Category Archives: Movies – Holic on Horror

Funny Games, and Horror as Social Commentary

Funny Games is a slick and stylish horror film, very moody and atmospheric and tense throughout its entire running time, but it absolutely fails in its director’s mission to create a worthwhile piece of social commentary.

Here’s the basic premise: a rich white family is summering at a lake, and suddenly some teenagers (who claim to be the neighbor’s friends) show up: they’re also white, dressed immaculately in white (complete with white gloves), speak eloquently, and talk frequently of politeness. Their very presence is unnerving, and they continually cause problems, knocking cell phones into sinks, dropping eggs, etc. When told to leave, they become violent, turning on the family, then torturing them and playing violent games for the film’s final hour. Things become increasingly violent, until several members of the family are murdered, and the boys go on to the next neighbor’s house to repeat the process.

Three times in this film, the torturers turn to the audience and speak directly to us, breaking the film’s illusion of reality. The torturer appears to be chastising us for watching, for having empathy for the tortured family. Once, when something goes wrong and the family escapes, the torturer grabs a remote from the couch, rewinds, and the scene plays out in the excruciating opposite manner. The apparent purpose behind these odd narrative interruptions seems to be to toy with the audience, to make a comment about torture films specifically, and violence in cinema, in general. Why do we watch these movies? Why do we delight in violence? Etc.

But here’s the problem: the film is too slick, too violent, and enjoys the terror it creates far too much to actually criticize it. This isn’t A History of Violence, which diminishes each heroic act by forcing us to stare at the horrible results of the violence in the heroism. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan, whose violence we watch in order to understand the horrors of war (even good wars). This is Funny Games, and it loves its torture scenes, loves every second of them, every spot of blood, every piece of grit…then suddenly criticizes its audience for empathizing with the victims, and hoping they get out. Um. What are we supposed to hope for? A movie without tension? We want a film that challenges its characters, and we want those characters to overcome their challenges. That’s drama. If the filmmaker (the filmmaker!) chooses torture as the challenge, that says more about the person creating the film than the person watching it.

I watched Funny Games because I thought it would be an interesting piece of commentary, and would employ interesting narrative strategies. It approached both of these ideas. But it utilized the “Torturer Talking to Audience” strategy only thrice (not nearly exploiting the concept to any real effect), and its commentary was misdirected. This was like watching a porn star criticize a pervert. No, no. Scratch that. This was like watching a porn star criticize the perversion of someone who is critical of porn…

Worst movie I’ve seen in awhile, because it could have actually been something important.

Romero’s 2000s-Era Zombies

Diary of the Dead

Though its commentary is sometimes weak (or too obvious), Diary of the Dead uses the camcorder-shot footage to great, frightening effect. There’s a real function behind the form, unlike Cloverfield, Quarantine, and other gimmicky “video-taped” films.

Romero goes back to the basics of what made Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead so scary: he focuses on just a couple individuals who are surrounded on all sides by zombies. Land of the Dead was an interesting–though ultimately unsuccessful–departure from this style, but Diary of the Dead puts the horror on the individual once again, and it works.

Like I said, the commentary is obvious…but the film works as a nice, scary zombie film (something which, judging by all of the horrible zombie films I’ve seen lately, is much harder to pull off than it seems).

Survival of the Dead

Survival of the Dead is probably the worst zombie film that George Romero has directed, which is really saying something: when I was in a fraternity as an undergraduate, I used to haze my “little brother” by making him watch Day of the Dead, the atrocious, humorless, mean-spirited gore-fest from the early ’80s about zombies in a military installation.

Romero has made six of these zombie movies, and I suppose it’s a testament to his creative ability and imagination that he’s found a way to continue making them new and fresh and interesting over the course of thirty or forty years…Land of the Dead was an ambitious look at a post-apocalyptic world that has developed a new ruling class, and Diary of the Dead was a fantastic Cloverfield-esque approach to zombies, even offering some social commentary on the YouTube Generation…but Survival of the Dead is the first time where I’ve actually thought that Romero was out of ideas.

Nothing in this film feels inspired. The special effects are poor. The characters are thin and often resort to repeating the same one-liners over and over again. The sets and settings are badly established and poorly filmed. The script is comically bad. This feels less like a creative effort than it does the fulfillment of a contract. It’s like everyone is just going through the motions, and if you thought that zombies are creatures that are always just going through the motions, then you haven’t seen Survival of the Dead. Even the zombies are boring and lame, here.

The greatest failure of the film, though, is that it sort of forgets that it’s a zombie movie, and Romero tries to focus exclusively on the human drama. But he’s not really a great director of “human drama,” and so much of the film just comes across as cheesy. Like a bad USA show. We watch Survival of the Dead because we want zombies, and if Land of the Dead wasn’t quite successful because it was too ambitious for a zombie movie, then Survival of the Dead is an absolute failure because it has zero ambition.

After Diary of the Dead (which I really enjoyed), I was looking forward to this movie. Too bad, George Romero. Too bad.

The Fourth Kind offers a fresh new approach for a movie, a film where the actors are identified as actors and purposefully break the “fourth wall” in order to speak directly to the audience and give credibility to the supposed documentary/interview footage that is interspersed throughout. The director himself appears in the film, tells us that he is directing the film, tells us that he is skeptical, tells us that we should judge for ourselves based on the grainy documentary footage, the staticky recordings…

But here’s the problem: in order to find this a successful film, you’ve got to really really believe that it’s all true. Because the film offers no resolution.

This (the lack of resolution, or a hokey resolution) is something that has plagued the faux-real-footage film for a decade, from Blair Witch to Cloverfield to Paranormal Activity. These movies rely on the “real” footage to tell the entire story, and so they usually just wind up killing the main character so that they can end on a creepy camera angle without having to answer any questions (because how can they ever answer all the questions if the footage was just “found” somewhere?). It’s a lazy and disappointing finish.

The Fourth Kind, by offering no real resolution, winds up feeling like a big-budget version of an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode. If it’s all real, then you’re engrossed. But think of what might happen if you watched “America’s Most Wanted” only to realize that the murders were all fictitious. What’s the point?It only works when you believe.

So if this is all fictional material, why not just write a resolution? You’re no longer relying on the “we just found all this footage” conceit, since the actors have told us that they’re dramatizing scenes outside of the documentary footage.

In the end, this is a story that out-clevers itself. Yes, the ending is disappointing (as are the endings of Cloverfield and Blair Witch, etc.), but it’s more disappointing because the filmmakers have given themselves a clever way to actually provide a resolution, but instead leave us hanging as if this is still an unsolved mystery…

Friday the 13th Re-Imagined…but still mediocre.

I never liked the original “Friday the 13th,” and yet I somehow wound up renting and watching every single film in the franchise. The worst, I think, was Part IV, or maybe V, which seemed to have been produced in about ten minutes, and featured only random stock footage of Jason walking quickly through the woods, and then other unrelated footage of a machete slicing into a teenage victim (we never saw Jason actually killing anyone…strangely, it seemed as if the Jason actor was MIA for the filming, so they had to quickly scrape together a film using only stock footage). “Jason Goes to Hell” was pretty terrible, also, and yet I watched it, and I even dragged a bunch of my fraternity brothers with me to go see “Jason X,” where Jason Vorhees kills teenagers in space.

In other words, I will watch pretty much any horror movie. I watched ten “Friday the 13th” movies before this one, and I didn’t like a single one. So when I tell you that this new “Friday the 13th” remake is absolute crap, you have to be skeptical, right? I’ve hated all of the movies so far, and yet I still keep watching them? There must be something redeeming, right, or why wouldn’t I choose to spend my time in some other way?

The answer: I really don’t know. With this remake, I think that I was expecting some new filmmaker to tackle the franchise in a new and interesting way, a la Quentin Tarantino tackling old washed-up film genres and somehow making them feel fresh and new. But this new “Friday the 13th?” It’s pretty much the same as the old, except with a bigger budget and crisper sets. The characters are all stereotypes (some of them blatantly offensive), and Jason Vorhees is still able to be in ten different places at once, defying all rules of logic/ gravity/ motion/ science.

But hey, at least the movie gave a great final “scare,” which–like the original–was probably the only memorable part of the entire movie. Oh, and the nudity. I suppose the topless females are always a plus.

Kids = Scary

Smart kids are scary. And kids with bad intentions are scary. Especially when no one wants to believe the adult’s word over the child’s. And we’ve seen this concept played out to great and frightening success with films like “Joshua” and “The Omen.” Evil children who manipulate adults and cause ridiculous mayhem, simply because the entire world thinks that the parent is crazy.

But “Orphan” takes this concept to a level so extreme that the story loses believability, and the terror simply becomes a scream-at-the-screen frustration.

