Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

I suppose it’s a little early for Christmas revelry, but this uncanny Finnish import written and directed by Jalmari Helander is reason enough to get in a (twisted) holiday mood. Creepy and often hilarious, Rare Exports has the look and feel of a wondrous Spielberg project (E.T. meets Super 8?), right down to the charismatic leading moppet (Onni Tommila) who intuitively understands that a certain unearthly entity (in this case, Santa Claus) does not come in peace.

On Christmas Eve in the remote hinterlands of Finland, a corporate-sponsored archeological expedition digs up a towering, horned creature frozen in ice. Pietari (Tommila) deduces it to be the “real” Santa Claus, a fearful demon who brutally kills naughty children. Meanwhile, his father (Jorma Tommila) and his fellow reindeer hunters have captured a vicious, wizened old bearded man, whom they wish to exchange with the corporate bosses for enough money to get them all through the winter. Chaos reigns for a time, leading up to a left-field ending that works once you give it a chance to sink in.

As one might expect, given the Spielberg sensibility, the key to the story is the relationship between a boy and his widowed father, the latter trying desperately to protect and provide for his son—who at the same time is hoping to prove to his dad that he’s a brave and resourceful young man, and perfectly capable of protecting himself. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age fable replete with an evil giant Santa and a whole bunch of murderous elves. Given that premise, it’s mostly gore free, but the disturbing picture of jolly ol’ St. Nick depicted here, is more than enough to inspire Christmas nightmares in the heads of impressionable children of all ages. I approve this message.

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2-Headed Shark Attack (2011)

I love it when a plan comes together. I really wanted my 50th review for Horrificflicks to be something special, and lo and behold, along comes 2-Headed Shark Attack to bite me on the ass.

It’s an almost symphonic work of schlock, directed with the expert hand of a born showman; namely Christopher Ray, the son of cheap-thrills pioneer, Fred Olen Ray (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds, a couple of Emmanuel flicks, and countless examples of Grade-Z, straight-to-video trash under various pseudonyms).

The plot? A college class on a field trip to the ocean (I guess), gets its pleasure boat scuttled by a two-headed shark.

A bunch of the students, including Hulk Hogan’s daughter Brooke (who probably got to college on a stripping scholarship), along with their meatball professor (Charlie O’Connell—because trying to get his brother Jerry would have sunk the budget), take a dinghy to a nearby atoll to wait things out.

Meanwhile, the professor’s doctor wife, (Carmen Electra—damn, wish she was my primary care provider!) remains on board the slowly sinking boat in order to sunbathe. Oh, and the atoll (which is better landscaped than the 18th hole at Augusta) is also crumbling into the ocean. Sure! Why not?

Like his stylistic godfather Roger Corman, director Christopher Ray demonstrates considerable facility with the mutant sea monster genre. Yes, most of the time, the shark is seen as a video-game quality, aquatic animation. But when the two-headed terror chows down on his desperately dog-paddling victims, Ray brings in the cheesily constructed shark heads so we can get a closeup of flailing folks gushing the gore while being chomped to pieces.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the mark of a superior filmmaker. Ray instinctively understands that CGI mayhem just isn’t tough enough, and he delivers the puppets for that much-needed personal touch.

I don’t watch movies like 2-Headed Shark Attack because I want to gain insights into the human condition. I just want to see loads of teenagers messily eaten.

Have I mentioned recently that I don’t like teenagers? Yes, even ones that look to be in their early 30s.

Other things I loved about 2-Headed Shark Attack:

• The shark thoughtfully holds off attacking some skinny dippers until we get a healthy dose of nudity.

• The wildly inconsistent shoreline topography that fluctuates between barren rock and palmy tropical oasis.

• The survivors are supposedly shipwrecked “hundreds of miles from anywhere” but during wide-angle shots there are other boats on the horizon.

• The deserted fishing village has a cement dock, a couple of extra motor boats, and a “No Fishing” sign on it—not to mention a church that looks like it was hastily built by a pack of drunk cub scouts that couldn’t decide between a rustic chapel and a shed.

• Idiotic dialogue that affords endless opportunities for MST3K-style riffing (e.g., the sage advice shouted to a hapless swimmer trying to out-stroke the pursuing predator: “Hurry up!”).

• The only explanation offered to account for the appearance of a two-headed shark: “It happens sometimes. Snakes, cows, kittens…”

• The class is comprised of much-too-old-to-be-college-student meat sacks who mostly get eaten.  And spunky amazon Brooke Hogan has a future in the business as the wise-cracking, ass-kicking girl. Every movie needs one. You’ll see.

Legend of the Bog (2009)

Bog men. Can’t say I’ve seen too many.

Hell, I don’t even know how to categorize it. I’m going to go with “monster” since bullets don’t stop them and they’ve been preserved in peat for 2,000 years—even though this particular “bog body” looks more like a cross between Tor Johnson and Curly Howard: In other words, big, bald, and on a mindless rampage.

