Tag Archives: Horror

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE CLAY (2017)

Chi o sû nendo

DIRECTED BY: Sôichi Umezawa

FEATURING: , Shinoda Ryo, Tsuda Kanji

PLOT: Students in a rural Japanese clay workshop accidentally awaken a possessed being crafted by a failed sculptor who died under mysterious circumstances.

Still from Vampire Clay (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Sôichi Umezawa gets a tip of the 366 Weird Hat for his creative directorial debut, but its Cronenberg-in-clay trappings are firmly in the realm of a (somewhat) standard scary movie.

COMMENTS: “Understated” and “body-horror” rarely sit side-by-side as descriptors, but Sôichi Umezawa pulls off this fairly impressive parlor trick with aplomb in his directorial debut. Primarily known for his make-up effects (and best known to us for his work on The ABCs of Death 2), Umezawa spins us a yarn set in an unlikely place (a rural clay-sculpting academy) about an unlikely antagonist (a creepy-cute blood golem thing). The action, such as it is, fits into that Horror Genre Standard Time of under ninety minutes. The result? A fairly memorable outing that won’t burn your entire evening.

Sensei Yuri Aina (Kurosawa Asuka) runs a very small school for aspiring sculptors somewhere in not-Tokyo, Japan. When she is forced to set up shop in an abandoned painter’s studio after finding her own workshop damaged by an earthquake, she unearths a bag of dried powder while digging in the studio’s garden. Thinking nothing of it, she places it in her school. Young up-and-comer Kaori (Shinoda Ryo), fresh from a stint at art school in totally-Tokyo, Japan, is one of Aina’s pupils. Kaori’s bucket of clay is used by another student, which prompts Kaori to re-hydrate the powdery remnants that Aina had put aside. Life returns to the cursed clay at the first spritz of water, and soon the students fall prey to a malevolent, inhuman force.

All told, there are just eight characters in this melodrama about rejection, competition, and the evils of industrial waste. The back-story of the evil clay beast is sufficiently over-the-top without slipping into giggle territory; I actually found myself rather moved by the tale of the failed sculptor who literally put his lifeblood into “Kakame”, the smiling vampire golem. The attacks on the students (who comprise five of the film’s eight characters) are all clever—think Cronenberg in high school art class. I imagine creativity and patience were Umezawa’s watchwords, as the budget for this movie must have been on the very low side. In one particularly unsettling bit, Kaori’s chief rival gets enveloped by the clay monster and tries to communicate to the other students the next day from within a sculpture. (I was reminded of the creepy short, Alma.) Other bits of violence—both gruesome and creative—are found throughout. The end veers heavily into the “Apocalypse-as-Revenge” genre, in perhaps a personal attack by the director on those who may have doubted his talents in the past.

Now that Sôichi Umezawa has proven he can maintain a feature-length narrative as well as scare his audience, I’m hopeful he’ll move on to some more challenging material. Vampire Clay takes you on a quick journey into one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the Gotta-Have-Blood monster genre while laying the ground-work for what will hopefully be a fuller career in weirdo-creepy motion pictures.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The notion of Vampire Clay is a fun thought experiment, and Umezawa seems to intend it that way, too, embracing both the utter ridiculousness of sentient hunks of plasticine and its endless creative applications…  the film has a better chance taking root in the imagination than in theaters, because the idea of vampire clay is so much more potent than actually watching it in action. Nothing this absurd should be this boring.”–Scott Tobias, Variety

CAPSULE: MOM AND DAD (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur

PLOT: Parents all across the world suddenly snap and start trying to kill their kids, leading to an all-out generational battle royale. Still from Mom and Dad (2107)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Mom and Dad is actually a challenging movie to comprehend on first grasp. There is nothing in the execution of this film that says “weird,” but the premise alone is audaciously novel, and the tone is consistently off-rhythm. Maybe a list of “the 1000 strangest movies” would be a better fit for this movie.

COMMENTS: Mom and Dad‘s tagline reads, “They brought you into this world. They can take you out.” That line actually comes from an old Bill Cosby joke during his stand-up days, and is reused in the pilot episode for The Cosby Show. Cringing yet? Get used to it! Add to that the facts that the writer-director of this movie also did Crank, and that Nicholas Cage, in my book, is still serving time for what he did to The Wicker Man, and you can well appreciate how I entered this movie: with my expectations roughly south of cold coffee. The artsy opening credits sequence gave me a sprinkle of optimism; the contrast of soul-rock with James Bond-ish split frame montages set me up for a happy sick humor party. What would have done with this idea?

Back to reality. The movie focuses on suburban beehive hell and the nuclear family of Brent (Nicolas Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair) and their two kids Carly (Anne Winters) and Josh (Zackary Arthur). Scene 1: bratty little brother interrupts big sister’s phone call to her boyfriend, so she chases him downstairs yelling she’s going to kill him and chucking a framed family portrait after him. Foreshadowing. While the family breakfasts, reports of parental filicide (that means killing your own kids) play on the news. The family argues over Carly’s date conflicting with grandparents expected for dinner, reading like a campy parody of American sitcoms. Their servant, Sun-Yi (Sharon Gee), seems used to it. Throughout their day, the family, even the adults talking to each other, bicker in casual passive-aggressive ways, not a joyful scene to be had. In school, Carly’s teacher is a mean jerk.

The whole world of Mom and Dad is a bleak landscape of sneering nastiness regardless of who’s talking to whom, which builds up to all the parents showing up early to pick up their kids from school—and it’s not to take them out for ice cream! It turns into a spontaneous riot, with the too-few cops failing to keep order as parents leap fences and gates and start stone cold assassinating their kids using any means at hand. Kids run, parents chase, bedlam, uh, badlams. Talking heads on the news spread the same story, and of course no one knows why this is happening. A lengthy delivery room sequence with Kendall’s sister picking today of all days to give birth terminates in a post-natal abortion as mom strangles the newborn. Elsewhere in the hospital, new parents press their faces against the glass of the maternity ward, locked out.

All this blurs by, less like a movie and more like an anthology of connected scenes. It’s exactly like a million zombie apocalypse survival scenarios, only the zombies are all repoductively fertile adults. Notably, no parent is homicidal towards anyone else but their own offspring, unless somebody gets between them. The kids of our central nuclear family return home to find their housekeeper Sun-Yi mopping up the blood from her own filicide. The kids have to fend for themselves, and marshal defenses such as taking their parents’ gun; which gives us a satirical recitation of home firearm statistics after a parent gets shot.

Speaking as one who favors the darkest side of humor… I’m a little let down, because there’s not much dark humor here, except in the general concept. Cage does his Cagiest, and his trademark freakouts carry every scene he’s in—singing the “Hokey Pokey” while demolishing his pool table with a sledgehammer after a minor marital dispute, that sort of thing—but he’s not even in the bulk of the movie. The thing about Nicholas Cage is, his act is starting to get old. After your 100th Daffy Duck cartoon, seeing him act like a loon isn’t a surprise anymore. Outside the Cage, the rest of the movie seems like a particularly bleak number. I would hope repeat viewings could help the flavor to come through, like a Captain Beefheart album, but that’s doubtful, giving the limp ending.

Mom and Dad does have many strong points in its favor. It is intelligently handled, has an original and daring premise, and explores that concept in depth. There’s just enough Nicholas Cage to flavor it without overpowering it. The rest of the cast is competent; Selma Blair gets several good scenes. But… it seems to not know what it wants to be. It nibbles on some themes, like punk nihilism, anti-consumerism, and social parody of the generation gap, without committing to any of them. It could have been a lot worse, so perhaps its biggest achievement is making this edgy premise work. It aspires to mild interest, achieves that capably, then quits while it’s ahead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The phrase ‘I swear I could kill that kid’ is no longer an exaggerated statement of infuriation, as some mysterious phenomenon creates a gloriously weird amalgam of ParentsThe Purge, and Dawn of the Dead in Brian Taylor’s jet-black horror-comedy.”–Blake Crane, Film Pulse (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE WICKER MAN (2006)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kate Beahan, , Frances Conroy

PLOT: Responding to a letter from his ex-girlfriend, Officer Edward Malus decides to recuperate from a harrowing traffic accident by investigating a missing person on an island inhabited by a cult of nature-worshiping women.

Still from The Wicker Man (20016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The weirdest thing about this movie is somehow this island of goddess-obsessed females didn’t all get seduced by mid-’00s Cage’s snarky charm. Seriously, though, the actual weirdest thing I came across was that the “Director’s Cut” was presented in full-frame on the DVD, with the PG-13 theatrical release in wide-screen on the reverse side.

