October 29, 2009

The Curse of February 29th (2006)

BY NOW, you would think horror filmmakers would have covered every holiday or calendar event. (See lists of them here and here.) I mean, short of Boxing Day and the Vernal Equinox, most of them have been done.

Ah, but what about Leap Day?

I know, I should be reviewing The Curse of February 29th on said day. But since the last Leap Day was 20 months ago – and it’ll be more than two years till the next one – I’m reviewing Curse in the next logical place: the Halloween season.

Plot:

In flashback, we learn from institutionalized former toll booth worker Jieyon (Eun-jin Baek) that for several nights in a row in late February four years ago, she experienced the same routine: a power blackout, followed by a woman driving up and handing her a bloody ticket. And each night, there was a report of a murder at a different tollbooth that leads to Jieyon’s.

Jieyon fears, however outrageously, that the woman is a serial killer who supposedly died in a prison bus explosion at her toll booth on February 29th twelve years ago – though her body was never found. Every Leap Day since then, someone has been killed at a local tool booth. And with another February 29th approaching, Jiyeon fears she may be the next victim…

Critique:

The first half of The Curse of February 29th is more creepy than scary, and the film as a whole should be filed under “thriller” rather than “horror.” But no matter how you classify it, Curse is a flawed film. It provides an interesting premise, but at its core, it’s as formulaic as many of its holiday-based horror counterparts in the US:

• Mental hospital angle? Check.
• Killings based on a creepy legend? Check.
• The killer in the legend died, but the body was never found? Check.
• Creepy girl killer, with face obscured by long hair? Check.
• Nobody believes the girl in peril? Check.

It also suffers from a plodding pace; even with a tight 90-minute running time, I was checking the clock all through the finale – which concludes with a rush-to-explain, convoluted ending.

If you’re looking for good Asian horror, there are many better choices than The Curse of February 29th (might I recommend Infection). And if you’re looking for holiday-themed horror, keep your fingers crossed for Eli Roth’s full-length feature based on his Grindhouse spoof trailer Thanksgiving.

(Much like Blood Rain, The Curse of February 29th opened in its native Korea in 2006, but Pathfinder Pictures just released it in the US on DVD in this past August.)

Korean, with subtitles.

Rating:

Will your kids want to watch it?
Unless your kids follow Asian horror, it’s highly unlikely they’ve even heard of The Curse of February 29th. Just as well, because tweens and younger shouldn’t watch it due to multiple bloody stabbings and disturbing nightmare sequences.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Even if she has an interest in horror or Asian cinema, I’d suggest looking for better films than Curse.

Um, excuse me, bloody knife? You’re in my shot.

The Curse of February 29th
• Director: Jong-hun Jung
• Screenwriter: Il-han Yoo
• Stars: Eun-jin Baek, Yoon-jeong Choi, Ho Im
• MPAA Rating: N/A (bloody violence, distrurbing imagery)


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October 28, 2009

Congrats to the winners of the
Vampire’s Assistant prize packs!


Grand Prize:


Additional Prize Winners:

All winners:
Please e-mail me your mailing address to receive your prize packs.

Thanks to everybody who entered the contest!

October 24, 2009

Carnival of Souls (1962)

I HAD HEARD ABOUT Carnival of Souls as being basically a creepy, nightmare-inducing film with little to no plot.

So when I saw the DVD on sale for a buck at my local library, I figured I had very little to lose…

Plot:
After a car full of friends plunges off a bridge into a river, sole survivor Mary (Candace Hilligoss) emerges miraculously from the water three hours later, seemingly unharmed. As Mary tries to settle in to her new job as an organist at a Utah church, she’s hounded by a ghoulish presence who’s somehow tied to an abandoned carnival pavilion near the boarding house where she’s staying.

