Session 9 (Review)

•September 13, 2011 • 4 Comments

"Fear is a place"

Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is a shining example of conservative low-budget horror filmmaking at its finest, reminding us what a deliberately slow-paced and well-constructed exercise in suspense can do to our minds and our nervous systems.  Using nothing more than a perfect location, a talented cast, and some fantastic sound design and editing, Anderson crafts a tense and nightmarish film that manages to worm its way under the skin without needing to resort to excessive gore or cheap shocks to scare its viewers.

There is a clear influence from classic horror films like The Shining, not the least of which is the way that the location (the abandoned Danvers State Mental Hospital) comes to feel like a character in itself, carrying a presence on screen that feels at times almost tangible.  In reality, the history of the building is every bit as shocking as it appears here, and this level of authenticity certainly works to the film’s advantage and adds to its lasting impact. As an example, the characters in the film tell stories about how Danvers State was the first site to develop and implement the frontal lobotomy as a means of treatment – a fact that is allegedly true, not to mention quite disturbing.  Instances such as this prove as effective methods of foreshadowing later plot points while simultaneously tying the film to historical fact, thus opening the door to the twisted stories of the patients (both real and fictional) and their experiences with abnormal disorders and inhumane methods of treatment

The eerie sound design also helps to further emerge you in the psychotic world of the Hospital, where ethereal sounds and voices waver in and out of the ambient musical score and work to slowly build layers of unease, resulting in a continual sense of foreboding.  The audio tapes that are eventually uncovered by one of the characters – chronicling nine therapy sessions of a schizophrenic patient named Mary Hobbes – function as the haunting centerpiece of Session 9, delivering some of the film’s most chilling moments while also holding the key to understanding what has really happened by the end.  The fact that it is these moments of disembodied dialogue (with no visual reference) which carry the strongest impact remains a testament to how tightly Anderson has crafted his film, and how efficient he is at building suspense and delivering lasting scares using minimalist techniques.

Thankfully the cast is talented enough to carry this tension forward as well, and there are even a few familiar faces to be found (most notably David Caruso, better known for his role as CSI Miami’s star Horatio).  Peter Mullan stands out in the lead with a performance that effectively balances emotionality with detachment, while Caruso remains stable and occasionally mysterious in the supporting role.  Josh Lucas, co-writer Stephen Gevedon and the young Brendan Sexton III fill out the rest of the central characters – a five-man asbestos cleaning crew who are contracted to clean out the rotting Hospital over the course of a week.

Like many of the films that inspired it, Session 9 has a fairly long and slow build-up to firmly establish its atmosphere, offering scenes that develop a subliminal sense of horror before the narrative pushes things into more sinister territory; however, the final act plays out with a relentless nail-biting tension, gripping you firmly right up until the shocking (if slightly abstract) conclusion.  Due to the artistic visual style which relies less on overt exposition and more on intuitive deduction, this is surely a film that invites discussion and encourages repeat viewings, with an ending that may perplex viewers who haven’t been paying full attention.

And although its lack of blood is somewhat welcomed considering the opposing trend of modern horror films, there are a few moments where I wish Anderson would have shown us a little bit more – specifically when dealing with the fate of one or two of the central characters, whose demise feels almost brushed over.  Still, despite this minor qualm, Session 9 is one of the most genuinely gripping and unforgettable films I’ve ever seen, and remains a hidden gem for fans of classic suspense-driven horror.

R   A   T   I   N   G :     4.5 / 5   S t a r s

Session 9 (2001, USA, R: 100 mins) Directed by: Brad Anderson.  Starring: Peter Mullan, David Caruso, Josh Lucas, Stephen Gevedon, Brendan Sexton III, and Paul Guilfoyle.

