Posts Tagged ‘Horror’

MOVIE: In Fear (2013)

November 8, 2015

infearI had never heard of this film, but picked it up the other day at the public library on a whim, in the mood for a good “lost in the woods”-type horror flick.  Hello, Halloween!  How are ya?

The good news is: it’s surprisingly entertaining and well-acted, and has a few very clever, very well-done scenes. Man, I love it when that happens!

The bad news is: the best moment comes about 20 minutes from the end and should have BEEN the end (oh, if only!), but instead the filmmaker goes on to totally wreck the awesomeness he had going and turn this from gold into. . . I don’t know. The opposite of gold, or something.  Man, I hate it when that happens!

The very first scene sucked me in right away, largely due to the acting chops of our hero, Tom, a young man who, as the story opens, is leaving a voice mail for a young lady (Lucy) he just met in a bar.  Nervously and very authentically awkwardly, he invites her to join him for a road trip to a music festival in a couple of weeks, something that ought to send any wise young lady who just met a young man in a bar screaming, frankly.

Cut to the next scene though, and it’s Tom and Lucy in a car on their way to the festival two weeks later, talking cheerfully about how the night is their “two week anniversary” (which, Lucy informs Tom, isn’t a “thing,” given what the word “anniversary” actually means. I like Lucy already; too bad she’s about to have the worst night of her entire young life. . .).

To celebrate two weeks of young love, Tom surprises Lucy by saying he’s booked a room at a fancy hotel for their first night.  Wisely hesitant for once, Lucy hems and haws a bit before giving in.  I’d love to blame her for it, but I would’ve done the same thing, largely because Tom’s undeniably a ridiculous cutie.

What I wouldn’t have done, though, is continued to give in once Tom informed me of the next huge and completely obvious red flag — that the hotel is so far out in the boonies, they’ll be sending someone on the staff to come meet them at a local pub so that person can lead them back to the utterly befuddling and off-GPS location.

Note to young ladies:  This is a thing creepy hotel proprietors, and ONLY creepy hotel proprietors, do. The rest of them give you directions on their web site.  But before Lucy can be all, “Say what, now?” a 4-Runner pulls in and honks, and Tom pulls out to follow.

Some lengthy, indeterminate amount of time later, the 4-Runner leaves them at a gate, honking again before driving off.  Tom pulls through the gate, and the rural maze to the hotel begins. The GPS in their car cuts out immediately, and the two find themselves resigned to following a series of signs pointing them left or right at multiple forks in the road.  After about an hour of driving in circles, they begin to realize they’ve been driving in circles; tension mounts.

As the night goes on, mostly what we get at first in this thoughtful little film is exactly what you’d expect from a couple that hardly knows each other now desperately lost in the dark in the middle of nowhere, watching their fuel gauge creep closer and closer to E.  The actors both handle this perfectly, and the dialogue is solid too.  They try to be kind to each other, then they fail, then they try again, then they fail again, as the stress continues to shake loose their tenuous ties to one another.

And then, stopped on the side of the road so Lucy can get her coat from the trunk, a masked man suddenly appears out of nowhere and grabs her.  Lucy manages to break free and she and Tom take off, panicked, directionless, terrified.  Suddenly, another man appears — he’s bleeding from head and tells the couple he’s just been attacked, can they help?  Lucy and Tom don’t know what to do — is he telling the truth? Is he lying?  What the hell is going on?  But he keeps railing on in terror about a bad guy in the dark, and eventually, they let him hop in the back.  He says, “We gotta get to the hotel near here so they can call a doctor for my head!” and then offers to lead them there, saying he’s very familiar with the area.

What happens next is an engaging and unique psychological thrill ride at 25mph on some dark and twisty roads, as Tom and Lucy continue to drive around with Questionable Intent Man in the back seat of their car rambling on fairly constantly so as to avoid giving them time to reconsider their very foolish plan to let him into the car.  Without giving anything away, I found the initial culmination of this situation extremely clever and wholly unexpected, and I was all set to give this little flick a serious thumbs up. . .

UNTIL! it wrecked the whole thing by veering suddenly in the most predictable of directions, followed quickly by the least predictable of directions, which I describe as “least predictable” primarily because it made no sense whatsoever.  It didn’t correspond to the bad guy’s originally stated motivations, which I found very intriguing, if not utterly cruel, and it also made no sense in terms of our victim’s ultimate reaction. Super bummer, major letdown.

Up until the disappointing ending, however, this movie really impressed me.  It features very solid acting by the two leads, if less-solid acting by Questionable Intent Man (played by Allen Leech, by the way, better known as chauffeur Tom from Downton Abbey), and a story I don’t recall ever having been told before. It’s also a nice little study both in character drama and in small-setting storytelling (almost all of it takes place in the car). I’d encourage you to shut it off when you get to the “first” ending, but you won’t be able to, is the problem.  And besides, you should see how the filmmakers totally blow it after that, because it’s an excellent lesson in filmmakers totally blowing it too.

All in all, recommended, is what I’m saying. I mean, sort of.  Sort of recommended, is what I’m saying. Definitely worth checking out. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts about the ending, so if you do give it a gander, be sure to report back!

[DVD at Netflix | Watch online at Amazon]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Iain De Caestecker, Alice Englert, Allen Leech


MOVIE: The Babadook (2014)

January 6, 2015

The-Babadook-PosterGuys, I totally did it again. I DO NOT LEARN!  You know the thing where a horror movie gets great critical reviews and I get all excited and can’t wait to see it and then I finally sit down for it and by that time my expectations are the size of China, and then, wah wah wah, it sucks?  Yep. That happened.   Well, “sucks” is a little too strong here.  But definitely a major disappointment.

I’d actually been wanting to see this film, an Australian independent, since last spring, when I bought a ticket for it at the Seattle International Film Festival and then failed to make it to the showing.  Oops!  After that, I forgot all about it until it opened last month in limited release and I started to see raves galore about it all over the Internet.

What I kept reading was that it was a smart, unique, and truly terrifying horror movie.  So, I was expecting some clever, satisfying scares.  As it turns out, though, The Babadook isn’t a horror movie at all.  If I had to sum it up in a phrase, that phrase would be “cautionary tale about the perils of single parenting.” In other words, it’s only “scary” if the thing you fear most is exhausted, angry moms yelling at tantrum-throwing kids.  And if that’s the case, you probably get enough shivers in your week simply by shopping at Costco; you don’t need a movie for more.

The Babadook is about a middle-aged mom named Amelia whose husband was killed in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child, a boy named Samuel. Cut to about six or so years later, and Samuel has grown up to be a challenging child, to say the least. And understandably so: the story of his father’s death has clearly unsettled him since he was old enough to understand it, as has the emotional lability of his mother.

In response, Samuel has become obsessed not just with the usual monsters of childhood, but more specifically with protecting his mother from those monsters (because she is in what seems to him to be constant peril) — to the point where he has begun to devise elaborate weapons to combat them, which he frequently smuggles into school.

Finally, his school’s administration has had enough and they expel him, sending Amelia into a rapid downward spiral.  Right about that same time, a mysterious children’s book about a top-hat-wearing, black-clad monster called Mister Babadook appears in their house.  When Samuel asks Mom to read it, she begins, only to find it horrifically violent and terrifically creepy just a few pages in — the story of a monster that, as soon as you learn of it, will appear in physical form and torment you until the end of time.  Before she’s even a third of the way through, Samuel has a terror-fueled panic attack, screaming inconsolably in fear.  She slams it shut and later burns it in the backyard, hoping that’ll be the end of it.

But then the book reappears, and shortly after that, the Babadook himself shows up — just like he said he would.  Or does he?  Remember how I said in my recent review of Willow Creek that it’s important for monster movies to offer a plausible alternative narrative, one that doesn’t involve monsters?  That makes a monster movie all the more terrifying, because it allows you to maintain your logical disbelief in Sasquatch while still relating completely to the fear expressed by the characters.  You aren’t sure what’s going on, really, or what to believe anymore, and that mistrust of everything inside and out is what can make for a pretty satisfying chill.

This movie does a great job of presenting that alternative narrative — is it the story of an actual monster or the story of an exhausted, grief-stricken mother’s rapidly dwindling sanity (and/or the dwindling sanity of her son; hard to tell who was the driver, there).

The problem was, I felt like it ended up going too far in that alternative direction — there wasn’t a single, even-fleeting moment in which I wondered if the Babadook might be real, better judgment or not. And that lack of doubt essentially stripped away any potential for this film to be truly scary.  For me, anyway. It made it flop lifelessly to the ground, when, really, there was a lot of potential in this story for flight.

The acting, for example, especially of the little boy, is incredibly powerful and good.  Essie Davis, the mom, is also at her best here, though in a few places she kind of overdid the hysterics for me. Despite the lack of scares, though, this should’ve, at the very least, been a very moving drama about a struggling single mother who had experienced a traumatic loss — only, it wasn’t. I knew I was supposed to align with her, worry about her, and care about what she was going through. But, instead, I grew impatient with her quickly, largely because she was so viciously and ineptly harming her child, who had suffered just as much, and possibly even more (since he clearly felt the death of his father was his fault for being born).  If this had been a film more focused on their relationship, minus the excess monster gimmickry, it could’ve been so much more powerful. The monster element should’ve been a tool, not a major story line. Instead that shared, and thus blurred, focus made the film seem very muddled in genre very quickly, unsure what it was actually trying to accomplish and, in so doing, accomplishing very little at all.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terrible movie — not at all. It’s intelligent, beautifully made (the visuals are wonderful, especially the book itself), and well-acted, etc. But it’s also not all that special, making the critical raves particularly puzzling. There’s nothing terribly unique about this story — the crazy-parent/crazy-child emotional conflict felt so tired to me, and even the Babadook himself looked strangely familiar (though I can’t place this image I have in my head, which is driving me nuts; I’ll keep looking).

In any case, if what you’re really looking for is an authentically scary movie, with authentic characters you authentically root and despair for, I’m going to send you right on back to the surprisingly effective Willow Creek, which was definitely the best such movie I saw all year.  On the other hand, a lot of people really, really liked this film, so it’s worth checking out for yourself. Then again, on the other hand (yes, I’ve got three hands; what of it?), I’ve noticed most of those people were mainstream film critics or the people who tend to agree with them; the avid horror fans whose blogs I follow seem to have been more disappointed than impressed. In that way, The Babadook kind of reminds me of The Conjuring — which brings me right back to my first paragraph: will I never learn?

[Amazon buy/rent | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror (except: no)
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

MOVIE: Willow Creek (2014)

December 5, 2014

willowcreekI’ve been incredibly, insanely busy lately, and also haven’t been sleeping well, which, wrapped together, turns me into this big buzzing beehive of unceasing energy. That makes it extremely difficult to sit down and watch a movie, read a book, or do just about anything else that requires focus of a relaxed variety.  I’m not really doing “relaxed” very much these days. Maybe in January. We’ll see.

That said, two weekends ago I had some time to kill by myself at home, and I wanted to use it to watch a movie. A friend on Facebook had recently posted that this flick was fun, so I figured I’d give it a shot and see how long I lasted before I had to get up and clean something I just cleaned two days ago. (Upside to exhaustion-fueled mania: clean house!)

As it turned out, Willow Creek sucked me in right away and kept me thoroughly sucked-in throughout. For a rip-off of The Blair Witch Project about a mythical monster I find not-even-remotely scary, this movie was surprisingly effective for me.

It’s a “found footage”-style horror flick about a young couple, Jim and Kelly, who decide to head off on a road trip in search of Bigfoot for a documentary.  Jim’s been a Bigfoot fanatic since he was a kid and knows everything there is to know about the subject; Kelly’s a skeptic.  He seems to really believe there’s something to find out there in the woods; she loves him enough to be willing to go camping for a few days where there are no bathrooms. (I wonder what it’s like to love someone that much? I’ll probably never know. . .)

Similar to Blair Witch, they start out with an exploration of the small town outside the woods where the most famous Bigfoot sighting of all time took place (I have forgotten the details of that sighting, but apparently it’s legit lore).  There, they interview a few locals, get some advice on where to go, and film a few scenes for color — eating a “Bigfoot burger” at the local diner, smooching a giant wooden S’quatch statue, etc.

The next day, they head out in their car for the spot where they plan to park and hike in, only to be stopped on the access road by a man who threatens them aggressively, forcing them to turn around, and establishing nicely the possibility that what is about to follow is carried out not by Bigfoot but by a crazy local guy with a grudge against tourists (useful tool of reasonable doubt, always necessary in these sorts of things).

They manage to find another way in and start their hike, stopping periodically to film some scenes for their movie.  They don’t find much — some dubious-of-origin scat, a footprint — until night rolls around and they are awakened by a series of strange hoots and cracks from the woods (Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?). Something bashes against their tent.  A bear?  A giant, hairy man-beast? Nobody seems willing to venture out to check, surprise surprise, and not much sleep is had, to say the least.

The next day, exhausted and somewhat alarmed, they decide to hike back out and go home. Only they quickly get turned around, start looping back on themselves, and can’t find their way out (again, Blair Witch fans: sound familiar?).

And then the hoots begin again. This time in broad daylight. Something throws a rock at them.  They run. They’re still lost. They’re forced to camp another night. It does not go well.

Though the plot is obviously ridiculous, and not even remotely original, what makes this movie work as well as it does are the characters themselves and the script, which is very well-written. Jim and Kelly are an authentic, completely believable couple; it only took a few scenes for me to forget I wasn’t watching an actual documentary about two young dumb people on a quest to find Bigfoot.

There’s also a stand-out scene in the tent the first night (I think it was the first night, anyway) in which Jim proposes to Kelly and Kelly doesn’t exactly say yes. This was a surprisingly tender moment, thoughtfully approached. Did I mention the movie was written (and directed) by endearing weirdo comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, by the way?  That’s why I say “surprisingly tender;” who knew that was in there waiting to come out?

I went into this movie thinking Bigfoot was a pretty lame choice of villain, and I still mostly contend that it is. I mean, does anybody really believe in Bigfoot? And even if you do think there’s some giant, hairy man-beast in the woods no one has ever managed to get a good photograph of, why would you automatically assume it was evil?  I mean, a giant, hairy man-beast in the woods that was evil would probably be responsible for a lot more mysterious disappearances and dismembered bodies, right?

However, the last 15 or so minutes of this movie were effectively scary, to say the least.  For no good goddamn reason, I might add, because I DO NOT BELIEVE IN BIGFOOT.  There’s a long shot — maybe 8 minutes — that simply features Jim and Kelly sitting in their tent in the dark, the camera perfectly still, while she clings to him looking down, terrified, and he keeps his face up, listening intently to the sounds coming from outside.  Periodically, they both jump.  And then. . . Well.  Then things get a little nuts.  Something appears that has noooooo right being there.  No right at all, people The camera falls, there is screaming, and then we’re left to guess about what happens next.

All in all, this is a highly entertaining film, and I was really impressed by it.  I wasn’t expecting this to be as good as it was, especially with the aforementioned endearing weirdo comedian’s name attached to it. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Goldthwait’s directorial work (if anybody has a favorite, let me know in the comments!).

Highly recommended if you like scary movies, good writing, and giant, hairy man-beasts in the woods (well, who doesn’t?)!  Good clean fun.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Joe Swanberg, Kristina Klebe, Alexia Rasmussen

MOVIE: Godzilla (2014)

June 14, 2014

godzillaI saw this movie a few weeks ago. It . . . um . . .  let’s see.  What is there to say about it?  Well, okay, it had Ken Watanabe in it, which was nice because I’d just seen him the day before in another movie (review coming soon).  And it was about . . . um. . . a big dinosaur thing that came out of the ocean apparently to have a big fight with a giant bat thing. Or something? Because it likes humanity? Or it doesn’t care about humanity, it just doesn’t like the bat thing, or . . . I don’t know. Something. Oh my god, this movie was boring.

When I walked out of the theater with my two bad-movie-watching buddies, I exclaimed, “How do you make a creature feature THAT BORING?”  A silly question, of course, because this movie answers the very question it generates.  For example, one of the ways you can make a creature feature THAT BORING is to include at least 45 minutes of soldiers shooting at the creature with bullets from guns, without a single one of them thinking to themselves, “Hey, these bullets from these guns don’t appear to be doing anything — perhaps we ought to try something bigger?”

“Crap” consensus shared by both the ladies I saw this with, one of whom was a childhood fan of the original.    So there.


RAWR! The end.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Monsters, Horror, Crap
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn

BOOK: The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell (2010)

May 20, 2014


Recently, I read an article somewhere about someone involved in zombie stuff (an author? a scriptwriter? an actor?  God, I’m old and my brain sucks. . .) who said this was, hands-down, his favorite zombie novel of all time.  I Googled it, having never heard of either the title or author, and found numerous other reviews, all raving about the writing, the language, the characters, the atmosphere, the creativity of this book.  So, naturally, I immediately put it on hold at the library, tearing into it (pun intended) the second it arrived.

While I can say I definitely found this novel highly entertaining, and I devoured it (pun intended) in about 24 hours, I’m a little concerned those reviewers were all missing part of their braaaaaaaaains (pun intended).  Not only is the story about as derivative as they come (yawn), but the writing style and the language were kind of clunky, and I had some problems with the main character and elements of story as well.

