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Clare KramerClare Kramer - "The Thirst" Movie - Nytimes.com Review
Tuesday 12 June 2007, by Webmaster
IF you’re one of those troubled creatures who lurk around the nethermost shelves of the video store, you already know one of Hollywood’s dark secrets: Every year scores of horror movies never make it to the screen at all and are instead dumped right onto the DVD market, where they earn a total of about $150 million a year. According to a trailer from Lionsgate, which last fall packaged some of these DVD releases as an “After Dark HorrorFest: Eight Movies to Die For,” this is because the content of certain movies is “considered too graphic, too disturbing and too shocking for general audiences.” Only Lionsgate, the trailer went on to say, had “defied the system” by delivering such material right to the home DVD player.
This marketing scheme was so successful, bringing in more than $10 million, that the company plans to repeat it again next fall, but just a moment’s reflection suggests that it’s pretty specious. In the era of “Saw” and “Hostel,” of the remade “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” how could anything be more graphic, more disturbing, more shocking than what we already see in the theaters? Are there any limbs filmmakers have yet to lop off, any gruesome tortures still untried? Is there a power tool that hasn’t yet been deployed in a fashion that Black & Decker never envisioned?
The truth is that many horror movies are never intended for the big screen in the first place; they’re low-budget quickies meant to squeeze a few more bucks from the zombie franchise, say, or from viewers who can’t get enough of machete-wielding guys in masks. Many others are not released simply because they’re too crummy, even by the not very high standards of the genre. They’re horror movies, all right, but in a different sense of the term. What they elicit in the viewer is not the classic pity and fear but wincing embarrassment. For the studios, however, they’re a relatively low-risk investment: You never know when, for just a couple of million bucks, someone will make a “Saw.”
I recently indulged in an orgy of watching horror DVDs, including several over Memorial Day weekend while my family was at the beach. They came back tan and with healthy appetites. I was pale, clammy and unable to contemplate food that was even medium rare. In retrospect I have trouble keeping straight all the casts and plotlines. Is it Cambodian scorpions that turn you into a zombie, or snorting too much Trioxin-5 disguised as a rave drug? But certain themes, devices and principles stand out, and may serve as a guide, or a warning, to viewers contemplating a similar splurge.
To begin with, horror movies that quote the Bible should be avoided at all costs. Press stop and eject immediately. “Diary of a Cannibal,” directed by Ulli Lommel, opens with a quote from John 6:56: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood. ...” and also, in an instance of severe scriptural overload, includes citations from Ecclesiastes, Colossians and Galatians. The movie, which might better be called “Babette’s Really Bad Feast,” is the story of a couple who meet on the Internet and fall so deeply in love that he asks her to cook and eat him, and she agrees. I am giving nothing away here because the movie is told mostly in flashback, and we know the end almost from the beginning. The only suspenseful element is not whether she succeeds but how she prepares him. Badly, it turns out, with an electric knife, a gas grill and no seasoning. In the cannibalism department, she is no Hannibal Lecter.
The movie succeeds only in being both dull and dumb, but what has gone wrong, one suspects, is that it has art-house pretensions; in additional to the scriptural citations, there are scenes of lambs being slaughtered and even some crucifixion imagery. Lesson No. 2, therefore, is that artiness should also be avoided in horror movies.
Artiness is not quite the same thing as knowingness, though. That the makers of these films have either been to film school or have studied, in Tarantino fashion, every B-movie ever made is pretty much a given, and many of them are stuffed with cinematic allusions. Often these references are annoying or distracting. The one decent scene in Brian Yuzna’s “Beneath Still Waters,” a Lovecraftian tale about a drowned demonic village, is an orgy, complete with bare-breasted nuns, that practically shouts “Fellini!” But sometimes little touches work to good effect. Patrick Dinhut’s “Dead and Deader,” for example - a so-called “zomedy,” or comic zombie flick - includes an amusing interlude in which two characters, one a film student the other a zombie himself, debate the merits of George Romero’s original “Dawn of the Dead” and its various remakes. Craig Singer’s “Dark Ride” is full of Tobe Hooper echoes, and a clue to the identity of the bad guy is that he’s a film buff with an unhealthy interest in “Final Cut,” Steven Bach’s book about the making of “Heaven’s Gate.”
Out-and-out pretension is something else, and it’s one of the many problems that afflict “The Thirst” by Jeremy Kasten, a vampire movie that tries to say something smart about the connections among vampirism, sexuality and drug addiction but becomes mired in murky lighting, weird camera angles, an incomprehensible plot and gross special effects that almost qualify as not fit for general consumption. (The vampires here don’t nip your neck. They rip your throat out so that you bleed like a geyser. It’s not scary, just disgusting.) Wandering through this mess with an on-again, off-again Transylvanian accent is Jeremy Sisto as a campy, long-dead vampire named Darius. Viewers who don’t recognize the name will instantly know him as Brenda’s unbalanced brother, Billy, from “Six Feet Under.” He is one of several almost-brand-name actors who turn up in these DVDs looking a little frantic, as if wondering, “What did my agent get me into this time?”
Another is Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Meadow on “The Sopranos,” the heroine of “Dark Ride” who gives a performance so much more accomplished than the rest that it’s as if she stumbled in from a different movie altogether - perhaps “Cleaver,” her cousin Christopher’s magnum opus.
Kane Hodder, who plays the title character in “Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield,” about a real-life killer who was the inspiration for the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” would be more familiar to viewers if his greatest role hadn’t required him to wear a goalie mask: He was the last and the best of the Jasons in the “Friday the 13th” series. Here, in a movie that’s overly drawn out and predictable (if your mother tortures you every time you masturbate, what else are you going to be but a serial killer?), he too seems a little out of place. Maybe he should consider more nonspeaking roles.
“Dark Ride,” which was one of the original “After Dark HorrorFest” films, also suffers from a noticeably undernourished budget. The set, an abandoned amusement park ride in Asbury Park, N.J., is cheesy, and the special effects are few and unconvincing; a head that gets split in two is transparently papier-mâché. Poor head-substitution similarly mars an otherwise promising ceiling-fan decapitation in “Dead and Deader.” And in the same movie when a zombie gets his hand stuck in a meat grinder, it’s laughably clear that he’s simply wearing a coat with an extra-long sleeve. A single hangar in that film has to pass for an entire army base, which is better, I guess, than the college campus in the exceedingly lame “Killer Bash,” about a murderous fraternity of guys who are always shirtless, where the dormitories, administration offices and gym are all housed in a single building.
The skimpiness of the sets in so many of these films, and the paltry number of extras, makes you appreciate the genius of the original “Saw,” which made a virtue of minimalism by filming most of the story in a single rust-stained bathroom. John Gulager’s “Feast,” by far the best of the DVDs I saw, similarly observes the Aristotelian unities, and takes place in real time, more or less, from dusk to dawn, entirely inside a bar besieged by a family of man-eating aliens.
Fans of “Project Greenlight,” the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon reality show that dangled a bankroll to emerging indie talent, may recall that Mr. Gulager and his project were the third-season winners. The movie was subsequently picked up by the Weinstein brothers, who gave it a few midnight screenings before dumping it to disc. On the evidence of “Feast,” however, Mr. Gulager is unlikely to languish on home video. His movie is smart, scary, energetic and introduces a brand new weapon into the alien arsenal: copious amounts of green projectile vomit.
“Feast” is also funny, a trait it has in common, sort of, with “Dead and Deader” (originally made for TV) and “Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave,” which operates on the promising premise that an untrained observer would have a hard time distinguishing between zombies and college kids stoned on drugs. Both those movies try earnestly for laughs, even if they don’t always succeed. “Feast” scores more often than not because Mr. Gulager seems instinctively to understand a principle Aristotle didn’t identify but should have: that far from being incompatible with fear, humor can enhance and enrich it, and that at the low end of the budget especially, the best horror movies are the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously.