Iro's One Movie a Day Thread

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#682 - Masked Avengers
Chang Cheh, 1981

A lowly cook becomes embroiled in a conflict between two clans of warriors, one of which is good and one of which is evil.

I guess the Shaw Brothers studio isn't too different from any other studio in that they produce a fair bit of chaff to go along with their extremely classic wheat. At least Masked Avengers benefits from the fact that it utilises the same director and performers that made the great Five Deadly Venoms. Everyone knows great martial artists like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, but some credit has to go to the less famous fighters that came out of the same scene like Gordon Liu or Philip Kwok. I mainly know Kwok for playing brutal henchman Mad Dog in John Woo's action masterpiece Hard Boiled, but he is also known for being one of the original Venoms and his wry countenance proves a surprisingly good core to this film and others. Here, he plays a cook who finds himself caught between two warring clans. As befitting the title, there is a clan of mask-wearing villains that indulges various bizarre qualities such as using tridents to fight or drinking human blood. To this end, a more righteous clan takes up the fight against them. Though Kwok wants to stay out of the fight, his unlikely skill at martial arts is noted by heroes and villains alike and soon he must make a choice.

Cheh and co. once again indulge the same overblown theatricality that worked so well in Five Deadly Venoms, though like that film it does get bogged down by making the plot about the mysterious true identities associated with the titular masked men. The same goes for Kwok's character, who is very similar to the one he played in Five Deadly Venoms. The strength of the plot does fluctuate wildly with the identity-based story proving alternately intriguing yet dull. Being a Venoms film, it is naturally about fights with the occasional moment of fantastic acrobatics involving wire-fu and walking on walls. The use of tridents makes for an interesting angle, especially during the finale in the villains' trap-filled lair. The same goes for the twisted nature of the villains as they drink the blood of their innocent hostages, making for a surprisingly bloody film by the Shaw Brothers' standards. Though these aspects do serve to give the film some personality, it's still more or less par for the course as far as these films go. I'm just glad that it's not overly objectionable and doesn't try to force any broad humour into the proceedings. Not a bad watch, but not exactly essential either.

I really just want you all angry and confused the whole time.
Iro's Top 100 Movies v3.0

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#683 - The Addams Family
Barry Sonnenfeld, 1991

An extremely weird and eccentric family is targeted by a con artist who plans to get her hands on their wealth by passing off her son as the family's long-lost uncle.

Until recently, I somehow managed to avoid watching either film based on 1960s sitcom The Addams Family, a collection of bizarre horror-trope individuals whose ostensible weirdness served as a comically subversive counter-point to other sitcom families of the era. As such, it proved relatively easy to update to the early-1990s, especially in the hands of cinematographer-turned-director Barry Sonnenfeld, who was previously best-known for his multiple collaborations with the Coen brothers and has since gone on to direct the Men in Black movies. The plot focuses on the family's suave patriarch Gomez (Raul Julia) as he continues his decades-long search for his long-lost brother, Fester. At the same time, the family's attorney (Dan Hedaya) ends up in trouble with a mother-and-son pair of crooks. When it turns out that the son (Christopher Lloyd) bears an uncanny resemblance to Fester, all three of them hatch a plan to have the son impersonate Fester so as to acquire the Addams family's considerable wealth and assets. To this end, there is just enough plot to justify spending about 90 minutes or so watching this kooky family go about their business.

At this point in time, there's not much that really needs to be said about The Addams Family. The premise may be built on a pretty simple joke - that this family is not only nonchalant about their outwardly nightmarish existence but also fundamentally well-rounded compared to so-called "normal" folks - but it's decent enough to buoy a simple family comedy. The cast assembles a collection of good actors to embody these outlandish actors - Julia appropriately chews all the scenery as the theatrical Gomez and (perhaps more importantly) has good chemistry with Angelica Huston as his vampire-like spouse Morticia. Consummate oddball actor Lloyd makes for an appropriately weird presence as his impostor must try to fit in with the ultimate family of misfits, while Christina Ricci and Jimmy Workman also do well as the family's homicidal children. The over-the-top nature of the film is reflected in the flamboyant score and rapid-fire camerawork that works to capture some fairly solid production design. Though The Addams Family is not without its charm, it does have a bit of trouble being consistently amusing. It gets the odd laugh here and there and the performers do good jobs, but for a film that's supposed to be fairly lightweight (when it's not laying some extremely black yet family-friendly humour, of course) it doesn't quite seem to work on that level.

