Island Zero


Island Zero (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

I wish more modest horror movies were like “Island Zero.” It is aware of its budgetary limitations, but it works hard to circumvent common problems that plague the genre in order to create an experience that inspires the viewer to want to stick with the curious story it has to tell. Mood and atmosphere over the usual arm-chomping and brain-bashing. The film is written by Tess Gerritsen and directed by Josh Gerritsen—names I wish to remember because I believe they have a lot more to give. This is a pretty good trial run, not for everyone but willing to engage and entertain; and I can’t wait to see what else they have to offer.

In the past few weeks, fishermen have ventured into the water and caught nothing, not even a guppy. It were as if all the fish, crabs, and lobsters have migrated from the area. But that is only one of the problems in this island, located 40 miles from Maine. Those who take their boat in the water end up disappearing, too. It has gotten so bad lately that those who wish to get out of the island have no one to transport them. It is winter, almost Christmas, and food is quickly running out. Diesel is in demand in order to keep generators running. Desperation is in the air.

I enjoyed how the story unfolds like a Stephen King novel. Here we are in an isolated community where everyone is friendly and familiar. We visit the usual hangout areas: a diner, a hotel, the docks. It is so intimate, wonderfully capturing a sense of isolation, that I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of antsy residents walking to the dock, luggages in tow, instead of taking a cab or car. The island is so small, it feels like every point of interest is within walking distance. The filmmakers know that for us to believe this community, there must be memorable, perhaps quirky, details. It is not enough for the characters to share certain accents or to sport a certain look. We must get a real sense of how they live—and later survive.

We come to know Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), a marine biologist who has long suspected this island will experience a sudden drop in marine population. He and his deceased wife, also a marine biologist, believe that there is an undiscovered apex predator out there in the ocean. There is the island doctor, Maggie (Laila Robins), who looks forward to leaving the island over the holidays and… spend some time alone with a good book. Although a good physician, there is a coldness to her that I found to be fascinating during the latter half of the story. And there is Jessie (Joanna Clarke), a server who has never left the island, currently crushing on a novelist, Titus (Matthew Wilkas), who has an appointment in New York City regarding the publishing of his latest book, the island of interest being the main source of inspiration. When asked what kind of story he’s writing, “It’s a love story,” he tells her. Uh huh. She knows what he means.

The movie provides extended exposition—which will undoubtedly frustrate many. I was, too, for a time, because there is a creature (or creatures) out there in the water but instead we are asked to sit through a whole lot of talking among the residents, oftentimes saying the same thing like how much they wish to get out of the island before resources run dry. However, it proves to be a smart move because the exchanges are meant to let our guards down. While this is happening, clues are being dropped left and right about what is actually going on. This isn’t to suggest there’s a big twist waiting. But certain revelations in the final half make sense in retrospect.

I liked the look of the creature. (Its body is shown about two-thirds of the way through—so patience is required.) Although not terribly original (it reminded me of a Pixar character), the film made me want to examine it whole, slice its limbs (does it have limbs?), and put its organs (if any) under a microscope. We are given information on how the organism hunts, what time of day, what it is attracted to, what repels it. We even get to see the color of its blood and hear suggestion on why it is like that. In many creature-feature films, especially those with sizable budgets, these are considered insignificant information. What matters is the violence and the gore. Not here. Although not particularly exciting, I found it to be refreshing.

The picture’s most critical shortcoming is the final ten minutes. I felt as though the filmmakers threw away what they worked so hard for by rushing through the fates of some of our protagonists. As a result, what should have been dramatic exits end up as mere footnotes. For a story that exercises a whole lot of patience, the resolution lacks precisely this element. If only it were able to hold its breath for a little while longer.

Hostel


Hostel (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

I think the goal of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” is to make the viewers so uncomfortable that somewhere during its descent to hell they find their heads pulling away from the screen without thinking about it. As ugly, gory, and violent as the film is, an argument can be made that it is true horror in a sense that it elicits a response so visceral and so powerful that by the end it leaves one enraged, drained, or wallowing in disquiet. I found it to be entertaining from beginning to end; the story is propelled with great energy combined with a “Look what I can do!” gall.

Those who consider only the surface of the picture will be quick to label the work as “torture porn.” I’m not so sure it qualifies. Consider the extended scene in which we find one of our three backpackers—Paxton (Jay Hernandez), Josh (Derek Richardson), and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson)—handcuffed to a chair. From the moment the physical torture begins, the camera fixates on his face. We are there with him the first time a drill punctures his skin, as he shrieks in pain, begs for help and to be released. If the purpose were to excite the viewer, the camera would have focused on the tormentor’s facial and body expressions throughout the ordeal. But no—physical suffering and desperate screaming are front and center. By framing the face just so, there is no escape; we are forced to sympathize with the doomed character.

The picture begins like a comedy—a stereotypical comedy surrounding two Americans (Hernandez, Richardson) and one Icelander (Gudjonsson) being boisterous, rude, always on the lookout for weed and women who wish to sleep with them. I was amused by their shenanigans because the performers do a good job in looking and sounding the part. They share chemistry, and what elevates the comedy is the precise phrasings, looks they give to one another, and timing in terms of when to go for hyperbole versus when to downplay. It is not until forty-five minutes into the picture when we finally encounter something especially gruesome.

