Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Monster Special: Zombies

And so we come to the end of the week long monster extravaganza. Truth be told, I could fill up three posts with recommendations of my favorite zombie media, but then I wouldn’t have time to go see The Haunting of Molly Hartley, ready my Halloween costume (I'm going as Ashley Todd, to match my friend who’s going as the Crazy McCain Rally Lady), and meet my friends at the Village parade. So I’ll keep it brief and highlight just a few of my faves.

The gold standard for modern zombie movies, in my mind, is the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. It has everything you want in a horror movie – hordes of roaming zombies (including some zombified celebrities), horrible moments when the survivors realize one of their own is infected, a super creepy zombie baby, and people acting more logically than they sometimes do in horror movies. Of course, if comedy is more your thing, you could try the zom rom com spoof Shawn of the Dead, starring Simon Pegg. Or hell, marathon them both and top it off with Diary of the Dead, another Romero zombie flick done in the handheld-cam style of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield and Quarantine, which means if you hate those films you’ll hate Diary, but if you’re open to the format you’ll find it’s a pretty great addition to the walking dead genre.

I never expected rock and roll to embrace zombies so wholeheartedly, but lo, three of my favorite artists have zombie-flavored songs. (Hm, zombie-flavored? Okay, that sounds disgusting.) First there’s “Zombie Me” by No More Kings. No More Kings specializes in kitschy pop-culture pop, they’re best known for “Sweep the Leg” which is a love letter to the 80s hit Karate Kid. “Zombie Me” is exactly about what you think it would be about – a dude who turns into a zombie – and is a pretty solid song musically as well as being pretty damned funny. Then there’s “The Living Dead” by Phantom Planet, a track off the soundtrack for Stubbs the Zombie, an Xbox game that lets you play as a zombie instead of as the person fleeing from zombies for once, and like the No More Kings selection, works perfectly well as a song regardless of content. Then there’s Ludo’s second album, The Broken Bride, which is a short concept EP which combines zombies, time travel, pterodactyls, angels, demons, and a scientists trying to reconnect with his dead wife, all in the span of five tracks. It’s an ambitious endeavor that the band pulls off beautifully. Now I’m just waiting for someone to write a full-length zombie rock opera.

Finally, there’s Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, a wonderfully imaginative and fantastically written book of magical realism short stories. The book is worth reading no matter what, but in case you need more convincing, you can get the (almost) whole thing for free online right here as part of a promotion for Link’s new story collection, Pretty Monsters. Needless to say, my favorite story in the collection is “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”, which is not about zombies to the same degree as, say, World War Z, but it’s a clear nod to those of us who have zombie contingency plans in place and is just a fun read. And for now, it’s free, so you have no excuse not to check it out.

So go, rent a few zombie movies, prep your Halloween costume, go over your zombie contingency plan, and I’ll see you in November!

Halloween Monster Special: Assorted Monsters

Some of the scariest monsters are the ones that are the most plausible. While I don’t actively worry about werewolves munching on me, I do worry that some random psychopath is going to snap and kill me for no good reason. (This isn’t to mention the psychopaths I have given a reason to kill me.) Which is why I’ve kind of grown out of slasher movies, because I use movies to help me escape from the horrors of the real world, not remind me of them.

That said, I have to recommend a very plausible and completely horrifying (and totally entertaining) movie, Funny Games. It stars Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt and is best described as The Strangers meets A Clockwork Orange. In Funny Games, Paul (Michael Pitt) and his cohort Peter (Brady Corbet) terrorize a family (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Devon Gearhart) over the course of a night. What makes the terror so horrifying is the genteel, almost refined, nature of it. Paul and Peter are normal-seeming, clean cut young men, which is exactly why the family allows them into their home in the first place. It’s also interesting that it’s an upper class, well-reared family that is attacked, and that the family’s adherence to social conventions and good manners seemingly prevents them from doing what those of us born-in-a-barn types might have done (kicked the perps in the nuts and ran screaming from the house). The movie makes nice use of breaking the fourth wall a few times, allowing Paul to communicate directly to the audience. It’s a technique that is tricky and needs to be handled perfectly, and Funny Games does handle it perfectly.

On the other end of the genteel scale is one of my favorites, Wrong Turn. Wrong Turn is your basic “inbred cannibal hillbillies” story, and yes, that’s actually a genre. And because I was raised in New Jersey and lived in New York City and this have the snobby northern attitude and fear of the non-urban, I’m pretty much open to the idea that hidden in the Deep South are pockets of untouched-by-civilization cannibal breeding grounds. If you like this genre of movie, you can’t go wrong with Wrong Turn. It’s got imaginative deaths, good acting, and plenty of fright.

When I was young, we’d always play Bloody Mary at sleepovers. As a result, even though it’s probably been sixteen years since I last played and I know better because time and logic are on my side, I still get a little creeped out when I walk past a mirror in the dark. So it’s no surprise that Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh scared the crap out of me. Yes, the first movie was good, too, but Candyman 2 has a better story and makes wonderful use of its New Orleans setting. Candyman modifies the old Bloody Mary legend, with the same basic premise (chanting a name in front of a mirror) attached to a new ghoulie (Candyman). It’s a nice enlivening of a creaky premise.

Finally, there’s Silent Hill. I’m not too into video games, I lack the attention span necessary to sit glued to the couch hacking away at monsters for hours on end to be any good at them. But last year I got a cheap used Xbox to check out the Buffy the Vampire Slayer games. A friend who knows I’m a horror movie freak suggested I check out the Silent Hill series, claiming it was pretty much like steering your way through a particularly awesome horror movie. I hadn’t been too impressed by the movie when I’d seen it a while back (“Too much like a video game, too little like a movie” were my exact words, actually), but I gave the second game, Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams, a shot since a used version was available for cheap on Amazon. It took me a while to get into it, but I totally got sucked in by the mythology and creepy atmosphere. This game will absolutely impede your ability to sleep, and not just ‘cause of the flickering graphics. I went on to play Silent Hill 3 and loved it as well. And then I played Silent Hill 4: The Room for, like, an hour and hated it and put it aside in favor of re-playing Silent Hill 2. And then I played Silent Hill: 0rigins, a prequel to the series and a port from Playstation Portable, and I hated it even more and kept dying, so I put it aside for a re-play of Silent Hill 3. So the series isn’t fool proof. (There’s also the first game, which is similar in plot to the movie and which I haven't played, and a fifth game that just came out but, alas for me, is only on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.) But the second and third installments are highly recommended for gamers and non-gamers alike. Both feature great stories and unbelievably creepy images and sounds. The sounds alone are a huge selling point – the sound effects are chilling, and the music, by Akira Yamaoka, is good enough to inspire soundtracks for each game. They’re perfect mood music for a creepy Halloween party. If you’re a horror movie fan, you should definitely pick up a cheap used Xbox of PS2 and get these games. They’ll keep even an attention-span-lacking non-gamer glued to the screen, frantically trying not to die, not unlike a protagonist in a horror movie.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween Monster Special: Werewolves

I'm not really a werewolf expert. I know, you're thinking, "Well, yeah, but who is?" To that I say, cryptozoologists, assuming they exist outside of SciFi Original Movies. While I couldn't find one of those to pitch in, I was able to convince my friend Lindsay, the resident werewolf enthusiast, to give a rundown of some of her favorite werewolf media. So, without further ado, here's what Lindsay sent me.