An assortment of Irish folks, including an archaeologist (Jason Barry), his foxy assistant (Nora-Jane Noone, who has the best pouty face this side of Mila Kunis), and a bitchy, ambitious real estate developer (Shelly Goldstein), get lost on the moors (“I told ye to mind the moors!”) and incur the wrath of a recently resurrected 2,000 year-old-man bog man (Adam Fogerty).

The bog man is being hunted by Hunter (Vinnie Jones, a.k.a. The Juggernaut in X-Men: Last Stand), who is understandably disappointed to discover that his conventional weapons are useless against the massive savage. Can the archaeologist figure out how to return the brute to his soggy coffin?

The problem with Legend of the Bog is that it tries to cram too many elements into a modest story and the plot sinks like a weighted body into a bottomless mud hole. OK, so we have a reanimated bog man who needs to keep himself hydrated regularly to survive.

Fine. It’s part of his DNA or something.

Then, we find out the seemingly random bunch of victims aren’t random at all, a development that adds nothing whatsoever to our emotional attachment to them.

Why did writer-director Brendan Foley bother to somehow justify a killing spree by this hairless gorilla? Waste of time.

On top of that, we’re saddled with a “who cares” romantic subplot, and a shower scene that contains no nudity.

Again, why bother?

Atrocious (2010)

I’m quite good at suspending my disbelief. Trust me, when it comes to horror, I have a very limber set of standards in that department.

And as much as I liked Atrocious, a found-footage frightener from Spain, I had some serious reservations believing that central characters July (Clara Morelada) and her brother Cristian (Cristian Valencia), would continue to schlep their camcorders around after figuring out that a fiendish killer is stalking them at their family’s rural retreat.

“Oh my God, there’s a fiendish killer in the house with us! Do you have a spare battery pack?”

Uh huh. It’s a shame too, because Atrocious has the makings of a crackerjack movie.

Teen siblings July and Cristian are spending their vacation with Mom (Chus Pereiro), Dad (Xavi Doz), and adorable kid brother Jose (Sergi Martin) at a Spanish country estate that comes equipped with its own massive hedge maze.

The pair fancy themselves as intrepid ghost-hunting, mystery solvers so they bring along two video cameras, which is a stroke of luck for the cops when they discovery that everyone’s been murdered about a week later.

After sifting through 37 hours of footage, the final cut serves as the movie itself. If you surmised that there would be an abundance of chaotic night scenes frantically shot by the protagonists whilst lost in the hedge maze, give yourself a gold star.

There is some first-rate fright footage here. And the actors playing July and Cristian are very good, very natural. Atrocious is worth the time it takes to watch, but the surfeit of film (not to mention battery power) is a contrivance that each viewer will have to sort out for themselves.

It doesn’t ruin the experience, but you may find yourself (as I did) shouting, “Oh come on, already!” at the screen on several occasions.

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.

Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)

It’s a lesser effort than the first Quarantine, but I consider it a worthy sequel nonetheless, because most of the time, sequels suck ass.

Why would I be interested in an inferior distillation of an original formula? (Go back to Halloween II and work your way toward the present; the exceptions being Romero’s Dead films.)

However, I must wag a stern finger at writer/director John Pogue, for blowing an opportunity to make his movie substantially better.

I was sold on the premise right away. The same virus that caused the apartment dwellers to go berserk with a case of the man munchies in the original movie, breaks out again. Only this time on a plane. That’s right: Zombies on a Plane.

And not the slow, shuffling kind, either. These guys are strong, agile, and ready to rock and roll at 20,000 feet. My point is, if Pogue had contained the action to the cabin of a plane, he could have ratcheted up the tension tenfold.

In addition to zombies, you add the possibility of the plane plummeting to the ground—not to mention claustrophobia.

Instead, Pogue chooses to let his harried cast land the plane, and then hide in the basement of an airport, where, for the rest of the movie, they walk around a featureless industrial landscape in the dark.

The place is surrounded by soldiers who shoot anyone who emerges, but that’s not nearly as frightening as the prospect of a plummeting plane.

Pogue even had a formidable lead zombie in Ralph (George Back), an overweight, drunken golfer who proves extremely difficult to bring down once he’s succumbed to the virus. Big boy can wreak some serious havoc!

Despite some wasted potential, Quarantine 2 is a very watchable feature, with gallons of gore, that moves along at a brisk clip—until everyone gets lost at the airport.

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.

Attack The Block (2011)

Even my wife watched this and enjoyed it—and to say that she dislikes horror movies is like saying the Koch brothers aren’t too fond of organized labor. (I was trying to think of some really zippy metaphor to reel you in. This is the best I could do. Sorry.)

Barbara (that’s her name) looked up Attack The Block on Rotten Tomatoes and was impressed that it received a “90 percent fresh” rating. But I really hooked her when I told her the movie reminded me of Misfits, an insanely original BBC superhero (sort of) series we both loved.

