DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Saw (I and II, III, IV, V, VI), Se7en, The Bone Collector, 8mm, The Number 23, The Jacket, Sin City, The Spirit, Reservoir Dogs, The Machinist, Mindhunters , Three Extremes , Night Watch , Lucky Number Sleven, A Scanner Darkly, Silent Hill, Renaissance, Vacancy, 1408, Stir of Echoes, Hellbent, Severance, Mustang Sally’s Horror House, FearDotCom, Untraceable, Awake, Open Cam, Funny Games U.S., The Strangers, Teeth, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, Twilight, Timber Falls, The Deaths of Ian Stone, Dead Serious, Red, Hallettsville, The Haunting in Connecticut, Bug, The Horsemen, The Alphabet Killer, Thr3e, Shutter Island


Title:  Saw

Release Date:  2004

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company:  Lions Gate Films

Director; Writer: James Wan, wr. Leigh Whannell


Cast:  Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Monica Potter, Makenzie Vega, Michael Emerson, Dina Meyer

Technical: Standard aspect

Relevance to doaskdotell site:  Filmmaking

Review:  Well, the title of this film is a literary device (onomatopoeia). Low budget (just over $1 million), this strikes me as a slick technical exercise in film school, script writing, and story telling.


Two men (a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a private detective (Leigh Whannell, starring in his own film, it seems—although the DVD notes from LGF suggest that the story idea came from both Wan and Whannell in brainstorming—both are quite young) wake up in a dilapidated public restroom, both chained in leg irons, with (seemingly) a corpse between them, and some clues (including rusty, worn hack saws) and tools.  Quickly they figure out that they may well only get out is to amputate their own feet (a la Misery). No great loss; from what we can glimpse, neither man has that much hair on his legs; both men seem a bit like pawns on somebody else’s stage. Yet, either one could have set this up.


The opening scene, with its sparse dialogue, seems like a stage play, or perhaps a filmed play in the “dogma” technique. The story, though, develops in layers. The doctor was a suspect as the “Jigsaw” serial killer, who sets up victims in traps and makes them practically commit suicide to escape, usually having horrible deaths. (“He figures out ways to make them kill themselves.”) One victim, for example, had his bod covered in grease so he would burn to death when he tried to escape. Another almost has her jaw blasted open (good maxillofacial surgery!). The killer has made a robot with a silly clown-mask that reminds one of Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs.


The police get involved, in flashbacks, and the doctor’s wife and daughter have been taken hostage. (Maybe the police are involved in the plot.) Why, then, does the doctor live a “normal” life of sleeping with hookers? Because he is red-blooded heterosexual?  Maybe he isn’t.  It all gets very complicated, and the viewer must play close attention to every detail. Oh, yes, finally he will amputate one of his own feet. I’ll tell you that much.  And, a dead body rises. Actually more than one of them does.


I think people do see this as a magnificent, snazzy exercise in film for film’s sake. This is plot, brutally efficient, every scene holding the moviegoer down wondering what outrage happens next in such sparse (and low budget) settings. What is a bit lacking is characters who really matter. That helps Whannel get away with what otherwise is an implausible, though neatly complicated, plot. I say this in the spirit of someone who works sometimes with literary agents or screenwriting teachers (maybe one will read this) and they tell me—plot, plot… keep the reader or viewer wondering, what next. This film does that. There is one great line near the end, when the doctor says, “My family needs me.” That is why he can depart with one of his gams.


Saw II (2005, Lions Gate Films, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman, wr. Bousman and Leigh Whannell) is the sequel of what is becoming the Jigsaw Franchise. In fact, the story follows on the heels of the first film. Jigsaw is played by an Eastwood-looking Tobin Bell, and is dying of cancer, well hooked up to iv’s to deliver his chemotherapy as he masterminds his horrors in some isolated warehouse (in Toronto). The detective (Donnie Wahlberg) is his opponent, as his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) has been kidnapped at the end of a divorce-related visit. Several other “victims” are trapped in the warehouse, where they are being infused with nerve gas, which Jigsaw claims to be Sarin (from the Tokyo subway attack in 1995). Jigsaw claims that they will all bleed out and die (in a manner reminding one of Ebola virus) if they don’t find the antidote. And, you guessed it, several of the characters die in gruesome ways trying to find it. There will be blood! There is. But there is another connection, that all of the characters were framed for drug crimes by the detective – perhaps a libertarian argument to lift drug laws. The “accidents” are ghastly. One man burns alive in a furnace, starting with his legs and moving up; a girl falls into a pit filled with hypodermic syringes filled with heroine and gets stuck with them; a man gets caught in a machine that slowly slits his wrists. Laura (Beverly Mitchell, whom we recognize as Rev. Lucie from Seventh Heaven – and her damsel-in-distress manner comes through in this movie, too) doesn’t get help in time and really does bleed out. Finally the remainders wind up in the latrine of the first movie, with the same corpses and amputated feet. Daniel is hanging on, and somehow gets fitted with a respirator by the police. We aren’t shown his fate, but we hope that he lives and fully recovers (maybe for Saw III).


The character of Jigsaw deserves more comment. He is something like a mix of Osama bin Laden and the Unabomber (and perhaps Tony Di Mera of Days of our Lives). He is a terrorist. And he has a cause. Namely, the hypocrisy and evil of everything around him. He is dying, and he wants to achieve “meaning” and “immortality” through his sacrificial deeds, pretty much like a typical terrorist. There is some kind of statement here about trying to justify doing bad by the good you think you are leaving.


