Archive for October 29, 2014

The-Taking-of-Deborah-Logan-Poster

Let’s not mince words —Alzheimer’s is an absolute motherfucker, and if you or someone you know and/or love has come down with it, you don’t need me to say much more about it than that. On the off chance that it doesn’t scare the living shit out of you, though, let me just get up on my high horse for a minute and say that it sure as hell should. This disease eats away your cognitive functioning until there’s pretty much nothing left of you but   a withered,  hollow shell, and then — after first stripping away your memories, your personality, your reasoning ability, and more or less all of your consciousness in a slow, sadistic, painful fashion — it finally heaps its last indignity upon you by not letting you remember to swallow or breathe.

I wouldn’t wish this dread disease on anyone — shit, I even felt sorry for Reagan when I heard he had it — and yet there’s nothing you can do about it : if you’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it. End of story. Sound grim? Of course it does. That’s because it is.

A realistic Alzheimer’s documentary is far scarier than any horror flick probably ever could be, but given how terrifying an illness it is in and of itself, it’s kind of amazing that no budding young horror auteur has thought to focus his or her film on someone suffering from it. That is, until this year, when director and co-writer (along with Gavin Heffernan) Adam Robitel let loose upon the world The Taking Of Deborah Logan (currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as Netflix instant streaming, which is how I caught it), and I gotta say, of all the films I’ve watched this month to “put me in the mood” for Halloween, this was far and away the best of the bunch.

The-Taking-of-Deborah-Logan-03

Released under the auspices of Bryan Singer’s Bad Hat Harry Productions (with Singer himself serving as one of the film’s producers), Robitel’s modestly-budgeted little opus is, yes, another “found footage” flick, but one that stands head and shoulders above most of its brethren due to strong performances, a compelling story, some very slick plot twists, high-grade production values, and some spine-tingling special effects. It’s not too often I make a pronouncement this unequivocal, but — if you like horror movies, you’re gonna like this. A lot.

On we go with the set-up : film (or maybe it’s medical, it’s hard to tell) student Mia Medina (Michelle Ang) has descended upon a small Virginia town with her two-person crew (played by  Brett Gentile and Jeremy DeCarlos) to film the deteriorating condition of the titular Deborah Logan (Jill Larson) for a documentary project. Ms. Logan, a prim and proper southern lady,  and her care-taker daughter, Sarah (Anne Ramsay) are at first leery about participating, but eventually consent because they “need the money” (uhhhmmm — I wasn’t aware that college kids usually had any to offer) to keep their home. It soon becomes apparent, however,  that there’s a lot more to Deborah’s condition than “just” Alzheimer’s, though, and that somehow her former job as a telephone switchboard operator, the overbearing presence of way-too-concerned next door neighbor Harris (Ryan Cutrona),  and the disappearance of a notorious local serial killer years ago all tie into whatever is afflicting our hapless title character now. I won’t give anything more away than that, sorry, because you really should just see this flick for yourself.

1411467132_the_taking_of_deborah_logan-oo2

The unquestioned star of the show here is Larson, who absolutely deserves strong Oscar consideration (hell, give her Best Actress right now, I say), for her turn as Deborah. The mental and physical changes she undergoes are both amazing and harrowing to witness, and while I’m ready to give her make-up people plenty of credit for their part in that,  as well, the simple fact is that you can’t just look 10, 20, even 30 years older as the film progresses in order for a role this challenging to be effective — you have to act it, too, and boy does she ever. My hat is absolutely off to her — with loads of admiration — for the work she’s done here.

The other performances are all uniformly solid, as well, and if it wasn’t for the ever-present genre tropes of off-screen narration, night-vision camera work, and the like, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you were watching a “mockumentary” -style horror at all, so polished and professional is the overall effort here — and  it’s all done in service of a crackerjack script that pretty much knows exactly when, where, and how to keep upping the ante at all times.

tumblr_ndvpselk3N1rwjivvo1_500

There are a few nagging little details sprinkled throughout that prevent me from flatly declaring The Taking Of Deborah Logan to be a modern horror masterpiece (it gives away its hand a bit bit early in terms of some of its “shock revelations,” for instance, and plays up a bog-standard “demonic possession” angle for awhile before, thankfully, proving to be something kinda related, but much more frightening), but it sure comes close. Alzheimer’s is scary enough on its own — but I’ll have to be pretty  damn far into its final stages before I forget about this amazingly effective, bone-chilling film.

