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Entries in Horror (34)

Friday
Sep092011

Contagion

Disease is a universal fear. Everybody knows what it’s like to be sick and no matter how hard one might try, sickness can’t always be avoided. The thought of a deadly pandemic is scarier than any boogeyman one can think up and it’s here that the latest Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, finds its inspiration. It takes the fear many have felt in recent years thanks to viruses like SARS and the bird flu and uses it in a mostly effective way, depicting a strain of infection that spreads like wildfire throughout the world and kills millions of people. If you aren’t a germaphobe now, you will be after watching this movie.

Contagion is a film that is guaranteed to freak you out mainly because events like this could actually happen, and have. Consider, if you will, the Black Death, which is alone responsible for upwards of 100 million deaths, and it’s only one example of pandemics throughout history. A new virus, unstudied and untested, can have a devastating effect and, though this is a work of fiction, a voice in the back of your head will be sure to remind you that we are at all times only a few steps away from a similar reality. That’s the strength of the film. It sets out to scare and it succeeds.

However, as with any scary movie, there must be strong central characters to care about. Otherwise, the looming threat means little. Unfortunately, Contagion has none. There’s Mitch (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson have just died from the virus, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the CDC who is trying to control the panic that seems to be spreading faster than the virus, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the person who is determined to find a cure, even if it means testing on herself, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an Internet blogger trying to uncover a government conspiracy that may or may not be real, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a member of the World Health Organization who is about to find herself in a precarious situation, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is also doing her part to help, and more. There’s even a cameo by Sanjay Gupta.

I don’t mean to suggest these actors aren’t doing their part; the acting is all around fantastic. I only wish to point out how crammed this movie is. Despite good performances, too little time is spent with any random character to create a connection between them and the viewer. Think of it like a news report detailing a shooting (an unfortunate event that occurred just the other day). It’s sad, but it’s a general sadness. What we feel is a different feeling than what we would have felt had we personally known someone harmed in the event. That’s what happens here and we fail to care about any one person. The film jumps back and forth between characters far too much, to the point where some are left missing for large chunks of the picture. Dr. Orantes, for example, is kidnapped relatively early on and forced to help the last of a dying village in Hong Kong. By the time it got back to her after spending extensive time elsewhere, I had forgotten she was even in that predicament.

It’s a poor juggling act—the majority of characters should have been written out of the script in favor of a select few—but Soderbergh does what he can and, as one would expect, Contagion is well shot, if a bit safe. Soderbergh doesn’t break any rules here the way he does in his more experimental low budget films like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience and instead cranks out a conventional thriller, but his usual verve for filmmaking is nevertheless apparent. Most of the film’s problems stem from too much ambition—its attempt to pack so much into such a short amount of time was unwise—but it’s hard to fault ambition. At least Contagion has some, which is a quality lacking in most movies these days.

Contagion receives 3/5

Friday
Sep022011

Shark Night 3D

Labor Day weekend is considered by many to be a dump week in the movie industry. With the summer season coming to a close, studios take whatever trashy movies they have sitting around and release them to get them out of the way. Yet at this same time last year, cinemas saw three solid films, the respectable rom-com, Going the Distance, the over-the-top fun of Machete and the wonderfully thoughtful George Clooney drama, The American, the latter two of which made my best of the year list. I was hoping for a similar quality this year, but instead have Shark Night 3D, a vapid shark attack movie that will only work for fans of faux horror or obnoxious CW sitcoms.

Resting much closer to Jaws: The Revenge than Jaws, Shark Night follows a group of college kids as they embark on a weekend getaway to an island surrounded by a lake. There’s Malik (Sinqua Walls) the jock, his tutor Nick (Dustin Mulligan), Nick’s crush, Sara (Sara Paxton) and a few other charmless bozos who couldn’t survive a shark attack if they were swimming in a pool. After Malik gets his arm bitten off while waterskiing, the group learns of the infested waters and makes an unthinkable amount of boneheaded moves that inevitably lead to their deaths.

Shark Night tries to be many things (scary, funny and sexy to name a few), but it fails at them all. Its humor is juvenile (a man who spray tans his crotch is not funny), its scares are limited to jump scenes—tension is nowhere to be found—and its PG-13 sexiness is pushed to its limit, clearly there for the adolescent boys in the audience who get excited by a woman’s bare back and a little bit of side boob.

