Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is the Zombie Apocalypse Becoming More Conservative?

Eaters (2011)
Directors:Luca Boni & Marco Ristori
Seen @: Carolina Theater, Chapel Hill
Presented by Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 2/10

It really only took the words "Italian Zombies" to get me interested in Eaters. Italian horror has an enormous legacy, and is responsible for some of my all-time favorite films. I haven't really seen too much that's notable from the Italians since Cemetary Man though. I was anxious to see if this film would re-ignite the remnants of the legacy left behind by the likes of Fulci, Argento, Bava, Deodato, or Lenzi.

Unfortunately, it fails on just about all fronts. A hint of the disappointment to come occurred when "Produced by Uwe Boll" appeared on the screen. (Although, to be fair, I later found out he wasn't involved in any aspects of the film-making process, just the funding.) At first glance, Eaters is just a shoddily made zombie film with rampant CGI and bad editing. However, its true ability to offend runs deeper if you're willing to look. Stuck for 90 minutes with such a well-worn plot, my mind struggled in vain to dig something interesting out of this mess. What I ended up with disturbed me even more.

We follow two main characters, the macho Igor (Alex Lucchesi) and the depressed Alen (Guglielmo Favilla), as they work under the employ of Dr. Gyno (Claudio Marmugi). Gyno (yes, that really is his name) sends the two out to collect bodies for some experiments to determine the nature of the zombie plague, and the two head off on a road trip. As in most road movies, this one is defined by a series of stops, and on each stop we meet a different crazy faction of survivors. If you still think neo-nazis are shocking, then there are some here for you, complete with midget Hitler (sigh). There are the requisite religious fanatics as well, a man who paints with zombie parts, and various other individuals supporting the notion that nobody sane will survive an impending zombie apocalypse.

Eventually, the two stumble upon a teenage girl, and the focus shifts to keeping her safe while getting back to Gyno. When it becomes clear that Gyno intends to use the girl in fertility experiments, Igor and Alen suddenly realize they've been under the employ of a mad scientist and decide he has to be taken out.

Now let's connect the dots: faced with an overabundance of men in the world and few surviving women, Dr. Gyno wants to enable the propagation of species by coming up with a zombie/human hybrid that can reproduce. Igor and Alen, on the other hand, have more "traditional" views of how the species should propagate. Just in case you might miss this, they constantly talk about how much they love women, and in Alen's case, how much he misses his poor wife. When they eventually find out what Gyno is up to, the logical conclusion they come to is that the dude must be blown up. He is up to some unnatural stuff - men should shoot guns, fuck women and make babies, just like God intended.

I think the underlying message all fell into place for me in one of many scenes where our two protagonists drive a car through a poorly green-screened landscape. Igor starts singing along enthusiastically with a Wham! song in the background, then when he realizes his bud is watching, he shuts it off, claiming "I'm not a gay!" (Poorly translated subtitles? You decide.) Apparently zombification isn't the only thing that's catching in the world of this film.

If this is the thematic road that zombie movies now plan to pursue, then please count me out. I'd like to say that it's just an isolated specimen, but I've noticed similar themes of intolerance in the recent French zombie films The Horde and Mutants. In both, white mothers struggle valiantly to preserve their unborn children from a ravenously violent mass of people with an infection that causes their skin to get darker and their eyes to get slantier. It's a shame that this is the social commentary that we get, really, since zombies seem so much better suited to metaphors regarding the danger posed by a mindless majority encroaching upon a persecuted few.

I might be able to overlook this (as I was mostly able to with The Horde) if there were a good movie on top of it. Unfortunately, there isn't.  The story is lackluster, with numerous digressions that serve no purpose but to throw a little gore at you so you'll think you're entertained. The machismo of the two main characters is unpleasant rather than endearing. The final nail in the coffin is that it's ugly. The CG is jarringly amateurish, so much so that it breaks any semblance of mood the film is able to establish. (Watch for reckless green-screen use, and the multiple instances where blood splatters on what seems to be invisible walls.) The editing is also wonky, frequently making nonsensical cuts that occur too quickly and leave you disoriented.

