Friday, October 16, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015)

It embarrasses me to say that I've not blogged in almost a year. I've seen dozens of excellent and awful horror movies over the past few months, which I hope I can find the time to review. I just saw Crimson Peak on opening night though, and it was so good I was driven to write about it immediately.

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Studios: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Tagline: Beware Crimson Peak
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, supernatural thriller, ghost, Gothic, romance, mystery, drama
Scare score: B-
Rating: A

Plot overview: Around the turn of the 20th century, young and driven Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is a Buffalo socialite with no interest in parties or the petty competition between the girls of her class. Instead, she aspires to be a writer like Mary Shelley, and is currently working on her manuscript for a ghost story. With the ability to see ghosts from a young age, Edith feels most comfortable in this genre. Her life changes when a young, handsome, and wealthy baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and his gorgeously severe sister Lady Lucille (Chastain) come to town, looking to raise funds to reopen the red clay mines underneath their ancestral home, Allerdale Hall, located in the barren countryside of Cumbria in northern England. After Edith and Sir Thomas fall in love, she moves into the Gothic English mansion with nothing to lose, finding it in a dilapidated state as the Sharpes try to regain their family fortune from the red earth, which has earned the home the nickname Crimson Peak. Her new husband and his sister, however, are not as they seem, and Crimson Peak can barely conceal its bloody past, which Edith must now bring to light.

Every once in a while, a horror movie comes along that changes the game. Crimson Peak is one of those films. Finally, del Toro has done it again, bringing to life a magnificent Gothic tale filled with equal parts romance and terror.

I've seen the trailers for this movie for months, and obviously what captured me the most was the incredible visuals. If nothing else, I knew I had to see this movie to see the house. What I didn't know until seeing the film, however, was what a central role Crimson Peak would actually play in the plot, not only as a setting, but as a living, breathing, and bleeding character.

Now I don't think I've ever properly read "The Fall of the House of Usher," but from the second the characters arrive at Allerdale Hall that's what I was forced to think of: a plot where the home itself becomes as important as any of its residents. True to the trailers, this set was incredible, truly a work of beauty. I don't know what was physical and what was CGI, but entering this house was like entering some fantastic and slightly spooky fairy tale mansion, as we've seen before in works of del Toro such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, only to a much bigger extent here. It was so gorgeous it makes me upset. On top of that, the props and costumes were amazing, too. For the entirety of the movie, you get sucked into this Gothic world filled with flowing gowns and overstuffed pijamas, long capes and elaborate hair. From the beauty to the blood, this movie was so pretty.

There was certainly a lot of del Toro flair to the film, starting with the storybook opening. The entire ghost plot was extremely reminiscent of The Devil's Backbone, another beautiful, beautiful ghost film. Movies like these remind me why I'm so obsessed with ghost stories: there is a sadness, a lasting sorrow, a pervading beauty behind the metaphor of ghosts and their presence between the physical and spiritual worlds. Del Toro loves working with this theme, the idea that a ghost is a spectral apparition of the past, of some emotion that was too strong to fully leave the Earth, and we love watching it.

The characters were beautifully cast and I'm happy the original choices of Emma Stone and that annoying British actor who I won't name didn't work out, although I think Emma would have done a nice job. I actually haven't seen much of Wasikowska, but the audience should fall for Edith immediately. In fact, the audience should fall for everybody; Hiddleston is dreamily charming albeit creepy as Sir Thomas (it's nice to see him not so done up as Loki) and Chastain–one of my favorite actresses of the moment–is eerily beautiful. She didn't deliver the strongest, but she kept the movie creepy. New(ish)comer who you should expect to see more of Charlie Hunnam as Edith's childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael was also very pleasant in his very standard role, which rather reminded me of Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera.

Horror wise, the movie is spooky and at times unsettling but not terrifying. What got me the most was the surprise gore and violence that would pop its head up occasionally, causing the audience to jump back in surprise from an otherwise tranquil plot. I was so shocked, in fact, at some of the gore, which isn't nearly as bad as what we're used to, but strangely poignant and used in effectively small doses. The ghosts themselves were especially gross because aside from being mere apparitions or floating sheets, they were in fact quite corporal, hollow specters of corpses, skeletons, rotting flesh, and so much blood. They really spice up the movie.

In terms of faults, there are a handful. The pacing was a little off, some exchanges and maybe scenes felt unnecessary, and all in all, the script probably could have used one more look through and the film maybe could have been edited one more time. The biggest problem of all, however, is the lack of a motive. I thought the plot was a little unfounded, despite a brief explanation by some characters and a lovely monologue by Chastain. I don't know; I just didn't see the need for all the horror and gore taking place after we got the 'big reveal.' Fortunately, the movie is so pretty that you almost forgive any oversights.

