Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Franchise Review: Wishmaster (1997)

I guess just because a horror film spawned a few sequels doesn't mean that the original was actually good enough to warrant sequels in the first place. This is very true of 1997's Wishmaster, which I had really high hopes for because of the talent involved, both in front of and behind the camera. However, despite some noteworthy gags, the whole of Wishmaster is pretty dull.

Alexandra, an appraiser at an auction, accidentally awakens the ancient Djinn from the jewel in which it was imprisoned. The Djinn grants wishes in order to collect human souls and become more powerful, but needs the three wishes of the person that awoke him - Alex - to open the gateway between worlds and free the rest of the Djinn to take over the Earth.

The movie was directed by Robert Kurtzman, one-third of the amazing KNB Effects house, so I knew before the movie started that at least the effects were going to be awesome. And indeed the opening scene in ancient Persia where the Djinn mutilates various people is freaking amazing. How could any horror fan not love the part where the guy's skin rips off and his skeleton comes out and attacks people? Sadly, that's probably the coolest thing to see in the whole movie and things pretty much go downhill from there.

Wishmaster's problem is that it has a great beginning and a pretty good ending, but everything in the middle is boring. Too much time is spent on exposition about the Djinn's history when we already got the basics on that from the text before the credits. There's a decent leading lady in Tammy Lauren as Alex (though she's mostly kind of whiny and weepy) who smartly deals with the cunning Djinn, but the interaction between the two characters is so little that there is never any real tension or fear that she is in danger. Once the Djinn explodes out of the opal gemstone as a mushy little baby Djinn and kills Alex's friend Josh, he just sort of walks around town disguised as some random guy and grants stupid little wishes to random people. Had Wishmaster stuck with the tone of the gruesome opening, I think it could have been much better.

Aside from the skeleton gag, there were actually a few other gore scenes that I enjoyed for the moment. Wishmaster takes most of its storytelling cues from The Monkey's Paw, wherein the wishes that are granted don't necessarily happen the way the wishers wanted them to. Some of the results are lame - a woman who says she wants to stay beautiful forever is turned into a mannequin - and some are pretty cool - the massacre at the police station where one guy gets his jaw ripped off. The two second-best gags happen at the end during a party where, again, all hell breaks loose. One party-goer is decapitated by piano wire with a life of its own; a woman turns into glass and explodes; statue snakes come alive and bite a man's face and twist it around all nasty-like; and another guy gets his face all stretched out weird by a spear going through his mouth.

The film can at least boast that it has an impressive cast of actors and horror icons, even if they just make cameo appearances. Robert Englund has the most starring role as Raymond Beaumont, the man who buys the statue where the jewel that holds the Djinn is trapped, and his assistant who bites it right off the bat is a personal favorite of mine, adorable little Ted Raimi. Tony Todd makes a short appearance as doorman Johnny Valentine, and Kane Hodder is a security guard who meets a very strange demise. Kurtzman himself appears as the man attacked by piano wire, and I think that was Howard Berger getting his face smashed in by a mace. The cameos are nice and bring a smile to the horror-lover's face when you see them, but they are not good enough to make the movie any better.

I actually want to watch the sequels to see if they get any nastier than this one, but I don't have much hope. It seems like there is probably a reason why I don't hear the Wishmaster series talked about more often - it's not that great. The Djinn as a villain is a very cool idea and had great potential but this film does not take advantage of that.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: "The Matriarch" by Kevin A. Ranson

A bit of a welcome change from all the zombie novels I've been reading lately, author Kevin A. Ranson's vampire novel The Matriarch is yet another story that manages to breathe new life into a seemingly tired and played-out subgenre of horror. Just the first of a planned series of books, Ranson has already followed up The Matriarch with a sequel, The Matriarch: Guardians, which was released in May. Hopefully I'll get a chance to read that one too, because I completely enjoyed the first book.

Staying at her grandparent's isolated farmhouse over Thanksgiving break, Janiss Connelly starts becoming suspicious of the nearby Cedarcrest Sanctum rest home where some odd things are happening with the residents. Janiss soon finds herself in the middle of a long-standing vendetta between the head of Cedarcrest and a mysterious man named Ian, who one night changes her life in a way she never could have imagined.

