Horror

The Cabin in the Woods (2011, Drew Goddard)

I didn’t have much hope for Cabin in the Woods; though, I mean, director and co-writer Drew Goddard… he’s gone on to stuff. Good stuff. Right?

But if I’d known it was written in three days—it shows—and cost $30 million—it actually looks pretty darn good for $30 million, saving the money shots until the final third or so. And I guess it’s well-paced? Like, it’s terribly long and exasperating as the film threats the various unlikable cast members but then once it gets into the “final girl” sequence, it’s a lot better. I foolishly even had the wrong final girl picked; I thought Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon were going to do something interesting with genre. Or maybe I just assumed they were going to try to do something interesting. Maybe feign something interesting.

I didn’t expect them to mix together a few standard sci-fi tropes, the Evil Dead, a not-Ace Ventura Jim Carrey vehicle, a pseudo-gory Texas Chainsaw knock-off, Whedon and Goddard’s celebrity “Lost” fanfic, maybe two other things I recognized and forgot, plus all the horror in-jokes and references I didn’t get. I got the Hellraiser one, of course, because that one was peculiarly… not desperate but maybe wishful. Like for a moment it became a different movie. Though I was confused the whole time because I thought it was supposed to be the merman not the Hellraiser guy. Cabin is often very talky and very fast and it’s not clear during the first half they’re ever going to painfully detail the big secret with a special genre guest star (if you’re willing to stretch genre). It’s a solid guest star “get,” but it would’ve been better with just a voice over and maybe just been Jamie Lee Curtis.

Even getting past the bad writing—because it’s not just a string of tropes fit into very specific, very literal boxes, it’s still terribly written—the acting is all atrocious as well. Cabin creates a role just for Bradley Whitford—paired with Richard Jenkins like they’re Lemmon and Matthau or something—and it’s bad. Like, the part’s bad and Whitford’s obnoxious. Jenkins is better, but definitely not good. He too is obnoxious, with a more explicit misogyny thing thrown in for good measure.

But the leads—Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams, Fran Kranz—they’re bad. Hutchison, Hemsworth, and Kranz are really, really, really bad.

It’s bad writing on the characters and all, but the acting’s still bad. If Connolly and Williams were really good, there might be some relief but they’re not. They’re just not as bad as the rest of them. They don’t get actively worse. When it seems like Connolly might be getting better but then doesn’t, it’s not a negative. It maintains. Hemsworth, Kranz, and Hutchison get worse throughout.

Good photography from Peter Deming, okay editing from Lisa Lassek (Lassek’s cuts are fine, the content’s just bad), strangely unmemorable score by David Julyan. I remember a lot of emphasis music but not any of the specifics about it, which is probably for the best.

Goddard’s direction is confused for the first half, when he’s homaging left and right, but it’s at least a low competent for the second half, as the film movies into a new realm.

The second realm is… technically more interesting than the first and the film definitely doesn’t get as bad as it sometimes threatens. But there’s only so good it’s ever going to get given the leads. And the writing.

Maybe it would’ve been better as a TV show? They could’ve called it “Lost in the Woods” or something.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Drew Goddard; written by Joss Whedon and Goddard; director of photography, Peter Deming; edited by Lisa Lassek; music by David Julyan; production designer, Martin Whist; costume designer, Shawna Trpcic; produced by Whedon; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Kristen Connolly (Dana), Chris Hemsworth (Curt), Anna Hutchison (Jules), Fran Kranz (Marty), Jesse Williams (Holden), Richard Jenkins (Sitterson), Bradley Whitford (Hadley), Brian White (Truman), Amy Acker (Lin), and Tim DeZarn (Mordecai).


Ginger Snaps (2000, John Fawcett)

Ginger Snaps is almost there. Karen Walton’s script is almost there, Fawcett’s direction is almost there, Emily Perkins’s lead performance is almost there, Katharine Isabelle’s is… okay, it’s not almost there by the end, when Isabelle’s acting through latex makeup, but she’s good in the first act. Ginger Snaps coasts on the first act for quite a while.

It’s just a little long. The third act drags as Perkins and Isabelle go from points A to B to C as the movie tries to finally get to the ending. Ginger Snaps is a werewolf movie, with some of the tropes but not all of them. It rejects a few of them, embraces a few others. Isabelle is the werewolf-to-be, Perkins is the sister who tries to fix all the problems resulting from Isabelle’s lycanthropy, escalating from dead neighborhood dogs and scary nails to dead classmates and a tail growing out of Isabelle’s spine. Perkins and Isabelle never find a Maria Ouspenskaya; they’re on their own figuring out Ginger Snaps’s werewolf rules, with Perkins getting some neighborhood drug dealer Kris Lemche. See, after the werewolf bites Isabelle—on the night of her first period, which seems like it ought to be way more symbolic than it plays in the movie (like, seriously, read Swamp Thing #40)—it chases her and Perkins and Lemche hits it with his truck. Perkins and Isabelle don’t stick around to see Lemche discover he’d hit a some kind of Canis lupus… just one with a circumcised human penis, which does not get enough of a close-up when he finds it. I can’t actually remember if it’s even distinct in the shot.

But the period stuff isn’t the only place Walton’s script drops the proverbial subplot ball, the film also ditches—for all intents and purposes—the sisters’ suicide pact. Even though it’s never quite clear exactly how serious they are about it. The opening credits are all these images of Perkins and Isabelle dead from suicide in creative uses of suburban symbolism. Turns out it’s for a class assignment about living in their crappy suburb, which the first act also suggests is going to be more of a thing. Metaphors for suburban malaise. By the end of the movie, whenever there’s even a nod to the earlier material—like the suicide pact—it doesn’t play because Isabelle is literally inhuman (and eating people) and Perkins is past believing she can save her sister. There are a bunch of opportunities for the movie to have some pay-off with the subplots, never takes them. Not a one.

