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.

Shadow Puppets (2007)

Several folks (mostly attractive women) 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 Joleen Blalock (she was the Vulcan hottie from that lame Star Trek series with Scott Bakula), there really isn’t much to recommend Shadow Puppets.

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 lots more gore and gals to maintain a passable level of interest from the average horror fan.

And a brawny dude in a rubber suit would have been a major improvement in the monster department.

The Oregonian (2011)

I’ve been employed as a writer and editor in Portland since 1994 (more or less). So when I saw that a new horror entry on Netflix had the same name as our daily newspaper, I just assumed it was the terrifying story of an aging copy editor with limited skills trying to remain employed in the face of career obsolescence.

For better or for worse, this is not the case. Instead, writer-director Calvin Reeder works awfully hard to create a minor-league David Lynch nightmare—with marginal results.

The Oregonian opens on a girl (Lindsay Pulsipher, from True Blood; think Reese Witherspoon’s disturbed kid sister) driving away from a farm (and a drunk abusive father figure). This is followed by a a vague car accident in which “the Oregonian” (Pulsipher, I guess) smashes a couple of unlucky picnickers into pickle relish.

When she regains her senses (if in fact, she ever does), the titular damsel finds herself lost in a weirdly malign universe that bears a striking resemblance to David Lynch’s subconscious.

Looking for help, and finding nothing of the sort, the girl meets a menacing witch (more of a ticked-off art teacher, really); a guy in a truck who doesn’t speak (much) but gives her a ride, and then collapses after taking a long, multicolored leak; and a tall guy in a green fuzzy monster suit who seems to represent some part of her life that she’s trying to repress.

Again, it’s Lynch, Lynch, Lynch. The soundtrack is crammed with shrieks, radio static, buzzers, voices, and other annoying artsy distractions. The lonely, rural, rainy sets could be Twin Peaks B-roll, even down to a shot of the girl walking across the same railroad bridge that poor Ronette Pulaski wandered over, lo those many years ago.

Reeder gets a few points for being a dexterous (though derivative) visual stylist, but his fevered homage is more endurance test than entertainment.

I could hack films like The Oregonian back when I was young and my head was still supple; now I just want my 90 minutes back.

I Can See You (2008)

Writer-director Graham Reznick has a whole mess of ideas (emphasis on “mess”). Some of them good ones; others not so much.

In his “psychological horror” film (a term that always causes me to make sure my wallet is still in my pocket) I Can See You, he layers symbolism on top of metaphor on top of subtext with obvious care, but I’m not 100 percent convinced his bad-trip, camping-trip premise pays off in any meaningful way.

It’s intriguing to look at, though.

Three Brooklyn advertising flunkies, working on a huge campaign for a very cheesy cleaning product, decide to go camping in order to clear their creative blocks.

Kimball (Christopher Ford) brings his girlfriend Sonia (Olivia Villanti), who can’t stand Doug (Duncan Skiles), an extroverted horn-dog asshole. And then there’s Richard (Ben Dickinson), a confused artist with Daddy issues and a tenuous grasp on reality.

Ah, you can almost smell the campfire smoke.

Reznick attempts to fuse hazy jumpcuts from ’60s counterculture features like Easy Rider, with the paint-dry pace of WTF atmospheric horror oddities like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Truth be told, this audacious camp-stew concept did result in enough taut footage to keep me hanging in there. It’s slow and hallucinatory, with flashbacks, foreshadowing, and plenty of nonlinear interludes.

I Can See You is mildly interesting, for the most part, but I question whether the average horror fan will have the patience to sit through all the film-school artsy-fartsiness to reach any definite conclusions.

Is one of the campers a killer? More than one of them? Will they finally come up with a salable idea for their presentation? How come Richard can’t finish painting a portrait of his father? Is it a creative sin to use genuine artistic talent to sell useless consumer items?

Lots and lots of questions, but the answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind.

Triangle (2009)

I have to say, Triangle is a nifty thriller—albeit one that’s more like a cruise through the Twilight Zone, rather than an in-your-face horror spectacle.

It’s a fairly compelling riff on the concept of converging realities, duover days, and a rip in the time/space continuum, that forces one woman to relive the events of one unfortunate afternoon in a seemingly endless loop.

H-o-t single mom Jess (Melissa George) climbs aboard a spacious sailboat with a bunch of reasonably attractive Australians pretending to be Americans (it’s supposedly set in Florida, but this is an Aussie production complete with slippery accents) for a weekend of pleasure boating.

Somehow they get blown off course by a freak storm and end up capsized. The waterlogged survivors scurry aboard a deserted ocean liner/Flying Dutchman that just happens to be steaming by, and the stage is set for something sinister.

Jess tries desperately to repair their fate, even as she and her friends are hopelessly caught up in a Moebius strip of action, while we gather up the clues that are dutifully dropped by writer/director Christopher Smith.

Lines of dialogue are repeated throughout, as multiple versions of Jess look on from different perspectives each time she rewinds back to their boarding of the ghost ship.

Hint: The myth of Sisyphus is discussed briefly.

Triangle is another film that suffers from a slight case of the wanders (i.e., characters spend far too much time poking around like tourists in an antique mall), but even so, it’s an effective piece of genre entertainment, in which the Groundhog’s Day rules of reality result in the cast being murdered several times in various ways.

Saving money on the number of actors that need to be paid by having them slaughtered over and over, makes good economic sense—and helps shape a subtly scary seafaring saga, as poor Jess comes to the slow realization that she’s been running around this damned ship for a helluva long time.

And there’s not even a shuffleboard court or a wave pool.

Spiderhole (2010)

Four reasonably attractive English art students decide that paying rent is for suckers, so they take up residence in a creepy, boarded up old mansion. Sure, squatting seems glamorous, but there are always unforeseen obstacles.

For example, no running water or electricity. Mysterious sounds in the night. And let’s not forget about the downstairs tenant, a deranged surgeon who periodically gasses his new guests, straps them to an operating table, and removes their body parts—while the latter scream, curse, and plead.

It’s a well-dressed effort by writer/director Daniel Simpson (the setting is suitably bleak and dreary), but Spiderhole is neither gory or excruciating enough to be torture porn, and it’s too damn slow to be a haunted-house hack ’em up.

Simpson valiantly tries to tie several gossamer-thin plot points together, but fails, as if finally throwing up his hands and admitting, “To hell with the story, let’s get back to cutting up the kids.”

He haphazardly chooses to reintroduce a minor subplot about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years (who cares?!) at the very end of the film, but by then the viewer has forgotten all about this earlier allusion that  amounts to nothing, anyway.

The same pointless nihilism that (to me, anyway) makes Hostel and all those Saw movies so uninteresting is at work here. Simply binding a victim and hurting them while they struggle and cry (and maybe even escape a time or two), is skull-crushingly dull, unless there’s a reasonable explanation for doing so.

Otherwise, you have, what exactly? Shrieking? Not scary, but very annoying, to be sure. Call me old fashioned, but I want to know why the victims are screaming and what they did to deserve it.

YellowBrickRoad (2010)

This indie entry has such an unsettling premise and buildup, that I’m actually going to forgive the WTF ending. It wasn’t easy, but the first 75 minutes are skillfully constructed and hint at so much awful, otherworldly potential.

Filmmakers Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland effectively borrow the premise of The Blair Witch Project—research team goes into scary woods to investigate a local mystery—and successfully create a movie in which the viewer is constantly bombarded with possibilities and forced to invent scenarios that explain the increasingly bizarre circumstances.

A writer (Michael Laurino), his wife (Anessa Ramsey), and a handful of other science-y types go traipsing off into uncharted New Hampshire forest land to find out what happened to the entire population of the nearby town of Friar.

Seventy years previous, everyone inexplicably left Friar and followed a trail into the woods and were never seen alive again. The modern-day explorers find the coordinates of the trail and the expedition begins. What no one realizes until it’s far too late, is that it’s a doomed expedition leading only to—MADNESS!

It’s a subtle transformation that takes place in YellowBrickRoad; the further the characters travel on the trail, the more things break down. Tensions arise, their instruments cease to work, and worst of all, they are loudly serenaded with old-timey jazz music day and night, as if the entire forest is wired for sound.

After all this slow-baked agony, the ending is a rather pale payoff compared to what Mitton and Holland have put us through for most of the film, but credit must be given for the power of the journey itself, which at times resembles a low-budget take on Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God rather than the aforementioned Blair Witch.

And that’s good company. 

Pontypool (2009)

Leave it to those clever Canucks.

Bolstered by a poweerhouse performance by Stephen McHattie, Canadian horror flick Pontypool successfully utilizes the zombie genre to make a point (not a subtle one, but a point nonetheless) about the power of language.

More specifically, about media and its unwholesome influence on our collective consciousness.

Directed by Bruce McDonald (Hardcore Logo, Dance Me Outside), Ponytpool unfolds in the small Ontario town of the same name and stars veteran bad guy McHattie (A History of Violence, Shoot ‘Em Up) as Grant Mazzy, a conspiracy minded radio personality in the middle of nowhere who drinks too much and sounds off about small-town news developments.

When the station’s weather correspondent on the outskirts of town reports that a violent mob is running amok, Mazzy, his producer (Lisa Houle) and engineer (Georgina Reilly) must hunker down in the station and defend themselves.

The premise is Zombie 101: Take a small cast, put them in a claustrophobic pressure cooker, add undead army. What becomes apparent as the movie progresses, is that the zombies in this instance have been driven to madness by some kind of viral phenomenon that’s sound-based.

Mazzy and his coworkers discover that the English language is “infected” and words attract the unwanted attention of the bloodthirsty masses.

So they start speaking French.

I could go on till third period about the message McDonald and writer Tony Burgess hammer out about the irresponsibility of the Limbaughs, the Hannitys, and similar braying asses for inspiring paranoia and the worst tendencies in their listeners, but the main thing you need to know is that Pontypool is a tight, thoughtful thriller that delivers.

McHattie, whom you will recognize from countless roles as a “heavy” (he looks like a slightly more Mephistophelean Lance Henricksen) is superb as a man who is trying his damndest to figure out what the hell is going on.

There are moments when he appears to be acting in his own self-interest (keeping his beleaguered reporter talking on the air even while he’s not in a safe location) but beneath his devilish veneer, Mazzy is a compassionate thinker and a genuine humanitarian.

True, there’s not much zombie action (eating, rending, shuffling) in this one, but the threat is imminent and feels very real.

And for a movie with only one locale and a handful of characters, that’s an amazing feat. I could even see Pontypool becoming popular as aHalloween play.

Good writing wins again.

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.