Monday, December 01, 2008

Movies: O death, where is thy zing?

I signed up for The Deaths of Ian Stone, director Dario Piana's 2007 entry into the Horrorfest 8 Films to Die For collection, solely on the basis of the somewhat absurdist premise: Ian gets brutally murdered everyday only to come back to life the next day, having to start all over. That idea seems, to me anyway, to be filled with blackly comedic promise. I'm thinking something like a slasher version of Groundhog Day or some sort of gorehound splat-fest shot through with the uncomfortably laughable pointlessness of Waiting for Godot.

I'm still waiting for that film: the imaginary The Deaths of Ian Stone I had in my head.

What we have instead is a quirky, competent supernatural thriller that starts with a nice Twilight Zone-ish feel before resolving in a tidy, but not completely satisfying Buffy-ish manner.

Our story opens with Ian, an American going to school in the U.K., playing club hockey. He loses the big game, pissing off his teammates. His girl, a blonde Brit named Jenny, stands by him, even though it is debatable whether or not he completely blew the game. Ian drives Jenny home and, on the way back to Uni, comes across what appears to be a body prone in the road, about ten feet from a railroad crossing. Ian attempts to help the prone figure, but ends up deciding he'd best call emergency services. Ian returns to his car and gets out his cell. Unfortunately, Ian never gets to make the call. The prone figure leaps onto the hood, shatters the windshield with some long, sword-like instrument, drags Ian out, cuts him up, and leaves him on the tracks for an on-coming train to finish off.

Ian dies.

Ian wakes up a cube drone in a London financial firm. He doesn't seem bothered by his new context and seems to have no memory of his previous incarnation. He flirts with co-worker Jenny, who despite looking and sounding exactly the same is now apparently an alternate Jenny with no prior history with Ian, and gets work piled on him by his boss. On his way out the office, a frightened man dashes past Ian and gets run down in the street. A crowd of people gathers around the man to help, but Ian sees that one member of the crowd appears to be, somehow, draining the wounded man's life from him every time he touches him. Ian, in proper horror hero fashion, discounts the evidence of his own senses because – well – seriously, that's crazy talk.

Ian heads to his trendy loft apartment and hooks up with his girl. His girl is obviously trouble because she's named Medea and is the nympho-arsonist girlfriend from the second season of Dexter. Again, Ian discounts this obvious evidence.

During post-sex pillow talk, Ian begins to discuss his Uni club hockey days and his girl expresses some confusion about Ian's past. Ian busts out an old yearbook to show her a photo of him on the team, but he doesn't appear anywhere in the club photo. Cue mystery music: Eeeeoooowwwweeeeehhhheeeeoooowwwww.

Ian heads back to work, but he glances two members from his old un-team on the bus. He gives chase to his not-anymore-teammates, but is intercepted instead by a old man who gives Ian a rambling and incomprehensible warning about demons chasing Ian. Ian would happily ignore this too – he's the world's champion of ignoring the weird and uncanny – but demons snatch away the old man mid-warning. Ian, now firmly convinced of the danger around him, books its on home to his girlfriend.

And she kills him with a redonkulous insectoid stinger-thingy she freakin' grows out of her freakin' forearm.

Ian dies.

And Ian wakes up . . .

You get the idea.

Slowly, after a few more deaths, Ian pieces together the fragments of his literally shattered life. He is being pursued by a group of supernatural beings known as the Harvesters. These creatures live off human fear, and they're like crack fiends when it comes to the particularly potent fear human beings give off when we're about to croak. Ian is himself a Harvester, but he turned against his kind when he fell in love with Jenny. He found out that love is actually a better power source than fear – they way the scream collectors in Monsters Inc. figured out laughter to fission to the steam power of screams – and a love powered Harvester is actually 'roided up enough to do all manner of magical crap: including dispatching other Harvesters. The poor hate-powered Harvesters, unable to dispatch Ian, can only harass him by, you know, creating entirely alternate existences for him to inhabit, shunting him from faux-life to faux-life, until he forgets who he is, who Jenny is, and the extreme and definitive asswhippings he can dole out when properly buzzed off his lady love's presence.

Arguably, it seems like creating theoretically endless alternate realities to trap some dude in a sort of punative Second Life (if, in fact, Second Life is not punative enough as is) would be a greater drain on the ol' emotion-based petrol reserves than offing somebody. After all, in the real world, creation is the purview of gods or galactic accidents, but any schmuck with a suitably heavy blunt instrument can deal out death. But what the heck do I know? I've never killed a supernatural fear-eating demon or banished one to a endless succession of simulated worlds. I couldn't honestly say which takes more juice.

