Crazy Uncle Rich’s Cavalcade of Horrors!

Posted on November 13, 2013

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We had so many horror movies this year that we couldn’t fit them all into the month of October. This is our next installment, and our last one for 2013.

 What is Horror?

Horror is a genre that tries to provoke emotional reactions, generally negative ones, in its audience by playing on the audience’s primal fears. It can do so using suspense, atmosphere,   or abrupt events that startle the audience.

Supernatural events or characters are often metaphors for larger societal fears. Vampires are metaphors for our ignorance of what happens after death, as well as our fear of strangers. Werewolves are metaphors for the violence that we know to lurk beneath the surface of ourselves, and fear to lurk beneath the surface of our neighbors. Ghosts often represent our guilt over something in our pasts as individuals, or as communities.

From a storytelling perspective, it’s important to realize that horror stories often end in death. In other stories, the protagonist attempts to resolve the central conflict once, fails but learns something, makes a second attempt, fails but learns something, makes a third attempt, and triumphs specifically because of what he (or she) learned in the previous attempts.

In horror stories, that third attempt often reveals the ultimate futility of mere mortals attempting to stave off horror.

The two characters slowly freezing to death in the snow at the end of John Carpenter’s The Thing, neither sure if the other is the murderous alien monster, are prime examples of mortal futility.

Keep those things in mind.

Cronos (1993)

Now this is a good vampire movie. It’s also a good Guillermo Del Toro movie. It’s his directorial debut, and he already knew what he was doing.

Long ago, an alchemist came up with a device to provide eternal life. Centuries later, it falls into the hands of Jesus Gris, an antiques dealer. The device is hidden in a statue but Jesus stumbles upon it. The De la Guardia family has been hunting the device for decades and will do anything to get it. Jesus doesn’t want the device, but he does want to protect his family, even from himself.

This is absolutely one of the best vampire films of the last twenty years. I put it up there with Let the Right One In.

See this.

Versus: The Director’s Cut (2000)

In this Japanese movie, some gangsters break a man out of prison. They take him to the Forest of Resurrection, to meet the boss. Except the prisoner gets a little impatient, the gangsters get pushy, and a shoot-out happens. To everyone’s surprise, the forest lives up to its name. They can get hurt, but they can’t die. Turns out that the boss and the prisoner are tied up in a millennia-old battle to control a portal to another dimension.

I think this movie is a kick in the pants, in a good way, but don’t bother with the director’s cut. It’s too long.

Forest of Death (2007)

I have seen this movie twice, and that’s one too many times.

There actually is a forest in Japan that is known as a place where people go to commit suicide, but this movie is set in Thailand and the cast and crew are Chinese.

A reporter (the gorgeous Qi Shu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is sensationalizing the supernatural stories about the forest. Her boyfriend (the also gorgeous Ekin Cheng, who I’ve seen in tons of things you’ve probably never heard of) is working on a way for plants to communicate with people. Meanwhile, a detective is investigating a rape/murder case and thinks that the plants could be witnesses and provide information.

If that gobbledygook sounds like your kind of movie, give this a shot. Once.

Timecrimes (2007)

This French movie is more science-fiction than horror, and deals with immutable fate.

A man sees someone whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages lurking in the woods outside his house. When he gets chased by the man, he hides in a nearby building and accidentally travels back in time. The rest of the movie is about him trying to restore order and get back to his wife.

This movie is on a lot of lists of films you haven’t seen. I thought it was worth a rental, but the characters are often slow in understanding what is happening and unsympathetic.

You could do worse, but I don’t recommend trying.

Animals (2008)

This movie wants to be a sexy werewolf movie, but mostly it’s unintentionally funny.

Jarrett (Marc Blucas, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is out of work and fallen on hard times. He meets Jane (Eva Amurri Martino, Californication) in a bar. She is running from Vic (Naveen Andrews, Lost). She and Jarrett hit it off, and there’s nudity, sex in the rain, and murders.

We watched this because we keep hoping that Marc Blucas will catch a break. He’s a good-looking guy and a good actor, but this movie ain’t it. Don’t watch it.

The Horde (2009)

A group of cops go into a tenement building, looking to get some revenge against gangsters who murdered an undercover officer. Then zombies attack.

This movie could have been awesome. It could have had parkour from District B-13, martial arts, gun play ala Equilibrium, imagery inspired by Moebius, and cinematography inspired by Luc Besson.

Instead we get another movie of interchangeable characters and cliched scenes. This movie definitely needed more metaphor. It needed to be about, for example, France’s issues with immigration, or something.

Don’t watch it.

Solomon Kane (2009)

I had to wait so long to see this movie that I actually broke down and read the novelization.

Solomon Kane is a character created by Robert E Howard. A Puritan with a violent past, Kane now roams the world fighting evil wherever he finds it. Ramsey Campbell wrote a heck of a novel, but he’s no Robert E Howard.

