Thursday, March 05, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: REC 4 (2015)

 (Beware of spoilers!)

I have long been an unabashed admirer of the REC horror film franchise, which began in 2007. The first film, from director Jaume Balagueró, remains one of the best and most accomplished efforts of the found-footage variety. 

I even enjoyed the much-derided third entry in the franchise (2012), which I found a welcome return to 1980s style horror-comedy (think: Evil Dead 2 [1987]). 

Sure, REC 3 featured a substantially different tone from the previous two entries, but it was also a lot of fun in its own way. At the very least, it demonstrated that the filmmakers were thinking about new ways to approach their material.

REC 4 (2015), alas, possesses a different problem. 

Although I don’t object, overall, to the sequel’s total abandonment of the found-footage format, I do find fault with the general lack of ambition and paucity of energy on display. 

Love or hate REC 3, it was sort of ingenious, and definitely surprising. By contrast, REC 4 is a slow-moving, surprise-less sequel that ends the cycle in predictable, unambitious terms. There is no inspiration to be found anywhere here, and the movie trudges slowly along its pre-programmed trajectory until a merely okay end point.

I’m certain some REC fans will welcome the 2015 film with open arms since it continues the story established by the first two films, and brings back a beloved character, Angela (Manuela Velasco) in a significant role. 

But one shouldn’t confuse fan-approved touches with quality storytelling.

REC 4 takes forever to get started, doesn’t make the most of an intriguing location (a plague ship at sea), and fails to recognize that, for a time, audience sympathy falls with the mad scientist, Dr. Ricarte (Hector Colome), not the ostensible protagonists.

REC 4 isn’t a horrible embarrassment, but as part of a horror franchise that has reached significant altitudes of greatness, it’s surprisingly predictable, lame and safe.  

If this is really the end of the REC series, the franchise culminates with a whimper.

“Gentlemen, it’s game over.”
A group of soldiers enter the infected apartment building in Barcelona with a mission to set mines and blow it up, thus ending any further threat from the zombie virus. One soldier, Guzman (Paco Manzanedo), however, rescues a survivor: former TV host/journalist Angela Vidal (Velasco).
Sometime later, Guzman and Angela, with a few other survivors, find themselves on a plague ship at sea, being tested for signs of infection.  
The doctor leading the investigation, Dr. Ricarte (Colome) believes it impossible, in particular, that after six hours in the compromised apartment, Angela was not infected.
Angela’s camera has also been recovered, and it shows the final, horrifying moments of her encounter in a dark attic with Patient Zero, Tristana Medeiros.
Although Angela continues to insist she is free of infection, someone has secretly released an infected monkey from the lab.  That monkey makes his way to the mess hall, and attacks a cook.
Before long, the ship is infected, and Dr. Ricarte contemplates activating a self-destruct sequence.

 “Must have been something I ate.”

About the only new wrinkle in REC 4’s narrative is that the human source of the zombie virus -- Tristana Medeiros Da Souza -- is now seen to have been the host for a monstrous biological parasite.

So the Devil or demon instigating the zombie plague at the apartment building is not a demon at all, but a sort of a fat, slug-like thing, like a creature from Night of the Creeps (1987) or The Hidden (1987). 

And worse, it can be transmitted, mouth-to-mouth, victim-to-victim, so that the virus never truly dies, even when an outbreak is contained.

Instead, this presumably evil parasite just secretly and swiftly moves on in a new carrier, waiting to begin the whole cycle again.

This new wrinkle follows on after the great surprise of the original REC, that the virus is not just a disease or virus, but a religious/demonic possession, in some sense.  

The parasite idea of REC 4 may be one twist too far, for some, I suppose.  

I wasn’t bothered tremendously by it, but it feels more like a last minute ret-con and (failed) reach for a gimmick than a legitimate continuation of the series. 

If a biological organism is actually the source of the disease, then it is, by nature, not demonic, right?  

Demons are defined as creatures that are never born of Earth, in physical form. I don’t see exactly how the slug parasite conforms to that description.