There is a creative idea here. Rich folks from all over the world pay to torture and kill unsuspecting individuals. To be able to do whatever they wish to an American, it costs $25,000. Considering the film was released post 9/11, there is merit to claims that a) the movie is made for Americans and b) it wishes to make a statement about what Americans consider to be their place in the world following that tragic day. But I go further. I think the writer-director wants to show his American audience that we as a society are not blameless for 9/11.

Like the characters in this film, we go into other people’s countries and act like we own the place, sometimes forcing them to adopt our values and morality—a modern day invasion. To make that point is brave and Roth opens himself—as a filmmaker, as an American, or just any other person—for censure. And yet to do so is a very American thing to do. To criticize ourselves for what we are doing wrong is, in my eyes, patriotic. Clearly, there is substance in “Hostel” should one bother to wade through the warm blood, shredded organs, and fatty tissues.

Splinter


Splinter (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a zombie picture that has nothing to do with a virus. Written by Ian Shorr and Kai Barry, the imaginative and suspenseful “Splinter” takes on a straightforward, no subplot approach of focusing on four characters trying to survive a night of horrors—first on the road and then inside a gas station. Sure, the frights are familiar and there are more than a few instances in which the jolts can be anticipated down to the split-second, but there is no denying that the execution gets the job done. It is creepy, efficient, and riotously watchable. As a genre piece, it works.

Polly (Jill Wagner) and Seth (Paulo Costanzo), a couple celebrating their anniversary, are stopped by a wanted man (Shea Whigham) and his drug addicted girlfriend (Rachel Kerbs), on the run to Mexico, while on their way to a motel. But this is no ordinary hostage situation. The four must team up quickly to try to outsmart and outlive an organism that takes over corpses and “eats” or metabolizes nutrients. These four personalities are indeed archetypes (the brain, the tough chick, the criminal, the drug addict), but the performances are enthusiastic enough and the impossible situation is terrifying enough for us to be able to overlook the more recognizable aspects of the screenplay.

The makeup and creature effects are inspired. In a way, the organism in question does not have a defined form. So the specialists are forced to be creative. We see ominous-looking spikes protruding from its hosts, but this is only a defense mechanism. When touched, for instance, these spikes can easily embed themselves on the skin and taking over the host begins. Although there is a trope involving one of the survivors having to keep secret that he or she has been infected, I didn’t mind so much because the overall situation’s tension keeps increasing. I enjoyed that there is a discovery to be made every fifteen minutes or so. Clearly, the material does not lack confidence.

The organism is capable of putting together dead bodies from various sources so the appearance of the enemy likens that of Frankenstein’s monster. It is strong, it moves quickly, and the camera is tickled to show us how ugly it looks when it lunges for an attack. It is unclear whether it feels pain or suffering. I’m inclined to believe it does not. To increase the ante, the organism can also live in an excised body part and control it to move. There is a funny and terrifying bit with a hand in an enclosed space. Good stuff.

“Splinter” is directed by Toby Wilkins and it functions on pure forward momentum. Coupled with a screenplay that assumes viewers have seen a number of zombie films, there are a number of instances here where expectations are subverted and played for uncomfortable laughs. Then just around the corner the real horror awaits.

Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver


Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Based on the internet legend Ted the Caver—a man who kept an online journal of the virgin cave he came across but whose posts completely stopped following an entry involving one last descent—“Living Dark,” based on the screenplay by David L. Hunt (who directs) and Kevin Brown, is an effective suspense picture that is able to accomplish plenty of mixed frights despite a very tight budget. However, instead of embracing a focused visceral horror experience, it is hindered by a sad story of two brothers named Ted (Chris Cleveland) and Brad (Matthew Alan) who are reunited after their father’s passing. Although I admired the filmmakers’ attempt in getting us to care for the characters outside of the box of survival horror, it is clear that the dialogue is not the material’s forté.

Cleveland and Alan, who share believable chemistry, are up to the task of establishing a meaningful connection between brothers who, despite being only two years apart, have never felt all that close. Ted begrudges Brad for having a habit of doing his own thing even though there are times when he is needed back home; Brad thinks Ted is so rooted in their hometown and family that his elder brother never got a chance to truly live. On a conceptual level, it works. I think most of us would be able to relate and empathize with these characters.

But during the more dramatic moments—for example, when the siblings unearth a memory but one does not remember at all or recalls quite differently—I could feel the actors making an effort to let the words on the script flow a little better, to make the lines sound like phrases that actual people would say. These moments of pain and humanity should come across natural, but instead I found myself distracted due to the occasionally unpolished script. Instead of appreciating emotions or considering what someone might be thinking due to what is expressed (or not expressed), I focused on the subjects’ behavior. And at times these do not match of the words being uttered. There is a disconnect which took me out of the moment.

The exploration is two-fold: Ted and Brad’s rocky relationship and the obsession they develop to discover what’s hidden inside the cave. A case can be made that the two elements must be effective in order to have a thorough appreciation of what will transpire during the third act. As a whole, I found the former to be somewhat crippled in parts while the latter holds its own.

The horror-thriller elements are done rather well. I enjoyed how it employs slow build-up like when the brothers discover a small hole that leads to another room. Not only is there a breeze coming from there… there are indiscernible noises, too. It’s strange at first that no matter what is done to the hole—sledgehammer, pickaxe, drills—it just won’t get any bigger. For a long while we wonder if the cave itself is supernatural. Further, the picture has an eye for truly claustrophobic scenes such as a body squeezing through a crawlspace. There is a wonderful balance of the camera fixating on a terrified face as well as body parts being taken over by panic. So, you see, the threat is not only what’s waiting deep in the cave. It knows that sometimes what goes on in our minds can be far scarier than what faces us.

“Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver” deserves a marginal recommendation. I appreciated the effort put into it despite the lack of ear for dialogue and a few supporting characters—Uncle Charlie (Mark Hayter) and Joe the gas station attendant/enthusiastic cave explorer (Circus-Szalewski)—that should have gotten more time on the spotlight. (They have a lot of personality.) The work is elevated by a good enough understanding of what makes certain situations scary. And scares do not always have to involve creatures in the dark. Sometimes a strange noise outside of one’s window in the middle of the night (digital clock shows 3:32 AM) is enough to slap our eyes wide open.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown


The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★

The pseudo-documentary approach of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” written for the screen by Earl E. Smith and directed by Charles B. Pierce (who also co-stars as the dimwitted Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson), works in this particular story because the killer is never identified or caught. The plot is loosely based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946 and it makes for an interesting watch as a crime picture and a genre exercise: it establishes a convincing setting of a post-World War II border town living in every day terror and it is not constrained by the usual trappings of the modern slasher horror since it was made before the slasher sub-genre took off.

We are greeted with a creepy but matter-of-fact narration by Vern Stierman. It does not waste any time in establishing the stakes and convincing the viewers why this tale is worth telling. By showing us around the usual hangouts in Texarkana—bars, movie theaters, churches—and the people living in it, typical establishing shots usually treated as throwaways in modern horror stories, it creates a genuine aura of foreboding. If the murders can happen in this town with these regular Americans, it can just as well happen to you and me.

We follow Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), a local cop and a Texas Ranger, visit crime scenes and gather clues as the strong, tall, and white-masked Phantom Killer (Bud Davis) slaughters unsuspecting couples in their vehicles every twenty-one days. Prine and Johnson share a curious chemistry, perhaps because they play their characters’ personalities as opposites or that it is entirely apparent they are performers in a horror movie more than capable of delivering subtlety, although the material does not bother to delve deeply into their differing approaches when it comes to police work. They are shown as capable and smart, so we recognize why they are the best hands and minds to try to apprehend the killer. There are hints of a solid procedural here.

The killings are not shown in a cinematic way—which I felt to be the correct approach. They are messy, ugly, and sad. There is not one effective jump scare. Instead, it tasks us to wallow in the violence and consider the torment the victims are going through. Therein lies its horror. Particularly memorable is the third couple, a pair of musicians, who are brutalized in such an unblinking fashion, especially the woman (Cindy Butler), that I caught my eyes moving away from the screen in order to take a breath. Our empathy is always with the victim, never the killer. And so when the scene reaches the inevitable climax, the defeat is all the more impactful. This is when The Phantom Killer is at his most confident and… creative. We desperately wish for him to make a mistake so that Ramsey and Morales could get closer to his tracks.

Although peppered with comic moments (all scenes involving Sparkplug being slow but quite earnest to execute his assignments the best he can), “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is not created to make the audience feel good—at least not in a traditional sense. It is meant to horrify and remind that taking another person’s life is quite the chore, maybe even requiring discipline. For instance, how is it possible that The Phantom Killer was so successful in not leaving meaningful evidence when every single crime scene shows great struggle? Perhaps the killer is ahead of his time.

Extraterrestrial


Extraterrestrial (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

It begins with a group of friends driving to a cabin in the woods. I can feel you rolling your eyes. Another one of those movies? Yes… and no. Colin Minihan’s sci-fi horror “Extraterrestrial” may not introduce new elements to the (not so little) green men terrorizing humans sub-genre, but it is apparent right from the first act that its goal is to entertain the viewers helpless. It is not one of those alien movies in which the only source of entertainment is flashing lights and visual effects. In fact, there are great stretches here that inspires the audience to glue their eyes to screen. It is ambitious, energetic, and respectful toward the horror and science fiction genres. On this level, the movie works.

Here is a story in which characters have an awareness of unidentified flying objects, aliens, and government cover-ups. Because they are young and have probably seen a lot of movies and television shows about extraterrestrials, they do not act dumb when faced with a spacecraft that crash landed. They approach the ship out of morbid curiosity but do not try to open it because they know what tends to happen when creatures inside there are not friendly. And since these characters are given at least minimal knowledge of the situation they’re in, they’re all the more enjoyable to watch. This group, led by April (Brittany Allen), is leagues ahead of similar packs in less intelligent killer alien movies.

Small decisions are made that go a long way. For example, in this picture, an alien abduction can be recorded using a cell phone or CCTV and footages do not malfunction or disappear suddenly the second it is shown to another person who doubts that there really are aliens running around the forest. Another example, which put a smile on my face, is in the matter-of-fact way the filmmakers choose to portray flying saucers and ETs. All of us have a general expectation of how they look based on popular culture and this movie delivers exactly that. They don’t bother to change the color of the aliens or the shape of their heads, nor do they alter the cliché look of the craft. They just… are and there’s something incredibly freeing about it. I felt as though Minihan and his team had more important things to accomplish—like how to make a hunt between predator and prey feel full of tension or how to achieve creative payoffs.

Alien attacks are executed with panache. Its practical effects are impressive and yet so much is hidden within or just outside shadows. Rain and lightning storms are used not just to create a creepy environment, but to make it a harder to see what’s beyond several feet away. This approach can also be used to highlight a figure standing right behind somebody—especially in regards to the timing of the lightning. There are jump scares, certainly. But there are other types of scares, too. It seems to enjoy showing us how terrified characters feel when they know with absolute certainty that no matter what they do, they will be abducted. Scream as they might, quite often there is a sense of surrender in their eyes.

The work follows a defined three-arc structure. What I liked most is that the third arc takes risks, especially now that so many horror movies these days do not even bother to offer a resolution. I hate it when the climax is reached and then the screen simply fades to black. Not here. I know, for instance, that the director is a fan of “The X-Files” because so many episodes of that wonderful show ends just like this movie: all at once it can be sad, funny, satirical, and ironic. There is a punchline; it gives us clear reasons why the writer-director (Stuart Ortiz co-writes) felt the need to tell this story. Fans of the genre will get a kick out of this independent gem.

Primeval


Primeval (2007)
★ / ★★★★

Even if you choose to turn off your brain, Michael Katleman’s creature feature “Primeval” is still an awful movie, bogged down by political commentary that has no place in a gory monster film. As a result, the work is a strange mix of two pictures, the former wanting to be taken seriously and the latter aspiring to be campy fun. It doesn’t work because the two sides are so extreme. For example, in one scene, we are witnessing an execution of an entire family. In the next, a wisecracking cameraman is attempting to outrun a massive crocodile in an open field.

Journalist Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell) is assigned to cover a story involving a man-eating crocodile that has recently taken the life of a British anthropologist in war-ravaged Burundi. Tim scoffs at the idea because the story isn’t exactly Pulitzer material; he wishes to cover “real stories” instead. But that’s not all, according to his boss. Tim must capture the giant croc named Gustave—alive—with the help of a herpetologist (Gideon Emery). The news station must get exclusive rights for such a phenomenal and profitable story. This satirical angle regarding corporate greed and sensationalism ought to have been explored further. Camp and satire can make an effective and savagely entertaining combination. For instance, writers John Bracanto and Michael Ferris, if ambition were actually on the table, might have chosen to connect the ravenous mainstream media to the insatiable stomach of the crocodile.

But when Tim and his crew get to Africa, the story gets stuck in endless exposition—and cliché. Here is a movie that consistently shows Burundi as poor, backwards, and desperate. The one African character we meet that is a nice guy wishes to go to America—no matter the cost. The other black characters are killers, shamans, victims of black-on-black crime. It’s ironic that the material wishes to make left-leaning political statements, but the material itself suffocates in its traditionalism. Its heart is in the right place, but what actually matters is the final product. Subtlety is not the work’s strong point. And so why not simply focus on providing suspense and thrills surrounding the news crew and the apex predator?

The more grisly scenes leave a lot to be desired. Due to its limited budget, the CGI is not first-rate. Notice that action sequences involving the crocodile take place mostly during the night. And that’s all right. What matters more is the build-up before the croc attack. Well, it fails to deliver on that front either. Because there are far too many characters running around, panicking, and yelling over one another, tension diffuses just as the score begins to soar. Observe how there is not one extended moment when a person must be extremely quiet in order to avoid being detected by the crocodile. Because from the director’s point of view, the shot of a person being bit and thrown about holds more significance.

Forget science. You won’t get even a whiff of that in this movie. There is a gargantuan crocodile living in the waters alongside people who fish in order to make a living—and yet there is not one mention of decreasing marine populations or how the croc has impacted the local economy. Instead, we get banter between Tim the journalist and Aviva the reporter (Brooke Langton) which centers around the latter being beautiful physically and so it must mean she doesn’t have to work hard for her accomplishments. The more I think about how the film is written, the more embarrassing it becomes. Imagine sitting through this fluff for an hour and thirty minutes.

Haunters: The Art of the Scare


Haunters: The Art of the Scare (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Jon Schnitzer’s “Haunters: The Art of the Scare” is a loving tribute to people who love to terrify people for a living—or just for fun. There are three subjects: legendary haunter Shar Mayer; Donald Julson, creator of Nightmare on Loganberry Haunted Attraction; and Russ McKamey, creator of the infamous McKamey Manor, highly controversial due to claims of assault and torture occurring there. Although energetic and well-intentioned, the documentary lacks a consistent propulsive trajectory. Just when it is beginning to get interesting due to the nature and type of questions being asked, it has a habit of jumping onto the next subject—as if it is afraid to tackle the more awkward or difficult subjects straight on. And so interest wanes.

Perhaps most highly regarded of the three is Shar Mayer, a haunter who has been in the business for decades. When the camera focuses on her face as she recalls specific haunts, there is a certain glint in her eyes that makes her look twenty years younger. She is so enthusiastic in retelling personal experiences, notice there is no need to cut to recordings of people trapped in mazes being scared witless. The reason is because there is already joy in her words and animated facial expressions. She does not need to say how much she loves what she does. We feel it in every fiber of her being. It is amazing how she embodies her character, for example, when a mask is plastered on her face. She is a true performer. Everything changes: her voice, her laughter, her posture, the way she blinks or moves her lips. It is not a surprise she has garnered so much respect in the haunt community.