I used to think that I was pretty much over vampire stories in general because I hadn't seen them done the way I think they should in a long time. Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain trilogy changed that somewhat with its super-awesome version of the vampire, but I definitely missed some of the classic elements of the story. Ranson's story is wonderful mix of all those things that we know and love about vampire lore, along with some of his own personal tweakings. For example, a wooden stake alone can not kill a vampire, it just hurts and incapacitates them while it is in their chest. The kinds of vampires that exist in this book are also not inherently good or evil - that depends on how they deal with what has happened to them. They can either become horrible killers or learn how to control their powers and their bloodlust in order to safely live among humans.

One thing that did confuse me a bit was how the vampires would keep saying that they were dead,
but one part has Janiss not being able to wake up from her bed of soil until her breathing starts and her heart starts beating. Did I misinterpret something there? Anyway, other than that, Ranson's take on vampirism was wonderfully detailed and exciting to me personally because these are the kinds of vampires that I love to read about. Of course they are monsters and act as such when need be, but a part of them is still human, and they can use their unique capabilities for good, actually. You'll just have to read the book to find out how.
***EDIT*** My question has just been answered by the author! The vampires here are technically dead, but at night when they go out to feed, they are able to imitate the living so that they may feed off of them. It is in the sunlight where humans are able to see them for what they are, and they cannot hide as easily.

As our main character, Janiss Connelly is surprisingly admirable, though she's a bit annoying at first because of the way she treats her friend Daniel. She is no shrinking violet, even before she becomes a vampire, and she seems very determined and independent. After her transformation, she is confused and afraid but still tries to work with what is happening logically, without crying in a corner or anything. She learns about her new skills as a vampire from the one that made her, Ian. He is the perfect villain - cold, conniving, and selfish, he takes pleasure in tormenting Janiss any way he can. Their relationship is extra-tense because Ian knows that Janiss is on the side of Louisa, the vampire who runs Cedarcrest and who has a strong vendetta against Ian both for turning her into a monster and for the murder of her best friend a hundred years ago. My favorite character was Timothy, Louisa's personal aide. He seemed to care very deeply for her, knowing all her secrets and helping her in her day-to-day survival, and in her plan for vengeance against Ian. He's not emotional but you can tell he has a big heart, and those kinds of characters are always intriguing.

Though the core story of The Matriarch is brought to a satisfying conclusion at the end, I can see all the possibilities of where Ranson could take it even further for the sequels. There's a whole world of vampires out there that we haven't met, and it seems like Janiss has some work that she wants to get done. The Matriarch is a wonderfully and skillfully crafted vampire tale that shows respect for the classic monster, while still changing things up in a way that shows the author's personality and individualism. I'm very happy that I got a chance to read it and that I can share it with other horror fans because I think it is something that they could really (I CAN'T RESIST) sink their teeth into!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Movie Review: 28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later is one of those films that I only remember watching once or twice, despite its immense popularity. Catching up on it now, it's still not exactly one of my favorites, but I can definitely see why people love it. Simple and inventive, 28 Days Later is a wonderful post-apocalypse story that is very effective, even despite some flaws.

A group of animal rights activists breaks into a research facility to rescue chimpanzees that are being experimented on, and unwittingly release a dangerous virus of pure rage onto the populace. Twenty-eight days later, four survivors navigate the desolate country, trying to find a safe place to stay.

One reason 28 Days Later is impressive is because at least most of the movie was shot on DV. More convenient than huge film cameras, director Danny Boyle used DV cams to achieve some of the shots that they needed to get quickly. There are many parts where the lesser quality hurts the movie, simply because DV will never look as beautiful as film. It's disappointing, but the style quality is there. There are many different locations over the course of the movie, and Boyle uses them all to their full potential both visually and emotionally. He makes a simple shot of a family of horses running through a field almost bring tears to the eye, and turns an elegant mansion into a creepy house of horrors. All the makeup effects are realistic and beautiful in their own way - I like the simplicity of the use of the scary red eyes on the infected.