To put this matter another way: the REC films are notable for pulling the carpet out from audiences regarding the nature of the virus. The filmmakers make the same attempt here, but I suspect their choice of a slug-parasite (from Ceti Alpha V?) isn’t likely to please many viewers who have stuck with the series.  

If the source of the virus is biological, not demonic, as this movie suggests, then how do we explain the events of REC 3, wherein prayer is one weapon against the infected?

More genuinely irritating is the fact that REC 4 makes a crucial error in terms of audience sympathy. 

Dr. Ricarte sees video footage of the slug moving from Tristana to Angela, and acts accordingly to end the horrifying infection. But then she escapes, and tries to convince everyone that she is not infected, even though we -- with Ricarte -- have seen the footage showcasing her infection. 

Is he not supposed to believe his lying eyes?

Angela proceeds to act brutally and violently to escape (even releasing an infected zombie...), and so we assume that she is being controlled, against her will, by the slug.  This is a natural assumption, and we don’t hate Ricarte for taking precautions against the spread of the disease.

In fact, throughout the film, Ricarte is treated like an evil mad scientist, when in fact he is quite reasonable throughout the crisis. 

If the virus is released on the ship, for instance, he is ready -- at a moment’s notice -- to self-destruct the vessel.  This course of action seems eminently logical, and not evil, to me, given the virulence of the disease, and the stakes for the human race and the planet Earth.  

The filmmakers want us to hate Ricarte, and yet through the whole movie I felt he was actually taking reasonable precautions given the severity of the events we witnessed in REC through REC 3.  

Is he merciless and obsessive? Yes.  Absolutely.

Would I want someone with the fate of the world in his hands to be that cold-hearted? 

Yes. Absolutely. 

Ricarte rightly understands that if this infection spreads, there will be no second opportunity to stop it.  

He’s right.

He’s a jerk. But he’s right.  

Positioning the lead characters -- Angela, Nick and Guzman -- as Ricarte's opponents fails to work as was no doubt intended.  If they survive, and one of them is infected, the whole human race dies. So Ricarte is actually the one with the moral/philosophical high-ground.  He is thinking of everybody.  

Angela Nick and Guzman, by contrast, are thinking of their own skin.

Yet we’re supposed to loath and despise Ricarte as a villainous, monstrous mad scientist. 

Fully a half-hour goes by in REC 4 where nothing of significance seems to happen. The movie is slow, but also lacks a sense of “slow burn” build-up. The first act is sluggish, and by the time the movie gallops up to full momentum, it’s almost over. “While You Were Sleeping” is not only the title of Angela’s Spanish TV program, but a description of REC 4’s opening chapters.

That’s not to suggest there aren’t moments here that horror fans will relish.  

One absolutely disgusting scene finds a kitchen cook battling an infected monkey over the crew’s chicken lunch. The monkey ends up in the frying pan, and the entire scene is stomach-churning in an awesome way.  Late in the film, a boat motor is used as a hand-to-hand weapon against a slew of the infected monkeys, and the scene is bloody as hell and nasty too.

But again, you may feel a little manipulated.

Given how virulent the demon/virus plague is, would you want to use a close-quarters weapon that -- with a high-speed, whirring propeller blade -- splashes blood everywhere in close proximity, including your face?  

Yet those who use the weapon do so, open-mouthed and screaming, oblivious, apparently, to the chances of infection. If you'll pardon the phrase (given the bloody chunks, and the presence of a throat-bound parasite...), this is hard to swallow.

Again, REC 4 isn’t bad, in a pinch, for a night’s entertainment. The last half hour is gory and fast paced, and intense enough. But you can pretty much guess who will survive, who will get a comeuppance, and even the film's final sting (which could be considered a joke about the Christian icthys symbol...) is sort of lame.

Given the REC series’ pedigree, this assessment is a disappointment. It’s as though everyone just wanted the series to end, and went through the motions in REC 4 to make that outcome happen. Nothing here is particularly audacious or fresh, or even well-filmed. Nothing here is accomplished with ingenuity, or even adequate energy.

So the REC film franchise started out with sheer, blazing, anarchic brilliance and suspense, and ends with a thoroughly routine, safe chapter that will please only those who are glad to see a returning face, or those who are looking for a night of pure, bloody gore.


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Late Night Blogging: The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries Promos

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries: "The House on Possessed Hill" (January 22, 1978)

While driving home late at night through the town of Circle Hills, Joe (Shaun Cassidy) encounters a young woman on the run, Stacey Blain (Melanie Griffith).  

She is being pursued by angry townspeople who consider her a witch, and responsible, somehow, for an accident that has injured a child...and which she predicted.

Joe and Stacey take sanctuary in a creepy house on a hill, one that Stacey is certain is haunted by a creepy old ghost.  “The house…it runs itself,” she says creepily. 

As Joe and Stacey endeavor to stay the night in the house, Stacey hears the sounds of an angry woman screaming, and reports that the house is alive.  Its owner, John Spencer, lived in 1743 but is now haunting it...allegedly.

Frank (Parker Stevenson) arrives soon, and helps Joe and Stacey solve a mystery of a very different type: one involving a bank robbery and money hidden inside the house’s old walls for nearly twenty years…

Two significant guest stars make “The House on Possessed Hill” a fun entry in the Hardy Boys canon.  

The first is the haunted house itself, which “starred” as the home of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), Psycho 2 (1983), Psycho III (1986) and Psycho IV (1990). The old house’s interior also looks very familiar, and there’s a joke in the episode about Hitchcock, and the house’s appropriateness for one of his movie thrillers.

Here -- as seems appropriate for a house of this silver screen stature -- there’s also much talk about the structure being alive. Unfortunately, that talk never really goes anywhere.

The second guest star of note is Melanie Griffith, who in 1987 became a star in Working Girl, and then parlayed that success into an A list career. Here, she plays the psychic Stacey, an insecure young woman who reports that she knows things and feels things, “things in the air around her" and “Things that happened” and “will happen.”  

Even a good actress would have trouble with lines like that, but the youthful Griffith does a good job of projecting both innocence and strangeness. She's vulnerable, and also just oddball enough to seem, possibly, like a danger to herself and others.

“The House on Possessed Hill” features two intertwined narratives. 

One concerns a human crime, and the other concerns the supernatural world. As one might expect, the human crime is solved and justice is served.  At the end of the episode, the supernatural mystery lingers, however.  

In particular, Joe sees the ghost of the house for himself, but rather than investigate its presence, tells Frank to drive away in their van. But as viewers, we see the ghost (who wears a large ring on his finger) quite clearly, thus proving the existence of the supernatural in this series’ universe.

It seems a bit like a ploy, or even a little cheap, to conflate the two mysteries, and to conclude without exploring the history and existence of this particular ghost.  

On the other hand, the series was always a little cheeky, and the episode’s “surprise” ending conforms to that tradition.

Action Figures of the Week: The Hardy Boys (Kenner)

Pop Art: The Hardy Boys Edition

Modek Kit of the Week: The Hardy Boys Van (Revell)

Lunchboxes of the Week: The Hardy Boy/Nancy Drew Mysteries

Board Game of the Week: The Hardy Boys (Parker Bros.)

Theme Song of the Week: The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Sky is Falling" (November 17, 1965)

In “The Sky is Falling,” a strange alien probe seems to assault Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), leading him to fear that an alien invasion is imminent.

The Robinsons attempt to calm down Smith -- this cosmic Chicken Little -- but very soon humanoid aliens do beam to the planet on rays of light during a matter-transfer process, and set up a small research facility. 

Like the Robinsons, the visiting aliens are a family: a mother, a father, and a young boy.

While Smith advises murdering the aliens before more of their brethren get a foothold on the planet, Robinson (Guy Williams) argues for saner heads.  

But when Will (Bill Mumy) disappears, Smith is able to ratchet up everybody’s fear and suspicion. 

He suggests that the aliens have abducted Will, though the truth is that Will is helping the alien child, who has developed an illness from exposure to the human boy.

Heavily armed, the Robinsons lead a small assault team, consisting of John, Don (Mark Goddard) and Smith) to the alien territory, ready to kill to retrieve Will. 

