All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective 2012

31 Oct

ARRROOOOOOOOOO!

OW OW OWWRRROOOOOOOOOOO!

Good evening, foolish mortals, and welcome to the Second Annual All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective! (Feel free to imagine a spine-shaking thunderclap, right here.)

You people. This is all your fault, you know. I’ve spent an entire month with my outstretched hand trembling an inch away from every doorknob. I slept with all the lights left on and walked to my car with an unconvincingly jaunty whistle in the dark. I’ve subjected myself to frankly unreasonable amounts of scary shit, just for your entertainment. I am the jester who whacks himself in the face with a hammer because the laughter of the court is more valuable to him than his own teeth. Well, I hope it was worth it, jerks.

Quick note: I’d like to apologize for the repeated profanity in these reviews, because I believe you can be effective and engaging without resorting to pottymouth, but I won’t. They’re just naughty words, after all, and even if you don’t think they’re terrific fun to use (which I do), there is still a time and a place for cussin’. This is one of those times, and if you don’t understand why, watch any of the following films. I guarantee you’ll be swearing like a sailor in no time.

Readers beware: HERE BE MILD SPOILERS. Nothing that will ruin the movie, but if you want a pristine experience, turn away. Then consider re-evaluating your life.

Now, then! Neither gods nor men may stand in our way! More power! Increase amperage to forty thousand! Now, Igor, MORE! YES! It’s… IT’S…

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Classic, right? I’d never seen it, and I must say it was a fantastic start to the month. The story is simple: a child murderer named Freddy haunts the dreams of high schoolers, creating a Matrix-like scenario where if you die in your dreams, you die in real life. It’s a great exemplar of the slasher genre, and pretty goddamn entertaining.

The first thing I noticed was the music: it’s a bumpin’ 80s synthfest, reminding me of a less industrial Terminator. It’s hilariously incongruous in the “scary” scenes. If Dr. Frankenstein hosted a halloween party in 1984, this is the music he’d watch Dracula bust a move to.

21-year-old Johnny Depp, playing a high schooler, is clearly a student of the Bill S Preston, Esq. School of Fashion, baring more midriff than a strung-out Disney Channel idol. He’s knee-deep in feather-haired teen poontang, already a ladykiller even when his line delivery is a flat as a small-breasted flapjack. Speaking of lines, here are some choice ones. Context not necessary.

“Don’t look at me like I’m some fuckin’ fruitcake or nothin’, I’m warnin’ you.”
“Gotta crazy favour to ask you.” *Johnny Depp rolls his eyes* “No it’s nothin’ hot or anything.”
“‘Booby Traps & Improvised Antipersonnel Devices’? Well, what are you readin’ that for?” *Pause* “I’m into survival.”

There are some cool surreal touches that make the dream sequences scarier: Freddy slicing his own chest open and green oozy maggots coming out, centipedes in mouths, people alive in body bags, faces falling off, etc. My favourite moment in the movie takes place when the mom wakes up our protagonist, Nancy, while she’s in the grip of a cataclysmic nightmare. It’s Freddy, invisibly attacking her. The mom shakes Nancy awake, and the girl discovers Freddy’s hat in her lap, manifested physically in the real world from when she grabbed it off his head. Nancy goes “I grabbed it off his head,” and the music goes BUMMM and Mom gets this wide-eyed look like “That’s crazy. Or is it? Am I crazy? WHERE AM I?”

This is Mom’s word-for-word explanation for the travesty of justice that allowed a convicted child murderer to go free: “Oh, the lawyers got fat and the judge got famous, but somebody forgot to sign the search warrant in the right place. Krueger was free, just like that.” Prrrrrrrrrrretty sure that’s not how laws work. Also I think Mom might be my favourite character.

