Showing posts sorted by relevance for query scream. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query scream. Sort by date Show all posts

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Scream 2 (1997)

  Wes Craven
Studios:  Konrad Pictures, Craven-Maddalena Films
Starring:  Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Jerry O'Connell, Jamie Kennedy, Elise Neal; ft. Liev Schreiber, Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Rebecca Gayheart, Portia de Rossi, Jada Pinkett[-Smith], Tori Spelling, Luke Wilson, Heather Graham, Lewis Arquette
Tagline:  Someone has taken their love of sequels one step too far.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, sequel, drama, mystery, slasher, stalker, serial killer, masked murderer, college, teen
Scare score:  B
Rating:  A/A-

Plot overview:  Two years after the events of the first movie, Sidney Prescott (Campbell) and fellow survivor Randy Meeks (Kennedy) have put the past behind them and moved onto new life at Windsor College.  Unfortunately, it seems the past is not as willing to let them go as a copycat Ghostface begins a new killing spree at Windsor, attracting plenty of media attention as well as renewed coverage by the now well-known Gale Weathers (Cox).  One by one, the new Ghostface attempts to finish what the first Ghostface started.  Will Sidney and friends be able to survive a second time?

As much as the first movie played on the tropes of teen slasher films, Scream 2 satirizes your stereotypical [horror] sequel, going so far as to dedicating decent amounts of plot time to character discussions about movie sequels.  Lolzz inception.  That being said, while the film adds some novelties and plot twists, it ultimately adds few real nuances to the genre or to the plot of the previous film.  That is not to say, however, that this movie is not a really fun ride, because I think it is just as enjoyable as the first one.  And while in WBAI Radio's (?) boast that this sequel is "twice as hip, scary, and entertaining!" - well normally I would tend to discard any acclaim that uses the word 'hip' in a non-ironic way, but this time around I might just agree.

We are presented with an impressive cast of celebrities in roles both large and small.  Drew Barrymore inspired legitimate actors to take horror movies more seriously after her cameo in Scream, leading to similar cameos by Tori Spelling, Luke Wilson, and Heather Graham in "Stab" the movie-within-a-movie that we see in theaters at the beginning of the film.  Viewers playing close attention will perhaps catch the relation between Spelling's role in "Stab" and a joke made by Sidney in Scream saying that if a movie were made about Woodsboro she'd probably be played by Spelling.  Fictitious reality meets reality meets fiction within fictitious reality?  Again, inception.  We are treated to a sort of prologue starring Jada Pinkett (pre Will) in a sequence that makes us question our own security at places like movie theaters or other gatherings involving large crowds of masked people.

Cameos aside, the supporting cast here is surprisingly filled with stars as well.  Alongside his son and future daughter-in-law we have Lewis Arquette as police Chief Hartley.  In two of the best and somehow obnoxiously-subtle roles of Sorority Sisters Lois and Murphy we have Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend) and Portia de Rossi, respectively.  These two girls crack me up every time I see the movie.  Lastly, how could I forget Sarah Michelle Gellar ('modern' scream queen, I Know What You Did Last Summer) as sorority girl Cici, who for some reasons unbeknownst to us viewers stars in a rather large sequence of the film.  Still, she's ditzy, resilient, and puts up a good fight.  Gotta' love her.

Then, in the top-billed cast, aside from our old friends from Scream, we have a big, boyish performance by Jerry O'Connell aka an older and muscular version of Vern from Stand by Me, which if you haven't seen I'm going to need to you x-out of this blog now and go watch.  Immediately.  Go watch Stand By Me.  If you're still reading this you're doing something wrong.

Now that we've narrowed down dedicated readers from those who have never seen Stand By Me, we can move on.  Acting in the film is good, if not always believable it's certainly enjoyable.  We have our standard 'college' film here although thankfully not every over-the-top stereotypical character is included, so that's a breath of fresh air.  We again become deeply involved in the plight of Sidney who is a pretty fantastic heroine although I'll say again my one complaint is that I think she is somehow too tough and considering the amount of people dying around her and even because of her, I think she becomes a little less realistic.  But hey, she's fun to root for.  Liev Schreiber makes an actual appearance in this film as the recently exonerated but still not entirely sane Cotton (that's not actually a first name, right?) Weary, and personally I think he receives an A+ for creepiness although he is too obvious to be guilty.

Much like the previous film, in Scream 2, pretty much everybody is suspicious at one point or another.  After all, so many characters involved with the first set of murders have returned either to protect Sidney or even to profit on the new crimes.  Aren't they likely suspects to continue Ghostface's legacy? Or perhaps it's a newbie, such as seemingly perfect and caring boyfriend Derek (O'Connell)?  Unfortunately, this time around, Ghostface's identity is even more difficult to guess than it was last time.

Scare-wise, this isn't the scariest movie out there, but much like the first installment in the franchise, there are a few good moments.  This mainly revolves around Ghostface creeping around in the background (Horror Buff loves shots like that) or rapidly pursuing his prey.  Again, it is Ghostface's speed that truly freaks me out.  Even more so than in the first film, we see Ghostface's iconic wipe-victim's-blood-off-knife-after-kill plus his violently-wave-knife-in-the-air-when-you-can't-fit-through-the-door that bothers me so much.  Sometimes, the desperate attempt is more unnerving than a silent approach to murder.  Sometimes.

Fun fact: Upon completing a large portion of the script, screenwriter Kevin Williamson found that his work had accidentally (?) leaked all over the internet - damn pre-Y2K technology!  This led to major setbacks in development as many of the film's secrets were now public.  Williamson and Craven had to change a lot of the movie's plot, including the identity of Ghostface, and they even resorted to only distributing the script to actors of specific days of filming to prevent another situation.

Final critique:  This is another great installment in the Scream franchise; think "Ghostface: The College Years".  Complete with good acting, an enticing although heavily emphasized and satirized plot, and an incredible ensemble of celebrities, this movie is among the crowd favorite to go with a late night snack or a high school sleepover.  Don't let the teen label distract you, though, there is real merit to this film.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Scream (1996)

Director:  Wes Craven
Studios:  Woods Entertainment, Dimension Films
Starring:  Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Matthew Lillard; ft. Drew Barrymore, Henry Winkler, Liev Schreiber, Matthew Lillard's tongue
Tagline:  Someone has taken their love of scary movies one step too far.  Solving this mystery is going to be murder.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, thriller, slasher, stalker, drama, mystery, serial killer, masked murderer, teen
Scare score:  B-
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  A year after the rape and murder of wife and mother Maureen Prescott, the small town of Woodsboro is once again haunted by the onset of a new string of murders.  Maureen's daughter Sidney (Campbell) soon becomes the center of the masked serial killer Ghostface's plot, and everybody is a suspect.

