Monday, March 26, 2012

Sleepwalking to the Sematary

Some old films this week, and a new-ish one ... just depended what we saw as we trawled one of the discount DVD websites.

First up is Pet Sematary, based on the Stephen King novel of course, and starring Dale Midkiff (who?) as Louis Creed and Denise Crosby (fresh from playing Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation) as his wife Rachel, who move into a house which backs onto a spooky graveyard where pets have been buried ... and beyond the graveyard and on top of the mountain is a further burial place, where what is buried comes back.

The film stands up pretty well all told, though Midkiff lacks the presence of, say, Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Crosby does a better job at keeping it together when first their cat, and then their son, Gage (Miko Hughes), is killed by one of the oil trucks which barrel past their front door at a rate of knots. Given that they know this is the case, we could not understand why they didn't put a fence up the moment they moved in - an obvious thing to do given that they had a toddler and that the trucks went past at all hours of the day and night.

Helped by friendly neighbour Jud Crandall (played by The Munsters' Fred Gwynne), Louis takes his son up to the old burial place, and seems surprised when he comes back as a murderous Chucky-like presence, killing first Jed, and then Rachel. Given that the cat was hardly pleasant following its resurrection, poor Louis really wasn't thinking straight at all. The ending is pretty neat, with some good and gruesome effects, and a somewhat bleak outlook.

Watch out for a cameo from Stephen King as the vicar at the burial of Gage as well - one of those moments to make you smile.

King also cameos in the next film, Sleepwalkers, another tale scripted by himself, but not, as far as I remember (and I know people will correct me) not ever released in prose form. This time we have Alice Krige and Brian Krause as mother and son - the Bradys - but they are really monstrous werewolf-like creatures who drain the blood from humans in order to survive and stay young. There's an insestuous relationship between the two also which is fairly eye opening but it's all handled very well.

Charles Brady targets young Tanya (Madchen Amick off of Twin Peaks) as his next meal, but plans are thwarted by Sherrif Ira and his cat Clovis (probably the star of the film!). For it seems that the monstrous Sleepwalkers are scared of cats, and that their scratch can make the beings steam and die.

It's interesting to note the use of CGI in the film in some of the transformations and effects. This is 1992, and I find myself wondering what the first commercial film that used CGI was (Wikipedia tells me it might be Westworld in 1973 which is interesting). Jurassic Park was 1993 ... so what is on show here is actually very basic for the time.

It's an enjoyable film, well made and well acted by all concerned. I enjoyed spotting not only King, but author and director Clive Barker (Hellraiser), and directors Joe Dante (Gremlins) and John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) in bit parts as well.  Certainly one worth revisiting.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a film that perhaps is overlooked in favour of Bram Stoker's Dracula, coming as it did a couple of years later. Where the Dracula remake had a stand-out performance from Gary Oldman as the Count, so Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has an impressive turn by director Kenneth Branagh as the misguided Victor, and Robert deNiro excells as the monster. DeNiro actually manages to steal most of his scenes, turning in a sensitive and very well judged performance.

Letting the side down a little is Helena Bonham-Carter as Elizabeth who overacts somewhat and has the most incredible rats' nest of a hairdo. She does better when transformed into the Bride at the end, just before the whole place goes up in the traditional flames.

I enjoyed the film a lot, and there is much to appreciate in it. It's something of a shame that it seems a little overshadowed by other fare of the time.

Finally, a more recent offering comes with Boo, a haunted hospital tale which manages to be quite creepy and scary. The idea is fairly basic - a group of teenagers decide to play around in a deserted hospital one halloween, not realising that it is actually haunted by a fairly vengeful ghost who wants to escape by taking over the bodies of the teens.

The effects are good, and the acting is passable though not wonderful. What stands out most is the location - we're certain we saw the same building in an episode of Dexter recently, and that it's been used elsewhere too. Somewhere like that is a total gift to a filmmaker, and if used well can really reap rewards. I'm reminded of Session 9, where they had a similarly brilliant location, but the film itself was somewhat disappointing.

What you have to do with this sort of film is put your brain on idle and just go with it. If you try and think too hard it all falls apart - like what was with the dog which gets skinned? What was the relevance of the necklace the lead girl was wearing? And why did the bodies melt and explode once they died?  It's something of a gorefest with people melting all over, and there are some nice chills of ghosts appearing unexpectedly. The film references Halloween and other great shockers, and I suppose was intended a an homage to them as well as being fun in its own right.

It's not as effective as, for example, Trick R Treat, but it does a lot better on the scares and makes more of the location than other films I have seen. Well worth looking out for a boozy night of horror.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Time, Goblins, Ghosts and Bandits

Four more films watched recently, and this time they're all pretty different from each other.

