“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014) Review

The remake of this little horror picture from the 1970’s comes in with a unique angle. Echoing storytelling the likes of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and The Human Centipede 2 (never thought I’d be referencing THAT movie), The Town That Dreaded Sundown takes place in a modern setting where the 70’s production exists as an actual movie. Every Halloween, the little town in which the film takes place celebrates its fame with an annual screening of the picture. Angry christians shout at the those who come about the evils of worshiping such a picture. As the horny teens drive out into the night for frolics, the killer of the movie known only as the Phantom comes to life and a slew of murders sweep the town.

For its meta approach, this sequel/remake thankfully doesn’t dabble too deeply in its self-examination. There’s some questioning of those involved with the film and some footage used as research to capture the maniacally violent killer. But the movie has enough faith in its own whodunit plot to become its own thing for as much as it replicates the villain and the murders. It’s hard to deny the fine craft of a killer murdering someone with a trombone slide. I still wish there was some alteration to the sequence where the killer is actually able to get a good sound out of the instrument while he’s stabbing someone to death.

Does that sound too morbid to be entertained by such violence? It very well could be considering the trombone death is the least grizzly. But that’s perhaps what makes this movie so intriguing in its depiction. The violence on screen is not played up for camp or gooey gore shots. It’s dark and gruesome with a killer that murders with both efficiency and cruelty. The Phantom forces a couple out of their car and screams for the girl to look away as he brutally stabs her boyfriend in the back. Who would commit such vile acts? The answers lie in the old film that is emulated which prompts the cops and the frightened girlfriend Jami to reexamine the picture.

The mystery itself, however, is more engaging than its characters. Jaimie becomes our plucky young investigator having survived one of the brutal attacks and wondering why she lived. She’s a suitable vehicle for solving the case, but nothing more than that. The majority of the other characters mostly play it straight as potential suspects that are knocked off one by one as the list grows smaller. Some are even presented quickly and simply to get them out of the way as quick kills for the killer. I can’t say I blame the screenwriters since most of these kills are pretty unique to skip ahead towards. A man leaves his lady in his motel room to get ice, only to return through the window as a severed head. An unlucky police officer finds himself gunned down during his most vulnerable moment. And a weeping woman treads through a grassy field where she meets the same fate as a scarecrow.

The big reveal of the real killer is not all that surprising, but certainly tries to add some twists into the mix. The movie is the directorial debut of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and he certainly makes some solid choices into how to stage such a movie. The kills feel savage, the mystery intriguing and the cinematography is not half bad. The biggest problem – aside from the simple characters – is that it feels as though there could have been more to this plot. The whole religious angle and examination of horror movie copycats is engaging, but never gets really culminates. What could have a sleeper horror hit turns into a slightly better-than-expected release.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown takes aim at a small little horror film and turns out something that at least displays some creativity. It’s a horror mystery that won’t exactly shine brightly in the current crop of hot indie horror, but it does manage to entertain much more than I thought it would. It’s perfectly suited as a solid rental for those in the mood for a horror whodunit worth following once.

“The Babadook” Review

The real horror in The Babadook is that it doesn’t rely so heavily on its own boogieman. In doing so, it capitalizes on the one thing most horror movies seem to forget about: the characters. It’s not that the creep in the shadows that terrorizes this little family isn’t frightening (believe me, it is). But by turning this movie into more of a family drama about coping with grief, it becomes a far more personal story and less of a series of spooky boos and jump scares. Again, not that the scares are not terrifying (they really, REALLY are).

We see single mom Amelia, tired and worn, trying to raise her over-reactive and emotional son Sam. She has to check his closets for monsters, but still ends up with the frightened child in her bed. His fears, however, are more for his mother as he just doesn’t want to lose her the same way he lost his dad in a car crash before he was born. This is confirmed as the boy prepares for battle by assembling mobile catapults and homemade crossbows. He knows he is in a horror movie and is preparing for war.

