Showing posts with label supernatural thriller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label supernatural thriller. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Pet Sematary (2019)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer
Studios: Di Bonaventura Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Starring: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence
Tagline: Sometimes dead is better; They don't come back the same.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, zombie, haunting, family drama, remake, Stephen King
Scare score: B-
Rating: B+/B


Plot overview: After moving from Boston to Maine, Louis Creed (Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Seimetz) are hoping for a more calm way of life so that they can slow things down while raising their two kids. Shortly after settling in, however, the family begins to be plagued by strange events, culminating in the death of their beloved pet cat, Church. The Creeds' new friend and neighbor, Jud Crandall (Lithgow), decides to help with their grieving, so he takes Louis beyond the local pet 'sematary' to a dark and ancient place to bury Church, who comes back home later that night, seemingly alive but fundamentally changed. When disaster strikes the family again shortly thereafter, the temptation to bring the dead back to life proves too strong for Louis, even though he knows that whatever comes back will not be the same as what was lost.

I waited a few weeks to see this movie in theaters, and I ended up having an afternoon showing all to myself. The projectionist even fast forwarded past all the previews so that I could get straight to the movie. Sometimes living in a small town has its perks for Horror Buff.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, but considering his prolific and unmatched impact on horror as we know it, the majority of Stephen King's body of work that was adapted to film fell victim to the era of production, that is to say so many of his books became movies cursed by the production quality of the '80s. I think The Shining is a stunning exception to this, but when you think about movies like Thinner (which is still fun) or especially Graveyard Shift, even Cujo and Christine to a lesser extent, I think it becomes more apparent. Anywho, nothing a remake can't fix... enter Pet Sematary.

The original movie from 1989 was one of the earliest horror movies I was continuously exposed to while growing up, and it has had a very lasting impression on me. It felt like it was always on TV, and some of my earliest memories of horror are from this film. I think one of the images that has scared me most throughout my life, all because of how young I was when I would see it on TV, was that of Rachel's sister and her case of spinal meningitis from hell. That being said, my interest was piqued when I learned that this new version was coming out.

My general thoughts are that this was a fun adaptation but not groundbreaking. It had a lot of familiar elements with some other scattered references to King's mythos (e.g. Derry sign while Rachel is in traffic), but it also made some bold choices to change the plot of the book and the original. Even though Horror Buff feels like a purist so much of the time, I didn't see the harm in freshening up the story with some of these new or altered bits of plot.

I really enjoyed the production quality and I thought the film was pretty lovely to watch, including all that beautiful Maine wilderness. I especially loved the creepy animal masks the local children would wear on their processions into the Pet Sematary when laying a lost loved one down; this was one of those eerie things just believable or fun enough that a small town might do and that would look as terrifying to outsiders like Rachel as it did to us as viewers— but that might be totally normal to locals who had observed the tradition for generations.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I also thought the acting was pretty solid throughout the movie, or at least in lazier scenes that it never got into that awful family drama aspect that we've seen in so many horror movies focused around the family unit. I recognized Clarke's face but I'm not too familiar with his other work; he could have fooled me that he's Australian! I didn't love him in the beginning but he grew on me during the film. Amy Seimetz (The Possession, Alien: Covenant) was given a sort of strange role with Rachel, who really misses out on most of the action. I liked her but I didn't feel especially moved by the re-exploration of her childhood trauma, which I felt she could have acted more strongly. She was great in her final scenes, however. I think one of the smartest plot change decisions this movie made was to kill and reanimate Ellie (Laurence) instead of Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie). I thought the young Laurence has a great look about her and I wonder if we will see more of her, and it felt more natural to utilize a more mature actor—even though she's still a little kid—to play such a crucial role in the movie. I laughed out loud at the early scene when she comments how "cemetery" is spelt wrong on the sign at the pet sematary. ELLIE IS ALL OF US. Especially as her undead version, Laurence brought a lot of morbid fun to the movie— there was something mature about her contemplative nature upon realizing her own deadness and incompatibility with the natural world. I could have done without that demented ballet scene, though.

