximum effect. It’s absolutely hilarious and a very clever nod to Michael Bay and his insistence on stylizing every little detail. When the action goes boom, we get the typical slow motion shot of the heroes walking away from the fiery destruction in the background. The climax finds Wright including everything from police chases to gritty gun battles, all the way to a final mano-y-mano that ends in a sight gag that is simultaneously horrific and hilarious. Once again, Wright manages to carefully balance out the action side of the story with the whodunit/slasher aspect. The murder mystery is fun and it does make for a few good jump moments that will keep you on your toes. In a way, you are left crossing your fingers that the guys might reunite down the line for a straight up slasher movie. I have a feeling that it might be another home run from Wright.
As if the flashy action and the slasher plotline weren’t enough for one motion picture, Wright pumps in a heartwarming buddy-cop subplot. A good majority of the fun comes from watching Pegg and Frost interact with each other, mostly because they are such polar opposites. In Shaun of the Dead, they were on the same dazed wavelength but in Hot Fuzz, they are like oil in water. Pegg excels at the supercop role, never missing a moment to turn his by-the-books Nicholas into a Buzz Killington. He drags the buzzed youth down to the station even though the local-yokels argue that allowing the boys to have a few brews in a local pub keeps them from causing trouble in the streets. When he reluctantly agrees to hang out with Danny outside of work, he refuses a beer and orders a simple cranberry juice. He bottles up his anger when he is sent to round up a runaway swan, one of the film’s funniest running jokes and he sighs through boredom as Danny invites him to his house to watch Bad Boys II and Point Break. On the other hand, Frost’s Danny is sweet and simple, a guy who really could care less about his day job and would much rather be at home getting lost in a fantasy world of exploding cars, gunfire, and mayhem. You practically cheer for him when he gets the chance to pick up some firepower and join Nicholas on the streets for a good old-fashion shootout and you’ll be doubled over laughing when he gets to act out his favorite scene from Point Break.
As far the supporting players go, Broadbent is a riot as the merry Sanford Police Inspector who pairs up Nicholas and Danny. Bill Nighy is perfectly dry as the Chief Inspector who ships Nicholas off to dead end and Timothy Dalton gives a suave performance as Simon Skinner, a supermarket manager who seems awfully suspicious. Interestingly enough, Cate Blanchett turns up as Janine, Nicholas’s girlfriend in a HAZMAT suit and director Peter Jackson stops by for an appearance as the Santa Claus that attacks Nicholas in the opening credits. If there were anything to nitpick in Hot Fuzz, it would probably have to be the length of the film. With so much happening within the plot, the film does run a bit too long and the climax starts to feel a bit like overkill even if Wright is desperately trying to cram in as many action movie staples as he can. Overall, it is clear that Wright, Pegg, Frost, and nearly every other actor or actress in Hot Fuzz is having a ball and their good time does rub off on the viewer. Wright and Pegg’s screenplay never misses a beat and the laughs blast at the viewer like bullets. You may never be able to look at a swan the same way again.
Hot Fuzz is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
by Steve Habrat
When I sit down and reflect back on the horror films that have scared the daylights out of me, there is one gritty and uncompromising masterpiece that really stands out among the others. That particular film would be director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cannibalistic nightmare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a horrifying and skin-crawling trip into a rotting and withering Texas wasteland that is just a little too unshakably real. Made for a measly $300,000 dollars and inspired by the brutality of the evening news, the dishonesty of the US government, and real-life serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would go on to become a massively influential slasher movie and give birth to one of horror’s most notorious boogeymen—Leatherface. While the name alone will turn off many squeamish viewers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t your typical exploitation horror film. There isn’t a massive fixation with blood and guts, but there is a burning desire on Hooper’s part to stuff the film with rusted atmosphere and stomach churning anxiety that has been baking in the smoldering Texas sun. You practically expect the film to reek of gasoline fumes, sweat, and decomposing road kill. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerged from one of the most unforgiving eras in the history of horror and has remained one of the cruelest genre efforts of the 1970s, right up there with such spine-chilling classics as The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Jaws, and Dawn of the Dead.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with Sally Hardesty (Played by Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Played by Paul A. Partain), Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Played by Allen Danzinger), and mutual friends, Kirk (Played by William Vail) and Pam (Played by Teri McMinn), venturing out into the backwoods of Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather after reports of grave robbing and vandalism in the area. After checking on their grandfather’s grave, the group decides to head over to the old abandoned Hardesty farm. Along their way, they pick up a local hitchhiker (Played by Edwin Neal), who claims to live nearby the old Hardesty farm. After cutting both himself and Franklin with a razor, the group kicks the man out of their van and leaves him out in the Texas sun. The group thinks their problems are over, but while exploring the abandoned farm, they discover another secluded home that they believe is also abandoned. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that the home isn’t abandoned at all and one by one they fall victim to a deranged group of cannibals led by the hulking chain saw–wielding Leatherface (Played by Gunnar Hansen).
Hooper kicks off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with narrator John Larroquette reading from a text crawl that explains what we are about to see is based on true events. We then have a pitch-black screen cut with brief flashes of what appears to be a decomposing corpse. During your first viewing, you won’t be entirely sure, but you will swear that rustling and grunting sound effects that accompany the dark are the sounds of furious digging and scraping. Then a radio report kicks in with news of a local grave robber and the macabre creations that the individual has been leaving in the local cemetery. Hooper then cuts to a close-up of the face of a gooey corpse, pulling his camera back to slowly to reveal the body of the corpse has been tied to a massive headstone. If you look carefully, it almost looks like the corpse is grinning at the viewer. As the camera continues to slowly pan back, Hooper is revealing an amber wasteland and his elevated corpse is warning us that death rules over this nearly abandoned and decrepit part of the great state of Texas. It also seems to be conveying that madness will be the king for the next eighty-four minutes and you are a poor sap at its mercy. With this monument to madness on full display, the radio reporting on strange disappearances and morbid local activity in the background, and Hooper revving up his clank-roar-and-bang score, we are pinned to our seats, stomachs uneasy about what carnage is to come and what redneck monsters this dried up abandonment will spit out. The first time I saw, it nearly paralyzed me with fright.
After this massively effective opening sequence, it could have been very easy for Hooper to cater to exploitation audiences hungry for plenty of blood and guts, but he keeps a good majority of the violence off the screen and lets our imaginations fill in the nasty stuff. Instead, he continues to pump in the rotting atmosphere of a once delightful small town full of happy memories now gripped by unemployment, hopelessness, and insanity. It is the ultimate American nightmare. Every single character is suspicious or just plain spaced out under the burning sun and every home or farm is sinking away into the cracking landscape. When Hooper lets Leatherface Sawyer out of his house of horrors with his chain saw buzzing, the terror hits highs you never thought possible. He lumbers around the inside of Sawyer household while screeching like a banshee and plopping his victims on meat hooks. When he dashes through the night after scrappy victim Sally, who basically becomes our heroine, it actually feels like Hooper was creeping through the trees and filming an authentic chase between these two (Someone call the authorities!). You may have to lean forward to fully see what is going on, but in a way, the pitch black highlighted with streaks of blue keep your imagination buzzing just like Leatherface’s chain saw. This pitch-black chase reminds the viewer how removed from society these people are, that the Sawyers are the ones that live on the path that is just off the beaten path, far away from modern society.
Since the sets, atmosphere, and monster are all so good, you barely even notice some of the amateur acting that plagues the first portion of the film. The only one of the kids that really stands out is Marilyn Burns as Sally, who must have been without a voice for a month after all the screaming she does in the final twenty minutes. Once you see the horrors she is staring down (I don’t think that is animal meat on her plate), you will not blame her for all the screaming. Then we have Edwin Neal, who plays the kooky hitchhiker who used to work at the local meat packing company. He is just plain crackers as he slices his hand with a razor and then giggles over it. To make things worse, he is the brother of Leatherface, a hulking, mentally challenged killer who likes to wear masks made of human flesh. Hansen plays him with plenty of gusto and he is made all the creepier through the several costume changes he undergoes. He switches from butcher, to housewife, to formal dinner attire and one is creepier than the next. Also on board here is Jim Siedow as the old man who runs the gas station. He seems like a harmless old man at first, but it is soon revealed that he has ties to Leatherface and the hitchhiker. To make things worse, he is cooking up some seriously nasty BBQ in the back of the gas station.
