Suicide Squad (2016)

*. Suicide Squad was widely hailed (if that’s the word) as one of the worst movies of 2016. It’s actually not that bad. It’s not good, and it’s very disappointing given all it had going for it, but it’s nowhere near the pinnacle of badness it was made out to be.
*. It’s not easy saying what exactly went wrong. There’s nothing original about it at all, but these superhero movies are nothing if not formulaic. So when we get a quick series of potted bios to introduce us to Task Force X, highlighting all of their superpowers (and human weaknesses), followed by a mission that’s ripped straight out of Escape from New York (I assume that downed jet in the street was an homage), and a finale that plays like the end of Ghostbusters, with a ring of trash in the sky that might be from the end of The Avengers or Doctor Strange, with a demon-haunted lover going all goddess-on-the-mountaintop (is that Sigourney Weaver, or Famke Janssen?) . . . well, who cares? You didn’t come here expecting to be surprised, did you?
*. The leads are also pretty good. Will Smith is more than comfortable as Deadshot and Margot Robbie steals every scene she’s in as Harley Quinn, despite it not being a particularly well written part. They really hit a home run with her. Also decent is Joel Kinnaman as Rick Flag.
*. Among the supporting characters, however, there are some real stinkers. I applaud Jared Leto for trying to do something different with the Joker, but he’s just awful. How can he be so dull? And Waller (Viola Davis) . . . what were they thinking? Are we supposed to like her? Respect her? What? I guess she’s playing the Nick Fury role here, but Fury is fun and underneath the hard-ass exterior he’s one of the good guys. Waller is evil, isn’t she? Or is she supposed to be a role model as a fully empowered black woman in authority, capable of being as cold-hearted as any male CEO? That is, any male CEO who kills his own employees because what they know might make their CEO look bad.
*. Why is the end such a major bummer? I don’t get it. The team seem to me to have gotten royally screwed. It’s weird to end a popcorn movie on such a down note. Aside, of course, from the obligatory bit at the end to open the door for a sequel. But that was disappointing too, since the Joker and Harley have absolutely zero chemistry. I wanted to see her making out with Deadshot.
*. I can understand people hating Suicide Squad. There’s a lot of noise, but not much new or interesting. It’s poorly written. There are some epic fails in the character department. But the superhero genre doesn’t have very high standards. I don’t think this was a disaster so much as it was par for the course.

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Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

*. Under Siege made a lot of money. It was jokingly referred to as “Die Hard on a battleship.” So what next? Die Hard on a train! Make it happen!
*. The French titles make the formula even more obvious. Cuirassé en Péril. Express en Péril.
*. There’s not much to care about here. The fights and stunts are better than in the first film. There are more explosions. The plot, however, is identical. A pair of bad guys hijack a train, taking control of a powerful James Bond-style weapon in the process that they plan to auction to the highest bidder. Only one man stands in their way . . .
*. There is a climactic explosion. There is a final fight between our hero and the villain that they insist on performing mano a mano. The evil plot is foiled. Everybody cheers.
*. Today a movie like this is just barely watchable. A little more so though than Under Siege. Surprisingly, Everett McGill and Eric Bogosian stand up pretty well alongside Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones. Katherine Heigl doesn’t jump naked out of a cake, but she’s cute as a button and her role as Ryback’s niece is a little meatier than Erika Eleniak’s stripper. Comic relief is provided by a black porter. It was 1995 and we were just starting to get offended by things like that.

*. The only thing I found interesting this time around was the nice sexual tension between McGill’s Penn and Heigl’s Sarah. Heigl was 17 at the time and McGill 50, but it’s clear he’s attracted to her in a way beyond his appreciation of her training. It made me think of the similar taboo heat between Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear (1993). And I don’t think this is just because I have a dirty mind.
*. I wonder when the first portrayal of the villainous nerd/hacker was. Bogosian is good in the part here, though perhaps a little too goofy. He really needs McGill to back him up. And of course that CD-ROM of Death is funny now. There are young people today who don’t even know what CD-ROMs were.
*. I watched a lot of movies like this in the ’80s and ’90s. I don’t remember many of them now. This one I had almost completely forgotten except for the little bit with the pepper spray. In any event, after peaking with these two films it was all downhill for Seagal. You wouldn’t have thought he had a long way to fall, but in that you would have been mistaken.

