Showing posts with label ghosts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ghosts. Show all posts

Aug 9, 2020

THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982)


Long before the short-lived J-horror phenomenon breached American shores, resulting in one good remake and boatloads of bad ones, The House Where Evil Dwells was already proving that Japanese ghosts could be so, so entertaining. Best described as a bold-faced rip-off of The Shining attempting to coalesce with America's then-fascination with everything ninja, this 1982 oddity about an American family living abroad while its patriarch finishes writing his "story" - and who then confront a trio of hilarious looking ghosts  - has to be seen to be believed. Hopefully the included screen grabs have done a pretty good job of indicating the sheer stupidity on hand and have enticed some unaware lovers of cinema cheese into pursuing this title: how utterly mad The House Where Evil Dwells is willing to go is a thing that every horror fan needs to experience.

The opening of the film, in which a full-on sexy affair is taking place while the unknowing husband is out walking around holding his lantern thing you only ever see in movies set in Japan, does a pretty good but albeit strange job of establishing the conflict of the plot: after the cheating wife gives to her lover a netsuke (a small totem) that she obtained from a witch, and which seems to be of a woman fucking the devil, the husband comes home to see their tryst in full kimono-shedding mode, so he understandably flips out and kills them both before committing harakiri, which is suicide by blade, not the former sports newscaster. (You know, this guy.)

At this point - yep, you guessed it - our American characters enter the story, and the house where all this sexy murder stuff went down, and are immediately haunted by the aforementioned ghosts of an Asian flavor.


The House Where Evil Dwells is insane, lovingly pedestrian, and earnest in its stupidity. Its attempts to be horrific consist of blue-tinted superimposed ghosts walking around, knocking shit off the wall, or temporarily possessing our married couple characters solely to puppet them into saying really inappropriate things and cause marital distress. But what those silly ghost appearances set up, the screaming ghost faces appearing in soup, or the hilarious moaning haunted crabs that chase a young girl up a tree, definitely help to knock down.

What sucks about The House Where Evil Dwells - that is, beyond the typical kind of suck you come to expect from very low-budget horror flicks - is its pace. To be honest, unless ghostly things are occurring, The House Where Evil Dwells isn't really that interesting. It's slow, and dull, and momentarily brought to life by okay performances (unless we're talking about the daughter character, who's at her least offensive when she's not saying a word). If blue ghosts are egging each other on to commit harm or tomfoolery, then great; otherwise, The House Where Evil Dwells is boredom on celluloid. Still, it's a house where I'd want to spend all my time where I'm probably shooing demon crabs out of my nagaya with my bamboo houki.

Fans of campy and "oops, it's stupid!" horror entertainment shouldn't miss it, or else moaning ghost faces will end up in your soup, and they will be so awful.



Aug 7, 2020

ECHOES (2016)


Anna (Kate French), a blogger who has been offered her first screenwriting assignment, is struggling to get a workable draft to her manager (and lover), Paul (Steven Brand), so Paul suggests they abscond to his house in the desert to give her a change of scenery and perhaps a bout of inspiration. There only a day, Paul announces that he has to leave to go deal with a client, and Anna suggests she stay behind, hoping that her isolation will force her to be productive. Without a car, and with Paul's dog, Shadow, her only company, Anna tries to do just that, but instead begins to suffer from increasingly worsening instances of the nightmares she's been having for a while now - that of an ash-faced figure with black eyes. With each new visitation from his demon figure, she is left with a new piece of the puzzle, so Anna begins to follow the trail of clues until she pieces together the mystery of her haunting - and what she discovers might have best been left undiscovered.

Echoes, simply put, doesn't really work - not as a ghost film, not as a mysticism film, and not as a murder mystery film. It really wants to be all three, but because of the time it has to share among those other sub-genres, all of them are left feeling unfinished and obligatory. What's suggested by the film's opener - someone haunted by sleep paralysis, a genuinely fascinating phenomenon - is abandoned nearly immediately after in favor of more waking-nightmare/possession nonsense that audiences have seen so many times before.

Speaking of things audiences have seen before, it would appear that writer/director Nils Timm has certainly seen The Conjuring, being that more than one visual trick is stolen from James Wan's surprise 2013 shocker. From flapping sheets revealing ghostly forms to black-eyed monsters possessing their victims, so much of Echoes has been done before and in far better ways that its title is actually perfectly ironic.


One of Kate French's eyebrows alone is sexier than any screenwriter I've ever seen, so her casting as such is dubious at best, and shameless at worst. As a lead she's merely competent, although the script doesn't demand she do much beyond look scared or take sad sit-down showers. Her constant appearances in tight tank tops or skintight exercise pants do more to show off why she was cast than anything having to do with her range as a performer. Alternately, Steven Brand offers up a nice performance as Paul. At first the audience isn't sure what to make of him, but he's likable and charming, and proves to offer the most defined character and solid performance in what is admittedly a small and intimate film with less than a handful of speaking parts.

Echoes brings nothing new to the table, but perhaps it will bring more attention to the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Leafing through its Wiki entry is infinitely more intriguing and entertaining than anything that Echoes has to offer. Even the most die-hard aficionado won't feel the need to add Echoes to their collection. It's a bland and generic story that jumps from one overused trope to the next, none of which is as satisfying as what the summary promises. Sleep paralysis, also known as Old Hag Syndrome, is a strange ailment affecting an alarmingly high number of people, and has slowly become more and more common knowledge over the years - a shame that the film did away with the concept after an intriguing opening. Echoes is a rental at best.


Aug 5, 2020

BACKTRACK (2016)


The ghost film is my weakness. It's one I will always go out of my way to watch, regardless of pedigree or budget, because I am endlessly fascinated by the supernatural. If I were a human being still capable of actually feeling fear, instead of having been dulled by a steady diet of horror films since I was in elementary school, you might say ghost films come the closest to providing me with a handful of reasonable scares. And that makes sense--that of the more metaphysical sub-genre, the ghost film rides the closest alongside the idea of life, most certainly death, and perhaps something beyond it. The concept of ghosts and haunted houses still pervade so much of our pop culture. Even the Travel Channel has built an audience of millions off their only popular program, "Ghost Adventures," the tie that binds ghost-hunting to traveling being that the hosts often get in a van and drive somewhere.

