Tag: horror-comedy

Murder Party


Murder Party (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

“Murder Party,” written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, is a charming horror-comedy that might have benefited greatly if it had a more sinister undercurrent about artists and their art. Instead, what results is a somewhat watchable, playful romp but one lacking intrigue.

On his way from the video store before Trick-or-Treating begins, Christopher (Chris Sharp) crosses paths with a piece of paper being blown by the wind. Written on it is a so-called event called Murder Party, an address, and an instruction to come alone. Under the impression that it is some sort of a fun Halloween party, Christopher makes a last-minute costume made of boxes, bakes a pumpkin cake with raisins as contribution, and takes off to attend the event. The address written on the invitation takes him to a secluded warehouse where five people wearing costumes—three men and two women—await their victim.

Most of the attempts at comedy come in the form of slapstick. The deaths are often silly and surprising, almost always in consecutive order, and so the gasps of horror are consistently followed by chuckles or laughter. The writer-director has a talent for shaping scenes that involve accidental deaths. Notice that with scenes that lead up to a death, they are often very busy: characters are talking at once, there are many body movements in the foreground or background, the editing employs quick number of cuts. Once such a strategy is recognized, one can anticipate that within the next minute or so, a character will drop dead.

In a way, however, ironically, this makes for a rather predictable viewing. Still, one might argue that the film is not about who dies but how one dies. There are some creativity during the death scenes and I enjoyed that there is an overall joy to the process—whether it be a performer trying his or her best to capture a specific emotion before signing out or how the special effects involving gore tend to evince a level of camp. Neither the performances nor the effects are always convincing or on point but there is an undeniable sense of fun.

The picture falls short when the subject of art is brought up. Each of the five potential killers is a sort of artist one way or another but we never get a clear picture of what each person wishes to accomplish with his or her art, their endgame, especially when he or she results to extreme ways to make a statement. The most we learn is the type of medium he or she specializes in and that they are vying for a grant.

It would have been a refreshing move if we knew more about the aspiring murders’ respective motivations more than the protagonist’s—especially when the protagonist is so passive and plain as Christopher is in the film. To have made the antagonists more interesting would have been a pretty big statement in itself.

The Final Girls


The Final Girls (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

With the theater exits blocked and the fire quickly spreading, Max (Taissa Farmiga) comes up with the idea of slashing the screen and leaving through there. Instead of safety, however, she and her friends (Alexander Ludwig, Nina Dobrev, Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch) end up in the movie they were watching—an ‘80s cult slasher flick called “Camp Bloodbath”—and it appears as though the only way to get out of it is to survive until the masked murderer named Billy Murphy (Dan B. Norris) is killed.

“The Final Girls,” based on the screenplay by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, has creativity coursing through its veins but it is not as fun and fully realized as it thinks it is. What results is a picture that is worth sitting through once, given that one is in the mood for a silly horror-comedy, but it will likely not be remembered ten years from now. This is because it does not push the envelope far enough—whether it be in terms of scares, gore, kill scenes, or more subtle nudges to the slasher pictures of the past.

What stands out is the way it attempts to establish characterization, particularly the relationship between the lead protagonist and, Nancy (Malin Akerman), her dead mother. Genuine human connections and emotions are far too often ignored within this sub-genre and so it is a breath of fresh air that these two characters share scenes we can relate with and hold onto. I was surprised to have felt a certain longing between mother and daughter who have zilch chance of existing again within the story’s “real” reality, only in the fantasy that is the movies.

It works because Farmiga and Akerman are performers who are able to dig from within themselves when necessary and deliver feelings and thoughts beyond the lines that must be uttered. The mother-daughter bond makes the film special, in a way, because even though horror-comedy is almost never taken seriously, the writers dare us to treat it otherwise. Todd Strauss-Schulson directs the more personal scenes with real sensitivity and respect—which I admired because such an avenue is a rarity in horror and horror-comedies.