That main character is Temple, a 15 year-old girl born into the world post-zombie-apocalypse (WWZ, so to speak, happened 10 years before her birth, so we’re 25 years into it by the time the book opens).  What makes that interesting is that it means she has no nostalgia for the way the world once was, giving her a perspective we don’t often see in these kinds of stories.  She had a little brother — at least, she thinks he was her brother — but he’s long gone and she’s been alone for years, drifting from place to place, exploring with no plan or agenda, and dodging and killing “meatskins” as she goes.

Early on in the novel, Temple encounters a small community of survivors and decides to join them, at least for a little while. A little respite from the road.  She gets a nice dinner, some fresh clothes, a bed to sleep in, and she makes a friend right away in an older woman who immediately takes a liking to her.  But that first night, one of the men in the community breaks into her room and tries to assault her.  Temple ends up killing him while fighting him off, and when she tells the woman what happened, the woman packs her up into a car and sends her screeching off into the night, no time to lose.  Because the man had a brother, you see — Moses Todd — and, as Temple herself points out, Southern men mostly “just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance.”

And thus begins the central story line — Temple on the run from Moses, a man with an obvious conscience who, in fact, takes a strong liking to Temple and even tells her his brother was a worthless human being — yet irrationally seems compelled to kill her anyway (despite saving her life first a number of times). This plot point was one of my biggest problems with the novel, frankly.  It didn’t feel legitimate and it ended up being all too convenient more than once.  Attempts to explain Moses’s behavior are unsatisfying, and more often than not, the conflict felt like a lazy way to keep everybody on the move more than an exploration of whatever emotional or situational complexity might drive a man to kill a girl he didn’t really want to kill, simply because she stabbed his awful brother he didn’t even like in an attempt to protect herself.

As the chase continues on, Temple encounters a few other pockets of survivors, including a family holed up in a mansion and subsisting largely on booze and denial, a mentally challenged man named Maury she kind of adopts, and a group of mutants who have discovered they can shoot themselves up with zombie spinal fluid and . . .  turn themselves into really disgusting subhuman beings (??).  That was another little plot twist I had some issues with — interesting concept, I suppose, but why?  The mutants don’t seem to be benefiting from this behavior in any obvious way — the injections are excruciatingly painful, and then their skin starts to rot and fall off and they’re ugly and smell bad.  Attempts to explain this again fall flat — something to do with religion?  Or family unity?  What?  And just how did they discover this technique in the first place?  Someone had a few too many beers and thought to themselves, “Hey, let’s try shooting ourselves in the back of the skull with zombie spinal fluid!”  Mrrrrrah?

Even more problematic for me, though, were the little things.  Like the fact we’re 25 years out of civilization, yet everybody still has indoor plumbing (complete with running water), electricity, and working gas pumps.  That would be infinitely doable if you were in a small community of survivors and one of you used to be an engineer — but Temple has hot baths and turns on lights everywhere she goes, pretty much.  And she can discard a car and simply pick up another one, finding it still operational even though it may have been sitting around idle for a decade or more.  Just how does that work?

Now add in the fact Temple is uneducated and illiterate, yet talks like a scholar (with a thick and contrived Southern accent, mind you).   “Patina”?  “Convivial”?  What gives?  Again, there’s no attempt to provide an explanation for this — yet there was the perfect opportunity.  There’s a scene in which she thinks back about the man who cared for her as a child, and if the author had had him rattle off a few 25 cent words, I would’ve been satisfied she’d learned them all from him.  But if you’re a loner in the world and you can’t read, you aren’t learning the word “convivial,” I’m sorry.  Not to mention the description a school of fish in a pond as “disco-lit.”  Oh really?  What is this thing you call a “disco”?

Temple’s journey is a journey of redemption, especially after she picks up Maury and flashbacks about her little maybe-brother begin to flit in and out — in that way, it does have some real meat on it (pun intended).  But while I liked the spare writing style generally (authentic grittiness in places, especially since it doesn’t use punctuation), it was definitely clunky and overdone more often than not, and the story is about as been-there-done-that as they come, right down to the mutant family from Wrong Turn showing up there at the end.

It’s a noble attempt to do something different, and again, the main character’s distance from life as the reader knows it was an inspired way to go, but there are just way too many problems with this novel for it to be one I can recommend as the “best zombie novel” ever written.  If that’s really true, then the genre is in desperate need of some new flesh (pun intended).


[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: You’re Next (2011)

March 14, 2014

yourenextThis horror flick opens as an older couple celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary head out to the family summer home, where they meet up with their adult children (and assorted spouses) for a weekend’s celebration together.

It’s family time as usual, except for one recent addition to the clan:  their son Crispian’s new girlfriend Erin, who has a thick Australian accent . . . AND A DARK, DARK SECRET.  (Cue “dun-dun-DUN!” music.) (Only not really, because her secret is really more ridiculous than DARK, DARK.)

At first, everything goes pretty much as expected — family banter, family strain, all on display at the dinner table.  Then, out of the blue, an arrow comes flying through a window, and the family finds themselves under vicious attack from strangers in masks hiding right outside.

As they make a series of really idiotic decisions resulting in a series of really gore-iotic deaths, the movie spins around and around in all-too-familiar circles, offering very little in the way of creative ideas, until we get to the end — which is about as all-too-familiar as they come.

In other words:  Yawn.

I hadn’t been all that interested in seeing this movie when it first came out — despite its general panning from movie critics, the Liv Tyler/Scott Speedman movie The Strangers had been very successful in creeping me the heck out, and after seeing that one (plus, Ils (Them), a similar, but even scarier French film I reviewed in the same post with The Strangers), I kind of swore off the home-invasion-horror genre for a while.  I love scary movies, but I like my scares a little less “could actually happen to me,” know what I mean?

I kept hearing that You’re Next was clever, well-written, and even a bit darkly comic, though, so I gave it a shot.  Here’s my rundown on those three descriptors:

Clever:  Where? There’s nothing here I haven’t seen done before in a myriad of different ways, and the “twist” in the middle, revealing the reason for the attack, was as original as the cliche I’m about to use to describe it:  visible from a mile away.  Plus, giving the killers an actual reason for doing what they’re doing, even if it’s an interesting reason (which it isn’t here, I’m just pretending) immediately takes away some of the fear factor — when the killers in The Strangers answered the question, “Why are you doing this to us?” with “Because you were home,” for example, my stomach flipped.  Man.  That is WAY scarier than [reason provided by the killers in You’re Next] (spoiler avoidance!).

Well-written:  The dialogue was fine, but in order to be an effectively scary movie, I have to be scared for the characters I’m watching, and in order for me to do that, I have to at least care about them a little.  Hard to do when they’re all really, really boring.  Erin was the one tiny standout, and that was only because she was a curious mix of homicidal maniac and moralist (about as curious a mix as curious mixes come, frankly).

Darkly comic:  Oh, maybe.  I never know what people mean by “darkly comic” half the time anyway.  I didn’t feel this was a “comic” movie, dark or otherwise, but that may be because I was so bored so quickly I didn’t have the energy to be bleakly amused.

I used to watch just about every horror movie I could get my hands on, but I confess that over the last couple of years, I’ve started to lose a lot of my patience.  I think I’ve just seen too many now — nothing strikes me as unique anymore.  Here’s hoping a filmmaker comes along soon who can truly revitalize the genre, because we’re long overdue for something interesting.

Anyway, I suggest giving this one a pass.  But if you’re looking for a good scary home invasion movie, go check out my double-feature review of The Strangers and Ils, because one or both of those ought to be sufficient for a couple of weeks of double-checking the locks on your doors at night.  And have any of you guys seen The Purge?  I keep checking it out from the library and sending it back unwatched.  Should I watch? Don’t steer me wrong!

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Sharni Vinson, Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, Nicholas Tucci

Dyatlov Pass Incident Double Feature! Devil’s Pass (movie) and Dead Mountain (book)

January 24, 2014

devilspassA few weeks ago I checked out a book from my local public library about something called the “Dyatlov Pass incident.”  When I got home, I set it on my dining room table and then kind of forgot it was there.

The following weekend, I was in the mood for a crappy horror movie, and I noticed this flick called Devil’s Pass was available for streaming at Netflix.  It sounded intriguing: I love movies set in snowy nowheres, and it was directed by Renny Harlin — admittedly not a great sign but at least I’d heard of him.

As soon as the movie started, I was astonished to discover it was about the same thing as the book I’d just picked up — the Dyatlov Pass incident — something I’d never even heard of until this bizarre coincidence.

What a bizarre coincidence!

Also: what a fascinating story!  And man, is it ever the perfect fodder for a horror or sci-fi movie — why there haven’t been more of them, I have no idea.  Before I get into specifics about the movie and the book, though, let me fill you in on a little background.  This part is the true-story part.

In the winter of 1959, a group of young adults in Russia decided to take a break from school and go ski-hiking into the Urals.  They started out as a group of 10 (8 men, 2 women), but not long into the trek, one of them fell ill and had to turn back.

The other 9, led by Igor Dyatlov, a 23 year-old student at Ural Polytechnic and highly skilled climber, had no concerns about their trip, despite the fact they were climbing in the snowy nowheres of Siberia in January — certainly not my first choice for camping.  These guys knew what they were doing, though, and they were having a great time doing it.  Photos from their trip show them goofing around, enjoying camp, laughing.  It was clearly a blast.

At least, it was until it wasn’t anymore.

After their deadline to get back to town came and went, the group’s friends began to get worried.  They soon put together a search team and headed up along the same path the Dyatlov group had taken.

For five days, they found nothing.  On the sixth day, they found the group’s tent, eerily set up inside as though the group had just been there and would be back any moment.  Food was laid out.  Several of the hikers’ boots were lined up by the tent entrance.  But at the back of the tent was an ominous sign: a huge slash in the canvas, clearly made from the inside, as though something terrible had been coming in the front and the rear was their only way out.

Eventually, all the hikers’ bodies were found, and it became clear they had fled in a panic, separating from each other and running in wildly impractical, random directions.  Most of them had frozen to death alone — they were all drastically under-dressed for the weather, many in what amounted to pajamas, and, as the boots in the tent had suggested, several were in their stocking feet.  In Siberia.  In January.

Disturbingly, though, two of the bodies showed evidence of some kind of violence — one had a crushing head injury, the other was missing her tongue.  Another two were found in an embrace, next to the embers of a small fire. And, weirdest of all, several of them had high levels of radioactivity on their clothing.

Leading to the question: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

First, the movie’s theory.  Devil’s Pass is about a group of film students who decide to follow the path the Dyatlov group took and make a documentary about the incident.  It’s essentially The Blair Witch Project, only set in Siberia instead of New Jersey — this, for me, was not a bad thing.

After days of hiking in, the group finally gets to the place where the Dyatlov tent was discovered, and decide to call it a night, pitching their own tent essentially on the same spot where Igor’s had been. This, incidentally, would also not be my first choice for camping.

While the others are setting up, the team leader and her buddy head out for some early poking around.  It’s just trees and snows and hills and rocks and stuff — until they come across something plenty weird: a door.   A door in the side of the mountain.  Thumbs up!

From there, the movie gets even more intriguing. Annnnnnd then it takes a sharp turn towards Hilariously Dumb.  All in all, though, it’s not a terrible flick and I’d say it’s well worth a rental if you’re interested in some really crazy theories about what happened to Igor and his pals. Why the hell not?


Speaking of really crazy theories, let’s move on.  The non-fiction book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is written by a journalist, Donnie Eichar, who essentially does the same thing the kids in the movie did — he goes to the Northern Urals and hikes the same path, in the hopes he’ll discover something no one else has and finally put to rest the decades-old  question, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

The book is written in alternating chapters, with half of them set in the present day, focusing on the author’s research, interviews, and travels, and the other half set in 1959, telling the story of the Dyatlov group (reconstructed thanks to the hikers’ journals and camera, as well as interviews with friends and search party members).

