Crash Analysis: SINISTER (2012)

Smart to derivative in three acts 

Egomaniacal writer endangers family 

SINISTER had such promise: A strong beginning, relatable yet interesting characters, great dialogue, Ethan Hawke’s spot-on acting, and some rock solid, if not disturbing intrigue.

The first act alone is enough to make horror fans twinge from delight. After all, a noted but struggling true crime author just moved his family into a house of horror where another family had been butchered, and one child kidnapped. Oh, and his wife and two children don’t have a clue about their new homestead. Then again, Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) has let his ego get the best of him, and wants to bounce back from the writing doldrums with a new, killer hit.

Sadly, after a smart and enticing first act, the second phase of the picture also heads down the path of writing doldrums. Writers Scott Derrickson (who also directed), and fellow scribe C. Robert Cargill, lost their collective sense of creativity and imagination. Instead of delivering a strong finish with a chilling climax, the story’s end is telegraphed a mile away. Besides seeing it all coming, the scares waned thanks to trite and hackneyed storytelling. Then again, Derrickson has little to celebrate from previous horror ventures. Responsible for the likes of URBAN LEGEND: THE FINAL CUT (2000), HELLRAISER: INFERNO (2000), and THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), he has yet to deliver a full-blown, quality driven narrative for audiences. SINISTER is Cargill’s first writing project, but he’s rejoined Derrickson for the upcoming WHEN GRAVITY FAILS, which should be out in 2014. Will they let us down again?

Hawke’s the cornerstone of the movie, and holds up his part of the bargain as he carries the story on his back, only to trudge along in the third act as if hauling bricks like a broken Atlas. He shines brightly, but the story lets him down, and the writers only have themselves to blame. James Ransone plays the awkward, nerdy, Barney Fife like deputy, who’s ultimately more intelligent than he seems. This one element, the “dumb” character, undermined the seriousness of the film, and signaled that the entire story was about to unravel. Although the acting was strong throughout SINISTER, especially from the great Fred Dalton Thompson as the Sheriff, Juliet Rylance, who played the wife, came up short as the concerned wife. In the end, she’s too melodramatic.

Chris Norr, however, delivers some decent cinematography, especially concerning the use of darkness where he captures a great balance between what is, and what is not seen.

This is one horror that will leave most viewers angry. After all, genius became mediocrity, as if Derrickson is an alchemist in reverse who has the power to turn gold into lead. Such a shame and such a let down.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: KICHIKU DAI ENKAI (Japan, 1997)

Gored to death…

Demise of a political group 

Otherwise known as BANQUET OF THE BEASTS, the movie is based upon the Asama-Sanso Incident. During a ten day siege in 1972 at Karuizawa, members of the United Red Army (URA) turned against themselves, resulting in a blood bath. And in KICHIKU DAI ENKAI, the blood bath’s ultimately explored in great lengths.

Some may trash Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s film as a slow moving student project, but that’s needlessly harsh. Yes, the movie is slow, but in a very arthouse sort of way, and what sometimes seems to be an homage to David Lynch. However, this does not mean the characters are any less compelling, even if the story does lack a bit.

As for the tale, a political group waits for its leader to return triumphantly from jail. In the meantime, his girlfriend, played by Sumiko Mikami in her only film role, keeps the home fires burning by fucking the guys in the crew and bullying them. Then she snaps, which leads to torture, blood, muck, rape, penal removal, and even more carnage.

The acting’s strong, the special makeup effects are quite impressive, and KICHIKU DAI ENKAI certainly ends up fittingly in the category of “disturbing cinema” – thanks to a few compelling scenes, especially one involving Mikami at the mercy of a fellow cohort and a ready to blow shotgun.

In a way, much like George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971), KICHIKU DAI ENKAI attracted others upon Kumakiri’s graduation from film school, and he has gone on to helm eleven more feature projects to date. Granted, he’s not an overblown multi-millionaire out to destroy his original work, but this film brought the young director much recognition in his native country.

Before I had learned about the link to the aforementioned URA incident, I was enamored on a thematic level, and thought Kumakiri chose to comment on his generation and its lack of vision thanks to an overwhelming sense of apathy and disdain for the status quo. With the climax, it seemed to be a comment that the disintegration of intellectual youth would lead to a bloody end of Japan. Then again, even without the tie in to actual events, the themes hold up, as well as the director’s fear of Japan’s future.

KICHIKU DAI ENKAI is far from perfect, mostly due to pace and some issues regarding narrative structure, but the movie will not disappoint those who enjoy violence and gore – or want to see one of those films labeled as “forbidden fruit” by the masses.

Here’s one for the old college try.

3 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis: 700th Foreign Horror – The World’s Best

Just watched my 700th foreign horror. Foreign for me means anything outside of the  United States. I indulged in Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s ALUCARDA (1975) from Mexico.

