Thursday, October 31, 2013

The 2013 Horror Digest, Part 3: The Killer Inside Me

I was really busy this week and I only wrote four entries instead of the typical five. I'm sure you are all beside yourselves about it. If you're curious, the omitted film was World War Z, which is probably my favorite blockbuster of the year. Who would have thought?

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane will probably be remembered more for its nightmarish release history than its content, a seven-year cautionary tale that catches Bob Weinstein in one of his more tone-deaf moments. Unshackled from the horror trends of 2006, a year glutted with remakes, sequels, and cheap torture flicks, Mandy Lane was cursed with a negative box office prognosis and bounced from studio to studio until the Weinsteins inexplicably purchased it again in 2013. That the film went on to double its budget in a limited international release may be a result of this sensationalized hype, but wouldn't it be nice if we could shelve the drama and give credit where credit is due? Mandy Lane, directed by the same Jonathan Levine behind this year's Warm Bodies, is a stylish and intelligent teen slasher sensibly rooted in the insecurities of its youthful cast. Mandy Lane (Amber Heard, better here than ever) is a stunning high schooler routinely hounded by boys, one of whom dies trying to impress her. Her enigmatic charm tarnished, she becomes something of a recluse, breaking out of her shell only long enough to attend a remote countryside party with a few acquaintances. As horror dictates, most of these teenagers are raging assholes, but Mandy Lane is sensitive enough not to fully place the blame on them. Their maladaptive behavior is instead shown as an extension of their self-hatred, manifested through body image issues and challenged masculinity; the film at large is a treatise on the corruptive influence of sexuality, and how complex the lives of the young grow when conscious attraction is introduced to them. Levine's emphasis on failed flirtation and body-shaming creates an embarrassed, uncomfortable atmosphere, one that the film only escapes during the moments where the gang forgets their sexual agendas and just has fun. The script is pitched a bit feverishly so as to facilitate the horror elements, which has led to reviews decrying its generic nature, most of them ignorant of the fact that this is a genre film and thus created in service of the aforementioned elements. It would be a different story if the ideas were stale (which they're not, as few teen horrors have such capably explored empathy for their victims) or if the execution was botched (which it wasn't - the movie looks gorgeous and the kills are solid). In their defense, Mandy Lane's greatest failing is that it can't fully reconcile the medium and the message, most noticeable in its clever but wobbly ending. Levine more than acquits himself with excellent craftsmanship, a talented cast, and the best damn soundtrack I've heard from the genre in years. Where else are you going to get a spread like Peaches, Beethoven, "Sister Golden Hair," and this lovely Bobby Vinton cut? Cool in 2006, cool in 2013. B+


Oh, Elijah. On the list of Hollywood actors I'd choose to play an Oedipally motivated lady-scalper, he wouldn't even make the top hundred. His one tool for conveying serial killer intensity - those beautiful, piercing baby blues - are nullified by both Maniac's POV filming approach and his fey, unthreatening voice. We hear from Wood much more often than we see him, and though he attempts a sinister affect through low volume and minimal dialogue, the illusion ranges from "halfway convincing" to, in a few shrieking melodramatic moments, "nonexistent." Director Franck Khalfoun's decision to lock us into his perspective, likewise, has its occasional successes. As far as unflinching brutality goes, being forced to watch someone have their skin peeled from their skull or be stabbed repeatedly is hard to beat. But again, the technique is confounded by a lack of consistency, since any scene where a pretty lady isn't being mutilated is edited haphazardly. Despite assuming his point of view, we jump around through time and space with him as if trapped in a conventionally filmed movie, which causes much of the tension to dissipate. This is probably an intentional effort toward disguising how lifeless and empty the setpieces are; simulating the effect of Wood strolling through them at a murderous trot would result in some boring sustained shots. Unfortunately, you can't miss the improbably deserted streets of what is supposed to be Los Angeles, nor can you ignore each victim's unsettling tendency to make the worst choices possible for themselves (leave populated areas while fleeing their assailant, run into enclosed spaces, and so on). Maniac is just sloppy, and it's not even an appealing kind of sloppy, the kind you can find in spades in the original 1980 Maniac. Joe Spinell, as the titular scalper, gave one of the most stomach-turning performances of the decade in a movie that is so unrelentingly grimy that you feel guilty for watching it. There's no such mania to be found in the casting of a handsome little creampuff like Wood, or the fastidiously arranged settings, or even the repeated flashbacks to Wood's naughty mommy as an (over)explanation for his behavior. Controlled to a fault, Maniac offers a few squeamish thrills, but fails to really disturb. (Also: "Goodbye Horses"? Really? It's only been two decades, you can't steal another film's thunder like that.) C


Hot on the heels of 2012's underground hit V/H/S, V/H/S/2 doesn't explore any particularly new ground. It's a found-footage horror anthology bound together by a cryptic frame story. The talent is mostly new, save for series mainstay Adam Wingard, and their credentials are impressive: Gareth Evans directed last year's excellent The Raid: Redemption, Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale brought us The Blair Witch Project, and Jason Eisener was responsible for well-loved cult grindhouse flick Hobo with a Shotgun. Unlike V/H/S, each entry here is worth watching, with even the shakiest of the shorts holding up well (Wingard's Phase 1 Clinical Trials), and the strongest hitting nightmarish highs that its predecessor never quite managed to (Evans' Safe Haven, pictured above). The filmmakers also deserve commendation for improving the roles for and treatment of women compared to the franchise's last iteration, although the tits-to-abs ratio still doesn't quite even out. Unfortunately, the big problem with V/H/S/2 rests in its lack of novelty. V/H/S was singularly illicit, a series of semi-coherent horror stories filmed with obsolete equipment and slapped together on a tape that actually feels like it was never meant to be seen. It did a phenomenal job of matching the subject matter to its presentation, positioning itself as a mysterious artifact that you could very well find in your own basement. V/H/S/2 focuses less on the experience and more on the actual shorts, which is satisfying in the moment, but the sensation of discovery fades away almost completely. These four stories do away with the original's conceit of being filmed on subpar technologies, so what you're seeing doesn't actually convince as a VHS recording; the films look better than they're supposed to, which is an odd thing to complain about, but there it is. There's an attempt to mythologize the tapes, as presented through a poorly-acted and frankly lame connective tissue, and though it flamed out toward the end of the first film, it plays like filler all the way through here. It may be that V/H/S captured lightning in a bottle and any future entries in this franchise will be met with diminishing returns, or it may be that the creative talent here simply lost sight of what made the first film so special. Still worth watching, in any event. B-/C+

Dracula 3D

Dario Argento, number 1 horror heartbreaker. Whether he lost his gift or never really had it is a debate for another day, but there's a universal consensus that the man making films for the last twenty years couldn't dream of recreating what we saw from him in the 70s and 80s. Dracula 3D is a step in an unprecedented direction for Argento, though: at the age of 73, he seems to have finally accepted his myriad failures and advanced toward the hazardous terrain of self-parody. This pan-European production, an "adaptation" of Bram Stoker's novel, is cheap garbage from start to finish, featuring terrible sound mixing and a reliance on CGI that's unusual for a director that has typically avoided it. And when it looks as unconvincing as it does here, the unusual circumstances under which it's used - simple moments like a cut on a man's arm, or a fly buzzing across the screen for no reason - urge the question of why he needed it so frequently in the first place. Overworked prosthetics artists? Post-production woes? It probably just comes down to the simple fact that Argento has completely forgotten how to direct. The same atrocious blocking and actor direction that plagued Mother of Tears has returned in full force here, and combined with hideous lighting and a plot done no favors by graceless editing, the production values make this a frequently difficult watch. The one check in Dracula 3D's column, and a pretty big one at that, is that in flickering moments it is FUN. This is something that Argento hasn't been able to claim with any of this century's efforts, and much more than Mother of Tears or especially Giallo, Dracula 3D is a heaping helping of Italian horror for better or worse. From the goofy, bizarrely inflected English dialogue to the inexplicably broad and seemingly random range of magic at play, this at least bears his auteurial stamp if not his increasingly distant talent. There are even some images here that, in a better-looking movie, would have been quite striking (among them the much-maligned killer praying mantis). Asia Argento, herself a waning force as of late, has a short-lived but delicious turn as a vampire that personifies the movie at its best: still totally crappy, but at least able to let its hair down and invite laughter. It's probably overlong and too slow in passages for bad movie sanctification, but this goofy take on vampire eroticism and spontaneous decapitation is bound to tickle some funnybones. C

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