Everybody in Russia seems to have a theory about what happened to the Dyatlov party, with no two theories alike.  Those theories range from alien abduction to a Soviet military conspiracy involving a secret radioactive weapon the group had accidentally stumbled across them testing out.  The conspiracy theory is strengthened somewhat by the fact the government had been unwilling to help during the search, and later refused to release any of their own information about the incident and the victims.

Assessing and dismissing most of the major theories one by one, Eichar finally proposes yet another idea, only this time, the theory is based in science and is supported by scientists specializing in exactly that very scientific thing — a thing I will not describe so as not to spoilerize you.

The problem is, after such build-up — such suspense, such drama, such crazy, crazy weirdness — Eichar’s theory was kind of a super-bummer let-down for me.  Partly because it’s really the only theory that makes any sense whatsoever, which means it’s probably truly what happened.  Which means, ugh, how awful.  Frankly, alien abduction probably would have been a gentler way to go.

So, what the hell happened?  The answer is we still don’t know for sure and we may never know (though, apparently, there are more super-secret documents the Russians won’t release — suspicious!).  Yet despite the fact that after reading the entire book, you still won’t really know anything more about what happened than you did when you started (which is to say: nuttin’), it’s well worth reading anyway, just so you can meet Igor and his friends, follow them along their journey, and mourn their tragic deaths.  If what Eichar thinks happened really is what happened, it seems the least we can do for those poor kids.

As soon as you turn the last page, though, pop in Devil’s Pass so you can end your own journey to Siberia with some serious eye-rolls and snorty giggles.  Really, Renny Harlin?  Really?  That’s what you’re going with?  Of all the possibilities?  You cheeseball.


Movie: Devil’s Pass: Netflix it | Amazon Rental
Book: Dead MountainBuy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews

MOVIE: The Apparition (2012)

September 24, 2013

apparitionCute couple Kelly from the Twilight Movies and Ben of the Silly Bangs are moving into their first house together, a perfect and perfectly enormous two-story home in a brand-new housing development in the middle of nowhere in the desert.

At first, things are going great.  Young love!  Trips to Costco!  But then weird stuff starts to happen — and I don’t just mean the fact Rick Gomez from Band of Brothers is in this as their slightly-creepy-apparently-as-a-red-herring neighbor, though that was plenty weird, to be sure — and soon Kelly and Ben realize they are being haunted by . . . the world’s most boringest ghost!

You read that right.

Make World’s Most Boringest Ghost angry?  He’ll tie your laundry into knots!  Upset World’s Most Boringest Ghost?  He’ll chuck a dirt clod onto your kitchen ceiling!  Dare to challenge World’s Most Boringest Ghost?  He’ll pull the sheets super tight on your bed!  Try to take out World’s Most Boringest Ghost?  HE WILL KILL YOUR CACTUS!

Man, that cactus went down like a clown, Charlie Brown!

Just when you start wondering if this is all because they moved the headstones and not the graves (new housing developments can be fun that way), it instead turns out Ben was involved with some dumb parapsychology experiment years back in which a bunch of even dumber college kids messed around with stuff way over their heads and ended up opening a door to the Hellmouth, or whatever.

There’s some nonsense about a bunch of special equipment that generated the “brain power” of hundreds, or even thousands!, of minds, which is how they turned a regular ol’ séance into a full-on boring ghost problem (it’s a shame for all our sakes this equipment was fictitious; if we could’ve gotten even one mind into writer/director Todd Lincoln, it might’ve made a real difference here).

Worse!  The boring spirit that got through the door they opened is SUPER MAD these meddling kids released him from the torments of Hell — well, who wouldn’t be? — and now he plans to bore to death (feels like!) all those responsible for his plight.  Plus that one dude’s girlfriend who had nothing whatsoever to do with any of it.  Not a Twilight fan, obviously.

In the movie’s final moments (SPOILER ALERT! BUT KEEP READING ANYWAY BECAUSE WHO CARES?), Kelly decides to give up and let the ghost win, and suddenly, this movie feels a lot like Open Water without the benefit of sharks.

Now she just has to pick a poignant place to spend her final moments before she too is bored to death.  She knows just where to go, busting into her local Costco and lying down in one of the tents in the camping department.

Why?  Because it’s where Ben bought her that cactus, you guys.  Back when times were good, when she was happy, when cacti were thriving.

Full circle, stop.

I watched the whole thing!  I am awesome!

[Netflix it | Rent it on Amazon]

Genre:  Crap, Horror
Cast: Ashley Greene, Sebastian Stan, Tom Felton, Julianna Guill, Luke Pasqualino, Rick Gomez

MOVIES: Black Water (2007) and The Reef (2010)

August 8, 2013

blackwaterFor some reason, last weekend I was really in the mood to watch movies about people being eaten by regular ol’ earth creatures (as opposed to, say, “mansquitoes”) with big teeth and serious grudges against mankind.

Both these two “people-eaters,” as I call this genre, were made by the same Australian director, Andrew Traucki, and are, apparently, the first two movies in a planned “trilogy of terror,” so it seemed logical to watch them back-to-back as a double-feature.  I’d actually seen Black Water before, but not for many years, and I didn’t remember much about it, aside from the fact it was about a bunch of people stranded in a swamp and stalked by a really big, mean crocodile.  Which: sweet.

Of these two movies, Black Water is definitely the better one.  The Reef is about a group of people who are out sailing in the middle of nowhere in the ocean (one of my least-favorite places) when the hull of their vessel suddenly gets ripped open (I guess by the shark? That didn’t make a lot of sense) and flips over.  They have to decide: stay on the boat and hope it doesn’t sink before someone finds them, or jump into the water and try to swim for shore?  One of the guys is an experienced local diver and seems to know which direction to swim in, so all but one of the gang decide to make a break for it.  Remaining behind?  The local fisherman guy, who is all, “Dudes, I fish these waters. I know what’s down there.  Best of luck to you.  Write if you find work.”


thereefThe movie ends up being a fairly standard man-eating shark flick, with, you know, lots of people getting eaten by a shark that won’t stop stalking them all the way to shore.  Is that really how sharks act?  I don’t know.  Probably not, since in the real world, they don’t seem to like the taste of human flesh much (lots of single chomps on surfers, very few going back for seconds).  But this is just how shark movies work, I suppose — it’d be hard, in fact, to be a shark movie without this.  In any case, at least it wasn’t Jaws: The Revenge, in which the shark stalks the Brody family from New England to the Bahamas, even though they fly there on an airplane (?), and then later in the movie, Michael Caine falls off a boat and gets back on dry (??).  See?  Things could be worse.

Anyway, aside from the fact The Reef fills the bill of “movies about people being eaten,” the characters weren’t interesting enough to make it stand out amongst all the other movies just like it.

Black Water, on the other hand, is a truly terrifying movie.  It claims to be based on a true story, and I believe it, even if it’s not true at all — that’s how believable it is.  It’s about a group of tourists — two sisters and one of the sister’s husbands — who decide to hire some guy named Jim to take them out into the mangrove swamps of Northern Australia to fish.  They’re in a dinky little metal boat, which ends up being no match for the utterly GINORMOUS crocodile that flips them over in the middle of nowhere in the swamp (and here’s where I pulled out my list of “Places Never to Go” and added “Middle of nowhere in the Mangrove swamps of Northern Australia,” by the way.)

Jim gets eaten right away, poor guy (SPOILER ALERT!), while the other three manage to get into the trees, high enough the croc can’t reach them.  For the moment, they are safe.  But they can’t hang out in the trees indefinitely, talking about life and hoping to get rescued (well, they could, but then this would be a mumblecore movie instead of a people-eater).

The husband decides their best move is to try to get to the boat, so, either bravely or foolishly (both), he declares he’s going to try to slink smoothly into the water, quiet as a mouse, and swim slowly over to the boat to flip it over.  The working theory is that as long as the crocodile doesn’t hear him splashing around, he should be totally safe.  Ladies, keep an eye out, he’s goin’ in.

As it turns out, to no one’s great surprise, crocodiles can totally tell when bravely foolish husbands have suddenly made themselves available for lunch, and things kind of go downhill from there.

What I liked about Black Water was the setting, which is suitably disconcerting, and the fact it was a crocodile — a fairly normal one, I’d imagine — that was out to get them.  I haven’t seen nearly as many killer-croc movies as I have killer-shark movies, and the change of predator was kind of refreshing.  Er, so to speak.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, I actually cared about the two sisters — they had a very authentic “sisterly” relationship I could relate to, and they were real nice ladies, you know?  I didn’t want to see them get eaten by a crocodile.  I wanted them to make it out alive.

Whether they do or not, you will have to find out on your own, and I highly recommend you do!  You can pass on The Reef, but if you’re a fan of people-eaters,  Black Water is definitely worth checking out.

Incidentally, the final movie in Traucki’s terror trilogy is called The Jungle, and it was crowdfunded on Indiegogo last year and is in production now, apparently.  It’s about a killer leopard!  SIGN ME RIGHT UP!

[Netflix Black Water (DVD only) | Netflix The Reef (streaming) | Stream Black Water or The Reef on Amazon (free for Prime)]

Genre:  Shark, Croc, Creature, Horror
Cast:  Black Water: Maeve Dermody, Diana Glenn, Ben Oxenbould, Fiona Press, Andy Rodoreda
The Reef: Damian Walshe-Howling, Gyton Grantley, Adrienne Pickering, Zoe Naylor, Mark Simpson, Kieran Darcy-Smith

MOVIE: The Conjuring (2013)

August 6, 2013

conjuringSo, The Conjuring.  Hmm.  Where to begin?  I guess I better begin with this: there are some spoilers below (for this and for Insidious) and there will likely be more in the comments, so head’s up if you care about stuff like that.  Additionally, there is profanity AND a quiz, and this is going to be a long one, because — well, you’ll see.  Brace yourselves.

I really wanted to like this film and went in with the best of expectations.  I even waited a few weeks so I could increase my chances of an empty-ish theater (best way to go with scary movies), and I was rewarded by getting to see it in an utterly cavernous space with only two other people in there with me — talk about scare-conducive settings!  Plus, not only did I love director James Wan’s previous film Insidious, but even the mass media critics, not known for their enthusiasm about horror movies, were mostly diggin’ this one.  Add to that: Lili Taylor!  I love her!  Everything combined to make for some pretty strong excitement on my part.

And so it is with heavy heart that I report to you the major suckage of this movie.

When I first left the theater, disappointed to the max, I wondered if maybe Wan had been as clichéd, hammy, and tedious in Insidious and I had just been swept away by the right mood or Patrick Wilson’s swoopy hair or something.  So, I immediately went out and rented it, watched it again, and nope — that movie still works for me.  It doesn’t matter that it ultimately has a silly plot; the road from first scare to silly reveal is effectively creepy — for me.

So, what’s different?  That’s actually kind of a funny question, because, first of all, The Conjuring is basically the same movie with different people, dumber people, and no humor whatsoever (oh, nerds from Insidious — you were sorely needed here).  Both films are about young families with little kids who move into new houses and then end up both haunted and demonized.  Heck, both films even start Patrick Wilson and his increasingly receding hairline (what the swoop is for, I determined this time around).  I suppose I could have predicted this, based on the limited information I’d let myself see before going (trailer, the briefest of plot descriptions), but I had been hoping The Conjuring would be a straight-up haunting, and instead, it was boring, boring, boring ol’ demons again.

Ghosts and hauntings actually kind of spook me out; demons typically do not.  Demons, to me, are dumb.  I don’t believe in demons, not even a teeny tiny doubting bit, and so it’s kind of like trying to make me be scared of evil unicorns.  There is patently no such thing as evil unicorns, so what is there to fear? (I mean, duh, unicorns are never EVIL.)

But hey, wait!  Insidious was also about demons, and so were all the Paranormal Activities, and I liked all (most) of those, right?  So, what gives, The Conjuring?

Well, first of all, the family in Insidious was a whole lot less dumb than the family in The Conjuring, and that goes a really long way with me when it comes to movies like this.  To wit, a quiz:

1.  It’s moving day!  Everybody’s enjoying the new house except for, what’s this? Your dog is barking on the porch and refuses to cross the threshold?  What should you do? 

A.  Chuckle at your silly dog and go back to unpacking.

2.  You’re exploring the house and you discover, how weird!, the previous residents appear to have walled off the creepy cellar!  What should you do?

A.  Pull down the wall and go downstairs to explore!
B.  MOVE OUT, because PREVIOUS RESIDENTS KNOW THEIR SHIT.  (Actual quote from the mom in The Conjuring: “I wonder why it was boarded up?”  Actual quote from me in that moment, “I’LL GIVE YOU THREE GUESSES!”)

(Incidentally, I can’t resist mentioning here that the first thing they found when they went into that walled-off cellar was the furnace, which made me wonder where the hell they thought it was before they knew there was a cellar?  Never mind that, though — I have bigger demon fish to fry.)

3.  Have all your clocks suddenly started acting weird?  I mean, ALL your clocks, TOTALLY WEIRD? If so, what should you do?

A.  Nothing — you can just restart them all by hand every morning, tra la!
B.  MOVE OUT, because CLOCKS KNOW THEIR SHIT (or . . . whatever!).

4.  If a bunch of the doors and closets and such are opening up by themselves repeatedly:

A. Say to yourself, “Ha ha, this silly house!  These doors are so silly!”

5. Wait, even better:  If the door to the creepy cellar creaks itself open right in front of you and you hear something clapping down there even though you know all your kids are upstairs asleep and NOT, in fact, playing “hide and clap” with you in the basement, do you:

A.  Go down into the creepy cellar all by yourself without a flashlight or, seemingly, your brains? (Hey, thank god your husband so pointedly left those matches on the top step for no good reason earlier!)
B.  Turn around immediately, walk out the front door, keep walking FOREVER.

Here’s a hint, intrepid quiz-takers:  The answer to every one of these questions is B!  If you answered A to any of the above questions, you should stop reading here.  There’s no hope for you.  You might as well just possess yourself right now and get it over with (what? I don’t know.).

Now granted, when it comes to moving out of a haunted/possessed house, those of us who have seen 80,000 movies just like this one know this almost never solves your problem.  Persistent little bastards, those spooks. However, even more rarely does it make any sense at all not to at least try!   That’s one of things I liked about Insidious, in fact — the family moves!  The wife is like, “Dude, I am so out of here!” and the husband is all, “You got it, lady.”  It doesn’t work, but at least it’s a normal human being sort of thing to do.  The typical excuse for not moving in these kinds of movies is that the family sunk all their money into the new house and therefore can’t leave without losing everything.  This is idiotic.  What even modestly sane person is going to stay in a house that has doors that open by themselves and FRIGGIN’ GHOSTS playing “HIDE AND CLAP” in the BASEMENT?

Ugh.  RAWR!

Another annoyance for me was the excessive use of shrieking-strings “BOO!” music to make sure we’ve just noticed the terrifying thing we could not possibly have failed to notice because it’s on a screen that is 70 feet across and RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!  This is one of my biggest pet peeves in horror movies — overdoing the shrieking-strings (I blame Psycho for this, incidentally).  Wan does a little of this in Insidious too, but it’s not as noticeable there (at least for me, and I was watching/listening for it the second time around too).  It’s unnecessary and it undermines my intelligence and keen observation skills (see above re: 70 foot screen).  Trust your audience to notice when you zoom in on a little girl’s foot and something invisible gives it a tug. We’ll get it.  We’re not morons (mostly).

Oh, and speaking of which, another quiz question:

If you were a child and something grabbed your foot in the middle of the night, would you:

A. Hang your head off the edge of your bed to see what’s under there, dangling your face an inch away from whatever that thing is going to end up being?

Oh my god, no kid would pick A!  NO KID WOULD PICK A!  The bravest and/or dumbest kid on the planet would NOT PICK A.  That is just ridiculous.  Stop being ridiculous!

I seem mad, right?   It’s because I’m really disappointed.  If Wan is going to make the same movie over and over now, only dumber every time, I have just lost all hope for the future (of Wan movies, anyway).  After the crazy success of Paranormal Activity, not to mention Blair Witch Project, I was hoping horror movie makers would at long last catch on to the fact that it’s what we DON’T see that scares us the most.  Just because you have super-duper CGI technology doesn’t mean you should use it!  The invisible thing is the scariest of all the things.  The minute you show me a dumb cartoon ghost is the minute you start to lose me.  (Including in Insidious, by the way, but Wan waited a decently long time to reveal the (admittedly lame) fire-face demon in that one, and waiting a long time is a more effective way to do that.  Just ask Jaws.)

Also, someone has to say it and it might as well be me:  the end of this movie, in which the “issue” is finally “resolved,” was really goddamn dumb.  Seriously?  That’s all it takes?  Really?  Sheesh.

Look.  I’m sure there are lots of you guys out there who saw this movie and enjoyed it and that’s totally cool and understandable and you are in excellent company!  But I think anyone who is a big horror movie fan and has therefore seen rather a lot of movies just like this one isn’t going to find much here to cling to.  There isn’t a single truly unique moment in the entire movie.   It is every other movie just like it, and that’s all.


[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Ghosts, Demons
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joey King, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Mackenzie Foy, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland