The Stay Awake (movie review)

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If you can’t tell, it’s 1987

The film opens with the death of Brown, murderer of eleven women, who vows revenge on his executioners. Cut to St. Mary’s School for Girls, where eight students and their den mother Miss Walton are raising money by staying awake at the school all night (hence the title). Brown decides to give them a visit, picking them off one by one. The girls and Miss Walton must band together to stop his supernatural killing spree.

I first stumbled upon this movie while browsing through Netflix’s Instant selection; it caught my eye because it was classified as African; I’d never seen an African horror movie. While filmed in Africa, it actually takes place in Europe, with actors who sound English and are for the most part white. It’s still exotic in its own way, like when Brown manifests himself as a creature that looks like a giant bush baby.stayawake1

Also a little different is this slasher’s depiction of women, at least Miss Walton. The girls get slaughtered for breaking rules and for wandering off by themselves and they tend to cower. But Miss Walton never falters. She oozes confidence with lines like, “If you want a fight, dammit, you’re going to get one!” and “If I have to kill whatever it is with my bare hands, I will,” and “If you want me, well, just try it.” She encourages the girls to keep fighting the ghostly invader, even throwing javelins at it.

Unlike other slashers, there is no nudity or large amounts of gore (I’m not sure why it’s rated R). It’s also slow-paced, with the first murder happening forty-one minutes into the film (unless you count a rat or a cassette player). Not that that time is spent on character development; the eight girls are fairly interchangeable throughout. I think of them as Naughty, Handsome, Ponytail, Mousy, Flat-top, Mean, Crisps (because she eats a lot of them), and French Braid. I don’t have any major gripes about the movie. I do get tired of the overuse of cross-cutting and point-of-view shots. Overall, it’s entertaining, dated enough to be amusing, and somewhat original for a slasher. The acting isn’t great, but it’s not painfully bad. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for legwarmers, leotards, and murder.

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Nightmare Man (movie review)

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Ellen has just bought a fertility mask, hoping it will put some spice in her marriage to Bill. Unfortunately, it just brings her bad dreams—so bad that she has to take medication and eventually needs to go to a mental hospital. On the way there, Ellen and Bill’s car runs out of gas in the woods. Bill walks off to the nearest gas station, and Ellen is attacked by the evil guy she’s been dreaming about. Luckily, there’s a small wedding party nearby. With the Nightmare Man lurking around, the five of them have to band together to survive the night.

I had low expectations from the very beginning. Even the production company refers to it as a “flick.” It’s low budget, and we get side-boob in the first scene with an ass shortly after, which shows it’s exploitative. Indeed, the film is stupid with gratuitous bra and pantie shots and nudity.

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This is about half the movie

I’m also disturbed by a scene when shots of Ellen trying not to get stabbed are crosscut with the party playing Erotic Truth or Dare—it seems to be sexualizing Ellen‘s experience. While there’s a small attempt at character development, it mostly revolves around how Trinity and Mia were lovers in college. Besides that, the acting isn’t great, and the twist is predictable. The characters mangle the English language with phrases like “a big relief off my mind.” That is, when Ellen isn’t yelling “Ah! No! Oh God!” which is the bulk of her dialogue. Then there are gems like “He’s the Devil, I tell you!” Mia also has many annoying one-liners, as does Ellen when she’s possessed by the Nightmare Man. While the mask is mildly eerie and the special effects are good, overall the film isn’t scary at all.

I first watched this with my sister, who rented it thinking it would be good because it’s a Horrorfest movie—a series of films released every year that are supposedly too scary or gory for theatres. Judging by most of those that I’ve seen, they’re just too crappy. (Not that a theatrical release guarantees greatness.) Check it out if you’re in the mood for a cheesefest.

Make a Wish (movie review)

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It’s Susan’s birthday, and to celebrate she makes the masochistic decision to spend it camping with six of her ex-girlfriends, five of whom cheated on her. As can be expected of people in a horror movie drinking and having sex in the woods, they begin dying off. Is it Susan getting revenge, or is it her ex’s current boyfriend, or the private detective snooping around, or the creepy guy with a thing for Susan (who makes brilliant statements like, “I just don’t like to see ladies bothered by people who are bothering them. It’s bothersome”) or angry dumpee Dawn?

Make a Wish puts me in the mood to gripe. While it’s refreshing to have a break from slasher movies’ general rampaging heterosexuality, aside from the women all being queer this film is highly unoriginal. As per usual for the genre, the ladies are lacking in character development and can’t wait to rip off their clothes. The dialogue is sub-par, for example this witty exchange: “This is giving me a bad feeling.” “Then why don’t you let me give you a good one?” The ending is also baffling; it’s one of those “it was all a dream” deals, or is it? The characters are so unlikable I don’t really care.

