Monday, December 8, 2014

Advent of Atrocities-Day 8: The Divide (2011)

Dir. Xavier Gens

I like fun horror movies.

I’ll gladly cough up ten bucks for 90 minutes on a twisty, turny, gory thrill-ride of a flick. I’m also a Class-A sucker for a horror comedy that brings the bloodshed and belly laughs in equal measure. And I can easily get caught up in the spook-show atmosphere of a classic black and white creature feature. Honestly, there’s a horror movie for every occasion.

But the kind of horror film I really love is a nasty, brutal, endurance-testing, soul-raping slog through Hell that spits you out the other side a quivering sack of misanthropy. Xavier Gens specializes in those kind of horror films, and The Divide is a breath of fresh air for people who love the smell of putrification.

There goes the neighborhood. All of them.
The Divide begins with a nuclear explosion in a major U.S. city, and a building evacuation that only a handful of people survive by making it to the fallout shelter in the basement. What follows is a document of the breakdown of order the group experiences as food becomes scarce and the group splits into factions.

Every community needs a dentist.
It’s not so much a spoiler as it is fair warning to tell you that despite some tantalizing clues that only serve to deepen the mystery, the cause of the explosion is never revealed. The audience remains with the survivors, woefully unaware of what is happening, and just trying to stay alive for another day.

Things play out much as you would imagine. Initially everyone follows the only person who has a clue about how to survive. Michael Biehn gives his greatest post-Terminator performance as Mickey, the sneering, cigar-chomping, building superintendent who regards the basement as his personal space and his fellow survivors as the charity-cases he has generously agreed to shelter.

A sneer so fierce you can practically hear it.
Michael Biehn scares little girls.
Now there's the Michael Biehn we know and love!
But as mistrust grows, some people begin to side with the two young, hot-headed toughs who’ve been trapped with them. Predictable? Somewhat. But it’s not the story that elevates Gens’s post-apocalyptic nightmare, but the way it is told. We bear witness to the slow degeneration of each character. Some become tyrants, others their pets. Some become prisoners, others traitors. The toughs go through such a remarkable transformation that they’re unrecognizable by the movie’s end.

Josh and Bobby resembling human beings.
This is... Magnum.
Lauren German wishing she'd stayed in Hostel 2.

The most devastating transformation is Marilyn, played with heart-breaking realism by Rosanna Arquette, who begins the movie as a single mother, becomes a basketcase, then a willing whore, and finally a sex slave. Her final fate is summed up with the nauseating words, “She just… broke.”


Rosanna Arquette and a sad, sad bunny.
Scenes from the Sid and Nancy remake.
Duct tape can't fix everything.
While the group dynamics are the focal point of the movie, there’s also a “home” invasion sequence that works particularly well. From their terrifying hazmat-by-the-way-of-stormtrooper suits to their gigantic white assault rifles, these bad boys put the plastic tunnel scene from E.T. to utter shame.

Hello. Hello! HELLO!!
He's going for the armored barn owl look.
Everyone could use a flu shot.
When the survivors manage to get ahold of one of the suits and designate thuggish Josh (Milo Ventimiglia in a 180 turn from his Heroes persona) to investigate, he finds zero answers and about a thousand questions. And I love that the film never answers them.

Quit smiling Milo, you ain't on Heroes anymore.
E.T. Tunnels!
Da fuh?
While The Divide is an ugly, ugly film, it is beautifully shot. The colors, the lighting, the frame composition are all artfully done, and even when the shelter begins to resemble a crackhouse, it remains visually striking, if not exactly beautiful.

Doggie wants a treat.
The ending is good and fitting, and not entirely a down note. More of another giant question mark. While the ending comes as a surprise, it’s not really the point of the film.  After all, it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. Even if the journey is a nasty, brutal, endurance-testing, soul-raping slog through Hell. 

