Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Veil

Title: The Veil
Release Date: 2016
Score: 3.5 out of 4

I love it when around half-way through a haunted house movie the characters actually realize the place is haunted, and aren't pretending its normal rational explainable stuff. This is one of those movies and so it satisfied me greatly. In this case, its a haunted compound in the middle of the woods that was the site of a Jonestown-esque massive cult suicide, which, to no audience member's surprise - is haunted.

An obsessed filmmaker who lost her father after his deep obsession with the case, and the girl who was the only survivor, now all grown-up are the main drivers of the plot, and are reasonably well developed. The film crew is much less fleshed out, and seem to be merely fodder for the evil presence still infesting the camp. But there's way more going on in this movie than a simple haunting, or psychological obsession, or gruesome found footage (which are all present). There are mysteries, and questions raised that kept me engaged until the end.

It features a surprisingly strong performance from Jessica Alba as the filmmaker, but the definite star was Lily Rabe, a relative new-comer, who played the mysterious girl Sarah Hope, now an adult with some serious neuroses.

What I liked the most was how normal-person the characters acted. While they certainly should have left the compound several times, there were compelling reasons for them to stay. They reacted like real people would do the situations that arose and that was great. Too many times have I seem movies where they think they can get away with characters who make decisions on a sub-moronic level because its "just" a horror movie.

So, it had me rolling my eyes a few times but it was a pretty good movie. I can't say that it actually scared me on any level but it was refreshing to see realistic characters dealing with a horror movie scenario, and it enough interesting subplots to keep the movie from going stale with slow pacing.

I would love to see more mid-budget horror movies with professional actors, especially if they're as good as this or better.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Abandoned

Title: The Abandoned
Release Date: 2015
Rating: 2.5 out of 4

A fitting title for this post, the first in over two years! Oh well, they are still making horror movies, so I guess I'll still review them.

This is a good example of poor pacing, with fits and stops, slow lingering shots of nothing, and then lots of action all at once. I think the screenwriters stuck to one of those formulas they talk about in How To Write Screenplays books, and it just doesn't work to this film's advantage. Instead of feeling like a roller-coaster it's more like a stationary booth that occasionally shakes around.

I saw some good acting from Jason Patric, and some middling to poor acting from Louise Krause. The whole film is basically these two actor's characters as they spend their time doing security for a big opulent yet empty building overnight. Its a great premise, but on execution its much less spooky than it sounds. Krause plays "Streak," who's having her first night on the job, overseen by her counterpart Cooper, a sexist alcoholic with a good heart buried underneath a rough exterior.

Streak uncovers a portion of the building that is "off limits," and ignores that and delves right in. That's when ghosties (or are they hallucinations?) start to creep around and the suspense picks up. Honestly, its a real slog with just enough interesting moments to keep you watching until the end.

I have to say, however, the last 5 minutes, where the twist is revealed, I found to be very fulfilling and well-done. It breaks through its chains of psychological thriller cliches and ends up being something refreshing, and even, dare I say it, original.

I want to see more from the filmmaking duo Eytan Rockaway and Ido Fluk, but I want to see something bolder, less hemmed in by conventions and formulas. I am convinced they have it in them to do better.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Jug Face

Title: Jug Face
Release Date: 2013
Rating: 3 out of 4

You know, I really wanted to like this movie. From the credit sequence I thought it was going to be some pretty messed-up stuff but it was a lot more sedate and boring than I expected. It didn't live up to my expectations, which usually aren't very high, but this billed itself as a different kind of horror movie -- one that could be appreciated on a cinematic level. I mean, I still gave it a pretty high rating because it was well acted, and well made, and it did hold my interest all the way through but in the end it just didn't deliver what I like in horror.

The film revolves around a small community of back-woods hillfolk who participate in a death cult based on appeasing "The Pit" which is a Lovecraftian hole in the ground with some murky water at the bottom. This is actually less stupid than it sounds! There's a troubled girl, a touched prophet, star-crossed lovers, mean parents, human sacrifice, and at least three scenes where people are disembowled. I don't want to give too much away because, to be honest, there isn't much substance to it. If I reveal more of the plot I'd probably be ruining the movie for you.

I wanted more explanation about The Pit, or at least, what the people who worshiped it thought about it. I wanted to know why they had a lot of modern conveniences but washed their clothes in the river with washboards. I wanted to know why, in 2013, these people made moonshine instead of growing pot. This was more of a character-driven drama with horror elements, and if that's your thing you will like this. If you want something deeply disturbing or intellectually compelling, I'd look elsewhere.

But hey, at least the movie explained what a Jug Face is.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Shadow People

TITLE: Shadow People
SCORE: 3.5 out of 4

I am getting really tired of the "fauxumentary" style. By this I mean a film that splices regular movie footage in with obviously fake "documentary" footage. It takes you out of the film and unless you film the regular movie specifically like a TV-movie and have "reenactment" warnings at the bottom its totally incongruous.

