Posts Tagged ‘Horror’

MOVIE: Killer Party (1986)

March 23, 2012

Phoebe, Vivia, and Jennifer are best friends who have just started college together.  When the other two decide to pledge a sorority, Jennifer reluctantly agrees to go along with them, despite the fact she’s A) not into it; and B) seriously spooked by the abandoned frat house next door to the sorority’s digs.

Jennifer’s willies about the house only increase when it turns out their Hell Night, the night of their initiation into the Greek system, is going to take place in said abandoned spookhouse, a house they’ve recently learned was condemned years ago after a fraternity pledge named Allen was killed by a hazing ritual accident involving a guillotine (note to pledges:  just say no to drugs and operational French execution devices).

Jennifer gets a little dose of satisfaction when, right in the middle of their own hazing (which involves things like having egg yolks dropped into their mouths to see who can catch the most — sorry, fellas, no naked boobs or spankings), the girls begin to hear scary noises and the door locks and spooky smoke starts to pour into the room and PANIC PANIC PANIC!  Though they’d been ribbing her for weeks about her paranoia, it turns out Jen was right!  And now they’re all gonna die!  Darn it, we should’ve listened to you, Jen!  Especially when you started twitching and talking smack in that super weird demon voice of yours!  Och, will we never learn?!

Luckily, PSYCH!, it’s just a prank — put together by Vivia, no less.  She would’ve been booted from the sorority right then and there, too, if it weren’t for the fact the house is planning an April Fool’s party this year and they want Viv to repeat the prank for the frat boys they invite (payback for a prank the boys had committed against them earlier that involved unleashing a bunch of bees on them while they were hanging out naked in a hot tub together — there’s your boob scene, lads).

Naturally, the April Fool’s party is also being held at the abandoned house.  And also naturally, people have started disappearing — they go into the house and they never come back out.  That has a few unnerved, but when the gang gets through all the party prep alive, the plan continues forward.  The night of the bash, though, Vivia’s prank goes all wrong when the guys beat her to the punch line, and meanwhile, more and more bodies start to pile up, this time not disappearing, but confronting the young’uns right before they themselves get sliced and diced.

After a handful of kids get killed off, suddenly, what started out as a standard 80s slasher film does a 90 degree turn in the whacko direction, morphing from slasher flick into a bizarre Evil Dead meets The Exorcist thingamagger that made me laugh out loud.

Not, I’m sorry to report, on purpose.  (Oh, that’s a lie — I’m not a bit sorry to report that.)

Thing is, despite the movie’s ridiculous ending — not to mention its ridiculous beginning and middle — I was actually kind of impressed by this film.  For one thing, there’s a surprising amount of character development; the filmmakers really took the time to establish unique personalities for each of the three main characters, and even though those personalities weren’t terribly original (the nerd, the princess, the (relatively speaking) sage), that’s definitely a lost art in horror movies these days.

The murders don’t even start up right away; instead, the first-third of the flick focuses on the girls getting settled into college life, making friends, getting boyfriends and losing them, etc.  By the end, then, we have a real sense of who everyone is and who we’re rooting for (note: anyone but Jennifer).  This is an important step that a lot of horror movies just skip nowadays, making it all but impossible for the audience to give a rip about who lives and who dies.

Likewise, the ending, which at first made me groan (what the WHAT?!) had a nice little secondary twist I thought was pretty sharp.  I mean, sure, it’s nothing you won’t see coming, and it’s kind of a rip-off of Halloween Whatever Number That Was.  But for 1986, it’s not too shabby.  The murder scenes are almost completely blood-free too, which is unusual and sort of refreshing for a film of that era (80s gore scenes invariably look pretty lame anyway), though, of course they do still feature the trademark heavy breathing whenever shot from the perspective of the killer.  I mean, as you know, all slashers are gaspy mouth-breathers, mask or no mask.  And, as you also know, some traditions gotta be respected.

The film’s opening scene, a clear homage to Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, complete with a movie within a music video (within a movie), was also pretty clever, and did a good job introducing the movie’s initial “college comedy” feel.

Overall, though Killer Party is VERY 80s (oy, the cheese!  oy, the hair!), it’s also a surprisingly entertaining little flick.  Nothing brilliant, and certainly it doesn’t come anywhere close to the classics of the genre, but for a sorority slasher, it’s a pretty rewarding rental.  Recommended!

[View trailer | Rent from Scarecrow Video (Seattle peeps)]

Genre:  Horror
Cast:  Martin Hewitt, Elaine Wilkes, Sherry Willis-Burch, Joanna Johnson, Paul Bartel

MOVIE: The Innkeepers (2011)

February 17, 2012

I rented this movie from Amazon Instant Video a month ago, made it about 30 minutes in, and then gave up.  It completely failed to engage me at all, due largely to lame writing and even lamer acting (especially on the part of Sara Paxton, who annoyed me from frame 1).