Other than the constant screaming, ALUCARDA had a lot to offer visually. The set was organic, and the colors seemed straight out of a Bava film. Additionally, the costumes were pretty wild. One critic stated the nuns seemed to look like mummies, but they reminded me of something bloodied and discharged. I loved the quirkiness of the tale, two young women captivated by evil (and I’m sure the lesbian vampirism probably made Jess Franco froth at the mouth). Though entertaining, some of the acting had much to be desired, and oftentimes, the editing was lackluster. Even so, I’ll give it 2.5 out of five stars.

It’s a decent way to hit 700.

Granted, this number, especially out of having watched 1,427 horror films as of this writing, does not mean 700 separate movies. Many are co-productions, even with the United States, so the actual number is smaller. And no, I’m not going to count every film on the list.

I love foreign cinema for many reasons. All languages seem to have a rhythm that English can’t quite attain. Better still, I enjoy the differences in pace, lighting, color, and the usual lack of sterile commercialism. There are so many great horrors from many countries, choosing a particular film as “the best of the best” is uncalled for as well as extremely difficult.

As for the top countries, whose horrors I have indulged in the most: UK (143), Japan (101), Canada (79), France (54), Italy (51), Germany (43), Korea (35), Spain (34), Australia (28), Hong Kong (16). None of these numbers came out by design. I’m simply looking for the best possible horror films from any and every nation.

Regardless, there are a multitude of standouts, and the ones listed below have earned anywhere from a 4.5 or greater out of 5 stars. If you haven’t seen these, please do so – and remember to listen to the native tongues instead of a godawful dub that could easily undermine and destroy the entire experience. By engaging the film in the original language, you’ll better embrace the emotion of the actors. Even good, modern dubbings pale in comparison.

Best foreign horrors:

 

Peeping Tom (UK, 1960)

An unsettling character study of a serial killer akin to Hitchcock’s Norman Bates – but better.

 

The Haunting (UK/USA, 1963)

Shirley Jackson’s novel brought to life with a ton of thematic firepower.

 

The Legend of Hell House (UK, 1973)

An atmospheric haunted house tale that takes few prisoners.

 

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australia, 1975)

Unnerving in its subtlety and ambiguity, which creates a grand mystery.

 

The Last Wave (Australia, 1977)

A dramatic story that rises to an Apocalyptic crescendo.

 

Alien (UK/USA, 1979)

The greatest science-fiction/horror ever made.

 

The Changeling (Canada, 1980)

One of the best ghost stories with one hell of a creep factor.

 

The Shining (UK/USA, 1980)

A maze of a haunted hotel with an atmosphere like no other.

 

Possession (UK, 1981)

The intense performances alone will send you to therapy as a couple’s life collapses.

 

Videodrome (Canada, 1983)

It’s one wild mind-trip with a lot to say about modern life in a world of over-stimulation.

 

Lifeforce (UK/USA, 1985)

A wild B-movie twist on the vampiric theme.

 

Hellraiser (UK, 1987)

A bloody, action-packed demonic extravaganza.

 

Lair of the White Worm (UK, 1988)

This is a crazy and freakish romp on Bram Stoker’s less famous novel.

 

Naked Lunch (Canada/Japan/USA, 1991)

William S. Burroughs’s mind-blowing tale about his drug enhanced lifestyle.

 

Dust Devil (UK, 1992)

A thematic as well as dramatic ride through the desert.

 

Cemetery Man (Italy, 1994)

Action, romance, comedy and theme mark this intelligent zombie film.

 

Cube (Canada, 1997)

A cerebral and interesting movie for the conspiracy ridden claustrophobic.

 

The Devil’s Advocate (Germany/USA, 1997)

A fantastic narrative with one devilish master plan.

 

Perfect Blue (Japan, 1998)

An animated feature to rock your world on many psychological levels.

 

eXistenZ (UK/Canada, 1999)

If this is the future of video games, hold onto your quarters.

 

The Ninth Gate (France/Spain, 1999)

A grand mystery and thriller for bibliophiles of the devilish kind.

 

Ôdishon (Audition) (Japan, 1999)

A quirky, freaky mystery and a third act to completely unravel your mind.

 

Blood: The Last Vampire (Japan, 2000)

Stunning animation for an action-packed vampire tale.

 

Ginger Snaps (Canada, 2000)

A quirky coming-of-age werewolf tale like no other.

 

Bijita Q (Visitor Q) (Japan, 2001)

This disturbing quirkfest will rattle your mind – and you may never drink milk again.

 

Dog Soldiers (UK, 2002)

A rocking werewolf tale in bloody Scotland – very bloody.

 

The Ring (Japan/USA, 2002)

This dramatic mystery puts the original to shame.

 

A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea, 2003)

A real mind-bender of a drama with astonishing cinematography.

