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.
Gravedancers, The (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.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) worked in a psychiatric hospital in which her current case was a woman (Penélope Cruz) claiming that she was being raped while she was in her cell. Dr. Grey surmised that the woman’s story was simply a reflection of an abused childhood. Of course, on a dark, stormy night, the psychiatrist got into a car accident because she attempted to avoid hitting a girl standing in the middle of the road. The next thing Dr. Grey knew, she woke up in a cell as if she was one of the patients in the hospital. “Gothika” was not a smart supernatural thriller. Instead of using images of a ghost as a backdrop of deeply rooted psychological problems, it used the paranormal in the most literal way. We were supposed to believe that the ghost could be touched (and possess someone despite the fact that the person didn’t believe). We were supposed to believe that the ghost was trying to communicate in order for it to find some sort of peace. We were supposed to believe that ghosts only appeared when lights flickered in quick succession.How was I supposed to believe in such things if I couldn’t believe for one second that Dr. Grey and his colleague (Robert Downey Jr.) were competent doctors? I knew they knew psychological terms because they had no problem throwing them at each other (perhaps as foreplay because the two were obviously attracted to one another), but I didn’t feel like the actors embodied their characters in such a way that I could feel an air of presence about them when they entered a room. Downey was too quirky to the point where I thought he suited being a clown more than a doctor. Berry seemed like a first-year graduate student who didn’t know how to adapt when a situation turned grim. (Initially, I thought it could work. Just take a look at Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.”) Instead, in the most crucial times, she shrieked and hid and then did more screaming and hiding. The script needed some serious work. For supposedly intelligent individuals who ran a psychiatric hospital (where the film took place for the majority of the time), both the material and the characters lacked logic. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the pacing was deathly slow and borderline soporific. I didn’t find the quick editing and the booming soundtrack scary in the least. In fact, I was annoyed because I kept wondering when it would focus on the real issue at hand: the question involving Dr. Grey’s sanity. It never did. “Gothika” is a meandering picture with painfully mediocre storytelling techniques. The Best Unintentional Laugh should go to the scene when Berry’s character declared, “I don’t believe in ghosts… but they believe in me.” I don’t believe in either.
★★ / ★★★★
The Maitlands (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) was a bubbly couple on “vacation” in their beloved big house. Sadly, they died via drowning when their car plunged into a river. A couple of months later, initially unaware that the former owners tragically passed away, the Deetz family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder) moved into the Maitlands’ former home. After a few failed attempts to scare away the new family, the dead couple recruited the nasty Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), a self-proclaimed “bio-exorcist” with a talent for verbal double entendres. Directed by Tim Burton, “Beetlejuice” was quirky, fast-paced and had a solid grasp of dark and sometimes macabre humor. I enjoyed watching it as a kid because even though it had elements of horror, the scary scenes were light and the irony embedded in the images (such as a skeleton that obviously died from severe burns claimed that he wanted to quit smoking) overshadowed the grotesque. However, seeing the film from an adult’s perspective, it crossed the line between cute and cheesy too many times. I cringed at the scenes when the characters broke into songs. Once was enough because I understood that the characters were being possessed by ghosts but after several times it happened, the joke became stale. I felt like the material was desperate to entertain but it did not need to because it was at its best when the jokes flowed naturally. Small twists regarding our archetype of haunted houses elevated the picture. For instance, I loved the scene when Baldwin and Davis decided to scare the family by putting designer blankets over their heads. I would have expected their strategy to work because if I was the one that saw two figures with blankets over their heads in an empty hallway, I would have ran out the house in record time. Instead, Burton injected a small twist by having Ryder’s character be weird but friendly and open to paranormal happenings in order to show us that there were other dimensions to her gothic high school stereotype. There was one scene that I found touching which I thought could have been explored further. That is, when Ryder’s character decided that she wanted to die at such a young age. It was a shame the material shied away from the sadness in order to deliver more comedy that did not work half of the time. Nevertheless, I believe “Beetlejuice” is worth watching because it had a spectrum of humor that ranged from deadpan, slapstick to slightly disturbing.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Lamberts, led by schoolteacher Josh and musician Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), recently moved into a new house with their three kids (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor). In the beginning, there were small incidents around the house like books being put out of place but no one ever touching them. Then the changes started to become more noticeable like Renai hearing malevolent voices from a baby monitor when no one was supposed to be upstairs other than the sleeping infant. One night, one of the children, Dalton, went to explore in the creepy attic and fell from a ladder. He was hurt but there was no serious injury. The problem was, the next morning, Dalton wouldn’t wake up. Doctors claimed he was in a coma but they couldn’t explain why. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, “Insidious” was a creative, thrilling, old-fashioned haunted house film. When you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, you start to feel as though you’ve seen everything in the genre, that nothing can surprise you anymore. But there are times when movies like this would come and take you completely by surprise. From its title card in gargantuan red text designed to summon 70s and 80s cheesy horror nostalgia down to its chilling soundtrack, it immediately showcased its knowledge of horror conventions. I got the feeling that maybe it was going to poke fun of the standards. In some ways it did, but I was happier with the fact that it took the known conventions and made them better by altering them just a little bit. In a wasteland of bad remakes and cringe-inducing adaptations, a spice of modernity feels like a new breed. The first half worked as a horror picture because of the way it patiently built the suspense. The ghosts were scary but they didn’t go around following the family (depending on how one sees it). They were just hanging about, taking up the same space as the living. The director was careful in revealing too much. Sometimes the ghosts were on the background and the characters didn’t see them. But the audiences certainly did. Sometimes the apparitions were on the foreground and we had no choice but to scream at the images thrown at us. Because the director varied his camera angles and the types of scares, the film held an usually high level of tension. Each situation was a potential cause of alarm. In a dark room, we knew that something was going to happen but it was a matter of when. “Insidious” also worked as a horror-comedy. Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a geek tech duo who seemed to have been plucked from Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters,” provided required tension-relievers as they attempted to get bigger weapons to detect the ghosts. Meanwhile, the addition of Lin Shaye as the concerned psychic was an excellent counter-balance to the more comedic moments. Her character reminded us that “Insidious” was a horror movie first and foremost by allowing us to see what she saw in a dark room via Spec’s drawings. For an old-fashioned horror flick, “Insidious” felt progressive, even fresh. Sitting in a packed theater, I felt like the film continually threw snakes of increasing size onto my lap. I screamed louder each time.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A family of four, led by Daniel and Kristi (Brian Boland and Sprague Grayden), decided to set up cameras all over the house because they believed someone vandalized their home while they were on vacation. Several days after the cameras were set up, the family reviewed the recorded images and started to notice strange things like objects moving by themselves. We observed baby Hunter (played by William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto) focused on something while in his crib in the middle of the night. Ali (Molly Ephraim), the eldest child, initially thought it was cool that the house was haunted so, along with her boyfiend (Seth Ginsberg), they tried to communicate with the spirits using a Ouija board. That’s never a good idea. “Paranormal Activity 2,” directed by Tod Williams, had a solid rising action. It was similar to its predecessor, directed by Oren Peli, because it managed to convey chilling images by showing very little. For instance, when the mother started hearing noises in the baby’s room and found that the weird noise wasn’t there, she headed to the connecting bathroom. Then something small would move near the crib. It obviously wasn’t the wind because the doors and windows were shut. When the mother returned to the room, the object ceased to move. It was scary because it defied physics. A moving object can’t abruptly stop moving without some force acting against it. Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie’s (Katie Featherston) return worked in some ways. Their appearance reminded me of why I enjoyed the first picture so much. They had good chemistry and their interactions were playful and amusing. But when the film started to weave in and explain how Micah and Katie’s story was related to the family in question, it felt forced. It began to feel like I was in a room watching a home movie and the writers were next to me as they attempted to write the script using a loud typewriter. It lacked believability. Once the kitchen cabinets and drawers were flung open at the same time, it was downhill from there because it wanted to increase the ante. But it didn’t need to. I missed the amusing scenes when Martine (Vivis Cortez), the family’s nanny, believed the house was haunted so she tried to let the good spirits inside using various incense and prayers. I also thought it was funny when Ali “researched” haunted houses and seemed to believe everything she read on the internet. The boyfriend just smiled because he knew how silly it was. It was simple, but I think it worked as a commentary for the young and not-so-young’s dependence on computers when we desperately need information. “Paranormal Activity 2” had some good scares and uncomfortable (but fun) chuckles as byproduct of stress (or fear) but it offered nothing new.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Mark Polish and Michael Polish, “Northfork” told the story of a community in Montana forced to be uprooted from their homes because the area that they lived in would soon be underwater. Six men (James Woods, Graham Beckel, Josh Barker, Peter Coyote, Jon Gries, Rick Overton) were assigned to persuade the residents to move out of their homes by any means necessary. On the other side of the spectrum, a dying child (Duel Farnes) was dropped off to an orpanage by his parents to be in the hands of a priest (Nick Nolte). In the child’s mind, the child tried to persuade ghosts (Daryl Hannah, Robin Sachs, Ben Foster, Anthony Edwards) that he was an angel and therefore they should take him with them when they leave Northfork. I love the fact that the film and was not really about anything; there was a plot but there was no story yet it was such a pleasure to watch. The way it played with the atmospheric images of the landscape to match the very eccentric characters somehow moved me. Even though there were times when the scenes with the six men did not completely work for me because some of the humor were not easily accessible, I couldn’t help but appreciate those scenes because of the creative visual puns. For me, the stronger scenes were the ones focused on the dying child. I was on the verge of tears when I thought about how his parents just left him to die because it was more convenient for them and how desperate he was leave the world of the living. There was a nice contrast between how alive he was in his mind and how weak he was in the “real” world which made the experience all the more touching. My favorite aspect of the film was the fact that it was very open to interpretation. I saw it as a story of loss and renewal. The residents may be losing the comfortable world they lived in but outside their comfort zones is a possibility of a better life. The boy may be losing his life but the result might offer a world where he need not be abandoned. “Northfork,” directed by Michael Polish, is a challenging picture. Less thoughtful audiences may be quick to judge and claim that nothing happened and therefore it wasn’t a worthwhile experience. Others may argue that it borderlines insularity. I may agree to an extent but I thought it worked because it captured the mindsets of residents living in a small town. I admired the ambitious philosophical questions it raised. I just wished it had more scenes when the camera would pull into a wide shot and showcase the breathtaking landscapes that were about to be erased.