From August 2015

Fear the Walking Dead – Season 1, Episode 2: “So Close, Yet So Far”

AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead
Season 1, Episode
2: “So Close, Yet So Far”
Directed by Adam Davidson (Hell on Wheels, The Following, Low Winter Sun)
Written by Marco Ramirez (Sons of Anarchy, Orange is the New Black, Da Vinci’s Demons, Daredevil)

* For a review of the next episode, “The Dog” – click here
* For a review of the Pilot episode – click here
IMG_1827This second episode begins directly after the Pilot. Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), along with her son Nick (Frank Dillane), are speeding away in the truck after seeing the beginning of an epidemic; what we know is the zombie apocalypse.
Worst part is, Alicia Clark (Alycia Debnam-Carey) went to check on her boyfriend Matt (Maestro Harrell) who stood her up previously. He’s sick, running a massive fever, so something is certainly not right.
When Travis checks on him, Matt seems to have a bite in his shoulder. Though when they saw Calvin (Keith Powers) turn into a zombie in the finale of the Pilot he’d been shot, there’s still something suspicious about it. Alicia doesn’t want to leave Matt, but he begs her to leave because he loves her.
IMG_1828I knew it would happen – in this episode, we’re beginning to see everything go to hell, as well as the fact Nick is going to go through severe withdrawals. No more heroin. He’s on the couch sweating, rolling around, he’s hot then freezing cold. Worst time ever for it to happen, however, he’s lucky enough to have a tough mother like Madison by his side.
IMG_1831Here we’re also seeing lots of him and his sister Alicia together. She is clearly resentful of her junkie brother, whose addiction has obviously affected the whole family and her in particular. I can see how him being an addict, as well as having a completely understanding mother such as Madison, would take most of the attention up. Not saying Alicia is selfish, not whatsoever, but she’s felt the effects of the strained family dynamic due to Nick’s seemingly constant battle with addiction. There’ll be more of this to come up, as the zombie apocalypse takes hold more and more. I’m interested to see how the whole mixed family situations between Madison and Travis will work as things get tense with the zombies rising up.
IMG_1830At the same time, Travis’ own son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) is out in the middle of the streets where things seem to be already rapidly breaking down into chaos; police officers are in the streets, paramedics everywhere. Someone was taken down by police in a ton of bullets. True to the modern day we live in, people were of course down there protesting about what happened. Chris moves in with his video camera and a bit of trouble starts, as the crowd supports him and the police officer at the crime scene tells him to shut off the camera.
Travis heads out to find him. Bad idea? Sure, but you don’t realistically think a man would leave his son out there in the midst of everything, who knows where, if he knew some epidemic was on the verge of happening, do you? Not at all. So off Travis goes.
Madison heads out on an expedition of her own to the school to try and find some drugs in order to keep Nick from going cold turkey. There, in an otherwise deserted building, she meets Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos) who is looking for the items Madison confiscated in the last episode. He’s stocking up on food and other things, understanding what’s coming, while Madison is a little more apprehensive to give in and accept an apocalypse is about to rain down on them.
IMG_1832We get the first real personal zombie attack in this episode, in the sense that Madison watches her colleague at the school Art Costa (Scott Lawrence) attack her and Tobias. They both end up keeping him off and Madison has to bash ole Artie’s brains in to keep him from coming. Vicious and we’re also seeing how this is truly the beginning: can’t easily bash a person’s head open when they’ve only recently turned into a zombie. That’s part of why I’m interested in Fear the Walking Dead, we’re getting to see all these situations from the beginning; things we already know like how easy or not it is to kill zombies change. Fun!

One thing I’m sure many noticed but I need to mention before moving on.
Travis notices a police officer at a gas station stocking up on cases of water, loading them into the back of his cruiser. This is a highly intense moment because, as I see it, Travis realizes there’s something officially wrong. Not only that, it seems perhaps the police (and no doubt other higher-ups on the social chain) are being made aware of how serious the situation actually is, as most of the people on the streets of Los Angeles and in their homes have no idea exactly what is commencing. I think the look in Travis’ eyes says it all: pure fear. He understands there’s a terrible epidemic about to rock their city, possibly more than just L.A, and constantly throughout the episode we can see this over and over, that look on his face as he watches things fall apart around him.
IMG_1829That’s the scariest part of the zombie apocalypse scenario for me, that the government and law enforcement would take care of themselves first, then whoever else they could spare the room for afterwards. Even further, I’m terrified they would specifically quarantine and blast zones out to rid it of the infection, or that they’d systematically murder citizens in order to wipe it out hopefully. Part of that is what drives the tension in this scene.

Travis meets up with his ex-wife Liza Ortis (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who is less than thrilled to see him. But he warns her of what may be on the rise. When they go to the protest where their son Chris is filming, Liza sees the man who was shot by the police, then witnesses men in Hazmat suits exiting a vehicle; promptly this makes her revise any ideas about going against her husband. From there, anarchy starts to break out like wildfire amongst the crowds, as another zombie shows up behind the police and a SWAT Team marches in on the people. Travis and his family manage to hole up in a barber shop with Daniel Salazar (Rubén Blades), his wife Griselda (Patricia Reyes Spíndola), and their daughter Ofelia (Mercedes Mason). This is a bit of a tenuous situation, though, the Salazars seem to be good people.
Outside of the barber shop fires and riots have erupted in full force already. As Tobias says to Madison at one point, when the end of civilization comes it comes quick. That’s exactly what’s begun to happen in “So Close, Yet So Far”.
IMG_1833 IMG_1834The finale of the episode starts showing us how the virus is spreading. Already, out in the Clark neighbourhood, zombies are wandering and beginning to attack. As one of the neighbours is attacked by another neighbour, Alicia tries to go intervene but her mother stops her. It seems Madison is starting to heed the warnings of young Tobias, who as kids are these days is prepared for a possible apocalypse, or at least wants to be prepared and is willing to accept things might be collapsing.
What’s most telling here is the way Madison shuts the door and she sort of leans back against it, a close-up lingering on her face as she doesn’t want to have to stop her daughter from helping another person – however, this is the new world they’ll be living in. She accepts it partly and by closing the door she’s ushering in a new law of acceptance in her own home, in her mind and heart, that civilization is collapsing and doing so like they’re skiing down a collective slope into oblivion, picking up speed.
IMG_1835 IMG_1836 IMG_1837I’m happy with how the show is starting. Naturally we’re not directly in the midst of everything, it’s the actual start. So things in this episode have actually begun to devolve. Anticipating the third to have a bit of intense violence and zombie madness. There’s a slow burn aspect to these first two episodes that I’m enjoying. Surely there are people who’ve had their share of problems. Me, I don’t see anything to complain about.
Another part of what I like is that it’s not completely copying The Walking Dead. Even the aesthetic is proving different. One thing I noticed watching “So Close, Yet So Far” is the music. LOVING the score! It has a similar edge at times, yet totally different. An interesting electronic vibe going on throughout this episode. Paul Haslinger has been doing the music for this season of Fear the Walking Dead, he’s also scoring the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire. Other films he’s done I’m not overly keen on, so I’m glad to be hearing some work of his that’s pretty awesome so far. Great score helps a horror film/show in an enormous way.
IMG_1838 IMG_1839Dig this episode a good deal. Looking forward to the next one titled “The Dog” which is again directed by Adam Davidson. I’m enjoying that he’s directed the initial three episodes of this show because it offers a bit of continuity. Would’ve obviously been better to have one person direct the whole six episode season, however, it’s still awesome to have him start the season off with three solid episodes. Sets things up nicely moving along.
Stay tuned for next week, Deadites!

Red Dragon Tells Harris with Little Flavour

Red Dragon. 2002. Directed by Brett Ratner. Screenplay by Ted Tally; based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris.
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald, Ken Leung, Frankie Faison, and Tyler Patrick Jones.
Universal Pictures.
Rated R. 124 minutes.
Crime/Thriller

★★★1/2
0d6a134caa608fef2f1b56c4cebfa44e I’m a big fan of Thomas Harris and his Hannibal Lecter-centric novels. Everything about them appeals to me, though, I’m not particularly fond of Hannibal Rising. My favourite, an unpopular view, is actually Hannibal – I think it’s an intensely savage, relentless piece of work with a wild twist at the end. But close by equally are Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. The Jonathan Demme version of the former is one of the best movies ever made.
In opposition, I’ve got to say that I prefer Michael Mann’s Manhunter over this version. Regardless of how well this sticks to the story in comparison, I still love the way Mann treated that adaptation; incredibly different and cool.
Part of why I’m not huge on Red Dragon, even though it’s a good movie, is because I don’t really find Brett Ratner all that interesting as a director. I can honestly say this is the only movie he’s directed I genuinely enjoy. Everything else he’s done is so ridiculously generic. There’s nothing I find appealing about his work. I think the only reason he succeeded in making me enjoy his work here is because Thomas Harris provided the backdrop. Plus, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Kietel, Emily Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a returning Anthony Heald and Frankie Faison – could it really have gone terribly wrong?
While I do like this movie, I don’t think there’s anything overtly incredible other than the performances. Ratner is a mediocre director at best, in my mind; plenty of people love him, I have no doubt. He is a successful man. Just not my cup of tea. Overall, the lack of a really palpable style is the only thing I find truly lacking about Red Dragon. The reason I loved Manhunter so much was because, aside from the excellent William Petersen and Tom Noonan performances, Mann injected the story with so much of his style that it came off so interesting and beautiful to watch. With this version, Ratner merely shows it to us. It looks good enough, but I don’t feel as much of the story as I do while reading Harris, or when I watch other incarnations of Hannibal Lecter on television and film.
35a1b1092ef44b60aa2d748f56f6fccbI’ve always thought the opening scene to Red Dragon showing Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins) watching the orchestra was an impressive way to show why he kills. Part of him hates rudeness, another part of him also love the finer things of life – anyone who gets in the way of that is subject to being on his plate, as well as the plates of his dinner guests. With this sequence, we’re introduced to a piece of Lecter then also Will Graham (Edward Norton) shows up.
So it works in two ways, by both introducing Hannibal – though we’ve already seen him plenty on film – and simultaneously introducing his relationship with Graham. It’s an effective opener which draws us in immediately. Even more than that, the script starting from the beginning sets itself apart from Michael Mann’s Manhunter; I don’t know if you’d call this a remake, or more so simply another adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. It’s an exciting, intense, and very wide opening in scope.

Being a fan of Edward Norton, he’s honestly one of the weakest links in this film. I think he has the potential to be a great actor, but some times he just looks to be phoning things in. There are moments in Red Dragon when he does excellent stuff. Other times he might as well be toeing a hole in the sand with his shoe. The character of Will Graham is complex. I think William Petersen brought something to the role in his own way, certainly Hugh Dancy has done a fantastic job with the 39 episodes of the NBC series, but Norton sort of feels generic here in the role. He’s not bad, I don’t mean to say that. There’s definitely a likability about Norton’s Graham, what I feel like I’m missing is the tortured side, the apprehensive man who doesn’t want to have to go back into what Jack Crawford (here played by Harvey Keitel) is asking him to do; something which nearly killed him before with Lecter. In Norton’s performance there doesn’t seem to be as much of that wary Graham, the one whose mental capacities allow him to feel and understand things no one ought to ever feel or comprehend.
35zXKpI do always enjoy Sir Anthony Hopkins, particularly as Hannibal the Cannibal. He has a highly quirky charm and chill at once. Some say it’s overacting, I say it’s an excellent fictional serial killer who has an odd affectation. It’s silly to me people will accept Hannibal and all his cannibalism, all the wild stuff he’s gotten up to over the course of his character-lifetime, yet then they’ve got a problem with how Hopkins is a bit hammy at times. Really? You’re going for that?
The only thing bad about Hopkins here is the fact I don’t really think he and Norton have much chemistry together onscreen. Their scenes are decent enough because Lecter is always creepy, but the back and forth between Hannibal and Will here is nowhere near as good as it was between Hannibal and Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs, and certainly doesn’t come close to touching the Hugh Dancy-Mads Mikkelsen energy in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series. It just doesn’t work as well as any of that, so it comes nowhere near some of what Harris did either. I think, again, this mostly has to do with Norton. He’s a fine actor, just not in this movie. There’s nothing impressive to me about his performance here, as say opposed to American History X or his debut performance opposite Richard Gere in Primal Fear.
reddragon3Ralph Fiennes is the actor who shines most of all in this good yet slightly dull version of Red Dragon. Francis Dolarhyde has always been a morbidly fascinating character, to me and to many out there. Even if Red Dragon is not my top favourite of Harris’ novels – though still amazing – there’s something about Dolarhyde in particular, even above Buffalo Bill, which terrifies me. Fiennes is one talented man beyond a shadow of a doubt. Here he brings a ferocious intensity to the role.
While it’s easy nowadays to forget this great performance due to Richard Armitage’s fabulously involving turn as Francis Dolarhyde on NBC’s Hannibal, Fiennes still knocks this role out of the park and into the lot. There’s a difference between Fiennes and the other incarnations, just as they’re unique in their own ways. What I like about Fiennes is that I find him highly unpredictable. He’s the type of actor who doesn’t telegraph his emotionality, he sort of springs into action so suddenly, which really comes through here. Truly, every single frame of the film in which you find Ralph Fiennes he is incredible. There’s a physical aspect to the character on several levels – he’s physically fit and actually a handsome guy, but inside he feels hideous, deformed, and like a monster. So what I enjoy is the fact that Fiennes is an attractive man, however, the makeup work for Dolarhyde’s hairlip gives him an unsettling feeling – not because of the scar, merely because of how Fiennes portrays Dolarhyde and the way he feels about his outer appearance. He’s at times equally sad and sympathetic, and also frighteningly savage.
Still, my favourite moment with Dolarhyde has to be his official introduction, a little over 40 minutes into the film. It’s such an unsettling view into his world, where we see him lifting weights and yelling at his dead grandmother whose voice scolds him – as a child and still as a grown man. Even creepier is the way he opens his big scrapbook, full of articles about Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham – it’s when he sort of strokes Lecter’s picture, specifically his smiling mouth, that you get this awful feeling in your gut. What an effective first look at Francis Dolarhyde here. Impressive sequence from Ratner, I must say.
reddragon4While I don’t find the movie to be poorly written, by any standards, for some reason I do not get the same feeling about Ted Tally’s script here as I did with his work on The Silence of the Lambs. Not sure exactly what it is about this screenplay, there’s not the same impact as his previous adaptation of Harris’ work. I do like plenty of scenes, but there’s less tension and suspense than in the Jonathan Demme directed film. Now, I’ve never actually read the script itself, so maybe there’s bits and pieces of Tally and his writing which didn’t make it through to what Ratner did onscreen. I’ll not know until I read the screenplay someday. But still, there’s an overall lack of the tensely cultivated atmosphere from Demme’s 1991 Harris adaptation, and I think there must be part of the problem there lying in the screenwriting. Then again, I’m not particularly big on Tally overall, as nothing else he’s done particularly impresses me other than The Silence of the Lambs.
2 vlcsnap-2010-09-04-08h34m49s254In the end, I can only give Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon 3.5 out of 5 stars. I know some will surely call me crazy. It’s not as simple for me to say this is an amazing movie. It’s just
 not. Better than average? Sure. There are great performances, from Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Watson both of whom I forgot to mention – she does a fantastic job playing the role of Reba McClane, the blind woman who falls in love with Dolarhyde. Even further, the story itself is good enough to carry this even if the actors weren’t so great.
But the lack of style, a few little mistakes here and there, as well as a bit of a yawning performance from Edward Norton, all makes it hard for me to even feign agreement when people say this is SO AMAZING. I remember seeing this in theatre – I was so pumped, beyond excitement. It didn’t live up to the hype then, it still doesn’t now. I do own this on DVD, because I’m a completist; even own Hannibal Rising which isn’t the greatest either. I just really can’t get onboard with people saying this is incredible or that it’s better than Manhunter. Nah, not for me.
Still a decent adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon is a good movie. Don’t think it’s better than it is, there are plenty of flaws and not enough style to Ratner’s direction to forgive them. See it and be your own judge, but do not get sucked into the hype. There are better visions of Will Graham, Hannibal Lecter, Jack Crawford, and Francis Dolarhyde elsewhere.

