★★★ / ★★★★
The name Gareth Evans is not yet a household name, but trust that in time it will be.
Stepping out of the Indonesian martial arts pictures “The Raid” and its superior sequel, writer-director Evans offers a period horror film in which a man named Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) infiltrates a religious cult after his sister’s kidnapping. The ransom note demands that their father be the one to visit the island, but it is impossible given that the old man is no longer mentally present. “Apostle” is a film that could have been told in ninety minutes, but its length, particularly its willingness to immerse the viewer in the villagers’ way of life, is exactly what I admired about it. It puts the audience into a specific mood as insane images begin to parade across the screen like multiple crashes with gruesome fatalities. It is no “Final Destination 2” but gorehounds are certain to be satisfied.
It does magic right by keeping it minimal. Residents of the isolated Welsh island revere a goddess that provides them good crops—at least until recently. Lately, the crops have become toxic and the animals stopped breeding. Those that did end up giving birth, they produced abnormal offsprings, certain to die out of the womb. Although this island is rooted in magical workings, I enjoyed the decision to downplay it. As a result, visual effects, like CGI, is almost never required in order to get the point across. Instead, we learn to rely on our imagination when practical effects are shown to us. For instance, we are shown the insides of crops, how its contents react to water. There is implication that it would lead to death if eaten.
Another example is showing the goddess herself. Focusing on her magic, like what results after having to wave her arms around, would have been laughable, inappropriate in a story like this. Instead, the camera focuses on her withered appearance, perhaps even inspiring us to wonder how she might have looked like during her prime. There is a sadness in her appearance; it is the correct decision not to make her look scary or terrifying in a classical sense. Because the point of the story, I think, is that the humans, especially three former convicts who started the cult (Michael Sheen, Mark Lewis Jones, Paul Higgins), are the monsters, not the supernatural elements that we typically fear.
The film is beautifully photographed, from the aerial shots of the verdant island down to the well-worn ground that the characters tread upon. Huts look convincing and floorboards look dingy and fragile. And so when a character, for instance, breaks down walls or falls through floorboards with seeming ease, there is believability to it. Surprisingly, there is also beauty in the torture scenes, particularly when devices are utilized. Notice how the camera is not afraid to be as close as possible when sharp metal hits human flesh. It dares us to keep looking even though we feel absolutely disgusted—partly tickled—with what is occurring.
“Apostle” is a horror film worth seeing because it strives to absorb the viewers into a particular world rather than simply providing cheap entertainment. While it lacks in generic jump scares, which are not scary anyway, a thick and foreboding atmosphere can be felt throughout. It dares to embrace the strange, willing to take advantage of culture-specific mythos many of us may not be familiar with. After all, what is horror but a glimpse inside of an alien world that we can only try to make sense of?
★★ / ★★★★
Here is a piece of work with potential to become a situational cult horror picture despite a distractingly forced dialogue that almost sounds like a soap opera. However, for a story involving a mysterious cult in rural Texas, it fails to delve into the requisite creepy details designed to address our curiosities and answer our questions. Instead, it employs standard techniques that plague recent, inferior horror films such as a wounded character walking about simply waiting to get picked off, shaky camerawork and grainy night vision, a whole lot of screaming and yelling. The final third might have benefited from a complete rewrite.
In the middle of the night, a distressed woman (Lisa Marie Summerscales) calls her husband, Tom (Dean Cates), after she kills a man (Derek Phillips) in a motel. Although there is an apparent rift in their marriage and Lovely is adamant in refusing to say over the phone what exactly had happened, Tom takes on the long drive to see what is going on and, if possible, try to help. Neither of them knows that the man who had been stabbed in the torso several times is a member of a cult—and his fellow members are heading to the seedy motel.
The picture strives to establish a distinct style clearly influenced by David Lynch and, to some degree, the early Coen brothers. The south being the setting is no accident. The action takes place mostly in one room and a parking lot but great tension is established exactly because, as viewers watching an increasingly desperate situation unfold, we know that the sooner they remove themselves from these two places, the better their chances of survival. As expected, Tom and Lovely’s marital problems are brought to surface almost immediately and this clouds their judgment—the very element they need to be crystal clear if they were to successfully extricate themselves out of their predicament.
Another technique is its utilization of a flashback a few minutes after a cut scene. For example, Tom opens the trunk of the stabbed man’s car and, for a split-second, the camera hints at the character making an important discovery. The screen fades to black and the action returns to Lovely in the motel room, looking in the mirror, traumatized, very likely regretting the decisions she’d taken during the night.
Then Tom returns to the room. A flashback is triggered to show us what he’d seen in the trunk. This technique works for the most part because it breaks a highly intense scene, forces us to digest an eerie calm while the material has our undivided attention, and then back to that curious thing. It keeps us slightly off-balance as more tension builds in the background. Writer-director Mickey Keating is clearly influenced by the great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
Although the eventual appearance of the cultists are initially horrifying, they are not given enough interesting courses of action to take to prove that they are top-tier villains. They wear skull masks, appear in groups, and walk real slowly. We see the cultists’ faces. However, the screenplay appears stuck in delivering standard third-act horror film tropes rather than continuing to engage the audience by beginning to answer our burning questions.
Sound of My Voice (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) decide to make a documentary about cults. Blindfolded and put into a van toward an undisclosed location, we can tell almost immediately that it isn’t their first time. They are much too calm for a pair being stripped down of their defenses. In the basement of an unknown location, Peter and Lorna, along with two new recruits, meet Maggie (Brit Marling), the leader of the group. Surprising in that she is young and beautiful, equally surprising is her claim that she is a time traveler from year 2054.
Written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” is like sitting across a ticking clock in a room of absolute silence, each click feeling like a portentous communiqué, a countdown to an interaction with a mysterious, possibly sinister, force. The film flourishes in small but calculated scenes that take place in a basement, claustrophobic but bathed in yellow glow served to alleviate suspicion.
Rituals that the cult members go through are bizarre both in terms of concept as well as placidity of those wishing to belong. The brainwashing process is uncomfortable, creepy, and intense. The scene involving an apple forced me to hold my breath in anticipation while my mouth dropped open in disbelief and disgust.
If I were Lorna or Peter, after having witnessed and experienced the physical, emotional and psychological manipulations, I would have relinquished all connection to the group and never looked back. And just when I asked myself what Peter and Lorna hope to get from the experience, the writers are quick to acknowledge why the duo feels, as a team, that they must continue the research.
Marling is quite menacing in portraying the cult leader. When Maggie’s claim of having come from the future is threatened, she lashes out in a subdued manner, a technique much more effective than screaming and yelling. We almost get the feeling that if she lost control of herself, therefore the situation, the chinks in her bewitching facade would become all too visible. That is, if she is, in fact, lying about hopping across time.
Its most engaging aspect is the possibility that Maggie is telling the truth. An array of evidence that support and undermine her claim is presented to us. The fact that there is no answer considered as absolute is its ultimate spell. The way we interpret the events that unfold may say a lot about us and our capacity to think critically, not only in taking into consideration the secrets and implications underneath the topsoil but how conflicting information mirror one another.
What the picture lacks, however, is a strong emotional connection between Peter and Lorna. I never really believed that they are a couple that can face the world together. So when their relationship is threatened by the ramifications of being neck-deep into the cult, it feels too much like a ploy rather than a natural hurdle that they have to overcome. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Zal Batmanglij, the director, has a specific vision and the talent to pull off a feat: to get his audience to question and consider multiple perspectives.
Now let’s return to the ticking clock I mentioned earlier. Imagine if someone had told you, while sitting in a bare room with nothing but four walls, a chair, a table and light, that the clock would set off its alarm in exactly thirty minutes. The problem is, you are never allowed to see the face of the clock nor are you allowed to touch it in any way. And this clock does not produce ticking sounds. So you decide to wait. And wait. How do you know you’re being duped?
