Psycho (1960)


The scream that started it all.

The scream that started it all.

(1960) Horror (Paramount) Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, John Gavin, John McIntire, Simon Oakland, Frank Albertson, Patricia Hitchcock, Vaughn Taylor, Lurene Tuttle, John Anderson, Mort Mills, Ted Knight, Jeanette Nolan (voice), Virginia Gregg (voice), Kit Carson, Prudence Beers, George Eldredge, Sam Flint. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Some movies transcend the genres they’re in. The Searchers is a Western that is greater than its genre. Saving Private Ryan is a war movie that sets the standard for its genre. Horror movies have a lot of films that are bigger than their genre. Arguably, the one that might make the most impact among mainstream film audiences is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

When it came out the year I was born movie audiences really hadn’t seen anything like it. Back then there were no ratings, just the Hays code that all movies had to adhere to. Psycho skirted those codes without violating them, a neat trick. It did it so well that many remember it as being more violent than it was and even remember the red hue of the blood despite it being filmed in black and white. It was a game changer and it set the stage for how the modern horror movie is made, for better and for worse.

Marion Crane (Leigh) is a secretary at a financial institution who is tired of being single. She is deeply in love with Sam Loomis (Gavin) but he lives in California, she lives in Arizona and he is barely able to make ends meet. There’s no way he could possibly take care of her.

After a lunch time rendezvous with her lover, she is given $40,000 of Tom Cassidy’s (Albertson) money to deposit. Instead, she snaps and drives off with it, hoping to run away to California and use her ill-gotten gains to start a new life with her man.

However, she is too tired to drive there all in one session, so she stops for the night at the off-the-beaten-path Bates Motel. There the innkeeper Norman Bates (Perkins) rents her a room and has a sweet but increasingly creepy conversation with her. Afterwards, she retires to her room for the night to wash the road off of her and get a good night’s sleep.

However things go horribly wrong and her sister Lila (Miles) hires a private investigator (Balsam) to check up on her baby sister. There is something going on at Bates Motel. Something terrible. Something deadly. It’s much like the Hotel California; you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

Financed by Hitchcock himself and made at for what was even at the time a pittance, it remains Hitchcock’s classic horror movie. Now, he is the Master of Suspense – not the Master of Horror – and he is best known for films like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Rear Window but many people think this was his finest hour. It certainly is one of his most visceral films, even if by suggestion more than the actual showing of blood and carnage.

There is a scene in which a woman takes a shower that has become iconic. During the course of the scene she is attacked in the shower by what appears to be an old woman. The naked screaming woman tries to protect herself but is stabbed repeatedly in the shower and is mortally wounded. The sequence takes only 45 seconds but took a week to shoot and is as masterfully edited as any sequence in film history. It is sudden, shocking and completely unexpected. It turned horror conventions on their collective ears and paved the way for the opening sequence of Jaws among others. That it happens ten minutes into the movie completely changes the movie’s direction – and yet fits into the story seamlessly.

Based on a novel by Robert Bloch (who famously once said “I have the heart of a little boy; I keep it in a jar on my desk”) Hitchcock got the rights for a paltry nine thousand dollars and turned the story which was meant to be a kind of pulp horror story into a classic film.

Perkins entire career was defined by this role which he would reprise in future films, all of which were made after Hitchcock’s death. It would typecast the young, handsome actor for pretty much the rest of his life, but characteristically he didn’t resent being typecast in it and remembered the making of the film fondly up until his own death in 1992 (Central Florida movie fans may not be aware that he attended Rollins College at one time).

Leigh was also a presence in a brief but notable role. It is her performance that helped convince John Carpenter to cast her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween. Talk about far-reaching influences, right? In any case, the Master of Suspense kept the tension up to maximum throughout the movie from the moment Marion Crane drives off with the cash.

Most people have seen Psycho on television or on home video. It is one of those movies that when seen on a big screen is even more remarkable. If it plays in an art house or revival theater anywhere near you, it is worth your while to seek it out, even if you’ve seen it before on television. It was meant to be seen on a big screen despite the intimacy of the setting. It has inspired a shot-by-shot remake by Gus van Sant and a hit television series on A&E. It remains for many the quintessential horror movie, one that even after half a century is still scary as hell.