The Cell Examines a Rotting Mind

The Cell. 2000. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Screenplay by Mark Protosevich.
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Colton James, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Gerry Becker, Musetta Vander, Patrick Bauchau, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jake Weber, Dean Norris, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Peter Sarsgaard, Catherine Sutherland, and Vince Vaughn. New Line Cinema.
Rated R. 107 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★★1/2
The_Cell-190951656-largeTarsem Singh doesn’t always hit the nail on the head – apparently his latest Self/less is a bit derivative and uninspired if I’m to believe some of the criticism – either way, I feel he has an incredibly distinct vision when it comes to the way he makes films. I remember seeing this the year it came out and ever since I’ve been highly enamoured with Singh’s visual style. His work is all slick looking; not in the big budget Hollywood sense, but in a way that’s often highly reminiscent of painted art.
The way in which Singh visualizes the script for The Cell plays perfectly into the story. If Singh had gone a different route, or another director entirely did this film, the emotions and the sensory experience, all the wonder of the script would not come across as perfectly as it does. Aided by the incredibly moving and disturbing performance from Vincent D’Onofrio, as well as probably the most solid work Jennifer Lopez has ever done in my opinion, The Cell has an air of science fiction, but most importantly becomes a dramatic and tense story about a terrifying serial killer, and a brief look at the minds of the people who catch them.
The-Cell-091Using a new technology allowing her to literally enter the mind of a patient, psychotherapist Catharine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) first explores the brain of a young boy in a coma named Edward (Colton James). Though not many believe in her methods aside from Dr. Miriam Kent (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and Henry West (Dylan Baker) who work alongside her at the hospital, Catherine pursues this innovative technology in order to help actually fix the mental illnesses some people suffer under.
When a serial killer named Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) goes into a coma from a sort of epileptic episode and still has a woman in an unknown location, slowly drowning, Catherine is called in to enter his mind and try to figure out where the latest victim is being held.
Once inside the dangerous mind of Stargher, it becomes more dangerous in real life for Catherine. Her own mind becomes susceptible to the influence of the dark world Stargher inhabits within his dream world. In the end, it’s up to FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) to enter Stargher’s world so he might try and save Catherine; moreover, hopefully the last drowning victim Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff).

Want some milk?
The-Cell-073A huge part of why I love Singh’s work has to do with his films and their overall aesthetic. As is with a lot of very visual movies, editing is always an important aspect.
The edit here at the ‘milk moment’ is perfect starting with Catherine about to feed her cat. Next shot cuts to a dead woman’s open-eyed face emerging out of a pool of milky white liquid; this is in fact, what we later learn to be, bleach. Very creepy and effective.
Right afterwards, more of Singh’s visual identity as an auteur director comes through, as Catherine falls asleep after smoking a joint, and as the camera slowly pans to the sheets on her bed they merge with the sandy dunes of the desert which she’d seen earlier in Edward’s mind. Excellent shot, again with some wonderful editing.
These moments, they are only the start to the visual feast which Singh serves us.
The-Cell-486The-Cell-104It’s the plot of Carl Stargher which truly horrifies me in The Cell. The writing for his character is pretty great, I must say. I’m not a fan of much else Mark Protosevich has written personally (one of the only Marvel films I do like coincidentally was written by him – Thor). However, his script for this movie impressed me. I like how there’s a sci-fi element to it with the technology Catherine Deane uses. At the same time, Stargher provides a disturbing and intriguing look at a real life type killer.
What’s interesting, though, is how we get the look at Stargher in reality then we’re quickly swept off into his mind – a dream world. This is the most disturbing when it comes to The Cell‘s killer – even after we’ve seen him suspend himself from rings hooked into the skin all down his back and legs then masturbate over a dead woman. The dream world Stargher inhabits is something out of horror and fantasy; perhaps you could almost classify this film as part dark fantasy, as well as a thriller. Not only is the imagery of the world inside Stargher’s head itself scary, but when we see Carl as the king of this world he is an awful, mortifying creature that you couldn’t even come up with in your worst of nightmares.
Vincent D’Onofrio is a wonderful actor and here he gives a truly wild performance. Those moments inside his head, when Catherine (Lopez) is looking for him and following the younger Carl (Jake Thomas), are so perfect and effective. D’Onofrio keeps the essence of the real life killer in Stargher and also imbues the character with an essence of monstrosity; even in his insane makeup and speaking strangely, D’Onofrio makes this literal monster still feel real. I think a lot of people jump to Full Metal Jacket – and rightfully so – when they say it’s his best work, but honestly, for me this is his crowning achievement as an actor. Plenty of actors have played serial killers over the course of their career; it’s Vincent D’Onofrio who does something completely different and changes the role from a familiar character into an altogether new beast.
fhd002TCL_Vincent_D_Onofrio_012 660c9f696b494bdfc0edc9766928d8d5It’s strange how cinematographer Paul Laufer does such an amazing job here, and yet everything else he’s done is a couple TV movies and music video stuff for Rihanna and Katy Perry. I mean, what? So strange because this movie is viciously dark and horrifying, yet nothing else he’s done as a cinematographer has been anything like that. Although, Laufer did work as an assist camera on 1988’s Lady in White and also as an addition photographer in the second unit for cult classic Miracle Mile.
Regardless of his previous experience, or anything after, the camerawork he does on The Cell is just downright gorgeous. There are definitely moments people will chalk up as MTV style music video moments, but it’s not the fast editing style or anything similar to the fast pace of Tony Scott films (ironically one of the editors who worked on this also edited Scott’s final movie Unstoppable. Laufer uses these highly stylized techniques in order to make it visually evident how strange and dreamy a world we’re inhabiting while in the mind of Carl Stargher. The way the scenes look match perfectly the atmosphere and tone the script goes for, which is why I say this movie has such an incredible, undeniable aesthetic. It brings together so much talent on all ends, from the performances of the actors to all the technical angles involved in the film.
That brings me to the score, which is – to my surprise – from Howard Shore. Lately I’ve written reviews for other films including the masterful compositions of Shore, now I come across this one; a movie I know well, apparently just not well enough. I think when it comes to music that has a lot of horns involved, Shore is one of the greatest in the movie industry. He does such impressive work with the foreboding sounds trumpets, tubas, trombones (and so on) can produce, which I recently discussed in both The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en; each having their own unique and dark qualities. Furthermore, in The Cell there is plenty of equally amazing string work and percussion. I find especially his score rocks me in those first scenes after Catherine has entered the mind of Stargher: as she walks down the trophy cased room of victims and the bodybuilder grabs Catherine, presenting her for Stargher’s dream world alter ego, the score just ramps the tension up until we’re hit with a ton of bricks. That moment could’ve easily played well almost on its own. However, Shore adds the extra oompf a proper film score ought to. There are plenty instances of his music and its effectiveness throughout, which each bring more of that tension and it drives the thriller elements of the plot.
fhd002TCL_Vincent_D_Onofrio_011 eiko fhd002TCL_Vincent_D_Onofrio_014This is yet another film that strays into horror, dipping its toes at the appropriate times, yet does not fully become a horror movie. And as a horror fan, I find that great when genres can cross together and mix as one. I like when a thriller can incorporate horror while not fully becoming a scary film; if it’s done right.
The Cell absolutely uses horror, some times it is quite raw and ugly, but it’s mainly a thriller with dramatic and sci-fi elements. We get a lot here, a nice bang for your buck, because there’s something for everybody. Even while it can be terrifying at times, it’s so rooted in reality – even with the innovative technology used in the plot – that the drama of the story draws an audience in, the performances stay buoyed around human situations, and we’re able to feel all the appropriate emotions without getting lost in too many aspects of horror.
With all that being said, the horror is still my favourite part. It’s a scary story and at the same time exciting, as well as dramatic. But the disturbing elements concerning Carl Stargher make things all the more interesting for me. Examining his mind/head LITERALLY is something that hadn’t been explored really at the time of The Cell‘s release. They took a cool and familiar idea from science fiction and then crafted a highly intense serial killer drama-thriller out of it.
dd093c8396ebAll in all, Tarsem Singh does spectacular work with The Cell. It isn’t perfect, however, I’d argue that it’s close to being so. Maybe there are little things Singh could have tweaked, who knows. Some people say they’ve got a problem with both Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn. Me, I think they’re both pretty decent here, certainly Vaughn who rarely gets to show off his serious side; his character felt very real and I thought his backstory came out just enough, briefly, in order to give us a sense of how intensely he feels about his job. Lopez does a good job and I don’t think you can fault her for anything here, she’s not a particularly awesome actress overall but here her character goes over well.
I’m giving this movie a 4.5 star rating. There’s a disturbing script which keeps you incredibly involved with its drama and psychological horror, while it also contains overt elements of horror – a serial killer with a nasty penchant for drowning women and turning them into bleached dolls – and a dose of science fiction. Add to that Singh and his visual flair, which I’m always pleased to watch (this and Immortals both blew my mind; The Fall is pretty neat, too). Then there’s the costume and set design and makeup effects which each cement this is an excellent bit of technical work. Together all the elements of the film work so well in unison, they create a lingering aesthetic that I’m never fully able to get out of my mind.
I’ll never forget this movie because it is so beautiful looking and simultaneously so unsettling, plus Vincent D’Onofrio brings out one of the most nuanced and terrifying visions of a fictional serial killer I’ve ever witnessed.
Haven’t seen it? Don’t let J-Lo turn you away. She is as good as she needs to be for this film. Come for the bits of horror, the interesting premise, and a script/plot that’s bound to stick to you a little after you’ve finished watching.
Enjoy. Or be disturbed. Not sure which I’m supposed to say to normal people.

