Tagged Alfred Hitchcock

[The Twisted Parallels of Cinema] Edition #1

A new column examines the influences of horror movies & what has influenced them via side-by-side film frame comparisons.

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Pod: Backwoods Indie Alien Horror with Teeth

Pod. 2015. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Larry Fessenden, Lauren Ashley Carter, Brian Morvant, Dean Cates, John Weselcouch, and Forrest McClain. High Window Films.
Rated R. 76 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★1/2
podv3-681x1024If any of you may have read my reviews before, you might know that I’m a big fan of films which are of a specific genre and still they have the ability to cross over genres. The classic example is Alfred Hitchock’s adaptation of Psycho by Robert Bloch – the way we think the story is all about Marion Crane, but then Norman Bates shows up and the story takes on a different air. Same goes for Proxy, a viscerally intense horror thriller from Zack Parker, which I believe took much inspiration from Hitchcock and his classic horror film and seems to move between genres in a similar fashion.
So, for all its faults, I do like the way Pod starts out with an opening scene that’s very horror-ish, or at least highly suspenseful, then moves for a while into an extremely serious, often dour family drama before coming back to its horror elements.

Pod tells the story of Ed (Dean Cates) and his sister Lyla (Laurence Ashley Carter) who are heading up to a cabin in the winter in order to retrieve their out of control brother Martin (Brian Morvant). He needs an intervention of some sort. When they arrive, though, things are far worse than they’d ever anticipated. Ed is already worried, having received a frantic and terrifying call from Martin.
Once there, Martin tells his siblings he has something trapped in the basement, that there is a “pod”. He reveals scratches all over his body, infected and sore.
But after the worst happens, Ed and Lyla must confront what really is down in the basement. It most certainly is not of this world. Suddenly everything their crazy brother Martin had told them seems to be horrifying true.
IMG_1848I’ve been a huge fan of Larry Fessenden now for a good 14 years probably. I remember I saw his film Wendigo, an eerily low budget psychological horror, on some television channel late at night. Totally floored by it, I sought out anything he’d done before then kept my eyes on him afterwards.
What’s great about Larry is that he’s a fun horror director, while also popping up in the films of others as an actor. I think he likes to take on roles with young filmmakers he finds interesting, or just any filmmakers in general, young or old, he thinks has some talent. So to see him in this film is pretty great. He was in Mickey Keating’s previous directorial effort Ritual, which I’m planning to see soon, so I gather Fessenden must enjoy Keating and his filmmaking to have signed on for another of his films. He isn’t in this one much at all, though, to see him show up a little is enough for me most times.
IMG_1846Then there’s also the talented Lauren Ashley Carter who I’d first seen in The Woman and enjoyed. Then I caught her on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in a decent role. However, it wasn’t until the film Jug Face, which I own and love, that I saw what Carter is really made of. She has great range, as is evidenced by watching her across a couple films.
Here she plays a young woman whose family clearly has issues. She’s an alcoholic, her brother Martin (Brian Morvant) is most obviously a man with drug problems and all sorts of other compounded issues. It’s intriguing to watch her here, as opposed to Jug Face in particular, because this character is even more complex.
I really found the chemistry between Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her brother Ed (Dean Cates) worked very well. The beginning of the film for the first 10-15 minutes is a lot of them, alone together as they travel to give Martin a sort of impromptu intervention. It’s definitely a rocky relationship, though, we’re able to glean a sense of their family, their past, and it doesn’t require a huge amount of expository dialogue. There’s definitely some of it, but we get tons simply from how Ed and Lyla interact with one another. Once Martin actually comes into the picture, there’s plenty more family tension and further dynamics at work.
We get bunches of history about the family, especially Martin. Turns out he did something pretty terrible to a woman named Edith – flashes of a couple Polaroids with a VICIOUS BLOODY injury to her face come up really quick – he thought she was feeding him arsenic, that she was a spy of some sort. So it’s obvious why Ed, and to a lesser extent Lyla, is reluctant to initially believe anything Martin is saying. No matter what horror may come later, at the time it’s certainly relatable and understandable; Martin’s got psychological issues, plus the fact he was in the military and who knows what he truly saw, but it’s affected him in some highly real ways due to delusional thought.
A while later, Ed reveals to Lyla that the woman named Edith was a nurse. Martin tried to essentially rip her face off and escape from the hospital. So again, we see more of why the siblings – mostly Ed as Lyla seems to believe Martin slightly – have a tough time trying to trust anything Martin might say.
This all sets up the drama of the family, but what that serves to do is make all the thriller and horror aspects of the script come out even more intensely, as we’re sort of riding alongside Ed and Lyla listening to the insanity of Martin before – BAM! – everything kicks in.
IMG_1847Loved the style of how the film was shot. Not only that, the sound design and the score helps the suspense and tension of so many scenes. One awesome bit is just before the 30 minute mark, as Martin retells the story of waking up in a government lab; he’s a soldier who’s clearly seen some SHIT. But what I love is the score, the sound design with its crackling fuzzy noises slamming loud with the music at the right intervals, and all the while we’re closing in on the door of the cabin Martin has locked. There are scratches around the door, near the locks, it’s clear something is in there whether brother Ed wants to believe it or not. Definitely creepy style.
