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Harebrained, pulpy sci-fi horror; a product of its time, but a great one at that, 18 November 2014

The plot to "Fiend Without a Face" appears absurd on paper today; it was probably also perceived as somewhat absurd in 1958, although the collective cultural consciousness at that time was less judgmental when it came to films about walking, moving brains and "mental vampires." The plot hinges on a US-Canadian military base that becomes inundated with creatures that are the offspring of a local atomic experiment, and Marshall Thompson is in charge of investigating a string of mysterious deaths as a result.

In some ways just as hokey as you'd imagine, and in others ten times more sophisticated than you could ever predict, "Fiend Without a Face" is a prime example of '50s sci-fi schlock done right. It borders on absurdist science fiction, but the political climate of 1958 speaks to the film's nuclear content and the imagined terrors of the period.

Accentuated by some impressive use of stop-motion animation in creating the animated brain-things is one major highlight of the film, coming into full focus as it reaches its finale. Again, all hokiness aside, the actual concept of the villainous creature(s) is grotesque— living, moving brains with spinal cords— and that alone is enough to lend some heebie jeebies no matter how fantastical that may be. Classy black-and-white cinematography provides the usual appropriate framing of darkness and shadows common to the horror films of this era, and there are some great compositions on display here.

Overall, "Fiend Without a Face" is everything you'd probably expect from a film about killer brains, but the fact remains that, at the end of the day, it's quite simply a really well-made film. It delivers equal numbers of suspense and visual flair, it's classily shot, and the special effects are a treat. It may be the cinematic equivalent of a '50s dimestore sci-fi novel, but that's fine by me. 9/10.

Squirm (1976)
Don't underestimate a pile of worms, 13 November 2014

Jeff Lieberman's debut film "Squirm" has a rural Georgia town inundated with flesh- eating worms who have been summoned by electrical currents from fallen power lines in the aftermath of a storm. Down-home Southern girl Geri (Patricia Pearcy) is meanwhile being visited by her New Yorker boyfriend, Mick (Don Scardino), and needless to say, things in Fly Creek run amok.

I've read multiple comments about this film essentially being a rendition of Hitchcock's "The Birds," rather with worms, and they couldn't be any more correct— Lieberman takes the template and runs with it by all means, but "Squirm" still retains so much charm and doses of wormy nastiness that I find it impossible not to love it.

Admirable special effects on a shoestring budget are one noteworthy aspect of this film (early work by Rick Baker, who has went on to become a majorly successful makeup designer in Hollywood, is on display here), but perhaps its greatest achievement is the sense of unease that pervades even in spite of the inherent silliness of the plot. By some unidentifiable stroke of genius (or perhaps accident), "Squirm" never works its way into any sort of cornball hysteria— despite the fact that the film's antagonists are thousands of worms (and a worm-infested redneck), it still never manages to fall into the "so bad it's good" category that one might expect it to.

The innocuous exposition of the film may have a great part in this in that it builds a certain kind of dread, but no matter the cause, the film maintains a healthy level of self- awareness and seriousness that really elevate it from standard low-budget creature fare. Don Scardino (who later appeared in another genre favorite of mine, "He Knows You're Alone") takes on the Tippi Hedren role as the borderline martyr figure— the New York stranger in town— and does it remarkably well. Patricia Pearcy, R.A. Dow, and stage actress Jean Sullivan all amp up their inner Southerner without falling too far into caricature, and each of the characters are memorable. The film's finale has all the worms you could ask for, and the entire event is just plain fun.

Despite what preconceptions you may about "Squirm" (I had many), it is definitely a film that is worth the time for anyone who is a fan of '70s horror or creature features in general. The direction is classy and the production is remarkably sophisticated given the minuscule budget, and lends the film a Southern Gothic dread that coexists nicely with our ground-dwelling villains. Is it cheesy? Well, it's a film about flesh-eating worms, so, yes, in content, sure— but it's just got enough elegance to really pull itself off. 8/10.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Editing reality, 11 November 2014

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a desperate Los Angeles man, thrusts himself into the work of crime journalism, filming crime scenes and accidents to sell out to local news stations. After acquiring a sidekick, Lou's success and business partnership with a local news director (Rene Russo) afford him a level of personal success, but the extent to which he's willing to go for his work edges into an increasingly moral grey area.