The amusing portion of the film—which I found to be least interesting—is Donald’s passion for his Loganberry project. The haunt is composed of simple scares, and it is very family-friendly. Seeing glimpses of his haunt made me feel warm. It is ordinary, familiar, the kind I visited when growing up. Donald prepares months in advance, much to the dismay of his loving wife (who would rather prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas), but the attraction is open for only four hours during Halloween night.

Donald’s love for his work is admirable, but I wished the documentary focused more on his sacrifices to make the haunt successful. For example, although the married couple are interviewed together, which creates an impression that all is well, there is telling a moment when Donald receives a text from his partner claiming she has had enough with all the Halloween planning—either head home the moment he received the text message or do not come home for the night. There is talk about going over budget and implications of Donald not living up to his potential. Here is a man who was the prop master for movies like “Minority Report” and “Van Helsing.” Clearly, he is great at his craft. And so his segment ought to have been more in-depth, more probing, more curious.

And then there is the McKamey Manor, infamous for having the reputation of being a torture chamber than an actual haunt. The film brings up an interesting point: Over the years, haunts have become more extreme because people require more to be scared. I enjoyed that Schnitzer is willing to ask Russ questions such as whether he himself would go through his own haunt. He provides a funny—but informative—answer. Still, there are serious concerns about his haunt: underaged teenagers being hired, the lack of a safe word for participants who wish to quit the intense attraction, legitimate concerns from neighbors not being taken seriously at all.

It is clear that Russ is a fun-loving guy. But there is an impression that he fails to take into account how people feel during or after the experience. We watch participants (not customers since there is no monetary payment provided, just cans of dog food which go to a good cause) being drowned, confined in tight spaces like coffins, eat questionable food which make them vomit, insects and bugs being placed on their faces. It is—and it is meant to be—extreme. Most heartbreaking is when participants watch videos of their humiliation. It brings up a number of moral and ethical questions.

“Haunters: The Art of the Scare” also consists of interviews of sociologists, historians, a creative director at Universal Studios, members of the Air Force, film producers. While their takes are welcome, their contributions are treated mostly as color commentary. I would rather have learned more about the history of horror and haunts, their relationship with economic downturns, how the fantasy or experience—being scared—is utilized as a tool to exorcise our own frustrations, fears, and concerns in real life.

The Night Eats the World


The Night Eats the World (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

In a sea of modern horror films that are loud and over-the-top, “The Night Eats the World” sticks out like a sore thumb. Based on the novel by Pit Agarmen, this limited but proficient undead picture utilizes silence both as a tool for survival and a setting for one’s own psychological warfare. Coupled with a nearly wordless performance by Anders Danielsen Lie (who continues to take on interesting roles), what results is a highly watchable piece in which, despite some contrivances like having to chase after an animal down a zombie-infested street, its restraint becomes its most effective weapon. Here is a film that is aware of its constraints and turns them into strengths.

It is successful in putting the audience in Sam’s mindset, particularly the crippling isolation he feels after having woken up and nobody alive is around. The screenplay by Jérémie Guez, Guillaume Lemans, and Dominique Rocher (who also directs the film) bothers to detail the every day ennui that presses on and eventually comes to possess our protagonist. Like peeling an onion, we observe Sam struggling in a completely new world in which he must either adapt or perish. As a musician, for example, he can no longer create music because loud noises attract the flesh eaters. He must sacrifice his passion in order to survive and so it begs the question: Is survival the same as truly living? Is Sam, too, like the undead—the main difference between them and himself is that at the moment he is in control of his own faculties?

The story takes place in an apartment building in Paris. A chunk of the picture involves the main character checking out every apartment in order to determine if there is any immediate or viable threat. Fallen bodies must be disposed because they rot and create a stench. When he does come across a living dead, he marks the front door with an X using a white chalk—a warning not to enter there again. Doors are locked, but we grow paranoid of the possibility that, like the Velociraptors in “Jurassic Park,” the zombies, too, learn how to open doors eventually. The director employs dark and cramp hallways to create a constant foreboding feeling. When a faintest sound is detected, especially at night, we are conditioned to look down the hallway or under the doors’ crevices for a hint of moving shadows. Perhaps it is a good idea to sleep in an area that functions like a hiding place. You can never be too careful.

Naturally, the protagonist does not always make the smartest decisions. It can be argued that this is a necessary trope because it creates suspense. Maybe the point is to inspire viewers to yell at the screen either to give instructions or to chastise. I enjoyed that the screenplay is able to establish that Sam becomes so desperate for human connection, it is almost as though he has developed a death wish. Weeks pass by, perhaps even months. Sam goes to the roof and observe the once busy-buzzing Parisian streets fall completely silent. He wonders if he is the sole survivor.

Here is a zombie picture that offers no answer to the disease’s origin or what is being done about it. It simply is and, in this case, it works. It is not about the virus but the effects of the apocalypse to one specific person. Most may hastily criticize the final moment. Some will say it is too obvious, others will claim it is too vague. But I think it is the correct decision since its trust is placed in those who have watched closely.

The Return of the Living Dead


The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Let me ask you a question, kid. Did you see that movie ‘Night of the Living Dead?’ …Did you know that movie was based on a true case?”

