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Phantasm: If This One Doesn't Scare You, You're Already Dead
A flying silver sphere that latches onto victims' heads and drills into their skull. Monstrous hooded dwarfs that attack in darkness. A beautiful lady in a lavender dress equipped with a knife. A scowling, menacing middle-aged man that towers over you. These are all classic elements of Don Coscarelli's highly bizarre but wildly creepy 1979 horror film "Phantasm". I just recently revisited the movie after a long time, and was easily reminded of how undeniably scary it is.
13-year-old Michael Pearson spies on his brother Jody and his best friend Reggie, an ice cream vendor, as they lay their friend Tommy to rest in Morningside Cemetery after he supposedly committed suicide. But Mike sees too much when he catches a glimpse of a tall man in a black suit picking up Tommy's coffin with intimidating super-strength, throwing it in his hearse, and driving away. When things take a turn for the worse, Jody unfortunately doesn't believe his brother. Until he and Reggie become involved in this puzzling and dangerous game of where reality is broken and the dream becomes real. And The Tall Man has insidious plans for our three protagonists.
"Phantasm" is truly a product of its time, a horror flick that was released in the wake of "Halloween," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and others. Director Coscarelli found the inspiration to scare the audience in his dreams and his previous drama "Kenny and Company". And he manages to scare us immensely by employing a strange and dread-filled atmosphere with surreal and dream-like imagery. Right from the opening sequence, Coscarelli establishes a bleak environment.
The film has some goofy effects by today's standards and some bad acting, but deep within its cheesy but inventive execution lies a fear that hits home for all of us: fear of dying. Most of us believe in Heaven or Hell. Others believe that when we die, we are nothing. "Phantasm" comes up with something different, a fate far worse than death. Not much of the movie makes sense, but is it supposed to? Perhaps not. And once the film ends, we are left with food for thought. Is there really a Heaven or Hell? Does The Tall Man represent the Grim Reaper or the Devil? Those who haven't seen "Phantasm" would laugh at such remarks, but once you watch it, you realize that Coscarelli, who not only directed the movie but also wrote and edited it, focuses on something we can be genuinely afraid of.
The Tall Man is easily one of the scariest bogeymen in horror cinema. With only five lines, he is able to effortlessly freak us out through his body language and facial expressions. He almost doesn't have to say anything to scare you.
Although the three main characters are mostly well-developed, they are all hammed up by C-grade actors. Sometimes, their delivery of the dialog can even be a little funny. But the performances are forgiven thanks to likable, nicely structured people. Kathy Lester's Lady in Lavender is seductive and creepy enough (even though we all know by now that those are not her real boobs). But the best acting job here goes to Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man. A man Coscarelli had previously worked with, Scrimm fits the role like a glove and does most of his own stunt work. His appearance is unforgettable, and he has made The Tall Man what he is today: one scary-as-hell villain.
Music is always a trait that could make or break any horror movie, and Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave's combination of cymbals, guitars, and simplistic tunes holds up as one of the best horror movie orchestrations to date. It serves the movie well and adds a whole new layer to the already existent horror.
"Phantasm" may not be perfectly made, but a flawlessly characterized antagonist, eerie camera-work, surrealism, a bang-up finale and its ability to stand on its own cause it to remain a cult classic. It cannot be classified into a certain subgenre of horror, which may be the main reason why it works so damn well. And who could miss out on a movie with such a knockout tagline on its poster? "If this one doesn't scare you, you're already dead!"
Evil Dead (2013)
What A Horror Remake Should Be and More
I am a sucker for horror remakes. Don't get me wrong, some of them are downright bad (ahem, "Psycho"). Others, like "The Fly" and "Let Me In," prove worthy companions to the original and a little bit more. Hearing the news that Sam Raimi's 1981 classic "The Evil Dead," one of my all-time favorite horror movies, was getting a redux brought on some skepticism. Why touch "Evil Dead?" It's a movie not built on plot or acting, but on the sheer passion of the director and crew behind it. Certainly, the need for a remake was unnecessary, but I am very welcoming when they come out, and I was more than impressed. 2013's "Evil Dead" is the best horror remake since "Let Me In."