But to his battered mother, she just sees it as more misbehavior. Unlike most films of this nature, however, we understand her rationale. We see her weary state from days of little sleep and constant work at an elderly care center. We see the frustration from her son’s constantly high-pitched whining and cries. We see her bitterness for an ill-equipped school to handle her son and her snippy friends who look down on her parenting. The last thing she needs is some invisible madman terrorizing her household.

The Babadook first enters into the household through the storybook Mister Babadook. Sam picks the odd book off the shelf for bedtime story. Amelia reads through the rhyming pop-up book with its black-and-white illustrations. The book grows increasingly frightening as it tells of the creepy Mister Babadook. He arrives with the sound of three knocks sounded out as baba dook-dook-dook. He lets himself into your soul and will make you wish you were dead.

After another night of nightmares, Amelia rips the book up and throws it away.
Not only does the book return to her doorstep the following day with the pages taped back together, but it now has new passages and pop-ups. The book claims that it will only get stronger and take hold of the mother. The last few pages are foreboding pop-ups of Amelia choking the family dog to death, stabbing her son and slitting her own throat. The Babadook is clearly going to use Amelia as a host for his violence, but it’s an easy vessel to inhabit. After all her complications with Sam, work, family and even social workers, it doesn’t take much to bring out the anger and fury of the woman who is fed up. Her murders could easily be dismissed as the woman who was pushed over the edge by a society that has failed her.

Amelia’s possession is seen as a fever dream for the overworked parent. Her quiet moments feel werey and passive between moments of intense bickering with her son. She starts to doze off while watching TV and starts seeing creepy visions of Mister Babadook on television as well as more premonitions about her being a murderer. As a parent, The Babadook plays on my worst fears: being the bad parent where stress overtakes your spirit. Amelia snaps viciously at Sam when he asks for something to eat, which Amelia coldly responds with “why don’t you eat sh*t.” Her hostilities grow progressively worse as she shouts and hollers at the boy causing him to wet his pants in fear (which she also blows up about).

The fresh writer/director Jennifer Kent has given commercial horror a run for its money with her sound characters and true sense of terror. Whereas other horror films struggle to make the audience jump, Kent aims to keep you in your seat and creep under your skin. This is what makes The Babadook such an effective horror picture – it stays with you long after the final frame making it much more memorable for the plot than the scares. But, again, the scares are super effective especially for the overworked parents tired of being used as two-dimensional puppets for these productions.

“Extraterrestrial” (2014) Review

Movie aliens tend to greet Earthlings with either open arms or open mouths. If they’re not trying to meet, they want to eat. Or, in the case of District 9 or E.T., gas up and go home. The purpose of the uninspired greys from indie horror Extraterrestrial appear rather confusing. It’s pretty clear from the horror leanings that these beings do indeed want to slaughter humans, but for what gain? Whereas other movie aliens seem to have a goal in mind during their visit, these creatures appear more confused about what they want to do with their human subjects. They spent all this time trying to get to Earth and must have just forgot about what they came here to do in the first place.

But this isn’t so much a sci-fi picture as it is your a-typical teens in the woods picture. It’s your standard template with the exception of an alien race written in as the creature of the feature. College kids venture to a cabin in the middle of crazy country so they can party and get stoned. Should we expect anything less? None of them are all that unique or interesting, fulfilling basic horror movie archetypes. One of them has a breakup, one of them is a party animal, one of them is crazy about discoveries and there’s the obligatory handheld camera floating about to wedge in that style as well. Michael Ironside pops up as the local weed farmer of the area, but he’s a wasted bore even as a conspiracy theory hermit.

Then our group of youngsters encounter a downed UFO they find in the woods. Of all the spaceships I’ve seen in movies over the years, Extraterrestrial has one of the least inspired designs. It’s the old-fashioned spinning saucer with too many lights and too little detail. The freaked out teens soon return to the cabin and the aliens begin to terrorize them. Keeping with the style of the UFO, the aliens are your stereotypical greys. They’re big, lanky, grey and have big eyes. The only thing about these aliens that doesn’t feel conventional is their motive in that they don’t actually have one.

