Cabin in the Woods (2011)

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.

Shark Night (2011)

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.

Judging by the results, 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) 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 to 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 not much gore in Shark Night, and the effects (which include sharks leaping balletically out of the water to chomp people in trees and boats) are ludicrous and lame enough to be for 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 metalhead sheriff, but the rest of the cast is unremarkable.

And the sharks? Those fish should go back to school.

The Pack (2010)

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 successful 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 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?

Savage Island (2005)

Here’s a drinking game you can play as the credits roll. Down a shot of whiskey whenever the name “Lando” appears. Between the efforts of writer/director/stunt driver/pianist/editor Jeffrey Lando and his brother (?) Peter, you’ll be shitfaced by the time the movie starts, and then again at the end. It will probably help.

Unlikeable yuppie pricks Steven (Steven Man) and Julia (Kristina Copeland), along with their squawling infant, take a trip to a remote island in British Columbia to visit Julia’s parents. After Julia’s idiot brother Peter (Brendan Beiser) runs over a child belonging to a family of grubby squatters, the yuppie pricks find themselves besieged by vengeful hillbillies (let’s just call them that) who demand their squawling infant as recompense. It goes downhill from there.

While the writing in Savage Island is nothing less than terrible, I have to drop a few props on Jeffrey Lando for his consistency of vision. He finishes what he starts, a third-rate, low-budget riff on Deliverance and Straw Dogs. The Savages (the appropriately named island hillbillies) are nicely fleshed out, and I appreciate that Pa (Winston Rekert) and Ma (Lindsay Jameson) look like Merle Haggard and Sarah Palin, respectively. For that matter, the yokel clan is far more interesting—and sympathetic— than their whiny bourgeois captives.

Bonus: The part of Julia’s stubborn father Keith is played by Don Davis, who was memorable in Twin Peaks as Major Briggs, the father of rebellious teen Bobby, one of Laura Palmer’s many swains.

Dying Breed (2008)

Another entry in the “isolated cannibal clan” genre, Dying Breed is way better than the earlier-reviewed Hillside Cannibals (but then, so is an average episode of Three’s Company), thanks in no small part to its being set in the deep, vibrant woodlands of Tasmania.

Zoologist Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) plunges into the harsh and unforgiving forests of Western Tasmania seeking evidence of the presumed-extinct Tasmanian tiger—the same mysterious beast that her zoologist sister Ruth was chasing several years earlier, before the latter turned up disfigured and drowned. (Dunno Nina, think I’d leave this one alone.)

Along with her boyfriend Matt (Aussie Leigh Whannell, who also wrote Insidious and a couple Saw movies), his obnoxious buddy Jack, and Jack’s cupcake, Rebecca, Nina wanders hither and yon before stumbling upon the rustic and remote township of Sarah.

As luck would have it, the town is populated by the descendants of Alexander Pearce (aka, “The Pieman”), an escaped convict who eluded the police in that area nearly 200 years earlier.

Pearce was later captured and hanged under a cloud of suspicion that he had resorted to chowing down on his chums while hunkered in the bush. Needless to say, the party soon finds itself firmly ensconced in the soup. (Or they end up in quite a pickle, your choice, but I like soup a little better.)

Instead of intrepid ineptitude (again, see Hillside Cannibals), Dying Breed is a grim, well-executed “don’t-go-in-the-woods” fable, directed, plotted, paced, and acted with unwavering efficiency.

The Tasmanian locale carries the same palpable sense of dread and foreboding as the back country of Pennsylvania in Deliverance (a movie that’s referenced here), and the local color is even more bloodthirsty.

Trigger Warning: There are some highly unpleasant implications vis-a-vis “women as breeding stock” here, which may not play in your particular domestic Peoria.

Alligator X (2010)

Ain’t no way to sugarcoat this shit pill: Alligator X (a.k.a. Xtinction: Predator X) sucks rope, and the fact that I made it all the way through is a modern-day miracle.

The giant prehistoric gator brought back to life by mildly mad scientist Charles LaBlanc (Mark Sheppard) generally appears as an underwater animation, so we’re left with the questionable dramatic talents of the actors as the primary means of propelling the plot.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Sheriff Tim (Lochlyn Munro, a poor man’s David Arquette), Laura LeCrois (Elena Lyons), and Froggy (Paul Wall) are about as realistic and well drawn as the titular critter.