The weak treatment of the supporting characters is expected but disappointing nonetheless. While all of the actors are game—Adam DeVine is wonderful as his usual manic self—to look however and say anything in order to garner a giggle or a laugh, one cannot feel as though there ought to have been a freshness injected to each their characters. Although the self-awareness runs rampant, it does not strive to go beyond its usual bouquet of jokes. I grew tired of the self-awareness eventually.

At least one really good scare is absent—which is a miscalculation. The best of horror-comedies tend to fluctuate when it comes to its tone—a juggling act among fear, disgust, suspense, amusing one-liners, and laughter that makes the stomach hurt. The majority of this film is composed of amusing one-liners and occasional unexpected turns—which ultimately feels rather flat as a whole.

Still, “The Final Girls” offers a few moments that are strong. It does, however, need to reel in the visual acrobatics—one standout sequence takes place in the beginning and the other toward the end—because these just look silly, crazy, and trying too hard to impress. ’80s special and visual effects may be dated but at least there is a charm about them.

All Cheerleaders Die


All Cheerleaders Die (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

While performing a cheer stunt, Alexis dies due to a broken neck. Her passing means there is one opening in the cheerleading team and Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) wants it bad. Since she despises the cheerleaders and the jocks, she concocts a plan to infiltrate the popular kids’ inner circle, pretend to like them, and ruin their senior year. Her first target: Tracy (Brooke Butler), one of the cheerleaders who jumped at the first opportunity to date Alexis’ former boyfriend named Terry (Tom Williamson).

Written and directed by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson, “All Cheerleaders Die” is a horror-comedy with energy to spare but it falls short from becoming truly memorable because it fails to embrace an extreme. It is neither horrific nor comedic enough to seep into the subconscious successfully and so the result is a meandering picture in tone and content, a remnant of ‘90s horror teen flicks with accompanying visual effects worth a few snickers.

Part of it is satire but it does not work. Although the script attempts to subvert genre tropes and expectations, especially horror films’ depiction of women, the jokes are not sharp enough to outweigh the overbearing self-awareness. A lot of movies mistake satire for self-awareness, vice-versa, and this one is no exception. Satire is more subtle, at times employing a straight-faced mask to get the point across. Here, everything is tongue-in-cheek so the requisite edge is not quite there.

None of the characters are likable. There are a few hints that Maddy may be an outcast prior to her stint as a cheerleader. Given that she is an outcast, the material fails to give a good reason why, at least within a time span when it really matters, she wishes to turn a clique’s senior year into a nightmare. Thus, the only reason why we root for her is because she is an outcast. That is not good enough. That makes her a caricature, not a character worth rooting for.

One of the football players, Vik (Jordan Wilson), is supposed to be a nice guy but—again—like Maddy, he is underwritten. He is too reluctant to do the right thing to be worth rooting for, too bland to be a potential hero from left field. I did like, however, what is done to the character within the final few minutes. It is the correct decision. If he had been given more substance, we probably would have cared more.

The visual effects made me smile, perhaps out of embarrassment. On one hand, the blood, floating rocks that luminesce, and the like look so cheap. On the other hand, the filmmakers are not shy in featuring such subpar visuals that it is almost refreshing. In some instances, the unremarkable effects complement the increasingly outlandish storyline.

At least “All Cheerleaders Die” is not predictable. With movies of its type, I tend to know what is going to happen when and to whom like clockwork—no matter how clever the filmmakers think they are being—so it becomes a bore real quick. Here, I relished the small surprises and found myself enjoying the ride for at least half the time.

Zombeavers


Zombeavers (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Cortney Palm), and Jenn (Lexi Atkins), sorority sisters, decide to have a weekend getaway at a cabin in the country. Right next to the cabin is a lake where beavers have made a dam. The girls are unaware that the beavers that swim there have been exposed to a biohazard material quite recently and this toxic compound has made the beavers rabid-looking. Soon, the girls encounter these deranged-looking beavers—which prove very difficult to kill. The hospital is about thirty miles away.

