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The Way Way Back (2013)
I realize there are some good actors cast in the film and more than being good, they are likable as people. Steve Carrell. Allison Janney. Sam Rockwell. But the characters written for them were not worth watching on screen. The dialogue was also frivolous and irritating. So irritating, I had no switch this off after 38 minutes. If you can't hook 38 minutes into a 96 minute film, you've got problems. The film also failed to generate nostalgia for the period it references. I was about that kid's age during this period in history, and yet I just didn't get that throwback retro feel. And I get that the dialogue was intentionally vapid because the characters are supposed to be vapid, but the film lacks the credible foil to make the vapidity amusing and meaningful.
This film exposes the flaw in the Rotten Tomatoes tomato-meter. Many critics don't want to give arty films with likable actors a thumbs down but a thumbs up (as mild as that thumbs up might be) is also misleading.
Side Effects (2013)
So Busy & Labored, You Can See the Hemorhhoids
One of the worst films I have seen in a LONG time. A tedious mess. I almost feel compelled to invoke Shakespeare's quote about sound and fury.
The 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes took me by surprise. I really get the feeling many of the low-end critics were fooled by this one. Did they really like this film? Could they honestly recommend this to anyone they care about? My theory is that these critics felt compelled to give high marks for the sheer volume of twists. But the film implodes under the weight of its own deluded self-importance. Perhaps if the twists were spaced apart better or unpacked with more rhyme and reason. But the fact is that the film is poorly written. It's painfully obvious it was never storyboarded and while it might have worked as a concept or seemed workable on paper, it would have clearly failed when given a dry run in one's imagination, which is to say at the speed of life.
The only other alternative is that there is such a thing as too many twists. And twists for their own sake result in a clunky, cluttered, vapid heap. Cancer comes to mind as a metaphor. Cancer is a condition in which one's cells become immortal, which is to say, they do not die. So you end up with a tumor, a proliferation of cells that outlive their usefulness and strangle the body. And this film clearly gets knotted up and suffocates under its own twists. There is no rhyme, reason, or rhythm to this film. No atmosphere. No form. No style. No art.
After viewing this one, just ask yourself what the point of the film is? There is none. It leaves you with no message. No splendid conception. No signature moment to replay in your head. You're not interested in the characters, who are poorly developed and deteriorate as the film wears on into cartoonery.
The film tries so hard to grab you and never let go that you can see the hemorrhoids -- so busy and labored, that it forgets to build tension. How can a film with so many twists be so devoid of suspense? How could I as a viewer not feel any curiosity whatsoever -- no interest in what happens next -- or what will become of these people in the end? And one twist in particular is so absurd that you'll likely laugh. I think my wife and I both exhorted "oh come on!" simultaneously. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb.
Many people will be drawn to the film by its star power. Yes, the film has Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum, but two of these celebrities are poor actors.
Burn After Reading (2008)
10 Gaping Plot Holes and Farcically Sociopathic Character Doom Film
Let us count the plot holes in the film. I haven't seen plot holes this big since the premise of the film Double Jeopardy: 1. no one calls the local police Osborne Cox in real life would have availed himself of the rather quick and easy way to put an end to that sociopathic Linda's stalking. There were witnesses to her hit-and-run on his diesel Benz. He also could have phoned in the extortion attempt and what he believed to be a break-in.
2. CIA would never pay Linda off in end There was nothing for the CIA to cover up. The CIA director admitted not knowing what the CIA did wrong, so why would he pay this woman for her silence?
3. Linda would be tried for treason and either imprisoned for life or executed for attempting to sell classified government material to a foreign power.
4. Osborne Cox could have fought Katie's maneuver to take control of joint bank accounts. In fact, banks require two signatures on both accounts before they could be completely emptied and closed. Oops!
5. BeWithMeDC.com is absurd. No dating web sites are set up to allow women to surf male photos without males being granted the same opportunity.
6. How did Harry Pfarer clean up the mess in Katie's bedroom without her knowing someone was shot in her closet?
7. While there are men stupid enough to bring a concealed weapon to a first date, I don't know of many women who would let a gun-toting stranger into their home.
8. Do the Coens expect us to believe people as stupid as Linda and Chad really exist? These are not "morons," but morons. Linda is astounded her HMO will not pay for not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 cosmetic surgical procedures. She is also astounded her employer will not advance her salary. She also is under the impression Cox is obligated by some Good Samaritan Tax to offer her thousands of dollars in reward money for finding his disc. When he doesn't agree, she gets violent with him.
9. The disc itself is worthless. It's the info on the disc that WOULD be worth anything.
Why do Linda and Chad assume that even if the info were valuable that Cox would pay for the disc. It's not the disc that's valuable, it's the information on it. And he has it on his PC.
10. Also, the Coens arrange for all their serial daters to meet at benches around the Mall as if there are no other restaurants or trendy metro neighborhoods in DC/MD/DC for people to meet.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Some of the critics who reviewed the film praised the Coens attention to detail and realism. I agree I enjoyed the scenes where Cox was terminated and where Katie conspired with her attorney, but no one in their right mind could ignore the gaping plot holes above.
