Category Archives: 2000s

Taken (2008)

*. This one was a real head-scratcher. It was a huge box office success, turning a $22 million budget into over $220 million while making an action hero out of Liam Neeson overnight. Neeson thought it was going to be a direct-to-video release. Instead it turned into a franchise.
*. But why? It’s not very good. I mean, it’s really, really not very good.
*. The story is, if not as old as the hills, at least as old as Commando. You took my little girl. Now I’m going to hunt you down and kill you. Game on.
*. In addition to being old, it’s also very stupid. I get that Bryan is short on time, but why not just follow Peter around instead of jumping him in broad daylight and trying to beat the shit out of him in the back of a cab? Then chase him to his death? What use was that?
*. The script is pretty much worthless. The bad guys remain almost totally anonymous, and have to be introduced serially because none of them are very interesting. And the dialogue even includes lines like “it was all business, nothing personal.” Come on. In 2008?
*. So it’s just a brainless action flick. But the action isn’t any good either. All of the stunts and fight choreography are done in the editing room. Because if your longest shot is only lasting a couple of seconds, you don’t really have to do much in the way of stunts do you? There’s nothing inherently wrong about this — action films have been doing it for a while now — but at the same time, it’s not that impressive either.
*. Some people were offended by it, finding it racist. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but Bryan does seem a little disinterested in the plight of the other kidnapped girls. Hey, he’s just here for his daughter.
*. There is a larger point, however, that I think is lying behind these critiques. Bryan’s daughter, Kim, is presented in a totally unsympathetic way. In brief, she’s a shallow, spoiled, manipulative brat. I mean, the movie really doesn’t give us any reason at all to like her. She even turns on her bff Amanda when she finds out Amanda has lied to her about there being other people staying in the Paris apartment. As if that even comes close to the whoppers Kim has told to get her dad to sign off on the trip!
*. So why present Kim to us in this way? Why not just make her a normal kid instead of such a trophy daughter whose mother thinks she’s going to see the world as it really is by jetting around Europe staying in “the best hotels” and trying to be a U2 groupie?
*. Because she’s not really a person, she’s an asset. What she represents is capital, which is also the point of her virginity being auctioned off at the end. What Bryan is defending is not honour or humanity (qualities shared by the other poor girls he finds), but something that’s worth even more. Kim is a high-value property, they aren’t. So Bryan isn’t defending America’s outraged innocence, but the status of the American dollar as the world’s default currency. Intact, Kim remains undepreciated (not a typo for underappreciated).
*. So what in all of this made it such a hit?
*. Well, in the first place Neeson really worked. He wasn’t the first choice for the part, but the producers just got lucky. The most particular of his set of skills is maintaining such a disciplined front. I guess the first lesson in action-film school is how to project cool. No problems on that front here. Billy’s going to kick ass without breaking a smile or a sweat, or even cracking a wry one-liner.
*. Second, it was an action film that had an extra little bit of nasty. It’s our hero this time out who is doing the torturing, not the poor guy strapped to the chair. And when he zaps the information he needs out of him, he just leaves him to fry. Nasty. Also nasty is shooting his (former) friend’s innocent wife in the arm. I didn’t see that coming, and it woke me up for a second.
*. And . . . I guess that was enough. All around, this was a totally uninteresting little action flick that just merrily punches all the buttons (or pulls all the triggers) it can. So Bryan’s wife left him to marry a billionaire did she? Well, just look at how the bitch comes crawling back to him in tears when she needs a real man to do the dirty work of getting their daughter back! How crude can you get?
*. Crude, but I guess for a lot of people it was effective. They were ready to be taken, and would be again.

House of Wax (2005)

*. There was a fairly common and consistent critical response to this movie when it came out. In a nutshell: it wasn’t as bad as most people thought it would be. That was not to be mistaken as saying it was good, but rather as relief on the part of most reviewers that it at least wasn’t total garbage.
*. I felt the same way. My initial response was that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. But then, it is a dead-teenager movie. So the bar to be cleared is lying on the ground somewhere.
*. The title might have you thinking of 1953’s House of Wax starring Vincent Price, itself a remake of a 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. But it has little to do with those movies aside from the killer’s nasty method of preserving his victims.
*. Instead, we are back on the most familiar ground in all of American horror: the car full of young people who find themselves in danger when they drift off the highway into redneck territory. Before you can say “Not another Texas Chain Saw Massacre clone” you are, indeed, watching another Texas Chain Saw Massacre clone.
*. The set-up is a cliché, and the clichés stick to the rest of the film like burrs. Elisha Cuthbert is a capable actress, but she’s just the twenty-first century version of the last girl here. Which is to say she’s tits in a tank top. The other characters include the boyfriend, the sexy girl (Hilton, who gets to run around in her underwear), the jock, the bad boy, and the superfluous comic dude who holds the camera (literally). They all behave very, very stupidly. Meanwhile, the villains are a degenerate family who preserve their mama’s corpse in a perpetual shrine. They like heavy metal music and indulge in gratuitous sadistic cruelty. One of them wears a mask. They have superhuman strength and are very hard to kill. You know the drill. Rob Zombie keeps making this movie, and it’s almost a surprise not to see his name in the credits here.
*. One of the guys is killed after having his Achilles tendon severed with a scalpel, and later the same trick is done to Hilton. That’s become another cliché. Who did this first? It gets done in Hostel, which came out the same year, and I’m sure I’ve seen it in several other films as well. Pet Sematary (1985) was earlier (the scene when Gage kills Jud) but I don’t know if they can lay claim to being the first. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I’m always curious about these things.
*. Most of it sticks to the usual script. A. O. Scott thought “the victims don’t die in precisely the order you might expect, but everything else goes pretty much according to formula.” This is, again, setting the bar pretty low. It’s set up clearly at the beginning that Carly and Nick are the good twins who are meant to mirror the evil twins who run the wax town. So we can be sure we’re going to be left with the two of them at the end. As for the precise order of the other deaths . . . who cares?
*. And yet despite all this I still thought House of Wax above average, at least for this genre. There are two reasons for this.
*. The first is Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction, which isn’t what I would call inspired but at least handles all the basics well. He understands suspense and how to squeeze an audience’s discomfort level into the red.
*. More than that however, what I really like about House of Wax is its design and look.
*. In the first place, the effigies are great, meaning they look like people who have been coated in wax. In many cases this is because that’s what they actually were. But what’s even more impressive, and delightful in a gruesome way, is how they extend the wax museum conceit to the point where the killers have created an entire Art Deco museum made of wax, and even a wax town: a multimedia necropolis of off-road performance art complete with mechanized dummies, music and even film. Put to one side any questioning of just how probable or possible such a thing would be and enjoy it.

