The Strangers


The Strangers

Liv Tyler is upset because housekeeping hasn’t finished her room yet.

(2008) Thriller (Rogue) Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton, Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce, Jordan Del Spina. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

Simple is better. When in doubt, stick to the basics – these things are true for just about everything, including filmmaking. Some of the most effective movies are the least complex.

James Hoyt (Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Tyler) are driving on a dark road late one night. They are returning from a wedding reception and the drive is made in silence. James had proposed to Kristen and she’d said no, she wasn’t ready for marriage. They are staying at his father’s farmhouse, and an awkward evening it’s going to be. He’s very hurt and she feels…well, it’s hard to describe.

Once at the house things are decidedly strange between them but it’s going to get stranger. He goes out for a pack of smokes. There is a knock at the door; a young woman looking for someone named Tamara. There’s no Tamara there, but the young woman insists.

Soon there are mysterious figures in masks lurking in the shadows. Strange noises in the night. James comes back and at first thinks his girlfriend is being paranoid. Then he begins to hear the noises, see the figures. Soon the stakes go up and the couple realize that this isn’t a prank – they are indeed fighting for their lives.

And that’s it. That’s all the plot there is, and really all the plot you need. This gives the movie everything it needs to become a horror classic which it had every opportunity to be. It claims to be based on actual events, although which events seem to be subject to debate; the writer/director says that he experienced the late-night knock on the door but the events that followed thereafter are pure invention.

However, the writer, Bryan Bertino, had no experience as a director (he had been a grip on a different movie). He may have been ambitious enough to submit this for a project to Rogue, but he commits the cardinal sin as a director – he gives the ending away; we know who is going to survive and who isn’t. In order to make the movie worthwhile, we need to get to know the characters, feel their pain and terror. Sadly, this doesn’t happen and it’s just a matter of an hour and change of waiting for the movie to end.

Tyler and Speedman are both fine actors, Tyler in particular. She’s certainly easy on the eyes but she’s not what you’d call a typical scream queen. Still, she doesn’t  do badly here; however she isn’t given a whole lot to work with. I wish she’d have had more; an actress with her skills could have really made this movie soar. As it is, she gives it a shot in the arm that it needs. Speedman has a more sympathetic character in many ways but at the end of the day we don’t know enough about him to really invest ourselves in him.

What I do like is that the main characters panic. They don’t act with cool, calm reserve and show hidden martial arts skills – neither of them are former Army Rangers or MMA fighters. They are two ordinary people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The people who are stalking them are doing what they do without rhyme or reason. We never learn why they decided to inflict the terror and pain on this couple; the only explanation we receive, late in the film, is that “you were home.”

There is no point here. There’s no grand moral lesson to be learned other than that bad things happen. Most of us are well-acquainted with that lesson in any case. I do like that Bertino and cinematographer Peter Sova make the proceedings sufficiently tense and scary enough to keep our interest for the 86 minutes (88 minutes on the unrated version) that the movie runs. Sadly, the ending is so disappointed (and the rumor is that the studio had a hand in messing with the ending) that we feel that we went through that length of time terrified for no good reason. And terror for it’s own sake really doesn’t do it for me.

WHY RENT THIS: The tension is well-established. Tyler does as good a job as any.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We fail to care enough about these characters to connect. Ending is given away at the beginning, turning this into torture porn. The ending is disappointing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of bad language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the film, “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard is played several times. Haggard’s backing band for the song was called The Strangers.  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $82.4M on a $9M production budget; the movie is considered a blockbuster based on its box office to production cost ratio.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vacancy

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Paper Man

My Soul to Take


My Soul to Take

Max Theriot channels Edvard Munch

(2010) Horror (Rogue) Max Theriot, Emily Meade, Nick Lashaway, Denzel Whitaker, Shareeka Epps, Paulina Olszyinski, Raul Esparza, John Magaro, Zena Grey, Jeremy Chu, Harris Yulin, Frank Grillo, Jessica Hecht, Shannon Walsh.

