Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Next of Kin (1982)

Not to be confused with the 1989 Patrick Swayze film of the same name...

Director:  Tony Williams
Studios:  SIS, The Film House
Starring:  Jacki Kerin, John Jarratt, Alex Scott, Gerda Nicolson
Tagline:  There's No Place Like Home, Bloody Home.
MPAA Rating:  M for Mature
Genre:  foreign film, horror, terror, thriller, suspense, mystery, drama, psychological thriller, serial killer
Scare score:  C+
Rating:  B-

Plot overview:  After years away, introverted Linda (Kerin) inherits a large retirement home called Montclare following the death of her mother.  Shortly after her arrival, mysterious deaths begin to happen.  Through her mother's diaries, Linda learns that this is not the first time Montclare has been plagued by such sinister events.

I came across this movie while reading a short write up on a blog called Drunken Zombie, which I found through the Horror Blogger's Guild, which you should definitely check out.

This Australian film was a pretty enjoyable watch last night right before bedtime.  Be warned though; I had to adjust to the sheer '80s-ness of it all (costumes, even the cinematography itself, which makes the whole thing seem like a made-for-TV-movie) and then also pay close attention to understand the heavy accents.  Once these two steps were completed, I was in for an enjoyable experience.

I thought that Next of Kin presents us with both Gothic and even Lovecraftian horror, though in a very modest type of way.  First and foremost we have Linda and then the voiceover of her now deceased mother; Linda is our young and virginal (albeit more in personality than in action) protagonist, as was made typical by Gothic horror, and through her mother and the diary (themselves the helper and sort of talisman that provide wisdom or insight from the past), Linda is guided and able to better prepare for the horror at hand.  Then of course we have Montclare, a character in and of itself, an expansive old mansion filled with dark rooms and twisting hallways, along with its fair share of things that go bump in the night.

As far as Lovecraftian horror goes, I thought there was a fair amount of detachment and isolation in our characters, not to mention plenty of mysterious pasts and unanswered questions.  Where did Linda go and why did she leave?  Was her mother sane, and is she?  There are an abundant amount of examples of times in this movie when Linda sort of shuts down or finds herself unable to deal with her situation.  While I thought this was both good acting and a realistic reaction to the streak of murders, we also start to wonder how reliable Linda truly is as our protagonist and perhaps savior.  Furthermore, there is really no one in this whole cast that we feel the audience or even Linda can trust, except perhaps her favorite elderly resident at Montclare.  Bruce (Jarratt) seems like a handy and trustworthy (although unfaithful) guy, but how often does our female protagonist's love interest turn out to be the bad guy?  Too often, if you ask me.  Then our obvious suspects are right under our noses: caretaker Connie (Nicolson) and the seemingly dastardly Dr. Barton (Scott).  Who is a poor girl (or poor audience member) to believe in once dead old people start turning up in every bathtub in Montclare?  Between these and many other unanswered (and perhaps unimportant) questions (who is running through the hallways once Linda is alone with our killer in the final scene? etc), even we viewers, safe and cozy in our beds, begin to feel pretty helpless, and Linda's sanity just dwindles down right until the very end.

All that being said, this movie presents us with some really lovely and intriguing horror.  You're sure to get your fill of suspense in this good, old fashioned mystery with some psychological depth and a good, clean ending.  I'm sure that this reminds me of another plot, but I can't quite think of it at the moment.  Oh well, no matter.

The cinematography, aside from looking like a made-for-TV-movie (is it?), is actually very cool and progressive.  I believe that this is the reason Tarantino praised this foreign film, and although at first I found some artistic choices to be out of place, they really only made this movie more interesting.  There are a few times we see the upstairs hallway become elongated and dreamlike, culminating in a scene where Linda is running through the hall and we are shown the 'set' from above, watching her run forward as if she were instead running upwards.  That was very interesting.  Otherwise, this movie boats fantastic transitions between scenes.

