Saturday, December 29, 2012

December Quick Picks and Pans

The American Scream (2012) Halloween may be over, but for a small group of dedicated individuals known as house haunters, planning for October 31st is a year-long process.  This surprisingly insightful documentary by Michael Stephenson (Best Worst Movie) follows three families in Fairhaven, Massachusetts that set up elaborate, immersive Halloween home displays.  We get an intimate look at what goes on behind the scenes to create these displays, some of which blur the line between amateur and professional efforts, and the people that make them happen.  Stephenson obviously has a lot of affection for his subject.  His documentary could easily have been an excuse to showcase the talents of a few eccentric goofballs, but instead takes the time to get to know the human stories behind the obsession.  The American Scream chooses to focus on the sense of community generated as family and friends band together for a common cause.  The film is currently available through streaming outlets or you can purchase it directly through the official web site.  Highly recommended.

Rating: ****.  Available on Netflix Streaming and Amazon Instant Video

Hansel & Gretel (2007) This bewildering adult fairy tale from writer/director Pil-Sung Yim is loosely based on the classic children’s tale.  While driving home to his wife and child, Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) loses control of his car and crashes.  He wakes up in a forest, and a young girl leads him to a house in the woods, where she and her siblings reside.  Everything seems a little too bright and saccharine sweet for Eun-Soo’s taste, but the trap has already sprung.  He’s become entangled in the children’s web, and escape is seemingly impossible.  The story plays a bit like the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone, but that’s over-simplifying things somewhat.  It’s a hallucinatory, nightmarish odyssey into a world fueled by childhood psychological trauma.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

 Saint Nick (aka: Sint) (2010) Writer/director Dick Maas’ (The Lift, Amsterdamned) Christmas-themed horror flick starts promising enough, with a prologue set in 1492, explaining Saint Nicholas’ (Huub Stapel) awful origins and inevitable demise.  The prologue continues in 1968, in which a boy witnesses the resurrected saint murdering his family.  The bulk of the film takes place in modern-day Amsterdam, as the boy, now a middle-aged cop (played by Bert Luppes), pursues Saint Nicholas in an effort to prevent more holiday bloodshed.  Saint Nick is sporadically entertaining, but never really takes off.  What begins as an offbeat take on Christmas traditions devolves into a rather pedestrian horror flick.  The paucity of interesting or likable characters makes it difficult to care who lives and who dies.  Saint Nicholas, who resembles a combination of Freddy Krueger and Santa Claus, never seems to display much logic in his selection of victims, picking off people randomly.  RareExports, this isn’t. 

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming (Note: the streaming version is dubbed in English)

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) I really wanted to like this movie.  Too bad it felt like a bunch of other movies slapped together, with all vestiges of coherence leeched out.  This pretentious, ponderous exercise plays like an early 80s Cronenberg film (think Scanners), and also borrows liberally from Kubrick, Argento and early George Lucas (THX 1138).   Beyond the Black Rainbow suffers from many of the same problems that plague 2009’s Amer, being far too derivative and self-conscious of its inspirations to stand on its own.  A few interesting visuals don’t compensate for all of the mumbling of quasi-profound dialogue, and scenes that drag on way too long.  Stay far away!

Rating: * ½.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Classics Revisited: Black Christmas

(1974) Directed by Bob Clark; Written by Roy Moore; Starring: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and John Saxon; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

Note: The following is an expanded version of the capsule review from last year’s feature, “Have Yourself a Contrary Little Christmas."

What’s a Christmas movie without John Saxon?  Hey, if we can associate the holiday with the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby or even Peter Billingsley, then maybe it’s time to add Mr. Saxon as tireless police inspector Lt. Fuller to the list.  The film might not appear particularly fresh to 21st century eyes and ears, but it must have raised a stir when it debuted in the early 70s.  The residents of a sorority house are being stalked by a psychopath, and methodically picked off one by one.  Black Christmas was a big hit in its native Canada, but initially failed to attract much attention in the U.S., where it was released under the alternate titles, Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger in the House (TV title).  In the years that followed, however, the little-slasher-film-that-could gradually gained a loyal following in the States and elsewhere.

Director Bob Clark, who would go on to direct the perennial holiday favorite A Christmas Story just nine years later, tweaked Roy Moore’s original script (originally titled Stop Me), adding touches of humor to an otherwise bleak story about a killer on the loose.  His lighter touch helped provide the right balance between light and dark.  Although the tone becomes increasingly serious as the plot advances, there are some surprising moments of levity early on. 

