Tag 2000s

Slashers (2001)

Slashers (2001)

Are you game?

Slashers, Japan’s biggest extreme reality TV show, is having an American special where six American contestants play for the chance to win $12 million dollars. All they have to do is survive until the end of the show as three masked psychopaths stalk them around the set and try to kill them. There are no rules and anything goes.

 

In the 00s obsession with reality TV shows like Survivor, Big Brother and any number of low brow ‘fly on the wall of a famous person’ documentaries, it was only a matter of time before the film world would began to tap into the trend. My Little Eye was one of the first to hit the cinemas but with it came a slew of imitators and spins on the reality TV meets horror genre. Perhaps the most interesting and obscure is Slashers, a low budget offering from Canada, which plays out like a slasher version of Schwarzenegger’s 80s classic, The Running Man. I managed to source it back when I worked for Blockbuster and its now out-of-print as far as I’m aware so good luck in trying to track down a copy if this review makes you a tiny bit curious. Looking back in 2020, Slashers seems so far ahead of it’s time, it’s uncanny: reality TV is literally everywhere. How many people watch absolute trash like TOWIE, Geordie Shore, Love Island, etc? Or keep up to date with the Kardashians? Society has become obsessed with ‘real’ people in real situations on TV, despite the irony that these people featured are anything but ‘real’ or ‘normal’ everyday citizens.

Slashers introduces its silly, campy tone right off the bat with the Japanese gameshow, allowing the filmmakers to goof off plenty without fear of hurting the film. The opening scenes are cringe-inducing with their depictions of wacky Japanese game shows but funnily enough, they work to instil the sense of reality – as bonkers as everything looks, this is the sort of thing you could imagine the Japanese doing and we’ve all seen some of their crazy game show ideas. The killers are introduced in true 80s professional wrestling style, complete with goofy gimmicks and theme music: Dr Ripper, Chainsaw Charlie and The Preacherman.  I’m sure you’re already imagining what they look and sound like and you’d probably guess about right. These are simply employees working for the producer though, dressed up to take part in the show and to murder people. The contestants are fully aware of their surroundings, breaking the fourth wall on many occasions, as they point out the cameraman or how the music suddenly starts to increase in intensity, signalling the arrival of a killer. It’s very clever and very effective, towing the line between serious and parody without going too much either way.

Despite initially being shocked at the look of Slashers, another of those low budget ‘home movie’ style films which had plagued my DVD player during that time period (Camp Blood, Killjoy, Hell Asylum, etc. to name a few), I found myself intrigued by it all. The production values are very low-rent and the sets look sparse and almost empty. It’s like being let loose inside a cheap homemade haunted house, where a few cardboard boxes have been painted, daubed with some cobwebs or flashing lights and erected with minimal expense. So whilst the low budget makes everything look amateurish, that’s exactly the vibe that the film is going for – this looks like a cheap reality TV show rather than a feature film. It’s one bold idea that the $200,000 budget doesn’t actually impede but improve.

The acting is extremely amateurish, and I mean amateurish – these people look to have been pulled off the street and told run around in front of the camera for a few days of filming. The actors make no attempt to even make themselves sound professional because they’re constantly moaning, whining or talking trash to each other. Now in any other low budget film, I’d be ripping them apart for their lack of talent but, like a lot of stuff in Slashers, the poor quality of the performances actually makes the whole thing look real, as if they were pulled off the streets, told someone was going to kill them and had a camera crew chasing them around for a few days. Just like a lot of reality TV shows feature people who are not trained actors and have become famous by being terrible on camera, Slashers makes sure its cast isn’t ‘too good’ for the film. However, Neil Napier is a hoot in both the roles of Chainsaw Charlie and Preacherman and hams it up massively underneath plenty of prosthetics and make-up. He’s that good that I didn’t realise it was the same guy until I’ve come to do the review.

Of course, what film would be called Slashers without a bit of slashing? There are some kills here (not everyone survives the gameshow) and they do have their fair share of red to be splashed about. But they look cartoony and this is one area where the low budget doesn’t feel quite right, working against the ‘realistic’ approach and takes you out of the action somewhat. The ’live’ nature of the film means that whenever there is a commercial break, everyone involved has to stop what they’re doing and wait for the show to recommence. This leads to some wonderfully dark moments as the killers, in the middle of attacking their next victim, are forced to stand and wait for the camera to come back on them, allowing the survivors the chance to taunt, plead or simply develop a plan of escape.

 

This almost goes against everything I’ve ever reviewed but the premise of Slashers necessitated a low budget, reality TV-like approach and that’s exactly what it delivers. In some alternate, ‘not-too-dissimilar to our current society’ dystopian vision of the future that easily would find a home in The Running Man or Robocop, we may all be settling down to watch Slashers rather than X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent on a Saturday night (not that I watch either of them, just talking in generalised terms!). A really underrated hidden gem if you can ever find it.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later (2002)

Day 1: Exposure – Day 3: Infection – Day 8: Epidemic – Day 15: Evacuation – Day 20: Devastation

When animal rights activists break into a medical research laboratory to release the captive chimpanzees inside, they inadvertently unleash a highly contagious rage-inducing virus which spreads via blood and saliva and quickly infects living beings. 28 days later and Jim awakens in hospital after being in coma to find London completely deserted. Meeting up with a pair of survivors, Jim discovers that the virus spread quickly among the populace, resulting in complete societal collapse, and the group attempt to find sanctuary to escape from the hordes of infected roaming the streets.

 

Between 1985 and the early 00s, mainstream zombie films were few and far between as they had fallen out of favour. Much like the slasher film fell by the wayside at the same time, the humble zombie film had become oversaturated and on the decline. But then in 2002, a low budget critically-acclaimed horror from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle was snapped up by an American distributor and the rest is history. Largely credited with totally reinvigorating the zombie genre and bringing it back to the mainstream, 28 Days Later was the first zombie film in years to receive a widespread cinematic release and became a big hit across the world, scoring over ten times its budget back in ticket sales.

28 Days Later is still fundamentally just another zombie film that we’ve seen before, only with some nice reinventions on the sub-genre tropes (don’t call them zombies for a start!). The story still has to weave through the same conundrums for the characters to conquer: searching for food, water and a safe place; suddenly learning how to survive after being brought up in a modern society; trust issues with strangers they encounter; realising there is more of the infected than there are survivors; and dealing with loved ones once they’ve become infected. 28 Days Later addresses all of these issues with a sense of stark realism – there isn’t going to be a happy ending for many people in the film.

Shot on digital video to give it a grimy, bleak appearance, 28 Days Later introduces a fantastic post-apocalyptic vision within it’s opening five minutes – the empty streets of London (a nice early 4am shoot to get the desired effect) looking eerily like they’ve never looked before. This isn’t some burnt-out, buildings collapsing wasteland but just the same old London without people. It’s an uncanny effect. The main character, fresh from hospital treatment and unsure of what has happened (potentially in a nod to The Day of the Triffids in which the main character follows a similar post-operation trauma without realising the Earth has been overrun with killer plants) staggers around the place, looking bewildered and disorientated. It’s this disorientation which helps to channel the narrative because there’s little exposition to fill in the gaps. Not knowing just what has happened and how quickly adds to the panic and fear.

It’s the realism and down-to-Earth nature of the film which helps 28 Days Later keep a strong bond with the audience. There isn’t a reliance on gore or even standard issue ‘boo’ moments to throw out a few cheap thrills and spills. 28 Days Later has a generally calm atmosphere with a strong underlying sense of dread where you know that something bad could happen at any moment but the characters have accepted that and tried to put it to the back of their minds. The film punctures this false illusion of security every so often with some shocks and Boyle wants you to remember the sudden shocking outbursts of violence, making them more effective in the process as you’re kept on the edge of your seat. Although there are relatively few action sequences in the film, the ones that are here are memorable enough to make you think you’ve seen more. An opening chase from a church and a thrilling sequence inside a tunnel are memorable purely for the speed and frenetic energy they’re presented in, rather than their length.

Whist not quite zombies by the usual definition, the infected certainly fall into the same category given there’s no real alternative nametag. Boyle’s rage-infected humans charge forward in a hyperactive, frenzied state, able to sprint, leap and do things that the usual slow-moving shuffling walking dead can’t do. It gives them a unique presence, something that Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was quick to capitalise on a few years later. The scenes with the infected work far better than they should, given Boyle’s preference to shoot a lot of the film with an eerie peace and tranquillity. After all, why would there be a lot of background noise in the world when pretty much everyone is dead? The snarls and roars of the infected are made twice as scary when they pierce through the silence – you might not see them, but you can hear them coming. They also don’t need to eat brains either, which just turns them into savage killers with no rhyme or reason for doing what they do.

Cillian Murphy went on to do a lot better after this, starring in films such as Batman Begins, Inception and Dunkirk, and probably most famously now as the lead role in BBC TV show Peaky Blinders. He’s great in the lead role here, pretty much stumbling around in confusion and not having much of a clue as to what is going on. Strong support comes from Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson. Christopher Eccleston, who would go on to star in the revamped version of Doctor Who, appears just over half-way through as the leader of a bunch of soldiers holed up in a country mansion for protection.

It’s at this point where 28 Days Later is let down by its final third, as the story heads off in a slightly different direction to everything that came before it. I guess Boyle thought he needed to up the action ante in the film’s climax as the narrative becomes the generic men with guns vs ‘zombies’ shoot-out and all mayhem comes to the fore as the walls of the mansion are breached. Given this is what happens in a large majority of zombie films towards the end, 28 Days Later is hardly in unfamiliar territory, especially with the whole ‘humans are worse than zombies’ undercurrent. But we do care about the main characters by this point and, some plot armour moments aside, you will be rooting for their survival.

 

28 Days Later has become something of a modern-day standard bearer by which recent zombie films have been measured against and there’s a good reason for that – it’s one of the best to come out of the genre for a long time. Though far from perfect, Boyle’s horror film is full of moments of peace and tranquil beauty, juxtaposed with kinetic energy and raw savagery, keeping tension and suspense high and audiences on tender hooks. Bleak, pessimistic and a whole lot of perverse fun for genre fans.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Monster Man (2003)

Monster Man (2003)

On this highway, the roadkill is HUMAN!

Friends Adam and Harley head off on a cross-country drive so they can both confess their love to the girl of their dreams before she gets married. But an encounter on the road with a monster truck-driving maniac sends their trip spiralling into a nightmare.

 

Duel and Jeepers Creepers have more than a little influence on Monster Man, a horror-comedy which charts familiar territory for anyone who has seen either of the former, as well as a host of backwoods horror films like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A small, modestly budgeted production made by people who clearly have some understanding and love for the genre, it is low brow pandering to the specific demographic of its male audience but has plenty of heart to go along with the trash.

Monster Man opens with a brutal head-in-a-vice moment which threatens to set the stall of the narrative out seriously, but it quickly switches into its more relaxed buddy movie set-up. You will have to sit through a fair bit of character development to begin with before the film begins to move into gear so sit with it. The characters aren’t that great but they’re not ‘switch off the TV’ material. What follows is a succession of familiar set pieces in familiar locations – the rest stop outhouse, the redneck diner, the sleazy motel and the backwoods town all appear at some point. There’s no real originality here so the success of the film all depends on the manner in which the material presented. Thankfully, Monster Man delivers it with plenty of zest and energy, moving things along at a fast pace and delivering plenty of entertainment in its running time without any major down time.

Monster Man cranks up the comedy purely by upping the gore and gross-out content. The script itself isn’t particularly funny, nor is the frat boy shenanigans of the main characters – it does have its moments – and runs more like America Pie at times, with plenty of predictable jokes about poo and sex. Putting them into a horror setting keeps them from becoming too stale because the audience knows that for all of the pratting around by Jack Black-wannabe Justin Urich, the situation the characters are in is deadly serious. The real comedy value in Monster Man comes in a Re-Animator or Bad Taste sort of way. Here, the laughs are from the situations the characters find themselves in and how they manage to deal with blood and guts on a regular basis. Particular bad taste highlights include one of the characters having an erotic dream without realising they’re actually tonguing a piece of bloody roadkill and another where the same character tries desperately to avoid touching a mangled corpse in the back seat of a speeding car as it twists and turns along the road. It’s hard not to laugh, even if you know you’ve lowered your standards for a bit!

Sadly, Monster Man never quite fully manages to read the horror and comedy line, falling down into the comedy side more often than not. When the film does try to play up on the terror, particularly during the final third, you’re half-expecting a gag or quip to come out and lower the tension just when it needed to stay serious. Though the film borrows a little heavily from genre conventions for the monster truck and its disfigured driver, they are still both intimidating presences which warranted a little more fear factor. The ‘monster man’ of the title wears a nice patchwork mask and has a bit of a limp walk, which adds to his otherworldliness, but his scariness is limited due to the antics of the characters he’s trying to kill. He looks like a threat and it’s a pity the script didn’t treat him a bit better in that respect. Once the horror kicks in and the comedy dies down, the film really has no gas left to run on and we’re left with a disappointing conclusion which didn’t make a whole lot of sense and gets a bit silly for it’s own good.

The cast do a decent job with the recycled material. As previously stated, Justin Ulrich will either endear himself to you early on or will grind on your nerves repeatedly throughout with his Jack Black-lite persona. His schtick gets tiresome quickly as you wonder why anyone would want to be this character’s friend so it’s a bit of karma when most of the nasty gore-related humour comes at his expense. Eric Jungmann is the dorky straight man, with his assortment of Velcro bum-bags (or fanny packs as Americans call them) providing for the odd moment of ‘Batman utility-belt’ inspired comedy. It’s the virginal character we’ve seen a million times before, so you know exactly how his character arc is going to develop. Star of the show is the delectable Aimee Brooks as the sexy hitchhiker the two friends pick up on their travels and then start to fall in love with. It’s easy to see why: Brooks is drop-dead gorgeous in her cowboy boots and tiny outfit.

 

Monster Man is a great timewaster, with humour and gore to satisfy its target audience quite satisfactorily, though I’m guessing non-genre fans would have a harder time in seeing the positives. It’s definitely a ‘beer and pizza with the guys night’ type of film and will not disappoint those seeking some low brow cheesy horror-comedy fun.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Deathwatch (2002)

Deathwatch (2002)

Deliver them from evil

In the middle of the First World War, nine British soldiers caught behind enemy lines seek refuge in a complex network of German trenches. They soon discover that they aren’t alone in the trench and what is hunting them down isn’t a German soldier.

 

I do like a good war-based horror film, partly because the real horrors of war are far scarier than anything a writer could dream up for the screen, but also partly due to the sense of man vs monster that such outings can conjure up. Soldiers form a unique bond serving with each other during war time, as they know they have to depend on each other in life-or-death situations. They are a tight-knit group, closer than family in many respects, so it makes filmic sense (even if it is exploitative) to pit this type of cohesive unit up against perils even more deadly than the human enemies they face. How does discipline, bravery and masculine bravado deal with supernatural or monstrous forces?

There’s a real lack of decent horror outings based upon the First and Second World Wars – filmmakers just don’t seem to get it right. The likes of The Bunker and The Keep promise much but for various reasons, they just failed to completely click. Deathwatch is another – it has some great potential but just doesn’t anything decent thing with it. The introduction is all guns blazing, with the soldiers going over-the-top and experiencing the agony of no man’s land. The film is very disorientating here with the editing, the noise and the smoke but it’s designed like that for a purpose to replicate the sheer chaos of going over-the-top. Anyone with even half a brain can spot the big plot twist ending coming a mile away from a certain point in the introduction and it’s a pity it was signposted so blatant as it detracts from the narrative.

Deathwatch is shot with a bleak colour palette, with greys and browns dominating the screen and reflecting the grim realities of trench warfare. This is a world where mud is about the only thing there is an abundance of. The trench sets look realistic and very claustrophobic, and the weather is constantly raining or foggy, adding to the bleak atmosphere.  This must have been awful to shoot as an actor. The film also does a great of conveying the fact that there’s something amiss about this place, which is a task in itself as we all know how horrific trench warfare was, and the signs for them successfully leaving are ominous. But then the film proceeds to do very little with it – it’s all well and good in creating some decent atmosphere but it needs to serve a purpose.

