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2004:  The Year in HORROR
 

2004: it’s been quite a year.  I say that in reference to my own life, which underwent quite a few changes in ’04, some good, some not-so.  Let’s see: I moved three (count ‘em) times and suffered through just as many family related medical emergencies in addition to the sudden death of a loved one, not to mention a change of employment, a run-in with the law, the most dispiriting election in recent memory and near-death on a nighttime jaunt through South Central LA (and on my birthday, no less!).  To loyal readers frustrated by the lack of updates on this sight I apologize, but I have been a mite distracted.

    That said, let’s take a look at 2004’s cinematic output, as dispiriting in its way as the aforementioned election.  Despite all the upheaval in my life I’ve made an effort to keep up with the movies.  My conclusion: it’s been rotten year for cinema, horror and otherwise. 

    I really hate to be a naysayer, but there just haven’t been too many good films released this year.  If you need corroborating evidence, take a look at mainstream fare like SIDEWAYS and MILLION DOLLAR BABY, both formulaic movies that the majority of critics have branded the finest of 2004—and you know what?  Considering the quality of the rest of ‘04’s films, said critics are probably correct in their assessment: SIDEWAYS and MILLION DOLLAR BABY might just be the year’s best. 

    That’s not to say there weren’t any legitimately good films released in 2004, just that they tended to be few and far between.  Worse, many of the standout releases were granted extremely limited distribution, meaning that if you missed gems like I’M NOT SCARED, GOZU, PRIMER or THE MANSON FAMILY, you’re not alone!

    So here are my favorite and least favorite horror movies of 2004.  As always, the list covers only those films legitimately released within the US theatrically or on home video.  And yes, I did miss a few, although many of the omissions were intentional this time around.  Having a pretty good idea of how they’d place on the list, I tried to avoid sequels, meaning you won’t find THE EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, GINGER SNAPS BACK, SEED OF CHUCKY, BLADE III, SPECIES III or ANACONDAS on this list.  Sorry.  Others I missed include CLOSE YOUR EYES, VLAD and CLUB DRED—-nobody, least of all me, can see everything.  

    So with that in mind, onto the best and the worst horror movies of 2004.  Drum roll please…

 

The Best Horror Movies of 2004:

1. SHAUN OF THE DEAD
Finally, a horror-comedy that actually lives up to its pre-release hype.  This British zombie romp is FUNNY, first and foremost, not to mention slick, clever and imaginative.  It’s about Shaun, a nerdy guy looking to juggle his job as manager of an electronics shop, his on-again off-again girlfriend and his overbearing mother; all come into extremely sharp focus when the dead start to come back to life around him.  It’s kinda like George Romero’s zombie flicks, complete with all the hard-R rated gore you’d expect, but with humor in place of horror.  And we mustn’t forget the title character, a seriously ingratiating loser who, as played by co-writer Simon Pegg, is simply impossible not to love.  Not unlike the film itself. 

2. I’M NOT SCARED [IO NON HO PAURA]
An Italian production that’s scary, provocative and, finally, deeply moving.  That shouldn’t come as any surprise to viewers familiar with the previous work of director Gabriele Salvatores, which includes the Academy Award winning comedy MEDITERRANEO and the bizarre cult drama DENTI.  This is his best work yet as far as I’m concerned, a dark morality tale of Michele, a kid living in a rustic Italian village who accidentally discovers a kidnapped boy chained up in the bottom of a dark hole.  This, it turns out, is only the beginning of the unpleasant truths in store for the young protagonist, who shortly thereafter makes an even more shocking discovery: the whole town is in on the kidnapping, including Michele’s own parents!  Salvatores and his screenwriters create a disturbingly convincing picture of small town evil and hypocrisy, as powerful in its own way as BLUE VELVET.  I’M NOT SCARED is also beautifully made and quite cunning in the way it quietly grips the viewer’s attention; by the end, you may find yourself surprised at just how engrossed you are in the proceedings.  I know I was. 

3. GOZU
An utterly crazed, over the top and plain mind boggling Yakuza-themed horror-comedy chock full of graphic violence, perverted sex and out-and-out weirdness.  Needless to say, I love the film unreservedly—-it is, quite simply, one of Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike’s all around best films.  Miike, as I’m sure you’re aware, is the modern day cinema’s maestro of mayhem, but it always surprises me how much skill and cunning he packs into his films.  Indeed, the audience I viewed GOZU with seemed far more nonplussed by Miike’s languid pacing and whiplash tonal changes than the sex and violence…and there’s of plenty of both on display here, as well as a dude with a cow’s head (the meaning of the title), a woman who likes to spray people with breast milk, a zombie waiter and a corpse that just won’t stay still.  Yes, this is crazy, crazy stuff from its first moments, and Miike somehow manages to steadily increase the insanity quotient, which reaches its apex in a climax of such sublime surreality it nearly defies description.  The only thing is, having recently viewed GOZU on DVD after experiencing it during its all-too-brief theatrical bow, I’ve concluded that this is one film that simply MUST be seen on a big screen! 

