Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones


Smile...you're on catastrophe camera!

Smile…you’re on catastrophe camera!

(2014) Found Footage Horror (Paramount) Andrew Jacobs, Jorge Diaz, Gabrielle Walsh, Renee Victor, Noemi Gonzalez, David Saucedo, Gloria Sandoval, Richard Cabral, Carlos Pratt, Juan Vasquez, Alonso Alvarez, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Wallis Barton, Lucy Chambers, Jessica Tyler Brown, Diana Danger, Gigi Feshold, Molly Ephraim, Maralyn Facey. Directed by Christopher Landon

If you believed the movies, supernatural terror only takes place in creaky old Victorians or lily-white suburbs. I don’t think it has occurred to Hollywood to put many of their horror movies in urban settings which is senseless; urban audiences make up some of the largest segments of the horror film audience.

However, the honchos of the Paranormal Activity franchise aren’t fools. They’ve set this film within the continuity of their franchise but with a completely different setting and cast. Here, we are brought to Oxnard, a racially diverse town 35 miles west of Los Angeles in Ventura County. While there are some lily-white suburban sorts in Oxnard, there is also a pretty sizable Latino population (about 73.5% of the overall population).

In a working class apartment complex lives Jesse (Jacobs) who has just graduated high school along with his best friend Hector (Diaz). He lives there with his grandma (Victor) who speaks little English and apparently his dad (Saucedo who appears very little in the film). He gets a compact video camera for his birthday and of course boys being boys has to record everything including the stupid stuff boys in their late teens do.

However, as all neighborhoods do, there is someone creepy in this case Anna (Sandoval) whom it is whispered is a bruja, a witch. Strange noises are often heard coming from her apartment whose windows have been taped over with newspaper so there’s no seeing inside. However when the boys rig up a spy cam to look down into the apartment, they are shocked – and delighted – to see a gorgeous naked woman…until a naked Anna comes in and starts painting strange symbols on her belly. The creepy neighbors where I lived never had gorgeous naked women in their house – at least as far as I know.

Anyway shortly after that Anna turns up dead and the class valedictorian, Oscar (Pratt) is the unlikely suspect. You would think it would be his gang-banging brother Arturo (Cabral) but no. And not long after that, Jesse finds a strange bite mark on his wrist. Strange how the word “strange” keeps popping up in the text.

Things start going sideways after that. Jesse develops super strength and a hair-trigger temper, not a good combination. People in the neighborhood start turning up missing…or dead. Jesse begins acting more distant, almost like he doesn’t recognize the people he’s closest too. Hector is very concerned as is the pretty and sweet Marisol (Walsh), Jesse’s cousin. They begin looking into what went on in that downstairs apartment and before too long Jesse’s camera begins to capture some pretty strange things. There, I’ve done it again.

The fifth movie in the franchise is a bit of a departure from the other four. It is set apart from the main films in the franchise although some of the characters from previous films – Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Molly Ephraim – all put in cameos. Think of it as an off-shoot (there is a Paranormal Activity 5 planned for this October) that follows a different path but has the same basics (it is still a found footage movie) and actually helps build up the mythology around the franchise nicely, which leaves future directors some latitude to play in.

You don’t go to see a movie like this for the acting, but there is some good chemistry among the leads, particularly between Jacobs and Diaz who banter as naturally as two guys who have grown up together and know all of the skeletons in each other’s closets. Walsh also is game although I have to admit that Cabral actually shows some promise. Hopefully he won’t be limited to tattooed gang banger roles.

However, you do go to a movie like this to get some scares and while there are a few they’re mostly of the misdirection variety (“oh look, it’s just a cat”) and while there isn’t a ton of gore here there are some relatively disturbing images. This is far from a game-changer for the horror genre sports fans. There is an acceptable number of scares but just barely.

There were some things I liked about this entry into the franchise but there were some I didn’t. It’s one of those movies that will not make new fans of the franchise nor should it send too many off the reservation either. Mainly, it’s kind of a continuation of things, a placeholder until the next big event PA film comes out which hopefully is the one in the pipeline for Halloween. The franchise could sure use one.

REASONS TO GO: Cool idea. Rounds out the franchise mythology considerably. Good chemistry between the leads.

