Lights Out (2016)


Attention Teresa Palmer: there's a blue light special in the basement.

Attention Teresa Palmer: there’s a blue light special in the basement.

(2016) Horror (New Line) Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Billy Burke, Maria Bello, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Andi Osho, Rolando Boyce, Maria Russell, Elizabeth Pan, Lotta Losten, Amiah Miller, Ava Cantrell, Ariel Dupin. Directed by David F. Sandberg

 

As humans, we are conditioned to fear the unknown and what can be more unknown than darkness? We can’t see what’s in the dark – our eyes aren’t built for it. In the dark, anything can happen and not all of it is pleasant. Sometimes, that which lives in darkness can be downright terrifying.

Rebecca (Palmer) is a metal-loving young woman who has a – I hesitate to call him a boyfriend but he does have sex with her and they’ve been dating for several years – friend with benefits named Bret (DiPersia) who is a musician who plays metal. She lives on her own in an apartment over a tattoo parlor. She left home the moment she could pack her bags; hallucinations and nightmares had driven her to the brink of madness.

This is where her mother Sophie (Bello) dwells as a matter of course. Sophie was committed to a mental institution as a little girl and came out fragile, but her issues seemed to be under control with medication, and her second husband Paul (Burke) – not Rebecca’s dad by the way – has watched with some alarm as his wife’s mental condition starts to deteriorate rapidly. When Paul meets a tragic end, Sophie pretty much slides off into the deep end.

Rebecca’s half-brother Martin (Bateman) has now begun to have the same kinds of nightmares and hallucinations that just about destroyed Rebecca’s sanity. Concerned that Sophie is terrorizing her little half-brother, Rebecca moves to take Martin over to her apartment and out of Sophie’s influence. Sophie, who not only hears voices but has conversations with them, seems to be talking to a presence named Diana. Diana, as it turns out, was a friend who brutalized her in the asylum but had met a gruesome end. Some ends, as it turns out, are not as permanent as others.

Sandberg based this movie on a short movie – less than three minutes long – based on the same creature. With the feature clocking in at just a hair over 80 minutes, he certainly knows how to keep his stories compact which is laudable these days when movies routinely hit the two hour mark. He also uses a very interesting trope for his demonic presence; it only becomes visible and physical in darkness. Shine a light on Diana and she becomes incorporeal and harmless. When that light goes out…well, Diana raises havoc with those unfortunate to fall under her crosshairs.

This isn’t a particularly gory movie, nor are there a ton of murders (although a couple of hapless cops do get Diana’s special attention near the end of the movie). Most of the film is spent basically running away from Diana who is apparently very possessive of Sophie and doesn’t want to share her with anyone, even (and maybe especially) her own children.

It is refreshing to have characters in horror movies not act like utter and complete idiots, doing things that no rational sane human being would ever do. Say what you want about the leads here, they act like you and I would probably act in a similar situation, although to be fair I’d probably be a screaming wreck about a third of the way into the movie were it my life story.

The acting isn’t particularly outstanding; Bello is one of my favorite actresses but she makes some odd choices as Sophie – no pun intended. The part is a little bit of a caricature of a crazy person and if you don’t get the jitters watching Sophie for any length of time, you’ve probably taken some Valium recently. That or you drink enough coffee to make you permanently immune to the jitters. Palmer is beautiful and has some facial resemblance to Bello, but at the end of the day this isn’t a performance I would put into a star-making category; the success of the film will likely give her career quite a boost however.

Sandberg relies mainly on practical effects here, believe it or not. The CGI is kept to a minimum, although I’m certain that there is some optical trickery going on to make Diane visible and invisible so smoothly. I’m sure a computer or two were employed in that essential process.

All in all, this is a solid, scary movie that is going to make you think twice about turning out the lights when you go to sleep. I’m usually immune to such things, but I have to admit that when I went to bed after seeing the movie earlier that day, I did feel a good deal of apprehension as I shut out the lights. When a horror movie can do that to you, you know that you’re watching a director who knows what he’s about. I’ll be looking forward to his future work with more than a little bit of interest.

