Hunting Halloween, Part 2

I keep looking at Google Calendar, and expecting the bad blocks to go away, but it isn’t happening. Monday is going to kick off the most hellaciously busy week-and-a half I have had in some time. So busy that getting up at a ridiculously early hour to cook on Thanksgiving day is going to seem like a lovely break. So I better write about this backlog, quickly, and while I can.

Night before Halloween night belonged to Dead Snow (2009) a Norwegian flick I knew very little about, except it obviously concerns Nazi zombies. Yes, I know, I said I was done with zombie flicks almost ten years ago – House of the Dead was the straw that broke the undead camel’s back. But, like Al Pacino, they keep pulling me back in. The reason I own this? It was 99 cents at a dying Blockbuster. What the hell.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but five medical students go to a remote cabin for the weekend. Your plot twists here are that it’s in Norway, and the cabin is a ski cabin, so you’re dealing with some trees, but a whole lot of snow. Medical student #6 is the one whose family owns the cabin, but she’s a real outdoorsy type, and is cross-country skiing to the cabin. Except she’s not, as we see her die in the pre-credits sequence.

Now, the old-timer local drops in from Central Casting to tell the annoyed students about the Nazi occupation during WWII, and how the villagers turned on the greedy krauts at the tail end of the war, and the Nazis ran off to the mountains – with all the gold they’d stolen – never to be seen again. So there’s an eeeeeeevil in the vicinity. Well, haha, old-timer gets eviscerated in his tent that night – that’s what he gets for not heeding his own warnings – and Dead Owner Girl’s boyfriend goes looking for her with the only snowmobile, leaving the others to find Nazi gold in the world’s worst hiding place, have sex in outhouses, and be set upon by Stormtrooper Zombies who are after the gold.

Dead Snow, if nothing else, wears its inspirations rather nakedly. When Token Movie Nerd asks his friends, “How many movies start with people going to a cabin with no cell signal?” and Token Movie Nerd Girl answers with a number of them, notably Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2, it doesn’t get more blatant than that (yes, it does, Movie Nerd is wearing a Braindead T-shirt – Dead Alive to us Yanks) – of course Movie Nerd Me points out both movies were made before years before the current cell phone boom and that is not a plot point in any of them.

Anyway, once we reach zombie siege territory and (oh alright, SPOILER) both movie nerds get offed (end SPOILER) so we’re spared anymore annoying meta humor, things start moving at a brisk pace and rarely let up. The only real problem is the feeling that we’ve tread this ground before, it’s just that this time that ground covered in snow. The gore is enthusiastic, give them that, and well-done. It’s just that truly inspired moments – like one of the students, after raiding a tool shed, charges a Nazi with a crossed hammer and sickle – serve mainly to point out how familiar the other gags have become.

Absolutely no idea why the Nazis were killing people before that errant gold was found. Guess they just enjoy being evil fucks.

Entertaining enough, but this is a definite rent or Netflix. Although, Norway: Still beautiful.

Halloween night, I know I’m going to get stuck with door duty because a) my wife always goes next door to watch Survivor, b) then she has to pick up my son who is helping his classmate guide her younger siblings around their neighborhood for trick-or-treat. I might as well watch a movie, but it’ll have to be something I’ve already seen, so I don’t mind the interruptions. Last year it was John Carpenter’s The Thing. This year? Well, I’d bought this impressively cheap blu-ray of The Omen. The original, of course. Which is odd, because I’ve never really liked The Omen.

At the end of the horror boom started by The ExorcistOmen at least put an end to the seemingly infinite exorcism movies that were clogging the drive-ins and pointed the way to a wider variety of religion-based, or at least Catholicism-based, horror movies, to be carried on by The Sentinel and Holocaust 3000. Then 1977 came and Star Wars demonstrated that the new way to get rich was to throw spaceships at the screen.

So here is, I guess, my major problem with movies like The Exorcist or The Omen: I don’t find them particularly frightening, because I am simply not very religious. Not in the traditional Christian sense, anyway. I can appreciate the horror elements in both stories, the structure, the build-up, the FX  – but that’s all they are to me. Elements. Ingredients in a recipe. I don’t experience these flicks the same way as the rest of the Western world, apparently.

Something else weighing against The Omen, thirty-five years later, is its deliberate pace. Its refusal to get to the Good Stuff, the stuff I was told about breathlessly on its first theatrical run – is actually something I respect. A movie this long was a bit of an anomaly in ’76, and usually the sign of a prestige Hollywood product… and make no mistake, this is what that was, with full-page newspaper ads and one hell of a cast, from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick to David Warner, Patrick Troughton and Leo McKern.  The Omen franchise became known for its extreme death scenes, and you don’t really get the first one until 45 minutes into the movie, The second, another 45 minutes later. I never bothered with the remake (go figure!), but did it have the same structure? Were more Damien-inspired setpieces inserted for today’s ADD audiences?

I will likely never know. And I’m actually pretty okay with that.

So I admire The Omen for its craft, if not its status as a horror classic. What I do find interesting (and not at all surprising) is that David Warner’s death scene, in my memory, had become something quite more realistic, and done in a way that would be possible today with CGI, but not in 1976. (David Letterman used the beheading scene from the new Omen to punctuate a joke, and I admit it was well done. Then I have to point out that we live in an age when a bloody decapitation is used to punctuate a joke.)

That blu-ray is also packed with three commentary tracks, two of which feature Richard Donner. Those will be worthwhile.

