Monday, July 14, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Wolf Creek

I originally wasn't going to write up Wolf Creek because it's a few years older than what I normally hit during the off season.  But the more I think about my own reaction to the movie the more I feel I owe it to fairness to write it up here.

Released in 2009, Wolf Creek is an Australian horror film written and directed by Greg McLean and stars John Jarratt as Mick Taylor.  McLean is a member of a loose and unofficial group of filmmakers called the "Splat Pack" along with Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja, and Darren Lynn Bousman who are all known for making realistic and brutally violent thrillers.  Sort of like an international version of the New French Extremism.  Though I really think Bousman's true calling is deranged punk musicals.

Part of the reason I wasn't going to put this up initially was my known distaste for these types of movies.  I've hated every one of them I've seen:  Asylum Blackout, Martyrs, The Loved Ones, etc... I'm not a huge fan of anything like Hostel and that ilk, but I found that at least inoffensive.  And Wolf Creek is one of those exact types of horrible, bloody, depraved, torture filled jaunts I'm wont to rage against.  However, Wolf Creek is actually a fairly decent movie and that is just damned interesting.  Beware, there be spoilers here.

The film itself is about three young adults that are backpacking around Australia.  While the characters fall into asshole horror film character stereotype a little bit during the opening but they never go full jackass.  When they're offensive it's usually because they just don't think or know better.  Otherwise they try to be nice and welcoming kids instead of confrontational jerks.  After trekking around with them for a bit and getting some exposition on who likes who, they decide to go visit a meteor impact crater, the eponymous Wolf Creek Crater.  This is a real thing, google's pretty huge.  However, their car breaks down and they're forced to spend the night when they run into helpful (if strange) outback denizen Mick Taylor who tows them back to his camp where he drugs them with plans to torture and kill them, one-by-one.  However, one of the girls manages to escape, then springing the other they lead Mick on a merry chase.  The guy of the group is pretty much a non-entity for almost the entire 3rd act and only reappears briefly in the final reel to wrap up the story.

What I think this movie has that so many other "torture porn" entries seem to lack is a sense of interest and pacing.  Mick Taylor is mustache-twirlingly evil and he loves it that way.  He seems to be aware on some level of how insane and depraved he is and just hams it up.  All too often these movies tend to feel like they need to make their serial torturer super serious and dark because if you're that evil you can't have fun, or give them some sort of sad past backstory so that they're delusional and think that what they're doing is OK or that they don't have a choice.  This sort of joyous sadism really elevates Mick as a horror killer to a level similar to Freddy, in early installments of the series anyway.

Another point was pacing.  Less enjoyable movies will continually bombard you with horrific images, feeding you endless carnage so that you can't stop to breath and let anything have psychological weight.  Wolf Creek is pretty brisk, but it varies things up tonally.  Rather than an assembly line of wounds inflicted on characters you don't care about, Wolf Creek gives us disturbing torture, Mick being gleeful, the characters getting the upper hand, hiding tensely, almost getting away, thinking they're safe, realizing they're not, etc.  What this does is prevent audience burn out from too much of a single pitch and also let moments of torture marinate into fear and despair, which is how torture should work in a movie.

So take that for what it is.  I'm still not a fan of these absurdly gory movies and I'll take my supernatural stuff over it any day, but when they're done well torture flicks can be nice movies.  And this movie was actually decent to watch.  Also, if you can score the DVD version there is an absolutely hilarious deleted scene you should check out.



Sunday, July 13, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Deliver Us From Evil

It's been a really long time since I've reviewed "Based on a true story" horror.  The last one was probably The Possession though I'd put dollars to donuts that I've hit something else in the interim.  Anyway, Deliver Us From Evil is a major horror film directed by Scott Derrickson, written by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, and starring Eric Bana and Joel McHale.  Released in July 2014, the movie is based on the accounts of NYC police officer Ralph Sarchie as written in his book, Beware the Night.

The book details several mostly disconnected paranormal investigations conducted by Sarchie who was, at the time, splitting his life between traditional police work and working on spiritual cases.  To adapt it to a movie, several events from the book have been worked into an overarching narrative.  Also interesting is that while the actual Ralph Sarchie is both a cop and devout believer in the supernatural, in the movie he's been split into 100% cop Sarchie and the believer side is taken care of by unconventional priest, Father Mendoza.

