Tag Archives: horror film

Movie Review: Insidious (2011)

Well-made horror movies about hauntings are a rarity these days.  Genuinely frightening ones are almost impossible to find.  For me, Insidious was both.

Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan (the Aussie duo who kick started the Saw franchise), Insidious is a unique spin on the haunted house genre, something I didn’t expect and was pleasantly surprised by.

It tells the story of a young married couple played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, who move into a new house with their three boys.  Weird things start happening and a tragic event occurs — but that’s just the beginning.  At some point in the film the story takes a turn and takes us in a new direction.  Some will like the fact that we are being treated to something we’re not used to seeing.  Others will despise it.

You will have to either know a little bit about what I am referring to or be able to keep an open mind in order to truly appreciate it.  If you can’t, you’ll probably write off the film as silly and farcical.  But if you can (and I could), I believe you’re in for a real treat.

For those put off by the Saw reference, don’t be, because Insidious is nothing like those torture porn films.  It’s also nothing like Paranormal Activity (also referred to on the poster because it has common producers, including Oren Peli), which I thought sucked.  Whannell and Wan have shown their versatility with this one, using clever and authentically frightening situations, escalating tension and downright freakish moments to create one of the most suspenseful ghost films I’ve seen in years.  Sure, none of the tactics are necessarily original, but the execution was undoubtedly superb.

The film does have a few shaky moments, especially towards the end, but if it’s frights you are looking for, then Insidious definitely delivers.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Snowtown (2011)

Snowtown is in cinemas 19 May 2011

In Australia, ‘Snowtown’ is synonymous with the infamous Snowtown murders, otherwise known as the Bodies in Barrels murders of the 1990s. And so I was very intrigued when I attended a screening of Snowtown, the new Aussie film that dramatises the horrific and somewhat bizarre events.

After the brilliant Animal Kingdom last year, I was ready to give any Australian film the benefit of the doubt, though I must admit I was slightly concerned because Snowtown is directed by a first-time feature director (Justin Kurzel) and stars a bunch of first-time feature actors.

Fortunately, those concerns were unfounded, because Snowtown doesn’t feel like the product of a group of first-timers. The film might be a little rough around the edges at times, but on the whole, it is solid cinema, and one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen in a long time. Frankly, Snowtown freaked me out.

The film is told from the perspective of young Jamie Vlassakis, who lives in the South Australian town of Snowtown with his mother and brothers. It’s a forgotten part of Australia, with people living barely above the poverty line and heavily affected by alcohol, drugs and sexual and domestic abuse. Enter John Bunting, a seemingly ordinary guy who befriends his family and becomes a father figure to Jamie. But there’s something about John that’s just not right, and Jamie soon finds himself falling too deep to get out.

Snowtown does have a bit of that Animal Kingdom feel to it in terms of style and the slower pace, but it is essentially a depressing horror film about one of the worst mass murderers in Australian history. It’s highly atmospheric, with some extremely graphic, visceral scenes that dare the audience to not look away — but at the same time there is a sense of authenticity and realism to it.

That’s the biggest strength of the film in my opinion — it’s ability to tell a story of such horrors without being over-the-top, cheesy or fake. The direction of Kurzel is actually very good, and the performances of the three main leads (Lucas Pittway, Daniel Henshall and Louise Harris) were all fantastic, miraculous really, considering this was their first feature film. Henshall, in particular, is outstanding as the terrifying, pathological Bunting.

Not all of the scenes worked, but my main complaint about the film is that it doesn’t explain some of the family/friendship dynamics very well. Bunting just appears in Jamie’s life — but we don’t really know where he came from. The same could be said for a number of the other characters. Who are they and how are they related to Jamie’s family? It wasn’t until I did some research after the film that I discovered who some of the characters were.

Ultimately, Snowtown is a strong film, technically and emotionally — not necessarily a pleasant one to watch, but if you enjoy dark, depressing films, being terrified and are intrigued by the type of people that stuff bodies in barrels (both apply to me), then this could be the film for you. To be perfectly honest, it unsettled, chilled, and scared the crap out of me, and I loved it because of that.

