In a way, I don’t like reviewing Japanese movies I didn’t love.  I just feel like they’re too high-context and I don’t have the cultural understanding to judge their merits accurately.  Like, I don’t understand what’s scary about hair, in the first place, and now I have to try to figure out what’s scary about basketballs.  (Spoiler: I did not figure out what was scary about basketballs.)

White Ghost/Black Ghost is actually two short films, both of which are supposed to fit into the whole Ju-On mythos.  White Ghost involves a family moving into the Grudge house and coming to a nasty end at the hands of the oldest son.  The story’s told in a flash-forward/flashback framework that bounces back and forth between a number of characters, all of whom have had a glancing encounter with someone or something involved in the murder, and all of whom come to a bad end.  There are some good bits and some effective scares, but the movie as a whole balances precariously on the boundary between effective and ineffective.

It’s still sort of balancing there, unresolved.  It probably would have been a grim, unsettling little movie if the ghost hadn’t, bewilderingly, been a tiny little old lady carrying around a basketball like she was going to beat someone to death with it.  Every time she came on the screen I just sat there, staring at her, going “What?  No, seriously, what?

I mean, the rest of the movie I liked.  I didn’t love it, but I thought it was good at conveying the sheer random nastiness of how the curse can just screw up your life if you so much as walk past it on the street.  (The poor cake delivery guy, holy crap.)  If it hadn’t had a ghost who made me stop dead in my tracks and go “What? What in the hell can possibly be scary about a little old lady with delusions of being a Harlem Globetrotter?” then I’d probably have been a lot more impressed.

Black Ghost, about a girl with an ingested twin who’s thoroughly pissed off about not being born, is widely considered to be inferior to the first movie.  I can’t decide if I agree with that or not, but I’m leaning toward no.  Certainly it’s less clever and stylish, but a couple of the scares were far creepier, and the only thing that made me go “Okay, no, seriously now” was the throat-creaky thing the ghosts will insist on doing even though I did that all the time as a child and it wasn’t scary then either.  It also gets bonus points for containing an exorcist, thus instantly transforming it into a sort of live-action crossover between The Grudge and Tactics.

Black Ghost is a lot more straightforward a horror movie than White Ghost, which is both a strength and a weakness – there are no distractions from the story, but the story itself is a little banal, and it could be that some distraction wouldn’t have done it harm.  On the other hand, White Ghost is a prime example of how even a clever movie can be derailed by by that one thing that’s just a little too distracting.

So what’s the verdict?  I went back and forth between a low three-star rating and a high two-star rating.  In the end, though, it only gets two, both because of Grandma With a Basketball (seriously, what?) and because of the over-reliance on creaky throat noises.

The Echo (2008)

Posted: September 17, 2012 in 3 stars, Reviews, The Echo
Tags: ,

Well, damn.  Thank you, The Echo.

I’ve been on a real losing streak with regard to my choice of movies lately.  The Echo broke that streak nicely and provided me with an actually enjoyable viewing experience.  Behold:

1.  It looked like an honest to god movie, filmed with legitimate movie-filming equipment by people who had a production budget containing more than four digits.  (Unlike The Pact and Absentia.)

2.  The actors behaved like people receiving a paycheck to convince me that they are real human beings to whom strange and frightening things are happening.  (The Pact and Absentia again.)

3.  The movie made sense, and the action and pacing were tight, with no scenes that looked like they wandered in from a completely different movie.  (The Yellow Wallpaper.)

4.  I liked the characters.  Yes, even the guy who just got out of jail for manslaughter.  Not even once in this movie did I petition God to kill off one of the protagonists.  (Wicked Little Things.)

5.  The ending suited the movie and did not appear to be inserted in there at random.  (The Pact, The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Okay, so all this sounds like it’s damning with faint praise.  But I think even if I’d seen it after, say, Stir of Echoes, I’d still have enjoyed this movie.