Under Siege (1992)

*. There was a time when Steven Seagal wasn’t a joke. His career got off to a good start, and he seemed like something a bit different from the usual run of ’80s action stars. Maybe it was because he was a big guy but not totally buff like Stallone or Van Damme. Maybe it was the quiet voice. In any event, he was fun to watch.
*. Under Siege would prove to be his biggest hit, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s actually a pretty good action flick. Formulaic as all hell, but not too badly done.
*. Did I say formula? As soon as it came out it was labeled, not without reason, “Die Hard on a battleship.” And indeed its release actually threw a monkey wrench into the Die Hard franchise because the next Die Hard movie was going to be set on a cruise ship so they had to change the script.
*. The characters are familiar. Gary Busey had the part of obnoxious heel down pat, after having just played similar parts in Lethal Weapon and Predator 2. Tommy Lee Jones was in a groove as the threatening and not quite balanced villain. Erika Eleniak, the real-life Playboy Playmate for July 1989, was typecast.
*. Of course Eleniak is best known for her turn bursting out of the birthday cake. You couldn’t rent this movie on VHS in the ’90s without the tape being damaged at this point from the number of times people had been trying to freeze it and advance it frame by frame. I mean, everybody did this.
*. Aside from this star turn, her part is terribly written, even for comic relief. The way she has to behave and the lines she has to deliver are cringe inducing. In fact, her character had not been included in the original screenplay and Seagal says that he made the suggestion to add her only because he thought he needed a sidekick.
*. The politics are the usual boo-yah stuff. Notice how the one bad guy dresses up like a rocker and the other like a woman. The heroes, meanwhile, are squares. Seagal’s Casey Ryback even had to lose his ponytail. Men are soldiers and women are strippers and villains are psycho punks. That’s all you need to know.
*. I sure as hell wouldn’t call this one of the best action films of the period. Jones is dispatched far too quickly at the end, and when you get down to it there really aren’t any good fights at all. The idea that Ryback is communicating with the Dr. Strangelove gathering of the joint chiefs of staff via satellite uplink the whole time is awkward to say the least. I don’t think the plot throws us a single surprise or moment of originality. But it moves along at a snappy pace and I was impressed at how well it’s managed to hold up lo these many years later.
*. For Seagal, however, it was all downhill from this modest elevation. All aboard for Under Siege 2: Dark Territory!

Audition (1999)

