Friday, October 31, 2014

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) - short story

Happy Halloween, horror fans!

Author:  Washington Irving
Caption:  "The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head [...] and the spectre is known at all the country firesides, by the name of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow."
Genre:  short story, legend, folklore, American fiction, psychological thriller, thriller, ghost
Scare score:  D-
Rating:  A

Plot overview:  In the late 18th Century on the banks of the Hudson about 30 miles north of New York City, in the small village of Sleepy Hollow, the superstitious schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is actively courting the beautiful young daughter of a rich landowner.  After a party at their farm one fall evening, Ichabod is returning home when he encounters the ghastly specter that is said to haunt the roads at night.

I've always loved this story.  Who doesn't know it?  Or, at the very least, who isn't familiar with the idea of a headless horseman hurling a sinister pumpkin through the air?  This is a pervading tale, and one of the founding fathers of American folklore.  With its short length, it is the perfect bedtime story during the Halloween season.

This story isn't necessarily scary, but it is certainly creepy.  Originally published in the collection of The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., (along with "Rip Van Winkle"), this is among Irving's most famous and lasting tales.  You may be wondering, if it isn't scary, why bother reading?  Well I have two reasons for you.  First, you should familiarize yourself with this important work of American literature.  It is beautifully written and filled with lifelike descriptions of the Hudson Valley.  There is plenty of rich vocabulary that you should learn to impress your friends.  Secondly, this is an essential piece of scary literature.  Everybody should read it at least once.


What gets me most about this short story is its spooky ambiguity.  We are presented with Ichabod Crane, a lanky, superstitious type who we aren't made to be necessarily fond of.  We are given a full account of the local characters, their nature, and their beliefs in ghosts and demons that haunt the area.  In fact, the majority of this short story is just exposition.  There is positively nothing scary about 95% of this piece of literature. Then we get to the final few pages.  The chase scene that happens through the woods isn't very scary, but it's a compelling read, and the pace certainly picks up.  Any keen reader will, of course, realize the instant we are presented with a "horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame" that it is probably just Brom "Bones" Van Brunt playing a prank.  But what if it's not?  Either way, this is the true horror of the story:

Say there really is a headless horseman.  Irving pulled this idea from the preexisting concept of a ghostly headless figure in European folklore.  If this is the case, Crane has always been right to be worried about superstition and things that go bump in the night.  Then, we are led to believe that the horseman comes down upon Crane and either murders him and dumps him in the river, or murders him and spirits him away, as the locals go on to believe.  Ah!  Ghost story!  Spooky!

But if not, my friends, if there is no headless horseman and no ghosts in the village of Sleepy Hollow, the story suddenly becomes much darker, and much more frightening in my opinion.  This version of the tale, which is the one I believe in, is that the horseman was just Brom dressed up to frighten Ichabod away from courting Katrina, their mutual love interest, who is described as being as plump as a peach.  If it is Brom all along, then Brom violently throws a pumpkin into Crane's face, which we can understand knocks him from his horse.  Two things can now happen: Crane falls into the river, injured or already dead, and gets washed out into the Hudson with the other garbage.  Either that, or Crane falls, and then is murdered by Brom, who then tosses his body into the Hudson with the other garbage.  Either way, Brom murders Ichabod Crane, which is terrifying and sinister and just downright evil.

I suppose you could argue that Brom just terribly frightens Ichabod, who then leaves town in his embarrassment and shame from being rejected by Katrina, who is probably just an early American bimbo.  But then again, Ichabod is just a gold digger, so who's to say who is morally superior.  But I digress.  I don't think Ichabod just leaves town since we know he only owns like one bag full of stuff that he highly treasures as he is material and vain, and very much a fan of earthly delights.  So, horror fans, it is my belief that Abraham Van Brunt is guilty of murder in the first degree.  And you know what the scarier part is?  The town just shrugs it off.  Not a single soul is concerned for Ichabod.  Either they assume he ran away, or they are totally okay with the fact that he has been kidnapped by some evil spirit.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why this short story is truly freaky.

Fun fact: A teenage Horror Buff once went to Sleepy Hollow for a quick visit.  Not only is the area beautiful (I love the Hudson River Valley), but the little village has headless horseman stuff everywhere - it's awesome!  If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend checking out town hall, which has some awesome murals depicting the chase scene from the story.  While you're there, you can also check out the Old Dutch Church and the grave of Washington Irving, as well as some other famous Americans.

Final critique:  Read this short story. It will take you know more than an hour.  Read it by a cozy fire, or by candlelight to friends or family.  Take turns reading.  Look up the big words you don't know (I learned whilom, supernumerary, peradventure, and erudition).  It's Halloween, folks, so this is the perfect time to check out this easy read.  After you finish, you can be the judge of what's truly scary in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ouija (2014)

(Preliminary note: during the previews, I saw an extended trailer for Insidious: Chapter 3, set to release in 2015. It looked pretty fun.)

Director: Stiles White
Studios: Universal Pictures
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Daren Kagasoff, Ana Coto, Shelley Hennig, Douglas Smith, Bianca A. Santos; ft. Lin Shaye
Tagline: Keep Telling Yourself It's Just A Game.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: horror, terror, supernatural thriller, ouija board, haunting, ghost
Scare score: B
Rating: A-

Plot overview: Following the apparent suicide of her best friend Debbie (Hennig), college student Laine (Cooke) is left with questions she thinks only a mysterious ouija board found in Debbie's attic can answer. Once she and her friends make a connection through the board, however, they realize that the game isn't so easy to end.

*Quick funny story: During a fairly scary moment of this movie, the screen at the movie theater I was at went totally dark, leaving myself and the only other two people in the theater in the pitch black beneath the sounds of screaming coming from the scene. Talk about freaky.

Following a few years of development, Ouija finally debuted just in time for the Halloween season. I went to see it tonight, and while the critics might be saying otherwise, I found it to be very enjoyable. Like most horror movies these days, Ouija relies heavily on the well-timed, dumb scares that are sure to make eager teenagers scream with delight while veteran horror-goers frown in their cynicism. I found that if I lighten up and allow myself to enjoy it, it makes the whole experience better. In doing so, you'll find a lot of reasons to walk out of Ouija with a smile on your face.

This isn't the first movie we've seen involving a ouija board (think The Exorcist, or Witchboard and the sequels it spawned). One thing I can appreciate is a horror movie that cleverly creates merchandise to go along with it (like masks or costumes). Creating a fictional horror and then manifesting said horror into something tangible—and sellable—really helps bring that horror to life. A good example would be Friday the 13th or Halloween with the old school hockey or Captain Kirk/Michael Myers masks, respectively. In this case, the inverse is true, and Hollywood has taken a century-old toy (conveniently owned by Hasbro today) and decided to revolve the horror around it.

The babysitter I went to as a kid had an old ouija board buried among the stacks of old games in the playroom, and as very small children, we tried our hands at it more than once. Someone always cheated, but it was fun to pretend that we were making some sort of contact with **the beyond**. We never did, but after seeing this movie, maybe that was for the better.

Ouija is no different than most horror movies we see these days. But the important thing to remember is that that is not a bad thing. Across all genres of film and literature, plots have held countless parallelisms since mankind first started telling stories. Most stories share similar characters and teach the same lessons. With Hollywood pounding out movie after movie after movie and with TV going through a golden age, what's important in film today are the nuances that differentiate one movie from another.

Sure, Ouija presents us with another group of good looking, "college-aged" kids (even misfit kid sister Sarah (Coto) is always perfectly coiffed) who meddle into something bigger and badder than them, and it's only a matter of time until they get knocked off one by one. Okay, so we've seen it. So what? Horror films are becoming less and less about the what, but instead about the when and how. How is this board game going to kill these 20-somethings and when? For better or for worse, creative deaths are what keep so many horror films going these days.

It's for this very reason that I am a staunch supporter of predictable and corny scares. We all live for those *boom* moments that turn out to be nothing. Ouija is filed with them. Chock-full. I don't care if these are "cheap scares" or not— at the end of the day, a scare is a scare, and not every film is going to be a new masterpiece anyway. More power to the movie that can create new, truly terrifying scares (there's plenty of them all the time, and plenty more to be done), but if audiences are going to see horror movies to get some kicks, then I think there should be plenty of "cheap scares" that will at least ensure these people have a good time.

While Ouija perhaps does the boyfriend-lurking-around-the-corner-whoops-didn't-think-it-would-scare-you-sorry-babe-lol one too many times, all of these small scares are fine details that maintain a sense of thrill and terror throughout the film. Ouija not only gives us these, but it gives us plenty of teases, too. From pretty early on, there is some major foreshadowing that might get us anxious in the moment, but ultimately ruins the surprise.

Okay, so I've defended the heavy usage of flashlights rolling off and illuminating things we'd rather not see, or creepy reflections or shadows cast against the wall— so what else is there to this film?

I mean, the plot is fun. We have a pretty decent mystery here with an expected, whoops I mean unexpected twist that keeps the evil board in our lives just so much longer. While I wasn't surprised by some red herrings in the plot, I thought it was really fun, and who doesn't love a fun appearance by Lin Shaye (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2)?

If you were to ask me about acting in this film, I would probably smile and shrug. It's exactly what you expect. I like Olivia Cooke in Bates Motel, and I liked her in this. She has a certain collected coolness about her —along with an undeniable macabre—that I think will keep her popular in horror as time goes on. Our other characters were fine, paper thin, and trying desperately hard to be realistic. Hey, Hollywood— you want realistic? Try casting less hot people all the time. In a horror movie, girls' hair should not always be perfect. People should not always be beautiful and muscular and perfectly dressed. This needs to stop. We want more realistic films and we want them now!

There is legitimately zero diversity in this film. Aside from a weak attempt of the casting of Vivis Colombetti in the role of "Nana," thus leading us to believe that Laine and Sarah are perhaps Latina, there is just nothing. Even Bianca A. Santos as capricious friend Isabelle seems pretty whitewashed. I don't know what's worse: Forcing one unimportant minority friend into a white-horror plot, or just leaving them out completely. Do better, casting team. Not too great for 2014.

The settings, however, were very cool. While the scariest thing about Debbie's house is the overpowering wallpaper that changes in every room, I thought it was an equally pretty and eerie home in which this movie could take place. But I digress.

Somewhat surprisingly (?) this movie ends up being largely about sisterhood and the bond shared between females. We've been seeing a lot of this lately, and the more I see it, the more important I think it is. Females in horror have long been pretty limited to their roles. On one hand, we've always had the scream queen star or kickass final girl. On the other hand—and perhaps the dominant one that most people focus on—we have the sexploited, dumber girl that gets murdered while in a bra and panties (or less). And more often than not, even the nerdy girls are usually very attractive underneath their deceptive outfits or bad glasses, and they get exploited as well. Lately, however, horror movies have started focusing on female characters in the roles of mothers, sisters, and daughters, stressing the importance that family has in overcoming horrifying or even supernatural circumstances. I'm talking about taking a step further than letting a teenage girl fight back against her victimization (Halloween, Friday the 13th, or A Nightmare on Elm Street) and entering the realm of Ripley, or Clarice Starling, or especially a character like Carrie White who takes the horror into her own hands. Why is it that horror movies, perhaps even more so than any other genre, are constantly coming out with new blockbusters with a woman in the lead role(s)? Sure, there's a sense of empowerment behind it, but I honestly think it makes the story more relatable to the audience. We can sympathize more easily with female characters because often they are acting out of love, especially when playing familial roles. It is this love, furthermore, that usually combats the evil at hand most efficiently. Let me work more on my feminist theories. In the meantime, let me say that what we need more of is female antagonists. Bring 'em on!

Ouija's other strengths lie in the beautiful cinematography by David Emmerichs and what I thought was a quaintly powerful score by Anton Sanko. Even if the acting is only so-so, at least we get to see and hear some pretty—and creepy—stuff.

My biggest problem with this movie is that everybody and their (grand)mother knew the word "planchette," referring to the sort of iron-shaped, mystic tool that moves on the ouija board. I understand that this is what the ouija accessory is called in real life, but why in the world would every character in the movie know that, too? Have you ever heard someone use that term in casual conversation? When we first hear 8-year-old Debbie (Claire Beale) so keenly pronounce the word "plan-chette" my skin crawled. We heard it at least four of five more times in the movie, and each time I wanted to throw my small popcorn at the screen. I speak Spanish, I know "plancha" for iron, I get that we use a lot of French in English— but planchette?? Spare me. This is a smaller detail within a larger problem— the script. For once in my life, I just wish horror movie writers would run the script by a group of 20-somethings to approve of the script before filming. (And maybe, just maybe that 20-something could be me). More than a few lines and scenes of this movie cause a younger audience to raise an eyebrow. It's a fine line between saying "my folks will be home any minute" and saying "hey you wanna' come over for a game night? hashtag ouija hashtag planchette." At least these characters seemed modern; I thought the heavy use of Macs and iPhones—especially the flashlight—was very good and relatable.

Final critique: Don't let the critics dissuade you from seeing Ouija. Or, if you feel like waiting, definitely rent this movie once it comes out, and have yourself a merry little scary movie night at home with friends— I know I will. This movie is filled with plenty of *boom* moments and playful "cheap" scares that will make it worthwhile for the thrill seekers amongst you, but even the scariest moments shouldn't be too much for the scaredy cats out there. If anything lasting will haunt you after this movie, it'll probably be that you'll never want to floss ever again. Not that you do already. Besides, if Ouija proves to be too scary for you, just remind yourself it's only a game. Or is it?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Damien: Omen II (1978)

Director:  Don Taylor
Studios:  Twentieth Century Fox
Starring:  Jonathan Scott-Taylor, William Holden, Lee Grant; ft. Lucas Donat, Sylvia Sidney, Lew Ayres, Lance Henriksen; introducing Meshach Taylor
Tagline:  The first time was only a warning.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, suspense, devil, spawn of satan, religious occult, family drama
Scare score:  B-
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  Sevens years after the events of the first film, Damien (Scott-Taylor) is now an adolescent enrolled in military school with his cousin Mark (Donat).  Having been raised by his aunt Ann (Grant) and uncle Richard Thorn (Holden) - a majorly successful industrialist - Damien is being set up for great things, but he is still unaware of his darker purpose.

