Halloween Quickies: SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000)

October rocks man. And there's no way in hell I'm not writing about horror flicks this month! I've yet to find time to crank out a full review, but until then, I'll try to post a quick blurb about a Halloween-ish horror movie every day. Of course, a Halloween spook-a-thon isn't complete without at least one vampire flick, so I decided to check out a movie that's clever plot really piqued my interests...

Friedrich Murnau is a filmmaker in 1922 making a horror movie, but not just any horror movie: he's making Nosferatu. He's eccentric for sure, but even more eccentric is his star, Max Schreck, Count Orlok himself. In fact, the cast and crew begins to notice that he's getting a little too into his vampire character. Soon after he begins his role, members of the production begin to die one by one. Murnau may be obsessed with this film, but he wouldn't get an actual vampire to fill the lead role...would he?

Embarassing confession: I haven't actually seen the original Nosferatu (I really want to, believe me), and I really wish I had checked it out before venturing into Shadow of the Vampire. It's not vital to understanding the plot or anything, but I feel like it would certainly add another layer of appreciation for it. I willl say that I am in love with that plot, and this could have been a genuine classic...but sadly, I thought it fell a little short.

It's more of personal taste than anything, as the film has a tendency to fluctuate from intense drama to black comedy, and I found myself enjoying the comedy aspects a little more. The plot itself is ludicrous to begin with, and if they'd taken it for what it was and ran with it, it would've been gold. However, despite some very funny scenes (the vampire's fireside conversation with two crew members was great), most of the movie is way too serious. It even ends on a real downer of a note nd ultimately left  funny tatse in my mouth.

The acting is near flawless. John Malkovich is incredible and totally believable (yet completely manic at the same time), Udo Kier was the most likable character in the whole movie, and Cary Elwes stole my heart the minute he appaeared onscreen 9which was way too late in the film). But obviously the best actor is Willem DaFoe as the vampire, "Max Schreck" (a fake name). DaFoe is incredibly over-the-top and as weasly as one would expect the actual Nosferatu to act. His peformance itself is truly suit for a comedy (it kind of reminded me of Jim Carrey in A Series of Unfortunate Events), which isn't a bad thing, except I really wished the movie had travelled that road.

But it didn't. And because of that, Shadow of the Vampire becomes a one-joke movie that doesn't even realize the potential of that one joke. None of the characters are truly fleshed out to the point of an emotional connection being established, the only real conflict is "how do we get this vampire to stop killing people" even though the body count is extraordinarily low, and overall, it's kind of boring. I would probably find a lot more to like if I actually saw the original Nosferatu (I'm curious to see how close they were able to re-shoot those scenes), but as is, it's a little "eh." Definitely worth checking out for the strong ensemble of actors (in particular the dynamic between DaFoe and Malkovich, or even Dafoe, Malkovich, and Kier), but not a major source of Halloween thrills. The search continues.


Halloween Quickies: ANNABELLE (2014)

October rocks man. And there's no way in hell I'm not writing about horror flicks this month! I've yet to find time to crank out a full review, but until then, I'll try to post a quick blurb about a Halloween-ish horror movie every day. I finally got out to the theater to check out the latest demonic *yawn* possession movie in the style of James Wan...what a treat.

Taking place in the 1960's this time, Annabelle follows a young married couple who come close to being killed by some nutty hippie Satanists...but the nightmare isn't over, as one of the cultists has transferred her evil spirit into the wife's prized doll, and it's brought a demon that's craving some souls. Or one in particular...and it certainly couldn't be the soul of their unborn child, could it?

Okay, I don't hate Annabelle nearly as much as you might be thinking right now. Full disclosure, I haven't even seen The Conjuring yet, so any references to it made here went way over my head. But I doubt seeing it would've made this any better, since this movie was the poster child of generic, modern demon possession flicks...it's clearly been made to cash a quick buck off the success of Wan's spookshow last year, and I don't hesitate to say this is the lamest killer doll movie ever. Mainly because it's not a killer doll movie when it really should have been.

