Lords of Salem

Rob Zombie is back with a slow burn psychological supernatural trip straight to the depths of hell. A melange of Kubrick, Polanski, Fulci and Argento Lords of Salem takes the deliberate pace of 70’s occult horror, layers on a thick coat of dread, and peppers everything with the dreamlike flow and outlandish imagery of the best of the euro-and in particular Italian- genre films.

The film deliberately leaves questions open about what is real and what is not as Zombie’s wife and muse Sherri Moon Zombie takes on the lead role of Heidi, a late night DJ at a local radio station.  When she receives a strange new album from a band called the Lords, she decides to play it on the air unleashing terrifying visions upon her  while capturing the attention of many of Salem’s residents. Does all of this link back to the burning of supposed satanic witch Margaret Morgan and her coven way back in the town’s dark days in the 1600’s? Much like the new Evil Dead remake, Lords of Salem presents its heroine as a somewhat broken substance abuse victim. In Evil Dead this caused plausibility in the rest of the cast doubting the protagonist’s claims. In Lords of Salem the effect is different.  Since much of the film is presented from Heidi’s perspective we are left unsure of the reliability of the sights presented before us. Are we seeing supernatural revenge take its course, or witnessing the decline of a drug addled brain’s grip on reality?

The desolate haunted hallways of Heidi’s apartment building, shown in confusing odd angle shots that leave us questioning the geography,  are a character of the film almost to the extent that the hotel is in Kubrick’s The Shining. In addition, the dizzying camerawork and richly detailed sets, right down to the odd wallpaper, recall the supernatural dread of Argento’s Suspiria. Those familiar with Zombie’s earlier films will find him veering away from the gruff trashy dialogue he is known for and this restraint works in the film’s favor. It still maintains the feeling of being of a Zombie  work, but there is a more mature deliberate style at play here.

Zombie also being a succesful musician, it makes sense that the story hinges on a record album. Early on the film makes reference to the drama of  the black metal scene and  all the associated Norwegian melodrama. However this thread is soon turned on its head as the real orchestra of the damned turns out to something else entirely. Or does it? In the end, are we left with mass murders wrought of delusion, mass suicides encouraged through the power of suggestion, or true diabolical manifestation? Lords of Salem leaves no easy answers.

Lords of Salem is definitely a film that puts mood and atmosphere ahead of linear logic and narrative.  As such it can be a difficult film to discuss in a linear manner and this review may seem more a stream of conscious flow. However, I believe that is the correct response to the film. It has been three days since I saw it and its imagery and ideas are still swirling in my mind. If you like horror that leaves you thinking and also leaves you with that deep-seated sense of unease, Lords of Salem is for you.


The Sorcerer and the White Snake

There are few films that effortlessly blend genres and moods to perfectly create a cohesive whole. The Sorcerer and the White Snake, which I will henceforth refer to as TSATWS,  comes darn close.

TSATWS is, at its heart, a tale of forbidden love. However, it also stars Jet Li as a demon hunting warrior monk and prominently features ice harpies, bat demons, and snake women. There  are echoes of the Little Mermaid, Midsummer Night’s Dream , as well as  any number of fantasy adventures. The film is centered on the character of Xu Xian, a medicinal herb expert, and SuSu, who becomes the love of his lifter after she saves him from drowning. What Xu Xian does not know is that his rescuer is  actually a snake demon, who after their fateful encounter longs to return to the world of man to be with him. SuSu’s sister and fellow snake demon Quinquing, reluctantly agrees to help her sister.

Elsewhere father Abbot Fahai (Li)  is hunting down the bat demons that are causing havoc near his monastery. Aided by his assistant Neng Ren, they soon track down these creatures. However in the battle Neng Ren is bitten and infected, causing him to slowly turn into a bat demon himself! Who better to help him cope with his new form than Quingquing, who meets him while helping Suse reunite with Xu Xian. When Abbot Fahai learns of Susu’s true nature it becomes his mission to put an end to the affair and save Xu Xian’s soul. It is not long though before Fahai will be questioning if Xu Xian needs to be saved. If all that sounds overwhelming, let me just say that watching the film I had a smile on my face from the opening moments to the end credits, and it plays out much smother in the course of the film then in an attempt at summarizing.

TSATWS is full of spectacle, with massive action sequences that combine wire-work style martial arts with extensive CGI work. The CGI work never really looks fully realistic, but this works in the films fantasy-fairy tale style. The imagery had a painterly feel, recalling the fantasy artwork from the likes of the Brothers Hildebrandt or Frank Frazetta. The colors and visuals are beautiful if not fully convincing.  What really holds the film together though is the emotion connecting all the action and adventure. You really root for Xu Xian and SuSu to overcome the obstacles keeping them from their union of true love. At the same time, you understand Abbot Fahai’s goals to combat his perceived evils, and feel for him when his belief systems are called into question.

