Thursday, September 29, 2011

Paranormal Praise

Even if I wasn't particularly fond of the Paranormal Activity films, I would still feel eternally in their debt for the fact that they drop kicked the yearly blight known as Saw from its Halloween perch and made the witching season safe for fun scares again. Sorry, but Halloween is for ghosts, goblins and the supernatural, not torture.

When Paranormal Activity became a hit in October 2009, I considered it cause for celebration. Even better was the fact that I actually liked the movie itself - I wasn't just grateful that it cleared the stink of Saw out of the room. Some would argue that the couple at the heart of PA were not the most sympathetic of duos but if I had a beef against every horror movie where the protagonists were not especially likable, I wouldn't like many horror movies. Personally, I thought Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat were fine (if a little too rich, but whatever) and I was in their corner enough to care what happened to them. But what I really liked about PA is how director Oren Peli had just one imperative in mind - to scare the shit out of the audience. So many horror films seem made by people oblivious to the mechanics of generating fear but Peli showed an innate understanding of how to build unease and deliver big payoffs.

Like The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Paranormal Activity proved that you don't need big special effects to deliver big scares. And unlike BWP (which I still consider to be brilliant), PA had more showmanship to offer, injecting more audience-pleasing jump scares into the mix. I love the rinky-dink, handmade quality to PA's brand of funhouse tricks (like the Ouija board that bursts into flames) and I love that they've carried that quality onto the rest of the series. It would've been so easy for this series to get off track and become too slick for its own good but PA 2 smartly stuck to what worked in the first film, embodied the same low budget aesthetic, and it did what I would've thought was impossible - allowed lightening to strike twice.

The quality control on that sequel was air tight and it proved that Peli didn't just fall ass backwards into Paranormal Activity's success. This was someone who really knew what they were doing and in his producer capacity, he's continued to guide his series well. Other filmmakers who claim to be such hardcore horror buffs could stand to learn something from him as Peli clearly knows more about what makes a horror film work than many fan-favorite directors who are superstars on the convention circuit and the blogosphere. But that's the subject of another blog post, perhaps.

Now the third PA is arriving in time for another Halloween and the first full trailer indicates that, once again, all involved have kept their eyes on the prize. Early reviews (like this), from a surprise showing at Fantastic Fest, confirm as much. I'll still be keeping my expectations in check, because that's only sensible, but based on the trailer I'm very game for whatever PA 3 has to offer.

Some like to bitch that the PA films don't show anything and that, you know, it's dumb for people to find them scary. Personally, it restores my faith in not just the horror genre but in audiences as well that these films do work. You'd think that modern viewers would be way too jaded for these simple spook house style films but I love the fact that there's enough people out there who appreciate this type of horror to make these movies huge hits. I love hearing an audience scream at a well-timed jump scare and to see rows of people fly back in their seats all at once. That's a part of the horror movie experience that's so essential to the genre's appeal. There's an often unappreciated art to making those moments happen and not every filmmaker can successfully pull them off. In the three decades or so that I've been watching horror films in the theater, I've seldom heard an audience reaction as loud as the shrieks that I heard accompany a key, kitchen-set moment in PA 2.

Movies that revel in atrocities, like the Human Centipede films or A Serbian Film, are not the future of horror. They're curiosities, at best. And I say that as someone who spent their adolescent years combing video stores for films like Cannibal Holocaust and Make Them Die Slowly. Maybe I'm just getting old and I don't need to fly in the face of society's norms as much anymore with my entertainment choices but when I hear that a movie features someone jerking off with sandpaper, it sounds like a waste of time to me. Things that go bump in the night, though?

When done right, that stuff never gets old.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Standing In Front Of the Fridge

Everyone has had the experience of standing in front of their open refrigerator, unable to choose which plate of leftovers to heat up. That's kind of how I'm feeling at the moment with movies. With my son now back to school and my work hours switched to second shift, I have - for the first time in many months - the weekday mornings and early afternoons to myself. Coming up on these open days, I expected that I'd be logging some serious hours of movie watching. But it hasn't been like that at all. Instead, I'm finding myself simply staring at my tape and DVD collection, unable to make a decision on what the hell to watch - much less what to write about.

