Friday, October 31, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 31: Fright Night (1985)

(dir. Tom Holland)

*First time viewing

     I know, I know. It’s Halloween and I’m not writing about Michael Myers. ‘But, but you referenced it so many times!’ I know, it’s true. But here’s the thing: I watch Halloween every year, and I figured it was time to break away and do something different since I was going to be writing about it. And what good is a film blog if you can’t use it as an excuse to watch movies you haven’t seen? So I’m sure I’ll write about “the night He came home” in future 31 Days of Horror, but this time were delving into the appropriately Halloweeny titled: Fright Night.

     No one believes Charley Brewster when he tells them a vampire lives next door to him. Not his mom, not his girlfriend, not his sorta-friend Ed, and not even his idol and TV vampire slayer, Peter Vincent. Charley must convince the people closest to him to see the danger there in before his new neighbor kills them all. But the vampire, Jerry Dandrige, has better ways of convincing them to see things his way.

     Fright Night’s got its 80s-ness all over its sleeve. The awesome practical effects, music choices, and over the top performances are mixed with the not so great five minute dance scenes and inexplicable errors in story-logic (Charley who constantly watches vampire movies, has no idea about which artifacts, etc., will protect him from vampires. And the idea that you need faith for the cross to work is a matter of plot convenience). It's horror-comedy, but most of the unintentional comedy elements end up being the most amusing. Stephen Geoffreys’s performance as Evil Ed is the true stand out (“Oh, you’re so cool, Brewster”). He adds just the right mix of weird and pathetic to really make for a memorable character. While I didn’t grow up with the film like so many who love it did, I appreciate its status in the horror canon and admire the sense of fun the film has.

Scare Factor: 1/5 Fright Night is cheesy, in a mostly awesome kind of way. The effects are great and chilling enough to make up for lack of actual frights. It’s not quite as great as the internet led me to believe, but it’s a solid cult classic and a pretty fun cap to this Halloween season.

And that’s all! Thanks for reading. Happy Halloween!

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 30: Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

(dir. Scott Derrickson)

*First time viewing

     Deliver Us From Evil is inspired by the accounts of NYPD officer and demonologist, Ralph Sarchie, who partnered up with a Jesuit priest to deal with paranormal occurrences in New York. The film (which is completely fictional and not based on an actual case) follows Sarchie as he tracks down three war vets who encountered something demonic in a cave in Iraq. With the help of a priest, Sarchie comes to terms with his own lack of faith and the crime of vengeance he committed years ago, in order to stop the rise of demonic forces in the Bronx.

     If I’m going to be completely honest, there really wasn’t and still isn’t a need for any exorcism movies after William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. That movie covered all the basics and delivered the best possible exploration into that specific subject. Sure, I’ve enjoyed a number of the exorcism movies that followed, but with the understanding they were simply borrowing from Friedkin’s film.  Deliver Us From Evil is no different in terms of its influence. It still follows many of the same clichés, but it’s clear that Derrickson at least attempts to do something a little different by blending multiple genre clichés together. It’s not memorable, but it did hold my interest for the most part.

    The story is often cluttered by its desire to be too many things. It’s an exorcist story, a redemption story for both a cop and a priest, a heavy-handed metaphor for PTS in a post-9/11 world, and a traditional procedural crime-thriller.  There’s a lot going on in this, which sometimes causes the central storyline to become lost in the shuffle. And yet, it is this shuffle of too many elements that make the film more interesting than just another typical tale of possession. Deliver Us From Evil takes a more personal look at its characters than most modern horror films, and it’s an admirable effort. While it doesn’t entirely succeed as a crime or horror film, it is one of the better exorcism efforts to break away from the found-footage formula.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Even though the movie is too long and filled with too many subplots to consistently build tension and terror, Derrickson creates a great sense of atmosphere. The movie is nowhere near as successful as his previous film, Sinister, but it’s entertaining and contains solid performances from Bana and Ramirez. While you won’t see anything new, Deliver Us From Evil offers some creepy moments if you want to get your exorcism fix in with a newer release. And after all, it is the day before Halloween, “what an excellent day for an exorcism.”

**Available at Redbox

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 29: Poltergeist (1982)

(dir. Tobe Hooper)

*First time viewing

     Almost as long as humans have been telling stories, there have been tales of ghosts, of supernatural forces that for one reason or another are incapable of moving from the land of the living into whatever comes next. We’ve seen this story play out in a variety of fashions over the years, in stories that inspired and were inspired by this film. But few have tackled the material with such spectacle as Poltergeist. In the film, a suburban family must deal with ghostly forces that take their daughter into their dimension.

