October 16, 2012

A Taste for Blood: Part 2

If you have been reading "Catfish's Dishes" for any length of time, you know that last year around this time I dedicated an entire post not to food, but to horror films.  I really love Halloween, and scary movies in general.  It had always been my plan to write a companion piece for use this Halloween, but due to an unforeseen complication during the making of pumpkin milkshakes over the weekend (translation--they were bad,)  I have decided to bump up this installment of "A Taste for Blood."  If you hunger for the macabre, scroll down and sink your teeth into this year's bloody recommendations.  If not, I'll see you back in the kitchen later this week.
10.  Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
Last year, about half of my list was comprised of films that could be described as a horror/comedies.  There is just something about humor that goes well with terror--whether it is a funny joke breaking the tension in a more serious horror film, or a movie whose entire premise is infused with a recognition of the absurdity of horror films.  This year's list is much more serious over all, but I couldn't ignore gory comedies altogether.  Part of the reason is because I just discovered "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil."  Not only is this movie genuinely funny, but the concept is brilliant--six college students head out into the woods for a weekend of drinking and sex, only to find that they are sharing their idyllic retreat with a couple of rednecks.  At this point, you might be wondering, "isn't that the concept of every horror film?"  And you'd be right, if that was all "Tucker and Dale" had going for it.  But unlike the countless other films that begin with jocks and their scantily clad girlfriends stopping at a run down gas station for some beer on their way to their inevitable demise, their is one major difference that makes this film such a treat, a difference that should be obvious from the title--Tucker and Dale are our protagonists.  Not in a cynical "Devil's Rejects" sort of way where you are encouraged to empathize with sadistic killers, but real protagonists. Tucker, who I'll generously refer to as the "brains" of the duo, has acquired a summer cabin in these woods, and he's brought along his good buddy Dale to keep him company.  They intend to fix the place up, and in the meantime fit in some fishing and some beer--a perfect summer.  Unfortunately for them, the inherent prejudices of the college students coupled with some seriously bad timing causes the story to unfold as if they really were the psychotic rednecks they are made out to be.  If you can stomach such "highlights" as a person getting mangled by a wood chipper, then this comedy of errors should appeal to you, even if you aren't a strict fan of the horror genre. 

9.  The Innkeepers
A year ago at this time, I was hearing quite a bit of hype for Ti West's last movie, "House of the Devil."  A lot was made of the director's sense of style, with some people even going so far as to say that the film was one of the best 80's horror films never made.  So as soon as it popped up on Netflix, I made it my first priority.  Sadly to say, I found myself rather "meh" at the end.  Certainly, the style was there--the film was beautifully shot, and West was masterful at building tension. Had he safely guided the film to its climax, I would have probably declared it a masterpiece, so good was the first 9/10th's of the movie.  But the ridiculously tense slow burn gave way to an ending that, while still creepy (good) was over in seconds (very bad.)  
So, fast forward to 2012.  Now I was hearing a lot of hype about Ti West's follow up to "House of the Devil," "The Innkeepers."  I was torn.  I was so disappointed with the end of the first movie--it wasn't just anticlimactic, it actively made me regret spending time on the parts of the film I did like.  But the director showed such promise in his other choices that I decided to give him a second chance, and I'm glad I did.  "The Innkeepers" is a ghost story, set in a haunted hotel.  (The Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is a real place that also purports to be haunted, although West uses his own ghosts as opposed to the ones that are supposed to be there.)  While the real world Yankee Pedlar is still going strong, the Inn in this film is gearing up for its last weekend of operation, and ghost-obsessed computer nerd Luke convinces his co-worker Claire that if they are ever going to prove that the creepy goings on of the Inn are the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, it has to be now.  This is, of course, tempting fate, and our intrepid ghost hunters get more than they asked for.  

What I really liked about this movie is that while Ti West corrected the issues I had with "House of the Devil" and its abrupt payoff, he didn't over-correct that mistake--"The Innkeepers" is a slow, tense, ominous film.  It's one of those movies where every creaking floorboard has you looking over your shoulder.  The Yankee Pedlar may not really be haunted--I'm not much of a believer in real-world ghosts and ghouls--but the location deserves an acting credit.  The old inn is just as sinister a place as the Overlook Hotel in "The Shining," and really helps this movie maintain a constant sense of dread.  All in all, "The Innkeepers" is an engaging and entertaining ghost story that is worth a watch this Halloween season.

8.  Case 39
I'm usually the one recommending horror films.  That's why I was surprised when Wife told me that her dad had found a movie on Netflix he knew I'd appreciate.  "Case 39" is one of those films that you never hear of when it comes out, a movie whose own studio decides to leave it for dead.  Despite staring Rene Zelwegger (just after "Monsters vs. Aliens) and Bradley Cooper (fresh off of "The Hangover")  I never saw a single ad for this quiet little horror film.  I'm actually surprised to find out it had an actual theatrical release.  The whole thing has the stink of a straight-to-video feature.  If my father-in-law hadn't rolled the dice, I wouldn't have even heard of this movie, let alone seen it.  

