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

Jan 9, 2021

HAUNTED HOSPITAL: HEILSTÄTTEN (2018)

You can’t keep a good gimmick down, which is why, ten years on from the release of Paranormal Activity, found-footage horror flicks are still trickling in. Thankfully, theaters are no longer inundated with them, but quieter and lower key productions are continuing to use the tactic – hence we now have the awkwardly named Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten (which, come on, I will DEFINITELY be calling Triple H for the remainder of this review).

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of kids take an array of filming equipment into an abandoned hospital believed haunted for sensationalistic reasons but then – plot twist – turns out the place really does have ghosts! (Or demons, or witches, or the pit of hell, or, you know, something that HMOs will write off as a preexisting condition.) Along with this, the Germany-lensed Triple H opts for a modern update by presenting all the trespassers as hosts of their own very disparate Youtube channels, some more successful than others, which has led to some tension between them all. (I think they used to be friends in real life before or during their Youtube fame, but that’s never made clear). There’s Betty (Nilam Farooq), whose channel seems to consist of her sitting on a bed and talking about makeup but never applying any (accurate); Emma (Lisa-Marie Koroll), who helps participants face their very specific fears; and lastly, there’s Charly and Finn (Emilio Sakraya and the amazingly named Timmi Trinks), who host something called Prankstaz, which is exactly what it sounds like, and which is the most obnoxious thing you have ever seen. (Also accurate). Joining them are Theo (Tim Oliver Schultz), the level-headed worrywart, and Marnie (Sonja Gerhardt), a psychic and Theo’s former squeeze. (I’m going to be honest, I’m not 100% of that breakdown because all the girls, bundled up in hats, scarves, and big jackets, kinda look the same, and most of their names are barely spoken aloud during the entire running time. Girls just sort of keep showing up, making you go, “oh, guess I missed her the first time.” Just know that this movie is basically Hellstätten 90210.) The kids all figure that cross promoting with the sadly successful Prankstaz will boost the number of theiir Youtube followers, and that’s all that matters on the entire planet.

For the first two acts, Triple H unfolds exactly as you would expect: the characters are introduced and established as: the main one who will probably live, the “silly” ones who definitely won’t, and the window dressing ones whom no one will especially care about. Dark hallways are wandered, fleeting creepy things in the dark are glimpsed, fights break out among the cast, and bodies begin to drop. During this time, Triple H is very okay – it’s absolutely every other found footage flick you have ever seen, but it’s well made enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching anything offensive. In addition, there’s a scene where Theo berates the two Prankstaz hosts for peddling idiocy on their channel and contributing to “the stupidity of our youth,” so you might be thinking, “Oh, wow, Triple H has a message.” Once the third-act twist happens, whatever credit you were willing to lend toward Triple H goes totally out the window and you will groan, groan, groan. To its credit, you’ve never seen anything like it in a found footage flick, but that’s because the twist is nearly as ridiculous as, say, if it’s revealed that the haunted hospital had been under the hellish influence of an evil cantaloupe named Jeremy.

Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten is every found-footage flick you’ve ever seen – that is, until it’s not, and that’s when it’s worse. If you’re among the breed of fan who devours these kinds of flicks regardless of budgets or reputations, you’re likely to find a few worthy yuk-yuks within. For everyone else, avoid.

Dec 29, 2020

THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE (2018)

 

The Possession of Hannah Grace is founded on an admittedly clever concept: what would happen to the body of a person who had died during an exorcism if the ritual hadn’t been completed? Well, naturally, it would become the morgue attendant’s problem, and there’s nothing creepier than the idea of being haunted by a possessed dead body in a basement morgue. Although I’ve always professed that I have no problem if plots are borrowed from previous movies so long as the one doing the borrowing does so with good intentions, it’s hard to ignore the fact that The Possession of Hannah Grace exists beneath the behemoth shadow of 2016’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Not only do both ride on the same plot — a cursed body causing supernatural havoc in an isolated setting — but The Autopsy of Jane Doe did it so well without relying on corny visual effects or borrowing creepy set pieces from other flicks. (The Possession of Hannah Grace borrows from everyone, naming The Exorcist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Ring as just a few.) The Autopsy of Jane Doe was gory, of course, but it felt classically done, anyway – a horror movie made by adults for adults. The Possession of Hannah Grace, despite the few good intentions it has, was clearly made for teens, and while I won’t issue a blanket statement condemning all teen-targeted flicks, let’s just say that when it comes to the horror genre, the odds are hardly ever in their favor. The Possession of Hannah Grace only wiggles a single dead finger in rebellion to that assembly line, teen-horror mindset, twitching to life every so often in an otherwise ho-hum horror offering that’s DOA. 

To its credit, what with this being a Screen Gems release (purveyors of the Resident Evil and Underworld franchises), The Possession of Hannah Grace never gets too stupid in trying to scare its audience. Yes, there are lots of jump scares, and the reliance on CGI for even the most everyday things seems unnecessary, but there’s at least an intent for scares leaning on pure genre tradition. Also like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Possession of Hannah Grace blends supernatural shock with gory images, earning its R rating with repeated usage of the titular character’s twisted, wounded, burned corpse. (Several characters meet grisly ends as well.) In spite of its strong points, the movie falls victim to the usual kinds of lowest common denominators that plague mainstream horror releases, including a lead character (played by Shay Mitchell) whose magazine-cover beauty laughs in the face of her being a former police officer and a current morgue attendant. I’ve also never seen a more attractive and trendy looking city morgue, ever—the neo-gothic, art deco-inspired set looks more appropriate for Jack Napier’s penthouse in Tim Burton’s Batman than it does for an actual place where, at some point, a brain has definitely fallen onto the floor.