     A strong argument could be made that Poltergeist is the first true blockbuster horror film. It’s full of the kind of special effects and large shifting set pieces that dominate the summer seasons. While Hooper was no stranger to the horror genre, Poltergeist definitely feels like at Spielberg film. Not only did Spielberg develop the story and script, but he also storyboarded the film and set up the shots (Spielberg couldn’t direct himself because of his contract with Universal which released E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial that same year.) The film is rooted in its familial relationships and is full of Spielberg’s humor, and kid-friendly antics (its legacy can be seen in the more frightening, but no less family-focused, The Conjuring.) While some of the special effects are dated, the climax holds up really well and remains surprising in all that it achieves. It may not scare you, but it will certainly entertain.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Poltergeist feels like more of a family horror-adventure than a traditional horror film. It’s proof that with the right talent and a solid story, PG-13 (or in this case PG, since this film helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating) horror films can work successfully without feeling like watered down versions stripped of their R rating. Poltergeist is full of the imagination for which Spielberg and his productions were so celebrated in the 70s and 80s. The film is a wonderfully orchestrated and charming take on the fun of the horror genre.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 28: Re-Animator (1985)

(dir. Stuart Gordon)

     There is something compelling about the mad scientist, be it Victor Frankenstein or Dr. Moreau, we are entertained and frightened by the idea of someone who will do anything in the name of science and discovery. Based on H.P. Lovecraft’s short, story “Herbert West-Reanimator”, Re-Animator is one of the best mad-scientist films there is. The film tells the story of a medical student, Herbert West, who develops a serum to bring the dead back to life. But, the imperfect serum makes the dead hostile and uncontrollable, until West’s professor, Dr. Hill, steals the serum and finds a way to control the lifeless bodies.

     Re-Animator is undoubtedly campy, and at times even ventures into slapstick (through it’s more restrained in this than say Evil Dead II). But the clever humor works in the film’s favor, creating a stark contrast to the morose subject matter but never softening the elements of horror (a severed head has never been so fantastically used as it is in this film). Jefferey Combs’ performance as Herbert West is the true-standout, his understated comedy works particularly well with David Gale’s over-the-top performance as Dr. Hill. Overall, the film plays like a throwback to the monster and mad-science movies that Universal and Hammer made so popular before Psycho (which the film rather ironically borrows its musical cues from). It’s a wonderfully absurd cult classic, and its offbeat tone make it one of the most original horror films of the 80s.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Re-Animator is a darkly funny film, but it spares no expense on gore. While the film isn’t overtly frightening, it’s consistently entertaining and well-crafted. You can read Lovecraft’s original story here.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant 

Monday, October 27, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 27: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

(dir. Charles B. Pierce)

*First time viewing

     Two years before John Carpenter’s Halloween, there was The Town That Dreaded Sundown, an early step in what would later become the slasher-film phenomenon. Given what I’d heard about the film, my expectations were a little high. So I’ll tell you now right, that despite the awesome title and the poster for the film, temper your expectations my friends. Based on real life events, the film focuses on the town of Texacana in 1946 as police try to apprehend the Phantom, a mouth-breather with a sack over his head who takes pleasure in killing teens on lover’s lanes.

     As someone who can appreciate dated horror movies (even ones of low-quality), The Town That Dreaded Sundown was too much even for me. Do you remember the great opening narration that began The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Now imagine if that narration was delivered by a guy who sounds like your earth science professor and that it kept popping up at random times during the movie, explaining what you’d just seen. That’s what this film does. Coupled with music that sounds like it came from The Brady Bunch episode where the Bradys were stuck in a ghost town, and a plot point that involves police officers dressing up as women to lure the Phantom, you’re left with a movie that is completely incapable of being taken seriously. 

     The real-life events the film is based on are chilling, and there are a few scenes involving the Phantom that work well. The rest of the film surrounding them is so filled with attempts at comic-relief and bland dialogue that it damages the overall intent to frighten. Things do pick up a little near the end (before the narration kicks in again), and if the whole film could have been as consistent as that, it really could have been a stand-out effort.

Scare Factor: 1/5 While the film’s drive-in quality looks great, The Town That Dreaded Sundown won’t scare you and for the most part it may barely hold your interest. It may be one of the first of the slasher sub-genre, but it makes a lot of the classics that followed look all the more innovative in comparison.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Sunday, October 26, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 26: The Collector (2009)

(dir. Marcus Dunstan)

*First time viewing

     What was originally supposed to be a prequel to Saw, before the idea was scrapped, became another exercise in torture: The Collector. The story follows Arkin, a handyman by day and a burglar by night. Hired to steal a ruby to save his family from loan-sharks, Arkin breaks into a house only the find that someone else has broken in first and has filled every room with deadly traps. Arkin must struggle to escape the house and save the family he was hired to rob.

