Sunday, March 30, 2008


Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When a film maker’s work is collected into some kind of abridged boxed set, like THE DEL TENNEY COLLECTION, on one level it is an opportunity to see similarities and differences of the artist’s craft as well as the vehicles by which his message was delivered. In this case, there is bonus to this compilation. One can sample a retrospective of the kinds of “drive-in” fare that could be had in the early 1960s. While most prolific directors have cinematic canons that often run a lengthy gamut of every genre and style, Del Tenney has a fairly small filmography and to have three such diverse films represented in it, VIOLENT MIDNIGHT, THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH and THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE, makes this a must-have for horror lovers, 1960s film buffs and cinemaniacs in general.

VIOLENT MIDNIGHT (1962) is the story of reclusive, war-tormented artist Elliot Freeman and his sister Lynn. Tragedy and insanity have haunted the Freeman family for years, but all Elliot wants to do is paint powerful portraits of beautiful nude models like Dolores. When women start turning up dead in this quiet college town, all evidence seems to point to Elliot. Before long, a web of deceit and desire has a wide variety of townsfolk caught in its clinging cords just at the moment when a knife-wielding maniac is on the loose.

VIOLENT MIDNIGHT splits time between being three film genres and somehow is able to make this strange admixture work. What starts out as a patient, taut suspense-thriller, later transforms into something akin to a detective potboiler grafted onto an exploitation film, and by the end changes back into the suspense-thriller again. When it is a suspenseful, proto-slasher film, it is moody, well shot, enticingly scored with an emotive orchestral soundtrack and engaging. Dick Van Patten adds one of his earliest performances as Lt. Palmer, brusquely and sweatily trying to bring the killer to justice in a “Brett Halliday-like” manner. A very young James Farentino adds brooding looks, a hirsute physique and lots of Brylcreem to the exploitation side of this film, a side seething with nubile young women in various states of undress, peeping toms, tawdry romance, fisticuffs and a jazzy, hip soundtrack. If it sounds like a lot going on, it is, but it works on all its fronts, all the way to the “surprise” shocker climax melded with a blissful, romantic denouement. VIOLENT MIDNIGHT does what few exploitation films were every able to do, call itself a well made film complete with an interesting story, good looking actors/actresses, and fine camerawork. There are elements of this film that feel very slightly derivative of its predecessor DEMENTIA 13, but it is likely that the ingredients borrowed were just as much a nod as a nick. VIOLENT MIDNIGHT is a great film to start with in this boxed set because it may be the most complete of the three. It is certainly the best crafted.

HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1963) is the “tale” of beach-combing he-man/scientist Hank, his party-happy girlfriend Tina, research scientist Dr. Gavin and his lovesick daughter Elaine. Radioactive barrels of waste are dropped off the coast of a New Jersey beach only to break open and spawn two grotesque “fish-monsters” who stomp about town after the only food that can sustain them, human blood. As the body count rises, beach bunnies, lithe lifeguards, belligerent bikers and raucous rock ‘n rollers are scrambling to avoid the fate of ending up as chum.

Those who go into HORROR OF PARTY BEACH expecting a sober and scary film had best restructure their attitudes or they will think they are watching one of the worst pieces of crap ever made. This splendid spoof is saturated with SILLINESS and for that let us be glad. By the end of this send-up of both the “Beach Party” movies and 1950s Sci Fi/monster films, you will be inundated by grins, giggles and outright guffaws. Almost every icon of the early 60s is lampooned from silly dancing, silly pop music, silly fighting, silly dialogue, to silly story twists and especially silly monster costumes. While Del Tenney spoils the surprise in his charming interview in the extras segment, anyone who thought that HORROR OF PARTY BEACH was a serious effort needs to take a chill-pill. What emerges from this movie is a very slick tongue-in-cheek stab at the flagships of drive-in fare. While not the artistic diamond-in-the-rough that VIOLENT MIDNIGHT is, and suffering from some very dark stretches that were either filmed that way or the product of a troubled master and transfer, HORROR OF PARTY BEACH is still a great time waiting for friends who want to sit down with some Jiffy-Pop and smirk ‘til it hurts, not from mocking something old and wacky, but deriving joy from a film meant to funny from the get-go. As the second feature in the pack, HORROR OF PARTY BEACH lightens the mood just enough for the clincher.

