Movie Review

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Thirteen: I Walked With A Zombie

I Walked With A Zombie (1943)

Written by Curt Siodmak & Ardel Wray / Directed by Jacques Tourneur

You up?

You up?

The Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur collaborations are fantastic pieces of moody gothic atmosphere, period.  Lewton and Tourneur's intense attention to detail, camera movement, light, shadow, and sound make for films that create haunting and disturbing images to this day.  The story and characters of I Walked With A Zombie may not be as strong as those in Cat People but the filmmaking is just as strong and impressive, aging fantastically.

Four out of Five Creepy Voodoo Dolls

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Twelve: XX

XX (2017)

Written and Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, & Jovanka Vuckovic

Just dropping in! (I'm so sorry)

Just dropping in! (I'm so sorry)

Although XX has less of a narrative thread tying together its variety of spooky shorts, it feels much more cohesive than Southbound did.  The only connecting thread between the films other than a beautiful interstitial animated sequence between them is that each film was written and directed by women, hence the title.  As is the struggle with many anthologies, the shorts are so widely different, that some land better than others.  Each short in XX works for what it is though and each one has a great quality to enjoy.  Vuckovic's The Box, a short based on a piece by Jack Ketchum is a bit of existential parental dread.  Annie Clark's is easily the best, not particularly scary, but a wonderfully fun piece of macabre black humor.  Roxanne Benjamin's is a gory monster creature feature.  Karyn Kusama's is the second best with a surreal piece of dark, satirical fantasy.  Each short has a strong sense of style and their uses of sound in particular are very strong.  In the end, the worst thing I can say about each of these shorts was that I was sad when they were over.  I could have watched a feature version of each film without a doubt.

Three and a half out of Five Wandering Animated Doll Houses

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Eleven: Evolution

Evolution (2015)

Written by Lucile Hadzihalilovic & Alante Kavaite / Directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic



I'm honestly still trying to figure this one out.  I liked it, but I'm still trying to figure out why.  Lucile Hadzihalilovic has created a fascinating nightmare fantasy world that thrives on oneric logic and imagery.  The film is hypnotizing and always beautiful, even when the narrative is cold and distant.  It's the type of film where everything is a metaphor.  For what exactly?  That's for the audience to figure out, and it's not going to be easy to figure out.  It's going to take you a long time before you can decipher just what Hadzihalilovic had intended.

Three & a Half Metaphorical Starfish

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Eight: The Dark Half

The Dark Half (1993)

Written and Directed by George A. Romero

"Sugar...give me water."

"Sugar...give me water."

George Romero tends to only get recognized for his living dead films, which is fine, because those movies are legitimate masterpieces, but it's a shame that his films outside that universe get shoved into the corner more often than they should.  There are uneven but interesting films like Bruiser, but then there's also masterpieces like Martin.  And then there's The Dark Half, a film that's not quite a masterpiece, but still a solid, fun and impressive genre piece from a genuinely gifted filmmaker.  The Dark Half pulls off something that a lot of other films fail at: the ability to be both brooding, intense, and dark, while also being playful and slightly tongue-in-cheek.  Based on a Stephen King novel (that I haven't read yet, so I can't compare the two), The Dark Half is the story of Thad Beaumont, a man who was born to write.  Even as a young boy, he's been full of stories.  After experiencing strange noises and crippling headaches as a boy, he's operated on, where it's discovered that there is a consumed twin living inside his brain.  As a man, this supposedly dead twin returns from the grave as a manifestation of his "dark half" if you will, rampaging against those that Beaumont loves.  There's a kind of beautiful, magical realist quality to how the evil twin, George Stark, appears.  It's a lot like how Leonard Smalls is treated in Raising Arizona.  In fact, the movie's biggest misstep is when the story tries to explain logically how George Stark manifested itself.  It's much more fun to just take it at face value that this metaphor for evil is now a walking talking person for no reason.  Timothy Hutton is fantastic in the dual role and is also surrounded by some great supporting cast members as well, including a young Michael Rooker (You know, from Guardians of the Galaxy).  There's never a dull moment, even when the movie starts to lose its footing a bit.  This is a forgotten gem that's worth rediscovering.