Like most of the other classic horror films of the 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t shy away from making a political statement. Hooper has stated that “the film you are about to see is true” gimmick at the beginning of the film was a response to the lies told by the US government during Watergate and the Vietnam War. You could also view it as a cheap exploitation trick to lure in audience members hungry for some major depravity. Hooper has also said that he was inspired to make the film after repeatedly seeing jaw-dropping violence and graphic coverage on the evening news. There is also plenty of inspiration drawn from Ed Gein, which is especially present in the Sawyer family homestead that is complete with human bones fashioned into furniture and even human skin covering the light over their dinner table. Overall, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most starkly convincing horror films I have ever seen. It is raw, in your face, and unforgettable, begging to be seen again and again to spot the tiny details thrown in by Hooper. But the true terror lies in the idea that there is nothing overly fantastic here. Sometimes, a simple backwoods cannibal wearing human skin as a mask and wielding a chain saw is one of the most terrifying things out there.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Final Destination 5 (2011)
by Craig Thomas
It’s not uncommon for a movie with an interesting idea in the horror genre to be milked for all it’s worth. What is uncommon however is for the fifth in a series to be a worthy addition to the series. This is what happened in the case of Final Destination 5, the follow up to The FINAL Destination.
What the creators of the series have tried to do to keep it relevant is to focus on entertaining, something far too many films fail to do. Having transitioned away from the existential questions of the original, they have relied more and more on the gruesome deaths as the main marketing tool. Unfortunately, this means putting all of them in the trailer so watching the film becomes somewhat redundant. If you watch this film, do not check out the trailer first.
So, here is the plot for all Final Destination films. A terrible accident occurs and loads of people die, but due to one character having a premonition of what is going to happen they change the future and a small group of them survive. The result of “cheating death” is that he comes back around and kills the survivors one by one, in a series of needlessly gruesome and convoluted ways.
All the films are the same, aside from the character interactions, none of whom you particularly care about because you know most, if not all of them are going to die. So why watch? For the humour. Whilst the original was a horror with some laughs gained from the death scenes, they have evolved into a series of grizzly comedies. The only part that holds any interest is the ridiculously over-the-top manner in which death gets his revenge.
The great trick in this is the blatantly willful use of misdirection. We watch as we see a series of unlikely events converge to create a series of deadly hazards, only for the victim to step back from the brink at the last second, only to perish moments later in an even more unlikely freak occurrence. We know that each setup isn’t going to kill them, but it’s hard not feel the tension build as we know that death is coming. When it does finally arrive it is often a laugh out loud funny slapstick moment.
The creators know what the audiences want and have no hesitation in giving it to them. Even so, the writing is not terrible. Sure, it doesn’t reach the heights of Shakespeare or Aaron Sorkin (in my mind, interchangeable), but it is serviceable, for the most part. The plot is pretty much internally consistent. The shoe-horning in of the detective who initially suspects the guy who had the vision caused the bridge to collapse due to breaking up with his girlfriend an hour before, is a bit much. But once the moment passes he is a vaguely useful character.
There is a vague love story sub plot that doesn’t really have any relevance and quite frankly if you think moving to Paris for six months is the biggest problem in your life, then don’t expect much sympathy from me.
The acting is not brilliant and that doesn’t help to make you care about the characters any more. The only real exception is David Koechner as the boss you love to hate who brings his comedic talents to every scene. It’s also nice to see Tony Todd reprise his role as creepy coroner and plot expositionist (if that’s not a word, it should be), William Bludworth.
Despite my earlier praise for the series, it is no secret that it was a case of diminishing returns and that the number of people looking forward to Final Destination 5 was about five. Still, it has pumped life into a cherished franchise with wit and creative death and would be a worthwhile swan song for a series of films that have very nearly overstayed their welcome.
However, success can have its drawback and the rumour mill is on full turn suggesting that not only will there be a Final Destination 6, but also a 7th, both of which are to be filmed back-to-back. Whether these rumours are true is debatable, though less likely things have happened.
The kids in these movies can’t escape death forever, but seemingly the franchise can.
Final Destination 5 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Black Christmas (2006)
by Steve Habrat
Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas is a freaky, freaky movie. Seriously, watch it all by yourself and try not to get creeped out as a slew of sorority sisters are stalked and murdered by an unseen killer all while ethereal Christmas carols play faintly in the background. It is no surprise that Hollywood would get the idea that the film was in desperate need of a redo and then proceed to screw it up royally. Enter director Glen Morgan’s cheap and tasteless 2006 pulp explosion that completely misses what made the original Black Christmas such a spooky little title. Sure, the original Black Christmas contained a little gore here and there, but it relied on atmosphere, getting under our skin with the idea that evil could be lurking anywhere and strike at any moment. Plus, it also featured some pretty good acting (Margot Kidder!), which was another positive. Black Christmas 2006 opts for outrageous shocks, glaringly fake gore, and some truly awful acting (Seriously, what the hell is Mary Elizabeth Winstead doing here?!). Morgan’s monstrosity should really be viewed as an insult considering that Clark’s Black Christmas predated John Carpenter’s legendary 1978 slasher Halloween and deserves credit for shaping the slasher subgenre. These kids just don’t get it!
