My Name is Bruce (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
Jeff (Taylor Sharpe) and his friend visited a graveyard to meet a pair of girls and expecting to get laid. But when Jeff accidentally woke up the Chinese protector of spirits, Guan-Di (James J. Peck), Goldlick, a small town with a population of 339, began to live in fear because Guan-Di seemed to kill indiscriminately. Jeff had a solution. Being a lifelong Bruce Campbell fan, he decided to kidnap the B-movie horror veteran (playing himself) so that he could help the town regain peace and quiet. “My Name is Bruce,” written by Mark Verheiden, was amusing because it took many jabs at Campbell. From his appearances in many independently produced horror and science fiction films, many of which were considered to be unsuccessful, to the dirty details of his personal life, I began to wonder how much of it was accurate. Campbell was shown to be a diva on set, prone to treating women with disrespect, and often relied on alcohol to keep his sadness at bay. He was also shown to be unkind to his fans. However, in reality, his fans adore him immensely so we get the sense that perhaps not much of it was true. The hyperboles were played for laughs; they weren’t smart but they worked. I especially liked the scene in which Campbell tried to convince himself that he wasn’t a loser… as he revealed to us where he hid various liquors and imbibed them as if they were water. The story was relatively thin but it didn’t need to be groundbreaking because each scene served to refer to other Campbell movies where he had to battle aliens and other monstrosities. He did a lot of running, screaming, and admitting of guilt. Despite the film’s inherent silliness, I stuck with it because its enthusiasm didn’t waver. However, the pacing felt stagnant when Bruce tried desperately to be liked by Jeff’s mother (Kelly Graham). The disastrous dance scene at the bar was an awkward attempt at slapstick. Furthermore, there was no chemistry between the actors. I was more interested in Jeff and the disappointment he felt when he realized that the man he looked up to was far from extraordinary: Bruce was only wonderful in Jeff’s imagination and the B-movies he cherished. His perspective, given focus and sharpness, could have been the emotional core of the film. B-movie fans will be amused by “My Name is Bruce,” directed by Bruce Campbell, but those who aren’t quite used to deliberate bad acting and barely passable special and visual effects will most likely be disappointed. That’s why the picture needed to have something all audiences can relate with. Nevertheless, Campbell’s love for the genre shined through and I consistently wondered what groovy thing he would try to pull off next.
Cabin in the Woods, The (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of college students were driving up to the mountain to have some fun when they encountered two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), in a gas station. Having seen a lot of scary movies and heard of stories about grizzly murders in the woods, the college kids couldn’t help but translate Tucker and Dale’s every action as a possible chance to kidnap or kill them. In truth, the duo were only there because Tucker had recently bought a vacation home, a cabin, and they could use a bit of relaxation before heading back to work. “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, directed by the former, had a chance to really sink its teeth in horror movie clichés about hillbillies being nothing but churlish, incestuous, often cannibalistic, folks but it ultimately felt superficial because the one-liners and the physical stunts lacked range. The set-up was this: The young men and women were so stupid, they ended up killing themselves by accident. Cut to Tucker and Dale’s shocked and horrified reactions. The material was very funny during its initial gags, but the filmmakers failed to detach from the formula, ironically constructing its own clichés by making fun of clichés. The title promised the two friends fighting evil. After they rescued Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, Allison’s friends thought that she was kidnapped because they observed from afar. This triggered Chad (Jesse Moss), innately irascible and shamelessly sporting an ugly popped collar, into a state of rage to the point where he ended up being as ruthless as the murderers his group of friends feared. The movie wasn’t specific in the “evil” that Tucker and Dale had to fight. Was it the negative stereotypes regarding hillbillies that became embedded in the genre’s bones over the history of cinema? Was it the apocryphal placidity in hateful individuals, who lived in the suburbs or cities all their lives, and their secret yearnings of violence just waiting to be unleashed? Furthermore, it failed to acknowledge that stereotyping can be a good thing; it helps our mind to process information faster than it normally would. For instance, they allow us to respond quickly to potential dangers. Relying on stereotypes and neglecting to put more thought into them, hence failing to sympathize with others who are different, is the real tragedy. If the screenplay had focused more on that message, tragedies even outside of horror movie conventions could have been effortlessly highlighted. The story really shouldn’t have been about the body count. Allison was in the process of getting her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, hoping to establish a career as a counselor. I expected her to be more self-aware. The subplot involving Dale and Allison falling for each other was a nuisance, almost worthy of a dozen eye-rollings. Wouldn’t it have been too much to ask if they didn’t pine for each other so profusely? With every bloody confrontation between the hillbillies and the college students, it was interrupted by Dale having to explain to Allison what had transpired. Given that we just saw what happened, the little summaries felt repetitive and I started to wonder if the filmmakers were simply biding their time to push the material to a typical ninety-minute mark because the script became indigent of fresh ideas that cut deeper than boning knives.