In terms of supernatural monsters, werewolves have played second fiddle to those oh-so-sexy vampires for quite a long time. One reason might be that vampires have a more cross-gender appeal. Biting someone and drinking their blood is a sex/domination metaphor that goes both ways; but setting loose that inner wolfy beast is, let’s face it, a little more of a guy thing. The other reason is that werewolves just don’t work as well in the TV/movie medium. On-screen vampires range from campy to sexy to gritty and beyond, but on-screen werewolves are pretty much caught somewhere between terrible CGI and your standard Guy in a Furry Suit fallback. (Sorry, Joss, but you know that Oz costume was terrible.) I can only assume this is because it’s hard to train real wolves to howl on cue.

But with the steadily rising popularity of the urban fantasy genre in literature, werewolves are finally having their day. Granted, they’re still an afterthought much of the time (in Laurell K. Hamilton’s bestselling Anita Blake books, you’ll even see vampires keeping wolves as pets), but there are a number of authors who’ve actually managed to bite the silver bullet and put the werewolves first. (Shut up, I’ve been dying to use that one.)

The first book on anyone’s werewolf reading list should be Kelley Armstrong’s BITTEN, the first in her increasingly popular Women of the Otherworld series. The series itself switches narrators with nearly every title, in order to explore the variety of supernatural beings Armstrong has created, but BITTEN and its immediate sequel STOLEN both feature a narrator named Elena Michaels, who is the only female werewolf in the entire world. The story itself is a thriller (werewolf pack is under attack, its members are being killed off one by one, could the culprit be a werewolf too?), but just as cool is the exploration of pack life through Elena’s eyes. As I mentioned before, werewolves are traditionally Guy Territory. Armstrong knows it – and so does her heroine. By the end of the novel, Elena has to choose between living a normal-but-fake girly life in the city, or running wild with her wolfy boys in the woods of upstate New York. Of course, it’s not exactly a surprise which one she picks, but how she gets there is the coolest part. I might add, too, that this is very much a by-women-for-women sort of book, by which I mean: watch out for the sexy men. I’m a die-hard Jeremy fan, but I wouldn’t say no to a night with Clay either….

Another great one to check out is MOON CALLED by Patricia Briggs, which is another female invasion of male territory by someone who’s very aware of the fact. The narrator here isn’t actually a werewolf, but rather a “walker” – a term which comes from the Native American “skinwalker.” Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is, in fact, part Native American, and she can turn into a coyote at will. But since she’s the only one of her kind that she knows about (thanks to those pesky werewolves coming over from Europe all those years ago and wiping her people out), she was literally raised by wolves. Like Kelley Armstrong, Briggs employs the “werewolf pack” device here, with fascinating attention to details like rank and lupine body language. Mercy operates from outside the pack (where she is thankfully free of the social constraints that are placed on werewolf women), but remains close enough to get embroiled in wolf business. Not just because she has a nose for trouble, either – that Pack Alpha, after all, is quite a nice piece of man-candy.

Those are my Big Two, although I should also give a mention to a few others. BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE by Annette Curtis Klause is your standard “I don’t fit in, woe is me, O what do I do?” teen fare, with werewolfism as a metaphor for being just a little bit different. THE WOLVING TIME by Patrick Jennings is a middle-grade novel that I picked up because it had cool cover-art, and I was surprised at how sweet it was. Jennings uses much the same metaphor as Klause does, but sets it instead in a surprisingly believable 16th century France.

Charlaine Harris’s insanely popular Sookie Stackhouse novels also get a mention. Even though the series falls under the All About Vampires category, she does some really cool things not only with werewolves, but also with werepanthers, werebears, and various kinds of shapeshifters. (For the record, even though they haven’t gone into any of the were/shifter stuff in the HBO series TRUE BLOOD yet, I can’t speak highly enough of the show. This is vampire melodrama at its absolute best!)

I should also say something about the TWILIGHT series by Stephenie Meyer, in which there is a human girl / vampire guy / werewolf guy love triangle. (Guess who gets the girl?) I only mention this because YOU SHOULD NOT READ IT. Seriously. I did, and I think I’ve suffered enough for all of us. Trust me on this. Just… don’t.

And of course, a shout-out to J.K. Rowling and that damn HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, which features Remus Lupin, werewolf extraordinaire and my own personal literary boyfriend. I blame Remus and JKR for my ridiculous werewolf obsession. Thanks ever so much, guys.

Thanks, Lindsay!

Now, I am not without some werewolf recs of my own. An American Werewolf in London is still one of my favorite horror movies. Forged in the dark ages before CGI (1981), An American Werewolf in London was forced to rely on imaginative makeup (it even won an Oscar) and a compelling story to spook the audience. When David and Jack go backpacking in England, they get attacked by a large beast. Jack is killed outright, but David is only slightly mauled. David is relieved to be alive, until he starts seeing Jack (with a nice post-mauling visage that decays as the movie goes on), who warns him that he's gonna turn into a beastie himself. Jack urges David to kill himself (whatta friend), advice that David of course ignores, because otherwise the movie would be a half hour long. The movie is similar in tone to the original Evil Dead, before the franchise went fully camp and still walked that excellent line between horror and humor. Of all the werewolf movies I've seen, this is the only one I feel really gets it right.

Next are two movies that don't get it exactly right but are at least watchable, unlike some other werewolf movies I've seen (The Howling). First, Cursed, which I enjoyed more than I expected to. It probably helped that my expectations were low after reading the reviews. Yes, it's campy. Okay, really campy. I mean, it features a pre-redeemed-by-Fringe Joshua Jackson. But it's still a solid movie. And it's by Wes Craven, the master of horror, that has to count for something. Then there's Ginger Snaps, another film I enjoyed because my expectations were low. It makes clever use of a lycanthropy-as-puberty metaphor and spawned two sequels that are, okay, dreadful, but the first movie is worth catching the next time it's on TV.

