Fright Club: Doc-Style Horror

The year’s first great comedy and first decent horror film – What We Do in the Shadows – releases wide this weekend. Hooray! We loved it so, and wanted to celebrate it as well as all our other favorite documentary-style horror films. There are so many greats to choose from – the Norwegian lunacy of TrollHunter? The meta-slasher Behind the Mask? Well, it took some doing, but we landed on our favorite documentary-styled horror films. Enjoy!

What We Do in the Shadows (2015)

In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates. Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.

Vampires (2010)

About 5 years ago, Belgiain filmmaker Vincent Lanoo made his own (blandly titled) mock-doc about vampires. Far darker and more morbid than Shadows (the first two film crews were eaten before they could complete the documentary; the final film is dedicated to the memory of the third crew), Lanoo’s film is still insightful and very funny.

The crew moves in with a vampire family with two undisciplined teens. The house also contains the couple who live in their basement (vampires can’t own a home until they have – make – children), and Meat (the name they’ve given the woman they keep in their kitchen). There’s also a coop out back for the illegal immigrants the cops drop off on Mondays. Wickedly hilarious.

American Zombie (2007)

American Zombie begins as an insightful satire on the modern documentary, pitting objective artist against gonzo filmmaker. Director Grace Lee, playing herself, agrees to co-direct a documentary on the Los Angeles area’s growing undead population with her zealous, craftless friend John (John Solomon). They interview experts – doctors, historians, social workers – and choose a handful of zombies as subjects. Lee approaches the film as the documentation of a misunderstood community; her co-director John is looking for something a little more lurid.

American Zombie is observant and often very funny. (An evangelist hoping to serve this untapped market remarks to the camera, “Jesus loves zombies. Jesus was the original zombie.” Nice!) As the movie progresses you find yourself lulled by Lee’s low-key, funny take on the living dead. And then, slowly but surely, she turns her film into a surprisingly creepy little horror flick.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Not every faux-documentary in horror is a comedy. BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. (Yes, we’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust.) Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were basically seeing a snuff film. Nice.

And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon the nightmares some of us have had since childhood.

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Out to expose the fraudulent exorcisms perpetrated by evangelical ministers like himself all over the South, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) teams up with a documentarian and her cameraman. Together they set out to capture his final exorcism – chosen at random from his PO Box – before he hangs up his bible. Things don’t go as planned.

Fabian exploits every possibility he finds in the character of a disenchanted preacher. He’s absolutely terrific, and is aided by an effectively shaken and/or creepy supporting cast working with a script that explores any number of unseemly Southern Gothic possibilities before deciding what kind of devil is plaguing poor Nell (Ashley Bell). Thanks largely to the commitment of the cast and the effortlessly eerie backdrop of backwoods Louisiana, The Last Exorcism entertains throughout.

Hatin’ on Hollywood

Maps to the Stars

by Hope Madden

Who but David Cronenberg could take the bubbling Hollywood cesspool that is Maps to the Stars and create from it a chilly but fascinating snapshot of industry dysfunction?

The truth is that Bruce Wagner’s screenplay requires Cronenberg’s anthropological approach and perverse sense of humor. Without it, he’s written a vulgar soap opera. With it, he’s written a revoltingly compelling, oddly austere essay on the self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, fraudulent, repugnant, insecure insanity that is Hollywood.

The story itself couldn’t be more lurid, which is why Cronenberg’s peculiarly distant style is so effective. Some elements of his direction have changed little since he was bursting heads in Scanners.

What has changed over the decades is his ability to draw talent to his projects, and few of his casts have been as stocked as this one. The great (and finally Academy-acknowledged) Julianne Moore steals every scene as the prototypical damaged, aging starlet. Needy, vulnerable, charming and venomous – Moore hits every note on time and in tune.

The versatile Mia Wasikowska – who played Moore’s daughter in The Kids are All Right – here plays her newly hired personal assistant, or “chore whore” as she so delightfully puts it. Wasikowska’s Agatha is the vehicle for chaos in the film, although given the temperament and predilections of the characters involved, chaos is probably never far away.