WHY RENT THIS: Suspenseful and if you don’t know the twist, shocking. Career-defining performance by Perkins. Leigh brief but memorable. One of Hitchcock’s all-time greatest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While extreme for its day is pretty tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality and violence, once again tame by today’s standards but shocking in 1960.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Hitchcock’s last film to be shot in black and white, and also his biggest box office success.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc 2008 release as well as the 2010 Blu-Ray release includes newsreel footage of the movie’s premiere and the special rules regarding latecomers, two different versions of the notorious shower scene including one without music (the way Hitch intended it originally), an audio interview of Hitchcock by French director Francois Truffaut,  a discussion of Hitchcock’s legacy including interviews with modern filmmakers who owe their careers to the Master of Suspense, and a full-length episode from the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $32M on an $806,947 production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (Purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Fury

New Releases for the Week of October 31, 2014


NightcrawlerNIGHTCRAWLER

(Open Road) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmad, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Carolyn Gilroy, Leah Fredkin. Directed by Dan Gilroy

Down on his luck and desperate for a job, any job, Lou Bloom stumbles into the world of the nightcrawler – pseudo-journalists who go to crime scenes and get video of victims for local newscasts. It turns out Lou is really good at it but the more he sinks into the morass of compromised ethics and victims translated as cash, the closer to real trouble he comes.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for violence, bloody images and language)

Before I Go to Sleep

(Clarius) Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff. The victim of a traumatic accident is no longer able to form new memories; she wakes up each morning with all the events of the previous day erased from her mind. Instead of being surrounded by benevolent friends and family however, she may be surrounded by people who want to do her harm – and to make sure her memories remain erased.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opened Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for some brutal violence and language)

Horns

(Radius) Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Kelli Garner, Max Minghella. Suspected of violently raping and murdering his girlfriend, a man wakes up after a night of hard drinking with horns growing out of his head. He soon discovers that the horns can compel people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and perverse desires. Using this as a tool, he determines to discover the real culprit and make him pay.

See the trailer, promos, a clip and a link to order the full movie at Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Supernatural Fantasy

Rating: R (for sexual content, some graphic nudity, disturbing violence including a sexual assault, language and drug use)

Missionary

(Freestyle Releasing) Dawn Olivieri, Mitch Ryan, Kip Pardue, J. LaRose. Katherine is an ordinary housewife separated from her husband and raising her kid alone. She gets romantically involved with a Mormon missionary and things seem to be looking up. Then, she and her husband reconcile. She attempts to break-up with her boyfriend but he doesn’t seem to be inclined to take no for an answer and will stop at nothing to keep her as his.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for violence, sexuality and language)

The Zero Theorem

(Amplify) Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges. In the near-future, a gifted but damaged computer genius works in solitude on a project designed to prove that everything equals nothing. An odd cast of characters either help him or hinder him in his work. The latest movie from visionary director Terry Gilliam had a special screening earlier this year at the Enzian due to the movie having been written by UCF professor Pat Rushin. You can read my review of it here.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R  (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

The Frighteners


Michael J. Fox doesn't like getting pushed around.

Michael J. Fox doesn’t like getting pushed around.

(1996) Horror Comedy (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Dee Wallace-Stone, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, R. Lee Ermey, Julianna McCarthy, Troy Evans, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Angela Bloomfield, Desmond Kelly, Jonathan Blick, Todd Rippon, John Sumner, Jim McLarty, Anthony Ray Parker, Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Peter Jackson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Special gifts generally turn out to be curses more than gifts. People who are different are regarded with suspicion and sometimes out-and-out hostility. On top of that, those who can see dead people are being hounded by the dead to take care of unfinished business with the living. It’s enough to make a would-be ghostbuster  pound his head against a tombstone.

Frank Bannister (Fox) hangs out at cemeteries. Not because he’s fond of graveyards but it’s a good way to drum up business; to discover who has had someone dearly departed and then allow their loved ones to communicate or avoid said lately deceased. The Sheriff (Evans) tolerates Frank to a certain degree although he doesn’t approve. That’s because he knows that Frank has been through a lot; namely, a car accident in which his wife Debbie (Bloomfield) was killed. There were whispers that if may not have been an accident and Frank’s career as an architect came to an end, as did construction on the house he had designed and was building for his wife.

