Since the safe, caramelized snack that is Halloween has passed and the children are in the other room, we can get down to some serious business. Put down the bag of leftover mini-Snickers bars, for I have wonderful horrors to discuss.
2009 has been an intriguing year for horror cinema. A lot of non-horror films were borne upon a pervasive sense of dread that was more effective than the average chop-chop-chase flicks made by lazy, circular Hollywood journeymen. Films as diverse as Jennifer Lynch's SURVEILLANCE, Lars von Trier's ANTICHRIST, Nacho Vigalondo's TIMECRIMES, Franck Vestiel's EDEN LOG and Bruce McDonald's PONTYPOOL all succeeded thanks to methods mainstream horror hacks ignored; they provided artistic backdrops for eerily-sustained, dark moods that made their tales all the more gripping. Straight-up scares were still somewhat successful. Michael Dougherty's much-delayed but nasty delight TRICK 'R' TREAT had a fun sensibility and a cutthroat attitude towards its characters; no one was safe and every turn was ghoulish and darkly comical, yet it felt like a film that we could have watched in the 70's or 80's. The old-school Sam Raimi punch line DRAG ME TO HELL may have been twitchy and loud, but it was tight and entertaining. And foreign filmmakers often exceeded American abilities with delightfully graphic offerings like Singapore's MACABRE (prim hostess does cannibal chainsaw act), Thailand's 4BIA (anthology of gruesome and subtle scares) and the Finnish/Russian production of SAUNA (powerful art house take on the wages of sin).
But for every good horror excursion there were plenty of lazy, unpleasant films like PANDORUM (painful to watch), DEAD GIRL (repugnant) and 100 FEET (silly). However, I was fortunate enough to screen three excellent, intense horror films that I feel deserve special attention: two low-budget but carefully crafted independents and a sequel that slam-dunks its winning predecessor.
Lawrence Gough's SALVAGE is deceptive from the word go: a father and daughter drive along the Liverpool coast; it is a couple of days before Christmas and he is dropping her off at her estranged mother's home in a suburban cul-de-sac, where she doesn't want to be. We will never see the father again. But we immediately like this girl, and can imagine her fending off any manner of ghouls the film might offer. But in short order, we find that it's Beth, the girl's mother (wonderfully acted by Neve McIntosh) who is our heroine. Bed-headed from a one night stand who hasn't left yet, Beth argues with her daughter in the middle of the street, and the girl heads to a neighbor's house for comfort. As she pulls herself together, Beth's one night stand tries to make a connection which she quickly rebuffs. He seems the kind of character who will be done in first. Gough's deception continues.
And then something happens. No one has a clear idea what it is, but faceless military squads begin blocking off streets and forcing people at gunpoint back into their homes. Those who don't comply are quickly shot, as is anyone who tries to escape their home. The frightened residents begin to question: Is it a terrorist attack? Are these soldiers there to help or hurt them? And what was in the dislodged shipping crate that news reports are saying was found earlier that morning on a not-too-distant beach?
SALVAGE is a tightly wound, scary thriller that benefits from characters who are appealing and sympathetic, played by a terrifically talented group of actors. If it falters, it is only in the reveal of its savage bugaboo, which is likely due to the small budget that allowed Gough to let his actors and camerawork get the job done without the added benefit of effects work. Neve McIntosh makes Beth a wholly believable person, alternately flawed and strong, and worth cheering for. The overall tone of the film is spot-on, and the result is great fun.
On the same low-budget level as Gough's film, Tom Shankland takes a pair of scissors to domestic priorities with THE CHILDREN. The setup is simple: two well-off, middle class families meet at a house in the country to celebrate the holidays. We know something is not right when we see little Paulie for the first time; the other kids are happy, screaming, running. Paulie looks strangely detached, moans and then throws up. But coddled little Paulie mixes with the other children, and before you know it, no one is very happy.
The parents in THE CHILDREN work under the belief that children can be spoiled, and the rod locked away in a closet. Time-outs and extra naps are the only punishments. Toys and food are plentiful, and no one ever tells the kids to be still or quiet down. So when the children begin to act strangely, and later show a fondness for sharp implements, you almost think these adults had it coming.
But THE CHILDREN wants to eat its cake and its taboos, too: when the kiddos start to kill their parents, the adults are forced to take action, and sometimes that means beheading a tyke in self-defense. The film gets it both ways with great zeal, yet for all its blood and gore, isn't nearly as violent and gruesome as it could have been. And the cause of the shift in behavior is a mystery none of the adults really question: is it VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED other-worldly or 28 DAYS LATER viral? When you try to safeguard your six-year-old against an unknown threat, always a good idea to check their tents for mutilated corpses first.
If suburban terrors and countryside mayhem aren't your cup of tea, then let's move back to the big city. [REC]2 begins at the moment when the masterful [REC] ended: reporter Angela has been attacked by something in the penthouse of a mid-town apartment building that the city has quarantined due to a possibly volatile virus. Nearly all the tenants and a few visitors have been infected, turning them into rabid, festering zombies. But these aren't slow-moving Romero zombies. These are lurching, awful, quick-jumping/fast-running creatures that aim for the jugular every time. And they come in all shapes and sizes.
[REC]2 follows the same path ALIENS did, by bringing more firepower and action to the mix, and it is equally successful without losing the intensity of the first film. Still employing only hand-held cameras as its point of view, there are two videographers at work this time: a group of kids who sneak into the sealed building using a series of underground tunnels, and a second investigative team, this time led by a commander who's motives aren't based on medical research or police work.
Relentless, nerve-jangling and incredibly fun, [REC]2 is one of those rare sequels that blows away the original, and even manages to establish a perfectly viable opening for a third (and final?) film. It is perhaps the scariest film I've seen this year, and stands in good company for the decade.
SALVAGE and [REC]2 currently have no U.S. distribution established, while THE CHILDREN is available on DVD. But all three films are terrific examples of intense and powerful genre filmmaking which are worth seeking out. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD)
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