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Piranha (2010)

by Steve Habrat

I really don’t know why I didn’t go see Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha back in the summer of 2010 but I do kick myself now for never taking the time to go check it out. What a hearty dose of gruesome fun in the sun this Piranha out to be! Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever 2003 French horror film High Tension and the hair-raising 2006 redo of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, doesn’t shy away from giving us exactly what we would want to see in a film called Piranha. Yes, we see one of the hungry terrors actually burp out a penis, a girl get her blonde locks tangled in a boat engine propeller, and tons more assorted carnage for any horror fan to go bonkers over. Piranha also happens to be a mighty fine tribute to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, even giving us one hell of a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, donning the same wardrobe that he did while battling that iconic great white shark. While Joe Dante’s original film was basically Roger Corman’s quick cash in on the popularity of Jaws, Piranha fully gets that and it plays with it quite a bit. It also seems like Aja has it out for obnoxious spring break college kids who say “bro” too much, enjoy showing off their tribal tattoos, and hate anyone wearing a Pixies t-shirt. Oh boy, does Aja get them good.

Piranha begins with fisherman Matt Boyd (Played by Dreyfuss) fishing and enjoying a couple cold brews out in the middle of Lake Victoria, Arizona, one sunny afternoon. After accidentally causing a small earthquake that cracks the lake floor, Boyd’s boat is pulled into a whirlpool that unleashes thousands of hungry piranhas that proceed to rip him to shreds. Meanwhile, Lake Victoria is crawling with scantily clad tourists who are ready for spring break shenanigans. Among them is local seventeen-year-old Jake Forester (Played by Steven R. McQueen), who is eager to join the party. Jake’s mother, Sheriff Julie Forester (Played by Elizabeth Shue), is consumed with keeping an eye on the drunken college kids and has barely any time for him or his two younger siblings. Jake ends up meeting porn filmmaker Derrick Jones (Played by Jerry O’Connell), who offers him some money to take him around to local hot spots so he can shoot some steamy footage. Jake agrees and takes off on a boat trip around Lake Victoria, bringing his crush Kelly (Played by Jessica Szohr) with him for the ride. As word gets to Julie about the disappearance of Matt Boyd, she teams up with her tough-as-nails Deputy, Fallon (Played by Ving Rhames), to find him. Soon, more bodies pile up and Julie is forced to investigate what is causing these deaths or close the lake. She ends up taking a group of seismologist divers to the crack in the lake floor where they make a terrifying discovery.

Once Piranha gets moving, the film really bares its teeth and chews you up, right down to the bone. Things get NASTY. The death scenes here are seriously grizzly with a heavy sprinkling of camp. The final half of the film is a never-ending bloodbath that features one memorable death scene after another. Drunken college kids are chewed in half by the scurrying school of death lurking just below their inner tubes. One naked girl after another is chewed up to the point where they are floating skeletons while one gets the top half of her chest chopped off. You can’t help but laugh when splat pack director Eli Roth shows up as the judge of a wet t-shirt judge who meets his maker by getting a speed boat to the face, spraying his gooey brains all over the tanned mug of a horrified hottie who is looking to show off her double D’s to thousands of chanting beefcakes. It practically leaves you exhausted even at its brief eighty-nine minute runtime. If you have ever found yourself annoyed to no extent by abrasive sex-starved teenage idiots, this is the movie for you. Aja apparently can’t stand them either and he makes you know it.

While it lures you in with its excesses, Piranha has a surprisingly clever cast keeping this pleasure cruise on course. I just couldn’t stop laughing over the sweet cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, who seems to be having a grand old time at this B-movie soirée. Shue and Rhames as the heroes here are exactly what you would expect. They don’t really blow your mind but I never expected them to. Rhames does get a nifty sequences where he rips the engine off a dingy and uses it to hack up a school of charging piranha. McQueen and Szohr get the typical teen roles of looking good for the camera while Jerry O’Connell dances around them in a cocaine fury. O’Connell’s Derrick is just as unpleasant as he should be and you will be counting the seconds until he comes to face to fangs with the chomping menace.  Also on board is Parks and Recreation cast member Adam Scott as the hilarious Novak, the head of the team of seismologist divers. Scott happens to be a welcome presence in anything he is in and he adds some more welcome humor to an already hysterical experience. The other awesome cameo is Christopher Lloyd (Yes, THAT Christopher Lloyd) as a pet shop owner who identifies the piranha as an extremely violent species that went extinct two million years ago.