Olivia Hussey stars as sorority house resident Jess Bradford.  As her fellow sorority sisters begin to disappear, it’s apparent that she’s next on the killer’s list.  Her temperamental boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea) quickly becomes a suspect after they argue about the future of their relationship. He becomes increasingly unstable after she reveals that she’s pregnant and wants to have an abortion (It’s interesting to note that Jess wears a large cross around her neck).  Their exchange is significant, taken in the context of the time when this film was originally released, and that the Roe v. Wade decision in the States would have been fresh in the minds of filmgoers of the time.  Whether or not the filmmakers intended to make a statement for or against abortion rights is open to debate (and beyond the scope of this review), but the fact that these themes exist in the film sets Black Christmas apart from many of its lesser imitators.   

There’s some nice ensemble work by the other cast members who play residents of the sorority house.  Marian Waldman is amusing as the alcoholic house mother, Mrs. Mac (she hides her booze in every conceivable nook and cranny of the house).  Margot Kidder is another standout as Jess’ uninhibited, and acerbic house-mate Barb.  In one inspired scene, she discusses the mating habits of tortoises to one of her fellow residents’ uppity (and suitably horrified) father.  A pre-SCTV Andrea Martin, as the bookish Phyl, also helps provide some of the film’s lighter moments.

* In recent interviews, Hussey and Kidder provided somewhat conflicting views of the general atmosphere during filming.  Hussey described Kidder as being “distant” from the rest of the cast, while Kidder claimed that Hussey was very “serious,” and that she and co-star Martin tried to make her laugh on several occasions.

The aforementioned John Saxon brings his trademark intensity to the role of Lt. Fuller.  Clark originally started filming with veteran actor Edmond O'Brien as Fuller, but was forced to leave the production due to complications from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  Thankfully, Saxon (who was the first actor Clark had in mind for the role) agreed to replace O’Brien, and made the last-minute trek to Toronto.

The phone calls from the crazed killer, arguably more unsettling than the murders themselves, are the creepiest aspect of Black Christmas.  Instead of utilizing one actor, three different individuals’ voices were combined (including the director, Nick Mancuso and an unidentified actress), and consisted of improvised dialogue that departed from the original script.  Another effective aspect was the then-revolutionary (and often-copied) use of POV shots, to show the audience the killer’s perspective.  Thanks to cinematography by Reginald Morris, and a camera rig designed by Albert Dunk, we follow the killer’s disorienting path as he stalks the hallways of the sorority house and climbs the trellis outside.

One of the conceits of Black Christmas (possible spoiler alert) is that we never learn the identity of the killer.  Interviews with several cast members failed to yield much in the way of clues.  If Clark had someone in mind, he remained mum on the subject.  It’s this combination of intentional ambiguity, along with healthy doses of humor and suspense that have contributed to the film’s cult classic status.  Unlike many other genre films, there seems to be something to appeal to virtually everyone, possibly explaining how it acquired a host of diverse admirers over the years, from Elvis Presley to Steve Martin.  It’s become a family tradition in some households, joining the ranks of White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life and Clark’s own A Christmas Story, as a ubiquitous holiday staple.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

48 fps – There and Back Again

Much has already been said about the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 fps* (also known as High Frame Rate, or HFR), with critics and film enthusiasts sharply divided into “love” and “hate” camps.  Before 48 fps and The Hobbit became a moot point and (gasp!) the new norm, I thought it was time to throw in my two cents.  I was “fortunate” enough to catch the film in a theater (The Alamo Drafthouse South) with projection equipment capable of showcasing the new process.  As I understand it, the primary advantage of the higher framerate is a smoother, ultra-high resolution image, which theoretically makes 3D easier on the eyes.  While the level of detail was certainly impressive, it also left me all too cognizant of the artificiality of the effects.  This was especially noticeable in the Rivendell scene, in which the CGI-rendered backdrop of Rivendell reminded me of one of those old Hamm’s beer lighted signs with the moving waterfall in the background.  Suddenly, The Hobbit seemed like a stage show, performed by a repertory troupe.  My wife was similarly unimpressed with this new, “innovative” process, likening it to a live-action popup book.  Instead of being whisked away by the immersive experience that director Peter Jackson likely intended, I felt somewhat detached from the action.  To be fair, I realize that we could be experiencing a technology in its infancy, without all of the bugs worked out.  Maybe it’s simply a matter of refining 48 fps, dialing it back a bit, to modulate that sense of hyper-reality (or the “uncanny valley” as some coined it).  For now, however, at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, I’m looking forward to watching it again in good old standard 2D, 24 fps.