Going into "Nightcrawler" with a minimal knowledge of what the film was about, I was really surprised at its content; the entire profession of "night crawling" was something I'd never even thought about, so the film was fascinating just on a logistical level for that reason alone. Throw in a perfectly illustrated sociopathic antihero and top notch performances, and my expectations were far exceeded.

While the film toys with the darker social mechanics of morality and journalism, there's a consistent undertone of dark humor that pervades throughout Gyllenhaal's performance, bubbling up in idiosyncrasies and one-liners, but "Nightcrawler" never allows itself to enter the territory of camp or silliness. There's a very sour core to the film, which is embellished with a sweet surface of slick cinematography and editing, and the smarminess of Gyllenhaal's disturbed and borderline translucent character is a large part of this. Rene Russo's performance as an equally desperate news director is on par with Gyllenhaal, and the role provides her not only a respectable platform for her return to the screen, but plenty of space to show just how great of an actress she is. Support from Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton is all solid as well.

Overall, "Nightcrawler" is as befuddling as it is engaging. I left the theater with an unpleasant feeling, and therefore take it that the film was effective at at least one thing. Though it is a slow burn with marginal payoff by Hollywood standards, it is an engaging and incredibly well acted film that deserves an audience for those reasons alone. Social commentary or not, it's a glossy and subtly disturbing venture into the art of unease. 8/10.

Clunky but surprisingly sinister, 10 November 2014

Rubber headed aliens, flying disks of death, and a bunch of kids camping in the woods — what else could you ask for from a drive-in sci-fi flick? "Without Warning" is one of the goofier alien horror films to slip through the cracks of mass celluloid, but it's an earnest effort that deserves a look from genre fans.

The film is remarkably low budget, though the sophistication with which many of the alien sequences is pulled off is impressive. Several sequences in the film come to mind, specifically with the group of boy scouts, but the shock value of these sequences is surprising when considering the production values and the film's cultural context in relation to the science fiction and alien predators of today.

Speaking of, the film does premeditate the Schwarzenegger classic, though tonally as well as in a multitude of other ways, they are very different films. One of the greatest things "Without Warning" benefits from is the moody photography of its desolate locations. The emptiness and sinister solitude of the California desert is extremely well captured, and supplements the film in that it supplies a sense of dread and discomfort that is still prevalent amongst the hokeyness of the alien getups. Another point of interest is the number of Hollywood leading men who make appearances in the film as old men, including Ralph Meeker, Martin Landau, Jack Palance, and Cameron Mitchell.

Overall, "Without Warning" is strictly a film for a very specific audience. If you can't deal with aliens who look like this year's trick-or-treaters, then you're likely going to write off the entire thing as absolutely silly, and I suppose it is. That said, if you can suspend disbelief and roll with the eighties vibe, there are some genuinely creepy elements to the film and surprisingly slick special effects given the shoestring budget. 7/10.

Nightbreed (1990)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A world of their own, 10 November 2014

Clive Barker's lost classic "Nightbreed" has had new life breathed into it after finally receiving a proper director's cut some twenty five years later— while the theatrical cut is still a fine film, the director's cut is far more cohesive in terms of content. The plot follows Aaron Boone, a man who has been tormented by dreams of a serial killer, and of a mysterious town called Midian, only to find out that his dreams are becoming reality, and the crimes are being pinned on him. In Midian, he uncovers an underground city beneath the cemetery that houses a plethora of misfit monsters.

A potent blend of fantasy and horror (as Clive Barker is oft noted for), "Nightbreed" is a deserved cult classic that has withstood the test of time in spite of its marginal shortcomings. The film is not exceptionally acted or even exceptionally edited (and that goes for both cuts), but the film exceeds in thematic content, sympathetic characters, and astounding special effects. The creatures are appropriately grotesque yet still human enough that they stand relatable, and the painstaking amount of work that went into the prosthetics and effects department in general is impressive to say the least.