You know a horror-comedy is not going to hold back its punches when right from the opening title card there is already a joke. It dares to claim that the events and people found therein are based on truth. Its self-awareness is sharp, fresh, and pointed; writer-director Dan O’Bannon is clearly a lover of not only undead pictures but of movie-making that incites overt reaction from the audience. “The Return of the Living Dead” can be enjoyed when alone on the couch. But it is preferred that it be experienced as a group as the collective fever of laughter fills the room.

This is not just a movie that offers terrific special and makeup effects. Given that the premise involves a chemical leakage from a U.S. Army tank which houses a zombie from the “actual” case that inspired George A. Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” the work makes a statement about how we treat our environment, specifically the waste we put out there for the air to spread and for the soil to absorb. Everything comes from the ground—yes, even the air we breathe. (A prime example is the water cycle—which, to my surprise, is incorporated in the film in a most humorous fashion.) And so wastes we put out there make us sick and eventually kill us. Hence, zombies rising from the Earth, taking over, and eating our brains.

The picture uses every trick in the horror manual—except for CGI—to create grotesque, gross, curious, horrifying, and morbid imagery, from mannequins and old school puppets to animatronics and people sporting masks or heavy cosmetics. Not one technique used comes across as perfect, but there is an infectious joyousness in how they are utilized and framed. I enjoyed that it is almost always not enough to show a disgusting or unusual image and pass that off as entertainment. These images are often accompanied by an auditory gag, shocking acrobatics, or reference to other zombie movies. It feels like a love letter to undead films that came before, but at the same time it has two goals: to turn expectations inside-out and to push the sub-genre in new directions. Either way, it strives to make us laugh throughout.

I enjoyed all the characters here, from the medical supply warehouse foreman named Frank (James Karen) giving a tour to new recruit Freddy (Thom Matthews), who is a bit dim, to the punk rockers (one of them Freddy’s girlfriend played by Beverly Randolph) hanging out at the cemetery—which is right next to the warehouse with the zombie tanks sitting in the basement, which is so not a coincidence. The picture jumps back and forth between the two locations. Energy builds on top of one another until the two groups are required to meet at some point. Every person has a personality… even the undead.

These zombie are no slackers that lumber about waiting for food to walk by. They run. One is already a threat. Facing a horde is terrifying. But a noteworthy trait: These reanimated corpses can speak. “Brains!” “Send in more cops.” “More paramedics.” And another: They have the ability to plan an attack. Because the zombies possess intelligence, we believe that the living running away from them truly are in danger. And if that isn’t enough: Killing them is much, much harder in this film. A harsh blow to the head or a gunshot to the brain isn’t enough. Nor is beheading the zombies. It changes the rules. Not just because it can.

Because its purpose is for us to consider: What is the undead’s relationship to the overall message of the story? More specifically, environmental issues are solved not by one, or two, or five solutions. It is not enough to recycle. Or plant trees. Or manage output of industrial plants. It requires putting politics aside and doing all that we can on every front we can come up with—in an efficient, consistent, and reliable fashion. “The Return of the Living Dead” is progressively pro environment, demanding that we take responsibility for our the betterment of our home through action. It is also riotously funny, stylish, and deeply entertaining.

Rabbit


Rabbit (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Luke Shanahan’s ambitious but undercooked debut film “Rabbit” is one of those movies that’s near impossible to talk about completely, should one choose to be mindful of providing spoilers, given that it pivots so out of left-field just about halfway through. It begins as a seemingly ordinary abduction story. A desperate woman (Adelaide Clemens) sprints through the woods and hooded figures in black stalk her. She is captured and we cut to her twin, Maude (also played by Clemens), who is living overseas as a medical student. Maude suspects that something is wrong. However, this is not the kicker.

Maude and her family are already aware that Cleo has gone missing. Enough time has passed that their parents decided to hold a funeral for their daughter. As the picture goes through the expository sequences, there is a constant foreboding feeling that something is going to go awry at any moment. There is expert use of silence, from Maude being picked up by her sister’s fiancé, Ralph (Alex Russell) at the airport to the extremely uncomfortable dinner with her parents. The father remains angry due to the fact that Maude refused to attend Cleo’s funeral. The silence is so heavy and emotions are so stifled that we actually hear the cutlery scraping the plate. It is incredibly sad to look at what this family has been reduced to.

Meanwhile, Maude’s nightmares are intensifying to the point where she begins to believe that the images in her head are visions of what is actually happening to her twin in real time. This is the point when Clemens truly shines. I appreciated that there is a precise but subtle moment when the character realizes she needs to act quickly if she were to have a chance of rescuing her sister. Clemens possesses a vulnerability and a determination about her just underneath desperation. I watched her sometimes convinced that Maude is a ticking time bomb. She, along with Ralph the fiancé, visit the backwoods where Cleo was last seen.

The screenplay gently takes our hand then violently pulls us into a remote forest where a poor community resides. It employs the usual creepy images, from the glaring rural folks who look unkempt and unwashed to beautiful wide shots of dominating pine trees that seem to stretch for miles. It is communicated to us that once an outsider steps on this land, escaping becomes near impossible. But there has to be a reason why Maude is the heroine… right? Surely she must be an exception.

