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Archive for November, 2011

Whilst discussing his new book Monsters in the Movies on Kermode and Mayo’s Film Reviews (aka Wittertainment), John Landis suggested that zombie are bigger and more prolific than vampire movies at the moment. He suggested that there are nine zombie movies in production at the moment including one starring Brad Pitt (World War Z). It could well be that zombies will be the go-to monster of the near future but there have been plenty of vampires movies recently:

Vampire Movies

The new century began with one of the most original vampire movies in years, Shadow Of The Vampire (2000) is a high concept movie, the premise; the actor Max Schreck who played Graf Orlok/Nosferatu (Dracula in all but name) in F.W. Murnau classic Nosferatu (1922) was really a vampire posing as an actor playing a vampire.

It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of Blade (1998), not only was it an early entry into the current trend for vampire movies but it was also the first credible comic book movie in a long time and the movie that started the Marvel phenomenon. Its sequel Blade II (2002) directed by Guillermo del Toro took a big step forward reintroducing the idea that the monster in the movie may not be the monster of the movie.

Before the battle between vampires and werewolves in The Twilight books and movies there was Underworld (2003), like Blade it is more action orientated than scary but also explores the idea of who the real monster are. It is also incredibly stylish and has a well thought-out back-story that has helped it spawn a sequel (Underworld: Evolution (2006)), a prequel (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)) as well as a further sequel Underworld: Awakening due next year.

Directed by Uwe Boll Blood Rayne (2005) is loosely based on a video game of the same name, it isn’t very good, neither are its sequels: BloodRayne: Deliverance (2007) and Bloodrayne: The Third Reich (2010).

Ever since the release of Nosferatu in 1922 vampires have been destroyed by sunlight (unless they just glitter and sparkle), with this in mind, where would you go if you where a vampire? How about Alaska in winter where the sun doesn’t rise for a month? That is exactly what happens in 30 Days of Night (2007). An original and entertain vampire with scary and bloody monsters.

Probably the most successful vampire movies of the century but far from the best, Twilight (2008) and its sequels tells the story of “vegetarian” vampires in a Mormon inspired morality tale. Not as bad as many would have you believe but not a classic vampire movie.

Also based on a novel, the darker and more subversive Swedish movie, Let the Right One In (2008) (original title: Låt den rätte komma in) exploring themes of childhood and bullying, the vampires are almost secondary to the plot. By far the best vampire movie of recent years.

The obvious and overt concept of Daybreakers (2009) is that of a world where vampires outnumber humans who have become little more than food. Behind this, there is a story of hope and humanity.

Thirst (2009) Bakjwi (original title), Oldboy (2003) director Chun-wook Park’s take on the vampire movie is thoughtful and original as well as being full of very dark humour.

Combining a road movie with an apocalyptic story, Stake Land (2010) at times has more in common with zombie movies than vampire movies. There is also a well crafted subtext about fanaticism, one of the best and most original vampire movies of recent years.

Priest (2011) is an underrated action horror that does little to expand the genre but is good fun.

Vampires on TV

Based on a poorly received 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) had a perfect blend of comedy, action and horror; its spin-off Angel (1999–2004) was more of the same if a little darker. Lasting 145 and 111 episodes respectively and having the opportunity to develop their characters, both series can be considered a success and are greatly missed by their fans. A movie version is often talked about but has never materialised. A further spin-off based on Eliza Dushku’s character Faith was proposed but never happened. Far less successful but also worth a look Blood Ties (2007– 2008) lasted just 22 episodes over two seasons. The similar themed Moonlight (2007–2008) had just one season of 17 episodes. They were both well made and enjoyable shows but offered nothing new. That is where True Blood (2008– ) succeeded, like Buffy before it, True Blood combined some original ideas with a great cast of varying characters, at times there is so much going on it is almost like a soap-opera, and not in a bad way! Having just finished its fourth season and with a fifth scheduled for next year it is still going strong.

Zombie Movies

Okay lets kick of with the big question, what is a zombie? For the purposes of this post the simple answer, if I say it’s a zombie, it’s a zombie. I know a lot of people don’t agree that “infected” are zombies, but they are closer to Romero zombies than Romero zombies are to the witch doctor zombie slaves of 30’s/40’s cinema. There is another reason, the zombie side of this debate would be a bit light without the inclusion of the infected.

