Sunday, July 01, 2007

Three New Horror Releases To Get Your Mind Off "Torture Porn"

TORTURE PORN. Two words that have disgusted the hell out of me since they were brought into the mainstream media a couple of years ago. For those not in the know, this is referring to the new trend that horror has taken, or at least the new trend the media wants you to think it has taken. I can't cite the original source, but if I'm not mistaken it was in the New York Times right after "Saw II" and "Hostel" opened big at the box office a few months apart.

Here's the thing. I'm the one at this site always defending the horror genre after Chris has completely put it down. The thing is for the last few years, Chris hasn't had any reason to be wrong about this. I love horror films, always have, always will. But being a lover of horror films means I don't like very many of them if that makes any sense. I'm a lot stricter on a horror film than just about any other genre mainly because they have to reach a higher level for me than most films. Oh, and most of them suck; that plays a big role in it as well. Because for all of those people that say all horror films are degrading and sick, I could point out that I find all romantic comedies degrading and sick. Apples and Oranges, right? I agree, and I'm getting off my main topic here.

Anyways, "Torture Porn" was the name given out to films like "Saw," "Hostel," and the remake of "Hills Have Eyes," etc. There are some more, but these are the ones that made some money at the box office and have garnered sequels, so they fit more in most people's minds. However, it's a stupid term given to fairly below average movies for the most part. Although, I kind of dug "The Hills Have Eyes" and parts of the first "Hostel" were pretty engaging, but still these are by no means films that in twenty years I'm going to look at as cornerstones of the horror genre. What's even more annoying by looping these three films together is that they really don't have a damn thing in common except they do depict some torture sequences, hence the group name given; the "Porn" part to the title for me is just a way to get people to read an article. Who's not going to get curious when you put "Porn" in your title?

And now with "Hills Have Eyes II" and "Hostel II" tanking at the box office, I recently read an article saying that audiences are finally getting some ethical backbone again by bogarting these films. There's no mention that these films just aren't any good and that's why people are avoiding them like the plague. No, it has nothing to do with that; people got religion so that's why they're not watching them. Give me a break. But like any trend in any genre, and if you want to call it "Torture Porn," fine, but still, the films are getting old and tired, and considering they were never that fresh to begin with (One of the films lumped in here is a remake from a film that's twenty years old for Christ's sake) it's not hard to see why. So, I'm going to talk about three films (One was released in the theater last weekend, and two were released on DVD this week) that offer up newer or at least fresh takes on the horror genre, and might be worth your time in checking them out if your sick of "Hostel" and the like.

This would be the theatrical release from this past weekend that I just got a chance to see a couple of nights ago. This had two strikes against it for me going into it. One, it's based on a Stephen King story from his collection, "Everything's Eventual." King is great and all, but most of the movies based on his work suck balls, and to top it off this is not one of his strongest stories in the first place. Second, it stars John Cusack. I like John Cusack fine, but the guy hasn't made a good movie since "High Fidelity," and that was seven years ago. However, my wife has John Cusack on her list. You know the "List." You get to pick five celeberites that you could have sex with if you ran into them somewhere even if you're still married. Although, I actually did see Mimi Rogers in Vegas one time a couple of years back, and my wife all of a sudden forgot I had her on my list. Bygones. Anyways, back on the point, Cusack is on my wife's list which means I've suffered through all of the crap he's put out for the past seven years, and I had to go watch this.

Thankfully, Cusack has finally made a good film. It's been awhile, buddy. Let's try and keep the trend up, so I don't have to go through another seven years of "Must Love Dogs" and "America's Sweethearts." But back to topic, I was pleasantly suprised at how well done this film was. Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a writer who had one critically loved novel and then tragedy struck. The tragedy is kind of a suprise in the film, so I won't give it away, but he becomes quite the cynic which for no reason that is given causes him to start traveling around the world to reportedly haunted places and writing about his adventures producing a series of novels on the subjects with bland titles like "Ten Haunted Hotels." Everyone wants him to go back to writing like he did at the beginning of his career but he shrugs them off and goes to his next destination to prove to the world that there is no such thing as a ghost.

However, if there wasn't such a thing as a ghost we wouldn't have much of a movie here, so Mike finally gets what he least expects at the Dolphin hotel in New York and room 1408, hence the title of the film. A manger at the hotel played by Samuel L. Jackson explains to Mike that there have been 56 deaths in the allegedly haunted room and they have all happened within an hour of the victim's entrance into the room. Mike decides to stay in the room anyways and once in the clock sets itself to 60 minutes and begins its countdown.

What really worked for me in this film more than anything was Cusack. Over the past seven years of mediocrity, I had forgotten how good an actor Cusack is. With the majority of the film being Cusack reacting in the hotel room to all of the strange going-on's, it's his performance that is going to sell or sink the film for you. I think he does a bang up job, and come Oscar time there is not a chance in hell he would even be considered, but I'm telling you right now he should be. "1408" is a great send-up of a more old fashioned horror tale; think "Twilight Zone" or "Tales From the Crypt." Most films that take this kind of premise out stay their welcome pretty quickly and have most people thinking that they would work better as a thirty minute episode of an anthology series, but you never get bored here, and in fact when all is said and done I wanted more.

My only problems with the film were pretty small. You're never given a great explanation of why they would even still have the room there and not just put a wall over the door or something. Cusack does have to get his publisher to threaten to sue the hotel before they will let him stay in the room, but that still doesn't explain why the room still exists. And any kind of satisfying ending is always tough to pull off when you tell a fantastical story like this, but I would say that they did a fine job here. It's pretty subtle, and after all the craziness that leads up to it, I found that kind of refreshing. I could see people having some problems with it, but it worked just fine for me. Overall, "1408" is a perfect example of a good cinematic mood piece that pushes all the right buttons when all is said and done. I know I'll have the heebie jeebies for awhile when I'm staying in hotel rooms especially if the clock starts acting up or the walls start bleeding. Of course the latter would have probably scared me before I saw this film, but apples and oranges, people.


James Wan, who was the director of "Saw," the first entry into "Torture Porn" if you will, decided to go a little more gothic for his second outing as a director. Having good sense and mind to stay away from the "Saw" sequels that we will apparently be getting every Halloween for the next ten years or so, he gives us a lot less blood and a lot more mood in his sophmore effort. This is by far the least effective of the three films I'm writing about, but it deserves a mention. Sometimes effort will win me over even if the film itself could've been a lot better.

"Dead Silence" opened in the theaters back in March to very little of anything at the box office and came out on DVD this past week. I really wanted to see it in the theater, but it was gone before I even had a chance to get to it, so I had to wait a couple of months. Now having seen it, twice actually, I can say that it is not an unappreciated gem or deserving of it's box office woes. It is a solid horror film that when it's all over could have used a little more of a backbone to it, but there's plenty to like here.

The movie takes place in the town of Raven's Fair, which has that perfect name for a town involving a ghost story. The legend is that a lady named Mary Shaw, who was a ventriloquist which is always a creepy proffession, got blamed for kidnapping some kids and the townspeople tortured her by cutting her tounge out among other things, and eventually killed her. The legend states that her spirit still lives on in the many dummies she had for her act, and a lot of mysterious deaths in the town have been attributed to her ghost.

Wan starts off the movie with the old Universal logo in black and white which sets the mood of this film perfectly. If you like the old gothic horror films from the fifties then you will find quite a bit to like in "Dead Silence." It makes sense that this film didn't do well. Because if you tout this as being from the director of "Saw," and those fans go check it out then they will be a little dissapointed. Despite a couple of creepy shots of corpses with their tounges cut out (Which she takes since they took hers) there isn't a whole lot of bloodletting going on. I'm not even really sure why this film got an R rating.

Still while there is quite a bit to like, I found quite a bit to dislike as well. The acting is pretty atrocious for the most part, especially Ryan Kwanten, a third rate t.v. actor, who is given the lead here. It seems that after "Saw," Wan could have at least gotten an Aidan Quinn or Dominic Purcell to play his lead, but I guess something sold him on Kwanten; I'm not sure what could have however. Also, the story itself loses a lot of its flavor pretty quickly, but thankfully the movie runs a pretty quick 90 minutes, so the pacing could have been worse. But even with only ninety minutes to work with, the structure is kind of zig zagging all over the place, and so the middle section seems like it should have been in a completely different film.

