Friday, August 4, 2017

Worth Mentioning - A Terrifying Journey into the Gaping Jaws of Death

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.


There's all sorts of horror to choose from.


47 METERS DOWN (2017)

Last year, director Johannes Roberts' film 47 Meters Down came very close to being released direct-to-video under the title In the Deep - so close, in fact, that some copies of the movie actually even made it out into the world. It was only eight days from the release date when the decision was made to change strategies, delay it almost a year, and give it a theatrical release under its original title. The reason for this? 47 Meters Down is a shark thriller about young women being trapped in a situation where they're surrounded by Great White sharks, and last summer a shark thriller about a young woman being trapped in a situation with a Great White shark, The Shallows, was successful at the box office. Bolstered by the success of The Shallows, 47 Meters Down arrived in theatres almost one year to the day after that film.

Scripted by Roberts and Ernest Riera, 47 Meters Down stars Mandy Moore and Claire Holt as sisters Lisa and Kate, who decide to go underwater in a shark cage while vacationing in Mexico. Unfortunately for them, the winch system holding the cage to the boat that took them out to sea falls apart, dropping the cage - and them inside it - to the bottom of this shark-infested spot in the ocean. Surrounded by hungry predators, the sisters are now stuck 47 meters (or 154 feet) beneath the surface - deep enough that they'll get the bends (oxygen bubbles in the brain) if they try to swim upward too fast - with a quickly diminishing amount of air in their oxygen tanks.

Roberts takes some time up front to let us get to know the characters and understand their motivations before the chum hits the fan - Kate is the fun sister who's up for adventure, Lisa is the responsible sister who joins in on the shark dive because she has recently been dumped for being "boring". She wants to prove she can do exciting things... and unfortunately things get too exciting.


I wasn't sure how two actresses wearing SCUBA gear could sustain an entire feature, but Roberts makes it look simple for the most part. Once Lisa and Kate are trapped underwater, things are intense and involving as we watch them try to figure out how to survive the situation. The viewer is trapped underwater with them, rooting for them to escape unscathed, and they never make any decisions so questionable that it takes you out of it. Moore and Holt both do great jobs making you believe their desperate emotional distress.

The film only falters briefly toward the ending, when there's a fake-out that I didn't entirely appreciate - but the fact that it's a fake-out is revealed in a clever way and I wasn't upset by what followed, which was the real risk. I was liking how things were going in that fake-out sequence before it turned out that appearances were deceiving... I'm trying my best to dance around spoilers here.

As far as I'm concerned, these "young women trapped by sharks" films are a two-for-two success, because I got a great deal of enjoyment out of both The Shallows and 47 Meters Down.



GET OUT (2017)

Jordan Peele's feature directorial debut Get Out was a great mystery when it was first announced. Peele has been in the entertainment business for several years now, but he was known for being a comedian, a MADtv cast member and half of the comedy duo Key and Peele. Now he was going to move over into directing... and he was going to make a horror movie? It was an unexpected move, and no details were revealed about the film other than the title and the fact that it would in some way be dealing with race.

My immediate assumption was that the title was a callback to a comedy routine Eddie Murphy did in the '80s about how black people and white people would react differently in horror movie situations, saying specifically that a black family would have left the Amityville Horror house as soon as they heard the ghostly voice say, "Get out!"

Maybe the title is a nod to Murphy, but the horror in Get Out isn't as obvious as a haunted house. Even when you're watching the movie, it keeps you wondering as to what exactly the horror element will be for quite a while. Sure, it starts with a black man being attacked by a mysterious assailant in the suburbs, but we don't know why he was attacked.

We follow another black man into the suburbs soon after - Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, who is being brought into this predominantly white area to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). Although the Armitages (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are accepting of their daughter's interracial relationship, there is definitely something strange about the way they act around Chris. Even more weirdness comes from the Armitages' black servants Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who are a very odd pair. Weirdest of all is Caleb Landry Jones as Rose's brother Jeremy, and Jones may give my favorite performance of the entire movie during his initial scenes, because Jeremy is so off-kilter he had me thinking "What the hell is going on with this guy?" in a delightful way.


The longer Chris stays at the Armitage house, the more he notices there is something wrong in this community, something off about the white residents and the way they interact with their black acquaintances. And the more the audience is let in on what horrific things are being done in this community.

Peele's choice to do horror was unexpected, and the type of horror he chose to deal with is also quite unexpected. But it totally works, and the comedian proves to be very capable at directing horror. Peele has said he wants to continue working within the genre for a while, and his horror debut is so impressive that many viewers are looking forward to seeing more horror from him. Including myself.

The hype Get Out has gotten goes a bit further than I would have gone - I wasn't in awe of the movie, I just found it to be entertaining and did have a couple issues with it. There is some comedy in it, and there were times when I wasn't sure about the amount of comedy that was coming through, as scenes involving Chris's friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery) did lean pretty far into comedic territory. It worked, though. Events in the second half of the film are also moved forward by a huge coincidence that felt like a bit of a misstep to me, but it's something I can let go without it taking too much away from the movie overall.

Some viewers who have heard raves might want to temper expectations a bit, but this is a very good movie that is definitely worth watching.



AARON'S BLOOD (2016)

Vampire movies can tend to be rather fantastical, but occasionally filmmakers will attempt to put immortal bloodsuckers at the center of a story that is told in a more grounded fashion, trying to imagine what these creatures might be like if they existed in our own reality. These attempts have resulted in some of my favorite films - George A. Romero's Martin, Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark. I gravitate toward vampire films done in that style more than I do toward the more traditional Dracula sort of tales or ones where vampires have their own secret society going on, hierarchy and all. With Aaron's Blood, writer/director Tommy Stovall has crafted his own version of the down-to-earth vampire story, but I didn't find this one to be very successful.

Things start off promisingly, introducing single father Aaron (James Martinez) and his twelve-year-old son Tate (Trevor Stovall, the director's son) as they continue to try to pick up the pieces after the death of Tate's mother a year before. The two have a shaky relationship - if Tate had to choose between his parents, he would rather his father had been the one to perish in the accident that killed his mom, and Aaron knows his son would have been better off with his mom. He would switch places with her if he could.

Tate is being bullied in school, a plot element reminiscent of Let the Right One In, and one bullying incident results in a medical emergency. A hemophiliac, Tate has to be given a blood tranfusion after suffering a bloody injury to his nose... And unfortunately, during his hospital stay he becomes infected with vampirism.

The vampire blood coursing through Tate's veins has an instant effect on the kid, and this is pretty much where the film started to lose me, as the first changes Tate goes through were too Spider-Man for my taste. He doesn't have to wear glasses anymore, he gains incredible athletic ability, he's able to stand up to his bullies now that he's stronger than them. I enjoyed watching this stuff when Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, but I didn't need to see the situations replayed with a little vampire in his place.


Soon enough the fact that Tate is becoming a vampire is more obvious, and the kid becomes more dangerous. Aaron is a phlebotomist, so he knows a bit about blood, but he's sure never seen something like this before. Luckily for him, there are a couple vampire hunters lurking around to provide some information and give him hope that he can reverse Tate's condition if he moves quickly enough. In a race against time, Aaron seeks to find his son's vampire blood donor.

Somewhere around the appearance of the vampire hunters, another issue with Aaron's Blood started to become clear to me - the characters in this film are usually way too subdued when they're reacting to things. James Martinez does handle the drama of it all well in some scenes, but in others it's apparent that Stovall wasn't interested in having much in the way of intense displays of emotions in his movie, even if situations would logically call for it.

When Aaron and a vampire hunter start having a calm conversation while Tate tears into the vampire hunter's buddy, I get the feeling that two men would probably be much more freaked out if such a thing were really happening. When Tate asks his dad in a deadpan voice "Am I a vampire?" after he has just been feasting on a victim's blood, it's laughable. Throughout the film, I kept thinking again and again that people should be showing more emotion than they do. It was an odd choice to make everyone come off as being so chill.

I can't say I enjoyed much about Aaron's Blood. Although the production values are quite good for a project that clearly had a very limited budget, the writing is questionable, the characters are robotic, and situations are silly. It's a respectable attempt at making a vampire movie that's a little different from the norm, but the result just isn't that good. The film's greatest virtue is the fact that it's short, running just 80 minutes, with the end credits rolling at 76. That makes it easier to recommend to anyone who might think it sounds interesting, because if you don't like it at least you only spent 76 minutes on it.

The Aaron's Blood review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com



HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE (1988)

Nuns are a recurring sight in the Howling franchise, from the one Dick Miller gives a disapproving look when they walk into his bookstore in the first film to the werewolves disguised as nuns in The Howling III. Howling IV: The Original Nightmare puts another nun on the screen right up front - when we're introduced to the film's heroine, Romy Windsor as author Marie Adams, she's being plagued by disturbing visions of a disappearing nun, blood, and a burning werewolf.

Marie's doctor figures that these hallucinations are simply her imagination running away with her, so he suggests that she spend some time away from work in a place where her imagination won't be stimulated at all. The tiny town of Drago seems to fit the bill, so Marie and her husband Richard (Michael T. Weiss) settle into a cabin in the woods on the outskirts of town... And as a writer myself, I have to say that staying in such a place would have the opposite of the intended effect. Staying in the peaceful countryside would get my imagination working even more, and with no distractions around I would be driven to work on my writing even more. But that doesn't seem to be the case with Marie, she appears content to just rest and relax.

Unfortunately for her, there's not much rest or relaxation to be found in Drago. Her hallucinations and nightmares continue, and the howling she hears in the woods at night doesn't help matters. Nor does the fact that Richard and local shopkeep Eleanor (Lamya Derval) have an instant, obvious mutual attraction to each other.


If this set-up sounds familiar, it's because screenwriters Freddie Rowe and Clive Turner (who also co-produced the film and would go on to work on two more Howling films) were working directly from the original Howling novel by Gary Brandner. That's why the film's subtitle is "The Original Nightmare"; this one is going back to the franchise's roots. With the first film, director Joe Dante and screenwriter John Sayles had strayed so far from Brandner's source material that it could easily be adapted for a sequel. There are plenty of similarities between the first and fourth films, but they're different enough that they stand on their own.

Howling IV may be a bit more faithful to the novel than Howling 1 was, but it still makes changes of its own, like the removal of the sexual assault on the heroine that causes the mental issues she tries to escape. The first Howling improved on the concept by putting its heroine face-to-face with a serial killer rather than a rapist. Howling IV's "overactive imagination" approach isn't as interesting, but it's acceptable; it's a quick and easy way to get the story moving.


There is a nun in the book, but not a woman in a habit who haunts the heroine's troubled mind. Rather, it's just mentioned that a woman she makes friends with is a former nun. The Original Nightmare has both - when a fan named Janice Hatch (Susanne Severeid) shows up at Marie's door, the two women become fast friends and during their conversation Janice reveals that she is a former nun who has come to the Drago area in hopes of finding out what happened to a fellow nun, Sister Ruth. The nun Marie keeps having visions of. Sister Ruth had disappeared for two weeks, and when she was found in the woods of Drago she could only babble about finding the devil and the sound of howling. She could never fully explain what she had experienced. Refusing to eat, she soon passed away.

While Richard carries on a secret affair with Eleanor, Marie and Janice dedicate themselves to unearthing the secrets of Drago. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more clear that there's something monstrous out there in the woods. Something that kills Marie's dog, and a pair of hiking tourists. Of course, we know all along what's out there - this is a Howling movie, obviously Drago has a werewolf problem.


Thanks to Eleanor, Richard has become part of that problem by the time the climax of the film arrives and Marie realizes that Drago is populated by Satan-worshipping werewolves. Within this sequence, you'll find some of the weirdest, most disgusting werewolf transformations ever put to film, and they're transformations that I'm not particularly fond of. I have a rather solid stance on how werewolf transformations should go, and these ones are completely nonsensical to me.

For my sensibilities, werewolf transformations should go something like the way they did in The Howling. The body of the person changing should remain intact, they should just grow hair, their skin should stretch, their bones should shift and grow. Sometimes werewolf movies will have the beast literally ripping itself out of the person's body, which I don't understand at all. Their body has now been left as a bloody heap on the floor, and yet they're somehow going to return to that form? And every time they change, they're going to keep leaving their body behind? How many bodies does a werewolf get?


Howling IV has some of that "tearing out of the body" stuff going on, but it gets much stranger than that. During the most major transformation we see, the person's skin begins to melt off their body like wax. They end up a skeleton that falls into the deep puddle caused by the melting of their skin, muscle, and everything else. Their werewolf form then rises from the puddle. Of all the baffling ways a werewolf transformation could be presented, this one is the most baffling I've ever seen.

Transformations aside, Howling IV is actually a much more down-to-earth film than Howling II and III. If you were put off by how odd and outlandish those films were, you might find the fourth entry to be a welcome return to a level of normalcy similar to the one The Howling was on. This is a simple little countryside horror tale that plays out pretty much how you would expect it to.


Unfortunately, I just don't find Howling IV to be all that interesting. Rather than "good" or "bad", I would call it serviceable. The film was directed by John Hough, who previously helmed such films as The Legend of Hell House, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. I saw his Howling movie before any of those, which I think worked out in my favor. If I had known who John Hough was before watching this movie for the first time, I might have had higher expectations for it, might have been excited to see a Hough Howling. I would have been let down, because there's nothing very special about Howling IV. It provides a decent werewolf story with some unique sights, but it never really pulls me in, I never connect with the characters or the mystery. I just watch it play out.

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