All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective 2013

31 Oct

AWROOOOOOOOO!

AAAAOOOOOOOOOOOO!

AAAAOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Hi kids! WELCOME TO YOUR DOOM!

It just wouldn’t be October without some scary movies, and as ever, I’m here to do the work you cowards won’t. Trust in my insight, and know that like Zefrank, I’m scratching away at my sanity – so you don’t have to.

This year’s edition should have been called Campfest 2013. I mean most of these were some seriously cheesy motion pictures. Writing these reviews in years past used to make October a very dark month indeed. This month, I laughed way more than I cowered. At this rate, I’ll be reviewing Halloween comedies! Next thing you know, I’ll be wearing a clown costume!

OH HOLY SHIT WAIT OK IT'S SCARY AGAIN

OH HOLY SHIT WAIT OK IT’S SCARY AGAIN

Now, my acolytes! Draw the arcane symbol upon the ground. Stand within its warm embrace! Drink the blood of the cup of death, and prepare! PREPARE FOR ANNIHILATION! Thrust your fist at the sky, and SING THE SONG THAT ENDS THE EARTH!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The title’s got all you need: Bodies get snatched. Snatches get invaded. There’s more to it than that, though – Donald Sutherland has a badass moustache and cooks a mean asian stir fry. Leonard Nimoy wears a turtleneck. The lead actress dresses like a nun the whole time, but she gets naked at the end! Jeff Goldblum even slaps his hand down on things when he gets angry! THIS MOVIE HAS EVERYTHING!

Including an inexplicable 2-second cameo of Robert Duvall as a Jesuit on a swingset.

Including an inexplicable 2-second cameo of Robert Duvall as a Jesuit on a swingset!

The pacing is slow, the music is creepy, the premise is classic sci-fi gold, and the performances are super entertaining. Despite the 70’s camp patina, Invasion (or Snatchers, actually, that’s a much better contraction – we’re going with that) sold me unreservedly on its story: alien plant goobers from Planet Whatever have drifted across the galaxy to Earth, where they’re replacing people’s bodies with organically-grown duplicates, who quickly dominate San Francisco’s infrastructure and prepare for total global indoctrination.

Here’s the thing about watching a “classic” for the first time: you get a heavy sense of “man, I’ve seen all this before”. But you gotta push that aside, and keep in mind that this is the genesis you’re watching. So many pieces of modern pop culture owe a huge debt of inspiration to Snatchers. It kind of feels sinful to have missed out until now. The “rising up against apathy and conformism” theme is as old as the Martian hills, but every generation needs its own reference point. Snatchers was before my time, so I missed it – but I can really see how the media I’ve loved has taken notes from this fine freaky flick.

Technically, it’s effective, yet subdued. You don’t see much of the alien plant birthing pods (or any evidence of extraterrestrial shenanigans, really) until well into the film, and when you do you just get shaky glimpses of stringy white fungus-hair, oozy clone fetus juice, and hissing pod sacs. By the time the filmmakers tip their hand with this stuff, you’ve already been treated to an hour of buildup – during which the camerawork becomes increasingly nauseating, and you’ve been assaulted by repetitive ticking clocks and other maddening sounds. Pacing? They got it.

There are one MILLION Justin Respect Points (JRPs) up for grabs if you guess what my favourite part was.

JEFF GOLDBLUM DUH. Trick question; too easy. It was just a test. You passed.

DUH. Trick question; too easy. It was just a test. You passed.

While not as outwardly scary or disgusting as some of my other selections this month, Snatchers was clearly essential viewing, and memorable enough that I’m going to be passing it on through my social circle like some feather-haired plague.

Slither (2006)

It’s Halloween riddle time: what has Nathan Fillion, goofy comedy, absurd gore, and an unhealthy obsession with The Thing?

No, not Dracula 2000, you idiot! Slither! I mean... it's right there in the title, just...y'know what. Nevermind. No, nevermind! Let's move on.

No, you idiot! Slither! I mean… it’s right there in the title! Just…y’know what. Nevermind. No, nevermind! Let’s move on.

The sleepy town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is hit by a meteorite, which takes a shining to a local redneck and blowdarts a parasite right into his gut. Local sheriff Bill Pardy – the ever-ebullient Nathan Fillion – must stop the parasite from taking over the town, and also stop himself from getting too close to his childhood crush, Starla, who’s married to the aforementioned redneck. All of those things go exactly as well as you’d imagine.

Slither is a pastiche of so many other cheesy sci-fi horror films that it can’t accurately be said to be ripping off any one of them. I even saw some Animorphs in there, what with the slugs that control people by wrapping around their brains. What helps this blatant borrowing go down a bit easier is the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the film; if it had anything resembling a serious tone I doubt I’d have even heard of it. As it is, it’s very silly and very fun, and while some of the CGI grated on me, the practical effects (especially the big show-stopping monster at the end) were convincing and… wow. Just really, really gross.

slither-02

WHOA! Whoa there, easy, cowboy. Let’s holster those tentacles, huh?

