★★★★ / ★★★★
Donna (Dee Wallace), along with her son (Danny Pintauro), drove the barely functional family car to be fixed, but the mechanic (Ed Lauter) and his family weren’t around. The only thing waiting for them was a rabid St. Bernard that attacked when a loud noise was present. Stuck in the car for a couple of days, Donna had to go to great measures to prevent her son from death due to a lack of food and water. Based on the novel by Stephen King, “Cujo” was particularly impressive because the story was rooted in drama. The Trenton household was on the verge of collapse because Donna informed her husband (Daniel Hugh Kelly) that she had been having an affair with one of their friends (Christopher Stone). On top of that, their comfortable way of life was threatened when the husband’s business was marred by bad publicity. The strain in their marriage, though much of it was undiscussed, affected the child in such a way that Tad was convinced there was a monster, equipped with a long snout and yellow eyes, in his closet. The horror aspect was quite clever. Aside from the first scene which involved the child preparing himself to turn off the light, race across the room, and land on his bed, which I often did as a child because I loved to watch scary movies, the horror elements were temporarily pushed to the side. From the moment Cujo attacked the mother and son, we realized that the dog symbolized the invisible monster in the room whenever the husband and wife shared the same space. They could barely look at each other, let alone carry a meaningful conversation. After the dog’s initial attack, I was floored when the child screamed and hysterically asked his mother how the monster got out of his closet. The connection between the child’s fantasy and the reality of a potentially broken marriage took the form of a beast so ferocious, we ultimately didn’t care about Donna’s transgressions. At least I didn’t. It became a matter of survival of an unhappy woman and her innocent son. The scenes inside the car were very involving. Under the sweltering sun, I felt like I was in there with them as they sweat and suffered the shortage of basic necessities. When Tad eventually had trouble breathing, Wallace’s performance was front and center. Her desperation, and eventual determination to save her son, swept me away. I wanted to help her. It made me consider what I would have done for my child if I was placed in a similar situation. “Cujo,” directed by Lewis Teague, was efficient, smart, and thrilling. I admired it most for its details and how the meanings we placed in them pulsated with rabid energy.
★ / ★★★★
Four friends developed psychic powers when they were kids after they rescued a boy with Down Syndrome, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), from bullies. They decided to camp in the snowy mountains but noticed an oddity. Animals seemed like they were running away from something and the military had quarantined the area. While Henry (Thomas Jane) and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) left to pick up some beer at a local convenience store, Beaver (Jason Lee) and Jonesy (Damian Lewis) invited a man inside their cabin, unaware that the man’s body encased an alien creature. Based on Stephen King’s novel, “Dreamcatcher” suffered due to a lack of flow. There were essentially three stories and their connections weren’t fully fleshed out. There was the aforementioned four friends dealing with nasty aliens in the woods, the flashback sequences when they were children and how they got their powers, and Col. Abraham Curtis’ (Morgan Freeman) desperation to solve the alien mystery, which he had been involved in for twenty five years, before he retired. The screenplay jumped one from one strand to another which often broke the tension. For example, when Jonesy and Beaver saw a trail of blood that came from the bedroom where the man slept, it was interrupted by a scene with the colonel delivering yet another speech about how driven he was to finish what he started. If the bloody trail scene had been allowed to finish without interruption, the horror would have been more effective. Adding a scene with a completely different tone allowed us to breathe and maybe even take a bathroom break. The CGI let the picture down immensely. I didn’t mind seeing the worm-like creatures (I have a weakness for creepy crawlers) but showing a full-bodied alien didn’t leave anything to our imagination. The aliens could take in any form because they had the ability to project what we wanted to see. One of the characters claimed that he had seen an alien in its natural form and it was horrific. The filmmakers should have stayed away from showing the extraterrestrials’ true form and let us wonder because I didn’t think they looked scary at all. CGI becomes outdated but the images we form in our minds do not. “Dreamcatcher,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, failed to answer a number of critical questions. For instance, why did the four friends eventually stopped seeing Duddits? Their gifts seemed more like a burden in their lives so did they feel some sort of bitterness toward their childhood friend? The film lasted over two hours so leaving out answers was no excuse. Perhaps if there had been fewer scenes of military men and more scenes of the four friends’ struggle, I would have cared more.
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.
