KISS OF THE DAMNED
Xan Cassavetes Sinks Her Teeth In
Vampires are by definition a retro construct. Living forever means always looking back. The future is merely a continuing cycle of corruption and death. Flesh-and-blood is the only reliable thing around. In cinema, vampire stories have served a multitude of purposes. Everything from the transmission of venereal diseases to racial and nationalistic bigotry has provided allegorical connections in a horror genre never without a sexual component.
Xan Cassavetes [daughter to the Godfather of independent cinema] pays stylish homage to vampire films of the past 40 years with a blood-soaked predator thriller based on romantic obsession — BDSM comes gratis. Aesthetic elements from Italian giallo horror films, Hammer movies, and American vampire flicks are on moist display.
Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume - “The Princess of Montpensier”) lives in a remote Connecticut mansion where she hides from the sun. The home’s absent but charitable matriarch Xenia is a Broadway diva who never does matinees. Xenia oversees a global community of well-to-do vampires whose world-weary ennui is offset by their appreciation for the finer, if quirkier, things in life.
Djuna refers to her “skin disease” after meeting Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) for the first time at a video store; it isn’t 2013. Luis Bunuel’s “Viridiana” Paolo is in town on a sabbatical to write his next big script. Needless to say, Paolo is easily distracted by Djuna’s off-kilter allure. She generously gives him fair warning before putting the bite on. She goes so far as to make him chain her to the bed during sex, but Paolo is an adventurous type. Bite him, she does.
The mechanics of the story are clear-cut. The arrival of Djuna’s bad-apple sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) threatens to derail Djuna’s and Paolo’s romantic plans to travel away to Italy together, if not bring down the whole vampire community that Xenia has protected though exotic means. Synthetic plasma is a mainstay. Another unexpected entrance — by Paolo’s overanxious agent Ben (Michael Rapaport) — gives cause for some tempestuous excitement.
Clothes come off. Fangs are bared. Bodily fluids spill in a vampire movie that is as much about tone and style as it is about the seductions and bloody attacks that take place. Cassavetes fabricates plot references to films such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “All About Eve” for knowing film buffs to revel in.
A line between desire and execution is blurred to suspenseful effect, as when Djuna envisions acting out her barely tamed inner nature on an unsuspecting would-be victim. Cassavetes’s solid command of fluid cinematic language creates visual bubbles that infuse a dreamlike quality. “Kiss of the Damned” is a dark sex fantasy after all. The beard of blood that drenches down from a female vampire’s mouth is at once a humiliation and a messy acknowledgement of man’s animal nature. Decadence and debauchery are equal parts death and creation in a cool little vampire movie that makes the “Twilight” franchise look like kid stuff.
Rated R. 97 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Freaky Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Frightening
Guillermo del Toro — the director of such minor masterpieces as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” — weakens his sphere of influence by producing a sorely underdeveloped horror movie that manufactures scares from the crudest of tropes. Sound effect shocks produce most of the film’s artificial jolts of fright. Del Toro endorses newcomer co-writer/director Andrés Muschietti’s efforts to engender audience gasps from a soulless computer-generated monster that make’s the Hulk look lifelike by comparison.
The set-up is topical. A suburban father of two little girls returns home after murdering his two business partners. A bullet for wifey sends the crazed man driving like a maniac on icy roads with his kidnapped daughters pleading for mercy from the back seat. The film’s money-sequence comes when the car spins out of control, eventually sending it off the side of a snowy cliff into a steep ravine. The cinematography on display is exceptional. The film never again hits such a heart-pounding crescendo.
Still able to walk, daddy carries his youngest girl Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) deep into the woods. His older daughter Victoria (Megan Charpentier) follows them into a disused cabin where some one or some spooky thing lurks. Once inside the remote residence, the man makes a fire in the fireplace using a freshly broken chair for firewood. We can sense what’s coming next. In his hand he holds the pistol he has used to ruin his life. He doesn’t know that he shares the space with a witchlike exterminating angel with wall crawling abilities. She is Mama. She will rescue the girls and raise them as her own.