Wicker Man, The (1973)
★★ / ★★★★
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrived in an island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. But when he asked the residents about information regarding the missing child, they claimed that they didn’t know her, as if she never existed. The longer Sergeant Howie stayed on the island, the more he felt a certain level of unease. He was horrified by the village’s strange practices like teachers (Diane Cilento) openly discussing phallic symbols to her students, public sexual intercourse, and umbilical cords hung on a small trees planted on graves. “The Wicker Man,” directed by Robin Hardy, was a strange horror film because I didn’t always feel as horrified as the main character. There were times when I couldn’t help but feel like the film was simply a product of its time or that Sergeant Howie was simply being close-minded. After all, he was a deeply devout Christian. He turned almost aggressive when he encountered anything that challenged his beliefs. In some ways, he wasn’t particularly likable because of the manner in which he judged the villagers, as weird as their culture might be, without trying to understand, even in the rudimentary ways, why the residents moved away from Christianity, symbolized by an abandoned church in ruins. The film also placed emphasis on folk music. It worked in some scenes because the soothing music was an interesting contrast to the unsettling images we saw. However, it wasn’t as effective in other more crucial scenes especially when the real horror, like when Sergeant Howie discovered what the villagers, led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), were really up to. There were also some scenes that were somewhat difficult to decipher. For instance, when the bartender’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), was dancing in the nude next to Sergeant Howie’s room, was she performing some sort of witchcraft that affected our protagonist physically and psychologically or was it all a dream, something that hinted at Sergeant Howie’s sexual frustration because he considered it a sin to engage in sexual practices before marriage? Certain strands led to dead ends which caused confusion. Perhaps it was the fact that I saw a shortened version of the film. Those missing twenty minutes could possibly shed light to questions related to the secret revealed later in the picture. “The Wicker Man” relied on mood and atmosphere more than images designed to linger in our minds and make us jump. There’s nothing wrong with that. I felt dread during Sergeant Howie’s investigation and the way the residents answered his questions but never really getting to the point. In the end, what mattered most was it all had to come together. I felt as though it did not.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) made no contact with her family and friends for two years. During that time, she joined a cult, led by the quietly malevolent Patrick (John Hawkes) who renamed her Marcy May, a place where she believed was perfect to reset her life. Unable to endure their way of living any longer, Martha ran through the woods, called her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and asked to get picked up. Lucy and her successful but stressed husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy), allowed Martha to stay with them in their vacation house and hoped that she would eventually open up about what happened during her disappearance. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” written and directed by Sean Durkin, captured a traumatized and fractured mind without necessarily showing every violent detail. It focused on the repercussions–how certain things that were done could not be undone. Most of the time, the filmmakers relied on Olsen to deliver subtle facial expressions as she sat in one place, looked around the room as if she was lost or confused, and recalled the terrible things she was forced to do for the sake of the group she formerly belonged in. Every time the film jumped between past and present, Olsen almost played a different character but it worked because the protagonist didn’t have a defined identity. Her first identity was erased after joining the cult. Although we can agree that her decision to go back to the real world was ultimately a good thing, it’s not at all difficult to argue that her decision was unhealthy for her mind. She wasn’t ready to leave. But will she ever be ready to? Martha and Lucy’s interactions were very sad and sometimes unnerving. For example, the sisters would prepare dinner and suddenly Martha would ask, “Where is this? Is this now or is this the past?” It consistently surprised me because something so ordinary, like preparing a meal, was often marred by a strange but very serious question or comment. Lucy, who felt guilty for not being the sister she thought she ought to be, struggled to be supportive by not falling apart. Having her sister under the same roof as her husband proved to be a bad idea but she made the most of it. Yet she was only human. There were times when she would scream at Martha out of frustration because it seemed like no matter what she did, her sister’s condition turned for the worse. Feeling like one’s effort is not appreciated breeds anger and grudge. It didn’t help that she had no knowledge of Martha’s experience in the cult. She was led to believe that Martha had a boyfriend and she was only experiencing a bad break-up. “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” purposefully slow in pace but consistently focused on the message it wanted to deliver, was driven by Olsen’s wonderful performance. The glossy blankness in her eyes was haunting one minute, very tragic the next. It was like trying to understand an empty shell. Martha came back in the same body but half of her mind was stuck in that terrible farm, still secretly coming up with ways to achieve freedom.
Red State (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A dead teen was found in the dumpster at the back of the town’s most popular gay bar. It was reported that he was wrapped in plastic from head to toe and authorities believed that it was some form of ritualistic murder. Despite these happenings, Travis (Michael Angarano), Jarod (Kyle Gallner), and Billy-Ray (Nicholas Braun) accepted an online sex ad posted by an older lady (Melissa Leo) on Craigslist. As they headed to the trailer home’s bedroom, the trio lost consciousness. Their bodies were taken to a church by a group of religious zealots, led by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), to be “punished” for their sins. “Red State,” written and directed by Kevin Smith, was brutal, intense, and sometimes devoid of reason. I think it was meant to incite frustration and anger with the religious extremists’ talk of hatred toward homosexuals, how that one group of people was responsible for the world going to hell. It wasn’t easy to watch, not because of the violence, but because for at least fifteen minutes, we were forced to sit in that church and listen to Abin Cooper summoning fire and brimstone, even implying that the tsunami that ravaged Thailand in 2004 was not only an act of God in order to set an example but it was actually deserved. I was in rage, in a red state, if you will, because in the back of my mind, I knew people like them existed somewhere. I admired the writer-director’s decision to allow the story’s exposition to take up almost half of the picture’s running time. It was necessary that we understood the evil within that church before we were introduced to Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who was called to arrest the cult members for suspicion of illegally storing firearms, because we were asked to weigh between right and wrong. Sure, the adult cult members needed to be apprehended, preferably dead according to Keenan’s superiors, but there were also children and minors inside. Not all of them were innocent; they, the teens, knew that people were being taken and killed, but none of them had actually partaken in the physical act of taking and killing. However, it didn’t expunge the fact that they ignored their moral responsibility to report a crime. What didn’t work as strongly were the shootout scenes. They dragged for what seemed like an hour. I understood that governmental law and the word of God were literally at war but it eventually started to feel like an action film. Following Keenan as he searched for a kill shot was less exciting than what was happening inside the church. I preferred watching Goodman connecting with someone else, whether it be face-to-face or via cellphone. His pauses, stutters, and variation in voice implied great experience in law enforcement and I was so fascinated with what he was going to do next. His speech regarding a pair of bloodhounds toward the end was brilliantly executed and it summed up the crazy, somewhat otherworldly happenings up to that point. “Red State” defied the conventions of the horror genre. Instead of focusing on the gore to entertain, using violence as a tool, it made a statement about religion and politics: sometimes the two make no sense at all.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) had been promoted for successfully infiltrating an enemy line. However, he was not proud of himself because he played dead in the battlefield while his comrades met their demise. Capt. Boyd was sent to a fort in the California’s snowy Sierra Nevada mountains with seven others (Neal McDonough, David Arquette, Stephen Spinella, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, Sheila Tousey, Joseph Running Fox) who guarded the place. When a badly injured soldier (Robert Carlyle) arrived at the fort, he told them that he and his men ate each other in order to survive for three months in utter isolation. I thought this film was simply superb. Even though it was a little rough around the edges such as its sometimes distracting soundtrack, I was impressed with its originality. This picture was a melting pot of various genres. It mainly worked as a horror film because of the Native American’s myth involving the fearsome wendigo, a cannibal whose taste for its fellow man increasingly grows over time. It was also effective in being a dark comedy. Certain scenes were purposely amusing to relieve some of the tension prior to the kill and the graphic images of eating or destroying human flesh. One-liners such as, “It’s lonely being a cannibal; it’s tough making friends,” arrived at the most unexpected moments and I could not help but smile. Lastly, it succeeded as a western because it paid attention to the land and its impact on the individuals who occupied it. The main character was conflicted because he was torn between survival and his moral code. Watching the events unfold was such a joy because the ideas were executed with confidence. It was not afraid to take risks and embrace the bizarre. It could easily have been a one-dimensional horror movie about cannibalism in the mountains were characters make one stupid decision after another. (Or worse, attempting to climb down the mountain to “find help.”) But since the premise was so exotic, it took advantage of what we are not normally aware of such as our potential lack of knowledge involving the Indian myth. “Ravenous,” written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is an overlooked gem with a perfect measure of menace and wit. It might have done poorly in the box office but gained a deserved cult status since then. However, I must warn that this film is not for everyone. It might make some people uncomfortable because of the subject matter or the images of human flesh being eaten raw or even cooked in a cauldron. I loved every minute of it because it was not afraid to show us something different. It makes Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and other commerical cannibalism movies I have seen look like child’s play.
★★ / ★★★★
James Woods stars as a journalist who went to El Salvador to acquire stories about the political turmoil that was unfolding in the country. Despite having a wife and a child in the United States, he made contact with old connections who all thought he was dead such as his girlfriend (Elpidia Carrillo) and a photographer (John Savage). This film was a mixed bag. What I enjoyed most about it was when it finally focused on the civil war at hand which culminated in the last thirty minutes. There was something so poetic with the way Oliver Stone, the director, dropped Woods and Savage in the middle of raining bullets; the soliders held their guns and shot their bullets and the two leads held their cameras and took photos. Another part of the picture that stood out to me was the scene when Savage and Woods decided to take pictures of mountains of dead bodies. The decaying bodies looked so real especially when the camera loomed over the image in a wide angle. The film performed best when it really honed in on the seriousness of war and the innocents that were caught in the crossfire. However, my main problem with this film was its sense of humor that pervaded the first half. James Belushi’s character did not work for me at all because whenever he was on screen, I felt like I was watching a teenage film from the 80’s–like he was that boisterous uncle in a frat party who never found the time to mature. His character was just so out of place that it was kind of painful to watch. I don’t know what Stone was thinking writing this character into the story but I found it a bit disrespectful. Was the character’s purpose to show the obliviousness of Americans regarding the situation in El Salvador? If so, that was not my initial reaction because his character did not show any range or growth. The romantic angle did not work for me either for the same reasons. In the end, I wanted to know more about Woods and why he loved being a journalist. The way he argued his opinions about the war (even though he sounded preachy) against Americans in power convinced me that he wasn’t just doing it for the fame or the money as other synopses suggested. Even though he was flawed, he cared about what was happening in El Salvador. To me, half of this film borderlined greatness because I could feel the passion in the images on screen while the other half was more blasé and somewhat offensive. It is unfortunate that it was just a mediocre experience for such a powerful subject.
