The Amityville Horror (1979)
★ / ★★★★
A twenty-year-old murdered his entire family and left the cops bewildered due to his lack of motive. Only a year later, George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) decided to buy the house where the gruesome murders occurred. Kathy had three kids from a previous beau but George didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he loved the kids as if they were his own. But there was something strange about the house. Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) and Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey) felt a malevolent presence once they stepped inside. They heard voices that threatened and ordered them to get out. Inspired by a true story and based on Jay Anson’s book, “The Amityville Horror” was a whole lot of noise but it wasn’t particularly scary. At its best, it was creepy with the flies, obviously signifying death, that appeared only in one special room, the creaking floorboards when someone was alone in the house, and the dog desperately trying to dig up something from the basement. I took on a certain passivity as George’s hair began to grow longer. Over time, their neighbors claimed that he started to look like the boy who killed his parents and siblings. Notice I mentioned “passive.” George’s descent into madness lacked dimension. While he did look meaner and he became prone to snide remarks, his demeanor wasn’t that much different from a very stressed out person. Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ intent. However, I had serious doubts that it wanted to take the subtle path because, especially toward the end of the film, it became generous in terms of its special effects like blood seeping out of the walls and the rise of something buried in the basement. And, of course, the final confrontation had to happen in a dark, stormy night. The picture would have been stronger if it had rooted its horrific elements in little accidents. For instance, one of the son’s hand being stuck in a window that wouldn’t budge or the babysitter who got trapped in a closet as George and Kathy attended a wedding. When we were left in the house with just our imagination, it was scary and somewhat realistic. After all, a rocking chair that seemed to move by itself was probably just triggered by the wind or a natural tremor from the old house. Another weakness I noticed about the film was it had too many scenes that didn’t have anything to do with the family. When the camera was not in or around the house, the tension subsided because it felt less personal. Instead of a gradual increase in rising action, there were noticeable dips that borderline somnolence. “The Amityville Horror,” directed by Stuart Rosenberg was not as chilling as it should have been. To most audiences, it may seem old-fashioned or tame because it didn’t show us much for the majority of its two-hour running time. I believe it shouldn’t have shown us anything at all. It would have been an entirely different experience if it had challenged us to use our preconceived notions of haunted houses.
★★★ / ★★★★
The wife of a television producer had passed away when their son was still very young. Mr. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) raised his son on his own and had grown accustomed to the loneliness of being a single parent. His son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), noticed that his father seemed a bit sad for quite a while so he suggested that Mr. Aoyama should find a girl and get married. With the help of his co-worker (Jun Kunimura), the two men held an audition for a movie. Out of all the girls, Mr. Aoyama was most interested in Asami (Eihi Shiina), a girl who was passionate about ballet but had given it up due to a bad hip. He didn’t know she held a very dark secret. Based on a novel by Ryû Murakami and directed with great control by Takashi Miike, the neat thing about “Ôdishon” was if all the scenes involving the psychosexual horror were taken out, it worked as a solid romantic drama. The first half of the film consisted of tender moments between father and son, like fishing and sharing meaningful conversations over dinner, and funny scenes of various women auditioning for a lead role. There was a natural progression away from the light ambiance to a truly horrific finale. There were red herrings thrown at us to give us the impression that there was something seriously wrong about Asami. Despite his friend telling Mr. Aoyama that he felt something not quite right about the girl, the widower was intent in forming a relationship with the woman. He read her essay, which was a part of her resume, and he wanted so badly to believe that he knew her, that she was right for him. He saw that, like himself, she had been damaged by the past and that commonality was, from his perspective, deep enough for the two of them to want to share a life together. It brought a new definition to the saying that love is blind. He took a blind eye to her lies and so he failed to see her true intentions. The gruesome scenes toward the end had real potency. The picture earned showing us the grotesque images because of its steady rising action. In some ways, I wanted to see the gore and the mutilation. But the funny thing was, when I saw it, I almost immediately wanted to look away. However, I must mention some details that didn’t quite fit into the big picture. How did Mr. Aoyama, through a hallucination or dream sequence, learn the content of the bag in Asami’s apartment (or how her place looked like for that matter) when not once did he visit her place? It made me wonder that perhaps there was a missing scene prior to the third act. However, such details could be easily overlooked because the images that “Audition” offered were creepy and some were downright terrifying.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) decided to move into a New York City apartment with a strange past involving women who ate children. Rosemary was enamored with the decor and Guy thought the area was a premiere place for his career as a budding actor. They lived next to Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), an elderly couple with whom Rosemary and Guy quickly grew fond of because they were so friendly and accommodating. But the couple’s happy existence was shattered when Rosemary had a dream of being raped by Satan and learned some time later that she was pregnant. Based on a novel by Ira Levin and directed by Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” was a masterful understated horror film with a possibility of witchcraft at its center. It worked in two ways: Either Rosemary’s suspicion that the apartment complex was full of devil worshippers was indeed correct or it was simply that Rosemary didn’t know how to handle her pregnancy (after all, it was her first child) so her mind succumbed to paranoia over a period of nine months. Its brilliance was in the fact that we didn’t know which possibility was true until the final few scenes. When we finally found out, it almost didn’t matter because Rosemary’s journey felt complete. The picture capitalized on expertly rendered scenes of increasing creepiness. It ranged from Rosemary hearing weird chanting from behind the walls of their bedroom, her husband’s increasingly suspicious behavior, to our protagonist actually eating raw meat without her conscious mind’s control. I loved the scenes when the very pregnant Rosemary ran around New York City in broad daylight yet so much tension and horror surrounded her. With most horror pictures being set at night, especially their climax, Polanski proved that being surrounded by people in the middle of the day could be as terrifying as long as the elements were perfectly aligned. When the main character was in a phone booth waiting for an important call, we felt right there with her, wishing the phone would ring as soon as possible. We cared for the main character because Farrow instilled a certain fragility in Rosemary, not just because she was carrying a child, but because it felt like everyone wanted to control her. This was clearly shown when Minnie would imposingly wait for Rosemary to drink a special brew she made using plants from her herbal garden. We felt, like Rosemary, that there was something seriously wrong especially when the obstetrician, Dr. Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy), wouldn’t prescribe her any pills after months of feeling pain in her stomach. “Rosemary’s Baby” is a thinking person’s horror film and the rewards are found in the way we interpret the images we see and sounds we hear. Imagine looking at the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. You stare long enough and you get the unsettling feeling she might be staring back.
