Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Trick or Treat (1986)

Title: Trick or Treat (1986)

Director: Charles Martin Smith

Cast: Marc Price, Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne

During the 80’s heavy metal was king, and so, a series of heavy metal horror movies emerged. This small group of films are beloved by horror fans and heavy metal fans alike. Basically, if you loved bands like Anthrax, Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Twisted Sister and loved hearing your stereo system loud enough for your ears to bleed, if you loved those deep bass lines, wearing jean jackets, torn jeans, headbands, band t-shirts, spiked belts and wrist bands, leather pants, and took your cassette player and headphones everywhere you went, chances are you were a heavy metal geek and you probably loved movies like Trick or Treat (1986). The list of heavy metal horror films goes something like this: Rocktober Blood (1984), Hard Rock Zombies (1985), Rock and Roll Nightmare (1987), Black Roses (1988), and Shock ‘Em Dead (1991), which I think ended the whole shebang. But if you ask me, out of all these, the best one is the one I’ll be reviewing today, Trick or Treat, not to be confused with the quintessential Halloween movie with a similar title, Trick R’ Treat (2007).

On this film we meet Eddie Weinbauer, a heavy metal geek of the highest caliber. He worships his favorite heavy metal singer, a guy called Sammi Curr. Eddie is the kind of fan who writes letters to his favorite band, and addresses them like they were his best friends, nay, even brothers! You know, he’s  the kind of fan that takes the music just a little too seriously. Eddie gets laughed at by the bullies at school, gets ignored by the girls and essentially hates high school because of it; but listening to Sammy  Curr makes it all go away. Whenever Eddie listens to Sammy, well, then everything is alright. Unfortunately one day Sammy Curr dies, and its all gloom and doom for Eddie. Still, there’s one guy that gets Eddie’s pain and it’s the local hard rock dj, a guy called  ‘Nuke’, played by none other than KISS front man Gene Simmons, and what’s cooler than having Gene Simmons playing a dj in your heavy metal movie? Nothing, your movie is instantly cooler. So anyhow, Nuke gives Eddie the last unreleased recording made by Sammi Curr! Of course, Eddie quickly runs home to listen to it. Of course he plays the records backwards, because as you all know, there are satanic messages in all heavy metal records. Especially if you play them in reverse! So once Eddie does this, the spirit of Curr talks to him and tells him what to do! It’s not long before everyone who ever made fun or wronged Eddie in some way starts to pay the price.

Basically, what we got here is one of those “the worm turns” movies, where the geeky nerdy guy gets picked on by everyone in school, and then by some supernatural happenstance the hunted becomes the hunter. I’ve seen this formula played out many times in films like Evil Speak (1981), Hunk (1987) and 976-EVIL (1988). In these movies the nerdy guy goes in cahoots with Satan to get sweet revenge on all those who wronged him. This being a movie from the 80’s it makes all the sense in the world because this type of story was very common back then. In these movies the quintessential 80’s bullies always went too far with their pranks and jokes in order to torture the nerdy guy. Why is it that in all of these movies the bullies always act surprised when the people they pick on suddenly snap and strike back? Look at what happened in Columbine. Interesting how this seemingly cheesy, b-movie exemplifies this type of situation perfectly, and in that sense can help us understand the dangers of pushing someone just a little too far, suddenly this silly movie suddenly becomes relevant  in a strange way.  

I like how the film addresses that bullshit idea about ‘satanic’ messages in heavy metal records when you play them backwards. Sure, maybe bands did it, but the only did it to spike up their sales and create controversy, there was nothing satanic about it, they was just messing with people. It was all about the money. But films like Trick or Treat exploited that angle and made the fantasy a reality. It reminded me of The Gate (1987), which also had a similar premise. On that one two best friends open the gate to hell in their backyard by playing a heavy metal record backwards, amongst other things. They also used this idea in Amityville 2: The Possession (1982). On that one, a teenager gets possessed by demons while listening to heavy metal music and then proceeds to murder his whole family! So yeah, this idea was running rampant in the collective consciousness of people back then. Actually, religious zealots probably still believe in this.   

Of course Heavy Metal has always gotten a bad rap. Rock and Roll by nature is rebellious, what heavy metal did was take it to next level. It was angrier, sexier. It’s an amplified version of Rock and Roll, which is why it’s associated with rebellious behavior. The idea that listening to angry music will turn you into a killer is debated as much as the idea that watching violent horror movies will turn you into a violent person. This film explores these themes, but indirectly, I’m sure this is not what the filmmakers where purposely trying to talk about. Let's face it, parents have always been horrified at heavy metal, for example, there's  scene in which Eddie's mom takes a look at her sons heavy metal record collection and is horrified by the covers, then she accidentally sets off the stereo and starts hearing heavy metal. Her face says it all! It’s a hilarious scene, I thought “lady, it’s just music, take a chill pill” or lower the volume, but she instantly goes nuts and seems to forget how to turn down the volume. I think it's funny how heavy metal horrifies some people in the same way that horror movies do, some people just can’t take it. My advice is, you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!