The movie would be reasonably creepy, but whenever things start to get scary, all the tension is immediately dissolved away. Freddy will be jumpin’ all over and laughing horribly and chasing someone, and I might start clenching up, but then the music is all BUM budda WACK-a WACK-a BUM BUM budda and it’s hilarious, now. Johnny Depp gets turned into a literal FOUNTAIN OF BLOOD and his mother opens the door and screams and screams and screams, and it cuts to the paramedics wheeling the stretcher into the house, and a cop quips “We don’ need a stretcher, we need a mop.” I…I honestly can’t tell if it’s intentional or not. Is it supposed to be funny? I guess it doesn’t really matter either way, I’m still sitting here laughing my ass off. I did really enjoy the surprising amount of character development, even if the dialogue is awful. Nancy goes from (as Loki would put it) a mewling quim to – if not a full-blown badass – a brave young woman and a fierce competitor. The ending was well-paced and satisfying, and the actually very-awesome end credits song is worth a link.

Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)

…Or: The Story of the Man With The Worst Luck In The Goddamn Universe.

This movie wastes absolutely zero fucking time, introducing you to the plot with the subtlety and patience of a randy bull introducing you to his mighty turgid member. Ash, a “normal dude” or “everyman” or “Bruce Campbell”, takes his sweetheart Linda (sweetheart is here used in the chaste, white, middle-class 1980s sense) to the creepiest cabin in the creepiest forest for some romantic creepytimes. Flush with the promise of a toot on the ol’ trombone, Ash is enjoying himself until he finds a tape deck and plays the recording, which features the single most unfathomably incompetent archeaologist in human history dictating the text from the ancient Book of the Dead which will unleash an unholy holocaust of evil on the world. This is four minutes in. Less than two minutes later, Ash is decapitating his demon-possessed girlfriend with a blunt shovel, and it only gets more loco from there.

Evil Dead II is just dripping with juicy old-school charm, balancing absolutely nightmarish scenarios with the most absurd humour. It introduced me to the concept of “slapstick gore,” the internal contradictions of which are deliciously oxymoronic.

There are some really memorable moments, including lines like “WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?” (which any fan will recall with a cringe) and “Let’s head down into that cellar and carve ourselves a witch”, which is followed by possibly the best montage in the history of cinema:

Yes, the whole movie is like that.

There’s some really cool camerawork, with spinning first-person shots and tight closeups and wild cuts. It’s a comic-booky approach to cinematography and it works really well here. We see utter dedication to the cheesiest situations and the most wholehearted dedication of all from the cheesiest leading man of all time. When you say aloud that the star’s acting “is literally the best” and really mean it, and then all the people watching with you laugh, you’re experiencing something very special. Entertainment and excellence can be two separate things, and thankfully, Evil Dead II is both. Is it possible for a movie to be horrifying and goofy? Well, apparently, yes. And it’s awesome.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

I expected to be able to write something here. Can’t though, sorry. The less I say, other than “watch The Cabin in the Woods“, the better.

I will tell you that it’s like two lovingly made camp movies intertwined in glorious copulation; two disparate halves made one sublime whole, and even saying that much is saying too much. I will toss some adjectives in your general direction, not my fault if you pay attention: brutal and hilarious, imaginative and original, shocking and smart. It also has the best third act and ending of any movie in my recent memory. For those who’ve had the pleasure, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s funny that I watched this right after Evil Dead II. Please watch The Cabin in the Woods. The end.

Drag Me To Hell (2009)

…Or: The Story of How a Little Honesty Can Go a Long Way.

Seriously, almost every terrible thing in this movie could have been avoided if the protagonist was just a teensy bit more open about her situation. Christine is a bank person who denies a terrifying old gypsy woman a loan. In return, the gypsy curses her with eternal damnation after three days of suffering. Christine’s aware that a demon has been tasked with creating exquisite torment for her for three whole days, before literally dragging her into Hell. So, she does what any sensible person would do and allows herself to be coerced into a “finally meet the boyfriend’s intimidating, judgmental parents” dinner at their Rich White People mansion. That sounds smart, and productive! No, Boyfriend, it’s nothing, I’m totally fine, except an invisible assailant just threw me around my bedroom like a ragdoll and smashed me into my dresser with the force of a fucking hurricane – but you don’t need to know about that, do you.