★★★ / ★★★★
This horror-comedy cult classic is about a medical student (Bruce Abbott) and his newfound eccentric roommate (the scene-stealing Jeffrey Combs) who brings people back from the dead. I think this being a low-budget film actually worked in its favor. There are only two locations in the film: Abbott’s apartment and the hospital’s morgue where the two lead characters work. By the end of the film, those places look completely familiar to the point where I felt like I’ve known those places for years. Another thing is that it consistently tried to push its limits–whether it’s the question of what would happen if we brought people back to life or just showing us impressive special effects such as blood, guts and severed body parts. Stuart Gordon, the director, should be commended because he was able to balance images of horror with situational comedy. I thought he did a neat job showing the audiences how far a doctor will go to complete his experiment, completely neglecting the ethics and moral conundrums that should be faced by a man of science. Gordon also had enough time to comment on the dynamics in the scientific community–that it isn’t any different than other jobs. In fact, jealousy is abound because pretty much everyone wants to discover the new best thing and some are willing to kill for the discovery. But one thing did bother me, though. I know it’s not meant to be realistic because it’s a zombie film but I couldn’t get over the fact that the decapitated head could control his own body. If the brain is not connected to the spinal cord, the body will not be able to move because the source of electrical signals that may trigger certain chemical signals that control everything else will not be present (such as muscle contraction). I cannot help but get a bit distracted whenever something is glaringly incorrect even for films that do not exactly scream realism. Still, if one is a fan of horror-comedies with interesting premises, campy and has a plethora of gore, “Re-Animator” is a must-see.
★ / ★★★★
I think the reason why this film gained a cult following is because of the controversy it garnered when it was released in the mid 1970’s. Depiction of homosexuality in films may have been a bigger deal back then but from today’s standards, I think this is a very weak experimental directoral feature by Derek Jarman. Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio), a Roman soldier, was exiled by the Emperor to a place where homoeroticism is abound. Since he refuses all sexual advances, especially from a superior officer named Severus (Barney James), most of the men torture and humiliate him in multiple ways to “encourage” him to surrender his Christian ideals and personal preferences. Despite its interesting premise, too bad the execution was lackadaisical. Throughout the entire picture, the audiences are asked to observe the lives of the exiled people as live like pigs. Although aesthetically the men may look beautiful (seductive music, slow motion and all) but I found it difficult to care for any of them. I really despised it when the camera would linger for literally about five minutes just to admire someone’s body. It’s just as bad as objectifying women and I did not like taking any part of it. Moreover, while I do give this film for being entirely in Latin, I couldn’t forgive its bad acting. I couldn’t see any passion in the actors eyes whenever they’re angry, passionate or sad. I also failed to see tension in their bodies whenever they’re supposed to be “fighting” one another. I literally caught myself rolling my eyes and thinking, “Wow, that’s so lame.” I read a review from Netflix that “this film will not appeal to everyone, especially homophobics and conservatives, but [he or she] would recommend it to those that like art house or queer cinema.” Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy LGBT films and art house pictures once in a while but this is just one of those movies that I will (most likely) never watch again. I expected some sort of a social and cultural thesis with regards to homosexuality or the feeling of alienation where something natural is treated as abnormal but I didn’t get either. With its complete lack of depth, I’m going to say to not even bother with this supposed cult classic.
Rocky Horror Picture Show, The (1975)
★★★ / ★★★★
I can understand why this film bombed in the box office when it was released but later gained a strong cult following. Even in today’s standards, this still has a very strong shock value because it features transsexual aliens, dirty images and songs, bad special and visual effects (it had a low budget), and a story that doesn’t make any sense. But I found this picture to be very difficult not to enjoy because it is aware of its campiness and shortcomings. I loved the fact that this movie made a plethora of references to the story of Frankenstein but it’s not limited to that. There are a lot of jokes in the background for comedic effect (whether it’s a painting, a banner, or an actor not realizing that he is on camera) even though those jokes are never attended to. It’s really up to the audiences to put some of the pieces together to truly enjoy this cult classic. Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick are believable as a WASP couple who gets engulfed in Tim Curry’s world of decadence. Peter Hinwood as Rocky Horror was really funny in his own mute way. Richard O’Brien (who also wrote the film) and Patricia Quinn provided an extra level of camp and originality. As for the songs, I found more than half of them to be very catchy especially “Dammit Janet” (which was sung in a church–it was hilarious), “Time Warp,” “Sweet Transvestite” and “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me.” If you’re look for a film that’s kitschy, sarcastic and bold, this is the one too see. I think it has a solid place in cinematic history because I haven’t seen anything remotely like it.