Showing posts with label haunted houses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label haunted houses. 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 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... 

Dec 26, 2019

AMITYVILLE: THE AWAKENING (2017)



Oh, the Amityville Horror series. How many of you are there now? Eleven? Twelve? Way more if we count all those bogus distributors legally exploiting the “Amityville” name?

And how many of you are actually “good”?

Counting the 1976 original…not a one. And Amityville: The Awakening definitely isn’t going to change that.

Amityville: The Awakening began life way back in 2011 as Amityville: The Lost Tapes, a Paranormal Activity-ish take on the most marquee-famous haunted house horror series there is. This version ultimately didn’t come together and was heavily revised; ditching the script and concept in favor of something more traditional, Maniac remake director Franck Khalfoun pretty much started from scratch. What resulted was something definitely traditional — in fact, too traditional — resulting in a very standard haunted house chiller.


Khalfoun gets absolute credit for at least introducing a novel concept into the Amtityville mythos — even if it’s a riff on the Australia ‘70s chiller Patrick — in the form of a comatose member of the family who may or may not be invaded by the evil spirits of 112 Ocean Avenue. Khalfoun also attempts to softly “reboot” the Amityville name by acknowledging the existence of The Amityville Horror franchise as simply that — DVDs for a handful of the original films (and the remake, which “sucks”) make cameos — and this feels clever and necessary for about two seconds until you realize that Amityville: The Awakening is going to hit all the same beats those previous films did, anyway, right down to how the original and the remake conclude.

Four years ago, the concept of Blumhouse and Jennifer Jason Leigh collaborating on a micro-budget take on The Amityville Horror would have been a cause for excitement, but the finished product lacks the ingenuity and eye for creative talent that Blumhouse has brought to previous productions. And poor Jennifer Jason Leigh is totally wasted in the “mom” role (and you can tell she’s not into it), while real lead Bella Thorne’s atrocious acting only moderately improves when she’s walking around her creepy old house with no pants on, or doing her biology homework with no pants on, or putting her baby sister to bed with no pants on. (And for the nth time in movies like this, her character is a pariah at school and referred to as “freaky girl,” even though Thorne is absolutely gorgeous.)

Moments meant to spur horror are instead hilariously over the top and only effective in causing bursts of laughter — the film gets its creepiest mileage by having Cameron Monaghan, who plays the comatose veggie, lay in a hospital bed with his creepy unblinking eyes wide open and staring. Following all the DOA jump scares, snippets of profanity-spewing demons, and wondering what on earth Kurtwood Smith is doing here, you, too, will want to put this Amityville house back on the market as soon as possible.


Oct 16, 2019

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018)


I’ve been following director Mike Flanagan’s career ever since his debut, Absentia, was quietly released to video following a successful film festival run. I’d been so eager to see it that I’d messaged him on Facebook to inquire where I could find it and he’d politely responded. Now look at him: in less than eight years, he’s matriculated from a kind fellow answering Facebook inquiries to landing the gig of making a sorta-sequel to one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Shining. (He is also still politely answering questions, this time on Twitter.) As we gear up for the release of his next film, Doctor Sleep, which sees the return of Danny Torrance (this time played by Ewan MacGregor), Paramount has done the unthinkable: released a physical media version of a Netflix production--the wildly successful miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House

Following the release of Absentia, Flanagan has remained loyal to the horror genre, writing and directing the haunted mirror flick Oculus, the criminally underseen sequel, Ouija: Origin Of Evil, the similarly criminally underseen horror fairy tale, Before I Wake, and Netflix originals Hush and the Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game. Flanagan has yet to make a horror film that’s not been at the very least engaging, with nearly all of them being frightening in some manner, and in different ways. (Ouija: Origin Of Evil is legitimately spooky, and if you’ve been ignoring it because the first Ouija is so terrible, I don't blame you, but please rectify that immediately.)

