Archive for the Disturbing Cinema Category

MANIAC (2012)

Posted in 2013, Art Movies, Based on Classic Films, Cult Movies, Disturbing Cinema, Exploitation Films, Grindhouse, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, Joe Spinell Films, Kinky Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Psycho killer, Remakes, Serial Killer flicks, Sleaze with tags , , , , , , , on July 16, 2013 by knifefighter

MANIAC (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

 Maniac

Yet another in a long list of  movies that do not need to remakes, William Lustig’s original MANIAC (1980) featured the amazing Joe Spinell (who also provided the story and co-wrote the screenplay) as Frank Zito, a violent psychotic who kills women and then scalps them, so he can attach their hair to mannequins that surround his bed like lovers. Visceral stuff, made all the more effective by the teaming of Lustig, Spinell, and effects maestro Tom Savini at the peak of his powers. This was one movie that lived up to its title, and yet there were tender moments as well, focusing mostly on the friendship (and blossoming romance?) between Spinell’s Zito and Caroline Munro’s photographer, Anna D’Antoni. It didn’t hurt that Munro was one of the most beautiful women to grace celluloid at the time. But Spinell somehow, through this relationship, made you sympathize with a man who is otherwise a deranged animal. You somehow cared about Zito and wanted to see him redeemed. Of course, in these kinds of movies, redemption eventually gives up and steps aside, so that punishment can take control of matters.

In the new version of MANIAC (2012), Franck Khalfoun gives us a strange recreation of the original film, with just enough quirks and differences to make it enjoyable on its own terms. Even if it comes nowhere near the gut punch of the original. This time, the script is co-written by Alexandre Aja, the director who has given us such recent horrors as the HILLS HAVE EYES remake (2006), MIRRORS (2008) and who is currently adaptating Joe Hill’s HORNS for the big screen. As for Khalfoun, he previously directed the murder in an underground parking garage flick, P2 (2007) and has acted in Aja films like HIGH TENSION (2003) and PIRANHA (2010).

FA_couv_000177

The new MANIAC stars Elijah Wood, oddly enough, perhaps the exact physical opposite of Joe Spinell. Where Spinell was genuinely creepy and yet always had a strange vulnerability to him, Wood seems slight and wimpy, but has a kind of strangeness to him that could easily be perceived as a capacity for violence. This aspect of Wood has been exploited previously in SIN CITY (2005), where he played an intense and merciless hit man with a penchant for eating human flesh. So this is hardly the first time someone saw Elijah Wood and thought “Hey, he might actually be an effective psycho.”

In MANIAC, however, Wood’s appearance and attributes are given only a small chance to shine, since the movie also adopts the rather odd gimmick of giving us the story from the killer’s point of view. What this means is that, throughout most of the film, we see everything through Frank Zito’s eyes. So whether or not Wood looks the part, we only see him occasionally, when he happens to look at himself in a mirror, for example.

Elijah Wood is actually quite good in the remake of MANIAC. I just wish he was onscreen more.

Elijah Wood is actually quite good in the remake of MANIAC. I just wish he was onscreen more.

This POV seems very artificial, making us very aware that this is not a gritty tour of the gutter like the original film, but something different. The new MANIAC strives toward art, towards being something more than just another killer on the loose flick. And yet, considering the subject matter, this arty direction doesn’t always work. We’re not watching a MANIAC film for artistic merit. We want to see a psychotic on the verge of complete madness, and the POV actually distances us from the meat of the film, even as it thinks that it is bringing us closer to the madman, by showing the film from his eyes.

The POV works some of the time. It’s not a bad thing, per se. There are some scenes that use this to nice effect. But in a movie like this, it doesn’t really elevate the story in any way. It’s just a fancy trick that tells us “No, you don’t have to really see Frank get his hands dirty.”

I actually like Elijah Wood. I’m not really a fan of projects like the LORD OF THE RINGS movies (or the HOBBIT films), but he’s been in plenty of other things that have impressed me. I think I first noticed him in Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM (1997), and he has a kind of intensity that gives him a lot of range. I even enjoy him in the odd FX TV series WILFRED, where he plays a man whose best friend is a man in a dog suit (the rest of the world sees it as an actual dog). But the point is, Wood is kind of fearless and open to playing a wide variety of roles, however offbeat, and for what he does in MANIAC, I think he does a decent job. In a way, though, I would have preferred to see the whole “from the maniac’s eyes” viewpoint ditched, so that we could have really enjoyed Wood’s performance to the fullest.

In the new movie, Anna is played by Nora Amezeder as a French photographer who is drawn to Frank via his strange little shop where he carries on his family’s business of restoring antique mannequins. She uses mannequins in her photographs for artistic effect, and his equally artistic display of actual mannequins might just be the perfect complement to her photos in her upcoming gallery show. Can she borrow some of his work? He catches her taking pictures of his shop’s display window and invites her inside. The fact that she sees beauty in the same objects he does creates an immediate connection. And the groundwork is there for the one normal relationship in Frank Zito’s life.  Sadly, whatever normality there is between them won’t last for long. There’s no way it could.

Unfortunately, no matter how good Elijah Wood is as Frank Zito, he can never come close to Joe Spinell's performance in the original film.

Unfortunately, no matter how good Elijah Wood is as Frank Zito, he can never come close to Joe Spinell’s performance in the original film.

Wood’s Frank Zito has mother issues, after all, that go as deep as Norman Bates’s. We see flashbacks to Frank as a child, forced to watch as his mother has sex with all comers, whether its two sailors at once in her bedroom as he peers out from between the slats of a closet door, to a late night assignation in a parking garage, Frank wants his mother as much as he is repelled by her, and it is only a matter of time before relationships he has with other women dovetail into his feelings for his mother—even the one he has with poor Anna.

Feeling a possessive jealousy for whatever woman he comes across that he finds attractive, that same need to have them always turns into a stronger need to punish them. And therefore, he can’t really have any enjoyment with them while they are alive. He can only truly possess them (and come close to “loving” them) when they have been recreated, with their bloody scalps stapled onto the heads of his mannequins. In the darkness of his apartment, he convinces himself that the mannequins are the real women, and that they are now in an environment he can control. It is only then that he can show them that he cares.

So he drives around the city late at night, picking victims at random based on how they elicit lust in him, and making quick work of them. He tries to break the cycle, even joining an online dating service and meeting Lucie (Megan Duffy), a tattooed beauty who actually seems to act motherly towards him (uh oh!) when he complains of a migraine at the restaurant they agree to meet at, and who takes him back to her place afterwards for some almost-successful seduction. You really think Frank might finally loosen up and enjoy himself, but in the end, we know that’s impossible.

There are some interesting set pieces, including Frank hunting down Anna’s agent, Rita (Jan Broberg), breaking into her glorious Manhattan apartment to kill her in her bath tub. This sequence is done quite well

I liked this new version of MANIAC. It’s a good film, despite its flaws. It’s just easier to judge it as a stand-alone film about a psycho played by Elijah Wood. To compare it to Lustig’s original is to its detriment. There is no way this movie could deliver the goods like the original movie did.

