Monthly Archives: March, 2015

Hostel (2005)

Hostel_poster♦♦

Written by Eli Roth
Directed by Eli Roth

Quentin Tarantino co-executive produced this film which, given that Eli Roth substitutes quirkiness for narrative, isn’t difficult to understand. It’s about three young men who travel to Slovakia in search of easy, anything-goes sex and end up the victims of a
much different flesh trade involving kidnapping and murder. Roth, however, does nothing with this intriguing premise, preferring to distract us from the superficiality of his ideas with sex, torture, and snappy lines. So bereft of imagination is this story that Roth can end it only by stacking one convenient coincidence on top of another. Responding to Slovak officials who complained the film in no way reflected the reality of their country, Roth blamed his own ignorant fantasies (which include kids who kill for bubblegum!) on Americans: “Americans do not even know that this country exists. My film is not a geographical work but aims to show Americans’ ignorance of the world around them.” Presumably by perpetuating it. Offensive and badly written — but flashy — torture porn.

Postcoronary Drift

I sorta saw Macabre, Witness to Murder, and Perfect Sisters. It was a bit like watching the traffic behind the ambulance, which was there one minute, gone the next. I finally had to ask. Turns out ambulances these days come equipped with patient stealth technology: one flip of a switch and the rear windows instantly fog over into opaque whiteness. Why we don’t have these things in our homes is a mystery to me. Especially at night.

Whole chunks of the movies disappeared like those 15-20 minutes during which I was having a metal tube inserted into my heart. Well, I told ’em up front I didn’t want to be around for that. And they were as good as their word: I wasn’t.

It’s kind of a shame. Two of the movies, I think, had a little something going for them.

I don’t know where I go from here, what with one thing and another (the other being that I start a new job on Monday).

Eden (2012), directed by Megan Griffiths

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Human trafficking crime drama — about Eden (Jamie Chung), an 18 year old Korean-American girl who is kidnapped and forced into prostitution by a corrupt lawman (Beau Bridges) and his young crack-smoking assistant (Matt O’Leary) — confuses intelligence and resourcefulness with selfish opportunism, squandering all the sympathy we have for the girl immediately following her abduction.  Based on the lies of a woman named Chong Kim, whose story evidently was taken at face value by the filmmakers and only later shown to be fantasy when it was investigated by Breaking Out, an anti-trafficking non-profit organization.  The movie, however, retains the “based on a true story” title which, ironically, is more accurate here than in some other cases, as Kim appears to share the same vile personality traits as Eden.  For those who think making us hate inherently hateful people is an accomplishment.  Also known as Abduction of Eden.

Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton

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One of the fun things about reading is coming across echoes of other books you’ve read. I recently finished After Worlds Collide, and in one scene, a couple of characters discover a kind of plaque or road marker left by an alien civilization. On it is a design; not words or any real picture, just a design. In some inexplicable way, that design seems somehow un-human. And now, in Sphere, etched upon the titular object, is another strange design, one which, again, the hero finds to be un-human. Now, these are basically two-dimensional abstract patterns. Humans, of course, are very familiar with both these dimensions, which have been well explored not just by artists but by billions of doodlers throughout history. I kind of figure just about any design imaginable has been rendered by someone at some time in history. And I sure can’t get my mind around such a drawing being so odd that it is essentially inconceivable, and therefore un-human. Nope, with all due respect to the authors, I’m just not buying it.

Happily, this being a Michael Crichton novel, that’s about the only thing that isn’t, on some level, believable. The guy was a master of milieu, whether the setting was a large corporation, a dinosaur theme park, or a deep sea Navy habitat.

That’s where we find ourselves here, a thousand feet down in the Pacific ocean, where the Navy is investigating a very large, very strange vessel at least 300 years old. But it isn’t any boat; it’s a spacecraft.

Though the Navy is in charge of the overall mission, the primary investigators are a group of civilian scientists — a mathematician, an astrophysicist, a zoologist, and a psychologist. This allows Crichton to attack the problem of the ship, and the mysterious sphere found inside, on a number of different fronts. But Norman, the psychologist, is the hero. He’s there to keep everyone working together smoothly, a decidedly difficult job under the best of circumstances, given the egos and insecurities of the other scientists.

But these are hardly ideal circumstances. First of all, there’s all that crushing water above them. Farther up still, a cyclone blows in and sends the support vessels running for safe haven. Meanwhile, down below, strange things begin happening. And then the monsters attack.

In broad outline, that might sound like any number of other books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, and it is. The difference is that Crichton handles it all ridiculously well. In an early scene, Norman discovers that Harry, the mathematician, tried to make out his will shortly after arriving in the habitat. It’s a small detail, but one that pays off not once, but twice during the course of the story, in two different ways. A Crichton thriller is anything but ham-handed  (State of Fear being, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule).

In fact, it’s Crichton’s subtlety that can make him difficult to synopsize: everything connects and whatever you might mention comes off sounding like a spoiler. The truth is, beneath the outline, the details of the story aren’t the typical blend of science fiction and horror. There’s the ship, for example, and the sphere, and the monsters…but I’ll just have to leave it at that.

