Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Death Comes Written: The Letters of Death (2006)

The Letters of Death (Khian pen song daai) (Thailand, 2006)
Rating: **
Starring: Mahasamut Boonyaruk, Andy Kempimok, Kanchai Kumnoetploy

The Final Destination films showed us that it is indeed workable, under the right circumstances and creative use of "accidents", to have a gory and yet fun killer-less slasher movie. And like most  true enough, even this franchise isn't safe from imitators as 2006's Open Grave gave us a cursed board game is just as lethal in killing teenagers one by one as a supernatural boogeyman, as well as Thailand's own 999-9999 wherein a cursed phone number grants wishes but at the price of one's life.

Here we will cover yet another Thailand release inspired by this trend of death porn, though unlike its prior release 999-9999, this seems to be closer to your usual Asian horror trope.

Letters focuses on a group of friends who were classmates back from when they were still at grade school, each receiving a chain letter that challenges them to solve a hangman riddle and pass it on to 29 other people within a few days or a terrible fate will befall on them. Scoffing it off as a joke, those who didn't follow the letter dies one by one through a series of bizarre accidents, leaving our leads, Sayri and Nataya, to begin searching for the reason why they are receiving these letters and who -or what- is responsible for them.

Much like the majority of legitimate Asian horror films, Letters tries to take its plot seriously by throwing in supposedly heavy subjects such as guilt, childhood trauma, and bullying. Needless to say, the direction was too fast paced to invoke any kind of empathy and sympathy for the casts, and the execution is either cheesy or forced, so the seriousness of the story came out rather laughable instead. And if that isn't bad enough, the supposed mystery that we were supposedly invested to was really weak since early on the film, hints of a rejected classmate were made too obvious and, if you had seen enough Asian horror or slashers, you can tell right away what this is all about.

As for the accidents, I honestly can't vouch for any of them as they're pretty basic and hardly shocking; there's a lack of anticipation and build up, sadly adding to their flaws as they're already cheesy and cartoonish to begin with. Not Ruben Goldberg-esque cartoonish, but bad CG and/or realistically impossible cartoonish.

Still, as bad slashers go, Letters has the advantage of being bad and unintentionally hilarious. I'm also giving a some points for the attempted seriousness as, concept-wise, its not a bad idea. It just so happen this was messily handled as the film clearly have no idea what to focus in or how to merge all of these ideas properly. As a result, The Letters of Death is a forgettable yet watchable film that you can view just when you feel like it. It's nothing special but you wouldn't lose much from seeing it either. (Except, maybe, an hour and a half of your life...)

1 male falls off a building and crashes through a glass roof
1 male seen bloodied, death unknown
1 male falls off a building and had a pot crush his head
1 male gets a flying buzzsaw to the head
1 male impaled through iron rods
1 male jumps off a building, lands on a metal beam
1 male sliced in half by glass shards
1 female killed, method unknown
1 male shot himself (flashback)
1 female crushed inside a falling elevator
1 male found hanged
1 female drops herself to a pool, drowned
1 male falls off a building
Total: 13

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Italia a Mano Armata: Death Proof (2007)

Death Proof (2007) (AKA Quentin Tarantino's Thunder Bolt)
Rating: ***
Starring: Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson

Quentin Tarantino is, by now, a household name that will make you cringe, bow down in respect, or simply go "huh"; the man had directed amazing films like Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, and Django: Unchained, but was often criticized for his films' over-the-top violence, controversial subjects, and racial slurs.

Personally, I like the guy; he has presence and knows it, and his films are always something I can look forward to, no matter how diverse and strange some of them may come. This being said, I will discuss a film that many, even Quentin himself, regarded as the absolute worst of his filmography, a little number which was supposed to be a tribute to old timey slashers but eventually evolved into something much "different"; ladies and gentlemen, Quentin Tarantino's Thunder Bolt Death Proof!
The story of Death Proof focuses on two gal gangs and a single killer; the first half had us following a group of girls as they take a road trip down to a friend's cabin to a celebrate a birthday and simply have fun, before stopping at a bar for some drinks. Unknown to them, however, an aging stuntman simply called "Stuntman Mike" had been trailing them with an ill intent. One lap dance, one Nacho Grande Platter, and one murder victim later, he succeeds in killing the girls using his own "death proof" muscle car and manages to get away with it seeing there's very little evidence to regard this as murder and the girls had been drinking that night.

A few months after the incident, at another state, Mike is at it again, this time prowling a group consisting of a model, a young mother, a car enthusiast and a stunt girl. They came all the way down to check on a vintage muscle car for sale, as well as play a little game of Ship's Mast, a stunt involving a girl holding on at the hood of a speeding car. While the stunt was going great, Mike decided to join in and show them his way of having fun, pretty much attacking them with murder in his mind. That is until the girls decided to fight back and turns the tables against him.

Originally a slasher movie with cars, Death Proof is more of a love letter to the Carsploitation films of the 70s such as Vanishing Point (1971) and Death Race 2000 (1975), rather than that of the heyday classic bodycounters such as Friday the 13th (1980) or Halloween (1978). Still, it all worked around well as a horror movie on the first half and the first half only. The best way to describe what transpired there would be Quentin doing his own take of a slasher parody or satire; the victims were loud and obnoxious, the killer (played by Kurt Russell) is a more human and badass take on your late 80s wise-cracking slasher villain, and the murders were reduced to a single scene instead of having them fall upon the targets one by one. It is a gamble of an approach that will either tease away the target audience or entertain them with something altogether new; I personally didn't mind how different it is as the story have atmosphere, thus workable, and the kills were pretty good even if it happened too fast.

The second half is where we skipped away from the horror tropes and down into some sort of road thriller, which may appear as a vehicular twist (and a satirical stab) on the slasher sequences wherein the slasher girl gets stalked and eventually fights back to win against the killer. In here, a chase through the house or woods was replaced with a car chase that at first looked to be in Stuntman Mike's favor, until he got shot, chickens out, and got stalked in turn by his intended victims.

Between the first and the second half, I definitely enjoyed the second most as not only did it perfect the 70s exploitation feel, but it also had the more rewarding payoff from watching these girls do nothing but talk. The direction was handled pretty well and I had more laughs at the simplicity that it is no more than a high octane car chase that, again, fits the carsploitation bill the most.

All in all, Death Proof is not a bad movie Tarantino movie but it is understandably and agreeably lower than most of his works; most of the characters were not memorable which is, again, some sort of satire on how majority of slasher victims are simply meat for the knife and the only one that stood out would be the villain. Perhaps not coincidentally, Stuntman Mike is the only one that felt like your typical Tarantino character, witty dialogue and calm persona ever present, and for most of his appearances, he is pretty badass until the tables were turned against him.

The classic Tarantino-style script is still humorous and, once more, the last half of the film was fun enough to mend whatever flaws the first half had committed as a would-be horror flick. This being said, I could say Quentin works better with action exploitation than straight up horror.

In fact, his reason for changing Death Proof from a pure slasher to another one of his exploitation thrillers was that because he felt slashers are "inorganic", which kinda made some sense; I do agree that slashers are pretty tricky and coming up with a way to mold something new to it without messing up the basic premises is a challenge not everyone will succeed in. If you do it in any other way, you might ended up with something different, but I like to see this as a way of measuring one's talent in film-making and a chance to experiment with one's own style.

I personally believe Mr. Tarantino gave up too easy and I would really like to see him give this fair sub-genre another try, break his own mold and do something entirely different for once. Until then, I will continue to enjoy his Nazi Exploitations, Westerns, Neo-Noirs, and for this case, Carsploitations, and look forward to more of his films in the future.

1 female smashes face-first against a car dashboard
1 female crashes through windshield during car crash
1 female killed in car crash
1 female had her leg lopped off from car crash, killed
1 female had her face torn off by a moving wheel during car crash, killed
1 male beaten, head crushed in with an axe-kick
Total: 6

Monday, August 31, 2015

Rest In Peace, Wes Craven

Without your films, I have never been a fan.
Without your talent, I may had never appreciated the little things a silly movie can bring.

We will miss you, oh maestro

Wes Craven (1939-2015)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Curious Case of The White Stocking Strangler: He Lives By Night (1982)

He Lives By Night (Ye Jing Hun) (Hong Kong, 1982)
Rating: ***
Starring:  Chi Wing Chan, Eddie Chan, Kwan-Wo Chan

While most slasher fans of today may point out to Dream Home as Hong Kong's foray into all things red and sticky, hardcore bodycount fanatics would know that our friends from the East had dabbled into this fair sub-genre since the 80s with titles like Corpse Mania (1982), Devil Returns (1982), Phantom Killer (1981) and this, a giallo-inspired horror comedy with a strange-o-meter tipping the scales.

We open the movie at some bar with a guy wearing what looks like Michael Jackson's red leather suit from the Thriller music video, doing the robot on a smoggy disco floor while pulling down the lever of a giant slot machine that dispenses a blonde that goes "oooh" in front of the camera. I have no idea what all of this is and I am afraid to find out. Let's just leave it at that.

Some time later, the blonde decided to go home alone but was intensely attacked by someone armed with a boxcutter who then proceeds to strangle her with her own stockings. All of this happened below our lead's apartment, a tomboyish radio DJ named Sissy, who then decided to snoop around in hopes of getting a good story for her show. Arriving there to investigate is Dragon, an overweight police chief who is smitten with Sissy, and his cohort Wong, a young officer who happens to be friends with Sissy and is helping his boss get a date with her. While the trio engages in a weirdly comedic and romantic angle, the killer continues to slay women who all appears to be wearing white stockings.

While the horror scenes appear to be played straight, He Lives By Night is a movie that will either invite you to enjoy its true jokey nature and laugh at how absurd it is, or will leave you wondering what exactly is going on.

A good bulk of the film focuses more on Dragon and Sissy's hilarious adventures in dating, including the fat commissioner showing off how he can get away with almost anything illegal (such as drag racing and not paying a parking ticket), and that one scene where he puts on some make-up and dances for the lovely DJ. All of these scenes are played with an 80s charm from outrageous get-up, false scares, subtle yet silly situations, and a cheeky good vibe that almost seems out of place considering the film is supposed to be a murder mystery, which come to think of it, isn't really the movie's strong point seeing the killer is revealed very early into the film.

It turns out that the killer is a former husband who caught his wife in bed with another man. In a fit of rage, he murders both, the wife strangled with her own white stockings no less, and was placed in a mental hospital wherein he was treated until he was deemed sane enough to be released. Unfortunately for them, he is still unwell and the sight of white stockings pushes him to take on a female persona and kill whoever the clothing belongs to, resulting to a series of attacks that are surprisingly intense and have their moments of being frightening.

What's interesting about He Lives By Night is that it manages to put these two conflicting tones well together in the final product, as the romantic-comedy tends to dip into the mystery from time to time while the horror scenes also have their own share of funnies. One particular attack had the killer follow a pair of girlfriends back to their home where they proceed to prank one another; once the killer got in, one of the girls mistook him as her friend and proceeds to play with him until she recognizes the threat was real. It's a scene that shows how well the two conflicting traits are delivered as it was satirically funny seeing the killer being stalked by his victim, but it builds up to a vehement home invasion that is bound to satisfy horror fans.

It's not high on bodycount nor are the kills that bloody (save, again, the home invasion scene), but the hybrid atmosphere of He Lives By Night is what makes it a worthwhile addition to any 80s slasher collection. The last third is where the craziness of both genres are put to the max, with Sissy being trapped in a near-abandoned radio station while the killer terrorizes her with a boxcutter, a gun, and soda vending machine(!); the humor was intentional and have more hits than misses, and the actual chase scenes are some of the best I'd seen since the Hallway Chase from Prom Night (1980).

