Thursday, October 27, 2005

House of Wax (2005)

Lately, it seems like Hollywood has been running out of ideas. Everything is based on a true story or seems like it's just reprocessed material from another movie. As such, I'm not exactly surprised when a remake goes into production. Remakes are twelve for ten cents nowadays, but when Dark Castle Entertainment announced its intentions to remake a certain horror classic, I was intrigued. Dark Castle, a company founded by Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, and Gilbert Adair to make horror movies for Warner Brothers, is no stranger to the idea of remaking classic horror movies. After all, their first two movies were remakes of William Castle's House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts.

But the reason I was so intrigued by their third remake is the fact that the source material is a remake itself. Any horror fan worth their salt has heard of the 1953 horror House of Wax, starring the legendary Vincent Price. The movie's one of the highest grossing 3-D movies ever made, but I don't know how many of you readers know that it was a remake too. Yep, the original House of Wax is a remake of the relatively obscure 1933 movie The Mystery of the Wax Museum, which itself was based on a play written by Charles Belden. So what we've got with Dark Castle's House of Wax is a remake of a remake of movie based on a play. Got that? Good.

The movie follows a group of friends on a road trip from Florida to Louisiana for a huge college football game. We've got good girl Carly (Elisha Cuthbert), her criminally-inclined twin brother Nick (Chad Michael Murray), her boyfriend Wade (Jared Padalecki), her best friend Paige (Paris Hilton), Paige's boyfriend Blake (Robert Ri'chard), and camcorder-carrying dork Dalton (Jon Abrahams). They have a confrontation with a trucker while camping, and when they awaken the next morning, they discover that the engine of Wade's car may or may not have been tampered with.

To avoid being stranded, they accept a ride into the secluded ghost town of Ambrose so they can hunt for a new fan belt for the car. Once they arrive in Ambrose, they find themselves drawn to the House of Wax, a museum filled with remarkably lifelike wax figures. However, they soon discover that the House of Wax and the rest of the town has been populated by the wax-coated corpses of unlucky visitors. The five friends must find a way to avoid murderous twin brothers Bo and Vincent (Brian Van Holt in a duel role) and escape Ambrose before they too become permanent exhibits in the House of Wax.

Apparently Dark Castle Entertainment adopted the same idea of remaking a film that the producers of the Dawn of the Dead remake had: to take a famous horror movie and the barest skeleton of its plot, and go in a far different direction than its predecessor. House of Wax bears little resemblance to its source material, with the titular wax museum serving as the only link between them. Dark Castle labeled it a "re-imagining" instead of a "remake," which is essentially their way of saying "we just took the name and basic plot, and made a totally different movie."

The movie also seems to borrow bits and pieces from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, which they even reference by name in the movie itself. House of Wax owes much more to recent movies like Wrong Turn and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake than to Vincent Price's classic, right down to Elisha Cuthbert wearing an outfit similar to the ones worn by Eliza Dushku and Jessica Biel in said films. The movie is simply your typical backwoods slasher movie, only without cannibal rednecks, the antagonists are demented twins that like to make wax figures with their victims.

The movie, written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes, is absolutely chock full of genre clichés. Let's take the characters, for example. There's Final Girl, the boyfriend, the token black guy, the angsty one, the dork nobody really likes, and the slut. How many times have we seen those characters in a horror movie? There's also instances of the characters breaking some of the cardinal rules of horror by splitting up, snooping around strange places, and running up the stairs when the front door is easily accessible. You also never really get a chance to know the characters, or even like them. The handful of brief attempts at making these lame characters seem real are just weak, and the dialogue is stilted and disposable. There's also have a subplot that the Paige character might be pregnant, but it's both badly written and barely even mentioned at all. The script also left me asking how a building made of wax could survive in the very muggy south. And is it even possible to make a building made entirely of wax in the first place?

Moving on, the cast is kind of a mixed bag as well. I liked Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, and Brian Van Holt, but the rest of the cast did nothing to make them stand out. Honestly, the movie could have easily been made without Robert Ri'chard or Jon Abrahams, and neither of them would have been missed. And how about Paris Hilton? Casting her got a lot of heat from critics, who argued that filmmakers really shouldn't be casting someone whose only discernable claim to fame is being an insanely rich floozy who videotaped herself having sex with Shannon Doherty's ex-husband. While I agree that she got famous for doing absolutely nothing, I applaud her for trying to do something with her fame. But the thing is, I've seen more believable acting from brick walls. It seems like she downed a handful of Valium before each take. I know the movie isn't supposed to be Shakespeare, but she could have at least tried harder. But in her favor, at least she can run and scream like a champ.

However, where the movie succeeds is its direction and special effects. Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra makes his motion picture debut with House of Wax, and his experience directing music videos shows. The movie is slick and stylish, with some very inventive camera angles and great jump-scares. He also manages to make quite a few sly references to One Night In Paris, though I don't know if they were intentional or not. If they were, it makes sense. Why not play to what we know Paris is good at?

Anyway, the makeup effects are also great, another brilliant job by KNB EFX Group. Thanks to KNB's work, the movie has its fair share of disturbing moments. From knives to Achilles' tendons and throats, to fingers getting chopped off and lips getting super-glued together, what the movie lacks in characterization is made up for in violent savagery. The wax creations themselves also look absolutely outstanding, and those who worked to put them together get a big thumbs-up from me. We also have an exciting score composed by John Ottman, which made the movie that much more fun to watch.

I know I complained about it a lot, but House of Wax was actually pretty entertaining at times. Unfortunately, the movie seems like there's a "been there, done that" feeling. The lyrics may be different, but the song still sounded the same. I liked Wrong Turn, and I liked the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Did I like House of Wax? I didn't love it, but I certainly didn't hate it either. I'm going to give it two and a half stars, which sounds about right to me.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, October 16, 2005

High Tension (2003)

From cerebral thrillers to ghosts to zombies to monsters, the horror genre can cover a lot of ground. But perhaps the most controversial of all the sub-genres, however, is the slasher film. Closely related to the Italian "giallo" style of literature and filmmaking, slasher movies have often been reviled by critics as trite, formulaic claptrap serving no real purpose other than to show attractive actors getting killed. But horror fans paid critics no mind, rushing into theaters to see the dozens of slasher movies that were released in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th.

As the 1980s progressed, slasher movies became fewer and far-between, sputtering and wheezing to a slow death. However, things changed in 1996, when renowned horror maestro Wes Craven and Dawson's Creek creator Kevin Williamson teamed up for Scream. The movie was a big fat hit, revitalizing the slasher genre with its all-star cast and self-referential nature. But as good as Scream is, it started a new trend of slasher movies that were intended less for people who grew up watching them, and more for the Dawson's Creek demographic.

The amount of blood and gore was reduced and the violence was severely toned down, becoming much more implied (if not totally off-screen). Whether the toned-down violence and gore was due to an attempt to appeal to the "teeny bopper" demographic or due to MPAA restrictions is anybody's guess, but the watering-down of the genre even saw the release of a PG-13 slasher movie (Cry Wolf, for you trivia buffs). I don't have a problem with PG-13 horror movies or movies where the violence is more implied, but you'd figure that a slasher movie by nature would feature lots of blood and violence.

A lot of diehard slasher movie fans pined for a return to the "good ol' days," which is what they were hoping for in Alexandra Aja's High Tension. Released in its native France as Haute Tension ("High Voltage") and in the United Kingdom as Switchblade Romance, the movie spent two years frightening Europe before Lions Gate Films brought it across the Atlantic Ocean for an extremely short-lived limited release in the summer of 2005. Was High Tension the return to the old-school style that fans were hoping for, or should it have stayed in France?

The plot can be described relatively simply, so let's get to it, shall we? College students Marie (Cécile De France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) head into the French countryside so they can spend a peaceful weekend studying at the secluded farmhouse owned by Alex's family. Unfortunately for them, the serenity doesn't last long, as a psychopathic stranger (Philippe Nahon) breaks into the house and brutally slaughters Alex's family. While Marie manages to elude the burly lunatic, Alex finds herself tied up and thrown into the back of the murderer's truck, which, judging from its interior, looks to have claimed numerous victims in the past (while appearing as if it were stolen from the Jeepers Creepers prop department, to boot). Before the night is out, Marie must find a way to rescue Alex and avoid becoming a victim herself, following a bloody path left by a madman with a thirst for carnage.

High Tension is one of those movies where, even if you have absolutely no idea what's going on at any given time, you'll still be blown away. It takes two or three viewings for everything to sink in, but each time, my appreciation for the movie grows. Though its seemingly out-of-nowhere twist ending may not please everyone, High Tension is a well-crafted piece of horror art. And while the movie may be filled with gore and violence, it would still be terrifying without it. True horror doesn't come from showing graphic imagery, it comes from the anticipation, from the atmosphere. High Tension understands this, and though it's unabashedly soaked in blood, it also uses an "oh man, what's the killer going to do next?" mentality that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat. And while it may be a foreign movie, High Tension is true to the genre's American roots. We see homages to horror movies from days gone by, from classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and The Shining, to lesser-known gems like William Lustig's gritty 1980 flick Maniac. There's even references to non-horror movies, as evidenced a subtle nod to True Romance towards the end of the movie.

The script, penned by Grégory Levasseur and director Alexandre Aja, doesn't rely very heavily on dialogue. Between the first twenty minutes and the last five, there's only one scene with any extensive dialogue. But you know what? It isn't really needed. The movie isn't about what the characters have to say, it's about what happens to them as their whole world falls to pieces around them. In the early moments of the movie, we see a badly scarred Marie telling her story from a hospital room. With this knowledge, we realize that she survives, but where the suspense lies is seeing how she goes from Point A to Point B. We don't expect the characters to sit down and have nice lengthy conversations, we expect them to face dangerous situations. The script isn't a typical film of this ilk, in that we see touches of humanity within. Take, for example, Alex's mother (played by Oana Pellea). After being horrifically brutalized by the killer, she doesn't ask for help, but merely whispers "why me?" with her dying breath. This proves to be both poignant and disturbing, and is a very effective moment indeed.

High Tension is brilliantly directed by Aja, assisted by tight editing and the gorgeous cinematography of Mahime Alexandre. The movie looks absolutely wonderful, from the luscious greens of a forest, to the dark blues of night, to the drab yellows of the farmhouse. A lot of horror directors forget about how scary suspense can be, but Aja doesn't. We only see quickly-paced editing in a few spots, as Aja instead chooses to linger on certain shots. Aja takes his time, making his film dig itself under the viewer's skin.

Aiding this is the very visceral sound design. High Tension benefits from its stellar use of ambient noise to add to the movie's anxiousness, sometimes even dropping into total silence with the exceptions of the killer's shoes squeaking on a hardwood floor. When the sound design isn't enough, François Eudes's intense musical score is brought in. In an American movie, the music would manipulate you with cheap jump scares (usually through loud stingers, which I call my "going deaf is scary" theory). The music could overwhelm the movie like in American horror movies, but High Tension's music underlies everything. When the score and sound design are combined, High Tension is as terrifying audibly as it is visually.

In a movie such as this, casting can make or break a movie. If you can't feel some kind of connection to the lead hero or heroine, then it will be harder to draw you in. I thought Cécile De France did a wonderful job as Marie, showing us a tough heroine in the same vein as Linda Hamilton in The Terminator or Sigourney Weaver in Alien. The physicality of her role demands a lot from her, and she's up to task, running the gamut of emotions of anyone who would be in her situation. And when the final twist is revealed, it adds a disturbing subtext to her performance upon repeat viewings that really boosts the movie.

Phillipe Nahon, credited simply as "le tueur" (translation: "the killer"), is given nearly no character development at all. We don't get inside his head, we don't see what makes him tick. He's just a malevolent force of nature driven only by his insatiable bloodlust, reinforced by Nahon's disturbing performance. I'll admit I'm not familiar with Nahon's work, but if he's anything like "le tueur" in any of his other movies, I'll have to check them out. Maïwenn Le Besco doesn't get a lot of screen time (nor does any other member of the limited cast, outside of De France and Nahon), but as far as acting really scared goes, Le Besco nails it.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the outstanding special makeup effects supervised by Gianetto De Rossi. A frequent collaborator with the late horror legend Lucio Fulci, De Rossi's effects look realistic and believable, and I give it a thumbs up. And big props to De Rossi's makeup department for making Nahon look like a nasty monster that would rape you, kill you, then rape you again. Nahon is a handsome guy in real life, but with a combination of makeup, wardrobe, and performance, he comes off as someone who'd make you cross the street just so you wouldn't have to pass him on the sidewalk. According to those behind the scenes, Nahon in full makeup bears a resemblance to notorious French serial murderer Émile Louis, and if that's the case, then perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that Nahon is famous for playing loonies and nutjobs in various French movies.

A review of High Tension isn't complete without mentioning its infamous twist. The subject of heated debate across the Internet, many complain that its ending came out of nowhere, believing that it made The Village's much-maligned twist ending look good. Others, on the other hand, didn't mind so much. I really didn't know what to think of the twist at first, but it's grown on me. The movie is a kindred spirit to The Sixth Sense, so to speak. There are a few clues hinting at the twist, but many of them are so subtle that you don't even recognize them until you see the movie a second or even third time. And it didn't help that people got so worked up denouncing the twist that they didn't even stop and think that it may have worked better had Aja simply revealed it differently. Going back to online complaints, some claim that High Tension is heavily inspired by Dean Koontz's novel Intensity (while others claim it's a case of outright plagiarism). I have yet to read the book at the time of this review, so screw Dean Koontz. Rip-off or not, I still liked the movie.

High Tension may be indicative of the stark differences between American horror and non-American horror. Foreign horror is so far removed from its American counterpart, usually shying away from jokes, pop culture references, or even compassion. Foreign horror is dark, moody, and delves deep into the shadows of the human heart, something most Americans don't usually appreciate or yearn to see. There aren't any postmodern wisecracks or anything like that, but unbridled insanity. Aja says on the DVD audio commentary that he wanted the movie to be as tense and suspenseful as possible, and I think he succeeded. The movie, in my opinion, is a nightmare caught on celluloid. I might be overrating it some, but I'd be willing to bet that High Tension is one of the best slasher films since Scream. And for that, it deserves every bit of praise that one can give it.

Final Rating: ****