Tag: aj bowen

Dead Night

Dead Night (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Screenwriter Irving Walker and director Brad Baruh ought to take a Horror 101 class in order to really take a look at classic horror films—especially those with wild ideas—and study why they work. It is astounding that their project manages to get nearly every single element wrong, from mashing together a hodgepodge of ideas that do not complement one another to the truly awful execution in which suspense is nearly absent. Halfway through, it becomes clear that it is all about the splatter—like how an axe cracks the skull, how limbs are torn so easily. Is it supposed to be darkly comic? A throwback to B-movies of the past? It doesn’t matter—it is intolerably boring.

This would-be horror film is titled “Dead Night,” but it might as well be called “Dead on Arrival,” both because it offers nothing better than bottom-of-the-barrel junk as the family on vacation is terrorized and killed by supernatural forces mere hours after their arrival at the cabin in the woods. Observe how the dialogue is so scripted, no one sounds like an actual person but movie characters designed to be killed should the plot demand it. The awkward beats between lines only amplifies the hollowness of it all; the performers themselves do not look sold on what they’re saying, let alone be bothered to actually feel what their characters are feeling. At least they got paid to be in a bad movie rather than having to watch themselves appear in one.

We are shown fragments being inserted in unsuspecting people’s bodies. Somehow these curious, ancient-looking objects allow the victims to get possessed or to come back to life (it isn’t clear) equipped with rather robotic-sounding demonic voices. But the thing is, they’re not strong or smart or even remotely threatening. They release guttural growls, their bodies undergo involuntary shaking, and their eyes whiten. (Of course, bad CGI must be employed since this is almost a pre-requisite in terrible horror flicks.) These zombie-demons appear to understand orders but they don’t accomplish anything. They are useless, worse than zombies that are barely able to walk, and one must wonder at their function. Are they meant to serve merely as ugly decorations against the pine trees and snow? Are we even supposed to feel creeped out by them?

At least Barbara Crampton, the unconscious woman whom the patriarch (AJ Bowen) finds in the snowy woods, seems to be having a great time. Her approach once her character is resuscitated: overact, turn the enthusiasm knob to eleven, raise her voice at every character who challenges her even just a little. The surge of energy she provides is like a defibrillator to a body that had been dead for a week. While her attempt to revive the material is ultimately useless, at least she tried. That is more than can be said about the filmmakers’ efforts. I got the impression that they wanted to make a movie just to have something on their resume. What results is a work that is lazy and not at all entertaining.

If I were a film professor, I would hold an optional lecture for “Dead Night.” It would be a good lecture to attend because it shows how not to make a film—no matter the genre. And it would be optional because sitting through the picture itself is harsh punishment. I would rather stare at a wall for an hour and fifteen minutes than having to watch this drivel again.

The Sacrament

The Sacrament (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Inspired by what is now known as the Jonestown Massacre, “The Sacrament,” written and directed by Ti West, is well-shot, beautifully photographed at times, but there is not enough payoff—despite the many deaths during the final twenty minutes. What results is an ungainly found footage feature that offers no real scare—not the kind that jumps out at the screen and we are shocked for a split-second, but the more difficult kind: images that will stay in our guts minutes or even hours after it is over.

Patrick (Kentucker Audley) gets a letter from his sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), saying that he is welcome to visit the parish that she had joined—a community that helped her to overcome drug addiction. Patrick’s friends, Sam (AJ Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg), who cover provocative stories untouched by the mainstream, decide to tag along. The trio expect to encounter a hippie commune, but minutes after getting off the helicopter, they are greeted with guns and unfriendly faces.

West is a type of filmmaker who is fond of build-up—a quality that I like. I enjoy a screenplay that actively works to give us the creeps which reaches a peak either about or well past halfway through when the veil is quickly taken away and we learn that our suspicion is true—a refreshing step away from so-called twists that are—upon closer examination—nonsensical, illogical, a brazen attempt to get away with cheating, or all of the above. But all this movie has to offer is an adequate rising action.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when it has started to go wrong. The parish is led by a man only referred to as Father (Gene Jones, who gives a convincing performance). Though Sam and Jake are unexpected guests, Father agrees to be interviewed on-camera. Sam plans to go for the jugular by asking questions designed to expose the flaw in the small community, but he finds himself overpowered by a man who not only knows his way around words, he knows how to twist them in such a way that it takes a person by complete surprise and suddenly all defenses are down.