*. I started off my notes on Visitor Q by saying that Takashi Miike deserves some consideration as one of the top directors of the twenty-first century. Certainly right at the turn of the millennium he was churning out brilliant, ground-breaking work at speed. Titles like Visitor Q, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, and Audition.
*. Miike’s stories, when his films have a story, aren’t that important. What stands out is his ability to conjure a weird and grotesquely violent parallel reality that’s located just next door. He does this mainly through his photography. Miike’s world is very much our own — domestic, urban, blighted and dirty — but it’s made to seem infused with a spirit of art. It is our world transformed through the way a shot is framed and composed, and through correspondences that we might not notice.
*. I’ve talked about Miike’s eye before, most extensively in my notes on Ichi the Killer. The only thing I want to add here is how it is used in a way that isn’t obvious but which nevertheless works to reinforce other aspects of the film.
*. I’ll give just a couple of examples. In the first place we have Asami’s audition. We build up to this slowly through a checklist of candidates being crossed off. We haven’t met Asami yet, so we’re curious. And yet what happens? We don’t get a long zoom into where she’s sitting placed in front of us, but instead the camera turns around. We don’t see Asami at all but the camera slowly pulls in toward Aoyama. He is the one who is auditioning for her, the one being seduced. That’s the real action that’s happening in the scene.
*. Another example: In the scene before he takes her to bed for the first time, Aoyama looks at Asami standing by the bedpost. The bedpost is a weird corkscrew design, and it’s set quite deliberately against Asami, who is a narrow column, with her long straight black hair accentuating her smooth verticals. I think the way this shot is set up is clearly made to suggest how twisted Asami really is, how far from the plumb-line true of her profile.
*. These are both little things but Audition is full of such details and they combine to make the story, which is really just the usual psycho-woman Fatal Attraction set-up, work as well as it does.
*. On the Criterion DVD for Crazed Fruit there’s a moment when Donald Richie expresses confusion as to where the extreme anti-social violence of directors like Miike came from. It can’t be that surprising though. One of the things Audition presents itself as is a “state of Japan” film. It’s a nation full of lonely people, with the widower Aoyama looking for the stereotypical object to fit his home and lifestyle: a (much) younger woman who is “beautiful, classy, and obedient.” Well, to hell with that.
*. Given that anyone watching even for the first time would know where all this was going, Audition nevertheless sets its hooks and drags you along, making it impossible to look away even during the quieter moments.
*. I like how the score changes from the lounge-style pianos to edgy strings for the climax. That’s something else that sets the mood that you don’t necessarily recognize at the time. But then what’s with the pop song that plays over the end credits? It seems quite out of keeping with what we’ve just experienced. I know Miike likes to throw these curve balls into the mix, but still.
*. The only problem I have is with the dream sequence that occurs when Aoyama goes unconscious. This is a very important part of the film as it provides a deeper look into Aoyama’s feelings and gives us as a lot of information explaining items that had until now been left mysterious. Most obviously, it shows us what’s in Asami’s bag.
*. But can we credit it? It seems clearly meant to be an exploration of Aoyama’s subconscious, as it contains characters Asami hasn’t met (like the co-worker and Shigehiko’s girlfriend) and doesn’t proceed logically. On the other hand, Aoyama hasn’t seen the bag, so it makes no sense that he would know what’s really inside it. But we know there is a bag because we’ve seen it. Is there any way of resolving this?
*. I wonder if they should have bothered with the story of Asami’s childhood abuse. Usually in such stories they don’t, because in the end it’s only going to be a throwaway bit of amateur psychology. I would have been fine if they’d just left her back story a mystery.
*. As it is, Asami’s psychology doesn’t do much for me. She fears betrayal so she wants to make men totally dependent on her, like pets. Her amputation of their feet obviously recalls the hobbling of James Caan in Misery. She also fetishizes pain because it’s more real, which should make her into a cutter but the only scars we see are the old burns on her legs. If the experience of pain is so enjoyable, why isn’t she trying it?
*. This one isn’t as weird as some of the other movies Miike was making at the time. In some of the ways I’ve mentioned, it’s very much in a Hollywood tradition. For years there has been talk of making an American version, but that seems pointless to me as that film has already been made many times, both before and since. Furthermore, I don’t think a remake would work. This is an old story, but it’s presented in a way that’s so polished, accomplished, and sure of itself that I don’t think it can be improved upon. We should let a sleeping Asami lie.

Zombies (2014)

*. Zombies aren’t that interesting. With rare exceptions (like Bub in Day of the Dead), they have no individual personality and their only distinguishing characteristics are their choice of diet and the fact that despite being dead they are still animate.
*. As a result, zombie movies often have to create conflict out of the strained relationships among the human survivors. This goes back to the (modern) genre’s inception with the bickering (along racial and gender lines) in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and has continued up to such movies as The Horde and the television series The Walking Dead.
*. Indeed, I’ve argued elsewhere that The Walking Dead is really just a soap opera with zombies wandering around in the background, like gruesome stage dressing or ratty mobile furniture.
*. In this short film out of Argentina we have two survivors of the zombie apocalypse — a man and a woman who are in some sort of a relationship — stuck in a room together. There are zombies outside trying to break in. Instead of wondering how they’re going to escape they start arguing over whether they have been faithful to each other.
*. Romero liked to speculate on what a post-zombie apocalypse world would be like and imagined various dystopic scenarios with a political message. Perhaps, however, the truth would be more like what we see in The Walking Dead, and here: endless squabbling over who’s screwing who, and who we can trust — not with our lives but with our virtue.
*. It’s presented as comedy in Zombies, and with a straight face in The Walking Dead. In both cases, however, it seems both realistic and depressingly banal. How will we behave when the world ends? According to Thucydides the people of Athens, when it was riven by plague during the Peloponnesian War, embraced an amoral decadence. There are similar stories of Berlin as the Russian army approached in 1945. The world may not end with a bang or a whimper but a grudge fuck or a mutual bitchfest. And this doesn’t diminish us, because let’s face it, we were never going to be heroes anyway.