When people are killed and buried in “The Forest of Resurrection” they come back from the dead thanks to an evil Sprit. If you put a group of gangsters in the middle of this, that’s that happens in the bonkers but brilliant Versus (2000).

28 Days Later… (2002) is so good that I am sorry to say its downhill from here, but it does set the bar pretty high, Following a group of survivors after an zombie apocalypse, its as much a road movie as a horror, the key to its success is putting likeable characters that we care about in (surprisingly believable) dangerous situations.

Less well received but surprisingly good, the video game derived Resident Evil (2002) is the start of a franchise, the fifth part of which is due out next year. The classic fight for survival against a zombie hoard is given a little extra edge by setting that amounts to a claustrophobic underground maze but the success of the movie hangs on the appeal of Milla Jovovich.

Don’t dismiss Shaun of the Dead (2004) as a comedy horror, it is a knowing and cleverly constructed story from a team well versed in zombie movies.

If you take Dawn of the Dead (2004) on its own merits it is a great movie, it does feel a little lightweight and less relevant than the classic 1978 original but it will make you jump more often.

If subscribe to the philosophy that people infected by a virus aren’t zombies, you really won’t like the idea of aliens turning people into zombies as they do in Slither (2006). A silly and insignificant movie elevated by a charismatic and funny performance from Nathan Fillion.

The Spanish horror [Rec] (2007) is one of the few found footage movies that really works. Filled with jumpy and scary moments and anchored by a fantastic performance from Manuela Velasco. The sequel [Rec] ² (2009) picks up where the original left off, it isn’t as good but is still far better than your average Hollywood movie. Speaking of Hollywood, [Rec] was remade as Quarantine (2008), I haven’t seen it so can’t comment on how good it is, but understand it follows the story of the original film pretty closely relocating the action from Barcelona to an unnamed American city. Interestingly, its sequel Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011) takes the story in a new direction telling of a new outbreak on a passenger plane.

28 Weeks later (2007), the sequel to 28 Days later tries to be bigger and more expansive than the original movie but actually suffers for its grander scale. Well worth seeing but not as good as the original.

Planet Terror (2007) is for me, the weaker half of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grind house project (although it has a higher rating on IMDB than Death Proof) it is a real throwback to the 80’s toxic waste zombie movies like The Return of the Living Dead (1985).

Pontypool (2008) where does this one come on the is it, isn’t debate? A zombie virus spread by “infected” English words forcing the inhabitants of a Canadian town to communicate in French. There is probably some political statement that goes over my head, putting this aside, as a film it is original and brilliant.

The French movie, The Horde (2009), isn’t a great movie but it is a effective one. There is no explanation of where the zombies come from but killing them follows all the genre “rules”, the escape from a confined space is also an archetype.

George A. Romero is still making zombie movies more than forty years after his first, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Land of the Dead (2005) is a good addition to the “of the dead” series. In keeping with the social commentary of the earlier movies it is a good allegoric tale of the distribution of wealth. Diary of the Dead (2007) is less successful, using mocumentary/found footage as a basis it is a stand a lone story. Not a bad movie but the format has been better used in [Rec]. Set on an isolated Survival of the Dead (2009) has good concept but is all a little lightweight. He is also credited as an executive producer on The Crazies (2010), a remake of his 1973 movie of the same name. Not a zombie movie but it does share a lot of similarities with them, a surprisingly good movie even if it lacks the killer ending of the original.