     The Collector is very clearly Saw-influenced in everything from the traps to the lighting. But unlike Saw, Dunstan’s film lacks a compelling narrative to go alongside all of its traps and gore. There’s no real central mystery to the story, and the Collector is basically motivation-less. We’re told he only collects the people he wants and he kills the rest but we never get any insight into why he’s after the people in the film. And if he’s collecting them, why go through all the torture and traps first? It’s a film that seems like it was never able to seperate itself from its initial pitch, and without Jigsaw the writers never figured out how to build an interesting story around their villain. What’s left is a film that assumes that blood and guts will be enough to satisfy horror audiences. And for some maybe it will, but a film that’s only composed of flesh and lacks a skeleton does not make a particularly memorable ride.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Most of the film’s tension comes from the traps and ensuing gore and while it’s entertaining at times, the lack of a compelling story makes The Collector feel tedious after the first forty minutes. While the sequel, The Collection, is said to expand upon this film, as a single entity The Collector is lacking.

**Available to watch on Hulu 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 25: The Brood (1979)

(dir. David Cronenberg)

*First time viewing

     In The Brood, David Cronenberg explores the psychological and physical body horrors that would come to define his career. Not content with making a straight horror film, The Brood combines elements of horror, pseudo-science, psychology, and melodrama to create a well-delivered allegory exploring the link between mental ailments and physical abnormalities. The story centers on Frank Carveth, a father trying to care for his daughter, Candice, while his wife is undergoing psychoplasmics (a form of psychology that allows patients to release their psychological trauma through physical manifestations.) When deformed and genderless children start murdering those close to Frank, he fears for his daughter’s safety and seeks out the truth behind psychoplasmics.

      The Brood, similar to Scanners, utilizes a brilliant concept that causes a bit of slowness and heavy exposition in the first half of the story, but allows for a tremendous climax. While the film isn’t quite as visually competent as some of his subsequent films, the final scenes (featuring an impressive and disturbingly unconventional birth-scene) do contain some of the most wildly horrific images of Cronenberg’s career. Beyond visuals, the film is held up by an imaginative story about the manifestations of rage and the fallout of childhood abuse. Like most of Cronenberg’s films there is a sense of isolation, as if the characters were hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, making the consequences more personal and the events more frightening.

     The acting is oddly emotionally detached at times for a story so centered on the power of emotions (the exceptions being Samantha Eggar who plays Frank’s disturbed wife Nola, and Cindy Hinds who plays Candice). It’s difficult to tell if this was intentional (the fact that Eggar and Hinds are the most emotive actors in the film does fit the theme) or if it’s just a result of acting quality. While the acting does make some moments of the film humorous when they should be otherwise, it does add an interesting wrinkle to the ideas that Cronenberg is communicating.

Scare Factor: 2/5 The Brood is effectively eerie and while parts of the film drag, the body horror that’s delivered in the end makes the whole thing worthwhile. It’s a gloriously nasty piece of work and you can see Cronenberg flexing his muscles for the visions of his later films. While it’s clearly the work of someone in the early stages of his career, The Brood is essential Cronenberg.

**Available to watch on Hulu Plus

Friday, October 24, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 24: Sisters (1973)

(dir. Brian De Palma)

*First time viewing

     Throughout his career, Brian De Palma has focused explicitly on themes of voyeurism, obsession, and the infliction of psychological trauma. While his shifts in character perspectives and plot twists sometimes come at the cost of creating a tonally consistent film, De Palma has always been one of the most entertaining directors of thrillers and horror films. Sisters focuses on reporter, Grace, who witnesses a man’s murder in the apartment across from her. The police don’t believe her story, leading her to investigate on her own. Grace becomes caught in a deadly tale of Siamese twin sisters, whose separation resulted in disturbing psychological consequences.

     De Palma’s film is part Rear Window and part Psycho, but the story lacks the impact of either of those masterpieces. Though De Palma has paid tribute to Hitchcock throughout his career, his films are always a little trashier (in the best sense of the word) and more exploitative than Hitchcock’s. Still, the schlock value is usually mixed with important sociological and psychological ideas. Sisters deals with race in the eyes of the police, female agency, and identity. While none of these concepts are given enough attention to really say anything significant, they prevent De Palma’s film from just being a pulp piece.

     Part of what makes De Palma’s films (Sisters in particular) so unique are his creative camera choices and shot constructions. Sisters is filled with neat flourishes, notably the use of a split screen two show a scene from two different perspectives. This makes the initial murder all the more striking. Later in the film, De Palma delivers exposition in a clever way by inserting Grace into another character’s memories through a very surreal form of hypnosis. Despite the fact that the twist becomes predictable in the third act and the ending note doesn’t have the resonance it should, De Palma’s directorial ability elevates the film.

