31 Days of Horror Week 2: 'Paranormal Activity 2,' 'The Last Exorcism' &, Ugh, 'Hatchet'
Day 7: Dead and Buried (1981)
I had initially intended to impose a zombie movie moratorium on this month. Like it or not, zombies have invaded every aspect of popular culture over the past couple of years with the success of The Walking Dead, zombie pub crawls and, I don't know, zombie novelty t-shirts--and frankly, I’m rather sick of the whole thing. But, not all zombies are the shambling brain eating types, and Dead and Buried is a good example of what you can do with the undead if you put just an ounce of creativity into it.
Folks don’t take too kindly to strangers in Potter’s Bluff, where wanderers are greeted with torches and a bunch of sharp metal objects. Strange thing is that after they're dead, the victims will re-appear a couple of days later without a scratch on them, and no memory of their former life. Weird, huh? The town sheriff seems to think so, as he tries to scratch his way to the bottom of a conspiracy that involves the whole town.
Despite a trick ending that’s a bit too easy to guess, Dead and Buried is a horror film of the creepy/misty variety, reading kind of like a Stephen King story. Some decent acting from James Farentino and Jack Albertson (in his last role), there are some scenes that are remarkably well composed, especially the climax, which takes place in a room filled with projectors flashing countless ghostly images on the walls.
Day 8: Deathdream (1974)
A horror film for the anti-war set. The unfortunately titled, excellently executed Deathdream brings the bloodshed of the Vietnam War into the heart of suburban America. After receiving a letter informing of their son’s death, the Brooks family is gobstruck, left praying for the news to prove false. When their son appears in their living room at 3 o’clock that morning, their prayers seem answered, except the fallen soldier is… changed.
A loose adaptation of the Monkey’s Paw tale, this “be careful what you wish for” parable asks some surprisingly sharp questions on the nature of sacrifice and the morality of war. Andy Brooks returns from the dead a hero who can get away with nearly anything. He strangles the family dog and the only person who seems to mind is his father (John Marley gives a great performance as a man trying to cope with the sudden realization that his son is a monster). Andy goes around dealing death to those that seemingly love and respect him, almost literally asking his victims why they think he should have to die in some jungle while they sit at home and pretend everything is swell. That sort of message is potent even today. I couldn’t imagine a film coming out in our current political climate where a dead soldier—hell, a war hero—goes around draining the blood out of his friends and neighbors so he can continue to live.
Day 9: Hatchet (2006)
If we’re going to be honest with each other, I didn’t finish Hatchet. Why? Well, it was because I hated it. Does that go against the whole premise of this little festival? Yes. Do I care? No. Well, that’s not true, I do kind of care. But I don’t want to finish Hatchet, so I’ll play it cool and say no.
Last week, I sat through a few abysmal horror movies—Halloween II, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil was a disappointment, hell, I didn’t even enjoy the Fulchi movie all that much. It made me question why I was even doing this. Why subject myself to hours of movies that I don’t even enjoy just so I can pound out a couple of hundred words on them? However, I came to realize that I was really just watching the wrong movies, and doing a pretty poor job curating my personal horror festival. So, at the beginning of this week, I decided to actually try a little harder and watch the movies I’ve been putting on hold for just this month. It worked pretty well with Dead and Buried and Deathdream, but then Hatchet came along and screwed everything up.
Hatchet is a film that’s clearly aimed at hardcore horror fans. It’s loaded with cameos from various horror elder statesman (Robert Englund, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder in a starring role… sort of) and it has loads of nudity and goopy, extravagant violence. It’s about a local legend, Victor Crowley, who stalks a group of stranded tourists in the Louisiana bayou, and then flubladah most of them get brutally murdered—I guess, I didn’t really get that far.
Hatchet is charmless, goofy, hamfisted pandering, and brings nothing new to the table but splatter and toplessness. To be fair, I respect that it tries to add levity to the decapitations with healthy doses of ribald comedy—a lot of horror (*ahem* Human Centipede 2) has a tendency to take itself too seriously—but the gags in Hatchet are about on par with leftovers from one of the Porky’s sequels.
