Archive for the Religious Cults Category

Transmissions to Earth: BAD DREAMS (1988)

Posted in 1980s Movies, 2013, 80s Horror, Cult Leaders, Evil Doctors!, Ghosts!, Horror, LL Soares Reviews, Madness, Religious Cults, Slasher Movies, Trasmissions to Earth with tags , , , , on May 2, 2013 by knifefighter

TRANSMISSIONS TO EARTH presents:

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BAD DREAMS (1988)
Movie review by L.L. Soares

 BadDreams_Poster

Like a lot of horror films from the 1980s, 1988’s BAD DREAMS feels like a missed opportunity. The first film by director Andrew Fleming (who went on to give us THE CRAFT, 1996, the Steve Coogan vehicle HAMLET 2, 2008, and episodes of TV shows like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and FRANKLIN & BASH), it’s kind of a take on cults like the Manson Family and Jonestown. You would think with a name like BAD DREAMS it might venture a bit into Freddy Krueger territory, especially since Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) had been a horror movie hit just a few years before and was still fresh on everyone’s minds. But strangely, the title is misleading, since the killer here does not kill people in their dreams.

The leader of this particular cult is simply called Harris, and is played by the great Richard Lynch, who was in tons of movies since the 1970s, including such memorable ones as SCARECROW (1973), Larry Cohen’s classic GOD TOLD ME TO (1976), and his last appearance, in a small flashback as Reverend Hawthorne in Rob Zombie’s latest film THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013). (Sadly, Mr. Lynch died in 2012.)

We see Harris gathering his faithful in an old house on a hill, baptizing each member with gasoline before setting the house on fire. This is kind of (painfully) ironic, since actor Lynch really had set himself on fire in Central Park in 1967 during a bad LSD trip, and, after he became scarred during the accident, he was many directors’ go-to-guy to play various villains in horror films and in TV shows.

But back to the movie. Everyone in the cult dies in the fire, except for Cynthia (Jennifer Rubin, the striking actress who was also Edie Segewick in Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS, 1991, and whose first movie was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, 1987, strangely enough) who gets saved from the flaming house, but spends the next 13 years in a coma.  When she wakes up, it’s a media circus. Not only is it a big deal she woke up after such a long time, but everyone wants to know what happened inside the cult house the night it exploded in flames. Unfortunately, poor Cynthia doesn’t remember anything about that night.

Her doctor, Dr. Berrisford (character actor Harris Yulin, who has been in over 100 movies including SCARFACE, 1983 and TRAINING DAY, 2001), tells Cynthia that she should see a psychitatrist, because after such a long coma, not only does she need physical therapy to get her motor skills back, she also needs to “heal her mind” and learn how to cope with life 13 years later (she was just a teenager when that fateful fire happened). So Cynthia is turned over to Dr.Berrisford’s assistant, Dr. Alex Karmen (Bruce Abbott, who you might remember as Dan in the Stuart Gordon classic RE-ANIMATOR, 1985), and becomes part of his group therapy sessions. Of course, this being the 80s, the therapy group is made up of various quirky oddballs, some of which are clearly meant to be funny – and aren’t. These include wisecracking Ralph (Dean Cameron, also in SUMMER SCHOOL, 1987, ROCKULA, 1990, where he also played a character named Ralph, and lots of TV shows, including ALF, 1989 – 1990); shy Lana (Elizabeth Daily, who was also in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, 2005 and has done tons of voices for cartoons); a tough-talking lady reporter who’s always smoking; a middle-aged couple that is obviously having an affair; and an annoying teenage black girl named Gilda (Damita Jo Freeman) who keeps saying cryptic things that make you wonder if she has a direct line to Harris. Sometimes, these people seem a little too over-the-top (it’s not like this movie was striving for realism, sadly).

At first, Cynthia only remembers the peace and love platitudes that cult leader Harris laid on them back in the day, but then she slowly remembers how the man eventually lost his mind and set fire to all his followers, and suddenly, she’s traumatized all over again. Even more traumatic is the fact that Harris keeps popping up when Cynthia least expects it (as she remembers him, and later as a burned-up version), first showing up in a crowded elevator (this makes her go bonkers), and then slowly killing off every member of the therapy group (by drowning, tossing one person out of a window, and throwing the middle-aged lovebirds into a giant fan). Cynthia tries to tell Dr. Karmen and anyone else who will listen that Harris is doing all these things, but no one believes her. There’s also a cop, Detective Wasserman (Sy Richardson, who might be best known as Lite in the cult classic, REPO MAN, 1984) who is very suspicious of Cynthia’s cult member past and is sure she is somehow responsible for the deaths.

Cult leader Harris appears to Cynthia both as she remembered him alive, and as this burned up version post-fire.

Cult leader Harris appears to Cynthia both as she remembered him alive, and as this burned up version post-fire.

The twist ending in this one is very disappointing, and doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering past events. But hell, at least it doesn’t end with Cynthia waking up from her coma at the end, and it being all a “bad dream” – which I was dreading from the get-go, considering the title. When we do get to the surprise revelation (which I won’t spoil here), we find out that this is a movie is kind of a letdown. If only they had just delved more into Harris and his cult, and given it more resonance, this could have been the beginning of a franchise of its own. But no such luck. Instead, things get wrapped up in a tidy (and completely underwhelming) bow by the end.

Rubin is good here as Cynthia. Abbott is a little stilted sometimes, but has a few good scenes as Dr. Karmen (especially a great scene where he imagines running over Dr. Berrisford with his car!) and Lynch is perfectly cast as the Jim Jones/Manson-esque Harris (but he needed more screen time!). The direction by first timer Fleming is okay, but nothing amazing, and the screenplay by Fleming and Steve E. de Souza (based on a story by Fleming, Michael Dick, P.J. Pettiette and Yuri Zeltser) has some good ideas, but never fully delivers on them (and imagine, it took all those guys to come up with this one!)

Not one of the 80s best horror films by any stretch, BAD DREAMS at least has some good moments. But man, it could have been so much better!

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

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SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D (2012)

Posted in 2012, 3-D, Based on a Video Game, Cinema Knife Fights, Demons, Monsters, Religious Cults with tags , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2012 by knifefighter

Cinema Knife Fight: SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

(THE SCENE: A strange ghost town, where ashes fall from the sky like snow. L.L. SOARES is standing in the middle of the street with an umbrella, when MICHAEL ARRUDA approaches)

MA: Nice weather we’re having.

LS:  Yeah, I checked the Weather Channel. Partly cloudy with a chance of ashes, followed by ash showers off and on all day.

