Thursday, 14 January 2010

Re/Made: Halloween 2

Sequels became credible in 1974 with The Godfather 2. The critical consensus [1] is that it surpassed the original. Due to the self editing process a work of fiction is approximately 50% of its original intent. Ergo a completed story – plot permitting – has enough material to be continued. There are characters to be resolved. There are themes to be examined. The trilogy – in motion pictures – is exploitative. Horror movies are exploitative by default. Sequels rarely work.

Bride of Frankenstein 1935 and The Curse of the Cat People 1944 were a long time ago.

Halloween 1978 was phenomenal success[2]. The commercial nature of the industry notwithstanding the conclusion of the original film meant there was a narrative basis for a sequel. The first hurdle for any sequel is the writer. It is his story more so than the director. It is his continuity. The next hurdle is the actors. They are visual continuity. John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote and produced the original. They returned to write and produce Halloween 2. Jamie Lee Curtis returned. Donald Pleasance returned. Charles Cyphers returned as the sheriff. Even Nancy Kyes returned as a corpse.

Halloween 2 continues the night he came home. This premise is simple ingenuity from the writers. It means no exposition from any of the characters. It means the audience would have to watch the original to understand the sequel. It means Michael Myers continues to stalk and slash his way to Jamie Lee. Did James Cameron watch this movie before writing Aliens 1986? If Halloween is a stalker movie Halloween 2 is a full blown slasher.

Myers cuts his first kill at 12 minutes. He is relentless henceforth. However there is a moment of prudence (it would be folly to call it mercy). In a tension addled sequence Michael doesn’t kill Mrs Elrod. It mirrors the scene in the original when he didn’t kill Nurse Marion. Both women survived due to practical reasons: Myers is on a mission.

Laurie Strode: “Why me?”

The best part of this plot is the move the action to a confined space. It is also the Achilles Heel. Haddonfield has got to be the most deserted hospital until Autopsy 2009. At least the latter had a narrative reason. The lack of bodies –patients and staff – is down to low budget. It intrudes on the suspension of disbelief.

Actress Nancy Stephens reprises her Nurse Marion character. Her role is the reveal. She tells Loomis why Michael Myers is fixated on Laurie Strode. It is the raison d’être for both movies. It is the prelude to the end.

Within the confines of the hospital Michael has free reign to stalk and slash everyone on his way to Laurie. Each kill is different. The movie does its best to build the staff into characters thereby amplifying the effects of the kills. Though the actors don’t have much time or lines, with the exception of Tawny Moyer, they convince. The killings range from horror – Mr Garret – to inventive – Mrs Alves – to boring – Karen.

The best performances come from the stalwart Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee. From the off Loomis is strident that Myers is “not human”. How can he be? He took six bullets and he got up and walked away. This informs the audience that a more inventive method must be used to kill the shape. Jamie Lee as Laurie Strode is wounded, drugged, exhausted. Yet she understands that Michael is coming for her. She’s too weak to run. She has to rely on instinct.

Director Rick Rosenthal mimics Carpenter’s style from the original. He infuses the 2.35:1 aspect ratio with long shots, corridors and filled backgrounds. Rosenthal also shows he is adept at set pieces: Michael’s chase of Laurie in the store room in particular. Composer Alan Howarth was brought in to sex up Carpenter’s original score. This is a theme that is equal to James Bond in movie iconography. Howarth adds orchestral texture to what tinny keyboards. Although it was unnecessary it is a job well done.

Halloween 2 is a perfect sequel. It concludes the narrative the original started with a barnstorming sequence. Laurie Strode stands to face the dragon but it is Jamie Lee Curtis who blooms as the ultimate final girl. Donald Pleasance plays Loomis as a necessary hero. John Carpenter and Debra Hill didn’t work together again for another 15 years. Michael Myers will never rest in peace.

