Saturday, October 31, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 31: Trick 'r Treat (2007)

(dir. Michael Dougherty)

Warner Bros.
Four different horror stories intersect on Halloween night in small-town Ohio.

Michael Dougherty’s modern cult classic perfectly captures the spirit of Halloween. It manages to be funny, horrific, gory, charming, and more than a little bit twisted, all at the same time. While most anthology films break up the separate stories by chapter, Dougherty’s stories weave in and out of one another as he plays with time, and characters from previous stories will make surprise reappearances in later stories. This gives the entirety of Trick ‘r Treat this unexpected, playful element. With only four Halloween stories, Dougherty manages to keep all the narratives tight and create a rewarding experiences. While I prefer some of the stories more than others, there’s not a weak link in the bunch. From serial killers, the undead, vampires, werewolves, and a very special little guy named Sam, Trick ‘r Treat blends all of these disparate horror elements together perfectly.

In the same way that the very best Christmas movies just carry the power of the season in their very aesthetic, Trick ‘r Treat does the same. Everything from the lighting, the sets, the decorations, costumes, and background conversations feel uniquely in touch with the spirit of the holiday. For a $12 million budget, the production value on this film is just fantastic and guaranteed to bring out the holiday spirit.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Trick ‘r Treat is the perfect way to cap off October as it captures but the scares and fun that make the horror genre so memorable. While we’re still waiting for the sequel that was promised 2 years ago, we at least have Dougherty’s Christmas horror story, Krampus, to look forward to in December.

*Available to watch on HBO Go

And that’s a wrap for this year folks! Thanks for reading and if this month was your introduction to the blog, be sure to stick around for full reviews of this fall’s awards contenders and blockbusters. 

Lastly, if you’ve yet to get your fill of horror, I co-wrote a list of The 100 Best Horror Movies of the 2000s (so far) so be sure to check it out!: 

Friday, October 30, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 30: Drag Me to Hell (2009)

(dir. Sam Raimi)

Universal Pictures
A woman has three days to escape a curse placed on her by a gypsy.

Drag Me to Hell was the first Sam Raimi horror movie I saw, and initially I wasn’t a fan of it. I found it too campy, which now having seen Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness I know that it doesn’t even come close to normal levels of Raimi camp. I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years as I’ve seen more of not only more of Raimi’s films, but other films that balance genuine horror with black humor. But what makes Drag Me to Hell effective is not so much its supernatural story, humor, or gross-out moments, but the careful way that Raimi, and his screenwriting partner and brother, Ivan, carefully establish Alison Lohman’s Christine Brown. As an audience we feel like we know her, we like her, and want her to succeed in ridding herself of the curse placed on her. So often horror movies allow the horror to happen to characters we don’t like, or don’t care about because we don’t know them. But we know Christine and the Raimis use our expectations against us because of that fact. It’s cruel but also winningly effective.

Lorna Raver’s gypsy woman, Mrs. Ganush is wonderfully sinister in a very old-fashioned horror sense. Yes, she’s a bit cartoonish and over-the-top but this ultimately makes the film feel a bit like a grand moral folklore, a warning to be given to children. Even the use of Hispanic and Indian mystics play into this horror folklore by firmly situating the out-of-date with the modern, and again challenging our expectations. This old-school horror is slightly diminished by Raimi’s over-use of CGI and PG-13 rating. One gets the sense that he was still a bit too stuck in his Spider-Man days to completely return to the practical, low-budget horror he gained his fame for, but he still manages to bring his unmistakable vision to the film.

Scare Factor: 3/5 There are a few really good jump scares in Drag Me to Hell, but the concept and the characterization are what really make Raimi’s film a surprise that delivers on a promise in a way few directors would have the courage to fulfill. If you’ve yet to see it or it’s been a while since you first saw it, it’s definitely worth a watch. Oh, and somebody needs to give Alison Lohman a comeback because she’s great in this. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 29: Poltergeist (2015)

(dir. Gil Kenan)

20th Century Fox
* First time viewing

A family moves into a house built on top of a graveyard and supernatural events ensue.

I like Tobe Hooper’s (*cough Steven Spielberg’s cough*) Poltergeist, but I don’t see it as the untouchable classic that many do, and while it has some very cool scenes, I don’t find it a frightening movie for adults. So in comes new the Poltergeist remake, which everyone lambasted from being PG-13 even though the original was PG, and it’s basically the same as the original, which means its target audience is younger viewers. Kenan’s Poltergeist basically follows the first film beat for beat (with the added topical stress of the recession.) The family members have different names, but most of the dynamics remain the same, as does the youngest daughter’s disappearance into the beyond, and her family’s team-up with paranormal investigators to bring her back. It may all be pretty standard stuff, but none of the actors phone it in, and Sam Rockwell’s rascally charm adds some necessary character to the film.

Despite the Poltergeist’s lack of ambition or surprises, it’s a decent, if bland, remake.  Some of the horror elements, one involving a clown doll and another involving a power drill are pretty good for kid’s stuff. The biggest issue comes from the poor CGI which makes the entire film look overproduced and occasionally comical. But there are some design elements in the third act representation of purgatory that serve of reminders of what the film could have been if it had carved its own path.