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#684 - Addams Family Values
Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993

An extremely weird and eccentric family hire a nanny to take care of their children only for the nanny to secretly be a gold-digging serial killer.

I usually maintain that comedy sequels have a hard time matching up to their successful predecessors, but Addams Family Values manages that if only because I didn't think all that highly of the original. It manages to recreate everything that was good about the original without feeling like an empty retread. This can be credited to the fact that it generates a plot that is arguably better than that of the original. With Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) properly reunited with the family, he now wants to find romance. This is around the same time that the family adds a newborn baby and thus creates the need for Gomez (Raul Julia) and Morticia (Angelica Huston) to hire a nanny to watch over the extremely troublesome Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman). They do hire a pretty young woman named Debbie (Joan Cusack), who becomes the target of Fester's affections. Though Debbie goes along with Fester's awkward advances, it turns out that she has an ulterior motive; she is actually an extremely dangerous gold-digger who marries wealthy loners and murders them in ways that look like accidents, which of course leads to her targeting Fester. This also extends to her sending Wednesday and Pugsley off to summer camp so as to prevent them from interfering in her plans, which understandably proves to be hell on Earth for the Addams children.

Unusually for a comedy sequel, Addams Family Values is a very slight improvement on the original. It does fall prey to a lot of the same fundamental flaws but it compensates for them in interesting ways. The entire sub-plot involving Wednesday and Pugsley being packed off to summer camp proves a good one as they are made to deal with the extremely peppy staff and campers. There's a solid subtext to the proceedings as these same people are not only white and as conventional-looking as you can get, but they also seek to force the misfit campers (who are also of different races and/or disabled) to participate in an incredibly condescending Thanksgiving play and even punish them by forcing them to watch happy family movies. This side of the film does prove to be more interesting than the whole side with Debbie the killer nanny, whose perseverance in putting up with the family's weirdness and her attempts to murder the smitten Fester yield some okay moments but nothing great. Otherwise, it is pretty much the same as the original, which is hardly the worst thing to be but it does seem to preclude this film from being genuinely great.

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#685 - Attack the Block
Joe Cornish, 2011

The inhabitants of an inner-city London apartment building must contend with an invasion of savage alien creatures.

All things considered, Attack the Block is a pretty straightforward little B-movie. It takes place on a council estate in South London (colloquially referred to as "the Block") on the night of an alien invasion. The opening sequence sees a gang of juvenile delinquents (led by John Boyega's grim-faced hood) mug a nurse (Jodie Whittaker), only for an alien creature to crash-land nearby. Though the gang tracks it down and kills it, this only marks the beginning of the Block's problems as more and more rain down in the area and soon the furry black creatures with glowing blue teeth are all over the place. This leads to an Assault on Precinct 13 situation where the various human residents of the Block must put aside their differences and fight back against the creatures. That's about all the plot that the film needs as it blends together science-fiction, horror, and even comedy. Combined with the urban British setting, this is a mixture that invites comparisons to the genre parody of Edgar Wright, though Cornish and co. play things a bit straighter. In fairness, there's quite a bit of comedy to be wrought from the various goofy characters that populate the Block (most memorably regular Wright collaborator Nick Frost popping up in a supporting role as an affable drug dealer), especially when they react to the alien invasion in all sorts of incredulous ways. However, some might find the lead gang's inner-city mannerisms and personalities to be abrasive instead of endearing to the point that it may undercut any further attempts to develop and humanise them. Obviously, I didn't have such a problem.