(What a beautiful poster, am I right?  I want that framed in my house.)

This sequel practically blew me away.  It is filled with compelling acting and plot - and not to mention a multitude of creative and memorable deaths.  My favorite thing about this movie is that Damien - who is very cooly acted by a young Jonathan Scott-Taylor - isn't inherently evil.  Well, I suppose he is inherently evil, only he is not aware of it.  This was such a good change for me, because by the end of the first movie I thought that the little Damien was just too annoyingly evil; I never liked that on top of how he was impossible to beat.  This teenage Damien is much more, well, human - not that he should be, but I certainly love a new take on the spawn of satan plot.  I loved how Damien is simultaneously a hero and an anti-hero; I really wish we had more horror films were the protagonist is bad.

Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen, Poltergeist) is back with the same great musical theme, which he has significantly developed to make distinct for the sequel.  The music in both movies is probably one of the most memorable aspects of the franchise, so it's very important that our composer was still along for the ride.

Acting in this movie is very very good, which should be no surprise given big names like Lee Grant and William Holden (Sunset Boulevard is one of my favorite movies).  This movie has a very interesting way of featuring and including its varied cast of characters, resulting in a wide showcase of talent.

What's especially interesting about this film is the continuation of the first movie's criticism of modern issues facing America and the West.  Whereas the first film focused primarily on politics, this sequel is filled with anti-capitilst commentary.  Damien - the son of the devil - now finds himself in a powerful, wealthy, industrialist family.  He also finds himself in a military academy, which leads me to think that the creators of The Omen wished to include criticism on all of these very American establishments, thereby implementing a very supernatural power into these very real institutions, which many consider evil to some extent.


Let's talk about some deaths!  First off, I loved the usage of the crow as the harbinger here.  Whereas we saw more of the dog in the first film, I enjoyed seeing another typically sinister animal used throughout this movie.  The scene where the crow attacks and indirectly kills reporter Joan Hart (Elizabeth Shephard) is possibly one of the most memorable of the film.  I especially love the color of her coat set against the dreary highway landscape.  I was extremely impressed by the entire sequence where Bill Atherton (Ayres) falls through the thin ice and drifts along under the frozen lake as the rest of the party-goers try desperately to help.  Then the doctor (Taylor) who becomes too suspicious of Damien's cell composition gets into unlucky elevator #23 (hmm) only to plummet to his death.  That was a truly awesome death scene.  Who thinks of these things??

My only real issues with this movie are slight continuity ones.  I also thought it was a little silly that Damien is told to read one Bible passage which drives him almost immediately to believe that what he was told about his identity is true.  I suppose finding a unique scar doesn't help (PS I loved that scene because it looked like a teenager trying to find the perfect selfie angle in a mirror), but it was still a pretty dramatic response to what otherwise could have been coincidental.

How do we feel about the ending of the film?  From early on, my guess was that Damien would kill his cousin and best friend Mark, which would then lead him to deny his fate and freak out in some way, preventing the completion of the satanic prophecy.  I suppose this happens to an extent?  I love the twist at the end when we find out who is and who isn't a satanic follower, but does Damien's reaction and response surprise us?  Is he denying his identity, or is he wiping the slate clean as he moves forward as the protagonist of an evil plot to destroy mankind?  I think it's up to the audience to decide.

Final critique:  This movie is a really fantastic sequel.  Of course, everybody should see the original before seeing this, but I do suppose that one movie doesn't ruin the other in terms of plot.  I loved the continuity of the Seven Daggers of Megiddo, which were introduced to us in the first film.  In terms of sequels, this is probably one of the absolute best I've seen, and I highly recommend it to anybody.  Prepare to be just as freaked out by this movie as you were by the first!  If you're up for it, watch them back to back, and you'll be in for one hell of a ride.

Friday the 13th (2009)

Final installment of my Friday the 13th marathon from last week.

Director:  Marcus Nispel
Studios:  Paramount Pictures, New Line Cinema
Starring:  Amanda Righetti, Jared Padalecki, Danielle Panabaker, Aaron Yoo, Derek Mears; ft. Ben Feldman, Nick Mennell,
Tagline:  Welcome to Crystal Lake.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  remake, horror, terror, thriller, slasher, stalker, serial killer, masked murderer, teen
Scare score:  B
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  30 years after the events of the original film, new groups of teenagers start returning to Crystal Lake without any idea of what they are getting themselves into.

(Really awesome poster.)

Somehow, some way, I don't know where I was in 2009 for the release of this film.  It squeezes right along with all of our snazzy 2000s remakes: Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009), When A Stranger Calls (2006) [I've seen it half a dozen times I'm shocked I haven't blogged about it], A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), and Nispel's own The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).  In fact, I believe that this remake/ reimagining of the 1980 classic has been the most financially successful out of all of these - and that should be no surprise, because I think this movie is fantastic.

This truly is a Friday the 13th for modern audiences.  Slasher fans should be thrilled with this reboot, which takes most of the original plot and amps it up into a more fast-paced, blood-soaked contemporary butchering of yuppy millennials.  While this movie has a pretty 2000s feeling about it (like the aforementioned remakes from this decade), there is also a sense of the '80s that the other movies lost in the remake process.  Although this version introduces all your stereotypical teens, we do not forget our roots.  In fact, I felt there were a good amount of tie overs to the original film (e.g the wheelchair we see in Jason's (Mears) lair could have been Mark's (Tom McBride) in Friday the 13th Part II.  Details like these are so important throughout lengthy franchises because it gives everyone - characters and audiences alike - a sense of home and comfort, familiarity and reassurance.

The deaths in this film are pretty fantastic.  On one hand, many of them are taken off-camera (which of course I wasn't crazy about).  On the other hand, 1980's standards have been long forgotten, and the thrill-seeking, gore-hungry audiences of the 2000s are being appeased.  This film is gritty, dark, and unafraid to show off the reinvented Jason.  Our old friend Jason Voorhees may be older, but he has become even stronger, less human, and more wrathful.  He is swift, creative, and unforgiving, and his iconic mask has been included to all of our great pleasure.  There are some really fantastic death scenes in this movie as Jason has graduated from machetes and knives to much more savage tactics - or even just his bare hands.  That's not to say he doesn't still pick up a classic weapon (after all the machete has a lot of significance to this franchise), but we get to witness some pretty powerful stuff here, such as a sleeping bag turning into an oven for humans, which no audience member is soon to forget.  And if you've read my Friday the 13th write-ups before, you know how much I love a good tent or sleeping bag murder.

Overall, in terms of cinematography, acting, action, and deaths, this movie is very akin to The Cabin in the Woods.  Throughout the movie, I was constantly reminded of the clever yet dark (and still very teen) nature of the 2012 horror satire.  All of our characters are pretty so-so, and I personally didn't care too much about Clay's (Padalecki) plight.  If you've seen any Friday the 13th movie before, you should know what's going to happen, and what's in store for all of our new, unsuspecting teenagers.  Like any modern teen slasher, the question isn't so much who will get killed or when, but rather how? How indeed, Jason?