So right around the time that the lead heroine pulled out a handgun and was all “we need to take this bastard down,” or whatever, I bailed. Life is too short and I have better movies to watch.
Day 10: Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Paranormal Activity scared the pants off of me. Some people write it off as being cheap and boring and slow to start, I found it eerie and effective. The sequel, which picks up 60 days before the events of the first film in the home of the protagonist's sister, more or less takes its predecessor and then adds a baby and a dog. Indeed there are some moments of tension early on, but overall, the film exploits too many of the same scares from the first. Much of the paranormal goings on in this film feel diminished, largely because a lot of them happen during the day. The part that got to me about the first film was how the biggest scares happened while both protagonists slept. The door creeping closed, the loud footsteps going in and out of the room, Katie standing there for six hours—all of it sends your skin crawling because they happen when the character (and in turn you) are at their most vulnerable.
Like most sequels to a movie that’s slim on plot, Paranormal Activity 2 spends too much time adding mythology to the first—a demon is after the family’s first born male after bargain was made sometime in the past—most of which is explained via people reading the internet. Not exactly compelling exposition. The big scare moments in 2 pale to the first as well. A baby wanders around a house at night! All of the kitchen cabinets explode open! Watching Katie get pulled from the bed I the first film is heart clenching. Watching her sister get dragged down the steps is cartoonish. The film's climax is also ripped directly from [Rec], and poorly executed to boot.
The film isn’t without it’s ups. It’s well acted, funny (purposefully so) in sections and mixing in the characters from the first film was a nice touch. Still, it doesn’t have the guy wrenching fear that soaks the first film, and no image in the sequel is as delightlfully imperfect as Micah and Katie’s structurally uneven bedroom, with their bed on the right and that loooong empty hallway on the left. Seriously, I can’t even watch YouTube videos of the first movie. It’s pathetic.
Day 11: The Last Exorcism (2010)
How do you make a movie about exorcism scary for someone who doesn’t believe in devils, demons and exorcism bit? Okay, fine, I don’t buy into ghosts and werewolves and, I don’t know, giant carnivorous trees, but I still find movies about them scary. So why should religion be any different? It must strike a different chord. The Exorcist never really stirred anything in me because I could shrug it all off as being made up, but show me a door that moves an inch in Paranormal Activity and I’m up all night with the light on. And I find The Omen pretty terrifying too, so what the hell am I on about?
The way that The Last Exorcism shakes things up is pretty clever, throwing in a heavy dose of doubt as to what’s really going on for much of the movie. Blatty’s novel The Exorcist took a similar approach, never fully revealing Regen’s possession until the latter half of the book (to a diminished return, I thought). Regardless, even if a girl just thinks that she’s possessed, does that make her any less of a threat? Worse yet, why does she think she’s possessed?
Hopping onto the found footage trend with a gusto, The Last Exorcism side-steps the shaky-cam nonsense that plagues a lot of this sub-genre by presenting the characters as a professional documentary film crew being led around by a huckster exorcist who wants out of the demon fighting game. By showing the world the tricks and sleight of hand he uses in his exorcisms, disaffected Reverend Cotton Marcus hopes to bring the institution of exorcism down around its ears. But things start to get complicated when they visit a Louisiana girl with a distant brother and over-protective father who just won’t... stay exorcised.
Patrick Fabian gives a hell of a performance as freelance excorcist Cotton, whose years of faking his faith has started to weigh on him, but you can see how happy he is to let his crew in on his long held secrets and shedding some light on disingenuous eangelicals. He bets the camera man he can sneak a banana bread recipe into one of his sermons and that no one would notice—he does and the crowd goes wild. As likable as Fabian makes Cotton, he’s still a shill that plays into peoples' insecurities and delusions for profit. He’s a interesting character—far more than the traditional morose preacher who’s lost his faith that plagues a lot of these movies.
