Tag Archives: B movies

Halloween Home Video #4: Alexandre Courtès’s Asylum Blackout

by Dan Fields
First published October 15, 2012 by the California Literary Review


Promotional poster for horror thriller The Incident aka Asylum Blackout

© 2012 IFC Films

For The Night Of The Big Storm

Asylum Blackout is a fine example of what can be achieved with a small budget and a simple idea. Good fundamentals and steady pace allow the makers of this film to economize on complexity, and the result is a satisfying no-frills thriller.

It is 1989 in the Pacific Northwest, and George (Rupert Evans) is the lead guitarist for a struggling rock band (though the movie never states it, I secretly hope that Asylum Blackout is also the name of the band). To keep themselves in food and shelter between gigs and recording sessions, he and his mates work as the kitchen staff of an asylum for the criminally insane. Despite the bleak institutional environment, George takes care to prepare nice meals for the inmates and treat them with personal respect as far as his job allows. While not exactly a futile ministry, this only seems to have positive effects as long as nothing else agitates them. At least it shows that George is basically a good guy trying to live well in a thankless and dangerous position.

The asylum guards keep a tight lid on even the most benign troublemakers, but times are hard and the facility is ominously understaffed these days. So much depends on an uninterrupted routine. George begins to notice an inmate named Harry Green (Richard Brake) giving him the eye, and possibly urging other inmates off their daily sedatives. Before he can voice his suspicions (perhaps stalled by wanting to spare his charges undue punishment), a massive thunderstorm knocks out the power in the asylum. In a mildly underwritten chance catastrophe – the script’s main weak point – the auxiliary power supply fries itself in a power surge, leaving the asylum in darkness with a whole ward of psychos out of their cells for feeding. For the rest of the film, George and his pals try desperately to escape the increasingly violent uprising that ensues. Once the inmates take down their first guard, they acquire things like keys and weapons, and the kitchen becomes quite a fearsome arsenal indeed.

Asylum Blackout relies on the simplicity of its narrative for strength, and does not overanalyze the pathology of Harry Green and the more villainous prisoners leading the charge. This is no Shutter Island, in other words. When George finally does have the opportunity to ask “Why?” he receives a clear and extremely disturbing answer.

The moral ambiguity of this movie may frustrate some, but pessimists will relish it. Conditions at the asylum are harsh, but the exact level of cruelty going on in private at the hands of the guards is unknown. Clearly they do not treat the prisoners as gently as George does, but whether or not they were asking for an uprising, or could have prevented it, remains a subject for dark speculation. To be sure, Harry Green is a pure force of evil. He has the look of a bloodthirsty hoodlum straight out of Brighton Rock, with a dash of the Joker for good measure.

Director Alex Courtès paints the background of Asylum Blackout nicely, with spare production design and dreary exteriors of Washington in the rain. The venues where the band records and plays are as nondescript and forbidding as the asylum where they work by day. Being trapped against all reason and hope is of symbolic importance to all these characters long before it takes on material significance. An escape plan is something that George and his buddies should have thought about a long time before now.

Halloween Home Video #1: Joe Dante’s The Hole

by Dan Fields
First published October 08, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Welcome once again to October, a time for Halloween mischief, and the coveted season for every horror filmmaker with the influence or wherewithal to mount a wide theatrical release. The major horror franchises and directors need no introduction. Having a feature film play nationally (or internationally) within weeks of Halloween is sufficient fanfare, so let’s turn our attention to the grimy pinkish underbelly of the genre.

Halloween Home Video (2012 edition) is your guide to the unsung scare flicks, thrill pics, and various fright nasties of this year. In a series of bite-size reviews, we hope to provide you with the perfect video rental option for the spooky soirée of your choice.

Halloween Home Video is not meant to highlight the best of the best in horror moviemaking. It is a second look at the smaller releases of this year, which for whatever reason have gained some measure of attention despite having played only in festivals, on small release circuits, or perhaps even on home video only. A few of these movies are very good indeed, though many will require significant garbage-sifting for a small reward. However, each has been chosen for having something to offer to the die-hard horror gourmand. With any luck, this list could become an annual tradition. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, hit the lights and enjoy the lurking horrors of 2012.

