Showing posts with label drama. Show all posts
Showing posts with label drama. Show all posts

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Midsommar (2019)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Ari Aster
Studios: A24
Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren; ft. Will Poulter
Tagline: Let the Festivities Begin.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: thriller, drama, psychological thriller, folk horror, Americans abroad, cult
Scare score: D+
Rating: A-


Plot overview: Following a terrible family tragedy, grieving Dani (Pugh) tags along with distant boyfriend Josh (Reynor) and his fellow anthropology graduate students on trip to partake in a once-in-a-lifetime traditional Swedish solstice festival at the invitation of their friend Pelle (Blomgren). Upon arriving to Hårga, Pelle's isolated commune in northern Sweden, a mix of psychedelic drugs and the delirious effects of the midnight sun soon turn the visitors' search for unique folk traditions into a bad trip of much darker pagan rituals.

This film was gorgeous. I rushed to see it in theaters on opening day, which means that I saw it in a much more crowded theater than I am used to attending. Being surrounded by teenagers took away from much of the film's mastery— especially in the more mature (read: nude) scenes. In many ways, this is a subtle film, filled with stunning shots, quiet beauty, and a storyline that allows you to slowly settle in and experience the characters' pain. In other ways, the film is not subtle and gives the audience all the tools we could possibly need to know exactly what to expect (mostly through the illustrated exposition in the jaw-dropping murals and folk art we see throughout the movie). I was reminded of Hereditary in this sense, which was filled with more than a fair share of Easter eggs, often in the form of small visuals and art that becomes easier to pay attention to and feast upon in second or third watchings. Some of my favorite bits included how the audience is invited to take place in the mushroom trips, including some funky camera work (such as the aerial shots when the larger group first heads to the commune) where the twisting camera makes us lose our own balance for a moment. I would love to watch it again as soon as possible in a deserted theater where I can get lost in the film's artful cinematography and careful details in order to keep reliving what I saw tonight.

Aside from the shots and excellent editing—I will never be over these rich visuals—the acting was fantastic. Florence Pugh was perfect for the role of Dani, especially early on when we get to experience those animalistic groans coming from her. There was something very important in this film about how bereft she often was, how heavy her depression weighs on us—much like Toni Collette's character in Hereditary—as well as the relationship dynamics that play out in the first third of the movie. Is Dani just an overly sensitive, overbearing girlfriend? Jack Reynor as the one-foot-in, one-foot-out boyfriend adds fun dynamics to the movie, especially towards the end as his character experiences a climax and denouement more typically assigned to females in horror. I have long said that I enjoy few things more than well-placed nudity in horror films, and Midsommar, like Hereditary, has it in spades, including plenty of Reynor such that a modern audience is bound to react to this perversion of mainstream movie "rules" and tropes. I also very much enjoyed the aesthetics and performance of Isabelle Grill as Maja, a younger adolescent in the commune who has been selected to take part in a very special ritual during the nine-day solstice celebration.

*SPOILER ALERT*

This movie is gorgeous but it is not scary. It is a slow-burning movie that makes us often forget we are in a "horror" movie because, aside from some moments of tension and some flashes of disturbing imagery (so well done), there is no extreme suspense such as we encountered in Hereditary, or even in an older film like The Wicker Man from which this movie so clearly pulls (including a nod at the end with the character of the fool... even Dani's floral gown reminded me of that large horse costume). I usually love horror movies about travelers in the abroad, and while I wonder if Midsommar will have the effect on Sweden that something like Hostel had on Eastern Europe, this movie was not as frightening as as the Netflix's wonderful The Ritual. Many of the "scary" scenes are presented so fantastically that we, too, become students of anthropology, more interested in the culture and in what is going to happen next than in the inevitable darkness of it all. I knew the movie felt long—rarely dragging, however—but I was shocked that I didn't know about the film's near-two-and-a-half-hour run time. That said, I just want to watch it again and again. I think the gore was surprisingly fine, not nearly as jarring as my fellow audience members made it out to be, and in fact I was surprised as how many major deaths happen offscreen without explanation or closure, and with fairly little emphasis given to the body discoveries that so often shape the third act of horror films. What sticks with me most is the murder-suicide from the beginning, which we are unwilling shown flashbacks to throughout the film in the most excellent ways. I think those are the most purely disturbing images that will stick with me, so painful, so contrasted in a cool palette set in midvinter (ha ha) from the rest of the film's near-blinding white and florals.

Some of my other favorite moments were the shared emotions among the members of the commune. The importance of a collectivist expression of pain, suffering, sorrow, and also joy morphed into such fantastic moments in this movie, especially during the ättestupa suicide ritual, Dani's final breakdown after the brilliant keyhole moment, and the emotionally whelming ending. As far as critiques go, I suppose we always knew where the movie was headed, so it was more of a matter of how we were going to get there.

Horror Hot Take: Midsommar is not a horror movie. Sure, some horrible things happen and there is fantastically beautiful and often gory imagery that we typically see in horror films, but this second feature from Ari Aster is not as steeped in the horror genre as its predecessor. Aster himself made it clear that while he was approached by producer Patrik Andersson to make a Swedish slasher film, he ultimately decided to make a movie about a breakup filled with as much pain and sorrow as the one he was then experiencing in real life.

That said, Midsommar (like Hereditary) is a movie about grief. There is a process, an arc, a journey that we ride along for as Dani grieves not only the shocking murder-suicide of her sister and parents but of her dying relationship and dying (and soon to be reborn) sense of self. A student of psychology herself, Dani's care-taking tendencies are obvious as she puts everyone else before herself to the point of having no ego strength, no boundaries, and no identity that is not in relation to others. Her relationship with Josh—himself a coward on many levels—is the definition of codependency as they shy away from fights and often apologize for each other's misgivings. Dani even gaslights herself and questions her own reality (forcing the audience to question our reality throughout the film). Truly it is a pitiful sight to watch: We feel sorry for Dani and her trauma, but foreshadowing already tips us off early on about the changes waiting to take place inside of her. Often dependent in nature, does Dani even exist if alone? This question explains her choice to find a new community, one that supports her unlike other people in her life, others who are now all gone.

Final critique: This is a visually stunning and emotionally gripping movie. It does not rely on musical cues or cheap scares by any means but rather uses striking visual after visual after visual to sink its way into the viewer's brain, pairing beautiful sights with more disturbing images and testing the audience insofar as what they are able to sit and watch. In the case of my crowded and mostly adolescent audience, the desire to react vocally to express even adjacent discomfort at some of the scenes and themes helped show just how rare and powerful Aster's critique of modern American masculinity vis a vis his inclusion of full frontal male nudity is in mainstream film. It was such a fun treat to watch a horror film that takes place primarily in bright—often blinding—light and does not rely on nighttime and shadows to show us the darker sides of humanity (especially following a film like Hereditary and its dark palette).

