Saturday, November 29, 2014

Haunter


Haunter (2013)
Dir. Vincenzo Natali
Written by Brian King
Starring Abigail Breslin, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden, Stephen McHattie




Cool concept (GROUNDHOG DAY with ghosts!) brought to the screen serviceably (but no more) by Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, SPLICE). Natali has been the go-to guy for the better part of two decades to make high-concept and ingenious sci-fi/horror concept movies intriguing enough that even though they’re executed only about a notch or two above a SyFy channel original movie, they still manage to captivate. He didn’t write this one, which means the one thing he used to be able to bring to the table can’t help him here, but it turns out to be fine because this Brian King guy, whoever he is, ended up writing pretty much a perfect Vincenzo Natali screenplay anyway. It starts out clever, gradually gets a little too clever for its own good, but still manages to endear itself through its imaginative premise more than its lax execution.


The film begins with teenage Lisa (Abigail Breslin, SIGNS), a gothy grump who seems to be the only person in her family to realize that they’re all living the same day over and over. Before she decides to drive a groundhog off a cliff, though, she begins to suspect that there’s some ghostly shenanigans happening here -- a suspicion strengthened somewhat when she’s unexpectedly visited by a malevolent Stephen McHattie (EXIT HUMANITY) who warns her against trying to figure out what’s happening. But why is her endless tedium of repetition suddenly shattered by minor but jarring changes? And what’s up with these glimpses of another family living in her house? Who exactly is haunting who? I guess it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the traditional haunted-house rummage through old newspapers to find the dark secret of all this unpleasantness becomes a little more interesting when Abigail realizes she’s actually a bigger part of it than one might expect.

Mirror's on the fritz again.

Academy-award-nominated Breslin (for LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Jesus, what was that about?) doesn’t seem to be trying super hard in her somewhat stereotypical tweeny role, but she’s OK, gets the job done. McHattie is great in a smallish role -- it’s always fun to see him and he rarely gets a nice showy role like this, he’s real menacing and hateable here. The rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to decent (Peter Outerbridge from LAND OF THE DEAD is a standout), but there’s not really a ton of meat here outside the twisty plot. Consequently, the whole enterprise would have benefitted from more stylish direction; Natali’s pedestrian framing, dated editing and disinterested lighting don’t really pull their weight in elevating a good script to great cinema. It’s all fine, but you can’t help but imagine a better version of this with a production more attenuated to its needs. Considering that parts take place during significantly different eras, for example, they’re kind of disappointingly undifferentiated. Jumping through time between the 30s, 80s, and 2010s in solving a nearly century-old mystery ought to be a little more jarring. The production design, like everything else, is sufficient, but I wish they’d tried to take it a little further into period detail, the way HOUSE OF THE DEVIL or BLACK DYNAMITE did.* Likewise, there’s a bunch of glaring symbolism here (butterflies in jars, the repeated theme from Peter and the Wolf**, a haunted dollhouse), a nice effort but alas nothing which ever really adds up to anything meaningful or particularly coherent.

Anytime I see a movie where somebody is wearing shades for no reason, I assume Rowdy Roddy Piper made them do it.

A lot of the movie is kind of like that. The ideas are so much fun that you can’t help imagining a movie where they had a little more impact. No getting around it: a lot of the movie is put together in a sort of mediocre way. But what the hell, it ends up succeeding anyway purely through the strength of its story. However anemic the direction, a careful unravelling (and, blessedly, well-paced) mystery like this is too invigorating to resist. Getting sucked into young Lisa’s quest for answers is inevitable; you might wish it hit a little harder, but you can't deny its basic appeal. Natali doesn’t bring anything to the party, but at least he manages not to bungle a good thing. That ain’t nothin’. Not all premises this good manage to tell a genuinely entertaining story. This one does, and so maybe we ought to be thankful to occasionally get a solid minor pleasure rather than a fascinating ambitious failure. Hopefully this was enough of a break to get Natali behind the typewriter again, though: imagine a script like this in the hands of a David Cronenberg, a Ti West. That prospect is enough to haunt any serious horror fan.


(Side note, MINOR SPOILERS: I wonder why the modern girl Lisa communicates with needed someone else to possess her body just to fight it out with an equally possessed dad? Seems lazy. This chick can't figure out to kick the guy who's trying to kill her without someone intervening from another plane of existence? Fucking millennials, amiright?)


