Like Ficarra and Requa’s 2011 comedy Crazy Stupid Love, Focus begins promisingly and bops along enjoyably for a while, only to run out of steam…
With the exception of "The Woman" (which is still in limited theatrical release), all of the films from "Bloody Disgusting Selects" are currently available on multiple platforms including Netflix (DVD only), Amazon.com and most VOD providers including Comcast, DirecTV, Amazon, iTunes, CinemaNow, VuDu and Verizon FiOS. Check your VoD provider listings, or go to www.bloodydisgustingselects.com for more information about the films and where to find them.
On DVD, all of the foreign-language films reviewed here include an optional English-dub dialogue track for viewers with an aversion to subtitles.
Historically and statistically, the most abundant, profitable, and creatively expressive movie genre has always been horror. It has consistently been the most viable proving ground for new talent and a focal point for the most obsessive movie fans on the planet. It's the most purely cinematic of genres, playing to the strengths of an artistic medium that has shock, surprise, dread, fear, and bloodletting built into every molecule of its DNA. It's a realm of expression that challenges masters and amateurs alike.
Of course, there's always a downside: The record-setting $50 million opening weekend of "Paranormal Activity 3" (which earned a one-star review from Roger Ebert) -- and Paramount's immediate strategy to keep that franchise booming -- provided a stark reminder that, more often than not, horror is where commerce almost always trumps art. It's the favorite plaything for copy-cats and money-grubbers. The genre's blood is frequently tainted by fast-buck pretenders and greedy opportunists who care more about profit than the genre's history, which is the worthy subject of some of the finest film scholarship that's ever been written.
And yet, despite all of the easy money to be had from scaring the bejeezus out of the great, unwashed masses, horror has always attracted serious, devoted practitioners of the craft. Edgy, contemporary filmmakers like Rob Zombie, Takashi Miike, Lucky McKee, Eli Roth, Neil Marshall and others may be too extreme for some (even though they generally work in the R-rated mainstream), but they're honoring decades of tradition and they take their work seriously. As students of the genre they've seen everything, which allows them to knowingly push boundaries and explore new ways of giving us nightmares.
As I've written before in this column, I grew up loving horror films. If a filmmaker gets a genuine jolt out of me, I'm rarely disgusted and always delighted. Personally, however, I do have limits (and in this, I hope I represent the majority): Horror has always had the potential to be genuinely sickening, and although I fondly recall a jam-packed preview of "Saw" in October 2004 (with one of the most excited and terrified audiences I've ever witnessed), I fully agree that the subsequent rise of "torture porn" represents a low point in the genre's vivid history of shock-value exploitation. When horror becomes a direct reflection of misogyny, misanthropy and sociopathic insensitivity to the sanctity of human life, it degrades everyone who creates and consumes it.
Generally speaking, I'll take any risk when it comes to watching horror films, but I always have and always will gravitate to literate, well-crafted horror that relies more on mood, atmosphere, and suggestion as opposed to gore and exploitation. Give me Val Lewton's entire oeuvre on Halloween night and I'm happy; follow those with "The Haunting" and "The Innocents" and a marathon of Hammer Films and I'm ecstatic. And while I celebrated the critical acclaim that greeted Marshall's "The Descent" -- surely one of the most terrifying films of the past decade -- I personally favor the classical traditions honored by "The Others," "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Orphanage."
We all have to decide, individually, where we draw the line between what's "entertaining" (shocking in a "good," enjoyable and perhaps even artistically defensible way) and what's "sick" (shocking in a way that's too extreme and intentionally offensive). By whatever yardstick of "OK" vs. "Not OK" that you choose to measure (using, for example, Roth's "Hostel" as a test case), horror fans can roughly be divided into two groups: Those who want to be frightened but not offended, and those who will go wherever the genre takes them, even if it means venturing into the darkest corners of the human experience. My friend, esteemed film scholar and life-long horror devotee Kathleen Murphy put it very succinctly in a recent e-mail when she stated what every full-blooded horror fan knows in their hearts and minds: "Real horror isn't polite." (And, I might add, anyone who expects otherwise should stick to their rom-coms.)