Straight Outta Compton is N.W.A History-Lite

Straight Outta Compton. 2015. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Screenplay by Andrea Berloff & Jonathan Herman; story by Andrew Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, & Alan Wenkus.
Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, Marlon Yates Jr., R. Marcos Taylor, Carra Patterson, Alexandrea Shipp, Paul Giamatti, Elena Goode, Keith Powers, Sheldon A. Smith, and Keith Stanfield. New Line Cinema.
Rated 18A. 147 minutes.
Biography/Drama/Music

★★1/2
Straight-Outta-Compton-final-posterTo start, I have to tell people – this is a long one. More than normal. That’s because I credit N.W.A – the most infamous rap group of all time, Niggaz Wit Attitudes – with having enough power, despite their own personal flaws, to open a white boy from Newfoundland, Canada’s eyes to the black experience of young men and women in inner city neighbourhoods, such as the titular Compton. So just stick with me: this review is a beast, but I have things to say, that need to be said concerning Straight Outta Compton.
There’s something truly unique about N.W.A and all the social aspects which surrounded the group’s beginnings, fame, and downfall. Now, while I don’t particularly condone everything these guys did – particularly I’m reminded of the all too absent Dee Barnes assault and other Dre assaults on women from the film – I do recognize how important this one group was in terms of rap and hip hop, as well as where the whole game ended up going after their arrival.
It’s funny how these guys from Compton, so immersed in the black experience, can speak to people of all colours, ages, creeds. Their revolution was one which spoke to many, but certainly most to the young black youth of America. Even white kids like me who grew up in the 1990s were interested in what these guys were doing. It’s because N.W.A, for all their faults, stood against the establishment, they were in the thick of the gang wars in Los Angeles, raging through Compton just about every day, and they spoke to their audience through anger, unrest, and they didn’t take any mess. They took plenty of constructive criticism, even more hatred and spewing of vitriol from people who saw them as a plague in music and society. For all the trashing, there were plenty of people in the streets and the audiences behind N.W.A and all for which they stood.
While I have plenty of love for the musical talents of N.W.A, I don’t necessarily feel like everything they were about made it onto the screen. I do admire a bit of F. Gary Gray’s work as a director, however, I don’t think this is one of the best in the end. Sure, it’s a decent combover on the history of N.W.A, as well as its individual members, but ultimately I don’t see enough of their rawness and the reality of all their faults AND successes in this story that’s being told. I do like Straight Outta Compton, but I can’t say it’s an incredible biopic. The actors do a FABULOUS job with their performances, both physically embodying their real life characters and even the voices, it’s simply not enough to carry this into the realm of a classic biopic. The work was put in, the movie looks good, sounds good, feels good, but the truth was left out at many important intervals in this story and that cannot let Straight Outta Compton stand completely upright on its own.
LxDRTBeginning in 1987, Straight Outta Compton attempts to tell the tale of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Mc Ren, and DJ Yella (Arabian Prince seems to be left out completely unless I missed something) on their road towards becoming N.W.A – Niggaz Wit Attitudes – one of the biggest powerhouses in 20th century music, and one of the reasons rap/hip hop ended up becoming such a mainstay in society.
With their meagre beginnings, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is talked into investing some of his drug money into music by his DJ friend Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and aspiring rapper Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). From there, things take off: first Eazy gets on the mic and then the magic starts happening.
Once Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) becomes a part of the mix, the tensions rise, as he sets Eazy aside from the others slightly. As Dre and Eazy seem to be fine with most everything (MC Ren and Yella aren’t discussed too much in detail really), Ice Cube has problems with the way his finances are being treated, seeing as how he wrote many of the big hits for N.W.A starting out.
Straight Outta Compton documents the quick rise and the equally as quick fall from grace of N.W.A and the lives of each of its members.

An amazing scene comes around 40 minutes in, when N.W.A performs their first big show with producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) in attendance. He brings in a guy from a label who offers the guys a contract with them. The funniest of this is when they ask who he has on the label, to which he replies “The California Raisins“. There’s something so ironic and strange about this moment that I can’t help mention it. I think it goes to speak to how N.W.A was being sought after to be the next big thing; this label, only dealing with the Raisins so far, chomps at the bit to get them signed. I’m not sure if it was meant this way, however, I definitely feel like this was included for a reason. Maybe it’s the actual conversation, who knows, but I feel it speaks to part of the commercial craving a lot of producers were feeling as soon as they saw N.W.A, and similar groups/acts/et cetera. That’s an aspect to the story we can never forget – much as these were talented men trying hard to do their thing, they were also young and dumb and very naive, and part of that led to their exploitation on certain levels. To my mind, this California Raisins scene is part of that in a subtle sense.
straight-outta-comptonInarguably, a significant portion of Straight Outta Compton has to do with the police treatment of young black men in and around neighbourhoods like Compton. After Jerry Heller takes on N.W.A as a group and they’re recording, a scene comes which shows how prejudiced the Los Angeles police were especially in the late ’80s and early ’90s towards black people. As the group hangs outside the recording studio eating burgers and drinking their sodas, two cop cars pull up and start to harass them all. Even a black police officer is the first out, yet still they’re there to sweat these guys; a very telling moment.
What I find best about this scene is how Heller witnesses everything going down. He storms out and reprimands the officers, stating that they can’t simply harass people because they’re black. While we know this goes on, I think having Heller so worked up about the treatment N.W.A receives at the curb while merely standing around innocently and eating lunch speaks VOLUMES. He’s probably discovering, for the first time, this type of situation happens and the police – who are meant to protect and serve – are some of the most racist, prejudiced people on the streets. There are plenty of scenes in the film about this prejudice, I found this one to be one of the most important, as we see the white guy realize how devastating the lives of black people can be when confronted with these young black men being treated like garbage.
Later, we’re treated to a scene where N.W.A, along with Heller, watch a news report on the police brutality Rodney King suffered in 1991. This is an important moment because we can see how emotionally affected each member is, while the only white guy present, Heller, simply thinks they need to keep working; it’s not that he’s rude about it, he simply does not understand or feel the news in the same way as the group.

Even though I don’t feel as if the full truth about N.W.A comes out in Straight Outta Compton, there are absolutely a few scenes where we get a broader view of these guys than simply “Oh they’re revolutionary black musicians”. They certainly were, but they were and are still people; these are human beings.
One in particular I found brutally honest was in the hotel, as Dre opens his room’s door to a man looking for his girlfriend; a woman who is clearly in the room. From a door out of the room a little ways down, Eazy and the boys come out holding guns, chasing the guys off. So a lot of people might watch this and immaturely think “Those guys are badass”, this is not something cool. At all. I mean, sure that girl was cheating on her man, but then Dre and Eazy act like it’s stupid that this guy might come and threaten them? C’mon. This just goes to show how rough and hypocritical these guys could be at any given time. While they often fought the good fight, there were plenty of times they did some nasty downright horrible shit, whether together or individually. This hotel scene is one such instance.
Mlj93There’s also part of me believes, were Eazy-E still alive, this would’ve been a completely different film. First of all, we’re not given as much of Eazy as you might believe while watching. Even with the opening sequence centred around Eric “Eazy-E” Wright in his element, dealing drugs and surviving on the streets, there’s surprisingly little in regards to the actual character, the real life person he was and became. There’s such a glossed over history of N.W.A in Straight Outta Compton that it doesn’t really surprise me Gray’s film ignores largely much of Eazy and his own personal history.
It’s not only Eazy. Seems to me the script Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman came up with wanted to focus on the ideas producers Ice Cube and Dr. Dre felt the spotlight should be on. I get it – Dre and Cube both don’t want their misogyny on the big screen. So first off, there’s the fact they’ve omitted Dee Barnes (and others) significantly. Instead, we get the idea Dre has always only ever been a respectful man towards women – concerned with caring for his family and helping his mother. Maybe that’s partly true, but doesn’t change the fact he’s had a history of violence towards women.
On the other hand, we get little bits of Cube being violent to quell any worries there might be a bias. So we watch him smash up an office building when he’s not getting the money he is owed – y’know, instead of legal recourse. This doesn’t do anything but discredit Cube and the methods these guys used in order to solve their problems. I get it, I know a lot of guys like them who grew up rough and had trouble with the police sometimes for NO reason. That doesn’t change the fact some of the things Cube and the rest of N.W.A do are downright immature, childish, and violent. Still, while we get these little scenes there’s a lot we’re not shown, and for good reason.
People can come to terms with a bit of violent nature when it comes to Cube getting what he’s owed, they’d probably be WAY LESS willing to put aside Dre and his disrespect for women – certainly more so now than back in the ’80s or ’90s, post-Chris Brown and an overall societal awakening to the rampant abuse women face.

We get good looks at Suge Knight, but again, he’s another character who we don’t get to see the full truth about. Yes, there’s plenty of evidence here suggesting Knight’s rough, more violent approach to business with Death Row Records. What we don’t get is a broad spectrum to show how dangerous the man is, merely there are typical scenes we’d expect – there’s no range in Suge, at all. Not saying he’s a complicated man; here, though, he is downright one-dimensional. He’s like the big villain, the bad guy. And he is villainous in real life. To me, the problem is this feels like the CliffNotes version of the Suge Knight subplot in the overall greater story of N.W.A. There’s no real introduction to Suge as much as the other major players in the story; he simply shows up in the life of Dre and becomes a presence.
Meanwhile, the other big baddie is Jerry Heller. He gets more play and we see more about him as a person, as a character, instead of merely being a negative entity in the world of N.W.A in the sense Suge is displayed. He’s not particularly likeable all the time, though, he’s afforded more characterization as that villainous entity than Suge Knight, which I think is unfair; Suge doesn’t deserve much, however, they might as well give him more time seeing as how he played such a destructive force in Dre’s career and the final dismantling of N.W.A.
straight-outta-compton-movie-3Above all, the film opts to go more for all the interpersonal drama between Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, as well as Eazy-E and the others, instead of taking more time to focus on the individual lives of each member. We get small slivers, it seems like most of that is relegated to the respective N.W.A members with their wives – we don’t ever see much of the stepping out, the cheating, we don’t watch Eazy-E do much sleeping around (other than one brief reference as he tells Jerry he’s about to go have a bunch of sex).
So while there are great moments in this script – think the whole angle of including the Watts Riots after Rodney King’s assaulters, the police, were not indicted for their crimes – I can’t say that Straight Outta Compton is solid. Not in any way. There’s never enough focus on the right aspects, there isn’t enough of the REALNESS, the RAW GRITTY story behind N.W.A.
Instead we’re treated to a bunch of half-assed looks at some of the people surrounding Dre, Cube, and the rest. For instance, Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) shows up in a couple scenes; mostly it’s an excuse to have someone imitate Snoop, well enough, but there’s nothing interesting here except hearing them come up “Gin and Juice”. Then Marcc Rose shows up playing Tupac Shakur, if only for a scene; plus they’ve got someone else voicing him. I mean, why even bother? It serves no purpose in the end here to include Snoop and Tupac, or anyone else, that’s not an integral part to the story. They’re simply little add-ons not given enough time to do anything but show up. I thought this was beyond lazy.

One thing I did not like is how the director felt the need to spoon feed us with the names of each character. Do you really think N.W.A fans can’t figure out which one is Eazy, Ren, Dre, Cube, Yella? I mean, sure, it gives the film a little style having their names pop up next to them, but to me it’s annoying. F. Gary Gray, did you have to put Dre’s name up while we’re watching him with the headphones on, listening to a beautiful song, almost conducting with his fingers as he listens? You think we couldn’t have figured that out on our own? Not to mention the fact each of the N.W.A cast members looks like who they’re playing. There’s no need at all to tell us “THIS IS DRE THIS IS EAZY” and so on. Overkill in my mind. Too heavy handed a technique for me, especially in a biopic; dumb move. It’s fine to put the dates up, things like that, I just can’t see any reason to label each character when it’s SO CLEAR who they are at all times.
maxresdefaultIn the end, I can only give this movie a 2.5 star rating. There’s no way I can go higher. Simply put, the fact Ice Cube and Dr. Dre produced this film, and from what I gather worked on it closely from many angles, really damaged the end product. Part of that ended up in a lot of things being omitted: no mention of Dee Barnes or Dre’s other violent encounters with women, Eazy-E’s battle with AIDS is reduced to an endnote in the final 20 minutes (most of which is precipitated by lots of coughing instead of a real focus on how promiscuous Wright was through his career), Suge Knight is a one-dimensional villain, and overall none of the individual stories surrounding N.W.A are treated with care or shown in great detail.
While I love N.W.A, their music and parts of their legacy, I feel they’re most definitely a conflicted group in terms of how fans and others look at them. F. Gary Gray had an unreal opportunity with Straight Outta Compton, but it’s mostly all squandered in lieu of trying to draw out the emotions of fans by focusing on the drama of the beef between Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and so on. Even further, MC Ren and DJ Yella (as well as Arabian Prince who was a part of the group for a short time) are almost non-existent, other than a few choice scenes where they’re heard speaking. So it’s a shame all around. There’s not enough to justify this as some great biopic.
In reality, Straight Outta Compton does not live up to the hype, in any way, shape, or form. I’d go so far as to say I’ll probably never watch this again. Not worth the price of admission whatsoever, certainly not for a true fan. I’m actually sad and letdown by this film’s failure to live up to what I’d expected. Silly me, though. As soon as I learned Dre and Cube produced this, I knew there would be trouble. When the story is told by those who lived it, especially if there are tough and at times disturbing nuances, we’re not always granted the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The Silence of the Lambs is the Pinnacle of Serial Killer Thrillers

