Thursday, November 17, 2011

Catching Up: Found Footage Edition

I’ll admit it, I’ve been lax in keeping up with the new releases lately. I’ve had a lot going on, and I’ve got some catching up to do. Luckily, I’ve got discount theaters in my area. I don’t know if you had the luck to grow up in a town that had these, but they’re great. After their theatrical run, they hit the Dollar Theaters theaters. We always called it the “Dollar Theater” because tickets were always a dollar. Duh. Back in the day, popcorn and drinks were a dollar too. When I moved to Savannah, I was shocked and dismayed there were none. It took a long time for that blow to soften. When I came back, the theaters were still there, but the price had doubled, but we all still refer to it as the Dollar Theater. How can you ague with 1.99 for a movie? If it’s one of those you just kinda want to see, or one you just couldn’t find time to catch, these theaters are invaluable. We have two, Town Center and Venture Cinema 12. Town Center is the one we went to as kids, but the sound sucks there. Venture is awesome. God bless you Venture Cinema 12! Anyway, I just caught up with two recent found footage flicks.

Apollo 18:

When the found footage idea was introduced in Cannibal Holocaust (it’s the earliest example I’m aware of, though it probably isn’t the first), a couple of films stole it. Then when Blair Witch Project became a mega-hit in 1999, Hollywood started to take notice. Then, in 2007, the emergence of cheap and readily available video technology via smartphones and digital camcorders combined with the success of Paranormal Activity, and the damn endless shaky cam scare extravaganza was off and running. Suddenly everyone and their mom is making one of these, and just about every twist that can be put on these usually formulaic cash-ins has been exhausted…except one.

It’s a longstanding joke that when a franchise is completely out of ideas, the last place left to go is space. The last Friday the 13th was in space. The last good Hellraiser was in space. Leperchaun made a trip there before landing in the hood. Critters 4…well, you get the picture. It looks like the same goes for ridiculously overused, gimmicky subgenres. Now that there is nothing new to do with found footage, Apollo 18 takes it into space. Surprisingly, that hackneyed cliché is the one thing this flick has going for it. Isolation is a classic hallmark of horror, and it doesn’t get much more isolated than the freakin’ moon. This movie uses it to it’s fullest potential. It really does feel isolated. The moon, with its stark landscape, deep shadows, silence, and general air of mystery makes for a great set. It looks creepy as hell. The concept of being stranded in outer space with a camera is intriguing and lends itself very well to the limitations of the found footage concept. I think it could have worked brilliantly if this had been, well, a better movie.

My first problem is that it just moves too damn slow. For the first half hour, this is actually an asset. I kept thinking that if they had taken the flick right up to just before the reveal of the monster, then gave us one shot vaguely showing it, this could have been a good short, or maybe a high concept Outer Limits episode. As it stands, once the threat is revealed, we know exactly where the movie is going, but it plods along so slowly to get there that I lost interest WAY before the end. That’s especially not good in a movie that’s only 86 minutes long. Maybe some of that padded time could have been given to character development. When you’re spending the entire movie with three characters, you need to have the audience identify with at least one of them. These guys are as cookie cutter and one note as they come. If they had taken twenty minutes out of the second half and devoted it to some on ship banter that conveyed who these guys are, it would have helped the movie immensely. Better written dialog would have helped too. Also, I know it’s supposed to look like it was shot under duress 40 years ago, and it does (kudos on that realism), but there is a limit to how bad and distorted the footage can be and still me fun to watch. It’s supposed to look like crap. Problem is that it does.

You all know I don’t like to give spoilers, but I’m very tempted too because the threat is something incredibly stupid. They should have left it ambiguous. I mean, what kind of a monster is…no, I won’t do it. Those of you who are really into found footage movies will want to see this one. It actually does attempt to do something novel with a played out motif, even if it does still utilize all of the “darkness with the camera as the only light” style clichés. It’s not really as bad as I made it sound; it’s just below average. The stupid monster doesn’t help. They really could have come up with something more menacing than…stop it Nathan. Seriously though, there’s only one solitary shot where the big threat is remotely scary. They just look like…Anyway, I’m going to be generous and give Apollo 18 one severed thumb up. Hopefully it represents one giant leap towards the end of the found footage wave. Hermit crabs on the moon! How dumb is that? Freakin’ hermit crabs! There, I said it. Nathan says check it out, but don’t expect much.