Though Flanagan is still early on in his career, I’m tempted to call The Haunting of Hill House his masterpiece. While it heavily revises the source 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, which was previously adapted for 1963's moody classic The Haunting and 1998's abysmal update of the same name, all the characters from the novel appear in the new take, though rewritten to be members of the same family (one of them named after the novelist herself). Instead of a group of volunteers gathering in the infamous Hill house to take part in a study on the paranormal, those volunteers are now siblings growing up under the guidance of their romantic, dreamy parents (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino), who have somehow turned the concept of flipping houses into an admirable, artistic act. Hill house is just their latest endeavor, and a huge financial risk, but if all goes well with the restoration, it will be the last house they ever flip, and they can finally build their own “forever home” to live out the rest of their days. Soon, the ghosts of the house begin to victimize them all, especially setting their sights on the emotionally unwell Olivia (Gugino), pushing her to a mental breaking point and permanently altering the family dynamic.


Spread out over ten, approximately one-hour episodes (several of those appearing as extended director’s cuts exclusively on the new Blu-ray release), The Haunting of Hill House is a magnificent piece of filmmaking—one intent on positioning horror and human emotion side by side, in the same way the Crain family lives side by side with the varied ghosts of Hill house. The series is honest about many human issues, some of them taboo topics trapped in the constant debate of everyday news cycles—chief among them, depression and mental illness. Because of this, The Haunting of Hill House is a brutal gut punch in many ways, and one of the Crain siblings, Steven (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), lays out in one of the opening scenes what a ghost actually is: “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they're just what we want to see. Most times, a ghost is a wish.” That right there is the foundation on which The Haunting of Hill House has been erected. Along with the typical, spooky-faced specters, all of those things—grief, anger, guilt—bleed through every episode, haunting our characters in different, meaningful ways. (Each of the characters also represent the different stages of the grieving process, and their specific episodes appear in that same order.) Though Flanagan has drastically changed Jackson’s story structure, he remains firmly true to the intent of her novel. The haunted house exists in the background, but the story itself is about Nell (Victoria Pedretti), her unhappiness, her inability to fit in, and that being surrounded by people who don’t understand her, and who dismiss her struggles and feelings of isolation, leads to her ruin. This is the crux of the show, so it’s no surprise that the siblings’ relationships to each other serve as the emotional center; the back-and-forth timeline technique juxtaposes their child and adult counterparts, and the prologue scenes will break your heart once you begin to suspect how badly things will go for the Crain family.

In many ways, The Haunting of Hill House is a Rorschach test. If you’re in it solely for the horror, you won’t be disappointed; there are numerous moments that will give you serious, earned chills, and you’ll have fun trying to spot all the background ghosts hidden throughout the show (there are a lot). Meanwhile, if you’re more interested in the drama, you’ll get that too, and if you truly invest in the characters and manage to relate to any one of them, you’ll find yourself in tears. And if you want both, I can’t think of a single piece of genre filmmaking in recent memory that’s gone anywhere as close to offering and achieving those combined sensibilities. You will bring out of The Haunting of Hill House exactly what you put into it—like the mysterious Red Room itself. 


It’s a bold claim, but for my money, The Haunting of Hill House is the best thing Netflix has ever done (I’ll certainly say that “Two Storms” is one of the greatest episodes of any television show—ever), and it’s touched many of its viewers in different ways. (DG’s own Samantha Schorsch wrote a beautiful and deeply personal piece about it, which you need to check out ASAP.) For as long as I’ve delved into films and television as a means for exploring artistic expression, I’ve been hearing people say, “Such and such changed my life,” and for years I wrote that off as a clichéd, bullshit expression that didn’t mean anything—a haughtier but equally vague way of saying something was “amazing.” Following my now multiple viewings of The Haunting of Hill House, I finally understand what those people were saying. Its many themes about life, its ruminations on death, and the way it presents real struggles of people both ordinary and extraordinary have resonated with me in a profound way, and I can honestly say The Haunting of Hill House has changed my life.

Flanagan is currently hard at work on a spiritual follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Another tale of children growing up in a haunted house, it premieres October of 2020. Between that and Halloween Kills, this next year is going to be the most agonizing wait of my life.

The Haunting of Hill House is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment. Even though we’re all slaves to Netflix and have access to it whenever we wish, I would implore you to buy this release. Encourage Netflix to consider further physical releases of their properties—something I wish would become commonplace, as far too many Netflix originals are languishing behind the streaming service’s paywall—but more importantly, buy this release to encourage smart, honest, and emotional horror. We could use more of it.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

May 12, 2019

DOUBLE-BILL THIS: 'SUPERSTITION' AND 'THE HOUSE ON TOMBSTONE HILL'


[This article contains minor spoilers for each title.]

