Tag Archives: horror

E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero

E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero is an interesting piece for me. Although it’s almost universally looked at as a failure, a shell of what it could have been, I’m crazy about it the way it is and think they did a fantastic job. It has a bit of a muddy past: Zak Penn wrote the script back in the 90’s, after which it gained much interest from the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and others. It took until 2004 to finally get the film made, resulting in a version that many frown upon and consider a shitty film. Balls to them.

This is a grim, eerie serial killer chiller with an atmosphere thick enough to slice with a razor, and one extremely unsettling lead performance from a haggard, haunted Ben Kingsley. He plays Benjamin O Ryan, an ex FBI agent. Or is he? He’s efficiently hunting down and murdering random people (or are they?), leaving vicious visual calling cards and deliberately leaving victims lying on state lines to ensure the Bureau’s involvement. In particular he takes a shine to raw boned Agent Mackleway (Aaron Eckhart), leaving specific clues for him. O Ryan employs a metaphysical method of finding his victims, using an old psychic technique from a scrapped program the feds once explored. This gives extreme stylist Merhige a reason to throw sketchy, disconcerting images, sounds and editing into the fray, providing a visually and aurally chafing experience. Merhige is infamous for making the surreal, experimental shocker ‘Begotten’, and he brings the same stark, discomforting qualities to the proceedings here. I’m reminded of another experimental director who brought a near elemental aesthetic to an otherwise grounded serial killer flick: Tarsem Singh with his brilliant psychological fantasy ‘The Cell’. Suspect Zero is the grimy, fragmentary cousin to The Cell’s grandiose beauty. There’s also traces of Sev7n, Silence Of The Lambs, Millennium and more, yet the film finds its own groove and never sinks into derivative gestures. Composer Clint Mansell ditches his trademark celestial tones for something truly unique, a dread soaked nightmarish lullaby that gives the film an otherworldly tone to linger in dreams.

From Kingsley’s unnerving introduction hunting down a stranger on the interstate to his haunted, sympathetic final moments you get a feel for this extreme character that only this actor can give, infusing O Ryan with a zen like resolve that’s perforated by the psychological damage within. Eckart shows brittle desperation and blesses his performance with a touch of noir, which is appropriate to the film. Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlain, Frank Collison, William Mapother, famed writer Robert Towne and Carrie Anne Moss all give great work too. If you can forgive a few instances of murky plotting and one or two cheap plot turns, you’ll hopefully enjoy this as much as I do. It really deserves better attention and praise than it has gotten so far.

-Nate Hill

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John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior

There’s always those films whose reputation is more widely known than themselves, where the stormy production or behind the scenes drama caused such a ruckus and eclipsed the final product, creating negative buzz whether or not the film is good. John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior is one of those, I haven’t read up exactly on what went wrong but I’ve always felt the film that was born out of whatever trouble there was is an excellent one.

Antonio Banderas stars as an unconventional version of the badass hero we’re used to, one who starts off as anything but that and has to earn his way to glory. He plays a Persian poet sometime around 900AD, a man who is sent away for macking on the sultan’s wife and captured by a roving band of Vikings. They are amassing an army of elite specialist warriors to bring back home in the north in order to defeat a near indestructible menace that is moving in on their land. Banderas finds himself caught up in the war, alone with the tribe and forced grab a sword, find his courage and take a few swings at this fearsome enemy. The plot is fairly simple stuff but it’s atmosphere and character development that win the day here, as well as epic production design. Banderas starts off as basically a pampered court jester who the Norsemen mock and ridicule, until he learns their ways and a bond of brotherhood forms, an arc from both parties that is handled with dignity and heart. The enemy they fight are an unseen horror who burn, kill and eat everything in their path, there’s a sense of genuine fear and threat when they show up and the battles are staged with smoke, mist and fire for ultimate atmospheric effect. A highlight is when they raid underground caverns used to hide out in via ships and you really get a sense of setting as well as budget on display. Banderas is supported by various people including Vladimir Kulich as the heroic Buliwyf, Diane Venora, Tony Curran, Richard Bremmer, Sven Wollter and a very brief Omar Sharif.

People can talk shit about this one all they want but I really feel like they’re thinking of the troubled production instead of the film itself and need to get their heads out of the sand, and refocus their gaze. This may be a fairly scrappy flick but it’s simply not a bad film. Banderas is a solid lead, there’s a tactile sense of wonder to the settings, both southern and northern and McTiernan mounts the sieges, battles, massacres and poetic revelry assuredly. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry

What if a cop decided that instead of serving and protecting civilians, he would instead stalk and terrify them? How would you deal with a scenario like that? Cops, after all, hold the power to arrest you or worse and unless you resorted to extreme measures, you’re kind of fucked. Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry is a terrifying psycho thriller that explores this idea deeply and thoroughly enough to give any law abiding citizen nightmares. Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe play a nice yuppie couple whose home is broken into one night by a petty criminal. No one is injured, and the cop who shows up to investigate assured them that he’ll do everything in his power to keep them safe. The only problem is, this cop is played by Ray Liotta and in a film billed as thriller, that’s a dark omen. He’s affable and kind at first, but begins to envy this couple their suburban oasis, particularly placing an unnerving interest in Stowe, and pretty soon he’s gone full monster on them, with complete impunity no less. He wants her for himself, or maybe even isn’t sure what he wants but is nonetheless dead set on wedging himself into their lives like a juggernaut of violent, negative energy. Russell is helpless especially when the officer’s partner (Roger E. Mosley) wants nothing to do with their plight and won’t raise a hand against his comrade, perhaps out of fear himself. This is a scary film not just for the way it’s executed but for the fact that this *could* actually happen in real life. If you turn on the news or scroll through your phone’s feed you’ll see handfuls of headlines about cops getting up to all sorts of no good, reminding us that they too are only people and subject to fallacy and shortcomings. Liotta goes way way beyond that here though into outright monsterville, this is one of his trademark unhinged lunatic roles and instills straight up dread. It’s tough to watch scene after scene of Stowe being terrorized and traumatized by the guy and between and Tony Scott’s Revenge she really got put through a wringer early in her career, but if you’re the female lead in a horror thriller alongside Liotta, you can kind of see the storm on the horizon ahead of time. This is an intense, fucked up film that has razor sharp suspense, three very strong lead actors and a a spooky atmosphere. It also makes a great double feature with Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown, another high strung Kurt Russell thriller where he yet again has to contend with a psycho who has his wife, albeit trading in rogue cops for rogue truckers. Both great films.

-Nate Hill

AMC’s The Terror – Season 1

AMC surprised me with The Terror, their long form adaptation of Dan Simmons’s horror novel. This is a horror story, but it’s also so much more, an entire world of storytelling woven into ten episodes that feel almost like real time, or at least that’s how invested I was. I also binged the whole thing in one sitting yesterday (don’t judge) so that probably helped to make it an immersive experience as well. This is flat out fantastic work on every level and probably the best thing the network has done, or at least my favourite.

The time period is the mid 1800’s, as the two real life Royal Navy ships the H.M.S. Eberus and H.M.S. Terror wind their way through the arctic, trying to find a Northwest Passage. Now anyone who knows their history ahead of time (I didn’t) recalls that these two vessels infamously disappeared out there, and all one hundred twenty nine of their crew were sadly never heard from again. This story blends fact, fiction, Inuit mythology and esoteric aspects to envision what might have befallen them, and the result is mesmerizing. Captained by Sir John Franklin (the great Ciaran Hinds) and Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), their situation becomes dire when the ships are moored in impenetrable ice and stuck for literal years. They face just about as many hardships as you can throw at a poor band of marooned sailors including dwindling food supplies, madness, mutiny and the elements but there’s also something else out there, something big, mean, savage and out to hunt or maul anyone who strays too far onto the tundra. Hinds does a stellar job as the brave but unsteady Captain, while Harris blasts into the stratosphere with a role that will probably define his career and serve as a glowing example of how to embody a brilliantly written character arc. Game Of Thrones’s Tobias Menzies is superb as Fitjames, their fussy third in command who learns some hard lessons. The cast are all absolutely on fire and there’s too many performances to praise here but standouts are Ian ‘Professor Quirrell’ Hart as the resilient badass Mr. Blanky, Christos Lawton as conflicted senior officer Hodgson and Paul Ready as Goodsir, a compassionate, thoughtful doctor. My favourite performance/character is that of Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), an Inuit woman who crosses their paths and must tangle with the creature alongside them, she plays the fear well while holding her own in scenes that require careful internal intuition.

