Friday, April 30, 2010

DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM (2009) - 3/5 stars

Release: 2009
Director: Patrick Alessandrin
Writer: Luc Besson
Cast: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Daniel Duval, Elodie Yung, Philippe Torreton, MC Jean Gab'1, James Deano, Laouni Mouhid, Fabrice Feltzinger, Pierre-Marie Mosconi
Soundtrack: various artists including Da Octopuss
Claim to fame: the long-awaited sequel to Luc Besson and Pierre Morel's 2004 international breakout hit "District B13"
Rating: 3/5 stars

Sure, sure, "District 9" was the critical darling of the sci-fi/genre community last year, but those who crave an injection of action into their veins knew all along that "District 13" was the cinematic destination for a kneecap-to-the-face adrenaline rush.

When "District B13" was released in 2004, it followed on the string of stylish action flicks like "Ong Bak" that combined wince-inducing stunts with a new athletic style known as parkour, a form of modern acrobatics that turns urban areas into obstacle courses.

The movie, directed by Pierre Morel and produced by Luc Besson, was short on intellect but hit the sweet spot for DVD importers craving their next action fix. And it proved that, even if he was never going to reach the artistic heights of "Leon" again, at least Besson was able to deliver slick Euro action vehicles every now and then.


As Jackie Chan would say: no fear. No stuntmen. No equal.

A lot has happened since 2004. Nearly every movie with a chase sequence has tried to incorporate some elements of parkour - even 2008's abysmal "Incredible Hulk" from fellow Besson protege Lous Letterier, which "B13" star Cyril Raffaelli contributed to. Cyril also played an evil henchman with Nightcrawler-esque agility in the tepid "Live Free and Die Hard" in 2007.

Over in Thailand, Tony Jaa managed to top the gravity-defying insanity of "Ong Bak" with not one but two amazing martial arts flicks ("The Protector," "Ong Bak 2"). It's safe to say that this particular brand of action filmmaking that was once so cutting edge has now reached Hollywood saturation.

So, as much as fans have been craving a sequel, you had to wonder: was there really a way for Besson to top himself and stay relevant with a "District 13" part 2? Lead actors Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle are a dynamic duo, no doubt, but they're no Tango & Cash; a sequel couldn't be sustained by their buddy chemistry alone. Bigger stunts, more elaborate action, a compelling storyline, and a kinetic visual style…those are the kinds of things viewers expected.

Now would be a good time for a snappy oneliner, guys

Unfortunately, Luc Besson's idea of crafting a worthy sequel here seems to be to take the same formula as the original and add a whole heaping load of CGI. Cue the collective groan from action fans everywhere.

Former director Pierre Morel is off to greener pastures - he directed the surprisingly good "Taken" and the surefire guilty pleasure "From Paris With Love," and is looking at doing a cinematic adaptation of "Dune." In his stead we have French filmmaker Patrick Alessandrin, a man I know next to nothing about but who apparently has some experience in directing French comedies. "Ultimatum" is his first film in 6 years. Are you worried yet?

I'll grant "Ultimatum" this: it looks and sounds gorgeous. The squalid beauty of a near-future Paris ghetto is brought to life by a stunning blu-ray transfer. The soundtrack features electronic/dubstep (I say that but I'm still not 100% sure what dubstep sounds like) by a French artist known as Da Octupuss, among others. It's music with a relentless, dirty groove that perfectly suits imagery of muscular dudes leaping from building to building while being chased by SWAT teams.

Jimmy Johns really takes it over the top with their new delivery service

Where this film goes astray is its screenplay and over-reliance on computer wizardry. The movie looks like it cost $100 million to make, but I'm sure it cost a fraction of that. Tere are times when it feels like Luc Besson's sole intent with "Ultimatum" was to prove that France could produce a movie as big, dumb, and loud as any Michael Bay blockbuster. But to what end? It's hyper-edited, digitally-enhanced sound and fury…signifying nothing.

The first "D13" opened with a parkour sequence that was so exciting and well-choreographed, it guaranteed that no matter what happened the rest of the movie, the filmmakers had your attention. With "Ultimatum," it takes literally 26 minutes for the plot to even kick in. Before that we have a vaguely creepy sequence where Raffealli dresses in drag to infiltrate a drug dealer's club. Let me put it this way: he's a bit too convincing. In fact, with a wig on he looks exactly like a muscular woman - and there are a few too many close-ups of his asscrack.

Cyril Raffaelli knows you're thinking about his ass

Of course, any talk about "plot" would be inconsequential as long as the action sequences held up. But they're either too cute for their own good or so far-fetched it's like they were cooked up by a computer program. This time around, Raffealli handles all the martial arts sequences while David Belle goes strictly parkour. One of my favorite moments was when our heroes are surrounded on both sides by a bunch of bad guys and Raffealli says something like, "I'll take care of these guys. You go do your Spider-Man routine." THAT'S what "Ultimatum" should have been about.

But again, it lets us down. I was hoping for Cyril's fight scenes to be up close and brutal, but too often he's using props - including a Van Gogh painting and a ladder - in choreography that seemed ripped right out of Jackie Chan's work from the 80's. Been there, done that. And David Belle's urban gymnastics no longer seem as impressive since everything looks so green-screened. By the time you got to the scene where Cyril and Belle drive a car through the hallways of a police station, you feel like "Ultimatum" is a Playstation 3 game where you don't even have to press any buttons.

Press X to Win

And I'm not even talking about the ridiculous story. You don't have to be Glenn Bleck to find the holes in this wacky far-Left fantasy that has a corrupt French military staging a fake cop killing so the President will agree to nuke District 13 and rebuild it as a suburban neighborhood for the middle class. As "Ultimatum" begins, the District has been drawn along 5 racial lines, including extremist Muslims, African warlords, the Chinese Triads, and Nazi skinheads. GUESS what brings all those folks together?

Yup, everybody puts aside their differences and teams together to try and stop the President from nuking the 5 tallest high-rises in the District and turning it into a bunch of condos. By the time you see the tall, lanky dude with "SS" and swastika tattoos all over his face raise his hand and join forces with a bunch of other ethnicities, well, if your eyes haven't rolled into the back of your head then you're not paying attention.

French skinheads everywhere wonder: can't we all just get along?

Again, if the action was up to par then things like this probably wouldn't matter, but "Ultimatum" just doesn't deliver the way its predecessor did. THAT SAID...wait for it, wait for it...I have to give it 3 stars simply because it looks and sounds astounding, and there was enough crazy fighting and stunts to keep me entertained for its relatively short runtime. And I can even appreciate the audaciousness of using blatant ethnic stereotypes as a means to promote racial harmony.

I'm also a huge fan of Cyril Raffaelli (as long as he's not wearing drag) ever since I saw him very nearly kick Jet Li's ass in 2001's "Kiss of the Dragon." I hope he stars in more movies where his name receives top billing - he's certainly earned it at this point. What can I say? Sometimes I'm loyal to a fault.

"Take two elbows to the face and call your doctor in the morning!"
How's that for a oneliner?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

THE COLLECTOR (2009) - 1/5 stars

Release: 2009
Director: Marcus Dunstan
Writer: Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton
Cast: Josh Stewart, Michael Reilly Burke, Andrea Roth, Juan Fernandez, Karley Scott Collins, Madeline Zima, Robert Wisdom
Soundtrack: Jerome Dillon
Claim to fame: from the writers of the "Feast" series and "Saw IV-VI"
Rating: 1/5 stars

Yesterday I talked about how the horror movie "Dread" was a nice change of pace for the genre, in that it generally steered clear of cliche and took place in the unfamiliar (for horror flicks) setting of a college campus. Well, if "Dread" was all about avoiding cliche then 2009's "The Collector" is an exercise in embracing them. Actually, I'm not even sure if this movie is cliche or just completely unimaginative.