The title of horror master is one bestowed on very few directors, but Wes Craven is one of them. The auteur behind the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream series’ has been slowing down of late – this is the first feature he directed for five years following 2005’s taut thriller Red Eye – but that doesn’t mean he’s been lacking on the imagination side. Or does it?

Abel Plinkton (Esparza) is on the surface a deeply devoted family man. He’s hand-crafting toys for his children – a daughter and an unborn child – but he’s also a deeply disturbed individual. Well, perhaps individual isn’t a good word for it – he’s actually seven individuals and one of his multiple personalities is that of the Riverton Ripper, a serial killer terrorizing a small Massachusetts town.

His psychiatrist (Yulin) has called the police after Abel confesses to him that he is about to murder his own family. A shoot-out ensues with Abel killing police officers and finally one heroic cop takes him down. On the way to the hospital, Abel’s ambulance crashes and explodes. Abel’s body isn’t recovered and it is assumed it vaporized in the crash.

Eighteen years later it has become an annual ritual that the seven now-teenaged kids born the night that Abel’s ambulance was torched face a giant puppet that represents the now-dead Riverton Ripper. Each kid is supposed to face the puppet in turn and send it back into the river. This year, it’s Adam Hellerman’s (Theriot) turn – you can call him Adam if you like but almost everyone calls the gawky teen Bug.

Although cheered on by his best friend Alex Dunkelman (Magaro) , Bug’s attempt is an epic fail, much to his chagrin and to the delighted disgust of resident jock and bully Brandon O’Neil (Lashaway). The kids are dispersed by the cops and as one of the “Riverton Seven,” Jay Chan (Chu) crosses the bridge over the river to head home,  he is attacked by a towering figure and thrown over the bridge.

When his body washes up the next day, everyone is upset but nobody suspects that the Ripper is back – until the body count starts piling up. Bug is having strange visions of the murders, from a first person point of view. The Riverton Seven are being whittled down to the Riverton Six, then the Riverton Five, then the Riverton Three…and Bug is beginning to think that he might be the one responsible.

Craven has a very poetic sense when it comes to violence and there are a few images here that reflect that, but strangely that element is missing for the most part throughout the movie. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this is as uninspired a movie as he’s ever directed. He’s never been one to make movies that blend in with other studio fare, going back to his early gems like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. It is not a coincidence that his films have been remade more than almost any horror director in history.

The cast here is largely unknowns and unlike previous Craven casts that has performed well in their roles, they mostly seem flat and unremarkable. I have seen Theriot in other roles and have seen him do them well. That isn’t the case here.

I don’t know what happened here. Craven is a terrific director who knows how to get the most from his cast, and he’s the master of unexpected scares and innovative gore. There’s nothing here that doesn’t feel like we haven’t seen it a thousand times before and a thousand times better. Sadly, this is the kind of movie Craven poked fun of in Scream.

WHY RENT THIS: I suppose if you wanted to see every movie Wes Craven ever directed…

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very standard stalker/slasher fare that doesn’t really elevate the genre at all.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence including a goodly amount of blood and gore; there’s also a whole lot of bad language including a goodly amount of sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Held the record for the lowest wide (more than 1,500 screens) opening for a 3D film ever until Gulliver’s Travels scored lower a couple of months later.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21M on a $25M production budget; the film lost money on its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Six Days of Darkness continues!

Limitless


Limitless

Abbie Cornish monitors Bradley Cooper's hand positioning very carefully.

(2011) Science Fiction (Rogue/Relativity) Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert De Niro, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana, Andrew Howard, Johnny Whitworth, Robert John Burke, Darren Goldstein, Ned Eisenberg, T.V. Carpio, Richard Bekins. Directed by Neil Burger

We all are victims of our own limitations. We forget things, often almost as soon as we learn them. Still, that knowledge is there, locked in the recesses of our own minds, waiting for us to access it and use it. What do you think would happen if we did?

Eddie Morra (Cooper) is a writer. Excuse me, a wannabe writer. He’s been given a book contract for which the deadline is fast approaching and he hasn’t written one word. He lives in the ugliest, most slovenly bachelor pad in New York. And his girlfriend Lindy (Cornish) has just given him the boot.

It’s been a bad day for Eddie. However, somewhat serendipitously he runs into his ex brother-in-law Vernon (Whitworth) on the street. Eddie was married to Vernon’s sister Melissa (Friel) right out of college and though the marriage didn’t last, Vernon remains something of a douchebag. He was a drug dealer when Eddie knew him but he’s graduated to a much different kind of drug.

It’s called NZT and it allows you to access 100% of your brain capacity at once, instead of the 20% we normally use. Eddie is skeptical but when he takes one, he suddenly remembers things half-glimpsed and is able to fend off a nagging landlord’s wife (Carpio) and not only help her write her dissertation, but ends up bedding her as well.

He also winds up cleaning his apartment, then sits down and bangs out 40 pages of the book he has been unable to write due to an advanced case of writer’s block or, more likely, a terminal case of nothing in particular to say.

However the pill wears off and he goes to Vernon’s apartment to get one and instead winds up with a stash. Now he finds himself learning new languages, and finishing his book in four days. He has become irresistible to women and sleeps with a bevy of super-attractive Manhattan partiers.

He also has become bored. He wants to make money faster, so he learns the art of day trading and quickly turns a paltry stake into millions in just ten days. This gets him noticed by Carl Van Lune (De Niro), a ruthless energy tycoon who is in the midst of brokering the biggest merger in American history with the company owned by Hank Atwood (Bekins), whose meteoric rise to the top has puzzled a lot of pundits.

Even as Lindy comes back to Eddie, there are cracks appearing in the façade of Eddie’s perfect existence. A Russian mobster (Howard) who accidentally took one of Eddie’s pills has decided he needs Eddie’s stash. Worse yet, the pill is showing signs of having major side effects which unchecked can be deadly. Is Eddie smart enough to think is way out of this one?

In a very real way this is the legitimate heir to Charly (which was, like this, based on a work of literature, in that case Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and here Alan Glynn’s “The Dark Fields”). Unlike the other which was more of a drama this is more of an action film slash thriller. The ramifications of a drug like this on humanity are only hinted at in the broadest terms and the story often leaves that conversation behind for the murky and sometimes meandering plotlines with the Russian mobster and the Machiavellian industrialist.

That’s too bad, because this could have been so much more compelling. Cooper is a charismatic lead, coming into his own a couple of years after his breakthrough role in The Hangover. He is easygoing and charming, for the most part but the role deceptively calls for more. Cooper makes both the slacker Eddie of the first reel and the brilliant Eddie of the rest of the film mesh together, clearly the same man at heart but wildly different in personalities. This is Cooper’s first real leading role; given the success of the movie so far, I can’t imagine there won’t be more in his very near future.

De Niro is, well, De Niro. Of late he seems to be coasting more and more in parts that are truly beneath him. While Van Lune has the potential of being worthy of a De Niro performance, at the end of the day he’s just another corporate villain, offering no real insight into what drives him or people like him and reminding me – not in a good way – of De Niro’s role as the Senator in Machete and when did you think that De Niro wouldn’t be the strongest acting performance of all the cast in a movie?

Burger uses a lot of interesting tunnel vision-like effects that can be dizzying. The first time he does it, the effect looks cool. By the fourth or fifth time it kind of loses its magic. There are an array of digital effects that represent Eddie’s growing intellect that are well played in the movie however.

The premise is clever; it’s a bit of a disappointment that they didn’t do more with it. Still, as I write this I realize I’m coming off as harsher on the movie than it really deserves and quite frankly, I enjoyed it. The movie hums along at a brisk pace and the story is compelling enough that given the fine work by Cooper in the lead role you have enough for a recommendation from me. However, I kinda wish these pills really existed. Maybe I could take some and start writing great screenplays right?

REASONS TO GO: Cooper is an engaging lead. The cinematography is stylish and the movie is surprisingly clever.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many “Look ma I’m directing” shots.

FAMILY VALUES: There is extensive drug usage (it is a film about a miracle drug after all), violence, some disturbing images and finally, a bit of sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Became the first film from new distributor Relativity Media to be #1 at the box office for the weekend.

HOME OR THEATER: Although some of the digital effects are kinda cool, for the most part this works equally as effectively at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casino Royale

Skyline


Skyline

The great thing about this apartment is the view.

(2010) Science Fiction (Universal/Rogue) Eric Balfour, Donald Faison, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, David Zayas, Crystal Reed, Neil Hopkins, Robin Gammell, Tanya Newbould, J. Paul Boehmer, Byron McIntyre, Johnny DeBeer. Directed by Colin and Greg Strause

The legendary DJ Casey Kasem used to sign off with the same line – “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Little did he know that someday, something would reach back. 

Jarrod (Balfour) and his girlfriend Elaine (Thompson) fly from New York to Los Angeles to visit Terry (Faison), Jarrod’s childhood friend, on the occasion of his birthday. Terry has made good as a Hollywood producer and has a sick penthouse in a Marina Del Rey high-rise from which he views his kingdom.

Elaine reveals to Jarrod that she’s pregnant, which might be a good thing except Terry’s just offered Jarrod a job that would of course require him to move from the East Coast to the West. Elaine is none too happy about this development because apparently success would be a downer. In any case, they go ahead and party with Terry’s friends, including his bitchy girlfriend Candice (Daniel), his lovesick assistant Denise (Reed) and his overbearing buddy Ray (Hopkins). The party gets a bit boisterous, causing security guard Oliver (Zayas) to knock on the door where he gets a belly full of bitchy attitude courtesy of Candice.

Later that night, they are awakened by an earthquake and bright lights outside the building. People who stare at these lights become mesmerized and feel compelled to walk into the light where they’re levitated off of the surface of the Earth. We know this because it happens to Ray and almost happens to Jarrod who is pulled out of the light at the last moment by Terry but not before Jarrod got all vein-y and crap.

After that, all Hell breaks loose. The lights go away briefly, only to reappear, this time accompanied by gigantic alien space vessels bristling with appendages and looking very bug-like. Jarrod and Terry go to the roof to get a better look which turns out to be a really bad idea since Jarrod manages to lock the door behind them and only timely intervention from Elaine gets them safely off after the big alien space vessels disgorge thousands of little probe vessels that look like those tentacle things in The Matrix and are quite adept at sucking individual people off of roofs and, as we later find out, out of windows as well.  

Terry thinks their best bet is to get out of Dodge, preferably by boat since none of the alien vessels are over water. They get into their expensive cars and prepare to drive to the nearby Marina when they are literally stomped on by a giant alien bio-mechanical beastie. Wonder how they’re going to explain that one to the insurance company. They decide to make a run for it back to the penthouse, joined by security guard Oliver who saves them at the last moment from an alien beastie who is slightly smaller than the last one. You’ve seen one alien beastie, you’ve seen them all.

Up to this point, it’s been a pretty good movie. The alien beasties are well designed, the effects shots realistic and while there were a few glitches, the story was moving along at a pretty good clip. Unfortunately, the writers wrote themselves into a corner; much of the rest of the film involves the lot of them sitting around the apartment with nothing better to do but whine and snipe at one another. In other words, they’re essentially sitting around waiting to get sucked out.

It’s a shame, because quite frankly this was a bit of good filmmaking up until that point. The Strause brothers, who have extensive effects experience, utilized some cutting edge technology to make the movie for a bargain basement $10 million, financing the movie essentially themselves. The good news is that it won’t take very much for them to see a profit. The bad news is that the movie has been getting scathing reviews, both word of mouth and online and may not even make back its production costs.

Much of it has to do with the writing. I am not sure why, but there seems to be this belief in Hollywood that when characters are written for science fiction movies, they either have to be too good to be true or too stupid to be believed. The mostly television cast (who have day jobs on such series as “Dexter,” “Scrubs” and “Haven”) do decent jobs but aren’t given a whole lot to do beyond whine, bitch at one another or have fake blood poured over them.  

With an ending that is mind-boggling in its “Really?” factor, Skyline starts off strong and then takes a rapid plunge for rock bottom. While they clearly are setting up a sequel, I can’t imagine anyone who’ll want to see it. Once you’ve wiped out the Earth, what do you do for an encore?