MA:  I’m surprised you have an umbrella.  I figured you’d be roughing it.

LS: Just looking out for my health.

(The MARLBORO MAN rides by on a horse)

MARLBORO MAN: Holy Onions! This place looks like a giant ashtray!

(He coughs as he continues riding away)

MA: Hey, do you have another umbrella?

LS: Sure. Do you have twenty dollars?

MA: Twenty dollars?  That’s a rip off!  What are you trying to do, cheat me out of my money?

LS: Yep.  I guess I have something in common with SILENT HILL: REVELATION after all.

MA: Ain’t that the truth!  This is the second time in two days I’ve been cheated out of some cash!

(MA hands LS a twenty-dollar bill, and LS gives him an umbrella)

LS: Well, I guess the sooner we start, the sooner we can get out of this awful place.

SILENT HILL: REVELATION is a sequel to the 2006 movie SILENT HILL, and I’m surprised it took so long for them to make a sequel. Both movies are based on the video game, also called SILENT HILL.

MA: A movie based on a video game. That’s a bad sign right off the bat.

LS: Do you think?

Let’s go for a walk.

(The two of them stroll down the empty street)

LS: When SILENT HILL: REVELATION begins, teenage girl Sharon (played by Jodelle Ferland in the first movie, and now played by Adelaide Clemens) is having horrible dreams about a strange town called Silent Hill. To add to the confusion, Sharon is now going by the name of Heather, as she and her father Harry (played by Sean Bean, whose name was Christopher in the first movie) are constantly moving around and taking on new identities. Harry has told Heather/Sharon that they constantly move because he’s wanted by the police. But in reality, they’re trying to stay one step ahead of some weird cult that is hunting them down.

Heather goes to her first day in a new school, which is pretty horrible since she’s always the new kid and never has a chance to make any friends. Although this time around, there’s another new kid named Vincent (Kit Harrington), who clearly wants to bond with her. She keeps putting him off, but eventually, a friendship will develop

On her way to school that morning, Heather was approached by a strange man named Douglas Cartland, who appears to be stalking her. He later shows up at her school when she’s leaving later in the day, which seems to confirm her suspicions. She calls her father to warn him and arrange a place to meet (she doesn’t want to lead the guy back to her house). At one point, Cartland corners her and tells her he is a private detective working for some people he no longer trusts, and that he has told them of her whereabouts (something he now regrets). Soon afterwards, he is killed by a monster that looks like a psychotic clown.

MA:  I liked that clown.  And if you were blinking just now, you might have just missed the only time in this review where I say that I liked something about this movie!

LS:  When Heather gets back home, her father is gone, and there’s a note written in blood in big letters on their living room wall that says, “Come to Silent Hill.”

Heather does not remember the events of the first SILENT HILL movie—.

MA:  Neither do I!  Blocked it all out.

LS:— when she had gone to the town of Silent Hill as a child. She has since been told that her mother, Rose (Radha Mitchell from the first film, who has a brief appearance in this one as well) had died in a car crash (when in reality she had stayed behind in Silent Hill in order to get her daughter to safety).

It’s at this time that Vincent reveals his secret agenda, as well, and he agrees to take her back to Silent Hill to save her father.

It’s never really clear if Silent Hill is a real town, or if it is in another, Hell-like dimension. My impression is that it’s both.

MA:  I would agree with that impression.  It seems to be both, but imagine if writer Michael J. Bassett actually fleshed out the story, we might know more about this bizarre demonic town!

LS:  There’s some kind of eternal fire going on beneath the earth in some coal mines, resulting in the sky raining ash in the town continuously. The residents of the town are also quite odd, looking like a collection of zombies and other monsters.

While she tries to find and save her father, Heather must deal with Leonard and Claudia Wolf (Malcolm McDowell and Carrie-Anne Moss, respectively), the leaders of the strange cult who want to use Heather as a vessel for the rebirth of their god, and they kidnapped her father and brought him to the town to lure her there.

MA:  And that’s probably the reason Bassett didn’t flesh out the story.  As soon as people start talking about what’s going on, it gets laughable real quick.  A vessel for the rebirth of their god?  Really?  It’s all so forced and contrived.  The problem I have with it is if you’re going to write a fantasy, you’d best convince your audience that it’s real, and the folks behind this movie just aren’t interested in doing that.  And that’s because this is based on a video game, and if it looks like a video game, and the same characters from the game are featured in the movie, then that’s good enough for the target audience.

But you know what folks?  It really isn’t good enough.  This is a movie, not a video game, and it needs to be treated as such.

LS:  There is also the demonic Alessa (also played by Adelaide Clemens), who is kind of like Heather’s dark side. Alessa lives in Silent Hill and is the one who keeps the cult members confined there (some of them can leave, but only for short periods of time). Alessa is not happy to see Heather again, since she knows the cultists have plans for her that would end their torment under Alessa’s rule. Instead of tormenting the annoying cult members, I wish Alessa had just wiped them out. Hell, I wish all of them would have wiped each other out, and spared us having to sit through this movie.

Along the way, we also encounter various strange monsters, some of which are directly from the Silent Hill video games. One is the ogre-like “Pyramid Head” (Roberto Campanella) who looks like a big, muscular guy who carries an oversized sword and has the head of giant pyramid. He is actually Heather’s guardian in this strange dimension, and he defends her against other beasts.

I had a mixed reaction to the first SILENT HILL movie. I’m not a big fan of movies based on video games, but I thought SILENT HILL was one of the better ones. That said, the plot was confusing and kind of annoying (even though it was written by Roger Avary who also co-wrote at least part of the scripts of Quentin Tarantino’s early films). But the imagery was very interesting. The first film was directed by Christopher Gans.

SILENT HILL: REVELATION is written and directed by Michael J. Bassett, who also directed DEATHWATCH (2002) and the recent film version of Robert E. Howard’s SOLOMON KANE (made in 2009, but only get limited theatrical release this year). Despite the different writer and director, the new movie has much of the same strengths and weaknesses as the first one. In REVELATION, I found the plotline aggravating and pretty boring at times, but the monster effects were kind of fascinating. This series at least has unusual visuals. I find the creature “Pyramid Head” to be especially fascinating (he’s in both films, as well as the games).

MA:  I agree that the visuals in this movie were creative, and for a while there, I thought the cool visuals might be enough to carry this movie, but it turned out not to be the case.

I was hoping that perhaps this would be one of those bizarre movies where the visuals were so wild and intriguing, that you could look past the weak story and still like the movie.