While it is understandable the Sam character feels shaken for a bit during the interview, from the moment he is thrown off his game, the script commits a critical miscalculation of never allowing to get him back up. This is problematic because he is the eye from which we perceive the bizarre story. He is supposed to be a sharp journalist who knows when and how to get what he wants from his subjects. West should have made Sam a more formidable protagonist, someone who can really challenge the villain of the piece. Otherwise, what makes the story interesting?

The final act of the picture is supposed to be horrifying, I guess, but I felt close to nothing. Though suffering is clearly being portrayed on screen, all I saw were people acting, trying their best to emote what they think dying is like or attempting—and failing—to look like dead people. In other words, it comes off as a charade because there is minimal substance that propels what should have been a convincing tragedy.

If the screenplay had been smarter, it would have focused more on the mind that is single-handedly controlling an entire community. Instead, it comes off not knowing a thing about human psychology—let alone fully understanding a mirror-filled, labyrinthine mind of a master manipulator. Perhaps the scariest thing about it is that it is supposed to be a horror film when, really, it is quite flat across the board—inspired by a true story or otherwise.

You’re Next

You’re Next (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

It is the thirty-fifth anniversary of Aubrey and Paul (Barbara Crampton, Rob Moran) so they invite their grown kids to their vacation home, unaware that their neighbor next door was massacred the night before. Dinner is served and barely two minutes into what should have been a nice meal, an argument between brothers (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg) explodes. As upset voices fill the room, a guest is hit by an arrow, shot by someone from outside.

“You’re Next,” written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, is slightly better than an average slasher flick for one reason: a final girl named Erin (Sharni Vinson) who is worth rooting for until the very last second. On the other hand, its premise, masked strangers terrorizing a family, is painfully standard. It only gets better when unexpected pitch-black humor, such as a line uttered by someone who is badly hurt, surfaces.

The first half is stronger than the latter half. I enjoyed watching panicked people running around the house as they try to gather the fact that someone outside wants to kill them. The material finds a few creative ways to move a group of people from one room to another despite an avid shooter picking off the weakest links. Here, the screams of terror works even though lines like, “We’re gonna die!” cheapen the moment a little bit. One of the most effective scenes involves Aubrey having a meltdown as she watches one of her children die.

But the star of the picture, appropriately, is the survivor. In horror movies, I always find it annoying when a whiny weakling makes it to the final act or, worse, survives. Erin is the antithesis of a dumb blonde who asks, “Is anyone there? …Hello?” while entering a dark room with no weapon—and no chance. Erin is tough mentally. She makes brisk movements. She is always looking around for whatever she can use to defend herself. She knows what to do with the weapons. She can be creative when resources are limited. Most importantly, she is given enough background to make the fight in her believable.

The masked murderers are not interesting at all. While we are given to understand their motivation, there is not much substance to them except to look sinister as their image is reflected on glass. The problem is that they are not as smart as the heroine. Still, some of the kills are inspired. I liked the one where a masked figure traps one of his victims, lying on the ground, and uses an ax as if he were playing crochet. Though one anticipates the crunching sound of a skull being split open, one still cannot help but flinch.

Those who make careless claims that “You’re Next” is innovative need to get their eyes checked—or watch more horror movies. It is entertaining during some parts and at times it falls completely flat due to the lack of energy and precise execution while tension is supposed to be escalating. We are given a good protagonist but the screenplay requires more work in order for the final product to be truly worthwhile.

Rites of Spring

Rites of Spring (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Ben (AJ Bowen) and Amy (Katherine Randolph) are $300,000 in debt. Teaming up with quick-tempered Paul (Sonny Marinelli), the trio plan to break into a wealthy couple’s home, kidnap their young daughter, and collect a ransom of two million dollars. Meanwhile, Rachel (Anessa Ramsey) and Alyssa (Hannah Bryan) are taken by an older gentleman (Marco St. John) at the parking lot of a bar. He believes that every first day of spring, a ritual must be performed for a creature’s sustenance which in turn will produce good harvest.

To chalk up the “Rites of Spring,” written and directed by Padraig Reynolds, as an accidental gem, a fusion of crime-thriller and slasher horror, is a claim that holds little weight given that plenty of attempts to combine conflicting moods and tones often go very, very wrong–especially when it comes to filmmakers making their feature-length directorial debut.

