The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

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Asylum (2005)


Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

(2005) Thriller (Paramount Classics) Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Joss Ackland, Gus Lewis, Judy Parfitt, Sean Harris, Hazel Douglas, Wanda Ventham, Sarah Thurstan, Alwyne Taylor, Maria Aitken, Andy de la Tour, Anna Keaveney, Robert Willox, Roy Boyd, Rhydian Jones, Nick Chadwin, Veronica Fairhurst. Directed by David MacKenzie

Boredom can lead us to do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. As a species, we are particularly irritated by having nothing to do. We need stimulation and we will go to great lengths in order to get it.

Dr. Max Raphael (Bonneville) has just been appointed superintendent at a maximum-security insane asylum outside of London as the 1950s draw to a close. The facility, built in the Victorian era, is crumbling into ruin, but I daresay not nearly as much as Raphael’s marriage to Stella (Richardson), who is suffering from terminal boredom to her workaholic husband to the point of a kind of misery-induced trance, much to the dismay of her son Charlie (Lewis) and disgust of her mother-in-law (Parfitt). Dr. Raphael himself has to deal with the acid barbs of Dr. Peter Cleave (McKellan) who was passed over for Raphael’s job by the director of the asylum, Dr. Straffen (Ackland) and Cleave is not letting people know that this is a terrible mistake.

Maybe, but not as massive as the mistake Stella is about to make. A garden house a few steps from her on-site home is literally a standing ruin; keen on gardening, she wants to turn it into a rookery. Inmate Edgar Stark (Csokas) is assigned to do the grunt work. Charlie, who has been ignored pretty much by both parents, latches onto Stark as a buddy/father figure which disquiets Stella at first. After being assured by both Dr. Cleave and her husband that the man is perfectly safe, she begins to accept him.

Her acceptance is a godsend to Edgar, who treats her like a princess. Not used to being treated well, Stella slowly begins to fall for the handsome Stark, which leads to sex, lots of it and in all sorts of places. It isn’t long before their transgressions are being noticed, and Edgar’s yearning for freedom begins to match his passion for the psychiatrist’s wife. Stella has started a journey on a train that is very likely to run away on her; what will her passion eventually cost her and those she loves?

The cast, with the exception of McKellen, was not particularly well-known when this was made (although Csokas appeared with McKellan in The Lord of the Rings as Celeborn). Richardson is required to be sexy and passionate and her sex scenes are unusually graphic. Csokas is solid as the brooding inmate with the horrors burning just below the surface. McKellan has to play a conniving man with little or no scruples and he plays him with the kind of polite front you might expect from such a man – this is the kind of reminder that the man is so much more than Magneto and Gandalf. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, but unspectacular. I was tickled to see Ackland, a character actor best known for such movies as The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 2, working; he is a fine character actor who classes up a production whether he’s playing a villain, a hero or a supporting cast member. McKellen gives a very nice performance of a complicated and not very nice character. The brooding hospital is almost a separate character within the film, creating an atmosphere well-suited to the downbeat nature of the movie.

Much of the action takes place in the titular Asylum; production designer Lawrence Dorman makes sure that the hospital has that look of an older building gone to seed but like many old buildings used for that purpose, you can almost feel the decades of anguish and insanity breathing within its walls. The filmmakers also capture the period nicely with Consolata Boyle’s costumes, the period magazines and the abundance of cigarette smoking that goes on; in some instances, the cigarettes are almost like weapons used to convey the disdain of the smoker.

The story is actually preposterous. Richardson’s Stella doesn’t act like a normal, rational human being would act. Especially in the middle and final acts of the movie, her behavior leaves you clutching your head to keep it from spinning around on your neck. Given that there are no characters within the movie that you can really relate to or even root for in any way shape or form (except maybe for Charlie and even he is something of a caricature whose sole purpose in the film is to introduce his mother to her lover, and then serve as the means for driving the final denouement of the story. This really is hideously written.

This was a Netflix rental for me; it played in Orlando for only a week or two and even then only in a few theaters (maybe only one – I’m not completely sure on that instance). I can’t say as I can recommend it even on that level for anyone. Those who enjoy explicit sex scenes will probably find this irresistible, but you’re probably better served watching a porno for that. Those who like period psychological dramas would be better served renting the very long list of better movies in the genre. I suppose if you’re a big Ian McKellen fan, this might be worthwhile for his fine performance but there honestly isn’t very much else worth seeing here.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling performance by McKellen. Captures the period nicely. Some very erotic sex scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written and preposterously plotted. Lacks relatable characters. May have too much sex for those who are sensitive to that sort of content.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very strong sexual element to the story and much nudity. There are also instances of wife beating, infidelity and child endangerment.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paramount bought the rights to the Patrick McGrath novel this is based on with the intention of having Stephen King write the screenplay and Jonathan Demme directing. When both of them were unable to work the movie into their schedule, Paramount shifted the property to their boutique/art house Classics label (which has since become Paramount Vantage) and appropriately reduced the budget.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: I, Robot

Mao’s Last Dancer


It's a cultural phenomenon.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

(2009) Biographical Drama (ATO) Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Chris Kirby, Suzie Steen, Madeleine Eastoe, Aden Young, Wen Bin Huang, Shu Guang Liang, Ye Wang, Neng Neng Zhiang, Wan Shi Xu, Shao Wei Yi, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Hammond, Hui Cong Zhan, Chengwu Guo. Directed by Bruce Beresford

Talent transcends politics. Hard work trumps propaganda. With the Winter Olympics of 2014 firmly underway we are treated to some of the finest athletes in the world doing their things which brings to mind the similarity between athletes and artists. The discipline it takes to attain the highest level of both can only be generated from within; what happens without is almost irrelevant.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is a young Chinese peasant boy (Huang) taken seemingly at random from an impoverished village to study dance during the Maoist era. He is brought to the Beijing Dance Academy where he is taught ballet techniques through brutal discipline and as a teen (Guo) becomes one of the leading lights at the studio.

Having performed to the highest standards in Beijing, he is sent on a student visa to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet. Mainly a propaganda move to show Western audiences the superiority of Chinese techniques and dancers, the Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) is impressed by what he sees and the potential Li possesses.

Li himself is confused by the strange new world around him; it is much different than what the communist propagandists in China led him to believe it would be. For the first time he begins to doubt the wisdom of those who have been in charge of his life. He has found freedom and he is both amazed and overjoyed with it, but also a little bit afraid. To make matters “worse,” he has fallen in love with Elizabeth (Schull), a fellow dancer.

Ben, convinced his future is better in the West, implants the seed in Li’s head that leads to a seedling; when his three month visa is up, he determines to stay in the United States. Before he can be granted asylum, the Chinese government takes the extraordinary step of kidnapping him and imprisoning him in their consulate. Ben and Elizabeth hire lawyer Charles Foster (MacLachlan) to secure his release and have him stay where his heart lies.

Eventually, they succeed and Li is allowed to stay in America but Li knows the cost to his family will be high. The guilt of his act hangs over him and begins to affect his dancing. Will following his heart be worth the price he – and those he loves both in China and the United States – must pay?

Aussie director Beresford, best known for his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, takes a very low-key approach to the movie in terms of filmmaking (the story is another matter). The camera angles are fairly standard – Beresford is not out to prove anything about what an innovative director he is – and there is almost no computer assisted trickery. What you do have is a beautifully photographed movie about the human spirit that tries its best to be apolitical but doesn’t always succeed.

The ballet sequences are nothing short of amazing. Cao dances for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and his shortcomings as an actor are more than made up for by his strengths as a dancer. Schull also has experience as a dancer with the San Francisco Corps de Ballet and her duets with Cao are incendiary.