The story of Raimi's flick was never very complicated, and it's pretty basic here: Four friends journey out to a cabin in the woods to help their friend Mia battle withdrawal after she quits heroine. There's her estranged brother, David, Natalie, his girlfriend, Olivia, a nurse, and Eric, a teacher. Of course, the cabin is equipped with a cellar filled with eerie things, one of them being a book wrapped in barbed wire, made out of human skin and inked in blood. Eric, of course, takes an interest to the book and recites an incantation. Bad move. The incantation brings out a vicious supernatural force that takes over Mia and proceeds to the others one by one. Cue the flying limbs!
"Evil Dead" is exactly the type of horror remake that works and then some. Uruguayan newcomer Fede Alvarez and his partner Rodo Sayagues have crafted a story that not only shows the deepest appreciation for the original, but also stands on its own two feet without depending too much on it. Alvarez and Sayagues are fans of the original themselves, and they know exactly what the audiences want to see. Their "Evil Dead" pays tribute to the original and even works for those who never even knew there was an "Evil Dead" in 1981.
Every character is likable, if not a little underdeveloped. But none of the characters in the original film were three-dimensional either, and that's okay. Everyone here is lining up for a body count, but they still gain your sympathy before the Kondarian demons take them over. Shiloh Fernandez is good as David and Jessica Lucas is the same as Olivia. Elizabeth Blackmore's Natalie is the most underdeveloped character, but I still liked her. The movie's two standout performances are that of Jane Levy (TV's "Suburgatory") as Mia and Lou Taylor Pucci as Eric. Both are put through serious hell as a demon and as a human being. Being buried alive and being stabbed in the eyes with hypodermic needles was certainly not on their bucket list. Levy and Pucci are real troopers, and their terrific work comes off in spades. But when it comes down to it all, the best performer is Levy. She is believable as a druggie and frightening enough as a Deadite. And boy, can she scream.
Something's missing from this "Evil Dead" and that's the gallows humor of the sequels. Personally, I prefer it that way. I was never a fan of "Evil Dead 2." It's overrated and abandons the scare factor of Raimi's predecessor. Dedicated fans tend to forget that Raimi wasn't making a horror comedy in 1981. He played the original straight, and the camp set in on its own. Still, it was a creepy and shocking film labeled as "the ultimate experience in grueling terror." Alvarez's movie is played with minimal laughs, and truly wants to get under your skin. When it's scary, it's very scary, with perfectly orchestrated jump scares. And when it is funny, it's not too funny. It's a perfect balance.
But let's be real here. "Evil Dead" was always best known for its graphic violence, and now, the violence is more graphic than ever. I've sat through the likes of some very gory movies, and the amount of goo this flick gets away with is shocking. It walks a truly thin line between an R-rating and the original film's NC-17 rating. "Evil Dead" is swimming in blood, bathing in it like it was a giant pool in someone's backyard. There isn't a single moment that won't make you cringe, mostly because there's no CGI here. The effects of Roger Murray are all-natural practical effects, so when someone is stabbed or cut in half, you feel it. I won't give it away for those who haven't seen the redband trailer, but Levy's character pulls some squirm-inducing action with a box cutter.
In the end, Alvarez had a lot of pressure on his shoulders. This could have been a standard, by-the-numbers R-rated horror movie. But that doesn't fly here. It's not even discussed. Either be true to the original or don't make the movie at all. 2013's "Evil Dead" is true to the original respectfully while being its own movie. Deadites will enjoy the winks at Raimi's film (tree rape, anyone?), and they will absolutely geek out over the gore. Plus, the finale is an utter blast. Those who have never seen the original will love it equally. When Sam Raimi, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell, the original's writer-director, producer, and star, give a remake their blessing, the filmmakers must be doing something right. Add to it the applause I heard at the end of the movie, then you know you have something special. "Evil Dead" is a hit, not a miss!
Extremities Hits You Where It Hurts!
As a stage play, one can imagine how shocked audiences were when they stepped into William Mastrosimone's "Extremities." Having to watch a woman on stage being brutalized in her own home by a stranger is not an experience I imagine to be fun. But it is a fascinating and utterly compelling story that leads into some very unexpected directions. In 1986, "Extremities" became a movie, adapted by Mastrosimone himself. With the incredible performances of Farrah Fawcett and James Russo, some very believable fight choreography, and a tightly woven script, "Extremities" goes to new extremes as a film.