*. Its surreal otherworldliness makes Ambrose feel a bit like the town in Two Thousand Maniacs!, which would in turn have made a better movie to show at the local picture palace than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (misspelled on the marquee as “Whatever Happened . . .“). The two movies even came out within a couple of years of each other — which, by the way, was well before the brothers’ memory, so I’m not sure what was going on there.
*. More realistic effects don’t always make a horror film scarier, but the potential behind the sinister art of the mad wax artist and just what he does to the bodies he uses as models had been skipped over in earlier films. Here it is dwelt on, showing us living bodies sprayed in wax and turned into exhibits. We might think of the low-budget flick Nightmare in Wax, but House of Wax adds a level of morbidity, especially when we see what’s happened to Wade.
*. Too often these movies end in a disappointing and predictable manner, but the climax here is the best part. The melting house is a nightmare all its own, and looks terrific. It’s a good example of what can be done by taking today’s effects and using them to expand on traditional concepts in ambitious and original ways. I even love the way the streets of the town the morning after are still deep in congealed wax that the emergency vehicles have to churn through like mud.
*. It’s a shame really that this movie is remembered today mainly for being the one with Paris Hilton in it. It’s a lot better than that. The early twenty-first century saw a whole lot of remakes and resets of slasher franchises, and though House of Wax doesn’t really belong among them (it had no late-’70s-early-’80s predecessor), it has a lot of the same characteristics while doing a better job. It’s certainly a movie I’d rate much higher than the remakes of Friday the 13th, Halloween, Last House on the Left, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre. None of those movies are worth seeing again, even if you’re a fan of such fare. This one, however, is a roadside attraction that’s worth another visit.

The Village (2004)

*. I wonder how much M. Night Shyamalan’s trademark — the twist ending — has damaged his career. It obviously didn’t hurt him with The Sixth Sense, since it wasn’t a trademark yet and that movie basically launched his career. But ever since . . .
*. I don’t think it helps him at all here. This is for two reasons. As with all his movies, since you know the twist is coming you spend all your time thinking about it, and when it comes it’s inevitably a disappointment after so much build up.
*. In the second place, the ending distorts the movie itself. Everything is sacrificed to concealing the big reveal, to the point where the movie has no other purpose.
*. This really struck me when watching The Village. I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been a more interesting movie without all the misdirection and if it had dealt directly with the elders and their desire to exile themselves from modernity and all its attendant suffering. John Hurt and Sigourney Weaver seem so much more interesting than Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard — both as actors and in character.

*. I don’t think Shyamalan is a bad filmmaker, not at all, but he’s taking a really simple idea here and stretching it a long, long way. The ending only comes as a surprise, in so far as it does, because the premise is so bizarre.
*. Even if we grant the elders their plan, why go back to the nineteenth century? I mean, a sustainable, isolated community would no doubt have to be quite primitive, but is there any need for the period costumes and formal speech? How is all this reclaiming a state of innocence? It seems more like they’re putting on some kind of reality show. Personally, I’d be happy to live in a small community without access to the Internet.

*. You could pull the premise apart in a hundred ways but I’m not sure it’s worth it. Roger Ebert, who wrote a scathing review, makes the most telling point: “Critics were enjoined after the screening to avoid revealing the plot secrets. That is not because we would spoil the movie for you. It’s because if you knew them, you wouldn’t want to go.”
*. It’s a good-looking movie, very nicely photographed by Roger Deakins. I liked most of the design elements, including the monster costumes. The cast is terrific, with only Phoenix seeming out of place. And yet it all seems in aid of so little. The movie makes a shift from Lucius to Ivy part-way through, but as I said earlier the most interesting characters are the elders. They are the ones who have the major emotional arc to travel. Something might have been done with what is revealed to Ivy at the end, but that is left up for grabs. Misdirection is one thing, but The Village only leads us to a dead end.