Deathwatch does a decent job in catering to the horror crowd with some of the basics. There are red mists of blood, wailing and moaning noises, piles of dead bodies (some wrapped gruesomely in barbed wire), blood dripping down the sides of trenches and copious amounts of rats – the well-crafted visual nightmare is clear to see. However, there’s no real sense of narrative linking it all together. It’s not quite a ghost story. It’s not quite a slasher. There’s no hint of zombies. No real monstrous menace. Just a lot of things happening that can’t quite be explained by the characters, as one-by-one they succumb to various incidents. It’s very much a cycle of each character falling victim to paranoia or madness before they’re killed off by something. Things make a bit more sense (to some degree) with the ambiguous ending but the morality-play twist just reeks of desperation on the part of the writers as if they had no other way to conclude the story.

The characters do drift off a bit too much into stereotype: the upper class captain who doesn’t have the respect of his men; the aggressive psychotic who just wants to kill Germans anyway he can; the Bible-thumping believer who feels they are part of a bigger plan; the pasty-faced rookie who is too naive; the tough sergeant who the men look up to more than the captain; and the cynical doom monger. The easiest way to distinguish them is by their accents, as each one is conveniently given a regional accent to not only allow the audience to tell them apart, but also use our knowledge of accents to put two and two together in regards to potential character traits. It’s fairly cheap characterisation but it works as well as it needs to. In his first post-Billy Elliot role, Jamie Bell is awkward in the lead and needs the help of some reliable character actors to support him. Laurence Fox is decent as the foppish Captain Jennings, whilst most UK viewers will recognise Kris Marshall from the old BT adverts. Andy Serkis steals the show (when doesn’t he?) as the slightly-deranged Quinn, hamming it up to no end in a trademark nutjob performance. The cast is decent all round, it’s a shame they don’t have much to work with.

 

Deathwatch is highly atmospheric and very creepy, doing a great job in setting up what could have been a fantastically devilish horror. Sadly, there’s so much wasted potential here but this kind of goes along with the film’s period setting. The film works as a metaphor for the bleakness, pointlessness and futility of the First World War, with the expectations of the soldiers going off to fight in the glorious war suddenly dashed with the reality of trench warfare and a life of hardship a nice companion for Deathwatch raising hopes with the audience, only to dash it with little end result.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2006)

Masters of Horror: Dance of the Dead (2006)

In a post-apocalyptic American society, the population has been decimated by nuclear terrorist attacks and flesh-dissolving nuclear fallout. Amidst the aftermath, a naive young teenager gets involved with a drug-stoked biker and his friends, against her overprotective mother’s protests. The teens hang out at the Doom Room, a punk rock nightclub, where re-animated corpses from the nuclear attacks perform courtesy of electric-charged flows and experimental drug-injected shots.

 

Based on a short story by Richard Matheson and adapted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson, Dance of the Dead was the third episode from the first series of Masters of Horror. I started covering them on the site a while back as they’re basically mini-feature films, with horror stories condensed into an hour-long episode format and helmed by a number of famous horror directors. Tobe Hooper is the ‘Master of Horror’ for this episode and directs a rather pedestrian entry, pretty devoid of any real meaty narrative. Though you could argue that was Hooper’s calling card for the majority of his career. After hitting it big with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper made a few passable horror films (I really like The Funhouse) before descending into pure rubbish for many years as he tried and failed to recreate his past glories. Dance of the Dead isn’t going to enhance his reputation though it was better than most of his recent efforts.

With the episodes running under an hour each, time can’t be wasted but that’s precisely what Dance of the Dead does, spending far too much early on pottering around as if this is a full-length feature film. What’s worse, the script doesn’t go into any major exposition about what happened to cause the problems facing humanity, nor does it explain the current state of affairs, though there are lots of pointers and suggestions about how life is in this not-too-futuristic society. It gets the audience working their brains a bit more than usual, though if you’ve seen half as many post-apocalyptic films as I have, you’ll easily be able to join up all of the relevant dots. This is a nihilistic world, full of depravity and indulgence – it’s not clear just how quickly and why society has taken this turn for the worst, particularly with the teenage generation.

Hooper puts too much focus on the production values of the episode to appeal to a younger audience, perhaps trying to tap into a vein of rebellion, with the drugs, drink and fast cars showing a decadent lifestyle a lot of idyllic teenagers would grab at. I’m a rock and metal fan and love the music loud and heavy but Dance of the Dead’s soundtrack frequently just comes at you from all sides. It’s the same for the visuals, almost as if Hooper had been given access to a load of new filters and crazy plugins for his editing software and he goes overboard with them during the club scenes, adding frenzied cuts, strobe lighting and lots of unnecessary ghosting moments. It’s a pity because for every overblown effect, Hooper throws in some truly unsettling images, including the sight of still-twitching ‘zombies’ being dumped into a skip before being set alight by two laughing henchmen, and the club’s owner engaging in some kinky shenanigans with a naked zombie.

Dance of the Dead does feature some solid performances. Jessica Lowndes, as the innocent Peggy, not only looks gorgeous but manages to transform her character from being weak, naïve and curious to strong and independent by the end of the episode. Jonathan Tucker also manages to play off an odd combination of character traits, as the drug-addicted biker who sells blood to dodgy dealers but who is also heroic and chivalrous when dealing with Peggy. It’s a weird pairing but it works well to sell the story. Robert Englund does his best to save the episode from oblivion with his sinister MC lauding up the applause in the club, winding up the crowd with insults and creepily making out with zombified girls in the back room. Englund can go over the top and he ventures too far over the line a few times here, but the ‘showman’ scenes contrast with the shady businessman moments and this is where he reigns it in. He’s the best bit of the episode by a long shot.

 

Dance of the Dead isn’t a great Masters of Horror episode, with Hooper failing to recapture any former glory and laying down his persistent weaknesses for all to see. It’s loud, depressing, and above all, not very scary or exciting. It’s not like the source material, from acclaimed writer Richard Matheson, was bad, it’s just mis-handled by someone who left their horror legacy back in the 70s.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Joy Ride (2001)

Joy Ride (2001)

It started as a joke. Now the joke is on them.

Two brothers going on a road trip to pick up a girl decide to have some fun on the CB radio they had installed in their car. Assuming the role of ‘Candy Cane’, they pretend to be a lonely and attractive girl looking for love. When a trucker with the designation of ‘Rusty Nail’ begins to show an interest, the brothers decide to play a prank on him by arranging to meet him at a motel. When the prank backfires in a deadly way, the brothers realise they’ve gone too far. But Rusty Nail isn’t finished with them and proceeds to stalk and torment them.

 

Taking plenty of inspiration from such road terror flicks as The Hitcher and, most obviously, Duel, Joy Ride is an effective and mildly thrilling piece of fluff which is far better than it has any right to be. Coming slap bang in 2001, right amid the teen horror boom brought on by Scream and its numerous pop culture-referential clones, Joy Ride wisely decided to skip the self-awareness and goes back to basics. Joy Ride was renamed Roadkill in the UK, presumably due to the phrase ‘joy ride’ referring to criminals breaking into and stealing a car before going for a little spin. But I’m using the Joy Ride title here as it’s far better.

Producer and co-scripter J.J. Abrams was, back in the day, a jobbing screenwriter most famous for TV show Felicity and had a few films under his belt but nothing major – he was probably impatiently waiting like the rest of us for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, unbeknownst to anyone that he would go on to take control of one of cinema’s biggest and most beloved franchises. Though the script has plenty of gaping plot holes – such as how Rusty knows so much about these characters and how he always seems to be one step ahead of them – the choices that the main characters make are generally good and logical. In one particular scene, instead of hanging around a motel room waiting for something to happen, the freaked-out teenagers simply jump into their car and speed off, which any sane person would have done in that situation. Abrams keeps things ticking and keeps the audience guessing. There are a few twists along the way here, nothing too shocking, but enough to stop the film from drifting into autopilot. There’s little chance of that happening though, as set piece follows set piece – Abrams mantra that audiences will let lapses in logic slide if everything else in the film is working clearly evident throughout the swift hour and a half running time.

Director John Dahl channels his inner Hitchcock as best he can, plying on the noir elements with a distinct twentieth century expression, giving his interiors green or red hues, setting a lot of the film at night, and dwelling on the seedier underworld of long-distance driving from motels with porn on the television sets to grubby gas stations. The initial prank sequence, where the brothers sit in the room next door and listen to what is going on, features excellent sound design, ramping up the tension without the audience seeing a thing. Dahl also throws in some excellent set pieces, particularly a chase inside a huge cornfield where Rusty uses the search lights on his truck to locate the hiding teenagers. In fact this cornfield set piece was part of the original ending (it was included on the DVD as a bonus feature and you can see why it was ditched, along with all of the other bits they originally planned) but new scenes were shot and added as the creative team struggled to find the right ending. The problem by this point is that the film keeps trying to top itself and up the ante every time the teenagers and Rusty lock horns. Joy Ride slowly begins to run out of petrol with too many false endings but has the good decency to finally quit whilst it’s ahead. The ending finally decided upon is satisfying enough to close the plot (although not enough to prevent a sequel).

Paul Walker stars in the same year as The Fast and the Furious hit the cinemas, with the filmmakers no doubt hoping to capitalise on his sudden stardom (though I’m guessing Joy Ride was made first and just sat around idly as the creative team messed around with the script and reshoots). Walker is ok in the role; he’s basically just plying the same Paul Walker character he did in The Fast and Furious – drives fast, shouts a lot and does little else. Steve Zahn tones down his goofiness and he and Walker play off each other perfectly as the brothers, with a little tension between them under the surface. Leelee Sobieski, third-billed, doesn’t even appear until about forty-five minutes into the film and then her role is simply to act as bait and become the damsel-in-distress. Arguably, she ruins the dynamic of the two male leads who had been working fine together and taking it in turns to take control of the situation.

Perhaps the best performance in Joy Ride comes from someone who is never seen – Ted Levine, famous for his role as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (amongst many other films) provides the voice of Rusty Nail, only heard through the CB radio. His bass tones, full of intimidation and authority, are the perfect output for the truck driver, with Levine crafting Rusty Nail as an almost-supernatural menace whose actions speak just as loud as his words. The fact we never see the character in the flesh is immaterial – by just a voice alone, this character is more intimidating than 90% of cinematic slashers, psychopaths and madmen.

 

Joy Ride is highly underrated thriller which went under the radar a lot, most likely overshadowed in the same year by Jeepers Creepers which had a similar plot of friends travelling across country on a road trip being terrorised by someone/something. Is it a genre classic? No. Is it going to be on your repeat watch list? Probably not. Is it a great way to spend an hour and a half? You bet. Joy Ride is a pleasant surprising suspense thriller with enough tricks to keep you hooked.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Cave, The (2005)

The Cave (2005)

There are places man was never meant to go.

