Apr 18 2015

Reading Material: The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film — Second Edition

dreaddifferenceWhen Aliens was days away from hitting theaters in the summer of 1986, I distinctly remember reading a piece about it in Rolling Stone. In particular, I recall a reference to the original Alien’s Nostromo ship designed as vaginal, while the creature was a phallus.

How this oddball kernel of film theory snuck in such a mainstream mag escapes me, but it struck me as odd: something I had never thought about before and something that has stuck with me ever since. I was pleased to see the subject merits its own chapter — plus half of another among a full 23 — in the University of Texas Press’ second-edition release of The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant.

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Apr 17 2015

[REC] 4: Apocalypse (2014)

rec4[REC] 4 is on a boat! It’s the veteran captain’s last voyage before retirement. A big storm is brewing. Radio communication is out. There also is a zombie-virus-infected monkey onboard. What could possibly go wrong?

All of it, including the movie itself. [REC] 4: Apocalypse arrives as such a letdown, I’ve rechristened it [REC]tum.

For the Spanish horror series’ reportedly final installment, Jaume Balagueró returns to the director’s chair after sitting out [REC] 3: Genesis. This one combines story threads from that 2012 prequel, as well as the earlier chapters, and aims to tie them up once and for all. Primary among them is Chiclet-toothed broadcast news reporter Ángela (Manuela Velasco, reprising her role from the 2007 original and 2009 sequel), now rescued from the apartment building and quarantined on an oil tanker to ensure total isolation.

rec41Also on the ship is a laboratory, where scientists are working on a retrovirus. To do so requires they have the virus, however, which accounts for the aforementioned monkey. Don’t worry, because they have that little beast locked down in restraints and … well, you know how those things go.

But [REC] 4’s first problem is that it takes a full half-hour to go anywhere beyond one small circle. Balagueró takes too much time introducing crew members, nearly all of whom cry expendable at first glance. Doing so causes something from which none of the previous chapters suffered: serious lag. “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!,” you’ll want to scream.

Once the undead finally start to spread, something about the proceedings feel like a third-rate copycat than a third official sequel. Typically, tight quarters raise stakes in a horror film; here, Balagueró exerts no attempt toward spatial orientation, which could account for what little action exists playing out halfhearted, save for one over-the-top bit involving an outboard motor. It is not nearly enough.

Apocalypse, no. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 16 2015

Vacancy 2: The First Cut (2008)

vacancy2Who among us left 2007’s Vacancy with a burning desire to learn the backstory, e.g. “I’d sure enjoy that more if only I knew how the snuff-film killer became a snuff-film killer”? Me neither, which may explain why Sony Pictures sent the prequel directly to DVD, if not made it expressly for that medium. Here’s the thing, though: Stupid subtitle and all, Vacancy 2: The First Cut is pretty good, or at least good enough. Even denied stars Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson, not to mention director Nimród Antal, it’s as satisfying as that original sleeper hit.

Title screens inform us that Vacancy 2 depicts the demise of the inaugural batch of victims among some 200 snuff videos found at Meadow View Inn when authorities shut the place down for good. The way director Eric Bross (Vampire Bats) sets this up, you’re forgiven in advance for thinking the proceedings will play out as found footage. Luckily, they do not, charting its antagonists’ progression from mere Peeping Toms into Mansion Family members bitten by the cinema-vérité bug.

vacancy21At the out-of-the-way motel, Gordon (David Moscow, Big’s mini-Tom Hanks all grown up) and partner-in-crime Reece (Brian Klugman, Cloverfield) have rigged a room to tape couples’ sexual romps, copies of which they sell on the underground market. When one “Mr. Smith” (Scott Anderson, reprising his killer role) checks in with a prostitute — only to penetrate her with a knife, as opposed to … y’know — they gain a third partner and leap from homemade porn to the only genre more despicable.

Enter two relocating Chicagoans, played by the perennially underrated Agnes Bruckner (TV’s Anna Nicole) and Trevor Wright (2001 Maniacs: Field of Screams), and third-wheel friend Arjay Smith (Be Kind Rewind). Checking into Gordon and Reece’s cheap motel under the dead of buzzing neon, they’re told, “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to scream” … and yet they stay anyway.

