Maniac (2012)


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I distinctly remember seeing the original Maniac (1980) at the drive-in the year it came out.

It was an especially garish example of grindhouse sleazery directed by William Lustig (Maniac Cop, Vigilante), with splashy gore effects by the great Tom Savini, and starring Joe Spinell (The Godfather II, Taxi Driver) as Frank Zito, a lumpy schlub on a murderous rampage.

Whether he was obliterating necking teens with a shotgun, strangling hookers, or scalping his victims in order to dress up his mannequin collection, Zito proved a memorably demented protagonist.

For this slick, slightly less lurid remake, Lustig teamed with Franco fiends Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur (writers) and Franck Khalfoun (director) to recast Frodo Bag… er, Elijah Wood as the prolific psycho with the crippling Mommy issues.

Frank Zito (Wood) is a rodentish owner of a vintage mannequin store obsessed with Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful photographer, who happens by his shop to admire his magnificent collection of dress forms.

When Frank isn’t awkwardly wooing Anna, he’s out skewering, strangling, slicing, and scalping a string of unlucky ladies who remind him of his horribly skanky mother. Can the love of a good woman redeem a savage killer? No, of course not. What a ridiculous idea.

Director Khalfoun charts the action with a very aggressive POV camera (Wood is seen mostly in reflections), that straps us into the driver’s seat of considerable carnage—a feverish perspective that most viewers should find deeply unsettling.

Wood portrays Zito as a shaky mess of neuroses and unchecked rage, a rather alarming change from the mild-mannered hobbit that we followed through three epic movies on his sojourn to Mount Doom.

Here, Wood’s character is on a different kind of quest; trying to annihilate the memories of the woman responsible for making him the man(iac) he is today.

Needless to say, not for squeamish or sensitive souls.

The Attic (2007)

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I haven’t really watched Mad Men, so actress Elisabeth Moss is kind of a revelation to me. If you haven’t seen her in the miniseries Top of the Lake, directed by Jane Campion, I suggest you do so, because it’s totally brilliant, and so is she.

In The Attic, a younger Moss portrays Emma, the increasingly delusional protagonist in a rural-goth take on Polanski’s Repulsion. Wait, did I say delusional? Perhaps she’s just a curious insect that’s wandered into the wrong fly trap.

Emma lives in a house near the woods. Her father (John Savage) and mother (Catherine Mary Stewart; who could ever forget the classic Night of the Comet?) are hopeful that she’ll finally want to go to college, but Emma prefers traipsing around the house in her nightie or exploring the creepy attic with her developmentally disabled brother Frankie (Tom Malloy, who also wrote the script).

A psychiatrist (Thomas Jay Ryan) is called in by the parents, but Emma proves to be a patient with more layers than a blooming onion.

Moss is riveting as Emma, an unmoored girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Is she going insane? Has she been possessed by a malevolent house spirit? Are Mom and Dad conspiring against her?

Like Rover with a new soup bone, you’ll be chewing on the possibilities for a while. That said, The Attic is by no means perfect: Director Mary Lambert (Pet Semetary, lots of Madonna videos) definitely built this one to be a slow burner—rich in atmospheric dread but with the action (and bloodletting) more strategically rationed.

Twixt (2011)

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Distinguished filmmaker (and winemaker) Francis Ford Coppola returns to his horror roots!

As we all know, one of his first films was the 1963 gothic thriller Dementia 13 for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures.

And like his earlier film, Twixt is an eerie, dreamlike story with revolving color/black and white scenery, and a narrative that shifts gears between reality, dream world, and the mind of a desperate writer trying to get in touch with his long-lost muse.

Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), described by one fan as “a bargain-basement Stephen King,” is out on an aimless book tour for his latest hack-job horror novel.

He rolls into Swann Valley, a sleepy little California community, and is immediately pounced upon by wannabe writer and town sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern), who wants to collaborate on a new book. “The whole town is haunted!” he tells the writer with glee.

Baltimore is an alcoholic, an indifferent husband, and a grieving father who’s clearly at the end of his rope, so he agrees to let the loony lawman show him the town.

And soon a new story is born, featuring a corpse with a stake through its heart, the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe, a dangerously pale girl with braces, a haunted hotel, and a clock tower that’s inhabited by “the devil himself.”