Paranormal Activity 3:

The third sequel to the film that really kicked off the current found footage glut (REC and Cloverfield helped too) had the advantage of following a sequel with almost no redeeming qualities. I loved the first PA flick, and while I wasn’t holding out any hope that a major studio sequel would have been nearly as good as the indy original, I was still angry when PA2 sucked like Heather Brooke. If you don’t get that one, don’t google it at work. Anyway, considering how bad 2 was, I went into 3 with the lowest of low expectations. It turns out that I was pleasantly surprised.

As I’m sure we all know by now, this is actually a prequel. It shows what happened when Katie and Kristi were young, as alluded to in the first movie. The problem is, how do you have a bunch of “found footage” from 1988? Have the girls’ mother’s boyfriend be a wedding videographer, that’s how! It seems that Kristi’s imaginary friend Toby isn’t so imaginary. Do I really need to summarize the plot here? We all know what’s coming. I think that’s the core of the reason I liked this one so much more than part 2. After the first one, we were wise to what was going to be thrown our way. Something a little different had to be done. Part 2 tried to pretend to be a suspenseful, subtle slow burn creepfest like the first with some major effects thrown in. It was handled in such a hamfisted way, however, that it just seemed like a really bad remake of part one minus anything that had worked the first time around. In part three, they say “to hell with subtlety and trying to be like the first flick.” We get much more of a straight forward, broadly played ghost story, and the experience is much better for it.

This movie does lot of things right. It has the most likeable cast of characters of any flick yet in the series. The cast does a good job, particularly the two young girls. I loved the “fan-cam” idea. It showed what I like to call “stoner ingenuity” in the way it managed to not have all of the “unmanned” shots be static. The second flick tried to have the glacial pace of the first, but failed to create any suspense, making it a chore to sit through. PA3 has no suspense outside of a couple of isolated sequences, but the goings on are lively enough that it doesn’t get boring. There are a couple of “fake” scares that, while cheap, are brilliant in the way that they play with the audience’s expectations. One of them even got me. Yes, it was the first time a jump scare has worked on me in a good long while. Well played. The ending may be a little out of place, and may ape The Last Exorcism a bit, but it introduces an interesting new wrinkle into the story. It’s also nice to see the undeniable creep factor of Teddy Ruxpin finally put to good cinematic use.

That’s not to say that the flick is without its problems, however. The main issues are the gaping holes in the logic. In the 80’s, the kind of equipment and the sheer amount of video tapes this guy has would cost a damn fortune. Yet it is discussed in the flick how he has no money. Also, there are a lot of shots of him watching the footage and noticing something. He says at one point that he has 18 hours (one tape in each of 3 cameras) of footage to review every day. Are we supposed to believe that he has a camera on him at all times while watching the footage? Isn’t that stretching the believability of the found footage conceit a little bit past the breaking point? My other issue is the obligatory “running frantically through the dark house lit only by the camera light” scene, which I hate. Then again, calling a Paranormal Activity flick out about that would be like chiding a Halloween or Friday the 13th flick for having a girl fall down while being chased, now wouldn’t it?

One thing I don’t get is the trailer. Misleading trailers piss me off. Remember that cool shot of Adrian Brody with all of the triangle laser sights on him from Predators that wasn’t in the movie? That pissed me off. The cool shot of Machete with the coat full of knives? Not in the movie. The “McLovin/sexy hamburger” line, the cow from Twister, the circular saw shot from that terrible Stepfather remake? All not actually in their respective movies. This might be the worst offender ever though. Watch this trailer.

The knocking game isn’t in the movie. The burning house isn’t in the movie. Kristi jumping off of the banister isn’t either. Mother watching the footage? Nope. Mother saying “We’re getting out of here” before being drug through the air and thrown on the bed? AWOL. The whole scene of the water being thrown on the ghost? No es aqui. The demonologist/psychic/whatever the hell he is saying that it has something to do with her side of the family and being smashed into the table? That CHARACTER isn’t even in the movie. I’m not sure, so don’t quote me, but I don’t remember the “Carol Anne” line being in there either. What the hell? I have a feeling the burning house thing might play into later sequels because of a date discrepancy, but what happened to the rest of that stuff? I hate it when studios do that.