Underworld: Evolution (2006)

*. I think the assumption must have been that, as a direct sequel to Underworld, most of the audience for Underworld: Evolution would have seen that film. Nevertheless, we begin with a lot of the mythology being gone over, along with “blood memory” flashbacks to Underworld to let anyone not up to speed in on what’s going on.
*. All of which is pretty useless. I watched this one only a couple of weeks after watching Underworld and I was still lost right from the start. I guess there are fans of the franchise out there who have all the genealogies down straight, but after a while I just stopped trying.
*. The first movie made a whole lot of money, which let them double the budget on this one. It still looks like a videogame/comic book, and they even stole a page from the MarvelCrap universe by casting a respected older actor (Derek Jacobi) in one of the lead roles.
*. There’s more violence than in the first movie but the characters are less interesting (which is quite an accomplishment, actually) and the story is harder to follow. There’s the same grim colour scheme, which gets boring after a while. Things start off with a bang but then really drag in the third act, when we end up on a set that looks identical to the one the first movie ended in. The use of the helicopter was sort of neat though. I was wondering what they were keeping it hanging around for.
*. The only point to it all is watching the monsters go at it. Real human beings are again thin on the ground, and I think the only ones we see are the Hungarian mooks who get kicked around. As a pure fantasy, then, it doesn’t even have any political resonance. The Godzilla movies had more substance.
*. There’s a nice little love scene when Kate strips out of her latex and gets it on with Scott. They seem made for each other. It might as well have been CGI. They’re both easy to look at, but Speedman in particular is a total plank of wood in the acting department.
*. The fate of Tanis struck me as symbolic of the whole Underworld mindset. He’s apparently an intellectual scholar-vampire, and yet when he’s locked away in his monastery all he does is indulge in the porno-gangster lifestyle: fucking vampire babes and listening to Puscifer. For 300 years. Hasn’t it ever gotten old, Tanis?
*. I’ve remarked before (see my notes for The Expendables 3) on franchise inertia: the way you just keep watching all the films in a series because once you get started you feel you have to stick it through to the bitter end. Well, to hell with that. After seeing two of these movies I’ve had enough. I’m not 14 any more.

Underworld (2003)

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*. Underworld was the directorial debut of Len Wiseman, who got his start in the business working as a property assistant (a mainly managerial role in the art department dealing with the physical design of a film). He worked on such blockbusters as Independence Day, Men in Black, and Godzilla. He then worked in advertising and directing music videos before coming to this project.
*. I don’t bring this up as a way of knocking Wiseman but only to indicate that if you knew all this beforehand you’d probably have a pretty good idea what kind of a movie Underworld was going to be and what it would look like. And you might think that what it looked like was the kind of movie it was going to be. Wiseman says at the beginning of his DVD commentary that he set out to make a comic book: “a living, breathing, graphic novel come to life.” It seems like this is something every filmmaker of his generation has aspired to.
*. You would not be disappointed in your comic book expectations. Roger Ebert: “Underworld is all surfaces, all costumes and sets and special effects . . . This is a movie so paltry in its characters and shallow in its story that the war seems to exist primarily to provide graphic visuals.”
*. Things still might have been saved if there’d been something interesting in the production or artistic design of the film, but it all looks so generic it’s almost numbing. And so uninteresting.
*. There was more colour in Sin City. Everything here is blue. The city (unnamed, but the film was shot in Budapest) looks like every other generic grotty urban location in a comic book movie. I suppose it’s Gotham. The buildings are all large and empty. The streets have nobody in them. Indeed, after the opening battle sequence, do we see any characters aside from Michael’s doctor friend, who isn’t an immortal? And did I mention everything is blue?
*. I had some hopes that something interesting might be made out of the premise. Werewolves vs. Vampires. The werewolves are grungy gangsters living underground. The vampires are hoity-toity types who live in a mansion. Class warfare?
*. No. Not really. In fact, not at all. Nothing as interesting as that. Or as interesting as a toothy version of Romeo and Juliet. Just the usual monster brawl, which was not a new sub-genre. Apparently the working titles for House of Dracula (1945) were Dracula vs. the Wolf Man or The Wolf Man vs. Dracula. But those ensemble monster movies were never that interested in having the monsters actually fight each other. We had to wait for that.
*. Some people enjoyed the fantasy mythology. I thought it seemed canned and Young Adult in the worst way. Have you noticed how the word “mythology” is now used for any movie like this that really doesn’t have anything you might think of as a story? It’s like the Alien mythology or the Marvel Universe.
*. After about thirty minutes I was bored out of my skull. There are no surprises. What? You mean Kraven is a traitor as well as a wimp? Well, I never would have guessed with a name like that.
*. For a straight-up action movie I didn’t think the combat scenes were very impressive. Lots of expensive ammunition is fired off (ultraviolet bullets to kill vampires, silver nitrate for the pack), but neither side are much good at hitting anything. There isn’t a lot of hand-to-hand fighting and what we do get tends to rely on harness work. Wiseman also seems to want to still be doing music videos given how some of the scenes play out.
*. Kate Beckinsale looks like a fetish model. Scott Speedman looks like a male model for just about anything sexy (fashion, cologne, hair products, whatever). They are obviously meant for each other because they have lovely long locks of hair that fall over their faces in the same way.
*. Bill Nighy went from playing Viktor here to playing Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I wonder if he enjoys spending that much time in a make-up chair.
*. Hard to believe it’s two hours long for so little material. And they didn’t even wrap things up at the end! All this sound and fury just to set up a bunch of sequels!
*. The only place for Universal to go after the chaos of House of Dracula was into parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Underworld instead took as its selling point its seriousness. This allowed it to become a franchise that is, as of this writing, still going strong. Will the vampyres and lycans keep fighting each other for another thousand years? Damn their immortal hides.

