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Entries in Horror (34)

Friday
Apr012011

Insidious

Many people consider the horror genre the lowliest form of cinema. Their inherent focus on death can be off-putting and as time has gone on, they have gotten more and more grotesque. To not enjoy the genre is, at this point, understandable. That’s why, as a critic, I’m supposed to scoff at torture porn movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede. And I do. But one film I believe is unfairly lumped in with those films is Saw. The sequels are another matter (although some, like number six, at least manage to provide interesting commentary), but the first film was original and thought provoking and, contrary to popular belief, didn’t concentrate on a large cast of no names getting mangled by overcomplicated contraptions. It was a tight psychological thriller with two skillfully developed main characters who became more nuanced as it went on (though it was by no means perfect). The duo behind that movie, Leigh Whannell and James Wan, have been on my radar ever since that film. They are a force to be reckoned with in the horror community, especially after their severely underrated 2007 film, Dead Silence. Their newest, Insidious, isn’t quite as good as those two films, but given the state of horror these days, it’s still worth a look.

Husband and wife Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) have just moved into a new house. They haven’t quite finished unpacking yet and their days are hectic. Josh works hard during the day while Renai tries to balance out the care of her three children with composing piano music. Suddenly, however, their oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) sadly and unexplainably falls into a coma. Three months pass and he still isn’t awake, but Renai is beginning to hear and see things in the house and she thinks his coma might have been brought on by something not of this realm.

Insidious is your typical haunted house story. Things go bump in the night, faint apparitions appear behind thinly veiled bed canopies and doors creak open and close. Those are only a few of the sub-genre’s tried and true tricks the film borrows. It’s most certainly not original, but it excels in a few key areas and manages to frighten on more than one occasion, particularly in the first act.

The opening scenes perfectly set the tone for the film and James Wan’s visual style is eerie without being overbearing, employing black and white footage in the opening credits montage and canted camera angles to show that something is not right in the house. He has a visual eye for the macabre. Even when things seem normal, you get a sense something unseen is close by. It’s an effect that is not easy to pull off, but Wan does it here.

These early moments promise a slow building ghost movie, similar to something like 1980’s effective chiller, The Changeling, and this is when it works best. Ghosts are left hidden or at quick glimpses and its use of shadows keeps you on the edge of year seat, aware that something could be hidden beneath the shroud of darkness. It’s about what you don’t see, which makes it all the more frightening. Unfortunately, this tight, focused ghost movie becomes more and more ridiculous, and even occasionally laughable, as it goes on. The unsettling feeling present in the early scenes all but vanishes, leaving you only with predictable jump scares as it spirals down the same problematic pathway many horror movies do. As the ghosts become more prominent and the filmmakers put them front and center, it becomes decidedly less scary, stripping away whatever terrifying design your imagination has conjured up and replacing it with something that, frankly, looks kind of stupid.

Insidious, despite its many problems, is anchored by two terrific performances from two accomplished actors and it manages to redeem itself in the last ten minutes or so in a climax that mixes the dreamlike visuals of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the exploration of a survival horror video game like Silent Hill. In the end, Insidious squanders its opportunity to become a truly scary movie, but a few inspired moments and effective frights make it a fun diversion nonetheless.

Insidious receives 3/5

Thursday
Mar312011

Red State

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t loathe Fred Phelps, his family and the so-called “church” he runs over in Topeka, Kansas. Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, and everyone in between, they all look at the people who preside at the Westboro Baptist Church and want to puke. It’s an understandable feeling. With protest signs preaching intense hatred (“God Hates Fags”) and praising the deaths of our soldiers fighting overseas (“Thank God For IED’s”), one can’t help but look at them and feel some type of overwhelming emotion; sadness, anger or even a mix of the two. These horrible people are the inspiration for Kevin Smith’s new non-comedy film, Red State, and despite struggling in certain areas, it’s guaranteed to be a cathartic experience for anybody who despises the Phelps family as much as I do.

The movie follows a family by the name of Cooper, a family not unlike the Phelps clan that thinks homosexuals are the bane of society. However, rather than simply picket with outrageous signs (which are meant to be funny, like “Anal Penetration=Eternal Damnation”), they go one step further. They actually kill those who they find impure. After luring a trio of kids, played by Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and Kyle Gallner, to their area with the promise of sex, the family begins a ritualistic sacrifice, but things go wrong and they find themselves in the middle of a battle with ATF forces, led by agent Joseph Kennan (John Goodman).

Kevin Smith is one of those filmmakers that has never impressed behind the camera, but what he lacked in that area, he always made up for with his sharp writing and quick witted dialogue. Despite being his most technically proficient accomplishment to date, his strengths and weaknesses remain the same in Red State. Similar to last year’s Cop Out, this film features a big action scene late in its runtime and Smith struggles to make it exciting. Aside from the fact that it goes on for far too long, its main problem is that nothing really happens. Most characters simply stand around, occasionally pop their head out to take a shot, then retreat back to cover. The franticness of what a cinematic gunfight should entail is all but missing. For much of its length, Smith rests on a shot reverse shot filming pattern, which isn’t exactly the best way to ramp up the thrills.

However, when the film is quiet, Kevin Smith is at his best. It’s only natural for one to wonder if his knack for writing engrossing dialogue would translate over into more serious movies, but I’m happy to report that it does. Though some jokes still linger, Red State is serious in tone. From an early scene where the head of the Cooper family, played marvelously by Michael Parks, gives a hate filled sermon to the closing scene where Kennan justifies his actions in the aftermath of the conflict in front of a government board, the film oozes stylish dialogue. Smith has announced many times that this is his next to last film as a director (his last being Hit Somebody) and many are upset by the news, but I could care less. It’s when he stops writing that we’ve truly lost a talent.

Now, as much as I love seeing the Phelps-esque family in the film get their comeuppance (though I by no means advocate that happening in real life), it can’t help but feel like they’re an easy target. It sometimes feels like Smith is using them to set-up a greater message, but one never really comes around. For instance, the film may be called Red State, but it lacks a political message, aside from the fact that people who associate themselves with right wing politics tend to be more religious, which is hardly a revelation. The only true point it makes is that religious fundamentalism can be dangerous, which is true, but if you really want to see a scary story about religion run rampant, you need look no further than the terrific documentary, Jesus Camp, or even the maddening exposé on the actual Phelps family, Fall From Grace. Both of those offer more substance and insight into the same topic, but as a twisted, sick companion piece, Red State will do.

Red State receives 3/5

Friday
Jan282011

The Rite

When a movie comes with the label “Based on a true story,” I’m always skeptical. Is it really true or is it just a marketing ploy the studio is hoping will pull in more money? While there’s no reason to believe most based-on-real-events dramas are fake—movies like 127 Hours are anything but—horror films have proven that the phrase can be attached to nearly anything even if there’s little to no truth in it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, The Fourth Kind, Paranormal Activity, all have hidden under the guise of reality and many viewers have believed their lies. This week’s newest exorcism film, The Rite, uses this tactic as well, though its validity should quickly be squashed as viewers read the opening credits where it is revealed the film isn’t “based on” or “inspired by” true events, but rather “suggested by,” whatever that means.

Colin O’Donoghue plays Michael Kovak, who is at a crossroads in his life. In his family, everybody becomes either a priest or a mortician. Although he desires to be neither, he gives into the pressure and reluctantly heads to seminary school. After hearing about the massive influx of possession reports, he heads to Rome to partake in exorcism school, despite his refusal to believe. When he arrives, he meets Father Lucas Trevant, played by Anthony Hopkins, the most knowledgeable and experienced exorcist in the area, and becomes his apprentice. Little does he know his lack of faith is about to be tested when Father Lucas begins acting strangely.