Promotional material for Trick or Treat with Ozzy vs. Sammi Curr

In terms of effects, this film is just fun. I mean, I love the idea of Sammi Curr somehow materializing himself through the stereo system. The whole thing with the purple electricity that surrounds Sammi Curr was so old school, yet it made for cool visuals. On this one there’s lots of cheesy lightning effects and I just love those, they remind me this movie is from the 80’s. There’s this cool scene where green smoke oozes out of these head phones as some hot teenage chick is listening to heavy metal and the green smoke undresses her, then the mist turns into some cheesy ass monster puppet thing, I love that stuff! Another plus is there are lot’s of inside jokes for heavy metal fans, like for example Ozzy Osbourne playing a televangelist talking about “Rock Pornography”. Ha! Ozzy Osbourne playing a televangelist talking against heavy metal? Hilarious! Also, this movie is perfect for Halloween watching. Aside from the fact that it’s all about demonic things coming out of your speaker system, Eddie lives in a house with these two giant Halloween pumpkins on the front steps, he looks like he lives in Halloween Land. And so I highly recommend watching this one come Halloween night.  

Final words is that after watching this cheesy heavy metal movie for a while, I started to realize that this movie is actually kind of awesome. I mean, the idea that an evil heavy metal god comes back from the afterlife through your speaker system is just so rock and roll, so metal. Of course the protagonists name is Eddie…like Eddie Van Halen or that character from the Iron Maiden album covers? So, as you can see, there’s lots of heavy metal references everywhere. Finally, the ending was awesome, a heavy metal concert in a High School Halloween Party! Sweet! The kids all dig the heavy metal, but suddenly bam! It all turns against them and Curr starts blowing kids away with supernatural electricity coming out of his guitar? I thought it was strange how he lives for rock and roll but then blasts away his audience? That didn’t make much sense to me, but whatever, logic was never in the cards while watching this movie. This is definitely the best of all these heavy metal horror movies! Glad I finally got to watch it. Highly recommend it if you want to go back to the 80’s, heavy metal style! By the way, I didn't know this until I watched this movie, but toilette water is deadly for evil demonic heavy metal singers, thought you might want to know that. This movie is hilarious, had a blast with it.

Rating: 4  out of 5

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

Title: The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

Director: Dwight H. Little

Cast: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Bill Nighy

There’s a couple of cheesy versions of Phantom of the Opera out there, I’d say that the most incredibly outlandish version I’ve seen to date is Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera (1998), which had the titular Phantom raised by rats. In that one The Phantom also had these crazy surreal visions, which translated into some really crazy Ken Russell type visuals, you might want to check out that version of Phantom of the Opera, just for kicks. If you’re in the mood for seeing something out there, plus it’s a bit on the gory side. Another outlandish version would be Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which is this crazy rock and roll version of Phantom of the Opera that feels like Rocky Horror Picture Show’s long lost brother (or sister). That version of Phantom of the Opera I’ll be reviewing today was directed by one Dwight H. Little, the director behind such horror classics as Halloween 4: The Return of the Michael Myers (1988) and  Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995). This version of Phantom of the Opera is runner up for first place as the stupidest version of Phantom of the Opera ever made. This doesn’t mean it isn’t watchable, on the contrary, it’s highly watchable in its cheesiness and goriness.

This version starts out in modern times with a young would be soprano named Christine Day, trying to get her big break in a new play. She’s looking for an impressive piece to sing for her try out, so she goes to this old book store where she finds this ancient opera composed by a guy called Erik Destler. The opera? Something called “Don Juan Triumphant”. So anyways, she makes it to her audition and as soon as she starts singing it, a sand bag falls from the rafters of the theater, hits her on the head; this for some reason magically sends her back in time to 19th Century London, or is she just remember a past life? I don’t know, the filmmakers don’t make it very clear, but I’m going with the ‘it’s all happening in her head’ theory. Anyways, when she wakes up in 19th Century London she’s part of a theater group practicing for ‘Faust’. On this theater group, Christine is not the star of the show, she’s just the understudy, she wants to be a star, but she’s just an understudy. But wait, the mysterious Phantom of the Opera is in love with Christine and wants to make sure she ends up being the main attraction because her voice is “like the voice of an angel”. Who will the Phantom kill in order to assure Christine’s success?

What sets this version of The Phantom of the Opera apart from all others is that Robert Englund, a.k.a. Freddy Krueger, plays the Phantom, and he does a good job at it too. In this version the Phantom doesn’t just wear a regular mask on his face; he uses human flesh (which he sews onto his own face) as his mask! Another distinctive feature of this version of Phantom of the Opera is that it’s gory. Argento’s Phantom of the Opera is the goriest, but this one is a close second. Why is this version so gory? Well, it was made in 1989, when gory, make up effects filled horror movies where the norm. Wait, scratch that, gory horror movies were making huge loads of cash in theaters is what I meant to say. Freddy Krueger was a house hold name, so where Jason Voorhees, Pinhead and Michael Myers. I’m guessing that Robert Englund made this film to try and get away from playing Freddy Krueger, unfortunately, the producers had other plans. What they really wanted to do was exploit the fact that Englund was known for playing Freddy. This is evident in the makeup effects work for The Phantom, which looks exactly like Freddy’s burned face.   The promotional work for this film also makes it abundantly obvious; they wanted to make people think this was another Nightmare on Elm Street film.

Certain elements will remind you of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, for example how the entire film is supposed to be a dream? Like the fact that the main character is a boogy man of sorts killing people in morbid ways while cackling away? So yeah, expect some similarities with the Nightmare on Elm Street films, they are no coincidence, in fact, I’d say they were entirely intentional. This does not surprise me when we take in consideration that the film was produced by Menahem Golan, an exploitative producer if there ever was any. He’s part of the team who made all those Missing in Action movies back in the eighties, which were made to exploit the popularity of First Blood (1982) and Rambo II (1985). The same exploitative logic applies with this version of Phantom of the Opera; it wasn’t made because Phantom of the Opera adaptations were particularly ‘hot’ during 1989, it was made because Nightmare on Elm Street movies were making millions and the producers wanted to make their own cheesy version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which they did in the form of this movie.

Like most Cannon Films, the ideas and situations on this version of Phantom of the Opera are so ludicrous that they end up being funny. For example on this version of Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom actually sells his soul to the devil so he could become famous; the twist comes when the devil gives him his fame, but burns his face as well. Oh and the ludicrous angle? The devil is a midget? Okay, not enough craziness? How about having The Phantom have intercourse with a whore to release his sexual frustrations with Christine? And that’s without counting all the gory deaths, of which there are many. Actually, this movie was so gory that the MPAA had the producers edit a huge chunk of the film down, so there’s tons of gore actually missing from this one! In the end, what we ended up with is an entertaining, cheesy, gory movie, that will horrify Phantom of the Opera purists and entertain the horror fans, cause its freaking Freddy playing The Phantom. I thought it was funny that at one point The Phantom is wearing a suit that has the exact same colors from Freddy Krueger’s famous black and red sweater; a nudge to the Nightmare on Elm Street films? Sure it was! Then Christine wakes up and it was all in her head and yet again, it feels like a Freddy film.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Body Snatchers (1993)

Body Snatchers (1993)

Director: Abel Ferrara

Cast: Meg Tilly, R. Lee Ernie, Forest Whitaker, Gabrielle Anwar, Christine Elise, Terry Kinney, Reilly Murphy, Billy Wirth

One thing I find interesting about these Body Snatcher movies is that they are not clones of each other, they are all different somehow, which kind of goes in line with the main characters in these films who are always fighting to retain what makes them different, what makes the unique. Yeah, sure all four films are about the fear of losing our individuality, but at the same time they all have little things that make them just a little different. For example, while in Phillip Kaufman’s Invasion of the BodySnatchers (1978) we follow a Health Department official as he uncovers the horrors of the invasion, on this one we follow a teenage girl who’s moving to a military base with her family, because her dad is going to investigate a chemical spill.

The fact that this film takes place in an American military base is what sets this version apart from all others because for example, the 1956 version served as an allegory for America’s fear of communism, essentially making it a film about how we needed to fear the Russians because they were going to turn us all into communist. But on this ‘93 version, it’s the American military who are the bad guys; I thought it was interesting how the filmmakers switched things around like that. I guess they figured that times had changed and that fear of communism was no longer a relevant theme. They did a similar thing in the ’78 version which eliminated the political allegories all together. That one was just about the fear of losing our humanity, which is probably why I like it so much, it just concentrates on pure fear, pure paranoia and because of that, it’s a very effective horror film.  

Abel Ferrara is the director behind this remake, and well, Mr. Ferrara isn’t exactly known for making commercial horror sci-fi hybrids. In fact, Abel Ferrara is better known for making ultra realistic films about corrupt cops and mafia warlords. I speak of course of films like the amazing double whammy: The Bad Lieutenant (1992) and King of New York (1990), two films I highly recommend you guys watch, you won’t soon forget them.  To some, it might seem strange to see Ferrara directing a science fiction/horror film, but we can’t forget that, Ferrara’s career actually started with a no-budget, ultra gritty slasher film  known as The Driller Killer (1979); a film about an artist who is so poor and flat out frustrated with his life, that he starts killing people with his power drill! So anyhow, it’s cool seeing Ferrara returning to his horror roots. Does he succeed?

I’d say he did because the film has some genuinely chilling moments, it’s not a perfect film, but it’s not a disaster. What I enjoy about these Body Snatchers films is that they are all about people being chastised for being different, for thinking differently and so there’s this scene where a little kid is in school painting a picture with all his little student friends, problem is that when the teacher asks everyone to show what they’ve drawn, all drawings are the same, except for the one done by the little human kid. There’s another scene where someone who’s been turned into an alien tells her husband “Where are you going to run? Where are you going to hide? There’s no one like you left” A chilling scene delivered with great gusto. The one problem is that the film takes a while to really take off. Before the aliens start showing up, there’s a lot of exposition and unfortunately not a whole lot of tension. Which is something I really liked about the 1978 version, there’s this feeling of unease from the very first moments. On this one, I think they needed to augment the paranoia earlier on, in my opinion they waited too long to turn up the heat. Actually, I really didn't get that feeling of paranoia I got from the ’78 version, this one is just “let’s run from the monsters” type of film.

