Tag Archives: Horror

Oculus

As far as horror movies go, Oculus is a decent example of what you can do with a small cast, limited set, and reduced budget. (Oculus rang in somewhere around $5 million and already has made 5-6x that much.) The uncomplicated color pallete remains effective; the minimalistic soundtrack (quietly relentless) becomes unnerving. All the acting is solid, although its Karen Gillan’s unapologetic candor as the older sister Kaylie that really sells the movie.

The storyline is simple. A rehabilitated psychiatric patient is reminded by his sister of his promise to help her destroy the evil mirror that caused their parents’ deaths and originally committed him. Act I manages to keep us teetering between which sibling is actually crazy; Act II then plays out the endgame of that decision while shifting ambiguity directly onto the characters’ perceptions of reality. (I was reminded strongly of an old X-Files’ episode, “Field Trip,” where Mulder and Scully find themselves breaking through various levels of a mutual hallucination and wondering in the end how they might ever recognize they’re actually free of the delusion.) How can you possibly emerge victorious when you can’t even be sure what is actually real?

The simple high concept is sold through the underlying tension and narrative craftsmanship. Flanagan takes the ballsy approach of flipping back and forth between the time lines — the characters both as children and as adults — and we learn as the current timeline proceeds what unfolded in the past. It’s like telling two stories simultaneously (a fast-paced variation on the narrative structure of Stephen King’s “It”). Despite a stream of edits and pacing nightmares, Flanagan never really loses the narrative thread, it all remains coherent, and I found this slipping back and forth between the time streams to be one of the more interesting as well as provocative parts of the movie, as there is a bit of the child in the adult and a bit of the adult in the child.

Childhood is a precarious time, especially in dysfunctional families, and it’s not just the physical harm that children are far more susceptible to, or the lack of power (no money, no social networks, no physical mobility to escape danger), it’s their as-yet amorphous perceptions of the world coupled with their need for their parents to calibrate reality. Since rejection and judgment by the parents is easily blamed on one’s own deficiencies as a human being, it’s so easy to lose one’s way, whether that dysfunction is organic in nature or instigated by the workings of a potentially evil supernatural force. (And since I keep tossing in references to other movies, might I mention Kubrick’s “The Shining” here?)

Here in Oculus, Daddy broods, swears off personal hygiene, and starts fiddling with the revolver in his desk; Mommy imagines him cheating, stops making meals, and finally goes rabid-dog cray-cray; it’s up to Kaylie and Timmy to figure out both their parents are nuts, that it’s not their fault (nor their parents), and then determine what reality is and how to save themselves even if Mommy and Daddy are too far gone to salvage. You kinda don’t blame either of them for being a little whack as young adults, after what they’ve been through; most adults wouldn’t hold up nearly as well. But it makes you wonder, if they had just both been a LITTLE more sane, if they could have just said, “Forget this,” walked off, let someone else deal with the mirror, and lived happily ever after? Mental health is reflected not just in how we chase what we chase but in what we realistically can choose to stop chasing.

It’s unfortunate that it feels like Flanagan wrote himself into a corner, as it’s not clear how the movie could have ended less predictably than it did. In this case, it was the journey that was the most fun, but oh what a journey it was.

3.5/5

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Evil Dead (2013)

I’m not really a sick person. I’ve raised healthy children who don’t scream horrifically when I walk into the room. I’m kind to kitties and puppies. I give to charity. I really don’t enjoy the suffering of real people, and I help those in need when possible. No one needs to report me to the authorities.

I just needed to stress this before I state how much I found myself laughing at Evil Dead (2013), which ends up being teenage butchery horror at its most overdone, even in the closing credits (which seem to consist of torrential gouts of red paint masquerading as blood, splashing, splattering, seeping, and seething about rotten wood and rusted nails). It’s one moment after another of “Really? Are they REALLY going to — oh, they just did,” intuiting what’s going to happen next while not quite being able to look away.