Using almost the same plotline as Jaws, Piranha 2010 is more of a loving tribute than sloppy rip-off. It affectionately winks at the Spielberg classic, which I think is why I liked it as much as I did. Judging by some of the shots found here, I can assume that this had some truly awesome 3D to hold the audience’s attention and would have been fun in a big theater. The guys get an extended sequence of two nude women swimming around like dancing mermaids while the girls will scream over a piranha belching out a chewed up penis right at them. In addition to those two moments, the engine wielded by Rhames looked like it would have been pretty neat in 3D as does the darting school of piranha, who leap at the screen like aquatic demons. The film luckily doesn’t go on for very long, making it even more likable than it already is. Aja doesn’t hesitate to show the audience that he is capable of really creating a suspenseful mood and really freaking us out. He really is a talented guy who should be given more horror projects. Piranha may not make you a better person and it may not challenge you intellectually, but you just won’t be able to resist its B-movie allure, even if that allure is dripping with blood, guts, and tons of nudity.

Grade: B

Piranha is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

by Steve Habrat

A few years ago, I happened to catch an episode of Sy-Fy’s Destination Truth, the reality show where obnoxious douche bag Josh Gates hunts down paranormal entities and other beasties around the world. In the episode, the extremely unfunny Gates and his crew traveled to Ukraine to investigate the ghosts of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The episode claimed that many of the guards who man the multiple checkpoints into the abandoned city have seen ghostly apparitions and various other creepy things that you’d most likely not want to see in the dark. The episode did catch a handful of “evidence” and whether it is authentic or not is anyone’s guess, but I will say that what the group supposedly caught was pretty unsettling. It’s hard for me to believe that a paranormal reality show with an irritating host could actually creep me out more than director Bradley Parker’s new horror throwaway Chernobyl Diaries but that’s the truth. Chernobyl Diaries has plenty of atmosphere, enough to pass out to a slew of other lame Hollywood spookfests, but the lack of any character development, sharply written dialogue, and a payoff that seems like it was ripped off from The Hills Have Eyes contaminate what could have been a decent little horror movie. At least we get a free tour of a fake Pripyat complete with lots of blood!

Chernobyl Diaries introduces us to Chris (Played by Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Played by Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Played by Devin Kelley). While on a tour of Europe, the group stops by Kiev, Ukraine, to visit Chris’s brother Paul (Played by Jonathan Sadowski), who is delighted by their visit. The group goes out clubbing and doing things that the kids in Hostel did way back in 2006. After a night of boozing, Paul asks the group if they have ever heard of “extreme tourism” and then asks if they are familiar with the Chernobyl disaster. The group mumbles that they are somewhat familiar with it but they don’t seem too sure (Kids today! Tsk, tsk.). After meeting up with their sketchy tour guide Uri (Played by Dimitri Diatchenko) and Australian backpacking couple Zoe (Played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and Michael (Played by Nathan Phillips), the group piles into a rusty Mystery Machine-esque van and heads for the abandoned city of Pripyat. Uri finds an unguarded back way in to the quarantined city and begins exploring the radiated ruins. When the group goes to leave, the van refuses to start, stranding the tourists in the thick darkness that falls at night. The group soon discovers that they are not alone in Pripyat and they start disappearing one by one.

Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli produces Chernobyl Diaries and it shows in the way the film is shot. A good majority of the shots are the shaky, hand-held approach but the film never falls into mockumentary territory. Using a great location, the early parts of Chernobyl Diaries, the ones where the group snoops around the abandoned buildings and gets fed little fun facts by Uri is really interesting, especially if you aren’t familiar with the disaster. The shots are unforgettable, a little girl’s doll lies near the twisted skeleton of a playground, a Ferris wheel stands eerily still surrounded by barely recognizable bumper cars with weeds sitting in the driver’s seat. At times, it does feel like a “found footage” type film, especially in these early, documentary/tour style sequences. When the lights go out and things start going bump loudly in the dark, the film really takes on a Paranormal Activity feel but it becomes repetitive and the spine-tingling effect quickly wears off.

