Leatherface

We’ve been slicing up this story for a while now haven’t we? Even through all the sequels, remakes, and copies, few films touch the raw, visceral power of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original – a film which still gets under the skin after multiple decades and viewings. What can we possibly add to the story, and do we need to? My feelings have always been that (and the same goes for most horror films and icons) we don’t need an origin story – all we need to know is that this creature or person exists, and that it’s trying to kill the protagonists. Most origin stories try to reason with the murderer and inevitably make us sympathize to a certain degree, yet end up not making the character any more interesting. If your original story contains the origin – fine, but can a prequel coming much later be anything other than a cash grab?

Cash grabs can be entertaining, no matter how cynical they may be. Thankfully, as many flaws as this one his – almost entirely due to the plot and premise – it still does the job of entertaining me. For horror fans, there is plenty of gore and violence (though not as explicit as most others in the series) and for everyone else it is peppered with good performers giving good performances. Viewed as a standalone film separate from the mythology of the franchise it works a little better. It tells a story of revenge echoing through the years – a policeman’s daughter is senselessly murdered by a brutal isolationist family and as retribution the cop abducts a baby from the family. The baby grows up in an institute but eventually escapes with a group of Bonnie and Clyde wannabees and they embark on a collision course of mayhem which leads baby, family, and cop back to where it all began.

Sam Strike takes up the unenviable task of playing the young Leatherface – UK viewers will know him from Eastenders – and I have no issues with his performance. He has the script, he’s been told how to play it, and he follows through. Similarly, the always reliable Dorff and Tyler are engaging and Vanessa Grasse is good as the sympathetic final girl. French directing duo Maury and Bustillo became instant horror legends after their incredible debut Inside, but they don’t get to expand upon their penchant for threat and terror here, hindered by an idea and a screenplay which is entirely by the numbers and unnecessary. There’s a point in the movie – I’m not sure if it was ever intentional – that it seems like the filmmakers are going to pull an early Shyamalan and actually have a different character turn out to be Leatherface. Based on what we do get, that twist could have improved matters.

Going back to my point about not needing origin stories – a related point is that I never found Leatherface to be such an interesting character anyway. Here was this hulking man-child who appeared to be severely mentally challenged, and just happened to enjoy killing things and dead things – like the rest of his family. He was essentially a slave and both didn’t and couldn’t know better. That’s all you need to know. The original offers no suggestion of him being a complex character – that’s us projecting onto him. Rather, the film portrays him to be an almost mindless child in the body of a WWE Superstar, likely the result of generations of inbreeding and seclusion. Leatherface does a ridiculous double sell-out, a triple sell out in fact; first, by showing the young Leatherface being abducted and raised by a different family before being placed in a Young Offenders/mental institution where he is presented as a sympathetic, caring, yet conflicted human, secondly by making him become violent for no good reason, and finally by making him lose his mind and regress to…. something? There’s no reasoning behind any of it. We start out the movie not buying into the character being this emotionally involved teenager, and we end the movie not buying in to him becoming the mindless Leatherface. They even make a mess of explaining the origin of the mask – him wearing it out of necessity due to taking a bullet to the face, rather than because he simply likes the feel of human skin on his own. It makes the character much less interesting, and crucially, much less frightening. What is scary about the original is that history has shown us that there are people out there who commit these crimes for no reason other than they enjoy it. Here, in trying to explain evil they instead act like the parent showing that the coat in the closet isn’t the boogeyman.

Still, with all that said it’s better than a lot of movies of its ilk and it’s likely an improvement on many of the franchise entries. I can’t say for sure how I feel as the three other entries between 2003 and 2013 are of similar middling quality. In the end, they all feel like watchable throwaway horror which don’t come close to the madcap disgusting nature of Part 2, and are a world away from the relentless perfection of the original.

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Return To Oz

*Originally written in 2003 – again, apologies for posting all these old, crappy reviews.