In the weeks since, though, I’ve come across several fairly positive reviews of it.  Despite the fact I wasn’t terribly impressed with director Ti West’s last movie, 2009′s The House of the Devil, the thumbs-mostly-up reviews got me to give it a second chance (I am fool, hear me rawr.)

This time I made it through the whole thing, but my overall take on it remained pretty much the same.  That overall take?  Is yawn.

The story is about two early 20-somethings, Claire (Paxton) and Luke, working boring, dead-end jobs as front desk clerks at the run-down Yankee Pedlar Inn.  As the film opens, the inn is about to close, and Claire and Luke are the only employees left, scheduled to stay on duty for its last 48 hours straight, trading off shifts at the front desk with shifts snoozing in a second-floor room.

They only have three guests — a mother and her little boy (who play almost no role here at all, except for a scene in which the little boy is used as a conceit to get the story of the inn’s ghost told to the audience), and a former actress, Leanne, played limply by the only recognizable actor in the picture, Kelly McGillis.

Claire is a huge fan of Leanne’s and becomes even more so when Leann tells her she’s now a psychic.  Why is that a good thing?  Because Claire and Luke like to ghost hunt, and since they’ll be working through two nights at the inn, they’ve decided this is the perfect time to try to find and communicate with the inn’s infamous ghost — a woman who died there decades ago and whose corpse was stashed in the basement for a time. Leanne can surely help them make contact, and, of course, as we all know, talking to ghosts always works out SO WELL, so it should be a great weekend, right?

Riiiiiiight.

The first night, while on duty as Luke watches porn upstairs on his laptop, Claire uses an EVP monitor to try to pick up on some ghostly vibes and is startled when the piano begins to play by itself.  She reports this to both Luke and Leanne, the latter doing a little psychic energy reading before warning Claire sternly not to go into the basement.

So, naturally, Claire goes straight to the basement.  The ghost is there.  Etc. etc. And the rest, as they say . . . is absolute balderdash.

Though there are some well-written banter-y scenes between Claire and Luke at times, overall, this is a pretty lamely written film.  The plot is beyond stale, and the ending takes us out with a fizzle rather than a bang.  Making matters worse, the inn itself is a dull setting — not spooky so much as just in dire need of a paint job.  The late addition of an elderly male guest who requests a specific room even though it has no furniture — “I won’t be sleeping, mua ha ha ha!” (I paraphrase) — goes so predictably I was surprised the characters themselves didn’t call it the moment he walked in the front door and hit the bell.

The one thing I did like about The Innkeepers, though, was the way both Luke and Claire continue to pursue the ghost even after several spooky incidents — and I liked this because it rang so true to me.  In most films of this type, the ghost hunters really believe in ghosts, right?  But here, it’s almost like Claire in particular — right up to the denouement — can’t believe her own eyes.  She persistently seems to think what’s happening can’t possibly really be happening.  This is why she goes to the basement — not stupidity so much as a fairly relatable sense of rational denial.

It’s not enough to save this movie from its deep pit of banality though.  West seems to like making scary movies with unusually slow pacing (for scary movies, anyway).  But in both this case and The House of the Devil, the pacing ends up being more insufferably slow than suspensefully so.  Claire and Luke have really, really boring jobs, and watching them work at their boring jobs is — guess what! — really, really boring!

Possibly worth a rental if you can find it for a few bucks after it’s left theaters.  But certainly not worth TWO rentals, like I did.  I’m THAT DUMB.  Yes, yes, I am.  Will I never learn?  Answer:  no, I apparently will persistently remain in a fairly relatable (to some of you, anyway) sense of irrational denial.  Such is life when you are dum.

[Prequeue at Netflix | Stream from Amazon]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, George Riddle

MOVIE: Donner Pass (2012)

January 20, 2012

This little horror flick, which was recently recommended to me by a woman who worked with the script editor, doesn’t offer up much in the way of logic when it comes to its interpretation of what really happened to the Donner Party, but still ended up being surprisingly entertaining.

Essentially, the premise is that, way back in 1846, George Donner led his party of pioneers west into Sierra Nevada on purpose — to eat them.  He’d somehow already tasted human flesh (no explanation of where or when, but whatever), and, as we all know, once you get the taste for humans, no mere cow will do.  So, in other words, the Donner party didn’t get lost and trapped and die off slowly and then eat each other to survive — instead, Donner lured them up there, killed them one by one, and ate them to feed his “hunger.”  Think Ravenous, only with teenagers instead of Guy Pearce and the principal from Ferris Bueller.

Teenagers?  I’m getting ahead of myself.  Flash forward to modern times, and now the area around the infamous Donner Pass is a popular ski town,  full of locals who believe in this legend — and claim Donner still haunts the woods, looking for victims.