Four out of Five Broken Black Beauty Number 2 Pencils

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Seven: Demon

Demon (2015)

Written by Pawel Maslona & Marcin Wrona / Directed by Marcin Wrona

Pictured Above: Not the Demon.

Pictured Above: Not the Demon.

Arthouse horror and mainstream horror more often than not tend to butt heads, but Marcin Wrona's intense polish supernatural thriller does a masterful job of walking the line between the two worlds.  Stylistically, the film is akin to Robert Egger's The Witch, except narratively it's a tad bit formulaic in its approach to a big wedding gone wrong and the hosts' desperate attempts to keep a possibly possessed groom away from the happy partygoers, blissfully chugging down vodka like it's water at the reception.  There's a slight bit of pitch black humor thrown in for good measure as well.  The landscapes and geography of the film are as important to the story as the human characters, the foggy, silent hills of Poland creating a dense, humid atmosphere.  Never a dull moment to be seen, this is one of those movies that makes you gawk at the fact that more people haven't seen it.

Five & A Half out of Five Buried Family Secrets

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Six: Dark Water

Dark Water (2002)

Written by Ken'ichi Suzuki & Yoshihiro Nakamura / Directed by Hideo Nakata

This is actually just me waiting for The Shape of Water to come out.

This is actually just me waiting for The Shape of Water to come out.

Anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment complex can relate to the inherent stress of dealing with old buildings, mold, leaking ceilings, and disinterested management.  Once you throw vengeful ghosts into the mix, all bets are off.  Hideo Nakata’s excellent ghost story, Dark Water, does that and more with an effectively unnerving and beautifully claustrophobic tale of a mother and daughter living in an old apartment building where the ghost of a drowned girl wanders its lonely halls.  With its heavy atmosphere and creepy imagery alone, Dark Water would be a hugely entertaining movie, but Nakata’s emphasis on story and character, and the strong performances of the cast, take a creepily fun movie and make it something you can also become strongly invested in emotionally.  The mystery of the film is expertly paced, keeping you guessing, but yet again, the crux of the mystery is character based, giving us a reason to keep caring about the struggles of the two protagonists while also having fun playing our nerves like a harp.

Five out of Five Haunted Mold Spots

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Five: Dolls

Dolls (1987)

Written by Ed Naha / Directed by Stuart Gordon

What are you doing reading this review?  Go watch this amazing movie already!

What are you doing reading this review?  Go watch this amazing movie already!

From the opening shot of Dolls I knew I was in for an amazing time.  Two punks hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere get muddy water splashed on them from a car driven by a bitter woman, stuck on a trip with her lazy boyfriend and his child.  It only gets better from there.  Dolls accomplishes a task that more horror films should strive for, walking a balance beam between fun, playful filmmaking and genuinely horrifying filmmaking.  Even when it is scary, this movie never stops being just flat out fun.  The film feels like an R-rated version of a family adventure film, with most of the story filtered through the eyes of Judy Bower, the adorably plucky young child being dragged along on a family vacation by two comically terrible parental units.  Once their car breaks down in the middle of a rainstorm, the dysfunctional family is driven to a delightfully gothic old castle where an old toymaker and his wife reside.  Later on, the two punks from the side of the road and a warm-hearted man named Ralph also end up looking for shelter from the storm in the old dark house.  But after everyone retires for the night, some strange things start happening, particularly involving the collection of dolls made by the eccentric toymaker.  As silly as everything is, the characters of the story are sympathetic and well crafted.  Aside from a few caricatures, you genuinely care about what happens to these characters, trapped inside a magic house, chased around by demented toys.  Even the “villains” of the story are three-dimensional, with real motivations driving their actions.

Five out of Five Human Souls Trapped Inside Doll Bodies

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Four: Curtains

Curtains (1983)

Written by Robert Guza Jr. / Directed by Richard Ciupka

TFW all the good Halloween costumes at Party City were already taken.

TFW all the good Halloween costumes at Party City were already taken.

