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Freaky Firsts Day 4: Devil’s Pass (2013)

Devils Pass 2013Note: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Renny Harlin

Writer: Vikram Weet

Cast: Holly Goss, Matt Stokoe, Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson, Richard Reid, Jane Perry, Boris Stepanov, Nikolay Butenin, Nelly Nielsen, Valeriy Fedorovich

Plot: Based on the real-life Dytalov Pass incident, this movie features a film crew venturing into Russia to solve the 50-year-old mystery of a group of lost backpackers. Holly King (Holly Goss) believes the victims fell prey to real and documented symptoms of hypothermia, whereas her film partner Jensen Day (Matt Stokoe) refuses to believe such expert hikers would have died so easily. With their sound operator Denise (Gemma Atkinson) and a pair of climbers (Luke Albright as JP Hauser and Ryan Hawley as Andy Thatcher), the crew trains and heads to Russia…

Then vanish.

Their disappearance becomes international news, and theories as to their disappearance grow as wild as that of the original Dyatlov hikers: magic, aliens, or a thin membrane in the fabric of time and space that leads to another world. Their footage is found (making this one of the few “found footage” movies to take the name of its subgenre quite so literally), and although the Russian government attempts to suppress it, a hacker group steals it and releases it.

Arriving in Russia, Holly’s crew interviews Alya, one of the searchers who found the bodies in 1959, who describes the scene with such lovely terms as “a trail of organs.” The most disturbing part of her description, though, is that the rescuers found 11 bodies, not the nine that have always been reported.

As they march into the mountains, they begin finding unusual phenomenon, such as a trail of enormous footprints made by what look like human feet in far colder temperatures than anyone could stand being barefoot for more than a few minutes. They start to hear things, then find an old weather station with a human tongue. Jensen breaks down, and as Holly tries to comfort him, a pair of creatures run past in the distance, unseen by the crew, but captured on camera.

Arriving at Dyatlov Pass, the crew marks the spots where the bodies were found and Holly describes their deaths for the camera – all dead of hypothermia, but all suffering assorted injuries as well. Exploring the area, Holly and Jensen find a metal door buried in the snow. In the night an avalanche destroys the camp, killing Denise and breaking Andy’s leg. Jensen is convinced that someone set the avalanche on purpose to dispose of them. They think they’re saved when a pair of hikers arrive, but they shoot JP. Forced to leave Andy behind, the others make it into the door.

They follow a long tunnel underground, ending in a lab (Of course it ends in a lab) which has been utterly trashed, although the light bulbs still seem to work. They find photos of the old Philadelphia Experiment, an American teleportation project that went terribly wrong. JP is attacked and consumed by a pair of the creatures – ugly, emaciated, twisted people who contort in weird shapes and seem to blink in and out of existence. They find a tunnel that looks like some sort of hole in time (it actually looks really cool, I can’t think of a better way to describe it), and Jensen speculates it’s where the creatures originated from, that similar portals could be responsible for unexplained phenomenon around the world. Trapped, he convinces Holly to try to use the portal to teleport to safety. They wind up on the side of the mountain, but in 1959, where their bodies are collected by the Russian military and brought down into the lab (along with Holly’s camera). They hang Holly and Jensen’s bodies on hooks below ground, and we see them mutating, becoming two of the creatures that stalk Dyatlov Pass.

Thoughts: A lot of people have an irate, visceral hatred of “found footage” movies, as if there’s nothing good that can be done with the genre. This is pretty short-sighted to me. Sure, there have been tons of crappy found footage movies, films that try to use shaky cameras to cover up bad special effects and cheap budgets, but then you get something like the magnificent Chronicle, and the form pretty much justifies itself.

For the most part, Devil’s Pass is much more entertaining than the average found footage fare. Unlike the bulk of such movies (set in the woods or caves or similarly dark places), this movie is set in a snow-covered mountain range. It gives it a very distinct visual appeal, much clearer and cleaner than most found footage films, and the stark white vista is far less forgiving of cheesy camera stunts. When there are camera tricks – at several moments the picture bounces and glitches – it’s almost always done to signify that the crew is near the otherworldly creatures, even though they’re unaware of it.