At this point, the Devil has become a cliché. Without question, the Devil is the most interesting villain any screenwriter could ever imagine. He’s the king of all that is unholy, a deceiver, a liar, a master manipulator, evil incarnate. He sees suffering in the world and relishes it. You can’t get any worse than Satan, but screenwriters seem content to simply plop him in another exorcism movie rather than really explore what he can do. The Rite is another one of those movies, but luckily, it’s an uncommonly smart one and it hits on some deep philosophical and theological issues.

At one point in the movie, Father Lucas explains to Michael that the Devil doesn’t want to be noticed. He says that just because you can’t see him, it doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Michael responds, saying that they’re hitting a tricky area when “no proof of the Devil is somehow proof of the Devil.” This hits the very foundation of religious belief, shedding light on how believers think. Many believe things they cannot prove while disregarding fact. Take creationism vs. evolution, for instance. Believers are quick to point out the holes in evolution, but can offer up zero proof of divine creation. They're also quick to give God credit in times of joy, but never blame when tragedy strikes. If the hard work of dozens of people to rescue the trapped Chilean miners can be described as a “miracle,” how do you describe the recent shooting in Arizona? If God has his hand in one, wouldn’t he have his hand in the other? Where’s the line?

The Rite astutely observes this religious train of thought while keeping the discussion in its own world. In fact, the whole movie is a battle between opposing viewpoints. It’s a battle between certainty and uncertainty; faith and lack of; seeing what you believe and believing what you see. Unfortunately, these intellectual battles devolve into a more conventional battle between the Devil and the priest in the last block of the film, completely dropping the ambiguity of whether or not exorcisms have any real merit and simply concluding that they do.

With such a smart beginning and middle, the inferiority of the end stands out, where mindless excitement is favored over smarts. Hopkins and O’Donoghue are terrific, however, and their two performances are delightful to watch, even if they are taken away from their tense dialogue driven scenes and forced into typical horror movie theatrics.

The Rite receives 3.5/5

Thursday
Oct282010

Saw 3D

As a critic, I’m not supposed to like horror movies. Critics scoff at modern horror for its depravity and excessive bloodletting. Outside of a few instances, like this year’s The Human Centipede, I pride myself in not joining them. I like horror and I’m not ashamed to say it. The Saw franchise has been my buddy for the last six years and when asked about their quality, I always defended them. I would recommend each and every one, except for Saw 3D. Director Kevin Greutert, after being forced off Paranormal Activity 2 to direct this movie based on a clause in his contract, compared the move to being “raped by your dad.” While it’s not quite as bad as that (I imagine), it sends the series off with a fizzle rather than a bang.

As everybody should know by now, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is dead, but his work goes on with the help of Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). However, at the end of the sixth movie, it seemed his help was no longer needed because he found himself in a trap thanks to Jigsaw’s wife, Jill (Betsy Russell). Though it was supposed to be inescapable, he somehow made it out and that is where Saw 3D begins. Jill, fearful of what Hoffman may now do to her, confides in the police and reveals who Hoffman really is. So now, the entire police force, led by Detective Gibson (Chad Donella) is off to find him. Meanwhile, Jigsaw’s latest victim, Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery) finds himself in an elaborate maze, not unlike the previous movies, where he must inflict pain on himself to save those close to him.

The Saw franchise requires a lot of leaps of faith. If you begin to pick it apart, it will easily crumble. You can predict human nature to a certain extent, but you can’t to the extent shown in these movies. Nothing would ever play out the way it does, but I’ve always looked past that, something most audiences are aware they must do when sitting down for a horror movie. But Saw 3D is ridiculous, even by the modest standards of the franchise. To explain why would be giving too much away, so I’ll refrain from doing so, but it all leads up to the dumbest, most predictable ending of any of the Saw films, which, unfortunately, concludes the entire story.

If the above quote is any indication, it seemed like director Kevin Greutert simply didn’t have his heart in the production. Saw 3D is the most sluggish, boring entry to date and the lack of interest comes across in nearly every facet, including the writing (one of the “games” requires Bobby to pull out two of his teeth, a game the guys in Jackass 3D did just for fun). A big part of a director’s job is to direct his or her actors and Greutert's egregious laziness keeps him separated from his cast, all of whom give fairly bad performances. Even the veterans who have appeared in the previous movies are notably weak, except for Tobin Bell.

I think it’s safe to say that Jigsaw is now one of the biggest horror icons of all time. He deserves to be right alongside the likes of Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger and Bell’s chilling portrayal of the man is the main reason why. As far as horror icons go, Jigsaw has the most personality of them all and Bell plays him in a way that shows the frightening lack of morality behind his skin. He kills people, but claims not to by giving them a way out. He thinks he’s doing them a favor, when he’s really putting them through Hell. He is all that and more.

But you won’t see him here. Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, who have penned the story since the fourth movie, foolishly write him out, giving him an extremely limited screen time with only one true scene that fails to expand on his story the way the previous movies have.

While it has been a roller coaster ride for the Saw series—some have most certainly been better than others—this is the biggest step down, going from what is arguably the best to what is clearly the worst. Jigsaw deserved a better send-off and if this truly is the last installment as the studio has said, then a once great franchise has, sadly, been ruined.

Saw 3D receives 1.5/5

Friday
Oct222010

Paranormal Activity 2

It seems like only yesterday I was walking out of a midnight screening of Paranormal Activity and finding myself dumbfounded that so many people were calling it one of the scariest movies of all time. It seemed to me that all the buzz surrounding it was unwarranted. That’s not to say I have nerves of steel because it certainly crept under my skin. There were moments where my heart raced and my anticipation for what was coming next kept me in a state of anxiety. But then it began to repeat its scare tactics and by the fourth and fifth time I saw the main character crawl out of bed and loom over her boyfriend for hours on end as he slept, I became numb. My fear turned to boredom and the idiotic Hollywood horror ending left me with a feeling of disappointment. Well, Paranormal Activity 2 isn’t only good; it’s better and scarier than the original.

The events depicted in this film run more or less parallel to the last and the story brings back Katie, the poor girl who was haunted by the demon in the first movie. Her sister has just moved into a new house in California with her husband, her teenage girl and her little baby boy, Hunter. After they arrive home one day and find their house ransacked presumably by a burglar, they decide to install multiple cameras in their house (rather than an alarm, which is totally the normal thing to do). Before they know it, those cameras are picking up strange occurrences and they begin to believe something unseen is after them.

Just to clarify, Paranormal Activity 2 suffers from the same issues as its predecessor. It is by no means a perfect movie and not worthy of standing alongside horror’s heavy hitters like The Exorcist, Psycho and the original Halloween. But given the state of horror these days, where tension, slow builds and genuine scares are replaced by torn off limbs and buckets of blood, it stands above the crowd.

One of the big reasons Paranormal Activity lost its freshness as it went on is because virtually all of the scares came from the static camera set up in the same spot in the same room every night. It tried to switch things up, but its flexibility was limited. This sequel ups the ante. There are no less than six cameras positioned in this family’s household and each night, we see every angle. This keeps us on our toes, guessing what will happen next and where, and because of this ability to move the hauntings around the house, the scares stay unpredictable.

To coincide with this intent to move things forward, the filmmakers also expand the character roster. Rather than one person receiving the brunt of the hauntings as in the original, everybody gets a taste here. The characters all see, hear and experience things they’d rather not and the innocence of the baby, unaware of what’s going on around him and unable to fight back, keeps things interesting. There’s even a dog in the movie that, as is the case with most horror movie animals, can sense the paranormal activity going on around him and works as our eyes, staring and barking in the direction of the demon, even though we can’t see it ourselves.

Sequels, by their very nature, are usually not as original as their predecessors and the same holds true here. Many of the tricks used in Paranormal Activity are duplicated (shadows, loud bumps, objects moving mysteriously, doors opening and closing), but what that movie failed to do was keep things varied, of which this sequel does a better job. The concept may not be as fresh, but the film itself is and it stays fresh throughout its runtime. Paranormal Activity 2 does exactly what it should and satisfyingly expands on the original.

Paranormal Activity 2 receives 4/5