Friday, January 30, 2015

At the Devil's Door

At the Devil’s Door (2014)
Dir. and written by Nicholas McCarthy
Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ashley Rickards, Naya Rivera

First things first: Hooray, today I finally passed last year’s milestone of 56 Chainsawnukah movies, and I still have a few more to go! Obviously next year I’m gonna have to think of a new way to do this so I’m not writing reviews well into July, but hey, onward ever upward.

Now,  on to the movie. As you no doubt recall, I was a huge fan of Nicholas McCarthy’s 2012 debut THE PACT. If memory serves, I called it “a really god damn impressive example of a horror film which was obviously made with almost no money but feels more intense and ambitious than nearly any other horror film I saw last year,” and I stand by that. It continues to strike me as a startlingly assured film debut, a tense and glacially escalating exercise in horror by implication and generalized anxiety. Plus it had Casper Van Dien in it. You gotta like a serious, quiet, and ambitious horror movie that has Casper Van Dien in it, that’s just a rule. Write it down.

So obviously I was pretty stoked that McCarthy got another movie going so quick. This one has a little more ambition, a little more money (two --count em’!-- two helicopter shots!) but unfortunately for my money isn’t quite as imaginative in its scares. It’s pretty much a typical demonic haunted house gimmick, and has most of the standard bag of tricks that come along with that (why yes, it has the scene where someone looks into a mirror and omg there’s a scary face behind them!!). The story follows three young women across multiple decades, as they independently begin to figure out that this house is some kind of hellgate, through which the devil plans to bring forth the antichrist; exactly the sort of place you don’t want to be if you’ve got one of those wombs we keep hearing so much about. Pretty well-trodden horror film territory, with the usual bells and whistles. Not a disaster, but nowhere near the icy dread that is THE PACT’s bread and butter. Both films traffic in plenty of slow, dread-inducing builds in a quiet house, but this time around, you can expect them to occasionally be suddenly shattered by something violent and crazy. It’s a workable dynamic, but much closer to the usual horror jump-scare tactics, rather than the long slow burn McCarthy successfully employed previously. The tense wait is more upsetting than the exclamation mark at the end, and this one has a lot more exclamation marks to mar the building suspense. And those exclamation marks are themselves of slightly less interest.

See, Vampires never have this problem.

I dunno, maybe I’m just uniquely predisposed to not be scared of Devilish shenanigans, but the whole demonic thing seems a bit played out and AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR doesn’t really add much to the old standbys of the genre. And frankly, I’m just not sure demonic/satanic films work anymore. I know for a fact this director doesn’t believe in Satan. I mean, I guess most horror directors don’t believe in ghosts or bigfoots either, but I dunno, I think back in the day Satanism movies got more kick because they really felt dangerous, perverse. Lot of people believed in this stuff, but now it looks almost quaint, nostalgic even. Even something as stupid as THE CAR in 1977 could goose a little gleeful sense of danger by name-checking Anton LaVey in the credits. But come on, nobody hip enough to watch AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR puts any real stock in this old medieval Catholic hocus-pocus. Its why Ti West had to travel back in time and shoot HOUSE OF THE DEVIL in the 1980s, it just doesn’t quite hit the panic button the way it used to with a modern audience. Or maybe I’m just out of touch with where America is on this issue. I just know what I see in the movin’ pictures.

That said, if McCarthy is a little unambitious in his demonic tomfoolery, he makes up for it with a twisty narrative that is as decidedly unconventional as the scares are shopworn. There are three leads here, and their stories interact with each other in some highly unexpected way, shaking you out of your horror movie complacency and cheerfully announcing that anything is possible here. Like most movies with radical violations of the usual narrative storytelling rules (from PSYCHO to ADAPTATION) you can’t help but kind of miss the satisfaction that a traditional narrative provides. But on the other hand it makes it a kind of exciting experience since it rips away all your preconceived ideas about how this will likely play out. I don’t know that it really ups the suspense, but it does make it kind of giddy and breathless, at the cost of being kind of disjointed. That’s a welcome change, every once in a while.

