The Classics of Horror #16 – Misery (1990)

Legend says that Stephen King, dissatisfied by his latest adaptations, asked Rob Reiner to work on the transposition of his novel Misery (1987) to film.

The director behind the awesome Stand by me (1986) agreed to work on a King’s source material once again. As a result, Misery (the movie) came out in 1990, starring Kathy Bates and James Caan.

Winning an award to Bates for best actress in a leading role, Misery probably deserved even more. I’m so in love with this movie!

Partly, it’s because the type of movies revolving around a few characters locked up somewhere (à la 12 Angry Men, 1957) have always had a special place in my heart. With very little to work with, this formula exploits its potential as a character study, which is something I always found mesmerising, as a cinephile.

What kind of ‘secluded’ situation are we dealing with in Misery, then? Basically, famous writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has just finished its latest novel about (you guessed it) Misery. She’s a character he built his career around but decided to kill off to move on as a writer. Driving back home after finishing said book, Paul ends up having a car accident due to a snowstorm.

Paul and his only copy of the manuscript get saved by a nurse, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Good for him. Or maybe not?

In fact, quite soon after Paul is taken to Annie’s isolated house, he notices something is off with the nurse, who claims to be “her biggest fan” and, perhaps, is a bit overly obsessed with him and the character of Misery.

From now on, the audience is gripped to a story which sees an immobilised Paul (with his legs broken and in rather bad conditions) trying to escape his host, while Annie pushes him to rewrite his latest novel and make it more ‘Misery friendly’.

Misery is, clearly, a character driven horror/drama/thriller, I’d say. Good for us, the performances by the two leads are great.

Misery 1Kathy Bates, in the role that made her famous, is just fantastic: she ranges from being creepily sweet and caring to going bad shit insane and violent. For instance, when Caan realises her madness for the first time, the sequence is handled so well by Bates’ performance. The way she gestures and speaks, coming up with the most ridiculous ways to cover her swearing, is just terrific. Impressively enough, from that first insanity moment on her acting improves and every time I watch this movie, I don’t see Kathy Bates on screen: I see freaking Annie Wilkes.

Not to be overlooked though, is James Caan’s performance. To begin with, he mostly only had his facial expressions to rely on and still manages to be extremely believable and compelling. Also, at certain points in the film, his character needs to pretend to have different feelings: do you have any idea how hard it is to be a character within a character? Yes, Bates steals the show, but Caan at his best was also a delight to look at.

Misery 2.pngYet, there is a subplot involving two other characters (a sheriff and his wife) that both links the story together and introduces us these amazing people, a likable and funny old couple. I love the sheriff, he’s so genuine and quotable: “Virginia, when we are in the car you’re not my wife; you’re my deputy!”. Great stuff!

Again, the direction of Rob Reiner is spotless: the whole movie has an incredible, somewhat nostalgic vibe that makes everything so intriguing, even the scenes that could have become dull. The set design is, also, amazing: everything looks lived-in and realistic. The camera-work even manages to create some great sequences and peeps to the action from uneven angles.

Misery 3Besides the infamous ‘hammer scene’ which Misery is famous for even among those who haven’t seen it, this film delivers some intense psychological torture. For a passionate writer having to burn or rewrite their book must be very hard to take. I mean, even I get mad when I forget to save a post and I have to write it again from the beginning!

In all honestly, I don’t think there is any flaw in this movie. Well, other than a tiny editing mistake that you’d notice only if you’re as obsessed as I am with the technical aspects of a movie. Also, I didn’t love the score, because sometimes highlights too much the most intense scenes.

Anyway, Misery is simply a masterpiece. I probably consider it one of my all-time favourite movies, one that also happens to feature an awesome, fulfilling and climactic ending. Must watch!

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Classics of Horror #7 – The Last House on the Left (1972)

The Last House on the Left is the first, and probably most, controversial entry on this list.

This film – directed by a then-young guy who went on making flicks sank by obscurity (sarcasm alert) such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Serpent and The Rainbow (1988), The People Under the Stairs (1991) and the four Scream (1996-2011) movies – is an exploitation horror that received humongous criticism when it came out and have been rehabilitated only in recent times.

Last House on the left 1Written, directed and edited by a young Wes Craven – one of, if not the best horror filmmaker of all time – The Last House on the Left tells the story of two naïve teenage girls who, in search of drugs, end up kidnapped by a band of maniacs who just escaped from prison.

It’s a 40-something year old movie, so I imagine nobody will complain if I insert some spoiler every here and there. I need to, in order to explain where the controversy lies.

Once kidnapped and taken into the woods, the two girls get raped, tortured and, eventually, killed.

As a consequence of its themes, the film was censored in many countries, and was particularly controversial in the United Kingdom, where The Last House was refused a certificate for cinema release by the British Board of Film Censors in 1974 due to scenes of sadism and violence.

