John Dies at the End (2012)

The new street drug known as Soy Sauce, promises to sends its users across time and various dimensions for a truly uniquely out of body experience that no other trip has been able to deliver. After returning to from the journey of a lifetime, it appears that many of the users of this newfound drug do not return as human. Now it is up to John and David, a bumbling pair of college drop outs to stop the invasion from taking over the rest of humanity. John Dies at the End (2012) is based on the horror novel parody with the same name, the film pays great tribute to H.P Lovecraft’s iconic writing style and Hieronymus Bosch’s bizarre surreal visual style. The film is wonderfully weird and twisted filled with beautifully rich dialogue similar to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and a story analogous to Dude, Where’s my Car (2000) and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). John is an eccentric original film, that deviates from the normal. The story is not for everyone, but expect weird and over the top. For those who appreciate a layered film that allows you to go on a trip with the filmmakers all through the journey of our protagonists, this a memorable piece of cinema.

In a world of sparkly vampires, kissing werewolves and superhuman witches, John felt like a big F U to average Hollywood audiences and filmmakers who are incestuously reusing previous used ideas. After finishing John, I had a good chuckle, and felt as though I had been privileged to be in on an inside joke. Finding out that Don Coscarelli, the creative genius behind the cult classic films Phantasm (1979) and Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) was responsible for taking on the creative process of John, I knew it would executed with the vision, and originality that the story deserved. The film is comedic, but not in the same way as a Scary Movie horror comedy. It is hard to compare the film to any other comedic horror or fantasy film, as it is truly that original. But it is cheesy and fun like Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Naked Lunch (1991), so these are good points of comparison.

If you are a fan of the book, do not be surprised with the changes and differences between the two mediums. I have read the book as well, and I feel as though the choices made by the filmmakers were appropriate for the type of medium they were using. The task at taking such an imaginative 500 page story and regurgitating it on screen was a hefty task to do, but I believe that it was executed with the same vision the author of the novel had. The integrity of the book is maintained, with the same philosophical intrigue that leaves you pondering the many strange scenes you witnessed.

In order to get the most out of the film, you have to be willing to recognize that this was a low budget film with a 1980s flare to it. But where it lacks in budget it makes up in story, acting and intrigue. Do not try to understand it. Just embrace the strange and go along for the ride. Listen to the dialogue and read between the lines is what makes the film so enjoyable. The set design and the attention to detail is remarkable, there are hidden jokes in every scene. Grab a beer with a friend and go along for a weird trippy ride and see John Dies at the End

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Mama (2013)

After two young sisters are abandoned in a remote cabin in the woods, a powerful entity embraces them as her own. When they are found and brought back to civilization, much has changed in the five years that has past, since they begun their life under the watchful eye of Mama. When the sister’s Uncle Lucas, and his girlfriend Annabel are faced with the task of raising the siblings, they realize quickly that these girls are more challenging than anticipated. A mothers love is eternal, powerful and all consuming. Lucas and Annabel begin to understand that whatever the girls left back in the wildness may have followed them and is willing to do whatever necessary to get the pair back to where they belong.

A classic ghost story, with a Hollywood twist. The film is beautifully filmed, with artistic flare and intrigue. The opening sequence has a fairy tale brilliance to it with Guillermo Del Toro’s signature fingerprint on it, similar to the The Devil’s Backbone (2001). The characters are interesting, and the dynamic between the pair raising the girls and the sister’s development back into traditional family life is well executed. There are a number of genuinely creepy scenes that make you cringe. Unfortunately, as the film progresses the overuse of CGI overshadows the wonderfully spooky story.

The first half of the film is full of wonderfully beautiful and full of rich character development, mixed with strange foreboding images and events with the mysterious entity known as Mama. As the film progresses the film becomes painfully cliche full of pedestrian scare tactics. The story is slow moving with plot holes and concludes with an anti-climatic sequence, that was almost insulting to the audience. Reminiscent of The Ring and the Grude, the story does not add any new elements to the the face of cinema. 

Guillermo Del Toro discovered the films creator, Andy Muschietti after viewing his short Mama which came out in 2008. The short is creepy, concise and contains all the scare that the full length film does not, which ends up feeling glossy, fake and unbelievable. This is unfortunate because the short is artistic, eerie and makes a statement. The full length film contained the same elements as the short, but it felt as though random scenes had been thrown in for filler, rather than teasing apart the story to make it richer.

Regardless of the powerful characters and wonderful development, the conclusion of the film ends up leaving the audience with a foul taste as the last act becomes ludicrous with plot holes and excessive melodrama. For those who enjoy a tame ghost story with a few chills, Mama is worth a viewing, but do not expect innovation.

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Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

Picking up after the events of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) film, the Redneck locals of Newt, Texas storm the Sawyer farmhouse, burning everything in sight and taking no prisoners, after discovering what goes in their place of residence. Everyone is presumed dead. However, an infant child is rescued by one of the locals. Fast forward the story to present time and the infant child, Heather, is an adult who discovers that she has a secret past and a family that she had no idea about. Traveling to her birth place after finding out her Grandmother has passed away and left her the Sawyer homestead Heather learns that blood is thicker than water and that was never lost to begin with.

Upon my first viewing of this film I was baffled by it. The film just was not very entertaining and I was tired of rolling my eyes by the time the credits rolled. The acting was poor. The scripting and story line were not clear. However, the one thing that you crave from a Texas Chainsaw movie, that above all must be met, is that at least memorable and graphic death sequences have to be in the movie. In every Texas Chainsaw film there are are  always a group of unassuming friends in their early 20s who get themselves into trouble and are usually butchered beyond recognition by someone from the Sawyer family, typically Leatherface, our favourite chainsaw killing monster. If we cannot invest in likeable, well depicted characters, we at least want to see them die in gruesome unforgettable ways. Unfortunately, The death scenes in the 2013 film, felt more like something you would have found in a made for TV movie on NBC, as the gore was weak, uninspired and predictable.

In 1994 when Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation came out it received a lot of flack for deviating from the more serious tone of the rest of the series. It is as perplexing and bizarre as the original, delivers on suspense and above all is entertaining. The film without a doubt it meant to be comedic and confused audiences. Watching the film as though it is apart of the series is a fallacy because the tone of the film is completely different from the others; it is meant to be tongue and cheek. After viewing the 2013 instalment, I was perplexed and wondered if I had misunderstood the filmmakers intentions much like the 1994 film was misconceived. After a second viewing of the film, I still cannot decide if the creators of the most recent film were intending for the film to be serious or not. Either way, the film is so over the top bad, filled with terrible one liners that all you can do is laugh.

By the time Leatherface is running around a Carnival with a chainsaw, I was in full out tears from laughing so hard. The mystery of the filmmakers intentions remains unknown. However, I think if you are to enjoy this film on any level, watch it for its comedic value. The obvious plot holes, ridiculous lines, and poor story line choices, such as having one goofy police officer proceed through the blood soaked Sawyer house alone, make it so bad it becomes funny. It is not all that memorable or entertaining, however on the bright side, this likely will not be the last we see of Leatherface, to leave us with a long lasting sour taste.

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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Shaking up classic fairy tales that we all grew up listening to at bed time, on film in a modern way is good entertainment. There is something nostalgic about seeing a twist on an old classic that we remember as a child; we recognize the story and are invested in the characters prior to the opening sequence. Fables and fairy tables were intended to direct moral or ethical messages to young children. These lessons were often delivered in strange ways that seemed harmless, but upon examination included elements of horror, torture and death. In the classic German tale, Hansel and Gretel, the pair are left by their parents in the woods to perish and instead are threatened by a cannibalistic witch. The siblings outwit the witch and end up cooking her alive in her own oven. This is what nightmares are made of, which is why it seems only natural Hollywood would rework the classic tale of sorcery and death. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), built upon the iconic child’s tale and naturally answered the question, what do two people who nearly escape death at the hands of a witch become as adults? They become witch hunters. 

Horror films are becoming more difficult to define based on their characters and subject matter. It used to be that if vampires, werewolves or witches were included in the subject matter, most definitely we would expect a type of film to follow; one that elicited fear and horor. Of course witches have already spent a long time on the silverscreen sharing genres other than horror. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the topic of witches also share elements of fantasy more so than vampires. Practical Magic (1998), The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and Witches (1990) are dramatic, romantic and comedic approaches to the traditional horror stories.

