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House of Bones – “No one here gets out alive”

Those of you who keep up with this blog know that last week was Shark Week, and while it was a lot of fun, it was also a lot of work critiquing one movie a day. So I figured this week, I’d take it easy, and shake up last week’s creature spectacuganzafest with a good old-fashioned haunted house film.

I occasionally make confessions in these entries about things that make me uncomfortable, and given the subject matter of this movie, it seems fitting that I do so here. Obviously, clowns are creepy, as are children, dolls, and hospitals. Condemned insane asylums are usually freaky, along with orphanages, and anything featuring homicidal, unstoppable ghosts falls into the category of “frightening”. (Enter The Cradle from Thief 3: Deadly Shadows, arguably one of the creepiest video game levels ever created, and certainly among the most atmospheric.) Classic 1700s Southern mansions, like the one in this movie, don’t typically automatically get deemed “creepy”, but it often doesn’t take too much to tip them over the edge.

“Look, honey! How lovely! OUR terrifying past will feel right at home here!”

House of Bones follows the crew of the Ghost Hunters parody Sinister Sites as they prepare to film a new episode about a mansion in Louisiana, the Wicker House. Quentin French (Corin Nemec, Sand Sharks; Parker Lewis Can’t Lose), the host of Sinister Sites, is forced by the network to travel to the house and film on location in a last-ditch attempt to keep his show running (after all, “the fans just think the CGI’s awful”). He is preceded by producer and lead investigator Tom Rule (Ricky Wayne, Real Steel; Monsterwolf); lead investigator Greg Williams (Marcus Lyle Brown, Mammoth; Monster’s Ball); tech manager Simon McAllister (Collin Galyean, Quantum Apocalypse; The Dunwich Horror); production assistant Bub (Kyle Russell Clements, Battleship; Quantum Apocalypse); and local psychic Heather Burton (Charisma Carpenter, The Expendables; Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The crew arrives at the house early, convincing realtor Sara Minor (Stephanie Honoré, Mirrors 2; The Final Destination) to let them stay the night in the house to be able to film while it’s dark outside. Naturally, as things start to turn deadly, they begin to regret their choice, struggling to survive as the house itself turns against them.

Top left – Quentin French; top right – Tom Rule; middle left – Greg Williams and Simon McAllister; middle right – Bub; bottom left – Heather Burton; bottom right – Sara Minor

If you haven’t yet seen House on Haunted Hill (that’s the Vincent Price original, mind you. And apparently there’s a color version, but the black and white was just fine for me), I’d recommend it. It’s a really good look at what a haunted house movie can be slash sets the standards for what those movies are. By no means is it perfect, of course, but by and large it’s pretty good. House of Bones, while obviously being several incarnations apart, still struck me as being a good blend of modern movie sensibilities crossed with throwbacks and homages to the haunted house movies of yore, as it were. While many ghost movies suffer from very poor CGI (as I’ve written on here and here, for example), House of Bones showed only a bare minimum of glowy mist and see-through specters, and when they did appear, the effects were typically either short in duration or fairly high in quality. What I’m trying to say is that House of Bones was made without the use of the terrible, campy CGI that drags down so many SyFy Channel movies. It certainly had CGI, and here and there it suffered, but not once while watching it did I remark on how bad the effects were. Given the usual for SyFy Channel, this lack of terrible effects was an unexpected and extremely welcome surprise. Moreover, while the dialogue was nothing outstanding, it remained where it should have, namely, unnoticed. The cast, on the other hand, was clearly above the standard quality typically found, and not only was everyone solidly decent or good, but they also seemed to click with each other in a way often missing from B movies.

“She’s hot. I guess I’ll follow her… annnnd now I’m stuck in a wall. Great…”

Given the absence of CGI effects, you may be wondering how this movie managed to be unsettling (and to me, it was definitely unsettling, unnerving, and creepy). The answer is that they did wonders with atmosphere. The setting – an old mansion with a terrible past – helped, of course; the grounds of the house are overgrown with vines, a dilapidated shed sits eerily in the back, and numerous crosses, dream catchers, and bones hang from a tree in the yard. But what really did it for me was the constant use of views through video cameras. Camera views in movies open up wonderful opportunities for suspense or jumps, as you can have an apparition suddenly appear, or something someone sees with their eyes not appear on video, or all manner of creepy things, and the creators of this movie took full advantage of those possibilities. Add in nearly-unheard screams, or an old radio unexpectedly broadcasting one of the characters crying for help while a demonic voice quotes from the Book of Revelation, and you’ve got a really good start towards having an unsettling haunted house movie without needing awful CGI. Now, don’t get me wrong; there were numerous predictable moments, and all too often, the movie built really good tension and suspense only to waste it too quickly on a decidedly bland reveal (for example, Heather has several occasions where she sees flashes of past atrocities committed in the house, but although they work well at building tension, they never make a return appearance later on). But by and large, the movie surprised me most by how effective it was.

Never a bad way to start a horror movie

Smile! You’re on haunted house camera!