In fact, watching this will probably inspire me to blog about more of those 2000s remakes.  Check back in November.

Final critique:  I watched this film about a week ago (*cue the music*), so I don't remember every detail and I won't drag on my review.  All I know is that I was very pleasantly surprised by this remake/ reboot, and I hope to see it again soon.  I would recommend this movie to anybody (although I would have them at least try to watch the original first), but be warned about a decent amount of gore or off-screen gore.  The best way I could describe this movie, as taken from the brief notes I took while watching it, is "badass."  I highly recommend this modern retake on a horror staple.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Jason X (2002)

(but is it really that surprising?)

Director:  James Isaac
Studios:  New Line Cinema
Starring:  Lexa Doig, Lisa Ryder, Kane Hodder
Tagline:  Evil Gets An Upgrade; Welcome to the Future of Horror
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, science fiction, slasher, stalker, serial killer, masked murderer
Scare score:  D
Rating:  C+

Plot overview:  After breaking out of confinement in a government center that has been studying Jason (Hodder) to learn more about his heightened cellular regeneration, government agent Rowan (Doig) accidentally seals herself along with the masked killer in a frozen stasis chamber.  445 years later (how often do you say that?), both bodies are discovered by students and researchers who have returned to Earth for investigation.  They unfreeze and totally restore Rowan, who warns them about the danger of taking Jason onto their ship.  Unbeknownst to them, Jason isn't the only one who's been rejuvenated; he hasn't forgotten his murderous instinct either.

You know how some movies just give a franchise a bad reputation?  This film isn't awful -it's just wild.  Like hands down, any way you look at it, flat out ridiculous.  While Freddy vs. Jason was in production hell, someone brainstormed a wacky way to bring the franchise back onto the silver screen so that people wouldn't forget about it.  I mean, we're talking almost 10 years since the last movie!  The result of a crazed attempt to keep the series relevant and impatient fans satiated?  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jason X, aka "Jason Takes Space".

If something nice has to be said about this movie, it is pretty entertaining in a wild, "Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century" kind of way.  Picture lots of outdated ideas about the future and a very synth-heavy soundtrack (but still by Manfredini!!).  In a way, this whole movie is about rejuvenation, about taking something from the past and revitalizing it (as we see throughout the movie via nanite medical stations).  This mirrors the fact that Jason X really was a revitalization of one of horror's most well known (and top 5 most successful) franchises.  To treat fans, this movie even gives Jason a new, epically badass look.  We appreciate the gesture.

Anybody watching this movie is just going to have to accept how ridiculous it is, and then either run with it or turn it off.  I think that putting this film so far into the future in order to avoid continuity issues was a super clever idea, especially because I think the Friday the 13th series already had some confusing dates and events for those who take the time to map everything out on a timeline... imagine that... ha ha ....  On another cool note, out of all the movies you've seen, this is probably one of the ones that takes place most into the future.  Of course, it's beaten out by both Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and Excellent Adventure.

One of the things that truly impressed me about this movie was one of the first deaths we see.  When Jason fights Adrienne (Kristin Angus) early on in the movie, he dips her head in liquid nitrogen and then proceeds to smash it against the counter.  While even Mythbuster busted this myth, it was still really awesome to watch.

Another death I really appreciated watching was when Jason was inside of the holographic projection game thing that the crew members use and found himself at a simulation of Crystal Lake.  We see him catch a girl inside of a sleeping bag and bash her repeatedly against a tree.  This is a really great nod to the earlier films, as I'm pretty sure he's actually killed someone this way before.  Looking through my blog entries right now though, I unfortunately cannot find when.  Maybe I'm mistaken, but it's such a badass move I associate with Jason.  I love any killings involving tents or sleeping bags, or Jason taking innocent campers by surprise.  The holographic simulation also plays heavily on the very stereotypes (and breaking of my rules) that the earlier films in the franchise depended on for victimization.

A nice throwback to the earlier films was especially nice in this film since it's so different than the other Friday the 13th movies.  As this franchise moves along, we see a lot of changes that we don't always love.  Taking Jason away not only to space but to 2445 really distances us from the killer we love and remember.  On the flipside, the upgraded, futuristic Jason is certainly a cool thrill for audiences.  The fight between Jason and the Android Kay-Em14 (Ryder) is also probably my favorite part of the movie.

Final critique:  I don't know what else I could say about this movie.  The acting is not great, the plot is actually ridiculous, but at the end of the day I suppose it's just another crazy installment into the Friday the 13th franchise.  We've come a long way from Crystal Lake, folks.  Not to scary of a movie (at all), more nerve-wracking in action scenes than anything in terms of fear.  I could see where most people would think this is just a stupid movie (which have always been my thoughts on it), but I have to say now after watching that, while silly, this movie isn't that terrible.


Hey Horror Fans,

I've never done this before, but here's a really interesting article about horror films (it stretches the idea a bit) that I think is really worth reading.  It's pretty much everything I stand for.

Read the article here

Stay scary,

-Horror Buff

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Director:  Adam Marcus
Studios:  New Line Cinema (oops looks like Paramount sold)
Starring:  John D. LeMay, Kari Keegan, Steven Williams, Kane Hodder
Tagline:  Jason Goes to Hell, and He's NOT Coming Back!; Evil Has Finally Found A Home
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, stalker, serial killer, masked murderer
Scare score:  C
Rating:  B/B-

Plot overview:  Although his body has been destroyed, Jason's (Hodder) heart begins to possess the bodies of innocent victims in a quest to return to the Vorhees bloodline so that he can rise again.

This is going to be a brief review based off of a few notes I took while watching this movie yesterday on AMC's Fear Fest.  I was simultaneously cooking a large roast pork loin (Horror Buff is such a renaissance guy), so I'm afraid my heart was not 100% in the movie.. unlike Jason's!  *ba da psh*  Anyway, as soon as this film came on I realize that I saw it just a few years ago, so I remembered a lot of the plot and whatnot.

I think this is a pretty fun installment in the Friday the 13th franchise, and if one thing is for sure, it's better than Jason Takes Manhattan.  That last bomb was the reason Paramount sold the franchise to New Line Cinema, which says a lot.  I can see where a lot of dedicated fans wouldn't be happy about this movie since Jason is gone for most of it; any film that takes a big step away from the familiar plot is sure to upset people, regardless of the caliber of the movie (think Halloween 3).  Horror Buff for one likes the idea of Jason's heart being its own reanimated, automatic monster, reminiscent in a very creepy slimy way of Slither and even The Faculty given its parasitic nature.  I think that the prop/ puppet is equally gross and awesome.

The intro to this movie is super random and opens up a lot a lot of questions as to how the government could have tricked Jason like this.  Setting up the girl in a cabin is all pretty meta, and then when the very '90s action and gunfire and explosions set in, I think most dedicated Friday the 13th fans will find themselves unsure about what they've gotten into.  Also, his body certainly blows up, but then I think I remember we see a pretty intact corpse on the table in the morgue... maybe I'm wrong.