* You can find a brief explanation of 48 fps, along with a discussion of the pros and cons here

Okay, so how was the movie, projection aside?  Short answer: It’s still worth seeing, if you temper your expectations.  On its journey from book to film, The Hobbit experienced a long, troubled road to production.  The finished product is clearly a compromise between Peter Jackson and the production companies. Considering the box office returns generated by the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the amount of money necessary to bring The Hobbit to life, Jackson was likely under enormous pressure to create a new trilogy with the scope and breadth of the original films.  As a result, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey appears to be riding the coattails of the good will generated by Jackson’s first foray into Middle Earth.  The source material, a comparatively short novel, could easily have been transformed into one 3-hour movie, but now it’s being broken into two 3-hour parts, with a third film presumably veering off on a tangent from the book (based on Tolkien’s scribblings?).   There are some fun cameos, including welcome faces from The Lord of the Rings films, but this only contributes to the perception that the filmmakers had to keep adding things in to pad out the material.  I’m not a big fan of the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit, but it’s interesting to note that they managed to tell the whole story in less than 90 minutes.  Some critics found fault with The Hobbit’s lighter tone, but I don’t really have a problem with that.  The book was aimed at a younger audience, compared to The Lord of the Rings.  If The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its yet-to-be released sequels had preceded The Lord of the Rings films, it’s likely that the jump in tone would have barely registered on anyone’s critical radar.  Misgivings aside, I’m sure I’ll be there for the second installment of The Hobbit.  P.T. Barnum would be proud.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


(2012) Directed by Elias; Written by Elias; Starring: Jason Vail, Nicholas Wilder and Sarah Schoofs;  Available on Amazon Instant Video

Rating: ** ½

At one point or another, we’ve all probably watched something that we wished we hadn’t.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could just take that moment back?  But here’s another thing about viewing something that’s profoundly upsetting… How many times did we actually stop watching the offending video, and how many times did we continue to soldier on, out of a reluctance to lose face among our peers or voyeuristic compulsion?  Writer/director Elias (Yep, just Elias, like Cher) explores this conundrum in his horror thriller Gut.


Tom (Jason Vail) feels trapped in a general malaise, caught in a quagmire of family life, a dead-end job and a stagnant friendship.  He works alongside his best buddy from childhood, Dan (Nicholas Wilder).  While Tom has grown up, Dan is stuck in a perennial state of adolescence.  Dan can’t understand why his friend doesn’t want to hang out anymore.  In an effort to rekindle their dying friendship, he invites Tom back to his apartment to watch a DVD he procured through a shady website.  Perhaps out of a desire to escape his family, or the promise of seeing something illicit, Dan agrees to see the video, which might or might not be a real snuff film.  After his initial reaction of revulsion, Tom is surprised to discover that he’s becoming entranced by the disturbing images.  Against his better judgment, he wants to see more, and Dan is more than happy to oblige.


Gut is at its most effective during its quietest moments, when it depicts the addictive properties of the videos, and the slow mental deterioration Tom experiences as he gets sucked into a vortex of self-loathing.  He knows it’s wrong, but he’s compelled to continue watching.  In one scene, he attempts to surreptitiously view one of the DVDs at home, only to be interrupted by his wife.  As his compulsion grows, he finds himself becoming detached from his family.  The only sane choice left is to cut himself off completely from Dan.

The gory makeup effects by Leighann Brokaw and Josh Turi, impressive for a low-budget production, deserve special mention.  They’re used sparingly, but are quite jarring.  Thankfully, the film doesn’t linger on these sequences for too long – more is implied than actually shown.  A minimalist score by Chad Bernhard also adds to the tension.


Unfortunately, Gut gets done in by its overall lack of polish.  One of its greatest offenses is the conspicuous lack of details.  We’re never sure what Tom and Dan do in their generic workplace, other than sit at their cubicles and stare at their respective computer screens.  We’re also led to believe that they somehow managed to get hired for the same company and work, presumably in the same department.  Most of their dialogue together is stilted and bland.  Tom’s wife Lily (Sarah Schoofs) is similarly underdeveloped, without much to do but look perplexed because her husband has lost interest in her.  The acting in Gut ranges from decent to amateurish.  The film is marred by Vail’s wooden acting and flat line delivery.  Wilder is somewhat more successful as Dan, conveying a certain geeky charm that masks a life lived in desperation.


I’m probably not the ideal audience for Gut, but then again, I’m not entirely sure who the audience would be.  Its subject matter is likely too repugnant for the arthouse crowd, and not flashy enough to attract a wider audience.  While it worked reasonably well as a low-key thriller, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Gut was missing something.  It would be interesting to see what Elias could do with a bigger budget, a better script and stronger performances.