Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Heroes of Horror: New Blood & Old Hats Part 1


It's safe to say that horror has changed a great deal over the years. Every facet of this oft derided cinema style has been altered in some way from previous decades as well as coming full circle in others. With the passage of time, the genre has gotten more and more graphic, eventually falling into a glut of repetitiveness and lazy ideas till someone comes along and shakes things up again. So far, there has yet to appear the new Bava, Raimi, Romero, Carpenter, or Hooper. There's been some promising talents to crop up, but like so much of 70s brutal horror and exploitation, this is more down to an enterprising hotshot hungry to shock an audience ultimately proving to be a flash in the pan till the fire has extinguished itself. The 70s, a decade brimming with grotesque visionaries, produced some of horrors biggest names, but also a lot of unrealized potential. Either these upstart directors continually produced pictures of little to no substance, or simply fell off the radar altogether. Many of them went on to careers in the industry, or found bigger fame in other genres. Where and who are the new crop of Horror Heroes?

Reflective of the trashy, low budget exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s, horror today tends to gravitate towards that very same "gore the merrier" attitude with so little left to the imagination. Only now the budgets are greatly increased and the films look a helluva lot slicker. Bigger isn't necessarily better, though. It's the same evisceration, decapitation, disembowelment over and over with a darker shade of blood with each passing flick and as much in the way of creative killing as the minds of the writers can muster. This is what passes for imagination in so many of horrors crop these days. For many, non stop gore is enough. That's not to say there isn't some ingenuity out there making the rounds, but like years past, this is relegated to a number of the independent filmmakers which are receiving some fierce competition from hungry foreign directors from Europe and Japan. In many of these cases involving foreign imports, if American producers can't beat them, they remake them.

One of the many retitlings of Hooper's EATEN ALIVE (1976)

Speaking of imagination, the guiding hand behind these vintage movies often cared about the finished product as well as satisfying the audience paying to see them in addition to giving them both goosebumps and something to think about on the way home. It wasn't always about grossing out the audience. There used to be a time when horror fans got giddy with the mere mention of an upcoming Romero movie, or the new production from Craven and Raimi. Hell, even at his lowest ebb beginning in the mid 1980s, Tobe Hooper still had the ability to rally his terror troops in the hopes he'd pull a good movie out of his hat. Some of Horrors Heroes have went on to "greener" pastures (Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson), but still retain their roots, so to speak. There also comes a time when these elder statesmen have reached the pinnacle of their craft and need to be "put out to pasture", despite carrying on with purportedly dismal results.


George Romero, frequently pointed out by his fanbase, is an example of this. Rarely has one of his non-zombie pictures attracted any lasting notoriety; yet when he delivers a new film about his most famous subject, fans reject it with contempt. Understandably, DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) is an extremely difficult film to follow up on. In its day, DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) received a fair amount of criticism from fans for various reasons, but is now considered a classic. Since then, Romero has turned out a few new zombie adventures with each being different from the one before it and with each having something to say between the lines. There has been a serious divide among fans regarding Romero's newer dead opuses, but one thing differentiates them from the rest of the independent pack; films like LAND OF THE DEAD (2005), DIARY OF THE DEAD (2008) and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD (2010) are all original takes on the dead tired zombie genre. They all tread different territory. Meanwhile, mega drivel like FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (2007) and DIE-NER (2010) receive a befuddling amount of high praise. Romero has directed a fair number of good movies outside of the living dead canon (MARTIN, CREEPSHOW), but he was so impeccably rough around the edges and didactic with his approach to the zombie mythos, everything he has done, or continue to do will constantly be compared to DAWN OF THE DEAD; and to an extent, his groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD from 1968.

Romero was so successful in his revisionism of the living dead that he inspired an entire European onslaught of flesh eating cinema that lasted some two decades. Guys like Jorg Grau, Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei have attained cult status with their own good, bad and downright nasty examples of the flesh shredding, shuffling dead. The Italian walking dead movie threatens to rise again with the release of the modern day gladiator zombie-slasher flick MORITURIS (2011) and the apocalyptic EATERS (2011), the latter of which is presented by Uwe Boll of all people. Boll's "name brand" will surely succeed in putting the proverbial bullet in the brain of the possibility of a new Italian zombie renaissance.


