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2006: THE YEAR IN HORROR


   
How we ever survived the year 2006 Iíll never fathom, but we have.  I could recount the many events that befell us during the past year, but wouldnít want to depress anybody.  Rather, I will, as always, be concentrating on the movies of 2006--oops, I said I wouldnít depress anybody!

    Yes, the flicks of í06 sucked by and large, but isnít that how it is every year?  Remember Theodore Sturgeonís famous dictum ď90 percent of everything is crapĒ, which was coined back in the sixties but remains dispiritingly relevant today.  Anyway, my major beef this year wasnít with moviemakers so much as moviegoers, whose choices were more puzzling than ever.  I can grudgingly accept that quality arthouse items like PERFUME, SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE and EDMUND will never attract large crowds, nor ostensibly commercial fare like UNITED 93 and V FOR VENDETTA, which for all their virtues arenít exactly sit-back-and-unwind flicks.

    What I really donít get is why so many people turned out for PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MANíS CHEST so many times, making it one of the top grossing movies of all time.  I enjoyed PIRATES, but címon...was it really that good?  As fun-time summer popcorn fare Iíd say it pales beside SNAKES ON A PLANE (one of the greatest audience movies of all time) and CLERKS II, yet few showed up for those.  Why?  Youíve got me.

    Another observation: 2006 was a banner year for cinematic weirdness, with new, screwier-than-ever efforts from the cult legends David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Jan Svankmajor, Matthew Barney, Shinya Tsukamoto, Takashi Miike and the Quay Brothers, along with miscellaneous oddities like BLOOD TEA AND RED STRING, BROTHERS OF THE HEAD, THE MUSTACHE, LEMMING, A SCANNER DARKLY, SUGAR, FUR and Crispin Gloverís long-awaited WHAT IS IT?  These films also, in at least two cases, wielded unique release strategies, with Lynch and Glover distributing their films entirely by themselves in the old traveling road show style.  Hardly a guarantee of success, but I wish those guys luck in their bold shunning of our hidebound movie distribution system.

    What follows is my sixth annual Year in Horror list highlighting my choices for the best and worst horror movies of the past year, as well as recommended non-horror releases and DVD picks.  The selections, as always, are culled from those films legitimately distributed in movie theaters or on home video, NOT film festival, special event or guild member screenings.   The MASTERS OF HORROR segments released on DVD by Anchor Bay are included, as well as big studio and arthouse items, including quite a few titles Iím willing to bet youíve never heard of.  As always, several movies unfortunately managed to slip by me this year, including AN AMERICAN HAUNTING, SEE NO EVIL, FEAST, CELLO, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING, TOURISTAS, the WHEN A STRANGER CALLS remake (darn), the MOH episodes PICK ME UP and THE FAIR-HAIRED CHILD, and, regrettably, six of the eight entries in Lionís Gateís Horrorfest (What can I say?  I was busy that weekend).

    The listings go from best to worst, commencing with my pick for the number one horror movie of 2006, which Iíll have to say surprised even me...

 

The Best:

1.  UNITED 93
UNITED 93, a horror movie?  Yes, Iíd say it is, and a mighty potent one in which ordinary people find themselves trapped in a confined space with a horror beyond imagining.  Whatís scarier: flesh-eating zombies or suicidal maniacs willing to take out a planeload of innocent travelers?  I choose the latter, if for no other reason than zombies are imaginary, whereas the other is very much a nasty reality.  Writer-director Paul Greengrass eschews both the conspiracy theoristsí accounts of what happened on flight 93 during the morning of September 11, 2001, as well as the patriotic Fox News-sanctioned version (which would have us believe the passengers subdued the highjackers and then crashed the plane themselves) in favor of a resolutely unsentimental treatment thatís likely the closest weíll ever come to the truth of what actually occurred.  Certainly the actions of United 93ís passengers were heroic, but that doesnít make their ultimate fate any less horrific.  A sustained bad dream of a movie with a profoundly nerve-jangling climax thatís as bleak, shocking and seat-clutchingly intense as any Iíve seen.  

2.  PANíS LABYRNITH  [EL LABERINTO DEL FAUNO]
I normally donít respond well to fantasy never-never lands, something this film very much contains.  But it also has an extremely macabre edge, not to mention a pointed political angle.  The writer and director was Guillermo Del Toro, covering ground similar to his 2000 horror period piece THE DEVILíS BACKBONE, which was set during the Spanish Civil War.  So is PANíS LABYRINTH, a far broader and more assured film in every respect.  Itís a bit like Arrabalís VIVA LA MUERTE crossed with ALICE IN WONDERLAND, melding the fairy tale world of a young girlís imagination with the real-life specter of fascism.  The two elements compliment one another surprisingly well: both contain their share of horrors, yet both, the film implies, can ultimately be faced down...though not without sacrifice.  There are quite a few wondrous creatures on display, including the Dionysian goat-man title character, a giant toad, flying insects that metamorphose into fairies, a squirming mandrake root and a pale freak with eyes in the palms of his hands.  Offsetting those critters is a monster that outdoes them all: the protagonistís fascist step-father, who as played by Sergi Lopez is certainly one of the most hissable movie villains in recent memory.  The real star is of course Del Toro himself, whoís created what is probably his masterpiece, a harsh, violent yet profoundly moving, peerlessly imaginative piece of mythmaking. 

3.  SNAKES ON A PLANE
If you like B-movies than welcome to Nirvana: SNAKES ON A PLANE is possibly the ultimate modern B-movie, a flick Iím certain must have Roger Corman and Charles Band seething with jealousy.  For the one percent of you who donít know, itís the beyond-outrageous account of a murder witness transported from Hawaii to LA aboard a commercial airline, upon which the bad guys unleash a cartload of snakes.  The cornball action of the early scenes suggests an Andy Sidaris potboiler that, once the plane takes off, moves into Stuart Gordon territory with a bevy of over-the-top-carnage.  But while Sidaris and Gordonís flicks are usually straight-to-video fodder, SNAKES is strictly an audience picture, meaning it should be viewed on a big screen, accompanied by the rowdiest crowd available.  The whole thing is such a kick Iím willing to forgive the frequently distracting CGI effects and sometimes overly self-aware dialogue (i.e. Samuel Jacksonís cutesy quip about ďsnakes on crack!Ē)--any movie that has a snake latching onto a guyís dick early on and then builds from there is a grade-B classic in my book, and hopefully yours too. 

4.  INLAND EMPIRE
Think youíre a David Lynch fan--a true David Lynch fan?  Then try sitting through this three-hour mindfuck, an unapologetic swirl of nonlinearity that makes MULHOLLAND DRIVE seem like a big studio crowd-pleaser; hell, even ERASERHEAD looks straightforward in comparison with INLAND EMPIRE!  Shot on and off over a five-year period, it stars Laura Dern in the performance of her career as a fading starlet looking to regain her luster (a role with which the 40-year-old Dern, who also co-produced, clearly identifies) in an allegedly cursed film that claimed the lives of two previous actors.  Can Dern and her strapping co-star (MULHOLLAND DRIVEíS Justin Theroux) be the next victims of this curse?  Maybe, maybe not--Iíve sat through the film twice and am still unsure of what precisely happens.  It is in many ways a brutal rejoinder to viewers demanding meaning and/or explanation, with a narrative that always seems to be working itself into some kind of logical structure only to constantly throw its various elements into the air with apparently scant regard paid to where they land.  Those elements include a sitcom peopled by folks in rabbit costumes, a crying Polish woman who may be a figment of Dernís imagination (or vice versa), Julia Ormond as a jealous rival of Dern, demonic prostitutes who periodically break into large-scale dance numbers, a stage house that opens into a labyrinth of dark hallways, and enough varying realities to fill an entire season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  Once again, viewers desiring logic will be in for a rough ride, but those willing to abandon themselves to this perverse yet strangely beautiful and seductive psychoscape (the film is Lynchís first to be shot digitally, and heís definitely pushed the medium to its limits) will experience an unvarnished trip into Lynchland equal to and perhaps even surpassing those of ERASERHEAD, BLUE VELVET or MULHOLLAND DRIVE. 

5.  TIDELAND
Another profoundly odd, polarizing film.  Itís Terry Gilliamís latest, shot back-to-back with the crassly commercial BROTHERS GRIMM, and is without a doubt his most idiosyncratic effort to date.  Thereís really no story to speak of, just a deliberately meandering series of events, most of them set within the disturbed imagination of a young girl living in a run-down house somewhere in the Deep South.  SILENT HILLíS Jodelle Ferland plays that girl, and is quite impressive.  So are Jeff Bridges as her junkie father who dies unexpectedly, an unrecognizable Janet McTeer as a witchy woman who finds a decidedly ghoulish way of dealing with Bridgesí corpse, and Brendan Fletcher as McTeerís brain-damaged brother whoís looking to bring about the end of the world.  Also featured are taking squirrels, fireflies with names and telepathic Barbie doll heads.  Itís a bit like an R-rated variant on beloved childrenís tales like ALICE IN WONDERLAND (which is quoted at length) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (for that matter, it plays a lot like the above-mentioned PANíS LABYRINTH, although TIDELAND in fact came first).  Ultimately, though, itís an all-around Gilliamesque celebration of irrationality and subversion shot through nervous camerawork that never stops moving and near-constant fisheye lenses.  Only Terry Gilliam could get away with such a concoction, which Iím certain will annoy as many viewers as it enchants. 

6.  PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER
German filmmaker Tom Tykwer seems destined to be forever known for RUN LOLA RUN, but heís made better films, including this one.  PERFUME is based on Patrick Suskindís 1986 novel, which happens to be one of my all-time favorites.  Iím always skeptical seeing a beloved book transposed to another medium, and the fact that this adaptation was able to withstand my inevitable nitpicking is a testament to Tykwerís cinematic mastery.  Here heís attempted something that hasnít been done in cinema, if Iím not mistaken, since John Watersí POLYESTER: using image and sound to convey a sense of smell.  Thatís in keeping with the novel, which was fragrant above all else--Tykwer for the most part follows it closely, with an opulent yet dark, squalid aura that nearly approximates Suskindís prose.  The story is centered on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, well played by Ben Whishaw as a scent-obsessed sociopath looking to create the perfect perfume in Eighteenth Century France; this entails a number of gruesome killings, all in keeping with the book and all extremely well carried off with spot-on period detail.  Itís only during the final scenes that the movie went off-track with me.  The climactic mass orgy is staged about as well as can be imagined, but I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that Tykwer might have been trying to humanize his inhuman protagonist.  Thatís a mistake, but not a big enough one to ruin an otherwise impeccably crafted piece of work. 