Doubt is cast right from the moment the screen is filled with a red title card. No text. No other color. Just blood red and the screeching score that brings to mind a descent into a rabbit hole. I refuse to reveal anything beyond this point. But I will say this: I admired its willingness to deliver something different—less overt scares and more… increasingly alarming situations. The introduction of the second half is like a veil slowly being lifted from our faces. It is not always effective. But it sure is fascinating.

I felt great disappointment with this picture’s denouement. After having learned of everything that transpires in the community, viewers have worked up so much anger that we demand catharsis for the countless inhumane punishments the characters have endured. (No, it does not involve in-your-face torture scenes. Plenty is left for the imagination.) We deserve a release of emotions, to feel that the long journey is worthwhile. But the writer-director chooses to withhold. It is a curious choice; perhaps this avenue is taken to avoid cliché. But the final ten to fifteen minutes just does not feel right. There is a way to be ambiguous without us being hung out to dry.

Croc


Croc (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is said that editing can make or break a movie and this maxim is most appropriate when it comes to Stewart Raffill’s “Croc,” a creature-feature with a limited budget but it tries its darnedest to entertain. In the middle of it is a twenty-foot crocodile and there are a few shots of the animal simply swimming in or laying about at the bottom of a pool. And yet somehow these are edited to make the animal look as though it is observing humans for lunch or outright attacking its prey. On top of this are—from what appears to be—clips from various nature documentaries. The editing’s muse is Frankenstein’s monster. Many may laugh at its barebones (some might say amateur) approach or the fact that it even tried. The final product is imperfect, yes, but I admired the filmmakers’ commitment to make a good movie.

The picture is shot in Thailand and the beauty of the seaside locale cannot be denied. From restaurants and hotels to construction areas and crocodile farms, there is an authenticity to the images, sounds, and the people walking in and out of the frame. Particularly stunning are underwater shots of the Pacific where all sorts of fish, corals, sea snakes, and other creatures are simply shown living amongst one another. I enjoyed that when a person, or persons, are scuba diving, it is patient and quiet. We are simply meant to absorb the images, the experience.

There may not be strong acting all around, especially since some of the non-native English speakers are required to speak the language, but this attribute is not required in a picture that revolves around a killer croc eating men, women, and children. Victims are varied; no one is safe. Even a boy is shown being bitten by a croc—jaws shut around his arm and the poor kid, while screaming, is dragged to the bottom of the ocean. Cue the shrieking mother on the boat, father diving into the water to save his son. But it does not stop there. Its extended horror sequences tend to deliver multiple surprises, which is unlike modern and generic horror movies where one jump scare is delivered and filmmakers call it a day. This work embraces the sub-genre and so it goes not only for the gore but also the effect of compounding thrills.

Killer croc aside, the picture attempts to deliver an earnest subplot surrounding a crocodile farm owner, Jack (Peter Tuinstra), who is in danger of losing his business due to debt. His financial situation is so bad that he has made it a habit to avoid tax collectors. (His sister, played by Elizabeth Healey, tends to bail him out of money troubles. Can he get out of this one?) To make his situation worse, a neighboring resort, owned by Korean brothers (Wasan Junsook, Jibby Saetang), wishes to drive Jack out of business by bribing officials on top of hiring locals to break into the farm and allow trained crocodiles to escape in the hope that the public would be fooled that these crocs were the ones eating people. There is even a murder attempt. A bit of humor, light and dark, can be found during the expository scenes, but screenwriter Ken Solarz wishes to make sure the material does not become a horror-comedy. I think he made the correct choice.

What does not work is the additional subplot involving Michael Madsen playing an American, ex-Navy, out to avenge the loved ones of boat people who became croc food. (He lives among them, I guess.) Ironically, Madsen’s acting style is more polished than his co-stars so he sticks out like a sore thumb. The real problem is that the character, Hawkins, does not say or do anything interesting and so we are left to wonder why he is even there. Instead, I would love to have seen more of Jack attempting to win the heart of Evelyn (Sherry Edwards), an animal welfare investigator who threatens to shut down the farm. Needless to say, they start off on the wrong foot. But then again there is an awful lot of feet being bitten off in this film.

“Croc” is rough around the edges, but I was entertained by it. Despite the grisly occurrences, the inviting scenery made me want to visit Thailand someday. In addition, I felt it is able to find creative ways to circumvent its limitations in a way that is consistently charming. The pacing may lag at times, but it is never dull. I mentioned that a few kills involving the crocodile look as though they were shot in a swimming pool. It embraces this joke; there is actually a delicious kill scene that unfolds in a swimming pool. Clearly, the movie wishes for us to have a good time.

Addams Family Values


Addams Family Values (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★

The pre-title sequence of “Addams Family Values” is so joyous, energetic, and self-aware, it promises a terrific time for what’s about to come. It delivers in spades. Paul Rudnick’s screenplay breaks away from the heavy plotting that shackled the predecessor and recognizes that the strength of Charles Addams’ characters is rooted upon their morbid but shining personalities. Although the picture commands a comic strip feel, it is the correct approach; it zips right along. Notice that nearly every scene commands a subversive punchline or an ironic touch. It inspires the viewers to catch up to its jokes. And jokes never repeat. This is a sequel with purpose and more follow-ups should follow its example. It doesn’t feel the need to reintroduce its characters for a new audience. Like oil jumping out of a pan, it doesn’t care if you’re ready for the sting.

