May 24, 2008

The Devil's Rejects (2005)

This review was originally published in my good friend Paxton's blog the 4th of November of 2007 (original post, written in spanish, here), as I was invited to collaborate with a review of this movie for his blog. Gracias amigo!
If you know spanish, check out his blog. Honestly, it's pretty cool.


I must admit that when in 1999 rock musician Robert Cummings (better known as Rob Zombie) announced that he would begin the production of a horror film named "House of 1000 Corpses", I wasn't that thrilled about the project. Zombie had already demonstrated a great talent for visual design (creating the whole concept of his band, "White Zombie"), even directing several musical videos o great quality (including the psychedelic dream in "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America"), but even when his dedication to the genre was noticeable, I still wasn't expecting the results he got. "House of 1000 Corpses" was released 4 years after it was first announced, but it truly was worth the wait, as while it wasn't really anything new or original, his hallucinating homage to "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" was all around a very entertaining film. 2 years later, Zombie went back to his characters, the Firefly family, in a sequel called "The Devil's Rejects", only this time things will be a little bloodier.

"The Devil's Rejects" takes place 6 months after the events depicted in "House of 1000 Corpses", and all begins with a huge police team surrounding the Firefly house with the firm intention of stopping their crimes. Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (William Forsythe) is on charge and he has sworn to stop the Fireflys in revenge for the murder of his brother. A brutal shooting takes place in which Rufus Firefly (Tyler Mane) gets killed and Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is captured, while Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) manage to escape alive. The two fugitives look for help and call Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), whom is actually Baby's father and an old friend of the family. Together, the three of them will try to escape the wrath of Sheriff Wydell, to whom rage and hate begin to turn him into someone each time more brutal in his hunt for the Firefly.

Even when "The Devil's Rejects" is a direct sequel to "House of 1000 Corpses", there's a severe change in the tone in which Rob Zombie has written his film this time. If "Corpses" employed a constant degree of black humor in its kitsch homage to 70s cinema, "The Devil's Rejects" takes its homage to the legendary grind-house cinema in a more serious way, following the old school style of violent exploitation to the letter. As a director, Zombie has grown, and while it can't be said that "The Devil's Rejects" is the most original film in the world, his way of telling this brutal story of bullets and blood is quite a nostalgic return to the world of the violent B-movies that filled cinemas and drive-ins in the time of filmmakers like Lewis, Hooper, Fulci o Franco. Actually, the change from surreal black comedy to serious exploitation is really beneficial for the story, because "The Devil's Rejects" feels like a more mature and prepared film.

Still, this change doesn't mean that Zombie has delivered a completely serious dramatic film, as there is humor in "The Devil's Rejects", however, it's of a very black kind, and the tone in general is a lot darker than the one in "Corpses", with the Firefly family at their most violent and a Sheriff Wydell whose acts bring to mind that old quote from Nietzsche: "Whoever battles monsters should take care not to become a monster too" . And yet, "The Devil's Rejects" is not a story of "good people versus evil people" despite what the plot might suggest, as just as director Sam Peckinpah would do (although not as effective, I must say), Zombie shows us the human side of both sides, and in an almost cruel way, makes us to question the sympathy one would have for characters as cruel and inhuman as the Fireflys or Sheriff Wydell, the former with an extreme charm despite their foul acts, and the latter with a very nasty personality despite of the nobility of his cause.

And this is perhaps what is both the strongest and weakest part in "The Devil's Rejects", as while Zombie manages to skillfully manipulate the mixed emotions that his characters provoke, at several times he seems to be deeply enamored with his villains, something that takes him in several times to anti-climatic moments in which, given Otis and Baby's luck, one wonders if to Zombie it is OK to commit atrocities as long as one looks cool while doing them. But even if Zombie made the mistake of getting a bit too carried away in his attempt to humanize his gang of mass murderers, he also must receive credit for the things he got right, and personally I think that one of those is his development of the rest of his characters, (particularly in Capitán Spaulding and Mother Firefly), which in all honesty, is very good and truly shows that Zombie has improved in his skill to create complex (and relatively realist) characters.

