Monday, April 22, 2013

movie review: Lords of Salem (2013)

The Lords of Salem (2013) directed by Rob Zombie.

I'm hesitant to write a review for the film, not for any other reason than I'm not too familiar with the witch subgenre of horror, particularly from the 60s and 70s, and I like to be relatively knowledgable about the history of a subgenre a film I've just seen fits into to give a more well-rounded review. To be honest, I've found most of the witch films I tried to watch laughable. In the 60s and 70s, they were examinations (or exploitations) of the hippie movement and we've since realized that those good old days weren't really all that good. In these increasingly dark times, it seems quaint that Rob Zombie chose to make a 70s style witch film.

If I'm not too big on this particular subgenre, why on earth did I want to watch this?

Five words: Rob Zombie Lady Patricia Quinn

I like Rob Zombie's work...for the most part. I didn't like House of a 1000 Corpses, but I'm thankful for that film because without it, we wouldn't have The Devil's Rejects, a film that cleverly manages to subvert its predecessor and make you care about a family of homicidal sociopaths. I liked about half of his Halloween remake (all of the prequel stuff was great, though cliche. Once he got the film into Haddonfield, I was bored.) I didn't bother with the sequel. And when I saw the trailer for Lords of Salem, I saw instantly that he was trying to do something completely different from his usual fare, something that pushed him artistically and story-wise.

As for the other three words, Lady Patricia Quinn (she married into the title and the Lord has since passed on, may he Rest in Peace, but I think her name flows better with it...Lady Patricia Quinn), you should know that I love her because of Rocky Horror and especially Shock Treatment (I'm one of those freaks who loves Shocky almost as much as she loves Rocky.) When I heard the announcement that she was going to be in this, I already knew my butt was going to be in the seat opening day (we tried, but couldn't do it so opening weekend will have to do.) I was not disappointed.

Before I get to the meat and potatoes of my review, a synopsis: Heidi (Sherri Moon-Zombie) is a rock D.J. in Salem, Massachusetts, who receives a mysterious package from a band called The Lords with a record inside that plays a disturbing (really, more like annoying as hell) series of notes that effects her in both a physical and mental way, and resurrects the town's morbid past.

I'll start off by saying that I really liked the film, but I can't for the life of me figure out exactly why and this review is going to be very contrary and may meander a bit because of it. The film is deeply flawed and unnecessarily slow at times, but there's no denying that Zombie has affection for his material. A lot of the imagery, though beautiful, doesn't feel fully thought through in terms of what it means to the internal logic of the film...if they were meant to mean anything at all, a point to which I concede readily. And there are times where his imagery gets hamfisted and, now that I think about it, kind of felt like images that would be best inside CD liner notes. I would not be surprised to find them in the liner notes for the Lords of Salem soundtrack.

All of that said, the cinematography was gorgeous (even when it got repetitive) and the acting, for the most part, was spectacular. It's the older women in this film who really make it work...Meg Foster was fearless and brilliant as the main witch, Margaret Morgan, and Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, and Lady Patricia Quinn were phenomenal as sisters Lacy, Sonny, and Megan. These four roles were great, fun parts for older women and these ladies were damn good in them. I dare say that without them, the film would have fallen completely flat.

Sherri Moon-Zombie was...Sherri Moon-Zombie. At times, her readings were believable and at other times, they were laboured and false. Personally, I don't really care if Rob Zombie wants to keep casting her in his stuff. She's not horrible, and she was damn good as Michael Myers' mother in Zombie's Halloween, but this did kind of feel like a step back for her in terms of her talent. I say keep at it, Mrs. Zombie. You'll get there.

As far as the witches are concerned, Zombie didn't go the usual route and have them all be nubile young models. All of the witches are women of varying ages and body types and for a film concerning the birth of Satan into the physical world, the nudity wasn't gratuitous or sexualized. Actually, the only nudity I thought was gratuitous was that of his wife.

While Lords of Salem doesn't really do anything new for the witch movie, this is entirely new territory for Rob Zombie as a director. Yes, the film is highly derivative - if you're going to knock him for that, you must not have seen House of 1000 Corpses or Halloween - but it shows a growth that's leaps and bounds beyond what he's done in the past; however, I think he might have leapt over himself just a bit. He didn't make his lead character likable, which is necessary for the audience to connect to this story. We don't care that she's going through all of this strange stuff. There's a subplot that, if he'd brought it up earlier in the film may have helped to make Heidi a more sympathetic character and added more mystery to the proceedings. Alas, putting it later in the film made the subplot feel contrived.

So...with so many negatives, why do I want to see it again, like, right now? And why will I be buying it when it comes out? Because the positives I listed are, for me, exactly that strong, and I feel like I can learn something from what I consider to be missteps.

I look forward to the next one, Mr. Zombie.

Friday, April 5, 2013

movie review: Evil Dead (2013)

Evil Dead (2013) directed by Fede Alvarez

Let me get this out of the way right away: generally speaking, I don’t like remakes. My problem with them stems from the fact that the people making the remake are not the people who made the film and the film is no longer a product of its time, it’s just a product. The people remaking the film often don’t have any concept of why the film was made in the first place, they only know that it was and react to it as a fan does, with a fan’s selective memory.

There are a few remakes that have managed to transcend this very basic problem. I happen to like the American version of Ringu and I like Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, not to mention the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982 (which was remade {and very, very badly} in 2012) and Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead from 1990. Night of the Living Dead is an interesting film and quite relevant to my review of Evil Dead because of a key ingredient: just as George A. Romero was heavily involved in the making of NotLD’90, the “Michigan Mafia” - director Sam Raimi, producer Rob Tapert, and actor Bruce Campbell - were heavily involved with this remake.

To recap for the uninitiated: five kids go to a cabin in the woods and stir up trouble in the form of Candarian demons which feed on their souls.

This summation applies to the original and the remake equally. In the remake, however, the five kids are there to help one of their number get through her cold turkey recovery from some unnamed narcotic which is a heavy handed way of metaphorizing the Evil Dead (Girl vs. Her Demons) and was really only used enough so that her friends would think that anything she said she saw or said happened to her was the result of hallucinations from her withdrawal.

If you’re looking for characterization - you know, people to care about and a story and crazy stuff like that - this isn’t the movie for you. In fact, neither is the original, really. That brings me back to the fan’s selective memory. Let’s ignore the sequels and just think about The Evil Dead for a moment. Those characters are all really annoying and underdeveloped, too, but Raimi moves the film along at such a pace and pounds you over the head with intense imagery and gore that you don’t necessarily care that the story is wafer-thin and is the kind of funny that arises out of outrageous gore effects and stupid people doing stupid things. By the time many of us saw The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2 was on video next to it so we had that relatively instant injection of more Bruce Campbell and a more fully developed storyline (Evil Dead 2 is widely considered to be a comedic remake of The Evil Dead.)

Fede Alvarez’ Evil Dead is the same way. It has largely unlikeable characters who do stupid things and get covered in obscene amounts of gore. The fans have had decades to love Raimi’s film and gloss over the negatives in favour of Bruce Campbell’s insanely wonderful performance. The remake's filmmakers tried to add some interesting details that I think help the story even if some of those details don’t make any sense to the plotline.

The following is kind of a spoiler...if you don’t want to know, scroll down.

If you’ve read any reviews or any articles about the film, you might already know that The Olds is in the film. Not the actual car as the one in the film needed to be trashed, but a stand-in. So, what does that mean, particularly when combined with the opening hook of a young possessed woman being purified by her father and a mysterious Spanish witch? It means that stupid people raising the Candarian demons happens over and over again...and the owners of that car are long gone. In terms of timeline, I think that it places Evil Dead in the Now of The Evil Dead universe except for two small details:

1.) The car was sucked into the vortex at the end of the Evil Dead 2.
2.) So was the Book.

The fans are going to have a field day with this one...particularly when they see what’s in store for them at the end of the film and if they’ve been paying attention to anything Alvarez, et al, said at WonderCon. I couldn’t HEAR what was said in the end tag because the fans in the theatre were cheering too loudly, but I’m sure it was good.

For those who didn’t read the above, a non-spoilery bit is that you should stay through the end credits.

Technically speaking, the film is well made. It’s not 100% practical effects like director Fede Alvarez claims, but it’s close enough that the important gags are real. The film is built on the effects. Since you’re not going to care about the characters, they’re going to make you feel something by jacking up the gore (gore is the usual crutch of a film without solid characters or plot, the other crutch would be nudity for the sake of nudity. Horror fans might revile me for saying it out loud, but we know in our hearts that it’s true.)

Director Alvarez takes his time with the film, which brings out more of the story’s flaws (it’s 91 minutes long as opposed to Raimi’s original clocking in at a breezy 85 minutes). There are visual references to Raimi’s original (I didn’t like how they accomplished the shaky-cam effect in this one, though), but Alvarez injects enough of himself in the picture to keep it visually fresh and not call attention to himself (a problem of Raimi’s throughout his career.)

The actors are competent given the fact that they’re really just there to be fodder for the Demons, and that’s where they shine. I imagine that it’s a lot of fun to play possessed and the actors did well, not cheesing it up too much more than necessary and not channeling the performances of those who came before them.

While the Michigan Mafia were involved in the production, they weren’t involved in the writing of the remake’s script. Diablo Cody famously took a turn at the script, but the people who got the onscreen writing credit are Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, who co-wrote the short that got Alvarez the job, Panic Attack. In this instance, I don’t think that having Sam Raimi involved in the script would have done anything for the film, unlike Romero writing the script for Night of the Living Dead in which he took the original already layered script and film and elevated it, changing it just enough to make it better in many ways and also more sad in others. Why wouldn’t Raimi’s presence have helped? Because The Evil Dead is just as skeletal as the remake. Alvarez and Sayagues added some details, but I think they might have been too afraid of pissing off the fans to add more meat to the bones.

OVERALL VERDICT: I think your personal enjoyment of Evil Dead depends on your personal level of nostalgia, your memories of the original, and your expectations. If you’re expecting a new Ash or a story you can sink your teeth into, this isn’t it. The Evil Dead and Evil Dead are so much the same film that it won’t matter which you see first if you haven’t seen the original (but go rent the original first...for reals.) I say go and don’t expect to leave with your mind blown or anything like that. It’s not as fun as the original, but it was a solid remake that won’t leave as much of a mark on cinema history as the original did.