30 October, 2010

The Screaming Axe

If you haven't already heard (or noticed the new link in the column to your right), I've started a new blog. Not to replace this blog, but to supplement it. It's a music/movie review blog, and it's where I'm going to post all my music and movie reviews (and perhaps related posts) from now on. I'm looking into the possibility of making some change off of it from the traffic, but one step at a time - and even if I don't, I still think it's a great idea for me to have this blog. So go check it out. It's not really snazzed up yet, but I've already started posting some content, so give it a look. And feel free to tell me what you think of it.

The Screaming Axe

22 October, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

How does a movie cause a grown man to be scared to go to bed at night? Do you know how, when you climb into bed, your mind starts reviewing the things you've seen and done and said throughout the day, as you begin to drift off to sleep? And do you know, the way that a nightmare makes you feel? When you wake up from it, and your skin is tingling, and you're sweating, and you turn the light on just to push away the darkness? And you try extra hard not to think about what happened in your nightmare, because the mere thought of it gets you frightened, and you know, that if you don't push it out of your mind, the second you close your eyes, it'll come back, and you won't be able to get back to a peaceful sleep?

Now imagine a movie that makes you feel the way a nightmare makes you feel. It gets you frightened and all tingly. And then think about trying to go to bed after watching that movie. Your thoughts keep straying unavoidably toward the movie, and each time you think about it, you get scared all over again. The only way to sleep like this is to try your hardest to push those thoughts out of your mind, long enough to slip into a hopefully dreamless and restful sleep. Hopefully.

Paranormal Activity 2 follows the same basic formula as the first one. This is a good thing insofar as the first one's formula was a success (I mean at being scary, not at making money, regardless of whether or not that is also true), so it's basically taking a winning formula and using it again. The potential drawback is that the movie may become overly repetitive and predictable. The predictability didn't bother me much, seeing as, even if you know the direction it's headed, you still can't know exactly what's going to happen when; and the repetitiveness didn't bother me either, as I felt they added enough new elements to this film to make it a novel experience in comparison to the first.

One of those is the cast. In the first movie, you had a lonely couple struggling with their ghost problems. In this one, you have a whole family - mom, dad, vulnerable toddler, loyal watchdog, and, my favorite, cute teenage daughter. You might think more people means less scary, but that didn't really turn out to be the case. We also get, in addition to the handheld camera POV we had in the first movie, a whole security system set up inside the house, with multiple stationary views of the house, with night vision, allowing for more consistent coverage of the hauntings.

And another thing, I felt that they successfully upped the ante in terms of the hauntings in this movie, which is exactly what I would expect from a sequel. It's hard to talk about the scares without spoiling the surprise, so if you haven't seen the movie yet, you might not want to read the next few sentences. The whole pool cleaner thing was far more funny than scary, but it was clearly intended to be that way, and the humor enhanced the audience's sympathy for the characters, I think. My favorite specific haunting is probably when the cupboards shoot open. I felt that was very creepy/effective. But I really can't say anything bad about any of the scares. I felt satisfied by the climax, which, as frightening as the first movie's was, this one was even more chaotic and exciting.

One of the other interesting aspects of this movie is that it manages to be as much a prequel to the first one as a sequel. Most of the action in the movie occurs before the setting of the previous installment, and the plot fleshes out much of what happened in that one, giving it more perspective, and answering some questions. Yet, the movie experience itself, the way that it expands on the first, feels very much like a sequel, so I think it's interesting that the movie manages to be both sequel and prequel simultaneously. And without spoiling too much, the ending very obviously leaves room for a third installment.

I had an observation while watching this movie, which is worthy of mentioning. We go to a movie like this to be scared - essentially for the purpose of entertainment. Of course, if we sympathize with the characters, the idea of being taunted and terrorized by a ghost or demonic spirit is sick and sadistic, and our natural feeling is to say, "stop, why are you doing this?" And you start to think, what is it like from the demon's perspective? Is he scaring these people just for his own amusement? And then you realize, we're sitting here watching this movie, and scared as we are, in the backs of our minds, we're secretly thinking, "I hope the demon does something horrible", because we know it will make for a great scare, and will thus greatly entertain us. And so, it seems, we are participating in the torture, we are, in effect, allying with the demon's sadistic games, and while simultaneously fearing for the characters we want to continue watching their torture...

