DVDanger: What's Your Point of View?
For Halloween, some beastly releases of the haunting month
By Richard Whittaker,
1:00PM, Sun. Oct. 20, 2013
There's a golden rule in the run-up to Halloween. If you're not watching horror movies, you're just not doing it right.
Short stories and short films are the arguably native form of horror. Just long enough to draw the audience in, but not long enough that they become so connected that any resolution becomes a bummer. Put simply: It hurts less if the final girl (or guy or goblin) doesn't make it to the last reel. To that end, discount horror house Chemical Burn (aka the poor man's Asylum) has put out Sinister Visions, a five-part collection of low-budget schlock.
The zero-budget US/Scandinavian English language gathering is roughly shot, and it seems color correction and sound balance are for other people. There's a real home movie feel (especially on a couple of the performances) but it's also oddly entertaining, in a derivative way. There's a little cellar dweller called "Mother Knows Best" that shows its Psycho inspiration right down to the chair reveal. "A Woman Scorned" actually has a smart, disturbing little conceit that makes it a distant cousin to maternal body horrors like Grace and Inside. That said, the various filmmakers fall prey to all the standard sexploitation tropes (as in, more unnecessary topless shots than a Troma marathon.)
The most fun installment is also the goofiest and most PG-13. "My Undead Girlfriend" centers on a guy who remains committed to his fiancée even after she gets bitten by a zombie. Hey, that's no reason to cancel a family dinner party, right? If nothing else, it gets points for the best abuse of the legendary line, "They're coming to get you, Barbara!"
It's an anthology like one of those Halloween sound effects and spooky songs CDs you pick up at the pharmacy is an album. It's really five shorts strung together with some wadding interstitials. If you take that into account, it's a fun little piece of visual noise that you could have going in the background at a party without anyone getting too disturbed or distracted.
If you're on the hunt for an anthology that you can actually, you know, watch, there are other options. I've written about V/H/S/2 (aka (S-VHS) a lot, but that's because it's really great, gooey, gruesome fun. The first film was a collaboration of friends, and that gave it an implicit and unspoken shared tone. It was low-key horror, as one would expect from filmmakers like Simon Barrett and Joe Swanberg, who deal in relationships under extreme circumstances. The funhouse interloper came from the new kids on the block, shorts collective Radio Silence. VHS-2 is basically Barrett and his constant filmmaking buddy Adam Wingard opening the doors to the club house, and letting a cadre of fantasy and fringe festival favorites play with their toys.
The uber-narrative remains the same: Collections of tapes containing found footage murders, mayhem and madness. In the first film, it was a bunch of low-grade thugs hunting them down and finding themselves in hideous peril. In V/H/S/2, two private detectives (Lawrence Michael Levine and Kelsy Abott) hunting for a lost trust fund brat find nothing but a stack of TVs and a pile of numbered tapes. In the first film, the tapes were a MacGuffin: This time around, there's some slow-burn world building, as the narrative describes the edges of a whole tape-trading culture.
The first film had supernatural elements, but they seemed mostly hidden from the world – domestic assaults from the uncanny. V/H/S/2 has apocalyptic hellbeasts, zombie attacks, and a full-blown alien abduction. Wingard's opening piece (unsurprisingly) sticks closest to the original style, with the director playing a man with a cybernetic eye that can pierce the veil between worlds. It's Wingard at his most pleasingly sleazy and shocking, a welcoming first volley for the film.
It also has a real streak of humor (if tinged with sadness) in the segment from The Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sanchez, "A Ride in the Park" (Sanchez also provides the best DVD extra: a guide to who not to knock over a tree.) But the narrative reaches true insanity with "Safe Haven", the Indonesian collaboration between Gareth Evans (The Raid) and Timo Tjanhanto (Macabre), which could be a revelation about the potential for the South East Asian nation's scream scene like Ringu did for J-horror.
Both VHSs tend to look through the victims' lens. But director Franck Khalfoun's remake of William Lustig's cult 1980 slasher Maniac puts the audience firmly behind the killer's eyes. Literally: Khalfoun re-creates the horror as a POV experience, from the murderer's viewpoint.