Chernobyl Diaries suffers from unconvincing acting that never once comes off as natural. The dialogue is fake and forced, coming from characters that are not particularly likable and who make one dumb decision after another. The early scenes between Chris and Paul are a little too sugary sweet (“I’m so happy you’re here, little bro!” *the two wrap each other up in a big bro bear hug) and offer little to no background about their characters. About the only things we do learn is that Chris plans to propose to Natalie and that Paul is constantly getting Chris into trouble. I really didn’t care for either of their characters, Chris constantly whining and in hysterics over their situation and Paul acting like an illogical hardass. The three gals all resort to screaming, crying, and running away from shadowy tormentors we never really see. They are all there to just look hot for the male audience members. Uri is a fairly entertaining character but his role is tour guide and it stays that way. Phillips and Berdal do a passable job as the Australian backpacking couple but we barely hear a word from Berdal. Phillips’s Michael is the only one who uses any form of common sense and the only one of the characters I actually was rooting for.

Chernobyl Diaries refuses to offer up any clear explanation about the shadowy figures that have been attacking this pretty group of morons for an hour and half. Normally, I would say that is a good thing, especially in a horror film. In a horror film, the less we know about the monsters, the creepier they are (Original Halloween anyone? We know next to nothing about Michael Myers!), but here, it would have been nice to know what these things are. We don’t even get the luxury of that and all we know is that they seem to bark! The final forty-five minutes of Chernobyl Diaries is basically the group running around different parts of the city, giving us an extended and up-close tour of the underbelly of Pripyat. Director Parker does do a fantastic job recreating the restricted city (the film was not actually filmed in Pripyat), one of the only aspects of Chernobyl Diaries worth praising. Parker and Peli end up leaning too heavily on the chilling atmosphere, paying more attention to that than the people we are supposed to be rooting for (Or are we?). Overall, if you really want to be chilled to your core, Google pictures of Pripyat or even check out that episode of Destination Truth (that is, if you can stand Josh Gates for more than five minutes). The real incident is far more unsettling than any pricey CGI mutant or sudden loud noise that Hollywood can throw at us.

Grade: D+

The Crazies (2010)

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to horror remakes, I tend to be less forgiving than I usually am with my reviews of classic horror films or more recent original work within the genre. To me, the never-ending string of remakes and face lifts that have been given to horror classics in the past several years just reflect the sorry state of Hollywood and reveal their appalling lack of creativity. But since Hollywood continues to force them on us, I guess we have to separate the good from the very, very bad. In early 2010, we saw the Breck Eisner directed remake of George Romero’s 1973 cult horror film The Crazies. The Crazies ended up being one of the better remakes that I have seen, ranking next to 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes and 2004’s Dawn of the Dead as one of the best ones out there. The Crazies actually works because there is some minor involvement from Romero, who helped pen the screenplay and served as executive producer of the film. With Romero’s involvement, The Crazies plays with the idea of the people we know and love suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs and the savagery that lies in the ones who are supposed to be protecting us.

The Crazies takes us to the small farming town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, where a government engineered biological weapon code named Trixie is accidentally unleashed in the town’s drinking water. Soon, David (Played by Timothy Olyphant), the local Sheriff, and his wife Judy (Played by Radha Mitchell), the Ogden Marsh doctor, begin noticing strange behavior in the town residents. After an encounter at a high school baseball game and several other bizarre murders, David, Judy, and David’s dependable deputy Russell Clank (Played by Joe Anderson) find the town under quarantine and gas-masked soldiers separating the sick from the healthy. When Judy, who also happens to be pregnant, is separated from David, he breaks away from the soldiers and ventures back into town to find Judy and save her. With Russell at his side, they have to continuously avoid the trigger-happy soldiers patrolling the town and the roaming “crazies” who will tear anyone apart who get in their way.  As they look for a way out of the war-zone town, the government’s horrifying plans to contain Trixie are revealed.

Director Eisner approaches The Crazies in a surprisingly conservative manner. Sure, it has its fair share of stomach churning gore for the horror gurus who thrive on the red stuff but it is incredibly muted for a horror film and especially for material from Romero. Even though it is conservative in approach, the film is fairy intelligent behind all the apocalyptic hoopla. The material is very weary of the government and what they are willing to reveal to their own civilians. The army refuses to tell the terrified citizens of Ogden Marsh what exactly is happening to their friends and family and even worse, if the army detects any sign of infection while processing the civilians at a makeshift quarantine camp, they panic and rip the individual away from their confused family. The images are reminiscent of those we have seen from the Holocaust and they still haven’t lost their lingering power. The film also touches on the idea of those that we think we know suddenly becoming homicidal maniacs who will maim in the blink of an eye. A scene in which a husband locks his wife and young son in a closet and then lights the house on fire will send chills down your spine.

The Crazies has a talented lead in Timothy Olyphant’s David, who is determined to protect his pregnant wife any way he can. His role doesn’t demand too much of him, playing the cookie cutter Sheriff who is just searching for answers and trying to protect the town citizens but Olyphant does his best to add some emotional depth. I did like the way Eisner had his character react when he was forced to take the life of one of the roaming “crazies.” Instead of reacting with indifference, his initial response after the shot if fired from his gun is, “Oh, my God!” The first time he is forced to shoot one, he races to the crumpled body, stricken with shock and grief over taking the life of someone who was close to him and he thought he knew. Olyphant also has some great chemistry with Mitchell as his soft-spoken wife Judy, the pair getting a handful of great one-liners. Together, they provide us with some tender moments of affection and even some sly black humor. Joe Anderson also gets to have some fun as the deputy who may or may not be loosing his mind. He ends up getting the best line of the film, “Welcome to Ogden Marsh! The friendliest place on earth!”

The Crazies doesn’t attempt to break any new ground and instead retreats to familiar territory to scare us. It applies the same old jump scares and despite my dislike for this technique, a few actually end up working. The premise of a small town gone to Hell has been done countless times before and Eisner really does nothing to build upon it. There are a number of chilling scenes; the standout is the group trying to hide from an army helicopter that wishes to wipe them off the face of the earth. They hide in an abandoned car wash that just so happens to be the hiding place of a handful of snarling “crazies.” The scene ends in a shockingly sadistic death that will not settle well in the pit of your stomach. The Crazies doesn’t shy away from B-movie premise and it is aware that the idea is a bit outlandish. Eisner does manage to pepper in a little fun in all the solemnity (both a certain nursery scene and a run-in in the town morgue come to mind) and the fact that the film doesn’t go on longer than it needs to is a major plus. Eisner wastes absolutely no time getting to the action that we came here for and I applaud him for it. Also, for fans of the Romero original, keep an eye out for a seriously awesome cameo from original cast member Lynn Lowry. Scaled back for mainstream audiences (there is no father raping his daughter in this remake), The Crazies is a bare bones horror remake that thankfully doesn’t ask us to switch off our brains to have a spooky good time. You’ll be happy you gave this remake a chance.

Grade: B

The Crazies is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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.

Straw Dogs (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Since Hollywood is insistent on remaking every classic horror film under the sun, is it too much to ask that they DO NOT do a shot for shot remake of the film they are redoing? Honestly, if the viewer has already seen the original film and the filmmakers have done absolutely nothing to tell an innovative or different story from the original, why should the viewer even bother? The Psycho remake was laughable and grossly miscast (Seriously, Vince Vaughn?!). It seems that Gus Van Sant and Universal thought that people would take it better if they deemed it an experiment. My question is what exactly is the experiment? They added color and a few morons out there scream brilliant. It’s not. Look at 2006’s The Omen, another shot for shot remake of a tour de force demonic horror film that appeared senseless. They knew there was a built in audience for it so it was easy green for the studio. The remakes that have done something different have gotten some respect, mostly 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, which just amped up everything (gore, action, pace, etc.). It was a good remake and I enjoyed it, but I still prefer the 1978 Romero original. I also thought the re-envisioning of The Hills Have Eyes is pretty bracing. It was a nasty film that refused to cater to the uptight Hollywood rating system. It pushes its hard R rating to the very edge, especially when it puts an infant child at the dangerous end of a revolver. It’s scary as hell, but was largely waved off as torture porn. And yet some intellectuals applaud Gus Van Sant’s sluggish Psycho. Hmmm.

Now we have the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s little seen 1971 classic horror film Straw Dogs, which takes the route of Psycho and The Omen, but to better effect. There is, thankfully, a brain in this one and resists being a petty money grab. I can’t say the same about Psycho and The Omen. My worst fears were confirmed early on and I’ll admit it was a tough pill to swallow. The only difference you will find in this Straw Dogs is the setting of the film and the actors that inhabit the screen. And possibly a few camera angles.  This version is completely overstated and acts as nothing but a highlighter to the point Peckinpah made so unsettling in his terrifying original. It just adds a dark underline. I did start to enjoy myself after the first twenty minutes and stopped grousing about the similarities to my gung-ho chums sitting next to me. The major rough patch is the casting of James Mardsen as David Sumner, the mild mannered liberal intellectual who “will not allow violence against this house”. He can’t match the gusto of Dustin Hoffman, who’s tacit slip from timid to deranged is so distressing in the original, his wild eyed glare will appear in your nightmares.