Scare Factor: 1/5 Poltergeist is not the horrible travesty you may have heard about. It treads the middle-ground of safe and familiar, and for those who haven’t seen the original yet, it may even be a bit interesting. While it’s not memorable, or worth revisiting in favor of the original, for a film that presents itself as a family horror-adventure, it’s just fine. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 28: Ouija (2014)

(dir. Stiles White)

Universal Pictures
*First time viewing

After their friend’s apparent suicide, a group of teenagers try to communicate with her through a Ouija board, but they make contact with something else.

Admittedly, my expectations for Ouija weren’t very high. But since a sequel is in the works with Mike Flanagan (of Oculus fame) stepping in as screenwriter and director, I felt I had to see this first entry. The problem with Ouija isn’t the concept. It’s a generic horror movie, with a generic plot consisting of friends getting picked off one by one Final Destination style, but even those kind of movies can be fun. The acting is fine, nothing special (I do love Olivia Cooke, and she tries with what little she’s given.) Even the fact that no one seems to know how a Ouija board works except for the Hispanic housekeeper (because of course) is embarrassingly out-of-touch but not a deal breaker. What makes Ouija such a chore to sit through is that it is entirely devoid of life in everything from its emotional arcs, its dialogue, and most damning: it’s jump scares.

I don’t have a problem with jump-scare centric horror movies, or even PG-13 ones, but Ouija is so PG-13 it hurts. It is entirely incapably of handling any aspect of the film with a maturity deserving of audiences who have seen countless horror films. The way the characters are written to react to the death of their friends and significant others is with such casual disinterest that’s impossible to care about the supposedly life and death horror the film is centered around. The jump scares are so limp that many of them are laughable and telling of how uninterested the film is in pushing boundaries (a rolling shopping cart is one of these “jump-scares”.) After an OK opening, there’s absolutely no sense of tension and as a result the movie just slowly deflates as the actors try their best to hold it up around them.

Scare Factor: 0.5/5 There’s a great horror movie that could be made out of the Ouija board game, but this isn’t it. I’m holding out hope that Flanagan can bring some of his imagination and style to the sequel when it hits next year. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 27: The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

(dir. Adam Robitel)

Eagle Films/Millennium Entertainment
A documentary crew making a film about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease soon finds themselves in the midst of a terrifying case of possession.

At one point or another we’ve all feared sickness, either in ourselves or in others. It’s a basic fear that stems from our need to have control. Adam Robitel’s directorial debut is based not only around these notions of control, but also the past and how family history can bring both chaos and illness. Where The Taking of Deborah Logan differs from many other contemporary tales of possession is that it balances the emotional arc of its central characters with genuinely terrifying moments. Gone are the familiar exorcisms, and Christian symbolism, instead replaced by the unfamiliar and frightening primal lore of witch doctors and serpent worshiping. There’s a sense of history and weight to Deborah’s “taking” that never feels like a run-of-the-mill introduction to demonology and possession.

But this sense of unsettling secret history only works as well as it does because the film first establishes a grounded mother/daughter relationship. The love and misunderstanding that Deborah, and her daughter, Sarah, display for each other feels genuine and the camera’s capture of these moments provides an anchor so that when shit hits the fan (and oh, it does), Sarah’s efforts to save her mother, alongside the camera crew, have power behind them. Once we start following our characters around in the dark and Deborah’s condition progresses, the tension never lets up. The film’s continual interest in its characters, everyone from the camera crew to the police officers, make The Taking of Deborah Logan a viscerally frightening experience where we care about more about people than when the next jump scare is coming.

Scare Factor: 4/5 The Taking of Deborah Logan explores body horror as not only a transformation of the flesh, but of the mind and soul as well. It’s an essential found footage horror film that’s genuinely chilling and delivers a climax that contains one of my favorite recent horror moments.

*Available to watch on Netflix Instant

**As part of Audiences Everywhere’s series of interviews with contemporary horror directors about the current horror landscape, I had the pleasure of interviewing The Taking of Deborah Logan director and co-writer, Adam Robitel:

Monday, October 26, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 26: The Children (2008)

(dir. Tom Shankland)

Ghost House Underground

*First time viewing

The most awkward holiday reunion ever turns bloody when a family’s children fall victim to a sickness that gives them an insatiable desire to kill the adults around them.

Tom Shankand’s The Children is predicated on the notion that many already find children kind of creepy and kind of gross sometimes. Even the kids we love to can irritating, messy, infuriating, and a little alarming, but our relationship between them remains unspoiled (in many cases) by adults’ awareness not to let children gain insight into their private qualms and frustrations. But The Children features a set of kids whose unexplained illness gives them a subtle awareness to their guardians’ inner thoughts, setting them a path of distressingly innocent-minded, and seemingly reactionary murder.

While all of this seems like a perfect set-up for a horror-comedy, The Children plays it straight and pushes the limits of violence further than what you might expect (an incident involving a sled and a garden rake won’t soon be forgotten.) The film carefully establishes its adult characters and their flaws and regrets, which provides a negative energy that the children seem to feed off of and adjust their personalities to accordingly (it’s rather clever and subtlety-handled metaphor in the film.) And when the adults are forced to defend themselves, violently and to their own terrible regret, this too is treated with a seriousness that makes the film occasionally uncomfortable to watch. While there’s no great lasting impact to this winter holidays bloodbath, Shankland makes the film more interesting and frightening by refusing to explain either the sickness or the children’s greater plans, instead letting the irrational become the unsettling.