I love this movie.  Love it.  One of my favorites, hands down, just because of what it represents.  The Scream movies were heavily influential in Horror Buff's adolescent years, so they bring back good memories.  I mean, how can you beat Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm StreetThe People Under the Stairs, Wishmaster) plus a full cast of celebs in a film that brought the dying horror genre back to life?  Answer: you can't.

Scream is the beginning of a whole new boom for horror movies (and parodies), especially those from the late '90s through the mid 2000s that I especially love so much.  The best thing about this movie, though, is that it's still scarier and takes itself more seriously than, say, the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise.  Sure we have a few laughs in this one, and sure Matthew Lillard's tongue seems to fall out of his mouth every time he speaks, but I think mainly due to Neve Campbell (swoon) and Courtney Cox's (swoon harder) ability to stay serious and focused through the film (not to mention a psychotic killer who doesn't make a fool of himself and just a hint of gore), we actually have something scary on our hands.

Originally titled "Scary Movie" (ohh the parodies to ensue), Scream very cleverly plays upon the tropes of your standard horror film.  In fact, for young Horror Buff, this movie was very influential in summarizing ideas that would later influence my rules for horror flicks.  I absolutely love how screenwriter Kevin Williamson manages to pay homage to some of his own favorite movies, such as Halloween (twins!!) through allusions in the script, music, and even film within the film.  The quick sequence with the Woodsboro High School custodian "Fred"sporting Freddy's sweater (and job) from Wes Craven's own Nightmare on Elm Street franchise deserves a special shout out.  Somehow, Williamson found a sweet spot in horror after cliches had become cliche but before they had become sour, and he played on those to make a brand new iconic murderer, who in this film has both a scary, complicated, and twisted motive in mind.  In 1996, audiences were probably fed up with the teenagers being slashed concept - but Scream presents it to us in a whole new way, with new speed and fear, without forgetting its own roots.

Ghostface is wonderfully frightening, with a sickening balance of craft and creepiness, sanity and total psychosis.  Just as much as Michael Myers scares me for being slow and impassive, so Ghostface freaks me out because of how fast he is!  One of my biggest fears is the feeling of someone or something following me - so while I always like to convince myself that I could hide from or outrun Michael Myers (laughs ensue), watching Ghostface just sprint around all over Woodsboro, tackling plenty of furniture along the way - and especially that little move of not being able to fit through a door but wildly waving his knife-wielding arm around inside the room - frankly scares me.  While perfectly human, Ghostface conveys a superhuman sense of durability, stamina, and stealth.  I think it is so genius that the makers of the film used a regular, actual mask sold at stores.  Like reality meets merchandising?  Yes please.

The acting is good in this movie.  Neve Campbell as Sidney is cool and calm (maybe too calm towards the end) and kicks ass as our typical final girl.  Monica Geller is spunky, fun, tough, and wears a neon yellow skirt suit.  What more is there to say?  While the dopey character of Deputy Dewey (Arquette) puzzles me and to this day I think that in this movie he's actually his parodied version from Scary Movie, it's cute to watch him and later real-life wife crush on each other amidst a spree of teenage murders.  Matthew Lillard and his tongue in the role of hyper teenager Stu Macher is crazy and frankly pretty weird, but he's also fun and carefree as I imagine all teenagers in Cali to be.  While boyfriend Billy Loomis (Ulrich) is brooding and often insensitive, he is suave and believable.  Even Sidney's blonde bestie Tatum (Rose McGowan) - a role often left victim to every stereotype of ditzy - seems like a normal teenager.  All of these believable teens plus both scary and humorous scenes starring Drew Barrymore, The Fonz, and Liev Schreiber (why don't I like him?  Probably because he played Lyndon B. Johnson in The Butler) can only result in a big billed horror success.

The plot is good in this movie.  The motives are questionable and everybody is suspicious.  Ghostface seems to be in two places at once, and one by one we find ourselves questioning Sidney's friends and perhaps even Sid herself.  Where is her dad?  Is her mom really dead?  What about that meddling reporter?  All of these teens in Woodsboro seem highly knowledgable about horror movies - have they just been doing research?  The phone call sequences are creepy and I admit that I am guilty of reenacting them upon unsuspecting friends.  Basically this movie stays fast-paced right up until the very end- managing to use, build upon, and then even break horror stereotypes along the way.

Final critique:  Not much else to say except watch this movie.  This is one of my top recommendations to any variety of audience looking for a good but fun horror movie.  Gather around the TV with friends late at night, or cuddle up with a special someone (or a bowl of popcorn).  Be advised that there is the slightest amount of actual gore but a decent amount of corn syrupy-looking blood, as well as plenty of scares and things that go bump in the night.  Regardless, Horror Buff will tell you to toughen up, and get this movie on VHS… I mean… whatever it is folks use these days, and allow Scream to take you back, back to the last millennium and the good old days of splendid teen horror movies.

Friday, January 31, 2014

January Review

For your consideration:

1.  Scream 2 (1997): A/ A-
2.  Scream (1996): A-
3.  The Evil Dead (1981): B+
4.  The Blob (1958): C+/ B-
5.  Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011): C

Friday, October 19, 2012

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Director:  William Castle
Studio:  William Castle Productions
Starring:  Vincent Price, Elisha Cook, Alan Marshal, Richard Long
Tagline:  See It with Someone with Warm Hands!
MPAA Rating:  NR
Genre:  black and white, haunted house, thriller, mystery, drama, ghosts
Scare score:  C
Rating:  C

Plot overview:  The very rich and very strange Fredrick Loren (Price) and his unsatisfied wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) decide to host a party in a supposedly haunted house that they have rented.  The group of five guests - none of whom knows each other - is told that they'll each be paid $10,000 to come; what they are not told is that they have to survive a night in the house first.  Among the guests is the home's owner and drunkard, Watson Pritchard (Cook), who keeps the others frightened and irritated all night as he tells them about the various murders that have occurred in the house, as well as the ghosts who now roam the vast halls.  While pilot Lance Schroeder (Long) and the hardworking Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig) are attacked and frightened, respectively, in the basement, psychiatrist Dr. Trent (Marshal) keeps his calm and tries rationally explaining the night's strange occurrences.  When disappearances and deaths begin to plague the small group of party guests and their hosts, they must discover what evil is truly lurking in the house on haunted hill.