There's another division in horror that's obvious only to the genre's most devoted followers: Mainstream hits attract the widest demographic and biggest box-office profits, but "straight to video" -- three words that most often suggest "failure" in any other genre -- is horror's generic horn o'plenty. For the past 30 years, horror has been evolving (and devolving) beyond the boundaries of theatrical distribution, with specialized production companies annually pumping dozens if not hundreds of titles into the video market, mostly produced in European studios designed and located to crank out movies cheaply and efficiently in the Roger Corman tradition.
Now, with the advent of on-demand and instant streaming, the horror floodgates have opened wider than ever. There's never been a better time -- or a more viable market of multiple distribution platforms -- for filmmakers and horror fans bold enough to step out of the mainstream and into the realm of cinematic risk-taking. Hence the timely rise of "Bloody Disgusting Selects," which essentially functions as an international horror film festival from the comforts of home.
An outgrowth of Bloody-Disgusting.com (billed as "the world's #1 website for horror fans"), "Bloody Disgusting Selects" was launched earlier this year in partnership with The Collective ("a full-service entertainment, media and content production company") and AMC theaters. The partnership aims to bring independent horror films to U. S. theaters (mostly given limited releases in major cities) and to world-wide audiences on multiple VOD platforms.
Are the films always worthwhile? Of course not. Is this partnership a great boon for horror fans and filmmakers? Absolutely. Over the past several months, Bloody Disgusting Selects (which boasts an animated company logo of a gruesome skull capped off by a spinning saw blade that becomes a kind of gory halo) has rolled out a half-dozen films (most had brief exposure in AMC theaters) that you might -- I repeat, might -- want to include in your at-home Halloween fright-fest. Here's my take on each of them (in alphabetical order by title) accompanied by a brief assessment of their "yuck" factor.
"Atrocious" (2010) (directed by Fernando Barreda Luna, Spain, 75 minutes) Here's a genuine curio, and one of my moderate favorites in this horrific half-dozen. At first glance, it's yet another dreary exercise in "Found Video/POV" horror, seeming to offer little beyond what we've already seen in "The Blair Witch Project," "Paranormal Activity" and dozens of copycat thrillers. The set-up is familiar: Spanish police discover 37 hours of video that reveals most of the details surrounding a multiple homicide case at a summer house where an entire family was brutally murdered. The brother and sister team of Cristian and July (Cristian Valencia and Clara Moraleda) have arrived to video-document an urban legend about a little girl who got lost in the nearby forest while looking for her mother and...(wait for it!)... never returned! So of course they venture into the deep, dark forest, with the night-vision function on their video-cams working overtime, and... what happens? Along with the requisite amount of down-time for marginal character development (and respite between shock-jolts), director Barreda takes a low-budget gamble that pays off handsomely: He keeps his characters' POV cameras running through a seemingly endless maze of trees and shrubbery...and keeps them running aimlessly until we feel the same out-of-control dread that they do.
This goes on seemingly forever -- ten minutes or more, in one marathon stretch -- until you wonder if Barreda is just wasting precious time in a 75-minute feature that dares to (almost) wear out its welcome. But through a combination of anxiety-inducing sound and dialogue and brief, progressively more revealing glimpses of horror and bloodshed, "Atrocious" shapes up to be a surprisingly effective little chiller that provides just enough ingenuity to compensate for the familiar trappings of the POV sub-genre. Yuck factor: Minimal (bloodshed and murderous aftermath, mostly held until the film's climax and denoument).