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Phenomena (Review)

•August 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

After returning to a more realistic plot for his 1982 hit Tenebre, Dario Argento would once again descend into the realm of the supernatural for his follow-up, a bizarre horror-fantasy called Phenomena, starring a young Jennifer Connelly.  As one of the director’s most unique works, Phenomena combines several classic giallo elements with a distinct supernatural plot involving insects and their supposedly heightened psychic abilities, which are perceived and understood by the protagonist Jennifer who comes to share a special connection to them.  Jennifer is then tasked with the challenge of using this psychic connection with insects in an attempt to track down a serial killer who is murdering young women in the area.  Donald Pleasance makes a welcomed appearance in a supporting role, and has a chimpanzee-butler who is trained to understand English, and ends up stealing several scenes not to mention holding a surprisingly critical role in the film’s climax.  There is also a great twist ending which leads into one of the greatest final acts of Argento’s career, and all of this is accompanied by a lush and atmospheric soundtrack by the legendary band Goblin.

Jennifer in a climactic scene where she summons and army of flies to assist her

My only criticisms come from Jennifer Connelly’s occasionally stiff performance, as well as the fact that a few scenes are inexplicably set to heavy metal music, which is jarring and doesn’t really flow with the atmosphere of the rest of the film.  There is also a random voice-over narration that comes in out of nowhere part way into the film, and disappears just as quickly, with no explanation.  As usual with Argento’s work, the editing can be a bit sloppy at times, however there is so much to enjoy about the film’s ambitions and it’s highly original tone that these things hardly matter.  The occasional lapse in cinematic logic serves only to add to the overall experience, allowing the film to make little sense at times without ever losing its engrossing and imaginative sense of gothic wonder.

Argento's daughter Fiore is killed in the film's famous opening sequence

There is also one of the director’s most famous kills at the opening of the film, where a young girl (played by his eldest daughter Fiore Argento) is thrust through an enormous pane of glass by an unknown assailant, filmed in extreme slow-motion with some very realistic-looking fake glass.  There are a few other notable kills as well, including the death of the killer (which I won’t give away) that stands as one of the director’s most inspired moments.  In fact, the entire blood-soaked final act is emblematic of Argento in his prime as a horror auteur, demonstrating his ability to continually shock and disturb with memorable sequences that raise this film far above your average supernatural slash-fest, and stick out as shining examples of what the genre is capable of.

Phenomena is just such an original work that I couldn’t help but be won over by its unique flavour.  It is one of the director’s more highly recognized films by modern fans, and shows him near the end of his “golden era” of filmmaking in the ’70s and ’80s.  After all, anyone who can direct a chimpanzee like this deserves some credit. Though not the best film in Argento long and storied career, it is still highly recommended to the avid horror fan, and remains one of the more imaginative and effective horror films to come out of Italy in the ’80s.  And please, as a warning, avoid the heavily-cut American release entitled Creepers which is missing nearly 28 minutes of footage, because you simply will not get the full experience.

R  A  T  I  N  G  :   4 / 5  S t a r s

Phenomena (1985, Italy, Unrated: 110 mins) Directed by: Dario Argento.  Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance, Daria Nicolodi, Patrick Bauchau, Fiore Argento, and Dalila Di Lazzaro.

Death Race 2000 (Review)

•August 25, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Death Race 2000 (1975) is one of those rare B-movie gems that really stands out as a true cult classic, still holding up to repeat viewings even now, more than 30 years since its initial release.  David Carradine steals the show as the elusive Frankenstein, a masked figure allegedly made up of artificial human body parts, who also happens to be the defending champion of the “Death Race” competition – a cross-country road race where scores are tallied based on how many innocent bystanders the driver runs over or kills during their run.  Try to imagine something like The Running Man meets the Grand Theft Auto games, and you’ll get a good idea of what Death Race 2000 is all about, with costumed celebrity icons who commit vehicular homicide purely for the joy and entertainment of the viewing public.

Here is Carradine as Frankenstein (bottom) and his monster car (top)

This campy dark comedy makes surprisingly good use of its obviously limited budget, offering wild car chases and stunts that feel quite real, despite the fact that the cars themselves look somewhat cheap and silly on their own.  There is also some surprisingly brutal gore effects and a fair bit of unnecessary T&A, thanks in large part to the influence of infamous B-movie producer Roger Corman. The social/political messages of revolution that are thrown around end up falling kind of flat by the end, but they also serve the greater purpose of setting up the hilarious twist that is revealed concerning our hero Frankenstein, and what he plans to do (with the help of his right hand) once he finishes the race. A young Sylvester Stallone also offers a memorable supporting performance as the film’s antagonist, Machine Gun Joe.