But, like any good horror movie with promise (or the Washington Redskins), The Last Exorcism screws everything up royally in the end, shooting itself in the foot with a ridiculous twist ending that’s only vaguely foreshadowed early on. The ending provides all the wrong answers and leaves the audience asking all the wrong questions. (Spoilers herein) Okay, so, everything in the movie was supernatural after all, and a Rosemary’s Baby-esqe cult has been behind the whole thing and ends with the deaths of our protagonists. Which, okay fine. This sort of thing works in the Blair Witch Project, which seemed more like a spool of raw footage, but for something as tightly edited as The Last Exorcism… I mean, who put this movie together? The devil? It’s not so much that I’m disappointed that the movie went supernatural in the end, I more or less expected that, but the ending is saturated with graceless hokum.
Day 12: Torso (1973)
Torso is a film that could have only been made by the Italians. Boasting a cast that’s brimming with unbelievably gorgeous women that parade around in the buff for no real reason, Torso has the barest wisp of a plot: a masked killer stalks beautiful women at an Italian university, first choking them and then brutally dismembering them. Then four of the women go off to a Cliffside villa for some reason. They sunbathe in the nude, get into some lesbian antics and then there's some more stalking and dismembering. It’s not too different than your average by-the-numbers slasher film, but it completely lacks the pre-text of plot, story or character. Things just sort of happen in this movie. I’m not too sure of anyone’s motivation--save for the killer’s, which is explaining in asinine detail in the end. Hell, I’m not too certain if I caught anyone's name.
Still, this is basically a genre building piece. With its lusty camera and “mystery killer maims the beautiful” structure, there were not many movies like Torso when it was released in 1973, and there have been half-a-kajillion like it since. Even though there are both giallo and slasher films that have been done better than Torso, there are some remarkable scenese of repulsive terror in this film—namely one where the killer dutifully dismembers corpses with a hacksaw while a lone survivor attempts to hide from him, trying not to retch or scream. It’s a slow, quiet and rather long scene, one that actually dwells with a killer taking the time to clean up after himself (face it, nearly always a he), work that’s both grizzly and terrifying.
Unfortunately though, this movie does have its fair share of “Name, where are you?” scenes. Okay, new rule for horror films. Under no circumstance shall a character wander into an darkened room or into the woods searching for a friend or lover while calling out their name. Perhaps the person thinks their friend or lover is “screwing around” and wants them to know that it “isn’t funny” and that they should just come out already. It doesn’t matter. There was a scene like that in the opening of House by the Cemetery, there was one in Hatchet (probably more) and one in Paranormal Activity 2. There are three in Torso. Just stop putting that scene in every horror movie, people who make horror movies. Stop it.
Day 13: Ghoulies (1985)
Well, that's not really what I expected.
Ghoulies is a film I've been meaning to watch for 31 Days of Horror for a few years. I was surprised when I watched Critters for the first time and saw what a spry, devilshly funny little monster movie it was, so I figured that Ghoulies, a seemingly similiar Gremlins rip-off, could be just as fun. That and I have a rather storied history with this film. Back when I was, oh, three, my brother and his friends would torment me at the video store by showing me the cover art and saying that if I used the toilet that night a ghoulie would climb out and eat my butt. My mother had a time getting me into the bathroom that evening.
So when I popped in Ghoulies, I sat back and waited for some butts to get eaten. After all, there's a toilet monster right there on the box art, SOMEONE has to get their rear chomped on. But after an hour of sitting through what amounted to a surprisingly dull occult movie, it started to become clear that the toilet monsters were never going to show up. And they never do--not really. There's a shot of a monster coming out of a toilet late in the film, but nothing really becomes of it. I'm kind of surprised with how jipped I feel by that.
While the lack of butt chewing is a disappointment, the last thirty minutes of Ghoulies takes the crazy train off the rails pretty quickly. Some medieval dwarven warriors show up (no kidding, they're central to the plot and everything), a man gets decapitaded by a woman's tongue, and a super young Mariska Hargitay gets her face chewed off by some weird, green fish monsters. I may not have seen anyone's butt getting eaten, but those are some things you just don't see every day.
Update. The butt eating is in the sequel?! Damn it!