There also used to be a time when directors who frequently dabbled in the genre churned out consistently well mounted pictures and even those that frequently regurgitated mediocre movies still managed to amass and maintain a loyal cult of followers. Nowadays, a director can excrete multiple mediocre movies and be heralded a 'Master of Horror' because his film homages past artists and their superior accomplishments (1,000 cut rate corpses in a big ol' creepy house, anyone?). Some others armed with a slim resume even go so far as to adorn their own film with their name above the title (It's not easy bein' Green). John Carpenter earned the right to do this with consecutive GOOD movies. Prior to the blind imperiousness of some of today's 'rock'em sock'em horror directors, there was one such moviemaker who exploded out of the gate with one of the genres most controversial and critically appreciated examples of the cinematic endurance test. Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is a prime illustration of a movie that descends the darkest recesses of man and visibly shakes its audience out of a shock induced state of catatonia without utilizing anything in the way of extreme gore. The power of the film would fool you into thinking you saw flesh being penetrated by the jagged sharpness of a chainsaw, but that would be your imagination filling in the blanks. Very few, if any horror pictures can pull this off today.

Sadly, Hooper would lose momentum shortly after the start of the 1980s. However, he did direct the single scariest and unsettling vampire movie ever made with the Stephen King adaptation of SALEM'S LOT in 1979 and a choice slasher entitled THE FUNHOUSE in 1981. After directing the troubled production that was POLTERGEIST (1982), Hooper went further downhill, but did manage to turn in a reasonably dark vision with the pseudo remake, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS in 2004. Hooper faithfully sequelized his seminal piece of deranged Americana in 1986, but ultimately fell off the terror train with such wretched movies as SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (1990) and CROCODILE (2000).


In the 1960s you could count on filmmakers such as 'Master of the MacGuffin', Alfred Hitchcock and Italy's macabre maestro, Mario Bava to regularly deliver chillers to the masses. Both artists are like night and day when comparing their styles. Hitchcock was capable of crafting incredibly stylish motion pictures with veritable ease as well as becoming one of cinemas most significant moviemakers. While he isn't known as a horror director, his PSYCHO (1960) alone is responsible for a legion of future slashers, and his THE BIRDS (1963) could be viewed as the film that made audiences take the 'Nature Amok' sub genre seriously. The pedigree and popularity of both those milestones will always keep Hitch in close association with horror. Arguably Britain's most influential export in the movie world, his closest approximation to emulating that style in America would be Brian De Palma. Again, this director is not known for being a horror filmmaker; his monumentally frightening 1976 film CARRIE has solidified himself a spot among the horror faithful. Some of his other films such as SISTERS (1973), PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974), THE FURY (1978) and DRESSED TO KILL (1980) have elements of horror in them as well.

Steven Spielberg is among a small contingent of filmmakers who either started in horror, or flirted with it occasionally before embarking on a career of greater expanse ranging from adventure spectacles to powerfully dramatic features. His early works on the TV show NIGHT GALLERY and the terrifyingly taut TV Movie DUEL (1971) notwithstanding, Spielberg was responsible for one of horrors seminal works, the first major blockbuster, JAWS (1975). Spielberg may not be a horror director, but this movie that almost wasn't contains more sheer terror than a dozen so called horror films in today's market. JAWS is that rare breed of movie that resonates as much fear now as it did during the time of its release. His INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), a film that was so shocking that it caused the creation of the PG-13 rating, also has enough 'shock and awe-fully' gory moments to fill the bloody coffers of the average horror hound. What's overwhelmingly sad about the mention of Hitchcock, De Palma and Spielberg is that those three randomly selected filmmakers have made far better horror movies than the very directors who claim to be the genres champions of today. The glut of what passes for horror these days is infected with a PORKY'S level mentality and it doesn't appear to be going away any time soon, nor does it appear to be growing up.


Adam Green and his HATCHET 2 crew

By comparison, what we get today from directors who work predominantly, or exclusively in the horror genre puke up garbage like HATCHET (2006) and 2001 MANIACS: FIELD OF SCREAMS (2009), the crap sequel to the borderline mess that is 2001 MANIACS (2005). The director of HATCHET is the noticeably enthusiastic Adam Green. Boldy stating a return to "oldschool American horror", HATCHET gets by on splashy gore effects, decent atmosphere and cameos by genre regulars such as Kane Hodder, Robert Englund, Tony Todd and little else. Oldschool American Horror was scary, not funny the last time I checked. Allegedly, this throwaway fear flick has since earned itself a cult following. It did manage to garner an infantile sequel that repudiated much of the mythology that came before it going so far as to introduce the supernatural into the mix. HATCHET 2 stars horror heroine and fan favorite Danielle Harris. Here, she manages to mangle an accent that comes and goes; there's even more splatter effects laced with even more painful comedy and even worse dialog and direction. After a disastrous limited theatrical showing, this one quickly hit DVD and apparently sold enough units to deserve(?) a third installment which threatens to slap the horror genre in the face a third time later this year.