The horror elements are decent enough but one does get the impression that the film isn't too focused on being scary. The creatures do present a formidable threat with their design and deployment having at least some effect when it comes to staging tense sequences (most memorably one scene where the gang attempts to create a smokescreen so as to pass by the creatures undetected). Watching the residents of the Block improvise their own solutions to the alien problem is always good as their weapons range from fireworks to petrol-filled water guns to katanas. There may be the odd plot hole in light of later developments, but it's barely noticeable and doesn't compromise the film as a whole. There's the odd spot of good subtext (such as Boyega remarking on how the creatures' invasion might just be part of a government conspiracy to kill off black youths) and extra threats such as Jumayn Hunter's short-tempered, gun-toting dealer. On a technical level, it relies on steady low-budget professionalism that doesn't draw negative attention. The score is a good one and adds some personality, whether it's Steven Price's fragments of original music or hard-hitting tracks such as KRS One's "Sound Of Da Police". The music that plays during the film's final scene still gives me chills. Attack the Block doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel but it proves an extremely solid B-movie. It may not be all that rewarding on a repeat viewing but I definitely don't feel any serious animosity towards it even when the characters threaten to become too annoying to be worth watching. Still worth a look if you're into genre fare.

#681 - Freaks
Tod Browning, 1932

Follows the lives of the people who work in a traveling circus's freak show as a vain trapeze artist tries to get her hands on a little person's inheritance.
It arguably qualifies as essential viewing, though I wouldn't exactly think of it as a horror film - it's so much more than that.

I own and love this movie nice review
Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

I agree with you about Attack The Block. It's not anything I particularly want to see again, but I wouldn't be against doing so and, taken for what it is, it does nothing wrong, so fans of B-movie genre pics should enjoy it.
5-time MoFo Award winner.

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#686 - Soldier
Paul W.S. Anderson, 1998

A man who has been bred since birth to be an unthinking super-soldier is incapacitated by a superior model and is subsequently discarded on a planet dedicated to waste disposal.

Before Paul W.S. Anderson got caught up in spawning trashy franchises that would lead to his name being mentioned in the same breath as Uwe Boll or Michael Bay, he actually did seem to have a somewhat promising (if not too ambitious) filmmaking career. His break-out film Mortal Kombat is hardly a masterpiece, but it's actually fairly fun if taken as the lightweight kung-fu fantasy that it's intended to be. Event Horizon is often considered his best film because it does create a solid blend of sci-fi and horror with its vaguely Lovecraftian tale of a haunted spaceship. At the very least, those two films had enough quality between them to make his next film seem promising. The screenplay for Soldier is by David Webb Peoples, whose credits include some of my favourite films such as Blade Runner, Unforgiven, and Twelve Monkeys. That alone proved intriguing, and also I'm pretty sure that Kurt Russell is one of those actors who I'll watch in anything. Nothing that Anderson's done since then seems to seriously interest me, but Soldier looked like it might have had some untapped X-factor beneath its seemingly unimpressive surface.

Soldier takes place several decades in the future (and possibly within the same universe as Blade Runner, if the odd throwaway reference is to be believed) and centres on the idea that the government has bred their own army of super-soldiers. The opening montage follows one of the program's soldiers from infancy through an incredibly grueling period of training where only the strong survive and eventually concludes by revealing the eponymous soldier (Russell) as a battle-hardened veteran. The plot kicks in when a smug colonel (Jason Isaacs) reveals that a new breed of super-soldier has been created that promises to surpass soldiers like Russell in terms of efficiency. When an exercise intended to demonstrate the new soldiers' power goes horribly wrong, Russell is assumed dead and is transported to a planet reserved for waste disposal. After he recovers, he soon comes into contact with a group of dispossessed colonists who have been forced to make new lives for themselves on the planet's garbage-strewn surface without any hope of rescue. Russell, who has known nothing but fighting for his entire life, naturally struggles to fit in with the peaceful community, but that's not the worst of his problems...

I can definitely see why others might be willing to give Soldier the benefit of the doubt. Russell's character seems like a well-developed one as he must come to terms with the fact that he has effectively been rendered obsolete and, once he is kicked out of the only life he's ever known, doesn't know what it means to be a human being. That same questioning of one's nature and what difference it makes is definitely at the heart of the more well-known films that Peoples scripted, and here Russell isn't given over to speaking at length about his inner demons. The conditioning leads to him going without speaking except when it is absolutely necessary, and even then he still acts like he's addressing a superior instead of an equal. It becomes a very physical performance as Russell must subtly express his existential crisis through body language instead of verbal communication, and in that regard his performance definitely works. However, there's not that much more to the film's plot than that and so the whole thing ends up being quite the chore. The first act teases out some promising action scenes but only delivers on a fairly slight fight between Russell and his aggressive opponent (Jason Scott Lee). The second act then starts to drag as he must try to fit in with the peaceful community of colonists, which should be promising but doesn't exactly expand too well on that potential. As a result, things just shuffle along towards the inevitably action-packed third act,which is handled well enough but not well enough to make the film work as a whole.

