Ruins, The

/100

480_ruins.jpg

The first scenes of The Ruins look like

an especially gorgeous episode of some MTV show about rich white

people with nothing better to do but lounge in the sun all day. Shot

in richly colored widescreen by D.P. Darius Khondji, these are

ostensibly early character moments, establishing the tendencies of

these two young couples, freewheeling girls and two boys, one uptight

and one less so. But director Carter Smith has Khondji linger on the

women’s bodies, pale in the Mexican sun, attractively toned and —

as the horror fans who will gravitate to a movie like The Ruins will

intuitively understand — fragile in frightening ways. These are the

beautiful people, and by the end of The Ruins we’ll have spent a lot

of time watching them go downhill. Their skin will be mottled with

the stains of blood and grime, their clothing filthy from sweat and

dirt (and something green), their hungry and terrified bodies ravaged

not just by stress and dehydration, but by the immediate threat of

alien invasion – by something alive that breaks the skin and then

scoots underneath, tearing around your subcutaneous regions like tiny hyperactive moles making tunnels under the grass.

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Final Destination 2

/100

974_final-dest-2.jpgI wasn’t a fan of this, despite its enjoyable, blackly comic enthusiasm for scenes of elaborate death. The arrival of New Line’s special edition DVD enticed me to take a second look, and I’m still not a fan — but I appreciate the visual effects work even more than I did the first time through, thanks to the documentary features that underscore the extensive use of practical effects (that’s as opposed to computer-generated effects), such as carefully constructed dummies filled with disturbingly convincing blood and organs, that went into creating the wantonly bloody punctuation for the demise of each in a string of doomed lead characters.

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Irreversible

/100

“Time destroys all things,” mutters an aged character at the beginning and declares the Godardian title card at the end of this infernal spectacle from 39-year-old enfant terrible Gaspar Noé. Provocative to a fault, violent beyond my ability either to anticipate or describe, and serious like a fucking tumor, the multiple atrocities visited upon the audience by Irreversible are a kind of visceral attack. It’s meant to leave bruises.

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FEARDOTCOM

10/100

Imagine that the Web draws energy, spiritual and otherwise, from the material world. Further imagine that if someone’s death were streamed over the Web, that person’s unquiet ghost could haunt the wires, going so far as to create an elaborate Flash-enabled site that kills everyone who visits it in precisely 48 hours — unless they manage to unravel the murder mystery.

Spoooooooky.

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Dancer in the Dark

/100

Bjork in Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark is set in the Pacific Northwest, but the geography feels like a running joke. The landscapes don’t resemble anything in North America, and the film is so dour and unremitting that it could only be European in origin.

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American Psycho

65/100
Christian Bale and Chloe Sevigny

This is probably the best way — perhaps the only way — to bring American Psycho to the screen. Find interested women (gender is key) to write and direct, excise the pruriently violent acts that made the book a scandal in the publishing world, and cast an absorbing but low-key talent in the title role (Leo DiCaprio was briefly interested, but something scared him away). The question is how to make a film that resembles American Psycho — but not too closely.

Here’s the trouble: a faithful adaptation of American Psycho would inspire mass walk-outs, maybe even riots. Publication of Bret Easton Ellis’s serial killer novel was famously delayed when Simon & Schuster reneged on its commitment to the book (and a $300,000 advance) amid howls of protest over its violence. We’re mainly talking explicit sexual torture, here, although the book makes the killer surprisingly egalitarian in his choice of victims, nicking everyone from his Wall Street colleagues to a little boy plucked from the crowd at a zoo. Before long, Knopf stepped in and agreed to publish the title as a paperback original. The book became a modest success — to date, some 400,000 copies are in print.

The crucial ingredient missing from the film is the book’s awesome repugnance — the sordid details of city life that crystallize the division of Manhattan’s upper and lower classes, and the brutal nausea that accompanies our every glimpse into the machinations of Patrick Bateman’s head. On the printed page, Bateman is a racist, misogynous sociopath with a noxious temper and an absurdly high opinion of himself. He’s also highly successful, and there’s the kernel of Ellis’s criticism — that American society values morals and decency so little that it won’t acknowledge the rot at the center of such vacuous privilege. (As in the book, conversation doesn’t even hit a bump when Bateman declares, in response to a question about what he does, that he’s into “murders and executions.”)

The novel was widely criticized as slick, pretentious, and/or boring; at The New York Times, one writer complained that it offered no insight into the criminal mind, as if that settled the matter. What most critics refused to attach any value to was the book’s status as a very black comedy. Outrageous visions of mayhem alternate pages with seemingly endless references to products and chic restaurants. The sickening first-person description of Bateman’s first murder — he knifes out a beggar’s eyeballs and then tosses a coin into the gooey mess left behind — is followed by his deadpan four-page digression on the music of Genesis, post-Peter Gabriel.

