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Entries in Horror (34)

Friday
Oct212011

Paranormal Activity 3

For the first time in eight years, we’re approaching Halloween without a new Saw movie. Like the franchise or hate it, it was a Halloween staple, but pumping out a new movie every single year was destined to fail eventually. Fans grew tired of the premise and dwindling ticket sales eventually killed it. A large part of that was due to 2009’s Paranormal Activity, a clever, if not entirely effective, horror movie that relied on a slow build and eerie frights rather than fast action and gory kills. Last year’s sequel took the foundation of that film and built upon it, upping the ante with multiple cameras, an all-seeing dog and a baby in peril. If that film was an evolution of the premise, Paranormal Activity 3 is a de-evolution. In terms of legitimate scares and narrative cohesion, this is a major step back.

The movie begins with a familiar scene. Kristi (Sprague Grayden) and her family have just returned home to find their house ransacked. Completely disregarding the fact that the sequel clearly stated that nothing was missing except for a necklace her sister, Katie (Katie Featherston), made her, it appears now that a box of old VHS tapes from the basement were stolen instead (just one of many ways this movie fails to connect to its predecessors). This sets off the rest of the film as we watch the footage from those tapes where young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown), along with their parents, Julie (Lauren Bittner) and Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), find themselves haunted by a demon.

The first and second films, while mostly existing within themselves, did a good job of setting up a back story through dialogue. It took the time, even as small a time as it was, to establish a history, which gave the mysterious events that occurred some weight. In a sense, a prequel is the next logical step for this franchise because there’s plenty to explore and connect. Unfortunately, this movie ignores even the simplest things. The fire that burned all of their belongings that Katie spoke of in the first film never actually happens here, for instance. Any connection made by viewers will be one littered with assumptions. Katie also spoke of how, when they were children, the spirit would stand at the foot of their beds. One would think something as simple as that would surely be included for continuity’s sake, but one would be wrong. The spirit does a lot of things, but none of what was mentioned in the previous movies.

Then there’s the absurd ending (which is far too reminiscent of plenty of other films, including last year’s The Last Exorcism) that tries to provide answers when none are needed and fails to make sense of what’s happening in regards to the continuing narrative that has now stretched over three movies. All would be forgiven if this could stand apart from its predecessors in terms of sheer scariness, but for every moment of genuine dread, there are three of redundancy. Loud bangs, slamming doors, swinging chandeliers, falling objects and shaking houses are old hat at this point. Although credit must be given to directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the guys behind Catfish (which I’m still not convinced is real), for managing to maintain suspense for minutes on end in certain sequences, too many moments are obvious and predictable. More than anything else, Paranormal Activity 3 needed some new tricks.

In the original films, all of the scares came organically. They came from the demon and his activity. In this one, multiple scares come from the human characters unnecessarily jumping out of closets and in front of the camera and from strange edits that make it appear like something is happening when nothing really is. They are forced in and come off as desperate attempts from a franchise that knows it’s losing the attention of an audience that is used to its tactics. By the end of Paranormal Activity 3’s technically short, but perceptively long runtime, it’s hard not to feel exhausted by what amounts to a creative mess, one that can’t even manage to connect the dots on a story with such undemanding simplicity.

Paranormal Activity 3 receives 1.5/5

Friday
Oct142011

The Thing

The Thing is a franchise that continually defies expectations. The 1951 original, The Thing from Another World, escaped the usual silliness of man-from-space pictures of the time period with strong central characters and a couple of impressive horror set pieces. In 1982, John Carpenter released his take on the story, simply titled The Thing, that managed to be one of only a select few remakes in movie history that improved on the original in almost every way. What it may have lacked in characterization, it made up for with unrelenting terror. It was a masterful display of suspense and it still holds up today. Then in 2002, Carpenter’s film got a terrific video game sequel that surprised gamers everywhere by breaking the trend of poor licensed video games. Now in 2011, we get a prequel to Carpenter’s film, also titled The Thing, that any person would rightfully expect to be lousy, but it’s not. It’s not as good as its predecessor, but it works and does so in a different way, separating itself from Carpenter’s version while still retaining its style. This is a franchise that can do no wrong.