Soldier seems like a good idea in theory but less so in practice. One could easily lay a lot of the blame on Anderson and his weaknesses as a director, but one could just as easily see the script as an example of diminishing returns on the part of Peoples. Though the cast is stacked with some capable performers including Isaacs, Gary Busey, Connie Nielsen, and Sean Pertwee, they all seem to be rather wasted in a film that provides a weak examination of themes that have arguably been covered better before and since. That also serves to scupper the action side of things a bit as the film reserves the bulk of its action for its third act, so it's extremely uneven as well. It's kind of the same problem that plagued the slightly similar Universal Soldier, which didn't quite seem to be able to deliver either weighty science-fiction or bombastic action thrills. At least the van Damme film was redeemed somewhat by the most recent pair of sequels that actually built on the wasted potential of the original - Soldier, on the other hand, gets no such luck and must live and die as a film that, much like its protagonist, seems to live only for utilitarian acts of violence and little else.

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#687 - Night of the Creeps
Fred Dekker, 1986

Decades after an alien experiment crash-lands on Earth and infects a human, a pair of college students end up unleashing the infected human corpse onto their campus.

I had relatively high hopes for Night of the Creeps, another entry into the extremely nebulous '80s horror-comedy canon. After a black-and-white prologue set in the 1950s that combines urban-legend serial killers and alien meteorites, the film shifts to the modern day of 1986. From there, the film proceeds to spend its first act looking indistinguishable from your typical 1980s college comedy as it follows two unpopular geeks (who naturally fit into an awkward/cocky dynamic) as they get into the usual college-kid antics such as trying to join a fraternity or chase after girls. The cocky one (Steve Marshall) plans to set up the awkward one (Jason Lively) to score with the attractive girlfriend (Jill Whitlow), which means that they end up sneaking into a morgue/research facility because the snotty fraternity leader (Allan Kayser) dares them to steal a corpse for a prank. Of course, this leads to them discovering the decades-old corpse that was infected with an alien parasite and so begins the night of the so-called creeps. Things are also complicated by the interference of a grizzled detective (played by cult actor Tom Atkins), who has a deeper connection to the case...

Night of the Creeps certainly has the potential to be an entertaining little B-movie but it doesn't really deliver in that regard. Atkins makes for a decent enough presence as the gruff authority figure with a dark past and a sardonic approach to his job (with both colliding in one of the film's better scenes where he gives a Quint-like monologue about his connection to the creeps), though he does seem to exist mainly to compensate for the generic array of college-comedy stereotypes that pop up throughout the film. Ranging from arrogant blond alpha-males to socially awkward beta-males and the women who are caught between these two types of guy, they don't exactly have a lot in the way of personality in any case. This does make a good chunk of the film a bit hard to like as it seems like a lesser variation on the snobs-against-slobs conflict from Back to School only without any Rodney Dangerfield to lighten things up. At least things do pick up when the alien-infected zombies get loose and the variation involving heads full of infectious parasites is an interesting one. There's not really too much here to seriously distinguish the film for the better, though I will give it some credit for being mildly fun and coming up with some good scenes during its second half, especially when it comes to generating some appropriately gory practical effects (and for having a character dispatch a zombie with a lawnmower before Braindead did).Night of the Creeps is worth a look if you're into cult '80s horror with a darkly comical bent, though it's still a bit dull in parts and only has enough charm to keep it from being genuinely terrible.

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#688 - The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999

Three film students head into the woods to film a documentary about an urban legend only to disappear under mysterious circumstances, leading to their footage being found a year later.

I've noted before how there are certain films where actually sitting down and watching them ends up being a formality more than anything else. It is 2015 and I am only now watching The Blair Witch Project for the first time, which means that I'm doing so after its surprisingly profitable tale of shoestring-budget horror managed to popularise an entire brand of "found-footage" horror film for better or worse. I am also approaching it after hearing a sizable amount of detractors decry it because it's apparently not scary, that it just amounts to about eighty minutes of watching three foolish youths get lost in the woods and yell at each other and thus becomes a tedious excuse for a supposedly scary film. While those complaints are fairly valid ones, I was prepared not to let that (or knowledge of the film's ending) put me off actually going through with watching the film. The plot, such as it is, involves three film students teaming up to make a documentary about the "Blair Witch" who supposedly haunts the woods near a small Maryland township. After introducing themselves and filming some interviews with the local townsfolk, the trio proceed to head into the woods for a trip that's only supposed to take a weekend. Of course, things predictably go wrong (between the film's rep and the opening disclaimer, it's pretty obvious that they're not going to succeed at making their film) and soon enough the trio find their seemingly simple journey into the woods complicated not just by their inexperience and interpersonal frictions but also the fact that there might just a Blair Witch after all...

I won't deny that the detractors are actually right about how a good chunk of The Blair Witch Project is dedicating to showcasing these three distinctly opposed personalities clash with one another for reasons that are admittedly ridiculous even when factoring in the fact that they are steadily going insane due to their horrible situation. The prime example would be the whole sub-plot regarding the map and whether or not it's actually worth following. There's also the fact that, with the exception of the odd scene here and there, most of the film seems decidedly unconcerned about any actual supernatural threat from the Blair Witch and instead is more concerned with showing the group losing their minds. However, I don't necessarily see this as a major set-back so much as an understandable choice given the production's limitations. Other horror films have managed to make the strain on the individual players and their increasingly tense interactions with one another as much a part of the dread as the film's actual horrifying threat, and Blair Witch is no different in that regard. The promise of getting lost in the woods is bad enough, but realising that you can't even depend on your companions to keep it together and not screw things up for both you and them for literally no good reason...that's genuinely unnerving. It's potent enough to at least off-set your built-in need to observe these characters and throw your hands up in disbelief at how ridiculous their choices end up being. Being scared of what's happening on-screen is one thing, being skeptical because of it is another thing, but to be both at that is interesting.

Even in a film as brief as The Blair Witch Project, it's still careful to pace out any actual interference by its monster. Even then, any such acts of interference end up being pretty small, with examples including carefully arranged piles of stones or a collection of simple wooden effigies scattered around the woods. If anything, that only makes them creepier, especially when you have no idea what they mean. The instances where the cameras are trained on complete darkness may be a little off-putting for reasons that have nothing to do with horror, but they do sell the amateur nature of things. Even knowing how fake it is does nothing to stop me buying into the distress that the lead trio feel in a way that the various technical shortcomings don't manage to wholly destroy. Switching between the colour video camera and the black-and-white film camera makes for an admittedly interesting cinematic decision that does not feel especially distracting. I also appreciate the fact that the film not only lacks music but also emphasises the sound work as a major part of what makes the Blair Witch scary, with the characters having to listen to all sorts of unsettling noises while inside the relative safety of their tent.

I'm still inclined to think of [REC] as the closest thing I have to a "favourite" found-footage horror film, but it at least has the advantage of featuring a more immediate threat in the form of zombies (and even that wasn't enough to salvage Diary of the Dead). The Blair Witch Project has the added challenge of trying to build up its mysterious monster through off-screen actions such as building stick-figures or making weird noises in the middle of the night, but it does work. Even when the lead trio may stumble a bit in regards to some foolish plot developments (that whole map situation, I mean, damn) and their understandably amateurish acting, they are able to provide decent enough reactions to their genuinely bothersome crisis. Though you can pick apart the foolishness on the part of the main characters, it never quite comes across as enough to bring the film grinding to a halt. It's arguably been surpassed by other films of its ilk and the cracks do show quite easily, but that's not enough to make me dislike it or even think of it as mediocre. Of course, that's also not enough to make me think of it as great either.

Great review of Blair Witch, Iro . I wasn't old enough (i'd have been 5 or 6 at the time) to notice the marketing or reaction to this when it was released, i didn't end up seeing it til years later when i ended up with a DVD of it when i was around 14. All i'll say is that i think it is fine, if i was at the right age and had seen it at the cinema, i think it could have been a favourite Horror.

Poltergeist 2 > Blair Witch though

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#689 - Evil Dead
Fede Alvarez, 2013

Five friends head to a cabin in the woods in order to help out one of their number, but things are complicated by the presence of an evil book.