"Cold Fish" (directed by Sion Sono, Japan, 145 minutes) It's a little too easy and convenient to compare Sion Sono's bloody tale of fact-based murder to the cult-favorite bloodletting of Takashi Miike. The directors are good friends off-screen and their work shares at least one thing in common -- the kind of extreme, perversely comedic violence that seems to be a peculiarly Japanese specialty -- but apart from that, each director has forged his own unique identity. Sono's early claim to fame as a celebrated poet may seem jarring at first, but look closer at "Cold Fish" and you'll sense a literary intelligence behind this amped-up chronicle (loosely based on a true story) of grisly mayhem. Mild-mannered fish-store owner Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) is a wimpy widower who's barely coping with his disgruntled second wife Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka) and rebel-teen daughter Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara), when fate intervenes in the form of Mr. Murata (Denden), rival owner or a much-larger fish store who convinces Shamoto to work for him in exchange for not having Mitsuko arrested for shoplifting.
It's a trap, of course. As played to the hilt by Denden (that's his name, just Denden), Murata is surely one of the most despicable characters to grace a 21st-century horror film: A self-made man, he thinks perversion, sex and women are his for the taking, and serious woe to anyone who objects to his reprehensible behavior. With his wife/accomplice thoroughly under his thumb of oppression, Murata has perfected a method of making meddlesome people "invisible": he simply slices and dices them into chicken-nugget-sized pieces, separates meat from bone, and scatters their remains across the rural Japanese countryside. Sono doesn't exactly play this for laughs, nor does he use overt comedy to temper the horror of Murata's methods. But the absurdity and sordid sexuality of "Cold Fish" definitely serves a purpose: If you care to look for it, Sono's film has plenty to say about the devastating ripple-effect of domestic violence and the psychic and physical scars that fester in its wake. Yuck factor: Extreme (actual acts of graphic violence occur mostly off-screen, but the film's second half is splattered with realistic human viscera.)
"Phase 7" (2011) (written and directed by Nicolas Goldbart, Argentina, 95 minutes) A weak entry in the recent trend of spread-of-contagion thrillers, "Phase 7" invites immediate comparison to the Spanish chiller "[REC]" (2007) by trapping "16 people and one maid" (heh-heh) in a quarantined Buenos Aires apartment building while Argentina and several other South American countries fall prey to a fatal epidemic. With nowhere to go while the world falls apart, the apartment dwellers turn on each other in mostly-predictable fashion, and while some viewers may appreciate the film's slim-narrative minimalism, I kept wishing for more substance to inform the film's familiar plot and characters. Writer-director Goldbart doesn't steal from so much as parody the ongoing glut of zombie action and rabid-rampage movies (he clearly pays homage to "[REC]" and "Shaun of the Dead"), but the humor's too dry, and the action too routine, to make "Phase 7" anything more than an echo of several earlier, better movies of its ilk. Yuck factor: Moderate (several bursts of sudden, graphic violence).
Rammbock: Berlin Undead" (directed by Marvin Kren, Germany, 63 minutes) Not bad, as far as raging homicidal zombie maniac movies go, but not as good as any episode of AMC's basic cable hit "The Walking Dead," either. I only say this because, once again, the filmmakers have assumed that most horror fans will play along with minimal plotting and fill in the blanks, but director Marvin Kren has economy in his favor: With a running time of barely over an hour, "Rammbock" (alternate title: "Siege of the Dead") quickly shifts into high-horror gear after a just-dumped everyman named Michael (Michael Fuith) returns to Berlin with hopes of getting ex-girlfriend Gabi (Anna Graczyk) to reconsider their breakup. Instead, with Gabi nowhere to be found (she eventually returns for an unhappy reunion), he teams with a plumber's apprentice named Harper (Theo Trebs, from Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon") and they barricade themselves in Gabi's apartment building while raging hoards of virally-infected zombies gather outside. Low-budget visions of Berlin in smoky ruins add a touch of post-apocalyptic flavor to the proceedings, but for me the ho-hum factor was a bit too prevalent. And the yuck factor? Pretty much your standard R-rated gore, for those keeping a decapitation score at home.