Critique:

47 years after its release, Carnival of Souls’ rep as “no plot, lotsa creepy” is still largely accurate. Director Herk Harvey fills his film with lots of creepy, disturbing imagery, using such techniques as spooky people staring into the camera (Harvey uses lots of POV), long shots (interior and exterior) of abandoned or empty buildings, quick zooms, sped-up film, and trippy camerawork.

Carnival also features an ominous, piercing church-organ musical score by Glen Moore (no coincidence that Mary is also a church organ player). Its omnipresence in the film will either give you the willies or get on your nerves.

Yet while many of Carnival’s images and sounds are indeed nightmarish, they’re not enough to carry a thin plot hobbled by poor acting that alternates between hokey and stiff. It also doesn’t help that Hilligoss’ Mary is an introverted, cold, and largely unlikeable protagonist. She’s hard to empathize with as she tries to flee the apparitions that are chasing her. By the end, you don’t really care what happens to her – you selfishly just want closure as the viewer.

Depending on your mood, Carnival of Souls will either come off as super-creepy or a candidate for Mystery Science Theater 3000. By the last 20 minutes, I was growing impatient and wanted it to end – which it did, with a WTF moment that forced me to reevaluate everything that happened earlier.

If you’re a fan of classic horror, see Carnival of Souls just to say you saw it. The creepy, nightmarish moments are worth witnessing…just don’t expect a masterpiece.

Rating:

Will your kids want to watch it?
I can’t imagine today’s kids being drawn to a black-and-white spooky movie made nearly a half century ago. Even if they are, I’d keep Carnival of Souls away from children under 10. The creepy imagery and music can cause nightmares in adults, let alone kids.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she’s a horror buff, she should see Carnivals of Souls because of its place in horror film history. But otherwise, it’ll either frustrate her or scare her, a lose-lose (or maybe lose-win?) proposition for you.

No no, don’t slide over, it’s okay…I’ll wait for the next bus.

Carnival of Souls
• Director: Herk Harvey
• Screenwriter: John Clifford
• Stars: Candice Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger
• MPAA Rating: PG


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October 20, 2009

Drag Me To Hell (2009)

I’VE BEEN A FAN OF filmmaker Sam Raimi since seeing the original Evil Dead at age 15 – a low-budget, overly gory scarefest that had me and three of my fellow freshmen friends jumping out of our seats.

But since then (and following two Evil Dead sequels), Raimi went mainstream with non-horror films such as For Love of the Game, the Spider-Man trilogy, and the underrated Darkman and A Simple Plan – leaving fans of Raimi’s horror work to ask: Can he still bring it?

With Drag Me To Hell, they would find out…

Plot:
Loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) wants desperately to be promoted to assistant manager at her bank. So when a creepy old gypsy (Lorna Raver) comes in and asks her to stop the bank from foreclosing on her home, Christine decides to play tough and say no. She’s later attacked by the woman (in a deliciously outrageous sequence), who puts a curse on her – one that is lead by a demon who torments the accursed for three days, and on the fourth day drags them to…well, y’know.

Critique:

From Drag Me To Hell’s brief yet terrifying opening sequence, Raimi lets you know he’s still got it, and he’s not wasting time. His signature gore-meets-slapstick is splattered across the film, with a large heaping of squirmy, over-the-top gross-out moments. (In one scene, Raimi gets so cartoonish he literally drops an anvil on a character’s head.)

That being said, Raimi also does a great job using classic old-school methods for scares: a house on a hill at night, strange noises in the distance, creaking doors and floorboards, thunder and lightning, etc.

Music plays a key part to many of DMTH’s scary scenes. The score by Christopher Young uses a lot of the familiar piercing, staccato violins Raimi featured in the original Evil Dead.

Lohman seems a bit lightweight for everything that’s going on, not really rising to the material and coming off more like a scared teenager than a young professional. Justin Long does fine as the obligatory skeptical-then-concerned boyfriend. But neither of things matter, because it’s the movie that’s truly the star.

