horror

28 Days Later

I always liked post-apocalyptic settings, and in 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, it’s the zombie apocalypse, which happens after a bunch of animal activists break into a research lab and free a chimpanzee carrying a deadly “rage” virus. Once a person is infected, they have 20 seconds before they turn into a mindless berserk monster. As the film’s title suggests, you don’t get to see the collapse of the society, instead the action switches to our hero Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle courier who wakes up in the hospital after suffering a road accident. Emerging from his coma, he wanders the silent, deserted streets of London, made even more eerie by the total lack of soundtrack. These early scenes of the abandoned metropolis and familiar postcard locations stripped of life are probably the most striking sequences in the film.

Soon Jim stumbles on a couple of survivors, including Selena (Naomi Harris), a tough-minded young woman grimly focused on staying alive. Some time later they encounter big and kindly Frank (Brendan Gleeson), holed up in a high-rise apartment block with his teenage daughter, and pick up a radio signal from an army unit near Manchester, offering safety. They decide to take the risk, and go on a car trip through the zombie land.

As I started watching the movie, I wondered if my DVD rental place had slipped in a crappy pirated version, because I felt like I was back in 1997 watching a VHS tape. I only realised later that the cheap and nasty video effect was a deliberate artistic choice, probably for a more documentary and immediate feel. I can’t say I cared for this affectation, but luckily the movie itself was good.

On the list of onscreen terrors, zombies occupy a lower rung for me, maybe because they’re fairly straightforward creatures, and I actually find the classic slow shuffling zombies more unnerving than the fast killing machines in 28 Days Later. Still, the film is a well-executed thriller, with the nightmarish atmosphere and effective use of speeded-up motion. It also has things to say about the human nature; Selena may imagine that she’s a kind of ruthless person who’d do anything to survive, but then the third act demonstrates what cold self-interest really looks like. The characters, while painted with broad strokes, are engaging, and the movie makes great use of its locations, whether it’s depopulated London, a church littered with corpses or a grand manor in the countryside. My only real quibble is the ending, which felt rather tacked on and disjointed. I did a brief research and yep, apparently the original ending was scrapped because they couldn’t get it past the test audiences. What a surprise.

The Wicker Man (1973)

I watched the so-bad-it’s-good remake with Nicolas Cage a while ago, so I thought I’d look up the original British cult horror movie with Christopher Lee. I really mean it in the best possible way, but my reaction could be boiled down to, what the hell did I just watch? This is a strange, strange movie, an utterly bizarre blend of folk traditions vs. Christianity, musical (no, really), detective story and horror. The latter doesn’t really kick in until the last ten minutes or so, but when it does the results are uniquely creepy and chilling. It was also interesting to compare the film with the misbegotten Neil LaBute remake, whose inexplicably terrible choices and revisions are even more stark in direct comparison.

The story takes place on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle, where a police detective named Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives to investigate a missing child, after receiving an anonymous tip-off. From the moment he sets his foot onshore, it’s clear that something is off-kilter. At first, no one seems to have heard of the girl, including her own mother and sister. Then it appears that she’s dead, a fact that nobody on the island is overly concerned about. As a devout and conservative Christian, Howie is also disgusted by the old pagan rites and beliefs that thrive on Summerisle, which include much frolicking in the nude, maypole dancing, reincarnation, worship of nature, and, as Howie comes to suspect, human sacrifices.

The many folky musical interludes took me by complete surprise, but they’re pleasant and catchy and help immerse the viewer further into the insular world of this small community where quaint, happy and colourful ever so often gets interspersed with dark and weird. I always found the old pagan lore fascinating and eerie, and with a huge cruel, mad-eyed streak to it. Nature makes for a pretty terrifying deity. Even so, for much of the film Howie’s narrow-minded intolerance makes him a rather off-putting protagonist, a sanctimonious prudish sourpuss with no sense of humour whatsoever who constantly lectures the islanders and berates them for abandoning Jesus.

At the centre of the mystery is the suave and benevolent Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), a gracious host who smiles fondly upon the girls jumping naked over the fires and insists that “We don’t commit murder up here”. Lee is absolutely magnetic in the role, and has to be about the only person who could make a goofy yellow turtleneck and seablown 70s hair look sinister. No scratch that; there’s a sequence near the end of the film where, during the May Day village parade, Lord Summerisle prances around in what amounts to drag, a long black wig and all, which in any other film would have looked like the most ridiculous thing ever, but comes off as super-creepy here.

Regardless of what side you think the filmmakers take in the clash of Christianity with the old pagan beliefs, the ability of seemingly normal, decent people to commit and go along with horrific acts done in the name of their religion is scary as hell. The Wicker Man is a truly original gem and hopefully it doesn’t get completely overshadowed by the silly Nicolas Cage bees meme, as entertaining as it is.