Another downside to this film is the banality of the main characters, who we don’t really get to know. In Phillip Kaufman’s ’78 version of Body Snatchers you get to know the main characters because you spend some time with them. There’s this scene where we see Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams having dinner together, being silly, we get to see their human side. In fact, it’s one of the things I remember the most about that ’78 version, the special effort that was made to make the human characters really human. Not so much on this one because we’re never really given a chance to connect with them, we’re supposed to be scared that they will turned into alien drones, but how can we when we don’t get to see their human side in the first place? In Body Snatchers, what freaks us out are the aliens, but we don’t really fear for the protagonists. Some performances do stand out though, Meg Tilly does an amazing job with some of her scenes, in fact, she has the most chilling scene in the whole film. Forest Whitaker has some intense scene as well, unfortunately the rest of the cast weren’t compelling enough. This is especially the case with Gabrielle Anwar, the actress playing the teenager, she needed to be developed and portrayed much better; more so when we take in consideration that she is carrying the entire film on her shoulders.    

So what we have here is a good, but not excellent remake. Thankfully, the good outweigh the bad. For example, when Ferrara’s Body Snatchers finally takes off, and the aliens start shrieking and pointing at the humans, things get intense and freaky. I have to admit when the first alien shrieked it got to me. The last half of the film is solid in my book, the ending is kind of overtly simple and abrupt. It’s explosive, but rushed.  I was not aware of it, but Stuart Gordon the director behind Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) partially wrote the script, so it’s cool having a great horror director doing scripting duties, it’s also great to have a distinguished director like Ferrara behind the cameras. I only wish they’d  made more of an effort to make the humans more human, as it is, the human characters on this film feel like they’ve been cloned before the aliens even laid a single tentacle on them. 

Rating: 3 out of 5

Friday, October 17, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Director: Phillip Kaufman

Cast: Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams, Veronica Carthwright, Leonard Nimoy

There have been three remakes of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The first one was this Phillip Kaufman version I’ll be reviewing today, then there’s Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993) which I will be reviewing soon, then there’s The Invasion (2007) which strangely enough was as devoid of emotion as the aliens it was depicting, don’t even bother with that one. But I decided to revisit this 1978 version because I had not seen it since I was a child and wanted to see what I could get out of it now as an adult because my original reaction to it as a kid was one of pure fright. The idea that these aliens were trying to turn us into something we are not frightened me immensely, my reaction was a visceral one; I hated these aliens with no personality and emotions. But back then I was simply a scared little kid, frightened by these notions, my reaction was based on fear, I didn’t really see the themes behind the film, or what the filmmakers where really trying to say, to me it was just a freaky movie. Upon my re-watch I discovered that this film is still freaky, still highly effective as a horror/sci-fi hybrid, and filled with socially relevant issues. How did the film fare this time around, from an adult perspective?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is all about these alien spores that make it to our planet by traveling through space. I loved how the director decided to film the opening sequences by using footage of micro organisms (I have no idea what they really were) and made it look like they were the alien organisms infiltrating our planet. So anyways, these alien organisms arrive to our planet and attach themselves to plants which grow into these giant pods from which half formed humanoid beings pop out of. They wait until you are asleep and then try to duplicate you. After they do, your body decomposes and turns to dust, and then the duplicate takes over. The duplicate looks like you in every way save for one significant difference; you are now a being devoid of emotion! The main characters in the film realize this is happening and attempt to runaway in order to retain their humanity. But how far can they run before the pod people catch them?  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the first film to bring Jack Finney’s book to life was made during the 50’s, when Russians enemies to the Americans, so if we look at it within that context, the aliens probably represented communism, which believe it or not was actually spreading itself rather quickly throughout the united states. During those years, there was such a thing as a ‘communist party’ in America. Communists numbered in the many thousands and where growing strong! The workers unions all got together to fight for their rights, and many of these workers were foreigners with communism as their way of life. So of course Americans were trembling in their pants, capitalism as a way of life was in peril! So it’s safe to say that we can see the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an allegory for that, a metaphor for the ever spreading ‘menace’  of communism, which threatened the American way of life. Was this 1978 version addressing these same fears? Or was it about something else?

Well yes, this time around, instead of aiming its guns at communism, this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is all about “losing our humanity”, a theme that is emphasized all throughout the film. The main characters are fighting for their right to retain their memories, the right to feel, the right to retain what makes them human. This theme brought to mind George Orwell’s 1984, which is a novel about a totalitarian government that prohibits all forms of emotions. Everyone dresses the same; no one is more special than the other. In this novel everyone is loyal to the all powerful, ever watching government. If you go against them, someone will rat on you. And when this happens, you will end up paying for your betrayal to the all knowing ‘Big Brother’. Individuality is not encouraged in Orwell’s novel. But the main characters always fight for it, even if it means death. Well, this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not all that different from Orwell’s novel. The aliens want you to be like them, or else. They are a race of beings who don’t show any emotion at all, if you show emotion the point at you and give this other worldly scream in order to alert all other aliens that you are not one of them. So this of course creates an intense feeling of paranoia amongst the humans who live in constant fear of getting caught. The paranoia is extremely palpable in this movie; it’s one of those movies where the whole town is in on something, something that you don’t want to be a part of. I drew similarities with Invaders from Mars, a film that plays with similar themes. 

Because this film was made in the 70’s, everything feels more real somehow. There’s no color filters, no computer effects, this is a film that comes from an era when they actually shot movies with film and a camera and real actors instead of CGI doubles and color correction. I love how the effects are entirely practical, so visceral, palpable. There's even some gore in there! This film feels gritty and realistic; something I wish modern films would go back to. Even the actors are adult, which is something you don’t see a lot of these days either, nowadays most films only use young people. Yet during the tail end of the 70’s films were way more adult oriented. The actors seen in most films were adults, not teens, not twenty- somethings. Speaking of actors, this film has an awesome cast! Donald Sutherland,  Jeff Goldblum,  Brooke Adams and Veronica Cartwright all do a splendid job of displaying fear. Even Leonard Nimoy is hear playing a psychologist! By the way, be on the lookout for cameos by Robert Duvall as a creepy looking priest, director Phillip Kaufman and even Kevin McCarthy, the main actor from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)!

So yeah, closing statements on this film is that it’s solid, still creepy and filled with copious amounts of paranoia! It is also considered one of the best remakes ever, some even think that it’s better than the original because it takes the concepts presented on the original and improves them and even takes them to places that the first film never went, which is always a sign of a good remake. The worst thing you can get is a remake that plays out exactly the same way the original did. So I guess this one can be placed in the same pantheon of awesome remakes as The Fly (1986), The Thing (1982) and Night of the Living Dead (1990). Be on the lookout for subtle hints of paranoia throughout the film. I mean, right from the very beginning, little things happen that let you know something is not quite right with people. The creepiest thing about this film for me is how fast the aliens spread, how effectively they organize themselves and spread their pods, you get this feeling that the aliens are overpowering, that they are in fact an unstoppable force which we cannot deal with and simply have to give into. A frightening idea indeed!

Rating: 5 out of 5

A dog with a human head, I never did understand why it appears on the film. Be my guest and try and explain it! Still an effectively freaky visual dont you think?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dracula Untold (2014)

Dracula Untold (2014)

Director: Gary Shore

Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson

Of course I gave this one a chance, it’s Dracula and I love Dracula movies. True, Dracula movies can be a bit repetitive, because filmmakers always decide to retell the story, so it’s always some sort of variation on Bram Stokers novel, but I love to see these different takes on the story. I enjoy seeing how different creative teams give their own twist to the story, tell it in their own way. Unfortunately, I’d never heard of the guys behind this particular film. Gary Shore, the director, had never made a full length feature film before this one, yet here he is directing this big budget version of Dracula. That of course, immediately raised a red flag for me, because while I’m all for upcoming new directors making films, I prefer it when they've proven themselves via some independent film they've made before tackling a 70 million dollar film like this one. When a new director pops out of the blue like that, well, I don’t know what to expect, but as always, I have no problems in giving them the benefit of the doubt. Well, at least the director behind this film shows his influenced by the right movie; one or two visual references are made to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Same goes for the writers who’d never written a film before this one. So that’s a couple of red flags right there. But the trailer made it look like it had one or two new ideas squeezed in there worth watching. So I gave it a shot. Plus, it was Dracula.

And it’s not just me that has a thing for Dracula films. Like James Bond or Godzilla, Dracula is an icon, a household name that brings the masses to the theater. I mean, it had been a while since I’d seen a line form at my local theater. It’s only household names like Star Wars and Indiana Jones that do this. And so, there I was, making this huge ass line to go see this new version of Dracula, hoping it wouldn't disappoint me. Did it? Well, sorry to say my dear readers that it did disappoint me. Why you may ask? Well, for starters, to me Dracula is something special, a story meant to be treated with care by filmmakers. It’s an ancient tale that has been passed on from generation to generation. Like the titular character in Bram Stokers novel, Dracula movies never seem to die. So of course I hate it when studios don’t treat the story with the proper care. And it sucks even more that Universal Studios has done this because they are the ones known for their famous ‘Universal Monsters’ movies. I speak of course of the classics like Dracula (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), The Mummy (1959) and so forth. If there’s a studio that should have been concerned with making a proper Dracula movie, it was this one. Unfortunately, they've changed Dracula to fit the current common Hollywood practice of softening up horror films. Ugh. I hate this new trend in Hollywood. Why does it anger me so? Well, for starters, we’re talking about one of the famous ‘Universal Monsters’ here; key work being ‘monster’. And here’s the first thing I hated about this movie, this is a monster movie without a monster, not only visually, but also as a character.

