Friday, October 20, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 20: The Other Side of the Door (2016)

(dir. Johannes Roberts)

20th Century Fox
*First time viewing

A grieving mother learns of a ritual through which she can gain closure by speaking to her son one last time. But she breaks the rules, and tries to bring her son back with her. Something else follows.

The Other Side of the Door gets a lot of mileage from its setting. Yes, we’ve seen the grieving parents seeking to bring back their child before. And we’ve also seen ancient rituals performed with deadly results, prolonged by things that go bump in the night. But we haven’t seen it in India (or at least, to my knowledge, not in a Hollywood production.) The Other Side of the Door isn’t particularily good, but it’s passable and does have an interesting mythology to play off of. The crux around this film revolves around a door in an ancient temple, a temple in which if you bring the ashes of the dead then you are able to speak to your loved one for one last time. The keepers of this temple are shamans who cover themselves in the ashes of the dead and eat dead flesh. That’s the stuff nightmare fuel is made out of, and couple in a four-armed specter of death, Myrtu, and The Other Side of the Door has some interesting imagery to play with. But Myrtu is introduced too late in the game and should have played a more prominent role in the narrative's horror in order for the film to have the kind impact it needed.

 I was impressed earlier this by Johannes Roberts’ 47 Meters Down, which is powerful in its depiction of tension, even if the performances faltered. And since he’s directing The Strangers 2, a sequel I’ve been waiting nearly a decade for, I’ve got high hopes for his continued success. The Other Side of the Door definitely doesn’t have any issues with the performances. Sarah Wayne Callies and Jeremy Sisto both give different, and layered portrayals of grief’s toll on a parent in the respective roles of Maria and Michael. But the film feels oddly devoid of tension at times and somewhat disconnected from the looming threat of death, which is after-all what this whole bussiness is about. The ever-reliable house creeks and ghostly images don’t feel creative enough for the film’s mythology and don’t do enough to play with the film’s unique setting. There are some creepy moments, especially one delivered by Michael and Maria’s young daughter, but for an R-rated horror film, there’s not enough ingenuity on display here.

Scare Factor: 2/5 The Other Side of the Door is pretty middle of the road horror fare, largely because it has the potential to explore new territory but never fully immerses itself in the world it sets itself in. There’s a solid display of production design, and Americans caught within a culture, though  afictional aspect of it, is always interesting, but The Other Side of the Door just never fully opens up.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 19: 1408 (2007)

(dir. Mikael Hafstrom)

Dimension Films
A paranormal guidebook writer who doesn’t believe in ghosts hopes to revive his career by checking into the Dolphin Hotel’s infamous Room 1408, where he experiences a lifetime of terror all within an hour’s time.

Stephen King novels, and adaptations, are filled with protagonists who are writers. It’s become an expected, though welcome trope of his work. 1408 once again gives us a protagonist who’s a writer, but because he’s not a fiction writer, but rather the author of the kind of non-fiction America’s greatest haunts book, he and the way he reacts to genuine horror feels unique. John Cusack’s performance as Mike Enslin is masterful and this movie wouldn’t be nearly as impactful as it is without his cynical turn as a washed up writer and atheist. I think what makes this King adaptation one of the stronger ones is how complete Enslin feels as a character, right down do his horrible fashion sense (a sports coat over a Hawaiian shirt? Please leave). Cusack has the guy pegged down, from the way he enters a room with a vague, undeserved arrogance, to the way he records notes for his books with a needlesome pretension. No, Enslin isn’t likeable, but he feels so much like a real person rather than a forced performance of unlikability, which ultimately makes him a bit endearing or at least someone we can empathize with.

The room, 1408, is plagued by a history of horrible suicides which the hotel’s manager, Olin, given both ominous charm and menace by Samuel L. Jackson, describes in great detail. No one has ever survived in 1408 more than an hour, he intones. The film really plays with the elemental forces at work within the supernatural. There are ghostly apparitions, that appear perversely illuminated like TV images, but there’s also the matter of the thermostat which takes the room from an inferno to a blizzard, and a faucet that floods the whole room in an attempt to drown Enslin. For a film primarily set in one location, Hafstrom really allows the film’s production design to put Enslin through the ringer. Ultimately, these visions, and painful accidents that Enslin goes through while within the room serve as an attempt by supernatural forces to drive him mad, and push him to the edge of rational sense. But Enslin has already been driven to the edge by the death of his young daughter, and thus the confrontation plays out like a battle of wills between the physical world and the supernatural, providing a small chance for Enslin to possible regain his faith. While the ending doesn’t hit the mark it needed to, there’s still some powerful concepts at play here, handled in a visually clever way.

Scare Factor: 2/5 1408 is a really strong modern ghost story that’s more spooky than horrific, but it feels like the perfect October film to watch on a chilly night.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 18: Rings (2017)

(dir. F. Javier Gutierrez)

Paramount Pictures
*First-time viewing.

Samara’s back in the third Ring movie that finds a couple looking into her origins after a college experiment to find proof of the afterlife goes terribly wrong.

Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, which unbelievably came out fifteen years ago today, is one of the few stellar examples of J-horror remakes that populated the early 2000s. The cast, the atmosphere, the elevation of PG-13 horror, and its lasting nightmares made The Ring a modern horror masterpiece. While The Ring Two (2005) couldn’t capture the same electricity, there were hopes that Gutierrez’s third entry in the franchise, Rings, would breathe life back into Samara and reignite our fear of unmarked video tapes. Admittedly, the fact that Rings was originally set for a 2015 release and placed on a shelf while Paramount rescheduled the film numerous times, didn’t inspire much confidence. But Cabin in the Woods, which has risen through the ranks to be favorite amongst horror fans, also had an extended shelf-life, so there was still a chance for Rings to surprise.

The film starts out promisingly enough, with a man on a plane running away from the curse. When all the monitors on the plane switch to that infamous video, it seems we’re in for a wild ride, some kind of mix of The Ring and Final Destination. But the film jumps ahead two years and we find a college professor (Johnny Galecki) in possession of the videotape. He uses the tape to create a college experiment by getting students to volunteer to watch the video, creating “tails” so that each person’s curse will be overridden by the person who follows them. This experiment, Galecki’s Gabriel says, is to prove the existence of a soul and the soul’s need to find a new host. This stretches credibility and logic, but it at least points to a semi-interesting direction. Gutierrez clearly tries to pick up the atmosphere Verbinki created in these early scenes, replacing the wet, blue palate, with a wet, green one. For 25 minutes of so, Rings actually seems like it could be pretty decent. But then the plot takes a turn when couple Julia and Holt (Matilda Lutz and Alex Roe) determine that in order to rid themselves of the curse they have to go to the town Samara was buried and properly lay her to rest. What follows is a mind-numbingly boring exploration into Samara’s origins, with a sleepy appearance from Vincent D’Onofrio that concludes with a climax that strongly suggests someone at Paramount watched Don’t Breathe during Rings reshoots phase. Even the atmosphere that Gutierrez established in the first act disappears in flat gray palates and standard establishing shots. Rings is so boring, so devoid of emotion or even of cheap jump scares that it’s hard to believe it was backed by a $25 million budget. And it ends with a twist that’s so cheap and so contradictory to the story that preceded it that it’s laughable. Still, I’m not sure Gutierrez is solely at fault here. Usually a mess this big, was the result of too many hands and you can feel Rings being pulled in at least four different directions.

Scare Factor: 0/5 When the film can’t even make Samara’s appearance frightening, you know something’s gone wrong. I almost went with the original Ring for this entry instead of watching this, but I decided to give it a shot, unfortunately for me. You’re better off taking a nap than watching Rings.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 17: Dawn of the the Dead (2004)

(dir. Zack Snyder)

Universal Pictures

During a zombie outbreak agroup of survivors take refuge in a mall.

Remaking George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was no small feat. The original 1978 film ushered in a seminal moment in horror, and still stands as the most impactful film within the subgenre that’s second only to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968.) There have been a surplus of great pieces about Romero and the impact of his zombie films since his passing in July. I debated devoting a space here to one of his entries, but with so much written on him this year I thought the best way to honor him within this space was to look at how his impact inspired the next generation of filmmakers and ushered in a rebirth of the zombie film. Now, it’s easy to take the zombie film for granted, what with the glut of films ranging from good to awful, and The Walking Dead devouring the minds of the binge-watching generation. But in 2004, the space for modern zombie movies was pretty open. 28 Days Later came out in 2002 (despite Danny Boyle’s claim that it isn’t a zombie movie, it most definitely is a zombie movie) and 2004 saw the realease of both Shaun of the Dead and Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. While Snyder’s film, is well-regarded it isn’t talked about in the same terms as Wright’s or Boyle’s films. Yes, Wright and Boyle's films are more original in their use of the zombies, but I think Snyder’s film really harkens back to the original appeal of these creatures Romero created.

What’s interesting about Dawn of the Dead, is that it shares the voices of both screenwriter, James Gunn, and Zack Snyder. There’s a distinct and sincere humor in the film that obviously paves the way for the tone of James Gunn’s Slither (2006), but there’s also a thematic undercurrent dealing with faith and punishment that feels very much tied to the themes Snyder would later tackle. Dawn of the Dead does enough to separate itself from the original by creating distinct (though ocassioanlly annoying) characters within a diverse cast of characters. Sarah Polley and Jake Weber both make for really strong, and likable leads and I wish we saw them in more horror films. And Ving Rhames, brings fierce passion and heart to his role. One of my favorite running bits throughout the movie is his character communicating with a white board to a gunshop owner the building across from the mall and the friendship that develops between them. While Dawn of the Dead doesn’t handle its consumerism aspect as well as the original, and it doesn’t feel like characters use the mall to its full capacity, the film certainly delivers on the zombie horror. Dawn of the Dead actually makes zombies scary, something we seem to have moved away from, and a birth scene near the end of the second act is perfectly orchestrated in its building tension. The last act, in which our characters try to escape the mall in two buses, is one of the best final acts in a zombie film and it really delivers on the shameless gore these films manage so well.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Dawn of the Dead is an absolutely thrilling experience that still stands as one of the best zombie films of the 21st century. Snyder and Gunn manage to pay homage to Romero’s original while creating their own beast. There’s a lot that the modern zombie explosion owes to this film, and while we’ve seen better character moments, and greater moments of tragedy, the pure joy found in the viewer experience here has yet to be topped.

Monday, October 16, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 16: The Neon Demon (2015)

(dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)

Amazon Studios/Broad Green Pictures/Scanbox Entertainment,The Jokers
Aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) encounters a world of lust, jealousy, and dark secrets within the modeling industry.

The Neon Demon won’t be for everyone. This statement could be said about every single one of Nicholas Winding Refn’s films. He is a filmmaker, who by design, goes against making films for everyone and seeks to find the artistry and meaning in alienation—the alienation of his characters and of himself as filmmaker. Jesse’s aspect of alienation is her beauty, a trait that pulls her into the modeling industry but also causes intense emotions, sometimes violently so, for those in her presence. Refn lingers on this beauty, not just the beauty of Jesse, but also the beauty of this neon world of seemingly perfect structures and dream-like spaces that are both inviting and menacing. It’s hard to argue against the claim that The Neon Demon is more style than substance, but oh, what delicious style it is. There’s a mesmerizing use of lights and a repeated triangle motif that acts of some kind of inverse-Trinity within the world of high-fashion, or a doorway to something wicked, ancient, and perceptively female.

Like much of Refn’s work outside of Drive, The Neon Demon isn’t particularly interested in plot-specifics, or creating a narrative that's simple to follow from point A to B. Instead there are flashes of heightened emotion that connect to actions that aren’t always what they seem. Jesse’s innocence is deceptive, though we’re not quite sure why, nor is Jesse herself. And the deception she’s pulled into by makeup artist Ruby (the excellent Jenna Malone) and a pair of models (Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote) is one of sexual menace but also an eerie lust for life, as if Jesse inhabits the space of both virgin and fountain of youth. While there’s very little overt horror throughout much of The Neon Demon, the last act takes a shocking turn that casts the entire movie in a new light-one that exists within some of our oldest horror mythos. At it’s core, The Neon Demon is a movie of vampires and witchcraft, figuratively through much of its runtime and literally in the film’s gut lurching conclusion. The message itself isn’t all that fascinating (beauty standards and industry menace have long been staples of horror) but what is fascinating is how Refn arrives there with this odd collection of images, alienated from any larger sense of story or aim. The Neon Demon is a triangular window into a world that only exists within the context of this film, making that its singularity all the more beautiful and haunting.

Scare Factor: 1/5 The Neon Demon probably won’t scare you, and its artistic attentions may come off as pretension, but the film looks and feels fascinating. It elicits, for me at least, an emotional response that isn’t easy to pinpoint but is nevertheless a refreshing one within my role as a spectator of the genre.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 15: The Void (2016)

(dir. Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie)

D Films

In this Lovecraftian inspired blending of horror subgenres, A group of people become trapped in a small-town hospital as a hooded cult surrounds the perimeter, and creatures spawned by a dark cosmic force grow inside.

There are some horror films that become so immersive in the experiences they create, that whatever flaws exist within it become moot as you become swept up in the whirlwind of curiosity that comes with exploring a frightening new territory. While the acting is a bit spotty at parts, and the connective story tissue ultimately becomes impenetrable in classic H.P. Lovecraft fashion, The Void is a practical effects lover’s haven and an ambitious cathedral of gore and weirdness that make it one of the year’s best horror films. Kostanski and Gillespie, primarily known for their art department and makeup work, with credits including Suicide Squad, Crimson Peak, and Pacific Rim, announce themselves as forces to be reckoned with through The Void. The set-up is simple, and the utilization of the classic “trapped in a single location” scenario is an almost effortless horror movie tool. But The Void stretches far beyond the classic, despite its wide range of inspirations and manages to top itself from scene to scene and effect to effect as we’re taken down the dark spiral of the pain that humans' cling to despite their best interests.

Grief is the fulcrum that the film rests on, and The Void is the messy afterbirth of that grief, afterbirth teeming with strange new half-life. Deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) and his estranged wife and nurse, Alison (Kathleen Munroe), divided by the death of their unborn daughter, are central to the film’s examination of how loss isn’t only horrific but transformative. Along with a pregnant woman and her father, a nursing intern, a Doctor, and a pair of outsiders on the run from the mysterious cult, Daniel and Alison entangled in the forces of death that exist beyond all concepts of Heaven and Hell. The film enables us to care about these characters so that even as creatures overrun the hospital and blood conceals in the halls, The Void remains a story of human beings. After all, any probing into the afterlife remains unimportant unless its tethered to human beings and their fragility.

The Void is gorgeous in its production design. Every creature, and almost every shot is impressively crafted and designed with a voice that gives the film its own identity despite its debts to The Thing, Re-Animator, From Beyond, and any number of Cronenberg films. Unlike another impressively designed modern film that wears its influences on its sleeves, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Void is quickly paced, creating a rollercoaster like experience that maintains thrills even as it refuses to answer the questions it poses. It’s not that the unanswered questions don’t matter, but that the surrounding experience carries such a force, that you can’t feel cheated. And perhaps, like any cosmic based horror worth its blood-sheened stars, the fear can only remain when it's in the unknown and inexplicable.

Scare Factor: 3/5 In many ways, The Void is the Resident Evil movie so many fans of the games wanted and never received. Even for a small-scale independent horror movie, there’s a grandness to Kostanski and Gillespie’s film, one that makes these filmmakers primed to take on larger horror worlds (the things these guys could do with a big-budget Stephen King property!). The Void maintains a sense of authenticity while feeling simultaneously novel in its designs and concerns. The Void sure to be regarded as a modern horror cult classic, and hopefully the first step in what will be an long and impressive horror filmography.

*Available on Netflix

Saturday, October 14, 2017

31 Days of Horror- Day 14: Village of the Damned (1995)

(dir. John Carpenter)

Universal Pictures
*First time viewing

After an incident leaves the residents of a small town briefly unconscious, its women wake to find themselves mysteriously pregnant. Years later, the strange, emotionless children born from this incident control the town through fear.

Based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, and a remake of the popular 1960 film of the same name, the biggest selling point of John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is that it’s John Carpenter’s. Despite the film’s negative reception upon release, and its seeming lack of necessity (particularly given Carpenter’s history with creating unique stories), Village of the Damned remains a compelling example of the director’s late work. Carpenter recreates the small, coastal town feel of his earlier work The Fog, and populates it with stock characters that are largely forgettable outside of Christopher Reeve, Kristie Alley, and a criminally underused Mark Hamill. Despite the fact that we never connect with any of the characters outside of Reeve’s widowed, and altruistic father of one of the mysterious children, Carpenter’s sunny, sea-side neo gothic remains engaging. Its engagement is largely on the basis that the glowing-eyed, towheaded children are creepy as hell, but as with most of Carpenter’s work, there’s something deeper at play.

Like so much of Carpenter’s work, there is a social allegory at the center of it. As we watch the parents of this small town struggle to control their nearly identical children, children who lack empathy and therefore humanity, it’s hard not to be reminded of the generational struggles that have defined, and still do define, America. Village of the Damned is inherently about our collective fears of the next generation, the answer to the question of what happens when the children we raise refuse to buy into our morals, and refuse to learn from their parents. It’s the strangeness of failed legacy carried out in a small town from which there is no escape from that fact. The fate of our world is, as it always was, determined by our children, and as their views depart from ours, we have no choice but to live stranded in a place that exhibits all the familiar locations but feels unquestionably alien.

Scare Factor: 1/5 While Village of the Damned doesn’t feel as complete as some of Carpenter's prior films, I’d argue that it is still a necessary part of his filmography.  Come for the creepy, red-eyed kids, but stay for Carpenter’s expression of parental terror.