Thursday, September 22, 2011

Living Forever is Grossly Overrated

There's something interesting about the fact that the original Nosferatu (1922) came about because its creators could not get the rights to Dracula, and thus gave birth to their own unique and creepy take on Stoker's classic tale. As a result, ever since there many vampire movies have chosen to even further deviate from the original standard vampire cliches, and the best ones have done this rather successfully. Cronos (1993), a modern update of the vampire lore, is one such movie, and Del Toro does a fantastic job of making a believable movie that is not just a horror movie.

Early on the movie is largely setup, but with a very large payoff. Without properly establishing Jesus' tender relationship with his granddaughter, or giving us strong hints into how much Angel despises his uncle, what happens later in the film would have no emotional strength to give it character or strengthen the overall movie. Even though the beginning narration feels oddly lifted from some PBS documentary about the dangers of trying to live forever. "You see, this fellow here decided to create a very special device...."

How the rest of the movie plays out is very interesting, as Del Toro slowly but surely builds and continues to layer the foundation, making Jesus' plight into something even more sinister and eerie. Even though certain elements of this movie are not at all horror, the film itself belongs to the genre based on the fact that its not only creepy mostly throughout, but also the obvious: Jesus becomes midway through the movie a vampire. Not your typical vampire, of course, yet nevertheless a creature of the night seeking blood.

This is mostly articulate through several moments, primarily when Jesus in a moment of weakness actually licks blood off of the bathroom floor. The rational response would be for one to react in horror; however since Jesus is a rather sympathetic character, one feels pity for his condition instead. Cronos is fascinating not just in how the movie plays out, with Angel's rage and anger going against him, but also for moments of real tenderness and love as displayed towards Jesus by his granddaughter, Auroa. Who even though she quickly recognizes that the device has transformed her once loving grandfather into an ancient monster, does not judge but continues to care for him, which comes off as surprising and touching.

Honestly this is one of those few horror movies where the ending manages to be unexpected, not to mention open ended, without resorting to tricks, jump scares, or being overly depressing. Which is really quite refreshing for a change, as is the movie's overall tone and style. Powered also by a rather understated and beautiful score, and complimented by its rather good cast, this is an outstanding addition to the vampire sub-genre of horror movies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Small Town, Big Secrets

1981 really was a banner year for horror movies, primarily when it came to werewolves: An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen, and The Howling. From the writers of Alien, Dan O' Bannon and Ronald Shusett, and the director of Raw Meat, Gary Sherman, came a lesser known and somewhat underrated flick called Dead & Buried. Just like Raw Meat and Strange Behavior, this film was quite different from much of the horror fare that was more commonly found in the genre at the time.

In fact, much of this movie has the feel of a lost 80s Twilight Zone episode, or a short story from some famous horror novelist. The small town of Potters Bluff, nestled in New England has some rather dark secrets. Primarily the fact that the residents kill off anyone who has the misfortune to stop by in the town, or just be passing through. Unlike some other films, this movie gets right to the point with that fact: the opening scene quickly descends into a crowd of locals burning a hapless victim alive.

Despite some clearly obvious cliches, Sherman and O' Bannon aim for a distinctive atmosphere that actually works. The characters themselves aren't too well drawn out, but the local town corner and the in over his head sheriff are rather interesting people, and they help drive the film's plot. Most of the kills are rather shocking due to the rather simple fact that ordinary people ganging up on you and murdering you with a smile and not even thinking twice is something straight out of many nightmares.

Naturally a film like this has to have some rather stark twists, and this one does not disappoint. Even though Dead & Buried has a couple of rather large plot holes, and the movie at times is sketchy, the twists and the movie's being overall solid is enough to overcome those. And all things considered, this was really just a dry run for O' Bannon's 1985 cult classic Return of the Living Dead.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pretty Pictures Full of Blood

When it comes to the giallo subgenre of horror, you get slasher movies that are more unique, twisted, and imaginative than the average "Lovely woman gets chased by machete wielding psychopath." Dario Argento was one of the genre's giants, creating many memorable and well crafted giallos. Deep Red, his 1975 film, is one of his more famous creations, although not as well known as Suspiria, which came out only two years later. This movie has a lot in common with Argento's fellow Italian director Mario Bava, who also made a couple of giallos as well and is just as renowned, particularly concerning his cult classics Blood and Black Lace and The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Just like his other giallos, Argento has a brilliant score that only adds to the film's atmosphere and is remarkable. In this case, it is done by Goblin, who also created the eerie score for Suspiria, and was also responsible for the score to George A. Romero's masterwork Dawn of the Dead. Argento of course must have a hapless protagonist, be it male or female-in this case, it is Marcus, played by David Hemmings. Marcus is a lonely jazz pianist who lives in Rome, has an alcoholic buddy, and lives a rather solitary life. It is unfortunate for him that, on a dark and bleak night, that he stumbles into a murder mystery, and also ends up having to deal with a nosy and chatty journalist.

Rather than hop the next plane to America, he decides to stay instead and investigate, which of course has to happen-otherwise the movie wouldn't continue. This is one particular case of the protagonist defying reason, something that happens a lot in not only giallos but also slasher films, too. This is particularly showcased later when Marcus decides to explore a crumbling mansion late at night, all by himself. Luckily for him he's the main character, so nothing really too serious is going to happen to, him. At least for most of the movie, anyways, despite another close call that makes the viewer wonder if Marcus is smart enough to survive.

Not content to merely make a good movie, Argento once again aims for a distinct visual style, although this movie isn't half as gorgeous as Suspiria. These visual flourishes though only add more to the movie's strong levels of tension and suspense, which are added even more by Argento's willingness to go beyond the pale. Many of the movie's rather disturbing scenes are merely Argento diving into fears he was sure plenty of people held at the time, and thus this makes the death scenes all the more horrifying.

Of course it also wouldn't be an Argento movie without a last act that is both shocking, although in this case I would say that this film, for now, features arguably his best and most brazen ending. With Deep Red, Argento crafts one of his best films, and continued to build upon his reputation in the 1970s as one of the top horror auteurs. This is slightly better than Suspiria and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, and defiantly superior to Inferno, partly due to Hemmings' brilliant and understated performance, but also due to being a bit better made. The characters in this one are less sketchy than the other films, and really Argento goes the extra mile here, which is decidedly noticeable.