So here’s the concept: a family adopts an orphan, and the orphan is clearly evil and wants to destroy the family. And she gets away with murder, pits parent against parent, nearly kills the other children, etc. As we saw in “Joshua,” this idea can be terrifying. In that film, the father is a bit of a goober (Sam Rockwell) and the mother is bipolar, and most of the “mayhem” comes in the form of family drama: the parents fighting, blaming each other, etc., and not from over-the-top murder and explosions. That’s why “Joshua” worked. It was (mostly) under-stated.

“Orphan” is a longer film, and it is well-produced, slick, with a big budget, but the evil orphan is so ungodly brilliant and crafty that I simply stopped caring about the characters: they had no chance of surviving this child. She knew how to operate a handgun, she knew how to break her own bones in a vise grip, she knew how to blow up a treehouse with a mercenary’s precision, she knew how to hide bodies…Listen, I know that kids are often smarter than we give them credit for, but no child is as smart as the Killer Savant in the “Orphan.” There’s a difference between IQ and Experience; IQ doesn’t mean you know how to kill someone in a hospital bed and mask the death; only Experience can teach you such a thing. And where does a 10-year-old child gain such experience? (Well…the film tries to answer this question with a twist at the end, but it’s a fairly obvious twist, and it breaks about a thousand rules of logic)

But let’s just say that we accept the twist that (spoiler alert) the child is actually a Gary Coleman-style adult, an older woman who looks like a young girl but apparently doesn’t show any signs of aging and can fool orphanage after orphanage, and kill family after family. Let’s accept that wacky premise.

Now, we still have to account for the fact that the Evil Orphan also has the unique ability to be in all places at once, to sneak around without anyone knowing, to listen in on any conversation, to know when important conversations are even taking place: this ability is what has doomed so many other movie villains, from Jason Vorhees to Heath Ledger’s Joker. If the villain is too perfect, we start to wonder if it’s even possible for them to be toppled. Heck, we start to wonder why they take their time, why they don’t just off everyone quicker, why they ever make that one fatal mistake at the film’s end that proves to be their demise. I mean, seriously, I love Freddy Krueger, but the dude can invade your dreams…you have to be a moron to lose to a bunch of teenagers whose dreams you can control, right?

“Orphan” is slick, as I said, but sometimes it’s best for a villain to be bad in under-stated ways. The Perfect Villain is scary for a few minutes…until we are jolted out of the experience by their perfection, and we just wait for the inevitable moment when the Good Guys overcome, even though they aren’t smart or perfect enough to do it. When the villain is under-stated, and when the villain makes mistakes, the story is actually scarier…the villain becomes more true-to-life, maybe even unpredictable. As Janet Burroway said, sometimes Momma with a curling iron is more terrifying than Burglar with a butcher knife.

On the plus side, I do love Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard. They make the film interesting when it shouldn’t be, add layers of complexity to characters who don’t deserve so much. And now Farmiga (the wife from “Joshua”) gets to be the protagonist in a devil child film, rather than just a victim. A step up in her career!

Creature Feature Sequel

Though “The Descent Part II” was a nice little horror movie, a fun and sometimes-scary return to a world that…well, technically, we never really wanted to return to…it really only functions as a fun little diversion.

Some of the same actors return, certainly (and so the characters are involved in an ongoing story…this isn’t one of those regrettable sequels where there is little or no continuity with the first film, a la “Starship Troopers II”), and it even looks like we’re using some of the same sets (and the exact same monster-extras!). But it feels like “Candyman II,” or “Final Destination II,” one of those horror sequels that–while interesting and fun–doesn’t really do anything new. It’s content reliving the first movie, going through the motions once again, maybe offering some cool new set pieces, but mostly working from a “How can we please the fans of the first movie?” perspective.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this: you SHOULD want to please fans. But the very best sequels are interested in being the very best movies that they can possibly be, not just the very best sequels. That’s why “Godfather II” and “Aliens” and even “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” were such amazing films; they broadened the universe, expanded the template of what was possible for their franchises, rather than just working within the set boundaries.

But it’s definitely a fun horror film, and if this franchise continues with the same quality of sequels, I think we’ll wind up with a very reliable and highly entertaining series…and ultimately, perhaps, a mythology for a new monster that is far more unique and exciting than the same tired ideas constantly re-used and recycled (i.e. werewolves, vampires, even Sasquatch, etc.). That’s a very good thing.