"The Woman" (2011) (directed by Lucky McKee, USA, 101 minutes) The latest film from expert button-pusher Lucky McKee ("May") might still be playing in a few big-city theaters, and it's not yet available on DVD, but if you're in the mood for some daring, in-your-face filmmaking, you'll definitely want to put this on your watch-list. I recently gave the film a two-star review in The Seattle Times, and then immediately chided myself for my timid concession to mainstream moviegoers. When I wrote that this was a film that "no self-respecting critic (even this tolerant horror fan) would enthusiastically endorse," I was letting my mainstream readership know that this was a film they would definitely prefer to avoid. I considered that fair warning, but that kind of caution is catnip for horror fans, and McKee is preaching to that choir.
I also had trouble with the blunt, rather sudden revelation of the film's table-turning scenario: When a seemingly nice-and-normal country attorney (Sean Bridgers) discovers the sole survivor of a primitive, feral clan (Pollyanna Mackintosh) in the woods near his rural home, he holds her captive in his cellar and gets his numb-from-abuse wife (Angela Bettis) and traumatized kids to play along. In no time flat, we see that the attorney -- who thinks he can civilize the feral woman he then proceeds to brutalize -- is the real monster in this movie. McKee is much better at ramping up the terror of this scenario than exploring the impact of its origins; I would've preferred more subtlety in terms of the family-and-captive dynamics that unfold with nerve-wracking, matter-of-fact intensity. This movie is anything but polite, and McKee's officially stated intention is to "make you question my intentions in making [the movie] as well as your own desire to watch it."
So consider yourself warned. I'm not going to say anything more, except to acknowledge that McKee delivers on his intentions "to incite fear, shock, nervousness, dismay, anxiety and disgust." That he has managed to do all of that and more, while eliciting fine performances from a well-chosen cast, is certainly noteworthy. Whether it's admirable is for you to decide. Yuck factor: Physically extreme, psychologically off the scale.
"Yellowbrickroad" (written and directed by Andy Mitton & Jesse Holland, USA, 98 minutes) I listened to the first ten minutes of the co-directors' commentary on the DVD, and when Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland stated that their script went through 30 drafts, I couldn't stop laughing. Come on, guys...30 drafts for this? But let's be fair: Young filmmakers flock to horror like mosquitoes to a puddle of blood, and Mitton & Holland are feeling their oats while hopping onto the POV bandwagon. The typical "Blair Witch" scenario yields a few nifty dividends if you're willing to sit through the standard-issue slow spots: According to local legend, the entire population of rural hamlet Friar, N.H. abandoned their homes and walked up an ancient trail into the deep, dark woods and... (wait for it!)... they were never seen again! So of course, 70 years later, a team of young, good-looking researchers decides to investigate, and... guess what? Uh-huh.
To their credit, Mitton & Holland are trying, in their semi-competent way, to honor the character-driven chillers of the '70s; their primary inspiration is "Deliverance," and they manage of few hints of that movie's atmospheric dread. But what really sets "Yellowbrickroad" apart is its soundtrack, which is far more effective than any of the visuals. Like "The Woman," this film confronts and floors the viewer with a sonic assault -- "The Woman" with its blunt-force score, and "Yellowbrickroad" with teeth-and-brain-rattling sound effects to convey the mind-altering effect of the deep, dark woods. It's a brilliant ploy in terms of pummeling the viewer with fingernails-on-a-chalkboard intensity. At one point, the film blasts a high-pitched whine so severe that dog owners should proceed with caution. For human horror fans with powerful home-theater speaker systems, cranking it up results in an experience that, for better or worse, you won't soon forget. Yuck factor: Moderate (some sudden, shocking violence -- and keep your volume control handy so your ears don't bleed).
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A Seattle-based freelancer, Jeff Shannon has been writing about film and filmmakers since 1985, for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1985-92) and The Seattle Times (1992-present). He was the assistant editor of Microsoft's "Cinemania" CD-ROM and website (1992-98), where he worked with rogerebert.com editor Jim Emerson, and was an original member of the DVD & Video editorial staff at Amazon.com (1998-2001). Disabled by a spinal cord injury since 1979 (C-5/6 quadriplegia), he occasionally contributes disability-related articles to New Mobility magazine, and is presently serving his second term on the Washington State Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.
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