Tag Archives: Horror

Prometheus (***1/2)

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Oh, it’s that alien from that one movie.

“And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” ~ Genesis 6:6-7

Primordial terror. That’s what Ridley Scott’s Alien did for space travel in 1979, just as Jaws had done for the beach four years before. The idea of implacable, efficacious, and simple death embodied in a creature put in a room (or a boat) with human beings. Scott brought in Swiss painter H.R. Giger’s haunted Freudian imagery for the alien’s design, sadomasochistic fusions of flesh and metal imbuing the film with a palpable sense of disconcerting otherness (i.e., alien). This move, along with Scott’s laconic evocation of dread, elevated a boilerplate slasher flick set in space into something more aesthetically substantial. Much has been written about the themes at work in the film, but I trust Scott when he says (as I have read) that it was simply about scaring the crap out of people. He simply found some ideas (male impregnation, evolved biological killers, chest-bursting, all that unctuous seminal slime) that would set people’s nerves on edge so that their defenses were worn down by the time the beast started killing off those helpless crew members in the dark.

Prometheus, functionally Alien‘s prequel, reads like a somewhat bookish attempt to identify the original film’s distilled essence (primordial terror) and plumb that thematic well for its roots. If senseless, implacable death freaks us out like nothing else–what’s going on there? What’s the reductio ad absurdum of our deepest fears?

You have to admire the film for its ambition: if Alien skewed towards the slasher end of the Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-meets-2001 spectrum, Prometheus skews towards the grand cosmic mystery end. Eighty years from now the Weyland Corporation sends a manned spacecraft somewhere far away to investigate clues about the origins of life on earth. On board are scientists, engineers, flight crew, corporate reps and an android. The planet they land on contains some answers, more questions and a primordial soup’s worth of squirmy dangers. How they got there, who they were intended for and who they might yet harm are points of interest in the film. Scott twists thrills and ideas together unapologetically, aware of the need to entertain enough audience members to justify the budget needed to craft visually bold science fiction in a post-Avatar world.

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Come on science: keep on mapping the unknown until there’s nothing left to discover. Floaty-y scanner device (c) Google, 2014.

As befitting the best Ridley Scott films, it’s visually marvelous. I usually feel as though CG somewhat cheapens a film’s visual effect, but it would seem that technology has caught up with the director’s vivid imagination. We’re caught up with the explorers within this intricate biological desolation, one alive with texture, dust and rough edges. And rather than the kitschy synthetics of so much effects work, there’s plenty of viscous bodily fluids (and other bodily things) sloshing around to remind us that human flesh is on the line. I know I’ll never think of a Cesarean section the same way again.

I am sad the same can’t be said for the music. Scott’s other science fiction works established their emotional tones early on, both Alien‘s scraping industrial strings and Blade Runner‘s moody synth laments contributing to senses of screamy portentousness and angsty android dread, respectively. But Prometheus doesn’t begin to find its aural tone until well into the first act, and throughout the score is a so-so generic pastiche of epic spaciness. That the film remains strong despite such a huge oversight speaks to its finely crafted nature, its near-masterpiece degree of genre proficiency.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (****, 1992)

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I have been saying on this blog that the value and excellence of a film is a relative quality. There exists no objective, external standard by which all films are measured; they must be understood in relation to themselves (what are they about?) and to the audience (who cares?). In essence, film criticism means attempting to talk about whether or not films effectively show and tell what they’re about in such a way that the audience might care. It is on these terms that Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) excels as a virtually perfect vampire movie.

It closely hews to the plot of Bram Stoker’s nineteenth century novel, which begins with Jonathan Harker’s (Keanu Reeves, easily the weakest part of the whole film) trip to Dracula’s home in the Balkans on a matter of London real estate business. The big bad means to set up shop in the English capital, where he could surely feed on lots of grubby Dickensians. Coppola’s approach, however, is not a linear story of halting an evil plan, but a visually sumptuous evocation of evil as a mysteriously seductive force which strangely and surprisingly wreaks havoc on Harker, his fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder), and their upper crust-y friends (who include a lamentably underused Cary Elwes). Coppola’s films are always dense with rich imagery, luscious sounds and big emotions–in a way, the wedding feast that opens The Godfather is paradigmatic for all his “big” films. It’s the ideal sensibility for translating a gothic melodrama to the movie screen.

Gary Oldman stars as Dracula, introduced in what I’m pretty sure is a mytho-historical elaboration on the source material involving the fifteenth century Vlad the Impaler, the fall of Constantinople, a dead wife and resulting rage at Christ and his church. Hundreds of years later he looks really old, but is still alive and creepily rendered by Oldman as a barely human creature with a rasping voice. With Jonathan Harker entrapped, the demon journeys to England where he focuses his energies on young Mina (who looks exactly like his dead wife) and her sexually curious friend Lucy. As the latter slips into vampirism after her seduction by Dracula, her concerned suitors send off for Van Helsing (a fantastic Anthony Hopkins) who then leads them all in the fight against dark forces which concerns the second half of the movie.

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Dracula’s obsession with and undying love for Mina/his wife leads to the most interesting scene in the film (this is spoiler-ish), where, finally with his object of affection, the evil creature can’t bring himself to subject her to the same evil which has enslaved him for centuries. Her mind clouded by evil and seduced by passion, Mina willfully begins to drink his blood anyway before the boys with guns and swords intervene. It is, character-wise, the most complex moment in the film, and a brilliantly realized examination of the simultaneous repulsiveness and seduction of evil. Both predator and prey are, for that moment, painted as victims of dark forces beyond their comprehension and control.