“Say hello to my little… aw crap”

There were three major problems with this movie, though, that need to be expanded on. The first, as I mentioned, was the wasting of well-built tension. Constantly they created a really good and effective build up to something, and then released all the tension in an ineffectual moment that left me feeling unsatisfied. Significantly, this included the ending of the movie. There’s a certain inevitability that builds faster and faster as the movie goes on and the mystery of the house gets explored by the characters, and with that inevitability comes a necessary building hope that somehow, one or two of them will manage to survive and beat the house. Then, when that hope gets dashed to pieces, the full weight of the movie is felt. But this kind of tension really only works effectively when the stakes get raised faster and faster as the movie progresses. If the pace of the buildup and release of hope and suspense isn’t done just right, it comes across as shoddy work, and sadly, this movie suffered this fate. As the movie ended, I couldn’t help but feel as though the creators needed another half-hour or so to pace everything just right to wield the effect of the movie successfully, but unfortunately, they didn’t have that extra time, and the end of the film felt sudden and forced, as though they knew they were out of time and decided they had to wrap things up as quickly as they could.

“Just two… more… minutes…”

The other place where this movie suffered was the characters. While the actors did a remarkable job, the movie lacked a strong, clear central character. Now, I’m all for the idea that a movie or television or book series shouldn’t protect the main character simply by virtue of them being the main character. I very much prefer the stakes to be real, and to constantly be unsure who will live and who will die. Despite that, if a movie feels like it’s missing a strong protagonist, it can leave the viewer feeling ungrounded, which is perhaps my biggest complaint about this film. To me, it seemed to imply that Heather was the central figure, as she was the one who connected with the house and kept figuring out what was going on. But she never took a central, leading role, instead staying in the background and reacting to what was happening, rather than taking charge.

And who else is gonna lead? HIM?

As is often the case with supernatural or haunted house movies, there was no science that stood out as questionable in this film. However, there are a number of points I would like to discuss regarding human psychology as it relates to horror movie characters.

So here you are, in a 250-year-old house, built by a guy who experimented with witchcraft on slaves to try to figure out how to live forever. Since his death, rumors of disappearances and murders follow the house throughout history, the last known case being in 1951. When you get into this house to film it as part of a Ghost Hunters-esque television show, and the local psychic starts telling you about the bad feelings she’s getting from rooms and objects in the house, you laugh it off as stage bluster. Makes sense. Then your production assistant goes missing while setting up cameras, and after a camera gets dropped in a wall, it comes out covered in what looks like mucus or something grosser. So what do you do to try to find your production assistant? Obviously, the best idea is to have two people separately search the upstairs, staying apart from each other as long as possible! Naturally! But seriously, every single time, people split up. Admittedly, in the beginning, there’s something to be said for incredulity, but once you have camera footage of someone fading away, in a quite literal sense, then you have to believe that something strange in going on. Doubly so once the resident psychic starts coughing up hair, though by that point, it’s probably too late.

“I’m thinking we should split up to explore the creepiest parts of the house…”

“…like this. Go in there alone. That’s a good idea, right?”

This movie also, at least tangentially, raises the issue of reality. At one point, Heather says to “trust reality”, as though it were that simple. But what makes reality for us? Is it what we perceive? Descartes would disagree with that, as he argues that our perceptions can fool us (and of course, we’ve all had that happen at some point). And when you hallucinate that you’re on a dissection table being cut open alive (as in a recent episode of Alphas), does it really matter whether you’re being cut open by masked doctors or by your own doing? In other words, if the effect is the same regardless of the cause, is it really that important to know the actual cause?

“Forget reality, just get me the hell out of here!”

Anyway, that’s House of Bones for you. Better than expected, better than standard SyFy, and an all-around pleasant surprise. Enjoy!


Lost Voyage – “After 30 years in the Bermuda Triangle… a GHOST SHIP returns”

And we’re back, with a look at another movie about a ship haunted by ghosts. I’m not really sure why, but it does seem to be the case that people like making movies about haunted ships – Lost Voyage, Ghost Voyage, and of course Ghost Ship (though it should be mentioned here that, of these three, Lost Voyage is the first released).

The movie opens with the father and stepmother of Aaron Roberts (Judd Nelson, Suddenly Susan, The Breakfast Club) boarding the Corona Queen for their honeymoon. The ship gets lost in a mysterious storm while navigating the Bermuda Triangle, and all aboard are killed. Jump ahead 25 years, and Aaron is working at an institute investigating paranormal phenomena (with science!) when he gets informed about the reappearance of the Corona Queen. Meanwhile, Dana Elway (Janet Gunn, Silk Stalkings, Dark Justice), a reporter for a tabloid television station, needs to save her career somehow and latches onto the return of the Corona Queen to do so. She hires a salvage team to take her to the ship, convincing Aaron to join her for her story. As expected by all the viewers, the group proceeds to get killed off one by one as they struggle to survive and escape the ship.

Left – Aaron; right – Dana

Normally, here is where I talk about the bad acting, bad CGI, bad script, etc. But something strange happened with this movie – it wasn’t awful. The acting had its weak moments, of course, but overall was quite solid (Mark Sheppard’s in it, after all). The writing had its flaws, but nowhere stood out as stilted, lazy, or distracting. And the effects, while pretty standard Sci-Fi Channel CGI, were sparing enough and quality enough to add to the atmosphere, though the ghosts at the end of the movie fell into two distinct categories of “acceptable” and “why did you waste money on that?”. However, overall, this movie served as a beacon of mediocrity floating in the sea of boring garbage that characterizes many Sci-Fi Channel movies.

Left – not the worst ghost ever; right – the alternative

As with last week’s Ghost Voyage, Lost Voyage was not the kind of movie that lends itself to much science critique, nor did it really have much in the way of philosophical or religious allegory. But there are a few general comments to make, as always.

First of all, the cinematography in this movie was itself better than much of what Sci-Fi Channel has to offer. The style of the opening, which took place in the ‘70s, was reminiscent of television shows filmed during that era, and transitioned more or less seamlessly into a more modern, familiar style for the parts taking place in the present. The CGI was spottier, with some elements, such as an otherworldly storm front, blending in quite well; other parts, such as some of the ghosts and one scene where the cameraman in the group gets turned into dust, stood out as particularly campy.

From the opening scene…

…and the gateway to Hell (maybe)

Then there are some things that don’t make much sense. For instance, Aaron works for an institute investigating paranormal phenomena, but his obsession with the Bermuda Triangle gets labeled as far-fetched and too out-there for other members of the institute to respect. There’s also a moment where the pilot of the helicopter that delivers the group to the ship says he can’t stay long because of the wind, but the next shot of the ship reveals apparently calm seas all around, despite the driving rain.

The wind is too strong; can’t you tell?

This movie also addresses one of the greatest clichés in horror movie history, that of people wandering off on their own despite members of the group going missing or being found dead. For instance, Dana’s rival television host Julie Largo (Scarlett Chorvat, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Freedom) decides that it’s a good idea to go try to get the story for herself, by herself, not only ignoring the fact that two people have already been killed, but also that the television cameras they brought have captured footage of a ghost. So she knows that the ship has otherworldly entities on it, and that two people have met horrible ends, but she decides to go solo anyways, and naturally suffers a grisly fate for it.

Grisly fate, before and after

On a side note, this movie did a good job of building the tension and the atmosphere, but sadly, it shied away from going all out and really trying to make this movie frightening. The place where this is most obvious is when Julie goes off on her own. She opens a door and enters a surreal dreamlike scene where she’s back at the network being offered Dana’s job. Except that, before the movie can capitalize on the tension created by this vision, we get a long shot of her standing in a hold on the ship, the door closes quickly, and then she screams, without us actually seeing what it is that kills her, nor how she dies.

This is also the closest this movie gets to having a religious connection. Aaron talks at one point about the possibility of the Triangle being a portal or gateway to another realm, maybe Hell, maybe something else entirely. Then, during Julie’s vision, her boss pushes her to sign a contract, promising that once she does, all her dreams will come true; though, as we all predicted, once she signs it, she dies. This would have been the perfect time to have her boss turn into the Devil or something along those lines, as the movie is clearly hinting that that’s who it is offering her the contract; but it stops short of going that far, thereby missing a good opportunity to add horror.

The man who would be Satan

Lost Voyage perpetuates the idea that ghosts are always enraged and homicidal, but that’s to be expected. What wasn’t expected was for it to be written, directed, and edited by the same man, a fact which naturally brings to mind the wonder and artistic masterpiece created by Tommy Wiseau. Yes, I’m talking about The Room, and for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, get a bunch of your friends together right now and go watch it.

Tommy Wiseau wills it so!

That’s it for Lost Voyage. Keep an eye out for ghost sharks – no reason they need to stay in the water!

Ghost Voyage – “Seven strangers awaken on a ship adrift at sea. Each has one chance to solve its deadly riddle. And if they don’t… there’ll be hell to pay”

Normally, I wouldn’t start a review with a bit of critique, as I prefer to ease into the discussion of the movie. But I feel that this needs to be pointed out right away – there are nine strangers who awaken on a ship adrift at sea, not seven as the movie poster would have you believe. I have no idea (obviously) who made that mistake, but he or she should probably review counting again. I might recommend that he or she also watch this movie again, but honestly, I can’t in good conscience wish that fate on anyone.

Ghost Voyage tells the story of nine strangers who awaken on a ship adrift at sea. They each have one chance to solve its deadly riddle. (Who would’ve guessed, right?) Michael (Antonio Sabato Jr., The Bold and the Beautiful, Earth 2), Serena (Deanna Russo, Knight Rider, The Young and the Restless), Nicholai (Nicholas Irons, Wicked Wicked Games, Berkeley Square) and the others find themselves on a ship sailing to an unknown destination. They meet the Steward (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Memoirs of a Geisha, Mortal Kombat) who informs them of the rules of the ship but nothing else before mysteriously vanishing. The group slowly explores the ship only to be killed in nasty ways one by one. Pretty standard stuff.