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Dog Soldiers (2002)

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*. We’ve never gotten over our fear of the forest. And to be fair, it’s hard to imagine urban werewolves. They tried it in Wolfen, and it sort of worked, but at the end of the day these furry guys belong in the woods. In the movie Howl (2016) it seems like we’re going to get an at least semi-urban werewolf story, but then the train stops out in the middle of, you guessed it, a dark forest and we’re back in the pack’s happy hunting grounds.
*. So here we are in Dog Soldiers, heading off to the highlands of Scotland, where the nearest phone, or even house, is fifty miles away. One suspects no one can hear you scream. Certainly no one can hear all the gunfire.
*. As an aside, I was wondering when I heard them say this if there really is anywhere in Scotland this remote. Apparently not. Kevin McKidd, who plays Cooper, was struck by this too because he’s Scottish and knows that there is no place that is a four-hour drive from anywhere in that country. But he didn’t want to say anything to the producers.
*. I’d like to tell you that this is a movie that delivers on its promise of doing something a little different with the werewolf genre, but in the end it’s really quite conventional. A team of regular army soldiers go on a training exercise in the highlands, where they find out that they’re basically being used as bait so that a special forces unit can capture a lycanthrope. The wolf-men are ahead of this game, and after a quick run through the woods things settle into a standard siege picture, with the squaddies hunkering down in the classic cabin in the woods.
*. You could compare a plot like that to a lot of horror movies. I was mainly thinking of Predator, where the team of soldiers is set up by the CIA and stuck in the jungle having to fight off the alien bad guy: the predators having become the prey. But whatever the borrowings, it all plays as very generic stuff. Writer-director Neil Marshall would go on to make The Descent, which was quite an original horror movie, but here he was still spinning his wheels and churning out formula fare.
*. In some places the clichés get to be annoying. Whenever you see a guy turning his back to a window or door you know something’s going to break through and grab him. And why are they turning their backs to the windows anyway? It’s an idiot-plot move. And the old dropping-below-the-table to do a (remarkably rapid) werewolf transformation takes us back sixty years.
*. Alas, transformation scenes in werewolf movies are expensive if you want to do them right. If you can’t afford them, better to go with a finesse. As it is, this was a cheap movie (budget estimated at around $2 million), released direct to cable in North America, and they did at least manage to blow that house up real good.
*. Another plot point that comes as a stretch: If they’re fifty miles from the nearest house (not town, house), then what sense does it make to try and hotwire a vehicle that’s parked in the shed? The risk/reward calculation here escapes me. Surely, even if they’re running low on ammunition, the thing to do is to barricade themselves and try to hold out. I also don’t know why they attempt to defend the entire house right from the start. The smart thing to do would be to try to defend a smaller area with only a couple of (perhaps smaller) access points.
*. I understand that you can’t kill a werewolf with normal bullets. And I understand that these werewolves have spectacular self-healing powers (a bit of lore that goes all the way back to the disappearing scars on Larry Talbot’s chest in The Wolf Man). But just considering basic physiology and physics it seems like these creatures should need a bit more time than they take to get over the amount of bullets pumped into them. I mean, they’re not zombies.
*. Or are they? This is really more of a zombie movie, at least in terms of its structure and the pattern of the plot, than it is a werewolf movie. It’s more bite than bark. A zombie outbreak would also have made more sense, as the basic premise here is insane. The government knows about the werewolves and so sends in a small group of special ops soldiers, with no back-up, to capture one, by using a team of unsuspecting regular soldiers as bait? This is so ridiculous it doesn’t even pass horror-movie muster.

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*. I wonder why the werewolves have a dog, since clearly Sam doesn’t like them. Everybody knows that dogs and werewolves don’t get along.
*. I wish there was more here on the whole werewolf pack. The idea of a messed-up or dysfunctional family could have allowed for some interesting play. But as noted, this is a werewolf movie that really isn’t interested in the werewolves, or the idea of lycanthropy, at all.
*. There are a number of film references dropped throughout (Marshall has a thing for this), but I had a hard time buying Cooper saying that they were going to blow up the shed and make it look like Zabriskie Point. That’s a bit obscure for his character, isn’t it?
*. I couldn’t figure out exactly what Megan’s game was, though this may have been partly the result of studio meddling. Apparently they demanded that Marshall connect her up to Ryan in some way, which made the back story a bit of a hash.
*. Though it’s very conventional and without any real twists or surprises (aside from the obligatory), I still thought this was a fun movie. The werewolves look OK and the action sequences are well handled. In particular, the big fight where Spoon throws everything in the kitchen but the kitchen sink at the werewolf is great. There are also a few nice little touches like the clouds of breath coming from the back seat of the jeep and the dog tugging on Sarge’s intestines. That might not seem like a lot, but in a movie like this it’s such moments that last.

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Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

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*. Henry James famously described Victorian novels as “loose baggy monsters,” and I couldn’t help thinking of this when watching Brotherhood of the Wolf. Not because of the appearance of a loose baggy monster but because of what James was being critical of: the plot.
*. The story here is long, cumbersome, and full of pointless detail. The starting point for most of the initial reviews was to highlight how much of a mongrel it was. David Edelstein thought it “a movie that endeavors to moosh together every successful cross-cultural action picture ever made.” Roger Ebert: “Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory. When the smoke clears, a rough beast lurches forth, its parts cobbled together from a dozen movies.”
*. There are two problems with such an approach. In the first place, the movie risks turning into an anthology of clichés, as only the better-known elements from the various genres are quoted from. Everything is borrowed and nothing is new.
*. The second problem is that of coherence. How well do so many disparate parts fit together? Here: not so well.
*. I don’t mean in terms of not making logical sense. I have no trouble believing in a Native American who knows kung-fu, or even crediting the existence of whatever that creature is that they supposedly dragged back from Africa. What I can’t abide are the jumps from romance to horror to historical costume drama to political conspiracy thriller to action flick, with none of these genres being used to inform the others.

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*. Then there is the problem of length. The version I saw ran to 140 minutes, which I think is the shortest version out there. There’s also a 150-minute director’s cut. It must be awful. At 140 minutes I came away thinking that at least half an hour, and maybe as much as 45 minutes, should have been cut.
*. Am I just against long movies? No. But there were whole chunks of this one that were unnecessary. Monica Belluci is always easy to look at, but has almost no function here. And even though they had all the time in the world to explain it, the plot itself remained a mystery to me. At the end I still didn’t know what the Brotherhood were up to, or who they were. The fight scenes were overlong, repetitive, and gratuitous. Making things even worse, or giving another turn to the rack, director Christophe Gans can’t resist grinding things down into slow-motion every few minutes, for no reason at all that I can see.
*. I didn’t care for Gans’s direction at all. He seems to have only two strings to his bow: (1) the aforementioned slow motion and (2) crane shots. He indulges both over and over again. Like everything else in Brotherhood of the Wolf, they get old in a hurry.
*. As for the beast, I thought that it was an interesting and somewhat original-looking critter, but the CGI is terrible. Then again, it was 2001.
*. It did well at the box office, for being a foreign film, but aside from looking pretty in a fittingly fairy-tale sort of way I can’t think of anything to recommend it. It’s a cheeseburger of a flick, covered in “the works.” I didn’t come away impressed by the fact that they can make cheeseburgers like this in France. A royale with cheese, I heard someone once say.

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Ginger Snaps (2000)

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*. Is there anybody who doesn’t like this movie? And by that I really mean is there anybody who doesn’t like Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins)? I guess there are such curmudgeons out there, but (for once) I’m not among them.
*. According to director John Fawcett the two girls “began as caricatures [like] . . . sticky Edward Gorey girls . . . or a Tim Burton drawing.” But they both outgrow the role of Goth girls, becoming a unique clique of two: sharing a deep bond but playing well against each other. Ginger is sexy and aggressive, Brigitte withdrawn.
*. It’s important that we like Ginger and Brigitte because Ginger Snaps is a human werewolf movie. Which is a label I’ll try to explain.

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*. We can think of werewolf movies as forming a continuum running from man (or woman) to wolf. At the far end we have the werewolf as pure creature. Think of the pack of wolves in Wolfen or the Beast of Gevaudan in Brotherhood of the Wolf. Or, if you don’t think those are real werewolf movies (and technically they aren’t), think of movies like Dog Soldiers or Howl, where we barely see the original beasts in human form.
*. At the human end of the continuum the focus is on the person who’s infected with the curse of lycanthropy. At the extreme edge of the continuum I’m drawing we have movies where it may not even be clear if the character is turning into a wolf or if it’s all in their head. Cat People, which isn’t a werewolf movie but very much fits the model, is a good example, or She-Wolf of London, where lycanthropy is just a psychological ruse being played on the heroine.
*. In the middle are most of the movies we think of as the classics of the genre. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot, done up in Jack Pierce’s original make-up, for example, is both a tragic human character and a monster.

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*. The reason I bring all this up is because Ginger Snaps is definitely more of a human werewolf movie, meaning it’s more interested in the characters than it is in the monster. So it matters that the Fitzgerald girls are so likeable, and it’s less important that Ginger’s werewolf make-up is pretty awful and the werewolf itself moves awkwardly and looks more like a wild pig than a wolf. (On the plus side, at least it isn’t CGI.)
*. What’s so scary? A girl turning into a monster? Yes, but there are a lot of other scary things going on as well. I’ll number a few.
*. (1) Life in the ‘burbs with all its conformity and going nowhereism. On the DVD commentary writer Karen Walton puts the matter rather forcefully: “I hate suburbs, I think they’re awful places, I think they do awful things to people” Wow. That’s strong stuff. I mean, I don’t like suburbs either but I don’t know if I’d go that far.
*. (2) Sit-down family dinners. These have long been a horror film staple and here they are presented as almost a form of torture for the girls. Though I think this may just be part and parcel of a more general dislike contemporary horror movies seem to have for the traditional family.
*. (3) The fear of growing up and turning into your mother. Understandable, I suppose, when she’s made up like Mimi Rogers. Though it’s interesting that, as with Ginger and Brigitte, the stereotype characters in the movie (like Mimi Rogers’ Mom or the Cool Girl Trina at school) have an extra dimension in this movie, giving them a bit of reality. It may not seem like a lot, but it really helps give the movie a special texture.
*. (4) Menstruation, a.k.a. “the curse.” Yes, that can be scary. As are all of the teen rites of passage here, like boys, piercings, drugs, peer pressure, and even acne.