Monday, April 15, 2019

Hostel (2005)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Eli Roth
Studios: Next Entertainment, Raw Nerve, Lionsgate, Screen Gems
Starring: Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eypór Gu∂jónsson
Tagline: Welcome To Your Worst Nightmare.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, thriller, psychological horror, body horror, torture, drama
Scare score: C+/B-
Rating: B+


Plot overview: Three friends are traveling Europe in search of forgettable girls and unforgettable adventure. When they're promised the best parties and hottest women, they travel farther east on their hunt for hookups. When they arrive to Slovakia, however, they unwillingly wind up in an international scheme where they become the hunted.

Who hasn't seen or heard of Hostel? This was released a year after Saw and in many ways the two films heralded in a new era of body horror and, more specifically, torture porn, which I feel many modern audiences most heavily associate with the horror genre today. Eli Roth made a name for himself several years earlier with the enjoyably bloody Cabin Fever— a movie which perhaps better bridges the gap from early 2000s horror into more body-centric terror. I would argue it's also no coincidence that the teen comedy EuroTrip was released in 2004, because in many ways Hostel is a perverted and nightmarish version of that film, complete with Josh (Richardson) moping over an ex-girlfriend, Amsterdam nightclubs, feisty strangers on a train, and winding up in Bratislava. Tell me that's a coincidence. Which leads me to my next point...

Above all else, Hostel is an exploration of the role of America (and Americans) in a post-9/11 world. The Bush era was a time when American backpackers were not welcome many places, when Americans abroad posed as Canadians to avoid the recently-marred reputation on the world stage. While it exploits some of the stereotypically obtuse nature of American tourists, it also serves as a commentary of American violence when we meet the fantastically creepy Rick Hoffman as the American client later in the film. In general, setting the majority of the film in an impoverished and third-world-looking version of the Slovakian capital of Bratislava drew major backlash from government and audiences in that country, which went on to invite Roth for an all-expenses-paid trip to show him their true beauty and culture. Roth explained that the film was not meant as an insult to the country or its people, but rather to make a point that most Americans wouldn't know Slovakia was a country, or at least that they wouldn't be able to place it on a map. While our main characters are fairly bright, this ignorance and the ensuing loss of innocence are explored in the film.

It's not a coincidence that the victims we see explicitly in the film are American and Japanese, or that German plays a large role, because I feel that this, too, is a commentary on power: Taking citizens of the world's most powerful and industrialized nations and subverting them into victims in a nightmarish pay-per-victim business in what is clearly portrayed as a developing country. Since the Cold War, Eastern Europe has long been viewed in the American imagination as some broken down and eternally foreign place lost in the past. I can see how this film certainly would have perpetuated those feelings. A major moment in the film comes when the formerly cocky and ignorant Paxton (Hernandez) begins speaking in fluent German to his torturer, thus tapping into the masked butcher's humane side and allowing Paxton to buy himself some more time to formulate a plan. To me, this represented the importance of culture and multicultural/ multilingual education as a path to salvation for Americans, who are stereotypically monolingual and ignorant of cultures other than their own state/ city/ family.

I really enjoy this film. I remember the first time I rented it with a friend back in high school and we just sat there half laughing half terrified at what was happening before us. The first half of the movie plays almost as an adult film until we are ushered into a dark transition. I absolutely adore the juxtaposition of these young men looking for sex and speaking poorly of sex workers, only to then find themselves as the meat or merchandise being sold to wealthy international clients. Natalya (Barbara Nedeljáková) explicitly points this out with a great line to Paxton later on: "I get a lot of money for you, and that makes you my bitch." There is something so crucial to the genre about this subversion of independence and agency into total obedience— and then enter the body horror as their physical forms get slowly mutilated. I think that is what differentiates body horror from splatter films: There is a larger focus on the physical mutilation than simply on the bodily fluids to follow. Hostel offers plenty of that as well, and if there was one scene most representative of the movie, it would probably be the infamous bit with the eyeball. Another great sequence is when Paxton is being dragged past the doors of different rooms in the factory (why are the doors open?) and we get brief glimpses into various snapshots of torture. My favorite scene may have been when Paxton is in his torture room and his vomit starts erupting around the ball gag that has just been put into his mouth. So excellent.

Another interesting theme the movie touches on not-so-shyly is that of a gay subtext. I recently listened to the Hostel episode of the usually fun and insightful Horror Queers podcast that brought this back to my attention since I had not seen the movie in years. Going back to American relations, I think another major stereotype/ reality we have is that European men are more "feminine," as we have come to understand that word in Western societies, meaning they are more openly sensual or comfortable with their bodies or in expressing themselves. Óli (Gu∂jónsson) shows off his butt more times than I can count and is openly interested in heterosexual couples copulating, as well as other kinks. Horror movies in the early 2000s are usually ripe with overt homophobia, and Hostel is no different. Our three brochachos are galavanting around Europe looking for "poosay," and it's primarily Josh who becomes a target for Paxton and Óli's homophobic remarks regarding Josh's use of a fanny pack (trendsetter!) or his reluctance to try and sleep with every single girl they encounter. One of the most interesting bits from the film is when the Dutch Businessman (Jan Vlasák) places his hand on Josh's thigh during the train ride, and Josh immediately freaks out. When they meet each other again, Josh tries to atone for his outburst by buying the businessman a drink at a bar, and he reciprocates the man's original gesture by placing his own hand on the man's thigh. This prompts the man to admit that he had to ignore his urges and start a family, but that Josh still has time to do what is right for him. There is really no other way to read this except that the man is admitting he is not heterosexual, but was forced into a heteronormative lifestyle, and that he acknowledges homosexual feelings in Josh and wants the adolescent to follow his own path (AKA telling Josh 'Gay is okay.') Josh seems confused by this exchange, and we don't really see too much more of it because at that point it's already too late for him anyway. While Paxton starts off the film as a pretty unrepentant homophobe, part of his arc is to get more in touch with his feelings as becomes more human and tries to survive his ordeal. The idea of these men tied up and made subservient is one aspect of that, as well as some of the general torture/ BDSM equipment we see in the factory, including the ball gag used on Paxton. At the end of the film, the bathroom kill scene is also heavy on the gay allusions as cruising in bathrooms was historically (and still remains) a way to rendezvous with or meet other men. (We have seen this touched upon in other horror movies, such as the 2007 Halloween remake or even the latest installment from 2018.)

In general, I think the acting is pretty solid in this movie, more so in specific scenes than in general. I do like the hunky Hernandez as our final boy Paxton— bet you didn't see that coming when the movie started. Surviving the ordeal becomes fairly ridiculous, especially when he's an inch away from escape and hears screams coming from inside the factory (how?), triggering him to rescue Kana (Jennifer Lim) as redemption for the little girl he didn't stop from drowning in that minor backstory you might have missed in the first place. Facing the trauma of the moment, it's wild that his brain even allowed him to process that, whereas most of us would be in full-on flight, fight, or freeze. I feel so-so about Derek Richardson as the more empathetic Josh, but he has perhaps the biggest standout moment of the movie when he first comes to in his torture cell. This is our first introduction to the reality of the movie as well, and his realization/ begging for mercy/ suffering is one of the best sequences in the entire film.