Scare Factor: 3/5 The Children is one of the better creepy kids movies because of its refusal to temper any element of the film, and because its stark emotional brutality. Like a dark(er) Richard Matheson short story, The Children adds an element of fantastic to the mundane and provides a quick and effective jolt of fear.  

Sunday, October 25, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 25: Wyrmwood (2014)

(dir. Kiah Roache-Turner)

Guerilla Films
During a zombie outbreak, a mechanic sets out to save his sister who has been captured by a mad scientist looking for a way to telepathically control the horde.

Blending elements of Romero’s Dead series and Miller’s Mad Max saga, Wyrmwood is simply a blast from start to finish. There’s an unrestrained wildness to the film that we rarely see in horror anymore, particularly zombie flicks which have moved towards a more realistic vision in the age of 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead. Wyrmwood has more in common with B-movie drive-in features of the 70s and 80s, and comic books than it does with modern outbreak thrillers. This is a film where zombies’ breath and blood is flammable (only in the daytime, naturally) and used for fuel, a film where a sadistic mad scientist dances while conducting heinous experiments, and a film that offers one of the most inventive climaxes within the sub-genre. While the massive tonal shift from modern zombie features may take some getting used to, once you settle in and enjoy yourself, you’ll find it hard not to gladly go along for the ride. With intense and charismatic performances, clever action sequences, and gleefully over-the-top gore, Wyrmwood is a low-budget gem that doesn't allow money to get in the way of imagination. 

Scare Factor 2/5 Wyrmwood is fearless, fun, weird, and will add a necessary shot of adrenaline to your October Horror-thon. You may not lose sleep over the horror aspects, but you will lose sleep once you begin thinking about all the sequel possibilities.

*Available to watch on Netflix Instant

**Film site, Audiences Everywhere has been featuring a variety of horror-themed articles and interviews this month, including staff writer Diego Crespo's conversation with Wyrmwood director Kiah Roache-Turner:

***Editor-in-chief and Founder of Audiences Everywhere, David Shreve conducted an earlier interview with Wyrmwood’s star Bianca Bradey:

Saturday, October 24, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 24: Martyrs (2008)

(dir. Pascal Laugier)

The Weinstein Company

A young woman who suffered abuse as child, tracks down her tormenters with the help of her friend, only to lead them both into suffering beyond anything they could have ever imagined.

Laugier’s film is one of the paramount examples of New French Extremism, delivering gore that goes well beyond entertainment, existentialism that goes beyond easy answers, and horror that leaves you more drained and sad than electrified. The first time I watched Martyrs I was unable to see beyond the inhuman levels of violence and cruelty, equating it to torture porn. Beyond that, the film made me psychically ill. This time around, that reaction hasn’t changed much and while the film is well-made, I still don’t like it. But the message running through the film, which I once thought was bullshit, had more impact this time around.

After a more straightforward first half, which deals with the ghosts of guilt, the film introduces a clinically cold society of antagonists who believe that by torturing girls and young women, and bringing them to brink of death, they will allow the women to transcend and witness “the other world” and confirm the existence of the afterlife. While the 40 minutes of constant brutality and degradation to bring this point home are not as necessary or genius as I think the film wants audiences to believe, there is a deeper allegory here. Essentially I saw this secret society’s mission as a kind of Holy War, one stripped of a specific religion or creed, but a war about faith being rewarded nonetheless. But instead of waging war against an army to prove right and power, all the violence and turmoil is placed upon the flesh of one woman—one woman who can tell them that their actions are justified and their search for meaning after death validated. Beyond the explicit torture inflicted on the “victim,” the film leaves us to question humanity’s quest for knowledge, their fear of death, and the existence of the afterlife. As a whole, these aspects are what define the horror genre, only they’ve been splintered into stories that we’re able to digest in relative comfort and ultimately enjoy. Martyrs offers no comfort or enjoyment, only cold questions.

Scare Factor: 5/5 Martyrs is horror distilled. I can’t say I enjoy it and I can’t say I recommend it to everyone, but I can say that I’ve never seen any film more horrific.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Steve Jobs Review

(dir. Danny Boyle)

Universal Pictures
“Artists lead and hacks ask for a show of hands!”

Despite being one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated awards contenders, Danny’s Boyle’s Steve Jobs has long faced controversy in both the representation of its subjects and its troubled production history, which saw changes in directors, cast members, and studios over the past year. Despite Universal Studios managing to finally settle on an impressive cadre of talent both in front of and behind the camera, there’s an unavoidable lack of necessity to the film in lieu of how recently the film’s central subject passed away. While the necessity of a film isn’t something I tend to get hung up on, this inability to create historical context or look at Steve Jobs with any sort of objectivity in regards to both his personal life and legacy, casts a shadow over the entire proceeding.

Steve Jobs takes a look at the businessman and innovator in the behind the scenes minutes leading up to his three keynote speeches in 1984, 1988, and 1998 where he unveiled the Macintosh, NeXT box, and the iMac respectively. Instead of focusing on the technology Jobs helped develop, the film takes a look at his personal relationships with his ex-wife, daughter, and co-workers as these individuals reappear in his life over the years to impart bits of wisdom and give us glimpses of Jobs’ character, or at least the filmmakers’ idea of Jobs’ character. These figures from Jobs’ past and present, and the allusions to his future creations, make Steve Jobs feel somewhat like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But a novel has space to linger and corners to peer into, and Steve Jobs is far too disjointed, intentionally so, to feel like a sprawling moral epic. Ultimately this structure and revolving door of character interactions feel closer to a stage play than a film. Throw in a Greek chorus and we’d have Steve Jobs by way of antiquity.

While Boyle’s expert eye for lighting can be seen throughout the film, Steve Jobs is far more the product of its screenwriter and is effectively an Aaron Sorkin film. Sorkin writes for actors, and without a strong personality-type like David Fincher, the direction simply becomes a bottle to contain all of Sorkin’s wordy dialogue. This dialogue sounds great when delivered by actors of the caliber of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Katherine Waterson, but none of it sounds like words that real, living, breathing human beings would speak. Sorkin told The Guardian that most of the dialogue is fictional and its apparent. Sorkin’s dialogue is often the subject of parody, and in Steve Jobs he does nothing to sway the perception. Conversations, like one between Jeff Daniels’ Apple CEO John Sculley, and Fassbender’s Jobs about adoption and control are spread out over the course of the fifteen years in the film. These moments are written for impact, not because they resemble reality. There’s a Shakespearean quality to some of these scenes, an exhausting amount of back and forth dialogue and double meanings before they almost always climax with two people in a room, yelling at each other. It’s all made wonderfully appealing by the performances, but the dialogue completely lacks subtlety, and practically begs us to see the unmissable metaphor that Jobs is more machine than man.

Sorkin’s work on 2010’s The Social Network manages to give Mark Zuckerberg a sense of humanity that audiences can latch on to. In Steve Jobs, Sorkin isn’t interested in Jobs the man so much as Steve Jobs the vengeful god. Jobs is mythologized into this remorseless being who’s always a step ahead of everyone else, with even his failings part of some larger plan for him. The Spielbergian scenes between Jobs and his daughter, meant to humanize him, never do their part and feel trite when surrounded by scenes that are disinterested in the saccharine, scenes that ask the audiences to laugh and enjoy Jobs’ ego, and ability to trample feelings without a pause. The film’s ending scenes, which try to show us Jobs in a more positive light as someone loving but “poorly made” is stretched out to the point of awkwardness. There hasn’t been a prestige picture so unaware of how to end things since Spielberg overstayed his welcome in the final moments of Lincoln.

The fact that Jobs is depicted as an asshole through and through isn’t as much as an issue is the film’s inability to convey what Jobs did to make him worthy of a film. Of course we have journalism profiles, and countless books and documentaries about the real-life man, but the film barely scratches at Jobs’ impact on Apple, his innovations, or expertise. It instead gives the sense that he simply used other people’s work and got ahead by being smartly cruel. While some of this may be factual, there’s a lot more to the man than what the film wants us to believe. Instead of asking why Steve Jobs was and is so important, the filmmakers simply place him on a pedestal and ask us to praise him simply because he’s there.

What fully deserves praise is Fassbender’s performance as Jobs. Regardless of whether he captures the essence of the real-life figure, he delivers a thoroughly engaging performance that commands the screen. Of course this isn’t anything we don’t expect from Fassbender, but considering how little interest the film takes in Jobs’ humanity, Fassbender deserves even further commendation. It’s not his mannerisms, his posture, or vocalizations that make his performance as Jobs one of the year’s best, but his eyes and their ability to go dull and lifeless and then become electrified all within in moments. The screenplay may not give us Steve Jobs the visionary, but Fassbender carries that torch in his eyes, and provides one of the sole aspects of the film that makes Steve Jobs seem like an almost necessary endeavor. The rest of the performances are also unsurprisingly solid, though all get eaten up by the monologues and witty dialogue devoted to Jobs, with the exception of Jeff Daniels, who is well within his right to a Best Supporting Actor Nomination. Steve Jobs may fail to celebrate, or even meaningfully criticize, the man behind the movie, but it is undoubtedly a celebration of acting, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

As a biopic, Steve Jobs is neither distant nor close enough to its subject to work, and instead stays in the realm of inaccessibility. I have doubts that either Boyle or Sorkin understood Jobs well enough to make this movie into what many thought it should be or needed to be, and so they do what all human beings do when they encounter something beyond their reach: they create a myth. I find this aspect of the film captivating. It’s an experiment in structure, tone, and characterization that never completely works and yet the sheer ambition of the acting and writing is impressive. Realistically, I think in 20 years’ time, we may finally be ready to see Steve Jobs impact on our future and look back on his humanity through that, but for now we’re left with an entertaining, emotionally stunned legend. But just because the film doesn’t work in its entirety, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own value. I’d much rather watch a fascinating error that (purposefully or not) gives us something different and feeds into our own worship of fame and genius, than watch another generic biopic that simply checks off boxes on someone’s life.

Grade: B-

31 Days of Horror- Day 23: Eden Lake (2008)

(dir. James Watkins)

The Weinstein Company

A school teacher and her boyfriend take a weekend getaway to the countryside where they are mercilessly taunted, chased, and tortured by a group of adolescent delinquents.

I’ve covered a lot of films this October that deal with couples encountering a number of horrors in the midst of their weekend retreats. It’s a formula that works well in terms of being used to both take the couple out of their familiar surroundings, and allow them to become aware of their unfamiliarity with each other and themselves. While all of these films (Honeymoon, Backcountry, Wrong Turn) have some themes in common, while offering a different set of rules and stakes, Eden Lake is the most emotionally draining of this set.