Especially not anti-helicopter parents Mimi Rogers and John Bourgeois. Rogers gets a whole arc about discovering her daughters’ are hiding a bigger secret than just Isabelle getting her first period and it goes absolutely nowhere. The clues Rogers keeps dropping suggesting she too might be a werewolf—the sisters get their periods late, apparently at sixteen—so Isabelle, while Perkins is a year younger, skipping a grade because smart–and if it’s a metaphor, well, there’d be some maternal connection. Right?

The movie’s a tad tedious, especially in the third act, but Perkins is a solid lead. Lemche would be a lot better with just a little bit better direction. Isabelle just needs a better arc. The movie gives her enough time to not just be “the beast” but then gives her nothing else to do but be the beast. Not counting her horny teen werewolf-to-be thing, which elevates Jesse Moss from background bro to supporting player. He’s not very good. Danielle Hampton’s an excellent mean girl.

It’d help if Mike Shields’s music were better or Thom Best’s photography. Brett Sullivan’s editing is all right. And the final werewolf isn’t groundbreaking or startling but it could be a lot worse.

Even when it’s not at its best, Ginger Snaps could be a whole lot worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Fawcett; screenplay by Karen Walton, based on a story by Fawcett and Walton; director of photography, Thom Best; edited by Brett Sullivan; music by Mike Shields; production designer, Todd Cherniawsky; costume designer, Lea Carlson; produced by Karen Lee Hall and Steven Hoban; released by Motion International.

Starring Emily Perkins (Brigitte), Katharine Isabelle (Ginger), Kris Lemche (Sam), Mimi Rogers (Pamela), Jesse Moss (Jason), Danielle Hampton (Trina), John Bourgeois (Henry), and Peter Keleghan (Mr. Wayne).


Bad Dreams (1988, Andrew Fleming)

At the end of Bad Dreams, as GNR’s Sweet Child of Mine starts up over the end credits… I thought, at least director (and co-writer) Fleming has good taste in music. Turns out he didn’t want the song and a studio exec with a better ear put it in the film.

Bummer. It would’ve been nice to be able to pay the film a complement, even if it was a backhanded one. Bad Dreams is a crappy horror movie. There are more offscreen peculiars one could discuss but I’m going to skip them because it’s not a worthwhile rabbit hole. Though maybe it’d be a good inclusion in a piece about late eighties movies, including critical response, cable, home video, whatever.

But I’m not interested enough. I suffered through it real-time. Just like I suffered through Bad Dreams real-time.

The film is not about bad dreams, though we occasionally get to see some bad dreams so Fleming can “reveal” the story back a few minutes and a character here and there reincarnated. It the first shock death didn’t happen… well, Bad Dreams might have had an entertainingly wacky third act. Good thing Fleming turns back the clock so as to avert that possibility. Wouldn’t want Bad Dreams to be entertaining. At all.

There are a lot of problems with the film and most of them involve Fleming, either in the writing, in how he composes shots (safe for pan and scan and home video), in how he doesn’t direct the actors. Top-billed Jennifer Rubin ought to be able to get something out of the part—she’s a coma patient, awake thirteen years after her seventies cult (led by a bad, but appropriately creepy Richard Lynch—the nose hairs alone are blood-curdling) did the mass suicide thing. Only it’s apparently supposed to be a secret lost to time. The police couldn’t confirm any gas cans so they thought the house just exploded on its own, even though there were apparently documentaries about the cult where they talk about how they all want to die. I mean, Sy Richardson is godawful as the cop, but it doesn’t seem like he’s supposed to be any stupider than anyone else in Bad Dreams. The film’s characters are really dumb, with the supposedly smart ones (shrinks Harris Yulin and Bruce Abbott the stupidest of all), but… the mass suicide thing isn’t a stretch. Yet Fleming treats its reveal like a big deal. Or as big of a deal as you can when you’re shooting scenes soap operas would be embarrassed about.

I occasionally wondered if Bad Dreams started its life as some kind of TV movie—it has a lot of supporting characters, who are all one shade of bad (Susan Ruttan’s pretty awful, Elizabeth Daily’s not good, Dean Cameron tries hard and fails) but some of it’s obviously Fleming’s fault. It couldn’t make it as a TV movie, not in acting, directing, writing. Not even in the eighties. Though the terrible costumes definitely make it in the eighties. Young empathetic but clearly incompetent doctor Abbott—who doesn’t think Rubin needs any mental health care after waking up from the coma because he wants to romance her and tells her about it frequently in the second act—wears his denim collared shirt with a tie. The scariest thing in Bad Dreams is Abbott’s wardrobe.

The plot has Rubin in a mental hospital because they can’t find her family so she doesn’t get to leave. They don’t address the aging in the coma thing, from tween to twenty-something. The film’s got zero curiosity about its characters. Cameron, Daily, Ruttan, they’re all in group with Rubin; Abbott runs the group (badly), falls for endlessly traumatized Rubin. The film’s characterization of people getting mental health treatment is real bad. Real bad. Even if you factor in its the eighties, Abbott and Harris don’t even worry about people around the hospital dying until at least four in. Bad Dreams exists in the universe where lawsuits haven’t been discovered yet.

Technically, everything’s pretty bad, quite frankly. Alexander Gruszynski’s isn’t as incompetent as Jeff Freeman’s editing. Jay Ferguson’s music? Bad. The film also loads up The Chambers Brothers’s Time Has Come Today whenever there’s a flashback, which feels often. Fleming’s not just inept, he’s also obvious. His filmmaking is unpleasant to watch. And the cover of My Way when Cameron has his big—and terribly directed—freakout set piece? Icky bad.

Bad Dreams, in general, is icky bad. It’s got nothing going for it. Not even the eighty minute runtime. It’s too dumb even for eighty minutes.

And I didn’t even get into the lousy Bates house knock-off, which ends up being there for Fleming to pretend he’s Andrew Wyeth. Fleming does such a bad job of it, you forget he’s showing an actual ambition for once.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Fleming; screenplay by Fleming and Steven E. de Souza, based on a story by Fleming, Michael Dick, P.J. Pettiette, and Yuri Zeltser; director of photography, Alexander Gruszynski; edited by Jeff Freeman; music by Jay Ferguson; production designer, Ivo Cristante; costume designers, Deborah Everton, Ronald Leamon, and Patricia Norris; produced by Gale Anne Hurd; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jennifer Rubin (Cynthia), Bruce Abbott (Dr. Alex Karmen), Richard Lynch (Harris), Harris Yulin (Dr. Berrisford), Sy Richardson (Detective Wasserman), Dean Cameron (Ralph), Susan Ruttan (Miriam), Susan Barnes (Connie), Louis Giambalvo (Ed), Elizabeth Daily (Lana), Damita Jo Freeman (Gilda), and Charles Fleischer (Ron the Pharmacist).


C.H.U.D. (1984, Douglas Cheek)

The only name I recognized during C.H.U.D.’s opening titles—after the more obvious names in the cast—was casting director Bonnie Timmermann. Timmermann’s an A tier casting director; C.H.U.D. is a B movie with a lower A movie cast (I mean, John Heard and Daniel Stern are both capable of fine work and they would’ve been at near career highs at the time of this one). But it doesn’t seem to know it’s got a better cast than the material, which isn’t a surprise as the script is bad and the directing is bad. Also bad is the cinematography, by Peter Stein, though it’s not like director Cheek would’ve known what to do with better photography. C.H.U.D. manages to be shot on location in New York City, but look like it was shot in Toronto with some second unit establishing work done in New York. And then the sewer stuff is obviously sets and lots of them, but quantity over quality.

So it’s mostly director Cheek’s fault. Sure, Parnell Hall’s script has terrible dialogue, silly characters, contradictory exposition, and an absence of suspense but it still contains those elements. Better direction could’ve at least fixed the lack of suspense and made the silly characters amusing. But Cheek really doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing at all. He sabotages his actors, usually with these terrible two shots, which doesn’t help de facto lead Christopher Curry (as a police captain whose wife has gone missing in the rash of recent disappearances). Curry’s… not great and seems out of his depth in a lead role, but at least he’s not hamming it up like Daniel Stern or sleepwalking like John Heard.

Heard’s a fashion photographer who wants to do important work, like photographing people experiencing homelessness but not for journalism’s sake, rather… his own self-aggrandizement? It’s confused and an example of the contradictory exposition. Though it seems like Heard’s decisions are mostly for girlfriend (or wife, it’s unclear) Kim Greist, who’s a callous fashion model and wants him to be famous for the serious photography while still doing all her photo shoots too. The film opens with Heard (who’s top-billed). He’s there to establish the people living underground in the old tunnels—so, C.H.U.D.’s extravagant underground tunnels and giant spaces don’t seem to have anything to do with the sewer or the subway. The film doesn’t acknowledge there are working tunnels under the city. It’s very weird. And inevitable. I spent at least ten minutes waiting for the big underground reveal scene as Curry and Stern—more on them in a moment—either find the legion of scientists doing secret work or at least a good shot of the subterranean mutants’ lair. But no. Same sets as before.

Heard doesn’t do much in the second act; he comes back for the third, but second is Stern and Curry. Less Heard (and Greist, who gives an exceptionally flat performance) isn’t a bad thing. Though Stern and Curry aren’t a good thing.

So Stern is a street preacher who runs a soup kitchen. He and Curry have history; Curry busted him for something five years before, which he drops as exposition. Curry’s too busy memorizing old cases to react to his wife being missing and presumed… eaten. Pretty soon Stern is able to convince Curry there’s something going on and so then they try to fight city hall only for city hall (a regretful looking Eddie Jones, who seems to understand the state of the production better than any other cast member) to tell him absurdly corrupt government official George Martin is in charge. Martin becomes the film’s heavy, which is… not why you want to watch a movie about underground mutants attacking the surface world.

The underground mutants don’t actually look bad either. They’re budget constrained but they might be effective if Cheek could direct. Some of it is definitely Stein’s photography. It’s like he’s trying to showcase the rubber in the costume instead of obscure it.

Lots of familiar faces in the supporting cast—including John Goodman at one point—but most of them are bad. Sam McMurray’s a beat cop who doesn’t care about the people dying, especially if they’re living on the street (or under it). He’s bad. Graham Beckel’s in it for a scene or two. He’s not good, but he’s not bad. Cordis Heard (sister of John) is really bad in a small part as one of Curry’s cops, but it’s obviously Cheek’s direction. C.H.U.D. would be instructional if only any of Cheek’s directorial decisions made sense because then future generations would know what not to do except they’re so weird and obviously not working, they seem hard to classify.

Ruth Maleczech and Bill Raymond are a pair of older siblings living underground who Heard knows; they’re both way too good for the movie, like they thought they were guest-starring on a good TV show or something. J.C. Quinn plays a freelance reporter trying to crack the story, which mostly consists of bad expository scenes with John Heard. He’s not good. But seems like he should be. Then isn’t.

