WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014) - First Time View
To kick off the month, I headed to New Zealand. Well, okay, I didn't actually travel there, rather checked out this flick from some of the Flight of the Concords gang. A "documentary" crew follows around a group of vampires, all of which are hundreds of years old, living together in Wellington.
Without a doubt, Shadows puts an entertaining and charming spin on the vampire mythos. Everything we know about creatures of the night is here, but presented in a unique manner. They fight about doing the dishes, meeting women, run into the opposing gang (who are werewolves not swear-wolves), and try to get accustomed to life in the 21st century. Clocking in at a sleek 86 runtime, it did loose some steam as it went on. I think there's an outstanding 30 minute episode located underneath all the fat. Don't get me wrong, it's quite successful, but the gimmick got old and exhausted by the time the end credits rolled. The humor worked, however, I only truly laughed out loud a few times.
When I think back on the film, I think fondly of it, which makes me think I enjoyed it more than I did. I could see myself benefitting from an eventual second viewing, especially to laugh at my favorite line again. When talking about why vampires prefer virgin blood, Vladislav states, "I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it."
UNFRIENDED (2015) - First Time View
Yes, the Facebook/Skype horror movie. I knew I'd get around to it eventually, figured now's as good a time as ever. And get this - I didn't hate it!
Told entirely via Skype and Facebook, a group of friends get terrorized by a dead classmate during a group video chat. Now, let's just get this out of the way. Yes, they could have just closed the computer, walked away, and all would have been (presumably) fine. And, by all means, the characters were total shite and obnoxious, but I'm willing to bet this was a pretty accurate portrayal of high school kids today. Regardless, suspend that disbelief of yours and go with it. I had previously seen The Den (2013), which was a less-than-favorable watch, so I had an idea what to expect. However, unlike The Den, which takes places over a few weeks or so, Unfriended happens in real time, running the duration of our characters' video chat. I was impressed by this aspect alone, but toss in some decent suspense and tension here and there, and there was more to appreciate than I expected. All of the deaths expect one (maybe two) were moronic at best, so that was a letdown.
Do I need to see Unfriended again? No, probably never. Like I said, though, I didn't hate it. Also, kudos to them for actually doing something different. It might not work for everyone and it might not stand the test of time, but neither do the paint-by-number slasher flicks we see time and time again.
3. COOTIES (2015) - First Time View
One bad chicken nugget from the hot lunch at school sure caused a lot of problems. Said nugget begins a zombie-esque outbreak in an elementary school, creating all kinds of little monsters going after the faculty. I'm well-exhausted on the whole undead genre, but Cooties offered an interesting enough approach to warrant a watch.
Was it worth it? Eh, maybe. There's some decent humor throughout (mainly during the first half - plus a great Speed 2 reference), but Cooties sinks its teeth into far too familiar territory (i.e. the crap every zombie movies has). Not to mention the humor falls flat as much as it connects, but even more so, the directing and style of the film is so subpar there's never a moment that actually got me excited for, well, anything. By no means was it painful to sit through, it just wasn't terribly exciting either. Not to mention the ending was so incredibly abrupt, I couldn't help but think the last joke of the movie was on us, the viewer.
I wouldn't say it's a must-see or one to avoid. I'm willing to bet this would be fun with a crowd, and wasn't painful watching at home, just left more to be desired.
4. TATTOO (1981) - First Time View
Two reasons this was a great watch: 1. Bruce. 2. Dern.
Dern plays Karl Kinsky, a tattoo artist in NYC who gets brought in to create faux-tattoos on models for a magazine shoot. He becomes quite fond of one of the models, Maddy (played by Bond Girl Maud Adams), and wants to turn her into is masterpiece.
Looking at the character of Karl Kinsky on paper, it would seem like a simple character with no depth. Dern portrayed it as something so much more, almost channeling Norman Bates in a way - so soft and horrifying at the same time. I honestly don't know if this film should have worked, but it did. And it worked really well for me. It's not loud, it's not flashy, it's not exciting. It's slow, it's subtle, it's chilling. Definitely not for everyone, I can fully understand why some wouldn't like it. However, if you like slow burns with emphasis on character, especially with some god damn creepy moments, I recommend Tattoo. It's a nasty flick that will leave you feeling dirty if you get into it, largely in part to Dern's performance.
