Monday, October 30, 2017

October Quick Picks and Pans – Horror Month 2017

Anguish (1987) This unique movie within a movie from writer/director Bigas Luna stars Michael Lerner as John, a middle-aged man stuck in a stage of arrested development. He works as an orderly in a hospital clinic that specializes in eye disorders, and lives with his domineering mother (Zelda Rubenstein). She compels him to kill, collecting his victims’ eyes as trophies. Nothing in the film, however, is quite as it seems, as the story shifts from fantasy to reality (at least the cinematic reality established here) as we watch an audience watching a movie. Some of the supporting performances are uneven, but Lerner and Rubenstein captivate. Anguish is gory, playful and inventive, and will keep you guessing until the final scene.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

The Loved Ones (2009) Writer/director Sean Byrne’s film rises above the usual slasher film trappings, with its themes of loneliness, grief and belonging. Months after losing his father in a car accident, high-schooler Brent (Xavier Samuel) is picking up the pieces of his life. Things turn from bad to worse, however, after he rejects Lola (Robin McLeavy) for the upcoming prom. With the help of her father (John Brumpton), Lola kidnaps Brent, and brings him home to a little celebration of her own. What follows is an unnerving game of cat and mouse, as she employs some rather unconventional methods (including a power drill) to persuade him to see things her way. The Loved Ones also takes the unusual step of fleshing out its secondary characters, an awkward would-be lothario and his aloof goth-girl date. What binds many of the characters together thematically, is a sort of desperation, as the film explores what it means to be an outsider.

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

The People Under the Stairs (1991) Wes Craven’s sly commentary on haves and have-nots has aged a little too well in our increasingly fractious society. Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) and his family are facing eviction from their dilapidated tenement building, where they live hand to mouth. Meanwhile, their pious, reclusive slumlords hide their wealth and dirty secrets behind barred windows (including a basement dungeon and a house full of booby traps). It’s an odd mix of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Addams Family that works, thanks to a tongue-in-cheek approach. Adams is great as Fool who’s anything but – okay, he’s more of a fool in the Shakespearean sense, seeing the truth that hides just out of sight. Wendy Robie and Everett McGill are also inspired as the demented couple who run their own house of horrors. Scenes with McGill running around in a gimp suit and a shotgun are nothing short of sublime.

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

The Return of the Vampire (1944) Bela Lugosi stars as the centuries-old vampire Armand Tesla (no relation to Nikola Tesla, I gather). Columbia didn’t have the rights to use the Dracula name, but we all know what character Lugosi channeled for this movie. Instead of Renfield, he’s joined by a werewolf assistant Andreas (Matt Willis). As far as werewolves go, Andreas lacks bite (don’t hurt me), but he’ll probably go down in film history as one of the most articulate lycanthropes. There are no big surprises about this rather pedestrian vampire story, but the setting in World War II England, along with the real-life horrors of the blitzkrieg, adds another dimension to the film. Worth a look for Lugosi fans and those who prefer their werewolves on the cuddlier side.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Burial Ground (aka: Le Notti del Terrore) (1981) What begins as a fairly standard zombie flick becomes something special, thanks to extra layers of sleaze and ineptitude. A group of overprivileged twerps embark on a weekend retreat in a medieval European castle, and soon must tangle with the undead. Burial Ground, has its share of WTF moments to keep you entertained, many due to an adult little person's (Peter Bark) head-scratching portrayal of a 12-year-old boy. The movie features terrible dialogue, terrible makeup, endless scenes with people making stupid choices, and a child who’s a little too attached to his mother. It’s an oddly entertaining, albeit tasteless mix, so anyone seeking quality should look elsewhere.

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

Wendigo (2001) On the way to their vacation home, a yuppie family (Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber and Erik Per Sullivan) traveling in upstate New York hit a deer. This proves to be only the beginning of their troubles, as they evoke the scorn of some hunters, and suspicion by the townspeople. Wendigo shares similarities to Deliverance and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, with city dwellers that are way out of their element. Writer/director Larry Fessenden adds a supernatural spin to this fish out of water theme. A malevolent force, in the form of an ancient, shape-shifting Native American spirit, may be lurking about the woods. There are some fine performances, but the pacing is sluggish, it’s not very scary, and ultimately the film can’t decide what it wants to be. When the creature finally makes an appearance (in two different forms), it looks unconvincing. There’s a lot of potential with the wendigo myth, but my advice for future filmmakers is not to make the title creature a minor character.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Son of Ingagi (1940) Here’s a true oddity: one of the first horror films with an all African American cast. Newlyweds Robert and Eleanor Lindsay (Alfred Grant and Daisy Bufford) inherit an old mansion and fortune from a reclusive scientist played by Laura Bowman. The scientist was on the verge of a scientific breakthrough (All we see is her pouring one test tube into another – you know, science!) when she’s killed by the ape man (Zack Williams) she keeps in her basement laboratory (who doesn’t?). Exactly what sort of breakthrough for humanity she was working on (She laments, “What has humanity ever done for me?”), or how she got a murderous apelike creature through customs, is never explained. In fact, it’s best if you don’t question much about what you see in Son of Ingagi, but the leads are amiable enough, and it’s only 70 minutes. If nothing else, it’s worth a look for the historical value.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video  

