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Paranormal Activity 5: The Marked Ones (2013) - 3/4

I never enjoy the Paranormal Activity movies that much. Yet I find myself watching every time a new one comes out. I don’t know why I haven’t given up on the series yet. Probably for the few moments in each movie that’s actually quite good. At any rate, I’m glad I kept watching. Paranormal Activity 5 is the best of the series, mitigating some, though not all, of the series’ flaws. It’s actually a pretty good horror movie.

There are some issues with the Paranormal Activity films that vex me every time. The main issue is that, for the most part, nothing happens. I understand the intention. The films repeat banal, mundane non-events so often—when we know there’s more going on—that we’re supposed to be writhing with suspense during every pointless shot of the backyard pool. I was writhing, alright. And moaning, “Another shot of the pool!” And then, when you least expect it, you get an eruption of the supernatural. It’s a legitimate technique that’s just belabored to an extreme. Most of the movie isn’t movie at all.

The other issue that irritates me is that the protagonists really don’t ‘protag.’ This is worse than the boring non-events. The characters of the Paranormal Activity movies spend most of the time ensuring that something sinister is indeed afoot. Once they receive confirmation, they wait around until they die, tossed like ragdolls by forces they’re powerless against. Whether it’s the demonic entities or the coven that serves them, evil always triumphs over good. Because good doesn’t do jack shit.

I suppose it’s just the Paranormal Activity philosophy that passivity generates more fright for the viewer. The moment the hero or heroine starts fighting back, it’s more adrenaline than fear, more action than terror. I don’t think that’s true—High Tension and Dog Soldiers, amongst others, seem to prove otherwise—but Oren Peli seems to believe it.

Each film in the series does tend to betray Peli more and more, developing plots and vague attempts at action. Paranormal Activity 5 finally escapes the stifling atmosphere before going back into freefall. In this one, some Hispanic teens at an apartment complex get a video camera and decide to record the creepy, old lady downstairs. They find her prancing around a naked girl with big tits. Not long after this, the old lady is murdered and they think their class valedictorian was responsible. Before they can crack the case, one of the teenagers is suddenly gifted with supernatural powers and supernatural roid rage.

The style is a lot more dynamic than the previous Paranormal Activity movies. These kids move around instead of just setting up the camera for still shots of something that may or may not happen around the pool/closet/Playstation. With that comes the most obvious response of, “Why the hell don’t they put down the camera?” It may not make sense, but at least it makes a movie. They try to fight against their supernatural foes. And while it ultimately ends as every Paranormal Activity movie ends, at least one semi-automatic weapon has been fired before it gets there. Moreover, there’s a girl with big tits.

I also enjoyed the fact that the kids are Hispanic apartment dwellers instead of White yuppies with more money and picket fences than common sense. If I had to see another White guy thrown around a tastefully furnished middle class room by an invisible presence, I might’ve been done with the series. I don't think there's any real 'subtext' about apartment life or Hispanic American culture; it just revives the series with more energy and a fresh perspective.

What’s also kinda neat is how every Paranormal Activity movie builds on this mythos they have going on. It’s building at a snail’s pace, but a little more is invented with each movie. This one somehow ties into the previous movies. Rather than sticking in the same ‘family drama,’ the connection is a lot more creative. I actually enjoyed this one as a movie in its own right and as a Paranormal Activity movie.

Road Games (1981) - 2.5/4

For all of us who’ve ever thought Rear Window (1954) would’ve been better as an Australian trucker movie with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, well, there’s Road Games. Written by the great Everett De Roche for Richard Franklin (who went on to do Psycho II (1983)), Road Games is a very fun movie that’s probably a lot more light than it ought to be.

Stacy Keach is Pat Quid, the over-educated, wisecracking, American trucker who reads Chaucer to his pet dingo for fun and hauls pig carcasses across Australia for work. My kinda guy. When Quid notices some suspicious activities surrounding a mysterious van (is there any other kind?), like the sexy hitchhiker it picked up just kinda disappearing, he begins to wonder if that guy isn’t the Ripper he keeps hearing about on the radio.

Like Rear Window, we’re supposed to wonder all along if the guy in the van is really a killer or just a guy who likes screwing hitchhikers—not a crime in Australia at that point. But I don’t think there’s any real doubt about who the killer is or whether Quid is over-imaginative. Keach is so damned likeable in the part, there’s no doubting him. The real question is whether he’ll be able to convince the other loonies he meets on the road.

But Quid doubts himself. And as he does so, various oddballs from the Australian roads come his way, much to our amusement. There’s a lot of good comedy here, like in many of Hitchcock's quirkier films. And it serves a purpose. The suspicions begin to fall on Quid, as his efforts to thwart that van he keeps stumbling upon get him in deeper and deeper trouble.

Jamie Lee Curtis shows up as a helpful hitchhiker, ‘Hitch,’ interested in solving crimes and a little slice of Keach. Fresh off Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Prom Night (1980), and Terror Train (1980), she comes with the promise of getting a good slasher movie. But that never really happens. More Rear Window than Dressed to Kill (1980), the killer remains at a distance, observed and, since we’re in a truck, stalked, but never really confronted or fled from. In fact, the killer’s identity is ultimately quite a let-down. There’s little real carnage or thrills, just classical suspense. 

That’s where the Hitchcockian style tends to hurt the movie, as it seems to really need a more vicious slasher element to it. Instead, we stick close to our protagonist and the final confrontation can only go one way. It’s rather quaint. But the playfulness of Road Games goes a long way to mitigate these disappointments. Quid and Hitch are fun to hang out with.

The Hearse (1980) - 2.5/4

Inheriting something around Joseph Cotten is always a bad thing. Whether it’s the castle in Baron Blood or the Georgian country home in The Hearse, things won’t go well. Trish van Devere, sexy in an untouchable schoolteacher kinda way, plays Jane Hardy, a lady who inherits a whole lot more than she wanted in the neglected The Hearse.

Jane inherits the house at a vulnerable time in her life, when she really needs some change, solitude, and evil, demonic hearse stalking. Her therapist agrees—except with the last part. The townsfolk all seem to hate her. Joseph Cotten in particular, because he feels he should get the house for very vague reasons that never really make sense. The only friends she can make are teenage boys, because she looks good in jogging shorts and they’re teenage boys. Soon Jane finds herself stalked at a distance by a strange, black car. Could it be teenage boys looking to tap that, or is it that wily Joseph Cotten?

To retreat from the headaches of smalltown living, Jane begins reading her deceased aunt’s increasingly lurid diary. This aunt goes from pondering whether to keep her fiancée or go with her lover to engaging in satanic pacts with the lover. Somehow this soothes Jane. More helpful is the extremely suspicious ‘Tom Sullivan,’ a man who comes upon her on the road and decides to court her with all the charm and personality of a weather radio.

Although some suspicion is cast on the antagonistic townsfolk, there’s little doubt that the hearse is a denizen of hell and has some connection to her aunt. There are plenty of other mysteries that hold up for quite some way into the movie, nearly up to its surreal conclusion. The narrative is exceptionally well-paced and just keeps throwing enough stuff at you that it's hard to put it all together.

The Hearse plays most of the movie on a decidedly low key. We get a lot of Jane’s “me-time,” polite interactions, date nights, and arguments with Joseph Cotton. I happen to enjoy that as much as the more horrific aspect of the plots. There’s a quaintness to The Hearse, like a Victorian novel. Like Jane Austen corrupted by Poe. The themes of demonic passion are shared with Wuthering Heights and Melmoth the Wanderer. Trish van Devere’s almost aristocratic presence and husky voice only furthers this sensibility.

Amateur Porn Star Killer (2006) - 1/4

Amateur Porn Star Killer. I like that title. The cover depicts a beautifully sculpted female back, her hair up over her dog collar and her hands bound at her buttocks. One assumes she’s one of the amateur porn stars to be killed by a maniac hell-bent on working through the agonizing memory of his father’s death at a porn star’s hands after a blizzard of cocaine. Of course, it’s not fair to judge a movie on whether it matches my expectations. It is fair to judge it on whether it’s even a real movie.

I received a signed copy of this non-epic from director Shane Ryan and I’m saddened to dislike it so much that I’ve shifted my dislike onto the director—who seems to be a very nice young man. I just don’t see evidence of that in his movie. The plot is really provided by the text at the beginning and end of the movie. A serial killer named 'Brandon' (Shane Ryan himself) smooth-talks sluts into motel rooms where he browbeats them into taking off their clothes and sucking his dick. For their efforts, he kills them. The catch is that he records the murders on store-rented VHS tapes. But only the most unrented, forgotten movies, like Meet the Deedles (1998), so the murders takes forever to get discovered. 

I think that’s a hilarious idea. I’d love to see Robert Patrick’s multi-layered performance in Double Dragon (1994) interrupted by a snuff movie. But that’s not really what we get in Amateur Porn Star Killer. The real action of this movie is this: Brandon picks up an underage girl, talks to her from behind his camera for fifty straight minutes until he finally gets her out of her clothes and onto his dick. Then he kills her. To keep us from getting bored, I guess, footage of him screwing some blonde girl keeps getting superimposed over the footage of him trying to screw the brunette.

This is actually how a lot of semi-amateur porn starts. Some douchebag picks up a girl in public, takes her back to a room somewhere, and talks down to her for a few minutes. With real porn, they cut the crap and get her naked as quickly as possible. Ryan drags it out, but the result is the same. He really does pop his dick out on camera and she really does suck it on camera.

