Saturday, May 12, 2012

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981)

Well, everybody has to start somewhere and James Cameron started with a film about flying piranhas, which when you think about it is actually a lot cooler than the one about blue, alien cat-hippies. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a bit to be desired and it's not really clear how much of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning Cameron actually shot. But, it's nice to see that our most pretentious living filmmaker started with crap about flying piranha fish.

The original Piranha was a Roger Corman produced Jaws rip-off that was helped along quite a bit by being directed by Corman protege Joe Dante, a director with a real flair for the campy, cartoony, and comedic. Dante injected a weird, anarchic sense of humor to what could have been just another Jaws clone (one of many for Corman) and created a cult classic. He established the sense of humor that has carried over to the Piranha remakes, although with less of a focus on T&A as the new films.
A piranha fish with wings

The sequel was directed by James Cameron, another Corman protege, and retains some of the sense of humor of the first film, while not being particularly funny. There are some goofy characters at the beachfront resort setting of the film, such as a Jewess who falls for a nebbishy dentist, an older woman who wants to screw younger men, and a dork who gets cockteased by some cunty women, but as you can tell from these descriptions, most of the comedy is pretty lame and unfunny. The producers supposedly shoehorned this stuff into the film against Cameron's wishes, although the movie needs comedy, which isn't exactly his strong suit anyway if you remember the lame, unfunny shtick with Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2. He's no Woody Allen. Luckily, piranha that can fly don't really need a punchline.

"I can fly! I can fly! It's off to Neverland!"
Anyway, it's a beachfront resort and people start getting killed by piranha fish that fly out of the water and bite their necks. The piranha with wings were created, naturally, by the military as "the ultimate weapon." In every movie in which the military tries to design the ultimate weapon, it always goes wrong, which is supposed to warn us of the dangers of aiming too high in designing weapons. Why not go for making the most mediocre weapon you can? They're less likely to go awry. Also, at what point in the military LSD research was someone in Army intelligence high enough to suggest that sticking wings on piranha would make the ultimate weapon, or was the brass high enough to agree to that? Finally, would someone please make the war movie in which the terrorists in Iraq are defeated with flying, carnivorous fish? Wouldn't that have made The Hurt Locker a much better movie?

Anyway, the military boat full of flying piranha went down off the coast, but the military doesn't seem too concerned with getting it back. Meanwhile, at the unfunny shtick resort, there are a few serious characters, namely  Anne (Tricia O'Neil), the scuba diving instructor, and her son Chris (Ricky Goldin), who are living there following her separation from police chief husband Steve, played by Lance Henriksen in the Roy Scheider role. This is an early appearance for  Henriksen, grizzled actor extraordinaire, if not America's leading bard of grizledry, and he does a decent job. He's clearly still in love with his wife who is shtupping a young biochemist who knows what's really going on here. Meanwhile, their son goes out with a hot chick in a boat and has to be saved from the rampaging piranha. Oy!

"Excuse me, you're holding up the line!"
Trouble is the fish don't really rampage all that much. Cameron apparently started as a special effects director on the film and there are some pretty neat scenes of schools of piranha attacking underwater, random people getting bitten on the neck by the fish, and one pretty great "spawning" scene of the tourists being assaulted by flying piranha on the beach, but otherwise it's not exactly thrilling and the direction is so inept that there's never any sense of danger. It's also frequently dumb- in one ridiculous scene Henriksen  can't figure out how to pick up his kid with the helicopter he's flying and decides to use a nearby boat instead, which means one thing- jumping out of the chopper and letting it crash into the ocean nearby, killing the kid instantly. He couldn't just use the skids to pick them up like in every other movie?

Cameron has said the producer, Ovido Assontis, was constantly hovering over him, questioning his every decision, and that he eventually had to break into the editing room to cut his own version of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, which is also floating around, so to speak. Supposedly, the main bone of contention was the comedic scenes, because clearly a flying piranha movie should be played very seriously. Also, they fought over the color of the scenes shot from the piranha point-of-view- Assontis wanted the silly hot pink in the film, while Cameron wanted red- clearly an important plot point. Luckily for us all, Cameron would eventually make a few good movies, earning him the chance to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his dream of dopey CGI cartoons about blue, hippie cat-aliens.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

I guess I'm the dissenting view here.