Essentially, Death Race 2000 is a cheap but effective dark comedy that glorifies vehicular violence, and taken as such, it’s a surprisingly fun ride.  It’s one of those films that carries a higher entertainment value than it probably deserves, and still stands the test of time as a great cult classic which is certainly best viewed in the company of friends and beers.

R  A  T  I  N  G:  4 / 5  S t a r s

Death Race 2000 (1975, USA, R: 84 mins). Directed by: Paul Bartel.  Starring: David Carradine, Sylverster Stallone, Simone Griffeth, Mary Woronov, Martin Kove, Louisa Moritz, Roberta Collins, and Don Steele.

Fright Night Remake is Certified Fresh!

•August 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand corrected.  In early June, after viewing the first and second theatrical trailers for Craig Gillespie’s remake of the 1985 cult classic Fright Night, I was left severely unimpressed, fearing that one of my favourite ’80s horror-comedies was falling victim to the wave of lackluster modern remakes that have plagued the industry for several years now.  My two initial responses can be found here and here.  Despite my pessimistic outlook (stemming largely from the trailers’ proportional lack of comedy and its seemingly angst-driven tone) I remained hopeful that this new Fright Night would prove me wrong, offering more laughs than its trailers suggested and coming close to replicating that key balance of horror and comedy that made the original so successful and fun to watch.

And it appears that I may indeed have been proven wrong.  While its critical reviews aren’t necessarily as strong as the original film, the new Fright Night has done reasonably well for itself, opening in 5th place at the box office and earning a “certified fresh” rating on rottentomatoes.com with a 74% approval rate from critics.  This is certainly a much better situation than I envisioned back in June, and I remain thankful that the filmmakers appear to have taken what worked best in the original film into consideration for this modern update instead of simply giving it an overly dark “Platinum Dunes” type of treatment (see: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010).  Indeed, several critics make a point of praising the appropriate level of comedy present to counterbalance the scares – something that seemed sorely missing from the trailers.

I won’t know for sure until I see it for myself, but you can rest assured that with all this promising news, I’ll be heading over to the theatre soon and hopefully won’t be disappointed.  Even just knowing that it is possible for an assured and faithful remake in this age of half-assed and uninspired horror filmmaking is a breath of fresh air, and makes me believe that something like Return of the Living Dead – another classic horror-comedy from the same year as the original Fright Night – holds the potential for a strong modern remake as well (and it just might relieve some of the bad taste that’s left over from the crappy attempts at sequels in 2005’s Rave to the Grave and Necropolis).  After all, considering the past decade has been filled with Saw films and several humourless slasher attempts, we could all use a few more laughs with our scares…

Great Moments in Cinema: Part 1

•August 20, 2011 • 1 Comment

Welcome to Great Moments in Cinema, a new place for me to list out some of my favourite moments in film history for your reading pleasure.  With a topic as broad and potentially endless as this, I am hoping to turn Great Moments into a recurring piece, so keep in mind that these choices are going to be somewhat random and not meant to be taken as a comprehensive list in any way.  They’re more a reflection of my feelings right now at this moment.  To be honest, I’m shocked to have gone this long since creating 35mm without posting some sort of list-based piece (expect more in the future).  So without further delay, here is Part 1 of Great Moments!  I hope you enjoy!

NOTE: This list contains some serious SPOILERS that include clips from the film!  Read carefully if you don’t want to ruin anything for yourself…

10. Samuel L. Jackson Gets Eaten by a Shark (Deep Blue Sea, 1999)

I figured I’d start off this list with a shocking and hilarious scene that really caught me by surprise the first time I saw it.  After just barely surviving the flooding of their underwater laboratory (due to attacks by genetically super-intelligent sharks), the surviving crew find themselves holed up in a submarine diving chamber where they begin to fight and bicker, buckling under the weight of their seemingly hopeless situation.  Enter Samuel L. Jackson with a motivational speech, using his past experience surviving an avalanche to point out the need for everyone to return to a level-headed state where they can begin to work together towards survival.  Everyone calms down, starts to nod along and get it together, then just as his speech reaches its climax, BOOM he gets eaten!  Easily one of the funniest and most memorable deaths of Sam Jackson’s career (and that’s saying something), this ridiculous scene also managed to make this otherwise mediocre film stick out in my mind for years afterward.

