Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'V/H/S 2' (Movie Review)

I was a fan of the original V/H/S. It was rough around the edges but that rawness gave it a lot of character. Anthology movies tend to be hit-or-miss but overall I liked what it had to offer, and came away satisfied.

Now here we are with the follow up V/H/S 2 and I can honestly say I loved it. I'm always pleasantly surprised when a sequel outdoes its predecessor and V/H/S 2 tops the original in almost every way. The sequel has a higher budget to work with, and it really shows. The writing is much tighter, without losing that gritty, raw feeling of the original. The overall formula remains the same, with the shorts being encapsulated inside an overarching story with VHS cassettes as a theme. Even though the peripheral story "Tape 49" is probably the weakest of the bunch, it still does a good job of driving the movie forward, featuring solid performances by Kelsy Abbott and Lawrence Michael Levine as two private investigators searching for a missing student.

The other segments are great, delivering a variety of scenarios that are smart, extremely gruesome, and even funny at points. Pulling in buzz-worthy directing talent from the likes of Eduardo Sanchez and Jason Eisener among others, each story is a surprisingly fresh take on the "found footage" sub-genre and makes clever use of the first person camera motif. Viewpoints from an unfortunate bicyclist with a helmet cam and a family dog are new perspectives I haven't seen yet and make for some cool moments.  At no point did I ask the question "Why would someone be lugging around a camera to film this?!"

Everything is briskly paced, and never wears out its welcome. The films feature insane amounts of gore, especially Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven" which follows the doomed exploits of a group of journalists documenting a cult. Each story managed to keep me on the edge of my seat and even get a few "awwww, gross!" reactions. That's a mark of quality. Also, at a short running time of 96 minutes, the movie never loses momentum.

I would recommend V/H/S 2 to anyone interested in "found footage" horror. It's a great example of how to do things the right way and breathes life into a horse I thought was violently beaten to death a long time ago. If you're a fan of the original V/H/S and somehow haven't caught the sequel, stop reading this review and go watch it right now.

Grade: A

Reviewed on VOD via Netflix. Running time 96 MIN.

Monday, November 25, 2013

'The Walking Dead' and Character Development

If there is one issue I have with The Walking Dead as a television series, it is character development.

Season 4 is now helmed by showrunner Scott Gimple, who mentioned a return to form and wanted to deepen the development and ties between the characters. I understand the reasoning behind doing this, and while it fundamentally increases the divide between the books and the television series. Is that such a bad thing?

There has been a widening gap between the show and the books since the divisive second season. At this point I've compartmentalized all Walking Dead media into their own separate-but-related universes ( books, television, video games) because that way I can enjoy each of them as a stand-alone piece of entertainment without that pesky fan rage making me shout "UGH! That's not how it happened!".

The problem I'm having with the show right now is its aim to nurture some character development while sticking to source material that has fundamentally poor character arcs. Yup, I said it. The Walking Dead comics have poor character development. The books are good at telling a story, but the dialogue and cast leave a lot to be desired. Most of the time you'll have players appearing and then being killed off within the course of a single issue or chapter, and it's common to flip 10 pages where the only words are profanity and onomatopoeia "SHRRRRRPT". When you actually get to major blocks of speech in the books, it's not anywhere on a level with dialogue in the show. I have no problem with this since it's a comic book after all, but unlike Spiderman that can be fun and cheesy in screen adaptations, TWD is held to a different standard since it's billed as a drama. A serious drama...based on a comic book.

What makes the books so effective in the early chapters is the pacing. They are a very quick read, and there are very few moments of safety for the characters to sit back and chat. The books know what they are; a glorified zombie movie put on paper. This is why it's really easy to look past the limited dialogue and character depth. There's a story moving along and won't stop for anyone. Unfortunately television works a bit differently. AMC clearly needs to extend these seasons into what amounts to a yearly 12 hour long zombie flick. However, there's a reason most zombie movies have two-dimensional characters. It's more about the situation the people are in than who they are. I think The Walking Dead show needs to remember that to avoid pacing problems while it tries to flesh things out enough to satisfy the needs of a television audience.