Society (1989) Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) attends exclusive Beverly Hills High School, where he seems to have all the breaks. He’s one of the most popular kids in school, with a glamorous girlfriend and a nice car, but suspects something isn’t quite right.  He senses everyone plotting something under his nose, and feels as if he doesn’t belong in his family. Director Brian Yuzna aims high with social satire, but doesn’t quite hit the mark. It starts strong, as a light ‘80s high school comedy that suddenly takes an intriguing dark turn, but falls apart by the end, with an ending that seems rushed. The premise that the upper crust live as a different species was handled much better by John Carpenter in They Live, from the preceding year. But while Carpenter’s film has only become timelier, Society, by comparison, seems dated.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

Body Melt (1993) A revolutionary new weight-loss drug is tested on some Melbourne suburbanites, and bad things happen as the test subjects dissolve from the inside out. The film starts with an interesting premise, but it’s poorly executed, with ill-defined characters, and the weak plot meanders. It has all the trappings of a cult film, but it’s undermined by an inconsistent tone that doesn’t work as straight horror, satire, or horror/comedy. In the end, it’s not funny enough or unusual enough to merit a fan base.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


(2002) Written and directed by: Lucky McKee; Starring: Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris, James Duval and Nichole Hiltz; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“If you can’t find a friend, make one.” – May Canady (Angela Bettis)

Humans are, by-and-large, social animals. For most of us, there is a need to belong and make connections with others. Unfortunately, not all of us possess the same tools to form these connections. When life continues sending signals that meaningful interaction with our peers isn’t worth the trouble, we may choose to live in isolation from others. Writer/director Lucky McKee presents, for our scrutiny, a twisted story about a very lonely, socially awkward young woman and her quest for the perfect mate.

May Canady (Angela Bettis) works as a veterinary assistant at Sarkizan Animal Hospital, along with her irascible boss (Ken Davitian) and amorous receptionist Polly (Anna Faris). She comes home to an empty apartment, where she sews her own clothes, and has conversations with her doll Suzy. One day, she becomes fixated on Adam (Jeremy Sisto), an auto mechanic (well, fixated on his hands, anyway). They embark on a relationship that could be described as tentative at best, but it doesn’t take long for May to scare Adam off. After she purposely cuts her thumb with a scalpel, May catches the attention of Polly (who seems to enjoy the act of self-mutilation), and they enjoy a brief fling. Things quickly turn sour, however, when Polly’s new squeeze, Ambrosia (Nichole Hiltz) threatens to displace May.

One of the prevailing themes of May is physical imperfection, and how we judge others based on appearance. The film suggests that May’s dysmorphic obsessions stem from her early childhood experience, as depicted in the opening scene. Young May (Chandler Riley Hecht) wears an eye patch to correct her amblyopia, and is ostracized by other kids at a birthday party. As an adult, she wears a special contact lens to improve her lazy eye, but physical imperfections continue to weigh heavily in her mind. She admires the curves of Polly’s neck, but she’s repelled by the prominent birthmark on her co-worker’s finger. May’s notions of idealized physical appearance carry over to her concept of relationships. When the people in May’s life fail to meet her idealized expectations (never mind the fact that May consistently misreads Adam and Polly’s social cues), she reaches an epiphany and transformation, as she embarks on a quest for physical perfection. As maladaptive and twisted as May’s coping mechanisms are, she gains a new assertiveness in her appearance and personality that was absent before. The less said, the better. Rest assured, it all adds up to a fabulously gory and profoundly disturbing, final scene.

How weird is too weird? Another theme the film explores is the acceptable boundary for eccentricity. As we learn, through May’s botched social interactions, it’s possible to be too left of center. May lacks the social filters to interpret what’s acceptable and what isn’t. In one cringe-worthy scene, she can’t take a hint that Adam is freaked out when she bites his lip during a failed attempt at lovemaking.* In another scene, she meets Blank (James Duval), an amiable guy at the bus stop with a mile-high punk ‘do. He follows her home, but almost immediately wishes he hadn’t. As odd as his appearance and demeanor seems to us, it’s evident his weirdness is only skin deep. Nothing he says or does can compare to what’s in May’s freezer.  

* Fun Fact: According to McKee in his DVD commentary, this scene was derived from a similar, real-life experience in college.

As the title character, Angela Bettis encapsulates what it feels like to be awkward, and to miss the social cues that others take for granted. She sews her own patchwork clothes, trips over her own feet, and somehow always manages to say the wrong things at the wrong time. In an early scene, she attempts to use her feminine wiles (or at least her skewed interpretation of feminine wiles) to get Adam’s attention in a coffee house, while his nose is firmly planted in a book.* Instead of achieving the desired effect, he proceeds to fall asleep. She so desperately longs for contact, but it stays just out of grasp. Like Suzy, the doll she keeps enclosed in a glass case, she’s isolated from everyone else, entombed in her private world. As May’s sanity erodes, the sounds of cracking are accompanied by visible cracks on the glass to symbolize her increasingly fractured mind. May engages in a heated one-sided argument with the doll, which begs comparisons to Norman Bates in Psycho. Not unlike her cinematic soul mate Norman, May longs for human companionship, but she’s been off the grid for so long, she’s not quite sure how to go about it. She fails to understand the rules of human interaction – when she attempts to reach out and interact, it’s met with disastrous results.

* Fun Fact: McKee stated the book is Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento (one of McKee’s inspirations).

Lucky McKee’s brilliant debut feature is one of the most unique horror films of the 2000s. It’s a nuanced portrait of mental illness, filled with touches of pitch-black humor and Grand Guignol flourishes. While May has managed to attract a small minority of fans, it remains largely unknown, and deserves to be discovered by a wider audience. Similarly, McKee remains one of horror’s best-kept secrets, with only a handful of films and a notable episode of the Masters of Horror television series on his resume. May, his best work to date, suggests he’s a formidable, albeit untapped talent to watch.