For all the talk of a "zombie renaissance," I've yet to see many good zombie films being released. Eaters certainly does not qualify. Whether this is a desperate cash-in on the trend with some bigotry slipping between the cracks or a deliberate turn toward more conservative themes, it's reprehensible on all fronts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

She Was Young. She Was Beautiful. She Was NEXT.

The Sentinel (1977)
Director: Michael Winner
Seen @: Carolina Theater, Chapel Hill
Presented by Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 7/10

That tagline is not quite as straightforward as you might think, and that's because The Sentinel is a haunted house movie with a little twist that throws it squarely into the realm of religious horror. Warning: don't read the poster too closely if you want to remain spoiler-free.

The Sentinel was the second part of the Nevermore opening double feature (Rosemary's Baby being the first) - another apartment-based horror film involving evil from hell. This marks the only foray into horror that I'm aware of for Michael Winner, who's better known for his work with Charles Bronson on numerous films, including the Death Wish series. Knowing that Winner isn't afraid to let his films get somewhat nasty if they need to made me interested to see what he'd do with a haunted house premise.

This time we're out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn. Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) is an up and coming fashion model, so of course when we're introduced to her we an obligatory fashion shoot sequence. What a great way to introduce a character, as well as show off some awesomely dated fashion. (Can we get more of these in modern movies?). Alison is looking for a place to move, and finds a great old brownstone that has been converted into several apartments.

One thing I learned from watching this (especially right after Rosemary's Baby) was that if you're ever apartment hunting and the other tenants strike you as a even just little off, find another place. The creepiest tenant here is Father Halloran (John Carradine, yes - David's father), who lives in the attic and watches people come and go from the window. The other tenants seem pretty friendly at first, but as time goes on, they begin to show a more sinister side. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there's a scene where Alison is invited to birthday party for one of the tenant's cats. If cats wearing party hats isn't enough to get you interested, then trust me, there is much evil and hellspawn waiting for you later on. As Alison gets more acquainted with her new home, it becomes clear to her that something there wants her dead.

The Sentinel's scares are pretty effective, particularly in a nighttime dream sequence where Alison wanders around the house, encountering scenes from her past. Jump scares and things popping into and out of the frame don't work on me, with one exception: old people. Maybe it's just because it's so counter-intuitive. Old people are slow, therefore they could never sneak up on me. Right...? The old people in this movie are also not the kind that I know and love, but the worst kind of blank-eyed shamblers. Creepy as hell. The climax is also semi-notorious for its use of deformed people as demons. (Winner apparently scouted local carnivals to cast them.) Regardless of how you feel about this, there's no denying it provides a little extra kick to a story that isn't always the most original thing in the world.

There is a reason for all of the scary things going on in this apartment, and it's tied in to the nature of the house  as well as Alison's past (which is slowly uncovered by her boyfriend). In the end, I thought this was a nice ghost story, and things wrap up pretty nicely with a very cool ending. Alison herself sort of drops out of the role of main character after a while, which is a little jolting, but the story continues to move forward regardless. There's enough here to keep things interesting and relatively creepy throughout.  If that fails, you can watch for cameos by both a young Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Walken. I'd recommend checking out The Sentinel, as it's a good take on some tried and true themes.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Intrusion, Invasion, and Loss of Control (also, Satan)

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Director:Roman Polanski
Seen @: Carolina Theater, Chapel Hill
Presented by Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 9.5/10

No two ways around it - the last few months have been utterly kicking my ass. Here's hoping that this summer won't be as cruel and that I'll be hanging around here more often. Back before the chaos though, I had a chance to attend Durham's wonderful Nevermore horror film fest for the second time. The fest started off strongly for me this year with a double feature of religious-themed horror revivals: Rosemary's Baby and The Sentinel.

Rosemary's Baby was one of those embarassing holes in my horror viewing that I'd always been meaning to fill. I'm not sure why I never got around to watching it, especially considering how much of a fan I am of Polanski's other work, particularly The Tenant. Like that film, Rosemary's Baby is part of the triptych of films comprising his "Apartment Trilogy," all of which are great works of psychological horror. Repulsion focused on the all-consuming fear that can arise from isolation and memory, while The Tenant turned those fears outward toward the world. In The Tenant, Polanski himself plays an increasingly isolated man consumed by paranoia and fear of those living around him. His character is destroyed because he slowly shuts out those around him and eventually abandons the real world entirely. I first watched The Tenant after moving from a house packed with roommates into an apartment of my own, in a new city where I didn't know too many people. The film resonated really well with my situation at the time, and left a big impression, particularly after the film was over and I was left sitting alone again in my own apartment.

If keeping others out was the problem in The Tenant, then Rosemary's Baby offers the contrasting view of the bad things that can happen when you welcome them in. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse (Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes) are a couple of newlyweds who are excited to move into their first New York apartment, despite the fact that the place seems to have a few quirks. For one, there's the friendly old couple who lives next door. That might not seem bad in and of itself, but these neighbors never go away. They're always knocking at the most inconvenient time - and how could they be turned away when they're so amicable? They're even disrupting things at night, when the thin wall separating the bedrooms of the two apartments transmits every sound back and forth. You can guess how well that goes over.

Annoying, but harmless, right? Maybe, until Rosemary becomes pregnant during a hallucinatory dream-sequence (one of the film's highlights). Things only get worse from there. Her initial discomfort at the bizarre nature of her conception is only magnified over time. Was it really a dream? What's with all those scratches on her back? What is her husband not telling her? The neighbors don't help, offering way too many tinctures and home remedies that purportedly ease her morning sickness, but really seem to make her feel (and look) worse. Slowly, Rosemary begins to uncover information about the dark history of the building where she lived and the sinister ulterior motives of those who are living in close proximity to her.

One of the reasons Rosemary's Baby is such a great film is that it conveys the sense of intrusion extremely well. Rosemary's control over her situation slowly diminishes, as one by one her friends disappear or turn against her. The sense of powerlessness is crushing, and the invasive nature of those trying to "help" her slowly increases as she loses control of her life, her home, and her body. Sickness is one of those universal fears that always hits a nerve for me when it's used well in horror, and here it's done extremely well.

[Spoilers follow]

One of the other reasons I really enjoyed this movie is because it isn't afraid to let the craziness fly in the end. Throughout the second half of the film, you're sometimes tempted to explain away all the weird things happening to Rosemary as "just in her head," but the evidence is just too overwhelming to deny. For every piece of evidence that suggests she might just be overreacting, there are two that confirm she isn't. The ending of the film brings the hammer down and destroys any doubts you might have had during the film. Rarely do horror movies have the guts to do this. There's no denying that when Rosemary looks, horrified, into that baby carriage that the evil here is real, it is powerful, and it wins.

[End spoilers]

Rosemary's Baby straddles the line between psychological thriller and horror, and there's more than enough here to keep fans of both entertained. In addition to a plot that keeps you guessing, and slowly ramps up the paranoia to a shattering crescendo, there's tons of classic horror iconography: hidden doors, Satanic cults, disturbing dream sequences... I'm glad that I finally got around to seeing this, and I couldn't have asked for a better theatrical experience. If this is still on your 'to-see' list, I highly recommend you take care of it soon.

Friday, May 11, 2012

[Transmission Resuming]

It's been far too long, and as a "coming back" gift, I give you (by way of The Jaded Viewer) The Taint, in its entirety, for free.

This one's a lot of fun, and deserves your attention if you like low-budget splatter. I guarantee something in this will offend you. If you want to read my initial thoughts, check them out here.