Start with what I liked. The opening. Great stuff. The two Satanists attacking the couple's neighbors, then breaching their house, I'm not going to lie, freaked me right out of my seat. It's something I haven't really seen before: a slasher-esque scenario filmed in the style of a haunted house possession movie...and oh dear god does it work. It utilizes the sixities setting well (Manson cults were a common fear), throws some great gore in, builds amazing suspense without too many jump scares (though the first one used is superb), and is really goddamn creepy! I want the director to do a cult movie set in the sixties in the same style as this opening scene! And there is one scene towards the end of the film that actually started to disturb me and make me commend the movie for having balls but then...it copped out. 

But once the demon stuff kicks in...forget everything I just said and just try to stay awake. The Annabelle doll is really only used for a) obnoxiously long close-ups or b) to be found by a character in a position they didn't put it in. That's right: the Annabelle doll never even moved during this whole movie. I kept praying for at least her eyes to move and look at a character, but nope...how about a drinking game where everytime a lingering close-up actually pays off in a scare, you take a shot. You'll be stone-sober in no time!

The acting isn't that great, the dialogue is really annoying, the priest character (who I actually enjoyed onscreen) didn't even do much, the demon looked boring and unoriginal, and the doll doesn't do anything. The cinematography's pretty good though. Nice job, DP. But it does have enough jump scares to slightly recommend a viewing with a lot of friends around Halloween who are willing to scream at just about everything. Other than that, Annabelle, to me, is nothing but a disappointing film brimming with the potential to bring back the killer doll movie, but then deciding killer dolls are for sissies. Sigh.


Halloween Quickies: COTTAGE COUNTRY (2013)

October rocks man. And there's no way in hell I'm not writing about horror flicks this month! I've yet to find time to crank out a full review, but until then, I'll try to post a quick blurb about a Halloween-ish horror movie every day. It continues witha  movie probably more appropriate for summer, but it's always time for a vacation...

A man and his girlfriend head up to his family cottage for a nice vacation and so he can finally propose to her. The good times are spoiled by the man's deadbeat brother, who's brought his foreign girlfriend to the cottage as well and proceed to piss off the couple. Needless to say, they can't take it anymore, and the two deadbeats are killed. But as the couple try to hide their secret, the body count continues to rise...

I don't know if I've seen a horror-comedy quite as unspectacular as Cottage Country, and it's really disappointing too because it has potential out the wazoo. The only real drawback to the whole production is the writing. The acting's very good, with every character getting a strong performance, most notably from Tyler Labine (who was fantastic in Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, a far superior horror-comedy) and Dan Petronijevic definitely stole the show as the dickweed brother. It's directed very well with some really good outdoor locations. The gore effects, when there is gore, are pretty fun, too. 

The only downside here is the writing, and it comes close to sinking the film. It's not that it's poorly written; it just doesn't have anything new to say. Some of the comedy is chuckleworthy (I found an argument between the couple about what to do with the corpse of a Jewish man to be particularly funny), but as a horror-comedy, it just doersn't gel everything very well. There isn't enough blood & guts (much less actual scares) to truly satiate the horror crowd, and as a comedy, it doesn't quite hit the ball out of the park.

I found the first half hour of the film to be pretty enjoyable thanks (in no small part) to the brother and his eccentric girlfriend being endlessly entertaining to watch, but once they're out of the picture, it loses steam big-time. I suppose this would have made for an entertaining half-hour short, but drawn out over 90 minutes, Cottage Country can't keep up, and I suggest you look elsewhere for Halloween thrills


Halloween Quickies: ROCKTOBER BLOOD (1984)

October rocks man. And there's no way in hell I'm not writing about horror flicks this month! I've yet to find time to crank out a full review, but until then, I'll try to post a quick blurb about a Halloween-ish horror movie every day. I thought I'd kick off this glorious month with a forgotten slice of rock and roll mayhem...

This one's fairly straightforward, but in a good, neat kind of way. A rocker chick survives a massacre committed by a famous rocker dude who randomly went nuts one night and offed somewhere in the ballpark of 30 people (!) in one go, ultimately leading to his execution under rocker chick's testimony. Two years later, she's the head of his band, they're about to start their tour, and the psycho from earlier takes the whole "rock ain't dead" thing way too literally and starts popping up to torment the girl who sent him to his death, or did she? 

There's nothing you haven't seen before here folks. Every death in this movie has been done before (with a possible exception of a bizarre death by iron), the final girl is incredibly annoying, and this thing can really drag in the middle. Honestly, I was surprised to go on IMDb afterwards and see that at some point I gave this sucker an 8/10, because that is not what this deserves!

Not that it's all bad, though. For one thing, there's something about the murky VHS quality paired with how generic it all is that really gives off an aura of Halloween geist. It's Halloween comfort food with nothing unique to separate itself from the pack, yet just good enough to make the night that infinitesimal amount better. The dude playing the psycho rocker (Tray Loren) does a solid job of hamming it up with an over-the-top evil laugh firmly in his holster and some astounding lines to boot (what does he want on his face again?). The gore is fairly good with some well-done deaths at the beginning and end, with a few fun ones sprinkled in between (the illogicity of that jacuzzi homicide is certainly worthy of a few guffaws). The nudity is definitely plentiful, and there's even a delightful "digging up the killer's grave" scene.

But really, there's only one reason to recommend this lowbrow slasher. God. Damn. SORCERY. Sorcery's an Australian rock band also featured in Stunt Rock (another kick-ass movie, but not one for October). Trust me - this movie isn't called ROCKtober Blood for nothing! Because the soundtrack to this movie kicks ASS! It opens with a screaming hair metal tune called "I'm Back," then takes a break during the middle portion of the flick, then ends with a climactic concert scene with three ass-blasting Sorcery songs all leading up to one of the greatest, most metal villain deaths of our time.  It. Needs. To. Be. Seen.

Yeah, I'd say that on the re-watch I'd give this a 7/10, maybe a 6. It's a good film to kick off the October horror-binge to come, even if the middle of the movie DRAGS (even with an aerobics scene!). But the head-banging opening and the nut-busting closer make the whole journey so, so worth it. Give this one a spin. 

Oh, and if you're wishing to depart with a vinyl record of the film's soundtrack...shoot me a message, would ya?



Quick Thoughts: COLD IN JULY (2014)

The recent wave of eighties -nostalgia flicks has been a blessing and a curse. On one hand, we have people intentionally being lazy with just about everything, throwing some boobd and blood in, and saying it’s in the spirit of homespun horror yarns from days past. But then there are a few who actually try to “neon-ify” their films, giving it striking camerawork, a kicking score, and over-the-top stylized violence. Remember Drive? It was a bit too artsy for my tastes, but that movie screamed retro dammit! The music, the visuals, the violence; it was all there. It’s a bit unfair to compare that to the recently-released to limited theaters film Cold in July on that basis alone, because the two films are very distinct from each other.


Cold in July is based on the (rather phenomenal) book of the same title by Joe R. “He Of Bubba-Ho-Tep Fame” Lansdale. It’s directed by Jim Mickle, who’s received acclaim for two of his earlier works, Stake Land (which I found to be surprisingly good, but not the best) and We Are What We Are (which was loaded with glorious atmosphere, but I found it to be pretty dull). Regardless, I was confident this was going to be Mickle’s big accomplishment. The one thing that I felt suffered in those two movies were the plots and how they progressed; I felt they just weren’t captivating enough. But since this was adapted from a (stupendous) novel (seriously, read that shit), I was confident that the great story partnered with Mickle’s out of this world visual style was going to be a grand slam in every way.


