The ABCs of Death, an anthology of 26 short films about people being killed in spectacularly gruesome, farcical, and universally disgusting ways, is scary in a way its makers may not have anticipated: it shows how deeply uninspired and visionless horror-movie filmmaking has become.
Ever since the genre stopped caring about bottling the sensation of fear in favor of shock and gore, it’s gotten away from true horror, a format that works best when deeply invested in the psychology of fear. Movies like the Saw franchise and its various torture-porn imitators have become less and less interested in messing with their audience’s brains than moving the goalpost of the grotesque ever further, an objective that ensures obsolescence. There are only so many severed limbs and plucked eyeballs you can see before you’re irrevocably desensitized. What haven’t we seen that could still shock us? The list of possibilities grows smaller and smaller. Tom Six actually managed to horrify us in a whole new way with The Human Centipede, but even that nightmare concept became commercialized, sequelized, and stale.
Twenty-seven directors, all supposedly luminaries in the horror movie world, were brought in to film two-to-four minute segments for The ABCs of Death, in an attempt to show the diversity the genre still posseses. Sadly, rather than expand the parameters of horror, these twenty-seven filmmakers mostly converge on the same tropes. There are three conditions for each short: they must begin and end on an image of red (guaranteeing that at least half of the shorts begin and end with a shot of blood), there must be one death, and they must correspond to a letter of the alphabet — meaning we get titles like “F is for Fart,” “L is for Libido,” and “W is for WTF.” That ensures the audience will experience acute B for Boredom on account of L for Laziness.
Anyone who’s made short films can tell you that cinematic storytelling in under 10 minutes tends toward heightened emotions, with narrative twists that seek to compress a feature’s worth of sensation into a tiny window. Add a requisite horror element and you get a succession of Jack in the Box effects. “D is for Dogfight” is transgressive, I suppose, in its depiction of a man graphically biting a dog, but it's diminished because, in the end, that short is entirely about how transgressive it is. And most of these films are just wafer-thin hooks for startling images. The opening salvo of a segment, “A is for Apocalypse,” about a wife taking care of her bedridden husband who reaches a drastic decision regarding his care, should play like a more gruesome version of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Instead it is robbed of any resonance because director Nacho Vigolondo provides no context to the couple's relationship.
However, the filmmakers here who successfully answer the question “What can still scare us?” locate that answer where great artists before them did: in real-world fears. Eli Roth’s Hostel movies stand as credible horror unlike the Saw flicks because they tap a uniquely insular (and uniquely American) fear of the rest of the world beyond the United States. In The ABCs of Death Hobo with a Shotgun auteur Jason Eisener does just that in “Y is for Youngbuck,” which translates a very real fear of childhood sexual abuse into cathartic revenge.
Similarly Simon Rumley’s “Pressure” taps a mother’s uncertainty about how to provide for her children, and shows just how far she is willing to go to support them. Lee Hardcastle’s “T is for Toilet” finds horror in what used to be an old standby in the heyday of Polanski: plumbing, and its function of keeping us blissfully unaware of where excrement goes. Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), possibly the most original American horror maestro of the last decade, dives deep into the realm of body horror with “M is for Miscarriage,” as do Amer masterminds Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet with the ode to David Cronenberg “O is for Orgasm.”
These shorts are the ones that actually get inside our heads. If our brains are our biggest erogenous zone, so is it also the nexus of our fears. Not our stomachs, nor our adrenal glands. That’s why you need story to fuel and contextualize the greatest scares. Without story giving context to sex, you’ve got YouPorn. Without story giving context to horror, you’ve got much of The ABCs of Death.
What did you think of the film? Let Christian Blauvelt know on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Drafthouse Films]
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With stories like this who even needs the “Inspired by true events” shield? Primeval tells of the world’s most prolific killer Gustave. You see Gustave is a crocodile and he remains at large to this day. His thirst for human blood goes unpublicized until he chows down on a white woman at which point an American newsman Tim Manfrey (Dominic Purcell) his cameraman Steven (Orlando Jones) and TV personality Aviva (Brooke Langton) head down to Burundi Africa where they hope to document the capture of Gustave. They’re joined by a wildlife preservationist of sorts (Gideon Emery)—a rare breed in a post-Steve Irwin world—who doesn’t want to harm Gustave. The deep jungles of Africa become a veritable obstacle course when the locals embroiled in a long-standing civil war and unwilling to have some damn Yankees televising their homeland stand in the crew’s way not to mention Gustave proving an evasive 20-foot-long um little bugger! The names might not ring a bell but you’ve seen these three stooges before--all on TV in fact. Purcell is currently enjoying about half the 15 minutes of fame of Wentworth Miller on Fox’s slipping Prison Break. Purcell plays Tim with steel and virility as he hides his Aussie accent for the most part but he’s still got a ways to go to reach Clive Owen’s caliber of acting--and more importantly Owen’s caliber of roles. Langton of The Net (the TV show adapted from the Sandra Bullock movie of the same name) and Melrose Place fame shows off the beauty that will afford endless opportunities to prove herself as a “real” actress—which is ironically similar to her character’s plight—but will never get there with roles in movies like Primeval. And Jones still best known for and plagued by his 7-Up commercials is in true negligible-sidekick mode here--worthy of a snicker approximately once out of every dozen times he tries overzealously to get one. Jaws may come to mind based on the water creature-stalking-man plot but well it’s tough to even mention those two in the same sentence. Director Michael Katleman a TV fixture himself at least doesn’t even aim high enough to reach that level. No from the get-go he’s shooting more for an Anacondas feel—and yes that’s the horrific sequel to the so-terrible-it’s-fun J.Lo “original.” Katleman almost reaches Anacondas-ian highs but not quite. Among other notable problems the director cannot for one moment strike the right balance between the aforementioned level of guilty pleasure-dom and genuine horror. Instead he catches us off guard with what are supposed to be the thrills—and also with the comedy. Finally once Gustave is revealed which should essentially be the moviegoers’ reward the croc looks more a prop sitting in a theme-park lot. And the script from John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (Terminator 3 co-writers)—well let’s just hope with the story being uber-derivative and cheesy enough as it is Orlando Jones ad-libbed all of his unlaughable comedy!