Neng Ren serves as the film’s comic relief, with his sort of bumbling nature early on and his comically horrified reaction to his demonification later on. While I did enjoy his story, the tone of many of his scenes is so wildly different then the poetic romance or dizzying adventure of the rest of the film that this was the one tonal shift that I felt might be too much. However this is a small quibble at what is otherwise a fantastic journey, filled to the brim with romance and action. TSATWS is a film I look forward to revisiting.

NOTE: I saw the film on 2D Blu-ray.  Apparently elsewhere the film was available in 3D, and there was some imagery in the film that seemed as though it was intended for 3D viewing.

Sushi Girl

So let’s just get this out of the way…someone really likes Quentin Tarantino. A whole lot. In particular they really love Reservoir Dogs. From early on while watching Sushi Girl I could not help but compare it to Tarantino’s seminal masterpiece. And therein lies the problem; if your film so closely resembles a more popular one comparisons cannot be avoided. And believe me there is no comparison, Sushi Girl falls way short next to the film it most imitates.

Sushi Girl does feature an interesting cast (Hey–who else do we know that assembles interesting quirky casts…hmmm), which is what drew me to it in the first place. Tony Todd (Candyman, Hatchet) plays a prominent role here and  fares best. Joining him in key roles are Noah Hathaway, James Duvall, Andy Mckenzie  and MARK HAMILL–yes that Mark Hamill.  We are also treated to a flood of cameos including Sonny Chiba, Michael Biehn (really a blink -and-you’ll miss it appearance), Jeff Fahey, and Danny Treo.

Sushi Girl is a crime/revenge tale centered on the character of Fish (Hathaway) on the day of his release from prison. Immediately after being set free he is whisked away to a reunion of his prior partners in crime, a team led by Todd’s character of Duke, and rounded out by the violent Max (Mackenzie), Francis (Duval), who is having second thoughts about his criminal lifestyle, and finally Hamill as Crow. I am not sure if it was my prior knowledge that Hamill voices the Joker in many animated Batman tales, but I could not help but think of his portrayal as a swishy version of Heath Ledger’s Joker from Dark Knight. As an effeminate psychopath, Hamill’s performance seemed over the top. Yet honestly I could not turn away from the sight of Luke Skywalker committing acts of torture in flamboyant style. 

It seems that since Fish has been away, the diamonds from their heist have been missing. And with Fish now present, the others want to know where the loot is. So they hold a meeting over an elaborate sushi dinner. The Sushi is served on the body of a naked girl, who is instructed not to move a muscle throughout the whole evening under any circumstance. The sushi is arrayed with more benign flavors in the outer extremities of her body, with more daring pieces occurring as one moves inwards, the ultimate goal being the potentially poisonous blowfish pieces.

As the evening progresses, things turn rather unpleasant for Fish, and the film  intercuts flashbacks to the actual day of the caper with the dinner scenes. The ultimate payoffs to the scenario are not entirely unpredictable, and you’ll see some of the twists coming a mile away. However there is some fun to be had along the ride with the quirky cast and some nasty violence. I’d say this one is worth a rental; but keep in mind there are way better films in this genre and closely  imitating one of does not help Sushi Girl’s cause at all.

John Dies at the End

Don Coscarelli,  how we love you. You brought us the Phantasm series and with it the iconic Tall Man and flying silver spheres. You gave us  Beastmaster, a fun slab of eighties fantasy. You delivered the unforgettable Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis fighting a mummy in Bubba Ho-tep. Suffice it to say that your cult film superstar director status is irrevocable.

And now you have unleashed John Dies at the End, adapted from the David Wong novel, another film aimed squarely at the hearts of cult cinema fans everywhere.

John Dies at the End is framed by protagonist Dave attempting to tell his story to reporter Arnie Blondestone, played by the always wonderful Paul Giamatti.  Dave and his long time pal  John are a sort of exorcist/ghostbuster hybrid. At the open we see the pair dealing with a possessed girl setting the stage early on for the film’s surreal tone. Once the duo determine things are amiss by the fact that they are both seeing very different versions of this girl, she dissolves into a writhing mass of snakes, only to reform into a creature assembled from various cuts of meat from the nearby freezer! It is a truly unique and dream-like image.  