Maybe there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality that I’m missing (the grandest joke seems to be Dawn’s inability to stop saying she’s doing a “healing witchual” instead of ritual when teased about her over-the-top spirituality), but I was offended by the gratuitous nudity and refusal to be monogamous of most of the characters in a way that I wouldn’t be by heterosexual-centered films—I expected better. Susan complains that men are “always watching,” but I felt like a voyeur as well.

I have a hard time deciding whom the film is intended for. Given the promiscuity and stupidity of the women, one could assume men. However it’s written and directed by women. Also, the actresses look like real people, and none of their breasts appear to be bigger than A-cups. That said, you should give it a look if you’re seriously tired of the under-representation of gay women in the movies, slasher or otherwise—enjoy the boobs.

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And the girl-girl snogging

Madman (movie review)

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Released two years after Friday the 13th, with basically the same plot: crazy guy mows down naughty camp counselors. Except this guy has a way more awesome back-story (and his own theme song): Madman Marz was an evil farmer/axe murderer who was hanged by townspeople and left for dead. At the mention of his name he comes a’runnin,’ “searching for people so he can chop their heads off with an axe.” At the summer camp in question, one particularly dumb camper calls his name and then takes off for much of the movie, ironically being one of the only survivors. Madman strikes again!

It’s a classic slasher movie—common and predictable. It’s also quite low-budget. The actors don’t even look like they’re from Hollywood; well, they look like they’re in their thirties of course, but they look like regular people. The film is also fairly funny when it’s not trying to be, so it’s still entertaining. For example the scene when a counselor strolls around singing about Marz to scare the campers. But my favorite scene is when a few of the counselors get ponderous:

Stacy: “Great fire, Bill.” Bill: “Thanks. I love to feel the flames devour the wood. Who says there’s no beauty in destruction?” Ellie: “I don’t think there’s beauty in any kind of destruction, for any reason.” Dave: “I’d say that depends on the reason, for as long as our reason stays reasonable. That’s the most frightening thing about us humans.” (No Dave, the most frightening thing about us humans is that we make movies like this one.) Thus Madman has it all: boobs, murder, and …philosophy. If you’re looking for a sequel-free Friday the 13th clone with fair acting and special effects, here you go.

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The Gate (movie review)

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About young Glen and his big sister Al, who are home alone for the weekend. With the help of their friend Terry, they accidentally turn a hole in the backyard into a portal to hell. Seems the combination of a geode, some blood (Glen cuts himself), levitation (fun at parties), a sacrifice (the family dog dies), and the accidental reading of a chant create a doorway for demons to mosey on out from hell and reclaim the earth. They have a good old-fashioned battle with the trio, destroying the house and yard in the process. Try explaining that mess to your parents, kids!

Even over multiple viewings, the characters take some getting used to before I settle in and start rooting for their success. Glen I find hard to take seriously because he’s a tiny Stephen Dorff. Terry is originally established as a creepy weirdo who thinks suffocating moths in a jar is “neat.” Al has the reprehensible habit of wearing ensembles like lavender pants, a green sweatshirt, and orange socks. However, Dorff out-acts the adults who are playing his parents (as do most of the young people in the movie), Terry turns out to be smart, funny, and sensitive when it’s called for, and Al…well, I like Al. Plus it’s refreshing that the young female lead in a horror movie keeps her clothes on for the entirety of the film. The rest of the teenybopper crowd is obnoxious and barely necessary to move the plot along, but at least they don’t get much screen time.

You can read The Gate in multiple ways. It could be a coming of age tale for Glen; he loses his tree house in the beginning and learns the harsh truths of growing up and losing bonds with his sister. Or you can read it as a cheap morality tale. Glen and Terry make the hole worse and start the whole portal-opening chain of events by digging for more geodes—they want to be rich. Then the chain of events is finished during a party, which Glen and Al promised their parents they wouldn’t have. Or you can just enjoy the ‘80s cheese, like awful special effects, a houseful of drunken, badly dressed teenagers partying and making witty statements like “Somebody get this dog a beer!” and even the old playing-the-record-backwards trick.

The film is not scary per se. The demons are mostly tiny rubber goblins with nubby tails—they’re pretty darn adorable.

