Month of Horror 2017: Dealer’s Choice – South Africa: House on Willow Street

10/30/2017 – South Africa: House on Willow Street (2016)
Directed by Alastair Orr

The cinema of South Africa dates back to The Great Kimberly Diamond Robbery in 1911, only a year after the country achieved some semblance of independence from Great Britain. In general, film started as an Afrikaans centered industry as the Dutch Afrikaner minority increasingly dominated the county, a strength which only grew with the beginning of the Apartheid era in 1948. The local film industry mostly languished, with few films achieving any international attention before or after the Western world started to distance itself from the country on account of its politics.

Come Back, Africa, a documentary/narrative hybrid which was filmed in secret in the late 1950s, was banned in the country. Easily the most famous film of this era to come from the nation is 1980’s comedy The Gods Must be Crazy which is still the most financially successful film the country has ever produced. But the Apartheid era still looms large over the country’s films with the most famous films made in and about the country generally being about Apartheid and co-financed with other English speaking nations such as Skin (great), District 9 (also great), The Bang-Bang Club (fine), Invictus (fine but forgettable), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (likewise) or starring a mostly foreign cast such as the 1995 remake of Cry, the Beloved Country (set just before the era began) and Stander.

While films specifically about the era are made (such as Mapantsula which was filmed and released during it) by South Africans, their most prominent films have nothing to do with it and have seen some success since the mid-00s internationally. Probably the biggest releases since then have been U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, the Oscar nominated Yesterday, the Oscar winning Tsotsi, Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema, Life, Above All, Beauty, and Material but the industry, like that of so many other countries, is still dominated by foreign imports.

For the most part, South African horror consists of low budget foreign films shot there (such as Lost Boys: The Thirst or The Mangler) or little regarded titles such as Snake Island, Surviving Evil, Eternity, and Night Drive. While most of these films have been made in the 00s, a few such as Farewell Johnny (1970) and The Shadowed Mind (1988) were controversially made before then. Today’s film, House on Willow Street is probably the most famous homegrown horror today, even receiving a limited release.

Filmed in English, the film stars Sharni Vinson, who was depressingly not launched to more mainstream success by her fantastic performance in You’re Next, as the leader of a group of people (featuring her lover and his cousin) conspiring to kidnap a wealthy heiress. When they go to execute their plan that they spent weeks on, they find it goes far easier than they expected and are able to take her back to a warehouse where they chain her with her head bagged to a pole with a bell on the chain and set up security cams to monitor her. The captured woman insists they let her go or they will all die tonight and in general starts acting all creepy and knowing more than she should about Vinson’s history.

Strange things start happening everywhere as mysterious bloody woman (and later others) appears occasionally, accompanied by scare chords, they are unable to contact her parents, and the place starts having power problems. Two of them are sent to investigate at the titular house SPOILERS which they find full of decaying murder victims including their captive’s parents. Pictures start appearing to change and people they were close to who died years ago start appearing. Apparently, the house they kidnapped her from (the titular house) has some evil history (Vinson’s character and their now captive was investigating it when she became possessed by a demon, an exorcism failing to remove it from her body. The demon needs four souls to be able to roam the earth and can only be stopped by being lit on fire. END OF SPOILERS

There is absolutely no subtlety as the film is all about the jump scares. Both the best and worst things I can say is this looks like a mainstream Hollywood production. The effects, aside from one scene with some of worst CGI fire I’ve ever seen, look pretty good but there is nothing to make it stand out from any old mainstream release. The powers of the demon also seem uneven and arbitrary. SPOILERS I get that she seems to get more powerful the more souls she takes, but even from scene to scene the demon seems remarkably over-powered (it has telekinetic powers from the start but seems to use them only at certain points) and yet holding itself back to drag out the movie. It’s not that the movie feels slow, I just wish they had a more natural character progression for it. While the four souls seem like a simple goal, the film can’t seem to decide on the rules for what the requirements are to possess someone aside spiky snake thing that comes out of the captive’s mouth. END OF SPOILERS

There’s nothing especially bad about the film, it’s just bland and the kind of film that gets spit out on a seemingly monthly basis designed for a big opening weekend and then forgotten quickly to the sands of time.