I wonder what would have happened if A Serbian Film came out back then…

Anyway, Craven’s debut motion picture was inserted among the ‘video nasty’ list in 1984. In summary, ‘video nasty’ is the colloquial definition ascribed to a list of films that were criticised for their violent content by the press, social commentators and various religious organisations.

Last House on the left 3Due to the consequent implementation of the Video Recording Act, a stricter code of censorship has been imposed on videos than was required for cinema release. Several major studio productions were banned on video, as they fell within the scope of legislation designed to control the distribution of video nasty.

Despite many reviewers (among which Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode stood out) praised The Last House and used it as a symbol against the censorship of ideas and free art, the film had been presented to the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) for theatrical certification throughout the years and it’d constantly been refused. Until 2008 when, upon numerous investigations by the BBFC itself, it was classified uncut for video release.

At this point, you might wonder if the movie is worth its reputation.

To begin with, the violence is quite in your face, although some weird editing choices and poor practical effects (Craven had only some $87.000 budget available) make it looks dated and less effective.

However, The Last House came out in 1972, a time when audiences’ maximum level of gore was represented by the slow-ass zombies of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the hints to violence in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Due to its themes and implications, the film had an impact on me in terms of uneasiness (I must admit I consider rape as the worst crime, sin and cruelty a person could ever commit, alongside with paedophilia). So, I can just imagine how people perceived it back in the 70s.

Besides the controversy, Craven’s debut feature is an iconic rape-and-revenge exploitation that inspired an entire sub-genre with an endless list of titles and made room for a horror field that has little to do with the paranormal or supernatural.

Its grounded and down-to-hearth nature is what I appreciate the most about this film.

On the contrary, an aspect I didn’t like about it is the comic relief. In all fairness, to my knowledge, The Last House was one of the first horror flicks to introduce comedic features, a revolution that still influences horror cinema nowadays.

Unfortunately, in Craven’s film the comic relief – provided by two clumsy policemen – falls short and distracts the viewer from an otherwise dark and depressing story.

The sound design fails as well in creating a suspenseful atmosphere, being filled with tracks more suitable for a hash house than a dramatic situation as the one our teenagers are experiencing.

Last House on the left 2In terms of characters, the criminals are depicted very well and their traits emerge through dialogues and actions more than exposition. The girls and the other protagonists, instead, are flat and victims of the events, therefore not very interesting.

All in all, The Last House of the Left is worth a watch, especially if you are looking for some 80 minutes of ‘twisted’ entertainment. Craven’s debut will not be the only director’s entrance on this list and, perhaps, the next ones will justify his title of Master of Horror. Cheers!

The movies of James Wan, part I – Saw (2004)

Regarded by many as the best horror director working today, James Wan (27 February 1977) went on also screenwriting and producing many of his movie as well as various flicks connected to his works, such as the Saw and Insidious sequels.

Being able to revitalise several horror clichés, such as tiresome jump-scares and redundant possession-driven plots, Mr. Wan is surrounded by a claque of die-hard fans.

Independently from the single person’s opinion, throughout the last 15 years or so James Wan has had a strong impact of both the independent horror market and the public discussions on the genre. Because of his impact, I decided to analyse and review his movie from the perspective of a neutral horror-lover and passionate moviegoer. I hope you will enjoy this new series.

*Check my previous series on here and here*

Saw (2004) is the movie that set Wan to the Olympus of horror cinema directors and gave birth to the second highest grossing horror franchise in movie history – only behind the Friday the 13th films by a margin of $10 million. Also, alongside with Leigh Whannell – who went on writing and producing nearly all the Wan’s movies – Mr. Wan has been working on the synopsis of Saw for almost 10 years.

Beyond the technical aspects, indeed the passion behind Saw is clear, almost tangible. Most of the horror fans have noticed it, since this film is considered as a masterpiece among them; however, the critics have drastically scaled it down and given it quite mediocre grades.

As per usual, though, I am not quite apt to be convinced by others’ opinion and I try to be unbiased as much as possible in my reviews.

That’s why, even from a technical standpoint, I’d say Saw looks carefully made, with great attention to the locations, smart utilisation of colours and tones, spot on and subtle soundtrack. The production values, although not perfect, are astounding considering the small budget Wan and Whannell had on their disposal.

saw-1-01Assuming that everybody knows the plot, I am going to explain it very briefly: two men awoke in a dirty, desolated bathroom. They are chained to the furniture and nearby a dead body with its head smashed. While they are figuring out a way to escape from this nightmare, Jigsaw – the villain – talks to them through a creepy doll, telling them what to do and explaining his motivations. In the meantime, a police squad led by Danny Glover is trying to solve the mystery surrounding tons of gory and nasty deaths which occurred in the area and that eventually will lead to save the two trapped men and reveal Jigsaw’s identity.

