Tag: horror

Double Feature: Science and Monsters in Godzilla (1954) and Jurassic Park (1993)

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Seen: Both at the Somerville Theatre, but on different nights.

Recently the Somerville Theatre showed a restored print of the original Godzilla, and though it was a digital presentation it was decidedly excellent to see it on a big screen. On this viewing, I found myself continually finding parallels to Jurassic Park, which had shown at the same theater a few weeks earlier, so I thought it might be fun to do a little comparison piece thingie. (I don’t know, I’ve never done anything quite like this before, what would you call it?) Of course, both are films about monsters, but more specifically, both are films about essentially man-made monsters, allowing their stories to act as commentary on the hubris inherent to human science. In Jurassic Park, Richard Attenborough’s kindly Scottish millionaire, John Hammond, is a boy playing with very dangerous toys: he’s loved dinosaurs since he was a tot and now that the technology exists to recreate them he just kind of dives in without truly considering the consequences. There is no direct correlation in Godzilla, but the themes are similar. The titular monster is a fusion of ancient animal might and twentieth-century nuclear experimentation, another example of man going “against nature” in their quest for social and intellectual superiority. It’s a common thread found in science-fiction, but one made more grave by the actual (and very recent) history of nuclear destruction in Japan.

In Godzilla, the threat of annihilation feels all too real, and the ramifications of radiation and bomb deployment have already been felt. The monster itself is a product of that technology, as well as a metaphor for it- brutally violent and hopelessly unstoppable. It is ultimately a ridiculous premise, with a legacy made sillier by lighter sequels, but that connection to reality gives it a believably dramatic tone. For Jurassic Park, a quintessential Hollywood summer blockbuster if there ever was one, the larger context is of course not so dire. There are no cities destroyed, no threat of radiation poisoning, no lost mothers and fathers (but a few villains). The story is more contained, and a bit more personal. But the monsters are still there. And it’s still humans’ fault.

The scientist protagonists, at first excited and bewildered by the resuscitation of extinct dinosaurs, gradually question the morality and the safety of Hammond’s actions. They realize that just because the technology exists, doesn’t necessarily mean we should use it, regardless of the knowledge it could potentially give us (Hammond’s tacky theme-park angle doesn’t really help legitimize it, either). Similar realizations are reached in Godzilla, with hunky scientist Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) conflicted over the use of his new invention: a device that removes oxygen from surrounding air or water and effectively sucks the life out of all creatures. What is his responsibility as the creator of such a weapon, is it up to him to hide it from the world so it can never be used? Even if it might be the only thing that can stop another form of destruction that’s currently terrorizing his community? Like John Hammond, he ultimately decides to employ the technology despite its potentially hazardous effects, but he also ensures that no one else can ever use it again, and no one else will be harmed after he uses it to stop Godzilla.

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The final major parallel between Godzilla and Jurassic Park that I considered during my viewing was the relationships between three central characters, whose dynamics reflect a bit of their own times and cultures. Drs. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are all scientists, and all presumably equals in intellect and position. Neill is made the main hero, spending a night protecting two children from dinosaur attacks, but Dern is certainly not a passive character, valiantly fighting to save her partner and others on the island. Goldblum is both the comic relief as well as the victimized eye candy, spending most of his time after the dinosaurs break out holed up in a bunker with a broken leg and a shirt that can’t seem to stay buttoned. The sexual tension between the three is present but minimal due to Satler and Grant’s presumed engagement (?) or at least openly romantic status, though it’s clear Malcolm’s frequent passes at Satler aren’t helping Grant feel secure in their relationship. The romantic lead in Godzilla, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), is a good-hearted, uncomplicated man of action, while the brilliant and tortured Serizawa is struggling with Big Issues. Their only thing in common seems to be Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the current fiance of Ogata and previous fiance of Serizawa. She is a smart and kind woman but generally takes a backseat to the men surrounding her, these intelligent scientists and heroic ship captains. Her main power comes from her ability to persuade and counsel these men, as well as gain information. Serizawa’s sacrifice at the end makes him the true hero, an understandable development given the cultural significance of suicide in Japan.