I will note that I also laughed at Raimi’s definitive version of the story when I first saw it a few months ago, but that was mostly due to the camp factor; not only could I imagine Raimi himself smirking throughout filming and editing, but it’s like the demons — quintessential camera whores to equal any pageant princessery — knew they were on stage and wanted to put on a good show. It’s an approach that mirrored itself in everyone’s favorite Elm Street sadist, Freddy Kruger, but got lost in the recent remake of that series, and the same thing seems to have happened here. No one wants to have fun anymore; the “evil dead” here take themselves a little too seriously to enjoy the carnage. Oh, they might giggle when they say things like, “Your little sister’s being raped in hell tonight, David,” but you can tell, this time out, that their heart’s just not really in it.

One ruling absurdity of the movie resides in its creative application of the most eclectic makeshift collection of destructive implements you can imagine. I think there should also be a No Prize awarded to one teen who manages to suffer multiple physical indignities that might have dropped a Terminator before finally succumbing to injury over insult.

One of the very few improvements over Raimi’s rendition, there’s actually a believable plot device to keep all these teenage Happy Meal souls in place: Little sister Mia is a hardened junkie with one failed intervention under her belt, and Round #2 has just begun. So when she starts freaking out about demons in the woods and how everyone is going to die unless they run like hell, of course no one is inclined to believe her, she’s snookered them all before; they’re dedicated to practicing tough love to a hallucinating junkie. (They just have no clue how “tough” their love is gonna have to get.)

There’s also an attempt to develop a bit of backstory between Mia and her big brother David. It’s not quite enough to really bump up the movie into “drama” on par with a horror movie like “The Descent,” but it does provide slight incentive to accept one of David’s decisions that at first makes little sense. And the writers do try to differentiate the outcome here a bit from its predecessor. (More than that, I dare not say.)

But some elements have dropped right back into trope — like the teen who opens a book sealed in plastic and barbed wire and bound in human skin, with horrific pictures of summoned demons and graffiti scrawled across the arcane pages (“Don’t read! Don’t speak! Don’t listen! PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AND ALL THAT IS HOLY STAY AWAY FROM THIS BOOK!”), who even has to WORK to discover the damned litany, which he then needlessly utters out loud when he could have simply read the words silently. Raimi’s version with the tape, where the teens had no idea what was happening until it was far too late, seemed more realistic.

I found myself wishing that the movie had played more into one extreme or another — more camp or more drama — since, stuck in the middle, it’s hard to be completely satisfied with either.

But that’s okay. If there is anything certain in life, after all, it’s death, taxes, and stories of teenagers possessed by demons fighting for their lives somewhere in a cabin in the woods.

2/4 stars

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V/H/S 2

I guess when it comes to movies like this, you can either opt for Rex Reed, or you can read a review by someone who actually watched the whole movie before sitting down to write about it.

I’ll be honest: If I had to choose a segment in the V/H/S offerings released up to this point, my fave still remains the first segment of the original movie, about an ill-fated romp on the town (“Amateur Night”) where a genuinely nice and somewhat geeky guy makes the acquaintance of an unexpected variation of the Lady of the Night. (In a kinder, gentler movie, that romance might have ended up on a riff similar to the later “Warm Bodies,” but V/H/S has never really pretended to be about high drama. The underlying loneliness of the two leads, though, as non-commodities in the market of love, coupled with an eerie and resonating performance by Hannah Fierman, briefly elevates the segment above genre.)

V/H/S 2 doesn’t quite have a segment that does the same here, but there are less of them (meaning more time for the stories to develop), and the overall quality of each is better, meaning this sequel comes out on top of the first release overall.

This time out, we get a story of a cyborg eye transplant with horrific side effects; a slightly fresher and more interesting perspective on the over-cooked zombie flick motif; an Asian-cult expose that turns so increasingly outrageous that you honestly won’t know what’s coming next even when you think you do; and mass alien abductions that relegate the visitors from “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” to the land of huggable plush dolls where they belong. (Honestly, I just feel bad for the dog.) Even the loose story thread that holds all four episodes together is stronger than in the first movie… although admittedly still about the equivalent of undercooked stale spaghetti.