The long and short of it is that I don't like this movie.  Now, I try to keep most of my write-ups on the shorter side and this is quite a bit lengthier than the others, but this movie is almost 2 hours long and just felt like it missed the mark so many times that I can't let it go.  I've even left a few points out because they don't fit and are pretty minor.  That said, there are good things; individual scenes here and effects are good, and the acting was good to me.  I loved Joel McHale's character, and though Bana's accent seemed a bit over the top having listened to the actual Ralph Sarchie he emulated the real guy pretty well.

The basic premise is that while in Iraq, three marines find a doorway to demonic possession in a cave.  They bring this possession back with them and several years later NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie gets involved in several seemingly unrelated cases which all lead back to one of the possessed marines.  In order to defeat evil he must conquer his own personal demons and ally himself with an exorcist, finding his own spirituality.

Conceptually, this movie is all over the place.  There's a possession story, a semblance of a cult story, a man haunted by his past story, and an ancient demonic story; all framed in a procedural cop drama.  It's like they made several movies with the same cast and decided to edit them all together into one movie.  Ideas and plots are hinted at then dropped, things happen with very little just feels overstuffed.

From what I can gather, Derrickson and Boardman had begun working on an adaptation of the book set to be produced by Screen Gems, however Jerry Bruckheimer had also been working on an adaptation of the book being written by David Ayer, Bryan Bertino, and Bruce McKenna.  Some months after Derrickson and Boardman started their script, Jerry Bruckheimer's film production company partnered with Screen Gems.  Of the Bruckheimer writers only one of the three had ever worked on a horror movie before (Bryan Bertino wrote and directed 2008's The Strangers).  David Ayer had written Training Day, End of Watch, and S.W.A.T. and Bruce McKenna had written episodes of Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

I feel like each production company had begun writing very different movies and when they combined forces they mashed the scripts together, resulting in casualties.  Even at 2 hours long, the movie sprints so quickly between points that it never settles down to let any tension develop.  On top of that some of the dialog is so comically bad it completely breaks the sense of realism the movie seemed to be going for with the "based on a true story" presentation. Ralph Sarchie apparently hates cats, because every time there is any sort of feline on screen he can't stop himself from delivering a totally out of place line about how bad he thinks cats are.  Could be a house cat, could be a goddamned lion.  Doesn't matter.

Even with the story in shambles, I think it could've been at least a passable though meandering horror movie if it was visually more fun to watch.  Major problem being how dark the movie is.  It's almost like Derrickson got upset at people complaining about how dark Sinister was and decided to light half his movie with a cell phone flashlight just to show us what dark actually looked like.  Except since the pacing was so hurried these scenes weren't tense so much as frustrating because I couldn't see a damned thing.  There was some really uncomfortable gore at a few points, but that was about as effective as it ever got, visually.

Another thing that upset me was the really cheap scares.  Now, I don't necessarily mean jump scares.  I consider these quick startling shocks to be a valid tool, and like any other tool can be misused.  What I hated here was the screamer, which is done exactly like the flash video screamers.  Sarchie and his partner are watching security camera footage from the zoo when the bloody and beaten face of some guy appears on screen with a bit soundtrack sting.  This is the face of a child killer that Sarchie beat to death several years ago, and he is haunted by his guilt over the incident.  Later on, Sarchie is in his daughter's bedroom to the overused sounds of detuned Pop Goes the Weasel when he bends down to pick something up.  When he stands he sees that guy's gruesome nastiness leering over his daughter's bed.  Exact same scare, except it works better this time because there's some atmosphere and build up to the scene.  It was still kindof corny because of the soundtrack, but it was better than a screamer.

Then there's also the heavy handed use of The Doors, the band, to represent evil.  The possessed people repeat lyrics, songs kick onto the jukebox, etc.  Sarchie keeps hearing snippets of song and asking people if they heard it.  Like, half a dozen times.  I feel like in any other movie Sarchie's friends would've staged an intervention or convinced him to take some vacation time with how often he asks them if they've seen or heard something.  Some of the hallucinations are part of the haunted-by-his-past subplot but some are just The Doors, because the movie needs to make sure you understand that the spells written on the walls open a doorway to possession when read.

