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2008: The Year in HORROR 

For me 2008 will be remembered primarily as the year the Fright Site almost died.  I wonít go into the details (theyíre not that exciting anyway) except to say that I was down and now Iím back, and stronger than ever.  This means that for those of you who thought you were rid of me, sorry, but Iím still here, and plan to be around for some time. 

     The above also explains why the following list, the latest edition of my annual survey of the best and worst horror movies of the past year, is shorter than usual.  Iíll confess I missed some important films, including THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, THE SUBSTITUTE and THE SIGNAL, and some not-so-important ones like THE EYE, THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE and TWILIGHT (which truth be told Iím not exactly broken up about).

     My thoughts/conclusions about the movies of 2008?  Most are contained in my essay ďA Look Back in Horror,Ē although one I didnít include therein is the surprising fact that my opinions were (for once) largely in accord with those of most critics and audiences--albeit with two noted exceptions (BLINDNESS and DOOMSDAY are good movies, goddammit!).  Make of that what you will.

     My self-imposed rules, as always, stipulate that only those horror-themed films released within the US theatrically, on DVD or both make the cut.  This means no film festival releases, critics-only screenings or home movies.  Also like always, Iíve included recommended non-horror and DVD releases in between the Best and Worst lists.

     So without further ado...

The Best: 

1.  INSIDE [A LíINTERIEUR]
Easily the most talked-about horror movie of recent years, and for once all the chatter is fully justified.  INSIDE, hailing from (of all places!) France, is simply the finest genre picture Iíve experienced lately, with a bold narrative and a real sense of style.  Of the many American-modeled horror fests to emerge from Eastern Europe in recent years (HIGH TENSION, THEM, SHEITAN), this is easily the stand-out.  A stunningly brutal account of a recently widowed pregnant lady (Alysson Paradis) terrorized over the course of single evening by a deranged scalpel-wielding woman (Beatrice Dalle), INSIDE is profoundly bloody, but it also contains a subtle, creeping menace of a type that isnít supposed to be able to co-exist with extreme gore.  The two leading ladies are unusually strong and convincing, yet the filmmakers donít waste a lot of screen time with extraneous character development.  The running time is a brisk 82 minutes, most of it taken up with action and bloodletting.  And I assure you that bloodletting is potent and disturbing--the proceedings WILL make you flinch whether you think youíve ďseen it allĒ or not.  What Iíve written thus far may make the film sound like an exercise in highbrow shock along the lines of IRREVERSIBLE, but thatís not the case at all.  INSIDE may bring up many provocative issues (the horrors of pregnancy foremost among them), but itís actually a straightforward, unpretentious exercise with one overriding objective: to scare the living fuck out of its viewers.  And it succeeds!

2.  LET THE RIGHT ONE IN [LAT DE RATTE KOMMA IN]
A really, really good Swedish import, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is the story of Oscar (Kare Hedebrant), a lonely, wimpish pre-teen whoís bullied incessantly.  In the midst of a chilly winter Oscar runs into Eli (11-year-old Lina Leandersson, who seems both young and old), a young vampire whoís moved into the apartment building where Oscar lives.  Several brutal murders occur in the area and Eli is directly responsible for some of them.  Oscar learns her secret when he cuts his hand--and Eli ravenously laps up the blood!  An interesting film: the tone in one sense is sweet and uplifting, with two young outcasts finding solace in each othersí company.  Thereís even a happy ending of sorts, in which love (quite literally) conquers all.  But director Tomas Alfredson favors disorientation throughout: his style is disarmingly intimate, with an emphasis on extreme close-ups and very deliberate focus pulls.  The film gets into trouble only toward the end, when the proceedings grow increasingly effects-heavy.  A scene where a vampire woman is attacked by CGI cats is a definite mood-breaker, and the one point in which Alfredson loses control of his material.  Otherwise, though, the film is a flawless evocation of the supernatural. 

3.  THE LOST
This truly mean, traumatizing film was adapted from Jack Ketchumís 2001 novel of the same name, and fully captures Ketchumís hellish universe.  This makes for a strictly not-for-the-squeamish experience, but those who can take it will find a canny and intelligent film that defiantly follows its own rules.  Director Chris Sivertson (I KNOW WHO KILLED ME) has turned in a lively and stylish piece of work galvanized by a terrific lead performance by Marc Senter.  He plays Ray Pye, an Elvis-obsessed sociopath who in the opening sequence senselessly kills a lesbian couple.  From there the drama takes an unexpected turn, becoming a dark-hued character study--we see Ray in his native element as, years after the killings, he romances several teenage girls, including the alluring Robin Sydney as a flirtatious young woman to whom Ray reveals his dark secrets.  There are also two cops looking to take him down, and are about to get their chance, as Ray is dangerously close to snapping.  Inevitably he does go over the edge in a climax of stunning brutality.  Sivertson presents the violence of the final scenes in unflinching yet tasteful fashion, delivering an unforgettable capper to an unforgettable film. 

