Friday, October 23, 2009
Written and Directed by Jonathan King
Released March 29, 2007 (New Zealand)
Want to hear four words that can get me to automatically rent a movie, sight unseen? How about "Genetically engineered killer sheep?"
Still, as slapped my money down at the rental counter for the New Zealand-made Killer Sheep, I tried my best to keep my expectations at bay. I remembered seeing a feverish preview of this film floating around online a few years back that made Black Sheep look like an insane bit of Sam Raimi-esque, Evil Dead meets Peter Jackson's Dead Alive craziness.
And for a brief moment, that's what you get. After an extended prologue that sets up the relationship between the young versions of our protagonist Henry and his evil brother Angus, along with the establishing the roots of Henry's fear of sheep, we meet the adult Henry upon his return to the family farm. Returning to wrap up some unfinished business with his brother, Henry cannot wait to leave his past behind.
Meanwhile, his brother is up to no good, having turned the family farm into an experimental genetics lab that has -- for reasons I can't seem to remember -- begun working on a mutated form of the seemingly harmless woolen animal.
This is a horror film... what do you think happens? If you guessed, "The sheep hits the fan," you're right.
Problem is, as batshit crazy as the premise sounds, the potential for insanity here is touched upon but never capitalized on the way you might want from a movie like this one. It's not that the film takes itself too seriously, though there is a danger of that, especially early on in the film where everything is played straight (save for the arrival of two completely annoying environmentalist hippies).
There's a scene right after the "outbreak" begins where a sheep pretty much goes all Toonces the Driving Cat, hilariously taking the wheel of a truck and plummeting to its death. I cheered inside, thinking that this was finally turning into the movie I wanted to see. Bring on the camp! Bring on the gore! Bring on the insanity!
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty here to crack up about. I just wanted more. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it felt like the comic timing was just a little... off. Perhaps there was too much exposition, or maybe there were too many long (and not all that funny) exchanges between Henry and Experience, the female environmentalist. Once that Toonces moment hit, Black Sheep should have just gone off the rails and never let up. As it stands now, there are just too many breaks in the action.
There's still plenty to be impressed about here, especially in the cinematography and special effects work. The movie looks and plays better than any movie with a plot like this probably should. One of writer/director Jonathan King's most impressive feats is how he manages to make something like a sheep slowly chewing grass, or a herd of sheep advancing over a hill, seem completely terrifying by not doing much more than letting his camera roll. The special effects (done through Peter Jackson's WETA Workshop) were equally impressive, and again almost done too well for a horror comedy.
Good but not great, Black Sheep does master one particular idea of successful entertainment: always leave your audience wanting more.
For more on Black Sheep:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Some pretty decent reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.
The aforementioned Toonces scene:
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Anyone who may have been following this blog last year might remember that October marked the most fruitful, challenging task I set for myself: reviewing one horror movie per day for the entire month.
Fortunately, this time around finds me in a loving relationship with a few better ways to spend that time every night than punishing my psyche sitting through soul crushing filth like Cannibal Holocaust. I am, however, also fortunate enough to have found a woman who appreciates a good horror movie... or at least appreciates my enthusiasm about horror movies enough to allow me to force her to sit through them.
So, tonight I'm posing a handful of brief reviews of movies recently viewed. While I obviously won't be putting myself through the ringer this month, I'll try to post reviews of as many movies as possible before the Trick or Treaters hit the pavement.
(Oh, and if you live in Chicago, please do me a favor and allow me to live vicariously through you if you happen to check out the 24 hour horror marathon going down at the Music Box Theater's "Music Box Massacre 5." Looks to be an amazing festival, and it all winds up with tonight's lead off movie...
Written by Lawrence D. Cohen (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Released November 3, 1976
Do I even need to give a plot synopsis here? I mean, if you're reading this column you had to have seen Carrie by now, right? If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, I guess I'd just say: "Don't fuck with the weird kid in school, because you never know when they might have psychotically triggered telekinetic powers."
While this wasn't the first time I'd seen Carrie, it was definitely the first time in at least a half dozen years. I'm happy to report that this classic Horror flick (mostly) stands the test of time. Sure, there are moments when the score sounds ridiculously dated, and sure, William Katt's hair is a singular monument to the indescribable excesses of 1970s awesomeness.
But man, once you get to that third act Prom Night scene? The build up of tension starting at the moment the titular Carrie (played by Sissy Spacek, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar that she rightly lost to Faye Dunaway for her performance in Network that year) begins preparing for her date all the way through to her return home is almost unbearable. By the time Carrie steps out of those heavy gymnasium doors, I honestly felt relief. It helps, I must add, to have your television turned up loud for this sequence.
Carrie was the first Stephen King novel ever adapted to the screen, and it was also one of the most successful and well made. Director De Palma, who made a career out of aping Alfred Hitchcock, puts his own stamp on things here (or at least apes a director with less identifiable hallmarks).
