Broken Ghost


Most teen angst can be relieved by soulful guitar player.

(2017) Thriller (Film Mode) Autry Hayden-Wilson, Scottie Thompson, Nick Farnell, Devon Bagby, Lessard Brandon, John Teague, Joy Brunson, George Griffith, Frank Lotito, Tyler Garrett, Lee Williams, Lexi Anastasia. Directed by Richard Gray

 

One of life’s great truths is that you cannot run away from your problems; they tend to follow you wherever you go, particularly when there’s a viral video involved.

Imogen Day (Hayden-Wilson) has left the building, or at least where she was living before and has moved to rural Montana along with her mother Samantha (Thompson) who has purchased the local pharmacy, and her artist husband Will (Farnell) who has gone on ahead to set things up at their isolated farmhouse.

There is definitely trouble in paradise (or at least Montana); Imogen now wishes to be known as Grace. She is a headstrong girl, but is sight-impaired. She’s not fully blind but most things are a blur to her and brightly lit so that necessitates her wearing sunglasses nearly all the time. She is somewhat suspicious of people and tends to shun them or at least drive them away but with good reason; she was severely bullied at her previous school and is trying to make a fresh start where nobody knows her. Will seems to have developed a porn addiction and an inspiration deprivation; he’s barely able to work on his art and ever since the issues with Imogen/Grace began. He has also had difficulty sexually with his wife. Samantha is severely frustrated and has taken to going out with her employee and friend Cath (Brunson) in the local bar after work.

To make matters worse, it turns out the isolated farmhouse they got for a song was a bargain for good reason; the previous resident, a somewhat eccentric and talented artist, slit the throat of his wheelchair-bound wife and 12-year-old daughter before hanging himself. Now there are some disturbing, unexplained things going on; drawings appear on bathroom mirrors, the television turns on by itself, there are strange noises coming from the attic that might be attributable to raccoons, but the whispers of Imogen’s true name that she hears at night are certainly not the work of raccoons.

The family is beginning to disintegrate from within. The source of Grace/Imogen’s bullying is discovered by new bullies at her new school. Samantha succumbs to her animal needs and has wild sex with a handsome stranger she meets in the bar, and Will finds a disturbing mural behind the wallpaper in Grace’s room. While initially Will denies that the house is haunted, he has begun to accept that it might be but that the spirits haunting the house if there are any seem to be benign. The goings-on in the house begin to mirror what happened previously to the homicidal artist – and there is the matter of a biker turf war that has escalated after the disappearance of two bikers that may or may not be connected with the Day’s home and suddenly Grace/Imogen has all the angst she can handle.

There are some things that work really well in this film and there are some things that don’t. To the good are the performances, particularly that of Thompson who is insanely sexy without being slutty, a desperate housewife who loves her daughter and her husband but sees everything falling apart and feels helpless to do anything about it. Hayden-Wilson has the kind of role that is all too common these days – that of the feisty, headstrong teen girl with a disability but she keeps the role from becoming tired or cliché. While I wonder how many parents would let a kid with vision issues as severe as hers wander around an unfamiliar landscape without someone to keep an eye on her, Hayden-Wilson has the confidence to play Grace/Imogen as the kind of young woman who would inspire parents to trust her that far.

While Gray does a fine job of building up the suspense in the first half of the movie, the pace is exceedingly slow and ponderous which is fine for European audiences but American thriller fans might not have the patience for it, particularly since the second half of the movie is an exercise in lost opportunities as the good will built up in the first part of the movie is all but spent by the time the credits unspool. The ending really is rather preposterous but although the temptation is great, I won’t spoil the elements of it even to give constructive criticism.

In the end this is a movie about loneliness; Grace/Imogen is lonely by choice, thrusting any would-be friends as far away from her as possible. Samantha is lonely in her bed as well as in her marriage and Will is isolated by his feelings of failure both as an artist and as a man. The family is isolated in their remote Montana farmhouse, and within that farmhouse each family member is alone. That’s not a bad metaphor for modern life if you ask me.

REASONS TO SEE: Gray builds up a decent creepy factor during the first half.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pace is very slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality and nudity, some violence and scenes of bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Livingston, Montana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: See No Evil
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Stray

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Our House


Something dark awaits at the bottom of the stairs.