Evil Dead II (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ash (Bruce Campbell) took Linda (Denise Bixler), his girlfriend, to a remote cabin in the woods. They found the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, or the Book of the Dead, and a recorded message which read the Sumerian excerpt and woke up the evil spirits in the woods. Meanwhile Annie (Sarah Berry), with her boyfriend (Ed Getley), had taken ahold of the missing pages from the book. She was expecting that her mother and father were still in the cabin where Ash was struggling to keep alive. Written by Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel, “Evil Dead II” was aware that it was essentially the same movie as its predecessor. But Ash was not the same Ash in “The Evil Dead.” This Ash was a version of that original character. In its first five minutes, it brilliantly summarized what happened in the first by showing us scenes that were different yet familiar: the significance of the necklace between the couple, the beheading of the girlfriend, and the unpleasant lack of sound in the woods before the kill. I had more fun with it because it was aware of what was expected so it challenged itself by delivering its audiences something new. That is, it still had elements of horror but it focused more on the dark comedy that came after the jump-out-of-your-seat moment. Strangely, it had a hint of science fiction that involved time travel. My favorite scenes had something in common: a significant movement of the camera. Ash, outside at the time, was driven back to the house and the camera, embodying the evil force that wanted to possess his body, followed Ash from behind. Once inside the house, there were a number of corners and unexpected passageways that became increasingly claustrophobic. Ash’ reaction throughout the chase was somewhat amusing but the feeling behind the camera suggested something more malevolent. The contrast worked well and it set up the tone for the rest of the picture. Another stand out scene was when the inanimate objects suddenly started laughing. I thought the moose (or was it an elk?) head hanging on the wall was genuinely scary. If reckon kids would have nightmares with just that scene alone. The blood in its mouth was a nice touch; it looked like it was recently beheaded and set as decor. Once again, Campbell did a terrific job playing Ash. The crazy look in his eyes and the constantly raised right eyebrow was a reminder that none of it was supposed to be taken seriously. When I noticed small things like a scene having too much fog, especially when was coming from inside the cabin, or a ridiculous amount of blood coming out of one man or a specific body part, I had to admire its audacity. “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn,” directed by Sam Raimi, was a successful horror-comedy because it was creative with its visuals and the jokes often had witty punchlines.
Evil Dead, The (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Five friends (Bruce Campbell, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManincor, Ellen Sandweiss, Theresa Tilly) decided to drive up to a cabin in the mountains for some fun and relaxation. But when they played a recording of a man claiming that his wife had been possessed by evil and continued to listen until the man read an incantation off the Book of the Dead, spirits in the forest woke up from their slumber. Written and directed by Sam Raimi, “The Evil Dead” was only successful in tiny little pieces. I didn’t think it was effective as a whole because its straight-faced horror approach paled in comparison to the accidental comedy. I understood that the picture had a low budget and inexperienced actors. The script was hilariously one-dimensional. Those elements were not the problem. In fact, those were the reasons why I kept watching. Despite its setbacks, I loved Raimi’s unwavering confidence in delivering a movie that was close or, quite possibly, matched his vision. He wasn’t afraid to move the camera even though it looked silly. Sometimes the aggressive camera movements worked especially when something would pop out of a dark corner (or cellar). In its goriest form, I couldn’t help but wear a smile on my face because it was so obvious that the flesh being torn apart was a prop. The blood looked very fake and the voices of the demons sounded like women with a very bad case of the flu and attempting to sound like a burly men. The claymation was inspired and I wondered, when the zombies met their doom, what the solid green substance was supposed to be. I’m familiar with the human body and I still don’t know what it was. While it was enjoyable to watch, I found the material repetitive. Ash (Campbell), our protagonist, spent too much time confronting and dismembering his possessed friends. They just wouldn’t die. By the third time a friend turned back to life, it was still somewhat amusing. But by the fifth time, the joke had outgrown its welcome. The problem was we didn’t know anything about the forest. Why were the spirits so angry? Why did the so-called Book of the Dead end up in the cabin in the middle of nowhere? What happened to the man and his wife in the recording? There were too many unanswered questions. If the director had taken off a scene or two of Ash trying to get his head around the fact that his friends were dead and provided some background information about the horrific happenings, “The Evil Dead” would have felt more balanced. Campbell was wonderful as Ash. His facial expressions when looking at something horrific were absolutely priceless, but I felt a smidgen of sensitivity during his more quiet moments. Maybe being green is not so bad.