The romance of Jenny and Steve (Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender in one of his earliest film appearances) never feels false or like its hiding some secret resentment. While Steve’s desire to protect Jenny from a vicious group of teenagers does come partly from his need to preserve his own masculine ego, there’s never a sense that he’s willingly putting her in danger. This genuine, unselfish love established in the beginning makes what comes after all the more difficult. The film seems to take a rather feminist approach once Steve is gravely injured, that is until Eden Lake goes through lengths to show us that there are no heroes, no innocence and no power, at least not for adults.

Every time the film allows us to gain some margin of hopefulness for Jenny and Steve, the teens (led by a brutish Jack O’Connell) gain the upper hand, leading to one of the most shocking and stomach churning scenes in modern horror. Then, when you finally catch your breath and wipe your brow, the climax kicks into gear and things only get more hopeless after that before leaving you with the kick in the gut line “They’re just children.” Children, yes, but monsters as well.

Scare Factor: 5/5 Brutal in refusal to turn away from violence, heartbreaking in its romantic ruin, and disorienting in its exposure of humanity, Eden Lake is unshakably horrific. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 22: Backcountry (2014)

(dir. Adam MacDonald)
IFC Films

A woman and her boyfriend get lost in the backwoods of the Canadian wilderness and encounter a black bear after straying from the path.

Barring a few exceptions, I’m not a big fan of the “animals attack” variation of horror. That being said, I think bears are terrifying. In midst of all the supernatural events, serial killers, and viruses I’ve viewed over this month, nothing has really gotten to me the same way Adam MacDonald’s survivalist horror story has. Partially based on several real-life events, Backcountry has the kind of primal realism that makes the film difficult to enjoy as just an entertaining piece of fiction. Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop both give emotional performances as Jenn and Alex. Peregrym is the heart of the film, the one we can continually root for in the growing face of her boyfriend's stupid decisions. While the first 40 minutes are mostly the two of them walking through the woods, the film never becomes boring or loses its tension, despite the inevitability of the bear encounter.

And on that subject of the bear encounter, the attack (in which a real bear was used) is horrific in every way imaginable. No matter how many kills scenes you’ve seen in horror movies, nothing comes close to preparing you for the sight of a bear tearing apart human flesh.

Scare Factor: 4/5 If you’re looking for horror that’s more grounded than what you’ve been watching, Backcountry is the way to go. It won’t be the scariest movie you’ve ever seen, but it’ll at least give you reason to pause before you plan your next camping trip.

**Film site, Audiences Everywhere has been featuring a variety of horror-themed articles and interviews this month including staff writer Ryan McLean's conversation with Adam MacDonald:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 21: Session 9 (2001)

(dir. Brad Anderson)

Universal Pictures
An asbestos removal team encounter supernatural occurrences at the Danvers State Mental Hospital.

There’s a weird, almost dream-like quality to Brad Anderson’s Session 9. Part of this can be chalked up to the film’s cheap and grainy look. But beyond its budgetary restrictions, Session 9 is purposeful in its odd ambiance, and its attempts to create normalcy. The actors display a heightened machoism, and their tensions with each other are high from the start of the film, but there’s nothing natural about any of these performances. The characters never seem like an actual asbestos removal crew, and instead seem like they are simply playing pretend. When the characters interact with each other, the camera gets too close to their faces and lingers on them too long, this lack of distance and added beat only furthered the discomfort felt when watching the film.

Session 9 lingers on the spaces of the State Mental Hospital, the gaping emptiness of the place and its ability to distort sound. Even though most of the film takes place in daylight, Anderson manages to make the space frightening and more than a little depressing through his use of a yellowish and orange tint. The session tapes from a deceased patient add to the film’s eerie tension, but they don’t fit smoothly into the present-day story. There’s a disconnect in the plot points introduced, and there’s little explanation for the strange occurrences, which makes the film as a whole all the more frightening and interesting.

Scare Factor: 4/5 Like some horrific hallucination where everything is just one pace behind reality, Session 9 offers near constant discomfort in both style and story. It relies on the inexplicable nature of horror and mood instead of narrative accessibility or character depth. Session 9 manages to turn what would normally be viewed as negative attributes in other films into its biggest strengths. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 20: The Loved Ones (2009)

(dir. Sean Byrne)
Paramount Pictures
* First time viewing

Six months after his father is killed in a car crash, a young man is trying to rebuild his life when he’s kidnapped and tortured by a classmate he politely turned down for the school dance.

Mutilation, both of self and others, defines Byrne’s cinematic love song, which feels like a mashup of late 2000s emo-alternative rock and 1980s female power ballads. Brent goes from a victim of his own depression, self-mutilation and suicidal fantasies, to a victim by someone else’s hand, someone whose gleeful torture gives him the motivation to live. The Loved Ones takes pleasure in its own dark ironies, delivering a moral on embracing life that far outshines any of the similarly-themed Saw movies.

This parallel take on mutilation also carries over to Lola Stone, our queen of the dance, a perverse monster who is both innocently childish and violently sexual. She is of course the mutilator of Brent’s body, but her mind bares its own scars, made deeper by a father who gives into her every whim and has taught her that a boy’s rejection is torture in itself. It’s a slightly satiric look at fathers who treat their daughters as princesses, and girls who believe love songs and rom-coms are honest portraits, but The Loved Ones holds more truth than not.

Robin McLeavy is absolutely phenomenal as Stone, and every violent act, every word of spite is both horrific and oddly attractive—traits representative of some of the genre’s best villains. While many comparisons have been between this film and Carrie, Carrie White elicited sympathy and was ultimately a victim. Lola Stone is pure malice, someone we love to hate while anticipating her bloody end. School dance rejections may be a tired horror trope, but Byrne and McLeavy tap into the horror of trying to forcibly create romance in a tight space between two people who barely know each other.

Scare Factor: 3/5 The Loved Ones gloriously gory, stylish, and memorable. This little gem from Australia is one of horror’s best kept secrets. 

You can watch the full movie free and legally courtesy of the Paramount Vault here: 

Monday, October 19, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 19: Slither (2006)

(dir. James Gunn)

Universal Pictures
A meteorite leaves a small-town victim to parasitic slugs that take over their hosts' bodies in zombie-like fashion.

People love to make a big deal about how James Gunn went from directing quirky, cult genre films to Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s clear from Slither that Gunn was always destined to play in a larger, big-budget sandbox. The earnest emotional quality that spans Gunn’s films is largely what makes Slither such a great watch. Sure, the practical effects and gross-out gore are an added enticement. But Gunn’s focus on the emotional connections between these small-town, ironically hunting obsessed, people elevates the film beyond the standard splatter film tropes.

Every member of the large cast is given a chance to shine, and when your cast includes Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Miachel Rooker and a whole host of character actors, that’s an impressive feat in itself. That being said, Rooker is clearly the standout as the first of the infected and master of the hive-mind. While audiences are surely no stranger to seeing Rooker as a villain, he is effortlessly sympathetic in his role as Grant Grant. He’s not so much a villain but a victim of forces beyond his control. Like the parasites, he simply is what is. It’s this theme, of people staying true to their inherent nature, that courses through the film. Even in the face of horror and tragedy, the good-natured cop will remain good-natured, the independent woman will remain independent, and the control freak will remain controlling though a bit more freakish.

Scare Factor: 1/5 Effortlessly fun and fantastically gory, Slither earns its cult status and is a prefect way to break up some of the overwhelming darkness in your standard Halloween watchlist. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 18: Wrong Turn (2003)

(Rob Schmidt)

20th Century Fox
* First time viewing

A group of attractive young adults get stranded in the backwoods of West Virginia and are hunted down by cannibal inbred fucks.

Here we are with another supposed “classic” from the early 2000s that I’ve been told I’ve been missing out on… despite the fact that I’ve seen one of the direct to DVD sequels I can barely remember. Wrong Turn fared a lot better than The Grudge in my eyes. It’s full of clichés and clearly tries to be The Hills Have Eyes set in a forest, and yet it’s a pretty good time with a couple really strong set pieces (the attack in the trees is really good). Eliza Dushku and Jeremy Sisto are fun to watch as always, and the rest of the cast forms a great set of ‘where are they now’ performances. Wrong Turn doesn’t offer much that we haven’t seen before, but it’s a successful throwback to 80s horror because it doesn’t try to beat you over the head with that fact.

 I’m quite a fan of the evil backwoods hillbilly subgenre of horror, because they mostly manage to successfully blend fact with urban legend.  The inbred cannibals, designed by Stan Winston Studios, are cartoonishly sinister, which makes the film to fun to watch, but they don’t create as harrowing an experience as they could have. If there is a modern franchise that could use a reboot and made into realist survival horror, Wrong Turn is it.  Y’know, unless those direct to video sequels are still doing it for you.

Scare Factor 1/5 Wrong Turn is entertaining but trivial horror. It’s worth a watch to laugh over with friends, but there’s not much there otherwise.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

31 Days Horror- Day17: Frontier(s) (2007)

(dir. Xavier Gens)
* First time viewing

In midst of a political upheaval, a group of Paris thieves are held hostage and tortured by Neo-Nazis looking to create the master race.

Frontier(s) is fucking gnarly. That’s really the only way I can put it. It actually may be the goriest movie I’ve seen save for Martyrs. And I’m not talking clearly over-the-top Tarantino-style fun, I mean full-on “I’ve got to look away for a moment” blood and pain. Gens delivers calculated and unrestrained cruelty. While I straight up love practical gore effects, I’m not a big fan of the torture-porn subgenre of horror, which leaves me feeling a little mixed about Gens’ film. The political ‘out of the fire and into the frying pan’ backdrop of the film elevates the material beyond standard maiming and mutilation fare, and but watching a group of backwoods neo-nazis repeatedly torture their victims in new ways isn’t all that interesting after the first hour or so. There’s certainly meaning to the madness, but the film never quite manages to balance the two, preferring dismemberment over right-wing extremism—though perhaps the film is suggesting that the two are more linked than we may originally think.

What is consistently interesting, and ultimately my reason for giving the film at least one thumb up, is Karnia Testa’s performance as thief and expectant-mother Yasmine and that character’s arc in the film. Once the tables are turned and she goes from a place of victimization to vengeance, Frontier(s) becomes a lot more compelling and involving. For the climax alone, I’d watch the entirety of the film again. Despite some of my qualms with the film, I appreciate that Frontier(s) is a solid example of the diversity within the horror genre, it simply may not be for everyone.

Scare Factor: 5/5 If we’re talking stomach-churning scares in terms of gore, then Frontier(s) gets full marks. Seriously, the Saw franchise has got nothing on this, so if blood, guts and severed Achilles tendons are your thing, then Frontier(s) is a must see.

Friday, October 16, 2015

31 Days of Horror-Day 16: Dog Soldiers (2002)

(dir. Neil Marshall)


*First time viewing

A squad of British soldiers go up against werewolves in the Scottish Highlands.

Neil Marshall directed one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade, The Descent, so my expectations for Dog Soldiers was pretty high. Man, were they met! While the film’s werewolf effects strain under the budget at times, and of course it doesn’t come close to delivering the sheer palm sweating terror of Marshall’s later horror film, Dog Soldiers is a tense B-movie blast from start to finish.  As with The Descent, the creature feature aspect is balanced out by strong performances and layered character relationships, making the whole proceeding feel more like high-drama than it seemingly should. With Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, and Liam Cunningham leading the charge, Dog Soldiers is given plenty of macho gravitas. You can practically smell the musk coming off the film. But ultimately this masculinity gets slightly undercut by a great 3rd act twist, a reminder of why Marshall stands at the forefront of creating complex female characters in horror.

There’s a bare-bones simplicity to the story, one that keeps emotions high and the action beats impeccably paced. Like so many zombie films have done over the years, Dog Soldiers keeps most of the film’s events centralized to one location, making the werewolf siege on the small woodland house seem like a world-ending event. The film’s action far outshines many films with much larger budgets and it’s clear why HBO hired him to direct some of Game of Thrones most memorable episodes.

Scare Factor: 2/5 Dog Soldiers is an incredible amount of fun, especially for those who love seeing classic movie monsters re-purposed in new ways. The film may have flown under your radar but I assure you it is one of the genre’s best kept secrets.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

31 Days of Horror- Day 15: Dark Water (2002)

(dir. Hideo Nakata)

Toho Company LTD.

*First time viewing

A single mother and her daughter move into a dreary apartment building where water and supernatural occurrences leak into their lives.

Hideo Nakata, who garnered critical acclaim in the horror world for 1998’s Ringu, delivers a film that balances the emotional battle of motherhood with a truly haunting ghost story. In many ways, it’s the perfect thematic companion to Tuesday’s entry, The Orphanage. Yoshimi’s struggle to maintain custody over her daughter Ikuko is just as compelling as the story of the ghost Mitsuko’s harrowing struggle to cease custody over Yoshimi. We have two characters, one living and one dead, who are both in search of a mother they can rely on. While Mitsuko is obviously the antagonist, Nakata carefully sidesteps making her into a figure we grow to hate. We may find her methods horrific, her sense of entitlement unjust, and her presence chilling, but she remains a child in need, powerful but no more or less dependent than Ikuko.

Two of the frequent complaints I have about J-horror are the rather bland locations and gray palate washed over everything, as well as the sometimes impenetrable nature of the stories, which often rely more so on atmosphere than narrative clarity. Dark Water still has the same faded color palate as its contemporaries, but here it becomes an effective tool in terms of making Yoshimi and Ikuko’s home feel distinctly unwelcoming. Everything is washed in sadness, both present and past, which makes the cinematography feel purposeful and unique instead of routine. And in terms of story, Dark Water fully delivers on providing a plot that is logical and accessible every step of the way, and characters that you can actually feel something for. These ultimately make the fantastic climax all the more frightening and emotionally investing. Like The Orphanage, Dark Water’s final moments are overtly tragic and tinged with a bit of sweetness, making the entire film but an exercise in heart-racing and heart-tugging.

Scare Factor: 4/5 Full of jolting scares and a convincing exploration of what ownership means, Dark Water is quickly becoming one of my favorite examples of J-horror.

Crimson Peak Review

(dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Universal Pictures
“A house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing.”

Modern horror has lost its sense of romance. When’s the last time a horror film delivered a truly sweeping story of love? Not simply sex or a list of check marks performed by characters in a relationship, not even the sexually charged bond of trust that develops between characters facing sheer terror. No, I mean the beauty, ugliness, and heartbreak of pure love, defined in the way that only poetry seems to be able to distill. This is what maestro of the macabre, Guillermo del Toro, aims to do in his latest film. He strips away many of the modern trappings of the genre: jump scares, obscured spectres, quick-tension buildings edits, poorly lit scenes, and leaves horror bare, so that its beating heart can clearly be seen. In a whirlwind of blood and snow, Crimson Peak puts the romance back in horror.

Crimson Peak follows the willful and intelligent writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who, after the death of her father, marries the mysterious inventor and would-be industrialist, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who takes her to his manor in an isolated region of England. Despite warnings from her friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) and the bristling coldness of Thomas’ sister, Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), Mia believes she has found lasting love, that is until the ghosts appear and the Sharpes’ dark secrets are slowly uncovered.

The narrative of Crimson Peak is not profoundly different from what audiences could expect to find in the Victorian Romance novels of the Austen sisters and the Gothic Romances of Mary Shelley, Edgar Alan Poe, and Henry James. Essentially what del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins have done is take the principal elements of Gothic literature and present them in a way that only del Toro’s visual sense could deliver. Those familiar with the Gothic traditions likely won’t be surprised by the film’s story, but they will be absolutely stunned by the production design, costumes, and performances, all of which feed off of each other to create a rich and convincing tapestry that never feels false or overtly constructed. The actors believe in this world as much as del Toro does, which goes a long way in making such meticulous fantasy feel like reality

Wasikowska, who is unquestionably one of the most consistently interesting actresses, completely conveys the outward fragility and inner strength we’ve come to associate with the heroines of this era. Every moment of joy, fear, or pain comes across so completely on her face that even if we know where the story is headed, we are entirely invested in her emotional discovery. Hiddleston, on the other hand, keeps his emotions close to the vest, his angular European features creating a figure simultaneously sinister, broken, alluring, and impenetrable. He is the perfect Byronic figure, tragically romantic and sure to cause some swooning amongst his fans. Jessica Chastain rounds out the trio of impeccable performances by the leads as the spider-like Lucille. Formidable in every sense of the word, it is Chastain’s performance that very nearly steals the film by the end of it, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if we see a Supporting Actress campaign circle her later this year.

And yet, in the midst of these high-profile performers, the most stunning work comes from production designer Thomas E. Sanders and costume designer Kate Hawley. It is these aspects that provide the most consistently rewarding surprises in the film, a mesmerizing frame around each corner. Every cent of the film’s budget is proudly displayed on the screen. Every piece of décor, each made specifically for the film, is filled with detail and color, so much so that the film is at times over-stimulating. When we’ve seen so many period pieces awash in grays and browns, and so many horror films that settle for miniscule budgets, it is both refreshing and necessary to see colorful, lavish, big-budget horror make a return.

But how strong is the horror element in Del Toro’s quest for love and beauty? Those expecting a Shining-esque level of unease and dread will leave disappointed. While Crimson Peak certainly has the grandeur of that film, and includes enough cleverly subversive moments of gore to earn its R-rating, it ultimately never reaches a level of discomfort. The ghosts carry del Toro’s signature while looking unlike any ghosts that have every been seen on film before. They are fleshy yet ethereal, and carry the wounds of their death in horrific ways, but they are almost always in full view. If horror relies on what we can’t see and can’t understand, then Crimson Peak fulfills neither prerequisite. del Toro himself has recently made the claim that the film is not a horror film, but a gothic romance, sending dozens of film critics into spiraling debates over the definition of horror. But that definition has little import in terms of the film’s quality; del Toro may have attempted to spook the audience, or give them a slight chill, but he never intended to scare them with monsters. If we look back at the films that started del Toro’s career, Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, we’ll find that the horror in those films isn’t a result of the supernatural, but a result of people. These same elements are prevalent in Gothic horror and while the genre has evolved over the centuries, Crimson Peak is unabashedly retroactive. It is emotional fear that defines del Toro’s career, and it is emotional fear that he delivers here.

Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to the very foundation of classical horror, that first seed where all of his Mexican fairy tales, parasitic vampires, and giant monsters stem from. It’s visually stimulating without feeling emotionally empty, a perfect example of del Toro’s trademarked phrase “eye protein.” While similar versions of this story have been told before, the film still manages to engage and deliver on the promise of being unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Whether it’s best defined as Gothic Romance or Gothic Horror, Crimson Peak successfully places both back into the cinematic candlelight.

Grade: A

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

31 Days of Horror-Day 14: Kill List (2011)

(dir. Ben Wheatley)

IFC Midnight
*First time viewing

An unemployed British soldier partners with his friend to fulfill a set of contact kills for mysterious employers.

Despite the ample amounts of positivity heaped upon this film, I’ve held back from watching Kill List for quite a while. It’s been built up to an ominous level, a film possessing a near totemistic evil, and frankly, as a lover of all things horror, had some trepidation about delving into it. Well I can firmly say that Kill List is not the scariest film I’ve seen in years, or the most violent, spirit-shattering, or any of the other adjectives used to describe the film. What it is in reality is a very good film, one that’s cryptic to a degree that some will celebrate and others will detest.

Wheatley creates a tense introspection on violence, one that uses viciousness as an instrument instead of an excess. Even when Jay isn’t shooting contracts in the back of the head or smashing them open with a hammers, his life is fraught with violence. We spend a lot of time in Jay’s home, witnessing the increasingly dramatic domestic squabbles between he and his wife Shel, their make-ups, and dissention into argument once again. The home, meant to be place of safety, becomes an increasingly uncomfortable space and we get the sense that Jay isn’t meant to be a family man. This can be looked at as a result of PTSD from the Iraq War, but the film hints at something more sinister, that Jay is a sadistic, soulless man playing a dress-up soldier, hitman, and family man and that he isn’t even aware of this. As the film races through its tense and unsettling climax where the final target is revealed to be a cult leader, we’re given more questions than answers. Wheatley places the audience in the same lost cloudy mindset as Jay, but provides enough clues to piece together the themes of the film.

Scare Factor: 3/5 The first hour of the movie is a really good hit-man flick, violent, realistic and occasionally funny. The last half hour becomes a frenetic duel with the devil. Kill List isn’t as shocking as it has made out to be, but it’s wonderfully shot and executed. While the film doesn’t give audiences everything, it provides enough details for clarity and enough ambiguity for the horror to be maintained.