4. PRIMER
If ever a film SHOULDN’T work, this is it.  Consider: it’s a time travel flick with little-to-no action, romance or special effects (all unfeasible on its scant $7,000 budget) whose all-male cast spends most of the running time standing around talking; the narrative, meanwhile, is so insanely convoluted even the filmmakers have admitted they weren’t always sure what was happening.  Amazing, then, that PRIMER is one of the year’s most haunting and memorable films.  It concerns some guys who build a machine that can send them back in time to make a bundle buying up winning stocks.  Inevitably, however, there are problems in the form of the guys’ doubles--that is to say the other versions of themselves still extent and walking around while the characters are busy time tripping.  It seems like an easy problem to control, but one that gets out of hand when cell phone messages intended for the doubles are intercepted, and we discover that said doubles have begun traveling through time on their own.  Of course, by the end of the movie we’re not sure if the guys we’re watching aren’t doubles themselves…or, for that matter, triples or quadruples.  Fascinating, mind-bending stuff that requires multiple viewings to fully comprehend; I know I’m extremely anxious to see it again, something I can say about very few of this year’s other movies. 

5. LUCKY
A stylish and imaginative digitally shot flick, pretty much the state of the art in modern budget-lite horror.  Hovering somewhere between ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, LUCKY gives us Millard Mudd, a failed cartoon writer who runs down a dog one night.  Aptly named Lucky, the dog, after Mudd nurses it back to health, turns out to be telepathic, and a control freak to boot.  Lucky helps put Mudd’s life back on track, but also runs it with an iron fist.  Soon Mudd is not only prancing around in bikinis for his canine master, but also stalking and murdering young women.  Thus the narrative turns increasingly twisted, yet still manages to keep its balance due to superbly kinetic handheld camerawork and editing, not to mention a memorable performance by the dog, played by Sidney (previously seen in DUDE WHERE’S MY CAR?).  My only problems were with the cheesy digital stock (always a liability IMO) and the protagonist’s ever-present narration, which most of the time accomplishes nothing but annoyance.

6. RIDING THE BULLET
A movie about the late sixties that often feels like it was made during that time, decked out as it is with flashbacks, psychedelic fantasy sequences and a narrative that meanders all over the place.  Writer/producer/director Mick Garris, adapting a Stephen King story, does a surprisingly good job with RIDING THE BULLET, even if he does make quite a mess of the plot (not having read the original, I’m not sure how much of that is King’s fault).  At its center is a young hitchhiker on a nightmarish journey to visit his mother, who’s suffered a stroke.  He encounters a number of unsavory folks along the way, including David Arquette as a supernaturally endowed creep who knows far too much about the protagonist for comfort.  In contrast to much of the rest of the film, the ending is quite sentimental, though effective nonetheless.  All in all probably Garris’ finest work to date (past films include the underwhelming King adaptations SLEEPWALKERS, THE STAND and that awful SHINING miniseries)-—why then did nobody bother to see it?   

7. DAWN OF THE DEAD
A surprise: I actually liked this remake of an acknowledged classic that really didn’t need to be redone.  This new version is good gory fun, with a tight, witty script by Troma veteran James Gunn that wisely refrains from directly aping George Romero’s narrative (there’s no way Gunn cold possibly improve upon it, after all).  Rather, Gunn fashions a new story based on some of the former film’s themes: zombies overrunning America and a bunch of non-zombie humans trapped in a shopping mall.  Starring, intriguingly enough, Canadian starlet Sarah Polley (EXOTICA, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, JOE’S SO MEAN TO JOSEPHINE), who famously turned down the female lead in ALMOST FAMOUS but apparently had no qualms about appearing in this over-the-top zombie mash—-now that’s my kinda gal!

8. THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA
I tend to go out of my way to avoid bad movie “hommages”, as most are pathetic attempts that try to disguise their shortcomings by winking at the audience.  The black and white LOST SKELETON OF CADVRA, a screwball comedy explicitly patterned after B-movies of the fifties, manages to avoid the pratfalls of such fare due to its genuinely lively, witty script and a very real affection for the schlocky classics it emulates.  In the manner of PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, ROBOT MONSTER, et al, an absurdly square jawed scientist and his wife encounter an extraterrestrial couple, a lumbering three-eyed mutant, an animal woman and of course the eponymous telepathic skeleton in the wilds of So Cal’s Bronson Canyon, the setting of quite a few of this film’s predecessors.  If there’s a problem, it’s that the film replicates its crapola forebears a bit too closely, as, like them, it’s initially hilarious but ultimately grows a bit tiresome. 

9. THE MANSON FAMILY
This is one of the most uncompromising cinematic depictions of unfettered madness and murder I’ve ever seen…but it’s also tacky and poorly acted.  It’s been a LONG time coming, in any event, a fifteen year labor of love for writer/director Jim Vanbebber that I for one was eagerly awaiting.  Vanbebber’s debut feature DEADBEAT AT DAWN was a lovably gory, no budget ode to seventies exploitation flicks, and THE MANSON FAMILY (originally titled CHARLIE’S FAMILY) has similar ideals.  The problem is that it’s a based-on-fact epic, which was simply far too much for Vanbebber-—or anyone—-to take on with the non-budget he was saddled with.  It means to tell the story of Charles Manson’s late sixties “family” from the participants’ own drugged-out point of view.  Multiple film stocks are utilized, together with countless miscellaneous lighting and sound effects (including a bit with mirrors lifted directly from Polanski’s MACBETH), resulting in a trippy, NATURAL BORN KILLERS-like endeavor guaranteed to fry your brain—-and that’s not even taking into account the EXTREMELY graphic third act gore, which I found quite potent despite its cheapness.  If only it weren’t for that lame wrap-around story about a modern day filmmaker harassed by Manson obsessed punks…and the acting, which ranges from semi-competent to downright awful. 

10. LOVE OBJECT
Not to be confused with the similarly themed Jere Cunningham novel of the same name, this is a nutty comedy/horror variation on themes borrowed from Hitchcock’s VERTIGO.  It’s about a nerd who falls for an attractive co-worker but can’t work up the nerve to ask her out; he buys a sex doll and makes it up in the gal’s image, eventually interacting with and even carrying on conversations with it.  Inevitably, he manages to finally cozy up to the doll’s flesh-and-blood inspiration, and takes to making her up like the doll...which just as inevitably grows jealous.  I found the film’s style overly broad, cartoony and not a little off-putting, but the endlessly imaginative, engagingly twisted script kept things afloat.  Excellent climax, too, that completely demolished all my expectations with a “they can’t do that!” twist.

 11. COLLATERAL
This potboiler is to director Michael Mann what PANIC ROOM was to David Fincher: superior filmmaking in service of uninspiring material.  The implausible premise has Tom Cruise as a sociopathic killer getting taxi driver Jamie Foxx to shuttle him from one murder to the next.  Cruise is supposed to be an experienced hit man but proves remarkably inept at his job, leaving a mountain of corpses in his wake, allowing Foxx quite a few opportunities to screw up his endeavors and managing to alert nearly the entire LAPD to their presence.  Of course, the script’s biggest flaw is inherent in the concept: why does Cruise even bother tagging along with Foxx at all?  Why not just rent a car and drive himself?  Such questions are never properly answered by the film, which works nonetheless due to the fine performances (with—wonder of wonders!—Jamie Foxx being the stand-out) and Michael Mann’s remarkably striking, textured visuals.  As he did in HEAT, Mann works wonders with LA’s nighttime landscape, but this film is a pale shadow of that masterpiece. 

12. DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT
This is a longer cut of DONNIE DARKO, a film that has steadily grown in popularity since its unsuccessful 2001 release.  I was only mildly impressed with it back then and my feelings haven’t changed now.  Yes, it’s a cool movie, with an imaginative John-Hughes-on-acid storyline, a solid lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal and some interesting sci fi twists (made more prominent in this new version).  Unfortunately, it also features a number of miscast “name” actors in superfluous roles (most notably Drew Barrymore as an English teacher), much annoying faux-Tarantino dialogue and a thoroughly overwrought bit about a nutty religious zealot (who nevertheless has a great line about the orifice Gyllenhaal threatened to “forcibly insert” a pamphlet into). 

13. HELLBOY
Good big budget horror-themed superhero stuff from the wonderful Guillermo Del Toro.  It’s not in the same league as his Mexican films CRONOS and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, but showcases far more personality than MIMIC and BLADE 2, Del Toro’s other Hollyweird productions.  Ron Perlman plays the Hellboy, a supernaturally endowed dude who fights demons and battles a Cthulhu-like entity bent on taking over the world, while pining away for Selma Blair as a disturbed chick who can start fires with her mind.  Perlman is quite good as Hellboy and the film boasts lots of memorably gooey imagery.  I just wish it, like so many of today’s comic book movies, weren’t so over-reliant on CGI effects to advance its story.

14. THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW
It seems every year brings at least one bonafide guilty pleasure.  In ‘03 it was DREAMCATCHER and this year Roland Emmerich’s environmentally minded destruction-fest DAY AFTER TOMORROW is my GP of choice.  Yes, it’s hopelessly corny, clichéd and scientifically inaccurate, as I’d expect from a film based on a book by Whitley Strieber and Art Bell (look ‘em up)...but damn is it FUN!  The special effects are great (if hopelessly implausible) and it was a kick seeing a vice president obviously modeled on Dick Chaney apologizing to the nation for ignoring the effects of global warming (though again completely implausible).

15. INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS
Movie legend Werner Herzog, the German born director of classics like EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL and FITZCARRALDO, parodies his image in this witty, if slight, mock-doc by hotshot screenwriter Zack Penn (whose credits include SUSPECT ZERO & ELECTRA).  It has Herzog traveling to Loch Ness to make a documentary about the LN monster, together with Penn, a Hollywood crew and a Playboy model.  Before long the production is in a shambles: Penn lies to everybody, crewmembers begin deserting the project and the locals become suspicious…and then “Nessie” itself shows up in the BLAIR WITCH-like final third.  It’s clear from the start that the film isn’t the straightforward documentary it pretends to be, yet everybody plays themselves and the narrative appears to have been largely improvised.  Thus it has some intriguing things to say about the limits of “reality” in documentary filmmaking.  It’s also damn funny.