7.  BLOOD TEA AND RED STRING
A dark, deranged and altogether brilliant stop-motion fairy tale that will resonate with fans of Jan Svankmajor, the Quay brothers and the 1994 British animutation THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB, although BLOOD TEA AND RED STRING is definitely a singular concoction.  It was a thirteen year labor of love for its writer, director, designer and animator Christiane Cegavske, who created a 69-minute dialogue-free fantasia with puppet animation accomplished enough to stand alongside that of masters of the form.  Itís difficult to recount the story without sounding like a mental patient, but here goes: a band of suit-wearing birds are commissioned by aristocratic mice to create a doll; this they do, and plant within it an egg hatched from a coffee pot seen in a live-action prologue.  But once the job is finished the birds renege on the deal, inspiring the mice to steal the doll for use in their debauched blood tea parties.  The birds go in search of the doll and end up eating yellow fruit that causes them to hallucinate, and in the process nearly get devoured by carnivorous plants; luckily a friendly two-legged frog shows up to pacify the plants with a ready supply of ripped-out hearts.  Thereís also a spider woman lurking nearby who cocoons her prey in red string, including the tiny bird woman who hatches from the egg embedded in the dollís stomach.  You get the drift--this is bizarre stuff.  But itís nicely paced and superbly visualized, with artful lighting and wonderfully expressive camerawork.  Itís only during the ultra-grainy opening and closing live action bits that the sparseness of the budget becomes apparent. 

8.  THE PRESTIGE
Christopher Priestís 1996 novel THE PRESTIGE, about rival magicians in the late 1800s, is one of the trickiest, most cunningly wrought works of fiction youíll find anywhere, a book that conceals its secrets in seemingly random narrative detours and odd turns of phrase (what are ďPrestige MaterialsĒ??).  Director Christopher Nolan (of MEMENTO and BATMAN BEGINS fame) had his work cut out for him when he took on the task of adapting this slippery work, and I donít think heís entirely succeeded.  Nolan severely compressed the bookís dual narrative (told from the vantage points of both protagonists) and eliminated the modern-day framing story, which imparted a universality the movie lacks.  Still, what Nolan has accomplished is impressive, pulled off in stylish and literate fashion, and with a trickiness nearly matching that of the novel.  Christian Bale plays a stage magician who masters a seemingly impossible trick: teleportation from one spot to another.  Hugh Jackman is Baleís one-time cohort who manages to best him with an even more elaborate, possibly supernatural stunt achieved with the help of the infamous Nikolai Tesla (David Bowie, whoís quite memorable).  Scarlett Johansson is also featured in a variety of yummy outfits as Jackmanís two-timing assistant, and Michael Caine plays his confidante.  To reveal any more would be unfair, as a large part of the filmís appeal is its many surprises.  That means Iím definitely not giving away the ending, but will reveal that it concludes with possibly the yearís most memorable fade-out. 

9.  V FOR VENDETTA
This adaptation of Alan Mooreís famed graphic novel is surprisingly good, with a kicky pace, neat dark-hued visuals and a fair amount of lip service paid the source material.  That material was dark and uncompromising, a grim look at a futuristic England controlled by an overtly fascist monarchy, and V, a Guy Fawkes mask-wearing transvestite who disrupts things.  In Mooreís hands V was a complex individual, both a heroic freedom fighter and dangerous terrorist, but in this Wachowski Brothers-penned movie the characterís darker edges have been sanded down, with V (played by Hugo Weaving) essentially functioning as a variation on Neo from THE MATRIX.  The film often feels like it takes place inside the Matrix, particularly in the downright surreal climax, with seemingly all of London donning V masks and facing down the authorities (just how this massive demonstration was organized, and by whom, is never explained).  But the film works: itís deeply assured and even subversive in its staunchly anti-authoritarian stance.  Plus it features the always-appealing Natalie Portman in a meaty role; the sight of her in a skimpy school girl outfit is alone worth the price of admission. 

10.  (SYMPATHY FOR) LADY VENGEANCE [CHINJEOLHAN GEUMJASSI]
Another wild, demented, open sore of a movie from Koreaís Chanwook Park, the third in his Vengeance Trilogy (following SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE and OLDBOY).  Love him or hate him, Parkís universe is totally unique: if Takashi Miike and David Lynch got together to remake KILL BILL the results would resemble LADY VENGEANCE.  Those who found Parkís earlier films hard to take should probably steer clear of this one, because while it may be more stylistically refined, itís still every bit as harsh and brutal: the vengeance-seeking heroine, ironically monikered Sweet Geum-Ja, commits many nasty acts and even shoots a cute dog at point blank before the film is done.  The narrative is structured in mosaic fashion that freely juxtaposes past, present and hallucination, meaning youíll have to pay extremely close attention and probably view the film more than once.  Not that thatís a terribly difficult chore, as in direct contrast to most of todayís cinema, LADY VENGEANCE is a veritable cinematic feast that I expect will be imitated for years to come.

11.  WHAT IS IT?
Q: What was the absolute WEIRDEST movie of 2006?  A: This ten-years-in-the-making cinemutation, the directorial debut of nutcase actor Crispin Glover, which should resonate with those who felt INLAND EMPIRE wasnít strange enough.  WHAT IS IT? has been a longtime legend on the underground circuit, and fully lives up to its rep: itís a dark, freaky and totally insane peek into Gloverís fractured psyche.  The cast is packed with actual Down Syndrome sufferers, as well as a deranged man getting jerked off inside a giant clamshell, a guy in blackface repeatedly injecting his face with snail guts, and Crispin himself as the ruler of a subconscious realm where naked dancers emerge from volcanic outcroppings and puppet shows are performed with talking Tide boxes.  Snails figure heavily, as do swastikas, Wagner music and Shirley Temple.  Itís an admittedly uneven affair, playing at times like a particularly insufferable student film, but there are also stretches of psychotic genius worthy of classics of the bizarre like UN CHIEN ANDALOU, FREAKS and EL TOPO.  WHAT IS IT? is especially noteworthy for Gloverís audacious distribution strategy: heís literally taken his film on the road, showing it at select theaters across the US together with a slide show he narrates himself and a lengthy Q&A session.  I caught it at LAís American Cinematheque with a packed audience, which made for a memorable experience.  Hereís hoping Gloverís future films (WHAT IS IT? being the first of a trilogy) will be exhibited in similar fashion.

12.  WATERBORNE
Arguably the yearís foremost out-of-left-field no-budget wonder, a thoughtful, skilled and surprising account of bioterrorism that packs quite a punch.  The terror agent is a contaminated water supply in Los Angeles, which tips the city into chaos.  The film follows, CRASH-like, a multi-racial assortment of ordinary folks caught in the panic: an Indian store owner and her son, two college pals on the run, an Asian woman and her toddler, and bickering National Guardsmen charged with keeping the peace.  It may sound like many a twelfth-rate TV movie, but first-time writer-director Ben Rekhi demonstrates real filmmaking savvy in his jittery camerawork and bleached-out visuals (which really succeed in communicating thirst), and also includes a political angle you wonít find in too many other non-documentary films these days, explicitly referencing 9/11 on numerous occasions and fearlessly confronting many of the more thorny issues that have arisen in its wake.  If I have a problem with the film itís that, at 78 minutes, itís too short; Rekhi has enough material here for a miniseries, or at the very least a full two-hour feature. 

13.  EDMOND
The latest offering by Stuart Gordon, whoís taken the upscale route this time around.  Far from Gordonís standard horror-exploitation fare, EDMOND is a modest David Mamet scripted drama adapted from one of the maestroís plays, with a cast that includes distinguished names like William H. Macy, Joe Montegna, Rebecca Pigeon and Julia Styles (all Mamet vets).  But Gordon in fact got his start in the Chicago theater scene alongside Mamet, and directed the original 1974 production of SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO.  In addition, EDMOND, which reportedly caused quite a stir when it played off-Broadway back in 1982, is one of Mametís most confrontational works, his apparent answer to TAXI DRIVER--maybe this isnít such an atypical Stuart Gordon project after all.  It concerns a repressed businessman (Macy) who after an argument with his wife (Pigeon) decides to hit the red light district for some quick gratification.  But as he confronts one lowlife after another Macy finds gratification anything but quick, and goes over the edge entirely after bedding a comely waitress (Styles).  Gordon helms in straightforward, unshowy fashion, which only points up the inherent theatricality of the material.  But this is a true cinematic live wire whose unalloyed racism, violence and overall foulness will impact the most hardened viewers.  BTW, look closely for Gordonís buddies Jeffrey Combs and George Wendt in small parts. 

14.  THE DESCENT
The hands-down winner of this yearís BLAIR WITCH overhype award, THE DESCENT is pretty good, but far from the greatest horror movie ever made.  Not that the blurbmeisters seem to know any better, as theyíve been hyping this modestly budgeted British flick ever since its í05 inception--even trusted critics like Englandís witty and intelligent Kim Newman seem to have become infected with whatever it is that causes folks to over-enthusiastically talk up films like this one.  Itís about several hot chicks who after a wilderness bender decide to explore a cave packed with man-eating critters.  Writer-director Neil Marshall (DOG SOLDIERS) does a fine job keeping the shocks flowing, playing ingeniously on viewersí feelings of vertigo and claustrophobia while including a fair amount of spurting blood and unflinching brutality.  Of course the film is similar in many respects to last yearís THE CAVE (which in turn was a thinly disguised ALIENS rip-off) and quite a few other modern horror flicks, which blunts its impact considerably.  Recommended, but keep your expectations in check.  

15.  MASTERS OF HORROR: IMPRINT
Takashi Miikeís contribution to Showtimeís hour-long anthology series MASTERS OF HORROR is the most extreme episode by far, so much so that it was yanked from its planned broadcast slot and ended up debuting on DVD (whereas the rest of the MOH episodes premiered on Showtime before being released to DVD by Anchor Bay).  Clearly Miike, the current sultan of extreme cinema, was looking to out-gross even himself with IMPRINT, which features brain-spewing, fetus ripping and one of the most prolonged and gratuitous torture sequences heís ever staged.  But it also contains its share of compellingly bizarre, grotesquely beautiful sights, amid bold and colorful Kabuki-inspired scenery.  In short, itís a film thatís truly alive and guaranteed to stick in oneís mind.  The story, about an American man (Billy Drago) afoot in Nineteenth Century Japan happening upon a disfigured prostitute who reveals dark secrets about them both, makes little sense; although adapted from a popular novel, it has the feel of one of Miikeís made-up-has-he-went-along straight-to-video quickies, with quite a few elements that are misplaced, not payed off or just donít add up.  But those in the mood for a beautifully filmed hallucinatory freak-out will be sated by this prime dose of Miike madness. 