Thematically, "Nightbreed" is unusual in that it, as Barker proclaims, shows the monsters as sympathetic characters; it refuses to uphold any sense of the status quo. It is a parable for misfits of virtually all minorities (though the film has a very strong undercurrent in regard to the gay community), and as a social parable wrapped in the embellishments of a fantasy horror epic, it is incredible. The cast holds their weight despite some moments of unbelievability, but as a gem of its time, the prospect of Oscar-worthy performances is not expected.

Overall, "Nightbreed" is a great film for those who specifically enjoy fantasy horror; it is not a frightening film in any sense of the word, and while it is marginally thrilling at times, the greatest attraction here is the audience's immersion into the film's world it creates. It stands as Barker's greatest directorial achievement second to "Hellraiser" in my opinion. 9/10.

Her madness hath the oddest frame of sense, 30 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Taking of Deborah Logan" follows a documentary crew led by Mia, a young graduate student who is making a documentary on Alzheimer's disease for her thesis. She finds a woman in Virginia, Deborah Logan, who agrees to participate in documenting her illness, with the assistance of her daughter. What starts out as an investigation into Deborah's disease soon turns into an investigation into her soul, as Alzheimer's is the least of her worries.

I hesitate to rail on this film for two reasons: one, the premise is genuinely interesting despite the possession horror trappings that it comes close to falling into; and two, the acting, particularly Jill Larson's, is astoundingly good. While we go into the film knowing the inevitable (that Deborah is perhaps not actually suffering Alzheimer's, but something even more sinister), there is still plenty of room for solid entertainment, and the writers have a heyday with it. We get it all: levitation, psychotic ramblings, a rural farmhouse, the occult, a serial killer, the creepy neighbor, wild goings-on in the hospital, and an explosive subterranean finale. While the film does recycle its tricks on more than one occasion, it's still playing its cards right.

The found-footage angle is downplayed here in the sense that it's not so much a "found footage" film ala "The Blair Witch Project," but rather a horror film depicted through the lens of a documentary standpoint. I'm indifferent to the angle in all honesty, because I think the film could have worked just as well had the camera been wholly outside the scope of the documentary crew, but I digress.

There are plenty of fun and genuinely spooky moments in the film, and, as I said, Jill Larson's performance elevates it several notches over what it otherwise could have been. Anne Ramsay and Michelle Ang play second fiddle to Larson here, but both women are also really believable in their parts.

Overall, "The Taking of Deborah Logan" is not all that different from the crop of found- footage-style horror films trending, except for that it's an exponentially better production all around than most. Yes, it is predictable more often than not, but it has an unusual premise at its base that does give it a bit of an edge. Like some other reviewers have noted, I too feel like the film does in a sense spiral into predictability once it cuts ties with its psychological underpinnings, but I'm a cheap date when it comes to films like these. Take Deborah Logan for what she is. 6/10.

Gone Girl (2014)
34 out of 68 people found the following review useful:
A Hitchcockian thriller of postmillennial proportions, 3 October 2014

"Gone Girl" has Ben Affleck as a man who becomes the central suspect in his beautiful Ivy League wife's ghastly disappearance from their upscale Missouri home. What happened to Amy Dunne? If you've read Gillian Flynn's book or have seen the film, then you already know the story, but I'll spare the details just for the sake of spoilers.

David Fincher has a penchant for making films that are stylistically rich, masterful in many ways, though not always exactly thematically profound. "Gone Girl" falls somewhere in-between, heavy on visual slickness with some profoundly interesting ruminations on marriage, celebrity, social status, and the all-seeing spotlight of 21st century media bleeding into our lives at the most inconvenient and horrific of moments. These are obviously transferred from Flynn's novel, but Fincher's treatment of the material is apt and his vision is stunning.