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*. Further to this final point, I found it interesting listening to the commentaries that the link between lycanthropy and menstruation was apparently an afterthought, or at least not part of the original conception of the story (which was apparently more of something in the Cronenberg body-horror vein). Initially Fawcett and Walton hadn’t seen the connection with transformation of the body and adolescence. I think most people see this as being what the movie is all about, and indeed a number of critics found it too obvious and intrusive.
*. Is it a feminist horror film? I don’t think so. I think it’s just a horror film concerned with female characters, and that it doesn’t carry any particularly feminist message. It is “female-centric” (Fawcett), but aside from wanting to stress the point that the boyfriend doesn’t save the day I’m not sure there’s more to it than this. Slightly troubling is the moment at the end when Mom suggests that she and the girls just blow up the house and run off on their own. “Just us girls.” I don’t know if the plan is to blow up Dad with the house, but Mom doesn’t seem too concerned about him either way. Men don’t understand.

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*. Fawcett mentions on the commentary that he thought this would be the first werewolf film in history without a shot of the full moon. Actually, it’s a well-known bit of movie trivia that The Wolf Man doesn’t have any shots of the moon.
*. As with most great little movies, the crew really come through. Most of the names are mentioned by Fawcett in his commentary, and for many of the same things I flagged in my initial set of notes, but they’re worth repeating. It’s very nicely photographed by Thom Best, and terrifically lit, giving the effect of washed-out days and orange nights. Best really makes a little go a long way. Wardrobe by Lea Carlson is great, as the girls don’t just look like Goths but dress with a realistic and individual sense of style. Mimi Rogers is also very well turned out in her domestic-eccentric outfits, including jack-o-lantern earrings on Hallowe’en. The score by Mike Shields is resonant and moody, and the sound design by David McCallum works really well. I thought the noises the werewolf makes tearing apart the house at the end really stood out, which is a point that Fawcett remarks on as well.

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*. Ginger Snaps is not the best werewolf movie ever, but the fact is that it came at a kind of trough in the genre. I think Walton says on the commentary that the last great werewolf movie before this was An American Werewolf in London, which had been nearly twenty years earlier. Since then the Howling franchise had played out, but there hadn’t been much else going on. Perhaps Silver Bullet (1985), Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994), and Bad Moon (1996) might be mentioned. But that’s not a lot of activity. In the twenty-first century things would take off again with CGI transformations and new monsters, but I don’t think this was progress. In most of these movies werewolves became something like zombies: less characters than a kind of stock prop.
*. They made a couple of sequels, neither of which went anywhere. Given all the difficulties involved in the business of film production (movies are as conformist as the suburbs) you have to accept the success of movies like this as something rare and impossible to duplicate. So enjoy it. Chances are you won’t see anything else like it for a while.

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The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

*. Here your commentator takes a deep breath.
*. Yes, you can say a lot of bad things about this movie, all of them true. It’s vile. It’s disgusting. In a perfect world it would never have been made.
*. If it were just a despicable film though I don’t think it would have had the kind of impact it’s had. The worst movies ever made are almost entirely unknown because nobody’s seen them. People did see The Human Centipede, and indeed among a certain segment of the population it became quite popular. So all of the venom directed against it suggests that there was something there, aside from the obvious.
*. Leaving aside the obvious, the premise, for just a moment, I’ll say I thought this was a reasonably well-made movie. It looks good. The house, both interiors and exteriors, is well presented. There are a few style points. Some of the suspense sequences are effective. The scene where Lindsay is trapped in the swimming pool is harrowing. Dieter Laser turns in a memorable camp performance as the Nazi Dr. Heiter. In brief, I don’t think the movie offends to make offence a skill, but it does show evidence of at least some talent at work.
*. On the downside: Tom Six can’t write dialogue. The plot is full of what have become conventions, starting with the flat tire (Kim Newman: “underneath an extremely repulsive concept, this is a relatively conventional horror movie”). The cast outside of Laser, though making sacrifices for their art above and beyond the call of duty, aren’t very good.
*. So, a mix of good and bad. I’d even say that for a film of this kind the good outweighs the bad. Then we have the premise. Which is that the mad doctor performs a reverse-Siamese operation on three young people: crippling them and joining together their gastric system by attaching them mouth-to-anus, thus forming a “human centipede.”
*. It’s an appalling idea, and I suspect much of the film’s notoriety initially arose from it being one of those movies that you watch on a dare, and maybe watch again with someone so you can see their reaction to it. In this way it’s no different than the “2 Girls 1 Cup” video (official name: Hungry Bitches).
*. In fact, I think Hungry Bitches, a porn video where two girls share vomit and excrement, is very much a relevant title in the context of a discussion of The Human Centipede. Obviously both movies feature girls being forced to eat shit, and both are also a kind of porn.
*. You really can’t miss that here. Look at the way Heiter straddles over the one girl (after giving her the date-rape drug Rohypnol) while injecting her with a hypo, and then sighing with what is clearly orgasmic release. And the training scene where he yells at Katsuro (the “head” of the centipede) to “Feed her! Feeeeeeed her! Hard!” and barks at Lindsay to “Swallow it bitch!” needs no further comment.