Cottage, The (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), a daughter of a successful businessman, and took her in a house out in the country. If Andrew (Steven O’Donnell), Tracey’s brother, delivered the money on time, it was promised that Tracey would be released without question. But when the four realized that the disfigured farmer who lived closest to the house they occupied had a penchant for killing and mutilating his victims’ bodies, the four had no choice but to team up if they wanted to keep their lives. “The Cottage,” written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, was a creative exercise in horror and comedy. David and Peter were probably two of the most incompetent kidnappers I’ve had the pleasure to watch on screen. There was a formula that led up to the funny moments. When David told Peter what not to do, Peter promised he would obey. But since Peter was inexperienced in committing crimes, somehow he managed to do exactly the opposite of what he wasn’t supposed to do. It got to the point where Tracey, a big-breasted blonde who could easily take down her captors, found out David’s name because Peter was so nervous around her. We even found out that Peter’s biggest fear was moths. But the film gradually changed in tone as it went on. The middle portion had a high creepiness factor, notably when Peter and Tracey investigated a seemingly abandoned house. There was a putrid smell coming from the closet, hands were nicely stacked in the freezer, and there were metallic noises underneath the trap door. I loved the fact that horror came in not only when the murderer appeared but when the characters, often as a pair, discovered something while occupying different rooms. One character faced a false alarm, while the other faced true horror. When a new pair entered the creepy house, the room which gave us a false alarm earlier was completely changed. There was a sense of continuation and it was easy to tell that the writer-director considered it important for his material to have cohesion, intelligence, and a spice of cheekiness. What I thought the film could have used less was the two Asian hit-men (Logan Wong, Jonathan Chan-Pensley). The way in which their accents were used for the sake of humor was borderline offensive to me. I was aware that offense was not Williams’ intention but it sometimes came across as exploitative. The duo could have easily have been played with Asians without “funny accents” and the final product would have been the same. “The Cottage” is a solid example of why I love independent movies. It wasn’t afraid to experiment with its tone. I was amused with the way it effortlessly switched from one type of humor to another while still dealing with the macabre. Since it was so confident with what it was doing, its out of left field ending actually carved a smile on my face.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
★★ / ★★★★
Lake Victoria was the place where college students gathered to spend their Spring Break. But when an earthquake caused a rift on the lake floor, a subterranean lake was revealed which happened to house the original piranhas once thought to be extinct, it was up to Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), and a seismologist (Adam Scott) to warn the party-goers to get out of the water before they became fish food. Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha,” an out and proud B-movie, is difficult not enjoy because it embraced bad horror movie elements with open arms while paying genuine homage to movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Joe Dante’s original “Piranha.” I was particularly impressed with the film’s climax involving a school of piranhas attacking hundreds of barely clothed college students. When panic finally set in, I enjoyed that human error (or desperation) was taken into account. Like the piranhas that ate each other for millions of years to ensure the survival of the species, if a person was desperate enough to live, he wouldn’t think twice of putting someone else in harm’s way. It’s instinctual. The film’s self-awareness worked to its advantage; it knew it wanted to attract mostly heterosexual males so it delivered big breasts and long legs. It even had an extended scene of naked women making out underwater. As I watched with incredulity, I couldn’t help but laugh at what I was seeing. It was like watching two seals making love on Discovery Channel. More amusing was the fact that all the guys were far from attractive. Just when I thought it had no more surprises under its sleeve, a male organ was bitten off. Moreover, its over-the-top nature was enjoyable due to its exaggeration of how college kids spend their Spring Break. (When probably only about 5% celebrated this way.) Enter Jake (Steven R. McQueen), the sheriff’s son, who was somewhat of a social outcast because he listened to music like The Ramones and The Pixies. According to the movie’s logic, people who listen to that type of music were just not cool. But Jake wanted to belong. He wanted to party at the lake, drink alcohol, and maybe even win over a girl (Jessica Szohr) he was obviously attracted to. Instead, he was stuck babysitting his younger brother and sister. Perhaps the lesson Jake learned at the end of the day was underage drinking led to death. At least there’s some truth in that. “Piranha” had some suspenseful moments but I wish the writers, Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, had spent less time making fun of college culture and more time on the science behind the piranhas’ survival mechanisms. And was it too much to ask to have at least one smart and resourceful teenager? Jake had potential but he didn’t primarily think with his brain.