The big night scenes, such as the avalanche, are actually really effective, as the slow crumble of the snow down the mountain turns into a wave. Denise’s death is even cool – she slides directly into the camera, which in this movie is literal, her head cracks the lens when she crashes into it. The movie even addresses the usual “why the hell are you still filming this?” question that found footage falls prey to – Holly explicitly says that she wants a record of what happened, no matter what, so that they don’t wind up as another Dyatlov mystery.

It’s by no means perfect, though. The movie definitely falls prey to what TV Tropes refers to as “Awesome McCoolname.” When you hear about characters with monikers like “Jensen Day” and “JP Hauser,” you get pulled out of the movie any time they call each other by name. But Devil’s Pass’s biggest weakness probably comes in with the reveal of the creatures. Although the design is good, they’re heavily CGI, and it looks like Holly and Jensen are trying to fight creatures from a video game. I know that’s a standard complaint to make about an effects movie, but damn it, sometimes there’s simply no other way to explain what you’re looking at on screen. My wife, who had been enjoying the film up to this point, simply said, “And that’s where it lost me.”

It didn’t lose me, not as badly at least. Bad computer graphics aside, I think Devil’s Pass has a lot going for it. It avoids a lot of the tropes that damn bad found footage movies, and at the same time has a fairly clever storyline that pokes a hole into actual history and mixes it with a very healthy formula of science fiction and horror. While it isn’t going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and it’s not a movie I picture myself watching over and over again, it’s an enjoyable way to spend 100 minutes and worth taking a little time on.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


2 in 1 Showcase at the Movies: Monster-Sized Double Feature

showcase logo full black2For those of you who listen to the podcasts, I reviewed a pair of movies in this week’s episode of my show. If you feel like listening to me ramble a bit about Pacific Rim and Monsters University, here’s a link!

(If you dig comic books, I also briefly talk about the new issues of Astro City and Quantum and Woody.)
2 in 1 Showcase At the Movies #36: Monster-Sized Double Feature

Superman Week Day 2: George Reeves in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Superman and the Mole MenDirector: Lee Sholem

Writer: Robert Maxwell

Cast: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, Stanley Andrews

Plot: Daily Planet reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent (Phyllis Coates and George Reeves) are sent to cover the opening of the deepest oil well in the world, but arrive to find that unknown problems in the drill shaft have caused the company to shut the oil well down. As the two of them find rooms at a local hotel for the night, the oil shaft is opened from the inside and two bizarre creatures stumble out. In the morning, Clark and Lois arrive back at the oil shaft to find the night watchmen dead, frightened to death Lois glimpses one of the creatures, but Clark and the oil rig’s foreman are skeptical of her claim. The foreman confesses to Earth that the super-deep drill hadn’t struck oil as planned, but phosphorescent radium, then burst into an enormous hollow area deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

The two Mole creatures are spotted in town and an angry mob forms, planning to hunt them down. Switching his clothes to his Superman uniform, the man of steel races the mob, led by Luke Benson (Jeff Corey). The Mole Men have already escaped, and Superman’s effort to placate the mob is only partially successful – several of them head out that night and find the Mole creatures atop the town dam. One of the Mole Men is shot, and Superman catches him in the air, racing him to the hospital, while the other escapes. Benson’s mob chases the remaining Mole creature to a shack, trapping him, then set the building on fire. He narrowly escapes, but Benson believes him dead, allowing him to return to the drill shaft and slip back underground.

At the hospital, the doctor is afraid to operate on the Mole Man due to the radiation, and Benson is assembling his mob again again. Superman faces down the mob, and the second creature returns from the drill shaft with reinforcements and a weapon. They approach Superman, who realizes they’ve only come to rescue the wounded creature. Benson tries to attack them, and they turn their weapon on him, but Superman saves him. He helps the Mole Men return to the drill shaft, which they destroy from within. No one will ever disturb the Mole Men again.

Thoughts: After two movie serials starring Kirk Alyn, this short movie (only 58 minutes) was made as a sort of test for the proposed Adventures of Superman TV show. The show was given the greenlight and this movie was heavily edited and shown on television as the last two episodes of the first season. These days, such a thing would be really obvious, but at the time, the production values of a TV show versus a B-movie weren’t really that disparate from each other… I’m sure a lot of the audience never even knew.

The film absolutely presumes audience familiarity with the characters. Aside from a short bit of voiceover at the beginning, it doesn’t waste any time with Superman’s origin or establishing Clark Kent’s life at the Planet. In fact, except for Lois Lane, none of the other characters who would be regulars on the TV show make an appearance at all. Reeves and Coates are cut from the same cloth as Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who filled those roles just the previous year  (and Neill would replace Coates on the TV show after the first season). Reeves is the square-jawed paragon of heroism that we all expect Superman to be – strong and bold. Like Alyn, his Clark Kent is earnest, but he also has a bit of swagger, a bit of cockiness that we don’t often see in Superman. He’s not a jerk or anything, but neither is he the oafish, bumbling Clark Kent later adaptations would have. Reeves’s Clark is virtually the same character as his Superman, just with a change of clothes. As the TV show progressed over the next few years, he began to adopt a real sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, a bit of a wink at the camera, but in this early appearance we don’t see any of that.

All things considered, there’s surprisingly little Superman in this movie. If you skip the opening narration, Reeves doesn’t put on the famous costume until 24 minutes in (and I remind you, the total running time is just 58 minutes). If a viewer somehow didn’t know who “Clark Kent” and “Lois Lane” are, they could easily think this was just another “monsters from beneath the Earth” sci-fi flick like hundreds of others being turned out at the time. This falls into the edict of the TV producers, I suppose – there was a rule on the show that Superman didn’t show up until the third act. This limited the need for special effects (a term used here loosely), but also helped force Reeves’s Clark into being a tougher character, otherwise the audience probably couldn’t have stood him for that long. The best effect in the film, by the way, are the bursts of light when the Mole Men try to zap Benson… it wasn’t much of a wad, but they blew it at the end.

Coates is a passable Lois Lane, but doesn’t quite have the energy that Neill (and later actresses) brought to the role. She moves the story along and doesn’t embarrass the character, but at the same time, she doesn’t really keep pace with Superman the way you’d want her to. She has a brief exchange with Clark, berating him for always disappearing when there’s trouble and completely missing the obvious answer, even when he slips and says “I” saved one of the Mole Men before correcting himself to “Superman.” It’s stuff like this that sometimes gets Lois branded as less of formidable woman than she deserves to be.

The Mole Men themselves, visually at least, are probably the least-effective thing about this film. They’re creepy, to be certain, but that mostly comes through their odd way of moving and the expressions on their faces. Like so many science fiction movies of the era, the monsters look like actors in bizarre suits, covered in fur and wearing skullcaps that make them look less human, but not totally convincing as monsters.

From a story standpoint, though, the Mole Men work much better than the makeup budget allows. There’s a hint of tragedy to them. They’re never portrayed as evil or even accidentally menacing – they’re simply creatures taken from their own world and placed in one where they don’t belong. Even at the end, when they fight back, it feels much more like self-defense, like a rescue mission, than it does an intentional threat. The scene where they meet the little girl has echoes of the Universal Frankenstein, while the agonized face of the creature trapped in the burning shack reminds me of nothing so much as Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932. Like the people in that film, you sympathize with the creature far more than the people who torment him.

In the end, the biggest reason to watch this movie is for Reeves. Both as Clark Kent and as Superman, he’s got a strength and a commanding presence, a clear-headed rationality that the character deserves. Reeves was wonderful in this role, even if it did weigh down upon him for the rest of his life. That life ended tragically, of course, and one will always have to question how much of that tragedy was a result of his association with his most famous role… but as a Superman fan, we can only be grateful to have had a performer this early who embodied the hero so well.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)

ParanormanDirectors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Writer: Chris Butler

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland

Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.

As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.

From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.

That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)

The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.

Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.

The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.

The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.

In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.

Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.

Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!