Thursday, February 26, 2009

Master of Horror: Wes Craven


If you are reading this blog, then you no doubt know of the so-called “Masters of Horror”. I’m not necessarily talking about the TV Series here, just some names that get frequently dropped while talking about the genre. They are the people that are generally considered the top directors of modern horror films. They’ve built a name for themselves on some (generally) well made and groundbreaking horror movies. Often times considered revolutionary, I have always wondered: do most of them really deserve the title? Or should they have quit after making a couple of movies and just faded away? Well, I want to start taking a look at them and figuring out if I agree with the title given to them. First up on the list: Wes Craven.

This guy is almost universally considered a “Master” of the horror genre and often appears in interviews about what horror means and the scariest movie moments. Well, let’s take a look at some of his “masterpieces” and decide for ourselves if he is deserving of the title.

*Please note, this isn’t a complete filmography, just some highlights. For a complete list, go here*

The Last House on the Left (1972): No doubt about it, he started his career off with a bang. I cannot deny that this was both groundbreaking and well made. He showed some great promise and ingenuity, which led him to make…

The Hills Have Eyes (1977): Again, a great movie. Sure, both of these look a little dated, but they are classics. The mutants in this movie aren’t quite as interesting as the ones in the remake, but if this movie doesn’t happen, neither does Alexandre Aja’s gem. So far, Wes is two for two.

Swamp Thing (1982): Wes keeps up his streak. Swamp Thing isn’t quite as good as his first couple offerings, but it’s a good movie to keep things looking up for him. It’s a cult classic that works pretty well, even by today’s standards.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Well, I respect this movie. I don’t really like the movie, but that’s more personal preference than anything else. I want to say that this movie keeps his trend going, but it unfortunately also launched a lot of bad sequels. I know this is probably sacrilege in the eyes of Johnny, but that’s how I feel. But I appreciate this movie and don’t consider it a misstep, just sort of a movie that was good enough to keep people thinking highly of him. That is until…

The Hills Have Eyes Part II
(1985): And we have his first major misstep. This movie is pretty god awful. Craven himself has disowned it, saying he did it for the money. That’s not a good sign. He directed a few episodes of The Twilight Zone (that I never saw) and then came back to movies with…

The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988): For my money, this is his best film. It’s a great movie that showed he could make a more serious movie that wasn’t just hack and slash (though I love those movies of his). Craven developed a good story and created some very weird, nightmarish scenes in this movie. The scene where Bill Paxton is buried alive is particularly disconcerting. It’s a little dated, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s good and usually cheap on DVD.

Shocker (1989): Oooh, backslide. Pretty mediocre movie. Craven seems mortal all of a sudden. This movie lacks a punch his first few had. It wasn’t artistic enough to compete with Serpent, but not gritty enough to be the next Hills. Kind of a middle movie that just left you unsatisfied.

The People Under The Stairs (1991): I want to appreciate this movie, but I can’t do it. It seems more dated than most of his early stuff. The characters are so overwrought they can’t even be appreciated on a campy, Evil Dead II level. It’s not scary, not well acted, and just not very good.

New Nightmare (1994): The only other Nightmare movie to be directed by Craven falls pretty flat on its face. I didn’t like the whole “movie in a movie” thing and it just seemed pretty bland. Again, I’m not a huge fan of the whole series (though I do love Robert Englund and the character Freddy Kruger, oddly enough). I think Freddy is a great horror icon that got stuck in an unfortunate series of so-so movies.

Scream
(1996), Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000): After Vampire in Brooklyn (which I won’t even give a separate entry, it was that bad), Craven came back with probably his best known movies: the Scream Trilogy (which may soon be a quadrilogy). They were okay movies, sort of bringing horror back to the mainstream, showing it didn’t have to be low budget. None of them are particularly awesome, but all are fairly enjoyable. They aren’t a strike against him necessarily, but they aren’t earning him more respect either.

Cursed (2005): If I could forget ever seeing this movie, I would. Apparently, there were so many problems with production, they had to re-shoot about 50% of the movie. They should have just let it die. Watch the trailer and at about 1:30 into it, see what could probably be a CG-Why? segment over at Freddy In Space.



Red Eye (2005): Pretty forgettable movie. Not bad, but not great. Cillian Murphy is quite good, but just not enough to save the movie.

Apparently, that’s his most recent horror foray. He has Scream 4 in the hopper, which I will more than likely see, but I’m not terribly excited for it. When it comes right down to it, he has 4 movies I like, 5 movies I could take or leave, and 5 movies that just aren’t good. I am not entirely convinced this makes him deserving of the “Master” of horror title that he has, but it’s definitely not a terrible career. I think he definitely deserves respect, but overall, I just don’t find him all that masterful.