9. Stealing the NOC List from Langley (Mission: Impossible, 1996)

While it certainly lacks the explosive action of the later sequels (Tom Cruise actually doesn’t fire a gun in the entire film!), I think many would agree that Brian De Palma’s 1996 original remains the strongest of the Mission: Impossible films thanks to its engrossing plot, strong performances, and numerous scenes of thrilling espionage.  On top of the list of such scenes remains the mission to break into the CIA headquarters in Langley in order to steal the NOC list (which contains the true identities of all IMF agents).  Most will remember this as the scene where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is seen dangling upside-down from the ceiling on a harness just inches above a floor that is rigged with an extremely precise pressure-sensitive alarm.  Of course that’s not his only problem, as Hunt must also avoid the employee who works at that particular office, as well as deal with laser sensors, temperature changes, and a suspiciously untrustworthy teammate (played by the fantastic Jean Reno).  But then again, this is called Mission: IMPOSSIBLE, so these sorts of things are to be expected.  To be honest, there’s not much more to say about this scene aside from the fact that it offers one of the most tense and engrossing 10-minute spy sequences that Hollywood has ever produced, and it had an enormous resonance in pop-culture upon the film’s release.

No clip for this one 😦

8. Jack Burton kills Lo Pan / Thunder Explodes in Outrage after Seeing Lo Pan’s Body (Big Trouble in Little China, 1986)

John Carpenter’s bizarre fantasy/adventure/comedy is full of memorable moments, but one of the most surprising and unexpected comes in the film’s climax, when the completely useless American hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) finally faces the immortal emperor Lo Pan (James Hong) in the flesh.  After attempting to hit him with his trusty throwing knife and missing completely, Jack and love interest Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) look at each other in supreme disappointment.  Since Jack has spent the entire film screwing up and failing to do anything heroic when it is demanded of him, this failure comes as no surprise.  Lo Pan playfully picks up the knife and examines it before throwing it back at Burton in an attempt to kill him, when out of nowhere, Jack instantaneously catches the knife mid-throw and sends it back directly into Lo Pan’s head!  The moment comes as such a shock that I had to rewind and rewatch it two or three times.  Jack then follows the kill with his catchphrase (“it’s all in the reflexes”) which is finally used in a context that makes sense.  Then immediately following these events, Lo Pan’s 2nd hand man by the name of Thunder comes by and sees his master’s body, becoming so outraged that he literally just explodes.  It really has to be seen to be believed.  This film is truly one of Kurt Russell’s finest moments of ironic comedy and remains a hidden gem of the cult world.

The clip of this scene starts at the 0:30 sec mark of the following video.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t show quite as much of the Lo Pan scene that I would like, but you do get to see Thunder explode.  Consider it two for the price of one!

7. Tina’s Death (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)

Despite what some sequels or recent reboots might lead you to believe, the original Nightmare still stands the test of time as one of the best fantasy/ slasher films of all time, offering a menacing introduction to one of horror’s greatest icons: Freddy Krueger.  This is largely due to the dark dreamlike tone of the film, but also to the surprising and memorable kills, the first of which stands head-and-shoulders above the rest.  Of course I’m referring to the demise of blonde-haired Tina, who is murdered in her sleep by Freddy after a particularly creepy nightmare sequence, while her boyfriend stands by helpless and confused, watching cuts happen in front of his eyes with no explanation.  Soon she is dragged up the wall and onto the ceiling, kicking and screaming as she fights off her invisible attacker.  The practical special effects are extremely effective in this scene, offering a haunting image that isn’t easily forgotten.  But what is all the more more shocking is the way in which the film has been actively establishing Tina as the main character up to this point.  The very first scene of the film centers on Tina in a dream, where she is chased by Freddy through his boiler room, and barely manages to wake up in time.  It is only after this establishing scene that we are introduced to her network of friends who comprise the main group of characters (including the true heroine, Nancy).  Similar to the shower scene Hitchcock’s Psycho which changed the whole structure of that film by killing off the protagonist halfway through, Craven toys with the conventions of structure by killing off the character with whom the audience is most strongly invested up to that point.  Certainly one of the director’s finest moments, Tina’s death still serves as a chilling reminder of how scary Freddy (and Craven as a filmmaker) used to be.

