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by Bill Gibron

23 Nov 2008


For fright fans, Dario Argento’s career as a movie macabre master started going downhill right after the release of his spectacle splattefest Opera. With the advent of videotape, and the steady release of his past efforts onto the format, a whole new audience was appreciating his work, and Hollywood was starting to take notice. Invited to America to continue his career, he made the interesting anthology entry based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Two Evil Eyes, and helmed a US based thriller entitled Trauma. Neither film was a hit, and Argento was angered by issues of studio interference and MPAA censorship. He had been burned back in the ‘70s when companies such as Paramount and Fox decided to distribute truncated versions of classics like Suspiria. Now, he needed a project to propel him back into the good graces of his always agreeable European constituency – and a book by psychiatrist Graziella Magherini seemed to hold the answer.

Dealing with a subject described as “art enchantment” - a surreal fugue state where individuals feels emotionally overwhelmed and personally connected to paintings, sculptures, and other aesthetic works – this ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ seemed to be the perfect idea for a film. Of course, it would take some tricky special effects to realize his goal, and Argento needed an actress he could trust to take on the grueling, slightly gratuitous lead. He envisioned a woman who was young enough to play the ingénue, sturdy enough to pass for a cop, and complex enough to handle the several personality changes that occurred throughout. Even worse, this performer would have to lay herself bare during a trio of tawdry rape scenes. With an air of oddness that only Freud could successfully decipher, Argento flummoxed convention and hired his 21 year old daughter Asia. Long a fixture in the film world, this would be her most demanding role to date.

And thus cameras rolled on the icon’s big creepshow comeback, a psychological thriller that took both parts of that label all too seriously. A strange combination of police procedural (Asia is Anna Manni, a policewoman on the trail of a serial rapist), character study (after suffering at the hands of her subject, Anna starts to slowly unravel), and exercise in exploitation (women are brutalized and butchered by this maniacal blond sadist), the results divided even the most ardent aficionados. Some saw it as a return to past glories. Others argued that, while decent, it forewarned of worse things to come. Indeed, in the next decade, Argento would release four more career confusing efforts – his overdone and sexualized Phantom of the Opera take, a good giallo called I Can’t Sleep, the static CSI statement The Card Player, and a weird homage to a long time idol entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? So oddly enough, The Stendhal Syndrome appears as his last legitimate offering, a movie mythologized all the more by its odd home video treatment.

Somehow, Troma got a hold of this film, and released it way back near the beginning of DVD. The 1996 package was pretty good, containing a commentary by the director, an interview with the filmmaker, and lots of company come-ons. Fans frothed however, citing the fair to middling transfer and the overall lack of respect offered by the infamous B-movie factory. Over the last 11 years, they’ve hoped that a company like Blue Underground would salvage this forgotten film and bring it back to the state of semi-respectability it so richly (?) deserves. Those prayers were answered back in September of this year. The Big Blue U indeed stepped up and delivered a two disc digital package that illustrates the best that the medium has to offer, while questioning the extent to which businesses will invest in context for the fans. Now, a Blu-ray version of this title is available, and it too begs the question of product vs. pitch. 

If the film had been more endemic of Argento’s lush, luminous style, the lack of all format support would be unconscionable. But Stendhal stands as a decidedly different effort for the director, a movie made up of particular movements, each one attempting to address a different aspect of a woman’s destructive descent into madness. Viewed in parts, we see the suggestion that rape reduces a female to a series of onerous questions. There is doubt of self, doubt of sexuality, and doubt of safety. All three of these misgiving are illustrated here, as daughter Asia goes from confident cop to psychological mess in the span of two event filled hours. The transformation is both physical and mental. At first, Anna Manni is a long haired brunette, a capable officer working a high profile case. Post attack, she cuts off her overflowing locks and takes on a more tom boyish persona. Finally, after a terrifying confrontation in a water main, our heroine becomes a femme fatale, long blond wig providing a post-modern noir nod.

Within each section, Argento hints at the horrors going on in Anna’s head. Initially, everything revolves around the title issue. The use of then new CGI to realize the symptoms of the syndrome is unique and, though dated, gives the visuals an excellent otherworldly quality. Asia also does a good job of expressing the emotional distress that surrounds the problem. When she swoons over a classical canvas, we believe the delirium. She is also a brave actress, allowing herself to be very vulnerable and physically ‘open’ during the rape scenes. Actor Thomas Kretschmann (who would later rise to notoriety in big budget films like Blade II and Peter Jackson’s King Kong) is an amazing villain – the kind of debonair demon that you can easily see as a smooth talking psychopath. The interaction with his victims is noxious, and he really helps establish the lasting effects of his horrific crimes.