The movie is rife with that kind of “nobody will believe me” decision-making (even when it’s patently obvious that, if you explain yourself, Christine, they probably would), and honestly it pulled me away from the action. I stopped caring about Christine pretty quickly, and it wasn’t the actress’s fault – the character was just such an idiot. But that can be good in a horror movie – we’re not really supposed to get too attached to anybody, are we, because we know sooner or later someone or something is going to be tearing their intestines out.

It’s Sam Raimi again, and he’s up to his old tricks, with incredibly entertaining camerawork, editing, and pacing. The story was weak and the scares were few, however, and while there were several things that were just gross-ass-gross disgusting, there’s nothing here to frighten away a hardened, battle-scarred vet like me. It’s worth a watch, but I don’t think I’ll see it again.

The Ring (2002)

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s really hard not to compare The Ring to Ringu, the Japanese original, but I’m going to anyway dammit because it’s a remake and how else are you supposed to judge it, BY ITS OWN MERITS? What do you think this is, some kind of FAIR, BALANCED, AND UNBIASED REVIEW? I throw back my head and cackle at you. Derisively.

The easiest and most elegantly microcosmic way to compare the two films is to compare the cursed videos and the freaky girls who made them. Ringu‘s video is shorter, more abstract, and more unnerving. There are fewer images, and each one offers a clue for the protagonists to unlock to figure out the mystery. It’s also accompanied by sound, specifically an elongated screeching like fingernails pulled along fraying violin strings (which is what you hear when you pick up the ringing phone). The Ring‘s video, by contrast, is longer, less subtle, and less directly related to the plot. Twitching fingers in a box? Giant centipedes (seriously, what is it with centipedes)? Writhing maggots? These have no bearing on the characters or story, they’re just there to be gross. Compare that to the Ringu tape, where there are writhing shapes, but they’re kanji characters (again, a clue) and we see a man standing next to a river with a white cloth over his head, pointing out of frame. These have direct connections to the rest of the movie, and are also a hundred times scarier because of their bizarre nature. So when The Ring‘s tape finishes, instead of an unearthly shivering whine, you hear Samara’s voice on the line, whispering the iconic “seven days.” This leads me nicely into the comparison between Samara from The Ring and Sadako from Ringu: Sadako is more terrifying because she remains mysterious to us. We hear Samara speak, we see her little innocent-white-girl face, we’re made to sympathize with her plight. Sadako is an insane, malevolent entity from the get-go, and the revelations about her past that we learn only reinforce her otherworldly nature. Check out the difference in these two shots, at the exact same moment in the story (the climax, when the girl climbs out of the TV to murder the male protagonist). I think this says it all:

I want you to know how insanely difficult it was for me to upload this to my blog, knowing it’ll be there forever. Waiting for me.

That eye is the closest we get to seeing Sadako’s face at any point, and when we do see it, its effect is fucking horrifying. As it’s happening, we realize that we’re about to see her face, and the immediate reaction is NO NO NO I DO NOT WANT TO SEE WHAT’S UNDER THAT HAIR. In The Ring, at the same point in the movie, we’ve already seen Samara’s face numerous times, so there’s no dreadful anticipation. And, seriously, look at that expression. Come on. She looks like she should be crossing her arms and stomping her feet, yelling “No, I want McDonald’s NOW!”

Besides the unfortunate non-inclusion of an extremely fffffffffffine Naomi Watts, the Japanese original is better in pretty much every way, from the screenplay to the direction to the story itself. That isn’t to say The Ring is bad, because it’s not, and I can understand being quite unsettled by it if you haven’t seen Ringu. But Ringu is creepier if only because it’s Japanese, and there’s no getting around that. The idea of spirits, vengeful or otherwise, is simply not as pervasive over here as it is in Japan, so The Ring struggles with its supernatural elements. It’s not really a ghost story, but it’s hard to describe it any other way. The idea of a “curse” is much more potent in Japan, you know? Maybe Sadako is scarier because the white burial robe and lank black hair are staples of Japanese folklore, and that doesn’t carry the same weight when it’s an American girl who just happens to wear a white dress?

Beyond the core of the story, though, the major criticism is that the American remake loses much of the original’s subtlety and atmosphere in translation. There are a couple typical “BOO!” scenes that are quite cheap, and where Ringu slowly built a heavy and overwhelming feeling of dread, The Ring lurches from set-piece to set-piece, with lumps of exposition in between. Don’t worry though, you’ll get another scare in ten minutes, just hang in there! It’s designed for a low-attention-span Hollywood audience, and frankly I find that insulting. Screw you, Gore Verbinski, I can figure out why something is scary without you mashing it in my face. The Ring is better than most Hollywood horror on this count, and by virtue of its stylish cinematography and fine performances, but overall it pales in comparison to its terrifying Japanese sister.

28 Weeks Later (2007)

Well, this was it – like The Exorcist before it, this was the film I picked to be the scariest of the month. It also fulfills my zombie movie quota, which you knew I wasn’t gonna miss out on this time around. Many of you have probably seen 28 Days Later, which I consider to be a paragon of the genre, but I imagine way fewer have seen this one. And that’s a shame, because it’s an excellent sequel and a slick and terrifying movie in its own right.

The cast is fucking stacked, yo. So many cool actors, working their emotional asses off in well-executed zombie fiction scenarios. Can’t go wrong. Although Jeremy Renner squeezes as much screentime and appeal as possible out of his role as a US sniper (really outside his wheelhouse, I know), Idris Elba is criminally underused.

You know, the fast zombie is a strange thing. It’s terrifying in a much more visceral way than the shambling, dreadfully inexorable classic zombie. That’s a slow scary, cerebral and haunting, in line with Lovecraftian lineage – this is pulse-pounding, run-or-yo-ass-be-dead-as-fried-chicken scary. I don’t know if describing it as more “modern” is appropriate – but I feel like it might be. Many people piss and moan that it’s “not a real zombie movie” or whatever because the “zombies” are a) not dead and b) not slow, but if you really believe that, my friend, you are missing the point entirely. It’s not about the monsters chasing us. It’s about how we react.

The movie shoots that “grit” and “realism” forehead dead-on, as moody and bleak in its tone as its own post-rock soundtrack. I wouldn’t recommend trying to imagine yourself in the same situation, or put yourself in the shoes of any of the characters; that is a quick bus to Depression Town, population YOU. It’s like the most serious of TV dramas, where nobody dares crack a joke. There is laughter and levity in this movie, but we view it through a lens – it’s like watching a Burundi tribal native laugh in a nature documentary or something. We’re pretty disconnected, is what I’m saying. Who knows what a joke even is to that guy? But the drama is heavy, and if you watch it with a sober attitude, it is deeply compelling. Lots of cities burn in movies, and it’s often pretty easy to contextualize and shrug off. When you see the fires in London in 28 Weeks Later, though, you feel it.

I wanted to note that 28 Weeks Later has the extremely dubious honour of being the movie with the most absolutely gut-scrunchingly gory and horribly tragic death scene I think I’ve ever seen. Made me want to puke from both shivering revulsion and wet, bowel-blasting sadness.

Verdict is, I really liked it. The execution was exceptionally strong across the board – the only criticisms I can make are that it’s a bit long, and the pacing makes it seem longer; and that this does feel a bit like chomping on the same old jugulars. There isn’t much here in terms of story to single it out from many, many other zombie fictions. But in terms of impact, it’s pretty top-knotch: dick-punchingly intense and emotionally exhausting. It kept me up the night I watched it, horrible images flashing in my head, thinking with a lump in my throat about mental trauma, the end of civilization, and the reality of facing death. In short, it did everything a good horror movie is supposed to: it scared the shit out of me.

**

Well, that’s it! It’s all right now, kids. Come on out from under the covers. The monsters have gone away, you’re safe now.

…At least until next year.

MUAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAA!

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2 Responses to “All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective 2012”

  1. Monica October 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076162/

    for next year?!

  2. Your Father. October 31, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    I’m so glad you reviewed all these scary movies for me, Son. Now I don’t have to watch them. I would… watch them… but.. now I don’t have to. I’m not scared, or anything, if that’s what you think!

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