HORROR MOVIE MARATHON
PART I: HORROR IN THE 90's & KILLER KIDS
Death Machine (1994)
Somewhere between The Terminator and Richard Stanley's Hardware is Death Machine, the feature debut of Stephen "Blade" Norrington. Brad Dourif, who is more likely than not to serve up the most over-the-top performance in any given horror movie, doesn't disappoint here as the porn-loving power-hungry savant who unleashes his latest homicidal robot on a group of environmentalists who break into the facility armed and ready to put a stop to all the weapons manufacturing (it's funny, like a Die Hard-style action movie where the terrorists become the targets.) Ely "The Wrong Guys" Pouget* is the newly-appointed CEO of the company whose conscience gets her to pull the plug on Dourif's carte blanche access to the factory for whatever death machines he happens to be working on and gets her trapped with the terrorists against the killbot. The whole trapped-inside-a-structure/stalked-by-killing-machine-also-inside-of-structure model (the Alien Formula...or, if you like, Smart Sharks Formula...or, if you like, the horror version of the Career Opportunities Formula, just substitute Jennifer Connelly with some kind of killing machine) is a well-worn scenario for this kind of movie, but you really can't go wrong with it. It's an easy set-up for the quick video market cheapies in the wake of Alien, where one massive location is utilized to the best possible effect. At this point in the marathon, I started to realize that I'm becoming nostalgic for early 90's dtv titles like this one.
The title beast itself is a charming pre-CG combination of live model shots and stop motion comprised of clanky metal and coiling wires. Norrington worked as a "special robotics technician" on Hardware just a few years earlier, so he must have come into this one confident that he knew his shit (character actor and Stanley regular William Hootkins is also in the movie.) I should also mention the effective opening scene where some cops enter a diner to find the patrons slaughtered and their murderer, a confused cyborg, standing around in the bathroom unaware of what it just did. It's another one of those flicks like Night of the Creeps and The Dead Next Door that names its characters after horror directors (John Carpenter, Sam Raimi - there's even a "Jack" Dante and a "Scott Ridley") which is cute but distracting, especially in a movie like this that has nothing to do with anything at least three of those directors have ever worked on. Fortunately Norrington kept things at a brisk enough pace that it didn't bother me - I liked this one. Rachel Weisz pops up in a small early role. Memorable line: "Fuck you, ho-ho!"
The Ugly (1997)
The New Zealand film industry is basically Peter Jackson, so it was a nice surprise to find this above-average Kiwi horror movie which thanks the bearded Rings ringleader in the credits but otherwise doesn’t seem to have any Wingnut involvement. Considering its budget, the story is complicated and ambitious, and not afraid to experiment. The beginning of the film is a familiar set-up: female psychologist enters a poorly-governed insane asylum to assess a murderer. Flashbacks ensue, but they're not your average flashbacks: like that great moment in The Frighteners where Michael J Fox is in the past one minute then seamlessly goes back to the future within the same shot, characters shift between time periods and realities as if they were merely turning the corner. Visual ingenuities like these augment the standard story of a young man traumatized by a repressing mama to the point that he builds up an insatiable bloodthirst, but this portrait of a serial killer has a few interesting plot turns as well. In a twist that reminded me of the best aspect of An American Werewolf in London, the killer is perpetually surrounded and tormented by the ghosts of his victims, who he claims goad him into further violence, a genuinely creepy addition that's never overplayed. He also sees himself in the mirror as a wretched, deformed freak - the "ugly" of the title - and actor Paolo Rotondo (whose last name sounds like a superhero whose power is to be really fat) does a nice job reverting from slick mindfucker in the Hannibal Lector vain to self-flagellating wimp whose most heinous crimes are mostly committed in a state of confusion. He makes his remorseless killer sympathetic, like the guy in The Young Poisoner's Handbook. And in the past he's henpecked by a scary crazy mother, her perverted idea of parenting rivaled only by Piper Laurie in Carrie or Rose Ross in Mother's Day.
There's nothing in The Ugly that hasn't been done a hundred times, but like a good Robert Cormier novel the inventive storytelling reworks the clichés into something that feels fresh. Not every risk works, but you've got to respect director Scott Reynolds for taking them. The movie is guilty of one too many of those gimmicky scenes where SOMETHING SUDDEN AND VIOLENT HAPPENS! then it cuts back to the previous uneventful moment because it was all in the guy's imagination (fooled you!) and there are other problems along those lines. But to be fair, several of them - including a weird color scheme where all blood is black (which for some reason both of the reviews I found online really hated) - work towards the warped reality of the film. Something tells me I wouldn't enjoy The Ugly as much upon repeat viewing, but since I didn't know what to expect going into it I was more than pleasantly surprised. I'll definitely check out Reynolds' follow-up features, Heaven (with Martin Donovan) and When Strangers Appear (with Radha Mitchell.)