This sets up a really great atmosphere, another aspect of what I love about good horrors and thrillers; any films really. If a nice atmosphere and tone can keep up throughout a movie, then there’s a good chance no matter what I’ll walk away with something positive to think and feel about it, even if not every aspect is great. What Pod absolutely has going for it is a tense atmosphere throughout, a dark and sketchy tone.
One amazing, brief shot is after Ed pulls Lyla off to talk in private. There’s an excellent slow motion style shot, as Lyla stares wide-eyed at Martin while heading upstairs; she sees her brother grabbing his head, like a million voices are pounding his brain, and he looks so tortured you can almost feel his pain.
IMG_1845There’s a genuinely shocking moment near the 50 minute mark. I knew Martin was pretty crazy, despite the obvious weird happenings at the cabin, however I couldn’t see what he did coming. Not by a long shot. I don’t want to spoil anything too much, so I won’t say exactly what it was, but be prepared! It’s not vicious, definitely gory though. Mostly it’s just a good, solid shock that puts the final half hour into a really thrilling frame.
Once Ed and Lyla open up the padlocked door in the cabin, I thought the room itself was superbly creepy. It’s cast in this reddish light, there are drawings and doodles everywhere, writing on pages just tacked to every open space on the wall – the set design and anyone who worked on the room sure spent a nice bit of time making the place look like the stronghold of an insane man. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, but the way Keating directs these scenes it’s definitely tense and has a spooky air of mystery.
My most exciting moment, personally, during the film is when we get the first bits in the basement. Ed is walking around with a flashlight, and at first it seems like we’re simply watching an angled shot of him, when in reality it’s a view from the eye of the pod, or whatever it is hiding down there. VERY VERY EFFECTIVE! I loved this moment because it was a nice touch, unexpected and a little unnerving at the same time, too.
IMG_1844I’m not saying that Pod is a perfect movie, not at all. My problem is that when I went online to see what people were saying, so many moviegoers – likely many of whom pirated the film instead of paying for the pleasure – seem to say “Oh it’s like an hour of arguing and screaming”. There is plenty of arguing, definitely some screaming at points, but what did you expect? This is a riveting family drama for the first quarter or so, then it plunges into a mystery thriller before hitting the horror stride full-on within the last half hour. I mean, there’s no real doubt Ed and Martin would be yelling at one another. First of all, Martin’s psychologically damaged, he’s probably taking some drugs, Ed is completely fed up with his brother. Naturally there will be some fighting. So I just can’t agree with anybody saying this is ALL arguing and yelling. It’s not. Plus, this is a horror film and there are intense scenes of – you guessed it – horror. So I don’t see it as totally unrealistic that maybe people would be yelling at certain points. You don’t think you’d be frightened? Not even when a hideous, terrifying creature of some sort is coming up the stairs out of the dark after you? I call bullshit.
IMG_1842 IMG_1843With one whopper of a final 20 minutes, I can’t say that Pod is a bad film. Honestly when I go on IMDB and I see that a good indie horror film, with sci-fi elements, has a low rating like 4.5 (which would equate to about a 2 out of 5 star rating by my site’s terms), I’m consistently amazed at how lame a lot of people rating online have become. What’s so bad about this movie you’ve got to rate it THAT low? The acting isn’t bad. Lauren Ashley Carter does a great job as Lyla, Dean Cates is solid in his role as the caring and serious brother Ed, but can you really deny that Brian Morvant did a terrific job with the character of Martin? If you say he’s no good, I just feel you’re kidding yourself. It was a frenetic performance and it came off well.
I did love the inclusion of Fessenden, at the same time his character and how quick that aspect lurches into the film is one of my only big problems with Pod. I’m fine with the whole angle of someone protecting the pod, or having a part in the pod being there – whatever. The part I cannot abide is how swift that part came on, there’s no real buildup to this scene. I’m not asking to have things spelled out for me, though, there’s no way I can jive with how suddenly Fessenden’s character showed up and what he’s done (I won’t spoil it fully).
Ultimately, I’ve got to say this is a 3.5 out of 5 star film. There’s an intensely horrific final 30 minutes, beginning with a gory throat cut then introducing the alien/pod in the basement, which all ramps up to the creepy and messy finale as Ed faces off against whatever the thing is Martin had been warning him of all along. The effects are KILLER here and I thought the pod/alien design all around was so perfect! The sounds it makes at the end while fighting with Ed are outrageous, I loved it. Unsettling piece of horror with that small sci-fi twist.
See this and absolutely DO NOT pay attention to all the slagging going on over at IMDB and other online sources. People who probably don’t appreciate film are the ones commenting, I see many of them brag they’ve not paid for it in any way and downloaded it for free, so honestly I don’t take people that seriously if they’re not willing to pay for films. Just sours my view on someone’s perspective when they’re robbing filmmakers then shitting all over their movies.
So get a copy legally, watch it, then tell me how you feel. I’m not saying everyone will love it, merely I believe this deserves more attention than the people online are giving it. They’ve clearly not paid attention to the worthy aspects of Mickey Keating’s film because there are likeable elements which I enjoyed a great deal. Nice little indie horror film for a rainy day when you want to get creeped out.