Ehhh...not exactly. It might be because I watched the movie in such close proximity with reading the book, but I couldn’t help comparing it to the novel and how, like We Are What We Are, slow it ended up being. My main gripe is what made the cut from page to screen and what didn’t make the cut. What didn’t make the cut? Just about every exciting fight/action sequence in the first ¾ of the book. What made the cut? Everything else. In the end, that’s what made me leave the theater with a funny taste in my mouth. I don’t know if, given this is Mickle’s first action-y movie, he didn’t feel comfortable shooting action scenes so decided to cut them altogether or what, because if those scenes were inserted and filmed perfectly, this movie might be a 10/10. Even the grand climax wasn’t the payoff the build-up led me to believe was coming, even if it had some bona fide badass moments. Cutting certain action scenes also creates problems in the progression of the plot (at least compared to how things played out in the novel) and so they had to find an almost over-complicated way of delivering those plot elements effectively (can you tell I’m trying not to spoil it?), which just seemed silly to me.


But there’s still a truckload of praise to be dumped on this flick. The acting is nearly flawless, especially Don Johnson having a very good time as Jim Bob (granted, he is the best-written character). Michael C. Hall delivers a great turn from his usual psychotic Dexter role, but the best part is definitely his mullet-mustache killer combo. Sam Shepard does equally as great, even if his role doesn’t give him too much to do past the first third of the movie. Screenwriter Nick Damici, as with all the other Jim Mickle films, makes an appearance as Lt. Price, and I can’t help but love that guy whenever he’s onscreen. It’s gotta be that slick-as-all-hell stache of his that manages to out-stache Hall’s stache. Hall’s got him beat as far as hair goes, though; mullets always prevail. Speaking of, the 1989 setting is also done perfectly. You never feel bludgeoned with hyper-nostalgia (the only example of this is with a dated cell phone, but admittedly, it was pretty funny).


I must commend the director for making Cold in July visually astounding, but not so headache-inducingly over-the-top that it becomes an unwelcome distraction. The film’s filled with colorful eye candy, but it’s subtle enough where it doesn’t take you out of the movie, but you’ll definitely leave the theater with your eyeballs drooling. Or, crying. That’s the word. And then, my favorite part of the whole movie, the score. Delivered to us by Jeff Grace, whose work is comprised solely of indie fare (including those two other Mickle films), Cold in July has an utterly jaw-dropping soundtrack. It’s the kind of throbbing synthesizer track that will bring back fond memories of early Carpenter, and when mixed with the aforementioned visuals, it’s guaranteed to make you bleed out of your pores, but you won’t mind a bit. It also manages to fit Dynatron’s “Cosmo Black” into the mix...and if you haven’t heard that one...do so ASAP.


So those are my thoughts on Cold in July in a nutshell. Altogether, I will say I’m a little disappointed, since this was my most anticipated movie of 2014 after Her (stare all you want; that was a quality film), but that may be because of my expectations after that (marvelous) work of literature it’s based on. I will say the time to see it is now and at a movie theater, because having that score in surround sound and those visuals on a huge screen dulled the disappointment a bit. It just won’t be the same on home video, sadly. If I were to give it a rating, I’d want to say a 6/10, but with some time away rom the book (I do hate comparing the two), I’d probably say this is a 7/10 kind of movie. Even if it isn’t nearly as violent as Drive, I found it to be a lot more intriguing (the twisty plot remains unchanged, and is still a doozy no matter what). So take that for what you will. Definitely check it out, despite if you've read the boom or not. Don’t go in expecting a Bronson-esque shoot-em-up and you should be fine. Actually, given the ambitious story, striking visuals, ear-pleasing score, and reserved violence (it does get graphic when it wants to be), this actually has a lot in common with spaghetti westerns, with a healthy dose of genuine suspense thrown in. And with all those things combined, a movie simply cannot fail.

But there you have it: Cold in July. It’s a good, soothingly-retro time. Check it out at a theater near you, while it’s still around.