MONKEY REVIEW: Pandorum

September 26, 2009

pandorumPandorum is a science fiction/horror hybrid that starts out promisingly enough, but then loses its grip and meanders into an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s too bad because the movie is initially fascinating to watch, as two men (Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid) wake up after a long sleep aboard a huge spaceship with little or no memory of where the ship is or why they are on it in the first place, or for how long. Foster eventually ventures out into the rest of the ship, and finds it’s infested with mutant cannibals. Pandorum‘s got atmosphere to burn, and some good ideas, but too much of the movie is given over to scenes of guys (and one woman, played by Antje Traue, who is quite good here) just walking and occasionally running around a dark and often noisy environment. The movie resembles a video game in this last respect, as the characters go from level to level seeking a specific goal. The movie also waits way too long to explain what the monsters are and how they got into the ship: Up until then, they are mostly just weird and unpleasant, with ill defined abilities, both of which render them not very scary. (They are rather like the Druids, as explained in This Is Spinal Tap: “Nobody knows who they were…or what they were doing.”) The movie is also lacking in real scares in general and only sometimes works up some suspense, though never enough. It’s certainly not a bad film, nor is it poorly made, but neither is it a must see.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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thefinaldestinationThe Final Destination (The Final Destination? The Final Destination?), reportedly the last entry in the nearly decade old horror franchise, is easily the least of the series and a pretty poor wrap up, if it is indeed the final film. The plot is the same as the other three films: The main character saves his friends and others via a premonition of impending disaster (this time at a car race), which they are able to avoid, but then he finds everyone is dying, anyway, in the order they should have died in the first place. If there’s anything vaguely original about this film, it’s that the filmmakers have taken what might be seen as a bold approach: They’ve made a direct to video style movie, which they’ve chosen to shoot in theatrical 3D. This insures that the only worthwhile aspect of the movie is the 3D, and that’s really barely enough to justify a matinee ticket. Yes, there are lots of people dying increasingly outlandish deaths, and there’s a lot of computer generated gore thrown about, but after a hospital scene in the final stretch of the movie, The Final Destination crosses the line from total absurdity to complete tedium. It’s a shame because the movie’s opening sequence is promising enough, but it’s downhill from there, way downhill.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR REAPER MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

dragmetohellDrag Me To Hell, the first horror film from Sam Raimi since Army Of Darkness, isn’t nearly as goofy as that film, though it’s been billed as a horror-comedy as well. The comedy doesn’t arrive until late in the film, and when it does, it’s unexpected and pretty perfectly timed. For the most part, though, the story of an ambitious loan officer (Alison Lohman) who finds herself cursed by a strange woman (Lorna Raver) is ultra-fast paced, tense and often very scary. As it’s PG-13, the gore is kept to a minimum, but there’s a very high ick factor quotient, with a lot of the gross out moments designed to quite literally leave a bad taste in your mouth. (As with a growing number of PG-13 releases, it’s in no way appropriate for very young audiences.) Raimi’s designed the movie to be deliberately retro, a throwback in particular to Universal horror, with its Gypsy curses and séances, but also referencing his own beginnings in horror, which longtime fans will be able to spot pretty easily. Though it’s got its tongue in its cheek much of the way, Drag Me To Hell is first and foremost determined to unsettle and scare audiences, which it does for most of its 99 minute running time. (And for you summer movie nerds, no, there is no post-credits sequence.) Horror fans, especially old school fans, will probably enjoy the movie the most, but if it’s a scary good time at the movies you’re looking for, Drag Me To Hell is just the ticket. In fact, those fans will want to adjust my rating up one demon monkey.