Pretty much the whole time, I was expecting the infantile Gage to get killed, and as the first movie showed us, there is only so much you can do with a child that young coming back as some demonic zombie. I was even nervous that it would become special effect heavy to carry that all out, given how young Gage was. So as my stomach was all in knots anticipating the inevitable during the birthday party scene, it's fair to say I was really surprised with how that all ended up. Why wouldn't these people have built a giant fence along their property line? Forget the creepy cemetery and ancient Indian burial ground (*yawn*)— that highway was a nightmare! Admittedly, I jumped pretty hard the first time a truck sped by early on in the movie. After that, I really didn't think this movie was too scary. There was some classic suspense, and even just the right amount of gore between the flashback to Zelda's (Alyssa Levine) death, Ellie attacking Jud (Achilles tendon iconic to the original), and that particularly enjoyable early scene when Louis tries to save former college student and future ghost Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) following an accident. I chuckled during Jud's death scene as we see demon zombie Church licking his little cat lips in anticipation— that was great.

Fun fact: Stephen King was inspired to write this book while working at the University of Maine (much like Louis) after his family cat was killed by a truck on a busy nearby road. He had to bury the cat and explain what had happened to his daughter when he started to wonder, what would happen if the cat could come back, only different?

Otherwise the horror here was kind of odd at times. I think it's almost more that I found myself too busy questioning the logic behind everything that I couldn't focus on what exactly was happening. Why does Victor get to haunt Louis? Especially when there is a special burial site to reanimate the dead, where does a random ghost come into play? Why in the world did Jud ever think that bringing Church back to life would be a good idea, especially given his story about his pet dog and the implications about his late wife? Are the dead simply brought back to life with a grudge, or is this more of a demonic possession happening? While the end of the movie is being considered shocking now, I felt the last couple of minutes were not wholly satisfying and that the movie even ended on a strange note. (Not to mention it breaks my first Cardinal Rule!)

I know the Indian burial ground trope is tired and has received its fair share of due criticism, but I enjoyed this movie's quick references and short sighting of the wendigo, a prevailing piece of Native American folklore that scared me a lot as a kid. I think this movie examines the breakdown of the nuclear family unit, exploring not only death but grief and loss in general. I wonder if there is commentary on the guilt so common in grief, and if that guilt can be extended to America's bloody colonial history. As Jud mentions, perhaps burying Church in the burial ground in the first place started a string of events that would ultimately lead to the Creeds' demise, or maybe the events were totally random. Is there an element of revenge here? Who are the demons returning in the dead's bodies, anyhow? Or am I overthinking it?

Final critique: This wasn't a bad movie, but it wasn't the amazing remake you might anticipate after almost exactly 30 years (the original was released April 21, 1989). Then again, the actual material here is pretty specific, and I don't think there was much more you could have changed without losing the story, or without losing the audience who is first and foremost dedicated to King. Though not a terribly scary movie, the combination of jump scares, brief violence/ gore, and the generally dark mood of the film might mean some people will have to sit this one out. The moral dilemma here is enough to have you thinking about this movie for a while after. How far would you go if you had the power to reverse death? Or is it better to accept that the loved one you lost can never come back, at least not as their original self?

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.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

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!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Hereditary (2018)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Ari Aster
Studios: A24, PalmStar Media, Finch Entertainment, Windy Hill Pictures
Starring: Toni Collette, Ann Dowd, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro
Tagline: Every family tree hides a secret.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, family drama, mystery, occult, witches, cult
Scare score: A
Rating: A+


Plot overview: After the death of her secretive mother, Annie Graham's (Collette) family begins to be plagued by suspicious and tragic events. Stricken by grief, Annie falls farther away from her family: strained husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), withdrawn son Peter (Wolff), and distant daughter Charlie (Shapiro). As the family continues to unravel, Annie finds solace in Joan (Dowd), a woman from a grief support group who tries convincing her that the dead may not really be gone after all.

This is a stunningly horrifying film that I would recommend to anyone. If you want to truly spiral into terror and insanity and spill your popcorn all over the place, this is the movie for you.

I think what I love most about this movie is that it keeps on taking you where you do not expect it to go. It's really not a genre bender, but I swear, even the second time I watched it I was so impressed and delighted with the twists and turns it takes. This movie constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat as its horrible reality unfurls.