I remember liking this film as a kid, but having re-watched it I can't say that I'm impressed.

Let's start at the very beginning.  The blood-curdling screams in pitch black at the beginning of the film set such a tone of horror, and if I ever make a horror movie I will utilize this same tactic.  Shortly thereafter we are introduced to the annoying floating head of the paranoid Pritchard (who is equally as irritating when the rest of his body joins him and together they spend the film in the form of Elisha Cook whose mediocre acting makes us wish the angry ghosts would come get him).  Luckily the Merchant of Menace and all around Granddaddy of Horror, Mr. Vincent Price, soon takes over the narration and sucks us into the classic plot of a group of strangers brought together in a scary house for an unknown reason.

The other actors are decent, although it's tough to judge '50s style actors on modern standards.  Long provides us with a typical Cold War era manly-man who keeps his head on the whole movie, whereas Craig treats us to a scream in at least 3 different octaves since her character Nora suffers the most throughout the film.  I also liked the dynamics between Price and Ohmart as man and wife in a murderous matrimony.

All the filming is pretty good and enjoyable.  From a hearse at the beginning to a scary basement at the end, the audience is at the very least given a creepy setting.  While one might expect a haunted victorian, we are instead provided with the outside shots of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in L.A. which is a strangely modern, imposing structure made out of concrete.  The inside of the house is equally massive, with long hallways, endless closets, and gothic decor to boot.

The scares that are often thrown at us during the movie are fun, and I'm sure there are people out there who would still scream or jump.  One of the scarier "ghosts" at the beginning of the film is the ugly old woman who seems to float in and out of the basement closets.  I don't like that we see her again later and learn her identity, but not why she was acting all weird in the cellar.  That's fright for the sake of fright (surely shocking audiences at the time) and not so practical as far as plot is concerned.  On the plus side, this old lady might be the only reason why I even gave the film a C for scare instead of anything lower.  Obviously this film made marks with "Emergo," in which some audiences had a skeleton depend upon them during the appropriate scene.  Part of me still wishes movie theaters did things like that, even if it's a little cheesy.  Lastly, the severed head prop seems to surprise us when we least expect it, but luckily for those who scare easily, it still looks like, well, a prop.

Fun fact: The skeleton in the film is listed in the credits as portraying "Himself."  What jokesters!

Final critique:  While campy, House on Haunted Hill left its mark with a famous plot and good ideas, thus joining all of our favorite black and white horror classics.  The script, scares, and general horror is a little too outdated for modern audiences, but if you've seen the 1999 remake you know exactly how Hollywood would (and did) update the original.  The best thing this movie has going for it are the discomforting and frightening screams throughout.  This movie deserves a big bowl of popcorn, a chilly October night, and a small group of friends to watch it.  Recommended for the weak of heart (easily frightened), and not for those with a short attention span.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Happy Death Day (2017)

Director: Christopher Landon
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Universal Pictures
Starring: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard
Tagline: Get up. Live your day. Get Killed. Again.; Make Every Death Count.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: horror, thriller, slasher, masked murderer, serial killer, mystery, black comedy
Scare score: C+
Rating: B+

Plot overview: College student Tree (Rothe) wakes up in a strange dorm to an even stranger birthday. That night, she is stalked and killed by an ominous hooded figure wearing the mask of the school's mascot— a very unnerving baby face. Suddenly, Tree wakes back up in the same dorm room on the same morning her birthday. After several more horrifying encounters and deaths, Tree realizes she is trapped in a bloody time loop and must stop her own murder before it can happen again.

Critics have described this movie as Groundhog Day meets Scream, and truly that is the best way to sum it up. The creative team clearly had a fun time mixing a classic slasher film with some more lighthearted '80s influences, and the result really was an enjoyable movie. I wanted to see this really badly when it first came out, but never got around to it for whatever reason, so here we are two years later. Of course, that's nothing compared to how long this movie actually took to get off the ground:

Fun fact: The idea for this movie was first announced in 2007. It was called Half to Death and was set to be produced by Michael Bay and star Megan Fox (oh, the early aughts). I'm glad it took so long to get green-lighted.

Happy Death Day toes the line between serving the audience a fairly engaging mystery/slasher/thriller and also having a lot of fun with itself while introducing us to the overtly stereotypical Bayfield University and exploring new ways to kill off Tree. I will quickly say that I don't personally know any Theresas, and I've never heard of a Theresa going by "Tree" so I thought that from the start I was distracted by our leading lady's name because I was trying to figure out what they were saying. Kind of felt like they were really going out on a limb (Sorry).

One thing that immediately caught me off guard as we got into the swing of things was the similarity between this movie and the fantastic Netflix original Russian Doll starring an incomparable Natasha Lyonne. If you haven't seen that yet, I highly recommend it because it's an artistic, quirky, and beautiful metaphysical exploration of mental illness, relationships, and meaning. At the time, I thought it was so original, a darker turn on Groundhog Day to be certain, but while watching Happy Death Day it became clear to me that Russian Doll must have taken a few pointers from this movie as well. Still really worth a watch if you are looking for an easy show to binge. Moving along...

I really found myself enjoying this film. While it did not live up to the expectations I had for it, I thought it was easy to watch, with its fair share of thrills and scares mostly concentrated in the first third of the movie while the rest of the film becomes more focused on Tree solving the mystery of her own repeating and impending murder. By the point, the scares dwindle rapidly and the true action of the movie sets in.