So, Wes, I appreciate what you’ve done, but you need to make another good movie sometime soon. The last truly good movie you did was 20 years ago. I feel kind of like his career is like a bad blow job: it feels good at first, then just okay, and finally you just sort of wish it would either go back to what it felt like at first or just end.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Cottage: review

I just got The Cottage from Netflix and watched it last night and decided it should be my inaugural review. So, let's hear a bit about the movie first, eh?















Plot:
David (Andy Serkis, best known as the actor behind Gollum and King Kong's motion capturing) and his brother Peter have kidnapped a girl and demanded ransom for her safe return. The problem is that Peter is a bumbling wimp and can't seem to do anything right. After some poorly executed ransom payoffs, Peter, David, and another incompetent crook Andrew end up with two Asian hitment tracking them down in the middle of nowhere seeking the girl. David has to go into the nearest village to make a call and gets warned not to leave the cottage and lock his doors. David does not heed this advice, of course.

David comes back to the cottage to find Peter and the girl have gone off into the woods after she managed to get free of her restraints and hold him at knife point. Andrew and David set off in the woods to find him and discover there is a homicidal maniac stalking them out there. It's a disfigured farmer and they've stumbled onto his land, which he doesn't like! Peter and the girl are being stalked as well, and they all have to fight to keep the farmer from killing them.

Cinematography: This movie does a great job at setting up scenes and shots. It's well done and doesn't use any of the sort of cliched horror angles or shots. It's very well set up and the director does a great job of framing and staging. The scenery is really well done and the setting perfect for the movie. Paul Andrew Williams does and excellent job of using long range shots to give you a scope of just how huge and remote the woods are. Shots of the farmer's house and ranch are also quite well done. You would never know that the movie was not a big budget hollywood movie and in fact exceeds most of those. I give it a 4 out of 5 for Cinematography.

Execution: Well, the movie is definitely not an entirely original idea. Some crazed, country bumpkin is killing people that wander into his unfortunate path. The farmer is disfigured and utterly relentless, kills with no remorse, and had some tragic past experience that made him the way he is. I had hoped for a bit more with the Asian hitmen and sort of playing off how the characters would be in double jeopardy, having the farmer and the hitmen to watch out for, but they really don't end up being that big of a part of the movie. However, even operating in the confines of a setting that's been done a lot (Wrong Turn, TCM, Masters of Horror, The Hills Have Eyes, etc), it manages to entertain. The farmer and his backstory definitely make for a decent character. The acting is top notch and the characters are very entertaining. You definitely want to see some of them live and some of them die. It earns a respectable 3.5 out of 5 for Execution.

Sub-Genre Comparison
: Well, like I said, it's a pretty familiar story. But it definitely stacks up well against the recent entries with hilbilly/mutant people getting all territorial over their land. It's definitely better than The Hills Have Eyes 2 and I would say it is better than Wrong Turn (which was pretty darn good). I haven't seen Wrong Turn 2, but I've heard good things, so that may come up soon. As for the classics, I will probably never hold it as high as the original TCM or Hills, but it's a worthy modern send up. I was impressed with it's ability to not only scare, but also to make fun of itself. I would say against others, it would be a 4 out of 5.

Production Value:
As I said before, you would never really know that it wasn't a big budget movie if it weren't for the fact you've never heard of it before. It's well shot and the acting's well done. The gore is quite effective as well, choosing to go with traditional effects instead of CGI, something I respect greatly. Beheading someone with a shovel, a machete through the torso, and a spinal cord being ripped out are what you have to look forward to. They are all quite well done and entertaining to watch, not taking away anything from the movie itself. I'm not an overly huge gorehound, but this was pretty fun to watch and added to the overall atmosphere of the movie. It will hold up quite well, I'm sure. It definitely deserves a 4 out of 5 for Production Value as well.

Scares:
Here's really the only place where the movie falters a bit. It does have some decent scares, good tension with the isolation, but it relies a bit too much on the jump scare. The farmer is a good character, but with the type of movie it is, he's not a terribly imposing figure, just something that pops out to scare when he has to. The other thing is that the movie is very lighthearted at times, which makes it hard to keep up the tension. I like the comedy aspects of the movie, but it's not terribly frightening. That being said, it still succeeds far more than a lot of other movies, but I think it hovers right around average at 3 out of 5 for Scares.

So, when we do the final tally, we see that The Cottage ends up with a respectable 18.5 out of 25 whatevers (I don't have a unit of measure yet, but I'm open to suggestion). It's better than a lot of other movies out there, but not really a masterpiece. Definitely worth checking out if you can!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Zombies???

Well, here's a little thing that has had me up in arms lately: Virgin Media's Top Zombie Films of All Time.

That's Virgin Media's top zombie movies of all time. Don't let the URL of the article fool you, it's not a top 10, it's a top 13. Now, I have to admit, it's got some good movies on there. Then why am I up in arms? Because some of them aren't zombie movies! I'm going to clear this up for you if you don't know what I'm talking about: zombies have to die and come back to life to be undead. Which means that a person must become infected, die, and come back to life in order to be a zombie (or be dead already and return). Just becoming a monster because you are infected does not a zombie make. You must die first because zombies are undead. That will come into play later in the article. So, let's get into it, shall we?

Army of Darkness: Not a zombie movie. The enemies are deadites, which are people possessed by evil spirits, not people brought back from the dead. I guess the skeletons are similar to zombies because they are back from the dead, but skeletons and zombies are two very different things. Plus walking skeletons? That's ludicrous! That could never really happen like a zombie attack could.

Black Sheep: No, not the Chris Farley/David Spade comedy, this movie. It's a great New Zealand horror flick about sheep that turn carnivorous and start killing people. Oh, and if they bite you, you turn into a were-sheep (like a werewolf, but, well, you get the picture). Now, what about that sounds like a zombie flick to you? It's a twist on the werewolf flick, but that's hardly a zombie film. Two films on the list, two that aren't zombie films. Both good, don't get me wrong, but still not zombies.

Zombie Strippers: Well, as the name would imply, this one is about zombies. That strip. I don't have a problem with this one besides the fact I wouldn't include it on my top ten zombie movies of all time. But it has zombies at least.

I Am Legend: I don't know what pisses me off about this selection: the fact that movie kinda sucked, the fact that they weren't zombies, or the fact that they were supposed to be intelligent, vampire-like creatures (a la the book). My problems with this movie aside (I wish they would have kept the original ending), it features no zombies. Things that can't go into the light and get burned when they do so are what again? Vampires, not zombies.

Braindead (aka Dead Alive): Ahhh, something I can agree with. Not only is this a zombie movie (the infected people have to die first, then come back to life), but it would more than likely make it on my top ten. A great low budget horror flick from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.

Diary of the Dead: Well, it's a zombie flick. It's a fucking terrible zombie flick, but at least it's a zombie flick.

Resident Evil: Also a zombie flick. Not a great one, but it might get on my top ten on the right day. It's kind of fun to watch Milla Jovovich kick some undead ass. Too bad both sequels sucked hard.

28 Days Later: I'm only going to say this once: THIS IS NOT A ZOMBIE FILM! The infected people in this movie don't die and come back, they just get infected by a disease. I love this film and will rate it highly forever, but it's just not a zombie film. For some intents and purposes I will lump it in with zombie flicks (it is similar and gets it's roots from zombie films, no doubt about that), but the way I like my zombie films, it just can't be qualified. I will grant this one some leniency because it's nitpicky, but I still strike it against this list.

Dawn of the Dead (remake): Yup, it's a zombie film. But the remake? Really? I like this movie as much as the next guy (in fact, I've often said if pressured, I would probably choose this over the original, but barely), but if I do a top zombie films of all time list, the original gets top billing. It's just more revolutionary and more of a pillar amongst zombie films. I would be okay with this choice if it were on the list with the original as well.

Shaun of the Dead: Easily in my top 5 movies of all time, let alone zombie movies. Well done Virgin, another one I can agree with across the board.

An American Werewolf in London: Are you fucking serious? It says "werewolf" in the goddamn title! Jesus Christ! IT'S NOT A FUCKING ZOMBIE MOVIE!

Night of the Living Dead (original): I'm surprised they got this one right. But where's the remake? That was good too!

The Omega Man: For those of you who don't know, this is the second time a studio tried to make "I Am Legend", this time with Charlton Heston. I Am Legend was the third attempt, the first was The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price. They even put "zombies" in quotes in the article. That's probably a pretty good sign it doesn't belong on the list then.

Wow, what a piece of shit list. Six of the thirteen movies listed aren't actually zombie movies. And in the URL of the piece you say it's a top ten, but there are thirteen movies. Just brilliant.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Criteria

Well, as I said, I will be reviewing movies at some point (I've worked out my first few reviews, I just need to type them up and post them soon). But before I start my reviews, I've worked out a way to basically quantify what I am saying about the movies. I will be judging each movie on 5 categories that I have chosen for no real reason. But hey, it's my blog, so I can do what I want right? In any event, each category is out of a possible score of 5 (stars, hearts, clovers, horseshoes, whatever you want) and are fairly tailored towards horror movies, so these aren't the same criteria I use to judge, say, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a great movie). In any event, here are the 5 categories and my interpretations thereof.