Deep in the Carpathian Mountains, a team of scientists stumble upon the entrance to a giant underground cave system. Biologists believe the cave could be home to an undiscovered eco-system, so they hire a crack team of American cave explorers to help them investigate its depths. But what the team finds deep inside the cave is not just a new eco-system, but an entirely new, and deadly, species.

 

2005 was the year of the underground creature feature with this following hot-on-the-heels of The Descent, the superior of the two by a clear margin, but The Cave seems to draw a lot more of its inspiration from Pitch Black, complete with one of its stars in Cole Hauser and a similar creature design. Playing out like one of those generic sci-fi horrors shown on Sy Fy, only with $30 million dollars budget strapped to its back, The Cave was not a box office hit and just about managed to scrape its budget back in takings. There’s a good reason for that: it’s so averagely generic, that it’s almost a dictionary definition.

A routine plot. Cardboard characters. Production values which look sleek in the trailer but aren’t particularly brilliant in the full film. Monsters which are amalgamations of previous on-screen beasties. Action-set pieces which are dull and unoriginal. The Cave ticks a lot of boxes – it’s a shame that it’s all the wrong boxes. There’s nothing energetic about the screenplay. There’s nothing energetic about the performances. Everyone goes through the motions. I always have to ask the question in these circumstances – why bother in the first place? Whilst everyone will compare it to Neil Marshall’s superior spelunking shocker, the similarities with Pitch Black are more obvious. Regardless of which film you want to compare it to, The Cave fares equally as poorly on every single factor.

A major problem I have here is that they’re supposed to be deep underground in a subterranean cave system yet there’s always plenty of space, light and air for them to see, breathe and move around freely for most of their adventure. In fact, so little attempt is made to portray them as being trapped miles underground in this dangerous environment, that the setting looked like a beautiful place to go and visit – one of those secret tourist spots you see on random viral videos and you expect to see some tourist swimming by taking selfies. Only on occasion do you get the sense that these people are really in any danger of being cut off from the rest of civilisation. The film is just full of these caves, each time they go deeper into the network, the tunnels continue to have the same light and visibility. Only in one reasonably dark scene involving a large underground lagoon do you get the sense that they are somewhere totally alien to us on the surface.

Quite how the creatures have managed to survive for so long down there with very little in the way food is anyone’s guess. There are a few explanations thrown around to give the creatures some scientific basis, but no one really comes to any definite conclusion and we’re left with no further clue as to what they are by the end. Whenever the creatures attack, expect to see plenty of frenetic camerawork as the film does its best to avoid showing you anything remotely coherent, presumably to hide the creatures for as long as possible and to keep the gore to a minimum (this received a 12a rating in the UK, a ridiculous decision for an ‘adult-targeted’ action-horror). Once or twice is forgivable to build tension and the ‘less is more’ mantra, but consistently doing it throughout the film robs the audience of one of the key reasons why they bother tuning in to genre fare like this.  It’s hard to distinguish just how the characters are killed off here and what the creatures do to their victims and the attack scenes are poorly handled.

There’s a cast full of recognisable faces – Lena Headey (pre-Game of Thrones days), Morris Chestnut (drifting from one sub-standard creature feature flick in Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid to another one here), Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) and Daniel Dae Kim (TV show Lost) – but let’s be reasonable here, they’re not exactly given decent characters to flesh out and have to recite some truly awful dialogue – “Now we’re part of the food chain” being one of the most cliched amongst it. All of the usual tropes and stereotypes are here with the characters and their flimsy back stories and motives, but it matters little once the creatures come into play and the more expendable members of the expedition meet their fates first before one or two of the well-known faces are fed to the creatures. Hauser is a bit of a charisma vacuum in this, and his bug-eyed serious face looks to be the only trick he has in his locker. To be honest, none of them show anything like the range they can all portray, particularly Headey who went on to do some amazing work as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones. If this was her audition tape, she’d have failed.

 

If you’re expecting anything other than a standard genre offering here, you’ll be disappointed. The Cave just about does enough during its running time to keep your interest but it’s instantly forgettable with its run-of-the-mill approach to literally everything. Best to keep this clunker buried as far below ground as possible.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Valentine (2001)

Valentine (2001)

Remember that kid everyone ignored on Valentine’s Day? – He remembers you.

Five women are stalked by an unknown assailant while preparing for Valentine’s Day. When they each receive a sinister Valentine’s card, they realise that the person responsible is Jeremy Melton, a nerdy classmate who they tormented and tortured for asking them out at a Valentine’s dance when they were in sixth grade.

 

I shudder to think that I actually paid to go and see this at the cinema back in 2001. Not that it’s terrible, just so derivative and captures a post-Scream moment in teen terror that is probably best forgotten. Scream introduced the post-modern, self-aware slasher where the characters all knew the rules of the genre, what to do and what not to do, etc. But that quickly became tiresome as a slew of clones were rushed out, and so then-modern slashers went back-to-basics, ditching the jokes and self-referential humour and trying to emulate the 80s by returning to the serious scares – these quickly outstayed their welcome too. Valentine emerged at the end of that cycle and it clearly shows.