16. LEMONY SNICKETT’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS
A surprise: I actually kinda liked this adaptation of a popular kiddie book series which really puts the Grim into its fairy tale universe.  I understand the material has been sanitized somewhat in the translation, but not having read the books, that’s neither here nor there as far as I’m concerned.  The film is far from perfect, mostly due to director Brad (CITY OF ANGELS) Silberling’s unfortunate tendency to let his star Jim Carrey run wild—-don’t get me wrong, I like JC a lot, but a little of his shtick goes a long way.  That said, Silberling does solid work overall, fashioning a dark and fantastic world worthy of Tim Burton.  Alas, we can only imagine what a truly great filmmaker like Terry Gilliam, or even Burton himself, might have done with the material. 

17. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS [JANGHWA, HONGRYEON]
A powerful, deeply felt Korean genre outing that nearly strangles on its own convolutions.  It’s a twisted family drama about, yes, two sisters living with relatives, one of whom may or may not be a ghost; sorting out who’s dead and who isn’t turns out to be quite a chore in this film, which by the end is a veritable mess of flashbacks, outrageous plot twists and mistaken identities.  Good thing it’s so beautifully made, with great performances, an expertly delineated creepy atmosphere and quite a few genuine scares. 

18. SAW
An unapologetically movie mad effort from first-time filmmakers that bears many of the pratfalls, but also quite a few of the virtues, you might expect of such a film.  It’s clunky and wildly uneven, certainly, but boasts infectious energy and a manic, go-for-broke spirit.  The wildly implausible story, about a psycho who murders those he considers sinners via mind-bogglingly elaborate contraptions, is a derivative mess, but the killings are genuinely demented—-they involve a crawl through barbed wire, a device strapped to one’s head that snaps open and rips the jaw apart, and the eponymous torture, where chained up guys are encouraged to saw off their own feet in order to free themselves—-and the narrative rises to a memorable pitch of horrific insanity.   

 

Thus ends my Best of list.  Before moving onto the year’s worst movies, I’d like to alert you to several memorable films from past years that received their long belated DVD releases in 2004:

FREAKS (1932)
A true horror classic that continues to startle, over 70 years after its initial release.  The ubiquitous author/historian David J. Skal, who can be seen on quite a few classic horror DVDs, does his usual superlative job with the supplemental material. 

UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928)
The original “weird movie”, a still-potent swirl of undiluted surrealism that begins with a legendary eyeball slashing and builds from there. 

PINOCCHIO 964 (1992) & RUBBER’S LOVER (1996)
The premiere features by Japan’s demented Shozin Fukui.  Bloody, psychedelic and totally insane from start to finish, these cyberpunk tinged masterworks are stand-outs in the annals of extreme cinema.  PINOCCHIO is the more accomplished film in my view, but both are required viewing for all cult movie buffs. 

3 WOMEN (1977)
One of director Robert Altman’s best-ever films is given the deluxe Criterion treatment.  It’s a deeply haunting, elliptical masterpiece with a flat-out brilliant performance by Shelley Duvall.

CRAZY LOVE (1987)
A wild Charles Bukowski adapted concoction featuring masturbation, physical deformity and necrophilia, this remains a stunningly individual piece of filmmaking that’s grotesque and touching in equal measure. 

ED WOOD (1994)
Tim Burton’s best film IMHO, a funny and heartfelt look at the “worst director of all time”.  The DVD compliments the movie with loads of fun bonus material. 

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)
This long neglected Czech masterwork remains one of the screen’s most authentically dreamlike excursions.  A wondrous, beautiful and baffling experience. 

DEATH GAME (1977)
A twisted psycho thriller that ranks with classics like KITTEN WITH A WHIP, PRETTY POISON and BETTY BLUE in its account of two psychobitches from Hell who take a mild mannered businessman hostage.  The problem is with Cinema Pops’ ultra-cheapo DVD release that pauses every time there’s a chapter change and features an extremely muddy transfer.  This film deserves better!  

L’INFERNO (1911)
The legendary “lost” Italian adaptation of DANTE’S INFERNO with incredible pioneering special effects (and a new, highly controversial score by Tangerine Dream). 

LADY TERMINATOR (1988)
If you haven’t seen this jaw-dropping Indonesian TERMINATOR rip-off, with a hot chick who blows away countless folks and shoots explosive laser beams from her eyes, then you owe it to yourself to do so NOW! 

THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA (1976)
An unheralded trash classic with Millie Perkins as a psychotic woman on a killing rampage.  Directed by sleaze legend Matt Cimber, who was in fine form here. 

FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)
Richard Elfman’s Tex Avery inspired, Oingo Boingo scored, whacked out musical surreal fest.  Required viewing. 

THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE (1974)
You might know this one under its original American release title THEY CALL HER ONE EYE.  Presented fully uncut by Synapse Films, it’s an extreme (in every sense of the word) account of a young woman forced into prostitution who wreaks a VERY nasty revenge on her tormentors.  Could only have been made in the early seventies. 

UNZUMAKI (2000)
This Japanese movie is one of the strangest I’ve seen in some time, a dark and eerie account of a town under siege by demonic spirals.  Stylish helming and imaginative art direction make for a memorable exercise in Eastern-styled weirdness. 

LEMORA: A CHILD’S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (1973)
Spare, evocative and atmospheric seventies horror given a superlative DVD transfer, again courtesy of the good folks at Synapse Films. 

99.9 (1997)
Another case of a good film given a substandard DVD release, complete with annoying burned in English subtitles.  This Spanish production, directed by IN A GLASS CAGE’S brilliant Augustin Villaronga, is still worth checking out: it has a narrative that veers, fascinatingly, from Pupi (THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS) Avati style mystery into David Lynchian surrealism. 

EPIDEMIC (1988)
Lars Von Trier’s debut feature, a disease thriller that mixes formal experimentation with gross-out thrills.  The result is a highly eccentric concoction that’s both fascinating and annoying.  

THE HOLE (2000)
A very slick British production based on Guy Burt’s overrated novel about teens trapped in an underground shelter.  AMERICAN BEAUTY’S Thora Birch, who speaks in a patently unconvincing English accent, was doubtless cast in the misguided belief that she was on the cusp of stardom.  That stardom was achieved, but by supporting player Keira Knightley, who here performs her one and only nude scene. 

WILD ZERO (2000)
I don’t much care for this comedic splat fest from Japan-—I think it tries far too hard yet still never quite hits its mark-—but am fully aware that quite a few of you think very highly of it, so maybe I missed something.

 

And furthermore, you’re also advised to check out these terrific near-horror movies from 2004: 

THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD
Guy Maddin is one of the most defiantly individual filmmakers in the world, and this is one of his best films, a bizarre and hilarious account of a saddest-music-in-the-world contest held in the director’s hometown of Winnipeg, Ca. 

THE CORPORATION
An eye-opening documentary that examines the role corporations play in our lives, comparing their actions to those of a serial killer.  As far as muckraking political docs go, I think it’s far superior to SUPER-SIZE ME and FAHRENHEIT 9/11. 

DOGVILLE
The latest from Lars Von Trier, a wildly innovative, violent and misogynistic drama starring Nicole Kidman as a young waif who enters the town of Dogville and gets raped and enslaved for her troubles.  As always with Von Trier, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it exercise that’s fascinating, a bit (okay, very) self indulgent and utterly NUTS from start to finish. 

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
Although not quite as brilliant as some would have you believe, this Charlie Kaufman comedy with Jim Carrey is unforgettable hallucinatory entertainment, precisely the sort of thing we could use lots more of. 

BUKOWSKI: BORN INTO THIS
Another excellent documentary, this one about the late, great Charles Bukowski, whose twisted life closely paralleled the depressed world depicted in his writing. 

KILL BILL VOLUME 2
The second half of Quentin Tarantino’s splat-happy revenge opus memorably rounds out the saga, although I think I prefer the vibrant and energetic Volume 1. 

BREAKFAST WITH HUNTER
In this verite doc, we see the one and only Hunter S. Thompson staggering around the Sunset Strip, shooting guns with Johnny Depp, fighting a trumped-up drunk driving charge and chewing out filmmaker Alex Cox during a script meeting for the latter’s proposed adaptation of HST’S FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.  Quite possibly the definitive film on Thompson. 

A DIRTY SHAME
This NC-17 rated John Waters directed sex comedy is clumsy and uneven, but is nonetheless his strongest movie since ‘94’s SERIAL MOM

CELLULAR
This goofy kidnapping thriller is more fun than it has any right to be.  Partially scripted by the great Larry Cohen (IT’S ALIVE, GOD TOLD ME TO, PHONE BOOTH), it has Kim Basinger snatched by bungling kidnappers and a young punk unexpectedly intercepting her desperate plea for help on his cell phone.  
 

     And now, with the good stuff out of the way, it’s time for…

 

The Worst Horror Movies of 2004:

1. VAN HELSING
An absolutely abominable, infuriating and insulting load of shit, virtually the apotheosis of Hollywood’s lowest-common denominator aesthetic.  Writer-director Stephen Sommers, not content with having twice debased the Mummy onscreen, pisses on not just the Bram Stoker created Dr. Van Helsing but also Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all of whom turn up here in ultra-tacky CGI form; if you weren’t sick of CGI FX before VAN HELSING than I’m sure you will be after sitting through it!  As with his previous films, Sommers seems intent on creating a big screen video game aimed at retarded eight-year-olds, and doesn’t let things like style, wit, logic, character development, period detail or fidelity to his source material get in the way.   

2. ALIEN VS. PREDATOR
Not merely an awful movie, but an insulting one that represents nearly everything wrong with modern-day Hollywood.  It’s a thoroughly lackluster project rushed into production without a proper budget, under the direction of the terminally untalented Paul W.S. Anderson, in the hope that it might rake in a lot of money in its first week of release (before the inevitable bad word of mouth set in).  The story: Forget it.  The characters: What characters?  The action: Clumsy and incoherent from start to finish.  The critters: The best part of the enterprise, certainly, but they don’t do anything we haven’t already seen them do before.  I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for ALIEN 3 & 4, or even PREDATOR 2, until I sat through this disaster. 

3. THE FORGOTTEN
I can’t for the life of me figure out how this film’s completely ridiculous, illogical, bone headed script, credited to novelist Gerald DiPego, was ever green-lighted…or how it managed to attract top drawer talent like director Joseph Rubin (THE STEPFATHER) and star Julianne Moore.  In any event, neither appears to have mustered up much enthusiasm for the project, which doesn’t surprise me (according to one review, on his DVD commentary Rubin “can’t help bashing the movie”).  At its best the film approaches the level of a semi-competent TV movie…and at its worst makes PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE look like CITIZEN CANE, complete with a bevy of unintentional laughter. 

4. GODSEND
A clichéd and incoherent mess—-in other words, an all-too-typical modern horror movie.  The supremely creepy Cameron Bright (also seen in BIRTH) plays a deceased kid brought back to life by a cloning process, but-—surprise!—-his new incarnation is…different.  Supermodel turned bad actress Rebecca Romijn Stamos plays Bright’s mom (I guess Pamela Anderson was unavailable) and Robert De Niro embarrasses himself as the architect of the kid’s rebirth.  The confused and arbitrary nature of the enterprise is reflected in the multiple endings that were shot, four of which are included on the DVD.  After viewing all four (lucky me) I’ve concluded that none have any value, yet any of ‘em could be comfortably substituted for the lame coda the filmmakers ended up using. 

5. THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
No, I didn’t really expect this one to be any good, but still…it does have an interesting premise.  Ashton Kuchar headlines as a twerp who can revisit his past and do different things, changing the future in the process (a la the guy who travels back in time and changes the course of history by stepping on a butterfly in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, hence the “Butterfly Effect”).  The biggest problem, as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, is with the casting: Ashton Kuchar is simply NOT cut out to carry a movie, much less one as dense and convoluted as THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT.  Equally off-putting is the obnoxiously flashy direction, which seems more concerned with being hip than anything else.  

6. TWENTY-NINE PALMS
The third feature by French filmmaker Bruno Dumont, who seems to degenerate with each succeeding effort: his debut LIFE OF JESUS was a stunner but its follow-up HUMANITY was so-so at best, while TWENTY-NINE PALMS flat-out sucks.  It’s set in the California desert and boasts great widescreen scenery...but that’s all that’s great about it.  The story (if you can call it that) has an American dude and his French GF schlepping around a motel bickering and fucking.  In a series of agonizingly drawn-out, snail paced takes, they wander naked through the desert, get yelled at by a redneck in a car and...well, don’t do much of anything.  Eventually there’s a violent encounter in a wasteland, followed by an even more violent—-and hopelessly ludicrous—-conclusion.

7. SUSPECT ZERO
A totally underwhelming effort directed by E. Elias Merhige, who previously made the superlative mind bender BEGOTTEN and here proves he can crank out a serial killer programmer in as pointless and derivative a manner as anybody else.  There are some striking visuals herein, including ultra-grainy black and white intercuts that might be outtakes from the aforementioned BEGOTTEN.  But the story, about a serial killer (Ben Kingsley) who targets other serial killers, is hopelessly routine, and Aaron Eckhart and Carrie Anne Moss, as the FBI agents on Kingsley’s track who find themselves identifying with their target a bit too intimately (gee, I’ve never heard that one before), did little to pique my interest. 

8. TAKING LIVES
The latest in a looooong line of lackluster SEVEN wannabes.  The filmmakers clearly studied David Fincher’s masterwork very closely before embarking on this one, as it’s completely derivative from the opening credits on down.  Unlike SEVEN, however, the only real emotion this film evokes is boredom, as Angelina Jolie tracks a nut who kills people and takes over their lives.  It deserves a mention for taking place in Montreal, making it the only Canadian-shot Hollywood film in recent memory that’s actually set in Canada.  The music, incidentally, was by the once-great Philip Glass, who’s claimed he regretted scoring CANDYMAN, and refused for a long time to release its brilliant score on CD because he found the film “too violent”.  Having scored this extremely violent thriller as well as the equally bloody SECRET WINDOW (see below) in the same year, clearly he’s changed his tune...or was just in serious need of cashola. 

9. TWISTED
A by-the-numbers Ashley Judd thriller made all the more aggravating because it was helmed by Philip Kaufman, who made THE RIGHT STUFF, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and a number of other quality films; this bummer, needless to say, is NOT in their league!  As in KISS THE GIRLS, DOUBLE JEOPARDY, et al, Ashley’s a tough cookie (there’s even the obligatory scene of her practicing martial arts moves) who, as usual, is in the sights of a psycho, and, as usual, has an older man helping her out (Samuel L. Jackson, replacing Morgan Freeman and Tommy lee Jones), but, as usual, proves far more resilient than her foe expected…ultimately, as usual, it all adds up to very little.

 10. BIRTH
This hideously pretentious mess is notable for having quite possibly the single most outrageous premise of any movie this year.  Nicole Kidman, displaying her much remarked upon “adventurous” taste in film projects, plays an annoying white collar waif whose life is turned upside down by a ten-year-old claiming to be the reincarnation of her dead husband.  The kid, played by GODSEND’S Cameron Bright, is a real weirdie, but Nicole somehow finds herself “falling in love with him again”, leading to a notorious (though in actuality quite tame) bathtub scene.  The film is suffocatingly solemn and protracted, so much so that one is tempted to make farting sounds in the theater, and nothing in its hopelessly ludicrous, woefully underdeveloped story is ever fully resolved.  In other words, it ever can seem to decide whether the kid is really Nicole’s husband or not…and by the end I didn’t care. 

11. RESIDENT EVIL 2
The second ’04 loaf laid by the terminally untalented Paul W.S. Anderson, whom Hollywood naturally can’t seem to get enough of.  As expected, this PC game inspired horror sequel is absolute shit, but it does have some mitigating elements, most notably a scantily clad Milla Jovovich and a number of other equally fetching gals.  There are also many promising concepts, like a gaggle of zombie kids who literally devour their teacher and a climactic mano-a-mano between Milla and a big zombie critter.  Unfortunately, promise is ultimately as far as this film goes—-the filmmaking is far too inept and Anderson’s script way too bland for much else! 

12. DARKNESS
Spanish made, English language horror from the talented Jamie Bellaguero, whose THE NAMELESS remains a genre classic.  DARKNESS is not in the same league, although it is visually impressive.  The problem is with the story, a confused jumble of disparate elements from THE HAUNTING, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, POLTERGEIST and quite a few other, better films.  I understand the film was heavily edited for its American release, so maybe a superior, more coherent version exists. 

13. JU-ON [THE GRUDGE]
Japanese horror, apparently a HUGE success in its native land (and, needless to say, the subject of a Hollywood remake—see below).  I found it difficult to follow and extremely derivative of RINGU; anyone even remotely familiar with new wave Japanese genre cinema will recognize the tightly controlled atmosphere punctuated by noisy scares.  Like RINGU, JU-ON has a wildly complicated lineage, having begun life as a low-budget TV movie complete with an accompanying sequel, both of which were remade theatrically.  The original JU-ON TV movie is actually far better than this theatrical version (or the Hollywood remake) in my view, but it has yet to achieve a legitimate release in the US.

14. THE GRUDGE
The Sarah Michelle Gellar-ized Hollywood remake of the above film, which I found no better or worse than its predecessor…well, perhaps the ending of this version could use some work.  One thing is for certain: after viewing this film, the Korean JU-ON and its sequel, as well as the original TV version of JU-ON and its sequel—-all in the space of a couple months—-I’m definitely Grudged out.

 15. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
A large-scale adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical extravaganza that I don’t think will ever displace the 1925 Lon Chaney classic as the definitive movie version of Gaston Leroux’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.  Co-written and produced by Webber, this film, much like the stage version, wants to impress above all else.  Fine and good, but with such ambitions it’s NOT a good idea to hire uber-hack Joel Schumacher to direct; about the best I can say for Schumacher’s helming here is that he brings all the fire and passion he brought to past efforts like D.C. CAB, ST. ELMO’S FIRE and BATMAN AND ROBIN.  Worse, the cast members are for the most part hopelessly bland, displaying all the animation of wind up dolls; you know a movie’s in trouble when the much hated Minnie Driver delivers the best performance! 

16. OPEN WATER
The makers of this horror no-budgeter show a definite flair for the genre and do their damndest to make it float, but ultimately there’s only so much they can do.  The premise?  A young couple left behind by a scuba expedition in the middle of a shark filled sea.  Yes, that sums up the entire movie.  With its convincingly naturalistic atmosphere (apparently the actors were in the water with real sharks) and imaginative sound design, I’ll have to conclude that OPEN WATER was made as well as possible, but conceptually it’s just too limited for its own good. 

17. SECRET WINDOW
This Stephen King adaptation has a promising MISERY like premise about writer Johnny Depp approached by a nut claiming Depp has plagiarized his story.  The first half hour or so is reasonably compelling, but then the film grows increasingly convoluted, implausible and plain nonsensical as writer/director David Koepp tries to fashion a psycho thriller in the manner of last year’s IDENTITY...or at least, I think that’s what he was trying to do.  I haven’t read the Stephen King original and so can’t gauge how much culpability he has in this annoying mishmash, which feels like Koepp made it up as he went along.

18. DEATHWATCH
The latest entry in the new horror-war movie subgenre, whose ranks include ‘00’s THE BUNKER and ‘02’s BELOW.  None are particularly satisfying in my view, meaning that maybe this audacious genre mix isn’t as cool as it might sound.  The British/German co-production DEATHWATCH is set in the trenches of WWI, where the survivors of a decimated British platoon find themselves under siege by an ominous supernatural force.  I really wanted to like this film more than I did, as it was evidently made with the best of intentions.  Its makers were clearly trying for something unique and unprecedented, and do an excellent job imparting the grueling physical details of trench warfare; if nothing else, this is definitely one of the muddiest films of all time.  The problem is that the combination of gritty battlefield drama and creepy crawly stuff just never gels; quite simply, none of the characters, or the narrative, ever hooked me. 

