Review : Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was directed by Tobe Hooper and was released in 1974. The film is a classic, vastly considered one of the best horror films ever made. Let’s be a bit controversial : I am one of those rare people who dislike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That being said, let me explain why !

The story is extremely simplistic : Two siblings visit their grandfather’s grave in Texas along with three of their friends and are attacked by a family of cannibalistic psychopaths. The plot is basic and it won’t get any more interesting than that. I have watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre twice. The first time, I hated it and thought it was very bad. I still have some difficulties understanding why it is held in such high regards. I watched it a second time for the purpose of this review (which is dedicated to my friends Brandon and Derek who were shocked to find out how much I dislike this classic).

First, the cinematography and directing are no very good and the camera work is rather amateurish. The documentary style didn’t give a realistic feel to the story, in my opinion. I thought it was a poor excuse for mediocre filmmaking. I especially disliked the excessive use of zoom-ins and close-ups. They are badly made and Hooper overuses them to the point where it is simply annoying to look at. “Excessive use” is the expression that best sums up Hooper’s directing : if he finds one gimmick, you can be sure he’s going to use it to death. And that is a shame really, because there are indeed some good shots and some good ideas in this film. But repetition kills it all. For instance, the sunset shot at the end of the film in which Leatherface is swinging the chainsaw is amazing. Problem is, Hooper has used “sunset shots” numerous times in the film before so when you reach the ending, the effect feels old and loses its full impact. Hooper also has a tendency to drag sequences out until it becomes so boring you want to bang your head against the wall praying that the film will finally move on. The best example of that problem is the sequence in which Leatherface is chasing Sally in the woods. At first, it is quite scary and you do feel Sally’s raw terror. But, as usual, the chase is so damn long that it gets really boring and you are just hoping Leatherface will catch up to her and kill her so she quits screaming so goddamn much ! Oh, and did I mention the editing is atrocious throughout the entire film ? Well, it is.

Let’s talk a little bit about the characters. First, we have Franklin, Sally’s paraplegic brother. The idea is that Franklin is annoying and a burden for his sister and friends, mainly due to his handicap (Hooper is an asshole for implying that handicapped people who don’t have a choice but to rely on others for simple tasks are an annoyance). The main problem is that, either by acting or writing, Paul A. Partain doesn’t portray Franklin as an annoying brother but as a cringe-worthy 4-year-old brat. His performance is laughable, not because there is humor in it, but because it ridiculous and embarrassing. Then, there’s Sally. Oh, Sally ! How I hate this girl ! I’m almost disappointed that Leatherface didn’t cut her into pieces. Starting at 52:00 (yes, I wrote it down), 98% of Sally’s lines consist in screaming, screaming and more screaming. Who thought having her scream for the majority of the film was a good idea ? I never want my poor ears to endure this torture ever again. The siblings’ friends are forgettable so let’s not waste time on them. Let’s focus on the infamous family of psychos. First, we have The Hitchhiker. It is hard to decide who gives the worst performance in this film, but he and Franklin are at the top of the list. His portrayal of a deranged man is over-the-top, stupid, cringe-worthy and his actions don’t make sense most of the time. He is a caricature of a crazed man. And then, there’s Leatherface, who is a horror icon. Visually, he is indeed quite scary. He has a massive stature, a terrifying mask and a freaking chainsaw. But, there is one thing that absolutely destroyed his aura : there is a scene where he talks. Well, not exactly talks but makes sounds and mumbles a few words. I really, really, advise you to find the scene online to see what I mean when I say that his voice is ridiculous. He has a high-pitched voice that you’d expect from a little girl, not a big dude like Leatherface.

There is also one character who I simply don’t get : the grandfather. I do understand he is supposed to be very old but is he some sort of zombie ? He looks like a corpse and drinks blood. If he is just supposed to be a very old man, then his costume and face make-up (or mask, rather) are horrible. If he is “something else”, then how does that fit in with the rest of the film ? A film, may I remind you, that presents itself as a documentary-like experience to immerse you in real terror (real as in realistic).

Now, let’s not be hypocritical : The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has good scenes. While I really don’t like that film and can’t see what is supposed to be so great about it, I can’t say it is the worst film I’ve ever seen (because it’s not). I do admire the fact that you feel like you’ve seen a very gory film when in fact, the violence is not often shown on screen. The sunset shot at the end is beautiful…and..that’s pretty much it !

Before concluding my review, here are a few other things I wrote down about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while I was watching it : Leatherface’s entrance is underwhelming and badly edited ;  the dinner scene which starts out great by giving a sense of surreal madness lasts too long for its own good and ends up being boring, stupid and headache-inducing ; why does the dinner scene take place at night but when Sally escapes, it is daytime ? ; the ending is abrupt, there is no fade to black, did they forget to properly edit it ?

I know the majority of cinephiles will highly disagree with my review of this beloved classic. However, I think I have given enough reasons why I don’t like the film not to be called a simple “hater”. I know how important this film is and what it did for the genre. But I do feel a lot of people say they like the film just because it is a classic. I do not like Tobe Hooper’s filmmaking to begin with, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a good example why : I think it is badly made, badly edited, the characters are awful and so is the acting. I will certainly not be watching this crap ever again !

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Review : The Host / 괴물 (2006)

The Host was directed by the talented Bong Joong-Ho and released in 2006. Bong Joong-Ho wrote the script of The Host during the filming of Memories of Murder.

The Host is about a monster living in the Han river in Seoul (created by the disposal of dangerous chemicals into the river). Our main character is Park Gang-du, a simple-minded man who runs a snack-bar near the river, with his father. Park Gang-du also has a daughter, Hyun-seo, and two siblings who he is not very close with. The monster emerges from the river, destroys everything in its path while killing people and abducting others. When Hyun-seo is taken by the creature, her family does everything in their power to find her and bring her home.

The Host is not a simple creature feature. Instead, it is both a family drama and a social commentary on governments (not specifically about Korea as I fear this applies anywhere). This is what I enjoyed the most about The Host : it is more than meets the eyes. The creature has an elaborate design but unfortunately, the CGI doesn’t look good. Surprisingly, the creature is not the focus of the film (and with the low CGI quality, it is indeed a good thing).

The family we follow throughout the film is dysfunctional : they are poor, the older son is unemployed, the sister is a failed athlete and the main character, Park Gang-du is described as having a mental disability due to childhood events. Watching the members of this family become a true unit in the midst of tragedy is moving. It is when they lose what is the most important thing in the world (Park Gang-du’s young daughter) that they all realize that they must come together and fight. It is also a bit sad whenever people have to go through tragic events to realize that nothing is more important than family. Their journey to this realization is not done in a typical drama fashion. As expected from such a great director, the emotion is well balanced and feels real.

However, I had an issue with the tone which lasted for the majority of the film : the humor is grotesque and feels forced. We have characters falling down for the sake of looking stupid, some lines meant to be funny but seem forced and actors who are often overreacting. I think the humor was not necessary and actually hurt the story a bit.

The Host is not about a family fighting a monster. Instead, they are fighting the government who is more threatening and dangerous than the creature itself. First off, it is incredible (but not far fetched) that the government, via the military with heavy weaponry, is unable to kill a creature who isn’t bigger than a whale. Rather than being unable to, the authorities seem unwilling to. Also, while trying to save Hyun-seo, her father, uncle and aunt find themselves having to run from government scientists and the military. Bong Joong-Ho succeeds in showcasing governments’ inaction and willingness to put citizens in danger to serve their own needs in times of crisis.

While the survival of Hyun-seo was a bit unbelievable, The Host is an enjoyable (and most of all, smart) creature feature who focuses on its characters. I didn’t like The Host nearly as much as Memories of Murder, though it is well-directed. While it is a good film, it belongs in the “mainstream entertainment” category, as far as I’m concerned. 

 

Review : Memories of Murder / 살인의 추억 (2003)

Memories of Murder was directed by Bong Joong-Ho and released in 2003. The film is based on a true story that occurred between 1986 and 1991 in the Gyeonggi province. Ten women were raped and murdered in a 2km radius. The culprit has never been found. Memories of Murder is often considered to be the film which started a new wave in Korean cinema.

The film begins in 1986, the body of a young woman is found. She has been raped and murders. A couple of months later, similar crimes occurr and a pattern emerges : the killer strikes on rainy nights and is at first targeting women wearing red clothing. Two local detectives, Park Doo-Man and Jo Young-Go, are in charge of the investigation. Their violent and questionable methods, coupled with a good degree of incompetence, prevents them from finding concrete evidence that could help getting closer to the killer. They are joined by Seo Tae-Yoon, a police officer from Seoul who recently transferred. The film follows the trio during their investigations from 1986 to 1991.

I am new into the world of Korean cinema and so far, with each film I have watched, I am mesmerized by the beautiful cinematography that only Korean directors seem to be able to capture. Bong Joong-Ho uses a lot of long shots, the camera switching from character to character in one unique shot. The film is extremely well directed and shot.  Though the film takes place in one village, Bong Joong-Ho offers a wide variety of locations, which are clearly chosen carefully.

The performances are excellent, from the main characters to the extras. The casting director did an excellent job choosing people with memorable faces or features, even for small roles. Every single person you see on screen stays on your mind. The three main characters are all great and interesting in their own way. I especially loved to witness how their relations evolved during the course of the investigation.

Another thing Bong Joong-Ho did beautifully : mixing the tones. The film has humor, especially in the first act. The two local cops and some of the suspects are funny and some scenes are really comedic. But the tone gets darker and darker as the story unfolds. Yet, neither the humor nor the tragedy feel out of place or forced. I usually complain when films switch tones too drastically or too frequently but here, it reaches perfection.

The film is also a time capsule, depicting life in rural Korea in the 1980’s. I don’t know Korean history enough to properly analyze the context of the film, so I will not do it injustice by attempting it. Memories of Murder is perfectly directed, the acting is superb, the visuals are beautiful and the ending is both beautiful and tragic. I cannot recommend it enough. Please watch this masterpiece !

 

Review : Rose Red (2002)

Rose Red is not exactly an adaptation as it is not based on a Stephen King book. King actually wrote the screenplay of this mini-series. The series premiered on ABC in January 2002. The story is divided into three parts, each taking place in present time with flashbacks in the early 1900’s.

Dr. Joyce Reardon, an unorthodox university psychology professor, leads a team of psychics to the massive and antiquated Seattle mansion known as Rose Red in an attempt to record data which would constitute scientific proof of paranormal phenomena. The mansion is publicly thought to be haunted, as at least 23 people have either disappeared or died there and the interior of the house appears to change or increase in size, yet only from the inside. Reardon’s team awakens the evil spirit possessing the house, leading to several deaths and the revelation of the mansion’s deadly secrets. (source : Wikipedia)

I have mixed feelings about Stephen King’s Rose Red. I did enjoy the series but I admit my attention dropped when I reached the 3-hour mark (the entires series is around 4 hours long and I don’t recommend watching it in one sitting, like I did). There is plenty of good things about Rose Red, and just as many bad things.

The location is great, the house’s exterior is both inviting and unsettling. The mansion looks nice and luxurious but as most of those huge properties (at least, in my opinion), “haunted” is written all over it. I was quite impressed how they shot scenes to give the illusion that Rose Red is in the middle of Seattle. It works perfectly. The set design is also fantastic and you feel as lost as the characters inside those endless halls.

I really enjoyed the structure of the story. The flashbacks were well integrated and I liked how they took place whenever a character is explaining the story of Rose Red. It flows really well. My main complaint is that we don’t see the ghosts nearly enough. Their make-up was great and some of them are genuinely scary. The house itself is a character, which unfortunately gets more attention than the ghosts themselves.

But what really, really doesn’t work in Rose Red is the characters. There is too many of them and not a single one is worth caring about or even remotely interesting. The worst of them all is Emery, who has visions. I have no idea what Matt Ross thought he was doing but he gave one of the worst performances ever. I still wonder what is the deal with this stupid disgusted look he has in almost every single scene ! His character is annoying in essence but also to simply look at. The little girl, who is supposed to be autistic, shows autistic traits only when it serves the story. She speaks a few words, then is only capable of making sounds and pointing. The rest of the cast, including the main character (the doctor who goes insane a la Moby Dick), are forgettable.

Overall, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Rose Red. The story behind the house’s dark secrets is interesting…way more interesting than what is happening to the characters in present time. The ghosts are great, though I wished they had more screen time. I recommend watching Rose Red but do yourself a favor and pause between each part.

 

Review : Ju-On (The Grudge) / 呪怨 (2002)

Ju-On : The Grudge was directed by Takashi Shimizu and released in 2002. The film is part of the Ju-On franchise which consists in 12 feature films (9 japanese productions and 3 american ones). Ju-On is based on Japanese folklore and more specifically on the Kayako urban legend about a woman murdered by her husband who comes back as a vengeful ghost.

Volunteer social worker Rika stumbles across the curse when she finds an almost catatonic old woman in a shambles of a home, a spooky little boy with a froggy voice and a veritable black hole of a phantom that seems to be sucking the life from the old lady. The story then jumps back and forth along the timeline in a series of chapters named for the characters haunted and hunted by the unsettled souls. (source : Wiki Asia)

Ju-On takes the concept of a haunted house to a whole new level. As in many Japanese horror films, what stands out the most is the creepy and unsettling atmosphere. It is well-directed and every ghost apparition is shot in the most frightening way possible. The pacing is slow but it works much better than Ringu, in my opinion. The slow rhythm of the film only increases the fear in anticipation of what’s coming next. I thought it never disappointed. The scenes which were meant to scare…frightened me beyond belief ! You won’t look at staircases or beds the same way after watching Ju-On.

The story is told in chapters, each one focusing on different characters. This is a minor flaw as I found it sometimes difficult to sympathize with characters you know you’re not going to spend too much time with. The storytelling is overall a bit chaotic.

The most important part of Ju-On is, of course, the ghosts. Their “design” is so simple that it is genius. They are just people with white make-up on. But Shimizu focuses on one element, which alone constitutes the scariest feature of the ghosts : the eyes. Oh, those eyes ! Oh, the horror ! I still get chills just thinking about them. Every single scare is accompanied by effective sounds which will make your skin crawl.

Though the structure of the film is all over the place, Ju-On is a fantastic film. It is, along with Ringu, a great entry to discover J-Horror. I highly recommend it.

 

Review : Pet Sematary (1989)

Pet Sematary was written by Stephen King in 1983 and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1986. The film adaptation was directed by Mary Lambert based on a script written by King himself and was released in 1989.

The Creed Family (Louis, Rachel and their two children) move from Chicago to a small town in Maine. They become friends with their neighbor, Judd, who lives across the road from the new Creed’s house. One day, Judd shows them the nearby pet cemetery (misspelled sematary by the children who created it). The legend says that beyond the pet cemetery, remains an old indian burial ground. When the deceased are buried there, they come back to life. When the daughter’s beloved cat is killed, Louis decides to bury the pet on the burial ground…soon after, the cat comes back to life but does not seem to be himself. Not long after, the Creed face the greatest tragedy of them all : their young boy, Gage, is hit by a truck and dies. Devastated, the father decides to perform the same ritual. But just like Church the cat, Gage isn’t himself anymore…and the horror ensues !

Pet Sematary deals with a heavy subject and is the saddest King adaptation I have watched thus far. Mary Lambert did an especially good job at mixing a sense of realism with fantastical elements, which blend perfectly and emphasize the story. 

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is always a difficult time. Losing a child might just be the greatest tragedy anyone could face. Wouldn’t you try bringing a loved one back if there was a slight chance it might work ? Even knowing the person wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t you still hope and try anyway ? Those are some of the questions raised by Pet Sematary. 

Though the film has great characterization and a story revolving around grief, it also gives us all that is needed to be a great horror film. For example, there is a story about the mother’s past which offers frightening scenes and haunting imagery. And let’s not forget the disfigured ghost who is haunting Louis.

Pet Sematary is well directed, the locations are great, the performances are stellar and the story is both tragic and scary. It is not only one of the best Stephen King adaptations, it is also one of the best horror film of the 80’s.

Review : Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is a short story written by Stephen King and first published in a 1970’s issue of the Cavalier magazine. In 1978, it was included in King’s collection of short stories, Night Shift. The film adaptation, directed by Ralph S. Singleton, was released in 1990.

In an old textile mill infested by rats, a worker dies during his night shift, attacked by an unknown assailant. A drifter passing through town and looking for a job is hired to replace him. The sadistic mill owner gathers a crew of workers to clean the rat-infested basement to avoid permanent closure. While there, they find a tunnel which they believe will lead them to the rats’ nest. When they go down there, they find something entirely different and far scarier than rats.

The premise of the film would let you expect an entertaining creature feature but unfortunately, the result is a disappointing and frustrating experience. Let’s get the obvious out of the way : Graveyard Shift is among the bad films based on Stephen King’s work. Its main problem resides in its characters. While the main character, his love interest and most of all the exterminator played by Brad Dourif are interesting enough to keep you watching, the rest of the characters range from stupid to incoherent.

The one (and only) memorable aspect of Graveyard Shift is its setting. Once the characters go down inside the tunnels, you are greeted by a great set. This labyrinth of tunnels with rooms filled with skeletons creates a creepy atmosphere.

The creature captures the essence of the film : disappointing and poorly made. The giant rat/bat hybrid works in earlier scenes when we only get a glimpse at the creature and I actually really liked the scene where the shape of a victim is visible through the monster’s transparent wing. However, once the creature is fully revealed, it loses its appeal and the climax falls short.

I could write more about Graveyard Shift and list all its flaws such as the worker screaming every time he uses a hose (I genuinely wanted to kill him myself) or the mill boss’s actions which made no sense. But I think you already have a general idea of the quality of this film : while not the worst movie I have seen, it is still pretty bad.