Friday, June 11, 2010

Summer of Slash: Capsule Reviews

In an effort to get through as many horror films as I can for the upcoming horror countdown at the wonderful blog Wonders in the Dark (for which I will be a contributor, and the main inspiration for this summer Horror project) I have decided to cram a bunch of reviews into one post (which I will do frequently) since I need to save time, it helps, too, that a lot of horror movies can't really sustain an entire post on their own, so the capsule review becomes a life (and time) saver. I will reiterate my "rules" for this project: I am mostly focusing on slasher films (hence the title of this project), but I am not limiting myself to just once kind of horror film since I need to (re)watch a lot of them before I construct my list for the Wonders in the Dark countdown. Therefore, I am planning on mostly cramming all of the non-slashers (and some that can only have about a paragraph written about them) into these capsule-review posts to make my life a lot easier. This week the viewing schedule consisted of the low-budge slasher The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Joe Dante's beloved werewolf feature The Howling, the Ozploitation romp Razorback (from the director of Highlander!), and 2010's dystopian vampire sci-fi/horror hybrid Daybreakers. Reviews come after the jump...

The Howling Joe Dante's tongue in cheek horror film has never been a favorite of mine. I originally saw it when I was in high school and I remember thinking it was one of the most excruciatingly boring horror films I'd ever seen. So, I thought I revisit it in hopes that my original thoughts on the film were just the thoughts of a bored teenager who wanted more blood. I appreciated the film a little more this go-around as I was able to understand the in-references to the genre (specifically the werewolf movie) and could appreciate the slow-burn of the horror and gore. However, the film is still a chore to get through. I know the film is beloved by many, but man does The Howling have a soggy middle. The constant genre riffing and referential jokes just got a old after awhile. Joe Dante would fine tune this tone in the Gremlins films, and he would lovingly pay homage to the types of B-grade horror flicks that The Howling so badly wants to be in his much better (and criminally underrated) Matinee. I guess I can see the appeal of The Howling to some, but I have never been the biggest werewolf fan (I prefer zombies from Italy) and really the few good, bloody moments of The Howling (the transformation scene is outstanding, and the scene in the exam room at the end is brilliant, too) are just too few and far between, leaving me with the same kind of indifference I initially felt towards the film.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown This period slasher is interesting for a few reasons: its setting, the way it utilizes a lot of slasher tropes before they became cliché, and one of the most innovative kills found in any horror film. The film plays more like one of those cheesy reenactments from an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" as a narrator guides us through the "true" events of a masked killer terrorizing the residents of Texarkana, Texas. The film is part police procedural (a really cheesy one), part bad comedy (the director of the film, Charles Pierce, shows up as police officer who goes undercover in drag to try and force the killer out of hiding), and part effective slasher. The bad is really bad here as the film does a decent enough job with the post-WWII aesthetic (which got me wondering: why aren't there more horror films that set their stories in the past? I can only think of The Prowler as another example of how a period setting is pretty effective for a horror film), but it ultimately looks cheap and made-for-TV. The comedy brings the film to a screeching halt, a problem for a lot of 1970's horror films as they all felt the need to try their hand at "Dukes of Hazard"-like bumpkin buffoonery. However, the film is a complete waste of time (even if it is a chore to sit through) because the slasher element of the film is actually really effective. If the filmmakers could have made up their mind and decided what kind of film they had here, it could have gone down as one of those forgotten slashers from the pre-Friday the 13thera.

What makes the slasher element so effective here is that the way Pierce uses minimal effects during the killings. Often all we can hear is the masked killer's heavy breathing – which is extremely creepy – or the screams of the victims. The simplicity of the killer makes it all the more effective, too, as The Town that Dreaded Sundown utilizes the potato-sack-wearing killer long before Jason Voorhees popped up with it in Friday the 13th: Part 2. However, the best part about this film (and really the only reason it still maintains a kind of cult status) is that it contains one of the most hilarious and innovative death scenes as the killer has tied a woman to a tree and proceeds to attaches a knife to a slide trombone, the killer then tries belting out a tune (!) so that the knife goes back and forth into the victim. It's all at once inane, hilarious, and kind of creepy that someone would go to those lengths to kill someone.