I was pleased to see that director (and co-writer) Michael J Bassett tried to make this a horror movie. It was a good attempt, but it missed the point of Robert E Howard’s style of horror. Howard wrote of creatures barely seen, places that made the hero’s skin crawl, unnatural things that raised hairs on your neck and inspired feelings of revulsion. Howard, like Lovecraft, appreciated that the unknown is terrifying.

Once you can see something, you’re in an action movie and the suspense and atmosphere are gone. You’re no longer evoking primal emotions (except in rare cases, for example Pennywise the Clown is creepy throughout It, even though we start seeing him fairly early on).

Also, both Ramsey Campbell and Michael J Bassett need to review their action sequences. Several seem to be there just for storytelling beats in some formula. They do not advance the plot or the characters.

Now, that said, it was a terrific supernatural action movie. Just don’t expect authentic Robert E Howard.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

Oh, God, even trying to write about this makes me want to laugh.

Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) signed a contract with the devil. He sold his soul to be the devil’s bounty hunter, in exchange for the devil curing his father’s cancer. Dad died in a motorcycle accident anyway, and Johnny was the Ghost Rider.

In this movie, Blaze has been hiding out in Eastern Europe, trying to suppress the Rider. Then a monk named Moreau (Idris Elba) shows up and begs his help. A woman named Nadya (Violante Placido) sold her soul to the devil and in return gave birth to Danny (Fergus Riordan) who on his thirteenth birthday will become a vessel for the devil, who is masquerading as Roarke (Ciaran Hinds). Apparently in our world, in human form, the devil is weak and needs a new body.

So, what does this movie get wrong? Well, apparently it hates the first movie so much that it re-filmed Blaze’s origin, and then used that footage multiple times. Maybe if they used the original footage they would have had to pay Peter Fonda again, I don’t know.

It abandons the old Rider, played by the great Sam Elliott. It abandons Johnny’s love interest, Roxanne (Eva Mendes). It abandons his buddy and stunt show producer, Mack (Donal Logue).

It never gives us a reason to care about anybody. It fails to follow the rule of escalating consequences. It just fails.

On the other hand, Johnny Wentworth makes a great villain and the visuals of the Rider taking over any vehicle he rides was cool.

Some people have defended this movie as being more cerebral and moody, in keeping with its labeling as a Marvel Knights property. That’s bullshit. The movie fails important points of storytelling, and all the cool visuals in the world can’t make up for that.

No offense to Mr. Cage, but skip this one.

Juan of the Dead (2011)

Juan is a man living in Cuba. His wife is in Spain. His daughter has come home from visiting with his wife, and tells him she is leaving for America. Juan despises America. He truly believes in the Cuban Revolution, even as he and his cronies subvert it with their criminal activities.

Then zombies come, and Juan figures out he can make some money by clearing out the infected for the survivors. Until only he, his daughter, and his friends are left.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I like watching movies from other countries because they give me a chance to see my country through other eyes. They let me experience ideas from another point of view. Juan of the Dead is a great example of that.

This is movie was filmed in Cuba, with the advantage of locations we haven’t seen a million times (I’m looking at you, Vasquez Rocks). It also has the advantage of a limited budget and limited resources. This forced the director to come up with creative visuals and filming techniques, and that pays off. The combination of love of country with wary disrespect of government felt very familiar, and I really enjoyed how much the love for Cuba showed throughout the movie.

This movie moves quickly and is entertaining all the way through. If you only see two zombie movies this year, see Juan of the Dead and Warm Bodies (see below).

Branded (2012)

This is a clear case of marketing being too clever and thus misleading. Which is funny, considering the content of the movie.

When Misha (Ed Stoppard) is a little boy, he gets struck by lightning. As an adult, he works in marketing. Sort of. Early in his career, he was recruited by Bob (Jeffrey Tambor) to act as a spy for the United States. Misha meets Bob’s niece Abby (Leelee Sobieski), they fall in love, and a project they work on ends in tragedy. Misha gains the ability to see branding/marketing as parasitic monsters, and learns how to use real world actions to turn the monsters against each other, making him an incredibly successful marketer, until public backlash makes all marketing a crime.

The marketing makes this seem like an alien invasion movie. It is not. It is a parable about how marketing lies to us and manipulates us every waking moment. As a parable, it’s too long and rambling. As a sci-fi movie, it’s too clear-cut that the monsters are only in Misha’s head.

Miss this one.

Dark Shadows (2012)

Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) gets turned into a vampire by a jealous witch (Eva Green). The good people of Collinsport bury Barnabas, and new road development digs him up in the 1970s.

When he is free again, and well-fed on the road workers who dug him up, Barnabas returns home, where he finds the family fortunes in decline and the few surviving members of the family still in residence. He immediately introduces himself and sets about restoring the family – which brings him to the attention of the vengeful witch.

This is a Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp, right? So you don’t expect real vampire horror. Unfortunately, Burton gives up metaphor for literal storytelling, and Depp is not so much a character as a mass of twitchy mannerisms. Frankly, I wish Burton and Depp would both go into therapy and deal with their daddy issues and stop making movies about them.