Agatha wants to make amends for something she did to her family (Olivia Williams, Evan Bird and a gleefully toxic John Cusack) – something related, we assume, to the scarring on her face and neck. Meanwhile, she falls for a sweet but opportunistic limo driver (Cronenberg favorite Robert Pattinson).

Though the actions, reactions and eventualities are never entirely clear, there’s nothing convoluted about this film. Behaviors and reactions feel insane but never ridiculous, as if every self-serving act – no matter how vile – feels natural in this hotbed.

Maps to the Stars is unforgiving, yet somehow weirdly watchable. Cronenberg’s films can be a challenge – not that they’re necessarily tough to understand, just sometimes tough to stomach. Maps to the Stars is certainly not his most violent, although the violence here is tough and surprising. What makes his latest so startling is that, though these characters are as horrid as those found in his best horror and SciFi, they belong right here in our own world.

No wonder he makes independent films.




Lazy Lazarus

The Lazarus Effect

by Hope Madden

Four years ago filmmaker David Gelb directed the lovely, layered, joyous documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This weekend we see his newest effort, The Lazarus Effect. What the hell happened?

Gelb abandons novelty and nuance for a by-the-numbers Frankenstein horror. Medical researchers work on a cure for death. Big Pharm is looking to steal their ideas for nefarious gain. Think Splice.

The scientists test their process on animal subjects, but make the leap to human trials a tad prematurely when one of the team-Zoe (Olivia Wilde) – is electrocuted. Things do not go well. Think Pet Sematary.

The serum super-powers Zoe’s brain. Think Lucy.

But Zoe may have been brought back from hell, and may have brought some of hell back with her. Think Event Horizon. Or Flatliners.

It appears screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater have seen enough movies to be able to cobble together plenty of stale ideas to fill 83 minutes, although you will swear the film runs two full hours.

Part of the problem is the blandness of the set. For most of the running time we’re trapped in the hospital’s sub-basement with the doomed scientists. This should create anxiety, develop claustrophobic dread, but the dull set and uninspired direction do little but breed tedium.

Gelb can generate tension now and again, but he doesn’t know how to deliver the payoff. The film is so paint-by-numbers – from the greedy chemical company to the dream sequence, from the dog to the unrequited love to the twist ending – there’s nary a surprise to be found.

Wilde and cast (Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger and Donald Glover) can’t bring depth to their characters, though Wilde does give it a shot. There’s more to Zoe than what’s on the page, but not nearly enough to keep the film interesting.

There are plenty of awful horror movies, and The Lazarus Effect is not one of them. It’s succinct, tidy, offers a jolt or two, and it’s held together workmanlike-fashion with enough logic and borrowed ideas to remain lucid for as long as it needs to. But horror also has some great films to offer, and this is certainly not one of those. It’s a disposable February flick and a genuine disappointment from Gelb.


Pros at Cons


by George Wolf

There’s something inherently cool about heist movies, isn’t there? Exotic locales, beautiful people, and outlandish schemes to steal lots of cash often play well together. Focus has all the ingredients to be a solid entry to the genre – as long as you don’t mind a certain irony in the film’s title.

Will Smith is Nicky, a veteran con man operating a well-oiled group of sophisticated thieves. He isn’t looking for any new recruits, until young Jess (Margot Robbie) impresses him with her grifting skills and her eagerness to move into the big leagues. So, she joins the team, but after a big score and some quality alone time, Nicky leaves Jess disappointed and hurt.

Fast forward three years, and Nicky is hired to help a Formula One racing hotshot pull a con, only to discover that hotshot’s longtime girlfriend is his own former flame Jess. With old wounds reopened, Nicky is thrown off his game as we try to keep up with just who is conning whom.

The irony is, a film that points out how people are conned with misdirection can’t keep you from noticing the ridiculous age difference in the romantic leads. Older man/much younger woman casting may be a Hollywood tradition, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one.

