1. FROM WITHIN (2008) - First Time Viewing
First film of the month is a pretty big deal, right? In theory, it could set the tone for the next 30 days. Since mainstream studio has been a massive let down in recent years, I figured I'd go for a smaller, independent fare in the form of From Within.
In a small Maryland tiny town where religion and the word of God are as prevalent as oxygen, a misfit teenager kills himself, setting off a domino-like effect of more suicides throughout the town. Something suspicious surfaces, causing our lead, Lindsay, to figure out who, or what, is behind what seems to be a suicide curse.
From Within is successful in many ways. The setup is intriguing and the opening scene grabs you with its boldness. The cinematography is solid as hell; lots of great camera movement with the lighting accenting scenes wonderfully. That should come at no surprise, as director Phedon Papamichael has a plethora of cinematography credits under his belt, such as 3:10 to Yuma, Identity, The Ides of March, Nebraska, and many more. The small-town paranoia, desperation, and sense of dread that occurs as a result of the suicides is handled quite well, which tightens the tension and provides the creeps throughout the film. The mystery of what might be causing this string of events is interesting enough to keep you trying to figure it out. Surprisingly enough, Adam Goldberg delivers a most enjoyable performance as momma's not-so-good boyfriend Roy, and unlike other roles, it doesn't seem like he's just Adam Goldberg playing Adam Goldberg.
That's not to say From Within doesn't have its shortcomings, as well. There are plenty. The script is bland and lackluster at times, as are a handful of the performances. The third act falls apart in comparison to the other two, leaving us with a conclusion that's fine, but not as strong as it should be. And some of the set-pieces are close to being successful. but ultimately come up a little short.
While watching, it was hard not to think of It Follows, My Soul To Take, and Final Destination, which isn't exactly a bad thing. In some ways, I found From Within to deliver more than It Follows and My Soul To Take (let's be honest, Soul is not one of Wes Craven's best offerings). Even by bringing up those titles and comparisons, it should point out that From Within offers a different tale than your run-of-the-mill horror. Plus, it's worthwhile! When all is said and done, this was a solid way to kick off the month. I'll take it!
CELL (2016) - First Time Viewing
It seems as if this Stephen King adaptation has been in shambles since Eli Roth left the project in 2007. Since that time, there was all kinds of talks that Cell would hit the screen, but there was never any solid confirmation. Until about a year ago, when set photos surfaced, followed by the trailer. Clearly, the novel was going to get its adaptation, but would it be worth the almost ten year wait?
Nope, not even close.
I hate to be so negative right off that bat, but come on. What a dud. I wanted to like you, Cell, I really did. But you gave me so little to hold onto.
John Cusack is Clay, a comic book creator who plans on making a slight detour in Boston to see his son. While in the airport, a funky signal - dubbed The Pulse - transmitted via cell phones turns those who were on their phones into zombie-things - dubbed Phoners. This shit isn't going to stop Cusack from finding his son, so he teams up with Samuel L. Jackson and a few others to get to New Hampshire, turning Cell into a story of survival and desperation.
Right off the back, seeing the airport scene, it's wildly apparent they do not have the budget that's needed to make the story they want to tell. High-shutter speeds and excessive shaky cam movements are used to sell the action, but they don't. Instead, they offer an incredible mediocre at best production quality that would be impressive for a student film. I give the filmmakers credit for going for it, not letting their minimal budget stand in the way of their aspirations, but at the same time… Ouch.
I like John Cusack, I always have. But come on, dude. Give it *some* effort. Perhaps he was frustrated with the production, perhaps he just didn't care. I don't know. Seems like he's operating at about 60%, though. On the flip side, it was pretty great to see Samuel L. Jackson not entire play Samuel L. Jackson. His portrayal of Tom is a much more reserved, toned down SLJ, which was kind of a delight.
Oh yeah, Stacy Keach shows up for a whole ten minutes or so.
Visually speaking, aside from the action scenes, there's a lot of eye candy. Well, for me, at least. The gloomy, dead countryside and desolate cities are my kind of scenery. As I find a lot of beauty in bare trees and destroyed streets. That's absolutely one thing Cell has going for it, the post-apocalyptic aesthetic. Something, frankly, I can't get enough of.
There's something here, something that could be successful. Whether that potential needs a bigger budget or to be made into a mini-series, I'm not sure. Probably both, to be honest. What we're left with this effort, though, is a hollow, empty shell without a pulse. I kind of hope it doesn't get more stale than this.
Writer John Wetherby (Peter Graves) gets called in to help investigate a series of deadly attacks, presumably by an animal, just outside of Los Angeles. Enlisting the help of an old friend, experienced hunter, and gratuitous red-herring, Byron Douglas (Clint Walker), the two stir up past memories and drama while on the prowl for the creature responsible for the grizzly scenes.
Penned by Richard Matheson (whom I am a big fan of), Scream of the Wolf plays pretty similar to Matheson's 1972 script, The Night Stalker. However, Scream doesn't have the same kind of charm, whit, and fun as Stalker. Instead, it's a straight-forward, well-crafted mystery that keeps one guessing, leading up to a different ending than we've come to see. Nothing about Scream is earth-shattering, it's simply competent and satisfying. Even with the ridiculously excessive amount of "Could Byron be a werewolf?" conversations that take place. For real, it gets kind of silly. Even how quickly Wetherby and others subscribe to the notion that the killer could be a werewolf. Who are these people so willing to buy the notion that werewolves exist?
Quick side tidbit: many of the night exteriors, lighting and use of fog, as well as camera work from the "creature's" POV is very reminiscent to what Raimi delivered with The Evil Dead. Am I saying Scream played an influence? Hell if I know, just was a fun observation.
31 (2016) - First Time Viewing
Remember how I said I hope it doesn't get more stale than Cell? Well, I shouldn't have spoke so soon. If Cell was a dud, 31 is a complete turd. A huge, massive, stinky turd.
A group of carnival workers get kidnapped and thrown into an abandoned warehouse-like place and forced to survive a game called 31. During the game, you have 12 hours to defend yourself against maniacal, killer clowns. Then there's Malcolm McDowell and a few ladies (the organizers of the game) who look like they're in a film about 17th Century England, calling all the shots and placing bets. Plus, a little Mexican person dressed as Hitler.
Every typical Rob Zombie cliche is here. Excessive profanity, unlikeable characters, eye-rolling jargon, and gimmicky edits and transitions placed in the 1970s with music shoe-horned in for good measure. However, unlike his other films, 31 felt like it had no point. And yes, I understand that I just claimed that his Halloween films had purpose. They did, though. He clearly had a story he wanted to tell, whether we, the fans, liked it or not. 31 does not feel like that at all. If he came forward, stating that he didn't have a script, rather a rough outline, and they just went with it, I would not be surprised. Not in the least bit.
The sets were alright, nothing outstanding by any means. Looked like an empty warehouse, boiler room, basement, and so on. I could not have loathed the camera work during the action/gore moments, Much like Michael Bay's Transformers, the camera is so tight to the action, plus moving around wildly, it's hard to tell just what the hell is going on. I eventually gave up trying to care, which is probably the best way to sum up the film as a whole.
Let's talk about something positive, shall we? There's really only one thing I can salute and that's Richard Blake, who plays the most sadistic of all our villainous clowns, Doom-Head. Dude's performance was a blast to watch, as he was down right unnerving. Sadly, the more I saw of the character, the less I enjoyed him, but that has nothing to do with Blake as the actor, rather what he was given to work with. I won't be the first person to say this, someone should probably just cast him as The Joker. Doom-Head behaved very much like a ruthlessly unhinged Joker, something much more sinister than we've seen previously. Undeniably, Blake's the highlight of the film. The only highlight.
To date, out of Zombie's catalog, I've only enjoyed The Devil's Rejects. Still, I've continued to root for him, wanting to see more from him with the hopes that he'll deliver once again. Fool me once… yeah, yeah, yeah. Fool me six times… Well, shit. I have finally learned my lesson. Hey, if you enjoy Zombie's films, more power to ya! I hope you keep enjoying what he puts out. I'll just go see whatever else is playing.
I sincerely hope it doesn't get worse than this. Please, I beg of you, horror gods, do not let it get worse than this.
THEY'RE WATCHING (2016) - First Time Viewing
An American reality show crew travels back to Eastern Europe to follow up with one of their stories, six months after the first round of filmmaking. The destination: Becky Westlake's small, left for shambles homestead in the middle of nowhere, as she was supposed to fix the place up. Does she? Of course, but the locals have been very weary of her and the home, or has she been weary of the locals?
When it comes to found-footage, it's best to completely suspend your disbelief and just go with it. That is, if you want to find entertainment in the format. I have no problem with this, mind you. I actually enjoy the medium, even though the films themselves usually leave me unfulfilled.