We start with the Graham family, currently faced with the loss of Annie's mysterious mother, Ellen. Though grief-struck, we come to realize that it is not at the loss of the old woman but at something deeper and perhaps long gone. In fact, the only person who seems truly upset with Ellen's passing is young Charlie, a seeming outcast who is often silent save for her habitual tongue click. Her fixation with building toys and models with mismatched heads feels somehow disturbing but pales in comparison to her mother's works: Annie is an artist renowned for her work crafting miniatures, impeccably created scenes from her past and present all on display in smaller scale in her workshop. Her art should be for the world to see, but with an upcoming exhibition looming on Annie's mind and feeling ever more unlikely, the miniatures instead become for Annie alone. They provide what she calls "a neutral view," but we come to learn that these fastidiously-made models are a way for Annie to reflect on her own choices and memories and control everything therein.

Despite their troubles, the family maintains a semblance of normality until another freak accident spins everything out of control. More on that after the Spoiler jump.

The acting in this film is fantastic. There is something sinister about Collette throughout the movie that makes you question her at every turn, even when it feels like she is the only person so desperately trying to keep her family from falling apart. The movie provides beautiful commentary on grief, mental illness, and family, especially between children and their parents. It forces us to ask what is the meaning (or purpose) of family? What do we inherit aside from names and traditions? What things do we carry with and inside of us, even if we would rather not? I'm definitely on the bandwagon that Collette was snubbed for major award recognition because her performance here is wide-ranging and superb and should go down as a classic in the horror genre. I was equally impressed by young Alex Wolff, a former child star on Nickelodeon and now a budding actor and director. The role of Peter is crucial to the film and Wolff portrays the reserved, greasy-haired, pot-smoking teen so naturally. I thought it was especially wonderful how vulnerable Peter was, and the scenes were he is clearly terrified or left crying really stuck with me. Ann Dowd was also a treat, and I thought her voice was really perfect for her role and the lines she has in the movie.

Furthermore, the cinematography is beautiful. The shots in and around the Grahams' home were fantastic, as were the many scenes taking place in and around cars: I especially liked the use of the rearview mirrors. There is also the terrific use of the color red: From heat lamps to break lights to bloody eyes, there is something haunting and demonic about it. Toward the end of the film, we are treated to some really spectacular camera work as an unsteady, wavering camera follows characters around the dark house. The movie plays with the concept of Annie's miniatures vs. real life and several times we're not sure if what we're looking at is real or an imitation— or if it matters either way. Is this Annie's perspective and can we trust it? Or are the lofty, overhead shots supposed to be from God's eye (or something else floating above)? Lastly, the film has some delightfully unexpected transitions, such as when day suddenly turns to night in the same frame or when ominous bodies and figures are teased just in or just out of focus.

I also thought the movie had great music, most of all the stunning orchestrations in the final sequence, and a lot of the soundtrack reminded me of The VVitch, which is also distributed by A24, one of my favorite production companies of the moment both for horror and other genres. I'm currently counting down the days until Ari Aster's next movie (also with A24), Midsommar.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I love how quickly things start to fall apart for the characters in this movie, and with most of the action concentrated in the first and third acts, plus plenty of scares and drama when you least expect it, you're pretty captivated for the entire thing. We have the classic case of an unreliable narrator potentially slipping into madness, which means we're never quite sure who or what to believe as events start to spiral out of control. We learn early on that Annie's family has a history of severe mental illness, especially disorders with high rates of heritability such as schizophrenia or depression. There is horror in the film long before the thrilling end, and that is in the death of the family unit. As the Grahams continue to fall apart, evil continues to gain a stronger hold. I thought one of the saddest moments of the film was when a manic Annie tries comforting Peter by acknowledging that something terrible is happening, reassuring her terrified son and saying "I'm the only one who can fix this." At this point, we already don't believe her. But is mental health really any explanation for what's happening here, or is it something more supernatural entirely?

