Sunday, May 20, 2012

Aliens Verses Predator: Requiem (2007)

The Movie: On a Predator spaceship carrying, among other things, live facehuggers; an alien/Predator hybrid is born. It quickly slaughters the ship’s crew and causes the vehicle to crash on a certain, familiar blue planet; just outside the small town of Gunnison, Colorado. However, one of the Predators manages to get off a distress signal just before it gets killed. The signal contacts some kind of specialist on the homeworld, who immediately heads for Earth.

The Predator specialist arrives pretty quickly, especially considering the interstellar distances that must be involved, and immediately sets to work hunting down the hybrid and “cleaning up” evidence of the presence of both kinds of aliens. Unfortunately, despite his speedy arrival, the hybrid and facehuggers have been very busy infecting the nearby small town.

In Gunnison, we are introduced to the lives who are about to have a nasty collision with cosmic horror. Ex-con Dallas Howard (Steven Pasquale) has just come home from prison; where the first person to greet him is his old friend Eddie Morales (John Ortiz), who also happens to be the sheriff. He also reunites with his teenage brother, Ricky (Johnny Lewis). Ricky has his own problems; he’s not so secretly pining for his old friend and classmate Jesse (Kristen Hager). Unfortunately, she’s currently dating Dale (David Paetkau); living, breathing, concrete evidence of the gods’ high support for birth control. Dale and his friends have long been going out of their way to make Ricky’s life a living hell. Also important for our concerns is Kelly O’Brian (Reiko Aylesworth); a war vet just coming home to her husband, Tim (Sam Trammell), and young daughter, Molly (Ariel Gade).

These two sets of homecomings arrive just in the nick of time to see it all go to Hell. Within a day of his arrival, Howard winds up having to give support to Morales; his old friend suddenly finding himself way over his head with a rash of mysterious disappearances and brutal killings. The situation exacerbates quickly; and as the two sets of extraterrestrials square off, the citizens of Gunnison are quickly caught in the middle of a very horrible situation that they have no reference for. And, while there is a military base nearby; this is definitely not the cavalry Gunnison is so desperately hoping for…

The Review: Before I begin my review, I would like to announce that this blog has now been up and running for two full years! It is still very much a work in progress and I have no clue where it will ultimately end up. Still, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished thus far. Those of you who have been with me in that time, I am grateful for your patronage. Those of you who are reading this for the first time; I would just like to take this moment to point out that it’s now way too late to turn back, and that you might as well surrender now and save yourself the trouble. Bwahahaha!

I saw Alien Verses Predator: Requiem in the theater with a friend; and I think that what we really found appalling was that the people in front of us had brought their young daughter. The kid couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. Thing is, I found this movie pretty damn scary. Now, I’m a grown man and well aware that what’s on screen is not necessarily what happens in life. In fact, due to my fascination with movies and mildly obsessive nature, I have a better idea how it’s put on the screen in the first place than your average Joe. Also, having watched horror movies (and sometimes, worse) for around two decades now, I’m a bit jaded about what I see in my films. If I could find this movie scary despite all that, I can only imagine what it would have been like for a five year-old.

As I haven’t done any formal research on this you’ll have to take it with a grain of salt, but I suspect that the idea for this particular franchise matchup began with the movie Predator 2; where a brief, throwaway look at the Predator’s trophy room shows us the skull of the thing from the Alien movies among the other trophies. Throughout the 1990s I can remember Alien verses Predator matchups in paperback fiction, comic books, and video games; some of which weren’t half bad. It wasn’t until 2004 however until an actual Alien Verses Predator movie was released; and it was universally derided. Having not seen it for myself, I am in no position to specify the reasons for this; but the fact that it’s a PG-13 movie about two sets of R-rated monsters is most likely a good place to start.

Requiem came out three years later; again to near-universal derision. However, after watching it for myself I really couldn’t see why. Requiem is far from being a great work of art, or even a great movie in general. However, it is definitely one of the best attempts at a horror film I’ve seen come out of a major studio in a very long time.

First is the handling of the two franchise monsters. Now, I have long found the eponymous ‘aliens’ of that franchise to be particularly scary. In fact, they have made guest appearances in my nightmares as recently as the last few years. Just the look of them is terrifying, even when seen directly; something that can be said about very few movie monsters. Even more so is their very nature; these are things that use human beings as breeding vessels.

In recent years, the studios have made the major mistake of downgrading them; reducing the aliens from something straight out of one’s nightmares into mere monsters. This was especially obvious in the fourth movie of the franchise. However, Requiem doesn’t do this. Instead, the monsters are every bit as terrifying and nightmarish as they should be. Even the “predalien” works on this level. In appearance it is every bit as scary as its conventional brethren (okay, maybe the dreadlocks are a little goofy); and besides being bigger, stronger, and more dangerous in general, it also has a particularly disturbing new variation on the creatures’ method of reproduction. I just don’t understand why they had to make it a hybrid; just a run-of-the-mill uber-alien would have worked every bit as well. In short, however, the aliens come across as they should. Not as mere monsters to be fought, but a cosmic cancer that threatens anything it comes into contact with.

The Predator specialist is equally effective. It’s vaguely humanoid, but it is most definitely not human. When it is on the screen, we never have any narrative device telling us what it is doing. Instead, we have to determine purely by watching it. And, while there are a few minor humanish traits (I thought the brief show of sorrow it displays upon finding its dead companion in the crash was a nice touch), overall it is definitely a very inhuman creature. What I, personally, found most chilling was one particular angle to its actions that I could relate to. All throughout history there have been political, military and/or corporate messes that the offending organization tries to quietly “clean up”, but that ultimately do the most harm to individuals whose only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Predator, through its actions, is pretty much the apotheosis of these kinds of incidents.

The biggest element that I thought made Requiem work best as a horror movie was the simple fact that nobody was safe. They actually cack a kid at the beginning of the film; and there’s a scene of the hybrid rampaging through a maternity ward that I was shocked the studio let into this movie at all, much less into the theatrical release. Now, to stave off any misunderstandings from my readers, let me state for the record that I do not advocate or enjoy violence against children, pregnant women, or anyone, really. That is not my point at all.

My point is that the horror genre depends upon suspense to work. Particularly in survival horror, the subgenre into which this movie falls, the point of the story revolves around the suspense of whether or not the protagonist(s) will survive the horror. In the past two decades or so, Hollywood movie studios have been populating their horror movies with individuals that might as well have either big, glowing targets on their ass; or glowing neon signs over their heads that say “invulnerable, don’t even bother.” In short, we practically start out knowing who will survive and who won’t; who’s off limits to the monster and who’s fair game. There is no suspense whatsoever when you are fully aware of what will happen ahead of time.

With Requiem’s first two victims, a hunter and his son who witness the spaceship crash, the movie is effectively telling us in the audience “there is no safety net here. None of these characters are safe; none of them are off limits.” And it follows through admirably. While there are plenty of raw meat characters, individuals whose presence here is solely to up the body count, several of our protagonists get taken out as well; even ones we would expect to be off limits. This really ups the suspense, because it leaves us with no certainty who, if anyone, will survive.

One of the more common complaints about Requiem is that most of the characters and subplots feel like they wondered in from another movie entirely. Admittedly there is some truth to this; and none of the characters or actors are particularly memorable, in either a positive or negative fashion. But, I find that this sense of displacement nicely adds to the suspense. It’s clear that they are outmatched, outnumbered and outgunned; even the military vet back from war is in over her head and well aware of it. None of these people are really suited to handle the situation; which makes it even more uncertain whether or not they’ll survive it.

Also, the contrived movie romantic triangle between Ricky, Jesse and Dale the asshole is played a little differently from what we are led by other movies to expect. For one, Dale and his pack’s bullying of Ricky has a nastier, more realistic edge; I actually found myself wondering if they would kill him before the xenos got the opportunity. What’s more, the romantic subplot sets us up for a nasty plot twist that I, for one, never saw coming. The only real thing I find I agree with the naysayers of Requiem on is that there are too many scenes with insufficient lighting, so that it’s sometimes hard to see what’s going on.

Ultimately, Alien Verses Predator: Requiem is crap. However, any true B-movie fan will tell you that there are universes worth of difference between good crap and bad crap; and I would place it in the former category. Setting aside its obvious status as an attempt for a big studio to cash in on two popular franchises; Requiem is at its core a B-exploitation movie done on a big studio budget. The only real purpose of this movie is to scare the living Hell out of you, and I think it does a good job at that. Give this one a try if you’re in the mood for a relatively brainless, yet decent and fairly effective horror movie.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Shiver of the Vampires (1971)

The Movie: We open with a black and white view of a funeral for several people, with two unnamed girls (Marie-Pierre Castel, one half of the delectable Castel twins, and Kuelan Herce) standing silent witness. Later, said girls are sitting around a castle looking bored, and decide to take a trip to one of the towers. There they encounter two dying men, chained up and with stakes in their chests. One of the men warns the girls to take his stake after he has perished, and go put a permanent end to “Them.” However, he warns that the girls only have until nightfall; and adds that should they be too late, they should offer themselves as servants, thereby ensuring their own lives. As it’s not quite ten minutes into the film, you can probably guess how that turns out.

An undisclosed, though undoubtedly fairly small, amount of time later; Isle (the lovely Sandra Julien), and Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand), a young just-married couple, are on their way to Italy for their honeymoon. Along the way they intend to stop at the local castle and visit Isle’s two cousins (Jacques Robiolles and Michel Delahaye), who are her only still-living relatives, and who she hasn’t seen in years. When the couple asks directions in the village they are told that the two men are dead; but at the castle the two servants inform them that no, they aren’t dead at all, and that everything is prepared for the newlyweds.

It turns out that Isle’s cousins were actually great vampire hunters, but that they have recently been turned into the creatures themselves by the vampire Isolde (Dominique). Now all three vampires, but particularly Isolde, have plans for Isle; ones that, unfortunately for Antoine, she seems more and more receptive to as time goes on. Antoine has some potential allies in his fight to take his wife back from the monsters, but even then it looks to only end in tragedy for the young couple…

The Review: If you’re into movies with a very strong dose of the weird, the bizarre, the erotic, the Fantastique, or that otherwise engage the emotions that Hollywood shies away from; it’s hard to do much better than the works of the late French director Jean Rollin. Rollin was an artist with his own unique vision; one that he worked hard and made sacrifices to bring to the screen. His best works (and even many of his more obviously flawed offerings) play like they were shot in a dream; scenes straight from the realms of the subconscious that have a bizarre logic all their own, and that resonate emotionally with the viewer on a far deeper level than most movies have any hope of coming close to.

Shiver of the Vampires, one of my personal favorites of Rollin’s movies, also happens to be one of his earliest. If memory serves, it was his third general release. Watching this movie, it is clear that this is an amateur effort. Now, I’m not saying that in a bad way; Shiver is a very well made piece of work. I describe it as ‘amateur’ in that this is a work that is very obviously from early in an artist’s career. This is the point where the artist in question is familiar enough with the basics of his medium to create a competent piece; but is now playing with those basics, tweaking them, experimenting to see what it’s possible to do with them and how he can use them toward creating his own unique artistic vision.

This experimental quality is very evident all throughout the film. For example, the aesthetics are quite unique from what I’ve seen in other movies. In fact, Shiver of the Vampires looks a lot like how I’d expect a gothic horror put together by hippies to turn out; the colored lights used to illuminate the nighttime scenes, the rock score, the styles of the two male vampires (that’s right, there are euro-hippie vampires). However, overall Rollin is able to blend the two seemingly disparate sets of aesthetics and make it work. There are only a few places where the experimenting doesn’t quite work. The one off the top of my head is a tracking shot used throughout the film, where the camera follows a character or characters around in a circular motion. It always stops just short of motion sickness, but it could have been dropped after the first or second time.

Shiver was made on a fairly low budget, but it’s hard to tell by looking at it. One of Rollin’s greatest strengths in all of his movies that I have seen is his masterful use of location shots. Now admittedly, he has a bit of an advantage there. Europe is full of ruined castles and large cemeteries, and the majority of euro-horror films I have seen have made use of them. Not only that, but even the most ineptly made of them that I have born witness to have been unable to detract entirely from the atmosphere of the ruins.

Rollin, however; whether ancient ruins or modern buildings, had a real knack for wringing every bit of atmosphere he could out of wherever he was shooting, and incorporating it into his movies. In Shiver he makes adroit use of both the ruined castle and the old cemetery where the majority of the movie takes place; as well as a certain beach, present in many of his films, where we witness the tragic ending.

One thing that I find interesting about Rollin’s movies is his depiction of vampires. Vampirism was a favorite theme of Rollin’s, and it was the core of many of his plots. However, whatever variations on the theme Rollin used, I’ve noticed a few things all his movie vampires seem to have in common. First of all; even when Rollin romanticized his vampires or played them for sympathy, it is still clear that they are monsters. They may be monsters against their will (a la Lips of Blood), but there is a clear distinction between not evil and not dangerous; and being the former doesn’t necessarily guarantee the latter. Secondly, Rollin’s vampires are always outsiders; and not in the tragically hip way. In Rollin’s cosmos; even when vampirism is actively sought by the protagonist, it is always an irrevocable act that forever separates you from normal humanity.

The vampires in Shiver are particularly interesting. When we first meet them they are sympathetic, and even kind of goofy. The scene where the young couple first sits down to dinner with Isle’s cousins is hilarious; the two men giving this long-winded lecture on their studies, constantly posturing, interrupting each other, and ending each other’s sentences. The two actors play off each other beautifully. However, as the two vampires come to accept and even embrace their new nature, they become less sympathetic and more monstrous. When we reach the point just before the climax when all masks are dropped and they are lecturing Antoine on how he should be feeling pity for them instead of anger, I rather find them downright repulsive.

Isolde is even more interesting as the main villain. Rollin was strongly influenced by surrealism; and most of the surreal elements in Shiver revolve specifically around her. Isolde’s entrances are always dramatically bizarre; slinking out of grandfather clocks and popping down chimneys. At one point she even kills a victim with spiked nipple-caps. It’s almost as if Isolde is an avatar for the things in this world that are terrifying because there is no sense or logic to them. Dominique also adds to the character of Isolde with her looks; she possesses unconventional features that can switch from exotically sexy to downright terrifying depending on the situation.

Finally, there are our two young lovers caught in this dreadful mess. Rollin’s movies tend to revolve more on emotion than dialogue; and in particular he focused a lot on the emotion of loneliness. In Shiver, the horror, sadness and loneliness of the story comes mainly from how the vampires come between the young couple and destroy their relationship. Julien and Durand do a perfect job of portraying the strain and awkwardness that is increasingly interfering with Isle’s and Antoine’s new marriage. It is hard not to feel for Antoine as dark influences take his love away from him and he is unable to do anything about it.

Of course, some of my readers will want to know about the exploitation elements of the movie. Shiver of the Vampires is usually billed as an exploitation movie, and it does deliver on some of the goods. On the one hand, there is very little violence, and what we are given is very discreet. However, this being a Jean Rollin movie there is plenty of female nudity; from Dominique’s outfits, to the translucent veils worn by the servants that Rollin put on a lot of his female characters, to Sandra Julien constantly wandering around in the buff. I ain’t complaining. I should point out, though, that aside from one very brief throwaway scene, it tends to be less tawdry and more chaste and artistic.

In conclusion, Shiver of the Vampires is an odd, experimental, artistic movie that serves as a great example of Rollin’s oeuvre. Beautiful and bizarre, sensual and surreal; watch this one if you’re after something different.