Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Come Forth From Your Blessed Abyss

The Lords of Salem (2012)
Director: Rob Zombie
Rating: 8 / 10
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD

Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Rob Zombie has a knack for making films that divide the horror community. I'll admit that I've been paying limited attention to his career since the enjoyable mess of House of 1000 Corpses - many of his later films have been sitting in the dank corners of my to-watch list for years. But with Zombie in full creative control and under no pressure from studios looking to hawk franchise entries at lowest common denominator audiences, it seemed like the stars had finally aligned for him. I'm glad I took a chance on The Lords of Salem, because it's one of the most interesting horror films I've seen so far this year.

Heidi Hawthorne (played by Zombie's wife Sheri Moon) is a late-night rock station DJ in Salem who is trying to move on with her life after a bout with drug addiction. Things seems to be looking up for her until she receives a mysterious record in the mail from an underground band called "The Lords," who are promoting an upcoming performance. Despite consisting of nothing but a loop of oddly discordant strings, the song surges in local popularity. It also provokes a strange awakening in many of the women who hear it on the radio. Meanwhile, in her apartment building Heidi is haunted by sinister apparitions that manifest down the hall in the vacant apartment 5. Is she losing her mind, or has she fallen unwittingly into the plans of some sinister force? Furthermore, who are the Lords and what role do they play in the strange events occurring in Salem?

Zombie draws on a wide variety of influences to create a dense visual atmosphere in this film, but he's smart enough to avoid too many overt references. Languid pacing and a willingness to indulge in horrifying imagery often give it the feel of an old Italian horror film. The lurid parade of sacrilegious imagery evokes memories of some of Jodorowsky's dreamlike sequences, but with a more sinister bent. In lesser hands the outlandish parts of the film could have been a spectacular failure, but it all fits together here. The film is also populated with a cast of cult heroes, including Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, and Patricia Quinn.

Sheri Moon Zombie turns in a subdued performance that I'd never have guessed she was capable of after her role as the maniacal Baby in House of 1000 Corpses. The two characters couldn't be more dissimilar, particularly because Heidi feels like a human being rather than a giant caricature. While Zombie can't resist some occasionally lecherous camerawork (perhaps to offset the more geriatric female nudity in the film's prologue), Heidi is typically portrayed doing ordinary things: walking her dog, eating breakfast, going to work... all of which contrast wonderfully with the horrifying dreamscapes she's eventually pulled into.

With all the avant-garde ambition of this film, it's not too surprising that the weakest element is the plot thread that closely mirrors something you'd find in a more traditional horror film. Bruce Davison plays the horribly dull Francis Matthias, a local author who's just published a book about the Salem witch trials. After hearing the Lords' song during a guest appearance on Heidi's show, he becomes curious as to its connection with the trials. His mundane quest to uncover the identity of the Lords is an intrusion into the film's surreal atmosphere that doesn't blend well at all. Typically, scenes with Davison are as boring as his character. Thankfully (minor spoilers ahead) the resolution of his plot line is outstanding, and is a nod toward the obnoxious way his character's archetype typically causes the downfall of whatever evil forces haunt the film. Speaking of that scene, it's also where the talents of Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, and Patricia Quinn get to shine as the trio of sisters with a sinister link to the Lords. They're all outstanding, and watching them play with Davison like a spider caught in their web is one of the film's highlights. (End spoilers.)

In a sense, The Lords of Salem is not so much a horror film as a satanic passion play. Rife with nods to paganism such as the maiden/mother/crone triad and ubiquitous lunar imagery, its underlying story focuses on Heidi's liberation from the male-dominated Christian world and her birth into a primal figure of maternal power. From the pulsing red light bleeding out of the doorway of apartment 5 (the number itself indicating Heidi is forsaking the domain of gods to live more fully in her own humanity) to the cavernous hallways through which she frequently wanders, this film is overflowing with yonic imagery. Where a lesser film would have demonized the pagan and satanic elements, there's no easy out at the end of The Lords of Salem. This is a revenge tale spanning centuries, in which those oppressed by Salem's Puritan past cast off their bonds and give birth to their own messiah.

I went into The Lords of Salem hoping for nothing more than something visually engaging and vaguely shocking. I was surprised at how much further Zombie took this film. I'm also impressed at his ability to pay homage to such a wide collection of horror classics while still keeping his creative vision intact. The Lords of Salem reexamines many of the tenets of older horror, particularly the unwritten assumption that Monsters Must Die for the Judeo-Christian tradition to live on. There are elements within this film that risk alienating Zombie's typical audience, not to mention many that effectively destroy its appeal to mainstream viewers. I'm thankful he was willing to take those chances.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Love Thy Neighbor? Yeah, Right.

