Night Of The Living Dead

*Originally written in 2004

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The beginning of the modern horror film, and along with Psycho, the most influential horror movie ever. Drawing on many of the early monster movies of the 1930s, with a seemingly unstoppable beast tracking down prey, it enhanced the atmosphere of those films for the new wave audience. Aside from that, NNOTLD is a breed apart from anything else released at the time. Tonnes of gore, shocks the cinema goer had never experienced, unexpected twists and turns, downbeat, scary, with unusual protagonists and new ways of story telling, the world didn’t know what had hit it.

It was the late sixties. The Vietnam War was proving that North America was not all-powerful, and asking questions about who were the good guys, about motivation, about the human race as a whole. Anti-war protesters were being beaten and gassed for what they believed, while America was attempting to destroy another place…for what they believed. Hippies were spreading a message of love, new ideas were flourishing in all areas, from making peace to making war, and technology was becoming more important and influential. The result was that the good guys were often over-looked, good deeds were mostly forgotten, and many lives were thrown away aimlessly and without purpose. Those who survived wondered why, and had no clue why they were still here. It seemed like outside, bigger forces were at play, and that unseen beings were controlling the public. NOTLD was released.

A brother and sister are travelling to their parents’ graves in the countryside, a trip that has become an annoyance rather than a mark of respect. Johnny taunts his sister Barbara like he used to as a kid, scaring her, saying the infamous line ‘they’re coming to get you, Barbara’. A man walks towards them and attacks without warning. Johnny is killed and Barbara flees to a nearby farmhouse,entering a near comatose state. Another man arrives, Ben, and begins to board up the doors and windows, telling Barbara that he too was attacked by a number of people, and witnessed a town coming under siege. The attackers seem to have no regard for their own safety, and feel no pain. Soon people who had been hiding in the basement appear, and together the group try to figure out what to do. The TV says the attackers can be killed by a heavy blow to the head, and seem to be scared of fire. It seems that, inexplicably, the dead are coming back to life and eating the flesh of the living, who in turn become zombies. The group argue over the best solution, tensions arise, and all the while, the number of zombies outside grows, waiting.

The film has great depth and terrific acting from amateurs. No-one is safe from harm here, and it seems that the group’s downfall is because they are human and cannot work as a group – personal interest and opinion always interferes. The zombies do not argue, they will happily wait for their chance and strike with stunning force, as a unit. If you take down one, there are 10 more closing in. The group could have escaped earlier, by running past the few zombies, but it seems the house will become their coffin. If they had not fought among themselves they may have had a chance but even then, where would they have gone?

Ben as the main character is seen as revolutionary because he was an African American, but this was not in the script -he just happened to be best for the part. Romero has since become a champion of the disenfranchised – women, children, other races. Duane Jones’s performance is strong. Judith o’ Dea as Barbara does not have much to do, but is good, and the other stand out is Karl Hardman as Cooper. Cooper has a wife and injured daughter and feels Ben is endangering them with his schemes. Tom and Judy are a local farm couple, innocents who try to think clearly and are punished for it. Indeed it seems that when a good plan comes around, it is stopped in its tracks with devastating results. Though human error is the major mistake in a darkly ironic twist.

Although it was filmed in BW, the gore is there. People are eaten and burned, flesh is chewed on the full screen, bullets are driven through chests. The shocks are genuinely shocking, and the film’s atmosphere is claustrophobic and we sense the dwindling of hope. The overall tone of the film is stark, and it seems the future only holds violence – the news reel footage echoing what American housewives and kids were starting to be exposed to on the news. The film struggled to find distributors, and was shown in matinées to unsuspecting youngsters – we can only imagine their reactions. Truly a horror classic, and one of the most nightmarish films ever made, with a view of the world as a terrible place filled with pain and stupidity. We cannot overcome creatures which cannot think. Death is shown as a creeping inevitability, and the good guys almost always lose.

Hmm, for one of my old half-assed reviews, that was actually pretty good, and reminds me again how prescient the film is in today’s world. Almost fifty years since its release and we still haven’t learned. Let us know in the comments what you think of Night Of The Living Dead!