Obviously, Twixt is not on a par (or scale) with Coppola masterworks like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. Plot points come and go, some resolved, some disappearing like lint in a stiff breeze.

But it’s a consistently intriguing little flick that’s both a horror whodunit and a tale about a tapped-out artist who needs to reconnect with his talent in order to survive.

For rabid cinephiles, the movie includes appearances by the likes of David Paymer, Joanne Whalley (Kilmer’s wife), Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci!) and Elle Fanning, not to mention an introduction read by Tom Waits.

Ultimately, though, it’s Coppola who makes all the right moves, perhaps signaling a return to more creative endeavors than stomping on grapes.

The Uninvited (2009)

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Based on the 2003 Korean ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited is a taut, effective spook show that’s told with admirable restraint and subtle finesse, with an ending that will likely pull the rug out from under you. Yes, you’ll be able to figure out some of the plot twists, but probably not all of them.

Traumatized teen Anna (Emily Browning, who’s excellent) is released from a mental hospital almost a year after the night her bedridden mother died in a fire at the boat house of her family’s ocean-view estate. Upon her return, her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) fills her in on current events, namely, that their writer father Steven (David Strathairn) is knocking boots with Mom’s former caregiver Rachel (Elizabeth Banks). The sisters suspect Rachel had a hand in their mother’s fiery demise, and set about proving it, before the wicked nurse can become their wicked stepmother.

There’s nothing revolutionary going on in The Uninvited; it’s an Asian-flavored family fright-fest that never bogs down. The ghosts are suitably frightening, the actors tackle their roles with bravado, and in the end we’re left to piece together a tragic story that’s considerably more than meets the eye. It’s old-school scary and a good choice for a mixed audience of genre diehards and those who under most circumstances don’t dig the whole “horror thing.”

Mama (2013)

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For the first three-quarters of Mama, I was absolutely transfixed. Executive producer Guillermo del Toro imbues the action with his trademark otherworldly finesse, though the overall feel of the film, courtesy of co-writer/director Andres Muschietti, seems more like Sam Raimi with a splash of Sleepy Hollow-era Tim Burton. It’s an eerie, heartfelt, and stylish fairy tale, featuring a fiercely maternal ghost that will probably be guest-starring in my nightmares for years to come. And yet the foot comes off the gas pedal when Muschietti endeavors to make the ghost more human, more of an actual character, toward the conclusion.

Mama opens with a bang as a deranged father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), fresh off a killing spree, snatches his two young daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) and heads for tall timber. He drives off a snowy road, crashes the car, and herds his frightened children to an abandoned house in the woods. Five years later, the now-feral girls are discovered by hunters searching the wilderness in the employ of their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau, again).

The girls are bathed and brought back to civilization under the watchful eye of Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), and are given over to Lucas and his hot (though not particularly maternal) girlfriend Annabelle (Jessica Chastain) who plays bass in a Muffs-style pop-punk band. The question is, how did two young girls survive five years in the woods on their own? Answer: With the help of a madwoman’s ghost who leapt from a nearby cliff with her own baby more than a century before.

Really, Mama is one of the most impressive “ghost” movies I’ve seen in years. The ending drags a bit, and the vengeful spirit becomes less awesome the more we see of her, but these are minor quibbles. Drop your knitting and get on it; you just might discover (as I did) that this is the sort of thoughtful, wondrous, and best of all, frightening, ghost story that you’ve been hankering for.

Sinister (2012)

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This one was described to me as “pants-shittingly” scary and I’m happy to report that I emerged from the experience high and dry.

But it’s not a flop, either.

Despite some really uneven pacing, Sinister registers on the high-voltage jump-scare meter, though you can see most of them coming a mile away.

True-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) recklessly moves his wife and two children into a house where a family murder/suicide took place in the not-too-distant past so he can write a book about it.

Editor’s Note: Frankly, this is another case of the protagonist being such a selfish prick that all the bad things that happen subsequently can be laid at his stupid feet. He doesn’t even bother to tell his rather dim wife about the house’s history till it’s far too late.

Oswalt discovers some disturbing home movies in the attic and begins to piece together the biggest story of his career—ritual serial killing that dates back several decades, with the killer(s) in thrall to an obscure Babylonian deity named Bughuul.