Cillian Murphy is our mysterious leading man Jim, who is buck naked when we first meet him. There are some wonderful iconic shots of deserted London as Jim wanders around, not knowing what happened and looking for any other signs of life. Soon, he meets up with survivors Mark and Selena, and then later the core group becomes Jim, Selena, Frank, and his teenage daughter Hannah. Each character has qualities important to the story and traits that play off of each other. Frank plays as the father figure to them all, and Hannah is no useless little girl, as she is quite defiant and skillful. Cillian's gaunt body makes Jim look weak and in comparison to Selena, who saves him from a group of infected, he is. However, when he is put to the test by the military guys who threaten Selena and Hannah, Jim proves that he can be quite vicious and cunning, and then coming full circle back to the caring and sensitive guy he started out to be.

I've been thinking about doing a little thing on Unsung Heroines of Horror and if I did, Selena from 28 Days Later would most definitely be on the list. When Jim first meets her, she is very cold and unfeeling, constantly reminding Jim that she will let him and anybody else die if she has to, and only concentrating on surviving day to day. It's almost kind of annoying to me how rude and inhuman she is. When Frank and Hannah come into the mix, they truly affect her and her soft side comes out here and there. She's a badass when she needs to be - the best example is when she dispatches of her companion Mark with no hesitation after he's been infected.

One thing that is constantly brought up when talking about 28 Days Later is the debate over whether the film is a "zombie" film or an "infection" film. People seem to be pretty adamant one way or the other, but even after watching the film again, I can't make the call. It's obviously not a zombie film because the baddies are not zombies. There are no reanimated corpses or people rising out of graves. Though it is unclear how they kill, there is at least no talk of the eating of human flesh or brains. The people that call it a zombie film, though, still have the right to say so because the scenario is pretty well identical to a zombie apocalypse story. The baddies themselves might as well be zombies based on the way they act and the way the infection is spread. So I'm staying on the fence in this debate - whether you say "zombie film" or "infection film," I'd say you're essentially both right.

Possibly my favorite part of 28 Days Later is Frank's infection. It is the one part of the film that I have always remembered over the years simply because of how random, unlucky, and genius it was. A single drop of blood from a dead infected body falls into his eye - no attack, nothing violent, just really shitty luck. The infection's quick turnaround time hardly gives the audience time to mourn the loss of Frank, who is just one of those really good guys with a big heart. Frank's demise represents what I've always thought was the real bitch of zombie stories - you can fight hard and survive a long time, until a single bite, one wrong move, can suddenly be the end of it and there is no way to change it.

28 Days Later is not a personal favorite, but I can feel where the love is coming from. There is real talent behind the story, filmmaking, and acting - all three important components of a film coming together to create something that is a welcome addition to the horror and zombie (or infection) genre. Focusing more on morality and emotion than pure violence, 28 Days Later is definitely one that will be remembered for a long time.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Short and Sweet: "Dark Avenue of the Night" (2014)

Another Short and Sweet short film I found buried in a mountain of email! I do apologize for getting this one out there so late, because I was impressed with it and the story behind it. The five-minute short was created - start to finish, pre-production to post-production - in only two days as a part of the 48 Hour Film Festival. "Dark Avenue of the Night" took home the coveted first prize! Check it out here!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Double Feature: Deliver Us From Evil (2014) and The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Deliver Us From Evil (2014)
I honestly didn't know anything about Deliver Us From Evil before I was seated in that theater. I only allowed myself to see snippets of the trailers and had read some positive feedback about it. I had hope. But I saw a big red flag before the movie even started - the Jerry Bruckheimer logo. Oh no. Don't get me wrong - I downright love all those cheesy action movies, but that is one production company that I seriously do not trust around horror movies.

