Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, October 10, 2014

October Capsules: OCULUS, SHIVERS, DETENTION, HOWLING, MIMIC 2: HARDSHELL


OCULUS 
(2013)  Dir. Mike Flanagan
***1/2

A brother and sister reunite at the house where, as kids, they watched their dad and mom lose their minds inside the influential sphere of a haunted mirror. Now they've returned to the empty house, and sister's got it all wired for sound with cameras set up and timers to keep them from drifting out of reality, because the mirror has a habit of causing hallucinations, flashbacks, and homicidal insanity. The younger brother, having been in an institution ever since 'what happened' to them as kids, explains away the happenings as stress-born cover memories, to which his his sister says "they really did a number on you in there, didn't they?" It's awesome to hear rote psychiatric skepticism blasted open in such a direct manner. With great camerawork that services the story and slow ride suspense instead of just shock-schlock showing off, this is one spooky, cool film, maybe even the best new horror film since last year's THE CONJURING. Turns out you don't need a big empty hotel in Colorado to convey the ease with a sensitive family can dissolve, just the right spooky mirror. And when the children in the flashback even begin to notice their future selves watching them as the horrific encounters in both past and present reach a fever peak, you know OCULUS is onto something genuinely new and creepy.


Director Flanagan also avoids the whole 'hallucination-or-was-it?' schtick, delivering some pure monster moments along with the madness, effectively (and correctly) illuminating the futility of ever knowing what's real. Karen Gilan as the older and Annalise Baso as younger Kaylie are the film's main strengths: Bayo's cute little redhead alien face and orange hair are perfectly lit and she could teach a master class on showing every step involved in channeling terror into adrenalin-spiked courage. Heartbreaking, exciting, and genuinely spooky all at once, OCULUS gave me a literal spine tingle. And it doesn't need a dram of cheap shocks or torture porn trauma to get there.

SHIVERS 
(1975) dir. David Cronenberg
***
This weird first Cronenberg feature hasn't been available on DVD for awhile, but it's been on both Netflix and Amazon streaming recently and mustn't be missed, despite its cheap, grimy look. Far more disturbing than an outbreak of flesh eating zombies (which are too abstract - very few people think about cannibalism all day at work), is a contagious parasite that delivers inhibition-shredding insanity that converts the infected almost instantly into lewd sex-crazed maniacs. It's like if someone spiked the water supply with incredibly high levels of MDMA so everyone who had even a sip went crazy and started rubbing up on every passing person, be they family members or complete strangers. Not just pretty people in their 20s-30s, but the elderly, 'normal' types, and even children, the bulk of the real world we see (and are seen) by every day.

It's not MDMA (or ecstasy) in this film - that drug didn't even exist in 1975-  but an ugly free-roaming parasite that looks like an uncircumcised kidney, created by a doctor who wanted to turn the world into one large orgy. Taking to heart that (beloved of Cronenberg) med school adage that sex is the invention of a very clever STD, this parasite pays off in flooding the host's brain with inhibition lowering / libido elevating / clothes shredding / wife alienating insanity. Since it's breeding by traveling between sexual partners and it has a whole vast modern Montreal apartment complex to roam around in (each with a mail slot on the door), it's like one big crazy happening, just like we always thought went on up there in the Great White North once all us Americans left.

Spiked with livid, funny gross outs as the kidney things hop from mouth to-locked-in-willing-or-unwilling mouths, the film's a 'careful what you wish for' example of 70s singles swinging rather too successfully. It takes a good 20 minutes of endured ugliness (the color is all drained out --the cinematographer must have failed his lighting class) but once the two doctors get on the scene, and Lynn Lowry shows up as the nurse (Lynn you rock eternal!), and a thing crawls up Barbara Steele in the bathtub, well, things get great, I mean, Romero's CRAZIES-level great, which came out two years before SHIVERS and it's a film I think Cronenberg acknowledges as an inspiration by casting Lowry. Eventually the paltry budget and harsh lights even work to the film's advantage: the performances are deceptively brilliant, more and more so as the circumscribed roles are shed to reveal the true chthonic uncivilized wild savages we all are generally only in our deepest subconscious. And Cronenberg really gets what it's like to be inside 'the hot zone' of an outbreak, where just getting to a phone across the hall can take hours as one interruption and calamity builds on the next. Eventually the paltry budget and harsh lights even work to the film's advantage, giving it a flat 16mm instructional film feel (it really should be shown in every high school health class - teen pregnancy would drop off to zero).



