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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

(2012)
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov.
Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel.
With:Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Alan Tudyk and Jimmi Simpson.

You know slavery was the hot-button issue that drove the Civil War, but unless you’ve heard about the vampires, you don't know the half of it. Producer-director Timur Bekmambetov and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith deliver a canny mix of action, horror and alternate history in what should by all rights be a bona-fide blockbuster.

1818: While working alongside his father at a riverside shipping depot owned by the cruel, ruthless Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln sees a terrible sight: His friend Will's parents—both free people of color—shackled like slaves and herded onto a small boat while Barts flogs their weeping son. Young Abraham runs to Billy's defense; when the dust-up is over, his deeply indebted father is unemployed. And grim though that is, the worst is yet to come: That night, Abraham sees Barts creep into the family home and hover menacingly over his sleeping mother; within days she's dead of some ghastly fever.

Lincoln grows into a bitter, hard-drinking young man (Benjamin Walker, of Broadway's Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson), consumed with the need to avenge his mother's death, and it's in a bar that he meets the stranger, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the skills he needs to be a killer. Henry also opens Lincoln's eyes to a monstrous truth…literally monstrous. Vampires aren't just the stuff of bogey tales for children: They prowl the still-New World, abetted by the willful blindness of Americans determined to put the past behind them, and by the rigors of life at a time when disease, accidents, Indian attacks and even childbirth made death a constant companion.

Once Lincoln has mastered the art of vampire slaying, Henry dispatches him to Springfield, Indiana, where he studies law and later begins to dabble in politics, finds a new friend in Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), reconnects with an old one in William Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and shyly steals the heart of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from his future political rival, Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk). Oh, and he starts killing vampires who, the odd pair of wraparound sunglasses aside, look just like everyone else until they transform into shark-toothed, blood-spattered fiends.

That Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is entertaining is no huge surprise: Seth Grahame-Smith's novel (the follow-up to his surprise bestseller

Pride and Prejudice & Zombies

) is an audacious blend of reality and fantasy, the same delicate mix that the Russian-Kazakh Bekmambatov pulled off brilliantly in Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006)—though not in his unfortunate English-language debut, the 2008 Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted. And the cast is exceptionally rich in theatre-trained actors with movie experience which, as the Harry Potter franchise demonstrated definitively, can give genre fiction just the right touch of gravity without spilling over into pretention.

The surprise is how respectful it is of Lincoln's legacy, preposterous though that sounds. In Graeme-Smith's novel and screenplay (which he stripped of its modern-day framing device, the better to get straight to the bloody heart of things), vampires aren't just a pulpy metaphor for slave owners, they're the supernatural expression of pure human wickedness. Again, casting presses the point home: U.K. actor Rufus Sewell isn't camping around as ancient bloodsucker Adam. Sure, it's clear at a glance that he'd eat Twilight's sparkle vampires for breakfast, but he's as driven as Lincoln by a larger purpose, a sense of responsibility to his people—why shouldn't they have their own nation too? The film is a remarkable balancing act, pure pleasure to watch with just enough tragedy to temper the adrenaline rush.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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American Zombie

(2007)
Directed by: Grace Lee.
Written by: Rebecca Sonnenshine and Lee.
With: Grace Lee, John Solomon, Al Vicente, Austin Basis, Jose Solomon, Kevin Michael Walsh, Jane Edith Wilson and Suzy Nakamura.

Misleadingly positioned as a snarky comedy, Lee's sly mockumentary dissects lifestyle fads, political correctness and the politics of identification by positing the living dead as the last minority.

Failed filmmaker and life-long horror buff John Solomon (Solomon) persuades former film school classmate Grace Lee (Lee), a successful documentarian, to work with him on expose about zombies — not the bogeymen of campfire tales and midnight movies, but the real zombies who walk among us. Lee thinks Solomon is a jackass, but realizes that the burgeoning zombie community is rich material for a non-fiction film: Infected with a rare virus triggered by violent death, the resurrected range from barely sentient, well, zombies — easily mistaken for mentally ill or substance-abusing homeless people — to high-functioning individuals agitating for basic rights and social acceptance. After all, they're just like everyone else, except that they don't sleep, have no idea who they were before they died and bear the gruesome stigmata of their involuntary "transition." They're the last minority, catered to by a flourishing industry of therapists, hucksters, gurus, groupies and miscellaneous opportunists looking to make a quick buck from zombie labor, zombie art, zombie studies and zombie control.

Lee and Solomon focus on ZAG (Zombie Advocacy Group) founder Joel (Vicente), whose organization provides job placement, counseling and legal assistance to the disenfranchised resurrected; slacker Ivan (Basis), who publishes the 'zine "American Zombie," has a girlfriend with a thing for the walking dead and shares a crash pad with angry, undead artist Glen (Jose Solomon) and the "loser human roommate" (Walsh) whose name is on the lease; florist/string artist Lisa (Wilson), who's haunted by dreams of her brutal death; and perky vegan Judy (Nakamura), who loves kitty cats, scrap booking and bridal magazines, and does her best to forget that she's no longer one of the living majority. But Solomon just won't back off the vulgar questions about cannibal gut crunching, and alienating their contacts will guarantee they never get permission to shoot at Live Dead, the Burning Man of the no-longer living.

Bitterly clever and unexpectedly haunting, Lee's pitch-perfect social satire, written with Rebecca Sonnenshin (The Haunting of Molly Hartley), owes less to cut-rate flesh feasts than to Max Brooks' lacerating World War Z, a bleak, supremely self-aware vision of the end of the world as we know it refracted through the mutable mythology of zombies. It's tailor-made to share an apocalyptic double bill with George Romero's despairing Diary of the Dead (2008), and zombie movies don't come better than that.


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Bad Biology

(2008, reviewed at the New York City Horror Film Festival)
Directed by: Frank Hennelotter
Written by: Frank Henelotter and R.A. "Rugged Man" Thorburn
With: Charlee Danielson, Anthony Sneed, Tina Krause.

Veteran director Frank Henenlotter's first film in 16 years is a lewd, rude tale of sex and the city, and it's a blast. "I was born with seven clitorises," says New York photographer Jennifer (Danielson) in the first shot of the first scene, and you can only wonder, where do you go from there? How about mutant babies, lustmorde, models in vagina-face masks and a shy, sweet-faced lad (Sneed) with a monster in his pants? And there's more, much more, but I'm not going to spoil all the outrages — some you'll just have to see for yourself.

Henenlotter exploded onto the horror/exploitation scene with the blackly comic, exuberantly bloody Basket Case (1982), a walk on New York's sleaze side with separated Siamese twins Duane and Belial, respectively a baby-faced milquetoast and a grotesquely deformed mass of angry, vengeful flesh.

His follow up, the mind-bending Brain Damage (1988), was an equally audacious mix of sex, drugs, brain eating and freaky sex, all courtesy of a telepathic parasite called Elmer (voiced by veteran horror host John Zacherle). Someone needs to package them with Bad Biology, because taken together the three films are some kind of twisted, hilarious, deeply disturbing, weird sex-death trip.

All three have a sky-high WTF factor, the gold standard to which I held grindhouse movies when they were actual grindhouses to see them in. WTF to the nth power doesn't always mean good in any conventional sense of the term, but it means that at some point (several each, in the case of the Henenlotter trilogy) my jaw drops and all I can think is "What the f**k?!?"

Some filmmakers get soft (no pun intended) as they get older, others put a high-gloss veneer over their assaults on good taste and conventional values. But Bad Biology is as thoroughly, breathtakingly outrageous as anything I've seen in ages, including movies by kids less than half Henenlotter's age. You can love it or hate it, but I guarantee you won't walk away from Bad Biology thinking "been there, seen that."


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Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula

(2008, reviewed at the New York City Horror Film Festival)
Written, directed and edited by: Timothy Friend.
With: Tiffany Shepis, Trent Haaga, Jennifer Friend, Allen Lowman and Russell Friend.

I can think of only one other movie that combines 1930s gangsters and horror-movie monsters, and that's Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973), one of my all time favorite horror films. So imagine my surprise when Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula, turned up on the NYCHFF roster. The even bigger surprise is what a witty, beautifully photographed (kudos to DP Todd Norris) and just plain weird movie it is.

Until the last act, two separate stories unfold simultaneously. In 1933, legendary Depression-era outlaws Bonnie Parker (Shepis) and Clyde Barrow (Haaga) hole up in a stifling, middle-of-nowhere roadhouse/brothel to plot their next robbery. In the other, Dr. Loveless (Lowman), a diseased loon in an Elephant-Man burlap mask, terrorizes his oddball sister/assistant Annabel (Jennifer Friend) and conducts his latest, greatest experiment: Resurrecting Dracula (Russell Friend) in his basement. The stories merge when the robbery goes wrong and seductive, blood-simple Bonnie is dispatched to fetch the doctor who lives in that big old house down the way.

Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula (a title whose tongue-in-cheek shout out to such cult cheapies as Billy the Kid vs. Dracula may do it more harm than good) is a bona fide triumph of filmmaking ingenuity over monetary limitations. Shot on DV in St. Joseph, Missouri, it never looks cheap or rushed; the Bonnie and Clyde sequences evoke a gritty sense of rural America in the hardscrabble '30s, while the Loveless sequences are filled with deliberate anachronisms and old-dark-house tropes. One world is rooted in historical fact, the other belongs to the timeless realm of dark fantasy.

The performances are surprisingly strong — Shepis (whose resume leans heavily to disposable, ultra-low budget fare, starting with her debut in 1996's Tromeo and Juliet) plays Bonnie as a natural-born psychopath a la Gun Crazy and Jennifer Friend's portrayal of Annabel as a kind of holy innocent is surprisingly affecting. Friend's script is much tighter and more pulled together than those of any number of multimillion-dollar genre films I've seen over the last few years. Even the effects by Jeffrey Sisson and Ryan Oliphant are astonishingly accomplished.

So put aside your natural skepticism and keep an eye out for Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula: It's one of the small gems that keep longtime horror buffs like me sifting through the slag.


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The Brotherhood

(2000)
Directed by: David DeCoteau.
Written by: Barry L. Levy (credited as B. Louis Levy).
With: Nathan Watkins, Josh Hammond, Bradley Stryker, Elizabeth Bruderman, Forrest Cochran, Michael Lutz, Donnie Eichar, Christopher Cullen, Brandon Beemer and Brian Bianchine.

Pin-up boys strip to their underwear and glower sexily in David DeCoteau's homoerotic horror film.

College freshmen Chris (Watkins) and Dan (Hammond) are assigned to room together, even though they're polar opposites: Chris is a hunky jock and Dan is a high-strung nerd. But once they get to know each other, they realize they have more in common than they initially thought; Chris, especially, is less confident and easy going than he appears, as well as less interested in the superficial perks of being a big man on campus. Dan and Chris are both attracted to fellow freshman Megan (Bruderman), but before any serious rivalry can develop Chris finds himself being pursued by AK, the hottest fraternity in town.

Led by the charismatic Devon (DeCoteau favorite Stryker), the AK frat boys are handsome, sharp-dressed and have the wildest parties ever. Naturally, they have a deep dark secret, namely that they're vampires, and they've recruited Chris because they need a human sacrifice, not a new pledge. Fortunately for Chris, Dan and Meagan aren't the kind of friends who'd let their pal fall prey to a cabal of bloodsuckers, even if he has been acting like a world-class jerk since he started hanging around with them.

Veteran exploitation director David DeCoteau ventured into new territory with this T&A horror picture with a twist — the flesh on parade belongs almost exclusively to the film's cast of handsome young men. Though DeCoteau's Rapid Hearts Pictures was ostensibly established to make horror movies for women, the appeal of this and other Rapid Heart productions is clearly geared to gay men. Stars Stryker and Watkins spend much of their time (barely) clad in skin-tight boxer briefs, pretending to be interested in some half-dressed woman when they're clearly into in each other. The homoeroticism is just subdued enough that you don't have to see it if you absolutely, positively don't want to, but you'd have to not want to really badly. Though the acting is nothing much to speak of, the film's production values are surprisingly high for a low-budget effort.


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Cthulhu

(2007)
Directed by: Dan Gildark.
Written by: Grant Cogswell, based on a story by Gildark and Cogswell and inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
With: Jason Cottle, Cara Buono, Scott Green, Tori Spelling, Ian Geoghegan, Dennis Kleinsmith, Amy Minderhout, Richard Garfield, Greg Michaels, Robert Padilla, Nancy Clark, Joe Shapiro, Ruby Wood, Hunter Stroud, Kiefer Grimm and Rob Hamm.

Dan Gildark and Grant Cogswell's gay-themed variation on H.P. Lovecraft's nightmare universe of gods and monsters takes place in the near future, as the oceans rise and a small group of cultists quietly prepare for the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy.

It's been years since gay academic Russell Marsh (Cottle) visited his hometown, Rivermouth, Oregon. Ostracized by his father (Kleinsmith), a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and his narrowminded neighbors, he fled as soon as he could and made a new life in Seattle. But the news of his mother's death brings him home: In addition to paying his respects, he must deal with selling her mother's house, which she willed Russell and his sister, Dannie (Buono). The drive back is ominous: The radio is full of apocalyptic news — the last polar bear in the wild has died, the US has troops in the arctic circle fighting Eskimo terrorists, rioting has broken out in several coastal communities — and he's taunted by a pair of bullies in an SUV. "Nobody gets away, dude," one sneers moments before their car crashes, trapping both in the mangled wreckage.

The Reverend Marsh is judgmental and domineering as ever, and Dannie's efforts to play peacemaker over dinner fail. The only person in the whole town Russell really wants to see is Michael Shields (Green); now a divorced father, Mike was Russell's lover when they were teenagers. Rekindling their relationship is the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal visit that only grows more uncomfortable as the days wear on. Beyond the usual "you can't go home again" tensions, Russell gradually realizes there's something deeply weird going on. The estate lawyer supervising the sale of the house is adament that no-one can go inside until after it's been sold. Russell starts having vivid nightmares and awakes from one to find a small stone idol in his bed; he's at a loss to explain where it came from. The town drunk begins a rambling story about the time back in 1967 he and a friend netting something that looked like a "big baby" while fishing, but the bartender abruptly cuts him off. Russell's long-institutionalized great aunt (Clark)warns him about the "salty bitches" before she starts speaking in tongues. And somehow, the Marsh family is at the heart of whatever dark secret has poisoned Rivermouth.

Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth looms largest in this offbeat film's influences, and while it can't be called faithful to the reclusive, puritanical New Englander's writings, it does have an authentically doom-haunted atmosphere that's very much in line with his sensibilities. Unlike such films as David DeCoteau and Simon Avery's 2008 House of Usher, Cthulhu isn't homoerotic; Russell's sexuality is one piece of a larger puzzle that ties together the history of his family and the fate of mankind. If not entirely successful, it's a thoughtful and sometimes very creepy film that tackles big themes on a small budget and proves that in the right hands, ideas can trump special effects.


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The Covenant

(2006)
Directed by: Renny Harlin.
Written by: J.S. Cardone.
With: Steven Strait, Sebastian Stan, Taylor Kitsch, Toby Hemingway, Chace Crawford, Laura Ramsey, Jessica Lucas, Wendy Crewson, Stephen McHattie, Robert Crooks, Neil Napier and Kyle Schmid.

Is it The Craft (1996) with hunky pretty boys? An anti-drug PSA in which high-school students struggle with the seductive allure of "using" (their powers, that is) vs. the price of addiction? A pilot for a supernatural teen soap opera that lost its way en route to the late, lamented WB network and wound up on movie screens? A live-action International Male catalog? Written by old exploitation hand J.S. Cardone and directed by Renny Harlin, this glossy, preposterous thriller is all these things and less.

Descended from the founding families of Ipswich, Massachusetts, whose 17th-century witch hunts rivaled Salem's, Caleb Danvers (Strait), Reid Garwin (Hemingway), Tyler Sims (soon-to-be Gossip Girl star Crawford) and Pogue Parry (Kitsch) seem to have it all: sky-high cheekbones, sculpted abs, fabulous wealth and the power to levitate, become invisible and blow past inconveniences such as locked doors and stalled engines with a blink of their spooky eyes. When they turn 18 — Caleb is first in line — they'll "ascend" into their mature powers, which are really, like, awesome.

The catch is that every time they use their gifts before the magic date, a little piece of them dies. Some of the chosen get hooked and pay the price — like Caleb's dad — while others keep the craving in line and employ magic only when it really counts. Reckless Reid appears to be on the road to trouble: He's always tapping his powers for petty reasons — eluding the cops ("Harry Potter can kiss my ass!" he gloats), cheating at pool and looking under girls' skirts — which is, frankly, exactly what the average teenage boy would do under the circumstances. But Reid is actually the least of the group's problems. Someone with magic mojo just like theirs is stirring up trouble, and the evidence points to transfer-student Chase Collins (Stan). But how did Chase get the power, and why is he being such a jerk, conjuring creepy apparitions and unleashing icky spider whammies?

Conceived as a modern-day variation on The Lost Boys (1989) but more closely resembling the homoerotic horror pictures of David DeCoteau (The Brotherhood, House of Usher et al), The Covenant does includessome scenes of pretty girls (Lucas, Ramsey) hanging around in their scanties, but lingers much more lovingly on shots of the studly stars taking showers and stripping out of their skimpy swimsuits for some locker-room lounging. It fails utterly as a horror picture, although it delivers plenty of PG-13-rated flesh and unintentional laughs.


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Dawn of the Dead

(2004)
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: James Gunn, based on the screenplay by George A. Romero.
With: Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell, Michael Kelly, Kevin Zegers, Michael Barry, Lindy Booth, Bruce Bohne, Tom Savini, Scott Reiniger and Ken Foree.

Given that there was no need for a new Dawn of the Dead, first-time feature director Zack Snyder's "re-envisioning," from a screenplay by James Gunn, could be much worse. A buzzed-up gloss on the original, it's entertaining — if fundamentally shallow — and owes as much to 28 Days Later (2002) as it does to George Romero's 1978 cannibal-zombie classic.

ER nurse Ana (Polley) comes home from a 13-hour nursing shift to her home in a suburban Wisconsin development filled with neatly manicured lawns and friendly neighbors. She wakes up to a world turned upside-down: There's panic in the streets, fire in the sky and emergency services are too overwhelmed to respond. Ana narrowly escapes immediate danger, in the form of her newly zombified husband, only to find herself adrift in a world in which sprinting packs of reanimated corpses chase and drag down the hapless living like dogs on a hart.

Ana and four other survivors — street thug Andre (Phifer) and his hugely pregnant wife (Korobkina), police officer Kenneth (Rhames) and quietly pragmatic Michael (Weber) — take refuge in a shopping mall, where they form an uneasy alliance with security guards CJ (Kelly), Terry (Zegers) and Bart (Barry). As the situation outside degenerates and it becomes increasingly apparent that there's no help coming, the survivors jockey for control. They take in additional survivors, most so peripheral to the plot you never even learn their names, and Kenneth strikes up a poignant long-distance friendship with Andy (Bohne), who's camped out on a gun-shop roof a stone's throw from the mall.

Proper respect is paid the original Dawn: Cast member Gaylen Ross lends her name to a mall store, and Snyder gave cameos to Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree — who utters the immortal line, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth" — and Tom Savini (who also created the original's groundbreaking gory effects), who plays a variation on Night of the Living Dead's (1968) no-nonsense sheriff. True, Gunn's script strips away most of the original's dark humor, including its pervasive sly riff on the notion of consumption, and relationships take a backseat to action sequences. But Snyder directs action skillfully, the zombie hoards are as nasty as they ought to be and the ending is suitably downbeat. The issue of fast- vs. slow-moving zombies (sometimes cheekily referred to as "slombies") is a hot-button one among zombie-movie conoisseurs. Purists prefer the slow-burn horror of Romero's foot-draggers: Their geriatric shuffling makes them look manageable until the weight of their sheer, inexorable numbers sinks in. Sprinting zombies, an obscure footnote to the genre until 28 Days Later, may lack a certain grim gravity, but come with a bracing sense of urgency. Not surprisingly, Snyder opts for the latter — their galloping hunger is in sync with post millennial sensibilities.

And yet ironically, Romero's Diary of the Dead (2008), essentially a reboot of his own franchise, is the edgier film. Not because it engages with new technologies but because it convincingly drags a new generation through the same trial by rotting flesh as their grandparents, and leads them to the same thorny dilemma: The question is less whether the living can defeat the dead than whether they deserve to.


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Dead Creatures

(2001)
Written and Directed by: Andrew Parkinson.
With: Beverley Wilson, Antonia Beamish, Brendan Gregory, Lindsay Clarke, Anna Swift, Bart Ruspoll, Fiona Carr and Eva Fontaine.

Writer-producer-director Andrew Parkinson's ultra-low budget British zombie picture, by actually feels more subversive than art-house verteran Claire Denis' revisionist vampire picture Trouble Every Day (2002), which works a similar mix of mundane, kitchen-sink-style action and grotesquely intimate gore. Set against the backdrop of decaying London neighborhoods and depressing council flats, Parkinson's film posits cannibal zombieism as a kind of plague — perhaps drug related, maybe sexually transmitted, or even part of some clandestine government experiment... who knows? — that takes an inordinate toll on the young and the poor. The result feels like a Mike Leigh movie with gore.

Unemployed and without ambition or prospects, roommates Jo (Wilson) and Ann (Beamish) spend their days caring for a third roommate, Ali (Clarke), who's in the grips of some hideous degenerative disease, and their nights smoking dope, gossiping about men and drinking cups of tea with friends Fran (Fontane) and Zoe (Carr). They could be any group of unmotivated slackers in their 20s, except that their apparently casual camaraderie is the key to their survival. All have the zombie disease and are driven by the need to eat human flesh; they take turns hunting down victims, whom they butcher together and share.

They have festering wounds that won't heal and no more than a year and half to live; in the later stages of the disease they know they'll become progressively more decayed and helpless, like Ali. They also share the knowledge that zombie-disease sufferers who go to hospitals invariably vanish without a trace, and they're being hunted, both by the police and by a lone vigilante named Reece (Gregory), who's looking for someone and will use any means necessary in his quest for information.

Most of the story revolves around the deterioration of Ali and the education of Sian (Swift), whom Jo finds shivering in an emergency room after a disastrous date with the predatory Christian (Bart Ruspoll); Jo recognizes the symptoms of zombie attack and takes Sian into the group.

Parkinson's follow-up to his similarly themed debut I, Zombie: A Chronicle of Pain (1998) is a polarizing film: Some critics loathed its mundane chit-chat, leisurely pace and complete lack of exit-pursued-by-a-zombie scenes, others praised its bleak realism. Either way, it was one of the freshest takes on zombie-movie conventions since George Romero's groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead (1968) and anticipated many of the concerns of Grace Lee's sly American Zombie (2007). The limitations of its budget are cleverly disguised (Parkinson's use of rundown locations is exemplary), the well thought-out back story gives the minimal narrative depth and resonance, and the film's atmosphere of icy despair cuts cown to the bone.


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The Devil's Rejects

(2005)

Written and Directed by: Rob Zombie.
With: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Ken Foree, Matthew McGrory, Leslie Easterbrook, Geoffrey Lewis, Priscilla Barnes, Dave Sheridan, Kate Norby, Lew Temple:, Danny Trejo, Diamond Dallas Page, Brian Posehn, EG Daily, Tom Towles, George Wydell, Michael Berryman, P.J. Soles, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Ginger Lynn Allen, Jossara Jinaro, Chris Ellis and Mary Woronov.

Rob Zombie's pitch-perfect evocation of '70s horror films about monstrous families and the unfortunates who cross their path is one of a handful of sequels that both improve on their sources and play perfectly as stand-alones. Picking up immediately after House of 1000 Corpses (2001) ends, it begins as Texas Ranger John Wydell (Forsythe) mounts a raid on the ramshackle home of the Firefly family, serial murderers who somehow went unnoticed until their grotesque kidnapping and murder of two teenage couples. Three Fireflys escape the ensuing shootout: Mother Firefly (Easterbrook, replacing Karen Black) is arrested, while psycho siblings Otis and Baby (Moseley and Moon Zombie, reprising their roles) duck out through a secret passageway, carjack a doomed nurse (Woronov) and take to the highway. Horribly scarred giant Tiny (McGrory) happens not to be in the house and is forgotten in the melee, while patriarch Captain Spaulding (Haig), whose scary clown makeup masks the really scary face beneath, lives behind the macabre roadside attraction he runs down the road.

It takes the police a while to realize he's part of the killer clan, and by the time they do he's flown the coop. While Baby and Otis kill time by torturing and terrorizing two couples in a godforsaken tiki motel in the middle of the desert, Wydell puts the screws to Mother Firefly. Her feral family murdered his brother, fellow lawman George Wydell (Towles), and his determination to bring them to justice is more vendetta than professional obligation. Wydell eventually tracks them to the Western-style, back-road whorehouse where they've taken refuge, but the nastiness is far from over.

Unlike major studio remakes that modernize '70s shockers with rapid-fire editing, trendy gray-on-green cinematography, CGI effects and contemporary grunge and thrash soundtracks, Rejects is shot on slightly grainy Super 16mm film and driven by insidiously evocative '70s-era AM teen-trash rock, from the mood-ring piffle of Three Dog Night's "Shambala" to Elvin Bishop's smarmily saccharine "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" and David Essex's vaguely menacing "Rock On." The cast is peppered with faces familiar to a certain kind of fan, from all-around exploitation veterans Haig and Woronov to The Hills Have Eyes' unmistakable Michael Berryman, Day of the Dead's Ken Foree, Helter Skelter's Steve Railsback and Halloween's teen tramp P.J. Soles, now sufficiently mature to play a soccer mom. Future generations will be hard put to disentangle Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" from the film's take-no-prisoners climax.


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Diary of the Dead

(2008)
Written and Directed by: George A. Romero.
With: Joshua Close, Michelle Morgan, Philip Riccio, Megan Park, Amy Lalonde, Chris Violette, Shawn Roberts, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth and Tatiana Maslany.

Generation MySpace meets the cannibal dead in Romero's faux-verite reboot of his seminal zombie series is a polarizing meditation on life and death in the infinitely mediated world of blogs, file sharing and incessant virtual connection.

Diary of the Dead unfolds through the kino-eye of University of Pittsburgh student Jason Creed (Close), who was making a horror movie when the end of the world as we know it began. Auteur-in-training Creed abandons it to document the apocalypse in progress, which was completed and dubbed "The Death of Death" by narrator Debra (Morgan). The footage is all real, Debra says, but she cut it and goosed it with spooky music and sound effects designed to scare you. Because you should be scared.

"The Death of Death" begins with a bootleg news clip: A local reporter doing bored stand up, cops hanging out, EMTs removing the sheeted bodies of an immigrant family from a non-descript apartment building. Boring stuff. Then the bodies get up: Bullets, torn and bleeding flesh, chaos… the footage never aired, but the cameraman uploaded it on the sly. Cut to Jason directing his mummy movie in the dark, late-night woods as the radio crackles with reports of reanimated corpses. It has to be a joke, but it's creepy and if something's going on, rich boy Ridley (Riccio) intends to weather it behind the heavily fortified doors of his family's vast Philadelphia mansion – everyone's invited, but only Francine (Park) accepts.

The others, including Texas firecracker Tracy (Lalonde) and her boyfriend, Gordo (Violette); belligerent Tony (Roberts) from Queens; techie Eliot (Dinicol) and alcoholic, self-loathing Professor Maxwell (Wentworth), pile into the battered RV of diffident classmate Mary (Maslany) and hit the road. Cell networks are crashing, mainstream news outlets are clogged with official denials and the same old rumors of radiation and viral strains. Fanatics rule the radio airwaves and the blogosphere seethes with samizat footage of shambling zombies and panicked survivors. In the chaos of information overload, aspiring documentarian Jason finds his mission: To make sure the truth — about the dead, the marauding National Guard, the looters and hoarders, the redneck survivalists and the compete and utter failure of global government — gets out there, no matter what the cost.

Diary opened after Cloverfield (2008), Redacted (2007) and, of course, The Blair Witch Project (1999), but Romero is no latecomer to the table: His 40-yeard-old Night of the Living Dead (1968) was thoroughly aware of the ways mass media can be used and abused,and shot through with contradictory, useless and outright mendacious faux verite coverage of the zombie holocaust. Of course that's Romero in Diary's revisionist version of the opening newscast, playing the top cop who explains that those supposed "zombies" were just messed up folks — they weren't dead until his men killed them.

Diary's tone proved hugely divisive: Are those naive, portentous pronouncements about media, voyeurism and the numbing, pornographic allure of atrocity footage a sly reflection of the YouTube generation's boundary-free narcissism and naive youth, or evidence that Romero — never one to underplay a metaphor — has become a hectoring, tin-eared fogy? I favor the former interpretation, and the proof is in the images: The closing shot is so vividly on message it hurts. Debra's callow, self-righteous cant may be gratingly naive, but her outrage at footage of rednecks taking potshots at the grotesquely living half-head of a once-lovely woman, tied to a tree branch by its hair, is too visceral to dismiss.


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Don't Go to Sleep

(1982)
Directed by: Richard Lang.
Written by: Ned Wynn.
With: Dennis Weaver, Valerie Harper, Ruth Gordon, Robin Ignico, Oliver Robins, Kristin Cumming, Robert Webber and Claudette Nevins.

Hidden behind a generic and instantly forgettable title lies a tight, genuinely scary made-for-TV thriller about a family haunted by the the death of a child.

Still grieving the recent loss of their eldest daughter, Jennifer (Cumming), Laura (Valerie Harper) and her husband, aerospace engineer Phillip (Weaver), have moved their surviving children, high-strung, 12-year-old Mary (Ignico) and nine-year-old prankster Kevin (Robins, of Poltergeist), from Los Angeles to Northern California in hopes of starting afresh. Phillip's new job and the change of venue hold out the promise that the unhappy past is behind them, though superstitious types might be given pause by the new house's number: 13666. And of course, Laura's cantankerous mother, Bernice (Gordon), no longer able to live on her own, is moving in with them.

Sure enough, it soon becomes apparent that the past hasn't stayed behind. Mary has a recurrance of the night terrors that tormented her after Jennifer's death and her bed mysteriously catches fire their first night in the new house. The culprit seems to be a frayed lamp cord, but Mary's insistence that she saw Jennifer under the bed sets everyone's nerves on edge.

Between the fire and Mary's increasingly disturbing behavior, the tensions that underlie the family's loving facade soon force their way to the surface. The kids squabble, Bernice taunts Phillip about his drinking and inability to earn a decent living and Laura feels caught between her mother and her husband. Phillip scotches Laura's suggestion that Mary needs therapy for fear that so much as a hint of mental illness in the family will sour his chances of succeeding in his new job, and no-one will talk about Jennifer or the way she died. Then Bernice suffers a fatal heart attack precipitated by the shock of finding Kevin's pet iguana, Ed, in her bedroom; Kevin swears both that he didn't let the lizard out and that Ed couldn't have escaped on his own.

Laura gradually becomes convinced that Mary, traumatized by her sister's death, is behind the grotesque accidents befalling her family. But could Laura be grasping at a rational, if unlikely, profoundly explanation — one that brands her only living daughter a sociopath — because she refuses to believe that Jennifer's unquiet spirit has returned to redress a terrible wrong?

Despite the inherent limitations of broadcast television movies, Ned Wynn's (son of veteran actor Keenan Wynn and older brother of screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn) original is unusually subtle and succeeds where many higher profile movies fail: Until Don't Go to Sleep's haunting final shot, enther the families troubles are psychological or supernatural until the film's final, unforgettable shot.

Harper — versatile actress typecast after years of playing the brassy Rhoda Morgenstern on TV's Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off, Rhoda — gives a sensitive, thoroughly convincing performance as the increasingly anguished Laura. The careers of child actresses Ignico and Cumming both encompassed a brief few years in the 1980s, but both delivered unforgettable performances in Don't Go To Sleep: Ignacio is simultaneously heartbreaking and unnerving as the tormented Mary and Cumming is chilling as demonic cherub Jennifer.


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Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

(1973)
Directed by: John Newland.
Written by: Nigel McKeand.
With: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, Barbara Anderson, William Demerest, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Lesley Woods, Robert Cleaves, Sterling Swanson and J.H. Lawrence.

This above-average, made-for-TV chiller gave nightmares to a generation of youthful TV-movie junkies.

Sally Farnham (Darby) inherits a ramshackle mansion from her grandmother and moves in with her workaholic husband, Alex (Hutton). Worried that she's not a good enough corporate wife, Sally sets about redecorating the house in anticipation of an important business party Alex wants to throw. Sally discovers a small room she thinks would make a nice study and, ignoring the warnings of an elderly handyman (Demarest) who used to work for her grandmother, opens the room's bricked-up fireplace. Soon she's being troubled by strange phenomena: An ashtray flies off a night table as though it had been pushed; tiny, shadowy figures scuttle around the periphery of her vision; voices whisper her name in the dark.

Alex pooh-poohs Sally's complaints, and accuses her of playing mind games: She's the one who wanted to move to this house — he would have preferred an apartment in a modern high rise — so why is she acting as though she wants to leave? Then, at the all-important party, Sally sees a frightening, wizened gremlin hiding in a floral arrangement. She realizes she's not imagining things: There are creatures in the house and they're after her. Sally also realizes they're afraid of the light; as long as she doesn't get caught in the dark, Sally reasons, she'll be okay.

When Alex returns from his long-planned business trip, Sally will say he's right about the house, they should move to an apartment, and then she'll be safe. But Sally has underestimated the determination of the creatures...

Sally showering while one of the malevolent munchkins drags a straight razor from the medicine cabinet. Sally, trussed like a turkey, holding off the gremlins by firing off her pocket camera's flashcube. Sally's interior decorator (Armendáriz Jr.) falling to his death, tripped by a nearly invisible wire stretched across the top of the stairs. Overall the film may be a little slow and obvious by today's standards, but these stand-out moments ensured its place in the nightmares of children of the '70s.


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Freddy vs. Jason

(2003)

Directed by: Ronny Yu.
Written by: Damian Shannon & Mark Swift, based on characters created by Victor Miller and Wes Craven.
With: Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger, Monica Keena, Jason Ritter, Kelly Rowland, Katharine Isabelle, Christopher George Marquette, Brendan Fletcher, Jesse Hutch, Tom Butler, Lochlyn Munro and Kyle Labine.

It had to happen: Jesse James met Frankenstein's daughter, Bonnie & Clyde took on Dracula, Abbott and Costello mixed it up with the mummy (and the invisible man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde...). So sooner or later, Freddy and Jason were bound to rumble. Sadly, this Nightmare on Elm Street/Friday the 13th monster mash-up is a formulaic hodge-podge that trades on a certain demographic's nostalgic affection for the bogeymen of their formative years.

Largely ignoring the chronology of the Fraday and Elm Street films, the horror commences with nightmare-maker Freddy Krueger (Englund) trapped in some hellish never-never land by the adults of suburban Springwood, where his reign of terror originated. They've purged him from their children's collective consciousness, and without fear on which to feed, Freddy is powerless and it's once again safe to be sleepy. Unable to re-enter the real world, Freddy instead invades the death dreams of unstoppable killing machine Jason Voorhees (Kirzinger, taking over from fan-favorite Kane Hodder) and persuades him to rise from the grave and resume killing. Jason's first stop: 1428 Elm Street, where nubile teens Lori (Keena), Kia (Rowland, of Destiny's Child) and Gibb (Ginger Snaps star Isabelle) are having a slumber party. Gibb's jerky boyfriend (Hutch) crashes the all-girl get-together, and Jason slices and dices him while Gibb takes the obligatory shower. Needless to say, the surviving kids are plenty scared.

Meanwhile Lori's boyfriend, Will (Ritter), and his pal Mark (Fletcher) are staging a daring escape from the asylum where they've spent years doped up with nightmare-suppressing drugs for the crime of dreaming of Freddy. Once they get back to town, there's no keeping the razor-fingered dream demon's lethal legacy a secret. And that means he's on the road to wellville. Altogether now: One, two, Freddy's coming for you...

Screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift appear to have invested all their energy in figuring out how to bring the titans of terror together, leaving none for thinking of anything in particular to do with therm. What could have been a clever fusion of late 20th-century horror icons is instead a lengthy lead-in to a cheesy, WWE-style grudge match. First-class Hong Kong martial-arts fabulist Ronny Yu clearly has no affinity for either bogeyman, wperhaps because their spookiness springs not from fairy tales or folk traditions but from stand-alone mythologies rooted in modern American pop-culture anxieties. The gore splatters so ludicrously freely that it's hard not to think of the classic Monty Python skit in which Sam Peckinpah turns the gentle musical revue Salad Days into a comic riot of severed limbs and spurting stumps. And once you start laughing at monsters, they're well and truly defeated.


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Friday the 13th

(2009)

Directed by: Marcus Nispel.
Written by: Damian Shannon & Mark Swift, from a story by Damian Shannon, Mark Swift and Mark Wheaton and based on characters created by Victor Miller.
With: Jared Padalecki, Danielle Panabaker, Amanda Righetti, Whitney Miller, Travis Van Winkle, Aaron Yoo, Derek Mears, Jonathan Sadowski and Julianna Guill.

It's official: The Friday the 13th franchise has so worn out its welcome with me that I'm tempted to call this go-round "Friday the umpteenth" and be done with it. Director by Marcus Nispel, who made his name (such as it is) with the inexplicably successful Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) remake, and penned by the team responsible for Freddy vs. Jason (2003), it's gory, painfully predictable and dull beyond words.

Less a reboot than an alternate Friday the 13th Part II, it supposes that Jason raised himself in the woods after seeing his bughouse crazy mom decapitated by a spunky final girl almost 30 years ago. Of course, that Jason was a mentally challenged child who drowned in 1958 while neglectful camp counselors were making out in the boathouse, and his reconstitution was just a tortured way of getting around the fact that the original film wrote itself into a corner by making the killer Mrs. Voorhees, a woman haunted to madness by her little boy's death more than 20 years earlier. But canonical consistency has never been the strong suit of the Friday films and, frankly, nobody really cares. So anyway, five good-natured dopers lured by stories of a righteous pot farm, including one Whitney Miller (Righetti), make the mistake of camping in the vicinity of New Jersey's long-closed Camp Crystal Lake. Those local legends about shadowy killer Jason Voorhees are just bull, right?

Six weeks later, they're gone, baby, gone and another batch of hotties arrives for a lost weekend at the faux-rustic resort belonging to the family of poor-little-rich-schuck Trent (Van Winkle). The too-dumb-to-live victims… sorry, guests, include drunken slut Bree (Guill), comic-relief Asian guy Chewie (Yoo) and Trent's kinda, sorta girlfriend, level-headed Jenna (Panabaker, of TV's Shark), the only one with ambitions beyond getting laid and/or stoned. Which is, of course, why she winds up allying herself with world-class buzzkill Clay Miller (Padelecki, of TV's Supernatural), who's looking for his missing sister. While Jenna and Clay poke around, her feckless pals stay behind having sex, smoking dope and generally doing the dumbest possible things under the circumstances.

True disclosure: With the exception of the first, which had relative novelty on its side, the Friday films have always bored me in exactly the same way first-person shooter games do: Once the parameters are established, there are only a finite number of ways the story can go. Attention to detail is the only thing that distinguishes one from the other, and since Friday the 13th is shot in the house style of producer Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes division — dark, muddy and on a color spectrum that ranges from greenish grey to graying green — whatever visual details there might be are swallowed up by the pervasive murk. That leaves the story to stand on its own merits, and it doesn't: Coming up with a minor variation on Jason's adoption of the iconic hockey mask really doesn't justify sitting through an hour and a half of pro-forma running, screaming and slashing.

I interviewed producer/director Sean S. Cunningham almost 20 years ago about his career in horror; he was as shocked as anyone when Friday the 13th — a film he presold on the title alone — became a box-office annihilating smash that demanded a follow up. "When we were trying to come up with a story for the first sequel," he told me, "we went round and round with this notion of whether Jason should be real… I thought it was stupid for Jason to be real. Shows you what I know." Well, yeah, financially speaking he's right. But you know what? It was stupid for Jason to be real. Stupid then, stupid now and apparently completely unstoppable. Now that's a monster.


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The Hills Have Eyes

(2006)
Directed by: Alexandre Aja.
Written by: Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven.
With: Ted Levine, Kathleen Quinlan, Emilie de Ravin, Dan Byrd, Vinessa Shaw, Aaron Stanford, Tom Bower, Billy Drago, Robert Joy, Desmond Askew, Ezra Buzzington, Michael Bailey Smith and Laura Ortiz.

Made with the blessing of original Hills Have Eyes writer-director Wes Craven, French up-and-comer Alexandre (High Tension) Aja's full-bore do-over is a shockingly successful update of the seminal 1978 shocker.

It begins with the most mundane of situations: The no-fun family vacation. Bluff but loving dad "Big Bob" Carter (Levine), a retired police detective, has dragooned his long-suffering clan into a cross-country family vacation in his beloved Airstream trailer. No one wants to take a detour through the desert except Bob, not even his unflaggingly supportive wife, Ethel (Quinlan). Teens Brenda (de Ravin) and Bobby (Byrd) have zero interest in the sand-and-scrub scenic route, and married daughter Lynn (Shaw) and her nerdy husband, cell-phone salesman Doug (Stanford) — the butt of Big Bob's persistent macho needling — would rather be cruising along a nicely paved highway, especially since they're traveling with their newborn.

Still, everything might have been fine if the grizzled proprietor (Bower) of that ramshackle gas station hadn't caught Lynn poking around his back room. She was just retrieving one of the rambunctious family dogs and didn't notice the satchel filled with bloody loot. But she could have seen something, and Carter clan's fate is sealed. He sends them down a dusty, booby-trapped, dead-end road and straight into the arms of a mutated clan of cannibal desert dwellers, monstrous survivors of a mining community that refused relocation when the military appropriated their homes for atomic testing.

Aja's sunbaked endurance test is grueling and relentlessly nasty. It also follows the first film's outlines faithfully, with the exception of an interlude in the blasted atomic-test village that the cannibal family calls home, which actually clarifies certain aspects of the story, notably Doug's transformation from annoying dork to avenging dad. Aja also retains Craven's commitment to character, making the Carters a thoroughly believably "normal American family" rather than a row of shooting-gallery ducks set up to be picked off amid bloodthirsty squeals of delight. That said, stripped of its visceral Vietnam-era context, Hills loses some of its discomfiting shock value. Not because its bitter sociopolitical underpinnings are any less valid in the post-9/11 world — the new version's portrayal of middle-class Americans baffled by the sheer hatred directed at them by the impoverished, disenfranchised and brutalized victims of government policy is arguably more potent than ever — but because it's no longer news. Or perhaps it is: If Craven's Hills was a grindhouse warning that human collateral damage eventually comes back to bite you, then clearly no one was listening.


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House of 1000 Corpses

(2003)

Written and Directed by: Rob Zombie.
With: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, Karen Black, Chris Hardwick:, Erin Daniels, Jennifer Jostyn, Rainn Wilson, Walton Goggins, Tom Towles, Matthew McGrory, Robert Mukes and Dennis Fimple.

Shock-rocker Rob Zombie's loving homage to flat-out nasty horror films of the 1970s will leave many post-Scream (1996) horror fans cold because of what it's not. It's not slick or glossy. It's not funny or self-referential. And it's not much fun, just as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1978) — both clear influences on Zombie's movie debut — aren't fun. It is ugly — in the distinctively washed out, grainy, slightly burned manner of low-budget '70s films — gory and single-mindedly mean. None of which is a criticism, since that's exactly what it wants to be.

Two young couples, Bill and Mary (Wilson, Jostyn) and Jerry and Denise (Harwick, Daniels), are on a road trip, scoping out off-the-beaten-track roadside attractions. At an isolated gas station/museum of macabre curiosities, they persuade the clown-faced proprietor (Haig) to take them on the "murder ride," a carnival-car trip through dioramas devoted to infamous killers — Ed Gein, Albert Fish, Lizzie Borden and local luminary Quentin Quayle, better known as "Dr. Satan," who tortured patients at nearby mental hospital. Dr. Satan was hanged by an angry mob, but his body disappeared and was never found... What's more, the hanging tree is just down the road apiece, and Jerry insists they visit it, even though it's late and pouring down rain. They pick up a giggly hitchhiker named Baby (Moon Zombie) and wind up at her ramshackle house, where it's always Halloween, if the freak-show decor is anything by which to judge. Baby's kin include blowsy sexpot Mother Firefly (Black), hideously burned giant Tiny (Matthew McGrory), brawny Rufus (Mukes), Grandpa Hugo (Fimple) and raving head-case Otis (Moseley); their family activities lean to kidnapping, torturing and murdering unwary cheerleaders, children and numbskulls who think creepy stuff is boss. The inevitable unpleasantness ensues.

Born of Zombie's 1999 stint designing the Universal Studios Hollywood Halloween Horror Night maze, House of 1000 Corpses film feels like a low-rent spook house ride, its seediness an essential part of the experience. Universal originally bankrolled the picture but got cold feet because of its "visceral tone and intensity;" MGM later briefly picked it up and dropped it — Universal and MGM being the studios that made the glossy cannibal picture Hannibal (2001) — before Lionsgate finally released Zombie's creepshow to theaters, a full two years after it was completed. It failed to set the box office on fire, but paved the way for Zombie's equally ferocious and more accomplished The Devil's Rejects.


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House of Usher

(2008)
Directed by: David DeCoteau.
Written by: Simon Savory.
With: Frank Mentier, Jaimyse Haft, Victor Reynolds, Jack Carlisle, Daniel Fugardi, Taylor Graham, Bart Voitila, Jill Jacobson and the voice of Ian Shaw.

Director David DeCoteau and writer Simon Savory's unabashedly homoerotic spin on Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Fall of the House of Usher incorporates Roger Corman's notorious declaration that "the house is the monster" while missing no opportunity to showcase handsome young men in their skivvies.

Soldier of fortune Michael Cardelle (Reynolds) receives an urgent letter from childhood friend Roderick Usher (Mentier), asking for help. Michael presents himself at the Usher house at the first opportunity, and is dismayed at what he sees: The house is falling apart, and the morbidly sensitive Roderick — "Ush" to Michael — seems close to a nervous breakdown. His sister, Madeline (Haft), appears equally damaged; suffering alternately from cataleptic fits and outbursts of nymphomania, and haunted by the spirits of the unborn children she'll never have.

It soon becomes clear that Michael and Roderick once shared an intense erotic relationship that Michael is reluctant to resume, especially after his dreams are invaded by the spirits of three studly young men who died while working on the Usher grounds. What is the dark secret that haunts the House of Usher?

Savory's screenplay contains flashes of genuine ideas, including a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-esque lagniappe and some spooky notions about photography. But they're are consistently undermined by Harry (Friday the 13th) Manfredini's brutally obvious score and the lengthy erotic sequences, which stop just this side of pornography (which is the problem). That said, DeCoteau stages a couple of genuinely spooky sequences, including one in which a pair of hands inexplicably emerges from Michael's bath water, hovering eerily over his naked skin without ever touching it.


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Jason X

(2002)

Directed by: Jim Isaac.
Written by: Todd Farmer.
With: Kane Hodder, Lexa Doig, Lisa Ryder, Chuck Campbell, Jonathan Potts, Peter Mensah, Melyssa Ade, Melody Johnson, Derwin Jordan, Dov Tiefenbach, Kristi Angus and David Cronenberg.

Forget that the last film in the long-running Friday the 13th series was called Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993): This formulaic stalk-and-slash picture sets Jason Voorhees loose aboard a 25th-century space ship filled with nubile archeology students in skimpy clothes. In a brief 21st-century prologue, the unkillable Jason (Kane Hodder) is scheduled to be cryogenically frozen after all attempts to execute him fail.

Cutie-pie Rowan (Doig) is supposed to be overseeing his suspension, but scheming Dr. Wimmer (Cronenberg) intervenes and insists on transporting Jason to another facility for further experimentation. Within minutes of Wimmer's pompous assurance that his military escort will make sure Jason is kept under lock and key, he and the heavily armed soldiers are all dead. Rowan tricks Jason into entering a cryogenic chamber, but both of them wind up frozen solid.

Cut to the year 2455: Earth is a noxious dead planet and a team of student archeologists, led by the smug, greedy Dr. Lowe (Jonathan Potts), find the two frozen bodies and take them back to their ship. They revive Rowan, but assume her hulking companion is too far deteriorated to revive. How wrong they are: Jason is soon up and killing, first dispatching the ship's small retinue of professional soldiers in a series of scenes that suggest a dramatically scaled-down Aliens, then turning his attention to the screaming students in their silly, belly-baring getups.

Despite the futuristic setting, which relies so heavily on GGI effects that it looks like a feature-length production concept painting, this film is painfully predictable: People walk down dark corridors, Jason chops them up. Perhaps by way of suggesting that they know their mythic monsters and sci-fi classics, the filmmakers named the students' ship Grendel, the space station they're headed for is called Solaris and the rescue ship the Tiamat, after a Babylonian chaos god. The film's only bright spots are a scene in which the ship's austere android, Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), is transformed into a butt-kicking robo-babe in a PVC jumpsuit, and another in which Jason is momentarily trapped on the ship's holo-deck, programmed to evoke Camp Crystal Lake, circa 1980, complete with a pair of pot-smoking sluts clad in, respectively, a pair of hot pants and a string bikini. This isn't wit in the Noel Coward sense of the word, but it's more clever than anything else this tired rehash has to offer.


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Jeepers Creepers 2

(2003)
Written and Directed by: Victor Salva.
With: Ray Wise, Jonathan Breck, Garikayi Mutambirwa, Eric Nenninger, Nicki Aycox, Travis Schiffner, Lena Cardwell, Billy Aaron Brown, Marieh Delfino, Diane Delano, Thom Gossom Jr. and Tom Tarantini.

Writer-director Victor Salva's inevitable follow-up to the surprise success Jeepers Creepers (2001) picks up immediately after the events of the first film, in which a mysterious demon — the "Creeper" — emerges from its cyclical hibernation to devour unwary country folk.

The sequel opens on the Taggart family farm, where tow-headed Billy (Fleming), his father, Jack (Wise), and older brother, Jack Jr. (Edwards), are doing chores and bickering genially. The cornfield ripples, crows caw, scarecrows are silhouetted against the blue, blue sky. And then the bucolic idyll is brutally shattered by screams: Someone — or more properly, something — in a long, dark duster is loping through the corn, dragging the terrified Billy like a rag doll. The older Taggarts watch helplessly as the Creeper spreads its bat-like wings and takes to the air, clutching the doomed youngster in its scaly claws. Credit where credit is due: That is one hell-bound grabber of a lean and mean opening.

The second opening, which initiates the main story, is less compelling: A yellow bus filled with high school basketball players and their entourage rolls down the deserted East 9 Highway, radio abuzz with reports of a cache of bizarrely mutilated bodies discovered beneath a local house. The kids are oblivious, preoccupied with clichéd teen stuff — the game they just won, the arrogance of star player Scott Braddock (Nenninger), the sexual orientation of school reporter Izzy "is he or isn't he" Bohen (Schiffner) — until the bus grinds to a halt, stranding them in the rapidly darkening middle of nowhere. That's bad, but what's scary is the realization that the bus was deliberately crippled.

Enter the Creeper, wsho picks off the adults and toys with the teens, leering and clattering and apparently picking out the victims for whom it plans to return. Cheerleader Minxie (Aycox), who's been having convenient psychic dreams, shares what she knows about the Creeper's origins and intentions, and then it's Lord of the Flies time. The youngsters split up into the all-for-one/one-for-all group and the every-man-for-himself brigade, and the Creeper snacks on their tasty young flesh.

An excess of lingering special-effects shots — Salva wisely kept the Creeper in the shadows for much of the first film — and too many undifferentiated teens in peril undermines this landlocked variation on Lifeboat (1944). But the film delivers a few slick thrills before beaching itself on an ending that would be chilling if its depiction of unimaginable horror's lingering legacy weren't so muddled.


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The Last Winter

(2007)
Directed by: Larry Fessenden.
Written by: Fessenden and .
With: Ron Perlmann, James LeGros, Connie Britton, Zach Gilford, Kevin Corrigan and Jamie Harrold.

Veteran independent filmmaker Fessenden's quietly unnerving horror picture revolves around an eight-person oil-drilling advance crew stalked by some malevolent, unseen something that lurks in the unbearable whiteness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Off limits for development until a recent congressional decision, the Wildlife Refuge's oil reserves are largely an unknown quantity: The only effort was ever made to assess the situation was back in 1986, when the Kick Corp sank a test well that was immediately sealed. Now mega-corporation North Industries has established a team in the area and charged gruff, macho company man Ed Pollack (Perlman) with clearing the way to move in heavy drilling equipment. This being the 21st century, the North Industry crew is accompanied by environmental expert James Hoffman (LeGros) and his assistant, Elliot Taylor (Harrold), who must assess the impact of the company's plans before construction can proceed.