When people talk about the decline of Western civilization, "The Collector" is the kind of movie they're talking about. That might seem a little harsh. But when critics are tearing apart these movies ("Saw" and "Hostel" and the like), they're doing so because they secretly fear the person in the theater who's actually getting a half-chub while someone onscreen is having pliers taken to their tongue.


This is actually probably the smartest way to watch "The Collector"

Whether or not those people exist, you can can sense the dread among the critical elite that our entertainment is subtly being shifted and geared towards those kinds of folks. There's the notion that when hairless, orange-colored people bumping uglies online doesn't do it for you anymore, you move on to the next big thing - which is realistically simulated violence.

I don't really care about all that. Well, actually I do, but for the purposes of this blog the issue is kinda neither here nor there. Horror, like any genre really, is cyclical. Back in the eighties, critics were so offended by the graphic puppet and make-up effects of John Carpenter's "The Thing" that they literally labeled it pornography. In the intervening years, it's gone on to rightfully be considered a classic. The issue is, Carpenter was an artist; every aspect of "The Thing" was finely crafted, from the music and the lighting to the performances and, yes, the beautifully grotesque special effects.


"This will go nice in my collection of...err...what exactly do I collect again?"

In comparison, nearly every facet of "The Collector" is lazily slapped together. The plot concerns a sort of handyman/cat burglar named Arkin. During the day, he scopes out a house by doing work on it and then returns at night to lay claim to the family safe. When the movie starts, he's doing his latest job because his ex-wife desperately needs to pay off some loan sharks. Now, this is the kind of stuff that you would think the movie would spend time elaborating on: character motivation.

But no. Arkin's wife and young daughter are given the briefest amount of screentime possible. It doesn't help that lead actor Josh Stewart seemingly…can't act. Either that or he's trying way too hard to be low-key. Regardless, he plays a guy who should seem down on his luck and have at least some of the audience's sympathy, but thanks to Stewart just comes across as creepy.


"I'm not a creeper. I swear."

Arkin returns to the house later that night. The plan is simple: the family is on vacation so all he has to do is break in, steal an expensive jewel from their safe, and get out of there in time to save his wife from the loan sharks. A wrench is thrown in the gears, however, when Arkin discovers he's not the only one in the house. The family themselves never got the chance to go on vacation and they're now held captive by a serial killer. Can Arkin save those who are trapped in the house, including a little girl who reminds him of his own daughter? Can he even save himself?

Very quickly, any sense of believability (or credibility, for that matter) is thrown out the window. The Collector wears a mask that is a blatant rip-off of the mask that David CRONENBERG wore in Clive BARKER's "Nightbreed" movie. And it's not even a respectful homage like the Scarecrow's mask in "Batman Begins." It's just an out-and-out copy. Pay attention, because this is the makers of the "Saw" sequels…shamelessly stealing from horror icons like Cronenberg and Barker.


"Oh shit, did we just rip off 'Nightbreed'? My bad, my bad."

Straining the audience's suspension of disbelief, The Collector has the house wired with traps. Now, we're not just talking about a few bear traps scattered in the living room (though they're there), we're talking elaborate traps that actually have machinations *inside the walls themselves*, chandeliers with steak knives inside them (how'd The Collector get up to the ceiling to attach them?), acid on bedroom floors, criss-crossing wires and impromptu guillotines.

This raises so many questions, it's not even funny. How in the world did this guy get the house completely wired with his traps, to the point where they almost seem like a part of the house itself? Considering that he already has everyone tied up in the basement, who exactly are the traps for?


Not even those burglars in "Home Alone" had it this bad

And that's not even stopping to ask: why is this guy called The Collector? It's ostensibly because he always keeps one of his last victims alive and inside this large box. He lugs the box around in his van, drops it in the middle of his new victims' house, lets them discover it, and then proceeds to have his torturous way with them. It really doesn't make any sense. I mean, what's the point of keeping someone alive in the box…just to frighten your new victim? Except according to the film's prologue, he doesn't let the surprise of "Oh my God, someone is still alive and trapped inside this box inside my living room!" sink in long before he grabs the poor sap and ties them down to be poked and prodded.