REASONS TO STAY: Not very scary and generally not well-acted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a crapload of foul language, some graphic nudity, some mighty disturbing images, some drug use and a fair amount of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jacobs actually has several tattoos in real life in among other places his arms, hands and neck. While these were covered up for the film, while he is kneeling at the vending machine one of his tats can be seen just above the right knee.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Possession

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Vertical Limit

The Apparition


When the going gets tough, the tough go camping.

When the going gets tough, the tough go camping.

(2012) Supernatural Horror (Warner Brothers) Ashley Greene, Sebastian Stan, Tom Felton, Julianna Guill, Luke Pasqualino, Suzanne Ford, Rick Gomez, Anna Clark, Tim Williams, Marty Martulis, John Grady, Meena Serendib, Melissa Goldberg. Directed by Todd Lincoln

6 Days of Darkness 2013

There are a lot of things that are at the moment unexplained. Ghosts, for example; while there is yet no definitive proof of their existence there’s enough anecdotal evidence that the possibility remains that there is something there. Some scientists in an effort to make a pre-emptive strike in case that definitive evidence comes to light are positing that ghosts (and other paranormal phenomena) are the results of disturbances in electromagnetic fields.

Science by its nature strives to understand the hitherto unknown and the supernatural would certainly fall into that category although science also has a tendency to pooh-pooh the existence of such things with a kind of snarky arrogance that comes from thinking that science has any sort of grasp on how the universe actually works. For the record, if everything that was knowable could be condensed to all the hot dogs ever consumed, human knowledge would constitute less than a bite of a single hot dog. Then, of course, is the maxim about not messing with things we don’t understand.

A group of student scientists do exactly that as they attempt to use scientific means to replicate an experiment that attempted some thirty years earlier to communicate with a recently deceased student. What happens is well nigh impossible – something powerful manifests itself and one of the researchers (Guill) is sucked through a vortex in a solid wall. Sucks to be her.

Cut to modern day suburbia. Kelly (Greene) and Ben (Stan) live in a new home in a nice development that her parents are renting to them (they had bought it as an investment). They’re the first occupants and it’s so new that most of the other homes in the subdivision are as yet vacant, although that may have as much to do with the economy as it does to the recentness of the construction.

But weird things begin to happen. Things move seemingly on their own. Lights turn on and off. Strange noises can be heard in the night. Weird mold appears on the walls. Soon those things begin to get more and more disturbing as Kelly’s clothes are shredded and a neighborhood dog ambles into their home and drops down dead.

Not a little freaked out, Ben and Kelly leave and move into a hotel room but the attacks continue. Finally they are contacted by Patrick (Felton), one of the researchers among the student scientists who explained that a malevolent entity had used their experiment as a kind of portal into this world. But why are they targeting Kelly and Ben? I’ll bet you can guess.

Horror movies tend to borrow from several different sources and quite frankly, I don’t have a problem with that as long as it’s done well. Here, you’ll see bits of Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity and Incubus in the mix and unfortunately, not done particularly well. For one thing the first twenty minutes of the movie is made up of trips to Costco and chores around the house, all set to dialogue that no real human being would utter. A test a screenwriter can always use to determine if their dialogue is authentic is to actually say it out loud; I doubt the writers of this movie used that method.

Another issue is Greene. She’s actually not a bad actress, one of the better ones to come out of the Twilight series but here she has absolutely no charisma or life. She’s portrayed to be a pretty self-confident woman but then she’s objectified by being dressed in the skimpiest of outfits, and at the end of the day her self-confidence seems to descend into bitchiness. Her character is as thoroughly unlikable a scream queen as I’ve ever seen and I wound up feeling kind of bad for her. Hopefully next time she’ll choose her project more wisely.

Stan, who has garnered some attention in Gossip Girl as well as Captain America: The First Avenger is actually pretty strong as a leading man. Even though he doesn’t generate much chemistry with Greene, nonetheless he does capture your attention when he’s onscreen. He has some decent potential which hopefully will get realized further down the line.

There are a few decent scares and the presence of Draco Malfoy…er, Felton…in a good-guy mad scientist supporting role is a plus as well. Still, suburban ranch homes are a little harder to generate scares from than the spooky Victorian down the block. It is established near the end of the film that in order for the entity to do any harm to you, you have to believe in it first. I suppose I’m safe from this guy because I didn’t believe it for a second.

WHY RENT THIS: Some decent scares. Stan is promising as a leading man.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ghastly performance by Greene. Takes way too long to get started. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some disturbing and horrible images as well as a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Warner Brothers was required to release this film to finish out their contract with Dark Castle, the production company that made it. They delayed the movie for over two years, spoiled the ending in the trailer and booked the fewest number of screens for a wide release in the studio’s history.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are several featurettes having to do with Joshua Warren, the film’s consultant on the supernatural, including a tour of haunted Asheville, North Carolina (apropos of nothing  since the movie was filmed in the desert community of Palmdale just outside of Los Angeles) and a re-creation of the experiment depicted in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.6M on a $17M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grudge

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: Day 5 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!!

11-11-11


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Timothy Gibbs is as bewildered as you are.

Timothy Gibbs is as bewildered as you are.

2011) Horror (Rocket) Timothy Gibbs, Michael Landes, Wendy Glenn, Benjamin Cook, Lolo Herrero, Salome Jimenez, Brendan Price, Denis Rafter, Angela Rosal, Lluis Soler, Jose Bertolero, Oscar Velsecchi, Jose Antonio Marin, Luis Alba, Jesus Cuenca, Titus Ferrer, Alejandro Gil, Jason Abell, Emilie Autumn, Patrizia Medrano. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

They say that the secret to the universe is written in numbers. I call it mathematic mysticism – a belief that the universe is controlled in a supernatural way by math and numbers. While I can get behind science and mathematics as the language of creation, it’s a bit of a leap of faith to think that numbers control our destiny.

Joseph Crone (Gibbs) would probably like a word with whomever or whatever is controlling his destiny. A bestselling author of thrillers, he is bitter and alone after his wife and son died in a fire while he was away. Since then he has had frequent nightmares about their deaths and has been unable to write a single word despite pressure from his agent to follow up on his last book which sold more than 5 million copies.

He is also attending grief therapy class along with comely widow Sadie (Glenn). There is a bit of a connection between them and he begins to open up, telling her he’s been seeing the number 11 a lot lately, particularly in groups of two i.e. nightmares taking place precisely at 11:11pm, a car crash taking place at 11:11am, that sort of thing. Then, he gets word from his estranged brother Samuel (Landes) that their father (Rafter) is dying.

Joseph flies back to Barcelona to be with his family. Samuel is confined to a wheelchair after an auto accident and he and dad are cared for by Ana (Rosal), the housekeeper who’s been keeping a diary and who makes creepy pronouncements. Samuel has become pastor of his father’s church during his illness and despite Samuel’s best efforts attendance is dwindling. Joseph has long since lost his faith, figuring any God who could let his family die in a fire was someone he largely had no interest in getting to know.

Demonic apparitions begin to show at 11:11pm and increasingly inexplicable and largely scary events begin to lead Joseph to the conclusion that yes, there are more things under the sun than can be explained by men and as he does further research begins to come under the sneaky suspicion that something bad is going to happen to Samuel on November 11, 2011. But can someone who has no faith stop something that requires faith to believe in it?

Bousman, who has directed several films in the Saw series, goes the demonic route here and surprisingly for him keeps the blood and gore to a bare minimum. Bousman does an adequate job of creating an environment that is spooky to the max but then populates it with few genuine scares. Mostly one just gets a creepy feeling, like watching a snake swallow a rat. Now if the rat were to suddenly leap out of the snake’s flesh with bared fangs and red glowing eyes…

But I digress. Part of the problem is that Gibbs is playing Joseph as emotionally cut off and almost zombie-like. Now, grief can cause one to shut off one’s feelings and I get that – however, for the purposes of a movie, the hero needs to at least show something other than numbness. He also needs to vary the tones of his dialogue so that he doesn’t sound like a robot. Gibbs is a handsome fellow, sort of a cross between Dermot Mulroney and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but handsome alone can’t carry a film.

Bousman is actually a very entertaining speaker and does some of the best commentaries in the DVD business and he spends a good deal of time lamenting about budget constraints that take the initial climactic battle from 1,111 demons to five guys in rubber masks. You get what you pay for in that sense.

I think Bousman was successful enough at creating a scary atmosphere that the film succeeds overall if just barely. However, this isn’t the kind of movie that will scare you out of your seat. It might just give you the willies so chicken-hearted horror film fans, take note.

