Blair Witch


Don't go into the woods; you'd think they'd have learned that by now.

Don’t go into the woods; you’d think they’d have learned that by now.

(2016) Horror (Lionsgate) James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

After a sixteen year absence in the franchise, we return to Burkittsville to further explore the secrets of the legendary Blair Witch in this follow-up to the original Blair Witch Project which somewhat tellingly ignores the events of Blair Witch 2: Book of Secrets. The filmmakers were so determined to keep this sequel a secret that they didn’t reveal the title of the film until the San Diego Comic Con, just two months before it was to be released. Like the original, that was genius marketing but would that translate to a good movie?

James Donahue (McCune), the little brother of the Project’s Heather, is in a bit of a tizzy. Some footage discovered in the woods near Burkittsville has yielded an image that might just be his long lost sister. With a trio of friends – Lisa (Hernandez), Peter (Scott) and Ashley (Reid) in tow, he heads out to Maryland to talk to the two bloggers who found the footage – high-strung Lane (Robinson) and super-cool Talia (Curry). The bloggers agree to lead James and his filmmaking crew to the spot where the footage was found.

Of course, immediately they get lost. Their GPS becomes unreliable. Their drone begins to function erratically. The four filmmakers know very little about woodcraft and they bicker with the locals who are only slightly more experienced. Then some strange figures made of sticks start appearing in their camps and as things become more and more twisted, time itself becomes something that can’t be counted on.

As people start disappearing, it becomes clear that something malevolent is at work in the Maryland woods and that the mysterious building that doesn’t show up on Google Earth that appears suddenly out of the rain has something to do with it. But is this the home of the notorious Blair Witch or part of something even more sinister?

All the ingredients were here for something special; a talented up-and-coming horror director, a legendary franchise and a studio eager for a hit to re-launch that franchise. Certainly the way Lionsgate has handled the marketing for the film has been innovative and respectable. They’ve gone the minimal “less is more” path in order to generate interest while giving the project an air of mystery.

Sadly, the movie doesn’t live up to the marketing. There’s a lot of inconsistency regarding the found footage trope; at times that’s what Wingard seems to be going for but then at others we get what is clearly standard filmmaking with all of the characters in camera view. It’s annoying as all get-out as the point of view changes constantly and without warning. There are also plenty of the kind of horror cliches that drive me bonkers about horror movies – namely a bunch of young people in a scary situation doing things rational human beings would never do. Of course, frightened people can do irrational things, but even people who are terrified might not necessarily do the things the kids do here.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some genuinely creepy moments. Wingard manages to generate an atmosphere that is ripe for some really spooky stuff and we occasionally get them. Kudos also go to the audio crew who generated an awful lot of legitimate scares solely with sound. Sound can be even scarier than sight upon occasion.

The acting is okay, albeit not stirring. The characters however are written mainly as archetypes rather than real people. James comes closest to being relatable but at times he can be a real schmuck. I will say that this could be the ultimate millennial horror – being lost in the woods with failing tech. Horrors!

The movie’s ending also purports to reveal some insight into the nature of the Blair Witch but as it’s meant to generate more questions than answers, it ends up being kind of maddening to say the least. We do at least get to find out why the characters at the end of the original were facing the corner. There is clearly room for a sequel, albeit one with any members of the Donahue family likely to be involved…unless there are cousins waiting to search for Heather and James.

REASONS TO GO: There are some freaky scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit of a yawner most of the time.
FAMILY VALUES:  The atmosphere is plenty spooky, there is a fair amount of profanity and some of the images are disturbing to say the least.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Filming was done in British Columbia rather than in the original Burkittsville, Maryland location in order to keep it quiet that a sequel to The Blair Witch Project was being filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The People Garden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Snowden

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

The Bourne Legacy


 

The Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner is having to get serious about fighting the women off.

(2012) Action (Universal) Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Joan Allen, Zeljko Ivanek, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Shane Jacobson, Michael Papajohn, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by Tony Gilroy

 

We aren’t content to let things just go their own course. We have a habit of meddling, intruding, making changes willy-nilly without first considering the consequences of our actions. This continually gets us into trouble but if you think it’s a catastrophe-maker for you, think of it on an institutional scale; what happens when a government messes up?

Aaron Cross (Renner) is in Alaska on a training evaluation. He is climbing rocks, fighting off wolves, taking blood samples from himself and taking a little blue pill (no, not that one) and a little green pill; the first, as we will find out, improves his mental acuity; the second, his physical.

At last he reaches a remote cabin where a fellow operative (from Project Outcome, as we also later find out – you’re going to find a lot of things out later, trust me) who is known only as Number Three (Isaac) – best not to be known as Number One or Number Two – has been exiled to wait for agents like him and turn in their blood samples for analysis.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the next mission. Aaron hears a strange noise outside the cabin and goes to investigate it. That strange noise turns out to be a U-CAV drone firing a missile that essentially vaporizes the cabin and everything in it, including the little green and blue pills which Aaron is going to need. He escapes the drone by doing a little homemade self-surgery on himself, removing a tracking device and placing it in a hapless wolf (wolf lovers, turn away from this one). He decides to head down to the lower 48 to find out what’s going on.

You see, what is happening is that the Jason Bourne affair has sent the upper echelons of the clandestine government operations – the Division, if you will – into a tizzy and in full panic mode, they enlist retired USAF Black Ops specialist Eric Byer (Norton) to close up shop on Treadstone, Blackbriar and all the related operations – particularly Outcome – and all those who knew what was going on. This involves giving the operatives little yellow pills which cause them to suffer from fatal nosebleeds.

At Sterissyn-Morlanta, which is the essential public face of Outcome, a scientist goes berserk (with a little help from his friends) and shoots everybody in his lab. The only survivor is Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz), who is understandably upset. She gets a lot more upset when a psychologist (Marvel) sent to evaluate her in her Maryland home as she packs for a trip to visit her sister in Canada turns out to be there to terminate her. She is saved by the arrival of Cross who is looking for some pills.

This is bad news for Byer, who thought Cross dead at the cabin. When he discovers Cross has fled with his new friend to Manila, he figures out that Cross is there to get an upgrade which would give him the permanent mental facilities without having to take a pill. He sends in a grim operative from a different project, known only as LARX-3 (Changchien) to clean up the mess. LARX-3 has the same or superior mental and physical skills as Cross and a real dogged determination to see his mission through. Can Shearer and Cross figure out a way to escape from the implacable LARX-3 – not to mention a government with unlimited resources that wants them both dead?

A lot of fans were upset when they heard that the latest Bourne movie would be without Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon in the last three movies of the series, or without director Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two. New director Gilroy does have a connection with the series- he wrote all three of the movies, so he’s very familiar with the world of Jason Bourne. That is a double-edged sword though.

To the good, he understands the backstory and grafts this new branch onto the tree seamlessly, in a way that makes sense and isn’t quite as jarring as seeing a brand new face playing James Bond. To the bad, there are many references to programs and projects from the first three films, with bureaucratic characters from them making an appearance in roles that range from little more than cameos to much more meaningful supporting roles. For those unfamiliar with the first three films it can be mighty confusing, although if you simply choose to ignore all of the code names and characters therein you can enjoy the ride of the movie on its own merits.

Renner, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Hawkeye in The Avengers further cements his place as one of the hottest leading men and action heroes of 2012. He’s got lots of charisma and my female friends tell me he’s rather easy on the eyes. Far be it for me to impugn the veracity of my female friends in matters of male hotness. I just know that when I see the guy onscreen he has my full attention.

Weisz is one of my favorite actresses in terms of performance but she is curiously muted here. There isn’t much energy and few sparks generated between her and Renner. I know why she was cast – few actresses appear to be as smart as she is – but she’s unconvincing in the action context and has little to do but look terrified and/or concerned.

The action sequences are as good as any I’ve seen this year, with pieces set in Dr. Shearing’s Maryland home, in the Alaska woods and a parkour and motorcycle chase in Manila all generating plenty of adrenaline. There is an intelligence here as well that is often missing in other action films, although not to the same degree of the first three Bourne movies which caught the essence of the Robert Ludlum books they were based on if not the plot – the sense of wheels within wheels, conspiracies and political game-playing all just under the surface. While there are all of those things here, they simply aren’t to the same level as, say, The Bourne Ultimatum which was the most recent in the series.

I’d say at the end of the day this is a must-see for action fans and adrenaline junkies, although those who don’t like their cerebellum being disturbed might find this headache-inducing. It’s a lot better than I feared it would be, and a good career move for Renner who looks to be a superstar if not already then dang soon.

REASONS TO GO: Renner is a magnetic lead. Action sequences are top-notch. Continuity between this and first three films is well-done.

REASONS TO STAY: Weisz’ character seems a bit bland. May be a bit hard to follow for those not familiar with the previous three films.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action, plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the book is the same of the first novel of the series to be written by Eric von Lustbader (after Ludlum passed away) but has nothing to do with the plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale

U-CAV LOVERS: An assassination attempt is made by unmanned drones who send missiles into the cabin where Cross had been moments earlier.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Hope Springs

Lovely Molly


Lovely Molly

Molly may be lovely but she’s also scary as Hell.

(2012) Psychological Horror (Image) Gretchen Lodge, Johnny Lewis, Alexandra Holden, Ken Arnold, Shane Tunney, Tony Ellis, Katie Foster, Lauren Lakis, Daniel Ross, Brandon Thane Wilson, Dan Franko, Todd Ryan Jones, Tara Garwood. Directed by Eduardo Sanchez

 

Going back home is usually considered a bit of a warm fuzzy; all of our glowing childhood memories of safety and security packed with the joy of childhood. Of course, if your childhood as awful filled with sexual abuse and drug use, going back home carries a whole different connotation.

Molly (Lodge) is a new bride, having married her sweetheart Tim (Lewis). She works as a janitor in a local mall while he drives a truck for a living and is gone for long stretches at a time. The new couple has moved into Molly’s childhood home, which she inherited after her  father passed away. Her sister Hannah (“Franklin and Bash” regular Holden) has serious misgivings about this since in that home Molly was repeatedly molested by her father, which sent her into a downward spiral of drug abuse and psychosis from which she’s only recently recovered.

At first things are lovely and idyllic in the bucolic Maryland countryside house that goes back to the Colonial era. Then, Tim gets called away for a long haul just before Molly’s birthday. She begins to hear noises in the night – terrifying footsteps, and doors slamming on their own accord. She hears voices, male voices whispering unintelligibly in the night. Molly carries around a digital video camera around with her but can’t seem to get more on film than things that can be explained away.

She starts to see shadowy but hideous demonic forms out of the corner of her eye. The noises and unexplained phenomena are beginning to get more intense and threatening. She talks to a pastor (Arnold) about her fears but he can’t really help her – and she can’t afford health care in order to see a therapist or psychiatrist.

Tim has been supportive but even he is wondering what’s going on with his bride. Is she having some kind of psychotic break, or perhaps relapsing into drug use again? Or is the truth that she is legitimately being haunted, perhaps by the ghost of her father – or something more insidious, sinister and ancient?

Sanchez, whose first movie was the legendary Blair Witch Project, has made a career out of creating atmospheric horror films in which the audience is never 100% positive about what they’re seeing. One of the things I liked most about this film – and in fact of all of Sanchez’ films – is that he casts doubt on the evidence of your senses. Is that really ghostly whispers or the minds of the protagonists playing tricks on them?

It helps having an unknown actress throwing down a powerful performance in the lead. Gretchen Lodge doesn’t have a lot of on-screen experience but she makes up for it with a nuanced performance that captures her fragile psyche as well as her dangerous and unpredictable aspect. If Molly isn’t genuinely beset by supernatural forces then she is surely psychotic and maybe even schizophrenic. That you cannot be certain which is both a tribute to the writers and to Lodge herself.

The problems here are also in the writing; there are some logical leaps of faith that are a little bit too much to ask of the audience, particularly when it comes to how other characters react to Molly. For example, if Molly were truly having so many problems in the house, why not go stay with her sister who evidently lives close enough by to make regular visits? Also, there’s a sense that some of the elements have been seen before, like the horny pastor. That little subplot doesn’t really work and could easily have been excised from the film to the movie’s benefit.

Da Queen didn’t like this movie at all when we saw it at the Florida Film Festival, but then again these are the types of movies she really doesn’t care for at all so that must be taken with a grain of salt. There are a good deal of things that work here, particularly in regards to keeping the audience guessing about Molly’s veracity. That makes this the kind of movie that is a candidate for repeated viewings as audiences will want to see it again with a different point of view in mind. This isn’t a remarkable film – it’s too cliché for that – but it is genuinely spooky and innovative in its own way. If Sanchez could have tightened up a few things here and there he’d have made a genuine classic.

REASONS TO GO: Creepiness factor through the roof. Lodge performs well in a demanding role.

REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic. A bit too vague in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic violence and sexuality, some disturbing images, nudity, drug use and let’s throw in some bad language for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gretchen Lodge’s first feature film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.The reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent House

COLONIAL LOVERS: The home in the film is an actual Colonial dwelling in Maryland not far from where The Blair Witch Project was shot.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dark Shadows