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Silent Hill (2006)
It's got the look. That's all it's got. I'm angry.
22 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
If there was any video game-based movie I feel I had a stake in, it was Silent Hill. I'm a devoted fan of the games, having played all four multiple times each. I don't think I've ever had as spine-chillingly memorable a time doing anything related to the horror genre as I've had playing those games. After the crushing disappointment of the Resident Evil movies, I had cautious optimism about Silent Hill. Early interviews with director Christophe Gans seemed to point to a guy passionate about the material and determined to do right by it.

Sadly, this movie goes down as Just Another Failed Game Adaptation. If the best video game franchise can't even get a good movie made from it, I think Hollywood and video games should be kept away from each other for good, preferably by restraining order.

Gans may be passionate, but here he's done the impossible. He's taken Silent Hill — which is not only the most frightening horror video game ever made but quite possibly one of the most frightening horror entertainment experiences in any medium, games, books, or movies included — and made it BORING. The video game is scary as hell. The movie has — I cannot stress this enough — not ONE single solitary scare, and indeed, a few of the intended scares come off as silly.

The movie has the look of the game down just fine. The production designers have replicated the game's foggy, deserted streets and dingy derelict buildings perfectly. But Roger Avery's script (and here was a guy who took great pains to warn fans he was NOT a huge devotee of the games) suddenly feels the urge to EXPLAIN everything in exhaustive detail. So, instead of piling on suspense and scares, it piles on exposition. And I mean, PILES it on. We get endless talky scenes of back-story and history, and yet the more the movie attempts to clarify the whole back-story of Alessa and the cult that victimized her and turned her into an evil malevolent force, the less coherent it all seems.

Gans's devotion to reproducing the game's visuals makes him forget that there will be a sizable audience who see this without ever having played the game. And to them, no concessions are made. Non-fans of the Silent Hill games are given no clue as to why the town changes appearance, or why it's inhabited by poison-spitting faceless monsters and other weird beasties. To non-gamers this will be the most nonsensical movie ever, despite Avery's endless info-dumping dialogue.

But worse than info-dumping dialogue is Obvious Dialogue, where the writer assumes his audience is suffering from Downs Syndrome and must have everything spelled out no matter how obvious it is. In one scene, Cybill (the cop from game one, who has a much different fate here) has just found a drawing by Rose's missing daughter in a slot at the hotel desk.

Rose: "Where did you find this?" Cybill: "Room 111." Rose: "We have to go to Room 111!"

Well, duh.

All of the exposition simply stretches the running time out to over two hours, while spending as little time as possible in the Otherworld for which the games are famous. Here's another failing I cannot stress enough; **where the hell WAS Silent Hill in Silent Hill?** Why are we listening to Alice Krige doing her endless Cruella DeVille routine when we should be trapped in terrifying dark corridors or fleeing monsters down misty back alleys? This stuff gets started just fine in act one, then stops when the script settles into a talk-fest.

So much from the video games appears in the movie to please fans, but only at the most superficial level. It's as if Gans pored over each game, saying, "Okay we'll use that, gotta have that creature, okay, and how about a Lisa Garland cameo!" But that's where the homage stops. The school? The hospital? Yeah, they're there, but wasted. Radha Mitchell literally RUNS through the hospital (which, for some reason, is about 200 stories underground) in the third act, until she encounters the nurses...who look great, in their prosthetic makeup, but move in such an absurd way I kept expecting them to break into a dance routine like some Janet Jackson video. And Pyramid Head? Cripes, how do you waste Pyramid Head!?! He has two scenes, does one cool thing where he grabs a woman and tears her skin off like a candy wrapper — then it's bye bye. He's gone from the movie after that!

By the time we're well into the protracted act three, in which a mob of mad cultists is threatening to burn Rose's daughter alive, any resemblance between the game Silent Hill and this movie is purely coincidental. I saw a post from one guy on Rotten Tomatoes suggesting the filmmakers must have come down with ADHD and thought they were making a Hellraiser movie instead. Couldn't have put it better myself. The movie is just one cheesy line of bad dialogue after another at this point. I just cannot listen to a mob of people (and where did this mob come from, anyway?) shouting "Burn the witch! Burn the witch!" without thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail!