*One clever idea: the hand-cranking cinematography for the part set in the 30s is a hoot, though it’s also kind of a cutesy distraction right at the finale.

**Listening to that Peter and the Wolf theme over and over makes me realize movies just don’t have strong musical themes anymore. When was the last time you went to a movie and came out humming the theme? The last one I can think of was Harry Potter, and that was from way back in 2001. I mean, there are lots of good, atmospheric scores I've heard since then, but that's different from something genuinely catchy.




CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!

The Hunt For Dread October


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No
  • FOREIGNER: Canadian, still counts
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Academy-award nominee Abigail Breslin?
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Stephen McHattie was in this, EXIT HUMANITY and PONTYPOOL. He's getting there.
  • BOOBIES: No.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Nah
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: Yes, quite a doozy of one
  • MONSTER: no
  • THE UNDEAD: ghost house!
  • POSSESSION: Yes!
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Nah
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes
  • EVIL CULT: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Doll house.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Nah
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Lowish. SxSW release, Netflix streaming since then.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Being a ghost is a lot of fucking work.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: 100%
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: She did!


Friday, November 28, 2014

Comedy of Terrors


Comedy of Terrors (1963)
Dir. Jacques Tourneur
Written by Richard Matheson
Starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Joyce Jameson, Basil Rathbone


This is a lightweight but charming little dark comedy with a ridiculously overqualified pedigree of horror greats all working close to the top of their game. Price is Waldo Trumbell, a gloriously drunken bastard who runs a funeral home owned by his senile old father-in-law (Karloff), much to the chagrin of his hateful wife (Joyce Jameson, DEATH RACE 2000) and his ex-con assistant (Lorre). Business is direly slow and the pompous landlord (Rathbone) is about to evict them, so Trumbell devises a fiendish plan to increase their customer base a little more efficiently than if nature were to take its course. Eventually, they get the idea to kill two birds with one kill, and the landlord himself becomes their next victim. Except, he proves frustratingly difficult to finish off, given an unusual medical condition which exactly mimics death but allows him to spring back to life unexpectedly, hours later.




 The script here is genuinely funny, with caustically witty dialogue by Richard Matheson (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT) that is absolutely devoured by the talented cast. Price is so deliciously mincing that he makes Lorre look like the native English speaker, but it’s all to good effect. Price and Lorre are a great mismatched comedy team, even if Lorre (completing his transformation into an egg-shaped humpty-dumpty lookalike and here deep into his morphine days) looks a little tired.* They’d done a bunch of movies previously (in fact, this one essentially re-teams the cast from THE RAVEN) but this one practically pitches them as Laurel and Hardy, especially appropriate considering Price’s lanky height and Lorre’s newfound Eggman physique. There’s a good chemistry here, and the two ricochet off each other with a highly amusing antagonism that makes the most of Price’s villainous pompousness and Lorre’s bug-eyed wretchedness in a way that brings out both their considerable charms even if it doesn’t require a lot of stretching. Karloff is good too, in a much smaller role which doesn’t require a lot from him, and Jameson succeeds handily in the shrewish wife role (usually a pretty thankless, borderline misogynistic trope, Matheson’s script gives her a little more to do and she does nicely with it). But the real winner here is Basil Rathbone (billed after the cat “Rhubarb”**), who gives a big, silly slapstick performance that just shows how much we waste our great thespians by casting them in serious arty bullshit all the time.



What’s really cool about this one, though, is that although it’s a comedy, pretty much everyone involved here made their careers in horror. Price, Lorre, Karloff, and Rathbone were all horror movie staples since time began. Director Jacques Tourneur was an old RKO guy who directed some of Val Lewton’s best productions (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) and of course Matheson --in addition to scripting stuff like THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE-- was a prolific horror writer, authoring I Am Legend  among about a million short stories which were adapted into everything from TRILOGY OF TERROR to Tobe Hooper’s DANCE OF THE DEAD to numerous Twilight Zone episodes. These guys are all pros at this horror thing, and in nearly every way that matters, COMEDY OF TERRORS is an honest-to-god horror movie. It looks and progresses exactly like one, but with quippy dialogue and zany antics in place of glowering. So despite the yuks, this has a very authentic horror feel to it, from the cinematography to the narrative (which could easily be adapted into a straight horror movie) to the murderous finale. In fact, even though it’s played for laughs (SPOILER) Rathbone’s ax-wielding rampage at the end is probably more genuinely suspenseful than half the crappy horror movies I watched this month. The clever interweaving of comedy with real horror chops heightens the whole experience significantly, making the comedy funnier and the thrills more compelling. The only person who seems to have missed the memo is composer Les Baxter (himself a veteran of Corman-produced horror like THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM and THE DUNWICH HORROR) who disappointingly scores it a little on-the-nose as a straight comedy. In one scene they come close to going full Benny Hill which kinda cheapens the effect by trying too hard. The rest of the movie is secure in the idea that we get it; the score seems less secure that we’ll get the comedy unless we’re beaten over the head with it.