The ABCs of Death 2 (2014)

*. OK, let’s cut to the chase. You watch horror movies because you want to see people die. Or really, you want to see people being killed. In interesting ways. You want them to be “good kills.”
*. So we’ll get rid of all the other stuff. You end up with something like the Final Destination franchise. Lots of good kills there, and not much else. But you want more.
*. What you then get is The ABCs of Death, a series of which this is the second instalment (you can read my notes on the first one, which I liked a lot more than this one, here). The ABCs are the twenty-first century version of the classic portmanteau or anthology horror movies put out in the ’70s by studios like Amicus, and later imitated by films like Creepshow. Except those movies only told a handful of stories. Too much time was wasted on talk and character development! In the ABCs you’d get an alphabet (that’s 26) vignettes based on various horrible ways to die, showcasing the work of an international collection of new directors.
*. Because the stories are so short, some of them only a couple of minutes, the effect is less like the classic horror anthologies and more like one of those traveling film festivals featuring the best (or dirtiest) commercials or animated shorts. Without any coherent narrative to focus on, one’s attention is free to wander among the hits and misses. We’re not looking for anything deep or moving but only shocks and laughs, shits and giggles.
*. Another problem with the films being so short is that it is often very hard to understand what is going on. This is something you’ll find I complain about a lot in my notes on the individual chapters, which I’ll now run through quickly:
*. A is for Amateur: sort of clever, but not as much as it would like or needs to be. It’s just a quick essay in irony.
*. B is for Badger: done as all one cut, but it’s a pretty standard shaky-cam parody. Nothing new here at all.
*. C is for Capital Punishment: more irony. The difficult decapitation is authentically rendered but that’s the only thing to recommend it (if that’s your thing).

*. D is for Deloused: perhaps the most original looking piece, done with stop-motion puppetry that manages to still be quite disgusting. I’m not sure what the point of it all was, but it works as a kind of “Kafka goes to hell” short. Assuming “Kafka goes to hell” isn’t redundant.
*. E is for Equilibrium: made me think I was watching a beer commercial. Then at the end it’s revealed that it is a beer commercial. Really weak.
*. F is for Falling: you’d think a story about a Palestinian confronting an Israeli soldier stuck in a tree would have more bite. Or maybe you wouldn’t. I guess it’s supposed to be a parable about the tragic consequences of misunderstandings, but I found all the attention given to the woman’s cleavage to be distracting and a bit ridiculous.
*. G is for Grandad: I’m not sure what they were going after here, but whatever it was I don’t think they got it.
*. H is for Head Games: animated battle of the sexes. Very short and unsurprising.
*. I is for Invincible: again, the short format works against communicating a full sense of what’s going on. As with the “G is for Grandad” episode there seems to be some point being made about generational conflict, with old people presented as both weird and wicked. Beyond that I didn’t come away with much.
*. J is for Jesus: another political parable, this time using the conventions of torture porn to deliver a message about tolerance and its enemies. Crude and unedifying.

*. K is for Knell: directed by Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper. I’m giving their names because this is one of the few films that really made an impression. I didn’t much care for where it went, but the intro, with the dark sun revolving in the sky and the faces in the apartment building all staring out at the protagonist, was very creepy.
*. L is for Legacy: seems like a pretty simple monster vignette, with some terrible effects. I can’t say I understood what was going on.
*. M is for Masticate: well, I enjoyed it, but again I felt like I was watching a commercial for something. The punchline at the end at least gave a sense of an ending.
*. N is for Nexus: just an exercise in style, but a pretty accomplished bit of hyperkinetic storytelling. Death by a million cuts.
*. O is for Ochlocracy: the zombies have taken over and now we have “mob rule” (ochlocracy) by the dead. Interesting idea, but that’s all.
*. P is for P-P-P-P Scary!: I’ve seen many different rankings of the different stories, and this instalment almost always comes in dead last. I can’t disagree with that assessment. It’s terrible, and goes on (or at least seems to go on) far too long.
*. Q is for Questionnaire: just a gruesome joke, but it works. Also a witty PSA about being suckered into taking those streetside intelligence tests. A better slam against Scientology than the “J is for Jesus” episode was against fundamentalism, just for being wittier.
*. R is for Roulette: works well enough, but it’s kind of hard to go wrong with a game of Russian Roulette. And I’m not sure if this is how the game works when there’s only one chamber left to play and you know it has the bullet in it. Isn’t the game over then? The ending is pointlessly enigmatic.