A gaggle of teenagers are heading into the area to spend the weekend at one of their party’s parents’ cabin when a big storm hits.  Just as they arrive, they’re told by one local that there’s a manhunt going on — a woman was found murdered, her body viciously torn apart, and the police have a suspect they believe he’s still in the area.

Well, you can predict, I’m sure, where this is headed.  And it goes there, and it’s no big surprise (first to die: the boozer; second: the fornicator; and so on — we’re not in for anything terribly original here).  Nevertheless, I was impressed by the quality of the filmmaking — it’s shot well for a low-budget movie and acted reasonably well too (with one unfortunate exception — SPOILER FOR FOOLS:  the person who ends up being responsible for what’s going on is so badly overacting from the opening scene on through that only a fool (see?) wouldn’t be able to figure out he was somehow involved in the first five minutes).  Plus, the story, while totally ridiculous at times, still managed to be energetic and fun.

All in all, not a bad flick to rent on a snow day.  The ambience sure was right for it.  I’m stuck at home for the second day in a row because of a huge snow and ice storm here in Seattle, and I tell you, if I run out of groceries any time soon, the husband will be the first to go.  Well, okay, maybe the cat first, the husband second.  And then I’ll have the HUNGER, so look out!

Definitely worth the three bucks  it costs to rent it from Amazon (it’s also available at Red Box, the movie’s website says) — check it out if you dig these kinds of things.  I had a surprisingly good time.

[Prequeue at Netflix | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Horror
Cast:  Desiree Hall, Erik Stocklin, Colley Bailey, Adelaide Kane, John Kassir, Eric Pierpoint

MOVIE: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

January 19, 2012

I have one question for Guillermo del Toro (who co-wrote and produced this stinker) and that question is:  WTBF?  (What the bloody frak?)

This completely awful movie is about a family renovating a big old house that turns out to have, like, a portal to fairyland in the basement.  The fairies eat children’s teeth.  And sometimes whole people.

Yes, it’s a scary movie about . . . the tooth fairy.  Which is to say, it’s a NOT scary movie about . . . the tooth fairy.

WTBF, I ask again.  Considering the fact del Toro clearly had no qualms about ripping off his own film Pan’s Labyrinth for a good portion of this movie’s first half, I would’ve expected it to at least LOOK good.  But though the creatures were kind of cute — you know, for evil teeth fairies — the rest of the film’s look was boring and stale.  Spooky old house, yawn.  Spooky old garden (complete with labyrinth), yawn.  Creepy dark basement, snooze.   There’s absolutely nothing original here whatsoever, the dialogue is pure crappola, and my god, I think Katie Holmes is actually getting worse with practice instead of better.

The one saving grace, for me anyway, was that I really liked the kid.  The kid is the best actor in the entire film.  Go, kid!  Here’s hoping your next movie does not waste your time the way this one did.  Life is short — trust me.  You’ll know what I mean when you hit your 30s.  Try not to piffle it away on piffle.  LIKE I JUST DID.

STINKEROOZLE!

[Netflix it | Buy/Rent from Amazon]

Genre:  Horror, Crap
Cast: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Alan Dale, Jack Thompson, Guillermo del Toro

MOVIE: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

November 15, 2011

I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed the original  Paranormal Activity, and surprised even MORE when I also enjoyed Paranormal Activity 2.  But though I knew I’d have to see PA3 (compulsive completer, just ask ER), I’ve been putting it off for so long because I knew there was just nooooo way it could possibly not suck.

And, of course, I was right.  Well, I was wrong and I was right.  Lemmie ‘splain.  (“No, there is no time.  Lemmie sum up.”)

This installment focuses on Katie and Kristi when they were little girls and first encountered the entity that haunted them in PA and PA2.  While not being nearly as clever as the first two films, there are still some fairly successful “BOO!” moments in this one, and I confess when it was over I was a little sorry I’d chosen to see it on a dark and stormy night all by myself.   That little frisson of “eep!” is something I’m always seeking from horror movies and rarely finding, so this outcome is not worth nothing.  Then again, I’m kind of a sucker for ghost stories, and they’re generally a good choice when I’m feeling the urge for a spookin’ out.  Your mileage on the eep-factor, therefore, may vary.

Paranormal Activity 3 is set in 1988, when Katie and Kristi are about 8 and 6 years old, respectively, and have just moved into a new house with their mom, Julie, and their mom’s boyfriend, Dennis.  Dennis is a videographer, mostly making things like wedding videos.  He works with his buddy out of the garage, and though Julie’s mom doesn’t like him much, he clearly adores both Julie and her two girls, making it hard for us, the audience, not to take a shine to him pretty quickly (even though we know not to get too attached because he’ll surely be dead soon).

A few weeks after getting settled into their new house, Dennis and Julie begin hearing strange noises at night they can’t explain.  The house seems too new to be so creaky, and so, more for kicks than because he truly believes they’re haunted, Dennis decides to set some video cameras up around the house and see what he can capture on tape (including a camera he rigs up on an old fan so that it will oscillate from the living room to the kitchen — plus ten points for the MacGyver reference, by the way).

Meanwhile, Kristi has started talking to and about an imaginary friend she calls Toby.  At first, this seems completely harmless.  But when Dennis asks her a few questions about Toby, he’s surprised and somewhat unsettled when Kristi informs him that she’s not supposed to talk about him and that if she does, she’ll get in big, BIG trouble.

From there, things go from mere threats to actual harm, escalating more and more with each passing night.  All of this is just fine and dandy and handled satisfyingly enough, but there were a few major problems I just can’t let go of.

First is that there’s a scene that features Kristi standing in her parents’ doorway for hours in the middle of the night, which is a spooky gimmick stolen right out of the original film.  Hey, you’re only at 4 hours and 30 minutes total for the entire series, and you’re already having to recycle?  Not a good sign, kids.  (Also, if you find yourself needing to resort to a “Bloody Mary” scene in order to conjure up some shivers, you ought to throw in the towel instead.  I mean honestly.)

The second problem, and the one that really ruined this film for me, is the ending. This installment was the logical finale to the series (we had Katie as an adult, Kristi as an adult, and now we have the origin story, so we’re done, right?  RIGHT?!), yet we don’t really end up with any new information on who or what is behind the entire haunting (which, incidentally, was a demon thing in PA2, not a ghost thing as it seems to be here).  There’s some kind of rigmarole about a witches’ coven that used to brainwash girls of child-bearing age into having children and then wipe their memories, and so, the suggestion, backed up by the final few minutes of the film, is that these witches are responsible for all the nefarious goings-on.  But then, why is the spirit interacting with Kristi an older man (she says) named Toby?  And why would these women be haunting this family?  The events don’t even all take place in the same house, so it’s not that someone just moved the headstones and not the bodies (so to speak).  And there’s no suggestion that any of the witches were related to the family either.

I think the filmmakers either wanted to leave it mysterious, thinking that was a clever way to end things (The Sopranos), OR they wanted to leave room for yet another sequel.  But this movie is markedly lower in quality than the previous two and a fourth is likely to be virtually unwatchable, judging from the way these things usually go.  So, ugh.  If that’s really the plan, then the plan is just plain stupid.

I was surprised to find out today that PA3 was directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who made the documentary (or mockumentory, depending on who you ask) Catfish last year, a fascinating story about a guy who befriends and falls for a woman online who turns out to have totally duped him.  Catfish is a heartbreaking, fascinating film, and if it’s fiction, then it’s all the more amazing for having been so realistic and relatable.  This movie?  About as far from all those adjectives you could get.

Worth a rental if you’ve seen the other two, but I’m pretty sure that, despite the fact I did enjoy portions of this flick, this is where I get out.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and they won’t make a fourth?  Thus sparing me the temptation to go see it too just because I have such an impossible time letting loose ends lie?  Oh please, please help me, filmmakers.  Save me!  Stop now!  While you’re still (mostly) ahead!

Oh, who are we kidding.  Watch this space for the inevitable review of Paranormal Activity 4 some time next year.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror
Cast:   Katie Featherston, Christopher Nicholas Smith, Sprague Grayden, Lauren Bittner, Mark Fredrichs, Brian Boland

MOVIE: Dream House (2011)

October 28, 2011

Okay, so, the good news:  this movie isn’t nearly as bad as its trailer makes it look.  While it’s pretty much every bit as cheeseorama and predictable as it seems, it at least makes a good effort to veer slightly off the usual track at the end, something I appreciated enough to forgive it, a little anyway, for its ridiculous, silly everything-elses.

The story is about a successful big city publication house editor, Will Atenton (Daniel Craig), who has just quit his job and moved his wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and two young daughters to a big house in a small town, where he plans to write a book and spend more time being a dad.  Fans of movies like this one know that moving a big city person to a small town neighborhood so they can focus on writing is something that just NEVER goes well for anyone (I can think of a dozen thrillers/horror movies that start out exactly that same way).  You either go crazy (The Shining) or some kind of evil comes and gets you (Straw Dogs and countless others).

It’s not long before the family learns they’ve been duped by their realtor, who failed to inform them that the house was the site of a horrific murder/attempted-suicide just a few years before.  A man killed both his kids and his wife, and then shot himself in the head, surviving the wound just barely, and he’s been in a psychiatric hospital ever since.  The neighbors think the house is cursed and stay away (one previous resident even warns Will that living in the house made him kill his own family. Apparently, he’s been let out of prison because he has terminal cancer, by the way, which:  what?).  But one of them, Ann (Naomi Watts), seems to know more than the others about the murders and makes an effort, albeit a hesitant one, to welcome Will to the neighborhood.