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric and creepy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks real scares. Acting is less than convincing. Been-there-done-that demons.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s a horror film so, like, some horrible things happen. There’s also a bit of violence, some disturbing images and a few thematic concerns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bousman states on the commentary track that he believes the house they filmed in Barcelona in was actually haunted and goes on to recount some unexplainable activity that occurred while shooting took place.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.2M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Number 23

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Day 4 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!!

Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake

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

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

House on Haunted Hill (1999)


House on Haunted Hill

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Tempest

Mother of Tears (La terza madre)


Mother of Tears

Not a position you want to find yourself in when making a movie for Dario Argento.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Mitropoulos) Asia Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Udo Kier, Moran Atias, Adam James, Cristian Solimeno, Valeria Cavalli, Philippe Leroy, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Robert Madison, Jun Ichikawa, Tomasso Banfi., Paolo Stella Directed by Dario Argento

 

Dario Argento is as highly regarded in the horror community as Judd Apatow is in the comedy community; only he doesn’t have the worldwide hits that Apatow does. Still, his works – including Suspiria, Inferno and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage are some of the most influential horror films ever made. The first two are also the first two segments of a fairly informal trilogy known as the Three Mothers trilogy, concerning powerful witches. This new one comes nearly 20 years after the last.

Sarah Mandy (Argento) is an American art expert working in an Italian museum when an ancient Etruscan vase is unearthed in an Italian cemetery. The urn is unremarkable but it has a tunic in it and attached is a tablet warning of an ancient evil – a warning which in movies like this always go unheeded. An innocent art historian meets a particularly gruesome death because of it.

That’s not the last particularly gruesome death that is to come. Soon, it becomes clear that a thousand year old witch – Mater Lachrimarum – has risen to fill the tunic with a lithe, sexy body that doesn’t look a day over 25. She begins to accrue acolytes, sexy witches who look like they stepped out of a circa 1984 Whitesnake video and all sorts of mayhem begins to occur. Women toss their babies off of bridges, men commit suicide, women are raped and murdered. All in a day’s work.

Sarah discovers that her mom (Nicolodi) was a witch of uncommon power and that she has inherited her mother’s gifts. She manages to resurrect the spirit of her mom who guides her into battle, along with a disbelieving Italian detective (Solimeno) and a world-weary priest (Kier) who must stop the witch before Rome falls a second time – and with it the Western World.

This is more closely related to Suspiria and Inferno than Inferno was to Suspiria - in all likelihood Inferno wasn’t originally intended as a direct sequel to Suspiria, it just played in the same sandbox. Here, there is a definite connection to both films and in some ways that makes it more enjoyable.

Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, has become quite a leading lady in her own right, having done such movies as xXx and  Marie Antoinette. She is solid here in a role that isn’t perhaps as well-defined as some of her better performances but she gives a good try, turning Sarah into a rip-snorting ass-kicking horror heroine, not so much a scream queen (although she does some of that) as she is a kick you in the spleen queen.

The murders and mayhem are pretty much over-the-top although not as lovingly dwelled on as the traps in the Saw movies or the torture in the Hostel movies. The gore here is graphic and gruesome but you don’t get the sense that there is an almost pornographic lust for it – the gore serves its purpose only and nothing else.

The plot is pretty scattershot and there are times when the ludicrous alarms are well-sounded, such as when a Japanese follows Sarah and must be stopped by the doors of a train – not once but several times. Nothing exceeds like excess.

Still, Argento is masterful at framing shots, setting a mood and using color and texture in his films to help create an atmosphere that is second to none and all of that is in use here, even though today’s digital filmmaking is a bit more clinical looking than the film stocks and sets of yesteryear, Argento still manages to create the right mood of eeriness and suspense.