*. S is for Split: a stunt. The story is told in split screens. It’s done well enough (the timing seems off to me in several places), but in the end . . . it’s just a stunt. And seeing as De Palma was doing this stuff better forty years ago, it’s certainly not breaking any new ground. Another gag ending.
*. T is for Torture Porn: meh. Shades of Cronenberg. Or maybe Species. I guess it’s meant as a kind of feminist fantasy, but I didn’t think it was anything new or interesting.
*. U is for Utopia: standard satire of the brave new world of conformity and consumerism. Nothing to see here, move along.
*. V is for Vactation: nasty but effective revisiting of the shaky cam, tourist-terror tropes. Directed by Jerome Sable.
*. W is for Wish: clever idea, nicely realized. Takes a dig at violent children’s toys and the fantasies they embody. Be careful what you wish for.
*. X is for Xylophone: heartless and sickening, but that’s what you came for isn’t it?
*. Y is for Youth: a girl with low self-esteem has violent fantasies of taking revenge on her parents. Whacky in the usual Japanese way.
*. Z is for Zygote: a nightmare of codependency, and I’m not sure if it’s anything more.
*. If you sit through the end credits there’s a cameo appearance by Martin, the degenerate anti-hero of The Human Centipede II. He complains that the films don’t cut it as wank material.
*. Final thoughts. I like the concept here, but the results are very disappointing. If these shorts are meant as a showcase of up-and-coming talent they offer little in the way of calling cards. If I were a film producer I don’t think there’s much here that would make me sit up and take enough notice to want to give any of the directors a chance to helm a feature. Outside of the animated films, there’s little that’s original or particularly creative going on. Instead we just get examples of how the directors can work more or less proficiently in already established horror idioms. The one possible exception I flagged was the work by Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper in “K is for Knell,” and even that only had a couple of moments. But then, moments are really all a movie like this has to offer. You have to enjoy them whenever you can.

Dead on Appraisal (2014)

*. A real estate agent gets ready to stage an open house for a cursed property. This is our introduction to a trilogy of terror, with each of the three stories being set in the fateful home.
*. I want to say that the creators were thinking of The House That Dripped Blood (1971), an Amicus anthology horror that had an agent introducing violent episodes from a scary house’s past, but given how amateurish a project this is I really can’t feel confident saying that classic Brit horror was in anyone’s mind. It’s just as likely that they only had the one house to shoot in.
*. After watching five minutes of Dead on Appraisal you’ll realize that it’s a movie that there’s no point being bitchy about. It’s awful — and I mean really, really awful — in nearly every department: acting, writing, lighting, sound, editing, effects. I’m surprised I actually watched all of it. But since it appears to be a movie that a bunch of friends threw together over a long weekend, what’s the harm?
*. The overall impression is of total chaos. The effects range from puppets to crude animation. The story dislocates us in time, and I was never quite sure what order the stories were supposed to be in. Indeed, I didn’t even pick up on the break in the first story, “The Morning After.” I thought the cut to the crazy bug hunter was the lead-in to the next story.
*. The most chaotic thing, however, is the unevenness of tone. For the most part it’s a horror comedy that doesn’t take itself seriously. There are moments, however, especially in the second story, where it seems to want to create a different atmosphere: brooding and heavy with threat.
*. Overall, it’s never scary, but instead emphasizes zany gouts of gore and slapstick violence that just add to the chaos. It’s never even clear why all of this crazy shit is happening. Was the house built on an Indian burial ground? Or has some doorway to another dimension been accidentally opened?
*. Maybe they were just making it up as they went along. That rarely works out. The first story is a total mess. The second story might have worked if it had been done differently. The third story had potential as a “stoner” comedy horror, but it loses the thread as well.
*. Still, everyone has to start somewhere. And from here there’s nowhere to go but up.

V/H/S/2 (2013)

