Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Final Destination 2

Harry Potter is the most successful film series in history1. With its conclusion it is sure to be usurped by former leader1 James Bond. In this Daniel Craig incarnation or the next Bond is always only a number of films away from dominance.

James Bond is the epitome of film franchise; the character has been played by a variety of actors the majority of whom have been accepted by the public; each film is a self contained storyline with no reference to prior movies; it has been successfully rebooted numerous times2; there have been 18 movies3; it is 50 years old. It is the Hollywood business plan.

2 James Bond reboots occur every time a new actor first plays the role; there have been six occasions4. A counter argument is reboots occur after a hiatus – in which case there have been two4.

Before a series comes the (first) sequel. This is the acid test that determines the direction of subsequent entries. Sequels tend to take one of three routes: the thematic swerve (Aliens 1986): the narrative continuum (Halloween 2 1981): the carbon copy (Friday the 13th Part 2 1981). Final Destination 2 2003 chose the path of least resistance aka the James Bond effect.
stunt flick
The revelation in Final Destination 2000 is Devon Sawa. Though the film’s high concept is preposterous Sawa’s performance anchors the film into a suspension of disbelief. His character survived the movie – along with two others – but died before the sequel.

The reason Tuesday Night features in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master 1988 is because Patricia Arquette wasn’t available to reprise her role. In the documentary Never Sleep Again 2010 actor Rodney Eastman alleges Arquette wasn’t hired due to New Line’s unwillingness to pay her asking price. As Eastman notes The Dream Master suffers for it.

Whatever the reason for Sawa’s absence4 Final Destination 2 suffers for it. In his stead is one AJ Cook. On the surface swapping a boy for a Final Girl is astute casting. Onscreen it is failure. Final Destination 2, like its predecessor, is an action film. Women cannot and do not carry action pictures5. The exception (Terminator 2 1991) is not the rule.

5 Female action heroes exist in the fantasy (and/or politically correct) subgenre of action6. Any credible female lead in a reality milieu is the exception7.
AJ Cook: no sizzle no spice no salt
AJ Cook8 should be a synonym for insipid. The woman is out of her depth and range. Her talent belongs on daytime television as background noise while the stay-at-home-moms and deadbeats vacuum the front room. Her one-tone performance renders Final Destination 2 without centre so much so that it is not a prediction she will never carry a movie again.

The template for horror casting is young, inexperienced and cheap actors supported by older, talented and cheap has-beens (Halloween 1978). Final Destination adhered to this convention. Final Destination 2 did not. Co-star Michael Landes plays the older voice and love interest. He’s barely older than Cook. He’s barely better.

Returning to the cast are Clear Rivers and Tony Todd. Rivers was bad in the original and she’s no better here. Worse still her character does not belong in this movie: there is insufficient motivation for her actions. Tony Todd’s reprisal as seer is both homage to his iconic status and insult to his racial identity. The mortician he plays is no more than ‘mammy’ – and is treated worse than she was by these whites.
"yessur massa boss."
One of the changes from the previous movie was to insert the lead character into a pool of strangers as opposed to a group of friends. It’s another creative blunder. In Final Destination tension exudes from the fear of which friend is going to die next. In this sequel who should care which stranger dies next? There is no camaraderie, there is no community ergo there is lack of empathy.

With no characters to speak of – and no coherence in the story – there is only plot. This manifests itself in set pieces linked by dialogue leased from daytime sitcoms. The set pieces are signposted thus the element of surprise is nonexistent. What remains is spectacle. What is missing is shock.

At least James Bond has story.

The opening scene of Final Destination 2 has a prologue reminiscent of the Psycho 1963 epilogue. It is an exposition scene that explains the concept of the series in metaphysical terms. It is interesting in that the movie could have taken a turn into Unbreakable 2000 territory. Alas Final Destination 2 ambitions were to be a rerun of part one.
A rerun without the original writers and without the original star exposes Hollywood’s final destination.

It is the James Bond effect.

Read more Thrill Fiction: John Carpenter’s The Ward
1 Film franchise box office rankings The Numbers
3 James Bond franchise The Numbers
4 Devon Sawa AWOL The Arrow interview
6 Top 30 female action heroes Yell Magazine
7 Signourey Weaver interview Moviefone
8 AJ Cook IMDb
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Monday, 18 July 2011

Final Destination

In anticipation of the release of Final Destination 5 (12th August) this is the first of a series of editorials examining each of the four films to date. As such plot points/spoilers will be mentioned.

It has been 10 years.
The release of Scream 2 1997 alerted Hollywood that there was new profits in new horror franchises. On the bandwagon of Wes Craven’s success came the films I Know What You Did Last Summer 1997, Urban Legends 1998 and Jeepers Creepers 2001 amongst others (this period was from Scream 1996 Final Destination 3 2006 and was superseded by torture porn and Asian remakes. Ginger Snaps 2000 is an independent Canadian film made with no reference to studio fare). Final Destination 2000 is the most successful film/ franchise in the wake of Scream.

Watching it for the first time it was clear this was an attempt to start a franchise: there were survivors, an obligatory trick ending and an indestructible monster. That monster is death.

In the year 2000 death was all around more so than at any other time in a thousand years. Urban legend dictates when there’s a full moon the lunatics come out to play. At the turn of the millennium there was a lot of lunacy. There was fear. There was paranoia.

The Y2K bug1 foretold the collapse of civilisation2. The Waco Siege was fresh in memory and the Jonestown Massacre was revived to remind. Governments were on alert re suicide cults3. The East African US embassy bombings of 1998 were viewed by many to be a dry run for targets on the American mainland. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing showed where the US was vulnerable. Terrorism was in the air.

This was the age of The X-Files – a television show that spread paranoia amongst the simple minded. With these credits alumni James Wong directed and co-wrote Final Destination. His concept couldn’t be clearer: a group of teens cheat death – but can’t escape it. The concept would have been effective at any point in time. At the turn of the millennium Wong chose the best time.

The advertising industry has the ‘big idea’. Screenplays should have them too. This is beyond ‘high concept’4. This is the secret of the script. It is blood that cannot be transfused – or there is no point to the story. The secret of Final Destination is death. Not the Grim reaper but Death as a (super) natural force: a scheme of things.

This poses a dramatic risk: the victims have no monster to fight against and no chance of survival. Furthermore there is no motivation for their deaths. Where is the dramatic pulse?
The Final Destination big idea is inspired; every sentient being has a fear of death; even old people don’t want to die. This is dramatic impulse. The audience is placed in the eye of God and the characters cannot see death coming. The ones who live to die another day are the ones who drink at the waterhole like gazelle watching for signs.

In Nazi occupied Russia Hitler waged a war of annihilation. Partisans fought back and the Germans wrecked terrible vengeance; they burned villages; they killed civilians. In a particular episode the Nazis were coming. A villager pleaded with her brother to run with her into the forest. He refused. He was a school teacher before the war. He couldn’t see how the Nazis would harm him since he had done nothing wrong.

Death comes.

There are those who refuse to see the signs.

Final Destination is a studio picture and not an exploration of themes. Rosemary’s Baby 1968, The Exorcist 1973 and Carrie 1976 were a long time ago. Final Destination relies on set pieces to tell its story. There is no examination of the psychological effects of near death experiences à la war veterans. However it does acknowledge the effect on some of the characters.

Kristen Cloke plays teacher Val Lewton (wink) as a guilt racked survivor whose colleague died in her place. She blames lead character Alex (Devon Sawa) the seer. At one point an excited Alex describes himself as ‘a god’. His love interest chastises him; “you’re losing it”. This was the point the film could have targeted its (primary) teen audience with their own mortality in the same way the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tales challenge children.

Alas the filmmakers chose to concentrate on formula: premonition results in elaborate death. Yet the formula is imperfect. The first survivor to die is best friend Tod. In his case Death acts like an invisible Grim Reaper: the water on the bathroom floor whereupon he slips retracts after his demise. Subsequent deaths infer the incidental. The peril is depicted as even.

As is the case with horror films with a teen cast most of the acting is shoddy. The exceptions are the G-Men (Roger Guenveur Smith and Daniel Roebuck) and Devon Sawa. Sans a visible monster to cower from Sawa’s role as protagonist takes on more scope. The actor carries the film with enthusiasm. He could have become a star.
Devon Sawa
It was the film that became a star ie franchise – now in its second life. Final Destination is a crowd pleaser because of its set pieces much like James Bond and much better than Saw. In bypassing its narrative potential it has become a blueprint and a cash cow. It grossed an inflation adjusted $147million5 (worldwide) in 2000 – more than half of which came from outside the US. The spectacles of the death scenes were not lost in translation.

Final Destination excites more than it infuriates. It delivers on its poster and trailer. It’s a good horror film. It even has the endorsement of the Candyman.

Read more Thrill Fiction: Top 10 Coming Soon Movies 2011
1 Y2K Bug BBC News
3  suicide cults E Telegraph
4 high concept Writers Store

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Friday, 15 July 2011

The Thing (prequel) trailer

What kind of a man chooses to work in the most isolated region on the planet? It is the same man who chooses to work in extreme weather conditions. Most men leave their families in the morning, sit in rush hour traffic to return in the evening. The former are doing their best not to be part of this world.

I have personal experience of working in an all male environment. There exists camaraderie, machismo, bullying, teasing, fighting, a macho hierarchy and war stories about women. It is not an environment for a (token) female.

Labourers, builders, fishermen, oil rig workers, mercenaries, politicians. If there are females within these gangs then they are no longer women. They have to adapt and transmogrify themselves into men. They have to become the most identifiable traits of the male; Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton. 

They are the anathema of femininity.

In an all-male environment everyone wants to be top dog. Everyone has to beat up someone else up. It’s not savagery; it is the pecking order. In The Thing 1982 MacReady had to fight – and kill – to give out orders. In this trailer all Mary Elizabeth Winstead has to do is raise her voice to instil a hen pecking order. 

Not surprisingly the screenplay is from the man who wrote the worst film of 2010.

I can believe in things and aliens – if only for 90 minutes. I refuse to believe a slip of a girl can tell a bunch of socially maladjusted roughnecks trying to escape the world and its politically correct mores what to do. Chick can’t even do that in my local pub.

The filmmakers have failed to understand the allure of the original. It isn’t the monster and the special effects – it’s the men who had things happen to them.

The Thing opens 14th October in the US and UK.

Thrill Fiction recommends: The Top 25 Comic Book Movies

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Monday, 11 July 2011

Sector 7 [English subbed trailer]

Alien 1979 was revolutionary. It still is. Only The Thing 1982 can claim to be its equal.

It’s taken 30 years for a movie to use the same premise in a plausible setting. Now that a monster movie is set on an oil rig how long will it be before one is set on a tanker or abandoned ocean liner?

Since this is a Korean movie will it see an American remake?

Sector 7 has received glowing advance but does not have an American distributor. If the movie makes a splash in its native land then a US and UK release is de rigueur.

Sector 7 is released 4 August in S Korea.

Read more Thrill Fiction: The Exorcist 3
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John Carpenter's The Ward

Modern horror began with Night of the Living Dead 1968. Despite mainstream conventional wisdom Psycho 1965 is not a horror film. It is however the harbinger and forbearer of the modern horror era.

In Psycho Alfred Hitchcock created motifs that remain prevalent in the genre today: the contemporary setting, the slasher scene, the final girl. As a template Psycho works perfectly for the horror genre so much so that John Carpenter decided to remake it. 

Carpenter was a prospect before Halloween 1978. He had already made Dark Star 1974 and Assault on Precinct 13 1976. Halloween confirmed him as auteur. The Thing 1982 confirmed him as horrormeister. His purple patch ended with They Live 1988. It is testament to the power of his best work that he remains revered even though as a horror director his record is 5-5: his first five horror films rate from fair (The Fog 1981) to great (Halloween). His last five range from misshapen (In the Mouth of Madness 1992) to dreck (The Ward 2011).

In 1980 Muhammed Ali was all but murdered by Larry Holmes. On 2 July Wanderlei Silva was knocked out by Chris Leben in 27 seconds. It can be torture to witness a changing of the guard. It is reminder of man’s mortality. Horrormeisters are mortal too. In the last two years Wes Craven and George A Romero have directed movies that exclaim their deflation as storytellers. So too has John Carpenter with the release of The Ward.

In the House of Madness
The critic Mark Kermode1 cites ‘the madhouse’ subgenre and mentions Shutter Island 2010 The Ninth Configuration 1980 and Shock Corridor 1963. The most obvious films in this subgenre are One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest 1975 and Girl, Interrupted 1999. The aforementioned pictures are majority drama but the subgenre does lend itself to horror: Bad Dreams 1988 and to a lesser extent A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors 1987.

This is because the subgenre is a gift to the horror plot. The location is contained, the layout is labyrinth, the cast is limited, the hero is trapped.

So where did it all go wrong?
The title sequence is stark enough to evoke the simplicity of Halloween’s. Medieval drawings give way to photographs of lunatics in various torture devices administered by the sane. Yet the suggestion that this sequence infers is not included in the rest of the picture.

The film opens to Kristin (Amber Heard) running through the woods in a negligee which would show off her figure if she had one. For no narrative reason the film is set in 1966 – but the dialogue is from 2010. Teenager Kristen is admitted to a psychiatric hospital and placed in the restrictive ward. There are other patients on the ward – including a ghost.
Amber Heard
Kristin turns out to be a politically correct fantasy who takes no nonsense from adults – especially men. In one sequence she knocks out a nurse and two male orderlies (she includes a quip). Herein lies the problem. The only good thing about the original screenplay is the pitch: Girl, Interrupted meets The Ring 2002.

As bad as the story is Amber Heard serves to make it worse. If performances are only as good as the director then the direction can only be as good as the actors. Heard gives the same performance here as she did (with a different director) in And Soon the Darkness 2010. The woman has one look, one tone and no talent.

She is the epitome of Hollywood casting. It is the prime symptom of celebrity culture – all sizzle due to lack of substance. To wit Rooney Mara stands in for Noomi Rapace. Be this as it may John Carpenter approved her.

His name possesses the title. This could be branding and/or ego and as such all faults lay at his doorstep; the bad acting, bad dialogue, boring kills and absence of tension. This is Carpenter’s first film in 10 years. It proves Ghosts of Mars 2001 was no fluke.

Fade Out
Clint Eastwood is 81 and an A-list director. John Carpenter turned 63 this year. He may have another film in him but the last 20 years suggest otherwise. Hollywood has remade the cherry of his filmography to critical and artistic disdain. The Ward has been released as a B-movie.

Muhammed Ali is paraded before a loving but cringing public.

It can be argued John Carpenter is the best of the Masters of Horror. Their names are legend. Their work is done. It took them thirty years to get there (Night of the Living Dead Scream 1996). The auteur torch has since been picked up by Guillermo del Toro and The Innkeepers 2011 could reveal Ti West as a new master. Horror will continue to witness adventure experimentation and ingenuity in the next 30 years.

One of the great things about the original masters is their accessibility. John Carpenter, Romero and Craven (amongst others) can be seen in documentaries (Never Sleep Again 2010, Nightmares in Red White and Blue 2009) and on the convention circuit. They impart their knowledge and experience whilst entertaining and elucidating the horror folk. There are hours of these clips on Youtube2.

They’re a better watch than The Ward.
Thank you John.

The Ward had a limited release Friday 8th July.

Read more Thrill Fiction: Black Swan
1 Mark Kermode Youtube
2 Fear on Film Youtube
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