Finally, the paint-by-numbers exorcism upset me.  It didn't seem like there were any stakes to it when it happened in the movie.  The priest just outlines the simple, named steps of the exorcism and then they go through them one-by-one.  At some steps the demon makes token callbacks to Sarchie's and Mendoza's backstories to try to break their stride, but they get over it within like 30 seconds and go back to the exorcism.  I wasn't thrilled with it when I was watching the movie, but at least it was fairly well done visually.  But then I learned that Derrickson directed this, I was more disappointed because of how good Emily Rose was.  It's like he knew how to do it well, obviously, but he just wasn't on his A game.

Sorry for going on so long, but I just felt like this movie could have been good if it wasn't so unfocused and heavy-handed. Missed potential irks me more than straight up bad movies.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Horror Off-Season: Afflicted

Afflicted is a 2013/2014 found footage movie written and directed by Derek Lee and Clif Prowse, who also star as Derek and Clif.  Woah!

I don't want to risk spoiling this too much, but I don't think any of this synopsis will be surprising.  The movie was originally conceived as a real-world horror web series similar to EverymanHYBRID or MarbleHornets, except without Slenderman obviously.  With the feature film landing as legitimately found footage to fill in events that would be intentionally left out.  This idea was dropped, probably due to inexperience with the found-footage format and the effort it would take to manage the smoke screen.

The film is presented as the travelogue "Ends of the Earth" being filmed by lifelong friends Derek and Clif, who've decided to leave their mundane careers behind and travel around the world together.  Clif, being a filmmaker, has decided to produce a documentary/video blog site about their adventures.  Added poignancy is delivered by the reveal that prior to leaving, Derek was diagnosed with an AVM, a malformation of blood vessels that could cause a cerebral hemorrhage and kill him at any time.  Despite a strong possibility of death if ever further than 20 minutes away from a major hospital, Derek feels he has to go on this trip with his friend.  It's super bro-tastic.

Just a few days into the trip, while in Paris, Derek attempts to hook up with a French girl named Audrey and brings her back to the hotel he and Clif are staying in.  Some time later, Clif and two friend they were traveling with decide to attempt a "Turkish Cockblock" on Derek, only to discover he's passed out and bleeding from the eyebrow and arm.  Despite this, Derek insists on continuing the trip and he and Clif travel to Italy.  From there Derek begins exhibiting symptoms of a bizarre illness and then things go totally wayward and wrong, while Clif insists on filming all of it and posting to the blog.

Without going any further into detail I feel like the reveal of Derek's illness is handled really cleverly.  At under 85 minutes the whole movie is very tight with very little cruft, the whole thing is super streamlined.  I think as part of that it comes off as slightly utilitarian to the story; spending only as much time as it needs to establish each point, which I don't actually fault in a found footage movie.  A real person filming real events would not flounder around establishing "mood" or creating artistic and visually stunning atmospheric shots.  I think this was part of the reason Mr. Jones was held back in my eyes: that started from a found footage perspective then dropped it for dream logic while still maintaining that it was footage rather than dropping the pretense altogether.  Afflicted never falls into this and maintains not only its found footage style but also keeps the video blog site in the mix the whole time due to Clif's compulsive filming and hands-free camera rigs.  It's really one of the finest explanations for why all the footage exists that I've seen yet.

Also, the characters of Clif and Derek are wonderful and their friendship, though bro-tastic, is very deep and manages to drive the movie; resulting in a lot really effective and touching moments.  While no single scene is stand out, there is one that felt like it missed the mark a bit in tone.  The concept of it doesn't really bother me, just the way that it was handled felt like it was too "epic" for the rest of the movie which was really character driven. The scene in question is a confrontation between Derek and Audrey towards the end of the movie. See, Derek is a vampire and Audrey is his sire. Derek has been tracking her, convinced she somehow holds the truth to how to cure or kill himself. Turns out Audrey isn't too happy with being reintroduced and has an epic vampire fight with Derek involving a lot of environment destruction and epic wind-up punches. In fact, this fight is such a big deal it's the only time the camera is actually damaged. Even a drawn out battle with an entire SWAT team didn't put a single nick in the lens. But it just felt like too much of a stock action beat with major destruction rather than a realistic fight or even just a heated argument which could've sufficed.

As one final odd bit of continuity:  Derek, as a vampire, beats up and then bites Clif and drinks his blood. Despite not meaning to and also being totally in the thralls of feral vampire bloodlust where you'd think he'd drink as much blood as possible, this does not kill Clif. Though much of the film after this involves Derek's guilt over killing Clif, his friend actually comes back after his burial. However, lacking a friend in Derek and the subsequent pep talk by Audrey, Clif doesn't understand how to handle his vampirism and goes completely feral à la Daybreakers. This is only shown in a mid-credits scene. Given that Derek did not intend to create a vampire and also would've drank his fill rather than leaving some amount of blood behind, which is another common way of creating a vampire, how easy is it to accidentally create a vampire in this world? Derek has a confrontation with a French SWAT team where he kills several of them, many by bites. Did he just create a vampire SWAT team? What about Feral Clif? If Derek accidentally sired Clif while feral, how many of Clif's victims become vampires themselves. At the end, Derek becomes an avenger only drinking the blood of "evil" people who murder others or hurt the many of those become vampires?

Afflicted is a good movie, no doubts.  It's pretty cheap on Amazon Instant streaming right now.  Worth the watch.


Horror Off-Season: Mr. Jones

Mr. Jones is a 2013 found footage movie written and directed by Karl Mueller, starring Jon Foster and Sarah Jones.  It's the director's feature debut, having previously written and directed a short film called Widow.

Mr. Jones follows a young couple, Penny and Scott, who move from the city to a gorgeous cabin in the mountains of California.  Penny has left her burgeoning career as a photographer to support Scott's dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker by filming nature documentary.  Unfortunately for their relationship, Scott didn't really think through what the point of said documentary was.  After several aimless weeks Scott stumbles onto the "studio" cabin of an art community myth/folk tale...the eponymous Mr. Jones.

Overall, I liked the movie, but I feel like it hit points where it became a little too abstract to really communicate the interesting ideas about the nature of dreams it hinted at having.  But then despite dropping the ball somewhat on getting through with conceptual ideas the final reel is really, really heavy-handed with making sure the audience grasps what literally happened.  Well, as much as the word "literally" can be applied to what happens in the 3rd act, with as symbol/dream logic/metaphysics heavy as it was.

I think a lot of the dialogue between Penny and Scott is improvised, which tends to result in a lot of their dialogue being talking over each other and shouting their names.  Further, this drags down the opening act of the movie because not much is happening yet, and it's mostly the characters talking to each other and setting up why they dive so hard into the Mr. Jones story.  Fortunately the middle parts work really well, where Penny and Scott are split up because Scott is interviewing experts on Mr. Jones in NYC and Penny is taking photos and stalking the guy through the woods.  It's really effective at building the mythos of the character and making him seem creepy, not really because of any malevolence on his part but just because of his unknown motivations and the odd and unnerving effects that follow around people who receive his artwork.

The final act is visually interesting, but incredibly confusing.  The fluffy visual aspects that don't really serve the plot drag on a good amount but the important points blast past so quickly I almost didn't notice them.  There's also something they hint at during the NYC interviews that gets worked into the dream world portions of the finale, but is so heavily emphasized it loses its original nightmare connotation and becomes silly. For anyone wondering, in an interview a guy who burned his Mr. Jones piece becomes plagued by a nightmare in which he's chasing himself to the point where he can no longer tell the dream from reality. This manifests in the finale by a hooded figure dressed exactly like Scott chasing Scott and Penny around while holding a camera to his face. It was cool, but then became heavy handed. Then the final resolution is also an interesting twist, but is reiterated by an extended closing narration.  It lent a symmetry in that a narration from Scott bookends the movie but it felt a bit heavy handed.

