Tuesday, November 11, 2014

V/H/S: Viral (2014) Held Together With Spit and Wire

I'm telling you, I was really hoping for more from V/H/S: Viral.  I like the whole found footage anthology bit and having the franchise populated with short films from talented up-and-coming directors.  The trailer looked wild.  Everything was in place.  Still, I came away from it not quite satisfied.  Kind of like when I eat at Taco Bell.  I like some of the parts but as a whole, I'm wondering what I just ate.

Like the previous two V/H/S films (which I reviewed here and here), this one is split into smaller stories bound by a wraparound narrative.  The wraparound in this case is called "Vicious Circles," and is directed by Marcel Sarmiento, who helmed my favorite entry in the first ABC's of Death movie, "D is for Dogfight."  The wraparound kicks off the narrative of a video-fame-obsessed young man chasing a strange ice cream truck in the middle of a police chase.  Seems the truck has somehow kidnapped his girlfriend and as the chase progresses, we're privy to some of the videos apparently broadcasting from the truck.  Much like the first two films, the videos are cursed and in this case, are affecting people on a wider scale.

The first film within a film is called "Dante the Great," directed by Gregg Bishop, who directed the wonderful Dance of the Dead.  Now this one tells the story of redneck amateur magician Dante (the always-good Justin Welborn) who somehow gets a hold of a mysterious cloak that gives him incredible powers.  Of course, like any good boy will do, he uses them for fame and fortune.  Unfortunately, he also uses those powers to feed the beast inside the cloak.  Not tacos, sadly, but a few of his assistants.  Things come to a head when one of his assistants decides to fight back.

I'll just go ahead and say that the second entry was my favorite.  Nacho Vigalondo's "Parallel Monsters" is a seriously creepy what-if.  In this case, it's "what if you opened a portal into a parallel universe at the same time your parallel self did?"  As the protagonist explores the other world, it becomes apparent that the term "parallel" doesn't really fit.  The word should be "opposite."  I mean, really opposite.  As a huge fan of stories about parallel and alternate universes, the details really made my skin crawl.  There is a distinct "Twilight Zone" vibe to the story, but that's really what's the heart of these movies.  They're a modern-day, bloodier horror homage to Rod Serling's series.

Finally, there's "Bonestorm," which would be a freakin' AWESOME name for a metal band, about a group of delinquents filming skating videos in a place where they shouldn't.  Heading to Mexico, they accidentally disturb an evil cult's "unholy ground" and end up filming their struggle for survival.  The effects in this segment directed by Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson are pretty snazzy and the kinetic camerawork conveys the panic of the moment.  Still, I just couldn't find any sympathy for the characters based on their mostly jerky actions throughout the setup.

I really would've like to have seen the missing segment, Todd Lincoln's "Gorgeous Vortex," which is apparently quite good based on reports of those who have seen it.  It might have tied the movie together a little more tightly.  The wraparound is on the right path here, but something is missing.  I don't know; maybe slightly more narrative or a brighter thread that weaves the stories into the same overall story.

"Parallel Monsters" was definitely my favorite of the bunch for its inherent creepiness and WTF factor. "Dante the Great" wasn't far behind simply because it's the most fun.  I wanted it to be better, and V/H/S 2 was on an uphill trajectory.  Despite being a little disappointed in this installment, I do hope the franchise continues as it is a great showcase for talent deserves a wider audience.

Now, let's see what VHS tapes I have in my storage bin...wait, I've never seen this one before...

Sunday, October 26, 2014

In A Movie World With Evil Ghosts? Here Are Must-Have Supplies To (Mostly) Guarantee Your Survival

I'm always going to have a soft spot for the walking dead/shuffling revenant/bitey zombie.  Dawn of the Dead (the 1978 version) is my favorite horror film and Shaun of the Dead is one of my all-time favorites in any genre.  I won't dispute that zombie movies have become a bit "played out," but I don't ever want them to go away.  When the nice people at Man Crates - a gifts for men company that delivers a grab bag of goodies in a honest-to-goodness crate - came calling, I was more than happy to answer their challenge:  list a few things one would need in order to survive in a horror film.  Well, naturally, my weird little brain gravitated toward zombies first - a natural reflex, I'd say.  But then I thought I'd try something a little different and go with another subgenre of horror that I love:  the ghost movie.  I'm partial to ghost films from Japan or Korea, but I'm not going to play favorites.  If it's a scary ghost, I'm digging it.

Yeah, ghosts tend to be intangible except when they need to be all angry and poltergeisty.  There's not a lot to do to ultimately protect yourself because hey, you've seen Ringu or Ju-On, right?  Those ghosts are like spooky little juggernauts that spread like viruses or horrific LIVING IDEAS!  Sorry, I've been reading a lot of Grant Morrison again.  Hopefully, what I can impart to you might save you if your buddy tells you to "watch this cursed tape" or "let's move into a cursed house."

A powerful flashlight - Hey, kids, light up a dark room before going in!  Confuse the ghosts!  Never not know where you're going!  You walk into a room and you can't see everything?  Stand in the doorway, hit the mini-floodlight in your hand, and do a complete sweep.  Look at the ceiling to see if there is any splashes of blood or hair hovering up there.  Check under any furniture.  Look in the corners twice.  Then maybe go in.

Research notes - Provided you aren't in a ghostly place by accident, do a little research about the history.  Home of a former serial killer who took the term "asshat" a little too literally?  Find out.  You'll need to know these things.

Super-lost in Grave Encounters.