4.  CLOVERFIELD
A blast!  While it has some problems, this film succeeds in breathing new life into the giant monster movie.  I AM LEGEND, the Steven Spielberg WAR OF THE WORLDS and INDEPENDENCE DAY all look stodgy when compared with CLOVERFIELD, which has energy and resourcefulness in spades--and a cool monster to boot!  The critter can be viewed as the Godzilla of our time, or at least a very Godzilla-esque stand-in for the real-life horrors of 9/11.  In this respect the movieís conceit of having the action viewed entirely through a wobbly camcorder works quite well, as for most of us our sole exposure to the events of 9/11 was through shaky digital imagery very much like that on display here.  Of course none of the characters are terribly interesting, and nor is a would-be love story thatís so perfunctory it barely registers.  Itís best to simply bask in all the superbly evoked mayhem, depicted without compromise or apology.

5.  THE FALL
I
t feels wrong to scold a movie for being too ambitious, but itís a fact: this movie is too ambitious.  I enjoyed it immensely, though, as an unfettered hallucinatory spectacle.  Director Tarsem (THE CELL) has pulled out all the stops in creating a dark fantasy along the lines of PANíS LAYBRINTH (the two films were made around the same time, so plagiarism isnít an issue).  It has a precocious Indian girl (Catinca Untaru) falling under the spell of a crafty American stuntman (Lee Pace) in a convalescent hospital.  In an effort to get the girl to steal morphine for him, the man plies her with wild Eastern-flavored fantasy-adventure stories, which we see enacted in heavily stylized, surreal fashion--think ARABIAN NIGHTS visualized by Salvador Dali.  Of course thereís much more to the film, including several underdeveloped subplots involving the hospitalís other residents, lots of kid movie mawkishness, some disturbing Luis Bunuelian surrealism and a puzzling CINEMA PARADISO-ish coda.  Tarsem has clearly bitten off far more than he can chew, but what heís accomplished is more than most modern moviemakers would dare attempt.  

6.  THE RUINS
Scott Smithís 2006 bestseller THE RUINS seems unlikely material for a successful horror movie, but this adaptation is among the creepiest, ickiest, scariest movies Iíve seen in some time.  Kudos to first-time director Carter Smith, who creates a gripping and gruesome scarefest.  As in the book, we have five college pukes vacationing in Mexico who become trapped on a Mayan ruin, where theyíre menaced by killer vines.  That pretty much sums up the narrative, which has been condensed and streamlined from the excessively drawn-out novel.  There are some guaranteed lunch-loser scenes, including a leg splintering and amputation thatís every bit as pleasant as it sounds, and an extremely gory bout of self mutilation.  The CGI vine effects are well pulled-off and the performances of Jena Malone, Jonathan Tucker and especially Laura Ramsey--whoís both hissable and heartbreaking as an airhead manhandled in extremely uncomfortable fashion by the vines--are uniformly top-notch.

7.  THE DARK KNIGHT
First things first: this latest Batman movie, monster success or not, is overlong and has too many characters.  While Iím at it, Iíll also complain that the action sequences are choppy, repetitive and filled with distracting continuity errors, and at least one major role (Maggie Gyllenhaal as the ďbeautifulĒ Rachel) is totally miscast.  But where the film goes right, and very much so, is in Heath Ledgerís overpowering turn as the Joker.  Ledgerís Joker isnít the wisecracking goofball weíve come to expect, but an out-and-out criminal psychopath whose antics are so nasty they darken the movieís already grim palette considerably.  This is the closest any BATMAN movie has come in tone and style to Frank Millerís seminal graphic novel THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, which alone makes it worthwhile. 

8.  RED
The third film adaptation of the work of Jack Ketchum, RED isnít a horror movie per se, but a dark character-based thriller.  Out fishing one day with his dog Red, the sixtyish Avery Ludlow is confronted with three teenage punks, one of whom kills Red.  Understandably upset, Ludlow tracks down the boyís father, a rich shithead named Michael McCormack.  McCormack blows off Ludlowís claims, but Ludlow continues pushing the issue for personal reasons.  The dispute grows increasingly violent, which drives Ludlow to a final desperate act: confronting McCormack and his son on their own doorstep with Redís maggot-ridden corpse.  Despite being helmed by two directors--MAYíS Talented Lucky McKee and Trygve Allister Diesen--RED is a fully unified and cohesive piece of work.  McKee and/or Diesen do frequent and distracting battle with eye (or axis) lines, but the film is otherwise quite impressive from a visual standpoint, with a spare and compact grace that perfectly compliments Jack Ketchumís stripped-down prose.  Itís an extremely faithful adaptation of Ketchumís text, which is a large part of why the film works as well as it does.  And Brian Cox, one of the most formidable actors on the scene, provides RED with a sturdy and compelling anchor. 

