Category Archives: Genre: Horror

The Monster (2016)

Gotta disagree with the mainstream critics on this one.

I decided to check out the limited release horror flick The Monster after seeing that it has a decent 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Written and directed by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) and starring Zoe Kazan, the film has a simple premise: A mother and daughter are hunted by a mysterious creature near the woods on a dark and stormy night after a car accident.

The stripped-down premise seemed intriguing enough, but I just couldn’t get into The Monster like I hoped I could. One of the main problems is the mother-daughter drama the film tried to shove in our faces. It’s clear early on that they don’t get along and Zoe Kazan is a terrible mother. But man, the daughter is really annoying too. Their relationship is supposed to form the emotional core of the movie and make us care about them. Instead, all the flashback sequences just made me want to see them die gruesome deaths immediately.

I was also not a huge fan of the performances. Zoe Kazan was fine and my problems with her were more due to the script, but the daughter, played by teenager Ella Ballentine, tried way too hard. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it overacting, though she was definitely overreacting with all the crying and irritating outbursts.

So was it scary? Not really. There were some effective moments early on when the atmosphere was being built up, though the actual design of the creature didn’t feel particularly original or frightening. Sadly, the final act of the film also fell back on typical horror cliches and wasn’t very believable at all. Just a disappointing experience all round.

2 stars out of 5

Green Room (2016)

As far as non-supernatural horror-thrillers go, Green Room is about as terrifying as you can get.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the film is about members of a punk rock band who witness a crime while performing at a remote neo-Nazi bar and end up barricading themselves inside the titular green room (basically the waiting area/change room for performers), with a gang of vicious skinheads — led by Patrick Stewart, no less — out for their blood.

As he did with the acclaimed Blue Ruin, Saulnier takes this semi-original premise and turns it into a stripped-down, horrific, visceral experience. After a short build-up, the film gets insanely tense and claustrophobic. I don’t want to give away too much because the element of surprise works to the film’s (and your) advantage, though I must warn that you need a good stomach to sit through it, because there are some absolutely shocking images that will stick with you for a long time. It’s just a really brutal, uncompromising ordeal that forces you to place yourself in the shoes of the characters. What would you do in such a nightmarish situation?

This is the kind of film that proves that you don’t need a big budget or special effects to make a great horror flick. As long as you’ve got a director with the right vision and skills and well-cast, talented actors, you can create nail-biting tension and the thrills needed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

Speaking of the cast (sigh), the late Anton Yelchin is magnificent as Pat, the bassist, exuding just the right amount of fear, desperation and vulnerability for the role. Patrick Stewart doesn’t have a big role, but he really showed me a different side to Professor X. The dude is straight up malicious. Apart from Yelchin and Stewart, Alia Shawkat (from Arrested Development), Mark Webber and Imogen Poots are the other known commodities. They’re all really good, Poots especially.

Granted, Green Room doesn’t look pretty and can be a harrowing experience — and hence not for everyone. But if you enjoy being terrified and can appreciate stripped-down, low-budget films that are well-made and acted, you really can’t get much better than this. With a running time of just 95 minutes, there’s no excuse for not checking it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Quick, think of one horror sequel that’s better than the original. I bet you can’t.

Well, now you can. Ouija: Origin of Evil is a damn miracle. While the first one was an absolute travesty to cinema, earning a spot on my “10 Worst Movies of 2014“, the sequel is actually a pretty solid little horror movie with some wit and some scares.

I totally forgot about the plot of the original, so it came as a surprise to me that Origin of Evil is actually a prequel of sorts (like the title wasn’t a subtle hint). Set in 1965, it’s about a widow (Elizabeth Reaser) who stages seances at her house with her two girls (Lulu Wilson and Annalise Basso). After incorporating a Ouija board into their seances, it later turns out that the younger daughter can contact the dead, and presumably their dead father.

But of course, spirits can be conniving, and soon the family finds itself battling a demonic presence in their house. As with all supernatural films, a priest (Henry Thomas — yes, Elliott from ET!) gets involved before things spiral out of control in a climatic finish.

Perhaps it’s because Ouija has set the bar so low that I enjoyed Origin of Evil this much. I liked the 60s setting, which looked nostalgic and felt authentic. Director Mike Flanagan, who has done some very solid horror work in the past like Hush and Oculus infuses the production with a sense of class and confidence, with none of the  silly “here we go” vibe of its predecessor. Rather than relying solely on jump scares, the film adopts an effective blend of atmosphere through creepy moments and character interactions. It’s also great that the characters mostly act like normal human beings rather than typical sceptics who won’t believe what’s happening right before their eyes.

Elizabeth Reaser (you may remember her as the mother vampire in The Twilight Saga) and young Lulu Wilson both deliver strong performances that are significantly better than anything you’ll see in the original film (even though Olivia Cooke is very talented). It’s amazing how much scarier a horror movie is when the acting is actually believable.

As stereotypical of such horror movies, however, Origin of Evil loses the plot in its third act and gets pretty ridiculous, though I’ve realised since that this was because it had to match the storyline of the original film. That said, the movie is already so much better than I ever thought it could be. Even though it’s not a top tier commercial horror flick like say The Conjuring, I would say Origin of Evil is good enough to land firmly in that second tier occupied by movies like Insidious).

3.5 stars out of 5

Morgan (2016)

Just about every year, there are a couple of movie releases that will take me by surprise. They kind of popped up out of nowhere, with no buzz or early trailers, but feature a cast of big Hollywood names. Morgan is one such film.

The first time I actually saw snippets of the Morgan trailer and poster was actually the weekend before its release. I had never heard of it and couldn’t believe it when I found out that it starred the likes of Kate Mara, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook (soon to be seen as the main villain in Logan), and Anya Taylor-Joy (who was absolutely brilliant in The Witch).

The poster seemed intriguing as well, dominated by a dark, hooded figure I could only presume was the eponymous protagonist (or antagonist, if you will). The trailer gave away wait too much as usual, but essentially, Kate Mara plays some sort of risk assessment manager who ventures into a secluded research facility that managed to genetically engineer a synthetic human being, ie Morgan (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Pretty much everyone else in the cast is a scientist or a handler of some sort.

I was definitely intrigued. It seemed like a thinking person’s horror movie, with elements of Ex Machina and shades of the underrated Splice. Yes, it is yet another one of those “man should not mess with nature” or “living creatures should not be kept in captivity” cautionary tales, but the fact that such a great cast had faith in the project suggested to me that it would be worth watching.

Well, I was about half right. Morgan turned out to be borderline watchable. What started off as a compelling premise and some early tension soon crumbled into predictability and genre tropes. We all know Morgan’s not as innocent as she seems and that she will get out of her glass box eventually. But instead of pursuing the more interesting and thought-provoking opportunities the premise offers, Luke Scott, the son of legendary director Ridley (who produced the film), chose to indulge in the usual slasher and horror cliches. The action isn’t handled too shabbily, though it would be a stretch to call it outstanding. Same goes for the horror elements — Morgan (both the character and the film itself) never really scared me.

At some point in the movie, it also became impossible to not guess the “twist” at the end. It’s just so obvious and telegraphed that when it is finally revealed there is no sense of shock whatsoever.

Still, I have to be fair. Morgan is still at least serviceable and better than most of the straight-to-DVD horror-thrillers these days. The initial set-up is interesting, I’ll give it that, and the execution — whether it is the action, tension, or horror — is passable. Throw in a star-studded cast who genuinely seemed to put in effort rather than mail it in for a paycheck, and you end up with a movie that isn’t a complete waste of time but could have been so much better.

2.5 stars out of 5

Train to Busan (2016)

At some time during last year, everywhere I looked there were rave reviews about a South Korean zombie movie called Train to Busan. The poster looked relatively generic and the premise didn’t seem particularly original (zombies on a train), so I figured it must have been another overhyped Asian film bound to disappoint.

Holy shit was I wrong.

Train to Busan could be one of the best zombie movies of all time. I’m not just talking about Korean cinema or Asian cinema, but cinema in general. It certainly is one of the best I’ve seen, whether it is in terms of tension, excitement, scares, character development, and heart. South Koreans have already taken over the electronics industry with Samsung and the Asian music industry with Gangnam Style and those sultry girl groups where everyone looks exactly the same. Now they’ve shown that they’re a force to be reckoned with in film too.

Train to Busan shouldn’t have been this good. The story focuses around a divorced fund manager (Gong Yoo) who is catching a train from Seoul to Busan with his young daughter to see her mother. Naturally, a zombie outbreak erupts, and they find themselves trapped on a train with a bunch of different characters from all walks of life, including Sang-hwa, a barrel-chested working class man and his pregnant wife, elderly sisters,  homeless man, a bunch of kids from a high school baseball team, and a selfish businessman looking out only for himself. It sounds cliched, right?

Yet somehow, director Yeon Sang-ho manages to turn Train to Busan into a blistering thrill ride. The action is inventive and brutal — not entirely realistic but it’s admittedly stylish and cool to watch. The zombies are rabid and relentless, perhaps even more so than they are in World War Z. The train setting is great for creating a sense of claustrophobia and helplessness, but at the same time there is enough variety in the storytelling to not render the concept stale. It’s wave after wave of danger and difficult predicaments, and many situations where audiences will put themselves in the shoes of the characters.

Above all, the film makes you care for the characters. Some of them are indeed stereotypes, though there is sufficient believable interaction and development between them to create a connection with viewers. Themes such as family, social class, and sacrifice were handled extremely well. In the end, I was surprised how much a couple of sequences in the film impacted me from an emotional level. That alone makes Train to Busan the better train movie than 2013’s Snowpiercer.

Apart from a couple of scenes that were a little clumsy and CGI that’s not quite up to elite Hollywood standards (though generally good enough), there really isn’t much to complain about. From a purely entertainment perspective, Train to Busan is one of the highlights of the year — no matter what language you speak. Those who struggle to get into foreign-language films should definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016)

Look. I knew there was a 99.99% probability that Resident Evil: The Final Chapter was not going to be any good. But it was December 31, and I had gotten a rare day off from work and family duties for the first and last time of 2016. I just wanted to relax and do something I enjoy—and that’s to watch a movie, no matter how bad it may be. And you know what? It was really, really bad.

Having been a fan of the video game series on which the films are (loosely) based since the very first one on PS1 in 1996, I have stuck with the Resident Evil movies all the way through as well (or at least I think I have, because they all blend together after a while and don’t have any consistent coherency or logic). This “Final Chapter”, or so they say, is more of the same. Milla Jovovich returns as Alice, the ass-kicking warrior waging war against the Umbrella Corporation that unleashed the zombie apocalypse on the world with the T-virus 10 years ago. Ali Larter, in desperate need of a paycheck, also reprises her role as Claire Redfield, basically a shittier version of Alice.  Additional returnees are Shawn Roberts, who plays the wearing-sunglasses-indoors-and-at-all-times villain Wesker, and Game of Thrones alum Iain Glen (Ser Jorah Mormont) is back as Dr Sam Isaacs.

If you’ve watched any of the previous films, I know what you’re thinking: Haven’t some or all of these people died already? Multiple times? Yes and yes. But it doesn’t matter. For the sake of money the plot, everyone can be brought back. Of the new cast members, the only one I know of is Aussie DJ Ruby Rose, who has been in a lot of things lately. I wish she could have done more, but she’s a sorry footnote of a character who doesn’t get anywhere close to living up to her potential.

Actually, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter plays out very much like a bad video game. I thought the film started off well, with Alice basically recapping the entire film series up until now in a way that made the story almost seem coherent, and there’s a couple of early jump scares that had me hopeful of a solid horror action flick. But then, a plot contrivance is created to put the story for this film in motion, and it’s an absolute stinker. It’s so bad and lame and lazy that I literally laughed out loud. And then it was all downhill from there. Like a video game, character actions and motivations are driven by what monster or plot device the movie wants to throw at the audience next. So you get a lot of scenes where Milla just walks into a place for no reason and then encounters enemies she needs to kill—and kill in spectacular fashion.

Knowing what I know about the franchise, I didn’t have a huge problem with that per se, or even the terrible dialogue or plot holes galore, or the “borrowing” of visual ideas and designs from The Walking Dead and Mad Max: Fury Road, or the plethora of other things that just defied belief. What I couldn’t stand was how badly the film was shot and edited, especially the action sequences. Writer and director Paul WS Anderson (Milla’s husband in real life) has some average films on his CV, but never have I seen him this lazy. Throughout the entire movie, you only get a vague idea of what is happening in terms of the action that’s taking place on the screen. Perhaps there were budgetary or time constraints, but every action sequence is marred by a ridiculous number of rapid cuts. And when the action’s not unwatchable because of the editing, it’s unwatchable because of the deliberate darkness (and this was in 2D, without the added darkness of 3D). It’s as though Anderson decided it was too much trouble shooting these scenes and just went, “F*%$ it, let’s just cut it or make it too dark to see anything properly.” It’s unfortunate because some of the ideas in the choreography aren’t all that bad. It even brought back possibly the only memorable idea from the entire franchise (Hint: It has something to do with lasers).

What you end up with is a movie that kicks off from a laughable starting point and premise, makes no sense from a plot perspective, has terrible dialogue, and is visually incoherent. Milla Jovovich does her best as she always does, but it’s not enough—and it’s never been enough—to save the movie. Iain Glen also gives it his best shot, making Dr Isaacs one of the better villains I’ve seen in the franchise, though there’s only so much he could do. The scariest thing about the whole thing is that, just when you think the franchise has reached its sad, wretched conclusion, there is a final wink at the possibility of a sequel. All I know is that if there ever is a Resident Evil: The REAL Final Chapter, I’ll be ready to waste my money on it.

1.5 stars out of 5

PS: Perhaps the film was cursed. I read that Olivia Jackson, Milla’s stunt double, was involved in an accident during filming that left her in a medically-induced coma for two weeks and led to a thumb and then an arm amputation. Another crew member, Ricardo Cornelius, was crushed to death by a prop on set.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

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Man, it’s been way too long since I’ve posted a review, so I’m going to try pump some out before the backlog gets even more out of hand (it currently stands at 51). Fortunately, I’ve got a good one to kick things off: Don’t Breathe, an original, terrifying thriller/horror by Fede Alvarez, the dude who did the Evil Dead remake in 2013. It may be one  of the tensest experiences I’ve had in a cinema in years.

The premise is so simple: Three youths living in Detroit like to make money from breaking into people’s houses and stealing their stuff. They hear about an easy score — a blind old man (Stephen Lang) living alone in a deserted neighbourhood who supposedly has a large amount of money stashed away. But of course, the kids get a lot more than they bargained for because this old man is not as weak and vulnerable as they think he is.

Let’s get right down to it: Don’t Breathe is INTENSE. The title is apt because you (almost) find yourself holding your breath along with the protagonists. Fede does a fantastic job of mixing it up — you get well-executed jump scares, of course, but there’s also a lot of incredibly nerve-wracking moments where you can see everything that is going on, plus a nice sense of claustrophobia and terrific use of silence. I was on the edge of my seat pretty much from the moment the kids enter the house until the end of the movie.

Surprisingly, there is not a lot of blood or gore in the film. I had been expecting torture porn to some extent, but for the most part, the film doesn’t try to gross you out. Instead of revulsion, it gets to you through primal fear. And personally, I prefer this method a lot more.

What is interesting about the film is that it turns the typical home invasion premise on its head. You’re usually supposed to sympathise with the people whose home has been broken into, and you cheer on the homeowner(s) when they finally give the invaders a taste of their own medicine at the end. Don’t Breathe somehow makes you sympathise (well, at least empathise) with these kids while making you afraid of the homeowner. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Fede gives us a few small scenes and interactions at the start of the film to help us become acquainted with the kids and their personalities, and it’s done well enough that we actually hope nothing horrible happens to them.

I was also worried about struggling with my suspension of disbelief (I mean, how hard is it really for three people to steal from a blind old man?) but such concerns were unfounded. Fede throws a lot of subtle little things into the movie to make the story believable, making things that are supposed to work to the kids’ advantage work against them instead. It helps that the kids are portrayed as rather scrawny, inexperienced and nervous, while the blind man is freaking Stephen Lang!

Kudos to all the performers too. Lang, of course, is fabulous. The dude not only looks like a tank but also exudes loads of screen presence, which particular helps in this film because he barely has any dialogue. You’d be scared of him too. As for the kids, the only one I recognised was Dylan Minnette (from the Goosebumps movie), who plays the wimpiest one of the lot. The girl is played by Jane Levy, who was actually also in the Evil Dead remake. She’s basically discount Kirsten Stewart, with a little more white-trashiness (if that’s possible). And rounding off the cast is Daniel Zovatto, who I probably saw on TV in Revenge. He adds a nice edge to the dynamic of the trio.

Don’t Breathe does spiral out of control a little in its third act, venturing down a path I didn’t really think was necessary. Even though it’s only 88 minutes, the film actually felt slightly long towards the end because of this, but it’s also because it’s not easy to remain in a state of high tension for so long. I had a really fabulous time with this movie. It’s brutal, relentless and atmospheric, but it doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks or gratuitous blood and gore to get the job done. It’s rare to see a horror film without supernatural elements that is so simple yet effective. Definitely check it out if you like getting scared.

4.5 stars out of 5

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2015)

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I’ve got way too many movies to review, so I thought I’d start with the remaining 2015 films first so I can at least fulfill my promise of punching out my Best Of and Worst Of lists.

Kicking off the home stretch is The Taking of Deborah Logan, a recommendation from my sister. It’s a found-footage horror movie that has received surprisingly positive reviews from critics (83% on Rotten Tomatoes, though only from a sample size of 6) but also one few people have even heard of.

The premise is interesting at least — a PhD student (played by the familiar face of Michelle Ang — I had to look her up to realise that she was Cho Chang in the Harry Potter movies!) decides to record the everyday life of an Alzheimer’s patient (Jill Larson). Things start off innocently enough until strange shit starts to go down, and it seems Alzheimer’s might not be the correct diagnosis after all.

The Taking of Deborah Logan is not bad as far as found-footage horror flicks go. There are moments of genuine horror, and the special effects are done well enough (despite the low budget that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb). There’s one image near the end that The performances, especially from Larson, are also unexpectedly decent.

That said, it’s still a found-footage horror movie, and at the end of the day, it’s just a variation of the same old crap. There’s the slow build up, the filler moments, the little scares here and there in the beginning that rely on well-trodden horror tropes, etc etc. And of course, there’s some unnecessary and convoluted explanation for everything and you have an “all hell breaks loose” climax at the end.

While the film is definitely not as infuriating as other found-footage horrors in recent years, The Taking of Deborah Logan still doesn’t do enough to fully separate itself from the pack. A nice premise, a couple of decent shocks and scary images don’t make up for the shittiness of the gimmick.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

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As far as conventional horrors go, The Conjuring (2013) was one of the best we’ve had in recent years. Despite the clichéd haunting plot we’ve seen countless times, legendary Aussie director James Wan was able to make the most of it with his reliable bag of tricks, combining a creepy atmosphere with well-timed “Boo!” moments to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

Wan did not direct the failed prequel, Annabelle (2014), but he’s back again to helm the sequel to The Conjuring, imaginatively titled The Conjuring 2. This time, the world’s most renowned ghost-hunting duo, the Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), have returned to tackle the infamous Enfield Haunting in the UK. There was actually a recent TV mini-series called The Enfield Haunting starring Timothy “Mr Turner” Spall and Matthew “Mr Darcy” Macfayden, which was actually pretty decent and most likely closer to what really happened than the hyper-sensationalized version told in The Conjuring 2.

Anyway, like The Conjuring, the sequel focuses on both the Warrens and the family being haunted, the Hodgsons — a single mother (Australia’s very own Frances O’Connor) and four children living in suburban England — in particular the second-eldest daughter Janet, played superbly by Madison Wolfe. Some of you might already know the story because the haunting is perhaps the most well-known in British history, but if you don’t, brace yourself for some scary shit.

The film shifts back and forth between the Warrens and the Hodgsons, telling essentially two stories simultaneously. To Wan’s credit, splitting the screen time actually adds to the film rather than take away from it. The Warrens get a bit more of a personal story this time, and it’s good to see actors the calibre of Farmiga and Wilson strut their acting chops. They’re both really good, and their fantastic chemistry helps make their relationship the core the movie.

As with most haunting films, this one plays out as you would expect, starting with a few little weird things here and there to whet the appetite before all hell breaks loose and the ghostbusters come in to save the day. Notwithstanding the boiler-plate structure, Wan works his magic again, turning the first half of The Conjuring 2 into one of the most terrifying movie experiences I’ve sat through in years. I’m sure watching in the cinema definitely helped the atmosphere, but it really is due Wan’s masterful control over everything that is happening – from the atmosphere and the characters (it makes a huge difference when you care about them) to the use of darkness and lightning, and especially the blaring score and sound effects. I’m not going to lie: there were a few sequences where I had an anxious inner debate with myself on whether to shut my eyes for a couple of seconds.

After the nerve-wracking first half, however, the film does settle down, and the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as frightening. Though the rhythm picks up and tensions are supposed to rise, by the time the Warrens arrive to do their thing I had started to get that “here we go again” feeling. While Wan was fantastic in making me forget about how conventional the film was in the first half, in the second half he was less successful. There were still some decent moments as the film ramped up to its finale, but for the most part I found myself significantly more relaxed that I was in the first hour or so.

I also didn’t like the way the script wrapped up the story in a way that connected the dots and made the different strands converge. Frankly, in trying to find a way for help the story make sense it actually made things more confusing and make less sense. And of course, the movie definitely is too long at 2 hours and 14 minutes. It’s never boring or slow, but shaving 15-20 minutes off would have been welcome.

On the whole, The Conjuring 2 is a solid follow up to its predecessor. The first half was decidedly scarier than the latter, though even with a fair share of flaws, the film is still a top-tier horror flick, the type that only comes around a handful of times a year.

4 stars out of 5

PS: A new spin-off called The Nun is apparently in the works.

The Girl in the Photographs (2016)

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The Girl in the Photographs is the last film produced by horror master Wes Craven. I’m sure it’s not the worst thing on his resume, but I really wish it could have been a more worthy film.

The plot is simple: an attractive girl (Claudia Lee) stuck working as a supermarket cashier in a sleepy town called Spearfish starts receiving photos of brutally murdered women. A douchebag artistic photographer (Kal Penn) from Spearfish catches wind of the photos and decides to return to his hometown for some stupid reason, taking along with him a bunch of attractive models and assistants (including Kenny Wormald, the guy who starred in the Footloose remake).

The interesting thing about The Girl in the Photographs — and/or the boring thing — is that there’s no real mystery as to who the killer is. Accordingly, it just becomes a formulaic slasher thriller where obnoxious characters get picked off one by one — and not in very creative or frightening ways either.

It’s a shame, because the film actually starts off really well thanks to an extended cameo from scream queen Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) that was both tense and unnerving. It’s also great watching Kal Penn being a complete dick — albeit a different kind of dick to Kumar  — because you know he can do it so well. Kenny Wormald has some talent as does Claudia Lee, who establishes herself as a starlet to look out for in the future. Oh, and it also stars Mitch Pileggi! Yes, Skinner from The X-Files!

Unfortunately, despite the promising start, a solid cast and what could have been a fascinating premise had they just bothered to explore it, The Girl in the Photographs quickly reverts to fairly standard, straight-to-DVD-level scares and tactics. Director and co-writer Nick Simon does a decent job in creating a brutal and sadistic vibe and embraces the campy atmosphere rather than shy away from it. This makes the movie better than it should have been, though that still doesn’t make it a good movie.

Truth is, we’ve seen this type of thing countless times before, and The Girl in the Photographs fails to stand out. It may not be horrible, but neither is it particularly intelligent, funny or scary.  The film may have been able to redeem itself with a great finish or shocking twist, but as it turned out, all we got was an anti-climatic climax and shitty, cookie-cutter ending. Oh well.

2 stars out of 5