Blueprints - This really only applies if you know the haunted house you're going into.  Get a floor plan and map out an escape route.  Prop the front door open in case there are bars on the window.  Clear the hallways as you go.  Always know where you are.  Yeah, I know that some houses might end up like the endless hallways of the asylum in Grave Encounters.  If that happens, you can use the blueprints to cry into.

Mirror - Give that ghost a taste of its own medicine.  Who knows, maybe they need to face facts and realize they're scaring the bejeezus out of everyone.

More than one cellphone - Oh, no, the cellphone you're using just cut out?  The ghost struts off triumphantly, warming up for an escalating series of scares, not knowing you have a backup in your pocket.  Call for help and power-walk to the front door.

Attitude - Even if you're the nicest person in the world, develop a tough attitude that tells the ghost you're not going to be that easy.  I'm not saying be a douche.  Douches tend to meet rather unsightly ends in these movies.  I'm saying laugh at the ghost, be sarcastic ("Oooo, I'm so terrified!"), give the specter the middle finger with both barrels.  It's said that the evil ghosts will feed off fear.  Don't show any.

Anti-attitude - On the flip side, maybe all the ghost needs is some understanding and a hug.  Probably not, though.

Horror film knowledge - I think the most knowledgeable people that could survive a horror film are those who know them inside and out.  It's not a guarantee but they're going to know not to watch that tape or go into that house or party on that grave.  Watch a lot of them and get to know your adversary!

Adult diapers - This should be pretty obvious.

Thank you, Saturday Night Live.

Well, I hope I helped a bit.  You may not have good odds against ghosts and living curses but maybe now you'll have a fighting chance.

Thanks to Man Crates for reaching out to me to have some fun with a list that really got me thinking and also got me wanting to revisit some old favorites.

Time permitting, I'll be back next time with a special Halloween edition!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dead Alive (aka Braindead) (1992) Early Peter Jackson Insanity

A Sumatran rat-monkey.  A domineering mother-monster.  A kung-fu priest.  A delinquent's entrails that have a life of their own.  A cheery demon baby.  A lawnmower shield.

All this and lots more is what you'll find in one of Peter Jackson's early films, the energetic cult classic known as Dead Alive here on our side of the world, and Braindead everywhere else.  You may know Jackson as the high-powered director behind the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies of recent years.  He's won Academy Awards, produced several huge hits, and is generally one of the most well-known directors in the modern era.  But before all that, Jackson cut his teeth on wacky, blood-splattered craziness like this movie, or his first feature film, Bad Taste.  This was the first Peter Jackson movie I ever saw, and it remains near and dear to my heart.

Taking place in Jackson's native New Zealand during the 50's, the story follows sad-sack mama's boy Lionel (Timothy Balme) as he balances falling for a local gypsy girl, Paquita (Diana PeƱalver), and following his mean mom's wishes and commands.  When mommy dearest is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey and dies, things get a little bit crazy.  Old Vera reanimates as a blood-crazed zombie, turning a gang of ne'er-do-wells and her own nurse into ghouls like her.  Even the local priest, who put the beatdown on the zombie gang while delivering one of the best lines of dialogue ever ("I kick ass for the LORD!"), is eventually turned as well.  Poor Lionel has to keep the monsters hidden in his basement and deal with his lecherous Uncle Les, who wants the house for himself.  Before long, Les throws a rockin' party and Lionel tries to sever ties with his mother by using what he thinks is poison to kill her once and for all.  Unfortunately, the poison turns out to be what equates to super-steroids for animals and the zombie outbreak is seriously on.  The party degenerates into one of THE most gory, insane, and manic sequences in the history of film.  Seriously, Dead Alive is still considered one of the goriest movies ever made.

Still, the gore is played for laughs, and after a while, it becomes less "gore" and more "slapstick."  All those weird things I mentioned in the beginning are there.  What happens when two infected zombies have "relations"?  A demon baby that Lionel actually takes for a day out in a way to return to normalcy. 

Balme's Lionel is a hero who grows through the movie, and it's not hard to cheer for the guy.  Paquita gives him enough confidence to cut the umbilical cord...among a few other things.  The movie is absolutely in-your-face, wild, and energetic with kinetic camera angles, quick editing, and a narrative that never slows down.

Dead Alive is a favorite among horror fans, always thought of with a smile or a chuckle.  It's definitely horror, but the comedy shines through alongside its darker genre cousin seamlessly.  If you have a weak stomach, yeah, you might have a little trouble with things like Lionel's lawnmower shield among many other things.  But the movie's hilarious and drive-in-style fun, as well as being a bit of a history lesson about one of the world's top directors.

Until next time, don't visit the Sumatran rat-monkey at your local zoo...

Monday, September 8, 2014

Stitches (2012) A Party Clown's Revenge

I like it when a movie surprises me.

Sometimes late at night, I roll through Netflix and see what's out in the ether.  Stumbling across this oddball British-Irish horror comedy about an undead clown seeking revenge on a kid after being killed at a birthday party, I really wasn't expecting much.  But strangely enough, I ended up pleasantly surprised by the gory slapstick intentional cheese-fest that was Stitches.

Director Conor McMahon seems to be following the Peter Jackson path of starting off a career by turning grant money into bloody splashes of manic-comic theater.  You see a little inspiration from Jackson's early offerings like Bad Taste and Dead Alive, where over-the-top gore leans more toward the humorous.  Stitches doesn't take itself too seriously, offering up a wild premise, stereotypical-and-we-know-it characters, and circus-themed dispatching of those characters.