The sinister quiet of suburbia echoes throughout the film's open spaces, and an unusually haunting aesthetic is carried with it. The million dollar house tainted only by the smallest speck of blood; a wife who may or may not be in a danger; curbs alight with news vans and paparazzi. The universal hysteria and obsession we have with murder and crime is fully realized here, and the nightmarish situation is brought to life in a way I've never seen on film before. Flashy modernist photography accentuates thematic elements while juxtaposing with the film's more classic narrative roots, and to great effect.

Needless to say, the performances here are incredible. Even as someone who is not a Ben Affleck fan, I found his performance to be truly admirable, walking the line between innocent small- town guy to deserved hex object. It wasn't until halfway through the film that I realized just how nuanced Rosamund Pike's performance was— she is so good that I was fooled by her banality, and the role becomes almost metonymic as the film unravels her throughout its narrative. Carrie Coon is wonderful as Affleck's spunky and supportive sister, and Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris somehow work here despite my skepticism of their casting.

The film eventually unveils its absurdist thriller roots about midway through, and unfolds in a way that is Hitchcockian in both style and substance, with shades of "Vertigo" bleeding into the frames. The film's conclusion is of similar Hitchcockian proportions— unbelievable and yet wholly tangible. No matter how absurd it may seem to be, we do not question it because we really aren't allowed to.

Overall, "Gone Girl" is a solid thriller through and through, and is one of the best movie-going experiences I've had in recent memory. Like all the greats, its narrative has all the appropriate twists and turns and is consistently engaging, but rather than simply doing that and taking the route of imitation lone, it's very aware of and engages with its sociohistorical locus. 9/10.

Tusk (2014)
4 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Its own kind of beast, 30 September 2014

"Tusk" takes the premise of twenty-first-century podcast writers to harrowing and grimly humorous levels; Justin Long plays Wallace Bryton, a podcaster who interviews eccentrics around the world for his podcast show. After a trip to meet an interviewee Manitoba goes bust, he finds a phone number for an old seaman on a bulletin board in a bar restroom. The man claims he has many stories to tell, and Wallace jumps at the opportunity. Bad idea.

I went in knowing virtually nothing about this film, aside from the fact that Kevin Smith had written and directed it, so my experience seeing "Tusk" was one hundred percent uncolored by any preconceptions; I hadn't even seen a trailer. In fact, I didn't even know the film existed, and was fascinated when I saw the Gothic poster among the "now showing" at the local theater.

I'm not particularly a Kevin Smith fan; I've only seen one or two of his films, so I'm not sure what most people expect of him, but I found this film utterly head-scratching and fascinating. Smith's signature humor bleeds throughout the entire script, but "Tusk" is just as much a horror film as it is a dark comedy. Comparisons to "Misery" and "The Human Centipede" are apt I suppose, though "Tusk" is miles more enjoyable than "Centipede"— perhaps because the uncomfortable humor is slightly more digestible— and even brassier than "Misery".

Grimly humorous moments revolving around Wallace and his captor, serial killer Howard Howe, are punctuated and offset with jaw-droppingly emotive monologues from characters (Genesis Rodriguez's is particularly powerful and exemplifies legitimate talent); where there's humor, there's also sorrow, and insanity, and monstrous violence. Johnny Depp's appearance in the film as a token French Canadian P.I. from Quebec is appropriate to the film's overall zaniness, and Justin Long is annoying and lovable as the mouthy Wallace. Michael Parks' turn as the villain is utterly insane, funny, and macabre all in one, and the chemistry with Long on screen is great. The visual aesthetic here is more than accomplished as well; the film is slick and effective, and the photography at Howe's remote rustic mansion is brooding and dark.

As I said, I knew virtually nothing about this film before seeing it, but I do know afterward that some people will enjoy "Tusk" and other people will be completely baffled and/or confused and/or repulsed by it. It's outrageous and darkly humorous while simultaneously catering to the tropes of the abduction thriller and the horror film, and the concoction is ridiculous and oftentimes hilarious while still somehow managing to be absolutely compelling and suspenseful. My only gripe is that the final act felt rushed, though the Fleetwood Mac soundtrack almost made up for it. 7/10.