Jennifer’s Body

I was really hoping I’d like “Jennifer’s Body.” We’ve had quite a few good-to-great horror comedies in the last few years (most of them dealing with zombies, from “Zombieland” to “Shaun of the Dead” to “Fido”), and with “Juno” scriptwriter Diablo Cody handling the script here, I thought we might see an insightful and humorous look at high school life and the objectification of young women.

Instead, though, “Jennifer’s Body” tries to hide its cliched (and fairly uninspired and lazy) story by relying on witty dialogue and banter. There’s an interesting monster/creature at the center of the story, and Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried are both game for a gory horror-comedy, but–in terms of high school slasher/creature features–the movie just feels like more of the same. It wants to be dark and different, but throughout the entire film, I always found myself knowing what would come next, able to see which new dot would be connected next. And as I said, it seems that Cody even knew this as she drafted the script, slopping “Juno”-style dialogue atop stale plot points.

And the worst thing about “Jennifer’s Body” (and my confidence in Diablo Cody’s career as a scriptwriter) was its reliance on a voice-over to tell us what was happening. No, not all voice-overs are bad, but all voice-overs do draw attention to themselves, because as we listen to the character tell us about his/her life and the events depicted in the film, we start to wonder who they’re talking to. Do they realize that someone is filming them (this works in “The Office,” because the characters are supposedly stuck in a documentary)? Are they telling someone their story (as is the case in films like “Forrest Gump” or “Shawshank Redemption”)? Is the voice-over supposed to function as interior thoughts (this is the case in “Dexter”)? In “Jennifer’s Body,” there’s no real reason for the voice-over other than the fact that Cody probably thought it would be cool to have a sassy narrator. There’s no consistency to when the voice-over comes; there’s no one that Seyfried is talking to, but yet she’ll talk to the audience as if she knows she is in a movie (which, of course, breaks the illusion of the movie itself).

No, wait. The voice-over isn’t the worst thing. The worst thing about “Jennifer’s Body” is that it desperately wants to be important. Not just good and/or fun (like “Zombieland”), but important, as if it has really big and interesting things to say about Women and Society and Youth and Celebrity. It’s got ambition, but it wants to fool us into thinking that it actually has something to say. In other words, it’s like a drunk guy who tries to tell a joke or story REALLY LOUD because he knows (halfway through) that he’s working with really bad material.

Predators: God Bless Creature Franchises

Really, “Predators” is almost the same film as the original, which should tell you whether you will like it or not. Bunch of military-types out in the jungle, getting hunted, trying to figure out how to survive, trying to learn what is actually hunting them, etc. If you want a violent shoot ’em up, mixed with creature feature, then that’s exactly what you get. The advertisements don’t lie.

I’ve read quite a few reviews that suggest “Predators” is the best film in the franchise since the original, and that’s tough to argue, but it isn’t necessarily a compliment. The problem with “Predator” as a franchise is that it never got past the very first film, and it never (until now) actually set up a reliable formula for what we could expect in a Predator movie. “Predator 2” was set in L.A. (not the jungle), and featured a cast decidedly bereft of action stars; whereas the first film had Arnold and Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers, the second film has Danny Glover and Gary Busey. It’s no surprise that the movie flopped, that fans were disappointed, and that no “Predator 3” was filmed, with the franchise relegated thereafter to comic books and video games. And then we had these “Alien vs. Predator” movies which further complicated the idea of a Predator franchise, since they were more about an alien death match than anything else. So yes, “Predators” is the best film in the franchise since the original…but so what?

The other problem with “Predator” as a franchise (and with “Predators” as a film) is that it’s taken the filmmakers twenty years to simply realize that they should go back to a reliable formula for the next film: bunch of military-types out in the jungle, getting hunted, etc. Twenty years? And all we’ve done is try to copy the formula of the “Alien” franchise, by moving the sequel to a different planet and making the creatures pluralized?

Like I said, this movie gives you exactly what it promises. And I drank a beer while watching, and I lounged back, and for an hour and a half, I thought it was the 1980s again and I was satisfied. But even though “Predators” tries to take the “Aliens” approach with continuing the franchise, this movie doesn’t have the same scope, doesn’t have any characters that we care about in the same way that we cared about the colonial marines in “Aliens,” and doesn’t have any sequences/ set pieces that are nearly as memorable as those in James Cameron’s flick. In a way, this feels more like a “Friday the 13th” sequel than it does like “Aliens.” Uses the same formula (thus preventing you from having a bad experience: seriously, you knew what you were getting), but doesn’t really work as a unique and distinctive film, and only barely builds upon the world of the first.

Dead Snow: Nazi Zombies

“Dead Snow” lets us know, from the very start, what we are going to get: it’s Norwegian, set in the snowy mountains (at a cabin far from any civilization), and there are Nazi zombies who inhabit the dark woods outside the cabin. With that sort of premise, you’re the only one to blame if you are surprised by anything that happens in the film.

That said, it’s an interesting movie, but not a very good one for American audiences. I honestly know very little about Norwegian culture, but the characters here are all quirky and strange, all seem to have love affairs with Hollywood and American celebrity culture that just seem…well, weird. And they do the sort of things that–in my town, at least–would be met with disgust, but there in Norway, seem to be normal: for instance, two characters have sex in an outhouse…after one of them has just finished taking a dump…I mean, really…that happened. First of all, I’m grossed out by outhouses in general, but sex on a wooden toilet with piles and piles of excrement below you? I really hope that Norwegians don’t do this on a daily basis.

In any case, the strangeness of the characters shouldn’t be that big of an issue, but when you spend the entire movie thinking about their weird habits and comments, it detracts from your enjoyment of the Nazi zombies. And the Nazi zombie scenes are pretty fun, truth be told, with some funny “Evil Dead”-style slapstick along the way.

“Dead Snow” is a Saturday afternoon movie, really, the kind you watch when you’re waiting for someone to come over, or when you’re hung over and can’t get off the couch. It isn’t something you rent, or make time for. It’s something that happens to you.

The Problem with Haunted Houses…

As far as haunted house movies go, “The Haunting in Connecticut” isn’t bad. In fact, it has a lot going for it: the premise is unique, first and foremost, and the characters all feel fresh.

At the story’s center is a boy suffering through cancer treatment, and the film actually does an admirable job of showcasing the emotional strain that this can place on a family. A lesser movie–or a network television show, even–would have resorted to cliche and stereotype in using the cancer victim, but “Haunting” tries to really do this right. I give it credit for not taking the easy way out, as so many bad horror movies might have done. We have real terminology, real shots of the hospital treatment, and a somewhat realistic look at the financial burden that a family can find itself in…it’s easy for Hollywood filmmakers to use the word “cancer” in a movie, shave the head of the victim, and call it a day. I don’t mean to sound crass, just to emphasize the laziness of many writers in their characterization and research, and to emphasize the risk that the writers here have taken (hell, it’s tough to write a movie about cancer that isn’t depressing, also, and they’ve managed to do it).

The cast is also superb. I’ve loved Virginia Madsen ever since “Candyman” (my personal favorite horror film), and it’s nice to see her in a spooky movie again. She brings a toughness to these sorts of films that many female leads–and scream queens–simply cannot muster. They might grit their teeth and yell, but Madsen’s strength is always shaky, oscillating between pain/vulnerability and an unshakable inner resolve. Simply put, she always makes you root for her character.

My problem with “The Haunting in Connecticut,” though, is with the story itself. When this movie is focused on the characters, it works, because the cast is great and the characters are interesting. But when it tries to force the plot along, it just feels…well, forced. The film creates an elaborate mythology to explain the haunting, and continually flashes back and forth between some historical events and the present day, and also wants to provide twist after twist after twist in the final thirty minutes. It’s enough to make you long for the days of the simple haunted house story: in “Poltergeist,” there was a house built on an Indian burial ground, and some lost spirits wanted a little girl to lead them to the light. So they kidnapped her, and then the family had to try to get her back. Easy, and scary as hell.

But it seems that now, in the post-Sixth-Sense and post-The-Others era, we’ve got to make the backstory as elaborate as possible, a combination of good ghosts and bad ghosts, a who can you trust? plot to go along with the haunting itself, so that we’re never sure why anything is actually happening until the final frames of the film.

The result, of course, is a convoluted haunting, one that–after the movie is over–you start to wonder how anyone could ever unravel the details behind it. Even the ghosts themselves. You start to wonder if they ever sat back for a moment and said, “Wait. So why are we haunting this place again?” At least in “Poltergeist,” the ghosts had an easy-to-understand motivation. In “Haunting in Connecticut,” the human characters are fun to watch, but the ghosts are so confusing that you can’t really take them seriously…they’re like a bad freshman composition essay, all cut and pasted from random wikipedia pages, explaining nothing, offering nothing new to the world, uncertain of why they exist but happy at least that they made the minimum page count, and hopeful that no one asks any tough questions about the logic contained therein.