Despite its Guy in a Furry Suit problem, Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a nice job handling werewolves. Two episodes stand out the most, the second season's "Phases" which you can watch on Hulu, and the fourth season's "Wild At Heart", which you can't. I promise I'll stop flogging Buffy, as soon as you all rent the complete series, or after this week, whichever comes first.

Finally, a bit of an anti-rec. After Dark's Horrorfest (aka 8 Films to Die For) is always hit or miss in its selections. There's usually a gem or two (Unrest, Tooth and Nail) buried among the selected dreck. Mulberry Street is not one of those gems. I love horror movies set in New York City (Cloverfield!) so I was excited for this one. And since the summary - "The city that never sleeps may shut its eyes for good when a deadly infection turns its residents to savage creatures" - led me to think it was a zombie movie, I was doubly excited. Well, Mulberry Street is not about zombies. It's about...god, I can barely bring myself to type this...wererats. Wererats are exactly what you think they are - instead of werewolves, people get bitten by infected rats and become wererats. Giant people-rats. Which I guess isn't a completely ridiculous concept, I'm sure someone somewhere could have pulled it off, but it was not pulled off by the team making this movie. It was on TV last week and I turned it on briefly to see if it was as bad as I remembered it being, and it was. It may be worth watching for a laugh at the insanity (and inanity), but that's about it. Wererats!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Monster Special: Vampires

Ironically, for someone whose favorite television shows are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series, I’m not really all that keen on vampires. For every decent vampire movie, there’s at least three frou-frou Anne Rice lamers clogging up the genre. Also, there are really only so many “vampires as not-very-subtle metaphor for sex” stories I can watch before I get bored. Yes, yes, we get it, vampires and werewolves represent our Id longing to burst free and have bitey/furry sexy funtimes blah know what a zombie is a metaphor for? Dead people chewing on your brains. (Well, okay, and sometimes political corruption and mindless consumerism, but mostly the brain chewing.) And most ghost stories just wanna scare the piss out of you. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy Moonlight in its brief, melodramatic season, and I have all the episodes of True Blood still sitting on my Tivo awaiting my attention, but bloodsucker stories that engage me are few and far between. So here are a few vampire tales that don’t suck.

First, naturally, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, if you haven’t already seen this series, I suggest you add the whole thing to your Netflix queue ASAP. But if you don’t want to commit right away, Hulu has a good selection of early episodes. Over seven seasons, Buffy battled not just vampires but trolls, demons, gods, rogue slayers, witches, and all manner of otherworld beasties. But the series’ most memorable arc came in the second season and revolved around a trio of memorable vampires, two of whom had been or would go on to be paramours of the titular slayer, and the other of whom was just unsettling. And luckily, the entire arc is available for free viewing on Hulu. Start with Surprise, where Buffy’s vampire boyfriend Angel gives her the birthday gift that keeps on giving – syphilis! Just kidding, vampires (probably) can’t spread STDs. Though apparently, if you’re dying of syphilis and then get turned into a vampire and then get staked by your ex-boyfriend’s new slayer girlfriend only to get brought back as a human by an evil law firm, you will resume your dying of the syphilis you had hundreds of years ago, but that’s okay because the crazy lady that your ex-boyfriend drove mad then vamped will (at the behest of that evil law firm again) re-vamp you and you’ll be in good health again…until that pesky mystical pregnancy, anyway. But that’s a second season arc on another show. Look, it’s complicated, okay? Just rent the DVDs. Anyway, after Buffy and Angel sleep together, Angel loses his soul (the thing that made him a good vampire instead of a, y’know, homicidal maniac) thanks to a sex-makes-you-happy-makes-you-lose-your-soul clause in the Gypsy curse that gave him said soul in the first place, and Angel and becomes Angelus in Innocence, one of the most gut-wrenching hours of television you’ll ever see. This leaves Buffy with the grim task of hunting down her erstwhile lover and trying to stop him from bringing about the apocalypse. The arc continues in Passion, Becoming Part 1, and comes to a devastating conclusion with Becoming Part 2. This is vampire melodrama done right. Set aside a rainy weekend afternoon to marathon these five episodes.

If you want the Buffy or Angel vampire-centric story experience without having to set aside big blocks of time for the whole Angelus arc, both shows do offer good stand-alone episode options that are both available online. Check out the Buffy second season episode, Lie to Me, and the Angel first season episode, Eternity, for some good commentary on vampire lore in popular culture.

Buffy and Angel are now off the air but live on in comic form. But before Joss Whedon rendered his most famous creations in 2-D, he’d written another vampire slayer comic miniseries that’s since been compiled into a trade paperback. Fray follows a vampire slayer hundreds of years into the future, when vampires and demons have been gone for centuries but make a sudden, and devastating, reappearance. The comic has a great visual style, mixing the zippy high-concept gleaming future of rich people with the hard-scrabble grimy future of poor people that Whedon would later revisit in his doomed series Firefly. Fray is a fantastic, stand-alone story that is a must for both Buffy fans and general fans of the vampire genre.

Okay, enough Whedonverse. I should acknowledge that Joss Whedon and, yuck, Anne Rice do not have the vampire market cornered. So my next recommendation is Dracula 2000. Dracula 2000 is not the definitive vampire movie – I honestly don’t even think I know what is – but it’s a little fresher than some of the other, staler offerings that have come out in recent years. It makes great use of its New Orleans (pre-Katrina) setting and walks a fine line between camp and genuine creepiness. It’s the basic Dracula story re-imagined for a modern setting, with some cool narrative twists that deepen the mythology of that most infamous of bloodsuckers. It’s an underrated little gem that’s worth checking out.

Since it was a book that brought vampires into popular culture lo those many years ago, it’s only fitting that I recommend two vampire books worth checking out. First is I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson. It’s been made into a movie three times – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, The Omega Man starring Charton Heston, and the recent Will Smith blockbuster I Am Legend – with varying degrees of faithfulness to Matheson’s original work. Last Man comes the closest until it goes a bit astray in the end, and I Am Legend does a decent job of keeping the general spirit intact while of course ballasting it up to be a Will Smith blockbuster, but then they went and fucked with the ending again. The original novella is a quick read, most people should be able to blow through it in a day or two, and it’s worth checking out to see Matheson’s vision without the filter of directors and stars and all that hullabaloo. It’s also a more interesting take on man vs. monster than we usually see.

