Cabin in the Woods (2011)

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Autobiographical side bar: I am old, old, old. I am not Li’l Sharky, Teen Sharky, or even Adult Contemporary Sharky. I’m Ol’ Sharky, an ancient relic from a cooler and weirder world. I carried Agamemnon’s sword; argued with Aristotle; and dogged Cleopatra like she was made of bacon. I shit the pyramids and danced with dinosaurs. I used to carpool to work with Gilgamesh, and even he called me “Gramps.” So when I tell you that I don’t go to the movies much anymore, you’ll begin to understand why. It’s too risky. I can’t be away from my climate-controlled condo for lengthy periods or my aorta will explode. I tried once, and the Visigoths that run the multiplex refused to let me pitch my oxygen tent in the theater. Bastards. All bastards.

Even so, I found myself in the vicinity of a theater with time to kill yesterday, so I purchased a ticket for the moving pictures and saw Cabin in the Woods. I’m very glad that I did. Joss Whedon is getting justifiably blown by critic and fanboy alike for hitting a box-office home run with The Avengers, but that’s no reason to overlook this marvelous muffin basket of a monster movie that he produced, co-wrote, and (second unit) directed. Sadly, the specifics of the story arc prevent a detailed critique, but let’s just say that this is a horror movie on a grand “meta” scale that dwarfs Wes Craven’s Scream series.

What Whedon does with Cabin in the Woods is place the late 20th century horror movie, and more specifically the subcategory known as Hack and Stack (a.k.a. Doomed Teenage Campers), into a miraculous context, one that weds the most dreadful aspects of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick. Whedon has created a horror movie mythos that dares to explain why its characters make such monumentally bad decisions, and why it’s imperative that the fools suffer before meeting their (mostly determined) gruesome fate. It’s a groovy concept, but really, just this once.

I don’t anticipate a rash of imitators, because this looks to be a genre only big enough for one. And Cabin in the Woods is it. At the same time, I can understand why some horror fans didn’t care for it. To them I would say, don’t think of this movie as an attempt to subvert the genre in a contrived or overly clever way—it’s more of an elegant novelty, an intricate lark that stands as a singular testament to outside-the-box thinking. In other words, Whedon’s laughing with us, and not at us.

Vampire Bats (2005)

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It’s always a treat to see the lovely Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) in front of the camera, even if it’s in a throwaway rabid critter movie like Vampire Bats. She’s such a beguiling screen presence (and I love her so much) that she could bring grace, good humor and glamour to anything, including a car insurance commercial. Sorry Flo, your days are numbered.

Lawless stars as Maddy Rierdon, a plucky animal behavior specialist who teaches at Tate University, a campus nestled comfortably somewhere in Louisiana bayou country. A bunch of forgettable students (can we please invent some new collegiate stereotypes? I’m bored with these!) stir up the local bat population by blasting shitty techno music at weekend swamper parties. The helpful Maddy informs the authorities that the bats have mutated into double-fanged killers by feeding on insects that have hatched near a contaminated sewage treatment plant. (Like we give a shit, perfesser!) We the audience are treated to several scenes of bats wreaking havoc at parties (biting, flying, chewing, sucking, etc). For some reason, Brett Butler (the actress, not the ball player) and late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson have teensy parts, and Timothy Bottoms plays a mayor that looks like George W. Bush.

I shall now damn Vampire Bats with faint praise: It’s not boring or incompetently filmed. That said, there’s not much to recommend it either, other than Ms. Lawless. Whether or not that’s sufficient to sustain your attention during the 90-minute running time is a question you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

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Seems to me there was a fair amount of interchat about this nifty remake of a revered 1973 made-for-television movie—and most of it wasn’t flattering. “Not Del Toro enough,” was the general consensus. “Horror by numbers.” Guillermo del Toro, director and writer (he co-wrote and produced this one) of such treasured titles as The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy flicks, certainly carries a weighty pedigree. But I don’t agree with conventional wisdom. To me, Are You Afraid of the Dark is textbook Del Toro: a lonely, uprooted child moves into a creepy, dangerous environment and must confront an evil presence. Any of that ring a bell?

The child in this case is Sally (Bailee Madison), a petulant and defensive kid who’s being shuffled off to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pierce) and his girlfriend Kim (the cute-as-a-button Katie Holmes), while they fix up a sprawling baronial country estate in Rhode Island. (Sidebar: If I was a petulant and defensive child I would have wet my pants at the prospect of living in this friggin’ castle. It even has ruins! Eeeeee!)

Anyway, Sally soon becomes aware that the house is infested with mean little varmints that live in the basement who want her to “come and play with them.” However, as the introductory flashback reveals, these are murderous little folk—vicious furry anthropoids about the size of rats who carry blades, whisper dark threats, and snack on the teeth of children. They also hate light. The story builds slowly (perhaps too slowly, for some), as Alex believes his daughter has gone bonkers, while the more sympathetic Kim finds Sally’s tale has the ring of truth. And then their construction foreman turns up sliced to ribbons, to really complicate things.

While it’s true that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark moves at a leisurely pace, I really didn’t mind, because newbie director Troy Nixey obviously stuck pretty close to Guillermo del Toro’s script (co-written with Matthew Robbins), so the mood and tension are deftly elevated, as our heroine Sally descends, a centimeter at a time, deeper into the bowels of the awful house and its fiendish inhabitants. The blood and guts are doled out judiciously, but that’s to be expected in a movie that’s more a grim fairy tale than a body count buffet. It’s also a very, very handsome film and unusually absorbing. Recommended.

