Life After Beth (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Grief-stricken by the sudden death of his girlfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan) spends most of his time and energy with Beth’s equally devastated parents (John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon). Several days after Beth (Aubrey Plaza) is buried, Zach takes a peek through the Slocum’s window and sees his girlfriend walking around. Convinced that her “death” is only an elaborate hoax because she did not want to break up with him, Zach is determined to get an explanation from Beth and her family.
“Life After Beth,” written and directed by Jeff Baena, has a tolerable few first few minutes but it only gets increasingly bad as it goes on. Already light on horror compounded with barely any comedy in its bones, the picture is stuck in soporific limbo, relying solely on its potentially amusing premise to barely get by. This is another movie that proves the horror-comedy genre is tough act to pull off well.
It should have covered a spectrum of emotions. The first act could have worked as a drama given that the characters are in mourning of a life taken too soon. The middle portion could have been an effective romantic comedy that allows us to get a complete idea of how Zach and Beth were like together before her transition. And the final third could have worked as a horror-comedy, somewhere along the lines of Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.” Alas, the screenplay relies only on behavior to tell its unfunny, far from amusing “jokes.”
The material appears to have no understanding of what grief is really like. There is not one character here written to respond like a human being after he or she has lost a loved one. Reilly and Shannon look as though they are aware they are in a spoof. DeHaan does not stand a chance because Zach is written like a walking checklist of someone who is clinically depressed—not someone who is grieving. There is a subtle but important difference.
DeHaan and Plaza share no chemistry, but the bigger concern is the screenplay not allowing the two of them to have a genuinely sweet moment. It is important that the audience be shown or are inspired to imagine how the couple are or might be like if the whole premise involving one coming back from the dead had been taken away completely. The relationship being grounded in reality is the only way we grow to care about the characters even if the performers do not emit spark together.
There is a subplot involving an apocalypse which is completely mishandled. It is anticlimactic instead of thrilling, quite bland and boring instead of exciting. We never get the impression that anything remotely bonkers can occur at any time so we sit in our chairs feeling confused as to why the writer-director has chosen to go down such a path. Maybe he ran out of ideas and felt compelled to attach a third act—any third act just to have one? Or it is possible, since it is his first feature film, that Baena had too many ideas but chose the wrong ones to put into celluloid.
Either way, “Life After Beth” does not work. The horror-comedy genre tends to work if functioning under extremes: It is either so funny that we welcome—and eventually crave—the unsuspected scares or so scary that when the comedy does arrive, we are not sure whether to laugh or label the situation as cruel or dark. Falling between the two extremes, however, tends to invoke frustration, anger, and boredom.
★★ / ★★★★
It is Valentine’s Day and Grant Mazzy’s (Stephen McHattie) first day on the job at the local radio station in a small Canadian town. He used to be a big radio star but his abrasive personality has gotten him into trouble. While on the way to his job, he encounters a woman who speaks of strange things that do not make sense. He brushes it off, blaming the weather as the source of the occurrence. While updating the public on local news, the field reporter, Ken (Rick Roberts), claims that something really weird is happening in town. People are in the streets naked, mimicking sounds, and eating each other. Grant, Sydney (Lisa Houle), and Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) are advised by officials to stay indoors.
“Pontypool,” directed by Bruce McDonald, has an interesting take on zombie movies, but it takes a while to take off and unspool its ideas. The first thirty minutes largely consists of Grant and Sydney, the producer, butting heads in terms of what the radio personality may or may not say while on the air. It turns old rather quickly because if I wanted to listen to acerbic opinion with something surprisingly meaningful to say about humanity’s state of decay, I would watch or listen to Oliver Stone’s “Talk Radio.”
The first third is frustrating because there is something big happening outside of the radio station’s walls; we want to know more about the mystery but the possibility of attaining information is often distracted by Grant’s bloated ego. While understandable that the point is for us to use our imagination first before seeing the horror, the pacing does not have to feel stagnant as it rinses and repeats the clashing personalities.