Godzilla and Jurassic Park are both excellent films, exciting and well-made, with lizard monsters on the rampage. They speak to a fear and respect of twentieth-century science coupled with an awe of ancient nature and its unpredictability. The former is very specific to Japan and its history, while the latter is noticably American in its Hollywood spectacle and Spielbergian sentiment. I love them both, and now I realize I love them both together. The combined Hunk Power of Jeff Goldblum and Akihiko Hirata certainly helps.

Movie Review: Phantasm (1979)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

After his parents die, feathery-haired teenager Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) suffers from nightmares. His older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) is left to take care of him, but when one of Jody’s friends dies Mike spies on the funeral and becomes convinced that something weird is going down at the cemetery. After some reconnaissance, he determines that the sinister mortician- known only as “The Tall Men” and played with relish by Angus Scrimm- is stealing corpses for some unknown (but likely nefarious) purpose, and he commands a legion of dwarfish demons who help defend the funeral parlor. In fear for their own lives, Mike, Jody, and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) decide to investigate and, if possible, take down The Tall Man and his minions.

Phantasm has been on my radar for a while, but once I finally got around to watching it I realized I didn’t actually know much about it, aside from my previous Don Coscarelli experiences with John Dies at the End and Bubba Ho-Tep. It proved to be a wholly different thing than anything I could have anticipated. It begins as a fairly standard 70s horror-thriller, partnering its low budget effects with a dank, gritty aesthetic and sub-standard acting, with nods to Argento and Ray Bradbury. It’s basically just lots of fluffy hair and bell bottoms and a few boobs, all set to a spooky synth soundtrack. But then it starts to pump up the surrealism and everything gets nice and weird, with a never-explained flying death ball, inter-dimensional travel, and yellow blood. I loved the crazy visuals at the funeral parlor- the interior is gorgeously stark and the effects are nicely realized. The climactic sequence is a bizarre, intense, unpredictable excursion through the Tall Man’s traps, and it somewhat makes up for the so-so plotting leading up to it.

There was a lot for me to like in Phantasm, and it’s definitely an impressive feature for limited budget and a 25-year-old writer/director. But I can’t say I loved it. It’s uneven in both narrative and tone, it meanders blandly for most of its first half, and its characters are super boring. Like I just didn’t care that much about Jody and Mike, they’re just these dumb guys who continually rush head-first into a weird paranormal situation, assuming that guns and a can-do attitude will keep them safe. Idiots. I kept hoping that psychic lady from the beginning would come help them, but Coscarelli clearly decided there wasn’t any room in this movie for women characters, since there’s maybe about 10 minutes total with any women onscreen. And two of them are ditzes. And one of them isn’t even real.

I was generally very into that ending though. The wind effect with the barrels? And the dimensional portal? So cool. And I’ll be the first to admit that the Tall Man is fucking creepy, and I looked over my shoulder once or twice later on to make sure he hadn’t followed me out of the movie. These things have been known to happen.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: It definitely put me in mind of contemporary low-budget horror-thrillers like Halloween. Or its weirdness reminded me of Beyond the Black Rainbow, which has deliberate 70s/80s horror vibes.

Festival Review: All Cheerleaders Die (2014)

All cheerleaders die

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is a grungy lesbian teen who catches the gruesome accidental death of her friend Alexis (Felisha Cooper) on film when she breaks her neck during a daring cheerleading stunt. Months later, Maddy enacts a revenge plot against her school’s cheerleaders and football players, whom she feels have trashed Alexis’s memory with their wanton ways. She joins the squad and sets to work clandestinely dismantling their relationships. Frenemy lines become blurred, however, when she starts to fall for new head cheerleader Tracy (Brooke Butler). After a party with the team goes horribly wrong and the cheerleading squad winds up dead, Maddy’s Wiccan ex-girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) brings the girls back to life, with bizarre, homicidal side effects.

So I basically saw All Cheerleaders Die because of how much I liked May, the only Lucky McKee film I’d yet seen. And it isn’t quite… that. It’s not a bad film by any means- it’s funny, violent, and a little kooky. The horror and comedy elements mix well, with a dark streak of humor running through every gory kill and squishy sound effect. You’re often made to laugh because something terrible happened and it took you by surprise. The main cast perfectly embodies that haughty teenage girl stereotype, all slender and beautiful with their long hair bouncing around like a commercial. Their paranormal experience is interesting as a combination of female empowerment and sexploitation, with their bodies and minds linked in sensation, feeling each other’s pain, sexual thrills, and homicidal successes. So, basically sisterly solidarity with bonus suggestive groaning and writhing.

This movie is as mean as it is ridiculous, but I’m not sure I can really pinpoint why I didn’t love it. I guess it didn’t feel especially original, it sort of hit all the beats you would expect it to hit, even throwing in a rape revenge angle towards the end. The script is good but not great, and like many other horror-comedies it doesn’t quite have enough of either. It definitely leans more to the horror side of things with all that bloody business, but not enough to be a really compelling horror in itself. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, especially the elements of female solidarity, boy-killing, and teen snark, but it’s not the kind of movie I would feel the need to watch again.

3/5

Pair This Movie With: I was definitely reminded of Jennifer’s Body, given the general storyline and tone. My friend who saw it with me said both draw from Ginger Snaps, which I’ve been meaning to see for a while and will hopefully get to soon. And of course, if you just want more high school snark, there’s Heathers, which I can’t believe I’ve never reviewed but know that I am a fan.

The 2014 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Part II

But first! Read Part I!

So yes, the Thon is about halfway over, many hours have passed. I’ve lost some of my patience with the “Close the door” running joke, and the kids sitting behind me have been way too chatty, but I’m feeling awake, and excited about the next several films, and my companions have been staying strong. Plus I know I’ve got some Dunkin in my future, always a pleasant thought. (God, I’m, like, so New England.) So here we go.

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7 The Truman Show (1998)

I always forget how good this movie is, but it’s like, really good. Jim Carrey stars as the titular Truman, a man raised from birth by a television station, with a huge enclosed studio built just for him to create the illusion of reality. Unbeknownst to him, he is filmed every moment of his life, all of the people surrounding him are paid actors, and he is broadcast to televisions across the world 24/7. After a series of strange occurrences, Truman begins to suspect that his seemingly perfect life is not actual reality, and he works to uncover the puppeteers behind it. It’s a strong, scarily believable premise with a great cast and funny script. There’s a lot to like: the blatant commercial satire, Truman’s goofy faces, suburban sitcom stereotypes, Ed Harris’s beret, Ed Harris’s huge face, Ed Harris’s self-imposed deification. And of course, that pitch-perfect final scene. Just gorgeous. This viewing I was struck most by all the people watching at home, as the film frequently cuts to Truman’s viewers and shows their reactions. It’s a good comedic trick, and of course a commentary on our obsession with televised stories, but my favorite thing was the adorable elderly lesbian couple who embroidered pillows with Truman’s face and generally were just cute fangirls in love.

 

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8 Electric Dreams (1984)

I read about this movie ages ago when I was crushing on Bud Cort after my first viewing of Harold and Maude, but couldn’t find it anywhere and forgot about it. The Thon got a rare print, perfectly timed around the recent months’ discussions of Her. The story follows Miles Harding (Lenny von Dohlen), a nerdy architect who gets a computer and hooks it up to everything in his house but then gets mad at it one day and spills champagne on it and it becomes sentient. Naturally. The computer (voiced by Cort) develops a romantic attachment to Madeline (Virginia Madsen), the cellist who lives upstairs. But Miles falls for her too, and they start dating when Madeline hears the music the computer makes (inspired by her) and assumes it comes from Miles. A wacky comedy of errors follows, full of mega-80s music sequences, weird technology jokes, San Francisco scenery, and demonic computer freakouts. It’s a bizarre movie, simultaneously really bad and really great, endearing itself to me mainly through its totally 80s-ness. And von Dohlen is kinda cute. Plus the music! God, I’m still singing that theme song.

 

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9 The Visitor (1979)

Ok here’s where I get a little (more than a little) pissy. Yes, I’m sleep-deprived and my butt hurts a bit from the seat, but I know I would have been annoyed regardless. So. Remember how I was super into The Visitor when it screened at the Brattle a few months ago, but I was sitting next to these really loud, inane guys who laughed uproariously at every single thing onscreen, like maybe they’d never seen a movie before and were just surprised by the moving images? Yeah so I was really excited to see this film again, on a big screen, with what I hoped would be a more appreciative audience. But instead, Major Tom, the Thon’s host, literally invited the entire audience to make fun of it in his introduction, thus spurring a lot of unnecessary running commentary for the film’s duration. Whatever. I still think it’s a wonderfully weird, inventive, visually stunning film, and I think it’s too bad everyone keeps going into it expecting a laugh. I know it’s not for everyone, but it seems to me people aren’t even giving it a chance because they assume it’s going to be stupid or bad before they even see it. Oh well. I did kind of tell off a dude in the screening room when he said it didn’t make any sense: I took it upon myself to explain some of the plot points to him and also to remind him that’s it’s a really awesome movie. Sorry if I was overzealous, there, stranger, I just have a lot of thoughts about The Visitor! The title links to my original review.

 

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10 The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1959)

This was another one I was really looking forward to, mainly because the concept of a last-people-on-earth movie from 1959 that stars a man of color is pretty neat. Loosely based on MP Scheil’s novel The Purple Cloud, the film stars Harry Belafonte as a miner, Ralph, who, trapped underground for a few days, manages to avoid the apocalypse. He comes up the (seemingly) last man on earth, makes his way to New York City, and does his best to make his lonely life bearable, getting things running again. He finds one other lost soul, a young woman named Sarah (Inger Stevens), and they form a desperate friendship, at times loving and others combative. Though he loves her, Ralph is convinced that race relations can’t change, even in their own new world, and he will always be on a different level than her because of entrenched societal prejudices. When a third survivor (Mel Ferrer) is discovered, Ralph seems content to push them into a romance to ease his own conscience. It’s a dark, somewhat nihilistic film with interesting racial commentary very much relevant to the period in which it was made. I loved the performances, especially Belafonte, who really carries the first half of the movie completely. It’s a bit slow-moving, as these types of stories usually are, but I was totally engaged. Good thing the last surviving people on earth are all so attractive; I really just wanted to see Belafonte and Stevens make out, oh my goodness. And it ends in an implied three-way, aw yeah.

NOTE: I slept through the next film, Irish alien comedy Grabbers. Sorry. I heard it was a fun one, but I was too sleepy.

 

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11 Children of Men (2006)

I don’t think I’d seen this since it was in theaters, though I remember loving it, and damn was it fantastic to revisit. Set in the near future, the premise imagines a world where women can no longer give birth, and humans are suddenly faced with their own expiration date. Nations close their borders, placing blame on each other, and violent rebels fight for better treatment. When one young woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), miraculously becomes pregnant, she knows that everyone will want a piece of her and her baby. She enlists former activist Theo (Clive Owen) to transport her out of England, hoping to find safe haven with an off-the-grid group called The Human Project. They must wade through betrayal, death, sickness, and massive destruction, but both are determined to fight for the survival of her child. Another great sci-fi film that touches on race and gender issues, it is a completely intense, dismal story that manages to be genuinely moving. It’s the kind of film that invites closer scrutiny because its world-building is so interesting (and realistic), but ultimately stays with you because of your emotional investment. I cried a lot. Thanks, Alfonso Cuarón.