Shark Night (2011)

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The budget for Shark Night was reportedly somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million. So where did the money go? My guess is $24 million went to the 3D effects (which don’t magically appear on my TV—I even tried wearing an old pair of glasses, but all I got was a migraine) and the rest was divvied up between fake blood, a few hair metal songs, and (hopefully) a decent payday for one of the coolest character actors going, Donal Logue. Writers Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg probably got a case of beer and a couple frozen pizzas. For cryin’ out loud, this even had a theatrical release and it’s only marginally better than something from the Asylum crew, who would have at least had the decency to throw in a little nudity.

The story (such as it is) concerns a group of reasonably attractive Tulane college students who decide to drop the books and have a wild weekend at Sara’s (Sara Paxton) Romney-esque McMansion on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain—a body of water that’s allegedly got enough salt in it to sustain gangs of roving ravenous sharks. In case you’re interested, the prevailing theory is that the sharks arrived as the result of a particularly tempestuous hurricane season, but this notion is quickly discarded when local rednecks Dennis and Red (Chris Carmack and Joshua Leonard) confess that they’ve been stocking the pond with 45 varieties of shark (out of a possible 350!) in order to shoot footage of idiots getting eaten for “a cable channel.” Really? That’s the best we can do?

There’s gallons of blood, but very little viscera in Shark Night, and the effects (which include sharks leaping out of the water like Baryshnikov to chomp people in trees and boats) are amateurish enough to be right at home in Crockasaurus Meets Robo Squid (Hey, I have a script!) on SyFy Channel. The previously mentioned Donal Logue is always worth watching (especially in his late, lamented FX series Terriers), and he manages to sneak off with a couple of scenes as a good ol’ boy, metalhead sheriff, but the rest of the cast is just picking up a check. And the sharks? These fish should go back to school.

The Reef (2010)

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If you’re a fan of “Shark Week” like Ol’ Sharky, nothing gets your flippers in a fuddle like a little fresh blood in the water. And there’s plenty for everyone in the Aussie survival-fest, The Reef. It’s a low-rent production with a lot of stock footage of sharks feeding, but the tension is there.

A crew of reasonably attractive young sailors and their ladies fair set to sea in a beautiful pea-green sailboat. Boat hits rock and capsizes. Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) advises they gear up and swim fo the nearest land. Warren (Kieran Darcy-Smith) inexplicably stays behind on the capsized boat. The entire area is teeming with sharks that seem extraordinarily peckish. Who lives? Who gets their ass chewed?

Why anyone would enjoy a sailboat outing along the Great Barrier Reef (aka, “shark central”) is beyond comprehension. Again, I’d like to think that my innate cautious nature would spare me from vast amounts of horror-movie sorrow whilst traveling the world.

Prey (2010)

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Are pigs scary? Sure, why not? In the French thriller Prey, some really vicious swine bedevil a wealthy family of corrupt industrialists. Much mayhem ensues.

Nutshell: The aforementioned 1 percenters gather at the family mansion for various reasons: the family business (pesticides, natch) is in trouble, and the youngest daughter is considering marriage and a move away with her fiancee (Grégoire Colin). Before anyone can make any sort of decision, a herd of deer commit suicide by throwing themselves on an electric fence. The menfolk get their shooting irons together and investigate. Enter monstrous, mutated killer pigs.

I liked this one quite a bit. The hunting party is a pack of privileged assholes who slowly come unraveled in the wilderness (Sorry, I love that motif) and get everything they deserve. The action then asks us to consider, “Who are the real pigs here?”

Prey  (Proie en Francais) is a righteous little movie and proof positive that pigs—yes, pigs—are a formidable foe with much potential to plague mankind. All hail the coming of Swinecore!

The Canyon (2009)

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My sweet baby and I like watching a show on Discovery Channel called I Shouldn’t Be Alive, that features depressing dramatizations of unlucky camping trips, plane rides, skiing vacations, and the like, wherein folks get marooned, injured, lost or otherwise completely screwed thanks to a wrathful Mother Nature. The Canyon reminds me of a longer version of the show—and that’s not such a bad thing. Both the TV show and the film have one vital theme in common: How do people react when things just keep getting worse?

Nick and Lori Conway are the reasonably attractive newlywed couple who decide to take a guided tour of the Grand Canyon by mule for their honeymoon. Gosh, how romantic. Lori wants no part of the plan but her douchey new husband insists. They end up being escorted by Henry (Will Patton), a grizzled, hard-drinking old trail hand they meet in a bar. Yep, it promises to be a swell honeymoon. Henry gets waylaid by rattlesnakes and the tenderfooted couple end up lost in the Grand Canyon with next to no provisions. Awesome.

Yvonne Strahowski is Lori, and she quickly evolves into the alpha character while Nick (Eion Bailey) proves to be a wussy little twerp. Lori is forced to deal with hungry wolves (again with the wolves?), an avalanche, and a whiny, useless husband.

The pace quickly accelerates from slow and sun-baked to a fairly believable struggle against the elements, predators, and their own civilized veneer.

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