Home for the Holiday

Halloween II (2009)

Marsha LaMarca/Dimension Films

Those dizzying, chilling and iconic synthesizers — the theme music for John Carpenter’s original 1978 “Halloween” — are nowhere to be heard throughout Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II.” In his first stab at reinventing “Halloween,” Mr. Zombie weaved Mr. Carpenter’s self-orchestrated score in and out of the film, from the most inspired of moments to the most unfitting. When the tune would creep into a mundane scene of dialogue, Mr. Zombie seemed pinned down to reminding audiences of his film’s predecessor. The 2007 version’s destructive second half — essentially Mr. Carpenter’s entire film lazily condensed into one hour — could be explained in similar fashion. “Halloween II” saves the synthesizers for its last shot (a final close-up taken straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”), a nod to Mr. Carpenter’s groundwork that’s more of an afterthought than a salute. Mr. Zombie’s sequel is only a traditional “Halloween” film by title and character names, more so for worse than better.

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Baby Got Bite

Grace (2009)

GRC 04.25.08 (023)
Seattle International Film Festival

Not all short works of fiction need to be stretched into full-lengths. Imagine an entire movie based upon the plot of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” — 90 minutes of a depressed guy locked in his bedroom, succumbing to eerie sounds and claustrophobic paranoia. If handled properly, the set-up could make for the greatest Roman Polanski creepshow of all time; more than likely, though, it’d becomes the horror equivalent of a film based on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — intentionally scary, that is.

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A Bug's Strife

District 9 (2009)

TriStar Pictures

“District 9” couldn’t have come at a better time. For a science-fiction genre that’s been noticeably stagnant in recent years, this feature-film debut from writer-director Neill Blomkamp feels like the start of something big, a seismic shift in both public attention and filmmaking creativity toward a once-potent landscape inhabited by aliens and flying saucers. Hyperbole is risky business of course, and thrusting such a weighty compliment upon “District 9” could end up being a premature miscalculation. It could earn placement within critics’ top-10 lists and nothing more. Better judgment, however, thinks not.

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Bang, Zoom, Straight to the Lagoon

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

Rogue Pictures

There’s a frustrating-beyond-words moment in George A. Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” that broadcasts the cinéma vérité film’s glaring lack of subtlety. In the film's final act, a zombie dressed as a mummy chases a blonde Southern belle through a wooded area — a direct reference to a scene from the cameraman's faux student film within the film. As if the viewer can't draw the parallel on his or her own, a lazy bit of dialogue sledgehammers the obvious over heads: “This is just like in your stupid mummy movie!” Cue the collective audience groans.

Writer-director David Twohy’s “A Perfect Getaway” is 90-plus minutes of that. An uneventful killers-in-beautiful-scenery “thriller” that, for no explicable reason, feels the need to telegraph the surprises through its own character dialogue. If the film was impactful as a whole, Mr. Twohy’s partiality to self-reference would soar past attention, ultimately landing as an inconsequential fault within an otherwise taut suspense show — which this is not. “A Perfect Getaway” is gorgeous looking but ultimately sloppy. It’s one of those films that has the potential to inspire audience laughter for all the wrong reasons (see last year’s “The Happening”). Or, the right reasons, perhaps? Mr. Twohy piles on the off-putting moments so high that it’s unclear whether head-shaking snickers are what he desires or not. Whichever the case, “A Perfect Getaway” is hardly worth the deliberation.

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Breaking and Entering a Torture Chamber

The Collector (2009)

Liddell Entertainment

Any film that can turn a man's death – at the claws of multiple bear traps, skull punctured and crushed while knee-caps are split in halves – into an endearing moment is worthy of applause. By that point in "The Collector," a woman's eyes and mouth have already been sewn shut, and her husband's entrails previously emptied out onto a basement floor. The bear trap crushing the guy's head like a grape, though, proves that "The Collector" has no intention to take the foot off the pedal. Besides, there's still a hungry German shepherd lurking around, ready to chomp on the first human neck it gets within licking distance.

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Child's Plague

Orphan (2009)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Boxcutter in hand and evil-as-sin scowl on her face, a nine-year-old girl hovers over a sleeping boy only a few years her junior. First pressing the blade to the boy's throat, she then moves her weapon downward, stabbing dangerously close to his privates. As the now awake and understandably petrified kid trembles, the girl says with dead-seriousness, "I'll cut your hairless little dick off before you even know what it's for."

This scene comes shortly before the one-hour mark of the latest creepy-kid horror film, "Orphan;" but it's the defining moment – the instance where what seemed to be a conventional psychological thriller officially turns into a freak show. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose only other film of note is 2005's sub-par "House of Wax" remake, "Orphan" is a rather ballsy entry into a sub genre inhabited by the good (1976's "The Omen"), the bad (1993's "The Good Son"), and the underrated (2007's "Joshua"). Cast an unknown kid with an unsettling disposition, and then let him or her raise hell. "Orphan," however, ups the ante on all fronts. It's a messy film, plagued by inconsistencies that become loudly apparent once the much-publicized twist presents itself. If taken as nothing more than trashy camp hidden underneath a glossy mainstream sheen, though, "Orphan" is also quite entertaining, sue-me-for-liking-it fun.

Just wait until that see-it-to-believe-it scene twists its sleazy head.

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Deadgirl (2009)

Harris Charalambous/Dark Sky Films

If necrophilia were ever to become a subdivision of sexual education, "Deadgirl" would be the cautionary film cited as required viewing in the course syllabus. However you've reacted to the preceding sentence should signify where you'll reside in "Deadgirl's" polarizing aftermath. If repulsed, steer clear; if uncomfortably intrigued, however, you'll find the debut film from directing duo Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel to be a welcome surprise. The first-time filmmakers clearly have a ball playing on the conventions of both the horror and teenage coming-of-age film genres, taking a familiar virgin-outcasts-on-the-sexual-prowl premise and supplementing stone-faced bleakness where raunchy gags and McLovin types normally exist. The result – while a bit too reliant on its horror inclinations – is certainly one of the more unique and interesting genre films of the year thus far.

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Broken by a Word That Somebody Left Unspoken

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures

The romantic comedy genre has long been a form of escapism for women either scorned or disgusted by men. They don't call them "chick flicks" for nothing. Aside from the film's dud-to-stud prince charming, a romantic comedy's guy population is a Murderers' Row full of playboys and Mr. Wrongs – and, of course, Matthew McConaughey. So it requires little explanation as to why most men would rather read "Twilight" than voluntary see a chick flick. First-time director Marc Webb's enchanting "(500) Days of Summer" is the exception. This time, it's the guy who has to cope with a heart-stringing woman, a role reversal that could have turned into a one-note punchline. Anchored by a totally-game performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "(500) Days of Summer" hits all the right notes. Funny, energetic and – most importantly – believable, the film should be mandated viewing for ladies convinced that guys "just don't understand."

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Uncovering Clues on the Lost Highway

Surveillance (2008)

Magnet Releasing

To say that Jennifer Lynch's "Surveillance" is a chip off the old Lynchian block is alternately misleading and accurate. Whereas the films orchestrated by her auteur father, David, disturb by turning the viewer's brain into a battered punching bag, "Surveillance" achieves a similar feeling of psychological unease in a much more coherent manner. The film is a deviant surprise, an unwavering hell ride from the mind of a once left-for-dead filmmaker. After the critical drubbing and box-office tanking of her 1993 debut, "Boxing Helena," Ms. Lynch hadn't exactly put her name on the list of tomorrow's best filmmakers. In fact, her name had become somewhat of an afterthought, one of the many examples of unsuccessful nepotism. "Surveillance's" paralyzing tone and controlled ultra-violence, however, show that Ms. Lynch has emerged from Hollywood's time-out corner with a vengeance.

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Return of the Hitler-Loving Dead

Dead Snow (2009)

Sveinung Svendsen/Euforia Film

With an ingenious premise that needs only two words ("Nazi zombies") of sales-pitching, "Dead Snow" is a film that benefits from a small level of expectation. Deliver an excess of flesheaters clad in SS uniforms ripping limbs and chomping on innards, and audiences will applaud. Fortunately, for any moviegoer hooked in by the film's paper-thin arch, Norwegian director and co-writer Tommy Wirkola does just that by simply frowning upon the old adage, "less is more." A free-wheeling, anything-goes homage to America's glory days of blood-soaked camp, "Dead Snow" never takes itself seriously, piling on one grossout gag after another, all streamlined with a consistent tone of corpse-skin-dark humor. The end result doesn't quite reinvent horror's zombie subgenre, but it's still one hell of an entertaining ride despite its flaws.

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