Creeped out but practical, the Atentons decide not to tell their kids about the house’s history (asking Ann’s teenage daughter to watch what she says within ear shot), and plan to make the best of it:  new coats of paint, smooches in the kitchen, the housewarming works.

Until, of course, stranger and stranger things begin to happen.

If you’ve seen the trailer — or any one of the gazillion movies just like this one — you already know Daniel Craig is the murderous father, and his family is simply a manifestation of his traumatized imagination.  (This is not a spoiler, by the way — it’s IN THE TRAILER.)  But as he begins to remember the truth, a twist comes into play that turns the usual arc of these sorts of flicks on its ear.  Is it a brilliant twist?  Nope.  However, it’s not terrible either, and, man, major points to the writer/director for not just lazily riding this out the way I expected them to.

If you’re on the fence about checking this one out, and you have a thing for the naked male form, then I should also tell you there is an unintentionally hilarious moment in this movie where Daniel Craig hears a noise downstairs and gets out of bed to investigate.  As he throws the covers back and rises to his feet, the camera zooms in so closely the only thing you see is his naked torso, all six-packed and chisel-y.  After seeing similar close-ups of his butt in chaps in Cowboys & Aliens (MORE THAN ONE, I should add!), I gotta wonder:  does Daniel Craig know he’s being cast these days more for his body than his acting ability?  Because, really, he’s not much of an actor — he’s pretty much always the same dude, and I confess that dude is sort of getting old for me.  But man, I would — and will — happily continue to shell out nine bucks for a big-screen ticket to more shots like that one.  MROWL.

For most of you, though, I think maybe waiting for DVD would be reasonable.  This little thriller is entertaining enough, but nothing to write home about.  (Hi, Mom!)

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Thriller
Cast:  Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Claire Geare, Taylor Geare, Rachel G. Fox, Elias Koteas

MOVIE: Shark Night (2011)

September 15, 2011

Oh, man, this movie was FUN.  I had decided to go see it last week on a whim, after a super-stressful day on the job.    I’m a sucker for shark attack movies, for one thing, and I’m also a sucker for Donal Logue and the ever-widening Josh Leonard (I like big guts and I can not lie. . .).  The reviews had panned the hell out of it for being beyond stupid, and, well, that sounded absolutely perfect to me.  (Hi, Mom!  Wish you were here!)

The best part about this movie is the way it’s utterly packed with clichés and yet, is not at all trying to be a spoof.  It truly has them all, from the opening scene (topless blonde eaten by shark), to the meet-cute at the local gas station between the local Deliverance-style hicks and the visiting college snots (incidentally, that’s exactly how the delightful horror spoof Tucker & Dale vs. Evil opens — QED), to the fact (and my god, I still can’t believe they did this) the black guy gets it first.

THE BLACK GUY ACTUALLY GETS IT FIRST!  AND THEY WERE COMPLETELY SERIOUS ABOUT THAT!  It’s that good, you guys.  It is THAT GOOD.

Plot-wise, it follows the same trajectory these movies always follow, but it did throw in a bit of a curve ball I wasn’t expecting — without revealing it, I’ll just say it involves the reason why this tiny salt-water lake is teeming with 47 different species of shark.   And though it’s clearly about as unoriginal as you can get in every other regard, it’s also hilarious in its lameness, which, for me, is a  joyous thing (I mean, really, your friend gets his arm bitten off by a shark and your first move is to dive into the lake to find the limb?  The bloody limb that will be attracting MORE SHARKS?  Brilliant, ace.  And I also love it when the “pre-med” college kid knows a lot of practical medical skills. You know what pre-med actually is?  It’s chemistry.  Lots and lots of chemistry.)

Speaking of chemistry, there’s also a cute little love thing going on between two of the college kids, both of whom are really shy, and one of whom has a past that is about to come around and bite them all in the ass (litrilly).  I liked the way this romance part was subtle and sweet, and except for the part where: SHARKS!!, it was authentic and minor enough not to get in my way.  Often times in these sorts of movies, there ends up being WAY too many sex scenes and smooches (or, in the case of Piranha 3D, way too many underwater lesbian sex scenes and smooches), and man, I don’t come to movies titled Shark Night to watch people make out.  I come to watch them get eaten.  And, gloriously, many of them do here.  Sometimes more than once.  (They aren’t terrifically fast learners, those college kids.)

If you like dumb creature features, hie thee to the movie theater!  I think you’ll dig this one.  And just FYI, I didn’t see this in 3D and it’s unlikely it’ll be worth your extra bucks to see it that way either.  A few times, I could tell when they had framed a shot specifically for 3D, and they were all pretty clumsy and dumb.  I shouldn’t be able to tell, if you ask me, and I could tell.

So, pocket your extra $4, or whatever that costs these days, and use it to buy yourself a larger popcorn.  Well, I don’t know — shark movies just kinda make me hungry.  (“Man eating shark. . . AND LOVING IT.”).

(By the way, fans of smart horror spoofs should be sure to check out Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, because it’s fantastic.  Now available on VOD services like Amazon.com’s Instant Video, and well worth the $9.99 it’ll run ya to rent it pre-theatrical release, trust me.)

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, SHARRRRK!
Cast: Good ol’ Donal Logue, Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Carmack, Katharine McPhee, Alyssa Diaz,  Joshua Leonard

MOVIE: The Caller (2011)

August 30, 2011

I was poking around on Amazon Instant Video this weekend, looking for a bad horror movie to rent, when I came across this one.  The premise sounded overly familiar –  young woman receives increasingly scary phone calls — but it had an intriguing, potentially ludicrous (yay!) twist that caught my eye.  The young woman?  Answering the phone in 2009.  The phone calls?  Coming from 1979.

Well, now, just how am I supposed to resist THAT?  Time travel AND cheesy horror?  It’s like someone crafted this movie just for me (though, obviously, if that were truly the case, it would’ve co-starred Richard Dean Anderson, not Stephen Moyer, but never mind. . .).

The young woman is Mary (Rachelle Lefevre, from ABC’s Off the Map), and she’s in the middle of a hellish divorce, having only recently gotten up the gumption to leave her abusive husband.  Finally on her own, she moves into an old apartment building — cheap, convenient, and though not in the best of neighborhoods, certainly good enough for the time being.  She even makes a friend right away:  her neighbor George (Luis Guzmán, a fave of mine), who turns out to be the building’s gardener, as well as its longest resident (he grew up there).  The only thing that seems sort of strange is that the apartment comes with its own phone already installed — an old rotary-style phone.  But hey, that just saves her from having to deal with the hassle of installing a land line, right?

Her first night, though, she realizes the problem with inheriting a phone number from a previous resident when she gets a phone call from an older woman (age 50 or so) asking for someone named “Bobby.”  Mary explains the situation — she just moved in, there’s no Bobby there anymore — and the woman hangs up.

The next night, she calls again, and this time becomes furious when Mary repeats she has just moved into the apartment and hasn’t met anyone named Bobby.  The caller insists she just saw him inside the  apartment, at the window, and accuses Mary of lying to cover up an affair.  Distraught by the woman’s anger and more than a little freaked out, Mary hangs up.

But the calls continue.  Finally, the woman explains what’s going on — her boyfriend Bobby, who, sure, is abusive but totally loves her you know, hasn’t been returning her calls.  Yet she knows he adores her — he proposed to her once, even, right before he left for the Vietnam War.

Whoa, ho, ho, hold up.  The what now?  Mary assumes the woman is just crazy, but the woman, who introduces herself as “Rose,” figures out what’s happening right away — their lines are crossed.  IN TIME.

(Well, OBVIOUSLY.)

To prove it to Mary, Rose says, “I’m going to go draw something in the pantry, and when you go look, it’ll be there!”  But Mary opens the pantry door and sees nothing.  She yells at Rose to leave her alone, and heads to bed.  Something bugs her all night long, though, and she finally gets up to look again.  Sure enough, it’s been wall-papered over.  She scrapes the paper off to find a drawing of a rose right there on the wall, just like Rose said it would be.

When Rose calls again, she begs Mary to talk to her for a little while.  She’s lonely.  Just five minutes.  So they begin to chat, Mary still believing she’s a nut job and that the rose in the pantry was a coincidence.  They end up comparing notes about their abusive partners, and Mary says, after describing the way her ex-husband is making the divorce proceedings drag on forever, “Sometimes I wish I had just gotten RID of him, instead of walking out.”

The next night, Rose calls again, this time giddy because she “took Mary’s advice.”  When Mary figures out Rose means she killed Bobby, she panics and hangs up the phone.  Then she goes to the pantry, opens the door. . . and finds it’s been bricked up!  BOBBY’S IN THERE!

Mary stops answering the phone (yeah, took her long enough to come up with that idea, right?), until one evening she picks it up thinking it’s her mother and finds an angry Rose on the other end of the line.  This time, Rose makes it clear if Mary doesn’t do what she wants, she will track her and her mother down in 1979 and kill them.  Or kill someone important to Mary — a friend, a boyfriend, someone.  They were all alive back then, after all, though children, and Rose has all the control in 1979 — there’s absolutely nothing Mary can do to stop her.

From there, enter a series of brutal murders, with people simply disappearing in the present after they’ve been taken out in the past.  Though there’s an attempt at one point to explain why Mary can remember events from both timelines (that is, she remembers the pantry before it was bricked up, even though, having been changed in 1979, she shouldn’t have ever seen it NOT bricked up), it doesn’t really make much sense, I confess.  The theory, posited by Mary’s new boyfriend (Stephen Moyer), who accepts this whole time travel theory with curious calm, I must say, is that Mary can remember things from both timelines because she’s been directly involved in the alterations.  Well, but, hmm.  Huh?  She hasn’t really been any more involved in the alterations than HE has; after all, he’s seen things before and after too, never remembering the “befores,” and he’s also talked to Rose.  The thing is, however unclear a theory that might be, I always appreciate it when there’s at least an attempt to explain these sorts of things in a movie.  Just TRY, people.  Give it a shot.  For my sake, if not your own.  (Hear that, Connie Willis?  Yeah, you heard it.)

The end of the film, which involves death-matches in both timelines happening simultaneously, was FOR SERIOUS fun.  And though the acting from Lefevre was pretty ho-hum, everybody else did a fine job, and the story was original and entertaining.

Though it was made in 2009 and then shelved, this film’s been lately making the rounds of various film festivals, undoubtedly because Stephen Moyer is famous now (from HBO’s True Blood).  My guess is that it’ll go straight to DVD without a theatrical release, which is too bad because I would’ve enjoyed this in the theater and it’s certainly no worse than other theatrical horror flicks I’ve seen recently (The Ward, e.g.).  Sure, the plot is a bit gooferoo.  But it’s also an interesting concept.  At least it’s a unique one, anyway — that counts for a lot in my book.  (My book is very small.)

Definitely recommended to fans of this kind of stuff, and well worth the $6.99 rental fee at Amazon (I would’ve gladly paid full theater ticket price for it, after all, and this way, I got to watch it in my PJs — aces!).

[Prequeue at Neflix | Available for streaming at Amazon.com | View trailer]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Rachelle Lefevre, Stephen Moyer, Luis Guzmán, Ed Quinn

SIFF MOVIE: Detention (2011)

June 8, 2011

First things first: I thought this flick was incredibly entertaining and I laughed out loud more than once while I was watching it.  Director Joseph Kahn (who thoroughly charmed me when he introduced the film at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) last week) is ferociously clever and I’m fascinated by the way his brain works and can’t wait to see what he does next.

That said, this movie is an absolute disaster.  Whew, what a mess!  Not only does the dialogue zoom all over the place, but the story does too, and while that frenetic pacing was clearly part of the film’s deliberately chaotic style, it was so overdone it ultimately made the movie feel more sloppy and unfocused than different and cool.

The plot takes place at a high school and focuses on one girl, a senior named Riley, who’s not quite cool enough to be cool, and not quite dorky enough to be a dork.  She doesn’t really fit in with any group, in other words, and while I think she’d probably tell you haughtily that she didn’t give a rat’s ass about that, her defensive anger would suggest a different story.

Making matters worse, she’s got a crush on her friend Clapton, who appears to only have eyes for the school’s stereotypical head cheerleader character, Ione.

Oh yeah, and also making matters worse?  There’s a killer on the loose, dressed as a sort of prom queen mummy and assumed by the kids to be the incarnation of the star of a fictional slasher series called Cinderhella.  That ain’t good.  (But, it’s also neither here nor there, really,  because Kahn seemed to forget he was making a slasher movie a good 80% of the time — just one of the many, many examples of his complete lack of focus here.)

Even more distracting than the all-over-the-map storyline, though, were the two huge issues I had with the film’s dialogue.  The first is that the characters, especially Riley and Clapton, frequently converse in over-written, too-craftedly-clever, Dawson’s Creek-speak — swapping long, long, precociously astute, complete sentences back and forth rapid-fire.

You know, the way NOBODY talks?

Equally problematic for me, though, was the characters’ incessant use of pop culture references from the 80s and 90s — decades chosen intentionally for one character (there’s a subplot involving time travel — in a giant bear — don’t ask), but which make little sense for the others.  We’re supposed to believe that modern day teens spend time arguing about whether Roadhouse Patrick Swayze could beat up Any Movie Steven Seagal?  Wha’?

The net effect of this film’s chaos was that visually and story-wise, the film seemed directed toward the 15-20 year-olds in the audience (and, indeed, it was a panel of 15-20 year-olds who selected it for the festival, as part of SIFF’s Future Wave project).  But dialogue-wise, it was far more relevant to my generation — people who grew up in the 80s and 90s — which is why only we 30-somethings laughed when, in one scene, a physics teacher circled the word “FLUX” on the chalkboard and then mumbled something about “1.21 gigawatts.”

That’s a good example, though, of the things I DID like about Detention.  Its sense of humor is sharp and crazy and kooky and weird and delightfully subtle at times, and it combines a huge variety of stylistic elements from an equally huge variety of genres — sometimes brilliantly.  (That film-within-a-film-within-a-film montage of clips from previous Cinderhella installments at the end was masterful, for example.  Though, again, did the audience’s 15-20 year-olds really get that scene’s reference to Ron Jeremy?  I have a hard time believing they did.)

