Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Some Thoughts on Age of Extinction

1. I think it's pretty obvious where they got the idea.

2. Beast Wars was a great show.
      2.5 So was Shadow Raiders, aka War Planets.

3. I have absolutely no idea what this movie is about. Seriously, the trailer has no story to tell other than "Mark Wahlberg jump-starts a truck."

Monday, 23 June 2014

Low-Budget Film Fest: Science Fiction Edition


I recently read this article on Buzzfeed about how some of the best sci-fi movies are the low-budget ones that, due to financial/logistical constraints, force a small group of characters to deal with larger sci-fi-y problems. It was a good article, but I was a little disappointed that it didn't include a list of movies to watch and enjoy. Which is all the more perplexing given we're talking about Buzzfeed.

Anyway, I've seen a bunch of sci-fi and I think I can make a few suggestions. Note, I define small budget as $3M or less--the estimated cost of Prince of Darkness.

The Machine

Two scientists create a self-aware AI that forces us to consider what it means to be human. Not nearly as preachy as one might expect, given the premise. Actually, the film is delightfully understated and questions the ethical limits of artificial intelligence and robotics.

Tetsuo The Iron Man

A distinctly Japanese take on Cronenbergian body horror. It's weird, it's sexual, it kind of defies explanation.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

To be honest, I didn't like this movie but it does perfectly recreate the wtf atmosphere of trippy 70s and early 80s sci-fi. Largely an experiment in style, BBtR, fails and succeeds for the same reason: it's friggin weird. It makes very little sense but if odd, drug-fueled thought experiments are your bag, this film's for you.

Banshee Chapter

Speaking of drugs, Banshee Chapter uses mind-altering narcotics as its gateway to weirdness and horror. Think MKUltra meets From Beyond. This film genuinely creeped me out on more than one occasion and made me jump with one of the best startle effects in recent memory.


Okay, so this one is just over my arbitrary limit but it's my list and I can do what I want with it, so there. In the near future a man gets caught up in the dangerous and lucrative business of black market celebrity viruses--selling viral infections that afflict celebrities to their fans. If this also seems like a Cronenberg-type film that's because it was made by his son, Brandon.

Prince of Darkness

More of a horror movie, really. But it does contain a fair amount of speculation and metaphysics. A group of grad students study an ancient artifact stored in a church basement. Best. Ending. Ever. Fact is, I love this movie and want everyone to see it, so I included it here.

Honourable mentions (because they cost more than a little but are still comparatively "small"): 


Before there was Edge of Tomorrow (the movie version, at any rate) there was Triangle, Chris Smith's movie about a woman stuck in a time-loop in which she dies again and again.


An alien siege movie that's long on suspense. Hard to believe it began life as a comedy inspired by the works of Sam Raimi because the end result is a well-paced thriller.

For other lists that I may or may not agree with check out Den of Geek and i09. For a good read on the subject check out, wait for it, The Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Camp Dread

Dear Sir,

I regret to inform you that after having watched your movie, Camp Dread, I must request a refund for both my money and time spent. Anticipating your questions as to why I feel owed, and in order to prevent any further contact from you--ever--I have listed my reasons below.

Having read about, written about, and watched a lot of horror movies, I feel I am sufficiently qualified to pass judgement on yours. In short, it stinks. It plays as if you yourself have never a horror film but have only had one described to you in the broadest terms, perhaps something along the lines of "hot kids get killed at camp." You interpret the word "hot," to mean both physically attractive and sexually charged. This isn't a criticism, per se, but it does reflect a rather generic understanding of horror movie conventions. Worse is how you characterize the hot kids. I hesitate to describe them as either stereotypes or archetypes, given how thinly written they are. Suffice it to say, you mistake physical attributes and sexual orientation for personality. You've created a cast of characters who have little to no individuality (or humanity) and who serve no purpose other than to die.

Far be it for me to hope for a prize-winning filmic adventure, but I can't be blamed for wanting to connect to or identify with at least one character. Or to even be interested in the story at large.

I find your premise ludicrous, to say the least. Not only does it make no sense to send a group of delinquent youth to an unlicensed rehabilitation camp that doubles as a set for a reality television show--a show that will never air but only leveraged as a template for a future horror movie--you appear to have little to no familiarity with legal system. It is simply impossible for a girl who murdered her rapist brother to be sent to rehab camp to begin with, let alone the same camp as another girl whose only "crime" is homosexuality. Moreover, these "kids" as you describe them are in their twenties; they are adults and adults are not sentenced to rehab camps. At least, not in the way you suggest.

Leaving aside the larger issues of law and order, let us focus on the events that take place at your fictional Camp Rehab. Your characters are players in a survival reality show. They will undergo challenges that will force them to work together, presumably to help them better themselves, and win immunity from the "killer." The killer is an unknown individual who periodically eliminates players by "touching them on the shoulder" or through some other generally peaceable interaction. That's all well and good, but not once do we see any of this happen. If we're to engage with these people and their story, we need to see the reality show, and actual reality unfold. Instead all I saw was a lot of forced animosity, a terrible sexual encounter (interpret that any way you wish), and some rather bland death scenes. There's no sense of escalation and no one knows the reality show premise is a sham. I know this, of course, but for the people that matter, i.e.: the "hot kids," they're never given a chance to figure out what is really going on.

Your basic scenario of "hot kids get killed at camp" is not developed enough for the type of story you are trying to tell. You appear to be attempting some blend of postmodernist subversion and meta-criticism but you are not well-versed enough in the genre to succeed. The story you want to tell is full of intrigue and double-cross. The story you've scripted is not. You also appear to be unfamiliar with basic literary terms. You mistake "MacGuffin" for "red herring," which is bad enough, but your use of MacGuffin (read: red herring) in the script suggests you don't know how it is employed. A MacGuffin is a motivator, usually a desired item, that drives the plot, such as the case in Ronin. A red herring is a false lead or misdirection, such as communism in Clue. You make a small effort to establish the Sheriff's brother as a red herring, which you incorrectly identify as a MacGuffin, but he only shows up twice, once at the beginning and then at the end as a corpse. There is no good reason to think he is the killer when your movie devotes absolutely no time to solving this mystery.

I note that you managed to sign both Eric Roberts and Danielle Harris for this project. While these names do carry some weight and brand-recognition, it is simply not enough to get me on board with your movie. As I stated at the beginning of this letter, you lack an instinctual understanding of horror cinema (or cinema in general) which prevents you from being able to properly tell your story through film. And that is what I am interested in: story. I can watch "hot kids get killed" in any number of horror movies. What I'm having a harder time finding these days is watching them die for interesting reasons in interesting ways.



Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Taking of Pelham 123

Brought to you by the same guys who made the poster for Unstoppable.

Sometimes I hate myself. You know what I mean because you've felt that way too (not about me, about yourself. I mean, you  might hate me, I don't know). You have, on purpose and sans irony, watched a movie you knew wasn't going to be very good, that you weren't going to enjoy. Usually I have a "good" reason to punish myself like this: TheAvod. But not this time.

No, this time I elected to watch The Taking of Pelham 123 because it was available. Because once, long ago in a haze of optimism, I thought it might be passable. Sounded exciting enough: John Travolta takes a New York subway car hostage. I've liked hostage movies in the past. I even liked Hostage. Critics didn't really care for Pelham as a whole, or John Travolta's excessive performance in particular (looked to me like he was having fun, although I suspect he was the only person on set who was enjoying himself). And still I pressed play on a movie I knew no one liked.

Depending on how you look at it, I both was and wasn't disappointed. Pelham lived up to expectations, is what I'm saying. It stinks. What I assume is supposed to be a tense thriller plays out like a badly paced action movie. I think it all happens in real time, too. I can't be sure because I can't be bothered to look it up. Here's the plot, such as it is:

John Travolta hijacks a subway train and holds the straphangers hostage for ten million dollars. The city has one hour to pay up. In the subway control centre is Denzel Washington, a big shot who's currently under investigation for bribery. Denzel just happened to be working the mic when Travolta rang with his demands. The city coughs up the dough and, for reasons that aren't worth explaining, Denzel has to deliver the money. There's a chase, a face-off (ha!), and then the movie's over.

Can you believe this is based on a book? It's also a remake. Think about that.

Now think about this: The Negotiator. I'm serious. Think about it. The Negotiator is a lot like Pelham, only it does a much better job blending intrigue with action; there's a lot of talking punctuated by exciting action sequences. Pelham, on the other hand, is all talk and zero intrigue lightly peppered with a couple of bland action scenes. The worst part is the movie had so much potential, but the script is incapable of pacing its plot points and using its contrivances to its advantage.

"Is this thing on?"

For instance no time is given over to figuring out who, exactly, is holding everyone hostage. The mayor, of all people, comes up with a lead and the rest of the detective work happens off-screen. Then there's the live stream. The bad guys have jury-rigged a wifi connection in the subway tunnel and a hostage is surreptitiously skyping with his girlfriend. The whole world can see what's going on in the train car but does anyone do anything about it? No. The transit authority identifies one of the hostage takers from the feed and that's it. No attempts are made to communicate with the hostages, nor do the cops use the intel to coordinate with the SWAT team in the subway tunnel. And about that SWAT team. On no fewer than two occasions do they have an opportunity to shoot the bad guys and don't take it.

Worse still, the movie mocks itself for how stupid it is. Travolta wants ten million bucks or he's going to kill everyone. Fine. The city releases the money, and it's loaded into a cop car and race to the subway. Then comes the line, delivered with utter contempt for the delivery plan, "I hope they don't get lost." Thanks for that. Exciting driving sequence ensues which ends in a crash. But the clock's still ticking! Bring in the helicopters to take the money the rest of way! "Why didn't we just use choppers to begin with?" someone asks.

Why indeed. There's absolutely nothing on the line here. The money will get to Travolta regardless and if he shoots someone in the meantime, so what? We've already established that he's trigger happy, so there's no emotional play at work here. Also, by this point, the film has already used up its emotional goodwill by forcing the good guy to either admit to or lie about take a bribe and then treating him as another, albeit, lesser villain.

The Negotiator had the good sense to leverage Samuel L. Jackson's perceived villainy, to make it integral to the plot. Here, Denzel's bribe-taking is what demoted him to the control room and eventually made him the first point of contact for Travolta, but that's it. The film wants it to be more, to mean more for the characters and plot, but really it's just a means to an end.

An end that isn't worth the journey.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Stage Fright

To begin, an overdue congratulations to Telelfilm for pulling its head out of its ass. This is the second film I've seen inside a week that was high caliber genre made with Telefilm money. And to think all it took was a boy from Halifax winning an international, high profile movie trailer competition.

Now, onto the show!

I used to really like musicals. I'd fall asleep listening to the Cats soundtrack and I knew all the words to every song in Phantom. Then I kind of aged out of musical theatre. Of course, I'd see a musical or two at Stratford--it is Stratford, after all--and I made a point of seeing Giant Killer Shark: The Musical, but I never bothered with Lion King or War Horse. I've not seen Les Mis, to this day.

Genre musicals were/are a different matter. Once More With Feeling, Evil Dead, Dr. Horrible, Dead and Breakfast. Seen and loved them all. I think it has to do with the horror/comedy opposition. As Noel Carroll points out, horror and comedy exist on the same spectrum; both deal in absurdity but it's the presentation of that absurdity and our reactions to it that differ.

Stage Fright is a horror comedy musical, which is just about as absurd as you can get. Set at Center Stage, a  musical theatre camp, the camp director, Roger McCall, decides to mount The Haunting of the Opera. This particular musical has special significance because McCall produced Haunting ten years ago when the star, Kylie Swanson, was murdered on opening night. McCall took in her orphaned children who now work as kitchen staff at the camp. Camilla Swanson, Kylie's daughter, auditions for her late mother's role hoping it will bring her closer to her mom.

She kills it, of course.

As the camp prepares for their rendition of Haunting, a masked madman prepares himself for a killing spree that he hopes will prevent the show from taking place. But the show must go on!

Stage Fright pokes fun at both the horror and musical genres. Admittedly, I don't know much about musicals, but I know enough to recognize a satire of schmaltzy, overblown, Andrew Lloyd Weber-style musicals. Haunting, of course, is a take on Phantom of the Opera which is then mounted with a Kabuki theme by the kids at camp. Within the world of the film, this is a misguided attempt at further dramatizing a melodrama.