The Silence of the Lambs. 1991. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Screenplay by Ted Tally; based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Harris.
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Anthony Heald, Frankie Faison, Brooke Smith, Ted Levine, Roger Corman, Charles Napier, Cynthia Ettinger, Tracey Walter, and Dan Butler. Orion Pictures. Rated R. 118 minutes. Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
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Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel The Silence of the Lambs is one perfect film. While I’ve come to love the NBC Bryan Fuller-led Hannibal series so much, there’s always a special nook in my heart for this one. Also, much as I do love Fuller’s series there were one or two issues I had over its 3 season run; not a lot, still a few though. With the Demme film, I honestly cannot say there’s one thing I would change. Some films, even ones I love, can bore me at a point and yet no matter how many times I’ve seen this I can never be bored. Not at all. The movie is only a couple minutes shy of two hours, though, it doesn’t feel it. There’s a swift pace about it.
So seeing as how Hannibal recently concluded with its shocking and poetic series finale, I thought I’d come back to The Silence of the Lambs in order to discover what it is about the movie overall I find so captivating.
Many people, including myself, have ended up taking a bit interest in Will Graham from the Thomas Harris Lecter universe. Long before the NBC series, I was a massive fan of Michael Mann’s Manhunter – adapted from Harris’ novel Red Dragon the first involving Hannibal the Cannibal. Of course, I didn’t come to see the Michael Mann film until I’d already seen this one. This is the gatekeeper to Hannibal Lecter. No matter how great I find Manhunter, no matter how incredibly visual and massively emotional Fuller’s series hit me in the heart, The Silence of the Lambs will always be known as a definitive vision. Even while I love Mads Mikkelsen and find him perfect, in the brief time Anthony Hopkins embodies Hannibal Lecter in the Demme film he leaves such an indelible mark on film history. Not only that, we forget Clarice Starling too often, and Jodie Foster brings her to life before our very eyes.
In the excitement of remakes and reboots – yes even Manhunter was essentially remade with Brett Ratner’s less than wonderful Red Dragon (which some seem to fawn over; I only enjoy Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson) – I think it’s easy to lose sight of the original. Especially like in this case with the NBC series, when it’s actually done well, executed with finesse and innovation. Regardless of what Fuller did with his version, and no matter what we may see down the road from him or anyone else, Jonathan Demme directed a fantastic vision of Hannibal Lecter with a ton of style, a solid script, and three impressive central performances.
silenceofthelambsbdcap1_originalOne aspect of this movie I always loved is the structure of the plot. We have LOTS going on, even for a two hour film there’s almost more than you can handle. Yet Demme navigates through the Ted Tally screenplay fairly efficiently.
There’s the framing narrative of the Buffalo Bill case, which is also what brings us into the whole subplot. Funny enough, while this has always been known as the Hannibal Lecter film, it’s more a Buffalo Bill film, as he’s technically the big villain. Even in the relationship between Clarice and Hannibal, we almost get a feeling of Lecter as anti-hero. But either way, as prominent as Hannibal is in a sense he’s really only a subplot in this movie; he’s a way to examine Starling. Exciting though he may be, he’s mostly – in the Thomas Harris novels Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs – a device, in order to examine the people who hunt killers like him. First, it was Will Graham, here it is Clarice.
f18d6082b20e47669178e2b74cb634daFor Clarice Starling, working in law enforcement has to be tough. No matter how much ground women cover, it feels as if police work will always be a man’s world. Silly as that may be.
Part of why I enjoy Clarice as much as I do is because we get to see how different it is for her as a woman, versus how it is for someone like Jack Crawford. For instance, when they’re looking at the latest body dragged out of a river, Clarice turns as she applies the smelling salts (or whatever that stuff is) under her nose; we see how, despite being a strong and independent woman, part of her Southern belle upbringing still exists. This also plays into her character, who she is: constantly running from the past, at least until Lecter. And again, this begets more plot and development of character.
Hannibal Lecter is a turning point for Clarice because she’s able to realize a part of herself through him. Via the quid pro quo with Dr. Lecter, Clarice ends up confronting some of the most major issues of her life. So there’s a deepness to that, which Bryan Fuller tapped into with the relationship between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham in the series. But it’s also present here, as a start to what evolves and becomes more intense in the novel Hannibal (some people hated the end of that one while I absolutely LOVE IT and thought it wonderfully fitting).
The Silence of the Lambs lotion in basketAs much as both Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster pull off fascinating performances, it will always be Ted Levine as Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb who steals the spotlight. Every damn time. Hopkins is out of this world, Foster works intensely off his energy, but Levine becomes someone else entirely. He steps out of his own skin and into that of Gumb; a disturbing step to take. Essential to the film, though, is this horrific, terrifying man who hides away in his home, stitching together women’s skin trying to make himself his own suit to aid in his becoming. I’ve always thought Levine has enormous energy. Here, as Gumb, it’s so clear how powerful an actor he is, as there’s a range of emotion about the character he portrays. Such an unsettling performance and it’s one of the top reasons, if not THE top reason, why The Silence of the Lambs lives on so unforgettably in the consciousness of film fans. Also, an aspect of the film which makes this so much like a horror without actually being a true horror movie.
sotl-04As I mentioned recently in another review (David Fincher’s Se7en), I love when a film can tread lightly on the line between horror and thriller. Demme’s film has all the earmarks of a horror, still it balances along the edge and stays on the side where it remains a disturbing and involving dramatic thriller.
Seeing those scenes with Buffalo Bill, particularly when he tucks the fruit basket back between his legs for the iconic “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me hard” moment, it’s downright horrifying. No doubt about it. These are the moments of pure psychological horror. Just as it’s so chilling when Gumb so plainly, almost nursery rhyme-like explains to his hostage Catherine: “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again
Juxtaposed with scenes of eerie psychological horror are the bits of nastiness. While they’re not plentiful by any means, the ones we’re treated to come graphic and shocking in the best sort of way. I think my favourite has to be when the other police officers discover Lecter’s guard strung up with his stomach gutted, hanging from the cell; even that entire sequence involving Lecter escaping, I thought it was horror-ish at times while still maintaining that exciting thriller adrenaline. Best of that part is when Demme tightens in on a shot of Lecter as he whacks away at one of the cops – Hopkins keeps such a stone face on it makes my spine tingle, the blood splashing up on him, it’s savage.
sotl-3Overall I love the aesthetic of the film. It doesn’t have any particularly high style, but it has this disarming feel about it like you’re expecting a typical police procedural. And while it does have a procedural feel at certain points, which it’s meant to following the work of Harris in his novels, there’s a much more interesting and exciting film behind it. So in a way, the simple and toned down style Jonathan Demme goes with here is a way for it to effectively scare and thrill the audience. You go in with that basic yet nice look, when the wild and terrifying bits jump out at you it’s even more of an adrenaline rush than it would normally have been.
However, it’s all in the way Demme directs that makes things work. While I say the style is simple, he employs great uses of close-ups, medium shots when it comes to Clarice and Hannibal, as well as tightened shots of Bill at work in his home. These draw us in to the characters, it takes us inside their world. We get so many perfect views of Lecter in particular, you can almost see the deviousness and intelligence at work right behind his eyes, there under his skin. I think Demme uses the close-up, as well as the medium shot to great effect throughout this whole film. This is one of its biggest strengths in terms of character.
b6d5365049204c2c686180aeec368206The Silence of the Lambs is one movie I feel to be absolutely perfect. There’s never a time I watch this and feel I’ve wasted a second, or that I’m bored, or that I want to turn it off and watch something else. From start to finish, Jonathan Demme’s film captivates me and holds me there for the ride. The performances are solid, however, it’s the Thomas Harris story adapted for the screen which makes it all worthwhile. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling are two forever iconic characters. And even though this is not strictly a horror movie, more a disturbing crime thriller with shades of scariness, Buffalo Bill as played marvellously by Ted Levine will go down in the history of film as one of the GREATEST horror villains ever.
I can’t say it enough – I love Fuller’s NBC series, but there’s always a huge place for this film in my love of movies. Hannibal Lecter came through to me first via this film and I will always remember it. A solid, perfect movie that stands the test of time. If you’ve not seen this, drop what you’re doing and pick up a copy. I’ve watched this dozens of times over the past 20 years, and I’ll continue to do so because I always know I’ll be satisfied watching this one, even if I’d only seen it a few days before. There’s a lingering presence about The Silence of the Lambs; an unforgettable masterpiece from the early ’90s.

Se7en: Religious Terror in a Crime-Thriller Box

Se7en. 1995. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker.
Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Cassini, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree, John C. McGinley, Richard Portnow, Mark Boone Junior, Leland Orser, Richard Schiff, Richmond Arquette, and Kevin Spacey. New Line Cinema.
Rated R. 127 minutes.
Drama/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★
seven-movie-poster-1995-1020196115While I’ve loved a lot of films out of the 4,100 plus I’ve seen so far, there is a special place at the top of the list for David Fincher’s Se7en.
I’m one of the many who finds interest in the criminal psychology of serial killers. Anything I can read or watch involving serial killers, I’m usually devouring. Morbid interest, however, it’s because I’m so flabbergasted by the actions of these types of people that I find myself so interested. If I had to come up with a big reason for why I love this movie so much, certainly that would be one. Then there’s the fact I think David Fincher is one of our modern geniuses. He’s got a slick style, but it’s not slick like in the way big Hollywood blockbusters are; it’s a dark and strange slickness. Even when the subject matter he’s tackling isn’t as morbid as Se7en, there is still a shadowy quality to his work I always find present. I love the way he captures both locations and actors, making everything look very rich in texture. This comes in handy with Se7en because he creates a dreary, nameless city in which to set the script by Andrew Kevin Walker.
Finally, the performances are incredible. There’s no doubt having Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, during the mid-1990s arguably in their prime or just getting to it, as a part of the primary cast helped this immensely. Having talented actors such as these two carry such a grim and violent story is part of what gives this savage yet beautiful film a commercial appeal on some level; while it’s horror, it resists the label by remaining a dramatic, dark thriller.
One of my favourite films, most definitely in the top ten, Se7en is arguably Fincher’s best, which is saying something. Not to say his work after this is bad or that it’s not any better, I just think that this film stands as the most perfect evidence showcasing his stylistic abilities, and inclinations, as well as how Fincher also has the ability to draw his audience into a familiar yet simultaneously mysterious, scary, at times uncomfortable reality.
131007051555631261In a nameless almost constantly rainy American city, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) wakes up for his first day at his new post; he and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) recently moved there for his transfer, living next to the train line. Mills meets his new partner, Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) who is set to retire in a week. Their relationship starting out is tenuous at best. Regardless, they catch a murder case which seems to suggest a serial killer may be at work. Not wanting to deal with it, and also worried Mills is not prepared for such a case starting out at his post in this new city, Somerset tries to have his Captain (R. Lee Ermey) give it to somebody else. However, no such luck.
But it’s when new murders present themselves, one of which Detective Mills ends up on, that more evidence leaning towards a serial killer comes to light.
Using the seven deadly sins of Christianity as his method, an unknown killer dispatches people one at a time in increasingly savage, ritualistic fashion. Wanting to retire yet unable to let go of such a heavy case, Somerset hangs in with Mills as they try to head off the killer before he can finish his ‘work’.
fambmaadhI think many film fans like to try and poke holes in Andrew Kevin Walker’s script. Ultimately, I don’t think you can do much in the way of coming up with plot holes. Reason I say this is because, with movies like Se7en we have to accept that while Fincher draws us into a very realistic sphere, there’s still a part of us which is required to understand the story takes place in a heightened universe. This is why the setting of the film is not defined as being one city or another; Fincher and Walker purposefully keep the city nameless. While you can say that it’s due to the fact they might have wanted to perpetuate a feeling of THIS COULD BE ANY CITY, THE DEPRAVED ARE EVERYWHERE, I think most importantly the namelessness of the city plays into the heightened universe of the film. Yes, this is supposed to be a real feeling story, you just have to accept not everything is going to be perfectly plausible down to every minute point. I don’t think there’s any big flubs in here either way, I’m just saying for those who like to pick apart a film there’s not much use here. Everything works so well.
seven-1995-01-gEven further, I think Walker does such an excellent job crafting the characters in Se7en that you almost forget about everything else. The plot, of course, is important, but there are times I find myself swept up in the relationship between Mills and Somerset and forgetting about the plot; merely going along with the motions. Naturally, I’ve seen the movie so many damn times I know every single solitary move of the story I don’t need to pay full attention to all details at all times. But still, I think the characters are wonderfully realistic. Moreover, the pairing of Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt is incredible. I’d never have thought of them together in a million years. Perhaps that’s why it works so well – their first scenes are so painful and awkward, in the right way, and it benefits from the fact you almost look at them and think “How did they put these two in this movie?”
And it’s AMAZING! They’re both so good here. While Freeman is even better than he usually is, I’ve got to give the top prize to Pitt. Honestly, especially when you consider the finale – which I will not ruin in case people have yet to see it and PLEASE IF YOU COMMENT DO NOT SPOIL THE ENDING OR YOU’LL NEVER COMMENT AGAIN – I really think that Pitt is the one who goes above and beyond. Not discounting Morgan, he’s one of my favourites. Simply put, there’s a bigger rollercoaster ride for the character of Mills and luckily Pitt plays it with both an explosive side, as well as one that’s light and subtle. If anybody ever doubts these two actors, I always suggest playing Se7en because they work well as a pair, and they also give solid individual efforts.
In terms of Freeman’s performance, I really love the quiet scenes where it’s Somerset by himself at his apartment, tossing and turning, or just tossing a knife at his dartboard; very cool and sort of pensive stuff, watching this soon to retire cop sort of wandering around his house at night, probably half kept up by what he’s seen already and half from worrying about what he’ll do with the remainder of his life. I hate when I see some people say Freeman plays the same character all the time, as if it’s always just Morgan Freeman onscreen and not a character – you cannot say that about this movie, there are several layers to Somerset and he plays them all with passion.
131007051622612326Having an amazing actor like Kevin Spacey play the integral but brief role of John Doe was superb casting. I don’t think it so much matters about any big reveal. Even if you go in knowing Space plays the killer, the suspense and tension will get you and then his short performance will leave you in awe. A different role for Spacey, but the way he inhabits it is chilling. Aside from when he screams to get the attention of Mills and Somerset, essentially turning himself in, Spacey stays pretty quiet, he’s subdued. You really get the loneliness and isolation of John Doe come out through Spacey; in the few bits of dialogue he does have, there’s an even more vivid impression of a man who is cut off from the world, deliberately, as he talks to people almost as if they’re not people, like they’re pets or something less than him – not condescending, it’s almost more like Doe is an alien amongst humans. Not sure if anyone else could’ve played it this way so well, other than Spacey. He is an impressive actor, one of my favourites, and though he’s done challenging work this is most certainly an edgy role for him to play. I bet back when this came out it was a big surprise for people to see him once the character is shown. Still, knowing that he’s in the film from the start he’s still able to get you with a creepy and restrained performance.
27-1024x538 Se7enThe cinematography by Darius Khondji really goes together with the Fincher vision. Khondji has done some very innovative film, such as the French films of directorial pair Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, and Danny Boyle’s The Beach. So I really dig his style, particularly in the French films; there’s this ultra vibrant and gritty look to everything. Best I can describe what he does in those French films, as well as here in Se7en, is capture an essential rawness. There’s a grit in each scene you can nearly feel between your teeth, at the same time the picture is clear and beautiful. So many scenes look full of colour and life, but there’s a darkness even in the finale when they drive through a sunny desert. This constantly dirty style – best description I can think of – frames everything throughout the film, giving it a deeply dark atmosphere and tone.
Added to the look of the film, Howard Shore presents us with an exceptional score. No surprise, he is a powerhouse in the film industry when it comes to composers. I love his work. Especially here, I find there are pieces which really remind of his score for The Silence of the Lambs; not in any way is it derivative, merely I think the instruments he used for particular scenes sort of crossover, as each movie deals with law enforcement situations. The scene where Mills and Somerset accompany the SWAT Team to the apartment where they find the man strapped to his bed, there’s this amazing horn-centric piece I find parallels parts of The Silence of the Lambs where the police are heading up to find what Lecter has done to the others right before his big escape. So I thought that was great. They’re not copies of themselves, merely I think it goes to show how Shore composes, in that the situations of the film very much dictate how he builds a piece in his mind. His work has great mood to it, which in turn helps the atmosphere Fincher and his cinematographer cultivate together.
26. Se7en Sloth 1Best of all, Fincher has these horrific elements to the plot and somehow this doesn’t become a full-on horror film. Even though I love the genre, I think some times great stories often get lost in directors focusing too much solely on the horror itself. While that’s perfect for certain horror movies, it doesn’t exactly work for all of them. Some would benefit from being told from a more dramatic/thriller-like angle. This is one of the reasons Andrew Kevin Walker’s script for Se7en is so brilliant and the reason Fincher works magic with it. Easily, this could’ve turned into something out of post-2000 horror like a Saw film or something of the like (no doubt those movies all grafted at least a tiny piece or two from this masterpiece). Instead, Fincher and Walker allow the story to be wildly disturbing, but at the same time the focus is very much on the humanity of it all: how it affects the detectives, their lives. We see this so clearly with the finale, as Mills and Somerset find themselves confronting the most EVIL part of John Doe yet. I think the way this movie was handled, it came out perfectly, proving how masterful Fincher is as a director.
brad-pitt_se7en-035 star film; all the way. I’ve given a bunch of movies 5 star ratings, but this is one I definitely feel so firmly is an objectively perfect piece of work. The performances are spot on, including perhaps my all-time favourite Brad Pitt role. David Fincher directs this with such precision and his style is so grittily clear, it’s hard not to some times marvel at each scene and how it looks; doesn’t hurt to have composer Howard Shore and cinematographer Darius Khondji behind him, either.
The horror movie which became a thrilling dramatic story, Se7en is one of those films I know inside out. Yet at the same time there’s no end to how much excitement it brings me. There are a handful of titles I watch repeatedly throughout a year, this being one. That will not be stopping any time soon. While I love almost every single bit of Fincher’s directorial work, it’s always a toss up between this and The Game for my favourite. Darkess, for him, is old hand. So I’d love to see more of this type of thing from him. Regardless, his rich, slick style always seem to have a bit of that at hand.
If you haven’t seen Se7en yet, DO IT NOW! You’ll be wondering what took you so long.