In Their Skin (2012)
Director: Jeremy Power Regimbal
Rating: 5 / 10
Seen via: MPI Home Video DVD

The home invasion sub-genre is one that I approach with trepidation, simply because with such a restrictive setting and a typically narrow premise, it's hard to do much that hasn't been done many times before. When a film opens with shots that seem to be lifted from Funny Games but without any sense of self-awareness, I'm wary. When it introduces troublesome class dynamics in the first act I'm even warier. In Their Skin (formerly titled Replicas) has both hurdles to overcome. Can it pull off this improbable task?

Mark and Mary Hughs (Joshua Close, Selma Blair) need to get away. The death of their daughter has left them both wracked with grief, so to prevent their marriage from dissolving and to reconnect with their young son they head out to the family vacation home. Surely time alone in a lavishly decorated house that looks to be taken from the pages of an interior design magazine will lift their spirits. The biggest challenge for the first twenty minutes of this movie is mustering up any empathy for the Hughs family. Selma Blair walks around like she's been drugged, while Josh Close's constantly bewildered expression (and his awful beard) don't do much to endear him to us either. Thank god it isn't long before the neighbors arrive and break up their moping.

Mark is awoken very early one morning by the Sakowski family - Bobby (James D'Arcy) , Jane (Rachel Miner), and their son Jared (Alex Ferris) have thoughtfully brought over some chopped wood for the Hughs' fireplace. Something is clearly off about this family though, and it's not just their odd schedule or their inability to carry on an ordinary conversation. They freely admit to lacking a car, and being isolated much of the year while the vacationers are out of town. They're just so happy to have some new friends nearby! They invite themselves over for dinner that night and the simpering Mark agrees, mostly in hopes that it'll offer him an escape from his grief-stricken wife.

Ding dong - we're here to spice up the movie!
The extent of the Sakowskis' craziness only becomes clear in the dinner scene, by far the most entertaining sequence of the film. The limits of the Hughs family's politeness are tested with a series of increasingly uncomfortable faux pas that gradually escalate. In what has up to this point been a study of dour people in a slick and sterile environment, James D'Arcy injects a liveliness and menace that reignites the film. It's really a pity that these are the bad guys, because the heroes have done nothing up to this point to earn our sympathy except act sullen. I get it, their daughter died. But do they have to be so unpleasant about it? It's unfortunate that the film unfolds so predictably from here. The film makes no secret that this family versus family conflict is going to turn violent, and when it does, there's never really any doubt as to the final outcome.

Framing the lower-class and poorly mannered Sakowskis as the enemy also introduces an uncomfortable dynamic (one that's only strengthened when we learn of their underlying motives). However entertaining the Sakowskis are, the film consistently asks us to root for the well-off good guys as their pretty family suffers through the attack. It's not an inherently flawed way to approach things, but it requires a degree of tact to pull off that this film doesn't possess. In the end the Hughs family is actually strengthened by the demise of the Sakowskis, which speaks to the film's tone-deafness. Even this year's similarly formulaic home-invasion flick The Purge made sure to balance its scales. If a Platinum Dunes/Blumhouse production can bring some self-awareness to the table, that's the minimum bar other films should have to clear. In Their Skin doesn't make it even by this generous metric.

This is essentially how they look before their house is broken into.
While there are some entertaining scenes, mostly courtesy of James D'Arcy, I wish a little more care had been put into developing the actual protagonists of the film. Watching the two families clash could have been far more entertaining if the film wasn't so one-sided. Instead we get a film that flirts with upsetting the status quo of a privileged upper-middle class family only to ultimately cement it firmly in place.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Reclaim Your Body, Reclaim Your Life

American Mary (2012)
Directors: Jen and Sylvia Soska
Rating: 7 / 10
Seen via: Xlrator DVD

American Mary is the second film by Jen and Sylvia Soska, a duo comprised of twin sisters who previously wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the faux-grindhouse feature Dead Hooker in a Trunk (still unseen by me). Both American Mary and their previous film have attracted a lot of attention online, and it's encouraging to see a couple of independent features getting the recognition and publicity these two films have. But is there substance behind the hype? I'm happy to be able to say yes in this case.

