Reviews From The Vault: Vol. 3 — Halloween Edition

Between 2005 and 2009 I was a programmer on CKDU 88.1 FM. Every Sunday morning I hosted The Love & Hate Movie Show. I talked about what I was seeing and revisited some of my favourite films of old, pretty much what I do now here on FITI. I still have a lot of the scripts from those days, and thought I should share them here for archival reasons—and just for fun.

With the end of October rapidly approaching, I thought it a good opportunity to post reviews of some of the wilder, creepier genre movies I enjoyed (or didn’t) in those few years. 

Donkey Punch (2008)

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A shockingly violent but well-made exploitation drama from director Oliver Blackburn, Donkey Punch showed up at the Atlantic Film Festival last year but never got a theatrical release, which is too bad. If Saw and any number of increasingly inane and repetitious slasher and torture porn films can have wide releases and spawn sequels, there’s no reason this picture couldn’t drum up some attention from audiences.

Three attractive but not so smart Leeds co-eds are on a vacation in Majorca, the Spanish island that’s a sun destination for Brits. There they meet four hunky guys who work on an enormous luxury yacht, the owners of which are away. Cue a little boat trip and a lovely day on the water, with swimming and recreational drugs and group sex. So far so good.

Now, I’m not going to explain the particulars of the Donkey Punch sexual maneuver, but you should feel free to look it up online if you are curious.

Suddenly there is a death on board. Lines are drawn as to what is best to do in this situation. Alliances are formed and broken, and there’s more bloodshed.

This is all very much typical of the exploitation structure. There wouldn’t be much of a story if people didn’t continue to try and kill each other, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that they keep it at least in the outer realms of plausibility and make it look good. I thought the lighting, cinematography and soundtrack was all excellent.

That said, it would also be nice if there was at least one character to admire or at least relate to, and not all these empty heads, so desperate and annoying. But the morbid fascination with how it will end and who will be left alive does keep the interest, even when the onscreen events begin to feel like a slow-motion car accident. It is hard to look away.

Even though occasionally sickening, I did find Donkey Punch to be above average for its genre. I’d recommend it to those who enjoy this kind of thing. You know who you are.

Moon (2008)

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Moon is a first feature film from director Duncan Jones, and it’s not without a few problems, but this is one of those times when it’s just so nice to see a movie like this, a retro science fiction throwback, that I’ll forgive it a few lapses in logic and just enjoy its exoticism.

We start on an infomercial for Lunar Industries, a company that services 70 percent of the world’s energy needs through mining the new element Helium 3, a clean new form of energy, which is plentiful on the dark side of the moon. Can you imagine, one company having that kind of monopoly on the energy needs of the planet? It would be bigger than Coca-Cola, Microsoft and General Electric put together. I’d imagine enormous refineries up there on the lunar surface, crewed by hundreds of engineers and astronauts.

But, no. There’s just one solitary moonbase and a one lonely guy, Sam Bell. He’s in the final weeks of the three-year mission to oversee the harvesting of this new power-giving element, and he’s looking forward to getting back to his wife and daughter. But I had to wonder: why did he accept this mission if he was going to be away from his family for that long and miss those crucial years of his daughter’s life?

Sam Bell, played by the always magnetic Sam Rockwell, is a guy who is more than a little stir crazy. His living/work space is very indicative of the Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Nostromo in Alien. It’s modular, white, impersonal and weirdly low tech. It’s like this is a future envisioned from the ‘70s. There’s even a HAL-9000-esque computer assistant named GERTY, voiced by the very monotone Kevin Spacey. GERTY moves through the space on a ceiling-mounted track system. Sort of silly, but there is something comfortingly anachronistic about it all.

Sam is starting to see strange things, things that aren’t ever really explained. Then he has an accident, after which he wakes up in the infirmary. Or does he? Before long Sam discovers he has a duplicate, at which point the movie gets really interesting. How does a man who has spent three years alone, with only a computer for company, react to suddenly having company, especially when the company is himself? There’s some great and funny existential moments here, where more questions are proffered than are answered.

Of course there is a conspiracy that involves the mining company, and even though none of it really makes much sense, you go along with it. Or, at least, I did because I enjoyed the momentum, and I really didn’t know where it would go.

There is some suspense generated from a countdown to the arrival of a company-sponsored rescue mission. The countdown is very much like the one that heralds the arrival of the killers in the Sean Connery movie Outland, for those of you who do remember that High Noon-in-space picture.

I know I’m making Moon sound as if it’s unoriginal, but I actually really enjoyed its homages and new twists. A very promising first effort.

The Mist (2007)

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Frank Darabont directs, as he did with other successful but less-scary Stephen King material, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, so, you know this is going to be a picture made with a bit more care than would be expected from a run-of-the-mill horror.

Thomas Jane is David Drayton, he and his family live in rural Maine. Friday night there’s a nasty storm. Saturday morning a mist travels across the lake  while Drayton drives into town with his son and neighbour, played by Andre Braugher, to get supplies. There’s no power and no phone service. While in the grocery store, the mist rolls in, and with it come strange and terrible creatures.

What follows is a siege picture, as the townsfolk deal with being trapped in the grocery. There are a variety of reactions to the predicament, including the End-of-Times fundamentalists led by an awesome Marcia Gay Harden. Also featuring Toby Jones, William Sadler, and Laurie Holden in key roles, much of suspense comes from figuring out how to escape and how to fight off the beasties when they come. The problem here is you never really care much about the people in danger, despite the talented cast.

The Mist resembles a classic paranoid creepfest like John Carpenter’s The Thing by presenting a horror without a source, just its resulting carnage and blood. What lingers is a feeling of allegory, that The Mist is really about all the random bad shit that can happen to us in our lives, real horror that’s unexplained. What may be most remarkable about it is the especially downbeat ending. I found it so incredibly bleak that it made me laugh. It takes some guts to go that way, and it makes The Mist an unexpectedly memorable monster movie.

Hard Candy 

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Halifax actor Ellen Page plays Hayley, a precocious and funny 14-year-old girl who has just met a 32-year old photographer, played by Patrick Wilson. They connected on-line, then agreeing to meet in public. She sort of invites herself to his place. Once there, she turns the tables on him.

The film reminded me of Death and the Maiden, the play turned into a film by Roman Polanski with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, where he is restrained in this remote cabin and she is a former victim of torture, and believes he’s responsible. He seems logical and reasonable and incapable of such horror.  Wilson’s character might be a little pathetic, but he also could be an innocent, his sin no worse than a little bad judgment. What the film does well is shift your allegiances between the two characters.

This is a twisted little thriller. I’ve read some reviews that have called it exploitative, and maybe that’s fair. It’s certainly squirm-inducing in a number of places, and the ending may be a little too neat, but it compels throughout. Part of it is in the writing, but mostly it’s the performances. Much of this picture is shot in close-up, helping hold down the sweaty suspense between the actors. It also allows us to read all the nuances of Page’s face. She’s absolutely magnetic.

The Reaping

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If you watch that trailer for The Reaping, you’ll see a pretty cool effect, a plague of locusts descend upon this group of people in the Louisiana Bayou. I suggest you watch the trailer to appreciate this bit of a special effect, and save your money. There’s really nothing else about this movie that would tempt me to recommend it.

Hillary Swank plays Dr. Katherine Winter, a professor whose specialty is going around the world disproving miracles with her scientific know-how. With a large dose of clumsy, expository dialogue and flashbacks, we learn that she lost her faith when her husband and daughter were killed in the Sudan. Of course, something is going to happen to make her re-examine her faith, isn’t it?

Welcome to a town in the rural south of the US. Its river is running with blood. Livestock are dying. It’s not long before it’s biblical plague time and all sorts of bad craziness descends. We discover that the Christian God is, in fact, pretty damn vengeful and will bring all sorts of badness to those who mess with Satanism.

There are plenty of ways this could have been a better movie. First, the dialogue could have all been rewritten to sound like it actually might be spoken by people. The key role of Katherine Winter, played by a capable if not entirely charismatic actor Hilary Swank, could have focused more on her pain and loss, covered up with a dedication to work.

But the movie is working too hard to spool out the plot and get to the cheap scares to really delve into any character work. You don’t care about Katherine and when it all looks like it’s going to hell, you don’t care about that either.

Over and over again, we see filmmakers making this mistake. They don’t take the material seriously enough, or they don’t have any fun with it to really surprise the audience. The whole business with the plagues and the wrath of God has absolutely no depth. An entertainment like, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark was far more creepy in the two or so minutes it delved into the possible power and effect of the Ark.