I need to skip forward in time a week or so to keep a thematic thing going. In other words, about a week later, I saw another horror movie, and that movie was Grave Encounters. Oh yeah. Another found footage movie.

Grave Encounters‘ hook is that the footage was shot by the crew of a TV series called – um hm – Grave Encounters. A producer type, at the very beginning, tells us its production preceded all the other ghost hunting shows by a couple of years, and was showing great promise – “until they got to episode 6.”

For “Episode 6” the crew is going to be locked overnight in an abandoned mental hospital, hopefully to actually find some sort of evidence of the paranormal. Unedited footage as they scope out and set up in the hospital reveals they’ve pretty much had no luck in the previous five eps, and therefore none of them is a true believer, least of all their “psychic” – an actor who’s padding his resume.

Needless to say, as the night wears on, they find themselves rather in over their heads.

Grave Encounters has some decent scares, though too many are of the Paranormal Activity “Ooooh, that shouldn’t be moving by itself” type. When it reaches outside that economical comfort zone and get really weird, it hits paydirt. It’s tempting to go into some detail, but… no. If you’re interested, you deserve to experience them on your own.

I will say this, however: this is another movie that shows it’s inspirations, though not with a sense of humor as Dead Snow does. The influence of  other abandoned asylum movies like Session 9 and the remake of House on Haunted Hill are dreadfully, wincingly obvious.

But I’m inclined to cut Grave Encounters some slack. It gets creative many times, and let’s face it: I really hate ghost hunter shows. My son is addicted to them, and frequently gets my wife sucked into them, too, but all I see is some people who found a way to monetize standing in dark rooms freaking themselves out.

Currently available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. You could do worse. I certainly have.

V/H/S (2012)

As we’ve seen recently, I’m fascinated by the found footage format.  I was burbling about a horror anthology called V/H/S which was going to be nothing but found footage as interpreted by six directors (more really, there’s at least four operating under the pseudonym Radio Silence). Well, it finally became available on a number of Video On Demand venues, so I didn’t have to wait for its October theatrical debut… and I don’t like watching found footage movies in a cinema, anyway. It’s just not right.

Horror anthologies always have a framing device, and this one is fitting: a gang of hooligans who videotapes their illegal activities (like vandalism, burglaries and grabbing women to expose their breasts) get hired to pull a job that seems up their alley: breaking into a remote house and stealing a particular videocassette. Once there, they find the house’s sole occupant dead, and a lot of tapes. While the others search the house, various members of the gang check out tapes one by one…and these contain our stories.

The first story, “Amateur Night”, starts the proceedings off fairly strongly, and has one of the better devices for combating the “Why do they keep filming?” skepticism: a pair of “video glasses” with a built-in camera and microphone. Two frat boy-types pop these glasses on their nerdier friend, rent a hotel room, then start cruising the local bars. There is one woman who seems attracted to our walking camera, an odd, seemingly feral girl who only seems to know one phrase, “I like you.” Back at the hotel room, when the only other pick-up passes out, the other two men start concentrating on the Spooky Girl, with predictably (yet still somewhat surprisingly) gory results.

I should mention that Spooky Girl is effectively played by Hannah Fierman, an actress whose face I swear is 1/3 eyes. Very striking, very good performance. I’m going to say all the performances in “Amatuer Night” are pretty good, to the point of making me extremely uncomfortable. This segment seems to take a little long to get to its payoff, which is the only real criticism I can make.

You’re going to wind up in the same fix with “Second Honeymoon”, written and directed by Ti West. West has been getting some very good press with this movies House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but I was dreadfully let down by this sequence. Very long setup, very sudden and unsatisfying payoff.

The third sequence, “Tuesday the 17th” starts yet again with a group of young people heading out into the country while some guy annoys everyone with his video camera – that’s pretty endemic to the format – but at least it’s dispensed with pretty quickly. The girl taking everyone out to her folks’ “cabin by the lake” has an agenda of her own, involving some murders at that location several years before.  The main interesting point to this story seems cribbed, however unwittingly, from the Marble Hornets web series, with a killer that screws up video signals, which at the very least leads to some interesting visuals.

No spoilers here, nope, nuh uh.

Story #4, “The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger” breaks with established form magnificently by presenting the story as series of Skype calls, instead of camcorder footage. It also has some of the most effective scares and the best twist of the movie.

The last story, “10/31/98” is about yet another group of young men who are headed out to a Halloween party on the titular date. One of the guys has built a handycam into the head of his bear costume, so there you go. Nobody is really sure where this party is located, and there’s some driving around to fill time. Once they think they’ve finally found it… well, needless to say, it’s the wrong house. It is a very wrong house, and this story has some of the best frights in the whole flick.

The build on V/H/S is very good, starting out solidly, if a bit slowly, then upping the ante through the last three tales. Sadly, I think the Ti West story could have been easily excised and produced a tighter, shorter movie. The framing story does stand on its own pretty well, with a few shocks of its own. The acting is never less than professional (though the character work in “Tuesday the 17th” is pretty cliché, which I think was the point), and even very, very good in places.

So I’m going to say, yeah, very worth the rental. If you don’t like found footage, this isn’t going to change your mind. But in a pretty tepid year for horror stories, it’s nice to find one that goes for the gusto without resorting to the simple meanness of torture, or by remaking another, more successful movie from 20 years before.

Keeping that in mind: definitely worth the rental, especially if you’re a horror fan suffering through a drought of decent material.