Based off the averages, I'd say that the original Evil Dead trilogy might just be my favourite film series (sorry, Indy). Despite that, I did put off watching the inevitable Evil Dead remake for about two years following its release. While horror remakes are nothing new, it seemed like Evil Dead would be extremely difficult to touch purely because what made it a classic was less about seeing a single murderous villain pick off interchangeable victims so much as seeing iconic protagonist Ashley J. Williams do battle with the forces of evil. Though The Evil Dead was intended to be a fairly straightforward mix of a haunted-house movie and a demonic-possession movie, its two sequels definitely played up the frantic vibe for comedic effect as it saw Ash go through all sorts of slapstick-like torture and eventually get thrown back in time to fight an army of the undead in medieval England. 2013's Evil Dead abandons Ash by necessity (because really, who else could play him but the one and only Bruce Campbell?) and instead decided to work off the bare-bones plot about five youths, a cabin in the woods, and the book of the dead.

Now, I know it's in vogue for horror movies to start off with a prologue that sees a random victim fall prey to the movie's monster of choice, but I'd say that this example feels extremely unnecessary because it really does undercut the later surprise of seeing the Deadites appear (even if the whole sequence is supposed to feed directly into the main plot as the main characters later discover the aftermath). Even knowing how the film's first act takes a while to get to the monsters anyway isn't enough of an excuse for such a lazy prologue that is initially more likely to make me think I've started watching some killer-hillbilly movie instead of an Evil Dead movie. Anyway, the film sets up the familiar premise of five college-aged people all heading to a remote cabin. I do give it credit for coming up with a more interesting reason than their simply going on holiday - they are there to see one of their number (Jane Levy) kick her incredibly self-destructive drug habit by any means necessary. Of course, they not only discover evidence of witchcraft in the basement but they discover an eldritch tome bound in human skin and inked in blood, which of course leads the group's token egghead (Lou Taylor Pucci) to obliviously translate enough of it to let loose a demonic prophecy.

Given how much of The Evil Dead's charm comes from how it played up the more absurd aspects of its supernatural threat without sacrificing its scariness in the process, it's at once understandable and disappointing that Alvarez's remake tries to play things a little straighter. I appreciate that the drug-addiction angle at least provides a good reason why the characters don't turn tail at the first sign of trouble and adds some interesting subtext to the film's external conflict regarding demonic possession. The film does indulge some of its source's less agreeable qualities such as a reiteration on the original's notorious "tree-rape" scene, though this is an example of how playing things straight works just a little better with the scene being unquestionably disturbing instead of having the "is this supposed to be funny" quality of the original version. The foul-mouthed demons that start possessing the various characters one by one are also sure to get into all sorts of disturbing shenanigans, especially when one Deadite gets a little too stabby with a syringe. The tone is solid enough that it more than compensates for when the remake goes a little off the rails and adds its own little tweaks to the plot, which do admittedly remind me of a certain semi-respectable vampire movie from the 1980s. It may not provide as much in the way of frightening jump-scares as its source film did, but there is a certain degree of inventiveness to its gorier aspects that makes the film unsettling enough to get by.

Of course, there are plenty of moments that exist to pay homage to the original trilogy, whether through snippets of dialogue or visual cues. These do come across as sincere instead of patronising more often than not, which is definitely a point in Evil Dead's favour. That sincerity is reflected in the film's reliance on practical effects more so than CGI, which definitely makes things feel appropriately visceral (especially the climax that seems to surpass even Braindead in terms of sheer bloodiness). It was able to keep me in sufficient suspense until the end even as it threatened to drag just a little at points. I can't really fault the people involved for wanting to do something different, especially when there was already next-to-no chance of this film matching up to its source, let alone surpassing it. As such, it proves a surprisingly serviceable example of a modern horror remake that does not feel great but at least does not feel like a puerile affront either. While the changes may alternate between acceptable and inadvisable, there's nothing here that manages to either elevate or undercut the film to a significant degree. Under the circumstances, I would be justified in saying that I hated the film, but in all honesty I really didn't. Obviously, it's not a patch on the original but it's not so much good as good enough. If you do watch this, be sure to stick around after the credits.

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#690 - Death Proof
Quentin Tarantino, 2007

A murderous stuntman who owns a "death-proof" car targets various groups of young women for his own nefarious purposes.

There's an old review on this website where I gave the complete version of Grindhouse five popcorn boxes out of five for being such an enjoyable cinematic experience (and this was after having watched Planet Terror and Death Proof on DVD anyway). As time wore on, I was naturally inclined to agree with the prevailing consensus that, yes, Death Proof was probably Tarantino's all-around weakest film. Me being the magnanimous soul that I am, I opted to re-watch it recently to see if the passage of time had done anything to mellow my feelings about it. Given how Grindhouse was supposed to be a homage to the low-grade exploitation films that Tarantino and fellow cult filmmaker Robert Rodriguez had grown up admiring, it makes sense how the plot of Death Proof is supposed to reflect the visceral simplicity of your typical exploitation film. The main character is arguably the scarred yet affable "Stuntman Mike" (Kurt Russell), who is first seen hanging around a bar where a handful of attractive young women (Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, and Jordan Ladd) just happen to be congregating. Though he does come across as a fairly harmless yet charming older man coasting on the glories of his show-business career (well, he is played by Kurt Russell after all), Stuntman Mike soon unveils a darker side as he demonstrates that his "death-proof" muscle-car is capable of protecting him through any car crash - especially those that he causes himself against unsuspecting victims.

Death Proof definitely proves to be a film of two halves as it tracks Stuntman Mike targeting two very different groups of women. The first half plays up his off-kilter charm even before he reveals his true motivations, while the second half treats him as a barely-glimpsed villain who exists only to terrorise. Both halves prove fairly agreeable in their own way, though not without their faults. Much of Death Proof's first half feels way too much like a prelude as it sets up an admittedly uninteresting interpersonal conflict between its heroines over the fact that Poitier's radio DJ has set up Ferlito as a potential romantic target for male listeners before Russell even shows up. While Russell definitely commands the screen whenever he's in a scene, a lot of the time he isn't and so we're given over to the underwhelming conflicts that these ladies get into, whether it's being approached by annoying guys or being stood up by the guys they do like. The second half promises to be a bit more interesting as it focuses on a more capable group of women, though their conversation proves to be even more underwhelming even before it turns to more plot-relevant details such as Zoe Bell (playing herself) wishing to get her hands on the white Dodge Challenger from cult road movie Vanishing Point.

The problem with films like Death Proof is that their dedication to replicating the same cheap thrills provided by exploitation films of a generation past often leaves them prone to the same flaws that could also prevent them being enjoyable even on their own terms. The alternative is to gamble on whether or not an attempt at parody will be understood and appreciated by your audience. In any case, if Tarantino has succeeded at replicating grindhouse cinema then he's definitely replicated the same kind of flaws that make them difficult to sincerely appreciate. This extends to the fact that the second group of women effectively sell out one of their number (in this case Mary Elizabeth Winstead's wholesome cheerleader-looking character) to a creepy hillbilly under incredibly false pretences just so that they have the chance to drive the coveted Dodge Challenger. As a result, it makes it very hard to sympathise with them when they are inevitably attacked by Stuntman Mike. Such flaws only become exacerbated when Tarantino becomes less interested in directly imitating grindhouse films and lets his own narrative idiosyncrasies bleed through, most notably by having many dialogue-heavy scenes - the biggest example becomes an interminable sequence where the latest quartet of future victims has a casual conversation around a café table. The fact that it's done in a single revolving take not only fails to liven things up but it shatters any sense of a grindhouse atmosphere (as does the eventual phasing out of simulated film flaws like damaged prints and missing reels).

It's a shame, then, because there are quite a few elements to Death Proof that promise a genuinely fun experience even on repeated viewings. The instant-replay nature of the film's first big crash, which takes the time to focus on every single death in detail, is an impressive scene on a visual level. The same quality extends to the film's climatic chase sequence, which boasts some solid stunt-work on Bell's part as she is effectively trapped on the bonnet of a speeding car for several minutes of screen-time. Also, there's the quality of Russell's own performance as he covers a variety of modes from craggy charmer to affable villain to miserable punching-bag. Unfortunately, there's too much going against Death Proof for it to be a genuinely enjoyable film. Even in its truncated Grindhouse form (which I'm reviewing instead of the full-length DVD version that adds in the supposed "reel missing" scene - long story short, this was what got aired on TV by itself) it's still something of a chore whenever it opts to spend time on its ostensible victims. There's enough right with it to stop it being genuinely terrible, but there's sadly more than enough wrong with it to stop it being genuinely great.

