Thursday, January 31, 2008

Coal Miner's Slaughter

Given the affection I still have towards the early '80s slasher films I grew up on, it's a little dispiriting to see favorites like Prom Night now being remade and aimed at a generation too young to have even seen Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer in the theaters but for me the upcoming My Bloody Valentine remake is the real heart-breaker.

I vividly recall the TV spots for My Bloody Valentine terrifying me back in the early months of 1981. I was a latchkey kid, alone in the house after school until my working parents came home around 6 o'clock each night. And in the weeks leading up to My Bloody Valentine's Febuary release, it never failed that at some point after it got dark but before anyone else was home, a commercial for My Bloody Valentine would come on with its shots of a pick-axe wielding killer stalking through tunnels in his miner gear. This was before the days of remote control (at least it was in our household) so to change the channel, I'd have to actually approach the TV, which I couldn't bring myself to do as long as the commercial was playing. My alternate solution to that was to simply scurry out of the room. These spots were likely only 30 seconds long but to this scared shitless kid they seemed to last a tortured eternity.

When I eventually saw MBV a few years later on HBO, I really dug it. Sure, it wasn't quite as nerve-frying as its commercials had me expecting but it was a solid effort, comparing well to the other modern horror movies I'd seen up to that point. And as I've revisited it over the years, I've found it to have a much healthier shelf life than almost all of its slasher contemporaries.

What I continue to enjoy about MBV is that director George Mihalka and his cast made a real effort to bring a sense of realism to their film's blue collar community. The mining town of Valentine Bluff ("the little town with the big heart") is a convincingly dead-end piece of Nowhere and even the most attractive cast members here don't look too Hollywood (which would be strange if they did, seeing as this was a Canadian production - but you get my meaning).

Scripter John Beaird has been quoted as saying that MBV was striving to be the "Deer Hunter of horror films" in that, like Deer Hunter's steel worker protagonists, this was also about close-knit, working class characters. Most slasher films of the time featured protagonists on the cusp of promising futures - either high schoolers as in Halloween, Graduation Day, and Prom Night or college students as in House on Sorority Row, Hell Night, and The Dorm That Dripped Blood (even Terror Train centered around the final good times of a graduating college class) - but MBV was different. It was about kids (twentysomethings, actually - another break with the slasher norm) with no futures to look forward to. For these characters to live their adult lives in Valentine Bluff meant working in the local coal mine with no prospects of breaking the cycle of their parents (the one character who does try to get out - Paul Kelman's 'Jessie' - fails to make it on his own and has to return home shamefaced to work in the mines). And that focus on these working class heroes continues to mark MBV as being a different type of slasher movie.

I don't know what direction the remake's script will take but I'm anticipating that they'll entirely abaondon the original's mining town setting and if that's the case, then it isn't My Bloody Valentine in my eyes. It was unique at the time of the original's release to see a horror film take place in a community like this and it's even rarer now. In fact, it's become almost impossible to see blue collar characters in any form of entertainment any more. TV used to be filled with ordinary people who lived paycheck to paycheck but now for a character to be the center of a TV show means that they must be either a lawyer, a doctor, a cop, a CSI invesigator, or a TV writer. The days of people working as mechanics, bar tenders, taxi drivers or waitresses are extinct (with the notable exception of The Office, virtually the only time you see everyday people on TV now is when they're grasping for their fifteen minutes of fame on reality shows). And movies aren't any better in this regard. I mean, I know movies are all about escapism but in recent years, it seems like there's been a new-found aversion towards characters who live within modest means. Even middle class characters are being pushed aside - for example, it's just been reported that the family in the remake of Last House on the Left are now due to be vacationing at their lakeshore home!

Although current trends aren't in its favor, I hope that the new My Bloody Valentine won't abandon its blue collar roots in favor of flashier folk. If the only place I can see regular people is in a slasher movie, then so be it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


In 1982's First Blood, during an exchange between Brian Dennehy's out-of-his-league small town sheriff Will Teasle - who is trying to flush rampaging Vietnam vet John Rambo out of the woods - and Richard Crenna's Col. Trautman, Teasle is incredulous at Rambo's ex-superior officer's claims as to Rambo's combat skills - "Are you telling me that 200 of our men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?"

To which Trautman replies that if Teasle plans to send that many men against Rambo, he should bring a good supply of body bags. That same advice applies to this latest installment of the Rambo saga, except that much of the carnage that Rambo leaves in his wake here calls for a mop more than it does for body bags as Rambo reduces most of his adversaries to wet red stains.

When Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem's red-band trailer was released last year, fans were amped at the promise of that trailer's violent highlights only to be disappointed to find that the trailer contained almost all of that film's gore shots. Well, Rambo's early trailer created the same fan excitement with some spectacularly brutal clips. But what's shocking about the film is that its trailer proves to be only the tip of the iceberg! They actually left at least a half hour of good shit for the movie itself! I only wish Joe Bob Briggs could step in to deliver the Drive-In Totals on this because they'd be some incredible numbers.