What do you think? Should the show steer further from the source material and tell us more about Daryl's past? Or should it embrace the comics again and give us a more action packed program that worries less about people's history and motives and more on their dire circumstances?


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Horror Movies and Digital Distribution

I miss video stores.

The recent announcement of the final nail in Blockbuster's coffin made me nostalgic for the days when I used to patronize (and work at) a video store. I still miss the "mom and pop" shops way more than that corporate behemoths that killed most of them, but even Blockbuster gave me a place to wander around and explore; plus buy snacks!

I'm not saying I don't like digital distribution. Netflix, Amazon Video, and all the other VOD services are great for instant gratification, but I feel like there are certain things about the horror genre specifically that were better when you had to get off your couch to go to a store.

Most chain had their movies carved up by section, but where I worked there was the "House of Horrors". It was a closed off section (but not curtained like the adult videos!) that had orange lights and all sorts of ridiculous decorations you'd find at the Halloween Superstore on discount after October 31st. It had atmosphere, which is what good horror movies are all about! You knew when you stepped into that section that you were going to find weird, grotesque things too frightening to be anywhere else in the place. Even in the big chains, horror movie box art stood out. When you perused the "New Releases" section, something like The Howling III was gonna jump out at you amidst a sea of look alike romantic comedies. Scrolling through an overwhelming list of compressed digital images using an Xbox controller just doesn't evoke the same feeling.

Speaking of feelings, I also miss the surprise that I got when scouring through racks of VHS and DVD's and finding "that movie". You know, the one you heard about from a friend of a friend who was a horror nut too? It was supposedly banned in four countries and set a record for the most decapitations in under 30 minutes. I miss those moments of unintentional accomplishment where I stumbled across a gem that totally rocked my weekend. Now the best you'll usually get is someone saying "This is pretty cool. You should put it in your Netflix queue before it's not available."

This hurts the status of "cult" movies a bit, since everything has become so widely available. Can something be a "cult hit" based on the number of times it gets streamed off a server? Maybe by the number of people who love it when the general population rates it 2 stars? I feel like over saturation has changed the terms we use to define a "cult classic".

There's no doubt that digital distro services help smaller teams and directors get their stuff out there, but I also think funneling generalized ratings through such a huge audience might cause their films to be unfairly down voted as well. In the video store, maybe you talked with other horror buffs perusing the shelves, or the movie geek behind the counter who could turn you on to the latest Troma release or Critters 3 because they were in an elevator with Leonardo DiCaprio. That was fan interaction. It's very rare you meet someone who says horror movies are "just OK". It's a love/hate genre, and I can't tell you how often I see reviews on digital services that basically say "ugh" or "this was stupid". The "reviews" seem like gross generalizations from non horror fans.

Again, this is me being nostalgic, because outside of a convention, now you only get these kinds of cool conversations on blogs or places like Reddit. It was fun to have them in the moment, and the closest I get today is someone being nosy while I'm in line at the Red Box.

There's no turning back from this brave new world of "all digital, all the time", but there are still a few things you can do to recapture a bit of that old feeling. I find browsing discount sections at the big box stores like Walmart and Best Buy occasionally scratches that itch of exploration. You'll find some crazy stuff when you're elbow deep in those white wire bins. Buying movies may seem archaic in this day and age, but when you're scouring the bottom of the barrel the prices are usually manageable. I subscribe to the "Dollar Bin Horror" blog, because Rhonny Reaper and crew have some good insights for fright fans on a budget. Plus while you're at the store you can recreate that classic "movie night" ritual with some over sized candy bars or a giant tub of microwave popcorn.

Are you like me and look back fondly on the days of the brick and mortar rental houses? Share some of your favorite memories down in the comments!