Some swell establishing footage of the bayou is thoroughly wasted as the principal characters alternately run from, and after, a “pleasaur” resurrected by Dr. LeBlanc.

Why he wants a monstrous gator for a pet is anyone’s guess, but it sure comes in handy for eating people that piss him off, such as Pappy LeCrois (Phillip Beard), who owns a swamp tour business on property that LeBlanc covets—for some reason.

Pappy’s daughter Laura watches in horror as LeBlanc’s redneck accomplices ring the dinner bell and toss her pops into the juicy jaws of fate. Meanwhile, Sheriff Tim is trapped (for a really long time) on a pylon out in the bayou, after the gator chomps up the boat driven by Pappy’s Cajun employee Froggy, who somehow doesn’t get eaten and returns later in the movie as a bad guy.

Oh yeah, the sheriff has an idiot brother named Henry (Caleb Michaelson) who serves as his bumbling deputy, and later bleeds to death after getting shot by a swamp rat. There are some other characters too. They all die, mostly.

All you need to know about the craft and intelligence at work in Alligator X can be summed up by the final scene, in which Laura and Sheriff Tim casually tease and flirt with each other—less than 24 hours after she saw her daddy get chewed into chum, and about 20 minutes after the sheriff discovers the corpse of his younger brother.

Oh well, at least there’s a happy ending. I for one, was overjoyed to finally see it.

Wicked Little Things (2006)

The moral of Wicked Little Things is a little elusive, but upon my second viewing, this is what I came up with: If you have a terminally ill spouse, make sure you’ve got insurance up the wazoo.

Just another horror movie where the real monster is corporate America…

Filmed in Bulgaria, but set in Pennsylvania mining country, Wicked Little Things opens with one of those sepia-toned flashbacks that explains the premise.

In 1913, a heartless mine owner (See? A capitalist villain!) forces poor local children to work deep in the bowels of the earth. After an unplanned tectonic event, a bunch of the miserable waifs are buried alive.

We are then magically transported to the present, where MILF Karen Tunney (Lori Heuring), and her two daughters, Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton), a surly teen, and Emma (Chloe Moretz), an empathetic moppet, are relocating to this blighted area after the death of Karen’s husband.

Pop’s long, withering illness ate up the family funds, so his dependents are forced to occupy a spacious, but dilapidated family home. Karen’s plans of flipping her fixer-upper are dashed when she finds out that she doesn’t actually own the house, and that the surrounding forest is chock-full of voracious zombie kids, who have emerged from their graves, dressed like cockney street urchins.

Maybe they should have called the movie Hungry Little Things.

It’s not a work of art, but Wicked Little Things maintains a firm hand on mood and tension throughout. I’ve never thought children the least bit horrifying (unless I’m at a restaurant trying to enjoy a meal), but these zombie rug rats are a silent, relentless, and bloodthirsty band that makes mincemeat out of dependable character actor Geoffrey Lewis (Really? You don’t know Geoffrey Lewis?) and a host of bit players.

The real tragedy is that the whole mess could have been avoided if Karen had a better insurance policy.

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010)

For anyone, anywhere who relishes a hack-and-stack about nitwit teens and disastrous camping trips, this one’s your Apocalypse Now.

Somehow, against all odds, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil subverts the horror trope of kids-as-kindling and the vicious hillbillies who stalk them, and manages to be funny and charming, while still delivering the gory goodies

As you’ve no doubt heard, the premise depicts Tucker (Alan Tudyk from Firefly) and Dale (Tyler Labine) as virtuous and kindly rural types who want nothing more than to fix up a little cabin in the woods so they can have a getaway for their fishing and beer-drinking weekends.

Enter a carload of snotty college students led by paranoid and delusional Chad (Jesse Moss), who has the hots for sweet Allison (Katrina Bowden), and the stage is set for a riotous epic of blood, lethal misunderstandings, and even a sweet, timid romance. Surprise!

In lesser hands, this might have turned into a gimmicky, unfunny satire (see the Scary Movie franchise), but writer/director Eli Craig really digs deep to bring out the good-natured decency of the titular hillbillies, even while splashing the screen with enough viscera to appease hardcore genre hounds.

Tudyk and Labine are funny and genuine as virtual innocents who have no idea why these preppy campers are freaking out and trying to kill each other—especially after they go to all the trouble of rescuing their friend Allison from drowning.

