Friday, October 30, 2009

Zombies Ate My Blog! A Special HALLOWEEN Post, with a review of HOUSE OF THE DEVIL!

Darkness crawls across the land ... the midnight hour is close at hand ...

- Good evening, boys and ghouls, and HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I'm primed and ready for what should be a fright-filled Halloween -- I already kicked off the weekend in style with a trip to see The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D in Hollywood, and tonight I don zombie-hunter gear in preparation for yet another Page-O'-Ween spectacular. But put down the candy for just one more minute, because first, some pop-culture pontifications for your reading pleasure. I've got reviews of this past week's Halloween-themed episodes of The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks & Recreation, as well as a movie review of the indie-horror, 80's-flashback flick - HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. So keep reading ... if you dare.


- THE OFFICE on Thursday had a fun Halloween haunted-house teaser, but then quickly became a very typical Office episode. That's not to say it wasn't good, but it felt a little bit been-there-done-that, sort of like it was just running on autopilot. We've seen Michael mess up and try to cover it up before, and we've seen Andy pine for someone else in the office before. The twist here is that Michael's embarrassing fall into a Koi Pond was something of a turning point for Jim, who was resentful of Michael for not letting him go to a big business meeting alone. The ongoing thread in this season of The Office has been Jim's newfound responsibilities as co-manager, and his ongoing struggle to take charge while not becoming Michael 2.0 in the process. One of the ep's most hilarious moments was Dwight ruminating on how Jim is his own worst enemy. Since Jim is Dwight's enemy, but also his own worst enemy, and since "the enemy of mine enemy is my friend ..." well, let's just say this paradox was a bit of a brain-teaser for Dwight. Anyways, with everyone in the office laughing at Michael's faux pass, Jim tried to teach Michael how to laugh at yourself in order to make him less of a target. Of course, Michael took this lesson to hilariously disturbing extremes, making fun of himself just a tad too harshly. Meanwhile, Andy goes on cold sales calls paired with Pam, and after everyone thinks they are a couple, Andy reveals his loneliness to Pam and also his developing crush on new office receptionist Erin. The twist here, of course, is that Erin, for some reason, thinks Andy is the coolest person since Marlon Wayans. Like I said, there were some twists, but too many of the scenes - Michael making inappropriate lists in the conference room, for example, felt familiar. So, yeah, this one had a few interesting wrinkles, but all in all seemed to dip into the old well a few too many times to be considered great.

My Grade: B

- But, by the way -- for some amazing OFFICE-related hilarity, check out the "Male Prima Donna" song and music video that spins out from the show's latest batch of webisodes, which center around Kelly's quest to form her own girl-pop group and to record her own music video. The name of she and Erin's duo? Subtle Sexuality. And their song and video? Hilarious, and really, really catchy to boot. You can watch it now on, OR, you can download the song, music video, and digital album art on iTunes! I highly suggest you grab it as soon as you can! And yes, this is a cheap plug, as I worked on getting this up on iTunes, and want to see it blow up. But trust me, this one is worth your download.

- 30 ROCK really entertained me this week, even if certain critics (cough*AV Club*cough) seem to have turned against the show in full-force. No, this wasn't an all-time great ep, but man, there were more than enough moments of hilarity for it to be considered a good to very good ep. I mean, look, 30 Rock has always been Simpsons-esque in its humor. It's a show that can excel from great jokes alone, that doesn't need to have the kind of character or emotional moments of a typical sitcom. For me, the "rule of three's" subplot alone was enough to carry the ep. You don't need to analyze it, it was just hilarious. Tracy Morgan cracked me up with every line he said. (His determination to eat "ghost meat" in honor of the death of the "obese guy who PacMan was based on"? Classic.) Judah Friedlander's quest to get invited to a gay Halloween party was similarly hilarious - we need more storylines following the writers and their awesomely geeky adventures. As for the A-plot, well, it was an interesting commentary on how 30 Rock is perceived as kind of a New York-liberal show that can't quite entertain the masses like a Two and a Half Men or whatever. Liz and Jack's trip to small-town Georgia was funny, and also a nice send-up of all the talk you hear about the "real" America vs the elitist parts of the country on either coast. The main problem here to me was that the show dipped its toes into this pond, but didn't quite go far enough. It felt like the writers wanted to make some really cutting comments on the whole liberal elite vs middle America issue, but stopped short. Still, there was more than enough funny for this to be a very enjoyable ep.

My Grade: B+

- PARKS & RECREATION this week had a decently funny episode that was also Halloween themed. This one had Leslie on the hunt for a pesky teen who serially defaces local parks on Halloween. For a while now, people have been hailing Chris Pratt's character as being one of the funniest on the show, but this episode finally showed me just how funny he can be. I loved his impression of an FBI agent, and his "interrogation" of the teen prankster was great. Meanwhile, Rashida Jones threw a Halloween party that started off as pretty lame, but got much more happenin' as soon as Aziz Ansari and hi green-card-getting wife turned up and cranked up the fun-o-meter. The party scenes were a lot of fun, and Aziz was in fine form. Louis CK was once again very funny as Leslie's soft-spoken cop boyfriend as well. After last week's so-so episode, this was another good one from Parks & Rec.

My Grade: B+

- And by the way, I breathed a sigh of relief this week after I finally removed FLASH FORWARD from my DVR. In my last post, I outlined why I was pretty much done with the show, so I didn't really regret the decision. And think about it: with V starting next week and 24, LOST, and CHUCK on the horizon ... who has time to waste on crappy TV?

- Alright ... it's been a good month for horror movies that break the mold and make for some great October thrills. In the last few weeks I've talked about Paranormal Activity, Trick R' Treat ... and now we've got HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. What's really cool is that each of these films think outside the box in terms of production and distribution. The story of Paranormal Activity is well-known by now, but it still bears repeating because Hollywood suits never seem to learn the lessons of movies like this. The lesson here being that you DON'T need huge budgets or big-name actors to make a great mass-market movie. You just need a great premise and talent, some buzz-generating marketing ... and the masses will come. To think that so many execs insisted that Paranormal Activity would only succeed if it was remade with big-name talent - it goes to show how clueless people in Hollywood can be. Personally, I love seeing a movie buck the odds and succeed like this despite so many factors going against it. Even if you didn't think that PA was as scary as some have made it out to be, you've got to admire how it's success is, in many ways, one giant "F.U." to the traditional Hollywood way of doing things. Same goes for TRICK R' TREAT. The studio denied it a bigscreen release, held it back, and then finally put it out to market on home video after a long wait. But the fans rushed out to snatch up DVD's, download it off of XBOX Live or the Playstation Store, etc. Another example of cool content attracting an audience even if it didn't come through the typical Hollywood channels. And now there's HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. The third piece of a horror movie trifecta that has really got me thinking that the times, they are a changin'. The movie was released in select theaters, but also on VOD services and digital download simultaneously. Not only that, but cable viewers who get HD NET could check it out for free on their TV's during special on-air screenings. A well-reviewed, new-release movie debuting right on my TV screen? Sign me up. So what's the scoop on House of the Devil? Keep reading ...


- House of the Devil doesn't just remind you of an 80's horror movie, it IS an 80's horror movie, for all intents and purposes. This one feels like someone reached into a locked vault of cult-classic horror flicks circa 1982 and unearthed some never-before-seen piece of scary cinema. Because, man, writer-director Ti West has done an absolutely amazing job here of making a movie that is totally 80's in all the best ways. It's not just the spot-on hair and clothes and all that. And it's not just the fact that the details are pitch-perfect, from the way the actors talk to the old-school Coke cups at a pizza joint to the vintage Walkmen. It's much more than that. It's the camera angles, the fonts used for the opening credits, the way music is used in the movie, the way its shot and edited. Like I said, House of the Devil is the best 80's horror movie never made.

Ti West is not a name I was really familiar with before this movie, but he's definitely someone to watch out for. For one thing, this movie feels like a pretty singular vision - West wrote it, directed it, and his personal sensibilities and fetishes are all over this one. But also, West just displays a lot of cajones in making a movie like this that is so different than most of the horror flicks out there now. As I said, it is 100% an 80's throwback, stylistically. Pacing-wise, this one is a slooow burn. Most of the movie is all about creepy atmosphere and creating a sense of impending terror and dread. I love, for example, that the movie opens with a simple title card explaining the national fear and prevalance of Satanic cults in the early 1980's. For the next hour, we don't need anything else spelled out for us, because in the back of our minds we know that there's something really, really sinister going on between the lines of what we're actually seeing on-screen.

What we're seeing is a fairly typical story -- Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, a cash-strapped college student in 1982, who is nonetheless determined to move into her own apartment in order to get away from her awful roommate. Sam finds a great new place, but needs some extra money to pay the rent - so she answers an ad for a babysitter. Quickly enough, we realize that the strange man who posted the ad is possibly hiding some sinister secret. And even more quickly, we realize that this isn't going to be a typical babysitting gig for poor Samantha. To say much more would be spoiling things ... but like I said, that ominous opening title card about Satanic cults is never far from your thoughts while watching things play out.

Again, West paces things nice and slow, methodically drawing us into this creepy story. Like Paranormal Activity, a thick atmosphere of discomfort is created, so for a while, every little bump in the night or creak of a door gets to you. But unlike PA, this one is very stylized, and you see a lot of homages to classic horror movie moments (and classic 80's-movies moments - yes there is even a freeze-frame!). It helps that the actors are totally up for the challenge of essentially recreating a vintage 70's / early-80's-style horror movie. Donahue is sort of the classic 80's girl-next-door tomboy type - tough, quiet, a bit sullen, but prone to random bouts of rockin' out to her Walkman whilst listening to The Fixx. Anyone who's OD'd on old-school movies will immediately get the kind of character that Sam pays homage to. Meanwhile, there is a really creepy turn from Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman, the dapper yet disturbing gentleman who's hired Sam to watch over his rustic old house in the middle of the boonies, so that he and his equally creepy wife can enjoy a mysteriously ambiguous "night out," that happens to coincide with a rare lunar eclipse.

For some, the ultra-slow-burn of the first two-thirds of the movie might be too much to sit through. But sitting at home watching this one, I found myself getting pretty wrapped up in the movie, just admiring all the creepiness and cool vintage details. And of course, the total shock-and-awe craziness of the last third of the movie was, to me, all the more effective after so much build-up. And when I say effective, what I mean is that for a good 20 minutes or so -- well, holy freaking crap, the $@#& hits the fan! That said, this isn't a movie where a lot happens - but it is a really cool genre excercise that's well-worth watching. It's a great movie to sit back and watch with the lights out. And it's a great movie to watch if you're feeling nostalgic for 1982 (clearly a good year ... I was born!). Go in at your own risk, but I'd say it's worth it to enter the House of the Devil.

My Grade: B+

- Are those werewolves I hear howling in the distance? Is that witches' brew I smell bubbling? Is that the thump ... thump ... thump of zombies lumbering towards my humble abode? Alright, ghosts and ghouls, it's time to don my anti-zombie gear and see what tricks or treats this Halloween has in store.


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