The updating transplants the action from the Eighties clothing warehouses of New York to the haute couture and art galleries of modern Los Angeles. In the original, Joe Spinelli played Frank Zito, the insane killer with a mommy complex, an obsession with mannequins, and a hideous habit of slaying and scalping his female victims. Spinelli was probably most famous as Willie Cicci, the hitman turned stool pigeon in The Godfather trilogy. Like Henri Silva, he was one of those definitional cinematic goons. So it's a big jump in casting to put the killer's buck knife in the hands of up-and-coming Austin actor Elijah Wood (Wilfred).
The Lord of the Rings star has probably dealt with exiting a blockbuster franchise better than any performer since Harrison Ford. Wood is picking a cavalcade of at-minimum interesting projects (World War II animated adventure Peter Panzerfaust ), guest appearances (including a cameo on Rooster Teeth's Machinima classic Red vs. Blue) and just kickass, smart, thrilling movies (the upcoming Fantastic Fest smash Grand Piano.)
Yet the stressed-out boyish charm that is his stock-in trade is subverted in Maniac. If anything, even a greased-up and unkempt Wood looks like Cesare (cinema's original somnabulstic slasher from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.) This is not unfamiliar territory for him (remember Kevin the choir boy killer from Sin City?) but it's a big change from the hulking, brooding, pug-ugly Spinelli. Wood instead brings a disarming nebbishness, caught by the camera only in mirrors and reflections.
Khalfoun has fun with the POV gimmick – not least because it's a psychological, almost impressionistic take on the genre. There's moments where he flips outside of Frank's body, as if he can't handle moments of actual happiness. By contrast V/H/S/2 has a degree of stylistic purity from the restrictions of found footage, but the one-hour making-of doc is worth wading through just to hear cinematographer Maxime Alexandre explain the mechanics and specifics on the look of POV (still not as easy as people seem to think, especially since Frank's body is so often in the shot).
Khalfoun's name may be above the title, but it's really writer/producer Alexandre Aja's show (with long, constant nods to Lustig). He's becoming the king of the creative remake: With The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors, Piranha 3D, this will be his fourth do-over in seven years. Truth be told, while remakes normally incur a gag reflex, if they're done well there's no complaints (cf The Fly.) And Aja does this well.
Together, he and Khalfoun pen a love letter not just to the original, but also to the larger slasher arthouse genre. Khalfoun even re-creates the original maniac poster (infamously nothing to do with the actual film) and throws a generous nod to the musical tastes of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
But it's not all just nods and winks. The POV approach does demand the viewer have the patience and stomach to sit in the killer's seat. Spinelli's tragically underrated performance made Frank both repulsive and pathetic. Wood's version is more awkward and disturbing, especially in his relationship with Anna, the photographer whose obsession with mannequins equals his own (only she doesn't staple scalps to them). In the original, scream queen Caroline Munro and Spinelli were oddly well matched – Spinelli could be passably charming – but Nora Arnezeder's version of Anna is much more fragile and pallid, evocative of Frank's beloved dress-up dolls.
Strip away the cast and the arty aspirations, and it's really still a vintage slice of sleazy – if cerebral – exploitation. In that way, it's not that different to Sinister Visions. There's a real feeling of "let's put the show on in the barn," just with extra blood squibs, and that's always been what the V/H/S films have been about. And isn't that really what Halloween's about? Getting together and giving everyone a good scare, just because you can?
Maniac (IFC), V/H/S/2 (Magnet) and Sinister Visions (Chemical Burn) are available now. Next week on DVDanger: Re-release madness, with The Prince of Darkness, morbid French classic Eyes Without a Face, and a fresh look at Halloween on its 35th anniversary. Yes, 35. You're old.
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DVD Watch, DVDanger, Elijah Wood, Halloween, Maniac, Sinister Visions, VHS2, Chemical Burn, IFC, Magnet, Alexandre Aja, Franck Khalfoun, Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abott, Joe Spinelli, Caroline Munro, Nora Arnezeder, William Lustig, Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard