A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: September, 2013

“V/H/S/2” (2013)

"V/H/S/2" poster

2012’s V/H/S defined the term “missed opportunity.” What sold itself as an homage to those grungy, low-budget horror movies that lined countless shelves in the video store’s heyday turned out to be an obnoxious anthology flick. It was an annoyance with almost unwatchable shaky-cam photography, anticlimactic segments, and, worse yet, virtually no grasp on its own gimmick. The film’s failure cast a pall over future installments (which, considering how cheap that first one was to make, were all but guaranteed), but not only is V/H/S/2 a marked improvement, it is as such while experiencing many of the same ails. It’s still a far cry from the home run an idea like this deserves, but this second helping of found footage frights adapts to its faults and is even good when it tries to be.

Our framing story involves two investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine and Kelsy Abbott) hired to track down a college kid who’s gone missing. Their search leads them to a house that’s nearly empty, save for a pile of TV sets and a bunch of VHS cassettes containing the mini-movies comprising the proceeding omnibus. The first tape features its own director, Adam Wingard, as a man whose high-tech eye implant allows him to see a world of rather agitated ghosts. Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez (the respective producer and co-director of The Blair Witch Project) helm the second story, which follows a cyclist who sets out to record his morning ride but ends up capturing his own descent into zombiehood. The third segment, from Timo Tjahjanto and The Raid‘s Gareth Evans, chronicles the horrors that await a television news crew when they decide to get the inside scoop on a cult. The last tale comes courtesy of Hobo with a Shotgun‘s Jason Eisener, who pits a bunch of kids left home alone against alien invaders.

What stuck in many viewers’ collective craw about V/H/S (mine included) was how little it had to do with the VHS format. The characters viewed the segments upon those classic bulky tapes, but the shorts themselves were filmed digitally, just Skype and spycam footage that somehow ended up on a cassette (the question of who would transfer it and why was the subject of more confusion/boiling rage). V/H/S/2 is in precisely the same boat, and with its first story recorded in the context of a cybernetic implant, you could say it moves even further away from the shot-on-video conceit. But either I had an idea of what to expect or these vignettes were just that much better, but I found myself not minding so much this time around. What’s certain is that V/H/S/2 exhibits more creativity than its predecessor, more often than not cleverly incorporating a first-person perspective into its segments in ways that expand upon their initial hooks. With the exception of one outright awful entry, none of the stories feel like one-trick ponies, each making the most of the short time it has to freak you out by its own means.

I already know I’m in the minority on this one, but the Hale/Sanchez segment stands head and shoulders above its brothers as my favorite of the V/H/S/2 line-up. We’ve seen movies from a zombie’s point of view before, but never quite this literally, or with the blend of horror, humor, and heartbreak with which its directors imbue it. All its little touches (like its newly-undead protagonist figuring out what is and isn’t edible) are really neat and round out what could’ve easily been a simplistic, gimmicky one-shot. Still, Evans and Tjahjanto deserve some sort of special commendation for turning out the most bugnuts crazy story of the lot. The atmosphere already thick with unease due to the cult’s conspicuously cheery demeanor, the plot’s ensuing curveballs lobbed our way only get nuttier, defying our expectations and dropping our jaws every step of the way. Wingard’s contribution is pretty basic in concept, but it never goes overboard with jump scares, always erring on the side of a cool little funhouse ride. Eisener’s story is the only one I disliked entirely, reminding me of everything that I hated about that first movie — queasy cinematography, a one-note premise, and loudmouthed characters I couldn’t wait to see dragged off to some unspeakable end. Also, the wraparound stuff with the investigators is a mixed bag, all vague and mysterious at first but finishing on a cliched note that doesn’t answer any of questions it posed to begin with.

I’d still like to see today’s heroes of horror filmmaking take a crack at a project that truly pays tribute to the medium that probably inspired most of them, but taken on its own terms, V/H/S/2 isn’t half bad. It’s obvious that the participants weren’t just banking on nostalgia for the golden age of videotapes to wrangle an audience, so if they had to follow in the first movie’s formatted footsteps, they might as well bring some really cool content to share. V/H/S/2 isn’t a total winner, but it gives one hope that a hypothetical third outing might not whiz any potential down its leg after all.

“Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” (2012)

"Evocateur" poster

I’ve appreciated several films that revolved around despicable people, but Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie is one of the biggest tests I’ve ever come across. This documentary opts to take a sledgehammer to your buttons rather than give them a mere push, forcing you to experience in close proximity anger, pity, disgust, and empathy. Its subject is a man who’s been called both an opportunist scraping the bottom of society’s barrel and a hero serving as a mouthpiece for the voiceless — sometimes by the same people. I can’t say that Evocateur is always successful at being as complex of a chronicle as it thinks it is, but as something aiming to bring its audience’s collective blood to a bubbling boil, it hits its mark about a hundredfold.

Morton Downey Jr. was a live grenade hurled onto the battlefield of talk television. Where other hosts conducted innocuous interviews on sanitized sets, Downey was loud, crude, and confrontational, literally going face-to-face against his guests before the cheers of an equally raucous audience. The man who grew up the son of a famous crooner (and, by some accounts, rather resentfully, at that) now channeled every furious fiber of his being on TV for a living. At first, it paid off handsomely, with Downey’s fanbase and ratings rising at a meteoric pace. But keeping up with the public’s appetite to see cursing and shoving matches every single night took a toll on Downey that shocked no one, one that forced him to try increasingly desperate methods of commanding the world’s attention.

How deeply you’ll be drawn into Evocateur depends almost solely on how much of Downey himself you can stomach. Critical as certain portions of the film are about how he treated others (yelling those guests with opposing views off the stage being a tradition on his show), it’s still all about demonstrating what a brave, passionate, trend-setting fellow he was, whether you liked him or not. As for myself, I was too young to catch his original two-year tour on the airwaves, and I’m not to any extent a fan of the miserable circus of reality/talk TV his program helped inspire. Trying to win me over with Downey’s hardships raised my eyebrows to their limit, and it sure felt like that first half was giving me the hard sell, but fortunately, the further Evocateur goes, the more disturbing motivation behind his constant need to seize the spotlight is revealed.

Evocateur makes its greatest impact when it takes the time to show what really drove a guy like Downey. We bear witness to a lifelong grudge against his father (one co-worker tells of Mort tearing an issue of Time with his dad on the cover to shreds), political pursuits, and a string of relationships with women, the last of which reportedly sent him spiraling into obsession. All of this led to a neverending quest for acceptance, which meant having to be as crass, sleazy, and exploitative as his audience wanted him to be — if there was something to keep those Nielsens up, Downey would do it. But Evocateur is far less adept at getting us to buy into its image of Downey as a modern folk hero and broadcasting rebel who did things that other talk show hosts were too big of pansies to do. Yeah, he brought a lot of daring content to the small screen, and he relished in stirring the pot, but he comes across more convincing as a smug, morals-free ratings hound than the social crusader he admitted he pretended to be.

If Evocateur‘s interviewees are any indication, Morton Downey Jr.’s followers are alive, well, and the perfect demographic for this movie. Simultaneously deemed the devil incarnate and patron saint of the blue-collared in his time, it’ll be interesting to see how many nowadays view Downey as a topic worth dedicating a 90-minute film to, versus the number that swept him under the rug with other relics of the ’80s ages ago. Evocateur is no well-oiled machine, but its few sputters of insight haven’t been totally drowned out by the deluded clunking that dominates most of the picture.

“The Frozen Dead” (1966)

"The Frozen Dead" poster


I like how Nazis have become the ultimate movie villain trump card. No matter the lapses in logic or ill-defined motivations encountered, their mere presence explains everything. Why would Nazis want to take over Atlantis with laser-wielding werewolves? Because they’re  Nazis. It’s a funny enough excuse for a while, but eventually, you want flicks like The Frozen Dead — dopey at heart as they may be — to explain what they hope to accomplish. For example, this British-made B-thriller centers on one of humanity’s greatest scourges once more assuming power, a premise that doesn’t distract you from nosing out the flaws in its master plan nearly as much as it should.

Decades after the Third Reich’s downfall, efforts to bring about its resurrection are well underway. Hiding out in the English countryside is Dr. Norberg (Dana Andrews), a party scientist working around the clock on a diabolical project to restore the frozen bodies of various Nazi personnel to life. Unfortunately, he’s had far more failures than successes, as the few soldiers who actually survived their revivals have emerged as nearly brain-dead oafs. If that weren’t enough, Norberg’s niece Jean (Anna Palk) has decided to visit just as his superiors have come to check on his progress. But undeterred, the doc’s assistant (Alan Tilvern) has taken the liberty of killing Jean’s friend Elsa (Kathleen Breck) in order to run experiments on her severed head…which soon gains consciousness and puts together a plan to bring the whole insane bunch to justice.

The Frozen Dead is the confused marriage of a low-rent exploitation movie and a big studio production based on some pulpy bestseller. Its budget and scope are on the same wavelength as They Saved Hitler’s Brain, but its tone is serious enough for it to be obvious that the filmmakers wanted the film to be held in as high of esteem as something like The Boys from Brazil would later be. Neither attitude is that well-promoted, giving us a flick that’s a failure as both trashy fun and a psychological heart-stopper. It’s not that the potential isn’t there, especially in the character of Norberg, whom we’re shown is a loyal Nazi but keeps his affiliation a secret from Jean and doesn’t wish for innocents to die in the name of his experiments. But no moral or ethical conflict is ever really explored, and Norberg himself is sidelined too often to be an impressionable villain or antihero (Andrews’ bored performance doesn’t make him any less passive, either).

On the less intellectual side of things, The Frozen Dead just plain ain’t scary. The film’s advertising promises no less than SS goons rising from the dead to swarm the globe, yet the most we ever see of the goose-stepping ghouls are a scant few stationary shots. The suspense is mainly focused on the cat-and-mouse game of Norberg covering up his goings-on before Jean finds Goebbels stashed in the freezer next to the Phish Food. It amounts to the same dull turn of events repeating itself over and over, which undermines the effective moments that do turn up (the majority of which involve Breck’s gaunt, disembodied noggin pleading for help). The audience isn’t paralyzed with fear so much as confusion, particularly with how the Nazis even plan to infiltrate modern society upon their defrosting, if any of them don’t end up as shambling madmen in the first place.

The Frozen Dead is neither lurid nor thought-provoking enough to expect much entertainment value. At the very least, it’s never boring, although that such a middling horror flick was inspired by this promising of a gimmick has to be a cinematic crime of some sort. Genre buffs starved for product may want to give The Frozen Dead a whirl, but it’s a mostly forgettable feature that the general public would prefer to not see.