REASONS TO GO: You’ll want to sleep with the lights on afterwards. The demonic presence in the film has a nifty conceit.
REASONS TO STAY: Bello is wasted in a caricature of a performance and none of the actors really stand out. There are only so many ways you can make the lights flicker.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of disturbing images and terror, a fair amount of violence, some adult themes and a brief drug reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house in this movie is the same one used in Ouija and its upcoming follow-up Ouija: Origin of Evil.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Jason Bourne

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Thor: The Dark World


Quoth the raven, nevermore will there be barbers and razors in Asgard.

Quoth the raven, nevermore will there be barbers and razors in Asgard.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Jaimie Alexander, Tadanobu Asano, Rene Russo, Alice Krige, Clive Russell, Jonathan Howard, Chris O’Dowd, Talulah Riley. Directed by Alan Taylor

It is hard to achieve success when it comes to the movies, but it is harder still to maintain it. The Marvel superhero films have been on a long winning streak but has the moviegoing public tired of their celluloid adventures yet? Not according to the box office.

Thor (Hemsworth) pines away on Asgard, having had to clean up the mess that his half-brother Loki (Hiddleston) – who rots in an Asgardian prison – wrought with his invasion of Earth in The Avengers. Two years have passed since New York was trashed and Thor has been busy mopping up the results of those events, leaving Jane Foster (Portman) – his earth-born ladylove – petulant and sulky, wondering if her God-like boyfriend has dumped her.

Something called the Convergence is approaching – an event when all nine realms which include Asgard and Earth – are perfectly aligned. As it approaches the boundaries between the realms get a bit thin, causing some temporal and spacial anomalies. While Jane is investigating one of these (leaving a date with the hapless Richard (O’Dowd) to do so) she is infected by something called the Aether.

That’s a bad thing. Apparently this is the stuff that the Dark Elves planned to use at the last Convergence to bring about a return of the universe to complete darkness, something that the Dark Elves and their leader Malekith (Eccleston) are very eager to do. The Asgardians had gone to war with the Dark Elves to prevent this and only through the efforts of Thor’s grandfather had the forces of light prevailed. Malekith and his major-domo Kurse (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) skedaddled into a spaceship where they would remain in stasis until the Aether called them back, which when Jane is touched by the stuff is precisely what happens.

Cue Thor to fetch Jane to Asgard to see if the medicine of the Gods can help her. Cue Odin (Hopkins) to be grouchy and a bit frumpy. Cue Thor’s mom Frigga (Russo) to be far more understanding than her husband. Cue Thor’s pals Fandral (Levi), Vostagg (Stevenson), Sif (Alexander) and Hogun (Asano) to be understanding. Cue Jane’s ex-boss Dr. Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to lose his marbles and walk around Stonehenge stark naked and muttering crazy talk about the Convergence. Cue Jane’s intern Darcy (Dennings) to be snarky and get an intern of her own (Howard). And after Thor desperately seeks his help, cue Loki to make some plans of his own.

Taking over from Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair is Alan Taylor who cut his teeth on the Game of Thrones HBO series as well as other fine TV shows but it is the adaptation of the George R.R. Martin fantasy that prepared Taylor for this big screen debut. He certainly doesn’t have any problem with the scale needed for a cinematic franchise like this. Asgard is properly awe-inspiring, the battle sequences (of which there are several) are properly epic and the heroes properly heroic.

While some critics have groused about Hemsworth as Thor, I don’t agree with their assessment. His character has a bit of an inflated ego (hey, he’s a Norse God after all and the son of the King for all that) and a bit of a maturity issue and he is well aware that his strength doesn’t lie in his intellect. He is the kind of guy who charges in to lay a beat-down on his enemies first and asks questions later. However Thor isn’t just a caricature thanks to Hemsworth who makes his personality work and be relatable to his audience. That’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

Hiddleston however is the star of this show in many ways. He is deliciously evil as Loki with a snarky attitude to boot. He revels in his badness but shows some depth that makes his character perhaps the most interesting one in the film. He has some of the best comic relief in the movie and also conversely some of the most poignant moments. Hiddleston is a star in the making and perhaps with this performance arrives in that sense.

The drawbacks here is that the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and for a movie of this nature that can be a killer. Also early on some of the events are a bit confusing and are never properly explained or given context.

Fortunately the movies plusses outweigh those fairly significant minuses, making this solid entertainment that will please the superhero junkie in your family, although I predict that the fanboys will probably pick it apart and as we head into the next Marvel film will in all likelihood trash it and moan about how it has killed the Marvel franchise. They’ve done the same with Iron Man 3 which is no better or no worse than this.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful eye candy. Hiddleston raises the bar on super-villains. Hemsworth is a terrific Thor.

REASONS TO STAY: Confusing in places. Lumbers a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence, a few bad words and some suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This the last film to be written by Don Payne (who also wrote Thor). He died of bone cancer shortly before the movie was released.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: What Happens in Vegas

Pitch Black


Even the landscape is giving Vin Diesel the finger.

Even the landscape is giving Vin Diesel the finger.

(2000) Science Fiction (Universal) Radha Mitchell, Vin Diesel, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Claudia Black, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Rhiana Griffith, John Moore, Simon Burke, Les Chantery, Sam Sari, Firass Dirani, Ric Anderson, Vic Wilson, Angela Moore. Directed by David Twohy

Most of us are scared of the dark in one way or another. We are scared by what we can’t see. We are scared by what we don’t know. And those strange noises that could be claws and fangs….those can be terrifying without a doubt. We are frightened by the things that lurk just beyond the shadowline.

With good reason, it turns out. Especially on this planet. A transport carrying Muslim settlers bound for New Mecca and Riddick (Diesel), a prisoner with surgically enhanced eyesight bound, is holed by space debris, killing the captain and sending the ship crashing to the surface of a barren world with three suns.

The situation seems pretty bleak; the surviving senior officer is Fry, the docking pilot (Radha Mitchell) and she’s a bit shall we say prone to panic. What’s worse is that there is no water to be found, and Riddick has managed to escape. That doesn’t please Johns (Hauser), the marshal escorting Riddick to prison (and a guy with a few secrets of his own rattling around in his brain).

It looks like they may have lucked out in finding an abandoned mining operation with a working well and what seems to be a serviceable transport vehicle that only needs power cells in order to get off the ground. That’s when they find out that they aren’t alone on the planet. There are things lurking in the darkness, things with teeth and insatiable hunger. And those miners didn’t just leave. Unless of course you’re talking about leaving this life.

But the crash survivors be OK as long as they stay in the light. Light hurts these creatures, after all. But don’t you just hate it when you land on a planet with nocturnal carnivores just before a total eclipse? So do these guys.

There is a great deal of suspense of the gut-wrenching variety. There is also more than a little gore, so the squeamish need not view this one. Still, this movie is less about viscera than it is about keeping you on the edge of your seat, and sending some genuine shivers up and down your spine. The various creatures, which are rarely seen well due to the darkness, are really amazing CGI creations. Not only do they LOOK lethal, they look plausible as well.

Diesel is excellent in this movie. As the amoral Riddick, he can be intimidating, creepy even – but he retains a rather dry sense of humor. He is a mess of contradictions, with the devils of his worse nature winning out over the angels of his better nature, but he is not entirely unredeemable or evil. He is a man of shades of gray; mainly dark gray, I grant you, but not entirely without light. He turns Riddick into a human being instead of a cartoon, which movies of this nature tend to do. The character was so fascinating that a second movie, less successful, was later made – and a third is due out this September. While Mitchell and Hauser do passable jobs, they are simply blown out of the water by the character and performance of Riddick. Fans of Farscape will get a big kick out of seeing Claudia Black in a small role here prior to appearing in that groundbreaking sci-fi series. David has a role that adds a bit of gravitas and is the moral crux of the film, which believe it or not it possesses.

Fans who liked Aliens will probably revel in this one. Fear and redemption are the underlying themes here, and horror is the vehicle for facing those themes. Shakespeare it isn’t, but Pitch Black manages to look at human nature at the same time as giving us a hell of a ride. Check it out – but be warned, it IS nightmare-inducing even if you’re not terribly sensitive.

WHY RENT THIS: Diesel creates an iconic anti-hero in Riddick. Great monsters and a fabulous premise well-executed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Exceedingly nightmare-inducing. Some of the initial crash effects are pretty weak, even by the standards of the time. Some of the support performances don’t measure up.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is quite a bit of violence and gore, some nightmarish creatures and a goodly amount of language. There’s also some drug use which isn’t for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Riddick was initially written as a female character and was to have been killed off in the end until Universal decided that the character would prove popular enough to warrant a sequel.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The initial DVD release includes footage from rave parties used to promote Pitch Black. The Director’s Edition has an introduction to the Video Game prequel Escape From Butcher’s Bay and the animated Dark Fury which connects Pitch Black to The Chronicles of Riddick. There’s also a visual encyclopedia of the universe of Riddick as well as a “Johns Chase Log” in which actor Cole Hauser narrates his version of events that led to the capture of Riddick. The Blu-Ray also has a featurette in which the sequel’s connections to the original are explored.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.2M on a $23M production budget; the movie didn’t make a huge profit via it’s USA Films theatrical release but has been a big seller on the home video market.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aliens

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Silver Linings Playbook

Vanishing on 7th Street


Hayden Christensen isn't apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

Hayden Christensen isn’t apologizing for his Star Wars performances anytime soon.

(2010) Horror (Magnet) Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore, Taylor Groothuis, Jordan Trovillion, Neal Huff, Larry Fessenden, Arthur Cartwright, Hugh Maguire, Erin Nicole Brolley, Stephen Clark, Caroline Clifford-Taylor, Shana Schultz. Directed by Brad Anderson

It is engrained in our nature to be afraid of the dark. That is a legacy from our caveman ancestors, who were terrified by things in the night that were likely to eat them as not. But we live in civilized times. There’s nothing malevolent in the dark is there?

Paul (Leguizamo) is a projectionist in a Detroit movie theater. Like many in that particular profession, he can get quite bored on the job, so he brings with him a book to read and a hat with a lantern on it to read by. When there’s a brief power outage, he is for a moment the only one with light. When the lights come back on, he is shocked to discover that every person in the theater has vanished, leaving behind their clothes, shoes and jewelry. They’re just…gone

He meets a security guard (Cartwright) who had a flashlight on when the lights went out. As they investigate, the lights go out again. Then the guard’s flashlight fails and a shocked Paul watches him disappear before his eyes. Then Paul’s light goes out…

Luke (Christensen) wakes up to find the city deserted. A tough TV news reporter, he heads to the station to see if he can piece together what’s going on. He thinks that there is something in the shadows and that the key to survival is light. Before he is forced to flee the station in the receding light, he sees a video from Chicago that indicates that the Windy City may well be safe.

Luke makes his way to a bar which is one of the few places with light left in Detroit. A portable generator is running them and a suspicious 13-year-old boy named James (Latimore) is the only one there. His mother, the bartender, had stepped out but should be back any moment, a scenario Luke finds highly unlikely.

In short order, they are joined by Rosemary (Newton), a junkie whose baby disappeared, and eventually by Paul who reappeared at a lighted bus stop when his lantern hat re-activated. He is grievously injured however and Luke is obliged to rescue him by the skin of his teeth.

It turns out that there is a malevolence in the shadow that is capable of fooling those who remain alive to step into the dark. With a supernatural darkness enveloping Detroit, Luke knows it’s a matter of time before the generator fails and the only choice they have left is to make a run for it to Chicago, but that’s a dangerous proposition. And as Paul has discovered, what has the events in modern day Detroit have to do with the lost Roanoke colony of the 17th century?

Director Anderson has some pretty impressive titles to his credit, including Transsiberian and The Machinist. While this isn’t on the level of those films, it is pretty nifty nonetheless. It’s a great premise – aren’t we all scared of the dark? – and doesn’t require a lot of gaudy effects to pull off.

His Achilles heel here was casting. While Leguizamo and particularly Latimore do solid work, Christensen and Newton overact without any conscience whatsoever. While I agree that frightened people can act in a hysterical manner, there just doesn’t seem to be any reality to their portrayals. It pulled me out of the movie several times. By the way, don’t look for any explanations as to what’s going on – you won’t find any. While there are some critics who complained about it, I think it puts the audience in the place of the characters who wouldn’t have known what’s going on either.

This is a bleak movie, which is a trademark of Anderson. Some may find it too bleak, but I kind of liked the tone. While I appreciate needing to put some name actors in the lead roles, Christensen and Newton aren’t the two I would have cast. With a couple of different actors as Luke and Rosemary, this might have been a much better movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Genuinely creepy with good performances from Leguizamo and Latimore.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very bleak in tone. Christensen and Newton were poor choices for the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of swearing and some pretty grim and gruesome imagery.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film was a theatrical flop, more than one quarter of the box office came from South Korea.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a series of interviews conducted by Fangoria magazine.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $10M production budget; not the numbers the producers wanted.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Darkness Falls

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Pitch Black