The Pack (2010)

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Stop the Interwebs! In fact, just drop what you’re doing for the next 81 minutes, crack a cold one, and summon The Pack from your Netflix netherworld. Don’t think! Just watch, because it’s a gem, a Horrificflicks revelation. The Pack, a French-dubbed rural nightmare, is quite simply the most finely rendered horror film I’ve seen in a long, long time, at least since Neil Marshall’s The Descent. It’s top-shelf in every sense: Original yet referential; gory but restrained; funny but not goofy, and it’s not horror lite, either. It’s chock-a-block with cringe-inducing scenes, but the delicious jolt of shock doesn’t get washed away in a tedious “pain for the sake of watching pain” tidal wave. It’s too artfully evocative (it’s a beautifully shot movie) and carefully orchestrated to be mere torture porn, but it is relentless—like a dream that keeps going from bad to worse.

Final (Only?) Girl Charlotte Massott (the gutsy and striking Émilie Dequenne), is driving through uncharacteristically blighted French countryside, cranking speed metal, and smoking. Some bikers have been on her ass, hassling her for a while, so she decides to pick up Max (Benjamin Biolay), a hitchhiker who is perhaps a touch less sinister than the bikers she’s trying to avoid. She pulls up and says, “If you pull out your dick, I’ll hammer you!” With a stone impassive face that he wears for the entire movie, Max replies, “It’s too cold anyway.” (Practically a Truffaut opening!) Evidently Charlotte is a remarkably trusting soul, because she takes a catnap while Max (whom she’s known for about 6 minutes) drives. When she wakes up, they’ve stopped at a ramshackle backwoods saloon/gas station/arcade, run by massive Madame La Speck (Yolande Moreau, whose maternal, Kathy Bates-like performance is terrific). At this point, the wheels come off for Charlotte and everything gets real weird and bleak, real quick.

A true horrorphile will be happier than a puppy rolling in puke spotting subtle and shady references to Psycho (“Oh, Mother!”), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (horrible hillbillies); Night of the Living Dead (flesh-eating, blood-sucking stumbling humanoids); and Pumpkinhead (farm setting, hayseed occultism, genuinely frightening beastie[s], lots of shots of windmills), not too mention every variation of Why Strangers Passing Through Blighted Lonely Territory Should Never Pick Up Hitchhikers, Much Less Go To Their Lair. Writer-director Franck Richard’s The Pack boasts so many well-chosen fiendish delights, that I could sit here all day singling out its virtues. Instead, I’ll just point out a couple:

It’s a real shock when the monsters arrive. They don’t look stock or schlocky. I would compare them favorably to something dreamed up by Guillermo Del Toro.

The acting is strong across the board, including Phillippe Nahon, a Charles Durning lookalike who plays a Columbo-ish cop, and wears a shirt that reads “I Fuck On The First Date” throughout the film.

The action gets progressively grimmer, but Richard doesn’t dwell overly long on the suffering. There is a “circle of life” at work here that’s hideous in its organic inevitability. Make no mistake, no one will be disappointed with their level of discomfort.

Even so, The Pack never panders; it’s never sensational and garish for its own sake. Rather it has a soupçon of Tim Burton’s fairy-tale-gone-horribly-wrong sensibility, combined with Sam Raimi’s quick, decisive cuts. And the gruesome proceedings are tastefully seasoned with odd, welcome interludes of humor. If I really had to compare The Pack to another film, it would be Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven: It’s genre filmmaking utilized to its full potential. It’s a familiar template that Richard is working from, but he raises the bar on quality and originality to the ceiling. I kept thinking I knew what was going on, because I’ve seen these stranded-motorist scenarios in hundreds of movies. But I was always surprised by something far stranger than I was expecting. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but instead, Richard kicked my ass with it. To my fellow fans hungry for a quality horror experience, all I can add is, go and enjoy. Heck, I may watch it again. What’s 81 minutes on a Sunday?

Shadow Puppets (2007)

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Several folks (mostly attractive women, Praise Be!) wake up in a mental institution, dressed in generic undies, with no memory of who they are or how they got there. They spend the remainder of the film wandering around the facility while trying to steer clear of a dark, shadowy, spider-type thing with a face, that shows up once in a while to kill someone.

Despite the presence of genre-pedigreed actors James Marsters (Spike from Buffy and Angel, who hasn’t aged well); Tony Todd (the Candyman himself!); and comely Joleen Blalock (she was the Vulcan babe from that lame Star Trek series with Scott Bakula), there really isn’t much to recommend Shadow Puppets—other than the scantily clad Ms. Blalock. This is another one of those annoying “walkabout” movies, with endless scenes of wary characters moving (very slowly) through a largely featureless industrial landscape. It’s an approach that’s quite different from a movie like Cube, for example, where shocking and creepy details emerge from both the alien environment and the characters’ own heads. We do discover the identities of the captives, but it doesn’t add up to anything worth writing down. We learn the origin of the smoky, spider thing, but it’s all argle bargle that’s forgotten two seconds after the explanation is delivered. (“It’s the distilled essence of the victims’ life forces,” or some such drivel.)

