Friday, November 25, 2011

Grave Encounters (2011) This Would Make A Great Haunted House Attraction

You know those haunted house attractions that pop up everywhere during the Halloween season?  Some are hokey, many are extremely creative.  Through my entire viewing of The Vicious Brothers' Grave Encounters, I kept thinking how sweet it would be if they could parlay the film into an actual haunted house one could brave on a crisp autumn evening.  I also kept thinking about how well the filmmakers skewered "reality ghost hunter" series as fame- and ratings-seekers.  Only in Grave Encounters, the question is asked, "what if one of those shows actually finds something?"

Continuing my unofficial "found footage month" here at the Helicopter, Grave Encounters slides right in as an entry in that genre, as nearly the entire film is told through footage that was "found" at an abandoned insane asylum and, as a concerned television executive tells us in the few moments that are not in first-person, "altered in any way."  Although this subgenre is starting to saturate the market just a tad, I'm still interested in it.  Although I had slightly lower expectations for this film, I was pleasantly surprised at how fun it was.

Written and directed by the awesomely-named Vicious Brothers (Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz), the film sets us up with premise that a film crew producing the latest episode of a ghost-hunting reality show called - as you may guess - "Grave Encounters."  An executive lets us know in documentary format that the crew has disappeared and what we're about to watch is an edited, yet undoctored account of what happened to them.  We then meet the leader of the team, Lance (Sean Rogerson) who bears an uncanny...hell, an obvious resemblance to that spiked-hair muscle guy on "Ghost Adventures."  His mannerisms in front of the camera had me laughing since I'm so entertained by the antics of the real show, it seemed like a parody-homage.  To investigate the supposedly haunted asylum, he brings his team of camera man T.C. (Merwin Mondesir), occult expert Sasha (Ashleigh Gryzko), tech guy Matt (Juan Riedinger), and psychic Houston (Mackenzie Gray).  Early on, the on-camera facades drop and we see that Lance and his team hardly believe in the paranormal - the whole thing is about ratings and of course, money.  Lance is obsessed with the show being successful, and Houston is hardly a real psychic, just an actor who complains that the overnight taping session might cut into his auditions.  They even pose like a hip paranormal investigation team.  They're ready-made for fame.

But strange things begin to happen over the night, at first nothing overly alarming.  But when Matt goes upstairs to investigate a window that moved during the night, it kicks off something that ranges from mysterious (his disappearance) to the terrifyingly surreal (what the team finds when they finally open the front doors).  Although they're not locked in anymore, they can't leave.  The asylum itself becomes an antagonist.  Maps and directions mean nothing.  Doesn't matter that their clocks say it's daytime...outside the windows, it's still dark.  Horrifying apparitions appear and the party is separated in the pitch black.  One by one, the crew is picked off in chilling ways.  I won't spoil how they go down, but I will say I found T.C.'s fate especially creepy.  Eventually, it's down to just Lance, exhausted and alone.  At the end of his rope, it's as if the asylum allows him to glimpse answers to long-standing questions about the nefarious doctor who likely created the restless spirits before handing him over to his doom.

Unlike Skew, the found footage film I reviewed recently, Grave Encounters isn't deeply layered.  There's no symbolism or puzzles you need to solve, not even a breathtaking final shot to nestle itself in your brain.  Grave Encounters is straightforward and wild, a walk through a haunted house not unlike some of the better Halloween attractions out there.  It's not fancy, but it manages to hold the interest and entertain with no small amount of flair and nods to a slew of urban legends.  Rogerson is excellent as the central character, and his Lance is intense, brash, and slightly unlikeable.  He demands his crew follow him, even when things get insane.  One standout for me was Gray as Houston, the over-dramatic, cowardly psychic.  He's so over-the-top when he's "on camera" for the show, displaying his "powers," but a fame-seeking diva when he's not.  I found him to be both hysterical and interesting by playing both sides of that coin.

Overall, the film is a lot of fun, not nearly as bad as I thought it might be...don't ask me why I thought it would be bad.  I guess I thought I was due for a dud, but I was happy to find I really enjoyed Grave Encounters

So give it a try, and you'll see what I mean:  making this a haunted house tourist attraction would be money in the bank. Charge admission at the door, gift shop on the way out. Money, I tell you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Skew (2011) The More I Think About This Movie...

...the more I like it.

Skew had me thinking.  Not just during the movie, which is always a positive, but after.  Long after.  It made me think about everything I saw during the course of the film and every line of dialogue.  It especially made me think about a final scene enough that I went back and watched the final few minutes over again.  The final frame froze me in my tracks.  Figuratively, of course. I don't usually pace around the room when I watch movies.

The last found footage/cinema vertite/first person film to make me formulate ideas and theories long after I shut it down was The Last Exorcism, which I enjoyed more after I watched it as well.  My theories may not be right, but it's fun to think them up.  The last shot in Skew is a game-changer.  It made me go back over everything I had just seen and re-think all of it.  It's chilling and exciting at the same time.  Like a goofball fawning over a double rainbow, I felt like laugh-shouting, "What does it MEAN?"

Basically, Skew is a story told from one point of view, first-person-style.  It's deftly written and directed by SevĂ© Schelenz about three friends on a road trip.  Some movies could tell a story with just that, but Schelenz goes much further.  Simon (Robert Scattergood) wants to document the entire trip to a friend's wedding with his spankin' new camcorder.  Buddies Rich (Richard Olak) and Eva (Amber Lewis) pick him up but there's already tension because Simon has just had a fight with his girlfriend Laura (Taneal Cutting).  Eva goes inside to convince Laura to go anyway, but is given the cold shoulder.  The three head out on the road and after some friendly shenanigans and typical road trip fun, strange things begin to happen.  Hey, you knew they would.  It starts when they hit a coyote on the road, then check in to a local motel.  Simon films the desk clerk and finds his face distorted and twisted.  Later that night, the clerk is found dead and police are everywhere.  But it doesn't stop there.

An entire bus full of tourists winds up dead after being filmed through Simon's lens, and the weirdness is just getting started.  Terrifying things happen.  Tensions flare.  Nerves are stretched thin.  Visions intrude (but only for Simon).  Secrets are confessed, one of which brings friends closer, another which tears them apart.  It all comes to a head, and when the final few minutes finally air, we get some answers and one huge reveal that might give you more questions to ponder.

And my friends, sometimes that ain't all bad.

Sometimes I like being left with a few questions partially answered...or not answered at all.  It's good exercise for the brainpan to be given some slack to dance around the information it's been given, see it from different angles.  Too often, audiences are spoon-fed the answers and soon grow to demand it.  Look at some (some, I say) of the frustration with the TV show, Lost.  Answers were deliberately held back, but there were those who got angry because every little detail wasn't revealed.  But I digress.

Skew wasn't without a couple faults, the way I saw it.  I understand and very much appreciate the importance of a slow build, but there were a few spots where dialogue and non-action felt a touch snail-like.  But I'm definitely willing to look past those slow spots because the acting was very good, very genuine.  It's hard to pick out a single star, and I have to hand it to Scattergood for basically what amounts to voice acting, as it is through his perspective that we see the film.  Olak is a study in a breakdown as he goes from jaunty slacker-ish guy to hard-drinking angry friend on the verge of blowing his top.  Lewis is the voice of reason, the almost angelic one that everyone loves.  She tries so hard to keep the three together with so much going on behind her eyes.  The script is natural and flowing, and the direction is tight, especially during the scenes of mounting tension or utter creepiness.  I'm not alone in looking forward to Schelenz' next body of work.

Give yourself some time and have a gander at Skew.  It's a fine entry in the current "found footage craze," even though it's technically a forerunner, since it was actually filmed in 2005.  It doesn't have the frantic craziness of, say, a [REC], but for genuine creeps and chills, it makes a damn strong case for itself.

Now here, take a look at the trailer if you like. *warning: some language and possible spoiler-ish stuff*

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Atrocious (2010) The Windup, And...Well, The Pitch

I really wanted to love Atrocious.

Honestly.  Instead, I just kind of liked it.  It built itself a nice little foundation.  You know, like in baseball, a really good windup.  Then the pitch just sailed in at a nice velocity, but was a little flat.

I miss baseball already.

Atrocious, the Spanish film written and directed by Fernando Berreda Luna, is a found-footage style film (an increasingly popular subgenre) set in the Spanish countryside concerning a family that has been found horribly murdered.  When the viewer begins the film, it's as if they're part of the investigative team reviewing the evidence.  A jarring sudden rewind flashes some telltale near-subliminal images until it starts at the beginning. 

The Quintanilla family heads to their old country home for the first time in a very long time, and siblings Christian and July intend to film the entire thing for their online paranormal investigation webcast.  They're specifically excited about a local urban legend about the ghost of a girl named Melinda.  Christian insists on filming everything while July joins him in exploring the creepy labyrinth outside the house.  Soon after opening a locked basement, where they find old family artifacts, including an old TV and tons of old VHS tapes (including some Dario Argento selections), things get spooky.  Strange sounds at night seem only a little odd, but then the beloved family dog disappears.  Events take a turn for the frightening when they find the poor thing dead at the bottom of a well in the labyrinth.  The ol' family vacation ain't what it used to be.  The climactic scene finds the youngest brother missing and a frantic mother desperate to find the dark labyrinth.  The father and the family friend are conspicuously absent, but the resulting stumble through the dark with Christian's camera is jarring and ultimately reveals an ending you might not see coming.

I wish the ending hadn't fallen short of what I was expecting (or rather, hoping for), but that's not to say it wasn't decent.  Maybe you, loyal readers, will get more out of it.  The tension leading up through the entire movie was very well played out, to where we didn't really know what would be in front of the camera at any given time.  But I think the movie got caught up in the atmosphere and somewhat, I don't know, lost itself.  I wasn't blown away by the ending, instead saying "oh" out loud.

But I will say this:  the ratcheted-up tension built at a really good pace.  You really do end up wringing your hands over what you think might happen, and that's good by me.  I just wish I hadn't felt so "meh" as it came to a close.  Anyway, judge for yourself. 

It appears that found footage (or first-person, or cinema verite, whichever term you please) is a subgenre here to stay.  I'm mostly good with it, although for every Trollhunter or [REC], there might be a Monster.  Thankfully, Atrocious, for all its faults, isn't lumped in with the latter.  Keep an eye out, fellow zombie apocalypse survivors, as I'll have more found footage film review on the way.

For now, have a gander at the trailer for Atrocious:

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Attack The Block (2011) Aliens Pick The Wrong Block

It always comes back to Spaced.

Longtime readers of my blog know of my love for that British television series, which starred Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Jessica Stevenson, directed by Edgar Wright, and co-produced by Nira Park.  I always seem to find a way to connect it to something...that is when I'm not watching it for the fiftieth time.

Along comes the little British sci-fi/action/horror flick Attack The Block, and sure enough, it stars Frost, is co-produced by Park, and executive produced by Wright.


There was a lot of buzz surrounding Attack The Block, with a lot of voices proclaiming its excellence.  It kind of snuck up on me, so I was quite happy when I realized I could get a hold of it sooner than later.  The premise looked unique enough to catch my eye:  aliens invade an inner city housing project only to meet resistance from the local ruffians.  That may sum it up, but it was definitely a richer experience than just those words.

During Guy Fawkes Night, young nurse Sam is mugged on her way home by a bunch of kids, who are threatening despite their obviously young age.  They're interrupted by a meteor-like object crashing into a nearby car, where they discover a mean little creature that scratches the leader Moses before running off.  The gang finds the creature hiding in a shed and proceeds to beat it to death.  Taking it to the local weed dealer Ron (Frost), they're full of piss and vinegar when Moses gets promoted by the block's head drug dealer Hi-Hatz.  They go out in search of more aliens to beat up on, but run into bigger, meaner, and toothier versions of the one they killed.  Not only that, they get pinched by a couple policeman on a tip from Sam.  Soon, Moses and his gang and Sam are forced to team up as the creatures descend on the block, killing anyone associated with the gang.  Hi-Hatz thinks Moses betrays him, so he sets out after him, too.  The deadly serious Moses steels himself, realizing it's up to him to protect his gang, protect Sam, and defeat the aliens.  There are a few interesting twists and a satisfying ending that redefines heroism within the context of the movie.

Even with the presence of Nick Frost and a funny performance from Luke Treadaway as Brewis, a drug customer who just wants to be seen as cool, Attack The Block isn't really a comedy.  The presence of aliens speaks to a science fiction genre, and the violence and suspense are earmarks of horror.  Like I wrote before, I see it as a sci-fi/action/horror movie with a coming-of-age flavor - it's non-stop with some pretty frightening alien juggernauts that are all black fur and teeth.  Rows and rows of glow-in-the-dark teeth.  The performances are genuine, and the street slang spoken by the kids ends up not distracting the viewer, even if the person watching didn't grow up in South London, where the film takes place.  While there are a few chuckles, they're usually nervous ones as the characters are scared.  When you see these aliens in action, who wouldn't be?

Attack The Block was definitely a fun little film, great for late-night viewing.  Even though the kids are junior criminals, you're guaranteed to root for them as the film progresses.  The monsters are of a simple design, but it absolutely works, as does the reason why they're focusing on the gang.  You could do a lot worse if you need some good entertainment.

Now I'll go watch Spaced again, while you check out the trailer for Attack The Block. Enjoy, and watch the skies...

Dead Set (2008) Reality Shows Need More Zombies

I must admit:  I'm not that big of a fan of most reality shows.  They used to be interesting, like The Real World when it first started out.  Occasionally, there are still some that might catch my eye.  I'm sure through law of averages that at least a few will slip through that really aren't that bad - hell, there are a million of these shows anyway.  In the glut of these things, there are bound to be some OK to decent ones.  But for me, they're mostly not my cup of tea.  Pretty soon, the most mundane events will have drama-soaked reality shows:  "next week, on Watching Paint Dry."  And don't get me started on the "famous for being famous" shows. 

You know what these programs really need?


Lots and lots of zombies.

Thank you, my dear United Kingdom, for granting my wish.  In 2008, Britain's E4 channel aired a five-episode miniseries called Dead Set, and despite the glut of zombie media these days (yes, the irony of my own statements is not lost on me), it offered a hyperkinetic, no-holds-barred take on the living dead genre.  These are zombies of the "spry" variety, sporting characteristics such as colorless eyes and low, dog-like growls.  We can debate the pros and cons of fast and slow zombies all day long, but for me, it's a moot point.  The story is what I want to click, to strike chords with me.  Dead Set definitely struck a chord.

Why the reality show reference?  The whole setting for Dead Set is the Big Brother UK house (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) on a night when one of the contestants is being evicted.  There are blatant nods to the nature of modern reality shows and how rabid the fans are.  You know it's coming:  Big Brother fans in the live audience + a fast-acting zombie plague = wacky fun.

It's eviction night on Big Brother UK, and airheaded Pippa (Kathleen McDermott) is about to take the elimination walk outside with the massive cheering crowds and an interview with host Davina (Davina McCall as herself).  The show itself is in danger of being bumped for news of riots breaking out all over England, riots that include people attacking one another.  Producer Patrick (Andy Nyman), a vain, mean-spirited fellow, cares only about stirring things up in the house and resulting ratings.  Production runner Kelly (Jaime Winstone) juggles her job, her real boyfriend Riq (Riz Ahmed), and flirtations from a co-worker.  In the house itself are a wide variety of personalities:  sassy Angel (Chizzy Akudolu), ladies' man Marky (Warren Brown), sexpot Veronica (Beth Cordingly), lonely older man Joplin (Kevin Eldon), peacemaker Space (Adam Deacon), and wildly flamboyant Grayson (Raj Ghatak).

They have no clue what's about to happen when the show employees who drive Pippa's mother to the festivities come across a bloody accident scene.  When they finally arrive at the show in what I thought was a wonderfully-filmed scene, all hell breaks loose in one of the best "zombies overrunning a location" scenes I've viewed in a while.  After that initial "ka-pow!" the survivors try to assess the situation, but humans being humans, that isn't as easy or as comforting as it sounds.

Patrick and Pippa are trapped together in the green room, and that often-discussed point about bathroom privileges when stranded during a zombie apocalypse are addressed.  While Patrick is often played for dark laughs, he's truly a vile individual.  Riq and another survivor on the outside, Alex (Liz May Brice), discover that the feed of Big Brother is still being broadcast.  Riq sees Kelly and sets out on a quest to save her.  In the house, the contestants don't even know what's happened until Kelly arrives.  Angel's bitten and quarantined to the greenhouse with her best friend Grayson, a male nurse, tending to her.  Joplin has eyes for Veronica, despite being much older and nicknamed "Gollum" for his appearance.  Veronica usually sleeps with Marky, but all bets are off now.

Much like an episode of Big Brother, alliances form and trust breaks down.  All the while, outside the house and the gates, the living dead gather.  One brilliant scene catches them hurrying down a sloped street to gather at the gates, much like they did when alive.  Things really come to a head when the disagreements between Kelly and Patrick take a turn for the tragic and everything just crumbles down around everyone.  As usual, I won't spoil certain moments, including the ending, but let's just say it doesn't end well for a lot of people.  For you symbolism fans, the last shot of the entire series is of an average zombie standing in front of a store TV, staring blankly at what happens on the screen.

Dead Set was good, bleak fun.  If you're looking for laughs or an inspired ending with characters looking off hopefully into the sunset, you've come to the wrong place.  Everything and everyone is fraying at the edges, dark and desperate.  The acting is tremendous with spots of urgency and frustration and a very loose grip on reality.  For me, the two standouts were Andy Nyman as Patrick and Jaime Winstone as Kelly.  Not to diminish the others, but those two really stood out as intense characters with whom you could relate.  Yeah, Patrick was a sociopathic boor, but everything he did fit in his character.  He wanted out, and he didn't care who he had to roll over to get there.  Kelly struggled with an old boyfriend, a new crush, a jealous manager, a jerk of a boss, as well as several frustrating wannabe celebrities all swirling around in a fast-paced zombie apocalypse.  And she ended up becoming a leader on top of all that.

There were some sweet nods to past zombie classics with the phrase "They're coming to get you, Barbara" uttered at one point, and paraphrasing of the great line in Dawn of the Dead about "this place being important to them."  One character even dies much in the same way Rhodes does in Day of the Dead, yelling defiantly at the creatures eating him.  Not to mention, there were some standout scenes that really hit home:  the car full of freshly-turned zombies arriving at the house, the frantic overrunning of the studio, the horde of zombies converging on the fence, and the dark ending where you just say, "Aw, no."

Dead Set might not be easy to find in the United States.  IFC showed the episodes around Halloween, and I caught them on IFC's on-demand channel, where they were available for a very short time.  Amazon has each episode on pay-per-view here.  It's worth the close to $10 you'd have to pay for the whole series ($1.99 per episode).

In the meantime, take a look at the trailer and see if it strikes your fancy.