Final critique:  I'm not even going to go into who the killer is or any spoilers at all, but without giving that away I want to reiterate that I liked this movie.  The final scenes once we learn about motive and all that jazz were really entertaining, the satisfying reasoning behind our Gothic horror set in the Outback.  There is some fun gore scattered throughout this movie that piques our interest and even surprises us since the plot takes a little while to get started.  Once it does, however, this is a quick watch at 89 minutes.  I would recommend this to all audiences, with its weakest point being that it may seem outdated to some.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Director:  Tobe Hooper
Studios:  Vortex
Starring:  Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Paul A. Partain, Gunnar Hansen
Tagline:  Who will survive and what will be left of them?
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, gore, psychological thriller, torture, teen, cannibals, serial killer, masked murderer
Scare score:  B-
Rating:  B+

Plot overview:  While driving through the vastness of central Texas to go see an old family home, siblings Sally (Burns) and Franklin Hardesty (Partain) and friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), and Jerry (Allen Danziger) find themselves the helpless victims of a family of insane serial killers.

Shortly before its 40th anniversary coming up this October, I found that last night was the perfect night to watch this true horror classic.  With visionary direction by co-writer Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, Salem's Lot), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has quickly and surely won its way into being one of the most iconic horror films out there, with one of the industry's most successful killers, Leatherface (Hansen).  Made on less than a $300,000 budget, this modestly produced movie in many ways redefined the horror genre, spawning a franchise and leaving a mark that still scares audiences 40 years later.

All that being said, I want to state that I do appreciate this movie, but I don't love everything about it. I think the sort of wrong-turn (although the victims are right where they want to be), inbred, rotten deep America is all strangely beautiful, and with a chain saw thrown in for fun, what's not to love?

Well there's the production quality, for starters.  It's tough with a low budget film and the fact that this was 1974 for us to have really clear images.  On the other hand, one of the absolute best things about this movie is the 'special effects,' that is, props, sets, general gore.  There are really gross visuals throughout the film that I'm sure shocked audiences at the time, as many of them still might today. Did you know that when the family feeds Grandpa (John Dugan) a taste of Sally's blood, it was actually Marilyn Burns' blood??  That's wild.  But I'm getting ahead of myself; let's start at the beginning.

Based on a true story.  Okay, so this movie doesn't actually include the words "based on a true story," but nonetheless it is one of those countless films that claims to be the real-life account of what happened to real people.  In fact, I know that the original movie and the 2003 remake have very much convinced audiences and popular culture that a Texas chain saw massacre did, in fact occur (it did not, although a large amount of Leatherface's backstory [grave robbing, bone furniture, mask of skin] is based on true facts about serial killer Ed Gein).  If you've read this blog before, you'll know that Horror Buff hates horror movies that claim to be based on true stories, regardless of how it helps them in the box office.

After that exciting little beginning, the intro to this film is extremely long.  Like, we're talking just under half the movie until we see a chainsaw.  Sure, it sets the tone (as an exposition should) of where our characters are and why, and throws in some honestly freaky footage of a vandalized graveyard.  More importantly as far as thematics are concerned, we just see a lot of images of old, drunk, weathered men sitting around not doing much.  This sort of stagnant culture is important, perhaps as a cause of how Leatherface & family came about.

The best thing about this long introduction, which does virtually nothing to introduce us to our cast of teenagers (who, aside from Sally and Franklin, then become unimportant sacks of meat, such as Leatherface must view them), is that it presents us with some truly fantastic acting by Edwin Neal in the role of the hitchhiker.  Audiences have already been creeped out and even disgusted by the scene at the graveyard at this point, not to mention subjected to nauseating talk about animal slaughter, and then suddenly this unstable hitchhiker appears and really freaks us out.  Is this scene too bizarre?  Are the reactions of our 5 personality-less teenagers unrealistic?  Does it matter?  The whole time, we may sit there and think "Oh no, I would never let that guy in my van" or even about how we would kick that guy straight out the first time he talks about death or whips out a razor, but it doesn't matter, because we are already stuck in the van with him and his craziness will run its course before we can get him out.  We are suffocated in that scene, by the Texas heat, by Franklin's whining, by Edwin's violent lunacy.  It's fantastic.

By now I've waited long enough to bring up what is the absolute worst thing about this movie: Franklin Hardesty.  I have a hard time deciding whether it's Franklin I hate or actor Paul A. Partain, but I think I'm certain that it's just Franklin, a useless, helpless, dramatic, and loud whiny brother that serves no purpose in the film except to be annoying, and occasionally babble on about creepy subjects such as death threats and animal slaughter.  Franklin cannot pick up on social cues.  Franklin's disability prevents him from having fun with the other personality-less teenagers.  Franklin pees in a coffee bean can.  Franklin sticks his tongue out at no one and pouts instead of cursing or throwing things like a normal human (as if cursing would have spared them the R rating).  Franklin is the worst character I've ever encountered in a [horror] movie and sincerely it hurts this movie because of it.  What is the point of Franklin?  I would love an educated answer.  Luckily we only have to endure him for 52 minutes.  Oops, spoiler alert.

Once that's over, it's back to the fun stuff.  The most horrifying thing about this movie is the overall sense of helplessness of the victims and nonchalance of the antagonists.  There is an enduring sense of vulnerability in the film that only increases as the teens we are never actually introduced to are hacked away, as we run out of gas and lose the keys, as the sun sets and it seems that everybody is in on the terror in this town.  There is decay here: moral, physical, human decay, right around the corner from the Hardesty's family home where they played as children.  A place of innocence has turned into a place of total evil, filled with forgotten locations and deranged people who become butchers in America's heartland.  This is one of those films that makes every small town scary, every long drive risky, every hitchhiker on the road a potential killer.  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre continues being relevant and important as more stories break on the news about serial killers on the loose and women being found locked in suburban basements.  Leatherface is just a man in a mask, and although his mask his made of tanned skin, how many others are out there wearing masks we can't see so easily?  This movie begins on a sunny summer afternoon, and ends in a shocking and senseless bloodbath illuminated under the broad Texan sunrise.


The second half of the film presents us with pretty constant terror and some gore.  By gore, I do not so much mean people getting visibly hacked up (we don't see that) so much as tons of footage of bones and body parts, Grandma (a la Psycho, with which this movie shares many similarities) and Grandpa (probably the grossest thing in the film); the list goes on.  Aside from any Halloween movie, I think that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might boast one of my favorite chase scenes.  Sally is relentless in her attempt to break free from the horrors at hand, and she does a valiant effort, resulting in a really great chase scene through the bushes and bramble at night, with chainsaw-wielding Leatherface close behind.  This scene is just plain enjoyable for everybody, except perhaps Sally.

Things go from bad to worse when Sally finds out that Leatherface is not just some isolated serial killer, but that what seems like the whole town (all 3 residents) are in on the killings.  Is there no escape?  Jim Siedow also gives us some good acting in his easily despicable role as the proprietor of the gas station, aka Leatherface and the hitchhiker's daddy.  I love Leatherface's stern impassibility earlier in the film (especially the shrieks he makes), although once daddy comes back home, we see a different, weaker, frightened side of the big faceless killer that only adds to his pathos.  One of my favorite lines in the movie is when the soulless proprietor is abducting Sally and makes a comment about the electricity bill - just another example of this psychopathic apathy that should really rock us as humans.  Such clever writing.

All that being said, I still have a debate in my head about whether or not this is a boring movie.  The last time I had seen it before this week was about 5 years ago in college, and aside from wanting to rip my ears and eyeballs out because of Franklin, I remember thinking that not too much happened here.  After watching it this week, however, I found myself fairly entertained by the events of the film.  I guess it's safe to say that once the action starts, it doesn't stop coming.  Even if the film feels somewhat lost at times, as uncertain as where to go as our final girl Sally, it's still worth the enjoyable acting we get from the family of deranged Texan cannibals.  If you can make it through the long exposition, you're in for a pretty fun ride of disturbing events and visual content that have made this movie so legendary.

Final critique:  This movie is simply a must-see.  Coming from the genius of Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel, this film rocked audiences 40 years ago and, along with multiple reboots and remakes, continues to rock us today.  If you can get past the grainy quality of the film, this movie is a wild ride; well, at least the second half is.  Not recommended for audiences that scare easily or get grossed out by gory or disturbing images, because along with the eponymous chainsaw, the props in this movie are half the terror.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Pact (2012)

Director: Nicholas McCarthy
Studios: Entertainment One, IFC Midnight
Starring: Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien; ft. Agnes Bruckner, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Haley Hudson
Tagline: Some doors should never be opened.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, thriller, drama, mystery, haunted house, ghost, serial killer
Scare score: B+
Rating: A-

Plot overview: After the death of her mother, ex-drug addict Nicole (Bruckner) returns to her childhood home, which is filled with bad memories and other presences. Shortly after, she goes missing and her estranged sister Annie (Lotz) is forced to come home to confront all of the negativity that lingers in her mother's house.

I was very surprised by this movie. The movie poster (which bears a close resemblance to that of The Frighteners) has stood out to me on Netflix for a while, but I didn't watch it until the other night, after I heard that it has a sequel coming out this fall. Though it started out as your typical dark, slow, dramatic horror movie (I was reminded of Absentia in that sort of dreary aspect), I found myself more and more impressed by the film's creativity and surprising twists and turns.

The first thing that struck me was the very artistic way this movie is filmed and edited. I loved the realism and attention to detail; I loved the shots and cinematography: There was something oddly beautiful about this movie and I appreciated that. Special effects were good and constantly took us by surprise, adding points to the scare score.

Acting was pretty decent. Sometimes things felt forced, but I guess you can't help that. I was relieved that the characters felt somewhat real to me, and that helped balance out any faults in acting or in the script. We should be especially pleased with Lotz, who takes us through the entire film. A super special shout out goes to Haley Hudson who legitimately had the perfect look for her creepy role. That was fantastic casting. Same goes for Mark Steger, who shows up towards the end of the film keeping us fairly terrified all the way through.

The plot really kept me interested, even when the film felt like it was dragging along. I was not expecting this cool mix of reality and the supernatural. There is a fusion of genres here that piques our interest and takes us places we are not expecting to go. Half of the fright/ excitement of the movie comes from the surprising plot twists that go so far as to shock us as they unfold.


Who doesn't get creeped out when they're home alone, or when they hear noises and bumps in the night? Once the scares start in this movie, they don't stop coming. I wasn't sure what to expect when the movie began and we had Bruckner alone in the house and when that closet door was ominously open. As the supernatural forces began to become apparent, I figured we were in for some sort of ghost movie, but then things got more interesting.

The mystery is great. Better yet, while Annie makes her way around Cali looking for more clues and leads, the horror continues inside of that house. The first time we see the silhouette of a man (a la White Noise) standing inside of the bedroom, I think I suffered a mini heart attack. Otherwise, we put up with a lot of invisible forces throwing people around, doors being left open, a pretty cool Ouija scene, and headless corpses randomly appearing in the night. The twist this movie takes towards the end was what really took me by surprise and is sure to shock all audiences. The second that Judas (Steger) crawled out of the floor—following a pretty riveting Ouija scene (isn't there a Ouija-themed horror movie coming out soon?)—my jaw practically dropped and I was just so pleased with the turn the movie had taken. This was another great casting choice, and the way he moved his body around was simply eerie, adding yet another dimension of horror to this film.

Final critique: I would recommend this movie to anybody as a surprising horror film that really delivers. My favorite thing about this was the blend of the supernatural with an otherwise realistic plot, great casting decisions, and wonderful attention to detail and cinematography. Nicholas McCarthy is a director we should certainly be keeping our eye on.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

As Above, So Below (2014)

Très français!

Director:  John Erick Dowdle
Studios:  Universal Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Starring:  Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, François Civil
Tagline:  The only way out is down.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, drama, psychological thriller, found footage, gateway to hell, ghosts, underground
Scare score:  B
Rating:  B/B-

Plot overview:  In modern-day Paris, urban explorer/ [al]chemist/ college professor/ double-PhDed/ possible daughter of Indiana Jones/ still hot and normal Scarlet Marlowe (Weeks) is set on continuing in her and her late father's quest to find the legendary philosopher's stone.  Followed by cameraman Benji (Hodge) and quirky love interest George (Feldman), Scarlet is guided by the savvy Papillon (Civil) and his two friends deep into the catacombs below Paris.  However, all of the team's research and experience couldn't prepare them for what awaits them below.

True story: I just watched this movie in an entirely empty movie theater.  While I had hoped that it would add to my experience, I quickly found that As Above, So Below was not the scariest movie to sit through by myself.

Written (in part) and directed by horror regular John Erick Dowdle, this movie certainly has a touch of Quarantine to it.  I mainly attribute that to the found footage take on the film as well as the dark figures lurking in an even darker background, illuminated only by choppy camera light.  As far as the upside-down, reversed world perspective of the movie goes, we of course also think of the opening sequence of Devil, which Dowdle also directed.

As soon as the movie started, I let out an almost audible groan when I realized that, naturally, this movie was going to be found footage.  I rather hate found footage movies; there is something cheesy and ironically unrealistic to this approach that tries so desperately to make things seem realistic.  In many ways, found footage is a feeble attempt to scare the audience solely through visual input instead of through plot and creativity, which in my book carry more integrity.  Then again, I am always welcome to new or different ways of filming and editing.  Unfortunately found footage will never overcome its stereotypes from Blair Witch.  Vomit bags are recommended.