Aja Serves Up Gore and High Blood Pressure with High Tension

High Tension. 2003. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur.
Starring Cécile De France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, and Oana Pellea. Alexandre Films/EuropaCorp.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Horror

★★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment DVD release)
haute-tension_2003_poster
Right out of the gate, I’ll say it: I’m an unabashed, huge fan of Alexandre Aja as a director. While I don’t necessarily think he’s as good a writer as he is director, he’s still pretty good at writing when it comes to certain stuff. Honestly, his only writing-directing duel gigs I didn’t enjoy hugely were P2 (which he only wrote) and Mirrors (wrote/directed). Other than that, I am IN LOVE with this movie, I loved his screenplay work alongside GrĂ©gory Levasseur on his 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for the remake of Maniac.
But it’s High Tension I continually come back to, the one I always find myself putting on when I want something intense and gory with nice use of practical effects. It’s a fallback every time I can’t think of anything else to put on and I’m looking for a scary flick. A lot of people want to file this one away with a ton of similar films. Sure, the twist itself in Aja’s film is not original, it has been done before. Regardless of that, he does an incredible job taking something slightly familiar and crafting an entirely new, vicious beast. Just a little over 7 minutes in, there’s a moment you realize: this is not like the others. With a very gritty and vibrant look from the cinematography of Maxime Alexandre, High Tension is a modern horror masterpiece with a depraved serial killer, a bad ass female lead, and it announced to the world Alexandre Aja would attempt to carry on the torch of hardcore horror as best he could from the older Masters of Horror from which he learned the craft.
vlcsnap-2014-07-03-02h34m54s173.png~originalHigh Tension is the story of Marie (CĂ©cile De France) and Alexia (MaĂŻwenn), two friends from college heading back to Marie’s house in the country, out in the cornfields, to stay with her family a few days. Arriving late, Alexia’s father (Andrei Finti) welcomes them and they get settled in.
Later that night, Marie in the room at the top of the house witnesses a sadistic killer (Philippe Nahon) break in. First he kills the family dog, then murders the father; even Alexia’s little brother isn’t spared a savage fate at the end of a shotgun. Her mother (Oana Pellea) gets perhaps the worst of it all, while Marie hides in a closet and is forced to watch the woman bleed out in front of her after a slit throat and other injuries.
But when the killer takes Alexia hostage in his truck and is about to speed off into the night, Marie makes a quick and drastic decision to hop aboard in order to make sure her friend makes it out alive.
Beginning as they hit the road with the insane killer driving them to who knows where, Marie and Alexia experience a night of absolute terror and madness, coupled with constant murder.
High_Tension_30Okay, so to my surprise when I looked specifically to see who the special effects makeup artists was for High Tension, I discovered Giannetto De Rossi was the man responsible. And get this – his filmography is out of this world. To start, he worked on Once Upon a Time in the West, Zombi 2, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, Dune, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, and Waterloo. So for the work Rossi did with Lucio Fulci alone, I can see why Aja probably sought him ought purposefully.
Because the effects here, the blood and gore and the nasty violence, it’s all classic already. Honestly, even if you don’t dig the movie overall, you can’t say the makeup effects are not well done. It’s ignorant to even say that because they’re brilliant. If you don’t like the plot, the story, fine – you just cannot deny Rossi’s work is incredible. It helps keep with the tone of Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography, which casts everything in this vibrant yet dark light. You get to see everything full on, there’s no shying away from the hardcore kills and violence, but it also fits with that darkness Alexandre sets up through use of the shadow and dark both in interior and exterior scenes. There’s nothing worse than when a horror film with lots of very noticeable makeup effects goes with something that visually sets itself off too much from the lighting and colour of the scene’s shots. In this way, Rossi’s work compliments that of Alexandre and his cinematography very effectively.
f7c559cf28d8f6a42a7c2bc85a0dd83c_largeThe GREATEST EFFECT, even amongst a ton of them, comes so early on when Alexia’s father gets his head cranked off. Some people have said it’s a silly effect, but I think it is incredible! It doesn’t matter to me if it’s totally realistic; the effect itself is so gnarly and amazing, it works beyond how well it should. I remember the first time I saw this, I actually blind bought the DVD years ago after hearing it was a good horror – that moment made my jaw drop and then I was on the edge of my seat, like “Bring it on, Aja!” What a solid horror effect. There are rarely awesome effects involving heads coming off, being blown up, et cetera, but this one is SPOT ON. Nailed it. The blood after the father’s head rips off is wild, too. A very surreal moment, compounded by the fact his wife comes out to see what’s happening not long after and sees him with his body still wedged between the staircase bars, blood EVERYWHERE. Vicious sequence I can’t get enough of, one that ought to go down in classic horror history as time passes.
There are a bunch more effects where that came from, this is merely my favourite of the bunch. Also, there’s the scene where Alexia’s mother has her throat cut savagely by the killer, filmed neatly through the closet as Marie watches between the wooden slits of the door. All around, that entire part is also very well executed and full of nasty, gory stuff. I was continually impressed with how great and realistic the effects looked. Too many moments to list.
clipboard026jeIt isn’t only in the effects department that High Tension succeeds with its horror. There’s a genuine air of tension and lots of suspense. At times, you’ll feel like your skin might start to crawl right up off your bones, as Marie creeps along trying to stay just out of the killer’s reach/eyesight. The first moment to really ratchet up the tension is when the killer stops at a gas station. The attendant, Jimmy (Franck Khalfoun), nervously talks with the killer and Marie, in the background, tries to sneak through the place without catching any attention. Great few moments then a BRUTAL KILL. Always nice to see a good axing in horror.
I think that whole sequence in the gas station is fairly suspenseful, start to finish. It’s similar to a classic slasher horror movie style bit, but Aja directs it well. The smooth and at the same time gritty cinematography of Maxime Alexandre looks marvellous with the dirty gas station bathroom; something about the way everything looks with all the white tiling against those green stall doors, a very raw and vibrant visual. Plus, the steady tight shots of Marie really draw you in. Then seeing mostly the killer’s back as he goes to each stall door, peeking in, sort of gives him a more ominous feeling; we’ve seen his face, but I like the way the camera in these moments sticks to rear shots, as it’s creepier that way.
121c522e23bcffc551a2c886b3eUndoubtedly, though, the most perfect and incredibly effective part about High Tension is its finale. In fact, the entire last 25 minutes is some of my favourite horror, period. The final showdown between Marie and the depraved, sadistic serial killer is beyond fantastic. First off, the makeup effects here just go above what most other slasher horrors achieve; the bits with the barbed wire – savage! I love every second of these scenes. Secondly, when the killer is running around with that big saw – looks like an industrial concrete saw or something – I think that will come to be an ICONIC, CLASSIC horror movie moment when people look back at it 20-30 years on. I truly think this movie in general will find itself that sort of status after a couple decades more pass. The finale cements it in that category.
WARNING: BIG TIME SPOILER AHEAD!
The twist is where High Tension seems to lose people/piss them off. Either you dig it, or you think it’s derivative and foolish. I love it because we’re basically seeing EVERYTHING from the perspective of Marie, that’s why so many things seem impossible if you try and look back at the whole plot and say “Well how did she do that if she was the killer?”. You can’t do that because Aja made everything look the way Marie would’ve been seeing it. Only once she starts to come to her senses and realize what has happened do we, the audience, get treated to her viewpoint, as well. And that is why I think Aja’s film is brilliant modern horror. Because with a familiar twist, he pulls people in and makes them believe everything is real. After the fact, it pisses some people off they were, essentially, fooled into believing Marie was the heroine. When what it is simply equates to good horror filmmaking. That’s just my opinion, but I love this finale so much, from the fight with the killer to those final moments where Marie reaches out towards Alexia who is standing behind two-way glass; very creepy, very cool.
haute_tension_011I’m giving Alexandre Aja’s High Tension full marks; 5 star horror movie. I can’t say any different. You can have your opinion, if it differs from mine, and that’s totally understandable. I get some people just won’t dig this, or they’ll have problems with the supposed movie logic, or whatever the case may be. However, I think this is one of the best savage horror flicks out there, certainly of the last 15 years or so. Aja revealed himself to the world with this nasty feature and as I said earlier I’m sure this will go down as a New French Extremity classic.
The DVD is a pretty awesome bit of work in its own right. There’s a few good hours worth of extras and Special Features included here on the Lions Gate release, which includes my favourite: a spotlight on Giannetto De Rossi’s special makeup effects for the film. He is an incredible artists at work. The featurette is only about 7-8 minutes long, but long enough to get a sense of how much work went into the effects they pulled off. Watching a man Rossi’s age on set with blood all over him, enjoying his work, it is ridiculously enjoyable. It’s so great to see someone still enjoying what they do after all those years. As Aja points out, having him onboard was a way to truly bring this film back to the spirit of the 1970s horror movies from which Aja draws influence.
The Making-Of featurette is all around a good deal of fun. It’s around 25 minutes long and there’s a look at just about every little aspect of the film, accompanied by both Alexandre Aja and GrĂ©gory Levasseur giving insight into the entire process. I think they make a good team, which is clear by how they discuss their techniques working with one another, but merely by listening to how each of them talks about different aspects of the film it’s obvious how they came together and made something incredibly horrific like High Tension.
Pag9ui7If you’re ever looking for a bit of shock, some gore and tons of blood, plus an interesting film with a FUN twist and a kick ass lead female performance, then look no further: High Tension has got what you’ve been looking for, friend. See it soon and enjoy all its horrific pleasures. The DVD is an added bit of enjoyment if you’re a fan; I certainly would suggest you pick this up for your collection.
Aja is a gifted talent and though some say otherwise, I think he’s one of the few new, younger horror filmmakers out there with both balls and an old school moviemaking sensibility about him.

Ravenous: The Cannibalism of Colonialism

Ravenous. 1999. Directed by Antonia Bird. Screenplay by Ted Griffin.
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, Stephen Spinella, Neal McDonough, Joseph Runningfox, Bill Brochtrup, and Sheila Tousey.
ETIC Films.
Rated 18A. 101 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★★
Ravenous_ver1Frequently working with actor Robert Carlyle, director Antonia Bird was quite the talent – she sadly passed away two years ago in the fall. Her previous films with Carlyle, Priest and Face, were both vastly different, as is Ravenous. However, there’s something deeply intense about each one of them. While Priest concerns a Roman Catholic priest struggling with his homosexuality, Face is a rough story of capitalism amongst gangsters in 1980s Britain. In turn, Ravenous is a horror period piece set in California during the 1840s which takes on the concept of manifest destiny – using cannibalism as a metaphor.
So it’s easy to see that Bird wasn’t simply a director, I found her work took on a sort sociopolitical landscape, each taking on their own fight. Not to say you can’t just enjoy these films on their own, certainly you can. But it’s always more interesting to me when a solid film also has a message behind its flashy looks and gestures.
Ravenous, to me, is a perfect film. Others find it not near such a piece of work, however, that’s fine. I understand why certain people may not like it. Personally, there’s a perfect balance of everything here which combines together into a very entertaining and at times scary movie. There is so much to love here: the look of the film, the feel of its colours and its vibrant scenery; the unsettling story at its centre, the performances; and on top of ALL that a highly different score from Blur’s Damn Albarn and the fantastic Michael Nyman. This is one movie I remember seeing when it came out in 1999, afterwards I rented it constantly in my last year of high school and watched it repeatedly. There’s a mystical quality about Ravenous – it’s at times dark and terrifying, others it has a tongue in cheek feel to its black comedy. This is one film which never loses appeal for me and every single time I watch it many scenes continue to creep me out, no matter how many times I see them.
ravenous_pearceAfter the Mexican-American War and nearing the tail end of the 1840s, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is celebrated for taking an enemy command from behind Mexican lines singlehandedly. After General Slauson (John Spencer) realizes Boyd was able to do so out of a cowardly act – hiding under a pile of his platoon’s dead soldiers until the time was right – he promotes him instead to a hateful outpost in Fort Spencer, along the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Once there, he meets the man strange inhabitants of the lonely military outpost: Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) the jolly yet aloof man running everything; Private Reich (Neal McDonough), a certifiable psychotic of a soldier; Major Knox (Stephen Spinella) the resident doctor and drunkard, found most mornings vomiting before anyone else is out of bed; then there’s also two Natives, Martha (Sheila Tousey) and her brother George (Joseph Runningfox), the “over-medicated” Private Cleaves (David Arquette), and religious fanatic Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies).
Shortly after Boyd’s arrival, a strange man wanders into the outpost, emaciated and weary, almost near death. The soldiers take him in and nurse him back to health. They discover his name is F.W Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle). He proceeds to tell them a terrifying story of how their party got lost in the wilderness and ended up finding shelter in a cave. As conditions worsened and they were stuck inside, all the food ran out. Eventually, similar to the story of the Donner Party, the group resorts to cannibalism. Scared for his life, with only himself, a woman named Mrs. MacCready, and a dangerous army man called Colonel Ives left, Colqhoun ran into the wild and wandered for weeks until reaching Fort Spencer.
Deciding they had a duty to go out and try to find any survivors, Colonel Hart, Captain Boy, and all the rest set out with Colqhoun in tow. Along the way they all wake one night to the screams of Private Toffler who insists Colqhoun was doing something to him – “he was licking me,” Toffler tells them. Insisting they tie his hands for fear he might do something else, Colqhoun leads them further on to the cave where he and his party succumbed to their base instincts. There, a horrifying secret is revealed. What follows is Captain John Boyd’s efforts to not simply survive, but to also reclaim his bravery when again faced with shades of his previous cowardice.
52efea9664224a289a3c1c2dd808493fTo start, I’ve always loved the individual performances in this film. Some times when you have an ensemble cast like this, character development can get lost amongst the runtime; you can’t always let every character say a ton, or do a ton, and too often filmmakers sacrifice this in order to cut down on the length of a film. With Ravenous, the screenplay from Ted Griffin (in my opinion it’s easily the best thing he’s ever written) allows each character enough room and time to be heard, as well as the fact Bird’s direction gives everyone equal measure. At least, that is, until certain events really put a damper on all the fun; in a good way, though, plot-wise.
I don’t want to go through every single character, but I need to mention at least several.
First, there’s the supporting character of Private Toffler played by Jeremy Davies. He’s a great character actor who has appeared all over film and television. This movie is actually the first time I remember seeing Davies and being incredibly impressed; one of those small performances that stuck with me and then prompted me to go back and see anything else I could with him in it. This is a quirky role, very strange, but I think Davies is the only guy who could pull it off without it straying into a laughable performance. There’s a sensitivity to his religious solder Toffler I don’t think many young actors would’ve tapped into in the same way.
Second there is Neal McDonough. He plays the insane Private Reich. I even love the brief cutaway to him standing shirtless in a freezing, running river as Colonel Hart first talks about him to Boyd; great, quick moment. Even though his character is one of the many unfortunate souls in the early half of the film to have a fatal run-in with Colqhoun, we’re treated to a decent bit of his performance. McDonough’s not someone I usually find particularly great, except for a couple roles, but I’ve no doubt that his performance as Reich is a fun one. He’s got the cocky sense about him exhibited in so many other roles he plays, yet it works so well here; along with that there’s also a sternness in him that usually doesn’t come across. Nice job with a brief role.
6_zps048fe539.jpg~originalNow the main two performances from Robert Carlyle and Guy Pearce are the best of Ravenous. It doesn’t hurt to have an excellently filled out supporting cast, such as this film has. Regardless, Carlyle and Pearce each hold beyond their weight.
There’s great range in Guy Pearce. Not sure how he’s viewed overall by people, but I think he is a fascinating actor. Here, he plays a man whose cowardice is evident in his own mind, he battles with it nearly every moment of his life. After his experiences during the Mexican-American War, Boyd is a broken man because he know what he did was cowardly, but there’s no changing it, he has to live with every bit of that. Even worse, his act of bravery after lying under the corpses of his dead platoon mates only came about because of the power of the Wendigo. This is something he’s forced to confront all over again after Colqhoun annihilates the rest of the soldiers in his outpost. He takes the coward’s way out by jumping off the cliff, which I assume he thought would probably have killed him, rather than face Colqhoun. Then he’s stuck in the pit with a dead Reich, forced to first strip him for warm clothing and afterwards munch on him for energy. Even worse is once he gets back to outpost, Colqhoun shows back up as Colonel Ives, and then he’s made to confront the cannibalism all over again. There’s this desperation in Boyd which I found Guy Pearce evokes INSANELY well. I honestly can feel the weakness in Captain Boyd just through the look in Pearce’s eyes, the way he breathes, the way he talks meek and mild; he comes across as a man not meant to be a solider, merely forced into it because that’s the way life was in those days. Remarkable performance on his part.
Robert Carlyle is one of those actors I’ve always enjoyed, from the moment I first saw The Full Monty and Trainspotting, I knew his talent was full of gifts. He can play so many different roles. Despite not being a man of huge stature, a skinny type of fellow, Carlyle has a command and intensity in him which makes him scary at times. This is why his role as Colqhoun/Colonel Ives works well for him, he can work well as a softer, gentler type like Colqhoun pretends to be, then once the Ives persona breaks out he’s a vicious, predatory animal with a coy edge. Having him play off Pearce is a match made in heaven, especially as the story progresses. Some of their later scenes – particularly the one where Boyd puts a knife to his throat as Martha then does the same to him – are just downright goosebumpy. Their energies are completely different and made the plot more intense for it; both Carlyle and Pearce give it all they’ve got here and without them the film wouldn’t be nearly as darkly charming.
ravenousIves: “Y’know it’s not courage to resist me. It’s courage to accept me.
28b398dbThe story of the Wendigo is something that’s interesting, as well. I love how the script explores the idea of manifest destiny through the perspective of cannibalism. I could go more and more into depth with all of that, but I don’t want to bore anyone. Mainly, I like how the aspect of cannibalism sort of takes on the form of a metaphor through which we view manifest destiny, the idea that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent. Colqhoun/Ives takes on that idea, as he hopes to spread the gift of cannibalism far and wide. He talks about how when spring comes, many people will be travelling to and from the outpost, through their grounds, so in the same way Americans in the 1800s (and some still today) believed their religion/ideals/et cetera would spread throughout the continent and become the way of life, Ives sees this as how cannibalism will also become the American Way.
And in a sense, cannibalism is the same as manifest destiny – the idea that one culture/group/way of living will effectively consume all and any others completely whole, barely stopping to chew or swallow. So I think Ted Griffin’s script is near genius. A really awesome metaphorical horror film that doesn’t HAVE to be taken as metaphor; there’s still a palpable, exciting plot and story involved.

Regarding film in general, Ravenous is in my top ten period pieces. Ever. Honestly, there’s so much to love about Bird’s film. You really feel as if you’re back in the late 1840s. Everything from the costuming, the facial hair, the locations and set pieces, all comes together to really make the period feel real.
The costumes and the makeup were spectacular. I found especially David Arquette, with his character’s rotten teeth and hygiene in general, looked good. That’s one of the best examples of the small makeup jobs which made the atmosphere work.
Added to the costumes and the makeup, the facial hair, all those little bits and pieces, Bird directs this film with grace. Not only that, the cinematography is UNREAL! Beautiful, dark, smooth. Anthony B. Richmond does the camerawork here and looking him up I’m amazed to see a few other titles I love in his resume: director of photography Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (one of my top 5 films), cinematography on Bad Timing, Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, director of photography for Candyman, and more work as cinematographer for Bastard Out of Carolina, among more. So it’s no wonder the film has an impressive look; despite a few blemishes, I think Richmond has done incredible work on the titles I listed, particularly the work he’s done for Roeg. His look is a smooth yet textured style and I think that helps in many aspects with Ravenous, particularly when it comes to a lot of the exterior shots. One big part of why I love this film.
Ravenous7Finally, I have to mention the score a little bit. I’ll start by saying one half of the composing due here, Michael Nyman, has done a TON of wonderful work: the beautiful and wild documentary Man on Wire, The Libertine, Gattaca, Jane Campion’s The Piano, and some interesting work on films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and A Zed & Two Noughts. Added to his already exciting talent, Ravenous also has the benefit of musician Damon Albarn being a part of the composing process. There is a ton of weird music here, but instead of taking away from the film it adds a very integral piece to the puzzle. While Albarn and Nyman could have easily gone for something more traditional – lots of strings and such or anything similar – they opted to bring a lot of different sounds into a mix that throws you off your guard. There are strings, harpsichords and such, there’s lots of horns, then we also get almost electronic sounds pumping out at times. It’s a massively extensive mix, somehow these two make it work. Their score is one of the most memorable film scores I’ve ever heard. It will ALWAYS stay with me and any time I think of innovative, fresh music in the movies I constantly come back to Albarn and Nyman here in Ravenous.
Ravenous-1999Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is hands down a 5 star film. While many might see it as simply a piece of historical fiction, horror added in for flavour, I think this movie has more than just one single promising aspect. There is a heavy dose of atmosphere from Bird in the directorial chair, along with Anthony B. Richmond at the camera’s helm – add to that several intense performances, a well-crafted script from Ted Griffin and a strangely beautiful score, and I don’t see how more people aren’t a fan of this masterpiece.
An unusual gem from the end of the ’90s, Ravenous may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For me, I get a dose of history, bits of legend from the Native tales of the Wendigo, as well as a MASSIVE injection of spookiness. Even a good helping of gore here and there amongst it all.
If you’t not yet experienced this film, or even any of Antonia Bird’s work, I suggest you get out and watch soon. She was an important director and it’s sad to see her pass away only barely into her sixties. Either way, she left us with some good movies to ponder over, and I’ll keep on watching Ravenous at least a handful of times every year. It’s that damn good.