Green did helm one of the most intense horror pictures of the new millennium in the form of FROZEN (2010); a taut terror tale about three friends accidentally left stranded atop a ski lift which will be closed for an entire week. Surprisingly, this single locale provides numerous opportunities to generate genuine horror and Green doesn't disappoint. Sadly, Green would return to juvenile horror-ible with the aforementioned and thoroughly abysmal HATCHET 2 (2010). Amazingly, the films title bears the directors name above it in a pretentious bit of showboating the likes of which hasn't been seen since Carpenter's days. Incidentally, Carpenter had made a few GOOD movies prior to utilizing such a practice. In its minor measure of defense, HATCHET 2 does sport some spectacular poster artwork. Green also added his name to the even more vapid, hopelessly puerile crapola that is CHILLERAMA (2011). His 'Diary of Anne Frankenstein' segment displays the most creativity of the bunch, but that's not saying a whole helluva lot. This movie, an anthology which is supposed to be a tribute of sorts to the bygone days of the drive in, is anything but. It's more of an insult and an embarrassment to those involved. If you find non stop dick jokes your idea of hilarity, then this is your movie. Incredibly lame, the film also sports the participation by another director who has been heralded as one of horrors hopefuls, Tim Sullivan.

Sullivan (left) with another horror hopeful, Eli Roth (right), a guy who was beginning to shine before he slowed down to a crawl after a seemingly frustrating experience with the superior HOSTEL 2 (2007)

Sullivan has worked in various capacities on various movies of varying quality, but his directed efforts leave a lot to be desired. Just based on his two MANIACS movies and that pathetic CHILLERAMA segment, there's nothing visibly apparent to show any ability to drum up the most elementary of horror basics. Elementary is a good word to describe his horror-ible movies; his "Werebear" segment in the aforementioned eyesore that is CHILLERAMA being a chief component to the sorry state of horror these days. Astonishingly, Sullivan is reportedly spearheading a series of horror related productions bearing a "Tim Sullivan Presents" moniker. The mind boggles. Guys like George Romero and Tobe Hooper had true ambition and brought their nightmares to the screen with an incredibly small amount of funds and driven by dedication to their craft. Both NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) became serious cult classics because they were scary and relied on societal issues to enhance their value. They had a lot to say about mankind as well as distorted familial values and not a dick joke in sight. Today, the filmmaking horror hipsters are uber cool because they stuff their films with familiar faces and nods to past horror favorites made with ten times the bloody beating heart and soul. To hell with actual skill or a good script when you got Sid Haig and Bill Moseley for marquee value, right?



The Woman (2011) review


Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman), Sean Bridgers (Chris Cleek), Angela Bettis (Belle Cleek), Zach Rand (Brian Cleek), Lauren Ashley Carter (Peggy Cleek), Shyla Molhusen (Darlin' Cleek), Alexa Marcigliano (Socket)

Directed by Lucky McKee

"Have you ever known me to let things get out of hand?"--Chris Cleek to his secretary.

The Short Version: This sick, twisted horror film is the insane progeny of FATHER KNOWS BEST after being raped by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. If thought provoking endurance tests like MARTYRS are enticing to you, then this film is perfect for your unsavory itinerary. That's an endorsement, by the way, as Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum prove to be a match made in horror movie hell successfully and savagely shoveling one of the most repugnant, yet beautifully captured maleficent, misogynistic motion pictures down our throats. If you're brave enough, view at your own risk. A near masterpiece of the macabre and the moribund, it's rude, rowdy and has something to say. You'll either love it or hate it. Stick around for a totally bizarre extended scene with Darlin' after the end credits have finished.

While on a solo hunting excursion, Chris Cleek, a reputable lawyer and family man, finds a feral female bathing in a stream. Capturing her, Cleek chains her up in his basement. Instead of notifying the local authorities, the seemingly moralistic patriarch intends to "domesticate" this animalistic woman which results in some shocking revelations.

Working from a novel written by both Jack Ketchum and director McKee, this pseudo-sequel to 2009's OFFSPRING (that films director takes a producer credit here) almost defies classification. Successfully distorting audience perceptions, this dirty little movie will likely derive some of the most disturbing emotional responses in those who see it--that is if you're able to make it from the beginning to the beyond insane finale. Gathering a firestorm of controversy since its festival showings last year, the films long gestation towards completion is well worth it for those who can appreciate this mind numbing descent into human depravity. That's not to say those who find this movie morally reprehensible shouldn't wear the scars burned into them after this 100+ minutes have ended as a badge of honor. Honestly, what do you think you're getting with a film bearing the name of Jack Ketchum among the credits?