WARNING: Not for the squeamish…

6. “Let me tell you about my boat” (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004)

Perhaps one of the most memorable and fascinating scenes from Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy about the journeys of washed-up aquatic explorer / documentary filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is the introduction to his ship, the Bellafonte.  With Zissou offering some beautiful narration, the camera roams from room to room on a crane-arm delivering an intimate description of each part of the vessel while the crew is seen carrying out their daily work.  For this scene, Anderson ambitiously created a massive set of the ship in full scale, split down the centre with the profile facing camera so as to reveal each room and section of its interior, complete with actors occupying them.  It is also set to one of the film’s best musical tracks, which sounds blissful when combined with Bill Murray’s incredible voice.  The scene is fairly brief, but remains one of the film’s greatest achievements, capturing the sense of wonder that drives the Life Aquatic forward into the depths of the ocean, and to the unknown…

You might want to turn up your speakers for this one.

5.  Armored Car Chase / Street Showdown (The Dark Knight, 2008)

We all know the scene I’m talking about – it was the most explosive and entertaining scene in the entirety of Nolan’s Bat-masterpiece, and probably the best candidate from that film to make my list (the runner up being the opening bank robbery scene).  After his aggressive attempts to overturn an armored car containing Harvey Dent are stuffed by Batman, the Joker (Heath Ledger) finds himself in a pair of high-stakes showdowns with the caped crusader.  The first has him playing chicken while driving an 18-wheeler towards Batman’s Batpod, which results in the Joker’s truck being flipped on end; while the second has the clown prince of crime staring down the approaching Batpod and taunting Batman to hit him head-on.  Being the good hero that he is, Bats swerves at the last minute and crashes, leaving himself unconscious in the hands of the madman until help arrives from an unexpected source.  Not only does this whole combined sequence play out like a wet dream for comic-book geeks everywhere, but it also perfectly highlights the central contrast and relationship of necessity that exists between these characters, wherein Batman’s moral decision not to kill is continually challenged by the Joker, who quickly makes it his goal to see how far he can push Bats before he will break.  Oh yeah, and the whole thing was filmed in IMAX.

(click through to watch the clip on YouTube)

4. Arnold vs The Predator (Predator, 1987)

This film by John McTiernan (who would go on to direct the original Die Hard the following year) remains one of the all time greatest pieces of sci-fi / horror cinema, fueled largely by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physical presence as well as the exceptionally cool and original design for the Predator.  After opening with a standard black ops mission in the jungle, the film quickly begins to shift from an action tone to more of a horror direction as Dutch (Arnold) and his team realize they are being hunted by a cloaked alien predator.  One by one they are killed off until Dutch is the only one left, at which point things become more primal and savage.  Covering himself in mud to avoid the Predator’s thermal vision, Arnold hides and begins to set traps in the jungle, luring the alien hunter towards him and attacking in stealth.  It is not long before his string of success runs out, and the Predator finds him and beats him to a pulp, tossing him into a small hole in the ground.  Then, when he looks as if he is cornered, Arnold attempts to bait the monster into a trap, screaming “Come on! kill me, I’m here! Do It! Come On! Do It NOW!” and so forth. But the Predator is wise to Arnold’s plan, and circles around…only to land directly beneath another trap!.  This whole sequence and the ending that follows are just so dark and tense – full of this constant growing madness and intensity – that it quickly takes you over and sends you down a spiraling path alongside Arnold into the Predator’s savage world of hunter and hunted.

Here’s a brief clip of the ending of the scene.  It doesn’t have the best image quality, but it’ll have to do.