From there we have Dave trying to convince Arnie of the validity of  his tale as Dave goes back to the origins of this “occupation.” It all traces back to a fateful night when Dave was watching John’s band play and they were introduced to a strange new drug called “soy sauce”  From here things  spiral down into to a truly surreal adventure that I will not spoil the details of.  Let’s just say that the “soy sauce” has the effect of opening your mind up to other worlds and beings.

John Dies at the End is a highly entertaining film, filled with the outlandish imagery that Coscarelli is known for. However, if you like your films to tie everything in a neat package for you by their conclusion then this is not the film for you. You have to be ready to go along for the ride with the film’s loopy logic and stream-of-conscious type flow.  I think a slightly tighter narrative might have benefited the film. Again, I do not need everything completely linear and laid out on a plate for me, but a lack of directness gives the film a bit of an ambling feel. However, things are so gleefully off-the-wall that the film is able to carry itself on character and quirkiness alone. The film is recommended, but not unconditionally. Fans of Coscarelli will certainly need to take this ride and  fans of surreal cinema are likely to enjoy as well. Folks outside of those camps may find the narrative lacking.

ROOM 237

The Shining is my ultimate horror film. The sense of dread in that film is palpable the second the film starts, and it does not let up until the final scene. I am so in awe of the power of the Shining that I try not to watch it too often as I am afraid it will lose its magic.

However many people, myself included, believe that a film maker like Stanley Kubrick had more in mind that just scaring us. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Stephen King’s book and Kubrick’s film will note the vast differences between the two. In fact, King was extremely disappointed in the liberties Kubrick took with the source material. My personal opinion is that they are both towering achievements in their respective formats. As an adaptation, the film might not be successful, but as its own entity its power is undeniable. But the point of Room 237 is, where was Kubrick trying to take us using the novel as a starting point (or perhaps we should say launching pad)?

Kubrick's film was the second to make notably ...

Kubrick’s film was the second to make notably innovative use of the Steadicam, which can track motion smoothly without a dolly track. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kubrick’s film was the second to make notably innovative use of the Steadicam, which can track motion smoothly without a dolly track. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Room 237 is an exploration of 5 interviewees’ thoughts on what Kubrick really had in mind. Format wise, the film is not what you would expect. We never see the “talking head” shots that you might expect covering this type of topic. Instead the film is composed of shots from the Shining, other Kubrick films, and surprisingly Dario Argento’s Demons (the Demons shots are used for a movie theater interior and audience.) This has both its advantages and disadvantages. Some of the visual material is repeated several times. Although this gives the film a hypnotic feel, it also can serve to distract from the voiceover as you start to play “name that clip” in your head. Also, I wouldn’t have minded a little bit more grounding as far as who the folks are whose opinions we are listening to.

Another point I found distracting was the fact that the five subjects are intermixed through he film. Tthis makes it hard for each opinion to flow properly and build to a conclusion. I would have preferred them to be presented one at a time.

The above may sound like I did not enjoy Room 237, but the truth is that I did. As a fan of the film for many years, I was familiar with a lot of the concepts presented, but there were several details that were new to me and really caused me to stop and think. Among the theories  presented is the notion that the film deals with genocide–both of the Indians or of the Jews through the Holocaust. While I had certainly noticed and read about the Indian connections before (Hotel built on an Indian burial ground, native American motifs in the hotel, the Calumet Indian logo prominent in the pantry…) I had never really connected the film to the Holocaust. It was an interesting point of view that added a new layer to the symbolism in the image of  the “river” of blood. And while it may seem hard to believe, there is a lot of evidence backing the theory that the film is actually Kubrick’s confession to staging the Apollo Moon landing!  I had  never noticed before the way the pattern of the carpet reverses it’s direction after Danny stands up, showing the Apollo Rocket on his sweater taking off.  The concepts of abuse, physical, emotional, even sexual are there to be seen as well. Personally I think all of this is a factor, and all contribute to one of the more over-arching concepts Room 237 espouses; the film is about the effects of the past. How do we escape the past? Danny escapes by learning to be aware of the steps he has already taken, as we can see when he “backtracks” in the snow covered hedge maze. Jack however, is swallowed up by the past.

So while I may have issues with some of the presentation techniques, the material present here is fascinating, and more than makes Room 237 worthy of recommendation. Room 237 is now in select theaters as well as on Cable VOD, iTunes and other digital platforms.

Jurassic Park 3D

There are a lot of films, old and new, coming out in 3D. There are those that nail the usage of the technique, say Avatar or Prometheus. There are those that fail on a technical level or creative usage  like the Clash of the Titans remake. As a mammoth fan of all things Star Wars, I found the 3D re-release of Episode I underwhelming. The sense of depth was not great, and I did not feel the conversion adding anything to the film. So although the chance to see Jurassic Park on the big screen is always welcome, I had my reservations about the 3D conversion.