In this minor dark fantasy classic, we return to Oz with Dorothy Gale who has not been able to adjust to normality since her primary adventures. Her Auntie and Uncle do not know what do to with her, and no-one believes her amazing stories. Eventually she is sent to a psychiatric hospital, and unknown to her family it is run by near-masochists who supposedly perform terrifying experiments on children. As this is still a kids’ movie none of this is shown, but the suggestion is pretty heavy.

Jean Marsh plays the relentlessly horrifying Nurse Wilson, and pursues Dorothy through the stormy night in a bid for escape. Dorothy jumps into a river and when she wakes she is in Oz with a chicken called Billina. However, after some exploring it appears that Oz has been infected with some kind of evil, and it is no longer the enchanting place it was, instead it is a place of nightmares. The Emerald city and all inhabitants including the Cowardly Lion and the Tin-Man have been turned to stone. After a chase by the brilliantly memorable and scary Wheelers, Dorothy meets Tik-Tok, a mechanical man, and they try to find the Scarecrow and work out what has happened. Soon Dorothy is taken prisoner by the wicked Princess Mombi, Jean Marsh again, who is obsessed with her appearance, stealing the heads of beautiful young women. It seems that the Nome King has become immensely powerful, turning all to stone as his personal statues. The struggle to return Oz to its glory is one which will take all of Dorothy’s skill and love.

This film is a definite classic for kids, but beware – it is dark and has many moments which will be scary. I saw this recently, having not seen it in a few years, and although the impact has dwindled, and the flaws are clear, it is still a good film which should definitely be seen at a young age. There are many things to recommend it, although fans of The Wizard of Oz my be disappointed by the lack of music and light-hearted fun. The acting is all top notch; Jean Marsh is excellent in her roles and Fairuza Balk is outstanding in her first major performance, seeming both timid and strong and giving a good account of what may be a disturbed, abused child. The new characters are all just as good as those in the 1939 film, particularly Pumpkinhead and Tik-Tok. The effects are extremely good for their time and hold up today. Scary moments include the Wheeler chase, the final encounter with the Nome King, and of course the infamous screaming heads scene which will likely stay in the memory of all who see it. If you have children with strong imaginations, or with an interest in reading or fantasy, then this is a film they should be shown, but if they are scared easily it may not be such a good idea.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Return To Oz!

Rope

*Originally written in 2004 (it goes without saying as my reviews from this period are basically one big plot reveal, but SPOILER ALERT)

Another technological feat from Hitchcock; a film which seems to have no cuts throughout. Although there are five or six, the editing is so swift that you will have trouble finding the cutting points, and the blend between each is seamless. Like other Hitchcock films where he experiments with camera work and conventional methods of filming and storytelling, it is a success and never feels as if it is the main gimmick of the film. The story and acting are all good enough to keep the viewer enthralled, and the balance between plot and camera-work is perfectly balanced, structured and adds to the overall effect of the film. In short – you can enjoy it without knowing or caring about any of the technical aspects, or for everything mentioned above.

The film takes place over the period of a single night in an apartment owned by two young men, students of Philosophy taught by the well-respected, cynical and clever Rupert Cadell. The students, Brandon and Phillip, decide to murder someone as an experiment, to see what it feels like and to see if they can get away with it. They choose to kill a friend, hiding the body in a trunk in their apartment before inviting Rupert and their other friends (including the victim’s family) over for a party. Enjoying the irony and thrill of it all at first, the pressure soon grows; Knowing jokes about death and murder are thrown around, the victim’s family and friends wonder why he is late and cannot get in contact with him, philosophical, moral and political discussions become heated, arguments break out, and Rupert becomes increasingly suspicious as the Brandon and Phillip’s behaviour gets more strange. Phillip becomes more nervous as the irony, dark humour, and pressure from Rupert grows, and eventually the horror is uncovered. The boys explain their actions and Rupert realises that to some degree he had a part in it, because of his subversive teachings. The superiority complex much talked about by Nietzsche is explored, and the boys question of whether it is right to kill another person because you feel superior is discussed with Hitchockian flair and humour.

