Archive for category Hidden Gems
Remember when you were a kid browsing the aisles at your local video store? There were always certain titles you’d see but for some reason never rent. The VHS box would always stick out amongst the clutter and you’d take note of it but inevitably move on to something else without investigating. For me, one of these movies was 1987′s Dolls with its cover featuring a female doll holding her own eyeballs in her hands. A bit of her plastic face has been scraped away to reveal her teeth and jawbone. It’s simple and understated yet the design always drew my eye. I think I passed on renting it because I had been previously been traumatized by Child’s Play and R.L. Stein’s “Night of The Living Dummy” book. And, like many of you, my local video store closed (burned to the ground actually) so I forgot all about Dolls and dozens of other titles.
So, last week when it popped up on my Netflix Instant recommendations, I had to check it out. Of course, I was expecting the worst given that in my experience good covers often try to make up for a terrible horror film. But that’s fine. I’m always up for some campy trash.
Dolls starts when as a family drives down a dirt road presumably somewhere in England. We learn that the little girl in the backseat is the husband’s child from a previous marriage and that he and his new wife are not pleased to have her along on their vacation. As she later points out, they “could be in Monte Carlo if it wasn’t for the twerp.” Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Bower are just lovely people. Soon enough it starts pouring and the trio get their tire stuck in a mud hole, forcing them to abandon it and try to find shelter at the only nearby house. As they make their way to the house, Judy, the daughter, lags behind with her teddy bear. This doesn’t sit well with Mrs. Bower so she rips the bear out of 6-year-old Judy’s arms and chucks it into the woods. This (along with others) insanely over-the-top attempt to make you hate the Bowers is actually one of the main reasons Dolls succeeds. By playing up extremes and completely unbelievable character developments for obvious comedic effect, the film rides the horror/comedy border quite well.
Right when you’re shaking your head and laughing at Mrs. Bower’s unbelievable lack of compassion, Dolls hits you with another unexpectedly awesome scene. As Judy stares at the woods where her evil stepmother threw her beloved bear, she starts to hear the leaves and brush rustle. Out of nowhere, a gigantic teddy bear comes walking out of the woods and violently maims Mr. and Mrs. Bower as Judy dares peeking while covering her eyes. After dispatching the couple, the bear looks at the camera and gives a hysterical shrug with it’s arms out. Of course, it is revealed that this is Judy’s psychotic overactive imagination at work and the family continues on its way toward the creepy house. So, at this point you’re probably wondering what the hell this all has to do with dolls. Well, I’m getting to that, OK? I’m in a rambling mood.
After no one answers the front door, the Bowers decide that entering an open cellar door is smart and the three find themselves in a dark basement. As they attempt to navigate the crowded room, Judy sees a creepy set of yellow eyes in the corner, panics, and causes her father to knock over a bunch of boxes. This alerts the homeowners, Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke, an old couple who seem to spend most of their time trying to look like they’re participating in a Revolutionary War reenactment. After some shotgun pointing, Gabriel invites the Bowers to spend the evening and he leads them to the kitchen for some soup. Judy, in her unending curiosity, wanders off and discovers a room full of dolls (see? I told you there were dolls) and then hears some strange whispering coming from a locked door. One doll’s face smiles just as she leaves the room. As it turns out, Gabriel is a doll maker.
Before long, the storm brings Ralph, a chubby childlike man, and two insanely obnoxious can’t-wait-for-them-to-die British punk girls to the house seeking shelter. When everyone retires to their respective rooms, we learn more about our characters. The already loathsome Bowers are planning on shipping Judy back to her biological mother in Boston so they can have fun, the British girls are planning to rob Ralph and pilfer as many valuables from the house as possible, and Ralph is really just a child with a love for toys in a man’s body.
After everyone settles in, the blond girl makes her way into a parlor type room where she begins to steal the Hartwickes’ antique possessions. Of course, the room is loaded with Gabriel’s creepy dolls, all of which have strangely realistic veiny eyes. In typical jaded horror bimbo fashion, she doesn’t get spooked when a music box keeps reopening even after she closes it. A bit cliche at this point, but it’s a well-executed bit of suspense. We know it’s coming, but when the dolls drag her to the floor and repeatedly smash her face against the wall, the scene is a satisfying mix of gore and comedy.
Judy, who has gotten up for a drink of water, finds the girl lying bloodied in the hallway and witnesses the dolls drag her away. Naturally, the compassionate adults she’s with don’t believe her story so she confides in Ralph who agrees to investigate and the two find a trail of blood leading to the attic. I won’t ruin it, but what is hiding in plain sight in the attic is probably the film’s creepiest image and it’s even creepier upon second viewing when you know where to look for it before a flash of lightning clues you in. On their way out of the attic, Ralph trips over some inconveniently placed (and giggling) dolls and falls down the stairs, getting some blood on his hands in the process.
Ultimately, Ralph gets blamed by the Bowers for killing the girl and scaring Judy. Mr. Bower goes on a violent tirade to protect his daughter even though it’s made abundantly clear he doesn’t give a shit about her. Judy and Ralph escape to elsewhere in the house while Mr. Bower stalks them and the dolls stalk him and the other house guests. This whole time, the Hartwickes are suspiciously absent. The rest of Dolls follows the guests as they get dispatched and as Judy, Ralph, and Mr. Bower come to learn the house’s secrets. The gore and kills are creative, violent, and maintain the film’s humorous undertones.
All in all, Dolls is a highly underappreciated b-horror film that actually led the way for many of its more popular contemporaries. I found it much creepier, wittier, and interesting than the often revered (and overrated) Puppet Master which came out two years later. Mr. Punch, the doll Gabriel gives to Judy, could be looked at as an inspiration for Child’s Play though he doesn’t have the fully developed personality that Chucky does. If you’re a fan of Puppet Master II, you’ll notice that Mr. Punch is sitting on the top shelf of Andre Toulon’s cabinet in his workshop. Sure, sometimes you can see strings manipulating the dolls and the way they move is a bit awkward, but I think it adds to this film’s charm. Directed by Stuart Gordon, the man behind Re-Animator, Dolls has solid writing, cinematography, acting, and even offers up a little warning to those who let all of their childhood innocence slip away – it might just kill you.
Back in the days before Netflix and On-Demand, I used to peruse the aisles at Blockbuster for nearly an hour each visit looking for something unique amongst the 400 copies of Titanic and Men In Black. Inevitably, I’d end up in the horror/sci-fi section reading the backs of VHS boxes. It was like a lottery. There weren’t any blogs offering reviews. I didn’t buy film magazines. I just watched random movies. One of these random movies that ended up surprising my 14-year-old self was the now cult-classic, Cube. I remember loving the premise of a bunch of strangers waking up in an unknown futuristic prison consisting of identical cube-shaped rooms for apparently no reason, some of which armed with lethal traps.
Evidently I wasn’t the only one impressed with this under-the-radar Canadian flick, as it has become revered by the horror community in the same way films like Session 9 have. I don’t think I’ve read one negative review over the years but I decided it was time to re-evaluate Cube since I hadn’t watched it in easily 10 years. Especially with movies, I think it’s easy to form one positive (or negative) opinion at one point in time and then become nostalgic about it even though your own tastes change and your critical eye evolves.
Cube opens with a bald unnamed man waking up in an empty room where the walls are illuminated white panels. There are six hatches, one on each side of the room, leading to identical rooms with different colored panels. After peeking into a blue room and a red room, the man decides to enter an orange room. All is quiet as he steps toward the center of the room when suddenly a slick metal sound is heard and the man jumps slightly. The camera pans to show his bleeding head and then to reveal the symmetrical square-shaped blood stains forming on his clothes. His body has been chopped into hundreds of pieces by a super sharp metal grate that hurled its way through him. The pieces gradually fall to the ground in spectacular gory fashion.
Sometime later (we can assume), we’re introduced to a group of strangers, all dressed identically in prison-esque outfits bearing their last name, who gradually find each other. There’s police officer Quentin, math genius Leavin, government fearing doctor Holloway, prison escape artist Rennes, world-loathing Worth, and autistic Kazan. Despite being strangers, they all have one thing in common. Namely, that they have no idea what the hell is going on or how they arrived in this sadistic death machine.
Once the group manages to gather themselves, they realize that they’ll need to work together if they have any hope of surviving. It’s no coincidence that they were hand picked to participate, as they each possess unique talents. Plot-wise, Cube follows the sextet as they attempt to navigate room after room of treacherous obstacles including sound activated spikes, face-melting acid and spinning metal wires designed to slice and dice. Once Leavin notices that each room is marked by a series of numbers, she gets to work as to what they mean and inevitably leads the group (or what’s left of them) towards where she believes the exit to be. As the hours wear on and conflicts develop between several of the strangers, we’re left to wonder who to trust and who will remain standing.
But what really makes Cube interesting is everything we don’t know and the impact that lack of knowledge has upon the characters. Director Vincenzo Natali uses the cube to represent the power of an unseen force (mainly God or government, in this case) that subjects humanity to suffering and each character represents a different philosophy or way of dealing with this reality – Quentin uses sheer force, Leaven works her brains, Holloway descends into illogical paranoia, Worth denounces the merits of living, Rennes is consumed by the hubris that he can handle anything, and Kazan waits to use his unique savant gift.
As they traverse the traps and ultimately grow wary, the characters begin to ask the big questions – who? why me? It becomes a dystopian musing on the world, good/evil and a dissection of humanity. Natali toys with Kafka’s idea that maybe no one is behind their imprisonment. Rather, they could be there as a result of an ongoing beuracratic process where one party doesn’t know what the other is doing. Food for thought. Just as central, is the exploration of how quick we are to abandon our humanity in order to survive. Would you leave an autistic person behind to die if he posed a threat to your own survival? Would you attack someone because they’re having a breakdown and you want them to shut up? The real horror in Cube resides in these ideas, not the elaborate traps (though they’re cool too). Calling any of Natali’s ideas “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” would be exaggeration but Cube does give you something to think about and that’s a lot more than I can say about most horror these days.
Where Cube comes up short is sometimes ridiculous dialogue. I don’t care if I ever find myself trapped in a room with acid-shooting guns. You’ll never hear me utter “It’s my job to read people like an x-ray” or “Have you been on glue your whole lives?” The script is generally strong but lapses into occasional moments with no basis on actual human interaction. Overall, the acting is strong except for Holloway’s melodramatic anti government tirades and Quentin’s violent outbursts. Otherwise, this group of relatively unknown actors does an excellent job embodying Natali’s characters.
So, is Cube a masterpiece? Not completely but its a unique premise that has since been copied countless times (Saw franchise, I’m looking at you) and it leaves your synapses firing for a while after you turn it off. We don’t know what’s outside of the cube and we’re not supposed to. That’s the fun part – thinking about it. So, what did you think was across that bridge?
I used to have this recurring nightmare when I was about 10-years-old. It was my birthday and, as was customary amongst my group of friends, I was having a sleepover at my house. The activities were typical – pizza, video games, a viewing of Dumb and Dumber, and perhaps talking about the girls we refused to admit we had crushes on. After everyone had fallen asleep in their respective sleeping bags, I would remain awake in fear that something was off about this night. Nick had been acting strangely, I think. Before long, he (or another friend, depending on which night I was having this dream) would promptly rise from his slumber, reveal himself as a demon, and proceed to stalk me and my other friends through the neighborhood. When the demon would catch one of us, he’d “infect” that person, so I never knew who to fear at any given time. It’s amazing that my mind made that up without ever seeing The Thing until much later in life, no? I’d wake from this nightmare and sometimes, when I had people sleep over, I’d secretly fear this scenario was going to unfold before my eyes.
I guess the point to this little anecdote is that the lines between dreams and reality are less rigid when you’re a child. I was reminded of this last night by a lesser-known English film called Paperhouse, which Jay Clarke from The Horror Section kindly mailed to me being the nice guy that he is. I’ve been meaning to sit down and watch it for some time as I’ve heard only good things about it, including the fact that it was directed by Bernard Rose who later went on to do Candyman, a personal favorite.
