Posts Tagged ‘body horror’

Sequence Break (2016)

We’ve finally reached the point in horror filmmaking where directors and writers look back with fondness on the combination of schlock and awe that was 1980s horror. 80s Carpenter brought us The Thing and 80s Cronenberg brought us The Fly, so now we’re beginning to see films so clearly referential to both that they almost don’t need their own plots. Sequence Break from writer/director Graham Skipper, now at Fantasia Fest, is a horrific love letter to the 1980s, complete with pixelated horror graphics and some (very effective) body-horror a la Cronenberg.

This is the story of Oz (Chase Williamson), a young man who works at a shop repairing old arcade games. Informed by his boss that the shop is going to have to close, Oz hightails it to the nearest bar, where he meets fellow gaming enthusiast Tess (Fabianne Theresa), who takes a liking to him. The pair begin a sweet and tentative romance that is interrupted when a mysterious new game appears in the shop (along with a disheveled crazy man who occasionally appears to warn Oz about…something). As Oz becomes increasingly obsessed with the eight-bit video game, his world begins to fragment (literally) blasting him backward and forward in time and space as the game sucks him and Tess ever deeper into the void.

Sequence Break is one of those films with an intriguing premise that never completely pays off. It actually avoids being overly referential to its influences, instead attempting to build a world of its own design and with its own rules. What those rules are, however, becomes increasingly obscure, as the film never manages to create a coherent narrative around the fragmenting of Oz’s world. It’s not linear enough to be a mainstream horror film, but not fragmented enough to achieve the heights of surreal terror that it aspires to. The central romance, while sweet, still has a breath of wish-fulfillment behind it, with Tess almost aggressively pursuing Oz, who shyly ignores her for a good bit of the opening, more or less content in his anti-social world.

Although set in contemporary times, Sequence Break remains solidly enmeshed in 80s technology and culture – even aggressively so, as Oz refuses to buy a cell phone or a laptop. The nostalgic throwback does stand Sequence Break in good stead, with some excellent body horror elements that would make Cronenberg feel squicky. But there’s nothing underlying it. The crazy man prowling the arcade shop at night? Well, he’ll figure in, and you’ll probably be able to predict just how within the first twenty minutes. The melting video game controls that become a stand-in for sexual intercourse? OK, interesting notion, but what are you going to do with it? I can accept the body horror, the physicality of descent into a blank, eight-bit world, if only I managed to find something more than just grossness at the back of that horror. Sequence Break often feels like a film made by people who watched The Fly and Dead Ringers over and over, and never totally got what they meant.

I found I wanted more exposition, not less, to fully understand what was at stake within this narrative. Is Oz becoming the game? Getting pulled into it? Why did it show up when it did? And so forth. But unfortunately, it seems that the actual underlying ethos of the film is pretty trite, as becomes apparent with several revelatory scenes prior to the somewhat inexplicable climax. This has been done before; many times, in fact. While repeating a plot arc that has worked well in the past is far from a crime, Sequence Break never manages to achieve something truly unique. And that’s what it needs: a hook, a unique element that isn’t just about diverging timelines and the occasional nihilistic raving.

Sequence Break does not quite live up to its ambitions. It’s nowhere as shocking as it wants to be, falling back on old, somewhat time-worn tropes of self-realization that are so predictable as to be boring. The eight-bit images flicker across the screen, reminding us of a time when video games were massive things you played at arcades, and movies made do with the limited technology they had. But, really, we’ve seen all this before. Just watch The Fly.

Sequence Break is now showing at Fantasia 2017.

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The Faculty (1998)

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The 90s were a time of some high quality horror movie…somethings. I hesitate to say parodies, because that conjures images of the Scary Movie franchise, so let us say horror movie metas. The first Scream film hit cinemas in 1996, bringing with it a simultaneous celebration and critique of the slasher subgenre, and of the movie brat culture spawned by a generation of fans who knew just a little too much about genre. In Scream’s wake came The Faculty, Robert Rodriguez’s delirious salute to alien invasion films that engages with sci-fi tropes in much the same that Scream did slashers.