*. I thought the first V/H/S was OK for what it was, but most of what it was was just more of the same. So more of more of the same is . . . V/H/S/2?
*. Pretty much. I don’t have a lot to add to the general notes I made on the first film. In brief: crappy video quality (full of jerky editing and “glitches” that tend to get particularly bad during climactic moments); an almost identical set-up or frame story (which doesn’t make any sense); a lot of jump scares; more leering at boobs. So let’s dive in to the individual stories.
*. “Tape 49”: this is the frame story. As noted, it’s very similar to the first film, only the gang of hoodlums has been replaced by a pair of private investigators. I don’t know why they wanted to go down this same route, since it’s just as awkward here as it was in V/H/S. I assume they’re trying to build up some kind of “mythology” to the franchise, sort of related to the original haunted-videotape horror Ringu. But they sure aren’t doing a very good job.
*. “Phase I Clinical Trials”: actually has a somewhat interesting premise, but it doesn’t lead to anything more than the usual. In this case that means a ghost story told from the point of view of a guy with a bionic eye that allows him to see dead people. Nothing you want to think about too much, because it leads to asking questions like why he can’t see the ghost(s) that are attacking Clarissa in the pool, why he wants to get rid of his eye so desperately even after Clarissa tells him it won’t make the ghosts go away, why he is being targeted by these ghosts in particular, how such an encounter, which was all being recorded by the clinic, wound up on this video cassette, etc.
*. “A Ride in the Park”: another interesting premise (a zombie wearing a GoPro) that doesn’t go anywhere. I’m also pretty sure that it doesn’t belong in a movie like this. Because . . . what? The zombie apocalypse has already happened? And nobody noticed? I think this one was meant to be funny, and zombie fans should enjoy it, but it’s really out of place here.
*. “Safe Haven”: this is the “biggest” of the four films, with so many different cameras and so much editing it doesn’t look at all like a found-footage movie. It also makes you wonder who put it together (and even added the subtitles). The story itself is pure craziness, with a carnivalesque Takashi Miike vibe to it. It seems as though another kind of apocalypse is going on here. By this point, however, I’ve given up on internal consistency and verisimilitude.
*. “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”: there’s been a zombie apocalypse, the devil has been raised, and now aliens have arrived. The films here certainly didn’t want to play small ball. I didn’t care for this one very much though, as it just seemed to disintegrate at the end, with some pretty generic looking aliens chasing kids around. Very X-Files, and not much more than that.
*. Concluding thoughts.
*. I was initially excited that they’d cut half an hour off the running time of the first film, but then I realized they just had four stories instead of five. So things don’t necessarily move faster, there’s just less of it.
*. You could say that the stories here are more ambitious. Or you could say they’re a lot sillier. Or you could say both. It certainly takes more of a comic approach than the first film, which I think helped. I mean, as with so many of these movies you know you’re stuck in situations where everyone is going to die in the end. So you might as well have some fun.
*. Some of the directors were more experienced, and it shows. “Safe Haven” (co-directed by Huw Evans, who did The Raid) even seems at times like a real movie.
*. Overall, I found this to be a lot more enjoyable than the first V/H/S, which isn’t to say I thought it was great. They made it in a rush on a shoestring and that still shows. Some of it remains scattered and I don’t think the whole is more than the sum of the parts, but if this is your thing it’s entertaining enough.
*. Finally, I want to mention how Rex Reed caused a bit of a stir when he “reviewed” this movie after only watching the first story. He shouldn’t have done that, but this kind of trolling (as it was accurately described at the time) is something that’s becoming more and more acceptable in critical circles. It’s a phenomenon I’ve written about before with regard to literary criticism and it doesn’t surprise me to see movie reviewers doing the same. But let’s face it, the only reason Reed got called on it is because he insisted on talking about the parts of the movie he hadn’t seen and getting basic plot points wrong. Otherwise he might have gotten away with it. And would it have made a difference?

P.O.E.: Project of Evil (2012)

*. Things get off to a good start. I thought the minimalist interpretation of “The Pit and the Pendulum” set n a THX 1138 environment was clever, replacing the darkness of Poe’s story with a glaring, undescriptive white. But then something crawls out of the pit — or does it? — and we’re back in the twenty-first century.
*. The next story,”Solo,” bridges well, with the main character presented in a similar antiseptic cage. But before we know it he’s tied to a chair and the torture is about to begin. I told you the twenty-first century would be calling. Not that Poe had anything against torture. “The Pit and the Pendulum” is a tale of torture. But I don’t think Poe was quite our contemporary in this regard. In the third segment we’ll see yet another character (a porn actor) tied to a chair, this time as his cock is being cut off with a pair of pruning shears. The camera spares us nothing. Torture and porn are getting all mixed up, again.
*. I mention the bridge between the first two stories because there is nothing at all in the way of a frame here. Admittedly, these are often minimal in horror anthologies, but here there is just one damned thing after another.