Alone in her car one night, innocent Marjorie is threatened by a man with a knife. Just before he attempts to rape her, she escapes. The bad news is the cops aren't helpful and the criminal has her credentials. He knows where she lives. A week later, Marjorie is home alone while her friends, the attractive Terry and social worker Pat, are away at work. Out of the blue, a man waltzes right into the house and asks Marjorie if a guy named Joe lives there. No matter how many times she tells him "No Joe lives here," it becomes evident that this is the man that attacked Marjorie the other night. He beats her, tries to smother her with a pillow, and then tries to rape her again. But he doesn't get away with it when Marjorie sprays him in the face with insect repellent, ties him up, and jails him in the fireplace. But when Terry and Pat come home and there's no proof that the attacker laid a hand on her, Marjorie's only safety net is to keep him locked up until he confesses his sins. If he doesn't, she'll kill him.
Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden" bears remarkable similarities to "Extremities," but Mastrosimone's story works exceptionally well as a film knowing the decade that the film was released in. The same decade produced such crime movies as "The Accused" and TV's stunner "The Burning Bed," another Farrah Fawcett feature. This was when women took hold of their sexuality and wouldn't allow themselves to be exploited by men. Keeping that in mind will allow the viewer of "Extremities" to connect to the plot, whether they're male or female.
The movie also raises several questions about where the line is drawn in terms of justice. If a man rapes or beats a woman, does the victim have a right to physically hurt the other person? Worse: if there's no proof of rape, what can the victim do to save herself? Marjorie pulls no punches. She is dead serious about keeping the police out of it and killing this home invader. But with his word against hers, she could go to jail for life. Though she is fully aware of the consequences, she can't allow him to walk away. "Extremities" is controversial, and gives the viewer plenty to talk about when the movie's over.
However, I find it impossible to avoid the movie's rather typical opening, which begins differently from the play. The opening is almost like a B-grade 80's slasher movie, and I'm sure that's not what Mastrosimone was aiming for. But things get much better once we're isolated with Marjorie and the rapist in the house. When he walks through the front door, the guy easily gives us the creeps. We know he's up to something. The tension grows and grows as he commits more embarrassing and painful acts towards Marjorie. When she takes control, the suspense goes together perfectly with the drama, a classy combination for a movie so gritty and violent.
In terms of casting, Mastrosimone and director Robert M. Young picked up two of the stage production's regulars: the beautiful Farrah Fawcett and the alarmingly intimidating James Russo. Fawcett was just breaking free from her "Charlie's Angels" reputation, and this movie put her on the map. Marjorie is not at all an easy role to play, but Fawcett gladly accepts the challenge. Her performance is booming and simmering with a quiet anger. She makes Marjorie a very sympathetic and frail woman at first. Notice how her voice breaks every time she's about to cry. And when she throws the rapist in the fireplace and threatens him with a shovel, you understand her pain. Fawcett turns Marjorie into a force not to be messed with. How she walked away without an Oscar nomination proves that this woman was one of the most underrated actresses of her time. James Russo is absolutely spine-tingling as the rapist. His beady eyes and twisted smile make your skin crawl every time he's on screen, which is for the majority of the film. He, too, deserves more praise. Alfre Woodard is decent as Pat, but Diana Scarwid's performance as Terry is flawed. It is basically too over-the-top. She cries too much, and her dialog is delivered too unbelievably, her worst case being a monologue about a past encounter with a rapist. What translated so effectively on stage to the public has changed here, and the way Scarwid portrays it, it comes off more as forced subtext than being related to Marjorie's troubles.
Does "Extremities" have its minor quibbles? Of course. Most movies do. But this is a film that plays most of its cards correctly and aims its darts close to the bullseye. If it weren't performed so believably by its leads, the movie wouldn't have nearly as much impact as the play. Movies like this are always more frightening when you realize that it can happen. Mastrosimone's story feels very real, which helps "Extremities" to be a powerful adaptation.
V/H/S: A Hit and a Miss
A found footage anthology horror film. Sounds intriguing, right? The actual "found footage" idea has become horror's biggest gimmick, resulting in a tired and at times silly payoff. But it has been a while since we saw as good a horror anthology as George Romero's "Creepshow." "V/H/S" combines the two concepts in order to squeeze out one more effective found footage movie, and the results are rather mixed. The best way to review the movie is to dissect each tale one by one.
The first segment that is intertwined with all of the other stories is Adam Wingard's "Tape 56." A group of despicable criminals who get off on filming their exposing the breasts of local women are sent off on a new job: to break into a house in the middle of nowhere and steal a VHS tape. When they do enter the home, they find a corpse and videotapes scattered across the floor with several video monitors. While the rest of the criminals explore the home, one stays in the room with the dead man and sets a goal: to watch one VHS tape after another and figure out which one the gang is supposed to steal. Therefore, the setup is presented. The problem with this segment is the characters. They are completely unlikable people. Who cares if they live or die? I certainly don't. But one thing "Tape 56" has going for it is mood. An old, dark house is a good, old-fashioned atmosphere for a horror film, and Wingard uses that to his advantage.
The anthology truly begins with David Bruckner's "Amateur Night." Two horny college boys hook their friend up with a pair of spyglasses that film their every move. Their intent is to go out for a night on the town, pick up some girls, and film their sexual encounters in their motel room. The bad news for them is they pick up the wrong girl. This is personally my favorite story in the film. It's scary and gory in equal parts, with a brief touch of comedy hidden inside. The crucial point in "Amateur Night" is in the casting of the girl, and Hannah Fierman gains points as one of the creepiest looking women I have ever seen. When she stares at you with those large, strange eyes, you easily get freaked out. The story ends on a good note, and sets the ball rolling.
Up next, we have Ti West's "Second Honeymoon" in which a couple head out on a road trip for a few nights in celebration of their marriage. They get a hotel room, and one night, they receive a knock on the door from a girl asking for a ride. The events in the next few nights determine the gruesome fate of the couple. West is one of my favorite names in the horror genre, having released the amazing "The House of the Devil" and the equally fun "The Innkeepers." West is known for slow-burn terror, and he sticks to the formula here. It is even a little bit creepy at times. However, we have seen this all before, and the ending leaves you with more questions than answers. Decent, but slightly disappointing.
Luckily, "Second Honeymoon" isn't the worst segment. That title goes to Glenn McQuaid's 80's slasher riff "Tuesday the 17th." A group of standardly stupid teenagers go to a lake for a day, and are killed off one by one. None of these characters are sympathetic, and what's worse is they are all so obviously acting. They don't get any help from the implausible and badly delivered dialogue, and the gore effects here are truly sophomoric.
Joe Swanberg, on the other hand, manages to pack a fairly good segment titled "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger." For the first time, the found footage subgenre introduces a rather original method: a Skype conversation. A young woman has conversations with her long-distance boyfriend, and while her arm is growing harsher in injury, she comes to a conclusion that her new apartment is haunted. Her boyfriend doesn't really believe her, so she asks him to record her nightly encounters as proof. Swanberg pulls a few awesome scares out of his tale, and Helen Rogers is an attractive and likable heroine.
The last story is presented by newcomers Radio Silence and it is called "10/31/98." A few college guys go out for a Halloween party, and so obviously wind up in the wrong house. Their drunken escapades around the home are instantly shattered when they go upstairs. Great effects and funhouse scares make this one a very decent entry.
I, for one, am growing very tired of found footage. Too many films have been made since the success of "Paranormal Activity," and despite "V/H/S"'s interesting concept, the movie is not much different from its predecessors. But since the majority of the stories shown here are quite entertaining and scary, I can forgive its flaws. Is it a movie that will forever play on the nightmarish recesses of the mind? Absolutely not. Is it a nifty contribution to the horror genre? It certainly is.
Something Truly Sinister
If you can find new ways to expand on familiar formulas, you just might have a good horror movie. "Sinister" isn't a good horror movie. It's a GREAT one. Directed by Scott Derrickson (director of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"), this shiver-inducing fright fest is the perfect genre flick for the Halloween season or any time of year.
Ellison Oswalt is a struggling writer, barely living off of money he made from a book that was successful at least 10 years ago. In order to make his comeback and pen down a thrilling new piece of non-fiction, he moves his wife, Tracy, and children, Ashley and Trevor, into a new house. The family isn't exactly fond of this choice, but they're warming up to it. "I'm going to write the best book anyone's ever read," Ellison tells Ashley. They don't know, however, that they have just moved into a crime scene. Several years ago, a family was hung from a tree in this house's backyard, and the daughter is yet to be found. The most disturbing notion, for Ellison, is that while in the writing process, he discovers and watches this and other gruesome acts on Super 8 videotapes he found in the attic. But there is an unsettling string attached to these murders, and it's lurking in the background of the screen.