The concept of a haunted house and slasher hybrid, which sees your typical masked slasher villain take a backseat to a murderous house filled with ghosts and/or demons and/or witches doling out the bloody comeuppance, wasn’t exploited nearly enough. This brief movement likely came in response to how well haunted house flicks like The Amityville Horror and its sequel, The Possession, along with The Shining and The Changeling, were cleaning up at the box office during the ‘80s era of the slasher, which made the concept of combining the sub-genres into one film very alluring. Sure, haunted house flicks are a dime a dozen, and sometimes they off a few cast members, but how many can you name where a hapless victim gets chewed literally in half by a window?

While I want to believe there are many more, I can only name you two: 1982’s Superstition and 1989’s The House on Tombstone Hill.   


Superstition was completed in 1982, but sat on the shelf for four years before it opened in the UK, preempted by a trailer that retitled the film As The Witch and which featured narration by eccentric actor Brother Theodore (The Burbs). Helmed by cinematographer James Roberson, it’s clear right away that Superstition is intent on mining from the stalwarts of the slasher, opening with a teen couple doing some car kissing in the middle of nowhere. “You said you loved me,” the boyfriend says, his hand solidly on his hesitant girlfriend’s chest, but there’s no time for love, because a monster head is suddenly thrust into the car’s open window, sending the teen couple speeding off.

Turns out the monster head comes courtesy of a couple prankster teens who have chosen the house—a house, mind you, that’s infamous for its bloody past involving the drowning execution of a witch—to just…hang out in, I guess. (Don’t miss the Unsolved Mysteries-caliber wigs and stick-on facial hair during the flashback witch scene, by the way – they’re hysterical.) The teens don’t have long to celebrate their successful prank, as the house comes to life and dispatches them in graphic and gooey ways. 


After firmly establishing its slasher roots, Superstition moves on to steal its plot from The Amityville Horror, including having a priest out to the house to bless it, only for the house to, er, politely decline the ceremony. However, this time, instead of hordes of flies, a wayward circular saw blade detaches from a table saw, bounces across the floor, and slices directly into the priest’s chest, magically and impossibly spinning/cutting the entire time. Before you can say Father Pieces, we meet a trio of young people, including a pair of girls who wear the skimpiest of summer attire. Despite a cast of mostly adult actors, the presence of young people helps Friday the 13th the proceedings a bit, being that, in this genre, if you’re old enough to drive but not legally drink, you’re probably a goner. As expected, everyone begins to die very graphically. 

Despite a pre-credits running time of 82 minutes, Superstition still runs a hair too long, falling victim to second-act lag as many horror films of this pedigree tend to do. Still, the pace is mostly assured and there’s always a fresh body drop to liven things up when the story begins to stagnate. Except for one off-screen kill (likely because the victim was a child), every death is fully shown, very bloody, and, when we’re lucky, relies on a dummy—my favorite kind of kill. 


As for The House on Tombstone Hill (originally titled The Dead Come Home, and later retitled on home video as the far superior/far stupider Dead Dudes in the House), well, I fucking love it with equal parts sincerity and irony. One of maybe three watchable titles produced by Troma Entertainment (home of The Toxic Avenger), The House on Tombstone Hill inspires the same feelings of enjoyment, awe, amusement, and total bewilderment as 1979’s slasher Tourist Trap, entirely because the oddness factor. As The House On Tombstone Hill unfolds, you honestly can’t tell if director James Riffel (hey, another James!) is in on the joke or not, and that’s my kind of jam.

During the film’s opening/prologue, we see the murderous Abigail Leatherby, who has just killed a man, walk back and forth across the living room, hunched over her cane, apparently coming to terms with what she’s done, all while her teenage daughter sits on the couch completely nonplussed and sipping a drink. You’ll watch Abigail walk back and forth so many times, uninterrupted, in one single shot, without a single line of dialogue, as jaunty piano music plays on a loop, that you’ll realize you’re about to watch something very, very special. 


Like Superstition, The House on Tombstone Hill wasn’t released right away following its production in 1988, though it was eventually relegated to cable and VHS under its new title. (Like most Troma productions, it was shot in New Jersey, easily confirmed by one character, Joey, repeatedly saying, “Hey, yo!” to his friends.) And despite being a Troma production, The House on Tombstone Hill plays things straightforward, which makes the flick come off very weird, as it strives to be a ghost story, a slasher, and a zombie flick all at once. Speaking of ghost stories, The House On Tombstone Hill is happy to homage/rip off an all-time classic in an extended scene where a recently killed college yuppie returns from the dead, possessed by the house’s bad mojo, and begins threatening his girlfriend, demanding to know, “What about my responsibilities?” as she slowly backs away swinging a large 2x4 at him. (Sound familiar?) All during this sequence, you honestly won’t know whether The House on Tombstone Hill is purposely honoring The Shining this long, or if it’s simply ripping it off instead. I don’t know and I don’t want to know; ambiguity is all part of its charm. 

The characters are your archetypal young adults, and though most of the actors give underwhelming performances, Victor Verhaeghe, who plays Bob the carpenter, is tremendously over the top, very overbearing, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Dialogue doesn’t exit his mouth, but slithers out—with the kind of disdain that makes him sound like the most hateful man alive. (“I ALWAYS have a cigarette before I start a job,” he tells another member of the cast wanting to know if he has to smoke. “It’s a RITUAL with me.”) That Bob is a dick from his first minute to his last makes The House on  Tombstone Hill much more entertaining, and seeing him act the asshole to every single person he evidently calls a friend is glorious. (He’s also the one that resurrects the spirit of Abigail by purposely breaking her tombstone, so every bloody thing that happens to him and all his friends is literally his fault.)

The House on Tombstone Hill’s odd retitling on video wasn’t the only attempt by Troma to market the film to a different kind of crowd, packaging the VHS with completely brand new cover art: 


Falling back on a marketing scheme that will never make sense to me, Troma leaned on aesthetical designs calling forth Home Alone, House Party, and, evidently, the New Kids on the Block, even though none of the dudes depicted on the cover are actors in the film, nor do they come close to representing what the actual characters look like. (I hope you noticed that one of the dudes on the new cover is holding a pair of nunchucks.) 


Previous synopses for the flick referred to the teens as “heart-throbs” and “hip-hop yups,” along with their “groupie” girlfriends, solidifying that Troma was obsessed with selling these characters as musicians/singers. That wasn’t me putting those words in quotes, but Troma themselves on their own VHS releases, as if they were acknowledging they were fibbing about the movie’s plot. (Example: Troma is a “professional” company that exercises “good judgment” in their business practices.)

Having said all that, I’m totally fine with it. It’s all part of what makes The House on Tombstone Hill so great.


Both flicks have recently enjoyed solid high-def releases, with Shout! Factory tackling Superstition and the glorious Vinegar Syndrome knocking it out of the park with The House on Tombstone Hill, which includes reverse artwork with the Dead Dudes/“hip-hop teens” cover that I love so much. To approach either or both titles as mere haunted house films will inevitably lead to disappointment, as “proper” ghost stories work much better with frightening images, suspense, and the establishment of a creepy, ambient environment. However, if you are fully aware of the hybrid you’re getting, I can’t imagine how you could ever be disappointed. Basically, if you’ve marathonned a handful of Friday the 13th sequels and thought, “this would be better if Jason were a HOUSE,” now’s your chance to live out your weird fantasy, you weirdo. (Just remember to invite me over.)

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

May 5, 2019

HELL HOUSE

A terrifying short story by yours truly, circa fifth grade. [Spoilers: It's terrible.]







Dec 12, 2012

UNSUNG HORRORS: THE ABANDONED

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. Nacho Cerdà
2006
Spain / Bulgaria / UK
Lionsgate