The aliens are kept mostly aloof at first with a developing mystery about their presence. A cop investigates the region with claims of abducted individuals and mutilated cows. What exactly do these aliens want? At first, it seems they just want to abduct humans for some sort of experiment. But their experiment appears more like a confusing process than a calculated means of study. One unlucky victim finds himself abducted into the alien ship with half his arm as he handcuffed himself to a tree to be spared. Onboard, the victim is tortured and probed by a robot until he dies via a probe into his butt. Either there’s some intricate method to these alien plans that human just cannot fathom or these aliens are just screwing with us for the heck of it. I’m inclined to believe the latter since the aliens also perform some confusing kills in the way they grab faces and use ESP to force their victims into suicide.

Right up to the very last scene, which has one of the most nonsensical left-field endings of any horror picture, you’ll be scratching your head in confusion and anger. There is no point, plot or pleasing element to Extraterrestrial. It just wants to stage standard horror with aliens and doesn’t want to write anything interesting around that premise. Director Colin Minihan and writers The Vicious Brothers don’t want to give you anything to think about in an alien horror picture. They believe all the viewer needs to be satisfied with such an experience is a death by anal probe.

Extraterrestrial offers nothing more than typical aliens and mild terror, refusing to let either mix properly. Whatever intricate tale The Vicious Brothers were trying to weave with this film is drowned by too many tropes and nonsense kills that mean nothing. If Cabin in the Woods finally put down the college student slasher genre, Extraterrestrial just gives up and commits suicide the way it just throws random violence and spectacle at the screen. Maybe some aliens can abduct this film and use their superior minds to decipher just what director Colin Minihan was thinking when he made this mess.

“Big Bad Wolf” Review

How much more grim do these fairy tales have to get before they’re pure trash? Yeah, I understand the fun to be had with pumping classics such as Hansel & Gretel and Snow White with lots of action and violence. Heck, I’m all for it if it can be done with a certain level of creativity. But ‘Big Bad Wolf’ (also known as ‘Huff’) is ground-zero for these types of adaptations with uninspired ideas and a disgustingly hateful script based on ‘The Three Little Pigs’.

The stepfather known as Huff (get it?) has three stepdaughters that he preaches the dark word of the Bible to on a daily basis. The stepdaughters are named Brixi, Styx and Shay (GET IT!?). When Huff isn’t screaming at his family, beating his family or deciding who to rape in his family, he likes to dabble in selling drugs. But when the wife swipes the drug money and forces her daughters out the door for a better life, Huff gets steamed and goes hunting with Bible and knife in hand.

So why is Huff such a hypocritical zealot who is abusive to every human on Earth? At one point it seems like it may have something to do with his inhaler, but that trait (as with the mafia subplot) just doesn’t go anywhere. We never once get a chance to see his backstory or his inner demons as the film seems far more preoccupied with the hunt. And that’s all the film really is: a brutal hunt. Huff tracks down a stepdaughter, demands his money, rips her clothes off, stabs her and moves on. Why does he need to murder them? It may be the Jesus in his head telling him to smite the wicked, but, again, this is never focused on for very long. We don’t need to develop any of these characters because the director thinks that a stepfather viciously raping and killing his daughters is entertainment enough.

There’s just nothing to like about this movie. The acting is phoned in by all involved, the violence towards family members is unwatchable and the grand finale where Huff finally gets a taste of his own medicine is very underwhelming. In an interview with director Paul Morrell, he states that his reasoning for making this film was because he’s never seen a horror feature based on ‘The Three Little Pigs’ motif. Well, congratulations, Paul, you’re the first to make such a movie. It’s a terrible movie, but at least you get to have that claim to fame if nothing else.

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