I'm hurting. I'm angry. I'm bitter. The video game movie that should have been a masterpiece is just another disasterpiece. I don't know how everything that was so awesome in the game got so badly lost in translation. Is it too much to hope someone, someday, will do another Silent Hill movie that will nail the whole thing, not just the perfect set design? Maybe. I'm going to play the game again, to remind myself why I love Silent Hill in the first place.
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R-Point (2004)
Nice idea, weak and confusing execution
21 February 2006
There's a lot of promise in R-Point, but very little fulfillment of any of it. I suppose the reason we don't see too many meldings of the war and supernatural horror genres is that the reality of war is infinitely more horrific than any "boo! a ghost!" plot line any screenwriter could cook up. That doesn't mean it's impossible to make a good war/horror movie. Still, what examples I've seen in the past -- The Bunker, The Keep, Below -- have been sad disappointments, relying on the genre's clichés rather than any narrative depth to evoke horror.

R-Point wants to explore such depth, putting a platoon of men in a situation where they question their very sanity. But ultimately, it falls back on horror movie clichés -- yes, there's even a black-haired ghost woman. Still, there are several good scenes, and enough hints at what a good movie this could have been, that it's worth watching at least once for hardcore Asian-horror fans. It's the kind of movie where you sit around after it was over and talk about how awesome it would have been if only they'd done X or Y.

The first half of the movie is reasonably strong. A Korean platoon in Vietnam that vanished six months before our story starts, in a remote area designated R-Point, has suddenly started radioing in to HQ. Another platoon is whipped together to find them. Trekking out to the eerie location, they set up base camp in an abandoned mansion and begin reconning the area. Promptly weirdness starts occurring. In the best scene, one soldier gets separated from his search party, only to find them crossing a field...but is it them? In another, a late night visit from a passing American platoon divulges some of R-Point's backstory, and sets up a creepy reveal later in the film.

Up to this point, atmosphere is very disturbing and there is a lot of tension. Unfortunately it begins to weaken when little to no explanation is ever satisfactorily given for the weird goings-on. I forget where I read it, but someone once said that any genre movie can be forgiven its worst failings as long as it follows the "Awesome!" rule -- that it has at least one knockout scene that makes you say, "Okay, _that_ was awesome!" R-Point has no such scene.

The soldiers begin fighting amongst one another, but you don't really know them that well, so it's hard to understand why. Most of them are one-dimensional soldier stereotypes (the scared rookie, the guy who can't wait to get home to take his kid to the zoo so we know he's gonna die early, the gruff sarge whom many of the grunts trust more than the green lieutenant), so we don't feel any sense of personal stake in their fate. Worse still is the director's choice to throw in the occasional green-tinted ghost POV shot. It begins early in the movie and completely wrecks the mood every time, because it's such an obvious cheap horror movie device. What are we supposed to think? "Ooooo, scarrrrrry, they're being watched from behind a tree by a ghost!" Uhh, sorry, doesn't work. For one thing, if I were a ghost...why would I hide behind a tree?

Ultimately, the movie just doesn't pay off. It's a shame, because there are hints that with a few more rewrites, this could have been a really amazing combination of the real-life horror of Platoon or Apocalypse Now, and the "who can you trust?" themes of Body Snatchers or John Carpenter's The Thing. Watch it for yourself, and I bet you come up with several better ways the story could have played out.
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A weak, late entry in the fading Asian horror scene
20 January 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is the story of a young woman seduced and then dumped by her older, married lover after she gets pregnant; she avenges herself against him, and his entire family, through black magic — which, disappointingly, she doesn't do herself but has someone else do for her. Good production values for a Thai horror flick. But the bland script never generates suspense, the director approaches the material entirely conventionally, and the final act loses viewer sympathy for the victims by throwing logic to the winds. At one point, a character has a prime opportunity to simply shoot the villainess dead, and instead she gets up and runs away without picking up the gun. Bad writing — you're soaking in it!

Some icky gore effects, including a really tasteless late-term-fetus corpse and one guy dying from having hundreds of live eels burst out of his stomach. Only recommended for genre completists who simply have to see every horror film produced in Asia in the last 15 years.
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A well-made, taut little Val Lewton suspenser
12 November 2005
Val Lewton's gift was to make expertly crafted suspense and horror films on minuscule budgets and restrictive schedules. Here he lives up to his reputation again, with the aid of his longtime editor/director Mark Robson. The story is simple — a new officer aboard a merchant ship suspects the captain may be going mad — but offers a lot of room for the actors to explore range within their characters, and Robson to construct suspenseful set-pieces that build the narrative to a strong climax. Russell Wade may be a little stiff as the principled third officer, but it's Richard Dix's layered performance as the imbalanced captain that sells the story. Very highly recommended example of the kind of excellence that talented filmmakers can produce despite limited resources.
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Ouija Board (2004)
Entry #3,946 in the "vengeful ghost girl with long black hair" genre
19 August 2005
If Ringu and Juon were J-Horror, then I guess this is K-Horror. A high school girl and one of her teachers become possessed by the angry spirits of a mother and daughter killed by villagers 30 years before. The usual Ringu/Juon clichés are put through their paces here. The movie is handsomely produced and stylishly directed, but because this genre is getting so played out, there are few real scares and only a handful of effective scenes. Gorehounds will like the climax. Mainly it's just a case of "been there done that." Worth seeing only if you're a completist on a mission to see anything in the horror genre that Asia produces.
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Bright Future (2002)
Here's what I think it's all about (detailed analysis with spoilers)
6 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Many viewers look at Bright Future and throw up their hands in confusion, even those who admire Kurosawa's style. I've thought a lot about this movie and I don't think its intentions are that obscure, though I confess it can be inaccessible. It's just that Kurosawa's approach is VERY contrary to how Westerners understand film.

