R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Rob's Fearfest '09, Part 1

Welcome back October, I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed you.

Man, I love this time of year. Sure, I’m big into the summer months, and year round I can be found watching as many action movies as possible, but I adore how my love for Horror films comes out every year like clockwork around Halloween. Slasher movies, monster movies, ghost stories, giallo, kaiju, zombies flicks; it really doesn’t matter as long as people end up running for their lives at some point, and I’m there to take it all in. Even though the month is still young, I’ve tried to pack as many flicks in as I can, and they’ve been more diverse this year than they’ve ever been.

70’s classics like Halloween and Dawn of the Dead have already been busted out, with my genre favorite Suspiria sure to follow, and I went ahead and purchased Friday the 13th, Part III on Blu-ray, finally getting to see the movie in 3D, which has been denied me all these years. I broke out my Japanese edition of Grindhouse, which has the original theatrical-cut that we’re still waiting for over here in the states, and for curiosity sake I watched Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad, which is a cheapie Japanese Video game adaptation where girls in bikinis and cowboy hats fight hordes of zombies. It’s about as good as you’d think.

Now, for my lineup this week I thought I’d give my thoughts on two more flicks I’ve gotten to take in, both of which are new releases that you should get out there and check out right now. Each brings their own flavor to their genre, and may just become mainstays to my annual October lineup. So here goes…

Zombieland Starring Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer.

There have been a lot of strides made in the Zombie-Comedy realm in the last few years. Taking their cue from guys like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, films like Undead, Shaun of the Dead and Planet Terror all try to probably pack in twice as many laughs as they do scares, with varying degrees of success, and that’s where’s Zombieland picks up their baton and runs with it into a giant horde of flesh eaters. A sort of Superbad meets Dawn of the Dead, the movie ends up being one of the most entertaining flicks of the year, and wouldn’t get an argument from me if it ended up being some sort of franchise.

Now I love, love, love Zombie flicks. I think I just like movies about sieges in general and more often than not these movies end up being about that. They also tend to have themes about humanity and survival, and more often than not, they’ve usually got a ton of terrific gore. That’s not to say that there aren’t some stinkers (28 Weeks Later, Zombie Strippers, Shock Waves), but the formula is usually so successful that a movie has to be really braindead to not at least kind of work.

Zombieland works, and then some.

First off, the movie absolutely excels on both levels it’s supposed to. The thing is hilarious, and manages to actually be pretty frightening in places as well. The post-modern take on the genre is established through the character of Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and his simple rules for survival like having good cardio and being wary around bathrooms. Both of these rules are put to the test in Columbus’ hilarious introductory scene in which he has to run for his life from a zombie with toilet paper stuck to his shoe. Seeing a character drop their keys while trying to get into their car isn’t anything new, seeing a character take another lap around a parking lot knowing the zombies will chase him is, and it’s pretty freaking funny.

Pretty early on this becomes a “road movie” and we get to see the rest of the characters; Woody Harrelson’s epic zombie killer, Emma Stone’s cute, but untrusting Wichita, and the adorable Abigail Breslin as the rifle toting, Hannah Montana loving Little Rock. I’m pretty much in love with this whole team and can’t wait for another look at this world. I know initially this was going to be a TV show, and part of me is sad not to get to check into this world every week, as I’d like to see more and more of these characters, which are really only given light character sketches, but that’s all part of the fun here.

I love that Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee is hiding his pain under his outright hated for zombies. Harrelson is like a force of nature here, spouting a nonstop stream of profanity and gratuitous violence towards the undead. This is one of those great times in movies when the over the top, psycho-killer is on your side and you’re so happy about it. When the man gets to cut loose killing ghouls atop roller coasters and tilt-a-whirls with double shotguns and Uzi’s, there’s a rush of adrenaline I got that most movies haven’t been able to match this year.

While the girls aren’t given as much screen time, they both make the best of it, and while they do become “damsels in distress” at one point, they’re actually really strong female characters for most of the movie, and much more ruthless than the male heroes. Stone and Eisenberg have a great chemistry and balance, with Columbus’ neurotic nerd actually trying to break down the walls of Wichita’s distrust of humanity outside of her sister. As for Columbus, it literally takes the whole world to end for him to get out of his apartment and find the girl of his dreams; she just might end up killing him in the mean time.

I think the biggest compliment I can pay to the movie is that I actually cared as to whether the people in the movie survived or not; it’s not just a series of lame jokes and gory kills. Sure, there’s some terrific gore here, the sight gags are impossibly good, the opening credits rank up there with Watchmen for some of the best of the year, and this movie has one of the best movie cameos of all time, but the big thing for me is that I wanted to stay here in this burnt out world and hang out with these characters. They’re funny and charming and downright bad ass, and they gave me some of the biggest fun I’ve had this year.

The House of the Devil Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, and Mary Woronov. Directed by Ti West.

First off, do you see that poster? How awesome is that thing? It’s too often that we get a painted piece of art like that; especially one that immediately evokes exactly what a movie is going to be like. That’s not some corporate mandated, photoshopped piece of crap, it’s a one-sheet that gets the job done, and I’d bet you that this movie gets almost half its business because of that one piece of publicity. Honestly, as far as I know, people almost 100% prefer this type of poster and yet it’s such a rarity.

Anyway, off of my soap box, the best part of this poster is that it puts you in a particular frame of mind for the movie you’re about to see. Your kneejerk reaction is how it reminds you of movies like Suspiria, Don’t Look Now, 70’s Polanski flicks like Repulsion, or hell, maybe even the Grindhouse fake trailer, Don’t. More than anything else about those movies (other than Don’t), is that they all go out of their way to make you uncomfortable. More than just gore or quick scares, the movies are about building mood and atmosphere until you’re ready to run out of the room, and then they hit you with the horrible stuff. That’s exactly what this movie is able to do, and you know the best part? The movie is actually better than that poster.

Director Ti West knows exactly what he’s doing here. I know I just paid compliments to Zombieland’s opening credits, but West comes close to outdoing them here with simple tropes like synthesized rock, freeze frames, and a late70’s/early 80’s font. I got a big grin on my face just by watching this simple use of credits and how it was able again to put you in the right frame of mind. Honestly, if someone was going to make another Grindhouse, but do it totally serious, this would be one of the films they’d use. West puts on a Horror movie clinic, and he does it all with style and a lot of effortless technique.

The story is simple as can be. A college student, Jocelin Donahue’s Samantha, needs $300 bucks in a short amount of time in order to pay for an apartment and get out of her crummy dorm room. Answering an ad for a babysitter, she ends up at a creepy old house (the one from the poster, only not on fire) where she finds out she’s instead taking care of an elderly woman for the night, and then weird stuff starts happening. Then the movie goes insane. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

What I can’t stress enough, is just how good this movie is at creating mood. There aren’t any cheap shocks, and there isn’t a lot of humor. For the longest time, not a lot really happens, but in the back of your mind, you know that it could. Heck, you saw the poster, you know something is going to go down, but director West makes you wait for it. The House of the Devil is patient as can be, and hardly ever lets you off the hook. Even short moments of levity are nearly always punctuated with dread.

Jocelin Donahue does a pretty terrific balancing act with that dread too. If she’s too over the top, then she becomes whiny and annoying. If she underplays the role, then we wonder why she isn’t freaking out more. I got a terrific vibe from Donahue that reminded me of Jessica Harper’s Suzy Banyon from Suspiria and I can’t think of a character that more closely resembles Samantha. She’s just a regular girl that gets thrown into this terrifying situation and deals with it the best she can, not going down without a fight.

The secret weapon this movie has up its sleeves though, is Tom Noonan. Noonan gave one of the creepiest performances ever as serial killer Francis Dolarhyde in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and his work here is just as nuanced and disquieting. Like the movie itself, Noonan does so much with so little, letting his own screen presence and body language do most of the work for him in order to send chills down your spine.
The less I say, the more fulfilling the experience will probably be, but this movie deserves all the praise in the world. It’s just terrific that there are still Horror films like this one still out there, and if we’re lucky, it won’t be the last. In a market that’s full of torture crap and remakes galore, here’s an original piece of film that actually manages to terrify you without insulting your intelligence.

As an added bonus, this thing might even be available on your VOD service right now. It’s a little pricey at 10 bucks (so is Ong Bak 2 if you’re interested), but it’s absolutely worth it.

Alright folks, that’s it for now, see you guys next week.

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