Scare Factor: 1/5 While it falls more on the thriller end of the spectrum than genuine horror, there are still some thrills to be had. If you’re a fan of De Palma’s work, it’s well worth a watch. If you’re a De Palma virgin, Carrie and Blow Out are better examples of what he can achieve with a stronger script, but Sisters adds a nice sense of progression in the context of his career.

*Available to watch on Hulu Plus

Thursday, October 23, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 23: Them (2006)

(dirs. David Moreau and Xavier Palud )

*First time viewing

     While the home-invasion horror film can no longer be considered original, I think they are the most consistently frightening. The destruction of sanctuary, the twisting of familiar spaces into something strange and dangerous is an understandable human fear based on evidence and not superstition or paranoia. Them destroys the sense of safety in every sense, and creates a chilling portrait of isolation. The French-Romanian film follows recently instated teacher, Clem, and her boyfriend Lucas, as they are attacked in their home by a group of hooded visitors who proceed to torment them throughout the night. When the hoods come off, Clem is faced with how dire her struggle to survive really is.

     Story-wise Them shares a number of similarities with The Strangers (which was released two years later) including its claim that it was based on a true story. There’s no evidence of its factual basis, but the film creates a convincing scenario. Them is a less cinematic feature than Bertino’s film, but there is a more realistic, albeit less frightening quality to it. While there are no creepy masks, Moreau and Palud make great use of sound, giving the visitors the means to make distinctly inhuman noises that keep their identities vague. The film’s twist ending is genuinely surprising and makes the events that transpired all the more disturbing.

Scare Factor: 3/5 It lacks a certain slickness in terms of visuals, but Them is gripping and it’s brief hour and sixteen minute runtime helps the film maintain tension. The film is relatively bloodless, and scares are a result of the characters’ fear at the possibility of being harmed, rather than harm done. While the story isn’t new, it still proves to be an effectively terrifying scenario.

**Available to watch on Hulu Plus

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 22: Grave Encounters (2011)

(dir. The Vicious Brothers)

*First time viewing

    Unintentionally we return to the mental hospital with Grave Encounters. Yes, it’s better than The Ward, but that’s not saying much. The film follows the crew of a paranormal reality show (think Ghost Hunters) as they explore an abandoned psychiatric hospital. But what was only supposed to consist of staged events, takes a turn when the crew become trapped in the hospital. Plagued by mistrust and ghosts, the crew slowly realize that hospital will find a way to create new patients, one way or another.

     The story is pretty standard but the film has its share of cool concepts (such as the shifting corridors, and constant night despite the passage of time). The ghosts are successfully terrifying and effects-wise the movie makes good use of its minuscule budget. But the good the film does is ruined by its annoying characters and unconvincing actors. I’m not usually one to complain about acting quality in horror movies, but found footage movies’ success is largely based on the natural line delivery of its cast (whatever you think about The Blair Witch Project or the Paranormal Activity franchise it’s hard to deny that their unknown actors deliver convincing performances that add a certain credence to whatever supernatural stuff is going down). While part of the bad performances seem intentional as part of the reality show that’s being filmed, the performances never get better when reality footage stops shooting. The repetitive and stiff dialogue in Grave Encounters make the frightening situation seem cheap and mostly ruins what would otherwise be a very solid film.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Grave Encounters has some creepy moments and ideas but the creation of tension is consistently thwarted by poor dialogue and acting.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 21: The Ward (2010)

(dir. John Carpenter)

*First time viewing

     John Carpenter returns to horror movies with The Ward, in which a young woman in 1966 is sent to a mental facility after burning down a farm house. In the facility, Kristen meets the other patients who are keeping a secret from her about the dead woman she keeps seeing in the hallways. As the girls in the ward are killed one by one, Kristen tries to find the reason behind the murders.

     The Ward is Carpenter’s first feature in almost ten years. I wish I could say it was a return to form for a master of genre films, but it sadly isn’t. While the script isn’t original it’s not like Carpenter hasn’t borrowed from pre-existing films before and turned out successful and sometimes great features. The true fault lies with the fact that the movie is so painfully devoid of style it could have been directed by any newcomer, instead of a virtual wizard with decades of experience. It’s visually polished to the point of being dull and the film’s lack of personality is disappointing for a director whose earlier works had the distinctness of being John Carpenter films.

     The story is dreadfully boring, offering nothing in terms of scares or compelling concepts. The characters are ill-defined psychiatric hospital clichés complete with the girl who sings to herself and a Nurse Ratched knock off. While the twist ending is somewhat interesting, it doesn’t save the preceding 80 minutes. If this film had been made during the 70s or 80s, perhaps with Carpenter on script and music duty as well as directing, it could have been at least an entertaining ride. But modern filmmaking doesn’t seem to mesh with Carpenter’s skills.

Scare Factor: 1/5 As someone who has an immense amount of respect for John Carpenter, trust me when I say this is one film in his filmography you can skip. Save yourself the time and watch one of his classics instead.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Monday, October 20, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 20: The Caller (2011)

(dir. Matthew Parkhill)

*First time viewing

     The great thing about caller ID is that you don’t have to pick up for calls you don’t recognize. In most cases it’s some sales pitch or scam, but there’s always a chance that it could be a woman from forty years ago who’s desperately looking to make you her friend, at any cost. This is the situation Mary finds herself in in The Caller. Seeking a fresh start after leaving her abusive husband, Mary moves into a new apartment where she starts receiving mysterious phone calls from Rose, a woman calling from the past whose own abusive relationship has left her unstable. Believing she’s found a kindred spirit, Mary tries to help. But then Rose starts showing up in Mary’s old childhood photos…

     The Caller is the kind of movie that starts off being pretty interesting, and then shifts into awesomely crazy mode. While the cinematography is flat and the film isn’t visually interesting, the script by Sergio Casci transcends the mediocre direction. The story, while complex, never becomes convoluted in its time travel rules. The time travel is used with enough restraint that it remains effective at raising the stakes as the story progresses. And by the time the film reaches its ending, it feels completely earned.

Scare Factor: 3/5 The Caller is a highly original blend of horror and time travel that starts slow but becomes absolutely pulse-pounding. It’s a film that will sneak up on you. Out of all the non-wide release horror films available to stream, The Caller has one of the most unique narratives.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Sunday, October 19, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 19: Eyes Without a Face (1960)

(dir. Georges Franju)

*First time viewing

     The first thing you may think of when you hear “Eyes Without a Face”, is that catchy Billy Idol song, but it’s also the title of a fantastic French film that explores beauty, horror, and the limits of guilt and gratitude. Eyes Without a Face is the story of a surgeon who kidnaps young women and cuts off their faces to replace his daughter’s, who was horribly disfigured in a car accident of his own fault. It’s wonderfully mad science explored with elegant precision and stunning imagery.

     Franju’s film mixes gothic beauty with grotesque horror, creating a film that is as startling as it is stunning. I’ll admit that I was surprised by how far the film went with its story (and lack of cutaways during the facial cutting), especially given the time in which the film was made. I found it to be just as risky and important a film for the genre as Hitchcock’s Psycho which debuted the same year (both films would later go on to influence John Carpenter’s Halloween.) But what makes the film all the more surprising and memorable is how the grisly nature of the story is balanced with compassion. Christiane’s transformation, beneath the surface of her mask, is a remarkable work of character development that is achieved with little dialogue. The characters are particularly well-rounded, and the film achieves this easily without relying on much exposition. While a lot horror delves deeper into inhumanity as the story progresses, Eyes Without a Face relies on the process of reclaiming humanity.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Don’t be turned off by the subtitles or fooled by the black and white, Eyes Without a Face pushes the limits in terms of what it will show. It’s not only an exceptional horror film, it’s an exceptional film.

**Available to watch on Hulu Plus

Saturday, October 18, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 18: Inferno (1980)

(dir. Dario Argento)

*First time viewing

    Few directors can so successfully break down the rules of story logic and character advancement in service of the image and still create a gripping film like Dario Argento. He doesn’t just make movies, rather he creates orchestras of horror. Inferno is a thematic sequel to Suspiria, continuing the tale of “The Three Mothers.” Seeing Suspiria isn’t required to understand Inferno, but watching both does add an interesting layer of mythology (and Suspiria is a masterpiece that should be watched regardless). The story takes place in Rome and New York and follows two siblings as they separately try to uncover the secret purpose of an apartment building housing something ancient and evil.

     Argento routinely places visuals above story. While this can be problematic at times, his visuals are like no other director in the genre. His stylistic use of lighting and color (aided by cinematographer Romano Albani) creates a palette not commonly seen in horror movies. Inferno is less narratively succinct than Suspiria and story-wise Argento doesn’t stretch himself much. Some of the plot points become muddled and there are shifts in character perspectives that only serve the orchestration of clever killings. Still, this has little effect on the overall quality of the movie. It’s occasionally messy story only serves to enhance the dreamlike quality of the film as it builds to a frantically paced finale. Coupled with the soundtrack by Keith Emerson, Inferno is gorgeously surreal and occasionally dizzying in its attempt to stun.

Scare Factor: 3/5 Dario Argento is one of the masters of horror and his style is unmistakable. While Inferno takes some time to build, the unique and well-choreographed death scenes are worth waiting for. It’s style over substance done the right way.

**Available to watch on Hulu.

Friday, October 17, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 17: Jennifer’s Body (2009)

(dir. Karyn Kusama)

     Despite the fact that many horror movies have comedic elements (sometimes intentional, but more often not), the horror-comedy sub-genre is a tough category for a film to exist in. Outside of the zom-com and the dire Scary Movie/Haunted House “spoofs,” horror-comedy is difficult to market.  Jennifer’s Body has it even tougher as a horror-comedy that also serves as an allegory of the “BFF” phase of adolescent girls.  The film is mostly told in retrospect by Needy, a high-school girl who witnesses her friend, Jennifer, become a man-eating demon, proving the notion that “hell is a teenage girl.”

     The script by Diablo Cody (fresh off of her Oscar win for Juno) doesn’t cater towards broad comedy, rather it mixes understated dark humor with camp. Tonally it’s an odd mix that I think worked for it (it’s debt to Sam Rami is evident). Cody’s voice is unique and the dialogue is original, a necessity for a film toying with high school clichés. Though not all the clever remarks and witticisms hit their mark, they mostly do. Cody has her own style and the language is always interesting, and while sometimes forced, the intent rings true.

      Needy’s obsessive relationship with Jennifer is satirical but also provides astute commentary on the relationships of high school girls. The film never goes into Heavenly Creatures territory, but there is something disturbing about their near lack of concern for anyone but each other. With the exception of Needy’s boyfriend and some guys Jennifer eats, their relationship is oddly sealed off from the rest of the school. It is Jennifer’s man-eating ways and her obsession with the band responsible for her possession that drives a wedge in between her friendship with Needy. It’s a rather clever use of the defining adolescent interests of sex and music. While I think audiences (some hopeful, some weary) expected the film to be an exploitation of Megan Fox’s then sex symbol status, Jennifer’s Body is far more interesting and sexually sensitive than that. As a horror-comedy about women, written and directed by women, it really is a film that offers a unique perspective that shouldn’t be overlooked. 

Scare Factor: 1/5 It’s not necessarily scary, and the humor isn’t always laugh out loud, but the film takes on quite a lot of themes and ideas which creates a strange and fun horror-comedy. While it’s a little rough around the edges at some points, Jennifer’s Body is smarter and more topical than it gets credit for.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 16: The House of the Devil (2009)

(dir. Ti West)

     There are many modern horror film directors that proudly claim their 80s influence, but few capture the essence of those films as well as Ti West does with The House of the Devil. The film centers on Samantha, a college student desperately in need of money for rent. On the night of a full lunar eclipse she takes what is supposed to be a simple babysitting job, only to find herself in the middle of a ritualistic cult practice.

     West doesn’t simply situate the story in 80s, he matches the aesthetic of those films in everything from the music, lighting, and camera angles. The success of the film also owes a lot to cinematographer, Eliot Rockett, who provides the film with some gorgeous imagery. What you’ll get here aren’t glossy shots filled with ex-CW stars and a soundtrack of 80s singles. Instead you’ll get a carefully crafted, slow-burner of a film, supported by memorable (and appropriately 80s accurate) performances from Joceline Donahue, Greta Gerwig, and Tom Noonan. The House of Devil has the earnest feel of an actual piece of horror film-making, and not a product meant to be franchised off.

      In terms of story, The House of Devil doesn’t offer much originality. Your film knowledge of cult rituals isn’t going to need any reevaluation, but that doesn’t mean the tale isn’t satisfactory. The film may require a certain amount of patience for some, given the lack of actual satanic practices for most of the film. However I found the film’s exercise in style to be more interesting than the climax. The first time I watched this I was disappointed by the last fifteen minutes, expecting something more drawn out. But upon a second viewing the ending sat better with me. It doesn’t have the same slow build as the first hour and twenty minutes, but the climax is effectively strange and eerie. As a whole, if there was no information informing you that the film came out in 2009, you’d be hard pressed not to claim it wasn’t a product of the 80s.

Scare Factor: 3/5  The House of the Devil is a near perfect example of creating creeping dread without relying on gimmicks or an abundance of effects. While his buildups are better than his resolutions, there’s no denying that Ti West is one of the best modern horror filmmakers in the business.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 15: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

(dir. Wes Craven)

     A Nightmare on Elm Street was the first horror movie that truly scared me as a child, so much that I couldn’t finish it on the first go ‘round. Once Tina showed up at school in a body bag, I was done. While the Nightmare on Elm Street series lacked consistency, it was always the most imaginative of the slasher franchises, thanks to Wes Craven’s initial ability to play with perception.  Five films and ten years after the original, Wes Craven returned to Elm Street with New Nightmare. The film centers a fictionalized version of Heather Langenkamp (who played Nancy in the first and third films) who has been plagued with nightmares and phone threats ever since Wes Craven began working on his new script. After her family’s life is put in danger, Heather confronts Craven who reveals that the previous Nightmare films captured the essence of Freddy Krueger, but when the films stopped the true evil entity was set free. Heather is tasked with playing Nancy, one final time, to stop the demon from escaping from his world into ours.

     New Nightmare was Craven’s first foray into meta-cinema before the Scream series, and his thoughts on the rules of horror films first emerge here. The film is more dramatic and slower paced than the previous entries in the series, and it breaks away from its slasher roots becoming more of a macabre, family-focused fairy tale. There is a strong sense of freedom to the film, and you can feel Craven stretching his creativity. While the film doesn’t have the same frightening imagery as the first, the expansion of the mythology and some interesting commentary on writing and the inability to move beyond an iconic role makes the film a success.

Scare Factor: 2/5 While it lacks the sheer terror of the original, New Nightmare is an incredibly intelligent film that does something new with the concept instead of trying to replicate the originals. And with this year being the 30th anniversary of the original and the 20th anniversary of New Nightmare, it’s certainly the right time to check in on Freddy again.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 14: Night of the Living Dead (1990)

(dir. Tom Savini)

*First time viewing

     George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead not only started the zombie phenomenon, but also offered sharp social commentary on the 1960s. Despite Romero’s claim that the film’s racial themes were unintentional, there’s no denying the film’s significance on that front. The focus on character and the controlled use of the living dead allowed for the film to transcend its status as just another low-budget horror film. Savini’s remake has a strong focus on character as well, and with Romero on script duty, the film follows the same plot as the original for the first two-thirds. The effects are better, the film feels more expensive, and the drama is heightened. But, there’s something missing.

     Savini’s effects work looks great (though not as good as Dawn of the Dead) and while color allows these effects to stand out more, the loss of black and white makes the imagery less haunting than the original. While I wish the film could stand on its own, Romero’s involvement with the remake makes it impossible to view without comparing it to the original. Though there are some differences, like a volatile relationship between Ben and Cooper, and Barbara going full-Rambo, the film doesn’t separate itself enough from the 1968 version to say anything new. I think if the script had been written by someone else and offered a new take, the remake would have been far more successful. Despite Barbara spelling out the film’s central idea at the end (“we’re them, and they’re us") the film never runs with this idea or shows what this Night of the Living Dead means in late 80s/ early 90s culture.

Scare Factor: 1/5 While the film is entertaining, the ending lacks the same memorable punch as the original film, and as a result the film offers less to think about. It’s not a bad zombie movie, and considering the slew of truly bad zombie films out there, it’s probably one of the better ones. But it’s a film that never strives to be anything more than a competent remake.

Monday, October 13, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 13: The Descent (2005)

(dir. Neil Marshall)

    There are some dark spaces that are never meant to be explored. If Neil Marshal’s film proves anything, it’s that sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s with you in dark. The Descent is a tightly paced, claustrophobia-inducing film that never lets you breathe easily. It’s bleak and bloody, but never loses site of its characters. The film follows a group of female spelunkers who become trapped in an unexplored cave system. They face hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks, disorientation, and broken limbs. And then the blind, cave creatures attack, turning a plan to escape into a savage struggle for survival.

     Marshall handles the dimly lit scenes well, insuring that the audience is able see enough to know what’s happening but be kept in the dark long enough to get a sense of disorientation. The film builds tension incredibly well; even before the creatures enter the picture, the film is brimming with an almost palpable sense of danger. That danger never becomes stagnant and the there’s a true sense of progression in the perils faced, leading to a terrific climax that never feels repetitive.

      Protagonist, Sarah, undergoes quite an evolution through the film, one that mirrors her journey through the cave system. While the creatures are effectively used, it’s really Sarah’s descent into the dark spaces of her mind that makes the film so chilling. By the film’s end she’s barely recognizable as the woman she was before, proving there’s more than one way to find freedom.

Scare Factor: 5/5  The Descent is the kind of fantastically gripping film that leaves you with sweaty palms. It’s an example of the best kind of horror where genre conventions work in tangent with character development, creating a layered morality story that’s more than just a creature feature. Fair warning though, there’s a high probability you won’t want to explore any caves after watching this. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 12: Evil Dead (2013)

     Remaking Sam Raimi’s classic is no small feat, but Alvarez does a tremendous job of respecting the original while taking the premise in a slightly new direction. Evil Dead centers on a group of young adults who go to a cabin in the woods to help their friend, Mia, fight her heroin addiction. When Mia tries to leave the cabin, she becomes the host of a sinister demon that has preyed on the cabin’s inhabitants for decades. What follows is the bloodiest film of all time.

  While Bruce Campbell’s Ash was one of the highpoints of Raimi’s films, the remake smartly avoids attempting the impossible feat of creating a new Ash. Jane Levy delivers a great performance as Mia, and creates an incredibly resourceful protagonist and wonderfully chilling demon. While this is a darker and dirtier film, there are still traces of Raimi’s black humor. And as someone who’s more of a fan of Raimi’s first Evil Dead than I was of the campier sequels, I welcomed the more serious tone. Make no mistake, Evil Dead is still fantastically over the top, but you’ll likely laugh less while you watch.

    Where the film really shines is in its art design and cinematography; it’s one of the best looking films of the genre. And as someone who hates CGI blood and idolizes Tom Savini, the film is truly a dream for practical effects nerds. And that finale…well if you haven’t seen it,  just watch it.

Scare Factor: 5/5 Evil Dead is hands down one the best horror movies of the past few years. While the premise is simple, the film’s success hinges on its visual creativity and care. Whether you’ve seen the original film or not, it’s a bloody, and I do mean bloody, good time. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 11: You’re Next (2011)

(dir. Adam Wingard )

(dir. Adam Wingard )

*First time viewing
       You’re Next is a twist on the slasher movie and “final girl” concept. When Erin joins her boyfriend, Crispian, for a family gathering at his parent’s house, the last thing she’s expecting is a violent attack by men in animal masks. But the last thing these intruders are expecting is Erin, who is more than capable of holding her own and delivering her own carefully constructed death-traps. The idea of a mashup between Home Alone and Halloween is a great premise. While there are some unnecessary twists that are telegraphed too early, You're Next remains a thrilling and engaging watch.

         I was first impressed with Wingard’s direction in his shorts for V/H/S and V/H/S/2. And now with a feature film, Wingard further showcases his keen eye for style and rule-bending. You’re Next is well-directed and sometimes a beautifully shot film. Sharni Vinson makes for a fantastic lead, but a few of the other performances don't hold up quite as well. Still the cast does a solid job with the elements of horror and black comedy the script calls for. And to further touch on that script,  I love the idea of a “final girl” as someone to be feared by her attackers, and for this to be done without going the rape-revenge route is commendable. I do however wish that Erin's survivalist instincts and her ability to turn the tables on her attacker were pushed a little further. The film surely isn't lacking in plot, but the family politics are never as interesting as Erin simply kicking ass. I think there's still a directorial balance to be found between short horror films and feature length ones, but You're Next shows a lot of promise for Wingard's career.

Scare Factor: 2/5 There are some clever traps, and creepy moments from the men in masks, but the horror fades somewhat as the twists are revealed and the masks are removed. As a final note, I must say, Wingard’s use of “Looking for the Magic” is a fantastic musical choice that really makes for a great opening five minutes.

**Available to watch on Netflix Instant 

Friday, October 10, 2014

31 Days of Horror-Day 10: Saw (2004)

(dir. James Wan )

      In light of its 10th anniversary I decided it was time to revisit Saw. James Wan’s first feature arguably ushered in the most significant shakeup in the horror genre since Scream. For the first few years of the franchise, the Saw films were the talk of Halloween amongst high-school age moviegoers. And at least in my circle, people were categorized by those who could handle Saw and those who couldn’t. While the much of the shock factor has faded (perhaps a result of seeing too many horror movies) and parts of the film haven’t held up too well, Jigsaw’s motivation is still just as compelling and memorable.

     Saw feels like a delayed result of Seven and it seems Wan is attempting to capture some of that aesthetic here, but there’s a 70s drive-in quality to the filmmaking and performances that’s unshakeable. Saw had the makings of a cult film before it ever became one. There are some odd directorial choices such as the rapid music video-esque cuts in the flashback sequences and use of quick montages. It’s quite interesting to see how much Wan has grown from this to The Conjuring, so much so that films feel like the work of entirely different directors. What Wan and his writing partner, Leigh Whannell excel at is creating clever plots. While there are a number of dumb things the characters do in the movie, the concept is smart and the finale is still chilling. It’s still easy to see why audiences and studio honchos thought it was worth a sequel, though maybe not six.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Saw is probably one of the most widely watched modern horror films, but if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it it’s worth a rewatch. While the genre has shifted again, and sequel fatigue and paranormal activities put the franchise to rest, the original remains a messy, yet clever film with a frightening concept and a decent execution.