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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Here's something obvious that I don't think many people consider: unabashed love for an actor doesn't always translate to that actor having an easy career. Take Michael Biehn, who can't sit down for an interview without being asked about Terminator, Aliens or how he almost nabbed a part in Cameron's Avatar. To be fair, Biehn's been finding steady work for the last two decades, either in television or with bit parts in horror flicks and the occasional supporting drama role (he packs a short, but sweet punch in the recent Chris Evans medical thriller Puncture). But people still think of him as their '80s hero.
But his scene-chewing role in The Divide, the new film by Xavier Gens (Frontier(s), Hitman), feels like a calculated move. As Mickey, the psycho super of a New York City apartment building who houses the complex's tenants after an unknown nuclear blast wipes the city clear, Biehn drops his own atomic bomb...on our nostalgia. His character's paranoia-induced, manic state opens the door for a maelstrom of cigar-chomping, grizzled fury, and it's a "hey, look what I can do!" performance in the very best way. Nearly unrecognizable under his Nick-Nolte-mugshot hair do and equally jagged beard, Biehn inhabits the same kind of confidence we saw in his Cameron collaborations, but now, as an older man. It's a wake up call for any of his diehard fans.
Biehn isn't the only one reinventing himself with The Divide, a horror sci-fi indebted more to Sartre's No Exit than Book of Eli. Gens' had ground to make up, after his last film, the big budget adaptation of the popular video game series Hitman, floundered with both critics and movie-goers. In The Divide, Gens uses his visual prowess to terrorize, taking the audience through a grinder of fallout shelter living conditions, mysterious masked men with a kidnapping mission and the general mental instability that comes with living underground for a few weeks (note: if this ever happens to you, you'll probably shave off your eyebrows and start tearing through cans Spam like a rabid wolf). The important shift in Gens direction is the emphasis on characters and performance—a tactic that succeeds as far as he can. The script for The Divide is paper thin and the movie uses its assemblage of stock characters as pawns: Josh (Milo Ventimiglia), the angry rebel, Eva (Lauren German), the quiet, beautiful caretaker, Bobby (Michael Eklund), the feeble minded follower, and Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), the reasonable human being who will inevitably suffer at the hands of the stupid). But Gens, through color, production design and some damn fine actors, makes it situation as intense and grueling as it would be in real life. The Divide doens't strive for realistic scenarios, but on an emotional level, the ensemble feel like real people. Unlike Hitman, which still felt like a video game.
Between Michael Biehn barking his fellow shelter-mates into submission, another familiar face takes a stab at a vulnerable, heartbreaking performance. Rosanna Arquette plays Marilyn, who early on in the film, loses her daughter to a gang of gas-masked invaders. If you didn't think the apocalypse could get any worse, think again. The incident sends Marilyn into a downward spira—her depression starts with a stint of starvation, then escalates into a transformation from mother to lifeless plaything. She smears lipstick on her face, opens her up for sexual promiscuity, and, eventually, finds herself taped up and mutilated S&M style. In a stronger movie, Marilyn's complete destruction of self-worth would have more gravity, but Arquette's daring turn still paints it boldly.
People have a certain preconception of the phrase "indie," as if low-budget movies that start at film festivals (The Divide premiered at the 2011 SXSW Fest) and eventually make their way to theaters are all for the arthouse crowd. But making a movie on a dime affords filmmakers and actors, ones with focus on quiet dramas or ones with blockbuster/genre sensbilities, the advantage of stepping out of the box. A playground. The Divide isn't a perfect movie, but it gives three creative minds, Biehn, Gens and Arquette, the chance to do something different and challenging. It's not easy to escape your own legacy, but taking a chance with a movie like The Divide never hurts.
Source: Deadline New York
The bald bad-ass will be back! Deadline reports that 20th Century Fox has hired Spanish filmmaker Daniel Benmayor (Paintball, upcoming Bruc) to direct the sequel to their 2007 video-game-based action flick Hitman.
Whether or not star Timothy Olyphant will return is still unclear at this point, but he'll have to make a decision soon as the studio is looking to start production as early as this fall. Daniel Casey has written the most recent draft, which Kyle Ward was originally hired to write.
Made for about $30 million, the original film (directed by Xavier Gens) grossed about $100 million worldwide. Not too shabby for a flashy flick without any semblance of substance. Even if Fox can coax Olyphant back into the fold, there are oodles of hurdles for the creative team, which includes producers Adrian Askarieh, Alex Young and Chuck Gordon, to overcome. Without a coherent plot, the Hitman film franchise won't come close to churning out as many sequels as its interactive progenitor has.
They bred him. They trained him. They unleashed him. And then they betrayed him. Boy are “they” in trouble! It’s never quite clear who “they” are and after awhile one isn’t likely to care. This is yet another of those soulless globe-trotting action blow-outs more concerned with the big bangs than with making sense. Timothy Olyphant plays Number 47 an assassin extraordinaire who’s been set up to take a fall after assassinating--or so he thinks--the Russian president. With a minimum of emotion and a maximum of firepower and fisticuffs Number 47 goes on a rampage of vengeance--all the while pursued by dogged Interpol bloodhound Michael Whittier (Dougray Scott) and a variety of unsavory types who look just like him. Also along for the ride: Nika (foxy Olga Kurylenko) the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold (and the vocabulary of a drunken sailor). There is predictably a fission of romance between Number 47 and Nika but he’s far more comfortable lobbing explosives than pitching woo--which makes her character almost completely unnecessary except as eye candy. The message is clear: If you see a well-dressed bald guy with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head duck--immediately. Hitman was originally designed as a vehicle for Vin Diesel who retains an executive producer credit but even he bailed. Think about that: Diesel walked away from this project. A buff and bald Olyphant (Live Free or Die Hard HBO’s Deadwood) attempts from time to time to inject a bit of humor and humanity into his one-note character but a nuanced performance would be an anathema to the film’s overall purpose as a mindless exercise in violence. Like Olyphant Scott (Mission: Impossible II) tries to bring some dramatic shading to his role and like Olyphant his performance is all but obliterated in the barrage of special effects and stuntwork. The legendary Xavier Gens (in his own mind undoubtedly) emphasizes style over substance which is the only way to go because Hitman possesses almost no substance whatsoever. Nor for that matter do movies based on video games. That’s why so many of them including this one don’t make very good movies. At its best which isn’t very often the visual razzle-dazzle of Hitman will engage the eye. Engaging the mind is another matter altogether. The trouble as with most movies of this sort is fashioning a compelling story to wrap around the action. The old adage about the tail wagging the dog comes to mind. So does the old adage about a movie simply being “a dog.” Every time the action changes location a subtitle politely informs us where we are: “London - England ” “Moscow - Russia ” “St. Petersburg - Russia ” etc. Thanks I thought maybe there was another London or another Moscow with Red Square in the middle of it. Therefore as a kindergarten-level geography lesson Hitman does serve some purpose--meager though it is.