Hostel (2006)

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This is a new horror movie from director Eli Roth. It’s the first horror movie of 2006, released in early January. Something of a tradition among film studios, ever since a really crappy horror called Leprechaun came out around this time of the year in the mid-’90s and made a bunch of money.

Hostel is the story of two American frat boys, who join an Icelandic fellow for a trip through Europe. All they want to do is get stoned and laid, so they linger in Amsterdam to take advantage of the Red Light District. These guys are pretty obnoxious, and don’t have a particularly high opinion of women.

The guys hear about this town in Slovakia filled to the brim with sexy and friendly ladies keen on meeting hot American studs. What they find there is an increasingly creepy place, where people disappear and gangs of children roam the streets, extorting bubblegum.

Hostel has its share of nudity and when the gore comes, it comes in buckets. But it has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. I don’t think the film is sexist. The lead characters are, certainly, but by the end of the film, I think they’ve learned their lesson about treating women as objects.

Though it is in places an homage to the very serious 1970s British dreadfest The Wicker Man, Hostel has a strong streak of irony and self-awareness. I laughed a lot, even through the particularly bloody bits. What can you do but laugh when a guy with a chainsaw slips on some blood and the machine goes flying, disemboweling him? It’s bloody slapstick, but its slapstick none the less.

I interviewed Eli Roth, who made another horror flick called Cabin Fever a few years ago. He told me he believes in character, whatever the genre. He’s done a good job in this case. I don’t see a lot of gory horror flicks, but I had a lot of fun with this one.

The Happening (2008)

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M. Night Shyamalan gets a lot of grief from critics. He’s not even embraced by the geek crew, who really should give him some love. He should get Peter Jackson-style love from them, because that’s who he makes his movies for. He’s one of them. (Ahem, one of us.) He writes from a fantasy genre perspective, but he’s a filmmaker in the style of Spielberg and Hitchcock.

The Happening was slaughtered by critics right away, and I think that’s unfair. If it wasn’t Shyamalan’s name on this as writer, director and producer, I think it the film wouldn’t have nearly as many detractors as it does.

The Happening stars Mark Wahlberg as Elliot, a Philadelphia high school science teacher. He’s maybe a little miscast here, I don’t know if I entirely bought the buff Marky Mark as the academic type. Then there’s Zooey Deshanel, playing his wife, Alma. She’s a bundle of nerves, contemplating an affair with another man. There’s also Elliot’s good buddy, Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). We get the briefest of character sketches, but it’s enough for us to care about these people.

Something happens in New York City. An airborne toxin is released, and it disorients people and takes away their willingness to live, prompting a rash of suicides.

Our small group of folks try to get out of the city, but the toxin follows them, spreading across the North East. In some respects, it reminds me of The Mist. It also made me think of Hitchcock’s The Birds, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That’s what Shyamalan is going for here, a growing horror that seems inescapable.

Like those films, it’s also an analogous horror. Where Body Snatchers was about communism and paranoia around the red scare, this is more about environmental guilt over the damage humanity has done to the planet. The scientific premise may be wonky, but I went with it.

I found a lot to like about the movie. I liked the creative suicides, I even enjoyed them when they got ridiculously gruesome, like the scene from the zoo in the lions cage, which was very Monty Python-esque. The feeling I got was that the filmmaker wanted to make a low-budget horror, but not take it too seriously. He has his lead actor talking to a potted plant at one point. Pretty funny, actually.

My main complaint was that a lot of suspense goes out of it in the third act. I think he could have gotten darker and scarier, especially given the R-Rating.

 The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

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Here’s a new film by director Scott Derrickson. Though his past works include a couple of little-seen horror sequels, I suspect this movie will attract an audience. It’s an interesting case: a genre picture that wants to deal in larger, metaphysical issues, such as empiric medicine versus religion. Some may consider it a cheap Exorcism knock-off. It’s certainly not in the rarified atmosphere of that horror classic, it’s not even in the company of The Omen, but its aspirations are interesting.

The movie tells us its based on a true story. I’ve heard about this, a case in Germany in the 1970s where a priest was charged with negligent homicide when a teenager with epilepsy was treated as if she was possessed by a demon. Don’t consider that little nugget of trivia as a spoiler, the movie uses that story as jumping off point for its own examination of events.