And the result proves it - Deliver Us From Evil is definitely a different type of possession film, probably due to it being based on a true story (pfft), but all the momentum it builds up is never released in a satisfying enough way. The New York cop main characters are incredibly cliché and unoriginal to the point of being annoying. The scares are also tired and cliché with only one truly creepy moment in the whole movie (that stuffed owl rolling across the floor); the rest is just a string of weird-ass shit with animals that is not explained and doesn't flow well from one scene to the next. The pacing of the whole movie is off, as nothing really happens until you get to the exorcism scene.

Oh, the exorcism scene. Gosh, I was truly hoping for something shocking and new. Didn't happen at all. Did anybody else think in that one part where the dude stood up and there was all that tension that the demon was going to like, explode out of him or something?! I was, and I wanted it to happen so bad but they completely missed the boat there, and the conclusion of the film after that was just disappointing.

The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
The first Purge film was so-so with me. I loved the concept but did not think that they really explored that concept to its full potential. I was excited for The Purge: Anarchy because it looked like they were going to take a more large-scale look at what happens on Purge night. This sequel follows a small group of people - a mother and daughter, a young couple, and a man on a mission (a pretty obvious mission, actually) - after they are all stuck on the streets on Purge night and must survive pursuit from several groups of baddies.

The characters are quickly set up and pretty likable - I loved that daughter and how spunky she was - and while they're not terribly fleshed out, they're not a bad group of people to spend a movie with. The plot moves at a nice pace with a few surprises here and there - it definitely took a few turns that I wasn't expecting but that I ended up enjoying very much.

Once again, though, the filmmakers seem to have missed the boat on certain plot points. A group exists that is strongly against The Purge, and throughout the film we are shown video footage of them speaking out and saying they are going to fight back. So you would think that they would maybe become a major part of the story and helping these innocent people survive. And yet the group only shows up at the end as a very quick deus ex machina and then poof! they're gone. A little disappointing. I was expecting or hoping for a big fight or something.

Still, I liked The Purge: Anarchy. It's a good sequel, but it just feels like there is still more of the story to tell. Maybe there needs to be a third film; we'll see.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Movie Review: The Banshee Chapter (2013)

Little disappointed with this one. I've heard a lot of critical acclaim for The Banshee Chapter, but it really didn't do anything for me personally at all.
Young journalist Anne is on the trail of a missing friend, who disappeared after shooting video of himself taking a dangerous drug used in experiments by the government. Aided by a boozy, eccentric author named Thomas Blackburn, Anne digs deep into the history of these experiments and learns the truth about what is known as Project MKUltra.

While the story is somewhat grounded in reality - The LSD used in government experiments is replaced by a drug called dimethyltryptamine or DMT - and while the film employs a found footage style for some of it, they were wholly unsuccessful at drawing me into the story. This is perhaps partly my own fault, though. I have no interest in government secrets or conspiracy theory stuff - I've always found all that to be pretty silly and a waste of time. So then I was immediately in a frame of mind to not take anything I saw seriously, even just for the film's run time. This probably doesn't make me the best person around to review the film, but hey, maybe somebody else out there had an experience similar to mine.

The Banshee Chapter is neither scary, nor creepy, nor coherent. I honestly didn't know what I was supposed to be scared of half the time. Okay, so there's a radio station that just has a female voice saying numbers. Am I really supposed to scared of that? I'm definitely not, and therefore another element of the film that was supposed to make it all creepy and mysterious just made me very bored and yawn a lot.

The rest of The Banshee Chapter doesn't do anything more inventive than a few badly timed jump moments that anybody can see coming a mile away. The shooting style is very similar to a lot of other films I have seen, so much so that through most of the film I was saying things in my head like, "Okay, zoom in on the window in the chamber thing and something should come popping out right... about... now." The film hits all the predictable beats and doesn't bring anything new to the table. The black eyes and weird disfigured face - seen it before. Blood coming out of the mouth still wasn't enough to interest me.

The main actress is very pretty and gives her character a sympathetic quality; she is sadly also kind of dull. Ted Levine is more recognizable, of course, and uses his character actor talents to give an obvious Hunter S. Thompson quality to his Thomas Blackburn character. He's at least fun to watch even if he's never given any depth beyond his quirky personality and penchant for alcohol and drugs. It's really hard not to like him though, because well... he's Ted Levine. I love that dude.