Indeed, the two share a strategic reliance on anonymously industrial council-block housing for scenery, as well as a charismatic cast of scruffy young tearaways to inhabit it.

Here, a gang of not-too-scary teen hoodlums led by Moses (John Boyega), encounter a strange critter while out patrolling their neighborhood.

Patrolling means mugging young women and setting off fireworks, mainly.

The gang corners the beast (“looks a monkey mated with a fish”) and kick it to death. Fantasizing about selling the specimen to the highest bidder, the kids pay a visit to dope dealer Ron (Nick Frost, who runs off with every scene he’s in) to smoke and unwind.

Unbeknownst to our “heroes,” a whole battalion of bigger, meaner, and hungrier aliens are en route to find out what happened to their advance party.

The ensemble cast, led by Boyega, and ably supported by Frost, Jody Whittaker, and Alex Esmail, is fantastic. It doesn’t matter if they’re brawling, fleeing, or getting stoned—these kids are as resilient, resourceful, and honor-bound as any John Wayne posse.

Writer-director Joe Cornish (part of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Brit Pack) acquits himself quite well. His dialogue is fast and funny, the pace is breakneck, and the aliens—agile wolfish anthropoids with no eyes and glowing teeth—are brilliantly realized.

Attack The Block effortlessly balances a monster movie premise with deft action-film finesse and Western movie heroics. I will watch it again. And so will Barbara (probably).

Swamp Devil (2008)

My beef with this craposaurus is pretty basic. When you have a title like Swamp Devil, you’d better deliver something at least on a par with Swamp Thing, a movie that was made 26 freakin’ years before this one.

In other words, I want to see a sodden, drippy, slime-covered mess of a monster—and not something that looks like one of those wacky inflatable arm-flailing tube men you see at car lots. It’s that simple.

There’s a barely-there plot about a murderer who haunts the swamps after he was killed by a vigilante mob. Nicholas Wright (a poor man’s Robert Carradine) plays the human face of the “Swamp Devil,” a carelessly CGI’d stalk of celery that’s nearly as menacing as the Little Green Sprout.

Bruce Dern is in this, for some reason, as a former lawman turned-fugitive and Cindy Sampson (who was quite good in The Shrine—scream queen in the making?) plays his daughter.

I’m really trying to come up with some justification for sitting through Swamp Devil, but I’m drawing a blank. I suppose Dern is more than adequate in his role, but really, he has the look of a man hoping he won’t miss the last bus out of town—and that his paycheck doesn’t bounce out the window.

Speaking of Dern, I seem to recall him on The Tonight Show many years ago talking to Johnny Carson about the worst film he’d ever made. Dern recounted his experiences as a young actor on the set of The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971), a grimy, low-budget shocker co-starring Casey Kasem that was part of the now-extinct “Guy With An Extra Head” movement of the early 70s. (It consisted of two movies: this one and the slightly more famous The Thing With Two Heads, starring Rosie Grier and Ray Milland—recommended!)

Anyway, Dern says after the shooting wrapped, he went to get his final check from the slippery producer—and the office, set, and trailers were all gone. Not a trace of them. Perhaps the next time he’s asked that question, Bruce could share a story about Swamp Devil. I, for one, would love to hear it.

The Shrine (2010)

Imagine my surprise and color me impressed: this gritty Canadian feature kind of rocks.

You keep thinking you know “what kind” of movie you’re watching, and then suddenly you don’t. The Shrine manages the difficult trick of being able to switch gears without wrecking the engine.

It starts out as a warning to tourists against touring Eastern Europe without letting others know your whereabouts—because the worst will happen.

Guaranteed.

In this case, an American backpacker disappears in a small Polish town, which motivates a trio of journalists to investigate the enigmatic community, where such occurrences are all too common.

I might add that this is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of a journalist. Anyone still fortunate enough to work for a newspaper or magazine at this time is most decidedly not curious about anything—unless it’s figuring out how to hold onto a job that will soon be farmed out to interns.

Then comes the first shift, and now you’re watching one of those creepy Iron Curtain faux snuff films, and you consider getting up to water the plants.

But then Sam Raimi arrives and everything goes all Evil Dead. To conclude the festivities, we get a metaphysical mud-wrestling match, straight out of The Exorcist.

The Shrine works because it subverts our point of view so deftly that we don’t even realize that we should probably pick a side in this apocalyptic death match.

Not only that, but it succeeds in the way that (earlier reviewed film) Spiderhole failed—it provides us with a valid reason for scenes of squirm-inducing cruelty.

I swear, if you know that someone is being savaged as part of the plot, and not simply because we like the sound of screaming, it goes down a lot easier.

And now, a hearty round of applause for writer-director Jon Knautz, who did a superb job of juggling themes, tones, and terror. So tell us Jon: What’s next?