What this comes down to is that The Collector is not a compelling horror villain. At first, he seems interesting enough; despite his "Nightbreed" mask, I liked the way the character moved throughout the house without saying a word and displaying no visible emotion. The Collector was scary precisely because we knew nothing about him - he could be anyone! - and his methods were methodical to the extreme. I realize it's a delicate balance for writers to keep their movie monster shrouded in mystery and yet have enough of a personality and backstory that horror fans can latch on to them. But characters with a sense of anonymity and a single-minded sense of purpose? They're scary. Scary because they seem unstoppable.

However, all of that got tossed out the window when the family's teenage daughter returns home in the middle of the night with her boyfriend and the two begin to get heavy - the Collector actually crouches down, partially out of sight, and starts to watch them. He then grotesquely licks his lips when the girl's breasts are exposed, which pretty much killed anything interesting about him for me. Alright, so he's just a loathsome pervert in a mask who gets off on voyeuristic sex and violence. I mean, he's basically the exact kind of person who critics like Roger Ebert are afraid is watching this movie!


"They call him The Collector...I don't know why, or what he collects

exactly, but the script is telling me to tell you that! So now you know!"

"The Collector" basically plays out like a "Home Alone" revamp for adults, with Arkin trying to dodge The Collector's macabre traps. The lighting, set design, and editing style are all borrowed from "Saw," making this film seem more derivative than it really should. Director Marcus Dunstan cut his chops by writing "Feast," "Saw IV," "Feast 2," "Saw V," "Feast 3," and "Saw VI." Whew.

Now, I don't take the genre so seriously that I can't enjoy the first "Feast" film, but it doesn't take the most discerning critic to realize that Dunstan's filmography isn't the most exemplary display of talent in the horror realm. "The Collector" was really Dunstan's chance to prove himself as a credible horror filmmaker - he co-wrote and directed the project himself - but he instead sticks to what he knows. Which is, basically, shlock for the sake of shlock.


This would be considered dark and edgy...if, you know, a million

industrial music videos hadn't done it already in the early 90's

Get a green-hued room with dirty tiled walls (don't worry if you have to color-code the film on a computer in post-production), make sure there are some fluorescent lights - flickering, of course - that the camera can repeatedly cut to, strap a weeping actor to a chair, and then splash some red corn syrup everywhere and you've got yourself a MOVIE. Right? Oh, and don't forget that a nihilistic ending, where even the morally questionable "good guy" is hacked to bits, is a must. We've got to ensure there's room for a sequel, after all.

But "The Collector" can't even get this formula right. The make-up effects are painfully low-budget (a scene where a guy has his fingers cut off looks like a bunch of flesh-colored clay digits flying through the air). The only standout scene moment is when a guy lands backwards onto the living room full of bear traps. Now that's a spectacular way to go. What's really unsettling is how "The Collector" tosses in violence against animals for seemingly no reason. Dunstan manages to slice a cat in half and literally blow up a German Shepherd in less than 80 minutes.


Get used to this color scheme cause it permeates the film

I know, I know: some people would say it's hypocritical to decry violence against animals in a movie that is all about perpetrating violence against humanity. But deep down, we all know that we've got it coming. Humans are the worst and most cruel species on earth. That's why we can watch these kinds of movies guilt-free. When was the last time you mourned the death of a horny teenager in a "Friday the 13th" movie?

But a family cat howling in pain as it's burned alive by acid and then sliced in half by a giant blade isn't something I really want to see in my horror flicks. Again, it's another element of this movie that seems only there to provoke the audience. You know, so the Beavis and Butt-Head sitting behind you in the theater can turn to each other and go, "Heh heh, dogs blowing up is cool, heh heh."


This movie's creepy, random fascination with spiders did not help endear it to me

If my 1 star rating has to be for anything, let it be for the score provided by Jerome Dillon, former drummer for Nine Inch Nails. His music is a decent-enough sounding pastiche of "The Downward Spiral"-era industrial music, and is in the tradition of other ex-NIN members doing horror movie soundtracks (Charlie Clouser wrote the music for "Saw"). This is the "NIN-loving high school Freshman" trapped inside of me being gracious.

And if it sounds like I'm getting too riled up over this movie, think of this way: you know all the times you've heard someone say "I could write a script better than that!" and you thought to yourself, "Yeah, right"? This is the one time where, yes, just about anybody could write a screenplay better than this. And if it sounds like I'm taking this movie too seriously, think of it THIS way: somebody actually spent $3 million dollars making this dungheap. Three. Million.


Geez. Remember when horror movies were actually FUN
and not just exercises in cruelty?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

DREAD (2009) - 3/5 stars

Release: 2009
Director: Anthony DiBlasi
Writer: Anthony DiBlasi (screenplay), Clive Barker (short story)
Cast: Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Evans, Hanne Steen, Laura Donnelly, Jonathan Readwin, Carl McCrystal, Zoe Stollery, Eva Wyrwal, Elissa Dowling, Kirean Murphy
Soundtrack: Theo Green
Claim to fame: a film adaptation of Clive Barker's short story of the same name; one of Lionsgate's "8 Films to Die For" for 2009
Rating: 3/5 stars

"Dread" is part of the '8 Films to Die For'/'Horror After Dark' festival that Lionsgate has been doing for four years in a row now, where the studio picks up a series of low-budget horror movies and give them brief theatrical distribution around Halloween time.

From my experience, most of these films are rather awful and are designed to ride whatever trend is going on in the horror scene that year. The trailers for the 'Horror After Dark' movies annoyingly load at the start of every '8 Films' DVD and do their damnedest to make each film look indistinguishable from one another and resemble the latest "Saw" or "Hostel."


But I wanted to give "Dread" a chance since it's based on a short story by Clive Barker that I've always enjoyed. In my more impressionable years, I went through a phase where I read almost nothing but horror literature: mostly Stephen King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, Poppy Z. Brite, and Thomas Ligotti. There's something about the horror genre that seems particularly suited to short fiction, so Barker was always one of my favorites for his "Books of Blood" collection of short stories as well as the novella "The Hellbound Heart," which served as the basis for "Hellraiser."

When translated to the screen, Barker has been pretty hit or mess; while I love "Hellraiser" and "Lord of Illusions," and have a soft spot for "Nightbreed" (which could have been great if it wasn't butchered by the studio), most of the other attempts at translating his work to the big screen have been a failure. If the filmmakers don't understand Barker's work or bother to maintain its integrity, you usually end up with a unruly mishmash of magic, excessive gore, and S&M puked up on screen.


"Hey guys, is this the audition room for 'Twilight'?

Oh God, wait, I'm in a Clive Barker movie?!"

We've seen it happen most recently with "Midnight Meat Train," which had the misfortune of being the first English-language film from Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura ("Versus," "Godzilla: Final War") - a director who is incredibly stylish, yet would not be my first choice at all to tell the story of what happens under the bowels of New York City at night. That movie's ridiculous climatic scene reduced itself to a schizophrenically-edited brawl between two super-powered aliens, seemingly because that was the only thing Kitamura knew to do.

Thankfully, "Dread" fares much better. It sticks fairly close to its source material, while at the same time taking some liberties to expand it to a 90 minute running time. What's nice is that, while it sometimes does trade in the imagery that is associated with "torture porn," for the most part "Dread" steers clear of horror movie cliche.


Poor bastard

The plot is refreshingly unique for the genre, telling the story of two college students. Jackson Rathbone plays Stephen, the intelligent and sensitive Film major (so sue me if I felt like I could relate to the character), who winds up crossing paths with another student named Quaid in a philosophy class. Qauid is, well, psychotic, basically: manipulative, controlling, violent, and obsessed with the concept of fear.


"I want to scare death."

Not unlike the character of Jonathan Crane AKA the Scarecrow from the Batman comic books, Quaid wants to know what happens to the human mind when it's pushed beyond the boundaries of fear…when you come face to face with the thing that terrifies you the most, that chills you to the very core of your being and that you spend most of your waking hours trying not to think about - do you snap? Or do you become stronger, something more than you were before?

Stephen follows Quaid down this slippery slope, incorporating their study and fascination with fear into a multimedia project to serve as Stephen's Film studies thesis. Since this is a horror movie, I'm sure you can imagine that what can go wrong does go wrong and not everybody makes it out of this little exercise in terror alive. For the most part, it's compelling stuff.


It's not hard to look brooding with lighting like this

Jackson Rathbone is great. I'm sure it'll be a long time before he's taken seriously as an actor, if he ever is, simply because he's got a small role in the "Twilight" series. But I thought he was perfectly suited to this role. He plays Stephen as a good friend and a nice guy, and he has really amazing, gravity-defying hair that I'm jealous of.

Sure, Jackson might falter as an actor when he's called to bring on the heavy stuff - like a scene where he's strapped to a chair and supposed to be summoning the considerable anger his character has built up over the course of the film. But he's in almost every scene of the movie and carries it with aplomb, which is no small feat.


That hair! How does he get such wonderful hair?

Shaun Evans as Quaid, I feel, was miscast. Evans is a good actor and he's got the "psychotic" part of Quaid down, but he forgot the "charismatic" part. Realistically, nobody would keep this guy as a friend. There's nothing likable about the guy other than the fact that he's really, REALLY intense and even then that's not something most folks would put up with for a long time.

There's a scene where Quaid completely destroys all of Jackson's filmmaking equipment, then shows up later to apologize while driving the very same model car that Jackson's brother died in - which he had bought earlier in the film to get Jackson to "test the limits of his fear." At that point, I doubt anyone would stick around to live in Quaid's demented world but since we still have 40 minutes of the movie to go, that's exactly what happens. I also feel that with a more appropriate actor, the homoerotic tension between Stephen and Quaid could have been explored a bit further.



There's a scene earlier on where Quaid visits a strip club. I can't tell if this sequence is entirely gratuitous or actually inventive, but Quaid ends up hallucinating while watching some dancers. I think this part is only included to incorporate your usual Clive Barker "flesh mutilation" moment, as Quaid envisions a dancer's body being inflicted by axe wounds right before his eyes.

Unfortunately, Shaun Evans' facial expressions are so exaggerated and ridiculous - not to mention the poofy pompadour that he inexplicably has only for this scene - that the whole proceeding becomes laughable.


"Oh my God, my parents would kill me if they knew I was at a strip club!"


See, kids? Too much tanning is bad for your skin

Actress Laura Donnelly, who has mostly worked in British television up to this point, turns in a remarkably well-rounded performance as a college girl with a rather noticeable birthmark, something her character has struggled with all her life.

Donnelly really imbues her role with a lot more heart and reality than one would typically expect in a horror movie, let alone one distributed by Lionsgate. She makes the most of her limited screentime and I get the feeling most viewers will find her character to be one of the more memorable parts of the movie. This is definitely an actress to watch.


Laura Donnelly: the horror genre could use more actresses as talented as her

The soundtrack is worth mentioning as well. Whoever chose the song selection for "Dread" definitely has their finger on the pulse of contemporary alternative music. It was a refreshing change of pace to hear bands like M83, Silversun Pickups, and especially The Veils on a movie soundtrack. These are talented, genuinely "alternative" artists and, even better, their songs are used appropriately and memorably throughout the film.


Jackson Rathbone grows reflective while listening to the intense sounds

of M83 and The Veils

With "Dread," we have a well-acted and contempently filmed horror movie, albeit with a few missteps along the way, that does an adequate job of bringing Clive Barker's work to life. That might sound like faint praise but considering how beleaguered with bad "Saw" and Eli Roth imitators we horror fans are these days, I'm more than happy with a horror movie that revolves around dorm rooms and college campuses rather than Eastern European torture chambers.