WHERE THE FILM GOES OFF THE RAILS
Whether you like parody or farce determines how you felt about a pivotal turn 10 minutes into the film. I was looking for a parody, a satirical imitation of a special brand of psychopathology-of-everyday-life that runs through Washington's culture of materialism and self-importance, where puffed up jobs in dulling Federal bureaucracies lead to chronic dissatisfaction, spiritual emptiness, and a polyamorous form of infidelity facilitated by Internet dating.
This parody begins promising enough when the film appears to set up a cat-and-mouse game between ousted CIA analyst Oswald Cox (John Malkovich) and Treasury officer Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), whose promotion from the "young man's game" of personal protection into a desk job with the U.S. Marshals forces him to carry a concealed weapon out of vanity. How Malkovich loses his job and his wife makes for great comedy, and the Coens do not need to sacrifice realism -- or intelligence -- to deliver the laughs here. The build-up of tension during this taut and intriguing 10 minutes is some of the best filmmaking I've seen in years ...
... and then it all falls apart when we're introduced to one of the dumbest and most deplorable characters in film: Linda Litzski (Frances McDormand). This is the point at which the Coens give in to pop culture silliness and BURN AFTER READING devolves from Woody Allen dysfunctional into farcically dumb / destructive Tarantino (e.g., Pulp Fiction).
Woody Allen (e.g., HUSBANDS & WIVES) proves you can write female characters who are cerebral and mature yet whose existential angst and lack of insight translates into self-sabotage as well as unforeseen/invisible consequences to the world around them. Why the Coens feel they need to have their plot flow through a character (Linda) who reasons morally and intellectually at a 2nd grade level is beyond me. Just like a chain can only be as strong as its weakest link, so BURN AFTER READING is doomed to juvenile absurdity once Linda pops on the scene.
And Linda is a comedy-killer. You want to walk on screen and take a led pipe to Linda's head. That kind of tension is not good for comedy, especially one that ends well for her character.
To add insult to injury, I believe the Coens intend for us to find Frances McDormland's Linda adorable (much like we do McDormland's character in FARGO). "Have you ever heard of the power of positive thinking," delivered in McDormland's signature schmaltz (along with "little chitland's feet -- chicki chicki chicki"), is supposed to warm the cockles of our heart. Yikes.
George Clooney's Harry Pfarrer strains credibility when he reacts to every minor provocation with an absurd vocal intonation and facial contortion and in a way this breaks a tie between elements of parody and farce and drags the film into the realm of the absurd.
Shame on Lionsgate / Gold Circle / Wyrick Family
This is not the first time the Wyrick story has been brought to mass audiences. The ghost story shared a three-part episode of Unsolved Mysteries in February 1989 and Virginia-based New Dominion Pictures added its 94-minute IMDb viewer-rated 6.4 version in 2002. Both accounts made an effort to respect the source material in delivering an atmospheric ghost story with an overtone of the grave. So with that in mind, my question for the Wyrick family is as follows ...
Why have you not denounced this Hollywood boondoggle as a farce? How can you let Lionsgate / Gold Circle and its goofy screenwriter David Coggeshall claim that the film is "based on a true story?" How can you let them display photos of your family at the conclusion of the "film"? I would identify all the ways the film deviated from the real story, but it seems absurd to mention Lisa Wyrick's ability to see dead people (she has none) in the same paragraph as a resurrected taxidermist who lured runaway slaves into his dungeon masquerading as a station point for the Underground Railroad. The real Wyrick story is in no way rumored to be connected to the Underground Railroad. But hey, the crawl spaces in the Snedecker home (A Haunting in Connecticut) were not stuffed to the gills with corpses either.
How can anyone claim to like this albatross? Seriously. A corpse (or ghost of a corpse) abducting and assaulting the living? This is no longer the Wyrick story. This is no longer a GHOST story. This is now Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I would have laughed at all the liberties taken with this story if something vital wasn't truly lost to these disrespectful clowns at Lionsgate / Gold Circle. There is evil about this Lionsgate story, but its the ticketmaster and not some fabricated station master at the root of it. Evidence of ghosts is hard enough to come by that when we do encounter compelling stories with certain kinds of validity, we need to preserve their integrity -- not use them as the jumping off point for some wildly fantastical nonsense designed to heat some pools in Tinseltown. Make no mistake -- hack horror writer David Coggeshall took a ghost story that received significant attention from world renown scientific investigators and turned it into The Evil Dead. There's a special place in hell for people like him (probably the same level where Woody Allen put the inventor of aluminum siding in Deconstructing Harry).
And if the hack job wasn't enough, the film did not even deliver scares. How much elegance -- how much high art -- can we expect from a film given the most clumsy title in Hollywood history? Usually when you decide to contort yourself in whatever way is necessary to piggyback off another film, it's usually a critically acclaimed or commercially successful film. A Haunting in Connecticut was neither. In fact, a documentary film company from Suffolk, Virginia is more celebrated for its version of the Connecticut ghost story than the Lionsgate Hollywood studio. Ghosts of Georgia is as connected to A Haunting in Connecticut as the 2002 academy award-winning Chicago was to Woody Allen's Manhattan.
And this was no joy to watch. It was made tedious by the constant labored efforts to tickle our startle reflex -- efforts that are purely mechanical in nature (the images themselves were not interesting or scary). We're treated to our first CGI-generated apparition just 10 seconds into the film and from there it's non-stop ghosts. How a film manages to turn a phenomenon as exotic and controversial as ghosts into common termites is beyond me.
Anyway congratulations on the paycheck. Horror films like this are relatively inexpensive to make nowadays and the profit margin must have good even after coaxing just a few million at the low end of the IQ scale into the theaters. And from what I understand, Gold Circle is set to destroy yet another New Dominion psychodrama titled "The Diabolical," which will be renamed A Haunting in New York.
Salem's Lot (1979)
No Film Reaches Your Soul Like This One
Salem's Lot (1979) is horror without mercy. You need to get cleared by a cardiologist before you commit to THIS ONE. This is the scariest film of all time despite having been a made-for-TV miniseries. Unlike horror films that rely on gory images, violence, and tickling your startle reflex, Salem's Lot invests in a super-creepy atmosphere -- an overtone of the grave -- and images so frightening that even after the initial startle has worn off, you still can't bear to look at them. (This is perhaps also why the television docudrama version of A Haunting in Connecticut (2002) is so superior to the eminently forgettable film version (2009)).
Do not put too much stock into criticism the film is dated (it is) and that it is slow to develop (it is). This film is a real treat in that you get into some really amusing characters, which is important to films of the vampire genre where human relationships are the path of transmission for what is a contagious disease. Hooper creates a slow escalation of anxiety that makes the frightening moment all that much more impactful. My wife makes me mute the Ralphie Glick scene because the scratching at the window sends chills down our spines.
And this film boasts the very best vampire iconography. You do not take THESE vampires to the prom. Hooper manages to create vampires who hardly resemble the souls that previously resided in that body. It as if some evil spirit killed the person and crawled into their body to use as a shell. In this sense Salem's Lot belongs to my favorite genre of film, the one in which people are one-by-one lost to the human race through some irreparable harm to their soul. John Carpenter's 1981 re-make THE THING and the 1978 version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS rank among my favorite horror films for the same reason.
For a so-called dated film, the effects (Jack Young's fangs and fluorescent contact lenses) are superior to anything done since. The reviews of others my age who caught the miniseries in 1979 suggest the film has both an acute and a chronic effect on its viewers, who report everything from not being able to sleep with the lights off for a month to PTSD-like flashbacks decades down the road.
I was deeply aggrieved to learn of the aborted plans to follow up the mini-series with an NBC television series featuring the same actors. But I can sympathize with the difficulties of sustaining a plot line. What does the world look like when 95% (or more) of its population has become vampires? And not sociable vampires you carry on conversations with. None of the franchises that followed (True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Buffy, Interview with a Vampire, Lost Boys, Twilight) get by as true vehicles of the supernatural and are basically cartoons for kids. I was also sorely disappointed in TNT's 2004 soul-less imitation.
This film is so important to me that I use it to measure the quality of someone's soul. I cannot marry a woman who is not affected the same way by this film, for that suggests her soul lacks a vital aspect. (It's not my only cinematic yardstick -- you better enjoy Woody Allen films as well -- nor does Salem's Lot make a great first date, but it's important).
To Rome with Love (2012)
To Rome with Love Takes Place among Allen's Worst
Woody Allen films are among my favorites, but he mailed in To Rome with Love. Ever since Match Point, the pattern has been hit, miss, better -- hit, miss, better. Sing a long with me now, Match Point (hit), Scoop (miss), Cassandra's Dream (better), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (hit), Whatever Works (miss), You'll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (better), Midnight in Paris (hit), To Rome with Love (miss) ... and I'm guessing Blue Jamine will be on par with the better fare. Even going back from Match Point, Melinda and Melinda was a better, and Anything Else a miss. My scheme breaks down with the film prior to Anything Else, which was also a miss (Hollywood Ending).
This is one of Allen's worst films. While I found parts of the vignette in which Allen placed himself rather amusing, there was nothing even remotely delightful or insightful about the other three. I'm still trying to figure out whether Alec Baldwin's character is a muse, an older version of Eisenberg, or some new kind of psychopomp invented by Allen. The poetic license / liberty-taking with film convention wouldn't have mattered at all had the vignette not fallen flat. The characters are all so one-dimensional and undeveloped to be a source of humor for the film, so Allen relies on situation for comedy and here we find him an average sit-com writer.