The dialogue is typical of Hitchcock, full of dark humour and nodding sight gags such as the fact that the food is served from the trunk in which the body lies. The backdrop of the city is impressive and Dall is pretty chilling. The rest of the cast are admittedly average, but Jimmy Stewart makes up for this by giving a memorable performance, almost against type. He easily controls the screen, and we come to feel like he is superior, all the more shocking and ironic when we sense his involvement in the death and his reaction to that knowledge. A lesser known Hitchcock, but one no less worthy of catching today.

Let us know in the comments what you though of Rope!

The Wailing

Before I saw The Wailing I had seen it described as one of the scariest Asian movies of the decade – that sort of widespread feedback is enough to get me excited and wary at the same time, and by thirty minutes in to the movie I was wondering if I had accidentally selected another Korean movie with the same name, a comedy caper which was nevertheless entertaining. That’s what most of the reviews don’t tell you – The Wailing isn’t just a horror movie – it’s a comedy, it’s a drama, and it’s a tragic character study which will suck you in and spit you out if you allow yourself to be swallowed.

There’s a certain cultural divide you have to be prepared for when going into most foreign cinema. Sometimes an Asian film can be straight enough and universal enough to be fully understood by any viewer, and sometimes there can be quirky moments or pieces of dialogue or character traits which seem alien. Most of the time if the film is good enough, interesting enough, these can be overlooked or even enhance our viewing and become something a Western viewer looks forward to. When you watch a film with a certain historical or political context, or in the case of The Wailing, with numerous instances of Asian folklore, it can become a little overwhelming. I’ll admit to feeling a little lost in places while watching The Wailing – coming from someone who considers themselves a seasoned viewer of Asian Cinema. I feel like I can’t give an adequate synopsis of the plot due to this, and also due to wanting to avoid spoilers/mystery. All you need to know is that it’s about a small Korean town/village policeman and father who is investigating a mysterious sickness which has been sweeping through the town, coinciding with the arrival of a Japanese man.

The film has received universal acclaim from critics and I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it too, even if I didn’t absorb everything I could have on first viewing. I suspect more of the puzzle pieces will become clear on a second viewing, possibly uncovering more of the Asian folklore and nods to Christianity. The film passes two and a half hours long and I feel like some of the early scenes could have been saved to get the film closer to a 120 minute run time. 150 mins plus is a long time for a horror film to retain scares and dread and threat and that opening half an hour or so almost feels like a different film, with bumbling keystone cop antics at loose character info eventually giving way to the procedural, the macabre, the horror. Mystery and myth intertwine and a father who seems careless and distant is forced to reevaluate his life and priorities in a race against time, but deception and intrigue seem to thwart him at every turn. Is it scary? There are moments, set pieces, both early on and towards the end which will scare or chill, but once the main plot picks up steam it is that sense of unearthly dread and tension which will get under your skin. The film is so well acted, so beautifully crafted, that it should unnerve even the most hardcore horror viewer – just don’t go in expecting jump scares and knife attacks. Expect the unexpected, expect provocation, and expect lots of reading up on the film after watching. I expect you’ll love it.

Big Driver

Rape is arguably the most difficult subject to tackle on screen, never mind in literature. The horrific act is something which has long been used in stories – particularly in the visual medium – as a turning point in the narrative; the character survives and generally seeks vengeance or justice. There is a whole history, mainly in horror, of the rape revenge stories with increasingly, depressingly violent or graphic, or inexplicably titillating scenes of sexual violence which lead to further acts of violence against the perpetrator(s). Stephen King tackles the issue knowingly in his novella of the same name, from a collection which largely deals with issues relating to women or relationships. The written story is done with a level of tact and a lack of detail of the event, instead spending most of its length on the lead character, depicted before and after the event as a strong, singular women who just happens to be led into the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed, King even acknowledges the cinematic tropes as the lead character refuses to be a victim and seeks out some of the aforementioned movies as part of her recovery, planning, and justice. The film, while it doesn’t linger on the event, shows enough to possibly put off a large section of the intended audience.