Just, ewwww.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent of Atrocities-Day 7: Otis (2008)

You could be forgiven for having passed up (or never having heard of) this straight to DVD horror comedy, but after reading this post, you will be expected to hunt down a copy of your own, give it a place of honor on your DVD shelf, then buy extra copies for your 9 closest friends. You'd be a fool not to.

Otis is the story of a 40-year old pizza delivery boy who is obsessed with going on the perfect prom date. To that end, he regularly kidnaps high school girls, keeps them locked up in his basement, and forces them to role-play his dream date: Kim. If they don't play along, they get punished. If they do play along, well, we don't exactly find out. But there's a long trail of bodies left behind.

The premise is pretty sick, and Bostin Christopher is beyond creepy in the title role. But it's not creepiness that makes this movie a winner, it's the abyss-black humor. When Otis abducts Riley Lawson (Ashley Johnson), her family finds out where he lives and goes after him.

Illeana Douglas gives the film's standout performance as Riley's mother, whose thirst for revenge tops Otis in depravity. But she doesn't play it as demented, but more matter-of-fact. Sure she's mad as hell and out for blood, but she's always in control.

Her husband (Daniel Stern), on the other hand, is freaking right the fuck out. The two play off each other like the old pros that they are, with Stern a histrionic ball of panic and Douglas a calm, focused psychopath. Add to the mix and overly enthusiastic son, and you've got the hands-down funniest graphic torture scene of all time.

"I've already smashed him in the face with a shovel. I... I hot-wired his rectum!"

And believe me, the scene is brutal. But any discomfort you feel just feeds into your laughter at the dialogue. I don't want to spoil too much of the fun, but here's the best line in the whole movie: "I thought your dad could cut his fingers and toes off and we could blend them into a smoothie and make him drink it." Now imagine that line delivered with a proud smile from Illeana Douglas. Okay, whatever you just imagined wasn't half as funny as her delivery.

Aside from being disturbing, gory, and hilarious, the cool thing about Otis is that despite being the Big Bad, Otis is constantly being outsmarted and manipulated by the girls he abducts. For a movie where women are assaulted and used as playthings by an overgrown manchild, Otis is surprisingly feminist. Riley survives by her wits, manipulating Otis to her advantage and (MINOR SPOILER) manages to escape without anyone's help. She's a final girl on par with Nancy Thompson.

As a character, Otis is equal parts menacing and pathetic. He dons his brother's old football uniform and makes Riley dress as a cheerleader, cheering just for him. Leading up to prom night, he takes her on a series of dates, one involving garden gnomes.

And just look at the dance scene from Otis's dream prom.

Despite her dread at the prospect of certain post-prom activities (read as all-but-certain rape), Riley can hardly suppress a laugh at Otis's expense.

 As a villain, Otis is a fully-formed character rather than a faceless thrill killer. You never come to like the guy, but you can understand him on some level. Then when Riley's ideal suburban family unleashes their domestic variety of Hell, Otis suddenly doesn't look so bad.

In closing, go forth and pick up your copy of Otis, abduct a date, and blend up some smoothies for your garden gnomes. It'll be more fun than the prom.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Advent of Atrocities-Day 6: Larry Fessenden, Patron Saint of Horror

Let this post serve as an informal award for the most underappreciated Master of Horror: Larry Fessenden. When I was making my list of films to include in my Advent of Atrocities, films either directed by or starring Larry Fessenden were taking up a lot of real estate. It was damned nigh impossible to choose between them, so I decided to lump them all together. So here's you're gift for the 6th day of Christmas: the magesty that is Larry Fessenden.

When you think of the Masters of Horror, the names that come up might include John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Wes Craven, or one of the new school masters Ti West, Jim Mickle, or Eli Roth. But very little noise seems to have been made for Larry Fessenden. Chances are, most people know him as this guy:

That's right, he's the sleazy neighbor who gets killed at the beginning of You're Next!