With this kind of horror film, it seems harder to sustain a truly serious encounter vs something a little more tongue-in-cheek to match the production quality. The zombie and the cult segments especially play into the format well here, with a bit of madcap flavor that doesn’t clash with the rougher production and looser writing evident in the segments. The first sequence (the eye transplant) effectively leaves the skin crawling and might even jolt you from the sofa but then, like the family dog chasing a car bumper, doesn’t quite know what to do with you once it’s got you… opting finally to enter the time-tested descent into superfluous gore and blood; it leaves me wondering what might have been had there actually been a point to that story. The alien abduction, despite its scares, is pretty stock-and-trade “gotta collect ’em all,” though, and you’ve seen it before if you’ve watched any movies (e.g., Quarrantine) in this genre or even just regular horror thrillers like “28 Weeks Later.”

It’s good to see some compilation movies that actually work, versus being complete duds of the Creepshow 2 variety. I admit my expectations aren’t really high for movies in this genre, which means that afterwards if I don’t feel like watching it was a waste of my time, the phrase, “Wow, that actually wasn’t half-bad!” becomes gushing praise. If only there were a compelling thread holding the segments together, along with a little more work on character to get us firmly invested in the plot, movies like this could linger longer and even demand repeated viewings.

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The ABCs of Death

The ABC’s of Death is like eating a box of chocolates slipped under your front door by a stalker: A few are naturally savory or unexpectedly delightful, the bulk are just there, and then you run across the weird ones that you need to wash down afterwards with something strong… followed by a few that were doctored up so badly (re: Crunchy Frog and Anthrax Ripple) that you vomit the half-chewed glob along with the remnants of your lunch into the trash.

ABC’s definitely covers a gamut of good to bad, realistic to surreal, bloody to weird, a few animated shorts, serious to sad, amusing to superfluously over the top in terms of sheer carnage. This is a movie where the “No animal was harmed…” disclaimer should be modified to “No animal or human was harmed…” as the body count for various forms of mammalian life in general here is rather high. I would even categorize two of the entries as some kind of freaky-disturbing Asian torture p0rn, except I hesitate to embarrass the torture p0rn crowd by the comparison.

One welcome shift is that many of the clips are foreign, and English audiences will need to use the subtitle feature to follow dialogue; that’s actually a testament to diversity and kind of a welcome feature.

A few of the directors will be recognizable to general Western audiences, especially because of their involvement with some fairly recent indie-style projects as well as franchises like V/H/S. I found the Ti West clip (M) horribly disappointing and unimaginative, while the Adam Wingard sequence (rather meta, and involving an innocent-looking fowl) was one of the funnier shorts in the movie.
If I had to pick, probably the most dramatically interesting and high-quality production of the bunch was D (by Marcel Sarmiento), while the one that makes the most coherent (if bloody) social statement was X (by Xavier Gens). I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that both entries that could be labeled as animation (one conventional, one claymation) deal with the inherent dangers of scatalogical functioning.

ABC’s embodies both the benefits and flaws of acquiring 26 unspecified clips from a variety of filmmakers, stuck in a pre-specified order. While you will see quite a variety of clips of endurable length, the only editorial control lies in the original choice of the directors and what letter they are assigned. There is no way to create an encompassing dramatic arc, control pacing, or prevent repetition in theme or setting. With a two-hour run-time, if you can stomach the prerequisite gore, this is one of those movies that is more watchable in bite-sized pieces (if you dare pop one in your mouth); doing so won’t mess up the flow, and watching the film in a few sittings, when you’re in the mood, might even make it more enjoyable.

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Mama

All the things we’ve heard about “a mother’s love” take on a decided chill in light of “Mama,” where supernatural arms of love don’t hesitate to smother and strangle wannabe protectors who horn in on her territory.

The movie begins with an unexpected death and two little girls taken by their father, and what almost happens next in a lost forest hideaway is unmentionable. Fortunately for the girls, someone (AKA something) is watching over them. And this is where their problems both end… and begin.

The father’s brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays the father) never stops searching for the children and eventually they are found.

His relief is not matched by his goth slash punk slash whatever-she-is (we just know it involves a lot of black t-shirts/eyeliner) girlfriend Annabel, however, who is put off by the changes in location and lifestyle she must accommodate in order to raise these two little girls who mean so much to the man she loves. The rest of the movie is spent tracking her development from “other” to “mother,” and how that pits her against another maternal soul who has already laid claim to the children.

