Horror on TV: The Twilight Zone 3.14 “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit”


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Tonight’s episode of The Twilight Zone is another one of those existential stories of dread that I love so much. An army officer wakes up to find himself trapped in a cylindrical room. He has no idea how he got in there. He can’t even remember his name. All he knows is that 1) there doesn’t appear to any way out and 2) he’s trapped with four others; a hobo, a clown, a bagpiper, and a ballet dancer.


The officer wants to escape but, as his fellow prisoners explain to him, existence is pain.


This episode originally aired on December 22nd, 1961.


The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Smiley (dir by Michael Gallagher)


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Oh God, this movie.

Whenever I watch 2012’s Smiley (and, since this is one of those films that always seems to be playing whenever I have insomnia, I actually have seen Smiley more times than I should probably admit), I always find myself hoping that it will actually be a better film than I remember it being.

Some of that, I have to admit, is because I once dated a frat boy whose nickname was Smiley.  His high school football coach gave him that name because he was always smiling!  (Yes, I once dated a football player who smiled a lot and didn’t really care much about literature, art, movies, history, or anything else that I was actually interested in. Don’t ask me to explain how these things happen.)  His pickup truck even had a personalized licence plate that read, “SMILY.”  That’s right — he wasn’t really sure how to spell Smiley.  Whenever I see the title Smiley listed in the guide, I think of him and I have to kind of laugh.

Beyond that, Smiley was an independent, low-budget film and I have to admit that my natural inclination is always to support independent filmmakers.  If Smiley was a huge studio production, I’d have absolutely no qualms about ripping it apart.  But when I see an indie horror film like Smiley, there’s a part of me that almost feels that I have to be supportive.  But the things is, it’s one thing to be supportive and it’s another thing to be delusional.  I may want Smiley to be a good horror film but it’s not and I’m really not doing anyone any good if I pretend otherwise.

Finally, I always want Smiley to be better than it actually is because the film features one of the creepiest killers that I’ve ever seen.  Even if the character is cheapened by a rather stupid twist, Smiley is scary looking.  Smiley is presented as being the spirit of a man who, after stitching his own eyes closed, carved a permanent smile on his face.  As a force of evil, Smiley is genuinely frightening and it’s unfortunate that the rest of the film doesn’t live up to the character’s potential.

As for the rest of the film … well, it’s pretty much your typical slasher.  All of the characters are loathsome, the murders are neither suspenseful nor gory enough to really be memorable, and this is one of those films that relies far too much on scenes of people running into someone, screaming in terror, and then discovering that it was just one of their friends.  It is true that there is a twist towards the end of the film that’s designed to make you question everything that you’ve just see but since the twist doesn’t make much sense and comes out of nowhere, it’s hard to get excited about it.  The best thing the film had going for it was the character of Smiley and the twist pretty much ruins that.

(The film’s other big twist is that the cast is full of YouTube personalities, which makes Smiley the spiritual descendant of The Scorned, a similarly bad slasher film that was full of reality TV stars.)

By the way, the idea behind Smiley is that you can go on Chatroulette and, if you type “I did it for the lulz” three times, Smiley will appear and kill whoever your chatting with.  Just for the record, I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work.*

——

* Well, to be honest, I got a friend of mine to try it and it didn’t work.  I’ve got better things to do then watch some guy jerking off on Chatroulette.

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (Universal 1931)


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DRACULA is the film that ushered in The Golden Age of Horror. Sure, there were silent films with elements of the macabre, especially those starring Lon Chaney Sr, and the German expressionist films of Ufa Studios. But this tale of a bloodthirsty vampire on the loose in London struck a collective nerve among filmgoers for two reasons. First was it talked…sound films were barely out of their diapers, and the chilling voice of star Bela Lugosi mesmerized the masses. Second, the country was in the midst of The Great  Depression, and audiences were hungry for escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. DRACULA took them to another world, a world populated by undead creatures of the night, fiends who were ultimately stopped by the forces of good.

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No need to rehash the plot of DRACULA…if you don’t know the story by now, you’re reading the wrong blog! Instead, I’ll take a…

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Horror Film Review: The Final Girls (dir by Todd Strauss-Schulson)


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Would you believe that there’s a film that not only brilliantly satirizes and pays homage to the old slasher films of 80s but which also possesses the type of emotional depth that can bring very real tears to your eyes as you watch?

Well, there is and the name of that film is The Final Girls.

In the 1980s, a struggling actress named Amanda Cartwright (played by the always-wonderful Malin Akerman) found a certain amount of cult fame by appearing as a doomed camp counselor named Nancy in the slasher film, Camp Bloodbath.  However, as often happens, playing an iconic role in a horror film has turned out to be as much of a curse as a blessing.  As The Final Girls opens, Amanda has just finished yet another audition.  As she drives home, she tells her teenage daughter, Max (Taissa Farmiga) that she will never escape being typecast as Nancy.  Suddenly. they are blindsided by another car.  Max is the only survivor.

Three years later, Max reluctantly agrees to attend a showing of Camp Bloodbath and Camp Bloodbath II: Cruel Summer.  It’s not something that she wants to do but she’s talked into it by Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), the geeky stepbrother of her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat).  Also attending the showing is Chris (Alexander Ludwig), who Max has a crush on, and Chris’s ex-girlfriend and self-described “mean girl,” Vicki (Nina Dobrev).

Some of the best scenes in The Final Girls occur while Max watches Camp Bloodbath.  Not only is Camp Bloodbath a perfectly pitched homage/satire of old school slasher films (like Friday the 13th, to cite an obvious example) but Farmiga perfectly plays Max’s reaction to seeing her mother on screen.  Max watches Camp Bloodbath with a heartfelt mix of sadness, pride, and eventual horror.  (One of the film’s best moments is the way that Max slowly sinks down in her chair while watching her mother make out with another actor on the big screen.  It’s a very human moment, one that is both poignant and funny at the same time.)

However, during the showing, a fire breaks out.  In their efforts to escape the theater, Max and her friends find themselves literally sucked into the movie.  That’s right — they are now inside the world of Camp Bloodbath.  And though they can interact with the film’s characters (and, for that matter, with the film’s killer, Billy), they find it’s much more difficult to keep those characters from playing out their pre-ordained roles.  Even after explaining to the camp counselors that doing anything the least bit sexual will cause Billy to come out of the woods and kill everyone, the counselors still find themselves incapable of changing their stereotypical slasher film behavior.  It’s not really their fault, of course.  As Duncan mentions, they’re just “badly written.”

While the rest of her friends simply want to survive the movie and somehow get back home, Max wants to spend time with her mom.  (Except, of course, Nancy isn’t really her mom.  Instead, Nancy is a character that her mom played in a movie that made before Max was even born.)  And you know what?  The scenes between Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman brought very real tears to my eyes.  The scenes between Max and Nancy (and Max and Amanda) are so heartfelt and so full of sincere emotion that they elevate the entire film.

Without the relationship between Max and Amanda, The Final Girls would be a very clever homage to the old slasher movies.  But what that relationship, The Final Girls becomes one of the best films of the year.

On November 3rd, The Final Girls will be released on DVD and Blu-ray.  Be sure to keep an eye out for it.

P.S. When I grow up, I want to be Malin Akerman.

Quickie Horror Comic Recommendation : “The Steam Man” #1


Trash Film Guru

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Okay, so tomorrow’s the big day, and despite being massively “under the gun” time-wise, I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about The Steam Man #1 from Dark Horse Comics just in case there are a few (or, heck, even one) of you out there looking for a good new horror comic to pick up at your LCS in honor of Halloween.

Although, in all honesty, it may not be fair to label this as purely a horror series since there are so many sci-fi influences added into the mix, particularly and most obviously of the “steampunk” variety. After all, the premise here is that an intrepid crew of five are “piloting” a gigantic steam-powered robot through the (unpaved) highways and byways of the Old West looking for trouble, so it’s more than fair to say that what we’ve got on our hands here is something of a…

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The Things You Find On Netflix: Beasts of No Nation (dir by Cary Fukunaga)


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Like many of the films that we’ve looked at this October, Beasts of No Nation is a horror movie.  However, the horror to be found in Beasts of No Nation is not due to a ghost or a vampire or a zombie or a serial killer wearing a mask.  Instead, Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing look at a real-life horror that is currently happening even as you read this review.

Abraham Attah plays Agu, a 12 year-old boy living in a small village in an unnamed African country.  In many ways, Agu is a normal child.  He likes to hang out with his friends.  He looks up to his older brother and his father.  He loves his mother.  He goes to school, he goes to church, and he prays regularly.  Though his village may be poor, he and his friends still find ways to keep each other entertained.