REASONS TO GO: The first half of the film is actually pretty good. The imagery is effective and the aliens are pretty imaginative.

REASONS TO STAY: The second half of the movie jumps the shark. Once they return to the apartment, everything goes sliding downhill like an avalanche, gaining momentum until it hits bottom or the movie ends, depending on your point of view.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of violence, a great deal of gore, some disturbing images and more than its share of goo. In addition, the language is pretty foul and there is a bit of sexuality involved here. This isn’t for the little ones in any way shape or form and a lot of the big ones shouldn’t see it either.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost completely at co-director Greg Strause’s Marina del Rey condominium.

HOME OR THEATER: The alien vessels look better on the big screen, with the sound effects sounding better on a big theater system.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Flawless

Catfish


Catfish

Nev Schulman wonders what's chasing him.

(Rogue) Nev Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost, Angela Pierce, Megan Faccio, Melody C. Roscher, Abby Pierce, Vince Pierce.  Directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost

Like it or not, social networks like Facebook have become a major part of our lives. We interact through them, make new friends and sometimes, romances bloom. As someone who met his own soulmate online, I can certainly relate, but there is a darker side to online romance as well.

Yaniv “Nev” Schulman is a photographer who lives in New York City and shares an office with his brother Ariel and Henry Joost, who are both documentary filmmakers. All three specialize in taking images, moving and otherwise, of dancers. After one of Nev’s photos end up in the New York Sun, he is surprised to find that the image motivated an 8-year-old girl named Abby Pierce to make a painting based on his photograph.

The two strike up an unlikely friendship mostly through Facebook. Nev is a sophisticated New Yorker, Abby lives in a rural Michigan town called Ish…Ishpem…it’s a town, okay? In any case, he begins to talk with the girl’s mother, Angela who tells him that the 8-year-old prodigy is already selling paintings to various collectors and is hoping to open up her own gallery.

As the friends and family of Angela and Abby begin to flock to Nev, one in particular gets his attention; Megan Faccio, Abby’s 19-year-old half-sister. Their relationship deepens into a full-on long-distance romance. Megan, a songwriter, begins to compose songs for her new flame. Abby sends painting after painting. Angela describes Sunday morning family breakfasts, and Megan talks about buying a horse farm, having been working for awhile in a veterinary office.

All this is being documented by Ariel and Henry, who are fascinated by the whole Facebook phenomenon which they are admittedly both a part of. However, as the trio venture out to Vail, Colorado to film a dance festival, cracks begin to appear in the facade of Nev’s new relationship. He begins to have qualms and doubts about the people he has lately become so fond of. He decides that he needs to visit them in person to try and get the skinny on who his new friends and would-be romance are, so the three of them fly to Chicago and drive roughly 500 miles to Ish…Ishpem…Ishpeming. Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, once they get there they discover something surprising.

The movie received a good deal of buzz at Sundance and has received some notoriety because of its trailer, which depicts the secret in a sinister light, on the order of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity. First off, this is not a thriller by any means, so don’t go expecting to find the Manson family living in Michigan.

What this actually becomes is an examination of how we interact in 2010. We have become totally dependent on very impersonal means of communication – cell phones, instant messaging, e-mails and so on. Face-to-face interaction has become much more of a rare commodity. We develop close relationships with people that in truth we barely know.

For the first hour of the movie, we only see Angela, Abby and Megan as voices on a telephone, text messages, or as messages on Facebook. We see far more of Nev, Ariel and Henry and really, most of it is Nev. Nev seems to be a genuinely sweet guy with a nice smile and a charming lack of self-confidence. Nev wearies of the constant on-camera existence and wants to pull out, although Ariel eventually talks him back into it – some would call it bullying. Still, it’s a good thing he did because we would have been deprived of a good movie otherwise.

The last half-hour belongs to Angela, and she is the focal point in many ways of what the movie is trying to get across. I am purposely going to be vague about what that message is because it’s difficult to articulate it without giving away the twist, and the movie is far more effective if the twist isn’t spoiled. I did pat myself on the back on the way out of the theater for having figured it out in a way that I thought was clever (if you ask me nicely I’ll tell you what I did) and in all honesty, those who have extensive experience with online relationships and certain movies and novels (again I’m being deliberately vague) may also see through to the end before the twist arrives. 

Is this a cautionary tale? To a certain extent, yes. We have a tendency to see what we want to see when it comes to online relationships, and we don’t always know what’s real and what isn’t. In the end, successful relationships – both online and off – are built on truth and trust, and when either is missing, the relationship fails.

There are those who believe that this movie is entirely a put-on, a hoax although the filmmakers deny it. For my money, I think that this is completely real, although I suspect some scenes were filmed after the fact to make for more compelling drama. However, that is neither here nor there; the movie could be real and I believe that it is. Maybe Nev is a little bit too good to be true, but I understand he is still single which I’m sure won’t last long; his stock as an eligible bachelor has certainly increased with this movie.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the pitfalls of modern romance in the age of the social network. Nev is very likable and the use of Google Earth-like graphics is rather clever.

REASONS TO STAY: The twist doesn’t really live up to the billing in the trailer. Some have found the movie narcissistic and condescending, although I personally don’t agree with that.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong language with some sexual references; while the subject matter is a bit adult, it should nevertheless be compelling viewing to any teenager or older, particularly if they are on Facebook.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the subject of a bidding war at Sundance after noted director Brett Ratner endorsed the film.

HOME OR THEATER: This movie isn’t on very many screens and may be hard to track down, but the intimate vibe makes it adequate home viewing.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Role Models

Jennifer’s Body


Jennifer's Body

Besties belly up to the bar before the barroom gets baked.

(Rogue) Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris, Kyle Gallner, Aman Johal, Lance Henriksen. Directed by Karyn Kusama

Diablo Cody, a former exotic dancer, bagged Oscar gold with her screenplay for Juno and became something of a mini-celebrity in her own right, a status rarely accorded screenwriters. The problem with being a flavor of the week, unfortunately, is that sooner or later the week comes to an end and your cooking is judged on its own merits.

Jennifer Check (Fox) is the girl next door in sleepy Devil’s Kettle (so named for a waterfall that disappears down a glacial pothole) if you happen to live next door to the head cheerleader, homecoming queen and town hottie all rolled into one. Jennifer’s best friend is “Needy” Lesnicky (one presumes her parents didn’t put that first name on the birth certificate) who wears unattractive glasses, has a perpetually concerned expression on her face and actually does well in school. Needy (Seyfried) isn’t a goody two-shoes by any stretch of the imagination but there is something in her that Jennifer bonds with.

The two head to a local roadhouse to see an indie rock band called Low Shoulder play. During the show, the roadhouse catches fire and burns to the ground. The band, Jennifer and Needy are among the survivors, but the body count is pretty severe for a small town. All Needy wants to do is go home, crawl under the covers and stay there but Jennifer inexplicably decides to hook up with Low Shoulder frontman Nikolai Wolf (Brody) much to Needy’s concern.

When she doesn’t hear from Jennifer for hours, Needy starts getting frantic, even calling her boyfriend Chip Dove (Simmons) in a tizzy. Eventually Jennifer shows up, but there’s something strange about her. She has a hunger for raw meat – and she vomits up a respectable stream of black goo.

The next day at school, Jennifer acts as if nothing has happened but soon afterwards a local jock turns up horribly murdered, eviscerated and partially eaten. Police are thinking wild animal, but Needy knows better. She confronts Jennifer who tells her the horrible truth; Low Shoulder had driven her to the Devil’s Kettle where they sacrificed her to the devil in exchange for success (and sure enough they got it with a hit record released after the fire). However, the dimwitted musicians had messed up – they were supposed to sacrifice a virgin which Jennifer was most decidedly not, so she wound up possessed by a demon. When she feeds on the blood of a living human, she becomes super powered; strong, nearly invulnerable and able to fart a long stream of flame. Okay, so I was lying about the last one, but that would have been really cool.

Needy is torn. On the one hand, her friend is murdering local boys and eating them, but she’s still her BFF so she can’t betray her. All bets are off, however, when Jennifer turns her carnivorous attentions onto Chip at the prom.