Oh, and that twist ending with one of the characters? Had it figured out a long time ago, but nice try anyway.

Meh, I'm done. I don't even really care to know what The Banshee Chapter was really about. The DMT drug supposedly makes the drinker a "receiver" of some sorts but a receiver of what? Something with... aliens? Ghosts? High priestess monkeys from another dimension? All I know is that all of the problems in this movie could have been solved by the simple fact that you should probably never take any kind of drug that the government likes to play with. Not a good idea. I'm glad The Banshee Chapter has some fans out there, I'm just not one of them. Maybe you'll see something in this movie that I didn't.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy Prize Pack Giveaway!

Got plans to see The Purge: Anarchy this Friday, July 18th? Celebrate the release of the sequel to last year's The Purge by participating in The Girl Who Loves Horror's first ever giveaway!

If you win this prize pack, you will receive a Purge: Anarchy t-shirt size large (sorry, only size available) and an official Purge flashlight. I thought a gun might be a bit more helpful for the purge than a flashlight but I think it's illegal or something to give those away.

So if you're interested, all you have to do is check out the nifty little  interactive GIFs below to find out the "5 Things to Know Before You Watch The Purge: Anarchy." Use your touch screen or mouse to roll across the GIFs and control the scene!

I'm actually pretty stoked to check out what Anarchy has to offer. Ever since seeing the first film, I've wondered what a Purge would be like on a much broader scale than just the experiences of one family in one house.

TO WIN: Comment below and tell me your favorite color.

No, that's too easy. Okay, to win: Comment below and tell me what you would do if The Purge were real.
-Leave your email address in the comment.
-Giveaway only open to people in the U.S.
-If you've won on another site, you can't be eligible to win again.
-You have until FRIDAY, JULY 25th to submit your name to The Purge: Anarchy Prize Pack Giveaway! I must have the winner's mailing address submitted by July 27th so be sure to check your email!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Movie Review: Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

Way back around 2005 or 2006, I simultaneously fell in love with the film Wolf Creek, its director Greg McLean, and its antagonist Mick Taylor as played by John Jarratt. McLean put off doing a sequel to Wolf Creek in favor of making the equally awesome film Rogue, so many of us have been waiting a long time for this. And I'm happy to say that, for the most part, Wolf Creek 2 is another wonderful output from this talented filmmaker.

The outback is still not a safe place to go, as hitchhiking couple Rutger and Katarina visit the famed Wolf Creek Crater, and find themselves in the territory of brutal killer Mick Taylor. He hasn't lost his taste for blood, or his love of playing sick games with tourists.

The sequel definitely changes pace from the original, which was much more realistic and gritty. The first scene of Wolf Creek 2 lets the audience know that they are in for something very different - something a lot more graphic and with a lot more blood and action, and also with a little bit of a sense of humor. The film never really goes completely in one direction or the other in terms of tone, which is both humorous and serious, and there are a few twists in plot that will no doubt keep you interested.

John Jarratt is just plain brilliant - again. I could tell from the poster that they were going to focus
more on Mick's character in Wolf Creek 2, and honestly, that is exactly what I was hoping for. Jarratt's performance was fantastic - being able to have that somewhat lovable, unassuming side of a stereotypical Aussie, hiding the truth that he is a disgusting rapist-murder with no conscience. Almost ten years later, Mick is still that wise-cracking son of a gun whose brutality is now almost unmatched by many other killers. His look is also gladly the same with his sideburns, hat, and plaid shirt, rifle in one hand; knife in the other.

I had a feeling that there would be a more comical, Freddy Krueger-esque persona about Mick in Wolf Creek 2 (that Aussie accent pretty much begs for it) but I was glad to see that that did not take away from how terrifying he is. If anything, it added to it. Here is a man with the entire outback as his playground, where he can and does do whatever he wants to whatever hapless tourists come his way. That's unbelievably terrifying to me, no matter how many jokes he cracks, because that just shows me how much fun he is having doing what he does. McLean emphasizes this point by once again using many wide shots of the landscape, letting us know just how isolated our characters are.