COMMENTS: When under the direction of talented filmmakers, Nicolas Cage nothing short of amazing. And as for his many bad movies, I’ve never been unhappy to see him on the screen whenever he appears. So, Neil LaBute’s the Wicker Man does not deserve the lowly “3.7” score to be found on IMDb; it merits at least a solid 5. Nicolas Cage provides a competent performance in a competent PG-13 atmospheric horror film remake. That said, to come anywhere close to succeeding with a reimagining of one of the great scary movies starring some of Britain’s best actors from the ’70s, “competent” is far, far away from “worth-while”.

The story, for the few who may not know it, concerns the mercy mission of California cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage, in one of his many roles as a member of law enforcement). While taking some wellness leave after being injured during a dramatic (and recurring) car and truck crash, he receives a letter from ex-girlfriend Willow (Kate Beahan), requesting that he help her find her daughter, who has gone missing on Willow’s hometown island off the Pacific Northwest coast. This island is populated almost entirely by women, all of whom are members of a mother-goddess cult. As Malus’ investigation continues, their ominous harvest festival approaches.

I apologize for not having much to say about this movie, but there really isn’t much to go over. Technically, it’s put together competently ($40-million can get you that kind of quality control); the acting across the board is competent; and… then what? I volunteered to watch this having somehow spent my years between 2006 and now without having seen the movie that brought to the internet the famed “Not the bees!” meme. Indeed, I very nearly missed out on that singular treat for reasons alluded to in the “Why it won’t make the list” section. While a newer release probably would have served me better, the original DVD pressing had the director’s (read: “Not the bees!”) cut in full-frame presentation, something I avoid unless the film was intentionally made in the Academy ratio. I was quite perplexed when I finished the wide-screen version on my first go-around, having spent much of it idly taking random notes to kill time until the infamous bee scene; in the end I had to flip the disc and re-watch the finale, in full-frame. That was the most interesting part of my viewing experience. Now far bee it from me to sound so dismissive, but even though I could drone on some more if I felt like it, instead I’ll leave it that the Wicker Man rather fully lives “up” to the buzz.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Whenever we think our man Cage is totally sucking, it’s probably that he’s just so far ahead of the curve we’re afraid to follow lest we get hit by a truck careening around the bend. Not unlike the character he plays in the BAD LIEUTENANT 2, Cage’s cop in WICKER doesn’t care if we root for him or not, he’s got his own road to ho, an arc that transcends words like ‘reckless’, ‘brave’, ‘idiotic’ or ‘inspired.’–Erich Kuersten, Acidemic

DRACULA IN PAKISTAN (1967)

Dracula in Pakistan (AKA The Living Corpse, 1967, directed by Khwaja Sarfraz ) is about… Dracula, in Pakistan. Well, primarily. It’s a slightly weird retelling; not quite weird enough, and not quite good enough, but it’s a worthwhile curio.

It begins with Doc Tabini (Rehan; the actors are all credited under one name only) as a kind of Dr. Jekyll, deep in experimentation, trying to unlock the secret of death. Unfortunately, the poor fellow dies during his own experiment, wakes up as a vampire, and bites his buxom babe assistant. She becomes the bride of… Dracula (although he’s only called Dracula in the title).

Then, Dracula in Pakistan veers into a practical remake of ‘s Dracula mixed with Horror of Dracula (Sarfraz virtually lifts ‘s red-blooded entrances). It occasional veers from the source materials: Dracula gets into a fist fight; and, rather than turning into a bat, he takes off in a sport car. Oh, and there’s several (too many) bizarrely placed extended dance sequences and a crappy Pakistani jazz score, along with a beach scene of Pakistani teens (?), before it ventures back into the narrative and the finale—an effectively filmed ripoff of Fisher’s Horror.

Still from Dracula in Pakistan (1967)The Van Helsing character is bland, but Rehan is a spirited bloodsucker—which is odd, because according to the cast interviews on the DVD extras, he had never seen a horror film before shooting. Indeed, it’s the extras from the Mondo Macabro  release that really elevate the film. They almost convinced me Pakistan was better than the film I just saw. According to Pete Tombs and Omar Khan, the film was originally rated X in Pakistan, due to the cleavage and neck-biting, which was tame even then. There’s also a documentary on South Asia horror films, and the restoration, although hardly perfect, is impressive. Mondo treats it like it’s a long lost treasure; and who are we to argue with such a hip distributor?