"What is at the heart of Haunting?" asks the director. "It's about covering up who you really are."

Of course that's not true, but it's his way of introducing his own misinterpretation of Kabuki as a way to showcase the "themes" of Haunting.

Within Stage Fright the film, covering up is exactly what's happening in one way or another. Kabuki also hinges on the spectacle of performance, and a horror/comedy/musical about a musical is truly spectacular. The delightfully fluffy and cheerful musical numbers sung by the kids at camp are offset by the killer's rock soliloquies. Dressed in a black and white mask, the glam rock Metal Killer echoes Kiss and was inspired by Ozzy and Metallica, and he spouts punny one-liners for the benefit of the audience.

Without getting too postmodern, Stage Fright knows its a movie and what's more, understands its heritage. In the same way the film's musical aspects draw from and satirize musical theatre, Stage Fright pays homage to Carrie, TCM, Halloween, ANOES, and Hellraiser. As a further tribute to classic horror, most of the gore effects are physical effects, and there's very little CGI.

The mystery of the Metal Killer isn't especially hard to figure out, but the Stage Fright experience is really more about watching the show. The film is both an accomplished musical and horror movie, funny and violent with good gore and clever kills. Drawing on operatic traditions, the lead is a soprano and her patriarch is a (sort of) bass; listen out for a joke about the secondary status of altos. Everything is overdone, from the lyrics to the kills, reveling in the shared ambition of spectacle and performance.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

This Is Why Your Movie Sucks

Not too long ago I gave a short talk at Podcamp Toronto about crappy horror movies. I wasn't able to record the session, so here's my presentation script and slides. We had a great conversation afterward about terrible movies, which I'm unable to reproduce here. Trust me when I say you missed out on something fun ;P

I love horror movies. There's no other genre that's as expressive. Existing on the edge of legitimacy and acceptability, horror movies can push the envelope and explore themes and ideas that can be too riske for mainstream cinema. Or that's how it used to be, at any rate. But even if horror isn't the uniquely safe space it once was for edgy storytelling, it's still a place where people can explore and experience “negative” emotions, particularly fear.

There's this notion that horror is easy, and in a way it is. Slap some makeup on your buddy, film him chasing your friends and you've got a zombie movie. But in another way, horror is really very hard to do: you have to entertain and scare your audience, make them feel anxious, make them jump, make them care. And a lot of films, big budget and small, can't.

So you want to make a movie, but where do you begin? With story. Film is, for the most part, and especially for the no/low budget filmmaker, storytelling. So what's your story? If it's about a guy who kills people, I'm gonna stop you right there.  

That's not a story. It's an idea. And not much of one. Moreover, it puts the emphasis on the villain and when you do that, you immediately divest your film of tension and suspense. Slashers were never about the villain. Certainly Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers became the stars of their respective franchises, but they were never the main characters. The victims are the leads in horror because it's through them we experience fear. Noted film scholar Noel Carroll took pains to point out the audience takes its cues from the positive human characters in the movie they're watching; if the protagonist is afraid, so too is everyone in the theatre. But if the role of the victim is overshadowed by the role of the villain, then we the audience can't be afraid.

We can be startled by jump scares and grossed out by gore effects, but we'll never exeprience that rush of fear we get when Annie and Lori are being stalked and chased by their would-be killers.

But nobody seems to understand this anymore. Platinum Dunes' and Rob Zombie's remakes of beloved 70s and 80s horror franchises are proof that horror filmmaking, even at the mid-budget level, has no respect for its characters. We go to watch them die. We cheer for the bad guy as each kill is more elaborate and gorier than the last, and we know the victims' survival is meaningless because the killer will survive to kill again in the sequel.

Your movie sucks because these movies suck. You say you want to make a movie about a guy who kills people, and maybe you'll even attempt to explain why he does so. But again, you're misunderstanding something fundamental to the genre: it doesn't really matter why because this isn't his story.

Also, horror villains always kill for revenge OR because they're crazy. But mostly for revenge. So don't waste my time and yours fleshing out an elaborate backstory for your bad guy. What's more important is how he kills and is defeated. Because he has to die.