The most obvious parable in the horror genre is one’s fear of their mortality. Though not all, most horror flicks off at least one character – sometimes dozens – and these victims fall at the hands of every kind of antagonist imaginable: masked madmen, ghosts, the insane, the resurrected, monstrous animals, supernatural and mythical figures, and even Death itself.  They die quietly, loudly, upsettingly, peacefully—but they die, alright, and into the ground they go. What you don’t see terribly often is what’s presented in The Abandoned, a little-known, little-celebrated supernatural creeper. Our two doomed characters, once trapped in a creepy house in the middle of the Russian wilderness, find themselves fleeing in terror…not from any of the aforementioned threats above, but from their fates, which wear their own faces, and whose bodies sport garish wounds and mutilations that dictate the manner in which they will die. For as our two characters attempt to hide from the bloody ends that await them, it’s not random ghosts or murderers that haunt them, but it’s themselves—walking dead twins with white eyes and destroyed humanity. And there’s no fighting or resisting them: to inflict any kind of trauma upon these unnatural beings is to inflict that same trauma upon the body that those walking nightmares represent. So how do you fight the very thing out to kill you when that thing is yourself?

Let’s back up a bit.

Marie (Anastasia Hille, Snow White and the Huntsman) has received word from the Russian government that after years of having its files and affairs in disarray as a result of the Cold War, the most recent campaign to become organized has unearthed evidence that property in the Russian wilds has been bequeathed to her by her natural parents. Marie, herself a film producer working in Hollywood, has no desire whatsoever to do anything with the property other than sell it and be done with it, as the hazy memories she does have of her childhood in Russia are not that great. And so she sets out to mother Russia and meets with a man named Misharin (Valentin Ganev, Undisputed II & III), who provides her with the necessary paperwork, as well as instructions on how to get to the very remote property.


Marie, following Misharin’s instructions, makes the trek out to the last property that could be considered part of civilization. The man who owns the property seems to be waiting for her, as it’s his responsibility to drive her out to her inheritance. On the way there, some creepy circumstances cause Marie to become separated from her driver, so she completes the remainder of the journey to the house on foot, in the dark, all by her lonesome.

Once there, and after a round of exploring her old homestead, she comes across a very unexpected guest: a man named Nicolai (Karel Roden, who has played the token Russian in numerous films, including Orphan, Wayne Kramer's Running Scared, and The Bourne Supremacy). Stumbling across another human being in the middle of her old, definitely abandoned childhood home is shocking enough—but he takes it one step further as he introduces himself…as her long-lost twin brother. He goes on to explain that he received a similar call from Misharin, hence his presence there. She remains suspicious until he brings her to one of the upstairs bedrooms and shows her two ancient cribs, which sport each of their names.

Marie barely has time to process this revelation when two more uninvited guests show up: while they appear to be exact copies of Marie and Nicolai, it soon becomes quite obvious that something really wrong is taking place in that house. The brother and sister flee after learning the hard way that these monstrous figures cannot be harmed without inflicting that same harm upon the person the thing represents. It is Nicolai who soon deduces what is going on: that they are being stalked by what are commonly called doppelgängers.

Doppelgängers? What the—

Let’s Wiki this bitch.
In fiction and folklore, a doppelgänger is a paranormal double of a living person, typically representing evil or misfortune. In modern vernacular, it is simply any double or look-alike of a person. It also describes the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, in a position where there is no chance that it could have been a reflection. Doppelgängers often are perceived as a sinister form of bilocation and are regarded by some to be harbingers of bad luck. In some traditions, a doppelgänger seen by a person's friends or relatives portends illness or danger, while seeing one's own doppelgänger is an omen of death.
And so the chase begins, and it’s much more than a case of a killer stalking its prey. It’s not just a random threat, but it’s Marie and Nicolai’s own fates. It is their reckoning, in a way—and to defy these identical creatures coming for them in the dark is to deny the “natural” order of the world. What can they do? Is there a way to escape the apparently inescapable? Will they go down fighting, or simply give in?


The Abandoned, first and foremost, is absolutely beautiful. For a film featuring tons of blood, grime, and muddy pig mutilation, that’s saying a lot. But director Nacho Cerdà has a masterful eye, and The Abandoned is not his first foray into beautiful horror. He first broke out on the scene years ago with three short films:  The Awakening, in which a boy begins to slowly realize that he's dead; Genesis, in which a sculptor mourning his dead wife creates a bust in her image...which begins to slowly come to life; and Aftermath, his absolutely unflinching look at the autopsy process...as well as what happens when a mortician likes to get a little too close to his specimens. Each segment is more horrific than the next, but each also contains an inherent beauty that you ordinarily would not find in such subject matter.