Unlike so, so many other problems in this world, this is not one that can be stabbed away.

As with THE PACT, McCarthy again shows himself capable of assembling a fine cast and getting excellent, naturalistic performances out of them, complimented by his subtlely fine framing which seems to capture the real world that most of us live in a lot better than most Hollywood movies attempt.* And even if the horror payoff don’t always live up it, the guy is aces at setting up those quiet, dread-soaked buildups. Man, put him in any given room with a silent protagonist and a few minutes of screentime, and he’ll find a way to make you squirm in your seat. That's no surprise to fans of his first film. One thing added to the formula here, though, is a sly and understated sense of pitch-black humor. Just like the fragmented storyline and the corny old demonic antics, I’m not sure it’s the best match with his talent for provoking quiet anxiety, but hey, at least it’s something different. And it works; the movie takes itself pretty seriously and has some pretty heavy stuff in there, but it also kind of invites you to approach the horror with a devious smile (which may be a subtle acknowledgement to my earlier point about how hard it is to take seriously the idea of a physical devil). And if all these ambitions work together inelegantly for most of the runtime, they finally manage to click for the delightful finale. That ending’s a doozy, and really a perfect blend of the whole movie: glacial and chilly dread, subtle deadpan comedy, and unusual ideas baked in with hoary old cliches. The movie only intermittently works this well, but once you get all those cylinders firing together, it’s an undeniably potent, seductive mixture.

The freewheeling strangeness of the tone and structure meld uneasily with the usual tropes of demonic horror cinema, ultimately kinda making this an interesting near-miss for me, a slight disappointment after the solid, focused precision of THE PACT. But it’s got a lot of stuff to like, and certainly gives more evidence that this McCarthy fellow is more than a talented one-trick pony. Even though it didn’t quite come together, it just makes me more excited to see what he’ll try next, which is probably about the highest compliment you can give a filmmaker. Plus as far as realty-business themed horror movies go, this is way better than OPEN HOUSE. And hey, good to know someone else still likes DON’T LOOK NOW red raincoats, so this movie delivers on that front as well. Something for everyone! LISTING: AT THE DEVIL’S door may be something of a fixer-upper, but it’s a unique property that boasts lots of room for a young filmmaker to grow. And hey, it’s Hellgate accessible, always a nice convenience in this busy modern world. Pet Friendly. If you watched here, you'd be home already.

*I love that you actually see an apartment with those slatted vertical window blinds -- everyone has lived in one of those at one time, but how often do you actually see them in a movie? Almost never.


The Hunt For Dread October
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: None, but give them time.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Academy-award-nominated Catalina Sandino Moreno (for MARIA FULL OF GRACE). OK looking at her subsequent work she's not exactly anchoring big-budget action movies or nothin', but it's still funny that she's in here.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Yeah, like LOVELY MOLLY there's a sexual-assault-by-unseen-force here. A little less graphic, though; the dark one doesn't seem inclined to remove any clothes, so that's a plus.
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: Demon troubles, so not classical ghost haunting. But again, it's obviously the house that's the problem.
  • MONSTER: We do get a quick glimpse of one
  • THE UNDEAD: Yes, I think this probably counts.
  • POSSESSION: There is a suggestion that the demons here can possess people.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: We see very little of it, but there's obviously an evil cult that gets the ball rolling.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid- high. Tiny theatrical release, now on Netflix.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If you think there might be demonic forces in your house... where should you not be living?
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Actually the Devil is past the door; the devil-call is coming from inside the house, get out!!! It premiered under the more generic but more accurate title HOME. The current title makes it sound like he's next door and you're over for a visit, which is not technically accurate. But I guess maybe it refers to the door between devil-land and your house, in which case it arguably makes sense.
Aces. Virtually the whole cast is female.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Grim Prairie Tales

Grim Prairie Tales (1990) aka Hellbent
Dir. and written by Wayne Coe
Starring Brad Dourif, James Earl Jones, William Atherton

Somewhere in the American West during the only time period that movies about the American West are ever set in, a tightly-wound traveler in a city-slicker bowler (Brad Dourif, CHILD’S PLAY) encounters a bellicose bounty hunter (James Earl Jones, DR. STRANGELOVE, EXORCIST II, THE LION KING 2: SIMBA’S PRIDE) and the two end up around the campfire for a long night. They’re almost immediately at each others’ throats, but somehow can’t quite manage to get angry enough to part ways, and end up telling each other scary stories to pass the time. Their respective obnoxious characteristics mean that the more they tell, the more they provoke each other to taller tales. It’s a pretty standard setup for a horror anthology, but this extremely odd mash-up of Western iconography and anthology horror is anything but standard. It’s truly odd, its characters as one-of-a-kind as its weirdo genre mish-mash.

Dourif and Jones’s offbeat sniping is a thing of weirdo beauty, an unexpectedly enjoyable wrinkle for a horror anthology, which generally spend the minimum possible effort on both characterization and framing narratives. Both storytellers give deeply and proudly bizarre performances (particularly Jones, who gets most of the best lines. “I like to think of myself a philanderer,” he muses on the subject of marriage) and it’s a total joy to watch them go at it.

Man, how did they make it through this film without ever using "ghost riders in the sky?"

Unfortunately the stories they tell aren’t as interesting as the people telling them. I know, right? What kind of God allows a horror anthology where the framing narrative is the best part? In the first tale, an old man (Will Hare, who we encountered earlier in EYES OF FIRE) is ironically punished for desecrating an Indian burial ground. In the second, a young man (Marc McClure, Jimmy Olson in SUPERMAN II-IV)* tries to win over a shy, pregnant woman he finds wandering the wilderness, only to discover that things aren’t quite what they seem. In a third, a daughter (Wendy J. Cooke, “Alien” in COCOON) learns something about her loving father’s (William Atherton, for once playing a seemingly nice guy after a career playing assholes in everything from GHOSTBUSTERS to DIE HARD) darker side. Finally, a cold-hearted OCD gunslinger (Scott Paulin, THE RIGHT STUFF) is haunted by the ghost of a rival.

This would be an excellent cover for a Gordon Lightfoot album.

Usually with an anthology I’d go through and discuss each story separately, but there’s no need here because these stories each have the exact same strengths and the exact same problems. The strengths are good ones: they’re generally quite well appointed, with a more-competent-than-usual cast, a strong score (which ranges from classical piano to Carpenter-style electric drones to typical Western tributes to Morricone) and some lovely camerawork by frequent Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (in only his second film in that capacity, before he would move on to the likes of SCHINDLER’S LIST**). Kaminski in particular deserves some credit for painting the Old West with an unusually colorful palette; often Westerns are all about dusty earth tones and sepia nostalgia, but here we see the West in rich blues and greens, the first sequence in particular highlighting an eerie, alienly beautiful sunset which turns the impossibly huge sky into something surreal and mysterious. Oh! And the final section as a brief but really cool animated sequence, gotta like that. So everything looks nice*** and generally seems competently made. But these stories have one problem, and it’s a big one. They’re not very interesting.

Let me get that for you! People in the old west sure are helpful!

Here’s the issue: director Wayne Coe (no other credits of any kind, but his IMDB bio claims he’s primarily a storyboard artist and credit-sequence designer to some major films, including SEVEN, ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, and ARGO. Oh, and that he designed the poster for BACK TO THE FUTURE) either doesn’t understand or chooses to deliberately ignore how horror shorts usually work. Short fiction is the perfect format for a setup and payoff: a brief introduction to the characters and world, a hint of conflict, and then, WHAMMY, they pull the rug out from under you. There’s an unexpected twist, or a character is ironically punished, or the context abruptly shifts -- in other words, a conclusion that plays off the setup in some unexpected thematic way. But these stories here, by and large, simply do not have those elements, and to the extent they do, the tone and the structure is all wrong. A few characters do get punished, but the things that happen to them seem unsatisfyingly unrelated to their sins, there’s no real payoff for the setup and the details of their respective stories. There’s not a narrative structure that leads to a cathartic conclusion, it’s just a short tale of someone who seems to more or less randomly encounter a strange death. And in the case of Atherton’s story, there seems to be no ending at all. The story finds nice-guy dad Atherton unexpectedly drawn into a lynch mob, which horrifies his daughter when she catches sight of it. He swears things aren’t what they seem, that he had good reason, that she just doesn’t understand. Very interesting, so what’s actually going on here, what, are these guys vampires or something? Well, they never tell us. Daughter decides she loves him anyway, and that’s the end of the story. Wha? Was that the conflict we were looking at here? Fundamentally, the problem is that Coe seems to misunderstand the way narrative conflict actually works, and so the stories all feel formless and unsatisfying, ending abruptly just when it seems like thing might be getting interesting.

