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Toolbox Murders, The (2003)

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Starring Angela (May) Bettis, Juliet (“Angel”) Landau, Brent (Tremors 4) Roam

Directed by Tobe Hooper


Saturday night (November 1st, 2003) we had the good fortune to win passes from a very cool horror site, to be among the first people to ever see Tobe Hooper’s return to hardcore horror, the remake of The Toolbox Murders.

My first reaction, upon hearing about the remake, was disgust. This whole trend of remaking EVERYTHING just kills me. No one is original, no one is creative. To make matters worse, I’d read this remake was a remake in name only…it had zero to do with the original film! Why would someone as talented as Tobe Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Poltergeist Hooper stoop to such bilge? But, hey, the passes were free and I would be seeing a film in the same theater as Tobe Hooper.

This new remake tells the story of Lusman Tower, an aging apartment building somewhere near Hollywood. It’s under major renovations and desperate to find and keep new tenants despite the rather squalid conditions. The building is populated with several Hollywood stereotypes; the young ingenue looking to get her break, the exercise obsessed camgirl, the bitchy society maven and her mealy-mouthed husband, their horny teenage son, a young black actor, and finally a young wanna-be musician chick who has far more attitude than talent (and a giant skinhead asshole boyfriend to boot). The building employs a wacky apartment manager, a courteous Hispanic doorman, and a creepy shaggy-headed maintenance man. There’s also a creepy old man who has lived in the building for nearly 60 years who knows quite a bit about it’s history. And it’s a dark, twisted history.

Enter Nell, our heroine (Bettis). She’s a schoolteacher looking for a gig. Her husband is a hard-working med student working in an ER until he graduates. They took the apartment because it was cheap, but regret it almost immediately. As they settle in, people begin to disappear, and the usual slasher mayhem begins.

And I do mean the usual. The first half or so of the film seems atrocious. Every slasher cliche comes into play. They show the toolbox, then the next victim wanders off alone and gets killed in some gruesome way involving a tool of some sort. The characters are cartoons, the killer is just a faceless guy in a black mask, there’s no apparent motive. Nell is sure something weird is going on, but quickly gets a reputation as a kook with the authorities and the residents of the building. Halfway in, I’m seriously uncomfortable. It’s just a bunch of 80’s horror cliches thrown into a corny script with lots of wacky characters. 90% of the scares at that point had been bullshit “someone appears behind someone else and scares them, but it isn’t the killer” startle scares.

Then…Hooper flips the switch.

In a way, this is similar to Alice in Wonderland. There’s a moment where Nell’s investigations into the happenings around this building take her behind the scenes…through the looking glass as it were. From there on in this is no 80’s slasher. This is Tobe Hooper pulling out all the stops and cranking those screws as tight as they’ll go. He seems to be saying “See all that stuff? All that weak 80’s slasher stuff, like the original movie? Now watch what I can do when I really want to make you squirm.”

This is Hooper’s Scream. He takes every convention of a horror genre (the giallo-influenced slashers of the 80’s) and uses it against you. Once Nell crosses that threshhold and starts the third act, watch out. Things get very, very intense. The gore starts coming fast and furious. The scares become genuine…you just want her OUT, NOW. Just like watching Marilyn Burns trying to escape from that fucked up family in the original Chainsaw. Characters stop acting like horror movie characters and start behaving like real people. Funny at times, sure, but so are real people! Hooper and the writers seem to want to prove that they can play within the rules of the “real world” and still scare the shit out of you.

And they did.

There are several intense, terrifying moments in this flick. They even scared Jenn…and she doesn’t scare easy. This is a spoof of Hollywood and bad horror flicks that becomes a deadly serious horror flick. The end may be a letdown to some, but it’s kind of a given…in creating this villain, they made someone to love and hate at the same time. There are many questions left unanswered…so a sequel is simply a MUST.

This doesn’t even have distribution yet. It’s an independent film. So it could be a year or more before you poor saps get to see it. But when that time comes, GO. It’s one HELL of a ride, the best horror flick I’ve seen on the big screen in some time. (Freddy Vs. Jason was fun…but this is genuinely terrifying.)

4 out of 5

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Annihilation Review – A Fascinating, Gorgeous New Take on Body Horror

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Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac

Written by Alex Garland

Directed by Alex Garland


Have you ever walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, “That was more than just a movie. That was an experience“? It’s only happened to me a handful of times, the last one I remember being Mad Max: Fury Road. Last night, that sensation washed over me as the credits for Annihilation began their crawl after a near two-hour runtime. I remained in my seat until every name slipped by before I found it within myself to stand up and leave the theater. All I could think was, “I’ve just witnessed something incredible.

An adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his The Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows Lena (Portman), an ex-soldier-turned-biologist professor at Johns Hopkins whose husband Kane (Isaac) has been missing for a year after leaving on a covert mission of which Lena has been able to get zero information about. When Kane mysteriously returns and almost immediately falls gravely ill, Lena finds herself in a secret government facility that is monitoring a strange and potentially cataclysmic phenomenon: a strange shimmering dome that appeared in a remote region after a meteorite landing, a dome that grows larger with each passing day. Realizing that the answer to her husband’s malady may very well lie within that area, Lena joins four other women as they embark on an expedition into what is called “Area X”. However, it’s quickly realized that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that the laws of nature no longer apply.

The majesty of Annihilation is the time in which it takes to build the story and to ramp up the tension. While it has no problem with frenetic scenes, the film moves at an almost poetic pace, every moment adding something to the overarching narrative. From showing the relationship between Lena and Kane to the interactions between the five women who venture into “Area X” to the action sequences, every part of the movie feels necessary. This is even seen in the climax of the film, which is a 10-minute scene that features almost zero dialogue and yet feels fraught with danger.

Visually, the movie is absolutely gorgeous. The jungle that takes up most of Area X is lush and beautiful. Crepuscular rays break through the leaves and tease a rainbow iridescence thanks to the “shimmer”. A wide variety of flowers impossibly blossom from the same source, a result of the genetic mutations occurring within the dome. Strange fungal patterns explode across the walls of abandoned buildings, their patterns a tumorous cornucopia of colors and textures. Even when the movie brings gore into the equation, it does so with an artist’s gaze. Without ruining the moment, there is a scene where the team comes across the body of a man from a previous expedition. For as macabre as the visual was, it was equally entrancing, calling to mind the strangely beautiful designs of the “clickers” from The Last of Us.

Each setting in the story has a visual style that sets it apart from one another but still feels connected. The governmental facility feels cold and sterile while the jungles of Area X are warm and verdant. As the team ventures further into the contaminated zone, we are taken to the beach next to the lighthouse that acts as “ground zero” for the mysterious event. Here we see trees made of crystal and bone-white roots clinging to the nautical beacon. In this 3rd act, we’re taken into the basement of the lighthouse, which can only be described as Giger-esque, with strange ribbed walls that feel like they pulsate with a life of their own.

The characters of Annihilation feel real and the exposition given doesn’t feel forced. When Lena is rowing a boat with Cass, the sharing of information feels like camaraderie, not awkward plot reveals. Additionally, no character is without their flaws. Even Lena has her own issues that burden her with guilt, making her journey into Area X all the more understandable. As the stress of the mission wears on these women, the seeds of distrust begin germinating into deadly situations that have very real consequences, including the appearance of a bear that would be right at home in the Silent Hill universe. Also, kudos to Garland for writing the film in such a way where the gender roles not only feel natural but are never focused on in a disingenuous manner.

Musically, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who scored Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, create a soundtrack that is atmospheric, haunting, and hypnotizing. The music elevates the dreamy phantasmagoria of the film without overpowering any scene. Meanwhile, cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also worked on Ex Machina, helps create a film where nearly every frame is a work of art.

Those entering Annihilation expecting a clearly defined sci-fi/horror offering will be disappointed. There is certainly a great deal of both to be had but the movie doesn’t want to offer something fleeting. Instead, it uses those genres as a foundation to create a film that will stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. When you get to the core of Annihilation, it’s a body horror film that pays homage to the work of David Cronenberg while carving an entirely new path of its own. Just don’t expect it to hold your hand and answer all of its mysteries. Some questions are left for you to see through on your own.

I do not say this lightly but I truly believe that Alex Garland has offered audiences one of the best genre films in recent years.

  • Annihilation
5.0

Summary

Annihilation is a bold, gorgeous, and stunning melting pot of horror, sci-fi, and drama, culminating in one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen this decade.

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Mom & Dad Review – When Parental Protection Goes Horribly Awry

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Starring Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters

Written and directed by Brian Taylor


The love of one’s parents is something that can propel an individual to not only personal, but professional heights as well, and that’s not to say that the aforementioned love should be taken for granted, either. The reason why I’m making this statement is that you never know when that love could turn to blind, unrestrained rage, and you as the child could be forced to save your own life from those very people who raised you – enter Brian Taylor’s ultra-black comedy, Mom & Dad.

Josh (Zachary Arthur) and his sister, Carly (Winters), are your typical American children: generally oblivious to the life around them provided by their progenitors, and when a mysterious and unexplained virus causes all parents to turn violently towards their kids, it’s the youngins that are the ones being stalked, sometimes with horrific results. What gives this film a tremendous sense of “oomph” is the fact that there really isn’t a whole lot of time spend on useless build-up. Taylor’s style of balls-out direction is no truer on display here as the parental duo of Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair as Brent and Kendall Ryan is one of cinematic gold. Cage, who on the normal is an actor that harnesses his bat-shit nuts style of character portrayal until it’s time to fully unleash the beast – well, consider this performance off of the friggin’ chain! It’s clear from the get-go that the relationship between the folks and the kids isn’t entirely the most drama-free and devoid of subtle hostility.

Some of the scenes of various attacks are a bit tough to take at times, and although the film was created in jest, it’s still the shock factor that carries this one to the finish line with the audience kicking and screaming all the way. One scene inside a newborn delivery room had me shifting in my seat, and for that to happen is pretty damned impressive, and I’ve seen some rather demented shit over the course of my years. The film does get a bit disjointed at times, but order is restored when the mayhem returns in full-force, and Taylor’s action-film resume shows through with psychotic camera-angles and dizzying arrays of brute force from some characters. Blair and Cage didn’t exactly come off doubtless as a couple, and maybe they would have been better set as a separate-working tandem, but the two nevertheless provided some real entertainment once their switches got flipped (well, Cage’s switch never really has an “off” position in this movie).

In the end of it all, Mom & Dad is the textbook definition of a “mindless movie,” and that’s not meant to be a negative in any fashion – I absolutely loved it from beginning to end, and this one is meant for a viewing with the kiddies to gently remind them what could happen if they ever get out of line (wink, wink).

BUY IT NOW!

  • Film
3.5

Summary

Ferocious, frenzied and ultimately fun, these parents certainly aren’t to be f**ked with!

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Drag Me to Hell Blu-ray Review – Scream Factory Tops This Double Dip With Tasty New Extras

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Starring Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao

Directed by Sam Raimi

Distributed by Scream Factory


After jump-starting his career in horror, Sam Raimi branched off into different genres – western, drama, thriller – before getting called up to the big leagues for Sony’s Spider-Man (2002-2007) trilogy. Fans who had hoped for a return to the ol’ splatter days had a 17-year wait until that moment finally arrived with Drag Me to Hell (2009). Raimi had been kicking that script around for close to a decade, even offering it to Edgar Wright at one point after realizing he didn’t have the time to see it through. Once the dust settled from a public spat-of-sorts between Raimi and Sony over the direction of a proposed “Spider-Man 4”, however, suddenly Sam found himself with a whole lotta free time and the desire to work on something “smaller”. The script he and his brother, Ivan, had written all those years back now fit perfectly within the wheelhouse of Ghost House Pictures, a production company Raimi launched with longtime producer Robert Tapert in 2002. Armed with a bigger budget (~$30 million) than he had for any previous horror film, Raimi still kept the scale small and (surprisingly) lightened up on the gore, making a more accessible film that still retained his trademark style.

