Friday, January 2, 2015

Worth Mentioning - The Actions of a Deranged Murderer

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody starts off the new year with terrors small and large, mutant and hairy.


Trimark Pictures, having successfully released the movies Leprechaun and Rumpelstiltskin into the world, was looking for a writer/director to bring another "tiny terror" project to life, and ended up approaching Witchboard/Night of the Demons director Kevin S. Tenney with the idea of making a Pinocchio movie.

Tenney was reluctant to take the job at first, he didn't want to make the sort of movie Trimark was looking for, which was a killer doll movie in the vein of Child's Play. Then he found a way to tell a Pinocchio horror story that appealed to him creatively.

Rather than make a film that has a wooden, knife-wielding puppet stalking people, Tenney crafted a psychological mind-bender of a story that begins with wood sculptor Vincent Gotto getting caught in the act of burying the corpse of his murdered son in the woods during a dark and stormy night. Alongside his son, Gotto buries a wooden Pinocchio puppet; his son's favorite toy, which Gotto made for him.

Although the public considers Gotto to be a serial killer, blaming him for the deaths of multiple children in the area, he is tried for and convicted of only one murder: the murder of his son, which he admits to, and wants to be put to death for.

Gotto's lawyer Jennifer Garrick makes a valiant attempt to clear Gotto's name, there is proof that the man was not around when at least some of the crimes were committed, but her client is uncooperative. Even though she knows he can't be guilty of the murders, he claims to be. Whoever the real murderer was, Gotto is protecting them with his own life.

After Gotto's execution, the Pinocchio puppet remains in Jennifer's possession, and it inadvertently ends up in the hands of her young daughter Zoe, who immediately becomes attached to it. Jennifer is a recently divorced single mother to Zoe, and ever since the divorce Zoe has been having some issues. Violent nightmares caused by repressed hostility, trouble with bullies at school, she had a fight with a classmate that left the other little girl with a bite wound that required stitches. Her psychiatrist advises Jennifer not to take Pinocchio away from her.

Soon after Pinocchio comes into Zoe's life, strange and violent things begin to happen to those around her. People are terribly injured. People are killed. In private, Pinocchio talks to the little girl, and he is not a good influence.

Throughout all the bad occurrences, the question remains - is the puppet alive and causing these things? Does its violent tendencies have something to do with the Gotto case? Or are Zoe's mental issues deeper than anyone realizes? Has she snapped and started hurting people? Is Pinocchio only alive in her imagination?

It's this mystery that made a story featuring a possibly murderous Pinocchio puppet worth telling for Tenney, and it makes for a very intriguing and creepy approach. The fact that all this violence could be coming from a sweet-but-insane little girl adds a whole other level of darkness to the film.

While I enjoy my share of straightforward slashers with doll/toy/puppet villains, fresh takes on material are always welcome, and Tenney found a great way to appease Trimark's tiny terror wishes while also presenting the concept in a way that makes his film unique among its peers.

EXISTS (2014)

The Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sánchez returns to the "found footage" filming style he helped popularize with this Bigfoot creature feature written by his frequent collaborator Jamie Nash.

You'd expect that the found footage approach would be justified by having the characters be sasquatch hunters venturing into the wilderness with the hope of catching images of Bigfoot on their camera memory cards, but the scenario presented here is, for the most part, just the standard "group of friends go to a cabin in the woods" set-up.

Two brothers are taking their friends out to their uncle's long-abandoned hunting cabin for a relaxing getaway, and the explanation for cameras being all over the place - they even mount one on the windshield of their SUV to film the group on the long drive to the cabin - is that one of the brothers is a technophile who wants to cut together "the best YouTube video ever".

The camera freak does have suspicions about what drove his uncle away from the cabin all those years ago, but still... no one is ever going to care about that footage of your friends sleeping in the car.

Once at the cabin, suspicions are confirmed that the cabin was abandoned because a sasquatch lurks in these woods, and given that this is a horror movie, the creature is not a friendly one. It proceeds to destroy the group's car and attack them, picking them off one-by-one. But no matter how afraid for their lives the characters may be, they still don't put down their cameras.

At times, the Bigfoot attacks on display are quite effective. A standout moment comes when a character tries to ride a bicycle out of the woods (with cameras attached to the bike and his helmet) and gets chased down by the fleet of foot creature. Obviously the "A Ride in the Park" segment Sánchez, Nash, and Exists executive producer Gregg Hale provided for V/H/S/2 was a bit of a test run for this.

On the down side, Exists shares the same problem many found footage movies have in that a lot of its (81 minute) running time is comprised of characters just wandering around in the dark, filming things that didn't really need to be filmed. These characters are also lacking. None of them are particularly interesting, and having a character point a camera out a window to film one of his friends being attacked is also not a way to make me care about what's going to happen to that guy later on.

The Bigfoot itself is awesome, brought to life by suit performer Brian Steele, whose previous monster credits include werewolves in Underworld movies, various creatures in Guillermo Del Toro films, and one of the titular Predators. Angry, fast, and strong, this Bigfoot can really tear through a scene, and it would've been interesting to see Steele's performance in the context of a movie that was more entertaining overall.


Declan O'Brien, director of Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead and writer/director of Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings, returned to the series again to write and direct the fifth installment. O'Brien had made the fourth film a prequel, primarily set earlier in 2003 than the events of the first movie, so he could feature all three of the franchise's original killers: Three Finger, Saw Tooth, and One Eye. The fifth film is also set before the events of the first movie, moving ahead to Halloween 2003. The first Wrong Turn didn't look like it was set in November/December, but that's what it's left with, if we're to keep it in 2003.

O'Brien once again adds more background to the history of the backwoods cannibals in West Virginia, this time saying the tradition of murderous hill people stretches all the way back to 1817, when a feud between hillbilly clans and miners ended with the hillbillies raiding the newly established town of Fairlake and massacring the entire population. No bodies were ever found, making Fairlake look abandoned like the lost colony of Roanoke, but the people of the area know there was bloodshed involved.

New inhabitants moved into Fairlake and over the years it has been built up into a typical small town, one which now hosts the Mountain Man Music Festival every Halloween.

At the center of O'Brien's story are a group of college-age friends and couples who are planning to attend the music festival. Those plans are ruined when they crash their car after nearly hitting a man who was crossing the road. That man is Maynard Odets, played by horror icon Doug Bradley (he was Pinhead in eight of the Hellraiser movies), and when Maynard proceeds to attack the youths, they fight back.

The fight is broken up when the police arrive on the scene and arrest both Maynard and the college kids... although, through some questionable negotiation, only one of the college kids remains locked up with Maynard.

Having been given half the budget he had to work with on Wrong Turn 4 to make this one, O'Brien knew he had to make the latest sequel a bit more low-key and psychological, and he did so by turning it into a sort of Rio Bravo/Assault on Precinct 13 siege picture.

You see, not only is Maynard Odets a serial killer who has been picking off hapless victims in the forest around Fairlake for thirty years, he's also kin to Three Finger, Saw Tooth, and One Eye. He's a sort of father figure to them, but not their real father - their real father was revealed in Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, although I don't think O'Brien was really very concerned with continuity. With their mentor behind bars, the inbred mutant cannibals head into Fairlake, where they blend right in with the people in Halloween costumes and dressed up for the Mountain Man festival, and seek to carry out a jailbreak.

With the phones out and the power shut down, Fairlake's Sheriff Carter, the college kids, and a jailed drunk are trapped inside the police department with Maynard taunting them from his cell as "his boys" murder the characters one-by-one. As is O'Brien's style, these murders are often committed in a drawn out, overly elaborate fashion.

Even though he made three entries in the series, I never really felt like Declan O'Brien was the right guy for the Wrong Turn gig. Still, I have to admit, he did get better at it as he went along. 4 was a step up from 3, and 5 is a step up from 4. The "trapped in a police department under attack" scenario totally works, some of the characters are slightly better than 4's cardboard cut-outs were, and Doug Bradley is awesome as Maynard. The inclusion of his character raises questions, but he rocks the performance and completely overshadows the returning villains.

Wrong Turn 5 certainly has its issues, like how under-staffed the police force of a town hosting a large festival is, how weak the makeup on the mutant hillbillies is, and how obvious the backlot sets are, but I have less problems with it than I had with the previous two movies, and I can put aside most of them to just sit back and enjoy the show for most of its running time. At least until the dark, nihilistic ending designed to leave you feeling awful.

Like part 3, Bloodlines was filmed in Bulgaria, but thankfully avoids the accent and dubbing problems Left for Dead had. Because they were shot in the same area, Borislav Iliev was able to play the role of Three Finger in both. The character had been featured in all five movies to this point, but Iliev is the only person to have portrayed him twice. The quality of his performance? Well, he makes the character pretty annoying, but then again, I've always found Three Finger to be annoying. I'm not sure why he has been made the "star" of this franchise.

Declan O'Brien did not return for the recent Wrong Turn 6, so his Wrong Turn days may be over. If so, I'm glad he went out at a high point.

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