There's only a few familiar faces in the cast, but the two doctors (Paul Hampton and Joe Silver) are cool--you believe they really are doctors (and admire the way the Hampton just shoots people willy nilly) and just might save the day up to a point--and the scene were Steele and Lowry hook up may curl your toes as it did mine. Other atrocities include incest, kids being led on leashes, elevator groping, rape/murders, homosexuality, all sorts of crazy orgy scenes and an eventual indoor pool party to rival the bathhouse open mic night in The Ritz. Still, the real scene stealer is the deep sultry breathing Susan Petrie as the concerned wife of patient zero (Allan Kolman -- a kind of a Sid Haig meets Jamie Gillis, i.e. perfect casting). There are lots of sick vignettes in addition to all that, as each apartment holds its own bizarre snapshot of Canadian nontraditional living. A real trendsetter, it made a lot of bread in the US under AIP as They Came From Within. And cinema as we know it would never be the same. If any film should be remade, and probably never will be, this is it. As Chris Rodley put it
"One experiences a tremulous sensation that suggests one might have reached the end of the unconscious. There it seems to be, thrown up on the screen in all its perverse and truly repulsive splendour, unmasked and unashamed." (40)
DETENTION
 (2011) Dir. Jospeh Kahn
***
Sharp wit and slashing rejoinders are not dead in this post-modern high school deconstruction comedy for the 'Twitter generation.' This hybrid of CLUELESS and SCREAM 2 proves itself the SCARY MOVIE for the smarter kids, zipping by in layers too fast for a single viewing (though in presuming repeat viewings it perhaps presumes too much). The presence of diminutive HUNGER GAMES "hunk" Josh Hutcherson should lure enough girls to at least give it a few hits, though, and tomboy Shanley Caswell is refreshingly wry as the 'second biggest loser at Grizzly High' with whom Josh has a long shared connection. But now she's upset that he's going out with the alpha hot chick Ione (Spencer Locke), angering her ex-boyfriend the big dumb jock Billy (Parker Bagley), who wants to fight Hutcherson but keeps erupting into FLY-like symptoms. See, he touched a meteorite as a child and spent most of his elementary school life with his hand in a television. You heard me!


I can see Godard and Antonioni loving this movie, especially the scene where the kids watch a bootleg copy of CINDERHELLA 4 while in detention to see how to survive their situation, resulting in the best screen-within-screen infinite chronosynclastic infindibulum meltdown since SPACEBALLS. Stunt casting includes Dane Cook as a dickhead principal and... no one else, but there's a time-traveling bear mascot and enough cheerleaders to make this a bizarro sister to the other semi-self aware Netflix high school horror comedy, Lucky McKee's ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE, and enough trans-dimensional portal usage to make it a callow tweaker cousin to JOHN DIES AT THE END. Writer/director Joseph Kahn's previous feature was 2004's TORQUE which I also liked a lot for its gonzo over-the-top deadpan in-on-its-own-joke dumbo comic product tie-in momentum.

MIMIC 2: HARDSHELL
 (2001) Dir.  Jean de Segonzac
***
Most direct-to-video sequels aren't worth a damn, but here's one with a cute redheaded badass high school etymology teacher (Alix Koromzay) navigating treacherous urban streets and fending off insect suitors by using sewing scissors as mandible talons to rend their exoskeletons in twain. Koromzay clearly decided to treat this like A-list material and the result is a great example of a director and star using producer indifference to wiggle past the patriarchal groupthink that sinks so many sequels before they start. Instead, Koromzay goes all out in depicting a super strong woman still so sexy she has a whole coterie of devoted, smitten inner city students with whom to hole up in the high school while giant insect mimics hunt them and a cabal of governmental agents seal off the building with plastic tarps. So what if there's a smudge of direct-to-video sequel cheapness? It's the ideal third or fourth entry of any all-night horror binge, one where your defenses are down and your pheromones are at peak between-shower pungency.