When I heard that Tommy Wirkola wrote and directed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, I was excited. The film would be a follow up to his smash success, Dead Snow (2009). Highly successful and a perfectly over the top, funny and horrific film, Dead Snow delivered fans of the genre an instantly classic film. Working with a limited budget seems to focus filmmakers to create a work of art with every piece of the film intended to be the way it is. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, is everything Dead Snow is not, and is an extreme let down. The film is as much of a horror film as Van Helsing (2004) is. The film is an action film, with the content matter of a horror film and is unfortunately misleading. 

The film had potential as the content matter is interesting and could have gone in a variety of directions. Unfortunately, the execution of the film is weak and watered down. Most notably the biggest failure is the acting. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arteron were terrible as the lead roles. Renner seemed irritated throughout the whole film and Arteron was unbelievable and delivered a woody performance, comparable to Kate Beckinsale in Van Helsing.

What I found the most disappointing was lack of direction the film had, it seemed to have the promise of being a film it inevitably did not deliver. With the potential to take the subject matter to an over the top fashion with excessive gore and blood, they decided to wimp out and take the Hollywood approach and make it cheesy and pedestrian. The witches makeup appeared to be done by a last place contestant from a season Face Off, one even looking like Pinhead’s doppelgänger. The direction went from potential to traditionally quirky, where the always talented Famke Janseen is cackling on her broom stick, zapping spells at people. While our witch hunters look like they stepped off the set of the Matrix.

While an interesting subject, the film is recommended more for an action junkie than a horror fan.  There is no real energy that brings the film together and the execution is lacking. The filmmakers seemed to suffer from the Michael Bay effect, where being provided an unlimited bank account to create the film, causes a blindspot. CGI does not make a movie. Ultimately, you need a good story, acting something memorable. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was an even duller and forgettable version of Van Helsing.

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The ABC’s of Death (2013)

Anthologies are all the rage. It is hip to collaborate. This is what I love so much about the horror genre. Maybe it is because horror films are considered to be the bottom of the barrel in the hierarchy of films among critics; but filmmakers who create horror flicks seem to pool their combined resources together to create badass films. We saw the combined efforts in Grindhouse (2007) with two full-length films as well as some gnarly “fake” promos for other films within the feature. More recently V/H/S (2012) also depicted a collaborative approach to film as a whole. The ABC’s of Death (2012) takes collaboration to a new level. The film is an ambitious collection of 26 chapters showcasing brutal, yet sometimes cheesy, comedic or strange deaths, each starting with one of the letters of the English alphabet.

Directors ranging in experience were allotted a budget of $5,000 and a time limit of 5 minutes and asked to complete a segment based on the letter they were assigned. Other than those parameters, filmmakers had complete autonomy to create their mini films depicting their death sequences highlighting their letter. There were a few brilliant exposes that made me laugh and cringe. Unfortunately, there were a number of chapters that also left a bad taste in my mouth that made me extremely grateful the time limits were so short, and question where they spent their money.

Certain directors despite their experience surprised me with their poor representations of their letter, such as Ti West, which appears to be the most under thought segment, and was an extreme let down. What ends up being more entertaining than the bizarre death sequences was watching the segment then trying to figure out what the sequence would be titled, often in an aha moment when you realized you were completely wrong.

While an intriguing method to filmmaking, the truth is that when attempting this type of collection, the entirety of the film is only as strong as the weakest component. Not surprising, because of this independent approach to the overall film, there is not a lot of cohesiveness to it, and it feels quite fragmented as nothing ties the units together. The importance to watching this film is that while one segment may be extremely comical, such as F and J, others were extremely intense and serious such as D and K. While others still felt like a bad night on peyote and were just plain weird such as R, W and Z. Be ready for a rollercoaster of weird and mixed emotions.

Overall the collaborative works of modern day horror filmmakers combined to generate a unique film that has a number of hilarious and entertaining death sequences. After my first viewing of The ABC’s of Death it felt watching an R rated version of the TV show 1000 Ways to Die. The one predominate theme through a large number of the segments includes deaths including toilets and excrement, which is why I give The ABC’s of Death a D, because is D is for damn those are a lot of bizarre ways to kick the bucket.

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Dark Skies (2013)

In any average cookie cutter pleasantville suburb, where the only catty problems that seem to be a concern are whose kid is in rehab again and how everyone must maintain a perfect facade even when things may not. Underneath this plastic exterior with rows of large elm trees and perfectly manicured lawns there is something lurking and waiting to pounce. In Dark Skies (2013) the perfect looking Barret family has their world shaken when they realize that they are not alone and the strange series events happening around them is only the beginning. They have been chosen by an unforeseen force. What they soon realize is that they are not the first.

Upon viewing the trailer of the film, I was worried about the execution. It seemed to be another one of the Hollywood films that try to use scare tactics for the average audience, making it an average film. Although not created by the master of strange, M. Night Shyamalan, who has let me down countless times. It felt like it was going to be a mishmash of the Happening (2008) and Signs (2002). However, what it turned out to be is more of a marriage between Poltergeist (1982) and Paranormal Activity (2007). Infact the only thing Dark Skies was missing was the iconic tagline “they’re here..” and the film could easily have been a prequel.

The film is not groundbreaking or brilliant, as it is not overly ambitious. Keri Russel was a questionable choice for the lead female role, as a mother that is fairly bland and stonewalled. This is her second recent role in a horror film and I have doubts that she is able to win over an audience as a victim. Much like Josh Hamilton who plays Russel’s husband, the two deliver washed down performances that come across more annoying than sympathetic. That being said, the real stars of the film are their actors who play the family’s children. They are effective at delivering roles of scared, possessed children. The older of the two boys, played by Dakota Goyo, is the true hero of the film and wins us over by being a character with depth and heart. J.K. Simmons makes a cameo as a survivor and expert on these events, and as always is entertaining.

While there are plot holes, questionable performances and strange lines, Dark Skies is a fairly entertaining film, so long as you let the faux pas go. Without the use of gore or violence, there are a number of chilling scenes that make you cringe. I found myself biting my nails a number of times. I am always impressed with any filmmaker who can execute scare tactics without the use CGI and blood spatter. Most recently Insidious (2010) successfully demonstrated that the use of psychological fear can be an effective delivery method to scare an audience. Dark Skies is not quite so successful, but it is a far cry from being a M. Night Shyamlan flop. It is a fun film for an average audience who wants a few goosebumps but can still sleep at night after the popcorn is empty.

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Warm Bodies (2013)

The story has been told countless times. Boy meets girl, some sort of circumstance prevents boy and girl from being together. Boy and girl overcome said obstacle and are together in the end. What is new and fresh about Warm Bodies (2013), is that the hindrance to R’s and Julie’s ever after is that he is dead and has reanimated as a flesh eating zombie. The premise of the film surmises that love really does conquer all and prevails even over the walking dead. While Warm Bodies is an exciting new way of looking at a zombie outbreak, the execution was not all that strong. However, even tho the end result is not as effective as it could be, ultimately the love story between R and Julie is a modern day Romeo and Juliet and is entertaining.

Zombie’s have come a long way since Béla Lugosi stared in White Zombie (1932) and George A. Romero brought them to a modern silver screen in the iconic Night of the Living Dead (1968). They have evolved from slow walking misunderstood shuffling demons, to comedic mohawk wearing creatures  in Return of the Living Dead (1985) to the athletic marathon runners in Zach Synder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) cult classic remake of the 1978 film. Shaun of the Dead (2004) introduced us both to the modern day zomedy and that romance can still exist within an apocalypse. Fido (2004) and Zombieland (2009) continued the elements of a zomedy and went further into a coming-of-age story to add depth to complexity of the zombie. Warm Bodies continues this trend of being more than just flesh eating dead things. There is more than meets the eye of the undead.

The question remains as to how the outbreak of the undead began, and there is often a continual debate among fans as to what truly is a zombie. George A. Romero often is coined as being the Godfather of the zombie film. [Rec] (2007) and 28 Days Later (2002) attempted to answer the how, with that they are an infected by some sort of government experiment gone wrong. However, less often tackled is the approach to cure the infected. Warm Bodies has attempted to solve the problem and their solution is love.

The film is short, simple and sweet. To compare it to other films such as Twilight (2008) is a fallacy, because other than the fact that there are love scenes, there are no similarities between these films. Warm Bodies is first and foremost a comedy. It is meant to be a bit absurd and you have to watch it with an open mind. Of course there are some scenes that make you roll your eyes, because the cheese factor is over the top. But you can’t help but smile for a lot of the movie, it is a sweet love story about how humanity is exhumed.

In a genre that is dominated by filmmakers trying to one-up each each-other in the gore factor, it is refreshing to see a film that utilizes the same subject matter but in a beautiful fashion. The message is simple, we can all be saved by loving our fellow man if we just open up to the opportunity to feel and engage with each other.

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