The movie spends too much time explaining the back-story and history, and too much time on campy jokes, both at the expense of character and story.

The movie looks great and the cast is terrific. If you are in the mood for mindless, campy, fun, knock yourself out.

The Raven (2012)

John Cusack plays Edgar Allan Poe. Really? Do I need to say more to get you to watch this? Okay, then let me add the supporting cast includes Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, and Luke Evans.

Poe has returned to Baltimore to court the lovely Emily Hamilton. Professionally, his life is not going well. People want him to stop writing reviews of other writers and get back to writing his thrilling and macabre tales. Then someone starts killing people in ways described in Poe’s books. A police detective (Evans) turns to Poe for help, and the chase is on.

This movie counts as horror only because of the background material from Poe’s work. Otherwise, it’s a serial killer chase in nineteenth-century Baltimore. Also, Poe dies at the end. I actually didn’t mind the historical liberties taken, as I think highly of Poe as a writer and the movie gives him a more heroic death than being found in a gutter.

I liked this. I like Cusack’s interpretation of Poe, and I think the story was well-told. Definitely worth a rental.

The Woman in Black (2012)

This Gothic ghost story stars Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe, and Ciaran Hinds. Radcliffe plays a widower who is sent by his employer to a remote estate. The estate’s owner died and her papers and affairs need to be put in order. The locals are shocked that anyone would want to go to the house, and gradually a mystery unfolds.

I really like the kind of ghost story where the cast has to figure out not only that there is a ghost, but what the ghost wants and how to meet its demands.

I enjoyed this movie all the way through, but I thought the jump scares were telegraphed a bit too much and a bit too often. That said, it’s awesome that Hammer Productions is back in the horror business, and I do recommend this movie.

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

Oh, I really wanted to like this movie.

A squad of Soviet soldiers is trying to find another Soviet unit that disappeared behind Nazi lines late in WWII. They stumble into an abandoned mine, where a groundskeeper leads them into an ambush by horrible monsters.

And, oh boy, they are really horrible. As in they can’t see, they wave their arms around without accomplishing anything, and are generally obvious and impractical. The only thing they have going for them is that they are really hard to kill. It baffled me how they snuck up on anybody, or how they managed to kill anyone.

Frankenstein doesn’t care. He’s the grandson of the original, and he’s proving to his family that you can make idealized factory workers from dead flesh and machinery.

So, yeah, great concept. Great web trailers selling the idea. Not so great execution.

Warm Bodies (2013)

R is a teenage zombie (Nicholas Hoult), who lives in an airport with other zombies after the zompocalypse. In addition to the zombies, there are bonies. Bonies are zombies that gave up all hope. They eat anything with a heartbeat.

The surviving humans are led by Grigio (John Malkovich). His daughter, Julie (Teresa Palmer) goes into the city looking for supplies with her boyfriend Perry (Dave Franco) and a scavenging party. They run into R and a band of zombies looking for food. R kills Perry, and then he sees Julie and instantly falls in love. He saves her from being eaten, hides her in the airport, and tries to communicate with her.

Together, they start a revolution. The zombies start to remember their previous lives, and start to feel. And then their hearts start beating again, and the trouble really starts.

This is a fantastic movie, with one flaw: The book probably went further into this, but the film leaves a question hanging: How much of R’s emotions are real, and how much are left over from eating Perry’s brain?

I grant you that the marketing for this movie showed you most of the big scenes (not all), but somehow it managed to hold back a lot of the story. It did not show how much this movie is about hope, and the power of connecting with each other on an emotional level. It’s about loyalty, friendship, and intimacy. It is a great example of using horror tropes as metaphors to express bigger ideas.

See this one.

Conclusion

Of the movies that we watched for Halloween season 2013, here are the ones you should watch:

  1. The Monster Squad (1987)
  2. Warm Bodies (2013)
  3. Juan of the Dead (2011)
  4. John Dies at the End (2012)*
  5. The Revenant (2009)
  6. Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012)
  7. The Raven (2012)
  8. Cronos (1993)
  9. The Woman in Black (2012)
  10. Mama (2013)

*I know, I didn’t review that one in either of the Halloween columns. In fact, I reviewed it for Forces of Geek in one of my final Damning with Faint Praise columns. Still, see it.

I ranked these starting off with the lighter fare and building toward more and more intense films.

As a funny aside, we’ve actually covered most of the monster bases this year. We had:

  • aliens recently (The Darkest Hour)
  • werewolves (Animals, Werewolf: The Beast Among Us)
  • zombies (Exit Humanity, Resident Evil: Retribution, Warm Bodies, Juan of the Dead, The Horde)
  • man-made monsters (Frankenstein’s Army)
  • ghosts (The Innkeepers, The Woman in Black, Mama)
  • witches (Tamara)
  • demons (The Hole, Evil Dead. Solomon Kane, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance)
  • vampires (Dark Shadows, The Revenant, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)

We’re just missing mummies and gill men. Unless you count The Monster Squad

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