Even so, As Above, So Below begins with an intriguing and loud opening sequence of events that introduces us to our protagonist and how she is willing to put her life on the line for her work/ life passion of exploration and civil/urban archeology.  I did find acting to be pretty labored throughout the whole beginning of the movie, well into when the team actually enters the catacombs, about 45/50 minutes into the film.  This movie really toys with the audience's capacities for suspense and thrills, surprising us when we don't expect it to and then letting us down when we want more.

The scares in this movie are many and varied.  There is a general sense of dread (but is it ever confirmed?) and an undeniable similarity to The Descent.  Otherwise, the twists and turns of the catacombs and caves below Paris, paired with the rapidly-moving and changing footage from the characters' cameras force the viewer into an uncertain and claustrophobic atmosphere; our own sort of purgatory filled with excitement and terror as we never know what lies around each corner.  That being said, let me mention that the set of this film seems fantastic and vast.  The first real scare of the movie catches us off guard about 40 or 45 minutes in, and from that point on we are frequently bombarded with visual and psychological scares (will the team die down there? what was that face in the water? etcetera) that serve to either confuse or intrigue us until we are left with perhaps more questions than there are answers.


This movie covers a large amount of literary and historical themes, ranging from alchemy to religious and satanic symbolism, and then ultimately focusing on redemption (which is also heavily tied into alchemy once again).  That being said, what was perhaps presented as a found footage, gateway to hell-esque film suddenly becomes something that tries to dig deeper, much as the catacombs do below the streets of Paris.  Horror and supernatural elements set aside, this is a movie that deals with character forgiveness and judgement, with the survivors eventually seeking retribution (or not) for past 'crimes' that have haunted them until the present.  Such a transformation from sinfulness to redemption is much akin to the general themes of alchemy and related followings such as Freemasonry, and it is one of the most basic themes in literature since the times of Aristotle.

The first time I heard this movie title when I saw a trailer a few months ago, my mind immediately went to "on Earth as it is in heaven," and perhaps yours did too if you say your prayers every night.  That being said, I was expecting much more of a gateway to hell style movie than what As Above, So Below presents us.  From the beginning, small hints of what's to come are dropped and then gone again in the blink of an eye.  While still in Iran, Scarlet clearly sees a spectral apparition of her father, hanging on his noose.  This comes back a lot later on, but then are we led to believe that Scarlet herself is unstable?  There are questionable visions and scares placed in the movie well before our cast of characters enters what we are told is an evil part of the catacombs.  Who, then, is seeing what?  Can we trust any of our characters, and to what point?  Why are there "normal" people in these closed-off sections of the catacombs performing what is either a satanic ritual or the world's most secretive choir practice?  Special shout out to Olivia Csiky Trnka, who, with her piercing, wide-set eyes was certainly one of the scariest aspects of the movie.  Is La Taupe (Cosme Castro) alive or dead, and if he is alive how does he move so quickly or appear in places that he previously was not?  Who or what is the hooded and maybe masked phantom lurking in the darkness of the caves?  What is its purpose?  Why is a man nicknamed 'Butterfly' when he explores caves for a living?  Why?

One issue I definitely had with this movie was its failure to deliver.  Whenever a horror movie starts throwing tons and tons of shallow red herrings at us, I find myself going into a sort of scary sensory overload.  As Above, So Below often presents us with some very scary images that ultimately mean nothing after their brief screen time.  I thought that the hooded, masked character towards the end was extremely scary, but nothing came of it.  The 'dead' knight/ Nicolas Flamel, Miss Trnka and her haunting eyes, the boy in the water - all of these piqued our interests yet very few were explained inside of the plot.  What were those bodies that burst forth from the stone, and why were they there?  This to me is a horror movie trying too hard with a hat full of cheap scares.  At the end of the day, are our characters really in hell, or just some strange parallel reality where they must account for their sins or regrets in the past?  Even if this is the case, why is it happening, and why in the catacombs of Paris?  As Above, So Below sets up many exciting plot angles and story lines, but in the end, it only delivers on a few.

Final critique:  If you think you would enjoy a crossover of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and The Descent, this is the movie for you.  Even seeing this movie totally alone in a dark theater couldn't make it much scarier, regardless of the countless, futile scares the creative team threw in for fun.  This was not a bad movie, but sometimes the only thing worse than a flat out bad horror movie is one that promises us real terror and then fails to deliver.