Saw III (2006, Lions Gate/Twisted Pictures, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman, 113 min, R) introduces “the apprentice” and lives up to the name of its second production company, literally. In one scene, “the apprentice” is tested as a man he has not forgiven is twisted limb from limb by gears (rather like those of the Lions Gate trademark). Body parts roll, all right. But the central story is also a twist. This time Jigsaw kidnaps a female surgeon  Lynn (Bahar Soomekh) with the help of another apprentice (there must be more that one team that can win and escape the boardroom here), and sets up one of his traps. “Let us play a game.” Lynn must operate on his brain and save his life, or else her own custom-made “Home Depot” collar will explode. Needless to say, the surgery is graphic, living up to the name of the movie. So is the climax, Whannell wrote the screenplay for this one, but the originality of the franchise is running out like the life that its blood carries. 


Saw IV (2007, Lions Gate/Twisted Pictures, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman, 93 min, R) starts in the morgue with the colorless hairy corpse of terrorist Jigsaw being dissected with a circular saw, and there is a tape in his stomach. The FBI gets involved in delving into the last clue, and soon a fibbie is kidnapped and taken through all of the grisly traps left by Jigsaw after his demise. “Feel what I feel.” “See what I see.”  “Become the teacher…” Does all this mean that the sadistic, narcissistic Jigsaw is psychologically feminine (and subjective or unbalanced?) I love the line from one of his deserving “victims”: “I have no soul.” There are plenty of “moral” lessons in this gorefest, which is not very subtle. The first of these films is by far the best.


Saw V (2008, LionsGate / Twisted, dir. David Hackl, 96 min). Jigsaw’s murders continue, even though Jigsaw is supposedly gone. Maybe he isn’t, and maybe he has a successor, another Jeff Dahmer. Maybe Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Strahm (Scott Patterson) weren’t what they seem.  The “special effects” get really grotesque. A man is slowly cut in half by a “sling blade” after his hands were crushed off. At the end, an agent gets crushed out of existence, literally. In the middle, five people get tested as to who will sacrifice. There is a lot of Marxist morality talk about people being born privileged and living off of the sacrifices of others. I love the line, “You call it karma, I call it justice!”  


Saw VI (2009, LionsGate, dir. Kevin Geutert). The health care debate gets into this one.  Tobin Bell as Jigsaw is alive and not well.. Blogger.


Reservoir Dogs (1992, Artisan/Dog Eat Dog, dir. Quentin Tarantino (a precursor—with its opening café scene-- to Pulp Fiction), R, 104 min) also contains a lavatory-like scene (actually a warehouse) with two characters facing off, one a police informant who has had an ear whacked off and almost been set on fire, the other bleeding to death. That scene probably helped inspire Saw. The film assembles  strangers (a Mr. Orange [Tim Roth], a Mr. White [Harvey Keitel], a Mr. Blonde [Michael Madsen], a Mr. Pink [Steve Buscemi], and a Nice Guy [Chris Penn] to commit a perfect crime. Oh, yes, you know that they will go down in flames. This film has some famous violent scenes. 


Seven (aka Se7en) (1995, New Line Cinema, dir. David Fincher) is the classic film of this genre. Here a serial killer knocks off his victims according to the recipes of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, for “Gluttony” the victim is forced to eat himself to death, until his stomach explodes. For “Sloth” the victim is tied to his bed for a year—and suddenly gets up like a vampire—one of the scariest scenes in movies ever. Another victim (“Envy”) has his sides flayed. And so on.  Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt make a great tag team—Brad Pitt’s real life broken arm written into the script. There is one bizarre scene toward the end where both Freeman and Pitt shave their chests (as if there was anything there in the first place) in order to tape hidden microphones.


The Bone Collector (1999, Universal/Columbia, dir. Phillip Noyce) is another film with this plot outline. Two cops (Denzel Washington, as a quadriplegic and Angelina Jolie) track down a subway serial killer. One victim was tied down and eaten to death by rats, another was scalded by steam, a third would have been drowned. There is a hidden rune that forms an important clue. 


8mm (1999, Columbia, dir. Joel Schumacher) is another thriller based on a number. Here Nicholas Cage plays private detective Tom Welles, hired to determine whether or not a particular snuff film found by a widow is a “for real.” Of course, this will lead him down a path himself. Joaquin Phoenix plays as a porn distributor. The film goes into interesting byways, even with an intriguing scene involving a prison janitor.


The Number 23 (2007, New Line, dir. Joel Schumacher) once again plays with digits. But really that is just a ruse for a more clever idea. A dog catcher Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) becomes obsessed with a ratty red book that his wife (Virginia Madsen) finds in a used “make up your mind” bookstore. It is self-published and self-printed, and that doesn’t even mean Kinkos copied. Rather, it looks like a typewritten original. The book has 22 chapters that describe an unsolved murder, and Walter starts to notice more than coincidental similarities to his own life. It even is officially published. (I don’t know whether it has an ISBN). There is a lot of numerology about the mysterious number 23, that even his gifted teenage son (Logan Lerman, very much like “Bobby” in the WB series) picks up on. Walter visits the convicted murdered in prison, and the man maintains his innocence. Even his mother won’t visit him. Now Sparrow is trying to get it. In fact, that majestic pooch that he can never catch (and who bit his arm) is on to him. (Carnivores know everything – just as cats do.) It turns out that the last chapter of the book is handwritten underneath wallpaper, on toilets, even on his body. Get it? And all of this story takes place in the age of Internet and computers, that are completely ignored. (Why doesn’t the son Google the murders?) Yet, it is interesting how people will write and self-publish today, in blogs and on social networking sites, to be noticed, even incriminating themselves, or pretending to incriminate themselves (“dreamcatching”) to make a point. This movie plays on that point with a dark film noir genre picture that doesn’t quite work because it seems set up and clunky (although 8mm actually has a similar premise and works quite well), but why not make up a film with this premise based on Myspace? 


