★★ / ★★★★
The first kill in director David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” left a strong impression on me. It isn’t because the kill cannot be seen from a mile away nor is it due to the brutality of it. It is because the type of murder victim is new. It shows that not even children are safe from Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), the boogeyman known as The Shape who went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978.
In the original, not one child is harmed physically. They could have been but we get the impression that it is the killer’s choice not to. And so perhaps it is a part of Michael’s behavioral profile given that he himself was only a child when he committed his first murder. The restraint gave depth to the character. Here, once the victim’s final breath is released, I caught myself feeling excited at the prospect of a back-to-basics slasher flick. Notice the kill is without blood. No weapon is used. It is over just as soon as it began. There is a ruthless efficiency to it. However, I regret to report it does not live up to its potential.
If anybody could have successfully put “Halloween” back to its original form, it ought to have been Green. With impressive movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Snow Angels,” and “Joe” under his belt, he has shown that he has the ability to strip his stories of plot complications and focus solely on the human drama. Now, that may sound strange given that a horror film is in question, but since the plot of this picture revolves around how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has dealt—or not dealt—with the trauma of her encounter with Michael forty years ago, the screenplay demands that it has a thorough understanding of human psychology, particularly how a traumatic event can not only alter but actually shape a person’s life. It is clear Curtis could have done more with the character had the screenplay given her more of a challenge.
While some effort is made, it is all so… ostentatious. We observe Laurie shoot a number of guns, wield hunting knives, and stroll across her panic room. The script makes a big deal of Laurie’s broken relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) because the former’s intense preparations—just in case Michael escapes the mental facility and returns to Haddonfield—have taken over her life. Nearly all of it comes across rather superficial, tacked on, unnecessary. Greer is not fit for the role while Matichak does not command a strong enough presence to be memorable. Subpar performances aside, these characters are so underwritten, I did not care whether they would or could survive the night. A part of me actually wanted them to get killed because they felt more like decorations rather than natural extensions of our iconic survivor.
In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been the braver choice to make a horror film with a running time of only fifty minutes to an hour. Instead of plot or character contrivances, the focus is on the meeting of predator and prey—only we do not know which is which any longer since forty years have passed. After all, it is the filmmakers’ decision to ignore all sequels. It is only appropriate to just go for the jugular, so to speak.
Green’s interpretation of “Halloween” is surprisingly loud given that he excels in the quiet. I’m not simply referring to the school dance scenes or guns being used excessively. (Do not get me started on the generous use of score—especially during the most inappropriate times.) I also refer to the images. There is excessive display of gore and sharp weapons piercing through body parts. There is even a man whose head is split open and we see it front and center. There are moments when violence is implied, but these are few and far between.
There are those who are quick to say that this is pretty much a remake of the original. I think these individuals are not observant enough. While Carpenter’s 1978 classic is more interested in building suspense and breaking it at the perfect moment, Green’s attempt leans toward evoking thrills through homage. Carpenter employs light and shadows to imply violence while Green hoses us down with gore. And that makes a whole world of difference.
Devil’s Candy, The (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
There is a moronic belief amongst various fundamentalist religions that heavy metal is the devil’s music. But what if heavy metal is the only sound that can drown out the devil’s eerie whispers? “The Devil’s Candy,” written and directed by Sean Byrne, is a lo-fi horror picture that is so effective, at times I was reminded of the excellent slasher picture “Halloween,” directed by John Carpenter. Although Byrne and Carpenter’s films are from entirely different sub-genres, their common link is how much they are able to accomplish with so little.
It uses a familiar template, but it is able to rise above what we come to expect from family-moving-into-a-murder-house with seeming ease and grace. The screenplay proves superior in that it drops small nuggets of foreshadowing on a consistent manner without being so obvious as to hammer us over the head by how it is trying too hard to be smart. And so when an important event happens, we recognize its portent details alongside being truly disturbed by the numerous plot developments. Its entertainment value never comes across as cheap.