The second phase takes us through a denial of femininity, as Asia goes guy to try and hide her pain. This is a very interesting segment, one where Argento pulls back on the dread to deliver some drama and dark humor. When a previous paramour makes a pass at Anna, she responds with belligerence and foul-mouthed dominance. Equally, when boxing with an old male friend as part of a workout, her love of physical brutality is obvious. All throughout the first two acts, we sense a rematch with out rapist, and long for the moment of mandatory cinematic comeuppance. As a director, Argento toys with us, leaving us guessing right until the very end as to how this confrontation will play out. Even after it’s over, we still wonder if there’s not more to the story. As with most works by the Italian maestro, a climatic moment usually triggers another tangential terror.

Which brings us to the third phase in Anna’s story. Feeling slightly more empowered, and working through the leftover trauma with her specious therapist (a real red herring if ever there was one), we see an attempted reclamation of her beauty and allure. The long headdress is initially shocking, since it tends to hide most of Anna (and Asia’s) inviting ethnicity. This is crucial in understanding where the character is headed. The color of the wig, the newfound lust and desire, the overwhelming possessiveness – all of these facets are supposed to provide subtle insight into the shifts our lead is experiencing. Since he’s a master of pacing and paradigm, Argento lets issues lie, creating tension by building on both expectation and the unanticipated. Even after the denouement, when we learn just what’s been going on in Anna’s head, our director is not done. We watch as our fractured female is swept up in a sea of men, the patriarchy once again arguing for its role as protector and provider of the species.

As a result, it’s hard to call The Stendhal Syndrome “horror”, though it definitely deals in dreadful things. This is more like a literal psychological thriller, a film that rises and falls by the sinister and sick psyche of its characters. As it moves from element to element, as it references Argento heroes (there’s a lot of Hitchcock here) and establishes its own inherent greatness, we sense the struggle inside the director. For over three decades, he was viewed as a fantasist and fabulist, someone placing the surreal inside the scary to create a kind of dream theater of nightmare novelty. But Argento got his start making standard crime films, giallos that mimicked the mean-spirited narratives of the yellow covered pulp novels the genre took its name – and inspiration - from. To be pigeonholed because of his rare artistic flourishes was unfair, and yet all throughout this film, such flashes also appear. The contradiction would soon cause his canon to crash.

Oddly enough, the new Blu-ray DVD doesn’t go into a lot of perspective or overview. Instead, Argento appears and discusses the production – including how uncomfortable he was directing daughter Asia. The author of the book which inspired the director – psychological consultant Graziella Magherini - explains the Stendhal Syndrome while F/X guru Sergio Stivaletti talks about the confusing world of computers. We also hear from AD Luigi Cozzi and production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. Their anecdotal insights help us understand how hard it is for Argento to complete a project. Apparently, forces both normal and unexplainable are against him. As for the long debated technical aspects of this release, this latest Blu-ray release is outstanding. Grain is minor, with an enormous clarity of detail. It too carries over the filmmaker’s original vision, and is presented ‘uncut and uncensored’.

Some may complain about the sound situation, however. The original DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track is available in both English and Italian, but neither the 7.1 DTS-HD and 7.1 True HD has an alternate option. Fans of foreign films hate when studios forgo the native language of the filmmaker in order to cater to a less informed fanbase, but in this case, the decision is mostly understandable. Argento typically hires a multinational cast, so while his movies are made in Italy, his actors are versed in several tongues. Picking just one does a disservice to all. Even then, he usually films in English, even if performances begin in various ethnic takes. Whatever the case (research indicates an original Italian track), the expanded sound is amazing. There is a spatial clarity and attention to aural detail that can’t be ignored. And of course, Ennio Morricone’s amazing score is accented perfectly.