Set in New England of 1892, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (1963) is the story of the Sinclair clan, whose patriarch, Rufus Sinclair has just “passed on” and left the ancestral estate and fortune to his “grieving” family. Once the will of Rufus Sinclair is read, it becomes obvious that the family can only claim his money if they abide by a set of macabre legal provisions instituted to insure that Mr. Sinclair was not prematurely buried alive. It is not long before grisly goings-on begin and family members begin falling victim to the curses stated in Rufus’s will, since they did not do his bidding.

THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE is the most “mainstream” of the Tenney films. It is a whodunit complete with a sinister masked figure, a period piece with Gothic overtones and setting but coupled with a liberal dose of slasher-film essence. There is a young Roy Scheider is his first film role and Candace Hilligoss of CARNIVAL OF SOULS fame in her only other Big Screen performance, both of which are parts of an ensemble cast that give very intense, often beautifully overacted performances that only add to the Regency Romance novel feel of this fun flick. While it is not the tour de force of most European Gothic cinema of that time like BLACK SUNDAY or CASTLE OF BLOOD, it does deliver an atmospheric aura and a tangled tapestry of intrigue and lust that doesn’t skimp on ghastly, gruesome death scenes and predictable yet still satisfying curves in the story map. While being somewhat formulaic despite a surprise arrival of some comedic capers of the inspector and his ludicrous constable, THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE seems like it is almost a coda, an homage to the Silver Screen Gothic Tale whose days were like sands sliding out of the hourglass throughout the 1960s. By the end of the decade, Europeans were still making Gothic Ghost stories and their like, but the sun had pretty much set on American contributions to that genre. THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE is an unspectacular but still deeply enjoyable example of a film variety that almost doesn’t exist anymore.

Each film has a small but pleasing extras menu. Every flick comes with a Del Tenney audio commentary. VIOLENT MIDNIGHT and THE CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE have photo galleries and theatrical trailers while HORROR OF PARTY BEACH has the afore-mentioned 9 minute interview. While this isn’t the Taj Mahal of extras, it is fairly impressive when you consider that Del Tenney is well-regarded and well-remembered but he is not William Whyler or Elia Kazan. He is a director, producer and writer of three films that have attained a cult following and it is only after watching them that you really understand why.

Taken as a whole THE DEL TENNEY COLLECTION is a walk down a whole set of memory lanes, paths and boulevards. What is nice about this blessed mix of movies is that you can sit down and watch them all, reveling in their time-capsule feel and the way that they paint a mural of what early 60s low-budget films were like. Alternately, you can watch them as best fits your mood, because THE DEL TENNEY COLLECTION spans the spectrum of cinematic emotions. Make sure that you’ve got the right accoutrements and mood amplifiers to accompany your travels. Whether it’s beach attire and 45 singles, or your leather jacket and Wildroot Crème Oil, or an Ascot and a bowl of aspic, getting in the correct frame of mind and then sitting down to these little gems is the right thing to do on a Sunday afternoon or late at night when the urge to go back to a better time grabs hold and there is no way to shake it. Let Del Tenney be your guide. You won’t be sorry.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

BLACK HOUSE (2007) d. Shin Terra

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

There is a wonderful starkness to Asian film that makes viewing it much like enjoying that mincemeat pie at a holiday. Since the pie only comes around once in a while, the treat is a little more exceptional due to its rarity. While Asian films are becoming a bit more commonplace here in The West, most people still do not get the chance to see them in general release since the majority of companies take a somewhat parochial view of their bankability, or renters will bypass them on the new release rack due to a lack of desire to deal with subtitles. It is an unfortunate view to take since films like BLACK HOUSE from South Korea have a lot to offer even when they are flawed.