However, Agu is living his life in the middle of a war zone.  Though the details are intentionally left obscure, his country is in the middle of a civil war.  Throughout the film, we continually hear people talking about the different warring factions but we never learn the specifics of what those factions believe or why they’re all fighting each other in the first place.  And, of course, it really doesn’t matter.  The only thing that’s important is that they are fighting and Agu is about to sacrifice his childhood to their war.

When his village is attacked by government forces and his brother and father are killed in front of him, Agu runs into the jungle.  It’s there that he’s eventually captured by one of the many different rebel factions.  This faction is led by the Commandant (Idris Elba), a charismatic and messianic figure who recruits Agu to serve as one of his child soldiers.

(I’m assuming that the Commandant was, at least in part, based on Joseph Kony of Kony 2012 fame.)

At first, the Commandant presents himself as being a father figure to Agu and Agu looks up to him. The Commandant, for his part, orders Agu to kill a possibly innocent man and also keeps Agu and his other child soldiers stoned on various drugs.  Whereas he once only wanted to reach the capital city and be reunited with his mother, Agu now becomes a ruthless killer.  During the day, he fights.  And, at night, he and the other soldiers run the risk of being sexually assaulted by the Commandant.

It’s a harrowing film, one that is made all the more poignant by the fact that, even as he’s committing terrible acts, Agu still remains, in many ways, an innocent child.  It’s significant that, when the Commandant takes the soldiers to a brothel, Agu ends up sitting in a corner.  He’s too young for the brothel but, under the twisted logic of his circumstances, he’s old enough to kill and be killed.  It’s not easy to watch but it is a film that should be watched because this is what is happening in certain parts of the world right now.

Beasts of No Nation has gotten a lot of deserved attention for both Attah and Elba’s performances.  It has also gotten a lot of attention because it’s being distributed by Netflix.  At the same time the film opened in theaters, it was also made available online.  And, to be honest, I’m glad that I watched Beasts of No Nation on Netflix because it allowed me to pause the film whenever it got too overwhelmingly sad.  I cried a lot of tears while watching Beasts of No Nation.  That’s just the type of film that it is.

Beasts of No Nation is not an easy film to watch.  It doesn’t offer any easy solutions and the film itself ends on a note of terrifying ambiguity.  But watch it you should.  It’s an important film about a real-life outrage and it not only deserves to be seen but it needs to be seen as well.

Film Review: The Walk (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


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If you didn’t get a chance to see Robert Zemeckis’s latest film, The Walk, in a theater and, at the very least, in 3D, you really missed out.

In fact, I’m actually a bit surprised that The Walk hasn’t gotten more attention than it has.  Over the past year, whenever I would see the trailer play before another movie, it always seemed like a palpable sense of excitement descended over the theater.  Then, The Walk was released, it got wonderful reviews, and …. nothing.  Down here in Dallas, it played in theaters for three weeks and then it went away.  Since I was on vacation for two of those weeks, I nearly missed it!

But I’m glad that I didn’t miss it.  I say this despite the fact that I’m beyond terrified of heights and The Walk is all about creating the experience of balancing on a wire that’s been suspended between two of the tallest buildings in the world.  As I watched the film, there were many times when I struggled to catch my breath.  I had to put my hands over my mismatched eyes a few times.  But I’m still glad that I saw the film.

The Walk is based on a true story.  In 1974, French street performer Philippe Patet (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is even more adorable here than usual if that’s possible) and a group of accomplices manage to suspend a high wire between the twin towers of the just constructed World Trade Center. High above New York City, Philippe walked across the wire a total of six times.  In the film, Philippe narrates the story while standing on top of the Statue of Liberty.  From the minute that we see Gordon-Levitt and he starts to speak in a theatrical (but never implausible) French accent, we immediately like and relate to Philippe.  By the end of the film, his triumph is our triumph.

At the same time, we also feel his sadness.  Up until the film’s final line, when Philippe makes a subtle reference to it, 9-11 is never explicitly mentioned in The Walk but the shadow of that monstrous attack still looms over frame of the film.  By recreating both Philippe’s act of daring and the Twin Towers themselves, Zemeckis attempts to reclaim the legacy of the World Trade Center from the asshole terrorists who destroyed it.

And The Walk really does put you right there on that wire.  If ever there’s been a film that you must simply see in 3D, it’s The Walk.  Just be prepared to watch some of the movie through your fingers.