As a bloody last hurrah for the Rambo franchise, this is right up there with Stallone's well-recieved final bell for Rocky Balboa last year. Of course, Rambo isn't all about heart like Rocky is - Rambo's all about dealing out death. And writer/director Stallone gives his steadfast sociopath ample reason to maim and kill by putting him at odds with the military dirtbags of Burma.

In showing us the kind of atrocities taking place in this far-flung region (highlighted by a prolonged village raid that single-handedly earns this film its hard R rating), the first half of Stallone's Rambo will have many a genre fan flashing back to the Italian-made 'mondo' films popular in the early days of home video such as Shocking Asia and Mondo Cane that traded on exploitative, documentary-real imagery - films where you could practically wave the gathering flies off the death on the screen. Call this Mondo Rambo.

And when the reclusive Rambo ("Fuck the world" he declares at one point) decides to save a group of missionaries he had reluctantly agreed to transport into a volitile area only to be later informed that they'd been kidnapped by the Burmese Army, the violence that ensues could only have been topped if Stallone personally came into the theater to murder you.

Not only is this one of the most violent films ever to play in U.S. theaters but as a director, Stallone should be commeneded for making a contemporary action film where fast edits and shaky camerawork never take the place of coherence (I'm looking at you, Paul Greengrass!). During Rambo, even when the screen is filled with various warring factions engaged in mutiple battles, confusion never sets in.

I just hope that audiences turn out to support Rambo. Not that I'd want to see the series itself continue (why run the risk of spoiling a perfectly good finale?) but I would love to see Rambo's success spur current action films to follow its lead.

Oh, and if Stallone has any thoughts on what he'd do with a sequel to his underrated cop flick Nighthawks (1981), I think there's an eager audience waiting to see that movie. Bring back Billy Dee, man!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

One Missed Opportunity

This latest, and very late to the party, entry in the J-Horror remake sub-genre is evidence that this well has dried up creatively and commercially. The 2004 original by Takashi Miike was no great shakes - an usually mainstream venture by Miike - but at least it didn't make me want to punch anyone in the face. This remake from director Eric Valette on the other hand made me glad that one rarely has the opportunity to watch a movie in the company of anyone able to take the blame for what you just watched (on the other hand, that might actually prompt filmmakers to make better movies).

The storyline here is the usual brand of supernatural hot air - a group of friends (which includes Shannyn Sossamonfind as psychology student Beth Raymond) find that they're being called by themselves (!) from a date several days in the future (!!) and the snippets of what they hear are their own last moments on Earth (!!!). Before each doomed character dies, they see weird visions of characters sporting surreal features such as mouths for eyes and so on. I'm all for that and for a brief while I was optimistic that this would be a totally pedestrian but not unwatchable movie (when you're talking about the first horror release of the year, which is historically awful, you've got to have adjusted expectations) but then it's as though the movie realizes it's supposed to be shit ("Hey, aren't we coming out in January?") and starts to act accordingly.

The main problem here - as it often is with supernatural stories - is in the explanation or backstory for the haunting at the heart of this movie. Sadly we live in a time where writers are directors are convinced to the bottom of their souls that explanations are the earmark of good writing. The more that they've explained, the more on-the-nose they can be, the more modern filmmakers think that they've their job. So a movie like this can't use the one thing that might make it compelling - ambiguity. That means even the creepy little ghouls that rear their heads here have to be explained. But how do you even begin to explain a figure with mouths for eyes? Oh, wait - let's discover that all these weird figures originally existed as toys in a child's bedroom! Yeah, that makes SO much sense!

I imagine that if The Exorcist were made today, some asshole involved in the production would probably insist that they find a way to work in an explanation for the briefly-glimpsed, white-faced "Captain Howdy" image that subliminally flashes on the screen at key moments. And I'm sure they would be totally convinced that doing so would be a sign of the creative ingenuity they were bringing to the production (I can hear the oblivious pride in the voice of the makers of an Exorcist remake right now - "in the original they never explained who that face belonged to - they just put it in there for no reason. But here we really get into who Captain Howdy is!"). And so it goes with One Missed Call.

But while Klavan and Valette take so many pains to offer explanations for their film's surreal images, they ironically don't give too many reasons for their ghost's actions. That normally wouldn't bother me but as the story develops it seems like we really should know a little bit more than the film is telling us. By the end of the film, there's not just an evil ghost but a good ghost as well and I think it could've been laid in better as to why the good ghost never did much to help anyone besides the main character. It's also unclear as to whether the conflict between these warring spirits is resolved or not. And not in an intriguing, gotta-think-about-that-ending kind of way but in a "looks like they just decided to insult us" way.

Sometimes I get the feeling that filmmakers think that any ending is suitable for a horror film, as long as it's bizarre and open-ended. They'll explain every other thing along the way but they don't think that the story they're telling needs a proper ending. That's probably because they're not really sure where their film is going in the first place.

Maybe it would've helped if Valette and Klavan could've gotten a call from the future before starting to work on this - although given how their film turned out, I think all they would've heard was dead air.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Evil

Before the release of One Missed Call officially gets 2008 off on a shit note, I thought it'd be worth listing some the movies I'm most excited to see this year.

