Monday, January 30, 2012

The Man Show

If you survived a plane crash only to find yourself stranded in a hostile, frozen environment with no signs of civilization or rescue and with a pack of wolves stalking your every move, what would you do? For myself, I know I would never be in that situation because I have a deep - and I don't think unreasonable - fear of flying so I would not be in the air in the first place. If by chance I were, though, I know for a fact that my survival prospects would be very, very dim. Curling into a ball and sobbing is not the best way to dissuade wolves from eating you.

The seven men in The Grey who initially survive the sudden crash of their plane (including Liam Nesson as John Ottway, a man hired by oil companies to keep wolves away from their drilling teams) are a little more equipped to cope than I would be. Immediately after emerging from the wreckage, they seek out heat, food, and shelter. Besides Ottway, all these guys are members of the drill team so these dudes aren't soft but just because they're more gruff outdoorsmen than pencil pushers doesn't mean they're qualified to survive their present predicament.

Besides the harsh natural elements, the real issue is the pack of wolves that come upon them. Because it's his job to kill wolves, Ottway knows a thing or two about these animals and he knows that if they're close to the wolves' den, then their collective gooses are pretty much cooked so he suggests that the men make their way from the crash site to the woods where they can better defend themselves and hopefully get further from the wolves turf.

Speaking of wolves, even though the advertising for The Grey has centered on the sight of Nesson taping broken bottles to his fists and charging a wolf, in the interest of helping you enjoy the film, I have to say that this movie contains no actual wolf-punching. I won't go too deep into it for fear of spoilers but I can tell you that the ads are incredibly misleading and really do the film wrong. I usually hold the audience responsible for reacting in stupid ways, like hating Drive because it isn't more like a Fast and Furious film. But based on the marketing, it's hard to fault anyone for calling bullshit on The Grey. Which is a shame because once you get past the deceptive way it was sold, it's actually a very good film.

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan, The Grey is a survivalist horror film rather than an action film. This film has gotten advance attention in the genre press and it really does belong under the horror umbrella. For one, you've got the wolf attacks. The many scenes of the survivors being stalked and suddenly attacked by these merciless predators are staged for maximum terror. Secondly, an action film would be about perseverance where these guys MacGuyver their way out of an impossible situation (MacGuyver actually does get a shout-out in one scene) but The Grey is much more grim than that.

I was really struck, in fact, by just how cruel and unsparing this movie is. Characters call to God for help or for some kind of sign, they rationalize that there must be some reason they survived the crash when so many others didn't - that they weren't meant to live through something so catastrophic only to perish in even more brutal ways afterwards - but Carnahan repeatedly slaps down these fleeting bids for spiritually. He always brings it back to physical reality and shitty luck. I doubt if I would give The Grey a second viewing and to be honest, my initial viewing left me feeling somewhat half-hearted towards it, but reflecting back on Carnahan's film I have to say my respect for it has grown.

I just wish that the marketing had represented the film more accurately. Then again, if it had the tagline would've probably have to have been changed from "Live Or Die On This Day" to "You're Fucked." Anything less blunt would leave too many shades of grey.

Monday, January 23, 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Underworld

When the first Underworld arrived in 2003 - a film that no doubt owed its existence to the then-current Blade series which had made the mix of action/horror and vampires a hot box office commodity - I felt lukewarm towards it. It was a little too glossy and a lot too CGI - not the kind of werewolves vs. vampires movie I was looking for.

In 2003, Underworld was too easy to shrug off in favor of more diverting offerings. You know, like Wrong Turn, Haute Tension or the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But while genre trends have come and gone in the years since, Underworld has kept chugging along. And while the films haven't gotten any better, I like the fact that the new Underworld movie in 2012 looks exactly like the original Underworld movie from 2003. Same blue/black lighting, same costumes, the same shit CGI. While Underworld: Awakening represents no special leap in quality for the franchise, I've come to appreciate the fact that these films are stylistically frozen in time. Their unchanging nature has made them into a comfort food kind of experience.

I didn't pay enough attention to tell you who directed this latest Underworld or who wrote it and I'm uninterested in looking up that information so don't consider this a real review of any kind. All I can say is that I had a fair amount of fun watching this, more fun than I've had with any other Underworld film. That might have to do with my mellowing attitude towards the series (or my mellowing attitude toward life in general) but I also would say that this has substantially more action than the previous installments (it seemed to me that Kate Beckinsale had even less dialogue here than non-actress Gina Carano did in Haywire*). Maybe the people behind the series finally realized that there was never anything interesting to be said by any of the characters in these films so it'd be better to just have them all fighting non-stop.

If so, I applaud that decision.

* By the way, if I can make a non-genre recommendation, Haywire is a really solid piece of work. For some reason, audiences seem to be down on it (it earned a D+ on Cinemascore) but I think anyone with a taste for action cinema will enjoy it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Upside To "Inside"

By the time its first showings had ended last week, The Devil Inside was already infamous thanks to an abrupt ending that had audiences booing the screen. And yet this low budget shocker cleaned up at the box office on its opening weekend to the tune of almost $35 million.

Will it fall sharply going into its second weekend? Sure. Horror pictures are typically front loaded anyway but even if it vanished from theaters today, the movie would still be a huge success. Some fans might (understandably) grouse about how unjust it is that The Devil Inside is a box office blockbuster while so many better horror movies often go ignored during their theatrical runs (or don't even get theatrical runs). Personally, I celebrate any genre film's success.

Obviously I prefer to see good movies do well but even when a mediocre-to-poor horror movie is a hit, I see it as an overall victory for the genre.

There's been a lot of gloomy talk lately about theater attendance, with 2011 having the lowest turnout to theaters since the mid-'90s. Some commentators have looked at those figures and wondered whether Americans have fallen out of love with going to the movies but the massive turnout for The Devil Inside is an encouraging reminder that audiences will still pack their local theaters if they're genuinely excited about a movie. Of course, it'd be better if most of the audience didn't leave feeling like they've been ripped off but whenever studios are reminded (for the umpteenth time) that horror is a hot commodity, it gives other, hopefully better, filmmakers a chance to make the kind of horror movie that really deserves to be a hit.

Friday, January 6, 2012

With Any Luck, This'll Be The Worst Horror Movie Of 2012

It's never fun to report that the first horror movie of the year is lousy but yet that seems to be an annual tradition. January releases are notoriously bad, with the likes of The Rite (2011), Legion (2010), and One Missed Call (2008) standing as evidence to that. Now we can add The Devil Inside to that list. No doubt looking to score another Paranormal Activity-sized hit, Paramount has heavily promoted this exorcism thriller. What a shame that they couldn't have spent a little of that ad money on fixing The Devil Inside's dismal climax so that the word of mouth wouldn't be so poisonous.

For most of its running time, The Devil Inside is agreeable nonsense. Director and co-writer William Brent Bell plays it all straight-faced and faux-educational. Even if you think exorcisms and religion are a bunch of hooey, the clinical presentation that Bell goes for early on is involving and seems to show some research into the subject (Did you know that a key sign of possession is extreme pupil dialation? I didn't.).

With cameras documenting her journey, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade), travels to Rome to visit her institutionalized mother Maria (Suzan Crowley) who Isabella believes may have been possessed when she committed three murders twenty years earlier. Isabella's investigation into her mother's condition puts her in contact with Ben (Simon Quarterman) and David (Evan Helmuth), two priests who are conducting exorcisms without the church's approval. Together they attempt to discern the true nature of Maria's condition.

From this set-up, there's the potential for an eerie, ambiguous film. But Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman aren't out to make that kind of movie. Instead they're going for all the satanic (tubular) bells and whistles they can conjure. Once the first onscreen exorcism hits, and any doubt in the supernatural goes along with it, events become more crazed and mad-cap as the movie hurtles towards what promises to be an exciting climax - but then it all abruptly comes to a (literally) crashing halt in a manner so sudden that audiences will do their own version of Linda Blair's 360 degree head spin.

The sizable audience I saw The Devil Inside with was totally on board with the movie up until its final seconds - screaming, gasping, and occasionally chuckling throughout its running time. But when the movie suddenly cut to the credits (with a helpful web address provided for anyone who wants to learn more about the case!), the unanimous outburst of disappointment was loud and immediate.

No ad campaign can keep bad word of mouth from spreading once a film is out - especially not in the age of the internet - so instead of studios putting so much money into tricking people into seeing a turkey, shouldn't they do all they can to make a movie that people can legitimately enjoy and recommend rather than just leaving them feeling suckered? I just don't get it. And the selling of the movie aside, when filmmakers bungle a horror movie so badly, I have to wonder - is it because they don't have the talent to do better, or because they don't have a feel for the genre, or is it because they have such a contempt for the audience that they don't think anyone going to see a movie like The Devil Inside has any critical faculties?

Whatever the case, The Devil Inside is a letdown. Bad horror movies don't dampen my love of the genre but they do make me feel had and that's never a good feeling. Here's hoping that with the release of The Devil Inside that the worst of 2012's horror crop is already out of the way.