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Masters of Horror: Family (DVD)

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Masters of Horror:  Family DVD (click for larger image)Starring George Wendt, Meredith Monroe, Matt Keeslar

Directed by John Landis

Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment


Season Two of Masters of Horror was, to put it nicely, a mixed bag. It ranged from the sublime (Jeffrey Combs’ masterful turn as Poe in “The Black Cat”) to the ridiculous (“Pro-Life,” one of my picks for Worst of 2006). “Family,” the second episode to air this season, is thankfully closer to the former. In fact, out of the 13 episodes that aired, it was my second favorite. Between this season’s “Family” and 2005’s “Deer Woman,” Landis is 2 for 2 with me, not too shabby considering his competition and the series’ track record.

Written by Brent (Frailty) Hanley, “Family” is a taut little tale about a truly crazed individual named Harold Thompson (Wendt) who lives in suburbia with his wife, Jane, and daughter, Sarah. As the story opens, Grandpa has just moved in. But the Thompsons aren’t your typical family; instead they are the product of Harold’s psychosis — and his severe loneliness. You see, Jane, Sarah, and Gramps are the skeletons of people Harold has killed over the years; and before long Grandma will be coming home, too. Just when Harold is starting to feel comfortable with his ready-made family, his outwardly perfect world is shaken up by the arrival of new neighbors Celia (Monroe) and David (Keeslar), an investigative reporter and emergency room doctor, respectively. Harold finds himself drawn to Celia and vividly imagines her coming on to him, which results in increased bickering between him and Jane. One of the most fascinating aspects of “Family” is the relationship between Harold and the skeleton that represents his wife. They have elaborate discussions in which she browbeats him and gives him nothing but shit. During these disputes Landis cuts back and forth between a real actress and the prop skeleton — all to amazing effect. The idea that someone would go to such lengths to create an idyllic family for himself and then play it out as dysfunctionally as possible in his own head is a stroke of genius on the part of screenwriter Hanley.

Masters of Horror:  Family DVD (click for larger image)Meanwhile, Celia and David aren’t quite what they appear to be either. There’s a definite undercurrent of stress between the two of them, and when David disappears toward the end of the story, the audience is kept guessing as to what exactly is going on and who is setting up whom. In his commentary Hanley discusses at some length the difference between the twist ending of “Family” and the flip that he sets up so brilliantly in Frailty. To avoid spoiling the experience for yourself, if you haven’t seen this film yet, make sure you watch it all the way through once prior to listening to the commentary. A lot of times stories with twist type endings have zero replay value, but in the case of “Family” a second viewing is definitely in order. Once you know how things are going to turn out, it’s a real treat to go back and watch it all unfold with not a single misstep. Things alluded to by Celia and David become crystal clear, and by the end your sympathies are sure to have switched from one character to another at least a couple of times. This follow-up to Frailty, one of my all-time favorite films, may not be as fulfilling overall as its predecessor, but it shows that Hanley isn’t just a one-trick pony. His next foray into our genre can’t come soon enough for this reviewer.

And it’s not just on paper where Hanley shines. His commentary for “Family” is totally engaging as he covers a wide range of topics from his recent conversion from renter to homeowner to his initial reaction upon hearing that George Wendt would be playing Harold (he is a huge Cheers fan but wrote the part with William H. Macy in mind) to how heavily “Family” was influenced by Hitchcock’s Psycho. He definitely seems to be the kind of guy with whom you’d like to share a few beers and sit out on your patio discussing movies and life in general. Due to other commitments he wasn’t able to participate in the production of “Family” at all, but as you’d expect with a guy like Landis at the helm, Hanley didn’t find much to complain about in the finished product. Every major point he had to make about fear and desire and the different forms of insanity is fleshed out to a t by Landis. They never engaged in the typical back-and-forth with notes that writers and directors so often fall victim to; instead they simply talked things through with Landis urging him to make it scarier.