*. I assume someone has pointed out the sexism of having the male being the head of the centipede, and thus the one who doesn’t have to eat any shit. I wonder if the misogyny (a word that I think Six, an enemy of political correctness, would despise) fails to bother people, given how much else there is to be offended by.
*. The porn angle also suggests we look again at the label of torture porn. The sexual/fetish feel to the proceedings (already discussed) was not lost on the adult industry, which quickly had its own fun with the concept. But what about the torture part?
*. Roger Ebert: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there. No horror film I’ve seen inflicts more terrible things on its victims than The Human Centipede.” I think I’d say the same, but in furtherance of what moral point?
*. In his seminal torture-porn essay, which was published a couple of years before this film came out, David Edelstein remarked that “Some of these movies [Hostel and Wolf Creek were his main examples] are so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether.”
*. I think that word nihilism is the key. You can’t have moral judgments in a nihilistic universe. And nihilism is clearly where twenty-first century horror has been heading. Think of the explosion in zombie films, the main argument of which is (as I have argued elsewhere) that we should just go out and start shooting other people in the head. “I don’t like human beings,” Dr. Heiter says. This is the philosophy of the zombie apocalypse. As Kim Newman observes, “clearly, misanthropy is in style”: “the message of the twenty-first century is that Other People are Shit.” Or they’re made to eat it.
*. For further evidence, look at the normalization of the dark ending, where movies like the Paranormal Activity films, or Rec, or Eden Lake, or Sinister, or The Witch, have all or most of the good/innocent characters killed at the end and evil triumphant. I guess in this one Heiter dies too, but two of the three centipede segments have preceded him and Lindsay is left suffering an even bleaker fate.
*. What we’re talking about here is something more than just an attempt to up the ante for jaded audiences. It’s an outright rejection of any system of moral values (in particular, those associated with faith and family) and a declaration of war against humanity. I’m not being prudish about this, but I am genuinely curious as to how widely adopted the message of “I don’t like human beings” and “Other People are Shit” has become. We seem to have lost our belief in life being worth anything, and indeed take pleasure (the pornography of torture and cruelty) in rubbing everyone’s nose in it. I think this is what Ebert meant when he refused to give The Human Centipede any stars and said it “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” There is no order in its universe, no justice human or divine. And it is not an outlier in this regard.
*. Just on the matter of justice, it may be worth noting that Six’s inspiration for the concept was an idea he came up with for punishing child molesters. How this led to a film where innocent people are tortured in this manner seems like a fair question. Indeed, it’s not just innocence that is destroyed, but it is Lindsay’s return to rescue Jenny that is her downfall. No good deed can go unpunished.
*. One defence of the movie that’s often made is to argue that it’s really a comedy, but if so I can’t see what it’s sending up. Satire is a moral tool, and if The Human Centipede is satirizing the excesses of contemporary horror movies, on what ground is it standing when it does so? I think there may well be comic elements in it, but it seems to me that the laughter is just as heartless as the cruelty, and really part of the same mindset.
*. By the same token, Six’s statement that it’s an anti-fascist film is even thinner. Heiter is just a stock villain. This movie has no politics.
*. So much for general reflections.
*. It was originally marketed as “100% medically accurate.” It isn’t, but then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t an account of a true crime either. These are just ad lines. But the appeal to truth works.
*. I know it’s pointless to ask, but still: just what is Heiter up to? I realize he hates human beings, but he seems to have had some genuine attachment to his “beloved 3-dog.” So what was his point with all of this? I suspect he thinks he’s an artist even more than he wants to play God (if there’s a difference). In what may be a relevant bit of trivia, those are Six’s own paintings decorating his house.

*. We’re into the world of medical horror again. I wonder if this counts as a real trend or if it just seems that way. Most horror movies are aimed at young audiences, and most young people have little experience with the authentic horrors of the medical system. Nevertheless, it’s such a real and powerful anxiety it probably still resonates. For what it’s worth, Six claims he has a fear of hospitals and I found the (mercifully brief) operation scene here tough sledding. I really can’t stand this stuff.
*. I feel like Katsuro’s big speech at the end should mean something, relating to or explaining his suicide. But I can’t figure out what it might be. At that point, his situation is the furthest it’s been from hopeless.
*. Our standards for what we find disgusting are fluid. Eighty years ago Dracula and Frankenstein were considered shocking. The Exorcist had people throwing up and running for the exits. In twenty or thirty years will we look back at The Human Centipede as something quaint and humorous? I think it’s at very possible. Just on a second viewing I found it had lost most of its shock value.
*. Will it become a cult film? Maybe (that is, if the label “cult film” still means anything). But I’m not sure Six helped it in this regard with the remakes. Or at least he didn’t with The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence). Some people rate the second entry highly.
*. Newman found it “never quite as outrageous as it threatens to be,” and I think that’s true. At the same time, I think it is pretty explicit. About the only place where they avoid showing us more is in the operation scene. Much is made of the fact that we never actually see shit, but given the premise how could we? Unless it’s coming out of Jenny, and that wouldn’t mean anything. I think Six makes it clear when the “feeding” is taking place.
*. Perhaps after a while we’ll see this as less a game-changer and more of a representative film of its time, along the lines I’ve already mentioned. It’s typical of a generation of horror that no longer tries to do much along the lines of suspense or even shock but instead just presents us with an experience of suffering that we have to endure. Is there a value in that? I endured it but I don’t think it made me a stronger or a better person. And worse was to come.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