Zelwegger plays a social worker named Emily whose already excessive work load is given one more strain by the addition of a 39th case, that of Lillith Sullivan.  The little girl is having trouble at school, and of course immediate blame is cast onto her creepy religious family.  Emily learns that they dead bolt the girl into her room at night, and eventually Lillith confides to her what she had feared--her parents plan to kill her.  Desperate to help this child, Emily not only gets her taken away from her parents, but attempts to take her in as her own.  It doesn't take long before it's clear that maybe Lillith's parents were right to be putting locks on doors, as the little girl isn't quite what she seemed.  "Case 39" isn't a perfect film, but the 22% it is currently sporting on Rotten Tomatoes is overly harsh.  This is a well acted and gripping psychological thriller whose minor flaws aren't strong enough to keep me from passing on my father-in-law's recommendation to you, especially at this time of year.  The bee scene is worth it on its own. 

7. Funny Games
"Funny Games" has been brought to the screen twice, once as a German film, and again as an American remake with moderately big named stars (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) replacing their European counterparts.  
Typically, this is where I would specify which of the films I am talking about, either defending the original for being the original, or lauding the remake for improving on some facet of the first film.  But with "Funny Games," it isn't really necessary.  Both movies are by the same director, and the American film is a shot-for-shot remake of the first go around.  The only difference is that one is in English and set in America.  I've seen both, and they are pretty much equal in quality.  

"Funny Games" is about a family who is taken hostage at their summer home by a pair of well-mannered, well-dressed psychos who calmly explain the "games" they would like their prisoners to play.  What makes these movies not only creepy, but disturbing is the director's choice of perspective.  Once the villains enter the picture, the filming is done in such a way that places you with them.  Not on an emotional level--they are clearly horrid, evil people with little redeeming qualities, and the victims are a nice family with little in the way of the personality flaws that make the stock teenagers in Freddy Krueger movies "appealing" victims--but physically.  It is as if you are one of the bad guys, and as these innocent people suffer you are forced to reflect on why it is you are even watching this movie.  I found "Funny Games" to be smart and engaging, but don't be fooled--this isn't a fun Halloween movie.  This is a disturbing psychological exercise to watch by yourself or with other people who want to think about the movie they are watching and not just squeal at jump scares. 

6.  Piranha    
On the other hand, if you are having a Halloween party and you want to squeal at jump scares?  You could certainly do worse than the 2010 remake of Piranha (shown in theaters as Piranha 3D.)  This movie is so over the top silly that it's impossible to stay scared long.  An underground lake releases prehistoric piranhas of extra size and vigor into the local watering hole, and of course it just happens to be Spring Break.  College students have descended upon the town of Lake Victoria, seemingly for the sole purpose of dying in the nude.  This remake was helmed by Alexandre Aja, the French director behind my favorite horror movie "High Tension" and the remake of Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes," which were both bleak and colorless movies, with small casts stuck in remote locations.  Fortunately, the tonal shift does not trouble Aja, and this movie is a perfect ode to the T&A filled camp-fests that filled the 70's and 80's while still being highly entertaining on its own.  Gory, silly, and just a lot of fun. (Side Note:  Although they are pushing on without him, Aja turned down the sequel, Piranha 3DD.  He is currently working on a new horror film starring Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe and based on a book by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King.) 

5.  Audition
If I felt like the protagonist of "Audition" was a bad person, I would have had much less of a reaction to this disturbing movie by Japanese horror master Takashi Miike.  Replace the mild mannered Japanese businessman with an arrogant "bro," and Asami's actions would at least be empathetic, if not sympathetic.  Instead, we end up with one of the more uncomfortable movies of all time.  

Aoyama is a widower who lives with his nearly grown son.  After years of loneliness he has finally decided--prodded by his child--to look for love once more.  Unfortunately, he is shy, and furthermore he is looking for a connection like that he had with his wife.  He can't simply find this girl in a bar.  One of his friends, a movie producer, hatches an idea of how to get around all of that.  Simply pretend to be casting a movie.  Women will flock to you.  Audition them.  You can claim production has been canceled, but still ask one of them out.    The man who came up with that idea--he's the kind of person you expect to see face the tortures than instead befall the meek Aoyama.  But to be fair, the producer at least senses there is something not quite right about Asami.  Our hero is drawn to her immediately and intensely.  The ramifications of his choice are the bulk of this movie, and although I won't give out much in the way of spoilers (hint:  look at the picture above) this movie isn't for the squeamish.  

4. Thirst
Staying for the moment with Asia, I was really impressed by the Korean movie "Thirst."  In the day and age of "Twilight" and "True Blood," it is easy to get burned out on vampires, but I thought that this tale of a Catholic priest who becomes one of the undead actually had something new to say.  The director, who is best known for his revenge trilogy (and more specifically, the film "Oldboy") really digs in and explores the moral quandary of a man who is being pulled one way by his physical craving to consume blood and the other by a spiritual desire to remain a man of morality.
Sang-hyun managed to walk a fine line between good and evil until he gives in, not to his craving for blood (he stalks the local hospital for that, sipping the IV of a comatose man rather than hunt for victims,) but to his desire for Tae-ju, the wife of his childhood friend.  Their illicit love affair is what brings out the monster in Sang-hyun, and while his vampiric nature surely amplifies his cravings, the director makes you question whether this evil was in Sang-hyun all along.  But although Sang-hyun gives in to that monster for awhile, the film never lets him rest easy--he's not Anne Rice's Lestat, able to find peace in his new-found power.  The battle of good and evil rages inside of him right until the end credits.  This is a beautiful and brooding film, more horrific than scary, and full of provoking moments that will leave you thinking long after the movie has ended. 

3.  The Mist
What would a Halloween list be without something by Stephen King?  Even though a decent number of films based on King's work are bad (I'm looking at you, "Dreamcatcher,") he's just so prolific that quite a few of them are good as well, or even great.  Last year I recommended the haunting "1408," but I almost chose this movie instead.  Set (where else) in a small Maine town, "The Mist" is about the events that happen after a strange mist blows in off the ocean (from the general direction of a military base,) covering everything in an unpenetrable  blanket of white.  When David Drayton heads to the market along with his son and neighbor to get supplies and wait out the storm, it quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary mist.  There are creatures out there, strange and terrible nightmare creatures straight out of a Lovecraft tale.  Soon, the hero and a fair number of townspeople realize that they are trapped inside the store.  If that wasn't bad enough, a religious zealot (played fantastically by Marcia Gay Harden) begins to gather a congregation of people who believe that these creatures are a sign of the Biblical end times.  Many movies use charismatic sycophants to illustrate the point that "the monster is us," but while Harden's Mrs. Carmody is certainly a dangerous woman who invokes fear, the monsters themselves really are quite scary.  One of "The Mist's" strengths is that the murky air allows the monsters a certain amount of camouflage, and it isn't easy to dismiss them as computer-animated constructs or puppets.  One of my favorite monster movies, "The Mist" is creepy as hell, and despite the fact that I've become a somewhat jaded horror fan the ending of this movie is permanently burned onto my brain.  

2. Pontypool  
I don't want to say much about this Canadian horror film.  I just want you to experience it.  "Pontypool" is set almost entirely inside of a small radio station in the town of Pontypool, Ontario, Canada.  Former Howard Stern-style shock jock Grant Mazzy has been downgraded to the host of a radio morning show in the sticks, and there is a power struggle between his desire to keep his aggressive on-air personality and his producer's desire that he stick to the script and focus on wedding announcements and the community event calendar.  This work place drama is interrupted by reports of riots downtown.  Nobody realizes it at first, but Pontypool is under the effects of a new disease--a virus transmitted by words.  

That's it.  That's all I'm going to tell you.  I just discovered this movie, and I can't wait to watch it again.  I love movies like this, with a small cast of good actors and an isolated location. I watched this film on my own (well, technically Wife slept by my side,) and by the final act I was actually holding my breath.  The suspense was suffocating.  Atmospheric and intense, "Pontypool" is a movie I'll be recommending for years.  

1.  The Woman in Black 
When I compiled my list last year, a good friend chastised me for not including "The Woman in Black," the 1989 British adaptation of the Susan Hill novel of the same name.  The film--which he had shown me--certainly deserved to be on the list.  But I avoided it for a very simple reason--availability.  So scarce are copies of this movie that Amazon has them used for eighty dollars, with new copies going for as much as three bills.  I just feel a bit bad recommending a movie you won't be able to see.  We were able to watch it on VHS from the local public library, but that copy has been removed from circulation, leaving me to wonder if even I will be able to watch it again.  (While a tolerable exercise, the Daniel Radcliffe remake is no substitute.)    

So why the change?  Certainly, renewed interest in the property hasn't made new copies of the old film more easily available.  Really, I just decided to put it on the list because it is that good.  It's what you want to be watching on Halloween night, 1980's BBC production values and all.  You may never have access to a copy of this film, but if you do, you should know to set aside time for it.  

"The Woman in Black" is the tale of a young solicitor who is sent to a small village to put in order the estate of a woman who has just died.  Upon reaching the town, he finds that the people are very superstitious about the woman's house, (a bleak place shrouded in mist and cut off from the rest of the village by a long causeway that spends large portions of the day underwater) believing it to have something to do with a mysterious specter of a woman in black who always appears when a child is about to die.  Of course, in the tradition of horror films, this advice goes unheeded and he heads to the house to do his job.  Once there, he begins to unravel the mystery behind everyone's fears, and of course have his own meeting with the woman in black.  

This movie is one of the scariest films I have ever seen, though it doesn't use blood or gore.  Like most things BBC, at least from that era, this film has practically no budget, but it actually manages to use that to its advantage.  Since they have no flashy effects, they have to rely on acting and atmosphere, and the director succeeds masterfully.  Really, this should be shown to all aspiring film makers about how to do more with less--there is a scene that features nothing but sounds emitting from a wall of fog that had me shivering, despite the fact I was watching the movie with two other people in the middle of the day.  

That's all folks! 

Thanks again for indulging my yearly departure from food to talk blood and guts.  If you have seen any of these films and have thoughts on them (or have films you think I should watch this Halloween season,) be sure to leave me a comment.  I'd love to hear what you have to say.  

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