By Steve Newton
Here’s my original reviews of five worthy horror flicks now streaming on Netflix Canada. Three of them are from Lionsgate. Way to go, Lionsgate.
Saw II (2005, Lionsgate)
The original Saw had a pretty interesting premise, and one that kept the options wide open for gruesome, sadistic, squirm-in-your-seat horror. It was about a psychopathic genius named Jigsaw who trapped people and made them play horrific beat-the-clock games for a slim chance at avoiding a grisly death.
The weakest components of the original were actually its two main stars, Carey Elwes and Danny Glover, neither of whom were believable in their respective roles of imprisoned dentist and hard-nosed cop. For the sequel, the filmmakers made a smart choice: they dumped the name actors and concentrated on the devious hoops that Jigsaw’s guinea pigs are forced to jump through in order to try and save their skins.
The result is a grimy and relentless portrayal of high-tension cruelty that’s excruciating to watch but as riveting as a nail gun to the nut sack.
The opening scene sets the tone. We’re shown some poor sap with a gouged-up eye who wakes up to find that he’s been kidnapped and fitted with a rusty metal contraption around his neck that’s set with rows of sharp spikes. From a nearby TV monitor, Jigsaw calmly explains to the freaked-out captive that he gets one chance to find a small key that can release the wicked mechanism from his trembling shoulders.
Trick is, it’s been implanted directly behind his mangled eye, and he only has a short amount of time to retrieve it–with the use of a scalpel–before the springloaded “Venus Flytrap” snaps shut around his achin’ head.
Two scenes after that sick but suspenseful intro, it looks like Saw II might be garbage after all, because when hard-ass detective Eric Mason (Donnie Wahlberg) confronts his delinquent son Daniel (Erik Knudsen), a wayward boom-mike dips down into frame. That’s director-cowriter Darren Lynn Bousman’s only major screwup, though; most of his time during Saw II‘s whirlwind 25-day shoot was spent injecting a feverish intensity into the nasty goings-on, which, like Saw, revolve around a cop’s frantic attempts to save people from Jigsaw’s booby-trapped house of horrors.
Tobin Bell returns to steal the show as the soft-spoken and brilliantly twisted villain, channelling Rutger Hauer and veteran character actor Brion James, whom he closely resembles. All the lesser-knowns cast as Jigsaw’s tormented playthings do good work depicting their drawn-out suffering, not that the constant spitting up of blood requires much rehearsal.
Unless you’re a dedicated gorehound, there’s a good chance you’ll come out of Saw II feeling sickened and disgusted. But you could also look at it from an educational standpoint. For example, I learned that the sight of a musclebound man swinging a spike-laden baseball bat into the back of a living guy’s skull was infinitely less disturbing than the sight of a petite woman wrenching said bat from the back of a dead guy’s skull.
Who says horror flicks are for dummies?
Hostel (2005, Lionsgate)
The horror scene seems to be in the grip of a hardcore revolution these days. It’s as if a cabal of serious fright-film fanatics got together and organized a bitter backlash against hokey Hollywood body-count flicks with cookie-cutter plots and predictable outcomes. In the last couple of years, there’s been a resurgence of grim, graphic, in-your-face scare films.
Shock-rocker Rob Zombie kickstarted the trend in 2003 with his blood-spattered love letter to ’70s exploitation flicks, House of 1000 Corpses, and the hugely popular Saw grabbed the gore torch from him in 2004. Both of those films spawned sequels in 2005 that ratcheted up the sadism and nastiness, and then just last month Aussie fearmonger Greg McLean topped off the year with his torture-the-tourists entry, Wolf Creek. Now comes Hostel, the most extreme, punishing, pain-filled gorefest yours truly has ever cringed through.