Let's be honest.  Slasher films typically aren't that scary.  I don't mean that as an insult, but slasher films are kind of like the action movies of the horror genre.  Their appeal isn't usually a sense of dread or terror, but a morbid fascination with seeing which insufferable character will meet the killer next, each death gorier than the next, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Of course there are the pioneers and the legends of the genre as a shining example to prove me wrong.  There are plenty of Freddys, Jasons, and Michael Myers out there, but there's also plenty of movies like Curtains: a Z-Grade movie with delusions of A-Grade grandeur.  Curtains wastes no time setting up the pins it will be gradually knocking down, gathering together six eager actress types inside a creepy mansion at the top of a snowy mountain range, each with their own generic stereotype as their one character trait.  This movie is a Slasher-By-Numbers movie even when it thinks its on the same level as a movie like Suspiria.  The lofty ambitions it never reaches does keep it entertaining.  It's hard to judge the film on a visual level when the transfer I watched was so godawful.  At times it's impossible to see what's going on or who's doing what through the digital haze.  There is an amusing game to play throughout the movie which is "when does the cameraman or boom operator start to fall asleep?" as there are multiple shots in which the tops of sets are revealed or the boom mic starts to lazily drift into the top of the frame.  The film does create a few great moments of atmospheric horror, particularly through the mask the killer uses and a final sequence that oddly takes place inside a prop storage room that seemingly comes out of nowhere.  Curtains perfectly represents the cinematic version of its six actress characters.  Each one has high hopes and lofty dreams of reaching the top, even though compared to everyone else out there, it'll never make the cut.

Two out of Five Severed Heads in a Fake Toilet

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Three: The Oblong Box

The Oblong Box (1969)

Written by Lawrence Huntington / Directed by Gordon Hessler

Just a typical Saturday afternoon for Vincent Price.

Just a typical Saturday afternoon for Vincent Price.

What would a Shocktoberfest be without at least one Vincent Price film?  The late, great horror legend practically embodies everything wonderful about the spirit of horror movies, movies that are meant to be watched during the days of October.  There's nothing like a Vincent Price movie to put you in the spirit of Halloween.  There seems to be a trend in my 2017 viewings with feature films based on short stories, two of them being Edgar Allan Poe stories so far.  The Black Cat seems to be the only one so far that was best able to pull off turning a short story into a feature length film, simply using the basic premise of the story as a jumping off point for something much stranger.  The Oblong Box makes a similar mistake as most short story adaptations by trying too hard to add subplots and silly mysteries to a perfectly good creepy little tale about a man wrongfully buried alive and seeking revenge.  Even so, the film is still good, mostly due to Vincent Price's ability to elevate any film he starred in, as well as a wonderful supporting role from Christopher Lee.  There's also something elegant about the workmanship of most 60's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations making them seem much more artfully crafted than they probably were.  Through low budget constraints, the film finds clever ways through visual language to do things like hide the face of the deformed brother.  It's impossible to say no to a Vincent Price film.  Even the films where the people behind the camera seem disinterested, Price never does.

Three out of Five Deadly Paper Cut Throat Slits

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day Two: The Midnight Meat Train

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Written by Jeff Buhler / Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura

Broodley Cooper

Broodley Cooper

Unfortunately on the day of this entry, the world is in a dark, sad place, so much so, that I even felt guilty about writing a post for today.  But I believe that stories and movies in particular are cathartic and are meant especially for dark times like these.  They can be mirrors to the world around us, or they can be windows into another one, serving as a brief escape to keep us from going crazy.  Even a movie with as twisted and as bizarre of a sensibility as The Midnight Meat Train can be a cathartic form of escapism.  Midnight Meat Train certainly is twisted, and it certainly is bizarre, but it takes a little while to get there.  Just like The Black CatMidnight Meat Train is very loosely based on a short story by a horror legend, in this case, Clive Barker.  The film does its best to flesh out the simple premise of the original short story, which is probably its biggest misstep, causing the first half of the film to play out like a Twilight Zone episode directed by an alternate dimension Alfred Hitchcock who specialized in making nu-metal music videos.  Pre-Fame Bradley Cooper plays a struggling photographer in New York who is obsessed with finding the gritty underbelly of the city he lives in.  When his midnight strolls lead him to discover a possibly murderous butcher played by Vinnie Jones, Mr. Cooper takes a sharp left turn from Normal Guy Highway onto Crazy Conspiracy Nutjob Road and it's only downhill from there.  Ryuhei Kitamura has a fascinating visual eye and creates some genuinely dreamy atmospheres, although they're hampered down by early 2000's "edgy" editing.  The screenplay is absurdly silly, and that only starts to work in the movie's favor after it throws off the shackles of trying to make everything make sense and just embraces the batshit insanity of Barker's world.  In the end, it's a fun ride. The end destination is worth the trip, even if there are too many stops along the way.

Three out of Five Surprise Ted Raimi Cameos

Shocktoberfest 2017! Day One: The Black Cat

The Black Cat (1981)

Written by Lucio Fulci and Biagio Proietti / Directed by Lucio Fulci

Aww!  He wants to kill me!

Aww!  He wants to kill me!

Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat may not necessarily be scary, but it’s still delightfully gothic enough to still be horror.  Very loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story, the film mostly revolves around a series of murders in a small Italian town that are being committed by a supernatural (and adorable) black cat.  As with all Fulci films, the film is constantly in a state of deliriously heightened cinematic style, making it a delight to watch.  From extreme close ups of characters’ eyes reacting in terror to POV shots of the evil cat roaming through the streets, every shot feels deliberate and unique.  When you watch a Lucio Fulci movie, you’re not watching for the substance, you’re watching for the style, and that style delivers throughout The Black Cat, only starting to drag near the last 15 minutes of the film, but even then, there’s still something to enjoy about what Fulci is doing.

Four out of Five Adorable Murder Kitties

The Definitively Non-Definitive Ranking of Every X-Men Movie For Your Reading Pleasure

The X-Men have always been a big part of my life.  Even before I really loved the X-Men, I loved the X-Men.  I have distinct memories of visiting my uncle as a small child in New Orleans and gazing over his vast array of X-Men comics and paraphernalia in wonder.  The colorful images of men and women with plasma beams shooting from their eyes and hands or claws extending from their arms grabbed ahold of my imagination and have still not let go to this day, continuing to influence the way I imagine superhuman beings in my head.

But I must admit something.  Even though the comic book illustrations were my first visual introduction to the basics of these mutants, the first X-Men film by Bryan Singer in 2000 was what made me fall in love with them as characters.  From there, I delved further into animated series (My favorite remaining X-Men: Evolution humbly), comic books, graphic novels, tie-ins, and other aspects of the world of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.  Therefore, I've always felt more involved in the film adaptations of X-Men than anything else.  I'll stand by these X-Men movies, no matter how huge they get, or how many corporate sponsorships they have.  What that means is that, as it is with fandom of any ongoing mythological widespread series, there are some dizzying highs and some dismal lows in sticking by the series.  It ain't always easy being a fan of something, but sometimes that means sticking by the series, even when it's awful.

I haven't seen Apocalypse yet, but I'm anticipating it warily.  I think it shows a lot of promise, but I also can't help but remember the missteps of the X-Men films, and I'm crossing my fingers that this is not another one of them.  In celebration of the X-Men returning to theaters, I thought I'd put together a ranked list, from worst to best, of how I feel about the previous X-Men films.  Enjoy, or don't enjoy, regardless, please save your torches and pitchforks for more worthy causes.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Nope, X-Men Origins: Wolverine has been spared from the bottom of the list.  Although objectively, Wolverine is a much clunkier and unprofessional film, in my mind The Last Stand will forever remain the most dreadful X-Men movie ever made.  In fact, it may possibly be my least favorite film of all time.  This could partially be blamed on Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn's script, but the majority of the blame goes to the tone deaf direction of Brett Ratner.  In 2006, I was still riding the highs of Peter Jackson's magnificent Lord of the Rings adaptation trilogy, and was hungry for more epic fantasy trilogies.  I had high hopes for this to be the Return of the King of the original X-Men movies.  Instead, it's the Revenge of the Sith of the series.  I was in denial about how bad it was at first, and the longer I thought about it, the more disappointed I became.  From the flat out bad (Mystique's fate) to the mind-numbingly stupid (Juggernaut, say no more), everything about this film is a misfire.  Ranter's misunderstanding of the characters is unforgivable, and we should all feel blessed he's never been asked to return.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Here we go, take a deep breath, and try to remember what it was like watching this movie.  The Origins series is not a bad idea, but perhaps this film should have gotten at least more than one draft of a screenplay finished before they started shooting.  It really does feel like the script was banged out in a writer's room in the span of 12 hours.  It also feels like the movie itself was shot and edited in the span of 24 hours.  Design-wise, the effects are laughably bad.  Story-wise, this feels like it would be more at home on the Satellite of Love than in the X-Men film series, and character-wise it's a giant waste of huge potential.  This film is possibly the most infamous for its depiction of the character Deadpool, but to be honest, I've never been that invested in Deadpool, and I'm still not really that sold on him.  (I have an unpopular opinion on the recent film, but that's a tale for another time)

X-Men: First Class (2011)

I'm in the minority opinion with this film.  While it was a relative breath of fresh air after Last Stand and Origins, I was left disappointed and cold by Matthew Vaughn's entry in the X-Men series, and for the longest time, I didn't know why.  Then a little film called Kingsman: The Secret Service came out.  All of a sudden, everything made sense.  Matthew Vaughn wanted to make an old school Bond-Style spy movie very badly and he tried to do it with First Class and failed.  Then he tried again with Kingsman and succeeded with a standing ovation.  Because of this, I have a much less aggressive dislike of First Class, but unfortunately, it still doesn't work as an X-Men movie to me.  To me, the goofy, Moonraker-esque style of the film feels off in this universe.  The Wolverine cameo is great though.  I am also quite a big fan of Fassbender and McAvoy as Erik and Xavier, even if they'll never be McKellan and Stewart.

The Wolverine (2013)

Objectively, First Class is a better film than this one, but this one did a better job of fitting into the X-Men universe while still maintaining a sensibility of dumb action fun.  It's certainly an excellent palate cleanser of the original Wolverine film.  The Japanese setting was a fun change of pace and it did show that Wolverine can carry a movie on his own.  On top of that, there are some action set pieces that work exceptionally well, including the train fight and the climactic Silver Samurai battle.  Oh hey, and they actually managed to make Wolverine's claws look like they weren't just photoshopped in as an afterthought.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

There was a lot of hype riding on the back of this film.  Bryan Singer was finally returning.  It was going to be based on one of the most influential and popular X-Men comic stories.  It was melding the X-Men of the original films with the X-Men of the new films.  Would it all work?  Absolutely.  Bryan Singer's return was such a welcome one.  His voice is the clearest in the X-Men film series in a way that the other directors who tried to fill his shoes in his absence can't imitate. Singer has the ability to balance character, plot, and cinematic style while keeping everything perfectly balanced.  Hopefully lightning strikes twice with Apocalypse.

X-Men (2000)

Here we go, the first out of the gate and the second strongest of the entire series.  There's a refreshing simplicity to the original X-Men that makes it a delight to watch again and again.  It's a wonderful introduction to this world, with its Michael Kamen main theme and the strong opening scene of a young Magneto being pried from his parents at a Holocaust Concentration Camp.  As he cries out and reaches for them, he bends the iron gates until he's knocked unconscious by a guard.  Its thrilling as well as the perfect introduction to the character of Magneto, who is really never a villain, just a contrarian.  In fact, everyone gets great introductions.  "Does it hurt when they come out?  Your claws?"  "Every time."  The only really awkward part of this film is the infamous Storm one-liner right before Toad's demise.  Oh well.  You can't win them all.

Squad Goals

Squad Goals

X2: X-Men United (2003)

I missed the original X-Men film in theaters.  I caught it on DVD a few weeks before the sequel came out.  So this was officially the first X-Men film I saw inside a theater, and to me it was life changing.  Everything about this film is my definition of a perfect action film, sci-fi film, sequel, and superhero film.  From the very opening, this film demands your attention.  Watching Nightcrawler spin effortlessly through the air as he knocks bodyguards to the side like rag dolls, you know you are in for something unique.  Singer's beautiful staging of action set pieces has always been a defining moment for the X-Men films and the opening assassination attempt scene is the number one set piece in the entire series.  Even better for this film, we've already established the key players and now we have more time to have fun with them.  The chemistry between Magneto and Mystique, Wolverine and Rogue, Cyclops and Jean, Xavier and all of his students is fresh, fun, and intellectually stimulating.  And while we're at it, I'll go ahead and say it. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is the only Mystique.  Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderful actress, but she can't even begin to capture the intensity, anger, and danger of Romijn's performance.

So that's the list so far.  I'll be excited to see where Apocalypse falls in the list.  Here's to Oscar Isaac trying to wipe out humanity this weekend.  Cheers.