East Village denizen Bobby (Jesse Bradford), newly released from prison on an involuntary manslaughter charge, comes home to the apartment where his mother died while he was in the joint.  He tries to reconnect with his friends, who largely want nothing to do with him now, and his adorable ex-girlfriend Alyssa (Amelia Warner), who sort of wants nothing to do with him but is willing to be convinced.  As he’s dealing with cleaning out his mother’s things and working through his grief, he starts hearing all sorts of unpleasant things – scratching, whispers, the guy next door beating his family.

Things just get weirder from there.  The things he hears and sees get worse.  He finds out some unpleasant things about the state of his mother’s mental health.  The family next door gets more and more disturbing.  Alyssa starts hearing things too.  Of course, it turns out that what’s going on is GHOSTS, and you know how pissy ghosts get if you don’t figure out what they want and give it to them.

The Echo is cut from the same cloth as Red Sands and Forget Me Not – it’s a low-budget, unmarketed, unassuming movie that you don’t have high expectations of until you watch it and it turns out against all expectations to be really good.  Bradford and the script between them did an amazing job of getting me invested in Bobby; the scenes where he’s wandering around sort of lost in his mother’s apartment, trying to figure out what to do with her things, are genuinely sad.  The creepiness factor starts early, ramps up slowly but inexorably, and carries through right until the end.  There’s just enough injection of social issues to give it bite but not enough to make it preachy, which is a balance almost no one ever manages to strike.

The tagline says it’s from the executive producers of The Ring and The Grudge.  I don’t know what executive producers do so I don’t know how significant that really is, but the movie does carry that faint vibe of a good American remake of a good foreign movie, so you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a remake or adaptation or something of a 2004 Filipino movie of the same name.  I haven’t seen the original, but that’s fine with me – the remake was satisfying enough.

So what’s the verdict?  Three stars.  Not only is it worth a watch, I may add it to my DVD library.

In the course of trying to decide whether I wanted to watch The Pact enough to spring $6.99 for it on Amazon Instant, I read a review of it on Shock Till You Drop.  This particular site put the actors’ previous movies in bold and parentheses, just like I put their names in bold and parentheses.  Because I wasn’t paying attention, this caused me to be convinced for like 30 seconds that the lead actress in The Pact was named Death Valley, and I was like “Dear God, Bertie Wooster was right, there’s some raw work pulled at the font.”  Then I skimmed farther down in the review and realized that, while I could totally see some neo-hippie minor celebrities naming their daughter Death Valley, I’m pretty sure even the staunchest of geeks would draw the line at naming their son Starship Troopers.

Basically, a woman who by all accounts is pretty nasty dies, leaving her two unenthusiastic daughters to tidy up her affairs.  The first daughter (Agnes Bruckner) gets to the house a couple of days before the second and promptly disappears.  The second daughter (Caity Lotz) rolls up a few days later to find no sister and an awful lot of things going bump in the night.  When the house apparently eats a cousin too, Lotz sets out to find out what the hell is going on.

 
The Pact, as far as I could tell, doesn’t actually involve a pact of any sort.  That’s kind of a good metaphor for the movie.  It starts out as a fairly good ghost story, then takes a left turn into the land of uninspired serial killer movies.  Neither of the interesting characters – Casper Van Dein as the world’s most blase cop and Haley Hudson as a medium who apparently lives in a crack house – have much screen time.  Caity Lotz as Annie has one sort of inspired moment during a ouija-board scene where she appears to be attempting to convince an invisible audience that she is Too Cool to Freak Out, but other than that, she wears the role in much the same way as a couture model wears a McQ dress – her job appears to be to carry the script along without ever distracting the viewer by being memorable in any way.

The last scene, and I’m not considering this a spoiler because it made no sense to me and will probably make no sense to you either, is someone’s eye opening.  I don’t know whose eye it was or what the significance was of it popping open.  Undoubtedly I was supposed to pay very close attention to everyone’s eyes in this movie, but sadly, I really didn’t.

So what’s the verdict?  I hate to say it, but two stars.  I want to give it more just because I forked over a ridiculous amount of money to rent it, but it’s just not that good a movie.  It started out as one, but the serial killer half was disappointingly devoid of things like imagination, good acting, interesting characters, or substantive additions to anything that came before it.  If you’re really bored and can catch it for free on Netflix, go ahead, but learn from my fail and don’t pay money to see it.

The Yellow Wallpaper (2011)

Posted: September 5, 2012 in 2 stars, Reviews
Tags: ,

2011 was a banner year for yellow wallpaper, my god.  There were not one, not two, not three, but four movies based (more or less loosely) on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, including… well, this one.  I don’t know about the others, but this one is a low-budget horror movie, and therefore – as you have probably already guessed – bears basically no resemblance to the short story beyond the main character’s first name and the fact that one room is papered in a rather terrifying yellow wallpaper.  Seriously, this wallpaper is a scary character in and of itself.  I can’t imagine anyone could possibly have put it up unironically.

 
The movie poster contains the tagline “Are we already dead?”  Your guess is as good as mine as to why.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual movie.

Anyway, the story.  The fact that it bears very little resemblance to the short story is just as well, because the POV character appears to be the husband, which in another film would have been an astoundingly crass co-opting of a feminist narrative.  In this one, John and Charlotte Weiland (Aric Cushing and Juliet Landau), accompanied by Charlotte’s sister Jennie (Dale Dickey), have just lost their house and their daughter in a fire.  Still in shock and possessed only of the clothes on their back, they rent the obligatory spooky house.

Soon, however, all of them start seeing visions of the dead daughter.  Jennie goes off somewhere and returns with a psychic (Veronica Cartwright) in tow to tell them that there is Something Evil in the house, and things go rapidly downhill from there.

The thing about The Yellow Wallpaper is that the four main actors are far and away better than the movie deserves.  They actually manage to sell it for most of the run time.  Not the end, because this movie ends in a denouement so flat-out silly that Ian McKellen at the right hand of Sara Bernhardt couldn’t have saved it, but more of it than the filmmakers had any right to expect.  The dialogue is painful, there are way too many scenes that just make no sense and don’t even seem to belong in the movie, and the “We are seeing everything through a thick yellow fog, look at us being all profound and allegorical” cinematography was ill-advised.  Mostly what I took away from this was that I’d like to see the cast play similar roles in a much better movie.

So what’s the verdict?  Two stars.  If it weren’t for the cast, this movie would be hanging by its fingernails at one star, with the last fifteen minutes threatening to overbalance it right into the zero-star quagmire.  If you only see one 2011 movie based on “The Yellow Wallpaper” this year, you’ve probably got three better choices.  I haven’t seen any of them, but I have a hard time imagining that they could really be much worse.

 

Generally speaking, it’s not the best of signs when, 30 seconds into the movie, I start going “Jesus take the wheel, isn’t that douchebag dead YET?”, and continue wondering aloud – at 30-second intervals like a back-seat toddler who has to pee – why that douchebag is not, in fact, dead yet.  In this movie the douchebag in question is possibly the most obnoxious and odious teen character I’ve seen in about fifteen movies now, and sadly, there’s not much about Wicked Little Things that compensated me for having to tolerate her presence onscreen.

 
A new widow (Lori Heuring), left destitute by her husband’s death, is forced to move to a really unfortunate house in the Pennsylvania woods.  She’s accompanied by her two daughters, Douchebag Chick (Scout Taylor-Compton) and the obligatory little kid whose complete lack of a self-preservation instinct will inevitably lead her to make friends with the monsters (Chloë Grace Moretz).  The monsters in question are a group of undead grade-schoolers who, at some point in the unspecified past, were all killed in an explosion in the mine they worked in.  Now they’re wandering around the hills seeking revenge on the kin of the mine’s owner.

Here’s the problem: kids in pancake makeup aren’t actually scary.  I mean, clearly there are enough people with an irrational fear of children to support an entire horror movie cliche built around the lazy-ass idea that a child sharing screen space with splashing blood is automatically terrifying regardless of how it’s filmed, but I feel like they could at least have made a little more effort with the cinematography.  Even though you know exactly who and what they are, the kids actually sort of manage to be scary when they’re not onscreen; when they are, you’re just like “Oh look, child actors in pancake makeup.”

 
There are places where Wicked Little Things is pretty effective, owing largely to the ability of the adult actors to convince us – in spite of all available evidence – that something frightening is going on.  I commend it as well for its admirable lack of reliance on cheap jump scares (there were only a handful, well below par for this type of movie).  The gore was about in proportion, what there was of it; it’s hard to count zombie kids eating raw pork as gore when it mostly just looks like they went too heavy on the barbecue sauce.

So what’s the verdict?  Two stars.  I’d have liked to give it more than that, but every time I started thinking it might be a three-star movie, my screen would suddenly be full of pancake-makeup-wearing moppets earworming me with that annoying “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go” song.  I don’t know, maybe if you think kids are scary then you’ll find the movie scarier than I did.  All in all, it wasn’t a bad movie; just not a terribly good one.

Also, Douchebag Chick.  I might actually have been willing to tack on that third star if she’d died horribly, just as a reward, but unfortunately she lived through the movie.

Absentia (2011)

Posted: August 26, 2012 in 2 stars, Reviews
Tags: ,

I was legitimately surprised to find out that Absentia had a budget of $70K.  That’s higher than I would have expected considering that it looks like it was filmed with someone’s cell phone and sounds like everyone is ad-libbing their lines because at the last minute the scriptwriter had finals and had to dog-sit his mom’s Pomeranian and couldn’t deliver a final product.  There’s exactly one person – Katie Parker, playing Callie- who comes across as an actual actress in a role for which she is receiving a paycheck that does not consist of beer or the cancellation of favors previously owed to the filmmaker.

Still, Absentia is not ineffective.  Tricia (Courtney Bell), who is awfully pregnant for someone whose husband has been missing for seven years, has just put in to have him declared dead.  Her flaky drug-addicted sister (Parker) shows up to give her support.  Just as she’s about to move out and start a new life, however, she starts having weird, genuinely creepy visions of her husband – who seems to be displeased that she’s moving on.  Meanwhile, Callie keeps having strange and unsettling things happen to her when she jogs through a spooky concrete tunnel.

This being a horror movie, she keeps jogging through it anyway, and freakish events ensue.  In time it becomes clear that something is living in (or around, or below, or in an alternate dimension beside) the tunnel, and for some reason it likes to collect things – and people.

Absentia is probably never going to reach cult classic status, but it was interesting and well-done and held my attention, which is more than I can say for the four or five other horror movies I watched the first few minutes of this weekend.

So what’s the verdict?  Two stars.  That may be partly my own bias, because I don’t love creature features in general, but what are reviews if not expressions of subjective bias?  Absentia was a pretty good movie, but not a particularly memorable one, or one I’d tell people to run out and see.  If you, like me, have gone through pretty much every other horror movie on Netflix Instant that does not actually involve clowns, I feel comfortable telling you to go ahead and watch this one.  You won’t be eternally grateful for the twist of fate that steered you in Absentia‘s direction, but you won’t walk away hating humanity either, and in this genre that’s something.

Last night, a film society in Philadelphia held an outdoor double feature amongst the graves of Laurel Hill Cemetery, one of the most hands-down impressive historic cemeteries outside of Père Lachaise.  First up was a home movie from the 1930s that randomly had footage of an exhumation at the cemetery.  (Sadly, this sounds more exciting than it was.  Maybe you had to watch it where you could really see what was going on, and without annoying color commentary from random people.)  The second movie?  Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Oh, Plan 9.  Is it even possible to rate?  On what basis is it even reviewable?  Zero stars for the epic failure in all elements belonging to a movie; five stars for the cult classic status and sheer whack-ass charm.  This is not merely a bad movie.  This is a movie that is so bad that it’s engaging in a way that escapes every schlock filmmaker currently in Hollywood.  Uwe Boll would slit his wrists over a cheap Pier One chalice and offer up six pints of blood to the devil if his movies could keep a mob of people uncomfortably seated on tombstones enthralled right up until the fade to black like this.

For those of you who know the movie exists but don’t actually know what it’s about, the plot (so to speak) is this.  An alien race decides that Earth has gotten too technologically advanced in their weaponry and is now at grave risk of destroying The! Entire! Universe!.  The Tallest of this alien race sends Alien Dude and Alien Chick, resplendent in their silver lamé pajamas, to… well, do something.  I can’t decide whether they want to destroy the Earth or convince every government official to be Facebook friends with them.  I think they tried peaceful contact first but the governments annoyed them so now they’re buzzing Los Angeles with UFOs.

They also have Plan 9.  No, we are not told what happened to plans 1 through 8.  Plan 9, as far as I can tell, consists of raising the dead and eventually having them march on the White House in a sort of Million Zombie March For Peace.  Fortunately, some woman has just died (Vampira, whose unfortunate turn here mostly makes you wonder who decided to bury her in that dress).  Her husband (Bela Lugosi) is grief-stricken for about thirty seconds until he walks in front of a car.

His funeral, by the way, is a comic tour de force rendered all the more sublime by its clear influence on such later film moments as the clown car full of atheists in Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter and, I don’t know, probably something in The Godfather.  I would tell you about it but I don’t want to spoil it.  Ordinarily I don’t care much about spoilers, but Plan 9 is so full of awesome little gems like this that you really have to come to unawares for their full effect.

Anyway.  The aliens try to control Vampira, Bela Lugosi, and some huge pro-wrestler dude.  They are, um, not good at it.  Eventually they are tracked back to their lair by a posse consisting of Police Lieutenant, Pilot Dude, Idiot Cop, Random Army Guy, and Pilot Dude’s Wife, who is constantly referred to as “the girl” despite the fact that she’s got to be in her 30s.  In the expository scene to end all expository scenes, Alien Dude reveals that humanity is on the verge of building a super weapon that will somehow blow up the sun.  Because of particles.  Then that will destroy everything the sun’s light reaches, which is The! Entire! Universe!.  There was a metaphor about a tennis ball.  I don’t know, Alien Dude’s physics were kind of suspect.  Then he has sort of a nervous breakdown and the UFO randomly catches on fire.

There is not a single moment of this movie that is not staggeringly incompetent, and you will be entranced anyway.  I was genuinely invested in whether or not Idiot Cop was going to manage to get himself killed.  And what was going to befall the adorable tinfoil UFOs.  And whether Vampira would at any point have anything more to do than wandering around with her arms stuck out in front of her and “Do I need to pick up milk at the store?” written all over her face.  And how many times the footage of Bela Lugosi walking through a graveyard would be reused.

This movie is something everyone should experience at least once.  In a graveyard, if you can swing it, with gorgeous monuments towering against the sky all around and the threat of a storm overhead.  That just adds to the ambience.

So what’s the verdict?  Fuck it, I’m giving Plan 9 five stars.  Yes, you heard me.  It’s a jaw-droppingly atrocious movie but a rollicking good time, and I like to reserve the 0-star rating for movies that make me hate humanity.  See it; you won’t be sorry.

I feel like there’s some really deep hook to YellowBrickRoad such that if you get it, the movie is amazing and brilliant.  On the other hand, it could be an awful lot like the annoying pompous drunk at the bar who goes on and on about some really esoteric topic like, I don’t know, the influence of Kierkegaard’s philosophy on the shaping of the modern Federal Reserve, where you can’t help suspecting that if you knew anything at all about Kierkegaard or the Federal Reserve yourself it would be clear to you that the guy has no idea what he’s talking about.

As I say, there may be some hook in the movie that you really have to get.  I did not get that hook.

YellowBrickRoad is, to be quite honest, a movie about a bunch of pointless people dying pointlessly in the service of what might have been a really interesting plot if it hadn’t been largely abandoned halfway through in favor of pointless  deaths. Pointless and badly filmed; at one point there’s a very graphic dismemberment scene that looks for all the world like the guy’s dismembering a muppet.

The basic story is this: in 1940, the entire population of a small New Hampshire town got up from the metaphorical dinner table and walked down a path in the woods known as the Yellow Brick Road.  Most of them were never seen again, except for the couple hundred who were left to litter the path with their mutilated cadavers.  A team of academics in some field or other, intending to write a book on the subject, walk up the path themselves.  Soon big band music is blaring at them non-stop out of nowhere, which would be enough to send anyone into a homicidal frenzy, and the team starts randomly offing each other and themselves.

There’s not even any joy to be found in watching their sanity degenerate, because there’s really nothing more to the characterizations than “Random people sent into the woods to die.”  Right to the end I had no idea who half the people on the team even were.  I have heard that the ending made sense in the filmmakers’ heads, but hell if it seems to have made sense in anyone else’s; it’s more like a non-ending that fits with the rest of the non-film but certainly isn’t any more satisfying for all that.

So what’s the verdict?  One star.  I will say this for it: the opening sequence is amazing.  If the whole movie had been like that, instead of descending into nonsensical indie pretentiousness, it would have gotten a lot more stars.  In that sense it’s a lot like Ghost Ship, and no movie should ever put itself in the position of being compared to Ghost Ship in any way.  You can get to the end of YellowBrickRoad, but there’s pretty much nothing there when you do and no good scenery along the way.

You know what’s awesome?  Scratching the surface of an almost-direct-to-video movie on Netflix and finding, against all odds, that you’ve unearthed a clever, involving, genuinely creepy film.

Sandy (Carly Schroeder) and her friends have this game they play.  In graveyards.  At night.  (You are excused for thinking this sounds like a bad idea already.)  One person is the ghost and goes around tagging other people, who then become ghosts themselves and chase everyone else around until eventually the last person left “alive” is the winner.  One night they’re out playing, and suddenly Random Creepy Chick pops out from behind a tombstone.

RANDOM CREEPY CHICK:  Hey, can I play?  We’ll all just pretend I’m not clearly crazier than a shithouse rat.

SANDY AND FRIENDS:  Er… sure, I guess.

RANDOM CREEPY CHICK:  Sandy!  Don’t you remember me?

SANDY:  Hell no, I think I would have remembered crazy-eye of that impressive degree.

RANDOM CREEPY CHICK:  Ooh!  You’re going to regret that.

And lo and behold, Sandy does.  Not right away; but pretty soon her friends start getting slaughtered one by one.  And here’s the clever part: as soon as they die, they’re basically written out of the universe as if they had never existed.  No one remembers them.  The lives of the survivors are rearranged around the absence, so subtly at first that it legitimately took me a while to figure out what was going on.  And sure enough, the more people die, the more ghosts there are to chase the living around, until eventually there’s only one left.

Now, the “Person X disappears and no one remembers they existed except Person Y” trope is not new, to be sure.  It’s just that it’s done so well here, and you’re allowed to figure out for yourself what’s going on instead of having huge amounts of expository dialogue beating you over the head all the way through.  It doesn’t hurt that the acting is above par and the characters – mirabile dictu – are, despite being teenagers, actually ones I was sorry to see go.  Usually herds of movie teenagers are so unpleasant that it gives me a sort of grim satisfaction to watch them get picked off one by one, but not here.

So what’s the verdict?  I think I need a wider rating scale.  Call this one three and a half stars.  It’s not quite a four-star movie, but it’s head and shoulders above the three-star pack.  It’s creative, respectful of its audience, and genuinely scary in places.  Highly recommended.

Man, the reviewers either love Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or hate it, don’t they?

The negative reviews seem to come in two varieties.  The first is best described as a thinly veiled letter to the reviewer’s editor expressing extreme bitterness over having paid a small fortune for a journalism degree only to be sent out to sit in a theater and watch a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  I have nothing to say to those people except “Wow, it must suck to be you when Adam Sandler season rolls around.”

