Kicking things off this month, we have the first foray into this genre by verbose Clerks/Mallrats/Cop Out director Kevin Smith, the thinly veiled Waco siege satire Red State.
Set in the American South, Smith’s film follows three horny teenage boys who have arranged via the good ‘ole internet to meet for sex with a much older woman (played by an under-used Melissa Leo). Little do they know that said would-be fuck-buddy is a nutbar member of an extreme Christian fundamentalist cult, the Five Point Church (led by a suitably charismatic Michael Parks), and is the bait for a trap they’re not likely to get out of alive.
When a suspicious cop notices something more than just the usual lighthearted ‘God hates fags’ larks, mainly that the congregation has an arsenal of weapons, John Goodman’s Agent Keenan of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau is called out to try and end things peacefully. Of course, this was never going to happen, and a bloody shoot-out ensues.
Red State starts out interestingly enough, subverting the usual torture-pornish trend of semi-naked young girls queuing up to die by making the victims male and presenting many possibilities for pondering, not least with the film’s offending sect’s similarity to the infamous real-life Westboro Baptist Church.
The ever-reliable Goodman (Leo’s Treme co-star) almost sleepwalks as Agent Keenan, though arguably his fanbase would happily watch a three-hour film of just him sleeping, he’s that likeable. Likewise, some of Smith’s lengthy dialogue works very well in his usual punchy way (a looooong religious sermon from Parks is a standout scene), though as with many Smith movies, Red State proves frustrating.
Smith’s critics would be justified in pointing out the regular mistake of being too wordy, replacing actual captivating action with the equivalent to cinematic verbal diarrhea (further evidence can be found in Smith’s unbearably talky introductions to deleted scenes). Worse still, there is a moment about an hour in, where something potentially brilliant happens and Smith threatens to elevate his film to greatness, only to mess this up with further jabbering when definitive action would have been not just welcome, but spectacularly effective. A gagging order for Mr Smith would also be very welcome.
Decidedly quiet Hayden Christensen vehicle Vanishing on 7th Street is somewhat less blabbermouthed than Smith’s effort. Directed by Brad Anderson (The Machinist), this M Night Shyamalan-esque “wait for the twist, just wait for it….” supernatural thriller follows the only four survivors of a mass vanishing in inner-city Detroit, specifically the titular 7th Street.
Along with Christensen’s TV news reporter, we have Thandie Newton as a young mother separated from her daughter, Jacob Latimore as a young teen struggling to survive without his family and John Leguiziamo as a cinema projectionist left alone in a cinema mid-screening.
Between them, the group work out that there’s something nasty lurking in the shadows and that light somehow stops the worst from happening. So, basically, it’s a neat return to one of humanity’s most primal fears: the dark, and it largely works as a simplistic exercise in suspense.
Slick and atmospheric though Vanishing on 7th Street is, there are certainly some critical weaknesses to consider. Christensen has never been a strong leading man, here putting in a characteristically blank performance. Leguiziamo is a safe bet as the everyman projectionist, though (also characteristically) is wasted in a relatively straight role.
Sticking with the cautionary tales about the dark, you really shouldn’t pay heed to the advice Guillermo Del Toro gives in his remake of the much-liked (though rarely loved) ‘70s TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
By now, we should know that it’s perfectly logical to harbour a fear of the shadows when they contain evil spirits, mentalists wearing hockey masks or, as is the case here, marauding tooth fairies. Yes, you read that right.
Del Toro (as with much of his more recent output) takes production duties and co-writes the functional script as we see Guy Pearce play the father of a young girl, Sally, who have both just moved into an old gothic mansion with Pearce’s partner, played by Katie Holmes.
The house, as they invariably tend to be, was the scene of historic unpleasantness and guess what? Those little bleeders, after being rediscovered in the basement by Sally, want to get back down to business.
The creepy house with monsters and mythology schtick might as well have Del Toro’s name printed through it like a stick of rock and Pearce and Holmes are given very little to work with, character-wise, but who’s really complaining when this trademark classy suspense with the odd ghoulie thrown in for good measure is so enjoyable?
Somewhat less smoothly packaged, we come to our final movie, the latest in a long, long line of straight to DVD horrors starring Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, as the demon Inkubus.
Like the titular Saint Nicholas in festive bloodfest Saint (see the Christmas blog), Englund’s over-confident devil’s advocate likes to emerge every so-often for a massacre or two throughout history, the scamp.
Inkubus starts out interestingly enough as a kind of less sappy K-Pax with gore replacing sentiment and Englund’s demon in human form being questioned at a police precinct about the exact nature of his crimes. William Forsythe as the cop who was driven to the brink of madness by an earlier infernal encounter is suitably haunted opposite Englund having such fun chewing the set to pieces.
Unfortunately, a screenplay that rapidly descends into predictability is disappointingly mindless for a script that started out with such promise. Still, if you can ignore Glen Ciano’s often irritatingly showy direction (complete with Saw-style grainy wonkiness), you could do a lot worse than hang out with Englund’s latest talkative monster for an hour or so.
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