Terror Tuesday: The Horrors Of Summer 2011

Brian looks back at the cinematic scares of the sunny months.

Right before the summer season kicked off, I wrote an article called “Where’s the Horror?” that was mostly a sort of recap of the genre offerings that were released so far (January to April). Now that it’s been another four months, I figured I’d do another covering May to August, which wasn’t AS dire as expected thanks to a couple minor surprises, but still hardly the sort of period of time that I will look back on and be happy that I am a horror fan.

I don’t know why Sony thought Priest could compete with the big May releases (Pirates 4, Thor, etc), nor why they delayed the movie to convert it into 3D, but it certainly didn’t pay off. Reuniting the star and director of Legion (a January release from the year before) with nearly 3x the budget, the movie tanked hard, grossing less than Legion‘s hardly record-breaking take and also driving yet another nail in the 3D coffin. It’s a shame we will never know for sure if 3D would be prospering right now had no one ever designed the converting technology that creates the ghastly and terrible faux 3D imagery that movies like Priest demand you pay extra to see, but hopefully we can at least start seeing fewer and fewer converts as the technology continues to rub people the wrong way, so that true 3D defenders (such as myself) will at least have an easier time making our case. I also wonder if the conversion process dictated the movie’s editing, as it was barely acceptable modern feature length (under 80 minutes without credits). The sad thing is that the movie wasn’t really all THAT bad; its biggest problem was its ADD pace that raced from one action bit to the next without developing any of its overcrowded cast of characters. Sadly, the DVD has some deleted scenes but no extended cut; luckily it’s marginally entertaining enough to warrant a rental anyway.

June and July were wholly free from any wide release genre films, unless you count Super 8 (technically a monster movie, but that ending negated the scary aspect of what came before). Worse, the limited release stuff wasn’t exactly promising either. John Carpenter’s return to feature filmmaking after a decade produced The Ward, which barely got released (one showing a day in 9 theaters in the country). Not that it was a great film by any means, but it certainly deserved better than that. I think the problem a lot of folks had with it was that they were putting too much stock into it being Carpenter’s “return”, as if he was coaxed out of retirement by this amazing project. In reality, as anyone who’s ever listened to him speak can attest, these days he’d rather just play video games and watch basketball, and thus he probably opted for something like The Ward BECAUSE it wasn’t too complicated; allowing him to return to features with “baby steps” rather than with some epic would-be masterpiece that would require him to go at it with the gusto he had for The Thing or Escape From New York. And now that he’s back in “shape”, he can hopefully take on something a bit meatier without having to worry about being rusty.

The most surprising release in this period was A Serbian Film, allotted a few midnight screenings in major cities via Invincible Films. For the first time that I can recall, the movie had to be edited a bit in order to secure an NC-17 rating, but having seen both cuts I can assure you that there was only one instance where I think the editing hurt the film. Absolutely nothing was wholly excised, the edits were more creative in that it just allowed you to hear things without seeing them (as opposed to just chopping sections out of the film with a cleaver). Also, if these cuts meant more people got to see the film, then fine, because even in this “censored” form it’s actually a surprisingly good thriller about a man driven to the edge. Some of its metaphors are a bit too on the nose (that final line is so over the top sick that it borders on parody), and there is precious little context offered for non-Serbs (as the whole movie is allegedly an allusion to how the Serbian government treats its citizens), but you can’t deny its a well crafted mystery thriller featuring a great lead performance. It’s also better made than half of the movies on this list, which was a nice surprise as I was expecting exploitative, poorly shot on video trash and was instead given more professional imagery than you get in some major Hollywood features (Thor comes to mind; that desert town set looked faker than the CGI Asgard!).

Another limited release was Attack The Block, which Screen Gems sadly didn’t have enough faith in to open in more than a handful of cities, though it continues to expand.  Possibly my favorite film of the year, this terrific alien/monster movie actually delivers the Carpenter style thrills that they didn’t find in The Ward, as the setup is a bit like Assault on Precinct 13, and the shot of the alien traveling through space is straight out of The Thing (the score also evokes his synth-y classics).  But it also owes a debt to Dante and Landis, with first time feature director Joe Cornish terrifically balancing comedy and horror as he tells his tale of a street gang protecting their block from the (very cool/unique) aliens that are swarming the place in ever increasing numbers.  Surprisingly gory and just pure fun from start to finish, it’s exactly the sort of great summer movie one can hope for - I just hope it continues to find audiences as it expands into smaller cities.

Finally, August rolled around and provided a new major release almost every weekend, starting with Final Destination 5. As with Saw VI, the movie got its series back on track, but no one showed up to see it, presumably because they are still pissed about the previous entry. 3D fatigue (again!) may have also played a factor, but I am noticing more and more theaters (around here anyway) are providing frequent 2D options, so that can’t be the only reason that the movie underperformed - it will be the series’ lowest grossing to date (even worse when inflation is factored in). Oh well. Rent it on DVD and say “Aw, I should have gone to see that.”

The following week gave us Fright Night, which was passably entertaining for the most part but wholly pointless in just about every way, with plot holes bigger than the motorcycle that they built all of the advertising around, and a cripplingly unlikable lead character to boot. Even the 3D sucked; even though it was native it actually felt less dynamic and “natural” than some of the post-converts I’ve seen. Luckily, for once this sort of lazy trash wasn’t rewarded; the movie actually did worse than Final Destination. Then the following week came another remake, the Guillermo Del Toro produced Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, which I was wholly disappointed with. The biggest change from the original was adding a little girl for the monsters to menace, which just created a few plot holes and stripped the movie of its menace - you know the monsters aren’t going to harm a little girl, rendering most of the scares rather ineffectual. As Devin pointed out, it would be a perfect movie for 10 year old kids (who don’t know any better - at ten I thought Corey Feldman might die in Friday the 13th Part 4), but with the R rating keeping them out, the movie has no real target audience. I also can’t imagine a kid caring much about lengthy scenes of Katie Holmes going to the library or Guy Pearce talking about interior design, for the record. At any rate, it opened poorly and with a shockingly low Cinemascore of C- (even I’d rate it higher! It was at least well made!) I doubt word of mouth will help much.

On the same weekend in limited release was The Caller, a surprisingly decent thriller about a woman being terrorized over the phone by… well, let’s leave that up to you to find out. It’s a tough sell, as the movie revolves around a rather silly concept, but I don’t go to the movies to see things that occur in real life, nor do I like seeing the same ten plots over and over. I don’t care how silly a concept is, as long as the filmmakers commit to it and deliver the best version of that idea that I’ve ever seen, I’m happy. And this is the best magic telephone movie I’ve seen, so there. Samuel Goldwyn only opened the film on a dozen or so screens, so don’t rush to your multiplex just yet, but keep an eye out for this one when it hits DVD or OnDemand - it’s a great “at home” thriller.

Also in limited release throughout the summer were the Bloody Disgusting Selects entries (full disclosure - I am on the B-D staff), a group of mostly foreign films that play twice a week in AMC theaters before hitting the usual home options. I haven’t outright loved any of them so far (one, Phase 7, I actively DISLIKED), but I love that I can go see foreign horror flicks at the same AMC theaters showing Transformers 3 and Captain America around the clock. My favorite so far is probably Rammbock, a fun (and short!) German zombie flick that combines some Shaun of the Dead style slacker humor with the claustrophobic atmosphere of zombie classics like Night of the Living Dead (the whole film takes place in an apartment complex). I also dug Atrocious, a found footage film that uniquely has nearly no horror at all for its first half and then settles into a nearly real time, manic finale that contains several terrific, genuinely hair-raising scares (including a final image that spooked me as much as the original ending of Paranormal Activity). I don’t know how long the association with AMC will last, but hopefully the series itself will; I think it’s great that they are using the B-D name to hopefully secure a wider audience in the States for foreign/independent films as opposed to just dumping them straight to DVD without fanfare.

And now the fall season is kicking off, which of course means a lot more horror movies, piggybacking on Halloween (though there’s no new Saw film for the first time since 2003, boo) and providing a perfect alternative to all of the Oscar bait nonsense that will be clogging our cinemas. This weekend will actually provide TWO new, technically original horror flicks: David Ellis’ ridiculous sounding Shark Night, and Dimension’s troubled/oft-delayed Apollo 18. And the following week gives us Creature, an indie that is somehow getting a big theatrical push (I’ve seen more ads for it than the other two movies). October will also be crowded, with the big draw likely being Paranormal Activity 3, another goddamn prequel (spoiler: Katie and her sister survive). In short, for the first time all year there will be plenty of options for genre fans - the question is will any of them be any good? And (sadly) more importantly, will any of them make enough money to warrant the greenlight for future projects that are currently waiting in the wings?