It doesn’t start out that way, though. Writer-director Eli Roth is a sly one, so he lets us believe that this follow-up to his 2002 killer-virus debut, Cabin Fever, could be just a routine tale of nauseating Yank backpackers getting snuffed over in Europe. The film opens in Amsterdam, where randy American college buddies Paxton and Josh (Jay Hernandez and Derek Richardson)-along with their Icelandic travelling companion Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson)-act like immature bozos, get in barroom scraps, and call a prostitute with a bit of flab on her a “hog”.
You can hardly wait for these jerks to get sliced and diced by some maniac in a Dutch hostel, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, they take the advice of a slimy Russian geek-pimp who impresses them with digital photos of himself frolicking with a bevy of naked Slovak babes. He convinces these lawyers- and writers-to-be that if they book into a certain hostel in Bratislava, the beautiful women there will be crawling all over them. So they catch the next train out. Sure enough, as soon as they get to the place two scantily clad Euro-foxes suggestively invite the bug-eyed guys to join them at the spa.
Around this time, though, the pussy-hunt vibe starts to erode like the decaying surfaces of the Slovakian buildings. Their Icelandic buddy disappears, along with a Japanese tourist, and a sinister gang of pint-sized street kids threaten Josh. Then, in one harrowing scene that sets the ghastly tone for things to come, Hostel switches from being an overseas American Pie-type romp to being a no-holds-barred look at the international pay-to-kill trade. If there is a place in the world where wealthy businessmen can spend upward of 50 grand for the opportunity to torture someone to death, Roth has done a killer job of depicting it.
There is one particular moment of torture that literally had me gritting my teeth in revulsion, and it’s sure to go down in the annals of film as one of the most stomach-churning images ever released in theatres. If you thought The Exorcist was famous for making people puke and/or pass out, just wait till Hostel‘s little snip-snip scene.
Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
Creep (2014, Netflix)
I had a hankering for a scary movie late last night so took a look at the Horror Movies section on Netflix to see what was available.
The first five offerings were Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Prometheus, The Conjuring, Orphan, and World War Z, all of which I’d already seen, and all of which–apart from the totally decent WWZ–sucked the biggie.
The sixth pick was something from 2014 called Creep, which caught my attention with its eerie image of a man’s silhouette at the top of a flight of stairs. It stars Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice, which didn’t bode well because I remembered Duplass unfondly from The Lazarus Effect, that lame Flatliners rip-off from last February.
But I went ahead and watched Creep anyway, and man was it enjoyable.
It’s about an easygoing videographer named Aaron (co-writer and director Brice) who gets hired by a man named Josef (cowriter Duplass) to film him non-stop for a day at his semi-remote cabin. Josef explains that he’s been diagnosed with a baseball-sized tumor in his head, and only a couple of months to live, so wants to leave a video document for his unborn soon, like Michael Keaton did in My Life.
Josef comes off as bit of a strange bird, but at first you think that maybe he’s just quirky, or that his weirdness might be due to the fact that he’s facing imminent death. Soon enough, though, you come to see that he’s a total freak–especially when he confesses to a terrible crime against his own wife.
The bizarre relationship that develops between Josef and Aaron is hugely compelling, made more so as Josef’s potential danger to Aaron is both hinted at and revealed.
The fact that Aaron records every damn thing–even when he should be dropping the camera and running away–seems ridiculous at times, as it is in most found-footage horror flicks. But if you give yourself over to the idea that he’s a videographer whose instinct is to the keep the camera rolling, it’s not so hard to take.
Duplass’s whacked-out performance keeps you fairly riveted to the screen, wondering what crazy shit Josef’s gonna pull next–and how the tormented Aaron will respond. It’s one of the most memorable sicko roles I’ve seen in a while.
It definitely makes up for his wasted effort in The Lazarus Effect.
Creep is yet another project from Blumhouse Productions, which is best known for its supernatural horror franchises like Paranormal Activity and Insidious, but lately–with the thoroughly impressive The Gift–is doing great work portraying the evil that mortals do as well.
Way to go, Blumhouse! At this rate we might one day even forgive you for The Boy Next Door!