Halloween 2 opens with an epigram. It’s something to do with horses and dreams. Oh dear. Writer, director, producer Rob Zombie returns for the sequel of his remake – which is not a remake of the sequel. Zombie manages to bring with him the vast majority of the cast from his 2007 remake. Unfortunately for him (and this film) he doesn’t lure the best performer; Daeg Faerch was the best of a bad bunch in Halloween 2007. The opening sequence shows another actor Chase Vanek as young Michael Myers. The kid fits the role. He’s as bad as the rest of them.

Why is the young Michael Myers a presence in this film? It allows for the presence of middle-aged Sheri Moon Zombie who plays his mother. As her name suggests she is married to the director. He’s the only gig in town[3]. Deborah Myers committed suicide in the remake. Her presence in this film is that of apparition. It’s contrived. It’s unnecessary. It’s a betrayal of contract between cinema and audience. Halloween 2 doesn’t exist to entertain. It exists to indulge (Rob Zombie and spouse).

Why Zombie would want to disassociate himself from Halloween 2 1981 is perplexing[4]. By virtue of his 2007 effort he is a non talented. This is evident in the reworking of the 1981 script. The first 25 minutes follow the trajectory of the ’81 sequel: Michael attacks Laurie at Haddonfield General. Then she wakes up. It was all a dream. Not since Dallas has such a device been wantonly abused. It’s a swerve on the audience and with over 90 minutes left it germinates bad will.

A note on the hospital sequence; in the ’81 sequel Mrs Alves was played by Gloria Gifford. She was the de facto boss of the hospital - respected if not like by all staff both men and women. She goes missing. Her off camera slaying was the most inventive death in the picture.

In ’09 the renamed Nurse Daniels is written as a minstrel and played so by actress Octavia Spencer. Her first scene is ‘ghetto talk’ about something or the other while her white colleague bawls her head off. They hi-five each other and the stereotype couldn’t be more crude. Here is Nurse Daniels aka Mammy. Her murder is the most brutal and pornographic in the whole film.

John Carpenter (and James Cameron) has always put black people in position of relative power in their movies. There is safety and comfort in watching their films because racism will not be a factor. That they are in the minority is an overstatement. The majority is the likes of Rob Zombie and his/their pure evil inspired fantasies on other human beings. Sickening.

Laurie wakes from her dream. Its two years later: October 29th. Enough time for Michael to walk his way back to Haddonfield. The story never explains where he’s been or what he’s been up to. Maybe he only kills on October 31st.

Zombie is good when it comes to white trash characters; the ambulance crew mirror the asylum screws from the first film. The Rabbit in Red strip joint sequence is fun - to a point. He is horrible at girl speak. All Laurie and her friends do is use swear words. Like totally rad dude.

Malcolm McDowell is back as Loomis to further the embarrassment. Margot Kidder plays a psychiatrist - that’s the only original thought in this flick. Rarely do films as obnoxious as this actually get released. There are bad films out there. A lot of bad films exist purely for a profit. Halloween 2 exists because a nasty troll got hold a camera and the studio said have at it.

This is the tenth of the Halloween films. It’s far and away the worst. Undoubtedly at some point there will be more to follow. So long as none of the future films involve Rob Zombie then none will ever be as bad as this.

Read more Thrill Fiction: ReMade: Halloween
Technorati Tags:, , , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Case 39

I remember Spike Lee in tears whilst being interviewed on Inside The Actors Studio[1]. He was talking about the making of Malcolm X (1992) and how Warner Bros tried to shut him down. Only direct action from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby amongst others saved the film to completion. I remember thinking at the time - they can do that to Spike Lee[2]?

They can do that to Martin Scorsese. Paramount pulled the plug on The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) in 1983 (turns out that wasn’t a bad move). The point is no matter whom you are, however successful you may be, in Hollywood, and in this life, trouble comes.

Case 39 is that anomalous horror film: big budget and A-listed. Renée Zellweger heads a cast that includes noted British thespians Adrian Lester and Ian McShane. All this could not save the movie from a protracted release. Oft delayed films can be either as good as Trick r Treat (2009) or as bad as Carriers (2009). We await Shutter Island[3].

Case 39 was dumped into North American theatres on 1st January.