Cinematographer Peter James has a terrific eye for both the starkness of the Chinese village and the Dance Academy as well as the beauty of the dance. Yes, there are some scenes that are going to bring a tear to your eye – some perhaps unnecessarily so. Still, Li’s story is inspiring and it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – well, maybe a little – and everything to do with the human spirit and what it will overcome to achieve what it is meant to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous dance sequences. Beautifully photographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and sensuality and one brief violent scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li already knew Cao whose parents were his teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy; Cao was Li’s choice to play him in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.3M on a $22.4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Farewell, My Concubine

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Septien

Color Me Kubrick


John Malkovich doesn't think much of the reviews.

John Malkovich doesn’t think much of the reviews.

(2005) Dramedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Honor Blackman, Richard E. Grant, Bryan Dick, Burn Gorman, Leslie Phillips, John Leyton, James Dreyfus, Marisa Berenson, William Hootkins, Ayesha Dharker, James Faulkner, Jim Davidson, Henry Goodman, Rebecca Front. Directed by Brian W. Cook

 

Once upon a time there was a con man named Alan Conway (ironically enough) who made his way through London by convincing people he was the legendary director Stanley Kubrick. Although looking nothing at all like him, he managed to pass himself off to a number of people with a combination of charm and brazenness until he was discovered.

Conway (Malkovich) uses his assumed identity for everything from drinks to sexual encounters with young men. He makes vague promises about roles in movies in both cast and crew; he gets in tight with a renowned stage artist named Lee Pratt (Davidson) on the promise of developing a show in Vegas for him. At last the New York Times theater critic Frank Rich (Hootkins) helps expose Conway’s ruse.

While the events are real enough, Cook and writer Anthony Frewin took enough liberties with the story to make the film, as they describe it, true-ish. The real Kubrick became aware of Conway but was helpless to do anything about it as his victims refused to press charges out of sheer embarrassment.

This is Malkovich’s film and he turns in a performance that is equal to any of his best-known works. He is obviously having a good time with the character who in turn was having a good time with his deception. One gets the sense that Conway was amazed at how taken in people were by his shenanigans and got a big kick out of it. Malkovich is also getting a big kick out of it and that not only contributes to the enjoyment of the movie but is almost entirely the raison d’être for the film.

Unfortunately, there’s a little too much of Conway doing his thing and it’s often the same thing. There were a lot of scenes that seemed unnecessarily repetitious and I found my attention wandering at a few points in the movie, never a good sign. Fortunately, they had Malkovich to regain it and over and over again he did just that.

Personally I would have liked to have seen more of the aftermath of his doings; basically they’re treated as harmless and amusing by the filmmakers and I suspect they were anything but. We also get no sense of what Kubrick thought of all this, whether he was amused, annoyed or angry – all we know is that he wanted it to stop.

This is certainly worth checking out if for no other reason than to watch Malkovich at his very best. The movie overall is good fun, mostly harmless but certainly there’s a devilish edge to it that makes you feel wicked for enjoying it quite so much. It’s not quite a guilty pleasure because it’s actually a pretty good film – but you feel guilty for taking pleasure in watching it just the same.

WHY RENT THIS: A deliciously arch and twisted performance by Malkovich.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lost my interest in places, a big no-no.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both the director and writer of the film worked with the real Stanley Kubrick on several of his films near the end of his career.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Nothing really but footage of the real Alan Conway turns up on the making-of featurette which gives you a little more reason to watch it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $497,009 on an unreported production budget; it’s unlikely the movie turned much of a profit if any at all.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catch Me If You Can

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Johnny English Reborn

Grave Encounters


Grave Encounters

The best thing about zombie sex is the cuddling afterwards.

(2011) Horror (Tribeca) Sean Rogerson, Ashleigh Gryzko, Juan Riedinger, Merwin Mondesir, Mackenzie Gray, Shawn Macdonald, Arthur Corber, Bob Rathie, Ben Wilkinson, Alex Sander, Fred Keating, Luis Javier, Michelle Cummins, Eva Gifford. Directed by The Vicious Brothers

Be careful when you go looking for something, you just might find it. If you’re the host of a paranormal activity television show, that could just be fatal.