Monday, November 18, 2013

'MANIAC (2013)' (Movie Review)

Momma's Boy

L.A. Noir

It takes a special kind of director to really pull off an 80's remake.  Franck Khalfoun manages to nail the noir effect in his reboot of the infamous William Lustig slasher Maniac. Evoking the same neon-soaked grime found in recent throwback gems like Drive and Hobo With A Shotgun, everything from the lighting to the synth soundtrack are an homage to the low budget cult cinema of that decade.

Khalfoun makes two major changes to the formula of the original. He sets the story on the "left coast" in Los Angeles, and uses a fairly consistent first person perspective to put us "in the mind of the killer" Frank Zito. Unfortunately I don't feel like this always worked. Elijah Wood does an excellent job as Zito. Further proving he can be absolutely terrifying after his villainous performance in Sin City, Wood never fails at convincing us he is mentally unwound. Unfortunately the POV camera work does a disservice since we rarely get to see him interacting with any other characters, which I felt took something away from the tension and interactions. The strongest scenes were the ones where Zito is alone or with his work and trying to rationalize his horrible actions.

Speaking of horrible, Maniac is not for the squeamish. It's graphic, and even someone as desensitized to movie violence as I am found myself wincing with sweaty palms during a few scenes. It's a gritty, ugly movie, and it doesn't pull any punches. Similar to the 1st person camera work, I felt like this really drove home the intensity of a few scenes, and sabotaged others where the gore drowned out any kind of tension or suspense. Sometimes I wonder if there is a team of people at IFC who revel in green lighting the most offensively brutal horror movies possible. See: The Human Centipede.

With a short running time of 89 minutes, the story quickly plays out between Frank and Anna (Nora Arnezeder) without a lot of filler or background. I personally liked the limited scope, and didn't mind letting my imagination fill in the details, but others might see it as shorthanded character development. I feel like too much background detail into the players take away from the sense of urgency the story has, which is what elevates it above the average slasher flick.

Maniac definitely isn't for everyone. It's a re-make of a cult film that arguably didn't need to happen, but I have to give credit to the cast and team for trying something different with the source material, even if it doesn't always work out. If you're looking for a quick jaunt of intense and violent film making, Maniac could be right up your alley. Love it or hate it, it will definitely stick with you for a while.

Grade: B

Reviewed on VOD via Amazon. Running time 89 MIN.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Zombies Ate My Neighbors Retrospective

I fired up my Wii Virtual Console yesterday and sat down to reacquaint myself with one of my favorite games from the 16-bit era. Zombies Ate My Neighbors is a classic, and if you haven't played it, you don't know what you're missing! I have fond memories of renting this from my local video store and having no clue what it was about, but thinking it had to be great because of the zombies on the box art. I miss the "pre-internet" days of gaming when you could still be surprised by something.

The basic premise takes cues from Gauntlet and casts you in the role of Zeke and/or Julie, who battle hordes of monsters through their neighborhood and various other locales while trying to save their neighbors from the evil beasts. You'll fight all manner of creatures from classics like vampires and werewolves, to Martian invaders and blob monsters. You'll even face off against Jason and Leatherface wannabes. What I loved about ZAMN was its sense of humor. It was offbeat and fun which differentiated it from darker horror games like Splatterhouse. It's a love letter to the fun side of classic horror.

LucasArts (RIP) put a lot of passion into Zombies Ate My Neighbors, as they did with so many of their titles. You collect all sorts of wacky weapons and items in your travels, and they make logical sense to anyone who grew up watching horror films. Throwing silverware at a werewolf is an instant kill, as is using a crucifix against a vamp. Other creatures like blobs hate fire extinguishers. It's this fan service and all the tiny extra details that serve to show the developers were creating an homage to the genre.

The attention to quality also shines in the excellent soundtrack. It conveys all the spookiness of a B-Movie through the buzzing Sega Genesis chipset. While the graphics aren't anything phenomenal by early 1990's standards, they definitely have an original and very colorful style to them. This has prompted plenty of amazing fan art from folks like Bones and was copied in the lackluster sequel Ghoul Patrol and Monster Madness:Battle for Suburbia that is considered a spiritual successor.