BLACK HOUSE is the story of Jeon Juno, an emotionally tortured and overly compassionate insurance investigator who stumbles into a diabolical scheme to defraud his company. As Juno digs more deeply into what at first seems to be a suicide, all evidence points to a psychopath willing to stop at nothing to achieve their sinister goal. Before long, Juno’s girlfriend Mina, her co-workers and his own colleagues begin to fall prey to an increasingly grisly series of misfortunes, forcing Juno to face his foe and his past to discover the secret inside THE BLACK HOUSE.

Beginning patiently just as its distant Japanese relative, THE AUDITION, BLACK HOUSE develops its characters with care and sprinkles its imagery sparingly, but with purpose. A quiet sense of threat, deepening to enmity, settles over this film and begins to increase in momentum, even as the simplistic settings become steadily more sinister and the horrors of the plot become more frequent. Unlike many Asian films that take too long to get going, the cadence of BLACK HOUSE is more measured, grabbing the interest and the attention of the viewer like a noose around the neck. Despite obvious plot twists and predictable turns along the way, like a Shakespearean tragedy where the outcome is apparent but still satisfying, BLACK HOUSE’S story rushes forward to its inevitably gory crescendo and does it with a splendid mix of fine camera work, powerful performances that are just as stark as some of the colors and scenes and a reliance on story rather than needless bells, whistles, bangs and flashes. Without following in the footsteps of miserable Western “torture-porn” most of that bloodiness of the first three-quarters of the movie is implied and you don’t have to see actual dismemberment. Instead, you know that it has happened, which is just as unsettling. If BLACK HOUSE had maintained its adherence to the strengths that made it a gripping film for 75 minutes, it may have been a superb addition to the Asian horror canon. Sadly, it borrowed from its god-parent Takeshi Miike and his films like THE AUDITION and went down the darker path.

What crippled Miike’s AUDITION, no pun intended, was its reliance on gaudy cruelty and grotesque perversion in its last acts. While BLACK HOUSE doesn’t go quite that far, the last 25 minutes were unnecessarily gruesome. Part of this was the film’s steady rise in that direction conflict-wise, but the needless gore betrayed the smarter and slicker early nature of the flick. In addition, the ending seemed to go one FOREVER. Every time I thought, “this is where they’ll end it”, another mini-epilogue was grafted on. It was the only time I felt the Western urge to “tighten up” this film. Too often, American editors slice and dice Asian cinema, much to their detriment, but the denouement of BLACK HOUSE, despite its efforts to create artistic symmetry, just went on too long. In the end, it was regrettable. This movie really reeled me in for most of its duration and a cleaner, crisper ending would have set it even farther above the more pedestrian efforts of Messrs. Miike, Roth and Bousman.

BLACK HOUSE has a surprising batch of fascinating goodies in its extras menu. There is the making-of documentary called “The Truth about Psychopaths”. Added to that is the featurette “The Secret of the Black House”, which is a look at production design. Finally, there is a small set of deleted scenes. While this is not The Seven Cities of Cibola of Extras Menus, it is still a worthwhile collection of additions to an already absorbing motion picture.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of journeying outside the realm of North American cinema is that you get to see the craft and style of other talented professionals. An observant connoisseur can see their triumphs and tragedies, sample the bouquet and essence of the cultural accents, and make comparisons with their home nation’s products. BLACK HOUSE is a very good example of how even slightly flawed Asian cinema is worth the time of American film lovers. Hopefully, they will rise above any prejudices and give films like this a chance so that The Suits who run the Movie Houses will realize that a smorgasbord of theatrical offerings at the Box Office is better for everyone.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

THE MIST (2007) d. Frank Darabont

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

While it began with the advent of film at the Turn of the Century, the happy blending of the horror and science fiction genres really took off in the 1950s. By the end of that decade, movie lovers had been inundated in surrealistic cinematic splendor as monsters, beasties and aliens smashed, thrashed and bashed their way across the Silver Screen. Since the glory days of the 50s, horror/sci-fi has continued to be a staple of theatres, drive-ins, vhs, dvd and all manner of visual entertainment, but we never seemed to fully recapture the grandeur of a time when anything seemed possible once the film was rolling. THE MIST is one the best efforts since the 1950s at bringing a 50s-style monster movie to the Big Screen and it does it with a mix style and substance.