Not so.  And why not?  Because these images were mostly eye candy.  Director Bassett didn’t really do much with them.  This movie isn’t suspenseful and it’s not scary, and so you’re watching these scenes of weird monsters, but they’re doing things that aren’t so weird.  Had this movie pushed the envelope more, really got into the audience’s face, and created some chilling, memorable scenes, then we’d be talking about a pretty cool movie.

Instead, and I’ve said this many times now about movies based on video games, it’s like watching someone else play a video game.  And that gets boring real fast.

(A teenager walks by playing a hand held video game.)

TEEN:  Come on!  It’s fun to watch people play these games!

MA: Really?  Do you like watching other people read, too?

TEEN:  That’s stupid.  The games are fun to watch.
MA:  Well, maybe so, but the movies based on these games aren’t.

(TEEN walks on, suddenly surrounded by other teens watching him play, cheering him on.)

MA:  It’s strange new world.  Remember the games we used to play?

LS:  Tie the helpless virgin to the stake and sacrifice her?  Ah, the good old days!

MA:  I was actually thinking of kick ball.

LS:  Is that anything like “kick the severed head into the sewer?”

MA:  Er, let’s just get back to the review.

LS:  Okay.  The acting is pretty underwhelming. While I think Sean Bean has been terrific in things like the first season of GAME OF THRONES (2011) where he played Ned Stark, I found his performance here very disappointing.

MA:  And did you notice that sometimes Bean had an accent, and other times he didn’t?  I thought it was one of his more disappointing performances.  I mean, he’s usually very good.  Not so here.

LS: Yeah, I hate to say it, but he’s awful here. And other good actors like Malcolm McDowell and Carrie-Anne Moss are pretty much wasted here. It was actually painful seeing McDowell in this movie. What a waste of his talent.

MA:  They probably had to be wasted to say their awful lines!

LS:  Kit Harrington (another actor from GAME OF THRONES, where he plays Jon Snow) is okay as Vincent. I did like Adelaide Clemens as Heather/Sharon/Alessa, however. She actually reminded me a lot of a young Michelle Williams, and while her role was underwritten, I thought she was one of the better things about REVELATION.

MA:  Clemens was okay, but I think you nailed it when you said the role was underwritten.  Like the rest of the movie, I didn’t find her character Heather all that real. She’s pretty one-dimensional, and in terms of acting performances, I thought Kathryn Newton made more of an impression last week in the lead role in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4.

LS:  Definitely. Newton was much more believable as a real teen. If you make a comparison like that, REVELATION is going to come up short! Hell, seeing a movie like this makes me realize how maybe PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 wasn’t all that bad, compared to the other crap we’re forced to see.

The special effects by Brendan Carmody and his crew, and the visual effects by “Mr. X Inc.” are quite good. And I thought the film’s music, by Jeff Danna and Akira Yamaoka was effective as well. But the weak link here is Michael J. Bassett’s script, which starts out okay, but then journeys into the cliché (everything from bad use of occult symbols to demon-possessed people with way too much makeup on) and the downright incomprehensible.

As for the action, I found most of it a yawn. There’s actually one fight scene that I liked, toward the end, where Pyramid Head fights this demon woman who has buzz-saws imbedded in her head. She looks like one of the cenobites from the HELLRAISER movies (so much so, that I started wondering about the originality of the visuals in the SILENT HILL series that I found so interesting). But that big battle lasted all of about two minutes! What a rip-off!

MA:  Yeah, I would agree that it started off okay.  I found myself actually enjoying the beginning of this movie, before they get to Silent Hill.  There was enough initial intrigue to almost hook me in, but then strangely, once they get to Silent Hill, it all goes downhill, and that’s because once there, Bassett felt a storyline was no longer needed.

LS:  The 3D effects in this one were okay, but hardly worth the extra money (the movie ticket I bought for the 3D version cost me $16, and I definitely felt cheated). There are some scenes where things come jumping out at you, and the ashes falling from the sky once we get to Silent Hill look pretty good.  But it still doesn’t justify the higher ticket price.

MA:  The 3D effect ran hot and cold for me in this one.  For most of the time, I thought it looked pretty bad, and I remember sitting there thinking, this is some of the worst 3D I’ve seen in a while! And then all of a sudden, the film would make fun use of it, like there’d be a severed body part floating in the air towards the audience, but there weren’t enough of these moments.

All in all, as is the case with most 3D movies I see—and pay more for— these days, I wish it had been in 2D.

LS:  Me, too. I would have preferred it.

(They pass a pile of ashes and LS takes out a top hat and puts it on top of the pile. Suddenly, the ashes come to life and look an awful lot look FROSTY THE SNOWMAN)

FROSTY (blinking his eyes): Happy Birthday!

MA: It’s not my birthday.

LS: He always says that when he first comes to life.

MA: But this isn’t snow. He’s Frosty the Ash Man.

FROSTY: Buddy, I’ll take what I can get.

MA: So tell us, Frosty. Now that you’re suddenly alive, do you have anything interesting to tell us?

FROSTY: Are you kidding? I just want to find me a frosty beer before the wind blows this hat away and I turn back to a heap of ashes.

LS: Ah, an ash man after my own heart.

(FROSTY runs ahead of them, looking for a bar)

MA: Well that was disappointing.

LS: Kind of like the movie we’re reviewing, don’t you think?

For its visual sense of style alone, I give SILENT HILL: REVELATION just one knife. But that’s about it. Otherwise, because of the lame script, this movie was pretty forgettable.

MA: I can’t forget about it fast enough.

You know, I’m really starting to hate movies based on video games, and they’re starting to be as painful as all those TWILIGHT movies we’ve suffered through.

LS:  Starting to?  Where have you been?

MA:  I guess I haven’t been paying attention, but after the latest RESIDENT EVIL movie, and now this movie, well, these video game movie-wannabes have my attention now.  And that’s what they are:  movie wannabes.  They’re video games using real actors in their scenes, and they’re not telling stories the way movies do.  What bothers me is there are probably people out there who think movies like this without stories are real movies that are worth the price of admission.  That’s sad.

You should feel cheated, people!

LS: I think you nailed it with this one. It’s a matter of perspective. People who make movies based on video games seem to think that if the movie looks like a video game, with the same kind of pacing, it’s a good thing. But it’s not. Movies are a completely different medium. How about taking the characters and themes from the video game and beefing them up? Giving them a decent story and motivations that surpass the limitations of a video game? How about giving us a story that actually has some meat to it? Every single one of these movies seems like a missed opportunity. You could take the original concept and use it as a jumping-off point to give us something a lot better. Instead, of using the ingredients to whip up a fantastic entrée, they seem satisfied to give us the same old soup. It’s called lack of ambition.