Fortunately, the film picks up when a family is invited to sing on air. One of them is infected by the mysterious virus. To reveal the actual nature of the infection will be unfair on my part considering how creative it truly is, but suffice to say that the symptoms are deeply unsettling. When a person about to “change,” usually within seconds, he or she starts to use words incorrectly. For instance, a sentence like “I would like to have lasagna for breakfast tomorrow” would turn into “I would like to have laser for breakfast marrow.” The host of the virus realizes, at first, that what he had said is incorrect. As he tries to correct himself, the person loses his train of thought and eventually keeps repeating the incorrect word. I have worked with people inflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease and they tend to do something similar. That is what makes it so creepy: the situation is tethered to what can happen in actuality.
There is a memorable scene when an infected tries to slam her body against a sound proof glass multiple times without showing any sign of exhaustion or pain. She does it until her face starts to fall off and blood, with small chunks of flesh, is smeared all over the formerly immaculate surface. We observe from the side she desperately wants to get into.
Based on a novel by Tony Burgess, “Pontypool” is a horror film that forces us to think and listen. Although it does not start strong, it becomes entertaining about halfway through. With so many zombie flicks in which the horror depends on how much flesh is bitten off a victim, this one is depends more on the insidious symptoms.
Die-Ner (Get It?) (2009)
★ / ★★★★
Rose (Maria Olsen), a lonely waitress in a diner during a graveyard shift, was regaled by Ken (Joshua Grote), a guy with a friendly voice, interested tone, and modest looks. Because Ken was so engaging, Rose found herself being comfortable with the stranger… until he revealed that he was a serial killer. After Ken killed Rose and the cook, a couple facing marital problems walked in. Kathy (Liesel Kopp), ordering water, didn’t want to talk about it because she claimed to be tired. Rob (Parker Quinn), ordering coffee, insisted that they discussed the problem immediately. Meanwhile, the waitress and the cook, looking dead, somehow got out of the freezer and lumbered toward Ken. Written and directed by Patrick Horvath, “Die-ner (Get It?)” began so promisingly but ultimately disappointed. There was a certain romanticism in the interaction between Rose and Ken as she informed him of her origins and how she ended up working in the middle of nowhere. Olsen wasn’t classically pretty but I loved looking at her and the way she delivered her lines from when she stood until she sat down to be on the stranger’s eye level. It was appropriate because I consider diners to be a romantic place, a haven of sweet-smelling pancakes and steamy mashed potatoes where all sort of strangers gather, eat, converse, and leave–a place of transition. I enjoyed the way it turned very dark as the waitress realized that the man she just started to trust turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There was horror in the way her expectations were played with and crushed. But from the moment the zombies were shown, my level of frustration toward the material climbed to a boiling point. While I appreciated that the characters knew what a zombie was, it didn’t make sense that they did not seem to have any background knowledge about them. For instance, they tried to kill the zombies but not one was quick to suggest to put a bullet in a walking dead’s head. If the script allowed its characters to recognize a zombie, why not also make them be aware of their weaknesses according to pop culture? By doing so, it would’ve given its own twists more power and impact. The zombies were not the only threat. Naturally, Rob and Kathy considered Ken to be a big danger after he admitted that he murdered the diner’s staff. The man with the gun, Ken, was shown as not always the one in charge. It was a good decision because it gave us hope that there was a possibility of escape for the couple. There were times when Ken was hit on the head and lost consciousness for a few minutes. However, this was around the point when I started to yell frustrations at the screen. Why didn’t Kathy and Rob make sure that the murderer, once he woke up, could never again get the upper hand? Personally, and it’s understandable if you don’t agree, I would have shot one of Ken’s kneecaps. Once I knew he would not be able to come after me, if none of the cars parked in the parking lot worked nor had keys in them, I would run toward the freeway and find help. It was unfortunate that the writer-director put too many limitations on his characters, as if the zombies had already eaten their brains. With movies similar to this, it’s so difficult to root for someone who doesn’t seem to have an instinct for survival. It is absolutely understandable if a character chooses to turn to savagery in order to preserve his or her life. It’s much better than watching a character running around like an idiot, just waiting to be killed. “Die-ner (Get It?)” was neither scary nor darkly amusing enough to pardon its glaring weaknesses in logic and entertainment value. At least it didn’t mistaken gore for horror.
Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012)
★ / ★★★★
Operation Big Shanty, a key move created by the Union designed to capture Fort Pulaski and gain great advantage against the Confederates during the Civil War, was a failure. Out of thirty men assigned to execute the undertaking, only one managed to survive. However, it turned out that prior to his rescue, he was bitten by another human that resembled a corpse, equipped with great strength and seemingly indestructible. Unbeknownst to him and his caretakers, it was only a matter of time until he turned to one of them. Abraham Lincoln (Bill Oberst Jr.) had encountered the living dead when he was a child. Having had the experience and the knowledge of how to kill them, he felt it was his duty to lead twelve men to Fort Pulaski and secure it for the sake of the country. Based on the story by Karl T. Hirsch and J. Lauren Proctor, “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” made the mistake of taking itself too seriously, adopting the pace of a three-hour period drama but without the heft nor the complexity of one. What it should have focused on was delivering creative ways to kill zombies as well as the side characters intent on getting blood on their hands. Each time the camera braced us in front of Lincoln and a zombie, there was an undeniable and all too momentary excitement mixed with glee because there was something very silly at the idea of our late president being able grip a scythe, slice someone’s head off, and not feel bad about it. For him, every undead meeting a true death simply had to be done for the good of the nation. He saw the corpse problem as a virus and he would do anything to contain it. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Richard Schenkman, felt the need to introduce an unnecessary romantic angle between Lincoln and Mary (Baby Norman), a woman the president met many years ago, for the sake of padding. As they learned that their feelings for one another were preserved as if they were the same people back then, their backstory was written and executed sloppily to the point of tedium. Oberst Jr. and Norman shared no chemistry. At one point, I grew so tired of their interactions that I wished a zombie was able to successfully sneak behind Mary and eat her so that the action would recommence. Further, the situation that the men were in were not especially interesting. It was disappointing because the fort housed Union and Confederate officers. Another critical misstep in the screenplay was passively allowing the zombies to be the stars, which didn’t make sense because aside from the fact that they were hungry, they were literally unable to do–let alone say–anything interesting as they lumbered from one spot to another, and the human characters went on autopilot, playthings to be chased and eventually trapped in a corner. It would have been great if there had been one or two scenes when a solider was allowed to speak of, for example, how this war against the undead was similar or different to the war against the living. I wanted to know if they felt there was a difference in killing a walking but unthinking corpse–which still resembled a human being–as opposed to killing a person who was as aware and as willing to kill. Directed by Richard Schenkman, while “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies” was not without occasional humor because of acting that either felt too forced or completely detached, it was still a limp piece of work considering what great fun it could have given us. At times the mood had gotten so somber, I wanted shout, “But it’s Lincoln killing zombies!” at the screen.