THE MIST is the story of a group of Maine villagers who awake one morning after a violent thunderstorm to find a sense of worry, quickly deepening to panic settling over their town, even as an eerie mist creeps down out of the mountains and engulfs their community. Before long, a small group of citizens is trapped in the town supermarket as it becomes more and more apparent that “something” is in the mist. As the truth becomes more frightening and equally impossible to accept, the grocery store denizens’ reason, courage and resolve begin to unravel. Neighbor is pitted against neighbor in a battle for control of their destinies even as the fight for their survival is joined. Finally, the ultimate choice is offered, flee or fight to the last, and it is the decisions of faction leaders like David Drayton played by Thomas Jane and Mrs. Carmody played by Marcia Gay Harden that leads to horrifying resolution.

THE MIST is what monster movies and horror films use to be like, and that is why it works so well. The story patiently unfolds and the storyteller never quite tips his hand as the plot progresses. The viewer is left to ponder what is happening, why it is happening, where things are going and why the characters are responding as they do. Every twist in the tale and every surge in the screenplay are crafted with care, building suspense and a sense of dread that cannot be shaken off. What is even more beautiful is the simplicity of the story and how it blends with an equally simple setting. Trap a small number of people in a mundane place, take much of what they rely on away from them, send apparitions from darkest corners of the imagination against them, but make them difficult to see and fight, then sap the sanity of these unfortunates and let their humanity dissipate and you’ve got a recipe for dynamic character interplay interspersed with frightening imagery and even more grisly consequences. THE MIST had a delightful 50s live television feel at times due to the marvelously minimalist setting and even more like theater due to the brilliantly forged conflict between the characters. Add to that visions of monster madness that invoke films like THE CRAWLING EYE, THEM and THE GIANT MANTIS and it felt like I was watching Creature Feature again on a Saturday morning in front of my parents’ old black & white set and devouring films like THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, REPTILICUS and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.

There are many other reasons to like THE MIST, not the least of which is that it is predominantly adults who drive the character interaction. It is not that having young people in a film is always the “road to disaster”, but the world has just as many people over 35 as it does kids. Having a true cross section of adults, genders, backgrounds and races made the townsfolk feel more realistic, just as it also felt genuine that they weren’t all “hot and buff”. The CGI in THE MIST was used judiciously so that it didn’t feel like the film was built around the effects, rather the effects were there to support the story. In addition, money and talent were expended thoughtfully when it came to the visuals so that they looked superb and didn’t leave one drenched in “cheesiness”. While many 50s monster movies were meant to be “cheesy” even then, most weren’t and the creators of flicks like TARANTULA wanted their cinematography to be as authentic and terrifying as it could be. When the creatures cascade across the screen during THE MIST, you feel very much like they could be in the audience with you at any moment.

Like all films, THE MIST has its weaknesses. While Marcia Gay Harden and William Sadler give superb performances, Thomas Jane maintains his penchant for woodenness. The ending of THE MIST is also a VERY debatable element. While any “downer” ending is a plus with me, I felt that that the denouement went just a little past its most powerful point and should have wrapped up a few minutes earlier, leaving the viewer with that dragging sense of gloom coupled with an even deeper sense of mystery.