While it may deter horror fans who wanted something more serious or straight-up out of their timewasters, this film is everything a slasher is with a witty and diverse twist. a modest entry and one that deserves a try, may you be a hardcore slasher fan or just a curious cat! So see it if you have the chance and I assure that you the strangeness will have its way with you!

1 female strangled with stockings
1 female strangled with stockings
1 female repeatedly slashed with a boxcutter, strangled with stockings
1 male had his throat cut with a boxcutter (flashback)
1 female strangled with stockings (flashback)
1 male killed, method unknown
1 male bashed on the head with a spiked iron knuckle
1 male falls off a building, lands on a van
Total: 8

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

We Don't Say His Name: The Gallows (2015)

The Gallows (2015) (AKA "Stage Fright")
Rating: ***
Starring: Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos

In 1993, a high school production of a stage play known as The Gallows went horribly bad when one of its actors, Charlie Grimille , was hanged for real when the prop noose malfunctioned.

Twenty years later, the same school is preparing a modern production of the same play and trying out for a lead role is Reese, a football player who is secretly doing this to get closer to his crush, fellow lead Pfeifer. Recording all this is his friend (?), Ryan, who is really nothing more than a bully and a jerk to just about everyone involved in this play and thinks that Reese is wasting his time.

After Ryan found out that the back door of the stage is broken, he coax Reese to join him and his girlfriend later that night to trash the set, thinking that this will help his friend get closer to his crush when he comforts her from the "incident". Dumbly enough, Reese decided to do this and went on destroying the set that very evening, unknown to them that someone, or something, is inside with them, armed with a noose and full of hate.

As a found footage and a slasher, The Gallows really had nothing new to show except, perhaps, a villain with a murder weapon of choice so unusual yet plain; the marketing itself seems to promote the killer's odd weapon, a noose, by comparing this film's villain and their tool with other sub-genre titans such as Michael Myers with his kitchen knife and Leatherface with his chainsaw. Needless to say, this will grab somebody's attention, but more likely not in a way these guys are hoping for; a hanging is a kind of kill that takes a while to set-up but with a resulting death that doesn't seem to have the same shock value as a powertool massacre, or the thrill of being chased by a maniac with a knife. However, seeing that this film is of a supernatural fare, I have to admit that this element did elevate the film's noose-based kills a bit, giving the killer more than one ways to use the rope-weapon against their victims.

To be fair, The Gallows is far from unwatchable; yes, it is a text book example of both a slasher and found footage horror, screaming teens, obviously edited ghost scenes and the like. And yes, I am aware that there are very little likable characters to go with the entire film. Hell, we have to sit through a bully terrorizing classmates who are just minding their own business for a good third of the film but it did try to entertain us, molding modest ghostly scares with a slasher film plot with much effectiveness with an average B-grade popcorn flick.

I'd seen all of this before but it does not bother me; in fact, the predictability of the movie gave it a so-bad-it's-fun vibe and some of the jump scares, as cheap as they are, did got me. I like that Charlie is a supernatural monster with a murder weapon so simple, and that our real lead is a nicer guy compared to the douche holding the camera. I like how the movie felt old school with its stunts and tricks, and how the darkened stage felt engulfing. I love the fact that the first guy to die suffered the most, both physically and emotionally.

The Gallows might be another sorry excuse for a found footage-slasher hybrid for many and this is perfectly understandable; years of Paranormal Activity movies and countless exorcism tapes being released had lessen the blow of these films, as well as the tired cliche of dumb victims being dumb and getting killed for it from our dead teenager flicks. And yet, films will always have their fans whatever the reason will be, may it be the camp value or underrated ingenuity, following a hype or simply because the film fits a certain taste. I for one is not an fan of this movie but I did enjoy it; it's bad with a modest charm, cheap but not contrived, a fair viewing if you just want something to watch before going to bed on a simple day's night.

