Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, April 21, 2016


The woods --alternately intriguing and tired, a 'free' way to draw value from trees that's less damaging than clear-cutting. Shit in the woods = archaic. Lost in the woods = easy to happen. Conclusion: shit in the woods and only the bears hear it. I got lost just trying to get across the upper wild swaths of Central Park NYC once, which if you've been up there you know how creepy and forlorn it can get, and how fast; I wound up going in a big ass circle. Nothing more heartbreaking than walking ever more quickly with a mild panic generating in your stomach only to find you're right back where you started, still no one in sight, except some snooty squirrel that stands there staring, mocking you. Blair Witch Project is still the high benchmark for that kind of unease. Those kids might have literally been a mere half mile from a highway and never known it. That's the real maddening reason why the woods unnerve us. Once we lose our compass and orientation, we're fucked.

(2002) Dir. Neil Marshall

You think it's easy to be a straight white male, age 11-55, when it comes to movies, TV, and commercials? Watching a movie on Syfy like Underworld: Awakening for the 100th time, and still not liking it, but sticking with it because it quenches some weird fanboy desire for monsters, sex, violence and car crashes, a need catered to with pandering directness, punctuated with bro-demo-angling commercials for fantasy football gambling sites and chips flavored to taste like bacon. And then the movie itself, Kate Beckinsale all smokin' crystal blue eyes in a skin tight leather catsuit wielding twin .45 automatics. It's all for us, for our stunted adolescent minds. It's pathetic how we slobber for it no matter how much our higher self sighs in disdain.

Neil Marshall hopes for better. His first feature is the Hawksian darkly comic male group camaraderie version of his later, better-known female camaraderie DESCENT (2003): it's a gory, riveting, terse but slightly cheeky werewolves vs. British infantry squad on maneuvers tale, a kind of SOUTHERN COMFORT meets the first 1/4 of AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but like THE DESCENT it ends with an all-out stay alive brawl, dwindling down the numbers, until only the true toughies remain. The cast is great though, while they last, especially the cool-in-a-crisis, Max von Sydow-esque Pvt. Cooper (Kevin McKidd) and the bullet-headed badass Sgt. Harry Wells (Sean Pertwee, who's like parts of Michael Caine, Jason Statham, and Bob Hoskins bolted together with oily lug nuts). Their manly rapport and gives the film an adrenalin savagery-switchpoint boost where survival instinct ("three-round bursts!"), Hawksian dark comedy and group dynamics, and focused aggression provide an outside-the-box form of survivalist enlightenment that overflows the boundaries of both the werewolf and survival-behind-the-lines genre parameters. There's some choice dialogue ("I hope I give you the shits, you wimp!"), fast, tight, believably rehearsed acting, a group who've clearly trained together, as actors not just characters, talking in natural, overlapping dialogue. There's even a Hawksian woman (Emma Cleasby - top), a local who takes the boys to the rustic soon-besieged cabin--she'd be right at home in THE DESCENT and it's great to see a strong woman rescue a squad of men rather than the reverse.

Mark Thomas's orchestral theme is mostly good though gets a little to bouncy for horror, like he's on some PG-13 tip; in its better parts it's remarkably like David Julyan's in THE DESCENT... if that's a Marshall leitmotif he really needs to hear all the great retro-analog synth stuff being done these days; it's like pulling teeth to get Julyan to use Carpenterian synths Marshall's DESCENT follow-up, the underrated and very Carpenterian DOOMSDAY.with one cool girl in their midst and an ability to be blackly comic without sacrificing terse vivid something-at-stake realness, and the (pre-CGI) werewolves are perhaps the coolest in the genre. And considering the shoddy treatment of dogs in horror films, I thought I should mention that the shifty Ian Holm-in-Alien MI-6 guy (Liam Cunningham) who tries to make Cooper shoot a dog to toughen him up in the intro (and kicks Cooper out of his elite squad when he won't) gets his canine comeuppance and the thick old growth of mountainous Luxembourg (filling in for Northern Scotland) makes ideal territory, the sun ever setting behind thick moorish rainclouds, Marshall's camera swooping around with gritty 16mm (blown up to 35mm) washed-out low-light immediacy that evokes early films by Cronenberg, Stanley, Craven, Raimi, Barker, and Romero.