However, even though most of the acting sucks, Wan does get a fun performance out of Donnie Wahlberg, who is basically playing a more comical version of his cop character from the two "Saw" sequels. Whenever he's on screen the film gets a lot better. There's a neat twist at the end as well even though it kind of undermines some of the stuff that happened prior to it, but it's such a cool ending, I can almost forgive that aspect. And finally, let's face it, dummies are fucking creepy, and you get a lot of those in this film.

Wan gets an "A" for effort here; he's trying to harken back to a more moody kind of gothic ghost story that we don't get enough of nowadays, and I would like to see more of. I wish this film had done better at the box office for the simple fact that more movies of this type could get made; maybe the success of "1408," which is similar in a lot of ways, will help us out in that area. Like I said, not a huge success, but if you like that old kind of ghost story mood to your films, you could do a lot worse than checking out "Dead Silence."


I first heard about this film a little less than a year ago when it started making waves at the film festivals and became an underground success at Sundance. It was then picked up and dumped in theaters barely a month ago with very little promotion behind it, and now we have it on DVD. It's too bad because this would have been a lot of fun in the theater with a packed audience. And I think with the right kind of backing could have had the type of success that "Blair Witch Project" had almost a decade ago.

If you mixed the best parts of "Blair Witch" and "Scream," I think you would get something along the lines of "Behind the Mask." "Behind the Mask" tells the story of a up and coming slasher film slaughterer by the name of Leslie Vernon. Leslie decides to let a documentary film crew follow him for the couple of weeks leading up to his first night out on the town, if you will, where he plans to slaughter a group of unexpecting teenagers in the house he grew up in. You know, the usual Saturday night for most serial killers. The movie takes place in a world where Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and the like are actual people that have made headlines and not just movie characters. Leslie hopes to be lumped into this group of names and we get to see all the preparation that goes into this.

"Behind the Mask" is Christopher Guest's version of a horror film if he were to make one. It takes all of the genre's cliches and stereotypes and puts them into a real world setting that while it would be easy to call this a satire, the scenario actually makes the proceeding all that much more creepier than your average horror film. Leslie has a backstory like every good horror character needs; he was thrown over a waterfall by the townspeople of Glen Echo, and has come back for revenge twenty years later on the anniversary of his supposed death. Newcomer, Nathan Baesel ("Invasion") is a hoot in the title roll. I especially loved all of the opening sequences where he is explaining how everything will go down. He takes them through the house at one point showing them how he has nailed a few windows shut or placed various objects at different escape routes so he can lead his victims where he wants to. When asked if this is cheating; he simply states that no, this is how it's done with a kind of gee whiz look on his face.

All of the horror conventions are here. There's a doctor (Robert Englund) following Leslie around hoping to stop him from committing these gruesome acts, or as Leslie puts it, it's his "Ahab." The woman who will be his "Female Fighter" is of course a virgin. When the crew gets to interview Leslie's mentor, a former psycho slasher from back in the day, they ask him if there's any advice for people if they don't want to be victims. He says, "Yeah, don't hang around with virgins, and if you have one in your group get someone in her pants pronto!"

"Behind the Mask" lost me a little bit in the last third of the film when it actually becomes the slasher film that it's been leading up to the whole way. There's a huge plot twist in the proceedings that you will see coming a mile away, but it's such a great twist it works despite the obviousness of it. But everything that leads up to the last third is so refreshing and so much fun that you can forgive it pretty easily. Unlike "Scream," which is a good film but I always found to be a little too pretentious, this is a horror film that is for horror fans and not making fun of them. And despite all of its satire, like I stated earlier, it becomes a pretty damn good and scary horror film in its own right. I can't reccomend this one enough; I think fans of film in general will be impressed with "Behind the Mask." Check it out.


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