Sure, "Sinister" follows the formula of other horror films, but it doesn't dumb things down for the audience. Once we find out terrible things happened in this setting, a lot of the fear we expect is in the imagination, with creaking floorboards, slamming doors, and eerie whispering. Therefore, it is a brilliantly scary horror film. I haven't been this terrified since "Insidious." And surprise, surprise. "Sinister" is produced by Jason Blum, producer of "Paranormal Activity" and "Insidious."
Owing a lot to "The Shining," "The Amityville Horror," and "The Ring," newcomer C. Robert Cargill and director Derrickson have written a smart script with a truly nightmarish villain: not just the film's monster, but film itself. The Super 8 tapes presented to us are some of the most disturbing pieces of footage I have ever seen, and they definitely give a feeling of discomfort to the viewer. If a horror movie can make you feel appropriately uncomfortable, then it's done its job.
The cast is actually small, and it is led by A-list performer Ethan Hawke as Ellison. Hawke has given his best performance in years. At first, Ellison seems like a selfish jerk. He's not exactly the perfect father figure for Ashley and Trevor, and it's a miracle that Tracy has endured this much with him. But after he finds the Super 8s, he's not in this to make a book out of blood money. He's concerned and dying to put together the pieces of the puzzle before anyone else is endangered. Hawke portrays that flawlessly, and it's pretty obvious that he wouldn't have chosen to be a part of this movie if it wasn't good.
Newcomer Juliet Rylance is also very good as Tracy, her best moment being when she finally confronts Ellison about his actions. She is believable and always sympathetic. James Ransone also stars as a town deputy, providing some great humor to help the audience breathe before the big "BOO!" And Vincent D'Onofrio goes uncredited as a professor who provides Ellison with a hefty amount of information about the events behind these home movies.
The jump scares of "Sinister" are perfectly executed, and there are no cats waiting to falsely freak you out. All of the horror in this film is real and genuine. From the beginning, "Sinister" is dark in terms of atmosphere and tone, and the ending, unlike the opinions of the critics, gave me chills. Why "Paranormal Activity 4" would make more money than this film is understandable, but that doesn't make that sequel a good movie. This is the rare film that incorporates found footage into a realistic, non-home video setting and it manages to scare you out of your wits. You want something frightening? "Sinister" is the best horror movie of 2012. Not for the faint of heart, but it will suit the needs of the more intelligent horror movie buffs.
Carrie: Classic King
On paper, "Carrie" was, and still is, one of Stephen King's greatest literary creations, one that almost didn't happen. It is a moving but disturbing horror-drama, unique and frightening in every way. Since film adaptations of King's novels are mostly hit or miss, this story had to be made correctly and with enough class and scares to mark a memorable place in the film-goer's mind. Unsurprisingly, Brian De Palma's 1976 adaptation of "Carrie" is brilliant.
Working from a script by Lawrence D. Cohen, the film brings us the story of Carrie White, a mousy, quiet high school misfit who suffers at the hateful hands of her peers and takes tremendous physical and emotional blows from her overly religious psycho of a mother. Only one adult, gym teacher Miss Collins, truly looks out for her. After a terrible experience in the girl's locker room, classmate Sue Snell takes it upon herself to fix things for Carrie by persuading her boyfriend, Tommy Ross, to ask Carrie to the prom. Carrie accepts, and at first, prom night is an exciting and engaging experience, until someone pulls another joke, a prank that goes way too far. Then people begin to laugh. That's when Carrie takes her revenge. The school doesn't know that Carrie has a secret power, and tonight, she's going to use it to her full advantage.
De Palma's "Carrie" is a respectful adaptation of the book, one that hews closely while making some appropriate changes. There are two ways to view this film: as a drama and as a horror movie.
From the dramatic standpoint, "Carrie" hits all the right buttons as the viewer is subjected to what could be the worst case of school bullying ever committed to celluloid. The torture Chris Hargensen and her fellow females inflict upon our poor title character is overwhelming and shocking, especially in the opening shower scene, which is iconic for its heavy amount of nudity. You feel sympathy for Carrie, which is intimidating because of the transformation she undergoes in the third act. She is an ugly duckling, the shy little fish in a big pond.
The behavior of Margaret White, Carrie's mother, is arguably as cruel as that of the teenagers at Bates High School. A nightmare of a woman who dedicates her time to tea and the constant reading of the bible, Mama's own sins have convinced her that since her daughter is now a woman (Carrie has her first period at the beginning of the movie), she is equally but unjustifiably guilty.
On the flip side of the coin, there's the horror aspect, and boy, is that important. "Carrie" is a perfect scare show. When it's scary, it's very scary. When it's gory (and it has to be), it is very gory. Certain times, the film is also surreal and hallucinatory. When Carrie gets doused in pig's blood at the prom, are her peers really laughing or is it all in her head? We don't know, but from the look in Carrie's eyes, we tell right away that she is angry. The prom scene is a disturbing, epic sequence where a moment of bliss turns into utter chaos. It's an excellent turning point for the movie.
The cast, filled with young talent, is led by the unforgettable performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as Carrie and Margaret White. Spacek, at the time, was almost 30 years old, but still looked young enough to play a teenager. She was almost not given the part, but her determination and personal makeover earned her the role. She is pitch perfect as Carrie; she puts in the perfect amount of sympathy before taking a hard left turn. It is a wondrous and gut-punching performance that got Spacek a well-deserved Oscar nomination. The same is equally said for Laurie, who viewed Margaret as a satirical look at religious stereotypes. Her performance recalls the portrayal Jack Nicholson put in for Kubrick's "The Shining," another Stephen King adaptation. One can't tell if she's being over the top or if her method acting is making her disappear into the character. She scares us probably more than anything that could be prevalent in Carrie's personality. Her monologue at the end of the film is absolutely chilling.
Brian De Palma's direction is spot-on and creative. Split-screens are employed with some of the most horrific imagery, and his other sequences are almost dream-like.
The movie is finally helped by Pino Donaggio's unsettling score, which, in this viewer's opinion, is one of the best musical orchestrations in horror movie history. It is, at some times, sweet and lullaby-like, but other times screeching (echoing "Psycho") and dread-filled. There's really no other score like this one.
Overall, "Carrie" is a classic horror film through and through. Its religious and pubescent metaphors make the viewer cringe, the casting is unbelievable, the scares are palpable, and it does all of this well while sticking closely to its source. There's no movie like it, and after 36 years, it shows no sign of aging. It will have you seeing red in the best of ways. King fans, be not afraid. "Carrie" is completely worth its status! P.S. The ending still makes you jump!
Silent House (2011)
The Old Dark House Movie Gets A Nifty Upgrade
Chris Kentis and Laura Lau hadn't mounted a film since their amazing shark movie "Open Water" 9 years ago. So "Silent House," a remake of a Uruguayan film called "La Casa Muda," seemed like an intriguing project from the beginning knowing that Kentis and Lau would be directing. This film has received incredibly mixed reviews, most complaining about the film's final payoff. But I must say that "Silent House" is an intense, eerie, smart horror film that delivers a fresh take on the rather tired 'old dark house' concept.
Sarah returns to her old childhood home to help her father John and uncle Peter clear it up before they get ready to sell it. They walk around the house with lanterns, surrounded by darkness, without phones. After Peter leaves, Sarah and John are left alone, and then she hears a noise upstairs. They go up to investigate, but after a moment, John disappears and he can't be found. Things start to get scarier when Sarah, alone and frightened, hears banging on the walls, doors slamming, and when she sees what may be dark shadows of people, getting out of the house is harder than it seems.
Like 3D and found footage, "Silent House" introduces a new kind of gimmick: real time. The film sets up the illusion that it was shot in one long, uncut take. And surprise, surprise. The gimmick works to tremendous effect. For almost 90 minutes, the camera quivers, turns left to right, and clusters you into a corner with Sarah, creating great claustrophobia.
The film goes in several different directions, and like Sarah, you are confused as to what is going on. The house is way too dark, and you can hardly see anything. What is Sarah seeing? Is what she's seeing even real at all? Is the house haunted? Is the home being invaded? The questions pour out for a long time until the ending, and the confusion the main character and the viewer feels enhances the fright. It's a lot about what you don't see in "Silent House," but also about what you imagine seeing that scares you.