THE MIST is a two-disc Collector’s Edition and what a treasure trove of goodies it has! On disc one, Frank Darabont offers a film commentary. There is also a commentary-optional series of deleted scenes. There is a featurette called “An Appreciation of an Artist” about Drew Struzan. Finally, there are “behind the scenes” webisodes and trailers. It is disc 2 that has some even more amazing jewels including the black & white Director’s Edition of THE MIST introduced by Mr. Darabont. There are also four other featurettes; “When Darkness Came-The Making of The Mist”, “Taming the Beast-The Making of Scene 35”, “Monsters Among Us” about the creature effects and “The Horror of It All” dealing with the visual effects. In today’s world of skimpy dvd extras or totally empty extras menus, to find a king’s ransom like this attached to a thoroughly enjoyable film is supremely satisfying. Thank you!

When I went to see PRIMEVAL, I had been looking forward to the experience because the thought of a giant alligator tearing chunks of humanity apart like a toddler shredding his toys seemed very appealing. Sadly, that movie delivered on little of its promise due to story, effects, casting and filming problems. THE MIST gets it as right as a modern monster movie can. It has the chilling scenes mixed with a thought-provoking screenplay. There are interesting characters put into terrible situations that leave you thankful for a cozy house after the dark theater. More than anything, THE MIST makes you feel like it was when you went to the drive-in, or turned on a late night Horror Host show, or walked down to the neighborhood cinema with your girlfriend to eat popcorn and get the daylights scared out of you by some fine horror/sci-fi that kind of felt like it could really happen.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

BROCELIANDE (2002) d. Doug Headline

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

While mankind still engages in brutal, vicious and loathsome behavior like terrorism and murder, at this stage of our uplift, we profess to be a more civilized version of the species homo sapien. That has not always been the case and humanity’s past is bathed in arterial spray due to our penchant for combining sex, blood, religion, art and violence. Creating a film that taps into our cruel but mystical past, draws upon some of the darkest wells of horror that men have known and brings forth demons buried in our racial memory. BROCELIANDE is just such a film. When it focuses on the mythical/religious roots of its story, horror and fantasy combine to generate a very potent force.

BROCELIANDE is the story of Chloe Severin, an archaeology student studying the Celtic history of Brittany at an impressive dig in the Broceliande Forest under the direction of Professor Vernet. A new student to college, Chloe soon meets Lea, Erwann, Iris and Gilles and becomes enmeshed in conspiracy, murder, Druidism and powers beyond her imagination. Before Chloe is aware, the Broceliande site becomes a labyrinth of schemers and monsters, all hungry for sacrificial blood and a chance at awesome power.

BROCELIANDE is typical of most French cinema in that it starts patiently, but rather than contemplate its thematic navel, the film builds a nice head of steam by combining some ornate interior and exterior sets, some luscious lighting that establishes palpable mood and builds upon some very good performances, principally Chloe played by Elsa Kikoine and Erwann played by Mathieu Simonet. Added to these strengths are some beautiful set decoration, powerful establishing shots of the set décor and a heroic score that taps into the sense of ancient mystery. In addition, BROCELIANDE draws its inspiration from a wide variety of films. Its “mysterious monster/malevolent myth” imagery and atmosphere seem derived from films like THE LORELY’S GRASP and many of the scenes of the shadowy creature’s villainous rampage appear to be an homage to that genre. BROCELIANDE also follows in the footsteps of “secret religious sect” films like THE WICKER MAN. Its story borrows heavily from that classic without being a remake. Layers of conspiracy peel back promisingly to provide a plethora of gently modulated thrills along the way. Finally, the sumptuous lighting, rich colors and ornate interiors mixed with macabre and occasionally grisly death scenes invoke the name of Giallo and call forth the spirit of Dario Argento. While this well is the one least drawn from, there is clearly a sprinkling of DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA at points on the path. For roughly three quarters of the film, all these strengths made BROCELIANDE visually impressive, viscerally entertaining and psychologically compelling. It is when this fine effort summoned the essence of two other films that it left me a bit disappointed.

In the last acts of BROCELIANDE, the action sequences were reminiscent of ALIEN, as Chloe, Professor Vernet and Iris dodge The Morrigan through the intricate tunnels of the underground Necropolis. This in itself wasn’t a bad thing, but whenever our “damsels in distress” were forced to fight off miscreants and monsters, they turned into ass-kicking toughies that recalled BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF. The hybridization of an ALIEN and BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF experiment hijacked this film away from its horror-fantasy artery and sent it spinning away through the twisting capillaries of an action film. All the patiently built mood and mystery went cold at this point and caused the horror pulse of this film to stutter and stop. Beyond that, like BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, the action sequences were shot too close and edited too rapidly. At least there wasn’t any of the herky-jerky disease, but the damage was done. A beautifully crafted story about the darkest corners of our ancient psyche became a series of martial arts sequences and tore BROCELIANDE from its foundation as if it were a Kansas windmill in a twister, and what a shame it was.

BROCELIANDE may not have delivered the ending that it should have, but it does have an extras menu with two gems worth contemplating. One “short” film is called “The Meaning of Sacrifice” and it melds the deleted prologue of BROCELIANDE with a very lengthy and interesting “behind the scenes” look at how nearly every chapter of the film was created, paying particular attention to special effects and the staging efforts behind each shot. This first feature is nearly 60 minutes in length. The shorter offerring, but still nearly 30 minute featurette, is “The Making of Broceliande”. This is more a series of interviews with cast and crew and look behind the artistic and creative genesis of this film project. Both featurettes are fascinating and have English subtitles over French dialogue. The feature film can be viewed in French with English subtitles or dubbed in English. Make the effort to read the subtitles and enjoy the sonorous beauty of the native language of the cast and crew.

BROCELIANDE was not a bad film, and it is certainly worth your time. Unfortunately, this film was a really good example of how you can’t sample from too many inspirations or you are likely to swerve off course in some fashion. What made THE LORELY’S GRASP, THE WICKER MAN, DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA, and even ALIEN work so well is that all of those films stayed true to their story and direction. They finished what they started and as a result, we remember them with a smile on our faces and satisfaction in our hearts. BROCELIANDE was unable to fully deliver on its promise, but it is still head and shoulders above most drek available on dvd today and it is better to create a movie that is inspired by finer forerunners than to try and remake a superior film. Most of Hollywood still hasn’t learned that lesson yet, and they certainly should.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007) d. Gregory Wilson

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Telling a dark tale requires walking a very fine line. Include too much wickedness and you cross into the turgid waters of sleazy exploitation and leave behind a segment of the viewing population. Make your film into a soap box-morality play without any visceral content and you run the risk of being preachy and uninteresting. What would happen if writers, a director and producers came together to spin a yarn that was a little like FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002) and a lot like BLUE VELVET (1986)? The outcome would be THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum, which is a powerful, grisly but engaging film that leaves the viewer uncomfortably contemplative after the credits have rolled.

Based on a true account, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is the story of neighbors David Moran and Meg Loughlin. Meg and her sister Susan come to live with their relative Ruth Chandler and her sons. David is close friends with the Chandler boys and neighborhood kids like Eddie, Denise and Cheryl, who play games in the woods and by the riversides in their tranquil 1958 town. Not long after making Meg’s acquaintance, David is drawn into a web of unsavory acts perpetrated upon Meg by Mrs. Chandler and abetted by her sons. David is forced to witness deepening perversity and must make a decision between breaking faith with friends and neighbors or doing the right thing before any further horrors are visited upon Meg.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR begins with idyllic, bright colors in the fresh outdoors of the late 1950s, descends through a sepia-toned purgatory of middle class American living rooms and then abases itself at the altar of blue and black shaded depravity in the Hell of the Chandler’s basement. Just as the color scheme of the film subtly shifts even as the story patiently builds towards it loathsome crescendo, the mood of the film passes through gradations of tone from blithe, to agonizing to abominable. What this film has going for it is that it blends a gruesome narrative and grotesque imagery with powerful themes on abuse, parental power, conformity and the warped actions of seemingly “normal” people who swim in the streams of society like sharks. “Torture-porn” films like the unpleasant HOSTEL movies or the abysmal SAW series are violence and filth simply for the sake of violence and filth. In the case of Eli Roth’s HOSTEL franchise, at least one can say they are shot well and have some powerfully constructed scenes. Nothing good can be said about any of the SAW films except that they may possibly make good skeet-shooting targets. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR has a story that leaves a viewer feeling both bleak and buoyed because there is a redeeming point to the film’s descent into the darkest chambers of immorality.

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is replete with fine performances, most notably Blanche Baker, whose character of Ruth Chandler is one of the most disturbing “villains” since Hannibal Lecter, but without the glamorous powers of disguise and escape. Ruth Chandler is a sadist and an abusive fiend pure and simple. Wrapped in her 1950s garb and set amid the iconography of America’s “Glory Days”, Ruth Chandler’s sins seem that much viler and her sons’ base behavior conjures up images of Nazi henchmen “just following orders”. What the SAW and HOSTEL films don’t get is that it doesn’t take exotic locations in the East or lavishly constructed torture pens to be frightening and unsettling. The most potent imagery is always that with which we are most familiar. Make the main characters look like the boy who was once on your little league team and the girl you once had a crush on, make the villainess look like your Aunt Charlotte, set the story on a block that looks like your Uncle Charlie’s town and then do unspeakable things. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR follows this formula to the letter and as a result, it is very hard film to watch and say “you liked”, but it is a very impressive accomplishment none-the-less.

The extras menu is a mixed bag with more positives than negatives. The “Making of the GIRL NEXT DOOR” featurette is a neat look behind the scenes with a large percentage of the cast and crew. The very short “Interviews with the Cast Crew” is really just snippets from the longer featurette and focuses primarily on the writing and production principles. There are two worthwhile commentary tracks, one by the director and producers, the other with Jack Ketchum and the writers. Despite the unnecessary “Interviews” segment, this is an interesting set of extras that also includes a dvd-rom screenplay.

The canon of films includes just about every genre, directorial style and script ever imagined by the human mind. Some offerings are as sugary sweet and as simple as cotton candy, while others are no better than the excrement you try to scrape from your shoe after a walk in the park. Some are visually stunning, while others leave a lasting intellectual impression. THE GIRL NEXT DOOR succeeds as a film because it dares to tackle a very delicate subject and present it in a fashion that stays far enough away from the swampy filth that would have soiled it, but lays bare the core of corruption that is likely to be found in every city, town and hamlet on the face of the planet. Looking at such putrescence is never easy, but it is necessary if we are to transcend the sordid motivations that still lurk in our psyches.

Monday, March 3, 2008

SOLSTICE (2008) d. Daniel Myrick

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

It is often the case that creative influences spring from wells deep in both the conscious and unconscious mind. For every designed artistic element of a film or a novel, there are spontaneous aspects that make the outcome even more absorbing and profound. As a result, people on the critical end of the creative process get to examine the cornices of the inventive soul that the film maker or novelist may not be aware of. For example, to the end of his days, J. R. R. Tolkien passionately disavowed any conscious knowledge of incorporating allegorical material in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but it is clearly there. Such may be the case with Daniel Myrick’s newest directorial effort SOLSTICE. There are components of the film that show Mr. Myrick’s customary care and skill when it comes to classic story telling and compelling imagery, but after careful consideration there are other, more subtle ingredients that he “may not” have intended that are just as marvelous.

SOLSTICE is the story of young Megan Taylor and her friends who are gathering, as they have in past years, at the Taylor summer home in the bayous of Louisiana for Summer Solstice. The difference this Solstice is that Megan’s twin sister Sophie is unable to join them after her untimely death on Christmas Eve. It isn’t long after her arrival before Megan is haunted by ghostly happenings and spectral sightings, and before long friends and neighbors alike are drawn into a maelstrom of unexplainable occurrences that all seem to point to the presence of Sophie’s spirit.

