Tag Archives: horror

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2015)

The-Taking-of-Deborah-Logan

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

Deep Dark (2015)

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Horror films have been making a bit of a comeback in recent years, and I had heard some good things about Deep Dark, a little indie film with a bizarre premise: a struggling artist finds a talking hole in the wall that can fulfill his dreams for greatness — at a price.

I knew it was not going to be a spectacular horror flick given its low budget — and sure does look cheap — but I was hoping that there would be some intriguing ideas that I would find creepy or at least weird me out.

Unfortunately, Deep Dark fails to deliver. It is indeed an odd film, with a lot more moments of comedy than I had anticipated. However, the storytelling is weak, especially after the hole in the wall appears, taking us down a fairly familiar and predictable path despite the best efforts of writer and director Michael Medaglia to make the film stand out from the pack.

It also did not help that the protagonist is not likable, and neither him nor the supporting characters are well written or developed. The no-name cast is okay, I suppose, adequate but not providing particularly strong performances.

The idea of a talking hole in the wall is cool, though there was no feel of mystery to it. Most importantly, it simply wasn’t scary. There were times when I felt like the scene was building up to something with potential, but apart from a few clever visual gimmicks nothing genuinely horrific eventuates. Instead of a climatic revelation the film went for disappointing melodrama.

Ultimately, Deep Dark is one of those interesting concepts that wasn’t fleshed out effectively enough for a feature-length film (albeit a 79-minute one). Perhaps a short film would have been a better idea.

1.5 stars out of 5

Classic Movie Review: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

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It was round 1990 that posters of a pale-faced man with a red cross on his forehead, lying in a coffin and captioned: “Don’t bury me, I’m not dead”, started showing up everywhere at local video stores. It was a fantastic poster and it captured my attention immediately. But I was way too young for what appeared to be a terrifying film (notwithstanding that my parents probably would have allowed me and my sister to rent it had we really wanted to!), so I put it on the back burner.

The film was still lurking in my subconscious when I put together my 2011 list of 25 Films That Scared the Crap Out of Me When I Was a Kid as an honorable mention (just from the poster) even though I had never seen it.

Last week, and 25 years after I first saw the poster, horror master Wes Craven passed away. In the many tributes to the man who brought us iconic franchises such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, I read that one of his more notable solo efforts was The Serpent and the Rainbow. I was a little stunned because, first of all, throughout all these years I never realised that it was Craven who directed it. And secondly, I finally discovered that the terrified face on the poster is actually a young Bill Pullman!

Anyway, as a tribute to Craven, I decided to track down a copy of The Serpent and the Rainbow to put my childhood nightmares to rest. I don’t know what I had expected, but it certainly wasn’t the weird and trippy experience I was treated to last night.

The film was advertised as “inspired by a true story” and is actually based on a non-fiction book by Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who decided to chronicle his experiences in Haiti researching an alleged case of a man who had died and been brought back to life as a zombie. To turn it into a horror film, however, Craven and screenwriters Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman changed things up completely so that only basic elements of the true story remained.

The protagonist in the film, played by a surprisingly handsome young Bill Pullman, is a Harvard ethnobotanist and anthropologist named Dennis Alan. At the request of a pharmaceutical company, he heads to Haiti to research this alleged zombie case in the hopes of discovering some lucrative new form of anaesthetic. Once there, however, Alan is pulled into the world of voodoo and must fight local authorities who want him to stop digging into their affairs.

It sounds like an intriguing premise with abundant potential for horror, though The Serpent and the Rainbow never ends up really taking advantage of it. The vast majority of the film has a strange documentary-like feel with Alan going from place to place trying to track down whatever it is that can turn people into zombies. Prior to the final act, the only true attempts at supernatural horror come in the form of  dream sequences and hallucinations, and the most frightening scenes actually have more to do with brutal Haitian authorities than anything zombie-related.

The “climax” — which begins roughly when the scene from the poster takes place — turned out to be rather farcical and full of images that are more fantastic than horrific. I suppose I have to consider it in the context of the late 80s and the tackiness of horror films from that era, the lower budgets and less advanced special effects and so forth, though even taking that into account I can’t say I was particularly frightened or impressed.

It’s also a shame that the film doesn’t go deeper into the whole voodoo versus science debate. It touches upon the subject at various points but fails to grasp the question of whether there are some things that science simply cannot explain.

It would be unfair to say there are no scares to be found in The Serpent and the Rainbow. After all those years of being convinced that it must be one of the most terrifying movies I’ve never seen, however, the experience of actually watching it was ultimately underwhelming. In all honesty a film about voodoo and zombies could have and should have been much more scary and compelling. Just shows you should never judge a movie by its poster. As an entry on Wes Craven’s non-franchise filmography, The Serpent and the Rainbow ranks below many others I enjoyed a lot more, include The People Under the Stairs, The Hills Have Eyes and Red Eye. It makes me wonder how I would have received the film had I gone ahead and watched it when I was much younger.

2.25 stars out of 5

Exeter (2015)

exeter

This film — originally called Backmask and released as The Asylum in the UK — had a bit of buzz in Taiwan after the trailer was released and made it look kinda scary. The intro shows a suicide, and then we’re introduced to the Exeter School of the Feeble Minded (great name). A bunch of young idiots decide to hold a party there because it’s what idiots in horror movies do, and in the aftermath of some ritualistic shit someone gets possessed.

Up to this point, the film is atrocious and has no redeeming features whatsoever. Crap characters, crap dialogue, crap production value, and crap demonic possession crap we’ve seen a zillion times.

At some point — probably around the time of the homemade exorcism executed straight off internet instructions — the pace suddenly picks up and the movie becomes a gore-filled splatter slasher. In this regard, the film is serviceable as it’s directed by Marcus Nispelthe dude behind the surprisingly thrilling 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake.

There is a copious amount of blood and gore as the film progresses and gets crazier and crazier, though there’s always this undercurrent of comedy below all the terror and mayhem on the surface. You just have to laugh out loud when these characters start yelling iconic lines from horror cinematic history and the deaths become more funny than frightening. It’s still not a good movie overall, though I give it brownie points for not taking itself too seriously and not going down the found-footage route.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Curse of Downers Grove (2015)

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I was quite shocked to discover that The Curse of Downers Grove is written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of one of my favourite books of all-time, American Psycho. Yes, it has that brutal violence Ellis is known for, but in terms of logic and common sense, it’s as though the script was written by Patrick Bateman.

Starring not one but two Aussie starlets, the film is marketed as a supernatural horror about a curse that kills one senior student at Downers Grove High School every year. In reality, the curse is nothing but a red herring, as the bulk of the 90-minute film is a violent teen psychological thriller in the vein of something closer to Cape Fear — where the protagonist is forced to defend herself against an insidious miniacal threat.

The protagonist in this case is Chrissie (played by Neighbours alum Bella Heathcote), who against her better judgment ends up going to a party with her skanky best friend (played by fellow Aussie Penelope Mitchell), where she fights off the sexual advances of a local football star Chuck (played by Kevin Zegers). This sets off a chain reaction in which Chrissie, her brother and her friends become the victims of stalking, threats and abuse at the hands of Chuck and his drugged-up goons, while his typical sports dad (Tom Arnold) keeps his cop buddies at bay.

So The Curse of Downers Grove is a completely different film to what it is being promoted as, which I find strange because teen supernatural horrors are a dime a dozen these days while teen psychological thrillers are rarer and arguably more intriguing.

In any case, the film just doesn’t work. While there are moments of tension, the narrative is all over the place. None of the things any of the characters do in the film make any sense whatsoever, and the two worst culprits are the most important characters to the story, Chrissie and Chuck. It’s hard to list example without giving away plot spoilers, but let me just say that it’s easier to count the instances where their actions and decisions make sense than those that don’t. Normal human beings don’t act in this way, even extremely stupid and naive ones. And yet the film had me wondering whether there was some kind of psychotic fantasy thing going on because no characters were behaving rationally. It didn’t help that there were occasional flashes of what appear to be random visions that had no reason to be in the film at all.

This weird, jarring experience is capped off by a grotesquely violent third act that’s also full of logic gaps before a pretty obvious “twist” ending brings the whole mess to a merciful end. I don’t know what Ellis and director Derick Martini were aiming for here, though it feels like a waste of a talented cast. I think Bella Heathcote has real star potential. She was a standout in the 2012 big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows and has the unique look and acting abilities to take her fame to the next level, which is bound to happen after she stars as Jane Bennett in the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I also quite like Kevin Zegers, who always plays fantastic bad-boy types and will always be remembered by me for snapping his legs sideways and then getting devoured by wolves in the underrated 2010 horror Frozen, not to be confused with the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Alas, The Curse of Downers Grove turned out to be a frustratingly crap film. There are elements that appear promising, but Ellis’s lunacy and Martini’s ability to shape it into a logical coherent experience killed whatever chance it might have had.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy (2015)

Goodnight_Mommy

Let me just put this out there. Goodnight Mommy, the Austrian film also known as Ich Seh Ich Seh, is one of the scariest, most messed up movies I’ve ever seen. If you have children as well then forget about it. Sleeping after watching this film is going to be difficult.

Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the story revolves around nine-year-old twin boys Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz). It’s summer, and they don’t have much to do on the beautiful estate they live on in the Austrian countryside other than roam around, collect beetles, feed stray cats and do curious kid stuff. Then one day, their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns with her face all wrapped up in bandages, apparently after plastic surgery. Apart from the freaky bandages, she seems different somehow, and after a while the boys start to suspect that the woman they call mommy might not be their real mother.

That’s all I’d like to say about that, and I’d recommend avoiding all spoilers so the film can wreak maximum havoc on your psyche. Since watching the film I’ve read some ridiculous reviews — from respected publications, no less — that give away some of the best aspects about the film, even just from the review’s bloody headline. Stay way from that shit. If you can, rest assured that you’ll be creeped out, feel very uncomfortable, get queasy, and challenge yourself to keep watching as the film continues to grow darker and crazier before spiraling out of control towards a chilling and jaw-dropping climax.

I didn’t know what kind of movie it was going to be at first. Admittedly, it begins slow, and all throughout the pace is deliberate and controlled. It’s a minimalist production with a simply story and not a lot of dialogue. Not everything the characters do appear to be logical. I can understand if some people find it boring and tune out early. I can also definitely understand if some can’t stick around to the end because they can’t bear the terror.

But man, the atmosphere is so unsettling. The suspense keeps growing and the core mystery — whether the boys are being paranoid or if “mommy” isn’t who she says she is — keeps the tension on high gear. The storytelling is tightly wound and the point of view is subversive. It doesn’t go as far as transcending the genre but it sure pushes the boundaries. Fantastic use of silence too to maximise the persistent uneasiness.

The mother with the bandaged face creepy. Identical twins, let’s face it, are super creepy, especially when they wear the same stuff. There’s just something sinister about kids who never have any facial expressions so you have no idea what’s going on in their little heads. The beetles and bugs are gross. There are visceral dream sequences that are both eerie and shocking. It’s the kind of horror that makes your skin crawl and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. And the stuff that happens in the second half of the movie is messed up shit. I don’t recall one cliched “boo” scare throughout the entire movie, and yet I don’t remember feeling this nervous and squirming in my seat this much in a movie for a very long time.

Actually, if you can stomach it, Goodnight Mommy is a movie that demands at least one repeat viewing. I suppose the film could be viewed as an exploration of familial trust, paranoia and trauma. There are multiple layers to the story and lots of little hints you’ll be unlikely to catch the first time around. While it is undoubtedly a horror, the film has many psychological thriller elements in that many things only make sense at the end when you start to understand the psychological reasoning behind the characters’ motivations, actions and reactions.

Goodnight Mommy is not a great movie if we’re talking about having an “enjoyable” experience, but if you want to be freaked out, this movie is the shit. And isn’t that what we want from our horror movies? For them to freak the crap out of us?

5 stars out of 5

PS: The film was first screened last year but is only getting a limited release in the US next month.

Movie Review: The Gallows (2015)

the gallows
The poster and the teaser trailers looked promising

Hory shet. Just when you thought found footage movies could not possibly get worse, here comes The Gallows, a strong contender for worst film of the year. I was stunned it got a theatrical release because you can grab any low budget horror movie off the video store shelf and it’ll be more watchable than this piece of shit.

The crazy thing is that the premise of the film isn’t that bad. In 1993, a school play called The Gallows results in the accidental death of a student when a prop error turned a fake hanging into a real one. Twenty years later, a new production gets underway, and a bunch of students end up trapped in the school as a malevolent force comes after them. There four main characters are: a footballer (Reese Mishler) who decides to star in the play so he can get close to his crush (Pfeifer Brown), his jackass friend who’s a bit of a bully and dickhead (Ryan Shoos), and the friend’s cheerleader girlfriend (Cassidy Gifford).

It’s not a great storyline, but it’s a workable one (if you ignore why the same school would ever want to stage the same production). And yet The Gallows manages to make the worst of it. For starters, it has no business being a found-footage film. It should have just been a “normal” horror film. Instead, the filmmakers had to come up with a lame excuse for some student to film everything. And yes, he films and films no matter what is happening. That alone makes the film lose all credibility, and what makes it worse is that the shoddy camerawork renders the visuals practically unwatchable. People who get nauseated from hand-held footage are warned watch at their own peril. Actually, that goes for people who don’t get nauseated from hand-held footage too.

Nothing makes sense. It makes no sense that a kid who has nothing to do with the school play would be filming it during rehearsals. It makes no sense why he would be filming when he’s badly hurt or running for his life. It makes no sense why they would want to break into school to trash the set. It makes no sense why some of the characters end up at the school with them. And it certainly makes no sense why anyone wanting to do something illegal would film the whole damn thing from start to finish. It’s one pathetic contrivance after another.

On top of all that, the film is not scary at all. Even ignoring that it’s just about impossible to follow what is happening on the screen at times, the tricks are ones we’ve seen a zillion times before. People freak out for no reason and walk around in silence for ages before some unseen entity snatches one of them into the darkness. Rinse and repeat.

Add to the dung heap a dose of bad acting, a lot of bad dialogue and completely undeveloped characters no one gives a shit about — oh and a laughably bad ending — and what you end up with is this sorry excuse for a movie that should never have seen the light of day. It may have been made on a shoestring budget of US$100,000, but that’s no excuse. It’s the worst. The worst.

0.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Unfriended (2014)

unfriended

At first glance Unfriended should be a piece of crap. It’s a gimmicky title with a premise that rings immediate alarm bells — a group of teenage friends start up a group video chat on Skype when they are joined by an uninvited person claiming to be their dead friend, a girl who committed suicide after an embarrassing video of her went viral.

Even more gimmicky, or so it seems, is that the entire film is played out on a computer screen, so it feels like you are watching it unfold online as part of some voyeuristic experience. And when I say the entire film I mean every single shot from start to finish. Perhaps it’s meant to be watched on a laptop for maximum effect.

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t judge Unfriended before I got to see it. The film is not without flaws and isn’t a great horror film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s actually much better than I had anticipated.

Part of the reason is that the plot is infused multiple twists and turns and a solid dose of intelligent ideas to keep audiences interested, despite having only a single computer screen to stare at for 83 minutes. To achieve this, director Levan Gabriadze utilises a combination of Skype, group and personal chats, YouTube videos, Facebook pages and web pages.

Though you only get to see the screen of one character, it’s a busy screen that jumps from window to window as she and her friends work together — and often against each other — to figure out who the mysterious intruder is. As it is a group video chat, you get to see what is happening with all the others as well, and the performances from the cast of unknowns is good enough to be believable, even though most of the time all you see is their facial expression.

The characters are difficult to develop in this type of setting and as such the film struggles to avoid stereotypes and horror film cliched. But what it does well is create a sense of growing tension and paranoia between the characters as they start suspecting each other of being the perpetrator behind this seemingly cruel prank.

Everyone has a secret to hide, and the intruder makes the most of this knowledge to play them against each other. And when people predictably start dying, the stakes are raised to another level. This whole time the mystery of just who the intruder is and why he/she/it is doing this remains brewing in the background and compels us to keep watching.

There were also some nice attention-to-detail touches, such as spotty Internet connections and shitty Skype video quality. I think it does a solid job of helping audiences forget the biggest flaw of the premise, that is, the characters can escape this nightmare simply by leaving the chat or turning off their computers. The message is, I suppose, that young people today simply can’t leave their technology alone. They are addicted to it and can’t fathom turning away even when their lives depend on it.

It’s a bold new evolution of the “found footage” genre that we haven’t seen before, and for the most part the filmmakers thought it through deeply enough for the risk to pay off.

That said, a horror film of this kind is of course very limited and what it can achieve. For all the tricks the filmmakers employ to sustain the interest of the audience, there’s still an unavoidable feel of repetition because there’s only so much a computer can do. There’s a lot of reading to do because of the various chats, which is not a problem for younger generations but could be a headache for the less tech savvy. Characters have to overreact — often annoyingly so — just to get he message across because we can only see a tiny picture of their faces on screen.

It’s absolutely a film that can polarise viewers as there are many flaws that can be characterised as “deal breakers” for some. If you can do your best to ignore those problems and instead concentrate on the positives of such an unusual effort, then you might be able to appreciate Unfriended as I did.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Backcountry (2015)

Backcountry

Contrary to what many people have asked me when I tell them the title, this is not a sequel or prequel to Brokeback Mountain.

Backcountry is a actually low budget (wo)man-versus-wild thriller that is supposedly inspired by a true story. The premise is simple: a young couple head into the wild on a hiking trip and get lost. They eventually find themselves being hunted by a giant grizzly bear who seems really hungry for flesh, especially the tasty human kind.

I admit I was sceptical. Man vs wild films (like The Grey), or more specifically, man vs bear films (like The Edge) are usually anchored by a big-name star and have a more intricate plot and/or more characters to kill off. Here, it’s mostly just a typical couple walking through the woods, talking and bickering and not doing much else.

Surprisingly, the simplicity of Backcountry actually works to its advantage. There’s not a lot of distractions, allowing audiences to focus on the characters and their relationship, and the small cast enhances the feeling of isolation and dread.

Both Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop are pretty good as the couple. They don’t play likable characters, but you feel like you get to know them well enough to empathise with their situation and their fate. It’s a fairly cliched relationship, but at least the script is well written enough and the performances are solid enough to sustain the film through its slower moments.

These moments are necessary, because the film relies on the build-up of tension to deliver a sense of unease and creeping dread. Much of the horror ultimately comes from the bear, though an argument can be made that the most chilling part of the movie is an earlier encounter with a mysterious stranger played by familiar B-grade star Eric Balfour. I don’t know how good his Irish accent is, but the performance is a fantastic one.

As often is the case with simple yet effective horror/thriller flicks like this, I preach reasonable expectations to avoid disappointment. For instance, I can definitely see how some viewers mate be bored by the couple’s relationship, while I myself was frequently annoyed by their stupidity in the face of mortal danger. Flaws notwithstanding, Backcountry is a solid, more-than-serviceable thriller with the potential to satisfy a lot of unsuspecting audiences.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

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I don’t remember much of the original 1982 Poltergeist save for a few iconic scenes and phrases. You know the ones I’m talking about. I haven’t seen it for probably 15-20 years, but I do remember it was scary, though I’ve been hearing lately that it wasn’t really that good and was vastly overrated.

Still, it must be a lot better than this hilariously bad remake, which had zero scares but a lot of WTF moments and unintentional humour.

The story is a familiar one. A family moves into a new home that turns out to be haunted by malevolent spirits. Ghost hunters are called in and a kid must be saved.

The biggest problem with the film is its complete lack of subtlety and knowledge of how to scare an audience. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) seems to know, nominally at least, what is supposed to be scary, such as TV static, closets and clowns, but he doesn’t understand how to elicit genuine scares out of them.

It’s basically a handful of predictable “boo” moments most horror lovers would be numb to by now, and the rest is just completely over-the-top nonsense that is closer to Ghostbusters than anything else I can think of. I’m not even exaggerating here.

There’s no build up of tension or atmosphere, as Kenan obviously does not subscribe to the less is more doctrine in horror, going all out and throwing the entire bag of tricks at the audience from the get go.

What makes it worse is that the tone is all over the place, splicing humour and horror in an awkward manner that damages the effectiveness of both. Serious scares and wisecracks rarely work well together, especially when they come at the same time. As a result I was often left wondering whether it was trying to be scary or funny, but what I do know was that it managed to be neither. I’m stunned that some people thought it was scary.

It’s so bad that the ordinarily awesome Sam Rockwell, who plays the father, appears depressed by just how awful a film he managed to get himself into. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife, seems to be putting in a little more effort, but even she is clearly disinterested at times. They have three kids in the film, and the two younger ones, who experience the most of the haunting in the beginning, are not very good actors, further reducing the scariness of the whole affair.

The ghost hunters are played by Jared Harris and Jane Adams, who I find difficult to imagine as anyone else but the pathetic girl from Happiness. They’re not nearly as creepy as the short old lady with the weird voice from original (Zelda Rubenstein).

I don’t know what I’d think of the 1982 original now if I saw it again, but I’d be shocked if it’s worse than this laughable remake.

1.5 stars out of 5