Bateman’s take on pop music does get some play in the film — he spins tunes and offers solipsistic critical commentary before having his way with a victim. It’s still pretty funny, but it puts a more broadly comic spin on the killings. More problematically, the references to cultural landmarks like Huey Lewis and the News underscore the fact that 10 long years have passed since the publication of the novel, rendering this new interpretation unavoidably stale. A more interesting approach may have been to update the story for the 90s — Wall Street has, after all, continued to make millionaires of sharp, self-absorbed young men. Giuliani’s crusade against New York smut could make for an interesting subtext, and there remains no shortage of empty pop icons for Bateman to revere.

Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and her co-writer Guinevere Turner (1994’s scrappy lesbian cause célèbre Go Fish) have opted instead for a straight-ahead adaptation that retains the late 80s milieu, jettisons the clinical descriptions of sadism, and emphasizes the comedy. The results are mixed. I think it was a mistake to have Christian Bale play Bateman quite as goofy as he does, but it’s a terrific performance within its boundaries. There’s a dorky matter-of-factness to his demeanor that adds a shrill hysteria to scenes where he brandishes a stainless-steel axe, dashes around naked with a chainsaw held at crotch level, or crassly orders one of the hookers in his apartment to go down on the other. Easily the film’s highlight is a three-way sex scene absurdly set to Phil Collins’s lamentable hit “Sussudio,” with Bateman pumping away at one girl as he flexes and admires his rippling physique in a full-length mirror.

That terrific instance of narcissism had to be snipped by a few seconds to secure an R rating, and the U.S. will once again be given an edited version of a film that will play completely uncut in other territories. (What else is new?) The interesting thing is that the film’s highlights — both aesthetic and explicit — have nothing to do with the violence that made the book such a polarizing force. Rather, Harron softpedals the murders in favor of more telling character details. The scene with Bateman and his executive buddies comparing business cards is a hoot, and the one (an alteration from the book) where Bateman cuts short a romantic evening with his awkward secretary (Chloë Sevigny) because she “might get hurt” is strangely moving, with only Bateman really registering the ominous double entendre.

If a woman’s touch is evident anywhere, it’s in the attention paid to the other women in the story, all of whom are played by terrific actors. Fiancé Evelyn’s (Reese Witherspoon) inability to see the monster in Bateman’s heart is meant to be comic — she’s so eager to fulfill her social obligation to marry that she doesn’t even hear his confession. But there’s nothing funny about the plight of a prostitute Bateman calls “Christie” (Cara Seymour) who winds up in the hospital after he takes a coathanger to her. When Bateman’s limo pulls up next to her a second time, she initially refuses to go home with him — but eventually relents in exchange for a large wad of bills. The subtext is male power and the exploitation of women, and Harron makes the point incisively, with a minimum of fuss.

These individual scenes do add up to something meaningful, but the movie as a whole is lacking cohesion. Just as in the book, there’s an ambiguity to the proceedings that casts some doubt over how many of the events depicted actually take place, and how many of them are the feverish delusions of a raging, insecure Ed Gein wannabe. On the printed page, such questions lent necessary resonance to a brutal tale that began, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” and warned on its final page, “This is not an exit.” But with the story’s Grand Guignol underpinnings missing — as filmed, this stuff is about half as grisly as your typical Scream movie — the effect is more artsy than unsettling.

Also missing is a real sense of how deeply rooted Bateman’s murderous actions are. In the novel, they were a consequence of the hateful soullessness that manifested itself on every page. But in the movie, Bateman’s murders are the sole manifestation of his soullessness. If he weren’t a killer, he’d be a regrettable dork and nothing more. Much as I enjoyed some aspects of this treatise on male selfishness, the intervening decade has seen more unpleasant characters, like the guys from In the Company of Men, render this interpretation of American Psycho largely obsolete.

Urban Legend

47/100
Alicia Witt and Rebecca Gayheart in Urban Legend

“The idea of an urban legend serial killer? That’s kind of a stretch,” notes one of the characters in this Scream derivative, which may be a self-reflexive way to absolve the filmmakers of blame for the concept. Actually, it’s not a bad concept in that serial killers are the stuff of urban legends. Further, a good horror movie can be even more effective than an urban legend in propagating a cautionary tale about the stuff lurking in the shadows. If Scream and Scream 2 hadn’t milked that post-modern angle first, it might seem like a novel idea, too. Continue reading

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later

63/100

Let’s get one thing straight — Halloween H20: 20 Years Later is not great moviemaking. Hell, for the bulk of its 85 minutes, it’s not even very good moviemaking.

But H20 has two things going for it. One of them is a powerhouse performance by one of the great icons of contemporary horror film, Jamie Lee Curtis. And the other is the wordless presence of the bulky, bemasked heavy known as Michael Meyers.

John Carpenter’s Halloween suggested, more forcefully than any movie since The Exorcist, that unspeakable evil was lurking in the dark corners of the American suburbs. But while The Exorcist finally put the Catholic Church in control of unspeakable evil, suggesting that there was life after demonic possession after all, Carpenter’s film refused that reassurance. Few movies end on such a disquieting note as Halloween, with Donald Pleasance searching the darkness for evil embodied, but losing Michael Meyers to the shadows.

So the smartest thing about H20 is that it has a singular, humbling reverence for the original Halloween, the horror-movie equivalent to an enduring campfire tale. The film opens with a so-so preface that dispatches a handful of characters in low-grade slasher style, which may be a cut-rate reference to the phenomenally successful Scream movies. The director is the old horror hack Steve Miner, who helmed installments two and three in the Friday the 13th slasher cycle before finding respectability as a director of TV fare. His camera moves ape those of Carpenter, including the choice of the widescreen frame, but his eye is nowhere near as sophisticated. The original Halloween was a film of uncomfortable situations that were underlined by striking, disturbing imagery. The 1998 model is a pokey lead-up to a balls-out deathmatch that draws its stylistics from recent action movies as much as from horror film.

In the opening credit sequence, H20 establishes what it’s really about, showing us news clippings that recount the story of the first two films and running snippets of dialogue from those films on the soundtrack. Like the underrated Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, H20 is about resurrecting a demon from the past in order to put it down for good.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the haunted one, the former babysitter so memorably terrorized in the first film in the series (and, to a less memorable extent, in the second). In H20, she’s changed her name, changed her identity, and become the headmistress of a private boarding school. Nice idea for a slasher film — Laurie is charged with protecting exactly the sort of teenage flesh that tempts these ageless, deathless slashers. She’s got a drinking problem that has its roots in her trauma. She’s also got a teenaged son, who’s getting fed up with her zealous protectiveness. It’s when she finally starts to ease up on her obsession that Michael Meyers crashes back into her world, threatening not just her life, but also the life of her son. Reprising the role she long ago left behind, Curtis turns in a very strong, utterly credible performance that will, if there’s a god, close the door on one of the most overextended franchises in contemporary horror film.

In the slow, mostly somber expository scenes, H20 treats the Strode character more carefully than you might expect, which is to its credit. But it also makes the mistake that the Scream movies avoided so effectively — it thinks that teenagers are boring. Four of the students, two boys and two girls (including Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams), scheme to stay home from a planned trip to Yosemite National Park for an evening of sex and alcohol somewhere on the deserted campus. While the actors are appealing enough, this time-honored slasher film device falls flat because, in time-honored slasher film fashion, the characters are too interchangeably vanilla to be worth caring about.

Of course, the point of Miner’s Friday the 13th films wasn’t so much the cat-and-mouse games that they played with young, dumb teenage victims as the payoff — a gruesome, usually imaginative and occasionally spectacular make-up effects showpiece. (I still remember a showstopping scene in Friday the 13th Part 3 where a kid was literally ripped in half, cleaved into two pieces by Jason’s machete, and I know that the MPAA would never allow that to happen in today’s horror movies.) Looking back at Halloween, which has a reputation for inaugurating the whole slasher movies cycle, the big surprise is how little gore was involved. Halloween is a very violent film, but the violence is conveyed in the staging and editing of each murder scene, as well as in the gruesome tableaux that a malevolent Michael leaves behind. The Friday the 13th films, by contrast, were very gory, but hardly seemed violent at all. (They weren’t very good, either, but that’s another story.)

The murders in H20 might have benefited from a little more gore. Miner directs them in a casual, color-by-numbers fashion, like he’s making one of those Gap commercials where he’ll declare at the end, “This is too easy.” They’re anything but scary, and I didn’t even find them menacing. But the film rachets up little by little in preparation for the final showdown between stalker and stalkee. And from the moment when Laurie Strode finally locks eyes with her long-lost brother (the shot reminded me of those scenes in the Alien movies when Ripley comes face-to-face with the creatures), H20 becomes the hardest-working film of the year.

Particularly effective is the moment when Laurie decides not to make an easy exit from the scene. Instead, she blocks off the only egress and finds herself a big axe. The camera cranes overhead and an orchestral version of the electronic Halloween theme swells on the soundtrack as she strides back into the darkness, crying shrilly, at the top of her lungs, Michael! Michael! All the conversation earlier in the film about Laurie’s need to confront her demons is here given specific cinematic form, and it raised my gooseflesh. Evoking a sense of destiny and finality that harks back to the beginning of a 20-year-old nightmare, horror fans may well find it to be one of the most stirring scenes of the year.


Directed by Steve Miner
Written by Robert Zappia & Matt Greenberg and Kevin Williamson
Cinematography by Daryn Okada
Edited by Patrick Lussier
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis
USA, 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1