Alien Vs. Predator

Maybe it’s just the power of lowered (and I mean lowered) expectations, but to my surprise I didn’t hate this much-maligned crossover, and, from a certain perspective, found it a more enjoyable experience than the recent Alien: Covenant. Or perhaps I was simply able to disassociate it from the Alien franchise altogether, and watch it on its own terms as a trashy B-movie. Which yes is filled with cardboard-thin characters, laughable plot and much stupidity, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t have fun watching it.

The story is as basic as it comes and there’s absolutely no point trying to make it fit into the continuity of the Alien franchise, unless you want your brains to curdle. In the year 2004, Weyland Corporation, headed by Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen of the Aliens‘ Bishop fame, whose casting here makes no sense, but nothing else does either), finds a mysterious ancient pyramid resting deep under Antarctica. He assembles a crack team of scientists, drillers and explorers, led by Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan). Her badassery is established in the most cliche way possible: she climbs a dangerous ice wall and simultaneously discusses the job offer on the phone. What the clueless humans don’t know is that the pyramid complex is a hunting ground designed by the Predators, where they could hunt specially bred xenomorphs to prove their manhood… Predatorhood… whatever, while the ancient humans worshipped Predators as gods and served as breeding vessels. Very soon, Weyland’s team ends up being caught in the middle of epic smackdowns between the two warring species. But you know Alexa’s companions are going to be toast anyway, because no one can hope to survive after showing a happy snap of their kids in a horror film.

All of this is extremely silly, and my internal running commentary for the first half of the movie ran something like, Huh? What? Why are they doing this? But once the Team Stupid gets inside the pyramid and things go from bad to worse, the movie is an entertaining action/horror romp to watch. I’ve watched enough movies which are bad in a drab and humourless way, to appreciate the fun bad movies; I really can’t hate a film that has something as hilarious as a shot of a facehugger jumping in bullet time.

The production design looks pretty damn good and the pyramid interiors are suitably lavish and creepy. The effects for the Aliens and Predators hold up well, and the movie gets props for bringing back the Alien Queen. The R-rated human bloodshed is noticeably missing, but the movie at least doesn’t hold back where the monster-on-monster damage is concerned. A completely unexpected bonus was Sanaa Lathan as the chief protagonist; there’s really nothing much to her character as written, but she makes her appealing and easy to root for. Alexa is no Ripley maybe but she’s also not the forgettable what’s-her-name from Alien: Covenant.

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

The Mist

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, The Mist is a third story by Stephen King that Darabont adapted for the screen after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It would have been a pretty solid if unremarkable horror movie except for two things: a truly awe-inspiring monster sequence near the end, and the ending itself, which I suspect left many people feeling angry, depressed or both (I’m in the “depressed, but wow what a bold ending” camp, myself).

As far as horror film settings go, a supermarket probably wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind, but this is in fact where most of the movie takes place. The Mist doesn’t waste much time on the setup: when a bad storm leaves their house without power, David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son drive into town for some emergency supplies. Everyone else in their small Maine town had the same idea, and so the store is full of locals, weekenders and a few soldiers from the nearby military base. Soon, all hell breaks loose: a bloodied and distressed man runs into the store, air raid sirens begin screeching, and in a blink of an eye the supermarket is enveloped in an unnatural mist.

It’s not a spoiler to say that there are Terrible Things lurking in the mist that will attack and devour anyone attempting to leave. It begins with a pretty humdrum tentacle creature, but through the course of the film the monsters get more and more fantastical and unnerving, particularly if you’re not a big fan of insects and spiders. The actual explanation for the mist and the creepy-crawlies is not particularly interesting, but they’re mostly there to examine the dynamics within the group of terrified survivors, and what ordinary people will be driven to do when their ordinary world collapses. It doesn’t take long for the various tensions to arise, initially between the locals and out-of-towners. A far greater source of friction however is the local religious nut, Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who sees the events as God’s divine punishment for the sins of mankind. At first her doomsday mongering goes ignored by the rest, but as the situation gets more desperate and the body count increases, more and more people join her congregation, and start thinking that maybe a human sacrifice to the monsters outside is not such a bad idea.

I was about halfway into the film before I realised that there was barely any music in it, a decision which is quite effective and complements the documentary feel. Thomas Jane (who reminded me a bit of Christopher Lambert, of all people) is solid as the lead, but a bit too bland and lacking in charisma, as far as “everyman” actors go he’s no Tom Hanks. The rest of the cast do their best to breathe in some individuality into their stock characters, and I was amused to see the lady who played Charlotte’s snobby mother-in-law on Sex and the City pop up here. Overall, it’s a well-executed horror film which probably wouldn’t be that memorable if it wasn’t for its ending; hate it or love it, it does stick in the memory.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It’s been forever since I read Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel, but I can’t really remember Dracula giving the female heroine her sexual awakening. Nevermind, I do have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast trope and Gary Oldman as the monstrous yet tragic Dracula is captivating and sensual… well at least when he’s in his young human Gary Oldman form with the fabulous long hair. Not so much when he’s hanging from a ceiling as a hideous human-sized bat.

In this version, Vlad the Impaler turns to vampirism after the tragic death of his wife, who hurls herself off a parapet at the false news of his death. The priests tell him that a suicide will never enter heaven, which enrages Vlad; he renounces God and embraces the immortal life of a blood-sucking monster. Fast forward 400 years to the end of the 19th century, and Dracula sees a spitting image of his wife staring at him from a photograph belonging to a young attorney (Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. What the Heck Am I Doing In A Period Piece) who visits Dracula in his picturesquely sinister castle.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this adaptation is by no means perfect, but it’s a gloriously decadent feast for the eyes. I first watched this movie almost twenty years ago and its opulent imagery imprinted on my brain just from that one viewing. The imaginative production design, the sumptuous costumes, the unrestrained romanticism, the fantastic horror score are all a thing of beauty. There are billowing Victorian dresses, creepy shadows, long red cloaks, rooms full of candles, evil vampire succubi, bleeding crosses, and many many transitions between various circular shapes (like the eye of a peacock feather transforming into a railroad tunnel at the start of the film). The special effects and make-up still look good, other than a few decidedly cheesy shots of Dracula in his animal shapes. At the very least, even when the practical effects look dated and clunky you know that what you see onscreen is actually there.

The original novel was written as a series of documents, and the film largely preserves this episodic structure, switching between several protagonists and multiple narrators. This is somewhat to the detriment of the film, which feels like a succession of set pieces rather than a story with a real drive. The performances are a mixed bag; as mentioned before Gary Oldman is utterly magnetic and his line readings in the first half of the film as the bouffanted old Dracula (Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!) are just delicious. I couldn’t decide whether Winona Ryder is actually good as Mina, or whether it’s just that she has such a perfect look for the film with her huge dark eyes and her angelic beauty. Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top turn as the vampire hunter Van Helsing is hit-and-miss, sometimes it works and other times his wacky ways fall flat. Tom Waits is heaps of fun as the deranged bug-eating Renfield.

Keanu Reeves… ooh dear. I confess, I can never really hate Keanu Reeves even when his performance is like a walking wooden plank, but god he’s terrible here. Jonathan Harker is a pretty dull character to start with, and Reeves almost made me wish for Mina to dump her boring husband and go for the depraved immortality. Despite these shortcomings, there’s still plenty to love about the movie, especially from the visual standpoint, and it’s a fantastic take on the classic monster.

Get Out

My only regret with this film is that I already knew the big reveal beforehand from watching a spoiler-filled review. I’ve no idea why I did this to myself, I can’t even blame the reviewer who was thoughtful enough to include a spoiler warning – but I just kept on watching. The movie was still hugely enjoyable and suspenseful, and had other twists and surprises up its sleeve, I just wish I came into it knowing as little as possible.

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in an instantly sympathetic turn), a young black man who is about to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time in their affluent rural home. Rose never told her parents that her boyfriend is black, and Chris worries about their reception despite Rose’s assurances that her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. A different, simpler movie might have played it so that Rose’s parents are awful in an obvious racist way, but in Get Out Chris’s visit turns into a nightmare because Rose’s liberal neurosurgeon father and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist mother are just so hellbent on broadcasting how totally fine they are with Chris. But this awkwardness might be the least of his problems, as he gets increasingly creeped out by the very odd behaviour of the other two black people in the house, a groundsman and a housekeeper. They move around the place in a ghostly, silent manner, and when Chris tries to be friendly with them they’re cold and just plain unnerving.

If you briefly summarised the main mystery to someone who hasn’t watched the film it would sound incredibly silly, but it totally works in the context of the film, much like the potentially silly reveal of The Stepford Wives works in Ira Levin’s classic satirical thriller (Ira Levin I think would have enjoyed Get Out a lot). It takes care to lay the foundations for the reveal, so that when it happens it’s genuinely horrifying rather than inviting ridicule. There are certainly implausibilities, but you’re generally too busy being carried away by the film and its suburban-Gothic vibe to stop for nitpicking. It’s a superbly made thriller that juggles horror and humour, most of the latter coming from Chris’s lovable best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), TSA Officer whose natural inclinations to conspiracy theories come in handy.

One unexpected delight of the film for me was its score, which often sounds like it was lifted from the old-school horror movies with their shrieking violins, an interesting juxtaposition with the modern-day setting. My Mum who watched the film with me remarked that, just when you think that nothing new can be done anymore, a film like this comes along, and yes Get Out is the sort of fresh take on the genre you cherish.

P.S. The actor who plays Rose’s douchy brother looked naggingly familiar to me, and I only realised later that the same guy played the sweet-natured Banshee in X-Men: First Class. He’s certainly no sweetikins here!