Another major trait to the film's success is its star. Elizabeth Olsen (more talented and pretty than her child star twin sisters) is an unbelievable young actress, making her first appearance in the devastating "Martha Marcy May Marlene." She has a knack for playing damaged, terrified young souls, and "Silent House" makes for an awesome addition to her resume. Even though she doesn't have too much to do except be scared out of her wits, she does it incredibly well. Her fear is natural, unforced, and palpable. Moments when she's hiding in the dark trying to stifle her screams are intense and creepy. Olsen is an excellent scream queen, and having to carry the movie on her shoulders for most of its running time, she shows a ton of promise for a girl who's new to the business. This movie guarantees her more parts.
I pretty much like any horror movie nowadays because I'm such a fan of them. But it takes a lot for a flick to truly scare me and get under my skin. "Silent House" is one of those movies. It is creepy, ambiguous, original, and disturbing: what a horror film should be. It revives the 'old dark house' sub-genre and does awesome new things with it. Think what you want about this film and its interesting ending, but I appreciate it thoroughly.
The Woman in Black (2012)
A Dark, Wildly Atmospheric Exercise In Supernatural Horror!
Since the publication of Susan Hill's 1983 novel, "The Woman in Black" has endured great success in London as an underrated TV movie of the 80's and a rather popular theatrical adaptation. Seems to me that it was in dire need of attention in America. Director James Watkins, screenwriter Jane Goldman, and the newly resurrected horror studio Hammer have brought it back by giving it the remake treatment, and for the first time in a while, a horror remake is as solid as its inspiration.
Just coming off of the tragedy of losing his wife in childbirth, Arthur Kipps is sent to an ordinary and lifeless town to settle the will and other documents belonging to the dead Alice Drablow, who owned the supposedly haunted Eel Marsh house. While he makes a friend in a man named Daily, the residents of the town treat Arthur as a disease and strongly encourage him to stay away from Eel Marsh. But Arthur is not a superstitious man, and spends several nights in the house. Then things take a turn for the worse. Creaking floorboards, imaginary footsteps, and large shadows plague Arthur while he is on his mission. Worst of all, a female figure in a black dress makes her presence known, and it's quite clear that she is a restless and angry spirit.
As gruesome as director Watkins' first film "Eden Lake" was, the stark realism of his antagonists' gory actions set up a tremendous sense of reality for the audience. "The Woman in Black" takes a different route. Watkins understands that as fictional as a ghost story may be, such a film requires minimal blood and intense tension and paranoia. We see the title specter very rarely, or even from a distance to bring up Arthur's supposedly blurred imagination. Is she real? Could the house really be haunted. Well, such a phantasm is questionable to the main character's sanity.
But tension abounds in "The Woman in Black" right when Arthur steps foot into Eel Marsh House. You can tell right away that the place is destined to be haunted. The inside is raggedy and aged, and the creepy dolls in one of the rooms are still eerily playing. Once a noise occurs, Arthur and the audience go quietly ballistic. As an entry into mainstream horror fare, the film does have its share of "BOO!" scares, but here, it's all about suspense and waiting for the fear to creep up on you.
Most movie buffs will check this movie out for the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps. Fresh off the conclusion of the "Harry Potter" series, Radcliffe has a lot of weight on his shoulders. Most of the movie depends on him and his reactions to the supernatural events going on around him. He still looks a little young to be married with a child, but Radcliffe handles himself surprisingly well. Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer back up the main character greatly as Daily and his unstable wife.
Perhaps the movie could have been better if Jane Goldman included some humor in her dead serious script, but "The Woman in Black" sticks to the old-fashioned formulas of such films as "The Haunting," "The Innocents," and "The Others." Throw in a few creepy children and some great effects, and you have a recipe for a solid haunted house movie. Thanks to a heavy atmosphere and a good performance from the Harry Potter alumni, "The Woman in Black" achieves its goals and brings some great chills to the spine.
The Innkeepers (2011)
The Innkeepers: Another Smash from An Indie Horror Master!
2009's "The House of the Devil" put director Ti West on the A-list of horror directors, exhibiting the most promise through his love for slow-burn terror. For two years, we waited for West's follow-up. It had to be good, scary, and downright suspenseful. The good news is we get all of that with "The Innkeepers," an old-fashioned, classy ghost story with a great sense of humor that sets up an idea that "The Shining" and "Poltergeist" had a baby.
During the last days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, Claire and Luke strut around as wanna-be ghost hunters. With three guests quietly packed into their rooms, they roam the halls in search of a sign that the ghost of Madeline O'Malley exists. Some hints are thrown around that Madeline does lurk in the hotel, and thankfully one of the guests, retired actress Leanne Rease-Jones, is a psychic who can help them communicate with the spirit. But everyone knows by now that usually, ghosts are not happy beings and they will mess you up for life.
"The House of the Devil" favored tension over gore. It allowed the viewer to sit, watch, and wait for something to strike. "The Innkeepers" pulls that off as well. The resident specter of the Yankee Pedlar never truly shows herself until the finale. While we wait for the paranormal activity to occur, we get marvelous chemistry and comic timing from Claire and Luke. They are vulnerable, funny, and likable. We care about them, and West achieves that in his script while other horror movies don't establish time to like the leads.
When the movie is funny, it can also be very scary. I did find myself jumping several times. And the finale is something truly frightening. There is hardly any gore, and when there is, it's used for the right purposes. But the setting pulls in a lot of attention. The Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel that West and his crew stayed in while filming "The House of the Devil," is a strangely nostalgic place with no major technology. It's also a very quiet building, almost too quiet. You could almost guarantee that something is haunting this place in reality.
Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are great together as Luke and Claire, especially Paxton. She gets some serious laughs out of the audience. But she also gains a lot of sympathy. Paxton puts out a performance that is convincingly scared and never over the top. Her eyes are wide and expressive, and her youth contributes to her unique beauty. Healy provides us with some good chuckles also. And Kelly McGillis is wonderful as Leanne Rease-Jones, giving us a strange but interesting appearance.
There's no doubt about it. "The Innkeepers" jokes, but when it's time to scare the audience, the director knows exactly how to make people scream. It's a creepy and suspenseful funhouse ride that firmly establishes that Ti West is one of the most underrated and exciting horror directors in years. You want a classic ghost story? You've found it here.
Once: A Revolutionary Turn for Movie Musicals
Campy and energetic are two words that come to mind when one thinks of musicals. "Sweeney Todd" and "Les Miserables" fall into a different category. But who says a musical has to be cheesy? What if we can watch a musical and not leave the theater dancing, but thoroughly mesmerized and stunned? John Carney's 2006 Irish film "Once" proves that.
Our two main characters are extremely natural. They don't even have names; they are labeled Guy and Girl. Guy is a street singer, banging away on his guitar and belting out ballads he composed himself. He only gets minimal attention, but then, Girl comes along and listens to his music. She is not from Ireland, but she is Czech, and Guy's music immediately grabs her. After fixing up Girl's crappy vacuum cleaner, they both wind up sitting down together and creating music. She plays piano, he plays guitar. But as they compose their songs, a love story begins to develop.
Before we get to the main reason this movie is so amazing, let's look at the characters. Both Guy and Girl are leading flawed lives. Girl lives with her mother and her baby, her husband away while Guy is alone after being dumped by his girlfriend. When they sit down together, they're not just making music. They're making love. Their affection for one another simmers inside of them through their songs. Is their love admitted in words? No. But that's not really the point of the movie, or the music wouldn't have as much meaning.
The soundtrack is the key to the film that all movie buffs are going to criticize after all the hype the movie has gotten over 6 years. The music is actually composed by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, our leads, and it is beautiful. None of these songs are toe-tappers, but aching, soul-touching ballads that get under the skin in the most positive way possible. The meeting of Guy and Girl results in "Falling Slowly," a piano and guitar piece that is marvelous in its emotion and soothing in its sound. It perhaps may be one of the best love songs not on the radio, and that's a fact since the song got an Academy Award. The one that will really make you tear up is Irglova's heart-breaking tune "The Hill." The score demands to be heard.
If I were to come up with one word to sum up "Once" overall, it would be simplicity. This entire movie is beautiful in its ways of being natural, from a story so simple to the undeniably improvised chemistry and appeal of the leading characters, played wonderfully and effortlessly by Hansard and Irglova. It has stood the test of time and is quickly starting to reach the mainstream. How: it's now a critically acclaimed Broadway musical. There's no doubting you're going to love this film. Such a classic and influential movie with such a triumphant soundtrack only gets made "Once."