★ / ★★★★
The late Marcin Wrona’s debut picture “Demon” tells a story of a man from London named Piotr (Itay Tiran) who goes to a rural area of Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) a woman he met online. The day before their wedding, while digging in the yard, the visitor comes across what appears to be human skeleton. Although alarmed by what he has seen, he decides to keep his discovery a secret out of fear that it might derail the wedding. Late that night, due to heavy rain and mud, Piotr manages to fall into the pit. He wakes up the next day in his car with no memory of what happened after he was swallowed whole.
Although it is obvious that Wrona wishes to make a respectable and low-key horror film about the Polish’ relationship with the Jews before and after World War II, the work is far from cinematic. It is a bore for the most part because the exposition is so drawn out—there are images on screen but none of them are particularly unique or interesting. We learn about the wedding and we are introduced to some colorful personalities, but we never get to know any of them, particularly Piotr, in a deep or meaningful way. And so when the usual razzle-dazzle regarding demonic possessions move toward the forefront, it comes across like another inert horror movie meant to be forgotten even before the end credits roll.
It is especially frustrating to sit through because the director proves to have an eye for capturing images so stark that at times it feels like looking at old forgotten photographs. Notice shots of the outdoors. For instance, we see miles of grass… but there is no cattle grazing on meadows. There aren’t even birds making their way across the sky. There is construction in the middle of walls of sand and rocks… but there is minimal human activity, if at all. A similar observation can be made indoors. The house Piotr is staying in looks extremely run down. It gives the impression that the place is being renovated… but there are actually pictures hung on walls and decorations sitting on various corners. This Polish town is a depressing place. I would go as far as to claim it is meant to be a dead place, where people go to die. If only the screenplay by Pawel Maslona and Marcin Wrona functioned on the same level as the latter’s observant photography.
Events happen during and around the wedding, but not one is particularly compelling. There is a lack of balance in tone. Right after the wedding ceremony, Piotr begins to experience visual hallucinations. Eventually, he starts to lose control of his own body. These are meant to be terrifying. Sandwiched in between Piotr’s suffering is Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) and brother (Tomasz Schuchardt) trying to cover up Piotr’s “embarrassing mishaps,” like his seizure, which is supposed to be darkly comic. There are also tablespoons of absurdist humor in how wedding guests behave after having seen apparent medical emergencies.
However, there is no synergy established between horror and dark comedy. Usually, in order for the two to work together effectively, we must understand the characters thoroughly. In black comedies, for example, we laugh not at the events necessarily but at the people whom we know so well that we are tickled by their desperation. Within that desperation we recognize a part of ourselves. And so we laugh because perhaps we feel uncomfortable precisely because of that recognition. Here, the dark comedy is purely circumstantial. It becomes highly repetitive.
The spirit that possesses our protagonist is categorized eventually. I will not reveal it, but I can say that it has been introduced and explored in other, better horror movies. I enjoyed that the spirit is not the kind that inspires jump scares. In fact, it is treated as a rather sad entity. This is another avenue from which Wrona could have separated his work from other horror films. I’m afraid that by the time viewers get to this point—which is in the last twenty minutes of the picture—either they would be sleeping due boredom or given up completely that they’d have decided to walk out of it. And I wouldn’t blame them for doing either.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a spirit that guarded the forest had turned into a demon, in a form of a giant boar, threatened to attack a small village, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) killed the suffering spirit. But Ashitaka did not leave the battle unscathed. The demon managed to touch his arm and put a curse on him. One of the wise men from the tribe claimed that there could be a possible cure out in the West. However, if Ashitaka left the village, he could never return. “Princess Mononoke,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was branded by fans and critics as a classic. I don’t believe it was as strong as it should have been. While I admired that it used animation not just as a medium to entertain younger children, personified by gory beheadings and limbs cut into pieces, its pacing felt uneven and the way story unfolded eventually became redundant. There was a war between guardians of the forest, led by a giant white wolf named Moro (Gillian Anderson), and