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« We Can't Wait #8: Nymphomaniac | Main | Interview: Joanna Scanlan on 'The Invisible Woman' and Working with Icons »
Tuesday
Jan282014

Sundance: Horror Comedies Shine with 'Cooties' and 'In the Shadows'

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Glenn Dunks on two of the festival's midnight movies.

Horror comedies can be so tricky sometimes. Is the film a horror movie with comedy or a comedy with horror elements? It might sound like semantics, but I feel it’s the difference, for instance, between Scream and Shaun of the Dead, both of which are excellent examples of the tight rope act that is the horror comedy genre mash-up. They knew exactly what they were doing and ultimately work as both a horror and a comedy without forgoing one half or the other. Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, by all rights should have been a smart and scary horror movie, but instead lacked the tension that its jokes should have been buffering. It’s a tricky minefield to manoeuvre, but when it goes right the results can be fantastic. 

ravenous pre-teens and vampires after the jump...

COOTIES
Cooties is the weaker of the two horror comedies that I saw at Sundance, but still manages to be an entertaining and wickedly gory 90 minutes of zombie(ish) mayhem. In a neat bit of casting that makes Cooties feel like a de facto sequel to The Faculty, Elijah Wood (who also produced) stars as a wannabe novelist who moves back home and takes a job at his former school as a summer teacher alongside former classmate Alison Pill and her boyfriend, a P.E. teacher played by Rainn Wilson. A disgusting (in the good sense) prologue very matter of factly shows us the process of how a strain of “cooties” came to infect the students and before long they’re devouring everybody in sight.

Cooties – it really had no choice to be funny with that title, did it? – eventually turns into Dawn of the Dead as the horde of ravenous pre-teens attempts to enter and eat the remaining teachers. The film is very clearly following in George A Romero’s path by using vicious zombie horror to critique an element of society. This time it’s the not very subtle themes involve the way American governments have somehow abandoned the nation’s schools and have instead gotten side-tracked by more immediate point-scoring (one student is even named Patriot because he was born on 9/11!) that will eventually produce a society of roaming, brain-dead bodies. Featuring some fun performance – I’ve never liked Rainn Wilson more, and it’s probably little surprise that Leigh Whannell has some of the funniest material given he co-wrote the screenplay – and some genuinely ick-inducing moments of gore and tension, Cooties is a success of its limited origins. Midnight and cult fans should take note.

Grade: B
Distribution: Lionsgate will distribute, but it’s unknown when. Given they turned Whannell’s Saw into a hit ten years ago I hope it gets out there to audiences rather than disappearing to VOD.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
I joked on Twitter before the screening of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows that “a New Zealand vampire mockumentary” sounded exactly like what one would expect to find at a festival such as Sundance. While that may or may not be true, the quality of the picture is altogether surprising. Coming from two directors like Clement (Flight of the Concords) and Waititi (Boy – a must see!), who also write and star, maybe I shouldn’t have been so caught off guard, but I found this hilarious effort to be one the finest and most inventively original uses of “mockumentary” in some time.

Taking the concept of a documentary film crew following a quartet of vampires living in modern day Wellington doesn’t just allow the filmmakers to make sly and laugh-out-loud funny jokes at the creature’s lore (they can’t enter nightclubs to seduce victims because bouncers won’t invite them in), everything from New Zealand culture, sexuality, class, race, fetishism, and every other topic under the sun gets a sly nudging. Has it really taken this long for a vampire film to use jokes such as these? From the opening seconds where a fake “New Zealand Documentary Board” logo preludes to the opening scene where Waititi’s Viago wakes his housemates up one by one for a group meeting (Jonathan Brugh’s Deacon hasn’t been washing the blood-soaked dishes) is one of increasingly unfolding hilarity. Likewise a visit from a pair of police officers responding to smoke (one vampire burnt to a crisp in the basement), hypnotised and noting the need for smoke detectors rather than acknowledging the gravity-defying neck-biters right in front of them.

What We Do in the Shadows may lack satire, and scenes play out as little more than sketches as a backbone to punchlines, but its endless stream of slapstick, puns, and visual gags more than makes up for it. Technically, the production design, make-up, and minimal visual effects are Grade A successes. Like many comedies of this variety, the energy is somewhat sapped by the 60-minute mark, but Clement and Waititi thankfully have enough tricks up their sleeve (a rivalry with werewolves!) to at least the belly laughs going. Its affectionate take on the horror material allows audiences to be in on the joke, but still providing a fresh take on the material. That it’s the funniest film I saw at Sundance is just the kicker.

Grade: B+
Distribution: Likely, but not yet.

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Reader Comments (4)

"Cabin in the Woods, on the other hand, by all rights should have been a smart and scary horror movie, but instead lacked the tension that its jokes should have been buffering."

Where were you when I was being buried by the Cabin in the Woods fanboys for saying the same thing? Like, it wasn't bad, but it didn't really commit to anything other than creating some great monsters and mayhem. It didn't go far enough with the horror story to justify the comedy at the offices.

I'm excited to hear Leigh Whannel is acting in Cooties. He proved in Insidious/2 that he has the chops for horror/comedy and he certainly knows how to write. I'm also big on horror mockumentaries, so What We Do in the Shadows has my interest.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Robert, I untimately found CABIN to do wrong what SCREAM did so right. Horror fans will get the jokes, obviously, but what else is there? There aren't enough good performances or witty dialogue or scary sequences to really work as anything other than one big long in joke. and all the "spoiler!!" stuff was silly given the twist is revealed in the opening five minutes.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Fun fact from Team Experience member Jason: today is Elijah Wood's birthday! I believe it was completely accidental that this went up on his bday.

January 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

yes yes it was

January 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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