It is willing to play with different ways to scare the audience, from jump scares, terrifying images, situational horror, to one’s belief, if any, when it comes to the supernatural. Each scene is exciting because we never know which type of scare we are about to get, assuming that it will not be a false alarm. The sheer energy of the material makes it highly watchable. In addition, the performances by Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, and Kiara Glasco—who play the family who purchases a house with a questionable history—are strong and this strength matches the story executed with specific vision. I cared about the Hellman family. I wanted them all to survive by the end even though it is unlikely.
Equally intriguing a performance is delivered by Pruitt Taylor Vince, a portly man who hears the voice of the devil. When bright lights are on him, the character does not look intimidating. However, when the light is dim or when we see only the outline of Ray’s large frame, he is fearsome and seemingly unstoppable. In some ways, he is like Carpenter’s Michael Myers: you can hit him, run away from him, or make him retreat… but he always comes back to get what he wants. He rarely speaks. And pain doesn’t seem to bother him all that much.
“The Devil’s Candy” offers no satanic rituals, no sacrifices involving goats or rabbits, not even men and women in robes chanting in a circle. No, it does not have a stupidly shallow, cliché dream sequence either. But it does offer a deeply unsettling feeling that burrows in the mind as it unfolds. By the end, you’ll be asking: Was there really the influence of the devil… or was the plot triggered by something far more grounded, something that culturally, specifically American culture, we are ashamed to talk about because of the stigma that comes with it?
Boo 2! A Madea Halloween (2017)
★ / ★★★★
One way to elevate a goofy slapstick comedy is to inject it with so much enthusiasm to the point of overdose. While “Boo 2! A Madea Halloween,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, is not short on zeal, the sequel is limp and uninspired exactly because it suffers from a shortage of ideas. Clearly, another way to surpass a predecessor is to take the first idea, now familiar to us, and either turn it into something else entirely or elaborate upon it so the viewers are provided insight or new perspective. Here is a film that rests on its laurels.
This time around, bratty Tiffany (Diamond White) has turned eighteen and so she believes she is now an adult and therefore capable of doing whatever she wants. So, her first order of business is to repair relationships with sleazy frat brothers (Andre Hall, Tito Ortiz, Brock O’Hurn) whom Madea (Perry) had taught a lesson exactly a year ago which involves making sure that they do not mess around with underaged girls. Tiffany’s ulterior motive is to get invited to the frat party in Lake Derrick, a place where fourteen murders have occurred and no suspect was apprehended. Hanging out in a mass murder zone is something cool to do these days. Madea, of course, learns about the party.
The plot is as useless as a fork in a bowl of soup, but plot is an afterthought in a movie like this. It must be evaluated on the basis of how successful it is when it comes to delivering upon the level of comedy with a few horror elements. It is, after all, Halloween-themed. Taking this into account, there is not much to recommend here other than the occasionally amusing banter among Madea, Joe (also played by Perry), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), and Hattie (Patrice Lovely). They may be elderly but they are capable of pulling off dumb, dirty, sassy jokes. The performers are game to do whatever is necessary to wring laughter out of the audience.
I found the horror elements to be a bore for the most part. It alludes to villains like Leatherface (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” series), Samara (“The Ring” series), and The Miner (“My Bloody Valentine”), but the screenplay fails to offer anything fresh about these antagonists. The formula is simple: they appear out of the corner of the screen, render teenagers screaming for their lives, and disappear into the night. The so-called scares between threat and lascivious teens are the least entertaining parts of the picture because we can predict what is going to happen exactly from the moment the scene begins. Much more tolerable to sit through are interactions between Madea’s group and these modern classic villains.
Tyler Perry movies tend to reveal lessons about the importance of family and tough love—not subtle lessons but the kind that pounds the viewers into submission just so everybody gets the point. It is disappointing then that the journey to get to the lesson is not executed even in a mildly clever way, certainly not like in the predecessor where it somewhat sneaks up on the viewer because there are so many parts of the story moving at once. This film takes a more straightforward, predictable, boring approach. It is a cash grab to the bone.
Boo! A Madea Halloween (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Tyler Perry’s “Boo! A Madea Halloween” is neither an inspired nor an inspiring comedy, but it tries very hard—with energy to spare—to wring out every bit of laughter out of the audience, for better or worse. Sometimes less is more and if the writer-director wishes to continue to get better at his craft, he would take this common saying to heart and actually lead with it. Thus, what results here is a mixed bag—uproariously funny in spots, amusing during certain stretches, and sometimes when jokes fall flat, the silence awkward and deafening.
The plot is simple and straightforward—necessary characteristics of a mainstream comedy where the story is rather negligible but the performances usually make or break the material. Brian (played by Perry) has a teenager named Tiffany (Diamond White) who does not listen to him and has an attitude that raises eyebrows. She intends to attend a Halloween party at a fraternity house—even though she’s still a minor. Her father is needed to work the same night of the party and so to ensure that Tiffany does not sneak out of the house and put herself in danger, Brian calls Madea (also played by Perry) and asks that she stay overnight. Expectedly, Tiffany finds a way to the college party anyway and, just as expectedly, she had underestimated Madea’s authority.
The banters among characters, three played by the same actor, is what holds the picture together. The camera placement in the living room might be a bit off or the lighting could be too dim or too bright to the extent in which one could see the imperfections of a character’s heavy makeup, but once the firecracker dialogue is front and center, the technical aspects matter less… so long as the script is at least equal to the enthusiasm of the performers.
Therein lies the problem. There are a handful of scenes, particularly ones that take place in a living room, that become repetitive eventually to the point where the writing does not feel or sound as sharp nor as quick-witted compared to the moment when the four characters (Perry playing two of them and the others played by Cassi Davis and Patrice Lovely) had just settled in their chairs. Notice that when these four are in another room or leave the house for a couple of minutes, the material comes alive once again. Perry should have played around with more locations because the old folks are funnier when on their feet and moving around.
There are sudden changes in tone that work and changes that fall completely flat. When comedy and horror are in hand-in-hand, laughter turning into anticipation and gasps of terror, the picture commands a sense of purpose. We realize we really are watching a Halloween-themed comedy, not just a comedy that just so happens to take place during Halloween. Would-be horror-comedies could actually learn a thing or two from some of the scenes here, particularly the bathroom and attic scenes. One of the most important elements horror films and comedies have in common in order for them to work is timing. Perfect timing turns laughter into gasps of horror, vice-versa. Get the timing off and the audience is mired in uncomfortable silence.
Most ineffective is the final fifteen minutes. “Madea” movies tend to suffer from an uncontrollable need to preach to the audience. While it offers lessons for young people and adults alike, they need not be hammered into our heads so forcefully and repetitively that it eventually takes some of the power from the statements it wishes to make. Perry, as a writer and filmmaker, needs to work on subtlety in order to pave the way for positive lasting impressions.
Tales of Halloween (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
“Tales of Halloween” is composed of ten horror short films, about nine to twelve minutes each, which range from an egregious bore to downright worthy of becoming a full feature film. This is expected given the varying talents, experiences, and strengths—or lack thereof—from behind the camera.
There are four standouts. The first short film titled “Sweet Tooth,” directed by Dave Parker, tells the story of a little boy who is visited by a supposedly fictional character based on the story young people tell each other during Halloween throughout the years. According to the story, if the visitor was not given candy, he would go as far as to eviscerate someone just to get some sweets. This segment is strong because there is a clear structure: the exposition, the rising suspense, and the inevitable release. There is an appropriate amount of gore to satisfy gorehounds.
Equally strong is Adam Gierasch’s aptly titled “Trick.” It plays with our fear of willingly opening our door to a stranger and that stranger harming us in some way. Initially, I felt sick by the idea of children doing the harm—even though the brutal attacks have, for the most part, a sense of humor to them. But the twist is a good one. The reveal is so good that by the time it ended, I found myself wishing that the segment had run longer. This sentiment is also reflected in Neil Marshall’s “Bad Seed,” the third of the good ones, commanding a wonderful use of special and visual effects.