The pacing problems in Sinister I refer to earlier can be attributed to way, way too many scenes of Oswalt wandering through his house at night. Sometimes something happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But I felt like writer/director Scott Derrickson’s (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) decision to spend three-quarters of the movie skulking around in low light waiting for the scary face to emerge, wasn’t the most inspired.

The lack of contrast in scene after scene becomes an irritant.

Still, the occult concept is well-executed and profoundly creepy as Oswalt slowly comes to the realization that his ego has caused him to step foolishly into an inescapable trap—even as he can’t help but be impressed by its horrible shape and grandeur.

Frontier(s) (2007)

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Parisian robbers on the run pick the absolute worst place in the universe to hide out.

Frontier(s) writer-director Xavier Gens is obviously smitten with genre classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but I suspect there’s a sneaky tip of the beret to French New Wave provocateur Jean-Luc Godard, as well.

See? I studied film.

A quartet of reasonably attractive thieves flees the political turmoil and violent protests in Paris for the anonymity of the French countryside in order to count their loot.

Editor’s Note: What could people in Paris be upset about? You live in Paris! Have another creamy pastry and wash it down with some fine wine. Sheesh!

Unwilling accomplice Yasmine (Karina Testa) and her three co-conspirators decide to hole up in a bed and breakfast/pig farm staffed by Cannibal Nazi Hillbillies (Canazibillies?) and are soon horrified to find themselves on the menu.

The Canazibillies have little trouble subduing the brash bandits, but then old resentments boil over during the divvying of the spoils and the Master Racists are reduced to fighting amongst each other.

Even as Paris is awash in violence after the election of a right-wing candidate, Yasmine and her friends use the opportunity to commit robbery, preferring cold, hard cash to either side of a political demonstration.

I believe it is their cynical lack of commitment to a cause that makes them suitable candidates for torture and a trip to the pantry. What happens when shameless opportunists meet fanatical sadists? Well, it ain’t pretty that’s for sure.

Even if the revolutionary subtext is stretched thin to the point of invisibility, Frontier(s) provides effective shocks to the system with frantic regularity as captor and captive alike meet a succession of grim fates.

Perhaps Gens is pointing out that the fruit born of violence, whether calculated or chaotic, is equally bitter and deadly.

Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test.

House at the End of the Street (2012)

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Suburban Gothic, anyone?

Hollywood “It” girl Jennifer Lawrence stars as Elissa, a high-spirited lass in a tight-fitting tank top who moves to a new town with her single mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue).

As luck would have it, the only real estate deal they can swing is right next door to a house where psycho teenager Carrie Anne stabbed her parents to death four years before.

Now that’s a tough rental market.

Elissa befriends Carrie Anne’s older brother Ryan (Max Theriot), who lives in the murder house, but was apparently away staying with his aunt when the killings went down.

And since the only other boy in town that’s shown an interest in her tries to rape her at a party, Elissa falls for the mysterious Ryan, who at least has the decency to drive a pretty sweet car and offer her a lift home during a timely cloudburst.

Soon Elissa is securely enmeshed in a tangled familial web, and disturbing secrets of the Norman Bates variety come bubbling to the surface.

House at the End of the Street is nothing special, but writer David Loucka and director Mark Tonderai provide sufficiently well-shuffled plot twists that keep us guessing—at least until they’re rather haphazardly explained.

Lawrence is a compelling actress even in a contrived damsel-in-distress role, and she works hard to nurture whatever emotional investment on our part she can muster.

It’s only a PG-13, so it’s light on bloody mayhem, but there are a few decent jump-scares. If you’re an adolescent dude and want to show your girlfriend a movie that’s scary enough to promote hand-holding (or whatever), but not so horrifying that she flees the room, House at the End of the Street should do the trick.

The Selling (2011)

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M’lady did not care for The Selling, at all. She thought it was corny and childish. Total amateur hour. Long pointless scenes. An unfunny comedy. For the most part, I agreed with her, and still do—yet I quite liked it. Apparently, girls not only mature faster than boys, they mature far longer. Does that make sense?

The truth is, The Selling is nothing more than an old-fashioned spook-house comedy, a genre that peaked somewhere around the time of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. And my inner 12-year-old (which greatly resembles my outer 50-year-old), was delighted. I giggled like a mental patient all the way through it. M’lady thinks me deranged, or at least a case for arrested development. Maybe deranged development is most accurate.

Screenwriter and star Gabriel Diani is dweeby Los Angeles real estate agent Richard Scarry—you know, like the children’s author—who needs to make a pile of dough in a hurry to pay for his mother’s cancer treatment, which, unsurprisingly, is ungodly expensive.

Richard and his dopey pal Dave (Jonathan Klein) get talked into buying a murder house by hot/conniving Realtor Mary Best (Janet Varney) and are then forced to somehow fix-up and flip a house that’s haunted by the 12 victims of a serial killer known as the Sleep Stalker.

The Selling is at its best in the world of real estate chicanery, as our knucklehead protagonists attempt to get an extremely haunted house ready for a “showing.” Meek little Richard attempts to reason with the ghosts, telling them that he is, in fact, in a rather tight spot, and has no choice but to try and sell the house. The ghosts respond with a volley of plagues that would have driven saner, smarter men to head for the hills.

Richard and Dave are not Ghostbusters or even especially competent; they’re just a pair of goofy schnooks that get in over their heads. At least Richard is rewarded with a romantic interest, the extremely bubbly paranormal blogger Ginger Sparks (Etta Divine) who helps them make contact with the spirit world. Comedian Simon Helberg has a small part, and veteran scene chewer Barry Bostwick shows up as a bumbling exorcist.

From all accounts, this was a shoe-string operation, financed the friend-and-family way. So I have to give it up for Diani and director Emily Lou. Here they have cinematic evidence of sufficient wit and inventive moxie to handle a bigger budget. The Selling never tries to be anything more than a sweet, amusing and somewhat corny contemporary haunted house flick. And it more than meets that modest goal.

Wrong Turn 2: Dead End (2007)

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On the scariness scale, if you stack Wrong Turn up against The Hills Have Eyes, I’ll take Wrong Turn every time.

Granted, it’s a close call, but I find the isolation of backwoods West Virginia to be more sinister and oppressive than the stony desert of the American Southwest. At least the latter is open country so it’s more difficult to be taken by surprise.

In the dense vegetation of the forest primeval, bad shit could be hiding anywhere—and probably is. Plus the deft artistry of monster makeup maestro Stan Winston in Wrong Turn is impossible to top.

As far as sequels go, Wrong Turn 2, while not up to the original, is pretty fun. Like Texas Chainsaw 2, this one plays it for gruesome laughs, as the story concerns the pilot for a reality show called Ultimate Survivalist.

As hosted by steely bad-ass Col. Dale Murphy (Henry Rollins, who seems right at home here), it’s a cheap Survivor knockoff, with six meat sacks representing the major victim food groups (slut, jock, buffoon, ass-kicker chick, etc.) tasked with remaining resilient in the boonies after the collapse of civilization.

But of all the boonies in all the world, they had to pick the stomping grounds of deformed, inbred cannibal hillbillies. Oh, is that the dinner bell?

As I alluded earlier, the makeup effects are merely competent in Wrong Turn 2, but that’s to be expected without the presence of Winston.

Also in the “tsk tsk” column is a needlessly determined effort by writers Turi Meyer and Al Septien to add “color” to the script by including a relationship subplot between plucky producer Mara Stone (Aleksa Palladino) and doofus director “M” (Matthew Currie Holmes) that has fuck-all to do with anything.

Even so, director Joe Lynch keeps the ball rolling, the blood flowing, and doomed campers fleeing like bunnies through the bush.

And to give credit where it’s due, Meyer and Septien serve up an ace in their depiction of the monstrous (though eerily familiar) cannibal clan, who provide us with a domestic tableau that’s not only a dead-on tribute to Texas Chainsaw Massacre (specifically the dinner table sequence), but also bloody revolting in its own right.

Is Wrong Turn 2 any more grotesque than say, Honey Boo Boo, or that awful TV family who seem to spawn every other month? Really, I couldn’t say, but I probably would tune in to a show about the daily adventures of this particular pack of deformed, inbred cannibal hillbillies. Coming next season to TLC…

Bonus: There are three more Wrong Turn movies available! Hope they measure up, but I’m certainly not expecting miracles. Stay tuned!