There's a kind of denial at work when it comes to collecting - whether it be movies, books, or records. As a fan, you build a collection with the expectation that these are things that you'll be able to enjoy in the days and years ahead, over and over, at your leisure. But at a certain point, you have to realize that your life simply won't be long enough to enjoy all these things that you've amassed. Like, not even if you were a vampire or something. I look at my movie collection, a collection that adds up to tens of thousands of hours of films and televisions shows, and I have to admit that, even if I live an exceptionally long life, that I already own more movies than I'll ever have the time to watch again. As much as I'd like to go back and watch all of them at least one more time, I know that I won't.

Sorry, Ghost Ship. Nothing personal.

Some people lament that they never had the experience of climbing Mt. Everest, or never learned to scuba dive, or never visited Paris before they died but I'm more likely to regret that I didn't watch From Beyond nearly enough. Several years ago, I stopped buying movies with the same frequency that I used to. But even with slowing down, I'm still surrounded by stacks of movies that remind me of just how little time there is in a day, a week, a year, or a life.

In the face of that existential quandary, there's only one decision to make - the same one that I always make while standing at the open fridge.

I go with comfort food.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Whatever It Is, It's Weird And Pissed Off

With today's release of the red band trailer for Universal's prequel to The Thing, I think we've seen enough of the movie to say with some confidence that this will be a lunkheaded version of Carpenter's 1982 film.

That said, I'm still stubbornly looking forward to this movie. No, it won't be the movie I was optimistically hoping it would be back when information first started leaking out about it but I know from this trailer that The Thing will be a full-on monster movie and man, I'll take it. After the debacle of Creature - a movie that couldn't even get the simple thrills of a guy-in-a-suit swamp monster movie right - and Super 8, which had a huge budget but not a decent creature to show for it, I'm ready for any monster movie that can at least come through on the most basic level.

Judging by this trailer, I feel like The Thing might manage that.

It might not manage anything more than that, but that's fine - I'll keep my expectations low. I'm not even that irate about the CGI. It is what it is. And unlike the CGI in the recent Fright Night remake, this looks like it was rendered by people who knew what they were doing. Yes, it'd be nice if this prequel was as moody and well-played as Carpenter's but failing that, I'll settle for a movie that keeps its alien menace weird and pissed off.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Post Shark Night 3-D Blues

I just noticed that it's been over a week since my last post and, upon thinking about it, I guess I have to chalk up the inactivity to a case of the Post Shark Night 3-D Blues. For the record, I enjoyed Shark Night 3-D just fine. I didn't love it - or even like it all that strongly, for that matter - but I thought it was serviceable. It lacked the gonzo, grindhouse attitude of last summer's Piranha but on the upside it's 3-D was the real deal, not a shoddy post-coversion job. Piranha's fun factor was seriously diminished by 3-D so murky it made my eyeballs ache. In contrast, I was able to enjoy Shark Night in ocular comfort and that compensates for a lot of other failings.

I do wish that the movie had been far nuttier than it was but in the end I can't get too fussy over director David R. Ellis hitting only a double rather than a triple (I wasn't even hoping for a home run). As is, I enjoyed the movie's daffier moments (of which there were several) - all the moreso for their being played absolutely straight-faced. I also got a kick out of Donal Logue as a sheriff who has a penchant for '80s hair metal as well as a virtually unrecognizable Joshua Leonard (Blair Witch Project) as a sinister redneck. And I also love that they gave props to L.L. Cool J's still howl-provoking soundtrack tune "Deepest Bluest (Shark Fin)" from Deep Blue Sea by including their own equally absurd rap tune (delivered by the entire cast) after the end credits. On a side note, the mystery only deepens as to why Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was slapped with an R-rating. How this passed with a PG-13 while DBAOTD earned an R is baffling.

So while I'm putting Shark Night 3-D in the win column (it's a marginal win, granted, but still a win), it's position as an underwhelming curtain call to a dry summer season for horror films has me wondering with a hint of despair when a really quality horror movie is going to hit theaters again. That unhappy feeling that horror is currently stalled out wasn't helped at all by my viewings of Contagion and Creature this weekend, two movies that only served to deepen - albeit in different ways - my post-Shark Night malaise.

Contagion was in fact, a very solid film, a clinically told "what if" detailing what might happen should we ever face a worldwide pandemic. But while director Steven Soderbergh has described his film in interviews as a horror film, in fact it's really just a tense, occasionally chilling, drama. Now, if Ridley Scott had directed an adaptation of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone - if Outbreak not went into production first and tragically scuttled plans for Scott's film - I bet that would've been a true bio-horror movie. Contagion, not so much. I was hoping to be truly unsettled by Contagion, yet Soderbergh's coolly intellectual perspective towards the material made it more a movie that I objectively appreciated for its skill rather than felt fully engaged by. And, again, it's not a horror movie.

As for Creature...yeesh. I would like to be heartened by seeing a throwback like this scoring a nationwide release but sadly Creature gives old-school monster movies a bad name. There's a generic set-up, which is fine, but then once the cast of twentysomethings end up in the titular character's swampland stomping grounds, the thrills just never come. There's no memorable splatter, the action is spare (often confoundedly so, as opportunities for exciting fight scenes are set up but then fail to be acted on), and there's no suspense or scares. It's so rare now for a movie like this to be made (much less to make it to screens across the country) that it's doubly depressing to discover that it's been made by people with no feel for the horror and exploitation genres.

While it hasn't been an eternity since anything worthwhile has hit screens - I really liked last spring's Insidious as well as the gleefully gory Final Destination 5 and the lightweight but pleasingly atmospheric Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (I haven't had the chance to see Attack the Block yet but that sounds more sci-fi than horror) - it's still clear that horror has been experiencing a profound lull with no immediate turnaround in sight. My summer-long anticipation for Shark Night 3-D had been enough to keep me distracted but now that's gone and somehow I don't think the prequel to The Thing is going to do as good a job of keeping my spirits up. It just doesn't have that same Shark Night 3-D magic (he said with a sigh).

The year's remaining theatrical releases do feature a few titles that I've got my fingers crossed on but unfortunately I don't think any will be the kind of surprise hit that horror could use right now. The genre can withstand the occasional valley but the pressure is going to be on the films of 2012 to give horror a creative and commercial shot in the arm.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

An Open Letter To Shark Night 3-D

Dear Shark Night 3-D,

If you happen to suck I'll only blame myself for getting all worked up in advance over you. I mean, I'm old enough to know that setting one's expectations too high is a sure way to get smacked down. But really, how else was I supposed to react to a movie called Shark Night 3-D? Rationally? Please, it's just not in me to be aloof when I see those words together. Your working title of Untitled 3-D Shark Thriller was slightly less exciting but even if you stuck with that, I think I'd still be in the same boat that I am now.

Some would say that anyone really excited to see Shark Night 3-D probably has such a high, perhaps even all-compassing, threshold for garbage that their potential for experiencing disappointment is very low. Like, almost nonexistent. But I can testify that even the most willing and avid consumer of junk cinema can be let down - and more frequently than anyone might believe. But no matter how I feel when your end credits roll, Shark Night 3-D, I'm saying that I'll be responsible for my own reaction. Having said that, it would be so much easier for me to deal with my feelings if you didn't disappoint me.

I know it's too late to change anything about you now because you're, well, done and already in theaters across the country but let me just say it's my hope that you will jockey hard to be at least the third best shark-themed horror movie ever. We both know Jaws is safe. That's so forever in the #1 spot, you two might as well live on different planets but that's ok. If it makes you feel better, I already know you're going to smoke all the Jaws sequels, no question. That leaves Deep Blue Sea as your biggest competitor in the Shark Movie Hall of Fame (sorry, Monster Shark) and there's no shame in coming in behind that but let me tell you, that's not an unbeatable movie. It's no pushover but I'm smelling blood in the water, man - I think you can take it. Imagine being right behind Jaws? Well, not "right behind" - more like "from here to the moon behind" - but still #2. That could be you, my fine-finned friend. Think about that.

As for your PG-13 rating, you might think I'm sweating it like other people seem to be but I'm sanguine about it. I know that sharks are all about the biting and the tearing of limbs and all that stuff that R-ratings are about but I also know that most of my favorite Nature Attacks movies - from the classic (Jaws, duh) to the cheerfully cheesy (Grizzly, Anaconda) - are all either PG or PG-13 so I don't see that rating as being an obstacle to excellence. And, really, I think it would dickish for kids not to be able to see you on their own so I'm good with the rating - even if it means a little less torn flesh in the water and zero exposed breasts. I think even Joe Bob Briggs would be on my side in this.

Anyhow, no matter how things work out, I won't regret being so jazzed about seeing you. When it comes to being a fan, I still believe that it's best to jump in with both feet. Even when - make that especially when - sharks are involved.