Director Jamie Blanks, having previously helmed the equally-forgettable Urban Legend, returns to the sub-genre and regurgitates the same run-of-the-mill nonsense, albeit it with the classic seasonal-themed twist so popular back in the 80s. The whole whodunnit mystery element to the story throws in plenty of characters to interact with each other and attempt to bamboozle the audience with red herrings (particularly the male characters who all come off as very self-absorbed, cocky or inconsiderate) but for anyone remotely intelligent, it’s blatantly obvious who the killer is right from the first moment you see them on-screen. There’s also a lack of urgency surrounding a lot of Valentine’s run time and the whole plodding pace of some of the stalking and ‘hide from the killer’ scenes slam a brake on to any sort of momentum the odd moment of brilliant inspiration provides. Valentine is never outright boring, but some of the scenes move far too slowly for their own good. When the set pieces appear, they’re devoid of any real energy and everyone in front of the camera goes through the motions – the female characters put up a heck of a fight in their self-preservation but ultimately succumb to the inevitable.

True to form, Valentine features a swathe of young-ish, good-looking American actors such as Denise Richards, David Boreanaz and Kathering Heigl to pad out the cast so that the audience are clueless about who is going to die next (this started and peaked with Drew Barrymore’s infamous scene in Scream). Rather than worry about that, I spent the duration of the running time trying to figure out how a bunch of gorgeous, supposedly twenty-five year old best friends are all still single. Their characters are fairly one-dimensional, generally arrogant and wholly unsympathetic (only one of them shows anything resembling remorse for their actions towards the young Melton). You do wonder why they’re all friends given the way they treat and talk to each other. There’s no real sense of friendship between them, something that Scream at least managed to develop between the lead teens.

The sad thing is that Valentine has production values way better than it deserves. This isn’t some slapdash low budget effort but something which has a bit of money behind it. There’s a really cool arty sequence inside an exhibition hall which smacks of Argento and the whole thing has a polished look to it: a far cry from the grainy, low budget slashers it’s seeking to emulate. Valentine was also heavily cut after its initial rating was given, in response to school shootings in America, and it shows in the relatively dry approach the film takes towards the gore. I think you see more blood from the cherub’s nosebleeds throughout the film than you actually do from any of the victims. Aside from some half-memorable kills involving a hot tub and power drill, and the obligatory bow and arrow (given the killer wears a Cherub mask) murder, there’s nothing to really get worked up over. The final revelation of who the killer is doesn’t come off as a shock in the slightest: as I’ve already said, you’ll have it worked out from the start – unfortunately for the characters, they spend far too much unnecessary exposition trying to piece together the clues. Well, something had to fill up the screen time.

 

A dull-looking killer, mediocre murders, a plodding pace and some pedestrian writing turn Valentine into a rather bland ninety-minutes of slasher action.  It’s not the worst example of the sub-genre you’re ever going to stumble across but it’s hardly going to get your pulse racing.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Feast (2005)

Feast (2005)

They’re Hungry. You’re Dinner.

A motley group of strangers find themselves trapped in an isolated tavern and must band together to fight off a family of flesh-eating monsters.

 

With a plot that has been done to death time and time again, your typical low budget horror film cast with a few recognisable faces and the fact that Wes Craven was an executive producer (purely so the makers of the film could slap his name on the front cover), Feast didn’t exactly set itself up to bat with great poise. The opening few minutes reek of a director desperately trying to make his film stand out from the crowd with the mini-bios of each character and their odds of surviving the night appearing during freeze frames of each patron. It’s a bit gimmicky and self-referential but it was early days. Stereotypes are played up with the ditzy barmaid, the hick owner, grizzled barman and a variety of stock characters peppering the bar. You know that the film is going to be by-the-book but you’re unsure by how much. However, the moment the ‘hero’ bursts through the doors of the tavern to warn everybody of the coming danger, the rules and predictability go straight out of the window and Feast turns into one of the best damned gore-fests I’ve seen in a long time. No character is safe. No subject is too taboo. Nothing will go the way it should go. Just sit back and enjoy the ride because it’s going to be fast and frenetic, with plenty of bad taste thrown in for good measure. Feast strides into the foray with a ridiculous amount of swagger and bravado, assured in the knowledge that the rest of the film is as confident in its own appeal to the audience as these opening five minutes.

It’s actually quite hard to review Feast and not give away too much because half of the fun in Feast is actually waiting to see what happens to which character. Believe me there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns. Every genre cliché is battered around. Just when you think the film is heading in one direction, the rug is pulled from underneath you. And then just as you start to get to your feet, the rug is pulled out again. It’s a relentless ride of twists and it’s a great credit to the writers that they manage to keep everything as entertaining at the end as they did at the beginning. The film does start to lose steam half-way through as there’s only so many logical twists and turns that the narrative can take before it becomes tiring and because it throws everything but the kitchen sink into the opening half, there’s not a lot else left to do but repeat.

By this point, it doesn’t really matter because the blood and gore are flowing freely, and the film has already won enough goodwill to see itself out to the end. The deaths are all violent, gruesome and frequent. There is a pretty big group of people to thin out at the beginning and the film wastes little time in getting rid of most of them early on. At times, the film can be a little dark to see what is going on and director John Gulager does have the annoying tendency to throw in plenty of cuts and rapid edits during the attack scenes to make them a little disorientating. Thankfully, the finale provides ample opportunity to catch up on any missed gore as the make-up effects team go all-out to drench the screen in as much blood and guts as possible.

Feast does have a wicked sense of black humour to go along with the twists, some of it which will not be to everyone’s tastes and if you’re easily offended then you’re best off avoiding (though if you think this one is bad, wait until you check out the sequels). From the monsters humping everything and everyone in sight (I’ll let you find out for yourselves) to the almost computer-game like names of the characters (Honey Pie, Boss Man, Hot Wheels, etc), there’s nothing too goofy or silly to be included. Does it harm the film? Yes and no. If you’re looking for serious then look elsewhere. But if you’re in the mood for one of those ‘switch off your brain’ flicks then this is right down your alley. A lot of the laughs to be had come from inappropriate moments and ‘I shouldn’t really laugh at that but can’t help it’ twists and turns – if you haven’t got a grin on your face at least a handful of times here, then you’ll need to have a humour transplant.

Clu Gulager, of Return of the Living Dead fame, is one of the recognisable faces amongst the cast – after all, his son directed the film. Henry Rollins has a few of the best moments of the film as the motivational speaker who needs to change his trousers when they are ripped during an attack and is stuck wearing a pair of pink tights for the bulk of the film. The rest of the acting isn’t particularly bad, nor is it memorable – the characters are all slightly more dimensional than they have right to be, but these characters aren’t exactly an actor’s friend. The major positive is that there’s no real main character and a lot of the supporting characters get equal screen time. This is one occasion when not having a lead character to dominate the screen helps the ‘group sticks together’ mentality. It also means the film becomes less predictable as no one is really safe until the end credits roll.

The monsters themselves do get a lot of personality traits (especially the more amorous younger creature) but are rarely glimpsed in full, confined to the shadows or edited in such a way as to avoid revealing what they really are. I guess it wouldn’t have hurt to let us know just what these things were but sometimes less is more. The suits look decent enough when you do catch the odd glimpse and they do look equally terrifying and ridiculous in the sequels, who were less afraid to showcase the monsters in the daylight and in full view of the camera.

 

Feast is a true feast of horror and comedy, which is insane from the start and doesn’t let go. It doesn’t just break the rules, it tosses them away and does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it, and doesn’t care who it offends along the way. From Dusk Till Dawn on steroids would be a great way to summarise this.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up (2006)

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up (2006)

When a bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the passengers split. Some decide to stay at the bus and wait for help, some accept an offer of a life from a truck driver and Stacia, a female traveller, opts to walk to the next motel or town. But it turns out that the group have been caught in a bizarre turf war between two serial killers – one who drives trucks and murders hitchhikers and another who hitchhikes and murders the drivers. Now they both have their sights set on Stacia and a cat-and-mouse game begins as to who will have the honour of murdering her first.

 

One of my favourite episodes of the Masters of Horror series, Pick Me Up is a sharp and black-humoured take on the great urban legends of hitchhiking – is the person flagging down a ride going to be a mass-murdering psychopath, or is the person driving going to want to string you up on a meat hook somewhere? It’s a familiar trope for horror and one which is the focus of this episode from the first series. The ‘Master of Horror’ at the helm of this one is the late Larry Cohen, responsible for such cult hits as Maniac Cop, It’s Alive and Q, The Winged Serpent.

It’s no secret that there are two serial killers on the loose in this episode and so the story wastes little time in getting their dirty deeds out into the open. The material is played slightly tongue-in-cheek, with Cohen poking lots of fun at the usual conventions for this type of story – broken down vehicle in the middle of nowhere, truckers saving the day, sleazy motel rooms, etc. The characters from the broken-down bus are all fully self-aware of the folklore surrounding hitchhikers and random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to offer assistance and it’s perversely funny to see one female lecture her boyfriend about being murdered and being called cranky and paranoid, only to suffer the fate a few minutes later.

The main thing that’s different about Pick Me Up that is focuses on the antagonists rather than the protagonist. Usually, the final girl is the one who gets the most screen time and plot development but here, the script opts to feature the serial killers as the main stars. It’s an interesting take on the material which isn’t done enough in horror as we get a glimpse into their psyches and the reasoning behind the slaughter. More attention is paid to their natures, rather than their deeds, and so this episode isn’t full of blood, even if one scene inside a motel room may make some people squeamish, despite there being a reasonable body count for such a short feature. The threat poses by both men is expressed mainly through the quality performances of the two leads.

Long-time Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty stars as Wheeler, the truck-driving serial killer, and he steals the show in virtually every scene he’s in. Moriarty was always good at playing eccentric characters and you never quite knew what you were going to get with him. But his wily veteran schtick is the perfect match for Warren Kole’s brash upstart, Walker, who comes off as the ‘not quite the boy next door.’ Poor Fairuza Balk gets caught in the middle here, with a one-dimensional screaming female role which could have been given to anyone. The fact her character carries a knife with her and has the bad ass goth girl thing going on should have been the signal for the script to have her standing up to the killers more often. Instead, she spends the second half of the episode tied up and desperately trying to escape. The two men are so well-connected in their few scenes together, that she ends up playing second fiddle.

Pick Me Up it at its best during these tense scenes of one-upmanship between the two serial killers. The first, a meeting outside a motel room, is full of double-entendres and subtle nuances, where both characters are virtually talking in code to each other whilst their female target stands idly in the middle. The second, a more open-ended discussion about their true intentions in the front seat of the cabin, is like watching two stags competing to be the alpha. It’s such a shame that it takes too long for the two to cross paths and a good twenty minutes are wasted before they do. The cat-and-mouse narrative works perfectly for a short feature like this and Pick Me Up reaches its logical conclusion before it runs out of road or does a u-turn and goes back over itself. There’s some just time for one more sting in the tail right at the end, which leaves a very Tales from the Crypt-esque taste in the mouth.

 

Pick Me Up is a great example of a competent director ‘getting’ the Masters of Horror format and working it to its most profitable within the time constraints: plenty of suspense, genuine eeriness, outbursts of violence, unpredictable and all tinged with a morbid humour to keep it entertaining. It’s not the best episode of the series but it might very well be the most enjoyable.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