Tag 2000s

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream (2007)

Masters of Horror: We All Scream for Ice Cream (2007)

Buster is an ice cream man with learning disabilities who loves nothing more than to entertain the kids he serves on his round with magic tricks. But for one group of kids, he’s a complete joke and a prank they play on him backfires spectacularly, inadvertently leading to his death. Thirty years later, Buster returns as a vengeful spirit to get vengeance on the now-adults who caused the accident.

 

The Masters of Horror TV series was a great idea in theory – get together some of the greatest names in horror, give them an hour-long episode and let them work their big screen magic for the small screen. With names like John Carpenter, John Landis, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon and Dario Argento, the series debuted to excellent reviews and lasted for two series before its contract wasn’t renewed. Garris, the creator, then secured another studio to make a similar series, Fear Itself, which only lasted for one season and had many of the same names involved. Like all great anthology films and TV shows, you’re going to get a mixed bag. Some episodes are good, some are not so good. Some people will prefer Dante’s work over Argento’s. Some will like the gorier episodes better than the spookier ones.

A cross between A Nightmare on Elm Street and IT, We All Scream for Ice Cream is an effective, if routine, episode of the series which does exactly what it sets out to do. You’ve seen it before and director Tom Holland, of Child’s Play and Fright Night fame, plays it safe with the material. Exploiting the creepiness of clowns always seems like a cheap way to generate some heat, especially given that Buster didn’t have to be dressed as a clown, he could just have been a normal ice cream man. The narrative is fairly straightforward, with surviving members of the gang being bumped off one-by-one as the story moves along, and Holland keeps things ticking over at a nice pace. He holds back plenty of the little details, revealing bits and pieces about what is happening and why – it’s no secret that it is Buster, back from the dead, doing the killing and so the story plays upon that as much as possible.

Holland was capable of making something childlike to be scary in the shape of Chucky, the killer doll, and he does his best here to make Buster to be as frightening as possible. He’s not going to win the awards for the scariest cinematic clown, but he comes fairly close. Buster’s appearances are telegraphed with the haunting ‘We All Scream For Ice Cream’ song, vaguely reminiscent of the little girls singing ‘One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…’ in A Nightmare on Elm Street and with some eerie shots of his ice cream van moving in slow motion, surrounded by mist. The idea of him targeting the children of his tormentors in order to extract revenge has been done before but here the novelty is that the kids are given ice creams by Buster and, upon eating, their fathers are subjected to a hideous voodoo-doll like death.

William Forsythe is excellent as Buster, alternating between the good-natured pre-prank ice cream man and the evil, vengeful ghost. He’s good at delivering the ‘tug on the heart strings and feel sorry for him’ vibe whilst he’s goofing around with the kids in the flashbacks but just as good being the psychotic, snarling almost zombie-like killer in the present. The make-up changes to give him a scarier, more rotting look for the present day are really effective in expressing this bitter and twisted persona. Lee Tergesen, more famous for playing one of Wayne and Garth’s airhead friends in Wayne’s World, does a decent job in the leading role as the one tasked with stopping Buster. The scenes they share in the finale are good, but it’s all rushed and resolved far too quickly, as Tergesen’s character goes into Kevin McAllister Home Alone mode to prepare traps for Buster and defeat him once and for all.

We All Scream for Ice Cream’s trump card is definitely the practical effects on show. When characters die, they are reduced to puddles of melted ice cream. The first couple of instances happen off-screen but once the episode stops pulling it’s punches and starts going for the jugular, you get to see the melting in all of its glory. The episode’s show-stopping moment involves a man melting in a hot tub. It’s such a great display of prosthetics, goo and slime that it’s almost a travesty to see cheap CGI used in a similar sequence in the finale. It’s like they emptied the budget in the hot tub scene rather than saving it for the big finish.