I can't stress enough how much this entire movie falls on the shoulders of Spacek and, even more so, Piper Laurie (also nominated for an Oscar here) as her religious, overbearing and abusive mother. Had the relationship between these two stunk for a moment of inauthenticity or comedy, the entire film would come crumbling down. Picture a lesser actress doing those reaction shots where Carrie taps into her telekinetic powers; you'd be howling with laughter.
One caveat if you intend on watching this movie through Netflix's streaming service: they use the (inexcusable) fullscreen version of the movie, making the entire flick look like it was shot for TV. This effect is especially frustrating during the moments of split-screen violence in the Prom sequence, or the dance scene where the camera spins dizzyingly around Katt and Spacek.
Remember kids, unless you're watching on a 10" TV, ALWAYS GO WIDESCREEN.
Written by Rhett Reese Paul Wernick
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Released October 2, 2009
Getting a little too hyped for its own good lately, the Woody Harrelson action/comedy Zombieland is merely an okay horror movie, a better-than-average entry into the Zombie Horror subdivision with a few decent scares and a handful of laughs. Though inspired by Shaun of the Dead it reaches but can't hope to match the heights of that film's perfect balance of satire and unflinching violence.
Harrelson does an okay job as basically a redneck Natural Born (Zombie) Killer, though he is given some hard to stomach lines ("Nut up or shut up," comes to mind) and a somewhat annoying character motivation (finding the last Twinkie on Earth, though his explanation for this fixation at one point is actually acceptable). Jesse Eisenberg fares okay with his mannered Micheal Cera impersonation, and the first scene where his character lays out his Rules for Survival is amusing and fresh.
Zombieland is definitely entertaining, and those of you out there who may be less jaded or inundated with zombie lore might enjoy it even more than I. Director Ruben Fleischer comes up with some cool, memorable moments, especially in the hilarious opening credit sequence. Perhaps a little too stylized (we are reminded via onscreen text of Eisenberg's "rules" about two or three too many times), the film falters when trying to be poignant by finding the humanity among all the onscreen destruction. Problem is that the film establishes itself so early on as an anarchy-fueled amusement park ride that you just don't trust it when it tries to get your waterworks going.
HOWEVER, and this is a massive HOWEVER, there is a 10 minute segment of Zombieland featuring a brilliant cameo from one of my all time favorite comic actors, that elevates this flick from "okay, not bad" to "you have to check this shit out." Some sites out there have taken to spoiling the surprise, but trust me, even if you know the identity of the person, you won't be prepared for how batshit crazy this segment of the movie gets. Take what you want from the rest of Zombieland, but I defy you to keep your jaw from hitting the floor when you see what happens to this "character."
Written by Trent Haaga
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel
Gee, what a surprise that a movie directed by the same hands that made films like Operation Midnight Climax, in collaboration with a writer who normally acts in dreck like Tales From the Crapper, turns out to be absolute shit.
What's really surprising is just how abhorrent a film Deadgirl is, starting with the basic premise: two high school losers explore an abandoned mental hospital and find in its basement a naked female strapped down to a gurney. The two quickly realize after a few violent encounters that this woman cannot be killed. So, what do they do? Do they call the cops? Do they let her go?
Nope. No, in today's world of torture porn like Saw, they do what pretty much no human being on the face of this Earth would do (especially after discovering that this "woman" has a deadly bite): they decide to keep her as a sex slave. Imagine, if you will, that shudder-inducing scene in Kill Bill where we discover the disgusting abuse Uma Thurman's character suffers in her coma... then multiply that by at least a thousand.
I'm not trying to take moral high ground here (with a movie like this, it's really not hard to do). I love plenty of movies that, on the surface, are hard to explain from a morality standpoint. Hell, I'm a big fan of shows (and music) like "Metalocalypse," where sometimes millions of people are murdered as a punchline or a slapstick gag.
It's just that I don't understand why this movie was made at all. I mean, I get why something like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead exists as both a horror movie and an allegory for consumerism. People are constantly trying to re-adapt the symbolic or allegorical meaning behind zombies (though thankfully, the aforementioned Zombieland seems to not give a shit about double meanings).
But what's the allegory here? What's the greater meaning, and is it really a lesson that anyone with more than a lizard brain needs to learn? The even better question to be asking: what kind of person invests their money in something like this? I understand there's always that need in a Horror film to shock... to go to that place no one in the audience thought you'd go. This, though, this is something else. The level of misogyny on display here is utterly disgusting, especially since the "redeeming" character, who spends the whole movie fretting about going to jail, exhibits just a modicum less disdain for women than everyone else in the movie. I mean, at least he never stabs her, right?
Even despite these protestations, the movie still fails on the most basic levels. Lame dialogue, idiotic characters making unbelievable decisions and a pacing that is just too slow to even maintain suspense are all weaknesses. It could have been a provocative film with a better, smarter script. Instead, we get this irredeemable shit.
For more on tonight's films:
- Deadgirl at IMDB.
- Zombieland at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Carrie at IMDB and Wikipedia.