The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Lionsgate)
The Cabin in the Woods is crammed with so many twists and turns that the mere thought of reviewing it and ruining the fun for others is scary in and of itself. But I don’t feel bad about revealing at least one huge surprise: it’s the best horror flick ever made in Vancouver.
A gaggle of attractive young victims-to-be head out for some weekend fun in what looks like your typical Friday the 13th–style slaughterfest, but for some reason the group’s every move is being tracked by a shadowy team using state-of-the-art gadgetry. The operation is overseen in a NASA-like control room by a pair of total dickheads—brilliantly played by Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Bradley Whitford (TV’s The West Wing)—whose manipulations drive the action once the human lab rats arrive at the titular location.
Why, exactly, these two assholes subject their innocent prey to deadly torment won’t be exposed here, but the hoops the victims are forced to jump through in order to survive (if they’re lucky) makes for some of the most exhilarating horror action since Scream revitalized the genre back in 1996.
Working from an idea of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon, cowriter and director Drew Goddard goes hilariously nutzoid, testing people’s preconceptions of scary movies while at the same time questioning humanity itself. Things just keep getting wilder and more intense as the shocks and bodies pile up, but the entertainment level never wavers.
The Cabin in the Woods really is the most fun you can have at the movies with your clothes on.
House of Wax (2005, Warner Bros. Pictures)
I didn’t have high hopes for House of Wax, an extremely loose adaptation of the 1953 Vincent Price horror classic. For starters, Paris Hilton is in it. Then there’s the fact that it’s a product of Dark Castle Entertainment, the company behind crappy “reimaginings” of other dusty fright flicks such as House on Haunted Hill and Thir13en Ghosts.
But as far as gory, twisted, sharp-stick-through-the-fuckin’-head slasher flicks go, the new House of Wax ain’t too shabby.
Although prominently featured in the HOW trailers, Hilton has a secondary role, actually, as Paige, one of six American college kids on a road trip to a school football game. Along for the ride to hell is Carly (24‘s Elisha Cuthbert), her boyfriend, Wade (Jared Padalecki of Gilmore Girls), her sullen delinquent brother, Nick (One Tree Hill pinup boy Chad Michael Murray), his outsider sidekick, Dalton (Jon Abrahams), and Paige’s predictably randy boyfriend, Blake (Robert Richard).
After Blake’s faulty directions get the group lost in the backwoods, they wake from a forced camp-out to find that the fan belt on Wade’s vehicle has been cut, prime suspect being the pickup-driving weirdo who interrupted their beer-fuelled party the night before. After Carly falls down a nearby hill and barely avoids being submerged in a stinking pit of animal carcasses, she and Wade catch a ride with a Deliverance-style hillbilly who winds up dropping them off on the outskirts of a tiny, isolated town, where they hope to score the required strip of rubber.
That’s when the Australia-shot movie’s sick thrills start to kick in. In a dual role as deranged twin brothers Bo and Vincent, Black Hawk Down‘s Brian Van Holt puts slasher icons like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers to shame with his over-the-top sadism. After capturing Carly and binding her in a basement, Bo Krazy-Glues her lips together; when the muted damsel desperately tries to get attention by signalling through a grate, he casually takes a hand tool and…
But that’s nothing compared to the cruelties that mask-wearing Vincent visits on the other unfortunates, especially the poor sap he turns into one of his wax-covered figures.
First-time director Jaume Collet-Sera brings a feverish tone to the mayhem, and the makeup FX team–though not credited either in the media kit or on the Web site–gets a dismembered thumbs-up for grisly realism. Screenwriters and twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes keep the nasty action well-paced, and Aussie production designer Graham “Grace” Walker-who won an Australian Film Institute award for The Road Warrior-did some amazing work on the wax-museum set. After all the demented shit that goes on before, there’s a strange, otherwordly beauty in how the titular structure melts away.
You don’t get much of that in Hollywood body-count flicks.
Go here to read more than 350 of my original reviews of scary movies released theatrically in North America between 1988 and 2018.