“Zombeavers,” directed by Jordan Rubin, is ridiculous, cheesy, gory, nonsensical at times, occasionally very funny—and proud of these traits. We get exactly what we expect from the horror-comedy sub-genre with a playful title. At the same time, however, I wished it had been more willing to surprise, whether it be how certain characters are treated or when it comes to the biology or physiology of these so-called zombeavers. Also, the third act could use a bit of work.

I made an incorrect assumption with respect to who the final girl was going to be. Mary, Zoe, and Jenn are not exactly the stereotypical “good” girls so it makes guessing a bit more challenging. Do we go for the girl who had been cheated on by her boyfriend, the girl who insists that they have a “no boys weekend” so they can bond, or the punk-rock girl who has something dirty or inappropriate to say every two minutes? I liked these characters. I was surprised that the screenplay by Al Kaplan, Jordan Rubin, and Jon Kaplan does not simply treat them as bodies to be slaughtered.

The zombeavers look more like giant rats than actual beavers. I was okay with this. I was never scared by how they looked like but just about each time they made an appearance, I could not help but be amused. They are obviously animatronic objects of some sort but this is preferred over CGI. I enjoyed that there is a texture to these zombeavers rather than simply looking glossy or fake. It is difficult to pull off CGI in horror films and the filmmakers here seem to be aware of such a limitation. In a way, it is good that the budget is limited. Otherwise, a less effective movie might have resulted.

The first few attacks are executed nicely. A standout involves the girls and their boyfriends (Hutch Dano, Jake Weary, Peter Gilroy) being attacked by the rabid beavers on a raft. Beavers are not only great swimmers but they are quite good at chewing wood. It is very “Jaws”-like in that we get a real feeling that there is little to no chance at escaping. The way they manage to escape is so wrong yet genius.

As with many horror-comedies, one has to be in the mood for this kind of picture. The dialogue is sophomoric, the special effects are cheap-looking, and the premise is outrageous. But why see it? Because everyone involved is willing to go all the way. Because some of it works, the ones that do not become an afterthought.

My Name is Bruce


My Name is Bruce (2007)
★★ / ★★★★

Jeff (Taylor Sharpe) and his friend visited a graveyard to meet a pair of girls and expecting to get laid. But when Jeff accidentally woke up the Chinese protector of spirits, Guan-Di (James J. Peck), Goldlick, a small town with a population of 339, began to live in fear because Guan-Di seemed to kill indiscriminately. Jeff had a solution. Being a lifelong Bruce Campbell fan, he decided to kidnap the B-movie horror veteran (playing himself) so that he could help the town regain peace and quiet. “My Name is Bruce,” written by Mark Verheiden, was amusing because it took many jabs at Campbell. From his appearances in many independently produced horror and science fiction films, many of which were considered to be unsuccessful, to the dirty details of his personal life, I began to wonder how much of it was accurate. Campbell was shown to be a diva on set, prone to treating women with disrespect, and often relied on alcohol to keep his sadness at bay. He was also shown to be unkind to his fans. However, in reality, his fans adore him immensely so we get the sense that perhaps not much of it was true. The hyperboles were played for laughs; they weren’t smart but they worked. I especially liked the scene in which Campbell tried to convince himself that he wasn’t a loser… as he revealed to us where he hid various liquors and imbibed them as if they were water. The story was relatively thin but it didn’t need to be groundbreaking because each scene served to refer to other Campbell movies where he had to battle aliens and other monstrosities. He did a lot of running, screaming, and admitting of guilt. Despite the film’s inherent silliness, I stuck with it because its enthusiasm didn’t waver. However, the pacing felt stagnant when Bruce tried desperately to be liked by Jeff’s mother (Kelly Graham). The disastrous dance scene at the bar was an awkward attempt at slapstick. Furthermore, there was no chemistry between the actors. I was more interested in Jeff and the disappointment he felt when he realized that the man he looked up to was far from extraordinary: Bruce was only wonderful in Jeff’s imagination and the B-movies he cherished. His perspective, given focus and sharpness, could have been the emotional core of the film. B-movie fans will be amused by “My Name is Bruce,” directed by Bruce Campbell, but those who aren’t quite used to deliberate bad acting and barely passable special and visual effects will most likely be disappointed. That’s why the picture needed to have something all audiences can relate with. Nevertheless, Campbell’s love for the genre shined through and I consistently wondered what groovy thing he would try to pull off next.