Naturally, the acting plays a fundamental role in the result of a film, and for the most part, the cast makes a great job in this case. Sid Haig definitely steals the whole show in his role as Captain Spaulding, creating what surprisingly is the most human character in the movie. William Forsythe is excellent as Sheriff Wydell, but the biggest surprise is Leslie Easterbrook (the unforgettable Debbie Callahan in the "Police Academy" film series) as Mother Firefly, giving the character a power that it wouldn't have if it had been played again by Karen Black. Personally, I can't understand what's of amazing in Sheri Moon Zombie (Rob's wife), as she only does what's necessary to get the job done without anything outstanding, and Moseley is almost on the same situation, although he does deliver great acting in a couple of excellent scenes. By the way, legendary horror icons Ken Foree and Michael Berryman show up in two very funny and bizarre roles.

Even when "The Devil's Rejects" is not exactly a perfect movie, it does result being a very good dose of violent action and horror, old school style, in a way that had not been seen in years in American "mainstream" cinema. As a tribute to the violent psychothrinic film-making of the decade of the seventies, "The Devil's Rejects" is really a lot more than what was expected, and proof that Zombie's success with "Corpses" was not a lucky strike and that maybe he might give us a very good surprise in the time to come.


May 19, 2008

Black Christmas (1974)

While the horror genre is quite broad and its themes range from the most extreme fantasy to the harshest realism, most of the times when someone thinks about the horror genre, the very first idea that comes to mind is the slasher film: a masked psycho on the loose stalking a group of dumb teenagers and killing them one by one. And the reason for this is that being a somewhat simple and popular concept to produce, a lot of slasher films have been done since the genre's rise to popularity in the 80s, the "Golden Age" of the "Friday the 13th", "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Halloween" series. In fact, It would be John Carpenter's "Halloween" what brought the genre to the spotlight in 1978 and started the "slasher film craze", making many to consider it the very first film of its kind, but even when it helped to popularize the concept and set the standard for the films to come, the most likely candidate for being the real first slasher is a Canadian film done 4 years before "Halloween": Bob Clark's "Black Christmas".

Set in a Canadian sorority house, "Black Christmas" begins when the sorority girls are preparing to leave for the Christmas break. On their last night before vacations, they have been receiving obscene phone calls from an anonymous guy whom they nickname "The Moaner". Nobody takes seriously these calls, thinking the guys is just a pervert and continue with their packing, but the phone calls begin to get more and more disturbing each time. Everything gets worrying when one of them, Clare Harrison (Lynne Griffin), disappears after going upstairs to finish her packing. The next day, the other girls join Clare's father (James Edmond) and contact the police, but nobody seems to be really concerned about the mystery. However, the morbid phone calls continue and soon another girl disappears. For Jessica (Olivia Hussey), Barbie (Margot Kidder) and Phyllis (Andrea Martin), the remaining girls at the sorority house, it'll be a Christmas break they'll never forget.

"Black Christmas" was the brainchild of Canadian writer Roy Moore, whom taking inspiration from several real crime stories, came up with an idea that seems to be the direct descendant of Agatha Christie's famous play, "And Then There Were None", as it is essentially a murder mystery tale taken to the modern urban landscape. From the screenplay we get many of what now are considered pillars of the slasher sub-genre, like the mainly female cast, lead by a strong woman who must overcome her fears and attempt to face and discover the identity of the killer in order to survive the night. However, one thing that "Black Christmas" has that many of the films it influenced tragically lack is the way it develops its characters: they feel very real and one truly begins to care about them. Another highlight of the screenplay is the good dose of black comedy included in the story, as like Hitchcock would do, it breaks the tension with great timing, and most importantly, it never feels out of place.

However, while definitely the screenplay set some of the basics for the sub-genre, it was Bob Clark's execution of it what made this thriller different and ultimately gave birth to the slasher film. The most striking feature of the film is the way Clark handles the suspense through the movie, as while "Black Christmas" does have shocking scares of great impact, it is often thanks to the heavy atmosphere of suspense that such scares work that perfectly, even after repeated viewings (something that not many slashers can do that well). It's remarkable the great use Clark gives to his setting for creating this atmosphere, as by having most of the movie set in the sorority house at night, he manages to convey effectively the feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia that slowly begin to make prey of the characters. Clark's use of the camera is also essential for this, and his use of the killer's point of view truly enhances the idea that the menace is constant (a lesson John Carpenter would explore further in his "Halloween").