I didn't realize what a hankering I had for some good gore until I watched Wolf Creek 2. During that first scene when a cop's head is blown half off by Mick's rifle, I was downright giddy to find out what else was in store for me. There's a pretty horrific beheading with Mick's second signature weapon - his trusty hunting knife. He also uses a shotgun, whip, and a handsaw in fun ways. One scene that even grossed me out is when Mick is having a little bit too much fun dismembering a body. The special effects are way too good, if you know what I mean. The effects are also wonderful when Paul gets to Mick's underground tunnels of terror, which is full of his past victims in various stages of decay. It also made me very happy that all the effects in the film are done in camera, with the exception of the kangaroos.

Speaking of which, if there is one thing in this film that deserves its own paragraph, it is the
awesomeness of... The Kangaroo Massacre. Holy goddamn, this was the funniest, most unexpected shit I have seen in a long time. During one of the car chases between Mick and Paul, Mick has gotten himself a big rig and uses it to straight up plow through a group of kangaroos as they cross the highway. You guys. I could not breathe, I was laughing so hard, especially with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" playing in the background. Somehow it works, though, because the scene moves on quickly after that, and you're left just kinda like, "Well, that happened!" More awesome is the conclusion of this car chase, when Paul's car is pushed off a cliff. He survives, and jeers at Mick that he'll have to do better than that to kill him - so Mick sends the whole fucking big rig off the cliff, too. Brilliant.

The film ends with an awesome extreme wide shot of Mick in his home of the outback, which again becomes another character in the movie. Wolf Creek 2 was a long time in the making, and perhaps this was a good thing because McLean and Jarratt were really able to work on the story and do a sequel that is truly worthy of the original. I can't believe I had almost forgotten about Mick Taylor. I've watched the film about three times now, and falling in love with this wonderful villain even more every time.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Movie Review: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Whew. I don't know about you guys, but that was a loooong holiday weekend for me. Well, I guess if you don't live in the U.S., you didn't even really have a holiday weekend, did you? Now I just sound awkward. Okay, on to the review.

I think now it was a good idea to space out my viewings of most of these giallos. Each new one that I have seen has been like this wonderful little horror treasure that I've discovered for myself. Awesome titling comes into play again with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which I was surprised to find out was actually Dario Argento's directorial debut.

Sam, an American writer living in Rome, witnesses the attempted murder of a woman who is likely the victim of a serial killer that has offed several women in the area. Sam becomes obsessed with trying to find the killer himself, heading up his own investigation into the crimes - and making himself and his girlfriend targets in the process.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage works because of its simplicity. Not only did Argento begin his directing career with this film, he also wrote it, and the story he came up with is fabulous. It really has that feel of a classic murder mystery, with all the classic plot elements and devious devices you love from movies like it. Not that I'm advocating a remake or anything, but if someone were to do something similar today, they really wouldn't have to change a thing about the major plot points - my sign of a true classic. The only thing I am a bit iffy on is how involved in the case Inspector Morosini allows Sam to be. Granted he kind of does a better job than the police do, but it's still the principle of the thing.

Tony Musante as Sam Dalmas is an attractive leading man in every sense of the word. He is vulnerable, but not weak, and sensitive, but still able to hold his own. His model girlfriend Julia is played by the gorgeous Suzy Kendall, a British actress who only  had a career in the 60s and 70s. At first I thought she was going to be annoying - like a lot of women in these movies who play second fiddle to the hero are - but she ends up being a great character.

I was surprised to find a bit of a humorous element in some scenes. There's a cute little relationship scene between Sam and Julia when she gets mad at him and starts throwing things, and he just laughs and goads her even more. That kind of realism is always fun to see. But obviously the best humorous scene is when Sam goes to visit the painter, and finds him to be just as eccentric as painters are often portrayed as being. Although I don't completely love this scene because eating kittens is so wrong. So very, very wrong. There are also some moments of true suspense that I loved, such as when the killer is trying to get in the apartment when Julia is there alone. My favorite part, though, is when Sam walks into the darkened room of the killer's, not knowing or seeing poor Julia tied up and gagged on the floor. The revealing shot is perfectly framed and a great shock for the audience.