(2018) Horror (IFC Midnight) Thomas Mann, Xavier de Guzman, Nicola Peltz, Percy Hynes White, Allison Hossack, Carlyn Burchell, Christine Horne, John Ralston, Lucius Hoyos, Robert B. Kennedy, Marcia Bennett, Aaron Hale, Kate Moyer, Stefanie Nakamura, Neil Whitely, Evan Marsh, Ryan Wilson, Jennifer Nichols. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns

 

The world is full of doors. Some are open, others are closed to us. Some of them should stay that way and others are downright dangerous to open even the tiniest of cracks.

Ethan (Mann) is a brilliant engineer/physicist who shares the dream of Nicola Tesla to make electricity wireless, available cheaply for anyone. He knows an invention like this could be his ticket to the good life; although he and his parents (Ralston, Hossack) are pretty well-off. Ethan’s studies make him essentially an empty chair in the house; his mom and dad (and brother Matt (White) and sister Becca (Moyer), a brooding teen and adorable moppet) wish he was home more often.

But Ethan is obsessed with his work and during a rare family gathering he cuts out early with his girlfriend Hannah (Peltz) to work on his creation in the deserted AI lab – except he’s not really supposed to be there. Things don’t go well at the lab – he doesn’t have enough power to make the device work – and ends up overloading the system and causing a campus-wide outage.

Things go from bad to worse when a call from home reveals that his parents have died in a car crash, leaving him to raise his two siblings alone. Three months later he has quit school and a promising future to work in a local electronics store. That doesn’t mean he’s given up on his project which he continues to work on in his spare time.

But his project has some unexpected side effects; it turns out that what he’s doing is amplifying the paranormal energy in the house, making it possible for the dead to communicate with the living and even materialize. The more power that Ethan draws with the help of a friendly neighbor (Kennedy) who works at the local power company (and whose wife recently committed suicide) the closer the spirits of his parents come to fully materializing. That would be good for Matt and Becca but extraordinarily bad as the range is beginning to widen and there are spirits who aren’t nearly as benevolent residing in the house.

There are some classic Spielberg-like qualities to the film; the close-knit suburban neighborhood, the family without parents, the bittersweet tone and the young genius. However, this isn’t yo Daddy’s Spielberg; this is something else. As with films like The Conjuring series, Although this doesn’t have the budget or the publicity push of those films, it actually does a pretty solid job of building up the tension slowly before going into overdrive at the end.

The juvenile leads have to carry the movie and they do a pretty good job overall. Poor Katie Moyer is given a pretty cliché sensitive little girl role who is the first to start sensing the return of her parents, who sleeps in her big brother’s room and is seemingly the most torn up over the loss of her parents. In fact, all of the young juveniles handle the difficult emotion of grief surprisingly well.

The special effects are pretty slim pickings but that’s okay; the filmmakers get a lot out of a little. There does appear to have been some post-production controversy; the director of photography pulled his name from the credits and the electropop duo Electric Youth withdrew their score after changes were made during Post and released the music on the soundtrack to a lost movie.

However to be honest I was surprised to find out about those issues well after I saw the movie. When I was watching it I didn’t get a sense that the movie was jumbled the way you normally do when producers or a distributor get involved in the creative process. The movie held its cohesion pretty well and the build up to an explosive climax was right on the money. I found it to be a truly effective horror film that while not quite as good as Hereditary was right up there in the same tax bracket.

REASONS TO GO: The suspense builds slowly but the ending is intense. Haunted house films are particularly well-done these days; this one is among the best. The scares are unrelenting. There is some good real-world content as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Becca is a little bit too cliché the sensitive little girl.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a little bit of suggestive content, some terror and child peril and some disturbing horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was significantly altered during post-production; even the titled was changed from Breathing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Babadook
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story

The Monster Project


The suggestion of something terrifying is more frightening than the sight of something terrifying.