Fangoria's review of The Cabin in the Woods ends by telling us that horror fans will absolutely love the film, something I've found to be true with my horror fan friends. Certainly, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and will likely pick up the DVD. The review also tells us that some reviewers will mistakenly call it a "horror spoof," when it's really not. Let's be honest, it is pretty funny though with plenty of extended comedy bits. I agree that it's not spoofing or making fun of the genre. But, let's also be honest about this: it's really not a horror movie. It's more like a sporadically frightening comedic fantasy. It's definitely very clever and well worth seeing, but let's not get carried away with comparing it to the great horror films because, while it's pretty great, it's still not a horror film. Or, at least, it's not horrific.

Most of the reviews I've seen thus far have gone out of their way to avoid discussing the main "secret" of the movie. The problem is that's also the whole premise of the film, so it's hard to discuss The Cabin in the Woods at all in any serious way without disclosing its secret. Here's what I'm going to do: I will openly discuss the whole movie, including secrets, after the following picture. If you do not want the "secret" given away, stop reading at this point
Sexy girl about to make out with a stuffed wolf's head.
Okay, Cabin in the Woods is about four college friends who go to a creepy, old cabin in the woods for vacation. They consist of the brainy, virginal Dana (Kristen Connolly), the alpha male athlete Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his slutty girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), the brainy love interest Holden (Jesse Williams), and the stoner comedic relief Marty (Fran Kranz, who steals the film). If this setup sounds totally familiar, it should. The movie is more more self-aware and arch than it lets on at first. Unfortunately, once it informs the audience that the filmmakers know just how cliche all of this is, it doesn't stop letting us know for about an hour. It's more annoying than Scream in that way.

See, (and this is where you should not be reading if you haven't seen the movie), a shady, high-tech, governmental organization is manipulating everything that is happening inside the cabin from a bunker below, which includes using hormones and other drugs to manipulate the kids into being more virginal, slutty, brainy, alpha male, or foolish. Why? Well, okay, I won't give that away, although it's worth noting that everything does make sense in the end in a way that's pretty satisfying and more than a bit Lovecraftian. The point is, while we're watching the kids go through standard horror movie plot mechanics, the underground bunker is also watching them and commenting upon those plot twists. In other words, it's really fucking meta.

A bit too meta. I spent the first hour of the film really wishing I could be engaged by the storyline, but unable to do so because of all the cutaways to the N.A.S.A. types in the bunker. Most of their scenes were pretty funny- there's a great bit in which they're all betting on what monster will attack and kill the kids- but it's hard to be scared when the movie keeps pulling you out of its main storyline to remind you how cliche that storyline is, and to subtly mock the idea of being scared by this sort of thing. I mean, we all know that certain horror movies can be totally idiotic in their plot points- why don't the kids ever listen to the creepy old local who warns them not to go into the woods? Why do they always split up and make it easier for them to be picked off one-by-one? But, you know, one way to address the problem of cliches is to use them and comment on them frequently, while another would be just not to use them at all. 

Now, okay, to be fair, this movie is really not as annoying as Scream for one good reason- the commentary on the cliches, in this case, comes wrapped up in a serious storyline that the movie commits to wholeheartedly. As the Zed Word review puts it: "the meta-story is not delivered with that dull post-modern sense of ironic detachment. The Cabin in the Woods commits to its world and its story. It has heart (and plenty of guts to go along with it)." Okay, fair enough, and totally accurate. If you're familiar with the work of Joss Whedon, who wrote an produced, this isn't a surprise- Buffy the Vampire Slayer was also a commentary on horror conventions, but a totally serious work of storytelling in itself. Whedon commits to his imaginative worlds and the dude really is a cut above the average fanboy.

The problem is that he's a really funny guy too. The main storyline, in which zombies of dead frontier fundamentalists stalk and kill the kids gets scary at times, and we understand that they're always in genuine peril, but it's still a little bit too funny. Then, in the third act (and, oh god yes, does this film have three very clear-cut acts), the shit really hits the fan in a series of scenes that will have horror fanz jizzing (or jilling) in their pants. It is very clear that these guys are serious fans of the genre themselves as there are plenty of inside baseball references. But it's also a hell of a ride. For me, the third act payoff made the movie, while the first two acts verged on killing it.

No surprise that the slut was my favorite character.
My advice would be this: the first and second acts should have been compressed into one act, while the third should have been a full hour of the movie. That would have been mindblowing. Also, while I'm okay with horror movies made by horror fans, the market is totally saturated with them in the post-Tarantino years. I often wonder why so many horror movie reviews laud this fact: "Don't worry- this one was made by real horror fans!" Um, great, but The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were made by filmmakers with a more developed and well-rounded sense of art, life, and the world than just being really up on the genre- I'd choose them over Hatchet in a second. Furthermore, I sometimes like horror that's a bit clueless about anything but scaring us. Fear is best when it's primal and subconscious and, to get to that place, you have to turn off the self-awareness. Horror filmmakers need to stop thinking of horror films as being movies first and foremost and start drawing from the horrifying world outside of movies. That way they can get back to scaring the living shit out of us.

Don't get me wrong- this is one of the smartest and funniest movies I've seen in some time. And genre fans will love it. But, I feel like people going to see horror movies do want to be scared, and so that's the main question. No, it's not scary for the most part. Funny and thought-provoking, but not scary.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Exposed (1971)

In the supplementary material on the DVD, director Gustav Wiklund makes no bones about his movie Exposed (Exponerad, also known in the US as "The Depraved" and the charming "Diary of a Rape") being "garbage," and that's pretty much right, but it achieves a certain haunting quality, probably in spite of itself, due to the lead performances and some of the weird turns of the plot. In general, I find many Swedish movies have this quality, and I can't tell if its due to the influence of Ingmar Bergman or the bleak weather.

I first heard of this film via its unbelievably sleazy trailer, which was included on one of Rick Sullivan's Gore Gazette trailer compilations. "In The Depraved, you'll see scenes that were never before put on film... The Depraved is banned in 23 countries because of its nudity and sexual activity... If you are shocked or embarrassed by total nudity and sexual activity you are urged not to attend. The Depraved is a film that had to wait for the permissive 1970s before it could be produced." Yowza! Did we mention nudity? Also, do you think anyone saw that trailer and took seriously the urging not to attend? You'll notice that the trailer makes the film look like the most... well, depraved movie ever made.

Is it? Nope, but it is plenty sleazy. The film tells the story of Lena (played by Christina Lindberg), a young girl who believes she has been blackmailed and forced into sex with strangers by an older man, Helge (), who she let take some nude pictures of her. The thought of what could happen to her if her parents or teachers saw those pictures is tormenting her and she seems to be severely cracking up. This is where Christina Lindberg's performance is pretty good. Some claim that Lindberg's popularity endures due to her large breasts and cute face. Having a deeper insight into Lindberg, I'd note that her ass is also beautiful, if only to elevate the discourse. Seriously though, she's got this disconnected and disturbed quality to her that works well in movies like They Call her One-Eye and Exposed- she looks like she's being victimized even when she's not. Of course, in most of her films, she is being victimized.

Here, Wiklund does something subversive with the narrative because it's never clear that Lena is being victimized. We see her in the beginning meeting up in a field with her boring boyfriend Jan who smacks her for her relationship with Helge, but are not clear about that relationship. Then she gets picked up by a nice and hilariously optimistic couple while their car radio announces her abduction and soon she hallucinates her rape at their hands. In fact, she's a bit like a perverse Walter Mitty because she's frequently imagining being raped or killed in various ways. The couple apparently just wants to hang out at her family cottage, run around naked, and fuck- my kind of people- but they also apparently have nothing to do with the story.

What's sort of interesting about the movie is that we're never clear about what the story is- is Helge a brutal pervert who's blackmailing and stalking Lena, as she seems to think, or is it that she was sexually curious, attended one of his orgies, let him take pictures, and now can't handle that he's in love with her and that she's clearly kinkier than she wants Jan to know? If you watch the movie with both options in mind, it's sort of an interesting take on a young woman's sexual psychology, wrestling with kinky urges in a placid society.

Or, it's just a badly-made movie whose narrative is confused. I do think we're supposed to be a bit mixed up about the plot because of all the hallucinations before we know what the plot is supposed to be, but you can never tell with these sorts of movies how much was planned and how much was created in the editing. Certainly, the pace of the film is weird anyway- after all, the first third of the movie is the subplot with the happy naked couple who then disappear and have no bearing whatsoever on the story! As you might guess here, the movie doesn't exactly hurry up and get to the point and it's not nearly as interesting as the trailer. But, again, there's some good psychological weirdness going on there and Lindberg is as lovely and naked as ever.