Zombies on TV

The Walking Dead (2010– ) is the only zombie show on the list, but what a show, based on a comic book series of the same name, the story follows a small group of survivors and presents a gritty almost realistic aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

As I started writing this article I had no idea if there had been more vampire of zombie movies in recent years. I was of the opinion that recent vampire movies where better than their zombie equivalents. What I soon came to realise is that they both have a few great movies, a few rubbish ones and lots of mediocre ones. The whole zombie issue is further clouded by the debate of what is and isn’t a zombie movie. For me it is a genre that is as wide or as narrow as you want it to be. As for what is coming soon, the vampire movies of note are: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 and Underworld: Awakening. Far more interesting is World War Z. Based on the novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks that was inspired by The Good War, an oral history of World War II by Studs Terkel as well as the movies of George A. Romero. The movie that is in production now is set for release this time next year, directed by Marc Forster and starring Brad Pitt whose Plan B Entertainment reportedly won a bidding war over Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company Appian Way. Only time will tell which genre will be best or most prolific and you will have to make your own mind up as to which has been better so far, personally I am happy to watch many more of both types of movie.

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I have long held a theory about scary movies; although it has always been there in the back of my mind, I hadn’t thought about for a long time or discussed for even longer. They, it all came flooding back to me recently whilst watching the culture show on BBC2. During an interview about her new movie, The Awakening Mark Kermode asked Rebecca Hall “What’s the scariest movie you ever saw?” Her response, Don’t Look Now (1973), she went on to explain why. She had seen it alone, when she was around twelve or thirteen years old. This really struck a chord with me as if asked I would say the same movie and for the same reason. I also watched the movie at around that age, probably too young! I was really disturbed by it and couldn’t get it out of my head and still to this day think of the movie whenever I see a read coat. Directed by Nicolas Roeg’s and based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier the movie is still creepy and disturbing, it will stay with you for days after you watch it (or is that just me?) but it isn’t actually scary.

This is in stark contrast to my experience of The Exorcist (1973). For those who don’t know The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin with a screenplay by William Peter Blatty based on his own novel is regarded as one of the scariest movies ever made. A huge hit at the box-office, adjusted for inflation it took more money than Avatar but this was all before I was born. In my formative years, the 1980’s it had fallen foul of Video Recordings Act 1984 and was considered a “video nasty”. The studio didn’t submit it to the BBFC for classification (it was never actually banned). The long and short of it, the movie was available not available on video after 1984 and I didn’t get to see it. That was until 1994. I was 18 years old and in my first couple of weeks at university. The movie was screened to a packed house in a small independent cinema. Was it the anticipation and reputation, or the packed auditorium that influenced my opinion? I’m not sure but one thing I can say, I enjoyed the movie finding it interesting, entertaining and thought provoking as well as been well made and well acted, but I didn’t find it frightening the way I found Don’t Look Now five years before.

As a child, I remember being scared of King Kong (1933) and later Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) in a way that no modern horror has affected me. I’m yet to have the same experience again, there have been other movies that have been creepy or a bit disturbing like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) but not like the other movies I have mentioned. Have I been desensitised scary movies by early exposure or is Don’t Look Now just the most frightening movie ever made? Possibly a combination of the two, whatever the reason my early experiences have cemented my love for “genre movies” as they are sometimes (unkindly) referred. By the way if you haven’t already check out The Awakening starring the brilliant Rebecca Hall.

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Set in the early 1920’s shortly after World War I, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) has made a career out of exposing supernatural hoax’s. She is invited to an English boarding school where a boy is reported to have been literally frightened to death, an occurrence attributed to the presence of the ghost of a boy killed there years before.

A ghost story set within a haunted house is nothing new, the inclusion of children, is also something we have seen before. With an opening scene set during as séances you may be expecting something akin to The Illusionist (2006) but as soon as the action relocates to the school we move into the more familiar territory of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and The Orphanage (2007), that’s not to say the movie borrows from these recent classics, all three movies take the basic idea in there own direction. The plot has enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing without confusing or alienating them.

The supporting cast includes Dominic West and Imelda Staunton, both of whom do well but the film hinges on Rebecca Hall who is virtually ever present on screen. She has impressed recently in The Town, Frost/Nixon and most notably Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but this is the first time I have seen her carry a movie, a job she does brilliantly. Writer director Nick Murphy does a great job in what is his first feature, creating tension and even more importantly making us care about the characters. He is aided by a perfect setting Manderston House in Scotland, also the location for the reality TV show The Edwardian Country House (known as Manor House in the USA), also directed by Murphy.

There probably aren’t enough scares for fans of modern horror but if like me you grew up on Hammer movies you will probably like the creepy atmospheric horror. And that is where this film will succeed or fail, living up to the expectations of the audience. With all the zombies, vampires and torture porn movies that have been filling the horror genre I welcome something different especially when it is this well made.

Four Stars out of Five

★★★★

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Whilst reviewing Warrior earlier this year Mark Kermode described its story as resembling “Gladiator, no not that Gladiator”, he was referring to Rowdy Herrington’s 1992 boxing movie and not Ridley Scott’s sword and sandals epic, see below. This got me thinking of other movies with the same or similar names that you wouldn’t want to mix up.

The Running Man (1963): After faking his own death Rex Black (Laurence Harvey) meets ups with his wife (Lee Remick) in Spain to live off the proceeds of the insurance payout until an insurance investigator (Alan Bates) shows up. Directed by Carol (the third man) Reed.

The Running Man (1987): Based on a Stephen King story and set in a near future totalitarian society; cop Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is framed in the cover-up of a massacre, he escapes but is recaptured and forced to appear on the most popular show on TV “The Running Man” where contestants are chased down and killed for the entertainment of the masses. Surprisingly good and prophetic given the trend for increasingly elaborate reality TV.

Sliver (1993): Taking its name from the New York “sliver” building in which it is set, new resident Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) learns that not only did the previous tenant in her apartment die in mysterious circumstances but that she bore a great resemblance to Carly. A unremarkable thriller best remembered for its controversial portrayal of female masturbation.

Slither (2006): Spelled differently but sounding very similar: A small town is overrun by slithering alien creatures that turn the population into a zombie like hoard. A small group of survivors including the town sheriff (Nathan Fillion) fight back. A lightweight but fun comedy horror.

Priest (1994): Some time in the mid/late 90’s I remember reading a headline on the front of a tabloid newspaper claiming that the then prime ministers son Euan Blair had appeared in a gay porn film. The truth was, he had a bit part in the movie priest (his grandfather Anthony Booth had a larger part) about a catholic priest who lives a conflicted existence thanks to his secret life involving a gay lover.

Priest (2011): Loosely based on Korean comic book priest is an action/horror/western about a vampire hunting priest (Paul Bettany) on the hunt for renegade vampires who have kidnapped his niece. Despite poor reviews, it is actually a decent and original vampire movie.

Crash (1996): David Cronenberg’s misunderstood and underappreciated movie about a man who following a car accident becomes strangely sexually aroused by car crashes victims and the bizarre sub-culture he discovers created by similar minded people.

Crash (2005): I have mixed feelings about Paul Haggis’ interweaving LA based story that explores race and racism in modern society. It doesn’t deserve its Best Picture Oscar, but it also doesn’t deserve the backlash that followed.

Deep Blue Sea (1999): A group of scientists searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s become the prey of the sharks the have genetically enhanced. A bonkers concept actually turns out to be a surprisingly watchable movie and easily the second best man eating shark movie.

The Deep Blue Sea (2011): Terence Davies’ yet to be released (in the UK) 1950’s set movie is based on Terrence Rattigan’s play of the same name, previously made in 1955 (also called The Deep Blue Sea). The wife of a Judge engages in a self-destructive affair with an RAF pilot.

Gladiator (1992): Tommy Riley (James Marshall) moves to a tough Chicago neighborhood before long he is drawn into the illegal world of underground boxing. It soon becomes clear that he is fighting for more than he thought.

Gladiator (2000): After his family is killed by the emperor’s corrupt son (Joaquin Phoenix) a Roman general (Russell Crowe) finds himself enslaved and fighting as a gladiator.

Also see: The Gladiator (1986): After his brother is killed in an accident caused by a crazed motorist, a mechanic (Ken Wahl) customaries his truck and sets himself up as a vigilantly against dangerous drivers. Made for TV and directed by Abel Ferrara.

Sky High (2003): Supernatural Japanese serial-killer movie. A murder victim becomes the guardian of the Gate of Rage, there she has to fight her own murder to prevent him form summoning daemons and darkness falling upon the earth.

Sky High (2005): Disney family fun involving a family of superheroes. (I haven’t seen it so can’t say much more about it)

I’m sure there are lots of others I haven’t thought of.