The story comes to a head as Ian, trapped in a series of increasingly helpless situations (he goes from fresh-faced Uni kid to worker bee to taxi driver to squat flopping heroin addict to paralyzed hospital patient – taxi driving apparently being a short step away from strung out smack junkie), must struggle to rediscover his powers as the bad Harvesters subject him to an increasing level of brutal torture.

I hear tell that it isn't fair to judge flicks on the basis of what they aren't. Though the idea that I need to be fair to films strikes me as odd – where's the film's sense of fair play when it chooses to completely suck? – I can get behind the idea that The Deaths of Ian Stone shouldn't get points taken away for not being the absurdist masterpiece that I wanted it to be. Judged on its own merits, The Deaths is a lightly likable horror/actioner that wraps its creative premise around an unsurprising extended chase structure, making what could be something jarring and challenging into something familiar and easy-going. It's the horror equivalent of comfort food. This sounds harsher than it is. I dig mac and cheese. Good stuff. It's only that I wanted, I don't know, something more like manchego-stuffed zucchini blossoms with piquillo sauce.

Director Piana, who hasn't been behind the camera since his late '80s giallo effort Sotto il vestito niente 2 (aka They Only Come Out at Night, aka Too Beautiful to Die), shoots a craftsman-like flick that places a premium on clear story-telling rather than stylistic flourishes. This wouldn't be a negative thing, but the transparent style is marred by some clumsily unoriginal visuals: such as the sudden Matrix-ing out of the villains near the end of the piece. You half expect Ian to announce "I am The One" and start wire-working about the set in Prada-esque bondage outfits. His cast seems able, but only Jaime "Dexter's nympho arsonist" Murray really sticks out. She's apparently going to make a career out of playing these bad news seductive-killer types and seems to have fun in such roles.

The effects are good, but not groundbreaking. The Harvesters mix old school model and make-up work with some nice CGI smoke cloud work, giving them a suitably brimstone aspect. The gore is minimal, but when it's there it is effectively handled. Near the end of the flick, Ian is subjected to a grueling regimen of surgical tortures that leave his body devastated. Though there's not much blood shown, the dense network of rough stitching and his pale, yellow, hallowed-out look are grisly enough to communicate the suffering he's been subjected to. Still, such resolutely "okay" effects seem odd given that Stan Winston Studios gets a producer credit on this puppy. With that sort of umph, you think this movie would be packing something truly special in the sfx department.

What's the take away? I'm giving Ian Stone a hard time because I wanted it to be something more than it is. The Deaths is a confidently built action/horror flick with a nice sci-fi feel that's vaguely reminiscent of flicks like Dark City. There's a lot of promise in the premise that the flick fails to live up to, but this is mainly because the film never intends to do anything but deliver a modestly ambitious, professionally handled, semi-disposable bit of pop horror. I feel a bit let down, but not insulted or conned.

Still, here's the recipe for manchego-stuffed zucchini blossoms with piquillo sauce.

Manchego stuffing:
1 egg
1/2 cup cream
1 1/2 cups day-old plain French bread, cut into small cubes
1 1/2 cups grated manchego cheese
1 Tbsp chopped mixed chives and parsely

Zucchini blossoms:
8 zucchini blossoms, stamens removed
4 Tbsp oil (for frying)

1 egg beaten with 2 Tbsp water and a pinch of salt
Flour seasoned with salt and pepper

Piquillo sauce:
1/2 cup canned piquillo (or roaster red) peppers, drained
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 pinch finely chopped garlic

Garnish (optional):
2 Tbsp dried currants
1/4 cup sherry
Salt and pepper to taste

Stuffing instructions:
1. Make a custard by beating the egg with a pinch of salt and whisking in the cream.
2. Add the remaining stuffing ingredients and mix well. The custard should be absorbed by the bread. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Zucchini blossoms:
1. Stuff about 2 Tbsp of the stuffing into each blossom and gently twist the tops to seal.
2. Dip each blossom into the egg mixture, leaving the tops dry.
3. Dredge in the flour.
4. Heat a sauté pan, add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the flowers and cook.

Piquillo sauce:
1. Put all the ingredients in a blender. Then blend that until smooth. Seriously. No mercy. Blend the hell out of it. But don't liquefy it. We're not barbarians, after all.
2. Taste and adjust seasoning.

