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.

The Reef (2010)

If you’re a fan of Shark Week like OldSharky, 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 there’s legit tension throughout.

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 for 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 off?

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.

The Reef isn’t top-shelf entertainment. It’s more like the junk drawer of passing time.

High Lane (2009)

High Lane is a smartly crafted French thriller that earns a respectable round of applause from yours truly. It’s kind of a two-fer, since the terror stems from different directions.

A passel of adventurous, reasonably attractive young-uns decide to climb a fabled mountain in Croatia (mistake no. 1, of many). The climbing footage itself, to me, is disturbing enough (me no like high places), especially after it turns out that one member of the team is scared of heights and has to be led around like a sniveling cub scout.

Great, I’ve got a character to identify with—and he’s a shithead.

As if coping with a panic-stricken climber isn’t enough, it turns out they are not alone up there. Somewhere, a creature dwells. And really, that’s all that needs to be said.

So with High Lane you get vertiginous frights augmented by the presence of a freaky whatsit. Any way you slice it, that’s good value.

It also helps that director Abel Ferry has a good eye for both picturesque countryside and high-altitude drama.

I’d watch it again.

Prey (2010)

Are pigs scary? Sure, why not?

In the French thriller Prey, some really vicious swine bedevil a wealthy family of corrupt industrialists. 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)

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 (Eion Bailey)and Lori Conway (Yvonne Strahowski) 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.

Lori quickly evolves into the alpha while Nick proves to be a wussy little twerp. Hats off to the lady for dealing 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.

Just stay home, you fools!

 

 

Mask Maker (2010)

How many times have we seen a movie wherein a young couple hoping for a fresh start moves into a house with an evil, awful, scary, drippy history? I think I lost count at a gajillion.

The thing that chafes my cheeks is when a low- to no-budget horror film has exterior footage of a huge, mysterious, fog-shrouded Gothic mansion, only to cut to interior shots that look like they were filmed in your Aunt Tillie’s country condo.

The stairs and hallways of the accursed manor that once housed Satan himself, are festooned with smoke alarms, paintings of dogs playing poker, and three-prong outlets? It’s a hard one for me to overlook.

Thankfully, Mask Maker (original title: Maskerade) manages to disguise its measly budget well enough, and you’ll likely be sufficiently invested to turn a blind eye to some bad mattes, continuity errors, and a weird chronology of events.

A couple of reasonably attractive college students elope to a decrepit plantation-style house in the middle of nowhere that Evan (Stephen Colletti) has bought for the very reasonable sum of $10,000.

The house comes with 40 (haunted) acres, is a goldmine of valuable heirlooms, and even has a priceless wine cellar.

What the Realtor neglected to mention is that a woman, accused of witchcraft like, 50 years ago (when Kennedy was in office, presumably), and her demented son were lynched on the property.

One thing leads to another, and the son rises from the grave (that looks all of  two feet deep) and, for reasons we never learn, murders the interlopers and steals their faces to make scary masks.

It sounds pretty lame, but director Griff Fuest is generous with the gore and there’s even a splash of nudity. The script is nothing special but it isn’t dealbreaker dumb.

Bonus points for casting Treat Williams and Michael (The Hills Have Eyes) Berryman in small parts.

And Jason London, on a weekend pass from rehab, also makes an appearance.

You could do worse.

 

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Humor in horror movies is a tricky thing. It’s a great tension reliever, but too much, too often, and you end up watching a “spoof.” (Spoof = lame). Director Scott Glosserman strikes a judicious balance of horror and ha-ha in Behind the Mask, a faux documentary about a film crew of college students shadowing a wannabe serial killer.

As Leslie, the cheerful, upbeat (but very focused) killer, Nathan Baesel brings vast amounts of nuance to a role that could have been a corny caricature. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Rob Lowe’s character in Parks & Recreation, a most amiable and chatty fellow.

He is by turns funny, cunning, weird, and frightening as a man who has chosen to do battle against the forces of good. (“There can’t be good without evil,” he explains.) The lion’s share of the film details Leslie’s extensive preparations as he stalks his victim, a pretty waitress named Taylor (Angela Goethals).

The real hook is that Leslie takes great pains to debunk the supernatural aspects of cinematic serial killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger. He trains relentlessly, studies the disappearing tricks of Houdini, practices yoga, and gets sage advice from Eugene (the always excellent Scott Wilson), a retired killer who lives next door.

It’s a smart film and no one behaves in predictable fashion—unless it’s part of the stalking-and-killing ritual. Small parts featuring Robert Englund as Leslie’s “Ahab,” Dr. Halloran (a ringer for Donald Pleasance in Halloween), and tiny Zelda Rubenstein as the librarian with a red herring, add to the fun.

Behind the Mask is a highly ambitious little movie that brings brains to the table.

Frozen (2009)

Here’s a scenario we’ve not seen before. Two snowboard buddies, one with a girlfriend in tow, are stranded on a ski lift in the dark as the resort closes down for five days. No cell phone reception, in case you’re wondering. What to do?

During the majority of Frozen’s running time, while the trapped trio is dangling in the dark trying to figure a way out, we’ve got a tense little thriller on our hands. Old animosities boil over, and various escape plans prove fruitless.

And then the wolves show up. (Wow! Who knew there was a pack of hungry timber wolves roaming the slopes of a popular ski resort?) At that point, although the tension remains palpable, the plot takes a turn for the ridiculous.

Sticking it out to the end isn’t too painful, but it seems like director Adam Green (Hatchet) squandered a decent set-up, and blew the chance to be more provocative.

Mulberry Street (2006)

See the crummy neighborhood, its streets and alleys awash in sweaty, hustling, vibrant humanity.  Puerto Ricans, Italians, blacks, whites, all doing what they have to to get by. They live in a tableau of small but clean apartments with crappy plumbing, narrow hallways, and crumbling basements. The scene thusly set, the panic points that pop up in Mulberry Street seem natural, even organic. And panic does indeed pop up in the form of huge, surprisingly vicious rats that have a taste for warm human flesh.

That in itself might be frightening enough as the plot for a gritty, inner-city entropyfest, but things definitely take a turn for the worse, as bite victims start mutating into crazed, hairy, blood-thirsty varmints. Were-rats? Whatevs. Anyway, friends are now enemies, families are now food.

Speaking of families, Clutch (Nick Damici) is the protagonist, and he’s a goodhearted ex-boxer awaiting the return of his battle-scarred daughter from her tour in Iraq.  While he waits, he does a pretty good job of looking after the other tenants in his building when the unfortunates infected with rat rabies begin flipping their wigs.

Amidst the chaos and the killing, the assorted characters, including a drag queen, a middle-aged Italian guy and his father who totes his oxygen tank with him everywhere he goes, and a lonely single mom, all display surprising humanity and warmth, which isn’t easy when hordes of rabid rodent-thropes are trying to chow down on their asses.

It’s always a bonus when characters show that they have some grit and integrity rather than succumb to the always-popular “every man for himself” option. Definitely a cut above the average.