Lucky Number Sleven (2006, MGM/Weinstein LLC/Ascendant, dir. McGuigan, wr. Jason Smilovic, R, 109 min, Canada) does a take on the name of the famous crime film noir (Seven, above) with a bit of comedy. Morgan Freeman has the same charisma as The Boss, and his counterweight is Ben Kingsley (“Sexy Beast”) as The Rabbi, who has a “fairy” (gay) son who will be gunned down in the mayhem, when he is expecting a trick. Bruce Willis is Mr. Goodkat, an overseer (“Kansas City Shuffle”) from the mob back in the bookie days of 1979, two decades ago. Now it seems that a certain kid was to be executed by a “specialist” but wasn’t, so it’s time for Slevin (Josh Hartnett), now a young adult, to stumble into the setup – wrong apartment, wrong time, etc. But Sleven seems to slick and wordy and self-confident, even with the setup where his nose is broken, and most of the movie his face looks cut up, making him look older, until you see him shirtless and in bathtowel. Lucy Liu is the mortician (Halloween party time) loyal girl friend who keeps Sleven a really good guy. No, he isn’t gay, but he’s willing to trick, and that gives away his intentions. In one scene he plays a chess game, opening 1. d4 (Queen’s pawn opening) with White (with modern, non-Staunton pieces), and loses to The Rabbi in a king’s side attack that looks like it came out of the Budapest defense. At one point, Sleven says “there is no they,” one of my own favorite lines in a couple of my scripts, meaning one individual has to take care of everything. And Slevin does. And this movie is funny.


The Jacket (2005, WB/LGF/Mandalay/Summit, dir. John Maybury) is a large-budget independent thriller from Scotland and Quebec, but set in Vermont. Adrien Brody (The Pianist) plays a military veteran Jack Starks who may have died during the First Gulf War in January 1991.  (The Three Kings comes to mind, as well as the images from the first raids on Baghdad on Jan. 17, 1991). Early 1992 finds him helping a stranded, vomiting mother and daughter by starting their car, and then soon getting pulled over (as a passenger). A cop is killed and he winds up in a mental institution. He is a “god damn MP” all right, and pretty soon he his stored in a casket (and straight jacket) for sensory deprivation purposes (recalling Altered States and, for that matter, the kidnapping of Marlena from her casket in Days of our Lives). He can look ahead (without aging) to 2007 (things don’t look that different), and also back to his childhood, when it seems he was in special education and amateur shock treatments pulled him out of a childhood stupor. It all gets complicated; the film sometimes looks like David Lynch, other times like Kubrick, even a bit of the mood of Saw with the mesmerizing music. The non-linear plot threads come together for a payoff, and we are then reminded of two more films in the same vein: Jacob’s Ladder, and Flatliners. The psychiatric stuff is disturbing. I felt like Adrien Brody was practically playing me in my mildly reparative therapy days at NIH in 1962. Well, his body doesn’t quite escape the iv’s, the tape, and the chest electrodes. This is, after all, the hospital. Now, to get back to what is most disturbing, is how Jack Starks can “drop out” and not quite remember his actions. “It’s not my fantasies. It’s reality that is f__led up.” An urge can become so great that it seems to have happened. The full wide screen cinematography is precise in detail, and uses the color blue most effectively; the opening Persian Gulf War (Desert Storm) scenes are monochromatic and gain a good deal of abstraction. Kris Kristofferson plays a rapidly aging Dr. Becker (he looks a bit like Kirk Douglas), and Keira Knightley is Jackie, the opposite sex foil (which Jack hardly needs).


Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005, Miramax/Dimension, dir. Frank Miller, Robert Rodriquez, Quentin Tarantino, based on stories of Frank Miller, R, 126 min) assembles an A-list cast (including directors) to make a film that is essentially a commentary on gangster/horror cinematography, especially the films of the 30s and 40s. Yup, they call it “film noir,” and somehow this rondo romp reminds me of an early 50s series called “The Clutching Hand” on a series called “Movies for Kids.” This movie is not for kids, however. Most of it is in black and white (sorry, no CinemaScope), with garish colorizations in red, blue, and sometimes yellow. A few scenes (such as in a bar) migrate toward a subdued normal Technicolor. The non-linear story takes Marv (Mickey Rourke) on a journal of revenge for killing his true love. But that does not really matter so much as the journey through other characters like John (Bruce Willis), who more or less shares center stage (as well as a prison cell), and then some villains like the elfish “Kevin” (Elijah Wood, who keeps that Frodo look intentionally until he loses both legs to the dogs), and Junior, who transforms into the Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl, normally handsome in most movies, whose body had to undergo humiliating transforms for this role – after he gets shot in the balls – well, you’ll get a gut and become hairless-of-chest if you don’t have hormones any more, a ha). There are numerous amputations and decapitations, not always fatal (sort of like in Kill Bill I but in black and white—“heads roll, wrists roll” Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, thighs roll (Starship Troopers) check it out), a latrine scene that reminds one of Saw, and some martial arts. Sin City looks a bit like the Metropolis of the 1930s in spots, and the movie ventures out into the purifying countryside at times—when I wanted so see more detail and the potential of a black-and-white universe. Josh Hartnett (no stocking cap) sandwiches the movie as The Man, and the one nice character in the movie. He always is nice. They could have used his own dogs in the movie.


Since Dimension has been working on Feast as the Project Greenlight winner, I wonder if this is closer to what they really wanted from the contest—it just costs $45 million to make. The Weinstein brothers will go through a transition to new things, but they wanted to take this film with them.


The Spirit (2008, Lionsgate / Odd Lot, dir. Frank Miller, comic book by Will Eisner) is a moderately effective abstract sequel with Samuel L. Jackson as the “god” Octopus, a kind of Lex Luthor. Blogger.


