Tag Archives: horror

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

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André Øvredal’s The Autopsy Of Jane Doe

It’s always a good barometer to use Stephen King’s praise when it comes to horror films, and he had nothing but great things to say about André Øvredal’s The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, a gruesome and very scary little chamber piece with quite the unnerving story to tell. Set in a spooky underground morgue, a father son duo of coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) get one last corpse sent their way by the county sheriff (Roose Bolton from Game Of Thrones) just as they’re about to shut down for the night. Labelled a Jane Doe due to lack of any identification, she’s one in a series of bodies found at a boarded up house, but cause of death is eerily unclear. These two toil away looking for clues as the night wears on and her corpse gets steadily weirder with every layer of skin, bone and tendon peeled back, but something isn’t right with her and soon our heroes hear creepy sounds, see bizarre things in the hallways and realize that the last place they want to be is stuck down there with her, especially while a raging storm prevents them from leaving. It’s a terrific setup for a nightmarish horror story, and all the elements make it work quite well. Cox and Hirsch are two great actors who sell both the father son drama and the burgeoning fear as each moment gets scarier than the last. Jane Doe isn’t a dummy or CGI but played by real actress Olwen Catherine Kelly mostly the whole time, adding an uncomfortable depth and realism to their predicament as we search her body for signs of movement or remaining sentience and squirm in our seats. The photography here is crisp and concise, the scenes lit to effect and the score drives them neatly too. There’s plenty of gore and look-away moments involving the autopsy (unless that’s your thing, ya sick fuck) but the real fear lies in story and suspense as we gradually learn who Jane Doe was and what is now happening around her, while poor Brian and Emile are stalked by all kinds of freaky shit and their apparently haunted radio starts to spaz out on them. I can see why King liked this so much as it greatly reminded me of his work, it’s smart and not too predictable with perverse attention to detail in the body horror and a slick, immersive premise. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Jordan Peele’s Us

The idea of doppelgängers has been explored before in film, but never in a fashion quite as twisted as Jordan Peele’s Us, a furiously entertaining horror show that gets weird, wild and so refreshingly unpredictable in a genre where the climate tends to flatline with endless Conjuring universe carbon copies and what have you. There’s a ton of ideas at play here and it makes the film hard to pin down as one thing or the other, but it works beautifully as a breathless, streamlined home invasion shocker with deeply unsettling undercurrents and implications that can be read many different ways. When Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) was a young girl, she had a terrifying encounter within a shadowy hall of mirrors on Santa Cruz beach, an encounter which will herald the arrival of feral versions of her, her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) as they vacation at their summer house a stone’s throw away from that very same beach. The prologue with her as a kid is set in the late 80’s and has a retro horror feel as Peele uses his favourite scary movies as both fuel and inspiration for the style on display here. The home invasion of these shadow selves is a brilliantly staged piece of white knuckle suspense and impressive physical acting, especially by Lupita as both shellshocked Adelaide and her other self Red, a growling fiend who is the only one of them that can talk. She rasps enigmatically about stuff that seems like both straightforward exposition and cryptic allegory, hinting at the secrets in store for the third act. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are flat out hilarious as the Wilson’s bickering neighbours, bringing uproarious comic relief before confronting their own set of homicidal visitors. Lupita gives the strongest performance here in both her characters, a frantic dual role knockout that holds the film in panicky distress with her wide eyes and instills deep terror with what she does to her voice, she’s a consistently brilliant actress and I love her work in this. This is clearly a passion project for Peele, the imagination on display is something else and fresh new scripts like this are always welcome for me. Some may have issues with certain things in the third act like explanation and climactic resolution, but he deliberately leaves a lot of it for us to ruminate on instead of telling us every detail about what we just saw. There is a scene where Lupita’s Red imparts some of it but it’s still somehow told in a roundabout way and not laid open bare in spark-notes fashion. Some may find this frustrating, but I loved it. This is probably the best horror film I’ve seen since 2014’s It Follows, and definitely one of the most original. A shock inducing siege thriller, an acidic jab at personal identity and a quietly discomforting look at the rifts you can see beginning to form in the world today. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives

Angelina Jolie as a cop hunting down a ruthless serial killer who uses especially grisly methods is a great premise for a film, but you may as well skip DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives and just go revisit Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector, a great film that did the concept way better. Lives is a poor excuse for thriller material, a drab, dank and musty slog through a narrative that doesn’t seem to give two shits about its characters and frequently makes little to no sense, not to mention fails heavily at holding interest. Jolie plays a hotshot FBI profiler who is consulted by French Canadian police when their efforts to nab an elusive murderer fail. This is a guy you never really see because every time he kills, he takes on the identity of the victim, blending in and leaving few clues. Jolie searches back through records from decades ago and tried to piece together this guy’s past to find him, but he himself has noticed her and taken an interest. This all sounds terrific on paper but the film they’ve made is a messy, overwrought lump, like a particularly bloody episode of criminal minds without the ‘mind’ part to give the criminal activity any weight. Jolie is joined by Ethan Hawke as a colleague as well as Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands, Tcheky Karyo, Paul Dano, Justin Chatwin and more, but none make a huge impression. Kiefer Sutherland shows up as a nasty piece of work who is so obviously a red herring it hurts to see his painfully limited arc come and go like a breeze. Don’t even get me started on the final twist either because it’s too ridiculous. This has the grungy, incisive visual aesthetic of David Fincher’s Sev7n but with none of the pace, doom laden atmosphere or brains to back it up. The only cool thing is the title, which of course refers to the killer’s penchant for both murdering and assuming the lives of those he targets. Neat premise, wicked title, dope cast… shit awful film.