1. Place currants and sherry vinegar into a small pan and bring to a boil.
2. Reduce until syrupy and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve two blossoms to a plate. Drizzle on the sauce and dab a blob of the garnish on the side. Serve it with a sangiovese or, if you don't have some anti-blush prejudice, a cava rosé. But for realz, who are you to cop 'tude about a rosé? You know full well your friends would swill cough syrup outta my Aunt Martha's boot if that's what was served. Just drink the blush and enjoy it.


Anonymous said...

This is why I absolutely love your blog.

Rachel said...

What are Zucchini blossoms?
Great review. Now I've got to see it to see if I agree :-)

I hope you write else where as well - more people should get to enjoy you.

CRwM said...


They're the blossom that, eventually, turn into zucchini gourds. In flower form, they're yellow and green. They look kind of like lilies, except zucchini blossoms are more tubular and don't open up quite so much.

Thanks for the kind words.

CRwM said...


We aim to please!

Sasquatchan said...

It doesn't call for squash blossoms in general ? Trust me, after growing yellow/summer squash, zucchini and various winter squashes, the blossoms do all look the same.

And since yours calls for the stamens to be removed, you must mean the male flower only. Yes, there are male and female flowers on the squash family -- the female have immature fruit at the base of the flower, and the fruit only develops if it is sufficiently pollinated, otherwise it rots off.

Thus, there's a high ratio of male to female flowers. And by the way, the flowers only open for one day, usually 6am and shut by noon, and fall off the next day. So picking the flowers doesn't hurt the plants, but might impact pollinating and fruit on your plant.

Well, who knew you'd get a horticultural lesson on a horror blog, eh ? ;)

And a good, dry, french rose is great.. The dastardly white zin has given rose a bad name.

(CRWM, how's work ? Wasn't sure how to parse an earlier comment if it meant you or May were looking for a jerb/under-employed.. Miss hearing your work stories, homeless guy watchings et al on the other site.)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

But they don't taste the same! And the female blossom is a bit tastier than the male, in my opinion. It'll cost $5 more per bunch at specialty stores, but how freakin' often do you plan on making this. Live a little.

As for being underemployed, did you notice the jump from like 12 posts a month to nearly daily postings?

Yeah. The old site had its day for me. I don't know who is still there, but the ratio of people I want to see versus people that drove me nuts was getting too unbalanced. I won't be coming back. No offense to The Great H or any of the fine people who still populate the site. People come, people go. I'm sure some new CRwM will take my place.

when is evil cool? said...

one of the best posts i've read. period!

another excellent review and yer recipe sounds really good. i can't cook myself but i'll pass it to a cullinary student i know.

haven't seen this one and probably won't. yer idea of a slasher groundhog's day conjured a better movie in my head then the movie you described.

and dexter's nympho arsonist girlfriend she was such a perfectly cast wackadoodle. her nuttiness was a highlight last season. i hope she gets to be in better stuff though.

Shon Richards said...

There's an interview with the writer of Ian Stone on the internet somewhere that I found slightly more fun than the movie. Apparently he likes to make huge epic mythologies that film directors throw away and then make a movie with his name on it. To say the least he was not happy with the movie and his bafflement about the sudden Matrix-transformation at the end was priceless.

All in all I liked the movie because it was just so different but yeah, I think I have a Groundhog's Day version would have been fantastic.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Shon,

How maddening would that be?

I've never written a script or anything that's up for extensive review (I had dirty words edited out of a short story that a mag published online, but I agreed to that). I imagine you just cash your check and stifle your rage and get on with the next screenplay. Still, it's gotta be disheartening.

Though, honestly, I'm not sure a more complicated mythology would have put this movie over the top (though the writer is right that something other than the "Nobody beats the power of love!" ending would have helped).

OCKerouac said...

Would a Huey Lewis soundtrack have fixed all the problems?

Srsly, it sounds like a masterful premise wrapped up in a less-than-masterful morality tale that never quite gets anywhere. IE, a perfect example of what is wrong with 85% of indie flicks.

What I find refreshing as always is that unlike most bloggers, you seem to feel BAD about not liking it, searching for some redeeming quality. I think it's that desire to so deeply enjoy the work of others that keeps me coming back to read your stuff...

CRwM said...

O to the C to the K,

Aw, now you're makin' me blush.