The Machinist (“El Maquinista”) 2004, Paramount Classics, Castaleo, dir. Brad Anderson, screenplay by Scott Kosar [this was apparently a film school project] USA/Spain, 102 min, R) is a slick combination of genres and stories, particularly Memenot, Insomia, and Jacob’s Ladder, with a pulsating, Hitchcock/Herrmann like score by Roque Banos. The film, though made largely in Barcelona, Spain, is in English (the director hired American and British actors living in Catalonia), filmed anamorphic widescreen with very muted colors, to look almost monochromatic. The indoor sets, especially the machine shop, the empty airport café, and the outdoor industrial area all are from Barcelona. Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale, who lost 60 pounds, down to 110, to look gaunt, emaciated and skeletal enough for this role) hasn’t slept for a year (so he tells a prostitute), and works in a dank machine shop, sometimes causing accidents (a man gets an arm pulled off, on camera). Insomnia in such extreme can kill, which is a plot point. (Actually, he may be having microsleep episodes in REM, when some of these characters appear and even incidents happen.) He writes himself refrigerator Post-it notes (like in Memento) and we wonder who Trevor really is—the perpetrator or the victim, of some horrible accident. He goes into an amusement park with an epileptic little boy, the Ride 666, and well, he may be in hell. He may be in a parallel world already.  His nemesis is Ivan (John Sharian), who may exist only as an imaginary playmate; nevertheless he slices his throat, and he tries to roll him from a blanket into the ocean [the Mediterranean], but there is no corpse (opening sequence—you get it—though where did the feet sticking out of the blanket come from?). There is a girl friend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who massages and finally soaps his lightly haired chest in a bathtub, after which he looks barren. There are the latrine scenes and amputations that take this into Saw territory (why wasn’t this LGF?)  


Mindhunters (2005, Dimension/Miramax/Intermedia/Outlaw, dir. Renny Harlin, 106 min, R) is a “Lord of the Flies” type thriller set up on an island, specifically an island fifty or so miles off Cape Hatteras (then why is it snowing so often?). Seven FBI agents in training are dropped there for a maneuver in a fictitious town that has one building that resembles Hiroshima. They start dying in grotesque fashion, and it is apparent than one of them is a serial killer who joined to carry out some secret vendetta. (There is a prologue in a haunted house near Quantico, VA; it contains a latrine scene that reminds one of “Saw”; there is also an early bar scene in which one of the seven engages in a gay kiss).  Now a lot of body parts roll, especially with the first victim, who is sprayed by liquid helium (which is never solid) at the end of a falling domino chain (how is that for a physics potential energy problem? Dominoes can fall upstairs). First his legs, surprisingly hairless, break off, then he falls and his body breaks into pieces like a piece of milkglass. Cats – beautiful felines – figure into some of the scenes. The film claims that the island is Roanoke Island, NC, from which the first settlers completely disappeared in the 16th Century (as mentioned in Stephen King’s Storm of the Century).


In May 2005 there was a bomb scare at a high school in northern VA, which the perpetrator sent in an Instant Message from home to another student, and claimed later that the words from his threat came from a movie called “Mindreaders.” This was reported on NBC4 in Washington. This movie (Mindhunters) had just opened at nearby area theaters. There was a 1979 series called “Mindreaders” and there have been two films called “Mindbenders” (the 2004 film does not seem to be distributed yet; the 1963 film, which I have not yet seen, is apparently a sci-fi classic). Now Mindhunters is violent, but the wording of the threat (which I will not reproduce here) does not appear in this film. Anyone relating this or any similar incident in or “Columbine” threat to a school should study the film Elephant, by Gus Van Sant, reviewed here.


Three … Extremes (2006, Lions Gate/Fortissimo, 126 min, R) is a triplet (or trilogy) of three spiffy Asian horror films, all built around abstract concepts, all fascinating to look at as film etudes. The first, Dumplings (dir. Fruit Chan, based on a novella by Lillian Lee) has a woman (Bai Ling) in a Hong Kong apartment offering a fountain of youth to girl friend with her cuisine, these cute little dumplings. Some graphic miscarriages and bleeding out follows, shown explicitly. The second, Cut (dir. Chan Wood-Park, Korea) starts with a film school exercise of a woman at a grand piano, and gets encapsulated. Soon she is suspended by wires, as a love triangle plays out. There will be blood, there will be amputations, and there even will be a little dirty dancing. The third, Box (dir. Kiike Takashi) is the most abstract, based on the idea of folding girls into small boxes, with a bit of voodoo, and double meaning, and switched identities; is the novelist one of the girls.


Night Watch (2004, “Nochnoi Dozor,” Fox Searchlight Pictures, dir. Timur Bekmanbetov, 114 min, R) superimposes the battle between angels representing Light and Dark over present day Moscow. People are born “special” and have to choose which side, and then they continue a battle that went on in gladiator times. There are some interesting sequences, as the power black out of Moscow, and some ideology, as when a girl’s unborn child has to be killed. Yet the “superman” characters are hardly likeable and the movie has none of the drama we have gotten used to in “Smallville.”


A Scanner Darkly (2006, Warner Independent Pictures, dir. Richard Linklater, novel by Philip K. Dick, 100 min, R) is a sensational animated (by rotoscope technology) feature about the link between big government, the war on drugs, the war on terror, and the twilight of individual rights. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover drug agent living with a few people who seem to be drug addicts themselves (Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Winona Ryder). But he has been unable to control his exposure to Substance D, a kind of ecstasy derived from a blue flower that may have been introduced into agriculture by terrorists. The authorities call him in for “tests” and they find his hemispheric brain function is splitting, leading to a kind of schizophrenia. Many of the agents wear “scramble suits” in public, or even in private meetings, to hide who they are and make themselves into “Everyman.” He will be challenged in various encounters, including one where Donna (Winona) undresses him and challenges his heterosexuality. (The phrase “latent homosexual” comes up.) Eventually he is captured. The authorities, in cahoots with New Plan, send him to a Mao-like re-education agricultural camp with a little cottage cell to live in, and he will be exposed to the flowers. The dialogue is witty and pointed. The animation follows the physical features of the actors, notably the lack of body hair for most of the men, except for one curious scene where Bob vomits (the first ever in animation) and seems to  have a little scraggle. The movie brings up troubling questions not only about the suppression of government in “War” but on the suppression of individual identity and being who you are in public. A illustrated cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is shown in one scene. There is a great line where Woody Harrelson’s character fears being “mer—dered”.  


Silent Hill (2006, TriStar, dir. Christophe Gans, wr. Roger Avary, Canada, 125 min, R) is a heavily stylized horror flick that takes off on Asian concepts, with shape-shifter images like those in Pulse. It is artsy and indie-looking, and comes from Sony’s mid range distributor. A mother Rose (Radha Mitchell) is treating her mentally ill daughter Sharon (Jodelle Fareland) who sleepwalks and claims visions of this horrible place Silent Hill. Rose goes on a journey into what simulates the Pennsylvania anthracite coal country, to this town that is closed off. She is chased by a female motorcycle cop and gets into a wreck. She “wakes up” in Silent Hill, a town supposedly closed because of coal mine fires underneath. That part happens. What doesn’t happen is that the mines have become a Hell for various demons and spirits. She chases her silent daughter (the mouth is never taped up as it is in a Stephen King story), and traces her back to a corrupt orphanage from thirty years back. The film is way too long for its substance. Based on a video game. Effective moog music by Akira Yamaoka. Great looking model-like sets of the town in full anamorphic cinemascope; it looks like it was a prosperous place in the coal age. Okay, this is a town that could have a Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnel named after it. But they would take the tunnel out. The subject matter of this film also reminds one of Stephen King’s TV miniseries “Kingdom Hospital.”


Renaissance (2006, Miramax/Onyx, dir. Christian Volckman, R, 105 min, France/UK) certainly provides a daring experience with animation. Cinemascope with black-and-white, mostly. You have odd mixtures of 2-D and 3-D, with characters sometimes almost stick-like and glaring, overlaid with blue-gray fluid but metallic transparencies that in “motion capture” provide an effect of 3-D depth without the glasses, and then realistic black-and-white mattes of Paris—up to the point of stunning car chase scenes along the Seine, like those in a Jim Clancy movie. Some people say that the movie reminds them of “Blade Runner,” but to me it sounded like Metropolis. Effects like rain, snow, shower water, and even light fixtures are stunning. Full spectral color appears only twice, with the biology lessons. The plot is a bit of a set up for the moral, and the storytelling is not that compelling. A 22-year-old girl is kidnapped, and in the ensuring scramble a lot of witnesses turn up dead. But it is the older story back in 2006 that has the moral. A company, Avalon, sells beauty and Oscar Wilde-style eternal youth. But it seems like the grownups gave some kids progeria and sacrificed them so that with some kind of serum extract the grownups could live and stay young forever. Can’t really imagine how this would happen. But the theme does play into the idea that adults, in their own vanity, are sacrificing future generations—and could one day become the last generation. The film, like “Scanner” above, is a rarity outside Japan up to now in animation.


Stir of Echoes (1999, Artisan, dir. David Koepp, 99 min, R) gives us Kevin Bacon is a ripened young adult utility lineman, with pregnant wife, who lets himself get hypnotized at a row house party in Chicago. He gets communications from a girl’s ghost, as does his son, and soon his wife is in danger. The movie seems to play on the moral risk of idle curiosity, party chicks, the occult, whatever, when one has a family to provide for. In regular aspect, the film had a bit of a constricted look.  


Vacancy (2007, Screen Gems, dir. Antal Nimrod, wr. Mark L. Smith, 80 min, R) seems to be where “Saw” and “Psycho” meet. A young married couple (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) get stranded at a flea-bag motel, put on some porn video, and realize that they will be the next subjects of a snuff film if they don’t get out. Other than that, the film is rather minimalist (even with the unnecessary Cinemascope -- note that the film is shorter than either component of "Grindhouse"), and the denouement is rather unremarkable. It does leave a bookend open for a sequel. The most engaging part of the film may be the artsy credits, with a Psycho-like music score by Paul Halsinger. (When I was a boy, I used to pronounce the word without the first ‘c’ when I saw it on roadside motels.)

In Richmond, VA in 1988 two men were convicted of plotting to use kids in a snuff film, a horrifying incident.

1408 (2007, MGM / Dimension / The Weinstein Company, story by Stephen King, dir. Mikael Hafstrom, 94 min, PG-13) John Cusack plays everyman (and quite youthful at 41) writer Mike Enslin, who early on is at a poorly attended book signing party at his independent store (with a disinterested proprietor), promoting his “10 Haunted Hotels.” To advance his “career” he wants to spend a night in the notorious haunted room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. He talks the manager (Samuel L. Jackson) into it, and once there, all hell breaks loose. The movies kind of loses it in the claustrophobic special effects, and the close-ups might have worked better in standard, rather than scope format.

Nevertheless, it’s not so much the horror that is striking as the conceptual layering. The movie was marketed in the previews as a kind of steroidal version of “Vacancy” from a competitor of Screen Gems. The old idea, you check into a hotel room, you die. It surely has been done before. But what we gradually discover is that Enslin has real problems. At one point, the manager says, “You’re a writer, you don’t believe in anything.” Indeed, the character sounds like a self-indulgent soul who likes to travel the country stirring up dangerous controversies to write about. We only learn about his questionable marriage and daughter some way in. He does have real problems. The movie starts with Mike as somebody like me – I identify with him (when he goes into the room he talks to himself) – and it diverges into some dangerous personal stuff – but I guess that I could have. OK, he is heterosexual, and that is one difference. Finally, we are not sure what “reality” is. Is it New York or LA?  A good paradigm for the film business.