 

We All Scream for Ice Cream might have worked better as a full-blown low budget B-movie but it’s still an entertaining episode of the series. It falls into cliché and familiar territory, but Holland handles it with assured competence and the decent production values keep things ticking over nicely. Just like an ice cream itself, you’ll enjoy it whilst it lasts but it leaves no lasting legacy.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

[REC] (2007)

[REC] (2007)

One Witness. One Camera

A reporter and her cameraman are trailing a crew of firefighters during a night shift in Barcelona when they’re called to an incident at an apartment block where an old woman is trapped inside her flat and is screaming. However once inside the building, the group, along with the residents, find themselves being quarantined inside by the military who refuse to allow them to leave. Its not long before they realise that they are locked inside the building with a horde of zombies.

 

I’ve been hard on found footage films in the past, slamming them for being a one-trick pony which, by the old mantra, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s face it – The Blair Witch Project did everything that these films do back in 1995 (though you can go back to 1980’s brutal Cannibal Holocaust to see an early prototype of what this sub-genre would become) and the rest of the bunch have been simply happy to rehash the same tropes time and time again. Can anyone honestly say there’s any difference between the Paranormal Activity films? But that was until [REC] came along. I’d hasten to say that this was the finest found footage film that has ever been made.

There’s nothing unusual about the setup – a zombie flick set inside a building hardly sounds like the most original idea – but it’s the manner in which the material is presented which works brilliantly. After a nice slow build, meeting the reporter and firefighters and arriving at the building, everything seems to be going along swimmingly, with a suitable build of uneasy tension. Then there are sudden explosive bouts of savagery and violence which puncture the atmosphere and come out of nowhere to throw the viewer off-guard. The claustrophobic tension is unpalpable at times and the viewer feels like they’re stuck inside the apartment block along with the characters, as the narrow corridors and dark rooms really allow for things to appear from nowhere – and they do! It almost seems as if everything is happening in real time and because of that, there’s no let-up in the tension. Even when the characters appear to be safe in a room, you know that they’re not.

From the moment the first zombie attacks right until the last shot of the film, the mix of slow-burner shocks and out-of-your-seat jumps will keep you on your toes throughout. The fact that none of the actors were known to Western audiences makes this more effective as we don’t know which actors are ‘named’ or not in Spain. There’s a realism and unpredictability that comes with that, keeping you on the edge of your seat and not being able to work out who dies next or when. Allegedly co-directors Juame Balagueró and Paco Plaza kept some of the scares secret from the cast to draw actual screams and reactions from them during filming – it works! Unlike a normal film where scares can be telegraphed, there are a number of moments here which don’t happen in the centre of the shot: things popping in from the left or the right of camera or happening in the background where you don’t get a clear view. There’s lots of the usual found footage shenanigans including the camera not working at convenient moments and shaking whenever the user is running, forcing you to miss some key things that will either annoy you or intrigue you. But that’s where [REC] is genuinely frightening. The nauseating movements of the camera combined with the knowledge that anything can happen at any time really make this a thrill ride you’ll not forget in a hurry.

A lot of people will be familiar with [REC] via its American remake counterpart, Quarantine, an equally impressive piece which virtually covers this shot-by-shot. But there’s something about the rawness of this Spanish language version which gives it that extra edge. Forget the subtitles – you don’t need to read them to get the full effect of this masterpiece. The actors, including the fantastic Manuela Velasco, do an admirable job of conveying their panic, their fear, and their frustration without the need to understand what they’re actually saying. You can see what they’re up against – snipers with orders to shoot on sight stopping them from getting near the windows, and hordes of red-eyed, snarling 28 Days Later-style zombies prowling the apartment block looking for their next victim. But it’s potentially the final five minutes or so of [REC] that shift this into the upper echelons of horror – an intense, unnerving cat-and-mouse game of hide-and-seek with something even more malevolent and deadly than the ravenous monsters below, and with a sucker punch ending that leaves a dry taste in the mouth lingering long after the credits have rolled.

 

One of the best horror films to come out of Europe – heck, the world – in the past thirty years, [REC] is a fantastic rollercoaster of thrills, chills and spills. I’d thought modern horror films had lost the potential to scare an audience so accustomed to the methods used by filmmakers, but I was wrong. This should be essential viewing for any true horror fan: a near flawless exercise in sustained tension and genuine fear.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

The Battle of the Century!

To protect Japan against another attack from Godzilla, the government creates a huge human-piloted robot, using a breakthrough technique of infusing DNA from the skeletal remains of the original Godzilla monster that attacked Japan in 1955 with high-tech machinery and electronics. Just as the robot is completed, Godzilla shows up once more. Is Mechagodzilla ready to fight or is it too early?

 

Godzilla – Mothra – King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack had proven to be Toho’s most ambitious project up until that point, even if the finale end product hadn’t lived up to expectations given the ‘star power’ of the monsters on show and the addition of Shusuke Kaneko in the director’s chair, who had given the Gamera series a ridiculously-good kick up the rear end to bring in kicking and screaming into the modern era. Hot on the heels of the success of GMK (for short), Toho wanted to keep the momentum going and so Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla came out a year later to add another sequel onto the Godzilla series. Not many franchises make it to number ten let alone twenty-six!

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla is a marked improvement on its predecessor but still fails to really capture the magic that the late 90s Godzilla films had sparkled so well with. For me, the Heisei series (the name given to the Godzilla films from 1985-1995) marked a high note for the series which has never been bettered since in terms of scope, special effects, action and general entertainment. They even get the human side of the narrative working well, given that this element has always been on the back burner and used mainly for exposition to link monster fights together. Here, the script leaves plenty of holes and virtually reduces Godzilla to a supporting player: this is Kiryu’s film (the name given to Mechagodzilla).

Liberties are taken with Godzilla’s history again as the script cherry picks what it likes from not only Godzilla films but other Toho monster movies as well. It seems that Japan suffers from constant attacks from Godzilla and other monsters including Mothra (using footage from Mothra) and, rather oddly, Gaira (War of the Gargantuas). In the post-Godzilla 2000 era, either the writers have previously ignored all of the other films except for the original or included whichever previous films they needed in order to explain some plot or backstory. This constant re-working of the series does harm it – think back to the continuity during the previous series of films from 1984-1998 and you’ll see how it can help a series with recurring characters, plots uses from previous films, etc. It also means that the opening half of the film has to re-establish the threat of Godzilla as if he’s starting over from scratch – we know who Godzilla is, let him just start wrecking stuff by keeping continuity.

One of my pet hates with the 00s Godzilla films is their constant re-use of older monsters. I’m all up for seeing older versions of some of the classic monsters but why is it always the same ones being re-worked? Why do Mothra and Mechagodzilla always have to get brought back? I want to see some older monsters like Megalon or Titanosaurus brought back and given kick ass 21st century suits, not watching the same type of action sequences as I have done in previous instalments where Godzilla fights the same monsters and has the same type of battle. It’s quite annoying but because they’re popular monsters, they’re obviously going to get brought back more often. Mechagodzilla may have made a decent opponent for Godzilla back in the 70s – I mean both suits weren’t exactly top of the range and the manoeuvrability in them was limited to say the least. So because the special effects couldn’t really couldn’t do much back then, Mechagodzilla always seemed like an equal opponent for Godzilla.

However, with the advances in technology and particularly in the CGI stakes, Mechagodzilla now seems ridiculously over-powered to be taking on what is essentially a flesh-and-blood monster. The robot is more agile and has a better arsenal of weapons so surely Mechagodzilla should be winning fairly easily? Well thanks to the story, Mechagodzilla is basically just another whipping boy robot created by dumb humans and featuring human flaws and faults such as power failures. If scientists and technicians can build a massive DNA-structured cyborg, then surely they can come up with a smaller, easier way to destroy Godzilla like the oxygen destroyer weapon or something?

I don’t like the look of the new Mechagodzilla at all – obviously inspired by the Zoids toy series, it looks more like it belongs on an episode of Power Rangers. The Godzilla suit looks decent again but there are too many scenes in the film where he’s just standing still, as if it were an empty suit propped up against the wall with lights shone onto it. If you’re going to make the most agile Godzilla suit of the series, at least put it to some good use. Thankfully, they do get something right in this regard as the fight at the end of the film lasts for a long time and it’s one of the best in the Millenium series. Coupled with some great miniature sets and brighter lighting effects to make the fights more realistic, the whole thing looks very sharp indeed. The CGI sticks out like a sore thumb and makes the men-in-suits moments look distinctly ordinary.

 

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla features some great monster action and some of the best special effects that the series has showcased up until this point, but the script needed more polish and focus to get the audience caring about what is happening. Despite all of the carnage, I don’t really care about either of the monsters fighting each other as they’re no real investment into either monster and everyone in Japan seems so laid back about Godzilla returning to destroy them.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004)

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004)

The hunters will become the hunted

A group of entrepreneurs and scientists set out down a jungle river in Borneo to search for the blood orchid, an extremely rare flower that blooms once every seven years and holds the key to eternal life. However, they are left stranded into the wilderness after an accident destroys their boat. They also soon realise that they are not alone in the jungle, as giant anaconda snakes lurk all around them.

 

With no connections at all to the original, no major stars in the cast and an approach which makes it far too serious for its own good, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid is about as unnecessary and unwelcome a sequel I’ve ever heard of. It’s like the original, minus all of the things that made that one such an entertaining ride – i.e. Jon Voight hamming it up and a decent animatronic snake. I’m guessing it was purely based on the reasonable box office success of the original, but I’m absolutely stunned to know that Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid received a theatrical release. Everything about it screams Sy Fy Channel.

Rather than ramping up the sequel by opening the purse strings, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid cuts back the budget and it shows. Anaconda was a financial success, making over three times it’s budget, yet the producers here opt to give this sequel even less money and still expect the team to work wonders with it. The first glaring thing you’ll notice is the cut-price cast. There’s no Jon Voight hamming it up (and this one desperately needed someone like that – Matthew Mardsen’s feeble human villain is no match for the original’s sneaky snake hunter). There’s no Latino in the form of Jennifer Lopez, so they cast an African American-Native American descendant instead to tick off a box. There’s no Ice Cube, though rest assured there’s a black man on the cast to spout off a loud of stereotyped dialogue. Heck, there’s no Eric Stoltz or Danny Trejo in a throwaway role. There’s just a bunch of lousy actors who any audience will struggle to recognise from anything else.

The second problem is that the story is so unbelievably contrived that it’s hard to ever be invested in it. The original was simply about a documentary crew who end up in the wrong stretch of river. This one borrows ideas from similar monster movies about science and experiments and ‘saving mankind’ and has this random assortment of suburbanites heading straight for the most remote place on Earth with little expertise. After establishing the fish-out-of-water scenario with the city slickers finding life on board the primitive boat to be difficult and then things like mobile phones not working, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid has more going for it during the first half of the film. The pacing is better and there are more incidents involving the snake (before the characters realise that there’s a snake) to build up the anticipation that the second half will continue to improve – regardless of the dumb MacGuffin stringing the narrative along. Sadly, that is not the case and the film sinks when the snakes do start to pick off the cast. But it’s not just the snakes they’ve got to contend with – the script writers saw fit to include a whole host of adventure movie tropes in here to throw in front of the characters (as if giant snakes wasn’t enough). They are obviously buying time here because they don’t want to show the audience the snakes.

This is where the third problem lies – the snakes themselves. The anacondas take far too long in thinning out the cardboard cut-out characters, but you’ll be glad they hold off on them for as much time as they do because they look lousy. Despite there being a seven-year gap between films, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid showcases even worse special effects than before. Let’s face it, the original snake didn’t look great in its CGI form, but the effects department did use a relatively sinister-looking animatronic snake for some of the shots. Here we have neither – there’s no ‘real’ effects to be seen and the CGI has gotten progressively worse. Considering that Anaconda was one of the big reasons that Sy Fy began churning out terrible monster movies with ever-worsening special effects, its not surprising to see that the film’s own sequel falls into the same trap.

 

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid is almost like watching someone try to remake a film with a lower budget, a lesser cast and a worse script. Oh wait, that’s what it is. This sequel should have gone to the dogs in straight-to-TV hell like the next two sequels. Something full of this many clichés, awful special effects, terrible writing and poor casting choices should never see the light of day in the cinema.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Cherry Falls (2000)

Cherry Falls (2000)

Lose your innocence – or lose your life

A psychotic serial killer that only kills virgins starts a bloodthirsty murder spree at Cherry Falls High School. Deciding to organise a sex party to lose their virginity to avoid becoming the next target, a group of teenagers are unaware that the killer has found out the location.