Left – Serena, Michael, and Nicholai; right – the Steward; bottom – Serena and Nicholai

As is par for the course, the CGI in this movie ran the gamut from middling-poor to downright awful. Shots of the ship at sea, when entirely computerized, were acceptable; shots of cigarette-smoke ghosts eviscerating hapless passengers were not so acceptable, and I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t use the majority of the CGI budget to create this strange octopus/skullspider/flame ghost thing that didn’t show up until near the end. But what really stood out was the combination of terrible script writing and wooden line delivery. Rarely can one find a movie that so expertly pairs the two with such an agonizing result (though there was a tongue in cheek homage to the SciFi Channel when one of the characters talks about producing a movie called Jaws vs. Orca; yes, I would watch that movie).

Aside from that, this movie did raise a number of questions, such as how Serena, the daughter of a fisherman, could be so clearly unable to swim; or why it is that, almost universally, ghosts move in jerky fashion from place to place (à la The Ring), then crane their necks at odd angles or have difficulty moving their arms properly (like in parts of Thir13en Ghosts); or, most important of all, how it is that the characters in these movies can remain so very clueless right up to the end when any viewer paying a shred of attention can figure the plot out after ten minutes or so. (Of course, now that I’ve said that, chances are I’m going to end up in one of those situations and not figure it out until it’s way too late but what can ya do?…) For example – they’re on a ship (blatantly obviously called the Azrael, of all things), in an unknown ocean, with an unknown destination, maps that show no land at all, and no sign of any crew whatsoever aside from the Steward. Can anyone out there in Readerland figure out where they are? Anyone at all? Bueller? Bueller? That’s right! They’re in Hell! Congratulations, you win the prize of not needing to watch the last hour of this movie, a gift of time that the rest of us can only envy (though arguably, they are only in Purgatory, or possibly Limbo, depending on how you interpret the movie).

You’d think they’d have figured it out the first time they ran into her

Normally, this is the point where I start to delve into the science stuff that one typically finds in movies of this nature. However, such science stuff is conspicuously absent from this movie, and I therefore have no science critique. So instead, I’ll discuss the philosophical and relgious implications of the film, of which there are many.

First, the obvious – the ship has nine passengers, and according to Dante Alighieri, the Inferno (Hell) has nine circles. Likewise, as Michael and Serena later discover, the Steward is allegorical to Charon, the ferryman on the river Styx in Greek mythology. (Also, on a side note, how is it that Nicholai and, later, Serena find the cargo hold of the ship filled with funerary symbols from all different cultures – a Celtic cross, an Egyptian funerary boat, one of the terracotta warriors – but still not make the connection that the ship has something to do with death?)

Next, although not all of the passengers’ pasts are revealed, there are some general ties to Dante’s nine circles. For example, two of the passengers sneak off into the Captain’s quarters to have sex, giving in to the sin of lust. Two others allow their anger to rule and destroy them, and another can be seen to represent gluttony by way of heroin addiction. (For a more thorough discussion on the seven deadly sins, follow that link.)

Left – victims of lust; right – one of the victims of wrath and Michael; bottom – victim of gluttony and his punisher

Finally, there is the salvation of the characters in the movie by way of obedience. The Steward warns the passengers at the beginning of the voyage not to engage in certain behaviors (breaching closed doors, entering the Captain’s quarters, smoking); as the passengers ignore his warnings, they get killed and claimed by the various spirits they release during their transgressions. However, the passengers which heed all of the warnings of the Steward are offered a chance at redemption before the ship is pulled into Hell completely (hence the interpretation of the ship as Purgatory instead of Limbo or Hell). This reinforces the teachings of many popular religions that, by living virtuous lives (as defined by society), individuals can redeem themselves from mistakes made in the past, so long as they no longer break rules.

But to be honest, I have to say that analyzing this movie in this fashion, while easy and relatively obvious, also gives it way too much credence and import. At the end of the day (and I don’t say this often), this movie is just bad.

House of the Dead 2 – “All guts, no glory”

Now we come to the SyFy contribution to the franchise in this, the second half of the first installment of our second occasional series, Franchise Week. (It is recommended that you read the review of House of the Dead first if you haven’t, as some comparisons will be made.)

There are a few different types of sequels in moviedom, as we all should know by now. Sequels can be in the form of prequels (as in the case of Tremors 4), they can be remakes (as in the case of Rob Zombie’s Halloween or, arguably, Evil Dead II), and of course, they can be true sequels, as we find in House of the Dead 2.

As was the case with its predecessor, House of the Dead 2 fails to take place in an actual house, being set instead on the campus of Cuesta Verde University where a zombie virus has broken out courtesy of Professor Curien, who is using the zombified Alicia (from the first movie) to try to perfect an immortality serum. Naturally, his experiment escapes, turns him into a zombie, and then proceeds to infect the rest of the campus during the opening credit sequence. In an obvious nod to other members of the zombie genre, a team consisting of six special forces soldiers and two scientists is dispatched twenty-nine days after the outbreak to try to recover a blood sample from the first “hyper sapiens” specimen, as they are called, in the hopes of being able to generate a cure for the disease. The scientists Alexandra ‘Nightingale’ Morgan (Emmanuelle Vaugier, CSI: NY, Saw II) and Ellis (Ed Quinn, Eureka, Young Americans) are joined on their mission by all the classic special forces stereotypes – the eager and patriotic new team member, the nervous talkative guy, the strong female second-in-command, the enormous and sinister jerk, the reliable but stupid guy, and of course the gruff and pragmatic squad leader. As you may have guessed, the soldiers completely ignore the warnings from Nightingale and Ellis (the only two people who have dealt with zombies before and actually know what’s going on), and thus Nightingale and Ellis are the only two people who survive to the end.

