Monday, October 31, 2016

31 Days of Horror, Part 3: The Meat

It always seems to me that October speeds up as it goes along, and with a snap of the fingers winter is here. It's a transition that many people dread, but I would urge you to savor it. Life goes by quickly enough without us wishing that the present was past, and every season and every day offers us something. Don't miss out on Halloween and Thanksgiving because advertising won't stop shouting about Christmas. The problem with wishing away the present moment is that you always get your wish. Savor it.

I have already written about some horror movies I've seen this season; you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of "31 Days of Horror" on this blog, and it looks like I'm on pace to beat my previous record (maybe one year I'll take the challenge and actually watch 31 movies in 31 days. For now, life gets in the way). I don't have a lengthy introduction to Part 3 - with November breathing down our necks, I'm going to unload a longer list of movies this time. This post will be the meat of this season's list.

So let's get this going. Like Sheriff Brackett says in John Carpenter's Halloween: "It's Halloween, everyone's entitled to one good scare."

Honeymoon (2014)
Director: Leigh Janiak

 The Setup: A newlywed couple escapes to the bride's family cottage in the woods to celebrate their new life together. But after she wanders out into the woods at night, she comes back changed.

Relationships are tricky and fluid things, and it is often the small and mundane things in a partnership that make all the difference. This I think is an idea that lives at the heart of this low budget horror movie from first time director Leigh Janiak. When newlywed Bea (Rose Leslie) "sleepwalks" into the woods at night and comes back acting strangely, we can see the mounting desperation in her husband Paul (Harry Treadaway) as he tries to reconnect with a person he thought he knew. Very few gimmicks or special effects are needed to create a sense of nerve-jangling dread that comes from this basic premise, and the final act is satisfyingly strange and fatal, though it will frustrate viewers looking for a tidy resolution.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

A Serbian Film (2010)
Director: Srdjan Spasojevic

 The Setup: A retired porn star decides to sign one final contract with a mysterious adult film director in order to provide for his wife and son. As it turns out, no amount of money is worth it.

If you haven't seen or heard of this film, you're doing something right in your life. Srdjan Spasojevic's cinematic affront to good taste is infamous for its scenes of sexual violence and torture, causing it to be banned in no fewer than 46 countries. It required a record 19 minutes of cuts in order for it to earn an NC-17 rating in the United States. English film critic and writer Mark Kermode called it "a nasty piece of exploitation trash," and American writer Tim Anderson of Bloody Disgusting concluded his review of it with the statement: "If what I have written here is enough to turn your feelings of wonder into a burning desire to watch this monstrosity, then perhaps I haven't been clear enough. You don't want to see A Serbian Film. You just think you do." I don't have a good reason to explain why I watched it myself, other than a questionable desire to test my own boundaries. I will say that the film is not entirely without merit from a cinematic perspective, but I would not recommend it to anyone.

Availability: Streaming YouTube (poor quality), Purchase on Amazon

We Are Still Here (2015)
Director: Ted Geoghegan

 The Setup: A couple grieving the untimely death of their son look for a new start in an old New England home in a small town. Strange occurrences and obtuse warnings from the neighbors slowly reveal a dark and bloody secret.

The first half of We Are Still Here unfolds like a horror trope checklist: Old house with a creepy basement? Check. Unexplained noises and slamming doors? Check. Unsettling small town neighbors? Check. A séance with disastrous results? Check. I appreciated the 1970s era and art direction - it was a choice decade for horror movies, and we've seen plenty of modern directors reach back to that setting for their own stories. This is not meant to be an outright review but I can't help but mention that I thought the story developed unevenly, revealed the mysterious beings in the house too early, and didn't convince us to like any of the characters involved. The finale does finally explode into an exciting and climactic bloodbath, but it's not enough to pull it out of the realm of lukewarm horror mediocrity. This is a generally well-reviewed film (95% on RT!) so feel free to disagree with me.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Shudder Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play

Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Director: Robert Hiltzik

 The Setup: Years after a tragic boating accident, a pair of young cousins are sent to a summer camp where the baseball and water sports are interrupted by a series of gruesome murders.

Released three years after the original Friday the 13th, Robert Hiltzik's Sleepaway Camp understandably draws its fair share of comparisons to that better-known series. It lives squarely in the realm of exploitative teen slasher flicks, including the idyllic lake setting, mysterious murders and retroactive sense of camp. What sets SC apart is its absolutely bizarre combination of bad acting and production along with overt themes of pedophilia, incest and gender fluidity. This is a truly strange film that did remarkably (even curiously) well in reviews and box office at the time. For the people out there that hunt for entertainingly bad cult movies (you know who you are), you owe it to yourself to watch this movie. And just in case you need more convincing: just when I thought I figured this movie out, it showed me one of the most surprising and deeply unnerving final shots of any horror movie I've ever seen.

Availability: YouTube Streaming (full movie!), Shudder Streaming, Digital Rental on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play

Starry Eyes (2014)
Directors: Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer


 The Setup: An aspiring actress lands a promising audition, and with it her chance at stardom. But the price for fame is darker and more twisted than she could have imagined.

It doesn't take a long time scrolling through Netflix's ever-shrinking catalog of titles to find yourself in a wasteland of anonymously bad movies, horror or otherwise. While scrolling down and feeling your eyes glaze over you may have already scrolled right past Starry Eyes, which has a cover just awful enough to help it blend into the movie purgatory in the bowels of Netflix. As it turns out, Starry Eyes stands out among the others. Solid acting (particularly by the lead Alex Essoe), confident direction and an eerie synth-loving soundtrack turn this into one of the better Netflix options this October. And while I can't say the film was wildly unpredictable, I was not expecting the level of carnage and body horror in its devilish third act.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and Google Play

Pumpkinhead (1988)
Director: Stan Winston

 The Setup: After tragedy befalls his son, a vengeful father puts himself at risk to summon an evil monster.  

It makes a lot of sense that Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of Stan Winston, a man known mostly for his work as a special effects wizard. His career as a visual effects and creatures artist spanned over three decades, and includes such films as Aliens, Congo, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Jurassic Park 3, Iron Man and the Terminator series. Pumpkinhead has a rather simplistic, fable-like story based off a poem by Ed Justin. There's not a whole lot of characterization or narrative complexity to this movie, but maybe I'm stating the obvious. There is a simple and somewhat satisfying moral here about the poisoning quality of vengeance and hatred, but mostly Pumpkinhead is an excuse to watch a hideous monster indelicately dispatch a group of teenagers. 

Availability: Digital Rental on iTunes, YouTube and Google Play

Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead
Director: Tommy Wirkola

 The Setup: An undead Nazi commander leads an attack on a Norwegian town, and stopping them will mean raising the dead soldiers of an old Nazi enemy.

This jubilantly violent sequel picks up at the exact moment of Dead Snow's conclusion (found in Part 2 of this series). The surviving protagonist of that film - who regrettably stabbed his girlfriend in the neck with a hatchet - is arrested in connection with the murders at the cabin. But when the doctors reattach the arm of a Nazi commander to his body, he doesn't stay in custody for long (think Evil Dead or Idle Hands). This sequel takes the core of the first film and cranks the dial to 11 in every category: higher production value, increased violence and body horror, more zombies, and a script that fully embraces its identity as a balls-out dark comedy. It is absurd in its violence and often downright silly in its plot and execution - but for the right people, this is a dark comic gem. 

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

High Tension (2003)
Director: Alexandre Aja

 The Setup: Two young women retreat to a family estate in southern France to escape city life and study for school. But a home invasion turns their idyllic retreat into a night of horror and bloodshed. 

