Monday, 13 December 2010

Food of the Gods (1976)


From the 50s through to the mid 80s, Bert I. Gordon wrote, directed and/or produced over twenty horror and sci-fi flicks, including Empire of the Ants, Village of the Giants, War of the Colossal Beast etc. He did a lot of films about giant animals going on murderous rampages, a prediliction which earned him the nickname Mr B.I.G. I'd assume he had some sort of Napoleon complex and that these films were his way of getting back at a cruel, slightly-oversized world, but in the photos I've seen of him he looks like a normal-sized dude. I guess he just liked seeing giant animals wreck shop, which is understandable.

Unlike a lot of it's contemporaries, Food of the Goods wastes no time getting to the good stuff. A small group of friends, apparently professional football players despite looking far too old, decide to go hunting on an island in the Canadian wilderness, where one of them is stung to death by a giant, plastic wasp. One of the other hunters, Morgan (Marjoe Gortner), tries to seek help at a farmhouse and is attacked by a giant chicken, which is just as hilarious as it sounds. Afterwards he runs into the owner of the farm and phones for help for his friend, quickly forgetting that he just got attacked by a giant fucking chicken. After burying his friend back on the mainland, Morgan returns to the island to seek some answers.

It turns out that the owners of the farm found some white goop bubbling up from the ground, bafflingly concluded that was oil, and even more bafflingly decided to mix it with their animal feed. This caused their animals to grow to enormous size. They intend to bottle and sell the magical goop to the owner of a pet food company, Jack Bensington (Ralph Meeker), who has arrived at the island along with his assistant Lorna (Pamela Franklin), who seems somewhat overqualified for the position seeing as she's a "lady bacteriologist". Unfortunately some household pests get into the feed, and while it would have been cool if the rest of the movie exhibited the same variety of giant animals as the first five minutes, it's mainly giant rats from here on in.

This is one of those movies where people don't act or speak like human beings, even by the standards of the genre. For instance, upon seeing the giant dead chickens littering the barn (killed by the rats), Bensington is unimpressed by their size, complaining that he "can't really tell when they're dead". Then there are the couple of campers who are trapped on the island, Thomas and Rita. Thomas insists that his wife stay inside their camper van while he investigates a noise outside, but upon discovering a giant rat sitting on the roof of the van he tells his heavily pregnant wife to come outside with him so they can both watch in horror as the giant rats scurry in through the open door. What a dipshit.

Morgan, meanwhile, spends much of his screen time engaging in heroic activities that clearly cross the line between brave and stupid. In one scene he decides to head out and look for giant animals in an uncovered jeep for no reason, and when asked why there is no reply. He also jams his whole arm inside a nest full of angry, giant wasps. You never really buy him as the hero, since Gortner is relatively charisma-free. (I've never heard of the guy, but apparently he was a famous child evangelist and the subject of the 1972 documentary Marjoe, which sounds a lot more interesting than this movie.) The final act of the film sees him and the rest of the survivors sealing themselves up in the farmhouse as the rats try to get inside.

The rest of the characters are fairly boring stereotypes. Bensington is your standard evil capitalist. Lorna's knowledge of lady bacteriology proves utterly worthless, and the only time she does anything proactive is where she approaches Morgan in the midst of the rat attacks and plaintively declares that she wants him to do her. The funniest character is the farmwife, played by veteran screen actor and TV director Ida Lupino. She plays the super-religious, bible-quoting country bumpkin stereotype for maximum crazy. She gets a pretty amazing death scene where she has to go toe-to-toe with a giant rat puppet, which looks more like a guinea pig to be honest.

As for the special effects, they are just awful, often eclipsed by those in Gordon's much earlier films. Rat attacks typically use scale models of cars and scenery, with only the barest attempt to match them to their life-size counterparts. One particularly terrible effect shot involves a giant wasp attack, in which our heroes fire shotguns at semi-transparent insects until they burst in puffs of smoke. I could have assumed they were ghost wasps if it weren't for the close-ups of actors thrashing around with a giant plastic wasp taped to their back.