The Possession of Hannah Grace is a movie. That sounds like “no shit” level evaluation, but that is its biggest problem. It’s not good enough to warrant revisitation or critical praise, and not bad enough to leave behind a distinct impression. The movie, ultimately, is just there. (If you haven’t, see The Autopsy of Jane Doe instead.)

Oct 20, 2020

THE HAUNTING (1999)

I blame Mike Flanagan and his brilliant adaptation, The Haunting of Hill House, for how unimpressively 1999’s The Haunting plays in our modern era. Though both are based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, ironically, it’s the miniseries which strays far from the novel’s surface story that’s the most successful adaptation, whereas The Haunting, though sticking very close to its source material (until the stupid finale), totally dismisses Jackson’s moral – the implications of loneliness, the dangers of isolation, and the emotional damage inflicted by the inability to feel “part” of something – in favor of lame spookshow spectacle, lame third-act twists, and Owen Wilson. The Haunting didn’t enjoy high marks upon its release in theaters what feels like a hundred years ago, but it’s one of those perfectly reasonable titles to touch base with from time to time for some superficial popcorn entertainment – one of those late-‘90s relics which hails from that moment in cinetime where CGI was just starting to become front and center in large-scale genre filmmaking. There’s 1997’s Mimic and Spawn, 1998’s Deep Rising and Species II, and 1999 had so many examples that it would be obnoxious to list them all, but let’s take a quick stroll down Memory Lane with Deep Blue Sea, The Mummy, End of Days, and House on Haunted Hill. There are a reckless number of examples from this era where studios spent over a hundred million dollars on horror productions, and mostly because of their visual effects. This approach didn’t result in any good movies, but it did result in some fun ones, and for some audiences, that’s enough.

Because of this ‘90s CGI explosion, this era’s offerings all look, feel, and sound the same – 9-0-C-G-I might as well be its own zip code in Hollywood because of how hilariously primitive and concretely tied to an era its films look when compared to some of the visual achievements pulled off by the recent likes of War for the Planet of the Apes or The Jungle Book. This was the biggest complaint with The Haunting way back when, and that complaint not only remains valid, but it’s actually much more relevant because of how far CGI has come – this alongside the mini revisionist renaissance we’ve seen and enjoyed regarding the rebirth of our favorite horror properties, which had long succumbed to near self-parody, now rebranded as serious and mature storytelling. NBC’s Hannibal rescued Hannibal Lecter from the ho-humness of Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising, purging Anthony Hopkins’ increasingly toothless take on the title character; 2018’s Halloween wiped away 40 years of baggage-filled sequels and made Michael Myers scary, mysterious, and motiveless once again; and Mike Flanagan went back to the most famous haunted house story in the land to create something beautifully terrifying and terrifyingly beautiful. (Its follow-up, The Haunting Of Bly Manor, is streaming now on Netflix.)

If you’re familiar with Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Haunting from 1963, then you know his approach was built on a foundation of suspense first and terror later – without ever falling back on a single visual effect. Spooky offscreen noises, ominous pounding on oaken double-doors, and the creepy insinuation that the other living occupants of the house weren’t to be trusted – these are what made The Haunting so frightening. It’s tempting to dismiss this no-frills approach to genre filmmaking in the modern era, considering all the horror flicks that have since come down the path that relied heavily on visual imagery – The Exorcist, Suspiria, right up to the modern era with The Conjuring (also starring Lili Taylor) or Hereditary – but 1999’s The Haunting never had enough faith in itself to rein in some of the stupid CGI in lieu of the fantastic production design of the house itself and the character dynamics that still (somewhat) contained enough ambiguously sinister behavior that suggested not everyone had Nell’s best interests at heart.

Ultimately, it’s for these reasons that The Haunting fails to leave any kind of lasting impression: the distillation of the characters as presented in the novel, and the overreliance on (poor) CGI instead of trying to establish a mood and tone, are enough to keep The Haunting from being, at the very least, a sturdy addition to the haunted house sub-genre. For the most part, screenwriter David Self (Road To Perdition) preserves the novel’s character archetypes with commendable loyalty: Lili Taylor’s Nell is an outcast, ostracized and belittled by her sister (Virginia Madsen) and brother-in-law, and desperate to forge her own path in the world. Liam Neeson’s Dr. Marrow seems well meaning and genuinely motivated by good doctorly intentions, even if his “sleep study” is a manipulation that eventually leads to a situation he can’t control. Catherine Zeta-Jones maintains Theodora’s passive aggressive flirtations and socialite-like flamboyance, although her open bisexuality, which had been left purposely ambiguous in Jackson’s story (a surprising addition for the 1950s) is just as broad and obvious as the rest of her character. Lastly, there’s Owen Wilson, ably playing Luke the California mimbo, exorcised of his implied substance addict canon and his ties to the owners of Hill House that would’ve threatened to make him an interesting character. (I still remember our theater’s audience laughing every time Owen Wilson was on screen, even when he wasn’t vying for comedy relief.) Ironically, in concept, everyone is perfectly cast to capture their characters as presented in the novel: Neeson is esteemed and trustworthy, Zeta-Jones is airy and free-spirited, Wilson is fun-loving and free of responsibility, and Taylor is lost, lonely, and wanting nothing but to be accepted. The groundwork is there, but for whatever reason, the film can’t seem to lure the performers’ take on the characters across the finish line. The ensemble’s performances are fairly mundane with most of the cast not going out of their way to overextend themselves for a project that, in their estimation, didn’t call for it, despite this being one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest producing credits through his brand new Dreamworks Entertainment banner. Zeta-Jones’ Theo comes off as a teenaged girl, rattling off some of the film’s most bone-headed dialogue, especially as she refers to her boots as “savage kicks,” and poor Taylor does her best during the final act when she’s forced to spew the kind of confrontational dialogue that’s directed at the house’s main threat but is actually provided solely so the audience knows what the hell is happening in the very movie they’ve been watching for the last eighty minutes. If one of cinema’s Ten Commandments was Thou shall not have characters speak aloud unto themselves for the betterment of observers’ understanding, The Haunting would be the most blasphemous of them all.

Everything else aside, there remains the most important question for a horror film, especially a haunted house horror film: is it scary? Well, you guessed it: no. It’s not. In fact, except for the demise of Wilson’s character, in what remains one of the dumbest kill scenes in horror history, The Haunting is so neutered that its PG-13 rating almost feels like an insult to kids twelve and under. I guess we can blame Spielberg, who apparently hated the movie and had his name removed, for the inadvertent overblown spectacle, as he chose Jan de Bont, cinematographer-turned-director known for his previous unsubtle action-adventure hits Speed and Twister (and not-at-all-a-hit Speed 2: Cruise Control), to direct the update of a classic flick known for its low-key subtlety. That de Bont had never before (or since) directed a horror flick could certainly point in the direction of his hiring being a mistake, but to date, he only has five directorial credits, with a mere two of them enjoying solid reviews and healthy box office. (His last credit as a director was the awkwardly titled Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life waaay back in 2003.) While The Haunting does have a fair bit to boast about, mainly Jerry Goldsmith’s flourishing musical score, gorgeous production design, and Hill House’s foreboding façade (the opening flyover shot of the house complemented by sounds of massive and weathered preternatural breathing sets a tone that the rest of the film fails to live up to), they’re all soon upstaged by some embarrassingly dodgy CGI, as if the movie didn’t have enough faith in itself to rely solely on its intricately designed environments to captivate audiences. In 1963, Wise paid a grip to knock loudly on the other side of some bedroom doors. In 1999, Spielberg paid a visual effects team millions of dollars to turn a bedroom into an ominous face, complete with bloodshot window-eyes and a bed that sprouts spider-like legs. The first is scary, the second is not. High on visuals, low on creativity: that’s late-‘90s genre in a nutshell.

Neither time nor advances in approaches to classic material have been kind to The Haunting, which, even putting aside the CGI, very much feels like a ‘90s production, dated by its look, feel, and some accidentally hilarious moments like when Neeson reassures his sleep study group that, in case of emergencies, he has his “trusty cell telephone.” Old school audiences enjoyed the novel and the subsequent adaptation that came along four years later. Brand new audiences well acquainted with elongated storytelling as essayed by services like Netflix and HBO found much more substance to enjoy with 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House. This leaves 1999’s The Haunting lost entirely in no man’s land – not nearly frightening enough to command attention, nor “deep” enough to reach the audience’s hearts through its characters, The Haunting is just kind of there – a harmless but mediocre slice of popcorn entertainment that doesn’t come close to haunting its viewers.

Aug 29, 2020

A DARK SONG (2016)


At some point after 2002’s The Ring, ghosts made a spirited (haw!) return to cinema, regaining their stature as one of the world’s first on-screen horror villains. Whether it was the pillaging of J-horror creepy wet ghost girls, or remakes of much more high-profile Hollywood films (The Haunting, for example), those undead, wispy/willowy, ectoplasm hurling specters were intent on scaring the dickens out of audiences. (I used the word “dickens,” so you know I mean it.) Sometimes it was a parapsychologist searching for emotional retribution, sometimes it was a bunch of hapless kids seeking the truth, and sometimes it was just a person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hardly ever was it someone going out of their way; risking personal health, comfort, safety, and even pride; paying a ridiculous amount of money, and dedicating MONTHS of shut-in living not just to see a ghost but to conjure one using dark magic. But that’s what A Dark Song presents, taking the well-worn concept of a big creepy house and a one creepy ghost but reinventing the “how” in an eerie, disturbing, and icky way.

A Dark Song introduces itself as a slow-burn, Polanski, Repulsion-like thriller, taking its time establishing the rules and mood of this universe. And as the ghostliness begins to unfold, all the trials and tribulations our poor Sophia has endured weighs heavily on our minds, leaving us to wonder if what she’s experiencing is real, or if she’s finally cracked under the pressure. Relying very little on bloodletting (there’s really only a goblet-sized amount – literally) and more on tension and intensity, A Dark Song has a very specific way it wants to tell its story, and it’s intent on not scaring its audience using cheap means.


A Dark Song only falters in its familiarity – the ghostly figure passing by unseen in the far background, the footsteps in the house, the bad omens that present once the rituals have begun – but it handles this familiarity well, teasing them rather than leaning on them. And it builds to a nutso finale that takes inspiration from the Hellraiser series, Jacob’s Ladder, and even Michael Winner’s little seen oddity The Sentinel – your personal diet of horror consumption will determine how unnerving this sequence is.

A Dark Song takes place in a dim, bleak, dreary mansion in the middle of nowhere. Not much for color, although any sequence relying on candlelight in a dark room (there are lots of these) look very striking. The sound design makes full use of ambiance and ghostly sounds to unnerve the viewer.

Those looking for Conjuring-type scares may not find much to grasp onto until the finale, which for most of these viewers may be too late. But for those with the patience to see it through, A Dark Song promises a new twist on an old classic and packs somewhat of a punch by its end.



Aug 27, 2020

HOUSE (1985) AND HOUSE 2: THE SECOND STORY (1987)


Director and Producer Sean S. Cunningham has never really played coy about his earliest beginnings in film. Following upon the success of The Bad News Bears, he and screenwriter Arch McCoy saw fit to rip it off with Here Come the Tigers, another foul-mouthed comedy about an unruly little league baseball team. And following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Cunningham called up his screenwriter Victor Miller and said, “Halloween is making a lot of money – let’s rip it off” (actual quote), and Friday the 13th was born.

With his producing role on the first of what would become a four-film series, it’s hard not to look at House as an attempt to recreate the do-it-yourself monster approach consisting of equal parts horror and comedy that Sam Raimi took with the first two Evil Dead films. Built upon a foundation of sincerity, but chock full of schlocky and fantastical creature designs, both the Evil Deads (well, more so the latter) and House want to horrify and disgust but also titillate and muse its audiences in equal measure. House star William Katt describes House as the perfect gateway horror film for the young – something that boats horrific imagery, but nothing so deadly serious that they would be left traumatized. And he’s right. That’s the level of horror the unsuspecting can expect from the first of four House films.


Unlike Here Come the Tigers and Friday the 13th, House manages to establish its own identity thanks to its off-kilter tone; though it borrows its concept about a guy who ends up battling demons/monsters/somethings in an isolated environment, it’s willing to be more playful with its horrific imagery, in gross contrast to the very bloody and at times mean-spirited set pieces that littered the Evil Dead series (including the very stupid Army of Darkness). And it definitely gets points for highlighting a post-war condition that hadn’t yet gone by its official title: post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the very playful nature with which House is presented, its lead character, Roger Cobb (played by Katt), is carrying around a lot of spiritual demons. Not only did his time in Vietnam see a fellow soldier (Richard Moll) killed in action, but he’s also dealing with the disappearance of his young son and the subsequent toll it took on his marriage. His effort to stay in his late aunt’s palatial Victorian house to work on his new book – a non-fiction look back on his time in the war – awakens either the ghastly creatures that live behind its doors, or which live inside his mind.

Directed by horror veteran Steve Miner (the first two Friday the 13th sequels; Halloween: H20; the atrocious Day of the Dead remake), House is a mixed bag of humor that doesn’t quite work and horror that’s intent on being more foamy and cartoonish than outright terror. For some folks this is enough, as House definitely has its fans, but for others weaned on Ash Williams cutting off heads of the possessed in similarly amusing situations, it just ain’t enough. House boasts some of the same ingenuity and unorthodox creature designs, but very little of the darker gore gags. The practical creature effects and creations are definitely creative and impressive considering House’s modest budget, but moments like these are unfortunately too few and far between. Although, credit definitely goes to the zombified soldier which stalks Roger during the third act, as it’s a legitimately excellent creation, right down to his articulated facial features. House perhaps could have used more of this and less of the behemoth woman demon with pearls — aka, more of an emphasis on actual terror.


Following the surprise success of House, distributor New World Pictures was quick to green light House 2: The Second Story, which boasts perhaps the greatest title of all time. Unfortunately that’s about all it boasts, as House 2 is borderline unwatchable, dialing down whatever horror was present in the first film and amping up the humor, turning it into something more akin to the first Troll

This time around, the action is set in a house that looks like something from an unused Indiana Jones set, complete with spooky basement that houses a literal crystal skull (holy shit). This skull resurrects a ghost cowboy, or something, who is the most depressed ghost I have ever seen in film, and I think he coughs dust or something. Bill Maher shows up playing a gigantic asshole, which Bill Maher manages to do quite handsomely (and this is coming from someone who legit loves Bill Maher). Keeping the Friday the 13th connection going (with returning producer Sean Cunningham), Lar Park Lincoln (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood) plays a kind of unlikable lead opposite far more likable Arye Gross (Minority Report), who together engage in a plot that can’t even be broken down because it makes very little sense.

To be followed by two sequels.

The House films are friggin’ weird, but there’s no denying that’s part of their appeal. The first two films — though their levels of quality can be debated — remain the two most beloved and will make you feel right at home haw haw sorry!


Aug 26, 2020

PRAYING GHOST

PALERMO – News of a ghost of a praying nun on the church of Santa Maria della Mercede al Capo bell tower has created a lot of buzz in Palermo. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the church. Some of them were there to pray, others just for curiosity. 
Everything started with the publication of a photo on social networks.

The ghost seen in pictures is most likely an optical illusion, but as every good ghost story, the history of the place seem to support the mysterious theory.

In fact, in the area there are the forgotten Catacombs of the Capuchin Sisters, built on top of an early Christian cemetery in 1732. The nuns used these catacombs for burials until 1865.

The crypt and the early Christian cemetery still remain unexplored. The entrance to the catacombs has been walled up, hiding hundreds of buried nuns bodies forever.

Is really the restless spirit of a nun wandering inside the church?


Story and image source.

Aug 23, 2020

NOMADS (1986)


One of the most surprising things about this 1986 oddity is that it's the directorial debut of John McTiernan, who would go on to helm Die Hard and Predator -- films that aren't known for their subtlety. Nomads definitely is. 

Nomads had always been (or at least seemed to be) considered one of those underrated horror films that threatened to become lost with time as the '80s became the '90s, and so forth. That it was included in Fangoria's 101 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen, a valuable book that (mostly) gets it right, would seem to refute what had long been Nomad's unfair reputation. 

Nomads is a strange, quirky film that seems to be attempting to copy what Ridley Scott did for Alien back in 1976: take a B-movie concept, put actual thought into its construction, and take everything 100% seriously. Obviously, McTiernan wasn't as successful as his ten-year-old tonal inspiration - at least not in the sense that it captured nearly the same amount of audience attention and adoration - but he did manage to take what on paper is a very silly concept and flesh it out with enough sincerity that it manages to overcome its shoddy story and achieve at least some semblance of cinematic worth.


Echoing Nomads' sentiments of individuality are the performances by leads Pierce Brosnan and Lesley-Anne Down, who both do quite well in their roles. Brosnan doesn't exactly nail his French accent, but he puts every maniacal piece of energy he can harness into his role of the tortured Pommier. Down, too, does solid work, though her performance by design is a bit more restrained, even as she spirals further down into Pommier's twisted memory bank.

Nomads depends very much on imagery, tone, and a strange, almost ethereal and dreamlike mood that at times transcends the hokey story (of Nomadic spirits embodying, currently, biker gangs in Los Angeles), and every credit goes to McTiernan for achieving this. Even with his film debut, and though he would go onto projects based more on visceral thrills than weighty stories (Nomads remains McTiernan's sole [credited] written effort), he proved right off the bat that he was a filmmaker with specific ideas and an uncanny ability to exude a story rather than tell one. If any genre has proved that it can skirt by on mood and themes rather than a tangible story, it's horror for sure - example: Dario Argento's most celebrated body of work - and Nomads, in that regard, is a success.


One of Nomads’ secret weapons is the musical score. Composer Bill Conti is likely most well-known for having created what's become iconic music for the Rocky series, and like every great artist who achieves a certain level of fame and prestige, there's always at least one other work hovering somewhere in the obscurity of that artist's career, and for Conti, it's likely his work for Nomads. Very evocative of his 80s contemporaries Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, Nomads' score is alternately melancholy, sweet, brooding, and even a little magical. It fits the tone of the film overall.

Nomads hovers somewhere in No Man's Land between "films not for everyone" and "films for no one." To describe the film as poorly made or incompetent would be a falsity, as from a directing standpoint alone Nomads can be quite strong. Where viewers will be turned off is in its very abstract form of storytelling and its very esoteric concept. To say the plot out loud - a woman uses the shared thoughts of a perfect stranger to investigate a group of undead nomad spirits currently living as a big-haired biker gang in modern L.A. - is to make it sound absurd, and maybe it is. But at the same time it's such an intriguing idea that whether or not it entertains most audiences, or even some of them, it deserves points for that alone.

Oh, and speaking of Die Hard:


Aug 21, 2020

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)


The haunted house setting has been around long enough, in every form of artistic medium, for it to become cliché. Even its writer, William F. Nolan, believes so, stating that "the idea of a haunted house eating people is bullshit," but went ahead with that concept anyway (the film is based on his novel of the same name) while trying to do something different.

Keep in mind that when you read the plot summary as a man and wife and their son agreeing to watch over someone's private home and serve as caretakers, and the ghosts/spirits/evils of the house beginning to infest the man and make him act in increasingly aggressive ways, all while shivering from an imaginary cold, it's hard not to immediately think of The Shining and The Amityville Horror. "Rip-off!" you might claim, but Nolan's novel was published back in '73, while the novels for The Shining and The Amityville Horror wouldn't be released for another four years.


So, unfair allusions to unoriginality aside, is the concept of a haunted house eating people bullshit? Well, if you picture a house opening wide its front door mouth and cramming in victims with its trellis arms, then yeah, that'd be bullshit (although I'd see the hell out of that AND buy the Blu-ray). But what Burnt Offerings does present instead, and which has since become cliché, is that the house is spiritually feeding off of the poor unassuming Rolf family, turning them from a boring but loving American family to terrorized and slowly monstrous shadows of themselves.

Celebrated bad-ass and booze connoisseur Oliver Reed does an excellent job with what he's given to work with, which is pretty much Jack Torrance meets a cinemafied George Lutz, and before either of those characters ever existed. He manages to bring a lot of intensity to his role as the slowly overtaken patriarch of the Rolf family. Karen Black has always been kind of a quirky performer, acting with her non-traditional leading-woman face first and her performance second. But honestly, the real stand out here is Lee Montgomery as son David, who at a young age manages to give a pretty reliable and believable performance. We've seen terrorized child characters many times, and generally they are utterly indistinguishable from the other, not helping matters with either underwhelming or entirely irritating performances. But Montgomery honestly holds his own even in his scenes with Reed and Bette Davis, and that says a lot.


The most important thing to discuss, being that this is a horror film, is its fear factor. Is Burnt Offerings scary? Well, that definitely depends on your sensibilities. Not a single specter or presence of said specter ever appears on screen. Except for Ben's reoccurring waking nightmares of the admittedly creepy limousine chauffeur he had seen as a child while at his mother's funeral (something lifted from director Dan Curtis' childhood), there's never any kind of physical manifestation of the evil that resides in the Allardyce house. No ghostly children run down the hallway in the background while a character stares into the bathroom mirror. No dripping mouth ghouls appear behind someone as they bend down to pick up the newspaper. Everything eerie occurring in Burnt Offerings is established by mood, ominous music, and the slow and psychological breakdowns of our characters.

Oh, fun fact: if the exterior of the house looks familiar, that's because it's been used in other films - most notably as the Tall Man's mortuary in the original Phantasm.

Burnt Offerings isn't anywhere near the king of the haunted house movie, but it might be one of the most underrated. Its foreboding events unfold at a somewhat snailish pace, which may prove insurmountable for more modern audiences used to something screaming at the camera every five minutes, but those with an appreciation for the old school approach will find a lot to like. That and its incredibly ballsy, shocking, and bleak ending makes Burnt Offerings an effective if somewhat silly watch for a cold autumn night.

Aug 19, 2020

DARK SUMMER (2016)


Dark Summer director Paul Solet became an overnight sensation in the horror world with the release of his film debut, zombie-baby shocker Grace. A film that wasn't fated to survive its own hype, it certainly presented a bold new vision from a filmmaker willing to undertake dark projects with taboo subject matter. Generally in situations like this, filmmakers waste no time in announcing their next project, whether it be solicited or unsolicited. Lucky McKee, for instance, went from May to The Woods. Brad Anderson jumped from Session 9 to The Machinist. But for whatever reason, it wasn't the same story for Grace's director. Six long years would go by before his next feature length project, this being the technology-haunting ghost thriller Dark Summer. Sadly, had it even been made just one year later, it still wouldn't have been worth the wait.


Dark Summer's biggest failure is its lack of originality; it's an amalgamation of other horror/thriller films, and it seems to know it. The most obvious comparison is Disturbia, D.J. Caruso's surprisingly solid teenage rendition of Rear Window, which also featured a troubled adolescent on house arrest after having made a very bad, emotionally-driven choice. In Dark Summer, one of its characters stares at the electronic bracelet on Daniel's ankle and remarks, "This is just like that Shia Lebeouf movie!" - as if by doing so, the film is calling itself out before the audience can. From the buzzing of flies to waking nightmares to spells of enchantment to spirited blowjobs lifted out of Ghostbusters, Dark Summer coasts as much as it can on preordained horror tropes before finally setting sail on its own merits, which, ironically, aren't strong enough to support it while remaining engaging for its rather short running time.

Dark Summer wants it both ways: it wants to present an old-school atmosphere and approach to paranormal horror, right down to the late '80s/early '90s hazy interiors, but add into the mix an almost nauseating dependency on and references to every modern Internet destination and social media site. Google, Facebook, Skype, "The Cloud" - all here, all accounted for, and all serving to handicap the story instead of servicing it. Try as filmmakers might, social media as a threat simply doesn't make for good horror-based conflict. Romero tried it with Diary of the Dead. Underground runaway hit Antisocial nearly achieved success, but became confused by its own rules. That these tools of instant communication are actually somewhat hindering our natural-given abilities for direct communication is certainly ripe for satirical reimagining, but Dark Summer doesn't do anything with it. The technological/social media aspect is presented just long enough to propel the conflict into being and then remains a background player until the third act, when the kids then begin literally Googling how to get rid of ghosts.


Though our young cast does solid work, our lead comes off  whiney and unlikeable, whereas one of his ghost-hunting friends, who remains a primary character through to the end, never even has his name spoken aloud, leaving us to wonder who he is. Peter Stormare is both completely miscast and entirely wasted as Daniel's parole officer, as well the worst police detective in probably the entire world: watch as he forbids Daniel from having contact with any of his friends, who then stay at Daniel's house day in and day out  and come/go as they please...without him noticing; watch as these same two kids sneak out of an abandoned house's closet directly behind him...without him noticing. The only bright spot to Dark Summer is Stella Maeve as Abby, who's able to convey her character's inner workings and motivations with just the nuances of her face and her longing glances. If there was only one character the audience would come away having cared about, it would be Abby. Sadly, the film saw fit to focus elsewhere.

If you've never seen a haunted house movie in your life, and if you think Twitter is #terrifying, Dark Summer just might be for you. But for the more seasoned horror crowd, its groan-inducing twist and its shock ending that for some reason resorts to black comedy at the very last second -- and this having followed eighty minutes of which there was none -- Dark Summer will feel both like familiar territory and a missed opportunity.

Thankfully, Dark Summer feels more like a stumble from a filmmaker who is capable of better rather than a sign of things to come from a one-hit wonder director. Just don't tweet about it, or adorable goth girl ghosts will haunt you.


Aug 17, 2020

A GHOST STORY (2016)


David Lowery is a filmmaker I love. He first burst onto the scene a few years ago with a low-key and quietly beautiful film called Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, about an outlaw couple just trying to live long enough to leave their town forever. It was gently and intimately made, and with a gorgeous score by Daniel Hart, featuring strings and soft clapping hands.

(Yep, I cried.)

Oddly, of all directors, Lowery was chosen by Disney to take on the live-action remake of Pete’s Dragon, one of the earlier reboots of an animated property the studio has been spearheading. What could have resulted in a cash grab instead became a deeply personal and surprisingly emotional film not just about a kid and his dragon, but about loss and growing up.

 (Yep, I cried.)


For a long time, A Ghost Story was cryptically known as an experimental, mystery film that Lowery had shot over the summer of 2016 with his Saints leads Casey Affleck and Mara Rooney. The secrecy behind the film was the type usually reserved for more high-profile projects, not because a major studio was worried about giving too much away and stunting the box office take, but because to attempt an explanation as to A Ghost Story’s concept and approach was just too risky. Better to see it for yourself and fully immerse yourself in Lowery’s daring creation than to catch wind of it from afar and decide, immediately, there’s no way you could take the concept seriously.

A Ghost Story is beautifully shot, though it’s obviously a raw, almost guerilla-like production. Much of the film was improvved — not just the action, but the choreography of the camera as well. It looks gorgeous in spite of all that. Dialogue is sparse, as A Ghost Story is a very quiet story, but again, the beautiful score by Daniel Hart helps to bring a cohesiveness to the action.


Some film goers balk at the idea of a critic deciding for everyone else what’s “good” or “bad” – that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Terms like “a critic’s film” or “arthouse film” have become almost derogatory these days, with the inclination being that some films were made only to be lauded, win awards, or permeate with a sense of self-importance. I won’t deny that sometimes that happens, but there definitely does exist such a thing as a film that’s unusual, or challenging, or lacking mainstream appeal, and that’s only because that’s the kind of film it was destined to be, rather than a hoity-toity filmmaker having an ulterior motive. Audiences want to be entertained while critics want to be challenged. A Ghost Story is one of the rare few titles whose audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is more than 30% lower than the critics’ score. That should give you an indication of what kind of film A Ghost Story is. 

To me, A Ghost Story defies a traditional review, so I didn't bother. It’s less a film and more of an experience — the beauty and strangeness and specificity I could never even begin to properly laud. Please see it once, even if you hate it. Because you just might. 

But you might love it, too. 

I do.

Aug 15, 2020

LAST SHIFT (2014)


The more learned viewer will definitely notice right off the bat that Last Shift is borrowing from John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13, but this time instead of a small band of cops and clerks taking on roving attacking gangs, it's just one rookie cop taking on the demons/ghosts/bloody secret history of the decommissioned police station of which she's in charge for its final shift. And it's not just thematically that director Anthony DiBlasi (Dread) is looking to Carpenter for inspiration, but also for the old-school approach.

Like Assault on Precinct 13, there are very few visual effects employed to scare the viewer; except for the minor use of green screen, nearly every gag is done with editing and camera tricks, and all of them work. There is no CGI on hand to offend the eye. And the cast is limited to just a handful of people, with most of Last Shift being a one-woman show (Juliana Harkavy).


Last Shift feels comprised of other horror films, some celebrated and some not (and that's not a condemnation). Along with Assault, there are shades of Silent Hill, The Shining, and Jacob's Ladder, mixed with real-life horror aspects, especially Charles Manson and his so-called family. Though a digital shoot, a '70s-era level of grain has been applied, preserving that old school approach toward which Last Shift is striving. What that ultimately achieves is something old and something new - old techniques married to new sensibilities - and it's created an effective horror offering that manages to out-scare most major horror theatrical releases all the way back to 2013's The Conjuring.

Most importantly? Last Shift is seriously scary, falling back on another '70s concept beyond Carpenter and that specific era of cinema: the fear of encroaching satanism. The boogeyman and his followers featured in the flick are not Charles Manson and his Family, and are never called such (his name is John Michael Paymon, the surname being that of a demon most recently immortalized by another seriously scary flick, 2017's Hereditary), but at the same time, they are. The hallmarks are there: the long-haired, crazy-eyed, charismatic leader; the hippie chicks who follow him around; and his very disturbing agenda.


DiBlasi's efforts in the horror genre have so far been worth at least a single watch, with each subsequent film being superior to the previous. Last Shift is his best effort to date. If this trend continues, his name will be one to watch with each new project he announces.

One of the best-kept secrets of 2015, Last Shift’s intimate location and strong performance by the lead heroine really helps to put you in the middle of the horror she's experiencing. Whether or not you'll find it creepy obviously depends on your sensibilities as a horror fan, but one thing that's certain is Last Shift is going to try its damnedest. Once the horror starts, it doesn't let up until its vicious finale, and for that alone, Last Shift is worth praising.


Aug 13, 2020

GHOST TOWN (1988)


Remember that one time you went on vacation with your family to Tombstone, Arizona, or Dodge City, Kansas, and just after finishing your "Buffalo Bill Burger Blast" you went outside and caught the noontime showdown in the street between those two guys in the really bad beards shooting each other with blank pistols whose gunfire seemed to be coming out of the crackling speakers behind you instead of the deadly instruments grasped in their hands?

That's Ghost Town, in a nutshell, with costume store make-up. It is glorified dinner theater with a horror bent and a budget slightly higher than the one possessed by those people who put a little too much effort into their front lawn Halloween displays. And of course, there's obviously nothing wrong with this, because Ghost Town, despite its obviously low budget, its lack of anyone with name recognition (beyond Bruce Glover), and its somewhat restrained use of visual effects (how many times "ghosts" disappear/reappear on screen after a while becomes hilarious), remains an infinitely watchable film, perfect for those late nights when you don't want to surrender to sleep just yet, but you don't want to watch anything heavy. It's Ghost Town, all the way.


What's refreshing about Ghost Town (and unlike many other Charles Band productions) is that everyone on screen knows they're making something silly, yet everyone is sincerely giving it their all. Not every performance is Day-Lewis caliber, but obviously that doesn't matter, because even though the film revolves around a hapless deputy wandering into a ghost town in the middle of the desert and stumbling upon a collection of ghosts, skeletons, and people trapped in time, every member of the cast does admirable work, including the Michael Bay lookalike lead character of Langley, played by Franc Luz.

With a typically quirky story by, at one time, go-to Full Moon Pictures auteur David Schmoeller (interviews with him here and here), Ghost Town is charmingly innocent and not the least bit pretentious. Band became a producer infamous for not only low budget horror, but low budget trash horror, which has only gotten worse over the years, so to see his name affiliated with a project built on good intentions of just trying to tell an old fashioned story is not only surprising but welcoming. Except for the icky ghost make-up exhibited by some of the on-screen ghouls, and a few moments of bullet carnage, Ghost Town isn't terribly violent, either. (It also exhibits the most restrained and tasteful allusion to ghost rape probably ever.) Its tone goes for serious but light at the same time, and except for a moment of side-boob, Ghost Town feels like something to put on for the kids on Halloween night.


Ghost Town's "rules" get a little fuzzy as the film progresses: sometimes the characters Langley encounters are ghosts, sometimes living skeletons, and sometimes living folks (?) "trapped in time," and after a while it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on, and who is in danger of what (apparently those trapped in time can still die - again, or for the first time), but Ghost Town's intentions are pure enough that after a while none of this really matters. There's no denying that the film is patently stupid, but that's okay, because the amount of love that went into this production evens out its inherent stupidity, resulting in a good time.

Ghost Town is deliciously, lovingly, charmingly, and acceptably stupid. It's the perfect example of a title that would have fallen into obscurity in the years following its release just because of how odd, quirky, and somewhat kid-like it is...and let's not forget those visual tricks on the same level of a ghostly Unsolved Mysteries episode.


Aug 11, 2020

THE CONJURING 2 (2016)


Every time James Wan threatens to retire from the horror genre, it breaks my heart a little -- not to mention strikes more fear in me than all the ghosts and demons he's conjured (shut up) from his imagination. The horror genre never truly dies, despite what weirdos like to claim about the '90s, as there are always up-and-coming filmmakers and interesting indie horror films that will stand the test of time. However, so few consistent filmmakers come along that not only make great contributions to the genre, but make films that have the power to remind both critics and audiences that the horror genre is capable of being classy, well made, and even emotional.

I could rattle off a half-dozen horror filmmakers who have proven consistency with both quality and scares -- Ti West, Jim Mickle, Adam Wingard -- but no one is doing what James Wan is doing: straddling that line between satisfying mainstream audiences with films not too far outside their comfort zone while also finding ways to shock and scare horror-loving fandom who have seen all the tricks countless times before. (That last sentence makes me feel bad, so major hat tip to Mike Flanagan, who is doing the same thing.)


The Conjuring 2, like its predecessor, contains very little that hasn't been seen a dozen times already in films both classic and campy. We've seen the ghosts and the demons, we've heard the loud knocks in the middle of the night or the creepy children hiding in the darkness, and we've seen the power of God, harnessed by the mortal, vanquish these things back into the pit, but Wan has an uncanny ability to use these old tricks in clever new ways. The Conjuring 2 contains much of Wan's repertoire -- the clever use of editing giving creepy figures snapshot movements, the yellow-eyed demons, the unseen monster in the darkened corner -- but he's also got a whole bag of new tricks to try, and all of them work. The Crooked Man, for instance, doesn't quite feel as grounded as the rest of the ongoing terror, but its construction makes for the eeriest scene in the entire film. The Conjuring 2 is more ethereal, more dreamlike, more daring in its risk-taking. And it makes for a more satisfying experience with the Warrens.

What makes The Conjuring 2 stand out from the pack, and even from Wan's previously successful horror outings, is the relationship between Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), playing the real-life married couple who spent decades doing the kind of research that the franchise only touches on. As Wan says in the supplements, he wanted to create a love story for them but disguise it as a horror film, and in that regard he was successful. Like the first film, he takes the time out from the horror to offer them -- and the haunted Hodgson family -- small moments of peace. Scenes like Ed playing the guitar and singing an Elvis song to the family -- but really to Lorraine -- or even the ending, when Wan forgoes the anticipated creepy/shock final scene in favor of something lovely and beautiful, are what make The Conjuring 2 such a success. Putting aside how "real" and "true to life" the Conjuring series claims to be, the films, regardless of what you believe, also wholly exaggerate the stories that inspired them. However, in the midst of this, Wan's ability to make his characters feel like real people are what set the series off from the rest of the genre.


Avoiding the sophomore slump, The Conjuring 2 boasts a less clunky and more naturalistic screenplay than its predecessor, and with less characters to focus on, a bit more streamlined. Knowledge of the first film isn't required to enjoy the sequel, but by now the Warren dynamic and what they do is established and it helps in getting to the action a little quicker. Wilson and Farmiga -- especially the latter -- are fantastic in their roles, with Wilson toning down his take on Ed, making him less gruff than his prior iteration. The Hodgson family as well, led by mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor) and terrorized daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe, trying on a genuine sounding accent), are fleshed out into real people. The Conjuring 2's opener serves as a concluding bookend to the tease on which the first film ended -- that of the legendary Amityville controversy, which inspired the never-ending film series The Amityville Horror. (While it's a bummer not to have gotten an entire feature film dedicated to this particular case, I can understand the legal quagmire it would have the potential to become.) But the bits we do get -- the DeFeo massacre, which was a very real occurrence, and even an impressively simple recreation of perhaps the most famous photographic "evidence" of paranormal proof in the Amityville home -- are more satisfying than probably every officially sanctioned Amityville film so far.

Director of Photography Don Burgess successfully recreates the look of Wan's past collaborations with his former DP John R. Leonetti (who may or may not have been too busy directing the Conjuring spin-off Annabelle to join Wan for this second go-round with the Warrens). The presentation successfully recreates that look which is slowly becoming iconic for the Warrens' universe: a blue-hewing, bleached-white world where even during the daylight there's a detectable darkness. The interior of the Hodgson home, with its cracked walls and its busy but fading wallpaper, somehow adding desolation and subtly contributes to the claustrophobic horror the family begins to experience.


The Conjuring is among one of the scariest sounding films ever made, and The Conjuring 2 continues that trend. The film makes very effective use of the paranormal bumps in the night, and the requisite sounds of the genre are all accounted for: knocks on doors, thuds on floorboards, creepy child laughter...and the disembodied voice of the dead. As usual, the creepy score by Joseph Bishara (who has played the marquee demon in every James Wan film so far), complete with its whirling male choir, heightens the horror the characters are experiencing.

After the disappointment of Insidious 2, the most previous horror film from James Wan, the potential for capturing the class and effectiveness of The Conjuring didn't seem like a sure thing for its sequel. I'm happy to report that it's every bit as good as its original, and in some cases, even superior. Wan has sworn off horror films before (prior to making The Conjuring 2), and he's repeated that following its release, but here's hoping when it comes to the exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren, he'll always make an exception. The Conjuring series prints money for Warner Bros., so more films will be made with or without him in the director's chair, but he and his screenwriters seemed to have cracked the code for making them so effectively horrific as well as realistic and emotionally involving.

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.