Pasadena, 1959. A Hispanic family brings their son to see Shaun San Dena (Flor de Maria Chahua), a medium who specializes in demons and malevolent spirits, claiming the boy has been hearing voices after stealing a gypsy’s necklace. Before anything can be done the ground opens up and the child is literally dragged down into the fiery depths. Cut to present day, where we meet Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), an ambitious loan officer hoping to score that big promotion to assistant manager. She just has to impress her boss, Jim (David Paymer), and prove her abilities over Stu (Reggie Lee), a new co-worker gunning for the same position. Christine gets a chance to show she can “make the hard decisions” when elderly gypsy Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) pays her a visit, looking for a loan extension on her about-to-be-foreclosed-upon home. Christine defers to Jim for advice, but he lobs the ball back into her court for the final decision. Thinking about that coveted promotion, Christine refuses the extension. Despite Mrs. Ganush’s on-her-knees pleading, Christine stands firm.

Later that night, while leaving work Christine is attacked by Ganush and the two women have a knock-down drag-out brawl that ends with the haggard old liver spot snatching a button off Christine’s coat and imbuing it with a curse. Christine is able to make out the word “Lamia” before passing out. The next day Christine and her boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long), have a chance encounter with Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a soothsayer who warns Christine that she has been beset upon by an evil spirit. Clay is skeptical but Christine hears his words and all but confirms them after seeing bizarre hallucinations and being attacked by the demon in her home. An attempt to appeal to Mrs. Ganush and have the curse lifted fails when Christine learns the old woman recently died. Rham Jas offers to have Shaun San Dena (Adriana Barraza) perform a séance to trap and kill the Lamia but, really, the only sure way to be rid of the curse is for Christine to “gift” the accursed object (her button) to another – and that person will befall the same horrific fate.

When I first caught this in theaters I remember my only real disappointment was not Raimi’s lack of excessive gore but that so much of it was done using CGI. While there are several visceral, completely disgusting gross-out gags that were achieved with practical effects other moments, such as when the anvil drops on Ganush’s head, look like SyFy-level computer work. The kind of ingenuity that would have been used to pull of these effects is a large part of why Raimi’s early work is so beloved. Maybe the lure and ease of CGI is just too great? A similar thing happened to Peter Jackson, too. At least the tangible moments here are uncomfortably nasty, like Ganush’s frequent “gumming” of Christine’s chin… and all the gross crap she spits into her mouth. There is a lot to love; enough to outweigh the few moments of mediocrity. It’s just slightly frustrating as a fan because it’s clear where improvements could have been made. Still, bad CGI isn’t the film’s biggest problem…

…it’s the acting. Alison Lohman seems like a very nice young woman and I have no desire to criticize her to death, but she doesn’t have any range. Her entire performance as Christine is monotonous and generally flat. Emotions come across as directions read off a page; nothing feels true. She isn’t bad enough to sink the entire film but it was glaring during this, my fourth or fifth time watching the film, where it became very apparent. Also, I usually like Long but he’s just kinda phoning it in here. The climax when he’s yelling out “Oh god!” on the train station platform is bad on a level only Ryan O’Neal could understand.

Christopher Young kills it, though. The man behind one of the greatest horror scores of all time, Hellraiser (1987), delivers with the goods. His main theme is reminiscent of “Danse Macabre” and the entire soundtrack vacillates between devilish strings and powerful, overwhelming compositions. The sound design was a highlight of this film (how often is that noticed enough to garner praise?) and Young’s score propels it to the fiery depths with glorious results.

Raimi has only done one picture since Drag Me to Hell, 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, and although much talk has occurred about potential vehicles nothing is set in stone as of yet. Hopefully, once he does jump back into the fold it’s with something akin to this fiendish little gem and not another bloated CGI epic.

Universal’s previously issued Drag Me to Hell on Blu-ray, with both cuts of the film occupying a single BD-50 disc and sporting an outdated encode. Scream Factory’s release spreads those versions out onto two discs, with each getting its own BD-50. The 2.40:1 1080p image isn’t a major leap in picture quality over the last edition, but videophiles will pick up on the improved black levels, tighter contrast, and lack of obvious compression issues. The picture is clean, blemish-free, and nicely detailed with strong color saturation and a proficient reproduction of the theatrical experience.

As with the Universal disc, expect to find audio options in English DTS-HD Master Audio with both 2.0 and 5.1 surround sound tracks included. As mentioned, Young’s score soars in lossless, providing a tense, immersive experience for viewers. Rear speakers are used frequently, especially during scenes involving the Lamia, and viewers can expect to hear demonic noises and scattered sound effects from every corner of the room. Dialogue is never lost in all this chaos, though, and voices are always clear and easy to understand. Subtitles are available in English.

DISC ONE: Theatrical Cut

“Production Diaries: Behind-the-Scenes Footage and Interviews with Cast and Crew” – Occasionally “hosted” by Justin Long these offer up a glimpse into the production via fly-on-the-wall and on-set video.

“Vintage Interviews”, featuring additional chat time with Raimi, Lohman, and Long.

Two TV spots and a theatrical trailer are also included here.

DISC TWO: Unrated Cut

“To Hell and Back: An Interview with Actress Alison Lohman” – The actress sits down to look back on the film she made nearly ten years ago.

“Curses!: An Interview with Actress Lorna Raver” – This old lady is so adorable, talking about how she knew little of the project until she was fully committed and then learned it was such a horrific role.

“Hitting All the Right Notes: An Interview with Composer Christopher Young” – The man behind the brilliant score has plenty to say about his working relationship with Raimi, as well as how he wrote the outstanding soundtrack.

A still gallery can also be found here.

Back to (mostly) basics and dripping with the signature style fans had missed for so long, Raimi came back in a big way with “Drag Me to Hell”. Nearly ten years on the film still holds up just as well, although it is robbed of additional pathos due to wooden acting. Regardless, this is just what fans hoped to see Raimi pull off once again and he does not disappoint.

Special Features:

Disc One:

  • NEW HD master of the theatrical cut taken from the 2K digital intermediate
    Production Diaries – with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with co- writer/director Sam Raimi, actors Allison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, Lorna Raver, special effects guru Greg Nicotero, director of photography Peter Deming, and more… (35 minutes)
  • Vintage interviews with director Sam Raimi and actors Alison Lohman and Justin Long (33 minutes)
  • TV Spots
  • Theatrical Trailer

Disc Two:

  • NEW HD master of the unrated cut taken from the 2K digital intermediate
  • NEW To Hell and Back – an interview with actress Alison Lohman (12 minutes)
  • NEW Curses! – an interview with actress Lorna Raver (16 minutes)
  • NEW Hitting All The Right Notes – an interview with composer Christopher Young (17 minutes)
  • Still Gallery
  • Drag Me to Hell
  • Special Features
4.0

Summary

Back to (mostly) basics and dripping with the signature style fans had missed for so long, Raimi came back in a big way with “Drag Me to Hell”. Nearly ten years on the film still holds up just as well, although it is robbed of additional pathos due to wooden acting. Regardless, this is just what fans hoped to see Raimi pull off once again and he does not disappoint.

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