Cody has a great ear for dialogue, particularly in the high school vernacular. In other words, she speaks the language of the teenager, with all the slang, jargon and craptacular turns of phrase popular among Generation RFNGDI. Unfortunately, like most teenaged slang, you get the sense that the characters, and through them the filmmakers, are talking down to the audience. “Hey, we’re hipper than you and more in the know. If you don’t speak our language, you don’t deserve to watch our movie.” It’s an elitist conceit and unfortunately it instantly dates the movie, which will lose its relevance within four or five years simply because teenaged dialogue changes almost yearly.

So as a touchpoint for teenaged culture it is, like all such touchpoints, very temporary. Will the rest of the movie stand on its own merits? To put it frankly, probably not; it’s essentially at its heart a pretty standard horror movie with a slightly elevated ambition. Kusama directs it well enough, but playing the movie as an extended flashback takes away a lot of the suspense at the end – you know that Needy is going to survive the prom. The only question is whether Chip and/or Jennifer are.

There is some gore, some of it pretty gooey, but the gore is really played off to the side. There is also sexuality, but no nudity, so the movie in some ways doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions from that standpoint. There is a make-out scene between Needy and Jennifer that’s plenty hot, but besides that the sexuality is pretty tame. I would have liked the movie to allow itself to go to extremes in both areas; if you’re going to be an R-rated horror movie, you might as well push the envelope.

Fox is surprisingly good in her role of Jennifer, or at least better than her work in the two Transformers movies. She’s not yet at the point where I look to see her movies for her performances rather than her looks, but this is a step in the right direction. Seyfried is even better as the plucky heroine Needy; yes, the character does some incredibly stupid horror heroine cliché things during the course of the movie that no sane, rational person would EVER do but Seyfried still imbues the character with personality. Ever since breaking out in Mamma Mia she has improved each time I’ve seen her onscreen; she is certainly on the road to being an actress that I go to a movie just because she’s in it.

Cody is a clever writer, perhaps too clever for her own good. I would like to see her apply her talents to a movie that isn’t trying to be hip in a specific time and place, but one that is timeless and will stand long beyond its shelf life. I don’t know where she stands on horror movies per se, but I get the sense that she has a fondness for them – even while she pokes fun at some of the conventions as she does here. There’s nothing wrong with that – Scream and it’s successors made bank doing just that – but if you’re going to relate to a single target audience, well, be well-assured that you are subject to the whims of that target audience and when it’s as fickle as the teen audience is, you’re already treading water before the movie makes it to the video store shelves. For the record, I really wanted to like the movie much more than I ended up doing. Still, it’s not a bad movie, it just could have – and should have – been way better. That’s just freaktarded.

WHY RENT THIS: Seyfried does a pretty good job as the plucky heroine. Some pretty neat shocks and terror sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a bit too hip for its own good; it comes off as talking down to people, which is never a good thing. Essentially this is a standard horror movie with contemporary dialogue.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of gore, although not as much as other horror movies. There is also a lot of sexuality although no nudity. There’s a crapload of foul language and a couple of scenes of drug use; in short, it’s rated “R” for a reason.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a series of video diaries from the various stars and filmmakers; there is also a montage of Megan Fox being, well, Megan Fox. Diablo Cody gets the spotlight on a “Life After Film School” segment from the Fox Movie Channel.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Flipped

The Last House on the Left (2009)


The Last House on the Left

Not a pleasant family reunion.

(Rogue) Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dilahunt, Rhys Coiro, Martha MacIsaac, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark. Directed by Dennis Iliadis

Vengeance is mine sayeth the lord, but if someone brutalized your daughter and fell into your hands, would you trust in the Almighty for justice or might you take your own pound of flesh?

John Collingwood (Goldwyn) is a successful doctor with a summer home on a lake in the middle of nowhere. After the untimely death of their son, he and his wife Emma (Potter) have taken their younger daughter Mari (Paxton) to the lake house for some much needed R&R.