Outside how Timmermann conned a set of solid, working actors into appearing in what should be a low budget exploitation film but isn’t, there’s nothing to C.H.U.D.. A C.H.U.D. is a dud pun doesn’t even work because there’s nothing to suggest it ever could work.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Cheek; screenplay by Parnell Hall, based on a story by Shepard Abbott; director of photography, Peter Stein; edited by Claire Simpson; music by David A. Hughes; production designer, William Bilowit; costume designer, Jennifer Lax; produced by Andrew Bonime; released by New World Pictures.

Starring John Heard (George Cooper), Daniel Stern (A.J. Shepherd), Christopher Curry (Captain Bosch), Kim Greist (Lauren Daniels), George Martin (Wilson), J.C. Quinn (Murphy), Ruth Maleczech (Mrs. Monroe), Bill Raymond (Victor), Graham Beckel (Val), Cordis Heard (Officer Sanderson), Sam McMurray (Officer Crespi), and Eddie Jones (Chief O’Brien).


Zombie (1979, Lucio Fulci)

They filmed a lot of Zombie on location—New York City, the Dominican Republic, the ocean floor. For over half the movie, the location filming is the most important thing—if we’re going by what director Fulci showcases the most. Not even the gore gets a bigger showcase until the third act, though there are some rather gruesome exceptions. But the static (or just panning) long shots of palm trees once the action gets to the Caribbean island where Richard Johnson is playing Dr. Moreau only with zombies are the rule. It’s very pretty, even if it’s desolate as something has happened—an unseen voodoo witch doctor has decided the dead must rise so everyone’s a flesh-eating zombie. The film can’t decide on what happened. Johnson says things went bad three months ago, non-acting action hero and world traveller Al Cliver says the island’s been cursed at least a year. It’s also unclear how long Johnson’s been on the island. And why. Despite the almost endless exposition in Zombie, usually from actors poorly delivering it, the exposition just doesn’t matter. Because Zombie is going to be all about the gross stuff Fulci and his crew get his fake shemps to endure.

For instance, I don’t think there are any shemps covered in maggots—their faces, the zombie makeup is entirely on their faces—but lots of them have live worms wriggling around the makeup. I think one zombie has a mouthful of live worms, no doubt worms not protected by the American Humane Association. The zombie makeup itself isn’t great. There are a lot of attempts at showing bone in the makeup, incorporating masks, which just makes the zombie look bulky like their skulls are retaining water or something. So the live worms and such do a good job distracting from such deficiencies. Zombie has a lot of gore in the second half, a little in the third, with Fulci saving the grossest zombies for the finale. They’re coming out of their graves too at one point, so he’s able to get a lot of mileage out of his long (timing wise) practical effects shots. Sergio Salvati’s photography and especially Giorgio Cascio and Fabio Frizzi’s music help for those shots too. They’re really good tests of one’s stomach; the last big gross-out scene the gore is so extreme it’s actually unbelievable at least one of the characters doesn’t puke. Though then we’d have to see one of the leads trying to essay puking, which they probably couldn’t do.

See, Zombie’s an Italian production shot without a synchronous audio track, which is called motor only sync (MOS). I didn’t know the jargon until today, even though pretty much every Italian production from the twentieth century seems to use this method. Thanks Wikipedia. But what the lack of synchronous sound means is the actors, who might be speaking different languages, never get any actual rapport. Fulci tries to compensate with reaction shots. It doesn’t work.

The worst case is when ostensible lead Ian McCulloch is watching Auretta Gay undress for scuba diving. She does it topless and in a string bikini bottom. McCulloch just stares, occasionally making sure top-billed Tisa Farrow’s still watching him watching. You’re worried the male gaze compounding on itself is going to cause a cosmic singularity before the sequence ends. Though McCulloch’s exceptionally unconvincing comb-over is enough to cause a singularity on its own. Farrow doesn’t mind the comb-over by the way, in fact she’s very hot to trot for McCulloch. At one point during the long opening of the third act, “escape the zombies on foot” sequence, Farrow even gives McCulloch the “I don’t want to die without sex” speech, so they get it on in a graveyard. Too bad the now zombified corpses are waking up below.

But not really because even though Farrow’s not good, she’s not a shit heel like McCulloch. It’s hard to be a such a big shit heel when you’re dubbed but McCulloch abides.

The best performances appear to be Johnson and his assistants—Stefania D'Amario and Dakar—worst are Johnson’s wife, Olga Karlatos, Gay, Cliver, McCulloch. Farrow gets a pass from that list because she’s so irrelevant once they get to the island. She mustn’t have been willing to take her clothes off. Karlatos, who the film manages to portray negatively for not wanting to be on the zombie island of undying death, also gets a gratuitous nude scene. Unlike Gay, however, it’s not prelude to something awesome. Gay’s scuba diving sequence leads into the zombie versus shark scene, Zombie’s claim to fame. It’s an impressive underwater stunt sequence. But much like the rest of the film’s impressive moments, it’s nowhere near enough to justify it. With a better budget, Fulci and his crew probably could’ve done something revolting and realistic, instead of revolting and effective. Zombie’s set pieces are gross instead of scary, but its default—with Fulci’s often good composition, Salvati’s photography, Vincenzo Tomassi’s editing, and that score from Cascio and Frizzi—is disquieting. Maybe it’d help if the third act of the script didn’t sink it.

It also doesn’t help the best sequence—an empty sailboat showing in New York Harbor, Dracula-style—is the first one in the picture.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lucio Fulci; written by Elisa Briganti; director of photography, Sergio Salvati; edited by Vincenzo Tomassi; music by Giorgio Cascio and Fabio Frizzi; production and costume designer, Walter Patriarca; produced by Fabrizio De Angelis and Ugo Tucci; released by Variety Films.