Set in some wintry, American city (with Vancouver standing in), hotshot attorney Erin Bruner, (Laura Linney) is ambitious and slick. She recently successfully defended an accused murderer. She takes on the case of this priest who says he tried to exorcise a demon out of a 19-year-old girl from an extremely devout Catholic family, an exorcism that resulted in the girl’s death. Medical experts say the girl was epileptic and psychotic. The priest, played by British character actor and Oscar winner Tom Wilkinson, won’t take a deal. He wants to go on the stand and tell Emily’s story, not really caring whether he is convicted or not. Meanwhile, another man of faith, the prosecutor played by a graying and mustachioed Campbell Scott, prepares his case.

This is the set-up, which we get in the first 20 minutes. I was ready to hate the movie right then. The lighting is so flat, and Linney’s make-up, especially, looks like it was applied with a broom. I wondered on occasion how much better this material might have been in the hands of, say, M. Night Shyamalan.

But as the movie progresses, it really improves.

Essentially, it is divided into three separate elements:

1) The expository scenes outside the courtroom and between the legal eagles, which are really clunky.

2) The courtroom elements featuring a bevy of expert witnesses, including sterling Canadian actors Henry Czerny and Kenneth Welsh. Despite the high bar shows like Law & Order have set on these kinds of scenes, they work pretty well here, keeping the plot moving and offering a few surprises

3) The flashbacks to Emily Rose and her “condition”. These are the best parts of the movie, and offer up some dynamite scares. They’re also paired with alternate versions of events, as offered up by the prosecution, which suggest that there could be a medical reason for all of Emily’s demonic issues.

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While this is going on, declared agnostic Erin is starting to think the demons are after her as strange things start to happen in her apartment every morning at 3AM.

There’s no point in pretending the picture is offering up an unbiased retelling of events. It wants to be a horror movie, and in places, a silly and slightly cheesy one. Where it would like to be a dialectic on magic and religion, and provide a seed of doubt in its audience about what is real and what is not, its success is also middling.

If it doesn’t really supercede its genre, it’s because it looks so bad in places and the dialogue is so wooden. Another big problem is that it’s no kind of character piece, you never believe these people have lives outside the bounds of the scenes. They’re tools for the plot. Intertestingly, the one who comes out with perhaps the most depth is the girl who plays Emily, Jennifer Carpenter, convincingly ill, both medically and spiritually.

The Box (2009)

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Based on a Richard Matheson story that was made into a Twilight Zone episode, which should give you an idea of what you’re getting into. Directed by Richard Kelly, he who gave the world Donnie Darko.

A youngish couple in 1976 Richmond, Virginia (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) are given a box with a button by a mysterious man (Frank Langella) with a strange facial disfigurement. Press it, they get a million dollars, but someone they don’t know dies. The Twilight Zone story ends with them pressing the button and the man taking the box away to give to someone else, someone they don’t know. Very frightening, I’m sure, but this movie goes on to explore other things: dimensional portals, NASA’s Viking Mars Lander, some kind of mass hypnosis, and a lot more weird stuff.

Some of it worked, a lot of it was just too campy to be believed. Some didn’t make any sense at all. But I liked how outrageous it was. When a movie is so peculiar I wonder how it ever got made, that’s an endorsement from me.

Zombieland (2009)

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Zombieland is, for my money, the most exquisite example of what some people call popcorn for the brain. I found it quite entertaining while I was in the cinema, but the nutritional value of the film is zero.

Columbus and Tallahassee (people named for where they want to go, or where they are from, or something) are two guys travelling through an America where almost everybody is a zombie. They try to find food and destroy the undead along the way. Eisenberg plays a slight variant on his Adventureland character, the virgin geek while Harrelson does redneck aggression very well.

Honestly, it’s been about a month since I saw it and I can barely remember it now.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

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Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody is getting some attention for her wordy, hip and hilarious screenplay for this film, and it’s well deserved. Once again she brings her special appreciation for dialogue and lifts what otherwise might be a fairly routine Heathers/Ginger Snaps retread.

Megan Fox is the titular Jennifer, the Alpha Female in a small-town American high school who’s nerdy BFF named Needy (Amanda Seyfriend, hiding her glamour a little obviously) keeps her real. But Jennifer has a bad night with an emo rock band from New York and all of a sudden starts to kill and eat the boys in her class. Needy needs to step up if she’s going to stop the slaughter.

This is the kind of movie where the humour never gets in the way of the gore and horror, and those tropes never get in the way of the character relationships and politics. It really worked on all levels. You feel for everybody in the movie, and that impresses.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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