5. CLOWN (2014) - First Time View
When presenting the story of a dude who puts on an old clown costume who, not only can't take it off, but is slowly turning into a demon who needs to eat five kids, there's probably two ways to go about it. Make it goofy as shit or play it straight. Much to my pleasure, director Jon Watts went for the latter.
The tone of Clown is what grabbed me most. It's a completely preposterous concept, but it's handled so seriously and with such care, there was never a moment where I was all, "Okay, this is fucking ridiculous." Don't get me wrong, there is some truly exceptional dark, comedic moments, but they just further the powerful execution and help the story. It was also refreshing to see a modern horror flick keep its load in and not blow it all right away. Not only does the story unfold very nicely, so does the monster aspect. And, speaking of which, there is some absolutely gnarly makeup jobs!
Clown was more than I expected it to be due to the solid script and strong execution, one I look forward to revisiting in the future.
6. OCULUS (2013)
When a family moves into a new house and dad gets an old ass mirror who starts messing with his brains, things go a rye rather quickly. The parents die, the son gets sent to a child psychiatric hospital and the daughter goes into foster care. Now, eleven years later, the son gets released and his sister has a plan - prove the mirror possessed their dad and destroy it. The story is rather interesting, but the editing is what makes it worthwhile. The way in which writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan weaves between the present timeline and flashbacks is so slick, so polished, it's really a sight to be seen.
Great visuals and a constant state of uncertainty propels Oculus to something great, but the writing (of characters, their intentions, and dialogue) and some of the acting holds it back before it can breakthrough. This was my second time sitting down with it, and while I had these thoughts the first time around, it was the second viewing that concreted them. I still like it, don't get me wrong. Sadly, there's a few hang-ups that prevent it from being more than it is.
7. THE AWAKENING (2011) - First Time Viewing
"Damn, that's a great looking shot… Oh, so is that one… And this one! Why does everything look SO good?!" Welcome to my thoughts while watching The Awakening.
I must admit, I've bypassed this title in my Instant Netflix queue for years. What a crumby mistake that was. Set in the 1920s, an experienced and trusted hoax-buster gets brought in to investigate ghost sightings at a boarding school in rural England. Oh, I should also mention that this sceptic, Florence, is a highly educated atheist who doesn't take any shit from men (who frequently undermine her any chance they get). Chalk one up for a completely superb, and sadly uncommon, heroine. We need to see more characters like her in films, horror or not.
When all is said and done, The Awakening doesn't exactly breathe new air into the haunted/ghost genre, but it's so successful and elegant in every aspect of filmmaking - acting, editing, cinematography, writing, costuming, locations, score - it doesn't really matter. Everything it does is solid as hell, which makes for a very pleasurable viewing. Yes, it's slow and perhaps a little longer than it really needs to be, but the strengths strongly outweigh these minor, minor critiques. Rebecca Hall and Dominic West both nail their performances. Really, everyone does. I cannot stress how complete and polished the end product is. I'm usually not the biggest period-piece fan (especially in the early 1900s) and my eyeballs could not get enough of what the camera focused on. Aside from the superb technical aspects, the story is engrossing and rich enough to propel the mystery, leaving the viewer anxious to see where it takes us.
I will not be surprised if this goes down as the best made film I watch all month. Not saying it's my favorite (or will be), but when it comes to the craft, I'm just not sure anything will surpass it.
8. THE KEEP (1983) - First Time Viewing
Appropriately following The Awakening comes The Keep, a film I am not entirely sure what the hell was happening, and because of it, was left feeling confused and somewhat annoyed. Go figure.
So, it's World War II. There's this Romanian fortress that the Nazis occupy, but some guards fondle the nickel crosses after they're told not to, and release an evil that's all pissed off and shit. Some dude senses what is going on, so he comes to check it out. The Nazis then recruit an old Jewish professor and his daughter from a concentration camp to help. Now, put a score by Tangerine Dream on top of it all.
This flick is a mess, to say the least. I somewhat give writer/director Michael Mann some credit for presenting a unique story (which is based off a novel), but the execution is so sloppy, bland, and jumbled, there was really nothing to enjoy. Not even Scott Glenn and Ian McKellen were able to save anything. And the score, oh god, the score was horrendous! I understand it was the early '80s and Tangerine Dream were all the rage, I get it. Who thought it would be a great idea to have them score a WWII period-piece? A juxtaposition that did not work for me at all.
Some of my friends get a kick out of this film, and I'm glad. This just missed me on all levels. I enjoy plenty of bad movies, too. Sometimes, though, there's just so bad they're… Well, bad.
9. THE COTTAGE (2008)
I don't quite understand why The Cottage isn't talked about more often. Perhaps it is and I'm just unaware. But damn do I enjoy the hell out of this one.
Two brothers (wonderfully played Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith) kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman in hopes of scoring big on the ransom. They take her to a remote cabin, and of course, things don't go as planned. The beauty of it all, though, is that the misfortunes unfold in a rather different way than we're used to. The Cottage fantastically executes a bait and switch - the film starts as one thing and wildly transforms into another by the time it ends. I can see people being turned off by this, but not me. Both "halves," if you will, are equally entertaining and successful, I'm all for the change in direction.
The script is so quick and smart, the humor just excels largely in part to the cast - including the loud, vulgar, and tough Jennifer Ellison. The (often absurd) brotherly conflict that exists between Serkis and Shearsmith carries the film. Their chemistry is rich and believable, not to mention hilarious. And when the horror portion arrives, it's equally as fun as the first half, just in a much bloodier fashion.
It's smart, it's unusual, and above all, it's a very fun watch.
10. THE UGLY (1997) - First Time Viewing
My good friend Derrick Carey suggested this, and much to my surprise, I was not familiar with that. I say that because I grew up on Peter Jackson's beautiful, outlandish horror and exploitation offerings aka his pre-Lord of the Rings work (if you couldn't tell, cough cough, the name of my blog), and as it turns out, many of Sir Jackson's early company (including Weta wizard Richard Taylor) were involved with The Ugly.
The setup is simple, a psychologist comes in to examine a serial killer who's been locked up for years, better understanding his methods and madness. While the bulk of the film takes place with the two of them sitting across a table, discussing, well structured flashbacks are injected during the conversations, showing us what killer Simon Cartwright has done in his past.
This is clearly a low-budget film, but plays very well due to the script and editing. The way writer/director Scott Reynolds transitions from one timeline to another is so smooth and often creatively impressive, I couldn't help but be reminded of the same aspect I so greatly appreciated in Oculus (keeping in mind The Ugly was released sixteen years prior). The acting, where it counts (with our leads), is strong enough to move the film along. Some of the supporting characters not only look ridiculous (no shit, I can assure you there is not a mental facility that allows their guards to dress like these two did), but are rather quirky in nature, which didn't exactly mesh well with the sinister story being told. Thankfully, they didn't detract my enjoyment too much, so I was able to look past it.
This is a pretty dark story with some really dark moments that are unsettling and creepy. It's not a fun slasher film a la Friday the 13th, this is reality based. It's mean, it's dirty, and it's supposed to be. One could easily label this a low-budget Silence of the Lambs, and while that's not terribly far off, there's more than enough to make The Ugly its own beast and well worth watching.
11. THE OTHERS (2001)
Haven't seen this since it's original release, and while I enjoyed it the second time around, it was not nearly as creepy as I remembered.
Another haunting period-piece, this time set at the end of WWI, a presumably widowed Nicole Kidman settles into a massive new home in the countryside with her two kids who are highly sensitive to sunlight. No, they are not vampires, it's a medical condition.
What really impresses me is how much of a classic haunting film this is. That term, "classic," gets thrown around all the time, I know. The Others perfectly nails the aesthetic, technical qualities, and execution of the earliest of ghost tales the genre encompasses. If this were released in black and white, it could certainly pass as a lost ghost film from the '40s or '50s. Sure, Nicole Kidman would easily screw that up, but you get the point.
Slightly too predictable for its own good, The Others isn't fantastic, but it offers a favorable watch (with a very rewarding performance by James Bentley as young Nicholas). Probably won't need to watch it again, but it nice to revisit after all these years.
One thing's for sure, I need a break from ghosts for a few. Ugh.