Cut to several years later. The homicidal man’s brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Walldau) has kept up a vigil to locate his nieces. Suspension of disbelief becomes harder to sustain. How could the girls have gone missing for so long? Wouldn’t the authorities have sent out search teams during the crisis? Here’s the kicker. The monster-raised girls crawl and jump around like spiders on acid. Their verbal skills are minimal.
Lucas and his Goth rock bass-playing girlfriend Annabel (played by an unrecognizable Jessica Chastain in dyed hair and heavy eyeliner) battle for custody in spite of the fact that neither seems to possess much maternal or paternal instinct. They live in a glorified man cave. Musical gear and big rusty signs adorn their bedroom. Lucas’s nasty sister seems better suited to take on the challenge of adapting the wild children to the demands of civilized behavior. However, a ghost-in-the-machine plot device arrives via clinical psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who offers up a research-provided suburban house where the young couple can raise the girls under his supervision. The green-skinned, alien-faced Mama follows the girls to their new residence to set up shop. Her insect-mind intentions are unclear.
Although the story is set in Richmond, Virginia, the movie never gives so much as a glimpse of that historic town’s iconic personality. The filmmakers could have at least taken a spin down Monument Avenue for crying out loud. A conscious lack of narrative distinction permeates every aspect of the story. Clunky desaturated flashback sequences attempt to tell Mama’s tale of persecution that led her to jump from a cliff while holding onto her infant child. Any empathy the audience might share with the jealous creature is blunted by its grotesque appearance and penchant for unwarranted violence against whosoever comes near the girls.
At best, “Mama” is a subpar PG-rated monster movie. At worst, it represents a desperate grasp for relevance by a once-inspired filmmaker [Guillermo del Toro] relegated to producing entry-level films for far less talented auteurs.
Rated PG-13. 100 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
“The Awakening” is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a couple of neat twists. Rebecca Hall’s bewitching portrayal of Florence Cathcart, an early 20th century ghost-busting novelist working in post World War I England, gives debut director/co-writer Nick Murphy plenty to work with. In keeping with such suspense-teetering thrillers as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “The Others,” chills and spills come as much from a ghostly atmosphere of uncluttered spaces as from sudden shocks of paranormal activity.
Florence garners fans with her novels, and enemies by assisting police in busting up phony moneymaking séance rings around London, circa 1921. At a time when nearly all of England’s population has lost relatives in the war, people are desperate for any kind of contact with the dead — however hokey that connection might be. A visit from private boys’ academy headmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) invites Elizabeth to investigate the rural Rookford School for evidence of a young male ghost who has been busy terrorizing its students and faculty. A young student recently died there. As well, a murder occurred on the estate several decades ago. Mallory carries battle scars from the war, which cause him to stammer and limp. Nonetheless, he has a romantic connection with Elizabeth, whose professional approach to her work doesn’t hinder her emotional availability. An especially curious scene finds Florence spying on Mallory as he tends to an unhealed wound on his leg after a bath. Florence and Mallory each have secrets that need airing out.
Hall’s ghost hunter is one sexy creature. Cinematographer Eduard Grau (“A Single Man”) balances the film’s potentially suffocating drab color-scheme with vibrant compositions that keep the eye moving. His teasing depiction of windswept Gothic isolation is the stuff of an alluring horror-fantasy.
Imelda Staunton spices up the Gothic drama as the school’s personable doyenne Maud. A fan of Elizabeth’s books, Maud is a supportive foil for Elizabeth against the school’s creeping horror, which also comes in the very physical form of a threatening groundskeeper named Joseph (Joseph Mawle).
The narrative isn’t without a few cobwebs. The malevolent groundskeeper comes across as a gratuitous device used to rev up suspense late in the story. The one-dimensional character isn’t awarded any kind of inner-life to bring meaning to his violent actions.
Although the all-boy student body is away on vacation, one boy — Tom Hill (well played by newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright) stays behind. Florence and Tom strike up a friendship upon which the plot twists. The story finds itself playing catch-up when the proceedings are brought to a close with a barrage of backstory exposition designed to tie the narrative up with a neat bow.
Still, the ensemble performances go a long way toward masking the script’s less persuasive aspects. “The Awakening” is all about mood and tone. Peepholes, poison, and long dim hallways with ghosts at the end of them never get old.
Rated R. 107 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Cabin In the Woods
Back in 2005 Renny Harlin directed a winning little slice-'em-and-dice-'em slasher flick that upped the stakes on James Mangold’s “Identity” (2003), itself an average addition to the subgenre. I mention this because, for all the unwarranted praise being slathered on “The Cabin in the Woods,” each of those efforts represent much better movies.
Much like the mechanically operated environment of “The Hunger Games,” the setting for “The Cabin in the Woods” is a remote-controlled “killing floor” where a group of youthful characters do battle for their lives. A stereotyped psychotic serial killer even shows up for an ill-defined cameo. As with “The Truman Show” (1998), there isn’t a sufficient amount of context and background to allow for a satisfying story to be told.
Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard go lazy-style from their days spent writing for television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and paste together five pigeonholed characters. We have the letter-jacket-wearing jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), along with air-headed sorority chic Jules (Anna Hutchinson), an African American nice-guy (Jesse Williams), and a requisite white-boy stoner who has just a pinch more common sense than anyone else.
As knee-jerk practitioners of the quick-cut editing techniques that plague modern filmmaking, the filmmakers here are too insecure about their under-developed narrative to ever allow the movie to breathe. The movie is never scary. Neither is there ever a hint of sustained suspense. A viewing of something like Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” could go a long way toward providing a teachable lesson in this regard. A little "Rosemary's Baby" wouuldn't hurt while you're there.
Our predictable group of slasher-fodder experiences time-honored hints of looming violence from a redneck tobacco-chewing gas station attendant who points them in the direction of their vacation destination — a cabin by a lake. Once at the remote cabin, the narrative floor drops out, exposing the college kids to a bunch of zombies on the prowl for blood. That’s right, blood. Yawn. A lurking monster waits patiently for his less than necessary third-act appearance. Naturally, there’s some untold corporate or government entity behind the whole bloodbath. Like “The Hunger Games,” “Cabin in the Woods” is a high-concept story whose writers know nothing of the rigor required to fulfill the political objectives of dystopian films.
The would-be social satire opens with a couple of white-coated military industrial complex administrators goofing around in the secluded privacy of a colossal facility that serves as the headquarters from which all activity in and around the cabin is controlled. Jokes make for an inappropriately casual atmosphere. The clinically dressed employees are in fact homicidal torturers whose cloaked actions will exact excruciating deaths for the young people on the mean-end of their meticulously designed killing machine.
Before you waste your time and money on this cinematic mongrel, check out “Mindhunters.” It’s not a perfect slasher picture either, but it’s a damn sight better than “The Cabin in the Woods.” As for deconstructing the genre — as many easily excitable bloggers are wont to pretend occurs here — Eli Craig peed on that tree in 2010 with "Tucker and Dale vs Evil."
Rated R. 95 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Spoiler alert: "Silent House" is a truly disturbing psychological thriller that taunts and challenges its audience. Reminiscent of the nightmare sequences in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," this surreal story is rooted in the sexual abuse of Sarah Murphy (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who returns with her father and uncle to an abandoned summerhouse where she spent painful vacations as a little girl. The film is a showcase for Elizabeth Olsen, who admirably carries every darkly lit scene with an increasing sense of panic-stricken terror. Behind “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene” and “Silent House,” horror has a new It Girl, and her name is Elizabeth Olsen.
Based on the Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda,” "Silent House" is a study in atmospheric displacement. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (“Open Water”) maintain a suffocating claustrophobic atmosphere inside the lakeside home. Cinematographer Igor Martinovic does a virtuosic job of tracking through the dark creaking house to chase down demons that pursue Sarah’s mind and body with unrelenting malevolence. This is some bad juju.