Paperhouse begins when bratty 11-year-old Anna Madden (Charlotte Burke) comes down with a glandular fever on her birthday in the midst of class. Prior to feeling ill, she is shown drawing a house on a piece of paper. It’s a simple thing, like most of us have drawn at one point or another; square frame, rectangle roof, 4 boxy windows, a door, and a fenced yard. After causing a disturbance in class by fighting with a classmate, she’s sent to the hallway where she passes out and seemingly arrives in the dreamworld she just drew. She stands up in a field and runs her way toward the surreal house. Before she can enter, she wakes up surrounded by concerned classmates and her teacher.
Anna’s mother comes to take her home and reveals that she planned to give her a riding lesson for her birthday that afternoon but it will have to be postponed due to her illness. Desperate to not lose her chance at the lesson, Anna lies that the fainting was a hoax so she could get out of class. Of course this backfires and her mother forces her to return to school where she takes off with an older girl to put on makeup and play hide and seek near an abandoned railroad. Once reaching her hiding spot, a dark tunnel, she passes out again and reenters the dreamworld. This time she makes it to the door only to find that it is locked and she cannot enter. She awakens after a rescue party finds her.
When she’s told to stay in bed for a few days, Anna has nothing to do but add to her drawing and see what happens the next time she sleeps. First she draws a boy looking down from one of the windows. When she arrives in the dreamworld, she discovers that the boy, Marc, cannot let her into the house because he doesn’t have legs (she didn’t draw them) and because the house doesn’t have stairs. The boy warns that she should run away because the house is dangerous. She ignores his warnings and later draws stairs and legs. The stairs manifest themselves correctly, but the legs creepily appear disembodied and shatter.
As her illness progresses, Anna’s time in the dreamworld begins to outweigh her conscious moments and strange overlaps appear between the two. She discovers that her doctor is treating a boy named Marc who is suffering from muscular dystrophy and cannot get out of bed. It seems that her artistic endeavors impact Marc in real life as well. Her absentee father who frequently is away on business trips and struggles with alcoholism also begins to appear in the dreamworld as a villain after she draws him, gets frustrated, and scribbles out his face.
The rest of Paperhouse is a journey that rides the border between dreams and reality. We never really know what is going on or why Anna is suddenly able to impact others through her little paper drawing. Rose offers no solid explanation and, without revealing any more plot, we’re left to interpret the conclusion in any number of ways.
I really didn’t know what to make of Paperhouse after it finished but the more I think about it, the more I realize I enjoyed it. The film’s surreal imagery, moody soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, and gritty cinematography take you right into Anna’s dreamworld. It’s a PG-13 film that I suppose could be classified as a “kid’s movie” but I don’t think that’s a fair designation because it deals with themes geared toward an adult audience that perhaps remembers what it’s like to be a kid. What I found most interesting was how it explores the connection between real life troubles and the subconscious/unconscious. In a way, Paperhouse is really an in-depth character study of a troubled young girl. She’s been all but abandoned by her father, acts out in school, and as a result is lonely. All of this manifests itself in the dreamworld where her father is a menacing lunatic and she desperately tries to make a connection with Marc. Rose uses the dreamworld to show how tumultuous a child’s imagination can be – sunny skies and amber fields one moment, then storm clouds and earthquakes the next. It’s not completely a horror movie but it really feels like one at moments, especially when Anna makes a drastic change to her drawing that you know will bring about nightmarish consequences. It’s instant dread when you see her close her eyes.
I’m not sure what to make of the ending and can’t help wonder if Rose doesn’t feel the same way. There are so many themes presented that it might have been impossible to tie them up in a rational way. I could ponder on this one for a while and I still feel like I’m missing some of the meaning but regardless, Paperhouse surprised me pleasantly. On a side note, the version Mr. Clarke provided me was taken from an old VHS tape and it made me feel nostalgic for those imperfections and tracking lines on the screen. I miss those days. Anyway, this one’s tough to find as there’s no Region 1 DVD out there but there are plenty of bootlegs around I’m sure. Just ask me if you’re interested…
I swear, sometimes I think Netflix’s watch instantly horror suggestions are purposely and vindictively chosen to annoy me. Why else would they recommend House of 1,000 Corpses or lead me astray with Keeper of Souls? The process of finding a quality horror film on Netflix is disheartening at best and an infuriating waste of time at worst. But, masochistically, I still do it because I just might get lucky with a random choice. So, when my girlfriend recently read the synopsis for a 2006 Spanish film called Shiver to me, I agreed to give it a shot. She rarely chooses horror but when she does, she usually picks good ones (unlike myself).
The plot focuses on Santi (Junio Valverde), a teen with photophobia who gets burned instantly by sunlight and is forced to attend night school. In essence, he’s a modern day vampire (the kind without sparkles, thank you). Coupled with issues surrounding his estranged parents, Santi’s medical condition causes him to be a pariah and an easy target for ridicule. He’s socially awkward, has few friends and frequently has nightmares where he’s bursting into flames. At the encouragement of his doctor, Santi and his mother, Julia (Mar Sodupe), trade in big city living for a house in a remote country village where the sun rarely shines.
Things seem normal in this little town for, oh, about 12 hours following Santi’s arrival until a farmer’s sheep is viciously slaughtered by some sort of monster in the woods. The farmer fires his shotgun at the creature, but it quickly escapes. The farmer drags the dead sheep into a shop run by Dimas (the man Santi and Julia are renting their house from) and exclaims that this is the third of his animals to be slaughtered in such a way. When Julia inquires if the woods are dangerous, Dimas simply advises staying away from them. The next day, Tito, one of Santi’s classmates, is kicking a rock down the road when he accidentally sends it into the woods. While retrieving it, he sees a creepy set of eyes (Suspiria homage, much?), hears a growling sound, and decides to book it. Smart choice, kid. That same night, Santi hears growling emanating from the attic above his bedroom.
The next day, the two boys and another friend (Jonas) decide to hunt down the beast in the woods. Sounds very logical to me. I know I’d be quick to confront an unknown, growling, sheep-slaughtering beast. But I digress. Frightened after the beast runs past them, Tito flees and Santi takes off after him leaving Jonas alone. Jonas is killed and mutilated in no time and Santi becomes the town’s prime suspect.
That much will suffice for plot purposes here. What I’ve failed to mention thus far is how brilliantly this film is executed. Director Isidro Ortiz and Art Director Pilar Revuelta (Oscar-winner for Pan’s Labryinth) create an incredibly tense atmosphere by shooting the film in eerie blue and gray hues, keeping the pace fast with clever editing, and not relying on jump scares. The first half of the film is probably the scariest and most unnerving thing I’ve seen in years. At one point following a terrifyingly creepy stalking scene, I looked at my girlfriend and with a bit of surprise, said, “this is…really fucking scary.” That says a lot about Shiver. That never happens to me.
What allows Shiver to maintain its creepiness throughout the first half is its sense of mystery. What is this thing stalking the local residents? Ortiz gives us some decent glimpses at a long-haired shadowy figure without giving it away. However, it’s this excellent first act that sets the latter half up for a somewhat lackluster finish. I don’t want to give anything away here, but suffice it to say that when the big “reveal” happens, it takes the wind out of the sails. Once that mystery was gone, I wasn’t as scared. It’s really too bad, because Shiver had the potential to be one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen but it couldn’t maintain the momentum it built. That said, it’s still one of the better and certainly one of the scariest films I’ve seen in a long time. The first half alone has enough suspense, terror and atmosphere to make this one still highly recommended. Netflix, you’ve done me a kindness, finally.
After watching The Wolfman, another Hollywood remake that flexed its CGI muscles but couldn’t lift a story line to save its life, I decided to check out an indie title for my next film viewing and stumbled upon Ink (2009). Ink is like a fairy tale, mixed with an Episode of Dr. Who, Waking Life, and The Matrix, and somehow it works. While it may sounds corny, people with open minds need to watch this one to experience its refreshingly good story telling within the confines of a non-traditional narrative.
Ink hits the screen with a man driving down the road screaming “fuck” three times who then gets waffled by a truck running a red light; the importance of that event is withheld until later, for brilliant reasons. Shortly after, we cut to a dark street where flashes of light bring forth lone figures walking down the pavement and climbing into people’s windows. The 411 is that when night comes two separate factions of creatures, Storytellers and Incubi, descend on the world of men. Storytellers—rag-tag warriors (appearance like the outcasts from the old 90′s Beauty and the Beast show with Ron Pearlman) are given the task of inspiring mankind by using their energy to create pleasant dreams, but the Incubi seek to suck energy by giving humans nightmares. Sadly, the quaint FX as the creatures teleport into our reality will probably have most closed minded film watchers looking for something else to watch.
If you stuck around,the story picks up as a girl named Emma (Quinn Hunchar) is kidnapped by an Incubus initiate named “Ink.” A party of four Storytellers set out to rescue her, but the only person that can find her is a blind tracker, called a pathfinder, whose onscreen antics such as greeting the dirt every time he falls make him the film’s most interesting character. While most of the other characters are not as memorable they all have an individual quirky presence that transcends cliche at every turn.
As The Storytellers chase the Incubi through different dimensions, the story returns to the accident victim, John, that turns out to be Emma’s estranged father. The sad tale of how doubt and fear ruined his life adds a human aspect to the plot that seeps through the fantastic settings in tear drop sized scenes, peeks and glances into John’s life. The varied narrative gives a personal perspective on how easily people can forget what is important and fall prey to the Incubi that are apparently always accepting applications for supernatural employment.
While Ink has been panned by some critics for having a cliched Wizard of Oz feel and a disjointed plot, I think the banter resulted from people that want spoonfed cinema, which is why we have many films like The Wolfman remake in the first place. For anyone that needs a little artistic dark fantasy with creepy villains wearing black and white TV images strapped to their faces there’s Ink. Check it out if you need a diet from the mind numbing refried beans of Hollywood cinema.
Something is innately scary about children. Their big eyes look into you without the inhibitions of society and their unbridled excitement for newness is ever-present, making them the manifestation of unpredictability. Not to mention the sound of their laughter that can echo like distant bells. Tom Shankland and Paul Andrew Williams tapped these veins dry to create their film, The Children (2008).
The premise is simple. A family, two couples and their young children, gather in the country for a holiday. The heroine Casey, (Hannah Tointon), is a late teen or early twenty-something who is stuck in the middle and is plotting to sneak out mid-weekend to go to a party. Everything is bumping along nicely for everyone until the children start acting oddly and contracting a strange virus.
The build up on this one is like an over-inflated balloon that you keep blowing air into. The tension escalates and even the meaningless subplots make you uncomfortable. One of the mothers keeps forcing her child to play with her sick cousin with the promise of golden stars in an artificial rewards system. The parents make thinly veiled shots at each other about their parenting techniques, and Casey sneaks off to the green house to smoke pot with her uncle that she seems sexually stimulated by.
Once this discomfort inflates past capacity, the balloon pops with a sledding “accident” that leaves one of the parents dead and two of the children missing. Full diapers hit the fan soon after, as the children start outwardly attacking their adults and setting traps for them, breaking their legs and tearing their hoop earrings out with their mitten fingers.
While I think the plot needs to be experienced and can be done no more justice through summary, this movie has many other strengths. Every image of gore is medically precise and wince invoking. Not a single drop of cartoon blood is spilled. The Children uses the proper recipe of gore to avoid the comic book feel that some blood bath movies start to lapse into by the midway points.
The cinematography is also visually appealing from beginning to end. No wasted scenes were filmed to get a person from A to B. Every image blends into next with an artistic ease as the plot gets more intense and the tension builds to one of the most downright creepy endings I’ve seen in a long while. Most importantly, The Children doesn’t cop out with that last scare, that clichéd no-one-lives and “ha ha you thought they won” BS, that every horror movie feels the need to do. The final scene is much more thoughtful than that and left up to personal interpretation.