THE HOWLING 
(1981) Director: Joe Dante
***1/2

For my money this is the best lycanthrope study since WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1934), the one with Henry Hull and Warner Oland fighting over a Tibetan flower, not the one with David Naughton arguing with a decomposing Griffin Dunne in a Piccadilly cinema. Maybe I just don't care much for werewolves that get hung up on the letter of the law, like Landis' AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which came out the same year as HOWLING and there was much to-do in the press at the time about which make-up artist did the better transformation. Rick Baker is a genius, sure, but he and Landis makes Naughton's transformation unbearably agonizing, the moon inescapable, the beast itself a real wolf puppet on all fours--he takes it all way too literally. Joe Dante and Rob Bottin on the other hand know it's a goddamn metaphor so don't get hung up on the 'real' parameters. The HOWLING wolves move way beyond such hang ups, looming tall like monster gargoyles. Following in the shoes of Dante's patron saint, Roger Corman, HOWLING taps into the lupine side of 1970s sexual swinger and EST-ish energy, it's funny and scary and trashy and witty all at once, and then adds De Palma meta-refraction and audio mimesis procedural delirium, Carpenter ominousness, Cronenbergian clinical immediacy, and a plethora of great bit roles by folks like Dick Miller, John Sayles, Kenneth Tobey, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens Forrest Ackerman, and Corman himself (below, waiting for the phone).


The story grabs you from the start: pre-E.T. Dee Wallace smoldering gamely as a TV reporter / newswoman heading off to interview a possible serial killer at a downtown SF adult book store while her crew monitors her every move worriedly from the warm safety of the station, or tries to--but then they lose her signal. Some bad shit goes down before it's over and she ends up with amnesia prompting a pop culture therapist (Patrick Macnee) to send her to 'the Colony,' his Northern California Pacific beachfront encounter group, where patients/residents make beach bonfires and grill lots of meat. A combination of sinister swinging couples and shady locals, including John Carradine howls at the moon and Elizabeth Brooks is a major smokin' badass as the wolf mother elemental nymphomaniac who comes onto Dee's mustachioed husband (Dennis Dugan) after he's separated from his hunting party. You may find yourself questioning your loyalty to the non-lycanthropic human race when she cooks Dugan's shot rabbit. Later they get it on by the bonfire, the powers of desire and orgasm shifting and churning their inner wolves while Dee Wallace nightmares it up alone in their cabin.

Lifelong Dante fans are born in these weird moments, especially once the entwined lovers switch to animation.


Like Cronenberg's films of the same era, the sex and the horror entwine in deep Jungian-Freudian knots, and as I said, these werewolves aren't running on all fours or just a guy with some fur --they're freaking big, vicious, unstoppable killers who can regrow limbs. They're more like "skin-walkers" than than the traditional full moon brand, and far more interesting, and even scarier despite LONDON's smoother snout grow and superior overall make-up (HOWLING uses one too many inflatable gas bags under cracked latex--perils of HD).  But instead of all the dated too-on-the-nose "Moon" pop songs, HOWLING rocks a great moody Pino Donaggio score, almost none of the usual trite 'dismissal of the supernatural as poppycock' stuff, and no sudden unsatisfying ending or Peter Grant-style dream sequences. Instead there's prodigious use of the gorgeous misty old growth forest, Northern California coastline, and great womanly rapport between Dee Wallace and fellow Colony guest Margie Impert (and in the city, Belinda Belaski as her producer/assistant), the kind of maturely sexy sisterly rapport that just doesn't seem to exist in movies anymore, not since Mary Tyler Moore ended... for all of us. 

And--despite LONDON igniting my then-crush on Jenny Agutter--HOWLING is sexier. Brooks is like the creepy older sister of GIA-era Angelina Jolie, proving that--in late 70s/early 80s horror films--(unprotected) monster sex with a genuinely creepy carnivorous wolf lady could still be guilt-free. And even E.T's future mom Wallace displays a great carnal immediacy that enhances rather than detracts from her courageous intellect, non-bitchy authority, and (unfortunately poodle-like) nose for news. If she had more roles like this in horror--not mothers but sexually experienced competent professionals of the 70s encounter group liberated vein--she'd be a genre favorite unrivaled. If only these types of films kept on being made, and the cultural zeitgeist that spawned them still in action. But life goes on, or facsimile thereof. Even now... for all of us. Cut to commercial. 

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