French students Marie and Alexia look for a peaceful respite in the country, but all it takes is one backwoods freak to bust that plan wide open. It doesn't take long for this movie to go brutally sideways in a violent way, and once it starts it doesn't let up. High Tension is home invasion meets slasher, with a psychological twist thrown in for good measure. When it came out in 2003, it put director Alexandre Aja on the map, and purportedly it is the reason he was contacted by Wes Craven to direct the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Aja says he was inspired by horror slashers of the 1970s and 80s, and it shows in the visual style and straightforward storytelling of High Tension. He is now one of the directors in the "Splat Pack," and one of the names to watch in modern horror. 

Availability: Digital Rental on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes and Google Play

- Jonathan Ross

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

31 Days of Horror, Part 2: It's All In The Kidneys

What makes a horror movie? It is not enough to say violence, which transcends genre. It is not enough to say monsters, because not all horror movies have one. You can't say any film that gives you a sense of dread, or else you could nominate An Inconvenient Truth

I think the unique effect of a horror movie comes in two parts. The first part could and should be broken down in much more detail, but to put it broadly it is a combination of narrative and score. There is a long list of tropes, settings and characters that form the building blocks of horror (these familiar tropes or themes are part of the reason horror too frequently falls into narrative ruts, though it's the fault of unimaginative storytelling more than the trope itself). Combine any of these themes with a conflict that threatens the wellbeing of the characters (a masked assailant, a giant shark, a horde of zombies, a character's own mind) and you have the skeleton of a horror movie. Add to that an effective and unnerving soundtrack, which is more important in providing tension and tone than in any other genre. For example, try watching Psycho's famous shower scene with and without Bernard Herrmann's music. This is only the roughest examination of the elements of horror, but the point of this post is not to dissect the genre. If you want to watch a clever and self-aware reflection on horror's many moving pieces, watch The Cabin in the Woods.

Jaws (1975)
The second part of horror seems abstract at first but comes down to our own biology. It is the reason, strangely enough, why some people watch horror movies in the first place. It is the same reason other people avoid them. It is a combination of fear and suspense, and often but not always some form of shock or disgust. You will probably not respond to Paranormal Activity the same way you will to Hostel, but the connection is satisfyingly physical: a horror movie isn't working if your body isn't releasing adrenaline into your bloodstream. When you sense a threat, your brain tells the adrenal glands in your kidneys to release epinephrine, or adrenaline. It initiates the "fight or flight" response that we experience in times of stress or danger. This is the reason we pay to get into haunted houses or onto roller coasters, and it is the same feeling we get before a musical recital or sports game or public speaking event (for most of us, anyway). This is the real thrill at the heart of horror.

Halloween (1978)
This October I am trying to watch as many horror movies as I can, regardless of year, country or subgenre. I will cross any and all lines of good taste and self respect in my chase for the ultimate cinematic adrenaline rush. If it can reasonably be called a horror movie by any qualifier, it is fair game. You can read my part one here. My nominating process for these films, at least for now, is haphazard. I use a combination of personal recommendations and online lists to make my selections, filtered by my current mood. It is somewhat more focused than a child falling from a tree and grabbing wildly for branches on the way down. Surely I am looking for the sturdiest limbs but I will invariably grab some weak sprigs on my way to the ground. 

Without further ado, here is the next batch of films.

Cronos (1993)
Director: Guillermo del Toro (1993)

The Setup: A kind and elderly antiques dealer stumbles across a powerful and ancient device, and that is just the beginning of his troubles.

Before Pan's Labyrinth or Hellboy existed, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro was fascinated with dark fairy tales and complex characters. His directorial debut established many of the trademarks we have come to know him for now: insects, clocks, religious overtones and gothic parable storytelling. It also established a long-time friendship and professional partnership between del Toro and Ron Perlman, who steals scenes in Cronos as a goonish American expat who is a begrudging pawn in the machinations of other men. Perlman took a substantial pay cut to work on this $2 million production, which was the most expensive Mexican film production at that time. Cronos is a colorful and imaginative take on the vampire genre, and it foretold good things to come from an ambitious storyteller.

Availability: Digital Rental on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube

They Look Like People (2015)
Director: Perry Blackshear (2015)

The Setup: A man coming out of a long romantic relationship is reunited with his old childhood friend. But that doesn't stop the voices.

Human Swiss Army knife Perry Blackshear wrote, shot, produced, directed and edited this economical horror movie about two men struggling with their own separate perceptions. You might say that it could more precisely be called a dark psychological drama, but it certainly has enough of the elements of a horror film to keep it in the genre. Without the resources afforded to a larger and more expensive production, TLLP wisely focuses on the dynamic between the two main characters and the human qualities that make them relatable. The effects employed to blur the lines of reality are sparing and effective, and the film is all the more frightening for it. It is a disquieting reflection on mental health, and the fragile connections that keep the loneliness of human existence at bay.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube

The Devils (1971)
Director: Ken Russell (1971)

The Setup: In 17th century France, a Roman Catholic priest is put on trial for witchcraft and heresy, amidst fears of Protestant uprisings and political unrest. 

Now this is a juicy one. Ken Russell's The Devils starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave was blasted by many critics at its release, not to mention heavily censored and outright banned in many countries. Warner Bros deeply edited the film and even warned people on the posters that it might not be for them. The historical plot of the film is based partially on the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun, as well as the 1960 play The Devils by John Whiting. While the intense emotional, physical and sexual violence certainly makes for a harrowing experience that will definitely alienate whole groups of viewers, this is not a simple shock film. The impressive set design and cinematography, along with dynamic roles from Reed and Redgrave elevate this to a level of cinema that shouldn't be discarded as sheer exploitation. 

Availability: Good luck

Dead Snow (2009)
Director: Tommy Wirkola (2009)

The Setup: A group of friends spends an unforgettable winter weekend in a remote cabin, where the night sky is bright, the snow is perfect powder and the Nazi gold awakens vengeful, fascist zombies.

Tommy Wirkola's Norwegian thriller was made for under a million dollars, and rests gleefully on the shoulders of movies like Dead Alive, Brain Dead, and Dawn of the Dead. Its zombies are a mix of the classic shuffling corpses and the more spry and treasure-loving draugr of Norse mythology. It is very much a movie made by horror fans for horror fans, a cheekily self-aware bloodfest that delights in its own absurd premise. Rosemary's Baby it ain't, but if you find the phrase "Nazi zombies" even a little amusing, you will probably have some fun with Dead Snow

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on Amazon

- Jonathan Ross

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Honeycomb Hideout Episode 38: John Cena vs The World!

Alright, 'Combies! The boys are back and just hanging out. This time around the discussion is focused very locally and then it spirals out to include economy, Rick and Morty referencess, travel, worst places, conventions and more. It ain't quite a "melee" but it comes pretty damn close...  ;)   So come on down and hang out with the guys as even they get their internet-mandated injection of JOHN CENA!!!  That came out way dirtier than expected. And that was dirty as hell too. Oh well!

Download this episode (right click and save)

This is the video that we had just watched:

And don't forget to pick up Paul's book, The L.A. Division,  y'all!

Friday, October 7, 2016

31 Days of Horror

 I remember a moment as a young adult in suburban Michigan when I stepped outside in the falling dusk and felt the summer end. Growing up as a kid, summer was my favorite time of year because it meant long and languorous days with no school, and at least one lengthy adventure with my family. It meant that wonderful and excruciating boredom of being young and having your whole life ahead of you. It was the sound of lawn mowers and the feeling of dirty, calloused feet at the end of the day. The possibilities were infinite.

Fast-forward to adulthood and stepping outside at the end of the day and feeling suddenly a gust of wind that didn't belong to the summer. I remember feeling distinctly that I had just felt the first air of autumn, and I felt very privileged to have been there for that moment. It made me feel the deep kind of happiness that brings sadness along with it. Now, fall is my favorite season. The weather is cool and gusty, the trees blaze with color, and the season doesn't overstay its welcome. You have a brief time to drink cider and pumpkin beer, to murder an innocent pumpkin and, if you're like me, bask in the macabre.