Lucky McKee (who also directed the Ketchum novel RED [2008] for the silver screen) explodes with grotesquely fervent brilliance with this tonally and graphically unsettling motion picture. Categorically speaking, this disquieting, nightmarish vision of the All American middle class iconography carefully and brutally marries skewed normality and untamed savagery that--particularly in the third act--recalls the atmosphere of Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). Prior to the proceedings going straight to gore drenched hell during the finale, the filmmakers painstakingly pick their shock moments. Some of these are built up through foreshadowing and others are artistically manipulated through dissolves and nerve-jangling edits often accompanied by brooding, or lovelorn alternative rock tunes that reflect the onscreen drama and cruelty.

It's here where the filmmakers intentions are unclear. These are very strong, powerful moments, but the use of these songs, as eloquently morbid as they are when paired with the visuals, may be construed as blackly humorous. Perceiving some of these tastelessly accomplished scenes as darkly comical will no doubt make some viewers infinitely more uncomfortable with what is unspooling before their very eyes. By the time the finale has arrived, the chains are broken and all bets are off. Things subtlely and explicitly alluded to over the course of the movie finally boil over into a miasma of violence punctuated by a geek show level of shock and awe that will leave your jaw on the floor and those with weak constitutions either feeling nauseous, or ejecting the DVD altogether.

Probably the only real fumble this film makes is in it being a sequel to the far inferior OFFSPRING (2009). If you've not seen, nor heard of that movie, you will be perplexed as to who this Woman is and where she comes from. There's a brief scene at the beginning that appears to be a dream sequence alluding to the notion that the Wild Thang was raised by a wolf. Still, considering the quirkiness and the outrageous schism of the typical family unit that is revealed here, the doubtless confusion over the title femme feral fatale and her origin will likely fade for those unfamiliar with the previous picture. However, knowing who she is and what she has done prior to her capture, McKee succeeds in doing something Rob Zombie has failed at repeatedly in his own movies--derive sympathy for the title monster.

One of the keys to this films success in that respect is the creation of another monster that is equally as vicious, but bearing a facade of a civilized familial bread winner. Ketchum's adaptations are rife with this kind of oppressive evil hidden away from the eyes of society; particularly in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007) and THE LOST (2008). One could also say this script is a revisionist version of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR; that films tortured innocent being substituted for the voracious amazonian cannibal clan leader of OFFSPRING. But while Cleek commits atrocities to The Woman that aren't too far removed from what she and her now dead clan had perpetrated on their victims, the difference lies in that one ferociously bathes in neolithic tendencies and the other hides them from those outside the family unit.

One constant that those who will love or hate this film can agree on is that it's incredibly misogynistic. There are those who state the movie glorifies it and others that say it denounces it; that this production is actually about the empowerment of women. If anything, OFFSPRING had more of a dominant female core than this film does. The title Woman held fierce sway over her cannibalistic clan. Here, she is helpless through much of the movie. Furthermore, this is one of those movies with a certain level of subtext that will allow every viewer to come away with their own interpretation. It becomes quickly apparent that the head of the Cleek household has a serious dislike for women and this only swells till the ball-busting conclusion when McKee and company body slam the viewer into 70s exploitation territory. Upon capturing this wild woman, one wonders why he doesn't simply call the police. Cleek's quirky peculiarities are amplified by the near constant rapture of barking dogs. Just what does he keep out there in the cages with them? Subtle nuances involving his terrified daughter Peggy and the foreboding evil emanating from the youngest son, Brian reveal that this is a seriously dysfunctional family of the highest order.

Misogyny is defined as being 'the hatred of women'. There are many movies that tackle this topic; some glorify it for sensationalist purposes and others outright condemn it. THE WOMAN is such an experience, although it muddies the water making it unclear as to what it's truly trying to say. This is both a visual and visceral experience and you will take away from it what you will. Regardless of how you feel about it, misogyny is a subject that is seriously broached here and one that runs rampant throughout going completely wild during the finale. The Man forces The Woman to eat at her feet; cleans her in a humiliating sequence with a high pressure washer; slaps and punches his wife around at the first sign of disobedience or question of authority; The Man rapes The Woman then slips comfortably back into bed next to his wife; disbelieves his wife regarding one of the films many revolting sequences; Brian, the son, seems pleased while watching a little girl being bullied; he exacts revenge on a schoolgirl for beating him in basketball by putting gum in her comb; Both father and son revel in the unmitigated destruction of the female form during the last 15 minutes--a wildly perverse denouement that words cannot accurately describe.