Overall, this movie is not very scary. Violence and gore are very separate from actual scares to me, so while they are certainly heavy in those departments, the film itself is more terrifying psychologically in the reality of what is happening with the Elite Hunting organization. That name also cracked me up, what with an ego-boosting suggestion that these butchers were "hunters," when in reality their prey is being handed to them. Maybe some commentary on big game hunting there as well. The first half of the movie is all setting us up for the second half, and there is really very little horror in the beginning at all, which is interesting. A few scenes end up fairly silly, like the most dramatic low-speed hit and run we've ever witnessed (RIP Eastern European accomplices) or that other classic scene on the train platform at the end. (AMAZING blood splatter on random women. LOVE that.) The movie also ends on a really weird note, I was almost surprised that that was it.

I also picked up on some great Shining references throughout the movie, from the presence of the number 237, to the camera angles approaching the factory (similar to approaching the Overlook), even to the string-heavy music in some scenes. That was fun to see throughout. The music, however, is pretty corny, and I think that hurts the scares in otherwise dark scenes. There is a great soundtrack in the beginning of the movie, but by the time the terror kicks in, the score sounds very outdated and overdramatic. Was a bit turned off by that as well.

Final critique: This movie is a wild ride that many audiences are sure to enjoy. This came early on in the years of modern body horror and torture porn, with just a few explicit scenes but plenty of special effects, makeup, props, and bodily fluids to add to the overall feel. If you can't do gore, there is no reason why you should even attempt this movie. Otherwise, it's quirky in its own ways, but mostly a quick and enjoyable watch with plenty of deeper subtexts that helped boost Eli Roth to major fame in the genre.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Evil Dead (2013)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Fede Álvarez
Studios: Ghost House Pictures, FilmDistrict, TriStar Pictures
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore
Tagline: Fear What You Will Become
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, psychological thriller, possession, drama, action, gore
Scare score: C-
Rating: B-


Plot overview: Five friends arrive at a secluded cabin in the woods to help Mia (Levy) quit and overcome her withdrawal from heroin. After discovering disturbing animal sacrifices and a mysterious and ancient text in the basement, a demonic force begins to possess and kill the group one by one.

This movie is tricky. Described by the director as a continuation of the original classic, my biggest complaint about this film is that in many ways it feels like another gritty, early 2000s revamp of a horror classic and yet doesn't have any of the bizarre humor that made the original stand out in the first place (although acting and effects are up to par with 2010s horror). For that reason, I feel this movie isn't super memorable. Case in point, I was watching it last night and it wasn't until about halfway through that I realized I'd seen it once or twice before. My bad.

That being said, lots of things about this not-quite-a-remake, 4th installment in the Evil Dead franchise are awesome. It's not for everybody, to be sure, but there is something so unrelenting about this movie—and about the nature of the horror which manifests in it—which keeps hitting you again and again practically from start to finish. The best thing this film does is maintain the gore-heavy nature of the original. Using really fun makeup and special effects—and only very minimal CGI—we are treated to tons of bloody, dirty, sharp, gut-wrenching gore that is pretty similar (if less campy) than the original's. There are also tons of great nods throughout the film, which isn't too surprising given that the producers of the original films were on this project as well (Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert G. Tapert). It's a rehash of the original in many ways, but even Ash's car is still there, the chainsaw of course, and at one point we see a Michigan sweater, like in the original, because Raimi and Tapert both went to Michigan State, Campbell also went to college in Michigan, and all three were born in the Great Lakes State. I love when creators pay homage to their own upbringings, and Michigan specifically seems to be hot in recent years, such as in It Follows or in another Fede Álvarez-directed thriller (also starring Levy), 2016's excellent Don't Breathe.

I didn't think this new take on The Evil Dead was scary whatsoever, and I was going to give it a lower Scare Score, but then I thought more specifically about some of the action-packed scenes in this movie that, while not scary in your typical sense, were kind of horrifying in their brutality. Like the first film, the horror-action is pretty relentless once the incantation is read from the Naturom Demonto, this installment's version of Lovecraft's infamous Necronomicon. Unfortunately it all feels a lot more pointless than the way the first movie did it, and while I enjoyed watching all the projectile vomiting and cutting or tearing off of various limbs, I really didn't enjoy the so-called Abomination. Sort of fell flat and felt like stuff we've seen in other films like The Ring or The Grudge. On the other hand, I enjoyed when the characters were becoming possessed. That to me was creepier than the evil entity itself, and in some ways more well done than the original.

I really thought there was some strong acting in this movie. I wasn't anticipating this, because the setup and mood really felt a lot like some of those subpar 2000s revamps of other horror classics, and the horror culture at that time certainly did not emphasize acting compared to other things like looks. Really enjoyed the handsome Shiloh Fernandez as the calm and caring older brother, even if he got a little dim at parts. As in most movies like this, each character got a bit conveniently dumb (feels like Cabin in the Woods at play) at times, including the heavily-criticized Eric (Pucci)—who was probably my least favorite of the bunch—who immediately reads from the Naturom Demonto even though he knows it's an awful idea. The real star of the movie is Jane Levy as Mia, who keeps us entertained the whole time as she moves from emo/traumatized to violent withdrawal/psychosis to demon-possessed to badass final girl.

As in the original, this continuation employs unrelenting horror to disgust and terrify audiences. Does it work? In some ways, it's more refreshing than the first, which is admittedly cornier with more syrup-heavy fake blood and colorful gore. This version wanted to go darker, and it certainly did that, but I feel it missed out on the great cinematography and creative violence of the first. The film ends up serving as a sort of grittier tribute that takes itself too seriously (I hate the movie poster so much). Still, I appreciate the sheer volume of violence and gore it offers once the demons are released. When it comes to the sexual violence in the film—which has taken a thornier turn for the worse—the same questions are raised: What is the purpose of the violence? Is it to terrorize us further or is it simply a shock factor? This time around, it was less explicit, with more of a sci-fi possession twist going on.

Final critique: It's no surprise that a modern take on The Evil Dead was going to happen eventually, so it's a good thing it was done with as much respect and detail as this version, which had the guidance of the original team. At first it may feel like a forced and darker version of the original, but eventually the sheer action and gore help stand this film on its own two feet, although fans of the first will miss the dark and slapstick humor that made it a cult classic. If you can't do gore, stay away from this film, which has it in spades. Otherwise, this movie isn't spectacularly scary, and if it weren't for the name and history attached to it, it feels pretty forgettable.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Dial M for Murder (1954)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Studios: Warner Bros.
Starring: Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson
Tagline: Is this the man she was waiting for... or the man who was waiting for her?
MPAA Rating: PG
Genre: thriller, mystery, crime, drama, suspense
Scare score: D-
Rating: B+


Plot overview: After learning about his wife Margot's (Kelly) affair, English tennis player Tony Wendice (Milland) blackmails an old school chum (Dawson) into murdering her. After his seemingly perfect scheme goes awry, however, Tony must frame his wife instead.