The movie is fairly plot heavy and involves a lot of returning to where it all started, going back home, and involving family - which we've 100% seen done time and time again in horror movies regarding killers' pathologies.  In fact, the Halloween franchise also did this later into the series, and one can extract that its just a way to keep pounding out plot and movie scripts.  The idea of giving Jason living family members is also pretty interesting, though we've seen the whole killer-hunting-family members-unbeknowst-to-them thing before, namely in Halloween.

One thing that can be said about disembodying Jason here is that it takes the terror out of its typical, predictable form and unleashes it.  It's one thing to be scared of the masked figure smashing into your home and a totally different thing to have your significant other suddenly attack you and try to vomit a giant black bloody mass down your throat.  What's important here is the soul of Jason, which is a breath of fresh air after 8 previous movies that play with his body in child form, adult form, and numerous reanimated zombie forms.  While we might miss our dear friend in the hockey mask, it's not bad to see the plot get switched up for once.  Plus, we get plenty of really gross scenes involving characters throwing up that pulsating, serpentine heart.  Think lots of black blood, physical violence, and of course an unidentified black mass slithering around the floor.  Nasty!

I have to say special shout out to Rusty Schwimmer in the role of Joey B. at the diner for looking so darn ridiculous - just as I imagine a diner waitress in western Jersey might look.  She's legitimately what I remembered most vividly about this movies.  Lastly, she's also very entertaining in A Little Princess.  There, I said it.


The most shocking thing about this entire movie is, of course the very ending.  The last 5 seconds of this movie probably left audience members with their mouths gaping and their jaws stuck to gum on the floor of movie theaters.  Others I'm sure probably left the movie super super excited for what was to come.  Little did audiences know then what production hell can do to a film and franchise.  I won't ruin this surprise ending for you here, you'll have to go watch to find out!  And then wait 10 years for anything to come of it.

Final critique:  Like several other movies in the franchise before this one, Jason Goes to Hell was sincerely intended to be the final movie in the franchise (not withstanding any spinoffs or combinations with other super villains).  And, like several other movies in the franchise before this one: that was not the case.  Friday the 13th is a pretty awesome example of a movie franchise that didn't know just when to quit, but luckily for them they didn't suffer too much for it.  While Jason Goes to Hell takes a big step away from our typical stalker in a hockey mask plot, I really think this is a pretty creative film that through its difference provides us with some creepy horror we aren't used to seeing in this franchise.  This film is pretty disgusting at times, but overall I wouldn't say it's that scary.  Certainly a fun watch, and keep those eyes peeled for the last few seconds of the movie!

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

Fair warning: It's that time of year again!  AMC Fear Fest is in full swing, and I've been away from it for so long that now it's the only thing I've been watching.  This week they were doing a Friday the 13th marathon, and I watched parts VIII through the 2009 reboot (still missing Freddy vs. Jason) - so just be prepared for the next few posts!

Director:  Rob Hedden
Studios:  Paramount Pictures
Starring:  Jensen Daggett, Scott Reeves, Peter Mark Richman, Barbara Bingham, Kane Hodder
Tagline:  New York Has A New Problem; The Big Apple's in BIG Trouble!
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, stalker, serial killer, psychopath, masked murderer, teen
Scare score:  D-
Rating:  C+

Plot overview:  After being resurrected by a surge of electricity, Jason (Hodder) climbs aboard a boat full of high school seniors sailing to New York to celebrate their graduation, making it a trip they'll never forget... or survive.

I'm glad that this movie is from before my time.  Even as a child, I would shun this movie while pacing through the aisles of Blockbuster.  Anyone would tell you the same thing: the concept here is stupid.  That being said, there's still something funny about the entire plot here, namely that it is ridiculous.  Like hands down.

First of all, this movie totally revamps young Jason from when he is drowning.  Instead of using stock footage of Jason in the lake, they brought on new child actor Timothy Burr Mirkovich who becomes fairly important to the plot here given our star Rennie's (Daggett) pathology.  To me, however, totally redoing the Jason drowning separated this movie from the original and even from its predecessors.

Next, while the intro to the film looks like the Crystal Lake we know and love, the exposition that introduces us to the boat and cast of future victims clearly takes place in the Pacific Northwest instead of in the Western Jersey/ Pennsylvania landscape it should; Horror Buff really dislikes continuity errors like that.  Also, like where in the world are these kids setting sail from?  What high school goes out to sea to sail on a ship called Lazaurs (ugh real original) to New York City for a senior class trip with only two adult chaperones (not counting crew - one of whom is our go-to harbinger of doom)?  It's bogus.

In fact, the students themselves are pretty bogus caricatures of '80s teen stereotypes - and by stereotypes I mean extremes: the all-out rock star and her guitar, the dedicated boxer (V.C. Dupree), the super bitchy popular girl (Sharlene Martin) and her wannabe... the list goes on.  I guess it stands to argue that most teens in horror movies are extreme stereotypes (epitomized by the satirical The Cabin in the Woods), but still, this is pretty wild.  The main mean girl, I must say, is super ridiculous, going so far as to push Rennie off of the boat and hook up/ frame the jerk biology teacher (Richman). Whattt?  Like classic prank I guess.  Also congrats to Mr. Richman for being the absolute worst teacher/ character of all time as Mr. McCulloch.

Furthermore, even when they do arrive in some pre-Giuliani NYC (they're only there for maybe half an hour of the film - the rest takes place in and around the ship that looks an awful lot like Freddy's nightmare realm), it's depicted as a totally run-down town filled with gangs and toxic waste in the sewers (thanks A LOT for the stereotypes, Paramount.  At least there were no crocodiles), and at the end of the day, we realize it's clearly filmed on sound stages and in Canada.  At least there is a cheesy Statue of Liberty necklace that tourists probably rushed to stores for afterwards.

Luckily this movie offers us some fun and creative deaths, specifically in the sauna scene that ends up looking like something out of Indiana Jones *Aum Namah Shivaya*  I also loved Julius' downfall after attempting to box with Jason.  Silly kids!

Final critique:  But aside from some really bad acting and a really terrible plot, this movie is still pretty enjoyable, it just needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  A large grain of salt.  This movie is just about as ridiculous as the title implies, and a lot of it ends up looking like something out of "Goosebumps."  Zombie Jason is pretty foul, as per usual, and with the inclusion of a needle scene (much more tame than in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3), I think there is plenty to be grossed out by.  I would say most audiences could handle the movie - it generally isn't very scary or gory - it's more so a matter of having the patience to sit through it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Faculty (1998)

Director:  Robert Rodriguez
Studios:  Los Hooligans Productions, Dimension Films
Starring:  (*takes a deep breath*) Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, Clea DuVall, Jordana Brewster, Laura Harris, Shawn Hatosy, Robert Patrick; ft. Bebe Neuwirth, Piper Laurie, Famke Janssen, Salma Hayek, Jon Stewart, Usher Raymond, Christopher McDonald
Tagline:  And You Thought YOUR Teachers Were Weird...
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, science fiction, mystery, aliens, teen
Scare score:  C/C+
Rating:  B/B+

Plot overview:  In the small town of Herrington, Ohio, things seem pretty boring and normal until a group of teenagers from the high school begin to suspect that something very weird is going on with the teachers.