Succubus (1968)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Alice in Wonderland meets the nightclub queen, 27 September 2014

"Succubus" has Janine Reynaud as Lorna, a nightclub performer whose sadomasochistic live shows attract a plethora of wealthy onlookers. Though her shows are a success, Lorna begins to lose her grip on reality, fading in and out of a dreamlike marathon of bizarre encounters, images, and even murders.

As with virtually all Jess Franco films, "Succubus" suffers a serious incoherence issue— the editing is at times sloppy, the pacing is languorous and sometimes un-involving, and the central premise and exposition are all but essentially forgotten within the first ten minutes. The opening scene is clear and captivating, but the audience loses any and all potential grip immediately after— such is Jess Franco. With a plot that is either intrinsically unintelligible, or perhaps ingeniously molded to mirror the schizophrenic mind, the film instead offers visuals a plenty.

Sexually-charged, gaudy, and thoroughly dazzling are the aesthetics here, from the seediness of the nightclubs to the various sets and scenarios which Lorna is immersed in; there is a consistent visual flair that Franco employs which guarantees audience attention just on a surface level. The hallucinogenic nature of the film is reminiscent of adventures down the rabbit hole, albeit a bit more macabre and ten times as sexual. The stringing together of waking reality or waking fantasy is powerful on a subconscious level, as each of the images provoke without relent.

It's not difficult to see why some people can't stand the film, or Jess Franco, but there's something unusually captivating about "Succubus". Not being the biggest Franco fan, I did stumble through the film at times and I did find it dull in more than one instance, but it is a thoroughly bizarre amalgam of images and mindsets inhabited by a murderous nightclub S&M stripper/performance artist, and there's something inherently fascinating about that whether you like it or not. Even if you wanted to be bored, it's kind of hard to be. Confused? That's understandable. 6/10.

Blood spattered sexual politics, 27 September 2014

"The Blood Spattered Bride" follows a newlywed bride who moves into her husband's remote ancestral castle; all would be fine if she didn't harbor feelings of resentment and hatred for him. It also turns out that his family lineage has a history of women killing their husbands, and when she finds herself haunted by a mysterious woman named Mircalla (ahem, Carmilla), she finds herself seduced into a world of bloodshed and madness.

This dynamic vampire sleeper is inarguably the cream of the crop as far as the European horror of this era goes. Despite the film's oft-label of "Eurotrash", "The Blood Spattered Bride" is anything but—aesthetically, it does retain a grainy grindhouse edge to it, but the film's photography is overall lush and atmospheric, and the production values are high. Apt cinematography and a series of haunting visuals provide additional support to the film's ghoulish tone.

As many of have said, it's a film whose horror relies heavily on atmosphere, and it does a remarkable job doing it. The castle and its outlying surroundings are well-realized and legitimately eerie, lending the film a downbeat Gothic tone. A series of noteworthy sequences of bloodshed are present, and while the gore effects are elaborate and impressive, this is by no means an exploitation film. The plot hinges on unusually complex thematics and dances circles around lesbianism and misogyny, shaping itself into a double-edged dagger of early '70s feminist commentary. Considerable liberties are taken with the film's source material ("Carmilla" by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu), but it really is a masterful take on the story with appropriate tinges of the period.

I went into this film with the gaudy expectations I have of a Jess Franco picture, but was rewarded with something much darker and considerably more serious. "The Blood Spattered Bride" manages to take a hearty stab at classicism while juggling the postmodern social politics of marriage, virginity, and female sexuality. It's a lush and gorgeous film, and also a very dreamlike and complex one. Scraping the layer of social commentary off the top, what we have here beyond that is a surprisingly elegant vampire film that is rich in atmosphere and Gothic goings-on. Subtle but masterful performances bring the characters to life and provide another layer of legitimate interest. This is a wonderful, underrated film, and is a visual and intellectually stimulating piece of '70s Euro-horror. 9/10.

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