Some see Frank as a charlatan who manufactures “hauntings” and then charges exorbitant rates to “cleanse” them but nobody can prove it. In fact, Frank is a con man who manufactures the hauntings – through the use of three ghosts. You see, ever since the car wreck, Frank can see dead people. His friends Cyrus (McBride), a disco apparition from the ’70s complete with magnificent ‘fro, nerdish Stuart (Fyfe) and The Judge (Astin), a decomposing gunslinger from the Old West lift things around and make people (who can’t see them) think there’s a poltergeist about. Frank steps in with fake instruments and a squirt gun full of “holy” water and cleanses the house. It’s not an honest living, but it’s a living nonetheless. He manages to meet Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Alvarado) when her oafish husband (Dobson) dies of a heart attack.

In fact the people of Fairwater have been dropping like flies lately, all with massive heart attacks. Frank witnesses one and realizes that a supernatural entity in a grim reaper cloak has latched itself to the town and he’s the only one who can stop it. Can he protect the comely widow whom he has begun to get sweet on, avoid the manic obsessive FBI Agent Milton Dammers (Combs) and save the town?

This was one of Jackson’s last movies before embarking on the massive Lord of the Rings project; prior to this he had made movies for the New Zealand market including the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures and the over-the-top Bad Taste. It was not a box office success, mainly because it was something of a compromise of sorts and not quite as anarchic and gore-drenched as earlier horror projects. It was also criticized for being a bit of a mish mash of other movies kind of lumped together.

Nevertheless, it’s still a romp. Fox shows why he was such a terrific leading man, completely charismatic and likable even as he was a bit of a cynic. He also showed some real vulnerability, something he didn’t necessarily do often in previous roles. It remains in my mind one of his best performances ever on big screen or small. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast, every one of whom does decent work here at worst.

There is a bit of a Ghostbusters vibe as well as a kind of tongue-in-cheek Beetlejuice feel (the movie shares composer Danny Elfman with the Tim Burton classic). There are also bits of The Shining and Poltergeist woven in with a bit of Scooby Doo and Re-Animator in there for good measure.

The ghost effects are definitely a bit dated but still effective. There are some other creature and practical effects that are definitely retro but work well even now, nearly 20 years after the fact. In fact, this is one of my favorite horror comedies of all time, right up there with the ‘busters and Beetlejuice as far as I’m concerned. The villains are very villainous (Busey as a serial killer is a natural), the heroes are not-quite-competent but always plucky, the romantic interest beautiful in an Andie MacDowell kind of way and the scares are masterful occasionally, although Jackson has a tendency to go for the laugh as much as the scare. This may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread but it’s a great pop up some microwave popcorn, gather the family round the couch and put this on the TV at Halloween kind of movie. And isn’t that worth something?

WHY RENT THIS: Fun as all get out. Fox is a hoot. Definitely an irreverent vibe. A few genuine scares.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Leans more to the comedy side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, lots of horrific images and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox repeatedly blew his lines by referring to Astin’s character as “Doc,” his Back to the Future partner-in-crime. He broke his foot during filming, delaying production for about a week. This would be his last leading role in a film as the long shoot in New Zealand caused him a good deal of homesickness and he resolved to stay on the small screen, accepting a role in Spin City shortly thereafter.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Generally most major releases come with a making-of documentary which generally run in the 20-30 minute range. The one here is over three hours long and gets into details rarely gone into in home videos, including a read-through of the script at Jackson’s home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29.4M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (stream/rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2014 concludes!

The Conjuring


Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Morganna Bridgers, Zach Pappas, Amy Tipton, Joseph Bishara, Ashley White, Rose Bechtel, Desi Domo. Directed by James Wan

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we know, things we can guess at and things we don’t have a clue about. If the sum total of all that can be known is represented by a volume of War and Peace the collective human knowledge to this point would fit in the first letter on the front cover of the book. Things we don’t know much about – the paranormal – we tend to disbelieve. If it can’t be proven scientifically, the rationale goes, then it isn’t real. Poppycock. Balderdash! All that it means is that we don’t have the wherewithal to prove it at the moment. Our scientific understanding of the paranormal hasn’t reached a point where we can do much more than rule out the mundane. The fact of the matter is, there have been plenty of phenomena captured either anecdotally or on video and for us to say that there’s no such thing as the paranormal is a bit arrogant at best.