Please note: I titled them pretty generally and explain them in more detail, so "Cinematography" is more than just cinematography, but I try to explain that. I may change the titles of the categories later, but for now, this is what I've got.

Cinematography: With this I am talking about things like camera angles, movement, framing, and scene setup. I like to see if there are cliches from within the genre, such as the wide angle close-up to signify craziness, the shaky cam to hide poor effects, herky-jerky character moves to show a ghost, and other things that have started to appear to hide a poor director. I do take into effect budget of a particular movie, knowing that a shaky cam may be employed because that's all a director has to use due to budget. I also include the Mise-en-scene, basically meaning (in this case) the look and feel of the movie (Tim Burton's films all have a certain mise-en-scene). I also look to see if the movie looks like another movie or if it's got a style all its own. I will try to take into account if it's meant to have the look of another movie on purpose or not.

Execution: I want to see if the movie is an original idea or falling into a well defined niche. If it is in a format I've seen before, does it bring any new elements to the table or is it at least well done within the format? Slashers have been done and done to death, but you can still make a good slasher film that follows a lot of conventions with the right tools (though I dislike slasher films to begin with). Are the characters believable or at least well done enough to be engaged with them? You may never have a person that is as over the top as some characters are (like The Tall Man in Phantasm), but is the character at least well done enough for you to not look away when they are on screen? And finally the acting in the movie. Is it at least ample? Budget has a big effect on this usually, but you can still find people to do the part and not blow you away for a good budget.

Sub-genre Comparison: Exactly what it sounds like: how does it compare to other movies in the same sub-genre? Horror is the overlying genre, but how does it stack up against something in the same vein? How does Diary of the Dead hold up agains the original Night of the Living Dead? How does Let The Right One In compare to John Carpenter's Vampires? What about Dog Soldiers vs The Howling? I will compare the movie to the heavy hitters of the sub-genre (ie. for possession films The Exorcist, The Evil Dead, The Shining) and to recent releases. How does The Signal compare to The Happening or Pulse? Does it do what it should well? I mean, few (if any movies) are going to compare to the classics, but can they at least do the things justice? This will be taken into account with remakes as well.

Production Value: How are the Special FX? Is the gore well done? Is it used sparingly and to good effect or over done with little lasting impression? Was there CGI or traditional effects and did either work out well? Will it have staying power? Will it look good now but 10 years down the road look ridiculous? I take into account that newer technology makes things look better and everything, but things like poorly done CGI now looks as bad as poorly done CGI 10 years ago. I mean, look at Jurassic Park. Those effects still hold up well today (better than Jurassic Park III, in fact). Movies like The Exorcist and The Omen have some effects that look a little dated, but that isn't enough to detract from the movie itself (and most of those effects still aren't that bad). I will also take into effect budgetary constraints for this as well.

And finally, Scares: Does the movie build tension well? Does it make you constantly cover your eyes? Does it rely too much on the jump scare (a cheap scare that if used sparingly is okay)? Does the movie actually take time to establish a brooding atmosphere and suck you into its world? Too many movies don't establish a scary or unsettling atmosphere and that detracts from the scare factor. For me, the 1 thing every good horror movie does is create a sense of isolation, regardless of the setting. You can do this by putting people in remote locations (tundra, desert, space), by a catastrophic event (zombies, infection, mass extinction), or by removing them from society with a specific incident (possession, haunting). This can occur in an area surrounded by people, like in The Exorcist or The Orphanage. Plenty of people around, but because it's such a specific occurence that no one has ever experienced, no one can relate, thus isolating the character even though they are not alone.

I don't cover everything, but these are the things that are important for me to have a movie succeed at. I may add to this list eventually, but that's something to refer to when you read my reviews and need a frame of reference.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Horror

Well, I've finally decided to do it: I'll write a damn horror movie blog. I've been interested in horror movies for a long time now and I'll rant and rave to any unsuspecting idiot who wanders into my field of vision about said movies, but I've finally started to channel my ideas to a more focused audience: the internet. Okay, so that's not very focused, but it allows for more unsuspecting idiots to wander into my ideas.

For a little background about me: I'm a twenty-something college graduate who works for UW Madison as an IT Consultant. I did take a couple of film classes in college (so the pretentious film verbiage may come out every once in a while), but I was a Philosophy major. So don't read too far into what I say. I'm a bit of a film buff, but not really a critic in the highest sense of the word. I know more than the average movie goer, but I am by no means an expert. That doesn't stop me from espousing criticism like an expert though. I am a walking contradiction.

In any event, I will be writing some reviews, maybe some news and various other things horror related in this blog. I have a method to my reviews, which I will post soon (along with a review). In any event, hope you like what I write.