On a snowy Christmas Eve night, the girls of the Alpha Kappa Gamma sorority house are all preparing themselves for Christmas day. Apparently, most of them don’t have any family to go home to. It turns out that the Alpha Kappa Gamma house used to be the home of Billy Lenz (Played by Robert Mann), a boy who suffered from a liver disorder that caused his skin to be yellow. Billy was loved by his father but despised by his mother and one night, Billy catches his mother and her boyfriend killing his loving father. If this wasn’t traumatizing enough, they then lock Billy away in the attic and his mother proceeds to sexually abuse him. She ends up getting pregnant and giving birth to a girl, Agnes (Played by Dean Friss), who is the apple of her eye. One day, Billy snaps and finds a way to get out of the attic. He then proceeds to murder his mother and eat her. In present day, Billy executes a daring escape from the mental institution he is locked away in and he returns to his childhood home to massacre the sorority sisters staying there. As the girls mysteriously disappear and perverted phone calls terrorize the girls, it is up to Kelli (Played by Katie Cassidy), her suspicious local boyfriend Kyle (Played by Oliver Hudson), and Leigh (Played by Kristen Cloke), the half-sister of one of the missing girls, to get the bottom of the mysterious disappearances and gruesome murders.
With subtly and the sinister slow build long gone, Black Christmas 2006 dives head first into a comic book aesthetic that is bathed in flashing multicolored lights and relentless self-aware violence. Morgan is all about being gross and graphic without ever paying tribute to the restraint of the original film. About the only thing he gets right is the plastic bag used to suffocate the victims but even that gets worn out about twenty minutes in. If suffocating his victims wasn’t enough, he then has his yellow skinned Billy, who looks like he belongs in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, chop off the heads of his victims and remove their eyeballs, which he then uses as ornaments on his Christmas tree. And we can’t forget the cannibalism that has been worked into just to make things more sick and twisted. There are only a few moments where Morgan applies the voyeuristic camera work that Clark used but when Morgan does it, it seems like it is just a laughable excuse to show one of his pretty actresses nude. He also can’t seem to leave the gratuitous sex scenes alone and he shoves one after another on us. One character watches a porn video on her computer while a flashback sequence shows Billy’s hideous mother and her boyfriend going to town on each other only to follow that up with her molesting Billy moments after. After a while, I just wanted it all to stop.
Then we have the atrocious acting, which unsurprisingly never rises about very average. Cassidy’s Kelli is absolutely awful as the main heroine, mostly because there is very little development with her character, which makes it very hard to root for her. She is just suddenly being terrorized and that is all there is to it. Hudson is a joke as Kyle, the meathead boyfriend of Kelli who walks around with an ominous smile plastered across his face for most of the movie. It’s like he is begging to be a suspect even though we know he isn’t the killer (He has yellow skin, you morons!). Cloke’s Leigh arrives late to this stabbathon looking for her half-sister, who bites the dust earlier in the film. She teams up with Kelli but both just run around screaming and making one stupid decision after another. The rest of the girls all blend in to the background, cliché characters designed to be hacked up in the most brutal ways possible. The only one that really stands out is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Heather. She’s the only scream queen here who really knows what she is doing and even she seems a little embarassed. As far as Mann’s Billy is concerned, he just darts around in the shadows and stares bug-eyed at his victims. He certainly doesn’t anything new or exciting with his character.
At a skimpy eighty minutes, Black Christmas 2006 feels entirely too long and too short at the same time. It seems to be dragging its feet in places, especially when the girls sit around and complain about Christmas or listen horrified at the story of Billy Lenz. Then there are the flashbacks that build Billy’s backstory, which are more interested in being repulsive than providing a good scare. There is a last act twist that we can see coming a mile away and when it hits, it seems to make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Probably the only thing that one can like in the film is the nifty little nod to Clark’s other holiday classic A Christmas Story. In one scene, we can clearly see the Old Man’s leg lamp glowing proudly in the darkness. Overall, Black Christmas 2006 is another throwaway remake for the MTV generation; the ones who just can’t seem to sit patiently and enjoy a good, clever scare. It has to be a strobe light of senseless gore, loud fake-out scares, and pretty faces to keep them occupied. I hope Santa delivers a lump of coal to Morgan for this rotten remake.
Black Christmas 2006 is available of Blu-ray and DVD.