What the hell’s wrong with kids today? As someone who generally roots for the killer in these films (Look, I hate teenagers!), Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is a welcome and diverting variation on a theme.

Hillside Cannibals (2006)

The synopsis for Hillside Cannibals describes it as being about some dude named Sawney Bean, a cannibal killer who’s been feasting on victims for 400 years. He lives with his flesh-eating inbred clan in some caves on a hillside (hence the title) in the California desert.

My question is: Where the hell did all this back story come from? There is no evidence of 400-year-old killers found anywhere in the movie. Unless I saw a severely truncated version (which I doubt, because the film is heavily padded; every third shot is of the same pile of skulls and bones on the ground), then director Leigh Scott and writer Steve Bevilacqua are full of crap.

Hell, the cannibals don’t even talk! They just grunt, gurgle, and gesticulate a lot. Perhaps a jaunty song should play during the opening credits (like in The Beverly Hillbillies) that explains the premise. It would have helped.

Nutshell: Five campers, for no reason in particular, go out into the desert for an evening of drinking, reefing, and screwing. A clan of Road Warrior extras, who apparently got their costumes at Goodwill, show up for a bloody buffet.

Final Girl Linda (Heather Conforto), spends the rest of the movie alternately trying to get help, rescue her boyfriend, and elude capture. That’s about it, really.

In their desperate attempt to somehow link this turkey to The Hills Have Eyes, Scott and Bevilacqua neglect the other aspects of the film. First of all, three of the five campers are dead within 12 minutes of the opening. This leaves only two other characters to be killed for the duration of the movie, a problem Scott tries to fix by briefly introducing three more campers, who are on screen just long enough to prove annoying, before they become lunch.

We don’t know who they are, why they’ve chosen to stop in this location, or anything else. While the scene does up the body count, the inclusion of these off-brand characters was clearly an afterthought and accurately illustrates the haphazard level of craft and creativity at work.

Despite all the piss-poor examples of padding and subplots that go nowhere (e.g., what’s the sheriff’s relationship to this band of bizarros? Is he a cousin or something? We never find out.) there is abundant gore and some genuinely nightmarish imagery, including an ending that’s totally grim.

I thought it was a nice stylish touch that when a new chief of the tribe takes power, he has to remove the face of the fallen leader and wear it around. Disgusting, but sort of cool, I guess.

Hillside Cannibals isn’t a complete waste of time—but it comes awfully close.

Red State (2011)

No two ways about it, Kevin (Clerks) Smith is an indie filmmaker with a following and cred up the wazoo.

To an entire generation of cynical, grown-up, comic-book fans, Smith is the light, the way, and the Buddha, the schlubby embodiment of he who rose from the basement and fed the masses with nachos and Big Gulps.

Now, every overeducated film nerd who feels more at home in front of a monitor of some kind, can point to their shitty screenplay and justifiably announce to friends and family, “It worked out for Kevin Smith!”

Been there.

Anyway, I’ve seen just about everything Smith has done, from his Clerks debut through his unfortunate infatuation with mainstream rom-com, and I’m prepared to say Red State is his best work, and that horror (or at least thriller) should be his genre of choice.

His deft camera work and ability to gracefully ratchet up the tension here ably demonstrates his genre bona fides.

Nutshell: Three horny high school kids from a nowhere Nebraska town visit a website for swingers and discover that an older woman the next town over wants to knock boots with (wait for it) three horny high school stud(ent)s.

They drive out to her trailer for some discreet nookie and are promptly taken captive by a local fundamentalist cabal that’s a cross between the Branch Davidians and the Westboro Baptists. And then all hell breaks loose.

When I finished watching Red State I was dumbfounded and said aloud to the nearest sleeping dog, “That movie kicked my ass!” My ass is still kicked. It’s relentlessly provocative as you shift from laughter, to uneasy laughter, to quiet awe.

If you’re the kind of viewer who gets confused when a movie changes tone dramatically, then this isn’t your candy bar. Is it a horror movie? Yes, it’s horrifying. But it’s much more than that.

It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year.

Michael Parks (Kill Bill, Dusk Till Dawn), Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and John Goodman (you know who John Goodman is for Chrissakes!) all deliver chilling, straight-faced performances and I hope their combined star power and some web word-of-mouth is enough to earn Red State the cult status it so richly deserves.