On the other hand, look at these frames from the animated sequence in the last segment and try and tell me you don't want to see this:

So, I dunno, I kinda enjoyed them anyway. They’re narratively sloppy but they also feel unexpected and sort of intriguing, even if they don’t really pay off. They’re mostly not really scary as much as strange and macabre, and you definitely miss the usual denouement part of a horror short where they drop the other shoe and make you realize how clever they’ve been. They have their moments, though; several have some strong atmosphere (mostly courtesy of the fine photography) and they generally take themselves fairly seriously, an odd decision in contrast to the hilarious framing story but welcome nonetheless (the big exception being the second, shortest tale, which ends up being a ridiculous and tastelessly amusing shaggy dog). I don’t blame the world for finding this a hard one to love, but as a strange little genre experiment it offers plenty of offbeat charm if you can overlook its narrative shortcomings. And even if you can’t, at least fast forward through it and check out the parts with Dourif and Jones. Come on, when are you gonna see that pairing again? His IMDB bio claims Coe wrote a sequel, maybe someday there’s a chance, I mean, DUMB AND DUMBER just got a sequel, so you never know. Maybe ditch the horror anthology format next time and just make it a buddy-cop comedy in the old West, with Dourif and Jones mismatched buddies riding around solving mysteries, searching for a better set of stories than they have at their disposal here.

*Also Dave McFly in BACK TO THE FUTURE, which had a small role for Will Hare as well.

**Haha, I just noticed he was also the DP on COOL AS ICE, the Vanilla Ice movie. That’s gotta be even more embarrassing than GRIM PRAIRIE TALES.

*** Slight proviso: I watched this on a VHS fullscreen version that looked like it was playing directly from a potato. That seems to be the only available version so be warned, the transfer is terrible and sometimes so dark as to be literally unintelligible. Presumably it looked good on film, though.

The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None, although IMDB say Coe wrote one.
  • REMAKE: Ha. Not likely.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: James Earl Jones?
  • BOOBIES: None.
  • MONSTER: None
  • THE UNDEAD: Nope
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: nah
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: During the animated dream sequence, a guy imagines himself transformed into a bullet.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high. No official DVD release, quickly forgotten at the time.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If James Earl Jones starts to tell you a story, you fucking shut up and listen to him, even if he gets to rambling.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: The cringy pun notwithstanding, these Prairie tales are indeed grim, if not necessarily terrifying.
I was almost tempted to go with four, since there's plenty of fun to be had here, especially with Jones and Dourif. But I cannot in good conscience do it, the stories here are just slightly too weak for that to feel right. Still, call it a strong 3, a C+, nearly a B-.

Friday, January 23, 2015


Bleeders (1997) aka Hemoglobin aka Dark Harbour aka The Descendant
Dir. Peter Svatek
Written by Charles Adair, Roland Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, based on the story by H. P. Lovecraft
Starring Roy Dupuis, Kristin Lehman, Rutger Hauer

Ah, the age old question: “How have I never heard of this before? How could it possibly not be great?!” Those words strike fear into the heart of every true horror fan. Because they know, in their heart of hearts, that there’s a way. “John Boorman directs EXORCIST II, and James Earl Jones wears a Locust hat? There’s no way that’s not amazing!” or “Vampires fight werewolves with high powered weaponry, and Bill Nighy is the villain? It’s literally impossible that I won’t like this movie!” and of course, “Dario Argento’s directing a movie actually called GIALLO? And it stars Adrian Brody in a NUTTY PROFESSOR style double role? I already know this is the greatest movie in history, now I just need to see it.” I think we all know how badly each one of those scenarios turned out for mankind, against all possible odds. So if you’re a horror fan and you see some inexplicably obscure old movie with a great premise and top talent and yet you’ve never heard of it, it’s probably time to let that hope die, there’s almost certainly a good reason for that. You don’t, of course. You still go in hoping against hope that it was the world that got it wrong, that this was a misunderstood classic waiting to be rediscovered. Only to be disappointed again, and again, and again. To that sad list of shattered dreams we can now add, “A Lovecraft adaptation (co)written by Dan O’Bannon and Roland Shusett (ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL)? And starring Rutger Hauer? I think I may just have stumbled onto the King Tut’s Tomb of horror.”

Let’s not mince words: this movie is terrible. But I can kind of see what they were going for. They just didn’t get there. At all. Instead this limp, unpleasant creature feature based loosely on Lovecraft’s 1922 serial The Lurking Fear wastes what might on paper seem like an acceptable script on rambling time-wasting nonsense, broad, inept performances, and, most damningly, dishearteningly shitty creature design. I mean, you read my review of ROCK N ROLL NIGHTMARE, you know how easy it is to charm me even with some unbelievably low-rent monster muppets. The fact that the whole end of this movie is one long ugly puppet scene and even I found it a complete wasteland of entertainment should tell you pretty succinctly just how lazy all this is.

I believe that all alien autopsies should be performed with an old man drinking beer from an armchair in the corner. It's how I roll, it's what I feel in my heart.

Like all movies based on Lovecraft (and this is the third adaptation of this very story, following 1989’s DARK HERITAGE and 1994’s THE LURKING FEAR) there is a germ of a good idea here. Smug sunglass-sporting Eurotrash beefcake John (Roy Dupuis… holy cow, he was in MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT?) is suffering from some sort of rare genetic disorder, and he and his unbelievably accommodating wife Kathleen (Kristin Lehman, WAY OF THE GUN) are travelling back to a vaguely defined East Coast (of Canada) seaside town from whence John’s ancestors are reputed to have come, in the hopes of finding more information on his illness. What they discover about those ancestors will shock no one, but at least the movie keeps some of the more prurient aspects of Lovecraft’s dark imagination. The idea of searching for a disturbing ancestry is a good one; unfortunately in this case it only results in more lame ass muppets, and so there’s really nothing much to see here.

There are some piecemeal elements which might have added up to a better film at one point. A lot of it is shot on location in what appears to genuinely be a wind-swept coastal village lingering under an ominous iron sky (not the kind that has Nazis, don’t get excited). That means that despite the ugly cloths, this one is mostly free of the soul-deadeningly unappealing sitcom lighting and production design which ruined most of the horror movies of this period. Babyfaced hardbody Dupuis is ludicrously miscast as the wan, sickly John (it’s a part tailor-made for a Lovecraft look-alike, you morons) but he’s a decent actor and tries his best. Lehman does an admirable job in her underwritten wife role. And Rutger Hauer (HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA 3D) as a helpful local doctor can’t exactly be said to be working at the top of his game, but even phoning it in he’s easily the best thing in the movie, plus he has a sweet mustache. The script, written by Charles Adair (nothing, absolutely zero. Possible pen name for director Svatek?) and O’Bannon/Shusett has a sprinkling of interesting and disturbing ideas, unfortunately none of which are terribly well realized on screen. And there’s a pretty intense sex scene towards the end, appealingly coming right on the heels of a delightful scene where a major character eats a pickled baby.

The face of failure.

So there are some elements that could have been cobbled together into a decent Lovecraft flick (not that it would have a lot of competition in that department). The fact that they so unambiguously did not needs to be laid squarely at the feet of director Peter Svatek (Canadian TV movies), who finds almost nothing of potential interest in this whole endeavor that he cannot bungle. Acting is all over the place, mixing intense performances from Dupuis and Lehman with over-the-top, broad ones from other actors and dull nonacting from still others. The film is disastrously paced, with multiple extraneous characters running around with nothing to do besides sapping any hint of tension or build from the only story that actually matters. As befits its 90’s pedigree, it is utterly without atmosphere; that’s already a disaster for a Lovecraft story (which get most of their milage from implied menace), but it also makes the long wait before we see any monsters almost unbearably dull. Indifferent framings, poor sound, a score composed entirely on a keyboard which would stand out as laughable in a Full Moon Videos release, and --it bears repeating-- those pathetic blotches of sour mashed potatoes trying in vain to pass themselves off as Lovecraftian horrors… all movie-killing missteps which could have been avoided by anyone with even a passing working knowledge of cinema.

Here, have this body. I don't want it anyway.

One weird and unexpected side effect of this movie is that it made me actually appreciate CG effects. As you’re no doubt aware, I’m usually a practical effects hardliner, and I think most horror fans feel the same way. CG just makes things feel weightless and insubstantial, shiny and clean, and somehow seems to encourage boring, generic, or simply unappealing, overcomplicated monster designs with a million moving parts and zero personality. But this movie is a good reminder of the problems you can have with practical effects, too. Nevermind that the design here is just unforgivably shitty; you simply can’t believe these plodding, hairless blobs could genuinely pose a threat to anyone. It’s literally impossible to take them seriously as a threat. If you, a group of well-armed humans taking refuge in a lighthouse, can actually be endangered by a half-dozen legless dwarfs --who are, for god’s sake afraid of light!-- hobbling slowly along the ground towards you, frankly, you probably deserve what you get. Making them CG wouldn’t have helped the ugly design, but at least it might have made them look like they can do more than wobble towards you pulled along by strings or whatever. Puppets are a hard thing to make physically threatening, so if you’ve got absolutely no atmosphere or suspense built up by your story, you’ve really got nothing. Might as well at least make them look strong. If they end up looking weightless and shiny… well, at least they don’t look like total chumps.

Anyway, not even remotely close to a good movie here. This is not only a shame because it wastes yet another perfectly good opportunity to finally adapt a Lovecraft story into an actual half-decent movie, but because it ends with “in loving memory of [hair stylist and makeup artist] Henri Khouzam.” Uh, thanks guys, but I’m not sure this is the way he’d want to be remembered. It’s like how STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS ends with a dedication to the post-9/11 US Veterans. Geez, haven’t they suffered enough already? Hopefully ol’ Henri Khouzam also has a nice tombstone or something somewhere, just in case this movie doesn’t have the staying power they might have assumed when they put in the credits. The hair and makeup here look pretty good, though, so at least he’s got that.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Kind Adbullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. We miss ya, Abby.

I just want to say, I think this may well be the single worst piece of graphic art in this whole Chainsawnukah adventure.


The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, a somewhat faithful-ish adaptation of Lovecraft's The Lurking Fear
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No, although the story had been adapted at least twice before this, and will be again.
  • FOREIGNER: Canadian
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Rutger Hauer?
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Rutger Hauer?
  • BOOBIES: Yep, couple very nice pairs.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: No, everything is nice and consensual.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: I... don't think so? There is that autopsy scene (see above), but it's on a muppet so I dunno if it counts.
  • MONSTER: Bleeders!
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Nah
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Well... there's a body dysmorphia element here.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly high, "available from Fries Home Video"
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Tom Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. But you really shouldn't, because it's full of lame-ass ugly muppets.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: HEMOGLOBIN, which was the on-screen title of the version I watched, does make some kind of sense. BLEEDERS is a more nonsensical title, although obviously playing with the same theme. DARK HARBOUR and THE DESCENDANT are the closest to accurately describing the movie, but also the most boring. Maybe call it 70% overall.