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.

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?

Zombie Apocalypse (2011)

Pas·tiche /paˈstē-SH

Noun: An artistic work in a style that imitates that of another work, artist, or period.

Today’s vocabulary word is pastiche, as in, “The Ving Rhames movie Zombie Apocalypse is a pastiche of the popular television show The Walking Dead.”

And that’s about it. There’s nothing groundbreaking or envelope-pushing at work here. It’s pure comfort food, executed with very little verve.

You know the drill. A ragtag band of plague survivors try to avoid being eaten by zombies long enough to make it to Catalina Island where the remains of the government has setup housekeeping.

Ving Rhames is Henry, a sledgehammer-swinging bad-ass, which pretty much makes him the most developed personality among this group of stock characters.

There’s also Julian (Johnny Pacar), a wisecracker who quotes Wordsworth; Mack (Gary Weeks), a leader-type who looks and acts like Ryan Reynolds; Ramona (Taryn Manning), the whiny girl who grows up fast; and Cassie (Lesley-Ann Brandt), the hot chick with the sword.

Spoiler: Some of these people don’t make it.

What Zombie Apocalypse has going for it is a breezy pace. The action rolls along at a steady clip, never really bogging down with unnecessary backstory. This group is almost always ass-down in the frying pan.

On the flip-side, the special effects are cheesily rendered CGI bullshit which extinguishes a great deal of the fright factor. People should be afraid of zombies because seeing their own flesh chewed from their bones while still alive is scary.

Blobs of drawn-on blood splatter is not. This technique is also used for countless zombie headshots, and it looks cheap and amateurish.

If you’re starving for an undead fix, this one will barely make a dent in your hunger. It’s like a zombie chowing down on an anorexic: Not much meat on them bones.

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.

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.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011)

This is going to date me, but I still think the coolest paranormal investigator of all time is Carl Kolchak.

For quick thinking, wit, and chutzpah, you’re not going to do any better than Darren McGavin. Give me a wisecracking cynic with no superpowers over brooding bores from beyond like John Constantine and Dylan Dog, any ol’ time. (Note: I’m referring to the cinematic characters. No knock on the graphic novel originals, whom I’m certain are fine fellows, indeed.)

It’s a wide-open field: I can’t point to a successful paranormal investigation franchise at the moment. X-Files had a good run. And you can’t go wrong with Ghostbusters. But I seriously doubt that Brandon Routh’s watery portrayal of Dylan Dog will inspire a sequel, much less the devotion afforded a true genre icon like, say, Scooby Doo, who is an actual dog.

Dylan Dog is a mildly superpowered human who serves as kind of a paranormal peacekeeper between vampires, zombies, werewolves and other assorted boogiemen. That is, until his beloved wife is murdered by vampires, which inspires an episode of vigilante justice.

After that, he becomes a private eye, restricting his investigations to cheating spouses and insurance fraud. But it’s a small world and Dylan’s demonic past catches up with him, and, to paraphrase Al Pacino, they drag him back in.

The plot, a search for an artifact that will resurrect the demon Belial, is half-baked at best; as a McGuffin it’s pretty weak tea. And former Superman washout Brandon Routh is badly miscast (as an actor). The whole hard-boiled gumshoe guise never fits, the guy is just too bland and featureless.

Seriously, after a while, I thought I was watching Grand Theft Auto—or a Macy’s commercial. Sam Worthington tries hard to pick up the slack as Dylan’s deceased sidekick/comedy relief Marcus, but he ain’t got the chops. Lots of opportunities for gruesome black humor, and most of them are squandered.

It’s the bit players who deliver the best performances. Peter Stormare is pitch-perfect as crime boss/werewolf Gabriel. It makes my heart burst into song when a proper actor can make a smallish part blossom, and Stormare is up to the task.

Taye Diggs is charismatic and devious as a vampire trying to move his way up the crime-family ranks, and Anita Briem is reasonably convincing as the frosty ass-kicking chick with questionable ethics.

Sadly, they can’t compensate for the void that is Brandon Routh in the title role. How bad is he? Let’s put it this way: he makes Keanu Reeves look like DeNiro. Good news for Keanu, I suppose, but not for anyone in search of a memorable movie.

Chillerama (2011)

We submit for your approval a quartet of farcical drive-in features rendered in the most tasteless fashion possible. The nearly charming monstrosity is a tribute not only to classic B-movie horror but also to schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma Team, who staunchly believe that there should be no limits on disgusting, juvenile entertainment.

The action takes place at a drive-in movie theater on its last night of operation. Theater owner Cecil Kaufman (Richard Riehle, whom you’ve seen in dozens of small parts over the years) is screening three lost horror movie classics, including Wadzilla, the story of a mutated sperm cell that grows to gigantic proportions and tries to mate with the Statue of Liberty.

The Diary of Anne Frankenstein, is a black-and-white flick starring Joel David Moore (Bones, Hatchet) as Hitler, who wants to create a monster of his very own (played by Kane Hodder).

I Was a Teenage Wearbear, a homoerotic beach-blanket bingo romp about a young man who transforms into a bloodthirsty bear (meaning large, hirsute gay man) under the power of the full moon.

Each section gets its own director: Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City), who also stars, does a fine job with Wadzilla, constantly wringing extra laughs out of a one-joke setup.

Adam Green’s (Hatchet, Frozen) Diary of Anne Frankenstein is the most ambitious of the vignettes, and the most artfully realized.

Tim Sullivan (2001 Maniacs, Driftwood) simply doesn’t have enough gas in the tank for I Was A Teenage Wearbear. It’s overly long and silly, though he gets props for a few catchy musical numbers and for casting the always watchable Lin Shaye as the Maria Ouspenskia gypsy woman.

Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2) has a barrel of fun as zombies run roughshod over the drive-in in the wraparound tale. And in the end, the fun should be enough to hold your interest.

But make no mistake, this is proudly low-brow cinema, and non-horror buffs probably won’t last to the credits.

I Sell The Dead (2008)

Horror, more than most genres, has little need of name actors.

Did anyone know Jeffrey Combs before Reanimator? How about Bruce Campbell before Evil Dead? Were there any “bankable” stars in Romero’s Dead films?

For the most part, being able to remember hastily written dialogue, and the ability to render it without stuttering, is sufficient.

There are certainly examples, and I Sell The Dead is one, of a few familiar faces with dependable skills elevating modest material to agreeable heights.

Here, Ron Perelman (who is as reliable as they come) is Father Duffy, a 19th century clergyman tasked with taking the final confession of convicted grave robber Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan, Lord of the Rings, Lost) who awaits a morning appointment with the guillotine.

Both actors are given sufficient room to ham and ramble, and they make the most of it. I Sell The Dead is highly reminiscent of Jacques Tournier’s grimly fiendish Comedy of Terrors (1963), which cast Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as a pair of inept undertakers. This is broad-stroke black comedy; subtlety need not apply.

The tale unfolds as Blake recounts how he got into the occasionally profitable profession of grave robbery, mentored by his old pal Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden).

At first, the two find themselves under the thumb of Dr. Quint (Angus Scrimm, aka The Tall Man, from Phantasm) a physician with a seemingly inexhaustible need for cadavers—the fresher the better.

Imagine everyone’s shock and surprise when their latest unearthed specimen turns out to be quite undead!

You can’t go wrong with I Sell The Dead. It’s the very definition of a ripping yarn, where the action is plentiful and over the top, and the principal players really have a ball.

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.

Beneath Still Waters (2005)


I figured Beneath Still Waters was worth a gamble since Brian (Bride of Re-Animator) Yuzna produced and directed this Spanish-UK collaboration. While there is ample gore and some stellar scenes of Bosch-like depravity, the pace is glacial—endless talky exposition and needless character development.

Nutshell: A town in Northern Spain is flooded after the construction of a new dam. The cover story is that the dam brings jobs, cheap power, and prosperity to the region, but the naked truth is that the “drowned town” was inhabited by a kinky cannibal cult led by a sinister Aleister Crowley acolyte named Salas (Patrick Gordon, as the Richard Lynch-style creepy cult leader).

Fast-forward 40 years later and the ghost or spirit or reanimated corpse of the evil magician returns accompanied by a very small band of fairly scary zombies, and a vendetta against the granddaughter of the former mayor who flooded the town.

There’s a good chunk of memorably nightmarish imagery thanks to the hallucinatory, low-tech, Euro-art school FX (think Méliès rather than Lucas), and Salas’s habit of tearing his victims’ heads off never gets old.

But it’s a pretty slow 90 minutes, most of which look like a made-for-TV movie from the 1970s, so prepare for rough sledding.