But the aliens are also suspicious of the humans, and are missing their son too. Worse, they have superior weapons…

“The Sky is Falling” is another great, classic episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968).  It rises right to the top of the  series catalog (alongside “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,”) in fact.

The idea underlining the episode is that, simply, on the frontier there are no second chances. 

Danger lurks around every corner, and fear is a constant companion.  But if that fear spirals out of control, violence is inevitable.  Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to control our fears; to remain rational in the face of the unknown.

In this case, Smith is the provocative agent of fear, playing on the Robinsons’ protective instincts towards Will.  Smith wants to destroy (meaning murder…) the alien family, even though that alien family has done him no harm, and has shown no signs of aggression. 

By contrast, Robinson argues nobly and logically against war.  “There’s every chance we can live together in peace,” he suggests.

But Smith won’t surrender even though, as he acknowledge, he has no proof that the aliens are hostile in any way.  

“Evidence? What do I care about evidence?” He asks. 

In other words, he has an agenda, and the facts be damned.

Robinson also makes a cogent argument about dealing with alien life and alien morality in general.  He thinks the situation through, even though others demand immediate, violent action. 

Specifically, Robinson asks what happens if the Robinsons do start a war, and they are successful in the campaign.  What happens next, when the thousands of aliens that Smith fearfully anticipates do arrive?  
Because the Robinsons have acted violently, they truly will stand no chance of survival. 

Smith -- as Machiavellian thinkers will -- dismisses Robinson’s ideas of “universal brotherhood” as hopelessly idealistic, misguided. When a person wants a war, we see, he or she will do anything to get it, against the better angels of our human nature, and against the simple facts, even. 

“The Sky is Falling” looks at this total irrationality, this tendency to react fearfully and in a cowardly fashion, in the face of the unknown. 

And remember, Lost in Space acts universally as a space age metaphor for the American West, and the settlement of that territory in American history.  The Robinsons encountering an alien family brings up, naturally, the idea of American pioneers encountering Native Americans, and the possibilities that arise from that encounter. 

You can either choose courage and peace, or choose fear, conflict, and ultimately genocide.  Which path ennobles us? Which path damns us?

Certainly, "The Sky is Falling" is a moral story worthy of Star Trek, because it concerns mankind choosing to be better in the future than he was in his past.  We do not have to be trapped by our history. We can overcome it. 

But, importantly, this exact story could not work on Star Trek as effectively as it does within the pioneer family paradigm of Lost in Space. Here, we understand what’s at stake: parents worrying for a missing child, and therefore drawing the absolutely worst conclusion about what has happened to him.  

Where our children are concerned, we want to take no chances.  We must be their vigilant protectors. And when we fear they are in out.  I say this as a parent, myself. 

But does this sense of paternal and maternal protection mean, lacking information, we should go to war…out of ignorance?  

That’s the campaign Smith begins in “The Sky is Falling.  Finally, only Will and the alien boy -- representing the possibilities of tomorrow, or the future -- can get the adults to lay down their arms and face each other not with fear, but with humanity.

Obviously, you can’t have Smith starting a war every week, every single episode, but “The Sky is Falling” finds a worthwhile use for the oft-over-exposed character. 

If the Robinsons represent the best of humanity the rational, caring, “pioneer spirit,” Smith represents the worst qualities: cowardice, fear, hatred, prejudice.  

When push comes to shove on the final frontier, the question becomes, which “human nature” -- Smith’s or the family’s -- will prevail?

“The Sky is Falling” is just about a perfect episode of Lost in Space in this format, reminding us that when we move on to the next horizon, outer space, we will take with us not just our angels, but our demons too.  

In terms of historic/canonical importance, this episode also gives Smith his first opportunity for another memorable catchphrase: “Have no fear, Smith is here.”

It’s important in context.  Have no fear? Smith is the one who brings the fear! It is his presence that nearly leads the Robinsons into a disastrous and unnecessary war. But, in typically self-deluded fashion, he sees himself as the hero.  As Yoda himself might tell him, wars don't make anyone great, or a hero.

Next week, another fantastic early Lost in Space story: “Wish Upon a Star.”