But Dear Gods if that all you know him as, you're missing out. Let's go through a brief list of Fessenden's horror credentials.

He has directed:
Habit (1995)
Wendigo (2001) 
The Last Winter (2006)
Beneath (2013)
ABCs of Death - N is for Nexus (2014)

Okay. so admittedly, there's not anything you'd consider a classic on the list. But here's sampling of films he's produced:

Zombie Honeymoon (2004)
The Off Season (2004)
The Roost (2005)
Sisters (2006)
Trigger Man (2007)
I Sell the Dead (2008)
House of the Devil (2009)
Bitter Feast (2010)
Satan Hates You (2010)
Stake Land (2010)
Hypothermia (2010)
The Innkeepers (2011)
Late Phases (201)

This is why I call him the patron Saint of Horror. He's produced most of Ti West's best work, Jim Mickle's best film to date, and a slew of other horror titles that proves his dedication to the genre. The actual list is much longer, but I only included the horror titles. He also produces all kinds of indie films, Wendy and Lucy particularly stands out. The point is: this man is knee-deep in blood and guts, yet he's not a big name.

Fessenden in Bitter Feast.

Perhaps that is by design. As the founder of Glass Eye Pix, his philosophy of filmmaking is that you don't need a massive budget or big star to make a great film. Since 1985, Glass Eye Pix has been producing great indie flicks by auteur directors, especially young horror directors. In short, Larry Fessenden is doing God's Work.

Beyond that, Larry Fessenden is a kick-ass character actor. Here's a brief list of his horror-related roles:

The Strain (2014)
Jug Face (2013)
We Are What We Are (2013)
The Battery (2012)
Hellbenders (2012)
Silver Bullets (2011)
Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)
Cabin Fever 2 (2009)
I Sell the Dead (2008)
Mulberry Street (2006)

I could go on, but you get the point. This man is essential to modern horror.
Although none of his directorial efforts has reached classic status yet, let me highlight a few of them, because each and every one (that  I've seen) is a standout.

Habit (1995)

Behold a young Larry Fessenden at a Halloween party dressed as Cyrano de Bergerac. If he looks drunk, it's only beacuse he's drunk.

Here's Larry on his way to the Halloween party. Yes, he's got a drinking problem. His father has recently passed away, and he's taking it a bit hard. Not only that, he's got to give an acceptance speech for an award his father won, but didn't live to receive. The beauty of Habit is that it is so character-driven that the horror element is almost unnecessary. To me, that's the mark of a well-crafted horror film. Are the characters compelling enough that you could take away the horror element and you'd still have enough to base a movie on.

Habit is a story of newfound love in a particularly difficult time in one man's life. It's also a vampire movie. I can't say that the vampire element is necessarily used to explore a larger theme, but it's a hell of a great vampire film. And it's one of the rare instances in which Fessenden plays the lead character. And he's great. He's got a slovenly charm about him that makes you understand why the vampire character is fascinated by him. Watching Habit, it's difficult to understand why he didn't become a more prominent actor. Dude's got the goods.

Wendigo (2001) 

I don't know about you, but I've always been fascinated by the legend of the Wendigo. It's a dark spirit that was said by the Algonquians to represent the balance of nature, and to induce a madness in people that led to them indulging in cannibalism.

Like Habit, Wendigo is a character-driven tale with a family at its heart. Kim and George and their son Miles take a trip out to an isolated cabin belonging to a family friend. On the way there, they hit a deer with their car. A group of hunters springs out of the woods, angry because they'd been tracking the wounded animal for hours, and further angered by the fact the the impact of the crash has cracked one of the antlers, making it less valuable.

The family's weekend is marked by aggression from the psycho hunters, and by something darker in the woods. Wendigo is a micro-budget masterpiece by a filmmaker unconcerned with fame and money. This is a labor of love, and it shows.