But mostly, this one is a delight. Fun, broad performances all around, a ingeniously twisty script with a real wit but also a keen understanding of horror structure, and a strikingly handsome visual style from Tourner and Academy-award-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby (TABU). I’m not sure it necessarily took this many acknowledged masters of horror to make something so silly, but who can complain at such a bounty? This is easily among the best horror-comedies ever made (not that it has a ton of competition) and a real treat for anyone with a soft spot for classic horror.


*To be fair, he bring it up when he needs to, and even does some physical comedy.

** Which apparently isn’t its real name anyway; the Cat is named “Orangey” and I guess “Rhubarb” is its sometimes-stage name. Not sure what the deal was with that.




CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!
The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No
  • SEQUEL: None, though there was talk of a follow-up before the film failed to become a major hit.
  • REMAKE: None
  • FOREIGNER: Nah
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: No, quite fetching
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: None
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Price, Lorre, Rathbone, Karloff.
  • BOOBIES: No
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Nah
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Despite the ax, no limb loss
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: None
  • MONSTER: No
  • THE UNDEAD: No
  • POSSESSION: No
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: I think the ax-wielding rampage at the end would count.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes, Price and Lorre concoct a diabolical scheme to bump off locals to save their ailing funeral parlor.
  • EVIL CULT: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: None
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: low-mid, lesser known considering the cast, but still fairly widely available.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Always double-tap, just to be sure.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Comedy, check. Terrors, check. 100%
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A


This review is over, but I like Price's expression here so much I can't rob you of this image.



Friday, November 21, 2014

The Babadook


The Babadook (2014)
Dir. and written by Jennifer Kent
Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall



You know, being a horror fan ain’t always a walk in the park. It is, I fear, the most disreputable of all film genres, kind of a ghetto where talented people begin their careers and then quickly move on to other things, or a limbo where former talent washes up as their career crumbles -- and that’s if you’re lucky. More often, it seems like, it’s actually the realm of neither, and instead a depressing assembly line for mediocre salesmen churning out forgettable, derivative product with the minimum possible effort to a niche market that will basically buy anything they’re selling. Horror fans will watch it no matter what, so why make an effort? Rom-coms may not exactly have huge artistic ambitions, but at least they can score major stars and top production talent. Action movies may not win a lot of Oscars, but they can still command budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. Hell, even sleazy sex flicks can find classy, A-list directors waiting to churn out the next 9 ½ WEEKS or whatever. But horror movies are almost exclusively the realm of the low-budget, the b-list worker bees, grinding their way through a career of modest profits culled from modest genre productions that a certain demographic is almost guaranteed to see and no one else would ever be remotely interested in.


Horror has its masterpieces, of course, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that it also probably has a far more dire shit-to-hit ratio than… well, any subcategory you can really think of. I know. I watch a lot of horror movies. And I love a lot of horror movies, but I love them the same way you do your crazy racist uncles who think that the EPA is a Mexican plot to take our guns: you can see the charm, but you also understand that they require a lot of apologizing for. The result is, as a horror fan you see a lot of enjoyable movies, but can’t in good conscience really push them on other people. I’ve reviewed 29 movies so far this Chainsawnukah (and I’m not even half done) but when people ask me what the best movie I’ve seen so far is I go kinda blank. I guess DEAD OF NIGHT, but that one has some pretty dull parts at the beginning and a lot of people are gonna be put off by its old-fashion stogy British-ness. I was really impressed by LOVELY MOLLY, but I seem to be in the minority on that one. ALYCE KILLS and THE WHIP AND THE BODY have their charms, but I dunno that people who aren’t into horror would find much to enjoy there. Frankly, I hadn’t really seen one that I felt comfortable shouting from the rooftops about. One that I could enthusiastically say “it’s really great!” and not have to follow that up with “...for a horror movie.”