MA: This movie wouldn’t know a story if it fell from the sky and hit the writer in the head!

So, Heather has to enter an alternate reality world called Silent Hill in order to save her father.  How very nice!  You know what would make this even nicer?  How about some details?  Where did this alternate reality come from?  Why does it exist? Just who are these strange people living there anyway?  And why is Heather the only one their god needs?  The world is full of people.  Couldn’t someone else do?  Why is Heather so important?  What makes her so special?

Where did all these creatures come from?  What is their purpose?

(A SPIDERY CREATURE pops out of building behind them.)

CREATURE:  Our purpose is to kill!  To maim!  To scare people!

MA:  How come you didn’t do any of that in this movie?

CREATURE:  I did so!

MA:  To a main character in this movie who we actually cared about?

LS:  There were no characters in this movie we actually cared about!

CREATURE:  You guys are mean!  Don’t I look creepy?

MA:  Sure, but so does the old lady who lives down the street from me.  Big flippin deal!

(CREATURE runs away sobbing.)

MA:  If the creative minds behind this movie had given this project even just a little thought, they might have had a real movie here.  Instead, they shower us with mindless visuals for 90 minutes, and the end result is about as fascinating as sitting in front of a tropical fish tank.  I like looking at fish tanks like the next guy, but not for 90 minutes!

For example, I liked the look of the carnival sequences in this movie.  I sat there taking in this amusement park setting, and I thought, “cool!” Now let’s do something with it.  Make me feel like I’m inside this place.  Give me events in the story which take place here that will really make me remember this setting.  Get me to say, “Oooh, the carnival sequence!  That’s the scene where the demonic clown terrorized the two girls.  That scene scared the crap out of me”!

Instead, we have a cool-looking carnival where a bunch of unimportant things happen quickly to unimportant characters, and nothing that happens in this place resonates with me as an audience member.  As a result, by next week, I won’t even remember these images.

And how about just a little bit of suspense, please?  A scare here and there?  Something that I can sink my teeth into?

Nope.  Nada!  Nil!

(They pass FROSTY THE ASH MAN, who is blowing the head of foam off a big mug of beer)

LS: Now that’s what I call a frosty one.

(FROSTY goes to drink it, when the wind blows his hat off, and he turns to a pile of ashes again. The beer spills to the ground)

FROSTY’S VOICE: Dammit!

LS: What a waste of beer!

MA: SILENT HILL: REVELATION bored me to tears.  I’m giving it one and a half knives.  I wouldn’t say that I liked it better than you, because I didn’t like it, but I did enjoy the visuals, even though they got no support from the weak story, uninspired acting, and ridiculous dialogue that pretty much ruined the rest of the movie.

Don’t see this movie, people.  Keep video games out of the movie theaters!  And I hear people chatting that they want this to become a movie franchise?  Come on!

LS:  It’s a losing battle, because these movies make money.

MA:  And that’s why people shouldn’t see them!  Heck, I love baseball, but that doesn’t mean I like all movies about baseball, or even that I want to see movies about baseball.  When I’m in the mood for baseball, I watch a baseball game!  Why do video games have to become movies?  Just play the games!

(Suddenly, giant chunks of ash begin to pour down upon them.  MA’s umbrella crumples under the pressure of the ash storm.)

MA:  What kind of a cheap umbrella did you sell me?

LS:  The kind that doesn’t last.  (Pulls out another umbrella)  Here, you can have this one for just ten bucks.

MA:  Ten bucks?  What do you take me for, a fool?

LS: Yes.

MA (looks at camera):  Ask a stupid question—.  I’ll just take my chances.  (Pulls his shirt over his head.)  Okay folks, we’re done here.  Thanks for joining us and we’ll see you again next week.  Gotta run!  (Exits quickly.)

LS:  Yep, we’ll see you all again next week.  (Exits at his leisure with his sturdy umbrella).

(Behind him, a coughing MARLBORO MAN falls off his horse into a pile of ash).

—END—

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

Michael Arruda gives SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D ~ one and a half knives!

LL Soares gives SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D ~one knife.

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.

Pickin’ the Carcass: RED STATE (2011)

Posted in 2012, Michael Arruda Reviews, Pickin' the Carcass, Religious Cults, Twist Endings with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2012 by knifefighter

PICKIN’ THE CARCASS:  RED STATE (2011)
By Michael Arruda

 

Welcome to PICKIN’ THE CARCASS, that column where we catch up with recent horror releases missed the first time around.  Sadly, most of the time, there’s a good reason these films were missed the first time around.  They’re not very good.

However, today, good news!  At long last, I’ve found a CARCASS morsel well worth the wait, and that morsel is RED STATE (2011), the action thriller by writer director Kevin Smith.

RED STATE tells its story in three parts.  The first part follows three teenage boys (Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, and Nicholas Braun) as they answer a sex ad from a woman who promises to have sex with them.  This first segment is light and funny, and you almost get the feeling you’re being set up for a teen sex comedy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

That’s because the woman drugs the boys, which leads to the second segment of the film, and this is where the horror sets in.  The boys awake to find themselves held hostage by an ultra-right wing church known as the Five Points Church.  This church, supposedly so far to the right that even neo-Nazi groups distance themselves from them, is led by the charismatic but crazy Abin Cooper (Michael Parks).  The boys witness Cooper and his congregation execute a gay man in the church.  Up next are the teens themselves.

Following a tip from the local sheriff, armed ATF agents led by Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) surround the Five Points Church compound, which brings us to the third segment of the film, the armed confrontation between the ATF agents and the church members, who are sitting on an arsenal full of assault weapons.

Eventually, all hell breaks loose, and there is a massive shoot-out, which leads to a clever ending that for several moments will have you scratching your head wondering just what the hell is going on.  I won’t give anything away, but I will say the ending to the movie is somehow both depressing and satisfying.

RED STATE was written and directed by Kevin Smith, an actor, writer, and director mostly known for his comedies.  (ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (2008) and JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (2001), for example).  RED STATE is not a comedy, and I almost thought it was going to be played for laughs considering Smith’s involvement.  But it’s not funny, not in the least.

Far from it, RED STATE is a grim realistic tale that works because it is firmly rooted in truth.  The points this movie makes reflect disturbing trends in our society that, like it or not, exist.  And it’s scary because as outlandish and as exaggerated as things may seem, it’s still realistic.  A church congregation executes a gay man while singing hymns?  And this isn’t a black comedy?  No.  And the reason?  Sadly, horrifically, I could see this happening.  There are fringe groups out there that would do this.

RED STATE is scary without entering into any of the traditional horror movie tropes.  There’s nothing supernatural going on here.  The horror is in the people and what they do.

The movie enjoys a strong start.  The three teen characters are all believable, and the three actors who play them do an excellent job bringing these kids to life.  Kyle Gallner is especially memorable as the lead teen Jarod, and we saw him a few years back in THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT (2009).

The dialogue here by Smith is also excellent.  It’s a hoot listening to these three guys, as they act and sound like real teens.  It sets the stage for the realism which permeates the entire film.

The second part of the film, where the boys are held hostage in the church, is also powerful.  The execution sequence is a riveting scene, and at this point, the sweaty palms meter was going full throttle.

The third act, where John Goodman’s Joseph Keenan leads an ATF raid against the compound is the least satisfying segment of the three, but it’s still very good.  It’s less effective because a standard action shoot-out just doesn’t pack the same wallop as scenes of teens being held hostage by maniac church members.

RED STATE features an outstanding cast.  In addition to Kyle Gallner’s fine performance as teen hostage Jarod, John Goodman also delivers a strong performance as ATF agent Joseph Keenan.  Goodman plays things realistically.  He’s not over the top, and as a result, he’s very believable.

Melissa Leo plays yet another crazy mother, this one a member of the Five Points Church.  Leo, you might remember, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as a crazy obsessed mother in THE FIGHTER (2010).  Yeah, her role here is almost the same, but she’s so good at it!  You just want to slap her!

And Michael Parks absolutely steals the show as the creep preacher Abin Cooper.  The best part of his performance, and really, the whole movie, is that it’s not played over the top.  Parks doesn’t play Cooper like some psycho in the movies.  He plays him like a real preacher.  I believed this guy, and this is what made it so scary.

One of the reasons the movie works so well is the excellent script by Kevin Smith.  Not only does it tell a believable story, but it also takes some outlandish situations, dangles them in front of you, and makes you realize, you know what?  This isn’t as outlandish as you think!

Smith also adds some stylish direction.  The action scenes are well-handled, and the camerawork during some of the chase scenes where the teens try to escape from the church makes you feel like you’re running right alongside them.

The movie also manages to takes its time without seeming slow-paced.  There are long sequences of dialogue, which somehow result in making things more unsettling and suspenseful.  It’s like you’re listening to Cooper speaking, and he’s creeping you out, and he’s going on and on, and you just want to get away, and yet you can’t.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed RED STATE.  As long as you’re not expecting a happy night at the movies, you’ll want to check out RED STATE.

It’s non-supernatural  horror at its best.

—END—

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda

(NOTE: For a slightly different take on RED STATE, check out the 2011 review by L.L. Soares here)

Meals for Monsters: SANTA SANGRE (1989)

Posted in 2012, Classic Films, Highly Stylized Films, Jenny Orosel Columns, Just Plain Weird, Madness, Meals for Monsters, Religious Cults, Surrealism with tags , , , , , on February 1, 2012 by knifefighter

MEALS FOR MONSTERS: SANTA SANGRE (1989)
By Jenny Orosel

 

I have to preface this by saying just how much I love Alejandro Jodorowsky.  The man is insane.  Beautifully, wonderfully insane, and it’s reflected in his movies.  Watching one of his movies is like going to a four star restaurant in a foreign country—you may not understand all of what you’re consuming, but my God, it might be one of the best things you’ve ever consumed.  That’s how I feel about his movies.  And it thrills me to come up with a delicious meal for SANTA SANGRE (1989).

SANTA SANGRE was the last movie Jodorowsky directed (well, there was one work-for-hire the year after, but he refuses to acknowledge it, so I shall not) before moving into the realm of comics.  Our hero, the young Fenix, grew up in a circus but has been in a mental institution since, years earlier as a child, he saw his father cut off his mother’s arms before killing himself.  He stayed there in willing silence until his armless mother helps him escape.  They make a good living doing a mime act, but Mom’s got a grudge and, since she doesn’t have the hands to do it herself, forces the sad Fenix to murder beautiful women for her.  It sounds like a simple slasher flick.  However, this is nothing like any splatterpunk you’ve seen before.  There’s enough blatant symbolism to make Freud weep.  Temptation is a running theme (the family mime act is about the Garden of Eden), poor Fenix has strange hallucinations of white doves and giant snakes growing from his crotch.  And the ever-present holiness of blood.

It makes sense that, for a cocktail, to mix up a few Santa Sangrias:

SANTA SANGRIA

 

Ingredients:
Chopped fruit
Seltzer water
Cheap red wine.

Directions:

Drop a handful of the chopped fruit into the glass.  Fill half with red wine and half with seltzer water.  Enjoy.

The opening scene of Fenix in the institution shows them trying to get him to eat a meal like a normal person.  When that fails, they offer him a whole fish, which he devours.  While I’m not going to have you serve up anything with a face or eyes, I think fish would be an appropriate main course:

BLOOD ORANGE BAKED COD (serves four)

Ingredients:
4 pieces cod
2 blood oranges
1 stick butter
Salt, pepper & dried parsley to taste

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Melt the butter.  Juice one of the blood oranges and mix with the butter.  Dip each piece of cod in the mixture, coating it, and place in baking pan.  Drizzle some of the excess onto the fish.  Salt, pepper and parsley to taste.  Slice remaining blood orange and place one slice on each piece of fish.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Serve with rice, potatoes or toast.

With all the temptation symbolism, it should come as no surprise that apples are in a number of scenes.  Why not, for dessert, have some apple dumplings?

GARDEN OF EDEN APPLE DUMPLINGS: (serves four)

 

Ingredients:
4 apples
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed if frozen
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tbs cinnamon
1 beaten egg with a splash of water

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Peel and core the apples.  Cut each sheet of puff pastry in half.  Mix the brown sugar and cinnamon.  Place the apple in the center of the pastry, fill the core hole with the sugar/cinnamon mix, and sprinkle a little extra on top.  Bring the corners up, pinch them closed and seal up the sides.  Place on greased baking sheet.  Brush the egg over the dumpling and bake at 425 for ten minutes.  Lower the temperature to 375 and bake an additional 20 minutes.  Serve warm.

If you’ve heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky but never seen any of his movies, this is a great one to start with.  It has all his signature style and weirdness, but the plot is the most linear of any of his movies (minus that one film-that-shall-not-be-named).  If you’re willing to sit through a little weirdness, you won’t be disappointed.  Or, at least, you’ll have a yummy meal to get you through the night.