Although its solo play still holds up today, ZAMN is at its best when played co-op, and having a friend really helps tackle the challenge of its 55+ levels. Unless you're a collector and want to snag a copy on eBay, you should definitely download it on your Wii and to try out. Every horror gaming fan should experience the pure elation of an extended Zombies Ate My Neighbors session.

Have you played Zombies Ate My Neighbors? If so, let me know what you think about it!

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Top 5 Horror Movies Concerning Connecticut

SPOILER: The Haunting in Connecticut didn't make the list
Connecticut is a scary place. I should know since I grew up here. Massachussetts steals a lot of the thunder what with Salem and all those witches, but there are a bunch of spooky stories and places in CT that have inspired or hosted some great horror movies. Read on for my list of the Top 5 horror movies that are associated with the Constitution State!

Friday, November 8, 2013

How Not to Name Your Sequel

I just finished watching Fright Night 2:New Blood and was compelled to write a quick post. While the movie didn't totally offend me, its title did. What bothers me is that it is not a sequel.

Unlike Fright Night 2 (1988), this movie is not actually a true sequel. About twenty minutes into the flick I realized that it's yet another reboot of the original Fright Night from 1985. What we have is a re-hash of the original story with the same characters, only a different setting and a gender swap for the main villain. It is in no way a follow-up to the 2011 Fright Night reboot starring Colin Farrell.

I find this irritating because it comes off at best as misrepresentation, and at worst, a cash grab. All they had to do was drop that pesky numeral 2 and market New Blood as another mulligan, or kept the 2 and made an honest effort at putting a modern spin on the true sequel. Ironically, that Fright Night 2 also featured a female vampire as the villain.

If you're interested in a more in-depth look at the movie, Scott Weinberg over on FEARnet did a great review that pretty much sums up my thoughts on it.

If any aspiring horror movie writers or directors happen to read this, do yourself and your potential audience a favor. Don't try to trick anyone with a misleading title or "in-name-only" sequel chicanery.


'Saturday Morning Massacre' (Movie Review)

Scooby Don't

What would happen if the gang from Scooby Doo was thrust into a gruesome real life horror scenario? That's what director Spencer Parsons aimed for with his horror-comedy Saturday Morning Massacre (also known as Saturday Morning Mystery). It follows the misadventures of four meddling kids and their dog Hamlet as they debunk paranormal happenings and try to apprehend criminals.

Unfortunately, things haven't been going so well for them and they are on the edge of bankruptcy until their leader Nancy (Ashley Spillers) finds a job for them investigating an old boarding school that reportedly had some heinous activity going on. Little do they realize what's waiting for them inside the Kaiser House!

This sounds like a promising setup, and the movie starts by dropping us back into 1994 right in the middle of the gang trying to solve a case. After the opening scenes however, things start to go awry. Part of creating an effective parody or spoof is clever use of the source material. Parsons and the writing team for Saturday Morning Massacre really only went as far as some costumes, a van, and an adorable pooch. Besides a few other nods to the Hanna Barbera mystery classics, there isn't much parody happening. It's barely reflected in the oddly delivered script.  Apparently much of it was improvised, which may be why it seems to have a lazy, meandering quality to it. By the time the kids make it to the house and start investigating with Officer Lance (Paul Gordon), their "casual conversation" comes off as the actors being on Quaaludes.

Strange Satanic happenings begin setting upon the gang in the house, but it's all so obtuse that outside of a few cool moments (like a hallway chase scene) it's more confusing than scary. There were a LOT of writers credited for this script, and unfortunately it seems like that lead to its schizophrenic behavior. There's even a romantic sub-plot thrown in that feels unneeded and forced.

By the time the first act wraps thanks to a convenient plot device, we get to the gory second half. Now the action heats up! Things go sideways and its a total splatterfest as the group tries to survive and escape from the Kaiser mansion...wait, isn't this supposed to be a parody of Scooby Doo? Once the script really gets focused it degenerates into a by-the-numbers (but watchable) bloodbath. Sadly at this point there is zero reference to the source material and everyone (including the writers and director) seem to have forgotten what they set out to do in the first place.