This is one of Crichton’s best books, and Crichton at his best is exciting, suspenseful, funny, and perfectly plausible.

The Seventh Victim (1943), directed by Mark Robson

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Fascinating, exceedingly low-key noir horror film about a young woman (Kim Hunter) whose search for her missing sister leads her to an odd cult of satanists in Greenwich Village.  From the producer (Val Lewton) and writer (DeWitt Bodeen) of Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, so expect the off-beat.  The sister (Jean Brooks) says things like, “I’ve always wanted to die.”  This haunting, depressing film is not recommended for the suicidal.

Leprechaun (1993), directed by Mark Jones

Leprechaun♦½

If this movie had come out a decade earlier I might have seen it before now. I went to a lot of horror movies in the 80s, which was my heyday for theater-going. Saying that isn’t to say I would have liked it, though. I may have consumed much, but even back then I didn’t just eat it up. Most of it sucked, and I knew it. The Boogens, My Bloody Valentine, Final ExamLeprechaun would have fit right in. So why now?

Two words: Jennifer Aniston. In her first starring role. That these words now have a magic more powerful than a leprechaun’s is obvious. What was originally a poster showing the little gremlin peeking through a doorway is now a large photo of Aniston, with the little monster tucked away in a corner or shown, in silhouette, in the foreground. Even the tagline has changed: it used to say, “Your luck just ran out”; now it says, “Her luck just ran out.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not wild about Aniston. But I do miss Friends. And this movie was made the year before Friends started, so we’re talking about a very young and pretty Jennifer Aniston. I’ve seen movies with much less inducement, believe me.

Is she worth it? I mean, does she make the movie watchable? I thought for awhile she might. When we first see her, she’s wearing a short dress, and there’s a lovely shot of her walking up a flight of stairs — with the camera, of course, at ground level. Before long, however, she’s changed into an awful pair of shorts and, well, the magic was gone. Permanently.

Leprechaun made money, though, quite a lot of it. I suppose Mark Jones, who both wrote and directed the film, deserves kudos for coming up with an original monster. But I was never one of those who believed that the monster was the star. I stopped watching Hellraiser because it became all about Pinhead (or that’s my sense of it, anyway). I was disappointed (and a little disgusted) that Hannibal Lecter became the focus of the sequel to Silence of the Lambs. Even when I continued to watch — I saw Friday the 13th up to about #7 and I’ve seen four or five of the Halloween films — it wasn’t because of the monster, it was because of the scenario. That my enjoyment even then generally continued to decline is probably because I was missing the point: I was supposed to root for the bad guy. And I didn’t. So, yeah, evil leprechaun, that’s different. But who cares?

This movie isn’t any dumber than others of its ilk, but it isn’t any smarter, either. It’s about a leprechaun who wants to retrieve the gold that was stolen from him and who will kill anyone standing in his way. I guess it’s too much to ask that Jones do something clever with that idea, to do for leprechauns what Stephen Chiodo did for clowns in Killer Klowns From Outer Space. Too much — because what is there really to say about leprechauns? What are the jokes? I don’t know, and Jones clearly doesn’t either. In fact, he lifts a few from clowns: we see the sprite riding a tricycle and a toy motor car. It’s kind of pathetic.

Ah, but then, so am I. Why do I still think tilting my head will make the camera go lower?

The Man From Planet X (1951), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

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Sally Fields’ mom (Margaret Field) sees an alien on the Scottish moors and is told by her astronomer father to have a hot drink and go to bed.  The pasty-faced alien — yes, dad, there really is an alien and I really did see it — turns out to be a spotter for a race of beings whose world, swiftly approaching Earth, is dying.  The nearby townspeople scurry off to lock their doors and the Constable admits that even if the men wanted to help defeat the alien, their “lasses wouldn’t let them.”  So it’s up to an intrepid American reporter to win the day for humanity.  With lots of fog and absolutely no atmosphere.  Bland.

The Legend of Hell House (1973), directed by John Hough

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The Legend of Hell House, like the novel on which it is based, Hell House, was written by Richard Matheson. Watching it, you feel as though it almost had to be. It seems more like a companion piece than a work in its own right. The body of the story is there, but the connective tissue is missing. The individual parts aren’t so much scenes as vignettes, each of which imparts another important plot point. I suppose for that reason it’s comprehensible without having read the book, but it’ll probably leave viewers who haven’t feeling as though they missed something.

This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a terribly good one either. It is, however, different, unusual. And all of a piece. Because each scene is, really, equally important, it doesn’t build the way a narrative should. On the other hand, if the peaks are missing, so, too, are the troughs. It comes at you like a truck on a flat highway moving at a steady 45 mph. Relative to other traffic, that isn’t very fast. But if you’re standing still…

The story, of course, is the same, relocated to England. A dying rich man hires three investigators to settle the question of survival after death in the only place he knows where such an answer might be found: Hell House, a haunted mansion that has already defeated the efforts of two previous teams to solve its mysteries. The team consists of physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), mental medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), and physical medium Ben Fisher (Roddy McDowall). Accompanying Dr. Barrett is his wife, Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt).

