I loved this stupid movie – and it was extremely stupid — but it also scared the shit out of me, because I don’t like ghosts. (At one point I actually screamed. I don’t think I’ve ever done that while watching a horror movie.) You can kill zombies with a good whack over the head and you can check your closets for serial killers, but with ghosts, who can walk through walls and crawl out of things like mirrors or TV sets, you’re fucked.
Just from the subtitle, Melody of Death (or the literal translation, Melody of the Curse) I was expecting something a little closer to Ringu: instead of a haunted video tape, there would be a haunted song that would kill you because you listened to it. Unfortunately, although the song is cursed, it’s a little more complicated and only curses people who perform the song.
White is a lot of fun because it introduced me a new aspect of South Korean culture that I didn’t know much about: the apparently cutthroat world of K-pop! The movie centers around a girl group called the Pink Dolls who are having a hard time getting their career off the ground. These girl groups are a lot like the boy bands that were popular here ten years ago: completely manufactured and chosen for the most superficial traits. The four girls in Pink Dolls fit the roles of the hot girl, the nice girl, the girl who can dance, and the girl who can actually sing (not a lot of thought went into character development).
The main character, Eun-joo is a sweet (but not entirely innocent) girl who is trying to succeed as a pop star despite the fact that she is older than the other group members and is trying to distance herself from her past as a backup dancer (which apparently, in this world, is a shameful thing). She doesn’t engage in the kind of pettiness and backstabbing that her group-mates do, but she also isn’t above sleeping with powerful men to improve her position.
Being a pop star isn’t just a job – it’s an all-consuming lifestyle. The girls move into a facility where they have their own recording studio, dance studio, living quarters and dressing rooms. They have a team of backup dancers, choreographers, and studio wizards who work for them, in addition to a testy agent who has little patience for the girls’ squabbles. Soon after moving into the studios, Eun-joo (played by a real-life pop star from a group called T-ara) discovers an old videotape of a girl group dancing to a catchy song called “White.” Since nobody has any claim to the song, they decide to use it as their own. “White” becomes an instant hit, which is great until their agent informs them that they need to designate a lead singer, and the fight for who deserves the main spot proves to be the Pink Dolls’ undoing.
As soon as one girl claims the lead, she’s taken down by a mysterious force, and then the next girl, and the next. Throughout the film, the ghostly white-haired figure from the videotape lurks in the periphery. Basically, this dead pop singer isn’t happy that someone else is singing her song and she must avenge the thievery, as well as her death!
This is all very creepy, and the ghost attacks are impressively audacious even when they’re too ridiculous to be truly scary. The movie undermines a lot of the fright factor by showing too much of the ghost too soon and making her a little too corporeal. The ghost pop star doesn’t just attack the girls when they are alone in the dark; she does it even when the victim is surrounded by other people, in full view of the crowd, except that the victim is the only one who can see the evil spirit. This is pretty terrifying as an idea, but a little silly as a visual. I won’t lie, though. I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight.
The movie’s biggest weakness is that it strains credibility, and not just in the fact that it’s about the vengeful spirit of a dead pop singer. The characters simply don’t behave in ways that are recognizably human. When the curse of the song first strike, the lead singer of the moment sweats and looks violently ill, yet no one around her seems to notice? This happens over and over again. The sick-looking girl is expected to go onstage, or do a video shoot, an interview, or a strenuous dance routine and absolutely nobody notices that she’s on death’s door?
Complaints aside, I kind of loved this movie. The blurry, white-haired, disfigured ghost really freaked me out, even as the reasonable side of me knew how ridiculous and convoluted it all was. The pop star angle was a new twist that I’ve never seen in a horror film before and one I wouldn’t mind seeing again. It was a lot of fun to see all the music industry stuff, the bad dance music, the choreography, cat-fighting and costumes. Also fun: the girl group super-fans camped outside band headquarters in their sleeping bags. Seriously, is there an American remake in the works? Someone needs to get on that.
The recurrence of rabbit imagery in the Korean films I’ve seen recently prompted me to go on a little investigation. (One of the main characters in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK wears a helmet with bunny ears, the killer in Bloody Reunion wears a child’s rabbit mask, and the house in Hansel and Gretel is decorated with disconcerting rabbit portraits and stuffed animals.) This is what I found out: the rabbit, as I should have remembered, is one of the animals on the zodiac, and many Asian countries describe the patterns on the moon as resembling a rabbit, whereas we see the Man in the Moon. The creature’s importance as a symbol dates back to a Buddhist tale in which a rabbit sacrifices himself to feed a hungry beggar (who is actually a heavenly ruler in disguise), and as a reward for his generosity, he is taken to live in heaven (the moon).
So how does this knowledge inform my comprehension of today’s films? Not one bit! It’s a nice little piece of trivia to have, though. As my source points out, “The rabbit’s familiar role as a protagonist in Korean folklore says something about the personality traits that are valued in Korean culture. Time after time, the animal is portrayed as docile and smart, witty and creative.” Maybe the use of rabbit imagery in the horror films is meant to be ironic, since the characters are far from being either docile or generous.
In my first blog post about Korean movies, I noted that the films tend to be on the longer side. Bloody Reunion, however, being only an hour and a half long, won me over by its remarkable efficiency of storytelling. We first see a beloved elementary school teacher who is very pregnant. While she sits on a rock watching her pupils at recess, blood begins to run down her leg; something is wrong. She gives birth to a child we are meant to understand is hideously deformed. Years pass and the child’s defects drive a wedge between husband and wife. In horror and shame, the father commits suicide – hanging himself in front of his son.
This all happens within the first two minutes of the film. Economical. The rest of Bloody Reunion clips along at a nice pace, as it develops its characters and sets up the story. After the opening, we skip to a point near the end when police discover a basement full of mutilated bodies and go to the hospital to question the only two survivors of a horrific massacre: the aging, unconscious mother/teacher who is now dying of cancer, and her meek, shell-shocked caretaker who was once her student. She explains to the police what happened and most of the movie that follows is a flashback that shows her version of events:
Knowing that the teacher is close to the end of her life, the caretaker has decided to arrange a reunion at the house with a handful of former students who are all grown up now. As each student arrives, we get some great shorthand characterization. There’s the sad-sack former athlete cut down by injury, the plastic surgery-obsessed glamour-puss who used to be fat, the sensitive “shy guy” who lurks, the troubled and rebellious loner, and the seemingly well-adjusted couple who have overcome poverty and are engaged to be married. As each character interacts with their old mentor, it becomes clear that she wasn’t exactly a beloved schoolmistress, after all. In fact, she was kind of a mean bitch who physically and emotionally abused them throughout their childhoods in ways that very much shape and haunt their adult lives. One by one, the pupils confront their teacher about the various ways she ruined their lives, and then the carnage starts. Someone in a bunny mask starts killing the partiers one at a time, in extremely gruesome, albeit unrealistic, ways.
Is the killer the disfigured son who has come back to take revenge on the kids who once reviled him? Or is it the “shy guy” who took pity on the son and wants to punish his unsympathetic classmates? Or is it something else entirely? Probably one of those things! I won’t spoil the ending except to say that the movie really pulls the rug out from under the viewer, for better or for worse. For such a short movie, there are a lot of plot twists and weird structural reversals. The big reveal didn’t really work (for me) and left a lot of unanswered questions, as well as making some unsatisfying revisions to the first two-thirds of the movie. Setting that aside, though, I was still pretty impressed by the narrative risks that were taken.
The other horror movie I watched, Hansel and Gretel, eschewed the grimy, gory aesthetic of Bloody Reunion for a bright fairy tale world. The stream offered on Netflix is pretty terrible, giving all movement a drunken, glitchy look, and subtitles are only provided if you watch it via computer. But if you can overlook the obnoxious streaming quality, the movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The house in the forest where most of the action takes place looks like a set out of a Wes Anderson movie: all soft blues, greens, yellows, and reds with quirky wallpaper, printed upholstery, and books and toys everywhere. The movie falls only one step short of being a Doctor Seuss book. The rabbit motif is present in almost every scene. The walls are adorned with cheerful (but creepy) paintings of people wearing animal masks (or are they animals doing human things?). Sometimes there are actual rabbit masks hanging on the wall, stuffed rabbits that seem to cover every surface in the house, and a rabbit cartoon that plays on a loop on TV.