It's as if Allen was going through the motions in checking off the last leg of a European tour before heading back to the states for Blue Jasmine. Don't we all find that our last day of a vacation, despite our best efforts to make it the best, end up being tired and meandering? The same principle applies here.
To Rom with Love is not as soul-deadening as Broadway Danny Rose, as tiresome as Zelig, as solipsistic as Stardust Memories, or as flat as Hollywood Ending, but I would rank it among his worst.
A Haunting: Nightmare Upstairs (2012)
Nightmare Upstairs Breaks New Ground with 3 (out of 10) Rating
I must say I am indebted to NIGHTMARE UPSTAIRS for bringing some variety to my Season 5 viewing experience. I saw two 1's (BLOOD VISIONS; DARK DREAMS), two 5's (NIGHTMARE IN BRIDGEMENT; ANGELS & DEMONS); and a "7" (ALLEN HOUSE), but up until now I had not known the experience of a "3." If you want to know what a "3-rated" episode of A Haunting feels like, just slip in a copy of THIS one.
Between mansion of Monticello and the spacious 3 bedroom home in Wynne, Arkansas is fast becoming the hub of paranormal activity. Look out Connecticut! This is also the second case this season to push a new explanation for hauntings that otherwise cannot be explained on the basis of the home's past -- the "portal." As described by the investigator, a confluence of natural conditions may weaken the otherwise impermeable boundary between the world we know and "some other dimension." This was also a problem for the Markham-based family in Season 4's WHERE EVIL LURKS, Arkansas should offer residents "gateway to hell" license plates.
The VanLandingham Family were probably quite disturbed by some of the events New Dominion failed to effectively portray. If this were any other season, the entity impersonating the sister would have been orders of magnitude creepier. It did not help that the writer of the episode thinks we need our hand held and felt the need to beat a dead horse over the head (pardon the metaphor-mixing). Not one word was needed to drive home that the girl brushing her hair was not her sister -- or for that matter, a girl -- at all. But on top of the protracted exchange with the REAL sister downstairs, the writer has Tony Call explain it to us TWICE. We get it! Don't bleed the creepy vibe right out of it! Way to ruin the moment! (Okay, okay, now I'm just imitating the writer). If this had been THE HAUNTING OF SUMMERWIND, Tony Call would not have stopped at "the erie growl of bears sent shivers up his spine." He would have went on like some people you avoid because they can't shut up ... "Ray was frightened by the sound. And for good reason. There are no bears in these woods." And then perhaps later in the episode, perhaps when Ray ran into the kitchen where he heard gunshots, the episode would have flashed back to Ray taking refuge in the RV and Tony would have added " ... but there could have been no one in the kitchen. Just like there could have been no bears in the woods." And as with the previous episode, my wife and I laughed more than we should have. When the entity channeled through the investigator, the episode did not depict that properly. At first we were led to believe the voice was disembodied. And what a voice! We were in stitches. We also laughed when the black shadow scampered across the bedroom door directly in front of us. Between the digital appearance and shape, it looked like something you'd find on an old episode of Scooby Doo than a 21st century docudrama: "Scooby Doo and The Ghost of the Cable Guy Who Converted My Analog." And why does the room blink like a discotheque whenever a ghost appears? I don't like this convention at all. I realize the special effects artist is unable to render a ghost (the ghosts look too computer-generated) but this additional cue is over the top. No wonder I feel the need to pop a Dramamine before every episode. Note to visual effects department -- just ask yourself what a ghost might REALLY look like -- and that will take you where you need to go.
The other drawback to Season 5 is that the program is too ADHD. I know I've said this before, but that was in reference to the transition effects and the effects used during the climactic cleansings. The writing is also ADHD in the sense that the program is way too verbal -- too talky. It's OK to have some quiet and some stillness every now and then. No need to bombard us with interview clips. The interviews are invaluable but once the subjects run out of meaningful or amusing things to say, it's amazing how quickly your eyes well up with tears at the sound of their voice.
As my wife astutely pointed out, we've felt like chumps throughout this whole season. Bad enough the episodes are poor, but the TV ads are worse than anything I've seen aired after 3 AM on the old USA Network. The only things worse than that ad for Buck Naked Underwear are the ads for other DESTINATION America programming. BBQ Pitmasters. Moonshiners. Can't wait. A Haunting might be the only program marketed to people with greater than 16 teeth.
And why do the producers insist on leading off with a clip from the episode's climactic prayer or cleansing? I'm pretty sure it adds nothing. I'm VERY sure it steals from the suspense. But what the hell, right? They undermine atmosphere and plausibility with visual effects. They undermine credibility with poor writing and acting. They break up the flow with excessive clips from interviews bled dry too late into the episode. Why not kill the suspense too?
A Haunting: Dark Dreams (2012)
Dark Dreams: A Haunting Finds Rock Bottom
Just when you thought it was safe ... safe to believe New Dominion could not turn out anything worse than BLOOD VISIONS, Haunting series producers send a clear message that with DARK DREAMS their capacities are not to be underestimated. Why stop at jumping the shark? -- when you can hit rock bottom.
Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are diagnosed for both their positive symptoms (i.e., word salad, delusions) and their negative symptoms (i.e., social withdrawal, lack of emotion). In a similar vein, A Haunting Season 5 has shown a poverty of writing, acting, sound, and cinematography (negative symptoms) as well as visually neauseating transition effects and the insane delusion that viewers are moved (positive symptoms). All of these "symptoms" are harmful to the story, but never has an episode told the story so poorly - as to make the program incoherent and difficult to follow. My reference to schizophrenia was inspired by DARK DREAMS, whose storyboarding resembled a salad of dialog and images that broke every rule when it came to good structure in much the same way an old social experiment of mine from the Appalachian Mountains violated every rule of grammar when he spoke. Just because the story of Gibbons' haunting features some bad dreams does not mean the episode itself has to resemble one. I found myself when reviewing this episode struggling to make sense of how it did not make sense.
I am going to give Christopher Gibbons, author of Trespass, the benefit of the doubt in assuming the real events on which DARK DREAMS was based were in fact scary and interesting. This did not come out in the episode. In fact I laughed more than I should have during this episode, where the most ghost-like disembodied aspect of the whole program were the teeth of the actor portraying Gibbons. (You may want to use a little less whitening agent). If I had been throwing back any sort of fluid (whether it was whiskey or milk) it would have come out through my nose during the rendering of Gibbons' dream of being lifted and pushed out the window on invisible meat hooks. Given a camera, director's chair, and editing equipment, I could have established and escalated the tension right up to its harrowing conclusion -- because somehow I don't think Gibbons found anything funny about his dream. Just a guess.
If I have to single out one troubling moment from the episode, I refer to the scene that takes place AFTER everyone agreed the ghost had been banished from the home. Gibbons opens the cupboard and tangles with what appears to be a swarm of flies (the ghost) but we quickly find out the battle takes place in his head (i.e, a dream) and he is really asleep -- only he is not in bed but fully clothed -- and sitting up! -- during a family meeting in the living room. Talk about confusing.
And I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but can we please make the ghosts look less computer generated? As it is the series has to fight its 10PM time slot on DESTINATION America where a story aspiring to be taken seriously as a haunting tale is interrupted for QuiBids ads and ads promoting shows about moonshiners and barbecue grillmasters. (Nothing stokes the flames of skepticism more than a high-definition Samsung television for seven dollars and sixty-eight cents). But the program was totally incapable at generating the least bit of fear or suspense over the opening of a cupboard we were led to believe contained a ghost. Somehow we knew whatever jumped out at us would underwhelm and we just wanted to be done with it!
A Haunting: The Allen House (2012)
Allen House: Understated Ghost Story Saves A Haunting
I can sum up my reaction to ALLEN HOUSE with one word: "finally!" I have been almost evangelically critical of Season 5 for poor storytelling and began to draw "jumping the shark" parallel to Season 6 of 24, Unsolved Mysteries post NBC, and every variety show that places beloved characters from dead television series in skits and song and dance routines. And yet in an unexpected way, ALLEN HOUSE gets a passing grade because it cleanly adheres to a simple linear story line. Of course, I must also take into account that a Monticello mansion is a sight for sore eyes after 3 ramblers. Despite the usual problems, you still manage to feel the haunt, and perhaps this is attributable to the fact that unlike the first three episodes, which revolved around demons, ALLEN HOUSE is a ghost story on a human scale. And the simple telling of this story overcame the poor dialog and poor acting that has dogged the first three episodes of this season. And while the special effects did not add any value to the episode, it also did not take away through a gluttonous "ADHD" excess that made me feel like my television screen was short-circuiting every five minutes. In the first three episodes, obtrusive special effects drowned out the atmosphere. It's as if the production crew had a lucid moment and realized that ghost stories are only capable of reaching the soul of the viewers when they sacrifice stylization for grit. While ghosts are thought to be in a way "not of this world," the material world is the medium in and through which they manifest, so it's important to preserve even while distorting its organic quality. One simple rule: If it bends, it's creepy. If it breaks, it isn't.
None of you should have any questions about the casting choice of Kera O'Bryon as Rebecca Spencer. ALLEN HOUSE in a way is a stripped down (I won't call it a poor man's) HAUNTING OF SUMMERWIND. O'Bryon specializes in playing women overcome with a borderline pathological compulsion to own a fixer-upper with a reputation for being haunted. Here the similarities end. While Ginger Hinshaw's dreams of living in a mansion that no one has been able to live in and has remained vacant for 30 years, Rebecca covets a mansion that already has an owner and is not for sale. And make no mistake, Kera O'Bryon is part of the reason the episode works. She is able to do what other Season 5 actors/actresses, including those returning from previous episodes, cannot: she is able to overcome the dialog assigned her character. The dialog in the original episodes is low-key, distancing the viewers from the character actors in a way that built atmosphere. By contrast, Season 5 dialog, in addition to suffering from an inability to grasp how people really talk, is excessive in a couple ways. It's wordy and overly dramatic. O'Bryon is able to subdue and tame the excess elements in the dialog and let the story take center stage.