It's rare when a good ghost film is released. And unless James Wan is directing, chances are those good ghost films aren't at the multiplex, but rather somewhere hovering in the ether between VOD and direct-to-video. Much like any other genre, but especially horror, there's a reason why you've never heard of most titles found on page 37 of Netflix's streaming titles. So much bad horror is released in one calendar year that it's almost staggering. It's also sad, because so many of these so-called filmmakers aren't trying to make a film. They're assembling 90 minutes of forward momentum and spending most of their budgets on the Photoshopped cover that does its best to shield the fact that the film isn't even worth falling asleep to.


Somewhere between this Redbox fodder and James Wan resides filmmaker Michael Petroni's Backtrack, an Australian-produced supernatural mystery that offers up a handful of fine performances, an intriguing concept, and even a few well-timed and well-staged scares that actually border on frightening. Make no mistake that Backtrack is very aware of its influences, taking most of its DNA from The Sixth Sense, but it goes about it in the freshest way possible: that the patients of Brody's Peter Bower are actually ghosts isn't a twist that's saved for third-act reveal (obviously this factoid is included in the home video release's official synopsis anyway), but rather it's something discovered early on which kicks the main conflict into gear.

Brody, too, seems aware of the influence of Shyamalan's still-best film, as he likely realized he was also playing a sad psychologist a little too close to the dead. Brody, strapping on a serviceable Australian accent, is very calm, stoic, sad, and still in his performance, but not in a way that's boring to watch. He's supposed to be playing a man barely holding it together following the death of his daughter, for which he blames himself, and it's reflected in his every scene, during which he always seems moments away from bursting into tears.


The beloved Sam Neill makes scattershot appearances as Bower's own psychologist, looking pretty distinguished in a rounder face and full beard, though the motives of his character are unclear and never fully explained, leaving his presence in the film somewhat unsatisfactory.

 Above all, writer/director Michael Petroni didn't want to make a horror film so much as  a film about life that just happened to contain elements more commonly found in genre films. He tried something similar with a previous film, Till Human Voices Wake Us, which could likely be used as a litmus test to determine if Backtrack is for you. Again, like The Sixth Sense, Backtrack vies to be something more than just a ghost film. It wants to be about life, regret, the significance of the past, and the pain of memories. It does all those things quite well, marrying it to a traditional mystery propelled by supernatural elements (and no lie, the use of "ghosts" in the film are definitely eerie), but what it results in feels a little too similar, however well made it may be.


Despite being a ghost movie, which, yes, does allow for a few jump scares here and there, Backtrack is actually kind of a quiet film. The dread and sadness dwell in the silent corners of every scene in which Bower appears, complemented by a melancholy score by composer Dan Cornelius. Backtrack is the kind of film whose strength comes from the quiet rather than screaming ghosts.

Backtrack is a horror film (kind of) for adults. What this means is that it's not interested in using ghosts to constantly scare the audience, but rather to make our lead character tap into his subconscious to determine why he is seeing them in the first place. Ghosts are used as a concept but not a catalyst. And, is Peter Bower seeing ghosts for real? Or ghosts from his past that won't let him rest until he confronts the memories he's long since buried? If you're looking for a straightforward haunt film, keep walking, but if you're up for something a little different and a little more mature, then give Backtrack a try.


Aug 3, 2020

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (2016)


In the horror genre, there are generally two approaches that filmmakers opt to take: the gory gross-out, or the subtly creepy. Seldom do the two ever marry into a quality final product. The Friday the 13th series contains many entries that are lots of fun, for instance, but unless your fear threshold is comparable to a six-year-old’s, there’s nothing about them the least bit scary. And, likewise, some of the eeriest contributions to the genre were able to scare their audiences while shedding only a handful of blood, relying instead on mood, unsettling camera angles, or well-timed visuals.

In very few instances do visceral imagery and subtle scares come together with success. The Exorcist is probably the most notable exception, perhaps along with The Shining, although compared to today’s standards, a modern audience might not be as impressed with either. And this is what makes The Autopsy of Jane Doe, directed by Trollhunter’s André Øvredal, such a welcome and unlikely surprise. As scripted by Richard Naing and Ian B. Goldberg, the first act unfolds in near-real time as a father-and-son coroner team are delivered a body unearthed from below the floorboards at a local murder scene – one which needs a cause of death attributed as soon as possible. With the body of the young girl now on the coroners’ table, she is slowly dissected, the parts of her examined and tagged – all of which unfolds in a genuinely realistic manner. Indeed, nearly all of this first act unfolds with an almost scientific approach, even as the coroners begin discovering that there are certain “impossible” things about the body – its condition, its reaction to stimuli, and…well, lots more. And as you might imagine, as her body is slowly taken apart, it’s extremely graphic, but never in a way that feels exploitative or vapidly shocking. The film treats this act as respectfully as we would expect a real coroner to treat his or her real specimen, and as you watch the methodology and the men’s attention to their work, you forget you’re watching something intended as horror in lieu of something more fact-based and grounded.


At the end of this act, while the mystery behind the anonymous girl’s body is being slowly put together, the graphic portion subsides, giving way to a more traditional, but no less effective or well done, series of ghostly encounters within the underground winding hallways of the Tilden family’s coroner office. Echoing the successful supernatural films of James Wan, The Autopsy of Jane Doe relies on old school techniques – and hardly any CGI – to craft a series of scares to unnerve the audience, and nearly all of them work. Glimpses of something unnatural through smoke, a mirror’s reflection, behind a crack in a door; unfortunate cases of mistaken identity – yes, they may be cliché, but when they work this well, I’m totally fine with it.

My favorite thing about The Autopsy of Jane Doe is its reliance entirely on history, mythology, and our own knowledge of both to tell its story. Thankfully (and I really doubt this is a spoiler), this isn’t a case of a girl’s spirit returning to warn the son that the father is the reason why she was found six feet under. There isn’t some lame last-minute twist that reveals either of them to be the killer, or crazy, or caught in hell, or some other overused twist that’s been done countless times before. What you see is what you get — there’s no twist coming to save the audience and relieve them from the terror that’s before them on the screen, to gently pat them on the head and say, “Don’t worry, this isn’t really happening.” It is. And, if you ask me, it’s about time that it did.


Brian Cox is a reassuring face in the genre, because – and I’ll go on record right now – he’s never been in a bad horror film. Likewise, he’s somehow managed to star in a handful of major or minor horror classics: The Ring, Trick ‘r Treat, Manhunter, voice work for the severely underrated and underseen zombie film Exit Humanity. No actor’s filmography is flawless of the occasional bad film, but it’s usually the horror genre which causes that actor’s downfall. With Cox, it manages to be the opposite. And The Autopsy of Jane Doe is no different. As usual, he’s excellent, unfazed by the disdain that many of his esteemed peers have for the genre. His younger counterpart, Emile Hirsch (making his horror debut), takes the same approach, and his somewhat picky reputation for the roles he takes additionally elevates The Autopsy of Jane Doe into something worthy of further adoration. This isn’t just some crap write-off for either actor, but something with compelling content that matches context pound for pound.

Odd as it may sound, but Øvredal designs the “dead” body of Jane Doe to look like a flawless work of art — white, unblemished skin; dark hair; and preternatural eyes. She — and the rest of the film — present as sterile and institutional but also inexplicably with an artistry seldom seen in the genre anymore. What colors there are seem bright and dynamic; during the first act, fluorescents are the only source of light, but the picture is bright and even somewhat inviting. However, as the events surrounding Jane Doe darken, so does the picture.


For much of the film, dialogue, only, is what drives the momentum forward — that and a handful of random soundtrack interludes, included repeated and increasingly creepy use of an old traditional folk song from the 1950s. But once the horror really kicks in, the musical score by Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans kicks in along with it and really works in complementing the on-screen visuals that Øvredal concocts. The Autopsy of Jane Doe, like all great horror films, really makes full use of its audioscape, relying on both loud and sudden moments along with silence, or the faint sound of moving air, to unnerve.

It’s probably too early to label The Autopsy of Jane Doe as an “instant classic” as many critics seem eager to do, but it certainly deserves the same reputation as recent horror powerhouses like The ConjuringIt Follows, and Insidious, just to name a few. Horror fans are passionate people, which means they complain a lot — in a constant desire for original material, in something more than just tepid PG-13 scares. Well, here it is. Graphic and scary, and made by a handful of professionals determined to make not just an effective horror flick but an honest-to-gosh good film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is the antithesis to the reboots, remakes, redoes, and repurposed content flooding multiplexes and streaming services everywhere. With enough graphic and ghostly content to please even the most practiced horror viewer, it’s an excellent addition to the genre that deserves far more title recognition than it might be receiving.


Aug 1, 2020

AUGUST IS AUGHOST


I am someone who loves nearly every sub-genre of horror there is, though some more than others. My sub-genre of choice has changed over the years, from slashers to zombies to a short-lived affair with horror-action (of which there isn’t nearly enough). 

But I always come back to the haunted house sub-genre. There’s something about a ghost story that feels timeless, more culturally intrinsic, and mythological. Ghost stories are passed down, told around campfires, but really, it’s because they are the most in tune with our own fear of death. In a way, all  horror flicks are about death, but the ghost sub-genre forces you to postulate on what death actually is. As I grow older, I become more and more interested in, but also terrified by, the haunted house movie. I don’t see that ever going away. From big studio stuff to quiet indie stuff to completely anonymous streaming stuff – if your plot include the words “haunted” and “ghost,” then I’ll come running.

Which leads us to Aughost – the next and most awfully titled blog theme yet. Throughout the month of August, I’ll be blogging about the haunted house/ghost genre, and, as usual, I’ll be focusing on lesser known titles both great and terrible. Come with me through the creaking front door and see what horrors (or total silliness) awaits us on the other side... 

Nov 5, 2014

REVIEW: A HAUNTING AT PRESTON CASTLE


Every horror aficionado has his or her weakness - something that will make them ignore all the signs of something deplorably bad and force them to throw caution to the wind. Some folks are into zombie films, some vampire ones. For me, it's the paranormal. Don't ask me why, because I couldn't tell you. That bug has been there for quite a while, but it seems to have intensified over the years, quite possibly because of the really satisfying output of fantastic fright films: The Innkeepers, The Pact, Lake Mungo, and pretty much anything James Wan has ever done not involving Jigsaw or race cars.

There is always an ongoing quest to discover that next great film that will get under the skin and cause a nice rash of chills. I always like to believe that just because a film doesn't have a huge budget or an intense marketing campaign that it's not capable of providing as spooky a time as those other films made by notable genre filmmakers.

Having watched A Haunting at Preston Castle, I can only say...that quest will have to continue. As generic a concept as one can get, a group of spunky teens break into the allegedly haunted Preston Castle with a video camera to chart the legendary abandoned building, and who knows, maybe even capture proof of the paranormal. Bad acting, immature directing, and one hollow script later, you end up with something that makes you wonder when people are going to stop trying the same old things over and over before they realize it's already been done by someone with far more talent, money, resources, and yeah, passion.


A Haunting at Preston Castle is nothing more than a collection of irritating performances, a formulaic concept, and unintentionally hilarious ghosts. The only saving grace (though it doesn't save anything) is the legitimately impressive and creepy Preston Castle, a real place in California that used to be a reform school until it closed its doors in 2010. Since then, it's sat abandoned, falling victim to the elements.

When a building getting old and crappy without any effort from anyone or anything is better than the script a filmmaker sat down to write, or the performances one hopes the actors were trying to nail, well...that's embarrassing.