Welcome to the human race...
#691 - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Tobe Hooper, 1974

A group of friends travel to an old house in Texas only to be terrorised by the cannibalistic neighbours.

Comedy and horror are the two genres that are most deliberately designed in order to provoke spontaneous emotional reactions in their audiences, with the former aiming for laughter while the latter aims to induce what could broadly be described as fear. While the best comedies still manage to prove amusing time after time, one wonders how many of the best horrors stay just as scary as they were the first time around. As such, I find that the horror movies I like the most tend to offer something more than just straightforward terror in the form of jump scares or graphic violence. This definitely applies to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which compensates for its incredibly basic narrative in all sorts of manners. It's rightfully considered one of the prototypical "slasher" films thanks to its plot about a handful of young people gradually getting picked off one by one by a homicidal maniac, but there's a roughness to the plotting that would get refined a bit more with later films like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. There's no gimmick or clever twist or anything like that - it's incredibly straightforward in the way that things play out. Of course, the real reason that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still works is because of, well, everything else.

Though not actually rooted in fact (apart from being loosely inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein - much like slasher-movie grandaddy Psycho), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre overcomes its narrative shortcomings by playing out much like a true-crime dramatisation. Starting with the sombre opening narration before opening with a shot of a desecrated corpse and tombstone standing tall against the morning light, things only become more grounded in hyper-reality as the film progresses. The amateur camerawork and editing don't draw attention to themselves in a negative manner but only serve to complement the film's grimy aesthetic, especially when the film veers away from looking like a home movie and starts ratcheting up the horror. Though "Leatherface" (Gunnar Hansen) is naturally the film's most well-known villain due to his human-skin mask and wielding of the eponymous power tool, things get truly weird when the handful of van-driving youths pick up a manic hitch-hiker (Edwin Neal), whose increasingly weird behaviour while inside the group's van is soundtracked by chintzy country-and-western radio and really makes you feel what it's like to be crammed into a van with an obviously deranged person. Other details such as the interior of the cannibal family's house (complete with furniture made of bones and a slaughterhouse instead of a kitchen) get appropriate focus as they become as much a part of the film's atmosphere as the roar of a chainsaw or the simple yet foreboding background music. Atmosphere is a major contribution to how rewatchable (and arguably how good) a film can be because you need something to bring you back once you're familiar enough with the plot.

Horror movie casts have long since become notorious for assembling a number of one-dimensional stereotypes and having the bulk of them be killed arbitrarily (save for the infamous "final girl", of course); while the latter stereotype does show up here, a lot of the tropes are at this point still in the process of forming. The characters are flat, sure, yet they don't exactly fit any of the established stereotypes, if only because they barely get any development whatsoever. The amateur acting can also be a sticking point, especially when it comes to seeing the group's disabled member (Paul A. Partain) make all manner of annoying noises ranging from resentful whining to frightened screaming, to say nothing of the group's inevitable final girl (Marilyn Burns) doing little more than scream her head off for half the movie. Fortunately, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proves enough of an experience to compensate for any shortcomings in terms of production value or writing. It may lack polish or nuance but that's only because, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't need them. It's obviously not a pleasant or agreeable film, but it manages to convey a certain mood that none of its peers (let alone its imitators) can manage to match.

Well-written reviews of Blair Witch and Evil Dead and you explain yourself just fine, but I really didn't like them myself. I guess it's a lot about being captured by the style and atmosphere, because I agree with many of your positives yet the overall experience falls flat for me - in both cases.

Thankfully you finish off rightfully praising a classic like Texas Chainsaw Massacre! I can only agree about that one. The documentary low-budget feel is key and works surprisingly well with this one and the set designs are awesome.

Edit: I've been following the Review section intensely lately, but still missed your taking of the #1 spot. Dammit... Thanks for reminding me, Yoda!

And HUGE congratz on achieving first place, Iro!

Wow, congratulations on becoming the most prolific reviewer on the site! I didn't think anyone would catch TUS (who is crazy impressive in his own right):