We are told at the beginning that there once was a television show named Grave Encounters (think “Paranormal State” for those who are familiar with it) starring Lance Preston (Rogerson) as the host. Lance and his team – Matt (Riedinger) the tech guy, Sasha (Gryzko) the occult expert, Houston  (Gray) the psychic and T.C (Mondesir) the cameraman. They filmed five episodes and were working on a sixth when they mysteriously disappeared.

Later, this footage came to light. It shows the team at Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital in rural Maryland (with Vancouver subbing) where they are investigating rumors of paranormal phenomenon. It’s an old hospital with lots of tunnels and endless hallways. During its heyday, one Dr. Arthur Friedkin (Corber) had developed a sinister reputation or the excessive amount of lobotomies that were performed at Collingwood.

The hospital caretaker (Rathie) shows them around and gives the crew an interview about the things he’s experienced, but it turns out that he was urged by Lance to exaggerate and make up things in order for the hospital to seem more malevolent. In fact, in some candid “behind-the-scenes” footage, it becomes clear that the team doesn’t believe in the paranormal at all and are mainly a bunch of charlatans looking for a paycheck.

Of course, you can guess what happens next. They get themselves locked in for the night and set up cameras to “document” the unexplainable phenomena that occur, which they don’t expect to. Then things start to occur, harmless at first but soon growing more and more disturbing. They are quite thankful when the appointed hour comes for the caretaker to arrive and unlock the doors – except he doesn’t. Matt, out to retrieve the cameras, disappears. Thing start to get much more dire – their food supply rots away. They see gruesome apparitions with malevolent intent. And they start feuding among themselves. They try to break out – but the doorways out lead into hallways. There is no escape…can they find their way out of this nightmare?

Sure, I grant you that the found footage genre has probably outstayed its welcome but this film actually uses a pretty good backstory – if you’ve seen paranormal TV programs with smarmy hosts, you’ll get a lot of the in-jokes here.

More importantly, they deliver on the scares. The demons and ghouls that populate the eternally dark landscape of Collingwood are well done and the stuff of nightmares. Sure, some of the set-ups are of the been-there-done-that variety but they’re still effective. The last third of the movie is a definite express train to Hell.

Like a lot of these movies, the acting is pretty rudimentary. Rogerson gets most of the attention and as the puffed up host who thinks he’s all that, does pretty well. Still, you’re not seeing this for future appearances on In the Actors Studio with James Lipton. You want to be scared and shocked and thrilled and this delivers on all of that. I was pleasantly surprised; I thought it would be like a lot of tired found footage films we’ve been seeing of late. Yeah, I’m a little tired of the concept but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for good movies within the genre

WHY RENT THIS: Nice creepy vibe. Some real awesome scares. Like the TV show conceit.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of been-there done-that with the found footage.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty intense scares, a bit of bad language and some violent and terrifying images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Vicious Brothers are known to their parents as Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.4M on a $2M production budget; this movie was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paranormal Activity

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Day 5 of the Six Days of Darkness

House on Haunted Hill (1999)


House on Haunted Hill

All sorts of photo ops in the House on Haunted Hill.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Warner Brothers) Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combes, Dick Beebe, Lisa Loeb, James Marsters, Peter Graves. Directed by William Malone

 

When done correctly, the haunted-house movie can be nearly ideal entertainment; claustrophobic, scary and sometimes spectacular, depending on the visual bent of the director.

Unfortunately, it’s very rarely done well, despite many attempts; my favorite remains The Legend of Hell House, which scores regular appearances on late-night television and is readily available on home video.. The House on Haunted Hill is a remake of a William Castle B-movie classic, updated for the ’90s with a stellar cast and crackerjack effects.

It begins at an insane asylum as the demented inmates riot against a sadistic staff, leading to a tragedy that kills all but five. Flash forward to the present, when theme park maven Stephen Price (Rush) – a sly tribute to the original movie’s star Vincent Price – has just finished debuting his newest roller coaster (actually the Incredible Hulk coaster at Orlando’s very own Islands of Adventure theme park, an experience I highly recommend if you haven’t already been) and is preparing to throw a birthday party for his less-than-loving wife (Janssen). He plans an unforgettable shindig.