I wouldn't bother looking for a "No animals were harmed..." disclaimer with this one either, as a lot of rats get knocked around with high velocity paintball guns. The little guys get some serious airtime and I think I saw one rat do a double mid-air flip with a twist. Maybe these rats belonged to a stunt union, but I doubt it. There's also a scene where dozens of giant rats get drowned in a flood (spoiler alert), and although some of it may have been achieved with fake rats it sure looked realistic to me. I'm against the abuse of animals in films, especially films as shoddy as this one.

Apparently this film is very loosely based on H.G. Wells' classic The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth, although the only connections seem to be the title and the fact that the bottles of goop are inexplicably labelled "F.O.T.G." It shares more in common with Gordon's own Village of the Giants, except that it's not as good. Unfortunately it came out pretty late in the Notorious B.I.G.'s career, a time when campy nuclear-themed B-movies were losing popularity to "serious" eco-horror. This is something that Gordon never did particularly well. The film is it's all-time clumsiest when trying to do anything serious, and while the clumsiest moments are the most entertaining, there aren't enough of them to recommend it on those alone. It kind of peaks with the giant chicken attack.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Don't you hate those assholes who leave their
halloween decorations out until Christmas?

After the box-office busting Halloween and the pretty decent follow-up Halloween II, John Carpenter decided that they'd taken the story of Michael Myers as far as it could go. Halloween III: Season of the Witch, directed by Carpenter's frequent collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace, was intended to reboot the franchise as an anthology series, with each entry being a completely unrelated story centered around the titular holiday. I can only imagine the watermelon-sized balls it would have taken to strip the series of Michael Myers, Dr. Loomis and everything else that people loved about it, but as you can imagine it did not go down well and the film was loathed by fans and critics alike.

Like any film that spawned such hatred it's built up a rabid cult following, although I'm not sure it's warranted. It's not the worst film in the series, in fact it's probably better than most of the films that came after it, but that doesn't mean it's good either. One of the big problems is that it's too complicated. The fear of being chased around our house by a crazy, unstoppable maniac with a big knife is a something we can all relate to. It's a simple idea, but there's something primal and instinctual about it. On the other hand, the fear of Irish immigrants using killer robot assassins and the power of Stonehenge to create killer Halloween masks, that's something a little less universal. That's a niche fear at best.

Tom Atkins plays a Dan, a doctor (not from the same hospital from Halloween 2 I think) who is on call when a crazy old man is brought in, ranting about how they are all going to die. He stays overnight for observation, and during the night a creepy guy in a suit sneaks into his hospital room and kills him with his bare hands, then calmly walks out, gets into his car, douses himself in petrol and sets himself alight. Atkins witnesses this, and subsequently teams up with the victim's daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) to figure out what the fuck is going on.

At the heart of the mystery are Silver Shamrock masks, a brand of locally-made latex masks that are the hot ticket item for the coming Halloween. They come in three flavours; skull, witch and jack o'lantern, so I guess if you want to go as something other than those three things then you're shit out of luck. There's an unbelievable amount of advertising behind these things, literally every time someone turns on a TV there's an ad for Silver Shamrock masks with an annoying jingle reminding everybody how many days it is until Halloween.

Dan and Ellie head out to Santa Mira, California, the small town where the masks are produced. It seems to be deserted and full of suspicious locals, but as soon as they pull into a hotel about half a dozen other characters arrive as well so I don't know what the fuck. That night in the hotel, like Jaime Lee Curtis before her, Nelkin succumbs to Tom Atkins raw animal magnetism, a moment that stands out as unbelievable even in a film about killer Halloween masks.