So it goes like this:  Stitches (comedian Ross Noble in his film debut) is a local clown hired to perform at young Tom's birthday party.  Tom isn't such a bad kid, but his friends range from somewhat to extremely obnoxious.  They taunt Stitches who, admittedly, isn't a very good clown.  The taunting takes a tragic turn when an accident the kids cause leaves Stitches with a huge kitchen knife through his eye into his skull.  The night of Stitches' funeral, Tom stumbles across a strange ritual as clowns honor their comrade.  Years later, it's Tom's (Tommy Knight of The Sarah Jane Adventures) 17th birthday, and he has a pretty understandable fear of clowns.  He's anxious and rather wimpy but his friends want to throw him a blowout, even though he's unsure.  The party includes all his friends from the original party, as well as his longtime crush, Kate (Gemma Leigh Devereux).  Before too long, though, an unwanted party guest makes his grand return:  Stitches, resurrected by some strange magic the clown cult instilled.  Stitches arrives and takes out each of the teenage partygoers from years before in sickeningly creative and often hilarious ways.  Brain scoop, balloon pump, umbrella - so weird, yet so Peter Jackson-ish.  It's then up to Tom and Kate to figure out a way to send Stitches back to Hell - or wherever undead clowns go.

Stitches is a rousing debut for Noble, who nails it in his first film.  He's snappy and slovenly, spouting 80's-style one-liners usually associated with supernatural killers.  "He had to...head off." "Now that' for thought."  Stitches is a killer clown, to be sure, and we've seen many of those, good ones and not-so-good.  But obviously, this film doesn't take things too seriously and just wants to tell a funny, wildly splattered tale of redemption for one kid and the ability to make intestine balloon animals for one not-quite-dead clown.

So make sure you treat that clown at a kid's party right.  Put away those knives and don't let your kids be obnoxious.

Until next time, here's the trailer:

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Den (2013) Always Look Both Ways When Crossing The Internet

You know how the Internet is a place where good people can get in touch with other good people and talk about good, innocent things and respect each others' opinions and lives?

I know, I know, but bear with me...

Well, 2013's The Den features the complete opposite side of that dream Internet.  In fact, if you want to teach a lesson about being safe online, this would practically be a documentary.  With the wackiness of sites like Chatroulette and Omegle, you just never know what you're going to get in the online box of cyber-chocolate.  The Den says, "okay, let's show you what happens when you pierce the dark underbelly.  Hire a maid because things are about to get messed up."

It's a pretty straightforward story at first:  doctorate student Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) sets up an account on a website called The Den in order to study how humans interact when given freedom online.  The results are predictably unpredictable.  Along with friendly people, she meets oddballs, wannabes, and perverts.  One girl, who won't turn on her camera, sends her cryptic messages as well as threats to her friend who is sharing the computer one day.  Strange things happen on Elizabeth's computer as it become clear that she's been hacked, although she doesn't see it at first.  It's when she witnesses the apparent murder of the formerly camera-less girl that things take a swan dive into the crazy pool.  From there, it becomes a fascinating and frustrating mystery for Elizabeth to solve...if she should.

Did I mention the entire movie is filmed as video feeds from various sources like Elizabeth's computer or surveillance cameras?

It's an interesting and intense take on the rapidly-filling-to-capacity found footage genre.  It moves along quickly and with enough of a variety of video sources to keep the narrative fresh.  Director Zachary Donahue, who also wrote the film, turns in a fine example of thinking a little outside the box and didn't go the "we're making a documentary" route.  Papalia is outstanding as a curious then utterly frightened Elizabeth, bringing range and charisma to the role.  Essentially, she is quite often a one-woman show who's only required to react to what she sees on a screen in many scenes.  In an era when so many people are exposed on the web - figuratively and literally - this is an urban legend of our time.  What if you're being watched?  What if things are happening without your knowledge?  What if?

It's a crazy movie.  I remember thinking, "That was messed up" as the credits rolled.  Truth be told, "messed" wasn't the actual word I used, but modesty prevails.  After a spate of so-so films that I haven't reviewed yet, The Den was rather refreshing.

Like a day on Facebook with no political ranting.

Surf safe, everyone - until next time, here's the trailer:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Some Mini-Reviews Since Time Flew By

Yeesh, I had no idea it had been that long since I'd posted anything.  I've got to stop getting distracted by shiny objects.

Let's get caught up with some "mini-reviews," shall we?

Almost Human (2013) - Definitely a shoestring budget and an attempt to recreate the magic of 80's VHS horror and slasher flicks.  It tells the story of what happens when a UFO abductee returns years later and has gone from kindly bearded fellow to homicidal maniac with some new alien body parts.  Good effort but the execution fell a bit short.  Any intrigue melted away and it needed more story.  Nice practical effects, though.

Red State (2011) - Kevin Smith takes an effective journey into non-comedy with a suspense thriller about sees some local boys run afoul of the town's crazy church/cult leader that oddly seems like the funeral-protesting wack-a-doos in real life.  Not as talky as a lot of Smith's other offerings, and don't look for a cameo by Jay and Silent Bob.  Tense storytelling and good performances, especially from Michael Parks as the frustratingly smug leader.

Haunter (2013) - A pleasant surprise, this haunted house mystery sees the story told from the ghost's point of view, much like the awesome I Am A Ghost.  In this case, Abagail Breslin turns in a great performance as the ghost of a murdered girl who comes to the realization that she's dead and tries to awaken her family to the fact as well as prevent an evil spirit from his eternal murder spree.  Good tension and a good story.

Jug Face (2013) - This one really started off on the right foot but didn't go as far as I hoped.  It's the story of a young girl who's part of a backwoods community that worships a pit that has healing properties but also demands a sacrifice.   The likeness of who is to be sacrificed is carved onto a clay jug, but when the girl hides hers, the pit expresses its displeasure.  Fine acting and a creepy vibe made it good but the story felt like it lost steam.

Frankenstein's Army (2013) - A crazy Dutch-American-Czech production set in World War II that follows a group of weary Russian soldiers who follow a distress signal to a small town.  What they find there is insanity as the descendent of Victor Frankenstein says "the hell with it" and sets his insane creations on Ally and Axis alike.  The monster design is tremendous and there's no shortage of blood and guts as the movie descends more and more into utter madness.  I dug it because it wanted to be nuts and it got its wish.

My Bloody Valentine (1981) - Remade just a few years ago, this cult classic came from the old school of matching psychotic killers with holidays.  The residents of a town relive an old nightmare that took place on February 14 when grisly murders pile up as the day grows closer.  Add to that the Eternally Doomed Teen Party and you know the body count rises.  Good 80's wackiness and a murder mystery to boot.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) - While I felt the first one went off the rails a bit, yet still told an intriguing story, I felt the second chapter was a little stronger.  The poor Lambert family is back and just when they think they dodged an astral bullet, it's the father who becomes the center of a spiritual attack.  Just the right amount of ghostly and strange, I enjoyed it like I usually enjoy seeing Rose Byrne.

+1 (2013) - An interesting take on a sci-fi standard of what duplicates would do if they met.  A meteor crashes, causing a nearby party to experience a little glitch in the matrix.  Time splits and people meet themselves from a few seconds behind.  An interesting story set on a strange premise with decent performances.  Not a bad choice if you like being weirded out by time and space.

Hellbenders (2012) - With a good cast and a premise that borders on sacrilege, this movie was more fun than it had a right to be.  The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints are a ragtag group of badasses who also happen to be priests of various faiths that sin on purpose on orders of The Pope so that if a demon possesses them during an exorcism, they can kill themselves and drag the demon to Hell.  Good guys who do bad things to prevent the really bad things.  In this flick, they have to stop a runaway Norse demon from pulling Hell up around the world.  Funny and with a touch of honor, the cast is headed by the reliable Clifton Collins Jr. and Clancy Brown.

Willow Creek (2013) - Oh, Willow Creek, how I wanted to like you.  A good director in Bobcat Goldthwait and some really suspenseful moments still added up to a movie that was a hair below "OK."  It's a found footage style movie about a couple setting out to make a documentary about the Patterson Bigfoot sighting and getting much more than they bargained for.  Admittedly, the tent scene is suspense at its best, but the ending left me feeling like the whole thing was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek joke.  Maybe it was, but I was hoping for a little more.

OK, that should just about do it for now.  I gotta stop taking so long between reviews.  Maybe some caffeine would help.

Until next time!

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Sacrament (2013) Ripples of Jonestown

If you know the story of Jonestown, then you'll know the story of Ti West's intense The Sacrament.

For those who have no idea about the real-life horror that was Jonestown, here it is in a nutshell:  in 1978 paranoid cult leader Jim Jones creates a "utopia" in Guyana (with armed guards and restrictions on leaving), and when he feels threatened, he murders investigators and coerces his own followers to commit mass suicide.  Over 900 people - men, women, children - died whether they wanted to or not.  It's a chilling chapter in world history that should never be repeated.

Director Ti West is a modern master of suspense.  His horror films tend to be disturbing on a less visceral level because he has mastered the slow build, as he demonstrated with The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. You know what's going to happen in the case of The Sacrament, but you're powerless to stop it from taking place.  It's a modern retelling of the actual incident, told through the lens of the found footage genre as a documentary piece for the edgy Vice news series.

Vice documentary makers Sam and Jake (horror superstars A. J. Bowen and Joe Swanberg) decide it would be a great story to accompany their friend and photographer Patrick (Kentucker Audley) to Eden Parish, a secluded commune in an unnamed country.  His sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), a recovering drug addict, has beckoned him to come and visit, to see how her life has turned around.  From the moment the three gentlemen arrive, they're dubious.  The tour guides have guns and seem suspicious of outsiders.  Caroline meets them at the gate, and everything seems better on the inside.  People are happy and thankful, hardworking and making no bones about their love for the commune's founder, known only as "Father" (Gene Jones).  An interview is arranged with Father, and the congregation is excited.  Well, most of them anyway.  One mother and her daughter don't exactly seem as crazy about the place as others, but show definite fear.  Sam's interview with Father is reserved, strange, and a little off-putting.  It's clear to Sam and his colleagues that they're being manipulated.  The congregation holds a party for the guys, but things don't seem right:  the woman and her child plead to be taken out of the commune, Patrick disappears with two girls who were basically commanded to initiate a little orgy with him, Caroline has her own dark side.  Of course, at the center of it all:  Father.  After a tense night, everything unravels in the morning as the guys decide they need to leave and Sam wants to take some of the congregation with him.  Everything seriously unravels in a Jonestown sort of way.

It's a familiar story, but West has made this movie his own.  Sure, we know the story before we hit "play," but it's how West tells it.  He paces the tension so expertly, and is complemented by his friends and cohorts Bowen and Swanberg - a lot of same-thinking people helped make this movie.  Tying the film together is Jones' performance as the charismatic "holy man" with a pleasant Southern drawl and a grandfatherly chuckle.  He's disarming and creepy all at once, playing a new version of Jim Jones with reserved dread.  The hold he has on these people - using religion as a whip - is frightening and yet something seen all too much in the real world. Thrown in great performances by Audley, Seimetz, and several members of the congregation who came off as real, desperate people.

It's not an easy movie to watch.  The plot is rooted in real life with no ghosts or demons, except for the ones that haunt people every day.  Chilling and well-crafted, be prepared to watch a palette-cleanser afterwards - and that's a compliment!

Meanwhile, here's the trailer:

Monday, April 28, 2014

Banshee Chapter (2013) Modern Lovecraftian Hijincks

A couple things that creep me out are Lovecraftian-style stories and number stations.  You know, number stations...those mysterious shortwave signals of people talking or reciting numbers or other repeated gibberish?  Creepy.

And stories in the vein of H. P. Lovecraft, in which unspeakable horrors always lay just on the outskirts of perception, waiting to scrap through into our world and drive us mad?  Also creepy.

In the sort-of found footage flick Banshee Chapter, you get all that and more.  Like Ted Levine as a Hunter S. Thompson pastiche.

Written and directed by Blair Erickson, this part found footage, part regular point-of-view movie takes both of those tropes above and tries out a new spin on the Lovecraft story From Beyond (also a fun 80's cult film).  Author James and his pal Renny are in the midst of researching for a book that will delve into the mind-altering drug experiments that the U.S. Government allegedly inflicted on citizens.  James claims that he has a sample of the drug they were given and gets on with his own experiment.  The moment he drinks the sample, strange things start happening, including shadows outside the windows and a mysterious broadcast emanating from the radio.  Renny follows James to investigate, but is suddenly faced by a horrifically-changed James before his camera blacks out.  James' girlfriend, investigative reporter Anne (Katia Winter), makes it her mission to find out what happened to James and Renny, who even though he survived his encounter has now disappeared.  Anne tracks down eccentric author Thomas Blackburn (Levine), who says he has evidence and proof that could lead her to James' whereabouts.  At his desert getaway, Thomas and chemist Callie, take the drug and insist that Anne has taken it as well.  Strange noises and shadows fall over the house and Callie is changed in a similar way to James before she disappears.  Anne and Thomas track down Callie, which eventually leads them to a remote outpost in the desert - seemingly the source of the strange broadcasts.  Of course, what they find in there isn't exactly the truth they wanted.  And that's where I'll stop the synopsis because, you know, spoilers.

Balancing creepiness with occasional jump scares, Banshee Chapter finds itself in the upper echelon of found footage movies, in my opinion.  It features a compelling story with incredibly tense moments and fine acting from Winter and Levine.  There are moments where the scares are right in your face, and others where they're on the outskirts of your perception - much like a Lovecraft story.  Moments like Renny running into James and Thomas' disturbing seizure in the car added to the mystery and urgency of the story.

I've always been a little fascinated with strange signals coming through on shortwave radio, but after seeing this movie, I'm not so sure I want to uncover more about these number stations.  Unless they're broadcasting winning lotto numbers, then hey, I'm all ears.

Until next time, here's this movie's trailer:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) Weird Neighbors and Eye Hairs

Yep, the Paranormal Activity train just keeps rolling along.

Usually when sequels go on and on, the quality of a product lessens.  I suppose that's true of the Paranormal Activity series, as I honestly found this installment to be the least scary.  That's not to say it was bad.  It held my interest and added some new wrinkles to the mythology.  It relied less on the atmospheric build to jump scares and more on strengthening the underlying story.

In this story written and directed by Christopher B. Landon, the action takes place in 2012 as bright young high school student Jesse and his friends Marisol and Hector get into all sorts of summer mischief with a camcorder in the urban Los Angeles neighborhood of Oxnard.  Jesse and Hector live in a nice little apartment complex where everyone knows everyone, except for one woman named Anna, whom they all label as being a witch.  When Jesse and Hector catch some weird goings-on in Anna's apartment on tape, they're even more sure - the woman paints some strange symbol on a young woman's torso.  Not only that, one of their esteemed classmates was seen storming out of Anna's apartment.

One night, after seeing their classmate fleeing in the night, Jesse and his friends discover that Anna was murdered.  Of course, they don't leave well enough alone and figure it would be a good idea to check out her apartment.  Surely nothing bad will happen.  They find a run-down, messy apartment but nothing too far out of the ordinary.  But then strange things begin happening to Jesse:  bad dreams, bite marks on his arm, occasional bouts of invulnerability, EYE HAIRS. After discovering a basement in Anna's apartment, the weird meter gets turned up to 11 as Jesse encounters ghostly women (including young versions of previous movies' characters) and a mysterious figure that charges him.  When he finally emerges, he's just a little...different.  Darker.  Meaner.  More likely to laugh at people falling down.  It's now up to Hector and Marisol to cleanse their friend, but you know that's not going to go as planned.  No sitcom freeze-frame laugh as the credits roll.  They seek the diverse help of the survivor of the second film, and the gangbanger brother of the kid who killed Anna as they travel to a house that should be familiar to those who have seen every installment.  From there, it boils down to a confrontation with the residents of the house...sort of.  There's also a run-in with poor, doomed Jesse and a bit of a visit to the early days of the franchise.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones didn't have the creeping threat that the other movies had.  It expanded the mythology by showing there's a wider conspiracy, and the viewer is privy to some actual supernatural methods employed by the coven that we all know.  Nothing about the movie is really bad, but nothing really jumped out at me.  The ending was interesting, and of course, there are more questions to answer - which leads to more movies.  Although this installment was the least successful, this franchise is a consistent money-maker so there are sure to be more movies and more layers to the story.

And I'm sure I'll watch them.

Meanwhile, take a peek at the trailer:


Friday, April 11, 2014

The Bay (2012) That'll Put Me Off Swimming

If you look back at the early, rock-n-roll days of this blog, you'll find an entry in which I wrote a list of things that skeeve me out.  One of those things that skeeve me out is an object just under the surface of the water (boats, old buildings, skeletons) as well as things you know are there, but can't see (sharks, bigger boats, Cthulhu).

Well, you might was well add sea bugs to that list because The Bay did its share to do it for me.

The Bay is an interesting film even before you start watching it.  Released to little fanfare, it's made in the found footage style and it's an eco-horror film directed by none other than Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Avalon).  It doesn't seem like the type of movie one would expect from Levinson, but good directors often take chances.  For the most part, he scored quite well with this increasingly creepy movie with a message.

In a small, idyllic Maryland town, a celebration of its history on Chesapeake Bay brings the town together.  But there's a bit of a dark underside.  There's high levels of toxicity in the water thanks to a huge chicken processing plant and a cutting-corners filtration plant installed by the mayor to give the illusion of safety.  Two researchers know this, but are dead from a mysterious malady before they can turn in the proper proof.  Slowly, through the eyes of several security cameras, phones, news cameras, and video conferences, it's obvious that something is happening in the town.  People are getting violently sick, developing ugly sores on their bodies.  They begin to react violently or irrationally.  Then it all just goes downhill from there.  Our various emotions are toyed with as we see this horrifying epidemic unfold through a young reporter's tapes, town security cams, a young girl's iPhone, police dash cams, and the one that builds the most tension:  the video camera of a young family oblivious of what's happening taking a boat to the town.

Using a cast of talented unknowns, Levinson adds some meat to the bones of the found footage genre.  He uses some good jump scares here and there, but it's the creepy atmosphere that slowly builds over time that really made the film something good.  The town at the beginning is the town you want to live in, and the town at the end looks like something out of a Romero film.  This all happens in such a short amount of time, you wonder how anyone can get out of it or how they could possibly survive.  The tension and atmosphere are on display here.

Some viewers may applaud or bemoan the message of pollution and pollution regulation that sits behind the main face of horror here.  Keep in mind:  this is just a story.  It's fiction.  It's the fictional story of a fictional situation happening to fictional people because of some other fictional situation.  Relax.  Personally, I think pollution is pretty much bad all around.  I don't want to go swimming in unfiltered chicken poop, and I certainly don't want mutant sea bugs burrowing into my skin and giving me boils the size of dinner plates.

Enjoy the trailer:

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Babysitter Wanted (2008) Depends On Whose Baby

I was lucky working in college.  The highlight of my employment then was working in a video store (VHS, baby!), with the worst scenario being that some Lothario maybe got pissed because he couldn't impress his date since all of the copies of 9 1/2 Weeks were rented out.  I never had to babysit.  And after watching Babysitter Wanted, I count myself fairly lucky.

It was also that bygone decade, the crazy 80s that all the kids are talking about these days, when I attended my first college.  Long story.  In recent years, I've noticed a trend:  some horror movies are trying to reflect the look and ambiance of the 70s and 80s.  There's been a widespread return to the grindhouse and VHS days of old, and I gotta say that I really like it.  Sure, there are going to be some misses among the hits.  Law of averages.  But many of the recent ones I've seen have been on the "hit" side.

Babysitter Wanted falls on the "hit" side, but it did take me a minute to warm up to it.  Written by Jonas Barnes, and directed by Barnes along with Michael Manasseri, it tells the story of sweet, wholesome Angie (Sarah Thompson) and her first foray into college life.  Angie is devoutly religious and completely innocent of the underbelly of college.  Heading to Adams College (sorry, no nerds seen taking revenge), she moves in with a hard-partying but not unkind roommate and is forced to sleep on the crusty couch, since the previous tenant had sold the bed.  Looking for work, Angie grabs one of those phone number strips advertising a babysitting job.  She secures an interview, but becomes skittish when she realizes someone is following her around campus.  The sheriff (the always-great Bill Moseley) can't do much without more proof, but assures her that he'll come if called.  On the bright side, she meets nice guy Rick (Matt Dallas), whose intentions seem as pure as Angie's own heart.  Angie meets the Stanton couple (Bruce Thomas and Kristen Dalton) and their little tyke, Sam (Kai Caster).  Sam's a shy kid who always wears a cowboy outfit that his parents claim he never takes off.  Once the friendly Stantons leave, that's when the fun begins.  The mysterious figure stalking Angie shows up, and interrupts Sam's meal of meat and sauce to break into the house.

And that's when it takes a left turn I honestly didn't see coming.

Of course, you know I'm not going to spoil it here.  Nothing is what it seems, and Angie is seriously in for the fight of her life as her faith and sense of reality are shaken to the core.

The movie is good fun, filmed in the vein of early- to mid-80s slasher movies with an over-the-top secret.  It looks like something you might find on VHS, and that's a compliment.  I enjoyed how it looked.  The acting is solid throughout, especially by Thompson as Angie.  She plays innocent, scared, and determined all in one, even if she is a slight (intentional) caricature.  Kyle XY alums Dallas and Thomas are also good as well as Dalton as the mother.  I'm a Bill Moseley fan, so obviously I'll say he was good, too.  Oddly enough, he didn't play a villain, but rather a kindly, concerned sheriff.

It was definitely a fun little movie, sure to please the gore fans as well.  There were a lot of bloody shots, and they carefully didn't show what was surely the most wince-inducing "cuts."

So be careful about that babysitting job.  Not everyone can have an adventure like Elizabeth Shue.

Here's the trailer:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

I Am A Ghost (2012) Why I Love Indie Horror Films

One of the joys I have of writing this blog is spreading the word of various horror movies:  classic, new, big budget, indie, strange, subtle...well, you get the idea.  It's a genre I love, and I like to put my thoughts out there.  One of the bigger joys is touching base with independent filmmakers and performers.  I always feel like if I can get at least a few more people to see their work based on an article I write, then I'm happy with that.  It's fun for me, and I've been able to meet some really nice, talented people.

This brings me to the fun I had watching I Am A Ghost, an incredibly impressive independent horror film written and directed by H. P. Mendoza.  I'd been aware of the film for a while, and when I was made aware that the film was available on video-on-demand, I had to check it out.  Having been in touch with the filmmakers before, I was excited to see what they had created.

I was not sorry.

Boy, was I not sorry!  What I got to see was an ambitious, carefully-crafted thriller that looked great and featured an excellent performance from a leading lady, and taut suspense that wound up right until the final frame.  I love indie filmmaking because of the energy and the outside-the-box creativity and the hunger to craft a great film with sometimes very little in the way of resources.  "Working with what you got," some would say.  I Am A Ghost works with what it has, and then some.

Anna Ishida plays Emily, the title character.  It's no surprise that she's a ghost going through a mundane daily routine in a huge, beautiful house.  There are some things that seem a little off, such as Emily's breakfast time and the moments where she cries in pain and confusion in front of a mirror.  In one certain room, she hears a disembodied voice calling her name:  a medium named Sylvia (Jeannie Baroga in an unseen role).  Sylvia tries to help Emily leave the house, but some unknown factor keeps her there.  As the film unfolds, Emily struggles to uncover the mystery of how she died and how she can finally move on to the afterlife.

The film has a 60's and 70's look to it, right from the title card (and you know how I love those).  The screen borders are curved throughout, creating a unique point of view.  Despite the spaciousness of the house, there is a sense of claustrophobia.  Something is happening with poor Emily, and we're not quite sure what yet, although it becomes clear as the movie builds towards a horrifying climax.  Mendoza has built an intriguing, great-looking film that he expertly guides you through.  His is a voice and vision I'm excited to see grow from this already-strong base. In terms of performance, Ishida owns the screen.  Her Emily is scared, confused, complicated - and Ishida gracefully brings each of those facets to the forefront.  She is the face of the movie, and she is more than up to the task.

I've had the opportunity to see and review quite a few great independent horror features, and in communicating with the filmmakers and performers, I'm always happy to see the passion and the excitement they have in creating something new and something unlike the paint-by-numbers too often seen in big studio fare.  I'm excited to see what these creative people having coming down the pike, and really hope to see more from Mendoza and Ishida.

I Am A Ghost is available on DVD and VOD, and if you'd like more information, check out their website right here.

In the meantime, check out the trailer:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dead Before Dawn (2012) Don't Play With Curses

So when I watched The Bell Witch Haunting on a whim, I insisted that I could no longer trust my whims.

But then I watched Dead Before Dawn on a whim, and well...I feel a little more trust in my whims again.

Now, I know that Dead Before Dawn wasn't received with open arms like other horror comedies.  Some liked it, many didn't.  But they're not writing this review...I am, and I declare that I found it to be snappy, fast-paced, fun, and often hilarious.  I also realize that horror comedies can be really hit or miss.  Three of my favorite movies, horror or otherwise, lean heavily towards comedy:  Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.  They set the bar really high.  There's dozens more that can't match the perfect blend of frights and follies, but every so often, you run across a movie that still does a great job in its attempt.

Written by Tim Doiron and directed by April Mullen, the movie opens with a young boy witnessing his father being possessed by a demon in a store full of occult items.  Later in life, that same boy, Casper Galloway (Devon Bostick of Diary of a Wimpy Kid) is a jumpy but quick-witted young man who has a close circle of eccentric friends and a crush on a popular girl, Charlotte (Martha McIsaac).  When Casper's grandfather, Horus (Christopher Lloyd), wins a lifetime achievement award from occult enthusiasts, he recruits Casper to watch the store.  Of course, Casper is hesitant, but does out of respect for his grandfather.  When his friends come to visit him, an urn containing a malevolent spirit is broken.  Casper freaks out, but the others joke about a "curse," rattling off ideas of what the curse might be.  Turns out that what they say comes to pass:  people turn into zombie/demon hybrids called "zemons" when they make eye contact with any of the gang.  Also, oddly enough, if a person french-kisses a zemon, the zemon will become their slave.  Oh,  yes, and they have to reverse the curse before dawn or they become zemons as well.

As you might guess, the night goes south from there. 

It doesn't take long for the group to figure out that the curse is real, but not before there is carnage and confusion.  From there, it becomes a race against time to reverse what's happened before the sun rises.

I found Dead Before Dawn to be snappy with quick moments of hilarity and a likable cast of characters.  Lloyd even manages to sneak in a "Great Scott!" for all you Back To The Future fans.  Bostick is energetic and jumpy as Casper, and it I could see where that might grind on people after a while.  Still, his reactions are often funny and in some cases, genuine.  The rest of the cast seems to be having a great time making the movie, and you'll catch a couple interesting cameos by Kevin McDonald of Kids In The Hall and Boyd Banks of the Dawn of the Dead remake.

The movie was fun in my eyes, and went a long way to restore my faith in my "oh-let-me-take-a-look-at-this-film" whims.  The script by Doiron, who plays mug-obsessed Seth, and the direction by Mullen, who plays Casper's best friend and photographer Becky, are very key aspects in lending the film its youthful energy.

Now, for your viewing enjoyment, here's the trailer:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Bell Witch Haunting (2013) I Tried, I Really Tried

Well, that was something.

Ah, The Bell Witch Haunting.  I should have known better.  Those rascals at The Asylum got me again, this time with a Paranormal Activity copy that had some accidentally decent scenes, but was mostly filled with surreal, head-scratching moments that made you wonder if you were watching the pre-editing version.

There are no credits.  Before and after the movie, there are no credits.  Not even an "Alan Smithee."  The movie just kicks right in, and it's pretty straightforward.  In fact, you've seen it before with Paranormal Activity.  Family buys a house in the Tennessee town where the original Bell Witch hauntings happened.  Strange things begin to happen.  People die.  Stranger things happen.  More people die.  Family decides to have the house exorcised.  Really bad things happen.  A showdown in the woods and local caves leads to an abrupt and confusing ending.

That's pretty much the plot.  I mean, if you want details, I can tell you that it's a family of four, with the daughter recording things during her "fashion blog," and the brother interested in making a movie about the weird things happening around him.  So, yeah, it's a found footage film.  About a haunting.  With ambient music building to warn you when something is about to happen.  Pretty much Paranormal Activity.

But...but the logic-defying things that happen.  Forget about the ghosts and demons and poltergeists.  There's a whole laundry lists of things that I just can't explain, and they're scarier than the movie.  It might help to ease the pain if you read the following questions in the voice of Jerry Seinfeld:

*  If the movie takes place in Tennessee during January, why are they having pool parties and dressing in shorts?  I've been stranded in that great state during blizzards in January, and I only wished I could have a pool party. And what the hey, palm trees?

*  A couple dies under mysterious circumstances after leaving the pool party at the beginning.  Why aren't they ever mentioned again?

*  The house seems to be in a suburban area, with lots of neighbors.  Why are there suddenly woods everywhere?  I can accept that the house sits on the edge of a wooded area, but when one girl wanders off by herself, suddenly they're in the deep woods.

*  And speaking of the neighborhood, why did they move next door to a junkyard?  Oh, wait, that's property formerly owned by the elder Bell back in the 19th century.  Okay.

*  I think they could have expanded on the father's power of premonition.  He has a bandage on his forearm, then he doesn't, then he suffers an injury to that forearm, then he has the bandage back.  He should have known.

*  The kid is so excited to document things happening in his house and to his family, so why doesn't he review his tapes?  All it would take is a "here, check this out" and that family would be outta there.

*  All these objects moving, strange voices, electricians getting zapped, friends and neighbors dying, and the family is most concerned with...unpacking.

*  Proofreading?  "January 21th"?  The mom's name changing from Jeanette to Martha?  I...I...I think my brain is crying.  So much, so much more.

OK, so you know me, I'll try to find something good even in movies that I just didn't enjoy.  So, here goes:  the actors are trying.  They are doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing.  The daughter, Dana, played by Cat Alter, stood out.  Her character suffers the brunt of the hauntings, and she does play the materialistic and ultimately frightened young girl very well.  There are a couple of decent jump scares as well, and those two factors saved it from being a total loss.

It blatantly copied Paranormal Activity and did so pretty boldly.  That low hum of ambient music is the most telling.  It just wasn't my cup of tea, but it did make me pine for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of it.

Still, it was no Hardly Working.

Here's the trailer if you're so inclined to view it:

Friday, January 24, 2014

We Are What We Are (2013) Now I'm Hungry

Yeah, I'm hungry, but I may never look at stew the same way again.

Let me just say that I'm increasingly impressed by director Jim Mickle. I first saw his work on the daring zombie-rat thriller Mulberry Street, then in what I believe is one of the very best vampire movies I've ever seen, Stake Land.  Mickle and co-writer/frequent star Nick Damici add another quality entry onto their resume with We Are What We Are, a remake of the 2010 Mexican film, Somos lo que hay.  Mickle and Damici go in a somewhat different direction and the result is a quietly creepy film that is photographed beautifully and well-crafted with suspense and some genuine chills.

The matriarch of a small, unassuming family (Kassie DePaiva of TV's One Life To Live...don't ask me how I knew that) suddenly dies one rainy day, and the family is consumed with grief.  They're a bit of an odd family, the girls (Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers) pale and soft-spoken, but very close with each other and their younger brother (Jack Gore).  Despite the death of their mother and through the kindness of the town (especially the motherly neighbor played by Kelly McGillis), the father (Bill Sage) insists that they will go ahead with some kind of ritual that their family has observed for decades.  While the father is very spiritual, the ritual is less religion than it is tradition.  In the meantime, a local doctor (Michael Parks) stumbles across a finger bone after the rains and is determined to find out its origins.  He's got the extra added motivation of having had his teenage daughter go missing - maybe this is her?  It's not a total spoiler to say that the Parker clan's ritual involves dining.  Missing people + a dining ritual?  I think you can put two and two together here.

The girls, Iris (Childers) and Rose (Garner) struggle with the idea of the ritual, wondering if they should rebel against their quietly firm (but simmering with rage) father.  Iris wants to act on her attraction to the deputy (Wyatt Russell), a former high school crush.  Rose wants to get their brother out of the house and away from the ritual.  Meanwhile, Doc Barrow (Parks) is closing in on the truth about the Parker clan and what may have happened to his daughter.

I won't spoil the ending, but it takes an intriguing strange turn that doesn't really seem out of place at all, despite what happens.  We Are What We Are is a beautiful-looking movie, with a structure and frame that really speaks to the telling of a story.  Director Mickle can put another knot in his success belt, in my opinion, as he tells an atmospheric, steadily-building story that has its abundant quiet moments coupled with scenes of meaty gore and bloodletting.  The acting was really good all around, with Sage showing understated menace, Garner and Childers showing a struggle with innocence, and Parks as a sad, hopeful, and vengeful father.

Now, while you wait for dinner, enjoy the trailer...