Fear Island (2009)

A low-wattage variation of I Know What You Did Last Summer, in which a handful of amoral dirt-bag twentysomethings, who once did a terrible thing, end up paying the piper on a remote island.

Not very bloody, no nudity, and only one plot twist, that’s immediately obvious to anyone who’s seen The Usual Suspects.

What else is there to say? Haylie Duff is in it. Pass.


The Burning (1981)

Probably the best way to describe The Burning is that it’s a post Friday The 13th knock-off and an interesting conversation piece.

It features a gonzo Exorcist-meets-Yes score by Rick Wakeman, a script that was doctored by future film scumbags Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and some recognizable actors in teeny teen roles—and in the case of Holly Hunter, make that downright microscopic.

Yes, that’s Seinfeld foil Jason Alexander as Dave, a wisecracking camper (with a full head of hair!) who miraculously doesn’t get his jugular severed by Cropsy (Lou David), the hideously scarred former camp caretaker out for bloody revenge.

Nutshell: A bunch of snotty boys at summer camp punk Cropsy, the alcoholic caretaker, by placing a burning skull next to his bed. Things get shitty real fast as the clumsy bum catches himself on fire and spends the next five years fuming in a hospital while his doctors point and laugh at his freaky face.

Eventually Cropsy leaves, kills a hooker to get warmed up and goes back to camp to carve up the current crop of kids. His weapon of choice is a deluxe pair of hedge clippers.

Were the writers inspired by Cropsey, the legendary Staten Island boogeyman? Well, duh!

Seeing the likes of Alexander, Larry Joshua (The Rundown, NYPD Blue), Leah Ayers (Bloodsport), Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit) and Brian Backer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) pay their dues as Doomed Campers is worth a giggle or two, but sadly, The Burning is slower than my Granny’s bowels.

It takes a whole friggin’ hour for the first camper to get carved! Note to the writing department: we do not now, nor have we ever given a shit who has the hots for whom—unless it leads to a nude scene.

Too much yakkin’ and not enough whackin’ is no way to create horror history.

Fortunately, the brothers Weinstein and director Tony Maylam had the good sense to leave the gruesome special effects to the best in the business, namely Tom Savini (Friday The 13th, Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, and so many more).

So by the time Cropsy finally gets around to some serious slicing and dicing, the blood arrives in buckets, including a sensational canoe sequence where he wastes five kids in a flurry fit for a ninja.

Worth a look.

Malevolence (2004)

I believe the concept of crooks on the lam hiding out in a haunted house dates back to Buster Keaton. True, in Malevolence, the crooks are hiding next door to a haunted house—and it’s only haunted inasmuch as there’s a deranged serial killer living there. A very similar motif is used (more successfully, I might add) in the Andy Serkis black comedy The Cottage (2008). But Malevolence is not a waste of time.

Julian (R. Brandon Johnson) and Marilyn (Heather McGee) are the couple we’re supposed to care about, but they’re not all that likable. They get mixed up in a bank heist with Marilyn’s hoodlum brother Max (Keith Chambers) which concludes with everyone fleeing the scene and Max mortally wounded. As Marilyn thoughtfully reminds Julian several times that it’s his stupid fault her brother took a bullet, one gets the distinct feeling that this couple ain’t gonna make it. Meanwhile, the other member of their gang, Kurt (Richard Glover, a poor man’s Jeff Conaway), kidnaps a young mother and her tomboy daughter, and takes them to the remote hideout where the robbers are supposed to reconnoiter and divide the money. Unfortunately, the hideout isn’t quite remote enough; right next door there’s a decrepit factory farm inhabited by a bargain-brand Michael Myers (the Halloween killer, not Austin Powers) who brings his steely chopping knife to the party.

Nothing too subtle at work in Malevolence; it’s a lot of chasing back and forth outside at night, with a little bit of Ed Gein rural weirdness mixed in. Writer, director, producer, and composer Stevan Mena does a competent job of keeping things lean and tense, though his protagonists suffer from a kind of collective amnesia that prevents them from making sure the killer is dead, which probably would have shortened the movie by a good 20 minutes. Come on people, it’s the 21st Century! You know as well I do that if you’re fortunate enough to knock the maniac down, you MUST continue to beat on the body till it resembles guacamole. And we’ve known this for at least 25 years.

Prometheus (2012)

An ambitious and overwrought failure. Whereas Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) surely ranks among the upper tier of 20th century horror cinema, it’s “prequel” is more like a latter day George Lucas Star Wars gewgaw: too acutely aware of its own lofty place in our cultural consciousness, and as a result, trips all over itself trying to catch lightning in a jar a second time. Prometheus looks sensational, but the story is pure hash, and it’s certainly not horror, despite occasional horrifying imagery. Sadly, it’s another example of corporate hubris: a big-budget, hastily rewritten spectacle that no one knew what to do with.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. After shelling out $17.25 to see Prometheus in IMAX 3D, and another $15 for a bottle of water, a small popcorn, and a box of M&Ms, I was treated to a movie that reached for the heavens—and pulled a muscle doing so. Scientific sweethearts Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find some provocative cave paintings that lead them to outer space aboard the titular vessel in search of “the engineers” who may have created mankind. Naturally, there is a crew to escort them, but they’re a flimsily drawn bunch that includes Janek, the sturdy captain (Idris Elba), Vickers, a cranky company bitch (Charlize Theron), and David, an affable, secretive mandroid (Michael Fassbender). Naturally David’s protocol and that of the corporation aren’t exactly in perfect sync. After a few years in cryo-sleep, the crew awakens to find themselves hovering over the planet depicted in an assortment of prehistoric murals. Shaw and Holloway are gung-ho to “meet their makers” but they end up badly disappointed. Welcome to the club!

Once again, Prometheus is fairly sumptuous in the high-tech eye candy department, but the failure of writers Jon Spaights and Damon Lidelof to come up with a character we can invest ourselves in weighs heavy. Noomi Rapace as Shaw is the best of the lot, but most of the time it seems like various attributes of Ripley, Dallas, Ash, and Parker  are simply doled out sparingly to everyone on board. It’s like looking forward to a gourmet meal and getting pricey, reheated leftovers.

Furthermore, it’s easy to see that there isn’t a firm hand at the wheel. My goodness, how many back and forth trips between the ship and the alien station are there? It feels like half the movie is spent getting into and out of space suits and then very slowly trekking to the next location. The suffocating atmosphere of dread and isolation that made the original movie such a tension fest, is nowhere to be found. Instead, there’s a forlorn flourish of heroic horns, ala John Williams, that wells up every now and then as if to remind us that this is meant to be an epic tale of exploration and valor, you know, like Star Wars. I suspect that too many opinions and too much studio meddling scuttled this ship, because Prometheus ends up way off course.

Grizzly Park (2008)

No sense beating around the bush: Grizzly Park flat-out sucks. But it’s a scrappy sort of crappy, that you can almost, sort of, grudgingly admire.

Writer/director Tom Skull is obviously a rank amateur; I’ve seen children’s birthday party videos that were more professionally shot and edited. The acting, from top to bottom, is godawful. Plot points are gathered and randomly discarded without a second thought (e.g., why bother to give a character a gun if it’s never used?).

To give credit where it’s due, the gore effects, when they finally appear, aren’t too shabby. Oh, and they use a real bear.

Eight young adults (who seem to range in age from 18-35) are assigned community service for various offenses and because they’re all grotesque examples of humanity. Vain, selfish, shallow, stupid, greedy, bigoted, you name it—there’s nary a deadly sin left unaccounted for in this bunch.

These hateful dipshits are assigned to no-nonsense disciplinarian Ranger Bob (Glenn Morshower), who guides them deep into the wilderness of Grizzly Park, where they must pick up litter and (more importantly) serve as a snack tray for the wild critters of the forest.

There’s also an escaped maniac running around, but he’s so quickly dispatched by the ravenous bear that you wonder why Skull bothered to introduce him in the first place. Just another tossed plot point.

The tone of Grizzly Park careens from horny adolescent “humor” (it’s not in the least bit funny) to vague, weak-ass moralizing, to guts and gore—and you won’t care one little bit.

Eden Lake (2008)

Talk about grueling; Eden Lake makes Straw Dogs look like a Frankie and Annette double feature. Writer-director James Watkins (The Woman in Black) methodically stokes the fear furnace until the tension is nearly unbearable—but you don’t dare look away.

By firmly establishing his protagonists as something more than pale quaking stereotypes, Watkins succeeds where Eli Roth and James Wan fall short; namely giving the viewer a good reason to be shocked and horrified about the cruelties inflicted on them.

In search of a romantic weekend, Steve (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly Reilly) drive way out to hell and gone in the English countryside to camp on a secluded beach that’s about to become the centerpiece of a condo development. The couple incurs the wrath of local juvenile delinquents on BMX bikes and things rapidly spin out of control. Sure, it’s all a big joke, till someone gets hurt—or in this case, killed.

While Steve and Jenny definitely do not deserve their eventual fates, it can be rightly said that the awful shit pit they land in is due mostly to Steve being a colossal asshole who should have just walked away before everything went to hell. He has several chances to do so, but his idiotic pride won’t let him.

Eden Lake should look familiar: the plot is nearly identical to The Strangers (or Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Wrong Turn, for that matter). Above all else, never ever pitch your tent in an isolated rural area, especially after witnessing the casual cruelty of the locals.

But there is a critical difference. There’s no explanation for the amorality and astonishing lack of empathy on the part of the teens in The Strangers. Boredom maybe? Gangsta rap? Point and shoot video games? Guess we’ll never know.

In Watkins’ film, the young miscreants are squarely under the sway of Brett (Jack O’Connell), the group’s psychotic Alpha male, who, like any good tyrant, whittles away his subjects’ humanity with bullying and threats. (I kept thinking of African child soldiers, forced under impossible pressure into remorseless killers.)

Each nightmarish escalation of the action is presented as a transgression that could have been avoided, but also as a disturbingly believable development, considering the hellish circumstances the characters find themselves in. And that is why Eden Lake is so damn terrifying and transfixing.

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

I haven’t read enough Clive Barker to decide if I’m a fan or not, but he certainly spins a fascinatingly lurid yarn. The Midnight Meat Train is based on one of his short stories, and it’s a bloody fun ride, even though I kept thinking I was watching a chopped up version that had scenes missing. There are moments when the action inexplicably jumps from Point A to Point M, and you wonder how the hell we got here.

A right-before-he-got famous Bradley Cooper plays Leon, a wannabe artsy photographer trying to capture “the beating heart of New York City” to impress snooty art dealer Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields), who advises him to take more chances, and not run away when danger rears its ugly head. He starts hanging out in the subway during the wee hours of the morning and stumbles upon a very dapper and intense-looking butcher (Vinnie Jones, in a silent part), and is immediately compelled to follow him around. (How do we know he’s a butcher? Well, he carries a meat mallet the size of Mjolnir, for one thing.) Sure enough, it appears his new-found subject is a methodical serial killer who’s been making late-night subway riders disappear for quite some time. Poor Leon realizes too late, that the butcher’s grisly nocturnal rituals are all a part of (sung in Elton John voice) “the c-i-r-c-l-e of l-i-i-i-f-e!”

Anytime you pad out a short story into a feature length film, there’s going to be filler, and The Midnight Meat Train is no exception, but for the most part, director Ryuhel Kitamura and screenplay scribe Jeff Buhler keep it fast and gruesome. The ending is pure Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but it’s not a cop-out. It’s surprisingly weird and horrible, and hints at a “bigger picture” that’s even more terrible than we had first supposed. And that, folks, is what good horror should do. What, no sequel?

Salvage (2009)

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Atmosphere and the unpredictable flow of tension is the life’s blood of any Horrific Flick.

A successful horror movie is one that could be just as effective if it were staged as a play, and you can count Salvage among them. It’s a “trapped in the house” potboiler about a neighborhood under siege, from both a bloodthirsty (alien?) creature and a trigger-happy military—and we’re left to decide who’s the bigger threat.

Paranoia, infidelity, and xenophobia coat the air like cheap incense.

Much of the film’s running time is consumed with the domestic complications of Beth (Neve McIntosh, who rocks!), the smokin’ hot divorced mother of Jodie (Linzey Cocker), a sullen teenager.

Are there any other kind?

Jodie gets dropped off by Dad to spend Christmas with her estranged mother who lives in a snug little cul-de-sac on the coast of Britain. (Sorry, don’t know which one. Is it really that important?)

A touching mother-and-child reunion ensues as Jodie walks in on Beth getting shagged by Kieran (Shaun Dooley), a bloke she met in a bar the previous evening. Disgusted with her slutty mum, Jodie runs off to stay with the neighbors. A-a-a-n-n-d-d … Cue the monster!

The little community is soon crawling with soldiers shooting at anything that moves. A trickle of gore leaks out as a (largely offscreen) body count mounts. The creature wreaks bloody havoc, leaving a parade of mangled corpses in its wake.

For about a third of Salvage, you’re wondering if it’s just a movie about paranoia. Neighbors turn on each other, some seeing terrorists behind every bush. Or perhaps the military has staged a coup, and they’re rounding up citizens on Christmas to work in the mines!

Could happen. This is just one of the red rubber balls you’re left to chew on. Another is the dicey relationship between Beth, a woman who seemingly chose a career in science (and getting shagged by other blokes) over being a wife and mother, and Jodie, the prudish progeny who resents her.

Like Ellen Ripley before her, it’s up to Beth to get in touch with her primal side before she can really earn the title of “mother.”

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.