Sarah’s dad John (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) need to clean up their derelict house in order to enable a quick sale. But something is not quite right about John and Peter. A strange sibling tension brews between the brothers. Sarah is none too pleased when Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), a local girl, appears on the doorstep to remind Sarah about their childhood friendship—a camaraderie Sarah doesn’t remember, or doesn’t want to remember.
Squatters have left marks on the property. The size of the house is more mansion than cottage. Toxic mold infests the walls. Every window is boarded up with plywood on both sides. Inside is pitch black. Peter goes on a run to the hardware store, leaving Sarah with her dad inside the locked home to wander around with flashlights. She’s supposed to be packing up any belongings she wants to keep. Dad is supposed to be tending to repairs. However, these are no conditions for getting things done, unless escape is high on the list.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of putting the audience inside the unreliable mindset of a girl grappling with terrible memories that greet her in the guise of an unraveling reality. Time seems to fold back on itself as things go from weird to bad to worse. Blood is spilled. You’re frequently drawn to the screen to study glimpses of supernatural phenomena. You wonder at the source of the evil just as you realize you are taking in more subtle filmic information than you fully comprehend. As with all great haunted house movies (see “The Others”) “Silent House” relies on tone, mood, sound, and lighting effects. The effect is transformative. Be prepared for chills and shocks in a well-crafted horror movie that may inspire nightmares for many nights to come.
Rated R. 88 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Woman in Black
Hammer Horror Time
Daniel Radcliffe Goes Gothic
By Cole Smithey
"The Woman in Black" is a minor key gothic spooky that feels like visiting with a long-lost friend thanks to its renowned Hammer Films pedigree. The nightmarish movie, based on Susan Hill's 1983 ghost story has the honor of being the first England-made Hammer picture in 35 years. While this delightfully creepy haunted house drama doesn't boast the cleavage-bearing temptations or tongue-in-cheek camp of such celebrated Hammer films as the 1969 classic "Taste the Blood of Dracula." Instead, "The Woman in Black" delivers plenty of gasp-inducing chills in a moody setting where its child characters are more likely to perish than to survive. The simultaneous demise of three young sisters at the start of the movie initiates the viewer into the story’s macabre landscape where horrors pop.
Transitioning out of his years attached to the Harry Potter franchise, Daniel Radcliffe is well-if-not-perfectly cast as Arthur Kipps, a widowed solicitor living in Victorian-era England. The loss of his wife during childbirth has left the heavy-hearted Kipps living as the single father of his four-year-old son Joseph (Misha Handley). Under threat of losing his job due to his bereaved demeanor, Kipps is sent to the eastern coastal village of Crythin Gifford to finalize legal paperwork pertaining to one Alice Drablow, a recently deceased widow with a history of tragedy. The widow's predictably tumbledown home is a cursed mansion named Eel Marsh House. The eerie dwelling harbors more than its share of ghosts. The dauntingly remote property is located at the end of a long causeway. When the tide comes in, the sprawling residence transforms into an island cut off from the mainland. Naturally, Kipps must spend a few nights in the haunted palace where ghoulish faces appear and things go bump in the night. A unique collection of wind-up children’s toys brings a clatter of reanimated weirdness in a room where a rocking chair is home to a female ghost with a proclivity for wearing black.
The filmmakers have a field day with brooding visual shocks accompanied by loud jarring noises. Ghastly demonic faces are deployed with disturbing accuracy. There were at least a couple of screams from members of the critic-filled screening I attended. Kave Quinn’s meticulous production design squares subtly with Paul Ghirardani’s precise art direction to bring every composition brimming with tasteful treats of lurking wickedness. Very little blood is spilled, but when it effuses from a sick child’s mouth the thick red liquid makes a palpable impression. An ominous crucifix protrudes from the marsh alongside the road. It just wouldn’t be a proper Hammer film without at least one looming crucifix. The foreboding object enables one of the pictures most suspenseful sequences. Kipps and his only friend in town, Dally (Ciaran Hinds), do some marsh dredging that furnishes the screen with an especially dark revelation.
