30 November 2010

Holiday Horror Viewfest

Holiday Horror Hits
By Kristin Battestella

Looking for something to do with yourself after surviving the horrors of unending holiday dinners, hyperactive family drama, and the fruitcake that will not die?  Take in these classic horror hits and worthy recent scarefests.  

Antichrist – Director Lars von Trier’s 2009 disturbing and controversial family horror drama opens with a bizarre and unique sex scene/baby death montage and gets weirder from there.  Only Willem Dafoe (Platoon) can make dead babies seem so casual- and I say that in a good way!  Although von Trier’s distorted cutting, angled filming, and scribbled chapter plates may be jarring to some, these visual cues akin perfectly to the unreliable feelings of distortion and downward spiral that such grievous loss can bring.  Cannes Best Actress winner Charlotte Gainesburg (I’m Not There) is a little annoying as well, but then again obviously understandable as a mother who was shebanging when she should have been looking after her child.  The altered perception of time, responsibility, and indifference bounces between the leads nicely as we progress towards plenty of violent sex, mental scares, and kinky creepy.  It’s all a little uppity considering the dirty subject matter, and certain audiences will definitely be alienated by the material-but the performances here win against the saucier distrubia. Put the kids to bed for this one.

Bride of Frankenstein – Despite its short length, over the top style, and bad science effects, this 1935 Universal sequel is a classic for a reason.  Boris Karloff (The Mummy) returns with Elsa Lanchester (Witness for the Prosecution) for director James Whale’s (The Invisible Man, Showboat) stylized tale in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s infamous creation.  The theatrics at hand add to the spooky atmosphere and morally ambiguous, hair raising drama and provide plenty of scary hijinks for both young and old.  Even the score is wonderful as well, being tragic when needed and even spiritual and bittersweet. Love, tragedy, death, angry mobs, misunderstood monsters- there’s something for everyone here!  Long time classic horror fans can always enjoy the great, campy classic quotes and old school iconography.  Educate the family while taking in all the subtext, layers, and quality storytelling here.  

Child’s Play If you want to scare the kids out of wanting THE toy of this holiday season, then this is the film! Though dated, some of the 1988 scares may indeed be too much for the super youngins.  However, nostalgic folks can chuckle with Chucky’s naughty wit courtesy of Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings, Dune) and enjoy the more intelligent mystery and suspense aspects here.  While the sequels certainly have their ups and downs, Chris Sarandon (Fright Night, Dog Day Afternoon), and Catherine Hicks (7th Heaven) have some fine moments here.  Die hard marathoners can continue with Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run) in Child’s Play 2 or go really crazy with Jennifer Tilly’s (Bound) send up in Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky.  Child’s Play 3 isn’t that bad, but Chucky run amok on a military base is a bit much, even for this zany franchise.

Trick ‘r Treat This 2007 pseudo horror anthology is kind of comical- a diminutive pumpkin boy Sam (short for Samhain) pursues naughty Halloween rule breakers? Some segments here are pretty bad, even stupid and just preposterous beyond belief.  Somehow, however, writer and director Michael Dougherty’s (X2, Superman Returns) quirky style and lighthearted irony keep these tales- among them twisted school principal Dylan Baker (Kings, Thirteen Days) and seemingly innocent and Red Riding Hood-esque Anna Paquin (True Blood, X-Men) - on the bemusing side.  The ridiculousness is actually quite refreshing; especially against other recent horror pictures that try to be sardonic and miss or those copycat sequels and remakes that just take themselves too dang seriously.

The Watcher in the Woods Although this 1980 Disney thriller might be a little too scary for the super young Santa set, older kids and the young at heart who grew up on this spooky charmer can delight all over again in young Lynn Holly Johnson (Ice Castles, For Your Eyes Only) and crotchety Bettie Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) as they try to solve the haunting events and disappearances in the forest about their grand English manor.  Yes, it’s a little marred by Disney’s influence and maybe some of the events here are a fairly typical now. However, some scenes are still as scary now as they were to me back then.  When my mother wanted to frighten me indoors from the woods surrounding our own home or prevent me from staying up to watch an eclipse, she’d yell, “Do you want to end up like Karen in The Watcher in the Woods?!”

Bloody Egg Nog, anyone?

27 November 2010

Eden Lake

Eden Lake an Intriguing and Intelligent Horror Examination
By Kristin Battestella

Well, here we go again.  I picked up Eden Lake because Michael Fassbender is in, sure- but it’s also touted as a well-received independent horror gem.  Two birds with one stone, I say.

Nursery school teacher Jenny (Kelly Reilly) is unaware her boyfriend Steve (Fassbender) intends to pop the question during their romantic weekend.  Unlike some of their posh friends going off to Paris, Steve takes Jenny to Eden Lake, a picturesque flooded quarry and soon to be gated housing development.  Sadly, the trip gets off on the wrong foot when a local youth gang - Brett (Jack O’Connell), Mark (Jumayn Hunter), Ricky (Thomas Gill), Cooper (Thomas Turgoose), and Paige (Finn Atkins) - disrupts the beautiful beach setting with their ornery dog, loud music, and lewd behavior.  Steve confronts the group to no avail, and even follows them into town with a complaint after they spike his tires.  When the gang steals their car, Steve and Jenny again confront the kids- leading to escalating violence, extreme actions, and dire results.  