Starring Tisa Farrow (Anne Bowles), Ian McCulloch (Peter West), Richard Johnson (Dr. Menard), Olga Karlatos (Mrs. Menard), Al Cliver (Brian Hull), Auretta Gay (Susan Barrett), Stefania D’Amario (Nurse Clara), Ugo Bologna (Dr. Bowles), and Dakar (Lucas).


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

On one hand, with the Wojciech Kilar score, Bram Stoker’s Dracula can get away with just about anything. On the other, with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves playing leads… well, it needs something to help it get away with anything.

It helps neither Ryder or Reeves are the actual star of the film. Neither is top-billed Gary Oldman (as the Count). The star is director Coppola and his crew—cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, costume designer Eiko Ishioka (for better and worse), editors Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith. And Kilar, of course. And whoever did all the amazing practical special effects; Bram Stoker’s is a very audiovisual experience. As the story itself belies reality, why should the film itself be any different an experience. Lots of inventive transitions, lots of creative composite shots to show Oldman’s faraway yet so close impact on the world of his victims. Shame James V. Hart’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near as experimental or imaginative. The script’s big deviation from the novel—in addition to Anthony Hopkins’s Van Helsing being crude—is Ryder falling in love with Oldman because she’s his reincarnated fifteenth century wife, who killed herself thinking he’d died in battle, which caused him to renounce God and become… a vampire.

The most interesting thing about Bram Stoker’s is how any of it would make sense. Like, Oldman’s castle is full of paintings done after Ryder’s death—Ryder the queen, not the young British woman with the questionable accent. Did he pay the painters or eat them? Because even though the film “humanizes” Oldman a little, it never makes him particularly reasonable as a character. Why, for instance, does he regrow a mustache when he de-ages himself and then shed it when he gets old again. Also, why does he get old again so often. Why did he get old in the first place? Wasn’t he eating enough villager? Seems like he was eating plenty of them.

Anyway.

None of those details matter because Bram Stoker’s looks great and has that Kilar score. Ryder can be bombing a questionably written scene—though, to be fair, it’s not like there are any strong performances in the film. Oldman’s got a few strong moments, a lot of okay ones, and some piddly ones too. But Kilar’s score can save the heck out of a scene. Given the lack of chemistry from Oldman towards Ryder and the lack of chemistry, accent, and acting from Ryder towards… everyone (save, maybe, best friend Sadie Frost), the melodramatic nineteenth century romance but kind of saucy scenes where Oldman has to remind himself to keep the fangs in are all mesmerizing thanks to how the music compliments the image. Bram Stoker’s is masterfully made. It’s far from a cinematic masterpiece, but Coppola does provide a solid facsimile of one. As long as you ignore the acting and the writing.

Whether Ryder would be better if the character were better—she falls in love with Oldman while fiancé Reeves is being held captive in faraway Oldman’s castle (it’s kind of hilarious how easily Reeves slips her mind—the film utilizes the novel’s epistolary format, turning the diary entries into narration from cast so we know she’s not thinking about Reeves); the falling in love while the dude’s away is literally her only thing. Ryder’s not even worried about Frost, who Oldman’s attacking every night because she’s slutty and Ryder’s virginal. Or something. It’s unclear why Oldman targets Frost in the first place, though maybe there was a scene explaining it… along with his London base being right next door to Richard E. Grant’s sanitarium, which is important but not really thanks to Hart’s script. It’s like Coppola came up with all the visual machinations to distract from Hart not having the best narrative.

Of course, it’d be disingenuous to the source material if Bram Stoker’s had a solid narrative.

And at least Ryder and Reeves are failing with questionable (at best) accents. Actual Brits Grant, Frost, and Cary Elwes all have extremely bad moments where you wish they’d just be screwing up accents. Grant can’t seem to take the thing seriously, Frost is out of her depth, and Elwes always seems like he’s just coming into the film for the first time, scene after scene. He makes no impression. Neither does Billy Campbell (as a very Texan Texan). In an extremely odd case of stunt-casting, Tom Waits disappoints as Oldman’s first solicitor, who’s gone mad and been committed and now eats bugs. Waits’s eccentric take seems more appropriate for a TV commercial than drama.

As for Hopkins… he could be worse. He’s not good, he doesn’t take the part seriously (how could he), but he could be worse.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gorgeous exercise in technical filmmaking. And not much else.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and Charles Mulvehill; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Oldman (Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina), Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Harker), Richard E. Grant (Seward), Cary Elwes (Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy), and Tom Waits (Renfield).


Ghost Ship (2002, Steve Beck)

I am going to set a goal for myself with this post about Ghost Ship; I’m going to try to make it entertaining, which is going to be a challenge because there’s nothing entertaining about Ghost Ship. It’s badly directed and badly written. The actors are bad. They’re good actors and okay actors and mediocre actors but none of them are good, okay, or mediocre in the movie. They’re all varying degrees of bad. Some are embarrassed (Gabriel Byrne), some should be embarrassed and aren’t (Desmond Harrington), some aren’t embarrassed but also aren’t any better for it (Ron Eldard and Karl Urban), some are completely flat (Julianna Margulies), and some literally have to embarrass themselves as part of the movie, in character (Isaiah Washington and Alex Dimitriades, though Dimitriades is bad and Washington is… not always bad).

Now, at the time Ghost Ship came out before many of the cast had their greatest career successes. 2002… Byrne had peaked and maybe Eldard had too, but everyone else (not Dimitriades) had some high profile TV and film work in their near futures. Margulies had “Good Wife,” Urban had Star Trek, Washington had “Grey’s Anatomy,” Harrington had… getting another job after being so godawful in this movie. And “Dexter” and whatever. You know Ghost Ship is going to be bad in some strange way because no one’s ever talking about it, despite it having eventually successful stars. No one talks about it because it’s unspectacularly crappy. The opening’s almost good, but then quickly goes to pot because after implying the movie’s going to have a sense of humor it turns out it won’t. But real quick. Like, before we get to the present day from the Italian ocean liner in the opening sequence.

Present day is the above-mentioned cast members. Besides some ghosts, they’re it for the cast. Ghost Ship tries to be economical but it’s bad at it. Because it’s not just bad dialogue in the film, it’s the structure of the conversations. The writers don’t have an ear for dialogue in general, much less what the actors bring to it. Though the latter is more director Beck’s fault, but it’s hard to blame him because he’s so obviously incompetent it’s not his fault. No one should’ve let him drive this… car; it was irresponsible of producers Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, and Gilbert Adler and the studio to allow this movie to happen with Beck. Whatever happened, they had it coming.

Because nothing in Ghost Ship works even though nothing’s exceptionally incompetent. Not even the CGI is incompetent. It’s not good, but it’d be a lot better if the shot composition didn’t suck. There’s no aspect of direction Beck’s good at or passing at or not offensive at; he does a real bad job. The whole movie I was waiting for one decent close-up shot of a character, any character, anyone—Beck can’t do it. He just can’t figure it out; he’s not responsible for his actions. His numerous failings as a director are often unrelated to the movie’s problems at any given time. Beck’s incompetencies don’t interact with the script’s incompetencies. There are these two tracks of bad without crossover. Ghost Ship’s greatest success is in showing how various types of badness—writing, directing, casting—don’t necessarily need to interact with one another outside coexisting.

Some of Ghost Ship is see-it-to-believe-it mundane bad. The soundtrack is quite bad, though John Frizzell’s score is one of the least unsuccessful things in the film. The songs they play are bad and poorly cut into the film. Crew-wise Gale Tattersall is a perfectly competent cinematographer, but Roger Barton’s editing is pretty janky stuff. Ghost Ship ought to move better, visually. Beck’s the big problem, Barton’s one of the smaller ones.

The end seems like it was meant to be a little more pompous in its grandiosity—grandiosity with not good CGI—but no matter how the effect would play, it’d still be on the end of Beck’s visually disinteresting movie. Would Beck being good at integrating visual effects improve the movie? No. Nothing would.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Beck; screenplay by Mark Hanlon and John Pogue, based on a story by Hanlon; director of photography, Gale Tattersall; edited by Roger Barton; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker; produced by Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gabriel Byrne (Murphy), Julianna Margulies (Epps), Ron Eldard (Dodge), Desmond Harrington (Ferriman), Isaiah Washington (Greer), Alex Dimitriades (Santos), Karl Urban (Munder), and Emily Browning (Katie Harwood).


Blade II (2002, Guillermo del Toro)

There’s a legitimately great sword fight scene in Blade II, after some really solid ones—the film’s CG assists never help it but director del Toro does understand how a fight sequence is like a dance sequence (particularly in the great sword fight) and star Wesley Snipes is always ready to show off his fight choreography abilities. The sword fight is so good you spend almost the entire rest of the film waiting for del Toro to execute something superior. Why open with such a stunning sequence if you don’t have something even better later on.

But with Blade II, there is no better later on, not for swords, fists, or anything else. None of the fight scenes following the sword fight get anywhere near the ones in the first act, which were Matrix-ripoffs but still well-executed Matrix-ripoffs. There’s a “this would be confusing if it mattered” sequence where Snipes and his newfound team of vampire super-vampire hunters each fight the super-vampires and the focus moves from character to character. The super-vampires all look like Nosferatu as homaged in Salem’s Lot, only their faces open up like a Predator and they shoot out tentacles and an inner mouthes of Aliens. It’s not a bad design but it’s nowhere near as terrifying as it would be if the CG weren’t middling. A lot of Blade II fails thanks to its bad CG, particularly in the third act, which isn’t good. It’s like del Toro knows the right shot, the technology just isn’t there to execute it.

Of course, Blade II having piddly CG is the least of its problems. It’s got a lousy script (courtesy David S. Goyer) and some really, really bad acting. And costumes. The costumes are terrible. At some point the vampire super-vampire hunters put on this glossy black body armor and look like the stormtroopers from Masters of the Universe: The Movie. It’s also not clear how the body armor helps them? Or would help them against the super-vampires or Snipes—see, Snipes has to take over this team of elite vampire commandos who trained to take him out but now have to deal with the more dangerous super-vampires. About the only way to make the shiny body armor sense would be if Snipes had them wear it to embarrass them.

But the shiny body armor is nothing compare to main villain Luke Goss’s ratty clothes. He’s got this intricately choreographed fight scenes but thanks to the costume he looks lumbering and artificially sped up. Blade II has a bunch of slowdown and speedup editing techniques. They’re all terrible. Not sure if they’re editor Peter Amundson’s fault or del Toro’s.

The film is a particularly frustrating tug of war between attentions—it’s a Snipes star vehicle, only Goyer’s script gives way too much to the supporting cast (almost to snipe Snipes), and then del Toro’s just trying to show off what he can do. At least del Toro doesn’t actively work against Snipes, who easily gives the film’s best performance but only because he’s not terrible like almost everyone else. Goss ends up giving the second best performance by default; he’s at least trying. If the rest of the cast is trying and Blade II is the best they give… shivers.