This show gets severely bloody and realistic in depiction of the monster attacks and all the other horrors that befall these poor souls. It’s violent, disturbing on a soul level, unrelentingly bleak at times and the depraved human behaviour on display is chilling. But despite all that, there’s a warmth, a fellowship among these men and you really come to care about them as much as they care for and try to help each other through an unimaginable ordeal. The environment around them is brutally indifferent to their plight, but there’s a sombre beauty as well and though much of it is CGI, it’s always breathtaking. Ice caps, frozen inlets and desolate plains open up to greet them, it’s a lonely place inhabited only by Inuit and the beast that hunts them. The original music by Marcus Fjellström is beautifully haunting and makes this journey all the more atmospheric. I’ve heard that AMC plans to make this an anthology and kick off season two with a different setting and story. If it’s anywhere close to as top quality as this, I’ll be there. One of the best season of television I’ve seen in a while.

-Nate Hill

Neil Labute’s The Wicker Man

You know the funny thing about The Wicker Man is that I actually found it really scary and disturbing. This was when I saw it at a younger age and the film has now since become a legend among legends among bad movies, something people use for meme stock, draw examples from on how to make a wretched flick or put on simply to laugh and throw rotting produce at. But there was just something about helpless Nic Cage stuck on Bowen Island (lol) with a bunch of creepy cult chicks who resent a man being on their turf and some fucked up rituals that he gets to witness first hand that. The isolation and hopelessness of this scenario really got to me but I’m not sure if it would still have the same effect, it’s been over a decade. In any case this is a shit film, full of bizarre performances and not even just Cage either. He plays a cop looking for an alleged missing girl on the island, on which his ex wife (Kate Beahan) coincidently also lives. There’s obviously some foul play around and he becomes consistently more frustrated, freaked out and lets his inner Cage come out to play. Ellen Burstyn must have not had her reading glasses on when passed the script because she’s actually trying here as the affable but slightly sinister matriarch of these neo-pagan kooks. Others are played by solid actresses like Leelee Sobieski, Frances Conroy, Mary Black and Molly Parker but none make impressions beyond caricature. I’ll tell you who I do remember though is James Franco and Aaron Eckhart in virtual walk on bits, it’s bizarre seeing them in roles so tiny, Aaron as a random diner patron and James as some off duty Sheriff. Wonder what the story behind the scenes is there, maybe they both had a multi picture deal, both saw the dumpster fire on the horizon and loopholed their way into inconspicuous participation. This film is a mess and ends in an unpleasant, bloody cascade of ugliness and violence, but it’s also hilarious in how heavy handed and tone deaf Cage’s performance is. He spends much of it simply running around the island in a suit yelling at people. Everyone always goes on about the “not the bees!!” scene and it is admittedly gold, but my favourite moment has to be when Cage, finally good and fed up with everything, calmly marches into a room, stares one of the sisters straight in the eye and spectacularly one punches her out cold. It’s an out of left field moment of volcanic hilarity worth a few rewinds or immortalization in GIF format.