On one hand, it would seem dumb that adults can’t handle a handful of kids- why should they bother anyway? Writer and director John Watkins’ (The Woman in Black, The Descent 2) punks are bad news on top of bad decisions and debates about bad parenting.  I’ve seen several films about the growing violence, hoods, and youth rebellion in England.  Apparently, these stories aren’t that far from the truth, and that’s a scary notion in itself.  Sometimes we become so enthralled over our fictitious monsters, special effects, and paranormal phenomenon that we forget the contemporary horrors in our own society. Although there is some writing on the wall at the beginning of Eden Lake for a wise horror viewer (Remember your rules from Scream!), there’s enough interest, realistic surprises, and disturbing imagery to make up the difference here. Yes, some characters make dumb choices, but this isn’t a heroic tale.  Watkins keeps Eden Lake real through natural scenery and naturally flawed people. The story and characters are allowed the room needed to develop, building fine suspense and drama in first half hour.  The meat of the chase and the uncharacteristic but no less horrific violence keeps the intensity through the middle of the picture, and the gore presented is not at the expense of the plot at hand.  Rather than a traditional bloodfest with 20 naked teens getting sliced and diced, Watkins hold true for a wonderfully surprising final segment.  Imperfect people make mistakes and bad choices all around, but Eden Lake isn’t comical like the numerous franchise sequels that are inevitably all the same.   Instead of unintentional comedy, we have social subtext; a warning of what happens when we take life over the line to our raw, id, sociopath tendencies.  The viewer wants to see the victims survive and make it out alive, but once irrecoverable lines are crossed, hope certainly does dwindle!  Where does the vengeance begin and end here?  Whose wrath is more justifiable?  Eden Lake captures the vicious cycle without pretend monsters. It’s so refreshing to have some frank and smart cinema- especially when it circumvents the expected Hollywood ending.

Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes, Above Suspicion) is perfectly cast as Eden Lake’s  firm nursery teacher with a soft spot for the kids. Jenny knows how to handle tough stuff, yet she’s willing to let the little things go.  Her transformation from seemingly strung along girlfriend to physical action heroine happens realistically- with gritty dilemmas and a disturbing course of action.  The wise audience may expect the pretty blonde female lead to step up the hardcore badass- as seems to always be the case with horror movies with freaky kids.  However, the action comes a little late for Jenny and the plot doesn’t travel as we’d expect.  Reilly does not make Jenny a superhero.  Again, Eden Lake could have turned into a lot of cheap boob shots and flashy stupidity, but thankfully, Reilly keeps the desperate realism and flight or fight response effective. This is not a pretty role, and characters forced into an extreme situations can do very ugly things. 


Fallen Angel.  Spartan Warrior.  Bobby Sands.  Despite coming into Eden Lake with such a manly pedigree, Michael Fassbender plays a little bit of a wimp here. Steve has no problems so long as he has his badass SUV or fancy electronics; but he’s quite a prick, making hothead decisions to show off and cover up his true limp fish nature.  Make no mistake, Fassbender (Hex, 300, Hunger) looks the yuppie hottie with a cool voice to match, but Steve can’t even get up enough nerve to ask Jenny to marry him. He’s actually more interested in how cool of a proposal he can make.  She’ll say yes, trust me. Lady fans can certainly enjoy the first half of this film, with a boxers- only Fassy all wet in a tent by the lake or roaming around the bedroom strutting his stuff.  He seems to be having a lot of fun with the part initially, making plenty of charming facial and vocal exaggerations. I can’t seem to find any information on which was filmed first, but Fassbender appears kind of thin and older looking here, probably from his Hunger starvation experience. He’s still muscular and fun for the ladies, but he looks to be balding already-and there are consequences to Steve’s dreamy introduction, I warn you!  Stelios begs people, and seeing Fassbender roughed up by these kids is actually slightly amusing and even enjoyable because we can so easily believe his Steve is that much of a louse.  I’ve no doubt the wicked youths here are the villains of Eden Lake, but I’ve also hidden a spoileriffic case of examination for Steve’s culpability at the end of this review. 

 And let’s talk about those youths and all this hard core peer pressure!  Are these kids really sadists at heart or is this all a case of really bad parenting?  Why do they do it?  Jack O’Connell (Skins) does a superb job of giving us the basis of Brett’s wrath while also keeping the character askew with his true motivations unclear.  Was it really just ‘boys being boys’ in the beginning? Surely, things can’t have turned deadly over a dog and loud music.  Thomas Gill and Thomas Turgoose (This is England) are the weak links of the gang- their conflict over taking part and trying to be cool is also finely done.  How far did they intend to take all this?  If Brett wasn’t there, would the other kids behave differently? Was it Steve’s aggressive actions that pushed them to this?  The hints that this is retaliatory are there (again I discuss this below for anyone interested) but clearly the patterns within the gang already laid these sadistic behaviors in place.  Finn Atkins’ (Dangerville) Paige is the opposite of Jenny as the token girl of the group who does nothing but video tape it all.  It’s a nice juxtaposition-not just of the cute blonde Jenny and tomboy brunette Paige- but of their ages as well.  In a more stable environment, Paige could grow up to be successful like Jenny- but by the end of the film, is that a good thing? The only strike against the frank and scarily wonderful portrayal of the gang is the unfortunately stereotypical Jumayn Hunter (Cherry Tree Lane) and James Ghandi (Dani’s House) as impressionable wannabe Adam. Hunter’s character Mark is merely black and scary- striking the worst of the blows and yet I don’t even think he gets to speak! Poor Adam is bullied as the weak, nerdy Indian kid- perpetuating another stupid cultural divide. I find it sad if these elements are truly representative of youth class lines today.  Eden Lake is just rife full with wicked little tragedies of lost childhood and gruesome parentage!

Eden Lake also has its share of onscreen gore and the usual scares or two.  The Black Lake Park locations are wonderful as well, but the natural locales are subdued and realistic- along with some of the violence.  I don’t mean to sound contradictory- there is some hardcore bloody bits here- but what’s so disturbing is who is doing what to whom. Yowza!  The camerawork and lighting style feel like a natural part of the action- and only a completely silly note, it’s nice to see that the actor is actually driving the vehicle!  I’m not sure if I like the cell phone, GPS, and Bluetooth plot points here, but that’s the way it has to be nowadays in a contemporary horror picture.  This is also not really a dog friendly show at all, and ‘Bonnie’ the dog is definitely not a she; but these quibbles don’t interfere with the disbelief needed for the film.  On the contrary, Eden Lake quickly puts us in its picturesque but askew world and never lets us go. 

I was a little disappointed that the DVD set only boasts a short behind the scenes feature- a commentary from Watkins with more insights on his social horror angles would have been nice.  But I suppose we’re lucky to see such a disturbing British piece stateside at all.  There are streaming and rental options available, but anyone who has a tough time with thick, localized English accents should stick with the DVD’s subtitles.  Fans of the cast and quality independent horror will enjoy Eden Lake, though its upsetting storyline is not for kids or prudes.   Take in some eye candy and indulge your horror intelligentsia with Eden Lake.

On to the Nitty Gritty!

Please scroll past the screen captures for my finite and spoilerish theories on Eden Lake’s bigger picture and social examinations.  I couldn’t in good conscious reveal all in my review, but meticulous viewers with questions and ideas of their own maybe interested in this cerebral analysis. 

While there are no doubts these kids and their families are some twisted folk with a smorgasbord of budding violence and other latent issues, parts of Eden Lake suggest this final sociopathic act is almost entirely a result of Steve’s antagonism.  It’s an interesting spin that adds an intelligent layer of ambiguity to the film.

  1. Is there history on both sides? Steve has been to Eden Lake previously- he knew what a great place it was- and apparently, there were no gang problems in his prior visit.  Jenny says he was at the Bed and Breakfast Bar not that long ago with his drinking buddies; and Steve admits the place wasn’t as bad with his pals.  He seems to know where he’s going in town, but he can’t find his way in the dark. The rowdy folks and screaming little kids are there this time, and Steve wishes the kids would get smacked while mocking the ‘wife beater’ couple.   The Eden Lake sign at the entrance to the development also has some anti-yuppie graffiti on the back, obviously indicating someone in town is against the closing of the park and quarry in favor of a luxury development.  Was a protest against the up-scale plans dismissed for the cha-ching? Or were the townsfolk okay with the new construction until uppity folks like Steve and his pals came to the flooded quarry? What does Steve do and how did he know about this secluded venue anyway?  Was he in fact a part of the lake design?  When he asks what Jenny thinks of the lake view, she turns to him and tells him the ’50 executive homes’ are missing. Then again, Steven insists Eden Lake will always be Slapton Quarry- what was so special about this disused quarry for him?  

  1. Does Steve hate kids or have other unresolved issues? He seems irritated when they first encounter Adam in the woods- even frowns that he and Jenny aren’t really alone.  When Brett and Ricky destroy Adam’s experiments, Jenny wants to help but Steve says its ‘boys being boys’.  He doesn’t mind the mother smacking her son as Jenny does, and his joking manner of the youth violences and arguing couples perhaps implies he understands the family violence more than he lets on.  Which side of the boys will be boys bullying was he on as a child?  Did his mother smack him or his father abuse him as Brett’s drunken father does? Why does Jenny ask Steve if he’s a man or a mouse before the gang events even begin?  Later he protests they will not move from the beach because he and Jenny were there first, but they weren’t were they?  Does he want to prove his ego against these kids because they remind him of himself at that age? He thinks he’s cooler than he actually is with all his gadgets and has built himself up a seemingly secure world with Jenny- yet he hasn’t asked her to marry him yet, even after asking her father for permission. Steve just wants things his way-did he grow up in control-as Brett is of the gang-or controlled-like Brett is by his dad? Even after Bonnie is accidentally yet conveniently stabbed (It is very strange that big Steve can’t handle two kids and a knife), he uses the injury as an attempt at the upper hand.  Steve doesn’t offer that everyone go together to the vet, he pleads again that Brett give him the car keys and he will take the dog.  It is understandable the Brett wants some kind of vengeance at the death of his dog, but what seems to be the breaking point for Steve was the sight of Brett wearing his ‘Ray Ban Aviators!’ followed by Brett’s claim that they were actually fakes.  Clearly, Steve is not as well put together as he would have Jenny believe.

  1. Are there sexual undertones at play? When Steve is forced to say something to the gang after Bonnie’s second scare on Jenny, he doesn’t do a very good job- in fact, Paige’s accusation that he is looking at her chest shuts him up.  I don’t think Steve and his drunk buddies did anything to the kids on their prior visit- they were probably just assholes joyriding around town, convincing the locals they don’t want yuppie hot rods at Eden Lake.  However, Steve could have handled the conversation a lot better, and he shouldn’t have touched their radio!  Kids talk big, but talk is cheap.  We see two implied sex scenes and another make out session between Steve and Jenny in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.  What’s he trying to prove by all that action, naughty talk, and ab flexing? Was Steve trying to physically intimidate the gang with his good looks and hot girlfriend?  For all that, Steve is, for lack of a better term, impotent against the gang. He’s a grown man silenced by a young girl calling him a dickhead.  When the gang finally does leave, Brett insults Jenny by flashing his said dickhead at her.  Steve, though sitting up and wide awake but with ear buds on, doesn’t seem to notice this much more grievous (though not as potentially physically dangerous) insult than a scare from a dog.  When the gang has Jenny captured and Steve is dead, they could have raped her, but did not- we would have seen it if they had. Why can Brett flash a limp penis to Jenny but apparently not have his way with her?  Is his acting out really over some other manhood, latent sexuality, or molestation issue?  Brett checks outs Jenny’s chest and has boob posters in his bedroom, but it’s as if he hasn’t yet thought below a woman’s belly button- isn’t that unusual for his age? Why would Paige suggest Steve was casing her- was he?  Is she being sexually abused by the parents or the gang and automatically assume he must be thinking the same thing?  She objects to Brett’s looking at Jenny with the binoculars, but they don’t seem to be dating.  What hold do they have over her? Why is she allowed to merely video tape rather than cut Steve? Are all the males ‘impotent’ and trying to keep their women weaker to feel big?

  1. Why were the waitress and the bartender mean to Steve?  The waitress in the diner had no problem being kind to Steve and Jenny until he inquires about the kids.  She seems to be joking when asking if the kids ‘terrorized’ them; but when Steve mentions the tire, she becomes extremely defensive, forcing him to drop the topic.  Whether it’s his place to continue with the waitress, asking whose parents or kids he can talk about responsibility to is another point as well, but instead of talking to an adult like an adult, he’d rather chase the kids around town in his big SUV.  Likewise, rather than circle round to the bartender at the Bed and Breakfast, Steve has to swallow his pride while the bartender takes the order from Jenny.  Why won’t the bartender acknowledge Steve?  In the camera frame, the bartender has his back to him, seemingly never looking at Steve.  Does he recognize Steve’s voice enough to ignore it, perhaps from more bad brew from his previous visit with his friends?  Everyone seems to mind Steve’s presence, but not Jenny’s. 

