I’ve seen a lot of Mexican vacations go wrong in the horror/thriller arena but never as specifically and drastically so as it does in The Ruins, a stressful, gruesome, brightly lit body horror vehicle written by someone who probably had a traumatic experience with poison ivy as a kid. Your typical American kids are lounging at a resort, dealing with petty relationship issues and getting drunk when a German backpacker tells them of an archeological expedition at a nearby Mayan pyramid, so they decide to take a day trip and check it out. Well this pyramid just happens to be covered in an exotic, sentient and very pissed off species of carnivorous vine and once touched, you’re fucked. The local villagers have apparently already had run-ins with it and surround the ruin with guns, blocking off any escape or further contamination. This leaves these kids atop the pyramid to slowly be hunted, starved, preyed upon and driven insane by this horticultural nightmare, which is fun enough as a B grade exercise in grossology. The kids are all played by reliable actors like Joe Anderson, Jonathan Tucker, Shawn Ashmore and Jena Malone and they handle the desperation, fear and anguish fairly well. The vine thing itself is kinda neat, it looks like weed leaves and does this cool thing where it’s flowers can mimic people’s voices and other sounds to confuse and terrify it’s prey. There are some extremely unsettling moments of bone shattering gore and uncomfortable body horror that is effective and shocking, but most of the film is set on top of the pyramid in broad daylight so it’s not terribly evocative in terms of atmosphere. It’s fun enough, but nothing great.
Hostage isn’t just another Bruce Willis action movie. It is that, but a lot more and told in a unique, frightening way that evokes both horror films, impressionistic art and a European style of filmmaking. It’s frequently more intense than your usual Willis shoot em up too, the violence has a much more horrific impact and happens on a smaller, more intimate scale while the explosions take a backseat. Willis plays hostage negotiator Jeff Talley, a man who is haunted by a hair raising incident with a situation he failed to diffuse, as we see in a bleak, visceral prologue that lets us know exactly how grim and bereft of one liners the rest of the film will be. Relocated to small town California with his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and daughter (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s own daughter with Demi Moore), he seeks the quiet life, but naturally trouble begins to follow him in a spiralling set of dark turns and unfortunate events that lead to the case of his career and the night from hell. On a routine B&E call, Talley discovers that three white trash punks have taken over the home of businessman Kevin Pollak and his two children. Two of them are twitchy petty thieves (Marshall Allman and the reliably intense Jonathan Tucker) and are just out for valuables, but the third (Ben Foster, scary as fucking shit) is a sociopathic monster capable of terrible things, and the situation escalates from there. Little does anyone know, Pollak is involved in something far more dangerous than any of this, and soon a shadowy covert boogeyman called The Watchmen (Kim Coates, managing to still be terrifying behind a ski mask the whole time) has kidnaped Talley’s family as brutal leverage. It’s an intricate web of danger, heroics and violence that erupts like a flash-bang grenade and hits hard. Willis has never been better, you can see the open wounds in his soul bared through his eyes, and feel the weight of the situation crushing him as he races to find a solution. Pollak’s mansion feels like a labyrinthine death trap as the world’s most elaborate security system descends on those inside and shuts them in. Michelle Horn and Jimmy Bennett are terrific as Pollak’s resourceful kids, dealing with Foster’s unpredictable psychopath as best they can. The mood here is dour, savage and dark, with Willis’s fallen saint of a cop anchoring it all, it’s really some his finest work. There’s an austere score by Alexandre Desplat that accents the action with thumping passages in great sweeping master shots, and spikes the scenes of claustrophobia inside the house with uncomfortable rhythms. Director Florent-Emil Siri plays with an unconventional, surprisingly artistic palette and makes what could have been another routine action film seems somehow special, in all the right ways. One of my top Willis flicks, both in terms of his work and the overall film.