However, the guest list is mysteriously altered, leaving only five complete strangers to try Price’s challenge; he’s put up a million dollars per guest (that’s five million dollars total) to be awarded to anyone who spends an entire night without leaving the notorious property known as the most haunted place in Los Angeles. This is, if you haven’t already guessed, the former asylum. Of course, you have to survive in order to collect. Who will it be – the mild mannered physician (Gallagher), the heroic leading man (Diggs), the plucky comic relief (Kattan) or the beautiful, sexy and intrepid woman (Larter)?

As is the case with many haunted house flicks, the house itself proves to have its own lethal intelligence. What was a mean-spirited prank turns into a fight for survival among stereotypes…err, I mean, characters. The writers throw in a misleading and totally unnecessary subplot involving Price’s marital woes and attempts by both parties to frame the other for murder, but it doesn’t wash for a moment.

The cast is led by Rush as Price, a showman along the lines of P.T. Barnum — or even, gulp, William Castle, the B-movie impresario who once wired theaters playing one of his movies to deliver mild electric shocks to patrons during key moments of the film. Rush is always outstanding and he manages to rise above the material here.

Taye Diggs makes for an excellent hero; he has a future as a widescreen leading man. Kattan provides comic relief as a caretaker who knows all too well what the house is capable of and proves to be one of the bright spots of the movie, something I never thought I’d say about the guy.

The effects are dazzling at times; the appearances of various ghosts and ghouls are genuinely creepy. The specter of Dr. Vannecutt (Jeffrey Combs) is particularly disturbing; it still weirds me out whenever I’m reminded of his appearance on a surveillance camera. The climactic portion of the movie revealing the monster at the heart of the haunting is a computer-generated Lovecraftian nightmare, but takes up far too much screen time; it would have made for better scares to show us less of the thing and more of the actors reactions to it.

In fact, as good as the effects are, they occasionally overpower what could have been a better movie if the filmmakers had focused more on genuine suspense and atmosphere instead of overpowering the senses. This got some notoriety as being the first film to be released from Dark Castle, the production company headed by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Gil Adler and Terry Castle, the daughter of the legendary producer. While they have since branched out from remakes of classic Castle films, they remain one of the finest regular producers of horror films in Hollywood.

“Less is More” is a truism that Hollywood moviemakers espouse onscreen but rarely follow behind the camera. House on Haunted Hill could have benefited from a budget slashed even more effectively than the designated female victim (see if you can guess who she’ll be at the beginning of the movie) who goes brainlessly and inevitably to her fate, wandering around in a dangerous house with a video camera – by herself. Kinda sums up the whole movie if you ask me.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice eye candy. Rush and Kattan give nice performances. Larter and Janssen are easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overreliance on special effects. Would have done better creating more atmosphere and showing the monster less.

FAMILY MATTERS: Graphic horror violence, gore, some sexual images and lots of bad language; not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to get killed in the movie, a male nurse, is played by the writer of the screenplay Dick Beebe.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are trailers for both the 1999 and 1959 versions of the film, as well as a 20-minute feature comparing the two.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.9M (North American box office figures only) on a $37M production budget; factor in worldwide box office and chances are this made money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Tempest

The Devil Inside


The Devil Inside

Static electricity can be murder!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (InSurge/Paramount) Fernanda Andrade, Evan Helmuth, Simon Quarterman, Ionut Grama, Suzan Crowley, Bonnie Morgan, Brian Johnson, Preston James Hiller, D.T. Carney, Maude Boranni, Marvin Duerkholz. Directed by William Brent Bell

 

Ah, Blair Witch Project, what hath thou wrought? Here is yet another in the long line of recent found footage films (i.e. Cloverdale, Apollo18) which to be honest are becoming rather gimmicky. While the Paranormal Activity series has been well-received both by critics and audiences alike, it is quickly becoming an excuse for sloppy camera work and poorly constructed plots.

Studios like these kinds of movies because they are extremely inexpensive to produce and when they hit it big, they can really upgrade the studio’s tax bracket. Even when they don’t hit it big, it doesn’t take much for them to make a profit and when they don’t, it’s not much of a write-off so it’s a win-win situation for the studio.

For audiences, however, it can be another matter. Maria Rossi (Crowley) was a Connecticut housewife who in 1989 killed two priests and a nun during an exorcism ceremony. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and later moved from an asylum in Connecticut to one in Rome. Her daughter Isabella (Andrade) who was a little girl when her momma went all medieval is ready to visit her mom for the first time since then and in the fine tradition of reunions everywhere wants to film it, taking with her Michael, a somewhat slimy cameraman (Grama).

In Rome she is given permission by the Holy See to film an exorcism class where she meets Fr. Ben Rawlings (Quarterman) and Fr. David Keane (Helmuth), a couple of young exorcists-in-training who chafe under the Church bureaucracy and are eager to go off and perform exorcisms on  those who as they put it “have fallen through the cracks of the Church.” Naturally they become interested in Isabella’s case but they want to show her a real exorcism first, so they take her to visit Rosa (Morgan), a cruelly possessed teenager. After that, the two renegade priests visit Maria in the asylum and, as you can imagine, all Hell breaks loose.

I will grant you that the movie as much as I’m ripping on it does do a good job basically from the time Isabella gets to Rome and through the exorcism attempt of Maria in setting up the right mood. There are a few startle-scares (big dogs parking, loud crashes) but for the most part this is more atmosphere than gorefest. Those looking for demons and beasties best look elsewhere.

The acting, as it is in many of these sorts of films is just competent at best. Maintaining the illusion of reality means hiring unknowns and that is always a bit of a crap shoot. But then again, who goes to these sorts of movies for the acting?

A movie like this has to keep the viewer interested in what’s going to happen next and elicit a sense of dread from the audience (after all, the footage had to be “lost” before it was found and there’s usually a reason for that) but part of the problem is that you kind of know before the movie even starts that bad things are going to happen to the people in the film and it’s not going to end well for them. In a sense, their own genre works against them. For that reason, we need to care about the characters and quite frankly, the writers of the movie didn’t even care enough to make them anything more than cookie cutter characters.

Much of the audience anger (it has gotten very poor word of mouth) at the movie stems from the ending. I won’t spoil it other than to say it’s abrupt enough to give you whiplash, then refers you to a website for further information – which I did and while it gives you additional background information on the main characters and some of the other elements within the movie. I think the attention was to be innovative and turn the movie into a film/internet hybrid. While I think that’s a peachy concept, quite frankly it didn’t work well here and served only the make people really angry. The ending basically ruins the movie.

While some publications thought that Paramount was hoping for a Paranormal Activity-type franchise out of this film, I’m not so sure. I can’t see how this lends itself to a sequel, although I suppose it’s possible to have some other investigators investigate the happenings in the movie. I don’t think the found footage-style would work for that so much though.

The middle part of the movie was pretty good which is what makes this so sad. There is obviously potential here for a good movie, but then the horrible ending blows that to smithereens. It made pretty decent box office its first weekend (which I’m sure is what the studio was hoping for) but with the bad word-of-mouth and negative reviews I don’t foresee much staying power and I don’t think people are going to want to see a The Devil Inside 2. You can’t trample the goodwill of an audience and expect them to come back for more.

REASONS TO GO: Very creepy in places.

REASONS TO STAY: An ending that just about kills the movie. Makes you wonder if found footage movies have outstayed their welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing scenes and a couple of grisly images. The language is rough and as with most possession movies a lot of it is sexually based.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first release of Paramount’s low-budget InSurge brand.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100. The reviews are scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism

DEMONIC PSYCHOBABBLE LOVERS: While the exorcisms are conducted in English rather than Latin, there are references to demons and demonic lore.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: GalaxyQuest