CAPSULE: SUSPIRIA (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luca Guadagnino

FEATURING: Dakota Johnson, ,

PLOT: A coven of witches in Berlin in 1977 run a modern dance troupe.

Still from Suspiria (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s only room for one Suspiria on the List. That doesn’t mean you want to pass on this very different, and slightly weird, remake, however, if for no other reason than to see the classic story reimagined in a dramatically different style.

COMMENTS: Suspiria (2018) keeps the title, the notion of a coven of dancing witches, and some of the character names from ‘s Expressionist giallo classic—and really, that’s about it. Director Luca Guadagnino decided to spend his capital from the Oscar-nominated gay romance Call Me By Your Name on an unlikely remake of a 1970s cult Italian horror film. That was a strange enough choice, but then he promised to give us a Suspiria as it might have been made by German New-Wave director Rainer Fassbinder. (This odd choice prompted Owen Gliberman to snidely, but hilariously, wonder what’s next: “a remake of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ done in the style of ?”)

So, where the first film was an Expressionist fairy tale, Guadagnino makes the update into a realistic (if supernatural), character-driven drama. The innocent young ballet students of the original are now professional adult dancers. The main characters now have elaborate backstories: chief sacrificial victim Susie is a refugee from a repressive Mennonite upbringing, while the psychiatrist, the minor-est of characters in the original, is now is the secondary protagonist, an old man now haunted by his country’s Nazi past. The witches themselves are more detailed, with Tilda Swinton’s ghostly Madame Blanc a major presence, and the script even delves into internal coven politics. The story is now set in “a divided Berlin” in 1977 (the year of Suspiria‘s release), with the Cold War and the German Autumn terror playing in the background. And the implicitly feminist script even makes a shout out to the #metoo movement when the witches chastise the psychiatrist for “not believing” women.

If the original was a largely plotless, irrational spook show, then there is, if anything, too much plot and too much psychology at play in the remake. It’s not entirely clear how all of the themes, both personal and political, are intended to connect, but puzzling them out is one of the film’s pleasures. The many subplots make for a horror film that’s overlong at two-and-a-half hours, but when it’s at its best, it has moments of witchy intensity that match Argento. An early cringer sees a dancer mutilated in a mirrored room as she’s jerked about telekinetically like a marionette. The witches send genuinely spooky nightmares full of worms, organs and levitation to plague Susie. The performance of Madame Blanc’s postmodern “Volk,” with the dancers draped in blood-red ropes and a pentagram nonchalantly taped to the floor in plain view, captures your eyeballs. And the climax, when we finally see the ritual the witches have been building to all along, is full of spouting blood, nude contortionists, and diabolical betrayals, and is well worth the wait. This version likely won’t displace Argento’s masterpiece in horror fans’ hearts, but at least this arty take on Suspiria shows the proper way to do a remake—take general themes from the original and refashion them into something stylistically new.

I believe that this gynocentric film is one of those rare movies to meet the reverse-Bechdel test: there is no moment where two men have a conversation that is not about a woman.

The  cameo you assumed would be here is indeed here. Dakota Johnson, previously best known as the Shades of Grey chick, proves here that she can be a serious actress. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton deserves some Best Supporting Actress chatter for her performance, but will not receive it. On a related note, Best Makeup seems like a better shot for a nom.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a spectacularly strange affair, thrumming with wild blood and weird powers. It’s easily the classiest horror movie made in years, maybe ever…”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kaho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Megumi Kagurazaka

PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.

Still from Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.

COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.

If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.

Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved Continue reading CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)

CAPSULE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION (1994)

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Kim Henkel

FEATURING: Renee Zellweger, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Jacks

PLOT: Teenagers leave prom, get in accident, get lost, meet cannibal slaughter family. 1)The TCM franchise isn’t exactly aimed at people who care for things like “plots”; the point is to watch it like a wildlife documentary with no narration.

Still from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are many ways to get onto the List of 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Stir-frying the original movie in your franchise with some sprinklings from Robert Anton Wilson’s spice rack, alas, is not a sufficiently potent recipe.

COMMENTS: Nothing says “October viewing” like a TCM sequel! Let’s check the IMDB rating for this one: 3.2. The box office was $141K, on a $600K budget. Oh, this is gonna hurt. I might even have to use my safe word.

