★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Død snø (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.
★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
This horror-comedy cult classic is about a medical student (Bruce Abbott) and his newfound eccentric roommate (the scene-stealing Jeffrey Combs) who brings people back from the dead. I think this being a low-budget film actually worked in its favor. There are only two locations in the film: Abbott’s apartment and the hospital’s morgue where the two lead characters work. By the end of the film, those places look completely familiar to the point where I felt like I’ve known those places for years. Another thing is that it consistently tried to push its limits–whether it’s the question of what would happen if we brought people back to life or just showing us impressive special effects such as blood, guts and severed body parts. Stuart Gordon, the director, should be commended because he was able to balance images of horror with situational comedy. I thought he did a neat job showing the audiences how far a doctor will go to complete his experiment, completely neglecting the ethics and moral conundrums that should be faced by a man of science. Gordon also had enough time to comment on the dynamics in the scientific community–that it isn’t any different than other jobs. In fact, jealousy is abound because pretty much everyone wants to discover the new best thing and some are willing to kill for the discovery. But one thing did bother me, though. I know it’s not meant to be realistic because it’s a zombie film but I couldn’t get over the fact that the decapitated head could control his own body. If the brain is not connected to the spinal cord, the body will not be able to move because the source of electrical signals that may trigger certain chemical signals that control everything else will not be present (such as muscle contraction). I cannot help but get a bit distracted whenever something is glaringly incorrect even for films that do not exactly scream realism. Still, if one is a fan of horror-comedies with interesting premises, campy and has a plethora of gore, “Re-Animator” is a must-see.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Originally, I was going to give this film a three-star rating but the more I think about it, the more I found myself liking/loving it. Every time I think of certain scenes (and there are definitely memorable scenes abound), I can’t help but have this smile on my face. Directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-man” and “Evil Dead” series), “Drag Me to Hell” has more than enough energy to balance comedy with pure terror; it’s not afraid to look unrealistic and corny at times which I really admired. This film’s story thrives on simplicity: Alison Lohman (“Delirious,” “Matchstick Men,” “White Oleander”) wants to prove herself to her wealthy boyfriend’s (Justin Long) mother that she’s more than just a simple farm girl with a thick Southern accent (which she desperately hides via self-taught voice lessons). She figures that one of the ways to do so is to get a promotion in a bank where she works by impressing her boss (David Paymer) and beating out her enthusiastic–and sometimes ethically corrupt–co-worker (Reggie Lee). So when a gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) asks Lohman for a third extension for her bank loan, Lohman lies to the old lady and tells her that there’s nothing she can do. The gypsy woman kneels and begs to no avail and she decides to cast a curse on Lohman. And what a rollercoaster a curse it is.
What I love about this film is its ability to take risks. Sometimes the horror scenes may look like they’re cheesy or that they should be from a midnight B-movie but one should realize that it’s all purposeful. Raimi wants to communicate to his fans, especially of the “Evil Dead” series, that he’s still got it after all these years and just because he’s directed big-budget Hollywood movies, it doesn’t mean that he’s above using tried-and-true elements like wind and loud noises to scare his audiences. But “Drag Me to Hell” is not just about showing the movement of the wind and deafening loud noises. There’s a certain craft imbedded in those elements (such as perfect comedic or horrific timing) that separates it from other uninspired and recent American horror pictures. Another thing that I loved about this movie is that it’s disgusting but the disgust doesn’t mainly involve blood or guts. You name it, this film has it: bugs being swallowed and regurgitated, animal sacrifices, possession, psychics, destroying corpses, green saliva, mucus, nosebleeds… Listing those scenes brings back a lot of images in my head; as disgusting as they are, I would definitely pay to see them again. Lastly, the thing I liked about this picture was that it took the time to establish its characters. For me to ultimately care for a lead character, I have to know what is at stake–why they actively choose to overcome certain challenges (of course, other than the prospect of death itself). Because sometimes a character does the things she does not for herself but for other people, which adds complexity to the story. In here, I completely bought that Lohman and Long are happy together even though they come from completely different backgrounds. And that relationship is often challenged by the supernatural that’s unfolding before their eyes.
As for the film’s negatives, I do not have much to say because I enjoyed it that much. However, I would have liked to have seen more of Justin Long. I know he can do horror mixed with comedy really well (such as in “Jeepers Creepers) so I thought he was going to be more than just the boyfriend who offers unconditional positive regard (Yes, that term is purposeful because his character is a Psychology professor). Lastly, I think it needed at least three more genuinely scary scenes with no comedy involved. Most of the scenes are a mix of the two genres so it would have been nicer to have alternatives. I also could’ve used more psychology talk; I loved the heated exchange between Long’s character and the fortuneteller (Dileep Rao) regarding theories from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung about science and religion. As a Psychology student (partly), it was that much more enjoyable because I engaged with it. Regardless, these are minor flaws that I really had to think about so that’s a good sign.
“Drag Me to Hell” is not your typical horror movie. For one, it does not involve stupid, sexually-charged teenagers running around a deserted hallway as they try to escape from a serial killer, or cellphones/videotapes that have ghosts in them. It’s about how one decision that we initially thought others would notice and commend us for turns out to be the decision that ultimately shatters our lives. It’s been a really long time since I’ve enjoyed a first-rate PG-13 horror flick so watching this film was truly refreshing. I can only wish that Raimi would make another horrorfest (maybe take inspiration from those comedy-drama intersecting storylines?) because I could feel his passion through the lens. And yes, just in case you’re wondering, the title is very literal.