Suspense is kept at a mild boil for a good two-thirds of the running time. As expected — a little too expected, given the flash-forward prologue and prequel concept — the film degenerates from a perfunctory thriller into a rote contraption of who can stab and/or shoot whom first. Like father, like son. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 15 2015

Dracula Untold (2014)

draculauntoldIn 1442, by order of the sultan, the Turkish army enslaved and conscripted 1,000 boys from Transylvania. (Why all the underage soldiers? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’.) Out of that group, the prologue of Dracula Untold tells, one emerged as a “warrior so fierce”: Vlad the Impaler, not yet known as Dracula, not yet a vampire.

In fact, returning to Transylvania as a prince of peace, Vlad (Luke Evans, Fast & Furious 6) is a family man with a wife (Sarah Gadon, Antiviral) and towheaded tot (Art Parkinson, TV’s Game of Thrones). That sweet life comes under threat when Turkish warlord Mehmed (Dominic Cooper, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) comes calling to revive that old “recruitment” process of 1,000 boys, Vlad’s included.

draculauntold1What’s a dad like Vlad to? Kick Mehmet’s ass. How? By climbing Broken Tooth Mountain, atop which a vampire (an eerie Charles Dance, Alien 3) lives, ready to imbue Vlad with a shortlist of superpowers:
1. the strength of 100 men,
2. the speed of a falling star,
3. dominion o’er the night and all its creatures,
4. and good ol’ immortality.

The downside? Just an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Vlad decides to submit to vampirism anyway. Oh, shit, sorry: Spoiler alert.

With his deep-red cape and symmetrical-patterned coat of armor, Vlad 2.0 looks and acts very much like a comic-book hero; ergo, Dracula Untold is his origin story — his birth on Krypton, his bite from a radioactive spider. Here, Vlad is rendered the original “bat man,” morphing his body into a belfry’s worth of bats to leap from one point to another in a fraction of the time. This provides him an upper hand on the battlefield, and us with an admittedly cool effect, surpassed only by an ashes-ashes-all-fall-down finale. Having infected blood proves so advantageous in war that Vlad passes it out to his fellow fighters like frat boys discovering Red Bull (“It’s got wings, bro! Wings!”)

Freshman director Gary Shore does an admirable job of shoehorning plenty of atmosphere into what is first and foremost an FX extravaganza. More commendable, newbie screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless bring a comparatively fresh take on Bram Stoker’s oft-filmed creation. Dracula Untold truly is unlike any other Dracula movie before it because it could get away with dropping the famous name altogether — but what would be the marquee value in that?

With almost all trappings of horror scraped away, the film is an action-laden, sword-slinging fantasy: a fanged 300. It’s also Universal Pictures’ initial step in rebooting its classic monsters for a shared-universe franchise to follow the mighty Marvel template of moneymaking moviemaking. While not so good as to be great — Evans’ flowing locks are more noticeable than his performances — it’s a solid start. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Apr 14 2015

The Naked Witch (1961)

nakedwitchMaybe I’ve got a thing for 100-year-old widows, because the 59-minute wonder known as The Naked Witch did it for me. This, despite an overnarrated, history lesson disguised as a nine-minute prologue — a slideshow of encyclopedia illustration after encyclopedia illustration that is less about educating audiences on witchcraft through the ages and more about the filmmakers trying valiantly to push the running time over the one-hour mark and into feature-length. They did not.

No matter. Deep in “the hill country of Central Texas,” a college student (Robert Short, wooden as a 1914 set of Tinkertoys) researching his thesis is on his way to “a singing festival” when the gas gauge on his sports car points to “E.” He’s forced to hoof it to the closest “thoroughly German village,” where he learns the legend of the Luckenbach Witch. Ever the nosy tourist, he ventures to the cemetery in the dead of (day-for-)night to locate the reputed sorcerer’s grave.

nakedwitch1Succeeding, he selfishly removes the petrified stake from her mummified corpse, thus bringing her back to life and in the shapely form of a beautiful young woman (Libby Hall, Common Law Wife) with pert breasts. We know this because, as the title has it, she’s starkers. Acquiring a see-through nightie, the heretofore nude enchantress embarks on a plot of murderous revenge on the ancestors of those who treated her so ill many moons ago.

All of this is done to a baseball-game organ score and no recorded sound. With Mars Needs Women’s notorious Larry Buchanan at the helm, would you expect anything less? (Oh, you would? Good, because you’ll get that, too.) It’s really saying something to call The Naked Witch as among Buchanan’s cheapest of concoctions, yet its once-risqué charm, embodiment of minimalism and absolutely bonkers concept combine for a thoroughly memorable exploitation experience. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.