But for real, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise was started by Tobe Hooper as a budget student project, a loose parody of the six o’ clock news circa 1974, which was—quote—“showing brains spilled all over the road.” Don’t expect Shakespeare. Ah, but twenty years later, an environment where a studio says “we don’t care what you do, as long as we release a TCM movie” is just the kind of liberating atmosphere that could allow weirdness to flourish, with the right strands of DNA.

How strange, then, that in 1994 original TCM co-scripter Kim Henkel decided to rewind through almost exactly the same story. Four random teenagers ditch a high school prom to drive off at night and get lost in the “extra foggy” woods, get betrayed by a seemingly helpful roadside flunkie who actually delivers them into the lap of danger, are pursued and menaced and even plugged onto a meathook by a family of deranged cannibals, and attend a gruesome dinner scene where many human fixtures are flaunted as home decorations by Martha Stewart’s evil counterpart. One final girl escapes, but the guy with the funny mask and power tool breathes free still. Why are we even doing this? The TCM franchise set one of the lowest bars in cinema history, just a couple steps above watching a tropical fish tank with a few predatory species mixed in. It takes a deliberate effort to screw it up, which is what this movie does.

The point here, it turns out, was to inject a note of conspiracy theory into the Leatherface mythos, by invoking the Illuminati, JFK, and other random nouns grabbed from some thumbed-over copy of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.” It’s a justification for why the cannibal clan flourishes: there’s a global conspiracy looking out for them. The filmmakers dub in some NSA watchlist words and add a couple characters who barge in and hastily retcon the series, tying it into conspiracy theories. That’s it, you’re done. Oh, but remove any attempt at characterization. The hillbillies use the same vocabulary as anybody else. Wait, castrate the series, too, because the first member of the cannibal clan we meet is Matthew McConaughey. This man could suck the testosterone out of a monster truck rally just by attending it, changing all the trucks into Daimler-Benz Fortwos. Here, his tow-truck driver persona is a serial killer so apathetic that he offs his victims with a shrug after giving them every opportunity to get away.

To its credit, the movie seems to have been made with a laissez faire attitude that makes it more of a TCM parody, with the usual tropes of the genre turned into exaggerated cliches and stereotypes. It’s mildly stupid/humorous, like a Scary Movie installment. A few off-kilter moments happen (picking up pizza takeout for dinner when you have a struggling victim in the trunk, huh), but it doesn’t go far enough to make it into “weird”;  barely “interesting.” If anything, your sympathy lies with the cast and crew at large; the whole movie is one big middle finger to itself, commiserating with the audience in a tone that says “We can’t believe you wasted money on this, and we can’t believe we’re getting paid for it either.” This style of franchising is most associated with The Brady Bunch Movie, released a year later. To have a TCM installment remind you of the Brady Bunch tells you all you need know about how scary or even gory it is.

TCM:TNG is a movie that begs you to hate it, so vilely does it hate itself. Instead, as is the case when reacting to any self-loathing moody snowflake, the only sensible reaction is indifference. There are hundreds of movies just like this one lurking behind long Roman numerals in horror franchise sequel hell. One might as well churn the bins at Dollar General’s DVD section with a pitchfork, because these horror franchise sequels are as indistinguishable from each other as straws of hay. The fact that one of them knows this and cynically reminds you of it doesn’t make it any better. It only depresses us for the lost opportunity as the movie gives up on itself in a peeved tantrum. Just look at Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It found itself in the same trash bin, but it seized the day and shot for the heavens and now we remember it, don’t we? That’s what you can do with the right strands of DNA.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Henkel resorts to the infamously gonzo subplots that have made the film memorable despite itself. No longer content to let a crazy group of cannibals be a crazy group of cannibals, Henkel went and turned the Sawyer clan into agents for some ancient Illuminati that may or may not be space aliens in what is truly the most off-the-wall reveal in any of the major horror franchises. Such wackiness might be commendable if it were accompanied by any true thoughtfulness, but it just stands as a random, mystifying element that feels like a joke nobody could ever get… One of the truly horrific franchise misfires of all-time, The Next Generation has to be seen to be believed; I’d like to say that it lives up (down?) to its infamy, but that still doesn’t quite capture the breadth of its inanity.”–Brett Gallman, Oh, the Horror! (DVD)

References   [ + ]

1. The TCM franchise isn’t exactly aimed at people who care for things like “plots”; the point is to watch it like a wildlife documentary with no narration.