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Halloween II and III

*Originally written like 2001 or roundabouts when I had no clue what I was doing. Spoiler Alert – I still don’t. These are crappy reviews so I’ve stuck them both together for a double dose of pain.

Halloween II

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After the smash of Halloween it seemed inevitable that there would be a sequel. Carpenter’s films have a habit of ending with a cliffhanger, and fans wanted to see whether Michael would return. He does, just as Laurie is taken to a nearby hospital. Loomis is still on the prowl, and Michael follows Laurie to hospital intent on finishing his work, killing any unfortunate doctors, nurses or patients who get in his way. Once again Laurie and Michael are alone to chase and fight to the death.

Unfortunately this for the most part feels like a cash-in, and is a much inferior sequel complete with weaker performances and more elaborate deaths. There are good points though, Curtis and Pleasance are still great, while the setting is quite atmospheric. Many of the original cast come back for a short while, helping to keep us interested with the plot, and there are plenty of kills. However, much of the film lacks the tension which Carpenter can easily create, and we do not care about any of the new characters. Michael now seems to be entirely unstoppable which further distances us from the reality of the first film. This is okay, and definitely worth watching if you’re a fan of the first.

Halloween III

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Firstly, yes this has little or nothing to do with the other Halloween films, and it is the worst so far. To gave it credit though it must be said that Carpenter wanted to take the series in this direction, telling a different story in a different film each Halloween. This was an ambitious and exciting idea which had potential, even if that potential was limited. Unfortunately this film is a mess, and flopped, ending Carpenter’s idea. Viewers were expecting more Myers mayhem and were disappointed by the complete change of direction here.

An evil toy maker decides to kill millions of children via his Halloween masks. He is the owner of the company Silver Shamrock, and infuses all the masks with black magic which will burn any child who wears it on Halloween night when a special jingle is played. After a successful advertisement campaign it seems that his mask is a massive hit, and his plan will be complete. Only Doctor Challis and Ellie can stop the evil, but will they?

This was the first Halloween movie I saw, when I was very young, and a few moments have stayed with me since then-  Cochran’s goons on patrol, killing anyone who gets in their way, and the jingle which is admittedly creepy, though a familiar tune. The idea is good, but it falls on its face through a combination of bad acting and poor storytelling, and in the end little makes sense. The shock ending is still good though, but its potential impact is decreased by the fact that we don’t care for the characters, that we don’t really meet any kids, and that we have become bored by the end. Little is explained, most of the deaths are bizarre, while sufficiently bloody. Plus the whole thing looks cheap and doesn’t have enough scares. If there had been a better cast, more thought with the story, and better direction it could have been a lot better. It even could have become an effective satire on Commercialism, especially during the holidays. For fans of the series, watch it once, but don’t expect much.

Let me know in the comments what you thought of the first Halloween sequels and their place in the series!

The Windmill Massacre

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Another Frighfest film – which can be hit or miss – The Windmill Massacre has a few things going for it from the off, namely a sort of interesting premise and a rarely used location. The cast has a few semi-recognisable faces, the director (who also writes) is an unknown, and as yet I haven’t seen this spoken of in the horror community. Is it any good?

In grand horror tradition we have a group of individuals getting picked off one by one by a masked villain. Before we get to that point, we meet each of the group in The Netherlands and it seems that a few of them have secrets to hide. Jackson, an English soldier, is there for some R and R with his mates, but after some sort of event with a prostitute he needs to keep his head down. To run down the clock before he checks out, he decides to go on a bus tour of the countryside, visiting various windmills and sites of interest. There he meets Jennifer, an Australian who has apparently been working as a Nanny but hiding her true identity – she too hops on the tour to avoid the police. They meet a Japanese tourist, a father and son, a photographer, a doctor, and the tour guide. As the tour embarks we are drip fed information about each person and it soon becomes apparent that they all have a dark past.

As is inevitable with these things, the bus breaks down, the group becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere, and a psycho with a fetish for scythes kicks off an evisceration party. This is where the premise kicks in – the killer only seems interested in people who have not atoned for their sins. Which of the group will show remorse when that means admitting what they have done? Who in the group knows more than they are telling? Who will run? Who will die? You know the drill.

Although we do get some pieces of backstory for the characters, there isn’t much discussion on morals or repentance or reasons given for their sins. Having said that, we do sense the conflict between the person and their past, and indeed between certain members of the group. The movie has some early moments of atmosphere, and it does burn slowly until the first kill. We are treated to some efficient and nasty kills, there are some twists, but I was looking for the story to take me somewhere else – there were a few points where I thought the plot could have taken a different turn or surprised with a more shocking twist, but instead it plays a safer game. Technically fine, Jongerius gets the most out of his cast and the settings shot in daylight are nice. Most of the second half of the film is set at night so the location loses its impact. Most people will probably recognize Noah Taylor from his Game Of Thrones days and Patrick Baladi from The Office. The slasher killer isn’t charismatic or scary enough to truly make an impact, but for a simple one-off view it’s fine. This is one horror fans should give a go if they can find it, but it’s not going to be on many ‘best of year’ lists.

Let me know in the comments what you thought of The Windmill Massacre!

The Guest

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Adam Wingard may be heralded as one of the most successful and promising young upstarts of horror, but it’s clear he has more up his sleeve. The Guest is a throwback to another time – a time when any number of movies about creepy neighbours, babysitters, distant family members would come into the homes and lives of an innocent family and slowly unleash terror. The Guest is many things, horror included, but it also has plenty of action, uncomfortable laughs, tragedy, knowing nods to past classics, and some great performances.

The Guest sees a mysterious young man paying visit to a grieving family. Their son was a soldier but lost his life in Afghanistan, and the man who stops by introduces himself as a soldier and friend of their son. He has come to help look after the family, knowing they would struggle if their son was killed – he is the model guest, sweet, helpful, and interested in helping out any way he can. As is the case with such films, David (The Guest) isn’t being entirely honest and eventually suspicion creeps in leading to the twist and thrilling climax.

Although the story follows the usual expected plot for such films – nothing I’ve said above is really a spoiler (what follows may be spoiler territory) – though the twist is not what you’d expect, almost sci-fi in nature. The twist is fine and explains David’s various skills, but doesn’t really make sense. After all the good things he does for the family I don’t buy that he would be forced to kill them – it’s the fact that he seems so kind and goes over and above for them that makes the final act more ludicrous and tragic. It doesn’t harm the film much, just makes it less credible. Apparently there had been additional scenes which further explored David’s background but the director preferred the ambiguity. In the hands of a lesser director or worse cast it could have been a more noticeable problem, but Stevens gives a career best performance, Monroe is solid as always, and everyone else performs well. While this eventually becomes like a slasher movie, its roots are more firmly in the thriller genre. The action scenes are swift and often brutal, not overly bloody and more akin to something like Die Hard. It’s a film which most genre fans will enjoy and doesn’t suffer from dipping its toes in multiple pools.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of The Guest!

Final Destination

*Originally written in 2003

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Of the teen horror movies which appeared in the Nineties era, most were dumb gore-fests with cheap shocks and a sexy, young cast. However, there were two stand outs: Scream, of course, and Final Destination. Both are intelligent, both have involving story lines, good characters, genuine shocks, and grisly deaths. While Scream was full of parodies and self-referential stuff, Final Destination played on our fear of death – the one common denominator which we all cannot avoid. While it does make jokes about itself and its genre, they are fewer than Scream, and do not go as over the top as some other films. The director fills every scene with real tension and fear, and successfully combines this with excellent set pieces and stunts, as well as sustaining a brilliant story. There are few films that can do this so we should admire Final Destination.

