Category Archives: 2000s

Slither (2006)

*. An asteroid approaches Earth. We know it’s carrying bad news. We may think of the spaceship that appears at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Thing, or again in Predator. For those with longer memories, the alien spores releasing and then drifting to Earth at the beginning of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) may come to mind. I wonder what the first movie was to begin with such a shot. Something from the ’50s I suspect.
*. James Gunn, who wrote and directed Slither, might be someone to ask. He conceived of Slithers as a tribute to the horror movies of the ’70s and ’80s, and the featurette on the making of the movie begins with a roll call of various inspirations: The Fly, Tremors, Gremlins, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Brood, An American Werewolf in London, The Evil Dead, Critters, The Toxic Avenger, The Thing, Alien, and Halloween.
*. One title that doesn’t get dropped is Night of the Creeps (1986). This might raise an eyebrow, as Slither‘s debt to Night of the Creeps, which was noticed and remarked upon right away, is pretty pronounced. Both films are about slugs from space that enter their victims’ mouths and turn them into zombies. I’m not saying this film is just a rip-off, but not mentioning Night of the Creeps as a source seems a bit passively defensive.
*. Now here is where all this becomes relevant. Is Slither meant as homage, or parody? It’s obviously a horror-comedy, but that’s what most of the movies Gunn was inspired by were too (including Night of the Creeps). And they were parodies that were in some cases over twenty years old when Gunn made Slither. So I guess it’s an homage-parody of various homage-parodies. Which leads to the question of whether it brings anything new to the table.

*. The answer to that is: not much. Slither is an entertaining little movie, but it doesn’t work very well as a comedy or as a horror film. Being so in debt to so many other pictures, every part of the story is predictable. Indeed, it’s made even more predictable for the way it taps into the then-reigning zombie apocalypse genre.
*. Also, the fact that so many other films are shoehorned into the plot makes the story messy at times. A good example is when Kylie gets throated by one of the slugs and receives some kind of species memory. I take it this is borrowed from a similar scene in Quatermass and the Pit, which is an interesting footnote but doesn’t really provide us with any necessary information here and probably just confuses things.
*. The whole shared consciousness idea (the slugs constituting “a conscious disease”) isn’t made use of in any interesting way, and doesn’t seem to have been adhered to all that closely. Some of the possessed townsfolk become Grant, but others appear to hold on to their own identity.
*. The slugs are CGI when shown moving around in large formations, which actually makes them less threatening. A lot of effects, however, are done in camera with prosthetics, and those are always fun, especially when they’re given such an obvious sexual twist. The phallic innards threatening tentacle sex that come out of Grant’s gut reminded me of the horny hotdogs in Sausage Party, while Kylie is clearly choking on a rubber dildo. As for Gale’s bedroom at the end, it made me think of the diseased imaginings of Serpieri’s Druuna comics, which were kinky enough to begin with.
*. But even here it all looks a little too familiar. The bodies sticking together in a fleshy conglomerate clearly recalls The Thing, while Grant’s face is an almost carbon copy of the melted phiz of Dr. Pretorius in From Beyond. Again, twenty years later shouldn’t Gunn have come up with something just a bit new?
*. Nathan Fillion is very good in this kind of role, and I’d say the same for Michael Rooker, but they both seem wasted. I think the fundamental problem with Slither is that the script just isn’t clever enough to carry things along. There are no memorable moments or lines but just a handful of gory highlights. If you’re a fan of such stuff you will have seen all this before, years ago, and if you’re not a fan I don’t think it’s worth the bother.

Them (2006)