The original Seuss story is a wonderful--albeit simple
--children's tale about two bored kids left alone in their house on a cold wet day. They're visited by a six-foot-tall talking adventure-seeking feline who's looking for a little fun (OK maybe a lot of fun). Against the warnings of the children's seriously repressed pet goldfish the Cat (with the help of a couple of troll doll look-a-likes called Thing One and Thing Two) turns the house upside down then puts it all right-side-up again before the kids' mother gets home. The question for Hollywood is how to turn a story like this one that's left an indelible impression on millions of readers young and old since 1957 into a major motion picture? While the film thankfully keeps to this original's plot talking fish and all it obviously tries to flesh things out adding some new characters and tacking on a few life lessons. The kids now have very distinct personalities: Wild older brother Conrad (Spencer Breslin) plays fast and loose with the rules while sister Sally (Dakota Fanning) an uptight control freak has driven all her friends away with her rigidity. Their mother Joan (Kelly Preston) works at the town's real estate office run by the anal retentive Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes) and she's dating the guy next door Quinn (Alec Baldwin) a superficial scumbag who wants to send Conrad to military school. On the particular cold wet day in question Joan leaves instructions not to mess up the house since she's having an important business meet-and-greet there later that night. When the Cat (Mike Myers) arrives he quickly assures Sally and Conrad they can have all the fun they want and nothing bad will happen. Ignoring vocal opposition from the Fish (voiced by Hayes) the Cat quickly puts into motion a series of events that will a) prove his point b) destroy the house and c) teach the kids a sugary-sweet but valuable lesson about being responsible while living life to the fullest.
Just as Jim Carrey immortalized the Grinch Mike Myers seems born to play the Cat in the oversized red-and-white striped hat--he has the sly slightly sarcastic wholly anarchistic thing down cold. Myers' impersonations of a redneck Cat mechanic (with requisite visible butt crack) an infomercial Cat host and a zany British Cat chef are outrageous as are the hilarious little asides he spouts although they'll probably go over kids' heads: "Well sure [the Fish] can talk but is he really saying anything? No not really." But even though Myers has some fun moments he just isn't the Barney type and when he turns on the come-on-kids-let's-have-fun charm and adopts a dopey laugh he seems uncomfortable. As for the kids Fanning and Breslin (Disney's The Kid) do a fine job reacting to the wackiness the Cat surrounds them with although Fanning basically plays the same uptight character she created in the recent Uptown Girls. Of the supporting players Baldwin has the most fun as the villainous Quinn a bad-guy role that while a little superfluous gives Baldwin plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery. Hayes is also good in his dual role; he stamps Humberfloob indelibly on our brains then kicks butt as the voice of the beleaguered Fish.
It must have been a no-brainer for producer Brian Grazer to do another Dr. Seuss adaptation after all the fun magic and profits the 2000 hit How the Grinch Stole Christmas generated. With Cat in the Hat however he didn't collaborate with his usual directing partner the Grinch's Ron Howard. Instead Grazer took a chance on first-time director Bo Welch who previously served as production designer on Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and has three Oscar nods to his credit for production design on other films. Welch certainly takes his quirky cue from Burton when it comes to the look of Cat in the Hat especially Sally and Conrad's suburban Southern California neighborhood with its lilac frames and blue roofs. The gadgets are cool too from the Cat's Super Luxurious Omnidirectional Whatchamajigger or S.L.O.W vehicle to the Dynamic Industrial Renovating Tractormajigger or D.I.R.T. mobile for cleaning up the house. When we enter the Cat's bizarre world though the film's Seussian look starts to have problems possibly because there's nothing of this place in the original book. Hidden within the feline's magical crate the Cat's world can produce "the mother of all messes " and in keeping with that purpose there's some effort at making it look like a fragmented Cubist painting. But it's more plastic than Picasso and in the end it's about as interesting as a Universal Theme Park ride (a fact the movie actually mentions).
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.