© Copyright 2012 by Jenny Orosel

The Geisha of Gore Sits at NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (2005)

Posted in 2011, Asian Horror, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Japanese Cinema, Religious Cults with tags , , , , , , on December 7, 2011 by knifefighter

NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (2005)
Geisha of Gore Movie Review by Colleen Wanglund

Sion Sono is a Japanese director with a huge cult following, both in Japan and the English-speaking J-Horror fan base. Sono is a poet, author, actor, composer, screenwriter and filmmaker, who made his mark with such movies as SUICIDE CLUB (2001), EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS (2007), and last year’s hit, COLD FISH, released by Sushi Typhoon. Sono even managed to lure the great Japanese actress Masumi Miyazaki out of retirement to star in his Grand Guignol-esque STRANGE CIRCUS (2005).

Before I get into the movie, I need to give you a little background first. NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (2005) is billed as either a prequel or sequel (depending on who you talk to) to SUICIDE CLUB. SUICIDE CLUB opens with one of the best gore scenes I’ve ever seen—54 high school girls jump in front of a moving train at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, beginning a string of mass suicides across Japan. The carnage on display is a thing of beauty. And allow me to point out that the man responsible for the special effects on SUICIDE CLUB is none other than low-budget SFX genius, Yoshihiro Nishimura. Anyway, Detective Kuroda (Ryo Ishibashi) is charged with trying to find a possible cause for these suicides, which may or may not have something to do with the latest pop sensation, a group of “tweener” singers called Desert. There is also a possible link to a website that displays red and white dots—each one representing a suicide. Needless to say, this is a great horror flick and you should seek it out.

Sono himself had announced that SUICIDE CLUB was the first in a trilogy he was planning; however, to date, there have only been the two films. He wrote the book Suicide Circle: The Complete Edition (SUICIDE CIRCLE is the official Japanese title of SUICIDE CLUB) in 2002 and released a companion manga. The book became the blueprint for NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE (2005) which actually runs parallel to the events in SUICIDE CLUB.

NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE tells the story of Noriko (Kazue Fukiishi), an awkward, angst-ridden seventeen-year-old who feels isolated from, and misunderstood by, her parents and younger sister Yuka (Yuriko Yoshitaka). The family lives in the small seaside town of Toyokawa—which is Sono’s hometown–but Noriko has dreams of attending school in Tokyo. Turning to the Internet she finds a website that caters to angsty teens from all over Japan and makes “friends”. One night, a blackout hits the town and Noriko decides to quickly pack her things and run away to Tokyo. Upon her arrival in the city, she goes to an Internet café and makes contact with the site’s administrator, whose user name is UenoStation54. They agree to meet at Ueno train station the next morning. Noriko, who is now using the name Mitsuko, meets the girl whose real name is Kumiko (played by the charismatic Tsugumi). Noriko embarks on a new life with a new identity as an “actress” in a troupe of rent-a-family players.

Six months have passed with no word from Noriko, but when sister Yuka reads about the mass suicide of 54 girls, she thinks Noriko had something to do with it. Yuka finds the website where Noriko, as Mitsuko, has been leaving messages in the hopes that Yuka is reading them. Now it is Yuka’s turn to run away to Tokyo to find her sister.

Noriko and Yuka’s stoic and seemingly cold father, Tetsuzo (Ken Mitsuishi), finally begins his search for his missing children—but initially as only the reporter he is, chasing a story—and with the help of his wife. He finds clues the girls, particularly Yuka, have left for him including a story Yuka wrote that seems to mirror the family’s current circumstances. Tetsuzo only begins searching as a father after an unexpected family tragedy drives him to despair—and looking for a fresh start.

Tetsuzo delves into the mythos of the suicide club and finally finds the elusive Kumiko about a year after Noriko first left home. He sets up a meeting in a restaurant where he is confronted by other members of the organization that Kumiko and his daughters are involved with. With the help of a friend, Tetsuzo hires Kumiko and the girls (who now go by the names Mitsuko and Yoko) to be his “family”. The girls arrive and begin the role-playing, quickly realizing that the house is familiar somehow—and it should be—because Tetsuzo has gone to great lengths to recreate the family home in Toyokawa. Kumiko is sent on an errand and Tetsuzo reveals himself to his daughters, who react with fear and confusion. What has happened to the girls since leaving home? Can Tetsuzo make amends and rebuild what is left of his family? And what of the fabled suicide club he has been investigating? Does it actually exist?

Where SUICIDE CLUB was a bit frenetic and full of gore, NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE is a quiet and much more reserved film. In fact, it isn’t even really a horror film (the only spilled blood to speak of comes in the final 30 minutes of the movie, and the shot of the suicide at the train station). NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE is a deliberately paced dark family drama with some horrifying aspects to it. Sono has also managed to put forth some original ideas here. The family rental troupe is a unique concept which could be a movie all on its own. They are hired for a set amount of time to act out family scenarios for lonely Japanese people. Some include visits to the grandparents; two daughters returning home to dad after a falling out of some kind; and even a family grieving the death of their patriarch. Where it gets horrifying involves a young woman playing the hated wife of a man who wishes to see his wife dead. The young “actress” goes willingly to play her role without regard to what may happen to her—and it isn’t pretty. There is also a sort of explanation for the original mass suicide at Shinjuku Station where we see Kumiko and Noriko looking on as the 54 girls go happily to their bloody end. These two scenes open the possibility of something untoward going on, including cult-like activity. Are these young women being brainwashed? The scenes also seem to reinforce the existence of a suicide club when considered with the connection to the website. Remember, the dots represent actual suicides (red for females, white for males).

Another original piece to the film is the character of Kumiko. Abandoned in a locker at Ueno train station (where she derives her user name on the website), Kumiko was raised predominantly in group homes and, as a result, has created a fantasy background for herself. Her career choice seems to stem from an encounter with a woman claiming to be her birth mother. In a scene that is eerie and unsettling, Kumiko begins critiquing the woman’s acting skills and volunteers to teach her how to be a “proper mother”. It also calls into question Kumiko’s motives. Is she just attempting to fill the void left by the abandonment of her mother or is it something far more sinister, perhaps revenge for her lot in life? Hmmm, what is Kumiko’s Internet user name again?