*. You can’t have a lot of faith in those “critical” blurbs that appear on DVD boxes. Aside from the fact that many of them come from websites that you’ve probably never heard of (and that may no longer exist), they tend to be a bit extreme. On the front of this one we’re told that it “nears perfection in nearly every aspect.” On the back, a pull quote from the Chicago Tribune calls it “one of the most intelligent and unnerving horror films in recent memory.”
*. “Perfection” is an odd quality to attribute to any work of art, but especially one as messy as a film. “Intelligent,” is also slippery. And “recent memory” is a weasel word. I know, because I’ve used it myself on occasion. It doesn’t really mean anything. Whose memory are we talking about?
*. I thought Them was a very effective and efficient little movie, but nothing at all new or even that interesting.
*. We begin with a note telling us that the events are based on a true story. Hm. Where have I heard that before?
*. The true story, for what it’s worth, apparently had to do with an Austrian couple who were murdered by a trio of teens in Romania. I don’t know anything about the case and so can’t say how freely it was followed here.
*. Instead, what is followed is the usual script for most home-invasion horror films. There’s an attractive young couple living in a big house by themselves. One night a group of very bad people come to play. Clichés follow. There is a barking dog whose warning is ignored. There is a crank phone call. The girl takes a bath. The power is cut off, then turned back on. They can’t get through to the police on the phone (well, this is Romania). There is a creepy walk through the house. The man is wounded, making him ineffective for most of the rest of the movie. The girl puts her eye up to a keyhole and a pointed spike is thrust through at her. There is a scary scene in the attic as the girl is chased through sheets of hanging plastic (at least it isn’t laundry). There is a chase through the woods. There is a climactic “reveal” in a dark lair lit only by flickering light bulbs.
*. I suppose the main difference between other films of this ilk and Them is that they really delay revealing the identity of the homebreakers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ll provide the usual spoiler alert here.
*. OK, the big twist is that the very bad people are really a gang of nasty little kids. In other words, this is Eden Lake in Romania, right down to the fact that in both films the woman is a teacher. But I won’t knock Them for this, since it came out a couple of years before Eden Lake.
*. But there have been other evil kid movies. Devil Times Five comes to mind. But the not-so-subtle point being made in this film and Eden Lake is a more political one. Poor people (either the chavs in Eden Lake or the feral Romanians here) don’t like the middle class. There are certain neighbourhoods (relatively) rich people should avoid. Like all of Eastern Europe.
*. I mentioned as a cliché the part where the man, Lucas, gets wounded in the leg. This makes him into a particularly annoying figure, like when he keeps calling out for Clem when she’s trying to hide from the guy in the attic, and most notably when he makes such a big deal about her pulling the glass from his leg. Why doesn’t he pull the glass from his own damn leg then? He has to be a wimp, however, as it’s also a cliché of such films that the woman turns out to be the strong survivor while the man is a wimp because if it were the other way around that would be a sexist cliché. It’s interesting how avoiding one cliché has created another.
*. The worst thing about Lucas though is that such a wimp turns out to be — you guessed it — a writer. Which, of course, means that he’s really a wannabe writer who plays videogames while his partner is out paying the rent with a real job. Oh writers. What did they ever do to deserve such scorn?
*. I might also mention the pre-credit mini-movie as another cliché, used here (as it often is) as a way of assuring the audience that despite the slow build something good is coming eventually.
*. All of this is just to say that Them is a pretty conventional horror film in nearly every regard. I will allow that it’s pretty nicely done though. The writing-directing team of David Moreau and Xavier Palud know how to handle this material. A little is made to go a long way, and the identity of the homebreakers is artfully concealed. I like how the end mirrors the opening scene with the traffic passing by the murder scene.
*. The message? Don’t go off the main road, don’t go places you don’t belong, accept that the world is a jungle and a war of all against all. And whatever you do, don’t trust today’s kids. They were probably raised on movies like this.

Little Children (2006)

*. Wow. So they updated Madame Bovary by setting it in an affluent Boston suburb filled with bored yuppies, and gave it a happy ending? That’s just . . . wow.
*. I was enjoying it. Some things I was enjoying a lot. And then that ending. I can’t think of a recent movie that disappointed me more in its final ten minutes. What were they thinking? I mean, the novel by Tom Perrotta ends with an ironic note about “a love story with a happy ending,” but it’s nothing like what we get here.
*. I’ll get back to all this. But to start on a more positive note, what I enjoyed here were the subtle parts. I liked what went unsaid, the silences, the passive microcruelties. I liked not knowing what it was that passed between Lucy and the babysitter that turned the babysitter against Sarah (a scene not in the novel, which made me think something in the script had been cut). I loved the point in the dinner scene when Kathy realizes that Sarah and Brad have been having an affair just in the way Sarah responds to his not having told her (Sarah) that he knew Larry. I call such epiphanies “Henry James moments,” because his fiction is full of them. They’re a beautiful thing. And I didn’t even mind the narrator underlining it by telling us that “sexual tension is an elusive thing, but Kathy had a pretty good radar for it.” I’d prefer showing rather than telling, and I also think it’s weird it should come as such a revelation here since Kathy has set up the dinner to test her suspicions, but I’ll let that go just to enjoy the look on Jennifer Connelly’s face. A fine actress, put to no good use in the rest of the film.

*. But what happens next wrecks it. Why does Kathy have to go under the table to see if Brad and Sarah are playing footsie? This is silly, and so unnecessary. We’ve seen the look on Kathy’s face. We know she knows. The narrator has told us. So why make it all ridiculous? And then why show Kathy’s amazement at Sarah’s painted toenails without any explanation of what this means? (In the novel we’re told that “You’d have to be crazy to wear nail polish like that, or so deeply in love that you were beyond caring.”)
*. Too much of the film is like this. Instead of being subtle it is obvious and overstated. Characters become caricatures. The trio of repressed, judgmental mommies at the park. The gang of middle-aged, wannabe-jock cops playing night football.
*. A good example of what I mean by obvious and overstated is Ronnie’s meltdown. There he is, grieving the loss of his mother, surrounded by shelves of china dolls and clocks. And you’re thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if he somehow held it all in and didn’t break all this stuff?” But the more realistic part of your brain is saying, “Just  hurry up and smash it to hell already. That’s what it’s there for. We’re waiting.” And then he does. And he screams. And it’s all so totally unnecessary. Haley was doing such a great job in that part, couldn’t Todd Field have let him play it on his own?

*. Another example: Could Sarah have twigged to her husband’s Internet-porn fixation in a little less dramatic a way? Just seeing what he had on his computer and the used tissues might have been enough.
*. I also thought Sarah and Brad fell together too obviously. His finding the photo she’s kept of him that she’s stuck into a book, marking a page with a yearning line of poetry that’s been underlined, wasn’t very subtle. And can a woman ever innocently ask a man to rub suntan lotion on her? I don’t think so.

*. So these guys are in a touch football league but are playing full tackle, and with no pads. And they all seem to be in their thirties and forties (or older). No. This is crazy. In the book we’re told that they only call it “touch football” for insurance purposes. Which is a subterfuge that would only last until the first trip to the hospital. Which would, in turn, be about five minutes after kick-off. Aspirin and Jack Daniels won’t make men that age feel better.
*. In Perrotta’s novel Ronnie is an overweight, balding mama’s boy. Do you know who else fit that description? Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s Psycho. On screen, Norman was transformed into the lithe Anthony Perkins, while Ronnie becomes a very fit looking Jackie Earl Haley. Hollywood can’t abide chubby men, even as villainous losers.
*. Oh boy, another English Lit grad who is portrayed as being basically good for nothing and a head case to boot. We get it already. Stop doing this to us.
*. Still, despite all this, I was playing along. Things seemed to be working. And then there’s this ending.
*. Are we really supposed to buy that Brad is now going to be reconciled with Kathy? Won’t she know from the bag he packed that he was making a run for freedom? Are we supposed to feel good that Sarah has now realized she has to be a better, more responsible mother? Has Larry redeemed himself by apologizing to Ronnie and driving him to the hospital? I feel like these should be rhetorical questions, but the film does nothing to even suggest that they are not to be seriously entertained.
*. Worst of all, we see Ronnie castrate himself: an act that fulfills the worst of society’s vindictive demands while at the same time leaving their hands clean. No one is to blame, but (a particularly harsh, conservative form of) justice has been served. And castration! For someone who had only been convicted of exposing himself! In the book there is no castration, and I had to wonder at the thinking behind such a drastic change, especially as, in the book, he is not just a perv but a child killer. The community’s outrage here makes no sense.

*. I wonder if it’s the case that (a) Americans can’t do subtle domestic drama well any more, or (b) if Hollywood just isn’t interested. Little Children reminded me a lot of American Beauty, another movie that had a lot going for it but suffered for being so damned heavy-handed: the same obviousness and falling back into caricature.
*. The web of complex and compromised morality is well-handled, with everyone, including (or is that especially?) Ronnie’s mom, being guilty of some significant failings. But in the end this complexity is all wiped away with a tidy flourish and Will Lyman’s utterly banal benediction: “You couldn’t change the past. But the future could be a different story. And it had to start somewhere.” That’s it? Tomorrow is another day? In the twenty-first century, this is what counts as a tragic vision of American life?

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)

underworld1

*. 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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