Excluding titles that have already been reviewed in advance elsewhere like All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, Diary of the Dead, Trick 'R' Treat, Rogue, Mother of Tears, REC, Inside and Stuck, here's fifteen films due in '08 that I've optimistically earmarked for excellence.

1. The Ruins
The book by Scott Smith was great but didn't seem like something that begged to be brought to the screen. If anything, while it was a simple story - vacationing kids stumble on ancient ruins and the man-eating plant life that lives there - it seemed like a lot could go wrong if you actually had to make a movie out of it. But with Smith adapting his own work (as he did with A Simple Plan) and the early teaser looking promisingly creepy, I'm hoping the vicious vines of Smith's book will be 2008's most memorable monster.

2. Drag Me To Hell
Sam Raimi's return to hardcore horror. 'Nuff said! And really, even if this were PG-13 I'd be very ok with that. I'm sure he's going to make a fun movie and I can't believe that he wouldn't go all out to make his first non-Spider-Man movie since 2001 (!) a special event. And regardless of the film itself, I just want to see the title Drag Me To Hell on a theater marquee.

3. The Happening
A lot of people might be off the M. Night Shyamalan train after The Village and Lady in the Water but I'm still interested in anything he does. If nothing else, I think the blow dealt to him with Lady in the Water might've fueled his ambition to get back in the good graces of the movie going public. I also hope it inspired him to go for the jugular in a way he hasn't before.

4. Midnight Meat Train
It's been too long since I read the short story to have any feelings on what does or doesn't need to make it to the screen here to do this right (I should probably try and find my old dog-earred copy of Books of Blood) - I just hope this is a scary, stylish flick. I'd hate to have a great title like "Midnight Meat Train" go to waste on anything less.

5. Splice
Cube director Vincenzo Natali teamed with producer Guillermo del Toro with Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley starring in a tale of genetic tampering gone haywire sounds like it can't help but be great.

6. Heart-Shaped Box
I haven't read Joe King's novel about a haunted rock star yet but I've heard enough good things to be intrigued by an adaptation. And the fact that Neil Jordon is directing makes me think that it'll be worthwhile.

7. Quarantined
I haven't seen REC yet (the source material that this remake is based on) or The Poughkeepsie Tapes - which is the previous film by director John Erick Dowdle - but the scary scenario of an apartment building hit by a rabies epidemic sounds like it could be a winner. Also, I think actress Jennifer Carpenter (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is great so putting her in the lead here is all right with me.

8. The Strangers
The fact that this was pushed back from last year (and doesn't have a date in '08 yet) doesn't say good things about this home invasion chiller but I love the fact that the poster looks like it's a lost one-sheet of late '70s/early '80s vintage. And the trailer suggests that the movie will have what it takes to back up that vibe.

9. The Box
I never read the short story or even saw the adapation that was done for the '80s version of The Twilight Zone but I'm hoping that Richard Kelly helming this Richard Matheson adpatation will result in a smart, scary film.

10. Mirrors
I keep hoping to eventually love a film by director Alexandre Aja. I thought both High Tension and his Hills Have Eyes remake were almost good pictures that ultimately left me disappointed. But this supernatural tale of a department store security guard (played by Kiefer Sutherland) who has to contend with creepy reflections in store mirrors sounds like it could offer eerie fun.

11. Scanners
The Saw guy following in the footsteps of David Cronenberg throws any hope of a great movie out the window immeidately. And no Michael Ironside just means that none of this shit matters. But that makes it easier to just sit back and watch heads explode.

12. Dracula Year Zero
I'm soft on the idea of another Dracula movie but I'll give this one a shot in the hopes that director Alex Proyas will be making a film more along the lines of The Crow and Dark City rather than I, Robot.

13. Pig Hunt
Sure, director James Isaac hasn't done anything worth getting excited about to date. We've got The Horror Show (still arguably his finest hour, for what it's worth), Jason X (which should've been a lot more fun than it was) and Skinwalkers (which I'll just assume is atrocious) so why get excited about another film from the man? Two words: Pig Hunt.

Come on, how could a film called Pig Hunt not be good?

14. Hellraiser
I'm usually pretty even tempered on the subject of remakes. What difference does it make to me whether they're good or bad - I'll still love the originals regardless. But just for sentiment's sake I really would love this remake to live up to the taboo-smashing legacy of the original. I haven't seen Inside yet but if it's as good as everyone says, I hope Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury make this follow-up every bit as hardcore.

15. The X-Files 2
It'll probably bite me on the ass to get excited about this but I know as soon as I hear Mark Snow's X-Files theme in the first teaser trailer, I'm going to go nuts. No matter how frustrating the last few years of this show sometimes were, The X-Files is still my favorite genre show ever. Chris Carter may have made some exasperating, ass-brained storytelling decisions during his show's nine year run but when The X-Files worked, it resulted in the some of the scariest hours ever seen on TV. I'm just hoping reports that this sequel will steer clear of the series' mythology are true.

Ok, that's my list. Pig Hunt is on it. And I'm happy about that. I'm also happy that among my picks, original films out-number sequels and remakes. Here's to 2008!