1 male hanged on a noose
1 male hanged with a noose
1 female snared on the neck with a noose, hanged
1 male hanged on a noose
1 male hanged with a noose
1 male killed
Total: 6

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Skin is In: Skinner (1993)

Skinner (1993)
Rating: ***
Starring:Ted Raimi, Ricki Lake, David Warshofsky

Dennis Skinner is a drifter who always travel with a bag full of clunky metal tools. During one of his travels, he came upon a house renting out a room for some extra income and befriended the owner, a lonely wife named Kerry Tate. Though his presence puts a strain to Kerry's already rocky relationship with her husband Geoff, Dennis simply minds his own business, working as a janitor at a local factory and, as a hobby, moonlights as a serial killer who flays his victims and wear their skin as clothes.

Preying on hookers and despised co-workers, Dennis' bodycount rises, unknown to him that his first and only surviving victim, a morphine addicted junkie named Heidi, is hot on his trail and hellbent on finishing him off for good. Its only a matter of time before Dennis, Heidi and even Kerry's lives intertwine, resulting to a strange and bloody situation.

Taking cues from slasher films like Maniac (both versions) and Don't Go In The House (1981), Skinner is a mid 90s entry to the sub-genre that, like the aforementioned titles, focuses on the exploits of its villain rather than a certain character or a group of would-be victims. Much of these kinds of horror flicks normally rely on the portrayal of their monster and I am glad to say that Skinner does not disappoint; Ted Raimi, the brother of Evil Dead (1981) director Sam Raimi, did a fantastic job bringing out the quirky madness that is Dennis Skinner, a man traumatized by a horrific childhood incident that involves one of his family members being skinned. Not only does he have the look of an average weirdo, but Raimi's portrayal for him had an air of charm that makes him a likable guy until we find out what he does whenever he is alone with a potential victim.

The character's obsession with skinning victims was quite amusing from the fact that the execution of this concept came off rather cheesy and features a lot of hokey-looking effects, a little guilty pleasure of a charm that hits my funny bone and intrigue right. Thankfully, the bleak direction and urban jungle backdrop maintains the horror with an added nightmarish feel, as well as the fact that many of the casts that we are supposed to root for are flawed and barely redeeming. (But not portrayed incompetently, mind you; Traci Lords and Ricki Lake deserved some recognition for their roles) If anything, Skinner not only showcases horror under the form of a serial killer, but also of personal demons and real life challenges such as addiction, unfaithfulness, and poverty.

Sadly, as much as it is effective as an atmospheric serial killer flick, the marketed gore is really no more than a bunch of off-screen and/or implied killings. There's only one scene where we did get a good flaying but from what I heard, you can only catch this if you got the uncensored version. This can be a big disappointment for gore hounds, but for those who prefer stories rather than grue might get something out of this, though the end might leave you asking what just happened and/or if that was just it?

Personally, I can overlook these little cons in favor to what this movie offered best: great performance and a strange story. Underrated and overlooked, Skinner deserves another round among the slasher and serial killer fans of today; that being said, don't miss this one when you get the chance to see it!

1 female skinned alive with a knife
1 female murdered, skinned with a knife
1 female had her neck broken, skinned with a knife
1 female killed, skinned with a knife
1 male killed, skinned with a knife
1 female brained with a lead pipe
1 female skin seen
1 male murdered, method unknown
1 female repeatedly shot with a shotgun, presumably dies
Total: 9

Friday, August 14, 2015

That Who Hunts: Predator (1987)

Predator (1987)
Rating: ****
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall 

When does one man's Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie becomes another man's slasher? When the film's very backbone resembles one.

Arnie is Major ‘Dutch’ Schaeffer, tough as nails and willful enough to lead an elite group of marines to Guatemala for a rescue mission against guerrilla forces. After dwindling down an entire guerrilla camp's number to a single female captive, they found no captives but instead is hunted down by a hunter armed with weapons and gadgets far too advanced to be of Earth.

It is understandable why many genre fans would dismiss this from a slasher film despite the bodycount friendly killings since Predator was marketed as an action adventure with a good dash of scifi and a whole lot of Arnold. (Then in the apex of his career as an action star) True enough, the film's first act featured enough gunfights to destroy an entire rebel camp (literally), making it seem like we are going to a direction where we will be treated with more macho-man badassery, but instead the film took a sudden turn for the horrifying and thrilling. 

Just as any slasher, we see something stalking the marines (through a thermal POV shot, no less) and, one by one, ritualistically murders them with blades and a high-powered laser; this tone shift pushes Predator into a backwoods survival flick-type, only with bulky men that did fight back (unlike our usual dumb teenagers), an alien killer, and a good load of kills. 

Effects wizard Stan Winston devised some of the most amazing effects I'd seen in a genre film, utilizing animatronics and, for its time, impressive digital effects. The predator make-up is incredibly impressive and menacing as a creature. And seeing the film's no short of cash to waste on its effects, you can soothe the gorehound within you as the kills (those by the Predator at least) remains gruesome enough to rival a modest horror film kill, from heads blown apart with lasers to the cult iconic scene where a victim's skull was ripped out from the spine.

Acting around this part is genuinely modest since much of the focus is on the action; Arnold is still Arnold; big, buff, and bears the accent that makes me wonder why they keep giving him American characters to portray. I do like the fact how his character is bound by his role of being a leader of a search-and-rescue team which makes him easy to side with, even early on the film when he found out his team was used to assassinate nearly an entire compound, under the false pretense that they were rescuing a political head. The rest of the casts are pretty okay; they're nothing too dimensional but their characters are likable for a bunch of army cut-outs with sometimes-laughable dialogue.

Interestingly, in talks of the villain, this is not the first time we get a slasher film to feature an alien killer as, while some may argue, Alien (1979) appears to fit the label of a Proto-slasher with its stalk-and-maim plot, and too the uber-cheesy but weirdly enjoyable Without Warning of 1982, which features an alien hunter killing teens in the woods while using flying parasites as its weapon. (In fact, actor Kevin Peter Hall, who donned the heavy latex make-up as the Predator in this film, was also the alien hunter in Without Warning!) What Predator did that the other two aforementioned films didn't is that it gave its villain a full slasher treatment complete with a mask, bladed weapons, and a linear motivation to kill. Sure it may not be in par with the simplistic machete or shotgun, but a retracting saw-toothed wrist blades and a high-powered blaster is a welcome variety if it delivers the gore.

The way I see it, he had to be this high-tech to keep a "the fairness" to the killings as his targets are as armed and deadly as he is, once they get an advantage. And staying true to the butch finales of action films, once all but one was left, the final showdown between Dutch and the Predator had to be one of the most intense scenes in cinematic history, with the Predator, seeing how worthy of a foe Dutch was, accepted a fair brawl and disarms himself to go mano-a-mano.

In the end, Predator is a genre flick that can be enjoyed by both horror and action fanatics. Its had guns, it has guts, Arnold being badass, and a terrifying monster worthy of an icon; while it may lack a story, the entertainment value of it is a whole tirade of awesomeness! No genre fan can call themselves a genre fan without ever seeing this! Ever!

1 male found dead
1 male found shot on the head
3 males found skinned
1 male killed offscreen
1 male knifed on the neck
1 male killed, method unknown
A number of men killed during gunfight
1 male gutted
1 male had his chest shot open with a laser
1 male shot on the head with a laser
1 male gutted with retractable blades
1 male killed offscreen, later seen with stab wounds and had his skull torn out
1 male shot on the head with a laser
1 alien crushed by falling logs, decimated by a bomb
Total: 15+