Vampires in pop culture today are legion, but a lack of mythological grandeur has devalued them artistically. Tim Burton’s vamps are cutesy weirdos, Twilight‘s no more than Tiger Beat heart-throbs. Those of Blade & Buffy are closer to Fright Night‘s clever connotation of vampire as “the f***ing shark from Jaws“, but there remains in all three a reductive view of evil (where repulsion far outweighs seduction) and a lack of real mystery and spirituality. Like Guillermo del Torodirector Coppola’s (latent? lapsed?) Catholicism infuses his horror with a sense of the mythic sacred lacking from so many pop cultural treatments of evil. Unlike its many peers, Dracula shows the Devil for who he really is.

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Alien Resurrection (***, 1997)

Brad Dourif is one creepy mofo.

I watched you. While you were sleeping.

I’ve decided this movie gets a bad rap. It is by no means a great film, but its reputation suffers since it has the legacy of its predecessors (forgetting for a moment Alien3) to live up to. Taken by itself, however, Alien Resurrection is a rollicking and goofy sci-fi flick with hints of screenwriter Joss Whedon’s eventual excellence.

After having fought the shark-like brutes on an interstellar cargo ship, a terraforming colony and a prison planet, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) must again tussle with the titular aliens on a military science vessel seeking to weaponize the xenomorphs. Having tossed herself and an alien in a pit of molten lead at the end of the previous film, Ripley finds herself alive and well after a two-hundred year hiatus via a cloning process which has mixed her DNA with an alien’s. She’s stronger, faster and has corrosive blood. Win.

It knows why the caged bird sings.

What the film sets up is an opportunity for a ragtag space freighter crew to team up with mutant Ripley in yet another gruesome survival match versus the skeletal demons with whip tails and eggplant heads. Special guest stars include Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Winona Ryder and Brad Dourif (LOTR: The Two Towers, the Chucky movies). People are of course killed off in various ways and it wouldn’t be a Whedon production if some arrogant authority figures (here the military and their scientist cronies) didn’t get their comeuppance. The cinematography is often blackish and muddy, but the production design and creature effects gel nicely. It doesn’t have the snap, crackle and pop of a great genre film, but I wouldn’t call it boring. There’s enough carnage to keep things interesting.

Its better predecessors were great accomplishments, A+ films in their respective genres and exemplary icons of movie-making. Resurrection, however, is a B movie through and through–but it gets an A for effort.

 
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The Cabin in the Woods (*** 1/2)

Wait–what?

A blonde, a redhead, a stoner, a jock and a nerd drive an RV to an aged and rustic cabin in the woods.  In order to find it they have to stop for directions at a decrepit country gas station where a sleazy bumpkin gives them directions–and a warning.  Upon their arrival, the cabin just seems like an out of the way place to party, but soon dark happenings make it clear they will have to fight for their lives.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because Joss Whedon and Drew Stoddard’s The Cabin in the Woods self-consciously mimics (and contorts, cross-pollinates and combusts) established horror tropes such that the film is more so about a genre exercise than sexed-up coeds getting axed in the wilderness.  As the kids say these days, “It’s so meta.”  Fortunately, like Scream before it, its narrative glibness mostly works and to thrilling effect.  And while it doesn’t have the crowd-pleasing, chummy goofiness of Edgar Wright’s hits (Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead), anyone ready for grisly scares and unexpected plot turns will have a blast.

Even those who haven’t seen the twist-suggesting trailer will know from the opening scene that this movie isn’t just about a cabin in the woods.  Two white-suited technicians (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins!) chat up mundane domestic issues while riding a golf cart through an unspecified facility, occasionally dropping hints that they will be involved in shaping the fates of the primary cast.  The way the title reveal is coupled with this scene is one of the film’s best laugh-out-loud moments, a description which sounds like but certainly isn’t intended to be condemnation by faint praise.

We’re then summarily introduced to our chopping-block collegiates as they prepare for their weekend getaway.  Thor’s Chris Hemsworth is the jock and ringleader, Whedon-veteran Fran Kranz (Topher from Dollhouse) his snarky pothead foil with a ridiculous and creative bong and Anna Hutchinson as Hemsworth’s horny fake-blonde girlfriend.  The other leads are Kristen Connolly, whom the film casually and quickly sexualizes, in the ingenue survivalist role and Jesse Williams as the hunky “nerd” the other couple attempts to set her up with.  The first half of the film entails their getting to the cabin and the gruesome details of what happens there, intercut with more and more information about the people pulling the strings.

And then… well, if you feel underserved by the first half of the movie, just wait for the third act.  Imagine Whedon’s multi-monster hellmouth scenario from Buffy as an explosive pandora’s box of table-turning, stakes-raising chaos condensed into a literal hell of a finale.  The payoffs are wild, bloody and exciting, even as the film continues to reveal the layers of danger at hand.  If certain sections of the film’s beginning feel perfunctory in their genre-mimicry, nothing does about the way things end.  Horror aficionados will be thrilled, if not truly horrified, as will anyone ready and willing to stomach this bloody-slick, extra-clever cut of entertainment.

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