Left – Ellis and Nightingale; right – Nightingale; bottom – one of the soldiers. I’ll let you guess which one.

As always, this movie suffers from a lack in just about every area – dialogue, special effects, and acting (although, interestingly enough, the acting seemed to improve as the movie progressed, though that could have just been acclimation on my part). I would also have to say that this movie was somewhat more boring than the first one, as well. As far as makeup went in this movie, the zombies over all looked either a lot better, or very much worse, than in the first movie. There were also two parts with noticeable and somewhat laughable inconsistencies in makeup – near the beginning, Ellis is washing blood off his face from a recent kill; as the angle changes, he alternately has a clean face, then one with blood, then a clean face, then one with blood again, before ending with a clean face. Similarly, later on, when they find Alicia the zombie (Patient Zero), there’s a moment when part of her back is visible through her hospital gown, and is distinctly human-looking.

One of the better-looking zombies in the movie.

I’m a biologist by training. As such, when I watch a movie like this, I take special note of the explanation for the various biological phenomena. Insofar as things were explained, they definitely seemed to go off the deep end with the virus in this movie. First of all, they talk about the virus causing mutations in the victims. This is possible, as viruses in the real world are known to cause genetic mutations. However, in a deceased host, the virus would have no way to go about effecting physical change – a virus cannot, in general, cause protein expression independent of the host cell. Normally, when a cell gets infected, part of the infection is the insertion of virus DNA into the host chromosome, to be turned into protein and more viruses as the cell does its normal cell things. In a corpse, though, there are no processes occurring – the virus would have no way to cause genetic insertions to be expressed in the host.

There’s also a moment when one of the soldiers gets bitten by a mosquito and thus is presumed infected. However, the method by which mosquitoes feed on humans prevents the transmission of blood from the mosquito to the human. (For a discussion of why mosquitoes cannot transmit HIV between humans, follow this link – without further knowledge, I have to assume that a theoretical zombie virus would be similar in character.) Therefore, although possible given the virus’ fictional existence, based on real-world observations transmission of the virus via mosquito is extremely unlikely.

This movie uses the idea that zombies can tell each other from live humans through smell, and so when Ellis needs to try to help the remaining people escape, he cuts open a zombie corpse and smears the guts on himself, then safely walks through a room full of zombies. For there to be a sense of smell, the brain of the zombie must be functional, at least in part. Here I would like to give credit to the movie, because there is also a moment where one of the soldiers (at this point a zombie) seems to recognize Ellis, suggesting that some memory remains in the zombies. This idea is also supported earlier in the movie, when Nightingale notices that the zombies seem to be falling into old, ingrained routines. (Both these ideas are considered in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, of course.) Therefore, it seems that this movie has consistent, if unsupportable, amounts of brain function in the zombies. Of course, assuming that metabolic processes are necessary to access memory and recognize smell, and given that metabolism stops after death, brain function of any sort is highly unlikely.

As I mentioned, the mission to the campus was to recover a sample of blood from the initial zombie infection. Along the way, Nightingale and Ellis test several blood samples from zombies, all of which turn up negative. But I have to ask, to what were they comparing these samples? In order to know whether blood was from Patient Zero, they would have needed to have a sample of blood from Patient Zero already on file; in other words, it seems to me that, unless there was some other marker that went unmentioned in the movie, the entire premise makes no sense, as they would already have the blood they need to collect.

Finally, this movie brings back harbor patrolwoman Casper from the first movie, in which she gets her legs severed by a zombie hoard. Accepting that she didn’t get bitten (and therefore she was not zombified), her leg stumps were bleeding for at least ten or fifteen minutes, before the house she was in exploded. She may have survived the explosion (highly unlikely), but I do not see how she could have survived the blood loss, as no tourniquet was applied and it takes only a matter of minutes for a person to bleed out after severing their femoral arteries. So I’m sorry, SyFy, but there’s really no way she could have survived the first movie.

Moving away from pseudoscience now, I must chastise the characters for ignoring the golden rule of situations like theirs, namely don’t get separated. There’s a moment when one of the soldiers hears something, and so goes off on his own to investigate. Naturally, he ends up a zombie. But seriously, he should have known better than to wander off on his own. Also, people in this movie showed a surprising lack of awareness of surroundings. At one point, Ellis and Nightingale meet up with two students who had been living in a science lab for weeks. Initially, the students believe the scientists to be zombies, which makes a lot of sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is the way that five minutes in the company of other humans causes the students to forget every rule they must have developed in order to stay alive for twenty-nine days, because not long after they show up, the students get swarmed by zombies who attack from behind. How did the students live that long if they never kept an eye to what was going on behind them?