The acting is of excellent quality, as the three main actresses appear very natural in their roles as sorority girls. While their characters aren't really of Shakesperean proportions, the screenplay allows them the freedom to develop their roles at will and they definitely do, making them more than the stereotypes they may have represented. Olivia Hussey is particularly good as Jessica, conveying a mixture of innocence and strong will that would later become a trademark of her kind of character. Margot Kidder is also excellent as Barbie, and she has several of the film's best moments, as well as Marian Waldman, whom playing the sorority house's owner, Mrs. Mac, and provides many of the comedy moments of the movie. I wasn't as excited about Andrea Martin's performance, but she is not really bad, just not that impressive and a bit less developed. Finally, John Saxon completes the cast as Lieutenant Kenneth Fuller, the man who'll try to find the killer before another girl gets murdered.

Besides "Halloween", many other films have been called "the original slasher", including Hitchcock's "Psycho", Bava's "Reazione a Catena" ("Twitch of the Dead Nerve" or "Bay Blood") and Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"; however, I personally find "Black Christmas" to be the movie that for the first time combines the elements of those previous films that originate what is at the same time the most loved and hated sub-genre of horror. And sadly, that's not only its blessing, but also its curse, as for being the originator of a highly formulaic style of storytelling, at this point in history "Black Christmas" may appear clichéd and slow at first sight, specially when compared to the postmodern approach of Craven's "Scream". With this in mind, one may be tempted to think that "Black Christmas"'s status as a classic comes just for being the first of its kind, but as written above, this is not the case, as despite its flaws, Clark's nightmarish murder mystery still delivers the goods in great measure.

Not without a reason, the "slasher film" has been heavily criticized since its conception; whether for its simplicity, for its formulaic nature, and even for its supposed misogyny (whereas an argument could be made for it being one of the first genres where female empowerment was shown as well!). However, and like every other film genre, it has produced its fair share of gems that are not only great slasher films, but great horror movies in general, and Bob Clark's "Black Christmas", the very first of them, is one of those great films. I must admit that I'm not the biggest fan of slasher films, and that I may have criticize them more than they deserve, but I must say that "Black Christmas" is truly a film that lives up to its reputation and really deserves to be checked out. Like "Halloween" (which could be its counterpart), it is more than a slasher film, it's an experience.


May 12, 2008

A belated celebration...

Apparently, the complications of work, school and life made me forget a date that should be important for W-Cinema, it's very first anniversary! It was on May 9th of 2007 when the first review was posted and the place was officially inaugurated. That first review was for Alfred Hitchcock's early classic, "The Man Who Knew Too Much", a movie I enjoyed quite a lot and that I consider superior to the 50s remake (I know Hitch himself would disagree with me, but what can I say? I find it to have more fun).

In those early months my only compromise was at work, so having enough time to write like crazy the result were quite a lot of reviews being posted in those days. Now, with the constant preoccupation of studying a postgraduate course, plus a new job where Internet is forbidden, it's sometimes difficult to keep writing the way I used to. Hopefully, things will change for the better, and this place will be as lively as it was during its first months of existence.

Many things have happened in this first year, including the publication of "Horror 101", a book in which I was invited to collaborate (yes, more shameless self-promotion :P), and my discovery of the films of John Ford. Also, I have met great people thanks to this place, people who share the same passion for writing about cinema and who have become the "regulars" (or perhaps I should say, the only readers) of W-Cinema. I must admit I was shocked when I found that Mr. Diez Martínez, an excellent film critic from my country (if you can read Spanish, you have to check out his blog), read me, and my shock was bigger when he posted. Thank you, I must say that admire your writing quite a lot.

Well, this is getting a bit too sappy for my taste, so let's get back to business, and, while I wish I could celebrate this with a review (although I have a surprise which hopefully will be announced in the following weeks), for the moment I'll just celebrate it with one of my favorite shots of all time. See you soon!

May 03, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

In the early 60s, writer Stan Lee was assigned to create new superhero stories for Marvel Comics, at a time when a renewed interest in superheroes was on the rise. Together with talented artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee revolutionized the superhero genre with flawed, more human and somewhat realistic characters, that despite having extraordinary powers were still plagued by everyday problems. With this fresh style, Lee and his team created most of Marvel Comics' most famous icons, such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and transformed the company into an industry giant. Ever since 2000, many of the superheroes Lee created for Marvel in the 60s have made the jump to the silver screen, reaching even more audiences than before as some have become successful franchises. In 2008, Iron-Man, another of Lee's projects (developed by Larry Lieber, Kirby and artist Don Heck), joins the list of superhero adaptations in a movie directed by Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.

"Iron Man" is the story of wealthy industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) whom is the head of the biggest developer of weapons in the world. Despite being a genius, Stark is an irresponsible playboy who enjoys a life of excess and leisure, until one day, after demonstrating his new weapons in Afghanistan, he is kidnapped by a terrorist organization who forces him to work for them. During the attack, Stark is wounded by a missile, and while in captivity, he and another captured scientist, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), create a device to save his life. With Yinsen's assistance, Stark takes his technology further and creates a full body armor in order to escape from the terrorists. After returning to the U.S., Stark realizes that just like he has used his genius to create technology used to destroy, he can also use it to protect, so he decides to improve his armor and use it to fight for a good cause. But the Iron-Man won't have it easy.

After spending many years in development, "Iron Man" was finally written by two teams of writers, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby on one side, and Art Marcum and Matt Holloway on the other, with director Favreau combining both. As expected, the movie is basically the story of the origin of Iron Man as a superhero, introducing the main characters, the villains, and the main themes; however, it must be noticed that Favreau remained as faithful to the source as possible while at the same time keeping everything easy to understand to people unfamiliar with the comic book. While hardly an original story, the screenplay is very well balanced, with the obvious emphasis on action scenes but without forgetting to develop the characters. This is specially important in Iron Man, as Tony Stark is not exactly a simple superhero character, as his personality is quite complex and atypical. An example of this is the good dose of black comedy that comes thanks to the character's cynicism.

While he has done two relatively good films in the past, director Jon Favreau is definitely not the person one imagines directing a big budget comic book adaptation like this one, specially when one considers that he is probably better known as an actor than as a director. But against all odds, Favreau makes what's probably one of the most enjoyable superhero movies of the last years, and even when in great measure this is possible thanks to the very solid screenplay and the inspired casting of Downey Jr., it is commendable the way Favreau lets the movie flow without losing control of it. But even when his directing style is hardly original (I would even say it's formulaic), Favreau seems to know how to hit the right notes, and while following the pattern of the superhero film to the letter, he makes a movie that feels all around like fresh and fun retelling of the origin of a classic hero. The realistic style he employs in the film truly helps it to form an identity of its own.

As written above, it is definitely Robert Downey Jr. whom is the main highlight of the film, as his performance as the egocentric genius truly carries the film thanks to Downey's great talent and charm. It is always difficult to have someone who's basically a jerk as main character, but Downey Jr. makes him likable, and maybe most importantly, very realistic, as while naturally Stark begins to change his priorities, he never loses his personalities as he becomes more heroic. As Obadiah Stan, Stark's second-in-command at Stark Industries, Jeff Bridges is simply excellent, creating a very human portrait of the corruption in business from what could had easily been just a two dimensional caricature. Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Pepper Potts, Stark's main assistant, and while not really bad, her performance is not one of her best, although to be fair, her character doesn't receive as much exposure as Stark, and exactly the same could be said of Terrence Howard, who plays Stark's best friend, Jim Rhodes.

The rest of the cast ranges from good to truly excellent (Shaun Toub), making this cast one of the best in recent superhero films. Still, since the focus is completely on Downey Jr. the screen time of the rest of the cast is pretty short, and there are couple of characters whom may seem pointless (Leslie Bibb's character for example). However, this is not completely a bad thing, as it allows the audience to know the heroic industrialist more and, like any good origins story, it introduces the world of the film. The problem of this is that the film feels pretty formulaic at several parts of the film, as it includes every typical scene from this kind of stories; but as written above, Favreau makes those clichés work by giving them a slight spin using Stark's irresponsible personality. Finally, I must say that the special effects team did an excellent job at combining practical effects with digital ones, as sometimes the mix is imperceptible, making it one of the best looking films of 2008.

"Iron Man" may not exactly be a deep, thought provoking film, but it must be said that Favreau makes the film rise above other similar superhero films despite its problems. Sure, at its core this is nothing more than a tale of action and adventure meant to be entertaining (and it truly delivers), but Favreau makes not only an enjoyably thrilling ride out of it, but also an intelligent one, as despite being based on science fiction, the whole thing never feels like too much of a fantasy. It is pretty obvious that sequels will be made (naturally, the movie hints this quite explicitly too), but if they manage to be at least as good and entertaining as this one, I'm sure will have an excellent series of movies, probably even better than the "Spider-Man" ones. It may not be original, but it's pretty good.