Razorback After the brutal 90 minutes of Wolf Creek (review coming tomorrow) I needed something to lighten the mood, so I went with another installment from Australia and the Ozploitation movement, Russel Mulcahey's Razorback. Yes, that's the man responsible for the Highlander films, but before he went on to give us Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert kicking ass to Queen, he made this fun, low-budget film about a wild boar known as a razorback terrorizing the outback. All of the elements of a fin drive-in movie are in play here: a director who shows some competence and innovation with a limited budget, bad acting, cheap scares, and some memorable "WTF" moments that make the film a cult classic. I first heard about this film when I watched the documentary on Ozploitation, Not Quite Hollywood (great doc, by the way) and thought to myself: okay, I have to see this. Now, this would have been a lot better with some friends and some beer, but after enduring the brutality of Wolf Creek I was glad to be in the presence of a light-hearted horror affair. What's interesting is how much more I like this monster feature than something like the more famous and heavily praised (and recently re-watched by me) The Howling by Joe Dante. The films obviously have a much different story, but the tone was similar in that both films are supposed to be monster/creature features that are meant to be taken as larks. Mulcahey's film about an animal activist reporter who is doing a story on animal cruelty in a small Outback town; however, her report gets in her in some hot water with the deranged locals who take upon themselves to attack her and leave her for a wild boar (the razorback). Enter Jake Cullen, a crusty old hunter who has a history with the wild boar. The razorback killed his grandchild and wife, and now he wants revenge, so he teams up with the reporter's husband and they go searching for the wild beast in what is a generally tame horror film, but a helluva a lot of fun.

Mulcahey shows his talents for filming interesting scenes using the desert as a backdrop (and getting some nice looking shots in), showing the destruction of the razorback (there's a great scene where the boar rips off the side of a house and the man inside just sits there dumbfounded…drinking a Fosters, of course), and showing us the destruction of the boar without having to actually show us what it looks like at first. It's the classic "use your imagination" technique that grindhouse directors have been employing ever since the 70's, and it's one of the primary reasons why so many visually talented filmmakers get their start in the horror genre, because the limited budgets allow them to showcase their talents. Razorback is light on the gore, but heavy neat visuals (it's easy to see why Mulcahey) was a awarded a significant budget when he headed up Highlander) and the fun factor, and it certainly has that exploitation/grindhouse appeal that so many of us horror fans love about movies like this. America tried to recapture a similar feel with its version of Razorback, the Kevin Bacon vehicle Tremors (which I quite liked, too). Both films are classic examples of a type of fun, creature horror feature that has long been extinct (although the Korean horror film The Host and Greg McLean's Rogue are damn good examples of this particular subgenre making a comeback) and point to a simpler type of horror film that didn't take itself too seriously and could be enjoyed on the back-end of a double bill. This is a fun, fun movie.

DaybreakersI had the same problem with this vampire movie that I did with The Howling in that I don't care much for vampire films. However, Daybreakers (another Australian horror film, sheesh it's like this was planned or something) written and directed by the brothers Spierig (who made the horrendous, but promising, all things considered, zombie film Undead), is a fascinating entry into the genre for about 20 minutes…then it uses up all of its good ideas, therefore, despite the film's right-on-the-money 90 minute run time, the film is a slog to get through because we've seen all of the good stuff already. The opening ten minutes shows a world where humans, having passed on an offer to assimilate with the vampires, are non-existent because they are being hunted, captured, and farmed for blood – which there is an alarmingly decreased amount of. The opening scenes of the film show the promise of the Spiereg brothers as they create an original looking dystopia where blood is scarce and vampires are getting desperate. The film is also helped by the appearance of some great actors like Willem Dafoe (a vampire, turned human) and Sam Neil (playing a big-time bastard of a vampire) as well as Ethan Hawke, who I've never really cared for, but I have to admit it made me smile to see this pretentious asshole in a horror movie (okay, really I'm just jealous because here is a man who not only acts, writes, and directs films, but he also writes plays, has a written a few novels, and was married to Uma Thurman. What a jerk.). The reason the film failed to hold my interest (the film is essentially about a "banker" – they bank blood in this world – played by Hawke who is recruited by some humans – some former vampires – to start an uprising against the vampires) was because of my lack of interest in vampires. The only vampire film I've ever really enjoyed was Herzog's Nosferatu (and the original silent for that matter), and that had a few things going for it like a modern master behind the camera evoking some genuinely creepy moments (thanks to Herr Kinski as the Count).

