Showing posts with label teen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label teen. Show all posts

Monday, April 1, 2019

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Director: Robert Hiltzik
Studios: American Eagle Films, United Film Distribution Company
Starring: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Christopher Collet, Karen Fields; ft. Mike Kellin, Robert Earl Jones
Tagline: won't be coming home!
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, thriller, slasher, serial killer, mystery, teen, surprise ending
Scare score: C+
Rating: B 

Plot overview: Years after watching her family die in a tragic boating accident, the incredibly shy Angela (Rose) is sent to summer camp with her popular cousin Ricky (Tiersten). Although she begins to grow comfortable with Ricky's best friend Paul (Collet), most of the other kids at camp insist on bullying her. Unfortunately for them, there's a killer on the loose. Can these kids survive sleep-away camp?

All I wanted before bed tonight was to cuddle up to some classic '80s horror, and I'm so glad I found this movie. Reviews online about "that twist ending" piqued my interest, so I decided to give it a shot. You can't beat those great movie posters either, I had to include the second one because I thought it was just perfect.

To be fully honest, I was nervous at first. I wasn't expecting any great production quality, but the first 10 or so minutes of the movie were pretty rough in terms of the over-acting and melodrama. As you give the movie time to progress, however, its standard slasher plot becomes filled with ridiculous details that make it obvious why this movie has such a strong cult following. First and foremost, this movie is CAMP— pun intended. It has plenty of on-the-nose '80s cheesiness that might not be for everybody but certainly works for Horror Buff (sometimes). Some parts of the movie become so unrealistic that you truly have to suspend your belief and go along for the ride, and if you stick through it, you will be happy that you did.

Even when the acting was subpar or the plot seemed a little weird, the gory deaths in this movie made everything worth it. The makeup team did an amazing job here, and the gore alone elevated this movie so far up in my book. While the majority of the movie isn't super scary, the gore alone carried the movie forward, making it even more memorable.

The most obvious thing about this movie is that it's a Friday the 13th-inspired pastiche from start to finish. The '80s were the golden era of teen slashers, and Sleepaway Camp seemed to just lower the ages of its victims, stay a little less raunchy, and add some Freudian motives to the plot. I was shocked to see how young most of the cast was, and while none of the acting in the movie is anything to write home about, some of the younger actors were leagues ahead of the adults in the film. And how cool is it to see the late Robert Earl Jones, father of the legendary James Earl Jones, making an appearance? Regardless of its very literal camp quality, there is something so alluring about '80s slashers—or about the perversion of places like summer camps, which should be happy—that helps keep the plot enduring even 36 years later.

What struck me most about this movie was probably the character of Dr. Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould), Ricky's mother and Angela's aunt. Any scenes including her—as well as the strikingly psychoanalytic and dreamlike flashbacks featuring Angela's dad—were visually and aesthetically incongruent with the rest of the film and added such a fun dimension to the otherwise straightforward plot. I don't know if it was Gould's personal choice or the director's, but the way she acted Aunt Martha was so alarming and unsettling, like something out of a Tim Burton film. In general, the subplot of Angela's past added a psychodynamic level to the movie that only adds to what seems like a fairly obvious whodunnit mystery.


This movie caught me off guard a few times. I had a really hard time with some of the characters/ subplots, especially the camp's head chef (Owen Hughes) being an unabashed pedophile. I don't think we would ever even see that in a kitsch movie today. Watching the film is like looking into a time capsule of cinematic oddities: There are a few things between nudity and implied violence that I don't think would fly today. For what it's worth, the movie is a wonderful exploration of the terror of puberty and adolescence, as well as a commentary on the stark contrasts between your All-American summer camp setting and the hectic reality of teenage life, not to mention the ensuing struggle to establish an identity. Throw in some selective mutism, a repressed Oedipus/Electra complex, and some definite PTSD, and you've got a lifetime of therapy wrapped up in this film.

They really weren't kidding about that twist ending, huh? I love slashers where the identity of the killer is a mystery, because so often even the simplest answer is hiding a truth that you never would have guessed. The resolution in this movie was not what I was expecting, and while it opened up so many questions for me (I want to learn more about the pathology going on here), it's just that sort of ending you will honestly never forget. The best part was that awful, animalistic noise. So great.

Final critique: This movie is not for everybody, but if fans have kept something popular for 36 years, I think it's a huge credit to a film's reputation. This hit my sweet spot for a cheesy '80s slasher, and it brought with it psychological dimensions I was never expecting to watch. Between the fun mystery in the plot and the roller coaster of melodramatic acting, questionable script-writing, and that amazing surprise ending, this movie would is a perfect watch to pair with a fun group of friends and a big bowl of popcorn for a relaxed movie night. The movie really isn't very scary—just a few jumps scattered over a fairly suspenseful storyline—but the death scenes bring out gore that will have some people covering their eyes and trying to hide. Campy to be sure, and by far not the best the '80s brought us, but an enduringly curious horror movie that you can appreciate nonetheless.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

It Follows (2014)

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.


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!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Friday the 13th (1980)

Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Studios: Paramount Pictures
Starring: Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon, Betsy Palmer
Tagline: They Were Warned... They Are Doomed... And on Friday the 13th, Nothing Will Save Them.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, slasher, stalker, thriller, psychopath, serial killer, teen
Scare score: C+
Rating: A-

Plot overview: As the film begins, two adolescent counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are killed by an unseen murderer wielding a knife and a machete. The film continues in "present day" as a handful of teenagers make their way to Camp Crystal Lake, which is set to reopen despite past tragedies and local rumors, resulting in the townies referring to it as "Camp Blood." The counselors arrive on Friday the 13th, and on their first night they are stalked and murdered by an unseen killer until only one is left to fend for her life.

Ask somebody in America to think about teen slasher movies, or just show them a retro hockey mask, and they will think about the Friday the 13th franchise. These films might just be your most stereotypical, thought-about, and referenced staple horror movies, filled with plenty of teenagers behaving badly and some mysterious killer stalking them in the distance. To me, the character of Jason goes hand in hand with Michael Myers even more so than he does with Freddy, although the latter left his mark rather explicitly on the '80s despite recent remakes. I wish I could have been alive in the 1980s if only to rot my teeth with candy and popcorn while going to the movies to see the constant debuts of these now-retro horror flicks— the iconic masks, the wide array of weapons, and the horrible acting on behalf of the victims.

I was never a big Friday the 13th fan growing up as I was much more partial to Halloween. Last night, however, was the perfect night to re-watch this campy horror classic and really enjoy it for the first time. It's clear that this franchise wanted to soak up some of the success of Halloween, and to me that's really cool. They did their own, good* job, made a new horror menace, had your classic storyline, and left their mark on generations to come.

*I use 'good' here to mean the sort of good that comes from kind of bad things. You know? Anyway, let's get started.

This is a movie of wonderful contradictions. Throughout the whole thing there is a bizarre mix of awful script-writing with strangely natural, effortless acting, but there's also plenty of decent script with acting so bad that you want to pull your hair out. This really surprised me, especially the scenes where the varied ensemble (including Kevin Bacon and one of Bing Crosby's sons... like no big deal I guess) of teens are actually so casual that you think you're looking at candid home footage. These parts are contrasted by everything you imagine teen horror (especially from the '80s) to be: awful. To help the acting, some of the writing is really natural and even enjoyable— and then there are parts that you want to poke your own eyes out because the dialogue is so dumb. What a roller coaster ride with a strangely awesome outcome.

I think most people between the ages of 15 and 60 would at least recognize (although not necessarily know the source of) the "ki ki ki, ma ma ma" sound that this movie made so iconic. Also, I mean, it's clearly more of a "chi chi chi, ha ha ha" with a really guttural emphasis at the beginning of either sound, but movie scorer Harry Manfredini says otherwise. This movie gives us an eerie score (with parts sounding identical to Psycho by the end), with music building us up and making us ready for "bam" moments that rarely come.

The movie poster is awesome. I want it in my bedroom now. Enough said.