This movie is wild.  Not necessarily because of the action and plot (which aren't bad), but mainly due to how damn star-studded this silly teen scary scifi flick is.  This is one of those films, along with Darkness Falls, that I used to watch all the time with some of my friends growing up.  I don't think any of us realized then just how many stars from now and then there are in this movie; it's absolutely wild.

As our starring gang, we have Josh Hartnett (same year as Halloween: H20) as the brainy but unmotivated Zeke, Elijah Wood as the nerdy and bullied Casey, and familiar face Clea DuVall (American Horror Story: Asylum, The Grudge) as goth outcast Stokes.  Then, as our leading adults that are sure to make any teen wary of growing up, there's a few very familiar names, but the biggest have to be Piper Laurie (Carrie) and Salma Hayek - who are both in surprisingly small roles - as well as Jon Stewart and the guy who's been in everything (but most importantly Grease 2), Christopher McDonald.  There are plenty of other familiar faces in this movie, such as Usher (*yeah*) - which, at the end of the day and 16 years removed - makes for an awesome watch.

Given this crazy cast, the acting is all pretty much what you'd expect from a '90s teen horror/scifi/mystery, which is to say... okay.  The screenplay is by Kevin Williamson (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween: H20, current series Stalker which has been fun so far), so there's plenty of corny but intriguing teen-ness to the whole project.  What's not to love?

In general, this movie isn't too scary, but there are certainly scares and thrills (more thrills than scares) and, more often than not, jumpy moments and some mild gore that makes us shudder.  The mystery itself, plus all the paranoia (think of this as a teenage, '90s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Slither) is really what drives the film.  It's very fun trying to guess who has been taken over by aliens and who is innocent.  Again, regarding horror, there are some fun scares, like the type that make you want to watch this movie with friends and popcorn in the dark or during an innocent Halloween marathon.  There's nothing too dark here, but rather a more ominous horror that the movie makes obvious.  If aliens were going to come invade America, why not use the back door? (Which is apparently Ohio).

Final critique:  This is a fun movie.  The plot is enjoyable, the terror is mysterious and occasionally gives a small thrill, and most of the time you're just entertained by the cameos.  There isn't too much real horror in this film, but there is some gore and a few scary moments, plus a pretty impressive antagonist.  All in all, this is an easy watch that I would recommend to anybody.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Candyman (1992)

Director:  Bernard Rose
Studios:  PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films, TriStar Pictures
Starring:  Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Kasi Lemmons, Xander Berkeley
Tagline:  We Dare You to Say His Name Five Times!; From the Chilling Imagination of Clive Barker.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, mystery, drama, psychological thriller, slasher, paranormal
Scare score:  C
Rating:  A

Plot overview:  While doing research for their thesis on urban myths and legends, grad students Helen Lyle (Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Lemmons) come across the tale of Candyman (Todd), the vengeful spirit of a man who died a cruel death at the hands of a lynch mob a hundred years before.  As Helen's obsession with Candyman grows, however, his power leaves the realm of myth and consumes Helen's reality.

(Doesn't the poster remind you a lot of The Silence of the Lambs'?  They were only released a year apart.)

I love this movie.  I remember when I first started to catch bits and pieces of it on TV during Halloween marathons when I was in high school.  The first time I was finally able to to see the whole thing I knew I had stumbled upon a new favorite.

This movie is just very well done, combining the worlds of horror, (psychological) thriller, mystery, and drama into a chilling, exciting film that leads us through twists and turns right until the end.  Perhaps what I most associate with this movie is it's haunting score, which was written by Philip Glass.  From the opening credits, we are introduced to his music, filled with a dark, operatic chorus that we usually associate with satanic occurrences.  Otherwise, we have tons of catchy piano music that sticks in our heads as the film's horror, drama, and beauty plays out.

Acting is very good in this film.  The show is stolen by Virginia Madsen in the role of Helen.  She's beautiful, charming, intelligent, spunky, and dedicated.  While the cinematography highly favors those clips of her eyes, lit amongst the darkness, we are shown many sides of Helen's character, especially as she declines into the confusing turmoil of (being told she's) losing her mind.

Complimenting Helen in his mystery and skillful hypnotism we have Tony Todd as Candyman.  Todd (Wishmaster, Final Destination) is often kept as a dark, mysterious character probably due to his large build and deep voice.  I like Candyman a lot because he isn't straight-up terrifying like many horror villains, but rather the terror flows from him in other ways, such as his wonderfully written script and descriptions about death, and then of course the gruesome and forceful way he murders his victims.  Candyman's perpetually dripping bloody hook is quite disturbing.

Supporting our two stars we have a well-rounded cast of good guys, not-so-good-guys, and perfectly ambiguous guys.  Notably, we have Kasi Lemmons as Helen's steadfast best friend and colleague Bernie, and then Xander Berkeley (who has been in so many movies and TV shows) in the role of Helen's dubious husband.

As much as I love this movie, I'm not actually going to give away much plot here.  While this movie is filled with beautiful content and poetry, it is not the scariest film out there.  Most of the horror in this film revolves around the mystery and gore that follows the legend of Candyman.  This movie does gore well.  Seeing as Candyman chooses to gut his victims with his hook, we have some pretty nasty images of opened-up corpses.

Otherwise, the scares are pretty cheap and fun, and I'm okay with that.  There are lots of surprises in the movie, with characters popping out from behind doors etc, rounding out the film with some good jumpy moments.

Fun fact: Candyman was born of a short story called "The Forbidden" written by Clive Barker, creator of the Hellraiser series.

Final critique:  I really love this film and recommend it to anybody.  For queasy audiences, get ready for lots of blood and a decent amount of gore, but know that these are probably also the scariest scenes in the movie.  Otherwise, Candyman is a really enjoyable, interesting film about myth, possession, and belief filled with convincing acting and a haunting score by Philip Glass.  I highly recommend this movie during this Halloween season!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Director:  Chuck Russell
Studios:  Heron Communications, Smart Egg Pictures
Starring:  Heather Lagenkamp, Patricia Arquette, Robert Englund; ft. Laurence (Larry) Fishburne, Dick Cavett, Zsa Zsa Gabor
Tagline:  If You Think You're Ready for Freddy, Think Again!
MPAA Rating:  X (wait, what?) or R, depending on where you look
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, teen
Scare score:  C
Rating:  B+

Plot overview:  Several years after the events of the previous film, teens in the area of Springwood, Ohio are still suffering from a terrible and dangerous figure that lurks in their nightmares: Freddy Krueger (Englund).  This time around, however, Nancy Thompson (Lagenkamp) is back, and she has a plan to make the teens more powerful than their nightmarish nemesis.

The movie starts and I see Patricia Arquette, and I think to myself, "Oh my gosh am I even going to be able to watch this movie?"  I saw Boyhood this summer and was simply baffled (and a little frustrated) by her performance the entire time (around 3 hours).  To her credit, aside from putting on some weight with age, Patricia Arquette looks exactly the same today as she did in 1987.  Unfortunately, her acting hasn't changed much either.  In this third installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Patricia, in the role of our leading gal Kristen Parker, seems young and naive.  Clearly, she is an actress that only got her start because of her film-famous family.  That being said, Kristen is neutral/ sweet enough that Miss Arquette gives a pretty standard performance, and aside from thinking about how much I didn't like her in Boyhood, she was fine to watch.

The rest of our cast basically gives us the same caliber of performances.  This movie chooses to rely on a small gang of rag-tag teens in the local psych ward, and, as is very much the '80s, we are presented with a vibrantly colored crew.  First we have angsty puppet-making Philip (Bradley Gregg ... who has a decent role in Stand By Me which I told you months ago to go watch), awkward Jennifer (Penelope Sudrow) who dreams of becoming a famous actress, the silent but kind Joey (Rodney Eastman) who we'll be seeing more of, (Latina?) recovering drug addict Taryn (Jennifer Rubin), nerdy and wheelchair bound Will (Ira Heiden), and straight out of Compton "Kincaid" (Ken Sagoes) who we will also see more of in the franchise.  Rounding out the adults in this world are Kristen's glamorous mom (Brooke Bundy), psych ward assistant Max (Fishburne) - casted as Larry Fishburne which is so hilarious to me - caring Dr. Neil Gordon (Craig Wasson), and finally the strict and dubious Dr. Simms portrayed by the familiar Priscilla Pointer who we've seen in Carrie.

The only standoutish performers here are probably Heather Lagenkamp as Nancy, not because she's a particularly great actress so much as because she has graduated from being a stressed, whiny victim in the first film to becoming a stressed out, slightly less whiny fighter in this one.  (Why is it that '80s actresses feel that screaming dramatically constitutes acting?)  Naturally, we have our star Robert Englund as Fred Krueger.  This film is important because a lot of that off colored humor that Freddy is so well known for today starts becoming apparent here.  I was surprised by the sort of dirty, sort of raunchy turn his character has taken by this film.  If anything, it makes him very relatable to teenage audiences (at least of the time), as if he really knew this kids - which he should and does.  His character needs to be playing into the fears of his victims, and in order to do that he has to know who they are and how they function.  Hence begins his commentary on drugs, sex, TV, self-consciousness, and other teen issues and "trending topics."

This film is first and foremost filled with tons of '80s pleasantries: familiar sets and costumes, a generic script, etc.  There was something comfortable about '80s horror, especially in the teen slasher genre, because it was like they always knew what they were getting into.  This movie isn't much different, but it still throws some new, fun plot at us that makes it worthwhile.

The best thing about this movie are the effects, which I've complained about in the prior films.  Like wow I was surprised just how gross and nightmarishly real these things seemed.  Some highlights include:
-Kristen's nightmare when there is a wormlike Freddy eating her and the room is blowing up around her
-The extremely disturbing human puppet sequence.  My skin was crawling
-All those tongues that turn into a nightmare bondage scene
-And especially the disgusting needle sores (the drug content in this film caused it to be banned in some places)

The next best thing about this movie is the plot, which forgets all the victimization of the previous films and instead empowers the teenagers to fight back.  This serves two purposes: making a new plot so that the franchise does not consist of the same movie remade three times, and then it also draws us all in and makes this one of the best and most memorable films in the Nightmare series.  Some things are predictable from the beginning; as soon as we meet Joey the mute I said to myself "Wow I can't wait for him to speak dramatically."  Other things I got wrong, however.  For example, I really expected the prissy Dr. Simms to die at some point in the film.  It seems that Horror Buff makes mistakes, too.


I did have a few issues with the plot.  My main complaint comes from the first time that Nancy attempts group hypnosis with the kids so that Kristen can bring them all into the same dream.  Why do Nancy and Neil get brought into the dream if they weren't asleep?  Or can Kristen take people out of waking reality as well?  Hmm.

My only other big thought on this movie is how I was surprised at times by the graphic nature of it.  Not that it's anything compare to what we see today, but there were a few small things that caught my eye.  I mean, it wouldn't be Nightmare without boobs, so we have that bombshell nurse tricking Joey in one nightmare; nothing we haven't seen in plenty of teen slashers from the '70s onward.  Kincaid's script is beyond ridiculous.  It's almost sad how stereotypically black his jargon is; by the end of the movie it's almost hard to handle.  I think he's the only character that curses in the whole movie.  The drug content is what drew a lot of reactions from raters and audiences.  I mean, for Pete's sake, this movie had an X rating at one point.  We haven't seen that since The Evil Dead, which changed after the creation of NC-17.  Then again, X in the '80s doesn't have the same connotation as it has today, and I'm sure it had to do with a lot of the violence we do see in the film, as well as suicide, talk of rape, etc.

Speaking of which, the disputed origins of Freddy are revealed!  It was kind of interesting to hear this take on his past, which was edited into the final cut of the film but not necessarily the original story Wes Craven had in mind.  "The bastard son of a hundred maniacs" - not to shabby for the start of a monster.

Final critique:  So far in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Dream Warriors has been my favorite.  This is a fun, colorful movie that throws us a few more surprises that the first two films did not.  We learn more about our dear friend Freddy, and we also see his character changing and taking on new personalities.  This is the beginning of the Freddy that audiences today will remember, the crude, perverted child murderer with a sense of humor (because, why not?)  I highly recommend this movie, although some audiences are sure to be grossed out or disturbed by some of the content.  Not too scary of a movie, just sort of disgusting in parts.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Annabelle (2014)

Happy October, horror fans!

Director:  John R. Leonetti
Studios:  Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring:  Annabelle (coincidence?) Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard
Tagline:  Before The Conjuring, there was... Annabelle.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, suspense, drama, haunting, demon, occult, family drama
Scare score:  B-/B
Rating:  A-

Plot overview: In 1960s California, society is changing and so are the lives of young couple Mia (Wallis) and John Gordon (Horton), who are expecting their firstborn child any week now.  As a special gift, John presents the anxious Mia with a very rare Annabelle doll to complete her extensive collection.  One night, however, their kind neighbors are savagely murdered by two cult followers who then attack Mia and John.  Just as Mia begins to lose consciousness from a stab wound to her abdomen, the male intruder is shot by police, and the female intruder takes her own life while cradling the Annabelle doll in her arms.  From that day forward, strange and terrifying events begin haunting Mia and her newborn child.

So yes, I ended up going to see Annabelle on opening night in a crowded theater filled with all kinds of personalities, which can simultaneously improve or ruin a horror movie.  To be honest, I wasn't expecting this movie to be good - how much can you do with a doll?  (Don't get me started on Child's Play).  Well I have to say, whether it was the movie itself, the beautiful allusions between this and other classic horror movies, or the wild-and-crazy audience around me, Horror Buff will go against the critics in saying that Annabelle was a hit.

The period piece is done very masterfully (very reminiscent of Mad Men), expounding upon the 1960s/70s world created in The Conjuring, to which this movie serves as a prequel.  Director John R. Leonetti (who worked on films such as Child's Play 3, Dead Silence - the poster is very similar to Annabelle's - and more recently with James Wan on Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, and, of course, The Conjuring) takes his turn in the limelight as this new sort of universe within horror continues growing.  The allusions to the Insidious movies (that demon looks like a darker brother of Darth Maul, and also the concept of hauntings following a family) and The Conjuring (especially the tune the mobile above the baby's crib plays) were some of my favorite details in this film.  They received a huge reaction from the audience.