Big Driver stars Mario Bello (who is excellent in the role) as Tess – a successful crime writer who lives with her cat and the voices in her head – a device King often employs. She is invited to speak at library fan meeting and is advised to take a short cut, idyllic drive home off the beaten track by the event organiser. If you’ve seen any film in this vein before, you’ll have already connected the dots – one flat tyre and ‘helpful’ trucker later and Tess has been raped and left for dead in a sewage pipe, along with the rotting corpses of past victims. She survives, heads home, and begins connecting her own dots as she seeks vengeance.

If you’ve watched any rape revenge movie before, then you know what you’re going to get here. Thankfully this one didn’t feel like exploitation, at least to me, and the worthy cast give full-blooded performances. It’s a Lifetime TV movie so you have any idea how extreme the content will be. The direction is sound, nothing eye-catching or out of the ordinary here and the story, while attempting to offer some moderate twists in the narrative and contemplation on guilt doesn’t really offer anything new. This will be mainly for King fans, or any fans of the cast – as it stands it’s a worthwhile watch for those groups, but it’s not one you’re likely to remember or watch again.

Resident Evil

*Originally written in 2004

What had the potential to be one of the greatest zombie movies ever is let down by poor studio choices – mainly distancing itself as far from the games as possible. However, it remains a solid action movie if not the terrifying, emotional, complex horror it could have been. Admittedly, truly bringing the game to life for a two hour movie would be an extremely difficult process, and those making it could easily have made a mess, mangling the characters and story. It has always been my opinion that the games should be made into feature length TV movies or a high budget series. This way everything would fit in, and the budget would not need to be great. Of course this is just a pipe dream, and what we have is not as bad as some make out, with many good points.

The film starts with an outbreak at the Umbrella facility. Chaos ensues, and everyone appears to die. We then meet Alice, a woman inside an eerily empty mansion at night. She does not know who she is, and only has flashbacks of her life. Soon a group of marines enter, assuming she is a civilian, and along with the other survivors they try to work out what happened to the facility. They quickly find out that everyone has been turned into zombies by an evil computer program and worry about how to escape. Alice is not what she first appears to be, and neither are some other survivors.

The main problem with the film is that there is little fear created, and it is insanely watered down, with little gore. Fans of the series are used to high tension, jumps, threat and bloodshed, but this is simply not present here. Most of the marines are wiped out in a room which shoots high powered, cutting lasers, while only one is killed by a zombie. The Licker effects are okay, but there are no Hunters, Spiders or Tyrants. As well as this, most of the marines get small roles, look similar, and we fail to feel anything for them. Now the good points; Jovovich is very good in the role and there are a few decent twists, like the game. The way her mysterious past is revealed is clever and well-balanced alongside the escape plot. The star though is Michelle Rodriguez, giving an excellent, physical performance akin to Vasquez in Aliens. The action scenes are dealt with well, especially those involving the dogs, sets and lighting feel authentic for the series and the direction is solid. The film makes a good attempt at creating an original story, and it is left open for a sequel. Of course, us fans would have loved to see Wesker’s antics and our favourite STARS members being picked off. Maybe one day the games will make truly great movies, but why complain when we still have the games. Obviously a let down for fans, but still a pretty good action film.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Resident Evil!

The Visit

Okay, okay, Mr. Shyamalan – I enjoyed The Visit. Even the corny humour and the pre-requisite twist worked for me and while there is absolutely nothing ground-breaking or new here, it’s a perfectly entertaining horror movie that I still struggle to find a target audience for – is it form regular horror fans? Is it for kids? Does it matter? I have no idea.

Shyamalan jumps on the found footage band-wagon with The Visit – the conceit being that our two lead characters want to document meeting their grandparents for the first time. This is the 21st Century, and our two leads are tweens, so this is perfectly believable. Less believable is the fact that they are sent off on their own, across country, to meet their grandparents without having the faintest idea what they look like or without their mum dropping them off. The film wouldn’t work if those things happened of course, but it’s a silly setup nevertheless. The grandparents seem lovely, even if the generational gap means things are awkward, but they all seem to get on. There are house rules, such as going to bed early and not leaving your room after 9.30, and not going in the basement, but we accept those because old people are weird. Time passes, things get weirder, and twisty twist time comes.

The twist becomes more apparent as the movie progresses – it’s Shyamalan so you know shenanigans are afoot. Mercifully, the twist isn’t left to the final moments but revealed fairly early, setting up an interesting finale. There are some inspired moments which allow the faintest dread to creep in – playing under the house is jumpscare bait, but fun, and the cleaning the over sequences recall our childhood Hansel and Gretal fears. I won’t go so far as saying there’s supposed to be any deeper level of generational paranoia going on here – the fear of aging, of the mentally ill, or of dying for example – the set up seems too silly to allow such thoughts. You will be left with questions – spoiler alert – why is this couple living at the house after all this time and why do they consent to the kids coming? You can’t throw around ‘they’re crazy’ as an answer for everything.

The film works because the four leads are all believable and watchable. Even the son (Ed Oxenbould), with his annoying raps somehow comes off as funny to me when there’s no good reason he should. Olivia DeJonge gives a nice twist on the final girl trope, while both Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie are effective pre and post twist. How the kids aren’t destroyed mentally after this is a wonder – maybe they’ll crop up again as Shyamalan experiments with his own Extended Universe. So yes, I enjoyed it in spite of myself – it’s silly but feels like a good popcorn flick – light scares, some laughs, and a twist which most likely won’t catch anyone off guard, and a return to commercial success for someone once hailed as the next big thing.

Red Heat and Red Sonja double review

*Originally written in 2003

Another of Arnie’s minor 80’s hits which sees him play a KGB agent who must team up with the wise-cracking Art, played by James Belushi, to find an escaped Russian drug dealer. There is plenty of comedy between the two, Arnie maintains his most stern face, and the action is okay. It just lacks the real spark or something special which made his classics…special classics…

The cast is pretty good, with Fishburne and Gina Gershon giving decent minimal support while O’Ross is an average bad guy. The plot is basic, the script is fine, but there is not enough action to keep the film moving at a fast pace. While there are some good one-liners and it is all light-hearted, this was the peak period of buddy movies, and there are better -Arnie himself has made a few. Up against those more obvious buddy action movies, this seems stale and by the numbers. It is true that Arnie was beginning to show his comic side – he is a funny guy, and would go on to make both better action movies and comedies. Arnie fans will enjoy it, others will find some entertainment from it, but it has few memorable moments to keep us coming back for more.

Red Sonja (also written in 2003)

Rather than make another Conan film, someone decided to make this unofficial spin-off fantasy yarn staring Brigitte Nielson as Sonja and Arnie as Kalidor. The Evil Queen Gedren steals a mystical talisman from a group of virginal priestess warriors, and butchers them all in the process. She plans to unleash a great evil on the world, but one of her victims was the sister of Sonja, a fearless warrior. Sonja decides to find Gedren, stop her plans, and get revenge. On her way she meets an impudent young Prince and his servant, and Kalidor – a great swordsman. Together they try to save the world, but Kalidor and Sonja still wish to prove to each other who is the superior fighter.