-Nate Hill

Renny Harlin’s Prison

Before Lord Of The Rings shot him into the stardom we know today, Viggo Mortensen had one oddball of a career leading up to it. Between playing the Devil, appearing in one of the more bizarre Texas Chainsaw sequels and training Demi Moore to be the first female Navy Seal he did Renny Harlin’s Prison, a little known, low budget horror flick that’s actually quite a lot of fun. A slick, schlocky hybrid between classic grassroots prison films and effects heavy gore of the 80’s, it sees an ancient precinct becoming haunted by the ghost of a long dead inmate who got the chair, perhaps wrongfully. The Warden (Lane Smith) is an angry old prick whose demons are coming back full force and he’s taking it out on the convicts big time. Mortensen is Burke, a mysterious con with integrity and grit who helps out when he can doesn’t stand for the warden’s bullshit. Chelsea Field is a prison board member who gets swept up in the whole thing and watch for Tom Everett, Kane Hodder, Lincoln Kilpatrick and Tiny Lister too. Smith plays the Warden not as so many have done like an outright sadistic villain, more a severely stressed out career man who has turned ugly overtime and started to project his frustrations in the most damaging ways, given his position of power. This is very low budget stuff and it shows, but there are still some striking set pieces including a solitary cell that heats up like a red hot furnace and fries those inside gruesomely and a string of barbed wire that comes to live and wreaks all kinds of havoc. Harlin made his debut here and it’s a strong one, he makes exciting decisions with the actors and handles the horror excellently. I could have used a tad more backstory on Mortensen’s character as some more exposition regarding the ghost convict, but other than that this is a blast.

-Nate Hill

George P. Cosmatos’s Leviathan

Imagine John Carpenter’s The Thing… but underwater. That’s pretty much what you get with Leviathan, a gooey aquatic creature feature that borrows heavily from both the Thing and Alien’s book, but when you consider how equally desolate and open to monstrous imaginations the arctic, oceans and deep space are it’s not hard to see how minds think alike, whether great or not. Is Leviathan great? Well.. no, but it’s not terrible and puts on a good, enjoyably gory show populated with a cast that can *definitely* be counted as great. On the ocean floor somewhere in the Caribbean, a team of deep sea miners discovers a derelict Russian vessel that was sunk on purpose, and it soon becomes clear why. Their salvage run ends up snagging an unseen stowaway, some horrifically slimy aberration that slowly but surely dispatches members of the crew before showing up in prosthetic form that reminds us so much of The Thing its a wonder there was no lawsuit. Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller puts on a great show as their captain, a jaded intellectual among lowly grunts who just wants to evacuate the team and be rid of the whole endeavour. Others are played by the likes of Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, the eternally hammy Richard Crenna, Lisa Eilbacher, Michael Carmine and Daniel Stern in a role… well what can you sway about his role here. As obnoxious, chauvinistic scumbag Sixpack, he pretty much cements his duty as first to go when the monster shows up and stands as patient zero for most hate-able character out there. We also get Meg Foster as the obligatory shady corporate bitch whose interests lie in dollar value rather than the safety of her employees, an ill advised standpoint that causes Weller to spectacularly one-punch her right at the end, which is a stand up and clap moment. Directed by 80’s genre maestro George P. Cosmatos (Tombstone, Cobra, Rambo), this is a solidly entertaining horror yarn with a schlock feel and although it shamelessly borrows from other, better films, one can’t help but brush that off when you consider the effort made and how fun it is. It’s funny, the late 80’s was a heyday for underwater horror/sci-fi and between other fun titles like James Cameron’s The Abyss, JP Simon’s The Rift and Sean S. Cunningham’s Deepstar 6, this one holds its own. Listen for a great Jerry Goldsmith score too, a loopy composition that samples the howling bleeps of a sonar device to hilarious effect. Good times.

-Nate Hill

Christian Alvert’s Pandorum

I can understand that a bleak, disturbing SciFi horror like Pandorum didn’t connect well with Hollywood audiences or generate a lot of income, but it’s a shame because it weaves an intelligent, beautifully shot, truly scary dark dream of psychological paranoia, freaky ideas and tense, claustrophobic set pieces. Helmed by Christian Alvert, a German director best known for unconventional horror films, this was never going to be a flashy, familiar feeling big budget thing, which many probably didn’t expect. Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid are Payton and Bower, two astronauts who awaken on a giant derelict spaceship with severe amnesia and the unsettling feeling that their mission has gone horribly wrong. After a bit of exploring they find out just *how* wrong. Terrifying, monstrous humanoid creatures hunt any survivors through dim, clanging corridors that echo Ridley Scott’s Alien. Payton encounters two initially hostile nomads (Antje Traue and Cung Le) who he must band together with. Somewhere deep inside the ship, the reactor starts to fail. Another mentally unstable survivor (Cam Gigandet) is found by Quaid and starts to dangerously unravel. Gradually the secrets of what happened are revealed along with the reason for the presence of these creatures, which I won’t call aliens because they’re not. This is brutal, grim stuff that isn’t light watching or easy on the senses, it’s a skin crawling deep space nightmare of a film and a tough piece, no kidding. But it’s smart, tightly wound storytelling with fantastic acting (especially Quaid who rarely gets to go this bonkers crazy) and a plot that races along like some intergalactic nightmare until the final revelation, a thunderclap that lets us breathe again for the first time in over an hour. The title itself refers to a fictional psychotic disorder in which one believes the mission is cursed and becomes a delusional nut-job with destructive behaviour, the mental byproduct of extended space travel. This ties neatly into the very real dangers aboard the ship as reality shifts for these characters and their narratives become unreliable. A brilliant piece of SciFi horror filmmaking, a film that still hasn’t gotten its proper due. Get the Blu Ray, it looks fresh, crisp and darkly dazzling.

-Nate Hill