 

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12 Flash Gordon (1980)

I get excited about this movie primarily for the Queen soundtrack, it’s true. I just hear that FLASH!… AHH-AHHHHH and I get so pumped up! The movie itself is not that great, it’s kind of boring but I do love the visuals. Based on the classic comics/serials, it stars Sam Jones as the titular football player, who winds up on a distant planet along with scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) and journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Surrounded by psychedelic color schemes and sexy aliens, Flash must fight against Ming the Merciless, a cruel despot who plans to destroy the earth. Lots of people show up to help out, including the sensual Ornella Muti, Robin Hood-esque Timothy Dalton, loud and winged Brian Blessed, and Richard O’Brien for like five minutes. This is the only version of the character I’ve seen so I’ve never been able to comment on its merits as an adaptation, but on its own it’s ridiculous and passably entertaining pulp, notable especially for the amazing theme song and the elaborately trippy costume and set design. Also it really is weirdly sexy, like everyone is constantly talking about boning. I feel like Flesh Gordon didn’t have to stretch the story too far.

Ok all done, 24 hours of science-fiction, (mostly) bested yet again! See you next year!

Movie Review: Haute Tension (High Tension) (2003)

high tension

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

When two best friends, Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), visit Alexia’s family farm while preparing for their university exams, they’re expecting a quiet stay in the countryside. The only signs of possible discontent seem to stem from Marie’s secret crush on her friend, and jealousy of Alexia’s many affairs with men. The very night they arrive, a mysterious stranger breaks into the house and silently slaughters Alexia’s father, mother, and little brother. Marie hides any signs that she’s even staying there and surveys the carnage while in hiding. The killer kidnaps Alexia and Marie manages to sneak onto his truck, and the rest of the night unravels into a deadly game of hide-and-seek as she tries to rescue her friend while avoiding the monster’s gaze.

I didn’t know much about High Tension going in, but multiple people had recommended it to me given my recent forays into horror. Though its basic set-up is the stuff of standard slashers, I enjoyed writer/director Alexandre Aja’s tactic of keeping the protagonist hidden from the villain, but tied to him through the kidnapping of her friend. The added complexity of their relationship found in Marie’s hidden (but hinted) affections is also an interesting component. The first two-thirds of the film are so well-choreographed, tense and bloody and fast, that I became more and more engrossed as it went on. It is a decidedly gory affair, but manages to blend sentimentality and exploitation weirdly well. I found a compelling, sympathetic protagonist in Marie, and cheered her ingenuity and fortitude while holding my breath in fear every time I thought she’d be caught.

But then. The Twist. If you don’t want to know it, stop reading now, because I’m forging ahead and revealing it. SHOCK. Marie is the killer! SHOCK. The twist just takes this movie from a taut, engaging slasher into a kind of ridiculous metaphor. Marie’s unspoken love for Alexia pushed her to the point of breaking, resulting in a split personality and a homicidal jealousy for anyone else in her life. It’s not that the conceit is wholly impossible- there are some indications early on that something’s not right, sure. Marie is cold around Alexia’s family. While chained up and gagged Alexia seems confused and scared whenever Marie talks to her about rescuing her. Also the movie opens with a close shot of a woman in a hospital or institution, later realized as Marie after the main events of the film. Plus she dreams about it. I mean, I do still have questions, like who was driving the second car during the chase, or was that completely in her mind?

What really bothers me, however, is the implication of this twist. If all of these brutal killings and violence stem from Marie’s secret love for her friend, it kind of suggests an association between lesbianism and mental illness. I know Aja is obviously not saying all lesbians are homicidal maniacs, but there’s a certain parallel between this split personality thing and ideas of “closeted” homosexuals hiding their sexuality. And when queer characters are already so under- and mis-represented in film, it’s frustrating that a queer woman who starts off as a really great protagonist then turns out to be the vicious antagonist, and that her violent tendencies are a product of her love for a woman.

Twist aside, I really enjoyed High Tension for the most part, and it’s put together so well that I have to admire Aja’s style and approach. I guess the climax was just a little disappointing, since it was strong enough on its own with the big reveal, and then the twist itself wasn’t very satisfying. But I would see it again for all the badassery on display from Cécile De France, and to see if everything actually fits together.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: The twist reminded me a little bit of that Audrey Tatou movie He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, which I haven’t seen in many years so I don’t really remember if it’s good. Or if you want another good thriller with a rad lady, there’s A Lonely Place to Die.