Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Devil (2010)

Director:  John Erick Dowdle
Studios:  Media Rights Capital, The Night Chronicles, Blinding Edge Pictures
Starring:  Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Bokeem Woodbine, Jenny O'Hara, Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic
Tagline:  Bad Things Happen for a Reason.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13
Genre:  horror, thriller, devil, satan, trapped
Scare score:  A-
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  While investigating a working man's mysterious suicide, recovering alcoholic Detective Bowden (Messina) gets called onto an occurring case in the same building.  Five strangers - temp security guard with a criminal record (Woodbine), old woman and apparent thief (O'Hara), young woman and serial divorcee (Novakovic), former Marine with a guilty conscience (Marshall-Green), and sleazy mattress salesman and crook (Arend) - are stuck between floors in an elevator, and one of them is not who, or what, they seem.  Egged on by the strong religious beliefs of security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), will Bowden be able to save these sinners before it is too late?

I like this movie.  It isn't your most typical thriller due to the parallel but related plots, the numerous backstories, and of course the narration by Vargas.  I mean we've seen people trapped in a tight space with a killer or something supernatural in the past (House on Haunted Hill, Panic Room, and even the Saw series to an extent), but I think this movie, based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, presents a neat new twist on the mysterious and terrifying situation of being stuck with a murderer.  This makes an especially stressful situation for the police and security who are forced to look on as what seems to be lots of bad luck prevents them from accessing the elevator.

This is a character driven film, relying on the psychological and physical torture the five intended victims must undergo during their time in the elevator.  One of my favorite things about this movie is how we are made to think that each one of the five could be the murderer, and then immediately after the blame switches the former suspect is exonerated.  This begins to play not only with Detective Bowden, but with the five other main characters, and then even us as the audience.  Wild ride!  While some of them, such as the mattress salesman, are easy to detest from their entrance, other characters seem perfectly innocent until we begin learning more about their pasts.  I think this is a nice commentary that regardless of our outward appearance, and regardless of how kind or innocent someone is today, who hasn't done something wrong in the past?  And who's to say that everyone will be forgiven?

Considering that a large chunk of this movie takes place between the various angles of the inside of an elevator, I thought the cinematography was good.  The first shot of the film, an upside down aerial view approaching Philly, was really cool.  Then from the scenes in the jumper's office, the basement, and especially the roof of the office building each contained their own excitement and especially suspense.  Like if fewer characters had come close to the edge of falling off a building my palms would have been a lot less sweaty.  Special effects were also great.


Let's talk about the horror.  This movie presents us with your standard And Then There Were None plot, exactly like House on Haunted Hill, except in a smaller confined space and with fewer little indians.  Oh yeah, and they're not all human.  That changes the game a bit.

I have to admit, every time the elevator went dark I felt pretty scared.  Especially when we got the sound effects that someone was dying but we didn't know who or how.  The deaths themselves were not the most creative they could have been, but hey, I guess they were working with what they had.  From these moments of blacked out terror - no, not that kind of blacked out terror, you St. Patty's fans - we really are given a treat of suspense and gorey surprise once the lights come back on.

Ultimately we are dealing with human psychology.  As the numbers begin to dwindle, we see a free for all, then a 2v1 situation, and finally the two final intended victims/ criminals left waiting for what's next to come.  I think that freaked me out, too, because I got to thinking, in a situation where I look like the murderer but I know that I am not, how do I convince the other innocent suspect(s) that we are all in the same boat?  Humans can be pretty scary when they want to be.

From the movie title and then from Ramirez's narration, we know that the devil is among or within the people trapped in the elevator.  That being said, I think it's poetic that they are caught, literally suspended in midair awaiting their deaths one by one.  The elevator becomes purgatory, and the devil becomes a dark angel collecting the sinners.  Clever, Shyamalan.  Otherwise, I think when we are finally shown who the murderer is it's a real treat.  As I mentioned before, each of the five principle characters seem equally innocent and then also guilty, which makes narrowing down one guilty person difficult.  This wasn't the first time I've seen the film, so I paid extra close attention to our diabolic friend this time around, and from what I found there wasn't any hint or clue that would make us suspect him or her any more than the others.  If I missed something, let me know!  I'm not going to ruin the surprise and tell you who the murderer is here.

Then we have the kind of epilogue in the final minutes of the movie, where I have to admit I was certainly expecting one thing to happen, but hey, I guess they wanted to teach some sort of message.

Final critique:  If this movie delivers anything, it's suspense.  The numerous scenes when the lights go out (a la Wait Until Dark) are pretty tense, while the rest of the movie itself is filled with building suspense, questions, and terror.  The whole film deals with religious themes of guilt, sin, and redemption, so don't be surprised to pick up on a lot of that.  Overall, it is an enjoyable movie and a good watch.  I mean, if you get scared really easily, you can always cover your ears for the scenes where the lights go out, but otherwise I found it to be an enjoyable amount of suspense, always keeping us on the edge of our seats.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Poltergeist (1982)

Director:  Tobe Hooper
Studios:  SLM Production Group, MGM
Starring:  JoBeth Williams, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Craig T. Nelson
Tagline:  They're Here; It Knows What Scares You.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, thriller, haunting, ghosts, poltergeists
Scare score:  B+
Rating:  A

Plot overview:  In the late '70s/ early '80s, the lively Freeling family lives a normal, happy life in a small but growing development called Cuesta Verde.  The youngest child, Carol Anne (O'Rourke), seems to believe there are 'people' living in the TV that she is able to communicate with, but her parents Steve (Nelson) and Diane (Williams) attribute this to sleepwalking.  After a bad storm one night, we see a beam come out from the TV static and implant itself in the walls of the house.  Shortly thereafter, friendly paranormal happenings begin to occur in the Freeling household, largely revolving around the sudden movement, repositioning, or even breaking of objects.  Although Diane embraces these supernatural events, Carol Anne finds the "TV people's" tricks boring while Steve even thinks they're dangerous.  Suddenly, things take a turn for the worse, and as the climax of the haunting on their house, the Freeling's young daughter Carol Anne is abducted into a parallel plain of spirits, able to communicate only when the TV is left displaying static.  In order to save their daughter and family, the Freelings bring in a team of paranormal investigators and parapsychologists headed by the empathetic Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight).  Once the team dubs the events too powerful and dangerous for themselves to handle, they bring in the small but powerful medium Tangina (Rubinstein).  It will take all the strength the family has to rescue their daughter from the angry spirits holding her captive beyond.

I mean, this is an awesome movie.  I remember seeing this a few times as a kid and just always loving it.  Now that I'm a bit older and keeping this movie blog, I'm happy to say my child-horror-movie-critic-self was right: this movie is simply great.

First and foremost, it is a movie about family.  We get that sense from the very beginning, that this is a pretty standard American family, living a pretty standard life in a pretty standard American suburb.  More importantly, they are happy, unlike most modern families we are presented with in modern film.  We have the happily married couple, who even as they raise their three children still manage to have their own fun.  The oldest daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), is our typical, angsty, even sexually promiscuous teacher (I love the line towards the end of the film when her mom mentions a hotel and she recalls it, presumably from a night with her boyfriend) - however, she clearly cares about her younger siblings, even if they drive her up the wall or spill milk all over her homework when glasses spontaneously begin to break...  Next we have the middle child and only boy, Robbie (Oliver Robins).  This is just your regular American little boy, who falls asleep eating potato chips, wears too much baseball gear, and is afraid of regular things like storms and terrifying clown dolls which shouldn't be kept at the foot of the bed.  Lastly, our precious Carol Anne is a 5 year old, blonde, cute, and innocent little girl.  So what if she talks to TVs after channels have signed off for the night?  This is a strong, functional family.

Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are just simple family moments: when Diane and Steve mouth "I love you" to each other, for example, or especially any time the family communicates with Carol Anne when she is trapped in the spiritual plain.  A lot of this has to do with a recurring musical piece, which whenever it played sounded a lot like a lullaby, and I assumed it was Carol Anne's theme.  There is some really touching music in this film, aside from, of course, the eerie stuff.

That being said, we are presented with a wonderful cast of characters, and there is hardly anybody to dislike.  I almost prefer having an invisible malicious force and no annoying humans as antagonists.  My favorite performer in this movie is absolutely JoBeth Williams in the role of the mother: she is fun, powerful, and so loving.  She truly brings life to the family.  I also liked Craig T. Nelson a lot, and he was a likable, fun dad.  The kids are also all pretty cute, and they do very impressive jobs considering their young ages.

Take a wild guess as to who my second favorite character is.  Zelda Rubinstein is this iconic, mysterious figure that always fascinated me since I first saw the Poltergeist trilogy as a kid.  Aside from her obvious stature, her voice has always stuck out to me as well.  She is so likable from the get-go, just this intelligent, supernaturally gifted "let's get down to business" type.  And of course, thanks to Tangina, little Carol Anne's fate is not an eternity of terror in some parallel dimension.

Let's talk about the haunting.  I like the premise of this movie, and as I've said before, I'm a sucker for hauntings.  There is something poetic about ghosts.  When the house itself becomes almost malevolent at times, I was forced to think of Insidious, which in hindsight probably borrowed a lot from this movie.  This film does a good job of combining the wild happenings with a human, practical cause.  The various haunted items, toys, closets, and entire property itself were individually creative, creepy, and entertaining.  I can't even complain about the special effects, which is saying a lot considering how old this film is now.  Well, the ghostly plasma shooting out from the TV or from the portal in the living room ceiling is a bit Ghostbuster-ish in quality, but otherwise, no complaints here.

I also like the mix of purely ghostly things with otherwise gore-y or psychologically freaky things.  Namely, the scenes in the kitchen and bathroom when the paranormal investigator has his mind (and food, and face) played with a bit by the ghosts.  Yuck.

Final critique:  You should see this movie in your lifetime.  It is a perfect amount of scary that I think most viewers can handle without being too scared.  Except for that one aforementioned scene with some gore, the movie proves to us the strength of family and love (and fun-sized mediums) in the face of unhappy spirits, malicious ghosts, haunted clowns, and even closets.  What isn't there to love?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Director: Roman Polanski
Studios: William Castle Productions, Paramount Pictures
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer
Tagline: Pray for Rosemary's Baby
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, drama, suspense, witches, cult, spawn of satan
Scare score: C+
Rating: A

Plot overview: Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy (Cassavetes) Woodhouse are a happy young couple living in a luxurious, new apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Guy is a driven, aspiring actor, and Rosemary is a kind but naïve homemaker and hopeful mother-to-be. Although warned by their dear friend Hutch (Maurice Evans) about the strange and dark history of their new building, The Bramford, the young couple are happy in their apartment and are openly embraced by their elderly, eccentric neighbors Minnie (Gordon) and Roman (Blackmer) Castevet. After Rosemary conceives, she goes through an increasingly painful pregnancy, but she has Minnie to help her with home remedies and even the care of one of New York's top obstetricians, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy). As her concern about her unborn child grows greater, Rosemary also begins to learn about the possibility that Roman's family and friends practice witchcraft. Unfortunately, Guy becomes more distant as his acting career takes off substantially. Ultimately alone and scared, Rosemary becomes more desperate to protect her unborn baby, although soon she will realize it might be herself that needs the protection.

This movie is great. Hands down, it is a slow and steady, suspenseful success. Following the eerie (irritating) opening music, we find ourselves in a very real 1960s Manhattan. Rosemary is perfectly chic throughout the whole movie, from her mod minidress, to the wallpaper she puts up in the nursery, to her iconic Vidal Sassoon haircut. While the plot isn't something I personally believe to be plausible, the world that it takes place within most certainly was copied from Polanski and author Ira Levin's real life.

Let's start by talking about Mia Farrow. I mean, come on. She makes Rosemary such an interesting protagonist, even though she spends most the movie confused, in pain, or scared. While there isn't exactly enough depth to make her very realistic (mainly just a mother's instinct to protect her child), there is something really interesting about her. I enjoyed following her on her scary and uncertain journey through pregnancy and potential insemination by satan. Mainly I liked her look: mod, frail, cute, and determined. She was a truly perfect choice for this role.

The other character that sticks out for me, as she did for awards committees at the time, is Minnie Castevet. Ruth Gordon is a ridiculous character from her first scene to her last. The best part is, there are absolutely women like this living in Manhattan that you encounter from time to time on the subway or sidewalk: those old, loud, noisy, tacky, 'devil may care' types— you know to stay out of their way. Ruth turns Minnie into an almost preposterous character who, while annoying, we can still find to be endearing. The mystery behind the many characters in this cast leaves us questioning who is good and who is bad until the end, when perhaps we question our own definitions of 'good' and 'evil.'

I guess the only thing I don't love in this movie is that it drags on at times. At 136 minutes, this certainly isn't the longest film we've ever seen, but the lack of action makes it more noticeable. Not that this movie would benefit from much more action than it already has, but I'm just saying. We can only watch Rosemary wander around pregnant and in pain for so long.


Otherwise I kind of enjoy that any logical audience member goes into the movie more or less knowing what's going to happen. Honestly, we are as in on the plot as the rest of the coven, with only Rosemary being left out. *Irony* Still, any film that can pull this predictable plot off while maintaining an audience—and finding new fans even 50 years later—is a home run.

Final critique:  If you are looking for a wild, fast-paced ride of scares and jumps, this is not the movie you want. If you are looking for a deeper, suspenseful, and subtly terrifying horror classic, then you've come to the right place. I would recommend Rosemary's Baby to any viewers, as it is a relatively calm and all around enjoyable movie with only a few scares or disturbing images. Really excellent film right here, perfect for a rainy afternoon or a quite night in.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The House at the End of the Street (2012)

Director:  Mark Tonderai
Studios:  FilmNation Entertainment
Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, Max Thieriot, Elisabeth Shue
Tagline:  Fear Reaches Out... For the Girl Next Door
MPAA Rating:  PG-13
Genre:  horror, thriller, drama, mystery, suspense, psychological thriller, surprise ending
Scare score:  C-
Rating:  B

Plot overview:  Nonconformist teen Elissa Cassidy (Lawrence) and her young, single mother Sarah (Shue) finally leave the city and find a nice, inexpensive home of their own in a peaceful albeit isolated area of a wealthy town.  There's just one catch: the house next door was the scene of a double patricide committed several years ago by the mentally disturbed daughter Carrie Anne Jacobson.  While the girl is now believed to be dead, her body was never found after that night.  The only resident in the murder house is her brother, the reclusive Ryan (Thieriot) who gains Elissa's trust as they start seeing each other.  Despite the judgements of Sarah and the snobby townies, Ryan has the support of police officer Bill Weaver (Gil Bellows) as he still deals with the loss of his entire family.  And although everything in her new town starts off well, Elissa will soon discover what is hidden in the house at the end of the street.

From the start of the film, we are dealing with a rough and tough mother/ daughter duo, both of whom are strong and even angry, yet sensitive with a knack for music and even a need to be loved by men who seem so absent from their present lives.  Long story short, there is a certain girl power feeling behind this whole film although for me that was a completely neutral point.  While I wouldn't consider Lawrence's performance anything remarkable (or these days, Oscar worthy), there is something so natural about her that I couldn't help but feel drawn in to her story from the very beginning.  The cinematography of this film reminded me a bit of The Hunger Games or even Twilight which is embarrassing but true- there was a certain omnipotent darkness, like a dark grey cloud just beyond the strikingly green forest that most of the movie takes place in and around.  From what I've gathered, this is right up the angsty-but-beautiful Lawrence's alley.  A self-described "girl-who-feels-the-need-to-fix-everybody's-problems," the smart, attractive, caring, damaged-yet-strong, and 'always-let-your-conscience-be-your-guide' Elissa falls quickly for the mysterious, damaged-and-showing-it Ryan Jacobson, portrayed by a dark and difficult to penetrate Max Thieriot.  He does a decent job acting, and I guess what I most appreciated was that he was able to really keep the mystery going the entire film, tricking us into not trusting him, only to later trick us into caring for him, and perhaps later tricking us yet again...

Back to the girl power bit again, Elissa's character was clearly a male-made fantasy of the last girl archetype, and yet somehow there is a very real faction of her character, such that anyone might think they went to high school with this girl - while at the same time I'm pulling my hair and calling out the spade that people like this don't really exist.  On a positive note, I enjoyed her guitar playing and singing.  There is an excellent commentary made on family in this movie - largely focusing on Elissa and Sarah (the lush) but later also including Ryan and his lack of family.  Where is the perfect, nuclear family in this film?  It doesn't exist, save for stuck-up schoolmate Tyler's (Nolan Gerard Funk) seemingly perfect family - who in reality are ignorant of their son's poor behavior outside of the classroom and family functions.  The idea of family is closely related to the concept and motif of the home, which in part is contrasted from being enclosed inside a home and then loose outside in the woods.  So many themes!  No surprise that Elissa's rockstar dad (Sarah's ex-hubby) is out of the picture though still important to both women.  I think it would be easy to conclude that their acquiring a nice house on their limited budget is a move for settling-down- but what could settle the free spirit of these two women - I could go on and on. 

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy either Shue's or Lawrence's performances, but I couldn't help but feel like I had seen this all before.  Not to mention all the familiar faces in this movie, with Lawrence now being a household name, Bellows having been the memorable young and unfortunately overly-informed inmate from Shawshank (one of my top favorites), and then I didn't realize until after the fact that I saw Nolan Gerard Funk star in the title role of Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway a few years back.  I love when horror movies have a bunch of big (or medium) names scattered about the cast.  Hollay-wooood.

Aside from small errors and other pet-peevy problems- I did enjoy this film.  It was one of many movies I got to watch during a long, sleep, transatlantic flight (imagine me taking notes on the film in a small notebook during the flight), and I have to say it was pleasant for the trip.  The soundtrack stood out to me although I didn't write down why so I can't tell you now.  The best part of the movie is all the plot twists which just border on absurd without crossing that line, leaving us in a certain mindwarp of "oh no s/he didn't!"s.  In some moments I just didn't know who to trust anymore.  That always boosts up a horror movie quite a bit, both adding some excitement and in this case even depth to the plot and its characters.

Final critique:  This is a pretty easy-to-watch, gateway horror movie.  By that I mean anybody could watch this, during the day or late at night, without being too scared.  We have our basic mystery, plenty of slow-building suspense, and then even a bit of action, but more than anything else this is a story about teenagers, families, and trust.  Maybe it drags on a bit longer than it needs to, but hey, I think this film might find its way into a nice go-to scary movie for younger audiences at sleepovers.  Recommended for anybody looking for a relaxing but not entirely boring horror flick.

American Horror Story - S2, E13 (2013)

"Madness Ends"

Creators:  Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk
Producers:  20th Century Fox
Channel:  FX
Starring:  Sara Paulson, Dylan McDermott, Evan Peters, Jessica Lange, Joseph Fiennes; ft. Frances Conroy
TV Rating:  MA SLV
Genre:  television, horror, psychological thriller, drama, insane asylum, serial killer, aliens
Scare score:  B
Rating:  A

So before I get started, let me say one thing: sometimes you drop the ball.  Sometimes even my love for horror movies just gets ignored for half of January and all of February.  But here we are in a new month, and here I am with new efforts to find the real time to continue this blog.

Plot overview:  In this pretty captivating season finale, we focus on current day Lana (Paulson) as she is interviewed in her lavish townhouse.  While we learn that she has become famous due to her writing and especially her tele-journalism career, the eager interviewer brings up the one topic Lana swore she wouldn't talk about: Briarcliff.  In a sudden change of character, Lana decides to go into the details of her exposé of Briarcliff one last time.  During her story, she discusses how she searched for Sister Jude (Lange), director-turned-patient in her own hellish creation, and how the clues led her back to her friend Kit (Peters).  His story is concluded for us as we learn his children - Lana's godchildren - went on to become world famous doctors.  Kit himself had ventured back to Briarcliff years ago where he rescued Sister Jude, nursing her back to health with the help of the mysterious intervention of his children, until it is finally her time to pass.  Down the road, Kit contracts pancreatic cancer but is ultimately taken back by the aliens.  As viewers, we are aware that Lana's abandoned, sociopathic son Johnny (McDermott) has infiltrated the filming crew, and when the interview ends Lana calls him out of hiding, read to accept her fate.  Finally face-to-face, the mother and son are able to discuss the bitterness, hate, and sadness that has plagued them both for years.  The suspense will keep anyone on his or her seat until the final seconds.

So this is old, old news by now, but I wasn't about to let the month and a half gone by stop me from finishing my posts on this great season of American Horror Story.  I was so thrilled with this episode.  Loose ends were rounded up and resolved for us- those of us pro-Jude were probably content with her final years living as part of Kit's family, and even those of us who never forgave her for her cruel behavior in the beginning of the season most likely felt at ease that she wasn't quite vindicated for all her deeds.

The real star of the episode is Lana, who shines even though coated by tons of aging makeup.  I have to comment on the blood-red walls in her beautiful home that she shares with her equally successful partner, a singer.  That specific tone is reminiscent of the very first advertisements that started coming out the summer before Season 1.  It's just a really good, eye catching hue of red that was a nice compliment to last season and the show itself.  

Dylan McDermott also gets a shout out this time around as the murderer having a breakdown, aka Johnny, aka Bloodyface Jr.  I'm happy we got to learn about his story and then see a wide range of angry/ sad emotions from him during the final scenes.  


They really kept us hanging in there until the final seconds, huh?  Having thought I knew American Horror Story by this point, I was ready for Lana to peace out in a bloody bang from her vengeful son.  How the tables were turned when she soothed him and then finally turned that gun to his forehead!  What an awesome way to end the season, so much justice, so much happiness - totally the opposite of the ending of last season.  This really surprised me for the series as a whole, and I guess it has taught me that they are going to continue experimenting from now own.  

Final critique: All in all, it really was a pretty wild ride this season.  It flew by, and when I got to this episode I didn't even realize that it was all coming to an end (even though the episode title states that rather clearly).  While we had some weird bouts (think Anne Frank), the show had its fair share of monstrous beings, alien abductions, psychopathic murders - and best of all, human corruption, greed, and hate (not to mention overcoming said sins).  I am especially pleased with how the season ended - with a bang!  (I had to).  Rumors for next season are already swirling about, and from what I've heard, we might be headed to Salem!   But are we ready for a period piece?  I can certainly wait until October, but I'll be looking for leaks until then!