The film certainly has a big, bloody conclusion (I mean lots of blood), but its filmed in that annoying, Matrix-y slo-mo that pissed me off because I can just see the filmmakers being so proud of themselves for being "cool". The film left me with an overall "meh" attitude, but I can see why a film like this caught the eye of major critic like Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, and Michael Philips (just to name a few) as something of an original horror film that just feels different than a lot of the stuff we've been getting with the genre these days. As time progresses so too does the horror genre, usually for worse, as I long for the days of simple, low-key horror films, but I will say this: Daybreakers is about the best evidence I've seen to date for the modern CGI horror film. It's just a shame they used up all of their good ideas within the first 20 minutes.


  1. Thanks so much for the kind words Kevin, and it will be tremendous to have someone of your expertise chairing this exciting poll. Of the films you discuss here, I only know THE HOWLING and DAYBREAKERS, and as it turns out I share your specific sentiments on both. Dante has done better work (GREMLINS, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE) and as far as the latter film, yeah the actors are good, but the story anemic and the narrative arc progressively tedius. Unlike you Kevin, I do love vampires (heck as a youngster I ran home from school every day to watch DARK SHADOWS at 4:00 on ABC) and I adore the Hammer vampire films. But this one has no teeth (excuse the pun) and its ultimately forgettable.

    I must see those other two though, and I look forward to your review of WOLF CREEK, which is definitely as you say, quite brutal.

    Superlative, authoritative roundup here.

  2. Good post. Yeah, The Howling has never done much for me either, and I'm also not too keen on werewolf films (really, the werewolf is just a furry vampire when broken down to it's base elements). I'm looking forward to your Wolf Creek review.

  3. I'll agree with you on the werewolf front, as they've never done much for me before (with my favorite still being Lon Chaney's original). Vampires on the other hand, them I like. Guess that makes me Team Edward, huh (is it sad I even know what that means?).

    THE HOWLING for me is pretty much worthwhile for the really good final scene and for being generally well made. It's main fault comes down to the fact it's just not that interesting.

    Of course, I need to see RAZORBACK. Sounds like a lot of cheesy fun. When I think of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (the only scene I've seen of the iflm is that trombone death you spoke of) all I think of is it is by the same guy who made the hilariously, boringly, awful BOGGY CREEK films.

  4. I have to agree with the thoughts on The Howling being a bit of a chore; even when I was a kid and getting into horror movies, watching a handful a week with my dad and devouring everything with gusto, this one bored me to tears. I did indeed watch it again a few years ago to see how it held up, and lo and behold it was nearly as I'd remembered it. This is really one whose cult status eludes me.

    The other films you've mentioned here have somehow flew under my radar, they look extremely interesting, and I greatly look forward to the WitD countdown as well as your participation, Troy!

  5. Sam:

    Thanks for checking this out and for leaving a comment. Yeah, looking at the comments here it's amazing to me that the consensus is that The Howling doesn't live up to its cult status. Which kind of shocks me because I know there are huge fans of the film out there somewhere. I'd like to hear from them why they like it so much.

    I think you would get a kick out of Razorback. Definitely a fun film. And as for Daybreakers you're right-on with your quick assessment of the film's narrative. A disappointing failure considering the talent involved. That anecdote about running home from school to watch "Dark Shadows" made me laugh because my mom told me stories about she and her sister used to do the same thing! Hehe.

    I'm really looking forward to the WitD horror countdown!

  6. Lee:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the comment. Like I said to Sam, I am glad others feel the same way about The Howling, but I am a bit shocked, too, because I know the film has a pretty big cult following.

    The Wolf Creek review should be up on Monday.

  7. Troy:

    Ah Boggy Creek...I want to go watch that episode of "MST3K" now. Hehe. Yeah, you need to see Razorback ASAP. It's a really fun monster movie. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Daybreakers since you like vampire films. It's an intriguing idea for a movie, that's for sure.

    Oh, and it's good that you know your Twilight characters because in about 10 years Madelyn will be deciding which team she's on, hehe. Get ready!

  8. Drew:

    Glad to see we're in agreement about The Howling being overrated. Thanks for stopping by and checking this out and for leaving a comment. I'll be doing horror reviews all summer, so I hope to see ya around here often. Thanks again, Drew!