The man behind it all is the owner of Silver Shamrock novelties, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), and entrepeneur who is obsessed with clockwork toys and novelties. His great plan is to distribute his Silver Shamrock masks to as many children as possible. Then, when they watch a special TV transmission under the guise of a televised giveaway, a special chip in the masks is activated which melts their faces and cause insects and reptiles to pour from every orifice in their head. I don't know how it works, but it's got something to do with druidic magic and one of the standing stones from Stonehenge, which they stole somehow. It also has some wicked anti-tamper features; one woman tries to mess with the badge and it melts her face off with a laser beam.

If all of this sounds like it doesn't make any sense it's because it doesn't, but it's clear that making sense isn't on the list of priorities. When discussing how they moved the standing stone to the laboratory Cochran says "You wouldn't believe how we did it!" with no elaboration, and when asked the motive behind his ridiculous plan he responds "Do I need a reason?" I can appreciate the ballsiness of lines like that, it's basically the writer flipping the bird to the audience with both hands, but it doesn't help make the movie, you know, good.

If that weren't enough silliness it's also revealed that Cochran's creepy assassins are actually clockwork robots. One of them is sent out to kill a forensic pathologist who is investigating the self-immolation that begins of the film. When she examines the remains all she finds is gears and wires, but eventually she seems to have an epiphany and mouths "Oh my god!" while reaching for the phone. She's killed before she can get through to the Sheriff, but I thought it was pretty funny because the implication is that she was thinking "Of course! The killer was a robot! I've got to alert the police!"

I kind of like the ending though, which is it's own special brand of ridiculousness. Dan and Ellie manage to kill Cochran, destroy his laboratory and escape, but with Cochran's special transmission still scheduled to go on the air Dan calls up the local TV station, demanding that they pull the ad. For some reason they actually believe his crazed ranting, but he only manages to get it pulled from two out of the three channels, leaving things ambiguous as to whether a bunch of kids are going to have their heads melted Raiders of the Lost Ark style. I especially like the final shot of the film, with Atkins sweatily screaming into the phone as the Silver Shamrock theme plays in the background.

I could probably enjoy this ridiculous bullshit a lot more if it were under any other title, but I love Halloween and Halloween II as genuinely scary, well-crafted movies. After they brought back Michael Myers for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, but it wasn't the same. The damage had been done. I think maybe this one is worth watching, as sometimes it manages to create an creepy atmosphere and it's definitely unique, but it's almost impossible to take seriously.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Social Network (2010)

Like a lot of people, I scoffed when I heard that David Fincher was going to direct Facebook: The Movie starring the poor man's Michael Cera. Clearly I was selling a lot of people short, because as it turns out it's actually a pretty good movie. It's based on a book that I haven't read and I have no idea how much of it is true, but when the results are this entertaining I don't really give a shit. My biggest worry was that the subject matter would date the movie so bad they might as well call it Released 1st October 2010: The Movie, but really it isn't about Facebook at all. Instead it's more of a tragic success story about the founder, Mark Zuckerberg, a self-entitled Harvard computer science student who became an overnight billionnaire. Somehow Fincher turned the story of this asshole into a riches-to-more-riches story worthy of any in the genre.

Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is a computer science student at Harvard University who gains notorierty when, in a drunken rage after being dumped by his girlfriend, he creates Facesmash, a website to rate the attractiveness of female students. After he is disciplined by the school board he is approached by twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie and Armie Hammer), who want to hire him and his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) to create an exclusive social networking site for Harvard University. Instead they steal the idea and create their own website, called, which becomes wildly popular.

One of the things that struck me when watching this film is how easily they could have played it safe and turned it into a nerds vs jocks crowdpleaser, with a crusty old dean who tries to get Zuckerberg expelled and insists that "this facebook nonsense won't amount to anything." Instead it's almost the opposite, with the Winklevoss twins as victims who actually hold back from legal action until they've exhausted every other possibility. They insist that they are "gentlemen of Harvard" and worry that pursuing Zuckerberg will make them look like the bullies from Karate Kid (the original, not the remake).

