The House of the Devil

HouseOfTheDevilTi West, USA, 2009, 95 min.

It’s October, and for me that means it’s time to look for that one really great modern horror film. To that end, I recently watch Ti West’s well-received House of the Devil.

It’s a period piece, taking place in the 1980’s, with a great title-sequence right out of that era. It’s an admirable idea to make a period piece on a low-budget, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, it is about the only thing that works for this film.

Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a college student who is in need of some quick cash to secure her optimal off-campus living arrangement. That leads her to accept a slightly strange baby-sitting job from Mr. Ulman, the always creepy Tom Noonan. Her friend (Greta Gerwig) drops her off at his country home, leaving her alone with her new charge.  Things are not as they seem and eventually the true nature of her employers are revealed.

If you are thinking that the plot seems really thin, then you are correct. There aren’t many more moving pieces than what I already described. The plot or characters do not bring anything new or interesting to the table. Maybe that would have been okay if there was some style to the proceedings, but that is also sorely lacking.

The film is severely padded. Scenes are too long, or not needed at all. Shots constantly overstay their welcome by a second or two. There just isn’t enough plot to fill up the runtime. Maybe Ti West was trying to build atmosphere but there wasn’t much to be had with what he was giving the audience.

Unfortunately, this is poor film-making. The plot is razor-thin. The direction and editing are trying to mask that fact, but instead of distracting us, they just highlight what is missing. This is the third film from Ti West (The Innkeepers, Trigger Man) that I have felt this way about. The one-note plot ideas are just not enough to make a film with, and House of the Devil is no exception.

 

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Tusk

tuskKevin Smith, USA, 2014, 102 min.

Kevin Smith has had an interesting career. Clerks and Mallrats introduced us to his clever dialog, juvenile but fresh humor, and lack of directorial artistry. He has had some great ideas since then, but when Red State rolled around it was clear that things had changed.

Red State was a straight horror film, but it was stylish, had good performances and a knock-out ending that was really interesting even if it didn’t quite work. It had its problems for sure, but it was a step in a new, more mature direction for Smith. At least in my opinion. In Tusk, Kevin Smith moves even more in that direction, and the results, albeit a bit messy, are unique, captivating, and very fun to watch.

The story involves a lewd podcaster (Justin Long, obviously playing Kevin Smith), travelling to Canada in order to meet a famous youtuber who accidentally cut off his own leg on video. When that interview falls through he finds a more interesting subject via a flyer in a bar bathroom. An old man with stories to tell and, as it turns out, some big secrets, too.

The introduction of the old man, played with relish by Michael Parks, moves the film into a strange poetic-splatter-horror zone. Parks carries that section of the film with his considerable talent. But Smith keeps things interesting himself by supplying lots of interesting dialog and stories as well as some odd but affecting directorial choices.

Justin Long’s girlfriend, for example, has a great monologue straight into the camera. One very long take full of emotion that on paper may be out of place but instead adds to the tone. To balance scenes like that out, the third act introduces comic relief from an over-the-top French-Canadian investigator played by Johnny Depp (uncredited). These segments do go on too long, but they add to the off-the-wall feel to the film. And the perfect ending for this film cements the whole thing place.

If any film ever needs the right tone to work properly, it’s this one. It can’t be played too serious, or too goofy. There is a fine line that the film needs to walk in order to pull it off. And Kevin Smith doesn’t just walk the line. He draws his own crazy one that works just as well. It’s a unique experience, which, nowadays, is very rare. Kevin Smith’s immaturity hasn’t disappeared, it’s just matured, and Tusk shows it off perfectly.

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Things I love about Films

Today is a day where I just feel like making a list of all the things I love in movies. Little moments that make me want to stand up and cheer, or pump my fist in the air, or sit back and sigh with delight, or just cry because my whole body is filled with that feeling that only a great scene in a film can make you have.

So in no particular order, just off the top of head, here are some things that make films great for me.

The smash-cut ending of Cronenbergs’s The Fly.

In The Warriors, Swan stopping the girl from fixing her hair when they are riding the subway with those prom teenagers.

Eriq La Salle, wet from the rain, looking at the camera in Coming To America.

The noise the dancing skeleton makes when it leaps off-screen in Evil Dead 2.

Daniel Plainview being baptized in There Will Be Blood.

The limbless man crawling through the mud with a knife in his teeth in Freaks.

The velociraptor smashing into the mirrored counter while chasing the kids through the kitchen in Jurassic Park.

Ben and Elaine sitting in the back of the bus, not smiling in The Graduate.

Buster Keaton’s face in the last shot of Sherlock Jr.

The moment when Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris first breaks out in song.

The over-the-top cut to the funeral scene in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, with that great music!

Danny Huston going crazy and spanking Sean like a madman in Birth.

That whole final monk/amazon-women fight in Jackie Chan’s Armour of God.

Bruce Lee not fighting in first film for a good 40 minutes and then FINALLY losing control and kicking butt.

That goddamn montage at the beginning of Up.

The crucifixion musical number in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Everyone trying to get the seeds to grow in My Neighbor Totoro.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s drug freak-out/rescue in Wolf of Wall Street.

The moments before the pig-blood wire is pulled in DePalma’s Carrie.

The reversed go-pro style camera work in Requiem for a Dream.

The energy behind the opening incarceration scenes in Old Boy.

Leon literally melting in and out of shadows in the beginning of Leon: The Professional.

Chris Tucker’s OVER THE TOP performance in The Fifth Element.

The iconic shots of Lola running in Run Lola Run.

The turning-set fight in Inception.

The penis spliced into the last shot of Fight Club.

That final chase scene in Carlito’s Way.

The climactic dance in Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi.

The touching and perfect punch-in-the-gut ending of Sabu’s Postman Blues.

Everyone beating up Tim Robbins and crushing him with an air conditioner in High Fidelity.

Melanie Lynskey’s musical number in  Away We Go.

Falling in love with the music of Once.

The zoom out into a snow-globe in Dellamorte Dellamore.

The breast-feeding scene in Pixote.

Wow, now I want to go watch some films. I hope this list made you want to do the same. I’ll have to do this again sometime. Same time next year?

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Obvious Child

ObviousChildUSA, 2014, 84 min.

Obvious Child is a rare treat. A film full of indie-spirit, real humor, and small moments of truth and beauty. That’s a lot to say about what appears to be a small romantic-comedy about a young commedienne who deals with the consequences of getting pregnant from her one-night stand.

Jenny Slate is the star, and really carries the film with her natural performance. Whether she is up on stage doing comedy, goofing around with her friends, or having a private moment with her father or mother, she always feels real. Nothing is ever forced in the acting or the writing.

The film does the broad strokes right. Pace and story, character arcs, and an ending that works really well by not taking a more obvious and dreadfully melodramatic turn. But it’s the little things that make this film shine. The true moments. Jenny eating spaghetti with her father (Richard Kind), for example, feels completely real and unscripted.

But the best part of the film is Jenny Slate’s Donna, a genuinely funny character that doesn’t use humor as a crutch, or to hide shortcomings, or in place of character depth. Credit goes to both Slate and writer/director Gillian Robespierre for creating a character that is real and funny and easy to relate to. A character that feels like she exists in the real world.

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Rat Pfink a Boo Boo

RatPfinkRay Dennis Steckler, USA, 1966, 72 min.

I feel the urge to write about this film for one reason and one reason only: it is the worst film I have ever seen.

Yes, the world is full of terrible films, and I am the first to admit that I have not seen many of them. But out of the thousands of movies I’ve seen, Rat Pfink a Boo Boo ranks below the worst of the worst. Transformers 2, Gigli, Troll 2, Battlefield Earth, The Hottie and the Nottie, Boardinghouse, Reefer Madness, Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, North, ShowgirlsThe Room. I would rather watch any of those than sit through Rat Pfink again.

A lot of bad films are fun to watch, which makes them inherently “good”. That sounds illogical, and is probably a topic for another essay. But for our purposes today, it is only important to know that Rat Pfink is not one of those films. At 72 minutes, it is padded and overlong and shows zero respect for the spirit of film-making.

The film opens with an unnamed women being stalked by a group of evil men. Eventually, they get her and make plans to taunt and stalk another girl chosen randomly out of the phonebook. Cee Bee Baeaumont,  played by director Ray Dennis Steckler’s then girlfriend, Carolyn Brandt.

Cee Bee is the girlfriend of a famous musician played by Ron Haydock. We are treated to a few of his musical numbers to pad out the film even more. The bad guys start by making some creepy phone calls to Cee Bee, and eventually kidnap her. At that point, the film veers off from its thriller aspirations and turns into a goofy comedy.

Her boyfriend and a the gardener (a previously minor character) transform into the crime-fighting duo of Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. A cut-rate Batman and Robin. What follows are endless chase scenes, a poorly choreographed fight, a gorilla and a parade.

It sounds like campy fun, right? Nope. The whole film is made without any respect for entertainment. It is as if Steckler wasn’t even trying to make a good film. Or at least an acceptable film. It feels like he just wanted to get 70 minutes of footage for as cheap as possible, and toss it into a theater to get some quick cash.

Legend has it that the film was supposed to be called Rat Pfink And Boo Boo, but that someone messed up the title card and it came out as Rat Rfink A Boo Boo. The fact that Ray Dennis Steckler didn’t care enough to have that fixed goes to show how much he cared about this film, and the audiences that had to sit through it.

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