16.  THE HILLS HAVE EYES
Iím a huge fan of Wes Cravenís original no-budget wonder THE HILLS HAVE EYES, so itís impossible not to air some sour grapes regarding this remake from HIGH TENSION director Alexander Aja.  Thatís not to say this new HILLS isnít any good, as it is quite effective in its own way; itís much slicker than the original and boasts a panoramic scope far out of the reach of Cravenís limited budget.  But it lacks the intimate touch Craven lent the first HILLS, in which the brutality was raw and desperate, with an atmosphere in which anyone could die at any time.  It also contained a slyly subversive political angle in its story of a vacationing suburban family going up against a clan of inbred cannibals, the latter being a shocking reversal of the former.  Aja retains the politics, but presents them in far cruder fashion: American flags are visible in a portion of nearly every shot, and a baddie even gets one jammed through his head.  Again, however, the film works, packed with a respectable amount of slime, mutants and wholesale nastiness a-plenty, not to mention a strong cast headed by SILENCE OF THE LAMBSí Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan and EYES WIDE SHUTíS Vinessa Shaw--still, I canít help but mourn the absences of James Whitmore and Michael Barryman, without whom the hills, for me at least, have no eyes.

17.  THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS
Asia Argentoís second directorial effort is every bit as freaky as her first, the notorious autobiographical whine fest SCARLET DIVA--indeed probably more so.  It was adapted from the allegedly autobiographical novel by J.T. LeRoy, which lent the film some unwanted publicity when it was revealed that the book was actually made up.  That fact doesnít lessen the impact of this blistering portrayal of a young boy stuck with a crack-ho mom played by Argento, who appears to be channeling Courtney Love at her most out-of-control.  She subjects the kid to every type of abuse imaginable, including abandonment, starvation, drug abuse and cross dressing, while Argentoís succession of lowlife boyfriends find additional ways to torment the poor tyke.  Things arenít much better with the boyís bible thumping grandfather (Peter Fonda), who bathes him in scalding water, raps his knuckles and forces him to shill for Jesus on city streets.  Thus the narrative goes from worse to worst in a wildly grotesque, willfully overwrought piece of filmmaking.  Like her father Dario, Asia Argento evidently favors excess above all things.

18.  MASTERS OF HORROR: CIGARETTE BURNS
John Carpenterís MASTERS OF HORROR contribution is one of his most effective efforts in years, an ominous and disquieting account of a hunt for a lost film called LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE (THE ABSOLUTE END OF THE WORLD).  Apparently this film causes viewers to literally go mad, a fact the protagonist experiences first-hand when he begins experiencing hallucinations during his search.  He meets with the filmís nutty cinematographer, who invites him to witness the making of a snuff film, and eventually the filmmakerís wife, who gives him a print of LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE.  From there itís a gore-on-the-floor party as the protagonist finally watches the film and, as promised, goes completely batshit.  But after all the seemingly endless exposition Carpenter provides, what weíre shown of LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE is pretty underwhelming.  Quite simply, it did not drive me into a murderous frenzy, although the obnoxious VIDEODROME-inspired dreams-within-hallucinations-within-more-hallucinations climax very nearly did.

19.  THE MUSTACHE [LE MOUSTACHE]
French author/sometime filmmaker Emmanuel Carrere co-wrote and directed this adaptation of his acclaimed 1988 novel.  Itís the story of an upwardly mobile, contented man who decides to shave off his mustache as a surprise to his wife and friends.  But none notice the absence of his Ďstache, and nor do they seem to recall him ever having one in the first place.  The guy begins to suspect his wife and friends are conspiring against him, and then finds he can no longer recall important details of his life, such as whether his own parents are alive or dead.  It all leads to a desperate flight to Hong Kong, where he becomes a transient and grows his mustache back, precipitating a most unexpected twist.  Carrere refrains from providing any explanations, implying that the proceedings may have all been a dream or morbid fantasy.  As an existential horror story (meaning no blood and guts) the film is imperfect, but still fairly impressive.  Plus it gives Carrere a chance to improve on his book, which suffered from a meandering and inconclusive finale; the last twenty minutes of the film tighten things up considerably, but are, alas, still not entirely satisfying. 

20.  LEMMING 
WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRYíS talented Dominik Moll is back with this elegant exercise in irrationality that resembles the above listing in many respects.  Like THE MUSTACHE, LEMMING has its main characterís quiet middle class life turned inside out, in this case by two seemingly mundane events: a visit by the middle-aged industrialist Andre (Andre Dussollier) into the home of the protagonist Alain (Laurent Lucas) and the latterís fetching wife Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the discovery of a strange rat-like critter--a Lemming--clogging the pipes of Alainís kitchen sink.  In the meantime Andreís nutty spouse Alice (Charlotte Rampling) takes to insinuating herself into Alainís life, first coming onto him and then shooting herself in his bedroom.  And thatís just the beginning of an escalating series of impossible-to-predict upheavals that by the end leave Alainís sense of reality (and the viewerís) in tatters.  As in THE MUSTACHE, nothing is ever explained, but the film is quite an absorbing experience.  Moll has a real knack for creating apprehension out of apparently benign situations, and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.  However, I do wish heíd made a greater effort to tie the many puzzlements of his narrative together--those who find David Lynchís films inscrutable will be driven Ďround the bend by this one! 

21.  BROTHERS OF THE HEAD
Adapted from an old Brian Aldiss novel, this British reverie is a noisy, raucous, sometimes surreal mock documentary about conjoined twins who become punk rock stars in Ď70ís-era England.  Directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe are documentarians (having previously made LOST IN LA MANCHA), which is apparent in the copious talking head interviews with a number of people important in the protagonistsí lives, including filmmaker Ken Russell, who this film posits made an unfinished feature about the twins.  As for the subjects themselves, theyíre kept at something of a remove from viewers by the moc-doc format, which ironically seems intended to accomplish the opposite effect.  But the filmís a blast overall, mixing gritty naturalism with dark Lynchian interludes, and furthermore has a rockiní soundtrack.  Itís kinda like THIS IS SPINAL TAP, but with freaks. 

22.  MASTERS OF HORROR: SICK GIRL
This MASTERS OF HORROR segment, co-written and directed by MAYíS Lucky McKee and starring that filmís headliner Angela Bettis, is the first of these films Iíve viewed in a theater with an audience, and what a difference it made.  Well okay, the ďtheaterĒ was actually a tiny room at Burbankís í06 Fangoria convention, but it was filled with an enthusiastic crowd who laughed and gasped in all the right places.  And no wonder: Angela Bettis delivers a wild, uninhibited performance (complete with an impossible-to-place accent) as a repressed lesbian who finds love in the form of an uninhibited young woman who doesnít mind Bettisís penchant for collecting insects...but things take a turn for the grotesque when the gal is bitten by a mutant bug shipped their way by some unidentified individual.  Blood-spilling, slime-spewing and freaky transformations ensue.  The final scenes, in which a clunky, implausible plot twist is revealed and subpar transformation effects make themselves apparent, are a bit of a bummer, but overall the episode is effectively creepy and riotously funny. 

23.  MASTERS OF HORROR: DEER WOMAN
This was the first MASTERS OF HORROR episode to go before the cameras back in í05.  It was co-written and directed by John Landis, whose touch will be unmistakable to those whoíve experienced his comedic horror fests AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and INNOCENT BLOOD.  Here we have a Deer Woman, a Native American babe with deer hooves in place of feet, who likes to seduce horny dudes and then stomp Ďem to death.  DREAM ONíS Brian Benben plays the cop assigned to the case, and does a surprisingly good job.  So does Brazilian model Cinthia Moura as the title character, whoís genuinely alluring and communicates volumes in an entirely non-verbal role.  Not all of it works; a gag in which Benben tries to visualize the DW killings by replaying a goofy scenario three times falls flat.  Landis, who hasnít been very active in recent years, has clearly lost none of his filmmaking talent, but does seem to have misplaced his ability to differentiate comedy from total stupidity. 

24.  LUNACY  [SILENI]
These days, with Luis Bunuel dead, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fernando Arrabal no longer making films, and Ken Russell effectively neutered, Czechoslavakiaís Jan Svankmejor is pretty much the lone torch bearer for Euro-surrealism.  LUNACY is an Edgar Allen Poe-inspired phantasmagoria presided over by the Marquis de Sade, who leads a clueless young man into a weird world where the eighteenth and twenty first centuries intertwine and the most pressing problem is how best to treat the insane.  All this, as Svankmejor makes clear in a rambling introductory speech, is meant to symbolize nothing less than the modern world; thatís a pretty broad conception, which explains why the film is so unfocused, not to mention, in its two hour-plus running time, overlong.  Still, anything by Svankmejor is must viewing IMHO, and this film contains all his signature touches, including stop motion animation (here consisting of errant slabs of meat that periodically skitter around the sets, dressing up in clothes, wrapping themselves in bandages and eventually getting ground up) and a rich, multi-layered soundtrack, Svankmejorís first to be mixed digitally, and, needless to add, best experienced on a big screen. 

25.  SLITHER
My weakness for creepy-crawly monster movies is well-known, so I couldnít help but enjoy this gooey romp that has an asteroid crash one night in a small town, releasing a plague of slug-like thingies that take over peopleís bodies.  The story is essentially THE BLOB meets INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS meets ALIEN meets THE EVIL DEAD meets THE THING meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, complete with a monstrous transformation thatís right out of FROM BEYOND and a climactic mutant orgy notably similar to that of SOCIETY.  Yep, itís an ďhomageĒ movie with virtually nothing original in the slightest bit (even the title has been used before).  Taken for what it is, though, SLITHER works well, with a healthy degree of sick humor and a respectable amount of grue for a non R-rated movie.  Plus it also features the way-cute Elizabeth Banks as the plucky heroine, although, this being PG-13 stuff, thereís no nudity (sniff). 