128 students are planning to travel to France with their teachers for one last big school trip. The plane crashes, killing everyone on board. We then flashback and realise that it was the premonition of one of the students, Alex. He has been having a strange day, and when he sees that his premonition is coming true he tries to get everyone off the plane. Like a certain Twilight Zone episode he succeeds in only causing a minor panic and some embarrassment, but is fortuitously thrown off the plane together with a few others who got involved. As they wait in the airport Alex relates what he saw and of course no one believes him. Suddenly the plane explodes – his premonition came true. In the aftermath, some of the survivors mourn, others see it as a second chance, the cops become interested in how Alex knew what was going to happen, and Alex has further visions. Soon the survivors are killed in bizarre ways, and the cops believe it is Alex. Alex thinks that death is stalking them because they cheated it, and he works out the order that they will die in, believing that if they can understand the visions and prevent themselves from dying again, they will be safe. This will not be easy though, as death can, and does strike from everywhere.

The idea behind the story is excellent, and it is stylishly and effectively executed. It will appeal to the teen audience it is aimed at, but also older viewers as it is a very thought-provoking, existential film when stripped back. One character, Carter, believes he is in control of his own life, not some invisible force, and at one point tries to prove this by parking on train tracks in front of an approaching train. Alex becomes increasingly paranoid, hiding in a hut from death, safe-proofing it in every way he can. Clear tries to be strong, has learnt to be this way through a tough childhood and cannot believe that all life is is a series of days avoiding death. The other survivors all have their individuality, and are not pastiches of other characters from teen movies. The performances are each outstanding, even from Sean William Scott who proves he is better than just being Stiffler forever. The side plot of the cops believing Alex is behind the deaths adds a depth which most teen horror films do not have.

Wong’s direction is very stylish, and the deaths and set pieces are some of the most innovative ever, recalling the style of Argento. That everything is a potential killer is an idea ripe for exploitation. Wong also creates a massive amount of tension throughout, peaking with each death – the train and car scene will get the most flabby heart racing, the teacher in the kitchen is brilliantly staged within every fork and implement seeming deadly. The opening 15 minutes have to be among the most tense and exciting 15 minutes in horror movie history, confirming all those with a fear of flying to stay firmly on the ground. The film shows how we are not immortal, and without the humorous moments it might become too much.

There are many famous shock moments, the bus scene being the most notorious – many have complained about this being stupid and unrealistic, but if Death was stalking you, of course it would try to put the approaching bus under a veil of silence. The premise may seem too far-fetched for people, but this is primarily for a horror crowd who come baying for the blood, and we do appreciate it more when our intelligence isn’t insulted. Death here as a character does have a sense of humour, each death being ironic, gruesome or made to look like an accident, but this is all the more terrifying, that this force is coming after us for entertainment. Death wants immediate pay back for those who cheated it, but in the style of a Bond villain, likes to play with its victims first. Of course the deaths may seem impossible in the real world, but if it is Death stalking us, I think it has the power to bend a few rules. Most criticism I have read of this film is petty and unexplained, but I can understand why some would be put off by it. For clever, shocking, exciting teen horror movies, there are very few better than this.

What do you think of Final Destination and its many sequels – let us know in the comments!

Rings

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A brief bit of history – Ringu is my second favourite horror movie of all time, and one which kicked off my love for J-Horror. Its sequel is problematic but a lot of fun, while its prequel is glorious and criminally underrated. I saw both the US remake and its sequel upon release – I hated The Ring at the time – a watered down, cheap jump-scare filled mess, while the sequel I thought was decent throwaway fun. There was no real need for another entry, but then again enough time has passed and enough new technology has arrived to allow for some interesting new spins to explore. Does Rings explore these?

Does it fuck. Rings is a mess. I can’t think of a single, remotely scary moment in the film – no tension, not even any jump scares, and Samara is again some ultra cheap CG mess who looks like she would slip and break her back sooner than crawl across the room to murder you. The film does offer interesting ideas, but either abandons them or messes them up in some convoluted fashion. The idea of being trapped on an airplane with someone about to succumb to the curse is sound – hell, that’s a movie in itself right there. This is messed up and rushed and filled with inexplicable moments – why do all the screens change, why does the plane crash etc? The idea of a group, almost cult set up surrounding the video – who both apparently worship and fear the video, while simultaneously creating a system for viewing and sharing the video to keep each other alive while not spreading the loop too wide – again a sound idea. This is abandoned fairly early and doesn’t get a lot of discussion – it’s basically a minor plot point irrelevant to everything else that comes afterwards. There may be other interesting ideas, but I can’t recall given that my mind is clouded by the other crap.

So the plot is that a guy is leaving his gal to go off to college. They’re very luvvy-duvvy. After a while the guy doesn’t return her calls so the gal goes looking for him. For some reason she has dreams which seems to involve Samara, before she knows anything about it. After some amateur sleuthing she realizes that people seem to be covering up her bloke’s recent whereabouts and there is a lot of talk about watching a video. The girl goes to a house with another girl who promises to find the guy if she watches ‘The Video’. The guys calls just in time to tell her not to watch so she hides and the other girl is killed. Soon we hear all about it, the girl watches the video anyway to save her man, then they both go to investigate the history of the video, which for some reason has decided to display new images.

So, we get a lot of unnecessary additional back story which doesn’t tell us anything new, and some sort of unexplained convoluted reasoning to explain how Samara wants to break free from the binds of the videotape, using the girl. How could she have foreknowledge of the girl? Did she smell her through the bathroom door and thought she was some sort of key? Why? What is special about this girl? It seems pretty obvious that one of the first things any viewer of the videotape in the last 10 years would do is upload it and send to their friends, yet that seems to be the big scheme and shock ending after all. Why? Why find the body, why find the man who got the mother pregnant, why anything? It’s just completely absurd.

Why make it another teen movie too? Ringu was powerful because it was about a mother, her son, her ex partner. There were kids in it too, but they were peripheral. I have no problem with teens being the focus, except when it is only there as a cynical cash grab. And yet with all this, I didn’t hate the movie. Maybe it’s because when I watched it I was dying with some stinking cold and was possibly hallucinating a better movie as I watched, or maybe I’m too lenient on movies, crap as they may be. Aside from Samara, it looked decent enough – standard bland stuff, and the performances were fine – nothing memorable, nothing bad. In the end it’s an entirely pointless exercise with zero scares, and a nonsensical story. I still say someone could make another good Ring movie, but I think it’s time we let it die.

Hellions

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I clicked on this one after meandering through my newly added Amazon horror movies for a while. I hadn’t heard of it, and I wasn’t aware of the talent involved being the camera. In all honesty it was a case of ‘the cover looks cool, the idea sounds okay without being too taxing, and Robert Patrick is in it’. It wasn’t until after watching that I realised it was directed by Bruce McDonald, whose Pontypool I had thoroughly enjoyed. There is a clear visual style at work in Hellions, a style which ensures that you will likely only remember this film for its look and presentation rather than its plot, cast, or what it is trying to say.

Fun fact – I wrote the above intro several months after watching the movie – and I am writing the rest of the review at least 6 months after writing the intro. Surprise surprise, I don’t really remember many details of the plot but I can remember clearly certain moments and how they looked. It’s weird being right. After reminding myself on IMDB of what the plot is – Hellions follows an annoyingly ‘don’t give a fuck’ teenage girl called Dora who has found out that she is inexplicably pregnant on Halloween night. As she waits at home for her boyfriend to visit she is harangued by children in creepy costumes who become increasingly insistent and violent and soon reality and fantasy bleed into each other until no-one has any idea what is going on.

Normally I would love this sort of film – I certainly appreciate the experimental style and the drive to create something unique, but it never comes across as scary or innovative or interesting. It’s essentially a home invasion movie on acid, but everything feels pretentious and the deliberate incoherence is too distracting. Every experiment needs a point, otherwise you’re just blindly pouring chemicals into a bowl and wondering why no-one cares. Is the point to show through image and noise how terrifying it can be to be pregnant at a young age? If so, why not have a more sympathetic lead? Is it all a dream? Is there any point? I’ll leave it up to you but it’s a difficult one to recommend – if you like trying to unravel visual puzzles or films which abandon plot for non-linear storytelling and visual flair then give it a shot. I don’t think your typical horror fan will get much out of this.

Have you seen Hellions? Did you enjoy it more than I did? Let us know in the comments!