Tuesday, 4 September 2007

1408 (Mikael Hafstrom, 2007)

I've seen an awful lot of Stephen King adaptations over the years. Some of them (Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror masterpiece 'The Shining' for example,) are simply brilliant. Others (such as Mick Garris's 1997 TV miniseries 'The Shining') are, well, not. If all these movies were set out in a line, from absolute worst to absolute best, (and believe me, I'm tempted to try this); 1408 would probably come out somewhere just over half-way. You could say it's nowhere near as good as The Shining; on the other hand, it's an awful lot better than... The Shining.

At first glance, the premise seems worryingly familiar. Troubled writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a bit morose and sorry for himself. Probably because, being a writer in a Stephen King story, he's a bit of a stereotype. And because he has a mysteriously troubled family background, about which he will never speak. No, Mr Enslin would rather spend his time telling everyone he meets that he doesn't believe in ghosts. Which seems a slightly self-destructive career move for a man who makes his living writing guides to America's most haunted places However, Enslin's eyes are well and truly opened when he spends a night in a hotel room that is, for want of a better word, a bit evil.

For the first hour or so, this film is actually far better than the premise suggests. In fact, it's bordering on awesome. The performances from Cusack and the (tragically underused) Samuel L. Jackson are solid, while the atmosphere and pacing lead to some scares that are genuinely unsettling. It's rare nowadays to see a Hollywood horror movie that relies on suggestion and the build-up of tension to deliver its scares and sadly, about half-way through, the studio appears to have realised this and bottled out.

The second half of the film, then, falls back on the usual noughties horror staples of loud noises, over-the-top effects and plot twists so incomprehensible they had the audience blinking at each other in disbelief. That's not to say it's dreadful, merely disappointing.

Overall, 1408 is a pretty watchable movie. Great performances by Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, coupled with atmosphere, tension and some genuinely scary moments make for an entertaining watch. With a better-developed plot and a more satisfying conclusion, it could have been as good as, well, The Shining.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Snowbeast (Herb Wallerstein, 1977)

In the immediate wake of Jaws, a whole bunch of mad-animal-on-the-loose movies burped out of the depths of low-budget movieland. No environment was left unplundered, including, in this cheerfully wretched effort, ski resorts.

The plot follows Jaws fairly devotedly... Monster kills holidaymaker at a crucial point of the tourist season. Business forces behind the resort decide to keep it open. Local law enforcement produce a corpse of something much smaller, and give the all clear. A couple of savvy individuals know what’s up, and decide to track the beast themselves.

But never before has the plot of Jaws been told using quite so much footage of amateur-level skiing.

The scene is set by showing cast members skiing, with cheerful music underscoring the action.

The tension is cranked up by showing cast members skiing, with sinister music underscoring the action.

The race to find the beast is brought to life by showing cast members skiing, with fast paced music underscoring the action.

One of the only truly remarkable things about SnowBeast is how, given quite how much time the cast and crew evidently spent skiing during the shoot, they managed to remain so resolutely mediocre at it; moving at slow speeds and falling over at random intervals.

Our main man in this particular epic is Bo Svenson, who puts in an endearingly wooden performance as Gar, a former skiing champion who hasn’t strapped on the planks for a few years due to fear of failure. Needless to say, he overcomes this phobia at around the mid-point of the flick, enabling the camera to linger on yet more skiing. The Snowbeast itself, you ask? Ah, well, apparently it’s a shaky POV camera. Once or twice it’s a furry arm. And in a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots, a guy in a furry jacket. But nearly always it’s a shaky POV camera.

There’s hardly any blood on display in SnowBeast, probably due to a general awareness during production that this sucker was likely to go to TV and not many other places, but it has a sort of sweetness that you can’t help warming to. A man covets another man’s wife; she explains the situation, he nods understandingly and they agree to remain ‘friends forever’. It comes across rather like a horror movie written by a particularly soppy eight-year old girl.

SnowBeast may prove somewhat tricky to track down in the UK, but for those who desperately want to experience it, here’s a tip. Simply watch Ski Sunday, but turn the volume down and play the Jaws soundtrack over the top instead.
You’ll get the general idea.

Bug Buster/Some Things Never Die (Lorenzo Doumani, 1998)

Bug Buster is a Randy Quaid vehicle that Randy Quaid couldn't even be fucked to appear in for more than 10 minutes. Life doesn't get any better than that, does it? No matter how much we get down on our knees and pray, it still never seems to get any better.

Title change between US and UK release? Check. Cameos from genre stalwarts? Check. Rip-offs of scenes from good flicks, but reshot with all their good qualities removed? Oh, check. Big check. Count on it.

Our flick begins with a reconstruction of what the opening scene from 'Jaws' would have looked like if it had been shot by somebody with severe brain damage. The low-budget equivalent of a pretty girl beckons her boyfriend to go skinny-dipping. Then leaves her swimsuit on. They head into the water... He gets attacked by something unseen beneath the surface. Next thing we know, she is getting patched up by a nurse. In a vet's. Presumably because that's the only set that was handy.

Just in case we didn't get this subtle nudge to a classic, Scotty from Star Trek pops up a scene later to ask everyone, 'Haven't you seen Jaws?'. Cheers, Mr Doohan. I don't think I'd have got that without your help. Oh, but just in case, they throw in a reconstruction of the 'caught the wrong beast' scene.

Katherine Heigl, as the bug-phobic leading lady (yes, despite the Jaws homage, this is a big bug movie) is the kind of actress who tends to make previously intelligent, articulate straight males make strange bubbling noises and inappropriate gestures with their hands. Doumani is well away of this, and chooses to repeat one piece of footage of her lying in bed on no less than three occasions. OK, she happens to be covered with crawling bugs at the time, but she still looks foxy. She's also one of those utterly charming leading ladies who falls in love with the leading man just because he happens to be able to walk, talk and metabolise. One grunted half-conversation, and he's the only man for her.

Elsewhere, George Takei tries to provide moral support to fellow ex-Trek stalwart Doohan, by standing in a different set to everybody else and shouting incoherently down the telephone before getting squished.

And then, ten minutes before the whole thing lumbers to a cack-handed climax, Randy Quaid turns up, doing an impression of the John Goodman spider-buster in 'Arachnophobia'. Looking delighted to not have appeared in the movie so far, Quaid brings a slight second-wind to the proceedings by having a fist-fight with a cheap-looking, wonky-eyed puppet.
'Bug Buster' has been clumsily re-titled as 'Some Things Never Die' in the UK, and packaged as a more 'serious' sci-fi/ horror effort than it is. One for four in the morning, then.
On cable.
And drugs.