Mary Mason (Katharine Isabelle) is a medical school student whose passion for surgery runs deep. So deep that she even practices stitching up store-bought frozen turkeys at night after class. But Mary's struggling with earning enough money to pay her bills and still find the time to study, and it's beginning to take a toll on her grades. As a last resort, she heads down to the local strip club to apply for a job as a dancer. The interview seems to be going well, but it's interrupted when a friend of the owner is brought in bleeding from some criminal dealings gone wrong. Mary's suturing skills come in handy, and she's willing to help for some quick cash. Stitching up criminals isn't exactly what she has in mind for her future though, so she tries to forget the job as quickly as possible.

...and also sort of fears for her life for a while.
Word travels though, and pretty soon she's receiving inquiries from some customers looking for someone to perform unorthodox surgical procedures on them. Beatress (Tristan Risk) is a woman who through plastic surgery has taken on the likeness of Betty Boop as much as her physical form will allow. Her friend Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg) has a similar desire to alter her body, only she wishes to become a life-sized Barbie doll. (Use your imagination to figure out what that entails.) Despite some hesitancy, Mary really needs the cash, and reluctantly agrees to perform the procedures. Can she continue working toward a career as a surgeon while leading a double life as a practitioner in the world of body modification, or will things go horribly wrong when the two worlds collide?

I was totally on board for the first forty minutes of this film. Mary is a believable, interesting character presented with a series of unique moral quandaries. It's refreshing to see a film that blows the Bechdel test out of the water by focusing on a cast of female characters who are actively seeking empowerment. Whether they're attaining nonconformist idealizations of physical beauty or mastering a skill in a traditionally male-dominated field, the women of American Mary are all well-drawn characters. I'm also a sucker for stories centered around medicine and surgery, so extending these themes to their more extreme underground manifestations had me sold.

My biggest issue with the film is a plot point that occurs about halfway through. I can't talk about it without major spoilers, so be warned.

Spoilers after the dream sequence...

It's a shame that the film feels the need to allow its second half to be driven by a rape/revenge plot. Mary's rape at the hands of her supervisor is a quick way to bring the tension between her and the misogynist boys-club of the med school to a head. It's also a way for her to become fully immersed in her extracurricular surgery. I get why it was included, but it feels almost like a cop-out for a story that seemed to be building to something more complex.

After her rape, Mary transforms from a fully fleshed-out character to a seemingly infallible (and slightly bloodthirsty) master of all forms of cosmetic surgery. Had she reached this point more gradually I would have been more inclined to buy it. The fact that it happens nearly instantly puts a strain on the film's believability. Also, did her self-actualization have to come at the expense of being raped? After this point the plot becomes somewhat muddled - morphing into a combination of revenge story, police procedural, and the continuing saga of Mary's underground surgical practice. It doesn't feel as tight or interesting as the first half, likely because we know how the general trajectory of the story will unfold from here.

End spoilers

American Mary is worth checking out despite its uneven second half. I'm interested to see what the Soska sisters do in the future (even if I'm somewhat wary of the fact that they've joined WWE entertainment to direct the sequel to the seemingly lackluster See No Evil). They've shown themselves to be capable of delivering some fresh ideas with American Mary. Hopefully they'll continue to do so in the future, and also make sure to perform a little bit of cosmetic surgery on their scripts.

Their fake German accents could also use some work.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

An Uncharacteristic Ray of Sunshine

Thanks to Dusty of The Playground of Doom for choosing me as one of the recipients of his Sunshine Award / meme / blog chain letter thing. Since my blog output has been rather sparse lately I figured I'd take the bait on this one. Also, it'll give you the rare opportunity to glimpse behind the curtain and gaze upon my horrible visage learn more about the guy behind this site. If you're curious, keep reading, it's all flowers, cats, and favorites from here on.

Here are the rules:

1. Include the award’s logo in a post or on your blog.
2. Link to the person who nominated you.
3. Answer 10 questions about yourself (use these or come up with your own).
4. Nominate 10 bloggers to pass the award on to.  (This is as much about sharing as it is about receiving.)
5. Link your nominees to the post and comment on their blogs, letting them know they have been nominated.

1. Favorite actor/actress (who's not a household name yet)

Is Edith Massey a household name? At the risk of missing the point of this question, I'm going with it.

For some recent up-and-comers, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland were surprisingly excellent as the two kids in Mud.

