Monday, July 21, 2008

Horror Movie Catch-Up: The Ruins, Shutter, Diary of the Dead

Over the weekend I finally caught up, via Netflix and OnDemand, on three of the 2008 horror movies I missed while trying to graduate with some semblance of sanity intact. Who needs zombies when the halls of academia are chock full of professors and students doing their best to reduce your brain to mush? At any rate, while I was glad I saw these three movies, I was also glad my previously-hectic life prevented me from shelling out $10 a pop to see them on the big screen.

First up was The Ruins. I tried reading the book a while back, but I couldn’t get into it because the quartet of main characters was utterly interchangeable and bland. After a few chapters I tossed it aside and decided to wait for the movie. Alas, this interchangeable character problem was not alleviated in the film, although there I had the advantage of “blonde girl” and “brunette girl” and other visual clues. Not that it helped completely, there were still a few moments where I couldn’t remember which bland girl was dating which bland guy. Not that silly stuff like that really matters in a horror movie, where the imaginative gore reigns supreme, but The Ruins is kind of sedate on that end, too. It kind of flirts with psychological horror midway through, but ultimately wimps out, going instead for straight, though mild, horror. It’s not bad, but it’s pretty toothless. Worth catching on cable, but if you’re renting, go for The Descent or something else instead.

Next was Shutter. It’s made like fairly standard J-horror (though the original is from Thailand, not Japan), but it does break free from the Ring mold. For one thing, there are fewer jump moments, fewer gratuitous “gotcha!” scares. Which has an effect of making the scary moments more chilling and unnerving because there isn’t a lot of superfluous fright padding. The atmosphere does a lot of wonderful, unsettling work. It’s well acted, and though most of the “twists” are beyond telegraphed, the plot is fairly tight. Definitely worth a rental if you’re a fan of the genre.

Finally, Diary of the Dead. Now, horror is my favorite movie genre and zombies my favorite subgenre and Romero is the master of all things zombie, so I had high expectations. Well, okay, not high expectations – I felt like he had to redeem himself a bit for Land of the Dead, which wasn’t his best by far – but certainly high hopes. Overall, my feelings were mixed. There was some solid storytelling and all the tropes of the genre were present, including my favorite – comrade gets bitten, becomes enemy. And the zombies were the classic models, lurching along old-school style, none of this 28 Days Later juiced-up nonsense. But the candid-camera trope was much less seamless in Diary compared to Cloverfield. In Diary, it’s made a character trait (the wannabe documentary filmmaker who can’t put down the camera) that is commented on endlessly, and while I can understand the impulse to explain a character’s reason for doing something obviously odd, it only served to pull me out of the film again and again. (I’ll be very interested to see how the upcoming Quarantine does with this style.) Also, call me a zombie purist, but I like my undead flicks with a little less social commentary. More than any other genre, zombies seem to be the go-to pick for social commentary, and it’s very heavy-handed in Diary of the Dead. Sometimes, I just want to watch the dead rise from their graves without being reminded that I probably spend too much time on YouTube. The ending in particular is a bit too anvilicious. Still, the film has a lot going for it. Some stereotypes are subverted – the plucky blonde girl doesn’t bite it (or get bit) and actually kicks a fair amount of ass, the seemingly thuggish characters turn out to be pretty decent – and some deaths are very imaginative. And it’s a Romero zombie movie. Anvilicious or not, he’s still the best.

So if you’re updating your Netflix queue, I’d say Shutter should definitely be added and moved to the top, Diary of the Dead should be added but you can prioritize it to ship after you finish that Batman-to-Batman Begins marathon I know you’re dying to do, and The Ruins should surface on the SciFi channel eventually.

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