The central story revolves around a nanny named Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack) who is hired by Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) to care for their infant. Unbeknownst to the hopelessly in love couple, Deb is serial killer known as Black Widow who marries men for their money and kills them during their honeymoon. Her target: Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd).

Something interesting happens early on. The story branches off to Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) being sent to summer camp. This is an excellent decision because not only are the camp scenes riotously funny, it also allows the Addams children to shine outside of the Addams estate and therefore outside of the shadows of their family members. Wednesday and Pugsley trying to murder each other is amusing in and of itself. But it’s so much funnier when these two are forced to interact with “normal” children.

Cusack is able to shine amongst highly eccentric but delightfully charming characters. Her approach is to make Deb larger than life; she may not be as obsessed with pain, torture, and death as the Addams but she does love her jewelry, invaluable paintings, and wealth. Here is an exaggerated character but on a different category. Cusack’s job, in which she excels, is to make her character villainous but at the same time fit within the confines of the Addams universe. Like the wondrous Huston, Cusack slinks and milks every moment the camera is on her. Deb’s motivation may be one-dimensional but the character, in the way she is portrayed, is not. There’s a difference. And the approach works exceedingly well here.

The events at Camp Chippewa are so spot-on that in the middle of it, I wished it were a stand-alone movie. It doesn’t simply cover Wednesday and Pugsley’s shenanigans. Or how they must participate in—yuck—archery and swimming. Or how they must endure group singalongs. Or how they must learn to make—ugh—friends. And share. No, there is surprising humanity, particularly between Wednesday and Joel (David Krumholtz), a boy who is allergic to everything. Real feelings are handled with a delicate touch instead of a hammer—as utilized with the rest of the picture. Such restraint shows that the screenwriter is engaged with the material and that he cares about these characters. He is able to communicate in a subtle way that people who may look weird or come across different have real feelings, too. And I think that’s a great message to give children and remind adults. The jokes therein suggest a large target age demographic.

That’s the basic strategy of “Addams Family Values” directed by Barry Sonnenfeld: Tiptoe between the adult and children storylines without sacrificing an iota of energy along the way. It’s simple but it gets the job done. With its breezy pacing, sharp writing, and inspired line deliveries, there is almost always something to be amused by or downright cackle at. Finally, a movie that does the Addams family justice. It can be done. But it must be done with purpose, confidence, and flavor. And a bit of freshly plucked heart, too.

The Addams Family


The Addams Family (1991)
★★ / ★★★★

Barry Sonnenfeld’s “The Addams Family” could have been just another forgettable live-action film translated directly from a cartoon or television show, but this outing is a real treat—to an extent. Although a comedy for all ages, it is willing to embrace a gothic mood, all the actors command strong presence, and credit to screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson for giving every character—even a CGI hand—a specific personality. Take one out and the absence is alarming. The work, however, is let down by a tired plot that goes on for longer than it should.

Every time the material breaks out of the scheme involving a lawyer (Dan Hedaya), a loan shark (Elizabeth Wilson), and the loan shark’s adopted son (Christopher Lloyd) stealing the Addams’ riches, it is almost like an exhalation. It is riotously funny when the eccentric Addams interact with regular folks without a palate for the macabre. A few standout scenes: The mother, Morticia (Anjelica Huston who never fails to milk every second as if it were her last and so we cannot help but be drawn to her), being taken aside by her daughter’s teacher to show a drawing of whom Wednesday (Christina Ricci) had chosen as her hero, Wednesday and Pugsley’s (Jimmy Workman) extremely gory performance at a school talent show, and an exchange at a lemonade stand between the Addams children and a Girl Scout. This is an excellent example of a central plot in excess. It ends up muffling a comedy that ignites seemingly without effort.

And so we sit through increasingly tired sequences of Gordon, the adopted son, disguising himself to be Uncle Fester who’s been missing for twenty-five years. The deceitful trio are convinced that by earning Gomez’ trust (Raul Julia), who they consider to be an idiot, the Addams patriarch will reveal the location of a vault filled with treasures. There are far too many scenes that communicate the same idea or joke: The impersonator has bitten off more than he bargained for because what this family values most is not wealth, their mansion, or otherworldly possessions. What they cherish most are memories, experiences, and family. (Torture, leather, blood-letting, a bit of electrocution, and serving body parts in a dish are icing on the cake.)

I did appreciate, however, that the writers allow Gordon to learn some tricks on the spot. For instance, by looking at old photographs, he attempts to feign possessing certain memories. An antagonist that is adaptable is curious—so there’s some level of entertainment there. Gordon’s mother and the Addams’ lawyer are far less intriguing by comparison. I suppose since they are not as peculiar as the Addams, the approach is to exaggerate behavior in order to make up for it. But that’s an inappropriate approach because greed is given a cartoonish hue instead of embracing the fact that the trait is in everyone. It’s just that some are more consumed by it than others. A little bit of genuine human touch goes a long way even for, or especially in, a comedy.

Still, “The Addams Family” deserves a marginal recommendation for the elements it does get exactly right. The terrific cast coupled with energetic and specific performances elevate what could have been another wan impersonation comedy to a genuine good time for children and children-at-heart alike. When it moves toward darker shades of humor, it tickles the bones.