I’ve spent many nights alone in motels and hotels around the country, and Europe. I have memories of some. A nightmare in a cabin on a lake near Ely, MN, that could have made a King story. A fall (fortunately no injury) in Lourdes, France (that’s why). A meetup with a friend waiting for me at the front desk in a Tacoma, WA La Quinta when I was researching gays in the military. A near pickup in Kiruna, Sweden. The first hotel that I ever stayed in on my own was The New Yorker, in 1964 – it looks a lot like the Dolphin in the movie. (Maybe like The Dakota, too.)

Hellbent (2004, Regent/Penthouse/SneakPreview, dir. Paul Etheredge-Ouzts, 85 min, R) seems like a gay version of “Saw” but with a little style and class, and a little of the campiness of the soap opera “Passions” thrown in. Dylan Fergus, well known as the ambulance driver Noah Bennett in the NBC soap, is pretty much the same character, here named Eddie, with the same demeanor and same Greek looks (including smooth chest) except gay. He trained to be a gay cop in West Hollywood and was disabled after losing an eye, so he works at a desk job. He can’t shoot or drive. Nevertheless, he is still the ring leader, wholesome, impeccable, and very protective of all of his friends as they go to the Halloween party, under the threat of a serial killer running around with a scythe that decapitates cleanly. Minnesotan Hank Harris, and Andrew Levitas play some of his friends, as does Matt Phillips as Tobey, here a drag queen. The killer draws in as Eddie gives in to temptation and goes back with a trick from the party. He has to become a sharpshooter again. In the final scene, it didn’t make sense for him to take the time to call 911, with the killer still loose in the next room. This film has been very slowly making the arthouse rounds. I just think it could have added the characters Fancy and Theresa from “Passions” as vampire lesbians at the party. Eddie aka Dylan Hergus himself gets opened up, you might say. The point is ambiguous, as we will learn on the NBC soap "Passions" on which Dylan stars.   


Severance (2006, Magnolia / Qwerty / Isle of Man, dir. Christopher Smith, 98 min, R, UK / Hungary). “The company is making cuts” all right, but not as in “Le Couperet.” This isn’t the kind of severance pay after a layoff.  Here, it’s a team building weekend in Hungary by an international defense company called “Palisades.” The bus breaks down and the driver quits, and the teammates hike to the wrong lodge, and find it like Hostel. Terrorists own the place, and pretty soon body parts roll, literarly. There will be paintball, of course, for team building; but then a leg is amputated by a huge mousetrap, and then a head is severed (after a conversation about how Marie Antoinette saw her own stump after chopping by the guillotine), followed by a vivisection, hostel style, on camera. This is definitely Tarantino Grindhouse territory. They finally find the luxury lodge, but the carnage continues. Even a commercial airliner rolls.


Mustang Sally’s Horror House (2006, New Line American World Cinema, dir. wr. Iren Koster, 88 min, R). “It’ll never get any better than this.”  That’s a great line from Mustang Sally, the owner of a whore house that is not the best in California. Once again, we have the setup of people going to a “resort” and finding horror that they didn’t bargain for. This time, the marks are six college boys looking for some nooky at a mountain house of ill repute. The place is Mustang Sally’s, run by guess who (a rather ascetic looking Elizabeth Daily). The alpha male of the group is Josh Henderson (Mark Parrish, a Massachusetts actor trying to follow in the steps of Damon, Affleck and Wahlberg  The movie is told in retrospect from Josh’s point of view; as the film opens, he sits in a hospital bed, in recollection. Soon the story six weeks ago starts. As it starts, Josh wears a t-shirt that reads “Manifesto” with a skull below. I’m not sure what that means, but I think it’s steganographic.  Despite the shirt, he comes across as much more civil than the other five boys (incl. Erik Fellows, Garrison Koch, Sonny Marler, Al Santos), who are more like Army buddies expecting some unit cohesion, even as they have impressive parents and life plans.  They arrive at the hideaway, that could come from a Richard Condon novel, and Sally lays down the rules. The boys split up for their adventures, and the hookers start taking their revenge. We in turn learn of the connection of the boys to some bad karma in the past. Josh, a gentler soul, rises above it and connects with his partner and gets to tell his story to the police and the shrinks six weeks later.


Mark Parrish reportedly broke his leg with a motorcycle accident near the set, and appears in a cast in the last hospital scene. That works out. A similar incident happened with Brad Pitt in filming Se7en. Koster wrote a great disco theme song for the movie, that might start appearing on dance floors.


The film was originally called just “Mustang Sally.”     


FearDotCom (2002, Warner Bros./Sony TriStar, dir. William Malone, story by Moshe Diamant, hard R). New York City detectives follow a trail of killings where every victim had visited a certain website. To solve the mystery they have to go into the website, as if it were a “second life.” People go to the site to watch vivisection or autopsies of victims still alive, and the webmaster knows who the visitors are, and they will get their just desserts for their voyourism. The film uses the “film noir” tricks – subdued colors, constant rain, a city that seems imaginary (as in Se7en). Stephen Dorff, Natascha McElhone, Stephen Rea, Udo Kier. It’s interesting that this story was written and movie made some time before the rise of social networking sites. The upcoming (2008) Screen Gems film “Untraceable” has a related premise.  So does the Dreamworks “Ring” franchise.


Untraceable (2008, Screen Gems / Lakeshore, dir. Gregory Hoblit, 100 min, R). An unstable young man (played by Joseph Cross), angered when the local television station exploits his father’s suicide, tracks down an kidnaps workers associated with the incident and rigs them to killing machines, viewed on the Internet from a webcam, with sensors do accelerate the death of the victim according to the page requests from visitors. Yes, it’s unprecedented. Diane Lane is the tough FBI agent in the Portland, OR field office who leads the effort to track him down. The executions are really graphic, involving visual dermal mutilations (such as a sulfuric acid vat). So, some people have characterized this film as “torture porn” like the “Hostel” or “Saw” movies. But it is really a film that explores the hazards of the Internet and the way consumer voyeurism can contribute to harm and crime.   Blogger discussion.


Awake (2007, MGM/The Weinstein Company / Greenestreet, dir. wr. Joby Harold, 84 min, UK, R). The opening shot predicts the tone and effect of this “thriller”. Hayden Christiansen, as the attractive 22 year old heir Clay Beresford, lies underwater in an old bathtub, his face pretty, and with a gentle butterfly pattern of chest hair. His girl is there for pleasure. But we already suspect that this pretty chest is going to be mauled, that he is going to “get it.” Later, he meets his heart surgeon, Terence Howard (as Dr. Hack Harper – “it’s hard out here for crooked surgeons”) who tells him to lie down and relax (clothed) on the gurney in his office. Soon he gets married, and his wife undoes his shirt just as he is about to consummate the marriage. The pager goes off, and the transplant heart is ready.  We already know we are in for a stylized version of torture porn, as if by some mixture of the Coen Brothers and Patricia Highsmith – with some proto-erotic sadomasochism with a beautiful male as the victim thrown in. The surgeons will even make jokes in the O.R. about how big and disfiguring the scar will be.


Of course, everyone by now knows that the title of the movie refers to anesthesia awareness. So you can guess the plot. Not only is there excruciating pain, he overhears the doctors talking about their plot to kill him in a transplant operation that supposedly is necessary for idiopathic cardiomyopathy (which may happen to teenagers because of unknown viral infections). There is a bit of a problem with the whole setup. Christiansen looks way too vigorous to be a heart patient, in and out of bed (and why does he smoke). Even in the OR you see those great hairy legs draping. He sort of looks like he could stand in for Jared Padalecki as Sam in Supernatural, even if his build is slighter. The doctors shave his chest while he is still awake, literally (they haven’t started the anesthesia yet, and in real surgical practice they would have), and he complains about the lack of shaving cream. (This has happened on camera in a couple other films, like 21 Grams and All that Jazz). Then the “torture” starts, and the film apparently does a technically good (and graphic) job or what open heart surgery and transplant surgery really look like (with the clamps and spreaders – and “saw”) – I assume with a mannequin and some nifty CGI programming to attach the mannequin to Christiansen’s bod.


The Coen-like story, of course, is that the docs and others have conspired to kill him for a little bit of money. Yup, that’s right, all for a little dough. Surgeons get tired of 24 hour shifts. In fact, Terrence Howard plays the chilling part well. The screenwriting trick for Joby Harold is to show how Clayton can save his life while immobile (the anesthesia makes you as immobile as if you were given curare – a theme of some other 50s horror film that I can’t remember now).  Well, there’s only one way, go out of body with that near death experience, and contact other loved ones (his mother (Lena Olin – somehow I wanted Meryl Streep here), who must be sacrificed.  The movie uses flashbacks and second images of Christiansen in surgical smocks, undamaged (though with smooth chest in a couple shots), as if he were still alive and intact. In the end, as the script says, he is still awake. But some other people won’t stay out of jail.


When I had pelvic surgery for an acetabular fracture, I went out while being wheeled into the OR, after the sedative started, and woke up six hours later in my room when the nurse turned me. My scar is so small and hairline that I would have trouble finding it. The surgeons did a masterful job, in Minneapolis in 1998.


In the end, this is a horror film. The Weinstein brothers should have used their Dimension brand. It is like what you might see from Lions Gate or Screen Gems.


Open Cam (2005, Wolfe / Lil Coal’s Big Pictures LLC, dir. Robert Gaston, 100 min, NC-17) is a multiple murder mystery set within Washington DC ‘s gay male community, where gay men are shown advertising themselves to each other with webcams over their own social networking sites. It shouldn’t surprise anyone too much that such antics could attract a serial killer. What makes this film, very intimate and explicit in some scenes, work is the “love story” between the likeable artist Manny (Andreau Thomas) and the DC Police gay detective Hamilton (Amir Darvish). Manny can take care of himself, as when he and his boyfriend Maurice (a most handsome Ben Green) beat off a carjacker with a lead pipe, a scene where he meets Hamilton. (It sounds like a libertarian argument for self-defense, and it is.) By the way, the carjacking attempt starts when the two characters are driving down an alley near Logan Circle and find a trash bin deliberately overturned to create an obstacle that will entice someone to get out of the car to remove it; this sounds like a common ploy and is a good lesson. Manny is not above hustling to make enough money to get by (one scene is quite tender), and he has an odd kite-like flag in his apartment with swastika shaped stars in place of regular stars (not sure what that means). Manny’s serious boyfriend Maurice turns out to be geeky enough to help solve the crimes. The slasher stuff (almost as graphic as anything from Eli Roth or Quentin Tarantino, with a touch or “Deliverance” thrown in) is shown on some intercepted webcams. The live locations in DC are used most effectively. Shown at Reel Affirmations in 2005.


Funny Games U.S. (2007, Warner Independent Pictures / Tartan / Halcyon / Celluloid, dir. Michael Haneke, 107 min, US/UK/Austria, R)  First, this is a remake of Haneke’s Austrian film with the same plot from 1997, and now it is set somewhere in the Hamptons.  Visitors probably know the “plot” – and that it starts when one of the young men Peter (Brady Corbet) invites himself in and asks for four eggs, from Ann (Naomi Watts). The other sociopath is Paul, played by the normally likeable Michael Pitt (from “The Dreamers”). Both young men wear white gloves, and Paul has a covering long sleeve jumper, claiming he has eczema (a likely story). Both men have identical hairy legs. They are made up to look as “perfect” as possible. The film does have a few interesting concepts. One is the way the men manipulate the family (with Tim Roth as George and Devon Gearhart as the resourceful boy Georgie) with innocuous words calculated to convey an increasingly level of threat. Pretty soon the violence starts, but the manipulations continue. The movie seems like a play, and an exercise in implicit content or implied meaning. In the middle, there is a sudden hiatus, where you hope the plot takes a twist and provides a way out. But the men return, starting with a lone golf ball. At the end, Haneke proposes one ending, and rewinds back to “reality”. Out in the penultimate scene on the boat where Ann may meet her doom, there is an existential conversation as to when fiction is reality.


The Strangers (2008, Rogue, dir. Bryan Bertino, 107 min, R). A couple (Liv Tyler, Scott Speeman) with dubious prospects for their upcoming marriage goes to the guy’s father’s rural South Carolina woods house. Three assailants, in masks, gradually invade and terrorize them. First you think the point it so frame the husband, but then the only reason is “because you were home.”  Very effective with the sudden appearances of the bag people.      


Teeth (2008, Roadside Attractions / Lions Gate / Dimension Extreme / TWC, dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein, 88 min). This little horror film has half of the indie corporate world behind it, and has snuck in to very limited platform release and been rushed to DVD. Everybody knows the story by know. A high school girl Dawn (Jess Weixler) leads a purity club and dates a very nice boy Tobey (Carnegie student Hale Appleman), who is almost a virgin himself. They go to the old swimming hole and wind up in what looks like Calypso’s Cave and things get a bit confusing, and Tobey loses everything. Then she goes to the OBGYN, who will do a vaginal exam and he loses his fingers. There is a lot about vagina dentata, and a lot of biology class, where one biology teacher explains how a rattlesnake’s rattle could have been a sudden mutation. It’s interesting that the word “tooth” has an irregular plural, easier to say. Then, it seems, Ryan (Ashley Springer), even without chest hair, conquers the dangers or returning to the womb Or does he?  His hollering at the moment of “recognition” is the most desperate in the whole film. In some ways, this film has a little of the style of a Carter Smith movie (“Bugcrush”, “The Ruins”). Nice people, including young college-age men (and at least one not so nice punk played by John Hensley), get it, and there is no escape (a dog eats the booty).  There is plenty of reason for castration (rather, emasculation) anxiety after all. The nuclear power plant silos (Three Mile Island?) make for a good metaphor. Remake of Japanese film “Sexual Parasite, Killer Pussy” (2004) (“Kiseichuu: kiraa pusshii” ) 


The Haunting of Molly Hartley (2008, Freestyle Releasing, dir. Mickey Liddell). Haley Bennett and Chace Crawford star in this horror setting that looks at the afterresults of a “Rosemary’s Baby” event, as a prep school girl approaches her 18th birthday and learns she will become captured by Satan. Blogger.


Twilight (2008, Summit Entertainment, dir. Catherine Hardwicke, novel Stephenie Meyer). A teenage girl falls in love with a classmate who turns out to be a vampire and who is transformed by the love. Blogger.


Timber Falls (2007, Slowhand Cinema Releasing / A-Mark, dir. Tony Giglio). A young couple goes hiking in West Virginia and is waylaid by locals from a religious cult who want a baby from them. After playing word games on the religious meaning of “marriage” the film turns into typical torture porn. References to “Deliverance”, “Misery” and “Saw”, even “Hostel”.


The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007, LionsGate / Odyssey / Isle of Man, dir. Dario Piana). A hockey player (Mike Vogel) dies repeatedly and is brought back into different lives. Blogger.


Dead Serious (2005, Logo / Modude, dir. Joe Sullivan) Right wing “Christian Action Network” and “the Decency Channel” raid a gay bar and kidnap the patrons to change them – into vampires. Blogger.


Red (2008, Magnolia, dir.  Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee, 90 min, R). Brian Cox plays a business owner who tries to get justice after three punky teens try to rob him and kill his 14 year old dog; this little film mixes genres. Blogger.


Hallettsville (2009, Westlake / Breakthrough, dir. Andrew Pozza, story by Derek Nixon, 87 min, R).  Shot near Austin and based on a story by a local young actor; kids go to a family cabin that seems haunted by a religious curse, and people disappear. Blogger.


The Haunting in Connecticut (2009, LionsGate / Gold Circle, dir. Peter Cornwell, Canada, 92 min). A family moves into a haunted house so that the teenage son is close to a medical center for experimental cancer treatments, and the son saves the family and himself. Supposedly based on the Snedeker family in a house in Southington in 1987. 


Bug (2006, LionsGate / LIFT, dir. William Friedkin, 105 min, R, USA) A bisexual woman in an isolated motel befriends a man who claims that the Army planted bugs in him – but she becomes the “mother bug.”  Blogger. See also “Bugcrush” (below).


The Horsemen (2006, LionsGate/Platinum Dunes, dir. Jonas Akerlund, 100 min, R, Canada) A detective, taking on serial murders, finds horrifying connections to his own family, and maybe Biblical prophecy. Blogger.


The Alphabet Killer (2009, Anchor Bay, dir. Rob Schmidt). A female detective thought to be mentally ill tries to return to work to solve a serial murder case in Rochester NY.  Blogger.


Thr3e (2007, Fox Faith/Namesake, dir. Robby Henson, based on the novel by Ted Dekker, PG-13)  A seminary student is stalked by a serial killer and by demons from his past; a police psychologist and girl friend round out a bizarre triangle.  There’s a lot about the “knowledge of good and evil”.  Blogger.  The film borrows from the Saw films for some of its plot techniques and tricks, so it’s an unusual combination of religion and horror, and unusual offering from Fox Faith.


Shutter Island (2010, Paramount Vantage, dir. Martin Scorsese, novel by Dennis Lehane)  Leonardo DiCaprio thinks he’s a US Marshall when he visits an island mental institution, and finds that he may be a “god damn MP”. Blogger.

Related reviews: Taking Lives  Memento  Insomnia   Smallville  The Fountainhead Pulse Kingdom Hospital   Gay films   Passions   Unknown   The Host   The Ring  Hostel   21 Grams  All that Jazz    The Signal   An American Haunting, Bugcrush


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