The film takes place days before the events of 1982’s The Thing at a nearby Norwegian camp in Antarctica where a team of scientists have just found an alien spacecraft and a specimen frozen in the ice. To help unearth and examine it, they enlist the help of American paleontologist, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who soon realizes that the cells of the creature aren’t dying and are able to fuse themselves with the cells of other living creatures, replicating them perfectly. After it escapes, it’s a game of wits as nobody in the compound can trust anybody else. Any of them could be the thing.

The idea of not knowing who is a person and who is a thing was the driving the force behind Carpenter’s movie and the same is true here, though to a lesser degree. Although technically a prequel, it feels like a remake of the remake, following in its footsteps to a tee, including the lock-up of suspicious characters in a cabin outside and a variation on the blood test scene to check who is a monster and who isn’t, but it’s done well, building a good amount of tension and excellently playing off the fears of paranoia and claustrophobia. These early moments are undoubtedly its high points.

Eventually, however, it succumbs to monster movie madness and becomes nothing more than a gross-out creature feature. It becomes more jumpy and more effects oriented and thus, less effective. The tension is replaced by loud, overblown spectacle and the characters spend less time worrying about who is a thing and more time running from them, but it never gets boring. Because the movie has spent its early moments focusing on the characters, the sense of peril remains. You’ve come to care about them and even though the mystery is gone and the suspense is fading, its outcome remains as emotionally important as ever, despite the fact that, thanks to its prequel status, it had already been decided.

Where The Thing falters the most is in its climactic moments where it gets a bit too Hollywood and shows us too much. To go further would be critically irresponsible, but it ends up raising more questions than it answers, which is baffling given that it won’t ever have the chance to answer them (short of shooting a sequel separate from the Carpenter movie). Still, as far as these things go, this is pretty good. Creature features are generally silly, redundant and ineffective. The Thing proves not all creature features are created equal.

The Thing receives 4/5

Monday
Sep262011

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Rednecks get a bad rap in horror films. If they’re central to the story, it’s inevitable they will be the killers or, in a more supernatural type of movie, lure unsuspecting teens to the lair of some unthinkable creature. They’re never the heroes. They’re never the normal ones. They exist as archetypes for lazy screenwriters who can’t come up with a more interesting villain, but not in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, the debut film from writer-director Eli Craig. What begins as your typical killer hillbilly movie evolves into something much greater that turns the rules of the genre on its head. Its single joke premise may grow tired by the end of its short 88 minute runtime, but it’s creative, intelligent and fun and, despite its problems, turns out to be one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year.

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are best friends. They live in West Virginia and don’t have much money, so the fact that they’re able to buy a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains, secluded from the rest of society, is something special. It’s run-down and probably wouldn’t look like much to other people, but to them it’s a vacation home. So they go there to relax and fix the place up while, by pure coincidence, a group of college kids are taking a camping trip close by. While fishing one night, they watch as Allison (Katrina Bowden) accidentally knocks herself unconscious. Without hesitation, Tucker and Dale save her, only for her friends to misinterpret the situation and think she has been kidnapped. As they attempt to “rescue” her, they begin to accidentally kill themselves, causing the remaining kids to conclude that Tucker and Dale are offing them one by one.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is, in its own special way, similar to films like Scream and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon in that it plays with expectations. It takes familiar horror plot elements and clichés and deconstructs them to create something unique. Despite their names in the title, we don’t begin the film with Tucker and Dale. We are instead trapped in that car with the kids who are venturing through hillbilly country. At one point, Tucker and Dale pass by them in their truck and stare at them ominously. Further up the road, they stop at an old shop to pick up some supplies where, naturally, Tucker and Dale have also stopped. Later in this scene is where the movie makes the transition between perspectives. We find that the two friends were only staring because they were surprised to see such highbrow college kids in their neck of the woods. When Dale walks up to talk to Allison, he stumbles over his words and laughs awkwardly, in a way one would expect of horror movie hillbillies, but it’s only because he’s nervous and not good at talking to girls.

The film cleverly uses the typical behavior of what would expect from such characters, but then goes on to explain why they act the way they do. They’re not out to kill—as Dale later confesses, he doesn’t even like to fish because he doesn’t like harming the poor creatures—events just happen to play out in a way that makes them look like psycho murderers. In one hilarious bit, Tucker runs at the kids with a chainsaw, screaming and swinging it wildly. What they don’t know is he just accidentally cut into a beehive and he’s only running to avoid getting stung. Through moments like these, the film finds its fun. Anyone familiar with the tropes of the horror genre will undoubtedly find something to enjoy.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil sets out to spoof and pay homage to the redneck killers subgenre, recalling films like Friday the 13th, Wrong Turn and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (the latter of which this film’s opening is ripped from) and in that regard, it’s a rousing success, and it works because of its two talented, funny and underappreciated stars. Alan Tudyk is immensely likable and it’s amazing he hasn’t found more fame after starring in the terrific sci-fi show, Firefly, and knocking the role of Simon out of the park in the original Death at a Funeral. Tyler Labine, similarly, is a goofball and plays stupid well. He also starred in a great short lived TV show, Reaper, and should be getting more love than he is. However, it’s that lack of appreciation that allows them to star in movies like this and their pairing up is brilliant. They work so well together and their rapport is so funny, it feels like they’ve been long time best friends in real life.

Although a sequel is probably too much to ask, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is destined to go down as a cult classic. Those who actually watch it will fall in love with the characters and laugh at the crazy things they do, like sterilize their wounds with a can of beer. The first half is better than the last half where it loses its cleverness and becomes a generic battle of good vs. evil complete with dastardly villain clichés that are just that: clichés. The parody disappears and the ingenuity along with it, but it’s a lot of fun up to that point, more than enough to make it worth watching.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil receives 3.5/5

Friday
Sep162011

Straw Dogs

Although I, unfortunately, have never seen Sam Peckinpah’s original Straw Dogs, I’ve heard plenty about it. I was told about its uncomfortable rape scenes, off-putting violence and general nihilism. The more I heard, the more it sounded like a spiritual companion to Last House on the Left, a film (or two if you include the remake) that I simply cannot handle. That movie is sick, twisted and it disguises evil as good, looking at the world from a pessimistic, animalistic viewpoint. I wasn’t exactly a fan of that film and the trailers for the remake of Straw Dogs, which looked so similar to that movie, didn’t get me particularly excited, but after seeing it, the contrast between the two is clear. Straw Dogs isn’t sensationalism. It may get a rise out of its viewers, but that’s not its goal. It aims to tell a story, albeit a dark and violent one, and it does it well. If you can stomach it, it’s well worth seeing.

David (James Marsden) and Amy (Kate Bosworth) are a happily married couple. They both work in show business, David a writer and Amy an actress, where they met one day while working on the same television program. Now, they are getting away from the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle and heading to Blackwater, Mississippi, Amy’s hometown. Upon arriving, they run into Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s high school boyfriend. He and his buddies have a contracting business and they are employed by David and Amy to fix their shed, which lost some of its roof thanks to a recent hurricane. As time goes on and Charlie begins to manipulate David, tension mounts, inevitably leading to a violent confrontation.

Straw Dogs is a smart movie that doesn’t feel gratuitous like many other similar films, including the aforementioned Last House on the Left. It doesn’t jump right into the abyss, eager to get to the bloodshed. No, it takes the time to build its characters up before killing them off. The tension builds not through attempts at excessive style or moody music or jump scares; it slowly percolates through dialogue and character interaction, which is no small feat. By the time the bloody end rolls around, you’ve invested yourself in what’s going on and it’s practically guaranteed to get your heart pumping like you just ran a marathon.

What disappoints, however, is how we end up reaching that bloody end. Throughout the film, there’s a bout of wits between Charlie and David. Neither likes the other, David aware of Charlie’s lust for his wife and Charlie seeing David as an unworthy companion to the girl he used to love. There’s also an odd sexual connection between Charlie and Amy; some of Amy’s bizarre actions are evidence enough of that. The way these are presented in the film is more than enough to make us believe violence could erupt, but the film instead relies on its B story to get us there. It involves an autistic man and a 15 year old cheerleader that goes nowhere fast, other than to set up a narrative contrivance that will lead the man into David and Amy’s home while the cheerleader’s father, alongside Charlie and his goons, stands outside with weapons demanding his head.

The way the film ultimately gets there is unsatisfactory, but at the same time, that route gives it a moral compass. David refuses to give up the man because he knows the guys outside will severely harm or even kill him. He knows keeping him in the house will lead to violence, but he doesn’t have it in him to turn over a man who is unable to comprehend what he did. Unlike Last House on the Left, where the “heroes” sought out their victims in the middle of the night and killed them in cold blood, David is protecting someone. He only kills because he has to.

If nothing else, that is what sets Straw Dogs apart from the rest of the pack, a likable main character who doesn’t try to justify his actions with flimsy reasoning. The film doesn’t romanticize the violence he inflicts on his attackers and it treats an earlier rape scene as it is, as an awful, soul crushing event. It’s not the most technically accomplished film ever made, but it knows what it’s doing. It works in its own crazy way and, though it’s certainly not for everybody, it’s one to keep your eye on.

Straw Dogs receives 3.5/5

Friday
Sep092011

Creature

I feel like I would be able to survive a horror movie situation, if not avoid one altogether. I’ve seen enough movies to know when to run, when to fight, when to hide and when to not camp out in the middle of a Louisiana swamp where, legend has it, a terrifying creature stalks and kills those who venture into its territory. Of course, the characters in the imaginatively titled Creature don’t have the same smarts us movie watchers do. You’d think when the crazy knife wielding hillbilly with deformed hands tells them the local legend is true, they’d listen up (especially when he’s standing next to Sid Haig), but they don’t and their stupidity eventually leads to their demises. But if you’re really interested enough in this movie to read this review, you already knew that, didn’t you?

As the legend goes, an incestuous family lived alone in their little shack in the Louisiana swamp. They kept to themselves and away from the outside world. The area they lived in was very dangerous and their numbers had dwindled down to two, a brother and sister who planned on continuing their bloodline together, but one day, an alligator took the woman and killed her. In his rage, the now alone brother found the alligator in its lair and killed it. Suddenly, something compelled him to eat the flesh the beast had left behind. Naturally, this mutated him into a half alligator, half human hybrid, which totally makes sense.

A family that lived alone in the Louisiana swamp, suffered a tragedy and now kills those who come near? Sounds an awful lot like Hatchet, almost to the point of plagiarism, but as the movie goes on, you realize the two are stark contrasts. In Creature, the acting sucks, the dialogue is terrible and the characters lack personality. In Hatchet, the characters are funny, the dialogue is witty and the acting is, well, serviceable. Creature wishes it could have half the entertainment value of that film, but it ignores the paths to success and decides to merely exist, destined to be forgotten quicker than the time it takes to watch it.

In my mind, those paths are clearly defined. A horror movie can become quality if it is 1) scary, 2) funny or 3) so stupidly over-the-top violent as to be fun, but Creature is none of those things. In all fairness, it doesn’t make much of an attempt at humor, but its scares are lame, mostly relegated (as usual with these things) to startling jumps with loud musical cues. Its utter lack of anything frightening whatsoever stems from an uninteresting creature whose impact on the kids is negligible at best. With the spiders, snakes, alligators and aggressive human behavior to worry about, the creature ends up being the least of their problems. The design of the thing is so silly (it’s very reminiscent of old school creature features where grown men walked around in rubber suits), you’ll quickly realize the scariest thing in the movie is a sinkhole.

As for the violence, most is off-screen, which seems to go against the very essence of the film. From the very first scene, where a pretty lady strips completely nude and is shown in all her glory, Creature hints that what comes next will be exploitatively gratuitous, both in sexuality and violence, but it only succeeds in the former. (Every single female in this movie gets naked at some point. And the girl-on-girl make out scene? That’s a bonus.)

Even by such a simple standard, Creature fails. It really thinks it’s something, but it’s nothing more than a B-movie that doesn’t want to admit it. It has the occasional moment of fun, but it’s so poorly put together, it can’t keep it up. There are noticeable jump cuts (a supposedly knocked out woman’s head changes direction in relation to the camera) and the story is only so-so, with an obvious story twist that should be easily figured out by anyone paying attention to the relationships of the kids in peril. From its title to its forgettable monster, Creature is unimaginative in nearly every possible way.

Creature receives 1/5