The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods (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.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil


Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

A group of college students were driving up to the mountain to have some fun when they encountered two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), in a gas station. Having seen a lot of scary movies and heard of stories about grizzly murders in the woods, the college kids couldn’t help but translate Tucker and Dale’s every action as a possible chance to kidnap or kill them. In truth, the duo were only there because Tucker had recently bought a vacation home, a cabin, and they could use a bit of relaxation before heading back to work. “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, directed by the former, had a chance to really sink its teeth in horror movie clichés about hillbillies being nothing but churlish, incestuous, often cannibalistic, folks but it ultimately felt superficial because the one-liners and the physical stunts lacked range. The set-up was this: The young men and women were so stupid, they ended up killing themselves by accident. Cut to Tucker and Dale’s shocked and horrified reactions. The material was very funny during its initial gags, but the filmmakers failed to detach from the formula, ironically constructing its own clichés by making fun of clichés. The title promised the two friends fighting evil. After they rescued Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, Allison’s friends thought that she was kidnapped because they observed from afar. This triggered Chad (Jesse Moss), innately irascible and shamelessly sporting an ugly popped collar, into a state of rage to the point where he ended up being as ruthless as the murderers his group of friends feared. The movie wasn’t specific in the “evil” that Tucker and Dale had to fight. Was it the negative stereotypes regarding hillbillies that became embedded in the genre’s bones over the history of cinema? Was it the apocryphal placidity in hateful individuals, who lived in the suburbs or cities all their lives, and their secret yearnings of violence just waiting to be unleashed? Furthermore, it failed to acknowledge that stereotyping can be a good thing; it helps our mind to process information faster than it normally would. For instance, they allow us to respond quickly to potential dangers. Relying on stereotypes and neglecting to put more thought into them, hence failing to sympathize with others who are different, is the real tragedy. If the screenplay had focused more on that message, tragedies even outside of horror movie conventions could have been effortlessly highlighted. The story really shouldn’t have been about the body count. Allison was in the process of getting her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, hoping to establish a career as a counselor. I expected her to be more self-aware. The subplot involving Dale and Allison falling for each other was a nuisance, almost worthy of a dozen eye-rollings. Wouldn’t it have been too much to ask if they didn’t pine for each other so profusely? With every bloody confrontation between the hillbillies and the college students, it was interrupted by Dale having to explain to Allison what had transpired. Given that we just saw what happened, the little summaries felt repetitive and I started to wonder if the filmmakers were simply biding their time to push the material to a typical ninety-minute mark because the script became indigent of fresh ideas that cut deeper than boning knives.

The Cottage


The Cottage (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), a daughter of a successful businessman, and took her in a house out in the country. If Andrew (Steven O’Donnell), Tracey’s brother, delivered the money on time, it was promised that Tracey would be released without question. But when the four realized that the disfigured farmer who lived closest to the house they occupied had a penchant for killing and mutilating his victims’ bodies, the four had no choice but to team up if they wanted to keep their lives. “The Cottage,” written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, was a creative exercise in horror and comedy. David and Peter were probably two of the most incompetent kidnappers I’ve had the pleasure to watch on screen. There was a formula that led up to the funny moments. When David told Peter what not to do, Peter promised he would obey. But since Peter was inexperienced in committing crimes, somehow he managed to do exactly the opposite of what he wasn’t supposed to do. It got to the point where Tracey, a big-breasted blonde who could easily take down her captors, found out David’s name because Peter was so nervous around her. We even found out that Peter’s biggest fear was moths. But the film gradually changed in tone as it went on. The middle portion had a high creepiness factor, notably when Peter and Tracey investigated a seemingly abandoned house. There was a putrid smell coming from the closet, hands were nicely stacked in the freezer, and there were metallic noises underneath the trap door. I loved the fact that horror came in not only when the murderer appeared but when the characters, often as a pair, discovered something while occupying different rooms. One character faced a false alarm, while the other faced true horror. When a new pair entered the creepy house, the room which gave us a false alarm earlier was completely changed. There was a sense of continuation and it was easy to tell that the writer-director considered it important for his material to have cohesion, intelligence, and a spice of cheekiness. What I thought the film could have used less was the two Asian hit-men (Logan Wong, Jonathan Chan-Pensley). The way in which their accents were used for the sake of humor was borderline offensive to me. I was aware that offense was not Williams’ intention but it sometimes came across as exploitative. The duo could have easily have been played with Asians without “funny accents” and the final product would have been the same. “The Cottage” is a solid example of why I love independent movies. It wasn’t afraid to experiment with its tone. I was amused with the way it effortlessly switched from one type of humor to another while still dealing with the macabre. Since it was so confident with what it was doing, its out of left field ending actually carved a smile on my face.