Finally, you might have noticed my neglect to mention the newest vampire phenomenon and upcoming movie, Twilight. Well, I haven’t read it. I bought it, and I hope to read it before the movie comes out, but only so I can join in on all the making-fun-of-sparkly-sparkly-emo-vampires fun my friends are having. You know what I did read when I was growing up? The Vampire Diaries by L.J. Smith, the original four book series about a human girl and her love triangle with two vampire brothers. Yeah, Twilight is pretty much old news to the L.J. Smith generation. The books were hard to find for a while, but they’ve been repacked into two attractive volumes designed to capitalize on the Twilight phenomena, along with some of L.J. Smith’s other teenage supernatural drama series like my personal favorite, The Secret Circle. These books helped turn me on to writing and reading and supernatural stories when I was younger. I haven’t re-read them in probably over ten years out of fear that they won’t be as good as I remember considering my tastes have changed slightly in the ensuing decade, but the new bindings might be enough to lure me in. And who knows, maybe a re-read of the books that started it all for me will cure me of my vampire fatigue.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Halloween Monster Special: Ghosts and Ghouls

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a fiend for Halloween. So, in the spirit of my favorite holiday, I’m gonna highlight some of my favorite spooky movies, TV shows, and books this week, divided up by monsters wreaking all the havoc. First up, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night.

Before he rocked your world with Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls, Bryan Fuller had another criminally underwatched TV show on Showtime, Dead Like Me. Though it only lasted two short seasons, Dead Like Me packed a lot of great morbid humor and touching moments into 29 episodes, all of which are available on DVD. Starring Ellen Muth, Callum Blue, Jasmine Guy, Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Gayheart, Laura Harris, and a slew of other insanely talented people, Dead Like Me followed a group of not-so-grim reapers who were tasked with collecting doomed souls and coaxing them into the light. If you’re at all a fan of Pushing Daisy’s morbid, quirky humor, add Dead Like Me to your Netflix queue. And keep your eyes out for the much anticipated 2009 direct-to-DVD movie.

Before you trundle out to the theatres this weekend to catch Angelina Jolie’s Changeling, check out the totally different and totally kickass movie with a similar name. The Changeling came out in 1980, and when I watched it on our brand new VCR in the mid-80s it scared the everloving shit out of me. This movie imprinted upon me a fear of creepy little kid ghosts, and to this day, nothing spooks me out more than dead little kids.

I love when a TV show can roll out a good Halloweeny episode. Of course, with shows like Buffy and Angel, where every day is Halloween, it’s perhaps less impressive, but each series yielded great, surprisingly moving ghost-themed episodes that, happily enough, are available on Hulu. So point your browser here to watch Buffy’s second season episode, “I Only Have Eyes For You”, and here to watch Angel’s first season episode, “Rm w/a Vu”. There’s also “Four Scary Stories”, an anthology-style episode of Dawson’s Creek. I can’t find it online, but it is running on The N at 5 a.m. this Tuesday morning if you want to set your Tivo. It’s a great Dawsonfied urban legend-flavored standalone episode that is blessedly light on the annoying, fiveheaded titular character. You can also catch “Living Dead Girl”, another ghost-themed Dawson’s episode, at 4 a.m. on Wednesday on The N. And, hey, awesome news! While looking at The N’s TV schedule, I noticed they’ve started re-running Are You Afraid of the Dark? Tivo season pass, here I come!

Finally, I don’t scare easily, having been pretty much raised on a steady diet of horror movies. That said, there are a few recent movies that have cost me a few nights’ sleep post-viewing. Here are a few ghost stories that got under my skin and gave me freakass dreams. The granddaddy of them all, the first movie to give me a nightmare post-childhood, is of course The Blair Witch Project. Can you seriously watch that last shot and not pee your pants a little? That same year yielded two other great scary ghost stories, The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill, the latter of which I think is underrated as it contains some genuinely horrifying imagery. Next came The Ring, which made me regret having a television in my bedroom. Finally, two movies that really got under my skin and which I feel are underrated, Pulse and Dead Silence. Pulse has that overused-but-still-damned-effective Japanese-style aesthetic and asks us to imagine a world without cellphones (scary!), while Dead Silence features freaky dolls and includes a cameo by Saw’s Billy. I should probably stick with vampire movies from now on, those at least let me sleep afterwards. (Or, in the case of 30 Days of Night, during.)

Speaking of vampires, I’ll be tackling them later this week, along with werewolves, assorted monsters, and my beloved zombies, so check back in to see what else I dig up. Horrified more by what’s not on the list than what is? Then post your Glaring Ghostly Omissions in the comments.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Movies: Saw V

Halloween means different things to different people. To me, it means weeks of awesome scary movies on TV (I watched Final Destination 3 two and a half times last weekend on TNT, which is not at all sad, really) leading up to a kickass parade in Greenwich Village. For my friend Maria it means buying three bags of mini Snickers for trick or treaters and consuming two of them herself before the 31st. And for the folks at Lionsgate / Twisted Pictures, it means it’s time to unleash another chapter of that seemingly indefatigable torture porn franchise, Saw.

By the time most horror and slasher franchises hit movie number five, the back story is all but perfunctory, just an excuse for 80 minutes of hack and slash. After four outings with Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, does anyone really care about their childhood trauma anymore? Saw, on the other hand, gets more entrenched in its increasingly labyrinthine mythos with each installment. In fact, if you’re heading out to see Saw V this weekend, you might need to marathon the first four movies, or at least Saw III and Saw IV, if you want to have any hope of following what’s going on. And I hope you’re good with faces, because you’ll be expected to catch a brief glimpse of one and remember who it belongs to and how they fit into the Saw mythology.

Saw V makes use of the multiple storylines and non-linear narratives that have become the series’ trademarks. This time, however, the storylines echo what we’ve seen in the past. There’s one thread following Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson, reprising his role from Saw IV) as he hunts down Jigsaw’s successor. His stubborn and reckless pursuit ends about as well for him as did the stubborn and reckless cops from Saw II and Saw IV. Another thread uses flashbacks (the only way to keep Tobin Bell’s deceased-since-the-third-movie Jigsaw in the game) to show how Jigsaw mentored his new protégé, Saw IV's Detective Hoffman, in much the same way that Saw III showed how he mentored Amanda Young. I’m sure that by the time Saw VIII rolls around in 2011, another secret protégé will be revealed and we’ll have to revisit all the past movies via flashback to see how the new addition fits in. Saw IX in 2012 will be nothing but a string of clips cobbled together from past movies.

Finally, there’s the storyline of a group of connected strangers who have to make their way through a series of traps - that’s lifted straight from Saw II. This section actually works the best, is the most interesting and engaging, and unfortunately, it’s given far less screentime than the other two parts, much to the detriment of the film.

Scott Patterson does a great job as Agent Strahm, and it was nice to see genre fave Julie Benz pop up as one of the victims. In fact, the Saw movies are generally well-acted and this was no exception...mostly. Costas Mandylor as Detective Hoffman lacks the unhinged charisma of Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw and Shawnee Smith’s Amanda Young. He grits his teeth and stomps grimly around the movie like a less-coiffed Patrick Bateman. It’s sad to think that the genre rests on his bland shoulders. It was also a disappointment when some of the more interesting members of the group trap were among the first picked off, I think they could have been spared a little longer to liven things up.