Much of “Family” is depicted more as a play than a movie since other than in a couple of scenes, all of the action revolves around Harold’s house. This enables Landis to ratchet up the tension and suspense, along with the nice juicy tidbits of KNB-provided gore that are interspersed throughout, and add a feeling of claustrophobia to the proceedings. Wendt more than makes us forget about Norm in his superbly twisted portrayal of Harold, and both Monroe and Keeslar do a fine job of making us care about Celia and David. She pulls out all the stops when acting out Harold’s lewd fantasy scenarios, and he excels at playing David as an always smiling goofball type — right up until those crucial final moments of the film when we finally see the man behind the merry mask. Peter Bernstein’s computerized score, which gets its own featurette (Terror Tracks: Mastering the Family Score), is purposely complicated and complex to convey Harold’s madness; and the funky gospel songs that play when Harold is going about his business and “breaking in” new family members are a perfect counterpoint. Terror Tracks, which runs about seven minutes, touches upon Landis and Bernstein’s long-standing relationship — they’ve been friends since age 15 — and details the process of their collaboration. Not your typical extra, but definitely one that adds to the viewer’s overall enjoyment of the film.

Masters of Horror:  Family DVD (click for larger image)The last special feature of note is Skin and Bones: The Making of Family, a 16-minute compilation of interviews with Wendt, Monroe, Keeslar, Hanley, and Landis. In addition, Lee Wilson, the Visual Effects Supervisor, shows a breakdown of the computer generated effects used in two key scenes. I enjoy this type of making-of infinitely more than the bland behind-the-scenes featurettes included on most of the Season One DVDs and am glad to see those have been discontinued. As it happens, a good chunk of the extras that were de rigueur for previous MOH discs have been dropped (i.e., the “On Set” and “Working With a Master” featurettes) in favor of a lower price point. I’m a bit mixed in that regard. Certainly some of the films didn’t warrant such an extensive package, but it was something to fall back on when the episodes themselves were only fair to mediocre. But even with its slimmed down offerings this time around, Anchor Bay does all right by fans of the show by getting these discs out quickly and keeping them affordable for collectors and completists who simply must own the whole set.

The release is rounded out by a photo gallery, Landis’ bio, some storyboards, a few trailers, and a DVD-ROM version of the screenplay. If warped, mind-fuck type storylines are your bag, then you won’t be bothered by the slightly skimpy extras as the “Family” film itself will be more than enough to satisfy you. And while we’re on the subject of satisfaction, if the rumored Season Three of Masters of Horror does occur (check out our interview with Mick Garris here for more details), I’m sure I’m not the only horror fan who hopes the next crop of writers and directors take Landis’ words to heart and “make it scarier.” Considering what Hanley and Landis accomplished with “Family,” they have a lot to live up to.

Special Features

  • Skin and Bones: The Making of Family
  • Terror Tracks: Mastering the Family Score
  • Audio commentary with writer Brent Hanley
  • Original storyboards by William David Hogan
  • Photo gallery
  • John Landis bio
  • Trailers
  • Screenplay (DVD-ROM)
  • Film

    4 out of 5

    Special Features

    3 out of 5

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    Before We Vanish Review – A Quirky and Original Take on Alien Invasions

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    Starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryûhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa

    Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

    Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa


    During the J-horror rampage of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (aka Pulse). A dark, depressing, and morose tale of ghosts that use the internet to spread across the world, the film’s almost suffocatingly gloomy atmosphere pervaded across every frame of the film. Because of my love of this film, I was eager to see the director’s upcoming movie Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (aka Before We Vanish), which follows three aliens who recently arrived on Earth and are preparing to bring about an alien invasion that will wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be barely a horror title but was instead a quirky and surreal dramedy that tugged at my heartstrings.

    Admittedly, I was thrown completely for a loop as the film begins with a scene that feels perfectly at home in a horror film. Akira (Tsunematsu), a teenage girl, goes home and we enter moments later to blood splashed on the walls and floor and bodies strewn about. However, the disturbing visuals are spun around as the young girl walks down a highway, her clothes and face streaked with blood, Yusuke Hayashi’s music taking on a lighthearted, almost jaunty attitude. From there, we learn of the other two aliens (yes, she’s an alien and it’s not a secret or a twist, so no spoilers there): Amano (Takasugi), who is a young man that convinces a sleazy reporter, Sakurai (Hasegawa), of his true form and tasks Sakurai with being his guide, and Shinji (Matsuda), the estranged husband of Narumi (Nagasawa).

    What sets these aliens, and their mission, apart from other invasion thrillers is their means of gathering information. They’re not interested in meeting leaders nor do they capture people for nefarious experimentations. Rather, they steal “concepts” from the minds of people, such as “family”, “possession”, or “pest”. Once these concepts are taken, the victim no longer has that value in their mind, freed from its constraints.

    While this may seem like a form of brainwashing, Kurosawa instead plays with the idea that maybe knowing too much is what holds us back from true happiness. A man obsessed with staking claim to his family home learns to see the world outside of its walls when “possession” is no longer a part of his life. A touchy boss enters a state of child-like glee after “work” has been taken. That being said, there are other victims who are left as little more than husks.

    Overly long at 130 minutes, the film does take its time showing the differences between the aliens and their individual behaviors. Amano and Akira are casually ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to send a beacon to begin the alien invasion, no matter how many must die along the way, while Shinji is the curious and almost open-minded one, whose personal journey finds him at one point asking a priest to envision and describe “love”, a concept that is so individualistic and personal that it can’t be taken, much less fathomed, by this alien being. While many of these scenes are necessary, they could have easily been edited down to shave 10-15 minutes, making the film flow a bit more smoothly.

    While the film begins on a dark note, there is a scene in the third act that is so pure and moving that tears immediately filled my eyes and I choked up a little. It’s a moment of both sacrifice and understanding, one that brings a recurring thread in the story full circle.

    With every passing minute, Before We Vanish makes it clear that it’s much more horror-adjacent than horror. An alien invasion thriller with ultimate stakes, it will certainly have appeal to genre fans. That being said, those who go in expecting action, violence, and terror will certainly be disappointed. But those whose mind is a bit more open to a wider range of possibilities will find a delightful story that attempts to find out what it means to be human, even if we have to learn the lesson from an alien.

    • Before We Vanish
    4.0

    Summary

    Before We Vanish is a beautiful, wonderful tale that explores what it means to be human when faced with the threat of extinction.

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    Delirium Review – Bros, Cameras And A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On

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    Starring Mike C. Manning, Griffin Freeman, Ryan Pinkston

    Directed by Johnny Martin


    When will these testosterone-overloaded frat bros with cameras ever learn that pissing off the evil souls of the departed all in the name of amusement won’t get you anywhere but wrecked? Same goes for filmmakers: when will they learn that found-footage exploits set in a house of pure sadism are something of a wrung-out affectation? Oh well, as long as people keep renting them, they’ll continue to get manufactured…which might or might not be to the benefit of the horror film-watching populous.

    Delirium opens with a poor lad, strapped with a GoPro, running for his life through a labyrinth of haunted territory, praying for an escape…and it’s a foregone conclusion as to what happens to this trespassing individual. We then relocate our focus towards a collection of (ahem), “gentlemen” self-titled as The Hell Gang, and their escapades are about as profound as their grasp on the English language and its verbiage. The words “dude”, creepy”, and the term “what the fuck” are thrown about so much in this movie it’ll make your head spin to the point of regurgitation. Anyway, their interest in the home of the Brandt clan is more piqued now than ever, especially considering one of their own has gone missing, and they’ve apparently got the gonads to load up the cameras, and traverse the property after-hours, and against the warnings of the local law-enforcement, who surprisingly are just inadequate enough to ignore a dangerous situation. The cursed family and the residence has quite the illustrious and bleak history, and it’s ripe for these pseudo-snoopers to poke around in.

    Usually I’m curb-stomping these first person POV movies until there’s nothing left but a mash of blood, snot and hair left on the cement, but Martin’s direction takes the “footage” a little bit outside of the box, with steadier shots (sometimes) and a bit more focus on the characters as they go about their business. Also, there are a few genuinely spooky scenes to speak of involving the possession of bodies, but there really isn’t much more to crow about, as the plot’s basically a retread of many films before it, and with this collection of borderline-douches manning the recording equipment, it’s a sad state of affairs we’re in that something such as this has crept its way towards us all again. I’m always down for jumping into a cold grave, especially when there could be a sweet prize to be dug up in all that dirt, but Delirium was one of those movies that never let you find your footing, even after you’ve clawed your way through all of the funereal sediment – take a hard pass on this one.

     

    • Film
    2.0

    Summary

    Got about a half-dozen bros with cameras and a wanton will to get slaughtered on camera, all the while repetitively uttering the same phrases all damn day long? Then my friends, you’ve got yourself a horror movie!

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    User Rating 2 (1 vote)
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    Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review – A Timid Step Towards a Frightening Possibility

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    Starring Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita

    Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita


    The Godzilla series is the longest-running franchise in cinema history. With over 30 films over a 60+ year career, the famous kaiju has appeared in video games, comic books, TV shows, and more, cementing its place as one of the most recognizable cultural icons in the past 100 years. With Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the titular beast makes its foray into the world of anime in this first film in a proposed trilogy. While there are moments that are genuinely thrilling, the film unfortunately fails to capture the imagination and wonder that is at its fingertips.

    The story is quite simple: Earth is under attack by swarms of various kaiju who are wreaking havoc across the planet. Entire cities are being destroyed when Godzilla appears to vanquish humanity’s foes. Unfortunately, the King of the Monsters isn’t really there to help humans and its rampage continues until a race of alien beings arrive at Earth asking for a place to stay in exchange for defeating Godzilla. When they are unable to do that, the remaining humans board a giant spaceship to venture off into space in search of a new home only to come back some 20 years later, nearly 20,000 years later by Earth time (think Interstellar logic), to search for resources and, possibly, a planet that will welcome them once again. However, Godzilla is still around and isn’t keen on sharing.

    The main character of the film is Haruo Sakaki, a young man who begins the film by nearly following through on a suicide bomber terrorist act that is meant to call attention to humanity’s loss of vision and failure to fulfill their mission of finding a suitable home for the remaining survivors. Even though he is accosted and jailed for this act, he is eventually freed when people realize that his lifelong passion of killing Godzilla is the foundation for research he’s done in finding a way to take down the creature…a plan that just might work. The other characters are so forgettable that I forgot their names during the film.

    From there, the film essentially pivots into following a massive team of volunteers who land on Earth’s surface to lay a trap for Godzilla in order to destroy it. Since this is Earth 20,000 years after they left, the flora and fauna have evolved and changed so radically that the team have no idea what to expect or how to react, so caution is a must.

    The problem with this is that while the characters have to be cautious, the film doesn’t nor should it. The movie has the chance to explore the wealth of imaginative opportunities at its fingertips and yet does almost everything it can to avoid doing just that. The color scheme is flat and uninteresting. The character movements lack smoothness and the action sequences fall victim to shaky cam syndrome. There are a few mentions of some of the changes that have taken place on the planet, such as razor sharp plants, but they’re so incidental or offhand that it feels like no one making the film has any interest in seeing anything other than man against beast.

    Speaking of this dynamic, the action sequences are quite entertaining but also feel somewhat reserved. Godzilla barely moves and much of the destruction levied against the humans is seen from a distance, apart from an attack on a military outpost by dragon-like creatures. For nearly the entire film, I found myself thinking, “I’m okay with this but that’s about it.

    The brightest moment in the film are the last few minutes and I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice it to say that it definitely has me interested in the second and third films but I really hope that this new world will be explored further in those entries. Otherwise, we’ve got a fascinating foundation that will be squandered.

    • Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
    2.0

    Summary

    Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a bland entry in a trilogy that has great potential. For a first course, there’s a distinct lack of flavor or complexity. The final minutes are the only saving grace and I hope that the second and third films make use of that grand wonder.

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    User Rating 5 (1 vote)
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