Monthly Archives: July 2013

Evil Dead (2013)

I’m not really a sick person. I’ve raised healthy children who don’t scream horrifically when I walk into the room. I’m kind to kitties and puppies. I give to charity. I really don’t enjoy the suffering of real people, and I help those in need when possible. No one needs to report me to the authorities.

I just needed to stress this before I state how much I found myself laughing at Evil Dead (2013), which ends up being teenage butchery horror at its most overdone, even in the closing credits (which seem to consist of torrential gouts of red paint masquerading as blood, splashing, splattering, seeping, and seething about rotten wood and rusted nails). It’s one moment after another of “Really? Are they REALLY going to — oh, they just did,” intuiting what’s going to happen next while not quite being able to look away.

I will note that I also laughed at Raimi’s definitive version of the story when I first saw it a few months ago, but that was mostly due to the camp factor; not only could I imagine Raimi himself smirking throughout filming and editing, but it’s like the demons — quintessential camera whores to equal any pageant princessery — knew they were on stage and wanted to put on a good show. It’s an approach that mirrored itself in everyone’s favorite Elm Street sadist, Freddy Kruger, but got lost in the recent remake of that series, and the same thing seems to have happened here. No one wants to have fun anymore; the “evil dead” here take themselves a little too seriously to enjoy the carnage. Oh, they might giggle when they say things like, “Your little sister’s being raped in hell tonight, David,” but you can tell, this time out, that their heart’s just not really in it.

One ruling absurdity of the movie resides in its creative application of the most eclectic makeshift collection of destructive implements you can imagine. I think there should also be a No Prize awarded to one teen who manages to suffer multiple physical indignities that might have dropped a Terminator before finally succumbing to injury over insult.

One of the very few improvements over Raimi’s rendition, there’s actually a believable plot device to keep all these teenage Happy Meal souls in place: Little sister Mia is a hardened junkie with one failed intervention under her belt, and Round #2 has just begun. So when she starts freaking out about demons in the woods and how everyone is going to die unless they run like hell, of course no one is inclined to believe her, she’s snookered them all before; they’re dedicated to practicing tough love to a hallucinating junkie. (They just have no clue how “tough” their love is gonna have to get.)

There’s also an attempt to develop a bit of backstory between Mia and her big brother David. It’s not quite enough to really bump up the movie into “drama” on par with a horror movie like “The Descent,” but it does provide slight incentive to accept one of David’s decisions that at first makes little sense. And the writers do try to differentiate the outcome here a bit from its predecessor. (More than that, I dare not say.)

But some elements have dropped right back into trope — like the teen who opens a book sealed in plastic and barbed wire and bound in human skin, with horrific pictures of summoned demons and graffiti scrawled across the arcane pages (“Don’t read! Don’t speak! Don’t listen! PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AND ALL THAT IS HOLY STAY AWAY FROM THIS BOOK!”), who even has to WORK to discover the damned litany, which he then needlessly utters out loud when he could have simply read the words silently. Raimi’s version with the tape, where the teens had no idea what was happening until it was far too late, seemed more realistic.

I found myself wishing that the movie had played more into one extreme or another — more camp or more drama — since, stuck in the middle, it’s hard to be completely satisfied with either.

But that’s okay. If there is anything certain in life, after all, it’s death, taxes, and stories of teenagers possessed by demons fighting for their lives somewhere in a cabin in the woods.

2/4 stars

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The Host

The Host is the kind of movie you keep going back to over and over… because it’s impossible to watch more than 5-10 minutes at a time without either being completely bored out of your mind or completely shaking your head over what’s unfolding.

But it’s hard to complain in light of the fact that, despite all the critic outrage, this flop of a movie might really just be the fault of poor marketing and distribution choices. The reality is that this isn’t really box-office material; it should have been either direct to video or a made-for-TV feature. The trailer itself — “Alien doesn’t quite possess girl’s body, the hybrid flees back to the secret human base where no one trusts her” — tells you all you need to know to skip the first 50 minutes, and then the rest proceeds at the level of a teenage girl drama written for split showings on Nickelodeon and SyFy, where the biggest dilemma seems to be choosing which boy she should actually let kiss her.

The premise itself is fascinating. What really happens if an entire race of aliens takes over most of humanity? What would it feel like to have an interloper in control of your body, and what happens when you’re the interloper who realizes you are exploiting the enslavement of other independent beings? As two minds working together in one body, how do you navigate two worlds where both sides fear and hate you, to the point of destroying you? Instead of the complexity of such psychological and sociological navigation, we just get a lot of teenage angst and lust throw into a blender, with the lust itself being extremely subdued; and the headier ideas are mostly approached at the level of novice song lyrics scribbled in the margins of a high-schooler’s notebook.

There were also many, many bad choices here in terms of creating and maintaining dramatic tension, including how the entire opening (the capturing of Melanie and the insertion of the alien Wanderer) was handled so routinely. I’ve read a few pages of the book, so I’m aware that the movie is tracking the text here, but this was a chance to translate the story to a new medium and compensate for any deficiencies. I can’t imagine how that entire capture/possession/escape sequence could have been rendered with less suspense or made less interesting.

