A Ghost Story (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting to be entertained by “A Ghost Story” are likely to be disappointed because it is not a horror film but a meditation on loss, loneliness, and time. In other words, it uses the idea of a ghost as a metaphor, not a literal thing that reveals itself to people when it wishes to scare them to death. While its approach is certainly admirable, the material does not embed itself deeply in the mind like great dramas do. I walked away from the picture thinking it was a rather neat gimmick than a compelling story worth further rumination.
The apparition under the white sheet is the spirit of a man (Casey Affleck) who has met an untimely demise. After his wife (Rooney Mara), also nameless, identifies his body in the morgue, the ghost follows her home and observes her grieving process. Time goes by and eventually she attempts to continue living. Her recovery signals completion when finally she moves out of the house they once shared. Yet the ghost remains and the house is inhabited by a series of tenants. The tenants, too, move on sooner or later but the ghost is left behind. This is a story that touches upon one of our greatest fears: the inability to do anything when a situation demands that we do otherwise.
Mara and Affleck are solid in portraying a couple who lead an ordinary life. Although the script does not given them many lines, these performers know how to communicate plenty using only their eyes and body language. There is a richness to their portrayal and one cannot not help but wonder how much more fascinating the characters might have been had the screenplay been less experimental or sparing with its dialogue and actually allowed the characters to express themselves as real people tend to do. In its attempt to deliver something different, at times it ends up shooting itself in the foot.
Another example that achieves mixed results is its utilization of long takes. Let us talk about the widow eating a whole pie. Must the audience really watch the performer gulp down every bite to the point where the situation becomes silly and comedic? Yes, in real life, a person who is deeply angry or upset may actually eat the entire pie. But it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to frame situations in a cinematic way. Writer-director David Lowery might have gotten away with it had he had adopted a sort of cinéma vérité style for the project.
The final fifteen to twenty minutes is when the picture completely goes off the rails. For some reason, the ghost develops the ability to experience the future, the past, and even revisit memories. It feels odd, forced, and pretentious. (Don’t get me started on ghosts communicating telepathically.) The careless leaping across time underlines a lack of substance, a desperate move to remain intriguing.
“A Ghost Story” offers watchable performances and some striking imagery, such as the decor of the house based on the people currently living there, but eye-catching superficial characteristics do not make up for the material’s lack of urgency, especially when it reminds us of our mortality, our limited time with our loved ones. Here is a film that gets in the way of itself. It is clear that there is a good idea here but it is not realized fully.
The Innkeepers (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Since their boss was on vacation in Barbados, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) thought it would be a great idea to capture a concrete paranormal activity, via audio and video recordings, in the Yankee Pedlar Inn, its last weekend being open for business due to a lack of customers. The place had a reputation of being haunted by the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who committed suicide after her fiancé stood her up on their wedding day. The inn had only three guests: a woman (Alison Bartlett) with her son (Jake Ryan) in tow because she had a fight with her husband and an actress, Leanne (Kelly McGillis), who was supposed to attend a convention. During Claire’s graveyard shift, she might just get her wish of encountering a ghost as she started to hear sounds of someone playing the piano on the first floor. What I found most curious about “The Innkeepers,” written and directed by Ti West, was its willingness to spend time with its characters instead of focusing on delivering one scare after another. Because their job was not much of a challenge, Luke and Claire played practical jokes on one another and eventually we began to question whether their friendship was strictly professional. Both the flirtation and the old-fashioned inn had its charms to the point where I started to think it may not be too bad actually working there. Claire and Luke seemed to be fun people to hang out with, mainly in that they were able to deliver and endure pranks, and the place reminded me of an infant version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” By focusing on the minutiae of the job: delivering towels, escorting a guest to his room, taking out the trash, our subconscious were able to create a mental map of the haunted inn. Inevitably, when the characters started to run away after encountering something rather unexplainable, we had an idea of where they may be running toward. The picture was so detail-oriented that we were even given a chance to explore, even for just a bit, Luke’s website, an archive of paranormal happenings in the Yankee Pedlar. The website, too, had its charm, resembling a now-extinct Expage template that reminded me of my former Lizzie McGuire website, tacky icons and all. The scares were scant but most were executed effectively. I enjoyed that they had variation. Sometimes we were able to see a ghost in the background. At times, though, it was front and center. But then there were other times when only the characters saw something. For instance, in one of the most effectively drawn-out scenes, Luke faced Claire as they sat in the basement and summoned Madeline. Claire began to look increasingly terrified and Luke asked, even though he might have had an idea, what was wrong. We were left to wonder whether it was just another prank or if there really was something behind Luke. However, the ending could have used some work not necessarily in terms of content, though it could have been much stronger, but pacing. It felt too rushed, Horror 101, which did not match the elegance and organic feel of the rest of the picture. Nevertheless, “The Innkeepers” was a nice treat because it treated us like we didn’t have ADD. It’s a fine example that subtlety mixed with charm goes a long way.