The other allusions that are most obvious in Annabelle are to Rosemary's Baby, and while the latter is far superior, it was a really nice nod to see from Leonetti to Polanski.  From the general plot to the iconic pram, even going so far as Mia's clothes, the similarities between the movies are undeniable.  In fact, the relationship between the movies goes deeper than simple on-screen allusions.  Our protagonist in this film is named Mia, perhaps in reference to Mia Farrow, star of Rosemary's Baby.  Furthermore, Mia is totally stylized in this movie to look like Sharon Tate (who is said to have wanted the eponymous leading role in Rosemary's Baby - well, not the baby... you know what I mean), wife of Roman Polanski and victim to the Manson Family, which is referenced in the beginning of Annabelle and played upon in terms of cults and home invasions.  All of these allusions became so strong that when it all hit me I immediately started worrying that the plot of Annabelle was going to take the same turns (I'll explain below); I'm so happy it didn't.

Acting is really pretty standard in this movie: fresh, young(, attractive) faces, all with a very innocent '60s air about it.  Even if her role is unoriginal, Annabelle Wallis does a pleasant, strong job (just as we need/ want her to) in the lead as mother, wife, and victim.  Speaking of which, I would love to see Wan come back with a movie with a man in the primary role as a victim.  Also, I can't stress enough how weird it is that her name is Annabelle and she landing the lead in this movie.  Virtual newcomer Ward Horton impresses us in one way or another in his shallow role as perfect husband, loving father, driven careerist and, of course, doctor.  I thought he brought a lot of heart to the otherwise static role. Then, in a desperate attempt to diversify the film, we have the lovely Alfre Woodard.  Unfortunately, her character Evelyn simply becomes the newest member of the "magical black person" club of archetypes in film and literature.  Would that she had been given more depth or screen time, or less knowledge and even power, to avoid this grievous stereotype.

The horror in this film is largely under attack by critics, to which I can understand but not fully agree.  I asked the question once and I'll ask it again: how much can you do with a doll?  I have a feeling that the creative team here asked themselves the same question, and easily resolved it by deciding that a lot of this film's horror didn't even have to do with Annabelle herself.  As we learned in other Wan/ Leonetti films, sometimes, every day objects are merely used as conduits by things far more horrible and dangerous.  Annabelle takes this lesson to heart in several ways.

I've always said that one of the most clever things a horror movie can do is inspire terror in mundane, every day objects.  It is one thing to be afraid of aliens or invisible monsters, and a completely separate experience to be afraid of the water or chainsaws.  So while this movie chooses a doll, which enough people are afraid of anyway (and by the way, I would never ever marry a woman with a doll collection like Mia's), it also diverts our attention to other everyday items and occurrences such as sewing machines (agh!!), basements, or even leaving the stove on.  In regards to the doll itself, this movie is dead-on with its suspense.  I found a lot of the terror in this movie to be Hitchcockian in nature.  Not surprisingly, the suspense in this movie is fantastic, and also not surprisingly, I think that critics are angry about whether or not it ultimately delivers.  In many ways, I think it does.  There are some wonderful, memorable scares throughout the movie, including things we are and are not expecting.


Well into the movie, we still aren't sure what to expect and whether or not this Annabelle doll is truly going to manifest her malevolence.  For Pete's sake, we don't even see the doll actually move until the last 15 minutes of the film.  What does the movie do to keep us scared/ interested until then?  Sure, Annabelle relies on a lot of "dumb" scares and fake outs to get us through a large amount of the plot, but it does so no more than any other horror movie.  In fact, Annabelle boasts a lot more good scaring than many horror movies we see these days.  In a typically James Wan fashion, we are given only glimpses as to the true nature of the haunting/ evil in this movie until the climax/ falling action, but these are best described as real hints, not as red herrings such as in many other horror movies.  There is lots of talk of the occult, devil worshiping, and satanism through the film, but when the time is right, yes, I think this movie certainly delivers in regards to the demon/ devil (?) that ends up being the culprit behind the haunting and the puppeteer behind Annabelle.  One thing I think we can all agree on is that this demon is a huge improvement from Darth Maul in Insidious.  Once this crazy new character starts appearing, he doesn't stop, and I loved it.  The audience I was with last night kept going wild any time he popped up, all with positive reactions.  I thought that this demon was an absolute treat from the creative team here.

With the undeniable allusions to Rosemary's Baby, I started to get more than a little frightened by this film, not so much because of the scares but instead for fear of where the plot was headed.  The new apartment building, the troubled pregnancy and worrisome threats directed at the baby - who is the absolute cutest baby in the world - the quirky and spiritual neighbor (Evelyn), the career driven husband... No I thought.  No no no.  John gave Mia Annabelle in the first place.  John was never home to experience the haunting, and easily could be feigning belief in his wife.  John went away right before we saw the stove left - not magically turned - on.  John put Annabelle in the trash, but did he take her out?  For more than a hot sec, I was so worried that we were just seeing Rosemary's Baby all over again, and that John and Evelyn were in on it.  The best thing this movie did was not go down that rabbit hole.  The suspicions are there, but thankfully that is not the case.

My only real problem, then, is the resolution in this movie.  The demon wants a soul, and its sights are set on baby Lia/ Lea/ Leah.  Since the baby cannot offer her own soul, the demon will need to trick someone into offering one to him, using a haunting to achieve the insanity or possession of his victim.  Just as the exasperated Mia is about to take her own life to end the haunting and bring back her daughter, Evelyn steps forward and quite literally takes the plunge.  But wait - what does that solve?  While her sacrifice - the whole theme of the movie since the first scene - brings back Lea, it still gives the demon/ Annabelle's ghost the soul they wanted to harvest for their 'conjuring.'  Soo they have the baby, but have they also loosed a demon out into the world?  And if so, why is Annabelle still haunted (epilogue to this movie and prologue to The Conjuring)?  Regardless, the one thing I know is that my first rule holds true: babies will always be all right.

In contrast to what most critics are complaining about (the ending), I have to say that I for one am thankful to finally see a horror movie that doesn't resolve itself, only to have the final second of the film show that the terror is not over.  Not that every movie should end on a totally happy note - gosh no - just that because a horror movie chooses to completely resolve itself (which you can't even say it does because we know Annabelle causes more problems down the line) doesn't make it a bad movie.  Get over yourselves.

Final critique:  While critics may be disregarding Annabelle as nothing special, I think that it was a creative and effective movie in its own right, as well as an important new piece of the Insidious/ Conjuring universe (which I'd like to henceforth title "White People's Demons").  This delightfully suspenseful movie boasts both funny and freaky scares and draws upon many of our very human fears of every day things such as injury, pregnancy and childbirth, and things that go bump in the night.  At the end of the day, we have another Wan/ Leonetti film about a mother protecting her children/ family, but while Annabelle nods her creepy head at other, greater horror movies, she delivered much more of a punch than what I was expecting.  One thing we should be expecting for sure: plenty of real life Annabelle dolls popping up in people's Halloween decor this year!  All in all, this was an enjoyable movie that I would recommend to anybody although those who scare easily are sure to be frightened.