I adore this movie. If you pay close enough attention, you'll realize that something is off from the earliest scenes, perhaps starting with the man at Ellen's funeral smiling so intently at Charlie. I loved how these unnerving and suspenseful moments grew in frequency and scale throughout the movie, ultimately leading to the climax of the cult moving in on the Graham household. Shots with ominous figures just in range but still obscured are some of my favorite in horror, and this movie starts with single figures before giving us that incredible shot of dozens of naked bodies surrounding the house. I think the disturbing use of naked bodies in horror is incredibly effective, especially if done the way this movie or It Follows does it. We're so used to the hypersexualization of bodies in horror that their unwanted appearance perverts the entire process and makes already-scary scenes all the more frightening.

Other details I loved in this movie were the awesome seance scenes and the unforgettable finale with Toni Collette lingering in the shadows of the ceiling. I'm always into a classroom scene that mirrors the plot (à la Halloween), and we get several of them in this movie if you know to pay attention to them. At one point we can read "Punishment brings wisdom" on the blackboard in Peter's classroom, and we also hear a teacher explaining that a character's "murder was commanded by the gods." Little does Peter know while zoning out in class and staring at his crush's butt that he, too, is involved in a much larger and sinister plot with otherworldly beings taking control. I thought the tongue click may have been the single most ingenious thing this movie did (who knew how scary it sounded?), and I love that something as simple as a nut allergy was enough to take down a demon, or at least his weak human form. The car scene with the two kids in the middle of nowhere is just such a treat, because it breaks my number one cardinal rule and takes you so by surprise you almost can't believe it's really happening. Though I find it hard to believe that even a traumatized teen would be able to simply drive away and go to bed without telling his parents, Collette's reaction to this untimely (and familiar) loss is fantastic. As the story comes together, it makes sense why Annie described it as feeling like she "gave up" Charlie to her mother (never let grandma breastfeed the kids), or why her brother committed suicide and blamed his decision on his mother for "putting people inside" of him. It's no surprise that in the West, the medical model is preferred over supernatural explanations, and mental disorders are diagnosed in cases that other cultures might attribute to spiritual causes. Hereditary shares that theme with The Exorcist, not to mention the whole possession of innocent children by demon kings of the west.

The ending of the film is one of the most memorable things to happen to horror in recent years, and I truly hope the movie goes down in horror halls of fame far outside of Horror Buff's own blog.

Final critique: This movie is a treat and I would recommend it to anybody, but I would warn them that they are really in for a wild and scary ride. Hereditary takes twists and turns unlike we've seen in a long time, and it masterfully mixes classic horror themes and tropes with new and refreshing characters and situations. Hats off to Ari Aster on this screenplay; this is the kind of horror movie that can redeem the entire genre for mainstream audiences. I look forward to rewatching this time and again.

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.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ouija (2014)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wishmaster (1997)

GENERAL INFO:
Director: Robert Kurtzman
Studios: Pierre David, Image Organization
Starring: Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, Robert Englund
Tagline: Be Careful What You Wish For.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, supernatural thriller, folklore, religious occult
Scare score: C-
Rating: A-


Plot overview: After centuries of being trapped inside the magical fire opal, an evil djinn (Divoff) is finally released into "present day" Los Angeles by an unsuspecting Alexandra (Lauren). Ultimately, the evil entity must track Alexandra down in order to grant her three wishes which will release the rest of the destructive race of the djinn from their realm between worlds. Along the way, however, he collects the souls of other victims slowly and painfully by tricking them into asking for a wish. The fate of the world lies in Alex's hands as she plays the djinn's terrible game, hoping to outsmart him before making her third and final wish.

While laying here sick in bed, I came across Wishmaster 3 on TV and realized that I had never seen any of these movies aside from their VHS cases on the shelves of Blockbuster back in my youth. So with all the time in the world ahead of me, I flipped off the TV and went straight to the internet.