Every character in Shark Night is a stereotype, including the obligatory racist characters who get in a tiff with the non-whites on the trip. There’s the black guy, who calls his friends “G’s” and women “hoes,” the sluts who can talk only of having sex, and the virgin guy and innocent girl, both of whom will, of course, become the heroes. They all spout stupid one-liners, mock a character’s lack of sexual experience and speak like they’ve watched too much MTV. They’re so consistently annoying and poorly written that the living thing you end up being most concerned for is the dog.

Early in the movie, Sara, who owns the island, tells her friends their cell phones won’t work, a conveniently placed line of dialogue that will later give them a reason to be stupid, especially when, through the most contrived string of events you can possibly imagine, their boat blows up and they find themselves stuck. You’d think her family, aware of the lack of cell phone service, would have installed a landline in the house, but that would imply someone in the movie had common sense, which I suppose is too much to ask.

To put it succinctly, nothing in Shark Night works. Its actors are too old to be playing college kids, the sharks are unconvincing CGI creations and the story is cockamamie. Believe it or not, there’s a twist in the end that, without giving it away, has to do with the popularity of Shark Week, which does a great job of rounding out a plot that is only slightly less stupid than the stalker shark in Jaws: The Revenge. Shark Night is a terrible, terrible movie and, as of now, is the single worst film of the year.

Shark Night 3D receives 0/5

Friday
Aug262011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Horror movies, especially mainstream ones, are in shambles. Thinking back on the last year or two of theatrically released horror movies, I can only recall a couple of standout films that managed to crawl under my skin. Most of the time, horror is either disgraced by a lackluster remake (A Nightmare on Elm Street) or a watered down PG-13 rating (The Haunting in Connecticut). Though still technically a remake (of a made for TV movie, so who cares), this week’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark puts forth some honest to goodness effort. Unfortunately, that effort is akin to a basketball team who plays their hardest, but still loses. It’s a commendable attempt, but when all is said and done, it’s still a failure.

Bailee Madison plays Sally, a young girl who is sent to live with her father, Alex, played by Guy Pearce, in Rhode Island. She’s none too happy about it and her resentment shows, especially when directed at Alex’s girlfriend, Kim, played by Katie Holmes. She is now stuck in a huge mansion with nothing to do, so, being the adventurous person she is, she snoops around and finds a hidden basement in the house. After hearing voices through a grate down there, she pries it open and unleashes a terror that threatens her safety and that of her family.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is so good in so many different ways, it’s a shame it ended up the way it did. Truth be told, the film has more positive traits than negative, but, as any movie critic will tell you, some aspects are weighted heavier than others. If a horror movie can set the proper mood and cast good actors who give good performances, you’re halfway to success, but no amount of mood can make up for a lack of scares. This is a prime example of that type of film. It’s set in a giant mansion in the middle of nowhere, with backwoods, gardens, gravestones and a lake in the front with fog ominously wafting over it. It does a brilliant job of mixing the innocent with the evil, taking things like teddy bears and rotating night lights and making them unsettling. Its use of lighting and shadows creates a welcome feeling of paranoia; something could be hidden just beneath the darkness.

All of these things contribute to an effective build that is guaranteed to set most viewers on the edge of their seats, hearts racing with anticipation. And then it comes; a scare that simply isn’t scary. The climax of these scenes is precisely where the film falters most. So while the build may work, the problem is those weak climaxes negate the build. Those on the edge of their seats will slide back and those sitting up at attention will slump. The creatures aren’t particularly menacing, especially once you’ve gotten an up close look at them, and you’ll quickly realize that the film has run out of tricks, or trick rather. Because the creatures don’t like light, you’ll get to watch the characters run around with flashlights and cameras to repel them while they attempt to smash any type of light source they can find. After this happens for the first time, you’ll get the gist of what this movie has to offer and the thrills will become lessened as each subsequent scene plays out.

Still, the performances are all very good, especially little Bailee Madison, who is exploring new ground here. She has been in everything from ridiculous comedies (Just Go with It) to religious dramas (Letters to God) and she adapts well to horror. Any performance issue can most likely be traced back to the screenplay, which forces its characters into unrealistic stupidity. As with most horror films, you’re supposed to simply go along with it, but it’s difficult to swallow some of their actions. Little Sally puts herself into so many precarious situations, it could only be seen as a justifiable outcome if she were to perish.

In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose it must be said that the audience at my screening for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was awful, and when you watch a movie with a crowd as obnoxiously loud as them, you have to take their ruining of the experience into account. Horror movies rely heavily on sound (and silence) to work, so a rambunctious crowd can effectively suck the tension out of the theater. I like to think I can separate my experience with the movie from the crowd, but, admittedly, it’s a difficult thing to do. On a repeat viewing, perhaps I’d find Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark better, but I only have this one viewing to judge it on. And in that regard, it was a huge disappointment.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark receives 2/5

Friday
Aug192011

Fright Night

In regards to remakes, bashing Hollywood has become the cool thing to do. I don’t mean to be preachy (because I’ve done a fair share of it myself), but in reality, remakes aren’t nearly as common as original films. It’s a common misperception because it feels like they are (and even so called original films are redundant of each other). Case in point: in the last three days, I’ve sat through three separate remakes: Conan the Barbarian, next week’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and now Fright Night. It’s getting a bit wearisome, to be sure, but this new Fright Night is solid. It’s a faithful reboot of the 1985 original that simultaneously does enough to stand on its own.

Anton Yelchin plays Charley, a normal high school kid who is caught up in a relationship with his girlfriend, Amy, played by Imogen Poots. He’s trying to fit in, which has caused him to neglect Ed, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, his nerdy former best friend. But when Ed accuses Charley’s next door neighbor, Jerry, played by Colin Farrell, of being a vampire, he has no choice but to listen. Before he knows it, Jerry is after him and Amy and he realizes he won’t be able to peacefully rest until Jerry is dead.

The original 80’s Fright Night is a good, not great, film that used its campiness and humor to charm. It had a creepy moment or two, but it wasn’t scary. It was just plain fun. The remake, similarly, is a good, not great, film, that retains the original’s humor, but dials down the camp and attempts (without succeeding) to ratchet up the scares. For what it’s worth, one film is no better or worse than the other. They both do what they do and they do it well without ever truly impressing.

Neither manage to impress because both films hit insurmountable narrative flaws that hamper the experience. While it could be argued the original is a tad too slow for its own good, the pace of the remake is decidedly too rapid. The film does a masterful job of establishing a battle of wits between Jerry and Charley, the latter the only person aware of Jerry’s true self and the former using psychological scare tactics to keep Charley subdued. Just when this intriguing set-up is about to play out, however, it goes overboard. Jerry blows up Charley’s house and goes on a statewide hunt to kill him. It becomes a case of too much, too soon. Rather than take the calm and patient (and, ultimately, better) route of the original, it goes to extreme measures to please a cinematic society that favors fast action over calculated storytelling.

Where it betters the original is in its casting of the villain. Colin Farrell is wonderfully evil as Jerry and he brings a type of menace that was missing from Chris Sarandon’s performance 25 years ago. The problem is that the script doesn’t allow him to shine (again, a problem stemming from the much too quick pace). He’s most effective when things are quiet, so when the movie decides to go berserk at about its halfway point, his commendable creepiness is rendered moot. Those around him do a good job of picking up the slack in the screenplay, however. Yelchin is a great nemesis for Farrell and he produces authentic chemistry with Poots, though that’s probably more in part to Poots’ natural beauty and charisma than anything else. Likewise, Mintz-Plasse does his best to keep the comedy coming and mostly succeeds, though, like most of his attempts since Superbad, he’s hit and miss.

Keeping with the recent trend, Fright Night is in 3D and, yet again, it’s an unnecessary aesthetic. Because this is a horror movie that takes place mostly at night, the dim picture is sometimes hard to see and there is rampant double vision. Despite a few effective moments, the 3D here is unpleasing to the eye. Even movies that are shot in 3D, as opposed to post-production conversions, have done little to persuade me that the effect is necessary, including this one. But 3D or not, Fright Night works and proves itself as one of the most purely enjoyable movies to be released this summer.

Fright Night receives 3.5/5

Wednesday
Apr132011

Scream 4

To say expectations are high for Scream 4 would be an understatement. Fans who have stuck with the series are hoping that after an 11 year hiatus, the fourth entry in the franchise will reinvigorate it, giving it enough legs to go on for at least another couple of films. Those people will be disappointed, but luckily, there’s a difference between expectations and actual quality. Scream 4 may not be as good as Scream (or even Scream 2), but it’s still a solid film in its own right. As one critic pointed out after the screening, if this were just another slasher film, we’d be discussing how surprisingly good it was, but since it’s a Wes Craven helmed Scream film, we scrutinize it more. It’s a case similar to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which received positive reviews, but is generally hated by the movie going public who, unlike critics, don’t have an obligation to separate their franchise fandom from what is put onscreen. As a huge fan of the original trilogy, yes, I’m disappointed with Scream 4, but as a standalone film, it works and offers enough thrills to garner a recommendation.

Ten years have passed since the events of Scream 3. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) has moved on and even written a bestselling book called “Out of Darkness.” She is now on tour promoting the book and her next stop just happens to be her hometown of Woodsboro where the slayings actually occurred. Unfortunately for her, it seems a new Ghostface Killer is on the loose and is threatening to kill her and her young cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts). So along with old pals Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), they attempt to solve the mystery of who is behind the mask.

In 1996, Scream did something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before. It was a spoof on slasher films while itself remained a slasher film. It deconstructed the rules of the genre and used them in new ways to simultaneously make fun of itself and scare the wits out of the audience. The characters in Scream had seen countless horror films and were intelligent enough to see that they were trapped in one, even going so far as to have discussions about who would play them in the movie adaptation. If Scream was self aware enough to acknowledge that it was playing by the rules of your typical slasher film, Scream 4 is aware that it’s following the rules of a reboot. In a sense, Scream 4 is just Scream all over again. It’s like a “passing the torch” kind of movie, except the passing is more of a stabbing action and the torch is a new set of teens.

The problem is that this self awareness doesn’t go far enough. For every scene where characters discuss the rules of a reboot, there are three in between where it’s dropped completely. Kevin Williamson, the man behind the first two films, is credited as the writer on Scream 4, but Ehren Kruger, the penman of Scream 3, was brought in to do rewrites during its production. To pinpoint exactly who wrote what would be impossible, but it’s not difficult to assume that Kruger is responsible for the weaker parts of the script (there’s a reason Scream 3 is the worst in the franchise).

This comes as a disappointment because horror has changed a lot since Scream 3’s release in 2000. Torture porn is wildly popular, but Scream 4 only briefly discusses it. They “lack character development” and feature “just blood and guts” one girl says early on. That’s true, but taking a quick jab at it and saying something thoughtful are two different things. It also touches on the idea of never ending sequels (which Scream 4 is also an example of), but merely uses it as an excuse to repeat itself, which sequels so often do.

Still, there’s some good stuff here. While not an overall theme, it briefly brings up the idea that we have become so desensitized to violence in movies that we end up laughing at it. It even reminds us, through dialogue from Ghostface, that “this isn’t a comedy, it’s a horror film,” as we sit and laugh before the carnage unfolds. But perhaps the greatest example of self awareness comes in the form of horror movie loving nerds, not unlike the Jamie Kennedy character in the original trilogy, who explain that in reboots, “the kills have to be way more extreme.” It’s a rule Scream 4 seems to take to heart because it's brutal and even though it can be disgusting, it fits the self parody this franchise is so known for.

I’ve spent so much time discussing how it succeeds and fails as a meta film that I’ve neglected to answer the question of whether or not it’s scary. Like the rest of the film, it’s hit and miss. Some moments are terrifically suspenseful and others are so obvious you can count the beats until the jump scare. However, when it isn’t obvious, it does a wonderful job of playing with expectations. There are plenty of times where you’ll swear something is about to happen, but then it doesn’t. At the very least, it keeps you guessing.

And that guessing translates over to the killer (or killers). Scream 4 makes pretty much every character short of Sidney a suspect by allowing them all to go off on their own and reappear at inopportune times. It also gives a few of them tempers that produce sudden bursts of anger, and we all know you have to be pretty pissed off to murder someone. If that isn’t enough, the camera lingers on certain characters with extended close up shots that are sometimes accompanied by a loud musical sting. Frankly, the killer(s) could be anyone and I wouldn’t dare give the reveal away, though I will say that it raises some issues that I’m not sure would hold up on repeat viewings.

I suppose you could nitpick other little things, like the fact that Dewey’s limp brought on by his severed nerve is suddenly cured here, but that would be overlooking what Scream 4 is: an uncommonly smart, if severely flawed, slasher film that will make you laugh and frighten you on more than one occasion. It’s not the spot on parody that Scream was, but then again, what is?

Scream 4 receives 3.5/5

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