Jackson Rathbone handily steps out of the looming shadow of "Twilight" and proves that he's able to carry a film on his own terms and Clive Barker doesn't have to live with the baggage of another "Midnight Meat Train"-style catastrophe. The ending of "Dread" might not be that satisfactory for many viewers (the Netflix reviews attest to that), but it ends exactly the way a short horror story would. And since when the credits rolled I felt exactly as though I'd just watched a short story translated to film, "Dread" is earning 3 stars from me.


"They like me...this blog really likes me."

Monday, April 26, 2010

HAUSU (1977) - 5/5 stars

Release: 1977
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Writer: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Chiho Katsura
Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, YĆ“ko Minamida, Ai Matsubara, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Satoh, Eriko Tanaka
Soundtrack: Micky Yoshino and Asei Kobayashi, Godiego (songs)
Claim to fame: an obscure 70's horror film from Japan, distributed by Toho (the same studio behind Godzilla), that has developed increasing internet buzz over the past year; soon to be released on DVD in America by the Criterion Collection
Rating: 5/5 stars

Taking a cue from Sean Gill over at Junta Juleil's Culture Shock (, I'm not going to bother to try and describe what happens in "Hausu." It'd be a fruitless effort that would not only spoil the movie for the uninitiated, but it'd also be like trying to describe sections of the Sistine Chapel. The beauty is in how it all comes together. Really, just view one of the few clips or trailers of "Hausu" on YouTube and if you have any inkling towards gonzo foreign cinema at all, I can guarantee that your interest will be piqued.

What I can happily do, though, is describe the elements that comprise "Hausu." It's a unique combination of the familiar and unfamiliar. First of all, it's probably important to keep in mind that director Nobuhiko Obayashi's background was in television commercials. Not only was "Hausu" his first directorial effort, but the story was supposedly based on an idea from his 7 year-old daughter. Obayashi must have extrapolated that idea through a weird mix of alchemy and mad genius.

The concept is as simple as this: a group of high school friends visit a haunted house. But once you realize that the girls all have names that fit their personality traits ("Mac" is the chubby one, "Prof" is the brainy one, "Kung Fu" is the tough one) - and that the script never allows them to step outside those narrowly defined traits - AND that the haunted house is actually owned by the lead girl's aunt…well, then things get a little less simple. Toss in Obayashi's "everything and the kitchen sink" filmmaking style, and you have a horror movie that combines the laugh-out-loud absurdity of some Japanese television commercials, the neon-lit atmospherics of Italian horror movies like Dario Argento's "Suspiria" and "Inferno"






the vibe of the obscure 1989 NES survival-horror game "Sweet Home," which would go on to inspire the "Resident Evil" series and whose cover art is not dissimilar to the "Hausu" poster I have here,





the "gee, gang, there's a mystery afoot" vibe of a Scooby-Doo cartoon and the spooky theatrics of Disney World attraction the Haunted Mansion,



and these images of kaleidoscope cats.



And while I attended a packed, swelteringly-hot midnight showing of "Hausu" that was full of laughter, cheers, and applause for the film's entire duration, I feel as though I should stress that the movie is NOT just something to laugh at.

For all of its insanity, "Hausu" is also one of the most beautiful and visually inventive movies I've seen in my life. There's a moment where the entire screen is filled with a mirrored reflection of the main character's face; the glass splinters and begins to ooze blood right down the screen. Elsewhere, characters ride on a raft atop rivers of blood - through a house! - and someone randomly disintegrates into a pile of smoking bones. I was genuinely in awe of the imagery I was seeing and the sheer creativity on display.

The thing about "Hausu" is, it's not just the spooky stuff that's filmed with surreal flair. A simple train ride to the countryside becomes as psychedelic as any 70's prog-rock album cover thanks to the dazzling techniques of Obayashi. In fact, in some ways it's the seemingly normal and mundane activities in "Hausu" that are the most frightening, thanks to the film's severely askew vision of reality. Needless to say, "Hausu" is not going to end the way you think it will. And you'll probably never look at cats the same way again.

And just so I'm not completely a tease, here are some actual images from the film. Enjoy.