I would say it's a logical assumption that this picture does not condone violence towards women. Considering what The Woman did in the previous movie, an argument could be made she is getting a taste of what she dished out to her victims. But what of the others? There are two wonderfully edited sequences here amidst the widespread nihilism. One speaks volumes without the use of dialog and another is an asymmetrical sequence that bonds several emotions together all at once. The former is a moment wherein Belle (Bettis) may or may not free herself from the constricting binds of her distracted husband while The Woman grimaces in approval. The latter is a collage of mini scenes (such as Belle buying groceries and trying to maintain her composure while chatting with a friend) cut together evoking numerous bits of exposition with little to no dialog ably aided by a song on the soundtrack.

So is THE WOMAN a misogynist fantasy? Of course it is. The ONSCREEN hatred of women is glaringly apparent and personified by Chris Cleek and his devoted son, Brian. Up until the end, I don't feel it glorifies this violence or demeaning treatment, but presents it as an ugly, abhorrent behavior. But again, the way some of these scenes play out, some viewers will likely come away with conflicting viewpoints. Much like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978), you have to endure 80 minutes of pain and suffering for a 20 minute payoff, and by then, you're ready for it. Some may take issue with that, but "good" triumphs in the end as appalling as it may be. Is this a movie about the empowerment of women? I don't think so. The only female who manages to usurp her confinement is the title character and she is anything but lacking in strength. Judging by the 25 minute 'making of' on the DVD, everybody had a great time making this offensively absorbing little movie.

Horror is supposed to hit a nerve. If it doesn't, it wasn't necessarily successful in its mission. THE WOMAN hits multiple nerves. It also has multiple agendas. One of them is to tell a provocative story and shock you along the way. Granted, by the end, unabashed exploitation takes center stage and this is where the misogyny is at its most abrasive and sensational. Whatever the filmmakers feelings are on their work, they've succeeded in garnering the required reaction which all depends on what you take away from this movie much in the way Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS (2008) pummeled its viewers. It's nigh impossible to watch that movie without being affected in some way. THE WOMAN works on much the same levels in its tinkering with audience perception. It may not have the same sort of profound, semi religious message at its core, but it speaks on multiple levels including domestic abuse, chauvinism, what goes on behind closed doors and the squashing of a taboo subject or two.

The performances are all extraordinarily top notch. Pollyanna McIntosh reeks of charismatic savagery in her mostly silent performance. Hopefully, this delightfully imposing actress will go on to a successful career in the acting field. Uncharacteristically of The Woman, there's two incredible moments of poignancy where the film attains a brief instance of remorse for both her--and fleetingly--her captor. Immediately after cleansing the ferocious female (she musters the word 'please'!), Chris has her dressed, gives her water and a good meal. Scarfing it down and allowing The Man to get close to her without "snapping" at him, her near starved and tired body looks up and repeats the words "Thank you." The movie never again approaches this kind of semi dramatic solace, but it's morbidly touching that such a moment is in there. Granted, this moment of congeniality from Chris is short lived. While she's the central freak on display, The Woman isn't the main attraction.

Sean Bridgers epitomizes the dark soul that exists in all of us. He is "The Man" to this films "Woman". But then, the films title could also stand for all women and the struggles they face in destructively violent relationships. The Abused Woman; The Pregnant Woman; The Neglected Woman; The Strong Woman. Bridgers character is every woman's worst nightmare for a significant other; a vicious, evil man masquerading as a devout family man leaving no clues for friends and neighbors to sense the dark soul housed within. The actor pulls it off with gleeful abandon. He's quite insane and the lengths of his depravity are hinted at without any graphic depiction till the wildly over the top finale. Angela Bettis is strong as the weak-willed wife trying to cope with being the stay-at-home-mom living a lie hiding her miserable existence while pretending to be the happy housewife. Her performance is another strong link among a chain of grand performances.

The extraordinary soundtrack is the work of Sean Spillane. It's made up of a string of powerful quasi ballads that mimic and mock the onscreen action. These even include a rollickingly catchy country-rock tune entitled 'Complicated Woman'. It's also in this area where some may take issue with the films intentions considering some of these songs make light of the overly sensitive subject matter. However, the non-vocal tracks are just as grim as the scenes they're married to. The sound design and editing are also of a high caliber. These add immensely to the whole nerve shattering experience for a film that is going to raise more than a few eyebrows, cause a few jaws to hit the floor and upset more than a few stomachs. In the end, it's one of the most masterfully mounted perverse pieces of filth filmmaking to emerge in a long time. Director Lucky McKee was anything but that in making this film. He simply hit a horror home run using his skills armed with a love for the material and the genre in general.

This review is representative of the Vivendi Entertainment DVD

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