19. THE VILLAGE
M. Night Shyamalan is an extremely gifted filmmaker, which shines through in this, his latest and most notorious effort.  So elegantly made is THE VILLAGE that I was nearly persuaded to disbelieve the terrible hype it’s received from just about everywhere…at least until the obnoxiously stilted dialogue and humorless atmosphere got to me.  Still, I might have been able to forgive those things were it not for the stunningly awful twist ending that puts the whole thing on the level of a crummy TWILIGHT ZONE episode. 

20. KING OF THE ANTS
Stuart Gordon’s latest is an adaptation of Charles Higson’s nasty, brutal 1992 novel about a normal man who unwisely commits a murder for a shadowy group of scumbags and, needless to say, lives to regret it.  Much of the film is quite effective, particularly the first hour, encompassing the brutal murder committed by the protagonist and his subsequent hallucinations involving a shit-eating monster and a nekkid babe with a buzz saw.  He’s stuffed in a tiny shack by his employers and beaten repeatedly with a golf club—the reason for the hallucinations—until he manages to effect an escape.  From there, alas, the film pretty much falls apart, as the guy shacks up with shitty movie queen Kari Wuhrer in a thoroughly unconvincing, tacked-on sequence that wasn’t in the book.  It ends with the expected revenge blowout, which isn’t nearly enough to put the narrative back on track. 

21. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKBAN
Or: HARRTY POTTER III.  Unless you’re one of the four or so people in the world who haven’t seen it, I’m sure you already know this movie is graced by vigorous and imaginative helming by Alfonso Cuaron, replacing the terminally square Chris Columbus, but it still suffers many of the same problems that plagued the previous installments.  The story has once again been severely compressed from that of the book (which, like the others, I haven’t read), meaning there are quite a few inconsistencies and outright plot holes.  I also feel Harry Potter’s buddy Hermione gets far too much to do, all-but rendering the title character superfluous, and Cuaron relies far too much on CGI effects...and what’s with that dank, muddy cinematography?  I understand the film was intended to be darker than the others in every respect, but it looks downright ugly.

22. THE MACHINIST
The second film by SESSION 9 director Brad Anderson, this is a stylish thriller that ultimately doesn’t add up to much.  What makes it notable is the cast: it’s great seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh (and her breasts) in a meaty screen role after far too long an absence, while Christian Bale underwent an astonishing physical transformation to play the protagonist, a severely emaciated, paranoid machinist convinced his co-workers are conspiring to drive him mad.  Lotsa strange events befall him until all comes clear in the final scenes, which impart a ho-hum “secret”.  Bale is definitely game, but neither the character he plays nor the story ever do his efforts justice. 

23. TIME OF THE WOLF [LE TEMPS DU LOUP]
The latest from German filmmaker Michael Haneke, creator of disturbing masterworks like THE SEVENTH CONTINENT and THE PIANO TEACHER.  The subject of this French-German co-production is a natural for Haneke, who specializes in violence and madness: the complete breakdown of civilization in the wake of an unexplained catastrophe.  The opening half hour is GREAT, with Isabelle Huppert and her children forced to brave the French countryside in search of food and shelter after her husband is killed by looters.  Eventually they take up with a ragtag band of refugees…and the director lets his pretensions get the better of him.  As always with Haneke, it’s an edgy and uncompromising work, with extremely drawn-out pacing and a seemingly pell-mell, unpredictable editing scheme that appears designed to drive viewers up the theater walls.  Those elements are magnified here to a near unbearable degree, and further aggravated by an interminable final shot.  If you want a good cinematic portrait of a societal breakdown I’d recommend THE PANIC IN YEAR ZERO, NO BLADE OF GRASS or even NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in place of this film. 

24. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
The biggest surprise I experienced with this Jonathan Demme remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is that it isn’t too bad.  That doesn’t mean it’s all that good, however!  The updating of this forty-year-old thriller to a modern-day setting is not without quite a few noticeable glitches.  The title this time around does not refer to Manchuria but an evil corporation looking to put a brainwashed drone in the White House; that’s certainly not too hard to believe in this day and age, but it doesn’t excuse all the early sixties elements inherent to the story.  For instance, why does “Manchuria Global” bother with the high profile assassination that climaxes the film when its dastardly agenda appeared to be succeeding just fine as it was?  And nothing in this film can hope to compete with Frankenheimer’s immortal dream sequence that unforgettably juxtaposed a sweet old lady convention with the evil doings of the Manchurian brain washers.  Demme nonetheless pulls off quite a few interesting things, and deserves credit for tackling many troubling real-life issues.

  

     And so ends my Worst-of list.  It’s now time to look onward, with quite a few upcoming movies that look promising: BATMAN BEGINS, CONSTANTINE, 2001 MANIACS, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, A SCANNER DARKLY, Rob Zombie’s DEVIL’S REJECTS, Steven Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, Terry Gilliam’s BROTHERS GRIMM, David Cronenberg’s HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, George Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD and of course Peter Jackson’s new KING KONG. 

     So let’s keep the faith.  2004 was a lackluster year for movies, but there’s reason to believe 2005 will be far better…I hope! 

 

--01/21/05

 


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