Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Note on Handycam/Handcam/Shakeycam

I've been rereading some of my posts and notice that I sometimes praise movies for their use of hand-held camera techniques while also totally shred other movies for theirs, without explaining exactly what I'm talking about. I notice I also use some terms interchangeably that I feel do have separate meanings.

First off -- my use of the term "Handycam." I almost exclusively use this to designate the fact that a movie is being shot with an inexpensive consumer-grade camcorder. An early example of this was the Sony Handycam series of camcorders, which like 15 years ago were total shit VGA quality video 20-minute battery drainers and used microcasettes. They have since improved quite a bit and there's a range of models, some being pretty much as good as professional cameras. Yet, my terminology stays the same and I see no reason to change -- sometimes I see a movie that's just bottom barrel video quality and have used the dreaded epithet of "go-pro," so its not like I have no idea about post-90s camcorder technology, I own a couple of mid-range 1080p digital camcorders myself with sdcard storage and a non-linear digital editing software suite on my 2015 model desktop PC, but oh well handycam is still my goto term for a shitty video camera.

Next, handcam. This is a technique I'm sure everyone is familiar with, and sometimes its done really well and sometimes its just a terrible mess. To be clear, handcam is a rough, hand-held technique where the cameraman actually moves around to do tracking shots, pull aways, and zooms often involve just running to the subject of the frame. At least, that's what I mean by it. When its done well, it has an effect of tricking your brain into thinking what your seeing on the screen is actually being done with your own eyes, and can really pump up the stress and adrenaline of a scene. When done poorly, it looks like an idiot who's never held a camera before jumping around like an idiot.

However, even bad handcam footage is not necessarily bad enough to get called the ultimate shit-tier filming methods - Shakeycam. Shakeycam is just the worst -- the camera bobbing around like someone's filming while having a seizure. I can't think of an example where it's been effective. Much better is a bunch of really quick edits of different but similar camera angles, which can be done well and make a scene unsettling. Trying to do that in real-time during production just. doesn't. work. Please stop.

I hope that clears somethings up. Also, here's a good rule of thumb to think about when filming:

Does this need to be handheld? No? Then use a goddamned tripod. Also a good question: Is this tilted angle eerie, or just gimmicky? If it doesn't add to the mood, fucking keep your camera upright: you're not making The Third Man, ya dumb jabroni!

Ok. Just thought I'd clear up what might be confusing to some people. Can you believe I still haven't watched this year's most anticipated horror film The Witch??? I promise I'll get to it soon and give you my review. I've heard mixed things so I'm still looking forward to it.

Also... here's a few quick bites of movies on Netflix that you might be thinking about watching:
  • Dementia -- Terrible. Absolute garbage. I hated every minute of it. Stay away.
  • Re-Kill -- I thought this was a clever B-movie that was fun to watch. A good party movie.
  • The Hallow -- I loved this. I think its a 4/4 for me. Very well done. Watch it!
  • Harbringer Down -- Doesn't live up to the hype but its still well worth a watch.
Ok I promise I'll do more full reviews soon!


Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Channel




TITLE: The Channel
RELEASE DATE: 2016
SCORE: 0 out of 4 stars


Uuuggh this movie is terrible. Terrible acting, terrible characters, terrible dialogue; most of it is terrible. Shot from what appears to be a handycam with a few artsy filters this movie fails at the most basic level. It just isn't put together properly -- scenes meander one after the next with little to no connection, filled with shitty characters portrayed by shitty non-actors with frequent monologues about god and fate and demons and stuff written with the depth and maturity of a junior high student. I find it hard to believe that actual adults created this. Writer/director Tom Lewis has big list of credits as a "production attorney," which he should clearly stick to doing, and never ever be allowed to make another movie.

So... we have Cassie, who was with some drunken party people, driving around, when they hit some other girl, named Katie, and Cassie survived but only after being legally dead for a few minutes. Then she's at school, then she's outside with the her friends, then she's at home... it goes on like this forever. There's absolutely no sense of sequential time. Who knows when this stuff is taking place!

There's some "dramatic" tension between Cassie and some popular boy who kinda likes her, but she is a "freak" and he is pressured by his peers to totally diss her. Cassie is obviously supposed to be a goth, with really overdone make-up, but she also has a really deep tan. The actress is, well, highly unpleasant to look at. I've seen photos of the actress, Kristen StephensonPino, and she's not actually an ugly person, just in this movie, I guess.

I guess they go to a catholic high school, because one of their classes is taught by a priest who talks about demons. I don't know if that even happens at Catholic school... Then Cassie thinks her house is haunted, so the booze crew do a seance. Maybe something shows up? Its vague. The big baddie is some sort of ghost or demon shadow-person type thing, the particulars are explained by a tweaker who comes out of nowhere to tell Cassie he sees it too and that the demon tortures him and the only release is through cutting and self-harm. Great stuff.

Everything is so grating on the nerves; the acting, the writing, the lighting (ughhh!), that this has no chance of being suspenseful or scary, its just a bunch of dumb scenes strung together. Every fucking line read is just shockingly bad. When its not that its high pitched whining noises and Cassie's shrill screaming. Cause, ya know, she's being mentally tortured by the demon. But really, its the audience that is being tortured.

Oh, and then there's all these scenes of her with shitty psychiatrist who tries to convince her its all in her head. So, there's also some real half-assed attempt at a psychological thriller angle mixed in. And Katie's mom also gets involved to harass Cassie, and I think she beats her up at one point, but that might have been the demon again.

 So, its like -- the priest stuff, the popular kid, the party krew, Katie's mom, the demon screeches, the psychiatrist; these all come and go in a revolving, unconnected set of scenes that add up to one big pile of shit. I mean, yes, it does eventually lead towards something, but the path there is like a Hanna-Barbara animated chase sequence.

And it's no short & sweet 90 minutes either. Oh no, this thing is an hour and half long!

My recommendation: burn all copies you encounter of this.


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
RELEASE DATE: 2013
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
RELEASE DATE: 2012
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.