Horror has always been a pretty big business, especially on home video. So, in the advent of Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Download, which titles are worth seeing? Which ones are worth avoiding? Well, read on to see the best, worst, and most “eh, whatever” titles in genre films available now.
Next to Gravity, I’d say that my favorite movie of the year so far is James Wan’s The Conjuring (Warner Home Video/New Line), an all around perfect horror film that revitalized the old haunted house tale without having to do anything new, and made such an impossible seeming feat work.
Based on a “true story,” our film deals with Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), whom are called upon by the Perron family. It seems that something is haunting their house, giving the wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) bruises, and terrifying their daughters late at night among other things. However, once the demonic presence infects Carolyn, it may take more than an exorcism of the house itself.
If Insidious proved that there was more to Wan than his debut feature Saw, then “The Conjuring” may prove not only that he’s a master of crafting a good scary story, but may be his masterpiece as well. Taking plenty of old cliches (creaking doors that shut on their own, ghosts that whisper in the dark) and making them feel fresh via an understanding of tension and suspense, this movie is a rarity – a horror movie that not once insults the audiences intelligence or wallows in sadism and gore for the sake of shock instead of scares. It’s also incredibly well acted, with Farmiga in particular standing out as a grieving but still tough mother. Collins, Wilson, and Ron Livingston also deserve credit. I could go on and on – the script is fantastic, the direction is understated and smart, the atmosphere practically chokes you – this isn’t just a great horror movie. This is a great movie, period.
Hannibal (Lionsgate) has a similarity to the likes of “Arrested Development” – not thematically, but in that it’s an example of the little show that could. By that, I mean that it’s a show that doesn’t get the best ratings, but has gained a loyal following and great reviews. Watching the first season, it’s easy to see why: It’s the best take on the Hannibal Lectar character since Silence of the Lambs, and after an unnecessary sequel and two prequels that range from forgettable to downright awful, makes him fresh again.
Granted, the story deals more with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a criminal profiler who has been hired by Special Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to help him track a serial killer that has been eating people. To help him out, Jack gets Dr. Hannibal Lectar (Mads Mikkelsen) to aid in the search, whilst unbeknownst to them, Hannibal – oh, you know what he’s doing. What you may not know is that there are other killers on the prowl, and Hannibal is playing with Will’s increasingly fragile psyche…
Part of what makes “Hannibal” stand out is how producers Bryan Fuller (whose credits include “Dead Like Me” and “Pushing Daisies”) and David Slade (who directed “30 Days of Night”) approach the material. Instead of offering what one expects from a story involving Hannibal Lectar, the viewer gets visuals clearly inspired by macabre surrealist art and the more artistic realms of horror. This is thanks due to the striking visuals on display (including some inventive symbolism and creative body horror) and an approach towards storytelling (particularly Will’s visions and how they affect him and the people he knows) that takes more chances than obnoxious schlock like “The Following.” It also benefits from a wonderfully morbid sense of humor, largely ranging around Hannibal’s culinary habits but also from supporting cast members like Scott Thompson (who you may know from “The Kids in the Hall.”) In short, if you want a TV show that actually does something genuinely new with the tired serial killer genre, then give this a shot.
When it was announced that Alexandre Aja was going to produce a remake of Maniac (IFC Films/MPI), I couldn’t help but wonder “how on Earth are they going to pull that off?” since the original was such a notorious movie in its time, and remains one of the scuzziest slasher films ever made. The remake… doesn’t really do anything all that different. The premise is the same: Frank Zito (here played by Elijah Wood) works at a mannequin store, and has a bit of a bad habit. I mean that he kills women and scalps them for mannequins he has in his apartment. Why is he like this? Well, let’s just call it Norman Bates syndrome. He ends up getting the attention of local artist Anna (Nora Arnezeder), who takes a platonic liking towards Zito. Of course, because he’s a serial killer that has serious issues with women, this can only go well.
On one hand, I have to hand it to Aja and director Frankc Khalfoun (P2): They made a movie that’s better than it has any right to be. The acting is mostly top notch, with Wood in particular capturing a portrait of a psychopath who can’t control his darkest compulsions. It’s also very impressive looking, with cinematography that perfectly captures the neon colors of the city, and a great electronic score by Rob (from the band Phoenix) that adds to the bleak atmosphere. At the same time, little about the film feels necessary. I mean, it looks good, has great performances, and some really impressive gore FX. Like many remakes, it only feels like it was made because they thought they could. Still, it’s a fine little slasher film, and fans of the original will most likely walk away happy.
I was actually impressed with the remake of the notorious exploitation classic I Spit on Your Grave, but nothing about it screamed out “this needs a sequel.” However, that’s what we got, a sequel (Anchor Bay) that’s really just one in name only, with prior director Steven Monroe returning. Here, we get a would be model (Jemma Dallender) who ends up being raped, kidnapped, and sold into prostitution by a gang of scumbags posing as photographers. Of course, she manages to escape, and the next thing you know vengeance is hers.
Next to Texas Chainsaw 3D, “I Spit on Your Grave 2” may be the worst genre film I’ve seen this year. Everything about it reeks of a cynical enterprise from money hungry producers and studio heads that wanted to make a quick buck, as it’s clear no real effort was put into this thing. It also indulges in the worst, basest interests of its audience, as at least half of the movie is nothing but a woman screaming for her life whilst she is tortured, humiliated, and raped (this reaches the point of no return when she is raped and shocked by a cattle prod). Even the revenge aspect is lazy, as it’s nothing more than recycled “torture porn” aesthetics that went out of style four years ago, all done without any level of thought or energy. This is the kind of movie like “Texas Chainsaw 3D” and “The Devil Inside” which gives horror movies a bad name.
Finally, on a lighter note there’s Devil’s Express (Code Red). This cheesy bit of old school, genuine exploitation deals with New York martial arts master Luke (the awesomely named Warhawk Tanzania) who goes to Hong Kong (aka part of New York meant to look like Hong Kong) to achieve the next level. There, his student Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan) finds an ancient amulet, and decides to take it home for him. This of course proves to be
Why? Because said amulet holds an ancient demon that thirsts for violence, and decides to pick the denizens of New York’s subways (including a cameo from I Drink Your Blood and Stigma director David Durston) make for fine victims.
Filled with poor fight choreography, a funky soundtrack, bad acting, cheap gore, and the occasional moment of humor, “Devil’s Express” is the kind of movie that’s not good in the traditional sense but as an cheap exploitation movie is a blast to watch. Part of the fun is the fact that director Barry Rosen and his writers try to fit at least four different genres: Chop Socky, Blaxploitation, Demonic Possession, and Monster Movie into a blender, knowing exactly what people who frequented the 42nd Street Grindhouse theaters wanted. It also helps that this is the real deal as far as exploitation goes. No modern day movie pretending to be a Grindhouse movie here, but the real thing. If you are like me, and tend to gravitate towards goofy, low rent fun movies like this, than this is likely a must. They really don’t make them like this anymore.
Next Time: Two from Criterion, plus “100 Bloody Acres”.