Still, it’s hard to fully fathom where The Stendhal Syndrome resides inside Dario Argento’s reputation. Many will marvel at the avant-garde aspects of this feature and wonder why the director ditched them for a hoary old period piece (Phantom) the next time out. Some will see it as a misogynistic mess, a film that forces females into the role of subservient sickos who can’t suppress their inner whore long enough to avoid the suffering. Gore fiends will enjoy the novel kills, including the slo-mo bullet time, and Argento’s directorial flourishes still mandate attention, even within this far more realistic setting. Either as signature or stumble, art or atrocity, there is no denying that as a filmmaker, the man responsible for brining Italian terror to the mainstream remains an important cinematic fixture. Thanks to the efforts of Blue Underground, his legacy will remain intact, if not necessarily indestructible.

by Bill Gibron

22 Nov 2008


Living down a legacy can be hard. For Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it’s almost impossible. Long before there was South Park, Comedy Central, Team America: World Police, and the millions of dollars with the success of same, the University of Colorado students went off on a Spring Break jaunt to make a movie. The result was the wildly ambitious and decidedly dark comedy Alferd Packer: The Musical. That was 1993. When no other company showed interest in releasing and/or distributing the film, Troma Entertainment came to the rescue. Since then, there has been an uneasy alliance between the camps. And with the release of the excellent 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition DVD, the duo once again become the focus of one company’s continuing commercial sustainability, and their own incomplete past.

The story for this wild musical ride is oddly compelling - and based on real events. Looking to seek their fortune in the Colorado territory, a group of miners follow fellow gold rusher Alferd Packer deep into the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, they run into a band of scurvy trappers who steal Packer’s prized pony Liane. No longer concerned about wealth or riches, angry Al marches the mystified men farther off the well-beaten path and closer to death’s doorway. A stop-off at a local Ute Indian Reservation provides a last chance at avoiding tragedy, but Packer will not be persuaded. He eventually places his party into one Donner of a dilemma.

And soon, it’s shinbones and short ribs for everyone as fallen members of the ore obsessives become bar-b-qued and fricasseed. Strangely, only Packer escapes. When pressed, he tells a wild tale of murder, mayhem, and massive helpings of man meat. It’s enough to put you off your pemmican as a Broadway-style back story leads to a tuneful trial and an even more melodious mob scene with everyone trying to determine if Al is a real life butt muncher, or just the subject of an insane song saga.

Outrageous, amateurish, guaranteed to make your toes tap, your fingers snap, and your gag reflex respond all in one sitting, Cannibal!: The Musical is the small, silly sapling from which a mighty comedy oak eventually grew. The titanic tree of unbridled, brave humor is today known as South Park and the creators of that crazy comic chaos are Matt Stone and his partner in perversity, Trey Parker. Trey is the tricky mastermind behind this musical version of the (supposed) crimes of Colorado’s most infamous flesh-eater, Alferd Packer. Anyone who has ever doubted Parker’s flourishing genius with paper cut-out cartoon characters need look no further than this ambitious, anarchic pseudo-student film to realize that he (along with Stone) were bound for bigger, longer, and uncut things.

Cannibal! is filled with juvenile humor, unprofessional performances, lapses in taste and tone, and - above all - a severe drop-off in inventiveness toward the end. But it also contains classic tainted Tin Pan Alley tunes, a genuine love of gore horror films, and enough sharp, hilarious wit to outshine a few hundred Hollywood dark gross-out comedies. Cannibal!: The Musical is an idea that shouldn’t work (and occasionally heaves and lurches like a block and tackle about to fail), but thanks to Parker’s vision and his merry band of borderline student psychotics (the film was made while Trey and pals were at film school), he manages to corral Cannibal’s potential calamities and make the chaos work. It is far from perfect, but it’s also entertaining, memorable, and filled with infectious, fantastic musical numbers.

This may be the very definition of a cult film. It is a movie made for a specific mindset. You are either “in tune” to its troubled, terrific manic mantra or not. No amount of big screen talkback or audience participation prop pandering will make it click. You will either “get” Cannibal!: The Musical or it will seem static, insipid, and scattered. Just like his efforts on that Comedy Central kiddie show (or the unjustly dumped sitcom spoof That’s My Bush), Parker operates from a big picture, avoiding a non-stop salvo of junky jokes to hopefully create a certain amount of depth and irony to his work. His goal always seems to be the complete deconstruction of typical cinematic and humor norms, only to rebuild them with his own twists. Many critics clamor that Parker and Stone are irrevocably stuck in an infantile world of farts, feces, and offensiveness (stereotyped Japanese men as Ute Indians?). And Cannibal! could very well be used as an example of such salacious obsessions.