Note to writer-director Michael Winnick: If we don’t care about the monster or the characters, then you’re going to need at least four more hot girls in briefs to maintain a passable level of interest from the average horror fan. And a big, herky guy in a rubber suit would have been a major improvement in the monster department.

Zombie Apocalypse (2011)

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Pas·tiche /paˈstē-SH

Noun: An artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.

Today’s vocabulary word is pastiche, as in, “The Ving Rhames movie Zombie Apocalypse is a pastiche of the popular television show The Walking Dead.” And that’s about it. There’s nothing groundbreaking or envelope-pushing at work here. It’s pure comfort food, but not especially well executed.

You know the drill. A ragtag band of plague survivors tries to avoid being eaten by zombies long enough to make it to Catalina Island where the remains of the government has setup housekeeping. Ving Rhames is Henry, a sledgehammer-swinging bad-ass, which pretty much makes him the most developed personality among this group of stock characters. There’s also Julian (Johnny Pacar), a wise-cracker who quotes Wordsworth; Mack (Gary Weeks), a leader-type who looks and acts like Ryan Reynolds; Ramona (Taryn Manning), the whiny girl who grows up fast; and Cassie (Lesley-Ann Brandt), the hot chick with the sword. Spoiler: Some of these people don’t make it.

What Zombie Apocalypse has going for it is a breezy pace. The action roles along at a steady clip, never really bogging down with unnecessary character backstory. The group is almost always ass-down in the frying pan. On the flipside, the special effects are mostly poorly animated CGI bullshit which extinguishes a great deal of the fright factor. People should be afraid of zombies because seeing their own flesh chewed from their bones while still alive is scary. Blobs of drawn-on blood splatter is not. This technique is also used for countless zombie headshots, and it looks cheap and amateurish.

If you’re starving for a zombie fix, this one will barely make a dent in your hunger. It’s like a zombie eating an anorexic: Not much meat on them bones.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

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I suppose it’s a little early for Christmas revelry, but this uncanny Finnish import written and directed by Jalmari Helander is reason enough to get in a (twisted) holiday mood. Creepy and often hilarious, Rare Exports has the look and feel of a wondrous Spielberg project (E.T. meets Super 8?), right down to the charismatic leading moppet (Onni Tommila) who intuitively understands that a certain unearthly entity (in this case, Santa Claus) does not come in peace.

On Christmas Eve in the remote hinterlands of Finland, a corporate-sponsored archeological expedition digs up a towering, horned creature frozen in ice. Pietari (Tommila) deduces it to be the “real” Santa Claus, a fearful demon who brutally kills naughty children. Meanwhile, his father (Jorma Tommila) and his fellow reindeer hunters have captured a vicious, wizened old bearded man, whom they wish to exchange with the corporate bosses for enough money to get them all through the winter. Chaos reigns for a time, leading up to a left-field ending that works once you give it a chance to sink in.

As one might expect, given the Spielberg sensibility, the key to the story is the relationship between a boy and his widowed father, the latter trying desperately to protect and provide for his son—who at the same time is hoping to prove to his dad that he’s a brave and resourceful young man, and perfectly capable of protecting himself. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age fable replete with an evil giant Santa and a whole bunch of murderous elves. Given that premise, it’s mostly gore free, but the disturbing picture of jolly ol’ St. Nick depicted here, is more than enough to inspire Christmas nightmares in the heads of impressionable children of all ages. I approve this message.

The Messengers (2007)

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Please tell me if there’s an existing category for this well-chewed cinematic scenario: Family suffers some kind of urban-based trauma and then decides to relocate to a nice, quiet, haunted house in the boonies. The Shining is the most obvious example, but there are dozens of pale imitations, including this quaint little Kristen Stewart vehicle from five years back.

Directed by Hong Kong power players the Pang Brothers (The Eye films, Bangkok Dangerous, among others), The Messengers is first and foremost, a serviceable platform for Stewart’s photogenic adolescent petulance, brought to the screen courtesy of the boffo box-office returns of The Twilight saga. Rising to the challenge, the spunky little minx actually carries the movie. Of course, when you’re costarring with one-note Wonder Bread like Dylan McDermott (Dad) and Penelope Ann Miller (Mom), you needn’t have been Lee Strasberg’s star pupil to dominate the screen. Still, Stewart gamely steps up to the plate, exuding Buffy confidence while delivering her lines with Locklearian panache. (BTW, am I the only one who confuses Dylan McDermott with Dermot Mulroney? Surely not!)

In The Messengers, Stewart stars as Jess, the rebellious progeny of McDermott and Miller, who are leaving the temptations of Sodom and Gomorrah in the rearview mirror in order to get back to the land, specifically as sunflower farmers in rural Saskatchewan. You gotta admit; that’s a new one. Sure enough, the family’s optimism for a fresh start is soon crushed to crumbs when it appears that their rustic farmhouse comes with creepy crawly specters of the previous occupants, who fell victim to a case of Jack Torrance Syndrome, also known as Daddy’s Got The Axe, Again.