The Dark (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
Adelle (Maria Bello) and her daughter, Sarah (Sophie Stuckey), arrived in a Welsh farm owned by James (Sean Bean), her husband. While exploring the shore, Sarah noticed something glistening in the water. She carefully reached in and found a key. Then she noticed something more. The water reflected a dead girl’s face who, by dragging Sarah in the water, a portal between the land of the living and the dead, wished to return in the flesh. Adelle, busy with some artifacts she found in the sand, noticed a strange silence. Her daughter was nowhere to be found. Based on a novel by Simon Maginn and directed by John Fawcett, “The Dark” thrived on creepy details like sheep seemingly going insane and jumping off cliffs, several handfuls of keys but none of which could open the box in question, and the girl, Ebril (Abigail Stone), who appeared just when Sarah disappeared. I watched in complete interest and wondered how all of it would come together. Unfortunately, the film suffered from having too many ideas but not enough time to develop them. Adelle’s obsession in finding out what really happened to her daughter should have been more moving. I expected more investigative skills from the desperate mother. I didn’t expect her to rely so heavily on Welsh mythology she heard from others to find her own answers. She was supposed to be a practical woman from New York. Readily believing whatever she was told seemed somewhat dishonest to her character. The ultimate test whether our protagonist had done enough to get her daughter back was the scene in which Adelle tried to persuade Ebril to jump off a cliff so Sarah could return. I found it difficult not to laugh at what I was seeing. How could I believe that the girl was seriously considering to jump if she waited almost sixty years to return from the dead? It just didn’t make sense. Perhaps if more scenes were added that specifically showed her inner conflict in terms of being out of place in the modern world, I would have been more convinced. Lastly, James’ handyman friend, Dafydd (Maurice Roëves), should have shared more scenes with Adelle. He was a critical link between the past and present. He knew the grim details of the mass suicide that the priest, who used to occupy the farmhouse, incited. “The Dark” had a beautiful setting. The way the beach and the cliffs that surrounded it was shot, it looked like a perfect place for something bad to happen. Although I appreciated the risks that the screenplay had taken, there wasn’t a big payoff. Many were impressed with its supposedly surprise ending. There was nothing surprising about it. In fact, I expected and wanted it to happen so that the material would remain true to the rules it constructed for itself. On that level, I was mildly satisfied.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Jaws,” based on a novel by Peter Benchley, started off like a romance picture with two teenagers eyeing each other by a bonfire and their eventual decision to swim in the ocean. The boy, drunk, never made it in the water and the girl never made it out because a shark had taken ahold of her lower limbs. We observed her being dragged across the water like a ragdoll as her high-pitched screams turned into deafening silence. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” was a success because the horrific images we saw matched the horror of images we did not see. Sometimes we relied on the characters’ expressions and the words they used to describe what they saw. It was the Fourth of July and Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) was asked to look into the dead body. His instinct told him it was a shark attack but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) was convinced it was just a boating accident. The mayor wanted to protect Amity Island because its economy relied on summer vacationers. The cop was more concerned about people being shark bait. Spielberg was careful with revealing too much early on. For instance, when the girl’s mangled body was washed along the shore, we could only see her hand surrounded by small crabs and the rest were covered in sand. A less controlled film would have showed blood and intestines all over the place. We didn’t lay eyes on the shark until an hour into the film. It gathered tension by allowing us to imagine how big the shark was especially since it could easily take down jetties and small boats. After a few more victims, ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) was called to help with the investigation. He clashed with Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a local fisherman who agreed to catch or kill the shark for the right price, in terms of how to deal with the situation. Quint didn’t like what to be told especially by someone who was educated. He saw it as a sign of condescension. Their interactions were often amusing which served as a nice contrast with the horror surrounding them. The humor found a way to sneak up from behind us and just when we thought it was safe, the shark appeared and we were back to being wide-eyed and gripping onto whatever was near. I admired the progression in the shark attacks. In the beginning, we couldn’t see the shark at all. Toward the end, our characters were literally inches away from it and, with John Williams’ memorable score, we could see its gargantuan stature and the power it generated in such close proximity. If I were to make a list of must-see summer movies, “Jaws” would be on top. I was impressed not only because of the horror, but because it captured how it was like to relax at the beach. It got the small details right like the sounds of the wind blowing in our direction, the screams of joy when children played, and the way the sounds were muffled when we dunked our heads underwater. I love being in the ocean but one of my biggest fears, reiterated every time I see this film, is opening my eyes in the water and there happened to be a hungry shark coming my way.