Joe Dante's The Hole promotional poster

© 2009 Bold Films/BenderSpink

For The Family Night

Joe Dante is probably best known as the director of Gremlins, that great litmus test of how permissive parents are were when it comes to little kids watching creepy movies. In addition, he also has on his record such triumphs as the grim Tom Hanks comedy The ‘Burbs and the sci-fi lunacy that is Innerspace. These are only three of the big ones in a long and prolific career which continues to this day. Not every on the list is a home run, but Dante is a veteran of the trade with plenty of nice tricks left up his sleeve.

The story of The Hole is extremely simple, and the payoff less than revelatory, but it stands as a perfectly good option for parents who want to be sure of spooky but safe Halloween fun. All but the littlest kiddos can watch this film without too much risk of nightmares or long-term jarring. In addition, while it lacks the fiendish bite of Gremlins or the crude wit of The ‘Burbs, it does boast a surprisingly positive lesson about facing fears in order to banish them.

Chris Massoglia stars as Dane, a normal kid rather soured on life by the awkwardness of puberty and having to move constantly because of his family’s domestic woes. He spends his time keeping his energetic little brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) at arm’s length, until two important events befall them. They befriend quirky and confident girl-next-door Julie (Haley Bennett), and they discover a huge, seemingly bottomless hole under a heavily locked hatch in their new basement.

It turns out that the Hole has a terrifying secret. BIG surprise! From its mysterious depths will rise a manifestation of its victim’s greatest fear. With three children peering down it at once, the stage is instantly set for an onslaught of supernatural and psychic mayhem.

As Dane’s mother Susan (Teri Polo) tries to get settled in a new job, her main worry is that her sons will be able to get along and fit in. Little does she know that while she works, they are on the run from a triad of crippling phobias. There are whiffs of Poltergeist and Stephen King’s It afoot here, but The Hole achieves neither the scale of the former or the sordid depths of the latter. The script is funny enough, the performances are fine, and the scares are sufficient but not excessive. The whole movie has the super-clean look that high-resolution video tends to have nowadays, and above all it feels rather “safe” given Dante’s proven capacity for the outrageous.

The Hole is an uncommonly well-balanced example of the PG-13 rating. These generally either feel like a children’s film gratuitously punched up with shocking content to draw a larger teen market, or an R-rated movie painfully trimmed so that movie theaters can allow those same teens in to see it. The Hole is weird and scary, but light on the strong language, minimal on the violence and zero on all but the faintest innuendo of sex. It also features a zany cameo by Bruce Dern for the older folks. What’s not to like? It might even help some children you know realize that their biggest fears are not such a big problem after all.

Movie Review: Chernobyl Diaries

by Dan Fields
First published May 26, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Radioactive? Yes. Waste? Not so much.

Chernobyl Diaries is not great art. Chernobyl Diaries is not important cinema. It will probably win neither awards nor memorable acclaim. What it is, though, is a robust specimen of a very particular kind of movie. It is a midnight movie. It is a drive-in flick. It is a B-movie in the most favorable sense. It was made to be seen in as crowded and rowdy a theater as possible. It aspires to nothing more clever or edifying than exactly that. It has plenty of scares, weird atmosphere, and drawn-out suspense to fill its running time. At least once, your heart will pound in anticipation of something awful. And is that not precisely what you paid for? Continue reading

Movie Review: The Mist (2007)

Frank Darabont has proven once again that he is one of the few filmmakers who can translate Stephen King’s work to film without reforging the stories on his own terms. The mass of King adaptations are either faithful failures or successes bearing little resemblance to the original tone. Not so for Darabont, who proves he can work the bleak and icky with the same deft hand that gave us the uplifting Shawshank Redemption.

The story is simple enough, and not even drawn from one of King’s most polished. A thick mist blows into town, transforming the world into a white, billowing void. From this mist emerge a stunning variety of Lovecraft-style bugs and other nasties, all with an appetite for human blood. Most of the action unfolds in the local grocery, where many of the town’s citizens find themselves under siege without means of escape.

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