Fright Night


Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.

Piranha


Piranha (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Lake Victoria was the place where college students gathered to spend their Spring Break. But when an earthquake caused a rift on the lake floor, a subterranean lake was revealed which happened to house the original piranhas once thought to be extinct, it was up to Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), and a seismologist (Adam Scott) to warn the party-goers to get out of the water before they became fish food. Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha,” an out and proud B-movie, is difficult not enjoy because it embraced bad horror movie elements with open arms while paying genuine homage to movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Joe Dante’s original “Piranha.” I was particularly impressed with the film’s climax involving a school of piranhas attacking hundreds of barely clothed college students. When panic finally set in, I enjoyed that human error (or desperation) was taken into account. Like the piranhas that ate each other for millions of years to ensure the survival of the species, if a person was desperate enough to live, he wouldn’t think twice of putting someone else in harm’s way. It’s instinctual. The film’s self-awareness worked to its advantage; it knew it wanted to attract mostly heterosexual males so it delivered big breasts and long legs. It even had an extended scene of naked women making out underwater. As I watched with incredulity, I couldn’t help but laugh at what I was seeing. It was like watching two seals making love on Discovery Channel. More amusing was the fact that all the guys were far from attractive. Just when I thought it had no more surprises under its sleeve, a male organ was bitten off. Moreover, its over-the-top nature was enjoyable due to its exaggeration of how college kids spend their Spring Break. (When probably only about 5% celebrated this way.) Enter Jake (Steven R. McQueen), the sheriff’s son, who was somewhat of a social outcast because he listened to music like The Ramones and The Pixies. According to the movie’s logic, people who listen to that type of music were just not cool. But Jake wanted to belong. He wanted to party at the lake, drink alcohol, and maybe even win over a girl (Jessica Szohr) he was obviously attracted to. Instead, he was stuck babysitting his younger brother and sister. Perhaps the lesson Jake learned at the end of the day was underage drinking led to death. At least there’s some truth in that. “Piranha” had some suspenseful moments but I wish the writers, Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, had spent less time making fun of college culture and more time on the science behind the piranhas’ survival mechanisms. And was it too much to ask to have at least one smart and resourceful teenager? Jake had potential but he didn’t primarily think with his brain.