26.  A SCANNER DARKLY
When the release of this animated adaptation of Philip K. Dickís seventies classic A SCANNER DARKLY was pushed back from Spring of í95 to over a year later I naturally suspected studio executive meddling.  The real reason for the delay, however, was that writer-director Richard Linklatter simply had a damn hard time completing the film.  Maybe he should have spent less time on big studio projects like SCHOOL OF ROCK and THE BAD NEWS BEARS remake--for that matter he really should have lavished more effort on SCANNER, as it has quite a few problems.  Foremost among them is the overall tone: the film is too laid back, woefully lacking the novelís paranoid intensity.  (Linklatterís previous animated opus WAKING LIFE was similarly languid--apparently animation has the effect of lulling him into a narcotic trance.  It also suffers from a loose narrative, with the storyís driving force, a detective named Fred coming unglued monitoring the activities of himself in the guise of a drug dealer named Robert Arctor, frequently pushed into the background (it doesnít help that Keanu Reeves as Fred/Arctor is constantly upstaged by a manic Robert Downey, Jr., playing one of Arctorís loser buddies).  But the film has a real fascination, with a totally distinctive look courtesy of rotoscope animation literally traced over real-life personages, with planes that shift and flow with hypnotic grace.  Itís also something of an event for ďDickheadsĒ like myself, being a PKD adaptation that doesnít twist the material into an action or detective framework.  Linklatter, in other words, has tried his damndest to be completely faithful to the novel, and although he sometimes fails to make good on that goal--a druggy argument about apparently mismatched bike gears, for instance, is taken verbatim from the book, but inexplicably leaves out what occurs after, when a passerby explains to the zonked participants how the gears actually work--he does succeed more often than not. 

27.  SUGAR
This skin-crawling claustrophobia fest features a young woman going completely bonkers in a filthy, refuse-strewn apartment.  We never get any background on the character, or why the place is so messy--apparently sheís supposed to have rented it from a demented former tenant whose spirit may still lurk within.  That I learned only from reading the DVD back cover, as thereís no such explanation within the film itself, a hallucination-packed, narrative-free swirl that may be a bit too minimal for its own good.  It is affecting, though, with its ultra-stark, grainy black white 16mm photography punctuated with bursts of lurid color and an unnerving asynchronous soundtrack.  Particularly memorable are the final twenty minutes, in which the filmmakers utilize a number of striking visual effects to dramatize the protagonistís deteriorating mental state, including many culled from silent movies. 

28.  SUBJECT TWO
An intellectually-charged indie that will likely appeal to highbrow elitists.  Thatís something Iím often accused of being, and I guess the fact that I liked this film confirms it.  SUBJECT TWO is the umpteenth take on the Frankenstein concept, but writer-director Philip Chidel has actually come up with something original in his account of a medical student (Christian Oliver) summoned to the snowy mountain retreat of a reclusive doctor (Dean Stapleton); the latter, it seems, is working on a serum that will reanimate the dead, and wastes no time killing Oliver and making him his subject.  The two-character psychodrama that follows is compelling and intriguingly unorthodox (despite dark subject matter the whole thing is shot in broad daylight), not to mention extremely well-acted.  But I do wish Chidel had given his protagonists something more to do than lounge around, talk and shoot an unfortunate hunter who happens upon them--and then talk some more. 

29.  THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES
Anything by Englandís Quay Brothers is worth seeing IMO, and that includes this film, although itís far from their best work.  In tried-and-true Quay form it mixes surreal stop-motion animation with live action, telling the story of a naive piano tuner summoned to a secluded island where his benefactor, a mad doctor, is holding a beautiful opera singer hostage.  Much oddness ensues as the protagonist learns the ďpianosĒ heís supposed to tune are actually elaborate musical automatons; while heís at it, he also starts up a relationship with the kidnapped opera singer.  A sumptuous and classy production, the widescreen images here are uniformly impressive, and positively drenched in mind-roasting surrealism.  That does not, however, mean this is a terribly easy film to watch--in fact itís punishingly lackadaisical and requires extremely close attention.  Those things, of course, are part and parcel of the Quay experience (audience friendly these guys arenít), but theyíve tried some things here that donít quite work.  The deliberately(?) stagy, artificial settings are one example, giving the proceedings the feel of a Guy Maddin film, or at least trying to--whatever the Quayís intent, the art direction lacks their usual meticulousness.  The acting is also lackluster across the board, making it all the more difficult to care about the central characters.  Itís a good thing the performers have the Quaysí superb animation to help them along! 

30.  BEOWULF AND GRENDEL
A cut-rate but impressive European retelling of the ancient folk tale BEOWULF, which you most likely read (as I did) back in high school.  The story, as I recall, was simple enough, centering on a heroic warrior named Beowulf going up against a hideous beast called Grendel.  This middle-ages set film is mostly faithful to my memories of the original tale, although the character of Grendal has undergone a transformation, from inhuman creature to wronged man out to avenge the death of his father.  Heís also given a wife, in the form of a demonic sea woman, and feral child.  The whole thing is well staged, with convincingly ancient-seeming set design shot on breathtaking Scottish coastal locations.  However, as is becoming increasingly standard with such fare, the filmmakers insist upon utilizing an ďauthenticĒ olde English dialect, and while the results are better than M. Night Shyamalanís fumbling attempts in THE VILLAGE, the labored dialogue is a continual annoyance.  Also, the action sequences, while appropriately harsh and bloody, are a tad incoherent overall.  Good film, but not all it could be; hereís hoping Robert Zemeckisí upcoming big budget take on the same material will go the extra distance. 

31.  HOSTEL
Writer/director Eli Rothís follow-up to his vastly overrated CABIN FEVER was, like that film, greeted with a great deal of orgasmic pre-release hype that vastly inflated its virtues.  HOSTEL is, however, a much tighter, more streamlined piece of work than CABIN FEVER, due perhaps to the influence of executive producer Quentin Tarantino.  Itís about three American college pukes, all of whom fit the adage ďYoung, dumb and full-a cumĒ to a T, looking to get laid in a hostel in Amsterdam.  This they manage, with chicks who all boast supermodel caliber bods, but then one of the guys disappears--and Takashi Miike makes a cameo appearance--and things get really dark.  It turns out thereís a place nearby where people can pay to exercise their sickest fantasies on unsuspecting folks, and that the hostel is an apparent recruiting place for said victims.  Lots of nastiness ensues, most of it well carried off with a great deal of suspense.  But the third act, in which the baddies get their well-deserved comeuppance, is extremely problematical; I know we donít go to films like this for hard-hitting realism, but the sheer implausibility of the final scenes is so extreme it borders on parody 

32.  NIGHT WATCH  [NOCHNOY DOZOR]
I enjoyed this loony Russian CGI fest, even if it does make very little sense.  Itís about an age-old battle between supernaturally endowed good and evil factions, whose participants keep day and night watches to contain each other.  Beyond that Iím a bit hazy on what happens.  Letís see: thereís a dude who tries to get an old witch to telepathically kill his wifeís unwanted fetus and who joins a band of Night WatchersÖbut then again, maybe he doesnít.  Thereís also an airplane that flies in and out of some kind of interdimensional funnel and nearly crashes, a little kid who finds himself tempted by vampires, and a stone-faced woman who has something to do with all thisÖor maybe not.  In spite of such confusion I got a kick out of the film, if only because itís extremely well produced and has a genuinely unhinged, go-for-broke spirit reminiscent of Tsui Harkís seminal ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN.  It appears to be an attempt at competing with Hollywood special effects extravaganzas and, in its native country at least, where it quickly became a box office smash, seems to have achieved its goal.  The ending, needless to add, leaves the door wide open for a sequel. 

33.  FEED
Easily the yearís most repugnant film.  FEED is centered not on gore but on food, and all the assorted topical issues that come with it.  These include body image, perverse sexual fetishes and of course obesity, in the form of a 600-pound woman--a ďgainerĒ--force fed junk food by a mother-obsessed freak--a ďfeederĒ--who displays the gainerís disgustingly bloated naked body on a web site where people bet on when sheís going to die.  The film is quite well scripted by Kieran Galvin and memorably acted by Gabby Millgate, wearing an all-too-convincing prosthetic fat suit, as the gainer, as well as Alex OíLaughlin as the feeder and Jack Thomson as the hunky Aussie cop looking to put an end to the whole twisted mess.  Itís just unfortunate that director Brett Leonard insists upon always making his presence known through distracting camera angles, distorted lenses, gratuitous jump cuts and a noisy techno score.  Leonardís directorial overkill doesnít entirely negate the filmís impact, but does lessen it. 

34.  FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS
The critical notices for this film have been largely negative, and truth be told itís very difficult to like, being arty to a suffocating degree and headlined by an overly mannered Nicole Kidman (who wears a perpetual look of doe-eyed incredulity and speaks nearly all her dialogue in throaty murmurs).  Nor is it very insightful about the life of photographer Diane Arbus, never bothering to feature a single photo of hers and sticking her in a story that, as the title makes clear, is completely made up.  But FUR is affecting nonetheless, especially if you (like me) enjoy freaks and strangeness, two quintessential elements of Arbusí work which the film contains in abundance.  Itís set during the early years of Arbusí career, positing that a reclusive man covered in dark fur moved into the building where she and her family were living.  In the course of the film she strikes up a relationship with the fur man (nicely played by Robert Downey, Jr.), who inducts her into a shadowy world of human oddities and unleashes Arbusí own repressed desires in the process.  The end result is compellingly dreamlike, at least for those willing to put up with its many annoyances. 

35.  H6: DIARY OF A SERIAL KILLER [H6: DIARIO DE UN ASESINO]
Itís always surprising when a film like this one is as sleek and well made as it is, as based on the subject matter one would expect a low-rent splat fest.  Splatter is something H6 contains in abundance, along with disturbing scenes of semi-naked women tied spreadeagled, starved, raped and forced to drink piss.  The protagonist is, as the title promises, a serial killer, who after being discharged from prison takes up residence in an old brothel heís inherited, where he uses room six as his personal slaughterhouse, ďcleansingĒ young women of their various sins.  Itís yet another cinematic trip into the mind of a serial killer, lacking the psychological acuity of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, but with excellent performances and impeccably composed visuals that hold oneís attention.  First-time director Martin Garrido Baron really knows how to make a movie, but restraint is evidently something he doesnít know.  I donít believe the filmís grue is entirely gratuitous, but am still somewhat hesitant about recommending it. 

