Horror 365, Movie 42: Life

Right. Movie #42. I briefly considered Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but that’s really not a horror movie. Instead, I decided on Life. Cuz, y’know, 42. Normally at Castle Blogferatu I try to avoid reviewing new releases and trashing movies. Then I saw Life. You might say it was, uh, Life-changing.

I gotta be honest here. I had already decided Life was going to suck long before I saw it. Not a helpful attitude. Based on the trailer, I’d already predicted it was going to be a ham-fisted mashup of Alien and The Blob. I was right. Admittedly, however, it wasn’t quite as bad as I assumed it would be.

Not as bad as, say, Harbinger Down, a rip-off so blatant (despite some truly cool practical effects), they could have called it The Thing…On A Boat.

In The Guardian back in February 2017, Ben Child noted:

Where JJ Abrams Super 8 and the TV series Stranger Things act as spine-tingling homages to their 70s and 80s influences, Espinosa’s movie (lens flare apart) seems to lack such gorgeously rendered nods to the past. To put it another way, on the basis of the trailer, it appears to have stolen the plot from its predecessor without quite nailing the tone.

Setting aside the facts that a) I hated Super 8 and b) haven’t seen Stranger Things, Child gets it. Much of Life comes off more as slick action movie than science fiction horror. This leads to several problems for the movie. One is, it creates the wrong kind of tension, the beat-the-clock kind that irritates me and keeps me away from scores of action films.

Another problem is I don’t really care all that much about anyone on the crew, including the Doomed Father. What’s a Doomed Father? I’ll tell you. He’s a guy who, early in the movie, gets to see video of his new baby, or even worse, of his wife actually having the baby. The overwhelming majority of the time, this guy is marked for death. May as well stick him in a red shirt and have him beam down from the Enterprise.

“In Space, No One Can Hear You Steal: Is New Sci-fi Film Life Just An Alien Remake?” Child’s title asks a good question. The answer, to me, is yes.

And no.

Clearly the biggest rip-off is Alien, only without the claustrophobia of the Nostromo nor the dread from rarely getting a sustained view of the Xenomorph. Most of the time, Life’s Calvin is fully visible and brightly lit. But Alien is hardly alone. Again, as Child says, these are not “gorgeously rendered nods to the past,” but merely tired, poorly executed do-overs.

The worst of these traces back to The Blob. Both Alien and Creepshow recreate The Blob’s doom-filled discovery with fine results. Life doesn’t. If anything, it’s manipulative. The biologist’s (Ariyon Bakare) fawning over the creature leads to the same “poke it with a stick” scene with the same results. Sadly too many of us have watched such scenes too many times for this to create any tension.

Here’s another problem. Much is made of the life form’s (named Calvin) startling intelligence. If it’s so smart, why doesn’t it know the biologist is trying to help rather than attack it?

Calvin itself looks like a tentacled Lovecraft creation which would be fine if it stirred the same sense of cosmic dread. If anything, Calvin ends up becoming an annoying but clever brat. True, this brat can (and will) crush and eat you, but it’s a brat nonetheless.

True, the shadows cast by Alien and The Thing are big but not impossible to emerge from. Look at Apollo 18. The creepy-crawly in the space helmet? That’s unnerving. The point is, there are still some shivers to be found. Life doesn’t find them. I don’t want to give anything away for those of you who insist on seeing this, but do yourself a favor and check out First Spaceship On Venus before you do. You’ll see what I mean.

Still, I did say Life wasn’t as bad as I assumed it would be, and it does have a redeeming quality or two. Ryan Reynolds is, well, Ryan Reynolds, so take that for whatever it’s worth. Also, deep down, there is and always will be a special place in my cold, dark heart for slithery alien goo of any stripe, and Life is indeed such a creature.

Finally Life has one of those great Saturday afternoon B-movie Sci-Fi Theater endings (which, again, I won’t give away).

The Hollywood Reporter’s Aaron Couch says, “In Life, things don’t turn out quite how its protagonists (and likely, moviegoers) expected.” But that’s only true if those moviegoers have never seen The Blob, First Spaceship On Venus, Beware! The Blob, Alien, The Thing, Harbinger Down, Apollo 18, Night Of The Creeps, Creepshow, Splinter, Slither, Black Mountain Side

You get the idea.

In fact, I’d argue with a lower budget and less star power (do we really need Reynolds and Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson if we’re not gonna give a crap about any of them?) Life could have worked much better as an affectionate (yet still creepy) nod to the very films it never managed to acknowledge.


SKULLS
4

BODIES
4 onscreen
2 inevitable but not shown
7.8 billion implied

Horror 365, Movie(s) 41: Rat Movie Round-Up

I had the original Willard on while writing the Fade To Black review, partly for background, partly because I hadn’t seen it in a while, and partly for fact-checking. It also reminded me that I love rats.

Really.

Especially in movies. Maila Nurmi reading poetry with a rat on her shoulder is one of the few scenes in A Bucket Of Blood worth watching.

Naturally this idea gnawed at me (surely you saw that coming–just gettin’ warmed up) until I could no longer resist the thought of revisiting a few of my favorite rat reels.

Willard (based on Ratman’s Notebooks, Stephen Gilbert)

willard2

Poor, downtrodden Willard (Bruce Davison). I love this movie despite the things I hate about it. Specifically I hate Ernest Borgnine in just about anything, and I really hate the killing of Willard’s white rat, Socrates.

Wait–Soc-rat-ese?

What’s important about Willard is that it paves the way in part for several later movies, not the least of which arguably being Carrie (I’m willing to bet Stephen King was familiar with Willard). There’s also Kiss Of The Tarantula, both involving young people with secret powers they use to wreak havoc on the vicious rat bastards who make their lives miserable.


SKULLS-9.5

Ben

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The poster doesn’t lie. The 1972 sequel to Willard really does pick up immediately where Willard leaves off. The police arrive at Willard’s house and start piecing together what happened. The focus of the movie is not only the obvious Ben but also Danny, a little boy who befriends him. Danny is a young loner, sickly (some unspecified heart problem), and a little annoying, but he and Ben have each other.

The highlight of the movie is when some kid starts bullying Danny only to have Ben’s pack rush to his defense by biting the little thug’s legs. Kinda thing always warms my otherwise cold, dark, godless heart, it does. Anyway, despite the ending, I always think of this movie as sad. Not like Old Yeller sad, but still. After all, like almost anyone, Ben just wants to be loved.


SKULLS- 3.5

Of Unknown Origin (based on The Visitor, Chauncey G. Parker III)

unknown

The thing about this movie is that the rat is supposed to be the bad guy. The problem is, with one notable exception forthcoming, I’m always on the rats’ side. In this case, it doesn’t help that the rat making Peter Weller’s life hell is kind of adorable.

One downside to this movie is that it’s 70 minutes of Peter Weller losing his shit and only about 20 minutes of rat. Another downside is needless cat death. Still, Cosmatos (Leviathan and Tombstone among others) rat-chets up and sustains tension nicely and handles the source material well. I suspect Parker put a mountain of research into his novel because, it turns out, the rat behavior is pretty spot-on.


SKULLS- 8

Willard

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With the exception of another unnecessary cat death, this 2003 remake ain’t bad. It’s got three things going for it. First, Crispin Glover. He’s already strange as hell anyway and does an even better job than Bruce Davison of being rat-like. Second, R. Lee Ermey is ir-rat-ating as hell, and it’s as much fun watching him get wiped out by rats as Ernest Borgnine. But best of all is Ben. He’s supposed to be bigger and smarter than the other rats, so in this version, they used a Gambian pouched rat.

rat2 rat

Another key difference is the original Willard was socially inept and mildly unlikeable. Glover’s Willard is meanspirited and downright cruel. This is especially clear in his preferential treatment of Socrates over Ben who, like his original counterpart, just wants some love and attention. The remake may also be somewhat more in line with the novel. Clever nods as well to The Shining and Psycho.


SKULLS- 9.5

Rats (based on Rats: Observations On The History & Habitat Of The City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, Robert Sullivan)

rats

Morgan Spurlock’s shockumentary works better as a horror movie than many a horror movie. This is the notable exception I mentioned earlier. I’m not on Team Rat for this one, and for several days after, I wanted to find a way to live in space or underwater. Even then, as Spurlock would suggest, the little fuckers would probably find a way to smuggle themselves along.

There is nothing comforting about this film. Exterminator Ed Sheehan strongly implies that the only reason rats tolerate our presence at all is that we provide them with a constant supply of food. Be on the lookout for some very Kubrick/The Shining-like combinations of segment titles, sound design, and aerial shots, most notably in the Cheltenham, England segment. An excellent pairing if you really want to freak yourself out would be a Rats/Of Unknown Origin double feature.


SKULLS- 12

So there’s my cu-rat-ed list. Call me ir-rat-ional, but I’m still full of love and ado-rat-tion for rats. I’m confident there’s one in my future.

Be-rat-ed, if you will.

Horror 365, Movie 40: Phenomena

As with Stanley Kubrick, I have a love/hate relationship with Dario Argento. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is one of my all time favorite movies. Also like Kubrick, Argento can be every bit as sadistic with sound design. In fact, I’m not willing to argue who learned it from whom. I suspect the influence may have been mutual.

I had a sneaking suspicion that Phenomena might have at least slightly, uh, “borrowed” from Kiss Of The Tarantula. An adolescent girl who can control insects is mercilessly bullied by her peers and discovers a murder plot involving an authority figure. I assumed Phenomena’s Jennifer (Jennifer Connelly) would follow in the footsteps of Kiss Of The Tarantula’s Susan.

Despite what I thought was a damn good prediction, I was wrong. In fact, take away the bugs, and these two movies have zero to do with each other. In fact, they don’t even both use insects.

Cuz tarantulas.

But Argento is by no means off the hook. Not far into Phenmonena, I kept being reminded, over and over again, of Suspiria.

Which brings me back to my love/hate relationship. I like Suspiria a lot. If nothing else, it’s stunningly beautiful just to look at. And there’s that sadistic sound design I mentioned. Tough to say if Argento (well, Goblin) cadged this from A Clockwork Orange or helped reinforce those ideas as Kubrick steered his demented ship straight into the sun that became The Shining.

The similarities between Phenomena and Suspiria are striking, so much so that it’s tempting to ask, “Is it plagiarism if you rip off one of your own films?” Jennifer in Phenomena and Suzy (Jessica Harper) in Suspiria both attend exclusive schools.

Both schools have domineering headmistresses and teachers (whenever I see the name Frau Brückner, I expect to hear horses whinny). Both schools have areas the students are forbidden to enter. Both girls have nightmare visions of what’s going on unbeknownst to the other students, and these visions lead them right into said forbidden areas (yep, shocking).

There’s more, like the shattering window scene in the first six minutes. It’s not nearly as visually arresting as the stained glass of Suspiria, but the similarity is all there. There’s also a third person narration at 13:45 in Phenomena describing Jennifer’s arrival at the school, echoing that from Suspiria. Both are also unwillingly subjected to psychological examinations/treatments after their quasi-psychic experiences.

That said, there is much about Phenomena I just don’t follow. On one hand, that’s a pretty standard giallo feature. On the other hand, Jennifer can summon insects, but the most this amounts to is the swarming of the school and, later, only one actual physical attack. If I could get insects to do my bidding, well, let’s just say things would get really messy for an alarming number of people.

Nor do I fully understand the killer. The first murder is committed with a pair of scissors and occurs near a house that never gets associated with the school. The other murders are at least indirectly associated with the school, but now involve a much different weapon which is also never explained.

Also, how does a chimpanzee manage to find a shiny, brand new looking straight razor in a public garbage can, and why do I care more about her than anyone else in the movie?

Such are the things that keep me up at night.

This is not to suggest that Phenomena is without appeal. Certainly it paves the way for movies like Castle Freak which has more in common with Argento than it does with Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” (on which it is nominally based). There are some good kill-offs and gross outs, including a pit of corpses that’s more than reminiscent of Poltergeist.

It’s also nice to see Donald Pleasance in a far less Michael Myers-y capacity.

Phenomena doesn’t stray far from Argento’s giallo roots either. Supernatural elements aside, the plot is deliciously convoluted, not at a Bird With The Crystal Plumage or Four Flies On Grey Velvet level but still. It also comes complete with not one but two, count ’em, two climactic near-death moments and one (spoiler spoiler spoiler! ) razor-wielding, vengeful chimpanzee.

Overall, Phenomena is certainly worth seeing. If you’ve never seen Suspiria, I recommend watching Phenomena first. It gives you an advantage I didn’t have after which you can watch Suspiria and see how Argento played these ideas out more successfully the first time around.


SKULLS
6

BODIES
7 onscreen
2 offscreen