I love Hitchcock. What an expansive career this Master of Suspense had. That being said, this may be one of the first times I've reviewed one of his movies that I wouldn't actually consider a horror. Based off of the play by screenwriter Frederick Knott, this movie makes the horror blog with a whopping PG rating. Talk about amateur hour. Unlike Strangers on a Train, The Birds, and especially Psycho, Dial M for Murder is more similar to his films like Rope or even Rear Window (my personal favorite) in that they deal more with the suspense, meticulous planning, and repercussions of a crime than the actual horror of it (not to mention the majority of the action taking place in a single room). Regarding Strangers on a Train, both films share the 'perfect murder' and blackmail concepts, as well as two main characters both being professional tennis players (think doubles and double-crossing).

Hitchcock loved few things more than the perfect plot and 'wrongfully accused' scenarios, and these themes are exactly what this film ultimately comes down to. We have strong performances from all of our leads, with an especially creepy Anthony Dawson as the hitman and a wonderfully British Chief Inspector in John Williams— not surprisingly, both of these actors played the same roles in the 1952 Broadway production of the show. Ray Milland plays a fantastically eerie and calmly maniacal husband who remains fixated on manipulating and deceiving all those around him until he can exact the perfect revenge on his unfaithful—yet still dedicated—wife. Speaking of which, this was Kelly's first time working with Hitchcock, and apparently he enjoyed her work so much that she would go on to star in Rear Window (that same year!) as well as 1955's To Catch a Thief.

The most notable aspect of this film is the cinematography. The movie was originally filmed to be shown in 3D, but due to technical issues and poor audience reception, it was released as your regular flat movie and went on to achieve general acclaim at the box office. Shot almost entirely inside the Wendices' apartment—and with that one fantastic "God's eye" view from above the scene—the suspense of this movie is established more through plot that any trick of the camera. Hitchcock was a professional at perverting his audience into not only witnessing crime but partaking in it. As Rear Window becomes a shocking lesson in voyeurism, so Dial M for Murder finds us practically rooting for Tony and his hired man Lesgate/ Swann to get away with the seemingly perfect crime. Indeed, the suspense in this movie comes in the form of us expecting—but not knowing if—the murder will go off without a hitch— until Tony's watch stops and the whole things seems to fall apart before our eyes. As Hitchcock himself said, "The best way to do it is with scissors" (I see you, Jordan Peele). At the climax of our suspense, we witness an accidental death marking one of very few times we actually witness something so visceral in a Hitchcock movie (most of the action usually takes place just offscreen and is implied). Though Grace Kelly shines brighter in Rear Window, her character's progression in this film is marked in beautiful ways, such as her wardrobe changing from whites, to blues, to greys, to black, or during the almost dreamlike (nightmarish?), hallucinatory courtroom scene and the lighting therein.

*SPOILER ALERT*

If you're a fan of Hitchcock, you're likely to enjoy this film: The theme of control, common in the director's filmography, runs strong in this movie, especially as demonstrated by the maniacal Tony. It is this strong need for control that ultimately creates even more suspense as the pieces—just seconds beforehand so perfectly aligned—start to fall apart. My biggest qualm from a realistic point of view is that, while the clever Chief Inspector Hubbard uses wisdom, insight, and luck to hypothesize his solution to the crime, it seemed to me that none of his investigation was actually very legal, at least in terms of his swapping coats and keys or sneaking into the Wendices' apartment as he pleased. Love a perfect crime puzzle to be so expertly solved, but it left me wondering just how ethical his approach was.

Final critique: This is a lovely and enjoyable film, even if it's not one of Hitchcock's absolute best pieces of work. To clarify, I make my ratings based on what constitutes a good horror movie, so that is why this film only gets a B+ from me while other, arguably much poorer quality movies have gotten higher ratings in the past. With a dazzling cast and even better suspense, we see a movie flipped on its head halfway through, and we continue to go along for the whole unexpected ride. In terms of the scare score, as I stated earlier, this really isn't a horror film as I'd traditionally define it, so while the suspense might have you holding your breath as the 'perfect crime' comes to a climax, I don't think anyone is going to get too scared by this film. Instead, it's a perfect watch when you want something suspenseful or creepy, but with more of a crime drama feel instead of anything too horrifying.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Wicker Man (1973)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Robin Hardy
Studios: British Lion Films
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento; ft. Ingrid Pitt
Tagline: Flesh to touch... Flesh to burn! Don't keep the Wicker Man waiting!
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, mystery, drama, suspense, cult, occult
Scare score: C-
Rating: B+


Plot overview: After receiving a mysterious letter alerting him about a missing girl, police Sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward) ventures alone to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. His investigation is steadily thwarted by the townspeople, who first deny that the girl, Rowan (Gerry Cowper), ever existed and then claim that she passed away. Howie, a devout Christian, is further put off by the locals' pagan beliefs and traditions, headed by the genteel but unsympathetic Lord Summerisle (Lee). As Howie grows closer to solving the mystery, he becomes part of the town's May Day celebrations and soon learns the horrifying truth about the island and its people.

I have mixed feelings about this movie mostly because of the time period and because of how much thrilling potential the film ultimately fails to live up to. That being said, it was shot on a small budget and was a fairly rushed production, and given the general kitsch of the genre in the early '70s, it's incredible what a lasting impact this movie has had.

The Wicker Man is equally imaginative and macabre, well-researched and well if dramatically acted, and it includes some truly beautiful shots of Scotland and the Hebrides, especially in the stunning opening and final sequences. Even with the beautiful open landscapes, we feel a sort of claustrophobia as Howie enters the tiny island community, remaining an outcast in every sense of the word throughout his investigation. There is something frustrating about trying to take something seriously—especially the alleged disappearance of a child—only to be met with folly, ridicule, and condescension, and Howie encounters that in spades.

Aside from its great plot—adapted from David Pinner's novel Ritual and in many ways recreated in the Netflix original Apostle—this movie relies on strong acting to carry us through the deepening mystery. Edward Woodward forces us to take him as seriously as Sgt. Howie takes himself in the movie and delivers some especially wonderful scenes closer to the end. How special is it to see the late, great Christopher Lee? Hot off his success with Hammer Horror (which I grew up on but haven't reviewed yet!), a younger-than-we're-used-to-seeing-him Lee takes on a more cerebral role as the lofty and manipulative Lord Summerisle. More like Lord Exposition amirite? Still, a great performance from him. Individual characters also stand out throughout the film in varied and creepy ways, most notably the Swedish beauty Britt Ekland as a pagan temptress, her creepy father played by Lindsay Kemp (a lover and muse of David Bowie), an especially sinister Aubrey Morris as the gravedigger, and a very formidable Ian "Mammoth" Campbell.

Fun fact: In a 2005 interview, Christopher Lee would consider this his best film. Saruman and Counts Dooku and Dracula can take a hike.

Though the editing feels choppy throughout and I don't think the mystery meets its full potential, this movie has a lot of positive points. Designed specifically to deliver more drawn out suspense and not to rely fully on jump scares or gore unlike other horror movies of the time, The Wicker Man is an enduringly creepy movie. The disturbing norms and traditions of Summerisle start early in the movie and don't stop coming, more often than not based around or in the form of music and dancing. The filmmakers did a great job at researching paganism and representing it in a fairly unbiased way throughout the movie— in fact, the only judgments we see made upon these traditions come from the zealous Howie. The film features plenty of mellow '70s music—I felt like I was listening to Nick Drake half the time—but there is some really beautiful traditional music as well. Some of the most memorably unsettling musical scenes are the May pole, birds-and-bees-style song led by children and the schoolmaster as well as some horrifying chanting and arm-swaying at the end.

Final critique: Overall, this is a weird movie that remains eerie and impactful nearly 50 years later— it really does put the "cult" in cult classic. Part of me wishes it were made in a different time period or with a different production quality, but at the end of the day, it all came together to make something very digestible for general audiences without being too scary to watch. Really it's hardly scary at all, but the questions it raises are where the true terror comes in. While watching, you know you're uncomfortable or frightened, even if you can't put your finger on it, and the suspense builds beautifully right up until the last shot.

It Follows (2014)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Studios: Northern Lights Films, Animal Kingdom, Two Flints, RADiUS-TWC
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary
Tagline: It doesn't think. It doesn't feel. It doesn't give up.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, psychological thriller, drama, teen
Scare score: A
Rating: A



Plot overview: After finding out her new boyfriend Hugh (Weary) isn't who he claims to be, college student Jay (Monroe) learns she's being followed by a murderous force that will track her down unless she "passes it on" by having sex with somebody new. Jay is skeptical at first but soon finds herself plagued by something horrendous taking the forms of loved ones and gruesome strangers. As she tracks down Hugh to learn more about the entity with the help of her sister (Sepe) and their friends, Jay must make the terrible decision: keep running, or pass it on.

I adore this movie. After seeing it in theaters a couple years back I was aware how important it felt; I've watched it countless times since and it's frequently at the top of my list when recommending newer horror movies to others.

Of course I'm biased because It Follows has some of Horror Buff's favorite components, namely a retro feel, a healthy monster-mystery ratio, and a stunning synth soundtrack giving me the '80s vibe I crave in movies.

Let's start with the worldbuilding because it's the first thing that stood out to me upon seeing this film, and I feel it's one of its strongest suits. At first we are handed a seemingly standard middle America filled with split-level houses and backyard pools— and that certainly is the reality that It Follows takes place inside of. There is a huge commentary on urban decay and division, specifically around the Detroit metro area (similar to Don't Breathe, also with Daniel Zovatto), which I feel ties into the loss of innocence theme I will explore later. In many ways, writer and director David Robert Mitchell made his sophomore movie as a love story to his home state of Michigan, from the suburbs to Detroit to the Great Lakes, and I really appreciated that.

Where the reality we're given starts to take a more interesting turn is in the mix of modern and retro, as well as futuristic. One of the most fantastic details in the movie is Yara's (Luccardi) Polly Pocket-meets-Kindle tech, a savvy reimagining of modern E-readers (flashlight included!) that I couldn't get enough of (and she uses it to read Dostoevsky, nonetheless). We also see a mix of retro cars, black and white TVs, movie theaters with organs, and old fashioned furniture that flood this film with Americana ranging roughly between the 1960s and the 2030s. This is complemented by the retro synth soundtrack and the very, very cool poster seen above.

This is truly some of the best horror I can recall seeing in recent years, even if the movie loses its way a little towards the end. I think one of the best things this film has going for it is that the horror here is twofold: both supernatural and very real and present. In terms of the latter, and like many horror movies set in suburbia, the concept of small neighborhoods and teenagers being terrorized means the home is no longer safe. In this case of this supernatural entity, even friends and family may not be who they seems, and so this curse of sorts—and the real or imagined stigma around it—isolates you. We see how Jay is still paranoid and locks herself in her room even after she knows she is temporarily "safe."

Strong acting from this movie's young cast makes things even more enjoyable, specifically thanks to the unassuming Maika Monroe (a budding scream queen in her own right, she also stars in the fun thriller The Guest) and the perfectly dorky Keir Gilchrist, who I'm sure we will continue to see more of. I also really liked Olivia Luccardi as the dry and precocious Yara; she added a fun dimension to the group.

The movie's fantastic cinematography echoes this sense of paranoia and stays true to the film's title: the camerawork constantly makes us feel like we are being followed. This voyeurism begins in innocent ways—the neighbors watching Jay in the pool at the beginning, Jay's game of picking somebody in public to trade places with—but steadily grows more sinister when we feel like we're watching or being watched from the back seat of the car or being spied upon during the initial sex scene. These creepier shots are complemented by the film's use of beautiful widescreen and even 360 degree captures that show off both interior sets and the stunning Michigan landscape; either way they remind us that someone or something is always watching. I also loved the shots of Jay in (above and below) the pool towards the end, as well as the many shots of the kids throughout the movie, so often lounging around, whether in spite or unaware of the looming terror. To me, this also represented the sort of innocence experienced by Kelly, Yara, and Paul (Gilchrist) even after Jay has lost hers.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I really can't stress how much I enjoy this movie and all the questions it raises, especially in terms of what the evil entity is. The film strikes a great balance between showing us the various manifestations of 'it' and leaving us searching for something onscreen that may or may not really be there. Few things are scarier to me than something in the distance steadily getting closer, and this movie has that in spades. How terrifying are the actors/makeup chosen for the scenes where we do see 'it'? I think for this reason alone it's some of the best horror we've seen in years. This movie uses nudity so, so well (similar to 2018's Hereditary, both with cinematography by Mike Gioulakis). It makes sense here given the sexual themes of the film (are some of these deformed bodies former victims?), but it also terrifies and disgusts us, even in taboo ways (incarnations of naked and/or wounded parents, the big naked man on the roof, and my favorite, the woman peeing in the kitchen— few things are more horrifying than a wet sock). It's almost a shame that these manifestations sometimes come and go too quickly or before we meet certain characters, because ultimately we see 'it' appear as both Hugh and Greg's moms as well as Jay's dad. In terms of casting, the scariest part of this movie to me is when the coast seems clear until the 'Giant' enters Jay's bedroom looking like some version of Lurch straight out of hell. This was also a lovely nod to Michigan since that actor is the late Mike Lanier, former basketball player and Michigan's tallest man, who passed away in 2018.

Speaking of theories and themes, we have the obvious statement about STIs, which I think is the most accepted form of what the entity in the film represents. There is something to be said about risk taking behavior, especially in adolescence, being constantly reminded or educated about the danger of something and still not taking precaution. The younger kids are even seen playing Old Maid while Jay is out on her nightmare date, an innocent childhood game where the loser is left with the card of the unmarried woman. Then there is the big loss of innocence theme, starting early in the film from the neighbors innocently spying on Jay in her bathing suit, to her being too cool or mature to hang out with her sisters and friends (who discuss crushes and laugh at their farts), to Jay's virginal pink dress and modest, retro bra/underwear on her dates with Hugh. Even after sleeping with Hugh, Jay comments on how she "used to daydream about being old enough to go on dates and drive around in cars," and in the follow moments that innocence is stripped away. The idea of sex (Jay's first time?) becomes something dangerous and suddenly represents violence as it becomes quickly weaponized. "Just sleep with someone as soon as you can," Hugh warns her, later commenting that it should be easy for her because she's a pretty girl. This careless and dangerous sexism continues both with skeptical player Greg (Zovatto) and even the dorky and innocent Paul— is he really trying to protect Jay, or is this all a chance for him to finally sleep with her after years of pining? In the movie's most quietly defeating scene, Jay strips down a swims out to a boat filled with three men, implying that she will have sex with all of them to buy herself more time.

In many ways, this movie is also about duplicity, from Jay and Hugh going to see Charade on their movie date to Hugh lying about his identity to Greg, Paul, and Jay's equally questionable behavior throughout the movie in regards to sex and self-preservation. Does Paul really sleep with those sex workers or is he just scouting out potential victims to help himself?

On the other hand, the movie may not be about sexually transmitted infections so much as the general existential view that death is inevitable and constantly getting closer. Sex (or love) is but one thing we can do to give our time meaning or make life feel like it's lasting longer; still, nothing changes our ultimate fate. This theme is paralleled by Yara's reading of The Idiot—ripe with messages about morality, fate, and losing your personhood—as well as when Jay's teacher reads from T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"— a poem filled with beautiful and haunting lines like "Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?/ In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

Finally, we have the idea of water as purifying, from Jay floating in her backyard pool to the group escaping to the lake to finally fighting 'it' in a pool. Ultimately, I'm not sure what gives the kids the idea that this force, which we haven't seen anyone but Jay and a half-assed Paul show any real reaction to, can be killed via electrocution. I thought this scene became a bit of a cop-out—in general any of the scenes where the kids try blindly to shoot 'it' but are actually shooting towards their friends became a little wild and annoying—but I did love that the man at the pool is implied to be their absent father, which is why Jay is hesitant to tell her friends too much. Like all good ghost movies, I love when 'it' materializes under the sheet they throw on top of him and suddenly open air has a frightening human shape. One final thing that bugged me that I can't really get over is when Jay sleeps on the hood of her car in the middle of a forested road, which seemed out of character and frankly asinine for somebody who has fought so hard to stay safe the entire movie.

Final critique: All in all, the film does have a few small holes and overly dramatic moments, and it loses its way a bit towards the end. In spite of these weak points, this movie is fantastic and one of the strongest examples the horror genre has had in years. I would recommend this movie to anybody, but I think it really is quite scary, both in its lingering moral and supernatural questions. How great would this movie be to watch in a drive-in somewhere? Can't beat that retro feel with modern techniques, plots, and special effects. Be safe out there!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Adrian Lyne
Studios: Carolco Pictures, TriStar Pictures
Starring: Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello; ft. Macaulay Culkin (uncredited), Jason Alexander, Lewis Black
Tagline: The most frightening thing about Jacob Singer's nightmare is that he isn't dreaming.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, mystery, conspiracy, drama
Scare score: B+
Rating: A




Plot overview: Several years after his deployment in Vietnam, Jacob Singer (Robbins) still has flashbacks to a traumatic battle that left him gravely wounded. Now living in New York City with his girlfriend Jezzie (Peña), Jacob misses his ex-wife and children and continues to dream about them, especially the youngest boy, Gabe (Culkin), who died in an accident. Around this time, Jacob begins to have nightmarish visions of "demons"— vibrating, featureless faces and slimy, tentacled monsters. After several near-death encounters, Jacob reunites with several former members of his platoon and the men begin to seek answers from the army about what really happened in Vietnam.

The first time I tried watching Jacob's Ladder was back in high school with a friend who shared my love for horror movies, but I regret to say I fell asleep. I don't know what took me so long to finally come back to it, but I'm so, so glad I did.

This movie is excellent. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost— also from 1990! Big year for him.), it took a while for the project to get off the ground given its graphic and niche metaphysical, religious, and military nature. Rubin said the general idea for the film came from a dream he had about being trapped in the New York City subway, but it's clear how his experimentation with LSD and subsequent time spent hiking and meditating in countries like Tibet and India helped inspire the final project. The title is a reference to a Biblical story about a ladder leading to heaven, and themes of both life, death, purgatory, heaven, and hell are constant throughout the movie. Perhaps this is most emphasized during the scene where Jacob's trusted chiropractor and friend Louis Denardo (Aiello) imparts some wisdom from 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:

"Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: 'The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and ... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.'"

The underlying themes of the movie may be deep, but if you're looking for a good scare without having to think about it, this movie is still an excellent choice. From the first scenes of the film, there is a near-constant juxtaposition of action and stillness, violence and peace, gore and sex that will leave you unsettled during the entire viewing. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of transporting us back to the New York City of the 1970s: a grungy, frightening place even without hallucinations and demons. In many ways, this does feel a bit like Ghost and even Fatal Attraction, which Lyne directed three years earlier, but the horror here is different and much more pervasive and not for the faint of heart. In fact, they had to cut upwards of 20 minutes that were considered too disturbing or depressing for audiences. I NEED to find these and watch them all!

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Shawshank Redemption, so it was great to see Tim Robbins in a different kind of role. In fact, I couldn't help but think how great it was to see him in a movie that didn't hide how tall he is (6'5"!). Robbins is an excellent actor, and his subdued manner often allows the audience to process the horror of his present situation right alongside him as the mystery of the plot continues to unfold.

At first, the horror in this movie appears in the form of suspenseful situations (now I will think of this every time I'm on the subway) and the masterfully done demons. Faceless and pulsating, and always out of frame before we can get a closer look at them. The gory imagery of the movie was inspired by the works of artist Francis Bacon and would go on to play a huge impact in the development of both Silent Hill and American Horror Story: Asylum. Next, we are handed a conspiracy theory so apropos of the Cold War and Vietnam era that adds to the growing paranoia of the film. Little by little, however, we start to lose touch with reality along with Jacob until we are truly faced with the decision of just how horrifying—or liberating—the truth may be.

Fun fact: Tom Hanks almost played the role of Jacob. I think he would have been great, too.

*SPOILER ALERT*

This film is really excellent. There is something about the grungy and desolate feel of New York in the '70s and the absolute existential failure that was Vietnam that adds a sort of desperate emptiness to the movie and leaves it characters searching for life and answers through parties, music, sex, palm readings, and ultimately through the final mystery of what really happened to Jacob's unit in Vietnam.

Inspired in part by Ambrose Bierce's American classic "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", the film comments on the horrors of war and the manipulation of the people by the government. On a more metaphysical level, the movie draws from Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, also known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In Buddhism, the intermediate state, or bardo, refers to the transitional period between death and rebirth when one's consciousness reigns free of its physical limitations and experiences phenomena that may resemble reality but may also drift into unfettered and horrible hallucinations. For those prepared for death and rebirth, the intermediate state can offer a chance for great liberation.

If you've seen the movie and understood its twist ending, you can see just how influential this particular aspect of Buddhist mysticism played on Rubin's development of the film's plot and resolution. I especially loved the references to the Eckhart quote and how it suddenly becomes clear the role various characters and actions—Jezzie and when she burns the old pictures of Jacob's family, Paul (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and his exploding car, Gabe especially in the final scene—play in representing this idea of purgatory. It leaves you wondering what's worse: visions of hell after death or the hell that is our reality while we're alive? Is the truth more terrible than the knowledge that can set you free from this intermediate state? Is there hope in hell? What about in life? And will you be ready to go when your time comes? It may be complicated and it may not be for everyone, but it's a poignant question and makes this film worth rewatching time and again.

Final critique: This movie is frankly terrifying, and it becomes even more dark the more you think about it. The demons are disturbing in such a pure and imaginative way that you start to feel unsettled in the first few minutes of the movie and stay that way pretty much the entire time. Coupled with gruesome flashbacks to Vietnam and a truth that's even more horrifying than what Jacob could have imagined, Jacob's Ladder will scare you silly and leave you questioning what's real and what isn't.

Keep an eye out for an updated remake of the film set to release this year! That makes the timing even better to check out the original if you haven't seen it already. I'm interested to see how a modern reimagining of the film, drawing from ongoing wars in the Middle East and dealing with themes of PTSD, changes or honors the story. Life is but a dream...

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.

GENERAL INFO:
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)

GENERAL INFO:
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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Pact (2012)

GENERAL INFO:
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.

*SPOILER ALERT*

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.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Evil Dead (1981)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Sam Raimi
Studios: Renaissance Pictures
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Derich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York
Tagline: The Ultimate Experience in Grueling Terror; The Most Ferociously Original Horror Film of the Year
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, slapstick, black comedy, drama, action, gore
Scare score: B
Rating: B+


Plot overview: Five friends venture into a lonely cabin in the woods for spring break where they find an ancient text that awakens a terrible evil.

A cult classic in every sense of the word, this is the film that launched Sam Raimi (and Bruce Campbell)'s career as well as the first installment of the iconic franchise (of the same name). The story behind this hit horror franchise is really pretty interesting: Basically, producer Robert Tapert (married to Lucy Laweless) was roommates with Sam Raimi's brother in college, and over time the two became friends with a mutual interest in film and ultimately horror.  Match made in Michigan State heaven am I right? Two broke guys with useless degrees (or no degree at all) meet up with Campbell who has recently quit his job driving cabs, and the three young minds come together to write and produce this incredibly low-budget movie (~$375k) with a smash result.

Anyway, the gritty, difficult conditions the cast and crew had to suffer while filming this movie are what create the believable sense of dread and horror the movie boasts. In my opinion, it is a combination of this dirty, creepy cabin in Tennessee (where the whole cast and crew had to live and sleep during filming) plus the dangling, creeping, crawling, slanted camera shots that most unnerve us, leading to an overall uncomfortable and actually scary feeling while watching the film. Any time you have a small set to work in (aka a creepy, concrete, wooden, dirty, old cabin), small shots around doorways and hallways and cellars become your best friend to create a true atmosphere of horror and claustrophobia. Much like Ash (Campbell), the entire audience feels trapped during the movie, truly doomed with nowhere to escape to as the evil was just as much inside the cabin as without.

As far as plot goes, this movie follows some of the protocol of our well-known '80s flicks (this movie came out in the same year as both Halloween II and Friday the 13th Part 2) while simultaneously going so far as to truly coin the cabin in the woods as a horrifying and typical setting for the genre (perhaps with some kudos and inspiration going to Friday the 13th which was released a year earlier in 1980. Let's talk for a second about said cabin. Much like in other movies pertaining to the genre (Cabin Fever, Cabin in the Woods), the claustrophobic, old, and even grimy setting of such movies manage to play with our nerves from the very beginning. At least for me, being stuck in a small space that has already had the windows and doors broken down, unsure of where your assailant might enter through is one of the scariest situations— aka just about every scene of this movie.

The first installment of The Evil Dead has not yet entered into the overly absurd slapstick feeling that the sequels seem to rely on. I agree with the use of "black comedy" to describe this movie because at times you can't help but laugh, even if it is during a particularly gory scene. Speaking of which, one thing this movie certainly does and very much so is gore. Gore, fake blood, crazy (great!) makeup, puss/ milk, gore, ooze, goo, slime, muck, fake blood again, plus all other sorts of generally disgusting and disturbing substances (think Dead Alive at times)—cleverly paired with ('80s) humor, plenty of action, and a hero we find ourselves rooting for—was what put this movie on the map.

Fun fact: The now frequently used tagline "The Most Ferociously Original Horror Film of the Year" was coined by Stephen King when he saw this movie at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. In an interview, King considered The Evil Dead his fifth favorite horror movie, resulting promotion and support from King propelled the low-budget film to great box office success worldwide.

*SPOILER ALERT*

The acting really isn't that bad here. We have the whole 'teenagers on break' thing going on, but without the typical sleaziness associated with those plots. While the acting in the beginning of the movie is pretty normal (random lines, small talk), the most impressive acting comes later from the possessed characters. I thought that the most unnerving (and equally most annoying) thing about this movie was the three girls—especially Cheryl (Sandweiss) and Linda (Baker)—when they were possessed. From the moment of their gruesome transformations, they do not ever stop shrieking and screaming, and their shrill noises frankly bug and upset the audience to the point that we, too, feel the psychological pressure that Ash and Scotty (Delrich) are dealing with. Campbell conveys a great sense of balance between true fear, emotional concern for his friends/ the loss of his girlfriend, and just the right amount of comic gestures.

The special effects are honestly not bad until the final scene. I was highly, highly impressed with the masks and makeup that characters had to wear especially after begin injured/ possessed. Unfortunately the climactic final scene becomes a bit hokey by modern standards when toiling claymation hurts the great progress that was made up until that point. Luckily, that same final sequence contains so much disgusting 'gore' (think various purees, goos, and bodily fluids) that we find ourselves squeamish enough to perhaps by distracted from the claymation (or not).

I'll briefly touch upon the infamous scene with Cheryl and the possessed, demonic tree branches and roots in the woods. That was a fairly weird sequence that disturbs a lot of viewers to this day. It makes us question was it necessary? Admittedly the scene was creepy and sensual, we're not sure of what we're seeing until it's too late maybe. It is perhaps the darkest scene in an otherwise not so dark (just bloody and creepy) horror movie.

Final critique: This movie is a fun and even disturbing watch. It is filled with plenty of action, screaming dead girls, pureed vegetables seeping from dismembered bodies, and a claustrophobic sense of doom. Then again, there's the pretty frequent one-liner or laugh that confuses us in our fear, making us question whether this is a comic book or true terror that we're witnessing. With just the perfect touch of literary inspiration stemming from H.P. Lovecraft, The Evil Dead explores both the teen and cabin in the woods genres of time period while drawing from hyper-hyper-animated Romero-esque zombie roots, all brought together with that uniquely '80s feeling. The result? An equally frightening and funny film sure to creep and gross you out no matter how many times you watch it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Exorcist (1973)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: William Friedkin
Studios: Warner Bros.
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max von Sydow
Tagline: The Movie You've Been Waiting For... Without the Wait.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, supernatural thriller, drama, exorcism, possession, religious occult
Scare score: B
Rating: A-


Plot overview: Recently-separated movie actress Chris MacNeil (Burstyn) is living in Georgetown with her friendly, spontaneous 12-year-old daughter Regan (Blair) and some staff. When Regan suddenly begins undergoing extremely drastic personality changes, Chris takes her to several doctors, who can only conclude that Regan should go to a psychiatrist. Chris, however, thinks that there is something much more fantastic and malevolent at hand. When Regan, who is now constrained to her bed due to her violent fits, appears physically altered and her personality has completely changed, Chris enlists the help of Father Damian Karras (Miller), a gifted psychiatrist and priest who is dealing with his faith. After seeking the help of the renown Father Merrin (von Sydow), both men attempt an exorcism to rid Regan of the demon possessing her.

If you ask anybody between the ages of 30 and 60 to name a horror movie, any horror movie, chances are they will name The Exorcist. There is something special about this film that scared—or maybe the word here is fazed—audiences and then stuck with them, something that people today still recount and it sends shivers down their spine. Horror Buff doesn't particularly love hopping on the bandwagon without giving the fad in question a good thinking over, so I have to admit that I was not enamored of The Exorcist after first seeing it when I was little. A coworker was talking to me about it recently while we discussed my love of horror movies, so I decided to revisit this classic. I guess I had to know exactly what it was about this movie that still scares people today.

Even if you're not into overkill, mainstream stuff, The Exorcist is a genre-defining classic. The movie is more artful than scary, relying on a few images that shock you and stick in your mind after the movie has ended. I have to admit, as I started this movie around 1 AM the weather took a turn for the worse outside my window, and I was able to enjoy this film during a pretty crazy wind and rainstorm. As I've said before, the ambience changes the movie-viewing experience entirely. Beyond the few scares this movie tosses our way, there is a general sense of uneasiness, and throughout the rest of the time we have a family struggle of which the drama certainly had me hooked early on.

What's weird about this movie? Nothing scary happens until about an hour into the film. Sure, there are a few subtle moments (I was really into the random flashes of that demon's face; would love to see a monster like that in modern horror), but the plot doesn't even beginning rolling into pretty far into the film. I thought the Ouija board was a fun touch, although I wasn't convinced that it was even important to the plot— is that how Regan first got possessed, or is it introduced as a cultural tool that introduces the possibility that Regan brought this on herself? Same goes for the small medallion that Father Merrin uncovers at the dig in Iraq. The multiple story lines in this movie struck me as being pretty bizarre in the fashion that they were ultimately edited together. It took such a long time to get to Regan's story, which, while everyone knows is the main point of the movie, in reality doesn't even take up too much time. We see practically just as much slow-moving background on Father Merrin (even though we don't know who the heck he is) and Father Karras as we do on the MacNeils.

One thing I did like about all the background was that it makes the characters more real, which I guess has a lot to do with the book on which this movie is based. I haven't read it, but I'm sure that Blatty, Friedkin, and crew knew exactly what they were doing. The dynamics between Burstyn and Blair are so genuine, so spontaneously realistic that you can't help but liking them. Blair is an incredible actress (although later in the movie it's not clear when it's actually her and when it's a doll with Mercedes McCambridge's voice) because you can't even tell she's acting. She just seems like a happy-go-lucky 12-year-old girl. This is one of the biggest challenges to Karras's faith: Why would such an innocent girl become a victim? What does that mean for the rest of humanity? The onset of her possession happens really quickly (hmmm), but the contrast afterwards is great. Out of all the possession movies I've begrudgingly seen, I think that my absolutely favorite possessed person has to be Regan/ Pazuzu.

What else is weird about this film that I wasn't crazy about? Now I certainly don't think that directors need to beat a dead horse, and I really can't stand dialogue for the sake of plot exposition, but you can't always take crazy leaps and expect people to follow. I acknowledge that I haven't read the book, so perhaps the movie was made with the understanding that many viewers wouldn't have as hard a time following along. Example 1: Father Merrin is called to check out the recently discovered dig site, and when he finds a small medallion and a carving he suddenly grows ill, freaks out, and 'has to leave.' And then he disappears for like an hour and a half. Alright. Later, Regan is showing her mom the Ouija board that she 'found in a closet' and we are introduced to this character of Captain Howdy. The Ouija board is a reference to one of America's most famous cases of possession, which Blatty's novel draws inspiration from. While we do see the planchette move by itself, therefore refusing to let Chris play along with Regan, we never see or hear it mentioned again, and even during a preliminary meeting between Father Karras and possessed Regan, when asked "Are you Regan's friend Captain Howdy?" the entity responds no. So is the Ouija board a red herring, or is Pazuzu just a master of deception, lying all over the place? I couldn't help but feel like this movie on several accounts jumps ahead and we miss out. Why are there bumps in the attic? What was there? A physical manifestation of the demon? Something else that ticked me off was the help in the house— did this movie ever explain that Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn) was an assistant, or why she was living with the family? For half the movie I thought this was Regan's sister that Chris oddly didn't treat like a daughter. This was really confusing, but I guess it's in the book.

I think the special effects of the movie were really pretty good. In fact, I'd have to say that in the whole movie—forget the pea soup, the green slime, the mucus-y loogies-from-hell, the twisted necks, and even the crucifix being used as a weapon and other things—the scene that grossed me out the most was when Regan had to go to the hospital for tests and they like stuck that wire into her neck. The shooting blood and then even thicker needle really grossed me out. Perhaps the other memorable part about this particular classic is Pazuzu's use of profanity. Like keep your children away from this movie unless you want them acting like the offspring of a sailor and a truck driver. I think the fact that they filmed Regan's bedroom scenes in a refrigerated set was brilliant, because I hate in movies when it's supposed to be cold and you don't see any breath. I read that Friedkin kinda sorta abused his cast here, leading to some real and true reactions from various actors resulting from surprise or even pain sustained while filming. I also saw the version with the so-called "spider-walk," and I thought that while its placement within the film was awkward, the scene itself was a cool touch.

As far as acting goes this movie had a '70s touch to it, but the acting was both convincing and endearing. Call me crazy, but did anyone else find it ironic that while Burstyn plays an actress, I didn't think her acting in the beginning of the movie was that great? Regardless, she might have been my favorite character, but I found some scenes a little questionable earlier on in the film. I thought Jason Miller was the true main character of the movie (not sure how it is in the book), and while I felt like I was watching The Godfather, he did a good job. Not sure why Father Merrin is treated so importantly in the plot when his importance did not seem established to me, but I liked von Sydow's acting. As you know, I don't think Linda Blair could have done any better. A quick shout out to Reverend William O'Malley in the role of Father Dyer, because we share the same alma mater. You gotta love a good Jesuit-themed horror movie.

Final critique: You should see this movie, especially at this time of year. While I think there's much more to this movie than its horror, the scary scenes are fun and worth the wait. What I don't understand is why people, magazines, and conglomerate sites rate this movie the scariest movie of all time because it's quite simply not. Understandably, at the time of its release it might have been, especially because of the shocking language and gross imagery. What's strange about the 'scary moments' of this movie is that they're very memorable, but not very scary. Sure, you have a few head turns and a lot of slime thrown on people's faces, and the title song is certainly eerie, but these things last a brief amount of time and then the emphasis returns from horror to drama, which seems to me to have been the theme of this movie.