Despite its alleged originality, Saw clearly has its ancestor in Cube (1997) in regards to tone and plot. However, James Wan’s first film is executed in such a mature and convincing way that it is tough not to praise him for what he has achieved. The twist at the end, which I am not going to spoil, although probably everybody has seen it, is amazing and totally unexpected.

jeff-tapp-singUltimately, even though most of the people seem to enjoy this movie for its gory element and the complexity of the tortures, the great extra value of Saw consists of utilising them as accessary to the movie, not as necessary. Whereas the sequels did the exact same opposite, which is the main reason why I simply cannot even stand their existence and, thus, their success.

Nevertheless, this film has a couple of flaws, namely the acting, which is really amateur and unconvincing, beyond the performances provided by Danny Glover and Tobin Bell, who was born to be Jigsaw, honestly.

Yet, a couple of gory scenes are a bit damaged by the improper camera movements and they would have been highly more effective if filmed in a more static way.

Overall, Saw is quite a cult, a film able to combine the expectation of soft and hard core horror fans altogether, filled with interesting ideas and seeds typical of a well-done thriller, featuring an astounding plot twist. For those of you who have not check it out yet, go see it now. Cheers!

The movies of Fede Alvarez – Don’t Breathe (2016)

 

Don’t Breathe (2016) is the second feature length movie directed – but also written and produced – by Fede Alvarez, the so-called newcomer of horror cinema.

 

If you go to this movie expecting to watch something really ‘horror-style’, you will be probably vastly disappointed by Don’t Breathe, which is a dark thriller with some tiny, little horror elements.

 

The plot revolves around a home-invasion committed by three misfits who decided to make the big shot, trying to steal the inheritance of a blind old man thinking he is completely defenceless. In fact, he is everything but defenceless. He is quite powerful and devious instead, so that our three main characters are in a tons of troubles. 

 

Speaking of the characters, two out of four – Alex and Money, respectively portrayed by Dylan Minnette Daniel Zovatto – are reductive and convenient, with no depth or motivations whatsoever. Nevertheless, the show stealers of the movie are Jane Levy – Rocky – and Stephen Lang, who pulled off the best performance of his career as the blind, war veteran villain.

 

maxresdefaultLevy was great in Evil Dead and in Don’t Breathe she is able to maintain that reputation as one of the most interesting rising actors working today. Lang is a true surprise – while being quite good in his over-the-top Avatar performance, he did not do much of relevance in his career. On the contrary, in this film “Lang’s sinewy build and sudden movements gave him a terrifying, almost lupine-like physicality”, according to Brian Raftery, WIRED’s movie reviewer.

 

Another major plus of this movie consists of its dreadful and uncomfortable atmosphere, built through the clever use of colours, the lack of soundtrack and the claustrophobic environment where the characters have to face one another.

 

However, to me Don’t Breathe has flaws. First of all, it rips off David Fincher’s Panic Room way too much. For instance, Money is a non-funny, bland spoof of Jared Leto’s Junior from said movie, as well as Alex shares the same worries brought on screen by Burnham (Forest Whitaker) in Fincher’s film.

 

In addition, there are a couple of sequences which are entirely copied from Panic Room, for example the astonishing camera shots lingering on flat surfaces and the opening credits.

 

Spoilers warning!

 

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Let’s talk about the movie twist.

 

Basically, Rocky and Alex – fortunately Money is killed few minutes after the home intrusion – discover that the blind man has kidnapped the young woman who killed his daughter in a car accident, locked her up in his basement, and impregnated her, so that he can have another child.

 

This twist is clearly inserted in the movie for ‘horror’ reasons, but to me it has the downside to turn a – all in all – well-made thriller into something that winks at the torture porn sub-genre, breaking the attention of the audience as well as the linearity of the story.

 

Also the very ending is vastly disappointing. After having accidentally shot the woman he kidnapped, the blind man decides that Rocky should instead be the one to bear his offspring – thanks to Alex she is able to escape and take her revenge on the villain, beating him up to death and running away with the six-figure sum he has been hiding in the property. But oh oh oh, as soon as Rocky and her daughter reach the local airport with the intention to move to California, the media spread the news that the blind man is still alive.

 

Seriously? An open ending which allows the possibility of a sequel? This is one of the most cliché horror grand finale, which all of the sudden breaks suspension of disbelief that remained intact after the ‘torture-porn sequence’.

 

According to the various reviews and rankings, Don’t Breathe is a strongly polarizing movie. Either you love it or you hate it.

 

In my humble opinion, it should be placed in a grey area. It’s a good movie, with genuine suspense, two astounding performances, good camera work and great chromatic choices. On the other hands, the film features rip offs from other – better – movies, a couple of dumb sequences and a very disappointing ending.

 

 

 

Through his first two films, Alvarez proved himself as an interesting filmmaker and I am looking forward to seeing what he is going to accomplish with The Girl Who Played with Fire, a drama/thriller based on the Swedish novel of the same name. Still, in his writing and direction there are flaws and the biggest one for me is the lack of originality. Hopefully, he will improve with his future projects. Cheers.