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Katie (Katie Featherston) delivered a box of videotapes to her sister’s house (Sprague Grayden) which contained events in September 1988 when young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and young Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) lived with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Julie and Dennis decided to make a sex tape. Just when things began to become pornographic, they were interrupted by an earthquake. As the couple ran from the room to get the kids, the camera captured an invisible figure with the help from the dust that fell from the ceiling. This strange occurrence inspired Dennis to install cameras for two reasons: to gather evidence that there really was a ghost in the house and to see what it wanted from them. “Paranormal Activity 3,” written by Christopher Landon and Oren Peli, did not only deliver a dearth of genuine scares, it offered only one piece of new information that connected Katie and Kristi’s stories from Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” and Tod Williams’ “Paranormal Activity 2,” respectively. When the credits rolled, I wondered why they even bothered. There was no connection, as a family, between the characters and everyone seemed to be playing dumb. They consistently waited to hear weird noises or see furnitures move by themselves instead of actually doing something to try to prevent them from happening again. Perhaps I would have felt more scared for the family if the parents were more protective of their children by allowing their instincts to take over once in a while. Sometimes we just know that there’s something really wrong. We don’t wait for all the facts before taking action especially when it comes to survival. If Dennis reviewed the tapes each day, I didn’t understand why the filmmakers did not allow him to see the videos in which Katie’s bed was moved by an unknown force and she being violently dragged across the floor. That was an important moment, a potential climax, and it should have been shown. If I was their father and I saw what happened to my kids the night before, there was no way I was going to stay in that house and allow my children to be harmed. In some instances, the film failed to milk what they had. Dennis and Julie hired a babysitter (Johanna Braddy) so they could have some alone time in the city. It was the ’80s and teen slasher flicks, most of them involved babysitters, dominated the horror genre. It could have been more pointed with its irony when the house ghost, with a white sheet over its head, inched toward Lisa as she read a book in the kitchen. Once the sheet fell to the ground, the tension was gone and it reverted to being a soporific bore. “Paranormal Activity 3,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, had very limited tricks up its sleeve. I was thunderstruck not because of the visual effects behind the paranormal happenings which, by the way, were just mediocre, but because of its overall lack of imagination to propel the story forward. If I were to compile a ratio between scenes of nothing happening and “scares,” the former would outweigh the latter by a factor of five.
Lake Mungo (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
While swimming in a local dam with her family, Alice (Talia Zucker) was suddenly nowhere to be seen. After calling the proper authorities, a search began while the Palmer family anxiously waited for the grim news. Soon enough, Alice’s body was found. But that was just the beginning. Two days after Alice was buried, strange things began to occur around the house. The brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), heard strange noises coming from the room of the deceased. The father, Russell (David Pledger), claimed that he saw his daughter going about her business as if nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, the mother, June (Rosie Traynor), had nightmares that there was a spirit in the house. Written and directed by Joel Anderson, “Lake Mungo” was a well-made faux-documentary about a family in grief who genuinely believed that there was a ghost in their home. Since the ominous presence was palpable, the family decided to set up cameras around the house to capture, if any, the entity that they felt was there. Naturally, comparison’s between “Lake Mungo” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” could not be helped because both had somewhat similar styles. However, I preferred this film in terms of realism because no one, like a possessed person, directly looked into camera and attempted to scare the viewers. It was straight-faced all the way through; there were no cheap punches designed to remind us that since what we were observing was scary, it meant that we were getting our money’s worth. I was completely in the moment. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but every time the camera zoomed in on a paused video footage which contained a (mostly blurry) ghostly figure in the background, my heart rate went up as I held my breath in anticipation. But the film wasn’t just about Palmer family being haunted by an inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. The second half was revealed to be about the secrets that Alice kept from her family and how, sadly, no one really knew who she really was when she passed away. The writer-director’s decision to change gears half-way through was a smart and brave move especially within the confines of the newly revived found footage subgenre. There was a natural flow in the way we learned about literal ghost that appeared in house. Initially, it was mild curiosity; then it was meticulously creepy; finally, it was unexpectedly terrifying. The other kind of ghost, our memories of a loved one when they’re no longer with us, was explored in a meaningful way. Interestingly enough, if the scenes when we were given a chance to see Alice’s ghost were taken out completely, it would still be a strong story of a family trying to cope and move on. That’s what a look for in a good movie: If I can take out one crucial strand and it doesn’t fall apart, I know that it has something special. “Lake Mungo” had many tricks up its sleeve. It challenged us to wade through the truths, lies, and possibilities. Though its budget was limited, it didn’t feel cheap because it understood universal emotions like fear and mourning.
★ / ★★★★
Clark Stevens (Joshua Leonard) recently got accepted as an intern in the Cunningham Mental Hospital. While some gave him a warm welcome like Sarah (Jordan Ladd), a fellow intern, others like the head nurse of the facility (Dendrie Taylor) gave him the stink eye. While Clark awaited to meet Dr. Franks (Lance Henriksen), the director of the hospital, he noticed something strange. It looked like Dr. Franks was researching about paranormal phenomena in psychiatric facilities. Assigned to live in the upper floors, Clark eventually started to see ghosts of a little boy, a first sign that maybe something was very wrong about the place. Written by William Butler and Aaron Strongoni, directed by the former, “Madhouse” was effective in terms of building a creepy atmosphere but it didn’t quite know how to deliver scares that audiences would remember. The editing was partly to blame. Whenever the film wanted to show something scary, manic editing overshadowed the tension. Images of snakes, blood, and shadows were shown but none of them were ever explained. Without explaining to us the significance of the symbols, there was no reason for us to be scared of them. Instead of focusing on the gruesome kills, the editing became distracting and annoying. The director should have allowed us to absorb the horror of what was happening to the ill-fated characters. Speaking of characters, none of them were fully developed. The staff performed unethical practices, which I’m sure held some truth in actual mental hospitals, but I’m afraid the picture didn’t highlight enough positive elements of such places. The staff were simply cardboard cutouts for the sake of being a horror movie. In doing so, the material failed to challenge us by showing us a glimmer of reality. Sometimes we get scared the most of we knew that what we were seeing could potentially happen in actuality. If the writers wanted us to feel like the mental facility was a real place, they should have added depth by highlighting the pros and cons of rehabilitation centers. If the writing and direction, with enough skill and luck, were synergistic, the place itself could have been a character. There’s a difference between simplicity and somnolence. Unfortunately, “Madhouse” teetered toward the latter. With such an unbelievable ending, I got the impression that Butler and Strongoni had no idea how to end their story so they took the easy (and lazy) way out by writing a “shocking” ending. I thought it cheated and that was unforgivable. I enjoyed Leonard’s performance because he had a certain vulnerability about him. I wished the material he had to work with was more worthy.
The Gravedancers (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Three friends from college, Harris (Dominic Purcell), Kira (Josie Maran) and Sid (Marcus Thomas), decided to go back to their friend’s fresh burial ground for a final goodbye. After alcohol affected their brains, probably not dissimilar back when they were still in school, Sid found a letter, decided to read it out loud, and the trio danced on strangers’ graves. Weeks after their unwise–to say the least–grave desecration, strange things began to happen in their homes. Later on, with the help of two somewhat amusing paranormal investigators (Tchéky Karyo, Megahn Perry), they found out that the letter was a spell designed to awaken spirits. The three angry ghosts, an axe-wielding piano teacher, a child pyromaniac and a judge with a penchant for sexually mutilating women, were not going to stop until their victims were dead. “The Gravedancers,” written by Brad Keene and Chris Skinner, was at its most interesting when the pesky CGI didn’t get in the way of story and old-fashioned scares. Notice the scene in the bedroom when Harris woke up and saw what he believed to be his wife’s arm around him. When he recognized that his actual wife (Clare Kramer), Allison, had just stepped out of the shower, the picture quickly revealed the rotting corpse. Chances are, someone who’s seen a number of horror movies is familiar with that set-up. What disappointed me most was the director, Mike Mendez, failed to milk every second of it. Waking up next to a dead body was horrific in itself. But there was no next level of fear. It seemed like either Mendez just didn’t care to put his signature or he didn’t have real control of the material. After about two reaction shots from the lovers, the corpse was in the middle of the frame and the CGI, the spraying of the glass, took over. Why did the window have to break? Sometimes less is more. Another aspect that didn’t make sense to me was that the ghosts were willing to kill those that didn’t dance on their graves. It gave me the impression that the body count mattered more than the storyline. Lastly, the rivalry between Allison and Kira felt contrived. Instead of increasing the tension, every time Allison got jealous of Kira, I felt like I was watching a bad soap opera. The rolling of the eyes and the awkwardness in the air hindered the momentum of the rising action. They were adults but I felt like they were stuck in high school. Nevertheless, the film had some good scares in the superior first half. The opening and closing of the doors, the strange creaking noises, and the piano-playing in the middle of the night were creepy. Too bad it was always a dark, rainy night. I wondered if the writers ever heard of a thing called diminishing returns.
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.