humans, led by the cunning Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). The spirits were angry because men cut off trees and killed animals for the sake of excavating valuable iron. If the forest died, the spirits, too, would perish. Ashitaka’s stance was the middle, the one who we were supposed to relate to, and it was up to him to try to bring the two sides together. While I appreciated that there was an absence of a typical villain because the characters’ motivations were complex, there were far too many grand speeches about man’s place in the world versus man’s right to do whatever it took for the sake of progress. As the spirits and humans went to war, the story also focused on the budding romance between Ashitaka and San (Claire Danes), a human that Moro brought up as a wolf. It was an unnecessary appendage because the romantic angle took away the epic feel of the battle sequences. Just when a battle reached a high point, it would cut to Ashitaka wanting to prove his love for the wolf-girl he barely knew. The high point, instead of reaching a peak, became an emotional and visual plateau. It wasn’t clear to me why Ashitaka would fall for someone like San, who was essentially a savage being, who claimed that she hated humans, and who considered herself to be a wolf. There was a painful lack of evolution in their relationship. Did San eventually feel like she was more human than animal after spending more time with the cursed Ashitaka? What was more important to our protagonist: being with the girl he loved or the lifting off the curse so that he could continue to live? The deeper questions weren’t answered. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that “Mononoke-hime” maintained a high level of imagination throughout. I especially enjoyed the adorable kodamas, spirits that lived in the oldest trees, with their rotating heads and confused expressions. If it had found a way to focus more on the big picture, without sacrificing details and actually offered us answers, it would have been a timeless work.
★★ / ★★★★
“Requiem” was based on the real-life story more commercially covered in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” Michaela (Sandra Hüller) had been plagued by chronic seizures ever since childhood but the picture instantly suggested there was something far worse happening to her. So when she was finally accepted to attend the university, her parents (Imogen Kogge, Burghart Klaußner), especially her mother, did not want her to leave home. In college, at first things were fine despite her occasional–and natural–loneliness quickly remedied by a nice boy (Nicholas Reinke) and a classmate from high school (Anna Blomeier). But as the year pressed on, she slowly lost control of her body to the point where she was unable to reach religious symbols or even pray. After I saw this movie, I did not like it because I expected a more obvious approach in telling a story about a possessed girl that lead up to an exorcism. In other words, I expected a horror film. However, when I separate my expectations from what the film had to offer, the more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed it because it tried to stray from the obvious. I loved the fact that her condition was not an obvious demonic possession. I can even argue that she wasn’t possessed at all. From her symptoms, I can argue that she had schizophrenia because of the paranoia and imaginary visions and sounds. Then I turned to her very sheltered environment–how she was raised and the sexual repression she endured over the years. But then the movie commented on how we could easily turn to science for an explanation of things that we couldn’t fully understand. It added one layer of complexity after another while remaining true to its naturalistic also documentary-like style. Her progression from a normal girl to someone who reached a mental break was subtle and frightening in its own way. However, I thought the film needed more work on delivering more consistent payoffs. The first half relied heavily on setting up the background with small rewards dispersed few and far between. It would have been more terrifying if the camera allowed us to see through Michaela’s eyes and seeing the things she saw or hearing the voices she heard. By having more scenes that actively blurred the line between the real and the supernatural, the project would have been more frightening. Written by Barnd Lange and directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, “Requiem” was an interesting psychological drama with a lot of promise. It did not completely work for me because the first half was somewhat difficult to sit through but once it started picking up in the second half, my eyes were transfixed on the screen.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) agreed to have his last exorcism to be documented on camera. In the first few minutes, he admitted to us that exorcism was only real in the minds of religious Christians plagued by something they cannot explain. In other words, the placebo effect guided the effectiveness of an exorcism. Despite Reverend Marcus being a sham, strangely enough, I understood why he made a career out of it because he had an obligation to provide for his family, especially his son who had difficulty hearing. Understandably, people feel the need to compare the movie to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” because of its faux-documentary style. But I say it was more like John Erick Dowdle’s chilling remake “Quarantine.” However, I think “The Last Exorcism” had its own identity and therefore its own strengths and weaknesses. The film was its best when it described the history of the practice, the circumstances in which one should get an exorcism, and the religious heretics so willing to go to the extreme to the point where they became blind to more conventional explanations such as the so-called possessed person having an undiagnosed disease or mental disability. I was also happy with the fact that it acknowledged the cruel act still happening today in various forms depending on the culture. The picture thrived on the build-up of strange information especially when we finally met a farmer (Louis Herthum) with a creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) and “possessed” daughter (Ashley Bell). The rising action of the girl sleepwalking, killing animals, being violent and making strange noises was unsettling and sometimes downright horrifying. However, the movie’s weakness was its own conceit. The faux-documentary style did not always work because there were times when the daughter, in an altered state, would pick up the camera and we saw what she saw and did. I loved that the film was purposely comedic, especially in the first half when the techniques of the scam were revealed, but the comedy and horror did not always complement each other in one scene. Instead of feeling scared, I felt detached and I almost felt the need to laugh because there was an underlying message that the devil despised the constructed false (if not almost illusory) reality like in movies mentioned earlier and reality shows on television. I also found some inconsistencies such as the addition of music during the scarier scenes (it was supposed to be a found footage!) and camera angles that only one cameraman can normally accomplish. Although I give kudos to Daniel Stamm, the director, for infusing a sense of (sort of campy) fun and intelligence in his project, I wanted more scenes where I find myself cowering in my shoes. I suppose that’s the reason why a lot of people did not like the movie: they wanted to feel more scared. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed “The Last Exorcism” because it was concise, confident with where it wanted to go and what it wanted to achieve, and its constant build-up was elegant. It made me think of respectable horror pictures from the late 60’s and ’70s.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I decided to see this horror-comedy about demonic possession and female sexuality not because of Megan Fox but because it stars Amanda Seyfried (“Mean Girls,” “Mamma Mia!”) and it was written by Diablo Cody (“Juno” and columnist on “Entertainment Weekly”). Seyfried must defend her town from a man-hungry Fox after an emo band (led by Adam Brody) who dabbles with the occult kidnaps her. At the same time, she must deal with her sometimes jealous boyfriend (Johnny Simmons) because he thinks there’s something unhealthy about his girlfriend’s relationship with Jennifer. The set-up is very simple and very clean but the journey to the finish was quite rough and sometimes unconventional (but in a good way). Apart from the whippersnapper and often downright clever and funny dialogue, “Jennifer’s Body” reminded me of the horror movies from the 1980s because it had a certain B-movie quality to it. Not to mention that the climax happened during a school dance. At times, it did surprise me because it offered certain insight regarding the dynamics between best friends; how one needs the other in order to feel better about herself, which begs the question on whether they were truly friends or if they were more like “frenemies.” The movie straddles that line really well so then there was this constant conflict between the two best friends even before Fox was turned into a demon. But the star here is not Fox (or her body), but Seyfried. She was able to be this character who was kind of a loser but a great person at heart, be sensitive and tough all at once. One main concern about this movie is that audiences will simply choose not to see it because they either hate Megan Fox for whatever reason (I think she’s one of the worst actresses in Hollywood right now but that’s not news) or label it as another “Juno” because of the modern pop culture dialogue. It’s really more than that because it’s a horror-comedy with a brain, which is very unlike straight (supposed) horror movies like Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II” or Patrick Lussier’s horrid “My Bloody Valentine.” If I were to throw out one major problem I had with this movie, I say it wasn’t scary enough to truly make classic horror fans to be impressed with it. Nevertheless, I still think “Jennifer’s Body,” directed by Karyn Kusama, is a good popcorn flick that lives up to its first line: Hell is a teenage girl.