Good news for the squeamish and bad news for torture porn aficionados, the deaths in Saw V are often quicker and less squicky than what’s typically seen in the genre. Most of the traps in the obstacle course are less elaborate, gruesome, and imaginative than audiences have come to expect from past Saw films, but then, they were created by a lesser serial killer so perhaps that’s to be expected. In fact, I have a low level of tolerance for really grisly deaths, and only the first and last ones in Saw V were bad enough to invoke my fingers-over-eyes defense.

Still, Saw V won’t disappoint fans of the franchise. While it’s not as good as the first and second installments, it does move along at a brisker pace than the third and fourth installments. And think, you only have to wait twelve more months for another chapter of this gory story. Here’s hoping the next outing is less weighed down by its own mythos and gets back to the imaginative traps of the earlier movies.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Movies: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

If the shrill screams emanating from high schools everywhere haven't clued you in yet, High School Musical 3 opens in theatres on Thursday. If, however, you like your teen movies still musical but a little less glossy and Disneyfied, you can still catch Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, a sweet teen confection that opened a couple of weeks ago. (I would have reviewed it earlier, but I got swamped with the improbable temp assignment of assisting at a children's beauty pageant - yeah, I know. But times are tough and my dwindling checking account has to trump my moral outrage at this point.)

Playlist is exactly what you need it to be, nothing more or less. It's a sweet urban fairytale for the Gossip Girl generation, though being old enough to remember, gasp, the original 90210 shouldn't preclude you from enjoying it. The film follows the One Wild Night style of movie previously seen in Go, Clerks, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and the like. Nick and Norah meet, crazy adventures are had, and at the end of the night the bad guys are thwarted (the bad guys being, in this case, Alexis Dziena and Jay Baruchel as Nick and Norah's exes) and Nick and Norah end up happily ever after. That's only a spoiler if this is the first movie you've ever seen.

A few things about the movie. For starters, almost all of the funniest parts are in the trailer. That's not intended as a slam, but the movie is less knee-slapping than the trailer might lead you to believe. But that's okay, because it's quieter than most teen-aimed movies, and in many ways more interesting.

The cast is fantastic. Kat Dennings really shines. Her Norah veers between coltish awkwardness and cocksure snark, and unlike a lot of her contemporaries, she looks her age and she looks gorgeously healthy. Ari Graynor is hilarious as her partygirl best friend who gets to do some of the balls-out, gross-out humor that's usually reserved for the y-chromosome set. Michael Cera is, well, Michael Cera. His Nick isn't too different from his George-Michael Bluth or his Paulie Bleeker, though this time his nice guy affability is nicely undercut by a cranky, world-weary edge. Slight edge, almost infinitesimal, but it's there. It gives me hope for seeing more variety from Cera in the future.

One of my favorite things about Playlist is that it's both set and filmed in New York City. The latter makes a huge difference. During the climactic NYC-set fight scene in this summer's The Incredible Hulk, there was a point where one of the cops told the dispatcher they were on 121st, the street I lived on for three years. Needless to say, it looked a little too Toronto-y and pulled me from the movie. But Playlist makes use of a bevy of NYC landmarks, some I'm very familiar with - Veselka, Port Authority, Penn Station, Arlene's Grocery - and if they hadn't used the real deals, it would have showed. Granted, Port Authority gets a little spruced up, with subway-style benches and a departure board that were brought in just for the filming (the real deal is nowhere near as welcoming or navigable), but it's definitely Post Authority. This authenticity helps New York City assume the role of a supporting character, lending credibility to the One Wild Night concept as few cities specialize in crazy nights quite like Manhattan.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a sweet, funny movie. It probably won't rock your world, but it will give you an enjoyable couple of hours, and in these suckass times, that's enough.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Movie Release Shell Game

In August, Warner Brothers moved the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince release date from November 2008 to July 2009 in order to shore up their 2009 summer slate, which was weakened as a result of the WGA strike earlier in the year. This set off a chain reaction of movie shuffling. Twilight moved up from its December release to take over Harry's original release date, and Quantum of Solace, the new Bond movie, pushed back a week since Harry Potter would no longer be gobbling up all the Thanksgiving audiences.

The dust of all that had just settled when they went and started it up all over again. Harvey Weinstein pushed (and pushed and pushed) to get his Oscar-baiting flick The Reader in for 2008 instead of 2009, even if it means hustling the post-prods and making Reader star Kate Winslet face off against herself (Revolutionary Road opens on December 26th) come awards time. Now it looks like The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name (you may remember him as the author who penned the book that last year's Oscar catnip No Country For Old Men was based on), is being bumped from its November 26th release to sometime in 2009. (Which at least finally settles my debate of whether to see that or Baz Luhrmann's Australia on my birthday/Thanksgiving.) It bears saying that The Road is also a Weinstein production. The move likely relates to the strained promotional resources (since they now have The Reader to worry about, along with Zack and Miri Make a Porno) as well as padding out their 2009 slate.

And now yet another movie is defecting from 2008. One I was highly anticipating, to boot. The Soloist, the upcoming Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx film, is getting bumped to the less-crowded first quarter of 2009. Also moving is Defiance, the WW2 Daniel Craig movie, from December 12th to January 16th. Defiance will, however, get an Oscar-qualifying limited run on December 31st, so it will still be eligible for 2008 awards. The Soloist might get an Oscar run, but I'm betting they just dump it in March. This seems a little boneheaded, since this is clearly Downey's year and he'd practically be a lock if he got a Best Actor nod this year. Next year, his hot streak might have cooled, and besides, Academy voters have short memories, which is why most contenders get rolled out at the end of the year, and from what I've seen and read, The Soloist is definitely a contender.

It's also odd because they've already started rolling Soloist trailers attached to Eagle Eye and Ghost Town. Then again, Warner Brothers had a Harry Potter trailer attached to Iron Man and they still moved it (without bothering to warn Entertainment Weekly, which is owned by Warner, and whose Harry Potter cover of the Fall Movie Preview hit the stands the day of the date swap announcement).

So now that's three movies - Harry Potter, The Road, and The Soloist - I had been anticipating that are now bowing in 2009. Of those, I suspect The Soloist is taking the hit the hardest since it had already started some publicity for the now-non-existent November release, and it doesn't have the guaranteed audience Harry has. So is that it, are the rest of the 2008 movies gonna stay put? Don't hold your breath. Keep your eyes peeled for more announcements in the coming weeks, I'm willing to bet at least one more movie defects to 2009 or jumps ahead to 2008. As long as Australia stays put, I won't get too grumpy.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Movies: Quarantine

Some movies are not well represented by their trailers. Quarantine is not one of those movies. In fact, the trailer lays it all out pretty clearly, from the plot to the visual style to the movies that likely served as inspiration. Basically, if you enjoyed Cloverfield and 28 Days/Weeks Later, you’ll probably enjoy Quarantine, and if you didn’t, you probably won’t. Simple enough.