Bright Future examines the disillusionment of Japanese youth towards their parents' generation, and, in turn, their parents' feelings of failure towards their children. Throughout, a poisonous red jellyfish symbolizes disaffected youth, drifting along silently, not threatening unless you cross their path.

Namura and Arita are two 20-somethings working at an industrial laundry. Namura is apathy itself. He cherishes his dreams of a "bright future," but in his daily life, he barely registers much more than a blank stare. He's such a loser he even sucks at his few hobbies; the one time he goes out to an arcade with his upwardly-mobile sister and her yuppie boyfriend, the boyfriend casually kicks Namura's ass at games Namura plays constantly. On his lone trips to a nearby bowling alley, Namura rolls mostly gutters.

Arita, Namura's only friend, is more mysterious, with a placid surface underneath which lurks hints of menace. Arita's sole hobby is the care of his pet jellyfish, which he is trying to acclimate to fresh water.

Arita gives the clueless Namura hand signals (thumb inward means "wait," finger pointing means "go ahead") so he'll avoid doing anything "crazy." Namura isn't sure what to make of this, but we get hints Arita is more in tune with prevailing moods. "There's a storm coming," he says ominously.

The boys' boss at the laundry lamely attempts to court their friendship, borrowing a CD from Namura and popping up uninvited at Arita's apartment. There he goes into a pathetic speech about "When I was your age...", but loses his train of thought and gets caught up watching cable. Namura and Arita view this middle-aged boy-man with barely concealed contempt; you can tell they're thinking, "God, is this what I have to look forward to when I'm 55?" When the boss sticks his fingers in the jellyfish tank, Arita stops Namura from warning him about the poison.

The boss, when he learns what could have happened, confronts Arita, who quits his job the next day. The boss remains friendly to Namura, throwing the socially inept young man into further confusion. That night, Namura angrily goes to the boss's house to get his CD, only to find Arita has been there earlier and murdered the man and his wife.

Arita is arrested but makes no particular attempt at a defense. In jail, he cordially (but not warmly) greets his estranged father, and only wants to talk about his jellyfish to Namura, in whom he has entrusted its care. But when Namura, in a rare emotional outburst, declares he will "wait 20 years" for Arita's release, Arita coldly snubs him. Now even more bereft and confused, Namura angrily smashes the jellyfish tank, inadvertently releasing it into the city canals.

Not long after, Arita hangs himself in his cell, his hand wired into the "go ahead" signal. Namura regrets his rashness, and is overjoyed to find the jellyfish still alive. He also strikes up a bond with Arita's father, who makes a meager living salvaging discarded appliances (a metaphor for pointlessly hanging onto the past). The father, who hadn't seen Arita for 5 years before the murders, and who is held in such disdain by his one other son that the boy has taken his mother's last name, sees in Namura the chance for a real father-son relationship.

I've concluded that we're supposed to see Arita and Namura as two different incarnations of the same person. This interpretation would be consistent with Kurosawa's follow-up, Doppelgänger, whose hero confronts an arrogant and violent duplicate of himself. Bright Future's script hints that Kurosawa may have intended this:

At one point Namura says he thinks Arita killed the boss "before I could do it"; indeed, right before Namura goes to the house, we see him grab a metal pipe off the street and swing it in wild unfocused rage. In another scene, we see Arita's ghost(?) watching his father and Namura. Also, the way Arita's father cherishes his bond with Namura; a reconciliation after an argument they have plays like the father is really forgiving Arita and his other son for abandoning him (especially the father's line "I forgive all of you for everything"). Finally, Arita's rejection of Namura when Namura declares he'll wait for him in prison; if Arita is really Namura's "evil doppelgänger," then the rejection makes good thematic sense. It's Arita's way of saying, "You idiot, don't you know that as long as you hang onto me, you'll always be a loser?"

So is Arita the violent, acting-out side of Namura's personality made flesh, who, once he commits the crime Namura fantasizes about, feels it's time to give Namura the "go ahead" signal and bow out? An intriguing possibility, and one certainly in keeping with Kurosawa's magical realist approach.

The final scenes, in which Namura — saying "I got my go-ahead signal long ago" — finally decides to stop drifting aimlessly (like the jellyfish in the tank) and set himself towards the "bright future" he used to dream of (like the loose jellyfish, now "escaping" from Tokyo and drifting toward the sea), brings the movie's theme full circle. The climactic shot of hordes of glowing jellyfish floating down a canal is a truly stunning image. (And one thematically underscored by its juxtaposition with the very last shot, of a gang of kids Namura briefly falls in with, drifting aimlessly down the sidewalk to nowhere in particular.) The title turns out to be not ironic at all. The young can have a bright future, but sometimes, you have to know when to wait, and when to go ahead.
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A skillful indie documentary, full of atmosphere and class
11 May 2005
I came to this movie after seeing its rave review on A fan of historical crime writer Harold Schechter's (who is interviewed in this film), I was surprised and delighted to see someone had attempted a documentary on H.H. Holmes, the subject of Schechter's book "Depraved". Then again, I suppose it wasn't too surprising, given the bestseller success of Erik Larsen's "The Devil in the White City", and the upcoming movie of same.

John Borowski knows his way around the documentary form, inter-cutting vintage photos, interviews, and clever re-enactments with a strong sense of balance. HHH:AFSK succeeds in conveying a sense of time and place, and communicating Holmes's psychosis. The narrative is gripping, and there's never a dull moment here. Unlike a lot of indie documentary directors, Borowski knows that making a documentary is still all about Film-making, not merely filmed journalism.

If HHH:AFSK lacks in any department, it is in conveying the full, jaw-dropping magnitude of Holmes's most audacious crime: his systematic murder of the Pitezel family, carried out while manipulating them to travel in two separate groups halfway across the US and even into Canada. Borowski also leaves out the detail that, on this evil trek, Holmes was also dragging along one of his three clueless wives! Borowski surprisingly rushes through the journey, making it all seem like just another of Holmes's outrageous deeds. Compared to the way Schechter evoked the cruelty of Holmes's actions and the heartbreaking emotional trauma suffered by the Pitezel children's mother in his book "Depraved", Borowski misses a chance for some really strong emotional depth.

But some things are, I suppose, going to get left out in an hour-long production. The running time is kind of odd. Too long to sell to TV (this film is certainly worthy of the History Channel, on which I have seen considerably worse stuff), too short for feature length. And yet, by the time it's over, you feel that to go to 90 minutes might have been just a shade too much. At 64 minutes, HHH:AFSK is perhaps just right, artistically — though 70-75 would have been ideal, allowing Borowski to flesh out the story as I described above. Commercially, 64 minutes is problematic. Perhaps a direct-to-DVD release was all Borowski had in mind from the first.

Veteran actor Tony Jay provides brilliant narration with his one-of-a-kind voice (why isn't this man more famous!?), and there's a swell orchestral, Bernard Hermann-esquire score that I'm surprised Borowski was able to get. If anything gave me an unintentional smile watching the DVD, it was perhaps Borowski's tireless self-promotion in the bonus materials. I'd have gladly sacrificed Borowski's efforts on his making-of featurette if he had channeled that work into just a bit more of his documentary.

A worthy film for fans of true crime and American history rolled into one.
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The Grudge (2004)
A mixed bag, with bits both better and worse than Ju-on. (6/10)
22 October 2004
Takashi Shimizu must be getting tired of Toshio and the grudge by now. This is his fifth film on the subject, and the first English-language one. Taking scenes from the 2000 direct-to- video "Ju-on" and the 2003 theatrical version (the first and third films of the whole series), it recasts the story with American actors in most of the roles. I thought that this movie might do more with the culture-clash aspects of this casting choice, but it didn't, preferring to stick pretty closely to the original premise. As a result there's no logical narrative reason for this movie to be full of Americans, other than that it makes the movie easier to sell in America.

Sarah Michelle Gellar does a pretty good job in the role played by Megumi Okina in the 2003 film. She plays Karen, an American exchange student in Japan who moonlights as a caregiver to invalids for extra credit. The most admirable aspect of her performance is that she makes Karen an original character and isn't always reminding you of Buffy the whole time. (Particularly as Buffy would respond to these ghosts with a few well-placed roundhouse kicks.) Other performers include Bill Pullman, who's unusually good in the role of the teacher played by Yûrei Yanagi in the 2000 video version. I typically find Pullman a decent but unexceptional actor, but here he does the best job of all the American cast of conveying the despair and hopelessness of being affected by the house's curse. You can see the horror in his eyes and it's totally convincing.