In most cases, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes label has made dismal attempts at horror remakes (see their Elm Street and Friday The 13th for cringe cases in point). However, the version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre they did was pretty damn good on my barometer, a brooding, darkly humorous and fiercely frightening piece that reworks the barebones, grainy vibe of Tobe Hooper’s original classic into something more dingy and atmospheric. It’s the 70’s, and rural Texas is as humid and inhospitable as ever, particularly so in Travis County, right in time for a Volkswagen bus full of nimrod partygoers to trundle through and get caught in the snare of the severely disturbed Hewitt clan, spearheaded by big ol’ Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), a mute, disfigured monster with a penchant for taking a chainsaw to people’s vitals and wearing their skin over his own, inspired by the less imposing real life killer Ed Gein. Sexy Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Eric Balfour and Mike Vogel plays these ill fated kids, serving mainly as power tool sharpening blocks. I love the slow, eerie buildup of this one, as they begin to realize that the town isn’t just sleepy or hidden, it’s pretty much dead save for these last straggling residents who are clearly off their head. A huge asset for the film is R. Lee Ermey as the creepy, hostile county Sheriff, who let’s just say… isn’t really the Sheriff at all. He gets many chances to mean mug, terrorize and intimidate these kids and the old gunnery sergeant has a ball. The rest of the townsfolk are a creepy bunch of hayseed yokels without a brain or conscience between them, and serve as a luring posse to Leatherface. The killings are appropriately gory, and hats off to director Marcus Nispel for a striking opening shot that sees his camera pan through the still smoking head-wound of a poor girl who’s just blown her dome off with a giant revolver. Ew. The high praise I’m giving this one does not apply to the follow up prequel called The Beginning, which ditches all mood and pacing for an exercise in abrasive, unforgivable sadism and lazy plotting. Ermey goes full nutso in that one and still is having fun, but not even he can pull it out of the shit. I’d imagine same goes for the host of others that came after, including a new entry that’s slated for this year, if memory serves. This one got lucky because it played it’s cards right, and earned the position of a remake that does indeed hold a candle.
Barry Levinson’s Sleepers is a deliberately paced, downbeat look at revenge, and is one of the most brilliant yet seemingly overlooked dramas of the 90’s. Part of it could have been marketing; The cover suggests blistering violence, confrontation and courtroom intrigue. While there are such moments within the narrative, they live to serve the story, which Levinson and his dream cast are doggedly intent on telling. It’s a sombre affair to be sure, slow and methodical as well, but never to be confused with boring. It’s just such a great story, one that unfolds exactly as it needs to. It starts in the 1950’s, where four young rapscallions run wild on the streets of Manhatten. It kicks the story off with a sort of urban Stand By Me vibe, and if you thought that film went to some heavy placed, stick around through Sleepers. When an innocent prank ends in tragedy, the four are sent to an austere children’s correctional facility, where they run afoul of some sadistic and abusive guards, led by Kevin Bacon, who is scummier than scum itself. They endure months of ritual abuse at the hands of these sickos, until their eventual release. Life goes on, as it must, the four boys grow up and follow very different paths from one another. Michael (Brad Pitt) becomes an esteemed lawyer. Shakes (Jason Patric) lives a quiet life, while Tommy (Billy Crudup, wonderfully cast against type) and John (Ron Eldard) take a darker road to drugs and crime. Eventually their past rears it’s head, and they are presented with an opportunity for much delayed revenge. It doesn’t all play out the way you may think though, and half the fun of this one is being surprised by geniunly lifelike plot turns and characters who behave as real humans would. Pitt is the highlight in a performance of quiet torment. Dustin Hoffman is fun as a washed up lawyer who gets involved, Minnie Driver shows up as a tough NYC gal who gets involved with Patric, Robert De Niro has a nice bit as a kindly priest who counsels the boys even until adulthood, and there’s further supporting work from Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Frank Medrano, Brad Renfro, Terry Kinney and more. Levinson usually takes on bright, chipper comedies and razor sharp political satire. With Sleepers he deviates into tragic dramatic material, and shows his versitility excellently. This one gets grim, no doubt about it. However, it’s a story not only worth the telling, but worth the watching for us.