The problem here is the ambition to make anything more than just amateur porn. There are attempts to make this gritty, like the snuff footage in 8mm (1999). Of course, this is supposed to be shot on VHS, so it makes no sense to digitally add celluloid deterioration. Magnetic tape does not deteriorate like that at all. Moreover, the superimpositions of the other sex footage suggests that it’s being recorded over something else. But, again, this is supposed to be recorded over Weekend at Bernies II (1993), not his home sex tapes. The other sex scene, incidentally, does not even end in murder!

The worst offense of all for any attempt at pseudo-snuff is that the murder doesn’t actually happen on camera. What kind of self-respecting snuff film doesn't have the murder happen on camera? Ryan has no problem getting his dick sucked on camera or fucking this girl on camera, but when it comes to splashing around a little stage blood, he gets squeamish.

Amateur Porn Star Killer seems like an excuse for Ryan to bang co-star Michiko Jimenez and show it to his friends. Judging from the interview included on the DVD, I think he put in way more effort than was probably required. Amateur Porn Star Killer 2 and 3 are more of the same. And, like the first in the series, Ryan credits the girls he screws as co-writers. In the third, moreover, his co-star is Regan Reece, of Cum Drinkers 3 (2006) and Stairway to Anal (2010) fame. The point is that this is really just poorly-lit home sex tapes with some text thrown in to tie it into some vague plot. It is amateur porn. It’s more Max Hardcore than Vincent Gallo. There’s nothing wrong with that, other than most of it is chit-chat and not actual porn. If you want to make porn, just make porn.

 Shane Ryan has what it takes to be a true pornographer, both in front of and behind camera. He seems to have that personality and he’s photogenic enough. He’s missing his calling by disguising his real interests and abilities with these pretenses.

13 Eerie (2013) - 2/4

When will pompous professors learn to stop dragging their students out to monster-ridden islands in the middle of nowhere? 13 Eerie is another one of those. He’s a professor of criminology, in this case, and he’s staged a series of real corpses around an island with fabricated forensic evidence.  Just happens this island was a prison where human experiments were conducted. That wouldn’t normally be a problem. Might even add atmosphere. Except the experimenters decided to leave their horrible black goo in a poorly-sealed Sunny D jug on the edge of the only useable table within a mile. So when the stuff is swiftly spilled by the bumbling bus driver, only one thing can happen: mutant, undead prisoner attack! 

I toured to this scenic locale because it stars the peculiar and talented Katharine Isabelle. Katharine is a real trouper. She’ll take any script thrown at her. Something brilliant like American Mary (2012) or Ginger Snaps (2000). And she absolutely masters both of those movies: her performance is the real set piece of American Mary and it’s riveting. Or she’ll take secondary roles in movies like Ogre (2008) and Hard Ride to Hell (2010), where the script may have been written by a monkey high on Cap’N Crunch. Even in those movies, her unusual cadences that range from shrill to detached aloofness in the same sentence make her stand out as more interesting than most of what’s happening around her, whether it be a CGI rock troll or Miguel Ferrer as a demonic biker. She seems to devote time and thought into every absurd line she’s fed in these movies, to put in a serious performance in every ridiculous scene. At the same time, she always seems at an ironic distance from the subject, as if she’s watching the movie with us and making sardonic comments. I don’t get her. But I like her. That’s the enigmatic art of Katharine Isabelle. Now if only we can convince her to do nudity.

In 13 Eerie, Isabelle is probably at the most subdued I’ve ever seen her. Probably because she’s saddled with the stalwart role of the ‘final girl.’ She’s the top student in professor A-Hole’s class and doesn’t take kindly to being interrupted by mutant prisoners. Even when her lab partner is having a panic attack that there are zombies on the loose, she just wants to gather forensic evidence and get her A+. Not gonna happen.

The zombies look like alligatormen in orange jump suits. Other than that, they’re just zombies. They crash through walls, grab humans, and begin eating. 13 Eerie is gung-ho about the gore, with some Fulci-throwback slow-eating scenes. I personally find that kind of zombie carnage irritating. Seeing and hearing people eat is unpleasant on the best of occasions. Good thing they’re getting shot in the head by Isabelle and Brenden Fehr.
There are very few surprises in this movie. The locale is a very monotonous series of cabins and greenery. The character interactions are either panic, forensic piddling, or arguing with the a-hole professor. The monsters do exactly what you’d expect. They fuck with the best and die like the rest. Survivors go home, mom bakes them a pie—probably. The whole forensics thing has no relevance other than getting them to the island. The best part of the movie is Katharine Isabelle, and even she’s hampered.