There are some things about “Mama” that unarguably annoying. For example, it’s packed full of “Dumb Things That Happen in Horror Movies Where You Wish You Could Strangle the Characters Yourselves Before the Monster Gets Them,” and I wish sometimes I could just lock up these characters for their own good, so that they wouldn’t go and do anything stupider. A significant portion of the action also takes place in yet another isolated “cabin in the woods.” And the characters often seem pushed about in order to make the plot work.

But there are also some good things. Jessica Chastain might not be entirely believable as a rocker girl despite the clothes and makeup, but she does believably track the progression from indifferent girlfriend to mother figure to these two girls she didn’t exactly welcome with open arms.

(As with at least one other critic I’ve read, I was reminded of the Ripley/Newt relationship from “Aliens,” which elevates what is a basic genre picture to something a little more substantial around the theme of motherhood between survivors. The more Annabel cares about the girls, the more I found I cared about the movie, even if at times the scenes and plot seem cobbled together.)

There are a number of horror tropes that occur in the movie, but “Mama” — knowing them by heart — doesn’t pretend to be original, it simply capitalizes on the expectations to generate scares and sometimes wildly succeeds. For example, in one scene, we suspect that Lilly is playing with Mama in the bedroom, but Muschietti makes us WAIT for it… agonizingly forcing us to track Annabel around the house until we can see (by visual elimination) that there is nothing human left in the house to be playing with Lilly. Mama is kept tantalizingly out of view (or at least masked by shadow) for the longest time. There’s also a scene with boxes that plays with expectation.

Visually, Mama herself is unsettling — a mix of computer imagery and an actor with an ailment called Marfan’s Syndrome, which results in distortions and elongations of the human body. Both Mama’s appearance and her methods of locomotion are effectively eerie.

But the movie’s heart really revolves around the little girls Victoria and Lilly. Feral kids absorb the traits and behavior of whatever beasts raised them, and when the girls are first found in the woods, they don’t move like people. Watching them scuttle about and play, I honestly felt like I was watching something more animal than human. Victoria, the older bespectacled girl who was better socialized before heading “into the wild,” eventually finds her way back to some semblance of humanity, recalling many things that she had merely forgotten; but poor Lilly, never being raised by people in the first place, seems hopelessly trapped between worlds. Victoria’s growing attachment to Annabel (versus Lilly’s fervid distrust of her) only drives a wider rift between the girls, and it’s clear that things will get ugly before they get better… if things getting better with Mama is even a possibility.

Eventually Annabel resolves the mystery surrounding Mama, and there’ s a final climactic confrontation of “mommo y mommo.” The ending seems like an attempt to split the difference between the sort of resolutions we’re used to; in that sense, “Mama” is more original in its conclusion than in other aspects, but is it a fulfilling resolution? Even as a producer, Del Toro’s trademark of melding beauty with horror might or might not work here. I found myself strangely indifferent, while simultaneously haunted by the ways we form attachments to people and things just out of familiarity, and how difficult it can then be to break those ties even when it might be in our best interests.

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V/H/S

I saw V/H/S the weekend it came out in limited release, via my PS3 sitting in the solitude of my living room. The $6 fee was expensive for a rental (when RedBox is involved, at least); but then again it beats movie prices, and I’m glad I did not pay good money to see this.

I don’t want to say it was all terrible… just underwhelming. The best parts of the movie are front-loaded, and the longer the film ran, the more redundant the clips became. The premise of the movie is yet another “found footage” pic, this time in a house broken into by a bunch of amateur thieves who end up finding that the joke is on them. This overarcing story is really just the framework in which all the other stories are placed and directed in such a way as to be irrelevant.

Why do people continue to present bad stories in the context of found footage? Because it’s cheap, I suppose. You don’t have to improve picture quality, you can adlib many of the lines, you don’t have to frame cleanly, you can get trashed the night before on cheap people and then just grab the camcorder and pass it off as dramatic liberty. It’s a poor man’s drama, and expectations are low. [For a horror flick with relevant sensible use of found footage, see “Sinister.”]

Ti West (a supposed up and comer, director of “he House of the Devil”and The Innkeepers) contributed one of the segments, about a honeymooning couple that discovers someone is breaking into their hotel room. The piece is marginally interesting and not nearly as good as the first movie of his I’ve mentioned, although it does have one shock moment. One segment is a hack-and-slash in the woods with liberal dosings of blood and entrails, another potentially involves creepy things that go bump in the night in your apartment while you’re Skyping your bf, and the last is about a Halloween block party that goes dreadfully wrong. (“Damn those satanic cults; damn them to hell,” as I can imagine Alan Arkin casually offering.)

I saved the best segment for last, as it’s worth the mention, although the movie tosses it up front: A group of guys out on the prowl for easy hookups (one with a convenient vid feed tucked away in his questionably trendy glasses) discovers that one-night stands are bad for your health. Keep an eye on the background imagery in the first five minutes of club scenes if you want to become increasingly creeped out. The actress who slowly becomes to dominate the segment is easily the highlight of the entire movie and evokes complexity of character in what might have been a generic throw-away role. I still wouldn’t have paid full admission to see V/H/S in a theater, but even the thankless moments of this movie were worth watching, if just to see this performance. I hope she gets picked up for something else.

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The Evil Dead (1981)

With the new “The Evil Dead” hitting theaters, it was an excuse for me to finally dig up the old one. Yes, I’m an Evil Dead virgin — never saw the first two, and then only the  portions of “Army of Darkness” that I’d catch surfing cable channels on a Saturday afternoon.

(And always the same portions! How on earth do they time them, so that I only see the same 15-minute segments over and over?)

I’ve survived various excursions into this genre — Cabin Fever, Chuckie movies, bits of Poltergeists, House, and most recently the meta Cabin in the Woods — but never this granddaddy of them all, aside from the small clip shown in Donnie Darko (a movie I found more chilling, honestly… but then again I’ve always had a thing for creepy bunnies with overactive pituitary glands and teeth only an orthodontist could love).

Let’s face it, Evil Dead (like furries in chains) is the sort of movie where you really have to be into it. I can’t say I’m into it; at the same time, I can definitely see why some people might be.

Yes, the acting is bad; the writing is average; the effects are really cheesy; there’s enough violence to drown your grandma in. Yet Raimi never apologies for any of it. In fact, he seems to create an even bigger spectacle of it in the same way that a sixth-grade boy might cackle hysterically after releasing a refried bean fart into a crowded room. Tittering abounds; that kind of glee can be infectious.

Everything, really, is so over the top: Demons with their guterral giggles and melting faces and proclamations of violence, the axes and shovels and chainsaws and blades of various shapes and sizes hacking away limbs and other unrecognizable pieces of flesh, the voluminous gouts of blood, the crazy Latin chants (uh dude, are you SURE you want to be saying that out loud?!), the ruinous disintegration of demonic badies when the book bound in human skin starts to… wait, did you actually hear me say the book is bound in human skin and set with teeth? Well, of course you did. It’s a Sam Raimi movie.

There are some real “wow” moments, not just related to the poor girl stupidly wandering the woods, screaming, “I know you’re out there! Where are you?!!” to the demons right before her wish is granted and she gets her groove groved; and you just have to be impressed by the audacity of it all, even if the production quality is dubious at best. In no other movie does a guy spare the corpse of his girlfriend a few slashes with a spluttering chainsaw and live to regret it.

And then of course, even if a movie should be judged solely on merit, if you’re aware that Raimi and Campbell et al almost went bankrupt on the picture, cutting costs wherever possible and taking out unimaginable loans to see it through to the end? Well, I have to admire regardless someone so committed to their vision. Some of these guys burn up other people’s money with nothing to show for it, because they have no financial investment; but it’s another to be giving everything you own to bring your own dream to fruition, and here I think it paid off for him. Raimi went on to direct some real blockbusters, including the first Spiderman franchise as well as the most recent Oz movie, showing that he’s more than a one-note wonder.

Note: My favorite movie by Raimi is the possibly underrated “Drag Me to Hell” (2009), where he had some budget to play with and polished up his trademark blend of camp and horror first introduced in “The Evil Dead.” The movie manages to be sadistically funny while completely terrifying, with barely a misstep and sticking the landing; never has losing a button been so disastrous. 

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