Lastly, I need to point out the score. The music, composed by Fernando Velázquez (Devil, The Orphanage, Mama) was so entrancing and moving I couldn't stop listening to it and stayed through the final credits just to hear more. The main romantic theme throughout the movie was so beautiful, I tried looking for it online but it's not up yet. The score alone was enough to make me want to buy this movie the second it comes out; add in the sets and costumes, and I was totally sold.

Final critique: This movie was so fantastic. I think it will join the ranks of other del Toro classics like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, although it may not be taken as seriously since it's so heavily horror. Crimson Peak is the perfect ghost story (with its own modern twists), the perfect Gothic romance, the perfect mystery. The most dynamic character is Crimson Peak itself, filled with secrets living and dead; a visually stunning foreground and background to the movie's events. I highly recommend this movie, especially before Halloween. Again, it's not too scary, but the scares are enjoyable. Mainly just eerie with some good scares spread throughout, and the violence/ gore that will catch you off guard. Seriously, bravo.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gothika (2003)

Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Studios: Dark Castle Entertainment, Warner Bros.
Starring: Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles S. Dutton, John Carroll Lynch, Penelope Cruz
Tagline: Because someone is dead doesn't mean they're gone.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, psychological thriller, mystery, drama, ghost, supernatural, possession
Scare score: C+
Rating: B

Plot overview: Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) is an intelligent, driven, and happy psychiatrist that relies on fact and logic to do her job. One night while driving home from the mental hospital in a thunderstorm, Dr. Grey narrowly avoids hitting a girl who is standing in the middle of the road. When she goes out to help, however, the girl seems to burst into flames and take over Miranda's body.   After Miranda comes to a while later, she is back in the mental hospital but as a patient. To her horror, she learns that her husband has been brutally murdered and that she is the primary suspect based on overwhelming physical and forensic evidence. With some supernatural help, Miranda must not only show that she's not crazy, but she must also prove her innocence... or someone else's guilt.

This movie is funny to me because I think I first caught the beginning of it when I was about 13. It's been over a decade, but I still was never able to finish it until recently (this movie used to be impossible to find online). When it was on TV one night in December, I dropped everything to watch it, and I'm glad I did.

Gothika might have a bad reputation, but I don't think it's a bad movie. It's very 2003 in nature, but I was extremely impressed by Halle Berry's performance. Like, legitimately– she does a good job in this film. She is supported by Robert Downey, Jr. who I generally like a lot as well. Penelope Cruz is also a stunner both in physicality and as an actress. Her career is very interesting, and it's fun to see her in a supporting role 2 years after a major movie like Blow. She's so fantastic in Almodóvar films; if you haven't seen Todo sobre mi madre and Volver I highly suggest you go watch them.

Anyway, this movie is pretty much just fun, filled with plenty of chills and thrills. I'm really pretty surprised that people don't like it. It's very dark, and if you look at the poster you'll get a good vibe for what the cinematography is like, sort of a blue black tone the whole time. There are some wildly frightening scenes thanks to invisible ghost forces, so that makes for some scares as well as awesome displays of physical acting. Mainly I am thinking of the shower scene and also when Berry is being tossed around that cell.

There's an enduring mystery here, as in most ghost films, and who doesn't love that? In fact, the strange blend of science and supernatural is fairly unnerving; we never know quite where this film is headed. Luckily there is enough stability due to steady acting and screenplay, that even when we are drowning in unanswered questions, we're not ready to give up on the movie. Things certainly are more than a little silly, both in plot and dialogue, but we're given enough action and delivery to keep up with Dr. Grey's roller coaster ride.

I did like when the plot takes a major turn towards the end. When the truth comes out, everything is flipped on its head, and suddenly the fear becomes so much darker and more real than ghosts and possession. Everyone wants to see their protagonist vindicated, especially after things get so gritty and sexual. I was very surprised with how dark the movie gets during these moments when the truth comes out about the other characters. You'll have to watch to find out!

There was some good gore in this film, which was just sort of the icing on the cake of what is otherwise a rapidly paced and sometimes confusing wild goose chase. Most of all, I like how Gothika had moments that sort of tied everything together and brought everything back down to a playing field that as an audience we could handle.

Final critique: You may have heard bad or mediocre things about this movie, but I say give it a chance. It's a fun flick to watch with friends, and it's easy to pause and take a break from if you want to go make popcorn or something. You may not be at the edge of your seat, but I think Gothika has a lot to it. All the plot twists are very exciting, so that along with the surprising terror both in lies and in truth make for a nicely rounded out if fanciful film.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Black Christmas (1974)

Also released as Silent Night, Evil Night.

Director: Bob Clark
Studios: Warner Bros.
Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon
Tagline: If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl... it's on TOO TIGHT.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, slasher, stalker, psychopath, mystery, holiday
Scare score: A
Rating: A

Plot overview: It's the start of Christmas break, and the various sisters of a sorority house are preparing to go home for the holidays. A male intruder – who we do not see but whose point of view we are shown – climbs up a trellis and enters the attic of the house, shortly thereafter killing one of the girls, Claire (Lynne Griffin). Another sister, Jess (Hussey) then receives a bizarre and threatening phone call from what sounds to be like several strangers; fellow sorority sister Barb (Kidder) is quick to curse off the caller and hang up. The phone calls, however, do not stop, but grow increasingly more concerning and scary. The situation at the sorority house gets worse when Claire's father (James Edmond) arrives, and Claire is nowhere to be found, leading to a police investigation that results in the discovery of more missing girls' bodies.

First off, Happy New Year! Hope that your year has been off to a wonderful start. Sorry again for the lack of posts over the past few months. Moving right along...

This movie was so fantastic. Like shockingly, inspiringly good. Shame on me for never seeing it until this past Christmas season, when it was an obvious – and perfect – choice. The original Black Christmas remains famous and significant to this day for serving as a clear and important precursor to the modern slasher genre, predating Halloween by 4 years. But if John Carpenter's classic is the first true slasher film, then Black Christmas is a pioneer for the genre.

What struck me most about this movie is how truly scary it is. By this point, we're used to unseen killers lurking around corners and stalking their prey, but the proximity of this murderer to the girls was especially eerie. The most terrifying aspect of this movie is hands down the psychosis of the killer, specifically as heard in the phone calls. From the first phone call at the beginning of the movie right up through the end, we are subjected to an uncomfortable, chilling horror via what we hear over the phone. These calls legitimately gave me chills; they were just that disturbing. The graphic nature of the calls surprised me as well, given that this movie was from 1974. Then again, this is a fairly racy movie, mainly thanks to Barb, who is super sassy and angry. I love Margot Kidder, and seeing her bring on the attitude was a treat.

I was also really surprised to see Olivia Hussey in the lead role of Jess, a kind, understanding girl caught up in troubles of her own. Hussey, who came to great fame in Zeffirelli's 1968 classic, Romeo and Juliet. A few years later, Hussey provides us with what I thought was some serious overacting in this horror film. Her foreignness sort of bugged me; I really thought she was too overdramatic, which says a lot given that she's the 'final girl' prototype.

Other familiar faces are John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) as the stoic police lieutenant, Andrea Martin as sorority sister Phyllis, and Keir Dullea as Jess' manic boyfriend. Another noteworthy performer is Marian Waldman as house mother Mrs. Mac, a lush who provides some serious comic relief.

The screenplay was written by Canadian A. Roy Moore, who claimed that he based it off of a rash of Quebec-area murders around Christmastime. Critics, however, argue that the story is based off of the urban legend of the babysitter and the caller upstairs. Director Bob Clark is, of course, the famous co-writer and director of A Christmas Story. Together, both films make for some serious Christmas film cannon.

Black Christmas kept me interested the entire time. I was so fascinated by the various characters, Claire's weird father, the various sorority girls, Jess' boyfriend Peter. I wasn't sure who was safe and who was not, and I loved all of the point of view scenes we got from our anonymous killer. The phone calls, I will stress again, we absolutely thrilling and creepy. Towards the end, when we're subjected to the police's phone technician trying to trace the call, the suspense is both irritating and cathartic. This film is masterful.

The deaths in the movie are varied and creative, ranging from some deaths that are brutally up-close and personal to others that happen offscreen. The gore is present but minimal but satisfying; the film does not center on blood, but it is certainly there. Plot twists lead us to the verge of sanity and security as we dwindle into despair and back again, worried about who the killer is and just where he may be at any given moment. It is a veritable roller coaster ride of emotions.

Final critique: I can't stress enough how fantastic this movie is. While it's certainly perfect for the holiday season, I would recommend it for a good scare throughout the year. Those who scare easily should simply stay away because this film is packed with terror, suspense, and a looming sense of danger and death. Both while watching and immediately afterwards, I was aware that Black Christmas had earned itself a spot among my favorite horror films.