The film employs the handheld camera technique recently seen in Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead and made notorious by The Blair Witch Project. People who were nauseated watching Cloverfield and Blair Witch might not have as many problems with Quarantine, as the camera work is slightly smoother since it’s supposed to be a professional camera operated by someone who knows what he’s doing, but of course there are still stretches of wobbliness as the cameraman flees from the infected, so take some Dramamine if that kind of thing bothers you.

As far as the infected, the one thing the trailer wasn’t clear on is what the nature of the disease was. It looked like it could be zombies, vampires, or something else. It turns out to be some kind of fast-acting super-rabies, similar to 28 Days Later’s rage virus. Really similar, in fact, from the appearance of the infected to the method of contagion to the shady government.

As for the government storyline, wherein they seal off the building and tell reporters the building has been evacuated when it actually hasn’t, it does fall apart a bit when there’s no big reveal that similar cases had appeared and been dealt with similarly elsewhere (aside from some off-screen mayhem in a vet’s office that led the CDC back to the soon-to-be-quarantined apartment). It seems to be a fairly new disease and this the first real outbreak, and it’s hard to picture the government thinking up such extreme measures on the fly.

While Quarantine is not exactly blazing a new trail here, it does get in some admirable gruesomeness. For example, in all my time watching horror movies filmed in the first-person camera POV, I’ve never actually seen the camera used to bash a creature to death in a scene where the shaky camerawork isn’t the only thing liable to cause queasiness.

It’s fairly well acted and the storytelling is pretty solid. There are some annoying “we’re in a horror movie, so let’s act stupid” moments – maybe I’m just overestimating my cool-headedness in a similar scenario, but I’m always sitting there wondering why people aren’t loading up on supplies or weapons whenever they get the chance. No, by all means, blunder around in the dark completely unarmed when you’ve just been trawling through apartments that probably contain flashlights, umbrellas, chair legs, and other things useful for the bashing in of brains. The claustrophobic atmosphere does add a nice bit of urgency to the tone, giving it a very different vibe from Cloverfield’s sprawl and 28 Days Later’s hordes of rampaging infected. In fact, I would have probably said it’s solidly scary, if my judgment hadn’t been clouded by the less-than-ideal audience in my showing.

Let me take a moment to rant about idiots with no manners. I think the movie had some solidly creepy jump moments, but they didn’t get to me the way they usually do because the numbskulls seated right behind me in the theatre were completely out of control. Any bit of violence or creeptasticness was met with loud guffaws and shouts of “This is so stupid!” or just loudly narrating what was happening on screen, for the benefit of those of us without functioning eyes or brains I suppose. Which is bad enough in any movie, but seeing as Quarantine very closely follows the trailer, they can’t have not known what they were in for. I don’t think the movie was exactly aiming to be the next Casablanca, and it wasn't trying to pull some bait-and-switch to lure in hapless viewers. Needless to say, that drained any tension from the atmosphere. Not the fault of the filmmakers. No, it’s just my own fault for not listening to my own instincts and going to an earlier showing, or not moving when said knuckleheads chattered throughout the previews. They quieted down once the movie started so I thought I was golden, but once the action kicked in about 35 minutes into it they started nattering again, and I didn’t want to be that huffy person who gets up and moves mid-movie because the people seated right by them are acting like assholes. (Though I did do just that in Iron Man, when a mother refused to lift a finger to control her chair-kicking, squalling sprogs, and look, I know kids are gonna do what kids are gonna do, I don’t blame the children, but it’s up to the parents to drag their misbehaving asses out to the lobby and lay into them the way my parents did when I’d act up in movies. Better yet, sit over to the side, away from most of the other moviegoers, to minimize disruptions.) So yeah, I am a little disappointed that a lot of the movie was spoiled by idiots, but I’ll probably get the DVD when it comes out, so I’ll see if it parses better in the comfort of my own, quiet living room.

One more note on the trailer – it functions a little too well as a microcosm of the movie itself, even going so far as to include the final shot of the movie, which is not a great practice. With few exceptions, movie trailers should be culled from act one and early act two only, to avoid giving away the whole game before opening day. But the final scene is very creepy and tense - tense enough to silence the ninnies behind me, even. One minor quibble, though - handheld camera movies shouldn't have the explanation of the origins come via a pan across newspaper clippings with Significant Headlines, because the shot was so shaky and quick that one can't actually read what they said, though Wikipedia tells me they alluded to a doomsday cult working on an apocalypse virus. But I shouldn't have to wait until I get home and fire up the internet to get that kind of information.

Still, overall I really enjoyed Quarantine, but then, I’m not a hard sell for this kind of movie. Ultimately, Quarantine won’t win over any converts, but it should satisfy fans of the genre.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Fall 2008 TV Season (So Far): Part 3

Part 3 of the TV season so far:

Pushing Daisies – Words cannot express how happy I am that this show is back. Words can, however, express how upset I am that the premier tanked in the ratings. I knew I was right to be worried about ABC doing a crappy job promoting this gem of a series. I have to commend the second season premier episode on integrating a premise explanation for new viewers in a way that was still entertaining for the returning audience. The first episode, “Bzzzzzzzzz!”, was great. It featured Autumn Reeser, late of The O.C., and was that great combination of funny, sweet, and morbid that makes Pushing Daisies such a wonderful show. I mean, I have a pathological fear of bees that normally renders me unable to even watch them on TV, so any show that can make me love a whole episode full of buzzing, crawling, stinging bees (...yuck) deserves major kudos. I’m just praying for an uptick in viewership and some patience on ABC’s end.

Dirty Sexy Money – This show, on the other hand, did nothing to catch new viewers up on the old storylines. Hell, I saw every ep of season one and even I had trouble remembering what had happened. There were also some tonal issues. I think the show wants to be wacky in the way most shows by David E. Kelley end up being (after trying to be serious for a season or two), but it’s fighting it with serious plotlines and it just doesn’t mesh. I hope the show pulls it together soon because it has potential. Also, I miss Samaire Armstrong, she brought a great vivacity to the show. I hope they find a way to bring her back once she’s dealt with her personal issues.

Desperate Housewives – Oh. Look. Susan and Mike are broken up. Again. Like that’ll last, them being one of those predestined-by-the-pilot couples and all. I wish they’d find another storyline for them. Anyway, that aside I think the fast forward has been good for the show, it’s given it some of the old spunk back.

Survivor: Gabon – It’s funny that a show known for its gratuitous blurring of potentially exposed naughty bits somehow let some full-frontal made nudity slip by. (Okay, full-frontal is probably pushing it…I’d say quarter-frontal.) Anyway, the season so far has been pretty predictable. There are jackassy men, normal men, twiggy women, normal women, and the oldest female got booted early on. Survivor is the same every year, and you either love it or you hate it.

The Life and Times of Tim – This new HBO animated show reminds me of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, but less squiggly. It’s okay, worth watching if you’re too lazy to change the channel after Entourage but not exactly destination television.

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson – The inclusion of this show will scandalize anyone who’s known me for a while, since I long ago swore my undying allegiance to Conebone. Trust me, I feel like a dirty, dirty traitor saying this, but Conan’s lost his edge. Where once he was subversive and hilarious, nowadays his act is nearly as toothless as Leno and Letterman. My Tivo has been on the fritz for the past few months, recording the wrong channel half the time. I started catching bits and pieces of Craig Ferguson over the summer when my Tivo accidentally taped him instead of Big Brother After Dark or Robot Chicken/Aqua Teen Hunger Force. And he was like a revelation. Biting, off-beat humor, self-deprecating without being self-congratulatory…it was like Conan ten years ago. I still think his take on the bailout plan is the funniest and most incisive I’ve seen to date: “This is the biggest robbery in American history […] Here are the facts: Wall Street are evil, they got really stupid and they got drunk on greed. What happened is, they crashed their Ferrari, and now they’re crying like little bitches and they want their Uncle Sam to buy them a new one. No!” His guests are not usually A-level – tonight he had Barry Sonnenfeld, not exactly a household name – but Craig gets them to give hilariously entertaining interviews that are much sharper than the pabulum patter between most A-listers and the other late night hosts. When Conan finally moves to the earlier spot and isn’t up against Craig, maybe I’ll start watching him again, but in the meantime, Conan, it’s been a good twelve or so years, but I’ve got a new late night man.

As for the other shows, I have all the eps of True Blood and Heroes moldering on my Tivo. I keep meaning to watch but I…don’t. I’ve given up on Grey’s Anatomy for the time being for lack of caring, I’ve stopped pretending I care about Supernatural, I like Bones but it always loses in my own personal ratings war against other shows I love more, and while Privileged looks cute there’s just too many other shows to watch and not enough time in which to watch them. The Mentalist looks like Psych minus James Roday and Dulé Hill, which, no thanks, and I didn’t like the original, British Life on Mars and that had John Simm, so I’ll probably be giving the U.S. version a pass.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Movies: Blindness

On Friday, I saw one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2008. Hell, that I’ve seen in a while, really. Blindness really blew me away enough to make me forget I was in the weird local independent theatre with the tiny screen and hard seats with zero legroom.

It reminded me a lot of Children of Men, another recent movie that stayed in my head long after the credits rolled. Blindness follows a group of people quarantined in a hospital during an epidemic of blindness. As the quarantined are left alone to their own devices with no medicine, dwindling food, and a couple of power-hungry psychos with weapons, the group breaks down. This is not exactly a new story, but it’s handled wonderfully.

Blindness wisely mines material more interesting than society falling apart by delving into instances of society holding together. When The Doctor’s Wife (played by Julianne Moore, the lone sighted person in the ward who feigns blindness to stay with her quarantined husband) catches her husband in flagrante delicto with The Woman With Dark Glasses (the standard golden-hearted prostitute played with amazing depth and sensitivity by Alice Braga), she does not berate them or storm off in a huff. She instead confesses her secret—her vision—to the other woman. It’s an intimate, unexpected scene, in a film that often goes for the unexpected.

Either ironically or fittingly, the cinematography is absolutely stunning. It’s equal parts austere and sumptuous. All throughout, in fact, the film mixes brutal with beautiful. A wrenching and visually-obscured scene of the Ward 1 women bartering their bodies for food with the brutes of Ward 3 is followed by a restrained, somber scene of the women alone, cleaning up after the horror. It’s one of the most stunning scenes in the film.

The communicability of the mysterious disease lends an interesting angle to the film, as it gives us a set of characters who are strangers but connected. As each new group arrives at the ward, we can piece together exactly how they contracted the disease, see how everyone’s connected. Once the core group breaks out of quarantine (because the guards have all abandoned their posts, indicating that the quarantine didn’t, well, quarantine), they start making their way aimlessly through the city. Near a street corner, one member loses contact with the rest for just a moment, and we watch him silently hobble off, not realizing he’s headed away from the group and without the group realizing he’s gone until it’s too late, and you can see how easily one can become disconnected from society.

Unsurprisingly, the movie has stirred up controversy. From PopEater:

“The movie portrays blind people as monsters, and I believe it to be a lie,” said Maurer, president of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. “Blindness doesn't turn decent people into monsters.”

That’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. The movie doesn’t indicate that blindness turns people into monsters. It does say that people trapped together in deplorable conditions with limited food and limited authority oversight can act in pretty awful ways...this isn’t exactly news. Read survivor accounts written by people who survived time in German death camps in the Holocaust or survived the Russian gulags. Criminy, read Lord of the Flies. Even American prisons, with all their prisoner rights and strict surveillance, have rapes, murders, and hierarchical power plays happening right under the CO’s noses. The violence in Blindness has nothing to do with blindness. Hell, I don’t even think it’s fair to say the movie is “about” blindness any more than Citizen Kane is “about” a sled. These knee-jerk responses from special interest groups can do more harm than good, in my opinion.

As far as the portrayal of people being unable to function while blind, this isn’t entirely accurate. For one, there is a character, a henchman to the villain, who is revealed to be in the quarantine despite being blind from birth (instead of from the disease) because, as the villain and self-proclaimed King of Ward 3 says, a man like him can rule in a place like that. And sure enough, he can run circles around the newly-blinded, showing that blindness is not a crippling disability but something that can be managed with proper experience and training. But the fact is, our world was built for the sighted, by the sighted. In my hypothetical “Would I rather be blind or deaf?” musings (because we’re so often presented a choice in that matter…), as much as I love music and as much as it would kill me to be without it for the rest of my life, I always have to choose deaf because it’s easier to navigate this world being deaf than being blind. It’s not fair, but this world is just not set up to be blind-friendly, and while people who are blind can learn to navigate these unfriendly streets, I do think a sudden case of instant-onset blindness that affected most of the population would cause a bit of chaos. At first, anyway. Then we would adjust, because it’s what we do.

Anyway, the movie is a little rough around the edges, which is perhaps a side effect from endless re-cutting after a few less-than-successful screenings. The movie originally featured a voiceover by Danny Glover (who plays Man With Black Eye Patch) that is now contained in only one small scene in the middle of the movie. The scene sticks out a little strangely because of this, but it’s a nice scene and I’m not surprised they didn’t want it on the cutting room floor.

The music cues are a little off-putting at times, conveying Comedy and Wacky Fun in a film that’s anything but. And the blurred, frenetic visuals occasionally detract from the storytelling, and made it impossible for me to identify which characters were performing which rather important actions, which isn’t a good thing.

I walked out with two more small quibbles that have since been resolved. One was the vague setting that couldn’t be pinned down to a city or even a country, but according to Wikipedia that was one of the conditions the author of the novel on which the movie is based set in order to agree to sell the rights. So I can’t blame the filmmaker for that. Also, the movie is almost evenly split between Society Devolving (the breakout and the quarantine) and Society Rebuilding (post-quarantine), which felt weird. I wanted either more delving into the devolving with a traditional climax and the view towards the happier times to come, or cut some out of the quarantine to delve more into the rebuilding. But the more I thought about it the more I realized they had to be equal, because you couldn’t enjoy the rebuilding without living through the horror of the devolving, and after the horror of the devolving you need a nice, long dose of hope or you’ll walk out of the theatre and out into traffic.

This movie resonated more with me than has any movie in recent memory. Afterwards, I had to pick up a few things at the store, and while I was grabbing light bulbs, I spotted a display of flashlights. “Oh, good, I need a flashlight,” I thought, and went to grab one. Then I remembered that I had three working flashlights at home (including one that’s suitable for self-defense), and I’d just changed all their batteries, so why in the world did I think I needed another? It dawned on me that in one scene of the movie, I was thinking how much The Doctor's Wife could use a flashlight, and I must have carried that out with me. It was an hour later and three towns away and my head was still stuck in the movieverse. With so much disposable cinema these days, that seems like a rare feat.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

It's He-ere: Midnight Meat Train

Good news for horror fans who didn’t make the pilgrimage to their local dollar theatre to catch Midnight Meat Train in its August dump release, you can now catch it via FearNet. I can’t speak for all cable subscribers, but Comcast customers can access it via OnDemand>Free Movies>FearNet. You can also watch some making of videos, which you can also watch on the website. Of course after you watch it, you may come to the same conclusion I did – Lionsgate didn’t slaughter Midnight Meat Train for shits and giggles, no, it was definitely a mercy killing.

But first, this is totally out of left field and unrelated, but something randomly triggered my memory while watching MMT and I remembered something I forgot to mention in my review of Mirrors back in August. At one point they had a character watching the news on television, totally standard stuff, until I hear they’re reporting on, of all things, the Peter Braunstein case. What the hell? First of all, I always assumed those background news shows in movies were fake, but if you are gonna go for verisimilitude, couldn’t you use something more standard, the usual b&e or traffic accident or whatever, something less distinctive? Using a news clip that’s real and about something so horrific really pulled me out of the movie for a good five minutes. I go to horror movies to escape the real horrors of the world, not to be reminded of them. And it’s even worse to give that monster any more attention than he’s already been given. Yuck.

Anyway, Midnight Meat Train. It was not as good as I expected it to be. I know, you’re thinking, “You had expectations for a movie called Midnight Meat Train?” But it should be clear to everyone by now that I am not particularly discerning when it comes to horror movies. I know what I like, and MMT seemed to have all the earmarks of something I’d enjoy. It has Bradley Cooper for one. It also has Leslie Bibb. And it seemed to promise fun times watching people get slaughtered on a subway. But the movie, while wobbly throughout, goes irrevocably off the rails in the third act. Pardon the pun.

It starts out well enough. Cooper plays Leon (which is not the worst name in the film – that dubious honor goes to “Jurgis”), a photographer who is told by a mentor-type-person (played by Brooke Shields) that his work is too safe and he must step out of his comfort zone. When Dan Humphrey got that advice earlier this week, he struck up a bromance with Chuck Bass. But Leon takes it as an invitation to follow an underground serial killer (the also-poorly-named Mahogany, played by Vinnie Jones).

[Warning: There is some spoilage for the movie’s ending after this point. If you care about watching Midnight Meat Train spoiler-free, I suggest you peace out now and check back later this week for my thoughts on The Glass Passenger and more fall TV reviews.]

Midnight Meat Train goes along entertainingly, predictably but entertainingly, in this vein for a while. Leon can’t get the police or his girlfriend (Leslie Bibb as Maya) to believe him, he falls further down the venisonhole and starts obsessing, blah blah blah. All is fine and well until we learn that Mr. Hack and Slash is not working alone – he’s got the train conductor on his side. Which does make sense because it is a pretty grisly and unsubtle operation to pull off by oneself, but it immediately shifted the kind of movie we were dealing with, and not for the better.

By the time we get to the end of the line, it’s veered off into a weird place populated by cult members and monstrous mole people. Suddenly there’s supernatural stuff and talk of destiny and, man, this is not what I signed up for. And okay, I can’t penalize a movie for being different than I expected it to be, but I can penalize it for having a wackadoodle ending that doesn’t mesh with the straightforward slasher first act.

There’s also a lot of disbelief requiring suspension. Of all the cops in the (unnamed, shot in L.A. but reads more generically NYC) city, Leon and Maya just happen to go to the one who’s in on the meat train conspiracy. Very convenient. And really, any large city has a transient population that can be easily picked off, people who wouldn’t be missed, so why go through all the trouble of commandeering the train and picking off assorted people who might be more easily missed? The connection – if any – between the meatpacking plant and the creatures getting fed the meat is never really explained. Is the plant a (bloody) red herring? There’s also some weird business with Mahogany picking something off his chest and putting it into jars kept in his medicine cabinet that is never really explained. There’s just a lot of weird shoehorned in and improperly explained. I think they could have made the straight-up slasher flick, or they could have made the creepy supernatural horror flick, but they tried to make both and wound up with neither.

Also, they interrupted the movie midway through, at “intermission”, to show a trailer for Saw V. I am so very completely over the Saw series, for the record. The first movie was okay, the second was really good, the third and fourth were largely incomprehensible. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll probably go see it, because I’m a masochist, but I’m more looking forward to Quarantine than I am more Saw dust.

I now understand why Lionsgate was so quick to dump Midnight Meat Train into second-run Podunk theatres. Despite an admirable job by Cooper and Bibb, who acted the hell out of their parts and made the movie more watchable than it would have otherwise been, Midnight Meat Train is the turducken of horror movies, trying to be too much at once and instead ending up a steaming pile of goo.