Of course, as is the way with teenagers she is far more interested in spending her first night in the country with her local friend Paige (MacIsaac). Mom is not so keen on the idea – their daughter, a champion swimmer and solid student tends to be swayed by the more party-oriented Paige –  but easygoing Dad says okay. He has to fix a balky microwave in any case and relishes the idea of an evening alone with his wife. There’s a storm on the way in any case and Mari would probably be heading back to the house about the time the storm hit.

Paige and Mari are bopping around town with nothing in particular to do. They hang out at the local convenience store where they meet a young boy named Justin (Clark) who’s trying to score some cigarettes. They head over to Justin’s hotel room to score some weed or at least Paige does.

Right about then Justin’s folks arrive; Dad Krug (Dilahunt), Dad’s girlfriend Sadie (Lindhome) and Dad’s ADHD brother Frank (Paul). Unfortunately for the girls, Dad was just busted out of prison in a particularly violent and bloody fashion by Sadie and Frank. With the law on their tails, this is no time to bring two young girls who might be able to identify them into the mix. The criminals kidnap the girls and steal their SUV.

An attempted escape by the plucky Mari leads to the SUV being totaled. The predictably unhinged Krug rapes her and shoots her, murdering Paige in the process. However, the long-promised storm arrives and the dysfunctional family finds refuge in the only house around…and I’m sure you can guess who lives there by now.

This is based on a 1972 movie of the same name by Wes Craven, which was in turn based on a 13th century Swedish folk tale which was also made into a movie by Ingmar Bergman called The Virgin Spring back in 1960. The Bergman movie is the best of the lot but the new 2009 version compares quite favorably in some ways with the original Wes Craven version.

First of all, the Craven version was very much a product of its era, with a kind of hippie loss of innocence theme. The violence was much more sadistic in that version, with Paige and Mari forced to have lesbian sex and one of the girls forced to urinate in her pants, not a particularly pleasant scene.

Here the violence is mostly directed in the rape sequence, which is quite brutal and realistic. There’s nothing sexual about it and quite frankly, that’s as it should be.

The vengeance factor was more prevalent in the first film, in which the father discovers that the brutalizers of his daughter are being harbored under his own roof. In the most recent version, the violence is less a matter of vengeance than of protecting Mari, who has shown up on her doorstep barely alive. In that sense I think the initial movie was more thought-provoking; who wouldn’t want to protect their daughter but how far would you go to avenge her? That’s the crucial difference between the two movies and the biggest misstep the remake takes.

Goldwyn, Dilahunt and Potter are all solid actors with dozens of good performances behind them, and this occasion is no different, particularly for the first two. Potter is okay as well but she really doesn’t have as much to do except in one scene, where she is trying to keep Frank’s attention away from the living room where her daughter is and does it by coming on to him, despite her revulsion at the idea. It’s one of the few scenes that really explores the idea of “how far would a parent go for their child” and it is one of the more effective sequences in the movie.

Most horror movies in the 21st century tend to rely on violence and gore; sexuality has been removed from the equation. The sad truth is that horror movies are much blander today than they were twenty and thirty years ago, despite improvements in filmmaking technology. We can make better monsters but have failed to make better human ones.

The violence here is more brutal than most modern audiences are used to and you should be prepared for that. This is actually a pretty well-made horror thriller and it might have been a little bit better if they had followed the original a bit better. Not so much in the degrading of the two victims but in the motivations of the parents. That’s where the real horror lies.

WHY RENT THIS: Horror should be disturbing and this certainly is that. Dilahunt and Goldwyn are pros and carry out their tasks well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too brutal for those used to the whitebread, colorless horror films of the 21st century. The most thought-provoking element of the original is excised from the new one making it less interesting.

FAMILY VALUES: Sadistic violence, a somewhat brutal rape scene, drug use, disturbing images, foul language, and yes, nudity – satisfactory family viewing if your family is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Jonathan Craven is the son of the director of the 1972 version Wes Craven. He appeared in the original version as a young boy whose balloon is popped by the vicious Krug.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The director’s cut is featured on the Blu-Ray and unrated DVD versions. It is only a few minutes longer with most of the additional footage taking place during the rape sequence.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Mozart and the Whale