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Awwwww

Also, they’re not very good at their job. Their major strategy of attack is biting and tugging at clothes. Even when a giant demon shows up, it just stares at Glen, giving him plenty of time to decide how to kill it. There is also a good amount of humor in the movie, which I find well-done rather than annoying. The one-liners are even funny more often than not. However, there are some genuinely creepy moments, like the scene when Terry’s dead mom shows up. She talks really slowly about how she misses him, all the while building suspense, because we suspect that she’s going to turn into something horrible—and she does. There is also the scene when a family portrait turns into a bloody mess and shows the family being slaughtered. The transitions from humor to horror are made seamlessly, and work as a combination. It’s entertaining and amusing; check it out if you’re a fan of Dorff or the decade.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (movie review)

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A group of scientists looking for fish specimens in Brazil get more than they bargained for when they encounter a half-man, half-fish. Unfortunately he has the nasty habit of killing minor characters and absconding with Kay, the only woman in the movie. Her fiancé David has to chase the creature down and battle him.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is always lumped in with Universal Studios’s famous horror movies like Frankenstein and Dracula, but I’m not sure it deserves the honor. Though he’s kinda cute, the Creature doesn’t have the same depth and charisma of, say, the Wolf Man (though at least Creature doesn’t whine) or the Mummy. He doesn’t have the sympathy factor of Frankenstein or the sexiness of Dracula; he’s just murderous and grabby.

In addition, the film is very slow (and some would say boring). Here is the plot of most of the movie: the Creature pops up and looks around the boat, Kay shows off her one-piece bathing suit, and the men scuba dive. Even the underwater fight scenes aren’t especially suspenseful. Not to mention the overacting and the excruciating combination of quiet dialogue and blaring music that had me cranking up then hurriedly turning down the volume on my T.V.

For me, the only bright spot (aside from David’s unintentionally funny statement, “We didn’t come here to fight with monsters. We’re not equipped for it”) is Lucas, the always chipper captain of the boat. He’s Brazilian, and God bless him, the actor playing him, Nestor Paiva, isn’t some white guy in bronze-face. He’s a breath of fresh air from the stuffed-shirt guys in the crew. Lucas seems a little dense compared to the science-y types, but he’s not subservient or stupid—just down-to-earth. The film doesn’t come across as terrifically racist, though most of the people that die are minorities. One of the scientists is the wise and Brazilian Dr. Maia (who lives to the end) and is played by Antonio Moreno, who was actually Latino (thank you IMDB).

The movie may be nostalgic to some; Stephen King discusses in depth how the movie scared him as a boy in his book Danse Macabre. The Creature was also my father’s favorite of the Universal monsters. It’s not all bad, but certainly not Universal‘s best. Check it out if you’re in the mood for old-timey fishy action.

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Crazy Lips (movie review)

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Japanese movie. Satomi is a young woman whose brother Michio is a fugitive suspect in a murder case. She goes to the Psychic Research Center and enlists the help of wacky psychic Mamiya and her assistant Touma. They show up at her house and do a séance to find the real killer. From there, poor Satomi encounters no end of weird stuff, from a quartet of headless ghosts to mysterious aliens (but no crazy lips–the title of the movie is never explained). It culminates in a free-for-all in the woods between Satomi’s family and the families of the victims.

This is a highly unusual movie, for multiple reasons. The theatrical trailer asserts, “People who watch this movie go crazy in a week.” Indeed, the first time I watched the film I was flummoxed, as it starts out as a pretty standard Japanese horror movie—then it turns odd. The events depicted are just plain strange, with dialogue like, “Go find your head!” and “Let the psychically trace it.” In addition, there is a musical number, and loony FBI agents Narimoto and Lucy, (who’s blond, has blue contacts, and delivers all of her dialogue in English so heavily accented it still needs subtitles). One of my favorite scenes is when Lucy and Narimoto’s boss, the Colonel, speak privately to Satomi through her television. Her sister Kaori enters the room, and Satomi can’t get to the remote to change the channel, so the Colonel and Lucy pretend they’re on a dance show. After a while, there doesn’t seem to be much of a plot, and everything you think you know about the characters is thrown out the window.

Another way the film is unusual is its sexual content. I’ve seen roughly 30 Asian horror movies, and very few of them show sex or nudity. Crazy Lips has sex, nudity, incest, and even a dildo. Kaori is constantly in a state of sexual arousal, and Mamiya points out to her that “You took care of yourself last night.” Kaori also sexually harasses her ex-boyfriend, causing him to flee the house with no pants. There is a pretty disturbing rape scene when Touma forces Satomi to be penetrated by a corpse hanging from the ceiling. (This of course is the scene that my brother happened to walk in on while I was watching it—good times.) Thus, in between the wackiness, there is some serious stuff. It makes the film hard to pin down as one particular genre. It’s funny but also bizarre.

I didn’t like the movie very much the first time I saw it, mostly because I wasn’t expecting the unexpected. This time, I was ready to be taken for a ride, and I had a blast. And to quote an old T.V. show, I love Lucy, who’s just adorable. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something wacky and wicked.