The Devil Inside (2012)
★ / ★★★★
When Isabella was a child, three members of the church attempted to perform an exorcism on her mother, Maria (Suzan Crowley), which led to a tragedy. Maria telephoned for help and confessed to killing two priests and a nun. Years later, Isabella (Fernanda Andrade) now in her mid-twenties, felt that she needed to understand what really happened to her mother. Along with Michael (Ionut Grama), the cameraman, the duo decided to make a documentary of their entire trip to Italy. Their first assignment was to visit Maria who’d been transferred to Centrino Mental Hospital. The biggest problem with “The Devil Inside,” written by William Brent Bell and Matthew Peterman, was not its utter unoriginality when it came to presenting the basics of demonic possession and exorcism, but its slothful execution and poor control of the camera. The filmmakers strived to create a realistic mood in the most elementary and lazy manner: by shaking the camera so vigorously and aimlessly, I began to get very angry because the images that were supposed to inspire audience reaction were reluctantly shown. Keep in mind that this is coming from a person who can withstand a decent amount of camera convulsions. Because certain images were so evasive, perhaps the intention was to tease us into looking closer at the screen. It would have worked if the tension was established in varying rates and actually allowed horrific scenes to reach several zeniths punctuated by creative freedom by means of a sense of humor or false alarm. The picture was deathly one-note and I sat in my chair unmoved, possessed by boredom. Furthermore, since the material spent much of its time with distractions, like whether or not Fathers Ben Rawlings (Simon Quarterman) and David Keane (Evan Helmuth), priests who performed exorcisms without permission from the church, ought to continue to support Isabella’s project. Suddenly, the picture became more about Father Ben’s ego of wanting to capture every moment on film–evidence, he called them–and Father David’s concern for losing his job. Isabella was relegated to a typical one-dimensional character who had nothing to do but scream at the right moments, only there was nothing worth screaming over due to a drought of genuinely scary scenes. The material touched upon the relationship between mental illness and demonic possession, so I was surprised that there weren’t more scenes between mother and daughter. Some psychological disorders like schizophrenia are known to be genetically linked which means it can be passed on from parent to offspring. Why not explore that connection between science and religion? Should we trust our protagonist completely? The picture could have been more interesting if had been a little more ambitious. Personally, I’m not scared of demonic possessions. What I am a little bit more apprehensive about, however, is the possibility that it’s real. As a person of science, I am willing to believe that science doesn’t hold all the answers. If it did, the universe, in my eyes, would be less captivating. “The Devil Inside,” directed by William Brent Bell, could have used a little bit of mystery, an edge that would allow it to stand out from the rest of the exorcism movies. But since it lacked inspiration, it’s just another nondescript writing on the wall created by a madman.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of college students were driving up to the mountain to have some fun when they encountered two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), in a gas station. Having seen a lot of scary movies and heard of stories about grizzly murders in the woods, the college kids couldn’t help but translate Tucker and Dale’s every action as a possible chance to kidnap or kill them. In truth, the duo were only there because Tucker had recently bought a vacation home, a cabin, and they could use a bit of relaxation before heading back to work. “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, directed by the former, had a chance to really sink its teeth in horror movie clichés about hillbillies being nothing but churlish, incestuous, often cannibalistic, folks but it ultimately felt superficial because the one-liners and the physical stunts lacked range. The set-up was this: The young men and women were so stupid, they ended up killing themselves by accident. Cut to Tucker and Dale’s shocked and horrified reactions. The material was very funny during its initial gags, but the filmmakers failed to detach from the formula, ironically constructing its own clichés by making fun of clichés. The title promised the two friends fighting evil. After they rescued Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, Allison’s friends thought that she was kidnapped because they observed from afar. This triggered Chad (Jesse Moss), innately irascible and shamelessly sporting an ugly popped collar, into a state of rage to the point where he ended up being as ruthless as the murderers his group of friends feared. The movie wasn’t specific in the “evil” that Tucker and Dale had to fight. Was it the negative stereotypes regarding hillbillies that became embedded in the genre’s bones over the history of cinema? Was it the apocryphal placidity in hateful individuals, who lived in the suburbs or cities all their lives, and their secret yearnings of violence just waiting to be unleashed? Furthermore, it failed to acknowledge that stereotyping can be a good thing; it helps our mind to process information faster than it normally would. For instance, they allow us to respond quickly to potential dangers. Relying on stereotypes and neglecting to put more thought into them, hence failing to sympathize with others who are different, is the real tragedy. If the screenplay had focused more on that message, tragedies even outside of horror movie conventions could have been effortlessly highlighted. The story really shouldn’t have been about the body count. Allison was in the process of getting her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, hoping to establish a career as a counselor. I expected her to be more self-aware. The subplot involving Dale and Allison falling for each other was a nuisance, almost worthy of a dozen eye-rollings. Wouldn’t it have been too much to ask if they didn’t pine for each other so profusely? With every bloody confrontation between the hillbillies and the college students, it was interrupted by Dale having to explain to Allison what had transpired. Given that we just saw what happened, the little summaries felt repetitive and I started to wonder if the filmmakers were simply biding their time to push the material to a typical ninety-minute mark because the script became indigent of fresh ideas that cut deeper than boning knives.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson) was expelled from school because of the brutal violence he inflicted upon some of his classmates. School officials didn’t know that Erik was physically abused by his step-father (Johan Rabaeus) at home and Erik’s actions were classic signs of transference. Erik’s mother (Marie Richardson), fully aware of the abuse, decided to send her son to a prestigious boarding school to get her child away from her husband and so that her son could have a chance of a promising future. Unbeknownst to her, she sent Erik to another version of hell where the older students, led by Otto Silverheim (Gustaf Skarsgård), bullied the younger ones for the sake of senseless tradition. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou and directed by Mikael Håfström, what I loved about the film was it offered a rich insight about the criteria of evil and that, most of the time, it was hard to discern an evil action from an evil person. Evil actions were all around. Aside from Erik’s physically and emotionally abusive home, there was bullying outside of the classrooms, fellow classmates instigated unnecessary fights for the sake of vapid entertainment, the school officials actively neglected the seniors’ cruel pranks, even the kitchen staff decided to turn a blind eye to the flinch-inducing violence because they were afraid to lose their jobs. Sometimes allowing bad things happen could be considered evil, too. There was no doubt, at least in my mind, that it was the adults’ responsibility, whether an adult was a revered headmaster or a lowly cook, to take immediate action when students were being harmed. In a myriad ways, the violence in the school could be considered as a hyperbole. Nevertheless, it is all the more relevant today. With all the senseless bullying in schools all over the country (and I’m sure in other parts of the world as well) and the bullied committing suicide because they thought their lives weren’t going to get better or that no one was willing to listen and take an active role against their plight, it’s sad, even maddening. Håfström’s film was successful because it had a defined central theme and equally engaging and challenging characters. The picture was designed to make us angry, to question our own inaction when we see injustice around us, and to convince us that we have the power to make changes if we choose to. It wasn’t just about the violence. It was also about the friendship that grew between Erik and his intellectual roommate (Henrik Lundström). Through their interactions did we really get to learn who they were, what they wanted to be, and what they meant to each other. Their interactions were surprisingly moving and served as a great contrast against the darkness happening within the school and the individuals who controlled the system. “Ondskan” contained wonderful performances. Wilson had to carry much of the film and he found a balance between being ruthlessly tough and struggling to do the right thing. At the end of the day, he’s the kind of guy I would want by my side.
The Evil Dead (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Five friends (Bruce Campbell, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManincor, Ellen Sandweiss, Theresa Tilly) decided to drive up to a cabin in the mountains for some fun and relaxation. But when they played a recording of a man claiming that his wife had been possessed by evil and continued to listen until the man read an incantation off the Book of the Dead, spirits in the forest woke up from their slumber. Written and directed by Sam Raimi, “The Evil Dead” was only successful in tiny little pieces. I didn’t think it was effective as a whole because its straight-faced horror approach paled in comparison to the accidental comedy. I understood that the picture had a low budget and inexperienced actors. The script was hilariously one-dimensional. Those elements were not the problem. In fact, those were the reasons why I kept watching. Despite its setbacks, I loved Raimi’s unwavering confidence in delivering a movie that was close or, quite possibly, matched his vision. He wasn’t afraid to move the camera even though it looked silly. Sometimes the aggressive camera movements worked especially when something would pop out of a dark corner (or cellar). In its goriest form, I couldn’t help but wear a smile on my face because it was so obvious that the flesh being torn apart was a prop. The blood looked very fake and the voices of the demons sounded like women with a very bad case of the flu and attempting to sound like a burly men. The claymation was inspired and I wondered, when the zombies met their doom, what the solid green substance was supposed to be. I’m familiar with the human body and I still don’t know what it was. While it was enjoyable to watch, I found the material repetitive. Ash (Campbell), our protagonist, spent too much time confronting and dismembering his possessed friends. They just wouldn’t die. By the third time a friend turned back to life, it was still somewhat amusing. But by the fifth time, the joke had outgrown its welcome. The problem was we didn’t know anything about the forest. Why were the spirits so angry? Why did the so-called Book of the Dead end up in the cabin in the middle of nowhere? What happened to the man and his wife in the recording? There were too many unanswered questions. If the director had taken off a scene or two of Ash trying to get his head around the fact that his friends were dead and provided some background information about the horrific happenings, “The Evil Dead” would have felt more balanced. Campbell was wonderful as Ash. His facial expressions when looking at something horrific were absolutely priceless, but I felt a smidgen of sensitivity during his more quiet moments. Maybe being green is not so bad.
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a deputy sheriff in a small town in Texas, was a charming guy who everybody knew and trusted. What they didn’t know about him was the fact that he liked to be violent in the bedroom and he had a proclivity to kill. Assigned to drive a prostitute (Jessica Alba) out of town, Lou became sexually entangled with her instead. For reasons that did not make sense to us but certainly made sense in Lou’s sick mind, he murdered her with his bare hands. As the bodies started to pile up, people slowly started to figure out who might be responsible for the brutal murders. I’ve read a number of negative reviews about this movie. While I do believe that it’s not for everyone, I think the filmmakers made a solid effort in painting a portrait of an enigmatic serial killer. Lou was an anomaly. At first I found it easy to figure out his motivations and what he could be thinking while interacting with people who tried to get him to admit that he was a killer. As the film went on, I thought his many lies were eventually catching up with him. But then it occured to me: He wanted to get caught. All of the interrogations and the “mistakes” he left at the scene of the crime were a part of his game. He wanted to feel the fear of getting caught because he found it difficult to feel in general. He threw around phrases like “I love you” but he had no idea what those meant. The scene that got to me most was not the brutal violence (although I did wince and had to look away during the prostitute’s death scene). It was when Lou admitted that he had a problem. He stated that the urge to kill would come to him at the most unpredictable moments. He would be reading a book and suddenly he would feel the itch to commit a crime and the need to scratch it. Affleck’s acting should be commended because he said it so nonchalantly, like telling a friend how his day went or how the weather was. Throughout the picture, Affleck held a quiet intensity and I was focused on him because I never knew when he would strike. Despite the film’s violent scenes, “The Killer Inside Me” did not glorify it. Those ugly scenes had to be shown to serve as a contrast to Lou’s very charismatic façade. Based on a novel by Jim Thompson and directed by Michael Winterbottom, “The Killer Inside Me” is a challenging picture to sit through because it doesn’t offer easy answers. Sometimes the conclusions it offers do not necessarily make sense but it works because the greatest evils lack logic. It just is and that is what’s so scary in staring into the unknown and not finding answers. In comparison, Lou Ford makes serial killers like Michael C. Hall’s Dexter Morgan look very tame.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The documentary opened as it showed three eight-year-old boys’ naked and mutilated bodies in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. The main suspects were three teenagers (Jessie Misskelly Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols) who were labeled as devil worshippers by their community because they liked to wear black and listen to death metal music. I found this film scary not because of the suspects actually being into satanism (I believe they were curious about it but weren’t actually engaged in its practice) but because of the community willing to put the teens in jail for life (or even put to death) for the sole reason that they needed someone to blame. Since word-of-mouth and the media labeled the suspects as satanists, the jury became blind to the cold hard facts. For instance, they failed to put into account that Misskelly had an I.Q. of 72 and being cornered by the police’s leading questions would most likely result in a forced confession in hopes that the problem would “go away” as soon as possible. I’m assuming that since the jury did not have sufficient background with people who were mentally challenged, they couldn’t fully understand that the confession should be taken with great consideration. Furthermore, the lack of physical evidence was staggering. Since the victims were buldgeoned beyond recognition, I found it unsettling that blood was not found at the scene of the crime. No murder weapon was found aside from a knife conveniently found by the cops in a lake. A strange man with blood all over him was found by a pub owner at the night of the murder but the police didn’t bother to show up to investigate. I suspected foul play. If I was on that jury, there was no way I could have passed a guilty verdict on my part because so many things from the prosecutor’s side did not fit together. What I believe is that the community needed an easy, immediate answer. In the end, we don’t know for sure who murdered the children. It could have been the three teens. It could have been a family member of one of the kids. It could have been a serial killer who happened to pass by West Memphis that night. We don’t know. But what I know is that evil was committed in the community by means of injustice in the legal system. If the case was tried somewhere else, I strongly believe that the outcome would have been different for Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols. I may have sided with the defense on this case but what I admired most was that the film spent equal time with both sides. I understood the bereaved parents’ anger toward the three demonized teenagers. They claimed they wanted to kill the suspects or hurt them in some way. I didn’t blame them for it because if I were in their situation, I would most likely feel the same. “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, is an excellent documentary about skepticism and how powerful it can become if one is willing to listen and look beyond the obvious answers.