The Grudge actually follows the non-linear story structure of the Japanese movies, which surprised me. A lot of scenes are direct remakes of scenes in the earlier films, but while some come across very well and very creepy, others just kind of make you giggle. The scene with the sister hiding under her bedsheets, only to meet the ghost there, just doesn't come off as well with a blonde American actress. Then again, the use of a stairwell instead of a ladies' room in the scene is very good. Some fans of the original have stated they disliked the changes made to the ending in this version, but I thought the ending worked okay. It certainly plays better for an American version than I think Ju-on's ending would. One change about this movie I didn't care for was the way they altered the guttural throat noise that comes from the ghosts. In some scenes it sounds just like the original, and in others, they add so much echo and other digital effects to it, it sounds more like a creaking door or something else entirely.

Overall I give The Grudge a 6/10 whereas I'd give Ju-on an 8/10. You really ought to see Ju- on first, unless you're someone who's just allergic to subtitles. Generally I'm not sure how well Americans who aren't already J-Horror fans will take to this, since the kind of horror Americans are used to is Freddy and Jason and all that dead teenager stuff. So most American viewers might find the whole ghostly child thing a little silly. But it's worth a shot as a matinée. And if you've never seen any of this series before, try to grab the original 2000 video version as well as the 2003 movie. In that one, one of the grudge's victims is played by young Chiaki Kuriyama, better known as Go-Go Yubari to "Kill Bill" fans.
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Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004 Video Game)
Silent Hill moves into the realm of the surreal
14 September 2004
Silent Hill 4: The Room is the most unusual entry in a most unusual video game franchise. While earlier installments in the series have focused on stories designed to evoke spine- chilling horror, this fourth chapter in the saga causes much deeper feelings of anxiety and unease. I remember being more traditionally scared playing Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams, but the underlying, more psychological sensation of existential dread I felt playing this game was something altogether new.

The Silent Hill games have shown a narrative progression by which the nature of the town is expanded upon in each game. In the first two games, your character went to Silent Hill and had his horrific adventure. In the third, Silent Hill itself "came to" the main character of Heather, who merely wanted to have a nice day at the mall. In Silent Hill 4, the town has now invaded your last refuge of security, your home.

You play Henry Townshend, who lives alone in a small apartment in the bustling town of South Ashfield, half a day's drive from Silent Hill. After suffering from inexplicable nightmares, Harry awakens to find that his apartment door has been chained and padlocked shut from the INSIDE. He can't open his windows, and no one, even people standing directly outside his front door, can hear him when he pounds on the door and cries for help.

The game expertly evokes the desperate confusion and lurking fear you would feel if you simply couldn't get out of your house. The strangeness of Henry's situation is underscored by the fact that, tantalizingly, he can see the real world right outside his window, with cars and pedestrians zipping by on a street only fifty yards away. Neighbors in the apartment building opposite his can be seen going about their business (one guy, amusingly, is playing air guitar). The banality of day to day life takes on a whole new meaning when one person is suddenly set apart from it by horrific circumstances he can't understand or control. The next time you're taking a walk down the block, imagine if something terrifyingly Silent Hill-ish was happening to someone in the very house you're walking past, and you're safe outside with no way of knowing. The whole character of the neighborhood will change. That's the kind of thing the Silent Hill series does so well: conveying the deep terror that can result when what is normal and commonplace suddenly and without warning goes all WRONG.

The action begins when Henry discovers that a large hole has emerged in his bathroom wall. As it's the only way out, he must crawl through it, and doing so, finds himself in the decaying, blood-spattered environments of Silent Hill with which the series' fans have become so familiar. But this game offers alarming differences. Some of the creatures that menace you -- like the ghosts that look more like floating paralyzed corpses -- can't be killed, and others -- like the two-headed babies that walk on adult arms -- are so bizarre they beggar imagination. You're also limited in what you can carry, and the only place you can save your game is in your apartment, a safe haven you can return to through holes in walls spread throughout the levels. But even that safe haven isn't safe for long.

In earlier games, the horror, while nightmarish, was still rooted in a sense of realism that, in turn, created realistic horror. You'd walk down dark corridors or misty deserted streets armed with a flashlight and your weapon. But here, the environments are more outrageously surreal, as if you're literally wandering through a bad dream. Spiral staircases seem to float in thin air. A enormous woman's face peers at you from a hospital wall. Living tendrils of no discernible biology dangle upwards from the floor to bar your way. Wheelchairs zoom down corridors by themselves, as if it were a freeway for paraplegic ghosts. It's as if the game designers just decided to let Salvador Dali loose with 3D rendering software and instructions that he was to exercise no restraint at all in coming up with ways to freak people out.

Sometimes it gets a little TOO weird. At times I found myself less frightened by this game than morbidly intrigued; I was actually interested in getting to certain rooms just to see what kind of crazy thing I'd encounter next. In that sense, I'd have to say the earlier games work a little better as pure, edge of your seat, bloodcurdling horror. But Silent Hill 4 still does a bang-up job of generating an entirely different kind of fear, one that doesn't so much leap out at you from the dark as crawl deep into the back of your mind and lurk there.

I leave you with two pieces of advice. One: if you're new to the series, don't start here, start with 2 and 3. Two: don't take the doll.
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4 July 2004
Prepare to laugh like you've never laughed before, people. Andreas Schnaas is the new Ed Wood! He can barely line up a shot, and whoever edits for him acts like he just bought his first iMac and is trying to puzzle his way through iMovie without reading the manual or even the onscreen tutorial. This is absolutely glorious cheese, a one-movie festival of filmmaking ineptitude, with performances that wouldn't pass muster in a high school play. The gore scenes will have you rolling on the floor in such convulsions of hilarity that EMS might have to be called in to feed you oxygen. When Nikos is brought back to life and promptly hacks off the head of the grandmotherly museum curator (with a totally "plywood spray-painted silver" sword), I thought I'd wake up the whole block with my laughter. This movie is fecal beyond the dreams of proctologists, but I swear, if you want to have an MST3K movie party at your place one night, your guests won't need to get wasted or toke up to appreciate this comedy of errors!

Actual worth as a film: 0/10 "Cracking up all your friends at a party" value: 10/10
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Demonium (2001)
Lousy, even by lousy-movie standards.
4 July 2004
There is one shot early on in the otherwise utterly indefensible DEMONIUM that shows that Andreas Schnaas might have a real filmmaker lurking somewhere inside him: a blind woman, unaware that a killer is lurking in her house, walks past the camera towards her bathroom, when all at once the killer jumps out of hiding behind her, running from one room to the room opposite the hallway she's in. It's abrupt, and Schnaas cuts away almost immediately, so that the entire action is on screen for less than a second. It's a "jump outta your seat" moment worthy of Argento's DEEP RED.

Unfortunately, that's the only instance of actual film-making in the whole lousy enterprise. For the most part, Schnaas is just an untalented pretender to the director's chair. Even a reported $2.2 million budget and a chance to shoot 35mm hasn't made his work look any more professional than it does in his infamous shot-on-video no-budget backyard productions. His DP, and I use the term advisedly, makes everything look like video anyway. Almost all of the nighttime exteriors look like they were lit with a single 1K. And Schnaas not only shows his incompetence at composition, but in this film he overuses a camera dolly to ridiculous effect, the act of a filmmaker whose attitude is "Well, we rented the damn thing, might as well use it." I didn't get the impression Schnaas ever bothers with shot lists or storyboards, but even if he does, his work on those must be as inept as his "directing".

And the acting...yeesh! All the cast (but one) are Europeans for whom English is clearly their second or even third language, so everyone's (and I mean everyone's) line delivery is laughable. They sound like they're just reading for their ESL class, and doing it badly. Schnaas was either on a tight deadline here, or just doesn't bother with second takes, because a number of actors flub their lines, then start over. I imagine some of these actors might be pretty talented working in their native languages, but their work here is unlikely to benefit their careers in any way, to put it kindly.

Everyone talks about how gory Schnaas's films are, but you'll see much worse (and more believable) than this in ICHI THE KILLER, a gore film that just happens to be made by a real talent at the helm. Schnaas can't even make a good example of the lowest form of film art this side of hardcore porn. He and Troma deserve each other.

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Not a movie most American horror fans will get, but still cool.
17 September 2003
This is actually the THIRD film in the four-film Ju-on series, though it's the first theatrical release. It helps to watch the two preceding direct-to-video releases first, since those establish the origin of the curse effectively. Also, without seeing these prequels, the plot of this one can probably seem kind of meandering.

Shot on an extremely low budget, Ju-on doesn't have the cash to spend on elaborate special make-up effects or over-the-top set pieces (and the few times these movies do try to use FX, it tends to look pretty cheap). But to compensate for that, director Takashi Shimizu has crafted a story that generates scares through atmosphere, mood and lighting. There aren't that many "jump" scenes in the movie, though there are a couple of good ones; mostly, what Shimizu does is create a lingering sense of unease that can be very disturbing if you catch it in the right mood.

So, if you liked The Others, you'll go for Ju-on. On the other hand, if you're a Freddy and Jason fan, looking for the usual bombastic, loud body-count sort of horror, you'll hate it.

I happen to prefer moody horror, and I think it's more effective to scare people that way than just by throwing tubs of gore and CGI effects in your face. But I think most Americans have been conditioned to expect their horror movies to be very MTV-ish in style, and so this movie may just be too foreign for most U.S. viewers.

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A bit of a letdown, due to repeated footage
17 September 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Warning: The first 30 minutes of this second entry in the Ju-on series (the first two of which were released direct-to-video) repeats the last 30 minutes of the first movie. Trying to puzzle out why they did this, I can only think it must have been a (rather sleazy) decision on the producers' part to maximize profits from the video release, but putting out two movies instead of one. After all, if you merged the two films with the overlapping footage, you'd still have a feature in the 110 minute range. Jeez.

(Mild spoilers follow.)

Having said that, this movie continues the creepfest begun in the first to solid effect. What is so cool about the curse concept that Takashi Shimizu has come up with is that EVERY character in this story who encounters Toshio, Kayako, or the dreaded house is affected. Unlike an American horror film, where you'd get a brave hero or heroine figuring out a way at the end to save the day and lift the curse, in this movie, once you're cursed, you're cursed. Screwed. Doomed. It's cool.

This is a good series, though I think its low-budget, atmosphere-based approach to frightening audiences won't probably play well to American audiences programmed to expect horror movies to be bombastic, loud, and all about special effects.
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Ju-on (2000 Video)
The first of the series is still the most effective
17 September 2003
Although the first two movies of the Ju-on series were super low-budget direct-to-video affairs, I find this first one holds its own next to -- and is in many ways still creepier than -- the 2002 theatrical box office smash.

This movie establishes the curse that stems from the murder of a young woman, Kayako, and her son, Toshio, by Kayako's jealous husband. The movie jumps around in time, playing scenes out of sequence in a way that is more interesting dramatically than if it had all been drawn out chronologically.

Takashi Shimizu relies upon generating an eerie mood, a nonstop aura of unease that permeates each scene, to creep audiences out, rather than by throwing gore and special effects at you in the way American horror films usually do. (In fact, the one CGI effects shot in this movie is its cheesiest; they just haven't got the budget to pull it off.) By the time we finally see Kayako crawling down the stairs, we've been put so ill at ease by one inexplicable, disturbing event after another that the first sight of her is bloodcurdling.

In all, Ju-on is a swell example of how to generate chills with next to no money but boundless imagination and talent.

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Mitchell (1975)
The pain. Dear God, the pain.
14 July 2003
My-my-my-my Mitchell, why did they make this film? As far as I know, it was indeed a theatrical release...and yet it plays like some mid-season episode of a tired old cop TV show. And from the eighth or ninth season at that, when the show is well past its prime and the lead is just picking up a paycheck. I won't add anything to the comments already on the site, discussing the illogical plot, the MST3K-vs-uncut versions, or the (ahem) appeal of Joe Don Baker as a leading man. I'll only add that any movie that disrespects its audience to such a degree as to rip off the climax of KEY LARGO virtually shot for shot (minus the suspense, of course) deserves all the sheer unadulterated hate it can get. -20,046/10.
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Ley Lines (1999)
Beautifully done, if unable to avoid some cliches
12 July 2003
This was a much more character-driven storyline than one might expect from Miike, and very nicely done, although it doesn't exactly score huge points for originality. We have the hooker with the heart of gold, and the usual tale of three disaffected youths trying to better their lot in life, only to fall into a life of crime that leads to disaster. But all of the characters are still sympathetic, and Miike's way of framing his story against the real sense of disconnection that his Chinese characters feel living in Japan is effective (even if American viewers might only pick it out after having a critic more savvy in Asian societal dynamics explain it first). This is also the most gorgeously shot Miike film I think I've seen, rich with deeply saturated and highly stylized colors. 8/10 from me.
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Pretty good, but not great, horror opus
8 July 2003
Warning: Spoilers
My rating: 6/10

Though it's a return to form for Danny Boyle after such post-Trainspotting disasters as A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach, 28 Days Later could have risen to a higher potential. The opening scenes of a deserted London are tremendously effective, but some other scenes lose their full horror value because Boyle rushes through them, such as a scene involving a hurried tire-change before the onrushing hordes of the "infected" arrive. It flies by so fast we never get that "Oh Dear God hurry up!" sense of panic a horror film ought to build in the viewer.

Basically, what you have here is the same premise as The Omega Man or, amusingly, Demons. People are infected with "rage," which causes them to become mindless murdering beasts with fierce red eyes. It's stylishly shot, but the script unfortunately glosses over characterization: we barely know our hero, Jim, or his traveling companions Selena and Hannah. So our ability to fully feel what they have lost is muted.