This isn’t his best work by any stretch of the imagination but this isn’t his worst either. It’s a welcome return to a series that has needed some closure – and needed some connective tissue as well. Mother of Tears provides both.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Argento man – one of the best horror filmmakers of all time. Even his weaker attempts are better than most of  his peer’s best efforts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This isn’t one of Argento’s best. The plot stretches logic from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic, gruesome violence, plenty of bad words and a lot of sexuality and nudity. Perfect grindhouse/drive-in fun..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daria Nicolodi is Asia Argento’s mother in real life as well.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the legendary giallo director hints at a prequel to the Three Mothers trilogy somewhere down the line.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Act of Valor

The Woman in Black


The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe discovers that black is the new acccccck!!!!!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Liz White, Janet McTeer, Alisa Khazanova, Tim McMullan, Roger Allam, David Burke, Shaun Dooley, Mary Stockley, Cathy Sara, David Burke, Victor McGuire, Jessica Raine, Sophie Stuckey. Directed by James Watkins

 

Rage and insanity don’t mix well. Give someone already unbalanced a reason to hate and the consequences can be dire indeed.

Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a man who doesn’t smile very much. His wife (Stuckey) died in childbirth four years earlier and he’d been in a funk ever since. Mr. Bentley (Allam), Arthur’s boss at the law firm that he works at, makes no bones about it; he needs to turn things around immediately and this next assignment will be his last if he doesn’t get it right.

This assignment is to go to a far-off village on England’s coastal marshland to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client. It will mean leaving his four-year-old son with the nanny (Raine) but he must do what he must do – there are already overdue bills he must attend to.

When he reaches the town he is met there with suspicious and downright hostile town folk with the exception of Sam Daily (Hinds) who is the richest man in town and offers Arthur a ride to the town’s only inn. As it is pouring down cats and dogs Arthur is only too happy to accept.

At the end the innkeeper (Dooley) denies he has a reservation and is eager to throw him out into the pouring rain but his wife (Stockley) is kinder, putting him up in the attic…the same attic from where her three children leaped to their deaths not long ago.

Few will take him to Eel Marsh House, the home where his client lived and died….and where a mountain of papers await him. And there are good reasons for it as well. For one, it sits on an island that can only be reached via causeway, a causeway that floods when the tide is in. Second, the house is overgrown, musty and spooky – the nearly perfect haunted house.

And like most perfect haunted houses, it comes with a ghost, a mysterious woman in black. She’s not Casper the Friendly Ghost though; when people see her, children in the village die. This explains their hostility towards him.

But why is she killing innocents? Why would she possibly want the children to die? Arthur has a personal stake in finding the answers; his own son is coming to town in just a few days for a visit and could be the next victim of the Woman in Black.

Watkins creates a really strange vibe here, kind of a cross between Jane Eyre and The Haunting. There’s a gothic element that comes out rather nicely. This is based on a novel by Sue Mills and was made into a British telefilm in 1989.

Radcliffe is making his first post-Potter appearance here and it is a very different role for him. The general complaint is that at 22, he seems a little old to be playing a widower and the father of a 4-year-old, but in the era that is depicted here they married younger. He does very well as a man who has been devastated and not quite recovered. As you might imagine a man in his situation would, Arthur is emotionally tight-lipped and Radcliffe captures that nicely.

Hinds is one of the more underrated character actors out there and he’s in top form here. McTeer, who plays his wife, is an outstanding actress who is up for an Oscar for Albert Nobbs and she has a juicy role as a woman who has been driven around the bend by the death of her child.

The atmosphere here is genuinely spooky which is all-important for a haunted house ghost story. The scares when they come are legitimately nightmare-inducing and may not be for the more sensitive Potter fans in the household who will surely be going out to see this in droves the first weekend.

Some of the story bogged down in places and to be honest, there is no new ground broken here. There are the old hoary horror clichés of the paranoid townspeople and the family graveyard where the spectres hang out but they don’t detract from what is a classic story told in an effective manner. I liked the ending which was a bit different – think Gladiator. I myself am fond of the haunted house movie and can’t get enough of them when they’re good, and The Woman in Black is most assuredly a good one. Well worth your time if you, like me, love a good scare

REASONS TO GO: Very atmospheric. Radcliffe acquits himself well. Some genuinely awesome scares. The ending works well.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled in places story-wise A few horror clichés worked their way in.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a little bit of violence and a few pretty good shock scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian Rawlins, who played Harry Potter’s dad James Potter in the movie series, played the same role Daniel Radcliffe is playing here in the 1989 version of the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others

RURAL ENGLAND LOVERS: Some beautiful shots of the misty English countryside and the bucolic villages therein.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ondine

The Innkeepers


The Innkeepers

Too much Visene can be a bad thing.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (Magnet) Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, George Riddle, Lena Dunham, Brenda Cooney, John Speredakos, Sean Reid, Kurt Venghaus, Thomas Maloney, Michael Martin, Michael P. Castelli. Directed by Ti West

 

All good things come to an end and so it was with the Yankee Pedlar Hotel. A more than 100-year-ld inn in bucolic New England,  it is down to once last weekend. Two staff members are left to oversee the grand dame who has  a reputation of being haunted. Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Healy) are there to take care of the few guests that are left.

The third floor has already been stripped, closed to guests as the work to gut the hotel to make room for a parking lot is preparing to get under way. Luke mostly watches Internet porn, when he isn’t working on a ghost website, regaling the impressionable Claire with stories about the hotel’s checkered past and his own supernatural encounters and ignoring the guests’ demands for towels.

Claire befriends one of the guests, a former television actress turned psychic healer Leanne Rease-Jones (McGillis) who at first seems somewhat, for lack of a better term, bitchy. However as she begins to find the supremely naive but extremely likable Claire to be harmless, Leanne decides to delve into the Yankee Pedlar, only to find something very sinister that has Claire firmly in its sights – involving a bride who committed suicide years before and a cover-up by the innkeepers of the day that would only serve to make the bride’s ghost very, very angry – and you sure don’t want to be in the sights of an angry bride now do you?

West has developed a good reputation in the independent horror community with films like House of the Devil and The Roost to his credit. He has a reputation of movies that develop slowly, chock full of quirky but realistic (read: non-cookie cutter) characters who are brought out of their comfort zone and face to face with something terrible.

He follows much the same formula here too. There is the first half of the movie which belongs mostly to Paxton and Healy, who work very well together. Although theirs is a non-romantic relationship (no sex in this movie guys – move along if that’s what you’re looking for) there is chemistry nonetheless between them. They banter like co-workers who have a bit of a forced friendship due to the circumstances i.e. pending unemployment. There is a certain gallows camaraderie between them.

McGillis also figures into the first half significantly. The star of such films as The Witness and The Accused has been long absent from multiplex screens and it is a welcome return indeed. Even though she gets what I affectionately call “the Zelda Rubinstein part” (so-named for the diminutive actress who played the psychic in Poltergeist) she carries it off with grace and professionalism.

West is good at delivering the goods in the scare department and he does so here. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are a real wild ride, with some legitimate spooky scares. It’s just the getting there that may put some people off. Those who love a shock-o-rama from start to finish are going to get antsy sitting through the first portion of this movie.

I had a different reaction. I liked the first part of the movie, a lot. Horror movies that take the time to develop characters who are not clichés are increasingly rare these days as mostly the actors exist to be launched into a meat grinder. Taking the time to develop characters we can actually care about is almost unheard of, so many kudos to West for that.

The writers also take the time to develop a nice mythology which is crucial in any kind of supernatural horror. The background of the tale is at least as important as the scares and the writers pay close attention to that.

The trouble here is that the first part and the last part of the movie are so night and day. Some may find it jolting to go from a kind of almost sitcom-y feel into a balls-to-the-wall frightfest.  I actually thought the two parts reconciled well but admit it was a little bumpy in places. There really isn’t much of a transition.

This is a strong independent horror movie, something that I’m happy to say we’re starting to see more of and that’s a trend I strongly hope is going to continue. There is some inventiveness to it but not a lot and that’s okay – it just takes a little. In other words, this isn’t a game changer for the genre but it is a strong example of how good a well done ghost story can be.

REASONS TO GO: Paxton and Healy work well together. Well-written with a nice mythology behind it.

REASONS TO STAY: Real scares come late and when the horror aspect gets going is almost schizophrenic, at odds with the lighter tone earlier in the film.  

FAMILY VALUES: There are some terrifying images and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paxton is distantly related to actor Bill Paxton; she mulled over a career in music (she has sung on several soundtracks to her movies) although that appears to be on hold at the moment.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghostbusters

NEW ENGLAND INN LOVERS: The filmmakers shot this primarily at the actual Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, CT. which is supposedly haunted. The lobby is gorgeous filled with antique furniture. I wouldn’t mind staying a night or two here – if Madeline permits.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Holy Rollers