This Straw Dogs moves from the English countryside to the swampy Blackwater, Mississippi, where everyone looks like they stepped out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many of the sets look like leftovers from said film too. When the hometown darling Amy (Played by miscast and talentless Kate Bosworth) and her skittish writer husband David (Mardsen) move into her old home, they return to the old hometown heroes who never left the beloved settlement. David is currently working on a Hollywood script about the battle of Stalingrad, which is supposed to act as a heavy-handed comparison to the bloody climax. The locals still hang on to their glory days and all meet up at a local bar to hit on the chicks and listen to their beloved Coach (Played by the welcome James Woods, in one hell of a sadistic turn) Tom Heddon tell the same old stories. The merry gang of beady-eyed rednecks find a leader in Charlie (Played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), who is constantly shirtless and oiled up with a layer of sweat. He’s seems harmless enough, especially when compared to the blatant intensity of Charlie in the original film. This time around, it’s David who seems to be the judgmental one when it was the other way around in 1971. David has hired Charlie to restore the roof on their barn, and soon, the beer chugging rednecks begin to pick at David and Amy. They hound Amy with their dagger stares as she goes for a jog without a bra. They invite themselves in and swipe David’s beer from the fridge. As tensions mount, an inevitable confrontation brews, especially when Amy is raped by two of the hicks. Also, we once again have the side story of Jeremy Niles (Played awkwardly by Dominic Purcell), a supposed local pedophile who wanders the hot streets with his dog. After an accidental murder of Tom’s daughter, the rednecks set out to kill the loathed local creep. The paths of Jeremy and David cross and it all adds up to a siege on David and Amy’s home that ends in a fury of slaughter and turmoil.

This revved up Straw Dogs is consistently playing with the idea of conservatism versus liberal thinking. It places us on the sideline as the two opposing forces collide and challenge. It’s intriguing to watch the bible thumping, violence-craving southerners challenge the beliefs of the liberal pacifist and atheist twerp David. They are supposedly God fearing people, yet the will rape and murder without a second thought. We are also left asking why David refuses to do a thing about the abuse aimed at Amy and him. The film suggests that we should inhabit the middle ground, and stray from the far left or far right. We fair better in the middle. It’s also the only new idea the film brings to the table. The original hinted at it, but never really elaborated upon it. The film haphazardly abandons this idea at the end and then tries to cover the territorial battle that Peckinpah staged to much better effect in the preferred original. It never takes on an original identity, which will turn some fans off.

The film’s appearance is spiffed up and loaded with pretty actors and actresses of the moment. I can’t say I enjoyed Mardsen’s performance, but I suppose it could have been worse. I have never really cared for Bosworth and here she does nothing with her character. She can barely convey emotion at the appropriate time. She retreats to simply trying to look sexy for the camera. Skarsgard’s Charlie is surprisingly likable and we do pity him in a peculiar way. It seems that he had potential early in life and ended up stuck in the blistering heat of his podunk town. James Woods takes control of the project and seems like he is on cloud nine playing a loose cannon drunk itching for a fight. The film’s acting is not the true issue though. The disappointing aspect of the film is it ends up being indistinguishable from other hillbilly horror flicks. Yes, we know the south can be a scary place, but did we need to be reminded again? Yes, we know people are scared by isolated Middle America, but must it be used again? What happened to filling us with fear of the characters? No one seems daunting because, well, they all look like movie stars.

The new Straw Dogs does pack a few scenes that will make your pulse race and may even give you a goose bump or two. But the film never holds a candle to Peckinpah’s, a problem that leaves the viewer asking why a remake was necessary. It’s sharply made and does have some showy cinematography, but the film is often all jazz and little else. The film’s climax is a little too bloodthirsty and there is plenty of the red stuff splashed about. There are a few nasty deaths including the returning death by mantrap. I don’t want to write this film off all together because it’s smarter than most films that Hollywood dumps on us, but I wouldn’t consider it genius. I did groan when the film offered up a definition of a straw dog. I wish the film wasn’t so eager to explain everything and make it so literal. A little sophistication never hurt anyone and audiences today should be introduced to some. Straw Dogs 2011 is still worthy of your time. Grade: B-