Sean K. Cureton

Archive for October, 2015|Monthly archive page

Primordially Post-Modern Horror Comedy

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on October 31, 2015 at 3:41 pm
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Magnet Releasing

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2013)
Directed by Eli Craig
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Following in the path of such iconic horror comedy masterpieces as Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Eli Craig’s directorial debut, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, is a grimy, gory, backwoods horror romp that plays up the genre for all of its very best camp elements. Seemingly set up as an alternative to Tobe Hooper’s cult-classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Craig’s film depicts two hillbilly-esque, country bumpkins, played to greatly sympathetic effect by veteran comic actors Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, as they become the physical manifestations of a rural mythology projected onto them by a troupe of middle-class, college kids. The socio-cultural prejudices that thematically weave throughout the entire film’s fabric are pointedly articulated, though they never entirely rest away the bite of what is a spectacularly violent splatter-fest. Tucker and Dale play their parts meticulously well, only to have the rug tugged out from under them, leaving them to tumble through an increasingly cliché-ridden, albeit self-aware, manifestation of every horror film perhaps too dependent on the very same tropes, pratfalls, and sight gags that lend so easily to thematic comedy. Craig’s film is on a par with other twenty-first century post-post-modern horror comedy gems as Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods, films that have situated themselves as individual entries within an increasingly well-versed community of genre filmmakers willing to exploit the very cinematic traditions that their films simultaneously mock and unambiguously embrace in kind.

As the found footage horror format continues to proliferate in regards to more straightforward horror films, movies like Craig’s work alongside the former productions as the extant remnants of a by-gone era, Tucker & Dale having more in common with such classic scary movies as John Carpenter’s Halloween than it does with the more thoroughly modern Rob Zombie remake. Where filmmakers like Zombie might wish to peel back sheer terror to discover the monster underneath, it is in films like Craig’s where the monsters are more appropriately distanced beneath the veneer of genre conventionalism. Zombie may be a more intellectually nuanced filmmaker at times, but is also a misguided sentimentalist when it comes to interpreting movie monsters with too much sympathy and self-identification. Craig’s film never seeks to find the humanity in its alluded depravity, and in effect makes a monster out of the very same sort of fanatic schlock-devotee that Zombie often comes across as being. Though Tucker & Dale is by no means the most original horror comedy to come out over the past fifteen years, it is an impeccably crafted comic diversion that earns its humor and gore in its honest approach towards the history of the horror movie.

When everything comes to close in Craig’s reimagining of a thoroughly cinematic, hick horror country, all of the pieces and various stereotypes have reached a conclusion entirely expected and predetermined by the prejudices underlying much of the film’s ironic acknowledgement of what has come before. Dale comes away from the film as the hero in a story not all that far divorced from Hooper’s aforementioned terrified tragedy, both Labine and Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface heroes of an unconventional sort. Much of Craig’s film is concerned with the way in which characters in a horror movie are largely expected to fulfill their given role, but in allowing Dale to overcome the monster role to which he has been assigned by the film’s expected victims, he gets the last laugh and rides off into the sunset with the film’s Final Girl, chainsaw still in hand. It would be easy to make very little of such a tired, simple premise, but in Craig’s hands the film engages with its audience in a deceptively playful manner, allowing them to make sweeping generalizations about the cast while also subverting those same expectations in a method entirely consistent with the film’s broadly applied farce. Tudyk and Labine are obviously made to be the butt of each and every joke that occurs, and much of the on-screen gore is hyper-accentuated to surreal effect, making the film hilarious in its various deconstructions of the narrative tradition at play throughout.

Like Goddard and Whedon did with The Cabin in the Woods, Craig takes a lot of the rustic eeriness at play in such classics as Friday the 13th and The Last House on the Left, and subverts those cinematic worlds into a playground for frenetically dangerous comedy to occur. Tucker and Dale eagerly engage with the backwoods psychopathology already resident to the abandoned summer home bequeathed by Tucker’s ambiguous lineage without knowing anything about the history of the horror film. In the absence of fully autonomous movie monsters, the presumed victims of Craig’s film run amok in recreating the very horror stores which have been otherwise supplied to them by an extant culture of horror aficionados, a la Jamie Kennedy in Scream. Every shock gag and blood spurt can be seen from a mile off, though the reaction from each character in the film is where a lot of the precocious fun is had, as the film devolves into a horror film just like any other despite its attempts to do otherwise. For all intents and purposes, Craig has made the seminal anti-horror film in much that same manner that Jackson and Raimi primordially achieved in the late 1980s and early 1990s for the 2000s, the traditionalism inherent to its very construction alternatively funny and genuinely surprising, proving that the horror film is alive and well despite repeated thematic recursion and repetition.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies On Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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Another Stranger in a Strange Land

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on October 17, 2015 at 12:15 pm
The Martian Theatrical Poster

20th Century Fox

The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott
3 out of 4 stars

After the debacle of his ill-conceived, quasi-sequel to Alien, Ridley Scott has returned to the science-fiction genre once more with yet another space odyssey to rival the likes of what has come before. Unlike 2012’s fantasy-fable Prometheus, The Martian, adapted from the novel by real life software engineer Andy Weir, takes on the grandiosity of space travel less as a means for wild extrapolation and adventure but instead examines the real world implications of deep space exploration. In the film, as in Weir’s original novel, NASA astronaut Mark Watney, played in the film by Matt Damon, finds himself stranded on the surface of Mars after a freak sand storm strikes the planet’s surface, and his fellow scientists leave him for dead in a scrum to leave the planet’s immediate atmosphere. The rest of the film then becomes a Robinson Crusoe travelogue of sorts, with Watney speaking directly into a camera in order to record his day-to-day ordeals and brief spates of existential terror. Written and produced by film and TV veteran Drew Goddard, Weir’s novel becomes a wondrous love letter to outer space as it has been seen on film, even as Scott makes a bold departure from the horror and turmoil of such past successes in the genre as Alien and Blade Runner, Mark Watney a more willing and self-assured protagonist capable of overcoming overwhelming odds in a world more akin to our own.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Scott’s new film is the optimism and enthusiasm it holds for the human spirit, and collaborative innovation in general. Where Ellen Ripley was prototypically required to play the role of the “Final Girl” in a franchise that become dependent on horror movie tropes, and Rick Deckard was crippled with philosophical ponderings over the fundamentals of human consciousness, Watney is freed from such genre-based thematic recursions, and instead focuses on surviving as yet another stranger in a strange land. In Goddard’s script, the film’s narrative beats are empathetically articulated, playing upon the heartstrings and steadfastness of an utterly American spirit seemingly imbued into the film’s very fabric. Over the past half century, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact have rendered the science-fiction genre on film self-involved and overly concerned with answering grandly spiritual questions. Shirking off the legacy of said contemporary classics, Goddard and Scott have delivered a new film more akin to the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, films where deep space holds a little danger that always gives way to the endurance and ingenuity of the human mind and soul.

Damon plays a credible NASA astronaut living well into the twenty-first century in Scott’s new film, predominantly due to his unwillingness to be beaten by an apparently inhospitable environment otherwise intent on breaking his will to live. In Watney’s refusal to be defeated by his circumstances from the very start of the film, Weir’s original space epic becomes one about the individual innovation, hard science-based facts, and just the slightest bit of bureaucratic negotiation. In Goddard’s script, Watney’s journey for survival is never fantastically imagined, and no supernatural or surreal elements ever seek to influence and corrupt his reading of the events that continue to surround him, neither directly nor indirectly. Likewise, the men on the ground at NASA in the film never become entirely defeated by the obstacles that they are forced to overcome and address across a chasm of deep space, even as they grow embittered over how best to go about solving Watney’s central dilemma. The film thus becomes akin to the literary tradition set by Daniel Defoe in the early eighteenth-century, Watney a modern day Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on his very own island of sorts, even if his struggles have abandoned a metaphorical God in favor of rational realism and critical thinking.

Alien was a fundamental shift in the very nature of how science-fiction films were constructed and told to their audiences, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it. In both films, certain dramatic and thematic tropes were introduced by which the loneliness of deep space exploration might be examined here on earth, the vast expanse of interstellar space both inspiring and alienating. In space, no one can hear you scream, as Ellen Ripley so infamously found out, and necessity of survival at all costs becomes an impending threat and boon alike. Enter Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut readily aware of the dangers inherent to his small step onto the surface of Mars, but willingly takes several subsequent leaps and bounds for mankind. Scott’s titular Martian is therefore a surprising entity in his authentic humanity, neither a machine nor an extraterrestrial monster, but instead an inspiring avatar for those of us eager to reach out and discover the unknown despite the odds.