(2017) Horror (Epic) Toby Hemingway, Justin Bruening, Murielle Zuker, Jamal Quezaire, Yvonne Zima, Steven Flores, Shiori Ideta, James Storm, Susan Stangl, Phillip Sebal, Pat Scott, Shayne Eastin, Chase Olswang, Zac Cracknell, Allie Marie Costa, Jim Beinke (voice), Victor Mathieu (voice), Martin Lee White, PeiPei Alena Yuan. Directed by Victor Mathieu

 

So a vampire, a werewolf and a demon go into a bar and… That’s how a joke might begin but that’s loosely the premise in this indie horror film, only it’s an old abandoned house instead of a bar. Although it might have worked out better if it had been a bar; old abandoned houses are so cliché.

Devon (Hemingway) and Jamal (Quezaire) have been pretty successful making homemade YouTube horror movies. Devon is convinced that they are ready to take the next step – and make a horror feature. Jamal is a little hesitant but Devon talks him into a fairly high concept idea; their films have been faked “real” encounters with monsters – Devon in a cheap costume, Jamal running around with the camera. They were getting thousands of hits. What if they recruit people who actually think they’re monsters and interview them?

Devon recruits his ex-girlfriend Murielle (Zuker) and her current beau Bryan (Bruening) who is fresh out of his most recent stint in rehab – yes, there’s been more than one – to direct and run sound, respectively. Murielle is still angry at Devon for the break-up but jumps at the chance to direct a feature. Through Craigslist – iMDB for potential victims – they get responses from Steven (Flores), a native American who is a cop on the reservation and a skinwalker, or a sort of werewolf; Shayla (Zima), a pretty albeit heavily tattooed vampire who apparently has the hots for Bryan, and Shiori (Ideta), a miserable young Japanese girl who believes she’s demonically possessed.

The dashing Devon gathers them all together in a house that has a history – a devil-worshiping coven once operated out of it – on the night of a lunar eclipse. Now I don’t know about you but all sorts of alarm bells would be going off in my head if a friend tried to drag me into a situation like that. I mean, I’ve seen a few horror movies, y’know? In any case, it turns out that not only do these people think they’re monsters, they actually are the monsters they think they are.

Locked in the house with three beings possessed of plenty of fangs, teeth, claws and muscle, the four filmmakers are going to have a hell of a time (pun intended) escaping the house and getting home alive but it soon becomes apparent that there is something much larger at work – and something far more powerful with sinister plans in mind for all of them.

This is a micro-budget indie horror movie which in the genre means nothing; great movies have been made on budgets that wouldn’t cover the coffee budget on a mid-sized studio film. The movie has some strong points – the creature effects, considering the budget, are really effective. The last hour of the film is basically shot in darkness however so there’s a kind of “night vision” sheen to the cinematography that makes things a little murky, so we don’t get the full effect of the effects, if you’ll forgive a bad joke.

Found footage films, which this is, can be entertaining or they can be pretty rote and this one follows a pretty standard found footage template with an ending that isn’t unlike what you get with most found footage films; after all, if the footage is found it must first be lost. It does lack a framing story – if nothing else a graphic stating “this footage was found in the middle of the desert blah blah blah” to give the movie context but then again, considering how it ends, it doesn’t really need it. However, like nearly all found footage films, a lot of the movie consists of terrified videographers running with their cameras. After awhile it gets pretty old and quite frankly, that’s one of the qualities of found footage films that I dislike the most. I’d gladly trade the “you are there” quality for something more watchable.

The performances are pretty solid from the unknown cast. Zima is phenomenally beautiful as the vamp but she does overdo a bit. Beyond that, I can’t really complain; there’s not a lot of character development here but I think the whole point is to get to the part where the monsters show up which is about forty minutes into the hour and forty minute film. Quite frankly, the movie could have used some trimming as well

Still in all, this is a fair to okay effort in indie horror that will certainly have its fans. While I can’t really rave about it, I can say that the movie pretty much meets the standards of the genre. I would have liked some more legitimate scares – the film is far more action-oriented than horror-oriented in delivery which I think doesn’t do the film any favors – but nonetheless I can say that you’re not wasting your time if you rent this or see it in the limited theatrical release it’s getting. Indie horror films have been on a bit of a hot streak lately and while this isn’t one of those big buzz indie scare flicks, it is at least competently made and has some gee whiz moments that will keep the fans happy.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are pretty nifty. The acting is for the most part pretty solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The cinematography is murky and like most found footage films the shaky cam gets old. It’s a little light on the scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and terror, plenty of profanity, drug references and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Shiori demon makes an early appearance in the DVD she gives Devon and Jamal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Trip to Spain

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House


Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

(2016) Gothic Horror (Netflix) Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton, Bob Balaban, Brad Milne, Erin Boyes. Directed by Oz Perkins

 

Haunted houses are a part of our culture, both in the West and in the East. Spirits of the departed that remain behind, sad and sometimes angry, have a delicious fascination for us. Perhaps it is a part of our morbid nature, our obsession with death – after all, we’re all going to die eventually and we are fearful of that unknown. Sometimes that fear becomes something more.