The Faculty hits the ground running. We open on Herrington High School during football practice, where Coach Willis (Robert Patrick) loudly abuses his team and flips a table. That’s about all we get to know about the coach, because he’s immediately possessed by a weird alien lifeform. A bit of a bloodbath later, and the opening credits actually roll. The rest of the film hits first on all of the typical high school movie tropes before we return to the aliens: we meet the captain of the football team Stan (Shawn Hatosy), the clever geek Casey (Elijah Wood), the bad boy drug dealer Zeke (Josh Harnett), the bitchy head cheerleader Delilah (Jordana Brewster), the new girl Marybeth (Laura Harris), and the goth girl Stokes (Clea DuVall). As the film goes on, each trope is carefully subverted, fleshing the characters into existence outside of their generic markers. It’s a clever conceit in itself, but one that couldn’t be sustained without those aliens and some good body horror to back it up.

As more and more faculty members fall prey to the parasite, our small band of clichés must come together to defeat the alien menace. A good part of this is figuring out the rules by which the parasites operate, which is where Stokes comes in: a sci-fi geek, she knows everything from The Thing to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the books on which they are based. With her guidance and a bit of luck, the students navigate the changing school and try to suss out how to kill the aliens…preferably without killing everyone else in the process.

While the notion of rules is more thoroughly played out in ScreamThe Faculty is all that it sets out to be. There’s a healthy dose of body horror, indulged in with all the delicious glee that one expects from Rodriguez. The plot certainly borrows heavily from the films that it’s referencing, but that’s to be expected: if you go into The Faculty with the expectation that it will fail to fulfill generic expectations, you will be disappointed. The actors are all game for their roles, but the adults appear to be having a lot more fun than the young people. If you thought you didn’t need Robert Patrick and Piper Laurie as a tag team of malevolence, you were very wrong – they’re delightful. Bebe Neuwirth, Jon Stewart, and Selma Hayek all get in on the action, with Famke Janssen’s mousey English teacher finally letting go in a scene that probably most put-upon professors have dreamt of once in a while. The Faculty gleefully lets the teachers take revenge against bullying students, and then gives the students their chance as well.

While never quite rising to the heights of its meta-movie counterparts, The Faculty succeeds in its project to make an alien invasion film with a difference. It’s simply entertaining, an enjoyable diversion that hits all the right notes. I might not have finished it with the same sense of exhilaration that I did the Scream franchise but damn if it wasn’t fun getting there.

From Beyond (1986)

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It just isn’t Halloween without H.P. Lovecraft. Director Stuart Gordon made his mark with the grossly brilliant Re-Animator, so he got the gang back together for From Beyond, a similarly-toned adaptation of Lovecraft that also succeeds in doing its own, disgusting thing.

From Beyond takes Lovecraft’s short story of the same name and runs with it. Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) creates a machine called the Resonator, meant to stimulate the pineal gland and allow people within the machine’s range to experience a new sixth sense. What it does, however, is reveal that the world around us is populated by weird, nasty beings cut off from the human world by a thin veil that the Resonator pierces. Pretorius is murdered and his assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) driven almost mad with terror. But it doesn’t end there: Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) thinks that she can help Tillinghast by forcing him to relive his experience with the Resonator. Katherine, Tillinghast, and police officer Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) hole up in Pretorius’s old house and start the Resonator again. I think you can imagine what happens from there.

From Beyond is less tongue-in-cheek than Re-Animator; where the latter film created humor by going totally over the top, From Beyond is actually quite subdued in the early sections of the film, establishing a tone more realistic than its sister film. Unfortunately, this means that the latter sections, when the body horror really starts getting good, come off as more serious and the film itself more exploitative. Why we need an extended sequence with Barbara Crampton in bondage gear I do not know, but it’s there and it feels more like the director working out his own kinks than a viable addition to the structure of the movie.

That being said, From Beyond is probably one of the best straight adaptations of Lovecraft I’ve seen. The film develops Lovecraft’s underlying despair, the sense that there is a world beyond our own the very glimpse of which could drive people mad. As with Lovecraft, there is no chance for a happy ending here; just the hope that we might be able to close off our minds from the horror.

I wouldn’t suggest From Beyond to anyone not well-versed in Lovecraft lore (itself an acquired taste). But for any Lovecraft fan, it’s quite an experience. Just be sure to pop in your disc of Re-Animator afterwards.