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The Solid Action & Suspense of Mission: Impossible

Mission: Impossible. 1996. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by David Koepp & Robert Towne from a story by David Koepp/Steven Zaillian; based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Henry Czerny, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, and Rolf Saxon. Paramount Pictures.
Rated PG. 110 minutes.
Action/Adventure/Thriller

★★★★1/2
mission-impossible-poster
There are certain movies out of the 1990s I remember fondly because they’re titles I’d rent on the weekend and watch with my parents. They were always pretty good about letting me watch a lot of things, as long as my little sister wasn’t around, and depending on how crazy it was they would probably watch it with me. But even before that, when I lived with my grandparents – my grandfather was a member of Columbia House when it was in its prime and he’d get like 9 VHS tapes for such a low price. So their place was full of old movies on VHS; I saw tons of stuff I probably shouldn’t have seen at ages 7-8.
Mission: Impossible is one of those movies I remember seeing after it came out on video. My parents and I rented it, I remember enjoying it so much it was one of those films I’d watch over and over. Honestly, I think Brian De Palma did an excellent job directing this with a great deal of suspense and tension, plus there’s the fact I think it’s a pretty damn good adaptation from the original 1966 series. No doubt hardcore fans of the original television series might not enjoy it, however, I think they modernized it, updated things just well enough while keeping the spirit of the original to make it something interesting.

When Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) heads to Prague on another mission with his IMF team – including wife Claire (Emannuelle Béart) and top agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) among others – things begin as per usual. Unfortunately, there is an incredible failure during this new mission; a fatal failure. But no one is sure who did what to cause the chaos.
After he is left the sole survivor in a massacre which sees Phelps and Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), among others, all die at the mysterious hands of an outsider, Ethan Hunt is accused of mutiny and the failure of their mission is pinned on him. With the help of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), and even a shadowy arms dealer named Max (Vanessa Redgrave), Hunt goes underground, using everything and everyone at his disposal in order to uncover exactly what has been happening. Most importantly, he hopes to find out who laid waste to his colleagues from the IMF and why they hoped he would be framed.
still-of-tom-cruise-and-kristin-scott-thomas-in-mission--impossible-(1996)-large-pictureAbove all else, I think De Palma does well by crafting a genuine atmosphere of suspense because while there’s action here, it would come off like any other action film were there no such feeling to the movie. It follows along with the flow of the plot well. As we start, things are light and fun – the team feel in sync with one another, joking, laughing, generally acting as if being secret undercover agents in a dangerous high stakes type of game is no big deal. However, this quickly cuts from that lighthearted feel to one of tension. As the IMF team, one by one, are dispatched, the tension gets thicker. Even the way in which De Palma has the scenes go, the fog on the night air almost seems to intensify with the plot’s movement. Everything is shrouded, until finally it’s Ethan left; things clear off, he is the only one living, and then there are the police. This sets up how the next segments will feel, as we move into the heavy mystery of Mission: Impossible.

Something I’ve always loved about this movie is how there’s a ton of action, but it’s not a load of gunshots and muzzle flares and smashing objects, walls and other set-pieces filled with bullet holes. I find it’s all intense action while not having to resort to the typical gunplay with which so many other American action/crime/thriller movies seem to be obsessed. This is where that ever present air of suspense and tension helps.
While many films might’ve flubbed the scene where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) suspends himself down over the lasers, in that high tech security room from Thieves Hell, De Palma makes this so insanely tense you can almost feel Tom’s butthole clench just watching it. It’s great stuff because what could be so simple and visually unappealing at the hands of another director becomes the stuff of action movie legend under the guidance of Brian De Palma. He doesn’t have a perfect track record as a director – but honestly who in the hell does? Not even Kubrick for those typical film fans who say he’s perfect; he was amazing but not perfect – but I think De Palma is absolutely one of the greats of American cinema. No doubt in my mind about that. Here, he shows why he’s a master of the craft.
The entire sequence leading up to the ‘suspended above lasers’ moment is classic. Well filmed, nice pace, and the set they used for that is very cool. Always loved the way De Palma includes the shot showing a drop of perspiration slipping off a plastic cup, setting off the alarm in the laser protected room; such a perfect zoom in close on the cup as Ethan Hunt describes the security inside. Not sure why I particularly enjoy that little moment, but it’s always one that strikes me for whatever reason.
still-of-tom-cruise-and-henry-czerny-in-mission--impossible-(1996)Ever the fan of Alfred Hitchcock, as so many are, De Palma has a magnificent shot a little over 30 minutes in which reminds me of the staircase in Vertigo (which is my personal favourite Hitchcock). I don’t know if that was intentional, or simply a wonderfully coincidental shot that came up from the use of that location, but either way it is awesome. A wonderful homage. The camera rotates opposite the staircase and it creates a neat effect. Disorienting slightly, in a good way.
One of my favourite scenes is when Ethan uses his explosive gum. The way it’s shot, the angles De Palma frames each one, there’s a good pace of suspense up until the explosion, then Hunt is gone again. Not a long scene, it’s just well executed. De Palma goes for a lot of interesting low angles and tight close-ups in those suspenseful moments. Another great example is when Ethan first meets Max (Redgrave) and they’re watching for a signal – something simple, once more, becomes impressive because of the precise, honed direction. Has all the earmarks of a fabulous thriller.
mission-impossible-DIThough I do like a couple of the other Mission: Impossible films, it’s easy to see the distinction between this and every other one. I was even a huge fan of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, though, there is still no comparing it the original in this series of films. I mean, there’s such a genuine measure of tension built up throughout almost every scene, or every second one, that the movie never seems to let you go. Start to finish. From those opening bits, as the IMF team watch Ethan Hunt do his thing – mask and all – to the incredibly subtle, suspenseful moments as Ethan is being lowered into the ultra secure room at Langley a.k.a CIA Headquarters in Virginia; every important piece is shot in such a way that the maximum suspense comes out. Most of the franchise after the first movie seems to rely heavily on massive, epic-style set-pieces alongside fast paced action sequences and gunfire, as well as the odd explosion and demolition. I’m not saying that’s no good because with movies such as Mission: Impossible, you do come looking for a certain degree of explosive, big Hollywood budget type action movie stuff.
However, Brian De Palma gives us so much more. Almost each shot is deliberately framed which aids in setting the pace, and in turn the tension. Even in Ghost Protocol which I enjoyed to the fullest, there’s not the same type of tense atmosphere and tone created in any of the sequences, it’s mostly balls to the wall sort of filmmaking. Again, nothing wrong. Just different here. De Palma makes this more than another action flick, and more than a reboot of some old television series (something ALL too familiar now in 2015) – this is a genuine thriller, with mystery to boot, and there’s a bonafide sense of old school filmmaking from an old school director.
screen shot 2015-07-27 at 2.00.12 pmWhile my only complaint is mostly a bit of the acting (mainly Jon Voight who I find personally is either hit or big miss), I think the script itself is pretty solid. Lots of good twisty-turny corners and red herring-like activity going on, which fits perfectly with Brian De Palma who, as I mentioned, comes from the school of directors who pretty much worship Hitchcock. Overall, I’ve got to say this is a solid 4.5 out of 5 star film. A few things could’ve been improved on, but I think ultimately so much of this is pure excitement, thrill, and suspense/tension that it’s hard to deny how great of a film it is. Not to mention De Palma’s direction elevates this above all the general tripe we get calling itself action these days.
Naturally, there are some over-the-top elements absolutely. However, I think the way De Palma plays with everything, plus the fact the script knows exactly what it is and what it aims to do, really helps make it all so very worth it. Boasting an impressive performance by Tom Cruise, including his penchant for trying to do as much of his own stunt work as possible, Mission: Impossible is one of my all-time favourite action movies; it has everything from intensity to a drop of humour, and don’t forget there’s an expertly cultivated atmosphere at the hands of De Palma which would never have made it to the screen had this film been helmed by anyone else.

Zack Parker’s PROXY: Twisting Tales of Extraordinary Madness

Proxy. 2014.  Dir. Zack Parker.
Starring Kristina Klebe, Joe Swanberg, Alexa Havins, and Alexia Rasmussen. IFC Midnight. Unrated. 120 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★★
proxy-poster-rhinos-horror
Previously, I’ve seen Zack Parker’s work with his earlier film Scalene, which I actually really enjoyed. Perhaps enjoy is not the best verb to describe the experience of that film, but either way it was effective, and I knew I wanted to see more from Parker. While filmed in 2013, this didn’t hit Canada until 2014. This is by far one of the best movies I saw last year. There is no doubt. Parker provides not only several gruesome moments to make this partly a horror film, he does an excellent job of intertwining several stories into one overall plot and allowing it to flow together coherently. A lesser filmmaker might get lost trying to wrap a few stories into one thrilling plot, Parker does so with a lot of grace, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to bring up its similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Proxy starts off with Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) walking home after a check-up appointment with her doctor, as she’s very far along in her pregnancy. On the way, Esther is knocked out by someone in a red hooded sweatshirt, and terribly assaulted; the attacker smashes her belly in over and over with a brick. The baby is pronounced dead, but Esther survives. Afterwards, having no real family or friends, Esther goes to support groups where she ends up becoming friends with a woman named Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins), who says her husband and little boy were killed by a drunk driver. However, Esther sees Melanie in a department store later yelling that her son has been kidnapped, looking for help. After Melanie leaves the store, though, Esther sees her bringing out the very alive boy to be “found”. From here, things begin to spin out of control, as Melanie is exposed, and Esther herself is not everything she truly seems.
Soon, one vicious event begins a domino effect that ultimately affects the lives of everyone involved with both Esther and Melanie.
Zack-Parker_web3To say anything else about the plot of this film would be to ruin the movie for anyone who has yet to see it. While I’ve said a bit, the best comes once things really kick into gear after Esther sees Melanie with her child. I honestly had no idea where Proxy would end. This is one of the few films to really throw me for a loop. This is great because the plot structure really reminds me a lot of Psycho. Whereas the Hitchcock classic begins focused on Marion Crane and then grimly switches gears when Norman Bates is introduced into the mix, Proxy also begins with a character who sort of walks us cinematically into the real plot of the film when Esther finds out her friend Melanie is a con-artist, and then everything unfolds. It’s a beautiful way to structure things.
Zack-Parker_web5I know there are similarities to other films, but I really believe Parker fixed in on some great Hitchcock-style techniques, specifically those in Psycho. For instance, the score is really gorgeous and dark and sneaky. There are moments where tension ratchets up because Parker has such an enormous, sweeping score that makes those emotional and tense moments come across even more effectively. Just as Hitchcock had those strings in the right places for Psycho, as does Parker here with his film. I think, these days, suspense and tension are often left by the wayside in the hands of certain directors. Parker is not one of those. He keeps things very unsettling and you’re never sure of the ground you’re treading on. This film keeps coming and coming until there’s nothing left to your nerves.
Zack-Parker_web2I’ve always liked Joe Swanberg, and while there are some great performances by both Anika Barön, as well as Alexa Havins, I think he really does some of the best work going on in Proxy. The story is centered on the women of the film, however, Swanberg is one of the characters most affected by everything which happens in the plot. Without ruining too much, you really see the pain in this character come through in Swanberg. He’s great at playing normal people. That probably has to do with the fact he directs his own stuff, and acts in a lot, almost constantly. He does a lot of films. And most are highly independent, so they usually go for a quite realistic approach. I think this makes Swanberg a great fit for the role. His performance is nice and subdued. The overall plot made me feel bad for his character, but his abilities as an actor make things all the more sympathetic. Really great stuff.
Alexa Havins has to be mentioned, as well. It’s impossible not to comment on her great acting. The character she plays, Melanie, is absolutely warped – beyond belief. I think the character could have easily come off much to theatrical and overblown. Havins plays this great. There are times she really comes across as a scary monster; I wouldn’t doubt there are people out there so consumed with a need for attention to the point they would do the most awful things imaginable. It’s an effective performance, and the character’s story really draws you in with Havins playing it so appropriately.
proxy_01_largeThis is one of the best films from last year, but it’s also one of the better  movies I’ve seen in the last decade. Especially films in the horror genre. There are plenty of wild moments, in terms of blood and otherwise, however, this film really works on a horror level like Hitchcock’s Psycho. Parker does throw in a more than acceptable amount of blood and gore. Mainly what he does is make things into a psychological nightmare. While we begin the film feeling as if certain characters are the worst of the ensemble, later events come to change those opinions, and it’s just a really interesting character piece wrapped up in horror & thriller elements. This is flawless. A great modern horror masterpiece, and I continue to wait on more great work by Zack Parker.