  1. Did the gang know Steve had been in their house? I believe they did.  Steve steps on something in Brett’s bedroom, breaking it and hurting his foot.  He tries to hide the injury from Jenny when he changes into his scuba gear and deflects the entire line of her school teacher-esque questioning by throwing her in the water.  When the gang removes Steve from the car accident, it’s his left shoe- the same foot that was injured-that is seemingly lost in the scuffle.  Brett almost certainly fed whatever was broken by Steve to his parents, allowing him free reign to stay out that night and steal the car. The revelation that his foot was injured sealed his death warrant. The parents tell Jenny Steve is a ‘sick bastard’ once she is trapped in the house by them, so what kind of spin did the kids put on the tale-something sexual?  His going into the house was bad enough.  Why did he do it? At the time, we’re more concerned with Steve getting caught-but why didn’t he just go out the side door after Brett’s father came in and walked away, even closing the broken inner door?  It seems as if Steve knew the layout of the house- he was looking for the kids and went upstairs to Brett’s bedroom.  Had he been there before?  At the light when they first pull into town, the kids cut Steve off- did something like that happen in his prior visit?  Had he already cased this house?  What are the odds that Steve would happen to find the one house in town with their bikes outside it? Why did he need a new vehicle from someone else to go to the lake anyway?  Did something happen to his previous vehicle before or was it recognizable in town? Jenny drives the SUV when Steve escapes the house, does he always need to be taken home like a school boy after his escapades?

  1. Were the parents involved all along?  I think they did have more knowledge then they let on indeed.  After the first day on the beach, the kids could have told the parents about Steve’s ‘checking out Paige’, how he ‘followed them around town’ even ‘spied on them from inside the house!’  They probably let the kids go back for some of the nighttime sounds and stalking and would have thought the stealing of the car harmless.  Ricky’s brother knows he is out there and has come to pick him up.  He arrives in some sort of work van- not the same one as Brett’s father, implying he must also work and has not been around the home for these events.  Ricky’s brother is indeed worried that who’s ever after Jenny may also have harmed his brother.  The parents are initially more upset that Jenny has damaged the van and fence- until they receive a phone call about the kid’s deaths. We can tell Jenny goes through the same archway as Steve had, but the yard is now dressed with lights for the party.  A party is the easiest way to cover up someone’s whereabouts.  If the police ever do coming sniffing around, as far as everyone is concerned, their kids were at the shindig the entire time.  Evil Steve could have lured the now dead Paige and Cooper to the lake!  Steve also paused over the hole in the door at the house.  Was this memories for him, regular drunken behavior from Brett’s dad, or after hearing of Steve’s behavior did the Dad punch the door and allow the juvenile vengeance? One of the women in the house also asks Jenny if the ring is from her boyfriend, then another laughs on the phone that Jenny looks like death. Did the parents hope the kids had killed Steve?  Only when they find out their babies are dead do they take it to Jenny.  One parent does actually object that this has gone on far enough and the police will be around, but Brett’s father vows they take care of their own- bringing us back to the locals versus the yuppies. Steve has come around Eden Lake too many times and caused too many problems. Is his death their small way of ending the yuppie invasion?

  1. What does the ending mean?  I suspect Brett is pouting as he goes upstairs not because he regrets one damn thing, but because he’s upset he doesn’t get to finish Jenny off as he had hoped.  He’s angry that his abusive dad has punished him and taken away his toy.  He deletes the videos and is otherwise content with himself that they got what they deserved.  Yes, I believe he is a psycho, but he and his parents find his actions justified.   The woman who is initially kind to Jenny, tells her not to worry about the ‘scary men in the house’, already implying they have a hidden hand in the night’s events.  I don’t think Brett’s father raped Jenny, but the gentleman who had been getting it on in the bathroom before her arrival follows them in, along with the uncertain parent.  All three men seem to symbolize the types of men in the film.  Steve seems like he was going to be the go to hot hip guy like the younger man in the bathroom, but Steve was all no action-unlike this man who I suspect did assaulted Jenny.  The second guessing dad forced into the bathroom by Brett’s dad is symbolic of each of the men’s weak tendencies, and Brett’s father is the sociopath control freak who intimated everyone else because he can’t control himself.  Each is indicative to all of us.  We all make bad choices, serious mistakes, and end up doing things we don’t want to do or at best should have handled differently.  Even the seemingly cute naming of the dogs as ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ implies all parties are to blame; both sides of our piece have seriously defaulted and are all in this together. The movie’s frank ending may seems confusing to some or simply fresh compared to other horrors with one last scare, but it is actually quite ingenious.  Brett got away with it, and so do we.  We get away with being wimps with kinky gadgets, parents get away with abusing their kids everyday, and boys will always be boys, won’t they? Seeing Brett’s smirk in the mirror is a final reflection on us, the villain of life, not him the perceived villain of the piece.  Despite appearing as the seeming lead hero of the picture, Steve’s mocking tone in answer to Jenny’s questions about the gated construction sums up the film perfectly:

“Gated Community- Who are they so afraid of?”

Whew! Either I am a genius too or I just have too much frigging time on my hands and am completely full of shit.  What do you think? ;0)

22 November 2010

HEX, Seasons 1 and 2

HEX a Bizarre Mixed Bag of Lost Potential
By Kristin Battestella

I don’t recall how I came to the 2005 British series HEX, but it is a conundrum of a little series, I’ll tell you that.  Over the course of two brief seasons, HEX establishes a fine premise, intriguing characters, and some budding paranormal fun.  Unfortunately, too many changes and growing pains prematurely damaged the show into merely what could have been.

Hex - The Complete First SeasonCassandra ‘Cassie’ (Christina Cole) and her roommate Thelma Bates (Jemima Rooper) don’t exactly fit in with handsome Troy (Joseph Morgan) and popular Roxanne (Amber Sainsbury) at the posh country school Medenham Hall.  Cassie explores the abandoned buildings on the grounds, discovering more and more about Rachel McBain (Jessica Oyelowo, Mayo) and the estate’s torrid history of witches, persecutions, torture, and ghosts.  Soon, she sees the frightening and mysterious Azazeal (Michael Fassbender) stalking her. The leader of the fallen Nephilim angels, Azazeal proves his might to Cassie by sacrificing Thelma, thus making her a ghost only Cassie and others supernaturally inclined can see. Azazeal uses his fully regained powers to possess and seduce Cassie.  Now that Cassie is carrying Azazeal’s child, 500-year-old anointed witch Ella Dee (Laura Pyper) enrolls at Medenham so she can kill their fast growing, half-demon child Malachi (Joseph Beattie).  Unfortunately, Malachi’s charm and fallen angel arsenal make the task difficult for Ella.  After centuries of fighting the forces of evil, she finally has a chance at a normal life with fellow student Leon (Jamie Davis).  However, as Malachi matures, the fabric between worlds breaks down, allowing more Nephilim, demons, and ghosts to cross over, jeopardizing everyone at Medenham and beyond.  

Wow, this was a tough show to summarize!  The witchy premise and demonic storylines are intriguing at the start, but we get too much too soon and yet not enough by the series’ premature end.  As a result of significant cast departures and changes, HEX never adheres to its potential. We open as linear story, creating longer and longer previouslies introducing each episode- we think we have something good in place.  Sadly, the revolving cast door leaves HEX without firm footing; plots meanders too much, and the storylines grows obvious and repetitive.  When foreshadowing gives away more than it should, it just isn’t foreshadowing anymore, is it?  Though I applaud the frank teen pregnancy issues and abortion debates, these heavy subjects are dealt with a little too casually- and the end of the world is at stake, to boot!  There are the usual questions of statutory affairs and pedophilic immortals and witches getting it on with teenagers as well, but all that is lost while HEX tries to find its path by exploring the histories, comings, and goings of its players.  Perhaps all these issues, characters, and more could have become something coherent in time? By the final episodes, however, all the floundering leaves the audience wondering why we should even care.

HEX also errs a little too much on the lesbian angles.   While it’s lovely to have a nice, realistic, and frank portrayal, frequent director Brian Grant (As If, She Wolf of London) and oft writer Lucy Watkins (Sugar Rush, Demons) quickly fall into the safe stereotypes.  The unabashed lesbian dies and becomes a ghost for goodness sake; unable to have a real relationship with the living heterosexual roommate she loves.  It’s a little hypocritical to have the occasional dreamy girl on girl make outs for the flair but then say its not true romance compared to the demonic possession shenanigans. A lesbian ghost always gawking at the uninterested also perpetuates the myth that every gay person has the hots for the nearest straight person.  The same sex motifs should have been handled much better or left alone.  Having someone say she’s a ‘lesbian ghost’ doesn’t make one gay, does it? When the wonderful Thelma finally does get other magically convenient lesbian ghosts to play with, it’s just too contrived for the audience to care. I’ve gone on this subject for a while, simply because the production team put the topic at the forefront of the show.  That in itself is not erroneous television, but hinging the show on their faulty lesbian visions is a mistake.  Mature, lesbian relationships can be done wonderfully, look at Buffy.  I don’t want to be stereotypical myself, but perhaps producers Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps just can’t write for chicks, as in my main complaint with the handling of their female characters in Merlin.

Despite some of these faults, the players in HEX keep things fun and juicy for the most part.  Their styles and dialogue may be too Brit to some, but Christina Cole (What a Girl Wants) and Jemima Rooper (Lost in Austen) are sassy and worthwhile.  Thelma’s ghostly ways can be irritating at times, but Rooper’s charm keeps Thelma’s unique situation real. It’s so nice to see the second lead in a television show not be the traditional blonde, super thin, totally hip hottie.  Thelma’s quirky view and tough choices are a breath of fresh air, and when the character is sometimes reduced to a ‘freaky, fat dyke’ for the humor; it’s a little unfair to Rooper’s hard work. It’s also a little amusing that Cassie can talk to ghost Thelma is public and no one notices!  The writing inconsistencies and teeny bopper girlie logic is annoying, and HEX becomes more frustrating as it loses its aim.  Laura Pyper (Emma) comes into an awkward situation of replacing the departing Cole, and again the fickle writing decisions- dumbing down a 500 year old witch into said annoying lusty teen-doesn’t do Pyper justice.  Wasn’t this show about Cassie, anyway?  It’s as if the first 10 episodes and the back 9 shows of the series are from two different television programs. The cast are all adults, but some of the sexual scenes, vices, and abuses also seem a bit much for the ladies, too. It’s tough to discern how old they are, exactly what type of school Medenham is, and let’s not forget the touch of pedophilish relationships.  Amber Sainsbury’s (30 Days of Night) resident hooch Roxanne has a fine arc with all this juiciness, but she’s pushed to the backburner while the changing over leads battle for the spotlight.  

Alright, I confess it, so you must forgive me the pun.  I’ve been on a bit of a bender recently over Michael Fassbender.  His somehow sweet, sexy, and alluring but no less evil and ruthless turn here has Azazeal has converted my indifference to his Stelios in 300. I had to reread my commentaries on 300 to compare- but I didn’t even mention him!  That’s an ouch and a whoops on my part. While I’m kicking myself for not fully realizing this talented actor sooner, this chameleon style also creates more applause.  How deceptive the devil is, isn’t he? Azazeal is supposed to be the bad of the bads, yet there is an air of ambiguity, a sense of tragic love lost over the millennia.  He’s slick, intelligent, predatory, ancient and evil- yet almost sympathetic in his own way.  By far Azazeal is the best thing about HEX.  Not because of the latent swoonability of Mr. Fassbender, but because his role is the best written and delivered part of the show.  He took his time with the part and is somehow completely subtle while giving a nothing to lose kinetic energy and over the top style in Azazeal’s every move. The period piece ruthlessness blended with the modern edginess seals the deal on his ensnarement.  I don’t know if it was a planned departure or Fassbender chose to leave the series, but it is tough watching HEX’s final episodes without him- particularly after the fine episode 10 “Ella’s Burning.”

Sadly, I am not as fond of the other gentleman on HEX.  Joseph Morgan‘s (Ben-Hur, Doc Martin) Troy is nothing but a plot element, to be manipulated by Cassie or Azazeal as needed.  Jamie Davis (Footballer’s Wives) matures and adds depth to Leon for Series 2, but he also ends up as romantic fodder for Ella.  Joseph Beattie (Mansfield Park) also comes in secondary- simply because he comes across as a poor girl’s Fassbender.  Didn’t we just see the storyline involving a demon trying to seduce a witch?  Why are we wasting time on this again?  More coming and going cast members also aren’t treated to full potential, like the very cool Headmaster Colin Salmon (Die Another Day, Dinotopia) and Anna Wilson-Jones (Afterlife) as the kind but eventually seriously misguided teacher Jo Watkins. So many fine supporting players come and go in HEX, its tough to discern who’s important, who isn’t, or who will even be around for more than two episodes.  Again, it seems like someone was playing eenie meenie miney mo with the cast and characters without regard to the goldmine of talent to be had. Some of that was no one’s fault- actors come and go, storylines start and finish as needed, but as this rotating company increases, it makes HEX very frustrating to watch.

I’m not a British teenager, obviously, but my goodness the fashion sense here is horrible!  These girls look like 30-year-old streetwalkers!  If that was the Brit style then, or if that’s how teens really dress nowadays, oiy.  What is with all the odd hair lengths and one off earrings? It’s not cool, just distracting- and everyone seems to wear the same few things all the time.  Don’t these rich kids have enough money to buy a decent wardrobe?  Maybe the Nuevo grunge but steampunk trash all at the same time is just some European thing, but hinging HEX on such an eclectic looks and music makes the show very dated only five years later.  While the Colonial and Puritan-esque period piece looks are wonderful and the Englefield filming location is dynamite, these aren’t used to their full potential.  The aforementioned casting changes and meandering on who the true lead of the series was also gives an uneven, incomplete, or rushed and poor production feeling.  What little special effects there are aren’t that good, either.  Usually I’m all for a relatively no-effects show winning on its cast and writing laurels, but there should be more spooky things in HEX than there are.  We’re just kind of in between- a teen drama that has haunting elements or an all-gothic show that has serious drama. In a first season, shows are entitled to these growing pains, but as this is all the HEX we have, it doesn’t work in the brief series’ favor. Too many inconsistencies hamper our disbelief.  Where are all the damn cell phones and laptops?  Aren’t there any real school schedules, security, or rules? Some of the basics are treated too willy-nilly, putting another nail in HEX’s coffin.

Hex - Season Two [Region 2 Import- Non USA Format] [Region 2]Naturally, the DVD presentation of HEX is totally screwy.  The first 6 episodes of Season 1 and the first 4 episodes of Season 2 comprise the ‘Season 1’ Region 1 release, and the final 9 episodes of Season 2 have not been released in North America.  Well that’s a big “Huh?” isn’t it?  The features for both seasons are mingled across the Season 1 discs, revealing spoilers for the entire series, too.  And, to top it off, there are no effing subtitles!  American audiences, it seems, have been screwed (or should I say hexed?) all around. Fans of the cast or paranormal television can try rental or online options or fully invest in the complete Region 2 releases, but the naughty language, British lingo, nudity, and other raunchy goodness are not for prudes or the super young set.  

HEX simply is what it is.  Would it have been better if the series continued for a third season, magically finding its path amid such complete cast turnaround? Perhaps. Was the damage of such a shaky start and constant upheavals already done? Probably.  All these character movements and nice progression developments would have been fine had they happened naturally through the course of a longstanding show, but too many changes and inconsistencies happen over HEX’s measly 19 episodes. The show seems to have been flying blind- I mean, outside of its literal definition, what the heck does the title have to do with anything, anyway?  Take the good of HEX, but be prepared to let the potential go.  Don’t dwell, just drool, indulge, and yell at the TV.

17 November 2010

Tower of London and The Mad Magician

Tower of London and The Mad Magician Spooky, Period Faire Anytime of Year
By Kristin Battestella

Horror maven Vincent Price is at it again in these two stylized period horror pieces from directors Roger Corman and John Brahm.  Though a step down from some of his finer horrorfest collaborations, fans of Price and atmospheric little old pictures can enjoy these spooky shows year round.

In Tower of London, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester (Price) can’t wait for his brother King Edward IV (Justice Watson) to die.  Richard murders his brother George, the Duke of Clarence (Charles Macaulay, Blacula) so he will become Lord Protector to the king’s child heirs: the future King Edward V and Richard, 1st Duke of York (Eugene Martin and Donald Losby).  As ambitious Richard and his wife Anne (Joan Camden) seek the crown, members of the court suffer death and torment- from the discredited Queen (Sarah Selby) to young Lady Margaret (Joan Freeman) and noble Sir Justin (Robert Brown).  No one is safe from Richard’s wrath; and when the ghosts of those he’s killed return to haunt him, justice shall prevail.

With stock footage from Universal’s 1939 Tower of London and plenty of liberties about Richard III, Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) does the best he can with the low budget black and white restraints here.  We open as a straight historical piece, but Corman gets to the heady court deaths quickly and keeps the court intrigue coming.  The true horror stylings don’t really begin until the threats of torture and dungeon machinery enter Richard’s plans. The violence is, of course, not as graphic as the super gore we’re used to in today’s slice and dice pictures.  However, there’s something to be said for old school suggestion.  On one hand, it is shocking to see as much as we do here in 1962- yet the unrevealed hint of a ripped dress and a maiden screaming on the rack does wonders for our dark imagination.  Likewise, speculating on the fates and onscreen deaths of the Princes in the Tower is equally horrorific. Tower of London isn’t a bad medieval horror picture- its just that this particular blended genre isn’t done often, and I’d like to have seen the even finer, scarier film Corman could have made without production restraints and overhead influence. 

Vincent Price is of course his usual period fine, with the proper look and voice for the court debauchery. He looks the part and carries the subdued and sinister delivery to match. Okay, so the hunching and limping to imply Richard III’s physical injuries is a bit much, but otherwise Big V is entertaining as always. I don’t know where his over the top reputation comes from sometimes.  If you see enough Price films, you understand his depth and skill.  Is there a modern young pup today that is so well- respected for his horror shtick? I think not. Joan Camden (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) as Richard’s wife Anne matches his creepy with her dutiful, by his side knowledge of his murders.  She pushes him ala Lady Macbeth in her quest to be queen. We just don’t expect a dolled up Neville noblewoman to be involved in the dark side of power, and the angle adds dimension to Tower of LondonSadly, most of the other cast is a little too interchangeable.  It’s tough to tell who is who at court, and Price is relatively alone with his monologues and ghostly visions.  Joan Freeman (Roustabout), Sandra Knight (The Terror), and Sarah Selby (The Hardy Boys) have precious little to do but be threatened or look pretty.  Michael Pate (Matlock Police, Hondo) seems juicy as Richard’s henchman Sir Ratcliffe, but he isn’t as ruthless as we expect a juicy henchman to be.  Thankfully, the young princes aren’t annoying like so many other child actors of the time can be.

Again, Tower of London suffers much from its restricted production values. The black and white photography adds to the old-fashioned mood and helps to hide some bad model work along with the snips from the 1939 original.  The lack of color, however, hurts the costuming.  Though the frocks look great for a sixties B horror flick, the design doesn’t seem as lavish as similar films then or now.  Thankfully, the music strikes the right blend of ominous horror and historically medieval.  The interior castle design is wonderfully both Middle English and spooky, but the ghost effects and sounds are very weak.  I must also say, I don’t know how accurate those pointy princess hats are either.

Though not medieval, The Mad Magician is nonetheless a period piece.  The Victorian style is 19th century enough, but there’s also a hint of turn of the century New York via 1954 Hollywood.  There’s not a lot of vintage music, but the score knows when to crescendo for the horror. The scary atmosphere isn’t as heavy as I’d like, but the mix of old-fashioned magic adds a good blend to the suspense and mystery at hand. However, I have to say, it is somewhat odd to have a black and white but 3D picture, isn’t it? One would think if you bother with all the in your face across the screen that if would be in color! The magic shows presented aren’t much of a spectacle, either- but ’The Lady and the Buzzsaw’ does have a nice ring to it.

After technicalities over a contract for his illusions, rising magician Don Gallico (Price) is forced out of doing his latest act with his lovely assistant Karen (Mary Murphy).  Karen’s beau, Lieutenant Alan Bruce (Patrick O’Neal) tries to help Gallico legally, but ‘Gallico the Great’ takes matters into his own hands when crooked business manager Ross Ormond (Donald Randolph, Topaz) not only takes his tricks, but Gallico’s ex-wife Claire (Eva Gabor) as well. Soon, Gallico’s vengeance against rival magician The Great Rinaldi (John Emery, Blood on the Sun) turns deadly as landlady and mystery author Alice Prentiss (Lenita Lane, The Bat) suspects the foul play.

Director John Brahm (The Twilight Zone) builds suspense smoothly amid some of the more light-hearted moments and magic mayhem. The Mad Magician is a little short at 72 minutes- even for 1954- but the style isn’t too over the top and the story doesn’t drag. Despite the horror spin, writer Crane Wilbur (Solomon and Sheba, House of Wax) keeps a nice, intelligent mystery with investigative elements, too.  In all our high tech crime shows using cell phones and DNA to crack the case, we forget how the advent of fingerprints technology can make or break an investigation. The masks are a bit much for the time, but the nosey author angle allows for more charm amid the sinister.  The Mad Magician gets to the dismemberments quickly, and the deaths scenes are very well done.  The scary machines, fiery elements, and even some of the mayhem that you don’t see all allude to creepy a plenty.

Wow, Vincent Price looks so young compared to his later Poe work with Corman!  Though the maniacal magician hijinks are great, it’s all a little too similar to Wilbur’s House of Wax, made a year prior to The Mad Magician.  Price, however, adds his elements- the masks and stage make up are quite diabolical looking, making Price almost unrecognizable.  His voice delivery also changes with his masquerades; with subtle inflections depending on if he’s selling his trick to the audience or wreaking havoc on his enemies. The violence and rough stuff towards the ladies looks real, as does Price’s silent rage.  Gallico is perfectly willing to wait and plan his orchestration while others do the talking.  While Patrick O’Neal (Under Siege, The Stepford Wives) is your fairly standard fifties cop, Mary Murphy (The Desperate Hours) a good match to Gallico’s mayhem. Her Karen is a fine friend with a good professional relationship, but you can’t help but wonder if her kindness towards the magician will be her undoing.  Eva Gabor (Green Acres) is of course also juicy in her Victorian feathers, stoles, and splendor. 

The Haunted Palace / The Tower of LondonNaturally, The Mad Magician is not available on DVD, and Tower of London can only be found on low-budget dual disc faire.  Yes, there are better Vincent Price films out there, and the Tower of London is not the bizarre scarefest we expect from Roger Corman.  Likewise, The Mad Magician is hindered by the styles of the time.  However, both provide plenty of entertainment and old school kitsch whilst being family friendly thanks to those same mid-century sensibilities.  Vincent Price fans and horror enthusiasts should definitely give Tower of London and The Mad Magician a chance any time of year.

03 November 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 2

Buffy Season 2 Ups the Ante
By Kristin Battestella

One can make the case that Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually begins in 1997 with its full-length Second season.  Any growing pains from the quick debut season are corrected, and the Buffyverse hits the ground running here in fine paranormal form.

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) begins another school year still trying to balance teendom with being the Vampire Slayer.  Mom Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) and Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman) are still clueless about her secret identity, but Buffy’s friends Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) and Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) help her deal with the ruthless new vampires in town: Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau).  School Librarian and watcher Rupert Giles (Anthony Steward Head) finds romance with Computer Science teacher Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), but the dark forces drawn to Sunnydale’s Hellmouth spell doom for Buffy’s relationship with reformed vampire Angel (David Boreanaz). 

Show runner Joss Whedon (Firefly) springboards from Buffy’s first season into more wit, dark comedy, and seriousness.  The ongoing storylines and continuing mythos have grown up considerably- already stand out or multi-part episodes like “What’s My Line”, “Surprise”, “Innocence”, and “Lie to Me” take things beyond high school towards the bigger life picture.  Despite the fantastical scenarios, Buffy never lets us forget life is just as scary as vampires or other fictitious demons. Some stories do borrow from the same old Frankenstein, mummy hijinks, and Anne Rice references; but the second half of Season 2 brings the series into its own.  As the episodes progress, there’s less and less outside influence and more and more of the nuances that make Buffy Buffy.  The mix of stand-alone shows and two part episodes is finely balanced, and from Episode 6 “Halloween” to the double finale “Becoming”, the viewer is hard pressed to find filler or fluff.

Nowadays, teeny vampire goodness and forbidden dark romance is an inescapable phenomenon.  Did this hysteria begin with the ill-fated romance of Buffy and Angel? Perhaps. Though a complicated and realistic relationship, the periodic make out sessions are now a little redundant to older viewers.  The first romance and sexual experience scenario is also dated, but the tact here is angsty, relatable, even mature and well done.  This is not my favorite couple from Buffy, but the innocence lost here is still superior to Twilight.  Sarah Michelle Gellar (Scooby Doo) wonderfully walks the difficult line between being the tough action hero and the hurt and broken young woman.  Despite superpowers, Buffy can’t always deal with everything.  She’s flawed, screws up, and it’s delightfully refreshing to watch.  Likewise, David Boreanaz (Bones) struggles with the romantic feelings amid his 200 years of vampire soul and conflict.  When Angel returns to his evil ways, again its refreshing, tragic drama.  Sure we’d like our couple to live happily ever after, but where’s the fun in that?  Angel’s extreme take on the bad ex-boyfriend puts the exclamation on Season 2.

Oppositely balancing the polarity of the slayer loving a vampire is the fun introduction of James Marsters (Smallville, Torchwood) as punk vamp rocker Spike and Juliet Landau (Ed Wood) as his demented love Drusilla.  The pair is visually at odds themselves- platinum, wild Spike and dark, classical Dru- but the vampy affection of the couple adds another layer of bizarre emotion.  Evil demons who take over one’s souls can’t be affectionate, endearing, or in love- can they? There’s plenty of history, love triangles, and kinky vampire goodness for Season 2 and beyond. The fact that these vampires can comment and even laugh at their own dynamic drama makes heavy episodes like “School Hard”, “Passion”, and “I Only Have Eyes for You” all the better. Likewise, we have time to explore Buffy’s flawed adults and the skeletons in their closets.  Anthony Head (Merlin) and Robia LaMorte (Beverly Hills 90210) add fun and bumbling flirting amid dark and ruthless histories, and even Kristine Sutherland (Honey I Shrink the Kids) has a chance to have some twisted romantic fun with delightful guest star John Ritter (Three’s Company) in “Ted”.  Armin Shimerman (Deep Space Nine) as anti-student Principal Snyder and Robin Sachs (Babylon 5) as Giles’ antithesis Ethan Rayne also add seriousness and maturity to make life even more difficult for Buffy’s Scooby Gang.

Nicholas Brendon (Kitchen Confidential) and Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother) also gain a little growing up thanks to more relationships.  Though the Buffy, Xander, and Willow trio is the core of the show, the interconnecting character relationships add depth and conflict nicely.  While Brendon looks to be having a lot of fun as the wisecracking Xander, his lady foil Charisma Carpenter (Veronica Mars) still doesn’t get her full glory.  Is making out and being pretty all there is to Cordelia?  We get hints that there’s more, but again she does all the screaming and seems more like a reflexive character meant to strengthen or interfere with the lead three.  And but of course, the underutilization of Oz begins. Though Alyson Hannigan continues to wonderfully grow with the budding Willow, boyfriend Oz’ coming out party in “Phases” is one of this season’s few missteps.  Although the teenage werewolf scares and fun are there, such a big character development demands more than a mere 45 minutes. This storyline could have been an ongoing mystery through Season 3.  Instead, we go from barely knowing Oz to being intimate with all his secrets too soon, and he never fully fits in with the rest of the gang. I like Seth Green’s (Austin Powers, Robot Chicken) quirky performance and sardonic delivery; but despite fine dialogue, this is one place where Whedon’s writing wasn’t there for his character.  Even the snips of Danny Strong (Gilmore Girls) as geeky Jonathan, Elizabeth Anne Allen (Bull) as teen witch Amy, and Larry Bagby (Hocus Pocus) as macho Larry are a lot of fun as supporting high school stereotypes that develop in later seasons. 

Once again, the dated fashion, hairstyles, and music from Season 2 aren’t so longstanding twelve years on.  Though somewhat critical in storylines this season and next, the onscreen band Dingoes Ate My Baby is kind of silly and seemingly a ploy for music fun more than anything else.  Some graphics and horror makeup aren’t up to snuff anymore either- especially the werewolf design. I suspect this might have been part of the reason we don’t see the full beasty so much, but with the right treatment, who cares what the doggy suit looks like.  Even the vampire dress style and brooding goth motifs aren’t in today’s ala mode. Nevertheless, this is a decade old television show, visual imperfections are to be expected; and frankly, the focus on characters and story angst before glittering effects is not dated, but refreshing against today’s trend of visual desensitization over intelligent substance. 

New fans can meet Buffy the Vampire Slayer or returning viewers can rekindle their love here with Season 2.  There’s more paranormal romance fun and some scares, but things this season are tame compared to later seasons and modern television.  All this goodness without the introductory hiccups of Season 1, too.  Fans of recent vampire motifs can definitely turn to Buffy; and with rental options, streaming sites, and affordable DVDs, there’s really no reason not to enjoy Buffy Season 2.