(1980) Dir. Graydon Clark

There's a few things we need to get straight right now: I know this post is collecting cool woodsy horror flicks but this film's woods--supposedly dark and deep and full of hunters--looks like the scrub where all the cheap LA cop shows film. Yet. they hold not only bivouacking cub scouts led by a Patton-paraphrasing scoutmaster Larry Storch, necking teens, a greasy Cameron Mitchell using a very anachronistic blue collar Brooklyn goomba accent while trying to make a grouse-killer of his pacifist son, and a pre-Pedator alien who's been hunting way over his legal limit. If you watch Final Terror (reviewed below)--with its great old growth and beautiful stark photography--in the same sitting, right before this, the thoroughly second rate look of Without Warning can be a tough adjustment. Carpenter cameraman Dean Cundey does knocks out a nice magic hour and the occasional Steadicam fleeing (and alien bat shuriken POV), but couldn't they at least get a permit to shoot at Bronson Canyon like everybody else? And while David Caruso is one of the early-killed teens (during in a "lagoon" lower right) his death is mostly off camera for some moronic reason. As if hard-pressed for a 'moral' the script includes enough anti-hunting oratory to count as passive-aggressive snot flicked at someone's conservative NRA father, even if the landscape looks like all it might yield is a stray golf ball.

But hey, top drawer B-list stalwarts like Ralph Meeker and Martin Landau hang loose at the requisite bar of colorful drunk and eccentric locals who refuse to believe the outlandish story of our frantic college boy hero and--miracle of miracles!--Jack Palance rocking every moment he can grab a big game hunting gas station herald who sees hunting the alien who's hunting them as a great chance at an Most-er Dangerous Game. And while both Meeker and Landau ham things up something awful, Palance is in his B-list element and the local watering hole sanctuary--that beloved standard for gathering together some theory-spinning shot-faced local extras and character actors to gape at, then blame, then help some freaked-out young couple. stretching back to THE BIRDS--is so vividly rendered you can smell the blend of musty naugahyde, stale cigarettes, stale beer and a moldy radiator. Sweet bra

No ginger shall get it on in a beautiful pond and live! 
So that shit's all good, the alien too, is great, but there's one real liability (or strength depending on your frame of mind) and it's the lead actor, Christopher S. Nelson in the lead. Good god he makes Zach Galligan seem like Humphrey Bogart. One can imagine an acting teacher showing this film as an example of "What Not to Do" --too bad, cuz he's his own worst enemy. Time and again he'll fall into the swing of a scene almost by chance, helped along by the skill of the good actors around him--he'll just 'be' in the scene and not consciously trying to remember his lines---then you see the thought cross his eyes, "whoops I'm on camera," and with a sudden frenetic lurch he starts 'acting.' It works when he's supposed to be wildly unsteady, hysterical with fear, laughing maniacally when the windshield wipers knock off the squid-shuriken, or paralyzed by nervous confusion; he does a good job spinning paranoid tale of world domination to stall paranoid psycho Landau who by then is ready to shoot him for being a pod person, but in other parts it seems more like he's auditioning for a student film. He's very pretty though, and I used to have his same hair, and really isn't doing that much better than Landua as far as believable consistency. Good thing there's Palance and a stock of good character actors in the bar, like old Neville Brand, and Ralph Meeker who by then was quite comfortable doing sheriff parts in TV or anything else he could get. Gotta love the late 70s-early 80s. for nearly every old star could still get work guest as expository landlords on TV movies or old timer sheriffs on cop shows (as long as they weren't too proud--in Dinner at Eight parlance--to play the beachcomber)

Final girl Tarah Nutter rocks cute braids (above) but her character is such a useless cringing liberal you'll want to slap her with an NRA button 
Still, how bad can it be? Things really pick up in the last few reels, even if it never quite gets to its feet. The idea that Invasion of the Body Snatchers-meets-Red Dawn 'nam paranoia would turn Landau into a second threat ("Sarge, you are not in the army no more." shouts the barkeep) is pretty original, as far as it goes. Too bad the posters show off the alien right off the bat. quashing the big reveal for first timers. Imagine how much less Alien would rock if they put a big pic of him on the poster, instead of that egg! Ridley Scott never would have stood for that. Yeah this ain't Alien or even Predator, but if you've seen Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster as many times as I have, you may appreciate its destitute 'makes Corman seem like Coppola' delusions. Many of my fellow writers saw it and loved it as kids when it played over and over on late night cable. I never saw it back then.

But I can pretend.

(1983) Dir. Andrew Davis

If, to savor its Corman-like deadpan self-aware humor and adherence to a beloved formula. you need to let go of any sense of atmosphere, coherence, or quality, it's just the opposite with Andrew Davis's The Final Terror. Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) not only directs, he does the cinematography so there's a total harmony between atmosphere and actors one rarely sees outside, say, John Boorman.