My favorite thing about Friday the 13th is how it was filmed. The first person point of view is normally just the cameraman, but in crucial moments it is also the killer— and the lines are often blurred. There are scenes in which we're meant to think we're seeing what the killer sees, and then it turns out that no one was there. I absolutely love that. Sure we've seen what it's like behind Michael Myers's mask (with the two dumb eyeholes, nobody actually sees like that), but we also usually see Michael himself. That's the other thing I love about this movie— killer wise, it does everything Halloween doesn't. We don't know who the killer is this entire film, and this mystery identity keeps us guessing and worrying. Also, where Halloween banks on the shots with the killer made just visible in the background—down the street, in a window, in the backyard (PS I love those shots)—in this movie we never see the killer. The best part is that we are so often set up to expect to see a shadow or silhouette, and we never do. All we ever see is a hand and the weapon. The first person makes this film much more suspenseful.

Next we have the question of the plot itself: this entire film is plausible— why shouldn't some teens left alone at a creepy camp out in the woods be stalked and murdered by some assailant? Nothing fantastic happens here except for the killer's insanely good aim with arrows, knives, and axes. This movie is scary because you're going to think about it the next time you go out camping with friends. So again, the whole movie, you're sitting there and thinking "Uh huh, this is going to happen to me (especially in West Jersey: yikes)"— and then the last ten minutes happen.


The last ten minutes of the movie leave us with questions that cannot be answered. Following a night of scaring and tragic events, why would you just float out into the middle of a lake in the dark on a canoe quite literally without a paddle? Why would Jason still be a boy? Why does Alice (King) suddenly believe that "he's still there" and why would he be a boy (you dope)? Why did the police show up blaring their lights to a camp even though there was no call for help or reason to think anything was wrong? And since when does a machete—which I could have sworn was a broken canoe paddle—cut clean through a neck and spine? While the shot of Jason jumping up out of the water made me jump a little, too, I wonder if the entire falling action of the movie was made purely to introduce Jason and set up the sequel. Still, I've read that the whole Jason sequence was dreamed up only to provide one final scare in the movie. Sell. Outs.

One of the best things about this movie is the mystery identity of the killer. This isn't Michael Myers, who we know is stalking and killing everybody in Illinois. Is it Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney)? Is it the camp's owner, Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer)? After the commercial success of this franchise, everyone associates the movies with one thing: Jason. After all, it's all about him, isn't it? Well we return to this first film, and then we're not so sure. Because 21 years after an unnamed child drowns at Camp Crystal Lake, we think we're watching only slightly related events until the last ten minutes of the film when we finally hear the name 'Jason'— and meet his mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Palmer). I absolutely loved that the killer was a woman and a mother, and I loved that through her reverse-Psycho psychosis she provides her own M.O. by switching to "Kill her, mommy. Kill her." While that might be really easy to laugh at in a crowd, by yourself or with a small group it is a truly eerie touch of crazy. Mrs. Voorhees's pursuit of Alice at the end of the film was rather pathetic (I think she gets knocked down, but she gets up again a la Chumbawumba at least 5 times), with the suspense dragging on until ridiculousness climaxes with a decapitation that's so unpredictable we don't know if we can accept it. Then again, I guess the filmmakers didn't really care if we accepted it, because with at least 10 more sequels to follow, this is the highest-grossing horror film franchise of all time.

Final critique: While this is the slasher film franchise that set all the stereotypes, in and of itself it is not the most stereotypical movie. One one hand, we had something creepy, new, and different at the time of the film's release. On the other hand, this movie is pretty much the basis of my second cardinal rule. Characters are at times filled with real teenage emotion, but they are usually very flat with little delivery. Deaths are plentiful and while they are often suspenseful, they are not scary or interesting. Their random occurrences and their random discoveries, however, perhaps add more terror to the film than a movie boasting predictable deaths might have. All in all, this is a campy classic that I'm sure only gets worse as the franchise moves on. For the time being, I highly recommend this first film especially during the Halloween season or at any late night movie viewing. Be warned that there are some gorey scenes, but not too many real scares.