Until the reveal, the killer remains like all typical giallo killers - black gloves and a shiny black raincoat expertly hide not only their identity but also their gender (hint hint!). And for once, I actually loved the killer's motive and the reasoning behind why they did what they did. Even if you think you know who the killer is, I think the movie does a great job of hiding their motive and how everything finally connects in the end. I found it interesting that in both this and Four Flies on Grey Velvet - both a part of Argento's "Animal Trilogy" - it was the very animal in the title that reveals the identity of the killer. And now I want to know if that was intended or not, and if the same thing is true for the last installment of the trilogy, The Cat o' Nine Tails. It's now in the queue!

Sometimes I think it's best to judge a director on some of their first efforts moreso than their later films. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a more than solid directorial debut for Dario Argento, who obviously had talent straight out of the gate. It's a perfectly written and executed mystery thriller that gets all the beats right. No doubt another favorite has been born.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: "One Undead Step" by Ian McClellan

When I first read the synopsis for One Undead Step, I was extremely intrigued and genuinely excited. Most of the recent horror novels that I have read have been about zombies, but this one definitely had the most unique idea that I had heard in a long time. I'm very proud and honored to have gotten the chance to experience this great zombie novel, and hope that author Ian McClellan has much more good stuff in store for horror fans.

The book follows a dual storyline: one with B-movie director Mark Matthews who is pulled out of a jail cell by the military to perform a very unusual task - direct a fake moon landing. Conspiracy theorists have saying for years that the first moon landing was faked, but One Undead Step actually proposes that the reason it was faked was to distract the populace from the fact that America was under attack by zombies. The other plot line follows a ragtag group of civilians - a bar owner, a suburban family, a couple of gangsters, some Army Rangers, and two town drunks - as they get caught up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse in an unknown American city. At first they just have to survive the night on their own, but they learn more about the truth of their situation, the group realizes that it is not just the zombie hoard that they have to live through.

Easily the most attractive aspect of the novel is the rich characters that McClellan has created. The main group is quite large, but each person is given different and distinct character traits so that the reader is never confused or overwhelmed. McClellan also does a wonderful job of giving each person a believable arc in the growth of their characters, as some of them start out very selfish or weak and then genuinely change as the story grows. As you come to know and love (almost) all of these people, the reader might forget what their inevitable fate probably is - if we're staying somewhat historically accurate, no one can really stick around to tell the world about the zombies. The demise of your favorite people are still shocking and hard to take, nonetheless.

It's easy to try to write a comedy, but it's really hard to write something that is genuinely funny. McClellan uses smart, sophisticated humor to help set off the true horror of what he puts his characters through. My favorite bit was about Neil Armstrong, who is actually not mentioned by name, and how he had to be the "star" of the movie and had to have the best line of the script - obviously, the "one small step for man..." famous quote. Hilarious! The "relationship" between Cedric and Gloria also brings about a lot of laughs, as does the inherently funny situation of a bunch of regular people forced to rely on some ruthless gangsters to survive.

The one thing that disappointed me with the story is that McClellan completely drops the dual storyline about halfway through. He focuses completely on the group fighting the zombies and does not even mention the moon filming until the other story is over. As this was the most unique aspect of the book, it was disappointing that the reader only gets a glimpse of that situation. Mark Matthews and General Baker were two more very interesting characters that I would have loved to spend more time with, but it just wasn't so.

I was also very confused at the inclusion of two random "Zombie Stories" after the epilogue. They were titled as chapters 15 and 19, so were they just pulled out of the middle of the book and put at the end? Why? It completely ruins the flow of the story and makes it seem like the zombie story of the novel actually continues after the end, when it was made pretty clear that it was eradicated completely. This was a mistake in my opinion; the book has a much stronger ending with just the epilogue.

However, I still give One Undead Step very high marks. McClellan truly has talent in this genre, as this book was a highly enjoyable, hilarious and, yes, beautifully gory zombie tale that is fast-paced and fun. Horror lovers will have a fantastic time with this story, which has vivid and rich descriptions of all the disgusting zombie stuff McClellan can come up with, and it is awesome to read every word. Don't miss out on this original tale of the undead!

Buy One Undead Step on Amazon here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Movie Review: Grand Piano (2014)

Like everybody else, I have more than a few flicks that are guilty pleasures for me - usually movies that are pretty universally hated by most, but adored by me. I have no problem admitting my guilty pleasures, and one of them is 2003's Phonebooth. Goodness yes, I love Phonebooth. So when I heard that this movie Grand Piano had a similar story, I knew I was going to be all over it at the first chance. Let's see if it lived up to expectations.

Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, one of the world's greatest living pianists who is returning to the stage after a five-year hiatus. In a theater full of hundreds of people, Tom is contacted by a man with a sniper rifle who warns him that if he plays one wrong note, he will shoot him, and also threatens to shoot his wife, who is in the audience.

Grand Piano is certainly not without its flaws, but it can be enjoyed in spite of them. For one, the story is taut, able to cram in all the necessary information in an easy 90-minute package that flies by. There are no frivolous or unimportant scenes, and though none of the characters except Tom are fleshed out all that much, they actually don't matter that much. Grand Piano is a situation movie, at times an implausible situation movie, and it's the situation you want to see played out and not so much the characters. That's not a bad thing at all, and actually made the movie much more interesting than it probably should have been.

Another reason to love Grand Piano is that it is gorgeous. The director and cinematographer make magnificent use of the camera and the somewhat limited location. The setup of the piano on stage is striking, with the bright red carpet underneath, mirrored by the red curtain in the background that looks like it is bursting out of the piano itself. You really can't go wrong with using red in a movie, I always say - such a striking color, no matter what it's supposed to mean. There are lots of awesome camera angles to keep things interesting, and I loved all the sweeping shots while the orchestra was playing and the use of the reflection in the shiny piano for some shots, too. There is also one great tracking shot when Tom tries to contact his friend Wayne in the audience. As Wayne walks up the stairs behind the main theater area, the camera moves up into the balcony with him and then moves into a split screen with him in the hallway on one side and Tom on stage on the other side. All of this made Grand Piano a beautiful film to watch.

Elijah Wood is an actor that I am coming to respect more and more, and his performance here is perfect. His character is hard to read sometimes because he seems cowardly but is also a quick thinker, and Wood plays to all those traits with ease. Though I don't know jack about playing piano, to me it looked like Wood was the real deal, and I was actually surprised to see him in most of the more intense piano-playing sequences instead of a double. I was wondering where John Cusack was through most of the movie until about the one-hour mark when I was finally able to recognize his voice as that of the sniper's (and his voice is nowhere near as awesome as Kiefer Sutherland's was in Phonebooth). When he gets some actual screen time, I have to say that he's not completely convincing. Even after seeing him play a serial killer in The Frozen Ground, I still have a hard time with Cusack being the bad guy. Sadly, no one else in the cast is really all that noteworthy, they're just kind of there.

Like I said, the movie definitely has its flaws. I think most people have a problem with the
believability. One question I had was why they went to all this trouble when they could have stolen the piano. Maybe this was more fun? Another scene that was a little out there was when Wood was deftly playing a really involved piece on the piano while making calls and texting on his phone. I'm sure as a pianist he is very coordinated and agile, but the unbelievable part was how the guy with the scope on the sniper rifle did not see any of what he was doing! There was also the convenience of the bathroom under construction - perfect place for... well, watch the movie and find out.

Flaws aside, I loved Grand Piano. I love the look of the film and the joy that comes just from watching it, and I love Elijah Wood's acting. The ending comes tongue in cheek and with a wink and I always respect that. I still love Phonebooth and no one can ever talk me out of it, and now Grand Piano has shown me a new, beautiful, and fun way to do a similar idea.