There’s a nice balance between delivering exactly what you expect, and coming out of left field with something totally weird. I’ll give you an example: the infected redneck dude comes home to an amorous wife, who doesn’t notice anything’s wrong. Your initial reaction is, ewww! He’s gonna infect her with his peepee! But then, she goes to work like normal. Nothing is wrong. And later on, as part of the larger plot, the reason why becomes clear: he’s a slave to an alien parasite, yes, but that doesn’t stop him from loving his wife. A neat twist, and an example of how Slither elevates its otherwise trite material.

The characters have a propensity to vocalize exactly what the audience is thinking (mostly Nathan Fillion, who actually once says “Wow. That is some fucked-up shit.”). This gives the impression that the filmmakers are one step ahead of you, and it unbalances your expectations enough that you’re able to dismiss whatever flaws the movie might contain. The word that I think applies here is disarming. And with creative creature effects, a fun sense of self-referential humour, and some great supporting performances, Slither is a disarming charmer the whole way through.

El Orfanato (2007)

Less of the cheese, more of the “Oh my god, how sad.”

El Orfanato (or “The Orphanage”) snuck right up on me. It’s produced by Guillermo del Toro, and though he didn’t direct, his authorial stamp is all over this thing. It has the same storytelling panache and eye for excellent visual composition that show up in all his movies.

It tells the story of Laura, who raises her family in the orphanage in which she grew up, with her husband Carlos and her adopted son, Simón. Couldn’t ask for a more hackneyed setup, really, but El Orfanato doesn’t squander the chance to do something unique. The film unfolds into a tale of love, loss, and what it means to be “at home”, centered around powerful performances and eschewing cheap scares for a viscerally emotional connection with the audience.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 6.13.43 PM

The orphanage itself is finely crafted, shifting between comforting and airy, and claustrophobic and terrifying; and this is accomplished almost entirely through lighting and camera placement. It’s a wonderfully detailed set, and its geography is well-expressed in the movie. We’re always aware where the action is taking place, which rooms are around which corners, and we come to know it well enough to feel like it’s our own house – which makes it much more effective when things get scary. The thematic use of childhood games like hide-and-seek (which are played both indoors and out) not only inform the plot, but ground the film in a kind of childlike state. When the film scares us, we feel like children, rushing into the embrace of the heroine. It’s her passionate performance (the wonderful Spanish actress Belén Rueda) that carries us through the movie. Her wide and expressive eyes betray every tiny emotion that flickers through her, and we’re made to feel them too.

It’s kind of timeless; the film could have taken place in the 1940s instead of the present day and it wouldn’t have changed anything. It’s all about the characters, and the contrivances of the plot are simply there to take us to the next emotional payoff.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 6.14.17 PM

Del Toro strikes me as the kind of storyteller who wouldn’t hesitate to put a murder in a movie for children. He knows that darkness is a part of life, and it’s the function of all art to expose our own feelings about death, whether we want to face it or not. How can a filmmaker balance escapism so deftly with art? How can I, as an audience member, escape reality and face it at the same time?

I expected a horror movie set in an orphanage. What I got was a beautiful, haunting story that happened to be scary in some parts – much like life itself.

Noroi (The Curse) (2005)

My favourite scary movies tend to take innocuous, innocent things and make them frightening. By connecting an ordinary, everyday object (or person, or place, etc) with the supernatural, the strange, and the scary, these movies can extend their potential freak-out factor past the threshold of the theatre doors. What I’m saying is, thanks to Noroi, I’m now scared of pigeons. Like I needed that in my life.

Noroi is a unique creature in that it combines the tropes of its fellow Asian horror films with a mockumentary-style presentation. I personally feel that the whole “found footage” subgenre is pretty played-out, but when fused here with the creeping atmosphere and dread of films like Ringu and Ju-on it gained a whole new kind of vitality. The film opens by telling you, through voiceover, that a paranormal investigator named Kobayashi made a documentary about his experience tracking down the source of a “curse”. Shortly after the documentary’s release, Kobayashi’s house burned to the ground. His body was never found, and he was never seen again. The screen zooms in on a TV, and the rest of the film is Kobayashi’s documentary itself.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.53.55 PM

Most of which consists of dumbfounded reaction shots, like this.

Kobayashi – a portly, inoffensive, scholarly journalist – investigates instances of paranormal activity all over Japan, beginning with a woman who hears strange noises coming from the house next door, and an actress who was allegedly assaulted by a spirit during the filming of a TV show. There’s also a subplot revolving around a girl with latent psychic ability who goes missing, because, you know – wouldn’t be an Asian horror movie without some creepy-ass kids in it.

I was surprised by the inclusion of a character named Mori, who wears tinfoil all over his body, wallpapers his waste-filled house with scratchy drawings and symbols, and is clearly schizophrenic. Kobayashi consults him because of his apparent psychic ability, and he becomes a major player in the story from that point on. His character got me thinking, though: are the visions that wrack his body and mind truly the byproduct of proximity to evil spirits, or is he just crazy? What does it actually mean to be “insane”?

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.54.39 PM

It’s strange how we view these things – what if the bag lady you see babbling on the street corner was a normal person once, until she came into contact with a certain book, or video tape, or shrine? It smacks of Lovecraft; the sort of thing that comes from learning “what man was never meant to know”. What if these people, whom we so readily dismiss as insane, are the sole bearers of horrifying truth, and the rest of us are simply biding our time in ignorance? What terrible secrets lie waiting in their heads? There aren’t many people who ask such questions, and even fewer who seek to find the answers – but Kobayashi is one of them.

Which brings me to the deepest impression left upon me by Noroi: that I will never, ever, EVER become a paranormal investigator, and if I do, I would hope to be a third as courageous as Kobayashi. You know how in slasher films, the cheerleader will be holding a flashlight as she opens the door to the woodshed, going “Hello?” and you’re like “JESUS, DON’T GO IN THERE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP!” The reason that that doesn’t feel unnatural is because the cheerleader character is supposed to be an idiot. Yes, you’re supposed to sympathize with them, but only to an extent; the filmmakers also want to plant a seed of contempt in your mind, so that there’s a certain satisfaction in watching the killer rip them open. Kobayashi, however, is not an idiot. He knows full well what dangers lurk in the woodshed. But he fucking goes in anyway. He’s gotta get his answers!

Well, congratulations, sir. You got ’em. And you succeeded in reminding me that the bravest and most admirable heroes don’t always look like bronze gods. Sometimes, they look like the fat Asian kid at the cafeteria. And for showing such unexpected sensitivity to those we often dismiss or look down upon (in addition to scaring the bejeezus out of me), Noroi gets a hearty recommendation.

Re-Animator (1985)

I laughed the whole way through this movie. If the filmmakers watched me while I watched Re-Animator, I’m sure there were parts where they would high-five – and parts where they’d be pretty pissed. What I’m saying is, in Re-Animator there are elements designed specifically to elicit laughter from the audience, and elements designed to be serious but which elicit laughter anyway. Add Re-Animator to a room full of people with drinks in their hands and it makes for a right rowdy time. Do you enjoy shouting questions at a TV screen in incredulity? Do you enjoy nudity, shocking gore, and comical leaps in logic? Then grab a seat and roll up yer sleeve, son: I got jest the thing.

It’s the charming tale of two bright young scientists, both of whom serve as the protagonist. One is like the first evolution level of Bob Saget, and one is a waxen-faced psycho genius who injects dead things with glowing green crap and brings them back to shambling, bloody-eyed life. The latter convinces the former to help him with a string of experiments, beginning with the girlfriend’s cat and culminating in one (1) megalomaniacal sex-crazed severed head and a truly shocking record of morgue misconduct. Fun for the whole family!

LAFFS, GAFFS, AND UNSCRUPULOUS DERANGED-GENIUS HOSPITAL STAFF!

LAFFS, GAFFS, AND UNSCRUPULOUS DERANGED-GENIUS HOSPITAL STAFF!

It’s based on a short story by HP Lovecraft called “Herbert West – Reanimator” (considered one of his weakest efforts) and the film does an exacting job of transplanting West’s character from page to screen. He’s amoral, twitchy, unnerving, and ambitious in both incarnations. The rest of the film swerves away from the source material like a drunk driver trying to dodge a dozy deer. But then, I’m obviously a sucker for Lovecraft’s elegant prose, even though he himself had considered this particular story an artless cash-grab. Re-Animator fulfill’s the story’s potential and then some.

The performances are great, especially the actor who plays West. It seems like he’s the bad guy at first – motherfucker’s sense of ethics is seriously dodgy – but then a new, much more hilarious antagonist soon takes over. He’s played refreshingly straight the whole way through, despite the absurd subject matter. My friends and I spent almost the whole time talking about the female lead, though. Allow me to speak for everyone who’s seen Re-Animator: Thank you, Barbara Crampton. Thank you for what you’ve given to the world. And by “what you’ve given to the world”, I mean being naked all the time I MEAN EXCUSE ME your inimitable, timeless performance. Ahem! Bravo, truly.

The Halloween moviegoer expects at least one criteria to be met: that they get scared. Re-Animator checks two boxes, providing scares and laughs in equal heaping helpings. What’s not to love?
 
*
 
Well, that does it for this year. Happy Halloween, everybody! Thanks for knocking on my door, kids, but sorry – no candy this year. ONLY TERROR.
 
BWA HAAAA HAHAHAHAHAHAAAA!
 
(And Monica, I promise I’ll do Hausu next year. I couldn’t get anybody to watch it with me. Philistines.)
 
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One Response to “All Hallows Eve Ex-Spook-Aganza Retrospective 2013”

  1. Your Father. November 2, 2013 at 11:20 am #

    Jojo, great reviews. I want to see these movies (they sound like they are sufficiently mild as to not scare the pants off me! – except maybe the Japanese one). Hey, how come you make no mention of the original Snatchers from 1956? That’s the one I remember! – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049366/
    Love Dad.

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