Monday, July 13, 2015

Retro Trio: In the Mouth of Madness (1995); Event Horizon (1997); Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Some idea and images, like this one from a
promotional poster, try a little too hard.
Other ideas are executed quite well.
In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

: John Carpenter

A decent enough horror movie that, with a tad more inspiration, could have been an absolute classic.

In the Mouth of Madness is a compelling modern take on certain themes which horror writer H.P. Lovecraft pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s. It chronicles the search for a wildly popular horror writer, Sutter Cane, who has disappeared without a trace, just as his most recent book has been released. The book starts inspiring horrifying acts of insanity and violence among its readers. For these reasons, Cane's publisher hires insurance fraud investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) to track down Cane. As Trent gets closer and closer to discovering Cane's whereabouts, the world around him seems to begin warping into the terrifying, apocalyptic visions described in Cane's horror novels.

There is truly a lot working for this movie. The plot is a compelling update and reworking of some of the more terrifying concepts in Lovecraft's works. The concept that an ancient race of indescribably massive and ruthless monsters is preparing to invade the earth can give plenty of people nightmares. The narrative is also very well-constructed. We start with a manic John Trent being thrown into a sanitarium, where he begins to explain the entire tale of terror, leading to a flashback. The ever-skeptical Trent is a perfect protagonist through whose eyes to see everything unfold. Just like us viewers, he tries to deny the possibilities of the awful reality around him. Sam Neill absolutely nails the character, including the range of emotions from dismissive doubt to wry defensive sarcasm to growing panic, and ending with abandoned mania.

Despite having so much going for it, the movie falls short of feeling like a complete, polished and cohesive whole. Some sequences and effects are brilliant, while others seem a little bit cheap. Some of the actors' performances are excellent, while a few are a tad overdone. Some of the levity is truly funny, while some is a bit forced or flat. Director John Carpenter has always been one who has worked movie miracles with budgets which are mere fractions of large-scale Hollywood horror movies. With In the Mouth of Madness, I got the impression that perhaps his budgetary contstraints resulted in a weaker film. I felt that with a little more punching up of the script or more creativity with some of the intended horror sequences, this could have been a sure-fire cult classic on par with a few of his other movies such as The Thing.

Though it has its obvious flaws, this is still a fun movie to check out every few years. There is enough creativity and merit that a horror movie fan can appreciate this later effort by a great underdog director.

I wish the same could be said of the next movie...

Why would an engineer make a warp drive look like some-
thing out of a Clive Barker wet dream? Because the writers
couldn't think of anything more creative. That's why.
Event Horizon (1997)

: Paul W.S. Anderson

Event Horizon is a classic case of a workable idea falling very flat due to unimaginative direction and writing. This is likely why, though I did see the movie in the theater during its initial release in 1997, I could remember none of the details years later.

The story follows a crew sent on a secret mission to deep space, just beyond Neptune. Once there, they learn that they are to make contact with the vessel Event Horizon, which had disappeared seven years prior. The ship and its crew had been thought lost, but a mysterious transmission from the ship had been received, kicking off a search and recover mission. When the rescue team gets there, though, not only do they find that the original crew is missing, but they also begin experiencing horrifying visions drawn from personal trauma. We slowly learn through the accompanying advisor, Dr. Wier (Sam Neill. Yes. Again.), that the Event Horizon used a dark matter energy core, which allowed the ship to traverse tremendous distances by folding space and time. This dark matter apparently has torn open a hole to another dimension where "chaos rules...a place of complete evil." The ship now seems to bear some diabolical taint which infects any who come into close contact with it.

The premise isn't a terrible one, really. And the cast is actually quite impressive. Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburn, Jason Isaac, and all of the lesser-known cast do everything they can with the lines they are given. Unfortunately, the script is choppy and completely uninspired. There's hardly a single memorable line in the entire film. On top of this is a tone which has an identity crisis. Director Paul W.S. Anderson never seemed to be sure if he wanted to tell a dark horror tale, a ripping action-adventure tale, or a probing psychological tale. The result is a film that never settles into itself enough to evoke any specific mood in the viewer.

The far greater sin of this film, though, is its unabashed thievery from its sources of "inspiration." The general setup and tone of suspense is clearly an attempt to ape Ridley Scott's Alien. The nonsensically brutal and macabre aesthetic of the title ship is clearly taken from Clive Barker's Hellraiser books and movies, which is also true for the depictions of Hell. There are even more than a few attempts to imitate Stanley Kubrick's vision of space travel from 2001, as well as the psychological themes of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. I suppose if a viewer isn't familiar with these other films, then this might not matter. To any kind of film fan, though, Event Horizon is a blatant patchwork rip-off.

I suppose this movie might fill 90 minutes of your time if you're suffering insomnia and are feeling particularly uncritical. In any other viewing state, though, this movie is best left unwatched.

 Yes, I know it looks ridiculous. But this movie is likely to
surprise you with its smarts and heart. 
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

: Rupert Wyatt

Surprisingly good.

I'd never seen any of the original "Apes" films from the 1970s or the attempted reboot in 2005, so I had no frame of reference for this movie, aside from knowing that it involved apes taking over the planet. Maybe this was a good thing. What I got was an entertaining, sometimes touching and smart, adventure tale of ethics, science, and laws of nature.

The story focuses on Caesar, a young chimpanzee whose mother was taken captive for medical experiments involving neural regeneration and enhancement. Caesar's mother is killed shortly after he is born, and the scientist in charge of the experiments, Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) rescues Caesar from a mass slaughter of potentially infected chimps. Caesar soon shows signs of extreme intelligence, which urges Rodman to continue his experiments to find a drug which might help humans suffering Alzheimers or other degenerative neural ailments. Things go awry, however, and Caesar is placed in a shelter where the abusive staff allows the cerebral Caesar to be bullied by the other chimps, who are far more naturally primitive. This only lasts so long, though, as Caesar not only uses his superior intelligence to become the alpha chimp in the shelter, but he also manages to smuggle in some of the chemicals which gave him his mental edge. Once he douses the other apes in the shelter, they are all clever enough to mount a full-scale revolt.

The movie plot may come off as a bit ridiculous, but it is science fiction. Truthfully, it is presented in ways which make it all seem less far-fetched than you might suspect. It all moves along at a decent pace, and there are more than a few stunning action sequences. The main strength of the movie is how empathetic Caesar is. This is probably due to our growing understanding of just how similar chimps are to humans, even in terms of characterstics which had previouly been assumed as strictly "human" - empathy, a sense of loss, and a desire to belong. Of course, this wouldn't have been possible to convey without some exemplary special effects, namely the top-notch CGI used to bring Caesar and the other apes to life.

Though I may not feel the need to see this movie again, I'm looking forward to watching the sequel, which was released to solid reviews in 2014. I'll likely review it in the coming weeks.