*. I was curious how they were going to do “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The answer is, not very well. They should have gone with the guy in the ape suit being a guy in an ape suit. That’s where I thought they were heading with it. It would have made more sense.
*. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” also tacks on a twist revenge ending. Revenge seems to be a major theme in this movie. That’s not really there in Poe, aside from the “murder will out” theme. But revenge is a visceral emotional driver, and today’s horror is all about the viscera.
*. It’s a lot more “shocking” in its graphic presentations of sex and extreme violence than P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie. But I don’t think it gains anything by this, or by going from 13 stories to 7.
*. They also seem to be drifting further away from Poe. In the first film they had a voiceover that narrated parts of the original stories, but that’s scrapped here for what’s far more of a freestyle approach.
*. One of the more interesting things to think about when considering anthology films is the order of the stories. This can be really important, especially when it works well. It can also be nearly irrelevant, or flawed. Here I think it’s poorly handled. I guess “The Premature Burial” (or not so premature, as the case may be) belongs at the end, but I think it’s one of the worst of the films. Really, the only one I liked less was the one before it, which is based on “The System of Doctor Tar and Professor Feather.” So I didn’t feel like we were ending on a high note.
*. Most of the stories are less inventive than they try to be, somewhat incoherent, and too brief. But as with P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie I thought the interpretations of Poe were occasionally interesting, even when they weren’t successful. I mean, without the bit of voiceover in “The Tell-Tale Heart” episode I don’t think anyone would be able to identify Poe’s story, but when you stand back and squint a bit you can see there’s something in this twisted tale set in Cambodia that recalls the classic tale of obsession. I can’t say I liked it, but it did stick with me.
*. So it’s an interesting idea, and I think there was a genuine ambition to do something different. But the individual films just aren’t very good, like a lot of the shorts done in these “showcase” anthologies (I’m thinking of the V/H/S and ABCs of Death series). I guess any chance to make a movie is an opportunity not to be missed for these directors, but the form doesn’t give them much of a chance to put their best foot forward. And they don’t.

V/H/S (2012)

*. A shaky-cam anthology-horror flick. I don’t think the combination had been done before. So that’s one thing it has going for it.
*. And that’s about it.
*. The frame story (it’s called “Tape 56”) . . . they didn’t try very hard on this one, did they? Who are these clowns? This is how they make their living? They got hired to do a job by someone who’s seen their videos? Told to get a VHS tape from a house that’s filled with VHS tapes, but that they’ll “know it [the right one] when they see it”? What does that even mean? They break into the house by walking straight up to the front door, with all their flashlights on, and just letting themselves in?
*. And why VHS? Something to do with ironic, retro cool? Or just so the poor production values could be concealed behind the tracking errors and other glitches those of us old enough will have not-so-fond memories of?
*. I could go on, but why bother? None of this makes a moment of sense.
*. As far as frames go, it’s not even a very convincing way of introducing the various stories. Separate characters simply pop cassettes into the machine and watch them. Why are they doing this? Surely they don’t plan on watching them all (there must be thousands of hours of viewing), and you’d think they’d have other things to keep them occupied.
*. One point about the frame did strike me as different, though I’m not sure what the point of it was (or if there was a point). The frame doesn’t actually frame all of the stories since it ends before the final story begins. This is something I don’t recall ever seeing in an anthology horror film before. So it’s different, but I’m not sure if there was any reason for it. Doesn’t it just underline how pointless the frame was in the first place, since we’re going to be stuck watching these movies regardless of what’s going on in the house?
*. Here are some thoughts on the individual stories, in order.
*. “Amateur Night”: most people seem to rate the first story as the best. I thought it was OK, but it seemed very predictable and generic to me.
*. “Second Honeymoon”: had a bit of a twist that I should have seen coming, but I didn’t. There didn’t seem to be much to the story, and I think it went on too long without much of a payoff, but at least I had the sense that it had been written. Or had an outline. Most of these shaky-cam movies seem entirely driven by improvisation.
*. “Tuesday the 17th”: I didn’t understand much of what was going on here, and in addition to the jerky editing the film was also breaking down so I couldn’t see what was going on either. Apparently this was a special power that the killer/creature/ghost in the machine has (he’s even called “Glitch”). Anyway, there didn’t seem to be any point to it at all, and in terms of its production I wouldn’t even call it a good student film.
*. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”: at least there’s an interesting concept here, that concept being that the story is told entirely in the form of a split-screen chat session. Indeed, this is the only one of the segments with an interesting or semi-original concept behind it. But I’d also want to rush to add that it makes no sense. Somebody made a videotape of a Skype session? Or . . . did they? To be honest, I had no idea what the hell was going on. I’ve heard it described as having something to do with aliens, but if they’re aliens then I don’t know why they’d need James. In any event, since there’s simply not enough information provided to come to any determination about matters like this there’s not much point thinking about them. Next!
*. “10/31/98”: the story, about a bunch of goofs who are going to a Hallowe’en party and end up at the wrong address, is nothing special, but the climactic run through the house is the only moment in the entire film that impressed me. That was fun.
*. I’ll close with a couple of general reflections.
*. In the first place, the idea here was to showcase the work of younger directors in a format made for sampling. It’s the same idea as that behind the ABCs of Death series, and the results disappointed me in much the same way. Why would young creative types, given a wide latitude to do whatever they wanted (albeit on a micro budget), choose to churn out such derivative genre work? Why use what had become by 2012 a tired if not exhausted form (the shaky-cam or found-footage film) to present the new faces of horror? And are they that new? Even given the limitations of working in such a format, none of the directors here do anything to revive it. In fact, the drawbacks of this style of filmmaking seem even more pronounced in their hands.
*. Perhaps the genesis of the project, with the horror website Bloody Disgusting, had a role to play. This is a horror film produced by horror fans, and the thing about fans is that they aren’t jaded. Fans want more of what they already know, and what they already know they like. So that’s what they got.
*. The second general reflection I want to make has to do with the intensely dislikeable characters. I mean, even if they were nice people they’d still be meeting sticky ends. The slaughter of the innocents is a hallmark of twenty-first century horror that I’ve discussed many times before (my notes on The Human Centipede are as good a place as any to start). But in this movie nearly everybody is a jerk. And given the hostility felt toward them by other reviewers, I’m thinking this is not just a case of me being a cranky old man who doesn’t like criminal hooligans and moronic frat boys.
*. But if V/H/S is a movie that hates men, it really hates women. It starts right with the opening scene, which has the gratuitous (and highly improbable) stalking and rape of a young woman in a parking garage. Within the individual stories women are almost always portrayed as wicked demons who turn the tables on lecherous, boorish, or just not-very-bright men. The succubus in “Amateur Night,” the murderous (and lesbian) bitch wife in “Second Honeymoon,” Wendy in “Tuesday the 17th” using her friends as bait to try to catch a monster . . . by the time we get to the final story you know damn well the mistake the guys are making.
*. I don’t make this observation in any attempt to be politically correct, but rather just to register some surprise at how difficult it has proven for the horror genre to get over its fear of women and in particular female sexuality. I was reminded of this most recently while watching the first season of the Masters of Horror series.
*. Of course all the Masters are male. Which I don’t have a problem with. But you want men threatened by female sexuality? Almost every episode featured some kind of succubus: the girl coming out of movie screen all bloody, the naked witch, the deer woman, the cock-chomping “Jenifer,” the chocolate siren, the zombie stripper dancers in “Dance of the Dead,” the zombie-fucker Elise in “Haeckel’s Tale,” whatever that crazy prostitute is in “Imprint” . . .
*. All these “Masters” of an age when I guess this was the big social anxiety horror had to deal with. And I think they’re all aware of how prevalent such a theme is in their work (some of them even reference it directly in the supplementary materials included with the DVDs of the series).
*. But the thing is, the directors of V/H/S aren’t a bunch of old men. They are young men, today’s up-and-comers. And they seem to have exactly the same attitudes as the Masters, whom John Carpenter refers to as the “Masters of Old Men Who Like to Watch Young Girls.” Maybe this is just the result of their being steeped in the work of a previous generation of filmmakers (hence the VHS tapes), but if so it shows more of that same lack of original thinking that I noted before. Shouldn’t we have moved beyond the paradigms of sex = death or the “seductive evil woman who kills when she mates” by now? I mean, I have nothing against this as an abiding theme, but any theme that hangs around this long, being repeated so often, gets stale.
*. So that’s my problem with V/H/S, in a nutshell. An independent showcase of new young talent turns out to be mainly just a re-working of the usual horror tropes and themes, made confusing by crappy looking film and incoherent storylines.
*. This may sound too negative, so I’ll walk it back. The fact is, horror anthology movies are rarely classics. Perhaps only Dead of Night deserves that label. These movies have always been cheap, sensationalist quickies. V/H/S is no different. I’m disappointed it didn’t try to do something more original, but it certainly has its moments. And that’s all you can really expect.