Insidious


Insidious (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Lamberts, led by schoolteacher Josh and musician Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), recently moved into a new house with their three kids (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor). In the beginning, there were small incidents around the house like books being put out of place but no one ever touching them. Then the changes started to become more noticeable like Renai hearing malevolent voices from a baby monitor when no one was supposed to be upstairs other than the sleeping infant. One night, one of the children, Dalton, went to explore in the creepy attic and fell from a ladder. He was hurt but there was no serious injury. The problem was, the next morning, Dalton wouldn’t wake up. Doctors claimed he was in a coma but they couldn’t explain why. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, “Insidious” was a creative, thrilling, old-fashioned haunted house film. When you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, you start to feel as though you’ve seen everything in the genre, that nothing can surprise you anymore. But there are times when movies like this would come and take you completely by surprise. From its title card in gargantuan red text designed to summon 70s and 80s cheesy horror nostalgia down to its chilling soundtrack, it immediately showcased its knowledge of horror conventions. I got the feeling that maybe it was going to poke fun of the standards. In some ways it did, but I was happier with the fact that it took the known conventions and made them better by altering them just a little bit. In a wasteland of bad remakes and cringe-inducing adaptations, a spice of modernity feels like a new breed. The first half worked as a horror picture because of the way it patiently built the suspense. The ghosts were scary but they didn’t go around following the family (depending on how one sees it). They were just hanging about, taking up the same space as the living. The director was careful in revealing too much. Sometimes the ghosts were on the background and the characters didn’t see them. But the audiences certainly did. Sometimes the apparitions were on the foreground and we had no choice but to scream at the images thrown at us. Because the director varied his camera angles and the types of scares, the film held an usually high level of tension. Each situation was a potential cause of alarm. In a dark room, we knew that something was going to happen but it was a matter of when. “Insidious” also worked as a horror-comedy. Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a geek tech duo who seemed to have been plucked from Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters,” provided required tension-relievers as they attempted to get bigger weapons to detect the ghosts. Meanwhile, the addition of Lin Shaye as the concerned psychic was an excellent counter-balance to the more comedic moments. Her character reminded us that “Insidious” was a horror movie first and foremost by allowing us to see what she saw in a dark room via Spec’s drawings. For an old-fashioned horror flick, “Insidious” felt progressive, even fresh. Sitting in a packed theater, I felt like the film continually threw snakes of increasing size onto my lap. I screamed louder each time.

Dead Snow


Dead Snow (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

The Norwegian horror-comedy “Død snø,” or “Dead Snow,” told the story of eight medical students (Lasse Valdal, Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Evy Kasseth Røsten, Jeppe Laursen, Jenny Skavlan, Ane Dahl Torp) who decided to go to a cabin up in the snowy mountains over Easter break. Little did they know that the land covered in ice had a history of Nazi occupation and that those Nazis turned into zombies. They only found out about the land’s history when a creepy stranger (Bjørn Sundquist) dropped in on them in the middle of the night. I love zombie flicks so I just had to see this movie even though the synopses I read sounded a bit cheesy. As cheesy as the movie was, I did like it in parts because I thought it managed to capture the eerieness of being in the middle of nowhere and all we could hear was the wind and all we could see were endless land of ice. In a way, the very isolated environment reminded me of a hybrid between “The Thing” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Unfortunately, the setting and the occasional effective scares toward the beginning were the only elements that kept this movie afloat. Perhaps I was lost in translation (I did see the movie with subtitles) but I just did not find the jokes to be funny. In fact, I felt like it was trying too hard, kind of like the American teen slasher flicks. I’m not quite sure if the movie was trying to be ironic by featuring medical students who are not very bright or lacking survival skills and instincts. But what I am sure of is the fact that it became the kind of movie that it was trying to poke fun of. A lot of horror-comedies fall into that trap and this one is no exception. I found the middle portion too stagnant–it felt like it didn’t know where it was going. Nazi zombies that could think and take orders was an original idea but the execution lacked tension. I really hated it when the characters would make jokes at each other when they were aware that a zombie was only a few feet from them. It worked for “Shaun of the Dead” because it wore its cheekiness on its sleeve but it did not work in “Dead Snow” because there were times when it aimed for seriousness. If I saw a zombie, I would either try to kill it (depending on its size and what kind of killing tool I have in my hands–yes, I’ve thought about this) or run like I’ve never ran in my life. Perhaps fans of gore and limbs flying everywhere might enjoy this zombie film. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite buy the universe that the characters were in. “Død snø,” written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, should have just been a straight-up horror picture. If it did, I probably would have liked it a lot more.

Undead


Undead (2003)
★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, this Australian zombie horror-comedy plays more like a science fiction movie more than anything. Rene (Felicity Mason) goes into a farmhouse to escape the zombies that were chasing her after a meteor shower. In the farmhouse, she meets a few others (Mungo McKay, Rob Jenkins, Lisa Cunningham, Dirk Hunter, Emma Randall) and they must figure out what is happening in the town while trying not to get eaten by the zombies. I didn’t enjoy this movie at all due to a number of things. The characters kept asking, “What were THOSE things? Why are they trying to eat us? Are they dead?” as if they’ve never seen a zombie movie before. Moreover, the characters are very one-dimensional. It would have been so much better if the cops were the cowards and the regular folks would have been the leaders. Taking some of those obvious elements and putting them upside down would have given the illusion that the directors were trying to make a better movie. For a horror picture, this is very light on the scary factor. The zombies are slow enough but did the characters have to be slow as well (mentally and physically)? None of them had actual survival skills and I wouldn’t buy for a second that they would survive if there were real zombies running around. If I see a zombie trying to get to me to eat my brains, I would run so fast, I wouldn’t even think about silly things like leaving something behind. The stupid characters were good at three things: screaming, yelling at each other, and asking redundant questions. Lastly, I’m very frustrated with the fact that there were actual aliens in this movie. It was so random and everything was spelled out for us in the end: why there were zombies and why the aliens decided to visit our planet. What made other zombie flicks so successful (1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” and “28 Days Later”) was the fact that there were questions left unanswered. Even if they were answered, those films left a possibility that the truth lies beyond the given explanation. Overall, “Undead” was a random mess of a movie. It is far from creative and it didn’t have enough enthusiasm to keep my attention. I thought “Zombieland” was far scarier and that was a comedy. That should give you an idea with how lackluster this movie truly is.

Zombieland


Zombieland (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

I love zombie movies because I’m fascinated with the idea of the dead taking over the world of the living. (Did I mention I have nightmares about zombies?) Not to mention zombie flicks usually have social commentaries which were not absent in this little gem. “Zombieland,” directed by Ruben Fleischer, stars Jesse Eisenberg as Columbus, who wants to make his way to Ohio to be reunited with his parents. On the road, he meets Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, a man on a mission to find Twinkies; Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin as Wichita and Little Rock, respectively, sisters who initially look innocent but turn out to have a knack for survival. The very “28 Days Later”-like gathering of very different people was smart because all of them yearned for that rare human connection in a world full of flesh-eating monsters. All four of them eventualy head to Southern California in order to find refuge with other humans. I love this movie’s self-awareness. It seemed to know its strengths which were highlighted in the beginning of the film as Eisenberg described his survival guide. It was done with such craft because the jokes were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny so the realization that it was all a gimmick later on became insignificant. The flashback scenes were done well, especially how Eisenberg’s character reflected on how much of a loser he was back when humans still ruled the planet–staying in on a Friday night playing video games, not socializing with people, and not getting enough attention from girls. A lot of people compare him to Michael Cera but I think there’s an important difference between the two. I think Eisenberg’s awkwardness is edgy and his characters usually have a certain toughness. Cera’s awkwardness, on the other hand, is softer and cuter–the kind that makes you go “Aww” and maybe pet him afterwards. That awareness was also highlighted via pop culture references from Russell Crowe, Facebook to Ghostbusters. Comparisons to “Shaun of the Dead” is inevitable because it is a horror-comedy about zombies. But I think “Zombieland” is a little scarier because the characters didn’t stop to analyze a zombie, imitate, and make quirky comments about them. All of that said, I had one problem with the film. I thought it slowed down a bit somewhere in the middle because it spent too much of its time showing the characters bickering on the road. It got redundant and such scenes could have been taken out and instead added terrifyingly slow suspenseful scenes. Lastly, I thought the final showdown at the carnival was inspired. The movie was able to find ways on how to kill zombies using the rides or the characters using the rides to their advantage. It made me want to ride a rollercoaster right then and there. I’ve read audiences’ reviews about how surprised they were with how good the movie was. To be honest, right after I saw the trailer for the first time, I had a sneaky feeling that it was going to be good. It certainly didn’t disappoint and in some ways exceeded expectations. If you love zombie movies, blood and guts, cameos, and pop culture allusions all rolled into one, then see this immediately. It’s total escapism and it has the potential to get better after multiple viewings.