But in reality, it is a smart take-off on the musical format mixed with historical drama and laced with the noticeably lowbrow sense of stupid humor - and it succeeds more times than it derails. There are some forgivable lapses in character and plot development (the trappers should have had more involvement in the story) and the good-natured goofiness of the songs leave you wanting more of them (there are a couple of lost tracks - a barroom rap/funk spectacular called “I’m Shatterproof” and the cautionary choral entitled “Don’t Be Stupid Motherf******s”). Still, Parker is out to simultaneously celebrate Packer and bury him. And he does so with a little song, a little dance, and a lot of fake blood down the pants.

Surprisingly, Cannibal! The Musical understands the strange dynamic of having characters break out into song and plays on that unreal magic magnificently. Where else would you find victims of frostbite, so hungry they are unable to move or even sit up straight, singing a joyful - if immobile - roundelay of special sentimental wishes called “That’s All I’m Asking For”? Or how about a lynch mob gaily swing choiring their way through a jubilant reading of the local riot act called “Hang the Bastard!”? The juxtaposition of traditionally non-musical moments with outrageous parodies of Great White Way standards is what marks Cannibal! (and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for that matter) a step above other attempted mismatching. Parker is a gifted writer, and along with original score arrangements by Rich Sanders, the songs are rich, resonant, and instantly memorable. Indeed, this flesh-eating effort may be the first fright flick you’ll ever find yourself humming afterward.

The question then becomes, should fans once again dip into their W. Bush Administration tapped wallets and spring for yet another DVD version of this title? The answer, oddly, depends on how much you love the movie and your completist need to see now mega-famous superstars feign interest in a movie made 13 years ago. Parker and Stone appear in new interviews, and both seem slightly disinterested in revisiting their history. Of course, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman is there to lighten things up with his irreverent Q&A style. In the end, we get some quality information. Elsewhere, a new commentary features some stars from the film, and it’s as chaotic and crazed as the now infamous “drunken” track featuring Parker, Stone, and some pals doing shots. Both are offered and provide a combination of anecdotes, riffs, and curse-laden cutdowns.

Sprinkled liberally across both discs are a host of deleted scenes. Some are fascinating; some seem like cutting room floor fodder. In addition, there are a few Behind the Scenes featurettes showing us how different F/X were achieved, as well as the oddball production path the film took. Finally, the DVD contains a look at a local production of Cannibal! The Musical. It seems that, every year, amateur theater companies put of versions of the film, with varying degrees of success. We even see one show where Lloyd Kaufman made a stand-up style cameo as a judge. Overall, the 13th Anniversary Two Disc “Shpadoinkle” Edition of this film offers enough new material to spark the interest of even the most casual lover of Cannibal!‘s craziness.

Yet one still walks away wondering how long this first taste of fame will continue to haunt the boys. As the first release in Troma’s planned “Tromasterpiece Collection” (complete with clever PBS-style logo), the import of Cannibal! The Musical cannot be understated - not to Parker and Stone, and definitely not to the company who came to their rescue. The edgy agreement between the two means that there will always be a place in the corporate cornerstone for another digital version of this hilarious, half-baked gemstone. And when the results are as winning as these, the men behind South Park really shouldn’t care. Sure, all of this can seem like the stalker-esque girlfriend who won’t take the hint post-breakup, but first love is always the strongest, and most unwieldy. That’s a perfect description of Cannibal!‘s unique charm, and Troma’s treatment of same. 

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008


As we near the end of the year, and the ongoing glut of award season entries, some smaller films are flying under the radar and into your local Cineplex. For the weekend before Thanksgiving, 21 November 2008, here are a few of the said unsung films in focus:

Let the Right One In [rating: 9]

It’s like watching a work of art come to life before your eyes, minor flaws and ambiguous imperfections intact.

When was the last time a vampire was truly scary? No, not gory, or gross, or given over to fits of faux romanticized rage and revisionism. Really, genuinely and utterly frightening? Underworld? Buffy? Near Dark? Anytime Hammer’s Christopher Lee arrived onscreen? Blade made the bloodsucker into a staid action hero and villain, while numerous post-Anne Rice adjustments have turned the one time fiend into a tragic, almost Shakespearean scourge. In fact, if something like Let the Right One In hadn’t come along, Nosferatu would remain a non-issue in the world of horror. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s amazing new movie, the bloodsucker gets a new lease on life - at least, temporarily.  read full review…

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas [rating: 6]

Either you will appreciate The Boy in the Striped Pajamas particular tact, or you will cringe on what it decides to exploit. Like the subject it secures as part of its plotting, there is no middle ground.

As a cinematic foundation, the Holocaust has just about run its course. Certainly there will be other examples of stellar filmmaking - i.e. Schindler’s List - that utilize the monstrous historical events, but it seems like, with rare exceptions, all the critical stories have been told. With last year’s intriguing The Counterfeiter, and numerous documentaries uncovering the most elemental and exclusive of detail, the picture, while not completely painted, definitely fills the canvas. Contextually, this makes the new drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a complicated consideration. On the one hand it does something quite daring. On the other, it offers up a contrite and sadly manipulative look at the horrific plight of six million innocent and unnecessary victims.  read full review…

Splinter [rating: 7]

If you can get beyond one basic narrative flaw, and a low budget dynamic which provides limited looks at our Bottin-inspired fiends, Splinter will come as a wonderful little fright flick surprise.

When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn back in 1996, critics predicted a run on genre-melding movies where established types (the crime thriller) would be married to horror archetypes (in this case, the vampire) to create some intriguing and sparkling new combinations. Sadly, no such macabre renaissance occurred. Fans went back to the surefire recipe of comedy mixed with creepshow, and no one successfully ventured back into the realm of cinematic cross pollination. Now comes Splinter, a nasty little indie splatter job that again sees two on-the-run lowlifes taking a pair of vacationing lovers hostage. What the foursome finds in the isolated wilderness is both incredibly gruesome and undeniably satisfying, especially for fright mavens desperate for a little post-modern monster mashing.  read full review…

House (2008) [rating: 6]

Like most movies where belief makes up a good percentage of the narrative rationale and resolution, House has a very hard time with its dogma.

It’s unique among fundamentalists - the decision to take Christianity into arenas where it previously could find little or no purchase. After all, musical mediums like punk and hip-hop would seem antithetical to giving God (and his celebrated son, JC) his due. And yet all throughout faith-based music, genres are retrofitted to provide a Good Book provenance and potential profitability. Now, it appears, movies are the next medium to be explored. Take the work of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. Both are noted writers of Christian fiction specifically aimed at the horror audience. When the latter’s solo serial killer effort Thr3e was made into a semi-success film in 2007, it looked like the floodgates were unleashed for literal stories of good vs. evil. Oddly enough, the adaptation of Peretti and Dekker’s collaboration, House avoids most of the religion for standard scares - and suffers because of it.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008


When was the last time a vampire was truly scary? No, not gory, or gross, or given over to fits of faux romanticized rage and revisionism. Really, genuinely and utterly frightening? Underworld? Buffy? Near Dark? Anytime Hammer’s Christopher Lee arrived onscreen? Blade made the bloodsucker into a staid action hero and villain, while numerous post-Anne Rice adjustments have turned the one time fiend into a tragic, almost Shakespearean scourge. In fact, if something like Let the Right One In hadn’t come along, Nosferatu would remain a non-issue in the world of horror. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s amazing new movie, the bloodsucker gets a new lease on life - at least, temporarily.

Oskar is a pale, frail little Swedish boy barely into his teens. Hopelessly tormented at school by a bully and his lackeys, he longs for revenge. One night, a young girl named Eli moves into the flat next door. Instantly curious, he keeps an eye on his new neighbor and her elderly guardian. After a few confusing conversations, Oskar and Eli become friends. In the meantime, her caregiver goes around Stockholm killing innocent people and draining their blood. Eventually we learn that Eli is a vampire, forever stuck in a child’s body. Yet Oskar is not afraid. Instead, he senses the power she possesses, and wonders how he can utilize it for his own, less than noble needs. Elsewhere, the locals are starting to suspect something evil is in their midst.

With its bursts of horrific violence and stark, matter of fact mannerism, Let the Right One In instantly becomes one of the few outright foreign fright film classics. It uses routine to unholy ends, and takes the standard coming of age and turns it right on its pointy, perplexed and paranormal little head. Rare is the movie that can take the trials and tribulations of peer pressure and personal awareness and make it into something both celebratory and sinister. But thanks to the efforts of Alfredson and his collaboration with source novelist John Lindqvist, we wind up with a compelling companion to every story of overlooked and alienated youth ever told. It’s like A Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace with night stalkers.

Alfredson has a very unique style - call it the slowburn calm before the terrifying torrents of chaos. Much of Let the Right One In plays out in long, silent takes, the camera covering personal details as we wait to see what happens next. Suddenly, the director will offer up some explosive bit of horror - a violent confrontation, an animal attack, a post-sunrise personal immolation - and we definitely understand the aesthetic choice. Let the Right One In wants to lull us into a sense of sobering everyday complacency, focusing on the terror of a young boy being bullied more than the presence of a possible vampire. Yet once the supernatural stuff begins, we get the clear connection between the two.

Pain is at the center of this film - Eli’s physical sickness and need for blood as well as her overriding desire for simple human connections. The issue of immortality is often explored within the genre, but Let the Right One In finds simple, dignified ways of explaining the solemn sadness of living forever. In Oskar’s case, we get the more basic boyhood trauma. With a mother that smothers him and a Dad who apparently passes his time doing drugs (and his male friends), this is one kid getting the full blown dysfunctional family mixed message treatment. He can’t confide in either parent, and as a result, sees Eli as a like minded youth who uses silence acceptance as a way of understanding his plight. She’s also very strong, and blessed with a killer instinct.

If this kind of misery loves company companionship sounds like dozens of other formulaic family fare, Let the Right One In is guilty. However, thanks to Lindqvist’s novel approach to the material, the decision to set everything within the stark cold realities of a Swedish winter, and Alfredson’s way with tone and talent, we wind up with something quite extraordinary. Of course, it takes capable child actors gifted enough of bringing this material to life, and in the case of Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, we have totally believable,  completely unmannered individuals. As the first film for both, we can sense a slight streak of amiable amateurishness in their open, honest performances. In each case, the untested attributes work wonderfully for them.

Since they have to carry the film almost exclusively, the rest of the cast kind of fades into the woodwork, and that’s crucial for Let the Right One In to succeed. We don’t need to know more about the group of drunkards frequenting the local hangout, or the cat man living near the scene of a gruesome killing. We could care less about the bully’s far more evil older brother, or the sloppy, slutty woman who becomes an unwitting part of the plot. The main focus of the film stays on the growing infatuation and interlocking need between Oskar and Eli. Everything else is just wicked window dressing. Even better, Alfredson doesn’t skimp on the gruesomeness. The fate of Eli’s first “handler” is illustrated in graphic, gory effectiveness. And one fiend in the making gets a pair of particularly nasty comeuppances.

Indeed, Let the Right One In is almost perfect in its execution and expanse. It’s like watching a work of art come to life before your eyes, minor flaws and ambiguous imperfections intact. It’s the kind of experience that stays with you, growing more and more meaningful as your distance from it dictates. Naturally, Hollywood has stepped in and is currently planning an Americanized remake, complete with CW level talent and, more than likely, a happier, far more upbeat ending. But like other foreign films given over to the unnecessary Tinsel Town treatment, Let the Right One In might survive the translation. If it managed to make it through the literal wasteland that is the vampire genre, it can probably endure anything. 

by Bill Gibron

20 Nov 2008


When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn back in 1996, critics predicted a run on genre-melding movies where established types (the crime thriller) would be married to horror archetypes (in this case, the vampire) to create some intriguing and sparkling new combinations. Sadly, no such macabre renaissance occurred. Fans went back to the surefire recipe of comedy mixed with creepshow, and no one successfully ventured back into the realm of cinematic cross pollination. Now comes Splinter, a nasty little indie splatter job that again sees two on-the-run lowlifes taking a pair of vacationing lovers hostage. What the foursome finds in the isolated wilderness is both incredibly gruesome and undeniably satisfying, especially for fright mavens desperate for a little post-modern monster mashing.

While on an anniversary camping trip, young couple Seth Belzer and Polly Watt run into some tent set-up trouble. Looking for a motel for the night, they fall prey to desperate girl Lacey and her killer boyfriend Dennis. These fugitives from the law need a vehicle, and Seth and Polly become both transporters and convenient captives. A stop off at a local gas station seems normal enough, that is, until Lacey runs into a corpse covered in spines laying on the bathroom floor. After it attacks her, she too becomes a rotting, reanimated monster. Soon Seth, Polly and Dennis are holed up inside, fighting off an onslaught of creatures who want to slaughter and consume their quarry. Even after being mangled and partially destroyed, these beings keep coming - and there doesn’t seem to be a way of stopping them.

If you can get beyond one basic narrative flaw, and a low budget dynamic which provides limited looks at our Bottin-inspired fiends, Splinter will come as a wonderful little fright flick surprise. Directed with an excellent sense of style and suspense by F/X artist Toby Wilkins, what could have been another beast with a bad attitude effort combines the best of zombies, shapeshifters, feigned victim machismo and ample arterial spray to become a minor masterwork. Sure, Wilkins still needs to work on his pacing, and spending too much time with characters who we end up hating more than indentifying with can have an adverse impact on your shivers. But when the overall effect is this gloriously ghastly and unrelenting, you just have to give in to the terror.

Of course, you will have to overcome the advanced wussiness and everpresent whine of Paul Costanzo as Seth. Playing the typical intellectual untouched by the call of nature, this know-it-all nebbish becomes as irritating as a rash once the monsters start showing up. He’s incapable of anything remotely resembling heroics and is constantly upstaged by his strong, centered gal pal. Toward the end, when the threat is becoming a bit too much, Seth grows a pair and starts showing some mantle. But until then, he is the most unlikeable character in the entire film. And for something that has to use every possible cinematic element at its disposal to overcome some definite low budget leanings, this doesn’t help.

Luckily, the rest of the cast steps up to the plate and delivers in evocative and effective ways. Shea Whigham has the mostly thankless role of playing the gun toting bad guy. Yet thanks to some last act reveals and the strength of the performance, we accept his angry young manliness. Rachel Kerbs is also a test as Lacey, but she goes ghoul so quickly that we don’t really mind the momentary lapses into dope addict antics. But it is Jill Wagner who steals the show as Polly. She’s the kind of companion who is as capable of taking a punch as delivering one. At several times throughout Splinter‘s storyline, Wagner has to stand where the men won’t venture. She does so with defiance and a Ripley-like resolve.

And then there’s Wilkins. Clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing and adding in a little of his own old school scare tactics as well, the first time filmmaker shows a real skill at making the mundane seem incredibly scary. During a pre-credits sequence, a gas station attendant is attacked by a seemingly rabid animal. Thanks to editing and shot selection, what could have been silly comes across as ferocious and quite foul. Equally disturbing is the nature of the beast. Even with bodies badly broken and brutalized, these beings keep coming - and Wilkins isn’t afraid to highlight the physical atrocities involved. Gorehounds will absolutely love him for it.

Yet Splinter is not perfect. It’s got the single location standoff down pat, and when the blood starts flowing, it can’t be beat. But Wilkins also seems stifled by the decision to downsize the scope. There is a bit too much time taken up in repetitive conversation, and financial issues keep the creature effects from being utilized sufficiently. In most cases we want more, more, more: more monsters; more attacks; more ass kicking; more action thriller mechanics. This may be the first film in which the polished professionalism of everyone involved becomes addictive - especially in light of its heavy reliance on the trappings of the genre. But money does change everything, for good and for bad. If Wilkins had a few more bucks, maybe Splinter would have suffered for it.

As it stands, this is a solid little gem that should be sought out by anyone who loved the allure of Aliens, the austerity of Assault on Precinct 13 (the original), and the moment when a member of McReady’s crew turned into a upside down spider head. While some may see it as nothing more than a small scale experiment that succeeds more often than it fails, Wilkins work behind the lens suggests something much meatier and more satisfying. With Halloween almost a full month behind us, it may seem like bad timing to try and sell a scary movie. But something like Splinter is so desperate to transcend the type that when it barely manages to do so, we have no choice but to pay attention. It’s definitely worth such a look. 

//Mixed media
//Blogs

Culture Belongs to the Alien in 'Spirits of Xanadu'

// Moving Pixels

"The symbols that the artifact in Spirits of Xanadu uses are esoteric -- at least for the average Western gamer. It is Chinese culture reflected back at us through the lens of alien understanding.

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