Paura nella città dei morti viventi (1980)
★ / ★★★★
Mary (Catriona MacColl), during a seance, was bombarded with images of a priest (Fabrizio Jovine) who committed suicide. This act opened up the Gates of Hell, caused deceased individuals to rise from their graves, and brutally kill whoever was around. Peter (Christopher George), a reporter, teamed up with Mary to find the town where the priest practiced, now a zombie with psychic powers, and stop him before All Saint’s Day. Written by Lucio Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti, “Paura nella città dei morti viventi,” also known as “City of the Living Dead” and “The Gates of Hell,” mainly relied on gore to disgust instead of building genuine tension to scare us. However, I was mostly able to overlook that particular shortcoming because I was in the mood for blood. The special effects, like having too much fog accompanied by a soundtrack which signaled that something scary was happening, and the visual effects, like the a appearing/disappearing priest hanging from a rope, ran rampant. It was just too much that it came off as though Lucio Fulci, the director, did not seem at all in control of his material. While some of it was creative (when was the last time you saw a movie about a zombie that could kill by staring intensely at its victim?), most of it was campy, not helped by the terrible dubbing especially in the beginning. There were three scenes that stood out to me. The first was when a corpse suddenly appeared in Emily’s kitchen. Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) thought she was going crazy so she called her psychologist (Carlo De Mejo) to make sure that she wasn’t just seeing things. When the psychologist came over, it turned out her mind wasn’t playing tricks on her at all. They left the body for minute and when they got back, it was no longer there. There was an unexpected comedy because when they realized that the body was gone, instead of running out of the house like normal people would, the two actually discussed their options: either the body was dragged away (which suggested there was another person in the house, most likely dangerous, who liked to play sick jokes) or the corpse walked away on its own. The second and third scenes were kills. The first was when the priest used his mind to force a girl to regurgitate her internal organs. It was disgusting and unbelievable but it was also quite amusing. The second involved a father who found his daughter with a boy (Giovanni Lombardo Radice) in suspicion of murder. Having no evidence whatsoever that the boy was a killer, the father took the boy’s head through a power drill. What I liked about that scene was, unlike most of the other scenes the film offered, it actually had tension. “City of the Living Dead,” at times unnecessary and mean-spirited especially with its extended scene involving a boy being terrorized by zombies, for better or worse, was an over-the-top interesting mess. At least the zombies didn’t go “Err… Oof… Grr!”
Cabin in the Woods, The (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.
Sucker Punch (2011)
★ / ★★★★
After their mother’s death, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister were left in the hands of their evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). When he found out that the sisters were the heir to the fortune he hoped to receive, he was possessed by rage and tried to hurt the girls. Commotion ensued and Baby Doll was accused of accidentally killing her sister. She was sent to a mental hospital where she eventually planned her escape with other patients (Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung). Directed by Zack Snyder, there was no denying that “Sucker Punch” delivered visual acrobatics galore. The action sequences looked dream-like, appropriate because much of the fantastic elements occurred in Baby Doll’s mind, and the girls looked great in their respective outfits. However, it was unfortunate that there was really nothing else to elevate the picture. The acting was atrocious. Blue (Oscar Isaac), one of the main orderlies, for some reason, always felt the need to scream in order to get his point across. I understood that Isaac wanted his character to exhibit a detestable menace, but he should have given more variety to his performance. Sometimes whispering a line in a slithery tone could actually pack a more powerful punch than yelling like a spoiled child. I was astounded that we didn’t learn much about Baby Doll’s friends. They were important because they helped our protagonist to get the four items required if she was to earn her freedom. I wondered what the sisters, Sweat Pea and Rocket, had done to deserve being sent to such a prison. They seemed very close. Maybe for a reason. The girls were supposed to have gone crazy in some way but there was no evidence that they weren’t quite right in the head. If they were sent to the mental hospital for the wrong reasons, the script should have acknowledged that instead of leaving us in the dark. They, too, could have been framed like Baby Doll. Overlooking such a basic detail proved to me how little Snyder thought about the story. “Sucker Punch” tackled three worlds: the mental institution, the brothel, and the war against Nazi zombies. Too much time was spent in the whorehouse, the least interesting of them all, and not enough time in the asylum. Though beautiful to look at due to its post-apocalyptic imagery, I could care less about the battle scenes with the dragons, giant samurais, and Nazi zombies. The reason why Snyder should have given us more scenes of Baby Doll in the asylum was because that was Baby Doll’s grim reality: in five days, she was to be lobotomized. Those who’ve played a role-playing video game in the past five years are aware that the games have mini-movies during key events in the story arc. Those images were as good as the ones found here and some of the stories in those games are quite compelling. If images were all this film had to offer, then why should we bother to watch it?