ALLEN HOUSE will never be SUMMERWIND, because SUMMERWIND takes us on a wild ride of twists and turns and manages to amuse us with the Hinshaw family quirkiness. Even Rebecca, her obsession to own someone else's home notwithstanding, comes off as normal. Not so, Ginger Hinshaw. Ginger never recoiled from the apparition, seeming more disappointed than anything else that it ran off her guests. And as SUMMERWIND is Season 1-4 royalty -- a "10" -- ALLEN HOUSE registers a 7.5 on my quality meter but a full 2.5 points better than the second best episode I've seen this season. Finally, a Season 5 episode I can recommend without giggling or blushing.
The hallmark of the series are those spooky stranger-than-fiction moments that make you feel like you're transcending human imagination to come face to face with the supernatural. Season 5 has been short on these moments, but in ALLEN HOUSE we are treated to a scene in which the ghost morphs into Rebecca right before her husband's eyes, as if to convey to him sympathetically that she wants to assume a form that he finds more palatable so they can interact. There's a heart-warming elegance to that. I still would have liked to see a more organic quality to the rendering of the ghost, which looks too much like a computer graphic (perhaps tone down the shimmering and tune up the opacity).
I also very much enjoyed his exploration of a black figure in the attic that ultimately leads him to realize it was something other than a shadow. And after he shines the flashlight on the black figure, the writers show a rare restraint, holding back from overkill. I could easily see them giving Tony Call a cheesy line like "if it were a shadow, the light from his flashlight would have made the blackness disappear." However, this did not stop the writers from torturing the master craftsman at various other points throughout the episode.
ALLEN HOUSE could have also benefited from its own original score. Season 5 episodes are recycling the original soundtracks of the earlier seasons, which is enough to make purists cringe because it not only fails to establish each new episode in its own right, but also steals from the soul of an original. And ALLEN HOUSE steals the scores of multiple predecessors, including THE DIABOLICAL, THE WHEATSHEAF HORROR, and one other episode I cannot quite place (DARK WRATH?).
All in all, I was satisfied. I didn't labor through this one. I enjoyed it. I may not have wanted it to never end, which was my experience of some Season 1-4 episodes, but I enjoyed it.
Nightmare in Bridgeport Poor Man's Haunting in Florida
Nightmare in Bridgeport A POOR MAN'S PRODUCTION OF A HAUNTING IN Florida NIGHTMARE IN BRIDGEPORT draws some parallels to arguably the most chilling episode of the HAUNTING series (this side of a HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT) ... A HAUNTING IN Florida. A haunted rambler. Check. Ghosts resulting from deaths on the property. Check. A father with a background in the armed services. Check. A demonic presence. Check. An unsuccessful attempt at a cleansing or exorcism. Check. A house abandoned and that to this day remains unoccupied. Check. No question we have all the elements of an interesting story. So why didn't I feel the haunt? Why did the Billy Idol wraithlike rendering of the demon in NIGHTMARE IN BRIDGEPORT fail to frighten me as much as the misty black figure that leaned over the baby's crib? Florida was built on the fundamentals of storytelling. Information was delivered in its proper course and in the right sequence so that tension could be escalated and released. There could be no answers before there are questions, and the storytelling brought out in its viewers an intrigue -- a curiosity -- that prepared them and foreshadowed developments yet to come. The maze was built and we were led through the maze.
By contrast NIGHTMARE IN BRIDGEPORT reveals within the first few minutes a male ghost, a voice through a heat vent, and human bodies buried beneath the home. Even before that, the episode opens by giving us a glimpse of its conclusion (an unsavory feature of all Season 5 episodes to date), in which the bishop is pushed down the stairs to the basement. This convoluted arrangement undercuts tension, intrigue, and rhythm. A well-told story is like a melody. I never realized that until I heard this disharmonious mess that was as much a labor to follow as it must have been to tell. I guess I'll have to go back to "humming" chords from SUMMERWIND and Florida like I did at times over the past 5 years.
The highlight of NIGHTMARE IN BRIDGEPORT takes place when the child haunting victim turned paranormal investigator opens an investigation into his own haunting by reviewing photos of the home and discovering in the magnification of the orb the mouth of the demon he'd seen in the basement. How much more compelling this could have been if the orb was given a somewhat more organic (i.e., less CGI) quality and if the demon was creepier. One need not look to the chauffeur from Burnt Offerings (1976) played by Anthony James (mercifully no photo available on IMDb) or the face of the floating Ralphie Glick from the 1979 Salem's Lot to find inspiration. One could look as close as the demon from HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT, the ghost "Joseph" from THE WHEATSHEAF HORROR, the floating head of the female demon in THE PRESENCE, the faces in the photos from THE ATTIC, or the obscure face in the window of HIDDEN TERROR.
As with the preceding two episodes, the special effects used to transition between scenes feel as indigenous to the story as a prosthetic limb. They have a clunky post hoc feel to them. Before the HAUNTING series fell into its five year coma, these effects felt like an intrinsic, "organic" part of the scenes they precede and follow -- a natural and subtle segue.
The writing was its usual Season 5 horrendous self. Pray tell does Tony Call cringe before -- or after he reads lines like "but Bobby cannot hide from the horrible thing that's about to happen?" This is revolting dialog.
The acting is no better. I like the fact that the production staff realizes that the quirkiness of the character acting is a strength and source of stimulation for Seasons 1-4. But there's a difference between quirky and dreadfully bad. I recognize five of the actors from previous seasons, including from this episode Jennifer Pulley (Stalked by Evil, 2007), Kiersten Armstrong (Echoes from the Past (2007), and the spiritualist from The Attic (2006). The fact their acting is far worse this season probably has less to do with any diminution in skills -- after all they're not aging gymnasts -- and more to do with writing and directing. Not only are they saddled with revolting dialog, but I'd swear there was no one directing. I am also inclined to think that with the exception of a few returning actors, the program now gets its actors from a different registry / service. With the exception of an appropriately demure / subdued son from ANGELS & DEMONS, the bizarre acting from the children in these episodes looks less like character eccentricity and more like a blend of cognitive impairment and developmental disorder.
And in addition to those four actors, something else about Nightmare in Bridgeport hearkens back to the original seasons. The soundtrack. NIGHTMARE IN BRIDGEPORT recycled the theme from WHERE DEMONS DWELL. What made each episode from the first four seasons special was that each had its own original score. The sound production was an integral part of the supernatural overtone in the first four seasons. This element is a conspicuous no-show three episodes into Season 5.
I feel for the people who have to endure these hauntings. I'm sure they go through hell, and I'm sure they're grateful someone is telling their stories. Now let's tell these stories well.
A Haunting: Angels & Demons (2012)
After Sub-Par Premiere, ANGELS & DEMONS Restores Measure of Hope, But ...
After a brutally bad premiere episode BLOOD VISIONS, ANGELS & DEMONS restores a measure of hope for the resuscitation of A HAUNTING from its five year coma. While still plagued by bad writing and hyperactive CGI that undercuts atmosphere, the problems were not severe enough to obscure an interesting story. More substantive and animated, the interview clips meshed well among the narration and character re-enactment as compared to BLOOD VISIONS, where it felt more perfunctory -- more forced into a template.
The special effects were still obnoxious in transitioning between scenes. The program had always employed these transitioning effects rather liberally, but in Seasons 1-4 they were more subtle and grew out of the scenes they served to connect -- essentially acting as a true seguay. In Season 5, these effects are all non-sequitors.
I will say that this episode did use special effects effectively on a couple occasions, particularly in portraying the movement of the back-pack and the sleep-talking of the acutely possessed son, whose verbal regurgitation of an argument he was not present to hear had struck that first vital stranger-than-fiction note of the season. (The strength of the series has always been the depiction of events that paradoxically strain and support credibility in that they seem unlikely inventions of the imagination).
The program however continues to suffer from writing problems, particularly in the area of dialog. This was evidenced in Karen Carbone, whose acting skills I would have deemed gag-worthy if she had not come off so well as Jan Foster in the Season 2 episode DEMON CHILD. And the writer is not giving narrator Tony Call anything to work with. His lines are dreadfully on-the-nose. While words like "the shocking answer would come all too soon" fit seamlessly and added to the suspense of season 1 episode ECHOES FROM THE GRAVE, the line "little did she know it would become her worst nightmare" struck me as juvenile and like the interview from BLOOD VISIONS, formulaic. As in BLOOD VISIONS, the narration contributed little of value, telling us either what we already knew, what was unfolding before our eyes, or did not need to know. In BLOOD VISIONS, when the possessed teen hears the disembodied voice of the demon -- "Die Now" -- the voice of Tony Call reminding us that it was "the same phrase written on the bathroom mirror" only blunted its impact and prompted my wife to ask, "how stupid does this program think we are?" At the end of ANGELS & DEMONS, a new individual is introduced in an interview clip that had my wife and I simultaneously asking one another: "Who is this woman?" We were able to determine it was the friend and Tarot card reader, but the lack of set-up made for an odd moment that disrupted the flow. Building a quality program begins from the ground up or the inside out, to borrow some clichéd metaphors and that means greater emphasis on writing. Writing. Writing. Writing.
In the end though, the problem with the episode is that while it effectively imitates a good many aspects of the original series, it fails to recpature the soul of the series. In Seasons 1-4, the hauntings had much more stage presence. Even if we set aside for a moment the grandeur of the Summerwind mansion and the size of The Lake Club, even the hauntings confined to someone's living room felt like they were on a much larger stage. By contrast, the haunt depicted in Angels & Demons felt claustrophobic and lacked atmosphere.
A Haunting: Blood Visions (2012)
Haunting Fan Disappointed by Season 5 Premiere Blood Visions
Season 5 is not your older brother's A Haunting. After a surprisingly sub-par premiere, I examined the "cast and crew" of BLOOD VISIONS with that of a smoldering and delightfully nuanced Season 1 favorite, THE HAUNTING OF SUMMERWIND. The reason for the drop-off in quality became apparent: a near total turnover in production staff.
I waited 4 years for new episodes and put a great deal of pressure on myself to like the premiere as did many of you -- I can tell. But unlike some of you who will not be honest with yourself or others – I am not going to wave my pom-poms in some denial or inability to tolerate dissonance.
The episode begins amusingly enough, with a shot of the soon-to-be-possessed Detroit pot-bellied teen in a motley wife-beater. I always did enjoy the way the program captured the quirkiness of the haunting victims. But THIS was just bad. Acting that doesn't belong on any size screen and excerpts from interviews that fell flat.
I understand why this program was moved to DESTINATION America. The characters talked like tour guides, explaining to each other everything that was going on right in front of their eyes (and that we can plainly see at home). No one talks like this in real life. You get that, Michael Ray Brown? Not even Anthony Call sounded normal with this script. And yet this lack of subtlety was somehow topped by the plainly visible hand of the computer in the CGI effects. Ghost stories are one place where less is more in the CGI department. Yet from all appearances, BLOOD VISIONS was vying to overtake Star Wars. The black smoky ectoplasmic like substance on the ceiling -- rendered capably in the 2005 episode CURSED -- looks entirely digitized in BLOOD VISIONS. It's the CGI equivalent of seeing the strings holding up the planets in 1950s Flash Gordon films. Nothing throws a wet towel over a creepy atmospheric vibe better than overly-wrought and exposed computer graphics. I didn't know whether to blame less skilled staff, less psychologically sophisticated minds, or technology itself – but BLOOD VISIONS was less Industrial Light and Magic and more Atari. The reality of ghostly phenomena is subtle, organic, and mysterious, and this should play into the hands of good film-making, which stirs our soul by leaving a little to the imagination and by sacrificing stylization for grit. Not BLOOD VISIONS, where the demon actually advances on the girl "investigator" in her OWN HOME and she chases hollering "We are going to help that family!" Pathetic.
The editing and effects were nothing short of dizzying and had me wondering whether the entire crew should be put on Ritalin. When you can't tell a story well, the lack of wit and believability is all the more exposed. Seasons 1-4 met their burden -- selling us on some rather unbelievable events. I didn't question the credibility of Season 2 WHERE DEMONS DWELL in which Satan Himself crawls out from a well behind a rental property in rural Connecticut, and yet I doubted everything depicted in BLOOD VISIONS. If I learned anything from seasons 1-4, smudging does not work and 16-year-old valley girls with no background in science or connection to the Church can chase demons away. Unless of course the prayer read off that single sheet of paper was actually the script for last night's episode, which could probably chase anything on Heaven and Earth.
Season 5 plays too loose with the source material. Perhaps the absence of an active research manager is responsible. There were some rather fascinating aspects to the Summerwind Haunting left out of the episode (i.e., rooms changing dimensions, double exposures, corpse in crawl space) because of decisions to include only that for which there's strong or converging evidence. But a number of things occur in BLOOD VISIONS for which the crew accepted on faith the account of a single person (i.e., appearance of demon in home of investigator).
New Details on the Recipe: Decline in Season 5 Explained
The series owes its soul to a formula -- an interweaving of certain parts narration, certain parts character acting, and certain parts interview -- and seasons 1-2 achieved an optimal balance whereby the actors are primarily seen but not heard. Even when they speak in the episodes, their speech is indistinct, overwritten by a layer of audio that is narrator or interview. The dialog -- or really I should say "monologue" -- of the actors bleeds through in single words or phrases but much of it covered over and we are largely watching the actors behave while listening to the real haunting victims or the narrator talk. This perhaps most evident in season 1. In season 2 there is a slight change in protocol where the actors are not overlaid with interview/narration but INTERRUPTED for interview/narration. I prefer season 1 to season 2 in this regard but it's mainly a matter of emphasis and there's no loss of quality between these seasons. The tactic covers up or smooths over deficiencies in writing and acting. In Seasons 3 and 4 we see a modest decline where the actors are given more audible lines and dialog overtakes monologue. By season 5, the shift is so pronounced, that the true capabilities of the writers and actors are exposed. Actors who returned for roles in Season 5 appear less skilled than in their Season 1 or 2 episode. Did they lose their talents? No. It's partly the dialog they are given, which is poorer, but more to the point, it's the loss of this "formula" I described for the first 2 seasons.
The soul of the series itself is imperiled by this transition. The original formula created a Kubrick-like effect where even hauntings of small rooms appeared on a grand stage and with tremendous atmosphere (i.e., overtone of the grave). The hauntings had much more stage presence and touched us at a deeper level.