One of the first paranormal investigative teams were the Warrens, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga). Lorraine, a clairvoyant and Ed, who tends to be the more pragmatic of the pair, make a pretty good team. They tell people going in that nearly all of the cases they consult on end up having a non-spiritual explanation. There are the few though that do – and often those cases involve some kind of entity. Something malevolent. Something not human.

The Perron family, on the other hand, are salt of the earth sorts. They’ve just moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse that has enough room for the seven of them – trucker husband Roger (Livingston), his wife Carol (Taylor) and daughters Nancy (McFarland), Christine (King), Cindy (Foy), April (Deaver) and Andrea (Caswell). However, it soon becomes evident that the family isn’t the only tenant of the farmhouse. Things are going bump in the night (more like BANG!), there are disembodied voices of children, things are misplaced and moved at random and the dog refuses to go inside the house. As Roger is frequently away for work Carol is left to protect her daughters and she is beginning to suspect that is something she’ll be unable to do. Desperate, she contacts the Warrens.

At first Ed isn’t very enthusiastic about taking on a new case. In a recent case, Lorraine was endangered and ended up suffering injury and he is very concerned for her well-being. However, even he can’t deny that the Perron family is in grave danger and he and Lorraine just can’t turn their backs on them.

Their investigation leads them to the conclusion that this is not explainable by conventional means; there is a malevolent spirit in the house, that of an accused witch named Bathsheba Sherman who had died by her own hand in the house centuries before. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers in her domicile and she means to get them out by any means necessary.

This is the movie that spun off the recent hit Annabelle and the doll figures in the action in a pre-credits sequence and then later on near the climax of the film. However, she definitely takes a back seat in the movie to the Warrens themselves (although she decidedly makes an impression). Wilson, who has worked with Wan in the Insidious movies is excellent here – Wan seems to bring out the best in him. His chemistry with Farmiga is wonderful; they are completely believable as a married couple. In fact, both married couples have good chemistry. The casting in this movie is impeccable.

Let’s be frank; this movie is as scary as any that has come out in the last few years, maybe the scariest. Wan does this wonderfully, establishing the ordinary and building slowly to the terrifying. He does it in a very matter-of-fact way without resorting to a lot of CGI (most of the effects here are practical). A children’s game of hide and clap turns into something menacing as phantom arms come out of an armoire or a basement to lead players astray. All of this leads to one of the best climaxes in a horror movie that I’ve seen in ages.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, this should be a priority especially during the Halloween season. With a spin-off already under its belt and a sequel on the way, the success of the movie financially is equaled by its success cinematically. While critics tend to give short shrift to horror movies in general, this is the sort of ride that fans tend to love – and make converts out of non-fans. You can add this to your list of horror classics, folks.

WHY RENT THIS: Scary as all get out. Great chemistry between Wilson and Farmiga as well as with Livingston and Taylor. Sets up ordinary and builds nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A raft of 70s-set horror films lately.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of disturbing violence and scenes of intense terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is the third-highest box office opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, behind only Paranormal Activity 3 and Hannibal.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes both on the real life Warrens and the real life Perrons. The surviving Perrons and Lorraine Warren are all interviewed for the disc.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $318M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Five!

Sinister


Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

(2012) Supernatural Horror (Summit) Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Riley, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Ethan Haberfield, Danielle Kotch, Blake Mizrahi, Nick King, Lorraine Aceves, Rachel Konstantin. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

It isn’t hard to wonder why people do the things they do. Why they feel compelled not just to take life but to do so in particularly gruesome and sadistic ways. There really is no explanation for it. No earthly one, anyway.

Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) is a writer specializing in true crime. A decade previous, he wrote Kentucky Blood which not only chronicled a lurid murder in the Bluegrass State but also solved it, making the police of the area look awfully bad in the process. Since then, a string of failures has left his career disintegrating before his very eyes. He has moved his family from New York City to a house in Long Island which they aren’t too happy about.

They would be twice as upset if they knew that an entire family had been murdered there weeks before and that the youngest daughter of that family was missing. Ellison means to solve the murders and find the missing girl which he believes would be enough to make him famous again. However, first things first; he has to get his study set up and the family moved in.

While exploring the house, Ellison finds a box of super 8 films in the attic. They have innocuous titles such as Pool Party ’66, BBQ ’79 and Family Hanging Out ’11. However when Ellison views them to his horror they turn out to be footage of entire families getting murdered, including the one that had lived in the house.

He chooses not to tell the police about his find, mainly because the Sheriff (Thompson) takes a dim view of a writer who wrote such uncomplimentary things about the police. However, his nebbish Deputy (Ransone) has a major case of hero worship and agrees to help Ellison in exchange for being mentioned in the book as a researcher or something along those lines. It soon becomes clear that the apparently random murders are all connected – and that a mysterious figure identified as “Mr. Boogie” in childish drawings of the murders is the connecting thread.

In the meantime, the pressure is getting to Ellison and he’s begun drinking much to the chagrin of his wife (Rylance). After consulting with occult specialist Professor Jonas (D’Onofrio) Ellison is worried that his family has now become the targets of Mr. Boogie. Can he protect his family from something that he can’t understand?

A couple of years ago this one made some big waves in Hollywood for making big box office numbers on an indie-like production budget; in fact, the movie was initially shown at South by Southwest and was picked up there by Summit, an unusual move for a major. However it paid lots and lots of dividends.

Derrickson used this as a springboard to get the director’s chair for the upcoming Dr. Strange movie coming from Marvel in 2016. You can see why; he has a talent for painting a mood and making the most out of a small budget. Hopefully with a bigger budget like James Gunn before him he’ll turn it into a flat-out global blockbuster.

Hawke has always been consistently good, one of those steady actors who never turns in a bad performance. It is only recently that I’ve begun to think of him as an outstanding performer and this movie is one of the reasons why. Ellison is far from being likable. He’s self-centered and puts his career ahead of the well-being of his own family. However, in Hawke’s capable hands we still end up rooting for the character.

Like The Legend of Hell House this is much more of an atmospheric horror film than a visceral one. There isn’t a ton of gore but the creepy factor is off the charts. Much of the action takes place in Ellison’s office space which is cramped and shadowy. That gives the movie a nice claustrophobic feeling.

Sadly, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie and really makes for negative marks in the film’s overall rating. While the use of found footage is cleverly integrated into the movie, this feels a lot like V/H/S which used the same concept much more gracefully. Those who are looking for real scares there aren’t a lot of them and those mostly of the jump scare variety. The movie is spooky rather than scary which may not necessarily be what you’re looking for, although the horror wimps in your household looking to show some Halloween bravery may find it palatable. The demonic figure and the children may be nightmare-inducing for those sorts however.

I liked Sinister more than it probably deserved but I’m rating it lower than I’d like. I just can’t get past the ending I’m afraid. However if you don’t mind being disappointed at the end of the movie and you like your horror to be more creepy than crawly, this might be what you’re looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t overstate the gore. Relies on atmosphere and claustrophobia for scares. Hawke does some fine work here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending is a bit of a letdown. More spooky than scary. Trope of found footage murder reels has been done before.
FAMILY VALUES:  Disturbing images of violence and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer C. Robert Cargill came up with the idea after a nightmare he had following a viewing of The Ring. He also admits that the name of the lead character, Ellison Oswalt, comes from author Harlan Ellison and comedian Patton Oswalt.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A couple of interesting featurettes; one on real life true crime authors, the other of experiences the crew had living in a house where a murder happened for real during filming.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.7M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Four!

The Legend of Hell House


What a lovely evening for a haunting.

What a lovely evening for a haunting.

(1973) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough. Directed by John Hough

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we can explain and things we can’t. Some of it is simply our knowledge hasn’t expanded enough to come up with a rational explanation; it’s just a matter of our knowledge catching up with the phenomenon. In other cases, it is simply so far out of the realm of our understanding that we may never be able to figure it out.

What happens after we die, for example. There are those who believe that our consciousness simply ends, evaporates as our body shuts down. We enter an endless sleep, oblivion. Others say there is a heaven and a hell and that what we do in this life determines where we go in the next. There are still others who believe that we die and are reborn in an endless cycle of attempting to achieve enlightenment. And there are those who say that most of us just hang around here as spiritual beings.

There are skeptics though. The Belasco House in England is considered the “Mt. Everest” of haunted houses; in fact, the last team to seriously study the goings on in the house died terribly with only one survivor left to tell the tale.

The Belasco House was once the residence of one Emrick Belasco (Gough), a physically imposing sort who threw lavish parties in the 1920s. For the last of them, he shuttered all the windows and barred all the doors; in the morning, every guest was dead and Emrick Belasco was nowhere to be found. Soon afterwards, the house got its evil reputation.

Now, yet another mysterious millionaire (Culver) has enlisted noted physicist Dr. Barrett (Revill) to do a scientific study on the phenomena going on in the house. He’s bringing with him a spiritual medium named Florence Tanner (Franklin), reportedly one of the best there is. He’s also bringing with him his own wife Ann (Hunnicutt) and the only survivor of the previous expedition, Ben Fischer (McDowell), a powerful psychic in his own right. Now he’s a broken man, terrified of this place but motivated by the reward if he should be successful at surviving another attempt. He has erected psychic walls to protect himself but those are under constant assault once they arrive at the foreboding mansion.

At first there isn’t a lot going on, just some disquieting feelings which are mainly exacerbated by Ben’s resigned paranoia. Dr. Barrett, a pragmatic man, doesn’t believe in religion or supernatural phenomena although he is soon presented with events even he can’t explain away – furniture moving of its own accord, the manifestation of ectoplasm during a séance, and the erotic possession of his wife. Dr. Barrett scoffs at Tanner’s religious faith and the two get into heated arguments. His explanation is that there is unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house which he has built a machine to eradicate.

Tanner for her part believes that the house isn’t haunted by multiple spirits as has long been supposed but in fact by just one – Belasco’s tormented son Daniel. She sets out to prove it, opening her to unprecedented danger and putting the entire team at risk. Not everyone will walk out of Belasco House intact.

This is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and Matheson himself wrote the screenplay. Matheson is best known for his work on The Twilight Zone and for writing the books that such films as I Am Legend are based on. That book was set in New England but the action was moved to England so that the production could happen there. Therefore we get a happy fusion of New England gothic horror and old England supernatural horror. The two make an excellent mix.

There isn’t much graphic nudity despite the era in which nudity was far more common than it is now; the sexuality here is of a much more subtle, erotic nature. The subtext of fear of female sexuality comes out strongly as the two men in the movie seemingly reject the erotic advances of the women. It is the women who display the aggressive sexuality here. Something to think about as women’s liberation was making itself known at the time.

Strong performances abound here from all four of the four leads, all four veteran performers by that time. McDowell was strong here as the twitchy, nervous and clearly terrified Ben Fischer but it is he who has the final confrontation with the presence infesting the house and it is he who stands up to it. I’ve always been a fan of the actor ever since I was a kid and saw him in such movies as Planet of the Apes, Class of 84, The Last of Sheila and Fright Night. It was in this one that I found him to be at his best, albeit in a sanitized suitable for television viewing. And for those who have read the book by the way, they’ll know that the sex and violence is far more extreme on the printed page. Hough and Matheson were going for a far more atmospheric production and they certainly succeeded.

This is as atmospheric a horror film as you’re likely to ever see. From the muted electronic score to the fog-shrouded exterior shots, the movie chills you to the bone from the get go as indistinct figures walk from the car to the front door of the mansion. I think few films have used silence to their advantage as effectively as this one, as loud noises interrupt the quiet and put the viewer’s nerves on edge. This is gloom personified and for those who like their horror movies creepy and unsettling, they’ll be in heaven here.

This is a movie from a different era. Those who effects-laden need roller coaster rides with a digital signature, undoubtedly you’ll find this boring and tedious. The action doesn’t really gather steam until the final ten minutes and even then it is tame by modern standards. The attitudes towards women are also a bit on the Mad Men side, although none of the women here are victims really. Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you jump right out of your skin. It is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and you will either love it or hate it depending on how patient a movie viewer you are. You already know which side of that separation I stand on.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendously atmospheric and sexy. Fine performances by main leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some scenes of terror and supernatural violence, plenty of sexuality and some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tales of Belasco’s debauchery and evil were loosely based on the notorious exploits of occultist Aleister Crowley.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a 30-minute interview with the director.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting (1999)
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Three!

My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)


Candy is dandy.

Candy is dandy.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Betsey Rue, Edi Gathegi, Tom Atkins, Kevin Tighe, Megan Boone, Karen Baum, Joy de la Paz, Marc Macaulay, Todd Farmer, Jeff Hochendoner, Bingo O’Malley, Liam Rhodes, Michael Roberts McKee, Andrew Larson, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Richard John Walters, Selene Luna, Annie Kitral, Brandi Engel. Directed by Patrick Lussier

Six Days of Darkness 2014

The thing about doing remakes of other movies is that the screenwriter has to walk a very fine line. The movie has to follow the story of the original enough so that it is recognizable, yet it has to have its own character and flavor, differing enough to offer viewers familiar with the original a surprise. Otherwise, why bother?