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Bonus Episode #20 – Comedy: The Monster Squad (2015)
Directed by Fred Dekker

While the premise of The Monster Squad is intriguing on its own, being a reimagining of the Universal Monsters that combines them all into one film even more so than the series did towards the end of the original run, the real reason I am watching this is that it seems to be a cult classic that the internet has deemed “essential”. I’ll get into a discussion tomorrow more about seeing films deemed essential, but I will say that The Monster Squad (after tomorrow’s The Old Dark House and eXistenZ which I couldn’t get ahold of from Netflix) was at the top of the list for horror.

In addition to those compelling reasons to see it, there’s another three in the credits. First of all, there’s Tom Noonan of Manhunter, Synecdoche, New York, and The House of the Devil as Frankenstein’s monster. Secondly, there’s the director Fred Dekker who also helmed the rather good Night of the Creeps (also directed RoboCop 3 but let’s ignore that).

Finally, there’s the person who co-wrote the film with Dekker, his college classmate Shane Black (Black & Dekker *giggles*). The same year as The Monster Squad was released, Shane Black had his breakthrough works with the script for Lethal Weapon and his work as script doctor/memorable supporting actor in Predator. With his work on those two great films done, he next wrote the scripts for the equally good to the first Lethal Weapon 2 and then a trio of action films in The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight which all failed to recapture the Lethal Weapon quality. He had a career renaissance when he returned to writing (and this time directing) with the great Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which also helped save Robert Downey Jr.’s career again though it couldn’t save Val Kilmer’s), the nearly as good as the original Iron Man 3, and possibly his career highlight in The Nice Guys. He even reteamed with Dekker for a failed TV pilot (Edge) and next year’s reboot/sequel/whatever The Predator.

The movie starts in the past with Dr. Van Helsing’s failed attempt to defeat Dracula with one of his ilk being sucked into some vortex. Back in the modern day, Dracula is flown into the country on a plane, transporting Frankenstein’s monster with him) of which he narrowly escapes when discovered. A man comes into a police station demanding to be locked up after claiming to be a werewolf and when he is being transported elsewhere he transforms. A mummy disappears from a museum and starts wandering about the streets. Both of them meet up with Dracula at a swamp where they meet up with Gill-man and awakens the monster so that they can… do evil? It’s not all that clear what they want besides getting an amulet and Van Helsing’s book so I’m just going to go with survival. It was nice to see the film not hold back them all showing up too much because they are truly what we are here for.

The Monster Club is a group of five kids (and a dog) who are really into monsters. The main character is the child of soon to be divorced parents who gets ahold of Van Helsing’s diary and becomes convinced there are really monsters out there and that the club is the only ones willing to stop it. He’s also the only one of them who gets developed at all, but the characters remain pretty thin throughout.

But as I said before, the characters are not what we are here for. We are here for the geeky opportunity to see all the monsters again and see a movie filled with references to the classics. There’s a reference to the whole Dracula going undercover as Alucard thing and the brides of Dracula plus all the weaknesses of those original films return. They also look rather similar if somewhat updated to their Universal originals. The monster makeup is of varying quality (done by Stan Winston) as the Wolf Man looks eh (his face looks a bit owl like) and Dracula pretty stereotypical if a bit silly, but I especially like the mummy and Gill-man (who are both pretty underused) and to a lesser extent Frankenstein’s monster (it’s the hair, if it wasn’t for that, he’d be perfect).

The Monster Squad consults with SPOILERS a reclusive German concentration camp survivor who helps translate the book and helps them take on and defeat Dracula. They also have Frankenstein’s monster who was sent after the kids but winds up befriending the main kid’s sister in yet another reference to the original film. END OF SPOILERS It’s a bit cheesy but for the most part it takes everything seriously. It may be more comedic than scary (case in point, “Wolfman’s got nards”) but it really does feel like a good, fun update to those films.

Two small side notes. Jason Hervey from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (and I guess The Wonder Years) has a small role and there’s a fictional Groundhog’s Day horror franchise which… well with the financial success of Happy Death Day may now become a reality.

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Bonus Episode #21 – Final Destination: Final Destination 5 (2011)
Directed by Tom Hanson

In the wake of the release of Scream in 1996, countless crappy wannabes spawned in its wake that sought to capitalize on its resuscitation of the slasher genre, its comedic elements, and/or its metatextual discussion of the genre. Final Destination proved to be both one of the more successful, and longest lasting. Spanning five films to date, all financially successful, the films tell a loosely connected story of fate.

Starting with the 2000 original, Final Destination followed the same format with every movie. One person has a vision of an impending disaster and uses that knowledge to save themselves and a group of people. Death comes for them all however as it works through them in the order they were supposed to die, killing them in creative, frequently as the result Rube Goldberg-like chains of events. There was no escaping death, only delaying it as fate itself takes the place of Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers. It was a fine and somewhat enjoyable film directed by James Wong (who would later do the third film and write both Black Christmas and the Willard remake) and starred Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, and Candyman’s Tony Todd who would continue throughout the series.

Final Destination 2 was more of the same with future Snakes on a Plane director David R. Ellis taking over (he would also helm the fourth movie). It upped the scope of the kills a bit but otherwise felt like more of the same which is fine if unambitious outside of the fabulous car crash scene. Final Destination 3 took he series down a slight bit but was kept worthwhile by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in an early performance and thanks to a couple really good kills most notably a series highlight in a tanning parlor. The Final Destination was the stupidly title fourth installment (part of a trend that included Fast & Furious) which brought the series to 3D and was the first to fail to be worth watching and the first not to feature Tony Todd.

That brings us to the most recent installment in the franchise, Final Destination 5 which was also in 3D (can’t say I watched it in that). A group of people are on their way to a company retreat when the bridge collapses out from under them, killing ‘em one by one (save one). Or rather that’s what would have happened if not for Nicholas D’Agosto of Trial & Error having a vision of the whole thing (this may be the longest of these visions to date by quite a bit) and warning them to get off the bus which saves the lives of eight of them. Courtney B. Vance (The People vs. OJ Simpson) plays the requisite detective believing our lead was behind it the tragedy and trying to figure how or why this is happening and Tony Todd returns as the coroner warning them that “Death doesn’t like to be cheated” and who has seen this all happen before.

The characters are hardly going to be winning any awards for originality, but the film does enough to sketch them out without dragging down the pace. The tension of the series always comes in the form of waiting for the gory deaths you know are coming as the film frequently teases you with different possibilities and visually shows off all the different moving parts. I don’t say this lightly, but the way the series builds up its kills when it is hitting all the cylinders is the true successor to Sergei Eisenstein’s use of montage. You watch knowing that release is coming as it builds and builds, and it is so satisfying to watch.

So, let’s get to the deaths because that’s what everybody is watching this series for. SPOILERS The first death is a downright painful looking gymnastic accident which has a fantastic lead up that sticks the landing (unlike the girl). The second death comes in the form of a similarly painful looking acupuncture/Buddha statue crushing accident serving as the requisite, “let’s cheer as the asshole gets it” moment. The third death, fuck, just that Clockwork Orange style eye opening device was hard to watch and helps confirm my belief that the hardest things to watch in horror films are the things that are just reality. But the resulting laser eye surgery is just awful to watch (that’s a compliment).

The fourth death is a simple hook through the bottom of the jaw but is one of the life for another life deals (not mentally intentionally) while the fifth is David Koechner as the boss taking a propelled wrench through the head. Neither are all that special and have minimal lead up. Sixth and seven involve the Dave Franco looking motherfucker shooting Vance to save his own life and then after a scuffle dying at the hands of D’Agosto. Everyone is seemingly saved, as the seven who should have died (one didn’t die in the original vision) all had people take their place or died themselves.

But shit ain’t that easy and as “Dust in the Wind” plays (the series long being the one justification for the song existing) comes on and you see another person struggling to get off a plane (later revealing what we already know that they had a vision and are presumably out there living the as yet unmade sequel), you know Death is still coming. And sure enough, the ensuing plane crash takes out numbers six, seven, and eight of the group. Two of them on the plane as one is thrown out and sliced up and the other in the ensuing explosion, while the third is on the ground where one of the engines crashes through and crushes him. END OF SPOILERS

As befits a 3D horror title, there’s lots of stuff flying at the screen in a cheesy way but it doesn’t hold the film back because like Piranha 3D it fits the tone of the series. About an hour in, I was about to call this a legitimately great film, but I think it stumbles back down a bit towards the mean. The kills get lazier and it’s as if the movie put all of its effort into the first part and then ran out of time towards the end and had to rush to keep the film at a manageable length. It’s still a good film and the best of the series, I just wish it had carried through on the initial promise.

Next up: One more day to go! Gonna try and cram in as many movies (including the delightfully titled Happy Death Day and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) as I can but the centerpiece is to be The Old Dark House as I discuss the essentials of horror (and cinema as a whole).

2017 Full Schedule