I mean, I always saw monsters movies, and this is the way monster movies where for the longest time; as a way to showcase some awesome artistry in terms of makeup effects. Sadly, make up effects works seems to have disappeared from filmmaking. Remember those golden days, when the awesome make up effects work of Stan Winston, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker reigned supreme in cinemas?  Those days yielded such awesome creations as  the ones seen in films like Aliens (1979), The Thing (1982), Predator (1987), Jurassic Park (1993), The Terminator (1984), Legend (1986), Harry and the Hendersons (1987)….I mean, these were films in which make up effects work really shined. And monster films meant make up effects, once upon a time. I always looked forward to seeing how make up effects artist would try to wow me with their work. Sadly that’s all been replaced by CGI…and sadly, it does not have the same effect. It does not feel tangible…or real, not like the monsters we’d see in for example Coppola’s Dracula (1992) now there’s a film that displayed some amazing make up effects work! That was a monster movie! That was a sensual yet monstrous Dracula! While Dracula Untold throws a few homage’s down Coppola’s way, it clearly doesn’t even come close to being as awesome as Coppola’s film. It needed that extra oomph, that extra emotion, that intensity that Coppola’s film had. It seems that Hollywood simply doesn't want to give us truly monstrous creatures, but more on this softening of the horror movie later. 

The thing about Dracula is that the story is a passionate love story; Dracula is always sexual, passionate. He loves Mina, but he is also a monster. Dracula has always been a character with a dual personality, one that displays incredible amounts of passion and love, but one that also displays a horrifying, monstrous side; his vampire side, the side that feeds on human blood. So of course I was let down when I discovered in horror that in this version of Dracula, he has been turned into a family man, complete with scenes of him being all lovable and father like, which was something that was never part of the Dracula story. So that was step 2 of softening up Dracula, making him a dad. See a pattern here? First he isn’t monstrous or demonic or even evil looking, and second they turn him into a dad. Third he wants to save his people. Fourth? The screenwriters found a way to make him actually not want to drink blood for most of the movie! So here we can see how they’ve turned Dracula from anti-hero to outright hero, period. This goes completely against what Dracula is all about. Dracula is supposed to be the bad guy, the one that scares you and gives you the willies. Not the savior of his people, not the loving father. And certainly NOT the guy who goes to church to pray to god for help! For Christ sake, Dracula sells his soul to the devil, how can you have a scene of him going to church to pray to god for guidance, when he is a vampire, and vampires have an aversion to crosses and all things religious?

What the hell Hollywood? So my question is this, why is Hollywood so hell bent on softening up horror movies and icons? Suddenly vampires sparkle in the daytime, zombies are falling in love and turning human and Frankenstein isn’t even monstrous looking? Of course I talk of Twilight (2008), Warm Bodies (2013) and I Frankenstein (2014), and I’m sure there’s a couple more I’m leaving out. Nowadays if a movie is ultra gory it is sent straight to dvd. I mean, had this been the eighties, all those gory Hatchet (2006) movies would have been theatrically released, but not in these ultra conservative days. Today, the only horror movies that are making it to the silver screen are those that propagate superstitious, supernatural, Christian based fears. I speak of course of films like The Conjuring (2013), Insidious (2010), Anabelle (2014), Quija (2014), Paranormal Activity (20017) and the sort. If it’s a horror film that will get people believing demons are real, then it’s okay. But a purely evil horrifying monster that has nothing to do with Christian fears, nope, those are not being made anymore. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a slasher in movie theaters? I rest my case. Even excellent slasher films like Maniac (2012) get the theatrical shaft. And hey, I’m all for a good ghost/demon movie, but damn it, when that’s all that’s being made, you kind of feel like they’re pushing these concepts upon you. Cause, I see these ghost/demon movies as fun horror movies, but I can assure you there’s a myriad other people who think things like the ones depicted in these kind of horror films can happen to them for real and these movies only serve to augment those fears.

Films are a powerful means of spreading ideas out into the world, sure they are a great form of entertainment, but they also function as a way of spreading ideas quickly and effectively and currently, Hollywood wants the masses to stay Christian. Which is why we get Dracula praying to God on this movie, it's why he's displayed as the hero, as the goody little two shoes. This is why we get Superman going to church to ask a priest for counseling in Man of Steel (2013), this is why we’re getting Christian horror movies like The Remaining (2014) and this is why we’re getting this avalanche of Christian films like Left Behind (2014) (shame on you Nicholas Cage!) God is Not Dead (2013) and Heaven is for Real (2014). I mean, even the titles behind these films say it all. Even big time directors are bowing down to this Christian craze, I’m talking about guys like Darren Aronofsky and his Noah (2014) and Ridley Scott with Exodus: God’s and Kings (2014). I’ll go see these movies because I see them as fairy tales, but come on, what the hell is going on in Hollywood? Is there some sort of hidden agenda from somewhere high on up to spread Christian beliefs and to soften up both action and horror movies? Cause if there is, it sucks! For years now it has been going on and now it’s hit its pinnacle with Dracula Untold. Not gonna say this movie is not without its cool moments and visuals, but I will say that this Dracula isn't scary; we've lost the horror movie, the horror movie where that main character is the one that gives you the hibbie jibbies, where that main monster scares your pants off. Where is it? I miss it. I miss the good old days when horror movies where actually scary.  

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Boxtrolls (2014)

The Box Trolls (2014)

Directors: Graham Anabelle, Anthony Stacchi

Voice Actors: Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Tracy Morgan, Elle Fanning, Toni Collette, Simon Pegg, Isaac Hempstead Wright

I've always enjoyed the films that the guys at Laika produce because they pride themselves in making children’s films that opposed to 95% of children’s films made these days, actually have something to say. They have a brain to them. They don’t make empty crap, they actually make films that have substance. Take for example Coraline (2009), a film about a little girl who is unhappy with her family life, so she escapes to an alternate universe with alternate versions of mommy and daddy. They appear to be better, but are they? I’m still finding new themes every time I watch Coraline. For a children’s film it’s extremely layered, it’s a film that both parents and children can enjoy. Same can be said for Paranorman (2012), a film about a little boy who is having a hard time adjusting to the fact that he is just a little bit different than the rest of the kids in town; he can talk to the dead! And so, here comes The Boxtrolls; does it deliver the depth in themes that we've come to expect from Laika films?

Of course it does! This production company’s mission is to enlighten young minds; and so this time around the film takes place in a fictional town called Cheesebridge, a town where everybody loves cheese. The townspeople believe in these creatures called The Boxtrolls and according to town legend these Boxtrolls are murderous creatures that come out at night to steal and eat your children. We soon learn that these creatures aren't evil at all; they simply live on other people’s garbage. Whatever humans throw away, the Boxtrolls can find a use for. The Boxtrolls have raised a human boy amongst them whom they call ‘Eggs’ because the box he wears is a box of eggs. When Eggs grows into a teenager, he wants to see the world above. Will he ever learn that he is a human and not a Boxtroll? Will he ever meet his real parents? On top of things, the rich and powerful elite are scheming to eradicate the Boxtrolls forever! Will they achieve their goal? Or will the Boxtroll’s fight for their right to exist? 

So yes, once again we get a deep, heavy themed movie from Laika. This time around they've decided to address class issues. You see, in this film the Boxtrolls represent the poor, the underclass, those struggling to survive in the world and 'The White Hats' are members of high society whose only worry in life is eating the finest cheese and wearing finest clothes, the concerns of the people don't really matter to them. These White Hats see The Boxtrolls as a menace, a plague that should be eliminated. Not so different from what goes on in the world today, where the rich and powerful see the masses as a hindrance, as ‘monsters’ so to speak, as people they don’t even want to associate themselves with. This is why in the film The Boxtrolls are seen as hideous, but only because this is a myth that is propagated amongst the people. In reality, The Boxtrolls are harmless, even lovable. They all live inside their little boxes, which they hide in as soon as they sense danger. The symbolisms are quite clear when we look at it. The poor live inside “the box”, they hide from society, looking for their own comfort. But we learn through the film that what they need to do is think outside the box and fight for their right to coexist in this world. In this sense the film is extremely similar to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the poor who live in the underworld and the rich who live above must find a way to understand each other. If I’m to draw comparison’s to other films, Little Monsters (1989), would be another one, in that one, the monsters also lived in some kind of underground alternate universe. Another similar one would be City of Ember (2008), which played with similar ideas.

And this is why I love Laika films. They address themes that kids should be exposed to and rarely are. I mean, I’m all for “believe in yourself” and “follow your dreams” (and there is some of that in this film) but there’s other themes that can be addressed to children, especially when we take in consideration the kind of complex world we live in, a world in which children deal with more diverse matters than the ones presented in what passes for children's films these days. This is why I always applaud children’s films that go a little further and don’t take our children for granted. Films like Wes Anderson’s Fantastic  Mr. Fox (2009) or Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are (2009), films that don’t treat children like idiots, which I think is something that modern society tends to do just a little too much. It is my opinion that children are very capable of grasping and learning concepts and ideas a whole lot faster than they are given credit for, so I’m all for children movies with brains,  especially ones that are as artful and as interesting to look at as the films that Laika is producing.

The cherry on the cake is the amazing stop motion animation which I just love to look at, to me stop motion animation, when done right, is eye candy. And trust me; these films are a true wonder! I still bow down to stop motion artist and I am glad this film making technique refuses to die. It works wonders in films of this kind, and I honestly hope that the folks at Laika never stop making their films, though I know these films are an endangered species. Still, I’m happy that every now and again a stop motion animated film pops up and I'm happy that they have not completely disappeared. To me the films that Laika is producing are as amazing as the films that Studio Ghibli produces, unique because not everybody is making them. Unique because they are old school and that makes them all the more special, true gems.