The story itself is told in a non-linear style and separated into chapters, with the main characters relating their own stories through the use of voiceovers. Sono manages to keep a steady flow to the narrative, tying it all together in a final emotionally-charged sequence. I also greatly appreciate the fact that for a supposed sequel (or prequel?), there is very little connecting NORIKO’S DINNER TABLE to SUICIDE CLUB, with the exception of Sion Sono’s commentary on the suicide rate and general apathy among Japan’s young people. I am not a fan of sequels and this film doesn’t even come close to resembling one. One other aspect the two films share (and which I tend to enjoy in a lot of Asian horror films) is the lack of a complete explanation for the events involved. NORIKO gives some plausible possibilities to the events of SUICIDE CLUB, but still leaves a lot open and up to the imagination of the individual viewer. I love when movies don’t have a nice neat little ending, tying up all loose ends. I don’t always want a logical explanation. Hell, horror doesn’t need a logical explanation. The vagueness allows for the uneasiness of the film to stay with the viewer and keep them thinking.

The running time of NORIKO is about two hours and forty minutes, which is uber-long, but Sono tells such a beautiful, bizarre and compelling story that it doesn’t matter. If you like David Lynch then you’ll love Sion Sono. This movie deserves to be watched….and you don’t need to have seen SUICIDE CLUB to enjoy it.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund

Me and Lil’ Stevie vs. THE CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)

Posted in 1980s Horror, 2011, Evil Kids!, Me and Lil' Stevie, Peter Dudar Reviews, Religious Cults, Stephen King Movies with tags , , , , , on November 29, 2011 by knifefighter

“ME AND LIL’ STEVIE”
VERSUS
THE CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)
By Peter N. Dudar

EXTERIOR/DAY:

(Camera pans along a long, desolate Nebraska road, lined with miles and miles of man-sized late summer corn stalks. Creepy soundtrack music rolls, as the camera zooms in on a strange happening within the rows of corn. The corn suddenly starts moving and bending, as if making a path for something big and terrible coming. The camera freezes and zooms in on a patch of corn just at the side of the road. The corn spreads apart and a figure steps through. It is a man carrying a ventriloquist dummy that resembles Master of Horror, Stephen King.)

Peter: Phew, I thought we’d never get out of there!

Lil’ Stevie: I told you we should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque! Welcome, Constant Viewer, to another addition of “Me and Lil’ Stevie”

Peter: Hey, that’s MY line!

Lil’ Stevie: I’m your host, Stephen King, and I’ll be…

Peter: You are NOT Stephen King! You’re a puppet! And besides, I’M the host of this. You’re just my sidekick.

Lil’ Stevie: The REAL Stephen King wouldn’t like you. Not even a little bit!

Peter: Would you like to do this review by yourself?

Lil’ Stevie: (Bowing his head) No.

Peter: Then let’s get started. Today, we’ll be discussing Fritz Kiersch’s 1984 film, CHILDREN OF THE CORN.

Lil’ Stevie: That should read “Stephen King’s CHILDREN OF THE CORN”. It’s right there in the opening credits.

Peter: Fine. After all, it’s based on King’s 1977 short story of the same title, which appears in his first collection “Night Shift”.

Lil’ Stevie: An excellent read, by the way. And Christmas is coming, if you suddenly felt the urge to buy a copy for the horror-reading loved one in your life.

Peter: Quit pandering…we’re not making any money out of this. Now, this story is just one of the many King gems that doesn’t take place in his home state of Maine. This one takes place in Gatlin, Nebraska…and for all you King geeks like me, there’s even mention of close-by Hemingford in the movie, which is where Mother Abigail is waiting for all her children in THE STAND.

Lil’ Stevie: “I’m a hundred and four years old, and I still make my own bread!”

Peter: You’re a dummy, and you have my hand up your kiester!

Lil’ Stevie: I really hate you sometimes!

Peter: The plot centers around Burt (Peter Horton: television actor, writer, and director, who has appeared on such shows as THE SHIELD, GREY’S ANATOMY and 30-SOMETHING) and Vicki (Linda Hamilton: Sara Conners from THE TERMINATOR films); a doctor and his girlfriend (who wants to be his wife, although he seems to has a phobia about commitment). The two are traveling cross-country for a job that he’s about to begin. They get lost in Nebraska and, on the verge of an argument, manage to run over a little boy who runs out of the cornfield.

Lil’ Stevie: In my story, the two are already married and on the verge of a divorce. They are on a last-ditch effort to save their marriage when they get hopelessly lost in Nebraska, and Burt accidentally runs the little boy over. Of course, the little boy has already had his throat cut and was a goner anyway…

Peter: At the beginning of the movie, we’re offered a voice-over narrative from Job (Robby Kiger of MONSTER SQUAD, 1987), a little boy who explains exactly what happened in Gatlin in an opening montage, and will subsequently serve as the lead source for exposition throughout the movie. Job and his sister, Sarah (Anne Marie McEvoy, INVITATION TO HELL, 1984), are the youngest of the kids in Gatlin to remember the massacre, when all the grown-ups of Gatlin were murdered in cold blood by the followers of Isaac and worshippers of “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” As the movie progresses, we’ll discover that the town of Gatlin is inhabited solely by children, and that all of them are brainwashed by this mysterious Isaac (played by John Franklin, who played “Cousin Itt” in the ADDAMS FAMILY movies in ‘91 and ‘93), who wanders around in an Amish hat and preaches an Old Testament message of bloodshed and sacrifice.

Lil’ Stevie: It bears mentioning that, in my story, Isaac is only 11 years old, but is in fact played by a 24-year-old in the movie.

Peter: That happens a lot in movies and television. You just have to suspend disbelief. And that is really easy for this movie, because Franklin DOES look like a little kid. Even in the Amish hat and coat. It also bears mentioning that this fanatical religion culminates in each of the children sacrificing themselves to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” on their 19th birthday. It’s important because the little boy that Burt and Vicki are about to run over is a kid that is running away to find help and bring a stop to Isaac and his heathen religion. Only, Isaac is forewarned of the traitorous child (Sarah has the gift of sight, demonstrated in her crayon drawings) and sends Malachi (Courtney Gains, who played Hans Klopeck in THE BURBS, 1989) out to stop him. Malachi slits the boy’s throat and sends him sprawling out into the road, and into the path of Burt’s moving car…

Lil’ Stevie: Squish!

Peter: Being a doctor, Burt realizes that the boy was already dead before his car ran him over, and becomes obsessed with getting the kid to the police as quickly as possible. Vicki, on the verge of hysterics, wants them to just get out of Nebraska as quickly as possible.

Lil’ Stevie: Another deviation from my original story. In my story, the two are at each other’s throats, and when Burt runs the child over, Vicki does nothing but punish and degrade him. She wanted to stay on the highway, and in his subsequent obsession with finding somebody, anybody, to report the accident to, she fights him at every possible opportunity. She’s terrified, distressed, and when he doesn’t cater to her every possible request, she acts like a total bitch.