I guess some filmmakers feel that it amps up the suspense. Using low-fi video and handcam for select shots does indeed have a tendency to build suspense, but that is just using the techniques of a documentary film to make your film more realistic, and thus scary. Unless its specifically a found footage movie and plays by all the rules of one, adding actual documentary-style scenes into a fictional film is ridiculous and confusing, and this movie suffers from this heavily. Its torn between being a found footage fake documentary and a regular feature film, this confuses the audience member and is distracting (especially when they're different aspect ratios -- yeeesh!!)

Aside from its narrative troubles, this makes for a tight and taught little thriller. "Shadow people," of course, have existed in popular urban lore for a few decades now -- something other than ghosts and demons, those beings that seem to exist just out of the corner of your eye and disappear quickly when looked at head on. At least, those are what shadow people are in the real world; in this film they are much more malevolent paranormal beings - in fact they KILL PEOPLE!!!! Ahhhhhhh!

These shadow people conform much closer to "the watchers" that people report during incidents of night terrors and sleep paralysis -- beings present in their rooms, eerily watching over them. But then they also stalk them during the day like a vengeful spirit or perhaps an MIB would... this film is very novel in its approach to a boogeyman that already has some mythos built up in the real world. I have no doubt that this film could have real impact on the kinds of things people actually report going bump in the night.

Humorously it also parallels the very real success of radio legend Art Bell, who's Coast to Coast show was primarily politics-based until the Oklahoma City bombing, when classic anti-government rhetoric became unfashionable, he started shifting his show to the paranormal, with a handful of topics being classic staples of discussion - including shadow people! This shift in formats led to a major rise in listeners and propelled the show into mainstream American consciousness. Unlike the character in our film however, Mr. Bell did not become personally obsessed with the subjects of his late night talk show.

Our main character, Charlie Crowe, is more like a John Keel type -- someone who stumbles onto a dark mystery and can't let go, letting the mystery consume his whole life. Of course, Mr. Keel makes a very good living writing his various scary books on possibly real things -- which is another problem of this film. Let me explain...

When you use a documentary style, you bring the film into our world - the real world of consensual reality. And here we have a fairly common paranormal phenomena and our film is devoid of any Brad Steigers, Whitley Striebers, Nick Redferns or or John Keels here. Just some dusty notes from an old sleep disorder study and the diary of a teenager to tie this whole thing together. Yet this revolves around a late night talk radio show -- where are the paranormal investigators?! If this were a straight film we might suspend our disbelief and be happy to think "in this movies' universe, this is a new phenomena," but we aren't afforded such a luxury.

But for its faults it is a very entertaining film and it does its job on the horror side of things - it left me feeling spooked and unsettled. Like many films I review, I wish this had been given another editing once over before  it went out for release. However it does have snappy dialogue, exposition that doesn't bog down too badly, and without need for a lot of splatter the minor effects present in the film are very very effective. There's also very little lag or pacing problems.

Still makes no sense that a wannabe Fox Mulder doesn't show up on the scene though, or why seemingly real footage is mixed with obvious film footage without any explanation... This is why I feel like I have to detract points.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Chernobyl Diaries

TITLE: Chernobyl Diaries
SCORE: 3 out of 4

Hi! It's been over a year since my last review but here I am, still alive and still watching horror films. You thought I grew up, huh? Nope I just got too busy with dumb stuff like divorces and graduate school and such.

Anyway, so here we have Chernobyl Diaries. Our principle characters are doing some big "grand tour" after college graduation, or something -- I don't really know, but its in Central/Eastern Europe rather than Western Europe. Makes sense cause that would be a lot cheaper and that's what I'd do if I had any money to travel at all. After stopping in Prague and Kiev and probably Budapest and some other places they find themselves in Russia, about to go to Moscow.

Instead, the cheeky instigator of the bunch convinces them to do an "extreme tourism" package that involves touring the area hit by Chernobyl and nearby villages. It is led by ex-military Russian guy "Uri," who is surely "strong like ox" and "wery experienced!" (Ok he doesn't say that but he's still a ridiculous stereotype) Our four Americans are joined by a British couple who are on their honeymoon for this trip that is guaranteed to be safe and fun. The British dude has a neckbeard and a hipster keffiyeh so we can be sure that he is a total douche and not to be sad if he is killed. This all happens rather quickly, and they're all in an econo-van on their way to see the mutated sights only 12 minutes into the movie!

Stopping at a check point into the "exclusion zone" we become aware that Uri might not be quite on the up and up and this whole trip might not be exactly safe. As the instigator's weinerly lawful-good broseph counterpart (Chris, I think his name is) says, "it looks fuckin' sketchy, dude." He is quickly admonished and told to "enjoy, man!" Since he is such a weiner he obliges.