 

Famously highlighted in Scream that ‘sex = death’, losing your virginity in a horror film has always been a big no-no, right back to the late 70s and early 80s. It’s one of the core rules of the slasher genre, and one which has rarely been tampered with…until Cherry Falls. It’s a film that ran into the MPAA in America (the censors) who rejected the film numerous times and demanded more cuts and was unfortunately relegated to becoming a TV movie. Things were better for Cherry Falls overseas and, here in the UK at least, it received a cinematic release. I must have had a slow day because I remember going to the cinema on the afternoon to see Cherry Falls when it was first out. Looking back after re-watching it, it’s disappointing that this was quickly lost in the shuffle amidst the copious amount of Scream wannabes that were released in the late 90s and early 00s.

Cherry Falls is a slasher which has one novelty over the rest – the role reversal of the ‘have sex and die’ – but does little else differently than the swathe of Scream clones. Post-Scream, teen slashers needed to be self-aware to appeal to the ‘hip’ audience otherwise they would appear behind-the-times, and thus Cherry Falls is only too quick to allow the characters to get in on the act of knowing that they need to lose their virginity to survive. It doesn’t make a big deal of it, though it’s inevitable that this self-aware moment is a cue for a lot of awkward sexual innuendo and one-liners from the teenage cast. But in focusing the bulk of the film on this central narrative, too little time is spent on other matters like characters and minor plot threads. Despite the little twist on the tale, there’s literally nothing else that is different here from the likes of Urban Legend or I Know What You Did Last Summer. Director Geoffrey Wright includes all of the usual tropes, from the settings to the camera shots he uses, with the film sometimes drifting a little too far towards becoming a parody due to some of the dialogue.

There’s the usual assortment of red herrings – the sheriff who just so happens to decide to go to West Virginia during the murder spree, a headteacher who harbours a shifty past, a young male teacher who is a little too eager to get to know his female students, a frustrated on-and-off boyfriend. The sad thing here is that, sheriff aside, all of these characters here are too thinly-developed and no matter who is finally revealed as the killer, it’s not as effective and shocking as it could have been. The killer does follow standard procedure such as apparently being in two places at once, having a superhuman ability to withstand damage that would knock down any normal person, and the knack of knowing who to kill and when and where. It is also essential for the killer to wear some form of mask or conceal their identity so as not to be identified by anyone who may survive (or so that the audience can get a good look at them) and the costume here is a bit far-fetched and impractical. I’ve worn wigs as part of a Santa costume every year and there’s no way they stay that perfect after a bit of frenzied activity!

In its defence, Cherry Falls has been cut to shreds by the censors after it was submitted and rejected numerous times to the MPAA in the US. Who knows what the final version looks like in comparison with director Wright’s original edit. It’d be bloodier that’s for sure, as it’s obvious during the kill scenes that something is being held back. There’s also the blatant issue of the film’s central set piece – a ‘Pop Your Cherry Ball’ where dozens of horny teenagers are having pretty much a big orgy – and hardly any nudity in sight. What we do get to see of the kills, and it’s not much, is fairly bog-standard stuff but there was clearly a lot more in the tank which was taken out. The ambiguous nature of the killer’s gender is a nice move but it’s hardly a Sleepaway Camp style shock reveal.

The late Brittany Murphy stars in the ‘final girl’ role and she’s likeable enough, with her wide-eyes conveying a nice sense of innocence and naivety in her vulnerable moments. But there’s something different about her to the usual teen heroines which makes her stand out. Michael Biehn plays her father/the local sheriff and is the sort of stern adult presence the film needs to anchor some of the more dramatic and serious moments. Biehn gets a fair amount of screen time too, which was pleasing, as the guy is criminally underrated and has been since his double turn in the 80s in The Terminator and Aliens. Those two apart, the rest of the cast is almost invisible such is their minimal screen time. The group of teenagers that make up the friendship group are virtually anonymous and there’s so many kids from the school that get one or two lines to make the orgy at the end make more sense in that everyone is there.

 

You’ve seen it all before and done better. You’ve also seen it done a lot worse too. Cherry Falls is as routine as they come, save for the twist on the old sub-genre trope, but a lot of that is purely down to the censors, rather than the filmmakers. There was a lot more underneath the surface but it’s been ripped out, leaving a rather tame and neutered remnant.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Doorway, The (2000)

The Doorway (2000)

…to hell

Four friends are given the chance to renovate an old, abandoned house after they find out that the owner is willing to pay a lot of money for someone to do it and allow them to stay there rent-free whilst they carry out the work. But what they didn’t realise is that in the basement is a doorway which leads straight to Hell.

 

The Doorway only stuck out from the mountains of low-grade rubbish on offer in the horror section in my local video store because of Roy Scheider’s name plastered on the front cover as ‘the star’ of the film. I’ve liked the guy since Jaws and he’s a criminally underrated actor (check out The French Connection for further proof). It’s a pity he was typecast as Chief Brody because the man had so much more to give as an actor. Unfortunately Scheider’s name also obscured the fact that Roger Corman was producer. Whenever Corman attaches himself to a project, you know that the results are going to be low budget and, in ninety-five percent of the cases, pretty rubbish. Clearly designed to capitalise on the ‘haunted house’ fad of the early 00s with The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill, the only scary thing is how much time you won’t get back after watching.

The Doorway is ultra-low budget which tries to do a lot of usual genre work but without half of the impact due to the lack of money. The house isn’t very big and sparsely decorated, Scheider aside there are no known names in the cast, there’s little in the way of special effects and some hokey gore in the final third. It’s not really bank-busting material and certainly something that doesn’t really do its plot justice. If you’re going to have demons and ghosts populating your film but don’t have the budget to show them, then you need to think creatively about how to scare people without showing them a lot – Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead tops the list when it comes to something like that. The Doorway fizzles out most of it’s scares, turning into unintentional laughter when you realise that these characters are terrified of things that are happening in the house, yet the audience hasn’t had much to go on. With a title like this, you’d expect some sort of Doom-style eruption of demons from Hell, not a few horny ghosts.

The Doorway saves most of its ‘top’ material for the second half around the time that Scheider shows up. I say ‘top’ material as it’s not riveting in the slightest at any point. The sad state of affairs is that you’ll get more excitement out of the copious number of sex scenes in the film.  The abandoned house wasn’t so abandoned a long time ago and it’s where demons had massive orgies. There is plenty of sex and nudity thrown around. Characters have sex with each other a lot and they also have sex with this female demon who does the rounds. She’s a bit of a tart. This is virtually the first half of the film. There are a few failed scares and attempts to generate some suspense and atmosphere but the amateurish production design really harms the mood.

I was wrong to be duped into thinking that someone like Roy Scheider wouldn’t accept a role in something as low budget as this. I can’t believe that he was that desperate to feed his family that he’d star in something like this but, unfortunately, I’ve been proven wrong. Scheider is the best bit of the film by a clear mile yet he has little to do and it’s little more than a glorified cameo. He’s in the film for a total of around fifteen minutes tops and gets his face ripped apart for his troubles. Scheider was in his twilight years here and was accepting roles in all manner of low budget action and horror films including Dracula II: Ascension and Dracula III: Legacy. His presence in this is solely to attempt to give the film some sort of credibility and to be fair to the guy, he does just that in his limited screen time. They should have stumped up some more money to give him a few more minutes.

The Doorway does have a decent script which seems like a contradiction given how badly I’ve been bashing it. The characters aren’t saddled with doing stupid things like going upstairs to investigate mysterious noises. In fact when they find out that the house is haunted, the first thing they do is leave! To prove my script theory wrong, they promptly return but at least they bring a ghost hunter with them to attempt to get rid of the demons. So common sense prevails and logic – you still wouldn’t get me going back anywhere near that house. They actually talk like real people too. It’s not a lot, but it’s something

 

I’m not much of a fan of haunted house films and The Doorway is no exception. Low budget and lame, there’s nothing to recommend in the slightest. Someone please close the door, there’s a nasty draught coming in!

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