A: Altered (2006)

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I really like Eduardo Sanchez’ work. One-half of the directing team who brought us The Blair Witch Project, he’s continued to create interesting takes on standard horror genres, and his first directoral effort after the movie that launched a thousand found footage films is Altered, which starts with a tense in media res sequence and then gives very little chance to relax during its trim 88 minutes.

That sequence involves three redneck dumbasses, Duke (Brad William Henke), Cody (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) and Otis (Michael C. Williams, the only holdover from Blair Witch) hunting at night with a bewildering (and worrisome) variety of weapons. What they’re hunting is fast, smart, and vicious. They do manage to catch it in a tiger pit, and Duke insists they take it to a friend named Wyatt, because “he knows about these things.”

Wyatt (Adam Kaufman) is living in a sort of survivalist compound in the middle of the woods, surrounded by bright lights, weapons of his own, and a workshop/garage. He is not happy to see his old friends, or what they’ve brought him, and his girlfriend who recently moved in (Catherine Mangan) is even less pleased. “Why did you bring it here?” demands Wyatt. “We never thought we would actually catch one!” answers Duke.

It seems that 15 years before, these four guys (plus one more) were on a similar beer-soaked hunting trip when they were abducted by aliens. Duke, Cody and Otis were released after a couple of day of torturous experiments. The aliens kept Wyatt and Timmy – Cody’s brother – for more extreme treatment. Timmy didn’t survive, but Wyatt did – after some, um, modifications. After his release, he performed meatball surgery on himself to remove a tracking implant in his guts, and he’s been hiding ever since. And he knows that if they kill the alien that has been brought to him, the rest of his race will simply exterminate mankind. “You know what happens to an animal after it kills a person.”

Everybody has scars other than physical from the experience; Cody was blamed for his brother’s death, Otis is afraid of everything and Wyatt is definitely suffering from PTSD, with night terrors and paralyzing panic attacks. The movie doesn’t shy away from the many ways trauma can twist your life for years afterward.

The budget of Altered is certainly low, but doesn’t look it; Sanchez spends the money exactly where it needs to go. A lot of your drama and tension is going to come from interaction between the human characters, and the director has always been spot-on with his casting. The effects work is 99% practical, nasty, and won’t age like a lot of CGI from the period.

Altered takes the zombie siege formula, turns it inside out – people are trapped inside a house with something – and certainly worth a look.

Buy Altered on Amazon

After Ebert: More Movies 2

Having survived covering the City’s Independence Day festivities (two days of grueling remote television work), I should probably finish playing catchup on my movie watching.

vhs2First off, about a year ago I held forth on V/H/S, a horror anthology where all the stories were presented in the found footage format. Bucking the trend, I like it if it’s done well – my definition of “done well” is apparently far looser than most others. Then again I also recognize shades of quality between “Excellent” and “Worst Thing EVAR”. Like any movie anthology, V/H/S had its high and low points, and was successful enough to spawn a sequel. I wish they’d stuck with the original title, SuperV/H/S, but that was probably deemed too obscure a reference, so V/H/S 2 it was.

This time there are only four stories, which proves to be beneficial. As usual, our primary concerns with the found footage format is 1) Why is there a camera running? and 2) Why does whoever’s running this camera keep shooting while the story unfolds around them?

The first story, “Phase I Clinical Trials” circumvents both of these by presenting us with a man who lost an eye in a car accident and is fitted with an electronic eye that restores his sight, but also has an embedded chip recording everything for clinical test data. The catch (and there had to be a catch because this is, after all, a horror movie) is that he starts seeing some very unfriendly-looking ghosts. Not the most original concept, but it helps that he’s found by a woman who had a similar cochlear implant some time before, and who can hear the ghosts. This first story gave me at least one jump scare (even when I knew it was coming), some chills, and even a couple of laughs. Its only crime is that it could have used a little more development.

The second story,  “A Ride in the Park” by The Blair Witch Project‘s Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, kicks the quality up a considerable notch. A bicyclist attaches a GoPro camera to his helmet to record his *ahem* ride in the park, which is interrupted when he rides into the zombie apocalypse. Okay, a first person view of the ZomApoc has been done, but this time the cyclist gets bitten so it becomes a first zombie view. “A Ride in the Park” makes use of what has become common knowledge of zombie tropes to form a lean, mean story that is exactly as long as it needs to be.VHS2_Still02

I might have been satisfied with “Ride” being the best in show, except next up was the real reason I was jonesing to see V/H/S 2, the segment “Safe Haven” by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. I blush to admit that I am unfamiliar with Tjahjanto’s work, but I became a fan of Evans when I saw The Raid: Redemption and Merantau in the same day.

“Safe Haven” involves a TV crew finally getting permission to tape an interview with a controversial religious leader in his equally controversial commune. It turns out that this guru, a combination of Jim Jones and David Koresh, has agreed to let the crew in because their presence coincides with his cult’s horrific endgame, which proceeds to play out in real time.

2013-05-23-vhs2_havenEvans and Tjahjanto open up the found footage concept neatly; not only does the crew have two cameras, but each member has a spy camera concealed in the top button of their shirts (they’re hoping for a muckraking expose, not the fair and balanced story they promised), but once they arrive at the commune, the directors can also rely on the extensive closed circuit TV network. “Safe Haven” is the longest of the stories (and the probable reason for four rather than five stories in this outing), and that really pays off. There’s even a bit of character development, for pete’s sake.

The last story, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” probably suffers from following “A Ride in the Park” and “Safe Haven”. You might remember some years back, back in the Alien Autopsy years, there was also a tape floating around that was supposed to show an alien abduction in progress at a family gathering. That’s what this is, with better special effects. This time the GoPro is put on a dog for a prank, so there’s a novel point of view, but I found it needlessly confusing and didn’t give a tinker’s damn for anybody but the dog.

But the first three are well worth watching.

I had wanted to embed the less spoiler-iffic green band trailer, but that one has links to other pages all over it (insert cursing here), so here’s the red band trailer, with some unnecessary commentary (oooh, there’s some hypocrisy right there):

Land-of-the-Dead-2005-Hollywood-Movie-Watch-OnlineAfter that, I put aside my long-standing moratorium against zombie movies to watch George Romero’s Land of the Dead. Italian zombie movies just about did me in, then the Resident Evil movies combined with Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead informed me that the zombies of my youth were no longer edgy and scary, they were a cardboard commodity to be thrown at the screen while the director did his best Count Floyd: “Oh Look! Eesn’t it SCARY keeds! A-WOOOOO!” Something broke in me that day, and I walked away.

Land of the Dead, though, was like a breath of fresh air. Romero posits a pretty realistic outcome from his last three zombie flicks: humanity in a fenced-off enclave, at the center of which is a tower block where the rich live in luxury while the rest of the populace is either guarding the perimeter, scavenging supplies from surrounding towns overrun by zombies, or living a Thunderdome-type free market existence.

land-of-the-dead-1I knew John Leguizamo was one of the scavengers, but I was caught off-guard by Simon Baker playing their leader. As ever, Romero proves himself ten times more thoughtful than almost anybody working in the genre; the zombies are falling into their former life patterns, as implied in the earlier movies, but  Alpha Zombies are starting to emerge, and as Herbert West would point out, they’re starting to use tools. One of the city’s raids pisses off the emerging alpha zombie, and he leads a march on the distant tower; there’s a reason people refer to this as the Occupy Wall Street of zombie movies.

People rushed onto my Twitter timeline to inform me that the movie sucked or Romero should have stopped right there. Well, it didn’t, and I don’t know about him stopping. But I’m more willing now to find out, and picked up a copy of Diary of the Dead at Half-Price Books the next day. Take that, nattering nabobs of negativity!

Kill_List-2011-MSS-poster-02Kill List would likely have flown under my radar were it not for the ardent advocacy of Internet film critic Scott Weinberg, who championed it on Twitter. A British movie directed by Ben Wheatley, Kill List introduces us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a hit man who’s suffering a form of PTSD after an assassination went very wrong in Kiev eight months earlier. The money is running out and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is none too happy about what she perceives to be his indolence. Jay’s old mate Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up with a high-paying job, a chance to get back on the horse.

Jay and Gal are given a list of three people to murder, and they go to it with the ease of professionals comfortable with their work; things start to go awry almost immediately, though, when their first target, a priest, spots them before he shot through the head, smiles, and says, “Thank you.”

Their next target is known only as The Librarian – the library he presides over is a series of torture/snuff films, which sends the already edgy Jay right over that edge. He tortures the Librarian to find out where the films are made, and while Gal is upstairs looking for clues and money, the Librarian sincerely tells Jay it is an honor to meet him, and thanks Jay after every blow with a claw hammer.

killiist2Something really weird is going on, and after Jay makes a detour to kill everyone in the snuff film production company, Gal manages to walk him back to a sane enough place to try to back out of the contract, but their Client will have none of it: Jay is the man for the job. So Jay and Gal seek out their last target, an MP on his own country estate, at which point things begin to really go to shit.

Kill List has a very intriguing tone; it feels like a low-budget indy relationship film that loses its way and strays into Charles Bronson territory, then, totally lost, careens into a Dennis Wheatley novel. As Jay and Gal struggle through their trip to the end of the Kill List and the corresponding heart of darkness, things get stranger and more disorienting; it all leads to a gut punch of an ending, making it one of the more memorable horror movies of the last few years.

My only problem with it – and this is a personal failing – is that I find the indy relationship parts uncomfortable and in some places, mere filler. The uncomfortable part means the director and the actors are doing their job well; I’m just a slob who wants to get to his scary stuff.

I finished up my week of weirdness with Holy Motors, and now I am going to have to try to describe it.

holy_motors_ver5_xlgDenis Levant is M. Oscar, an actor who is driven around town in a limousine, chauffeured by Edith Scob (yes, Eyes Without A Face Edith Scob) to his various assignments. The limousine is a self-contained costume and makeup shop. Oscar has nine assignments that day, and he will become nine different people.

This sounds like some espionage movie, but it’s not; it’s a surreal collection of short scenes that have no relation to each other, played out for the benefit of who-knows? He will become an elderly beggar woman, a bizarre troll-like creature, the father of an awkward adolescent girl, an old man on his death bed. He will meet two other such actors (at least). He will get killed twice, none of which seems to matter.

Any attempt to describe it further would simply involve a listing of every event. It is a deuced odd film. Its surrealism is not on the extravagant level of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but attempts to assign logic and a through-line to it would likely cause headaches if not serious damage. If nothing else, it is a great showcase for the talent of Denis Levant; If you want to mutter to yourself “What the living hell-” for two hours (and have no Jodorowsky available), it will fit the bill.