The Last Winter (2006)

Larry seems to have thing for snowy environments. Wendigo, The Last Winter, and Beneath all take place in cold climes. But The Last Winter is where the weather acts as a major character. The film concerns a group of oil scouts in Alaska who have been forced to take on an environmental scientist who must assess possible environmental impacts of their operation.

Needless to say, weird stuff starts happening. One of the young crew members goes missing, and leaves behind a video of him talking crazy and venturing naked out into the arctic landscape. On the tape are mysterious shape that can't be explained.

The Last Winter is, as far as I know, the first environmental horror movie. It tackles the question (as does Wendigo, to a lesser extent) how does nature fight back when humans violate its balance?

Full disclosure: I haven't yet seen Fessenden's two newest movies. But I would heartily recommend each of the films highlighted here, plus Bitter Feast (a tale of a celebrity chef seeking revenge on his fiercest critic) and You're Next! (If you haven't seen this, don't call yourself a horror fan until the situation is remedied).

And on one last note, if you're still unconvinced of Larry Fessenden's awesomeness, he also produces a web-based horror-themed radio drama series named Tales From Beyond the Pale. If any of you are into Arch Oboler's Lights Out or the old Rod Serling radio plays, Fessenden is the man bring that stuff back. Each episode boasts a celebrity cast and a name author. Sir Lawrence, you just put everyone else to shame.

Your assignment: Watch a Larry Fessenden flick, then tell me how right I am in the comments. Go!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent of Atrocities-Day 5: Dark Touch (2013)

Dir. Marina de Van

I've spent the last 5 months trying to figure out how to write this review, and I've finally come up with an angle. I ain't telling you shit about this movie. Here's why: It's one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better. There's a first act reveal that just nauseated me (meaning I loved it) and I don't want to rob you of that experience.

Watching the beginning of Dark Touch, you get little hints that arouse your suspicions and your unease continues to build as you think, "Don't let what I think is happening be happening." And then it is. And then you emotionally puke a little. That's not to say that the movie peaks in the first act, just that it needs to unfold exactly as it does to be most effective. So if you know nothing about this movie, don't look it up. Don't read the synopsis, and please don't read anyone's comments on it. Just go straight to Netflix and stream it (Yes, it's available right now! You can't wait to see it on my recommendation, right?).

Oh, and don't be put off by the cover image, as I initially was.

This cover looks, to me, like another knock-off Japanese creepy ghost girl flick, which I am so SO not into.

So if I'm not telling you shit about the film, what can we talk about here? Let's start with Marina de Van. Burn that name into your memory banks right now (MARINA DE VAN, MARINA DE VAN, MARINA DE VAN, MARINA DE VAN, etc,) because she is the next phase of horror filmmaking. I believe Dark Touch is her 3rd feature. Her first was In My Skin (not to be confused with the fifty other films with "skin" and "in" in the titles), a disturbing body horror meditation that she also stars in. I'd have a hard time choosing which film was better.

In Dark Touch, the divine Ms. de Van tackles some serious real world horror using the supernatural as a parable, and does so with maturity and intelligence. The most frequent complaint I've seen from reviewers is that Dark Touch is lacking in the story department. In my humble opinion, these reviewers are severely lacking in the cognitive skills department. The story is all there, spelled out coherently, but subtly. She expects her audience to be paying attention to the emotional beats instead of shoving popcorn into their faces. The story is told, not in broad strokes, but in subtle looks and silences. It also features a woman getting furniture screws through her neck and chin, so it's not all Howard's End; there's some Carrie in there as well.

This cover probably captures the feel of the film best.

The performances are just uniformly perfect. Missy Keating as the girl Niamh (pronounced Neve, bloody Irish and their Gaelic spelling) gives a standout performance and would definitely have been on my best actresses list for 2013 if I'd seen it that year. Then there's Marcella Plunkett as her foster mother, who in addition to being a fantastic actress, has a hugely compelling face. I'm not kidding, you just stare at it and marvel about its complexity. It's a face that tells stories without saying a word.

