VHS


V/H/S

All in all, you might have been better off using Match.com

(2012) Horror (Magnet) Calvin Reeder, Adam Wingard, Lane Hughes, Hannah Fierman, Mike Donlan, Joe Sykes, Drew Sawyer, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Norma C. Quinones, Drew Moerlein, Chad Villella, Matt Bertinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Paul Natonek. Directed by David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Radio Silence, Glenn McQuaid and Adam Wingard

 

While technology improves, some things stay the same. We can upgrade our recording systems but the images don’t change much. One vacation video is pretty much the same as another, whether it was taken in 1982 or 2012.

But these are anything but vacation videos unless you have a peculiar idea of relaxation, but let’s start from the beginning. An unknown party hires four small-time criminals who are known for making videos of women that they catch in parking garages and brutally show off their naked breasts. These make tons of money on the Internet, but their mysterious employer isn’t interested in boobs. He wants the gang of four to enter a house that’s more or less deserted (and it turns out to be less), and steal a videotape.

Break in they do and they enter the house to find a dead body and a pile of videotapes. As one of the group checks out the tapes to figure out which one is the right one, the rest of the group goes to investigate a series of mysterious noises – and you know that is going to end badly.

The first tape concerns a trio of frat boy-sorts who attach a spy-cam to one of the lad’s glasses and they go out hoping to get him laid. After some trial and error and enough alcohol to prove that these boys (save the one with the camera) are pretty much assholes when drunk, they manage to pick up a couple of girls. One of them passes out quickly but the other, named Lily, takes a shine to the cameraman (“I like you” she says repeatedly) but apparently one of the frat boys likes her a lot and decides to horn in on the action. Lily doesn’t seem to mind at first but, well, she’s a very special girl.

In the second, a newly married couple visit a southwestern tourist attraction – a wild west ghost town and do some hiking in the mountains. They are followed by a young woman who seems a little creepy, particularly to the husband. He really doesn’t know the half of it as some of the minor annoyances on their trip are her doing. But what are her intentions and why is she doing this?

In the third, a quartet of friends visit the home town of one of them who once they enter the woods around the town begins to act strangely. It turns out that there were some inexplicable murders there a few years earlier and that their friend knows more about the subject than she’s let on. As her creepy pronouncement that they’re all going to die there looks more and more likely, they’ll discover that the killer is still around and a creature like him they’ve never seen – say hello to Glitch Man.

The fourth is mainly the Skype conversation between a doctor and his girlfriend, who is convinced that the house she is in is haunted. He, being a rational sort is skeptical but he begins to see things too. Soon he’s more concerned about her situation than she is – she’s convinced that she can reason with the spirits and send them on their merry merry. But she may have miscalculated their intentions, particularly in relation to the mysterious bump on her arm.

The final tape shows a group of four friends who are invited to a Halloween party at an isolated house on the edge of town. Sounds like fun so the high-spirited boys and off they went to a very nice house in the middle of nowhere. When they get there, nobody’s there even though the house is unlocked and all the lights are on. While they speculate that this might be a Halloween attraction of some sort, however, it’s not the sort of attraction you’d want to spend money on and when the boys make it into the attic, all hell is going to break loose.

Anthologies are a horror film mainstay. It’s an effort to tell shorter stories that might deserve a telling without devoting an entire movie  In this case, each vignette is directed by a young up-and-coming filmmaker in the underground and mainstream horror genres. West is the best known, having directed the sequel to Cabin Fever which actually wasn’t all that bad for a direct-to-video effort and a really fine horror movie from last year called The Innkeepers. The rest are not as familiar to me so I didn’t really know what to expect. And pretty much as you might expect, the efforts here run from really good (the first tape) to not so much (the fourth).

The acting is as you also would expect rather uneven as well, although there are some finds. Hannah Fierman as Lily in the first movie is genuinely creepy. Her transformation from meek party girl to…well, I don’t want to spoil it but trust me it’s pretty spectacular and Hannah has a lot to do with it. If you see her in a bar near you walk on my friend, walk on.

The glitch man in the third vignette is also pretty nifty although the constant noise and jumpiness in the film gets really old really fast. In fact, one of the conceits of the movie is that they are all from videotapes so the quality of the images is pretty weak but that doesn’t mean the cinematography is bad, if that makes sense.

There is a gratuitous amount of gore and bare breasts, so if those things offend you my guess is you wouldn’t be interested in seeing a movie like this anyway. Everyone else, this is a solid and spectacular in places horror anthology that won’t completely win you over (the weak portions can be pretty boring and the movie at a little over two hours is about 20 minutes too long for my taste – a whole vignette could have been eliminated and they would have been much better off. Short of that, it’s available on VOD right now so if it isn’t playing near you, you can still check it out.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of gore and lots of boobs – mainstays for an excellent horror film.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the vignettes are more successful than others.

FAMILY VALUES:  A load of strong and often gruesome violence, lots of nudity, a fair amount of bad language, some horrific images and a bit of drug use. Oh, and some sex

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Ti West grew up in Delaware and went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100. The reviews are as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Videodrome

HORROR FILM ANTHOLOGY LOVERS: This comes from a tradition of horror film anthologies, several tales (often with different directors) linked together by a single story; among the more recognized anthologies include Twilight Zone: The Movie, Creepshow, Tales of Terror, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Trilogy of Terror, Cat’s Eye and The House That Dripped Blood.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Day 3 in the Six Days of Darkness 2012

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Jennifer’s Body


Jennifer's Body

Besties belly up to the bar before the barroom gets baked.

(Rogue) Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, J.K. Simmons, Amy Sedaris, Kyle Gallner, Aman Johal, Lance Henriksen. Directed by Karyn Kusama

Diablo Cody, a former exotic dancer, bagged Oscar gold with her screenplay for Juno and became something of a mini-celebrity in her own right, a status rarely accorded screenwriters. The problem with being a flavor of the week, unfortunately, is that sooner or later the week comes to an end and your cooking is judged on its own merits.

Jennifer Check (Fox) is the girl next door in sleepy Devil’s Kettle (so named for a waterfall that disappears down a glacial pothole) if you happen to live next door to the head cheerleader, homecoming queen and town hottie all rolled into one. Jennifer’s best friend is “Needy” Lesnicky (one presumes her parents didn’t put that first name on the birth certificate) who wears unattractive glasses, has a perpetually concerned expression on her face and actually does well in school. Needy (Seyfried) isn’t a goody two-shoes by any stretch of the imagination but there is something in her that Jennifer bonds with.

The two head to a local roadhouse to see an indie rock band called Low Shoulder play. During the show, the roadhouse catches fire and burns to the ground. The band, Jennifer and Needy are among the survivors, but the body count is pretty severe for a small town. All Needy wants to do is go home, crawl under the covers and stay there but Jennifer inexplicably decides to hook up with Low Shoulder frontman Nikolai Wolf (Brody) much to Needy’s concern.

When she doesn’t hear from Jennifer for hours, Needy starts getting frantic, even calling her boyfriend Chip Dove (Simmons) in a tizzy. Eventually Jennifer shows up, but there’s something strange about her. She has a hunger for raw meat – and she vomits up a respectable stream of black goo.

The next day at school, Jennifer acts as if nothing has happened but soon afterwards a local jock turns up horribly murdered, eviscerated and partially eaten. Police are thinking wild animal, but Needy knows better. She confronts Jennifer who tells her the horrible truth; Low Shoulder had driven her to the Devil’s Kettle where they sacrificed her to the devil in exchange for success (and sure enough they got it with a hit record released after the fire). However, the dimwitted musicians had messed up – they were supposed to sacrifice a virgin which Jennifer was most decidedly not, so she wound up possessed by a demon. When she feeds on the blood of a living human, she becomes super powered; strong, nearly invulnerable and able to fart a long stream of flame. Okay, so I was lying about the last one, but that would have been really cool.

Needy is torn. On the one hand, her friend is murdering local boys and eating them, but she’s still her BFF so she can’t betray her. All bets are off, however, when Jennifer turns her carnivorous attentions onto Chip at the prom.

Cody has a great ear for dialogue, particularly in the high school vernacular. In other words, she speaks the language of the teenager, with all the slang, jargon and craptacular turns of phrase popular among Generation RFNGDI. Unfortunately, like most teenaged slang, you get the sense that the characters, and through them the filmmakers, are talking down to the audience. “Hey, we’re hipper than you and more in the know. If you don’t speak our language, you don’t deserve to watch our movie.” It’s an elitist conceit and unfortunately it instantly dates the movie, which will lose its relevance within four or five years simply because teenaged dialogue changes almost yearly.

So as a touchpoint for teenaged culture it is, like all such touchpoints, very temporary. Will the rest of the movie stand on its own merits? To put it frankly, probably not; it’s essentially at its heart a pretty standard horror movie with a slightly elevated ambition. Kusama directs it well enough, but playing the movie as an extended flashback takes away a lot of the suspense at the end – you know that Needy is going to survive the prom. The only question is whether Chip and/or Jennifer are.

There is some gore, some of it pretty gooey, but the gore is really played off to the side. There is also sexuality, but no nudity, so the movie in some ways doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions from that standpoint. There is a make-out scene between Needy and Jennifer that’s plenty hot, but besides that the sexuality is pretty tame. I would have liked the movie to allow itself to go to extremes in both areas; if you’re going to be an R-rated horror movie, you might as well push the envelope.

Fox is surprisingly good in her role of Jennifer, or at least better than her work in the two Transformers movies. She’s not yet at the point where I look to see her movies for her performances rather than her looks, but this is a step in the right direction. Seyfried is even better as the plucky heroine Needy; yes, the character does some incredibly stupid horror heroine cliché things during the course of the movie that no sane, rational person would EVER do but Seyfried still imbues the character with personality. Ever since breaking out in Mamma Mia she has improved each time I’ve seen her onscreen; she is certainly on the road to being an actress that I go to a movie just because she’s in it.

Cody is a clever writer, perhaps too clever for her own good. I would like to see her apply her talents to a movie that isn’t trying to be hip in a specific time and place, but one that is timeless and will stand long beyond its shelf life. I don’t know where she stands on horror movies per se, but I get the sense that she has a fondness for them – even while she pokes fun at some of the conventions as she does here. There’s nothing wrong with that – Scream and it’s successors made bank doing just that – but if you’re going to relate to a single target audience, well, be well-assured that you are subject to the whims of that target audience and when it’s as fickle as the teen audience is, you’re already treading water before the movie makes it to the video store shelves. For the record, I really wanted to like the movie much more than I ended up doing. Still, it’s not a bad movie, it just could have – and should have – been way better. That’s just freaktarded.

WHY RENT THIS: Seyfried does a pretty good job as the plucky heroine. Some pretty neat shocks and terror sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a bit too hip for its own good; it comes off as talking down to people, which is never a good thing. Essentially this is a standard horror movie with contemporary dialogue.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of gore, although not as much as other horror movies. There is also a lot of sexuality although no nudity. There’s a crapload of foul language and a couple of scenes of drug use; in short, it’s rated “R” for a reason.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie title derives from a song by Courtney Love’s band Hole.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a series of video diaries from the various stars and filmmakers; there is also a montage of Megan Fox being, well, Megan Fox. Diablo Cody gets the spotlight on a “Life After Film School” segment from the Fox Movie Channel.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Flipped

The Skeptic


The Skeptic

Tim Daly is being haunted by Tiger Woods.

(IFC) Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Robert Prosky, Andrea Roth, Bruce Altman, Lea Coco, Sarah Weaver. Directed by Tennyson Bardwell

We all believe in something; some believe in the spiritual, others in the rational. Some believe in nothing at all, but even that is believing in something.

Bryan Beckett (Daly) falls into that category. Then again, he’s a lawyer so I suppose that goes along with the territory. He believes only in what he can see, what he can touch and what he can hear, and even those things he doesn’t necessarily trust. His wife Robin (Roth) has begun to suspect that he doesn’t believe in marriage either, so she asks him to leave so he can maybe get a handle on whether he believes they should continue in their relationship or not.

He kind of wants to but then again, what is marriage anyway but a contrivance of the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to put an intangible relationship into some kind of quantifiable box and quite frankly, Bryan is all about the tangible baby and those who think otherwise are nutcases and idiots.

His aunt certainly qualifies as a nutcase. As she has come to the end of her life, she has come to believe in the supernatural to a great extent. When she dies suddenly, she leaves Bryan her house. Bryan sees it as an investment opportunity, but when Robin kicks him out, he uses it as a cheap bed for the night.

As you can guess, he begins to experience things he can’t quite explain. He hears people whispering but there isn’t anyone there. He sees fleeting images of a mysterious woman but again, he is alone. His partner and best friend Sully (Arnold) thinks he’s cracking up and needs a vacation. Eventually Bryan contacts the founder (Altman) of a paranormal investigative group that his loony tunes aunt had been involved with and is surprised to find him as skeptical as he. However, he does introduce Bryan to a sexy psychic (Saldana) who believes there is something malevolent in that house. Bryan thinks its hogwash. Is he right and just imagining these things, or is she right in which case he’s in mortal danger?

This is a movie that tries very hard not to pander to the baser instincts of the horror genre and in general it succeeds. Director Bardwell is out to create a mood of tension and spine tingling creepiness and when he succeeds, the movie is at its best. However, he necessarily has to temper the chills with the cold water splash of reality and the juxtaposition of the two is a very difficult tightrope to walk and he doesn’t always succeed completely.

Daly who was such a promising lead in “Wings” has had a checkered film career. He does a reasonably good job of playing the rational lawyer who’s more than a little bit of a cold fish. Unfortunately, his character as written tends to make it difficult for the audience to identify with him and root for him; he’s so good at portraying the unemotional, detached part of the character that at the end of the day there’s no emotional bond for the audience to hang onto. The central premise of the movie makes it nearly impossible for you to really root for the main character.

The end is a bit of a letdown and one that you can see coming early on. After watching The Skeptic I found myself not really caring that I’d seen it; it has some things going for it, enough that I can recommend it for those who like supernatural horror movies as well as psychological thrillers. However, I don’t see general audiences caring enough about the main character to make this movie a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: A traditional haunted house movie that doesn’t involve teenagers is quite refreshing. Bardwell delivers a very creepy atmosphere in places

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This lacks in visual frights compared to more extravagant fair like The Haunting in Connecticut. The ending is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and frightening images, as well as some sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film role for veteran character actor Robert Prosky.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Grown Ups

Orphan


Orphan

Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrmann share a mother-daughter moment.

(Warner Brothers) Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrmann, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer. Directed by Jaume Collett-Serra

How simple the love of a child. We take it for granted that our children are innocent and loving. Those who have the courage to adopt are bringing an unknown factor into their lives. There’s a presumption of good in every child, but not all children are good. Some, in fact, are very, very bad.

Kate (Farmiga) and John (Sarsgaard) Coleman have been through the wringer. Kate, although sober now, has had bouts with the bottle and the bottle generally won. While she was drunk her son Daniel (Bennett) nearly drowned, putting a serious strain on their marriage. Their daughter Max (Engineer) is deaf and while precocious and cute can be a handful.

They tried to have a third child by way of patching up their differences, but the child died stillborn. Despite having a whole lot of baggage to unpack in their marriage, they decide to adopt because nothing solves marital problems like adding another kid to the mix.

They head down to the local orphanage and are immediately smitten with Esther (Fuhrmann), a real charmer who is also a talented painter. She speaks in heavily accented English and at times clearly is unsure of the right words to use, but she is nearly perfect in many ways.

Of course, nothing and nobody are perfect and Esther is certainly not. She has quite a temper which sometimes leads her to all sorts of mischief. She also is a possessive sort and she has locked her radar on John, who is the understanding parent of the decade. Kate, not so much – she begins to get suspicious when people start having “accidents” around Esther, nearly all of whom pissed her off in some way. She tries to get people to see what she’s seeing, but most dismiss it as the hysteria of a woman who is a few centavos shy of a peso.

However, as is invariably true in horror movies, when people fail to listen to the Cassandra-like character, things go very, very badly for them. Kate realizes that her unheeded warnings could end up in utter tragedy for her family. Will she be able to protect them from such a little angel?

Collett-Serra previously directed the very flawed House of Wax remake and while this is a little less flawed, it nonetheless doesn’t establish him as a horror movie talent quite yet. Killer kids are not a particularly new contrivance (see The Bad Seed and The Good Son) so if you’re going to do a movie about them, you need something a little bit different to set your film apart from the others.

In this case, there is a doozy of a twist in the last reel that left me thinking that this movie wasn’t so bad after all. Unfortunately, it takes a real long time to get there. Collett-Serra directs this at a snail’s pace, with an enormous amount of exposition without enough pay-off to justify it. He relies too much on a jumpy musical score to set up false scares and other clichés of the genre rather than establishing a really creepy mood. The sad thing is, he’s capable of just that – the last ten minutes of the movie prove it.

Sarsgaard and Farmiga are both capable actors who give their roles some depth. Sarsgaard’s John is a supposed to be essentially a saint and a bit bland; Sarsgaard makes him believable and elevates the role with a better performance than was written.

Fuhrmann does a first-rate job as the homicidal pre-teen. The problem with having a child actor carry too much of a movie is that there are very few capable of doing it. Over the past several years there have been several phenomenal child actresses that have emerged – Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin to name two – and Fuhrmann may well join that list. Hopefully she’ll get some meaty roles from her performance here.

Orphan isn’t a terrible movie; it’s just a lazy one. It tries to set its mood up by standard Scary Movie 101 means rather than trying to develop it through performance and good writing. The results are a movie that doesn’t feel terrifying so much as bland, and despite some decent performances and a pretty good ending, don’t rise above the clichés of the genre to make a much better movie than what we got.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some truly frightening moments. Sarsgaard gives a terrific performance and Fuhrmann is awesome as the malicious child. The twist at the end is interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many hoary horror film clichés (the screeching violins to signify a false scare etc.) and a little too much stretching of believability.

FAMILY VALUES: While this isn’t gore-heavy, there are some scenes of sudden and horrifying violence, some sexuality and some really disturbing content. Not suitable for the young or the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken by the receptionist at the Saarne Institute is Estonian.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

The Last House on the Left (2009)


The Last House on the Left

Not a pleasant family reunion.

(Rogue) Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dilahunt, Rhys Coiro, Martha MacIsaac, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark. Directed by Dennis Iliadis

Vengeance is mine sayeth the lord, but if someone brutalized your daughter and fell into your hands, would you trust in the Almighty for justice or might you take your own pound of flesh?

John Collingwood (Goldwyn) is a successful doctor with a summer home on a lake in the middle of nowhere. After the untimely death of their son, he and his wife Emma (Potter) have taken their younger daughter Mari (Paxton) to the lake house for some much needed R&R.

Of course, as is the way with teenagers she is far more interested in spending her first night in the country with her local friend Paige (MacIsaac). Mom is not so keen on the idea – their daughter, a champion swimmer and solid student tends to be swayed by the more party-oriented Paige –  but easygoing Dad says okay. He has to fix a balky microwave in any case and relishes the idea of an evening alone with his wife. There’s a storm on the way in any case and Mari would probably be heading back to the house about the time the storm hit.

Paige and Mari are bopping around town with nothing in particular to do. They hang out at the local convenience store where they meet a young boy named Justin (Clark) who’s trying to score some cigarettes. They head over to Justin’s hotel room to score some weed or at least Paige does.

Right about then Justin’s folks arrive; Dad Krug (Dilahunt), Dad’s girlfriend Sadie (Lindhome) and Dad’s ADHD brother Frank (Paul). Unfortunately for the girls, Dad was just busted out of prison in a particularly violent and bloody fashion by Sadie and Frank. With the law on their tails, this is no time to bring two young girls who might be able to identify them into the mix. The criminals kidnap the girls and steal their SUV.

An attempted escape by the plucky Mari leads to the SUV being totaled. The predictably unhinged Krug rapes her and shoots her, murdering Paige in the process. However, the long-promised storm arrives and the dysfunctional family finds refuge in the only house around…and I’m sure you can guess who lives there by now.

This is based on a 1972 movie of the same name by Wes Craven, which was in turn based on a 13th century Swedish folk tale which was also made into a movie by Ingmar Bergman called The Virgin Spring back in 1960. The Bergman movie is the best of the lot but the new 2009 version compares quite favorably in some ways with the original Wes Craven version.

First of all, the Craven version was very much a product of its era, with a kind of hippie loss of innocence theme. The violence was much more sadistic in that version, with Paige and Mari forced to have lesbian sex and one of the girls forced to urinate in her pants, not a particularly pleasant scene.

Here the violence is mostly directed in the rape sequence, which is quite brutal and realistic. There’s nothing sexual about it and quite frankly, that’s as it should be.

The vengeance factor was more prevalent in the first film, in which the father discovers that the brutalizers of his daughter are being harbored under his own roof. In the most recent version, the violence is less a matter of vengeance than of protecting Mari, who has shown up on her doorstep barely alive. In that sense I think the initial movie was more thought-provoking; who wouldn’t want to protect their daughter but how far would you go to avenge her? That’s the crucial difference between the two movies and the biggest misstep the remake takes.

Goldwyn, Dilahunt and Potter are all solid actors with dozens of good performances behind them, and this occasion is no different, particularly for the first two. Potter is okay as well but she really doesn’t have as much to do except in one scene, where she is trying to keep Frank’s attention away from the living room where her daughter is and does it by coming on to him, despite her revulsion at the idea. It’s one of the few scenes that really explores the idea of “how far would a parent go for their child” and it is one of the more effective sequences in the movie.

Most horror movies in the 21st century tend to rely on violence and gore; sexuality has been removed from the equation. The sad truth is that horror movies are much blander today than they were twenty and thirty years ago, despite improvements in filmmaking technology. We can make better monsters but have failed to make better human ones.

The violence here is more brutal than most modern audiences are used to and you should be prepared for that. This is actually a pretty well-made horror thriller and it might have been a little bit better if they had followed the original a bit better. Not so much in the degrading of the two victims but in the motivations of the parents. That’s where the real horror lies.

WHY RENT THIS: Horror should be disturbing and this certainly is that. Dilahunt and Goldwyn are pros and carry out their tasks well.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too brutal for those used to the whitebread, colorless horror films of the 21st century. The most thought-provoking element of the original is excised from the new one making it less interesting.

FAMILY VALUES: Sadistic violence, a somewhat brutal rape scene, drug use, disturbing images, foul language, and yes, nudity – satisfactory family viewing if your family is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Jonathan Craven is the son of the director of the 1972 version Wes Craven. He appeared in the original version as a young boy whose balloon is popped by the vicious Krug.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The director’s cut is featured on the Blu-Ray and unrated DVD versions. It is only a few minutes longer with most of the additional footage taking place during the rape sequence.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Mozart and the Whale