While the first hour of DMTH is relentlessly entertaining, the last act sputters a bit. A séance to bring forth the demon borderlines on the absurd (a talking goat? Really?), and you can see the ending coming a mile away (think envelopes).

Drag Me To Hell is available on DVD today, October 20. If you miss Raimi’s horror hijinks, or you’re looking for a heaping dose of jumps and scares for your Halloween viewing, check it out. If you doubt whether good PG-13 horror is possible – and whether Raimi can still bring the scary-crazy – look no further than this.

Rating:

Will your kids want to watch it?
• Your kids may tell you (and themselves) that they love scary movies, but keep in mind that Drag Me To Hell is rated a “hard” PG-13. (Even I jumped at least three times while watching it.) There’s an abundance of truly scary scenes and visions, including demonic possession, projectile vomiting (of cockroaches, in one instance), abuse of a corpse, and one animal sacrifice (albeit largely off-screen). Oh, and there’s some mild profanity, if everything above isn’t enough.
• In short: Teens? Should be fine. Tweens? Eh, use your judgment. Children? No way.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Wow, tough one. My wife is terrified of anything to do with Hell, the devil, or his minions, so there’s no way I’d convince her to watch this. But if your better half enjoys getting the Hades scared out of her, Drag Me To Hell is a great pick.

I said turn LEFT!

Drag Me To Hell
• Director: Sam Raimi
• Screenwriter: Ivan Raimi, Sam Raimi
• Stars: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza
• MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language)


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October 16, 2009

Mad Monster Party (1967)

LIKE MANY OF MY GENERATION, I was raised on Rankin/Bass holiday specials: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year without a Santa Claus, Here Comes Peter Cottontail, etc. – back when they were annual, one-time, prime-time events and not blanketed all over ABC Family each season the way they are now.

So how did I miss Rankin/Bass’ full-length Halloween movie, Mad Monster Party? The box art and description didn’t ring a bell. But since I was in need of a kids’ movie to review for October, I sat down with Dash to check it out…

Plot:
After creating the secret formula for destruction, Baron von Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) – head of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters – assembles all the great classic monsters (the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll, Dracula, the Werewolf, and the Invisible Man) at his castle to announce his retirement. He’s chosen his mild-mannered, klutzy nephew Felix (Allen Swift) as his successor, much to the dismay of the monsters – who plot various schemes to double-cross one another and get rid of Felix once and for all.

Critique:

According to the hyperbolic, editor-starved liner notes in the DVD, Mad Monster Party was a commercial dud when it was released in theaters. Can’t say I’m surprised, because it’s a ponderous, flat, unfeeling film that substantially lacks the charm of its Rankin/Bass brethren.

Many of the scenes play out way too long and seem detached from each other, like their own little vignettes, each with nearly the same formula: scene plays out, punchline is delivered, fade to black... scene, punchline, fade…

Also, the musical numbers come out of nowhere and are largely forgettable (except for the peppy “One Step Ahead”). And outside of the musical numbers, there’s virtually no background score to keep things lively.

After the first 30 minutes, I was bored. At 45 minutes, Dash was asleep on the couch (this was a two-night viewing). Had Mad Monster Party been trimmed to a one-hour TV special, rather than a 95-minute film, it may have been more effective and enjoyable. (Interestingly, several scenes were added at producer Joseph E. Levine’s request, despite Arthur Rankin, Jr.'s protests that they slowed down the film.)

Watching Mad Monster Party is a cold, sterile experience – and not just because the majority of the film takes place in Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. Yet much like Frankenstein’s monster, the movie lumbers aimlessly.

A weird postscript: Turns out I had seen Mad Monster Party as a kid; I just didn’t remember any of it, except for one random scene: Dracula hacking through the woods near Frankenstein’s castle with a machete. For some reason, that one scene had stuck in my head since childhood, but I never would have guessed it was from this film. I guess the liner notes said it best: “Many adults remember seeing [Mad Monster Party] as a child but weren’t sure of the title or even if it was an actual film because it didn’t repeat [on TV] year after year in most areas.”

Trivia: The voice of Francesca (Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant/creation) was singer Gale Garrett, who had a hit in 1964 with “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.”

Rating:

What did Dash think?
He was a little apprehensive based on the creepy box art, but he agreed to watch it. Did he like it? Well, he paid attention, laughing heartily only once (as did I, at the same scene). When it was over, he shrugged and said, “It was okay.” We both then agreed, it ain’t no Rudolph.

Will your kids like it?
Most kids today don’t have the attention span for older kids’ movies and shows, and Mad Monster Party will definitely put their interest to the test: It’s slow and a bit longer than most of today's kids’ films.
In terms of content, there are a few questionable elements:
• Some of the creatures and their jerky animation may be a bit scary for preschoolers or younger
• Near the end, Felix gets so distraught over losing Francesca to a giant monster that he declares he’ll kill himself
• The film ends, essentially, with (SPOILER ALERT!) a mass murder of the monsters by Dr. Frankenstein, who also perishes with them

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Even if she loves Rankin/Bass shows and/or Halloween, be forewarned: Mad Monster Party is a struggle to sit through. Pass on it and wait a couple more months to enjoy the true R/B classics of Christmastime.

Insert Grateful Dead joke here.

Mad Monster Party
• Director: Jules Bass
• Screenwriters: Len Korobkin, Harvey Kurtzman
• Stars: Boris Karloff, Allen Swift, Gale Garnett, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Ennis
• MPAA Rating: G


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October 12, 2009

Win a prize pack from the new film
The Vampire's Assistant!

THE FOLKS PROMOTING Universal Pictures' The Vampire's Assistant have asked me to give away five prize packs for the film!

Based on the popular series of books by Darren Shan, The Vampire’s Assistant is a fantasy-adventure about a teenager who unknowingly breaks a 200-year-old truce between two warring factions of vampires. Pulled into a life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and creatures of the night, he will vanish from the safety of a boring existence and fulfill his destiny in a place drawn from nightmares.
  • 1 Grand Prize winner receives: a $50 Fandango.com gift card and a family-friendly prize pack, including a youth backpack, T-shirt, locker mirror, and a copy of the book The Vampire's Assistant and Other Tales from the Cirque Du Freak by Darren Shan – a $100.00 value
  • 4 additional winners receive: a family-friendly prize pack (see contents above) – a $50.00 value
How to Enter:
Comment on this post by October 26, 2009. I will then pick five comments at random and post the winners on October 28. (Winners will then have to email me their mailing addresses to receive their prizes.)
Prizes are available to United States mailing addresses only. (International readers can enter if they have a friend in the States who can accept their prizes by mail.)

The Vampire's Assistant is in theaters October 23, 2009.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence
and action, thematic elements, and some language.


Official Trailer:

October 7, 2009

Dead Snow (2009)

OKAY, WE CAN ALL AGREE...

Nazis: bad.
Zombies: also bad.

But Nazi zombies? That’s gotta be super-double-evil-bad, right?

Plot:
In the snowy mountains of Norway, a group of friends go on a trip to a remote cabin – only to run afoul of a group of Nazi zombies looking to protect the secret treasure they hid at the end of World War II.

Critique:

Much like one victim’s head in Dead Snow, the film is split in two: The first half is all buildup, the second half all payoff. And for the bloodthirsty viewer, the clashes between the Nazombies™ and humans do not disappoint. Blood flows, limbs fly, and heads roll – all with just enough humor to ice the crimson cake. (Especially awesome is a bloody showdown between Nazombie squads and two guys wielding a chainsaw, hammers, and a scythe.)

Director Tommy Wirkola treats the Nazombies as near-human – not brain-dead, rotting, walking corpses, but the military men they are (were?). Rather than wandering the snow-covered terrain aimlessly, the Nazis’ colonel leads them on the hunt for our friends, dispersing his men strategically to patrol the area. And these zombies don’t just bite – they punch, stab, can climb trees, and (like most of today’s movie zombies) run at full speed.

Wirkola (who co-wrote the script) also brings some unique action and unsettling point-of-view camerawork – both feats considering how the zombie genre can feel played out at times.

If you dig zombie films and are desperate for a decent one, check out Dead Snow. It’s an out-of-control ride, in the best way possible.

Unfortunately, Dead Snow is not available on Region 1 (US) DVD yet (the Amazon link below is for Region 2). In the meantime, you can watch it on IFC Films On Demand or view it online here.

P.S. Watch for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to Halloween and The Evil Dead.

Norwegian, with subtitles.

Rating:

Will your kids want to watch it?
Possibly. Zombies have a coolness factor to older kids, and probably play a part in some of their favorite shoot-‘em-up video games. But NO CHILDREN under high-school age should see Dead Snow. People (and zombies) are dismembered, disemboweled, shot, stabbed, and impaled, with blood flowing and spurting freely. There’s also a graphic sex scene in an outhouse (yep). Oh, and a crow is killed.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Unless she's a big-time, hardcore gorehound, the answer is no.

Nazis. Why did it have to be Nazis?

Dead Snow
• Director: Tommy Wirkola
• Screenwriter: Stig Frode Henriksen, Tommy Wirkola
• Stars: Jeppe Laursen, Charlotte Frogner, Stig Frode Henriksen, Vegar Hoel, Jenny Scavlan, Evy Kasseth Røsten
• MPAA Rating: NR (sexual content, extreme graphic violence and gore)


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October 4, 2009

Blood Rain (2006)

HERE’S A FILM with an interesting blend: a Korean period piece with a serial killer on the loose.

Plot:
In 1808, at a paper mill on the remote island of Dong-hwa, a mysterious fire destroys a docked cargo ship. A team of investigators led by Lee Won-Kyu (Seung-won Cha) arrives to solve the case. The next day, a mill worker is found brutally slain – escalating Lee’s investigation from arson to murder. But the gruesome killings don’t stop there…

Critique:
• Director Dae-seung Kim delivers Blood Rain with all the scope of a big-budget epic and the effectiveness of a modern-day Hollywood crime thriller.
Seung-won Cha is powerful as Kyu, the methodical, emotionless investigator. Much like a modern-day movie cop, he does his job by the book – but when pushed to his limits, he’s not above beating information out of a suspect.
• The sweeping score by Yeong-wook Jo and Ji-soo Lee is worthy of any major epic the Western world has produced.
A couple nits: The last act takes a bit longer than expected, and flashbacks are woven too seamlessly into the present storyline, making it disjarring at times. Also, the ending loses points for throwing a supernatural element into what had been a story largely grounded in reality.

Blood Rain opened in its native Korea in 2006, but Pathfinder Pictures just released it on DVD in the US last month. If you enjoy crime thrillers and can tolerate a large dose of bloodletting, it’s worth seeking out. (View the trailer here.)

Korean, with subtitles.

Rating:

Will your children want to watch it?
The fact that Blood Rain is a period piece, in a foreign language, with subtitles, should be enough to lose your kids’ interest – which is fine, because its graphic violence should not be viewed by children. People are impaled, boiled alive, suffocated, have their heads crushed, and are dismembered. Oh, and a few chickens have their heads cut off (ba-GOK!).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
The violence may be off-putting to her, and if she’s not a fan of subtitles, there’s two strikes right there. I’m feeling this is one to watch on your own.

Worst. Bachelor. Party. Ever.

Blood Rain
• Director: Dae-seung Kim
• Screenwriters: Seong-jae Kim, Won-jae Lee
• Stars: Cha Seung-won, Park Yong-woo, Ji Seong, Choi Ji-na, Oh Hyeon-kyeong
• MPAA Rating: N/A (graphic violence, gore)


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