Cannibal Holocaust: A Documentary of Hell on Earth

Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Story by Gianfranco Clerici.
Starring Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes, and Carl Gabriel Yorke. F.D Cinematografica.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
Adventure/Horror

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Grindhouse Releasing DVD)
cannibal-holocaust-poster
Nearly two decades before The Blair Witch Project horrified audiences with its low budget realistic techniques, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust shocked horror filmgoers to their core; the first found footage horror movie. While this movie is a solid horror, much of its legacy comes from controversy – where it be from the graphic onscreen violence depicted throughout its runtime, or the explicitly depicted killing of real animals, this movie is infamous rather than famous.
Plenty of famous horror filmmakers have expressed their love for Deodato, this film in particular. Most notably as of late is Eli Roth whose film The Green Inferno is finally making it into theatres and is heavily inspired by/an homage to Cannibal Holocaust.
However, aside from the controversy and praise of other filmmakers, as well as the cult following it has developed consistently over the years, I think the realism of Cannibal Holocaust succeeds due to its use of found footage (the whole thing is not done in shaky cam style as has become the trend in the past 15-16 years), the inclusion of Native peoples in the Amazon, the makeup effects, and the ability of the actors to make everything feel very visceral.
why-cannibal-holocaust-is-an-essential-horror-movie-looks-like-the-film-crew-made-a-go-293867The plot of Cannibal Holocaust sees an American film crew disappear while filming in the Amazon rainforest. They were there to do a documentary on an indigenous tribe, one that still engages in the act of ritualistic cannibalism, as well as violent acts of torture used for punishment.
Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), an anthropologist, takes on the task of travelling to the Amazon and encountering the tribe in order to determine what exactly happened to the original film crew.
Eventually, once Monroe is able to in effect assimilate himself slightly into the Ya̧nomamö tribe by imitating some of their behaviour – mainly bathing naked in a river with some of the women – he ends up coming across the picked clean remains of the film crew, along with some of their remaining equipment. Monroe is horrified, as well as disgusted. Through participating in a cannibalistic ritual with the tribe, they agree to give him reels of footage.
But the real horror lies in what happens with the footage, as Monroe brings it back to New York where executives from the Pan American Broadcast Company say they’ll be making a documentary out of the footage; one which they hope to have him host. Unsure whether the true atrocities lie in the jungle or the city, Monroe shares footage of what the film crew experienced at the hands of the Ya̧nomamö and no one is close to prepared for what they will see.
FoundfootageCannibal-HolocaustI can’t say that I enjoy the animal cruelty bits. While I believe a lot of it ended up being eaten by natives – I know for sure the monkey brains did because the tribe actually requested those not be faked because they’re considered a delicacy in their tribe – there’s still no way to feel good about watching the animals killed onscreen.
That being said, part of me does believe it served a purpose. Not condoning it, so don’t fucking jump down my throat or anything over it. But the film crew were there watching this tribe, they were exploiting every moment of their existence, anything they could film, so I see the whole movie as dealing with how the media loves to glorify and sensationalize violence, atrocities, murder, blood, death, et cetera. Plenty of other films do this in a way that does not involve animal cruelty. However, it comes to bear on how the film crew are just as savage as they deem the Ya̧nomamö to be. They want to film every last bit, they want to see it and have it put on television back in America and have everyone enjoy their documentary.
Seeing them both film the animals being killed, and in the case of the turtle consuming the meat for dinner, we’re led to understand how little difference there seems to be between these indigenous tribes and the curious, exploitative American film crew.
Worst of all is when their guide Felipe (Ricardo Fuentes) gets bitten by a snake. The amputation does not save his life. Still, the camera rolls on and captures everything; Felipe’s dead face in a nicely framed shot. They don’t even seem particularly upset that Felipe dies, only determined to continue on into the jungle.
1280x720-cuMSo let’s forget about the animals for now. I don’t like that this is included, but hey – on the DVD release I own, you can actually watch an Animal Cruelty-Free version, so that’s a plus!
The makeup effects used in Cannibal Holocaust are really something to behold. There’s no wonder people were actually under the impression that people were killed, or died during the making of the film, because for 1980 this looks INCREDIBLY REALISTIC. Very raw, very gritty. You’d swear it was a documentary. We can’t see that now, most of us anyways, because our society is incredibly deep into found footage and we’re so used to it that nothing seems to phase us any more. But in 1980, man – if I were a little older and had seen it when released, I’d probably have been blown away. I’m still blown away today.
Even the scene where Felipe has his leg amputated, it looks as if it were a true documentary watching a man have his snake-bitten leg cut off. The blood, the noise and the feverish movement of everyone around him trying to help, it’s extremely raw and serves to make things feel terrifying.
Of course there are a ton of instances where the makeup effects really get the visceral nature of the film pumping in our veins. The now infamous woman impaled on a spike scene is VICIOUS! I mean, some say they don’t understand how it could’ve appeared so real to an audience, but I say they’re blinded and can’t look at things in hindsight. There are many images, such as the poor impaled lady, which appear torn right out of reality and that’s ultimately why so many people find the movie unsettling. Even when you watch this on the Animal Cruelty-Free version, you realize that aspect isn’t what’s so upsetting about Cannibal Holocaust: everything just looks so god damn real.
big_thumb_7804f4ee5bb0b1fc731a0eefe69ade55Most of all, I think people look solely at the controversy of Deodato’s film and they don’t pay enough attention to the social commentary behind all the blood, horror, madness, and mayhem onscreen.
This all culminates when the film crew actively decides to start messing with the tribe, in order to illicit some type of reaction. A misguided notion all around, and disgusting, which is what leads to the film crew’s disappearance, as well as the hostile Native reaction when Professor Monroe (Kerman) and his team initially arrive as the search party.
When the crew burns down all the huts, with the villagers screaming and trying to escape, you can see so blatantly how Deodato is aiming his horror film at the media. It’s already obvious, but this scene has such a scary aesthetic: that beautiful music playing in the background, the fire, the sounds of the tribe screaming, the film crew each laughing and having fun terrorizing these people; all that makes for a heavy impact.
We’re seeing something that has become even MORE prominent nowadays, more so than even when Cannibal Holocaust was filmed and released – certain pockets of the media (and also religious groups) want to go in an antagonize cultures, peoples, and they want to try and spread their ways of living to supposedly uncivilized places. Of course the film crew here is a bit of an extreme example, but these are the types of vultures we see more and more with the new forms of media erupting.
Most telling in that regard for me is when Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) and his film crew stand by and watch a pregnant woman have a tiny child, barely older than a fetus, ripped out of her belly – it’s put in a hole in the mud by the river, drowned, suffocated, then the woman is beaten bloodily to death. All the while, Alan gladly films and gets the best shots of the so-called ritual on film, all the misery. Yet it’s constantly described as some sort of informational process, as if they’re learning great stuff that’s worth sitting through the horror to see. All the horror captured on tape in the name of anthropological knowledge, except really it’s aiming towards ratings, views, money, funding, and so on.
Even worse than that, the film crew – aside from Faye (Francesca Ciardi) – rapes a member of the Ya̧nomamö tribe while filming. It’s bad enough they sexually assault this poor young Native girl, they go ahead and film it all. They went far beyond even just terrorizing this tribe, they actively assaulted and raped a member, which then prompts the infamous impaling. Sickest of all is how Alan turns on the horror for the camera, pretending to have no idea why this girl would’ve been executed in such a fashion when obviously being raped is what precipitated her death, sadly. Another moment where you can see how Deodato is taking hard shots at the media and how they wish to sensationalize pain, suffering, and certainly violence.
cannibal-holocaust-e1380713512864Something I forgot to mention but cannot: the score. It is beyond unsettling. There’s something both very 1980s and also incredibly effective about the score. At times they have the beautiful score playing, even juxtaposed with brutal acts of savagery by both the tribe and the film crew; a technique I enjoyed a ton. Then we get deep, dark electronic sounding bits where it makes your pulse pound thick. I think without the score, many of the moments wouldn’t have properly come off, so this goes to show how a horror can effectively use a score and music to push along a feeling. Such is definitely the case here, as the music really gets under my skin; I always noticed it and each time I see the film I make a comment, to someone, anyone who will listen, that I find the score one of its best elements.
Cannibal_Holocaust_1I’m going to give Cannibal Holocaust a 4 out of 5 star rating. If Ruggero Deodato hadn’t opted to include such graphic and horrifying animal cruelty onscreen, I’d be more inclined to say this is near the perfect horror film. So many incredible makeup effects are included here and the gritty, raw nature of the look makes everything work better than I’d ever have imagined. While it is a tough movie to sit through, even for some of the most initiated horror hounds out there (of which I include myself as a card carrying member), I do think Cannibal Holocaust belongs amongst the most classic horror movies of all-time. It is nasty and at times unnecessary, however, Deodato has a message behind all of the terror and the gore about how the media derides violence yet at the same time choose to focus in on it, zoomed, close-up and tight on the horror for your viewing pleasure.
The DVD, which is a double disc set, from Grindhouse Releasing is a spectacular release! 5 stars all the way. There’s a good few hours of extras, including behind-the-scenes featurettes on the filming, as well as interviews, and everything from the music to the effects. I have to say I’m more than pleased with the DVD. I hadn’t gone through all the Special Features until now, but it is well worth the $25 I paid a few years back. You can dive in and learn all sorts of stuff about Deodato’s film with the second disc of the set, totally dedicated to the extras.

I recommend that if you’ve not seen it, and think you can handle it, watch Deodato’s notorious horror classic. As I said, on the DVD release I own you can watch a version completely devoid of the animal cruelty. So if possible, I’d say view it and judge for yourself whether this is exploitation at its worst or if it is a cult horror that deserves all the recognition it gets.

The Hills Have Eyes II: Horny Mutants

The Hills Have Eyes II. 2007. Directed by Martin Weisz. Written by Jonathan Craven & Wes Craven.
Starring Cécile Breccia, Michael Bailey Smith, Archie Kao, Jay Acovone, Jeff Kober, Philip Pavel, David Reynolds, Tyrell Kemlo, Lee Thompson Young, Danielle Alonso, Eric Edelstein, Jessica Stroup, Joseph Beddelem, Jacob Vargas, Ben Crowley, Michael McMillian, Reshad Strik, and Derek Mears. Dune Entertainment.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★
hills_have_eyes_two_ver7Funny, as much as I find myself a Wes Craven fan, I didn’t realize until watching this again while reviewing it that he wrote the screenplay with his son Jonathan Craven. I think it’s a slight touch better than Papa Craven’s original The Hills Have Eyes Part II from 1985, which despite being a guilty pleasure of mine is still a horrid film; not in the right way, either. However, this version of The Hills Have Eyes II is still nothing great or special in any way, shape, or form. There’s little to enjoy.
I say that with a little sadness. Honestly, the original The Hills Have Eyes is a favourite horror classic of mine, as well as the fact I loved Alexandre Aja’s remake a tiny bit more even. So I expected, or more so I hoped, that maybe Aja would be involved. At least Craven was, though, his script is not very good.
When Martin Weisz was announced to direct, I’d actually anticipated something halfway decent. Personally, I am a big fan of his previous movie based on the real life case of Armin Meiwes – Rohtenburg a.k.a Grimm Love. That was a different and also horrific piece of horror mixed with drama. The real case is wild enough, but the presentation of a script written by T.S. Faull by Weisz makes things even more intense.
Unfortunately I don’t feel as if Weisz brought much, if anything, from the style he cultivated in Rohtenburg to add to this film. There are a few decently creepy moments, most of which come very early in, but there’s not enough of this or any solid script to make this into a decent movie. Rather, The Hills Have Eyes II is one of the worst scripts Wes Craven has had his hands on, and I’m left hoping Martin Weisz will recapture some of what he did with his previous film later on down the road.
21478_1Starting off we come to see how the mutants in the hills from the first film are holding a woman captive. Once she has birthed a child for them, she is killed. Afterwards, some scientists and members of the U.S Army are murdered by more mutants.
Cut to a group of National Guardsmen in training with their sergeant. They’re out on a mission resupplying scientists working in a camp in the desert, there from the U.S DOD doing surveillance; those same scientists from the beginning scenes. When a group of them head up into the hills after finding the camp abandoned, Napoleon (Michael McMillian) and Amber (Jessica Stroup) are left with the communications in punishment. In the hills, the soldiers find the mutilated bodies of the people they’re there to help. Back down near camp, Amber is attacked by one of the mutants who quickly runs off when Mickey (Reshad Strik) is returning to camp with a sprained ankle. But when Mickey gets hauled through a crack in the rocks, virtually eviscerated in one brutal pull, Amber and Napoleon realize there is something sinister at work.
Up on the mountain, everyone else is cut off from contact, and this gives the mutants plenty of things to do. What began as a routine re-up mission devolves into a fight for survival, as only a handful of the soldiers wind up alive and in good enough to shape to try and make it out of the hills alive.
the-hills-have-eyes-ii-shared-picture-china-1386828415Was there ANY need of such a disgustingly graphic opening sequence? I mean, I’m not saying the story is a bad idea. There’s no reason not to believe the hill mutant clan wouldn’t be kidnapping women in order to make babies. First of all, they’re mutants; they probably have no control over their impulses, whether to kill or to rape or whatever. Doesn’t surprise me. Second, they’re mostly concerned with survival. They kill to eat, so as primitive, basic humans – though mutated – they’re probably hardwired to try and procreate. They’re essentially cavemen.
But all that said, why show us right off the bat such an explicit birthing scene? Personally, I think there’s a way to be effective , then there’s this: hitting us over the head with gory nastiness immediately. It’s not even so much that it disgusted me – I’ve seen more than my fair share of gore and savage horror – I feel like it’s heavy handed. Even in the opening scene of the 2006 remake, there’s still brutality and a scary beginning. This one is a load of tripe.
I think had the Cravens decided to just go with the opening being the whole sequence where the National Guardsmen and the scientists from the U.S Department of Defense get attacked by the mutants, this movie would’ve opened much better. The way things start out here makes me think “Ew”, but not in the sense of being good for horror. It’s all shock without any substance.
lAgain later on in the film, there’s more mutant sex. This is something I’m really bothered by because there’s no need of it. At all. I am totally fine, as I said previously, with the plot having partly to do with the mutants in the hills carrying on their family, breeding, kidnapping women to do the deed. It’s nasty, but as a plot it’s understandable. But there’s no condoning having to show actual shots of a mutant raping a woman. Certainly there was no point to showing a GRAPHIC mutant baby birth at the very start, so it doesn’t surprise me that there was more useless shock horror down the line.
There’s a potentially creepy film in The Hills Have Eyes II. One of the big problems I had with Craven’s original 1985 sequel to his film was the fact there seemed to be a tenuous link to why everything was happening; from the dirtbike team to Ruby becoming Rachel, and so on. I like the idea of this movie as a premise – the whole National Guard angle and the DOD scientists in doing surveillance is good. Plus, I usually enjoy horror films that mix in a military storyline/action. However, with too much of the mutant sex being a focus and a much less defined atmosphere in comparison to Aja’s remake, both the Cravens and director Weisz fumble a solid opportunity to make a terrifying sequel.
The-Hills-Have-Eyes-2-DI-1There are a couple aspects I do like, honestly. To start, I did find a couple of the mutants and their makeup effects pretty awesome, as well as the fact they were unsettling. Derek Mears plays a mutant named Chameleon, whose ability to blend into his surroundings are obviously a perk for him. While it was different to see a mutant who has an ability, as opposed to merely a deformity or hideous appearance, I enjoyed it all the same. There’s an added bit of danger, obviously, when a cannibal killer can blend into rocks and walls.
Moreover, I found one of the mutants – the blind one – was a creeper. Very weird and scary! His look/face eminded me of one of the Cenobites from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and that’s always a good thing. The way he sniffed around everywhere in the darkness was terrible, in the best way possible.
So I have to say that while most of this movie is hugely disappointing, the mutants themselves and the makeup effects, their overall design, it was all pretty well executed. Doesn’t hurt that Greg Nicotero (who appeared as Cyst in Aja’s remake) and Howard Berger, along with a bunch of others from K.N.B EFX, were responsible for the makeup department, from the special effects to the hair to on-set makeup and design. These guys are classic. Even in shit films, I’m always pleased to see Berger/Nicotero & Co. in the credits because their work is usually pretty phenomenal. It’s no wonder they’ve become a staple in the horror movie business.

