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Clown (2016) – Raw Review

If news reports are to be believed, professional clowns are lamenting the imminent release of the IT remake later this fall. They argue that clowns too often are the victims of public enmity, subject to stereotypes that are perpetuated in popular cinema and the most horrific of true crime. Despite some validity to their argument, the guise of the clown has entrenched itself as a mainstay in popular horror and that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon. Between the fictional characters Pennywise and Twisty to real life killers like Pogo, something about their abstract appearance and unconventional antics stirs fear in the masses. Harness that fear, channel it into a narrative that is engaging, paint a pallet of menace and uncertainty at once both visceral and thrilling, you get a damned decent horror film in Clown.

In the opening minutes of the movie we see Kent (Andy Powers), a loving and dedicated father, presented with the problem of finding a replacement clown for his six year old son’s birthday party. Kent happens to discover a clown costume in the basement of a foreclosed house he is preparing for sale. Unwilling to disappoint his son, he dons the outfit and saves the day. The next day he finds that it cannot be removed and as time passes it begins to change him.

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Co-written and directed by Jon Watts, the film is not a typical spin on the killer in a clown suit. Toss any expectation of circus style clownery (a la Pennywise) out the window. There are no clown cars, lethal pies or cotton candy guns. Instead, what we receive is a compelling and emotionally charged trip through a horrifying metamorphosis. As the costume assumes more and more authority over Kent’s mind and body, his wife Meg (Laura Allen) sets out in a desperate gambit to save him by uncovering its true nature. This focus and attention to their relationship injects a complexity  into the the film, elevating the emotion and is essential to the success of the closing act.

Watts also handles the subject matter with a deft touch. The gruesome murder of children is certainly not uncommon in horror movies, and filmmakers will often inject dark humor to soften the impact of seeing a child ripped to shreds, but many films make the fatal mistake of crossing the line into exploitation. Inserting violence and gore for shock value, at the expense of story and character development. Watts seems to understand this, and while he gives the audience a significant amount of gore, it is always attune to the needs of the narrative.

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Where the movie suffers a slight hiccup is in the murky and underdeveloped relationship between Kent and Meg’s family. There is a clear level of tension between them, and it’s obvious that Meg’s father does not approve of the marriage, or at the very least Kent, but it is explained well and feels like the result of the editing process. The opening also feels a tad rushed and introduction of the clown costume occurs very nearly before anyone else, even Kent. Fortunately, the film moves forward at brisk pace, sweeping the audience into Kent’s nightmare almost immediately, leaving little time to reflect on the introduction.

Indie (a.k.a. low-budget) horror is an extremely fickle beast. More often than not they appear promising, either due to the presence of an esteemed actor (looking at you Lance Henricksen) or a well cut trailer; yet, more often than not they flounder in a morass of poor storytelling, terrible acting and boredom.

Not Clown. This film is an exception. A strong exception. I will be adding to the rotation for horror movie night.

The Blood of Heroes (1989) – Retro Review

The Blood of Heroes is one of those films that is far better than you would ever expect. Of course if you go by Rotten Tomatoes then this film is dreck, lacking in any real character development or entertainment value. Fortunately, the critics are not always right, and in this case they are more wrong than usual.

The cast of characters include:
Rutger Hauer as Sallow
Vincent D’Onofrio as Gar
Joan Chen as Kidda
Delroy Lindo as Mbulu
Anna Katarina as Big Cimber

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The Blood of Heroes (or Salute of the Juggers as its also known) is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. On the surface people live in small villages strewn across the blight, eking out survival by growing small crops and raising dogs for meat. Below the surface lay the nine cities. Sprawling industrial caverns, the remnants of an old world. Each city has a professional team they use to settle disputes and maintain their status. There are aristocratic groups that are highly privileged in the cities and while the Juggers are treated like gods, they are not royalty.

The story follows a team of Juggers as they travel the wasteland, moving from village to village, challenging each to compete in The Game. Victory means food, drink and sex are bestowed upon them. The team is lead by Sallow, a former Jugger in the nine cities who was banished for reasons we learn about through the film.

