Medium Raw (2010)

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A middling effort, but Medium Raw suggests that writer/director/actor Andrew Cymek might be one to keep an eye on. Unless your name is Orson Welles, a single person taking on all the primary tasks associated with movie-making usually turns into amateur hour (Note to Quentin Tarantino: Stop acting. Forever! Thanks!), but Cymek shows sufficient promise while wearing several hats at once that I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt. That said, this is a fairly ragged effort as befits one man and a miniscule budget.

Cymek stars as Johnny Morgan, a troubled cop who’s still haunted by the childhood memory of his sister’s abduction by a heinous serial killer known as “The Big Bad Wolf.” Though the killer has been dormant, a recurrence of his modus operandi several years later puts Morgan on the case with a chance to even the score. Morgan succeeds in capturing the Wolf (Greg Dunham), who is then ensconced in a nearby home for the criminally insane where his va-va-voom girlfriend Jamie (Brigitte Kingsley) works as a psychiatrist. Also in the loop is the Wolf’s lawyer (Mercedes McNab, from Buffy and Angel), the sinister asylum director Dr. Robert Parker (William B. Davis, the cigarette-smoking man from X-Files), and a colorful assortment of deranged inmates. One night, the power goes out and, sure enough, the patients are soon revolting.

There are a number of wayward plot points that aren’t addressed in any kind of logical fashion (e.g., What happens to Mr. Jacobs, the gigantic madman who turns insanely violent when he sees the color red? The movie ends with him still on the loose. Why is there a 9-year-old girl wandering around in a nuthouse filled with cannibals, criminals, perverts, and killers?), but Cymek manages to keep enough balls in the air to maintain a respectable interest level throughout, and his conception of the insidious Wolf is fairly inspired. However, fans of the actor John Rhys-Davies, who gets top billing here, should be prepared for his speedy exit.

ParaNorman (2012)

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I live in Portland, so I like to keep up on what the locals are up to. ParaNorman is the second feature from Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation outfit from neighboring Hillsboro that was responsible for the Neil Gaiman adaptation Coraline from a few years back. I dug that one, and I also quite liked ParaNorman, though it was less visually stimulating than its predecessor. Still, for a piece of family entertainment, it was surprisingly entertaining.

Norman Babcock is a young man with the uncanny Sixth Sense ability to see ghosts as easily as he sees the living bullies who torment him on a daily basis. He’s a friendless outcast—except for happy-go-lucky imbecile Neil—and even his mom, dad, and ditzy blond sister Courtney don’t understand him. He lives in Blithe Hollow, a community cursed by a witch who was hanged 300 years before by the superstitious citizenry. Every year the witch threatens to come back, raise the dead, and exact her revenge on the town. And this year, she’s going to succeed, unless weirdo Norman can save the day.

Writer/director Chris Butler creates a vivid array of characters that manage to transcend cliche by imbuing them with the ability to learn from their mistakes and grow. The parents, the bully, the dumb jock, the paranoid townspeople, the zombies, even the witch herself—a raging ghost with a grudge—are given the chance to redeem themselves and move on as better people (or monsters or whatever). There are thoughtful and delicate layers to the story that prove hugely rewarding. It’s also a damn funny film (a rarity in the “family friendly” department), and I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes where Norman watches zombie movies while his dead grandmother sits knitting on the couch nearby, or when his friend Neil gets to play fetch with the ghost of his pug, who’s now in two pieces after getting run over by a car. Cute for sure, but also genuinely affecting.

My only real beef is with the art direction, as the movie’s color palette is a relentless combination of brown, black, and purple, and my eyes got a little bored. It’s also rough and unpolished looking, but I believe this is deliberate, since ParaNorman is at heart a homage to the title character’s beloved Grade-Z, cheap-o horror movies.

Madison County (2011)

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In this critic’s opinion, there are entirely too many films coming down the pipe that ignore not only fundamental rules of genre movie making, but in basic storytelling, as well. Take Madison County, for example. For the first 45 minutes we’re treated to an exhaustive and tedious overview of the hearts and minds of the soon-to-be dead collegiate protagonists. Is James going to “hook up” with Jenna? What happens when angry older brother Kyle figures out that wiseguy Will is boning his sister Brooke? Is Brooke going to leave Will to attend grad school? Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t give a shit, and never will. Writer-director Eric England should be reminded that less is more: less yack-yack-yack, and more whack-whack-whack.

James (Colley Bailey) and his photographer friend Will (Matt Mercer) decide to take a road trip to Madison County, Arkansas, to visit reclusive writer David Randall, who wrote a controversial book about local serial killer Damian Ewell. But that’s a far too uncomplicated mission to be of any real interest, so England fills out the party with Will’s girlfriend Brooke (Joanna Sotomura), Brooke’s seething older brother Kyle (Ace Marrero) and her friend Jenna (Natalie Scheetz), and for nearly an hour the principles behave as though they’re characters in a romantic comedy that’s dreadfully unfunny. And it’s for this reason I can’t recommend Madison County. (Can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of Chopped, lately?)

The news isn’t all bad. Madison County features a compelling psycho in the person of Damian Ewell, a relentless abomination who scampers about the boondocks wearing a darling hand-stitched cloth pig head. He’s portrayed by the formidable Nick Principe, who plays a similarly hostile guy in the Laid To Rest films, though this version is a deranged, brain-damaged hillbilly who likes to carve up nosy college students. And really, why should it be about anything else?

Look, I realize that there must be actual characters in horror movies, so that we can better keep track of who’s getting gutted at the moment, but for pity’s sake! We don’t need their life stories! When considering character development in a horror movie, let’s hearken to the model provided by the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In other words, get ’em on, and kill ’em off. This isn’t Chekhov. Managing fewer storylines leaves more time for madness and carnage. And that’s what we’re here for, right?

Stake Land (2010)

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I noticed this title had popped up on a lot of “Best Of”  lists from two years ago so I was keen on seeing it. Saints be praised, I wasn’t disappointed. (Don’t you love it when that happens?) Lean, mean, and gritty, there’s not an ounce of fat on Stake Land; no extraneous drama, no clumsy attempts at comedy, and very little dialogue. It’s a rural, post-apocalypse road movie that’s long on action and intense situations. Admirers of The Walking Dead, The Omega Man, Road Warrior, and especially Justin Cronin’s novel The Passage will be in their happy place. The undead/post-apocalyptic genre is getting pretty crowded these days, but director and co-writer Jim Mickle manages to “stake” out a little fresh territory.

Martin (Connor Paolo) is a young survivor trying to keep his blood inside his body during the vampire infestation that’s swept the nation after the collapse of society. (Don’t you hate it when that happens?) His hard-boiled mentor Mister (Nick Damici) is a bad-ass vampire killer that drives a muscle car around the rural South, chasing bloodsuckers (and collecting their fangs) and steering clear of the crazy Christians known as the Brotherhood, who may well pose a greater threat than the undead. They stop and sleep where they can and barter with other refugees, all the while following a vague plan to head north for a safe settlement called New Eden, which may or may not exist. Martin and Mister are targeted for death by the head of the Brotherhood, Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris), a bald-headed fanatic who thinks the vampires are angels sent by God to rid the world of sinners.

The vampires in Stake Land are neither dudes in capes nor sparkly teenagers. In fact, they’re little more than zombies; grunting, snuffling ghouls on the hunt for a fresh cup of O-Positive. But they’re fast, strong, and seemingly all over the damn place. Because this is basically a road movie, things keep moving (duh!) and the action never bogs down. Martin and Mister fight, flee, make friends, lose friends, and gain enemies, and continue to chase a nebulous idea that somewhere else is probably better than here. Just like everybody, ever. It’s Martin’s determined belief that he can somehow find a normal (or at least livable) life that propels Stake Land, and keeps it from imploding in the face of hopelessness and chaos. Believe me, there’s plenty of hopelessness and chaos to go around; it’s almost as prevalent as the vampires and deranged bible-belters.

The Road (2011)

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Purely for marketing purposes, they should have called this movie something other than The Road. The Cormac-McCarthy-post-apocalypse-tale-turned-Viggo-Mortensen vehicle was barely two years old, and it’s hard to create word-of-mouth excitement if you have to continually explain that the movie you’re recommending is not that one. But recommend it I will. This curious import from the Philippines is both a fearsome ghost story and a very soulful meditation on evil, and more specifically “the sins of the father” concept.

Three restless teens borrow a car and go out for a midnight joy ride. None has a driver’s license, so they turn off the freeway and head down an old unmarked road—and the trap is sprung! A nightmarish sequence ensues as the kids are stalked by vengeful ghosts and an unseen killer. Eventually the cops arrive on the scene under the command of recently decorated Detective Luis (TJ Trinidad) who sees uncanny parallels in this case to those of an old unsolved homicide.

There are plenty of supernatural fright elements at play in The Road, but writer-director Yam Laranas puts the most muscle into telling a ghost story born of an all-too-familiar domestic tragedy. The movie is a triptych of tales (the present, the past, the distant past) that remain firmly rooted in a poison tree that bears deadly fruit. (Note: trees don’t figure into the story; this is what we call a metaphor.) The pace can be a bit sluggish, but in my opinion, the added weight given to characters and landscape makes The Road a much more vivid trip.