Meanwhile, the interplay between the human Melanie and the alien Wanderer/Wanda is handled as voice overdubs and simply doesn’t work in the way intended, especially when Wanda starts doing things Melanie doesn’t like (like kissing the wrong dude — or on occasion the right one) and we listen to her protest wildly (and ineffectively) in the background. There were so many moments that could have been dramatically interesting and instead generated unintended laughs.

There are also numerous “what?” moments, where the logic of the plot changes just-because — such as when Melanie pushes Wanda to return to the Resistance, where she is promptly imprisoned as an “it” (what the humans rather boorishly call the aliens), and then Melanie tells her there’s no way to prove she’s really on their side, so now they’re both going to die. Was the entire escape just an elaborate suicide scheme on Melanie’s part, or was it just lazy plotting? This lack of through-line for character motivation and rationality is one reason The Host just comes off as a big featureless jumble of ideas.

Along with constant emotional outbursts that mean nothing, we also are offered interchangeable characters, whether alien or Resistance, there to utter whatever pretentiously vague social truths should dominate the moment. (Besides, any time you hear the lines, “You need to kiss me. Melanie hates it when you kiss me. I need you to bring her back,” this is probably two sentences more than any normal teenage boy needs an excuse for in order to kiss a girl.)

There are some standouts among the cast. William Hurt as the Resistance leader brings some stability to any scene he’s part of, even if it’s not enough to elevate the material. And it’s too bad we didn’t get to see what Saoirse Ronan could really do in a starring role; she was capable in “The Lovely Bones,” and here she is earnestly compelling as Wanda, an inquisitive and yet private alien who means well and is mortified at how her people have enslaved humanity. Emily Browning gets a very short uncredited cameo at movie’s end. As Head Seeker, Diane Kruger actually starts to explore the darker side of the human/alien symbiosis until her plotline gets conveniently subsumed into another. Francis Fisher (“Titanic”) is rather wasted.

Probably one of the largest shocks of The Host is how Andrew Niccol, typically an interesting and thoughtful director, was so intimately involved (director and cowriter) in such a bomb. It almost bears speculation that he had been taken over by an alien who then struggled writing a screenplay for a race of beings it didn’t yet understand. If someone could get Charlie Kauffman to write that script, that might be a movie for adults worth watching.

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V/H/S 2

I guess when it comes to movies like this, you can either opt for Rex Reed, or you can read a review by someone who actually watched the whole movie before sitting down to write about it.

I’ll be honest: If I had to choose a segment in the V/H/S offerings released up to this point, my fave still remains the first segment of the original movie, about an ill-fated romp on the town (“Amateur Night”) where a genuinely nice and somewhat geeky guy makes the acquaintance of an unexpected variation of the Lady of the Night. (In a kinder, gentler movie, that romance might have ended up on a riff similar to the later “Warm Bodies,” but V/H/S has never really pretended to be about high drama. The underlying loneliness of the two leads, though, as non-commodities in the market of love, coupled with an eerie and resonating performance by Hannah Fierman, briefly elevates the segment above genre.)

V/H/S 2 doesn’t quite have a segment that does the same here, but there are less of them (meaning more time for the stories to develop), and the overall quality of each is better, meaning this sequel comes out on top of the first release overall.

This time out, we get a story of a cyborg eye transplant with horrific side effects; a slightly fresher and more interesting perspective on the over-cooked zombie flick motif; an Asian-cult expose that turns so increasingly outrageous that you honestly won’t know what’s coming next even when you think you do; and mass alien abductions that relegate the visitors from “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” to the land of huggable plush dolls where they belong. (Honestly, I just feel bad for the dog.) Even the loose story thread that holds all four episodes together is stronger than in the first movie… although admittedly still about the equivalent of undercooked stale spaghetti.

With this kind of horror film, it seems harder to sustain a truly serious encounter vs something a little more tongue-in-cheek to match the production quality. The zombie and the cult segments especially play into the format well here, with a bit of madcap flavor that doesn’t clash with the rougher production and looser writing evident in the segments. The first sequence (the eye transplant) effectively leaves the skin crawling and might even jolt you from the sofa but then, like the family dog chasing a car bumper, doesn’t quite know what to do with you once it’s got you… opting finally to enter the time-tested descent into superfluous gore and blood; it leaves me wondering what might have been had there actually been a point to that story. The alien abduction, despite its scares, is pretty stock-and-trade “gotta collect ’em all,” though, and you’ve seen it before if you’ve watched any movies (e.g., Quarrantine) in this genre or even just regular horror thrillers like “28 Weeks Later.”

It’s good to see some compilation movies that actually work, versus being complete duds of the Creepshow 2 variety. I admit my expectations aren’t really high for movies in this genre, which means that afterwards if I don’t feel like watching it was a waste of my time, the phrase, “Wow, that actually wasn’t half-bad!” becomes gushing praise. If only there were a compelling thread holding the segments together, along with a little more work on character to get us firmly invested in the plot, movies like this could linger longer and even demand repeated viewings.

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