Lily Saylor (Wilson) is a hospice nurse come to a clapboard home at the end of Teacup Lane in Braintree, Massachusetts (home to founding fathers John Adams and John Hancock) to care for Iris Blum (Prentiss), an infirm woman who was once a famous writer of horror stories, a sort of distaff Stephen King (or a latter day Shirley Jackson to be more accurate). Lily takes over the care and feeding of Ms. Blum at the behest of Mr. Waxcap (Balaban), the estate executor.

Almost as soon as she settles in she gets a sense that things are a bit off in the house. Although the house looks spic and span (and she takes great pains to make sure it remains that way), there is evidence that the house is beginning to show it’s age (it was built in the 19th century if not earlier) with walls warping somewhat and soon, a bloom of black mold appears on one of the walls. Then there is the tapping sound that manifests in the night and sound like they’re coming from inside the walls. And Lily is annoyed that Ms. Blum habitually calls her Polly. Who is this Polly that her charge has confused Lily with?

Lily investigates and discovers that a brutal murder took place in the house many years before; a young bride (Boynton) was killed by her groom (Milne) on her wedding day. The bride’s name was Polly. Furthermore, Iris wrote a book about it, The Lady in the Walls. The book’s conceit was that a writer was communicating with the murdered bride but the communications mysteriously stopped. Lily attempts to read the book but is soon unable to continue; a sensitive soul, she is easily frightened. That’s not such a good thing in a house like this.

One of the most difficult subgenres of horror to do is the Gothic horror. Gothic depends heavily on atmosphere and creating that atmosphere of foreboding requires a great deal of patience. You have to have the right cinematographer and Perkins chose a doozy in Julie Kirkwood. She not only has a terrific eye but she also understands the mechanics of what makes a great atmosphere; slow camera movements that never jerk the audience around when the camera moves at all, angles that are unsettling without being overt, and a palate of white and goldenrod, making the film look not so much washed out but like an antique photograph. The result is that the movie looks like you’re looking back in time (in fact the scenes are set in what appears to be somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s) at tragic events unfolding.

That sense of foreboding is set right off the bat with Lily’s narration. “The pretty thing you’re looking at is me. Of this I am sure. My name is Lily Saylor. I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29 years old.” The narration is for the most part pretty flowery which at times can be eye-rolling. It is also delivered in a flat monotone, as if Wilson is reading a book aloud which adds to the creepiness.

Wilson has shown some pretty sizable acting chops, particularly in the BBC series Luther but here she’s oddly lifeless, as if she’s already become a ghost and is simply awaiting the formalities. I would have also liked to get a bit more backstory from her – we are led to understand that she’d been involved in a romantic relationship but it ended badly – and a little more emotion from Wilson. Then again, it might have been a conscious choice to play Lily as someone extremely repressed emotionally speaking.

Prentiss doesn’t have a lot to do but the former comedienne is certainly a welcome sight. She hasn’t appeared onscreen in nine years and it’s good to know that even though her part is small (but important), she is still out there working.

There are not many haunted house movie clichés here but enough to be unwelcome. Still, overall this is an extremely strong and welcome entry into a genre that is largely ignored these days. Fans seems to like their horror more visceral than subtle these days. Perkins has an impeccable pedigree and even though this is just his second feature film in the director’s chair, he’s served notice that he is a talent to keep an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: There are some exquisite images here. It’s always nice to see an actress the caliber of Paula Prentiss working. The atmosphere is truly haunting.
REASONS TO STAY: A few too many haunted house tropes are present here. The dialogue is pretentious in places. Wilson comes off a bit flat tonally.
FAMILY VALUES: Some unsettling images and an overall atmosphere of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins is the son of the late Anthony Perkins; the song “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” which is played several times on the soundtrack is sung by his father; the movie clip that Lily is watching on TV is from Friendly Persuasion in which Anthony Perkins starred.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting of Hill House
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Why Him?