This was a Ghost House production and Sam Raimi was one of the executive producers. The Pangs do a decent job of combining their talent for weaving blankets of dread with Raimi’s trademark splashy spookhouse shocks. The Messengers is a 100 percent sustainable movie, because the entire plot consists of recycled material, but even so, the filmmakers went to considerable effort to pique our interest, and we don’t have to work too hard to swallow the Ghoul-Aid. (Please read the last sentence in a Crypt Keeper voice. It sounds better.)

At the moment I’m leaning toward “Buyer Beware” as the name of this genre. “Real Estate Gone Wrong,” maybe? “Glengarry Glen MURDER?”

Troll Hunter (2010)

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A trio of Norwegian college students armed with a video camera chases a man they suspect of being a bear poacher. As it turns out, Hans the hunter (Otto Jesperson) has a much more arcane purpose to his clandestine activities, namely regulating the troll population on behalf of the Norwegian government.

Like most people who’ve sat through Troll Hunter, I dug the hell out of its confident blending of mockumentary, humor, horror, and conspiracy theory. The troll FX are wizardly; the “mythical” giants are marvelous creations that come to life as sinister (though familiar) fairy tale terrors with a taste for automobile tires and sheep. As Hans explains to the incredulous students, there are all kinds of trolls: Some are 200 feet tall. Some have more than one head. Some can be found under bridges. And they all live in particular territories. It’s Hans’ job to track and kill the creatures if they leave their stomping grounds, lest they upset the delicate balance of nature, which usually ends up with people getting crushed or eaten. Writer-director André Ovredal has a keen sense of all the disparate elements at work here, and his cinematic finesse in creating a vivid mythology on the fly instantly makes him a filmmaker worth following.

If I had to make a complaint, it’s that Troll Hunter is a little light on gore and fright intensity. There is a jaunty lightness of mood that permeates the action, resulting in plot developments—like the death of a major character—that lack any genuine impact. In other words, Ovredal sacrifices fear for fun. It’s not much of a misstep, and it goes a long way toward explaining the movie’s popularity at indie and second-run cinemas. Gambling on an audience’s preference for snickering instead of screaming is probably a smart move if you’re looking down the road at career longevity.

2-Headed Shark Attack (2011)

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I love it when a plan comes together. I really wanted my 50th review on Horrificflicks to be something special, and lo and behold, along comes 2-Headed Shark Attack to bite me on the ass. It’s an almost symphonic work of schlock, directed with the expert hand of a born showman; namely Christopher Ray, the son of cheap-thrills pioneer, Fred Olen Ray (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds, a couple of Emmanuel flicks, and countless examples of Grade-Z, straight-to-video trash under various pseudonyms).

The plot? A college class on a field trip to the ocean (I guess), gets its pleasure boat scuttled by a CGI two-headed shark. A bunch of the students, including Hulk Hogan’s daughter Brooke (who probably got to college on a stripping scholarship), along with their meatball professor (Charlie O’Connell—because trying to get his brother Jerry would have sunk the budget), take a dinghy to a nearby atoll to wait things out. Meanwhile, the professor’s doctor wife, (Carmen Electra—damn, wish she was my primary care provider!) remains on board the slowly sinking boat in order to sunbathe. Oh, and the atoll (which is better landscaped than the 18th hole at Augusta) is also crumbling into the ocean. Sure! Why not?

Like his stylistic godfather Roger Corman, director Christopher Ray demonstrates considerable facility with the giant-critter-at-sea genre. Yes, most of the time, the shark is seen as a video-game quality, aquatic animation. But when the two-headed terror chows down on his desperately dog-paddling victims, Ray brings in the cheesily constructed shark heads so we can get a closeup of flailing folks gushing the gore while being chomped to pieces. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the mark of a superior filmmaker. Ray instinctively understands that CGI mayhem just isn’t enough, and he delivers the puppets for that much-needed personal touch.

I don’t watch movies like 2-Headed Shark Attack because I want to gain insights into the human condition. I just want to see loads of stupid teens getting messily eaten. Have I mentioned recently that I don’t like teenagers? Yes, even ones that look to be in their late 20s, early 30s.

Other things I loved about 2-Headed Shark Attack:

• The shark thoughtfully delays attacking some skinny dippers until we get a healthy dose of nudity.

• The wildly inconsistent shoreline topography that fluctuates between completely rock covered and palmy tropical.

• The survivors are supposedly shipwrecked “hundreds of miles from anywhere” but during wide-angle shots there are other boats on the horizon.

• The deserted fishing village has a cement dock, a couple of extra motor boats, and a “No Fishing” sign on it—not to mention a church that looks like it was hastily built by a pack of drunk cub scouts that couldn’t decide between a rustic chapel and a shed.

• Idiotic dialogue that affords endless opportunities for MST3K-style riffing (e.g., the sage advice shouted to a hapless swimmer trying to out-stroke the pursuing predator: “Hurry up!”).

• The only explanation offered to account for the appearance of a two-headed shark: “It happens sometimes. Snakes, cows, kittens…”

• The class is comprised entirely of much-too-old-to-be-college-student pretty meat (no fatties!) who mostly all get eaten. And spunky amazon Brooke Hogan has a future in the business as the wise-cracking, ass-kicking girl. Every movie needs one. You’ll see.

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