The gore quotient is pretty good, though again the most violent scenes are shot in super-shaky-cam mode which makes things a bit too frantic to be effective. Boyle also knows when to use silence to generate suspense.

But near the end (I'll refrain from spoilers), the script becomes a bit too reminiscent of--of all things--Day of the Dead (the weakest of Romero's trilogy), when our heroes hole up with some military types who are a bit too macho for comfort.

Also, in an odd technical choice, most of the movie appears to have been shot on digital video--but not 24P High-Def, merely plain ol' DV or DigiBeta, then transferred to 35MM. The image is cruddy looking on the big screen (though it might look fine on DVD), and whether this is an artistic choice or a budgetary one is unclear. Oddly, the very last scene is crystal clear and seems to have been shot on 35. Go figure.

In all, it has its good points, but isn't the horror masterwork advance hype would have you believe. For really excellent British horror, check out Dog Soldiers instead.
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Brilliant example of how to make a low budget work
7 July 2003
This fun, quintessentially British SF film still holds up after more than 30 years. Sure, the storyline is dated, but that gives it a classic old-school charm. Quatermass was a character created during the atomic age, when fears of The Bomb were first beginning to manifest in culture. This film is the product of a later time, and deals more with classic concepts of good and evil wrapped around a premise that Brian de Palma's pitiful Mission to Mars basically cribbed years later. The apocalyptic climax still registers very high on the coolness meter, even by today's CGI-ridden standards for SF movies. When Hammer got it dead right, the result was movies like this. Now if only Anchor Bay would release a full-fledged special edition DVD with an anamorphic transfer, all would be right with the world.
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A subtle and powerful tale of how violence begets violence
3 June 2003
Serpent's Path is one of two movies on the same subject--revenge--Kurosawa shot back to back; the other is Eyes of the Spider. This film deals with two men, one a former low-level yakuza member obsessed with avenging the murder of his young daughter, and the other, a deceptively mild-mannered math professor who is helping the grieving father for reasons that are at first unclear.

As he often does, Kurosawa uses a conventional genre (here, the revenge film) as a way to explore the hidden darker side of human nature. In Serpent's Path, the theme is that once one has given oneself over to the most base instincts one has, such as violence and vengefulness, there is no crossing back. And that this is a risk for everyone, even, as we find, an "average guy" like the professor. His real motives provide the movie with its chilling finale. (But the movie is not all dour seriousness; Kurosawa works in much black humor as well, as in the golf-course abduction scene.) In all, a first-rate thriller worthy of David Fincher.
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Returner (2002)
Derivative as all git-out but still popcorn-munchin' fun
8 May 2003
As many have said, Returner steals wantonly from The Terminator (girl sent back in time to prevent alien invasion before it happens), Independence Day (really really huge alien craft), The Matrix (wirework mixed with slo-mo-gunplay), ET (the alien just wants to go home), and even Escape from New York (the girl compels her modern day hero to help her by planting an explosive device on his neck).

Still, it's a fun movie to watch, mainly BECAUSE of all that shameless idea-theft, and also because, in spite of it, its director realizes what kind of dopey movie he has on his hands and decides to just have fun with it. The action scenes are energetic, appropriately gory, and often full of the kind of politically incorrect black humor you only see in Asian cinema. In the opening scene, arch-villian Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani, who's awesome) shoots a screaming child in the head and then shrugs and says, "Hey, at least he's quiet."

CGI FX are fine despite the lower-than-Hollywood budget and there are naturally many visual concepts, like the great-looking alien armor, inspired by anime and manga. The two leads have loads of charisma, even if long black leather coats have become the ultimate action hero fashion cliché. For a popcorn-muncher's action movie, you could do worse than to pop Returner into your DVD player.
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Atomic Dog (1998 TV Movie)
Pedestrian TV effort
31 August 2001
Warning: Spoilers
[Mild spoilers included] This won't win any Animal Planet awards, nor is it exactly good sci-fi. It's basically a 1950's B-movie updated to the 90's. A puppy dog is left behind when a nuclear power plant suffers a "low-level radiation leak," and, instead of dying horribly, is transformed into a Superdog with human intelligence and the ability to leap 9-ft. fences at a single bound. He impregnates the dog of a family who's just moved into town (who apparently don't care their house is down the block from an evacuated nuclear plant) then terrorizes them trying to reclaim his puppies, one of whom is tame and the other vicious. When that doesn't work he tries to "adopt" the family's little girl, who doesn't fear him. Fairly pedestrian all the way around, with not much tension (though the atomic dog is well trained). And I'm particularly bewildered by the poster who said this is a good children's movie; there are 4 dogs in this movie and three of them end up dead.
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