Why you shouldn’t wander off alone.

Moreover, the final piece of the plot is that the campus is going to be destroyed by cruise missiles, meaning that the mission to find the unnecessary blood is on a tight schedule. But when the missile actually strikes, it turns out to be just that – missile. Singular. As in, one building gets blown up, but somehow someone somewhere thought that would be enough to end the outbreak? I can’t promise that this would be my answer, but I think that, were I the one to make that call, I would say “kill it with fire” and carpet bomb everything within a certain radius, then add napalm, then maybe bunker busters, before ending it all with a very, very, very large boom device. But that’s just me, and maybe I’m more thorough than I need to be.

Almost as good as killing it with fire.

But of course, despite the best efforts of our heroes, they fail to contain the spread of the virus. In fact, they even fail to leave the campus with a sample of blood; but that’s okay, because it turns out that while they were in the campus (for all of maybe six hours), civilization ceased to exist.

I think there’s a pretty clear moral here – don’t try to reanimate corpses. It won’t end well.

House of the Dead – “You won’t last the night”

So this is going to be the first installment of the second occasional feature here at Jumping Sharks – Franchise Week! It’s important to remember that not all the movies of a given franchise will be SyFy Originals; but it’s just not right to start watching a franchise partway through. You’ve got to watch them all to get the full flavor of the series. And as always, I will try to avoid giving away plot points, but it’s going to happen, mainly because there is just so much that I need to talk about for this movie. So let’s just jump right in and try to outrun the sharks, shall we? Because it’s gonna be a long swim…

House of the Dead is directed by Uwe Boll. For those who don’t know who he is, follow that link. For those who don’t follow that link, he’s a German director who has made many movie adaptations of video games. Some of his directing credits include BloodRayne, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Alone in the Dark. And, significantly, his movies have the tendency to be universally regarded as awful, awful creations. House of the Dead is basically classic Uwe Boll, complete with occasional clips from the source material.

Before I continue, I need to confess that I have never played any of the games in the House of the Dead series. Therefore, my commentary cannot make any firsthand comparisons between the movie and the source material. However, a quick search of Wikipedia shows that the movie is actually set as a prequel to any of the video games. The film opens with five college students trying to get to a rave on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Having missed the scheduled boat, they charter Captain Kirk (Jürgen Prochnow, 24, Das Boot), a local smuggler, to take them over, ignoring the warnings from his first mate that the island is cursed (after all, it’s called Isla del Muerte; there’s no way anything good can come from having a rave on an island with that name). As they pull out of the harbor, they choose to ignore calls to stop from Casper (Ellie Cornell, The Thirst, Halloween 5), an agent with the harbor patrol who then follows them to the island. Once on the island, the students head into the woods to find the rave while Captain Kirk and his first mate unload the contraband on his boat to prevent Casper from confiscating it.

Left – Rudy; right – Alicia

Left – Karma; right – Liberty

Top left – Simon; top right – Casper; bottom left – Captain Kirk; bottom right – Captain James T. Kirk

When the students arrive at the rave site, the find it trashed and abandoned. After looking around a little for anyone who might still be there, Alicia (Ona Grauer, Intelligence, Catwoman) finds a bloody shirt, causing her to go off looking for people in the woods accompanied by Simon (Tyron Leitso, Being Erica, Wonderfalls) and Karma (Enuka Okuma, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, Dragon Ball Z); the other two students stay at the rave site (given the number of characters in this movie, I’m trying to only mention by name those who survive for a significant portion, which these last two fail to do). Alicia, Simon and Karma find a decrepit church and graveyard in a clearing in the woods, wherein they find Rudy (Jonathan Cherry, Goon, Final Destination 2), Liberty (Kira Clavell, Frankie & Alice, Saban’s Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation) and another ravegoer who videotaped what happened. His tape shows zombies attacking the rave and killing everyone. After seeing the tape, they all decide they have to get off the island as soon as possible, resulting in the next hour or so of the movie being about what would be expected – people killing zombies in all kinds of new and creative ways (kill it with fire!) while the humans slowly die one by one.

Now, on to the good stuff.

First off, for those whose first reaction is ‘why are there islands with Spanish names in the Pacific Northwest?’ (I know that was one of my first thoughts while watching), it turns out that not only did Spanish lands go that far north, but they also had explorers sail up the coast into present-day Alaska. So I’m willing to accept the plausibility of islands in that region having Spanish names, regardless of the likelihood of those names being Anglicized over the years.

Moving on, there were two words that kept coming to mind during this movie – act harder. Act harder. For the love of God and all that is holy, act harder! Most of the actors were about what you would expect from this caliber of movie, but every now and again there would be a truly wooden, bland and completely forced line delivery that made it impossible for me to not ask them to act harder. Also, the makeup effects left a lot to be desired – the zombies typically looked like either they just had white/pale blue face paint on or they were wearing burlap bags over their heads that then had decaying faces painted onto them. Beyond all that, the soundtrack was nothing special, though by the same token it wasn’t distracting. Nothing worse in a bad movie than a distracting soundtrack that takes focus away from the awful acting, dialogue, and special effects. However, the opening credit sequence in this movie does deserve a call-out as a refreshingly new, if trippy and psychedelic, visual sequence. It was a sort of neon silhouette of images from the game, which was definitely a nice retro touch, in my mind.

Left – a probable zombie; right – an unfortunate man in a burlap hood.

One of the early scenes in the movie features a woman skinny dipping in the ocean while her fling watches from the beach. When she comes out of the water, he is no longer there, so she heads into the woods to look for him, finding the decrepit church and graveyard that our heroes later discover. Now, I’m a sane, rational person (or so I like to believe) who has never been in a situation like that, but I do believe that I would feel nervous to the point of going to look for someone else to help me find my lost companion before I went into the church. So I have to ask – are horror movie characters crazy or particularly irrational? It’s like when the basement lights go out in the middle of a storm and the flashlight batteries die and there’s a mysterious thumping and an unknown smell rising up the stairs – you don’t go down there! It’s a similar thing here – we have a woman on her own, already lost in the woods, walking blindly into a very creepy-looking church with an ancient graveyard out front. Did she think things would end any differently than being torn apart by zombies?

Another probable zombie. Possibly also a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer reference.

As I’ve mentioned, a hallmark of Uwe Boll movies is various homages to the video game inspiration for the film. In this one, those homages start with the credit sequence, then continue throughout the movie, often using clips taken directly from the game. But there’s also a great scene in arcade-shooter style wherein Captain Kirk is on his boat shooting zombies as they appear from around doors, or over the side of the boat, or from the rigging, just like in a classic light gun arcade game (which is the classification for House of the Dead). There are also a couple moments when characters die where, instead of showing them getting ripped apart, motion freezes and they drift upwards in a red mist, another classic video game influence.

DEFINITELY a zombie.

But all this brings me to a series of very important points that made me rather angry at this movie. Captain Kirk was shooting zombies as they came onto his boat. But how did they get there, you ask? They swam. That’s right. Zombies in this movie are incredibly agile – they can swim, they can run, they can (and do!) use weapons, they are able to actually fight (block attacks, strike back with attacks of their own, etc.), and they can jump seven to ten feet in the air in a single bound. I’m something of a purist – I realize that allowing zombies to run adds something to the tension, and is arguably biologically defensible, but I do prefer slow zombies (I’m a sucker for inevitability; what can I say?). But I cannot, in any way, defend the ability of zombies to swim, to jump, or to show evidence of intelligence in combat (blocking attacks, using weapons, etc.). I’m sorry, but part of the point of zombies is that they’re mindless. If you give them back their minds, even in a rudimentary regard, they cease being zombies and instead become something else, like a Wight or a ghoul or something (not to be confused with the ghouls from Ghouls). So there’s that, which I would argue takes away from the zombies in this movie, at least to a certain extent.

Apparently, reanimated corpses can swim…

At one point, our heroes (Rudy, Alicia, Karma, Liberty, Simon, Casper, and Captain Kirk) are making their way through the graveyard to hole up in the church, trying to find the most defensible place they can. What follows is a ten to fifteen minute shootout in which the camera speeds are constantly changing between real time and bullet time, while our heroes do all kinds of acrobatics and martial arts and general cliché action movie badassery. I think the best way to describe this scene is a completely unapologetic, shameless, totally self-indulgent action sequence that almost borders on mockery through imitation of movies that include such scenes in a completely serious manner. If you are at all interested in bizarre, over the top action sequences, it might – and I can’t stress that might enough – be worth looking into, as it really is a fascinating example of gratuitous self-indulgence. It’s almost otherworldly.

…and use weapons.

Then, during the aforementioned sequence, we have some interesting questions arise. For one, how is it that Liberty (who spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots, as I’m sure you guessed) manages to do all kinds of martial arts, acrobatics, and running, given that she spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots? I’ve never worn the things, but I can’t imagine that go-go boots would allow someone to high-kick a zombie in the face, especially when that person is standing on loamy, graveyard soil. Furthermore, before they storm the church, Captain Kirk dips into his personal supply of smuggled weapons to make sure that each and every person has at least three different kinds of guns and two different kinds of explosives, then they have a brief montage wherein Kirk and Casper show the others how to use the various weapons. Then they storm the church like they’ve all spent ten years or more in special forces. How do they go from five college students who have no clue how to turn the safety off to stone cold killers who can hit their target every time when using such weapons as an Uzi and dual-wielded Desert Eagles? Which also raises the question of who would ever choose to voluntarily shoot two Desert Eagles at the same time in an actual life or death situation? (If you believe this is a rational course of action, I would direct your attention here, which is a bunch of anecdotal evidence as to why that’s a bad idea.)

The sort of thing one could realistically do in a jumpsuit and go-go boots.

There are, of course, a variety of other moments here and there that make no sense, like seeing a weird zombie-eel-thing in a tank of red liquid (“blood”, or so they would have you believe) and deciding that shooting it makes the most sense, ignoring the fact that it can’t hurt you in the tank. Or like hearing your former first mate whistling for you and then going to him despite knowing that he must be a zombie. Or like watching zombies swim towards your friend who stupidly jumped in the water, then stupidly deciding to jump into the zombie-infested ocean yourself for some absolutely unexplained reason. Or like finding a book explaining everything that’s happening on the island, but deciding to leave it behind, because how can actually knowing what’s going on help you? Basically, this movie is a series of bad choices with just enough good ones to keep the plot moving forward.

“It can’t possibly harm me! I must destroy it!”

So there you have it. The first installment in the new Jumping Sharks occasional feature Franchise Week. Stay tuned for the conclusion of the House of the Dead series, and keep swimming – the sharks might give up eventually!

I’m sensing an Evil Dead nod…

Ghouls – “The dead are waiting”

Ghouls represents the what I see as the fourth and last major sub-division of the horror genre (the four being, in the order they are presented in this blog, thriller/suspense, creature, disaster, and supernatural/paranormal). And while it is true that many genres share some of these themes and characteristics, I would argue that it is also true that any movie within the wide and welcoming genre known as “Horror” fits relatively easily into one or more of these categories.

Ghouls is a modern retelling of a time-honored classic. Jennifer (Kristen Renton, Sons of Anarchy, Days of Our Lives) travels to Romania with her father Stefan (William Atherton, Life, Die Hard) and his girlfriend Liz to attend the funeral of Jennifer’s grandmother, Stefan’s mother. As she meets his family, she soon realizes that something is amiss in the village. One of the men at the funeral asks to meet her, but when he fails to show up, she goes looking for him, finding him being eaten by one of the ghouls. Enter Thomas (James DeBello, Cabin Fever, Scary Movie 2), the last of the Druids, a group dedicated to fighting the ghouls and stopping the release of the Ancients from the spirit world that has held them for 1500 years. As she learns more about the history of the village and her family, she soon realizes that she was brought to Romania to become the earthly incarnation of the ghoul-queen, bringing about the return of the Ancients and the destruction of the world. Just like the stories your parents probably read to you growing up.

Top left – Jennifer; top right – Stefan and Jennifer; bottom left – Jennifer and Liz; bottom right – Thomas

Although SyFy Channel is known for really bad CGI, this movie had some of the worst I’ve seen in a long time. The ghouls can take two forms, one of them corporeal, the other as phantoms flying around. For this latter form, it looked as though SyFy was aiming at a throwback to one of the old Star Trek episodes, “Catspaw“, only with lower production values. So there was definitely plenty of poorly-done special effects. The acting was also noticeably sub-par, though not as terrible as other movies reviewed on this blog. And, in classic cliché fashion, our last remaining Druid recently came into possession of a mystical knife that was used in the original battle to defeat the Ancients. Except it’s hard not to look at this knife and wonder how many times you’ve seen the same thing at costume shops come Halloween, though probably more lifelike in the shops.

Top left – witches from “Catspaw”; top right – phantom ghouls from Ghouls; bottom – corporeal ghouls from Ghouls

Speaking of clichés, what is it with eastern Europe having all of the ancient secrets and terrible curses? Romania alone has been stuck with vampires (including Dracula), werewolves, zombies, and all manner of other creatures and beasties. Can’t we agree that, as far as places of the occult go, Romania’s pretty much been done to death?

Anyway. There’s a moment in the movie when Jennifer starts to figure out what’s going on, and then she meets Thomas. After he rescues her from a ghoul, he takes her to a secret room in a crypt in the village cemetery, wherein she voices her concerns about the presence of spiders in the crypt. She just saw a guy getting his arm eaten by an undead ghoul, she’s in a crypt standing next to a sarcophagus with a skeleton in it, and she’s with a strange man dressed, as she put it, like he’s attending a Lord of the Rings convention, and she’s worried about spiders? Moreover, once she realizes that her entire family, father included, is working to make her the carrier of the spirit of the ghoul-queen, she maintains remarkable composure. I’d imagine that, were I in her situation, I’d be freaking out hard core. But she keeps a very level calm, almost like she knows she’s in a movie…

Because eight legs is freakier than this.

Though this does bring me to one of the pleasant surprises in this movie – our heroine is more than a helpless woman who needs to be rescued by the strong, heroic man (though Thomas does rescue her on multiple occasions) – when it comes to protecting herself, she goes so far as to shoot a guy with a shotgun. So she’s not completely helpless. Also, when she and Thomas take refuge in a church, she has sufficient wariness to not trust the priest just because he’s a priest. It was refreshing to see some modicum of common sense in a horror movie, however fleeting it may have been.

Though honestly, with ghouls for servants (top left), who wouldn’t want their daughter to become possessed by a ghoul-queen (top right) to help cause the destruction of the world (bottom)?

In the end, Ghouls is more than a clichéd, unoriginal made-for-tv movie; it’s also a cautionary tale for parents. Specifically, it warns that, if you don’t want your daughter to rip your heart out through your chest while her undead servants feast on the flesh of your extended family, don’t encourage her to take in the ethereal essence of a hellish ghoul-queen for the purposes of allowing her to bring down a reign of terror onto the entire world by releasing a primeval race of undead demon-spawn from their eternal prison.

Who knew?