Paranormal Activity 2 was a great film. I think it was even better than the first, and it's fully possible that it was even scarier (to me) than the first. That's a hard thing to gauge, because fear is subjective, but there's no question that it was at least as scary as the first. I'm excited to be able to say that I went and saw it at its opening midnight showing - and I survived my first night after viewing it! No nightmares so far, but I had to go to sleep with the light on and the radio playing.

It was fun watching the movie last night with a packed audience. As is always the case, sometimes they'll react in certain ways or at certain times that interfere with the flow of the film as you're perceiving it, but it was a mostly constructive atmosphere, in which they laughed at the jokes and jumped at the scares - and it's always fun to experience that type of communal atmosphere, when you can tell that other people are enjoying the movie, too. I think there were actually some girls crying, and possibly somebody who had to run out in the middle of the show (can't say for sure it was due to fear, but one can speculate). I myself felt the tears streaming down my cheek at one point. I wasn't crying out loud, but just the intenseness of the fear was permeating my body, causing me to have that kind of a reaction. Terrifying. Awesome. I'd like to see a third installment in this series, but the bar is set high. I can imagine some angles that would work, though. I guess only time will tell.

20 October, 2010

25 Movie Halloween Marathon

I was just confronted with an irresistible prompt on the classic rock forums (yes, I know, it's a music forum, not a movie forum), asking what 25 movies I would pick for a Halloween weekend marathon. Usually, making lists of this sort is a lot of hard work, and I tend to avoid it rather than risk battling my perfectionist impulses. But in this case, I couldn't resist. I committed myself to picking out the best 25 horror movies I could think of in a reasonable amount of time, with an eye towards what would be good in a public Halloween marathon (so I wanted to have variety, and focus on some of the classics of the genre, but every title is one I'm proud to put on there, and that I'd enjoy watching on Halloween weekend), and this is what I came up with. I will talk you through my selections.

We start with the quintessential slasher trio. If you think Halloween and horror movies, you can't avoid thinking of slashers. And it's rather convenient that the first one we start with is actually titled Halloween - John Carpenter's groundbreaking film that is the epitome of slasherdom. We follow that up with its slasher cousins, Friday the 13th, and the supernatural A Nightmare on Elm Street.

We'll supplement this trio with the gruesome Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and follow that with Motel Hell, to add some humor and lighten the mood - briefly. And speaking of Hell, we'll throw in the great Hellraiser, which also successfully weaves humor with unquestionable horror. And then we'll toss in The Howling, because every Halloween movie marathon needs at least one good werewolf film.

Now begins our zombie sub-marathon. We shall present the original George Romero trilogy with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (all original versions). And if watching the progression of the zombie apocalypse isn't fun enough, we'll finish with The Return of the Living Dead, with just enough humor to revive your cold fear-stricken corpse and prepare it for the rest of the weekend marathon.

Next up we'll run Dario Argento's Suspiria, which provides a terrifyingly beautiful audio-visual setpiece for Halloween, and introduces us to a mini-theme on witches and paganism. This will continue with the original version of The Wicker Man, and follow into The Blair Witch Project, the first of a "reality horror" double shot that includes Paranormal Activity.

Now with ghosts on the mind, we shall present the special effects-laden Poltergeist, a far cry from the previous low budget reality horror. That will lead into The Exorcist, widely regarded as one of the most terrifying films of all time. Fear of the devil will serve you well as we continue with Jacob's Ladder, one of my favorite horror films of all time, and a truly terrifying psychological puzzle of a movie.

After descending the ladder, we will ascend to the heavens, but instead of the divine, we'll find Alien - another terrifying classic! We'll come back down to earth for the overlooked Fire in the Sky, an effectively frightening telling of the standard alien abduction tale. And then we'll confront John Carpenter's The Thing (from another world), buried deep in the Antarctic ice.

And while we're digging, we may as well go spelunking and experience cave-horror The Descent. The paranoia is enhanced by claustrophobia. This will kick off the final leg of the marathon - modern horror. The vampires come out in the next feature - 30 Days of Night - this nightmare taking place amidst the Alaskan ice. The marathon closes with a modern two-shot resurrection of apocalyptic zombie horror - 28 Days Later, and its sequel 28 Weeks Later. If you can survive all of that, you must be a hero.

Here is the list, for reference:

Halloween (1978)
Friday the 13th (1980)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Motel Hell (1980)
Hellraiser (1987)
The Howling (1981)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Suspiria (1977)
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Paranormal Activity (2007)

Poltergeist (1982)
The Exorcist (1973)
Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Alien (1979)
Fire in the Sky (1993)
John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

The Descent (2005)
30 Days of Night (2007)
28 Days Later (2002)
28 Weeks Later (2007)

Go ahead and tell me which movies I left out, and I'll tell you why I left them out (or how I managed to forget them!). I'm considering putting Evil Dead in there, because even though the sequels are more humorous than horrific, and the fanbase is kind of...not in tune with my style...the first one was pretty good, to be honest.

I might swap out The Wicker Man for that one, because as much as I adore The Wicker Man (and I do), and as terrifying as the ending is, it's kind of less of a straight horror, and I'm a little concerned that it's more seasonally appropriate for the spring than the fall. That's the reason why I didn't include Black Christmas, because it just belongs at Christmas and not Halloween. But the truth is, Christian holiday sensibilities are far more ingrained in the public consciousness than pagan ones are.

And as for the werewolf movie, I do really like The Howling, but I'm not convinced it's the best werewolf movie I'll ever see, necessarily. I've heard good things about one called Dog Soldiers, which I intend to watch, hopefully between now and Halloween if I get the chance. I can't predict that it'll make me change my mind, though.

There is one obvious omission from the above list, and that's a good Asian horror. I chose not to include Audition because it's a little...intense...and also kind of a slow burner. Creepy movie, but I wasn't sure it fit in the context of the marathon. I'd put in Ju-on (a.k.a. The Grudge), which I really liked (all those years ago that I watched it), but I'll confess the true reason I didn't include an Asian horror title. I don't feel that I've seen enough of them to know which titles are the "classics" (apart from which ones were popular enough to be remade in America) and which are truly the "best", and I don't want to throw one on just because I've seen it and liked it. But if I did want to, I could see myself putting Ju-on up there in the ghost block.

Anything else? You'll notice the majority of these films are "serious" horrors, with a couple exceptions for breathing space. That's just because I'm more into serious movies, and those exceptions are just the few funnier ones I've seen that stand far enough above the crowd that I don't feel uncomfortable placing them alongside the others.

One thing you don't see is anything older than 1968. Sorry, not trying to be ageist, but I think the whole aesthetic of horror films pre-70s-ish is just fundamentally different from that of the films listed above. So, apologies to Monster Mash fans, but no Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Wolfman, or Boo Berry here.

I did briefly consider Carnosaur, but that opens up a whole new world of low budget, b movie, and grindhouse/exploitation films. Perhaps that could be a whole different marathon. No Attack of the Giant Killer Iguanas (or similar) here either, because that type of old movies tends to be more cheesy than scary.

Also, I didn't consider Horrorfest movies at all, because they're too indie and non-mainstream. I would definitely put Autopsy on that list without shame, though. And maybe a few others. But that opens up yet another can of worms, and let's just leave those worms in the can, shall we?

19 October, 2010

The Cell (2000)

The Cell starts out with a fascinating premise - experimental technology that allows one to dive into the dreamspace of a coma patient, presumably in the hopes of being able to coax the patient out of the coma from within, by confronting their demons and rearranging their mental states. Throw in a deranged serial killer and a race against time, and you've got a compelling plot. And the artistry of the dreamspaces fills in the gaps and fleshes out the surreal atmosphere of the film.

Said dreamspaces are indeed a wonder to behold. They add a lot of color (proverbially and literally), giving the film a fantasy element to counterbalance the very real horror at the heart of the story. And that horror comes in the form of a disturbed SM freak, who enjoys the torture of drowning young women in a custom-made sealed underground cell. After years of following him, the FBI manages to finally track him down, only to lose him to a sudden attack of a rare form of schizophrenia that puts him in a coma. Meanwhile, he had just picked up his latest victim the night before, and she has hours to live, if the FBI can't find her. Trouble is, the killer is the only one who knows where she is, and he's definitely not talking - whether he'd want to or not. And so they must enter his mind and coax out his secret.

It's hard to criticize this film, because it's very unique and very dreamy, and is such a great premise. I like the idea of "going into a serial killer's mind", as morbid as that is. I'm fascinated with the concept of the "origin of evil", and what drives a person to commit unspeakable acts. Yet I felt a little unfulfilled on that count. There were some pretty creepy scenes, but I had the feeling that they didn't go quite deep enough into the killer's darkness, or stay there long enough. In the end, I think the fantasy won out over the horror, though horrific it was, and though the fantasy was impressive.

One part that captivated me was a discussion during a break from mind-diving, between the trained coma-counselor and the FBI agent. He explained the killer's traumatic history, and she expressed sympathy for what he had been through. The movie addresses the morally difficult questions of whether a killer is born or bred, and whether we should feel sympathy for him. She wants to heal his shattered soul, which I would argue is the noble and righteous thing to do, yet there is an argument to be made for the simple elimination of evil of this level.

But what captivated me was how the counselor believed that a rough childhood could explain a life of heinous crime, yet the FBI agent was convinced that it wasn't sufficient. When challenged, he didn't explain, but merely spoke in certain terms that he knew for a fact, that a person could go through much worse and not grow up to have a desire to do such terrible things to another human being. I believe him. I think such trauma can certainly contribute to a terrible outcome, but I don't think that's the necessary outcome, that another person could come through it differently. I think there is both nurture and nature at work. Yet I can still sympathize with the killer, without in any way condoning his crimes.

However, the FBI agent's conviction convinced me that he must have experienced much worse as a child, having come through it virtuously, so when it came his turn to dive into the mind of the killer, I thought there would come a chance for his demons to be explored. I don't think that really happened, and I was a bit disappointed that the plot didn't seem to follow through on that point. Maybe I was seeing more into that discussion than was meant to be there. In any case, I really do like the premise of going inside people's minds, and I want to see more of it!

17 October, 2010

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

The Midnight Meat Train is disturbing. And for a movie based on a short story by Clive Barker, I'd say that's just about right. I meant to see this film back when it was released in theaters (barely), since I had recently read the story, but I didn't get a chance on account of the distributors (or whoever was in charge) sabotaging it. Now that I've finally seen it, it's been too long for me to compare it to the original story, as all I can remember are the main details. But what's important is that the film successfully captures the essence of the story and channels Clive Barker's twisted imagination.

I don't remember whether this was part of the plot in the original story, but I liked the main character's role as a photographer, trying to make it in New York City. As a photographer myself (though not a street photographer), I could relate to his struggle to get the shots he needed - the really good shots, that would impress people and get his foot in the door, and that would fulfill his dream of finding the true heart of the city (a destiny he would fulfill in a most unexpected way). It was really palpable the danger this photographer put himself in the middle of, all for the sake of being in the right place and the right time, in order to get that magic shot. And that one shot of the gangbanger, it really was just as captivating as the plot required it to be. This movie really made me think about what it takes to be a good photographer, and the kind of risks you have to take. That alone is kind of scary, and we haven't even touched on the serial killer in the story yet.

The gore in this movie was pretty heavy. Some of the CGI was ridiculous, like the flying eyeballs. I'll admit, even as someone who can handle a gory movie (Cannibal Holocaust anyone?), I thought the gore was a little much. If you like that kind of thing, that's fine, but I could do without quite so much of it. On the other hand, there was only a tiny hint of nudity (I'm not counting the "meat" on the train, because that's just gross :p), and a really disturbing sex scene (pretty much fully clothed). But at least it was in tune with the Clive Barker aesthetic.

Spoiler Warning! Having read the story, I knew exactly where the movie was headed toward the end. And I'll say, it's a fantastic touch to the story. You got this mystery about a serial killer on the subway, and then at the end, there's this grotesque left turn into Lovecraftian horror. I was concerned about how the monsters at the end would be depicted in the movie, especially after seeing some of the ridiculous gore effects. I knew the depiction of the monsters would make or break the film for me. I'm happy to say that I was impressed with how it turned out. You didn't see a whole lot of them, so they weren't overexposed, but you saw enough to be freaked out, and they looked pretty convincing. And the ending itself, just gloriously horrifying, which is the way it should be.

This film is a cut above the standard modern dime-a-dozen horror fare, and I'm happy about that, as a fan of Clive Barker. As I've said, the gore is a bit heavy, but the most important thing is that this movie manages to get under your skin and freak you out, which is what horror films are supposed to do. Also, I think this is the first time I've seen a serial killer whose preferred killing tool is a meat tenderizer. Always points for originality. ;-)