Unfortunately the whole film looks cheap, and most of the effects aren’t great. Even the sweeping camera-work used to great effect in Conan the Barbarian is nowhere near as good here, and the plot is basic. Arnie is good in the role, but his part is not very big. Nielson is okay, credit must go to both for their training and stunt-work, but she fails to show any worthwhile emotion. The character is not given much depth, focused on revenge rather than going through any grieving process. The young Prince is constantly annoying, but he and his master do provide a few laughs. Sandahl Bergman is good as Gedren, but she has begun to be typecast which is unfortunate as she is a fine actress. The action is good, but without proper involvement in the story it seems hollow. Arnie fans should enjoy it, but it is vastly inferior to his later and prior classics.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of either of these two movies – low ranked in the Arnie canon, or a personal favourite?

Raw Deal

*Originally written in 2003

In the eighties Arnie was the action movie King, but Raw Deal is not one of his best. The plot is simple and though there is a lot of action, it is average stuff and there are few memorable moments.

Arnie stars as Mark, an ex FBI agent, now a small town sheriff. When a mob boss murders a group of people including the son of Harry Shannon, an old friend of Mark’s, Harry enlists Mark to infiltrate the mob guy Patrovina’s business, and ultimately get revenge. Mark fakes his own death, changes his identity, and goes undercover. Soon follows much mayhem and explosions as Arnie tries to prove his loyalty to Patrovina while avoiding suspicion by the henchmen. Ninety minutes later, Arnie and the bad guys have a final showdown. You may forget that somewhere his wife is waiting.

This is simply an excuse for Arnie to show his muscles, his deadpan delivery, and crunch a few bones. The action and stunts are okay, there are a few good one-liners (such as the one involving drinking and cake making), and the film is pretty relaxed in spite of all the violence. The cast is pretty good, Robert Davi and Arnie have good chemistry, and everyone seems to ham it up and enjoy themselves. Oh yeah, why is it every Arnie film has a character, or a reference to someone called Harry? Or Huuaarrry, as Arnie says. It just adds to his legend I suppose…

Let us know in the comments what you think of Raw Deal!

Q – The Winged Serpent

*Originally written in 2003

When I was younger, because of my interest in dinosaurs I would always watch any film with a dinosaur in it. I saw a few of the Godzillas, and watched all the Sinbad and Harryhausen movies. This is one I was always fond of, mainly because it had what I thought was a cool name, and there were always a few scenes that stayed with me. I have still only seen it a few times, it’s rarely shown, and I haven’t seen it on DVD anywhere. I did catch it again recently though and can say now that the effects have aged badly, and it is obviously dated. It has a typical storyline, if a little madcap, but it’s still interesting and good to watch if you get the chance. Some good acting, some cheesy stuff, some laughs, and a good one to show the kids if they have an interest in such things as it is not as scary as Jurassic Park, but still has its moments.

In New York, Police have been receiving reports of a giant flying dinosaur which they of course think is a hoax. Soon however a number of civilians are eaten, snatched off rooftops while sunbathing. This moment I am always reminded of when I watch ‘Marge in Chains’ – the Simpsons episode where Marge is arrested for shoplifting. There is a scene in which Otto is on a rooftop, and the camera swoops down on him from directly above, very similar to what happens in Q. Anyway, Michael Moriarty plays a thief who has just robbed a jewelry store and is hiding in the Chrysler building. There he finds what appears to be a nest, with eggs and parts of human corpses. David Carradine plays the lead cop who soon realises the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl is the beast attacking. Soon Moriarty and Carradine are squaring off, Moriarty the only one who knows where the creature is, and wants to make sure if he makes a deal he will get something in return.

A seemingly silly idea for a film, but no less silly than Godzilla, King Kong, and many other monster movies. It is the same idea, updated for the eighties. Cohen allows some ominous camera-work over the city, meaning we never know when Q is going to attack, or from where, and the relationship between Carradine and Moriarty is interesting. Cohen always seems to choose strange and innovative topics for his film-making, ensuring he has gained a small cult status in the horror community. He has done better films, but this is still good. A strange mix of genres which does not always work, but is worth seeing anyway.

Let us know in the comments what you think of Q The Winged Serpent!