I, uh, really liked this movie. I'm a sucker for big movie plots and romance and cool sets and costumes, so the opening sequence in Persia alone had me hooked. The first thing that strikes you about this movie aside from the sort of mystical plot (which, aside from the whole wishing bit, I found to be pretty closely related to what I had learned about jinn—ghosts of sorts that linger between worlds but often interfere with humans in playful or malevolent ways—in a class I took on Islam in college) was the gore. There is plenty of fun, colorful gore in this movie that reminded me a lot of '80s horror (after all, Wes Craven's name is attached to this first film in the Wishmaster series), a mix of Hellraiser with perhaps some Nightmare on Elm Street. We're talking fun, explosive, makeup-heavy bodies with skeletons breaking out and goo pouring from every orifice, the type of gore that makes you smile but still feel just the slightest bit queasy. I thought the gore was so creative and the costumes and makeup were excellent, specifically in the opening scene in Persia and Beaumont's (Englund) party towards the end of the film. I hope this film got some recognition for that.

The whole plot is just plain fun. The djinn/ genie himself is such an evil jerk we have to hate him. In his natural form is he is kind of scary, although I found his look to be a little too Star Wars meets Jeepers Creepers. Actually, adults with acne scars really freak me out, so I thought that the Nathaniel Demerest human form was even more creepy. I think the best thing they did with this djinn was keep him serious and not let him make any one liners like we see so often in the Leprechaun movies or even in Nightmare on Elm Street (sorry, Freddy). Keeping this genie meanie (I had to) allowed him to actually be a smart, formidable enemy.

Alexandra is a cool, likable leading lady with a sort of '90s girl power about her; we find her somewhere in between the hopeless, clueless, sexy horror movie girls from the '80s and the hopeless, clueless, sexy horror movie girls from the '00s. This girl is all about brain but with looks to boot; thankfully she is never exploited for her femininity, as overall this film stays away from the sex card. Her only fault is that she loves her family and friends, and almost throws away the well-being of the world to save their lives. So selfish! (Just kidding, it's a really tight situation.)

Hey there Robert Englund! Isn't he so evil looking even with no makeup on and while playing a perfectly ambivalent character? This movie has a few familiar faces that we love to see in our growing horror family, such as Tony Todd (Candyman himself!) who I love and Jenny O'Hara from Devil who has a great face and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw her in more movies in the future.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I guess my biggest issue with this film is that I thought the resolution brought up some pretty big plot holes. We've all seen Disney's Aladdin, and more importantly we've all seen Kazaam (coincidence that Wishmaster came out only a year later? I think not) so we know the yesses and nos regarding genies: they can't bring people back from the dead, they can't make people fall in love, and you can't wish for more wishes. Like duh this is so sophomoric why am I even reviewing it, right? Well Alex tries making the evil djinn kill himself, and she gets a bit too literal by saying "blow your brains out," and not to our surprise we find that the djinn cannot commit suicide/ die because he is older than time yadda yadda yadda. At the final climax of the film, however, Alex simply wishes one specific detail (omg because she studied newspapers!! so smart!!) that takes everyone back in time, preventing the djinn from being unleashed from the stone in the first place (for now). Okay... so there were a million other wishes that would have had the same positive result? What if I wished the djinn back into the stone? What if I wished he never was created? What if I wished he wasn't evil? What if I wished him powerless? What if I just politely asked him to stop? The third and final wish and the subsequent 'defeat' of Mr. Genie becomes a bit anti-climactic, and tons of plot holes are opened up. Oh well, at least we have room for a sequel now.

Favorite scene: Hands down, following Alex's second wish when she is returned safely back to her apartment (what a waste of a wish) and the djinn is leaving a message on her answering machine (classic 1997). In the middle of his threatening message, she picks up the phone and yells a forced "F*** you!" Oh snap girl you just shut that djinn djownn!

Final critique: I can see why people wouldn't like this movie. It can be borderline cheesy at times even though it avoids humor which so many horror movies of the '80s and '90s tended to include in some way. My response would be that this movie falls under the horror genre but not under terror. While the djinn is evil, he's a colorful '90s evil. This isn't a dark thriller that instills terror in our hearts by any means, but if you accept that this is a fun horror film, you will be thrilled by the plot and the plentiful gore. I recommend this movie for anybody looking for a fun, light horror with a few scares, but if you can't handle gore (even though it's not realistic), this isn't the movie for you.

Also, is The Horror Blog complete now since I referenced Kazaam? I think that's how life works.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

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


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

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

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

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

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

*SPOILER ALERT*

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

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