In mainstream horror, the movie ends without the bad guy being defeated outright, leaving it open for a sequel. It might make some kind of financial sense, but researchers in California found that movie audiences thought teaser endings were unrealistic and predictable. Audience members in the study preferred films with traditional endings in which the villain is killed, and if given the chance, would change teaser endings to more traditional ones.

When a villain dies at the end of a movie, he gets what he deserves. When he survives, audiences are less likely to enjoy the film and can find the whole movie-going experience to be rather dissatisfying. Again, mainstream horror doesn't seem to get it and neither do you, which is another reason why your movie sucks.

What all this is driving at is story. Your movie needs to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. If a bunch of people die horribly along the way, so much the better. But more important than body count and gore is logic. Does your story make sense?

Probably not because this is your first time doing this. That's fine. In fact, that's awesome. Just get someone else to read your script. Someone who'll be honest with you. I can't tell you how many movies I've seen with glaring plot holes and logic problems—no/low and studio productions alike.

Last October, Toronto After Dark screened Found, a no-budget movie made by a first-time director. This is the same festival that closed with Big Bad Wolves. It's kind of mind-blowing that a film like Found should be programmed together with We Are What We Are and Last Days on Mars but it also goes to show that a good story well told (with some fantastic gore effects thrown in) will resonate with audiences.  

Found is based on a book, which means that director Scott Shirmer already had a complete story—it just needed some adaptation. Shirmer also had access to makeup and effects artist who got her students involved in the production. Finally, Shirmer himself has taken some editing classes and has an education in film production. Found's a bit of a perfect storm, but it all stemmed from having a good story that was complete and free of plot holes.

So what about story? There's a multitude of books that will tell you how to write a story. Among them is Story by Robert McKee. In it, McKee addresses conflict. Recalling high school English, there are three types of conflict: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs self. McKee insists that conflict must exist in every scene in a movie script, which most writers interpret to mean man vs man.

This is wrong. I can't stress this enough. Not every scene needs conflict—story is not told through conflict alone—and ninety minutes of non-stop bickering is the worst kind of writing there is. There's no “right” way to write a movie but there is a wrong way and mistaking bitchiness for character conflict is very wrong.

Characters need to be likeable if we're to feel for them. Why invite a bunch of people you don't seem to like to your isolated cabin? Who goes on a road trip with enemies? No one. So why are you cramming your scenes full of bad people who do nothing but bitch at each other? Because you don't know any better. Because you've been led to believe this is the proper way to introduce conflict into your script. The conflict is the guy killing everyone, everything else takes a back seat to surviving the killer/zombie/force of evil that's running amok.

If the audience—and the movie itself—has no respect for the characters, then we're just waiting for them to die.

And die they will! In the grossest and most shocking ways possible. But what's unpleasant isn't necessarily scary and your movie sucks because you don't understand the difference between visceral reactions and true terror. Most no/low movies go for gore and jump scares because they're relatively easy to produce. Only found footage horror movies are capable of creating an atmosphere of suspense without really trying because of their narrow field of vision and immediacy. 909 Experiment and Area 407, which are among the worst found footage movies I've seen, still have their moments—they don't last very long but they're there. More traditional 3rd person-narrative movies have to work a little harder to build a tense atmosphere and most just go for gore.

Gore may be gross and hard to watch, the new Evil Dead was alarmingly gory, but it doesn't get the same emotional response as something that's truly scary. Scares derive from surprise and suspense. A good horror movie should provide both but most contemporary horror is heavy on jump scares and your movie probably sucks because you don't understand the different between what's temporarily shocking and what's truly frightening. But don't feel too badly about that. To quote Hitchcock, “There is a distinct difference between 'suspense' and 'surprise,' and yet many pictures continually confuse the two.”

He goes on to explain the effect of dramatic irony: if we know there's a bomb under the table but the diners don't we're held in suspense, waiting for the bang. But if we don't know there's a bomb, the bang is surprising. There's no build-up to a jump scare or startle effect, but there's a great deal of tension that's created when we know something bad's going to happen.

Suspense is emotionally demanding and can wear down an audience, making them susceptible to jump scares but just cramming your movie full of startle effects won't make it scary.