Devils-Pass-2013-Movie-Poster

Whatever happened to Renny Harlin, anyway? Back in the late ’80s/early ’90s he was slated to be the “next big thing” and helmed both blockbuster fare like Die Hard 2 and supposed-to-be-blockbuster fare like The Adventures Of Ford Fairline, but the colossal tanking the latter took at the box office not only torpedoed the career of its nominal “star,” Andrew Dice Clay (thankfully — unless you think “jokes” like “Hickory Dickory Dock, suck my dick!” are funny),  but also tarnished Harlin’s reputation as Hollywood’s next wunderkind, as well. Before you know it, he’s reduced to the likes of The Exorcist : The Beginning  and Mindhunters, I guess he’s finally bottomed out and returned to his low-budget horror roots (if you’ll recall, his “breakthrough” feature was A Nightmare On Elm Street Part Four), and everything’s sorta come full circle. But did he learn anything from his meteoric rise and even more meteoric (albeit much longer, given that it’s well into its third decade now) fall?

Actually, it’s hard to say. His latest — 2013’s Devil’s Pass (available, as per our theme for this month, via Netflix instant streaming) is certainly better than a lot of other “found footage” horror flicks out there, but ya know what? It’s worse than a lot of other examples of the genre, as well, and I oughtta know because I’ve found myself watching literally dozens of ’em lately.

1375954827_37795279001_2590026800001_video-still-for-video-2589865378001

 

What it has going for it is a pretty nifty premise, as four college kids from the University of Oregon (all somewhat stereotypical “granola” types that, let’s be honest, aren’t too hard to find out in Eugene) score themselves a grant to re-visit the site of the infamous Dyatlov Pass Incident (which is,  perhaps not so surprisingly, the title this flick was released under overseas),  a mysterious chapter in Russian history that saw a group of nine hikers meet a bizarre and grisly end in the Ural Mountains in 1959. There were numerous signs indicating that something truly inexplicable took place, but the Soviet government — not exactly known for being all that forthcoming in those days — quickly deemed that they’d all died of natural causes, and put  a tight clamp on any further flow of information.

Needless to say, this has resulted in all kinds of conspiracy theorizing over the years, with every possible explanation you can think of from an avalanche to a yeti to sudden mass hysteria/insanity to aliens being mentioned by folks who have studied the case. Psychology student Holly (played by Holly Goss) seems downright obsessed with finding out what happened, and has enlisted her camera operator/ tin-foil-hat-wearing pal Jensen (Matt Stokoe), experienced hiker/annoying bundle of testosterone Andy (Ryan Hawley), rich kid /pseudo-intellectual trail guide JP (Luke Albright) and hottie-with-a-tomboy-streak audio engineer Denise (Gemma Atkinson) to come on along on her crazy  adventure.

337093_original_jpg_720x1024_q90

Harlin keeps the “shaky-cam” nonsense to a minimum here, and things have a pretty professional appearance — helped in no small measure by the breathtaking authentic Russian filming locations. And the story is paced out pretty nicely and manages to keep you reasonably interested, if not exactly enthralled. But the performances are a real uneven mix, with only Albright really turning in compelling work, while Goss,who’s asked to carry most of the load here, obviously could use some more acting lessons. It probably doesn’t help much that all the characters are one-dimensional ciphers, but shit — we’ve seen that in a number of “mockumentary”-style horrors, and it’s not always such a bad thing. Here, no one really manages to rise above the “entitled hippie college kid you wouldn’t mind seeing die” level.

Still, Harlin and screenwrtiter Vikrama Weet have a few neat tricks up their sleeve, such as tying the disappearance of the Dyaltlov party in with — bizarre as it sounds — the US Navy’s infamous “Philadelphia Experiment,” having their hapless cast find a bunker buried in the side of the mountain, and — right near the very end — treating us to some crazy-ass cool creature effects. The plot ends up moving in a direction you sure can’t predict going in , and while it’s not all that logical (or even smartly handled), it’s at least surprising. That in itself is worthy of —- well, shit, not exactly praise, I guess, but at least a mention. So I’m mentioning it.

devils-pass-review

I’ll give Harlin “props” for managing to wrangle a few last-minute scares out of his movie just before it ends, too, but if you’ve had it up to here with watching pseudo-film students get in over their heads in spooky situations, then it may be a case of “too little, too late” for you by then. If you still, against all odds, are able to find this sort of thing reasonably compelling at times, then you’ll be glad you stuck with it for the payoff.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s  the best way to look at Devil’s Pass as a whole — if you’re sick to death of these “found footage” movies, you’re not going to find much to re-invigorate your lost (assuming you ever had any) enthusiasm for them here, despite the the fact that  Harlin shows quite a few flashes of still being able to competently construct things on a visual level. But if you continue to  have at least a small amount of patience for/and or interest in this often-maligned (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) subgenre, then this offers decent amount of evidence that it may still have at least a little bit of mileage left in it yet.