Like most other films and shows about time loops, this becomes a movie about character agency and personal growth. For whatever reason we choose to believe, Tree is given a chance to save not only herself but to mend some broken relationships along the way. I thought Jessica Rothe did a nice job as Tree, turning a fairly one-dimensional role into a more entertaining and strong lead. We've seen 'bitchy popular sorority sister' done a million times, typically as a victim, so it was refreshing to see a slasher film turn that on its head as she overcame fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and—you know—murder. She refused to become a victim, unless it was for somebody else's sake. That being said, we see Tree in neglige countless times while every male in the film remains completely covered, there is a subplot of a closeted gay guy who is ultimately reduced from being a potential threat to being "cute"— as one might treat a pet—and finally there is a murder scene staged as an allusion to sexual assault in fraternity culture. Some of these felt a little too cheap to me in a movie that is otherwise about empowerment.

I thought the creative team did a great job with the Baby Face killer. Horror Buff loves a good masked murderer, and this mask really found a good balance that mirrored the movie's comedic lightness while still being a horror film. It was irritating and eerie at the same time.

Fun fact: The mask in this movie was created by Tony Gardner, who also designed one of the most famous faces in horror: the Ghostface mask from the Scream franchise. He was inspired to use the image of a baby because his wife was carrying their first child at the time of production.

There was also some nice filming going on here, which is especially important to slashers. I was happy to see the lovely campus of Loyola University down in New Orleans: It helped set the scene of your typical southern college experience, which was further enriched by all the shots from the quads (filled with potential suspects!) as well as that great sorority house. I enjoyed most of the chase scenes, even when they became a little ridiculous, and perhaps one of the most fun things this movie was able to do was reinvent Tree's perpetual death in new and wild ways. My favorite shot from the film was towards the end of the movie when we see Tree blow out the candle on her birthday cupcake, and that gorgeous red candle drips a little wax like blood while the smoke still lingers in the air. Really nice.


I liked that this movie offered up so many suspects as we joined Tree in her nightmarish birthday whodunnit. I personally was more suspicious of Dr. Gregory Butler (Charles Aitken) and/or his wife Stephanie (Laura Clifton), so while I didn't even like roommate Lori's (Ruby Modine) look from the start, I didn't really see it coming. In retrospect, there were a ton of clues, from the promotional material of the cupcake all the way through her sketchy way of finding out Tree's birthday and even her questionable overtime at the hospital. All in all, it was a neat way for the entire plot to come together and add that twist at the end.

Final critique: This movie asks us to buy into a very curated and stereotypical college experience, but it advances the slasher tropes slightly by giving our final girl the agency to save herself. The movie is a mix of black comedy and thriller with some added unexplained phenomenon and lots of action, so it's definitely going to be appealing to a wider range of audiences than a horror movie alone might be. (This thing KILLED at the box office. 2017 was a huge year for Blumhouse between this movie, Split, and Get Out.) Now that I've finally seen it, I guess I can look forward to the sequel, although I've heard it's even less scary. Overall, this was an enjoyable watch, easy for anyone looking for a few scares but otherwise a genuinely fun film.

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!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Us (2019)

So it's been almost 3.5 years, what can I say?

Director: Jordan Peele
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Monkeypaw Productions, Universal Pictures
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Tagline: Watch Yourself.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, psychological thriller, home invasion, family drama, conspiracy, suspense
Scare score: C-
Rating: A-

Plot overview: As a young girl (Madison Curry), Adelaide (Nyong'o) encounters a frightening double of herself in a boardwalk house of mirrors. Years later and now with two young children of her own (Wright Joseph, Alex), Adelaide still can't shake the fear of her lingering shadow. She is forced to take a good look at herself after a family clad in red jumpsuits and armed with scissors shows up in the middle of the night.

I stand by my feelings that Get Out changed the horror game and breathed new life into our favorite genre, which I feel has grown more popular in recent years for a few reasons. First, I think we are experiencing a generation of writers and directors/producers who grew up during a beautiful age of horror movies (the '80s) and are now bringing their own dreams to life, filled with nods to the past. Secondly, I think Hollywood is more comfortable with the idea of well-made and even niche horror movies with a message, not just the sensual slashers that plagued (and pleasured) us in the 2000s, and not to mention there are more small studios who can work to take on these projects. Finally—and I have to look into statistics or data on this—but I feel that more audiences want and enjoy horror today, if only because for many people, the real world at present is even more horrible than what they're seeing onscreen.

That being said, don't go into Us expecting it to be the next Get Out. They are different films made for different purposes, and in many aspects I felt they have some different messages to share. Now back to the film at hand.

Us is a freaky, fun, and dynamic movie that plays first and foremost with the themes of division, duplicity, and the doppelgänger. As teased by the movie poster, the viewer should know to go into the film expecting us to "watch ourselves," or know that "we are our own worst enemy" while questioning what lies beneath. As many famous horror movies allow the killer to take on a new identity while masked, so Us forces us to think about what masks we wear on a daily basis to get ahead, to thrive, or merely to survive. The first foil we encounter is between the Wilsons—Adelaide's family—and their friends the Tylers. Headed by "it's vodka o'clock" wife Kitty (Moss) and one-upping husband Josh (Tim Heidecker), the Tylers and their bratty twin daughters are everything their respective Wilson counterparts are not: proud, overly talkative, selfish, and entitled. These families ultimately represent a larger message in the film that Peele tries to make with a Biblical subtext: It doesn't matter who you are, what you look like, or what you have, because when the oppressed masses rise up, we'll all be subjected to the same fate. 

This looming thought is introduced several times via the local doomsday man beckoning a sign saying "Jeremiah 11:11." If you don't have your pocket Bible handy during the movie, you'll have to wait until the end to know that this passage reads "Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them." But what evil could this possibly mean? We'll explore after the Spoilers jump.

For those of you who don't want anything spoiled, I will say that I enjoyed this film. The scares were underwhelming but Peele in his own right has become wonderfully adept at suspense flavored either with humor or very human fear. As in Get Out, the audience and characters alike discover absurdity in the most terrifying moments, and while this trick helps treat the viewer as more intelligent than the plethora of on-the-nose horror films of the past (and present), it makes things no less horrifying for everyone involved. Again, this is likely part of Peele's commentary on our world today, where things feel topsy turvy and equally terrible.

I thought Lupita Nyong'o and Elisabeth Moss were brilliant in this film—Moss as her doppelgänger specifically has a memorable silent scream we see via a reflection. Winston Duke as Adelaide's husband Gabe adds a charming levity to the movie and both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as their children do incredible jobs. Nyong'o especially explores her duality of light and dark, smooth and jagged, evil and not in a performance that deserves major award recognition. The casting for this film was excellent, especially because of the task that was asked of each actor. The cinematography was also gorgeous, with the many and varied scenes of public and private spaces, light and dark, above and below inviting us in to a visual feast. I'm still dreaming about the house of mirrors and that escalator. No surprise that this was the handiwork of Mike Gioulakis, who brought us It Follows, one of my favorite horror movies of all time that I still haven't blogged about because I took a casual 3.5-year hiatus.

References to some of our other horror favorites abounded, including nods to The Twilight Zone, The Shining, and I think especially to The Strangers, to name a few. I even loved how this was pitched as "a new nightmare" à la Wes Craven but now from Jordan Peele. From the opening overhead view (God's eye?) akin to Kubrick's famous opening credits, to the concept of twins to the tight interior angles, The Shining was the film most referenced as helping inspire Peele for his second major horror picture, so I was surprised to see just how much time was spent feeling like your standard home invasion.


I didn't know what to expect going into the theater. Trailers certainly teased the concept of the dark doppelgänger, but this film packed much more into its 116-minute run time. In fact, I think the movie's biggest fault is that it packed too much into its ambitious plot.

I am obsessed with the '80s and also with amusement parks in movies (The Lost Boys, Strangers on a Train, even Teen Witch, to name a few), so I found many scenes from this movie practically magical, especially when Adelaide discovers the underground world beneath the boardwalk. The '80s kitsch was also so good, especially with the Hands Across America plot, because Peele uses it to provide commentary on the parallels between the Regan '80s and our current world: There is a sense of hollowness or superficiality that makes even kind or humanitarian gestures seem fake. Here again we see our theme of duplicity: public and private faces, doublespeak and hidden messages, behavior vs. intent. Who are we really? How do you categorize between "good" and "evil" when some people are just trying to survive? And will we pay for it all?

I was not expecting the eerie (and slightly irrelevant?) opening title message about vast unused tunnels under the United States, which immediately threw me for a curveball upon seeing the movie. As it turns out, this would become one of many aspects the movie included to feel spookier, but that I feel didn't fully pan out. At the end of the day, I really enjoyed this movie, but the myth it wanted us to buy into was too big and too vague for me to feel totally comfortable with it. Sure, most horror movies are based on ridiculous plots, and even Get Out was *impossible*, but there was something about the idea that some government (?) agency cloned us all and forced our Tethered doubles to mimic our every moves in their subterranean classrooms and hallways all while feasting on raw rabbit. I enjoyed the concept of the "puppet masters" and the "puppets," mostly for how this complements the theme of doubles, and even though I found myself adoring the scene where Red explains this all to Adelaide, it was just too much. Regarding the Tethered doppelgängers, I loved their sort of nonspeak (except for Heidecker, who I thought went overboard with the sounds/ was too comically animated more so than the others), and I think that raspy, breathing-in-to-talk choice was really effective.

As far as the twist ending goes, I wish I could say I saw it coming but I didn't until closer to the end. There were times during the film—especially as we see Adelaide embrace the violence and become more animalistic, even through her son's eyes—when I wondered if she had somehow been swapped without us knowing, but of course it was all much more sinister than that. I would love to rewatch the film knowing what I know now in order to pick up on all of those delicious clues. I think it would have cued me in sooner to the concept of the secrets we keep, the truths we ignore, and the masks we wear to live the lives we think we are supposed to live or that we think we deserve to live, even at the expense—whether we know about it or not—of many other people. Are we innocent of the suffering of these Others, who in many ways are just like Us? Or are we guilty, even if we are unaware of their existence in a Sunken Place of sorts, of all that we did not do to right these wrongs? And furthermore, what price to we pay to rise out of those dark places and join the happy majority above ground? I viewed this transition as the "invitation to whiteness" so prominent in the United States by which many peoples and cultures that were once considered minorities were invited to join the white group in power (think women, the Irish, Italians). Some people, such as dark-skinned black Americans, may never be formally invited to join this group, but over time, the decreasing white group realizes its power is slipping and thus invites another marginalized group to rise either to real or imagined power. And of course, many formerly-non-power individuals jump at this opportunity to live out their own American Dream— but at what price? This is the fear 'Adelaide' lives in constantly, knowing that she has abandoned her people beneath the ground to advance only herself, and it provides major commentary about what it's like to alternate between power and non-power groups in the United States. Ultimately it's the real Adelaide-turned-Red who teaches the other Tethereds what it means to have true agency and to have to truly fight, unite, and join hands to make a statement that the world will finally listen to. It's a revolution, and it's no coincidence that Adelaide knew what she was missing from the world above in order to stay determined, inspire the other Tethereds (via "the dance"), and ultimately fight back and educate/moralize the 'Adelaide' we know on the concepts of reparations, revenge, and justice.

All in all, I think the most impressive thing about this movie was the challenge handed to the actors who all had to play two versions of themselves. This added such a richness to the film and at many points I found myself questioning if they truly had found other actors to play these roles. Nyong'o especially delivered in her two roles, and that final fight/dance scene was absolutely stunning. Her physicality throughout the film as both characters was excellent.

Final critique: I enjoyed this film, but I find myself describing it to others as "freaky" and not scary. I didn't feel disappointed at the end, but I do think it was ambitious to the point of feeling a little unfinished or hazy around the edges. Still, the plot was fresh and fun, and the commentary on the oppressed masses rising up is Peele's clearest commentary reminding us that, especially in today's world, we are our own worst enemy.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ouija (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Faculty (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Like classic horror franchises, some bad guys just won't die.

Director:  Tom McLouglin
Studios:  Paramount Pictures
Starring:  Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke, David Kagen; ft. Tom Fridley, Tony Goldwyn, C.J. Graham
Tagline:  Nothing this evil ever dies.; Kill or be killed.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, stalker, serial killer, psychopath, masked murderer, teen
Scare score:  C
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  Years after the events of the previous film, Tommy Jarvis (Mathews) has been released from his mental health institute, but he is still intent of making sure Jason (Graham) is truly dead.  Instead of burning Jason in his grave, however, Tommy unintentionally revives the masked killer, making him stronger than ever.  On the other side of town, which has been renamed Forest Green to help citizens and tourists forget the area's bloody history, summer is in full swing and a week-long children's camp is about to begin.  Will Tommy be able to convince the Sheriff (Kagen), his daughter (Cooke), and her friends that Jason is back and to cancel the camp, or will they simply write him off as being crazy?

Why did I enjoy this movie so much?  There are plenty of reasons.  First of all, like a rookie, when the scary music (I believe this is still Manfredini's score?) set in before the opening scene I jumped.  Yes, I know: total rookie move but hey, started off the movie in a good direction.  Jason Lives' (how funny would a musical concert version called Jason Live! be?) cast of characters, actual focus on some sort of plot (a first or second for the franchise??), awesome '80s soundtrack, and acceptance of inherent farce - all revolving around what I thought was a fantastic zombie Jason - made for a really enjoyable, and, at times, scary movie.

Ze cast of actors.  T-Jar is back and ready to kill Jason once and for all!  I liked Mathews in this performance as he was energetic, but the role itself becomes fairly repetitive and limited as all Tommy does is scream "Jason is back!" while nobody believes him.  Little bit of yawn city there, but a huge improvement from the mental case Tommy in Part V.  The very lovely Jennifer Cooke as the very badass Megan Garris added plenty of teen excitement to the film.  Who doesn't love the Sheriff's daughter?  But here, unlike in Halloween and Halloween IV, instead of being the prototype of a teenage, female victim, the Sheriff's daughter turns into a 'ready to rumble' protagonist.  Fun fact about our punky, comic-relief, kind of confusing character Cort (Fridley) is John Travlota's nephew, making him a part of a very interesting Hollywood family.  Other camp counselors, especially Renée Jones as Sissy and Kerry Noonan as Paula, add fun teen personality to the film.  In a fairly prominent subplot at Camp Forest Green, young Courtney Vickery also delivers what I guess is a cute performance as the little girl Nancy, who sees Jason and is frightened by him.

It was funny mixing our typical teenagers with a group of small children going to camp, as this changes a lot of the typical plot and humor that we've seen up until now.  Also for once the camp is actually being used as a camp, haha, so I suppose that makes things more realistic.  The inclusion of children - who, as we know of course from the rules are not to be harmed - cause two major things to happen within the movie: (a) directly resulting from the fact that we know they aren't going to get hurt, there is an added level of comfort in the film covered by a false pretense of nerves; the movie makes it seem like Jason wants to hurt the children, but we know he will not and (b) more humor.  My main example would be as Jason is about to attack the children's cabin once again and one boy turns to another to ask "So what were you gonna be when you grow up?"  Like really?  There were a few moments in this movie that we just had to pause to take in all the silliness.

Otherwise the deaths were colorful and creative as per usual, a nice usage of blood compared to not too much gore (save for skull crushing à-la-Michael Myers).  Our large cast is more concentrated this time around, given a few unlucky couples in the woods that find themselves face to face with Jason, aka Tony Goldwyn in what appears to be his first film credit?  Imagine that.

Final critique:  This entry is also short since I watched the movie a few weeks ago and didn't take good notes to help my entry.  Since starting the franchise, Part VI has certainly been my favorite to date, perhaps with the exception of the first or second film.  With bumbling police officers, a very '80s group of campers and counselors, a potentially crazy protagonist, and a zombie Jason on the loose, this movie has a lot to offer.  Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Alien (1979)

In honor of the recent death of artist and alien designer, H.R. Giger, as well as the upcoming 35th anniversary of its release.

Director:  Ridley Scott
Studios:  Brandywine Productions, 20th Century Fox
Starring:  Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm
Tagline:  In space no one can hear you scream.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, science fiction, drama, suspense, alien, monster, mystery 
Scare score:  B-
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  In the future, the cargo-towing spacecraft Nostromo is returning back to Earth from deep space.  The crew members are awakened from their deep-sleep stasis when the ship's computer system, called 'Mother,' picks up what seems to be a distress call from the uninhabited planetoid LV-426.  The 7 crew members, led by Captain Dallas (Skerritt), descend to LV-426, and their small shuttle is damaged in the process leaving them stranded for at least a full day.  Several members venture off the shuttle and find a crashed alien spacecraft containing remnants of one race as well as countless eggs from another.  When one egg hatches, the terror begins.

Ask me for a movie that I truly love every time I watch it, and Alien will be way up there on my list.  While this movie is heavy on the sci-fi and somewhat light on the horror (this has got enough of an And Then There Were None feeling about it to pull it into the 'drama' and 'mystery' genres), it is the first installment of a famous and reputable film series that are appreciated to this day.

Can you imagine that Sigourney Weaver (a veteran by the time Cabin in the Woods rolled around) was a newbie in this movie?  And can you furthermore believe that she was treated disrespectfully by other cast mates for being a newbie?  This shocks me most of all because she kicks absolute but both in plot and in acting during this entire movie.  Warrant Office Ellen Ripley (Weaver) is a stern, smart mix of man and woman (not physically of course, as the ending of the movie flaunts), and perhaps the only member of the Nostromo who uses her brain throughout the film (don't let aliens on board.  Period.)

Even though they were apparently bullies, the other actors in this film do a swell job.  I love the small cast, the feeling of playfulness and also mistrust between the adults, especially when the pressure, claustrophobia, and loneliness start to set it.  Quick shout out to Veronica Cartwright in the role of Lambert, an equally tough space woman.  Hasn't she come a long way from The Birds and yet only a year earlier she starred in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  All in all, the small cast makes for an exciting mystery filed with diverse personalities that add to the melting pot of tensions, even before a nasty, practically indestructible alien gets thrown into the mix.

I love alien.  Love the design, love the tongue thing that's actually another small head and mouth, love the different stages of growth/ evolution.  It completely baffles me how it manages to grow from being about a foot tall to becoming an enormous killing machine in, oh, say, 45 minutes.  Maybe that just makes alien all the scarier.  What's most interesting about alien in this movie is how little we know about it and how little we see it.  That's right, there are maybe two scenes that give us a complete idea of what alien actually looks like.  Even then, due to the film's dark nature, a lot is left to imagination.  This obviously has its plusses and minuses: there is plenty of suspense followed by large thrills waiting for alien to attack; then again, does the creature deliver?  There are a few scenes that would make us think so, but overall I would have to say the problem is resolved too easily.

The horror in this movie is slow and consuming.  It surrounds us, isolates us, penetrates us - just as it does the crew members and its victims.  There is a hunt, but the hunters are also the hunted.  There is a chase, but it's just as much frantic as it is planned.  Boasting one of the most memorable scenes in sci-fi/ horror (who's hungry?), Alien is filled with plenty of twists and turns that leave us craving and questioning more, just as the crew of the Nostromo questions more, only to find that curiosity kills the cat, even in the 2100s.

Final critique:  This is a great movie that ties together multiple genres such as drama and mystery, science fiction and horror.  While there is a generally pressured, scary feeling through the film, there are only a few actually scary (and also very memorable) scenes.  When Alien decides to do scary, it doesn't hold back.  I'd still easily recommend this movie to scaredy cats, as there is a truly interesting plot here supported by good acting and effects that surprisingly don't make me think it was done in 1979.  Really good movie; not the scariest, but super entertaining with some terror throughout.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The House of the Devil (2009)

Director:  Ti West
Studios:  MPI Media Group, Dark Sky Films
Starring:  Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig, A.J. Bowen, Mary Woronov; ft. Dee Wallace
Tagline:  Talk on the Phone.  Finish Your Homework. Watch TV.  Die.
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, suspense, spawn of satan, religious occult
Scare score:  D
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  Broke college student Samantha (Donahue) has just settled on a new apartment with her understanding landlady (Wallace).  The welcome change from her dingy, uninviting dorm room and roommate, however, will require extra cash that Samantha doesn't have.  Almost miraculously, Samantha manages to set up a babysitting gig for one night during a lunar eclipse that has the entire town - except for Sam's best friend Megan (Gerwig) - excited.  That night, Megan drives Sam out to the impressive yet isolated home where they meet the awkward Mr. Ulman (Noonan) and his somewhat bizarre wife (Woronov).  When Mr. Ulman explains that Sam will actually be watching his mother-in-law, Megan urges her to leave, but at the rate of $400 for 4 hours, the deal is too good for Sam to pass up.  Will the mysterious job end up being more responsibility than Sam bargained for?

I really pleasantly enjoyed this film.  From the second I saw the poster, I knew I liked the retro feeling about it, probably one of the nicest things director Ti West could have decided to do.  If you've read this blog before, you'll probably know that I love period pieces, be it 19th century England or the 1980s.  The opening credits, the costumes, the props, the soundtrack - that dance scene - the cinematography: it was all so great, such an interesting vintage feeling that reminds us of the 80s horror we so love.  The script especially was a breath of fresh air.  In a brief but nice homage to the ghosts of horror past, we have Dee Wallace (an acclaimed horror actress although the only movie I've reviewed that she's in is the 2007 remake of Halloween) welcoming us into the film in the role of a landlady.

That being said, we have a lot of time to focus on these details because this film sure as heck takes its time to start the scares.  I believe that it wasn't until the 35 minute mark that we witnessed some real horror instead of just suspense and interactions that give us the creeps.  I'll say it now and I'll say it again later, but if you're looking for constant thrills, gore, and physical horror - this isn't the movie for you.

Even after we know that there is trouble afoot, most likely heading towards our babysitter, the film returns to a calm (but never too slow) pace, following Sam around the dark, winding Victorian home, at times making us aware both of the evil lurking out in the eclipsed night as well as the evil still dwelling within the house.

Speaking of the house itself, is this an adequate title for the film?  I mean, sure, a lot of the movie's action takes place inside a house, but when we hear this title (or see the movie poster) our minds jump to The People Under the Stairs, to name one, and as soon as babysitting for strangers becomes the obvious plot, seasoned horror movie lovers will know we're headed towards a spawn of satan deal.  That being said, if it really isn't the devil's house, and the satanic rituals here have more to do with the people themselves, I just think the title becomes a little distant from the plot.

Nowadays, you can't do spawn of satan without thinking of The Omen or Rosemary's Baby (which this film made a multitude of allusions to), but The House of the Devil - and I'm still surprised it came out in 2009 because I have no idea where I was since I seem to have missed its publicity and theatrical release - added its own touches and excitement to the genre.  Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing about the whole 'babysitter in peril' plot line, especially considering that Babysitter Wanted (which I saw on TV once upon a time) came out in 2008, just one year earlier.  Can you say awkward?

This movie doesn't have a lot of scares, but when it does scare it scares well.  We have some jumps (hey, AJ Bowen), and then just some real discomfort - I was very impressed with the makeup choices for the character we can assume to be Mr. Ulman's "mother-in-law."


Not surprisingly, as far as spawn of satan movies go, there isn't a very happy ending for our heroine here.  Also, staying true to some retro movies we know and love, the motive here is never made 100% clear, just some satanists doing their thang.

Final critique:  Here we have a fun, modern take on vintage horror.  From the 16mm footage to the heavy usage of low camera angles and dramatic zoom, the cinematography transports us from the onslaught of amateur, unoriginal slashers of today back to a time when suspense and terror were more important than blood and body counts (which this film also has).  This is a nice movie to watch when you have the time to sit and enjoy a horror movie.  This is not the right film to watch if you are looking for a fast-moving, gory, scream-filled ride on the horror train.  Impressive acting matched with a fun plot and a believable script lead to one good horror movie in The House of the Devil.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The film that gave every Elm Street in America a bad reputation...

Director:  Wes Craven
Studios:  Media Home Entertainment, Smart Egg Pictures, New Line Cinema
Starring:  Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakley, Robert Englund
Tagline:  If Nancy Doesn't Wake Up Screaming, She Won't Wake Up At All...
MPAA Rating:  R
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, slasher, teen
Scare score:  C+
Rating:  A-

Plot overview:  A group of friends begins to be haunted by a terrible figure in their nightmares, but soon their nightmares become reality.

I guess it was only a matter of time until we got to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, one of horror's most visibly recognizable and well known titles, series, and villains - and for a good reason.  Much like Michael and Jason, Freddy and his numerous films have left a marked impact upon popular culture as well as the entire horror genre, heavily influencing what people think of, remember, and fear when they go to watch a scary movie.

This movie is the epitome of '80s horror, often drifting into the now passé tropes created by earlier films (and contemporary franchises) like Halloween and Friday the 13th.  If the viewer goes into the film expecting and accepting corny lines, acting that is only so so, and a handful of predictable moments, then he or she is in for a treat.  There's a reason that this film has remained relevant for *gulp* 30 years: an intriguing plot mixed with an original villain plus plenty of that '80s teen raciness.  That is to say, cardinal rule number 2 is exploited and broken.  Naughty teens and an even naughtier killer?  What's not to enjoy?

In the role of our heroine Nancy Thompson we have Langenkamp, who plays the courageous and virtuous, normal teenager with heart although I don't think she always stayed completely within her role.  After all, there's only so many times an actress can play an awkwardly elongated scene merely expressing frustration (it happens a lot here).  Some interactions between Heather and friends Glen (Depp), Rod (Nick Corri), and Tina (Amanda Wyss) also feel a little stiff, and throughout the movie each of these four teens has his or her fair share of poor reactions as far as acting goes.  Then again, when limited by the script itself, I guess there's not much they could do.

In one of the more bizarre roles of horror we have Nancy's mom, Marge (Blakley).  First of all, isn't Blakley oddly striking?  Or is it just a combination of her hair, makeup, and tan?  Aside from her excessive outward appearance, we quickly learn that as a mother Marge is pretty thick (although concerned), but as a lush she's right on par.  Regardless, she is one of the more interesting and entertaining characters in the film, complete with her own dark secrets, and she goes on to deliver one of my favorite lines in the movie when telling Nancy that she's going to be safe.

The plot and bad guy were the real gold mines for this film.  Freddy Krueger (Englund) is a conglomerate of all these terrible ideas, created from various things we both generally hate and fear in society: a pedophile/ child killer; a kidnapper; he is disfigured and disgusting; at times he shows himself to be filled with pus, maggots, and other bugs; he is the manifestation of a nightmare.  He furthermore represents the return of a bad guy, thus making him a criminal who begins claiming new victories long after the original heroes thought they had assured his defeat.  Fred Krueger is a complex figure, the combination of a killer, the undead, and monsters, who bends the line between fiction and reality.  Not only does Freddy haunt and then hunt his victims, he possesses his victims by entering their minds and taking them from their safe reality into his reality: a special sort of hell.  When it comes to Michael Myers, you can either not cross his path, or you can run from him (for a time).  When it comes to Jason, just stay out of Crystal Lake.  But Freddy?  He crosses your path, he comes into your space - your most personal space (the mind) - and then he makes it (and you) his own.  It's one thing not wanting to sleep in case some killer is coming after you - but to not want to sleep because that's where the killer is waiting for you?  It's no wonder that the first few kids merely try ignoring their nightmares, because otherwise there is no escape - which is what Nancy realizes quickly, causing her to take drastic measures such as hiding coffee makers in her bedroom and popping Stay Awake pills.

In this first installment, Freddy is truly a scary and innovative character.  From one of the first chase scenes in the film when we see him appearing and disappearing (decent special effects, 1984), his clawed arms expanding and retracting at will, to his skin being cut, pulled, and burned off, and not to mention the general scraping of his knifed-hand against metal (who doesn't hate that sound?), we learn quickly that this is a force to be reckoned with (for veteran viewers, remember, this is before Freddy adapted a more comical [read: corny] persona).  With complete power in his dream/ nightmare world and a pretty considerable amount of influence on the real world as well (or at least on the fringe between the two) - what can't Fred do?


Finally, the entire concept of dreams vs. reality is still hard for audiences to wrap their heads around today.  How much of this film takes place in reality and how much of it does not is really in the eye of the beholder.  I've read a bunch of theories and I don't exactly know where I fall.  For the most part, I think the movie takes place in a balanced mix of reality and the dreams of the various teens, although sometimes Freddy only kills in pure 'dreamland' where as in some cases his workings from his own realm have direct physical manifestations in the real world (think Rod's death).  At the end of the day I think we can't just limit Fred to dreams alone, and we can't say that fantastic things won't happen in reality (assuming Marge's death scene takes place in reality, then both Nancy and her laid-back-at-all-the-wrong-times father, police Lieutenant Donald Thompson (John Saxon), both see an inexplicable and even impossible (and over the top, Craven) death.  What irks me more than the shotty 'special effects' involved here is the other character's simple willingness to accept what they have just seen).  Lastly, I think that the final seen should not be overly interpreted as a confusing and mysterious mix of reality and dream, but rather as a last-minute, half-assed attempt at a scare in the final seconds of the film.  There, I said it.

I have to quickly complain about the movie poster because Nancy looks like an angry pig.  What is with that face?  That is all.

As a bit of social commentary, isn't it interesting that we never see into either of the boy's (Glen and Rod) dreams?  Following a firm history of final girls and scream queens, A Nightmare on Elm Street in many ways upholds the male bad guy kills female victims plot.  While male victims are killed (and often), we are never shown how scared they are in the moments before their deaths, where as in comparison these movies are filmed with, well, girls screaming, crying, running, and hiding (and a few girls fighting back).  In this first installment, we are given the fairly shallow Rod and the almost deep Glen, with their equally as shallow and equally not-as-deep-as-we-would-like female counterparts in Tina and Nancy, respectively.  While we get to experience loads of funs and frights in the girls' nightmares, we are never invited into the heads of the boys; we are only allowed to watch them suddenly, unknowingly, and emotionlessly die in the real world.  Sure, the boys are victims, but are they victimized like the girls (and one woman) are?  Perhaps this is what will make the sequel so much more culturally shocking.

Favorite line:  [overly dramatic] "Screw sleep!"- Nancy Thompson

Final critique:  Is this movie actually scary?  Not like the scary we're used to today.  But with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Horror Buff will go so far as to say that it's not all about the scares so much as it's about the plots and the characters - especially Freddy - themselves.  That being said, there are definitely a few good scares hidden among the sometimes compelling, sometimes ridiculous storyline here.  Again, if the audience is willing to accept a script that often drifts into the realm of dull as well as acting that sometimes touches on not-believable, then they can sit back and enjoy a film that is truly important to the horror genre.