That’s not a knock on the actors. Smith is ultra smooth and remains in great shape, and Robbie’s sexy, spunky mix nearly steals the show, but he’s farther past 40 than she is past 19, and the romantic chemistry between them never feels quite true.

The writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, already with fine credits including I Love You, Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid Love and Bad Santa, exhibit a nice feel for the basics that make a heist film tick. It’s often confident, clever and stylish, especially during an early segment which finds Nicky’s crew wandering through a crowd of Bourbon Street revelers and systemically pilfering at will.

Though the final con is a bit underwhelming and the few nods to character development are rushed enough to be unnecessary, Focus delivers some high-gloss fun. It’s fast-paced and sure to keep you guessing, which is good. You don’t want to look too hard for substance.




Dead and Loving It

What We Do in the Shadows

by Hope Madden

Which sounds more stale, a fake documentary or a vampire movie? Maybe it’s a tie, but don’t let that dissuade you. What We Do in the Shadows – a fake documentary about vampires – is a droll gem of a film, and it feels like a gift during this dreary cinematic season.

That’s right! Believe it or not, filmmakers are still doing something interesting with vampires. It’s as if the collective artistic mind decided to retrieve the once-worthy villain from the shame of Twilight. The great Jim Jarmusch made them cool again last year with Only Lovers Left Alive. That same year, newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour made them mysterious again with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. And now What We Do in the Shadows makes them ridiculous – but in a good way.

In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates.

Viago (co-writer/co-director Taika Waititi) – derided by the local werewolf pack as Count Fagula – acts as our guide. He’s joined by Vladislav (co-writer/co-director Jemaine Clement), who describes his look as “dead but delicious.” There’s also Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) – the newbie at only 187 years old – and Petyr. Styled meticulously and delightfully on the old Nosferatu Count Orlock, Petyr is 8000 years old and does whatever he wants.

Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. It’s hard to get into the good clubs (they have to be invited in) or find a virgin. Forget about tolerating the local pack of werewolves (led by the utterly hilarious alpha Rhys Darby).

The reliably hysterical Clement is best known for his outstanding comic work in the series Flight of the Conchords, and the film benefits from the same silly, clever humor. Together he and Waititi spawned the underappreciated 2007 comedy Eagle vs Shark. Their work here is more charming and good natured, so likely more crowd pleasing.

The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.



Of Whales and Men

Russia’s contender for the Oscar last week is the devastating everyman struggle Leviathan.

The film is so intimate, so generously detailed yet provocatively ambiguous that you can almost overlook the larger metaphorical drama.

Hard drinking hothead Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) finds himself in a losing battle for his own property, a prime piece of beachfront real estate the town’s corrupt mayor wants for his own purposes. Still bullishly optimistic, Kolya calls in a favor from an old army buddy, now a high powered Moscow lawyer. The lawyer has dirt on the mayor, but justice is complicated in Russia.

Director Andrey Zvyaginstev draws wonderfully understated performances from his entire cast. Serebryakov is an aggravatingly empathetic center, profoundly flawed but deeply human. Equal to him is Elena Lyadova as Kolya’s world-wearied, enigmatic wife. And Roman Madyanov is sloppy perfection as the old school Russian thug/politician.

Zvyaginstev’s vision is one of Russia in transition. Old World practices mesh with a current sense of entitlement from the Orthodox Church, and the newly democratic Russia seems to find its footing in the same old place – the throat of the people.

The film is richly allegorical from start to finish. The visual metaphors, in particular, are sometimes heavy but never unintentionally so. Zvyagintsev means to slap the audience now and again with both the overwhelming plight of the Russian everyman, and with his fighting spirit – boozy and bruised, but hard to extinguish.

Cinematographer Mikhail Krishman’s astonishing photography connects the viewer to the rugged beauty of the Russian land, the very earthliness that holds Kolya so firmly. He can trace his attachment to this plot of oceanside property for generations and without it, he’s terrifyingly untethered – a lost soul.

Leviathan is not without humor, and though Kolya’s plight grows overwhelming in biblical proportions, Zvyaginstev refuses to lose sight of the intimate, personal battle that grounds his epic metaphor.

It’s a breathtaking feat of filmmaking.




Brilliant Disguise

Force Majeure

by George Wolf

“Well If I would have been there I would’ve…”

You’ve heard it, and said it, so many times that the meaning is often lost. Force Majeure (Turist) studies the phrase like a social experiment, and brilliantly exposes the folly in convincing ourselves of our own righteous intentions.

Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children are enjoying a ski holiday in the French Alps. Things are fine until they take lunch on an outside patio. Suddenly, an avalanche strike seems imminent, and the danger elicits very different reactions from husband and wife. Though the scare becomes a false alarm and everyone chuckles at their fear, the family dynamic has been rocked to the core.

Writer/director Ruben Ostlund pulls a terrific cinematic sleight of hand, employing a pleasant aesthetic while he cooly rips away at a host of societal assumptions. As Tomas and Ebba drop the pretense and begin to bluntly confront each other about what happened, Ostlund raises hefty questions about gender, class, and relationships.

Bruce Springsteen once sang, “God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of,” and Force Majeure, a Critics Choice Award winner and Golden Globe nominee for best foreign language film of 2014, illustrates the waves that can stir from just a few ripples of such doubt.

When Tomas and Ebba reveal their situation to another couple, the male friend is clearly thrown off balance, and not just for Tomas and Ebba. He transfers their predicament into his own relationship, keeping his girlfriend awake for hours of discussion until he can again feel confident in his own skin. It is a clever way to mirror the audience’s inevitable projection of themselves into the situation.

With all the internal conflict, it’s also worth noting that the film looks great, and it’s clear Ostlund’s mountainous setting was no accident. On the ski slopes, there can be plenty of rough spots among the beautiful terrain, and this backdrop remains a nicely subtle parallel to marriage itself.

Much like the conversations you may have after the film, Force Majeure can be uncomfortable in the way it shines a light on aspects of ourselves often kept under wraps. But Ostlund ultimately leaves any judgements up to us, along with the urge to question any we might make too quickly.




This Queue Might Get Loud

Get it while it’s hot – Oscar winner J.K. Simmons throws a cymbol right in your home! Whiplash releases for home entertainment today, and it’s a film that must be seen. No film this year ratchets tension like this one, as one musician and his mentor go mano y mano in a battle that makes the Hobbit look light-hearted. Brilliantly written, expertly directed, and boasting two excellent performances (not to mention some really great music!), Whiplash is easily one of the best features of 2014.


Not all youngsters endure punishment in the name of their art – and that’s why punk rock is so much better than jazz! We Are the Best! follows three Swedish teens circa 1982 who find an outlet for their artistic and energetic impulses in punk rock. The film bubbles and bursts with the energy, innocence and sweet-natured idiocy of youth. It’s an absolute joy.

Fright Club: White Death

We’re buckling under blustery weather and offensive temperatures. We require more degrees! Why not just embrace the White Death? These films certainly do, so snuggle in with a big blanket and look at how much worse you could have it in this wintery weather.

5. Frozen (2010)

No, not the Disney film. In this skiing mishap, three friends hit the slopes one afternoon. They con their way onto the lift for one last run up the hill. But they didn’t really have a ticket to ride, you see, and the guy who let them take that last lift gets called away and asks a less reliable colleague to take over. That colleague has to pee. One thing leads to another. So, three college kids get left on a ski lift. It’s Sunday night, and the resort won’t reopen until Friday. Wolves come out at night. This is a brisk and usually believable flick. Sure, it’s Open Water at a ski resort, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.


4. 30 Days of Night (2007)

If vampires can only come out at night, wouldn’t it make sense for them to head to the parts of the globe that remain under cover of darkness for weeks on end? Like the Arctic circle? The first potential downfall here is that Josh Hartnett plays our lead, the small town sheriff whose ‘burg goes haywire just after the last flight for a month leaves town. A drifter blows into town. Dogs die viciously. Vehicles are disabled. Power is disrupted. You know what that means…the hunt’s begun. Much of the film’s success is due to the always spectacular Danny Huston as the leader of the bloodsuckers. His whole gang takes a novel, unwholesome approach to the idea of vampire, and it works marvelously.

3. Dead Snow (2009)

You had us at “Nazi zombies.” A fun twist on cabin-in-the-woods horror, this film sees a handful of college kids heading into a remote mountain cabin for some winter sport fun and maybe a little lovin’. Dead Snow boasts some of the tongue-in-cheek referential comedy of the outstanding flick Cabin in the Woods, but with a great deal more actual horror. It’s grisly, bloody, hilarious fun. Its 2014 sequel Dead Snow 2: Red Versus Dead is also a very fun choice!


2. The Thing (1982)

For our money, this is John Carpenter’s best film – isolated, claustrophobic, beardtastic, and you can get frostbite just watching. A group of Arctic scientists take in a dog, but he’s not a dog at all. And soon, most of the scientists are not scientists, either, but which ones?! The FX still hold up and so does the chilly terror.


1. The Shining (1980)

Because that’s what could happen if you wander outside right now. You might find yourself lost in a maze, icicles hanging from your eyebrows, your bloody axe frozen to your cold, dead hand. Not that anyone inside is much better off. Enjoy Stanly Kubrick’s masterpiece of family dysfunction, Gatsby-style partying, Big Wheel love and bad carpeting. It’s never a bad time to watch The Shining.

Listen to us cover this in more depth and goofiness on our Fright Club podcast!

A Pretty Fun Neighborhood


by George Wolf

The DUFF may not be the best teen movie ever made, but after the string of If I Stay‘s and Fault in Our Stars‘s the last few years, it feels like Citizen Kane. Characters, humor, smarts, acting…what a nice change.

It’s based on a “young adult” novel by Kody Keplinger and centers on Bianca (Mae Whitman) a high school senior who is aghast to learn she is known in social circles as a DUFF – the Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Ouch. Even though she is assured the label doesn’t mean she’s ugly and/or fat – just the one people use to get to her hotter, more popular friends – Bianca feels some changes are in order.

First, she breaks up with her longtime besties, then turns to her neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell) – who just happens to be the football captain and a certified Mr. Popular – for advice on how to shed her DUFFness and catch the eye of her big crush, Toby.

So, yes, it’s a white suburban makeover movie with an outcome that’s never in doubt, but The DUFF is saved by winning performances and a confident self- awareness that trusts its audience enough to aim higher than YA melodramatic angst.

Josh A. Cagan’s script serves up all the teen movie staples, but does so with a lovable wink that never becomes outright parody, while it also manages to touch on some serious issues (cyber-bullying, hurtful stereotypes) with an amusing subtly. Even the overused devices of narration and lessons-I’ve-learned essay writing don’t seem quite so tired here.

Director Ari Sandel provides a lively pace and plenty of visual flair, surrounding Bianca with flashbacks, fantasy sequences and on-screen graphics. Think Mean Girls meets Scott Pilgrim, and you’re in the neighborhood, a pretty fun neighborhood.

Whitman (one of the few bright spots in The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is a treat, and she carries the film with a winning performance that shows a real flair for comic timing. Amell (TV’s The Tomorrow People and The Flash) is just as good, creating a genuine chemistry with Whitman that is perfectly endearing. Rather than the one-note fawning hot boy and the girl with hidden specialness, The DUFF gives us main characters that seem human, and both Whitman and Amell take advantage.

Okay, so maybe it does dip a toe in sentimental waters once or twice, but The DUFF has enough going for it to make it a breezy charmer. And I didn’t even mention the great Alison Janney as Bianca’s mom!