Archive for July, 2010

Survival of the Dead

2009, US/Canada, Directed by George A Romero

Colour, Running Time: 90 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Optimum; Video: 2.39:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS HD MA

Several days after the dead begin to walk a long running feud on a secluded island results in stubborn rogue Seamus being banished because of his relentless, apathetic drive to despatch all of the island’s wandering corpses, despite objections from family members who refuse to accept that their loved ones are ‘gone’. A few weeks later, back on the mainland, a military man (Alan Van Sprang, playing the same character as that in Diary of the Dead) and his small team of devotees go AWOL and decide the only way to escape the ensuing mayhem is to find an island which they can claim for themselves. Heading out to the harbour after seeing an internet broadcast by Seamus they run into a virtual ambush that sees them the victors. Somehow Seamus survives the body count and manages to beguile and tag along with the team of soldiers as they head out to Seamus’ home island by ferry. There they run head-on back into the same feud that Seamus is still effectively integral to, now somewhat mutated by the fact that half of the populace are currently dead and walking around in a threatening manner…

Poster for Survival of the Dead

For those not in the know, this is Romero’s sixth official zombie movie, following fairly hot on the heals of Diary of the Dead (and paying cool homage to that movie at one point), which itself trailed the fairly popular Land of the Dead. Despite this being a Romero production, written and directed by the man who gave us several genuine classics decades ago, I find this very difficult to consider as part of the official ‘Dead’ series, and the same goes for its aforementioned predecessors too. Almost in similar fashion to how Star Wars fans think of George Lucas’s prequels, these last three films of Romero’s are just not in the same class as the originals (which I only watched about a week ago, for approximately the eleventh time over the years). Land of the Dead I really wanted to like at the time, and gave it the benefit of the doubt by watching it several times over the coming years thinking that perhaps mine was a premature reaction akin to that which Day of the Dead received from a large portion of the fan base twenty years before. I finally gave up trying to like it, and I’m sorry to say I’m not even going to give Survival… the same opportunity. The script is of comparable quality as Land of the Dead (i.e. functional but out of touch and displaying the need to point everything out to a patronised audience) and Romero has clearly lost his feel for extracting superb performances from relatively unknown actors. This new film is mundane in almost every way - it doesn’t look better than much else at the moment, there are very few original ideas in here, and the gore is nice but we saw all this before (and whilst I’m not a ‘CG-knocker’ like many film lovers out there, the man does appear to be utilising computer graphics for the bloody bits a bit too often - is Tom Savini not available anymore?). I came away from the film thinking, what was the point? It’s all just okay: if Romero’s series were being made for TV I could understand - Survival… gives the impression of having a storyline that’s written for such a series rather than having what should be a monumental impact. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t consider this to be a bad film in any sense, but it has no right to be filed alongside Dawn of the Dead (I’m even loathe to mention the first three films in the same review) and could have been shot by any number of very average directors. Some of the poster art and Blu-ray/DVD covers for this film have been pretty cool, but really that’s the only cool thing about it.  Taking the lead from earlier films, there is further indication of an evolutionary aspect whereby some of the islanders have the idea that they can retrain the corpses to eat animals rather than humans - possibly suggesting that ultimately they will turn into us in some form or another, and also resulting in the film’s goriest sequence. Other than that, this seed of an idea doesn’t really go anywhere useful.  Romero tries to suggest he’s in touch with the times by, for example, having the youth who tags along claiming that PCs are out of date as he produces an iPod (or something of the kind) but it just doesn’t wash. Perhaps the storyline suggests that people aren’t willing to get along with their neighbours and that less than amicable situations can lead to ongoing disagreements that can eventually result in death (and beyond in this case); perhaps also Romero relies too much on his now infamous ‘social commentaries’ these days rather than simply trying to make a great film.

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This very ordinary movie is matched by an even more ordinary disc from Optimum - whilst the audio and visual reproduction of this digitally shot movie is very nice in HD, there is absolutely zilch in way of extras. A highly unusual move nowadays and the sceptic may have suspected a better release at some point down the road, a notion confirmed by the recent news that there is going to be an ‘Ultimate Undead Edition’ released by Magnolia in the US by the end of August - this will feature a commentary, documentary, intro by Romero, and a short spin-off film. Despite that, the fairly priced Optimum disc will have to suffice until something better is announced for the UK, though I’m more disappointed by the fact that, in an age of chilling movies like Triangle, the downright disturbing Martyrs, or even the rocking remake of Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s sluggish dead-fest just doesn’t cut it.

Posted on 31st July 2010
Under: Horror | No Comments »

Exorcist II: The Heretic

1977, US, Directed by John Boorman

Colour, Running Time: 113 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Warner; Video: 1.78:1 Anamorphic, Audio: DD Mono

Four years after the supposed exorcism of the demon possessing a young girl by the name of Regan, Father Lamont is assigned to investigate the event to determine whether the priest that was killed at the time was legitimate in his actions. Lamont attends a centre for children with difficulties where Regan is being helped overcome her trauma by Dr Tuskin, a woman who is pioneering the use of a ‘synchroniser’ device that permits a hypnotist to view the same memories as their hypnotised subject. With Lamont present Tuskin takes Regan back to the event of 1973, at which point Tuskin begins to experience irregular heart palpitations that threaten her life. Believing he knows what’s going on Lamont steps in to ‘pull out’ Lamont from Regan’s regressed memory. It becomes a disturbance to him to realise that a demon called Pazuzu is still attempting to break through into the physical world using Regan’s unwitting mind, body and soul.

Watch that dress doesn't blow off in the wind, lady!

The infamous first film was an international success of course, something that was bound to result in a follow up sooner or later. Utilising different writers and director on this project would inevitably produce a different film altogether, and that proved not to be in its favour either. Exorcist II straddles a thick line between being a potentially scary and intelligent movie, possibly in a similar fashion to The Omen a year before it, and being a ridiculous hamfest that can’t get enough right. Too often it falls into the latter category. Richard Burton was brought in to play Father Lament, and lament we should have because his performance here is an over-the-top joke most of the time. Not helped by some of the lines he’s forced to deliver. This is a perfect example of someone attempting to be deadly serious throughout but coming across as a complete prat instead - Patrick Troughton would have (and did) do the same thing with far more potent results. Burton’s hard-edged voice suited something like Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds but here seems at odds with the rest of the cast. Linda Blair returns as Regan natch, now several years older and several times as hot! Her desires to become a critically relevant actress were sadly never to be - she went on to star in the rape-revenge exploitation flick Savage Streets, and average supernatural non-frighteners such as Hell Night and Witchcraft (aka Witchery) but, whilst still vocationally active, I’m sure her career is done no favours by roles in the likes of The Blair Bitch Project! Anyway, she’s functional here though at least is pleasing to look at - one of the few plus points in Exorcist II. What is both compelling and utterly potty is Regan’s possessed equivalent, a poignant creation in The Exorcist to be transformed here into a weirdo fancy dress failure that misses the mark, although not by much. With perhaps a more perceptive director behind the reins (John Boorman was never meant to shoot horror pictures), this film could have perhaps hit a few more of its many targets. One area where its ambition is evident but ultimately not fully realised is a brief exploration of science/religion debates where Lament’s theistic beliefs clash with Tuskin’s resolute attitude towards pragmatic explanation of everything. There are a few other pseudo-intellectual contributions to the script, alas not enough to save the project overall. Similarly there are moments in the African sequences that are quite good in their elaboration of a strange world (I particularly like the idea that one spiritual place has to be reached by climbing between two frightening looking cliffs, the drop below like something out of a nightmare). So, whilst the content itself is not complete rubbish, the execution largely is. Despite this, a shambles was not nearly enough to kill off such a lucrative and notorious franchise as there were several more instalments (the third chapter itself not being bad at all actually) that were to be unleashed on to those wishing to commit self harm.

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Warner’s UK DVD is presented with an anamorphic image containing plenty of SD detail, albeit one lacking contrast (that can be fixed to an extent with one’s AV equipment). Alongside this is a functional mono track with an absence of real impact. There is (as bonus material) an alternative opening segment that wasn’t used for the main feature, and basically has Richard Burton narrating what brings him to his present circumstances, with some shots from the original film to outline this. The theatrical trailer is worth a watch because it’s completely off its head - manic disco music accompanies almost the entire story edited into its two minute timeslot. The film should have killed the series dead, as the first one was the only excellent one of the lot. However, whilst The Exorcist remains a landmark piece of cinema, part 2 is notable for all the wrong reasons unfortunately.

Posted on 24th July 2010
Under: Horror | 1 Comment »

Underworld

2003, US, Directed by Len Wiseman

Colour, Running Time: 139 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, EIV; Video: 2.39:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS

A rivalry between werewolves and vampires that began a millennium ago continues into the present day when it becomes apparent to the coven of vampires that a foreboding ‘lycan’ is killing off the bloodsuckers with a small army and a new weapon. Action vampiress Selene notices that the lycans appear to be pursuing what looks like an ordinary human called Michael and sets out to find out what’s going on - it turns out that Michael is blissfully ignorant himself, until it’s revealed that he’s the unwitting carrier of a unique gene that holds the key to a new hybrid species. Developing mutual attraction, Selene becomes the protector of Michael as both species indulge their interest in him for one reason or another, leading to a bloody subterranean showdown between the ancient rivals.

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When the film was released a few years ago Underworld looked like little more than a popcorn foray into gothic/action horror, one the earlier examples of a contemporary generation that manifests itself to this day with the likes of the Twilight films. The (original) story was a little convoluted and hard to follow considering one would go into something like this expecting to temporarily detach the brain from consciousness and the accomplished visuals gave the impression of an emphasis of style over content. Clearly amassing some popularity, the film has spawned a couple of sequels and has probably proved to be quite influential several years later (contribution towards what is now an unnecessary proliferation of vampire TV and cinema). I always thought it was reasonably entertaining candy for the eyes at best, though that opinion has improved a little thanks to repeat viewings, and more so finally seeing it on Blu-ray. The persistently dark visuals do certainly take centre stage, almost stealing the spotlight throughout, however the story has grown on me over the years. Kate Beckinsale had been around as an actress for a while but it was Underworld that granted her a certain degree of appeal to larger numbers of fans - this is mainly because she is utterly gorgeous as Selene, and dressed in a ridiculously tight spandex/leathery suit that would be welcome in most S&M dungeons (as well as the majority of bedrooms). It also had the unfortunate (from her perspective) side effect of pigeonholing the British actress to a degree, resulting in her repeatedly threatening to quit acting but never quite managing. The rest of the cast do an acceptable job of looking like the yuppie Goth outsiders they’re supposed to be. The action sequences are usually accompanied by machine gunfire exploding from all directions and despite promoting mild excitement these scenes do seem to be aimed mostly at the teen crowd. Special effects tend to be very good and include some excellent werewolf transformations amidst the copious body-dropping, although the revelation of the hybrid creature that feels like it should be climactic turns out to give us a less than powerful disappointment of a monster that was built up by the script but has to have its butt saved by a lady. With a film such as this there are going to be shortcomings from anybody’s point of view, but it does create a tangible world of darkness where humans are rarely seen, incorporating characters wrapped up in their own little soap opera in between bouts of blowing each other away with limitless ammunition. The conclusion sets itself up nicely for the sequel that followed three years later.

Beckinsale, I'm gonna marry ya!

Having watched this on VHS many full moons ago, followed by DVD on a few occasions since, I actually enjoyed Underworld more on Blu-ray than before, probably due to the noticeable enhancements to the image quality. There are fluctuating grain levels but the detail is improved to a point where individual hairs on Beckinsale’s beautiful head are often quite vivid. There isn’t a great range to the palette, which largely consists of blues and blacks, but I suspect the original cinematography is fairly faithfully reproduced. I was disappointed by the lone inclusion of a non-HD DTS track, meaning that the Blu-ray doesn’t offer much of an upgrade audio-wise. This track is foolishly referred to as ‘Dolby Digital 5.1’ in the menu system and EIV’s ignorance extends to the cover details that claim this is ‘anamorphic widescreen’ - anybody who knows anything about the technical specifications of DVD and Blu-ray knows that this refers to the electronic compression/decompression technique employed on DVDs to provide increased resolution for the benefit of widescreen VDU owners - it has no relevance in Blu-ray terminology (though you’ll still see reviewers erroneously say that Blu-rays are presented in anamorphic widescreen) which delivers a resolution most suitable to widescreen displays by default. The disc also seems to be missing an audio commentary, although the rest of the useful extras are still there alongside the fact that the film is presented in its extended cut. EIV took an age to understand the difference between VHS and DVD, so it’s not a surprise to find them a bit slow taking full advantage of superior Blu-ray technology - for example, the US Sony disc comes with an uncompressed 5.1 PCM track. Despite the fact that the release could be better, Underworld on Blu-ray still beats the DVD with the marked improvement in picture quality, and I found the movie itself highly watchable in high definition.

Posted on 17th July 2010
Under: Horror, Other | 2 Comments »

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