A lot of things about the story don’t add up in light of the events of part 3, particularly some of the things said about the girls mother in part 1 and 2. The filmmakers also left multiple avenues open for sequels. That fact coupled with PA3’s record breaking box office returns make it pretty obvious that this is just the beginning for this series. It’s the new Saw, and is destined to become a Halloween tradition for the next few years. Lets just hope it doesn’t follow Saw in the fact that 3 is the last good one. I’m hovering somewhere between one and one and a half severed thumbs up for this one, but I refuse to start doing quarter thumbs. Nathan says check it out.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Buried Alive Film Festival Report: Day Two

Sorry it took so long folks, but here’s the rundown of the 11 shorts and 2 features presented at Day 2 of the Buried Alive Film Festival. From 2pm until the after party started after midnight, we we got a block of shorts chosen by 30 year Fangoria vet Philip Nutman, a local filmmaker showcase, one of the most anticipated indie flicks of the year, and a lot more. Like I said in part one, do a little research on these flicks. Many of them can be watched online. Support Independent Horror!
The Shorts:
The Other Half – The moment I got the double entendre of the title, I knew I liked the cut of Atlanta filmmaker Bret Wood’s jib. An amputee forces his wife to set him up with a whore to prove that “he’s not dead yet.” A nasty little burst of psychosexual debauchery with a very David Lynch-ian vibe. Good stuff.
Emergency Preparedness – It’s Halloween, and monsters are invading. One man is ready for them, but they may not be what he thinks. This is from the same director as Do Not Disturb from day 1, and it’s just as good. The ending is especially satisfying.
Hell Week – Three sorority sisters take revenge on a frat pledge who seduced them all to avoid hazing. This was short number three from Patrick Rae, and it’s my least favorite of the three. The acting wasn’t as good, and even for a 13 minute short it really didn’t seem to go anywhere. As the song says, two out of three ain’t bad.
Borley Rectory – This was just a teaser trailer for an English flick about the “most haunted house in England.” Looks to be another found footage flick, with the gimmick being that it was shot many years ago. I’ve never seen anything else Ashley Thorpe has done, but he must be something special for them to have made such a big deal about this trailer.
Down to Sleep – I don’t know a better way to describe this flick in a non spoilerish way than a phrase from the festival program; “life/death, incest…and goldfish!” This was the longest of the shorts at 40 minutes, and it felt like the perfect length for the story. The acting was good, it looked great, it had plenty of atmosphere, and the twist ending is a perfectly executed punch in the gut. At the after party, director Ryan Lieske told me that one of his big influences is Cronenberg, and I can definitely see that in this flick. One of the best of the festival. Did I mention that awesome ending?
A Wet Dream on Elm Street – Not the recently released porn parody, but a local short. It’s a three minute long Freddy sex joke…good thing it’s freakin’ funny. It’s intentionally silly, and you just can’t help laughing. My only qualm…I hate “almost” nudity! Just show it!
Satanic Panic: Band out of Hell – You always thought heavy metal was the devil’s music, didn’t you? Well, turns out it’s dance pop. Satanic Panic is a band of devil worshipers that is a cross between Dead or Alive and Electric Hellfire Club. The flick concerns a new threat that arises at their video shoot. Speaking of which, the videos for songs like “Six, Six, Sexy” are the funniest part of the flick. I also enjoyed the nod to the infamous Gaal “Satan” interview. I look forward to the promised sequel.
Survivor Type – If you were stranded on a deserted island, how far would you go to survive? I’ve never read the Stephen King story that this is based on, so I can’t compare the two, but the movie more than stands up on its own. The central performance is strong, and the gore is effective. Probably the best film out of the “Georgia Fever Dreams” local filmmakers showcase. Definitely worth checking out. My only question, would his hair really grow that fast?
Data Entry – Good concept, but it was 6 minutes of epileptic cameras and tiresome repeated jump cuts. I get it, this style is supposed to convey the craziness of the scene. It doesn’t. Far too often these contrivances are mistaken for actual visual style. I was not impressed.
The Familiar – Sam becomes a vampire’s familiar, only to find that the job isn’t nearly as glamorous and rewarding as he thought. This short seemed more like a TV pilot. The production values are very high, it looks great. The acting is good all around, but Paul Hubbard as Simon, the vampire, steals the show. The tone is funny without becoming jokey. The end sets up the possibility of a continuing story, which I would love to see.
Banana Motherf**ker – Bananas killing people in horrible ways. What more needs to be said? This Portuguese short is 13 minutes of pure frenetic gore soaked insanity. The nods to classic horror movies (especially the Nightmare on Elm Street homage) had me laughing out loud. You can tell that some of the people on screen are barely maintaining a straight face, and you won’t be able to either. This was the winner for Best Short. There were more polished films and more technically proficient films, but certainly none were more entertaining. On a side note, I think Ben & Jerry's should have a flavor called Banana Motherf**ker.
The Features:
The Selling – A realtor is having trouble selling a haunted house. This was, in my mind, the best feature of the festival (even though I Didn’t Come Here to Die took the award). This horror comedy is extremely smartly written. The interplay between the two partners selling the house was great, as the two actors have wonderful chemistry. The entire cast is good, but these two really anchor the flick. All of the conventional haunted house tropes are trotted out, but presented in a new context, they seem fresh. As far as the laughs go, the movie is fairly top heavy. The scenes of them trying to sell the house in the first half are much more clever than the second half. It doesn’t lose too much steam, however, and delivers throughout. I loved this one.

Chillerama - I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I actually did. This anthology, directed by Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Tim Sullivan, and Adam Rifkin, presents four stories that are extremely uneven. First up is the oh so cleverly titled Wadzilla, in which a city falls under siege from a giant sperm. This part played like a decent SNL sketch that drug out way too long. The double entendres hit perfectly, and are really funny, but overall the cum joke wears extremely thin by the end. Eric Roberts is always a welcome presence though. I was a Teenage Wearbear is the second, longest, and worst chapter. The musical isn’t funny at all, nor is it even entertaining. Just boring. Luckily, The Diary of Anne Frankenstein is up next. This story of Hitler creating a Jewish monster (played by Kane Hodder) was hilarious, and almost made sitting through Werebear worth it. The final chapter, in which day-glow blue zombie spooge causes an entire drive in to devolve into an orgy of gore, is decent. The non-stop classic movie lines are funny, the gore effects are very well done, the young leads do a good job, Richard Riehle is a hoot (yes, I really said that), and I liked the ending. Watching the zombies screwing everything in sight is funny for a couple of minutes. The problem is, like the rest of the flick, they beat you over the head with the joke long after it ceased to be funny.

I admit, I’m very picky about my comedy. Sophomoric comedy normally doesn’t do it for me. I’m not one of those pretentious “I am above this low brow humor” people, but an hour and a half of jokes about jizz just isn’t my cup of guts. Those of you who dig that style of humor will most likely enjoy Chillerama much more than I did. I like the “drive-in tribute” atmosphere, but overall the flick seemed like it got a last minute rewrite by a couple of giggling 12 year old boys. Greene’s Diary of Anne Frankenstein was by far the best, being genuinely funny most of the time. Werebear was by far the worst. It drug at a glacial pace through tired gay jokes and badly filmed musical numbers. The other two were somewhere in between. I hate to give this a lackluster review, because I like a lot of the filmmakers involved. There are a lot of fun things about the flick too, it’s just very one note and not very funny.
Two Severed Thumbs Up: The Other Half, Emergency Preparedness, Down to Sleep, Survivor Type, The Familiar, The Selling, Banana Motherf**ker
One and a Half Severed Thumbs Up: A Wet Dream on Elm Street, Satanic Panic: Band out of Hell
One Severed Thumb Up: Chillerama
Half of a Severed Thumb Up: Hell Week, Data Entry

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Buried Alive Film Festival Report: Night One

Alright, vacation’s over. It’s time for the Son of Celluloid to get back in the saddle, gas up the chainsaw, and return to my dark little corner of cyberspace. Yes folks, October kicked my ass. Between Netherworld, the Horror Movie Darwin Awards, and THE MADNESS competition, I was in serious need of some recharging, so I took a little time off. Luckily, this weekend is the Buried Alive Horror Fest at the historic Plaza Theatre, which seems like the perfect heart-shot of adrenaline to bring me back from my coma.
Tonight was the first night, and we were treated to six shorts and a feature. Here’s my analysis in the order they were shown. If any of these intrigue you, google them and find out where you might be able to see them. Some of them you can actually watch online. I’m just too lazy tonight to gather the links. Deal with it. If none of these sound like your cup of tea, what the hell are you reading this blog for? Viva la Independent Horror!

Cabine of the Dead – This 9 minute French short about a man trapped in a phone booth surrounded by the living dead, desperately calling his friends and family. Not an enviable position at all. The acting was good, the zombie makeup was very good, some of the shots of him in the phone booth with the zombies looking through the glass were killer, and some moments were downright hilarious…I think. See, the problem here was that the subtitles were screwed up. Whole lines were skipped, and when they were there, only the tops of the letters were visible on the screen. I’m pretty sure there was some good stuff going on that I missed. If they’d fix the subtitle issue, this would be a top-notch bite sized zombie flick.

Enter the Dark – I’ve seen some glowing reviews of this one, but it just didn’t do it for me. How many times do I have to watch people ghost hunting in night vision? Yes the climactic scare is pretty cool even if it is telegraphed, and I laughed at the “Tim the drunken Irish dude” line, but this didn’t really do anything to differentiate it from the POV pack. Not bad, just kinda blah. I’d say how I would have handled the “post climactic scare” moment differently, but that would be spoilerific, and that’s not how I roll. If you’re not sick of ghost adventuring yet, you might dig it.

Inside Ned’s Home – What the f**k was that? Something about a missing cat, the flying sound effect from Defender for the Atari, murder, lots of blood, otherworldly voices on a red phone,…I dunno man. Whatever it was, it was pretty cool. At first I was wondering if it was going anywhere, then as the weirdness began to pile up, I realized that this is an avant garde little bizarro trip into madness. Jack Lorentz (writer and director), you officially have me intrigued.

Do Not Disturb – A killer checks into a hotel where he starts receiving strange, disturbing messages. This one created a cool mood, had some unique creepy visuals, and presented an interesting, vaguely EC comics-esque central idea. I wish this had been about 10 minutes longer. I get the “leaving the ending ambiguous” thing, but a little more explanation and a little more time to let it play out would have been nice. Then again, I’d much rather be left wanting more than have a thin idea stretched until it wears out its welcome, like certain major motion pictures I’ve seen recently.
Alice Jacobs is DeadThis bittersweet zombie love story is short on the usual zombie mayhem (although there is a bit of enthusiastic gut munching), but long on real emotional drama. A scientist has found a way to delay the “Z-virus” and is hailed as a hero, but can he save those he loves? This well written short is carried by expert performances by vets John La Zar and Adrienne Barbeau. Its theme of “when is it time to let go” makes this a rarity among rarities, thought provoking zombie cinema. On a less serious note, Adrienne voraciously stuffing her face with raw meat as Bela Lugosi looks on approvingly is a brilliant moment. Wait, Bela Lugosi? Yes indeed. No, I won’t explain. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.

An Evening With My Comatose Mother – When Dorothy takes a job watching a house for a couple going to a costume party, she finds out that caring for the titular elderly vegetable is part of the deal. Seems easy enough, until the real creepy Halloween fun starts. This flick is dripping with atmosphere, and the cinematography makes great use of the mansion. I’m not sure what that whole Tiny Tim thing was all about though. Mother is pretty frightening, but nowhere near as nightmare inducing as that harlequin doll. Dolls don’t usually strike me as scary, but this thing puts even the Poltergeist clown to shame. Good effects too. The flick doesn’t take itself too seriously though, keeping its tongue firmly in cheek without being too jokey to be effective. If Tales From the Crypt was still around, this would make a great episode.

I Didn’t Come Here To Die – When six young people head into the woods for a little volunteer work building a campground, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Content-wise, this movie was excellent. The story, while predictable, was creative, unconventional, and fresh in a lot of ways. Some of the concepts come completely out of nowhere, but generally they work. The cast did a good job. There are some laugh out loud moments, as well as some pretty juicy practical effects; often packaged together. The chainsaw scene is in my top three favorite cinematic moments of the year. We got some gratuitous boobs, which are always welcome. Like I said, the actual content of this flick is first class.
Stylistically, it’s a whole different story. I believe they were going for the “faux-grindhouse” thing based on the logo and a “burned film” gag at the end. Therefore I suppose the completely washed out colors were supposed to make it look like aged film. It doesn’t. It looks like digital footage that’s got a filter on it to remove all vibrant color from the beautiful forest locations. The constant use of my old pet peeve, needless and annoying camera shaking and wobbling, also betrays the grindhouse thing. If you want it to look old, don’t use the worst feature of modern horror cinema. The fake grain looks awful too.
I Didn’t Come Here To Die didn’t need the faux-grindhouse thing at all. It would have been much better without it to tell the truth. I would have loved, and I do mean loved, this flick if it had just been left as a “shot on digital, kids dying in the woods” flick. Well, that and if the camera man was sober. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that was the problem and that the constant swaying and weaving of the frame wasn’t intentional. This is a really enjoyable, well written, creative, bloody flick that’s unfortunately marred by some stylistic choices that mirror some of the more odious trends currently plaguing today’s horror flicks.

Two severed thumbs up: Alice Jacobs is Dead, An Evening With My Comatose Mother,
One and a half severed thumbs up: Cabine of the Dead, Inside Ned’s Home, Do Not Disturb
One severed thumb up: I Didn’t Come Here To Die, Enter the Dark

No matter what I rated them; Nathan says support indy horror and check all of them out. I’ll be back with a report on the remainder of the festival (there’s some really cool stuff coming up) early next week.
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