Zuckerberg is also approached by Sean Parker the founder of Napster. The guy is obsessed with image and clearly nuts, but you can see how Zuckerberg would fall for his bullshit and dump his best friend to hang with the cool kids. He convinces Zuckerberg to move to quite college and move to L.A., eventually setting up a business deal to edge Eduardo out of the company. By the time Parker's paranoia and irresponsibility become a liability it's too late. All of this is structured in a series of flashbacks that take place during the deposition of a lawsuit against Zuckerberg by the people he fucked over. The cutways to this deposition maybe take place a little too frequently for my liking, but it works pretty well as a framework.

It's written by Aaron Sorkin, and you can tell because everybody speaks at a million miles an hour and even nerds with no social skills are capable of producing zingers that most of us couldn't dream up with four weeks written notice. It's very writerly and not all naturalistic, but it hits that sweet spot where it's fun to listen to without collapsing under the weight of it's own stylisation. Luckily it doesn't have too much of that The West Wing thing where the slightest provocation can set off a spontaneous ten minute political rant.

It's also another one of those films I like where the script is filled with ironies that could have been pushed harder but weren't. There's the fact that a nerd with no social skills is developing a social networking site, the fact that he is so acutely aware of how university social life works even though he's barely a participant himself etc. I'm sure some asshole in a suit probably wanted to bring in Paul Haggis in to "punch up" the script, adding a scene where a side character stands up to Zuckerberg and states "Don't you see? Even though you created Facebook, your cold, abrasive approach to human interaction means you'll never be a part of the social network". Somehow cooler heads prevailed.

The only place I thought the film tripped up was in how it was bookended by women lecturing Zuckerberg about his life. It begins with his now-ex, who basically calls him an asshole in a clever, Sorkin-esque way. It ends with Rashida Jones, a young lawyer, telling him "You're not a bad guy, but you're trying real hard to be." The fact that it's the final line of the movie implies that it has some truth to it, but I don't know, I think he actually is a pretty bad guy. He intentionally stole someone's idea and fucked over all of his friends and colleagues. The fact that he didn't twirl a handlebar moustache while he did it didn't doesn't really make much difference to me.

I also liked that they didn't feel the need to dumb down the computer stuff with phony stuff like bleeping keyboards or spinning 3D logos. Some programming lingo slips in here or there, but the computer stuff is mainly limited to a masterfully executed sequence where Zuckerberg explains how he pulled all the student images off the Harvard servers. It's really good, executed with all the tension and excitement of a master criminal explaining a bank heist. The only Hollywood bullshitty part was where Zuckerberg and Eduardo pick up a couple of groupies, hot girls that, for some reason, are hanging around at a Bill Gates keynote speech at the Harvard computer science faculty. True, one of them is Asian and insane, but come on.

Given that it's a David Fincher film I don't really need to comment on the technical aspects. I can recognise the excellence even in the ones I don't like (eg Benjamin Button aka Forest Gump 2: The Gumpening). It's pretty low-key for a Fincher film and there aren't too many quirky touches, except for a cool scene where a rowing competition is inexplicably scored to Hall of the Mountain King. Believable performances, intelligent storytelling etc etc. In short, this was a great movie, probably the best movie I've ever seen that is based on a website. Way better than

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Dying Breed (2008)


Let me tell you a little bit about Alexander Pearce. He was an Irish convict who was shipped off to a penal colony in Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania. He escaped, and when he was captured he claimed he had cannibalised his fellow escapees. They didn't believe him, but when he escaped for a second time he was recaptured with bits of his partner-in-crime in his pocket, even though he still had food with him. He was subsequently convicted of murder and cannibalism, and was hanged. It's good story with the makings of a good movie. Unfortunately that movie is the 2009 thriller Van Diemen's Land, and not the subject of this review, the 2008 backwood cannibal film Dying Breed.