The Disappointments Room


Kate Beckinsale reflects.

Kate Beckinsale reflects.

(2016) Supernatural Thriller (Rogue/Relativity) Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Gerald McRaney, Michael Landes, Celia Weston, Michaela Conlin, Charles Carroll, Duncan Joiner, Ella Jones, Marcia de Rousse, Jennifer Leigh Mann, Melissa Eastwood, Robert McRary, Chris Matheny, Mike Bizon, Peabody Southwell, Steve Stamey, Robert Caponi, Rebecca Kerns. Directed by D.J. Caruso

 

When you move someplace new, exploring your new digs is half the fun, especially if it’s one of those wonderful old houses with long corridors and lots of doors. However, it is wise to remember that in some old houses, some doors shouldn’t be opened.

Dana (Beckinsale) and David (Raido) have just moved into one such house. They’re trying to pick up the pieces after the untimely death of an infant daughter. Dana, in particular, is a bit of a mess but David figures that having her redesign her new home (she is an architect, after all) might help take her mind off of things and lift her out of her doldrums.

But then she finds a door to a room in the attic that doesn’t appear on the floor plans, which is kind of bizarre because the room has a distinctive round window that can be seen clearly from the yard. But, okay – she is almost obsessed about opening the door and eventually she finds the key. The room has scratch marks, a drain and some disturbing looking stains that might be blood.

She begins to have visions of an intimidating man in black who turns out to be Judge Blacker (McRaney), a previous owner, and his vicious looking dog. Disturbed by the visions, she looks into the room and discovers that it was what was called a “Disappointments Room” where the wealthy would lock up their children who had mental issues or physical deformities (and sometimes their wives too – yes, disappointments rooms were a thing). When she is trapped in the hidden room for what seems like hours, she is mystified to discover she was only gone a few short minutes. Her sanity begins to take a tumble.

Not making matters much better is a hunky contractor (Till) who seems more interested in flirting with her than in actually getting the roof fixed nor a poorly timed dinner party when a drunken Dana pops her cork and has an epic meltdown. But the question is whether or not the house is truly haunted – or if Dana is descending into madness.

Caruso has a track record of both terrific suspense movies and also some fine action films but this is one that isn’t going to be front and center on his resume. The movie feels like it went off the rails near the end of the film, having either been rewritten from the original script by actor Wentworth Miller (who doesn’t appear in the film, alas) or was edited by someone at the studio’s nephew who turns out to be completely psychotic.

But the rest of the movie does a good job of building the “is she or isn’t she” suspense and Beckinsale was born for this kind of role, where she has to play things high strung. She’s a marvelous actor, horribly underrated who has a history of excellent but overlooked performances in genre films. She’s starting to branch out lately (Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is one such) and hopefully she’ll start to see roles that will attract more notice. Here she really holds the movie together almost by herself, but as I said the movie spirals into the toilet bowl of doom through no fault of her own.

The problem here is that that the movie kind of loses its inertia and at the end goes for cliches and easy scares rather than taking the ball it had been carrying all game long and running for the touchdown with it. And yes, that’s an intentional mixed metaphor; that perfectly explains how the movie felt to me.

This was a victim of the Relativity Media bankruptcy; it was in limbo for more than a year while the company sorted through its financial issues. It was actually supposed to open in November but for some reason the company pulled Before I Sleep from the schedule with less than two weeks to go and inserted this into the slot, shuttling it into theaters without any sort of promotional support whatsoever. Predictably, it died a quiet and painful death at the box office. It didn’t help matters that the movie is mediocre at best, but it seems sad that this is going to be a pretty decent performance by Beckinsale that will largely go unseen. That’s the big disappointment here.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale elevates the movie as she usually does.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is often confusing and disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (some of it bloody), some disturbing images, a bit of foul language and a couple of scenes of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the main location shooting was the Adamsleigh estate in the Sedgefield Country Club outside Greensboro, North Carolina. The home was built in 1930.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Husband
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sully

Poltergeist (2015)


A show of hands.

A show of hands.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox/MGM) Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Susan Heyward, Nicholas Braun, Karen Ivany, Patrick Garrow, Doug MacLeod, Eve Crawford, L.A. Lopes, Soma Bhatia, John Stoneham Jr., Kathryn Greenwood, Molly Kidder. Directed by Gil Kenan

Remaking a movie is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to horror movies. The trick is to stay true to the original material while making it fresh and original enough that fans of the original feel like they’re seeing something new as opposed to a shot-by-shot rip-off. Add to the mix that it is an iconic film like the 1982 haunted house classic Poltergeist, which was originally directed by Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper and produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and you’ve got yourself a tall order.

Taller still because most of your target audience will have seen the original except for maybe a few disdainful Millennials who don’t watch “old” movies, and yet it is that crowd who may enjoy this movie the most as they will see it without the baggage that the rest of us take into the multiplex with us. It is hard not to compare the movie to its source material, and yet it is at the same time somewhat unfair until you remember that the filmmakers knew what they were getting themselves into.

Many of the original elements remain; a modern family in a modern suburban home (in this case, in Illinois) that has a bit of a history, beset by paranormal activity of increasing malevolence. A little girl disappears and can be heard from the television set. Paranormal researchers who are blown away by the level of phenomena they witness. A psychic who may well be the only hope to get the little girl back.

Gil Kenan was a pretty odd choice to direct this; he has mostly directed family-oriented fare like the Oscar-nominated Monster House and the kid-centric fantasy City of Ember. The original Poltergeist had kids in it of course, but the focus was on the parents, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. Kenan chooses to make the middle child, Griffin (Catlett) the focus and to enhance his character with all sorts of neuroses and anxieties. The kid needs some Valium, or at least some therapy which his mother actually vocalizes at one point. Having a kid who jumps at every bump in the night in a house that is haunted by angry spirits seems a little cruel.

Rockwell and DeWitt, who play the parents, are underwritten compared to their two youngest, Catlett and Clements (the Heather O’Rourke of this movie). There are tantalizing bits of business; DeWitt’s character is a writer working on a book, but we never see her even attempting to write. Rockwell’s character has been laid off from John Deere and at one point there’s an indication that he has a drinking problem, but that’s never explored. They seem to be good parents and decent people but we don’t really get to know them very much.

Rockwell in many ways carries the movie; he’s a rock-solid actor who can be as likable as anyone in Hollywood, although he tends to portray characters with a collection of tics and quirks that are largely absent here. In the one scene that he and DeWitt get to show some intimacy (before kiddus interruptus, something every parent is familiar with) they display genuine chemistry together but for the most part they are reduced to reacting to one scare or another. DeWitt is likewise a terrific actress who is in my opinion somewhat underrated. Once again, she doesn’t really get to show what she can do in a role that is more cliche than character.

Harris and Adams play the psychic and the paranormal researcher respectively and unlike the original they have a past. Harris in particularly with his Irish accent is entertaining, which considering he has to fill the late Zelda Rubenstein’s shoes is a considerable achievement. Mostly, though, they – like the parents – are second bananas to the kids and the CGI.

There are some decent enough scares here, a few of them telegraphed by the trailer but they don’t come close to living up to the original. See, I’m doing it too – and everyone involved had to know that there was no way in figurative and literal Hell that this was going to live up to the original, right? Which begs the question; why remake this at all?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a way that a remake of Poltergeist couldn’t be a terrific film on its own merits or even live up to the original, but this one flatly doesn’t. The pacing is weak, the scares aren’t as scary and it simply isn’t a thrill ride like the first one was. There are certainly some things that are worthwhile about the film; they modernize it nicely although I suspect that will date the movie somewhat in years to come. Some of the CGI effects are nifty. The adult cast is solid; I sympathize with Rockwell, Harris, Adams and DeWitt who give it a good college try, but making a family friendly film out of a horror classic which seems to be what the studio and the filmmakers were shooting for is a half-baked idea at best. This is one movie that should have been one of those Cedar Point roller coasters that turn you upside down and backwards and dropped us down insane hills and into dark tunnels; instead, we got a kiddie coaster.

REASONS TO GO: Sam Rockwell is solid. Some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Haunted by the original. Relies too much on Clements and Catlett.
FAMILY VALUES: A bunch of frightening images and scary moments, some foul language and a sexually suggestive scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Adams previously starred together in the 1998 indie film Happiness.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING; 6/10
NEXT: Lawless

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death


Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Relativity) Phoebe Fox, Helen McCrory, Oaklee Pendergast, Jeremy Irvine, Pip Pierce, Jude Wright, Amelia Crouch, Adrian Rawlins, Amelia Pidgeon, Casper Allpress, Ned Dennehy, Mary Roscoe, Merryn Pearse, Leanne Best, Eve Pearce, David Norfolk, Chris Cowlin, Julie Vollono, Hayley Joanne Bacon. Directed by Tom Harper

There’s kind of an unwritten law that sequels to horror movies tend to be less scary and of a lower quality than the originals. Hammer Films, the classic British horror factory however has been the exception to that rule for the most part, churning out Dracula and Frankenstein sequels that are just as good if not better than the originals. Would that record hold in the latest incarnation of the studio?

Taking place 40 years after the original Woman in Black with the Second World War in full bloom with the London Blitz in particular at its height. With the constant nightly bombing, the decision was made to evacuate as many children as possible out to the country and a group of school children with their principal  Jean Hogg (McCrory) herding them much like a shepherdess if given an unruly mob of sheep and one of her teachers, Eve Parkins (Fox) to assist.

There is another Nazi raid the night before they are to leave and a direct hit to a nearby house leaves young Edward (Pendergast) an orphan. Rendered mute by the experience, he resorts to making sinister drawings which in turn draw out the cruelty of some children, the sympathy of others with the impatient and imperious Jean leaning towards the suck-it-up school of grief counseling. She is married to a Brigadier General, after all.

Of course with shortages in places  in safe places to stay, this particular group is sent to Eel Marsh House, home of the Woman in Black (Best) who still rages and haunts there after her son was taken away from her forcibly and later drowned. Now, she seems to be enraged at the children in the charge of Ms. Hogg and Ms. Parkins, although Edward seems to be a favored target and Eve’s own maternal instincts are flaring up like the hair on a dog’s back. However, Eve has secrets that have drawn the Woman in Black to her.

I have to say that the first film had much more atmosphere and better scares than this one, which has some good ones but not nearly as many. Whereas the first film was generally dark and gloomy, this one is brighter although just as fog-shrouded with the occasional rainstorm. Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com suggested that the film would have been better off had it been filmed in black and white and I can’t say I disagree with him. In fact, it would have been a capital idea.

Whereas the first film had Daniel Radcliffe turning in a solid performance, the cast of lesser known Brits (at least in this country) do workman like jobs, although McCrory some might remember from the Harry Potter series (like Radcliffe) has some moments and Jeremy Irvine, who plays a dashing English pilot with secrets of his own, has others. Another thing missing from the first is the village of the suspicious people which has been changed to one single demented resident (Dennehy). Doesn’t quite feel the same.

Maternal guilt is a big theme here, particularly Eve’s and it is an interesting twist of normal horror conventions that the children are a means to an end – that end being punishing Eve. However, rather than further exploring that theme, the filmmakers are content to replay the same flashback over and over again, trying to be cryptic I suppose but only a dimwit would fail to realize that the dreams are about a traumatic experience in Eve’s life and why the Woman in Black is drawn to it. Perhaps showing how the event effected Eve’s life and brought her to her teaching position may have been a better use of the filmmaker’s efforts rather than replaying the same scene over and over again. That’s just lazy filmmaking.

This isn’t a bad film at all, although true horror fans might find it a bit lean on scares and atmosphere. However, the film is reasonably well-made and has enough going for it that I can give it a mild recommendation which for films released this time of the year is like gold.

REASONS TO GO: Some great views of misty marshes. Explores maternal guilt. Some effective scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough of those effective scares. Lacks a truly creepy or scary mood. Performances are merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: There are definitely some frightening images, as well as kids in peril. Not a lot of gore or foul language, some of the thematic elements are on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first sequel to be produced by Hammer Studios since 1974, although none of the events of the first film is referred to in this one, nor do any cast members return.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unbroken