The van sneaks into the area with our young adventurers and their "tour guide," they stop and look around and encounter a very weird mutated fish thing. That's probably a good guidepost as to when build-up suspense stops and the horror starts and it's not even 20 minutes into the 98 minute film. Economy of plot is reaching golden heights here. The young westerners aren't exactly beloved, but I didn't really feel as indifferent to them as some other films, and I certainly wasn't hostile to their existence and wanted to see them horribly murdered like is sometimes the case. I think where a lot of films like this go wrong is that they spend longer than 10 minutes introducing the ensemble. They spend some time looking around at some empty buildings, and then Uri's van is sabotaged somehow, in a place supposedly empty of people... and we begin our decent into the real expressionist nightmare.

This film does a great job of turning abandoned apartment blocks & other soviet architecture, as well as forests of leafless trees, into eerie specters of creeping dread. The sickly, desaturated color processing and hand-cam documentary filming style also help the mood quite a bid. The extended shots of black nothing during the night sequences & occasional way-too-dark shots of formless shapes in unlit rooms did not help though, perhaps the owls in the audience will enjoy them but in my mind the sentiment is "don't show the monster," not "don't show anything at all."

I quite liked this; it kept me on edge and wondering what was happening and what was going to happen. While basically formulaic and predictable, as the details unfolded things were very interesting and unexpected. Screaming 20-somethingers terrorized in the woods might not be very original, or truly terrifying to a regular horror fan, but I think it earns extra points for using an unusual setting well and not wasting a bunch of time on backstory no one cares about.

Chernobyl Diaries is not the kind of intense experience a horror fan would relish watching alone in a dark room, I would recommend it as fare for a party or a movie night with friends. It's not without it's charms and is probably worth viewing at least once. It feels like a literal thrill ride once it kicks into gear and is certainly enjoyable with pizza, beer, and perhaps something scarier to put on afterwards.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Psych: 9

TITLE: Psych: 9
SCORE: 1.5 out of 4

This film straddles the line between psychological thriller and supernatural thriller, but its perch is precarious.  The obviousness of the later reveal renders large portions of the movie as tedious set-up to what you know is going to be a grim and meager payoff. Then the movie forgets itself and tries for something half-clever, but leaves us with a muddled ending that tries for ambiguous and lands somewhere short of comprehensible.

The plot is basic, and lifted from countless predecessors (such as Session 9, a movie with a nearly identical set up and many other obvious similarities): a young single white female starts a job doing tedious filing work for the psych ward of a hospital which has been closed down. She thinks this will be relaxing but actually the spooky setting and long hours alone start to fray her nerves. She picks up smoking again, her marriage starts to deteriorate as does her mental health as she becomes plagued by paranoia and nightmares. Slowly her past is unraveled as she begins to have therapy sessions with a psychiatrist who is occasionally around, apparently tying up loose ends or something...

This character study is "added" to by a serial killer subplot which acts as the catalyst for the final, and not quite understandable, denouement. The film presents two mutually exclusive possibilities for the events that unfold before us, but these possibilities are also each internally inconsistent and don't hold up to scrutiny. The third possibility is so vague and barely realized that I'm not sure I even know what it might be.

Its not a stinker; the production values are fairly high and the acting is good for indie horror standards. Unfortunately, the film also suffers from some of the common afflictions that come with a small budget - a cast of six characters, a total of four sets, hardly any establishing shots, and so on. I think a really good film will transcend its budget - and tell a story where these things don't really factor in at all; in fact many of the best horror films have had notoriously tiny budgets and its because of being innovative with constraints its part of the art of film-making.

All in all its mostly a retread of very tired psychological thriller tropes, lacking any spark of originality, done cheaply without much concern for artistry or cinematic depth. There's just barely enough meat on its bones to make it not terrible, but obviously that's not much of a recommendation.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Virus X

TITLE: Virus X
SCORE: 1 out of 4

I can't recommend in good faith that anyone watch this film. There are many problems with this film; for one, the basic plot is barely even half-cooked. A rich old lady has some sort of cure-all 'vaccine' to H1N1 but the virus never did anything scary so she hires scientists to develop a super-amped version of the virus. Of course they test these new strains on humans in poorly lit underground cells. As luck would have it, strain X turned out to be the really really nasty one.

So, of course, things happen and the virus gets out of control. But everything happens at a very slow pace, and the performances are either too melodramatic and exaggerated to be believable or too sedate and blank to be worth mentioning. Who are any of the characters involved in the virus program - including at least a half-dozen patients? I don't really know. I don't really care. There's a doctor. There's a guy who seems more like a fighter character in a video game than anyone who should be in a super-science lab. There's some alright gore but much of it is of a regrettable form in which people puke up what kind of looks like poop.

Lots of blue lighting, tilted angle shots, shakey-cam; the cinematography was uninspired to say the very least. The make-up effects were very nicely done, but that can't really carry a film. The whole thing was a wooden exercise in pointlessness. It was a story that takes maybe an hour to tell stretched out to film length and a mildly clever "twist" ending tacked on. Its not quite contemptible, but its no treat.