It’s the tale of a camping trip up in the wilds of Northern California--some park rangers rafting with their girlfriends for a week of freedom from parental restrictions (sleeping bag fornication unfettered) that turns mighty violent, with the chief suspect being a religiously uptight local boy played with the usual zest by Joe Pantoliano. I can't spoil the events further except to note that the real modus operandi here seems to be that no slasher or slashers can stand a chance even in their home woods if some of them have been in combat and/or basic training.

And what a cast! Future stars (Rachel Ward, Daryl Hannah) mix with eerily familiar faces like Lewis "Perfect Tommy" Smith, and Mark "Is that a pledge pin? On your uniform?!!" Metcalf. But the real stand-out, is someone named John Friedrich, who avails himself of too many psilocybe cubensis mushrooms during the gang's terrorized odyssey, and goes a little deranged--oscillating between being their savior and biggest liability (evoking Harold Wayne Jones in THE CRAZIES, and almost no one else since--those two guys broke the mold!). I don’t want to give too much away, but you know that, queasy feminist that I am, if I can enjoy a film in this disreputable subgenre it’s because there’s no sexual assaults, unnecessary cruelty, terrible gore effects, or shitty dialogue. And this does not have those things... in spades. If it has little else either, hey, the old growth woods look literally dark and deep, and the skulking killer's camouflage leaf jacket blends so well into the surrounding vegetation it’s startling when a filthy hand emerges from it to smooth a sleeping girl's hair, and Susan Justin’s weird piano and atonal synth score hits the right notes every time, almost always.

(2015) Dir Corin Hardy

Irish horror is booming these days: drawing on their national arts funding, their eerie emerald-colored landscape (often enhanced with green tints and filters), and their dark Celtic folk tales to compensate for small casts and the washed-out quality of HD video. THE HALLOWS is a prime example, a notch above the rest thanks to powerhouse acting of its two leads (Bojana Novakovic and Joseph Mawle) playing new parents moving into a woebegone house at the edge of a foreboding forest. The locals tell the dad--a state-funded botanist there for research on tree blight--not to wander too deep off the path, and to take nothing he finds home with him, but he needs samples. But who believes auld legends these days? Only the spooked locals with their alleged ignorant tradition. So the wife takes all the weird iron bars off from around the windows to let in what passes for sunshine in Ireland; dad finds, as you might imagine, some mighty strange things to bring home. Soon they're besieged by an array of Irish faerie lore tricks--swapping out human babies with weird changelings, raising the human kids in the woods (like the changeling in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM so coveted by Oberon) and so forth. Though I don't think Oberon would want one of these creepy things. Too mossy.

They said not to go into those damn woods, ya bómán! Ye auld Leathcheann! 

The feature debut of Corin Hardy. THE HALLOW is not quite the resounding announcement of 'I am here, I am now!' horror genius we got with Jennifer Kent's BABADOOK or Robert Egger's THE WITCH or David Robert Mitchell's IT FOLLOWS, but it's only one tier down instead of the usual six. The monsters are interesting fusions of trees and people (like the 1951 THING coupled to the hyper-evolutionary mutation ability in the remake), and the idea of the changeling is very subtle and creepily represented, as Clare must decide if it's her infanticidal husband (mutating from woodland fairy venom infection) or the baby (which she dredged up from the bottom of the lake) who's still 'real.'

Despite semi-strange interludes toward the end (which decency forbids me to explain) everything is fairly believable and all fast moving in the kind of tight kinetic 'all in a single long late afternoon-through-to-dawn' (tick-tock) momentum that is the key to effective horror. You might come away only mildly plussed when all's said and done but I know I didn't get up to refill my drink or have a slash once during the whole 90-minute running-time --and that's unusual. The lighting is moody, the woods mysterious, dark, and deep, and the acting terrific - I mean Novakovic and Mawle are committed, and at times should be, institutionally-speaking. They're more terrifying than the monsters crawling through their vents, and their veins, and vice versa.

And like all the films discussed here, the woods are a major element --psychologically and diegetically. There's no gibbering rapists, claustrophobic abductions or sadistic cruelty, all which I'm bloody sick of. I like my horror to be supernatural and trading on deep unconscious drives rather than brutal true crime torture porn. Our world is bad enough on its own! No wonder the trees want to leave. But in Ireland, aye, the trees seem to be coming back at last... le bhfeice!

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