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The game is simple. Five players on each team attempt to place a dog skull on a pike at the opposite end of the playing field. The catch is that only the player known as the “Quick” is able to touch the skull. The other four players fight one another in an attempt to open space for the Quick to score. Each game last for “100 stones, 3 times.” The Quicks do not carry implements, relying on their own fighting skills to beat one another as they try to wrestle the skull from one another.

What makes this film rise above expectation is how screenwriter and director David Peoples establishes the importance of the game and how its woven into the social and political order of the world. Its clear from the get-go that the game is akin to a common law (an expectation if you will) that no one will ignore or disrespect.  The players and peasants sportsmanship and honor for those they compete against is unwavering. The Juggers will crush one another in competition, but after, they drink and celebrate whomever is the victor.

I won’t defend the acting, but the cast is made up of some very fine actors that obviously were taking risks early on in their careers. The stand out performance is Vincent D’Onofrio. Even this early on in his career he was killin it.

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Its not surprising the level of subtleties built into the screenplay. We are provided no explanation of how the world came to be as it is in the film. No history of the game or how it developed. No backstory for anyone save Sallow and Chen. A smart move that avoids the pitfall of making things too complex. Its not surprising. David Peoples is responsible for writing some pretty fantastic and revered screenplays, to include Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, Ladyhawke, and Unforgiven (yes, THAT Unforgiven).

What the film suffers from is a painfully low budget along allegory on plutocracy that is a bit too on the nose. Fortunately, the game is engaging and fun to watch, which minimizes the faults. The set-up to the final act (a challenge against one of the professional teams form the nine cites) is strong, built up through the film.

In the end, The Blood of Heroes is a sports movie dressed in a post-apocalyptic theme, which is woven together nicely.  The game is engaging and handled deftly enough to make all the rest fall into place. Don’t let the bad reviews fool you, this film deserves cult status.

 

Demons (1985) – Raw Review

Heavy Metal Horror Done Italian Style

The 1980s horror craze wasn’t strictly an American phenomenon. Across the pond and to the south a handful of filmmakers were crafting their own vision of gore and mayhem. Their craft, vision and technique set them apart in many ways. Some good, some not so good.

One of the stand-outs is Demons. Released in 1985 it’s possibly the most popular and/or successful (in the U.S.) of Lamberto Bava’s work. Co-wrote and produced by Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red), Demons is a hard rockin horror in which moviegoers at a midnight premire get trapped with an evil force inside the theatre. It’s a zombie survival style movie done with possessed living humans rather than undead corpses.

The American version’s voice over (if Demon with long tongue tries to make out with couple.in fact it is voiced over) is pretty bad, adding a large dose of campy/silly to an otherwise fun over the top gore fest. Trust me when I say gore fest. It was the 80s and practical effects were cutting edge and horror movies were always trying to push the boundaries. Much like Evil Dead 2, this film has a ton of yellow, green, blue, and red fluids oozing out of every opening, socket, pore and membrane. Some of it’s is silly and some of it is done really well.

Face is ripped off by a demon and he decides to go home.

Adding to the awesomeness is the soundtrack. Bava those in songs by Motley Crue, Billy Idol, Rick Springfield, and Go West. Then he slathers on even more awesome sauce by having Claudio Simonetti write additional score for the film. Who is he you ask? He’s none other than the keyboard player for Goblin, the band who scored Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Argento’s Suspiria, and more!

This film is universally reviled as poor, but equally loved as a mainstay of 80s horror. When you consider the hero not only hacks away demons with a katana while cruising a dirt bike up and down the aisles how couldn’t this film be a keeper!

Demons prepare to assault the remaining humans

Insectula (2015) – Raw Review

Insectula! is the first film from writer/director Mike Peterson. Intended to be a parody/satire of 1950s/60s monster movies, it’s campiness and extremely low-budget spectacle is sure draw a large cult following.

 

Monster movies from the 50s/60s are very popular. At a time when the Cold War was in full swing and atomic energy new and mystical, filmmakers let their imagination run wild on screen. By today’s standards most of these films come across as silly, campy, hoaky, and over the top. What were cutting edge effects back in the day are now reserved for micro-budget and homemade movies. Dramatic scores were also a staple of the genre, often overshadowing the movie itself in scope and quality.

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Insectula! tries very hard to pay homage to these movie of yesterday while at the same time exaggerating their inherent silliness. The movie is a mash between Roger Corman, Ed Wood and John Waters. Leaning heavily on it’s dramatic musical score and hamed up acting from the first scene to the last.

 

The premise revolves around a giant alien that crashes to Earth in search of food. It quickly draws the attentions of an EPA Agent, whose girlfriends keep getting eaten by the monster, and a mad scientist who sees the monster as an opportunity to destroy the world.

 

The concept is fantastic. The drawback is that the film takes almost an hour to actually get to the monster stomping around and destroying anything. The first two thirds of the movie are dedicated to establishing and satirizing backstory for the main characters, but the narrative often wanders off into the weeds losing itself along the way. There are laughs to be had and the general wackiness of the endeavor is enough to make you giggle at times but the film breaks the cardinal rule of storytelling – every scene, whether serious or silly, needs to move the story forward. The first two thirds of the film could probably be shaved down considerably to expedite the narrative without losing the satirical feel.

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Insectula! tries too hard to make what is already an awkward and campy genre even more exaggerated. The acting is intentionally overdramatized to simulate the Corman era style and the score (while pretty darn good) is at the forefront for just about the entire movie. There are only a few scenes in which the music backs-off. A style choice for sure but I think it takes away from the film rather than adding to it.

 

The charm of the atomic era monster movies is that time has shaped the popular perception of the genre. Back in the day, monster movies may not have been seen as high level art but the filmmakers for the most part (Ed Wood excepted) tried to make serious and scary movies. Today the context under which the films were made is different making them come across to modern viewers as campy and fun rather than dramatic and scary. Had Insectula! dialed it down a notch and tried to make a semi-serious movie as opposed to a forced satire, the micro-budget special effects, cheese-ball acting and subject matter most likely would have created an end product much like what Insectula! was going for.

 

As a fan of early monster movies I completely understand what Insectula! is trying to do and I think it’s on the right track, just executed a little off the mark. I give writer/director Mike Peterson a lot of credit for getting this film produced and into the mainstream. Insectula! is clearly a labor of love and Peterson has a lot of talent and ingenuity. Trying to make a film with this kind of scope on a micro-budget is beyond difficult and while the movie itself may have missed the mark in a number of areas I’m sure it will gain a cult following as word of mouth spreads.

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Blue Ruin (2013) – Raw Review

Good but slow. Thats how everyone described Blue Ruin to me. Good but slow. Bullshit. The movie isn’t slow. Deliberate. Methodical. Unforgiving. That’s Blue Ruin.

 

Trimmed to the bone, Blue Ruin is a revenge story as raw as they come. A modern parable about holding hatred close, yet handled with a narrow focus and a razor sharp edge. The film follows a man named Dwight Evans (played by Macon Blair), a vagrant who quietly exists in New England, scavenging out an existance day-to-day. Quiet, unassuming yet morally imperfect, Dwight is an enigma to us, until he learns of the imminent release of the man who wronged him so many years before. This revelation sets Dwight on a collision course with his past, a very violent collision course.

 

I had the opportunity to watch Blue Ruin blind. Netflix has had it on streaming for awhile now and as usual the summary card doesn’t really provide an accurate idea of what the films about. Usually this is a problem because it warns off movies that might otherwise be decent, save the shitty descriptor. In the case of Blue Ruin, and hindsight is always twenty-twenty, it worked out in my favor. Had I known the story before seeing the film I definitely would have enjoyed the film, but seeing it completely blind made the entire experience that much more powerful.

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I know I usually gush about the movies I watch, and let’s face it, who has time to write reviews of all the crap movies. In the case of Blue Ruin not only am I going to gush but I’ll go as far as saying this is my new favorite movie of the year. The fact that the film was funded via kickstarter is impressive itself, but on a budget of $420k writer/director Jeremy Saulnier is able to produce more emotion and vicera than many of the tentpole movies working with hundreds of millions.

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Blue Ruin is a powerful film. Saulnier’s screenplay primarily relies on action and location. It’s tightly filmed with very little flash cutting. We see the word through Dwight’s perspective as he moves from place to place, making mistakes, barely surviving, recomposing and ultimately accepting the finality of the situation he’s place himself into. Placing myself in Dwight’s shoes wasn’t difficult. I found myself questioning if I’d take the same course of action were I in his place. A feeling of empathy that drew me into the movie, yet made my stomach turn at the choices he chooses and in turn is forced to make.

 

A sharp edgy film that capitalizes on efficient use of tension, violence and dialogue. Blue Ruin isn’t slow, it just knows exactly what it’s doing from fade in to fade out. Highly recommended.

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The Dead and The Dead 2: India – A Raw Review Double Feature

Sometimes going back to basics is the best recipe for a good horror movie. Everything today is either about going bigger, badder and more over the top, or subverting expectations. We get zombie wildlife, zombie gangsters, zombie sex, and so forth. But what happened to traditional zombie survival stories reminiscent of Romero’s early days?

 

Fortunate for hardcore zombie fans there are a handful of filmmakers producing the classic flesh eating zombie movies we came to love from the 70s and 80s. Two such filmmakers who’ve been hard at work the past few years are the Ford Brothers.

The Dead (2010) and The Dead 2: India (2013) are classic Romero style survival films set during the initial days of zombie outbreaks. The Dead takes place in West Africa, following an American mercenary, played by Rob Freeman, whose plane crashes on the African coast during the first days of the undead rising. As a result he must run the gauntlet across the African landscape to get somewhere he hopes can provide him transport back home.

 

The Dead 2: India has more or less the same premise only this time we follow an American contractor, the excellent Joseph Millson, who must battle his way several hundred miles to Mumbai to rescue his girlfriend as the undead outbreak spreads.

 

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the survival horror elements and conscience of budgetary constraints. Both films are centered on a small number of characters as they search for resources, vehicles and other necessities to survive. The special effects consist of latex and fake blood. CGI is kept to an extreme minimum, used only when necessary to show a few sweeping shots or mass carnage in both films.

 

The bread and butter of these movies comes from the step-by-step storytelling and well handle
d tension from scene to scene. The Ford Brothers understand what made Romero’s movies scary and thrilling, making sure the zombie threat is ever present. These are slow moving zombies, the type that amble in the background adding the scenery in just about every shot. It’s not until they begin to get close, closing in on warm human flesh that danger begins to set in. As survival horror movies go both of these films strip away just about everything they can and boil everything down to the survival. Marooning the main character alone in a foreign country with little to no resources is a simple enough concept that works wonders for these types of movies.

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Of the two films I enjoyed The Dead 2: India quite a bit more than it’s predecessor. The budget for the second film appeared a bit larger allowing for some excellent cinematography, an increase in the number of zombies, and a larger scale finally. The screenplay for India was also a tad more compelling. Millson’s performance is fantastic, much better than Freemans. However, to be fair, Millson is given a little more motivation to spur him on and emphasize his desire to save lives. One in particular involves a car crash in which he finds a woman and her young daughter trapped inside a vehicle as the dead are closing in. Add to it a great escape scene with a paraglider and a gauntlet run through the slums of Mumbai and part 2 of this franchise is the clear frontrunner in terms of enjoyability, excitement and terror.

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That’s not to say you should avoid the first film. I recommend both movies to anyone who is a fan of Romero style zombie films, but part 2 is much better than the first… even if the IMDB ratings don’t reflect that opinion.

 

The Ford Brothers are certainly honing their skills and word is of a possible third outing for The Dead franchise on the horizon, so fingers crossed they continue to get better and better.

 

You can pick up both movies on Blu-Ray or see them through Amazon Instant Video.

Jurassic World (2015) – Raw Review

I was a bit hesitant to go spend theater prices on Jurassic World after the first flood of reviews hit the internet. So many of them were extremely critical of the film for numerous reasons, not least of which is the inevitable comparison to the original Jurassic Park from 1993.

 

In the end I capitulated to my wife’s request to see the movie opening weekend. A decision I knew was inevitable for two reasons. My wife is the boss, and I’ve always been a fan of the dinosaur franchise first released when I was sixteen years old.

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Turns out, I’m extremely glad we went to see Jurassic World. The movie is every bit what you’d expect from a summer tentpole film about the accident heavy industry of dinosaur DNA recombination. Not to say it’s a perfect movie. It isnt. There are some specific problems with the movie, but none of them are enough to undermine the action intense premise that so many people have come to love. The movie delivers on it’s promise to recreate the epic survival action adventure of the original film, while upping the ante considerably for a new generation of moviegoers.

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The movie is set in the same universe as the first three films, but now the company is run by billionaire Simon Masrani, played deftly by Irrfan Khan. Handed off by John Hammond (the late, great Richard Attenborough), Masrani has finally achieved the vision of a fully functioning theme park. It has everything you can think of, a water monster show, a dino petting zoo, mini-dino rides for kids, safari rides through the wide open park, etc. The attention to detail on the park’s exhibits and attractions is fantastic and helps add to the environment and immersion into the Jurassic world.

 

This time around the catalyst for disaster sits squarely with the company’s genetics team. BD Wong reprises his role as Dr. Henry Wu, the mastermind behind genetic splicing a new and never before seen super predator dinosaur. A portion of the populace will assuredly be annoyed that big business corporate eggheads are once again the irresponsible villains of a Hollywood movie but if the shoe fits. The motivations behind the development of bigger and more theatrical exhibits are well established in the beginning act and, let’s face it, entirely believable.

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Concern over the screenplay has been considerable since writing duo  Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Planet of the Apes writers) original script was reworked by Director Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly, who conspired on the wonderful indie sci-fi Safety Not Guaranteed. The final result however works pretty well and the seams between the two versions of the screenplay are smoothed out well enough they don’t result in a mess of a story.

 

Chris Pratt is an excellent choice for the role of Owen, an ex-navy specialist who is working on a behavioral side program with velociraptors. He does a great job with the part given taking advantage of every opportunity to lighten up the screen. Bryce Dallas Howard also does a fine job as the chief officer in charge of park operations. A pure businesswoman she is focused on doing the best job possible, to the exclusion of just about everything else. A lot of the criticism of the film has come on the idea that Howard’s character is an out-dated female stereotype. A depiction of women as one dimensional, utterly uncomplex and emotionally undeveloped. Can the argument be made? Sure. Does it ruin the movie? Only if you let it.

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In truth, most of the characters in Jurassic World are utterly uncomplex. All of them have very one dimensional development as characters. Vincent D’Onofrio is entirely focused on development of a military weapon using dinosaurs. Jake Johnson, one of control room tech geeks, is a fanboy who is there purely for laughs. Even Chris Pratt is woefully one dimensional as the Badass. The most interesting character in the entire movie, and probably the only one whose depth is layered and intriguing Masrani, the billionaire park owner. What might easily become yet another carbon copy money man who is willing to do anything to make a buck abruptly heads in the other direction. Conscience of Hammond’s dream to ‘spare no expense’ in creating attractions that will dazzle the world, Masrani deals with the results of Jurassic World’s inevitable blunder as a true human might, with concern, introspection and some actual honest-to-goodness humility.

 

The special effects of the dinos are amazing. Twenty two years has made a huge difference in CGI and puppet technology. If you were amazed by Jurassic Park’s ability to place actors alongside imaginary monsters back in the day then you should be thrilled with the results in Jurassic World.

 

The primary criticism I have of the movie is directed squarely at the storytelling decisions in the second act. At times, decisions are made specifically to setup further plot points that are sloppy. Some of the scenes are telegraphed so overtly as setup to future development I found myself mumbling to the screen in disappointment. Not to mention they throw away a perfectly good character at the midway point in what is a completely unnecessary decision.

 

In the end Jurassic World is a decent picture. It does a good job of revitalizing the franchise after the disappointing second and third installments. It’s not a perfect movie but as far as summer tent-pole films go, it’s a decent action adventure story that takes care enough to pick up twenty two years after Jurassic Park left off.

Insectula! (2015) – Raw Review

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Insectula! is the first film from writer/director Mike Peterson. Intended to be a parody/satire of 1950s/60s monster movies, it’s campiness and extremely low-budget spectacle is sure draw a large cult following. Spoofs , satires and parodies of classic monster tropes, films and styles are in high demand nowadays. Monster movies from the 50s/60s are very […]

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