The worst performance is probably Norman Reedus as Snipes’s new sidekick. The film opens with Snipes rescuing his old sidekick, Kris Kristofferson, who’s also bad, but not as bad as Reedus. Kristofferson’s still really bad, but at least he’s committed to the performance. He was nowhere near as physical in the first movie as in this one, crawling all around as Snipes and Reedus worry the vampires secretly turned him before Snipes could rescue him. Is Leonor Varela worse than Kristofferson? Maybe. She’s really bad. But she and Kristofferson are better than Thomas Kretschmann, as the head vampire (and Varela’s father; the film never explains if its vampire father or father father). The more Kretschmann gets to do, the worse Kretschmann’s performance. Blade II doesn’t even get a good performance out of Ron Perlman, partially because—even though Goyer’s script doesn’t want to give Snipes too much to do, it also features him frequently pwning his uneasy vampire allies at every turn.

The rest of the supporting cast is low middling, with Danny John-Jules’s being the most acceptable. Matt Schulze is nowhere near as bad as I was expecting; possibly because Perlman not being good draws attention away from him.

Gabriel Beristain’s photography runs mostly cold. Despite that awesome sword fight scene, which is shot entirely in blue light except for the spotlights—it’s so gorgeous it’s hard to say the film’s not worth seeing just for it; maybe the sequence is on YouTube—but other than that scene, Beristain and del Toro shoot the nighttime exteriors through a sort of piss yellow filter. There’s some okay lighting throughout, but mostly piss yellow. Not sure if it’s a budgetary choice or a stylistic one but the result is… pissy. The action choreography deserves better.

The second best thing—after the good or better fight scenes—is Marco Beltrami’s score. Sure, it’s derivative of other famous film scores, but it comes together fairly well. Except when the action is cutting between all the “good guys” fighting the Max Schrecks… there’s no flow between the action focuses in the score. Benefit of the doubt is Beltrami scored each character’s sequence separately and then Amundson screwed it up in the cutting but it’s just as probable Beltrami couldn’t figure out how to go between sequences. Like, it’s a surprisingly good score for Beltrami. The heavier lifting might’ve escaped him. Fixing a poorly conceived action sequence is a lot for a score to do.

Anyway. Blade II. It’s a disappointment. It’s a testament to Del Tori the film’s a disappointment, given the crappy script and the bad acting and the goofy visual effects. As for poor Snipes, who has to fight for relevancy in his own vehicle… he gets a pass. He’s able to sell the potential for the franchise, even if the film doesn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Peter Amundson; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Carol Spier; produced by Tomas Krejci, Patrick J. Palmer, Peter Frankfurt, and Wesley Snipes; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), Kris Kristofferson (Whistler), Leonor Varela (Nyssa), Luke Goss (Nomak), Norman Reedus (Scud), Thomas Kretschmann (Damaskinos), Danny John-Jules (Asad), Matt Schulze (Chupa), Donnie Yen (Snowman), Karel Roden (Kounen), and Ron Perlman (Reinhardt).


Tower of London (1962, Roger Corman)

Tower of London almost makes it. The film gets through the low budget, which has a static picture of a model Tower of London instead of a picture of the real Tower for establishing shots, obvious backdrops, not great makeup to age or deform its cast, and the occasional reused footage. Director Corman keeps the pace up—the film doesn’t even run eighty minutes and covers two years and at least a half dozen murders. Well, more assassinations than murders. The film’s about Richard III (Vincent Price, who’ll either get a half sentence or a paragraph later, both are suitable) and his mad quest for power. He kills off kin, children, women, and the elderly, most of whom come back to haunt him as ghosts. See, Tower of London isn’t just Vincent Price and Roger Corman doing a historical horror picture together, they’re doing Shakespeare. More specifically, Price is doing Shakespeare, while Corman refuses to give Price that stage. Though probably for budgetary reasons, not to spare the audience.

The film’s best sequence is when handsome, fit, good guy Robert Brown is trying to get the Queen and her two sons to safety. Richard III, historically, in the play, and in this film, wants to kill off his little nephews so he can assume the throne. Brown isn’t going to let that happen. He’s handsome, fit, and good, after all. Unlike Price’s Richard, who’s got a varying-sized hunched back (it doesn’t jump left to right and then back, unfortunately) and an ostensibly withered arm. We never see the arm (Price always has on a glove) but it seems perfectly strong enough to wield a sword. But Price is a warrior, something Brown is not. Though Price being a warrior doesn’t matter because he goes crazy.

But the escape sequence. There are a few times in Tower of London when everything comes together and the escape sequence is the best example of it. Corman’s pacing, the sturdy professional performances from Brown, Sarah Selby, Joan Freeman, and Richard Hale (they all seem to be able to pretend they’re doing Shakespeare, not Tower of London), Archie R. Dalzell’s excellent black and white photography (it’s not moody but it’s outstanding), and, I don’t know, the added value of children in danger. The escape sequence is really good. You wish the movie could somehow end with it, even before you find out how the movie’s actually going to end.

Because Tower’s greatest strength is everyone but Price. Price gives a hammy, drooly performance, limping and wrenching his back to and fro, full of energy. His monologues are enthusiastically whiny. His character is a combination of a jackass and an idiot. The only people stupider in Tower of London than Price are the entire rest of the cast because he’s always killing people and never getting even suspected of it. When the rest of the cast finally gets to just act like they know Price is killing people left and right, Tower enters into its best phase—the escape sequence is in this portion. But getting to watch the actors opposite Price when he’s cavorting? Their professionalism, if not better (Joan Camden is actually good as Price’s wife, who Lady Macbeths him, and Michael Pate is kind of awesome as Price’s chief stooge), makes Tower interesting to watch.