I give it three knives.

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives the 2012 version of  MANIAC ~three  knives.

 

(Despite being made in 2012, the new version of MANIAC is only now getting limited release in theaters in some cities. It is available on cable OnDemand in some markets as well.)

maniac_version3-2012-movie-poster

THE COMEDY (2012)

Posted in 2012, Bad Situations, Cult Movies, Dark Comedies, Disturbing Cinema, Independent Cinema, Satire, Something Different, Strange Cinema with tags , , , , , , , on December 28, 2012 by knifefighter

THE COMEDY (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

TheComedy

As THE COMEDY opens, a guy named Swanson (Tim Heidecker) is having a drunken party with his friends, which evolves into nudity and outrageous behavior. This occurs during the opening credits. It’s a good introduction to this man and his world of debauchery and idiocy.

When we next see Swanson, he is verbally harassing his father’s male nurse (Seth Koen), whose lack of reaction reveals that he’s endured this many times before. Swanson’s father is in a coma in his bed at home, and Swanson is clearly conflicted about his father’s condition. This conflict lasts a few minutes. Then he goes out for a day of mayhem.

This involves such weirdness as walking by a group of landscapers working on someone’s yard and suddenly chipping in to help. When the house’s owners come outside, he takes advantage of the fact that the workers can’t speak English, and pretends to be their supervisor and asks if his men can take a dip in the pool, creating a really awkward moment until the owners agree. At this point, Swanson just goes along his merry way, having accomplished a moment of anarchy. Later, he ends up in a bar where he is the only white customer, saying offensive things that could lead to a beatdown. Later still, he and his friends harass a cab driver for not having a working radio, and partake in some sophomoric behavior inside a church.

Swanson and his buddies (Eric Wareheim and James Murphy) create mayhem in a church.
Swanson and his buddies (Eric Wareheim and James Murphy) create mayhem in a church.

Just about everything Swanson does is meant to offend and piss off someone. To put it in a nutshell, Swanson’s behavior shows that he is a complete asshole, and the title of the movie has an ironic ring to it, because while some parts of this movie are funny, just as many parts are uncomfortable and even unpleasant. This is not really a comedy, after all.

Swanson lives on a boat, and spends most of his time drinking (and often puking overboard). He does whatever strikes him at a given moment, like suddenly entering a restaurant and applying for a job as a dishwasher (even though he’s about 40). It’s clear that he is well off and doesn’t need to work, yet he does these things on a lark, knowing that if he grows bored, he can always just walk away.

Somehow, despite his arrested development, Swanson is able to get girls. He “seduces” one woman at a party with banter about how feudalism could have worked if given more of a chance, and that Hitler may have had some good ideas “if you take away the killing part.” Another woman, who he meets at his dishwasher job (the first time they meet, he tells her he’s a registered sex offender), ends up back at his boat and he watches with mild curiosity as she unexpectedly has an epileptic fit.

Tim Heidecker plays an unlikable bastard who lives on a boat in THE COMEDY.

Tim Heidecker plays an unlikable bastard who lives on a boat in THE COMEDY.

He also, surprisingly, has lots of friends, all of whom seem as idiotic as he is. These include Eric Wareheim (Heidecker’s cohort on the late night Adult Swim series TIM AND ERIC, AWESOME SHOW, GREAT JOB!), stand-up comic Neil Hamburger and musician James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame).

So it’s not like Swanson is an isolated loner with no friends or girlfriends. He’s found lots of like-minded people to hang out with. And yet, he appears to have complete disdain for people in general and the world around him. He has no desire to work a real job (and clearly doesn’t have to) and has no desire to take on any kind of responsibility.

By the end of the movie, chances are good that you will want to punch Swanson in the face. And you’ll wonder why someone doesn’t punch his lights out every day of his life.

And yet, for some inexplicable reason, I found myself liking this movie.

I’ve always enjoyed comedians who sought to make their audiences squirm more than laugh, and THE COMEDY is this kind of comedy. It’s not laugh-out-loud kind of stuff (although there were a couple of times when I did laugh); it’s more like, “how much can Swanson get away with before someone decks him” kind of humor. Director Rick Alverson does a great job of making this work. Without a skilled director at the helm, this movie could easily have deteriorated into the story of a really annoying guy, which would just be a waste of time. There are scenes when you actually wonder whether or not everyone onscreen is “in” on the joke (like that scene in the barroom, where you can feel the tension building up, the more Swanson talks). And despite his complete obnoxiousness, there are moments when you feel something for Swanson as a human being, even if most of the time that feeling is repulsion.

Tim Heidecker is amazing (and fearless) in the lead role here, and he seems to be the perfect choice for this kind of thing. His Cartoon Network/Adult Swim series with Eric Wareheim is known for its bizarre, off-the-wall style that is often more weird than funny. But if you haven’t seen that show—or aren’t aware of it—then you’ll have an even better reaction to THE COMEDY.

 Tim Heidecker plays one of the most unlikable lead characters in a movie in years in THE COMEDY. Yet, somehow, it works.

Tim Heidecker plays one of the most unlikable lead characters in a movie in years in THE COMEDY. Yet, somehow, it works.

You may like this movie; chances are more likely that you will completely hate it. But it will get a reaction out of you. And director Alverson has stated that that was his main mission in making THE COMEDY, to get a reaction out of moviegoers who are usually lulled to sleep by brainless blockbusters. If you “get” what’s going on here and enjoy your humor especially dark, you might see this as a work of bizarre brilliance. If you don’t “get” it, you may want to jump through the screen and kick Swanson’s butt. But be forewarned, you will have a reaction. That is guaranteed.

So Alverson’s mission is a clear success.

I hesitate to rate this one.  I enjoyed it in a perverse way—but then again, I’ve always had an affinity for unlikable characters —but I bet most of the people reading this review would hate it.  So instead of a rating, let’s just say, if this sounds like something you’d want to see, see it. If not, then you will probably avoid it anyway.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

THE COLLECTION (2012)

Posted in 2012, Cinema Knife Fights, Disturbing Cinema, Elaborate Murders, Extreme Movies, Gore!, Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Madness, Medical Experiments!, Mutilation, Psychos, Sequels, Torture with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2012 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT Presents:
THE COLLECTION (2012)
Review by L.L. Soares

The Collection (2012) Movie Poster

(THE SCENE: an abandoned hotel full of cobwebs. L.L. SOARES is climbing the stairs using a flashlight)

LS: I’m starting to think MICHAEL ARRUDA isn’t here at all. I’m sure this is all a prank.

(His cell phone rings, playing Bernard Herrmann’s music from the shower scene of PSYCHO)

LS: Hello?

MA: LL, is that you? I’ve been waiting for an hour now.

LS: What are you talking about? I’m here now, at the Argento Hotel, just like you told me. I can’t find you anywhere.

MA: Oops, I meant the Argento Steak House. My bad.

LS: That explains a lot.

MA: Well, while I have you on the phone, how was that new movie, THE COLLECTION?

LS: I was just going to start the review. I guess I have to do this one solo.

(SWITCH to Michael Arruda in a restaurant. A waiter brings a delicious meal to his table)

MA (making noises with his mouth): Oh no, I’m having phone problems. LL are you there? I can’t hear you?

LS: Yes, I’m still here.

MA (makes more noises): Oh no, you’re breaking up. I’m going to lose you. (MA shuts off his phone)

LS: Dammit! I hate bad connections. And it always happens when I’m in spooky places like this.

So where was I? Oh yes, I was going to review the new movie THE COLLECTION. I guess I’ve got nothing better to do.

(LS sits down on a comfy chair in the hallway of the old hotel. He brings the flashlight up to his face, turning it on, making himself look spooky)

LS: Gather round the fire, kiddies, and I’ll tell you the spooky story of THE COLLECTION. First off, it’s the sequel to the 2009 movie THE COLLECTOR, which was also directed by Marcus Dunstan.  He also co-wrote the screenplays for SAW IV (2007), SAW V (2008) , SAW VI (2009) and SAW 3D: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2010) as well as FEAST (2005) and its sequels, with his writing partner, Patrick Melton. This is a busy guy.

Anyway, in case you didn’t see the first one, it was a about a thief named Arkin (Josh Stewart) who breaks into a house to steal some money and valuables, and instead finds a house of horrors. Someone else has gotten there first, and has turned it into a booby-trapped filled torture chamber, and the family (who was supposed to be on vacation) suffers horribly at the hands of a masked murderer known only as The Collector. They call him that because, whenever he attacks someplace, he kills everyone except one person, who he kidnaps for his “collection.”

The first movie ended on a suspenseful note, as Arkin was captured by the Collector, and then the end credits rolled.

The new movie, THE COLLECTION, continues where the last one left off. Sort of. This time around, we find out that the Collector has been up to lots of mischief since the last time we saw him. Not only is he making random home invasions, now the number of people he’s killed is off the charts, and the police have no clue how to stop him. The city is in a panic. So what does teenager Elena  (Emma Fitzpatrick) do? She goes to a rave of course, in an abandoned building that no adults know about. When she finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her, she runs away from the dance floor to an empty room, with a trunk in the middle of it.  She’s crying when suddenly the trunk moves and starts to make noise! There’s someone inside it. As we know from the previous movie, this is the Collector’s calling card, and if you open a trunk, it puts all kinds of horrible things in motion. So of course, she opens it, letting out Arkin (Josh Stewart again), our hero from the first movie. Only this time he is bloody from having been tortured for weeks.

His being set free sets all kinds of weird traps and pullies in motion, and a giant wheat shredding blade descends on the partiers, chopping them all to mulch. Another group of people, including Elena’s friend, Missy (Johanna Braddy) get locked up in a cage where the ceiling is crushing down on them.

Somehow Arkin escapes, and Elena gets nabbed by the Collector before he can save her. She is the only survivor of the massacre, and, as we know, the Collector always takes one victim away from the crime scene alive.

(LS gets up from the chair, just as a huge metal spike drops down from the ceiling and stabs where he was just sitting)

LS: Arkin wakes up in the hospital, where he is interrogated by a guy named Lucello (Lee Tergesen), who appears to be a cop, but isn’t. He works for Elena’s rich father (Christopher McDonald) and will stop at nothing to find Elena and bring her back to her father. Even if that means forcing Arkin to retrace his steps to find where Elena is being held (he has marks carved in his arm to determine where he was taken to last time).

Lucello and his team of Black Ops agents then invade the Hotel Argento (get the funny homage to horror director Dario Argento?) where the Collector rules over victims driven insane by their horrible treatment and who have been turned into crazed zombie-like creatures. Oh, and there are tons of booby traps and mazes and bear traps and time bombs. Let’s just say that Lucello has no idea what he’s in for, and poor Arkin is forced to go along for the ride, even though he’s endured these particular horrors before.

There are also lots of “collections” throughout the hotel. From the usual butterflies and insects in frames, to giant tanks full of bizarre sculptures made from human body parts.

There are bizarre sculptures made from human body parts throughout the hotel, like this one.

There are bizarre sculptures made from human body parts throughout the hotel, like this one.

(LS continues walking down the hallway. Hatchets are hurled at him and keep missing him.)

LS: THE COLLECTION is in limited release and its official release date was December 1st, except that week it was only playing in obscure movie theaters out in the ‘burbs, so I couldn’t see it. This weekend, it got a slightly wider release and made its way into the city. Because I enjoyed the first movie, I was looking forward to seeing this one, so I made sure to check it out before it disappeared.

Let me state something for the record. I like “torture porn.” That might be the first time you have ever seen a critic say this out loud in public, but the truth is, when the genre is done right, it can be pretty compelling. I think the first two HOSTEL movies, for example, are terrific. I was less-than-enthusiastic about all the SAW movies, because I had a problem with the Jigsaw character.

You see, our old friend Jigsaw had this agenda where his elaborate murder scenarios were meant to give the  bad people who survived them a second chance. He was  trying to change their lives. He was trying to redeem them, by making them thankful to be alive. This was all a bit hard to swallow, and I’m sure you found this all to be as much bullshit as I did. Also, Jigsaw didn’t like to get his hands dirty and watched the violence from a control room. His “victims” had to make decisions about which door to open, or which lever to pull, while he watched from safety.

The Collector isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He is more than happy to resort to hand-to-hand combat when his more elaborate methods don’t finish everyone off. He’s a skilled fighter, knows his way around a knife fight, and is lethal as hell. And there’s no pontificating about changing people’s lives. The Collector simply thirsts for blood and uses his weird,  elaborate killing methods to quench that thirst. Plus, he wears a cool, black Mexican wrestler’s mask to keep his identity a secret. Let’s just say that the Collector would kick Jigsaw’s ass in a fight.

THE COLLECTION is gory as hell. It pushes its R-rating to the limit. And it’s very suspenseful. You never know what is going to happen next, and who will die. Which is just the way a good horror movie should  be. Sure, not all of it makes sense, and you really start to wonder how anyone can set up as many crazy booby traps as this guy does throughout  the hotel—it just doesn’t seem possible—and then you realize, “hell, it’s just a movie.” And there are lots of blockbuster action movies that make even less sense.

And the cast is top-rate for this kind of thing. Josh Stewart, who was so good in the first movie, does an equally good job here, reprising his role as petty thief  and “Collector expert” Arkin. Emma Fitzpatrick is tough and unflinching as Elena (she reminded me a bit of Natalie Portman). Lee Tergeson (who you might remember as Beecher from the HBO series OZ) is solid here as Lucello, and his team of mercenaries includes Andre Royo, who was so great as the homeless guy Bubbles on another excellent HBO series, THE WIRE (it seems like more great actors have come out of OZ and THE WIRE than any other TV shows put together). Believe me, the actors involved are above-average for this kind of thing.

And the ending is actually pretty satisfying this time around. So make sure you stay in your seat until those end credits roll, because there’s a kick-ass epilogue to the story.

(LS stops in front of a doorway, and a pie hurtles at him, hitting him in the face)

Beware! The Collector wants to add you to his COLLECTION.

Beware! The Collector just might want to add you to his COLLECTION.

LS (wipes cream off his face and licks): Mmmm, banana cream!

Sure there’s horrible violence. Sure, people get tortured. There’s blood and body parts galore. But it works. There’s this incredibly sadistic bastard trying to kill as many people as possible, and a group of people trying their best to stop him. If it’s “torture porn,” and it certainly fits the bill,  then it’s one of the better examples of the genre. Unfortunately, the genre itself is in decline, no doubt thanks to all of those SAW movies that amounted to a great big example of overkill. They milked that cash cow as long as they could. So there’s a good chance THE COLLECTION might be the end of this particular franchise.

I am not expecting THE COLLECTION to be a big hit. In fact, I’m sure it won’t do very well at all, especially since it’s in such limited release. But I’m telling you, if you’re not squeamish about this kind of stuff, you might just enjoy the hell out of it. I know I did.

I give THE COLLECTION ~ four bloody knives.

(LS dials his cell phone, and Michael Arruda picks up on the other end, enjoying his steak dinner)

MA: Hello?

LS: I know you gave me the wrong info on purpose. I hope you’re enjoying your dinner.

MA: Er…I am.

LS: And I hope you enjoyed the ground up glass in the mashed potatoes.

MA (touches his mouth and coughs up blood): NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

LS: What? I can’t hear you. We have a bad connection.

(FADE TO BLACK)

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives THE COLLECTION ~ four knives!

SINISTER (2012)

Posted in 2012, Cinema Knife Fights, Disturbing Cinema, Evil Kids!, Evil Spirits, Haunted Houses, Religious Cults with tags , , , , , , on October 15, 2012 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SINISTER (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

(THE SCENE: A dark attic. L.L. SOARES has found a box of old home movies and a projector and is playing the movies against one of the walls. MICHAEL ARRUDA pops up to see what’s going on)

MA: Hey, what are you watching up here?

LS: Old home movies of the Arruda family. Here’s your first visit to Disneyworld. You sure were an ugly kid.

MA: You must have the wrong Arruda family.  I never went to Disneyworld as a kid.

LS:  You poor deprived soul.

MA:  Not at all.  We went to lots of fun places when I was a kid.

(CUT to a young MA at the Municipal Dump.)

YOUNG MA:  Can I throw the next garbage bag into the chute?  Please? This is so much fun!  Thanks for taking me to the dump!

(CUT back to MA & LS in attic.)

LS (looking nostalgic):  Ah, my old stomping grounds—. Did I ever tell you about my first pet? A junkyard rat by the name of Herbie…

MA: Not now. Hey, instead of watching these old home movies, why don’t you start this week’s review?

LS: Sure, anything’s better than watching this boring Disneyland footage. Oh god, now it’s showing pirates on water skis. This is mind numbing.

This week’s movie is called SINISTER, brought to us by some of the same producers who gave us 2010’s INSIDIOUS. This time around, the director is Scott Derickson who gave us THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005) and the 2008 remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

MA:  Oooh, two not-so-great flicks, although EMILY ROSE was okay in a mildly entertaining sort of way.

LS:  Well, compared to those two, SINISTER is a big step up.

In SINISTER, Ethan Hawke (who has been in everything from DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 1989, to GATTACA, 1997, to 2009’s DAYBREAKERS) plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer who had a bestselling book 10 years earlier called “Kentucky Blood,” but who hasn’t been able to recapture the success of that book since. He needs to find just the right story to put him on top again, and he thinks he finds it in a small town where a family was killed in their back yard. He rents the house of the murdered family and moves his wife and kids there, intent on researching the crime and putting out another hot book. But he finds a lot more than he expected.

After they move in, he finds a mysterious box of home movies on Super 8 reels and an old projector in the attic. It all looks harmless enough, until he brings the box down to his office and starts watching the films. They have innocuous sounding names like “Pool Party” and “BBQ” with corresponding dates. He puts one in the projector and sees a family playing together, until suddenly the scene changes and the family members are standing in the backyard with bags over their heads and nooses around their necks. Suddenly, a tree branch breaks, causing them all to be lifted off the ground by the nooses, where they struggle until they hang limp and dead.

Ellison is shocked by this. This is a film of the actual murder of the family that lived in this house before him. Which leads him to view the other reels of film. Each one is kind of a mini-snuff film, as he sees more murders flash before his eyes. Clearly these are all the work of one killer, and suddenly the names on the film cans take on a nightmarish quality. The “pool party” is a film of a family being drowned. The “BBQ” is a film of a family being burned alive. The more Ellison delves into these films, the more they start to really affect him. He starts drinking more, and becomes moody and anxious. And he’s only been working on this project for a week!

His family is feeling the strain of it all as well. His wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) has dealt with his mood swings before when he works on a book, and she isn’t a big fan of the process, since it has clearly has endangered their marriage in the past. Their 12-year-old son, Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) has severe night terrors, and as the family’s stay in the house continues, his nightmares get worse and worse. There’s also their younger child, Ashley (Clare Foley), who seems more thoughtful and mature than her brother, but she acts out in other ways, including painting creepy pictures all over the walls of her room.

Meanwhile, the local law officers have a mixed reaction to Ellison coming to their town. With his notorious reputation for delving into what police have done wrong in their investigations, the town sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson, who you might remember as just plain Fred Thompson from TV shows like LAW & ORDER and more recently THE GOOD WIFE, as well as a brief political career) isn’t very welcoming. Meanwhile, the Deputy (James Ransone) becomes Ellison’s accomplice in tracking down information, since the man is clearly star-struck with Ellison’s celebrity status as a bestselling author.

And just what are the strange symbols seen at some of the murder scenes? And what is that strange clown-faced figure we see strange glimpses of?

SINISTER actually does a really good job of creating atmosphere.

MA:  Yes, it does.

LS:  The movies that Ellison watches are actually pretty disturbing (SINISTER actually begins with footage from one of these movies, without explanation, before we get into the actual storyline, and it’s very effective). Since these are technically snuff films, we feel as repulsed at them as Ellison clearly is. And yet, he can’t stop watching them, can’t stop trying to decipher the clues and determine just what is going on here.

MA:  Disturbing is the word that I think best describes the entire movie.  It succeeds in making its audience feel uncomfortable.  However, I wish it had spent a little more time being in-your-face scary.

LS:  I thought the script and the direction were above-average here.

MA:  I liked the script slightly better than the direction.  Again, SINISTER was written and directed by Scott Derrickson, and in some ways the pacing of this movie reminded me of his earlier effort, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE.  I found the pacing very deliberate, not so much slow, as patient.  The film moves along like a drama rather than a horror flick.

This pacing worked better during the first half of the movie when things were creepy, but later, when I expected the scares to really intensify and things to really heat up, they don’t, as the pacing remains just as deliberate as it was early on.

I would agree that the story is above average—for the most part, anyway—I enjoyed the main story in this one, of Oswalt’s research, of the discovery of the grisly home movies, and the effects it has on Oswalt and his family. But I thought it became predictable towards the end.  I saw the ending coming a mile away, and so I wasn’t surprised in the least.

LS:  The ending isn’t mind-blowingly original, but I thought it worked.

And the cast is quite good, especially Hawke in the lead, and Clare Foley as his daughter Ashley.

MA:  I really enjoyed Ethan Hawke, but the rest of the cast did very little for me, although I agree with you that Clare Foley is also good as his daughter Ashley.

I really bought into Hawke’s performance as the tormented writer Ellison Oswalt.  He really seems creeped out and bothered by the home movies, and he grows more and more uncomfortable as he delves deeper into his research of the crimes.

I also felt bad for the guy.  He’s a writer in desperate need of a new hit—it’s been 10 years since his bestseller—and he’s counting on a new hit to support his family, and I kept thinking, “Get another source of income, man!  You’re nuts relying only on your book!”

(ELLISON OSWALT pops up into the attic.)

OSWALT:  What do you want me to do?  Teach?  Write boring science textbooks?

MA:  Hey, you gotta pay the bills.

OSWALT:  But I wrote a bestseller once!  I can do it again! I know I can!

LS:  Quit your whining and get back to writing, already!

OSWALT:  Right.  (Exits)

MA:  You just said that to get rid of him.

LS:  Hey, we’ve got a movie to review here!  We can’t waste time listening to some guy whine about not being able to write another bestseller!

MA:  I feel bad for him.

LS: I don’t. Where’s my bestseller? At least he had one!

MA: That being said, I didn’t find Oswalt to be the most likeable main character.  He’s kind of a jerk to his wife, as he doesn’t tell her the truth about the new house they’ve moved into.

LS: I don’t think all characters – even lead ones – need to be likable. Not all people are likable. Oswalt is damaged goods, in part because of what he’s chosen to do for a living, and it’s understandable that things would take a toll on him. I think this makes him more interesting. And he lies to his wife because, if he doesn’t, he’ll have to put up with her whining.

MA: Yeah, I guess so. Juliet Rylance’s performance as Tracy Oswalt is fine, but I did find her character to be a little annoying.  She keeps telling her husband that she supports him and his decision to write his book, but she whines and complains about it every second she gets. Some support!

You mentioned Fred Dalton Thompson.  I used to enjoy him on LAW AND ORDER.  I thought his role here as the Sheriff was miniscule.  Why bother?

(THOMPSON pops up into attic.)

THOMPSON:  I needed the money, that’s why. It’s been awhile since I was a senator from Tennessee, and I’m a character actor, not a big star like Ethan Hawke.

MA: Okay, that makes sense.  Didn’t you run for president once?

THOMPSON: Yes, in 2008.

LS: How the mighty have fallen.

THOMPSON:  Yeah, yeah. Hey, if you guys ever need me to play a police officer or a judge in one of your jokes, I have lots of experience.

LS:  We’ll think about it and get back to you.  We’re kind of reviewing a movie right now.

THOMPSON:  Here’s my card.  (Hands them a card and exits).

MA: Well that was kind of sad. Back to SINISTER.

And James Ransone as the Deputy ran hot and cold.  While he’s likable at times, there were other times when he seemed just plain odd, and I was actually wondering if perhaps there would be something more to this character, some strange quirk in his background, but the script doesn’t go in that direction.  The Deputy remains just an oddball supporting character with little to do but look up facts for Ellison.

LS: I couldn’t tell if the Deputy was supposed to be just a comic relief character, or if he would have more importance as the movie went on. I’m actually disappointed they didn’t do more with him.

MA:  Same here.

LS:  By the time we get into ancient pagan deities that ate children, things have grown quite uncomfortable. The soundtrack here, by Christopher Young, is also quite effective. I found that his use of music, as well as various strange noises, increased the intensity and the tension of what was happening onscreen. Sometimes, it’s just a series of strange sounds, reminding me of the early industrial music of bands like Throbbing Gristle, which works very well at keeping us on the edges of our seats.

MA:  Yeah, you’re right about the soundtrack.  Some of those background sounds were really weird and they really did add to the mood.

LS:  SINISTER does exactly what a good horror movie is supposed to do. It keeps you feeling uncomfortable throughout, and the ending isn’t a cheat. Could this movie have been even more disturbing? Sure it could have. But it does a fine job of walking the tightrope between being truly extreme and maintaining just enough weirdness and scares to keep a mainstream audience off balance.

I liked this movie a lot more than I expected to, and I think it’s one of the better horror films we’ve seen this year. I give it three and a half knives out of five. If it had been a little more intense, I would have given it a better rating. But as is, that’s not too shabby.

What about you, Michael?

MA:  While I agree with you that the movie does succeed in making its audience feel uncomfortable, one thing it doesn’t do is flat out scare its audience, and for me, that was a letdown.

SINISTER works more along the lines of a disturbing thriller than a scream-out-loud shocker, and it was nowhere near as scary as I hoped it would be.  I thought INSIDIOUS was scarier.

I liked the demon Bughuul a lot, but he wasn’t in this movie enough in my book.  He’s really creepy and I wanted to see him do more in this movie, but unfortunately he’s relegated to being a background image, seen in the old Super 8 movies and on occasion lurking about Ellison’s home.  Despite his importance to the plot, he doesn’t exactly make a huge splash in this one.

LS: I agree with you on that count. Bughuul is a fascinating figure, and I wanted to know more about him, but the movie doesn’t give us much aside from some mythology provided by Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio), an expert on ancient religions and cults. But I wanted to see Bughuul fleshed out more. I wanted to understand his motivations better.

MA: My son pointed out, and I agreed, that Bughuul resembled Michael Jackson at times, which creeped us out even more, considering that Bughuul consumes children’s souls.

(LS laughs)

(Suddenly, MICHAEL JACKSON pops into attic.)

MICHAEL JACKSON:  I’m a lover, not a child-soul-eater! (sings) WooooooooHoooooo

(EXITS)

LS:  I’m glad he didn’t stick around.  I would have had to kill him.

MA:  But, he’s already dead.

MICHAEL JACKSON’s Voice:  But my legacy lives on!

LS: Not in Cinema Knife Fight Land, it doesn’t!  Get the hell out of here!

MA: I think he’s already gone.

LS: Good! One spooky Michael is enough for me.

MA (laughs): Anyway, I also really liked the Super 8 footage.  It was creepy and disturbing, but on its own, it’s not enough to carry this movie.  I wanted something more, and SINISTER didn’t really have that something.

For two thirds of this movie, I was really into it, but the final third didn’t go for the throat, and this was a letdown.  The movie also wasn’t helped by its preview which gave away a lot of the plot.  Very little of what I saw in SINISTER came as a surprise.

To me, the best part of SINISTER—besides the Super 8 mm footage— is the story of how this all effects Oswalt, how he becomes consumed and ultimately frightened of the story he’s investigating.   This was good, but I wanted more.  The film barely touches upon how it affects his kids.  We see it in a few scenes, where his daughter paints images and his son has “night terrors,” but these things are barely touched upon.  For example, what is his son really afraid of?  His father’s work, the fact that his dad writes about true horrific crimes?  The ghosts in the house?  Bughuul?  I wanted to know what was scaring this kid.

And the film could have benefitted by stronger supporting characters.  Ethan Hawke, while good, really isn’t able to carry this movie on his own.  I wanted more screen time for the Sheriff, who seemed like the type of guy who’d want to keep a close eye on Oswalt, and the Deputy, who ultimately comes off like a small town cop cliché.

I also wanted to know more about Bughuul.  For example, in the movie, he waits for a certain event to occur before he takes action, which is why the crimes are spread out over decades.  Why does he wait?  I have some pretty good guesses of my own, but the film doesn’t cover this.

Ultimately, SINISTER is an okay horror movie that tells a disturbing tale, but it seems to be missing some much need jolts as it marches on towards its predictable conclusion.  I give it two and a half knives.

(The face of an evil clown appears on the movie screen, as the hum of the projector continues to fill the attic. Suddenly, the clown moves forward, filling the screen with its face. MA and LS scream as the lights go out.)

(Everything goes dark)

MA’s Voice: Predictable. Very predictable.

—END—

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives SINISTER ~ two and a half knives!

LL Soares gives SINISTER ~three and a half knives.

Suburban Grindhouse Memories – Double Feature of MOTHER’S DAY (1980) and NIGHTMARE (1981)

Posted in 1980s Horror, 2012, Bad Situations, Disturbing Cinema, Gore!, Grindhouse Goodies, Indie Horror, Intense Movies, Killers, Murder!, Nick Cato Reviews, Nightmares, Slasher Movies, Suburban Grindhouse Memories, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2012 by knifefighter

SUBURBAN GRINDHOUSE MEMORIES:
“If You Survive the Day, Will You Survive the Night?”
By Nick Cato

Sometime in 1983 (despite racking my brain, I can’t recall if it was March or October), a double feature hit the NY/NJ area that turned out to be one of the most brutal experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Someone had decided to re-release 1980’s MOTHER’S DAY and 1981’s NIGHTMARE (a.k.a. NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN) on the same bill, and this young gorehound couldn’t have been happier as I had missed each one upon their initial release. I couldn’t find the actual newspaper ad, so I attempted to recreate one (see above), only a tag line placed above the twin posters said “If You Survive the Day, Will You Survive the Night?” And by the time the second feature ended, I saw that a few people almost didn’t!

MOTHER’S DAY ran a wicked late night TV ad campaign when released in 1980; horror fans thirsted at its promises of Drano and electric knife attacks (YouTube it if you don’t believe me) and in my case, my parents had said “Who the hell do they make these movies for?” I silently said “ME!!!” Needless to say, I was psyched when I entered the (now defunct) Fox Twin Cinema and the first feature began to unreel.

If you haven’t seen it, MOTHER’S DAY is not exactly a pleasant film, despite its few instances of dark humor and the three entertaining antagonists (two murdering/rapist sons and their slightly unbalanced mother).  The plot is pure exploitation: Three girlfriends go for a weekend get-away camping trip and become victims to the crazed clan. After the two sons (named Ike and Addley) kidnap the girls by making their sleeping bags escape-proof , they dump them in the back yard of their isolated two-story home and proceed to rape them under the moonlight…as their spooky-looking, elderly Mother cheers them on and takes pictures. The audience, which was made up of mostly high school-aged patrons, remained silent throughout this uncomfortable sequence. To this day I list this as one of the top ten most disturbing scenes of all time, mainly due to the mother’s gleeful facial expressions during such a horrific attack.

The film does build some fine tension; after being raped and severely beaten (one of the girls is even killed), the two survivors plan their revenge, and this is where MOTHER’S DAY becomes more than a standard rape/revenge film: it turns into a slasher/revenge hybrid and features the aforementioned scenes of Drano being poured down one brother’s throat, a TV being smashed over another brother’s head, a plugged-in electric carving knife put to good use, plus an antenna shoved into one brother’s throat, and more mayhem than you can shake an amputated arm at. AND…just when our ladies think they’re safe (SPOILER ALERT!), a mutated sibling of the brothers named Queenie hops over some hedges to extract her own revenge in a genuine shock ending.

Brothers Ike and Addley are ready for total mayhem in MOTHER’S DAY (1980).

There’s a lot of goofs in this one (even during the infamous opening decapitation scene, where blood splashes across a woman’s face even before her boyfriend’s head is hacked into!), but its flaws still don’t hurt its overall intensity factor. MOTHER’S DAY is one of the most brutal R-rated horror films I’ve ever seen, evidenced by the audiences’ complete silence throughout the film.

Next up was 1981’s NIGHTMARE (known more commonly as NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN), a film I remembered seeing TV commercials for, but never paying it much mind. By the time it was over, I had become a head-over-heels fan, and have written extensively about it over the years on top of showing it to countless people on both VHS and DVD. And the odd thing is, NIGHTMARE is a standard, by-the-numbers, “psycho released too early from a mental institution” film, complete with bad acting and a couple of tedious stretches. But for some reason, it WORKS in ways few other slasher films do.

George Tatum is released from an institution after being placed on experimental medication (which is barely explained in the film). He travels from somewhere north of New York down to Florida to murder his family, wasting innocent bystanders along the way. Unlike most films of its kind, NIGHTMARE’s graphic gore sequences are actually scary and hard to watch, especially the infamous double-homicide finale where George flashes back to the time when, as a child, he murdered his dad and his mistress with an axe…a scene that’s shown in quick hints throughout the film, making it nearly impossible to handle once it’s finally shown in full. It was the first time I actually SWEATED watching a horror film, and afterwards, I saw about six people standing outside the theatre, leaning against the wall, actually collecting themselves over the insane images they had just seen. How many FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN sequels ever did that to someone?

You better hope George Tatum isn’t calling YOU! From 1981’s NIGHTMARE!

This grueling double feature was unique from all of my other grindhouse experiences due to the fact both films kept the crowd in submission: both were serious doses of hardcore horror that—at the time—no one was expecting, other than those who had seen them a couple years earlier. My friends and I agreed we felt like someone had punched us in the face for the past three hours, and with a very few exceptions, we had not gone through a single or double feature quite this barbaric since.

Both of these films hold up well today, although they may not be as intense to hardcore horror fans in light of some of the ultra-graphic splatter films that have come after them. But it’s not just the gore FX that made MOTHER’S DAY and NIGHTMARE so gruesome and horrific: each film was a rebellious work of no-holds-barred anarchy that’s seldom seen in the theater today, in any genre. They’re films today’s multiplex crowds just won’t get to behold.

(MOTHER’S DAY will be released on blu-ray in a deluxe edition in September, 2012, and NIGHTMARE finally came to DVD the summer of 2011 and quickly sold out. Today it can be found on the second hand market for as high as $99.00).

© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato

Mama just loves her boys! From MOTHER’S DAY (1980)

Quick Cuts: Favorite Movies by DAVID CRONENBERG

Posted in 2012, 70s Horror, 80s Horror, Body Horror, Classic Films, Cult Movies, David Cronenberg, Disease!, Disturbing Cinema, ESP, Evil Kids!, Hit Men, Indie Horror, Parasites!, Telekinesis with tags , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2012 by knifefighter

QUICK CUTS Presents: THE MOVIES OF DAVID CRONENBERG
Featuring: Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Paul McMahon, Mark Onspaugh, and Jenny Orosel

Director David Cronenberg has been giving us nightmares for over 40 years.

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  With the release of David Cronenberg’s latest movie, COSMOPOLIS (2012), we’ve decided to take a look at our favorite Cronenberg movies.

*****

L.L. SOARES: David Cronenberg is such an iconic director, and has made so many great films to choose from. But, without a doubt, my all-time favorite Cronenberg film is CRASH (1990), which happens to be based on one of my all-time favorite novels (of the same name) by J.G. Ballard. With an amazing cast that includes James Spader, Holly Hunter, Deborah Kara Unger, Rosanna Arquette, and Elias Koteas as charismatic anti-hero Vaughan, it’s the story of a man (Spader as “Jim Ballard”) who experiences a traumatic car accident and then discovers a strange cult-like group of people that fetishizes (and just about worships) car crashes. Cronenberg captures the cold, antiseptic feel of Ballard’s very bleak novel, and the movie was pretty controversial (like a lot of Cronenberg films) when it first came out.

(Not to be confused with the Paul Haggis film “Crash:” from 2001)

Cronenberg has made so many great movies. But my other favorites include:

DEAD RINGERS (1988) —With Jeremy Irons in one of his best performances ever as twin gynecologists who share a relationship with one woman (Genevieve Bujold), who can’t tell them apart. Then things start to get violent.

VIDEODROME (1983)—With James Woods as a man who finds a very disturbing cable TV channel that changes his life in scary ways. Including the famous scene where Woods has a VCR slot in his stomach. Also starring Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry.

THE BROOD (1979) —the first Cronenberg film I ever saw, and still a favorite, with little monster kids created from the rage of Samantha Eggar. With Oliver Reed.

NAKED LUNCH (1991) —The underground classic novel by William S. Burroughs was considered unfilmable, but that didn’t stop Cronenberg from bringing it to the big screen. He makes it coherent by mixing a lot of Burroughs’ wild imagery with biographical incidents from the writer’s life.

*****

JENNY OROSEL: I have a soft spot in my heart for CRASH (1990), seeing as I got my driver’s license in a CRASH t-shirt (I got my license late—I’m not that young). The humor was lost on my tester.

NAKED LUNCH (1991) blew me away because I had no idea how anyone could turn that book into a movie, and I think he pulled it off the only way possible.

*****

 

NICK CATOSHIVERS (a.k.a. THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) (1975) is my personal favorite Cronenberg film. It’s a genuinely scary tale of a parasite that turns the residents of a luxury condo into possessed sexual predators. It’s not his best technical achievement, but it gets the goosebumps going better than most standard horror films.

While I’d like to list VIDEODROME as my second favorite, that honor goes to CRASH (1996). Only Cronenberg can take such a bizarre subject (people turned on by car crashes) and make it a film that holds up amazingly well to repeat viewings. It’s unlike any film before or since.

*****

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Without doubt, my favorite David Cronenberg movie is THE FLY (1986), which is one of my favorite horror movies from the 1980s, one of my favorites of all time, and certainly one of my favorite remakes.  I love the performances by Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, the gruesome special effects, and how this film captured how it would really be to have your DNA mixed with the DNA of a fly, a concoction that would occur at the molecular level.  Cronenberg is masterful at the helm here.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

I’m also a fan of VIDEODROME (1983) and THE DEAD ZONE (1983).

*****

 PAUL MCMAHON:  It feels traitorous to choose only a single Cronenberg film as my favorite, so I’ll pick two.

First, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). Its brilliance starts with the emotionless opening sequence of random cruelty that mirrors our fears. The film moves you through the realization of a specific act of violence and explores the way that one event changes the people involved. Violence shoves its way into your life and grows roots. No matter how you try to hide from the memory of such a traumatic event, it never goes away and never lets you forget. Cronenberg’s movie dramatizes this brilliantly, and is very uncomfortable to watch.

Second, and I’m just realizing this is another brilliant representation of trauma —THE BROOD (1979). This time the violence comes from divorce and the ensuing custody battle over a young daughter. THE BROOD features a progressive psychotherapist who has developed a way to make his patients’ internal and invisible pain manifest physically, where it can be seen and acknowledged. Cronenberg himself was struggling through just such a divorce while he directed this movie, and his pain bleeds through the screen. Like the patients of Dr. Raglan, David Cronenberg crafted a physical representation of his inner turmoil. He has said that it’s the one film of his that he cannot bear to watch again.

*****

MARK ONSPAUGHSCANNERS (1981) —So audacious and amazing! I remembered hearing something about this movie and my wife and I were at a theater where they showed a red band trailer. I whispered, “I think this is the movie where people’s heads blow up,” knowing she’d want to look away —she didn’t hear me —man, did she shriek when that happened! For months after it came out, a friend and I kept repeating Michael Ironside’s line, “I’m gonna suck your brain DRY!”

THE FLY (1986) —It was Cronenberg who layered in the romance into Charles Pogue’s script, elevating this movie from mere creature feature to a masterpiece of horrific tragedy. I don’t think Jeff Goldblum or Geena Davis have ever been better.

So many to choose from, including EASTERN PROMISES (2007), HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005) and SPIDER (2002). If you want to take what amounts to a class in cinema, watch SPIDER with the director’s commentary – I don’t want to spoil it for those who didn’t see it, but there is a major change in the movie I didn’t even detect, at first – brilliant.

