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Entries in Horror (34)

Friday
Oct242014

Ouija

At the risk of sounding condescending, I have a tendency to mock those that believe in silly things. When I was younger, I was the one who would move the Ouija board slider to mess with my more gullible friends, as my cynical nature quickly took over as soon as we gathered around that board. I simply couldn’t help myself; it was just too easy. If anything, my cynicism regarding the so called “spirit world” has increased as I’ve grown older.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a good ghost movie, but this week’s succinctly titled “Ouija” was more than I could handle. It was hard not to roll my eyes when the skeptic characters, 15 seconds after huddling around the Ouija board, were all of a sudden believers. Where are the logical ones, the ones who refuse to believe such nonsense? Although horror movie rules dictate that they will ultimately be wrong for being non-believers, a decent representation would have been nice. At a short 89 minutes, however, I suppose such narrative and character arcs are too much to ask for. But even with my cynicism removed from the rest of the product, “Ouija” just doesn’t cut it. It’s not scary or interesting, the make-up and effects are subpar and the dialogue is ridiculous.

The very thin plot follows a young woman named Laine (Olivia Cooke) whose friend has just seemingly committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. She quickly learns that, just prior to her death, her friend had just used a Ouija board alone, which is against the rules if you want to safely contact the spirit world. A believer herself, she and a group of friends decide to huddle around the Ouija board at night in the house her friend died in to see if they can summon her spirit and uncover the truth surrounding her death.

Even with the thin plot, the events leading up to that girl’s death set the stage for a promising ghost movie. For example, backgrounds are prominent in the opening shots and though the girl is front and center, the eyes are drawn behind her. It sets a mood by cinematically implying something may happen, but then it doesn’t. It toys with perspective and viewer expectation in a way that too many horror films fail to do. Even when her fate ultimately befalls her, nothing much is shown, allowing the imagination to conjure up whatever horror she sees in her final moments. It’s heightened tension at its finest.

Unfortunately, this is all within the first five or so minutes of “Ouija,” the rest of it succumbing to a bland story and horror clichés, like slowly opening doors and reflections in the mirror that stopped being scary years ago and don’t find themselves reinvigorated here. The spirits here, like so many that came before, spend more time with mild trickery than actually getting the job done. One must wonder what the mentality is behind turning the oven on when, if they can already manipulate real world objects, they could easily do something much more effective. A gas leak explosion, perhaps?

Where “Ouija” ultimately falters, though, isn’t in its narrative absurdities, but in its abundance of jump scares, effective only in the sense that they’ll startle your heart to the point of racing rather than building to it and earning it. It’s the kind of scares where someone in the other room inexplicably and unintentionally sneaks up behind their friend with ninja-like stealth skills, a scare intended only for an audience dumb enough to fall for such lazy tricks. But I suppose the filmmakers had to try to spice things up somehow. If it weren’t for those occasional loud jump scares, I’m pretty sure I would have fallen asleep.

Even still, those tricks are preferable to the ghostly presences the audience is eventually introduced to. They look incredibly silly and they’re seen in such generic horror movie locations that they would be hard to take very seriously anyway. The characters venture into dusty attics, cluttered basements and even a psychiatric ward. One gets the feeling that the only reason they don't end up in a cemetery is because the Ouija rules expressly forbid it.

Simply put, “Ouija” is ill-conceived from top to bottom, rarely showing that it has any idea what makes a good horror movie. It’s very easy to make fun of those who think a mass manufactured Hasbro game has any supernatural properties to it, but you can’t blame those people for looking for some cheap thrills. The movie based on it wishes it could muster as much.

Ouija receives 1/5

Thursday
Aug222013

You're Next

“You’re Next” is the most immersive horror film in some time. This is important to note because to truly scare an audience, a horror film needs to draw them into its proceedings and do the best it can to make them forget that they’re merely watching a movie. In its attempt to do just that, the film circumvents the usual opening credits all other movies abide by. It doesn’t even flash a title card, instead opting to cleverly blend its title with the events at hand, through the words written in blood across two full body windows. I hesitate to hail this as the newest home invasion/slasher masterpiece because it’s not on par with many that have come before, but it nevertheless nails the one key ingredient it needs: complete and total immersion.

The movie begins simply enough. A family is getting together to celebrate the parent’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. The mother and father have yet to meet any of their children’s significant others, so to help celebrate, they’re all coming along. The evening begins with innocent jokes and petty quarrels, not unlike many families get-togethers, but during dinner, something crazy happens. As one of their daughter’s boyfriends walks towards a window, an arrow comes crashing through, killing him. There are mysterious masked people outside and they’re trying to kill them for unknown reasons, so the family bonds together and tries to come up with a plan for survival, which, of course, will be frivolous for most of them.

The largest issue with the majority of horror movies these days is this: if they even manage to instill fear at all, they can almost never keep it up. The scariest movies at their starts can quickly become dull by their ends because all their cards have been shown and their tricks start repeating. As usual with these things, “You’re Next” fails to keep suspense high throughout, particularly once the invaders get more screen time, but there’s an interesting turn of events that make this shift unique.

As far back as masked killer movies go, dating all the way back to John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, “Halloween,” the female protagonists were hapless victims, ones of circumstance that didn’t so much fight the monsters as they did run away from them. Sure, late movie events typically led to them overcoming the monster, but their timidity was rarely downplayed. After all, they were fragile, innocent women. Such is not the case with “You’re Next.” The protagonist here, played wonderfully by Sharni Vinson, is strong, intelligent, confident and she makes good decisions. She’s one of the strongest female protagonists to ever grace a horror movie and it’s more than welcome. If you’re the type of girl who has been longing for a female character that makes the males onscreen look like wimps and doesn’t annoy with relentless whimpers and screams, you’re going to love her.

In fact, it’s her prowess that gives the film its edge and makes the less frightening back portions nevertheless exciting. Without going into too much detail, it’s safe to say that the hunters suddenly become the hunted, the film slowly shifting to their perspective over time, and it’s them who are walking slowly and cautiously towards their potential demise. If the film stumbles at all with its heroic female lead, it’s when it gives a flimsy reason for her skills and smarts, something along the lines of growing up on a survivalist compound with a crazy dad who readied her for the end of the world. Such an explanation is unnecessary; why can’t the strong female protagonist be cunning and intelligent simply because she’s a strong female?

Even with such a senseless stumble, the movie itself is solid all around. While the back half forges its own path through the tired home invasion/slasher subgenre, the first half plays out like a slick cross between “Halloween” and the underrated 2008 gem, “The Strangers.” The monsters are shown in the background and through reflections while jump scares don’t signal the end of a fright, but instead are followed by subtler, creepier, tone setting shots that truly get under the skin. That’s not to say this movie is a nightmare-producing scare fest—few are—but it sets out to do something and it does it well. If you’re a horror fan, you need to see “You’re Next.”

You’re Next receives 4/5

Thursday
Apr042013

Evil Dead

Let’s just answer this question now. No, “Evil Dead” is not the “most terrifying film you will ever experience,” as its posters would lead you to believe. It would be tough to proclaim it even as the most terrifying film in recent memory, given the release of the excellent “Sinister” not too long ago. Perhaps the marketing for the movie wasn’t the wisest, unrealistically setting a bar the film was not likely to achieve. It’s a good thing you don’t judge a movie by its marketing though, because “Evil Dead” is nonetheless a frightening experience, one that will unnerve you, make you feel uncomfortable and perhaps even sicken you.

The story, as one might expect, is of little consequence, though it gives off the air of importance with its heavy set-up. Mia (Jane Levy) is a coke addict. She tried to kick the habit a number of times, but never could, so she and her friends, along with her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), head out to a cabin in the woods to recover, away from the civilization that exposed her to the drug. On one hand, this is a refreshing start. Most horror movies give little reason as to why a group of friends isolate themselves in some remote area beyond a cheap weekend-long party where drug use is encouraged. The opposite is true here, but it raises some issues with the film as a whole.

Although cliché, the no-reason set-up in something like the “Friday the 13th” remake promises nothing special. It typically puts the movie on a level of self-awareness, fully cognizant of what it is and what it intends to accomplish. But when a film sets up these plot threads and tries to give these characters back stories (however thin they may be), they must be followed through on. “Evil Dead” doesn’t do this, resulting in a screenplay that’s fresh with horror movie scares, but narratively inconsistent. Tack on a really lazy back story about Mia and David’s mother who died years ago and characters that are lacking in real personalities and you have a movie that gives you little reason to care.

So the fact that you still do is astonishing. It’s a testament to the craft of its making, which relies heavily on ambiance, lighting and shadows to deliver its thrills. While not devoid of a few cheap jump scares, “Evil Dead” is surprisingly restrained, in this regard at least. It’s more about things slowly crawling out of the shadows and building an atmosphere than it is about the “Gotcha!” moments so many horror movies rely on these days. Of course, when it comes to the violence, it’s another story altogether.

Although the original film and its sequels were indeed violent, their violence was one of two things: over-the-top or cheeky. It was never something to look away from or be disgusted by. This movie, on the other hand, is brutal. Its violence is absolutely relentless and, aside from a moment or two, very graphic, uncomfortably so at times. The reason is because the violence is visceral. Although most likely not to these extremes, you’ll know what some of this feels like. Most don’t know what it’s like to have something go through your arm, but we all know what it’s like to get a deep cut. Although one is clearly more painful than the other, the film wisely opts for the one we’ve felt, allowing us to recall our own pain while we watch those onscreen experience it. It’s not something everyone will enjoy, but it’s beneficial to a movie that obviously seeks to get some kind of reaction from its audience.

Clearly, this isn’t your 1981 “Evil Dead.” This is its own evil beast. The original was a scary movie, but it was also more humorous, both intentionally and unintentionally thanks to its campiness and low budget. There’s nothing funny about this. Any laughter you hear in the theater is most likely due to general uneasiness. There is some inherent amusement in the characters’ silly logic—first, they remark that it smells like something died in there, then they see a dried up pool of blood leading to the cellar, so their first thought is, “Yeah, let’s go down there”—but these are necessary elements that are expected in this genre, no matter how dumb they may be.

“Evil Dead” isn’t always pleasant, but horror movies needn’t be. The important thing is that it doesn’t feel exploitive like something like “The Human Centipede.” When dealing with this concept and source material, such chaos and brutality are warranted and even necessary in its telling. Admittedly, it’s a bit difficult to watch a movie like this when last year’s “Cabin in the Woods” so brilliantly skewered the subgenre, but it’s hard to deny its technical proficiency. There’s something here almost any horror aficionado will enjoy and to those fans of the original, who no doubt fear this will not live up to the “Evil Dead” name, rest assured that it does, just in a different way (and there are plenty of nods to those movies; listen closely and you might hear an echo of Bruce Campbell’s dialogue from the original). When you factor in the post-credits tease that I dare not give away, it gives fans plenty to be excited for. This franchise is in good hands and if Sam Raimi does indeed follow through on his promise of a fourth “Evil Dead,” this film will surely complement it nicely.

Evil Dead receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jan182013

Mama

If it’s January, that can mean only one thing: movie studios are dumping whatever crap they have sitting around into theaters. Every year, during a time when the general population is optimistically looking forward to making the next 365 days better than the last, movie studios do their part, albeit in a small way, to prevent that from happening. This week, we have Mama, a film where the most appropriate describing adjective is “stupid.” I suppose for a January release, it’s not half bad, particularly if compared to last year’s genre offering, The Devil Inside, but such praise is faint. Mama is still ridiculous, played out and, worst of all, not scary.

The film stars Jessica Chastain (also in this month’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film much more worthy of your time) as Annabel. She’s a rocker who is in a serious relationship with Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Five years ago, his twin brother went on a killing spree that culminated in the death of his sister-in-law and kidnapping of his two young nieces. However, on his dash out of state in a car with an ironic vanity plate that reads “N1 DAD,” he spins out of control and they disappear from the public. After a desperate search, Lucas stumbles upon the two girls, Victoria, played by Megan Charpentier, and Lilly, played by Isabelle Nelisse, but his brother is nowhere to be seen. He eventually gains custody of the girls and takes them home after a much needed psychiatric evaluation, due to the imaginary friend the girls developed while stuck in the wild they call Mama. Eventually, weird things start happening around the house and Annabel and Lucas start to wonder if Mama is actually something more than an imaginary friend.

And of course she is. Any question regarding the validity of such supernatural claims are quickly put to rest when Mama presents herself within the first five to ten minutes, before the title card even pops up. The best horror movies keep you guessing and hide its monster, allowing your brain to concoct whatever terrible creature it can. Mama shows its cards way too early. Despite being partly veiled by shadows or shown in silhouette early on, the basic idea of the creature is put in place too early, effectively crushing any build the movie could have had otherwise. To make matters worse, when you finally do get a good look at her, she’s anything but scary and, if we’re being totally honest, looks like Gollum with long, flowing hair and Down syndrome.

For this reason and many others, Mama fails to elicit a sense of dread, much less maintain it like the best horror movies do, like last year’s bone-chiller, Sinister. At its most effective, Mama is unsettling, not because it’s scary, but because, if you know your horror movies enough to predict them, that a loud jump scare is right around the corner. Even if you aren’t a horror movie connoisseur and aren’t privy to the workings of horror movie scares going in, you will be when you come out. Mama picks one tactic and then uses it over and over and over again, ad nauseam. If you don’t figure out the ending beforehand (which you may not given that certain scenes make zero sense in the context of the story), you’ll have nevertheless mapped out the path to it. That’s how utterly clumsy and predictable this movie is.

The most enjoyment one could gather from watching Mama comes from laughing at the sheer silliness of it all, like when the two girls are found and have mentally and physically transitioned into comical spider-like creatures. Additionally, spotting contradictory dialogue exchanges becomes a rather fun game after some time. One standout example comes during a scene when an extraneous side character claims to not be religious and not know much about the afterlife or the supernatural, directly before explaining in great detail the reasoning and motivations behind the persistent ghost. Expository dialogue is looked down upon and for good reason—it’s usually forced in because the filmmakers/screenwriters couldn’t figure out a way to properly convey the story in a less direct and more meaningful way—but I’ve never seen it appear so bluntly and hypocritically.

Mama is a mess. It benefits from having some decent performances, most notably from the talented Jessica Chastain, but even a talented actress such as her can only do so much with such thin characters. With little to move the plot along aside from time-filler dream sequences (some of which actually have additional dream layers within them, like a mini Inception), Mama quickly becomes stagnant and tiresome.

Mama receives 1/5

Friday
Oct122012

Sinister

Sinister hearkens back to classic horror films. It isn’t overly violent and relies more on mood and imagery to create a disturbing and frightening atmosphere. It doesn’t rush through its story to please the ADD generation, but builds slowly, tightening the tension until it becomes too much to bear. The film, quite frankly, is terrifying. It stumbles in a few key areas and relies a tad too much on played out horror movie tropes (the creepy kid thing isn’t scary anymore, let’s move past it), but it’s likely to chill you to the core. It’s one of the scariest movies in at least a decade, so if fright is fun to you, you won’t have more fun at the movies than you will with Sinister.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a crime writer. He investigates real life murders and tries to uncover things the initial police investigation may have missed. Part of his process is moving into or near the house or area that the heinous event took place, which has just led him to an eerie house in what appears to be a fairly standard Midwest town. In this house, a family was murdered, all but the smallest child who went missing. Not too long after moving in, Ellison finds a box of old film reels in the attic. Curious, he brings them down, hooks them up and begins to watch them. Each reel depicts the brutal murder of a family and they are accompanied by spooky symbolism and a mysterious man looking on. Eventually, strange things begin to happen in the house and Ellison begins to realize he may have put himself and his family in danger.

Sinister begins with footage from one of those film reels and it perfectly captures the tone of what is to come. What is shown should be left for the viewer to experience, but it immediately crawls under your skin, and does so without resorting to cheap tactics. It’s a violent exhibition, but it isn’t gory. It’s also scary, but it isn’t in your face. Such restraint is held throughout nearly the entire movie. Aside from a couple “Gotcha!” moments (including a horrible one at the end that effectively ruins the sense of eeriness the film had captured up to that point), the film is more about ambiance. It’s more about the fear of what’s going to happen rather than of what actually does. Sinister understands something that very few modern horror movies do: feeling is key. Emotionally unsettling the viewer is more effective than occasionally making them twitch.

What it also understands is that horror movies need a fleshed out script and good acting just as much as any other movie. The bane of the genre these days is its neglect of story and list of no name actors unconvincingly hamming it up onscreen. Sinister, though its story is admittedly familiar, feels so unique because so much care was put into its creation. The characters aren’t just fodder for the creature to take out like in other horror films. Here, they are fully realized with complex emotions and motivations. The best scene, in fact, isn’t even a scary one. It’s a dramatic scene between Ellison and his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), as they fight over Ellison’s lies that brought them to live in a house where grisly murders took place. Most horror films wouldn’t even consider including this scene, but something tells me Sinister's filmmakers knew their movie would be incomplete without it.

At the end of the day, Sinister is an above average horror film with above average acting and a keen understanding of what is truly scary, but it nevertheless falls into traps of the genre that are seemingly impossible to avoid. One can’t help but wonder why Ellison, who suspects that whoever committed the murders depicted on the film reels planted the box for him to find, wouldn’t move his family, if not himself, out of the house immediately. This is a horror movie standard that was brilliantly addressed in James Wan’s underrated Insidious and Sinister falls prey to it. In fact, there are plenty of “Don’t go in there!” and “What was he thinking?” moments throughout the entire film, but one must forgive (or go with) these moments. Without them, there wouldn’t be a horror movie to watch. The one genre misstep Sinister embraces and actually improves on is the comedic relief. Too many horror movies throw comedy into the mix only to disappointingly break the tension; whatever goodwill it had built to that point dissipates. In Sinister, these moments are a welcome reprieve. They give you a chance to calm down from the unrelenting terror you’ve just sat through in the scene prior.

Sinister will scare you so bad, you’ll feel the pulse racing in your feet, and that’s in spite of a few key moments that don’t work, including a horribly unfrightening slow motion scene involving a dark house, long hallways and children. Its biggest issue is probably its ending, which feels all too abrupt after such a slow, gradual build, but they say it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. The same holds true for Sinister and by the end of this journey, you won’t need to pull over to pee. You’ll have already done so in your pants.

Sinister receives 4/5