Friday, October 7, 2011

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Cry, Little Sister: Shocktoberfest, Week Un

So, what have I been up to with the Shocktoberfestivities? If you follow my Twitter (and really, why wouldn't you?), then you've been seeing my little capsules. Now, that isn't exactly fair for the rest of my readership out there, so let's catch up, shall we?


From that first shot sweeping into the carnival to an eerie carousel theme, I knew I was in for something fun; I knew I would probably fall in love with the credit "and Dianne Wiest" came up.

I don't think I'm alone in believing that horror movies hit a kind of stride during the 70s and 80s. The bad hair, kooky clothes, and love of synth add an extra element of eerie- and otherness, a world where the young heroes are as odd-looking as the punk vampires, a world where watching sweaty men rock the saxophone is what passes for young nightlife. It was a weird decade, is what I'm saying.

Though their women were impeccable
 Schumacher, so often derided for his insistence on going big, is a perfect fit here. When your finale features exploding heads, a stereo inferno, and blood bursting out of all the plumbing, subtle is so not the way to go. And yet! -- he also gets layered, hypnotic performances out of hunky hero Jason Patric, deliciously evil Kiefer Sutherland and ethereal beauty Jami Gertz (the Coreys, in their first film together, are of course tops, along with under-appreciated Jamison Newlander and Queen Dianne herself, but it's really about those other three). Also give him props for that scary/beautiful moment where the vampires are hanging from the train tracks with Patric in the fog...genuinely unsettling.

In the end, I would give it 5/5 black cats.


Our follow-up was not as successful. Hell Night apparently wants to go for the moody and the spooky, with long sequences in which our heroes walk around a candlelit mansion to investigate the bumps in the night. Instead, the pacing and poor lighting make it an exercise in curing insomnia.

I can get behind the set-up -- four pledges are challenged to stay the night in a "haunted" mansion, where a disfigured killer is on the loose. Yes, killer-in-an-abandoned-estate movies are a dime a dozen, but horror has always been more about the execution (and executions!) than the story. For example, last year we screened The Burning, in which a disfigured killer targets summer campers and their counselors. Been there, done that, but the execution -- a large ensemble, creative deaths, mass murder, actual funny humor, and a largely unsympathetic Final Boy -- set it apart from the rest, and it's among only three Shocktoberfest films that I even remember from last year (the others are Suspiria and The Devil Rides Out). Then there's the man-inherits-haunted-house thriller House, with a typical setup but a disturbing, thought-provoking, atypical execution. Screened on a whim our inaugural year, it's become a standard, and we watch it every year with the equally-awesome House II: The Second Story.

Which is all a long way to say that it's not the cliches that bugged me about Hell Night. Actually, Hell Night tries as hard as it can not to fall into cliches, as it develops its two leads, takes a slow pace, and allows its Final Girl to drink alcohol and bang boys. There are even some genuinely spooky moments! But I'm afraid it's all left me cold. When all but two characters are dead and there are still twenty minutes left, that slow pace starts to feel less a creative choice than a necessity to get the film to feature-length. And while it develops its two leads, the rest of the cast is colorless and annoying, underlit bodies waiting to become swathed-in-darkness corpses. I'm as happy to see Linda Blair as the next guy, but couldn't we get her in a better movie?

Still, its heart is in the right place, and the first twenty minutes are fine, so I would have to give it 2/5 black cats.


Elvira answers the age-old question, "How many jokes can you make about one person's bust?" The answer: about 96 minutes' worth. No, that's not fair, there is a plot: Elvira inherits her dead great-aunt's decrepit home and spellbook in a small New England town that has its own Morality Committee; naturally, they don't take to her, nor she to them, but there's bigger fish to fry when dead auntie's evil brother comes looking for that spellbook. The movie never pretends to want to be more than just great fun...and it is! There are some eye-rolling moments, be they in the form of jokes, effects, or that wooden romantic interest, but if you can't embrace camp and kitsch, you probably shouldn't be watching Elvira.

Besides, Edie McClurg plays a character named Chastity Pariah. Give it 3.5/5 black cats.


And if one is going to be pleasantly surprised, Shocktoberfest is the time to do it. What was I epecting from The Craft? Some 90s wackiness? Melodramatics from forgotten stars? Attempts at "cool" moments that played awfully cheesy fifteen years later? Oh, The Craft, you failed to bring me any of this, and instead brought me a legitimately cool, sexy thriller with fully-developed characters, eerie moments, great visual effects...I loved it!

Ok, so the film follows impossibly beautiful new girl Robin Tunney as she arrives in LA and attends a Catholic school. Mind, Tunney isn't just your run-of-the-mill gorgeous heroine; she's got some..."abilities", shall we say?...that make a trio of social outcasts take notice. Neve Campbell has burns all along her back that she covers up in layers of clothing; Fairuza Balk is of easy virtue, from a broke and abusive home; Rachel True is black. Together, they are "the Bitches of Eastwick", and they bring Tunney into their teenage coven to complete the circle. Then things get scary/awesome/eerie/unsettling/BAAAHH, because this isn't a group of girls skimming books on Wicca and wearing black nail polish. These bitches are witches.

Witches who hate sea life, apparently
 Then the movie just sort of follows them as they perform their magic. First it seems all they want is for their lives to get better, or for the bully to feel their pain, and that's cool. That's teenage stuff. Then some dark powers are inevitably released and Fairuza Balk's leader goes straight to Crazy Town (and I'm not talking being someones butterfly, sugar, baby). Evil is embraced, and Tunney must stop it!

And so far all I've done is summarize, but oh my God! this movie is so awesome! I love that the film sometimes leaves the main character so it can develop the other girls in the circle, refusing to settle for ciphers or stereotypes. I love that there are genuinely disturbing things happening, like beached sharks en masse or snake fingers or MURDER. I love Tunney's line readings, with all the confidence of a great actress and all the awkwardness of a real teenager. I love the lack of judgment on this alternative spirituality, that we even get some real education from the mystical Lirio (Assumpta Serna).

Most of all, I love Fairuza Balk's absolutely cray-cray performance as unhappy evil mega-bitch super-witch Nancy. Nancy, you and your movie get 5/5 black cats.


On the one hand, I love Jamie Lee Curtis in this film. Laurie Strode is now living under an assumed name, the headmistress of a private school, with a 17-year-old son played by Josh Hartnett in his film debut. Still haunted by Michael Meyers, her worst nightmares are realized when he comes KILL! Curtis is phenomenal in the role, cementing her status as the Scream Queen. Whether a worried mother, sexy lover, frightened escapee or exhausted avenger, Curtis plays every beat magnificently. The famous scene where she actually looks at Michael from the other side of a door is dynamite -- that is a fear that you feel, deep in your bones.

Like this!
 On the other hand, the movie is much too short. At under 90 minutes, the film hastily dispatches its characters with little regard to pacing or atmosphere. It's especially surprising given the slow burn pre-titles sequence. It's doubly especially surprising given how much time is devoted to developing Laurie and her son, how fixated it becomes on the sexy shenanigans being setup by the four teens at its center. But we barely get to know who any of these people are before they are quickly, albeit awesomely, knifed out of the story. I wish I'd gotten to know everyone so I could at least feel something. I don't need backstories for everyone, but it would have been nice to get to know everyone a little more. Hell, we barely got any time with third-billed Michelle Williams!

Still, it is Jamie Lee's show, and in that respect it's damn respectable. 3.5/5 black cats for you.


Can I just mention the best part of this screening? While watching the end credits of this early 80s-stylized flick, my friend notices the special thanks to eBay. "Wait, eBay was around in the 80s?" he asks. So perfect was the execution, he thought we were watching a genuine shocker from thirty years ago. Writer-director Ti West and his entire production team can take a bow.

Actually, take a bow for the film as a whole. This slow burn is leagues away from the doldrums of Hell Night. Made for under a million dollars, House of the Devil has everything I could ever want from a horror flick. It's all very simple, following a college sophomore desperate for money who takes a mysterious babysitting job out in the middle of nowhere during a total lunar eclipse. Oh, and it's all preceded by a title card explaining the Satanism scare of the 1980s. Methinks this does not bode well. Man, all we see for the majority of the film is the girl in the house, watching TV, ordering pizza, listening to music, hearing mysterious noises, being watched from the window, unable to get anyone on the phone...

House of the Devil had all the potential to be a boring, pretentious mess of a film, and it just refuses to give in to that. We get to spend some time with Samantha before she even accepts the job -- turning in her paper, hanging with her best friend, trying not to "walk in on" her roommate. That is to say, Ti West and leading lady Jocelin Donahue allow us to identify with Samantha as an actual person, sans exposition, before abandoning her in that remote spookhouse. It makes the tension all the greater, because we -- take note, horror filmmakers -- have sympathy for the character!

And speaking of tension, good God! All those windows looking out in pitch blackness is unsettling, constantly gearing you up for some outdoor horror-show or shock! Eliot Rockett's cinematography makes eerie, wonderful use of long shadows and limited lighting.

 We become so petrified of what we think is about to happen that the wide shots are the most claustrophobic! Jeff Grace's score is period-perfect, fitting well into the quietly disturbing milieu. And Tom Noonan's off-kilter kindness as the man who hires Samantha makes your skin crawl. Look no further, friends: when it comes to heart-racing, throat-closing, claustrophobia-inducing tension, The House of the Devil has it in spades.

Which makes the finale all the more disappointing. Stylistically and tonally, it doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Suddenly we're getting quick cuts, a cliched chase sequence, and an ending that is both obvious and illogical. If only that last scene hadn't happened at all! I'd have had the same caveats regarding editing and the chase sequence, but at least we would have gotten a shocking, unforgettable ending. Alas, such is not the case.

SPOILER ALERT The problem, of course, begins as soon as she escaped the Satanic altar. The scene is still slow and eerie, but once she starts fighting for her life, we are left with the typical movie villains who either attack one at a time or ignore their captor. We also see too much of the demon performing the ritual. Such choices after a methodically-executed 90 minutes are bizarre, too say the least. END SPOILERS

I cannot deny the overwhelming love I have for The House of the Devil as a whole, though. It showcases two promising talents -- the filmmaker and his star -- and while the ending is disappointing, it's not completely botched. 4.5/5 black cats to you.

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