Overall, I definitely recommend renting this one just so you can see what it’s like.  I think you’ll enjoy it.  But Kahn said during his introduction that he made this movie without any studio involvement (after the studios ruined his first feature film Torque, he said) so he could have absolute control over every element, and I think a little meddling feedback probably would’ve done the final product some good.

If Kahn can mellow out ever so slightly and not try so damn hard to be clever and cool, I think he could be a truly unique and engaging filmmaker.  But ultimately, I felt Detention was a lot like its main character Riley:  not cool enough to be cool, not dorky enough to be dorky, and not quite fitting in with any (audience) group.

I liked Riley a lot, you see.  But she’s still got some growing up to do.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Comedy
Cast:  Josh Hutcherson, Dane Cook, Spencer Locke, Parker Bagley, Richard Brake, Kate Kelton

SIFF MOVIE: John Carpenter’s The Ward (2011)

May 30, 2011

I hadn’t heard anything about this film when I cracked open this year’s Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) catalog and found it in there.  Given the way Wes Craven’s films have been going over the last several years (i.e., downhill fast — I walked out on My Soul to Take last summer because it was boring the hell outta me), I was pretty sure this movie, the first in ten years from Carpenter (one of my all-time favorite horror/sci-fi directors, incidentally — The Thing, Halloween, They Live, Escape from New York, Starman, to name a few), was going to be pretty weak.  But I didn’t care.  You see, the great thing about seeing films you think/hope will be crappy at SIFF is that you’re seeing them with a room full of  other people who are likewise lovers of crap — the worse the movie is, the more fun the audience experience can be.  Last year, for example, we had a blast at the absolutely awful film Splice because by the half-way point, everybody in the sold-out audience had given up on the film ever getting good and started ripping it apart aloud together.  Awesomeness.

Surprise, surprise, though — this movie isn’t half-bad!  That is, it’s pretty bad — after all, it’s a ghost story set in a 1950s psychiatric hospital, which is about as far from unique a concept you can get in the genre — but it actually had a few nice twists, was decently acted, and held my attention throughout (despite the fact I was seeing it at 10:30pm, WAY past my bedtime!).

It’s about a young woman, Kristin (Amber Heard), who has just been committed to North Bend Mental Hospital after burning a farm-house down.  On the ward with her are four other girls about her age — one who’s just plain cuckoo (played by Mamie Gummer from the TV series Off the Map), one who cradles a stuffed animal and reacts to things like a little child, one who’s clearly a pathological narcissist, and one who is a lovely but very, very sad young lady.

Her first night on the ward, Kristin wakes to find someone — or something — has stolen her blanket in the night.  At first, she thinks it was one of the orderlies or the other girls, but when she starts seeing glimpses of a horribly disfigured girl over the next few days and then is attacked by that same girl in the shower, she becomes convinced the ward is haunted by the ghost of a past patient.

It soon becomes clear she’s right, and that the ghost’s goal is to prevent any of them from ever leaving the hospital, a goal she achieves by brutally murdering them one by one before they can be released.  Eventually, Kristin learns the ghost is a girl who was attacked and then killed by all the other girls one night, which explains her motive.  And the story progresses fairly predictably from there, though not without a few good scares.

What I liked about this film was that Carpenter clearly knew we were all going to groan and think, “Man, how many times have we seen THIS plot?” and that we’d thus have all kinds of expectations for it.  A few of those expectations were turned on their heads, though (they were minor elements, but I still appreciated it), and overall, I thought the story was decent and film itself well-made.  Sure, the concept is tired tired tired, but Carpenter somehow still managed to make this movie pretty engaging.

The ending, on the other hand, made me roll my eyes — it’s one of my biggest pet peeve endings of all time.  But it was handled well enough that I didn’t figure out that twist was coming until just a scene or two before it arrived — I appreciated that much of it, at least.  There were also several little elements that made no sense whatsoever (for example, the psychiatrist in a locked-ward loony bin keeps a sharp, metal letter-opener sitting on his desk??), but a lot of them were essentially taken care of by the ending.  Those incongruous bits alone should’ve gotten me suspicious much sooner that a twist was going to overturn a lot of what I was seeing, but I was so engrossed in the story I never got bored enough to start trying to work out where it was headed.  Props for that too, Mr. C.

Overall, I thought this was a really enjoyable horror flick.  Sure, it’s nowhere near as strong as the other Carpenter films I have known and loved, but it’s no Wes Craven namby-pamby snoozer either.  Maybe now that he’s back at work, his next picture will be even stronger?  Possible.  I’m game to find out, anyway.

I think The Ward gets nation-wide release in July, and I read it will be available on-demand as soon as early June.  Well worth the price of admission for fans of the genre, ghost stories in particular.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Amber Heard, Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris


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