*****

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  And that about sums up David Cronenberg.  Thanks, everyone!

L.L. SOARES:  And thank you, readers, for joining us today!

—-END—

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda, L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Paul McMahon, Mark Onspaugh, and Jenny Orosel

KILLER JOE (2012)

Posted in 2012, Controverisal Films, Crime Films, Disturbing Cinema, Hit Men, Killers, LL Soares Reviews, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by knifefighter

KILLER JOE (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

William Friedkin is the director who gave us such classics as THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE EXORCIST (1973), and his most recent movie, KILLER JOE (2012), is proof that the man is alive and well, and still turning out top-notch work.  For some reason, the movie is only in limited release in a few cities. On second thought, there is a reason: the movie received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and Friedkin refused to cut it to get an R, which makes it harder to market. I’m assuming that has something to do with it. Did Friedkin make the right choice? I’d say so.

Based on a play by writer (and sometimes actor) Tracy Letts—who also collaborated with Friedkin on his last movie, BUG (2006)—KILLER JOE is a tale of seedy characters living desperate lives, and the lengths they will go to dig themselves out, even when it’s clear they’re just digging themselves deeper down.

The movie opens by introducing us to the Smith family. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a gambling-addicted low-life who owes a lot of money to a loan shark. After having a fight with his mother, Chris goes to see his dad, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church)-who lives in a trailer and doesn’t seem very bright, about a possible solution to his problems.  Chris’s mom is Ansel’s ex-wife, and he’s now married to his second wife, Sharla (Gina Gershon). Right away, the family members are bickering and hitting each other, and you know they don’t have much of a shot at getting up from the bottom. But Chris thinks he has the answers to their problems: what about killing his mother for her insurance money? Ansel listens, because he’s too dumb not to be seduced by the idea.

Oh yeah, there’s also Dottie (Juno Temple), Ansel’s daughter and Chris’s sister, who seems a little slow and who lives with her daddy and Sharla.

In order to get away with the murder, Chris suggests they hire someone outside the family to do it. This is where Killer Joe comes in. Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a Dallas police detective who also has a “side business” as a hit man. For twenty-five grand, he’ll get rid of Chris’s drunken mother (who we only see briefly in the movie). But there’s a problem. Chris and Ansel can’t pay him his money up front, as Joe demands. They won’t have the money until after the deed is done and they get the insurance money, since they know the mom’s policy makes Dottie the beneficiary.  So they have no way to pay Joe beforehand. He is about to walk out the door when he decides to make them a deal. He’ll take a retainer until he gets paid, and that retainer is Chris’s underage sister. They hesitate, then agree to it, and set up a special “private” dinner between Joe and Dottie, so they can get to know each other….

From here, it’s a matter of whether Joe goes through with the murder, and what happens to Dottie. There are also a few double-crosses along the way.

You can tell that KILLER JOE is based on a stage play at times, since there’s a lot of dialogue here , and some of the scenes seem a little stagey. However, this does not detract from the film version, mainly because the story is well-written and the acting is so damn good.

Hirsch is suitably scruffy and pathetic  (yet also sympathetic at times) as Chris, a guy who gets himself deeper and deeper in debt, but who wants to redeem himself in the end, even if his idea of redemption doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense. Church is also well-cast as Ansel, who willingly agrees to awful things, partly because he just doesn’t seem to have any kind of moral compass, but also because he might just be a little slower than some folks. Gershon is pretty amazing as Sharla; a trashy trailer queen who answers the door without pants on and thinks she has all the men in her life wrapped around her little finger. Gershon has shown fearlessness in her roles before, and KILLER JOE just ups the ante. This is a woman who will go to great lengths when she needs to in a performance. And it’s for that reason that I think she’s very underrated as an actress. And then we get to the main characters here.

Juno Temple does a great job as Dottie. While Dottie is supposed to be fairly young, it’s clear that Temple is over 18 (for the obvious reasons), but she’s good at emanating a naïve innocence that hovers between youthful exhuberance and brain damage (her father is Ansel, after all, but we also find out that when she was little, her mother tried to smother her death, and thought she had, which may have deprived her brain of precious oxygen for a spell). You care about Dottie, and you can understand why some of the characters feel the need to protect her, even while they’re selling her like property. For her part, Dottie is also willful and may be a little smarter than her family thinks she is, since she’s capable of selfish acts when given the tiny bit of power to act them out. Her character has been compared to Carroll Baker in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ BABY DOLL (1956), and the comparison is apt. Strangely enough, we most recently saw Temple as Catwoman’s sidekick in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

But the real reason to see KILLER JOE is Matthew McConaughey, who is simply awe-inspiring here as Joe Cooper. Intense, always in control, and downright scary, Killer Joe is a character who exudes cool, even as he does the vilest things. It’s fascinating to see McConaughey here, playing against type as a vicious murderer in contrast to his roles in countless light romantic comedies. There is nothing light about Joe. He’s a stone-cold killer, and even his “romantic” side is focused on a slightly slow, underage girl who doesn’t know any better. Needless to say, there are times when he makes your skin crawl.

Matthew McConaughey turns in an Oscar-caliber performance here as the very unpleasant character, “Killer Joe” Cooper.

In every scene McConaughey is in, he’s the camera’s main focus. He owns this movie and it’s such an excellent showcase for his acting chops that I think he really deserves an Oscar nomination for this role, even though he will probably be overlooked because Joe is so unpleasant, and this movie is so damn dark and disturbing.

McConaughey’s role here reminded me a little of Lou Ford, the protagonist of  THE KILLER INSIDE ME, the classic novel by crime fiction god Jim Thompson (twice filmed, first in 1976 with Stacy Keach and 2010 with Casey Affleck), but McConaughey makes Joe all his own. I’d really like to see him in more roles like this, because he was fascinating to watch. Kind of like a coiled, venomous snake, walking around on two legs.

As for that NC-17 rating, I didn’t see a lot here that should have denied it an R, but there are two scenes the MPAA might have been squeamish about. One involves the outcome of Joe and Dottie’s first “date” in that trailer. The other involves Joe, Sharla, and a fried chicken leg, that is bound to upset some viewers.

Despite the subject matter, and the fact that there really isn’t one character here who deserves the redemption they crave, KILLER JOE is a solid, emotionally-powerful piece of work. Friedkin shows he’s still at the top of his game, and everyone involved here does an exceptional job. Obviously, a movie this dark is not for everyone, and there are people who probably shouldn’t see KILLER JOE. But if you think you can handle it, it’s worth wading in the slime for 103 minutes. Hell, there are even a few moments of (dark) humor to keep it from being overly oppressive.

In a summer that gave us superhero extravaganzas like THE AVENGERS and sci-fi mammoths like PROMETHEUS, I found KILLER JOE to be both more emotionally effective, and more satisfying as a cinema experience.

I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives William Friedkin’s KILLER JOE ~ four and a half knives.