Peter: Yeah. In the real King story, I actually wanted Burt to hand her over to the kids. But we’re reviewing the movie at the moment, so none of this really matters.

Lil’ Stevie: It matters to ME.

Peter: So the boy with the slit throat stumbles out in front of them, Burt runs him down, and then they spend the next ten minutes driving around Nebraska, confused by signs for Gatlin that are misdirecting them and sending them in circles. They finally manage to find a gas station, operated by veteran actor R.G. Armstrong (who has appeared in just about everything in the latter half of the 20th Century), who tells them that there is nothing in Gatlin, and that they should just press on for Hemingford……

Lil’ Stevie: Yay, Hemingford!

Peter: …because the children have an agreement with the old man at the gas station. They need his fuel, and in return they let him and his dog, Sarge, alone. Armstrong sends them on their way, but Malachi and his pals off the old man anyway (they even kill his dog), and will later get chastised by Isaac for it. The point of this whole series of events is to let the viewer know that there aren’t any grown-ups for miles and miles, and that Burt and Vicki aren’t just lost, but have been manipulated into a trap that has been laid out for them.

Lil’ Stevie: I just want to go on record here that I actually wrote the original screenplay for this movie, but my treatment was dismissed for the screenplay written by George Goldsmith. None of this is MY concept for what was supposed to happen in the movie.

Peter: Duly noted, Lil’ Stevie. In fact, I don’t recall there even being a mechanic in the original short story.

Lil’ Stevie: Thank you!

Peter: But it works here. And, as Isaac will later inform us, they needed the man to keep supplying gas for their generators, and that Malachi’s murdering him was sinful pride, and “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” is most displeased as a result. And here is the pinnacle plot source of this movie: There is an obvious power struggle going on between Isaac and Malachi. Isaac is all about pleasing “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” the fictitious version of God in the eyes of Isaac and his followers. This whole cult following came as a direct result of Isaac (according to Job’s narrative), but Malachi is the actual enforcer, so to speak. He, too, wants to please the god that keeps providing corn and life to the kids of Gatlin, but where Isaac’s lot is to preach, Malachi is the actual leader of the children.

Lil’ Stevie: And what of Burt and Vicki???

Peter: I’m glad you asked. After driving around in circles, Burt finally convinces Vicki that they should just go to Gatlin and find somebody to report the murder to. They roll into Gatlin and find it deserted. But there seem to be children here, so there must be grown-ups around to talk to…

Lil’ Stevie: Not necessarily!

Peter: We know that! Burt and Vicki are soon pursued by Malachi and his band of child-thugs. They kidnap Vicki and leave Burt to escape the murderous mob and figure out what the hell actually happened in Gatlin, so that he can try and rescue her. And possibly put an end to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.”

Lil’ Stephen: And none of it actually happens in my story. In my story, they enter Gatlin, Burt finds the Grace Baptist Church, where he manages to uncover the history of the town, and by the time he solves the mystery Vicki has already been abducted and brought into the cornfield to serve as a sacrifice. In the movie, Burt and Vicki work together through most of it, and what information they are lacking is given through Job’s exposition.

Peter: True. But what makes this movie compelling is the fact that Burt and Vicki are likeable characters. As are Job and Sarah. We want them to survive, to thwart the terrible Isaac and the all-out frightening Malachi. In previous columns we’ve discussed the idea of “Good-enough” child actors. This movie offers some great child actors (even though Franklin is in his mid-twenties, he’s frightening and compelling to watch, as is Gains’s version of Malachi), and the whole premise of murderous children always makes for disturbing fiction. On a personal note, I tend to really dig on stories based on religious fanaticism, which makes this enjoyable fodder for me.

Lil’ Stevie: Yeah, but enough to spawn six sequels and an actual remake? Was my story THAT compelling?

Peter: You didn’t write it, Lil’ Stevie!

Lil’ Stevie: Of course, I didn’t. In my story, there was no struggle for power between Isaac and Malachi, there was no sibling bond between Job and Sarah, and there was no happy ending. In MY story, Burt enters the cornfield to find Vicki crucified, with her eyes plucked out and corn stalks buried in her empty sockets and shoved down her throat. And “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” comes out victorious when he claims Burt before it’s all over. In the movie, we’re offered another crappy happy ending, when Burt and Vicki basically adopt Job and Sarah after smiting the God of the Corn and seeing both Isaac and Malachi brought down.

Peter: Way to spoil it for everybody. Yeah, Burt saves Vicki and together they put an end to “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” but not before we see some really, really crappy animation at the movie’s climax. There’s a brief glimpse of “He Who Walks” in the form of an underground predator that, when in motion, pushes the earth up like some kind of monster gopher…and that is kind of creepy and disturbing to watch. But this gives way to a cartoon beast that detracts from the overall impact of the movie, and relegates the film to eternal 80’s schlock rather than being a timeless classic of horror fiction. And that’s too bad because I recall watching this movie as a kid and having the wits scared right out of me. But upon watching again as an adult, I’m sad to discover that this movie just didn’t hold up under the test of time.

Lil’ Stevie: It would have if they’d just followed MY screenplay!

Peter: I guess we’ll never know. Overall, this is still a fun movie to watch. There are some really good performances, at least by Franklin and Gains as the respective Isaac and Malachi, but in the movie, the fictitious happy ending and the cartoonish “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” detract from what this movie could have been. These factors alone whitewash the brutality of child violence and blasphemous devil-worship the short story actually succeeds in capturing. And again, I find myself stuck in the dilemma of having a fondness for the movie out of personal recollection, but am hard-pressed to give it my recommendation as a fan of horror. I guess the Stephen King geek in me tells me that I should give it a pass, if only as a means of regarding King’s history in the cinema (primarily towards the beginning of his career) and giving it some historical context.

Lil’ Stevie: Did you hear something?

Peter: Hear what?

Lil’ Stevie: Something’s coming. Look at the cornfield!

(The corn begins to part again, as if something monstrous is barreling down right at them. The corn suddenly parts and L.L. SOARES walks out, wearing a “Motorhead” shirt and drinking a beer).

L.L. Soares: Oops, wrong column. I guess I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque!

Peter: Holy Crap! It’s “He Who Walks Behind the Rows!” Let’s get out of here!!!

Lil’ Stevie: (With tears of absolute terror in his eyes) Goodbye, folks! See you next time!

The End

 

© Copyright 2011 by Peter N. Dudar