I am not going to really focus on the details of the film itself. Suffice it to say that Jurassic Park is an action/sci-fi/horror classic that I am sure most folks are familiar with. The point I want to make here is that Jurassic Park in 3D was marvelous! It is the perfect example of how 3D, when done well, can actually add something to the experience. The sense of depth accomplished throughout the film was perfect. I saw the film in an RPX theater, and experienced almost no ghosting during the showing. The sense of space really brought the film to life, and some of the film’s set pieces were truly spectacular. The T-Rex assault was glorious, with the rainy conditions really contributing to that sense of depth. One of my favorite moments was later in the film as our heroes are fleeing the velociraptors in the visitor’s center, and one of them leaps up at an air duct, with the camera looking down as the creature jumps up. The 3D effect was awesome. And speaking of effect–the dinos in Jurassic Park still look amazing! The effects have really held up well.

Jurassic Park is all about that sense of wonder. Spielberg captures it so well in that first trip through the park when we see the Brachiosaurus. It is the fist time the visiting experts are seeing live dinosaurs, and they are actually mimicking the awe the audience feels seeing these creatures. Seeing the film in 3D was a great way to make that experience new and rekindle that sense of awe.  For my eight year old son sitting next to me, this was a great first visit to the wonders of Jurassic Park, and just  his face at this first dino appearance  made the whole experience worthwhile. Jurassic Park 3D is a limited release–do not miss it!

The Evil Dead Remake

คลิปตัวอย่างหนัง Evil Dead แบบ Red Band ฉบับเต...

คลิปตัวอย่างหนัง Evil Dead แบบ Red Band ฉบับเต็มสุดสยอง 04 (Photo credit: Films Inbound)

For years fans have  been clamoring for a fourth chapter in the Evil Dead saga. The oirginal Evil Dead is a ferocious horror assault, a gory thrill ride with the ability to invoke fear in it’s audience while still maintaining a sense of fun. It instantly earned it’s place in the horror pantheon. Evil Dead II is in part a remake of the first, but with a tone that goes so over the top that it becomes a black mix of gore and humor. Insane camera work kicks it even further over the edge to new depths. The third film in the series, Army of Darkness, moves even further away from pure horror adding much more slapstick and medieval adventure motifs. Bruce Campbell’s third time playing irrepressible hero Ash is so full of memorable one liners that you can’t help but fall for Army of Darkness’ charms. Groovy baby.

Flash forward to present day and instead of a fourth take on Ash, we are treated to a remake of the original, sans Ash altogether. Ash is replaced with a  female lead named Mia.  So how does it fare? Well I love the fact that despite the original series’ continual tonal shift towards comedy, this remake takes things back to the original films dark roots. I also like the fact that the film is different enough from the original to stand on its own. We have the original–we do not need a carbon copy. Having said that, this is still clearly an Evil Dead film.

Let me get my biggest disappointment out of the way up font. The original film scared me intensely. It was raw, new, and rough and I can still recall cowering on the couch as the VCR spilled forth the film’s insanity. During my viewing of the remake, I never felt that primal fear. There is definitely a dark and eerie mood, and the tone is right, but I was never truly scared. That said, the film retains something that a lot of recent brutal horror films have pushed aside —that  sense of fun. I liken the new film to an amusement park ride–Thrills and Scares are there but it’s in good fun. Think E.C. comics as opposed to modern torture porn.

One of the films new twists is to have the protagonist undergoing detox from drug addiction and venturing to a remote cabin with friends and her estranged brother to go through the ordeal. . This adds some great drama early on as everyone has reason to doubt the bizarre events Mia claims are occurring.  It is a smart twist that modernizes and grounds the film.

Now let’s face it, some drama is all well and good but it is not the draw to a film titled Evil Dead. We are here for mayhem–and that is where the film delivers. Once the demons are invoked and the wheels are rolling, things escalate rapidly and soon fly off the road! The over the top violence that is a hallmark of the series is present and accounted for, and the practical effects work is top natch! It was great to see a modern horror film that is not overly reliant on CGI. Gore is plentiful and well done. And the insanity ramps up nicely. I am sure we will be treated to an unrated edition when this comes out on dvd and blu-ray, but as it stands the R-rated cut contains copious amounts of the juicy stuff.

There are several false conclusions, and they work well to keep the audience on edge. In the end, Mia manages to come out as a great heroine. The truth is no one is going to ever live up to Ash, so the decision to take the lead character in a totally different direction works in the film’s favor. In the end, the new Evil Dead is an intense, gory thrill ride, and one horror fans will want to take.