4 stars out of 5

25 Films That Scared the Crap Out of Me When I Was a Kid

When I was a snotty little kid, my older sister used to always borrow horror movies from the local video store.  Scary movies were all that she watched.  Scary movies and Stand By Me and White Fang (on loop — thanks to crushes on River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke).

I grew to like horror films too, but it wasn’t before they caused some serious lifelong trauma.  Without further ado, here the 25 that scared me the most (entirely from memory).

Before we begin, note we weren’t very selective with our choices, so not all of these were exactly classics or blockbusters…but probably more interestingly, a lot of these were also comedies, but I guess I was too young to get the jokes.  By the way, I have no idea how my parents allowed us to watch them.

25. Fright Night (1985)

Before Twilight, vampires were scary, and none scared me more than the fanged creatures in Fright Night.  It’s one of those typically campy 80s films where a teenager is the protagonist and he discovers something amazing but no one believes him.  In this case, of course, it’s that his neighbour is a blood sucking vampire.  This was pretty much the first horror video that I can remember, and it was because my uncle borrowed it and never returned it (the video store eventually went bust), so we must have watched it half a dozen times.  By the way, a remake is due this year.

24. Creepshow (1982)

I remember the poster more than anything else.  Directed by George A Romero and written by Stephen King, Creepshow was really a series of short films, but what freaked me out was of course the famous Crypt-Keeper that tied everything together.  My favourite story was ‘The Crate’, starring Hal Holbrook and a big, scary monster nicknamed ‘Fluffy’.

23. The Shining (1980)

The Shining is of course a Stanley Kubrick classic and considered one of the best horror films of all time.  I must admit, when I was young I actually fell asleep watching it (too slow, I think it was the bar scene), but the moments where I was awake did freak me out, especially after Jack Nicholson lost it and started running around with an axe.

22. Children of the Corn (1984)

There have been about a million sequels, but the original Children of the Corn was the best.  There’s always something about children that frightened me, even when I was a child myself.  Does that make sense?  Maybe it was just the sickle.  By the way, that’s 3 Stephen King films in a row, and there’s more to come.  What a legend.  Oh, and apparently there was a 2009 remake that I’ve never heard of.

21. Gothic (1986)

Really interesting film about a fictional evening featuring a bunch of famous horror writers including Mary Shelley and some guy played by Julian Sands.  Another one of those horror films where I didn’t really know what was going on but it still freaked me out.  Great poster too, I think it’s the reason why I still remember it after all these years.

20. Graveyard Shift (1990)

Stephen King again, and I remember this one for the giant bats and the giant rats in some kind of undergound factory place.  To this day I don’t like bats and rats because of this film, even the small ones.

19. The Fly (1986)

‘Be Afraid.  Be Very Afraid.’  And I was.  One of my favourites growing up.  I loved the mixture of sci-fi and monsters, and when Jeff Goldblum started mutating I started checking my own body out, terrified I was going to turn into a giant mosquito because one had just stung me (and I believe there was a rip-off film that actually took the mosquito concept).  I also remember being excited when the sequel with Eric Stoltz came out.

18. Sleepwalkers (1992)

I remember this one better because I was a little older, but it still freaked me out because of all the cats.  There’s just something about a lot of cats that make me uncomfortable, especially when they just sit around and stare (which is why I think that cat scene in Let The Right One In all those years later is still ingrained into my brain). The film also helped me develop a crush on Madchen Amick, which is why I started watching Twin Peaks.

17. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The original (not the 2010 remake) was one that actually gave me nightmares.  I never dreamed about Fred Krueger, but his burnt face and claws kept giving me nightmares of being trapped in fires and getting attacked by cats (again, the cat theme).  I watched most of the sequels as well, but only the original truly scared me.

16. The People Under the Stairs (1991)

I loved this underrated Wes Craven movie about a kid trapped in a house owned by a pair of crazy siblings determined to hunt him down with their ferocious dog, while rumblings from between the walls suggest that there is more to the house than meets the eye.  For years after watching this film I was afraid to go anywhere near the basement of any house.

15. Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie (1990)

This was also known as Creepshow 3, but for me this was a culmination of fear from all the Tales from the Dark Side short films I watched over the years.  As usual, the film featured the Crypt-Keeper, but my favourite part of it this time was, not unexpectedly, the one called ‘Cat From Hell’.  Also a very good first story with Steve Buscemi and Christian Slater.  I remember I had a friend over to watch this, and they never came back to our house again after that.

14. House (1986)

No, not the medical drama series or the 2008 horror film.  This House is about a real, um, house, a haunted house.  I’ve always been terrified of ghosts, and House was one of the films I attribute that fear to.  The mangled hand in the poster pressing the doorbell was something that always stood out in my memory.

13. Clownhouse (1989)

If there’s one thing that scares me more than cats, it’s clowns.  Even though this was a slasher film with no supernatural elements, the escaped mental patients dressed as clowns scared worse than most ghosts and monsters.  From my research I just found out that Sam Rockwell was one of the three brothers in the movie.  And did you know an irrational fear of clowns is known as coulrophobia?  I think I may have that.

12. Hellraiser (1987)

Few images are more memorable than Hellraiser‘s Pinhead holding the puzzle box on the poster.  I still can’t believe I watched this cringeworthy film, which I’m sure was restricted for my age (with all its flying blood and guts).  Looking back, I think this was a precursor to torture porn films such as Saw and Hostel.

11. Child’s Play (1988) and Child’s Play 2 (1990)

It wasn’t one of the scariest, but it was one my favourites and one of the most memorable.  Cats, clowns and ghosts scared me, but so did dolls, thanks to Chucky.  I know in later films Chucky becomes almost a parody, but in the original he was as terrifying as anything I had ever seen.  I ended up watching both the original and the sequel multiple times and became a fan of Alex Vincent, the child protagonist who amazingly never acted in another film.  Here’s his website for those interested.

10. Poltergeist (1982)

One of the most popular haunting films of all time, and the best and most successful of the series.  Two things stood out more than anything else for me — of course, little Heather O’Rourke in front of the static-filled TV declaring ‘They’re here!’ and freakish Zelda Rubinstein as the blobby psychic.  Made me afraid to go to the bathroom at night for years.  I did not know this at the time, but O’Rourke died four months before the release of the third film in the franchise (at the age of 12), giving life to various urband legends.

9. The Amityville Horror (1979)

This film made me believe my house was haunted for years and frightened me more than others because it was supposedly ‘based on a true story’.  When you’re a kid, you just accept such claims at face value.  The flies, the upside down crosses, demon pigs and the bleeding walls — I believed it all happened.  I remember watching the 2005 remake with Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George when it came out and wondering why it scared me so much, but when I rewatched the original again a couple of years ago I realised it was just wasn’t a very good remake.

8. Candyman (1992)

After watching this film, my sister and I dared each other to look into the mirror and say ‘Candyman’ five times.  We never did.  Did I mention I don’t like bees?qs]

7. Evil Dead 2 (1987)

Funny that the sequel to this film, Army of Darkness, is now one of my favourite comedic guilty pleasures, but back in the day, Evil Dead 2 (never saw the original) kept me up at night.  Demons, possession and crazy trees were all frightening, but it was Bruce Campbell’s arm severing scene that I remembered clearer than anything else.

6. Basket Case (1982)

A weird choice, but for some reason this low budget film has stuck in my mind.  It’s about this guy who walks around with a basket carrying his parasitic siamese twin.  They were separated at birth but the ‘monster’ didn’t die, and needless to say, it’s crazy and loves to kill people.  Go figure.

5. The Omen (1976)

For a while, I was obsessed with this franchise, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Damien was real and that the world was coming to an end.  I also checked whether I had ‘666’ on my scalp regularly just in case to make sure I wasn’t the devil’s spawn.  Luckily I only had dandruff.  And how about the somewhat pointless 2006 remake with the kid that just wasn’t scary at all?]

4. The Haunted (1991)

How about this for another strange choice?  This was a TV movie based on the ‘real’ haunting of the Smurl family, and even now, I have a feeling that a lot of the stuff depicted actually happened.  The filmmakers went for ‘authenticity’ instead of over-the-top scares, and that actually made it scarier for me.  Of all the films on this list, this might have been the one that lingered in my mind the longest after watching it.  Youtube has the entire film (in parts) but strangely does not have a trailer, so I’ve posted this Entertainment Tonight segment on it instead.