This remake of a 1981 cult favorite during the golden age of slasher movies begins with a cave-in caused by Tom Hanniger (Ackles), the young son of the mine owner. Not on purpose mind you – just inexperience. Five miners are buried beneath the rubble but by the time they dig them out, only one has survived – Harry Warden (Walters) who owes his survival to killing off the other four so that they don’t take up his air. Even so, it takes so long to dig down that Harry is in a coma for a year. When he wakes up, he walks out of the hospital, dons his mining clothes and proceeds to kill 22 people with his pickaxe before being shot dead by then-Sheriff Burke (Atkins).

Flash forward a couple of decades. The town of Harmony is preparing for a Valentine’s Day dance, the first one since Harry Warden had his little tantrum. Tom Hanniger, who had left down not long after the murders, has returned to sell off the family mine. He isn’t greeted particularly warmly except by his high school sweetheart Sarah (King) who is now married to his friend Axel Palmer (Smith) who happens to be the current sheriff. Axel is probably the least happy guy to see Tom particularly since there’s some evidence that Sarah is still sweet on him. Of course, the fact that he’s been cheating with Megan (Boone), Sarah’s employee, for years doesn’t seem to bother him any.

What does bother him is that the murders have started up again by a guy in an old fashioned miners suit complete with gas mask, a fact that doesn’t seem to dissuade the horny teenagers in town to head over to the closed mine post-dance for a little nookie. Some things never change.

There are plenty of red herrings here as to who the identity of the killer is although the filmmakers are certainly pushing a supernatural angle. What’s worrisome is that the filmmakers cheat a little bit – major bits of business take place offscreen and things that are shown onscreen turn out to be lies. I get it that the filmmakers want to make the identity of the killer a surprise when the reveal comes but for one thing any halfway experienced horror film fan will be able to figure it out pretty quickly and for another thing when you do find out who it is you’re going to feel a little cheated, something you don’t want your audience to feel.

Another thing you don’t want your audience to feel is bored. During the first 15 minutes, the carnage moves at a breakneck pace but afterwards slows into a hodgepodge of flashback and exposition with the terror scenes spaced out in ten to fifteen minute intervals. Once you establish a pace, it’s a bad idea to slow it down. Better to build towards it gradually than gradually come down from a peak. You don’t want your audience feeling that they’ve seen the best of the movie less than half an hour in.

There are some great 3D effects here (the for-purchase DVD comes with glasses, although of course you need a 3D television set to play them), some of the best in fact of the modern 3D era. Eyeballs and jawbones fly at the audience and pickaxes come through the screen so jarringly that you will jump out of your seat.

There is a great sequence at the local no-tell motel in which town skank Irene (Rue) fresh from a rendezvous with her trucker boyfriend is chased out of her motel room stark naked after said boyfriend is skewered. She tries to get help which only succeeds in getting another trucker punctured but let’s just say that the sequence moves into overdrive from that point.

Lussier, who has a long history as both an editor (for the Scream series) as well as a director (for such films as Dracula 2000 and Drive Angry), has some punch in terms of technique but he is betrayed by clunk dialogue and some incongruous situations, not to mention the aforementioned cheats. It definitely is a throwback to the slasher films of yore given the amount of gore and nudity, so there is that bit of nostalgia involved. Unfortunately, too many flaws sabotage what could have been a truly excellent remake that might well have exceeded the original otherwise.

WHY RENT THIS: The first portion of the movie is a great roller coaster ride. Great use of 3D.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bogs down in flashback and exposition during the second half.  Cheats when it comes to keeping the identity of the killer a surprise.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence and gore, graphic nudity and explicit sexuality, foul language, gruesome images…this is horror movies the way they used to make ‘em.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first two characters to die in the movie are named Jason and Michael in direct reference to the Halloween and Friday the 13th characters. Like the characters, they don’t have any lines and both men die in ways that recall the trademarks of the characters they are referencing.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a featurette on the practical make-up effects.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100.7M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Know What You Did Last Summer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!