-Nate Hill

David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

If you think about it, the source material for a story like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the perfect kind of thing for director David Fincher to have a whack at. It’s dark, kinky, and riddled with detailed clues, any of which could spell survival or a scary end for the two protagonists, and there’s an overall misanthropic edge as well. Not to say that Fincher deliberately picks dark, fucked up projects in his work, but there’s a definite gravitation towards the macabre, he has an eye for it. I love this film a lot, it’s among my favourites in his stable and I think he improved on not only the book by Stieg Larsson, but also made a better film version than the first adaptation. The original was serviceable but in a mystery like this I feel like atmosphere is key, and Fincher provides enough to get lost in. This is a story spanning decades, outlining years of dark deeds and unearthing secrets buried within secrets and as such it should feel eerie, ambient, be lit in ways that evoke the passage of time and have a soundscape that not only freaks you out but guides your focus and has you searching for clues right alongside the heroes. I feel like he definitely has those boxes solidly checked off.

Rooney Mara makes a more detached, colder Lisbeth Salander than Noomi Rapace’s hot blooded take and you could argue all night who was better in the role, but I don’t think that’s really the point. What matters is Mara is a fantastic Lisbeth, emotionally complex, seemingly shut off yet injecting pockets of warmth in where you least expect it and losing none of the caged animal or ruthless survival instinct that is so important to the character. Daniel Craig has the perfect jaded half smirk to play a guy that enters the story disgraced and surrounded by scandal, I think he rocks his role too and the chemistry between both is as tangible as the spooky Swedish ambience that Fincher turns them loose in. There’s a killer out there, one who has been operating with relative impunity for many years and right under the nose of the spectacularly dysfunctional Vanger family, whose industrialist patriarch (Christopher Plummer, excellent) enlists Craig’s help in finding the truth. His daughter went missing from their secluded island home some thirty years before as we see in dreamy flashbacks where Julian Sands steps in for Plummer. Craig’s Mikael and Mara’s Lisbeth are a pair of introverted workaholics who both come from rocky pasts and understand the kind of risk involved with this type of work, but neither are prepared for the brand of sick horrors that revolve around this mystery. Fincher carefully casts the film with impressive talent including Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Yorick van Wageningen, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, Embeth Davidzt, Alan Dale, Geraldine James and scene stealer Stellan Skarsgard as another key member of the Vanger family.

One of the most effective aspects of the film is the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a subtle atmospheric composition that brings on feelings of dread, unseen danger and anticipatory anxiety wonderfully. As Craig’s car snakes along the long driveway of Plummer’s extravagant yet isolated mansion, a strange warble of tubular bell style music fills the snowy air, giving off incredibly creepy vibes and in turn giving me chills every time. Fincher cranks up the dial on violence and sex about as far as one could in a Hollywood film and as such you get some deeply disturbing scenes to sit through, especially involving Lisbeth’s deranged legal guardian, who really made me question the foster system in Sweden. None of it is glorified though and all serves to tell this dark story in the most affecting way. There’s a shadowy blanket over the film, everything seems frosty and frigid thanks to the cinematography from Jeff Cronenworth, as if there’s some spell of dark magic laying over the land and protecting those hiding within it as Lisbeth and Mikael race to find them. This is a perfect tale to get transported away by, a nightmarish yet strangely picturesque mystery to get lost in like a snowy night, until you arrive at the wrong doorstep alongside our heroes and then the real thrills begin. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared

On the DVD DVD cover of Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared, Pete Hammond of Maxim raves that it “makes Kill Bill look like Sesame Street.” That’s one way to put it. I’m sure he didn’t mean to blunt the edge of Tarantino’s film, he was just trying to articulate what a balls out, terrifying, kick-in-the-nuts experience this is. It’s one of the most brilliant pieces of crime filmmaking from recent years and one of my all time favourites, a dark, bloody urban fairytale that surges through a nocturnal ballad of explicit violence, mob war-games, monstrous characters and a performance from Paul Walker that has to be seen to be believed, and I mean that in the best way possible.