Damn hipsters... first it was restaurants, then theaters, then barber shops and dance clubs, now they've come for our books. IS THERE ANYTHING THESE PEOPLE WON'T MAKE POP-UP?! 



Until now. THE BABADOOK is that movie, the one that you hope for as a horror fan but never dare to really allow yourself to expect. It’s artful, serious, thoughtful and carefully constructed, full of rich psychological detail and great acting but without ever skimping on the pit-of-your-stomach tension or being shy about delivering the bloody horror goods.


We begin our tale with mom Amelia (Essie Davis, “Maggie” in MATRIX REVOLUTIONS?) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in a fairly unhappy state of affairs. She’s a single mom (Samuel’s dad died in a car accident on the way to his birth) stretched far too thin between her low-payed, thankless job, her still-overwhelming grief over her husband’s death seven years ago, and her other taxing job as a parent to a very fucking difficult kid. Samuel has severe issues. He wants to be good, but I think there’s little doubt that his mother’s fragile mental state has turned him into something of a terror. He can’t sleep through the night without waking screaming from nightmares (which means Amelia never gets any sleep either) and has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, which has led to several violent confrontations with other children and got him kicked out of school. The longer these factors remain unchanged, the tenser and closer to the edge both mother and child get. So when Samuel finds a mysterious children’s book about Mr. Babadook -- a top-hatted wild-eyed fiend who giddily narrates in singsong rhyme exactly how he wants to take over your life and eat your soul-- well, let’s just say the added stress doesn’t help matters any, not that they really needed much prodding to go over the edge anyway. Not the ideal bedtime reading for this particular child, I would think, not that I’m Steve Martin from PARENTHOOD or anything.


Things start off bad, but boy, does the movie lay the pain on this unfortunate couple. Essie Davis --if there’s any justice in the universe, soon to star in absolutely everything*-- gives an all-time great tortured performance, her sunken eyes too dulled from lack of sleep to even quite grasp just how miserable and isolated she is. And besides, she’s just barely scraping by as it is -- just like LOVELY MOLLY, THE BABADOOK does great work capturing the difficulty of being both poor and haunted. This poor lady doesn’t have time to lose her mind! Who can afford it?! The more she tries to claw out of her hole, the deeper she seems to sink and the worse things get for her. And at least part of the reason for all this is that she has never truly dealt with the pain of her husband’s death, which she maybe, in some tiny unacknowledged way, might blame Samuel for. “If it’s in a word or it’s in a look / you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” reads the first page of Seussian prose -- there may be a real monster here, but you have to invite it in, it starts with you and your own mind.

No Babadook, still just Narnia in here.

Davis’s performance by itself is absolutely dynamite, but it also has the advantage of a stellar production, from Jennifer Kent (“Lab Lady” in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY)’s boldly stylish direction to the intense, half-gritty half-hallucinogenic cinematography of Radek Ladczuk, the phenomenal editing of Simon Njoo and the droning, rattling sound mix and the low-key, ominous score by Jed Kurzel. I mention all these people by name because the magic that happens here draws strength from each of these disciplines working together to create an engrossing and overwhelmingly oppressive tension which blankets every single scene in a faceless, lingering dread. Even if it had nothing else going for it, this would have to be one of the very best on-screen evocations of true exhaustion --that kind that transcends merely being tired and gobbles you right down to your soul-- that I’ve ever seen. Its portrayal of extreme sleep deprivation turning everything into a fog of shifting reality and bleary-eyed distance is a perfect auger for the shifting, unsteady relative reality which so often is the source of the truest horror. Both mother and child here have reached the point of desperate, relentless hopelessness, and it is eating away at their sanity, Babadook or no. There may --or may not-- be something genuinely supernatural happening here, but whatever it is comes decidedly second to the simmering grief, rage, and simple exhaustion that weighs down these poor souls.