The second variety is on a theme of “But… where’s the nod nod, wink wink?  A movie this ridiculous, there should be all sorts of meta self-awareness!  WHERE MA NODS AND WINKS AT?”

To the second variety of reviewers, I say: at the bottom of a fucking well weighted down with stones, with a mouth full of garlic  so it doesn’t walk, is where – God willing and the creek don’t rise – your nods and winks are.

Look.  The self-aware meta thing was awesome in Scream, when it first really came onto the horror scene as a thing well done that genuinely added an integral element to the movie.  Scream, may I point out, came out in 1996.  Children born the year Scream was released are legally able to drive now.  It was well done in Scream and for a while afterward, but every year it got more and more stale, until at this point self-aware meta nod-nod wink-wink crap fulfills exactly the same function as a laugh track on a ’70s sitcom.

Do you really need a laugh track to tell you when something’s funny?  Do you need someone poking you in the ear and loudly yelling “Look how clever we’re being!  Look!  Do you see it?  Also it is time to laugh at the absurdity now!  Laughter and admiration- go!”

What’s that you say?  You don’t?  Good – take that mindset into Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and you’re going to enjoy the movie a lot more than the reviewers who were apparently waiting for someone to tell them the movie is gloriously absurd.

AL:VH is played admirably straight, as a history of the life of Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) that somehow includes vampire-related carnage and physics-defying action scenes.  As a child, Lincoln – already full of righteous wrath over the horrors of slavery – witnesses his mother being murdered by a vampire (a freakishly unrecognizable Marton Csokas).  Come to adulthood, Lincoln sets out on a Mission of Vengeance that very nearly results in him being eaten himself before being saved by a mysterious Englishman named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper, whose Sting sunglasses and cockatiel hair don’t look nearly as anachronistic as they should).

Henry trains Lincoln as a hunter and sends him out into the world on vampire-slaying missions.  No sooner is Lincoln out of Henry’s sight than he gets distracted by the awesome Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), decides that  he can better serve the world in politics than in slaying, and manages to run afoul of the Big Baddies: vampire overlord Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sister Vadoma, the Enforcer (the glorious and criminally underused Erin Wasson, who if she ever tires of being a supermodel has a nice career in looming menace ahead of her.)  He also gains sidekicks:  Will (Anthony Mackie) and Speed (Jimmi Simpson), who could have carried the movie all by themselves.  All this leads inexorably to the Civil War, which unbeknownst to the history books was actually a power grab on the part of vampires, who were using slaves as a readily available food supply.

AL:VH is one of those movies where just the supporting cast is worth the price of admission.  But Benjamin Walker brings a charm and gravity to the role without which the movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well; there are amazing (and awesomely over-the-top) action set pieces; and God be praised, the vampires are finally sort of scary and awful, instead of camp and “humorously” self-aware.

It’s actually that last point that raises AL:VH from a solid three-star use of an afternoon to four stars.  I am so glad to see scary, mostly unglamorous vampires that I’m awarding the movie an extra star just for that.  Tip for the movie industry: vampires should be scary.  They shouldn’t be “humorously” self-aware (unless they’re Barnabas Collins), they shouldn’t be tragic and tortured souls (unless they’re Eli, who gets a pass for also being scary as shit), and for fuck’s sake they should not sparkle.

Sparkly vampires, Jesus take the wheel.  Vadoma would pick her teeth with Edward Cullen’s bones.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  I was so, so hopeful that AL:VH would be awesome, but I also feared.  The book and screenplay were written by Seth Grahame-Smith, otherwise known as the author of the bewilderingly tedious Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I don’t know how the hell the hand of any writer, be he never so unenthusiastic about the assignment, can make something tiresome out of the combination of Lizzie Bennet and the walking dead, but Grahame-Smith surely managed it.  Maybe he liked this topic better or something, because this was an awesome story and it made for an awesome movie, if brought down a little by uneven pacing.  Go see it; it’s fantastic, goofy fun.