The plot is relatively simple: a young man has a wreck on an isolated country road and a little girl takes him back to her family’s house so that he can get his bearings. He spends the night recuperating with the family, a mother and father with three children – two girls and a boy – and notices something a little off about them. The parents are chipper but nervous, while the children are too serious and knowing. The next day, he sets off through the woods to return to the road where his accident occurred, except that the forest is a magical labyrinth that sends him right back to the house. From that point, things get increasingly weird as the parents disappear and the children beg him not to leave them alone. Mystical forces (and a whole lot of guilt trips from the kids) conspire to keep him at the house. These “angelic” children are not what they seem.
A lot of the reviewers on Netflix have raised a question about the intended audience for this film. General creepiness and graphic scenes of child abuse make Hansel and Gretel too intense for younger viewers, but the fairy tale qualities, while creating an unnerving disconnect between visual cheeriness and dark emotional drama, kind of kills the suspense for older viewers. (I will note, however, that an early scene of long black hair spilling through the opening to the attic triggered my Ringu-induced PTSD. Shudder.) The movie is too long and might have benefited from cutting a lot of the push and pull between the protagonist’s attempts to leave and the children’s pleas for him to stay. After the fiftieth time he tells them that he has to get back to his dying mother and his pregnant girlfriend, and the children just pout (evilly) and say “You hate us! Why do you want to leave so badly! You’re just like all the other grown-ups!” my only response was to roll my eyes and pray that something new would happen.
The lead actor, Chun Jung-myung, is totally adorable, but his character is too passive to be interesting. Instead of panicking or getting angry about his situation, he sort of accepts all the weird shit that happens with a weary resignation and tries to reason patiently with the hellspawn. The child actors are all pretty remarkable at keeping up with the tonal shifts that require them to be sweet, then creepy, then vulnerable, then creepy again. And the late addition of a deliriously unhinged deacon played by Park Hee-soon provides an entertaining bit of scenery chewing.
It may sound like I have a lot of complaints about this movie, but I liked it. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, either in style or storytelling, and I regret not watching it on disc so that I could fully engage with the visual richness. It sags in the middle, becoming repetitive, but there’s enough interesting stuff in there to make it worth a look.
Bloody Reunion (also called To Sir, With Love)
Hansel and Gretel
I hadn’t previously known much about the Korean Demilitarized Zone beyond the fact that there was one neutral area where North Korea and South Korea could meet occasionally for negotiations. The DMZ is a heavily-guarded buffer zone, a no-man’s land, that creates the boundary between North and South, and the Joint Security Area is the only spot where the two states come together. According to Wikipedia, the Joint Security Area is only 2600 feet wide, and once upon a time, the agents of both North and South were allowed to move freely within this neutral area. However, the Military Demarcation Line (the real border) was eventually enforced even within the JSA. There is an actual line on the ground where North Korea and South Korea meet, and representatives from each side are not allowed to step over the line.
Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film J.S.A. (Joint Security Area) comments on the strangeness of this arrangement and the humanitarian conundrum it presents. Soldiers in charge of guarding the area live in the border houses on each side, living, working, and sleeping within mere feet of their enemies but never able to breach the line. Day after day, they stare at each other across the concrete slab on the ground that separates the states. There isn’t even a wall or a fence, just a line that is, almost literally, drawn in the sand. When representatives of each state need to speak to each other, they sit at opposite sides of a table – one half in North Korea, the other half in the South. The only people allowed to straddle the line and move from one side of the table to the other hail from neutral Switzerland. In one of the movie’s more affecting scenes, a soldier who attempts to cross over actually trips on the line as if it is a real, physical barrier. Such is the power of symbolism.
In the beginning of the film, Swiss agents of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission are called in to investigate a shooting at the North Korean border house that left two soldiers from the North dead and another wounded. They already know who did it — a South Korean border soldier named Soo-hyeok – but they want to understand how and why the incident occurred. Both sides claim a grievance against the other: according to the survivor from the North, Kyeong-pil (played by the excellent Song Kang-ho), Soo-hyeok broke into the border house and shot the other soldiers without provocation, but according to Soo-hyeok, the Northern soldiers abducted him and he was forced to defend himself.
(SPOILERS AHEAD — scroll down to skip)
But Park doesn’t drag out the ambiguity over who is telling the truth; the middle of the film focuses on the real story, shown through an extended flashback sequence. As it turns out, two of the North Korean soldiers involved in the shooting had become friends with Soo-hyeok after they rescued him from a mine-field. The South Korean solider, along with his friend and fellow guard Sung-shik, would sneak over the border at night for some extreme male bonding time with their frenemies. The developing friendship among the four men is shown in a touching and funny montage: they drink, play cards, arm-wrestle, share photos of their girlfriends, and teach each other how to shine their shoes. The nighttime becomes a neutral zone where national loyalty is trumped by bromance. One of the soldiers wonders aloud why the conflict between the two states should separate men from their own blood. They call each other “comrade” and “brother.” During the work day, they stand toe-to-toe and pretend to glare, spitting at each other across the line in a silly contest of one-upsmanship.
As we already know, this idyllic arrangement soon comes to a bloody end. A commanding officer discovers the two South Korean soldiers in the North Korean border house and in a moment of confusion, betrayal, and panic, a shootout leaves the commanding officer and one of the friendly soldiers dead. Sung-shik escapes and manages to keep his involvement a secret from the investigation for a little while, but Soo-hyeok, who was wounded in the shooting, is captured and taken into custody by the South.
J.S.A. is the kind of movie that would be called Oscar-bait in America (and it would probably be directed by Steven Spielberg). The way it depicts soldiers overcoming their ideological and political differences to become friends, risking their jobs and possibly their lives for treasonous actions, is the kind of emotionally manipulative filmmaking that wins awards. And indeed, J.S.A. at the time was one of the most popular films in Korea and won lots and lots of awards. This is also the film that solidified Park’s credentials as a director to watch. J.S.A. doesn’t have the same kind of visual panache that he would cultivate in his later films, but the movie is still technically strong; every frame is beautifully composed and the violence, although it occurs less frequently than in his Vengeance Trilogy, is rendered with unflinching brutality.
The movie also features a couple of great actors, the very handsome Lee Byung-hun (who plays Soo-hyeok) and Song Kang-ho, who have both gone on to be big stars in other films. More recently, I’ve seen Lee in 2010’s I Saw the Devil and in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, where he stars alongside Song again. Song, one of the most successful actors in South Korean cinema, has quickly become a favorite for me. I like it when I’ve seen enough of a foreign country’s films to start recognizing familiar faces and Song’s presence is always welcome. He’s a versatile performer who excels at both comedy and drama, bringing a sliver of warmth to the cruelest characters (Antarctic Journal) and bringing dignity to the silliest buffoons (Secret Sunshine). It’s easy to see why he’s become such a staple for two of Korea’s leading directors, Park (in addition to J.S.A., Song appears in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, and the upcoming Snow Piercer). In J.S.A., his character appears menacing at first, a gruff bad-guy “commie bastard” North Korean, but he is slowly revealed to be cool-headed (not cold-hearted), thoughtful, affable, and steadfast.
Alas, until Stoker is released next year, I’m out of Park Chan-wook films to watch. And it will be a sad day when I’ve run out of movies starring Song. That day is approaching way too fast.
Director Park Chan-wook makes films that are stylish, brutal, funny and surprisingly touching. He is best known for his 2003 cult classic Oldboy, which is part of a thematically (but not narratively) connected “Vengeance Trilogy,” alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. More recently, he used his bloody aesthetic to put a new twist on the vampire genre with Thirst in 2009.
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which was released after the trilogy but before Thirst, is a kinder, gentler affair, but still has Park’s characteristic bite underneath the candy-coated exterior. The story follows Young-goon, a girl in a mental institution who refuses to eat because she believes she is a cyborg. She talks to vending machines, meditates on the simple pragmatism of a boiler, and “recharges” with a battery between her index fingers. I’m a Cyborg would rest comfortably beside the work of Michel Gondry, with its romance between two damaged souls, quirky peripheral characters, and brightly-colored fantasy sequences with flying and singing.
If this all sounds a little too cute, you should know that the film opens with Young-goon slitting open her wrist so that she can insert wires into the wound; in the moments that follow, she gets electrocuted when she tries to plug herself in. Park lets us know right away that, even though this movie is whimsical, he’s not fucking around.
The movie focuses on another inhabitant of the hospital, Il-sun, a young man who wears masks, hops around like a bunny, believes he is vanishing, and proclaims himself anti-social. Although he claims to have no sympathy or care for anyone – and he does seem adept at manipulating the other patients’ delusions – he develops an interest in Young-goon and works desperately to convince her to eat before she dies of starvation.
(Tangent: I just learned that the actor who plays Il-sun is a very popular Korean pop star. That’s so exciting! He’s called Rain! And apparently he was also in Ninja Assassin, which I have not seen. But he is kind of fucking adorable in I’m a Cyborg, so I can see why all the girls would swoon for him.)
The way the film deals with mental illness is interesting, but potentially exploitative. The patients all seem to be relatively harmless (Young-goon’s violent revenge fantasies notwithstanding) and mostly happy, making hospitals seems like quirk-fests full of zany and colorful characters. We have the woman who believes her “magic socks” can make her fly, the girl who yodels in her von Trapp fantasy, and a guy who walks backwards and apologizes for everything. For each person in this film, insanity is not so much a defect, but simply a world of his or her own making that happens to be at odds with the “normal” world. I’m kind of okay with the “quirkiness” of mental illness as presented here because, even though a lot of scenes are played for comedy, the the film presents the characters as they want to see themselves; Park treats them with sympathy and takes their desires seriously.
Il-sun may be the least crazy of them all because he seems to understand that the craziness, including his own, all comes down to world-building – which is why he’s so good at infiltrating everyone else’s world. He can make other people believe what he wants them to believe through the power of suggestion, and in the case of saving Young-goon from starvation, he convinces her to believe what she needs to believe in order to survive.
Verdict: CHARMING AS FUCK
Once October ended, I briefly debated whether I should continue writing about horror but then decided that I could experiment with dedicating each month to different types of films. Right now I’m on a Korean movie kick. Korean movies seem to segue nicely away from horror, with their wicked flare for gore and busting taboos.
I don’t really know a whole lot about Korean culture, and I’m definitely not a film scholar, but I know that South Korea has had something of a cinematic golden age in the last decade or so, producing interesting and globally successful directors like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. Bong is most well-known for the popular monster movie The Host, and Park for his cult-favorite Oldboy. Park in particular has gotten a lot of attention stateside recently, with Spike Lee beginning production on an American remake of Oldboy and Park himself debuting his first Hollywood film, Stoker, which releases early next year and stars Nicole Kidman.
It’s hard to say what draws me to Korean movies. They provide a nice alternative to the American aesthetic, with new cultural mores, twisty-turny plots, and run-times that can often try your patience (the 80-minute movie doesn’t seem to have caught on over there). But like a lot of American films (especially indies), they don’t hold anything back, whether it’s an unflinching kitchen-sink character drama or an action film with all the explicit sex and violence you can stomach. At least, that’s what I’ve observed so far.
The move from writing about horror to writing about Korean films is a little daunting. Horror is a genre I’ve grown up with and I’ve watched more scary movies than I could ever count; I’m very familiar and comfortable with the genre conventions. I’ve watched a decent amount of Korean movies, too, more than the average person, but not quite enough to make any coherent, intelligent statement about what defines these films, culturally or stylistically. A month won’t make me an expert, but I hope to start seeing some patterns.
These are the movies I have seen. The next ones on my to-watch list are I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay and Joint Security Area (both films by Park) Feel free to suggest others that aren’t on the list that are worth tracking down:
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Barking Dogs Never Bite
Memories of Murder
A Tale of Two Sisters
I Saw the Devil
The Good, the Bad, & the Weird
While I was watching The Loved Ones tonight, a question kept nagging at me: why do so many horror movies begin with a hero or heroine who is already broken in some way? Why take a person who has already been traumatized and subject him/her to even more terror? Without a good reason, this trope just seems mean-spirited on the part of the filmmakers.
Brent, the main character in the Australian flick The Loved Ones, is a teenaged boy who accidentally caused his father’s death six months earlier in a car wreck. He struggles with his guilt over the tragedy, isolating himself, practicing self-harm, and only half-heartedly taking solace in trysts with his sympathetic girlfriend. Then, he is kidnapped and tortured by Lola, a quiet and obsessive classmate who he had rejected when she asked him to the school dance, accompanied by her equally deranged father.
Because horror movies often have a moral component, I found myself asking, What did he do to deserve all of this? Brent was polite when he said he couldn’t go to the dance with her. And we’re clearly not meant to sympathize with Lola. There’s no implication that she is crazy because she has been victimized in some way — she appears to be pure evil. I know I probably shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions — not everything has to have a moral — but horror flicks so often do that I’ve learned to seek it out. When bad things happen in real life, they don’t always happen for a reason. Life is chaotic and unpredictable; tragedy is often unexplained. But no matter how much a filmmaker might try to mimic the unexplained nature of reality, a plot point is still a creative choice with an underlying intention. Bad things often happen to characters because they have done something to “deserve” it, whether it’s being unchaste, unkind, or arrogant. We’ve been conditioned to expect this kind of punishment in horror movies.
So what to make of the relatively innocent character who is victimized once (prior to the film’s timeline) and then re-traumatized in the course of events?
In certain contexts, it makes sense. Most protagonists of ghost stories are already haunted by loss and grief, making them more susceptible to communion with the spirit world. In revenge movies, prior trauma can provide the characters with a partial catalyst for their vengeance. In films that deal with the supernatural or conspiracies, survivors have to deal with being discredited, dismissed, and further alienated because of their grief — other people believe that they are simply paranoid as a result of past experiences, and therefore unreliable, the boy who cried wolf.
But then there are the cases where the prior trauma doesn’t appear to have an immediate purpose, either as an origin story, catalyst, or cause for punishment. The tragedy just serves to make the survivor even more of a victim. I’m thinking of Sidney from the Scream series (murdered mother) and Sara from The Descent (husband and child died in a car wreck, best friend was having an affair with her husband) and it seems like the usual moral principle of “punishment” doesn’t apply anymore. Ghost Face starts slashing and cave monsters attack and it seems like the whole universe is ganging up on these poor women for no real reason. These two examples suggest that recovering from prior trauma gives the heroines greater strength to face the current tribulations. When Sara is nearly trapped in a collapsing tunnel, her friend tells her, “The worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened,” meaning, rock slides and cannibalistic creatures are a breeze compared to the death of a child. Sara taps into a reserve of hidden strength and escapes certain death. Sidney, too, eventually finds empowerment, refusing to be made a victim once again.
Brent’s situation in The Loved Ones is slightly different. He was the driver in the wreck that killed his father. Although it was an accident, he naturally feels guilty. But neither the accident nor his guilt have anything to do with the nightmarish situation he currently finds himself in: Lola seeks revenge for an unrelated slight; Brent does not use the memory of his father as a talisman for staying alive; his abduction did not happen as the result of poor decision-making.
I worried for awhile that the movie was going to pull a bait-and-switch: that Lola, her father, and their sadistic games were a figment of Brent’s guilty conscience, or a manifestation of his personal demons (I was relieved when things did not go this way). He doesn’t have much dialogue after the torture begins, but I wondered if ever he felt like he deserved what was happening. Maybe he felt that way at first — the film doesn’t indicate — but maybe the pain he suffers helps him rediscover his will to live, despite everything. Fortunately, the movie never answers the question of why, beyond “Lola is a crazy bitch.” That still doesn’t explain why he had to suffer to loss of his father — does it just make him a more sympathetic character? Does it make his suffering more profound in some way?
I don’t know. But I thought The Loved Ones was an interesting, well-crafted movie that managed to shock me and make me squirm. Does anyone have any thoughts on the issue?
Now that Halloween season is winding down, I thought I’d continue the “comprehensive” list of horror movies I’ve watched in the last couple of months. This includes a few that I’ve seen since the list I posted last week.
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to watching Dead Alive. There’s no way to describe the blood and slime and hilarity and nausea in a way that would do this movie any justice. I watched it with a friend the other night and we cringed and laughed our asses off the whole way through. The only other movies I’ve seen that come close in terms of sheer, watching-with-mouth-hanging-open insanity are Hausu and Santa Sangre. Whenever I think about Peter Jackson’s early films, like this or Meet the Feebles, I’m constantly amazed that this is the director they decided to entrust the Lord of the Rings trilogy with. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though. Dead Alive is a lovingly made film, with impeccable attention to detail. If you haven’t seen it, stop whatever you’re doing now and watch the bloody thing. I’ll wait.
I discussed this one briefly in my last post about suburban horror. It’s not a frightening movie, rather a very silly one in some ways, but being a child of the 80s, I enjoyed the weird goofiness of the whole kid-focused, creepy, horror/fantasy thing, reminiscent of old favorites like Poltergeist, The Goonies, Gremlins, and the Monster Squad. Plus, it has baby Stephen Dorff in it (who has always looked like a surly old man, apparently)! And I really loved the best friend, the dorky know-it-all friend who “acts out” by wearing a leather jacket and listening to Satanic metal.
Return to Horror High
This was a fun horror comedy about a film crew that’s making a movie in an abandoned high school where a massacre took place a few years earlier. Return to Horror High features Lori Lethin, who also starred in Bloody Birthday (a film I covered in Part 1), as well as a young George Clooney in his very first role! The plotline gets a little convoluted, but it’s nice to see an early example of a horror film that skewers the genre conventions by having a movie-within-a-movie – long before Scream 3.
This is a pretty decent slasher film from 1981 (the year I was born) that catches a lot of actors early in their careers (Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens). There’s not too much suspense, since the killer and his motives are revealed from the get-go, but it’s a well-made movie with lots of gore and some neat twists on the summer camp slasher subgenre. A scene near the beginning pretty much rips off Dario Argento – a prostitute gets stabbed in the heart, falls backwards through a shattering window.
Worth checking out if you’re bored:
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers
Speaking of summer camp slashers! The sequel to Sleepaway Camp is insanely watchable, if not entirely thrilling. Felissa Rose from the original is replaced here by Pamela Springsteen (Bruce’s sister) as the affable and perky camp counselor Angela, who murders campers when they get out of line. This movie has one of the funniest “meta” scenes I’ve seen in recent memory, when Angela searches the cabin, testing out each item for its effectiveness as a murder weapon. It’s a nice twist on the serial killer who always has every possible implement of death at his/her fingertips.
This movie is worth watching for the gimmick (filmed in one long “take,” or at least made to appear so) and for the unsettling mood created in the first three quarters. The criticism I’ve read almost unanimously pans the ending, and I agree – it’s a terrible, terrible ending that I had figured out before I ever even saw the movie. But it’s still a fascinating mess to watch at times. Elizabeth Olsen is wonderful, too.
So, I don’t know how this movie ever got made, or how they talked Luis Guzman into appearing, but bless their batshit crazy hearts. The Caller had me in the palm of its hand for at least the first forty-five minutes; a young woman leaves her abusive husband and moves into a grimy apartment with a possessed telephone. She keeps getting creepy phone calls from an unhinged and manipulative woman from the freaking past. The movie kind of unravels toward the end, getting more and more sadistic and nonsensical (seriously, DO NOT attempt to think too hard about this movie). But I’d like to commend the set designers for creating that apartment, at once depressing, quirky, cozy, and shabby.
Sorority House Massacre
Nowhere near as good as Slumber Party Massacre (no connection, really, beyond being made in the 80s and having the word “massacre” in the title), but it has its own cheesy charms. Lots of boobs. And a bunch-of-girls-trying-on-clothes musical montage.
Paranormal Activity 4
I talked about this one briefly in my last entry, too. For me, this was the weakest entry in the series so far. Most people complain about how formulaic the Paranormal Activity movies are, but I thought this one’s weakness was in how far it strayed from what works. My roommate and I were freaked out by the earlier films because the slow burns were sooo slow. Entire nights would pass by without any incident, but in the new film, the directors just couldn’t resist putting some kind of jump scare in every sequence. This made it feel faster paced than its predecessors, but also too mechanical, with too much of a wink at the audience.
Next time — I’ll talk about the movies that didn’t work for me.