36.  THE LADY IN THE WATER
During the summer of Ď06 one major director after another crashed and burned: Ivan Reitman with MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, Michael Mann with MIAMI VICE, Woody Allen with SCOOP, and, most notoriously, M. Night Shyamalan with THE LADY IN THE WATER.  The film, about a water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) who enters janitor Paul Giamattiís life through his apartment swimming pool, is wildly self indulgent, certainly, and not a little nutty--but that, naturally, is precisely what I enjoyed about it.  Well, that and M. Nightís superbly atmospheric direction, which in my view does a far better job creating a fairy tale ambiance than the LORD OF THE RINGS flicks or NARNIA.  Less enchanting is the script; yes, I know Shyamalan began his career as a screenwriter, but the fact is heís a far better director than he is a scribe.  His deficiencies are painfully evident in the severely wonky narrative, particularly during the second half, as Giamatti and his fellow tenants try to make sense of an Oriental fairy tale (actually a bedtime story Shyamalan told his kids) that has so many twists, turns and misdirections I lost interest.  But I wouldnít have missed this movie for anything.  

37.  VITAL
Shinya (TETSUO) Tsukamotoís latest is a somewhat atypical affair, being a creepy and subdued drama about an amnesiac man coping with the death of his beloved girlfriend.  He finds that, after the horrific car accident that ends her life and wipes clean his memory, heís compelled to attend medical school.  Itís there that his memories come flooding back, prompted by the fact that a cadaver heís assigned to dissect just happens to be that of his beloved.  As far as unbelievable coincidences go, that one for me ranks pretty high.  If you can get past it, though, youíll find a compelling drama with a disturbing subconscious aura.  This being a Tsukamoto project, the nastiness isnít entirely subsumed: flashbacks reveal that the protagonistís GF had some kinky proclivities, and back in the here-and-now a deranged fellow student has latched onto him.  The film looks beautiful, with impeccably composed widescreen photography, and for once the director actually demonstrates a more than passing interest in his narrative, which alternates past and present in meaningful and touching fashion.  

38.  PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MANíS CHEST
A fairly enjoyable sequel to Ď03ís blockbuster PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, which I liked despite its overlong running time and uneven narrative.  DEAD MANíS CHEST contains the same problems, but director Gore Verbinskiís helming has improved markedly: itís more textured and coherent, and the copious CGI effects are about as good as they come.  The shipload of man-fish critters who show up in the second half are a wonder to behold, and itís great to see a giant octopus creature attack a ship for the first time since the glory days of Ray Harryhausen--although, in keeping with producer Jerry Bruckheimerís standard more-is-better mantra, weíre given four such attacks when one or two would have sufficed. 

39.  MASTERS OF HORROR: HAECKELíS TALE
The final MASTERS OF HORROR episode of the first season was this goofy adaptation of a recent Clive Barker story.  That tale was a witty and perverse pastiche of the Eighteenth Century Penny Dreadfuls, while John McNaughton, who directed the adaptation (replacing an ailing Roger Corman), appeared to be channeling the sleazy-yet-refined Hammer Films style.  Those with a low tolerance for stupidity should steer clear, but for me a large part of the pictureís charm is its cheerful excessiveness, with impossible-to-forget scenes of a naked babe getting it on with hordes of the living dead in a nighttime graveyard, and, later, a zombie baby and rotting corpse family.  Little of interest here from a filmmaking standpoint, but thereís still plenty of dumb fun to be had. 

40.  THE KING
Languid, picturesque stuff with Y TU MAMA TAMBIENíS Gael Garcia Bernal as an ex-serviceman who attaches himself to a small town preacher (William Hurt) for reasons that donít become clear until the end.  While heís at it, Bernal also begins a relationship with the preacherís teenage daughter and impulsively kills her brother when the latter threatens to rat them out; itís clear from the start the character has buried depths that are deeply unsavory, and that more violence is inevitable.  A unique and carefully observed concoction, even if it ultimately gets a little too bogged down in the minutia of small town existence.  Director James Marsden, as in his previous film WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, demonstrates a near-obsessive fascination for life in red state America, and all too frequently lets it overwhelm the story heís trying to tell. 

41.  HARD CANDY
A perverse little psychodrama about a perv who contacts a fourteen-year-old girl over the internet and takes her back to his Hollywood Hills home for apparently nefarious purposes.  She quickly turns the tables on him, however, proving herself a decidedly prickly customer.  The film, a tight and unadorned chamber piece, contains more than a few implausibilities: the girl seems far too cultured for a fourteen-year-old, with an apparently encyclopedic vocabulary, a ready grasp of pop culture past and present, and an impossibly thorough knowledge of a certain type of surgery she performs on her would-be captor.  Still, the direction by first timer David Slade is crisp, and there are stand-out performances by Patrick Wilson and the soon-to-be-famous (mark my words!) Ellen Page.   

42.  MASTERS OF HORROR: HOMECOMING
Joe Danteís MASTERS OF HORROR contribution is by far the most widely discussed of all the episodes.  Itís a biting political satire about soldier zombies, killed in an overseas war waged by a corrupt President, who rise up in an effort to vote the Pres out of office.  In case you donít get the real-life analogy, thereís also a miniskirted bimbette who shills shamelessly for the Republican Party (Ann Coulter, anyone?), and a political strategist who essentially functions as the presidentís brain (Karl Rove?).  HOMECOMING has already proven quite controversial, with those who appreciate Danteís broad political satire (the Village Voice crowd went apeshit over it) opposed by those whoíd have preferred he put his ideas into code.  For my part, I just wish ďHomecomingĒ were a little better: it fails completely as horror, and there really isnít much to it outside the overall premise--in other words, youíd be just as well off reading a plot summary as you would sitting through it.  But Dante deserves credit for his audacity.

 

     There end my picks for the best of 2006.  But while Iím at it, Iíd like to present these additional recommendations, which may not be horror-themed but will likely be of interest to fans.

Also Recommended:

CLERKS II
Possibly Kevin Smithís best-ever film, and certainly his raunchiest, with a plethora of gutter talk and bad behavior.  But it also has a surprisingly sweet Ďn touching angle, making for a gross-out comedy you can actually watch with your girlfriend. 

THE DEPARTED
You canít go wrong with a picture that showcases Martin Scorsese at the top of his game, which this one does.  Yes, I know everyone and their grandmother has been praising it to the skies, but in this case everyone is right, their grandmothers too!

BUBBLE
The yearís most controversial film is also one of the most intriguing, whatever its release pattern: a minutely observed, staunchly naturalistic account of murder in the heartland.  A triumph for director Steven Soderberg, who nearly redeems himself after those crappy OCEANíS movies.

CHILDREN OF MEN
Universal gave Alfonso Cuaronís virtuoso sci fi actioner a barely-there release, yet itís already garnered a richly deserved following.  Itís something I thought was done with forever: a big studio product made with real style and vision.

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
As tripped-out as any of the many mind-tuggers outlined above, even though director Michel Gondrey (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) went the cutesy-whimsical route.  Sure, I liked it, but my preference is for the harder stuff.

JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE
A documentary look at the Rev. Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple, of whom over 900 members died in Guyana, 1978, in the largest mass suicide in history.  Provocative and troubling, as it should be.

 THE PROPOSITION
Grungy, nasty, Nick Cave scripted western stuff from Down Under.  Hotly contested in cult movie circles, but I say itís a meticulously directed, superbly acted piece of work, with Danny Huston in one of the yearís stand-out performances.

MANDERLAY
Danish madman Lars Von Trierís unforgettably whacked-out sequel to his notorious DOGVILLE.  Here Von Trier follows Ron Howardís daughter into a town in late Eighteenth Century America where slavery is still practiced.  

BRICK
A rare (and possibly sole) example of High School Noir.  This is a provocative concoction with a style and attitude all its own, though a bit arty and affected for my tastes--Iíll take MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH any day! 

THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE
A likeable and entertaining take on the life of pin-up queen Betty Page, with onetime ďNext Big ThingĒ Gretchen Moll ably essaying the title role. 

DISTRICT  B-13
In my view the best of genius-director-turned-action-movie-producer Luc Bessonís recent productions (KISS OF THE DRAGON, TAXI, THE TRANSPORTER), a futuristic ass-kicker thatís slick, fast and fun.

FACTOTUM
Charles Bukowskiís second novel has been memorably filmed, with Matt Dillon doing a credible job as Bukís hard drinking, unemployable alter ego Henry Chinaski.  Good work also by Marisa Tomei, Lily Taylor and the late Adrienne Shelley as the gals who pass through Chinaskiís life.

 IDIOCRACY
This Mike Judge satire was given a royal dumping by Fox, but deserves a look.  Itís a FUNNY film, not to mention, in its look at a future America populated entirely by morons, more than a little prescient--no, itís not a documentary, but often feels like one. 

THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED
An overly scattershot yet potent expose of the MPAA, the shady coalition of assholes responsible for our censorious movie rating system. 

THE FOUNTAIN
Critics and audiences alike shrugged off this sci fi mindbender, but just wait: years from now people will likely be proclaiming it a visionary masterpiece.  Iím not entirely sold on the film myself, but have been thinking about it a hell of a lot. 

FAST FOOD NATION
Richard Linklatter followed A SCANNER DARKLY with this impassioned political screed.  Overbaked and uneven but quite potent nonetheless, kinda like SUPERĖSIZE ME crossed with TRAFFIC.

THE WILD BLUE YONDER
Werner Herzogís latest, a quasi-sci fier that incorporates documentary footage shot in outer space and the oceans of Antarctica together with Brad Dourif as an alien recounting his interplanetary exploits, resulting in a wondrously strange, unclassifiable piece of work.

 

     Moving right along, we come to my look at 2006ís stand-out DVD releases.  Yes, I know many of you believe we shouldnít buy DVDs any more, as the new High Definition and/or Blue Ray formats will soon render them obsolete.  My take?  Iíll believe that when I see it!  (Not that Iím in any way an expert on the subject: I vividly recall entering a Tower Records back in the nineties and, spotting a DVD rack, confidently telling my friends ďthose thingsíll never last!Ē)  For now, check out the following, which proves traditional DVDs are alive and well.  

Recommended DVD releases:

LETíS SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH
A true genre classic finally makes it to DVD.  There are no extras, but the fact that this essential film is readily available at all (and widescreen!) after being out of circulation for decades is cause for celebration.

THE OTHER
Itís likewise taken this early seventies almost-classic forever to show up on DVD.  Not in the same league as the above listing, but it is an unusual low-key chiller thatís worth a watch, if not several.

DUST DEVIL
Richard Stanleyís 1993 masterwork hasnít yet received the adulation it deserves, but this awesome five(!)-disc set, positively jam-packed with content, should help remedy that situation.