They're Watching is no exception. The premise is fine, it's as passable as most. The execution is just so lackluster, I was bored throughout. The setup takes way too long, the characters are typical to the point of nausea, and the comedy did not connect with me whatsoever. Slow burns don't bother me, in fact, I'm rather fond of them. They're Watching is certainly a slow burn, it's just that there was nothing for me to grab onto for the dawdling "payoff."
Now, the payoff is actually quite grand and ridiculous, there is no doubt about it. Sadly, I was so disengaged that I didn't care. Plus, some mediocre at best CGI comes into play and deflated it even more for me. This is probably on me, as I have such little tolerance for not just piss-poor CGI, but CGI in general. I'm cool when its used to enhance and add to a scene, I can't stand when its the focal point. I understand this is my problem, not always the film's, but if there's one way to turn your film into a turd (in my eyes), it's by adding excessive CG.
In the grand scheme of things, They're Watching is probably average for found footage. However, by this point, we should be past the point of painting-by-numbers and doing something a little more with the sub-genre.
THE NAMELESS (1999) - First Time Viewing
Jaume Balagueró caught my attention in 2007 with his film partner Paco Plaza and their intense, Spanish found-footage film, [REC]. While the two have done great work together, Jaume has also held his own as a solo filmmaker. Somehow, I've overlooked his first feature until now.
Claudia and Marc's daughter, Angela, has been missing for some time. One morning, they get a call from the police, claiming they found the remains of a young daughter they believe to be Angela. Marc is able to identity the body from a bracelet found with her and a leg deformity. Five years pass, Claudia and Marc have split. Claudia is finally getting her career back to "normal," when she receives a phone call from Angela. Or, at least she's certain it's Angela. Enlisting the help of the now retired Detective Massera, Claudia will not stop until she's positive the voice on the other end of the phone is or is not her daughter.
Part murder mystery, part occult narrative, and part psychological horror, The Nameless is one fierce film. It's as much of a chilling mystery that unfolds wonderfully as it is an eerie tale of dread with a hint of the supernatural. At moments, the film and audio editing are used in such an alarming yet successful way, certain moments not only catch you off guard, they make you uneasy and tense. Aside from the these quick, disjointed cuts, the editing as a story-telling device is quite fascinating. The edit prolongs reveals and information in a way that drew me into the story more and more. Violence is used sparingly, but when it rears its ugly face, it counts. Add in the subtle and haunting score that adds a lethal dose of suspense, you have one wicked ride.
On the horror front, The Nameless' report card is stacked. However, it's the care for the characters in the script that elevates it to something greater. This is one dark film, and what prevents it from being gratuitous is the narrative itself. The mystery pulls you in, and while doing so, the characters are nicely molded into ones you care about, especially Claudia. What impressed me was how many key supporting characters get introduced throughout the film, sometimes rather late, and yet they felt complete and not out of place or shoe-horned in.
At times, I couldn't help but think of films like Se7en, The Exorcist, and The Exorcist III. Not due to the supernatural qualities (there is no form of exorcism), rather in the building of characters in such an ugly setting. While I've had some decent luck with new watches this month, The Nameless is the first title to truly standout.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the first film to knock me out is foreign. Take that, American horror. Once again, here's more proof you really need to step up your game.
SOUTHBOUND (2015) - First Time Viewing
Admittedly, I've always been a fan of anthology flicks. Chances are, this is probably the result of growing up with a heavy dosage of Tales From The Crypt (1972) and Creepshow. I also think it comes down to my attraction to short stories and the impact they can have in a matter of a few minutes and/or pages, when done properly, of course. In recent years, anthologies have become prevalent in our beloved genre, and while that pleases me, many of them have been quite underwhelming. As a result, I've been putting off Southbound for quite some time, but I figured if there's ever a time to give it a watch, it's now.
I fucked up, friends. I should not have waited this long!
Southbound takes the idea of an anthology and handles it differently than we've seen lately. Instead of having separate stories connected by way of a wrap-around narrative, here we have five stories that blend together, interlocking in a fairly linear fashion (a la Trick 'r Treat and The Signal). When one story ends, it transitions to the next quite seamlessly. One could make the argument that the wrap-around takes place through the radio, as Larry Fessenden voices a late-night DJ, with as much charm, charisma, and entertainment as Wolfman Jack. For the record, I absolutely loved all of Fessenden's airwave dialogue.
I knew very little about the stories told in Southbound, all for the better. With damn near no knowledge of what was going to unfold, I was immediately captivated. The film does a fantastic job of just throwing you, the viewer, in the midst of the scenarios. As a result, there's a certain off-kilter quality that is amped up by the schizophrenic, nightmare-like personality the film as a whole possesses. Every segment has a familiar, albeit foreign condition, leaving me feeling uneasy and uncertain in the best way possible. The surreality Southbound encompasses might just be what sold it for me. The setting (primarily an unknown desert interstate and its surroundings) is ruthless, forbidding, and alarming, not to mention unworldly. A characteristic I was not expecting, and had no idea just how much I wanted until it was thrust upon me.
Par for the course with anthologies, one of the segments, "Jail Break," fell slightly flat in comparison to the other four. Not to say it was utter shit, it wasn't. I dug multiple things about it. As a whole, though, it was the least satisfying. There is also some pretty shotty CGI in two of the segments. Sadly, one of those is the opening part. I was turned off quite quickly, but thankfully, things were able to pull me back in. That would easily be my biggest gripe, the CGI. It's a shame, as the vast majority of the other elements are so strong. Almost laughable CGI has to screw things up a bit.
The film sets up more questions than it provides answers. which I was more than okay with. It would not surprise me if this would be troublesome to others. We really don't know much about the events going on, there isn't always an explanation, but I didn't care at all. I would rather walk away left wondering than having everything spoon-fed to me, a problem that happens far too often. Combine this with fresh, intriguing narratives that are uncomfortable and unnerving, Southbound succeeds in just about every way the V/H/S films missed. If/When I hear others say they didn't like Southbound, I'll get it. Not saying this is perfect filmmaking and storytelling, it's just something that registered with me in so many ways.
Amazed how much I dug this. Bound to be my sleeper favorite of the month, I feel confident saying it now. Or, should I say, (South)bound to be my sleeper favorite... HAHAHAHAHA I'm sorry. I'll stop now.
SAUNA (2008) - First Time Viewing
Two great viewings in a row! Can I continue the streak or will it come crashing to a halt?
A few days ago, my buddy in Brussels Gert Verbeeck posted a film poster on the good ole Facebooks that caught my eye immediately. Check it out for yourself (located to the left). Talk about one gorgeous poster, there was no way Sauna would not go on my radar. While scrolling through one of the digital platforms (Shudder), I realized said film was available! Well, guess I know how my Friday night was going to go.
Set in 1595 and in the wake of a massive war between Russia and Sweden, a group of individuals, including brothers Eerik and Knut, set out to physically define the new border post-war. However, the guilt and experience of poorly treating a young woman on their trek won't let them be.
Going in completely blind to films can be fantastic, other times it can be far from it. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of period-pieces set in this time (something I can't entirely explain why), so I cannot lie and say I didn't have some apprehension once the opening title cards appeared. However, Sauna is ridiculously successful on many levels, any and all concerns were continually squashed.
Since most of the film follows the group on foot, treading through the bleak and barren Russian wilderness (which is amazingly beautiful, by the way), selling the period was successfully handled by wardrobes, props, and the occasional village. The cinematography is stunning, I could not get enough of the visual aesthetic of the frame. The film looks exactly like the poster does, and I could not have been happier. The performances are strong across the board, while Ville Virtanen (Eerik) excels. Speaking of, the character arcs of the brothers were so satisfying, I'd even go as far to say I didn't see them coming.
Without getting into the horror aspect of the film (don't want to spoil the goods), Sauna possesses cerebral, heady terror reminiscent of films from the 1970s. There's a lot to mentally-chew on, especially once the third act comes to an end. It's always a good sign when a film ends, I process it for a few moments, then immediately want to start talking about it, hearing other people's perceptions. Sadly, I was alone on my couch, so no such conversations were had. But, that's what the interwebs are for! I spent the next 30 minutes scrolling through the IMDb forums, reading the thoughts of others (which can be more frightening than any film).
Sauna is deliberate (read: a slow-burn), never lost me due to a well-crafted script, closes with a rich payoff, chock full of excellent visuals, and leaves much to ponder over. In other words, three-in-a-row for me! And two-for-two with foreign films thus far.
Not too bad of a start. All first time views and three solid entires with others that were enjoyable. I'll take it! Now, here's to hoping week two shapes up in a similar fashion. Stay tuned!
Total Films Watched: 8 (of 31)
First Time Viewings: 8
Jump to week two now!