He plays Joey Gazelle here, a Jersey mob soldier who loses a very important gun left in his possession following a rigorous shootout with a gang of corrupt narcs who raided their drug deal. The kid next door (Cameron Bright) has snatched the pistol from his basement, used it to plug his heinously abusive Russian stepfather (Karel Roden) and disappeared into the night with it. This presents Joey and everyone else with no end of problems; if the surviving narcs, the Russian mafia or anyone else manage to get ahold of it, he and his colleagues are done for. It’s one of those hectic, delirious, ‘run all night through the city films’ where seemingly anything can, and does happen. It’s a mad dash through a town filled with freaks, monsters, corruption and the hum of barbaric nighttime activity. Poor Oleg, after stealing the gun, is launched from the frying pan into a city on fire with danger around every corner, the cops relentlessly on his tail headed up by Chazz Palminteri’s devilish Det. Rydell, plus both Joey and his wife Theresa (Vera Farmiga) looking for him too. Among the threatening figures he meets are a nasty, cartoonish pimp (David Warshofsky), feral crackheads, a sympathetic hooker (Idalis DeLeon) and two horrific child abusing kidnapper/murderers (Bruce Altman and Elizabeth Mitchell, forever in my head now as these characters) who are so messed up that the mid film sequence devoted to them is the ultimate barometer in discerning whether you can take what this film has to offer or wish to tap out of the chokehold it locks you in. One thing that’s always apparat: this isn’t just commotion flung at a wall, despite feeling that way some of the time. This is intricate, well spun storytelling that’s shot, edited and colour timed in ways that vividly bring all of this to life. One need only look as the unsettling, surreal animated credits to see that this isn’t just your average action crime film, but very well thought out, very specific and a piece that pushes the envelope to bring us something special.

Walker gives the best work of his sadly short career here, he’s energetic, in the moment and completely fired up to the edge of mania where he quite literally has to stop and take a breath at one point. Farmiga is the same, fearsome in the maternal instinct she has for Oleg, she reaches a level of scary when encountering the aforementioned pedophiles that will leave your adrenal glands in go mode. The film is chock full of outright dastardly motherfuckers, as if Kramer plumbed the depths of Hollywood hell for the worst of the worst villain stock in the stable, removed their leashes and muzzles and turned them loose in his film. Warshofsky is Joker material as the pimp, clad in an immaculate white suit and cheerful in threatening both women and children with a shiny switchblade. Johnny Messner is pure evil as Joey’s gangster boss Tommy, Arthur Nascarella channelling his inner Goodfellas as his dad and the Don of their operations. Roden is a sinister force of nature as Anzor, the nasty Russian stepfather with a meth habit and one unhealthy obsession with John Wayne, while Lord Of The Rings’s John Noble is impossibly sadistic as Ivan, head of the Russian syndicate. The women in the film are all an angelic and comforting presence, from Farmiga to the hooker (pay attention to the colour of her dress) to Ivana Milicivec as Oleg’s tragic mother, they serve as refuge from the night’s storm as best they can. It seems like I’ve described a lot here or spoiled some things but really I’ve only scratched the surface of this piece. It’s so fresh, potent and full of life that experiencing everything I’ve just laid out for yourself will feel absolutely new and invigorating, if daunting at the sheer titanic level of unpleasant human behaviour on display like a twisted circus trundling by, showcasing the dark underside of urban Americana.

Kramer has stated that he wanted to make the kind of gritty film you might have seen playing in the 70’s, and if anything he has fiercely committed to the adage ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to.’ This film is unique in excess, style and atmosphere, from the assured yet riotous direction to the pitch perfect, profanity laced performances to the eerie, pulp infused score by Mark Isham. I don’t think people were quite ready for this film when it came out because it earned itself some very hostile reviews. I think that comes with the territory in a story this extreme, it’s just not going to be everyone’s thing, but many confuse personal taste with quality, and this is in no way a bad film but perhaps just ahead of its time. For me it’s already a classic, a film I’ve probably seen over thirty times since being awed and slightly scared speechless after the first round in theatres. I think I didn’t know what I was in for based on marketing, and the experience I got both humbled and terrified me at what is possible through visual storytelling. I think that’s one of the best effects a film can have on you. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill