Monsters and The Magician to be opening in Los Angeles and New York. However, neither is a traditional horror movie like Saw 3-D or Paranormal Activity 2, both of which are sure to be more popular at the box office.
Despite its gigantic, squid-like aliens from outer space that have crash-landed in northern Mexico, Monsters (from Magnet Releasing) conjured memories for me of Frank Capra's 1934 comedy classic, It Happened One Night. In that earlier film, Clark Cable plays a reporter who is employed by the wealthy father of an engaged heiress (Claudette Colbert) to hunt his runaway daughter down and escort her home. The sci-fi and serious Monsters similarly has a publishing tycoon hiring one of his lower-level, Mexico-based photographers to safely accompany his soon-to-be-married daughter (well played by real-life partners Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) across the "infected zone" that bumps up against the US border. In both films, the two protagonists end up falling in love before the end.
Monsters, written and directed by Gareth Edwards, is a marvel of low budget (reportedly less than $500,000), economic storytelling that boasts impressive visual effects. In addition to the title creatures, there are effective shots of destroyed cities and buildings as well as spectacular, all-natural views of Central American landscapes and sunsets. The actors aren't as accomplished but they don't hamper Edwards' efforts to tell a thoroughly compelling story.
One can ascribe various parallels and analogies to Monsters, with the plight of human immigrants from the southern hemisphere being the most obvious but the difficulty we have accepting anyone/anything different from ourselves also apparent. Although the movie is set in the present day, we are told at the outset that a NASA probe carrying samples of an alien life form broke up over Mexico six years prior. A massive concrete wall was subsequently built by the US along the border with Mexico, which the powerful yet sympathetic aliens end up breaching (not surprisingly) by the film's end.
The Magician (Regent Releasing), meanwhile, has little in common with either classic comedy or sci-fi movies. Rather, it is an Australian-based faux documentary about a vicious hit man, identified simply as "Ray." The film's title refers to Ray's ability to make his victims disappear without a trace.
A cameraman/interviewer (referred to as "Max") follows Ray as he kidnaps, beats and/or kills numerous subjects, most of whom are drug dealers or addicts who have fallen behind in their payments. Both Max and Ray emulate The Dirty Dozen for its "good actors, like Jim Brown and (erroneously) Clint Eastwood."
Midway through, The Magician inexplicably takes a gay-interest turn, as Max begins to question Ray about the Sydney Mardi Gras and gay actors in Hollywood. Max also calls Ray "beautiful" and "charming" and lovingly records the killer as he works out in their hotel room. Ray goes along with most of this but protests vehemently once Max expresses his intention to share a bed with Ray while naked.
The Magician is a fairly pointless and not particularly well accomplished exercise, although Scott Ryan (who also wrote and directed) gives an impressive, charismatic performance as Ray. Shot in 2005, the film is only now making its US debut in a triple feature with Eichmann and Shake Hands with the Devil, which similarly focus on morally questionable deeds and those who commit them. Together, they could make for a frighteningly true-to-life movie going experience. Happy Halloween!
The Magician: C-
UPDATE: Monsters is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.