Pollack and Hoffman clash immediately, and not just over their diametrically opposed points of view about wilderness development, the energy crisis and global warming: While Pollack was a away on a five-week trip to corporate headquarters, Hoffman hooked up with Pollack's girl, Abby (Britton). The atmosphere is already explosive when junior team member Maxwell (Gilford) disappears for several hours and returns traumatized by something he can't or won't describe. Isolated and spooked, the team members succumb to a sense of creeping anxiety that turns to paranoia and, inevitably, violence.

Fessenden's claustrophobic thriller, shot in Alaska and Iceland, inevitably recalls such antecedents as John Carpenter's version of The Thing (1982) , the first-season X-Files episode "Ice" and, of course, Alien (1979), with its blue-collar team of working stiffs thrown to the wolves by their uncaring corporate masters. Neither Pollack nor Hoffman is as straightforward a character as he first appears, and the film's escalating anxiety is rooted as much in the characters' subtle, thorny relationships as fear of monsters and madmen. Fessenden consistently ignores contemporary trends in fright films; his brand of horror unfolds at the intersection of myth and modern-day malaise and gets there by way of a slow, excruciating build up rather than a series of short, sharp shocks. And if the film's 11th-hour CGI effects aren't entirely convincing, the notion that oil itself is haunted by the restless spirit of every once-living thing that time reduced and mingled into the earth's black blood throws off a primordial chill.


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Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural

(1973)
Written and Directed by: Richard Blackburn,
With: Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, Lesley Gilb, Richared Blackburn, William Whitton, Steve Johnson, Monte Pyke, Maxine Ballantyne, Parker West, Charla Hall, Jack Fisher and Buck Buchanan.

Set in the American rural South in the 1930s, this offbeat vampire film opens with the murder of an adulterous couple by the woman's husband, notorious gangster Alvin Lee (Whitton).

Lee's adolescent daughter, Lila (Smith), has been raised a ward of the Baptist church under the watchful eye of a strict but dangerously repressed Reverend (writer-director Blackburn), and achieved regional fame as "the singing angel," by virtue of her tremulous voice and radiant demeanor. The Reverend is famous for his fiery sermons, in which Lila's purity, obedience and dedication to God serve as vivid illustration of faith's ability to overcome a person's background. But Lila hasn't forgotten her father, so when she receives a disturbing letter from a woman named Lemora (Gilb),saying that she's been nursing Lila's father, who's gravely ill and that he desperately wants to see his daughter before he dies, Lila can't ignore the request.

Knowing the Reverend will never agree, Lila packs a bag, takes Lemora's directions, and begins a bizarre journey that takes her to the bad part of a raucous town, a half-deserted bus station and, finally, a mysterious rattletrap bus line that always pulls in the back of the station before leaving for parts unknown. The trip takes Lila through dark woods poplated by strange, wild-eyed feral beings, and when the bus breaks down, it takes all her strength and wits to elude them and make her way to Lemora's grand but dilapidated homestead. Once there, the puzzled Lila is taken under the imperious, insinuating Lemora's wing, but kept very much in the dark. Who were those degenerate-looking people in the woods? Where did the raucous, hollow-eyed lost children who live with Lemora come from? And why can't Lila see her ailing father?

An art-house vampire movie with lesbian undertones, Blackburn's debut film puts an ambitious and surprisingly effective spin on traditional vampire movie cliches. The rural southern setting is unusual, and some of the cast deliver surprisingly strong performances. Gilb is a striking Lemora, and Smith — who was living on the street when Blackburn cast her and went on to make a series of fondly-remembered but not particularly good exploitation pictures as Rainbeaux Smith — is phenomenal as the virginal Lila, who evokes spasms of lust in every perv below the Mason Dixon line. The production design is remarkable, particularly given the low budget; the bus depot sequence is almost as sleazily stylized the Times Squard segment of James Bidgood's Pink Narcissus (1971). This underrated shocker has developed a cult following since its scattershot 1973 release, but deserves a much wider one.


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Martyrs

(2008)
Written and Directed by: Pascal Laugier.
With: Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi, Catherine Begin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tulasne, Juliette Gosselin, Xavier Dolan-Tadros, Isabelle Chasse, Sarah Dutreil, Emilie Miskdjian and Mike Chute.

You don't have to Catholic to shudder at Pascal Laugier's Martyrs, but it helps.

1971: Filthy, terrorized, bloody and half-naked, adolescent Lucie Jurin is found running down a deserted street in an industrial part of an unnamed French city. Placed in the state-run Assumption Hospital of Pediatric Services, which treats abused and abandoned children, she refuses to talk about what happened to her, though the evidence suggests that Lucie was held captive in an abandoned warehouse over a long period of time and was systematically starved and beaten, though not sexually abused. Shy and haunted by nightmares dominated by a scrawny, blood-streaked woman of indeterminate age and obscure motives, Lucie takes refuge in her friendship with fellow resident Anna Assaoui, who tries to protect and speak for her fragile friend.

Fifteen years later, the thoroughly bourgeois Belfond family — benevolently exasperated father (Toupin), capable wife Gabrielle (Tulasne), college-bound slacker Antoine (Dolan-Tadros) and high school athlete Marie (Gosselin) — are enjoying a typical, lovingly argumentative Sunday breakfast. The doorbell interrupts their familiar ritual: Lucie (Jampanoi) is at the door, shotgun in hand. After killing the entire family, she calls Anna (Alaoui), swearing the Belfonds were her tormentors — she recognized them from a local newspaper photo of Marie's swim team. Anna doubts and Lucie knows it, but Anna comes nonetheless and finds Lucie blood-spattered and ranting that someone — some grotesquely debased and mutilated victim (Chasse) who failed to escape the Belfonds' abuse and remains trapped within the house — attacked and wounded her. The horror ends when Lucie commits suicide. Or does it? Well no, it doesn't. Laugier's grand guignol tale of divine madness begins where most genre movies end. but to call it torture porn is to miss the point, notwithstanding the fact that torture dominates the film's second half.

French writer-director Laugier has more than can-you-top-this shocks in mind: For all its brutality, Martyrs is conspicuously high minded, rooted in the centuries-old notion that spiritual transcendence lies just beyond the horizon of pain. Laugier's twist: His "martyrs" are conscripts, not volunteers. "It's so easy to create a victim," the mysterious Mademoiselle (Begin) tells Anna matter-of-factly. "A martyr is something else… they bear all the sins of the earth. They give themselves up. They transcend themselves… they are transfigured." That's heady stuff, rooted in centuries of spiritual conviction. Martyrsis calculated without being cynical; it aims to provoke in the best sense of that word.

Scheduled for a late April 2009 DVD release in the US, Martyrs was Laugier's ticket to an invitation to remake Clive Barker's Hellraiser.

In French, with subtitles.


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Let the Right One In


Directed by: Tomas Alfredson.
Written by: John Ajvide Lindqvist, adapted from his novel.
With: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson and Per Ragnar.

American pop culture is awash in romantically tragic vampires, from the HBO series True Blood to the upcoming Twilight, based respectively on hugely popular series novels by Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer. The Swedish Let the Right One In takes an altogether less swoony cooler view of the undead and the living who love them.

Tomas Alfredson and John Ajvide Lindqvist, who adapted his own novel, clear away the airy-fairy cobwebs to tell a chilling coming-of-age story in which a miserable adolescent strikes up a friendship with a vampire girl who appears to be own his age but has, she says, been 12 "for a very long time." It's light years removed from the glib "sleep all day… party all night… it's fun to be a vampire" clichés of The Lost Boys (1987). It's steeped in the bitter unhappiness of being an adolescent outcast, but takes a bracingly clear-eyed view of pale, skinny Oskar (Hedebrant), who lives with his divorced mother in a clean, self-contained, working-class housing complex just outside Stockholm. His mother is distracted and his school life a source of constant torment, courtesy of cocksure Conny (Patrik Rydmark) and his band of bullies, who seem to have taken Lord of the Flies for a how-to handbook. But it's hard not to wonder whether Oskar's morbid interest in violence is the product of peer abuse or its cause, and the scrapbook of newspaper clippings about brutal murders he carefully hides under his bed seems to bode ill for his future -- especially in light of his morbid fantasies about turning the tables on his torturers. And then he meets Eli (Leandersson), who moves into the apartment next door with her dour father, Hakan (Ragnar).

Unkempt and unsettling, Eli pointedly introduces herself by declaring she can't be Oskar's friend, though that's exactly what she becomes. Eli doesn't go to school -- or anywhere in the daylight -- is insensitive to the biting cold and as isolated as Oskar, starved for company beyond that of her father, whom we quickly realize is no such thing: He's a servant charged with securing blood for her, and he's not particularly good at it. The first time he tries he's interrupted (by a poodle, no less) before he can exsanguinate his victim, simultaneously drawing exactly the kind of scrutiny they don't need and leaving Eli to forage for her own meals, which she does with feral ferocity. Oskar knows none of this, or at least refuses to acknowledge it, and asks Eli to be his girlfriend, prompting the oddly tentative reply, "What if I weren't a girl?"

Let the Right One In is a film that could never be made in Hollywood, despite press reports that Matt (Cloverfield) Reeves' is remaking it for Overture Films and Hammer Films. Its intensely realistic violence and prickly sexuality would never fly in the US -- not when the main characters are 12, as were Hedebrant and Leandersson when it was shot. But to make Oskar and Eli older would defang a story that unfolds in the limbo between childhood and adolescence, a time of mixed signals (from within and without), bitter frustrations and, in many cases, thoughts that would shock the average adult. Eli is darkness visible, but Oskar's meek exterior is laid over a frightening interior landscape of blood and shadows. The title, taken from the Morrissey song "Let the Right One Slip In," alludes to classic vampire lore -- like the devil, they can't just come waltzing into your home without an invitation. But it's also warning about life, especially during times of transition: There are people whose influence is benevolent and enriching, and people who bring out the worst, stirring up muck that was better left down in the dark… and they don't always have "bad influence" tattooed on their foreheads. (In Swedish, with subtitles)


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My Bloody Valentine

(1981)
Directed by: George Mihalka.
Written by: John Beaird, from a story concept by Stephen Miller.
With: Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck, Keith Knight, Alf Humphreys, Cynthia Dale, Helene Udy, Don Francks, Larry Reynolds, Jack Van Evera, Peter Cowper and Rob Stein.

As is the case with so many post Halloween (1978) slasher films, there isn't much to My Bloody Valentine: The acting is pretty terrible, the build up takes forever and the stalking scenes are by-the-numbers. Here's what it has going for it: A great title, a surprisingly authentic sense of place and the killer miner, with his creepy gas-mask and that great big pickaxe.

1981, Valentine Bluffs: Mining town Valentine Bluffs, pop 3785, is preparing for its first Valentine's Day shindig in 20 years, and the young folks are totally jazzed — they're too young to remember why Valentine Bluffs treats February 14th as just another day. But the old timers are worried — they'll never forget remember the 1961 cave-in, the six bodies and the lone survivor, Harry Warden (Cowper), gnawing on a human arm. Or what Harry did exactly one year later: He dressed up in his gas mask and jumpsuit and took a pickaxe to the supervisors who skipped before their shifts ended so they could get to the Union Hall early, then stuffed their hearts into candy boxes with notes warning against ever holding another Valentine's Day dance. Sure, Harry is safely locked away in Eastfield Asylum. But why tempt fate? Then there's Mayor Hanniger's (Reynolds) son, T.J. (Kelman), who lit out for California to pursue some pipe dream and just blew back into town. His old girlfriend, Sarah (Hallier), is now dating local hotshot Axel (Affleck), but there's a spark between Sarah and T.J. that's bound to stir up trouble.

And then Chief Jake Newby (Francks) receives a valentine's candy box with a bloody heart inside. The mayor cancels the dance, Newby tries to find out what's going on with Warden and the kids decide to throw a secret party down in the mine. Can you say, "cue the running and screaming?"

Quentin Tarantino has declared My Bloody Valentine his favorite slasher movie (in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, no less), but I can't say I share his enthusiasm. The locations have an authentic blue-collar feel (it was shot in Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, where the last working mine had shut down a mere five years earlier), and it was impressively violent for its time; even before Lionsgate's 2009 DVD, which restored nearly ten minutes of footage distributor Paramount cut from the US release print, the death-by-dryer scene was just nasty. But overall I find My Bloody Valentine formulaic and more than a little dull — give me the delirious excesses of Euro-horror over the reductive linearity of slasher movies any day!


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My Bloody Valentine

(2009)
Directed by: Patrick Lussier.
Written by: Todd Farmer and Zane Smith, based on the screenplay by John Beaird, from a story concept by Stephen Miller.
With: Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Betsy Rue, Edi Gathegi, Tom Atkins, Kevin Tighe, Megan Boone, Rich Walters and Karen Baum.

And bloody is the operative word: Directed by Patrick Lussier, who actually made a pretty good movie out of the unpromising White Noise 2, this remake of the notorious 1981 slasher film is briskly paced and extravagantly gory.

February 14, 1999: The town of Harmony is thrust into unwanted prominence by a headline-ready mine accident and its gruesome aftermath. As residents prepare to celebrate Valentine's Day, Tom Hanniger (Ackles, of TV's Supernatural), whose family owns the mine that singlehandedly drives Harmony's economy, makes a rookie mistake that causes a cave-in. Five men die and the sixth, Harry Warden (Walters), is taken Harmony Memorial Hospital in a coma. Rumors that Warden murdered the others to ensure his own survival are vindicated when he wakes up and systematically murders the hospital staff, mutilating the corpses and scrawling bizarre Valentine's-related messages in their blood.

Warden then heads for the mine, where a carefree pack of young people — including Tom, soulmate Sarah Mercer (King) and their friends, Axel Palmer (Kerr) and Irene (Rue) — are having a party. By the time Warden is done, most of them are dead, and Tom is moments from being impaled on Warden's pickaxe when Sheriff Burke (Atkins) arrives and shoots to kill. Warden escapes but is presumed dead after a second tunnel collapse; Tom, blood-spattered and thoroughly traumatized, gets the hell out of town rather than endure the venomous whispers and dark glances of longtime friends and neighbors who blame him for the whole tragic affair.

Ten years later, Tom returns to Harmony: His father is dead and he's selling the mine — all he has to do is sign off and the deed is done. Unfortunately, the meeting has been postponed a few days, forcing Tom to stay in a town where everyone, from his father's longtime right hand, Ben Foley (Tighe), to former classmates, holds him in some degree of contempt. He finds Sarah married to Axel, who's now Sheriff Palmer, and Irene transformed into a self-destructive party girl who thinks nothing of striding bare-ass naked through a no-tell motel parking lot to give some loutish lover a piece of her mind. And when someone starts painting the town red with a pickaxe, Tom finds himself the number-one suspect.

Heretical though it may sound, the original My Bloody Valentine, which I saw when it in Times Square in 1981, really isn't a great movie — not even by the standards of post Halloween, holiday-themed slasher movies. In fact, it's pretty dull except when someone's getting killed or receiving a heart-shaped box with a real heart inside. Lussier's version, scripted by Todd Farmer (Jason X, The Messengers) and Zane Smith, moves along at a good clip and adds some clever variations to the theme. It's still dumb as all get out, and with each passing year I have less patience for attenuated running and screaming scenes. But Valentine 2.0 earns its "R" rating on several fronts, and in an age of PG-13 horror that alone earns my indulgence.


Night Watch (2004)

 

aka: Nochnoi Dozor
(2004)(Br) Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov.
Written by: M.b>.
With: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valery Zolotukhin, Maria Poroshina, Galina Tunina, Victor Verzhbitsky, Alexei Chadov, Zhanna Friske, Ilia Lagutenko, Rimma Mironova, Maria Mironova and Alexei Maklakov.

Writer-director Timur Bekmambetov's Watch trilogy, of which this is the first installment, has been hailed as Russia's answer to the Matrix films, and whether that's a recommendation or a warning is entirely a matter of personal taste.

The story begins in 1342 in the Languedoc region of France, an area soaked with the blood of successive religious wars. On a stone bridge, the Warriors of Light, an army dedicated to eradicating witches and sorcerers, come face to face with the Warriors of Darkness, and the ensuing battle rages until the forces of Heaven itself must intercede. A truce is brokered: Good and evil will retain equal footing in the world and have free rein to recruit human beings to their respective causes. But there will be rules, there will be balance, and there will be supervision.

The Night Watch, a consortium of benevolent clairvoyants and shape-shifters, will keep an eye on the forces of darkness. The Day Watch, a cabal of vampires and sorcerers, will fix their glowing eyes on the ranks of the virtuous. But there will come a day when the Other destinedtip the balance is born.

Flash-forward to Moscow in 1992: Jilted husband Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) visits a witch in hopes of getting back his wife, Irina (Mariya Mironova). The witch warns that Irina is already pregnant by her new lover, and that the baby will bind her to her lover. Hexing an unborn child to death is a great stain on one's soul, but Anton agrees to accept that burden right before three agents of the Night Watch burst in and interrupt the incantation. Their arrival also reveals that Anton has the sight: Not only can he see them, but he can also see snippets of the future.

Flash-forward again, to Moscow in 2004: Anton has joined the Night Watch and something awful is in the air. Moscow is assailed by freak weather and disturbing omens. A boy named Yegor (Dima Martynov) is "called" by vampires, and a curse has transformed a woman named Svetlana (Maria Poroshina) into a sort of supernatural Typhoid Mary who trails destruction from her fingertips and has inadvertently opened the Funnel of Damnation. Something wicked this way comes, and woe betide the unwary caught in its path.

Working from a novel by Sergei Lukyanenko (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Bekmambetov has fashioned a rip-roaring pulp adventure aswarm with flies, bugs and a righteous murder of crows. And while it echoes a host of CGI-heavy, action-oriented supernatural thrillers, it manages to retain its own distinct identity. Although this first chapter in a three-part tale is inevitably overburdened with back story, it ends on one hell of a cliff-hanger, anyone who thinks Russian literature is all about Tolstoy is in for quite the surprise.


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Playing With Fire

(2008)
Directed by: David DeCoteau.
Written by: Matthew Jason Walsh.
With: Susan Anton, Kelly Albanese, Kyle Jordan, Tom Sandoval, Candace Moon, Blake Hood, Carrie Southworth, Trevor Duke, Anya Monzikova, Bart Voitila and Sam Gipson.

David DeCoteau and Matthew Jason Walsh's twisty tale of bad behavior among the dirty sexy money crowd is a throwback to b-movie erotic thrillers of the 1980s, complete with faded star -- '80s golden girl Susan Anton -- and attractive young things who know they look terrific in their underwear. Spoiled little rich bitch Daphne Hendron (Kelly Albanese) resents having to share her late daddy's oil millions with her hated stepmother, hard-drinking '80s TV star Sandra Newell (Susan Anton). But otherwise she's got everything an amoral thrill seeker could want: A smoking body, the means to party hard and often and a circle of like-minded friends. Daphne and pals Charlotte (Carrie Southworth), Miles (Tom Sandoval) and Omar (Blake Hood) get their kicks by playing bisexual head games with ordinary folk, spicing up the action with jaded wagers. Daphne finally meets her match in medical student Nick Benedict (Kyle Jordan), who sees right through her manipulative moves and rebuffs her repeated advances. Never one to take defeat graciously, Daphne enlists her friends in a scheme to get to Nick by way of his fiancee, down-to-Earth nurse Heather (Candace Moon). Miles hooks her and the others reel Heather into their decadent lifestyle, allowing Daphne to play reformed bad girl: She only tells Nick about Heather's romp on the wild side because she's worried about Heather and wants to help Nick rescue her before the poor thing gets in over her head. The wary Nick doesn't buy Daphne's change of heart, but Heather genuinely is in trouble. She suffers an alcohol-induced stroke during a wild party and is rushed to the hospital, clinging to life. Or is she…? A retro mix of PG-13 naughtiness (the women never even take off their lacy bras) and cable-movie thrills that never rises above its limitations, this sleaze-and-tease mystery still manages to be surprisingly entertaining. Director DeCoteau began making this kind of picture in the '80s (often under the pseudonym Ellen Cabot), and it's oddly reassuring that there's still a place for it.


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Quarantine


Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Written by: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle
With: Jennifer Carpenter, Steve Harris, Jay Hernandez, Johnathon Schaech, Rade Serbedzija, Greg Germann.

Quarantine is a respectable, if uninspired, adaptation of Spanish filmmakers Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's [REC], a Blair Witch-style variation on zombie movie cliches that might seem fresher had it not opened after veteran George Romero's grimly pared-down Diary of the Dead.

Ambitious Angela Vidal (Carpenter, of TV's Dexter), who hosts a local Los Angeles TV show called "Night Shift," and her camerman (Harris) are doing a follow-around with firefighters Jake (Hernandez) and Fletcher (Schaech). For an increasingly restless while, it looks as though all Angela and Scott are going to take away from thwewir long night out is a lot of footage of station house hijinks: Crude sexual jokes, testosterone-driven games of basketball and handball and less-than-arresting glimpses into how firefighters kill time between calls. And then the siren goes off, and Jake, Fletcher, Scott and Angela are screaming down the late-night streets in search of a reclusive old women whom neighbors claim has been shrieking like a banshee from behind her apartment's closed door.

The police are already on the scene, the lobby is filled with restless tenants, and seer horror awaits in the rambling, ill-kempt apartment of Ms. Espinoza (veteran stuntwoman Jeannie Epper). In a matter of minutes, prorties switch from reswcuing a sad, isolated elderly woman to figuring out how she managed to tear out a cop's throat with her teeth and hurl a firfighter from a stairwell, reducing him to a puddle of broken flesh and protruding bones. Calls for help go unanswered, and the building's fron doors have been locked from the outside; effprts to find another way out are met by gun-wielding soldiers. One by one, the terrified tenants realize that they have no cable TV, internet access or phone service — they're cut off from the world, which has been made to believe they've been exacuated, and left to the slavering mervies of some super-rabies bug. The government has quarantined them with extreme prejudice in the name of the greater good.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle and co-written with his brother, Drew, Quarantine exudes a air of desperation, even if it's repetitive and could have done without then 10-odd minutes they added to the lean, mean original screenplay. The Dowdles came to Quarantine by way of the first-person serial killer picture The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which has never been released either because it's an unwatchable, amateurish rehash of worn-out psycho clichés or because it's a bone-chilling, killer's-eye-view chronicle of the darkest depths to which human beings can sink.



It's easy to see why they looked like the guys for the job and they do a thoroughly competent job, mostly by sticking really, really close to the original, something that's particularly apparent if you see them 24 hours apart, as I did.

I've never understood why so many US moviegoers regard the prospect of reading subtitles with roughly the same enthusiasm as root-canal surgery, especially when it comes to horror movies. I mean seriously, they're not dialogue heavy like, oh, My Dinner With Andre or an Ingmar Bergman picture. Screams are the international language of terror. But as long as distributors believe that the only way to make money on a non-English language horror is to remake it, we can look forward to seeing more films Like Quarantine, The Ring, The Grudge, Shutter et al. I just hope they stir up some interest in contemporary Euro- and Asian horror, if only on DVD.

That's how I saw David Moreau and Xavier Palud's Ils (2007), a top-notch home invasion picture (they went on to make the US remake of Danny and Oxide Pang's The Eye); Georgian-born, French-based Gela Babluani's icy 13 Tzameti; Xavier (Hitman) Gens' Frontiere(s) (2007) and Fabrice Du Welz's Calvaire (2004), Texas Chain Saw Massacre variations from, respectively, France and Belgium; Khazakh-born Timur (Wanted) Bekmambatov's Nightwatch (2005); Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension (2003); and Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's A l'interieur (2007), another home invasion picture whose sheer, relentless viciousness leaves The Strangers — which I liked — in the dust.

I just got Italian director Gabriele Albanesi's Il bosco fuori/Last House in the Woods (the adjective I keep hearing attached to it is "harrowing") and the Danish Vikaren/The Substitute, from Ole Bornedal (he made Nattevagten/Night Watch in 1994 and then remade it himself in the US three years later with Ewan McGregor and Nick Nolte) and I can't wait to watch them. Both came out on Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert's new Ghost House Underground label — more power to them for lending their brand to horror from abroad!


[REC]
Directors: Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza
Writers: Jaume Balaguero, Luis Berdejo, Paco Plaza
With: Manuela Velasco, Pep Sais, David Vert, Ferran Terraza.

Though not as original as filmmakers Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero seem to imagine, this short, stripped-down, first-person horror picture delivers some brutally effective shocks and gradually conjures a haunting atmosphere of ever-escalating panic and despair.

Perky, flirty Barcelona TV personality Angela Vidal Velasco), host of the low-rent human-interest series "While You're Asleep," is shadowing a crew of firefighters with her long-suffering and perpetually unseen cameraman, Pablo (voice of Sais), and the assignment is turning out to be a colossal bore. Her assigned subjects, Alex and Manu (Vert, Terraza), haven't gotten a call all night and Angela is reduced creeping around the firehouse whispering conspiratorially that right down that utterly non-descript corridor there Barcelona's bravest are catching some shut-eye on the off chance that they might be needed to rescue a lost pet, respond to a medical emergency, patch up a broken water main or even -- gasp -- fight a fire. Her relief is palpable when the alarm sounds, even if it's only a report of some old lady trapped in her apartment. At least she and Pablo will come away with something that could be construed as exciting, even if it requires deft editing.

The destination is a handsome, if rundown, apartment building whose lobby is filled with milling tenants: An old couple, a medical intern (Carlos Vicente), a quarrelsome mother (Maria Lanau) with her feverish five-year-old (Claudia Font), a vain, middle-aged gay man (Carlos Lasarte), a Japanese family, none of whom speak more than a bit of halting Spanish. They heard frantic, piercing screams from Mrs. Izquierdo's apartment — she's the resident oddball, the recluse with too many cats and not enough outside contact — and all they want is for someone to take the old hag away. You can almost hear their unspoken wish that she never come back.

The police and the firefighters break down the door to find a half naked crone, mewling and covered in blood, and then everything goes to hell: She attacks them like a rabid beast, leaving a cop with his throat half torn out; Alex sails off a staircase a few minutes later and lands in the lobby, reduced to a bloody and broken heap. Calls for back up and medical assistance go unanswered; the lobby door is locked from the outside and blandly reassuring voices periodically announce that the situation is only temporary — if everyone will just wait patiently, someone will come and get them out. Except that the building is being systematically sealed off and the surrounding streets clogged with emergency vehicles, squad cars and SWAT teams; neither cells nor landlines work, the cable is out and internet connections are gone. The dawning realization that there's some kind of super bug on the loose and they've all been forcibly quarantined with extreme prejudice sparks a Lord of the Flies devolution into a sheer, every-man-for-himself fight for survival.

Sorry there are no subtitles, but you know what? After the first ten seconds words are totally irrelevant.



The history of horror films shot to look like artless found footage dates back at least to Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980), in which a rescue team looking for a missing film crew finds nothing but the horrifying footage that charts their degradation and slaughter at the hands of a primitive Amazon tribe. Its heirs include the Belgian Man Bites Dog (1992), in which a documentary crew profiles a serial killer at work, The Blair Witch Project (1999), Gary Sherman's lacerating 39: A Film by Carroll McKane (2006), Cloverfield (2008) and many, may others. What [REC] has going for it is lean, mean remorselessness: It's in for the long grim haul from the outset, and never pulls its punches. The atmosphere of escalating bloody, sweaty, tear-stained panic is palpable and no mater how annoying Angela's transformation into a quivering, gasping mass of nerves may be, Balaguero and Plaza make sure that she's not a shallow run-and-scream girl: In the end, it's hard to imagine the average person doing any better in this particular deep end of the pool.

It's easy to see why there was a US remake in the works in no time flat… unless you stop to ask why a US distributor couldn't just have picked up [REC].

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[REC]

(2007)
Directed by: Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza.
Written by: Jaume Balaguero, Luis Berdejo and Paco Plaza.
With: Manuela Velasco, Pep Sais, David Vert, Ferran Terraza.

Though not as original as filmmakers Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero seem to imagine, this short, stripped-down, first-person horror picture delivers some brutally effective shocks and gradually conjures a haunting atmosphere of ever-escalating panic and despair.

Perky, flirty Barcelona TV personality Angela Vidal Velasco), host of the low-rent human-interest series "While You're Asleep," is shadowing a crew of firefighters with her long-suffering and perpetually unseen cameraman, Pablo (voice of Sais), and the assignment is turning out to be a colossal bore. Her assigned subjects, Alex and Manu (Vert, Terraza), haven't gotten a call all night and Angela is reduced creeping around the firehouse whispering conspiratorially that right down that utterly non-descript corridor there Barcelona's bravest are catching some shut-eye on the off chance that they might be needed to rescue a lost pet, respond to a medical emergency, patch up a broken water main or even -- gasp -- fight a fire. Her relief is palpable when the alarm sounds, even if it's only a report of some old lady trapped in her apartment. At least she and Pablo will come away with something that could be construed as exciting, even if it requires deft editing.

The destination is a handsome, if rundown, apartment building whose lobby is filled with milling tenants: An old couple, a medical intern (Carlos Vicente), a quarrelsome mother (Maria Lanau) with her feverish five-year-old (Claudia Font), a vain, middle-aged gay man (Carlos Lasarte), a Japanese family, none of whom speak more than a bit of halting Spanish. They heard frantic, piercing screams from Mrs. Izquierdo's apartment — she's the resident oddball, the recluse with too many cats and not enough outside contact — and all they want is for someone to take the old hag away. You can almost hear their unspoken wish that she never come back.

The police and the firefighters break down the door to find a half naked crone, mewling and covered in blood, and then everything goes to hell: She attacks them like a rabid beast, leaving a cop with his throat half torn out; Alex sails off a staircase a few minutes later and lands in the lobby, reduced to a bloody and broken heap. Calls for back up and medical assistance go unanswered; the lobby door is locked from the outside and blandly reassuring voices periodically announce that the situation is only temporary — if everyone will just wait patiently, someone will come and get them out. Except that the building is being systematically sealed off and the surrounding streets clogged with emergency vehicles, squad cars and SWAT teams; neither cells nor landlines work, the cable is out and internet connections are gone. The dawning realization that there's some kind of super bug on the loose and they've all been forcibly quarantined with extreme prejudice sparks a Lord of the Flies devolution into a sheer, every-man-for-himself fight for survival.

Sorry there are no subtitles, but you know what? After the first ten seconds words are totally irrelevant.



The history of horror films shot to look like artless found footage dates back at least to Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980), in which a rescue team looking for a missing film crew finds nothing but the horrifying footage that charts their degradation and slaughter at the hands of a primitive Amazon tribe. Its heirs include the Belgian Man Bites Dog (1992), in which a documentary crew profiles a serial killer at work, The Blair Witch Project (1999), Gary Sherman's lacerating 39: A Film by Carroll McKane (2006), Cloverfield (2008) and many, may others. What [REC] has going for it is lean, mean remorselessness: It's in for the long grim haul from the outset, and never pulls its punches. The atmosphere of escalating bloody, sweaty, tear-stained panic is palpable and no mater how annoying Angela's transformation into a quivering, gasping mass of nerves may be, Balaguero and Plaza make sure that she's not a shallow run-and-scream girl: In the end, it's hard to imagine the average person doing any better in this particular deep end of the pool.

It's easy to see why there was a US remake in the works in no time flat… unless you stop to ask why a US distributor couldn't just have picked up [REC].


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Rooms for Tourists/Habitaciones Para Turistas

(2005)
Directed by: Adrian Garcia Bogliano.
Written by: Adrian Garcia Bogliano and Ramiro Garcia Bogliano.
With: Elena Siritto, Jimena Kroucco, Brenda Vera, Victoria Witemburg, Mariela Mujica, Rolf Garcia Puga, Jose Santiago, Oscar Ponce, Claudia Gonzales, Leonardo Menaci and Eliana Polonara.

Argentine director/cowriter Adrian Garcia Bogliano's self-conscious throwback to the kind of gritty black-and-white gore films that used to play drive-in theaters and urban grind houses is a short, sharp shocker that gets surprising mileage out of the oldest formula in the book of the dead.

Two teenagers, high-strung Theda (Siritto), who's plagued by nightmares of a masked man and a mutilated woman, and student Elena (Kroucco), meet on a bus en route to isolated, small-town San Ramon, where they're supposed to catch a train to Trinidad. When they disembark, they meet three other girls — flighty Ruth (Vera), aspiring filmmaker Silvia (Mujica) and punky Lydia (Witemburg) — all with the same itinerary. The town is almost deserted because everyone's at Wednesday-afternoon church services, so they make a quick stop at the local general store and walk to the train station, catching a glimpse of creepy preacher Horacio (Ponce) conducting an exorcism as they pass the church.

An unwelcome surprise awaits them: The train came through early, and they're stranded in this unsettling backwater until tomorrow morning. Fortunately, brothers Nestor (Rolf Garcia Puga) and Maxi (Santiago) operate a bed-and-breakfast in the rambling house they inherited from their mother, and the stationmaster (Ponce) suggests the girls stay there. Dinner is an uncomfortable affair; they're joined by Horacio, who shares his draconian notions of guilt and retribution with the young women, and when they return to their rooms, they're all spooked by strange noises and menacing shadows. And then the screaming starts: Someone hacks Silvia to death, and the other four scramble to find a way out after realizing that the windows are bricked up and all the doors are locked from the outside.

Conventional though Rooms for Tourists may be, the scares are well executed; the blood flows freely, and the underlying motivations of both the victims and the victimizers are unusually well thought out. Bogliano, only 19 when he and his brother Ramiro began work on their debut feature, makes the most of his limited resources, and this spare, downbeat shocker shows considerable promise within the scope of its own modest ambitions.


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Slither

(2006)
Written and Directed by: James Gunn.
With: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Xantha Radley, Tania Saulnier, Dustin Milligan, Haig Sutherland and Jennifer Copping.

If your idea of fun involves zombies, monstrous physical transformations and alien slugs bent on world domination, look no further than writer and first-time director James Gunn's gleeful homage to all things gross and horrible actually makes good on the "horror comedy" label by being both flat-out creepy and darkly funny.

Little Wheelsy, who-knows-where, is the kind of town where nothing ever happens until something spectacularly awful does. Like, say, the fiery arrival of a meteor bearing some greasy, gelatinous extraterrestrial life form whose nature demands that it eat and breed in the most repellent possible ways. Its path crosses that of wealthy local businessman Grant Grant (Rooker), who's out in the woods flirting with local tart Brenda Gutierrez (James), who's far more receptive to his advances than his trophy wife, Starla (Banks). Faster than you can say "ooooh, nasty," the interstellar Jell-o has infected Grant with its not-of-this-earth DNA, rapidly mutating him into some kind of squidlike, flesh-gobbling horror.

The Grant-thing finds an unfortunate host — Brenda — to incubate an army of alien slugs that worm their way into the friendly townsfolk in the most revolting ways possible and transform them into acid-spitting, hive-minded zombies. Standing between Grant-thing's army of grossness and the world: Gutsy Starla, unflappable Sheriff Bill Pardy (Firefly and Serenity's Fillion), who's loved Starla since they were kids, and plucky teen Kylie Strutemyer (Saulnier), whose disgustingly close encounter with the slugs has given her some useful insights into what they want and how they plan to get it. "Well now, that is some fucked up shit," remarks Pardy, which just about sums matters up.

Clearly a gnre fan of the first order, Gunn (whose unpromising earlier credits include the bottom-of-the-barrel likes of Tromeo and Juliet) loads the film with in-jokes, allusions and homages to horror films ranging from obvious nods to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Blob (1958), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and They Came From Within (1976) to a subtle tip of the hat to Rosemary's Baby (1968), by way of the Castavets farm. Gunn's heart belongs to '80s masters of horror like Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Frank Henenlotter (who gets his name on a prominently displayed banner promoting the local "Deer Cheer Festival"), but he's an equal-opportunity fan who also pays his respects to the underrated Squirm (1976) and Night of the Creeps (1986); even Deadly Blessing (1981), a low-water mark in Wes Craven's career, gets its moment in the slime.


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The Strangers


Written and directed by: Bryan Bertino
With: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis and Glenn Howerton.

First-time director Bertino's no-frills thriller is a Them/Ilsthrowback to the 1970s' heyday of nasty, relentless movies in which ordinary, unsuspecting folks are trapped and terrorized by remorseless sociopaths, right down to the solemn assurance that it's based on a true story. There's nothing more to it than meets the eye, but Bertino understands the mechanics of suspense and knows how to use them.

James (Speedman) had everything planned: After proposing to his girlfriend, Kristen (Tyler), at a friend's wedding reception, he'd surprise her with champagne, candles, rose petals back at his family's isolated summer house. But Kristen said no — she's not ready for commitment— and now it's 4AM, she's in tears, he's humiliated, the trappings of fairy tale romance are just plain depressing and the night is about to get worse.

Someone starts hammering on the door; it's a girl, asking if Tamara is home. Wrong house, James says, and she melts into the darkness. Odd. Even unsettling, if you stop to wonder how the light bulb over the door come unscrewed. James goes out to get Kristen cigarettes, and while he's gone, things get seriously scary: The girl returns, still asking for Tamara; a man in a crudely-fashioned mask appears at the window, Kristen's cell phone vanishes and the landline is dead. She's is a wreck by the time James returns, and his mechanically comforting words sound awfully hollow when someone takes an ax to the front door and James discovers that his tires have been slashed. Who are the strangers, and what do they want?

Bertino's bleak and claustrophobic film resembles the recent Them/Ils (2006) and Vacancy (2007), because they're all rooted in the same murky pool of primal fears: That conscienceless killers lurk in every shadow, that no home is safe, that in an instant you can be cut off from help and forced, panicked and on the defensive, to fight for your life. Bertino isn't out to do more than push those buttons, but he hits every one and does it without making James and Kristen act like morons.


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Surveillance

(2007; reviewed at the New York City Horror Film Festival)
Directed by: Jennifer Chambers Lynch
Written by: Kent Harper and Jennifer Chambers Lynch
With: Julia Ormond, Bill Pullman, Michael Ironside, Pell James, French Stewart, Kent Harper, Caroline Aaron, Ryan Simpkins and Cheri Oteri.

"There's a killer on the road/his brain is squirming like a toad…" Fifteen years after making her directing debut with the polarizing Boxing Helena, writer-director Jennifer Lynch — yes, David Lynch's daughter — returns to the screen with this twisty tale of sex-murder, lies and videotape.

Does it break any new ground? No. But Surveillance is a taut, nihilistic, exercise in heartland desolation, and unlike most films whose success is predicated on an 11th-hour twist, it plays 100% fair with the audience: The truth is out there from the beginning, if you're willing to see it.

In the wake of a brutal home invasion that left a local man dead and his wife missing, FBI agents Elizabeth Anderson and Sam Hallaway (Ormond and Pullman) are called to a New Mexico police station to tease the truth out of two witnesses who had the misfortune to cross paths with a pair of serial killers: Smart-mouthed, compulsive liar Bobbi (James), a meth addict, and eight-year-old Stephanie (Simpkins), who lost her entire family to the killers. Both encountered the thrill killers on a desolate back road, but their stories don't mesh and the testimony of trigger-happy cop Jim Conrad (Stewart), who lost his partner (co-screenwriter Harper) in the melee, further muddies the waters. Armed with state-of-the-art video technology, Anderson and Hallaway must look past the self-serving lies and half truths to determine exactly what happened on that lonesome highway…

Lynch's second film is a nasty little piece of work that benefits from top-notch performances across the board, from veterans Ormond and Pullman to child actress Simpkins. There's nothing new here: The opening sequence will remind horror buffs of films ranging from Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) to 2007's The Strangers, and the he-said/she-said disjunction between what happened (as seen in flashbacks) and what the various compromised witnesses claim transpired is the stuff of countless brain-bending thrillers.

But what the hey: It's a twisty-turny diversion, handsomely photographed and driven by a soundtrack that includes the Violent Femmes' lacerating "Add It Up."

I don't know whether you're familiar with Quentin Tarantino's notion that when a movie uses a pop song to perfection it owns it, but I venture to say that Surveillance owns "Add It Up."

Magnolia Pictures has picked up Surveillance for Summer 2009 release and I highly recommend checking it out.


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A Tale of Two Sisters/Janghwa, Hongryeon

(2003)
Written and Directed by: Kim Ji-woon.
Written by: .
With: Im Su-jeong, Moon Geun-young (as Bae Su-yeon), Yeom Jeong-a, Kim Kab-su and Lee Seung-bi.

Korean writer-director Kim Ji-woon's psychological skin-crawler painstakingly parses the traumas that bind a widower, his teen daughters, both recently released from a mental institution, and his high-strung second wife in a suffocating web of guilt, suspicion and fear. The American remake, The Uninvited (2009), pales by comparison.

Teenaged Bae Su-mi (Im) and her younger sister, Su-yeon (Moon), return home with their father, Mu-hyun (Kim), after an absence no-one seems to dare discuss. Though spacious and located in a handsome wooded area near a lake, the house is also gloomy and subtly unwelcoming, from the oppressive, dark wood beams and floors to the wallpaper that writhes with busy, vaguely suggestive patterns. As to the atmosphere, suffice it to say that it's fraught. Mu-hyun is withdrawn and taciturn; he seems to have no idea what to say to his daughters and sleeps in his study rather than with his pretty wife, Yun-ju (Yeom). Brittle Yun-ju appears perpetually on the brink of a nervous breakdown and alternates between showering the girls with saccharine affection and treating them with icy disdain that carries a hint of potential violence. She seems to single out the tremulous Su-yeon, who creeps around like a little mouse and barely says a word to anyone but her sister. Su-mi, by contrast, seethes with barely suppressed rage that's directed equally at her father and Yun-ju; she's always spoiling for a fight, especially if she thinks Su-yeon is being persecuted. Yun-ju hosts a "welcome home" dinner party for the sisters, which they pointedly boycott; the only guests are Yun-ju's brother and his meek, wide-eyed wife. As Yun-ju recounts macabre childhood recollections in a voice ragged with hysteria, her brother claims to have no memory of the incidents and her sister-in-law suffers some kind of epileptic fit.

A Tale of Two Sisters is an exercise in psychological horror built on atmosphere and ambiguity; Kim parcels out information in tantalizing slivers and not until halfway through does it become clear that the film's chronology is fractured and its implicit narrator thoroughly unreliable — pay attention or accept responsibility for being baffled. You could even make the case that it's all nightmares in a damaged brain were it not for that throwaway scene in which Yun-ju's sister-in-law tells her husband what she saw under the sink as she lay convulsing on the floor. Kim delivers a couple of world-class scares — the kind that make you jump even when you see them coming — but the real horror lies in the way everyday slights and discontents can take root in the dark corners of a troubled mind and blossom into baroque, poisonous fleurs du mal.


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Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood

(1996)
Directed by: Gilbert Adler.
Written by: Al Katz and Gilbert Adler, from a story by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, based on the Tales From the Crypt comic books originally published by William M. Gaines.
With: Dennis Miller, Erika Eleniak, Angie Everhart, Chris Sarandon, Corey Feldman, Aubrey Morris, Phil Fondacaro, William Sadler, Ciara Hunter, Leslie Ann Phillips, Whoopi Goldberg, Juliet Reagh and the voice of John Kassir.

The second feature-length spin-off from the popular HBO series (like the first, set in a whorehouse), this vulgar, supposedly comic horror tale about vampire hookers and religious morons is just plain gross.

In thrall to corrupt televangelist Jimmy Current (Sarandon), undead bawd Lilith (Everhart) presides over a modern-day Hellfire Club where she and her blood sisters feast on the customers. Straight-laced Katherine Verdoux (Eleniak) is desperate to find her missing brother ('80s teen-icon Feldman), who was last seen in Lilith's house of bloodsucking sluts, and hires private investigator Rafe Guttman (Miller) to find him.

For all the blood and boobs, Bordello of Blood is a world-class bore: If Tales From the Crypt publisher Bill Gaines isn't spinning in his grave, it can only be because someone's already put a stake through his heart.


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Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight

(1994)
Directed by: Ernest Dickerson.
Written by: Cyrus Voris, Mark Bishop and Ethan Riff, based on the comic magazines originally published by William M. Gaines.
With: Billy Zane, William Sadler, Jada Pinkett Smith, Brenda Bakke, CCH Pounder, Dick Miller, Thomas Haden Church, John Schuck, Gary Farmer, Charles Fleischer, Tim deZarn, Sherrie Rose, Ryan Sean O'Donohue and the voice of John Kassir.

The first theatrical feature spun off from the popular HBO series Tales From the Crypt, loosely based on the notorious EC horror comics of the 1950s, Demon Knight is a live-action cartoon that's equal parts gore and smart alecky humor.

After a pun-laden introduction by the animatronic Crypt Keeper (voice of Kassir), the story revolves around a New Mexico boarding house/brothel housed in a deconsecrated church staffed by demonic hookers. Two men — Brayker (Sadler) and the Collector (Zane) — stumble onto the premises after surviving a horrific car crash; it quickly becomes apparent that they're actually supernatural adversaries locked in an eternal struggle for a key containing the blood of Jesus Christ. The brothel's various residents and clients are sucked into their conflict by the Collector's ability to tap into their darkest fears and desires.

Dickerson, Spike Lee's longtime cinematographer, keeps things moving. But ultimately Demon Knight is little more than a showcase for bare flesh and gloppy special effects.


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Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual

(2001)
Directed by: Avi Nesher.
Written by: Inez Wallace, Rob Cohen and Avi Nesher, based on the 1943 filmI Walked With a Zombie, written by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray and based on a story by Inez Wallace .
With: Jennifer Grey, Craig Sheffer, Daniel Lapaine, Kristen Wilson, Gabriel Casseus, Tim Curry, Stephen Toblowski and the voice of John Kassir.

This shamelessly coarse remake of I Walked With a Zombie stars Jennifer (Dirty Dancing) Grey as a disgraced doctor who takes a private nursing position and finds herself up to her nose job in zombies and voodoo.

New York City doctor Alice Dodgson defies her supervisor and gambles on using a new drug for off-label purposes. Her patient dies, and her license is suspended for two years. Unable to find work in the US, she accepts a job working for wealthy American expat Paul Claybourne (Sheffer), who owns a plantation in Jamaica. Claybourne needs someone to look after his ailing brother, Wesley (Lapaine), who believes he's suffering the effects of a zombie curse. Befriended by sexy local artist Caro Lamb (Wilson) and laid-back J. B.(Casseus), Alice starts thinking she could actually enjoy this exotic detour from her type-A career path… but that's before someone starts killing wealthy white folks with a machete and Alice finds evidence that a virus is spreading through the community. Is she being used as a pawn in some sinister game?

When is a Tales from the Crypt movie not a Tales from the Crypt movie? When it's Ritual, directed by exploitation veteran Avi Nesher, co-written by Rob (The Fast and the Furious) Cohen and produced by Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, who produced TV's 1989-1996 Tales from the Crypt series, Ritual was completed in 2001 and opened theatrically in Norway, The Philippines, Finland and other far-flung places before finally coming to DVD in the US. Though the box was labeled Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual and included a hokey, pun-heavy introduction featuring Kevin Yagher's animatronic Crypt Keeper (voice of Kassir), accessorized with dreadlocks and bikini-clad hotties, the film's onscreen title was still simply Ritual. No Matter what you call it, it's a derivative bore.


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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

(2003)

Directed by: Marcus Nispel.
Written by: Scott Kosar, based on a screenplay by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper.
With: Jessica Biel, Morgan Erica Leershen, Mike Vogel, Eric Balfour, Andrew Bryniarski, R. Lee Ermey and David Dorfman.

There may well be people who haven't seen the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but they probably don't want to see any Chainsaw Massacre; if they did, multiple copies and sequels are no farther away than the nearest video store.

Music video director Marcus Nispel's remake, produced by proud vulgarian Michael Bay, contains just enough pointless "twists" to give the filmmakers an answer to junket roundtable questions like, "What made you want to do a new version of this genre classic?" Like the original, this variation puts four attractive and underdressed young people plus the obligatory ugly friend through blood-spattered hell, but this time around it's as predictable as it is dull.

Two couples — sensible Erin and handsome Kemper (Biel, Balfour), plus high-strung Pepper and over-sexed Andy (Leershen, Vogel) — and the inevitable unattached prankster, Morgan (Tucker), are driving their van through Texas after a four-day vacation in Mexico. Unbeknownst to the girls, the guys picked up two pounds of marijuana south of the border, which they hid in a pinata. Between horsing around and smoking dope, the youngsters have strayed from the main road and, in a moment of inattention, nearly run down a young girl walking on the shoulder. The girl is obviously traumatized, so they pick her up; she repays their kindness by pulling a gun and blowing out her own brains all over the back of the van.

Seriously freaked, they stop at a roadside gas station/barbeque restaurant hoping to find the sheriff. The sour-faced hag behind the counter tells them to meet him out by some old deserted rust bucket or other and, being good kids, they oblige, and soon find themselves knee-deep in southern-fried psychosis. The Sheriff (Ermey) is a redneck sadist, the old man who offers to let Erin use his phone is a vengeful cripple and his son, Leatherface (Bryniarski), wastes no time skinning Kemper and impaling Andy, alive and blubbering, on a meat hook. Commence the running and screaming.

Nispel and Bay hired original Chain Saw cinematographer Daniel Pearl to underlight the film so badly you can't see any of the much ballyhooed new gore effects, and John Laroquette (yes, that John Laroquette) returns to read the film's "based on a true tale" introduction, this time with credit. But unlike Rob Zombie's grossly underrated House of 1000 Corpses 2003) or even the meat-and-potatoes ,I>Wrong TurnWRONG TURN (2003), this new 'saw is so utterly unimaginative it doesn't even count as hommage. It's just a smudgy copy of a still chilling original.


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13B

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Vikram K. Kumar.
With: R. Madhavan, Neetu Chandra, Sachin Khedekar, Poonam Dhillon, Murli Sharma, Deepak Dobriyal, Dhritiman Chatterjee.

13B, a rare example of a flat-out Indian horror movie, borrows liberally from The Amityville Horror and familiar Asian horror tropes, but having a haunted soap opera is a new wrinkle.

Civil engineer Manu (Madhavan) and his older brother, Manoj, pool their resources to buy a modern, spacious, 13th-floor apartment for their extended family: Their mother, Sushma (Dhillon); college-age sister Divya; wives Priya (Chandra) and Riya; and Manoj's two young children. Everyone's thrilled, but Manu quickly notices odd things about the new place, starting with the elevator that works for everyone but him. Milk sours mysteriously, all efforts to hang holy pictures in the prayer room end disastrously (the building porter is nearly electrocuted, and Manu hits his thumb so hard it bleeds), photos of Manu come out weirdly distorted and the normally placid guide dog belonging to their blind neighbor, Kaamdar, refuses to set foot over the threshold. But since the down payment exhausted both brothers' financial reserves, Manu chooses to ignore the troubling signs.

Then there's that new soap opera, Sab Khairiyat("All's Well"), that airs on channel 13; the women watch it initially because the remote suddenly stops working, but are quickly hooked on the story of a family that bears an eerie resemblance to their own. Manu discovers Sab Khairiyat when he happens to be home on a weekday, tuning in as the family's daughter, an indifferent student, discovers she has unexpectedly passed all her classes — with honors, yet. Moments later, Divya bursts in to tell him she's done exactly that.

Weird and about to get weirder: Everything that happens on Sab Khairiyat transpires in real life, and while some plot developments, like the pregnancy of Priya's TV equivalent, are the normal stuff of daytime dramas, others are more disturbing. Manu confides his suspicions to a friend who scoffs until Manu persuades him to see for himself; they get to 13B just as Manu's onscreen surrogate arrives home with his friend. Thank goodness the family physician, Dr. Shinde (Khedekar), is also a specialist in the supernatural!

13B, which was shot simultaneously in Hindi and Tamil (leads Madhavan and Chandra are in both versions; the remaining casts are different), is technically rough around the edges, particularly the cinematography — it has the muddy, yellowish cast of ultra-low budget exploitation films of the 1970s (which, as it happens, is when the incident that precipitates all the trouble took place). The score is standard scary-movie stuff and the plot wears its influences rather too obviously. But the Sab Khairiyat twist is inspired, a perfect example of finding terror in the familiar, and it goes a long way to compensate for 13B's liabilities. The lavish musical sequences Bollywood audiences expect clearly have no place in a genre predicated on generating nerve-jangling tension, so Kumar worked out a compromise: two montages set to songs by the popular team of Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa. A third — the utterly incongruous "Oh Sexy Mama" — gets the full treatment and runs under the closing credits. It's extremely entertaining.


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Time Crimes/Los Cronocrimes

(2007)
Written and directed by: Nacho Vigalondo.
With: Karra Elejalde, Nacho Vigalondo, Barbara Goenaga and Candela Fernandez.
In Spanish, with English-language subtitles

David Cronenberg just signed on for the English-language remake of Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo's bleak time-travel thriller. Do you need a stronger endorsement?

Painfully ordinary Hector (Elejalde) and his devoted wife, Clara (Fernandez), have recently moved to a new house, a small suburban refuge from the noisy, clamoring modern world abutted by deep, cool woods. One ordinary afternoon, Hector is sitting in the backyard with his binoculars when he spots a pretty young woman (Goenaga) removing her top amidst the bushes. With Clara off shopping for dinner, he investigates and falls down a right rabbit hole: There's a corpse (the aforementioned topless woman), a man in stained, carelessly-wrapped bandages who stabs him with a pair of scissors and a weird research facility where a sympathetic lab rat (Vigalondo) persuades Hector to hide inside some kind of freaky machine. And then he's back in the woods, except that things are subtly different…

Time-travel movies aren't generally my thing: Either they're so tediously allegorical that they bore the bejesus out of me or so convoluted that I walk away with a world-class headache (yes, I'm thinking the much-lauded Primer) and the sneaking suspicion that I've just had the wool pulled over my eyes. But I loved TimeCrimes, which keeps it simple: Hector quickly realizes what's going on and makes that fatal mistake of thinking he can fix the mistakes of the past by meddling from the future. Needless to say, his "fixes" only further complicate matters.

This is Vigalondo's feature debut, though his previous credits include the Oscar-nominated short 7:35 in the Morning (2003), and for my money, the film's success lies in Elejade's performance(s) as the various editions of everyman Hector, each subtly different from the other and blessed -- or cursed -- with a different perspective on the relationship between the recent past and the future. What he never sees is that he's the time-tripping version of the classic film noir schmuck: No matter what he does, sooner or later fate will stick out her foot and trip him up. Some critics have found the somber, not-quite ending a disappointment, but for my money it's the perfect mix of melancholy hope and quiet fatalism.


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Tromeo and Juliet

(1996)

Directed by: Lloyd Kaufman .
Written by: Lloyd Kaufman and James Gunn, based on the play Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.
With: Jane Jensen, Will Keenan, Valentine Miele, Maximillian Shaun, Tiffany Shepis, Steve Gibbons, Sean Gunn, Debbie Rochon, Lemmy Kilmister, Stephen Blackehart, Flip Brown, Patrick Connor and Earl McKoy.

A grotesque, vulgar, smirking spoof filled with jokes on such sophisticated subjects as flatulence, mutilation, vomiting, phone sex, toilets and incest. If it were half as funny as it is tasteless, Tromeo and Juliet would be good for a couple of low laughs. But it's not.

Tromeo (Keenan), son of the impoverished Que family (his dad's name is Monty, ho ho) and Juliet (Jensen), of the wealthy Capulet clan, fall in love despite the bloody feud that's divided their families since their fathers had a falling-out over the soft-core movie company they founded jointly. The basic story plays itself out more or less according to Shakespeare (until the happy ending, that is), but he would probably not have cared much for the embellishments: Juliet's nightmarish wet dreams of Fabio-esque hunks with mutant snakes for penises; Father Lawrence's (Brown) smarmy pedophilia; gratuitous nipple-piercing; Juliet's transformation into a rubbery bovine hermaphrodite; the hot girl-girl action between Juliet and her maid; and the ubiquitous Troma in-jokes, which range from conspicuously placed posters promoting various tacky Troma triumphs — Squeeze Play, Class of Nuke 'Em High, Def by Temptation et al. — to costume-party guests garbed as Toxie (aka the Toxic Avenger) and the NYPD's own Sgt. Kabukiman.

At best, it sounds funnier than it is — it's hard to imagine that the very same Janmes Gunn would one day go on to write and direct the witty, profane and very, very funny Slither (2006). That said, the theme song is damnably catchy, and celebrity trivia buffs might want to watch for Marlon Brando's son, sometime actor Stephen Blackehart, in the supporting role of Benny Que.


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Twilight


Directed by: Catherine Hardwicke
Written by: Melissa Rosenberg, based on the book by Stephanie Meyers
With: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Peter Facinelli.

There are many ways to approach Hardwicke's adaptation of Meyers' swoony novel about love and undeath in high school. Here are some of the wrong ones: As a man. As a horror buff. As an adult. The right way is as a young, sheltered teen girl, full of vague desires and unarticulated anxieties about love and sex.

Seventeen-year-old emo-girl Isabella "Bella" Swan (Stewart) loves her home in scorched, sun-bleached Phoenix, Arizona. But when her restless mom elects to follow new boyfriend Phil, a minor-league baseball player, to Florida she exiles Bella to what may just be the gloomiest place in the continental US: Her divorced dad's place in tiny Forks, Washington. For all Bella's pretensions to antisocial reclusiveness, she quickly attracts a posse of friends and would-be suitors, but only has eyes for enigmatic Edward Cullen (Pattinson, best known for his small role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), the pallid dreamboat whose blended family is the talk of the town. In fact, they'd be the talk of just about any town: Bleached-blond Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Facinella) hardly looks old enough to be out of medical school, and four of his five adopted teens are hooked up with each other: raven-haired sprite Alice (Greene) is with stolid Emmet (Lutz), and hostile blond Rosalie (Thirteen's Reed) is with skittish Jasper (Rathbone). Not illegal or anything, but weird; chalk one up to small-town rectitude that no one has placed an anonymous call to Child Protective Services.

Of course, that's not the weirdest thing about the Cullens. They're also vampires, which ought to scare the bejesus out of Bella but doesn't, because she can see deep into Edward's tragically sensitive soul. And so begins their fine romance, a push-pull thing of lingering glances, long late-night talks and exquisitely restrained kisses. The dark heart of Edward's paradoxical allure is that there's no going all the way: The Cullens may be principled vampires guided by a "friends not food" mantra, but they're still top-of-the-food chain predators, vulnerable to uncontrollable blood lust. Bella's safety rests on Edward's selfless self-denial, and what could be more thrilling?

And therein lies the key to the Twilight series' appeal to young girls dreaming of incandescent romance stripped of sexual desire's primal urgency. Generations of dreamy teen idols, from Frank Sinatra to Zac Efron, parlayed a combination of delicate, almost girlish, good looks and a soulful, wounded demeanor into the stuff of feverish adulation, but the genius of Meyers' Edward Cullen is that he's feral but defanged, a natural-born killer with a conscience. He's so besotted that he's willing to risk his hard-won soul for a look-but-don't-touch relationship with a bookish wallflower. Don't get it? Sorry, you've been around the block one time too many, which is to say at least once.

Hardwicke's teens-gone-wild horror tale, Thirteen (2003), oozes a frightening sense of panic and confusion: For all the tarty posturing and reckless drugging, it's less about raging hormones than the desperate need to be allied with the in-crowd. That Twilight lacks its dangerous intensity isn't a flaw: Thirteen may have been sensationalized, but it tapped into some ugly truths about the dangerous years between childhood and maturity. Twilight is pure fantasy, emphasis on the pure; it's a soft-focus reverie for girls who want to be Disney princesses and have their bad boys, too... as long as the bad boys are models of tormented self-restraint.

Understand that — and you don't have to, because millions of Twi-hards already do — and its only mistake is employing shockingly shoddy special effects to evoke the frightening strength, speed and resilience of vampires. The sight of Edward scuttling up a tall pine like a spider monkey is comical, not thrillingly unheimlich, and would break the movie's spell were its target audience not primed to surrender unconditionally.

Twilight gives a wide berth to the genuine creepiness embraced by the Swedish vampire romance Let the Right One In, and couldn't be less interested in plumbing the raw perversity of Catherine Breillat's 1975 A Real Young Girl, a movie so discomfiting that it spent nearly a quarter of a century gathering dust. The only real comparison is the 2007 Blood and Choclolate, a teen werewolf fantasy that opened without fanfare and quickly slunk out of theaters with its hairy tail between its legs. Blood and Chocolate strayed from Annette Curtis Klause's popular novel, and its abject failure suggests that when it comes to adapting popular young-adult properties, it pays to stick close to the book or risk the wrath of fans. Hardwicke and screenwriter Rosenberg appear to have taken that lesson to heart.


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The Unborn

(2009)
Written and Directed by: David S. Goyer.
With: Odette Yustman, Gary Oldman, Meagan Good, Cam Gigandet, Idris Elba, Jane Alexander, Atticus Shaffer, James Remar and Carla Gugino.

Though she lost her mother to suicide following a long battle with mental illness, Casey Beldon (Yustman, of Cloverfield) is a normal, upper-middle-class Chicago college student. She has a handsome boyfriend (Gigandet, one of Twilight's bad vampires); a bubbly best friend (Good); and a doting father (Remar). Then the dreams begin: a deformed, living fetus in a jar; a dog wearing a human mask; a zombie child with unnaturally blue eyes.

Casey isn't superstitious and she's too well-adjusted to freak out over silly things like nightmares; she even keeps her cool when young Matty (Shaffer, poised to corner the market in creepy kids for the next couple of years), the neighbor child she babysits, starts going all Damien on her, standing balefully outside her window, muttering vaguely threatening things and eventually hauling off and smacking her in the face with a pocket mirror.

It's when Casey finds one of her brown eyes turning blue that she starts to worry, and a trip to the doctor (Lee, the pervy pathologist of TV's Dexter) raises more questions than it answers. He asks whether she's a twin, and suggests that DNA mixing in utero might be behind the unusual pigmentation. To her astonishment, Casey learns from her dad that the answer is yes: She had a fraternal twin brother who died before birth.

And from there it's down a rabbit hole that leads to the grandmother she never knew, Dr. Mengele's concentration camp experiments, and the legend of the dybbuk, an unquiet spirit born of Jewish folklore but more than happy to possess dumb Americans who know everything about social networking and nothing about how to find a rabbi with demon-banishing experience.

The Unborn is the first original project from Michael Bay's Platinum Dunes company, which remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hitcher, The Amityville Horror and the upcoming Friday the 13th, though "original" is a relative term. Writer-director David S. Goyer’s screenplay borrows heavily from The Exorcist (including a spiffy twist on the famous "spider walk," the scene that scared the bejesus out of me when I read the novel as an impressionable teenaged babysitter) and various Asian horror films featuring child ghosts; the film's muddy, grayish-green palette is a Platinum Dunes hallmark; and once again, on top of everything else, those damned Nazis shoulder the blame for opening a Pandora's box of supernatural freakiness on the world.

Goyer stages some efficient suspense sequences, but by the time the inevitable and admirably interdenominational exorcism rolls around, the film has succumbed to unintentional silliness.

This review first appeared in a slightly different form in Film Journal International


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Underworld

(2003)
Directed by: Len Wiseman.
Written by: Danny McBride, from a story by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride..
With: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Michael Sheen, Shane Brolly, Bill Nighy, Erwin Leder, Sophia Myles, Robbie Gee, Wentworth Miller, Kevin Grevioux, Zita Gorog, Dennis Kozeluh, Scott McElroy, Todd Schneider, Sandor Bolla and Hank Amos.

Len Wiseman's revisionist horror tale is so clotted with back story that its central Romeo and Juliet-style tale of the romance between a warrior vampire and a reluctant werewolf never has a chance to breathe. Set in an alternate world in which vampires walk among us, armed to the teeth and locked in a 600-year war with the lycans (short for lycanthropes — werewolves — but which has the misfortune to sound like "lichens," one of several indications that the screenplay was penned by writers who don't have much feel for language), the film is all look and no bite. It is, however, steeped in recent horror lore and features liberal borrowings from The Howling (1981), Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Marvel's Blade comics and various role-playing games.

Sleek, black-clad Selene (Beckinsale) is a "death dealer," a vampire trained to hunt down and kill lycans. She takes her marching orders from Kraven (Brolly), current head of the vampire clan founded by Viktor (Nighy); Kraven's authority is rooted in the fact that he killed Lucian (Sheen, of Frost/Nixon and The Queen), the lycan whose transgressions started a centuries-old blood feud. Selene neither likes nor trusts Kraven, and she is concerned about a flurry of lycan activity that seems to be focused on a mere mortal named Michael Corvin (Speedman). It seems especially inauspicious given that the vampires are gathering for an awakening ceremony, after which clan control will be handed to an elder roused from hundreds of years of hibernation. Against Kraven's orders, Selene investigates matters and winds up rescuing Michael from the lycans, though she's too late to stop him being bitten.

Though Selene and Michael's forbidden romance is apparently meant to lie at the movie's heart, it's too underdeveloped to amount to much dramatically. Not that it's hard to see why Michael prefers Selene to the lycans, who look as though they're auditioning for a Spinal Tap cover band, skulk in sewers and, in any event, all seem to be men. And it's hard to imagine anyone not falling in love with the PVC-clad Beckinsale; even among the ranks of the vampires, who seem to spend most of their time swanking around in black and red goth-rocker ensembles, she's a knockout. But handsome though the film is — the Budapest locations are particularly atmospheric — the story is strangled by long, long speeches about bloodlines, customs, alliances, feuds, battles and ceremonies: It's like The Mahabharata for monster-movie geeks, minus the authentic epic power. The story continues in Underworld: Evolution and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.


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Underworld: Evolution

(2006)
Directed by: Len Wiseman.
Written by: Danny McBride, from a story by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride.
With: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Bill Nighy, Derek Jacobi, Tony Curran, Brian Steele, Shane Brolly, Steven Mackintosh, Zita Gorog, Scott McElroy, John Mann, Michael Sheen, Sophia Miles, Rich Cetrone and Mike Mukatis.

This silly but stylish sequel to Underworld (2003) picks up where the first film left off and offers more of the same: Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style monster slaying crossed with Matrix-inspired gun play, complete with wire work and whooshing leather dusters.

The centuries-old war between the vampires and their former werewolf slaves, the Lycans, continues to rage and blood-sucking "death dealer" Selene (Beckinsale), is now on the run from her fellow vampires. She's marked because she uncovered a plot by the undead Kraven (Brolly) to assume control of his coven through a secret alliance with the Lycans and the dastardly murder of powerful vampire elder Viktor (Nighy), when she accidentally discovered that it was Kraven, not bestial lycans, who slaughtered her family 600 years ago. Selene's only reliable ally is Michael (Speedman), a powerful but inexperienced lycan-vampire hybrid whose very existence is a threat to the future of both races. Selene's only hope is to awaken the hibernating vampire elder, Marcus (Curran), the first of his breed and twin to the first lycan, William (Steele), a ravening beast who's been imprisoned in a secret location for centuries. Unbeknownst to Selene, however, Marcus is already awake, thanks to some blood carelessly spilled over his sarcophagus, and he's looking for Selene, not to help but to drink her memory-enriched blood and absorb the secret only she knows: the location of William's prison.

Desperate to make sense of the wasp's nest they've stirred up, Selene and Michael turn to vampire historian Tanis (Mackintosh), who's been partying in the disgraced exile of a moldy monastery for the past few hundred years with a pair of vampire lingerie models. But Tanis only knows so much; the rest can be revealed only by one Lorenz Marcaro (Jacobi), whose connection to both William and Marcus is far deeper than Selene could ever have imagined.

From the complicated back story and episodic plotting to the ludicrous emphasis on eye-popping action sequences — no-one simply walks into a building if he or she can drive a truck through it — the Underworld films' debt to the outsized iconography of comic books is evident. But the same ingredients that make this sequel appealing to fans of 2003's Underworld make it rough sledding for newcomers: The insanely complicated mythology will make zero sense to anyone who hasn't seen the first film… in fact, it will baffle anyone who hasn't seen underworld more than once and taken notes. That said, the PVC-clad Selene is a more convincing action heroine than Lara Croft and Aeon Flux put together: An unruly daughter who rebelled against the corrupt vampire patriarchy, she's got serious reasons to kick serious ass. And that fairly explicit sex scene seems designed to plant the seed — pun entirely intended — that will blossom into Underworld 3.


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Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

(2009)
Directed by: .
Written by: Danny McBride, from a story by Kevin Grevioux, Len Wiseman and Danny McBride..
With: Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Rhona Mitra, David Ashton, Steven Mackintosh, Kevin Grevioux, Peter Tate, Alexander Carroll and Olivia Taylforth.

The third Underworld is a prequel that dissects the origin of the ancient rivalry between vampires and werewolves, which is rooted in the fact that both trace their bloodlines to 16th-century plague-survivor Alexander Corvinus, whose blood spawned two kinds of immortals: The decadent, arrogant vampires and the primitive, downtrodden wolfmen they enslaved.

For centuries, the vampires had the upper hand: Led by the imperious Viktor (Nighy), they enslaved the bestial lycans — savage, vaguely humanish wolves who lacked the ability to shape shift (which begs the question, "what makes them lycanthropes?" but never mind that for now) — and made them an unwilling army of janissaries: literal watch dogs who lived and died to protect their masters as they slept during daylight hours.

And then came Lucian: Uber-vampire Viktor (Nighy) found him, the 100% human-looking spawn of a lycan bitch, in a fetid dungeon and made the fateful decision to spare the infant's life. Viktor used Lucian's blood to create a generation of true, shape-shifting lycanthropes blessed with human intelligence but kept from assuming lupine form by cruel collars. Boot-to-the-throat governance being the perilous proposition it is, the grown Lucian (Sheen, who spends half the film half naked and obviously logged some serious gym time), Viktor's emasculated lapdog, inevitably rebels, first testing the boundaries through a forbidden, erotically charged liaison with Viktor's wayward daughter, Sonja (Mitra) — who happens to look uncannily like Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale, conspicuously absent from Rise of the Lycans), who, centuries later, will be the agent of Viktor's destruction — and then embraces his destiny as the alpha dog who incites his fellow wolf men to all-out rebellion.

Think of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans as Spartacus with Sheen as the Thracian rebel and Nighy as Roman politician Crassus, crossed with Romeo and Juliet. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans is nothing if not forthright about its (barely) subtext, from pallid uber-WASP Viktor telling the subservient Lucian that he's "a credit to his race" to Lucian's impassioned appeal to both Lycans and human chattel.

But when all is said and done, all three Underworld films are so choked with back story that they feel like homework for some quiz that never materializes, and first-timers will almost certainly feel thoroughly out of the loop at Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.


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The Uninvited

(2009)
Directed by: Charles Guard and Thomas Guard.
Written by: Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard, based on the motion picture Changhwa, Hongryon, written by Kim Jee-Woon.
With: Emily Browning, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin McNulty, Jesse Moss, Dean Paul Gibson and Maya Massar.

It's hard to believe it took two directors, British brothers Charles and Thomas Guard, and three screenwriters to make this vapid remake of Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-woon's insidiously unnerving A Tale of Two Sisters/Janghwa, Hongryeon (2003).

Adolescent Anna (Browning) tried to kill herself after her ailing mother died in a freak fire. After nearly a year of therapy at a private institution, Anna still can't remember the details of that awful night, but her psychiatrist declares her ready to return home and pick up her life. But is she? Her novelist father, Steven (Strathairn), whose newest book, the portentously titled "Repose of Sand," has just been published, is delighted to have her back in the family's sunny waterfront home. Older sister Alex (Kebbel), a smart-mouthed ball of teenaged fury, cops an attitude and accuses Anna of having deserted her. But they're quickly united in mutual dislike of Rachel Summers (Banks), the pretty, blonde nurse Steven hired to look after his bedridden wife. Rachel, seethes Alex, wasted no time weaseling herself into their dad's affections, but damned if she's is going to make it easy for that disingenuous gold digger to graduate to step-mom.

Where Alex is angry, Anna is afraid: She's been having nightmares about a little dead redhead since the fire, but now she's seeing the girl when she's awake, hissing scary, if vague, things like "You're next!" She's seeing her mom too, all corpsey and gross. The dead folks are clearly trying to warn her about something in the infuriatingly oblique manner favored by movie ghosts. Could it be Rachel? What if the fire wasn't an accident… what if Rachel set it and, having gotten Steven's inconvenient wife out of the way, is now planning to dispose of his hostile children?

The Uninvited builds to the kind of double twist ending that either recasts everything that precedes it in a chilling new light or feels like the worst kind of cheat. In this case it's the latter, and that's true even if you haven't seen the original. It's worse if you have: The nightmarish revelation to which Kim's movie builds isn't a one-shot horror but the fact that the Bae family was a festering swamp of dark secrets and repressed desires long before the incident that shattered everyone involved. This version is just a bogey tale, and an obvious one at that.


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White Noise

(2005)
Directed by: Geoffrey Sax.
Written by: Niall Johnson.
With: Michael Keaton, Chandra West, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice, Sarah Strange, Nicholas Elia, Mike Dupold, Marsha Regis and Brad Shivon.

Unquiet spirits whispering traditional cryptic messages from beyond through modern-day gadgets provide the gimmick behind this atmospheric but deeply stupid thriller in which grieving widower Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) submerges himself in the spooky world of EVP — electronic voice communication with the dead. Given the deeply ominous credits sequence, which features everyday household objects brutally distorted by ear-scraping bursts of static and electronic distortion, it would take a slow-witted viewer not to know Seattle-based architect Rivers' domestic bliss is doomed. He's successful, amicably divorced from the first wife (Sarah Strange) with whom he shares custody of their cutie-pie son (Nicholas Elia), and happily remarried to beautiful, newly pregnant novelist Anna (Chandra West). When she drives off on an uncharacteristically bright, bright, sunshiny day, smiling beatifically, it's a foregone conclusion she won't be back. Her body is subsequently fished from the water near an unused pier and the verdict is accidental death, predicated on the odd assumption that she slipped while changing a flat tire and her corpse was washed upriver from the spot where her car was found. Jonathan is a rational man and disinclined to give credence to the portly stranger, Raymond Price (Ian McNeice), who appears one day claiming Anna has contacted him. But he's also disconsolate and eventually succumbs to Raymond's insistence that the dead use existing electronic frequencies and devices — cell phones, TV sets, radios — to communicate with their loved ones. Raymond, a true believer who helps guide others through the ups and downs of EVP, introduces Jonathan to Sarah Tate (Deborah Kara Unger), who's looking for word from her late fiancé. In the blink of an eye Jonathan is a man possessed, abandoning work to sit up all night surrounded by TV monitors, VCRs and computer equipment, becoming convinced that Anna wants him to use his newfound connection with the dead to help the living and blithely ignoring warnings that when you open a door to the other side you can't control who walks in. U.K. writer and director Niall Johnson and Geoffrey Sax work up plenty of eerie ambience, but the tone of haunted ambiguity evoked by Sarah's dreamy admission that, having discerned the word happy in what appears to be her late fiancé's voice, she's heard what she "wanted to hear" is steamrolled flat by Jonathan's increasingly preposterous, thoroughly credibility-straining escapades.


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White Noise 2

(2007)
Directed by: Patrick Lussier.
Written by: Matt Verne.
With: Nathan Fillion, Katee Sackhoff, Craig Fairbrass, Adrian Holmes, Kendall Cross, Teryl Rothery, William MacDonald, Joshua Ballard, David Milchard and Tegan Moss.

Patrick Lussier's in-name-only, direct-to-DVD sequel to 2005's White Noise is a surprisingly effective psychological thriller driven by Lussier's assured direction and star Nathan (Firefly) Fillion's affecting portrayal of a family man cruelly robbed of his family.

In one blood-spattered moment, commercial designer Abe Dale (Fillion) loses everything that made his life worth living. As he's enjoying a casual anniversary breakfast at a local diner with his wife and small son (Cross, Ballard), a mad man with a gun calmly walks up to their table, kills Dale's family and then turns the gun on himself. Dale spends the next several months trying to numb his grief and guilt with alcohol and prescription pills, but nothing helps. He loses interest in his work, withdraws from his friends — including longtime business partner, Marty Bloom (Holmes) — and sinks into a spiraling depression that culminates in attempted suicide.

Hauled back from the brink of death by a dedicated ER team, led by Dr. Karros (MacDonald), Dale begins to see an aura around certain people, and soon realizes that they all die shortly after. Karros happens to be versed in EVP &mdeash; communication with the dead via the white noise generated by electronic devices — and tells Dale that people who've survived near-death experiences seem especially receptive to such messages. Haunted by his inability to save the people he loved most, Dale tries to compensate by rescuing strangers whose fates he alone can see. Dale's efforts are successful: He alters the destinies of several people, one of whom turns out to be widowed nurse Sherry Clarke (Battlestar Galactica's Sackhoff), who looked after Dale during his hospitalization. United by their respective losses, they embark on a tentative relationship. Then Dale makes a shattering discovery: The man who killed his wife and child was neither a total stranger nor a deranged street person. Henry Caine (Fairbrass), a model citizen until he survived his own near-death experience, crossed paths with Dale's family three days before the murders. What Dale discovers about Caine's efforts to thwart fate puts everything he himself has done into a horrifying new light.

White Noise 2 (also referred to as White Noise 2: The Light) is the rare follow up that's actually better than the first film. Though Matt Venne's screenplay gets bogged down in supernatural mumbo jumbo, there's a potent human dilemma at its core; Lussier both keeps things moving and gives Fillion room to develop a subtle, thoroughly believable portrayal of a man who survives what he thinks is the worst thing that will ever happen to him and then discovers there's worse in store.


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The White Reindeer/Valkoinen peura

(1952)
Directed by: Erik Blomberg.
Written by: Mirjami Kuosmanen and Blomberg.
With: Mirjami Kuosmanen, Kalervo Nissila, Ake Lindman, Jouni Tapiola, Arvo Lehesmaa, Heimo Lepisto, Pentti Irjala, Aarne Tarkas and Inke Tarkas.

Set in Finnish Lapland, this odd mix of folk tale, anthropological fantasy and horror story received both a Golden Globe Award and a prize at the Cannes Film Festival for the best "Mythical Film."

In a silent prologue accompanied by a traditional "sounding song," a pregnant woman makes her way through the snow and bitter winds to an isolated Sami village and dies immediately after giving birth to a daughter. The child's descendents will all be tainted with the "curse of the midnight sun."

In the present day, bold, spirited Pirita (co-writer Kuosmanen, filmmaker Blomberg's wife) shows off her skills in a sled race, winning the heart of Aslak (Nissila). Aslak asks for and receives her hand in marriage, but Pirita soon tires of her new husband's aloofness and long absences as he grazes the tribe's vast reindeer herd in far-flung fields. She appeals to shaman Tsalkku-Nilla (ehesmaa) for a spell that will keep Aslak close, nothing the sage hasn't done dozens — if not hundreds — of times before for neglected brides. He advises her to sacrifice the doe Aslak gave her as a pet and mix its blood with earth from the reindeer graveyard.

But Pirita carries the midnight sun curse, and the spell goes powerfully awry; she becomes an irresistible siren with the power to transform herself into a vicious white reindeer and kill any hunter brash enough to follow her into the deep tundra. The villagers grow increasingly frightened as one man after another is lured to his death, and rumors that the legendary white reindeer is responsible run rife. Pirita, meanwhile, is horrified at what she has become — more so because she's newly pregnant — and terrified that she may kill Aslak.

Veteran cinematographer Blomberg made his directing debut with this unusual film, which unfolds against a backdrop of glittering snow drifts and spindly trees so weighted down with snow that they look like Dr. Suess drawings. Though often awkward, the film includes a handful of images so haunting that they linger long after the film is over, including the eerie reindeer cemetery, a forest of forlorn antlers poking up through the snow, or the moment when Pirita glimpses herself in a mirror, her teeth transformed into wolfish fangs. A must-see for horror completists, and one of the few films to explore Sami folkloric traditions.


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Wolves of Wall Street

(2002)
Directed by: David DeCoteau.
Written by: Barry L. Levy.
With: William Gregory Lee, Eric Roberts, Jeff Branson, Michael Bergin, Jason Shane Scott, John Paul Lavoisier, Will Keenan, Elisa Donovan, Louise Lasser, and Bradley Stryker.

David DeCoteau's homoerotic horror picture features a literal pack of studly young men out to make a killing in finance… and elsewhere.

Small town boy Jeff Allen (Lee) comes to New York with big dreams of being a hotshot Wall Street broker, but can't get his foot in the door until friendly bartender Annabella (Donovan) recommends him to financial alpha dog Dyson Keller (Roberts) of Wolfe and Associates. Keller takes him on as an apprentice. Jeff is thrilled, but the culture at Wolfe starts to get to him. The sleek, handsome young brokers are all ruthless, hedonistic and slavishly devoted to Keller; they refer to themselves as a pack, snack on steak tartare and spend their nights prowling for girls together. Jeff has more conventional ambitions: He just wants to make some money and build a life with Annabella. But after a wild night out with his coworkers — a night he can hardly remember — something changes deep inside Jeff. He begins to feel a bestial ferocity he doesn't recognize and isn't sure he can control. The deep dark secret of Wolfe's is out: They're werewolves, and now that they've let Jeff into their little club, they're not about to let him out.

Like all DeCoteau's Rapid Heart features, this film's raison d'etre is shots of well-built young men stripped to their underwear and feigning interest in girls. The story is minimal, there are no werewolf transformations and there's no sex, unless you count the sequences in which Wolfe's finest rip off their own t-shirts and swarm hard-bodied girls in tight dresses. All tease, no payoff.


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Zombie Strippers!

(2008)
Writte and Directed by: Jay Lee.
With: Robert Englund, Jenna Jameson, Roxy Saint, Joey Medina, Shamron Moore, Penny Drake, Jennifer Holland, John Hawkes, Jeannette Sousa, Whitney Anderson and Carmit Levite.

Strippers become zombies and customers eat them up, figuratively speaking. If you're being literal, it's the other way around in Jay Lee's blood-soaked horror satire, which is neither as smart as it should have been nor as brutally dumb as it could have been.

In the not-too-distant future, military scientists have developed a virus that reanimates the dead, providing cannon fodder for wars around the world. Naturally there's a catch: Zombified women retain their intelligence, while men become the shambling eating machines of popular movie myth. And of course, viruses have a way of getting loose, regardless of government assurances to the contrary, especially viruses with such baroquely dire consequences as, say, reanimating the dead. And so great military minds came up with the idea of Z-Squads, elite units whose sole job is to contain zombie outbreaks like the one that just occurred at a military medical facility in Sartree, Nebraska.

All Z-warriors know the drill: Shoot 'em in the head and for God's sake, don't get bitten. No one has to spell out the consequences, but Lieutenant Byrdflough (Kilberg) knows to flee when he falls afoul of an undead snapper. As it happens, there's a strip club nearby, and that's where Byrdflough takes refuge when he begins to succumb to the virus. As he deteriorates, we meet the Club Rhino family: Owner Ian Essko (Englund, who played a similar role in the "Masters of Horror" episode Dance of the Dead); den mother Madame Blavatski (Levite); top ecdysiast Kat (Barbie-doll porn star Jameson); jaded beta-strippers Lilith and Gaia (Saint, Anderson); and neophyte Berenge (Sousa), who just wants to make some cash and stay out of the backstage drama. The reanimated Byrdflough eventually attacks Kat, whose first move after she comes back, covered with gore, is to sneer, "I'm gonna dance." And dance she does; the other girls soon realize that dying has made her the best stripper ever: Customers are lining up for lap dances in the VIP room, even though no one ever comes back from a private session with the infernal Miss K. All Club Rhino's strippers are faced with a grim decision: Join the zombie herd or cling to their humanity.

"Club Rhino?" "Ian Essko?" You've got to be kidding. And yes, Lee is, is a super snarky kind of way: Zombie Strippers! takes its inspiration from Eugene Ionescu's absurdist parable about collective psychosis, conformity and the price of bucking the status quo, substituting the undead for lumbering rhinoceroses, and the proof is in the in jokes. Warning: Don't try to crib for Existentialism 101 by watching Lee's spoof, co-produced with his sister Angela. But on its own low-bar terms, it delivers the goods: pole-dancing, gut-chomping and Jenna J shaking her moneymaker.


 


Day Watch, aka Dnevnoy Dozor

 

Year: 2006 Rated R Parental Rating: Cautionary; some scenes objectionable Country Of Origin: Russia Running Time: 103 Format: Color Genre(s): Fantasy; Horror Production Co(s).: Baselevs Production; Channel One Russia; Tabbak Film Released By: Fox Searchlight Pictures Also Known As: User Rating: (2 ratings) Add Your Rating: Cast Konstantin Khabensky: Anton Gorodensky Maria Poroshina: Svetlana Dima Martynov: Yegor Galina Tyunina: Olga Vladimir Menshov: Geser Viktor Verzhbitsky: Zavulon Zhanna Friske: Alisa Alexei Chadov: Kostya Valery Zolotukhin: Kostya's Father Rimma Markova: Darya, the Old Witch Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev: Zoar Aleksey Maklakov: Semen Aleksandr Samoylenko: Bear Gosha Kutsenko: Ignat Irina Yakovleva: Galina Rogova Egor Dronov: Tolik Nikolay Olyalin: The Inquisitor Anna Slyu: Tiger Cub Igor Lifanov: The Parrot

Writer-director Timur Bekmambetov's second go at Sergei Lukyanenko's trilogy of horror fantasies is just as entertaining as his first, NIGHT WATCH (2004), and picks up a few years after the first film left off. First, the mythology: The forces of light and darkness forged a truce in the 14th century, giving each equal footing on earth and free reign to recruit human souls to either side. Two consortiums — the Night Watch, made up of benevolent supernatural beings, and the Day Watch, comprising their darker brethren — will keep an eye on each other's activities and maintain the status quo. But one day, two "Great Others" will be born: Should they meet, all-out war will erupt, with disasterous consequences for the world's puny humans. Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), an agent of the Night Watch, is the father of one of these cosmic tie-breakers — adolescent Yegor (Dima Martynov), who has allied himself with vampire Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky), a major Day Watch player. Anton is also the diffident suitor of the other tie-breaker, trainee Night Watch enforcer Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina). It's a sticky position to be in, though Anton has matured greatly from the first film, in which he discovered his part in the metaphysical mayhem and rose to the challenge of trying to contain it. Zavulon (Victor Verzhbitsky), true to his nature, is doing his damnedest to create chaos, aided by punked-out sorceress Alisa (Russian rock star Zhanna Friske), whose great weakness is her love for fledgling vampire Kostya (Aleksei Chadov). As Zavulon prepares a huge birthday celebration for Yegor, Anton is sidetracked by the quest for the Chalk of Fate, which allows the person who possesses it to change his or her fate by writing with it. The chalk has been hidden since the time of Central Asian warrior-king Tamerlane in a monastery in Samarkand in northern Iran, but the Night Watch has reason to believe it's no longer there. Further complicating matters, Anton has been framed for a truce violation and must hide from the Day Watch by switching bodies with his colleague and former partner Olga (Galina Tyunina). And there's more — much, much more. Intricate though the plot is, Bekmambetov's gleefully hyperbolic, go-for-broke directing style almost overwhelms it. And that's not really a criticism: The film is a Catherine wheel, spinning and throwing off sparks in so many directions that without the director's sheer delight in near chaos, the story could easily bog down in its mix of cumulative incident and complicated interpersonal drama. But with Bekmambetov at the helm, it's a high-energy blast. (In Russian and Chagatai)