For the last three years including this one, I've made a strangely satisfying personal tradition out of watching as many horror movies as I can pack into the season. In my head I've been calling it "31 days of horror," and the tradition is for me its own reward. This year I'm going to do a short write-up on everything I watch, partly for my own sake, but also in the hope that it provides you with some brief entertainment or edification. Perhaps you will get an idea for what to watch (or what not to) in the chilly nights ahead.
They are in no particular order or theme (not this year, at least) and I'm sure they will vary drastically in quality. So here goes. 

The Invitation (2015)
Director: Karyn Kusama


The Setup: A group of old friends are invited to a dinner party. As the night goes on it becomes clear that the hosts have some insidious and ulterior motives.

The strength of The Invitation is the same thing that might turn some viewers off: patience. Some might find the slow boil nearly interminable, and it probably depends on how much you buy into the sinister implications that are communicated through the mounting clues and effectively unnerving original score by Theodore Shapiro. The ultimate payoff happens with satisfying suddenness, even if it doesn't quite live up to the horrors of my own imagination. Overall it is an impressively cohesive thriller by director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer's Body), an unsettling journey for the patient viewer.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube

We Are What We Are (2013)
Director: Jim Mickle


The Setup: The Parkers are a small-town family that keeps mostly to themselves, until Mrs. Parker dies suddenly and mysteriously, leaving her two daughters and young son under the care of their stern patriarch. As torrential rain and flooding washes over the town, the disturbing truth about this reclusive family comes to light.

We Are What We Are is well shot and decently acted, and to its credit not over-eager to spill the beans on the thinly-veiled mystery surrounding its central family. This is a well-received effort from director Jim Mickle (he helmed the gory and satisfying vampire thriller Stake Land), but I'm having trouble getting on board. I was brought out of it by some fairly significant flaws in the script and, more importantly, I just didn't feel as horrified by the premise as the film clearly wanted me to be. It does finally lead to a climax that is equal parts grisly and absurd, which helped up the gore factor but made me groan and even laugh out loud (which I don't think was the point).

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube

Martyrs (2015)
Directors: Kevin and Michael Goetz


The Setup: A girl traumatized by a childhood kidnapping and subsequent abuse seeks vengeance years later, bringing her best friend into the fold. What they discover while seeking to settle old scores is larger and more insidious than they could have imagined.

I'm not going to lie, I watched this movie by accident. I was looking for the 2008 French original and didn't pay enough attention to the details when I was "shopping" on the, uh...internet store. Oblivious boob that I am, I watched the entire movie curiously underwhelmed before heading to IMDB to find out my mistake. Remember when Spike Lee remade Chan-wook Park's Oldboy to the disappointment of audiences everywhere? This is the French-to-American version of that, though I can't directly compare the remakes since I steered clear of Lee's Oldboy adaptation. I will say that Martyrs is not entirely hapless; it has moments of narrative intrigue and unsettling violence, but ultimately it somehow amounts to less than the sum of its parts. Stay tuned for notes on the (higher-regarded) original!

Availability: Digital Rental on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)
Director: Kiah Roache-Turner

The Setup: A mysterious outbreak causes the vast majority of the population to become zombies overnight, and the few (un)lucky immune need to go to desperate lengths to survive.

Australia has produced some noteworthy horror films in the recent past (The Babadook, The Snowtown Murders, Lake Mungo to name a few) and Wyrmwood will definitely appeal to a certain blood-thirsty audience. It largely pushes aside exposition and characterization in its eagerness to show off its love for gore and visual style. While this seriously inhibits our ability to care deeply about any of the characters, there are a handful of genuine chuckles and memorable scenes to be found in what is essentially a high-functioning B-movie. For fans of zombie movies and dark humor, you could probably do a lot worse.

Availability: Netflix Streaming, Digital Rental on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube

- Jonathan Ross