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Back in January 2010, with all the vampire movies in production I suggested that it could be the year of the vampire. Looking back at the old article I suddenly realised that I have now seen all (but one) of the movies I wrote about, but were they any good?

By the time I wrote the article I had already seen Daybreakers and was impressed with the original and high concept.

30 Days of Night: Dark Days was a sequel to 30 Days of Night (2007) (a movie I really like), it retains the original character from the first movie Stella Olemaun, however Kiele Sanchez is a poor stand in for Melissa George who turned it down. The film also suffers from a rubbish story.

The director of the original 30 Days of Night, David Slade took a second stab at the vampire movie when he took over the reigns of The Twilight Saga. Not as good as 30 Days of Night but The Twilight Saga: Eclipse was certainly an improvement on the lame and unfocused New Moon.

Lost Boys: The Thirst is the one movie on the list I haven’t seen.

Let Me In, the Hollywood remake of Let the Right One is well made and well acted but all a bit pointless. It looks great but lacks both the heart and the edge of the original, a good movie for those too lazy to read subtitles.

Priest didn’t make it to the UK until May this year as it went back to the f/x drawing board to retrofit it with ineffective and pointless 3D. The film itself is actually surprisingly good and certainly better than most reviews would have you believe.

Another movie we had to wait for here in the UK was Stake Land, it was well worth the wait. I was lucky enough to catch it during its blink and you miss it seven day theatrical release. The best vampire movie since Let The Right One In. 

The Bleeding is a cheep looking, poorly directed, terribly acted, direct to video movie. It is utter rubbish but still sort of entertaining.

Not included in my original list but also released in 2010, Bloodrayne: The Third Reich. The third in Uwe Boll’s computer game based film series sees Rayne fighting against Nazis during World War II. Its about as good as the first two movies, yes that bad!

So what’s next for fans of Vampire movies? The first half of the final Twilight movie Breaking Dawn opens next week. January 2012 will see Kate Beckinsale return to the underworld franchise in Underworld Awakening. Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D, currently in post production is yet to receive a release date but will probably see the light of day some time in 2012.

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Please not this is not a review and does contain plot spoilers.

Set in a slick stylised alternate reality/near future with a retro-future look where people are genetically engineered. Andrew Niccol’s In Time sounds a lot like the directors 1999 modern classic Gattaca. A line in the review in Empire “has none of Gattaca’s subtlety” got me thinking about how it will age. The reason, now regarded as a modern classic Gattaca was less revered on its release, a look back at the same magazine reveals a less than positive review with two out of five stars (one less than In Time) and a verdict including the line “Gattaca is far easier to look at than actually watch”. In Time is also well photographed and beautifully styled with a similar look albeit on a vaster (read more expensive) canvas.

For those not familiar, In Time is set in a world where thanks to the aforementioned genetic engineering everyone stops aging at 25, at this time a clock on their arm starts ticking down until they die at 26 unless they can earn more time. Replacing money, time is also a currency and the system is designed to keep the rich, rich and virtually immortal and the poor, poor and destined to die young.

Despite the fact films tend to spend years in preproduction In Time feels particularly relevant. The high concept is a perfect analogy for the mess the world economy has become, this is where the movie could date. However beyond this idea there is also a strong existential subtext that is kept surprisingly close the surface. Expressed by Amanda Seyfried’s character Sylvia Weis, given the opportunity to live indefinitely the value of life is raised to a level that prevents people from truly living. The flipside to this is the underclass who spend their lives a day from potential death and therefore forced to live each day like their last.

The catalyst that makes the story possible is Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) who travels across the “time zones” that separate the rich from the poor. Wills journey is made possible by a gift of time from a suicidal man who at over a hundred years old has lost his desire for life but more importantly it is motivated by the death of his mother who “times out” thanks to the increased cost of living. The two elements and their ultimate collision gives the movie and extra dimension that the similar themed Logan’s Run (1976) lacked.

So how will it age? I actually think quite well, with an attractive young cast giving strong performances in a film that has a good balance between lightweight Sci-Fi fun and deeper and deeper social comments the movie has more to offer than you would expect.

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