Rating:  5 out of 5   

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Maze Runner (2014)

 The Maze Runner (2014)

Director: Wes Ball

Cast:  Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Blake Cooper

The Maze Runner comes as a direct response to the success of The Hunger Games (2012) and its sequels. After The Hunger Games made huge bank at the box office, suddenly there’s been a rash of subversive films aimed at the teen audience. I’m talking about films like Divergent (2014) and The Host (2013), films where youth resist the status quo, films where the young want to stand up for themselves and change things. To tell you the truth, I’m not a huge fan of The Hunger Games, I don’t know what it is about that franchise, to me it isn’t as big of a deal as they make it out to be. I mean, I love Subversive Cinema, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna love everything that shows a bit of a rebellious streak to it. I mean, there is such a thing as subversive crap. So yeah, of course I rolled my eyes a little bit when I heard about The Maze Runner because honestly, it just seemed like more of the same, and in many ways, it is. But then I saw the trailer and the whole idea behind the maze grabbed me; cause I’m a sucker for movies about mazes, puzzles and labyrinths. So anyhow, was The Maze Runner subversive crap, or what is a decent film?

This film has a lot of similarities with an obscure science fiction flick from the 90’s called Cube (1997), in fact, it plays with essentially the same idea, but on a much bigger scale. Cube was the little engine that could, a completely independent film that became a cult success and spawned two sequels: Cube 2: Hypercube (2002) and Cube Zero (2004). All these Cube films played with the same premise; that of a group of strangers with their memories wiped out, who suddenly find themselves trapped inside of a mysterious cube that seems to change every now and again. Together they have to get past their differences in order to survive the deadly cube and escape to the outside world, if there in fact is one.  The Maze Runner uses that same exact premise, but in a giant moving labyrinth! The problem is that the kids trapped in the labyrinth don’t know why they are there; they don’t even know who they are. To top things off, they are afraid to venture out into the Labyrinth. What mysteries lie beyond their comfort zone?

So yeah, this movie was pressing all the right buttons for me cause I like movies that want to expose how crazy the world we live in is, I mean, society, it’s all kinds of messed up. We gotta live in this crazy world, and we gotta figure it out. Like a maze, that literally wants to kill us. In this sense I dug The Maze Runner, which is saying a lot because I went in ready to hate the hell out of it. Thankfully, it had some interesting themes to it. The movie is basically saying we’re all part of some sort of an experiment that the powers that be are conducting on us. That idea that the system is always watching us, that there is some ulterior motive behind their actions, that they are analyzing us and that we are oblivious to it, or choose to ignore it and conform. This is one of those movies where ‘they’ want to know what makes us tick, why we are who we are, so they can control us better. In this way, The Maze Runner also reminded me of Alex Proya’s Dark City (1998), a film that plays with similar themes. For example, in Dark City humanity is also part of an experiment and same as the labyrinth in The Maze Runner is always changing so does Dark City’s constantly changing city, hell, even the idea that the main character does not remember who he is was also used in Dark City. So we could easily say that The Maze Runner is a mix between Cube and Dark City, with a bit of The Hunger Games.  In other words, not terribly original.

What I did like was the maze itself which is this huge mechanical thing, constantly changing, usually trying to kill the young kids trying to solve it. Whenever the kids would run into the maze, the film turns infinitely more exciting. My only gripe with the film is these CGI monsters that the kids have to fight when they go into the maze. For me it’s snoresville whenever characters start to fight computer generated beasties, I don’t know, it just bores the hell out of me; to me all these creatures look the same, to me they are all in one big blur. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t solely focus on these creatures and the story moves on, digging deeper into the mystery behind the labyrinth. Ultimately, what I enjoyed the most about the film is how it mirrors life. We are born into this world not knowing anything, others guide us, teach us. Then comes a point where we take the reins of our own life and become masters of our own destinies, searching for that ever elusive truth; which is usually covered by an avalanche of lies. Only the ones curious enough dare to begin that search, dare to ask the questions.  

So in conclusion, The Maze Runner is an amalgamation of many films and books that came before it. I’ve already mentioned some of the films that influenced The Maze Runner, but I’d also add a little bit of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies into the mix of influences because same as Golding’s classic book, the film also speaks of mans natural tendency to fight each other, to form clans, to separate and of course, the resulting clashes that come from difference of opinions.  My last take on The Maze Runner is that it isn’t ground breaking cinema, but it will keep you entertained for a while. This is what Hollywood is churning out now, cause it's a theme that's hot and it's also a reflection of how we are feeling about society. On the negative side of things, you do get the feeling that they are not giving you a whole lot of information because they are looking to set up a sequel, so this first film feels like an introductory tale, where they aren’t really giving you the whole story, there’s a lot of exposition, a lot of introductions. You kind of feel like they are stretching things a bit, as if they want to save more of the story for future installments, so yeah, this is obviously another franchise wannabe. Will it succeed at the box office? Will it spawn more sequels? How The Maze Runner fares at the box office will decide that, I personally wouldn't mind seeing where the story will go from here on in.

Rating: 3 out of 5


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