DARK WATERS
Another jaw-dropping special edition, this one courtesy of No Shame Films, whoíve really gone all out with this 2-DVD box set...although Iím not entirely sure the film, a skilled but overdone Lovecraftian mood piece, is deserving of such treatment.

THE BOXERíS OMEN
An all-time fave!  Near-indescribable Hong Kong genre madness with all the eel barfing, blood spurting, flying heads and obscure Buddhist incantations one could possibly desire.

BEYOND DREAMíS DOOR
Eighties dream-horror that nowadays plays like a no-budget 80-minute variation on INLAND EMPIRE--Kudos to Cinema Epoch for rescuing this tripped-out relic from oblivion.

METAL SKIN
The criminally underrated second film by ROMPER STOMPERíS Geoffrey Wright finally makes it to domestic DVD in a terrific anamorphic transfer.

SINGAPORE SLING
This gorgeously lensed sickie, a longtime staple of the greymarket circuit, has been legitimately released by Synapse Films, whose breathtaking remastering job blows all other versions clear outta the water.

CEMETERY MAN
A longtime cult favorite (and the first-ever film reviewed on this site), although Iíve always been somewhat lukewarm toward this Michele Saovi zombie fest.  I know many of you feel otherwise, however, so here it is, newly restored by Anchor Bay.

BABY BLOOD
What more could anyone want?  An Anchor Bay remastering of this French gross-out classic, uncut, subtitled and bearing its original title!  (It was previously dubbed into English and lamely renamed THE EVIL WITHIN.)

CLASS OF 1984
Mark Lesterís deliriously violent eighties updating of THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE is a certified B-movie classic, and has been given stellar handling by the good folks at Anchor Bay.  (Now if only theyíd do the same for Lesterís even-wilder sci fi follow-up CLASS OF 1999!) 

BODY DOUBLE
Something Iíve been wanting for years, a bonafide Special Edition of Brian DePalmaís unforgettably perverse variation on Hitchís REAR WINDOW.

THE NOAH
Astounding, recently unearthed seventies madness with a lone man (veteran actor Robert Strauss, in his final role) assailed by imaginary companions on a deserted island.

EQUINOX
This lovably primitive horror/fantasy classic, a favorite of fanboys the world over, gets the super-deluxe Criterion Collection treatment. 

JIGOKU
Another essential Criterion release: Nabuo Nakagawaís 1960 Japanese classic, set largely in Hell, that beat pioneering goremeisters like H.G. Lewis to the punch.

CLEAN, SHAVEN
More fun from Criterion, a new edition of Lodge Kerriganís wrenching depiction of a schizophrenic manís horrific inner world.  Far superior to the previous Fox-Lorber release.

SHOWGUN ASSASSIN
The loooooooooong awaited widescreen DVD version of one of the wildest, bloodiest samurai flicks of all time.  A must!

 

     Some good picks up there, and Iím hoping youíll be inspired to track some of those titles downótrust me, you wonít be sorry.  Iím not yet done with this list, although Iím afraid the good movie listings are.  Yep, itís time to hold our noses and unveil...
 

The Worst:  

1.  THE WICKER MAN
In the lexicon of rotten movie ideas, writer-director Neil LaButeís reworking of the British classic THE WICKER MAN into a battle-of-the-sexes parable set in Americaís Pacific Northwest deserves a special place of honor.  The first WICKER MAN featured Edward Robinson as a policeman investigating a remote British pagan community, whereas this new version has Nicholas Cage traveling to an island off the coast of Washington state (an unlikely location for neo-paganism, but at least the scenery is pretty) where he uncovers a colonial environ populated entirely by man-hating hags.  LaBute has practically made a career out of antagonizing feminists (see his scabrous late-nineties efforts IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS), and here makes his most concerted grab yet for controversy.  Many critics naturally took the bait, belly-aching at length about LaButeís apparent misogyny, but I found the proceedings far too ludicrous to warrant any such attention.  Among LaButeís fumbles are wildly inept ďshockĒ sequences (consisting mostly of an early truck crash played over and over), stilted dialogue (I actually cringed watching skilled performers like Ellen Burstyn and Molly Parker gamely trying to wrap their lips around what passes for verbiage) and idiot plot (with its climactic revelation that could--and should--just as well have occurred at the beginning).  Prior to this abomination I was somewhat critical of the original WICKER MAN, but Iíve since viewed it again and you know what?  All is forgiven! 

2.  BLACK CHRISTMAS
Iíll confess I was anxious to see this one based on the outrage it generated among media tight-asses, in particular LA WEEKLY columnist Nikki Finke, who ranted incessantly--and amusingly--about it: ďShame, shame, shame on the Weinstein Company...I couldnít believe my eyes when I saw the ads and release date for BLACK CHRISTMAS...Just how many disturbed human beings do the Weinstein Company and MGM think actually want to see a gory movie on December 25?Ē  Actually, the real question should be: Whyíd they bother releasing it at all, as it isnít merely a rotten movie but a downright amateurish one thatís among the least professional major releases of recent years?  Itís a remake of Bob Clarkeís 1974 classic, a suspensor set in a girlsí sorority house on Christmas Eve that succeeded brilliantly on a limited budget.  This more expensive updating, on the other hand, is tacky and unpolished, with an incoherent narrative related largely through off-center close-ups that succeed only in calling attention to themselves. 

3.  BLOODRAYNE
The third feature by the notorious Uwe Boll, who has in a fairly short time period managed to irreparably tarnish his reputation and become a critical laughingstock.  This is the first Boll picture Iíve bothered to sit through, and yes, based on it I fully understand what all the shouting is about.  Even if BLOODRAYNE lacks the Ed Woodian ineptitude one might expect, itís still a stunningly awful film, with a vampire babe slaughtering her way through an extremely poorly executed middle ages setting.  With some of the most laughable sword-fighting Iíve seen, much outrageously wooden dialogue and a bunch of barely-there performances by slumming stars--check out Michael Madsenís hilarious death scene, which has all gravity of a yawn.

4.  THE COVANENT
To think, I used to actually like the films of Renny Harlin, in particular PRISON, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT and DEEP BLUE SEA.  Those movies, alas, were made back when Harlin seemed to actually give a damn, which I donít believe he does any longer.  How else to explain gawdawfulers like DRIVEN, EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, MIND HUNTERS and this bummer, which is probably his most slapdash effort to date?  Itís a sluggish and overly convoluted (I lost interest in the storyline early on) account of descendents of witches loose in the modern world.  Lots of tacky CGI is on display, with the most memorable effect, a shattered car reforming itself in midair, having already been played to death in the pre-release trailers.  One key to the fact that Harlin doesnít care about what heís doing is where he puts his reel changes--the placement of the splices that occur between reels, in which several frames are inevitably lost when the projectionist puts the film together, has a definite impact on the dramatic proceedings.  That becomes evident here in the way those splices tend to occur in the middle of conversations, the absolute LAST place they should be.  Watch THE COVANENT as an effective primer on how not to direct a movie!

5.  BASIC INSTINCT 2
Viewing this fourteen-years-after-the-fact BASIC INSTINCT sequel, I was reminded of a line from the Cameron Diaz vehicle IN HER SHOES: ďMiddle-aged tramps arenít cute, theyíre pathetic.Ē  The 48-year-old Sharon Stone would have done well to take those words to heart, as the sight of her wrinkly, liver-spotted body slinking about like sheís still 21 is downright embarrassing.  Itís even more so watching Stoneís hapless co-star, British actor David Morrissey, trying to act like heís so turned on by her heíd be willing to jeopardize his life and career and even commit multiple killings.  Since I found it impossible to swallow that overall conception the movie was a total flatline for me--not that it would have mattered much had I bought into it, as the script is strictly a paint-by-numbers affair, overwrought and painfully obvious from start to finish. 

6.  PULSE
Wes Craven, speaking at a Fangoria convention a couple years ago, discussed his brief involvement in this Dimension Films remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawaís KAIRO in the tone of one whoís narrowly escaped a horrendous catastrophe.  Too bad for Jim Sonzero, who got stuck directing this limp account of spastic ghosts terrorizing college students through the internet.  How many of PULSEíS problems are due to Dimensionís notoriously unpleasant honchos Harvey and Bob Weinstein remains in question, but the movieís a blown opportunity all around.  Kurosawaís film, effective though it was, suffered in my view from an excess of subtlety and too much left unexplained, while this remake is diametrically opposed in its approach--in true Hollyweird fashion, itís overdone, overexplained and overstuffed to the rafters with distracting CGI effects.

7.  THE GRUDGE 2
The sequel to the í04 Hollywood GRUDGE remake and actually the third GRUDGE 2, after the follow-ups to the Japanese movie and TV version of the original GRUDGE (or JU-ON).  All are quite different from one another, yet still very much a part (unfortunately) of the New Asian Horror scene initiated in the late nineties, which is officially DONE.  In this G-2, as in the others, thereís a largely incoherent narrative with several noisy scare scenes featuring pasty folks with jet-black hair.  I found the proceedings incredibly dull and more than anything was anxious for the film to end--which, due to director Takashi Shimizuís perverse penchant for unwarranted fade outs, frequently seems like itís going to (ooh yes-yes-YES!), only to continue on its interminably repetitive course.  Agonizing. 

8.  THE NUN
This Brian Yuzna production is slick and boasts surprisingly good special effects considering the low budget.  But itís largely indifferent otherwise, with an uninspiring storyline about a monstrous nun at a Catholic school whoís drowned by her pupils; years later she comes back as a ghost to kill off her murderers in various gruesome ways.  Lots of gore, but itís nothing we havenít seen before, and even the state-of-the-art watery CGI effects, impressive though they are, appear overly similar to those of J-horror movies like DARK WATER.  That film (and its Hollywood remake) offered ample evidence that water isnít terribly scary, a fact THE NUN confirms. 

9.  BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP
H.P. Lovecraftís subdued and ethereal 1919 tale ďBeyond the Wall of SleepĒ has been transformed into an aggressive, hyped-up jumble.  Itís ostensibly about a creepy mountain man, played by William Sanderson, who ushers an insane asylum doctor into an otherworldly dream realm.  But Sanderson is all-but pushed into the background (a mistake, as heís the only competent performer) in favor of a chaotic morass of brain poking and hallucinations that more often than not involve demonic little girls.  The film is wildly overdirected by Thom Maurer and Barrett Klausman, aping the Oliver Stone/David Fincher style of music video-inspired visual overkill, but with none of those filmmakersí art or skill.

10.  (Tie) MASTERS OF HORROR: JENIFER/
DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?

Two sub par Dario Argento projects, both made for TV and both similar enough in style and tone they might as well be taken as parts of a single movie.  JENIFER is a titillating bit of hour-long nonsense made for the first season of Showtimeís MASTERS OF HORROR.  It features Steven Weber, who also scripted, as a cop becoming involved with a carnivorous cat woman who completely destroys his life.  The episodeís sole reason for existence appears to be the copious sex and gore, as the empty-headed story is a one-note affair that concludes in the most predictable manner imaginable.  DO YOU LIKE HITCHCOCK?, at ninety minutes, is somewhat meatier than JENIFER but every bit as terminally lightweight.  Itís a pilot for a proposed Italian TV series meant to pay tribute to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  The filmís one saving grace is the clever manner in which the script, by Argento and his regular collaborator Franco Ferrini, incorporates at least two Hitchcock movie plots into its account of a young film buff who surreptitiously witnesses a killing in the building across from his own (a la REAR WINDOW), committed, he believes, by a woman who swapped murders with another (a la STRANGERS ON A TRAIN).  But itís a bust, with some of the clumsiest setpieces of Argentoís career, in particular a chase down a rain-slicked street in which the pursuer visibly drags his feet. 

11.  STAY ALIVE
The cinematic equivalent of those teenybopper horror novels by the likes of R.L. Stine and Bruce Coville, a laughable account of a Playstation game with scary real-life implications.  Itís total nonsense, but does contain some striking imagery in the third act, during which the adolescent protagonists enter an old mansion beset with unquiet spirits.  There was clearly some genuine talent working behind the scenes, which makes one wish more attention was paid the script. 

12.  MASTERS OF HORROR: CHOCOLATE
Mick Garris created and executive produces the MASTERS OF HORROR series and so I guess heís justified in placing himself among those masters, even though his work doesnít quite make the grade.  This was Garrisí contribution to the series, a thoroughly mediocre TWILIGHT ZONE-ish lark about a guy (Henry Thomas) who enters into a womanís consciousness, seeing and feeling everything she does.  As you might expect, thereís freakiness on the horizon and, as you might also expect, thereís a twist ending.  Slick, inoffensive and ultimately pretty forgettable.

13.  UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION
Iím no fan of Ď03ís vampires-vs.-werewolves extravaganza UNDERWORLD, and nor was I terribly enamored of this sequel.  Sure, itís marginally better then its predecessor, with a more varied color palette (the people in this film actually turn on lights once in a while) and arresting rural scenery.  The whole thing really looks fantastic (as did part one), but beyond that thereís little else thatís noteworthy (again like part one).  Once again we have Kate Beckinsale and Scott Speedman striking cool poses in place of performances, amidst a staid and perfunctory narrative which the moviemakers evidently didnít bother paying much attention--why then should we? 

14.  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3-D
The latest desecration of George Romeroís NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  That classic, youíll recall, was never copyrighted, meaning itís been taken advantage of in every imaginable manner, from a colorized version, an anemic 1990 remake and an infuriating 1998 reedit that clumsily incorporated newly (and poorly) shot footage by co-writer John Russo.  As if all that werenít enough now we have another remake, notable only for an extended cameo by the increasingly ubiquitous Sid Haig (this generationís apparent answer to Jeffrey Combs) and the fact that it was released in 3-D.  Any doubts I had that the 3-D format has run its course were soundly put to rest by the cheapo red-and-blue lensed cardboard glasses I viewed the film through, which drained all color from the picture and left me blurry-eyed for hours afterward.  The flick itself is cheap and uninspired, a perfunctory recounting of the events of the original NIGHT with dialogue I hope is meant to be tongue-in-cheek and a bunch of lame pot jokes.  Iíd say the experience was best summed up by a fellow disgruntled moviegoer who over the end credits loudly denounced it as ďan hour and a half of nonsense!Ē  As for myself, I hope Romero and co. have given themselves a collective kick in the ass for so frivolously pissing away the rights to an all-time classic...and if they havenít then Iíll gladly do the honors! 

15.  EVIL BREED: THE LEGEND OF SAMHAIN
Letís see: considering this flick is headlined by porn starlets, had a famously troubled production (the shoot was beset by problems and post-production dragged on for over three years) and labors under the misleading tagline ďCannibals Wreak Havoc on Jenna JamesonĒ (who actually has a three-minute cameo with nary a cannibal in sight), Iíll have to say it plays exactly as Iíd expect it to.  The story: Horny American tourists vacationing in Ireland are set upon by descendants of the infamous Irish cannibal Sawney Beane, who enact the standard splatter movie stalk Ďn slash business.  Director Christian Veil doesnít leave a single clichť unturned, and even plunders the ďhipĒ self awareness of the SCREAM movies (ďItís like weíre in a B-movie!Ē one character exclaims).  Equally predictable is the copious T&A; the producers reportedly cut much of the gore from the film, but all the leering nudity and soft-core screwing appear to have survived intact.  For that, at least, Iím not complaining! 

16.  MASTERS OF HORROR: DANCE OF THE DEAD
The once-great Tobe Hooper directed this MASTERS OF HORROR episode, adapted from a Richard Matheson story by the latterís son Richard Christian, an extremely accomplished writer in his own right.  The story, first published back in the fifties, was an ahead-of-its-time shocker that still packs a punch, but the episode, about out-of-control teens loose in a futuristic society decimated by a manmade plague that causes the dead to rise, is curiously lifeless.  Thatís despite Hooperís excessively flashy direction (a long way from the down Ďn dirty aesthetic of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE). 

17.  THE BLACK DAHLIA
To think: after the preposterous but enjoyable FEMME FATALE I actually let myself believe the once-great Brian DePalma might be regaining his former brilliance.  Clearly I was wrong, as his follow-up is this lifeless neo-noir centered on the 1947 investigation into the gruesome fact-based murder of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. The Black Dahlia, which remains unsolved.  The film is based on a 1987 novel by James Ellroy, a book and author Iíve always found overrated, and DePalma renders the material even duller and more overdone than it was to begin with.  It appears that DePalma, one of the moviesí premiere visual stylists, has completely lost interest in things like characterization and acting, a bit of a shock considering this was the director who elicited best-ever performances from John Travolta (in BLOW OUT), Melanie Griffith (BODY DOUBLE), Margot Kidder (SISTERS), Sissy Spacek (CARRIE) and Angie Dickinson (DRESSED TO KILL).  By contrast, this filmís starrers Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank are all hopelessly miscast (with the most memorable performance delivered by Mia Kirshner as the Dahlia, who appears only in brief flashbacks).  Even the period art direction, while clearly achieved with painstaking effort and not a little moolah, feels labored and artificial.  Sure, there are some impressive visual flourishes, but there should be, considering the camerawork was evidently the only thing to which DePalma payed any attention. 

18.  DRAWING RESTRAINT 9
NYC art snob darling Matthew Barney follows his CREMASTER series with this surreal slog in which Barney and wife Bjork (who also composed the supremely irritating music score) play stowaways on a Japanese whaling ship.  They get outfitted in wildly ornate Kabuki getup while on the deck of the ship crewmen pour Vaseline into a mold of the semi-circle-with-a-line-through-it symbol thatís become Barneyís trademark.  Said mold eventually hardens as the ship floods and the protagonists slowly slice each other up.  That partís eye-opening, to say the least, but for most of its interminable two-and-a-half-hour running time the film is dull and uneventful, making one realize that a large part of the CREAMSTER flicksí charm was their fecund grotesquerie, of which DRAWING RESTRAINT 9 contains very little. 

19.  MASTERS OF HORROR: DREAMS IN THE WITCH-HOUSE
Another sub par MASTERS OF HORROR entry, with Stuart Gordon once again adapting an H.P. Lovecraft story, and once again running wild with it.  The story was a subtle and unnerving exercise in otherworldly disquiet, while Gordonís adaptation is an exploitive outpouring of blood, nudity and human sacrifice.  Itís not as awful as BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP, the yearís other faux-Lovecraft movie; in fact, itís even somewhat sleazily entertaining, but makes previous Gordon over-the-toppers like FROM BEYOND and DAGON look downright refined in comparison. 

20.  SCARY MOVE 4
Iíll confess I laughed several times during this latest installment in the apparently never-ending SCARY MOVIE cycle, but now I find Iím having trouble remembering what I chuckled at.  Movie franchises rarely ever retain their charm past a part three, and the SCARY MOVIE flicks are no exception. 

21.  CLIVE BARKERíS THE PLAGUE
I donít know the extent of Clive Barkerís involvement in this straight-to-DVD mishmash, but he didnít write or direct it, which calls into question his possessory title.  The film has an intriguing set-up, positing that all the worldís children are rendered comatose by some sort of plague, and that ten years later they all wake up zombified and embark on a killing rampage.  Thus the proceedings rapidly degenerate into a pretty standard zombie mash, only to turn unexpectedly arty in the staid and inconclusive finale.  Co-writer/director Hal Masonberg and (maybe) Barker were clearly trying to create something unique and significant.  Quite simply: they failed. 

22.  MONSTER HOUSE
These days the assaultive visual effects so beloved by Hollywood just arenít enough to make a movie succeed, but Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, the executive producers of MONSTER HOUSE, donít seem to know that.  Their film very much wants to bowl viewers over with its ultra high-tech motion-capture animation and noisy succession of escalating mayhem.  Hiding somewhere in all that is a story about a dead womanís soul taking possession of a house and some plucky kids who investigate...and get (literally) eaten up and spit out by the monster abode.  There are some inspired bits, and the animation has advanced beyond the creepy doll-eyed personages of the last motion-capture effort THE POLAR EXPRESS (which was in any event a better--and scarier--movie), but I found the whole thing tiresome. 

23.  THE OMEN
This one is unique in that itís probably the only big studio release conceived and executed entirely around a release date: the sixth of June, 2006, or 6/6/06.  Beyond that itís a reasonably faithful remake of the old Richard Donner flick about a wealthy couple who discover their son Damien is the antichrist.  With the way-too-young Julia Styles lamely cast as Damienís mother, I was expecting a fast-paced MTV hash of the original film, which in my view was never much.  It turns out, though, that this new OMEN is even more drawn-out and long-winded than Donnerís, with a seriously dull middle section in which Damienís pa Liev Schreiber takes forever to uncover what we already know.  There are more outrageous killings than in the first film, all done in wildly improbable Rube Goldberg-styled chains of deadly coincidence--Iím guessing the filmmakers were more than a little familiar with the FINAL DESTINATION flicks. 