First off, a new science fiction movie which could be referred to as 'high concept'. In Time presents a scenario where the world has moved to using time as currency. Everyone has a digital clock imprinted in their arm at birth, which only starts ticking down once you reach the age of 25 ... and then you have only one more year to live, unless you can earn more time through working. People can give each other their time - clasping hands can transfer time from one to the other - and this doesn't have to be willingly done, allowing various lowlife scum and gangsters to steal time from others. You pay for everything through time taken off your counter, and if your counter reaches zero, then you just drop dead there and then.

This is quite a hard concept to get your head around, and raises all manner of ethical questions, but the best way to approach a film like this is just to go with the concept and not worry too much about it. And the film is certainly worth the effort. Justin Timberlake (yes, the pop singer bloke who once went out with Britney Spears) stars, and he is superb as Will Salis, a down on his luck worker in the poor district, who unexpectedly finds himself the recipient of 100 years donated by a wealthy man who commits suicide. Will decides to try and change the system, and travels to the wealthy quarter where he meets the daughter of a millionaire businessman. Together they try and stay alive while sharing time with those who need it ... but the government has this covered - as the poor become wealthier, so their taxes and costs increase so that relatively, they are in exactly the same position. It's how they control the masses, and ensure that the rich stay rich, and the poor die in poverty. Millionaires live forever, and they want to keep it that way.

It is nice to see Johnny Galecki (Leonard in The Big Bang Theory) in a very different role, and Amanda Seyfried as Sylvia Weiss, millionaire daughter is also very good - believable in the role of a girl who 'goes native' with Will and totally buys into his cause.

The effects are well done and believable and overall the film is really enjoyable and thought provoking as to how using time as currency might really work, and what the downsides might be. I think we may add this to our collection (this was a rental watch) as we'll want to see it again someday.

Next up is a new horror called Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. I didn't realise that this was based on a 1973 TV Movie of the same name, and doing a little research, it seems that the original film might be superior. The new one is produced and written by Guillermo del Toro because he saw the earlier film as a child and it made a big impact on him. Unfortunately putting Katie Holmes in as a lead is not a good idea as she comes over as wooden and unemotional throughout. Guy Pearce as the father does a little better, but the film is driven by the child, Bailee Madison as Sally. What is strange is that the film has a child lead, is pitched in part like a Disney feature with animated titles, and has a 15 certificate, but starts with a scene where a man trips a maid down some stairs and then uses a hammer and cold chisel in her mouth to knock out her teeth so that he can offer them to something which lives in a furnace in the cellar. The scene is hard to watch, and I had to look away when the chisel scraped across the girl's teeth as it's forced into her mouth ... hardly 15 year old fare I thought. Then at the end, when one of the characters is dragged into the furnace, we see (and hear) legs snapping backwards as they are bodily pulled in. I thought at first I had mis-seen this, but no, it is gruesome and gory and conceptially very nasty indeed.

But enough of my pondering on the acceptible age for someone to watch a film ... if I had my way, the Care Bears Movie would be Restricted for everyone! The plot follows this perfect family as they settle into the old pile they have bought to renovate. There is something nasty in the wainscotting though which turns out to be an unexplained infestation of little goblin creatures who are evil and vicious and who wield Stanley knives, razors and awls and attack people. They whisper about Sally joining them, and it seems they eat children's teeth as well ... they are excellently realised through CGI and are very creepy. Sally is initially quite taken with them (as she has no other friends and doesn't want to be in the house anyway) but soon realises that they are no good at all.

The film is enjoyable in a horror hokum sort of way, but eventually the characters start acting totally irrationally - your daughter has been attacked by what she claims are creatures in the house, she is crying and screaming, and you are also advised to get out of the house by someone else who was attacked ... so what do you do? Drug your daughter and take her back to the house to stay another night ... madness!

I also don't get the title at all. The creatures like the dark, and so if anything it should be Be Afraid Of the Dark ... or Don't Go In The Dark ... I cannot for the life of me see where Don't Be Afraid of the Dark comes from as that is exactly what you should be!

After a slew of goblins, next up are ghosts in The Awakening, an elegant ghost story in the tradition of The Devil's Backbone and The Orphanage, both of which it remixes into a tale of a boy's boarding school haunted by the spirit of one of the students. Enter intellectual and sceptic Florence Cathcart (played excellently by Rebecca Hall), who is encouraged to come and investigate a 'real' ghost by Robert Mallory (Dominic West). Overseeing the boys is Matron (Imelda Staunton), and Florence starts to figure out what is really going on - convinced that there are no real ghosts present and that the sightings and happenings are due to some human hand.

The film is very watchable, and the central performance from Hall is brilliant. There are a lot of touches which seem to come from other films - the snooker ball bouncing down the stairs echoes a similar moment with a child's ball in the 1980 George C Scott film The Changeling, and the aforementioned The Orphanage is recalled by the secret room behind the cupboard. The only scene which seems to make no sense in context is where Florence falls in the lake after losing her cigarette case and is rescued by Robert. The editing here is confusing - perhaps deliberately so - and the whole scene adds nothing to the narrative (save that the missing case strangely finds its way back to her room). The ending of the film is delightfully vague as to what has happened ... leaving it up to the viewer to decide.

I enjoyed it a lot. It has a style and approach which is excellently maintained, and the images of the screaming ghost boy are very well done and provide for some good jump scares. Certainly something to see if you like a more intelligent horror film.

The final film is a strange one. A Korean western called The Good The Bad The Weird. This stars Kang-ho Song (who played the priest in Thirst) as The Weird, a criminal who steals a treasure map. On his tail are The Good (Woo-sung Jung) - a bounty hunter out for the money on the Weird's head - and The Bad (Byung-hun Lee) - a brilliantly vicious and intense performance and probably the best in the film. The movie is certainly action packed, from a fight on a moving train, through various traders markets, and ending with a very lengthy chase across a desert with cavalry, bandits, and assorted others all on horses and motor bikes and cars with guns and arrows and mortars and machine guns, all firing at each other as they race across miles and miles of desert for what seems like hours. This section is certainly impressive but goes on way too long.

Overall it's a cinematic experience which mixes action/adventure with a Korean flavour and is fast and furious with the action. I liked the characters and the way they interact, plus the cinematography and the lighting design - very different from a Hollywood film. Definitely one to seek out.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Welcome to Twin Peaks

We recently watched the whole of the 1990-1991 Twin Peaks series from David Lynch and Mark Frost, including the 1992 film Fire Walk With Me at the end ... I had sort-of enjoyed the show when it was first aired, but remembered feeling at the time that it lost its way, and so I was interested to see how a proper re-watch would pan out. Sam had not seen it at all, only catching a couple of episodes on the initial run, so again she was intrigued by the whole idea and looking forward to watching it.

For those who haven't seen it, the show was basically a weekly soap opera, but one where there was an undercurrent of supernatural happenings throughout. There are a great many characters (, and the show jumps from the stories of one to the other to the other. Sometimes characters will go weeks without appearing, sometimes they get just one scene as the show concentrates on someone elses' story for a time. If you're interested in a full rundown of the plot and other details then have a look here:

For our re-watch, I decided to take notes, episode by episode, to try and remember some of the key elements as they happened ... the show is so detailed and complex, that to try and rely on memory alone would be near impossible. Be warned that some of this blog might not make total sense to anyone who has no idea what Twin Peaks was all about ... but to try and explain it all would take far longer than I have to write about it!

First off, I was surprised that Killer Bob actually makes an appearance in the very first episode! I had thought that this revelation would be kept back, but no, there he is ... The strangeness continues with Agent Cooper's dream at the end of episode two ... and this starts to suggest at the themes that will be explored as the series unfolds.

The show seems to be about the death of Laura Palmer, found wrapped in plastic on the shore of the local river. Who killed her and why forms the core of the initial set of episodes, and they are gripping and interesting as Cooper, an FBI agent brought in to investigate as there have been some similar killings elsewhere, gets to grips with the townsfolk of Twin Peaks, all of whom have secrets of their own which they do not wish to be made public. Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, is a brilliant character, watchable and interesting, and he forms the lynchpin (excuse the pun) to the series.

Episode 8 has a different title sequence, and is longer than all the others at 130 minutes according to my DVD timer but 90 mins apparently (the rest are around 45 minutes). I guess this is because the episode opened Season Two of the show, but watching them back to back you get little evidence of this. The previous episode ends with Cooper being shot, which seems in reflection to be a 'season ending' act ...

Things ramp up and up as the series progresses, until episode 13, where we learn that 'Bob', the apparent killer of Laura, is a spirit which can inhabit a human body and control it. The 'Bob' spirit was a familar to 'Mike', which inhabits the body of the one-armed man, in order to help Cooper track down his former familiar and stop him. The question is, though, who did 'Bob' inhabit to kill Laura.

In the next episode, we learn the truth as Leland Palmer, Laura's father, brutally kills Maddy, Laura's cousin who looks just like her (and is played by the same actress). This is an incredible sequence, brutal and far above the somewhat cosy soap-opera trappings of the series. It brings you up short and leaves you desperate to find out more.

Episode 16 sees Leland brought to justice, but 'Bob' makes him dash his brains out in the cell ... leaving him dead, and Bob still on the loose. It's a brilliant end to the 'Laura Palmer' sequence of episodes and investigation.

Episode 17 picks up three days later as Leland is cremated. Unfortunately from this point onwards, the show really loses its impetus and drifts for episodes at a time, seemingly going nowhere. The episode feels directionless and marking time. Several plots drift on - the whole Nadine regressing to a teenager one feels like they didn't know what to do with that character, and we see the start of another pointless subplot where James is chatted up by a married blonde in a bar leading to another murder conspiracy in later episodes.

The series now goes into freefall, and apparently was losing viewers all the time. Which is not really surprising as the whole show had been about 'Who Killed Laura Palmer' and once you know ... it's all over. Apparently Lynch and Frost never wanted to reveal the answer - but I feel that too would have been a big mistake, leading to the show dragging on when all people wanted were answers. In a way, this is what happened to The X-Files ... continuing way past the point that it should have provided some closure and answers as to what was happening. Ideally, Lynch and Frost should have picked up the interesting 'Bob and Mike' plot, along with the Black and White Lodges, the backwards talking midget, the giant and the ancient man, and developed that, but instead that whole element is allowed to drift, backgrounded against the more petty and human concerns of the other characters. Windom Earle, Cooper's ex-partner, comes in as a new psychopath (they didn't really need him as they already had one body-hopping psycho) and starts killing more people in inventive Doctor Phibes-esque ways.

By episode 23, Josie Packard, who had started out as a strong businesswoman trying to keep the lumber mill alive, has become a weak subserviant nothing - completely unworked for and out of character with how she started out. Again, it's like they didn't know what to do with her. She ends up being killed, while Cooper again sees dwarfs and Bob, and inexplicably, her face then screams from a wooden drawer knob beside her bed!  This point is only returned to once (when someone seems to be talking to the walls of the hotel as he thinks she is trapped in the wood there) but is never developed or explained further.

The final episode at least attempts to draw some sort of closure to some of the characters' lives. It ends with Cooper having a nightmare chase through the red-curtained rooms of the Black Lodge, being confronted by visions, and having to bargain for Annie's life (a waitress he met and fell in love with during the latter episodes). When Cooper emerges, what we see in the mirror is Bob - Cooper has been inhabited by the parasitic creature. Cooper smashes his head against the mirror ...

Overall, the show has, I think, to sadly be judged a failure. Mainly because it seems apparent that Lynch and Frost really didn't know where to go with it once the initial Laura plot had played out. However, if you just watch the first 16 episodes, and then the final episode for the closure, then it is probably one of the finest pieces of supernatural television you will experience.

I love how it blindsides you all the time, presenting apparent clues and motivations which have no bearing on anything, how everyone is wearing a mask - no-one is quite who they appear to be - and this feeds into the underlying plot about body-hopping murderous parasites from another place. Watch out for David Duchovny (from The X-Files) playing a transvestite FBI agent, singer David Bowie in a cameo role, David Warner as Thomas Eckhardt later in the show and David Lynch himself as Cooper's deaf boss. Nothing quite like that had ever been done on television to that scale before, and I doubt ever will again.

It's easy to see why Twin Peaks gripped everyone on its first transmission ... the narrative is compelling and you want to watch next week to see how it develops. It's also easy to see why it lost audiences and was eventually cancelled - too much incidental prevarication, and not enough strong control of the overall themes and plot for people to be able to continue to connect and hook into it.

Watching the Fire Walk With Me film after seeing the series is an interesting experience. The film basically fills in a lot of what we already knew from the series - it's the final days of homecoming queen Laura Palmer - a butter-wouldn't-melt perfect girl to the world, but a drug-using, sexual predator to her close friends. It seems that Leland had been abusing her for years (or was it Bob?) until he finally kills her in a disused train carriage and dumps her body in the river ... it's not a great film to watch if you don't know the series, and doesn't add much to what the series has already revealed, but it's well made and entertaining.

I must give a final note to the music and title sequence. I loved the music from the moment I first heard it, and Angelo Badalamenti's score is still superb today. It's distinctive and really adds much to the cult feel of the show. Likewise the titles, which start with a varied thrush and then show the sawblades in the lumber mill working, and then shots of the scenery around Twin Peaks, the town sign, the mountains, waterfall and river. They are totally at odds with what the show was all about, and lead you into a false sense of calm before the storms which will unfold.

I'm glad we watched the series through, and as I say, it's certainly worth doing if you're a fan of supernatural and cult television ... just be warned about the latter half!