In the end, what hurts The Hills Have Eyes II most is that Jonathan/Wes Craven did not write a good script. I’d love to say this father-son team knocked one out of the park, because that’d be cool. Sadly, I cannot state anything so cool. The dialogue at times wasn’t too bad, yet most of the time I felt as if I was listening to a walking bunch of cliched U.S Army soldiers; the character of Crank especially made me want to punch holes in my eardrums. Even more damning is the fact that the characters themselves are pretty stupid. They make pitiful decisions. Now, I’m not one to criticize for little mistakes, or even the things people do when they’re scared – I’ve said more than once I put myself in the shoes of characters to try and feel their fear – but there’s no excuse for some of the behaviour these characters exhibit throughout the film.
What I did enjoy about the script was that Wes used little bits from his original sequel to throw in. Such as the whole hills location itself – in his first 1985 sequel, Craven had the mine shafts and all that happening. So here, there’s a much more elaborate version of that going on. Not sure if that was intentional or if the plot they wound up using simply lent itself to using the shafts, et cetera, but either way it’s one thing I liked about the film. There’s great atmosphere once down in the darkness there, as opposed to not much of anything going on before then.
Fun note – the shaft system was done by the same crew who worked on the excellent British horror The Descent, so no wonder the atmosphere and tone amped up once the film shifts to being mostly set down in the mine.
1348829106_1081550When it comes down to the nitty gritty, all the set pieces and makeup effects and interesting premises in the world do not an effective horror movie make. Although, I have to give The Hills Have Eyes II a 2 out of 5 star rating. I can’t deny there is some creepiness, from the suspenseful moments in the mine to the K.N.B makeup effects which made a couple new mutants look scary as hell.
But this Wes Craven script, written with his son Jonathan who has never written anything good honestly, is one if his worst. In fact, I’d almost say it is definitively his worst. I’d honestly put My Soul to Take, a near equally bad film, above this one; and that’s saying something! Mostly it saddens me because I hoped that with an absence of Alexandre Aja for the sequel to his remake Craven as screenwriter would make up for that. It did not, in any way.
My suggestion? Watch the original, or the remake, but this doesn’t have much to offer outside of some nicely executed effects and an eerie setting in the last half hour.

The Gallows: Wasted Opportunity & Wasted Youth

The Gallows. 2015. Directed & Written by Travis Cluff/Chris Lofing.
Starring Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, Travis Cluff, Price T. Morgan, Theo Burkhardt, David Herrera, Gannon Del Fierro, Mackie Burt, and Adrian Salas. Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 81 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★
the-gallows-posterFound footage is a sub-genre I do enjoy, honestly. That being said, there is still a fine line between what I enjoy and what I find crap. Some people say it’s all crap; that’s just dismissive, to me. I’m a fan of Cannibal Holocaust, unapologetically I love The Blair Witch Project, and then there’s newer stuff I’ve enjoyed like the V/H/S trilogy (I got a ton of online shit on an IMDB message board for my love of all three especially the third), Lovely Molly, and the terrifyingly unsettling Home Movie. There are other titles, I just don’t want to go on. You get the picture: if something is done right using found footage, I believe there’s no reason it can’t be enjoyable. Certain people seem to think the whole sub-genre is useless, but again, I say that’s nonsense. Found footage needs to be used effectively, otherwise it’s simply another gimmick. To say there’s no good found footage is ignorant.
The Gallows has a fun premise and I haven’t seen any found footage so far to use this setting. The majority of what I enjoyed about this movie is the atmosphere, most of which came from the location of the school’s auditorium/theatre. Otherwise, I found almost all the characters to be stiff; the high school dramatics felt real, I did think Reese Mishler and Cassidy Gifford were pretty decent throughout the movie, but overall the cast wasn’t very solid. With only a little to enjoy, The Gallows feels more like a wasted opportunity than an absolutely useless horror.
1280x720-bgLStarting with a recorded home video from 1993, we see a boy named Charlie Grimille accidentally hang to death during a high school play. Worst of all, it happens in front of an audience who watch on in absolute fear and horror.
The present day in The Gallows sees a new production of the play being put off. In one of the main roles, a jock named Reese Houser (Reese Mishler) tries his best to play his part opposite a girl he has a crush on named Pfeifer Ross (Pfeifer Brown). At the same time, Reese’s jock budy Ryan Shoos (that’s also his real name) films everything behind the scenes, supposedly helping but doing nothing except make a mockery of the production while others work hard and passionately to make it the best they can.
In an effort to supposedly save his buddy Reese the shame and failure of going onstage, Ryan suggests breaking into the school’s theatre at night and trashing the set. That way the production would be halted and Reese could ‘comfort’ Pfeifer. Misguided and foolish, Ryan, Reese, and Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) head into the school through a door said to never be locked, due to it being broken for years.
However, once they run into Pfeifer inside – who wonders why they’re even there in the first place, as they wonder the same about her – they discover the door is now locked, out of the blue. What follows is a horrifying night for the group of friends while they begin to figure out all about what happened 20 years ago to Charlie Grimille, and why he’s still lurking in the shadows of the school.
the-gallows-movie-image-1There’s certainly an innovative aspect to The Gallows in its premise. I think beyond that, there’s not much to distinguish it from other found footage horror movies. However, the whole concept is pretty fun. Theatres in general all have their own spooky nature; there’s something eerie about a theatre, all the history and the many people who’ve graced both the stage and the seats. Add in a school and it’s even creepier, as old schools all have their own history, many lives passing through its halls and corridors, as well.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the filmmakers used this premise enough to their advantage. As I said, most of The Gallows sticks to the bargain basement techniques of Found Footage 101. For instance, there’s an early and needless jump scare – that you can’t even fully call a proper jump scare – which involves Ryan (Shoos) just popping up in front of his camera in his bedroom; not even horror, simply him trying to pull a gag. Stupid, and also gets your heart pumping for no good reason. A jump scare is effective if there’s a reason, if there is purpose to it, however, if you simply make people jump without any substance whatsoever then it’s a piss off. For me, anyways. There’s always the “trick jump scare” in horror movies, but this is not one of those at all. It’s just a dumb addition; in fact, the scene in which it’s involved serves no purpose itself, so the whole 1 minute or so could’ve easily been trimmed out of the film.
Horror-2015-The-Gallows-MovieEven though the movie uses so much of the shaky cam style, there’s still a decent atmosphere all the same. As someone who acted a great deal from a young age up until my early twenties, I spent a massive amount of time in theatres; specifically the big one at the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts back in my hometown, which partly resembles the auditorium of the school in this film. There’s something inherently spooky about the cold, sterile like hallways in the basement, the darkness of the theatre behind the stage, which immediately makes things unsettling.
If this were done in straight style, using some more steady handheld work even, I think it would’ve benefited greatly. Now I know, Blumhouse most likely wanted to try another lower budget found footage effort and try to make big bucks; the estimated budget is only$100K, which by industry standards in Hollywood is a minuscule production. But still, this is where the concept of the entire film becomes wasted. I’m confident had the filmmakers chosen to do this without found footage, a ton more emotion would’ve come through, the backstory might’ve benefitted – as well as the ghostly presence of Charlie – and the scares could’ve been ten times more effective.
Sadly, The Gallows comes out much like so many of the low budget indie efforts in the found footage genre – the ones unable to rise up to the weight of their premise.
maxresdefaultOne particular scene I did find effectively creepy, regardless of the found footage style (mostly because the phone camera being stationary for the shots), was when SPOILER ALERT Cassidy (Gifford) is in the red lighted hallway; behind her in the dark creeps the figure, hooded like the Hangman from the play. What I find most scary here is how there’s a moment where you don’t see anything, then all of a sudden – as if magic – the noose is around her neck. An unseen force drags her away through a door in the background of the shot, and it slams shut behind her. Very good and creepy scene, I found it wasn’t jumpy it was simply a nice shock to the system. A solid scare.
Furthermore, there’s a scene where Reese (Houser) and Pfeifer (Brown) are running from the ghostly presence of Charlie, clad in the suit of the Hangman, and they’re climbing up a ladder – we get an excellent, terrifying look at the Hangman mask/suit up-close. It’s again not a jump scare, so much as it’s one brief look that gives you enough to make you go WHOA. I’d almost love to see a slasher now set in medieval times, or before, with a hangman as the slasher – it’s just the first thing that popped in my mind when I saw the mask. Awesome little shot, not too long and not too short.
1280x720-uqwA part of the plot I did like was when everything returned in a circular fashion to the stage, as Reese and Pfeifer act out their scene together, and the camera turns on. The lights go up  as well and the stage is set.
However, after that sequence I found things started to fall off. What I don’t like is how Blumhouse is basically setting things up right at the end for another movie. That’s essentially what happens, can anyone disagree? It’s like a mash of things happening right at the end. There’s simply too many reaching connections. So SPOILER ALERT AGAIN we’re meant to believe that Charlie’s girlfriend – the woman who continued to sit in the same seat and watch the practices, waiting for another performance of the play which killed her boyfriend 20 years ago – is also Pfeifer’s mom? I’m pretty slick most of the time, so I apologize if I’ve misunderstood. But the finale is pretty much tell us all that. I found it very mixed and matched, like puzzle pieces not intended to fit together which were simply mashed into a pile for the sake of trying to turn The Gallows – and Charlie – into an iconic style horror movie.

But this is another problem I have, I feel like Charlie is made out to be this slasher type killer. Instead he’s a ghost with a noose. That’s fine. At the same time, the movie is being marketed in a sense that Charlie’s supposed to be aimed toward becoming the next Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. I think not. First of all, the movie itself is nowhere near good enough to become anything like either John Carpenter’s Halloween or Friday the 13th. Second, Charlie just doesn’t come across in that way. There are most certainly a couple creepy scenes, there’s not enough viciousness for me to say Charlie is a bonafide slasher. Maybe had he really done a psychotic job on one of the high school kids, I could give in and say there are elements about the character which fit the bill. I can’t say that at all because most of what happens is ghostly creeping in the background, supernatural deaths, and nothing in the way of any blood. It’ all about the noose. Certainly no gore anywhere to be found. Is there really any way we can call Charlie a SLASHER if he did no slashing? Something to think about. I guess that’s partly the marketing’s problem. Still, I feel as if the filmmakers were also pushing towards that, particularly with the ending. There’s just no way I can get with that.
qjtA9NJI can give The Gallows a 2 out of 5 star rating and feel okay with that. Some people say this is utterly trash. That’s fine, I respect anyone’s opinion as long as they’re not trying to force it on me as if I should feel the same way. However, I don’t think every last piece of this movie is bad. There are spots I thought were incredibly unsettling – one scene where Ryan slowly discovers there’s a body hanging up in between the walls in this tight crawlspace-like room I found to be VERY CREEPY. Ultimately though what makes The Gallows fall short is a reliance on horror cliches and tropes to the point of retreading too deeply through the footsteps of so many other found footage horror efforts, as well as the fact I found much of the acting (aside from Cassidy Gifford and Reese Mishler) extremely wooden. Not to mention I found the ending poor, beyond rushed, and it felt as they were forcing everything down our throats. While I did find parts of it scary, that finale did nothing for film overall and only served to make me actually say aloud once the lights came up: “Oh wow – that end was rough”.
Like I’d mentioned before, I think The Gallows would’ve made a better film if it went without found footage. Alas, Blumhouse – while doing exciting things on other ends – loves to go for the low budget shots in the dark like this after their huge success with bleeding dry the premise of Paranormal Activity. So it’s no wonder they went for a found footage style here instead of filming it regularly. Maybe more money would’ve been pumped in, but it still could’ve told the story more effectively, creeped people out in a much more visceral way than they accomplished here, and perhaps the performances might’ve also benefited from having a solid style. I can’t recommend this much, however, it isn’t as terrible as some critics and people online are making it out to be.
See it if you want to judge for yourself, and I urge you to do so – I’m no one to be listening to, really. Just don’t believe all the trashing, while at the same time you need to remember you won’t find anything more than a generic found footage horror. There are tons of better found footage movies out there to get you creeped out.