 

Gozu (Japan, 2003)

Miike does Lynch proud with one outlandish yakuza adventure.

 

Shutter (Thailand, 2004)

Revenge ghost tale with stellar creepiness.

 

The Uninvited Guest (Spain, 2004)

A sordid tale with riveting suspense that never lets the audience take a breath.

 

Yogen (Premonition) (Japan, 2004)

A newspaper of horror and death you’ll never want to read.

 

Isolation (Ireland, 2005)

One farm, several cows and an experiment. What could go wrong?

 

Grimm Love (Germany, 2006)

This dramatic and sad tale of actual cannibalism will leave you numb.

 

The Orphanage (Spain, 2007)

Brilliant, ghostly drama that may have you in tears.

 

Let the Right One In (Sweden, 2008)

This may be the strongest vampire tale ever told.

 

Martyrs (France/Canada, 2008)

The most disturbing film ever made? Torture porn with a philosophy.

 

Pontypool (Canada, 2008)

A riveting and a unique twist on the zombie genre.

 

Suck (Canada, 2009)

Rock and roll, comedy/horror awesomeness.

 

Triangle (UK, 2009)

A wild trip of terror you’ll have to watch more than once.

 

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (Canada/USA, 2010)

An intelligent comedy/horror of great irony, and much satisfaction.

 

If you have any foreign horror recommendations, and think I’ve missed something, please let me know.

Crash Analysis: DEMON UNDER GLASS (2002)

Great addition to the vampire mythos 

Scientists capture a vampire for study

Seems that Jon Cunningham’s first feature comes under some scrutiny for falling short of the mark, but don’t let that discourage you from taking a bite. The director co-wrote this wonderful script with Deborah Warner. It’s clear from the beginning the pair hoped to create an intelligent genre film, and they succeeded.

A serial killer nicknamed Vlad (Simon Molinar), murders and drains the blood from his prostitute victims. Law enforcement sets a trap, and undercover officer, Detective Gwen Taylor (Denise Alessandria Hurd), reels in the unsuspecting killer. But his strength is almost insurmountable, and he takes out two of the team before he’s delivered to a secure hospital facility for scientific study.

The film, though shot poorly on early digital, is definitely a low budget, B-horror, but Cunningham and company did a fantastic job in doing their damnedest to make us forget about the movie’s shortcomings. Other than the visual quality, some weak acting from minor characters, and excruciatingly lame music from Gottfried Neumeister (this was his only score for a feature film), the rest of the movie rises to the dramatic occasion.

Jason Carter portrays Simon Molinar, the thousand year old vampire caught in a government trap with Dr. William Bassett (Jack Donner) as his overlord handler. Molinar, and his stern, British looks, have appeared in many television and film projects, and veteran character actor, Donner has been active in film since the early sixties. Both men step up in grand fashion, along with the remarkable Garett Maggart as Dr. Joe McKay, to ride the twilight between the philosophical notions of good and evil, predator and prey, and how far science should go when it comes to experimentation. The best part about DEMON UNDER GLASS, one of the best horror titles to come along in years, is that the filmmakers raise the questions, and do not interfere with their own musings. One can easily see a resemblance to the philosophy laden THE ADDICTION (1995) by Abel Ferrara.

Besides the excellent efforts of Maggart, Carter and Donner, classically trained Hurd, as well as veteran David Jean Thomas as a grieving father, and ever helpful nurse, Jean St. James, bring their best. Fans of Kira Reed will certainly not be disappointed by her extended scene with Carter.

The strongest element of the movie, beyond the noteworthy queries, is the scientific and methodical approach to research, as if vampire Molinar is a simple lab rat. Rarely in any movie do talking head scenes offer much to the viewer, but the strong dialogue, and subsequent delivery proves captivating. Even better, Molinar, the doctors and every other character have a path to take where their own ethos drives them – much like the character’s in the fantastic, dramatic horror GRACE (2009). The moral underpinnings cause some characters to act, while others freeze, and others simply want to retreat and reflect. This last bit does lead to a couple questionable scenes in the film, though it’s hard to determine an alternative as to where Cunningham and Warner should have taken the narrative. Regardless, we are left contemplating who is good, bad or otherwise, making it a joy to have a horror that stimulates gray matter. Granted, the tale could have penetrated deeper, but the overall effort is much appreciated.

Cunningham either reshot the film with Carter, Maggart and Reed in 2010 as VAMPIRE, due to the aforementioned shortcomings, or this was simply a re-release for the UK market. Locating any copy in any form, however, has been impossible.

DEMON UNDER GLASS is a far cry from perfect, but cast and crew gave it their best. Not only is it definitely worth a viewing, but vampire fans might want this one for their collection because of its intrigue and nuance.

3.5 out of 5 stars