Having said that, don’t go thinking this is one of those waffling, coquettish spooky movies that confuses being coy and ambiguous with being classy. No, whatever the ultimate reality here is, THE BABADOOK heroically makes the most both of its long, tense buildup and its bursts of shockingly aggressive horror imagery. The Babadook itself is phenomenal creation, a bristling mess of teeth and claws buried in the shadow of a top hat and crowned with a pair of wild eyes. It (perhaps appropriately) recalls Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde, and maybe more explicitly the wonderfully fearful visage of Lon Chaney in the now-lost silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. But its unsettling movement and low, rattling voice grunting baaaaa...baaaa….doooook is something that only a judicious use of modern technology could have produced, marking an exceedingly rare sublime blending of old school icons with smartly modern methodology. But even before we ever see this nightmarish figure, we’re already primed for irrational, unremitting terror because this god damn book that starts it all is the most fucking terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life. From its blood red homemade cover (the only bright color in an otherwise muted grayscale world) to its cheerfully malicious rhymes to --most importantly-- its malevolent black and white pop-up illustrations (designed by Alex Juhasz, who needs to either be given some kind of presidential medal of valor or locked up far away from normal society), the whole package somehow manages to pull you right back to your childhood, into a frightening and mysterious world where reality and fantasy really do seem hopelessly inextricable.

Better read than dead

The film does have some mild problems in its final act; I don’t want to say too much and spoil it but there’s an unexpected and seamlessly handled subtle perspective change towards the end. Not a problem in itself, but as it happens the film gradually shifts from tense psychological horror to something a bit more conventional, and while it’s commendably good in that mode too, actual violence is almost a relief after the unbearable gut-churning leadup to it. Less is usually more with horror, but the difficulty of a film is that you gotta escalate things to a finale and that means that ultimately “more” is almost inevitable. THE BABADOOK can’t quite find a way around that conundrum, and so diminishes ever-so-slightly in its final reel. The movie also has a little trouble landing, with the action building and then ebbing, building again and then ebbing again, when it should obviously be a straight escalation if anything at all. It feels like they weren’t quite sure where to end things, and maybe go on a scene or two longer than the benefits of more story outweigh the appeal of succinctness. That’s a minor complaint, mind you. It’s not like it ever goes totally off the rails, just doesn’t end quite with quite the strength it maintains for most of the runtime. Really it’s only something I would complain about in a film that I otherwise found as impressive as this one.


Any minor issues I had, though, are wildly outweighed by all the good stuff THE BABADOOK has going for it. This is a slow, tense, troubling portrait of grief and madness married with paranoid psychological horror and executed with a finely-tuned precision that makes it all look easy. It’s got some of the best acting you’re ever likely to see in a horror movie --or any movie this year-- along with an ingeniously designed self-contained monster mythos any self-respecting slasher movie would, well, kill for. And it manages to do all this and still feel relatable and grounded. This is a tremendous first feature for director Jennifer Kent and I dearly look forward to gushing about how great she is for many subsequent features. But Jennifer -- don’t abandon us horror fans now that you’re a big shot. Holocaust dramas are not hurting for artists of this caliber -- but horror fans sure could use talents like this more often.

*In the thankless wife or girlfriend role, of course, not in anything which would actually make use of her talent, thank you very much Naomi Watts for trailblazing this inevitable career path.

NOTE: I got to see this one early cuz I'm a big shot, life is dope and do dope shit etc. But this time I got out in front of the actual release and it took me a whole month to write up my review, meaning posting this is going to more or less coincide with this one hitting theaters. Go see it Nov 28 at a theater marginally near you if you live in the United States in a major city

NOTE #2: This review is dedicated to Yvonne and Nathan, who heroically gave up their tickets so I could check this out despite the unexpectedly sold-out screening!! You da real MVP. Without you my life would be less dope and I would definitely do less dope shit.



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!

The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No, thankfully that book is not real.
  • SEQUEL: None.
  • REMAKE: No, but give it time
  • FOREIGNER: Australian, and this time with actual Australian filmmakers instead of the terrible Aussie/Italian mashup in THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE.
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: Nope, quite elegantly shot
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: None
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Not yet
  • BOOBIES: Nah, take a look at that shrieking kid up there and try and tell me that poor Amelia gets laid with any frequency.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Don't think so
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: Nah, not as such
  • MONSTER: Hell yeah, one of the best in recent memory
  • THE UNDEAD: No
  • POSSESSION: Arguably, yes
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: No
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Quite so.
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: No dolls
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: The slow slide from sanity
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. About to get a major big-screen release, whoo-hoo!
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Reading to your kids before they go to bed can only lead to insanity and murder.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Confirmed accurate.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Banshee Chapter

Banshee Chapter (2013)
Dir. and written by Blair Erickson
Starring Katia Winter, Michael McMillian, Ted Levine


This weird, quasi-found-footage cheapie (it starts out as explicitly found footage, but then the rest is shot the same way even though there’s no one actively filming) mixes conspiracy thriller with Lovecraft and a dash of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and comes out with something which is less than a sum of its parts but is nonetheless kind of interesting and effective.