Do you like young attractive casts? Point of view camera work? Friends jumping out from dark corners to scare each other? How about a lot of giggling? Teen girls saying the words "fuck" and "fucking"? Or them smacking gum as they point the camera right at their faces? Intensely, absurdly, unbelievably unlikable lead heroines?

If so, A Haunting at Preston Castle is for you.

If you're fourteen or under, bring your hiding blanket!

For everyone else, just stream Grave Encounters again.

Oct 20, 2014

#HALLOWEEN: UNSUNG HORRORS: LADY IN WHITE

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now…one at a time.

Dir. Frank LaLoggia
1988
New Sky Productions
United States

"The bells of St. Andrews were soothingly familiar, even in those strange surroundings. It wasn't long before I drifted off to sleep, comforted by their ancient voices. ...It was All Hallow's Eve, and I, still locked behind the cloak-room door, suddenly felt a wind sweep through the darkness, chilling me to the bone..."

Nostalgia. That, more than anything, is what fuels my love for Halloween. It's just a day on the calendar, of course, and one which I anticipate more than any other, but it's also a feeling. It's indescribable, intangible. Never more has a day been so ably defined by an entire scene found in paintings, photography, or hazy memories — sprawling pumpkin fields, forests filled with orange and golden leaves, red barns with white trim and a scarecrow poking out of the cornfield around back. This type of iconography triggers a feeling more than any other. It's wilderness, rustic, and somewhat uncivilized. It's an outlaw; a misfit. Halloween wasn't born in the streets or in a book. It was born outside under the moon, in the woods, amongst people honoring something bigger than themselves (with a little help from the Church). And like most holidays and traditions with ancient origins, it doesn't quite resemble what it once was. But it's still the closest. It changed over time because it's had to. To me, it's become rural America. Small towns. Main Street. Crepe paper on doors. Dead and dying leaves blowing across front yards. It's the end of summer and the pinnacle of autumn. It's changing seasons and changing leaves. It's embracing the night and giving yourself to the dark. And it's opening the front door to the vampire waiting on your front porch, who cannot enter unless invited. It's not lighting jack-o-lanterns or brewing the cider or smearing the greasepaint across your face that beckons another October 31st into being. It's anticipation. It's simply wanting it to be here and not wanting it to leave. And it's facing the fact that, sadly, as you get older, the things that used to bring you so much joy don't seem nearly as special as they used to be.

Nostalgia.

When I interviewed singer/songwriter Lonesome Wyatt for a 2013 Halloween post, his answer to one of my questions has stuck with me ever since: 
"The idea of Halloween is much better than the stinking reality."
He succinctly put into words what I'd discovered over the years as I found myself one year older every Halloween. As the years go by, it seems I foolishly try to force Halloween to feel a certain way, by the activities in which I partake or the company I keep or the foods and drinks (and pumpkin beer) I consume. More and more I am learning that this, not for lack of trying, doesn't work. Halloween simply was, and I've got to make peace with that fact. Instead of trying to make it feel the way I remember it being, I need to look back on the things I treasured that were synonymous with it.

Enter Lady in White.


It was Halloween. I was in fourth grade. I couldn't tell you what particular costume I wore that year, or what games we played at our class party. But I can tell you, at some point, the lights went dim, a television on a cart borrowed from the school library was rolled to the front of the room, and Lady in White was soon playing in front of us all. Though there's nothing inherently offensive or ghastly about the film, it was still an unusual choice to show to a classroom filled with elementary school students, considering the film features the ghost of a girl acting out her death and being strangled in mid-air as she screams out for her mother to help her, backseat assassinations, and ever-so-subtle allusions to molestation and sexual perversion. I sat rapt, my eyes glued to the screen, unable to help but immediately put myself into the shoes of the very young protagonist, who looked to be the same age as me. He was shy, and bullied, and he had an older brother who was sometimes his friend and sometimes his foe...just like me. It was Halloween in real life, but also in the film. The scenes involving the ghost of the departed took place in a school classroom, the very same place I was sitting.

At that formative moment, Lady in White was gospel.

Frankie Scarlatti, small-town native and successful horror novelist, is going home. Not home to Los Angeles, his present, but home to Willowpoint Falls, his past, where he lived as a child.

Following a brief monologue set in the present, it's back in time to Halloween, 1962, in Willowpoint Falls, where two brothers, Frankie (Lukas Haas) and Geno (Jason Presson)  race to school on their bicycles — from their rural farm where three generations of the Scarlatti family live and work, through the woods, and down to the heart of their quaint little town's main street, where they call hello by name to the people they pass. Shopkeepers decorate their front windows with bright and cheerful homages to October, and fill baskets with candy corn by the shovelful. Much like the charming name of the charming town filled with charming, small-town people, it is idyllic; nirvana; perfect.

"What's it like living in Los Angeles?" the cabbie asks in the present-day prologue as he drives Frankie home down clean quiet streets strewn with autumn leaves.

"It's...different," he answers.

"Yeah..." the cabbie says, as if to suggest no other place on earth could ever feel like home besides Willowpoint Falls.


Back in the past and later that day, once class lets out, two bullies trick Frankie back into their classroom's cloakroom and lock him in for a Halloween prank. After beating against the door, Frankie falls asleep...and later awakens when he hears the soft voice of a young girl. She's in the closet with him, singing and dancing — and Frankie can see right through her. Soon her singing comes to an end, as she begins fighting off an invisible attacker who has slowly begun strangling her. She eventually succumbs, and the sound of something small and metal bounces across the floor and into the floor vent. Frankie is understandably terrified...and it gets worse when someone else — someone quite real — comes into the very same closet with a flashlight, hunting for the very same object that bounced into the vent. Frankie is spotted and attacked by the man, eventually passing out. He dreams of the girl he just met and finds out her name: Melissa. She's looking for her mother, she tells him. And then he wakes up on the floor of the cloakroom, his father before him, a concerned cop shining a flashlight over both of them. The school is swept for suspects, and Harold Williams, the janitor — the black janitor — is arrested, though there is no evidence to suggest he was responsible. He is charged with the attack on Frankie, as well as for the murders of several missing kids over the last ten years, Melissa being the first. A sad end, it would seem, but at least an ending.

Until Frankie realizes that Melissa has followed him home.

Lady in White is an old-fashioned film made by an old-fashioned filmmaker. From what I have gathered, the film is somewhat autobiographical, and because of that personal connection, the film feels very personal. It's also kind of a peculiar final product in that the story seems to transform as the plot demands. Criticisms lobbed at the film call its plot confused and its tone uneven. I can't really say I disagree with either, as there are certain unfortunate plot holes, and the two bickering Scarlatti grandparents provide really the only comic relief in what is a pretty dour and dark film geared toward younger viewers. It's a strange hybrid of legitimate horror, fantasy, comedy, thriller, and Frank Capra. And it's about twenty minutes too long. At times it almost becomes a game of, "What else can we cram into this thing?" Despite that, the journey you'll take with this film is a strong one, and there are constant twists and turns along the way that you won't see coming.

Lukas Haas leads the cast as young Frankie, making his second appearance in a major film (the first being Witness with Harrison Ford). Though he still acts intermittently today, his roles have been mostly blink-and-miss cameos, like his turn as a union soldier in Spielberg's Lincoln, or as Failure from Inception. In Lady in White, he's all doe-eyed, big-eared, and pixy-voiced; he provides all the necessary adorable little-boy requirements to make for a sympathetic lead.

Alex Rocco, as Frankie's father, Al, is awesome, because Alex Rocco is always awesome. His voice is instantly recognizable, and his presence is both reassuring and intimidating. He seems to be the only adult in all of Willowpoint Falls vocal about Harold Williams' innocence and the audience likes him for it. Granted, the mystery of the killer's identity is kept a secret until the end, but we all know from the very start that Harold is not to blame — especially with some characters flat-out calling him a perfect scapegoat. (Why? "Because he's black!") Rocco brings a lot of weight to his role and embodies that kind of small-town father unafraid to speak up against bureaucracy. Plus, I mean, the guy played Moe Green in The Godfather. No shit he's awesome.

Lastly, Karen Powell as the titular lady has the least amount of screen time, but the most affecting performance. She is at once hauntingly heartbroken and eerily ambient. Her visage pervades as an urban legend, but she is quite real, and her pain is paramount.


So much of Lady in White rides on the imagery either eerie and beautiful (or both) that writer/director/semi-autobiographical-film-subject Frank LaLoggia creates. Nearly every other frame of the film could be captured, isolated, and hung on a wall. Alternately, every other frame feels like the nightmares you had as a child. Special mention must be made of Frankie's dream about his mother's funeral — everyone there is obscured by darkness and not moving an inch, giving their fuzzy presence a disturbing and surreal appearance, but their sea of hushed crying echoes throughout the church; the spotlight is on Frankie only as he peers into his mother's coffin. The geography of his dream doesn't make sense, as it has suddenly changes, and now he sees his mother sitting in a chair in the middle of an unfurnished room, a pair of double-doors wide open behind her, allowing in the sun and a sight of Frankie's father and brother having a catch in front of a sea of cornstalks.

"Don't leave me," he says to her.

"How could I ever leave you?" she responds.

Cut back to her funeral.

Ouch.

Strangely, given the kind of reputation that Lady in White has garnered (some people consider it a classic, and it currently boasts a very respectable 6.7 on IMDB), LaLoggia only ever made this, the pretty cheesy Fear No Evil before this, and a 1995 thriller that looks as if it went direct to video. Otherwise he's been fairly quiet over the years, and I wonder why. 

Lady in White gets all the credit in the world for having the balls, the gall, the nerve, to treat its kid audience like...gasp...people. There are a lot of heavy themes at play here: racism in "perfect" small towns, death of a parent, child murder, pedophilia. None of it's ever taken lightly and none of it is ever cheaply exploited. Though one could argue there's simply too much going on within the story (I would not fight you on that), all of these themes never feel extraneous. A sort of To Kill a Mockingbird with a supernatural twist, what begins as a ghost story soon transformers into a familial drama and an allegory for race, and then unfortunately devolves into a rather standard thriller on which Hollywood depended and still depends.


The visual effects on display are, twenty-five years later, almost laughably outdated, but they're not undone due to their ingenuity and construct. They're perfectly geared toward its young audience, almost comic-bookish in their design.

Ultimately, Halloween is a device that kicks off the strange and twisty-turny events that make up Lady in White (it's Christmastime exactly halfway through), but the supernatural elements are consistent enough to safely label it a horror film, and thus, appropriate for some Halloween watching. What keeps me coming back is the healthy injection of nostalgia and small-town Americana for which I yearn more and more as the years go by.

Lady in White isn't a perfect film, but the ambiance that it creates, and the feeling of childhood nostalgia it set out to establish, is.

My thanks to She Blogged By Night for the screencaps.

May 21, 2014

WATCHING ME

"Couple months ago, my parents had a problem with their gas water heater. Gas company sends a guy out, as they have some kind of warranty. He goes down the basement, comes up later and says to my parents, 'I fixed it and it works fine. If you have any problems just call and they'll send another tech out. It won't be me because there was an old guy standing down there watching me the whole time. Bye.'"

Aug 22, 2013

DVD REVIEW: AN AMERICAN GHOST STORY


If you read my previous review, you saw I was a fan of Derek Cole's An American Ghost Story. It was an exercise in extremely low budget shooting with an effort on emphasizing suspense and subtlety over shocks and bloodletting. I won't get too in-depth here, as I pretty much covered it in my favorable review. 

An American Ghost Story hit DVD this week via Breaking Glass Pictures, and those of you willing to take a chance on this do-it-yourself effort might be pleasantly surprised - especially those of you currently studying filmmaking. Director Cole and co-writer/lead actor Stephen Twardokus, in a Behind-the-Scenes featurette, provide a point-by-point breakdown of the production (the film was essentially a two-man operation) and how they improvised some technical creations to aid the shooting. Not only do they show off one of the devices they literally built to aid their lighting scheme, but they break down some notable sequences from the film and explain how they essentially tricked you into thinking you were seeing a visual effect. The duo are very self-deprecating in their recollections and freely admit to some of their cheapest tricks.


Next up is an audio commentary track with Cole, Twardokus, and fellow producer Jon Gale. The filmmakers continue to reveal their tricks, and the track mixes together admissions of certain weak areas with comments of self-congratulation (though less in arrogance and more in awe that they were able to create something of which they are proud - as they should be). Not everything discussed will be of interest to audiences, but much of it is. They discuss scenes written but not shot, and scenes shot, but excised from the final. Aince they're obviously friends, they're not afraid to rib on each other, which makes the track that much more entertaining. 

The special features conclude with a trailer to the film as well as other releases from Breaking Glass Pictures, deleted scenes, and a photo gallery.

Regardless of the features, the DVD is literally selling on Amazon right now for less than $8. If you'd like to take an entertaining 90-minute course on DIY filmmaking, buy it. But if you're also looking for an earnest effort made by some spirited individuals who honestly just wanted to make a classy haunted house film, you should buy it for that reason, too.


Aug 6, 2013

REVIEW: AN AMERICAN GHOST STORY


"Are you ready for your first night in a haunted house?"

And so begins An American Ghost Story. Like Sinister and The Amityville Horror before it, our characters knowingly move into a house allegedly haunted and previously the scene of a family murdered. Paul, much like Elliott Oswalt in Sinister, has decided to write a book about the infamous house to which he and his girlfriend have moved, his rationale being the explosion in popularity of the supernatural, as well as his own desire to "finally finish something" he has started. And he has a plan to make the so-called haunted house more interesting for his potential book. "Supposably [sic] recreating a room's look can make spirits more active," he explains. "I'm going to make this house look as much like it used to as I can." Well, he doesn't even get that far when all kinds of spooky goings-on begin to occur: a phantom ball following him around a la The Changeling; moving kitchen chairs and teleporting dolls a la Poltergeist; a ghost actually wearing a bed sheet a la Paranormal Activity 3; and spontaneously opening drawers and cabinets a la The Sixth Sense. It's not long before Stella peaces-out of the house immediately following her first brush with signs of the haunting, leaving Paul to be alone with his ghostly company.


Ghost movies are getting hard to do and harder to appreciate it. Because it's all been done. All of it. We've seen the twist endings involving dead main characters, we've heard the disembodied whispering in the dark corner, and dear god, we've seen the jocular and obnoxious friend/comic relief purposely scare our lead(s) because, you know, why not? And too often we see low budget "filmmakers" who crap out a rough outline for a film in order to ride the coat-tails of another more popular and high profile one. (The Asylum has been known to do this when they're not tossing sharks in tornadoes.) What can trump these hurdles are two simple things: a well-told story and filmmakers with honor and taste.

An American Ghost Story is not the most original haunted house movie ever made, nor is it the best, but it is well-made and at times effective. You will see an awful lot of familiar gags taken from other well-known genre films, but our filmmakers are smart enough to know that it's precisely because you have seen these other well-known films that you are watching their film in the first place. And so in that regard An American Ghost Story instead becomes a charming, if at times familiar experience.

Stephen Twardokus as Paul (and also our script writer) makes for an effective lead. He's boyish and innocent, perhaps at times a bit too saucer-eyed, but it's hard not to like him. After a rocky beginning, in which he grins as he tells Stella about the bloody killings that took place in their house and makes tasteless jokes about brain matter, he soon sobers up and becomes a much more respectful character. In keeping with the previous (and unavoidable) comparison to Sinister, Paul is far more sympathetic than Ethan Hawke's Ellison. While he was driven by a desire to prove something to everyone and rediscover his fame by writing "his In Cold Blood," Paul's goal is not a selfish one. He's not particularly interested in the paranormal; he instead just wants to prove something to himself, and he's willing to ride a current fad to do it. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it does make his reasoning seem like a cheat. "Ghosts are in, so I'll write about ghosts," etc. And it's not even like he starts off as a skeptic and soon learns to believe - from minute one he's already trying to communicate with the ghosts via tape recorder. Because of this, the character of Paul is limited, emotionally, and gives us less to invest in.

The acting itself is just fine, and that goes for the entire ensemble. Wendy Haines as Sue does the best job out of everyone, playing a former tormented tenant of Paul's new house. Liesel Kopp and Cain Clifton as Stella and Sam, respectively, do well in their limited roles; they only seem to make an appearance when the plot calls for it (or we need a humor break).

Oh, and I love this ending - both on a thematic level as well as a technical one. And that's as far as I'll go in describing it.


Director Derek Cole knows the less-is-more approach. Likely this was a result of the low budget, but who cares? It's still effective, and forces he and Twardokus to rely on mood and traditional scares. This decision makes for a solid backbone of tension, and is only periodically ruined by unnecessary jarring musical stings. A purposeful slow-burn pace and extreme lack of special effects may turn off some viewers used to breakneck speed and ghastly set-pieces, but I doubt this film was made for them, anyway. Think The Haunting. Not, you know... that other The Haunting.

An American Ghost Story hits video August 20.



Jul 26, 2013

HAUNTING THE SET OF THE CONJURING

Based on true events, The Conjuring is an upcoming horror flick about a Rhode Island family terrorized by evil spirits. A trailer for the film offers plenty of scares, but it seems the movie’s cast and crew experienced plenty of frights themselves. Production notes from Warner Bros. describe a number of the strange events that occurred during the making of The Conjuring.

Interference
The Conjuring is told from their perspective of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes often called Lorraine to discuss the case, though static frequently interrupted their conversations and the line had a habit of going dead. Though the Hayes were puzzled, Lorraine wasn’t surprised.

“We’re about to expose the dark side of the dark side, and it doesn’t want good to win,” Warren told the brothers. “I’m surprised there isn’t a lot more interference.”

Claw Marks
Actress Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren in the film, was fascinated by the events in The Conjuring, but felt uneasy reading the script. Farmiga admits she wouldn’t read the script at home or at night and could only review the story in “fits and spurts,” lest she be overwhelmed by fear. One day, Farmiga opened her laptop and saw five claw marks slashed across the screen.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” the actress said. “I do know I hadn’t dropped the computer, and my children hadn’t stepped on it. So I gingerly closed it, put it away, and then my brain just went berserk.”

More at Ghosts 'N Ghouls.

May 14, 2013

REVIEW: A HAUNTING AT SILVER FALLS


Jordan (Alix Elizabeth Gitter) is going through a rather bad patch. After the untimely death of her father, she finds herself living across the country with her older sister/new guardian Anne (Tara Westwood) and her sister's boyfriend, Kevin (Steve Bacic). Originally from Los Angeles, and now living in Silver Falls (exact location unknown), Jordan forces herself to move on and attempt to be a simple teenager, meaning she's off to parties filled with beer, pills, and fiery mannequins. While living in Silver Falls, she manages to attract the attention of two boys: Larry (James Calvo), a very hipstery non-cool kid who isn't cool because he wears your grandmother's glasses, and Robbie, (Tadgh Kelly), your resident cool kid who is cool because he has cool hair.

Jordan has also attracted the ghost of a young girl that seems to be haunting Silver Falls, thanks to a ring she found in the woods while evading the party-busting police. This ghost likes to scream at her using Halloween party store sound effects while wearing a heavy sheen of goo across her face. It even tries to drown her in the bathtub. Inspired by true events. Day by day, Jordan begins to delve into the mystery behind this haunting figure, who won't stop following her and giving her the creepy creeps, until she becomes determined to put the girl's tortured spirit to rest. 

Pretty unorthodox, if I must say!


A Haunting at Silver Falls is okay. The acting is sound, bolstered by the appearance of the always fun Erick Avari (The Mummy, Flight of the Living Dead) as Jordan's unlikable shrink, Dr. Parish. The events of the film, particularly the haunting of Jordan by "The Doll Twins," are approached in a somber and serious way, which is refreshing. The ghost themselves aren't always handled in the best way - budget constraints and an underwhelming make-up design can sometimes stunt the potential for genuine scares, but there are some nice "gotcha" moments scattered throughout. The ghost twins we repeatedly see don't look like ghosts so much as things supposed to look like ghosts, if that makes any sense. They're not entirely a success, but still occasionally creepy during specific scenes.

Oh...but that ending. God damn it. Endings can be described as unpredictable for two reasons: either because the filmmakers leading the charge have skillfully laid down the clues for you to pick up and foretell the twist to come, or because it's so completely out of left field that you don't feel stupid for not having seen it coming. An ending is everything, and a bad one can be detrimental...unless your movie was good enough from the start to trump said ending. I tend to use Haute Tension as the prime example in that regard - an absolute cheat of an ending, but not enough to ruin the ridiculous and over the top manner of the first two acts. (Don't read too much into the comparison - one's ending is not indicative of the other's.)

And that's the problem here. A Haunting at Silver Falls is okay, but not okay enough to overcome its silly and unnecessarily bleak ending.

Writer/director Brett Donowho shows skill behind the camera. He frames his shots and uses darkness like a person putting actual thought into his film. No shaking camera, no bogus and frantic editing. The story is old fashioned in its design - dead girls, a lost ring, a town secret. It's not the most original story you're apt to see in this genre, but it's still pure, and that's what matters. There's even an effort to develop nearly all the characters that appear on screen, including the character of Kevin, who in any other film would be a completely underutilized and superfluous trope - a walking meat suit that's eventually ghosted to death.


I like small town horror stories because these environments more effortlessly feel like home than any other setting. Cities are glamorous and all, and ripe for large scale destruction, but small towns are supposed to be comforting and wholesome. They'e not supposed to be the scene of vicious crimes and dark histories. But when they are, there's something disturbing about it all.

I could easily see other reviewers giving A Haunting at Silver Falls a tough time, calling it unoriginal and mundane. But when I watch films like this, and I can see an honest attempt to craft something beyond blood, guts, and fancy editing, I'm inclined to only show encouragement.

Weak ending aside, I still recommend A Haunting at Silver Falls. It's one of the better under the radar ghost flicks to come out in quite some time.

It hits video May 28th. Pre-order it.




Nov 28, 2012

COMPANY

"Do you ever find yourself talking with the dead? Since [my son] Willie's death, I catch myself every day, involuntarily talking with him, as if he were with me."

Apr 25, 2012

UNSUNG HORRORS: GHOSTWATCH

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time. 

Dir. Lesley Manning
1992
BBC
United Kingdom

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying "Boo!" Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing: we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian; it's Halloween."
- Orson Welles' on-air apology following
 his War of the Worlds broadcast; 
October 30, 1938

Running BBC's 1992 Ghostwatch program for this entry of Unsung Horrors is kind of a cheat for several reasons. First, while I try to feature films reasonably recent, Ghostwatch will turn twenty years old this coming Halloween. Second, its notoriously hard to find. If you've got a region-free DVD  player and deep pockets, then you should be able to order the DVD from Amazon UK fairly easily. Finally, Ghostwatch isn't very unsung. Considering its extremely limited audience and near impossibility to find, it has a wealth of fans. People who have seen it love it and eagerly share stories of how it left them utterly terrified. It's because of this that I couldn't resist running an appreciation of this incredibly eerie and effective film. 

Shot and edited weeks in advance to its air date, Ghostwatch is presented as a live on-air special that spotlights an alleged haunted house on Foxhill Drive in London. The host of this show is Michael Parkinson, a well known (and quite real) British journalist. Next to him sits Dr. Lin Pascoe, a parapsychologist who fervently believes that the spooky events occurring at Foxhill Drive are genuine signs of a haunting. And in the cursed house live the Early family; mother Pam and daughters Suzanne and Kim. Much like modern ghost-hunting shows of today, a camera crew enters the house to investigate the events the Early family claim to have been dealing with for months. Leading this crew is Sarah Greene, another well-known British personality. Sure enough, the house is haunted for real, and as the investigation unfolds, the events within the house steadily increase into utter chaos.

While the crux of Ghostwatch is built around the events occurring inside the house at Foxhill Drive, the power of the story comes from all the different sources of information used throughout the film. Michael Parkinson and Dr. Pascoe provide much of the exposition and background on the investigation, and because they are on a "live" on-air show, they frequently patch in phone calls from "audience members" who share either their own ghostly encounters, or provide even more information about the Foxhill Drive house previously unknown. What this does is add to the legend of the specter haunting the house, and with each new detail, the events become more and more creepy. Think Blair Witch: The first half of that film is the kids gathering information, and the only spooky goings-on are married to stories told by locals and experts. Ghostwatch operates the same way.


The awful thing causing all this havoc is Pipes the ghost, the name derived by the Early children after the first few times their mother had claimed the weird noises they were hearing were caused by their water pipes banging beneath their walls. Over the course of the last few months, Pipes made his presence quite well known, focusing most of his wrath on young Suzanne. The few scarce sightings we have of Pipes, along with eyewitness accounts of the young children, paint a very chilling image of him in our mind, but it's at the very end when Pipes' true origins are revealed is when the film is at its most frightening. The filmmakers do a great job of teasing you with brief sightings of Pipes, but never long enough to give you a full, detailed glimpse of how he actually appears. Brief images of him are scattered throughout, and while the film today can be paused, or slowed down frame-by-frame, twenty years ago the audience had no such options; they watched it unfolding "live" on their televisions, and the brief sightings of him were made to induce moments of "did I just see that?"

Pipes is described as having a skull-like and bald head, a scratched face, and one bloodied eye. He wears a black dress with large buttons running down the middle (the explanation for which is eventually provided), and sightings of him seem to be accompanied by the shrill howls of cats. The image enough is unnerving on its own, but once we find out the ghost's real name, his origins, and how he possibly might have come to be, it becomes much more so.

Your pranksters.



Ghostwatch plays out in real time, darting back and forth between the live feed in the house and the studio. Every actor handles their part with ease, from those playing different people to those playing versions of themselves; all the performances come across as very genuine. Despite the more lurid attacks young Suzanne endures, or the terror Sarah Greene finds herself facing, it's Michael Parkinson that has the most interesting role; his performance is incredibly realistic, in that it suggests he doesn't take much of what Dr. Pascoe and the Early family are telling him all that seriously, but is willing to go along with it for the sake of journalistic objectivity. Being a real journalist, he knows he cannot let his own prejudices cloud his attempts to tell a story.

Ghostwatch remained unavailable on home video for ten years after its airing for quite an interesting and unfortunate reason: Despite the film running during the same time slot that a popular (and scripted) BBC series called "Screen One" usually ran, despite the program being preceded by a "written by" credit, and despite the call-in number provided during the program stating that the program callers were watching was a work of fiction, certain members of Ghostwatch's viewing audience thought it was real, and it really fucked with their minds; from the revealed origins of Pipes to the in-studio phone calls made by "audience members" experiencing weird occurrences in their own home seemly caused by the events in the program - they bought it all: hook, line, and sinker. 

And while any writer who crafted such a project might say, "Then I've done my job!" he probably didn't count on, hope for, or expect the effect it would have on some lesser-stabled viewers:
18-year-old factory worker Martin Denham, who suffered from learning difficulties and had a mental age of 13, committed suicide five days after the programme aired. The family home had suffered with a faulty central heating system which had caused the pipes to knock; Denham linked this to the activity in the show causing great worry. He left a suicide note reading "if there are ghosts I will be ... with you always as a ghost." His mother and stepfather, April and Percy Denham, blamed the BBC. They claimed that Martin was "hypnotised and obsessed" by the programme. The Broadcasting Standards Commission refused their complaint, along with 34 others, as being outside their remit, but the High Court granted the Denhams permission for a judicial review requiring the BSC to hear their complaint. (Wiki.)
And so, following such controversy, any future broadcasts of the program were pulled, and for ten years it remained unavailable on home video. A ten-year anniversary VHS and DVD were issued but are now out of print.


Part of me wishes I had been a London native while watching Ghostwatch for the first time. I'm sure the power of the film's realism is enforced when seeing the likes of Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, and Craig Charles all dealing with the paranormal activity in very different ways - because they are all real people; very well-known television and media personalities playing victimized and scared versions of themselves. An American equivalent of the cast might have Regis Philbin (but perhaps someone with a bit more esteem) as the host, with any assortment of other well-known personalities filling out the cast of the studio crew. Perhaps Kelly Rippa as Sarah Greene, since I just opened that door. Then again, the familiarity of them might destroy the illusion that what we're seeing is real. Maybe it's best that I had no idea who any of these TV personalities were until after I watched the film and did a bit of research.

I love Ghostwatch for many reasons, but most of all, I love it because it was planned, written, and executed simply to have something fun to play on Halloween night. Normal scripted shows will often incorporate Halloween into one of their plots, much like "The Simpsons" continues to do with their annual Treehouse of Horror episodes; "Ghost Adventures" and "Ghost Hunters" will perform a "live" investigation to honor the dark night. But you hardly ever see a program being created from scratch to pay tribute to October 31st. It feels like a perfect melded concoction of paint-by-numbers television and reality - and all to give viewers something a little spooky to watch as they put to bed another Halloween night. I'd love for a major network to put something like this together - to concoct a Ghostwatch of their own. Found footage has never been more popular than it is right now, and with the format being applied to television with the likes of "The River" and "The Lost Tapes," I'm surprised this program hasn't been snapped up for some kind of Americanization. Is it because we've become jaded towards Halloween? Do American studios instead want to focus on seeing a Halloween-themed episode of "The Kardashians" as each of the spoiled divas dress like a slutty witch and say something inherently racist?

Ghostwatch has become annual and essential Halloween viewing in my home. If you're able to find it, I'm sure it'll become a part of yours, too.

Read a retrospective article on Ghostwatch and its legacy - recollected by the cast and crew.