MONKEY RATING: TWO DEMON MONKEYS

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underworld3I really had no intention of seeing the latest movie in the Underworld franchise because frankly I liked neither the first movie, Underworld nor its even worse sequel, Underworld: Evolution. The films took an intriguing idea, a centuries old war between vampires and werewolves, and proceeded to develop it in the most commonplace way, despite the presence of actors like Kate Beckinsale, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. The end result was a blue tinted Matrix inspired shoot ’em up and a big disappoinment all around, all style and pretty much no worthwhile substance. Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans is a prequel to the aforementioned films, and aims to show the beginning of the war between the vampires and the werewolves, which is framed as a conflict between Viktor (Nighy), leader of the vampires, and Lucian (Sheen), who eventually aims to lead his fellow werewolves, or Lycans, out of the enslavement set upon them by Viktor. To complicate matters even further, Lucian is carrying on a forbidden affair with Sonja (Rhona Mitra), Viktor’s daughter. Basically what you get in Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans are vampires and werewolves in a medieval setting, with swords, arrows and some really big spear launchers, all of which serves the general concept infinitely better than the modern setting of the first two films did. Add some Romeo and Juliet and Exodus elements, some well done CGI effects, a very fast pace and several truly rousing and exciting action sequences and you end up with the kind of movie that I had hoped the first one was going to be in the first place. Is it silly and overwrought sometimes? Sure, but so what? It’s very entertaining and at 92 minutes, it even knows when to quit. Yes, it’s true that fans of the franchise know how the story is going to turn out, so maybe newcomers to the franchise will be the ones to appreciate Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans the most, but I think audiences in general will find this to be a solid horror fantasy. This one is a keeper.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

mybloodyvalentine3dMy Bloody Valentine 3D, in its cheesy ads that recall gimmicky William Castle thrillers of the 50’s and 60’s, promises an entertainment filled with sex, violence and, well, 3D, which, in the logic of the ads, all add up to the perfect date movie, particularly if you happen to reside in the 18-25 year old demographic at which this movie is clearly targeted. A remake of a 1981 slasher flick and cult favorite of the same name, My Bloody Valentine 3D is designed as something of a ride, and it’s relentless and even shameless in its determination to deliver on the promise of its ads. And within those limited parameters, it’s a success, delivering buckets of blood and gore in borderline absurd amounts, and sex, mostly in the form of Betsy Rue, who, a la Linnea Quigley in Return Of The Living Dead, spends the vast majority of her screen time completely nude. And, oh, yeah, there’s a plot, involving a psychotic miner named Harry Warden, who, ten years after perpetrating a massacre of some twenty people, has apparently returned to his hometown to wreak more bloody havoc. What this remake sacrifices in its desire to deliver over the top gory thrills is all the creepiness and atmosphere that made the first one so memorable. The mines, which the original exploited to maximum claustrophobic effect, are barely used here, and mostly treated as another place where the killer miner uses to rack up a body count, a real missed opportunity especially considering the 3D angle, which is otherwise pretty impressively done. My Bloody Valentine 3D also loses considerable momentum about two/thirds of the way through and even seems to lose some interest in the whole 3D thing, but then there’s maybe only so much you can do with a miner’s pick axe. Finally, it wobbles through a needlessly protracted conclusion. All that said, by that time, My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s definitely delivered the goods, as promised, so most audiences will probably forgive the movie those considerable lapses. The cast, which features Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Tom Atkins and Kevin Tighe, is actually quite good, especially King, whom I like the more I see her in movies. My Bloody Valentine 3D is by no means a great movie, but like its predecessor, it’s pretty effective for what it is, and I can’t imagine people who pay to see it knowing what they’re in for feeling at all shortchanged. Non-horror fans may want to adjust my rating down a monkey.