3. Pet Sematary (1989) and Pet Sematary Two (1992)

Few films have terrified me into the foetal position the way Stephen King’s Pet Sematary has.  A sacred American Indian site beyond a cemetery for pets brings the dead back to life, but not surprisingly, they aren’t quite the same when they return….Oh, and the sequel with Edward Furlong was a must-watch for us (my sister developed a crush on him after Terminator 2: Judgment Day).  Thanks to the films, I incorrectly spelt ‘cemetery’ for a number of years without realising it.  Some scenes from the original actually inspired me to write my first novel, a lame 119-page hand-written zombie horror.  It will be burnt before I die.

2. The Exorcist (1973)

An expected choice, I would assume, for anyone who has ever seen this movie, no matter how old they were.  Probably the scariest film on this list, and some would argue ever.  Linda Blair’s demonic girl remains at the apex of all possessed subjects in the history of film and has probably had a hand in all future possession movies.  I actually thought the 2004 prequel, the widely panned Exorcist: The Beginning, was underrated because it still scared the crap out of me.

1. It (1990)

Leave it to Stephen King to create the movie that scared me more than any other in my childhood.  Even though It had one of the worst endings (albeit a typical Stephen King ending), this TV mini-series about seven kids (and later adults) who were terrified and had their lives destroyed by a monstrous clown named Pennywise was THE freakiest thing I had ever seen in my young life.  The film confirmed my lifelong fear of clowns and my admiration for the genius of Stephen King.  Apparently, Warner Bros announced a remake in 2009, set for a 2011 release.  Not much more info apart from that for now, but I’ll be keen to see what they make of it.

So there you have it, the 25 films that scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.  What are yours?

PS: One film I may have been too afraid to watch was The Serpent and the Rainbow.  Just this poster alone scared the crap out of me.

Thanks to Youtube I can now watch the whole film on it!

Movie Review: The Rite (2011)

I am a huge fan of horror films, and few intrigue me more than those with ‘possession’ and ‘exorcism’ angles.  So of course I was eager to see The Rite, which was apparently aiming to be this generation’s The Exorcist.  It stars Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins and newcomer Colin O’Donoghue (great screen presence), and tells the story of the young son of a mortuary owner (O’Donoghue) who almost drops out of seminary school and is instead whisked to Rome to participate in ‘exorcism’ class, and ends up learning from an unorthodox expert (Hopkins).

I didn’t have to see the film to know that critics were probably going to savage it — few horror films these days, especially those dealing with the supernatural, are likely to pass through unscathed.  However, I thought the previews looked pretty promising, so I was kind of hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

I’ll get straight to the point.  The Rite started off extremely well, almost too well for its own good.  It was atmospheric, intriguing, chilling and rather eye-opening.  It also asked some interesting questions about religion, faith and psychiatric illness, without coming off feeling contrived.  There were some fantastically effective scenes and sequences that made me recoil in horror.  It’s supposedly ‘inspired’ by true events, though I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that.

However, at some point, around halfway through the film, The Rite takes a massive wrong turn.  I can almost pinpoint the exact scene where things start going downhill.  The point of view begins to switch awkwardly all over the place, and all subtlely flies out the window.  Instead of keeping you guessing, everything is spelled out and shoved down your throat, and genuine chills are replaced by cheap scares and special effects.  What began as potentially a new classic spiralled into just another uninspiring supernatural horror flick.

Sigh…

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the first half.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Last Exorcism (2010)

I guess it was only a matter of time before they did a mockumentary on exorcisms, but surprisingly, The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm and produced by Eli Roth, is actually very good.

It is an edited “found footage” movie in the vein of The Blair Witch Project that tells the story of Louisiana preacher Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who comes from a long line of “exorcists”.  Naturally, Marcus is not a true believer, and to prove his point, he takes part in this documentary (which explains the film crew) — and of course, the one case he picks up at random turns out to be a genuine case of demonic possession — or is it?

For the most part, The Last Exorcism comes across as pretty authentic for a film of this kind.  The screenplay is rock solid with great dialogue and compelling characters, especially the smug Reverend.  It does an excellent job of raising questions about the truthfulness of the possession (and possession and exorcism in general) and cleverly creates several alternative possibilities and suspects to keep audiences intrigued.

The scares were fairly good — not as terrifying as the original Exorcist (what film is?) but there is decent tension and the aversion to cheap scares only adds to the realism.  The best thing about the film is that the non-scary bits are also fun to watch and not just time-fillers for the next fright (unlike say Paranormal Activity).

However, I did say “for the most part” because The Last Exorcism could not entirely escape the tendency for horror films to fall apart at the end.  The film’s authenticity was thrown out the window as it headed towards the climax, with the single hand-held camera occasionally discarded for quick cuts and close ups from different angles, and additional sound effects added in for…effect.  If you’re really into the movie you probably won’t notice, but for the more astute viewer it’s a bit of a distractiion.

The final scenes were also an unexplained mess that felt rushed and incomplete — some might say it adds to the authenticity of “found footage” and promotes discussion, but to me it was unsatisfying and needed to be fleshed out more.

Having said that, The Last Exorcism is still one of the best-made horror films of the year.

4 stars out of 5

DVD Review: Frozen (2010)

I don’t usually expect much from smallish, straight-to-DVD horror films.  Frozen, a low budget ‘nature horror’ written and directed by Adam Green is essentially (with the exception of a couple of countries) one such film.  Perhaps it’s the low expectations, or perhaps it’s the unique premise and brilliant execution of tension and fear — whatever the reason, Frozen ranks right up there as one of the best horror flicks of 2010.

Frozen is unlike any horror movie I’ve ever seen.  Featuring Emma Bell (had no idea who she was until I watched The Walking Dead), Shawn Ashmore (Iceman from X-Men) and Kevin Zegers (Damien from Gossip Girl), Frozen has no supernatural monsters, no ghosts, no psychopathic killers.  It’s about three friends who take a trip to the snow and somehow end up in a terrifying predicament.  After a short set up, the majority of the film deals with how the they fight for survival, the difficult decisions they must make, and the grotesque consequences they will face.  I really don’t want to give away much more than that (the poster probably gives away more than it should), but I don’t find it surprising that there were reports of faintings during limited screenings across North America.

At a trim 94 minutes, Frozen is raw, intense, visceral, and frankly, terrifying.  Green does a great job of getting everything he can out of his script and his actors, none of which are first class.  It’s basically a well-executed concept with a “this could happen to me” edge to it.  Sure it could have been better, but given what must have been a miniscule budget, Frozen is a surprisingly satisfying little horror film that I fully recommend to those looking for a scare.

4 out of 5 stars!

Movie Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

As a kid, my older sister tormented me with her video rentals, most of which were horror movies.  And of all the movies we watched, the one that was etched into my memory more than any other was A Nightmare on Elm Street (and its many sequels).

So of course, I was very excited about this new “reboot” of the franchise, especially with one of my favourite actors, Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen, Little Children, Shutter Island) playing Freddy Krueger.  Haley, while maybe not a physically imposing guy, has the uncanny ability to unsettle audiences with his creepiness, and I was sure he’d make a terrific Freddy.

The verdict?  Not great — one of those remakes that could have been a lot better, but on the bright side, could have also been far worse.

A Nightmare on Elm Street follows a familiar plot line to just about every other movie in the original franchise — a bunch of kids being terrified in their dreams by the horribly burnt, knife-fingered Freddy Krueger, except that if you die in your dream, you die in real life.

There is some attempt to make the story more compelling by inserting Freddy’s origins into the plot, and tying that to the central characters in the film to create a “mystery” that needs to be solved.  Not to say it worked, but at least they tried to give the characters an additional motivation to just simply staying alive.

The intention this time was to make Freddy more frightening as opposed to the wise-cracking, almost comical Freddy that he evolved into during the latter part of the original franchise.  This new Freddy is all malevolence and anger, though there is still a part of him that likes to toy with his victims.  For the most part, I think this is a welcoming aspect of the film, especially because Haley is so magnificently frightening, even without his make-up!

Speaking of Haley, I must say that he only half-worked as Freddy.  He did whatever he could with the character, but maybe it’s because I’m so used to the Robert Englund version that Haley’s version just didn’t quite feel right — like it was a poor man’s rip-off version of the real Freddy or something.  Englund’s prominent nose and impressive frame is replaced by Haley’s flatter nose and smaller frame, and even though they wore the same outfit and had the same burns (though Haley’s were more “realistic” thanks to improved prosthetics and CGI), it still took me a while to adjust.

I’m not sure if it would have been a good idea, but I would have liked to have seen them give Freddy a slightly new look — perhaps keep the burns and knives on the fingers but do something else with the rest of his outfit.  It would be destroying an iconic look but I felt like seeing something fresh rather than recycled.

What I liked about the film was that you didn’t really get a sense of who the main character(s) were right from the start, so you had a sense that anyone could die at any moment, or that perhaps this or that character may escape death for a while.

On the other hand, I do have two main gripes about the film (in addition to all the smaller gripes about the lack in logic I can forgive).  First, I hated how they telegraphed when a character was in a dream.  Almost every single time, it was bleeding obvious.  Doesn’t all the fun stem from the audience’s uncertainty as to whether a character is dreaming or not and their inability to tell the difference between the dream world and the real world?  Instead, we are basically told “he/she is dreaming now!” and we prepare ourselves for a Freddy’s appearance and/or a gruesome death.

Secondly, there was little innovation and originality in the deaths.  I think they simply recycled some of the better deaths from the original franchise and stuffed them in.  However, I wanted to see something new and creative, something unexpected and more shocking than just Freddy doing his thing with those fingers.

As for the young cast (ie apart from Haley), I actually don’t think they did too terrible of a job.  Kyle Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut, Jennifer’s Body) is a veteran of these types of films now and he brings an uneasy presence to the screen — the clear stand out.  The others, Rooney Mara (Youth in Revolt), Thomas Dekker (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and Twilight hunk Kellan Lutz were all solid — but Katie Cassidy delivered one of the most irritating performances of the year as Kris.  Nothing against her personally but she just tried too hard.

Apparently, A Nightmare on Elm Street has done well enough at the box-office for talks of sequels to be in the works.  I just hope that if they do continue this franchise, they be a little more innovative and creative next time, and not just try and cash in on the popularity of the original.

2.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Let the Right One In (2008)

[Just looking through my movie reviews, I noticed that I inexplicably left out one of the best films I saw when I was over in the UK last year.  The film is a little old now to be reviewing it as a new film, so I’m going to review it as a ‘classic’.]

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) is a 2008 Swedish film that was released to much critical acclaim, won a bunch of awards, and has attracted a cult following.  I am usually somewhat wary of such foreign films because they do tend to get over-hyped, but thankfully, this one is entirely worthy of the praise.

Without giving too much away, Let the Right One In tells the story of Oskar, a bullied young boy living in the suburbs of Stockholm in 1982, and Eli, a mysterious, pale young girl who moves in next door with her father.  The film is an unconventional horror-romance – where the horror is genuinely creepy and frightening, and the romance is heartfelt and strangely, sweet.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson and based on the best-selling book by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In is freakishly atmospheric.  It must be a combination of setting the film in the beautiful,  icy-cold Swedish winter and the finely-paced direction of Alfredson, who shows you just enough blood and gore to get your heart racing without making it seem gratuitous.

Many have said that Let the Right One In is Sweden’s answer to Twilight – well, that’s a bit of an insult to the former.  Don’t get me wrong, I quite like Twilight, but Let the Right One In one of those rare horror gems capable of lingering in your mind even years down the track.  There are numerous scenes in the film (and one in particular) where the imagery has been etched onto my brain forever.

4.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: Sadly, the film is being remade by Hollywood as ‘Let Me In’.  It will be directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) and the setting will be moved to a small New Mexico townOskar will be renamed Owen and will be played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road).  I sincerely hope it will be good.]