Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Why ZOMBIES & SHARKS? Well, those are the two things that I’ve had the most nightmares about. It’s the reason I rarely swim in the ocean. It’s the reason I have an escape plan from my apartment just in case of a zombie apocalypse. Now if you’ve ever had those fears or fears like them, inspired mainly by nights upon nights of watching films of the frightening kind, this is the place for you. So look for AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS every Friday for the foreseeable future, horror hounds, where we’ll be covering horror in all forms; retro, indie, mainstream, old and new.
So this week, we’ve got a trio of new horrors released in either theaters or on DVD/BluRay. But before we dive in, I’ve got a few tidbits for you to check out.
First up, EXIT HUMANITY’s website was launched this week. I’ve been keeping my eye on this Civil War zombie film starring Dee Wallace, Stephen McHattie, & Bill Moseley. Set to be released later this year, check out the website for everything you need to know about this upcoming zombie opus by director John Geddes!
Next, I wanted to send out a reminder that Chicago readers of this column should definitely click here and check out Capone’s contest coming up next weekend. Darren Lynn Bousman will be at Chicago’s Music Box Theater introducing his remake of MOTHER’S DAY. The film isn’t due out until October, but Bousman’s bringing it to Chicago on May 7th to show at midnight before Mother’s Day. Sure, you could wait in line for hours and maybe, just maybe get in, or you could seal the deal and follow the above link to find out how to get on Capone’s special AICN VIP list! I know I’ll be there. Will you?
AICN CHICAGO: MOTHER’S DAY Contest!
And now, let’s check out some new horrors!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
STAKE LAND (2010)
NATIONAL THEATER LIVE PRESENTS DANNY BOYLE’S FRANKENSTEIN (2011)
And finally…MIDNIGHT ROADKILL
STAKE LAND (2010)Directed by Jim Mickle
Written by Jim Damici & Jim Mickle
Starring Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Sean Nelson, and Michael Cerveris
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Though one would be tempted to lump STAKE LAND in with ZOMBIELAND, while the two films have similarities, the tone couldn't be more different. While ZOMBIELAND expertly plays for laughs and gets a headshot most of the time, STAKE LAND plays things pretty stoic, which makes for a completely different film. Sure STAKE LAND has its own innocent Jesse Eisenberg teaming up with its own wizened monster killer Woody Harrelson, then running into its own version of Emma Stone, in this case a pregnant woman, and its own version of Abigail Breslin, ok, well in this case it’s a black ex-military guy and a nun…oh and instead of Bill Murray showing up, here we get the bald dude from FRINGE. Instead of laughs, STAKE LAND attempts to pull at the heartstrings and show a survivor’s side of a world overrun by vampires. STAKE LAND is an ambitious film that hits all the marks when it comes to your typical bloodsucker fest, only guilty of stumbling into melodrama and taking itself a bit too seriously occasionally.
Though main protagonist Connor Paolo’s rules aren’t illustrated across the screen, he does spend a lot of time narrating and going over rules of survival in the United States of Stakeland. Society has fallen. Most of the humans have been killed and turned into vampires. The survivors hole up at night and only walk the streets during the day. STAKE LAND is more like THE ROAD (another excellent survival pic) in that the humans are pretty dangerous themselves. What I liked most about STAKE LAND was the acknowledgment that in times of crisis, folks often lean towards religion for solace and how that reliance can easily pervert itself into zealotry given the right circumstances. STAKE LAND is full of religious iconography. Lead by FRINGE’s bald observer, Michael Cerveris, these bands of bible thumpers roam the coutryside, crucifying non-believers and making sacrifices to the vampires. There’s an extremely effective sequence later in the film where the band of survivors make their way into a gated community in the middle of a festival only to have the festivities interrupted by religious freak helicopters dropping vampires into the crowd. This is a pretty horrifying sequence, one of many in STAKE LAND.
Where STAKE LAND falters is that occasionally it seems like one cool sequence after another loosely threaded by a plot. Sure these action/horror scenes are more often than not uber-cool in both originality and technique, but they occasionally fit a bit neatly into place and by the end of the film, you pretty much can call the sequence scene by scene as one character you know would die dies and so on. That said, I won’t reveal it here, but the film ends strongly in a manner that addresses everything that needs to be addressed without being overly preachy or sentimental. For that, director Jim Mickle deserves a lot of credit.
The performances here are all pretty good. Danielle Harris continues to prove that she’s much more than a scream queen and turns in a very raw performance as the pregnant folk singer who hitches a ride with our stars. It wasn’t until I saw the credits that I realized that the old nun was Kelly McGillis and even then I had to do a triple-double take and hit rewind to make sure. The two leads are convincing enough. Connor Paolo is ok as the innocent pupil learning how to survive in this new world order populated by bloodsuckers, though the range is the young actor is breached on occasion when things get emotionally heavy. Turning in a somewhat nicely gruff performance, writer/actor Nick Damici occasionally skates the edge of self parody by taking things a little too seriously and not really having the charisma to pull off all of that seriousness all of the time. Damici looks and acts like the unholy offspring of Liam Neeson and Jeff Bridges’ The Dude, which distracted me more than once when he crossed the screen.
The vamps themselves are the type of bloodsucker I’d love to see more of. Hissing monstrosities with nary a twinkle or angsty furrowed brow. They’re more like fast zombies with a taste for blood not brains than typical vamps; feral infectious rats in human form. The addition of berserker vamps who have evolved breastbones to protect them from stakes is a nice new touch.
Those wanting a toothy version of last year’s hit zomedy are going to be sorely disappointed, but if you’re looking for a ballsy horror film that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty (and bloody), STAKE LAND has got a lot of stuff real horror lovers have been screaming for.
STAKE LAND is in limited release this week.
DOGTOOTH (2010)Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos
Written by Giorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou
Starring Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, & Anna Kalaitzidou
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
A few years ago, I had a conversation over drinks with a good girlfriend of mine about raising children. Though we knew nothing would come of it, we thought it would be perversely funny if we would have kids, shelter them, home school these children, teaching them that right is left, down is up, red is green and so on. When the children grew to be 18, we would set the children free into the world and follow them around with a camera crew. I think we were going to call it THE REALSY REAL WORLD FOR REAL, or something like that. We laughed and then we moved onto another perverse and drunken topic of discussion. Yes, I know this is a sick joke. Yes, I know the likelihood that the sheltered 18 year olds' survival in the real world would likely be a very short time. Yes, I know my friend and I are sick fucks. But guess what? Someone over in Greece made a movie about just that.
DOGTOOTH is perverse, surreal, and sick. It's also a fascinating sociological experiment, a sharp commentary on the delicate structure of family, and a biting satire on our reliance on language and how influential culture is on the development of ourselves as modern humans. Acted with a deadpan stiffness fans of David Lynch films will recognize, from frame one and filmed with the same almost documentary feel, as if the camera is just happening to catch all of this weirdness unfolding, DOGTOOTH is a film you will never forget once you experience it. Part of DOGTOOTH's charm is that, despite the perversion that's going on, the characters are extremely endearing. The unnamed family (they are listed as Father, Mother, Son, Older Daughter, & Younger Daughter) live by a strict set of rules. Father announces his guidelines with the tone of a drill sergeant. Yes, the fact is, Father is one messed up individual, but at first, the family seems to be functioning pretty well under his twisted guidance. The children, although completely misguided, are happy competing for achievement stickers in bizarre competitions such as seeing who can hold their finger under water the longest or who can catch an airplane which they believe will fall from the sky first. This is one weird household. Just check out dance night at the Dogtooth place.
Though director Giorgos Lanthimos offers little insight into the thoughts and motivations of Father and Mother and why they have chosen to raise their children in such a manner, he does offer glimpses of humanity, especially in an extremely effective and surprisingly touching subtitled exchange between the parents who mouth the words silently in the kitchen while the children sleep in their rooms. No one should watch DOGTOOTH for parenting tips, but it is a fascinating examination of how families work. Given the batshit crazy conditions the family grows up in, they strive and love and have arguments and combat challenges together. Seeing the family band together the way they do in the end is all at once insane, hilarious, and heart wrenching.
As an examination of how language is such an important part of our everyday lives, DOGTOOTH offers a brilliant glimpse of how important our perception of words are and how easily they can be changed in a controlled environment. Mother's constant check ins with Father to make sure they have their definitions and stories straight is so utterly ridiculous, but more evidence to support the cultural structure the parents work so hard to maintain. In order to protect them, words that do not fit into the careful structure are quickly redefined by Father and Mother and absorbed by the sponge-like curiosity of the children. Seeing that structure crumble as the outside world begins to invade and corrupt this delicate balance the parents have worked so hard to erect kept me riveted to the seat's edge, wondering how it will all end. And the ending, although ambiguous, is utterly satisfying in it's banal curiosity.
A lot of the attention to this film I've read focuses on the sexual perversions of the story. Yes, it's pretty damn gross. Father brings in a worker at his job to sexually satisfy his son and when that proves to be problematic, he resorts to candidates closer to home which is bound to cause a squirm or two. But to me, the sexual aspects of this film were the least fascinating. For me, DOGTOOTH works looked at in a broader sense, examining the terrifying lengths all parents go to protect their children from being corrupted by the world around them. Though this isn't a film that one would automatically lump into the horror genre, it definitely fits with it's perversion of the spoken word, dysfunctional familial interaction, and especially with its heart twisting and gut churning ending. I loved that this film made me so conflicted while watching it. I felt sorry for this family to have to endure the craziness the parents put them through, but also was rooting for them to survive in the end. DOGTOOTH doesn't provide a pretty picture or easy answers, but it will forever leave a scar in your heart and definitely inspire much debate after watching. Once you’ve seen DOGTOOTH, you’ll never be the same.
DOGTOOTH is available on DVD/BluRay now.
NATIONAL THEATER LIVE PRESENTS DANNY BOYLE’S FRANKENSTEIN (2011)Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Starring Johnny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, & Naomie Harris
Showing at the Music Box Theater, Chicago IL this week.
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
I can’t count the number of different versions of Mary Shelley’s classic I’ve seen through the years, but the version I had the pleasure of witnessing last Wednesday night at Chicago’s Music Box Theater was by far one of the most well produced, well written, well acted versions of the tale I’ve ever seen. Danny Boyle’s name on anything is an automatic guaranteed butt in the theater seat for me. What I didn’t know was that Boyle started out directing theater. This experience directing for the stage shows as Boyle puts together a tale of Frankenstein and his monster the likes of which the world has never seen. What makes this version better than all the rest? You can break it down into four reasons; a phenomenal script, a gorgeous stage, a big budget production and a director who knows how to maximize that budget, and last but not least a cast that brings life to the characters like few have before them.
Let’s start with the production and stage. Though this is a stage performance, the audience will not feel the normal trappings of one. You’d swear you were seeing the hillsides and castles of Geneva or the bitter slopes of the North Pole. Played out on a circular rotating stage which rises and falls as it changes acts, the play seamlessly moves from one scene to the next. Though the set design goes simple, it never feels like a cheat. The minimalist design only highlights the other strengths of the production.
Boyle’s influence is everywhere in this play. His ingenious way of unfolding a story and amping it to a visual apex is present even with a bare circular wooden stage and an electric candelabra chandelier sparking above to signify the bolts of electrical life. Boyle enriches the story with symbolic shapes and curves. The stage is skewed even during the most intimate moments between Frankenstein and his lovely bride to be Elizabeth, making even that conversation rich in tension and teetering on the brink of insanity. The camera work is mostly pretty simple, highlighting the stage and the people on it. Though this is a broadcasted production, it still feels like you are in the audience at a playhouse in England, witnessing it with those present.
The performers Johnny Lee Miller (TRAINSPOTTING, DEXTER) and Benedict Cumberbatch, who I’ve never seen before, are fantastic. The actors switch roles from one performance to the next, so one never knows which version of the monster and which version of Victor Frankenstein you’re going to get. In the version I saw, Johnny Lee Miller played Victor and does so with an amount of depth that I’ve rarely seen in any of the onscreen versions. Miller’s Victor is cold, dedicated, and cruel, yearning to create life to fill some kind of hole in himself. But the true standout for me was Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, who plays the role with equal parts menace and sorrow. I’ve never felt so moved by a performance of the Monster and yes that includes Karloff and Lee’s versions. Cumberbatch plays the Creature as a palsied misfit soul in search of a place in a world that won’t accept him. Cumberbatch’s physical performance is engrossing to watch as his movements resemble that of a stroke victim not in complete control of his body more than a stiff legged brute. Rounding out the main players of the cast is Naomie Harris who starred as the bad ass machete wielding survivor in 28 DAYS LATER. Here she embodies innocence and purity without being over-saccharinated. Harris delivers a sense of decency and sincerity that is on par with the caliber of the two stars.
To me, though, the highlight of this production was Nick Dear’s script which boils Shelley’s novel down to the basics and creates a narrative that is utterly original, yet adheres to the source material. The film opens not with Victor lamenting in his lab, but with an extended birth sequence as the Creature bursts from a man-made womb, writhes on the floor, learns to crawl, then walk, then run right before our eyes. Though this opening sequence goes on a bit long, the transformation from helpless newborn to running beast is an astounding silent communication of the Creatures quick leaps through early development. Unlike previous versions, the Creature evolves through the story into an articulate speaker, learning to speak and read and think. There’s an especially effective scene between the Creature and Victor that explains love in such a rich and poetic manner that it makes most love stories pale in comparison. This scene beautifully highlights the vast chasm between a monster who understands love yet cannot have it and his ruthless maker who has love but knows nothing about it. The final scene of this performance hit me like a sledge hammer and highlighted the relationship between monster and maker/father and son like I’ve never before seen in a FRANKENSTEIN story.
This production is being broadcast three more times in Chicago at the Music Box Theater (Saturday April 30th at 2:00pm, Wednesday May 4th at 7:30pm and next Saturday May 7th at 2:00pm) before it moves on to its next city on the tour. If you’re in the Chicago area and are even a casual fan of Frankenstein, you must see this production. Tomorrow’s performance has Cumberbatch playing the Creature again while next week’s performances have Johnny Lee Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor. I think I’m going to check out next week’s show and offer a review of the flip side to this performance in next week’s column (which will have a focus on Frankenstein movies!). After seeing this performance, though, Cumberbatch’s Creature is going to be hard to beat.
DANNY BOYLE’S FRANKENSTEIN is by far the best translation of Shelley’s story I’ve ever seen. I’d love to see Boyle bring this version to the big screen. As is, this projected performance live from London is simply amazing from start to finish. If you’re in Chicago, you’re a fool if you miss it. And if you’re lucky enough to have it stop near your burg next, seek it out. You won’t see anything like it and you won’t see Shelley’s classic done any better.
And finally…here’s a fun little short called MIDNIGHT ROADKILL! Enjoy!
See ya, next week, folks!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the covers to purchase)!
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