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*. In the twenty-first century the classic slasher horror films of the ’70s and ’80s were all being remade, their franchises “reset.” I’m not sure why. The short answer would be to cash in on what were recognizable brand names, but as a creative challenge? These cover versions brought little that was new to the table, and they all looked exactly the same (many of them being the product of the same production company, Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, which was created specifically to make low-budget horror flicks).
*. What is new with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the title now renders “chainsaw” as all one word) isn’t an improvement, and what stays the same probably wasn’t worth keeping.
*. For example, why set the movie in 1973? To get rid of everyone’s cellphone? Anachronisms pop up. “Sweet Home Alabama,” which they’re all singing at the beginning, hadn’t been released yet. As Kim Newman remarks, “gym-toned 2000s starlets like Jessica Biel and Eric Balfour just don’t look like hippie chicks and dudes.” Those big round bales of hay we see out in the fields didn’t come in until later. Apparently even the make of chainsaw is an anachronism.
*. Just sticking with the chainsaw for a second, I want to say something. Let’s get real. If you hit so much as an old nail or a bit of wire the chain on a saw is fucked. You certainly can’t grind them on tire irons, or cut through car roofs with them, or slice through steel barrels, or saw them into cement floors. That would destroy the saw right away. And they don’t run that long on a tank of gas (or oil, given how much it seems to be burning). I think the chainsaw here must have been purchased at the same magical store that sells those guns that never run out of bullets in action movies. No matter how much work Leatherface makes it do, it just keeps going.
*. Something else that stayed the same is cinematographer Robert Pearl, who also shot the original. Newman mentions how “the look is more highly wrought” because Pearl had “the resources to make the grime almost pretty.” He doesn’t say whether he thinks this is a good thing. I certainly don’t. The original film’s grunginess was a big part of its success. This movie just looks like all the other horror resets: slick, without being unsettling.
*. Newman does flag “a certain inauthenticity which comes with trying to redo a property that achieved near-perfect form  the first time out.” The original was always going to be a hard movie to remake (or follow up, for that matter) given that its success was so much the result of its shock value, cheapness, and rank unpleasantness. So much of what it did has gone on to become cliché, which is what a lot of this movie turns into at the end. There’s the car that won’t start. The basement step that breaks through. The rats scurrying over the person who’s trying to stay quiet and hide. The last girl in the tank top. They didn’t need any of this.

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*. A good example of the higher production values leading to disjunctive results can be seen in the crazy family’s house. In this movie it looks like the mansion from Giant, especially given its isolation. It appears especially ridiculous at night, backlit by what seem to be stadium lights. I didn’t buy it for a second.
*. Then there are the big changes to the story. The concept of the crazy all-male family is exploded in a misguided attempt to build up more of a back story or mythology and include more family members (whose exact relations remain obscure). But the original family were characters. These are just freaks and types.
*. Leatherface has a name (Thomas Brown Hewitt), but seems even less sympathetic a figure. The franchise has always had problems with Leatherface, as he is both the iconic villain and a big baby.
*. Even more puzzling is the lack of any reference to cannibalism, which is the crime that basically defined the first film. We visit a slaughterhouse here, and there’s a crude likening of Erin to a slab of beef in one scene, but there’s no suggestion that the family are actually eating people.
*. Of course in those early shock horror movies sex and violence were always near allied. And they still are, which means basically you have to amp those qualities up: making it sexier and gorier.
*. On the former front, Jessica Biel looks entirely edible here, bouncing around in an hourglass-accentuating outfit which even turns into a wet t-shirt that she jiggles about in at the end. This is another example of a disconcerting upgrade, as Biel is just so damn sexy it makes you feel dirty watching her suffer. I also thought it kind of sad how her character Erin is wrong about everything. Then when she has to kill Andy, do you think she might have thought of a kinder way of doing it than stabbing him in the gut and disembowelling him? Holy harakiri.
*. As far as the gore goes, it seems fairly standard. It isn’t there to shock or create suspense, but merely to depict people suffering. This makes you feel dirty too.
*. A lot of effort went into making Tobe Hooper’s film into a franchise. Including all of the sequels and prequels and resets and spin-offs there are (as of this writing) eight titles in the Texas Chainsaw canon. I don’t recall any of them after the first being any good.
*. Give Platinum Dunes credit for making an unpleasant film. At least if that’s something you want to give credit for. To be honest, I was checking my watch a lot near the end, wondering how much more I had to sit through. Too much.
*. Roger Ebert hated (hated, hated) this film. Here’s how he starts off his review: “The new version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a contemptible film: Vile, ugly and brutal. There is not a shred of a reason to see it.” And here’s how he ends: “Do yourself a favor. There are a lot of good movies playing right now that can make you feel a little happier, smarter, sexier, funnier, more excited — or more scared, if that’s what you want. This is not one of them. Don’t let it kill 98 minutes of your life.” He’s right, and I think he was more sad than angry. So am I.

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