9.  TIMECRIMES [LOS CRONOCRIMENES]
An unusually clever and nimble but also extremely dark time travel thriller from Spain.  Itís headlined by Hector, a seemingly unflappable yuppie.  One day he spies a dude with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head canoodling with the apparent corpse of a naked woman.  Before the film is done the bandage headís identity will be revealed, Hector will travel through time on (at least) three occasions, and a number of murderous surprises will become apparent.  It would be unfair to reveal much more, as the filmís charm is in its consistently evolving plot.  The opening scenes, in the manner of quite a few time travel movies, initially seem dull, but are vitally important in setting up the succeeding twists.  Think of TIMECRIMES as a dark variation on BACK TO FUTURE (in particular the sequence in which Michael J. Fox witnesses himself going back in time).  It possesses about as much depth as that film, but also contains an abundance of energy and inspiration, which in this case is reward enough.

10.  DOOMSDAY
I really donít understand the chilly reception this film got by critics and audiences.  Sure, itís mindless, trashy and derivative, but itís also quite entertaining--and isnít that the whole point?  DOOMSDAY is the third and most monumental feature from Britainís Neil Marshall (following DOG SOLDIERS and THE DESCENT).  It has a hot chick entering (ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK like) a quarantined area in a post-apocalyptic Britain to find a cure for a virus ravaging mankind.  Innumerable fights, shoot-outs, a medieval-style joust and a MAD MAX-esque car chase ensue.  The action is all-but nonstop, and generously spiced with over-the-top gore (more so, obviously, in the unrated DVD version), making for an unforgettably nasty and energetic testosterone-fest.

11.  BLINDNESS
This Canadian-Japanese-Brazilian production, about a mysterious disease that renders nearly everyone blind, was one of the yearís oddest releases.  Set in an unidentified Latin American city inhabited almost exclusively by English and Japanese speaking residents, it begins as a Kafkaesque allegory, morphs into a drearily realistic look at societal breakdown, and concludes with a hippie-esque hymn to communal living.  None of this makes it a bad movie, mind you, although most critics felt otherwise.  Itís overdirected, certainly (every other shot, it seems, is through a window or mirror), but the same is true of Fernando Meirellesí previous effort THE CONSTANT GARDENER.  Iíd say BLINDNESS is a better film overall, with a compellingly dark, ominous aura and an uncomfortably vivid portrayal of a world gone mad.  Itís that latter aspect that appears to have turned off most critics.  So too Meirellesí bold genre-hopping, a mainstay of Latin American literature of which Jose Saramagoís source novel was very much a part.  Ironically, that novel received near-universal acclaim upon its appearance in English; I feel this film might have too, if it were shown in a foreign language and subtitled.  It might also make for an interesting double feature with the Spanish flick THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK, a more conventional horror-themed account of people struck blind and the chaos that ensues--BLINDNESS, however, outdoes it in literally every aspect. 

12.  TEETH
To my knowledge, this is the first-ever movie to deal substantially with the age-old vagina dentata myth--which, for those who donít know, refers to a vagina with teeth.  It could have easily resulted in a substandard Troma-worthy yukfest, but writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein has taken a more thoughtful approach, resulting in a touching and absorbing look at a teenage girl with a most unusual affliction.  Of course the film contains a definite streak of black comedy--thereís really no other way to depict a vagina biting guyís dicks off and then spitting Ďem out--but it has a real gravity to it.  Thatís largely due to the extremely winning lead performance by Jess Weixler, who undergoes a vivid onscreen transformation from virginal waif to castrating femme fatale, and renders her vaginal troubles startlingly immediate (I should add here that this is very much an I-canít-believe-it-got-an-R-rating movie).

13.  STUCK
This is about as dark as comedy gets, and no wonder: STUCK is a Stuart Gordon movie, and though not explicitly horrific, itís as gross and aberrant as nearly anything heís made.  It begins with hospital worker Mena Suvari leaving a night club and hitting a homeless man (Stephen Rea) with her car.  Rea doesnít die but becomes stuck in the windshield, and Suvari, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, simply leaves him there.  That may sound outrageous, but it was inspired by an actual incident.  The difference is that in reality the stuck man died, whereas here he manages to hang on, leading to an escalation of hysterical nastiness, all of it extremely well-handled by Gordon.  STUCK is Gordonís first film in some time that doesnít play like his usual straight-to-video fare, but as an honest-to-goodness big screen spectacular.  It isnít perfect, though: the comic inspiration peters out well before the end, leaving us with a rushed and unsatisfying wrap-up.

14.  FEAR(S) OF THE DARK [PEUR(S) DU NOIR]
I really wasnít expecting much from this animated French anthology, and so was pleasantly surprised.  Its horrors are strictly of the low key, or ďquiet,Ē variety, with little in the way of gore.  Of course, it being a French film there are numerous annoying poetic interludes, with a womanís voice pontificating over a series of discordant shapes (I guess the filmmakers were worried it might otherwise be taken as ďjustĒ a horror movie).  But when it gets down to the scary business FEAR(S) OF THE DARK is quite fine, particularly in the wraparound segment, about a pack of ravenous wolves used by their mean-old-man owner to kill anyone he doesnít like...until they inevitably turn on him.  I also liked the third part, a manga inspired creep-out bolstered by genuinely nightmarish imagery.  Equally memorable is the last segment, about a man trapped in a haunted house, which works largely because of the ingeniously minimalistic animation style, being very likely the starkest evocation of black and white Iíve ever seen.

15.  SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO
In this film Japanís foremost cult auteur Takashi Miike pays surreal tribute to the Spaghetti Westerns of the sixties, particularly Sergio Corbucciís DJANGO.  The results are surreal, filled with over-the-top splatter and certifiably nutty from start to finish.  In other words, the film is vintage Miike.  Itís set in ďNevadaĒ yet features an all-Asian cast (speaking in heavily accented English) and comes complete with varying film stocks and speeds, copious flashbacks, an anime sequence, a buried treasure, a schizophrenic sheriff who talks to himself in different voices, and Quentin Tarantino in an extended cameo.  Thereís also a plot in there somewhere, but the whole thing is so campy and outrageous it barley registers. 

16.  PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE
One of the most ambitious films of 2008, a history of Japanís notorious Unit 731, a WWII research facility that meted out horrific torture to hundreds of Chinese and Russian prisoners.  This film, lasting a full four hours, mixes documentary and staged footage into an utterly unique whole--though not an entirely successful one, Iím afraid.  Russian filmmaker Andrey Iskanov, who wrote, directed, photographed, edited and designed the film himself, did extensive research, so much so that Iskanov was detained for five days in June of 2008 and interrogated by the FSB (formerly the KGB) as to the documents he used.  The problem is that viewing this film I couldnít help but flash back to MEN BEHIND THE SUN, a more modest Japanese-made treatment of the crimes of Unit 731 that packs a far greater punch.  It worked because of the straightforward simplicity of its horrors--PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE, by contrast, is excessively labored and overdone.  Taken as a whole, however, itís a remarkable evocation of pure insanity, made all the more disturbing by the fact that itís all based in reality.

17.  THE MOTHER OF TEARS
The third entry in Dario Argentoís Three Mothers trilogy, and far and away the least of the bunch--matter of fact, Iíd venture to say itís total crap.  But this film does provide loads of dumb fun, with Asia Argento running into a madness epidemic on the streets of Rome, interacting with the ghost of her dead mother (played by Asiaís real-life ma Daria Nicolodi), getting chased by three punked-out hags, and delivering one of the worst performances of her career--although in all fairness, the dialogue sheís given to deliver does her no favors.  SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, the earlier films of the cycle, remain among Darioís finest work, with scenes of over-the-top carnage alternating with passages of surreal beauty.  Theyíre among the most potent combinations of art and exploitation Iíve ever encountered--THE MOTHER OF TEARS, on the other hand, contains an abundance of the latter element and next to none of the former.  But where else can you find gratuitous lesbianism, a woman strangled with her own intestine, a river of severed body parts, a baby tossed off a bridge, a trip to budget-lite Hell, and a hammier-than-usual Udo Kier in a single movie?  Stupid as shit this film may be, but boring itís definitely not.

18.  AMERICAN ZOMBIE
This witty faux-doc presents a fun twist on living dead lore.  The first 45 or so minutes feel like a real documentary, and a pretty boring one at that.  Director Grace Lee, who also plays a fictionalized version of herself, made honest-to-goodness docs previous to AMERICAN ZOMBIE, and evidently knows the format in and out.  Thus we have lots of rambling interviews with several LA folk whoíve died and come back to life; they work menial jobs and one runs an anti-zombie defamation league, all the while trying to keep their flesh from rotting and staving off bigotry from the living.  But then about halfway through Lee and her film crew investigate an outdoor concert for the living dead (sort of a zombie Burning Man) and the proceedings grow far darker--and hence more compelling.  Sure, I would have liked this film more if I hadnít already seen SHAUN OF THE DEAD, FIDO, THEY CAME BACK and the film outlined below, but AMERICAN ZOMBIE stands out nonetheless. 

19.  DIARY OF THE DEAD
George Romeroís latest is a mock-doc purporting to be a video diary made by film students caught up in a zombie conflagration.  It had the great misfortune to be released alongside the similarly-themed CLOVERFIELD, which I feel is the better film.  Thatís not to say DIARY OF THE DEAD is bad.  On the contrary, itís clever and imaginative, with the protagonists running into a gallery of memorable eccentrics and getting splashed with a ton of gore.  Romero, as is his custom, has come up with some great ďgagsĒ: my favorite was the guy jamming a machete through his own head and that of the zombie devouring him.  But I never entirely bought into the video diary angle, which Romero would have us believe was reedited by one of the protagonists to include surveillance camera footage, montages, flashbacks and a music track.  Iíll also have to complain about the political angle, which is laid on thicker than in any of Romeroís other films--every other line, it seems, is a sociopolitical screed, which severely cuts back on the entertainment value.

20.  HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY
Iíll give this supremely self-indulgent HELLBOY sequel a heads-up, largely because itís mighty fun to watch with its mind-numbing profusion of weird creatures.  But itís far from a good movie.  In following up the masterful PANíS LABYRINTH, Guillermo Del Toro did what many moviemakers do in the wake of a big success: he went berserk.  This film contains a much higher-than-average amount of CGI (much of it quite shoddy) and an inventive but wildly undisciplined narrative.  Whatís missing is old-fashioned craftsmanship, with action scenes utterly lacking in tension and a sense of danger, be they two-person fistfights or an apocalyptic duel with a giant plant creature.  The characterizations also leave much to be desired, with Hellboy getting surprisingly little screen time and the Golden Army of the title only showing up near the end, and then not for very long.

21.  NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE [AKUMU TANTEI]
To think, Iíd nearly convinced myself that, with the spare and contemplative VITAL, Japanís Shinya Tsukamoto was maturing beyond early freak-outs like TETSUO.  His latest film proves otherwise.  The digitally lensed NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE features Japanese pop star Hitomi in her acting debut as a young detective (in a wildly inappropriate miniskirt-and-high heels wardrobe) investigating a rash of apparent sleep-induced suicides.  She ends up consulting a dark-coat wearing freak who can enter peoplesí dreams.  The two track down the culprit, a psychic vampire (played by Tsukamoto) who devours peopleís souls while they snooze.  The film isnít nearly as kinetic as the filmmakerís early work, but itís far from contemplative.  What it is, despite some heavy talk about destiny and mortality, is blunt and excessive, and best viewed as a wallow in hallucinatory excess by a guy who really knows how to do such stuff.

22.  WANTED
Iíll give this frothy concoction a pass, even though Iíve got some pretty severe reservations.  WANTED was adapted from an allegedly popular comic Iím not familiar with.  I am familiar, however, with THE MATRIX and FIGHT CLUB, and itís impossible not to spot their echo in this account of a working shlub called upon by some prearranged destiny to ditch his dull existence and join a band of supernaturally endowed assassins whose ranks include Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie.  The narrative runs out of steam quickly, but director Timur Bekmambetov clearly has little interest in telling a story anyway.  As in Bekmambetovís previous works (the Russian NIGHT and DAY WATCH movies) the emphasis is on sensationalism and jazzy visuals, and on that level--and that level only--this movie works.


     So ends my Best-of list.  Of course there exist many non-horror films that I feel deserve your attention, hence the following... 

Other Recommendations: 

RAMBO
This latest entry in Sly Stalloneís kill-happy franchise has a down-and-dirty aesthetic that favorably recalls classic pastaland potboilers by Deodato, Dawson, Castellari, etc.  In other words, I liked it lots! 

BOARDING GATE
For much of this bloated Euro-thrillerís running time the ďBoreĒ in the title is all too appropriate.  Worth seeing, though, for the galvanizing lead performance of Asia Argento, whoís at her most seductive and least inhibited.

MISTER LONELY
A new film from nutcase moviemaker Harmony Korine (GUMMO) that features a society of celebrity impersonators and a band of sky diving nuns.  Totally batshit from start to finish!

MY WINNIPEG
One of the best-ever films by Canadaís fiercely idiosyncratic Guy Maddin, this is at once an eccentric autobiography, a nostalgic travelogue, a goofy old movie parody and a cockeyed exercise in sheer weirdness.

MONGOL
A Russian epic about Genghis Khan, and an extremely good one--violent, romantic and boasting many well-staged battle scenes.

AMERICAN TEEN
Hereís real horror for you: a (supposed) documentary look at modern teenagers!  Compelling and insightful, even if it is essentially a feature-length variant on MTVís REAL WORLD.

BURN AFTER READING
The new Coen Brothers comedy is quintessentially Coen: laugh-out-loud hilarious yet also violent and cynical--and quite unique.

ASHES OF TIME REDUX [DUNG CHE SAI DUK REDUX]
A ďreduxĒ of Wong Kar Waiís arty martial arts classic ASHES OF TIME.  I prefer the original cut, which while raggedy around the edges remains an invigorating concoction.  But the film is required viewing in any form.

STRANDED
The first-ever feature documentary about the Uruguayan soccer team whose plane crashed in the Andes back 1972, with starvation and cannibalism the inevitable outcome.  As harrowing as movies get, though the subdued tone puts the horror at something of a remove.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
Another film that got an unfair critical drubbing.  Sure, this comedy about making movies in Hollywood, adapted from veteran producer Art Linsonís book of the same name, is pretty glum overall, but thatís the price it pays for its staunch realism.

SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK
The directorial debut of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION).  Seemingly eons long, itís a delirious mind-boggler positively bursting with ideas, any one of which could fuel an average movie.

THE WRESTLER
An admirably tough, straightforward look at a has-been wrestler, superbly directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring a never-been-better Mickey Rourke.

CHE
A Steven Soderberg directed 4Ĺ hour Che Guevara biopic, with Benicio Del Toro wowing as Che.  Best viewed in the full ďRoadshowĒ version rather than the two separate showings currently being exhibited.
 

     Iíd be lax if I didnít mention some worthwhile DVD releases from 2008.  The section highlights old films newly released on DVD, of which there appear to be an inexhaustible supply.  No, I donít indicate whether the following are available on Blu-Ray, although since most were put out by independent outfits you can safely surmise theyíre probably not! 

Recommended DVD Releases: 

LOST HIGHWAY
It took eleven years, but we finally have a letterboxed version of this 1997 David Lynch classic.  Alas, there are no extra features to speak of...but Rome wasnít built in a day.

LOVE ME DEADLY
One of those fascinating seventies-sploiters I love digging up.  Donít view it, though, if youíre the slightest bit offended by graphic depictions of casual murder, mutilation or necrophilia! 

YUKOKU [PATRIOTISM]
A Criterion edition of Yukio Mishimaís magnificently disgusting ode to suicide.  Vastly overrated by some, but still well worth a watch.

VAMPYR
More fun from Criterion: a jam-packed edition of Carl Theodore Dreyerís hallucinatory classic.  I guarantee youíll have a hard time finding another film like it. 

WHITE DOG
Yet another essential Criterion acquisition, this is Sam Fullerís powerful study of racism in the form of a ďWhite DogĒ trained to attack black people. 

SALO: THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM
The yearís ultimate Criterion release, a new and very likely definitive edition of P.P. Pasoliniís legendary gross-out masterpiece.  Itís been called the most offensive film ever made, and with good reason!

THE QUEEN OF BLACK MAGIC
Indonesian flicks are always fun, and this one, featuring gore, obscure incantations and a flying head, is no different.

THE WARRIOR
Another delirious Indonesian horror/fantasy extravaganza, THE WARRIOR features Barry Prima and a mind-bending mťlange of spurting blood, flying limbs and hilariously primitive special effects!

VISIONS OF HELL: THE FILMS OF JIM VANBEBBER
If you ask me this is something we all need, a box set of the films of Jim VanBebber.  Included are his features DEADBEAT AT DAWN and THE MANSON FAMILY, and several shorts, including the wrenching ďRoadkill: The Last Days of John Martin.Ē
 

     Itís time now to unveil my Worst-of list, which is thankfully much shorter than my Best-of list.  That doesnít make the following films any easier to bear, however... 

The Worst: 

1.  THE HAPPENING
Fact: Only an uncommonly gifted filmmaker could pull off a film this unspeakably awful.  That filmmaker is M. Night Shyamalan, whoíd better watch out, as after little more than a decade making movies heís already coming to resemble Hitchcock in his later years--that is to say a parody of himself, and a pretty pathetic one.  THE HAPPENING was supposed to be Nightís comeback after the embarrassment of THE LADY IN THE WATER, but it makes that much-derided mess look like a model of intelligence and restraint.  The concept?  Some sort of suicide plague emanates from plants, but evidently only those located on the upper east coast.  It seems to strike large groups of people...or maybe not.  You wonít find any answers in the film, which labors under a fatally misconceived script that wouldnít pass muster in a first year screenwriting course.  Nobody seems to have clued M. Night in to the fact that wind is not an inherently scary element, and nor is it possible for people to outrun it.  And Iím all for Night ditching his usual PG-13 fare in favor of an R rating, but that doesnít mean he needs to indulge in wholly gratuitous shock tactics like the killing of two kids (a scene that serves no dramatic purpose that I could see other than to keep viewers awake).  As for Mark Wahlberg in the lead, I can only assume he was aware of how utterly ridiculous the material is, and so pitched his performance accordingly. 

2.  PROM NIGHT
The original PROM NIGHT really wasnít much, meaning the makers of this remake had plenty of room for improvement.  Guess what?  Theyíve improved nothing, turning out an unadventurous, by-the-numbers PG-rated clichť fest.  I might have found this film passable had I never seen another horror flick, but I have.  Director Nelson McCormick apparently hasnít, though, and uses quite a few moldy gags from horror movies past, including the age-old guy-who-looks-like-heís-sleeping-only-to-be-turned-over-and-revealed-as-(gasp!)-dead (McCormick apparently likes that particular cue so much he uses it twice)!  A complete waste of time.

3.  MIRRORS
This film has one of the coolest opening credit sequences in recent memory...but otherwise MIRRORS is a huge yawn, laboring under a scatterbrained narrative constructed around the idea of evil mirrors.  This makes for some interesting CGI sequences portraying errant mirror images, and lots of ďcreativeĒ gore effects, but none of them had any impact since virtually every other element is so crushingly inert.  That includes the lead performance of Keifer Sutherland, shamelessly recycling his 24 shtick, and the extremely bad actors who play (I use the term loosely) his wife and children.

4.  DEATH RACE
Yet another utterly pointless, wasteful remake.  For the record, Iím not among those who think the original Roger Corman/Paul Bartel DEATH RACE 2000 is some kind of masterpiece--in truth, Iíve always found it half-baked and a bit of a missed opportunity.  But DR2K did have a cool premise involving a futuristic auto race whose participants receive points for running down pedestrians.  The remakeís writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson has kept the idea of the race but jettisoned everything else, leaving us with a big So What???  Thereís also the fact that the races were evidently filmed in what looks like a small portion of a Long Beach shipping yard, so they all look the same.  And another thing: this is the first movie Iíve seen to carry a disclaimer at the head of the end credits advising viewers not to try any of the preceding car stunts themselves.  Putting aside the political implications (which are pretty chilling), the big question I have is why the Hell would anyone want to replicate this movieís lame stunts?  See DOOMSDAY instead.

5.  NAKED BENEATH THE WATER
A shot-on-video take on the reality TV trend, with a man lured into appearing on the depraved reality program Public Enemy Number One.  The show is about people who film themselves murdering others; as for the protagonist, it seems heís lucked out in a sense, as heís the designated victim in a contest being held by past contestants of the show looking to prove who the best killer is.  The film is fairly slick overall, particularly in the cleverly executed Public Enemy segments, but itís also agonizingly slow-moving--and, surprisingly, not all that gory.  It seems writer-director-star Sean Cain was trying for some honest-to-goodness social commentary here.  Fine and good, but that doesnít make up for the fact that NAKED BENEATH THE WATER is essentially a 30-minute short stretched to feature length.

6.  QUARANTINE
Another Hollywood remake I might have enjoyed more had I not seen the original version first.  In this case that initial film was the 2007 Spanish freak-out REC, an ingeniously pulled off faux-documentary account of a contagion that turns the residents of a big city tenement into fast-moving zombies.  This version follows the original fairly closely, but lacks its tightness and mounting intensity.  Unlike REC, QUARANTINE has little forward momentum, consisting of a series of more-or-less interchangeable attacks that peak after about twenty minutes.  I will, however, say this: DEXTERíS Jennifer Carpenter is surprisingly effective in the lead role, fully convincing as a smarmy TV host driven to near-psychotic heights of fear.

7.  LAKEVIEW TERRACE
I really hate comparison reviews, wherein a film is critiqued by equating it with another, but in this case I canít help myself.  Viewing the middling LAKEVIEW TERRACE I found myself continually flashing back to 1992ís UNLAWFUL ENTRY.  As you might recall, that Jonathan Taplin directed production was a trashy exploiter with Ray Liotta as a psycho cop who befriends then terrorizes a nice suburban couple.  It was a product of a subgenre popular during the time, characterized by the likes of PACIFIC HEIGHTS, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE.  LAKEVIEW TERRACE closely follows the particulars of that cycle--and Taplinís film in particular--in its utterly predictable account of a biracial couple moving into a hilltop suburb next door to a cop portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson.  Jackson seems like a nice guy, but eventually reveals himself as a psycho who makes life hell for his hapless neighbors.  The filmís innate distrust of cops is quintessentially nineties, as are the incendiary racial overtones; both elements seem informed primarily by the 1991 Rodney King beating.  Thus we have a film that might have once seemed topical and provocative, but which turned up at least fifteen years too late. 

8.  THE STRANGERS
A home invasion thriller pulled off with great skill, but it just needs...more.  It is in many ways an uncredited remake of the í06 Belgian flick THEM, which was a lightweight concoction that nevertheless contained an excess of energy and invention.  Those things are sorely missing from THE STRANGERS.  First time writer-director Bryan Bertino does a fine job building suspense in this relentless account of three masked lunatics terrorizing a young couple over the course of a night, and the lead actors Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are both game, but the proceedings are agonizingly repetitive.  The sight of a suspicious figure staring in through a window who is nowhere to be seen in the succeeding shot can only be used so many times before losing its power.  The same can be said for the film as a whole, which initially had me riveted but by the end elicited little more than tired laughter.

9.  CTHULHU
Director Dan Gildark and writer Grant Cogswell deserve credit for coming up with an audacious take on H.P. Lovecraftís ďShadow Over Innsmouth,Ē but their film is fatally disjointed and uninvolving.  The protagonist, played by Jason Cottle, is a gay man who returns to his estranged familyís home, located in an Oregon coastal community.  But Cottle quickly discerns that a weird Cthulhu worshipping cult is afoot, and that his relatives are part of it.  Thereís plenty of striking imagery, including an amazing wide shot of dozens of fish people emerging from the Pacific Ocean, and the filmmakersí gay-themed take on Lovecraftís mythos is inspired (although it will doubtless piss off Lovecraft devotees).  But I think the material was better served by Stuart Gordonís kicky and exploitive DAGON, which was not a complete success but is still a far more cohesive work.

10.  FRONTIER(S)
More French horror...and yet another TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE variant.  It has the expected group of young people stuck in an out-of-the-way inn, run by a family of freaks who torture their charges in various unspeakable ways.  Writer-director Xavier Gens tries to add some real-life drama by injecting footage from the recent riots that tore apart France, but the film is still extremely silly, derivative and predictable (you can be sure that when a young woman escapes from her captors her freedom wonít last long!).  Thatís really too bad, as Gens clearly has verve and energy to spare, and provides an all-stops-out final third thatís about as intense as anything Iíve seen. 

11.  REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA
A made-to-order cult film closely patterned on THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.  Iíll confess to having enjoyed parts, but itís pretty staid overall, being a musical with really bad songs.  Itís set in a future world overrun with plastic surgery where repo men are dispatched to steal the organs from patients who canít pay their bills.  The extremely involved plot features a corrupt executive (Paul Sorvino) and a haughty plastic surgery freak (Paris Hilton, unfortunately).  Thereís also a repo man and his sickly teenage daughter, whoís inherited some bum genes.  All the actors wear extremely gaudy outfits, in the evident hope that people will want to show up at theaters dressed like characters from the film (as many patrons reportedly did at the premiere).  REPO! has in its favor a compelling dark hued look and enough gore to fill several SAW movies.  Again, though, the music is horrendous, and the campy aura isnít exactly original.

12.  FUNNY GAMES
I was never too impressed with Michael Hanekeís upscale psycho-thriller FUNNY GAMES in its initial incarnation, as a 1997 Austrian production, and this scene-for-scene English language remake hasnít improved things overmuch.  It has suburbanites Tim Roth and Naomi Watts vacationing with their young son in upstate New York, where theyíre terrorized by a pair of tennis outfit-wearing yo-yoís.  The early scenes, of this disarmingly refined psychopathic duo worming their way into the protagonistsí lives, are promising, done with a streak of pitch-black comedy that suggests a Thomas Berger novel.  The nastiness that follows is flawlessly carried off for the most part, with a Hitchockian flair for suspense.  Acting honors go to Michael Pitt as the head psycho, whoís as dangerous and charismatic as Anthony Perkins ever was, and Watts, whose stunningly toned body is generously displayed throughout.  This of course heightens Hanekeís intent to implicate his audience in the madness; unpleasant though all this is, I was not averse to seeing Naomi Watts undressed.  Haneke goes wrong, though, with a ridiculous post-modern twist--Pitt, you see, knows heís in a movie and directly addresses the audience on several occasions--that exists to set up to a thoroughly misconceived climax which played like a bad joke in the 1997 version and continues in that vein here.  Blah!


    
And with that, the year 2008 is (for me) soundly put to rest.  But before I go Iíd like to highlight some films set to premiere in 2009, including the long-awaited WATCHMEN, based on the pioneering graphic novel; a new version of THE WOLF MAN, which with Benicio Del Toro in the lead at least stars a great actor; the French MARTYRS, which is said to outdo both INSIDE and FRONTIER(S) in nastiness; HEADER, a highly praised, long-in-the-works adaptation of a novel by Edward Lee; OFFSPRING, the fourth Jack Ketchum adaptation; ...OF THE DEAD, a new zombie epic from George Romero; and KING SHOT, a brand-new feature by EL TOPOíS elusive Alejandro Jodorowsky, produced by David Lynch. 

     All those films sound promising--letís hope they deliver!  You can be sure that Iíll be back around this time next year to deliver my verdict.  See ya then!

 

--1/13/09
 


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