Unfortunately the finale—and blame Shakespeare—gets rid of the supporting players and is instead just Price hamming it up in an absurd suit of armor—the costuming is probably inaccurate but is at least not absurd for most of the film, but Price’s king outfits are hilarious. There’s one where he wears the crown over his silly hat and then his armor has a visibly cheap crown incorporated into the helmet, which also has a big floofy feather. He should win the battle when everyone else starts laughing and he can take them out. He also doesn’t have much of a hunch in the armor, which is annoying since Price’s looked goofy the whole movie because he’s wearing such a big hunch, who knows how he might’ve played without it to leverage. Price somehow isn’t overtly theatrical, but borrows devices from such a performance and applies them badly to whatever he’s doing.

But, yeah, the end. No one else around to react to Price, just him blathering… Tower falls just when it needs to stay strong. It’s too bad, though probably inevitable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Roger Corman; screenplay by Leo Gordon, F. Amos Powell, and Robert E. Kent, based on a story by Gordon and Powell and plays by William Shakespeare; director of photography, Archie R. Dalzell; edited by Ronald Sinclair; music by Michael Andersen; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Vincent Price (Richard of Gloucester), Michael Pate (Sir Ratcliffe), Joan Freeman (Lady Margaret), Robert Brown (Sir Justin), Bruce Gordon (Earl of Buckingham), Joan Camden (Anne), Richard Hale (Tyrus), Sandra Knight (Mistress Shore), Charles Macaulay (George, Duke of Clarence), Justice Watson (Edward IV), Sarah Selby (Queen Elizabeth).


Land of the Dead (2005, George A. Romero), the director’s cut

While Land of the Dead is almost always an unfortunate misfire, it’s also never an unmitigated disaster. It’s full of missed opportunities, but they’re usually missed because director Romero just can’t crack the scene. And when he doesn’t crack a set piece, he often goes in the entirely different direction; maybe it’s about the budget, which is way too small, maybe it’s not. But it seems like the budget. After the successful opening set piece, there’s no reason to think Romero isn’t going to be able to execute at least the same quality again. And he’s never able to do it, but he also never really tries to do it. Romero front loads the movie; it deflates just when it should be doing the opposite. The characters gradually lose personality and importance. Because it’s time for the adequate but bland zombie action.

The film takes place in the future… the zombies have won, people all grouped in the big cities, the rich people live well, the poor people do not. Romero is shooting Toronto for Pittsburgh with a cinematographer (Miroslaw Baszak) who lights it to look as Canadian as possible. Land lacks any visual personality; the mix of Romero’s composition, Baszak’s flat lighting, Michael Doherty’s fine but bland editing, and Arvinder Grewal’s production design looks less like a post (zombie) apocalyptic vision and more like a pitch reel for one. Same goes for the actors, save Dennis Hopper, who’s just plain terrible. Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy; at best their performances feel like stand-ins for better ones once the project gets the green light. At worst, it’s a charmless lead like Simon Baker, who is more than capable of being charming, Romero just doesn’t seem to realize it. Not in his direction or his script, which gives his actors really bad life stories purely for expository purposes. There’s not just no character development in Land, Romero doesn’t take the time to even establish the characters.

And it’d be fine if the film could have retained the first set piece energy. So Baker, Leguizamo, and Joy all work for Hopper. They leave the city to raid neighboring towns for supplies. Apparently there’s an almost endless amount of neighboring towns to raid; all you have to do is shoot fireworks and the zombies all look up and everything’s jim-dandy—the zombies don’t attack, they watch fireworks. It also allows Romero to set a lot of action at night, which was apparently less expensive and does nothing to help with that lack of personality thing. Only Baker and Joy discover there’s one zombie—Eugene Clark, in the film’s best performance—who doesn’t look up at the fireworks.

The movie ends up being about Clark leading a bunch of zombies to attack the city, where the rich people live in a ritzy skyscraper and Romero only has the money to establish it through a promotional video playing on a TV–Land of the Dead has both too little budget and too much. The tricks and devices Romero uses to cover for not having more money lack inventiveness; there’s a ton of bad CGI composites. Like, a static matte painting would’ve been much better bad. But you do bad CGI composites because they’re cheap. And it shows. And it hurts the movie.

Anyway, while Clark’s leading the slow-moving attack—see, he’s learned how to use objects and can teach other zombies how to use objects so it’s going to be a different kind of zombie attack (only, not really as it turns out but the attack’s immaterial)—Leguizamo has gone rogue and Baker has to track him down, bringing pals Joy and Argento.

Of the three, Argento’s probably best. She’s not good overall—the writing doesn’t allow for it—but she’s got some rather strong moments. She takes the job more seriously than anyone else. Though who knows what’s going through Hopper’s head as he woodenly delivers lines; who knows, maybe Romero did cast him to be a personality-free rich jackass with a goatee. Hopper’s reaction shots to zombies eating flesh look like someone told him to stand still for his picture to be taken. Romero would’ve done better to give Leguizamo that part. To do something to mix it up.

But there’s no mixing it up. Because outside a couple Romero-Dead nods and sufficiently revolting zombie feasting (though Baszak’s lighting makes it look… not fake, but not real), Land of the Dead has less of a pulse than its zombies.

It’s a shame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, and Peter Grunwald; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Alan Van Sprang (Brubaker), Phil Fondacaro (Chihuahua), Sasha Roiz (Manolete), Krista Bridges (Motown), Pedro Miguel Arce (Pillsbury), and Eugene Clark (Big Daddy).


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