All of these things I've mentioned--bad characters, bad writing, reliance on jump scares--are common to no/low horror because they're present in mainstream genre movies. What I'm saying is sucky no/low movies are terrible because the films that serve as inspiration are terrible.

Garbage begets more garbage. There's nothing wrong with copying your favourite movies, Tarantino's built a career on that, but when you're duplicating bad movies you're guilty of making more bad movies, adding to a huge slush pile of rotten films of dubious merit.

So why are we even watching this crap? It exists because so long as people have had access to cameras they've been making movies. And that's great, but the Internet is the reason why we're now drowning under a tide of terrible no/low backyard horror movies. Before the Internet existed, you make your sucky film, you showed to your friends and that was the end of it. Today you have an opportunity to share your creation with the entire world.

Handycams gave more people greater opportunity to experiment with filmmaking; streaming and VOD gives more filmmakers greater opportunities to distribute their movies. Moreover, changes in the film distribution landscape mean filmmakers can be in charge of their own distribution without having to go through a middleman. And then there are companies like Echo Bridge, that welcome submissions and package a bunch of films together on DVD. They don't appear to be all that discerning, either.

Distributors can't be blamed for why your movie sucks, but ease of access to terrible films is part of the reason why you were able to see your film through to distribution—and why you're contemplating making another one (you left it open for a sequel).

To sum up, your movie sucks because the movies you watch are terrible. There are some truly fantastic horror movies out there but no one's watching and imitating them. People mimic what's trendy and popular, which goes a long way in explaining the critical mass of zombie and found footage movies. There's also a great deal of money to be made milking horror audience's nostalgia. Everyone's going to see a remake of Carrie—doesn't matter if it's any good.

Horror remakes exists because their titles have some recognition value, but remaking a beloved “classic” isn't the same as revisiting a theme. Scholar and author Kim Newman writes that remakes
[confirm] a movie's place in some pantheon while suggesting we really don't need to look at it anymore.”

As a no/low filmmaker, you can totally jump on the bandwagon, and riding popular sub-genres will net you viewers, but a good film needs more than just a cliched theme or style to give it legs. It needs a solid story, good characters, some atmosphere, and just a touch of originality. Right now you haven't got any of that, and this is why your movie sucks.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The Black Museum: Series Three (part one)

It's back! The Black Museum, Toronto's premiere horror lecture series is back for a third season of erudition. This year, lecturers and audience members will enjoy the comforts of the Royal cinema on College. New again is the lecture schedule, which has switched to a monthly event.

This year's series kicked off on in early Feb with a screening of Carnival of Souls, and will pick up with a lecture by Black Museum alumnus Alexandra West about French New Wave Gore.

March 12, 2014
Quelle Horreur! The Films of the New French Exremity
with Alexandra West

Alex takes apart New French Extremity, a movement in the Gallic cinema that makes torture porn look quaint. Films such as Martyrs, Them, High Tension, and Trouble Every Day stand in opposition to tourist-attracting confections like Amelie, poised instead to explore the troubled identity of a country that knew the Grand Guignol, the Theatre of Cruelty, and a cultural landscape torn by riots over thirty years of political strife and unrest.

April 9, 2014
Where Life is Cheap! Snuff Movies and the Evolution of Genre
with Yours Truly

Since 1976, the notion of filming murder for profit has outraged, disgusted, and fascinated audiences. Aided and abetted by sleazy marketing tricks, "snuff" film provided traction for feminist and anti-pornography movements, also inspiring that most steadfast and contentious of urban legends: the myth transmitted through media. I this lecture, I consider snuff's origins and aspirations, tracing its roots from early theatre to Slaughter, Hardcore, Tesis, 8MM, The Butcher, and beyond.

May 14, 2014
One of Us: The Transcendent Rise of Religious Cults in Horror 
with Alison Lang

From Satanists to Scientologists, Moonies to the Manson Family, a cinematic curiosity for cults endures. Broken Pencil's Alison Lang advises initiates that the cult trope allows reflection or commentary on wider sexual, spiritual and moral politics of an era. See: The Wicker Man and Ticket to Heaven. And sometimes the mirror held to society's scabbed visage stares hard at the truth, as in Helter Skelter and Race with the Devil--the latter purportedly starring actual Satanists as themselves.