24.  REINCARNATION [RINNE]
This is supposed to be the best film of Lionís Gateís Horrorfest.  Having only seen two of those ďEight Films to Die ForĒ (the similarly underwhelming DARK RIDE being the other) I canít verify that statement, but if REINCARNATION is indeed the pick of the litter then that definitely doesnít say much for the fest.  Directed by JU-ONíS Takashi Shimizu, REINCARNATION is yet another formulaic J-horror flick, this time about a young actress playing a victim of a hotel shooting rampage in a dramatization of the massacre.  As you might expect, things get creepy extremely quickly, with the standard pale, dark-haired ghosts whose appearances are always accompanied by noisy music cues.  At times it seems like the film might actually turn out to be a good one, with its intriguingly multi-pronged narrative that juxtaposes video footage shot by the killer with the filming of the movie.  By the end, however, Shimizu loses all interest in telling a coherent story, allowing the proceedings to descend into an undisciplined morass of overdone special effects, with seemingly every character morphing into someone else. 

25.  THE WOODS
Itís sophomore slump time for MAYíS talented Lucky McKee, who spins another horrific yarn about an alienated teen girl.  Here the protagonist is a rebellious young firebug whose mean parents send her to a creepy boarding school on the edge of a haunted forest.  The schoolís bitchy headmistress (Patricia Clarkson) turns out to be a witch looking to sacrifice her students to the God of the woods--or something.  On the plus side, the film is generally well made, with some sharp performers (including Bruce Campbell in an extended cameo) and neat CGI slithering-vine effects in the final scenes.  But the whole thing is misconceived, with a determinedly non-traditional style in service of deeply traditional material, and runs out of steam long before the third--or even second--act. 

26.  TAMARA
This filmís DVD cover, which has a mini-skirted babe brandishing an axe alongside the tagline ďRevenge Has a Killer BodyĒ, gives fair notice that Shakespeare it isnít!  What that cover does seem to promise is a mindless gorefest with a hot chick in the lead, which I have no problem with provided the proceedings are done with imagination and enthusiasm.  Turns out both qualities are in evidence in TAMARA, but the filmmakers have nonetheless made two fundamental errors.  First, they violate a primal gore movie rule by unveiling their best effect, a shot of maggots bursting through a guyís skin, early on (with the remainder of the film taken up with ho-hum throat gougings and head bashings).  The second big mistake comes in the form, or lack thereof, of actress Jenna Dewan as Tamara, a frumpy teen whoís killed by scumbags and comes back as a revenge-minded zombie who favors slutty attire--Dewan looks eye-popping in her many revealing outfits, so it makes absolutely NO sense that she spends much of the final half-hour offscreen, telepathically inspiring others to do her dirty work.  I say Carrie or even May could kick this chickís ass any day of the week! 

27.  THE ILLUSIONIST
This supernaturally-tinged period piece is well acted, meticulously and atmospherically directed, and memorably scored by Philip Glass...meaning it should be lots better than it is.  Itís the tale of a magician (Edward Norton) invading the lives of a royal couple (Rufus Sewell and Jessica Biel) in early 20th Century Vienna, and the police inspector (Paul Giamatti) charged with taking Norton down.  The opening scenes are promising, suggesting a brain-twisting epic of illusion and reality in the manner of the similarly-themed THE PRESTIGE.  Itís all the more disappointing, then, when the script (the victim, Iím guessing, of Nortonís usual uncredited ďimprovementsĒ) settles into a conventional love triangle, which in turn segues into an equally conventional murder mystery topped off with a ďsurpriseĒ ending thatís hardly surprising. 

28.  SILENT HILL
Contrary to what I once believed, it IS possible to have too much surreal weirdness in a movie.  This film, the latest by the talented Christophe Gans (whose previous effort was the international smash BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF), proves that point adequately.  Here Gans assembled a solid cast--including Radha Mitchell, whoís mighty easy on the eyes, the terminally underrated Deborah Kara Unger and the always-welcome Alice Krige--for an expansive adaptation of the PC game SILENT HILL.  Iíve never played the game and so canít begin to measure Gansí faithfulness or unfaithfulness, but the film simply doesnít work.  Certainly it features its share of arresting sights in its account of a woman (Mitchell) led by her young daughter into the creepy town of Silent Hill, where she enters into a (literal) nightmare.  The melting walls, giant knives, mutant chorus girls and faceless children would doubtless have Salvador Dali creaming his jeans, but theyíre in service of a sluggish Roger Avery script filled with lame dialogue (including that moldy clichť, ďI have many namesĒ).  The real problem, though, is that Gans doesnít seem nearly as interested in telling a story as he is in the way-too-copious CGI on which his film overdoses woefully. 

29.  ALTERED
For the most part I was willing to go along with this alien invasion splatterthon, regardless of how dumb, derivative and plain nonsensical it got.  ALTERED, directed by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECTíS Edwardo Sanchez, is a spare account of rednecks taking revenge on some malevolent space aliens who harassed them and killed one of their buddies.  The guys manage to kidnap one of the critters, which turns out to be a mighty bad idea, as the thing possesses extrasensory powers itís not afraid to use.  Gory, action-packed fun for the most part, if excessively lightweight (but then BWP, letís not forget, wasnít exactly a model of complexity).  Itís good enough that I was willing to overlook the hopelessly goofy alien make-up and oft-bad acting, but the absolutely lousy climax, in which the heroes manage to elude their attackers through that age-old Hollywood mainstay, a Really Big Explosion, was a deal-breaker. 

30.  REQUIEM
Like last yearís deadening EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, this German film was inspired by an actual 1976 case of a Bavarian woman allegedly possessed by demons.  In the manner of many European art films these days itís done in gritty, semi-documentary style with jittery (and oft-distracting) handheld camerawork, but the filmís claim to fame is the much-remarked upon-(and justifiably so) performance of newcomer Sandra Huller in the central role.  Huller carries the film with verve and grace, and makes her possibly demonic manifestations (itís left explained whether sheís actually possessed or not) seem heartbreakingly immediate, a mighty impressive feat considering there are no music cues or special effects to help her along.  Sheís so good that Iím a little chagrined to admit I found the film dull and uninvolving.  The subject of demonic possession was worn out long ago with the hundredth or so EXORCIST wannabe, and for all REQUIEMíS qualities I found it difficult to work up the necessary interest. 

31.  MASTERS OF HORROR: INCIDENT ON AND OFF A COUNTRY ROAD
In this MASTERS OF HORROR segment, BUBBA HO-TEP director Don Coscarelli goes back to BUBBA creator Joe Lansdale for inspiration.  Lansdaleís ďIncident On and off A Country RoadĒ is one of his more outrageous tales, being a wild and unfettered look at a survival trained woman going up against a freak called Moonface in a nighttime confrontation that grows increasingly outrageous--at one point the gal wards off Moonface with the corpse of a baby!  Coscarelliís adaptation isnít entirely bad--Lansdaleís wild imagination has been transferred to the screen virtually intact, including the essential baby corpse gag.  But Coscarelli leans a bit too heavily on hoary genre clichťs (like the cheesy lightning flashes that occur every few seconds) and Moonfaceís tacky dial-a-monster makeup is a constant annoyance. 

32.  DARK RIDE
A Horrorfest entry that seemingly confirms my cynical suspicion that none of these films are all that strong (because if they were theyíd be given stand-alone releases), DARK RIDE has its moments but suffers from a severe case of clichť-itis.  As in nearly every other modern horror movie we have a bunch of young folks on a road trip (with ex-SOPRANO Jamie-Lynn DiScala in the lead) getting waylaid in a deserted location by a psycho.  At least the setting is a novel and engaging one: an amusement park funhouse, which allows for retina-burning psychedelic lighting and some memorable gore setpieces, including the most hilariously disgusting blow job gag since BRAIN DAMAGE.  Not that any of this makes up for the fact that the narrative is tired, the visuals cluttered (the actors seem incapable of hitting their marks, constantly weaving in and out of the frame) and the finale plain hokey. 

33.  THE QUIET
This modest teen gothic received little-to-no theatrical play, but has nevertheless amassed a substantial following (there already exists a parody/tribute film called THE QUIETER).  For my part, I found this ďnew cult classicĒ unsatisfying.  Itís the sorta-twisted tale of an apparently deaf girl (Camilla Belle) moving in with her step-parents (indie film mainstays Martin Donovan and Edie Falco) and their bitchy cheerleader daughter (24ís crazy-gorgeous Elisha Cuthbert).  As is immediately apparent from these folksí strangely unfurnished household, the place is a hothouse of perverse secrets and lies, with Belle fitting right in, seeing as how she harbors unsavory secrets of her own.  I found director Jamie (BUT IíM A CHEERLEADER) Babbitís approach overly studied and self-conscious; despite solid performances and striking widescreen photography (not to mention numerous mouth-watering views of Cuthbert in various states of undress), the film is never as shocking, twisted or touching as it wants to be.  One thing it is, though, is often quite unintentionally funny--some commentators claim it was conceived as a dark comedy, and they may well be right. 

34.  SAW III
The latest and most nauseating entry in the apparently neverending SAW franchise (yes, a fourth installment is in the works) shocked me in the way its creators actually seemed to take their work seriously.  This makes for a talky and even pretentious film with earnest explorations of the psyches of the deranged ďJigsawĒ (Tobin Bell) and his sidekick Amanda (Shawnee Smith).  Such efforts are laudable, I guess, but I found myself wishing Jigsaw, whoís quite the chatterbox here, would just shut the fuck up for five minutes.  Iíll say this, though: the film delivers all the nastiness weíve come to expect from these flicks, with a torture instrument called The Rack that provides the most repellant SAW murder yet and a climactic skull-drilling that made me squirm like a maggot on a hook.

 

     Okay.  Thatís done with, thankfully, and, for me, 2006 has been soundly put to rest.  Letís look ahead to the new year, which contains several promising genre releases (Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguezís two-parter GRINDHOUSE, Rob Zombieís sure-to-be-attention-getting HALLOWEEN redo, William Friedkinís much-remarked upon paranoia-fest BUG) and, inevitably, many that arenít too promising (I canít see myself ever working up much enthusiasm for that HITCHER remake), as well as, hopefully, a number of surprises Iím not currently aware of.

            In short, 2007 should be an interesting year.  Bring it on!

 

--1/17/07


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