The Changeling (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★
Initially, I thought this was going to be a ghost story like the truly horrific “The Shining” (which I was excited for), but toward the end it ended up being more like “The Ring” (which I wasn’t as excited for). Directed by Peter Medak, “The Changeling” was about a man who loves to play the piano (George C. Scott) and his grief for losing his wife and daughter. After about four months of their death, with the help of a friend (Trish Van Devere), he decided to move in to a creepy historical mansion to work on his music and to move on from the tragedy. However, the house would not let him work or heal because it would make strange noises, play the piano when he left the room, open the door ever so slowly as he composed music, and throw his daughter’s ball down the stairs… even after he seemingly got rid of it. Those truly scary moments (aided by a haunting soundtrack) made this film worth watching. However, I did not enjoy the last third as much because it reminded me of “The Ring” (even though I enjoyed that movie). Granted, this was made first but the whole well being buried under a house was too much of a distraction for me so it definitely took me out of the experience. If I were to pick a favorite scene in this picture, it would hands down has to be the séance scene when Scott, the medium, and others finally made contact with the ghost. It was done in such a scary manner which reminded me of the exorcism scene in “The Exorcist.” I tried not to blink in fear that if I closed my eyes, something would suddenly appear in a dark corner in the living room (I saw the movie with all the lights out). I’ve heard all too often that this is not known by many, especially my generation. I think it definitely deserves to be seen, especially the fans of horror films, because it was able to generate genuine scares without sacrificing the story. This is a very good haunted house picture that could have been as good as “The Shining” if it had been longer (perhaps a tour of the deeply atmospheric house?) and the whole bit about the well was eliminated. But then again I’m just being picky about the difference between “good” and “great” (to warn those who are expecting “The Shining”-level filmmaking). Don’t get me wrong, this is still a must-see.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Oren Peli, “Paranormal Activity” claims to be real but it is far from it because, well, it was written and directed by someone. So save yourself the embarrassment and don’t yell out, “It’s real! It’s real!” in front of everyone. A couple from San Diego, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, decided to record the paranormal happenings in their house from September to October 2006. Katie was apprehensive of the idea because she has a history of a ghost following her ever since she was a child. Micah went ahead anyway because, a typical guy that he was, he wanted to record something awesome instead of taking the safer route. The movie started off with funny moments between the couple but it became more grim the deeper we got into the film. I’m not talking about just scary noises in the hallway. I’m talking about footprints, shadows, Ouija boards, sleepwalking, possession, and exploring the idea of a possible exorcism.
Comparisons with the highly influential and effective horror film that everyone thought was real at the time of its release in 1999, “The Blair Witch Project,” is inevitable. (I wonder why suddenly most people nowadays really dislike that movie.) Both movies used a hand-held camera that was shaky and it played upon one of people’s greatest fears: the unknown. Both movies also used the technique of a continuous rising action and ending the movie during its climax for full effect (and discussions after walking out of the multiplex). Although I consider “The Blair Witch Project” to be a better movie, it’s really all a matter of personal taste. I believe “Paranormal Activity” more than held its own because it captured genuine thrills and chills that most movies with big budgets (and far better special and visual effects) cannot. That fact alone should make the actors and the director proud of their work.
Essentially, “Paranormal Activity” thrived on realism. If you believe in demons or ghosts (or even if you’re not sure they exist–a group of which I belong in), chances are you will be cowering in your seat. If you don’t believe it demons or ghosts at all, chances are you’re going to laugh at the whole thing and maybe you shouldn’t even spend money to watch it. (Maybe catch it on DVD because it really is quite impressive.) I thought the movie was scary because it’s a classic haunted house movie: we see shadows, noises, and the things they do to the objects around the couple. And yes, they eventually do something to our protagonists other than scaring them out of their minds and desperately wanting to call an exorcist for help. I loved the bedroom scenes because those are when things started to get very… interesting. Even though the setting was rendundant (the whole movie was shot in one house), the things that were happening (that shouldn’t happen in the first place) was not. With each bedroom scene, the level of scare factor was amplified exponentially–by the fourth of fifth bedroom scene, I really wanted to look away because I found myself imagining the “What Ifs” when I would be the one sleeping and all the lights would be off.
This is not the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. But it is one of those movies that I couldn’t help but think about afterwards. Despite what we know (or “understand” might be a better word) of science, and as a person who values science, we shouldn’t disregard certain possibilities just because we haven’t gathered enough support about them. If you’re tired of the same generic slasher films and remakes that Hollywood is spitting out every week, then do yourself a favor and see this one. Stop reading spoilers and hoping that the fear will wane after you’ve read a description. Because chances are, images are stronger than words. And even if you don’t end up liking it, at least you’re supporting a small movie. By doing so, perhaps big studio executives would stop being so elitist and support smaller films in the future–a movement that I strongly believe in because, in my experience as a young cinéphile, most of the time smaller films have great ideas and better execution than big Hollywood movies.