The primary team members are all professionals, all experienced in dealing with hauntings. This helped make the book atypical in that fear wasn’t driving the characters. It’s the same thing here, but now it’s just another part of the overall tonal flatness of the film. Oh, there’s some yelling and there’s some screaming, but it’s all just bumps in the road. This isn’t a scary movie. It’s ominous, from beginning to end.

Matheson unfortunately kept his ending more or less intact. I thought it was simplistic in the book; it’s sillier here, although it has some nice special effects as one of the team members gets pushed around. The special effects, in fact, are good throughout.

The actors do well across the board and the movie is well-made. The real reason to see it, though, is for a taste of something different.

Lucy (2014), directed by Luc Besson

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Based on an idea that amuses neuroscientists — that human beings use only ten percent of their brain — this violent fantasy follows Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, a student forced by a Korean drug lord (Choi Min-sik) to carry a new narcotic in her abdomen that, when it is accidentally released into her system, begins to awaken the supposedly dormant 90% of her gray matter.  Along with her ever-increasing powers of the mind comes the knowledge that she will soon die if she doesn’t get more of the drug, a mission the drug lord is determined to thwart.  Besson includes a few funny metaphorical asides by way of cuts to the animal kingdom, which, along with the gun-play and car crashes, are meant to divert us from the absurdity of the characters and story.  Morgan Freeman, for instance, plays a scientist whose childish daydreams of expanded brain-use are treated as respectable scientific theories; meanwhile, Lucy’s incredible new intelligence includes a convenient black hole in the area of her battle with the drug lord.  Lucy’s self-absorption is understandable, but her amoral anarchism is not.  For mavens of mayhem only.

Hell House (1971) by Richard Matheson

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When physicist Lionel Barrett asks for a list of phenomena observed in the Belasco house, popularly known as Hell House, it contains about a hundred alphabetical entries, of which the following are the P’s:

“…Paraffin molds; Parakinesis; Paramnesia; Paresthesia; Percussion; Phantasmata; Poltergeist phenomena; Possession; Precognition; Presentiment; Prevision; Pseudopods; Psychic photography; Psychic rods; Psychic sounds; Psychic touches; Psychic winds; Psychokinesis; Psychometry…”

This is, clearly, one badass house. Barrett is the nominal leader of a small group of investigators hired by Rolf Deutsch, its dying owner, whose mission is to establish conclusively whether or not there is survival after death. Barrett doesn’t think so; Florence Tanner, a mental medium, disagrees; and Ben Fisher, a physical medium and the only sane survivor of a previous investigation years before, agrees with Florence — but he’s there less to prove anything to Deutsch than to avenge his previous failure. Edith, Barrett’s seemingly timid wife, is along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, to be sure. This is not a book that skimps on its supernatural manifestations. Spirit guides, poltergeist activity, possession, teleplasmic extrusions — the list, like the one Barrett receives at the beginning of the book, goes on and on. You want action? You’ve found it.

To Matheson’s credit, it isn’t, however, mindless mayhem. He doesn’t toss a ghost in the house and figure anything goes. Matheson weaves together the personalities of his investigators with the sordid history of the Belasco house to create a believable framework for all the insanity.

Belasco, we learn early, was a man pulled from the pages of something by the Marquis de Sade. He established his house as a haven for depravity, debauchery, and criminality. Torturers and victims alike were tormented beyond endurance; any or all of them could be haunting the house.  Indeed, when the house was finally opened by police, everyone (except Belasco himself) was found dead.

Capturing particular psychologies isn’t one of Matheson’s gifts, but he’s more effective with personalities. Miss Tanner, the touchy-feely spiritualist, sees the house as a groundbreaking case of multiple haunting. She believes she is contacted by one of the spirits, a man not as cruel as the others who desperately wants to be free. She, of course, is desperate to help him. Fisher, remembering his earlier experience, advises her not to open up so much to the forces in the house, but then he is afraid to open up at all. Barrett, meanwhile, has his own ideas about all of this, and spends much of his time constructing a machine that he says will neutralize the house in a matter of minutes. Edith, as an “outsider,” is caught between the confidence of her husband and the evidence of her own eyes. Each of the characters gets more than one nasty surprise as the story progresses.

One of the unusual aspects of this story is that all of Matheson’s characters are good, intelligent people, doing their best in their own ways to deal with the house, and none of them is entirely right or wrong. It’s true that the final revelation is, psychologically, weak, but otherwise the story has a satisfying resolution.

And the build-up is very good, establishing the characters and their internal conflicts, as well as the house itself, which includes a spooky steam room and a profane chapel. Matheson did his homework regarding spiritualism, and Florence’s “sittings” owe much to the history of well-known spiritualists. The research — and the inclusion of Barrett, the scientist, as a main character — keep the book grounded in the real world, even as Matheson uses the house to twist that reality in an evolution of the characters’ various theories.

I can also tell you this: not all of these characters will survive. Which seems fitting for a place called Hell House.