As well as exploiting this historical nugget and every offensive stereotype about Tasmanians you can think of, the film also incorporates another famous Tasmanian icon, the Tasmanian tiger. Although thought to be extinct (the movie begins with some real-life footage of the last of it's kind in captivity) zoologist Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) believes she has found photographic proof that the thylocine still exists. These photographs come courtesy of her sister, who turned up dead shortly after her discovery. Unable to secure funding, Nina arranges an unofficial expedition with her boyfriend Matt (Leigh Whannel, one of the Saw guys), his best friend Jack (Nathan Phillips from Wolf Creek) and Jack's girlfriend Rebecca (Melanie Vallejo).

Their trip leads them to an isolated township populated by the "descendants" of Alexander Pearce (not sure how that would work exactly, the guy was in a penal colony) aka The Pieman. After some uncomfortable interactions wth the locals in the pub (I always like these kinds of scenes; walking into a pub full of creepy old weirdos is an awkward experience we can all relate to) and a sampling of their delicious meat pies, they set out on a wildly underprepared trip into the wilderness. Soon they find themselves stalked by a mysterious figure, cannibalism etc, etc.

There's a few interesting ideas here, but most of them don't really go anywhere. The Tasmanian Tiger, for instance, is just a MacGuffin to get them to into the wilderness, and the whole Alexander Pearce connection is little more than window dressing. I was hoping that the interesting location might have brought a few fresh new ideas to a subgenre that has been done in every possible permutation, but unfortunately most of the film seems to be going down a checklist of modern horror: they've got the creepy little girl who sings nursery rhymes, the over-edited, jump-scare nightmare sequences, even a little bit of torture porn. If you guessed that one of them pulls out their mobile phone at one point and pointedly declares that there is no cell phone coverage, give yourself a prize.

The film does have a few things working in it's favour though. Like many Australian genre films there is a lot of gorgeous cinematography, and the rainforest setting gives it a slightly different feel than your typical backwoods cannibal film. There was one part with a half-eaten body hanging from the tree that looked like something out of Cannibal Holocaust. Although it's not as gory as that film it does have it's moments, including an impressively nasty bit where somebody gets their nose bitten off. Not enough nose-bitings in films, I say. Plus I liked the bit where Rebecca follows a strange noise only to discover a woman euthanising a litter of unwanted puppies with a hammer. That's the kind of fucked-up-yet-believable behaviour I want from my Tasweigan nutbars.

Given the film's genre and casting, you can't help but draw comparison to Wolf Creek, which is unfortunate because in my opinion it doesn't really stack up. Wolf Creek was a film that I liked more than a lot of people, and one of the things I liked most about it was that the main characters were pretty believable and likeable. Unfortunately that's not so much the case here: Jack is such an unrepentant asshole and Matt is so spineless that you wind up hating them both. It does differentiate itself from Wolf Creek in that it's a little sillier and not quite as bleak and serious, but then it doesn't have much of a sense of fun about it either. It has a downer ending followed by a controversy-baiting title card similar to Wolf Creek's, which states: "Since Alexander Pearce escaped, over 250 people have disappeared in the Tasmanian wilderness. No remains have ever been found." Well, I guess that's technically true.

I've really liked some recent Australian horror films, like Rogue and Wolf Creek. They have great production values, intelligent exeuction and make the most of their interesting settings. I was hoping that this one would be similar, but although competently made it doesn't have enough to separate from it's Hollywood-produced brethren. I think it flopped pretty badly in the Australian cinemas, which is unfortunate but not entirely unexpected. Australians are pretty weird about home-grown b-movies, turning out in droves to see the latest terrible Saw sequel but being endlessly critical towards any local genre film, but then I can't really judge because I didn't see it in the cinema either.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Frozen (2010)

Well, at least you didn't lick it

I have a truly massive backlog of reviews to get through, but first I'd like to drop a few word-bombs about Frozen. I will also warn you that this post features bigger spoilers than an Asian kid's Honda Civic, so if you have any interest in seeing this film at all, close your browser and go and watch it. It's okay, I'll wait. Or maybe I'll just skip to the next paragraph and pretend I sat in front of my keyboard for an hour and a half. Who knows?