Every scene in The Abandoned is purposely constructed to trigger an emotional response, and it works like a charm. If Cerdà’s intention is to scare you, he’ll scare you; if he wants you to feel sadness, or longing, or desperation, you will. Above all, even more than scaring you, Cerdà wants you to feel uneasy. He doesn’t want there to be a single moment where you can settle comfortably back in your seat and fall into the film’s groove. Even in a rather uneventful scene in which Marie argues with her daughter over the phone, the harshness of their dialogue matched with seeming random close-ups of Marie’s belongings scattered throughout her hotel room have the power to set you at unease…even for a little.

The Abandoned's screenplay, by co-writers Cerdà, Karim Hussein, and the infamous Richard Stanley (a director himself, having made Dust Devil and Hardware), while not a typical slow burn (considering the very jarring sequence that opens the film), does certainly take its time. As usual, that leaves it open to cries of “it’s boring!” and “nothing happens!” by those who think a sequel to The Collector was a good idea. Those with patience will be rewarded, as the events become increasingly creepy until there is literally no way out.

Horror, in its nature, is very good at manipulating its audience into thinking it's interactive. No one shouts "don't trust him!" in the theater during romantic comedies; no one criticizes the hero during action films for running into the bulk of the danger instead of the fuck away from it. But when horror is involved, we become very invested, to the point we think the 2D image on the screen can hear us and consider our advice. And in such films, we like to mentally develop escape plans. We like to make it known what WE would do. "See, if this were me, I would be OUT of there!" Jada Pinkett says in the opening sequence of Scream 2. And for me, personally, I was so enamored by zombie cinema when I was young that I would always keep an eye out for houses I felt were perfect for withstanding a zombie outbreak: something with minimal windows, steel doors, more than one floor, and a fucking basement. But when it comes to The Abandoned, there is literally no escape plan. There is no tactic that Marie and Nicolai are failing to concoct. There isn't a single thing that can be done to salvage them. All we can do is wait for them to accept that there is no way out. And boy oh boy, some audiences do not like that one bit.

Hille as Marie and Roden as Nicolai are, for the most part, our sole characters on the screen. Nearly everything we see will be experienced through their eyes. Hille carries the first third of the film solo before meeting her brother, and so we journey with her, and see the things she sees, and we feel the desolateness and the angst that she feels. Performance wise, she stumbles at times, but never to the point where her role feels contrived or unnatural; likewise, Roden, as far as I'm concerned, put himself on the map with this film. Since seeing him as the haunted, terrified, but accepting Nicolai, I've noticed him each and every time he's popped up in something. He's not afraid to become immersed in a role and completely lose himself. In the aforementioned Running Scared, in which he plays a Russian henchman for the New Jersey mafia, he really cuts his teeth and lets loose for what may have been the first time in an American film. (In America's post-Cold War culture, it's not often that a character of Russian descent will be prominently featured in a film without the men playing a Bond villain or a mafia member, and the women either a prostitute or a total slut. If America's relationship with Russia had to be determined by only how they are portrayed in our films and television shows, one would think that we would happily shake hands with them and smile at the camera, but later, when no one is looking, douse ourselves with hand sanitizer and pray to God for protection. Our iterations of Russians are named Nicolai (hey, look at that!) or Natasha; they love to drink vodka; the women love to wear tight-fitting animal print dresses with pearls and fuck around on their husbands. And the men, well... apparently they're all insane. My god, Mitt Romney was right! Run!) 

Cerdà fills The Abandoned with heaps of well-executed scares. Sightings of the doppelgängers are at first filmed from far off, or made to feel like brief glimpses in our characters' peripherals, in keeping with the myth. But soon the beings grow closer until they're in our face, forcing us to recognize their own. Each sighting of these beings maintains a steady creep factor, even until we've reached the point where we, as viewers, should by now have grown used to their appearance and the shock value has worn off. But it doesn't wear off, not until the very last frame.


The biggest selling point of The Abandoned – and the biggest reason to seek it out – is the atmosphere that Cerdà establishes. Nearly all the critics agree – even those who would go on to slam the film itself – that Cerdà created a more than effective atmosphere filled with dread.