SOLSTICE is a very good film with numerous strengths. From a purely technical aspect, it is a colorful, crisp and thoroughly attractive film that shows a purist approach to camera work. Whether they are set pieces, character scenes or action sequences, they are well composed, thought-provoking and artistically rendered. In some cases there are craftily constructed dissolves or subtly shifting focuses that force the eye to other corners of the scene. Coupled with this finely sculpted imagery is a multi-layered story co-written by Myrick, Ethan Erwin and Marty Musatov, that starts off stranded in the heart of grief, moves into the periphery of the paranormal and patiently allows that ethereal whirlpool to draw it towards the center of fear. At the same time, a mystery begins to parallel the ghostly tale and like the Solstice Moon begins to eclipse it. Before long, ghost story and murder mystery are delightfully entwined with plot twists and shifting character interplay that makes the story intricate without being convoluted. Daniel Myrick coaxes some solid performances from Shawn Ashmore and Tyler Hoechlin, but it is Elisabeth Harnois who is the focus of the film and her dual portrayal of Megan and Sophie is powerful and convincing. Lastly, a very simple but haunting score adds the final veneer to a movie that feels as much like classic 1950s horror films such as THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL as anything we’ve seen since that time. Just as THE MIST conjured nostalgic images of THEM or THE CRAWLING EYE, SOLSTICE felt like a paean to motion pictures like I SAW WHAT YOU DID or CASTLE OF BLOOD.

Lurking underneath all of these wonderful qualities was another layer of joy waiting to be unearthed. If this wasn’t Daniel Myrick’s purposeful effort at creating a subtle, sophisticated, modern adult take on the SCOODY DOO cartoons of the late 1960s, than his subconscious must have hijacked some of the creative process. Here are just some of the similarities. The film is set in an imposing, lovely, yet ominous southern “mansion” surrounded by miles of eerie bayous and swamps. Five “young people” journey to the mansion in an SUV, accompanied at times during the story by modern “groovy” music. Along the way, they meet the “creepy old guy” who continues to show up at moments of conflict. A local young person befriends and helps the team in their quest. Just as the ghost story develops and more occult clues are found, it becomes obvious there is a mystery underlying the original thread.

There are some obvious differences between classic SCOOBY DOO and SOLSTICE, but these set of similarities just didn’t seem to be coincidental. In no way am I suggesting that any of this cheapens SOLSTICE or makes it “hokey”, rather the reverse. To co-write a screenplay and direct a film that works on so many levels, not the least of which is to invoke a Saturday morning cultural icon of 40 years ago is a singular achievement. With its old-style, patient story telling, dependence on visceral and intellectual scares, lack of gore, nudity and other cultural banes and with its perfectly crafted dose of nostalgic iconography, SOLSTICE may be as close as you’ll find to a true, first-rate Saturday Night TV Movie of the Week experience that the whole family could sit down and enjoy.

There are small weaknesses here and there. The character of Mark is the “Alexandra” (Josie & the Pussycats) of the movie and is such a prick and so unlikable that he steals some of the carefully crafted empathy that is built between the viewer and characters like Megan and Christian. With the exception of an interesting commentary by Daniel Myrick, SOLSTICE has a fairly limited extras menu. In most cases, when the film is this good, it doesn’t detract from the product to have a lean set of goodies, but I found myself really wanting to see and know even more about this project. “You can’t have everything” is a lesson I learn a little more bitterly every year.

Between BELIEVERS and SOLSTICE, Daniel Myrick has brought forth two very different but both very enjoyable projects in the last two years. It is to be hoped that this is just the head of a torrent of other brilliant offerings to come. It is too bad the “paint by numbers” types that blindly guide the tiller of the Film Industry can’t see that motion pictures can be made that use tried and true techniques and don’t have to ape the trendy crap that oozes across the Silver Screen today. I’m going to sit back and look forward to THE OBJECTIVE and hope that Mr. Myrick will make it 3 for 3.