We Are What We Are (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When the family patriarch (Humberto Yáñez) passed away while admiring mannequins, the matriarch (Carmen Beato) and her three children (Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Adrián Aguirre) were left to fend for themselves. Behind closed doors, as part of some tradition, they kidnapped vulnerable people in the streets, like homeless children and prostitutes, and ate them. “We Are What We Are,” written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, was an interesting hybrid of chamber drama and horror. The first half focused on the volatile relationship between the two brothers. Alfredo and Adriana wanted to prove that they were man enough to lead the family. The eldest, Alfredo, had the most complexity. It seemed as though he was almost pressured into eating people but couldn’t set himself free because he felt responsible. Alfredo was torn between expectations at home and the experimentation required to find his sexual identity. Since he couldn’t come up with a way to deal with the two spheres, he felt a lot of self-loathing. There was an intense scene in which he decided to follow a gay man around his age. I was engaged because it was difficult to discern whether the hunt was for business or pleasure. I enjoyed the film’s tone exactly because it lacked gloss. Grau made his project’s lack of big budget work for itself. For instance, when one of the victims escaped the house, there was no booming music to suggest that the victim was being followed. In fact, the sound was muffled. Since there was barely any sound to guide my expectations, I turned my attention to the images and the shadows that surrounded the escapee. I was that much more aware and transfixed on the screen. Unfortunately, the script introduced characters that took away focus from the topic of cannibalism. There was a detective (Jorge Zárate) whose sole motivation in capturing the cannibals was to earn the so-called respect of his colleagues. We saw him look disgruntled and angry, but we never really learned what made him special enough to break the case. He wasn’t especially creative, patient, nor brave. He just seemed like another cop who tried to find an easy solution to a complicated question. He lacked depth so I found it difficult to take him seriously. During a key confrontation, I found it strange that I actually rooted for the family to get away with what they did. If the writer-director had focused more on the details of the strange tradition and less on the detective, though above average in parts, “Somos lo sue hay” would have been a more a visceral experience. It left my stomach grumbling for more.
Dark Water (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moved in with Ceci (Ariel Gade), her daughter, into an apartment. The two hoped to start a new life but it proved to be a challenge. Ceci began to make an imaginary friend named Natasha, the same name of a little girl who disappeared from the apartment directly above theirs. On the other hand, Dahlia not only had to deal with abandonment issues from her own mother years prior, but she also had to worry about the increasingly large leak in their bedroom ceiling. The apartment attendant (Pete Postlethwaite) and the realtor (John C. Reilly) wouldn’t take the time to genuinely help her. Over time, Dahlia became in danger of reaching an emotional and psychological breaking point. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Walter Salles, “Dark Water” was at its best when it explored the bond between a mother and her only daughter. I enjoyed the first few scenes when the mother and daughter evaluated the dilapidated apartment. Ceci insisted that she thought the place was creepy and didn’t want to live there, but it was all the mother could afford. Instead of immediately going for the cheap thrills, the material focused on the family’s sad circumstance. The first sign that there was something wrong was reflected in Ceci’s sudden change of mind after she stared at the dark spot on the ceiling. The supernatural horror was effective because it challenged the mother-daughter bond, the only strand that seemed to keep Dahlia’s mentality in a stable point. What didn’t work for me were the tired dream sequences. There were simply too many of them. In addition, it was easy to determine that we were watching a dream because the scenes had a certain glow. That lack of surprise ultimately worked against the film. The dreams were just an excuse to go overboard with special and visual effects involving water leaking out of the walls. There was nothing scary about it. While water was an important component in solving the mystery that surrounded the missing family upstairs, incorporating water with creepy details, like hair coming out of the bathroom faucet, was more engaging than a dream sequence with gallons of water that threatened to drown the character. However, I admired that the picture eventually focused on the ugliness of Dahlia and Kyle’s (Dougray Scott) divorce. More importantly, I was glad that, despite the former couple’s arguments, there was enough hint that they still cared for each other. It was another layer of reality which made the horrific elements stand out. I feel the need to give credit for Connelly’s strong performance. She made me believe that every stress her character went through was a threat to her or her daughter’s physical well-being. I knew she loved her daughter but I feared the moment when she would finally lose her grip on reality. “Dark Water” was a smart and confident horror film because it stayed away from simplifying its mature template. If only others of its type would follow.
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.
★★★ / ★★★★
Four people (R. Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover, Keith Chambers) decided to rob a bank and were relatively successful except that one of them had been shot. They divided into two groups. A mother (Samantha Dark) and daughter (Courtney Bertolone), on their way home from a softball game, were taken hostage by one of the robbers because he was caught stealing their van. The man took his hostages to a remote house and waited for his three accomplices. Meanwhile, there was a serial killer next door patiently waiting for his next victim. Written and directed by Stevan Mena, “Malevolence” was quite effective in delivering violence and scares. There was nothing particularly original about it but it didn’t need to because I was consistently fascinated with what was happening on screen. It was obviously influenced by John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” When characters were on the foreground, the masked killer would sneakily appear on the background and just… observe. The creepiness was elevated by the film’s score. I liked the way the picture took place at night and, since the abandoned houses were in the middle of nowhere, electricity was rarely used. Darkness hid certain corners, perfectly designed for something to jump out from them and I always expected that something would. There were times when I was actually caught off guard. When fluorescent lights were used, they flickered. Surprisingly, I found it scarier when lights were on because every flicker could potentially reveal something that wasn’t there just a second before. As much as it was violent, I loved that the environment was very detailed: House A had no decoration other than thick dust that invaded the air when there was sudden movement, while House B had all sorts of strange things like blood in a tub, a month’s worth of unwashed dishes, and possible signs of satanic ritual. The scenes outdoors were quite impressive, too. When the daughter attempted to escape from one of the bank robbers, she had to run and scream across a field. There was something quite unsettling with the way it was shot. However, I wish we knew more about the killer prior and during his killing sprees. What made this film’s inspirations so effective was the fact that we knew something disturbing about Michael Myers and Leatherface, something scary beyond the stabbings and chopped up bodies. Furthermore, the acting could have been stronger. Some scenes needed to be reshot, especially toward the beginning, because the lines uttered did not complement the actors’ facial expressions. It was somewhat amusing to watch. However, once it got to the meat of the conflict, when acting became less important, the material held my attention like a vise-grip. Most importantly, the writer-director did not allow his project’s low budget to get in the way of his vision. Instead of succumbing to limitation, he saw inspiration.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
★ / ★★★★
When water from a lake infected with rapid flesh-eating bacteria was introduced into an unsuspecting high school’s prom, the government locked the students inside and left them to die. There was John (Noah Segan), a future doctor who was in love with Cassie (Alexi Wasser) but whenever the two got close, her boyfriend with serious anger issues (Marc Senter) left John cowering in his shoes. Alex (Rusty Kelley), John’s best friend, had sex in the brain and was willing to get it from just about anybody. What “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever,” directed by Ti West, needed was a spark of creativity and a bit of vision. All the high school students portrayed in the movie were one-dimensional. They were like zombies as they walked in the halls and their conversations left no lasting impact. They were at Point X and they wanted to get to Point Y. Their one and only path was Trajectory XY. So when the flesh-eating bacteria began its bloody horror, while we were left horrified and disgusted, mostly the latter, we just didn’t care for the characters. Given that John wanted to be a doctor some day, I expected a lot from him. The writers, Ti West, Randy Pearlstein and Joshua Malkin, should have given John a scientific approach in terms of dealing with the bacteria. The picture could have benefited from several scenes when John was able to take a sample of the bacteria in the blood and looked at its processes under a microscope. Given that chemistry class, naturally equipped with microscopes and slides especially since, from what it seemed, the students were in a private school, was only a couple of doors away, not learning about the disease was a missed opportunity. The majority of the first film took place in a remote cabin by the lake. They couldn’t possibly learn anything about the disease because they didn’t have any equipment. Here was a vastly different setting but it was uninspired. It was more concerned about delivering the blood, the pus, and the sexual escapades of the doomed teenagers. And what about Deputy Winston (Giuseppe Andrews), the idiotic cop who was lucky enough to survive from the first movie? He was left running around but we had no idea what he was up to. He was a cowardly clown and when the film cut to his scenes, the tension that accumulated from the scene prior decreased at an exponential rate. With a stronger writing and if the film had focused only on the prom and the infected students inside, it could have passed as slightly mediocre. But with the extended scenes involving a high school stripper, I was left very confused.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
★ / ★★★★
A twenty-year-old murdered his entire family and left the cops bewildered due to his lack of motive. Only a year later, George (James Brolin) and Kathy (Margot Kidder) decided to buy the house where the gruesome murders occurred. Kathy had three kids from a previous beau but George didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he loved the kids as if they were his own. But there was something strange about the house. Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) and Aunt Helena (Irene Dailey) felt a malevolent presence once they stepped inside. They heard voices that threatened and ordered them to get out. Inspired by a true story and based on Jay Anson’s book, “The Amityville Horror” was a whole lot of noise but it wasn’t particularly scary. At its best, it was creepy with the flies, obviously signifying death, that appeared only in one special room, the creaking floorboards when someone was alone in the house, and the dog desperately trying to dig up something from the basement. I took on a certain passivity as George’s hair began to grow longer. Over time, their neighbors claimed that he started to look like the boy who killed his parents and siblings. Notice I mentioned “passive.” George’s descent into madness lacked dimension. While he did look meaner and he became prone to snide remarks, his demeanor wasn’t that much different from a very stressed out person. Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ intent. However, I had serious doubts that it wanted to take the subtle path because, especially toward the end of the film, it became generous in terms of its special effects like blood seeping out of the walls and the rise of something buried in the basement. And, of course, the final confrontation had to happen in a dark, stormy night. The picture would have been stronger if it had rooted its horrific elements in little accidents. For instance, one of the son’s hand being stuck in a window that wouldn’t budge or the babysitter who got trapped in a closet as George and Kathy attended a wedding. When we were left in the house with just our imagination, it was scary and somewhat realistic. After all, a rocking chair that seemed to move by itself was probably just triggered by the wind or a natural tremor from the old house. Another weakness I noticed about the film was it had too many scenes that didn’t have anything to do with the family. When the camera was not in or around the house, the tension subsided because it felt less personal. Instead of a gradual increase in rising action, there were noticeable dips that borderline somnolence. “The Amityville Horror,” directed by Stuart Rosenberg was not as chilling as it should have been. To most audiences, it may seem old-fashioned or tame because it didn’t show us much for the majority of its two-hour running time. I believe it shouldn’t have shown us anything at all. It would have been an entirely different experience if it had challenged us to use our preconceived notions of haunted houses.
The Craft (1996)
★★ / ★★★★
Sarah (Robin Tunney) and her family recently moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Sarah didn’t have many friends before and the prospect of her making many friends in her new school was low. It seemed as though everyone she encountered was either downright mean, mostly the catty girls (Christine Taylor) that scoured the hallways for their latest prey, or simply wanted to get her in bed, naturally, the hyper-masculine jocks (Skeet Ulrich). Sarah met Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True), goths who practiced witchcraft. Sarah had dabbled in witchery, too. She didn’t really get along with them at first but she hung out with them anyway because being a pariah as a group was better than being alone. Directed by Andrew Fleming, “The Craft” was an exercise in the exaggeration of high school teen angst. Half of it was fun, but the other half was self-indulgent. It was enjoyable to watch because we got a chance to see mean kids in high school get the punishment they deserved. My favorite was the blonde girl whose hair began to fall off after she called Rochelle a “Negroid” and that she hated Rochelle’s kind and their “nappy hair.” As ugly as it was to hear such dialogue, I thought it had a certain honesty. In high school, I’ve heard all sorts of mean comments that would rarely, if ever, make it on television or movies. The film’s strongest scenes took place at school despite its improbable hyperboles such as Sarah not meeting anyone who seemed genuinely nice. As we got deeper into the story, I noticed the picture slowly beginning to rely on special and visual effects to generate suspense. I don’t think it needed to. It would have been more fascinating if we saw no thunderstorms striking one of the witches or if there were no butterflies flying around them to symbolize that the god they worshipped was listening to them. Teen witches casting a spell in one scene and strange events happening the next day at school would have been enough. By not giving us much, we were left to wonder if the spells they foolishly casted were having an effect or it was simply a matter of coincidences. I thought there were also some missteps in terms of character development or editing. In one of the scenes, Rochelle started to feel bad about the spell she casted on the racist blonde. It was apparent that she wanted out of the witches’ circle (a literal self-reflection because she stood next to a mirror) but she was afraid of Nancy’s wrath. Almost immediately after the audiences were made aware of her guilt, Rochelle continued to be friends with Nancy and her character’s evolution was completely abandoned. That strand could have been a turning point. Instead of the protagonist, it would have been refreshing to see a supporting character come out of nowhere and defy certain archetypes. In the end, “The Craft” was just another teen flick from the 90s but with black nail polish witchcraft.