And speaking of, there has always been a measurable disconnect between critics and audiences. Audiences tend to think that critics lose themselves a bit too easily in “artsy-fartsy” stuff and are unwilling to recognize a more harmless and basic movie whose only intention is to entertain (and rightfully so), while critics tend to notice that there is a big difference in an audience genuinely liking/loving a film and said film actually executing expert construction in front of and behind the camera (and rightfully so); they recognize that film-making is an art, and is therefore open to deconstruction and discussion. As long as film critics remain a part of the medium (and with the boom of Internet journalism, it seems they are here to stay), this disconnect will always remain. Because of this, the widest chasm of this disconnect – that between critics and the horror genre – will also remain. It’s no secret there’s a common belief that most critics are unwilling to recognize a legitimately good horror film simply because of the company it keeps. As Bruce Campbell famously once said, horror sits on the second rung from the bottom of the film genre ladder, just above pornography. And he’s right. While there have been obvious horror films released over the years who broke the critical barricade and demanded they be recognized for the masterful works they were, they were also relabeled in an almost spiteful tactic, as if critics were unwilling to praise one of them there “horror” films: Roger Ebert, in his glowing review of Halloween, called it a thriller; Alien was, of course, referred to as science-fiction; Jaws a high-seas adventure; Psycho a psychological thriller; and The Silence of the Lambs a drama! A movie about a serial killer ripping flesh off fat women, all the while another cannibalistic serial killer tears men’s faces off! A drama, for fuck’s sake!


There’s a purpose to my rant, I swear: and here it is. In all these negative reviews – even the ones that praise Cerdà’s talent for creating dense atmosphere – they call the story itself inept, nonsensical, confusing, and purposely vague. Which, I’m sorry, makes me call bullshit, for two reasons: First, look me in the eye and tell me that Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining makes one goddamned lick of sense by the end, and when all is said and done. Does it make the film any less frightening, effective, or legendary? Fuck no, nerds. And two: why is it that films need to be tied up neatly by their conclusions for them to pass the critic’s test? Why aren’t films allowed to exercise a little bit of mystery and introduce a vague detail here and there in an effort to keep their audiences guessing? Why is it the audience is allowed to know every beat and every piece of reasoning introduced in the film, but meanwhile our characters are stumbling around in the dark trying to figure this all out? Is it not reasonable to suggest that the audience should be just as confused and unsatisfied as our characters, if the filmmaker’s intent was to unify them and make the audience feel what our characters were feeling?

Full disclosure: I have my own questions about the film. I can’t tell you 100% from beginning to end what exactly happens, and why. But that’s the beauty of it. The Abandoned wants you to accept its story at face value.  If you examine every nook, cranny, aspect, hidden meaning, trick, etc., of anything you love, it becomes less special. It’s unmasking the mascot that you’ve seen capering around at sporting events for years. It’s watching Robert Englund or Doug Bradley peel off Freddy Krueger’s or Pinhead’s make-up. The magic is gone. And who wants that?

At the core of The Abandoned is the nagging theme of the past, present, and future. Even if you can wade through all the clues and put together what you think transpired throughout the film, regardless if the director wanted it to be clear, or remain abstract, one thing remains: every film has a "point" or a "lesson" that it wants to bestow upon its audience. Or, if the filmmaker has at least half a brain, there should be. So what's the "theme" of The Abandoned? Perhaps it's that we shouldn't let our pasts define who we are in the present, nor should we ever let it have any of our time and space, as Johnny Cash used to say, in our futures. And a theme like that has a far reach. We all come from different backgrounds and different walks of life. For some of us, that journey has been a little tougher. And while it may have shaped the type of people we have become, we shouldn't ever let it get the best of us. Sometimes the past is exactly that – the past – and, like sleeping dogs, sometimes we should just let it lie.


Jun 16, 2012

HAUNTED

"The caretakers will leave at midnight, locking us in here until they come back in the morning. Once the door is locked, there's no way out. The windows have bars that a jail would be proud of, and the only door to the outside locks like a vault. There's no electricity, no phone, no one within miles, so no way to call for help."
 






Aug 9, 2011

THE DIONAEA HOUSE


"there was a crooked man
and he walked a crooked mile
he found a crooked sixpence
upon a crooked stile
he bought a crooked cat
who caught a crooked mouse
and they all lived together
in a crooked little house"


Follow the creepy online saga of The Dionaea House.