revisiting train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Nothing was going right. I tried to order dinner for delivery and kept failing. We decided to watch a movie, picked Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the Blu-ray didn't work. I threw up my hands and watched Train to Busan again.

I wrote about it three years ago, and I'll cut-and-paste some here:

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre.

The only thing I'd add is that it fit right in with our times. The zombie breakout is like a virus, and the government pretends everything is OK. It's not. I really like this movie, and enjoyed a second visit.


a quiet place (john krasinski, 2018)

A Quiet Place is very good at what it tries to do: scare the shit out of you. Oddly, though, this is not only what makes the movie good, it's what makes the movie almost unbearable to watch.

I suppose the same could be said of any good horror movie. It's almost a definition of horror that works. If it didn't scare us, we would laugh at it. But something different is happening with A Quiet Place. There is none of the anticipatory glee when you know another scare is right around the corner. In this film, there is no around the corner ... you are always already there.

The film wastes little time in set up. The beginning is ominous ... I settled in for some of that glee. Apparently, everyone is trying to be quiet. There's no explanation. Anticipation builds, and that lasts nine minutes. After that, we know what the stakes are. Here is that opening (spoilers, obviously):

It's a great premise for horror: make a noise, and a monster will eat you. Gradually we learn a little more about the situation and the monsters, but not a lot. The premise is what the rest of the movie addresses.

And when the problem is that you can't make a noise, there is no time for anticipation. I spent the next 80 minutes in fear. Silence is very difficult (in fact, it's hard to figure out how these people have stayed alive as long as they have). Every time someone steps on a leaf, or bumps against a wall, or anything else that might make the tiniest noise, that monster from the first scene is in our minds. As I say, every good horror movie strives for this. But the premise and the execution is so excellent that for me it went beyond the glee of watching something scary. The proper word for what I felt was dread.

In the 1953 movie version of The War of the Worlds, there is a scene inside a basement that is so suspenseful and so frightening that Spielberg copied it for his 2005 remake. But the way that film was constructed, you had the long buildup that grew to something of an explanation, you had some examples of Martian technology, you learned what people were up against, and only then did you get the scene in the basement. After which, the story continued to its apocalyptic ending. A Quiet Place is like that basement scene, extended for the final 80 minutes of the movie. Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Editing, and that was deserved and very appropriate.

So you've got a movie that accomplishes what it sets out to do, and that's a good thing. But I'm still nervous about watching the sequel.


geezer cinema: us (jordan peele, 2019)

Jordan Peele surprised us all with his first directorial effort, Get Out. It was terrific, it was inventive, and it came from a man best known for sketch comedy. Get Out was so good, Peele lost any chance of ever surprising us in the same way again. Now we expect his movies to be good.

Us makes Peele two-for-two. Apparently Peele set out to make a straight horror film. Of course, Us is not just a straight horror film. And to the extent it is a horror film, it's a kitchen sink of horror. Peele piles it on: zombie apocalypse, home invasion, childhood terrors come back to haunt us. It also has its hilarious moments ... Peele can't seem to resist. (My favorite: when the family under attack tells their Alexa-thing to call the police, and it replied, "OK. Playing "Fuck the Police" by N.W.A.")

Peele doesn't get explicit with his social commentary here, which won't stop people from trying to find it. (This was much easier in Get Out, which was more obvious.) In fact, there is a certain vagueness to Us, and that actually makes it creepier ... the unexplained becomes frightening. In some ways, it is similar to Parasite, which was also a take on home invasions, only there, the invaders were the nominal "good guys". Parasite made its class consciousness unavoidable ... you couldn't miss it if you tried. Peele sneaks it in.

The entire film is uplifted by the incredible performance of Lupita Nyong'o. She is completely believable as both dopplegangers of her character. We see their connection, yet also experience them as separate. #653 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Finally, I had a couple of personal connections to the movie. For one thing, it takes place mostly in and near Santa Cruz. I lived in the area once, and my wife and I go there every year to celebrate our anniversary. (During the prologue, which takes place in 1986, she said, "Just think, we'd only been married 13 years then!") And there's the use of "I Got 5 on It". The song was a pretty big hit in its day, and it was unavoidable in the Bay Area. But we knew it from the "Bay Ballas Remix". Honestly, I didn't know there was an "original" for the longest time.


geezer cinema: the invisible man (leigh whannell, 2020)

The Invisible Man starts with an escape. We know nothing of the situation, except that a woman, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), is terrified, and she is sneaking out of her house. She succeeds, and we gradually learn the story of her life with an abusive husband. By focusing on her escape, Leigh Whannell puts us on Cecilia's side from the beginning. When her husband is found dead of a suicide, it seems like a happy ending, although Cecilia is still paranoid, not wanting to go outside. At this point, we are rooting for Cecilia to move on with her life.

All of the subsequent plot twists grow out of this. We feel empathy for Cecilia, but she starts noticing things that don't make sense, and for a moment we might question Cecilia's grasp of reality. She concludes that her husband is somehow still alive, and that he has figured out a way to be invisible.

Whannell doesn't keep us in suspense ... we "see" the evidence of the invisible man's presence, as does Cecilia. Our empathy returns, twofold, for Cecilia has to deal not only with her apparently living, invisible husband, but with a world that thinks she is deluded.

Whannell relies heavily on Moss. His plot has more than a few holes that are best ignored until after the movie, but meanwhile, Moss is up to everything asked of her. Over the course of the movie she has to portray a variety of emotions, sometimes hiding her true emotions behind a mask. It's an award-worthy performance that will likely be forgotten by next year's Oscars.

Whannell reportedly brought the movie in for only $7 million. The "Invisible" effects are good ... you don't notice how it is done. The sound carries a lot of impact ... you hear every punch (granted, I was watching in a Dolby Cinema theater, where loud sounds can make your seat rumble). It's not clear who to credit for the sound ... the IMDB lists 20 people under "Sound Department" ... my best guess is Chris Terhune and P.K. Hooker, who are credited as "sound designers".

The Invisible Man provides enough thrills to satisfy, and Moss in particular makes it worth watching. I wouldn't go any further than that, though ... it's no Babadook.


the beast of yucca flats (coleman francis, 1961)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order. Week 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week", but I had seen most of the possible selections, and was unable to find the others. So I substituted Week 32, "366 Weird Movies Week", since I'll be in Spain when that one is on the calendar.

As this year's Season Challenge nears its end, I figured I'd try to leave you all with something...memorable. Let's get weird, folks.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen 366 Weird Movies film.

Well, this certainly was a weird movie. Terrible, but weird. Actually, it's not weird as much as it is incompetent, but at times it's hard to tell the difference. It appears regularly on Worst Movies Ever lists, but for my money, it never makes it to "so bad it's good". It's just simply bad. Against the gold standard (which I continue to believe is Robot Monster, not Plan 9 from Outer Space), The Beast of Yucca Flats is merely unwatchable. There is no use reviewing a movie like this. Best to just resort to a list of, OK, weird things.

1) The biggest name in the cast (no pun intended) was Tor Johnson, an enormous pro rassler from Sweden who in later years became a staple in grade-Z movies, best known for the films he made with Ed Wood (Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls). In The Beast of Yucca Flats, Johnson plays a noted Soviet scientist (don't worry, he soon turns into the title character).

2) There is a pre-credits scene featuring a woman who has just showered, who is strangled to death by a mysterious bad guy (as we later see, he dresses like The Beast). While many prints are edited, the one I watched on Amazon featured the entire scene, which includes the woman, bare-breasted ... in a 1961 movie! The scene was shot after filming was done, and it appears to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Legend is that director Coleman Francis liked nude scenes.

3) The movie was shot without sound. When people speak (which is rare), they are looking away from the camera so we can't see if they are synced. Mostly, all we hear is an incessant musical score, sound effects, and an endless and truly bizarre voice-over narration. Someone did us the favor of making a super-cut of all the narration:

Here's the trailer, so you don't have to watch the actual movie:


geezer cinema: underwater (william eubank, 2020)

My first "2020" film, which is ironic since it was shot in 2017. In 2020, it became the final film released under the "20th Century Fox" name (a week after its release, Disney changed the name to 20th Century Studios).

It is easy to reduce Underwater to something recognizable, and you won't even have to lie: it's Alien, but underwater, and with Kristen Stewart in place of Sigourney Weaver. Naturally, the comparison doesn't reflect well on Underwater, but if you get past that, you'll find an economical thriller that wastes no time getting to the good stuff. You don't want to show up late ... the action begins almost immediately. If you are a fan of character development, you'll find Underwater underwhelming. Me, I usually find character development in this kind of movie to be a waste of time, so I appreciated the move directly into action. I didn't come to the theater to find out the dark secret past of Kristen Stewart's character ... I came to see her and her mates fighting against a monster.

The monster is cool enough, although to be fair I'm surprised they spent $80 million on this ... it's better looking than a Syfy made-for-TV special, but it's no Alien (or The Abyss, for that matter). Kristen Stewart is her usual reliable self, and she and co-star Jessica Henwick even give a shout out to Ripley when they start running around in their panties.

Underwater is cheesy but not that cheesy, and it takes care of business in 95 minutes. Face it, you don't need my advice: you already know whether you want to see it.


parasite (charles band, 1982)

After a two-week break, we return to "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 16 is called "The Future Was Then Week":

To quote the late, great Phillip J. Fry, "time makes fools of us all." And never is that more the case for this set of movies we got here. At once considered futuristic, these films now lie in the odd limbo of being both in the future (from the time of its release) AND the past (as of now). Take a look and see where these filmmakers were spot-on about the future, and where they way, way off.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film set in the "future". My Films with Past Futures list might help.

An awful piece of junk, although I need to cut it a little slack. It was made in 3D, and I was watching it in 2D on my TV. At times, I could see what they were trying to do, not just with the usual stuff jumping at us from the screen, but also by the use of space in ways that likely looked pretty good in 3D. Also, the version on Amazon was reframed from the original 2.35:1, and you could tell. In other words, nothing about how I watched the movie did it any favors.

But still, it sucked, an odd melange of Alien and Road Warrior, which came out not too long before Parasite. There was little attempt to create a world ... just a parasitic being invading people's bodies. It was a post-apocalyptic story, but that fact was rarely mentioned.

Some recognizable names participated. It was the second feature for Demi Moore. It was the third feature directed by Charles Band, who has a bit of a cult following. The cast included Cherie Currie from The Runaways, cheapie legend Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith for the scene of a topless woman, and musical legend Vivian Blaine from Guys and Dolls. Best of all was future four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston creating the effects for the parasites.

Finally, a trivia note: on a "Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts" segment on James Corden's show last October, Demi Moore said this was the worst movie she'd ever been in.


quatermass and the pit (roy ward baker, 1967)

A Hammer film from the mid-60s that has always fascinated me. I know little about Quatermass, who first turned up on TV on the BBC in the 50s and has since featured on television, radio, and movies. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the U.S. as Five Million Years to Earth) is the only one that grabbed my attention.

Much of the film is low-key, and might surprise those who associate Hammer with blood and sex and vampires. The budget was low, the special effects pretty simple by today's standards. But the central idea is so imaginative that many have dismissed it as nonsense. Long ago, Martians came to Earth and affected human evolution. This is a problem, because Martians ... well, let's just say the devil is involved. Kubrick never dared go so far in 2001.

In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus compared the film to seeing the Sex Pistols in concert in 1978:

By the twentieth century, some people are coded for destruction; some carry only a few broken alien messages. Some respond to the Martian image; some do not. For those who do, the ancient codes become language, and memories of the original Martian genocide course to the surface. For those who do not respond, language dissolves. Humanity is split into two species; there is anarchy in London. Men and women surge through the streets smashing all those they recognize as alien: all who carry less of the Martian essence than they do. The Martian image turns red. Hobbes’s state of nature was “the war of all against all”; this is it, and it is lurid beyond belief.

Marcus notes how unsettling the end of the film is. Unsettling, because while the credits roll, the movie continues, as two dazed characters try to figure out what has happened and what is to come. It's as if the movie never ends.

The poor quality of this clip somehow adds to the effect:


death bell (hong-seung yoon, 2008)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":

Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.

Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.


what i watched

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920). This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 4 is called "Horrors Beyond Words Week":

With this week's challenge, we see how filmmakers were able to terrify audiences with nothing but imagery (and maybe a little score). Be on the lookout for some fascinating early film making techniques present within needed to make a successful horror flick without words.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen silent horror film. Paul D's list can help you get started.

Right from the start, there were problems. The print was crappy (I watched on Amazon), the score was crappy. (The movie is in the public domain.) The story still intrigues, but the film didn't linger enough ... you got Jekyll, you got Hyde, you got Jekyll, you got Hyde. The theme of good and bad sides of the same person was always there, but for me, it didn't seem all that powerful.

John Barrymore was excellent, although you have to accept that it requires skilled overacting to portray the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde without trickery. (There is trickery, but the initial scene shows what I mean.)

The cast included a couple of interesting actors. Louis Wolheim was famous for having his face smashed during a college football game, making him unmistakable in his later career as an actor. And Nita Naldi's brief career was kick-started with her role here as the "bad girl". She is very effective. Naldi famously posed nude for pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, and is reported to have introduced herself to her Blood and Sand co-star Rudolph Valentino with "Howdy, Rudy! Wanna feel my tits?"

Barrymore was known as "The Great Profile", and sure enough, we get plenty of profile shots of the master throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This isn't where I'd start if I were introducing Barrymore to newcomers ... I might go with Dinner at Eight, although that is admittedly an ensemble piece.

Asylum of Darkness (Jay Woelfel, 2017). A few weeks ago, I watched an awful movie called Demonicus. Thursday, the director of that movie, Jay Woelfel, left a comment:

Hello, Steven, I am Jay Woelfel, Demonicus was a work for hire that was re-edited before release without my involvement. If you, or anyone else, is interested in me and my films where I really had some control you can find out much about me on www.jaywoelfel.com. My most recent film came out in 2017/2018 and is named ASYLUM OF DARKNESS.

I was delighted to hear from him, and decided to watch Asylum of Darkness, which you can stream on Amazon. Woelfel deserved a chance to show what he could do with his own project.

Asylum of Darkness is a vast improvement on Demonicus. It featured one of the last performances by the late Richard Hatch. The film was shot in 35mm, which gave it not just a professional look, but the look of the kind of pre-digital horror movies it replicates. There are good makeup effects, and plenty of gore ... and by "plenty", I mean plenty.

Woelfel is up to something here ... I have no idea what, but he has a vision, and he pulls it off. It becomes one of those movies that isn't for me, but which probably accomplishes what the film maker set out to do. The plot is completely confusing, and only partly explained by the insanity of the central character. The acting is OK ... in fact, kudos to them, because the need for confusion means they have little to grab onto. It's hard to establish a character when the person you are playing changes every few minutes.

I'm glad I got to see Woelfel's work in a different, non-Demonicus, light. And if you are a fan of gory, good-looking but nonsensical horror, I think you'll like Asylum of Darkness.