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), youngest of the Pevensie siblings, were left in England to live their cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) while their parents and older siblings, Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley), lived in the United States. Edmund and Lucy did not get along with their cousin, but the three of them ended up in Narnia when a painting of an ocean with a ship turned to life. They were taken aboard by Caspian’s (Ben Barnes) crew and explained to them their mission of collecting seven swords and defeating an evil green mist. The third installment of “The Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, based on C.S. Lewis’ books, was ultimately disappointing because it failed to capture a right balance between magic and heart. While it was heavy on the special and visual effects, the fighting scenes felt empty because the picture did not establish a good reason why they were fighting in the first place. Yes, the green mist was obviously a negative entity, but I had questions about who was controlling the mist and what was the common theme that tied the various characters together. Having faith in the majestic Aslan simply did not cut it because the kids from the first two films have grown up. Therefore, their personal challenges, too, should have evolved. The way they chose to deal with their respective challenges should have had a certain level of complexity and it should have always been at the forefront. Hints of such challenges involved Edmund and his feeling that he was always second best. Now that his brother was no longer allowed in Narnia, he thought that it was his turn to be a leader. His expectations were dampened when Caspian was seen as the leader instead of him. Aside from two measly scenes, one was when Edmund tried to enlist in the army and the other when he and Caspian had an argument in a cavern full of gold, the movie did not tackle Edmund’s insecurity in a thoughtful way. The same happened to Lucy as she craved to have her sister’s beauty. Her obsession led her to a dangerous spell but aside from one or two scenes, her problems were seemingly solved. The film should have taken the opportunity to explore that angle because so many girls suffer from low esteem. Sacrificing two or three battle sequences would have been more than fair. I’ve heard that the writers, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni, made some drastic changes from the original material. I was fine with it as long as they proved to me that the changes were made for the better. I wasn’t convinced. Despite “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” directed by Michael Apted, looking gorgeous as usual, it was choppy, lacked real tension, and the core characters felt secondary. That was an unforgivable sin.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” an unextraordinary young woman named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) with a low self-esteem and a penchant for dressing like an old woman was cursed by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Being in a body of an old woman, Grandma Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) decided to go into the mountains to find another witch or wizard who could reverse her condition. In the unforgiving cold mountains, she stumbled upon a castle with legs owned by the mysterious and slightly vain Howl (Christian Bale). Out of all Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” contained my favorite group of characters. Each of them had a defined personality from the sarcastic fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a young magician (Josh Hutcherson) who yearned for an adult figure, to characters who did not say a word like loving Turnip-Head and Heen, an old dog with only one facial expression. There was something unexpected revealed about each of them, particularly the villainous witch who cruelly casted a spell on our protagonist. All of the core characters shared one similarity so they had a reason to keep walking forward together. They were all caught up in a senseless war. Since it wasn’t explained to us why a war was happening or which side was fighting for what reason, the violence, burning homes, and people attempting to escape with their lives were that much more compelling. In some ways, the magical world that these characters inhabited served as an escape from the harsh realities of war. With the help of the castle, they had a chance to escape and hide but only temporarily. Eventually, they would step out on a once peaceful landscape and were confronted with flying ships used to drop bombs in beautiful cities by the sea. Unfortunately, when the picture decided to focus on the romantic bond between Sophie and Howl, I began to lose interest. They did have their cheesy moments, but I was more concerned about what Sophie saw in Howl and vice-versa. Sophie claimed to love Howl but for what reason? Did she love him because of his looks? It certainly wasn’t because of his maturity because he threw tantrums like a child. Was their so-called love pre-ordained? There was an evidence of time-travel toward the end of the story. Nevertheless, I could also argue that the heart of the film wasn’t about the romance between Howl and Sophie. The friendship between humans and magical creatures and the sacrifices they made for each other during a time of need would probably make more sense. “Hauru no ugoku shiro” teemed with great detail and imagination but the story always came first. Quirky, funny, adventurous, with just the right amount of dark undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, will enchant both young and old.