Our protagonist is Anne (Katia Winters, Dexter season 7), a nice young lady who decides to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her old friend James (Michael McMillian) after he leaves behind a found-footage mess explaining that he’s taken experimental drugs and that something is coming for him. Her research leads her to a mysterious numbers station broadcasting creepy calliope music all the time (is this really what our tax dollars pay for? My god, Grover Norquist was right!), secret government MKUltra experiments from the 60s, hidden desert labs in abandoned fallout shelters, mind-snatching ultradimensional conspiracies, and a mysterious countercultural novelist named Thomas Blackburn (Ted Levine, NOWHERE TO RUN, also I guess SILENCE OF THE LAMBS if you want to get technical).

Though I appreciate her desire to save electricity, this is exactly the sort of situation where I'd switch the overhead light on. But I dunno, I've never snooped around a creepy basement looking for evidence of a sinister conspiracy before, so who can say what I'd really do in her situation.
It’s a pretty cool idea for a horror/thriller, but a lot of the payoffs here are pretty disappointingly conventional. Nearly every horror scene in the movie is built around the same tiresome found-footage gimmick where people slowly walk around seeing nothing and then suddenly they catch a glimpse of a scary face or something, there’s a loud musical sting and then the camera starts shaking around everywhere as everyone runs for cover. Effective, admittedly, but a little unambitious and unimaginative for something with such a weird plot. There’s a nice incorporation of real-life conspiracy stuff (mysterious radio broadcasts, MKUltra, COINTELPRO-like disinfo campaigns) but despite a comfortably slow build, almost nothing is really expounded upon in any meaningful or interesting way, they’re just name-checked and then we move on to something else. For a super-secret multi-pronged conspiracy that stretches back decades, it’s also remarkably easy for a plucky young blonde to uncover on her own without any serious research. Usually to uncover a conspiracy you gotta spend agonizing hours going through yellowed government records; here, you just have to drive to the place where the conspiracy is and you’ll see it. Boy, how come no one thought to do that sooner?


Even so, the film has a weird sense of unease about it. It’s not really justified by the filmmaking or anything, but I think the mix of drug movie, conspiracy thriller and Lovecraftian horror is simply too potent and strange to really entire shrug off, even when the actual specifics are a little threadbare. Even though the scares themselves are run-of-the-mill, the tone and the locations (isolated Colorado deserts at night) are unusual enough that it sort of works, it sucks you in for awhile and builds to an effective paranoid patter. The long wait for the scare actually works, even if the scare itself doesn’t*. In that sense it actually gets right what most adapters of Lovecraft bungle: creating a fear of the unknown, a fear that whatever the fuck this is, it’s bad bad bad in a way you may not be ready to handle. Lovecraft usually didn’t really describe the horrors in his books either, leaving your imagination to fill in the details. This one sort of gets that, and to some degree reproduces it visually with its inky black spaces full of malicious potential, occasionally punctuated by a fleeting glimpse of some unnamable horror.

Gaaaah! It's... something!

Various internet sources claim the movie is specifically based on Lovecraft’s The Beyond, (already adapted by Stuart Gordon into a delightful body-dysmorphia horrorshow in 1986) and there are some similar ideas, though it seems like a stretch to call it a direct adaptation.** As far as I noticed, neither Lovecraft nor his story are explicitly credited on-screen, but the vibe is definitely there. In fact, it probably ranks among the very best Lovecraft-inspired films, not that it really has a ton of competition in that regard. It’s less successful as a drug movie; although drugs are a big part of the plot, the actual filmmaking is resolutely literal and as a result can’t do much with the intriguing concept of altered perception in the midst of horror. Someday someone will make the great American Drug movie/horror movie hybrid that I prophesied in my ALYCE KILLS review, but this isn’t it. Oh well, at least it’s trying.

It doesn't seem very scary now, but what if it suddenly appeared out of the blue, accompanied by a sudden loud noise, and then the camera freaked out and shook around a whole bunch. You'd be losing your shit, my friend.