Saturday Morning Massacre (I wonder if they re-named it Mystery to make it less "obvious"?) is a really clever premise. The costume design, ideas and special effects are all solid but it suffers from extremely poor delivery. My suggestion is this team regroups and takes another swing at aping Hanna Barbera classics. Maybe get a computer generated shark and call it JabberJAWS.

Grade: D+

Reviewed on DVD via Red Box. Running time 83 MIN.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

From Dusk Till Dawn Becomes a Television Series

Say WHAT?!

I loved From Dusk Till Dawn. I even didn't hate that mostly contemptible sequel starring the T-1000. So you'll forgive me if I'm a little freaked out that it's currently being turned into a television series.

While I'm a big fan of Robert Rodriguez in general, he's not perfect, but I'm hoping that this show will be done justice as the centerpiece of his new "El Rey Network" that is premiering next month.

Here's an excerpt from an interview about the shows early stages:

The 10-episode serialized drama, created, directed, and executive produced by Rodriguez (Sin City, Machete, Desperado) and based on the 1996 cult classic he created with Quentin Tarantino, will feature a principal cast including D.J. Cotrona (Dear John, G.I. Joe: Retaliation) as Seth Gecko, the role that famously launched the film career of George Clooney. Zane Holtz (Holes, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) stars as Richie Gecko, and Jesse Garcia (QuinceaƱera, "Sons of Anarchy") plays Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez, a new character created for the series. Don Johnson (Django Unchained, "Nash Bridges") joins in a recurring role as Sheriff Earl McGraw. Other cast will be announced in the coming weeks.

Miramax, producing studio and distributor of the original film, is distributing the series internationally in all territories with the exception of Canada, China, India, and the UK.
Rodriguez said: "If the movie's the short story, the series is the novel." He added: "We have assembled an amazing cast and crew, and viewers can expect to be part of a wild ride when the series premieres on El Rey Network next spring."

Rodriguez said: "If the movie's the short story, the series is the novel." He added: "We have assembled an amazing cast and crew, and viewers can expect to be part of a wild ride when the series premieres on El Rey Network next spring."

Here's hoping that with the right direction and cast that they can capture the gory spectacle and humor of the original movie, and have it turn out like some of the more successful movie-to-television adaptations like Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Fingers crossed for the "Gecko-verse".

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

'How To Survive' (Game Review)

 Kovac's rules!

It seems a lot of recent survival horror games are pretty heavy on gore and action, but a bit lacking in the "survival" department. Eko Software and 505 Games aim to change that with their new zombie murder fiesta How To Survive.

Hit the jump to find out more!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Freddy vs. Jason...on The NES!

Part of being an icon in the 1980's meant a few things. At some point you met Michael Jackson, did a Pepsi commercial, or starred in your own video game. If you were a mega-star, you did all three. It's no surprise then that horror figureheads Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees starred in their own digital adaptations.

I recently re-visited these two 8-bit thrillers to see which (if either) stood the test of time better. So read on after the jump for a clash of the terror titans back when they had more limited color palettes.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fangoria Channel on Hulu

In a never-ending attempt to minimize my traditional cable television viewing, I am always on the look out for ways to find new horror content on the cheap. I suppose this post can be classified as a sort of PSA for anyone whose bored and wants to watch free fright films (alliteration!)

I read Fangoria, I have a Hulu account, but I didn't realize that as of this month Fangoria curates their own Hulu channel.

They keep 30 movies in active rotation. Not all of them are winners, but there are definitely some solid picks including Audition, Inferno, and Maniac Cop 2 starring our hero Bruce Campbell.

If you don't have a Hulu account, it's free to sign up, and they seem to be the least offensive of the alternative-cable streaming services. Now go, armed with this new knowledge, and watch Beverly Hills Vamp on your iPad.