MONKEY RATING: TWO 3D MONKEYS

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returntosleepawaycampRobert Hiltzik’s Return To Sleepaway Camp is a direct sequel to his 1983 movie Sleepaway Camp, one of the many, many summer camp slasher movies that followed in the wake of the original Friday The 13th, released in 1980. I’m pretty sure I deliberately skipped the original when it was first released to theatres, as by then I’d seen enough Friday The 13th knock-offs, but Sleepaway Camp has since developed a cult following mostly owing to its admittedly unforgettable ending. That said, Sleepaway Camp is certainly no model slasher film, being light years away from the original Halloween, the movie Friday The 13th was attempting to cash in on to begin with, but it’s reasonably entertaining for a low budget 80’s horror flick, and it’s almost a must see for horror film fans just for that strange ending. Return To Sleepaway Camp is set at the same summer camp a couple of decades later, and is soon plagued by a series of elaborately staged murders. What almost completely sinks this very tardy sequel, which is unrelated to the 80’s sequels, is the introduction of an overweight, obnoxious, bullying, seemingly mentally ill slob of a camper, Alan (Michael Gibney), who is so gross, cruel and over the top that it seems totally absurd and wrongheaded that the movie then decides you should have sympathy for him when campers and counselors alike begin to torment him in return. It’s also afflicted by one of the least surprising “surprise endings” I’ve seen in some time. For those looking for gore, there’s some third act violence and mayhem, but you’ll have to wade through a middle section where not much of anything seems to happen. It’s not really worth it. Issac Hayes has his last film role as “the Chef,” natch, though he only appears for a couple of scenes and then disappears before the bodies begin to pile up. I guess if you’re a fan of the original movie, and/or the two sequels that followed it (which I haven’t seen), then maybe Return To Sleepaway Camp will be worth a watch, provided your expectations aren’t very high. For all others, you may be better off saving your slasher movie dollars for the upcoming remakes of Friday The 13th and My Bloody Valentine (in 3-D, no less!).

MONKEY RATING: FOUR CAMPING MONKEYS

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MONKEY REVIEW: Rogue

September 7, 2008

Second film from Australian writer/director Greg McLean is an effective horror/thriller about a group of tourists, led by guide Kate (Radha Mitchell), who find themselves trapped on a tidal island in an isolated lagoon by a highly territorial and very hungry rogue crocodile. To say much more about it would be to ruin some of the fun of the movie, as it takes some twists and turns I wasn’t expecting, but suffice to say the last half an hour in particular is one of the most nervewracking experiences I’ve had watching a movie in a quite awhile. I didn’t really care for McLean’s previous work, the serial killer movie Wolf Creek, mostly because it took so long for anything to happen. That said, Rogue is deliberately paced, too, but when things get going, they really get going. It’s also very well acted, especially by Mitchell and by Michael Vartan, who plays an American travel writer, and it’s populated with characters that behave realistically, sensibly and sometimes unexpectedly under the circumstances. McLean wisely doesn’t show the crocodile too much, so when it does appear, it’s to maximum effect, similar to what Steven Spielberg did with the shark in Jaws. Though there are some violent and gory sequences, he also leaves a lot to the imagination. I’m not sure why this wasn’t given a wide release in American theatres, since it outshines the vast majority of the horror films Hollywood has released this year. This is a skilfully made thriller, beautifully shot for the most part in Australia’s Northern Territory, and I very much recommend it for horror and thriller fans.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

MONKEY REVIEW: Lifeforce

June 23, 2008

lifeforce“That girl was no girl.”

Lifeforce, the 1985 Tobe Hooper movie about a space vampire that wreaks havoc in London, is one of the most unhinged major Hollywood releases I’ve ever had the pleasure/bad luck to see. The story makes absolutely no sense, the dialogue is more often than not laughably bad (“Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.” “I’m here. Now can this madness end?”), and Steve Railsback, who was so good in The Stunt Man several years before this was released, gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen by a leading man. But then Railsback is having to play the lone survivor of an ill fated space shuttle mission who has a psychic bond with a space vampire girl named, according to the credits, Space Girl (Mathilda May, in a memorable film debut), who herself initially spends so much screen time naked that when she reappears in the movie walking the English countryside in what appears to be a garbage bag, a character observes, with some disappointment, perhaps, “Now she has clothes.” For a weird Alien/Dracula hybrid, it’s got an impressive roll call of talent: Hooper, who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien, also wrote this screenplay, the special effects are by John Dykstra (Star Wars), and Henry Mancini did the musical score. So while Lifeforce is absurd and nonsensical and just plain bad in a lot of ways, it’s professionally made absurd, nonsensical badness. It’s also, and this accounts for why I’ve seen this movie multiple times, fast paced and wickedly entertaining, and because it doesn’t make any sense at all, it’s almost completely unpredictable. When I first saw this during its initial theatrical run, I literally had no idea what was going to happen from one scene to the next, as it’s a space vampire movie that starts out like Alien, and ends up, inexplicably, a zombie plague movie. But wow, is it wild fun to watch, and it’s played totally straight by a mostly English cast, which makes it all the better. Peter Firth is actually quite good as a British colonel (and “natural voyeur”) hot on the trail of Space Girl, Patrick Stewart shows up in time to get his first onscreen kiss from…Railsback, and Aubrey Morris plays a government official much in the same way one would play a pirate. I don’t usually recommend bad movies to people, because there’s plenty of good ones to see, but Lifeforce is such a nutty good time, it’s a must-see for science fiction and horror fans. For non-fans of those genres, you can adjust my rating down a monkey.

P.S. This is a review of the US theatrical cut, as I wanted to review the version of the movie I first saw in 1985. The international cut, which runs about 15 or so minutes longer, apparently makes somewhat more sense. There’s yet another cut of the movie that runs 12 minutes longer than that, Tobe Hooper’s own cut of the movie.

P.P.S. This review is also part of the Final Girl Film Club.

MONKEY RATING: THREE (SPACE VAMPIRE) MONKEYS

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I once heard a friend of mine, Raphael Shargel, a noted film scholar and critic, complain about movies that don’t let you forget that they are in fact movies. He was talking about The Blair Witch Project specifically, a movie I actually enjoyed, but he could have just as easily been talking about George Romero’s latest zombie movie, Diary Of The Dead, which arrives on DVD fully forty years after his seminal zombie classic, Night Of The Living Dead. Diary Of The Dead is a movie I tried to enjoy, and sometimes did, but the artificiality of its technique kept getting in the way. It’s supposed to be a record of the first few days of the zombie outbreak, as seen through the video lens of a student filmmaker named Jason (Joshua Close). His girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), as she tells the audience at the beginning of the movie, has thoughtfully edited his footage together and even added music because she wants the result to “scare” audiences with the actual truth of the zombie epidemic, which has been covered up by the media and government. And it does work up some scares, occasionally, anyway, and it even works up some suspense, that is, until someone inevitably starts complaining about Jason taping everything, which results in either him justifying it or someone else doing it for him. Lame. Romero tries to work some thoughtful and pointed observations about how the Internet currently acts both as a tool for and against truth, but also as a repository for the worst of human behavior. “Are we worth saving?,” the movie eventually asks, and you get the feeling Romero isn’t so sure. Cheers to Romero for trying, but this is an awful lot of intellectual and philosophical weight for a movie about flesh eating zombies to carry, and too often Diary Of The Dead isn’t up to the task. The zombie parts work as well as they ever have, and Romero comes up with some creative ways to dispatch them. There are a few visually arresting moments, too, including an indoor pool with some unexpected contents, but all in all, this is one of the weaker entries in Romero’s zombie series.

MONKEY RATING: THREE (ZOMBIE) MONKEYS

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“It’s a lie. The signal; it’s a trick. Change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change. .”

Superior, smartly written and surprisingly ultra-low budgeted horror/comedy/thriller about a signal broadcast over cell phones, radio and television that causes the people who hear or see it to get “the crazy,” that is, to hallucinate and behave in impulsive, violent and sometimes murderous ways. The film is divided into three parts, each written and directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry. The first part is by far the best, which depicts the first night the signal is broadcast, and the resulting chaos. It’s genuinely creepy and frightening, and photographed in gorgeously saturated colors. The second part is more satirical, and while the switch in tone is jarring, it still works up some laughs owing to the cast (including A. J. Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Justin Welborn, Sahr Nguajah, Scott Poythress and Cheri Christianwhich), which is uniformly good. The last part is more serious, and wraps up the storyline effectively. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but when it works, it works very well. Amazingly, The Signal was done on a $50,000 budget, putting a lot of higher budget Hollywood junk to shame.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)