There are a few moderately effective setpieces as the finale looms, and even a few pretty nifty-looking creature effects (though of course you can’t see much of them thanks to the faux-found footage camerawork). But by far the best thing about the movie actually has nothing to do with ultradimensional conspiracies or Lovecraftian horrors. The best thing turns out to be Ted Levine doing an absolutely delightful Hunter S. Thompson impersonation. Oh, his character is named “Blackburn,” but it’s so nakedly and so accurately Thompson that you can’t help but love it. Levine may even top Johnny Depp’s classic take on the famed gonzo journalist, matching Depp in eccentricity but adding a touch of Thompson’s Southern Gentlemanly charm as well.


This brings us to an odd question, because although Levine’s performance is far and away the best thing in the movie, I’m not sure it should be there. Like Guy LaPoint in TUSK, this broad, funny characterization feels like a very odd  --if not out and out irreconcilable-- mix with the otherwise serious conspiracy thriller. I’m conflicted about how well it works; on one hand, it’s hugely entertaining, but on the other it’s also a huge, weird distraction in a movie which is already a little overpacked with different ideas and directions. The movie is otherwise absolutely grim, making Levine’s lively and comic performance a welcome relief but also a dismaying tonal shift. Levine seems to find the right tone in his performance to bridge the gap, but it’s unquestionably a weird idea that sometimes at the very least teeters near total disaster. The world is definitely better off for having this performance, but I’m not sure the movie is.

We can't stop here. This is hat country.

Still, for all my gripes, this is a pretty good one. If I’m hard on it it’s because it’s so close to being a genuine classic that it’s a little disappointing that it can’t quite make it. It’s an honest attempt, though, and despite any missteps it manages to take a really cool idea and pull it off even with what must be a torturously low budget. If this guy Blair Erickson can hire an actual cameraman next time, I think he may well have what it takes to make some real honest-to-god scary films. Or at least a better version of The Rum Diaries. Maybe with a dash of PREDATOR or something thrown in there just for fun. Boy, I’m obviously against ultradimensional mind-control conspiracies, but when ya type a sentence like “The Rum Diaries meet PREDATOR” I gotta admit, it’s hard not to see the appeal.


PS: The poster for this one claims: “From the producer of MARGIN CALL.” Kinda weird to assume there’s a ton of crossover of people who loved MARGIN CALL and also would be interested in a found-footage Lovecraftian conspiracy thriller with drug elements, but that’s technically true. The weirder part, though, is the producer they’re referring to is Zachary Quinto! You know, that new Spock who instead of being like old Spock is sexy and angry all the time! Guess he’s putting that STAR TREK money to good use as penance for being part of such a desperate cash grab. But hey, if he keeps producing movies this interesting, I’ll forgive him for it.  
PPS: Wow, apparently this is the first movie ever to have an Oculus Rift Virtual Reality edition. I could really see it working for this one, since the virtual reality element would sit nicely with the otherwise unexplained point-of-view footage and really immerse you in the action. When I get an Oculus Rift in 20 years or whenever they become affordable, I’ll totally check this out again!


*Which --counterintuitively-- is arguably better than the inverse, because you’re going to spend way more time in the buildup than you ever will the payoff.

**It also hilariously bills itself as a true story, presumably because there was such a thing as MKUltra (by that same logic, Seagal’s SUBMERGED and SHADOW MAN are also true stories).




CHAINSAWNUKAH 2014 CHECKLIST!

The Hunt For Dread October
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Arguably loosely adapted from Lovecraft's The Beyond.
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No, although there is a 1986 Stuart Gordon version of THE BEYOND.
  • FOREIGNER: Nein.
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: Yes. Explicitly so at the beginning with a few bits scattered throughout; otherwise, it just mimics the style without specifically having a camera present. Why they would do this I do not know, I just watch 'em.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Ted Levine isn't exactly A-list, but it's still cool he's in this.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: None
  • BOOBIES: Nope
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Top of skull sawed off.
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: No
  • MONSTER: Some kind of Lovecrafty thing, you can't see it really but I bet it's cool.
  • THE UNDEAD: Nah
  • POSSESSION: Yes, there is a strong implication of possession here, though not the usual ghostly kind, more of a mind-control deal.
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Nah
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Nah
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Nope
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Yeah, I think there's a suggestion of that here.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. Got tiny theatrical release apparently, but it's been on Netflix ever since.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Just say no to alien drugs.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Absolutely, 100% inexplicable. No Banshee, no chapter, nothing that would even remotely indicate what in the hell that means.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A