“The Woman in Black” possesses a purity of purpose. Its goal is to seduce the audience into a supernatural realm of somnambulist existence with the power of suggestion. It’s an idyllic horror film to reboot a highly regarded horror studio known for depriving young audiences of their sleep. Nightmares will follow, perhaps even for the not so young.
Rated PG-13. 94 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)
John Waters introduced a dog-poo-eating Divine as "the Filthiest Person Alive" in "Pink Flamingos" (1972). John Waters introduced a dog-poo-eating Divine as "the Filthiest Person Alive" in "Pink Flamingos" (1972). In 1975 Pier Paolo Pasolini merged the Marquis de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom" with the three descending levels of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno" in "Salo" for a terse satire about the world's implosion of force-fed consumerist debauchery after World War II. Eating society's shit served as the shocking height of bourgeoisie aspirations in “Salo.” It was Pasolini’s last film before he was brutally murdered on a remote beach on the outskirts of Rome.
It would be another 39 years before Tom Six would take the literal and metaphorical implications of eating shit to its most personal if asexual dimensions with a nasty little horror film entitled "The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" in 2009. Promise for the sequel was already writ large in Six's mind when he created the diabolical thriller that united three barely clad human beings ass-to-mouth as part of an evil German doctor's clinical experiment/fantasy. With its scat-sex element buried neatly inside a torture-porn horror thriller built on clichés of the genre, Six alluded to a brief if disturbing social commentary about issues of racist and nationalist ideas without hitting the nail on the head. The front of the human chain was a Japanese man. The back of the body-train included two nubile American girls. The film was set in Germany after all.
The follow-up is much harder to read. Set in London, and clearly filmed on a considerably lower budget than the first film, the sequel is a self-referential bird-flip at the powers that postured toward banning "The Human Centipede II" sight unseen. Cheap, raw, disgusting, and yet cleverly tipping its nightmare hat toward the kind of Halloween spook-house-movie that fans of the genre expect, the black-and-white sequel climaxes with a symphony of farting and diarrhea as it passes through ten people linked in an rough-hewn human chain by a sexually-abused man-child misfit named Martin. The bug-eyed geek works alone as an attendant in a below-ground London car park where he continuously watches a DVD of "The Human Centipede" on his laptop. Martin treasures a carefully maintained "Human Centipede (First Sequence)" scrapbook that features things like a headshot of Ashlynn Yennie who appeared in the film. A telling comic sub-plot involves Martin's successful attempts at "auditioning" actors from the first film under the conceit that Quentin Tarantino is directing the sequel.
Anyone who has read Jonathan Swift will recognize the latent satire that bleeds and seeps from the story even if it seems written with notably less rigor than Swift applied to his work. Still, I wouldn’t call Six's sequel lazy as, say, a typical Gus Van Sant movie. There is a certain Brechtian theory at play, however fortunate or unintentional it might be on Six’s part. The filmmaker toys with the idea of “what is seen cannot be unseen.” Victims are killed only to be revived to suffer greater tortures than their brutal death. Emotional detachment comes with the territory.
“The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)" is a cinematic provocation in line with banned films such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Nekromantik.” It is meant as a right-to-passage movie for young audiences to marvel at, and endure without vomiting if possible. The movie doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a very uncomfortable cinematic experience. To that end it succeeds with flying colors. The viewer’s defense mechanisms flinch to laugh at brutal acts it cannot logically fathom. Will this movie give nightmares to more than a few of the audiences who manage to last through it? You bet. Will it give ideas to sick-fuck prison guards at prisons such as Guantanamo about new ways to torture their prisoners? If they’re anything like Martin, the film will probably have that unintended effect as well. Does that mean “The Human Centipede II” should be banned? I don’t’ think so.
Rated R. 96 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)