So my final verdict is Mr. Jones isn't a bad movie by any stretch, it's just undeniably weird.  So weird it does seem to distract from what I thought the feeling and themes of the movie were.  It could have been better but I feel like it could have been significantly worse.  I was able to take the moments I enjoyed and ride out the weirdness of the end and by the time the narration was explaining the ending I was already checked out, but nothing really bothered me.  If you spend too much effort trying to understand it or getting deeply into the movie, it might annoy you.  But as it stands it's good light viewing.

Interesting note, all the artwork in the movie was made by a Halloween artist named pumpkinrot.  His galleries are amazing, I'd love to find this guy's yard and wander through the fog with this stuff.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Beerening: Beer 101 - Grain

Let's talk about Barley.  I'm serious.  I wanted this series to be basic and there is arguably no ingredient more basic and essential to beer than barley.  Barley is a cereal grain, and while any and all cereal grains can (and are) used to make beer, barley has become the most common for several reasons.

For most fermented drinks like wine or cider, fruits are pressed and their sugary juices are fermented.  Beer is more complicated, since beer is made from grain and grain is a simple seed with no sugary juice or meat like an apple.  So to turn barley's starches into sugars, we have to engage in a fair bit of trickery.  That trickery, and variability in that process is part of what lends beer its incredible variety.

In order to make beer from it, a simple grain like barley has to be malted, kilned, and mashed.  At each step along the way we can change things to have huge effects on the finished beer.  In addition to simple differences in the taste based on where the barley is grown, the way that it's kilned will change it drastically.

Kilning grains is a process very similar to roasting coffee, and just like coffee the more you roast the grains the less effective they are at actually making beer but the stronger roasty flavors they'll have.  Really heavily roasted coffee beans actually have far less caffeine than lighter roasts, so really heavily roasted barley has far less starch, protein, and enzymes.  You need starch to turn into sugar to make alcohol, so if you have no starch you can't have alcohol.  You need protein and starch to give beer body, so if you don't have both of those you can't have a thick, heavy beer.  Basically, this debunks the common myth that dark beers are always strong or always heavy.

Styles like stout and porter are built around lots of roasted barley, and from the roasted barley they gain their characteristic burnt flavors.  Porters, in my experience, tend to be more astringent and biting from the roast while stouts have tended to be smoother.  If you roast barley with the husk on it becomes bitter like coffee, but some brewers will use a malt called Carafa which gives the same flavor as heavily roasted barley with the astringency or bitterness because its husk has been removed prior to kilning.  For this reason Carafa is also called Debittered or Dehusked malt.  So if you see that on a beer you know you're in for smooth roastiness rather than robust bitter darkness.  Roasted barley also comes in "Chocolate" and "Coffee" variants, which indicate that the grains taste a lot like dark chocolate or actual coffee.

There are other styles that use smaller amounts of dark roasted malts to lend complexity.  Darker Scotch Ales and Wee Heavies spring to mind, but Irish Red ales will often use a little bit of the same type of roasted barley you'd find in an Irish Stout.  In these beers rather than lending bitterness or strong roast flavor, the dark malt increases the depth of the malt character and makes for a richer beer.  You can always tell that a beer has included a roasted malt of some sort if the head of the beer is an off-white or tan color.

Normally kilning is done while vented, meaning the water from the malting step has the ability to steam off and leaves the malt dry.  You could also close the vents, letting the grains stew for a time in a super-hot sauna.  This has the effect of converting the starches in the grains to sugars, which is normally done in the mashing step by the brewer rather than the person making the malt.  Then they're vented and dried.  This type of malt is called Crystal or Caramel malt and comes in degrees of darkness based on how long it was kilned, just like regular malt.  However because of the heat treatment of the sugars, they tend not to ferment as completely leaving more sweetness in the beer.  Caramel malts start with slight nutty flavor, then move into caramel and raisin-y sweetness as they get darker.  These malts are common in styles like English Bitter, again Scotch Ale and Wee Heavy, and also American and English Brown Ales.  Some more traditional IPAs or English IPAs will include a bit of Crystal malts, but the current trend in American IPA is to discourage their use in order to create a very dry beer.  Some people really dislike Crystal malts, but they tend to be a bit hard to avoid in medium colored beers.  However, German or Belgian beer styles are unlikely to include Crystal.

So that Myth busted, an some basic discussion of how barley's treatment and types affect a beer's flavor.