The film is about three college students on a ski trip; Dan (Kevin Zegers), his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) and his best buddy Joe (Shawn Ashmore). They convince the ski lift operator to let them on without a ticket just before closing, and a comedy of errors leaves them stranded on the ski lift halfway up the slope. Nobody knows they are there and so they're stuck until the resort opens the next weekend. Things get shitty quickly and only get worse from there. I guess the closest comparison would be Open Water (in fact there's a few shark references that suggest they're aware of the similarity) but that doesn't feel right to me. It's a similar concept, but the execution is a lot different.

The film has just the right amount of character build-up, and does a good job setting up all the tensions that are liable to explode when the shit hits the fan. The best friend is jealous of the girlfriend, the girlfriend feels like a third wheel etc. There's a lot of shouting, blaming, crying etc, but later there's a lot of honest, quiet conversation as they realise they aren't likely to survive. Probably the most heartbreaking part is where Parker realises that her new puppy is home alone will probably starve to death before anyone realises that she's missing. If they actually showed the puppy I'd think it was too manipulative and reject it like a donor organ, but they tricked me by making me use my imagination.

In so many films of this genre, the main characters make mind-bogglingly retarded decisions out of narrative convenience. It really takes you out of the movie because you can see the writers pulling the strings, plus it's hard to care for the characters when the situation just feels like Darwinian selection in action. Frozen is better than most in this regard. Their first idea is to jump down, which seems reasonable but results in one of the worst limb-snappings I've ever seen, and I've seen the entire ouvre of Steven Seagal. It's way easier to care for the characters when shitty things happen due to circumstance instead of blatant stupidity. It must have been effective because at one point I was yelling at the screen for the hot girl to not take off her clothes.

That's not to say that the film is totally realistic. For instance, I'm not sure that packs of ravenous wolves are such a big problem at popular ski resorts. I've never been to one, since I hate the cold and have the coordination of a drunken two year old, so I guess I wouldn't know. Maybe they are, but I doubt it. If they had mentioned the wolves in passing earlier in the film I might have let it slide, but as it is they come out of nowhere and it's a little hard to swallow. More realistic than a yeti attack, I suppose.

There are a few other things that mildly annoyed me, like the way they left their faces fully exposed even after they get frostbite on their cheeks or the idiot who falls asleep with her bare hand wrapped around a steel pole, but I bought into it, and I guess that's what enjoyment of a simple thriller like this comes down to. If you're going to second guess the characters' actions every step of the way, then I doubt you'd enjoy it very much, but I guess I'm a little more forgiving than most when it comes to that kind of thing. I'm willing to accept a certain level of irrationality from someone with severe hypothermia who just saw their best friend eaten by wolves.

I also appreciated that the issue of mobile phones is dealt with in a quick throwaway line. I think we all understand that in the modern age this kind of thing would be impossible, what with someone Twittering "trapped on a ski lift lol" about two minutes after they get stuck. We don't need an annoying scene where someone explains that they aren't getting any reception. We get it.

At 94 minutes it's pretty much the perfect length. It started to lose me a little towards the end where the bolt holding the cable car together comes apart for no reason and the cable begins to twist and fray with that Hollywood-approved pinging sound. I guess they had to go there eventually, but it's a cliche too far for me. Still, I'm glad they didn't go with the nihilistic downer ending that seems to be so popular these days. I think after what they went through in this film it needed a scrappy survivor.

The director is Adam Green, the writer/director of Hatchet. I thought that film was okay as an 80s homage, but it didn't lead me to believe that he'd be capable of anything like this. This is more like a real big-boy film, with some nice cinematography and well-executed suspense sequences. I don't want to oversell it, but it's rare to find a film with a simple premise that is executed so well. I believe Green has recently released Hatchet 2, so maybe next he can do Frozen 2. If he wants he can use my yeti attack idea.