Lastly, there's Charlotte Flyvholm, who plays Niamh's school psychologist. She's the single most appealing character in the film. She's a good-hearted person doing the best she can to help a severely traumatized child, and she's so warm and charming that you just want to curl up in her lap and let her stroke your head. My only complaint about the film is that her storyline is dropped before the climax, a loose end that is never followed up.

Finally, just let me mention the ending. After a relatively slow-burn of a movie, things go very bad very quickly. While I'm tempted to relate how sick and twisted the finale is, I'm afraid I'd be building it up too much. On the spectrum of sick and twisted, we've all seen worse, but it still manages to jar you. And in the context of the whole film and its themes, it's the perfect way to end things: the continuation of a cycle.

Anyhow, now that I've spent 7 paragraphs not telling you about the movie, go stream it. I'll expect a full report in the morning.

P.S. I've seen from my stats that there are only 5 people reading this regularly. Identify yourselves in the comments and let me lavish you with praise for your impeccable taste in blogs.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Advent of Atrocities-Day 4: The Battery (2012)

The Battery isn't so much a horror movie as it is a zombie-themed art-house indie road movie. And by the way, that's a good thing. I imagine most of you are pretty burned out on zombies, and I'm with you on that. Remember the good old days when Romero's Dawn of the Dead was the end-all, be-all of zombie films and only you and your horror nerd friends had actually watched it? Twenty years after it was made, it was still edgy and fairly underground. These days you can't walk into the kids' department at K-Mart without tripping over a box of cutesified zombie jammies. Also, remember K-Mart. I'm old.

The point of this rambling zombie nostalgia is that after the bombast and spectacle of the multi-million dollar zombie flick World War Z, a small, intimate zombie movie like The Battery is the only thing that can bring this genre back from the dead. The Battery is essentially a 2-man show. Ben and Mickey live in the now too familiar post-zombie-apocalypse America, wandering through the woods and looting houses to get by. The film's title, by the way, does not refer to a car battery, as I was certain would be the case. It is actually a baseball term I was unfamiliar with, meaning the catcher and the pitcher, which is exactly what Ben and Mickey were, pre-ZA. Aside from the fact they were on the same baseball team, the two have little in common and have vastly different coping strategies for dealing with the new world order. Ben embraces the brutal, nomadic lifestyle of this new world, relishing the freedom it affords. Mickey wants nothing more than to hole up in a house or find some other trace of civilization.

The zombie action is kept to a minimum, with the focal point of the film being the relationship between the two leads. If you like your horror films fast and ferocious, The Battery may put you to sleep. What the film does instead is to simulate the feeling of what life would be like after most of the population is dead or zombified. In a word: boredom. Director (and the dude who plays Ben) Jeremy Gardner isn't afraid of long, lingering shots in which very little happens. The movie opens with a full two minutes of Mickey smoking and changing the batteries in his Discman. There's also a toothbrushing scene that goes on well over a minute. Writing this, it sounds awful. But within the context of the movie, it works. Just be warned that The Battery requires a high tolerance for art-house pacing.

While the movie is slow, the interaction between the two leads is highly entertaining and often hilarious. Ben's kind of an asshole, but not the worst person to be stuck with. And that's kind of the point of the movie. Two guys who don't really like each other that much come to depend on one another and eventually form a bond deeper than either is aware of. Plus Mickey masturbates to zomboobies! Just thought I'd throw that in there.

I won't spoil any more of what happens, but I do need to mention the greatness of the music. I'm so pissed that there's no soundtrack available, because every song that plays in the movie is pure gold. No wonder Mickey's got headphones on all the time.

Now that I'm at the end of this review, I realize that I haven't made much of a case for why this movie is so good. And I still can't figure out how to express it. But trust me, if you're sick of the whole mass media zombie-bombardment of the last several years, don't let that put you off from seeing it. The Battery is the anti-World War Z.