It would have been too easy to make the robbers be the bad guys who ought to meet their comeuppance somewhere down the line. But instead of traversing the more convenient route, the writing makes an attempt to make at least one or two of them likable. Though Ben takes part in planning the robbery as well as implementing it, his moral struggle and fear of getting caught are communicated between moments he cannot undo once crossed. Similarly, the kidnapped women could have been easily treated as cattle to be gutted and disposed of once the screaming stopped. One of them turns out to be a fighter, Ramsey quite nicely casted for her ability to exude hatred against her tormentor while balancing a special vulnerability in her to make us care for her well-being.

The chase scenes are standard, but they are handled with precision. Each one radiates an energy so upbeat that we are pulled into the moment. The characters running away from an assailant actually look like they’re fighting for their lives, so when the hunted trips we root for her to get up and continue running instead of shaking our heads in disapproval and frustration toward a shoddy script. Moreover, I enjoyed that the film does not rely on poorly-lit rooms to amp up the tension. The most heart-pounding chases occur in broad daylight or under bright lights which is a welcome and refreshing change.

I wished there had been more details about the rituals performed for the creature. The audience get glimpses like free-flowing blood from slashed wrists being collected using a bowl, the clean-up of the person being bestowed, and the act of putting animal heads over the “clean” sacrifice. The deeper it gets into the ritual by showing specific details, the easier it is to buy into a premise that may be considered quite bizarre.

Although the story lacks complexity to make it truly stand out and has an ending so abrupt that it might be missed if one blinks at the wrong time, “Rites of Spring” leaves me wanting more in the best way possible. It is always a great feeling when we can almost touch the filmmaker’s glowing enthusiasm and willingness to try something slightly different from behind the lens.

A Horrible Way to Die

A Horrible Way to Die (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Sarah (Amy Seimetz) recently joined Alcoholics Anonymous. On her first day, which happens to be the third month of her sobriety, she meets Kevin (Joe Swanberg). He claims he wants to get to know her outside of AA. She admires his honesty and figures she can use a little bit of that positive quality in her life. The two go on a date and everything goes swimmingly. Meanwhile, Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, Garrick (AJ Bowen), escapes from prison. We learned that when he was still with Sarah, whenever they weren’t together, he killed to feed his addiction for flesh. His motivation to get out of prison, it seems, is to see his ex-girlfriend and claim her as his most priced victim.

Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, “A Horrible Way to Die” has some good ideas and rather solid twists before the closing chapter, but the muddled cinematography takes away the little power that the picture has going for it.

We spend a lot of personal time observing Sarah and Kevin. We watch them meet, exchange smiles out of politeness which soon changed into something genuine, go on their first date, and the first time they have sex. But the camera shakes so relentlessly and dizzyingly for no good reason whatsoever. It feels like we are watching a first take as the cameramen and director attempt to adjust the lighting and make sure that the microphones are in their proper places. By moving the camera in such a way, the connection between the characters and audiences are disrupted. Instead of engaging us in a flow, it becomes a difficult and frustrating watch. Because of its presentation, the material appears unprofessional.

Sarah has a lot of self-esteem issues which is rooted in her struggle against alcohol addiction and is perpetuated by news that her serial killer ex-boyfriend is on the loose. The camera should have been still so that we are allowed to look her in the eyes and infer some of the questions that might pop into her head. This is her journey and I wasn’t convinced that the filmmakers were aware of that. If they did, the least they could have done is to get the technical issues right so the audience can focus on the story.

The writing needs revision because it fails to incorporate two of Sarah’s monsters: the alcoholism and the ex-boyfriend. Although flashbacks are provided so that we can get a sense of our protagonist’s history, there is no effort from behind the camera to put them together in way that makes sense. Obviously, drugs can be a source of addiction but what are the similarities between a drug and a bad relationship? Instead of exploring this question, the filmmakers hands us random scenes like Sarah thinking about Garrick when she touches herself at night. What does that have to do with anything?

“A Horrible Way to Die” lacks a bridge between drama and horror/thriller so the emotions on screen feel like a sham. The whole charade would have been laughable, not just maddening, if it wasn’t such a frustrating chore to sit through.