The opening credits have a similar mise-en-scène to Candyman (1992). Indeed both films share a similar structure; this is the intelligent horror film that requests its audience to take it seriously. Candyman opened with a signpost informing the audience that this is legend. Case 39 has neither signpost nor prologue which is to its credit. This story is firmly set in everyday reality; Renée Zellweger’s main character is a social worker.

The brilliance of Case 39 is that the audience is behind the curve. We watch from the point of view of Zellweger. We see what she sees - to a point. That point is a partial reveal to the audience. Halfway through the movie Zellweger is off camera during a noted scene. We learn what she doesn’t know. This enhances the horror. From this point we fear for the main character.

The mechanics of Zellweger fostering Lilith are to be ignored – call it horror film license. Ignore too the dynamics between Zellweger and Adrian Lester. It is the black boss syndrome. In Hollywood whites have an attitude to black authority be it subtle or as overt as in Se7en (1995). In real life there is Barack Obama[4].

Zellweger carries the movie with aplomb in the dramatic scenes. This however is a horror film. Unfortunately she is not up to task where it matters. A-listers in horror films should be viewed with the suspicion of a carpetbagger in Baghdad. I can understand why the Hollywood elite are jumping on the horror bandwagon - we are in a golden age – but movie stars should be forced to watch the late Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man (1973) before setting foot in this genre. If you’re not prepared to bring it on set and leave it on screen then stay on the red carpet and inside your glossy magazines.

The British director Shane Meadows observed that though the finished product makes it look easy extracting a fine performance from a child is anything but. Jodelle Ferland plays Lilith albeit badly. Her acting was topsy turvy. Her diction and delivery sounded like recitation. She has a look but the director wasn’t able to yield much else out of her. However everyone else brought their capabilities to screen: Lester, McShane, Kerry O’Malley and Callum Keith Rennie as the parents and even Bradley Cooper as the insipid wannabe boyfriend.

This film is shot in 35mm widescreen. It makes for a glorious visual feast of angles, textured foregrounds and detailed backgrounds. There is a splendid use of motifs eg a spinning office chair and peas on a plate. However the reveal can make or break a horror film. I didn’t see the breakdown coming. By the time it arrived I was already angry with Zellweger’s sabotage job. Paramount knows why they delayed this film for almost two years.

Turns out that wasn’t a bad move.

Read more Thrill Fiction: The 10 Best Horror Films of 2009

Sunday, 3 January 2010

A1 Movie Reviews

I’m an independent writer. I’m a lone penslinger. I don’t get paid for this. I don’t answer to anyone’s headline or deadline. Whatever I write is from a pen mightier than a sword. I give to the world that has given me nought.

But I’m open to offers.

There are others like me; writers that bear neither allegiance nor favour to the Hollywood Machine. Some of these scribes can be found on A1 Movie Reviews.

Like it says on the tin – we review movies specifically for you the audience. Not to toady to the studios or production companies. Not to get noticed by the mainstream bought-and-paid-for squealer media. Whatever success happens to my career down the line will occur organically and not because I bigged up Avatar.

I didn’t by the way. I do like James Cameron though. Minus Titanic, The Abyss, True Lies.

I started writing DVD reviews for them in November. In 2010 it will continue to be a regular weekly event. So click on the movie reel to your right and experience my wordings on film of all genres - drama, documentaries and anything else - especially horror

You want to say “thank you”? Leave a comment.

Read my interview at OnlyGoodMovies

Friday, 1 January 2010

The 10 Best Horror Films of 2009

Over 200 horror films were released in North America in 2009 via Direct to DVD, Video-On-Demand, limited and wide release. There was the big budget (The Final Destination), the low budget (From Within), the delayed release (Carriers) and releases delayed (Shutter Island to 2010). There was the greatly anticipated (Drag Me to Hell) and the greatly disappointing (Dead Air). Hollywood released the obligatory remakes (The Last House on the Left and My Bloody Valentine in desperation 3D) and the obligatory sequels (Saw VI). There was the usual drek (Skjult). There were the hidden gems (The Crypt)

These are ten of the best.

10 Paranormal Activity US

A film with subtitles doesn’t mean it’s better than a film without. A low budget doesn’t correlate to better than big budget. Foreign films have no quality presumption over American films. A movie with huge success at the box office is no indication of merit.

I hated Paranormal Activity.

The cinematic lost-footage-found device is a gimmick and nothing more. Paranormal Activity is a no/low budget movie that takes place in one location (a house). That in and of itself would be industrious but The Anniversary (1968) showed how such limitations can be filmed well. Where that film was kinetic Paranormal Activity is static and laboured. It does strive for and achieve dialogue vérité but in doing so exposes the weakness of the plot. At best stretch this should be an episode of The Twilight Zone/Fear Itself/Masters of Horror (ie one hour running time less 15 minutes of commercials).

With a miniscule plot it is character that has to propel this story. Katie and Micah are a yuppie couple in a new condo. She’s a whining shrew. He’s spineless and downtrodden. In the 70s there was a British sitcom called ‘Yes, My Dear'. That was funny. This is stereotype hell. To tell a story one has to engage the viewer/reader/listener. A lot is to be said about hiring attractive looking people (ie women) in movie roles. It induces sympathy. The actress Katie Featherson – who is no talent - induced my apathy, irritation then malice. I couldn’t wait to see her get hers. Her and her husband.

The dénouement of this film is disturbing. It has been years since I had a bad nights sleep due to a horror movie. Though the final sequence does not justify the tedium of the prior 80 minutes I cannot deny its power and effect (I must declare an interest: I am a lapsed Pentecostal Christian). This is what The Exorcist did in 1973. For that reason alone, begrudgingly, I include it.

9 Orphan US

This studio offering is as formulaic as baby milk. After a befuddling prologue the film settles down into psychological drama à la Rosemary’s Baby (1968). With a running time of two hours Orphan is a slow boil build. It is the story of a young family of four: mother miscarries her third child so they decide to adopt. They choose a 9 year old. She is the child from hell.

Joel Silver produced the Lethal Weapons, the Die Hards, the Predators, the Matrix(es). He will come with a big budget. Big budget means better actors (than the genre deserves). Husband Peter Sarsgaard brings a calming effect to wife Vera Farmiga’s growing anxiety - a ying to her yang. Farmiga exudes insecurity, doubt, jealousy and hysteria. She almost convinces. The best acting goes to 8 year old Aryana Engineer. She does not play the child from hell but is an actor of prodigious talent. Her role is mute. Her display is through facial and body language. She convinces.

The critic Mark Kermode in discussing thrillers – specifically Lakeview Terrace (1998) – said such films with a detailed, intricate build up often disappoint in their dénouement. I was waiting for the reveal of Orphan knowing that if the writers could pull it off it would be earth shattering. Alas the reveal was moronic to the point of insulting. The salt in the wound was taboo.

It does take Orphan 90 minutes to fall apart and that’s 90 minutes of goodwill. Orphan is only a movie. It’s not art – its entertainment. It will be forgotten beyond 2009 but it is fun to watch.

8 The Short Cut US

There’s a formula to scary movies – a template - which I like. When filmed well said template supersedes the formulaic and at the very least is going to be entertaining.

The Short Cut raises its signpost at the opening credits. However what appears to be prologue turns out to be a parallel storyline. The main story is that of new boy in town/school Derek. He makes a best buddy, is befriended by a cute tomboy, woos the soccer princess and is recruited by a jock to find the latter’s missing dog. This is the Scooby Gang. Their hi-jinks lead them to break in – sneak in – the house by the woods owned by the town’s creepy old man.

The gang is pivotal because it is they, the characters, who elevate this flick. Thus when the killing starts none of them deserve to die. Kudos goes to Shannon Woodward, Dave Franco and Josh Emerson for their performances. The dialogue plays its part but it is the well written plot and sharp direction that deliver the thrills. There are tension soaked set pieces aplenty such as Derek and the jock’s foray into the barn. There are also horror moments - when the old man turns up at the diner. The parallel story line is psychological horror in itself. A pity these scenes are so brief – but they are effective. This is what Rob Zombie should have done with Halloween 2.

The cell phone that doesn’t work is a lazy cliché in today’s horror. At least in this film writers Dan Hannon and Scott Sandler set that plot point up. They set up every key event in this movie including the tacked on twist ending. The twist does make sense but is emotionally unsatisfying. Nevertheless this is a pocket rocket of a movie. It was easily missed in the big budget barrage. Director Nicholaus Goossen proves he’s better at this genre than wunderkind Richard Kelly.

7 The House of the Devil US

I watched this blind ergo I believed I was watching a film from the 80s (how could I have missed this for over 20 years?). Even when Tom Noonan turned up I didn’t twig - the film was that convincing. Afterwards I felt embarrassed; I know what Tom Noonan looked like in the 80s (Manhunter 1986). On reflection there was an overriding clue that should have alerted me: when watched today all 80s horror have the dated factor – be it dialogue, acting style and/or ambience. This film captured the 80s too well to be authentic.

From the title cards to the shooting style (and the obvious in between) everything in The House of the Devil screams 80s. It begs the question is this a period film or is the filmmaker asking we the audience to regress to a period of different expectation? The epigram now reads like disclaimer.

The best horror films build their characters (Candyman 1990) then build the conflict (Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1976) then reveal the big bad (Halloween 1978): university student Samantha needs the money to move into her own digs. She answers an advert for a babysitting job and arrives at a creepy house. The ad turns out to be false. Tom Noonan doesn’t want her to sit a baby he wants her to watch over his elderly mother-in-law. Samantha doesn’t want that job. Noonan ups the ante. The sight of money takes the better of her. She demands more.

If it’s too good to be true it’s probably illegal.” – anon

The budget reveals itself in the lack of milling extras. This has to be the quietest university campus in cinema. Other than that the story moves at a reasonable pace with all the gaps being filled. Then comes an isolated incident of violence. It is sudden hence it is shocking. Henceforth tension imbues every scene and escalates.

The reveal is nonsensical. The epigram did signpost it. We were asked to regress to an earlier time.

Tom Noonan is suitably cast and domineers. Actress Mary Woronov adds to the creep factor exponentially. It’s always a pleasure to see an actor revel in her talent and leave it on the screen. If The House of the Devil was made 25 years ago actor Jocelin Donahue (as Samantha) doesn’t fill the screen à la the Brat Pack or Christian Slater did. Her Samantha is more sub-Heather Lagenkemp. She’s only an adequate final girl.

This is a glorious failure of an experiment in retro filmmaking but an enjoyable horror flick nonetheless.

6 Hush UK

This film takes place over the course of one night resulting in a pace that does not pause.

Zakes is driving with Beth on the M1 motorway. Theirs is a relationship in death throes. She’s cheated on him and he doesn’t know it. She wants to be with him and he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know if he loves her or if it’s force of habit. While Beth sleeps a white truck overtakes them in the rain. Its shutter rolls up briefly. Inside there’s a caged woman – screaming. Zakes phones the police but he can’t read them the dirt encrusted plates. He gives them his approximate location. He’s done his bit.

Beth screams at him to follow the truck. No way. He pulls off at a services. She sits down for a coffee and splits up with him. He goes back to his car but can’t bring himself to drive off. He goes back in the café to look for her. She’s gone. Outside he sees the white truck drive off.

What follows is Zakes pusuit of the truck. The stress level is at magnitude throughout this film. There are set pieces aplenty: the initial entry into the trucks cabin, the interlude at the country house, the face-off in another services men’s room with two oblivious coppers present. Zakes can’t alert them. No spoilers but Hitchcock would be proud.

The edit is frenzied. The shooting is frantic. This is a thriller that uses horror motifs. The big bad is shroud-like - imposing, huge, menacing, mute; a Michael Myers sans the supernatural. It is his dread that elevates this thriller into horror. Add this film to Eden Lake (2008) and The Descent (2005) and this could be the birth pangs of a British horror renaissance.

Hush was released in the US via IFC On Demand. A home awaits it on DVD.

5 Grace US

Click poster to read my review at A1 Movies.

4 Trick r Treat US

Click poster to read my review.

3 The Sceptic US

There is a (brief) prologue, as obligatory in horror as the twist ending, though in The Sceptic it is germane to the plot. Lead character Bryan Becket is played by Tim Daly in a performance of stoic indignation. Becket lodges at his late aunt’s house – a Victorian mansion – while he contests her last Will and Testament. He begins to hear things. He begins to see things. He doesn’t believe in ghosts.

The intelligent writing leaps off the screen from the first scene forward. In a dumb down landscape (that includes television and popular fiction as well as cinema) it is rare to be told a story with respect for intellect. The pace is steady but does not pause for dullards to catch up. Through dialogue, ie conversation, the back story emerges. Becket isn’t just a sceptic he’s a cynic. He moves into his aunt’s house to get away from his wife and her mid-life-begins-at-40 crises. The house begins to talk to him.

In a TV landscape full of ‘Most Haunted’ fakery The Sceptic offers scientific explanation, as opposed to dismissal, of what the superstitious call the supernatural. With not one teenager on the cast it offers wit instead of humour, quips instead of jokes, anger instead of spite. There is also maturity. The friendship between Becket and Tom Arnold’s character is warm and reassuring. Their final scene together is genuinely touching.

The main criticism is of Zoe Saldana – not her character. Zoe’s performance is so off key it is hard to determine whether she was playing the seer for laughs or not - which is a shame because Cassie is integral to the plot. She holds Beckets hand as the house gives up its secrets. The reveal comes at the end sequence. It is a genuine terror moment. There is no trick ending.

2 Let The Right One In SWE

This is a film with its horror displaced. Horrific things are expected to happen which they do but horror – fear – is not the overriding emotion. Events unfold in Sweden where people live in the snow. Where there’s not much to do but stay indoors and drink. That will break a people. It is morose tundra.

Oskar is being bullied at school. A father and daughter move into the apartment next door. He’s not her father. She’s not 12 years old. She’s a vampire.

The imagery is stark. The cold landscape transfers itself to its inhabitants. These are not a warm people. The first murder is in long shot amongst barren trees. The father – Håkan – is the watchdog. He suspends the victim and bleeds him like a pig. The slaying has a perfunctory cold air to it. Man must kill to eat. Vampires too.

Oskar is tyrannised and terrorised at school. He is alone at home with his single mother and lonely when visiting his drinking father. He fantasizes - with a knife – of extreme violence. The spectre of Travis Bickle looms. The spectre of Eli – the vampire – watches. It’s easy for him to make friends with her. The bullies haven’t completed breaking his spirit.

There are camera shots, flourishes and compositions of cinematic astuteness. The grey people against the snow white backdrop have a baroque beauty. There is horror - witness the feline attack – but that is not the overriding emotion. It is pain, yearning, lonliness and hopelessness. There is triumph but it is pyrrhic.

To watch the end of this movie is to watch a relative drive away. From your vantage point you spot a speeding car on an adjacent street. You can see the accident before it happens. You shout and you scream but your loved one cannot hear you.

You faint before the collision.

Let The Right One In is one of the best films I have ever seen.

1 The Uninvited US

Click poster to read my review

There were plenty to choose from. There weren’t enough good ones to go round. Giallo by Dario Argento had a roaring third act but that wasn’t enough to save a clunking mess. The Box was plain stupid. Triangle was a British rip of Timecrimes (2007). The Haunting In Connecticut was a star vehicle that spun into a black hole. There are more. They are painful.

2010 promises Shutter Island from Martin Scorcese, Case 39 starring Renée Zellweger, remakes of The Crazies, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Let The Right One In (gasp). Don’t hold your breath.

It was a year. Here comes another.

Read more Thrill Fiction: ReMade: Halloween