2. Favorite Animal

In the whole animal kingdom? Penguins. Favorite animal I'll actually come into contact with in real life? Cats, without a doubt. Particularly Alice here:

3. Favorite Non-Alcoholic Drink

My mind used to be powered by things like food and sleep. I've replaced both with coffee.

4. Favorite music

I listen to a lot of ambient electronic music, and would pick Boards of Canada as a consistent favorite over the past ten years.

The haunting analog synths and worn-down samples give their music an air of nostalgia that's tempered with dark undertones. They've gotten some attention in the horror world recently for their song Gyroscope, which was used in Sinister. Their most recent album, Tomorrow's Harvest, draws on influences like Fabio Frizzi and John Carpenter and has a distinctly post-apocalyptic feel.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention The Pixies.

5. Favorite TV show

I don't watch a whole lot of TV, but occasionally allow myself to get hooked on a show. Most recently it's been Breaking Bad. Also, I'm consistently entertained by American Horror Story and was sort of surprised how it went from a trashy mess in Season 1 to actually kind of good in Season 2.

6. Favorite sport

Baseball and I have a very torrid history. It was the first sport I played, and consequentially the sport that taught me desire for athletic talent rarely begets such talent. Also, this happened on my thirteenth birthday, crushing my faith in all things fair and just in the world. For a long time I didn't have the desire to spend time with the teacher of such hard truths. These days, I've sort of come back around to the idea of baseball, but watch maybe one game max per year, and only if I'm there in person.

7. Movie most people love that I dislike

Oh, god. I try not to devote too much thought to movies I dislike. Ideally they just slip out of my head and I never think about them again. But maybe since it just got a sequel, I'll say: Kick-Ass? Tonally inconsistent, filled to the brim with narcissism, utterly despicable characters, all sorts of manufactured controversy... I could go on for a while. The overwhelmingly positive fanboy response to this one baffles me.

8. Favorite short film

Brakhage's The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes. In addition to being a great study of mortality, it's also one of the most beautifully transgressive depictions of the human body I've seen.

9. My Passion

It's hard for me to narrow this down. Can I just say Figuring Things Out? I don't talk much about real life on this blog, but IRL I'm pursuing an advanced degree in physics. I like to know how things work, preferably on their most fundamental level. It's also the reason why I write, both here and to a lesser extent when I write fiction.

10. Favorite soundtrack from 2013

Without a doubt, Only God Forgives.

Now, to pass this thing on. Dusty's blog Playground of Doom is a favorite of mine, but I'm not allowed to link back to him. Still, I get a lot of enjoyment out of reading his musings on cinema, life, and how each affects the other. So go check him out even though he's not an official nominee. I've avoided posting notifications on the comment walls of all these fine people, but I think many are (or have been) visitors here. Participation is, of course, totally voluntary. In no particular order:

Sean and Kristine of Girl Meets Freak have a great dynamic in their discussions, which focus on horror classics that span a wide range of subgenres. By far one of my favorite blogs. It's equally entertaining and edifying, and one of the only blogs able to make me laugh out loud.

A great mix of reviews, occasionally with unique theme months, Emily at The Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense has a knack for finding great Instant Watch treasures that I might have forgotten for all time or otherwise overlooked.

Ryan Clark is an all-around great guy who has recommended a lot of solid films to me. His blog Thrill Me! (which he runs with co-author Leah Cifello) is a consistently good read.

I don't often listen to podcasts, but The Whorer is one that I make a point to seek out when I have the time. In their words, it's: "a punk-femme-queer approach to horror films. Like your other horror podcast, but with a butt plug in it." If that's not enough to sell you, I don't know what is.

Kevin Kolson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies has the admirable ability to work through directors' entire bodies of work, good and bad, and is also the author of one of the best Italian Horror primers I've read.

It's hard to find reviewers I trust when it comes to new films, but Ryne Barber's The Moon is a Dead World stands out as one of my go-to sources.

Barry P. of Cinematic Catharsis runs an eclectic blog that's equally thorough in its examination of trash as it is with the classics.

Too Much Horror Fiction is where I go when I'm looking for something new to read or just want to gaze at beautiful old book covers.

Librarian of the Dead is a fun blog that spans horror films, books, and bits of horror popping up in everyday life. There have even been occasional reviews of cemeteries - tell me that isn't cool.

Nicki at Hey! Look Behind You! does a great job at keeping me up to date with new releases, solid Instant Watch picks, and a smattering of reviews.

Thanks again, Dusty. Regular programming will resume shortly.