Bio Zombie (1998)
In the tradition of Mr. Vampire, this Hong Kong riff on the zombies-in-a-mall scenario would seem more impressive if you think of it as coming between Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead than if you consider it was released after Dead Alive. Any arguments along the lines of "well the makeup's nothing to write home about, but I guess that's just where non-Hollywood horror movie makeup evolution was at the time" or that zombie movies hadn't been as goofy and chaotic until this film fall apart when you remember that Peter Jackson's messy masterpiece arrived seven years earlier. That said, I think whatever lightly-scaled social message about consumerism and pop culture that Dawn of the Dead may have hinted at is even more poignant in Bio Zombie. Whereas private access to the wide, empty and ornate Pennsylvania mall of Romero's movie with its multiple shops and passageways was undeniably enticing, the low ceilings, awful greenish-blue lighting and bland, generic shops of this film make up a place you definitely wouldn't want to be trapped in, zombies or not. Literally every store looks like a soulless cell phone kiosk or overly-decorated video game outlet at any generic shopping center, with mirrors lining the walls to duplicate them and make the monotony seem to go forever: in a word, horrible. It's bad enough that the heroes of the movie have to work there; getting stuck overnight was simply unpleasant to have to watch. And I can't think of anything more depressing than getting drunk at a mall, so when it happens to the characters in this movie I couldn't wait for the infected flesh-eaters to start rampaging and bring an end to their pathetic existence encased in, and symbolized by, this particular setting.
Wilson Yip, future director of SPL, does a decent if not revolutionary job keeping things moving after a contaminated soft drink starts turning folks into undead monsters. But it's hard to side with the lead characters, Woody Invincible and Crazy Bee, who are introduced as a pair of horny losers who mug a girl in the restroom (and not in a charming Freddie Fringer Jr. sort of way.) In fact the most affecting part of the film is an even bigger loser, a counter jockey who is infatuated with one of the makeup shop girls: when he becomes a zombie he still tries to protect her in touching King Kong fashion. But none of the characters are as charming or funny as the members of Guitar Wolf in their own "stupid and fun" zombie epic Wild Zero. The filmmakers could have also had an even stronger theme of consumerism and corporate products turning people into zombies if the contaminated soda played more of a role, but basically one character drinks it and everything else is standard bite-by-bite undead mayhem. I would have liked to see a more apocalyptic tale of the cola infecting the entire country, which is merely hinted at in the final scene (no sequel) but as far as small scale zombie romps go this one wasn't too bad.
So not bad, 1990's Horror: you're 6-3, with at least two being movies I'd consider genuinely great. Congratulations - I have much more respect for you as a decade.
THE KIDS AREN’T ALRIGHT
It's become a recurring theme with me, but I'll say it again: scary children are not really scary. But with the following films, I realize that it's kind of a cool challenge for the filmmakers: how to make something threatening that normally isn't? M Night Shayamalan couldn't make trees scary, but with the right gimmick (example: Village of the Damned's kids being all albino and cliquey, and also able to control your mind) a director can turn even the most harmless ankle biter into a creature that could conceivably bite off your ankle. Some succeed (like Narciso Ibanez Serrador with Who Can Kill a Child?), others don't (the French guys behind Ils.) Whether they do or not, I actually like a good killer kid(s) movie. Maybe for laughs I'll watch all three hundred of the unending Children of the Corn series for next year's marathon. Until then, I indulged in a double feature of recent releases...
The Children (2008)
In last year's horror marathon, I stated that "evil child" films don't scare me for the simple reason that I don't find children physically threatening. Nobody should find children physically threatening. It's tantamount to being frightened of a doll; in the words of Dee Snyder, step on it - it's over! However, this British film managed to find a group of child actors who are terrific at acting creepy. More or less a sequel to Who Could Kill a Child?, this one takes place in a rural home over the holidays where three sets of families are celebrating together. The first half of the film is the best, with the adults engaging in banal formalities, dull conversations and sordid personal drama while the young children become increasing more upset and hysterical over the strange behavior of one of their number. The parents treat their fits of terror like misbehavior, thus missing all warning signs that an infection is slowly taking over the kids one at a time. (There doesn’t seem to me to be much difference between ignorant parents who sit around in public places texting while their little spawn run all over like animals and the ones in this film who twiddle their thumbs as the crumbcrushers plot torture and murder...but then I'm going to be a dad soon, and I'm already anticipating what my level of tolerance is going to be when she hits those terrible two's.)
So the first half is a good example of "daylight horror" (the kind that develops right out in the open and eventually overwhelms normalcy), but once the little ones actually set their killing spree in motion I found myself gradually falling out of the film. The director overuses the standard “character looks and sees killer(s) staring at them, looks away, looks back and - oh shit - they’re gone!” gimmick and there's at least one case of near deal-breaking overacting (by a grown-up, of course.) The violence escalates at an unbelievably fast rate and the eerie set up is kind of shattered by the ultimate pay-off, which is (again) little kids who could easily be restrained somehow managing to get the better of full-grown human beings. Not that there aren't highlights in the second part of the movie: the little blonde girl in particular is pretty freaky looking, and one character learns the hard way that she can’t kill a child. But speaking of that classic film, the mysterious ailment infecting Serrador's island of hellions really worked towards the movie's intangible horror; in The Children, it seems more like the screenwriters couldn't think of a good reason all this is happening. That's as good as example as any to distinguish a great filmmaker who can create a tense atmosphere (Serrador) from a talented director who's not bad at fulfilling the basic elements of a horror movie (Tom Shankland.) Sometimes this kind of thing can be totally effective helmed by the latter, as evidenced here, and the first half more than makes up in atmosphere what the second half lacks in subtlety.
Eden Lake (2008)
To continue this "kids aren't scary" theme: after watching 2006 French horror film Ils (Them), I made my case of not being frightened by a bunch of brats running around in hoodies to a friend of mine who had found the movie very effective. He related to me a story of how he and his brother were mugged in a park by a group of delinquents, none older than 13 or so, who got the drop on them with the help of an attack dog on a leash. Oh, kids AND a snarling, rabid rotweiler ready to tear my flesh off: well ok, that's a little scarier. But if I may point out, the little bozos of Ils did not have a dog, nor did the homicidal tykes of The Children. Which brings me to this recent “hoodie horror," in which the psychotic gang of underaged pishers actually DO have a dog they're more than willing to unleash on vacationing couple Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly, which changes the game considerably. This film sets up the following: a group of obnoxious, noisy kids are encroaching on your private time with the missus as you're vacationing in the wilderness. You want her to know you're not scared of these brats but at the same time not get pulled in and humiliated by their "what are you gonna do, call my parents?" mentality. Then they steal your vehicle; without any law enforcement in sight you're forced to confront them and their BIG FUCKING DOG. After a confrontation that got way out of hand, you're left wounded and at the mercy of these healthy young psychopaths - fine, James Watkins, writer-director of Eden Lake, you've got my attention. Thank you for taking your time setting up a scenario in which children could conceivably get the upper hand and be genuinely menacing.
The movie has more than its share of moments where our couple make the mistake of simply not fleeing when they should and lots of tedious explanations as to why they can't just use the cell phone to call for help (which I hate to see in movies), but perfectly balances the "actual evil kids who will kill you" set-up with Who Can Kill a Child moral questions when it comes to fighting back: if one of the murderous scamps is between you and escape, do you run him down with your car? What are the consequences of that? Do you trust a kid who says he's not with the group and wants to help or do you bash his little head in? And how are you going to explain to the authorities that THEY were trying to kill YOU? There's also an indignity on the kids' part whenever the couple tries to stand up for themselves, like "what the hell -we're just teenagers! What's wrong with you, you big bully?" This adds an effective frustration to the unpleasantness. I certainly hate seeing Michael Fassbender tortured, and a combination of good make-up effects and great acting make it look like it actually hurts. Eden Lake is never really scary, but it's a well-made thriller with a funny (and infuriating) ending that's sort of a reverse Last House on the Left.
* She's also in the 1990 West German submarine-horror film The Rift which I tried to locate for this marathon but wasn't able to find. I love submarine movies, and I love horror movies...do YOU have a copy of The Rift (aka Endless Descent?) "You can't hold your breath and scream at the same time," probably the best knock-off of Alien's famous "In space..." tagline.
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