3. Sanjuro and Hanbei’s Showdown (Sanjuro, 1962)

Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films of the early ’60s were very much an inspiration for the Spaghetti Westerns of Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone in the late ’60s, which can be seen by the fact that Leone essentially remade Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) with his 1964 film Fistfull of Dollars.  The notable scene of awesomeness that makes 3rd on the list comes from Kurosawa’s follow-up film to Yojimbo entitled Sanjuro, which also stars the same character played by Toshiro Mifune (who is basically the Japanese Clint Eastwood).  Coming at the very end of the film, this scene provides the perfect example of the quintessential showdown that would become the staple of Leone’s later Westerns.  After nearly escaping without conflict after pulling off his rescue plan, Sanjuro is confronted by the villainous henchman Hanbei and forced to draw down in a fight to the death, despite his reluctance to kill.  After a long staredown there is a flash of action, and we see that Sanjuro has sliced Hanbei before the villain could even get his sword out!  The outrageous Kill Bill-style spray of blood that follows the incredibly fast killing strike is definitely the most shocking and memorable part, causing this scene to remain a timeless moment in cinema that also provides a perfect example of Toshiro Mifune as the samurai with no name.

2. Opening Train Station Scene (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968)

By the time he released Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone had already established himself as the master of the spaghetti western genre with his revolutionary Man with No Name trilogy.  For his next epic masterpiece, Leone lost his star Clint Eastwood but kept every bit of style and grit that drove his previous westerns.  A perfect example is the opening scene, which functions in many ways as an essential blueprint for the entire spaghetti western genre.  At an isolated train station, three men in trenchcoats appear minutes before a train is due.  The station worker is bound and placed in a closet, while the three men – who are clearly up to no good – wait for the train to arrive.  The following ten minutes or so is comprised of shots of each of the men passing the time in various ways with no dialogue as the credits slowly roll.  Each shot in this sequence speaks volumes about the style and conventions of the genre, and the potential of the moving image to speak volumes in subtle grandeur.  One shot is particularly memorable as one of the men watches a fly buzzing around his face before catching it in the barrel of his gun.  Once the train finally arrives, the men engage in more aggressive stances and wait for a passenger – the harmonica-playing man with no name played by Charles Bronson – to emerge so they can kill him.  After several drawn-out minutes of anticipation and intense staring, Bronson drops all three men in classic Eastwood style, taking a superficial wound for his troubles but living to fight another day.  This is easily one of the greatest scenes from the western genre of this era (and of all time), and sets the tone for what would follow in the rest of this gorgeous masterpiece.

Sit back, this is a long one folks.  Or just watch the last few minutes for the showdown if you don’t have the time…

1. Roy Batty’s Death (Blade Runner, 1982)

After spending the entire film hunting down and murdering those who designed him, Roy Batty (a Replicant or artificial human, played by Rutger Hauer) chases Harrison Ford’s Deckard (a Blade Runner or Replicant-killer) in an eerie game of cat-and-mouse that takes place in an old abandoned apartment building.  Being physically superior to Deckard in every way, and knowing that his 4-year lifespan is nearly up, Roy has no inhibitions and begins to act like a savage animal, toying with Deckard and inciting hysterical fear in him so as to make him understand what it’s like to “live in fear”.  After their chase leads Deckard to the rooftop, he soon leaps further than he can reach, and finds himself hanging on to the ledge for survival as Roy stands over him victorious.  But in a sudden twist, Roy chooses not to kill him and instead pulls him to safety before sitting down and speaking to him in a strangely calm state.  What follows is one of the most beautiful monologues of all time, as Roy contemplates his own death and the end that it brings to not only his future existence, but also to the loss of all of the memories and experiences he has amassed during his life.  This introspective and touching moment is given further weight by the fact that it comes from an artificial human, who shows more humanity in this moment than any of the actual humans in the film.  It’s a scene that still gives me goosebumps, and reminds me what truly great cinema is capable of achieving.

It should be seen in context, but here’s the clip anyways… (click through to watch on YouTube)

Thanks for reading and remember this is only the beginning… expect some more Great Moments in the future!  Also, please feel free to share in the cause and leave some of your own examples in the comments section.

Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (Review)

•August 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

“Behind the Mask” is an often hilarious dark comedy/mockumentary that examines a few days in the life of a hard-working serial killer, the elusive Leslie Vernon.  Nathan Baesel steals nearly every scene as the film’s central character, an extremely talkative and intelligent psychopath who spends all his time planning for an eventual showdown with a specific group of teens, all the while explaining his thoughts, plans and motivations to a documentary camera crew and it’s lead reporter, played by Angela Goethals. The film has an incredibly unique feel, blending elements of a traditional horror film with that of a dark comedy or satire, and presenting it all with a distinct reality TV tone.

Vernon walks viewers through his extensive collection of classic literature. It pays for a killer to be well-read.

Baesel is surprisingly hilarious for a first-time feature film actor, sharing his delusional world views and occasionally spewing out some fantastic one-liners that cut into the clichees of the slasher genre and put an interesting spin on age-old concepts.  For example, one scene has him describing how important cardio workouts are for a killer, because of the need to keep up with running teens while appearing to walk at a normal pace. He also constantly refers to his work within “the industry”, treating serial killing as a career option instead of a compulsion or addiction, which is quite funny.

Leslie Vernon in full psycho costume

Vernon’s extremely outgoing personality when speaking to the camera is contrasted by his creepy dark underside, of which more and more is gradually revealed as the film nears its final act. It is at this point that the documentary ends and the film takes a turn into standard slasher territory (accompanied by a complete change in the visual style to a more cinematic look), with a mild twist thrown in there for good measure.  And to top it all off, there’s a minor role played by Freddy Krueger himself: horror legend Robert Englund!  While certain elements of “Behind the Mask” fall short of their intentions (the kills are somewhat weak and lacking in blood), I must give the filmmakers a hand for doing something fresh with a seemingly dead genre, and making a film that is damn funny at times, and mildly creepy at others.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006, USA, R: 92 mins)  Directed by: Scott Glosserman.  Starring: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, and Robert Englund.

Sunshine (Review)

•August 8, 2011 • 1 Comment

Flying too close to the sun...

“Sunshine” is a gorgeous and engrossing hard sci-fi film by Danny Boyle, who proves yet again that he is one of the most diverse directors working in Hollywood.  With a well-conceived plot about a team of scientists attempting to essentially jump-start the sun (due to its showing signs of fatigue, which could mean the end of humanity), Boyle pays homage to previous sci-fi masterpieces without feeling as if he is ripping them off or descending into formulaic genre filmmaking.  He also does a great job of placing much of the focus on the characters and their relationships (at least initially), crafting a film that is every bit as emotionally captivating as it is visually stunning.

Cillian Murphy feeling the rays up close and personal

The hypnotic visuals and sharp cinematography work wonders, particularly in the sequences depicting the characters’ quasi-religious obsession with basking in the sight and the heat of the sun at a close distance.  There are also some very unique camera techniques used in the final act, translating the feeling of pulsing heat waves into a visual artistic style as a means of obscuring and disorienting the viewer in specific instances.  The cast is also quite solid, with Cillian Murphy standing out thanks to a wonderfully vulnerable performance in the lead, and Chris Evans demonstrating some fine acting chops in his secondary role which ends up holding quite a bit of emotional weight by the end.  Mark Strong is also very effective in a surprising and unrecognizable role.

The film does have a somewhat flawed final act which takes an unexpected turn in more of a slasher/horror direction – a shift that felt jarring but was not entirely unwelcomed for me, since the film had done such a great job of crafting an ambiguous feeling of dread for the majority of its runtime that I felt it benefited from having an actual villain to deliver the payoff after all the growing suspense. Despite its minor flaws, “Sunshine” is a shining example of the sci-fi genre’s capacity for strong character-driven films as opposed to the empty CGI-drenched garbage that has become more apparent in recent years (see: Battle: Los Angeles, Skyline).  The only question that remains after the credits roll: is there anything Danny Boyle can’t do?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Sunshine (2007, UK, R: 107 mins) Directed by: Danny Boyle.  Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, and Mark Strong.