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Nothing much happened in “Resident Evil: Afterlife” other than the fact that Alice (Milla Jovovich) continued on her seemingly interminable quest to shut down the Umbrella Corporation. After hearing a hopeful transmission that promised food, shelter, protection, and no infected individuals, our protagonist hoped to find refuge in a place called Arcadia. But when she reached the promised land, she found nothing but a beach and abandoned helicopters. Meanwhile, off the coast of California, Alice and Claire (Ali Larter) landed their helicopter on a prison where other survivors (Boris Kodjoe, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Kim Coates, Kacey Barnfield, Norman Yeung, Fulvio Cecere) hoped to be rescued as they kept a man (Wentworth Miller), who promised to divulge a secret passage that led outside if released, captive. I didn’t expect the film to be insightful or groundbreaking in any way. But I did expect it to entertain. I wasn’t entertained. I was confused during the first thirty minutes because Alice had the ability to be in multiple places at once. For the rest of the time, I grew impatient as the material delivered the run-of-the-mill deaths from our not-so-colorful group of characters. There was only one scene I liked which involved a duel between Claire and a giant man wielding a massive ax. I was at the edge of my seat because I felt like Claire was in serious trouble considering she didn’t have any superhuman powers. And I think that’s the problem with our main character. Alice didn’t feel human so we couldn’t empathize with her when she had to face danger. She was capable of sacrifice but it didn’t feel like she cared for the people she seemed to protect. It felt like she was more interested in the challenge of shooting as many zombies as possible. The only fun fact about her was she liked to stack quarters on her spare time. But she even did it so robotically. Just because the material was inspired by a popular video game, it didn’t mean that each aspect of the film had to feel cold and calculated. When the characters met their demise, I didn’t care. I thought about who was next to be eaten or shot. I also wanted to talk about the zombies. It’s never a good sign when the zombies from television shows like Frank Darabont’s “The Walking Dead” look better than zombies in a movie. I don’t mean “better” as in more attractive; I mean “better” as in more convincing, more menacing. The franchise had about eight years to master its tone. Not once did I see that Paul W.S. Anderson, the writer and director, attempted to use mood to suspend his audiences in suspense. If Anderson had found a way to balance science fiction, action, and horror (with occasional humor), “Resident Evil: Afterlife” would have breathed new life into the series. It should have stayed dead.
Survival of the Dead (2009)
★ / ★★★★
George A. Romero’s tired “Survival of the Dead” started off with two groups of people on an island with a vastly different approach in terms of dealing with the zombies. Group A, led by Kenneth Welsh, wanted to kill the zombies immediately while Group B, led by Richard Fitzpatrick, wanted to train the zombies to eat things other than humans. The first scene depicted Group A being exiled from the island. Cut to the soldiers (Alan Van Sprang, Athena Karkanis, Stefano DiMatteo) meeting a kid (Devon Bostick) as they attempted to decide their next destination. Some wanted to go North while the other said South but it didn’t really matter because we all knew they would end up on the island. I will always thank Romero for making a big impact in the horror genre for the classic “Night of the Living Dead” but what he needs to do now is to stop making these limp and cliché-ridden sequels. The questions that were posed about the way the living dealt with the dead and fellow living people were painfully pretentious and heavy-handed. The two old men with polarizing opinions about what to do with the zombies felt contrived. At one point, one of them stated that they’ve been rivals ever since the school yard. I thought they were immature, selfish and weren’t as strong or macho as they wanted others to believe. With the amount of arguing they had throughout the picture, I was surprised they weren’t killed off in the very beginning. I found nothing inspiring from “Survival of the Dead” because it simply featured a group people making one stupid decision after another. There was nothing scary about the zombies because they were slow-moving and the make-up was so obvious that it borderlined camp. Furthermore, it did not have a firm grasp on delivering tension that lingers. Too often did it rely on the score to tell us what was scary or amusing and I did not appreciate being spoon-fed what to feel and think. I wanted scenes where we were forced to follow a character in a dark, tight spaces, and all we could hear were silence and the character’s footsteps. It should have given us more scenes we could relate to whether there was a danger of a zombie attack or not. There was not one character in this film that I could root for because it spent too much time tackling trite moral questions instead what it meant for these specific characters to survive in world where hope seemed like a thing of the past. Even more disappointing was the fact that it didn’t even have that much blood. If one is looking for some scares, intelligence and creativity, I suggest to stay away from this generic supposed gorefest.