“Grimm Grinning Ghost,” directed by Axelle Carolyn, is by far the most fully realized. A litmus test of horror films: close your eyes and listen to the dialogue, score, and sound very carefully. If having done so made the hair on the back of your neck stand up at any point, it signifies that the work is almost always effective. It begins with Lin Shaye telling a scary story of an apparition that follows. The director understands the art of patience and using the background to generate a creepy feeling. Not one drop of blood is shed. There is no slashing and hacking. There is only a sensation that the protagonist is doomed.
There are always rotten apples in a horror anthology. One can argue that “The Night Billy Raised Hell,” directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, is far and away the worst of the bunch. There is no enjoyment to get out of it, just a rotten feeling when a trick-or-treater begins to wield a gun and starts shooting people. The lack of imagination offended me. Halloween is such a magical holiday that when something as tired as shooting a gun is introduced in the story, I begin to wonder why the filmmaker chose making movies as a profession.
But I argue that Andrew Kasch and John Skipp’s “This Means War” is the most unworthy of anyone’s ten minutes. It tells the story of a man who loves Halloween so much that when his neighbor across the street sets up decorations far better than his (with accompanying metal music), he becomes so upset that he goes up to his neighbor to start a fight. The climax is the brawl between the two. That is it. There is no ghoul, demon, alien, or serial killer. Just a fight between two people. I found myself glaring at the screen with such animosity for having to sit through something I could have seen at a nearest bar. And that would have been more exciting.
“Tales of Halloween” shows a lot of potential when taking clichés and turning them upside down. “Friday the 31st,” directed by Mike Mendez, appears to be just another slasher flick knock-off: the final girl discovering her dead friends’ corpses, dropping the weapon on the ground after every time the killer is attacked—the works. But there is a twist—charmingly bad visuals and all. But what separates the average from the aforementioned standouts is when an idea is taken to such a degree that we wish we are watching a full feature film.
Final Girls, The (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
With the theater exits blocked and the fire quickly spreading, Max (Taissa Farmiga) comes up with the idea of slashing the screen and leaving through there. Instead of safety, however, she and her friends (Alexander Ludwig, Nina Dobrev, Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch) end up in the movie they were watching—an ‘80s cult slasher flick called “Camp Bloodbath”—and it appears as though the only way to get out of it is to survive until the masked murderer named Billy Murphy (Dan B. Norris) is killed.
“The Final Girls,” based on the screenplay by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, has creativity coursing through its veins but it is not as fun and fully realized as it thinks it is. What results is a picture that is worth sitting through once, given that one is in the mood for a silly horror-comedy, but it will likely not be remembered ten years from now. This is because it does not push the envelope far enough—whether it be in terms of scares, gore, kill scenes, or more subtle nudges to the slasher pictures of the past.
What stands out is the way it attempts to establish characterization, particularly the relationship between the lead protagonist and, Nancy (Malin Akerman), her dead mother. Genuine human connections and emotions are far too often ignored within this sub-genre and so it is a breath of fresh air that these two characters share scenes we can relate with and hold onto. I was surprised to have felt a certain longing between mother and daughter who have zilch chance of existing again within the story’s “real” reality, only in the fantasy that is the movies.
It works because Farmiga and Akerman are performers who are able to dig from within themselves when necessary and deliver feelings and thoughts beyond the lines that must be uttered. The mother-daughter bond makes the film special, in a way, because even though horror-comedy is almost never taken seriously, the writers dare us to treat it otherwise. Todd Strauss-Schulson directs the more personal scenes with real sensitivity and respect—which I admired because such an avenue is a rarity in horror and horror-comedies.
The weak treatment of the supporting characters is expected but disappointing nonetheless. While all of the actors are game—Adam DeVine is wonderful as his usual manic self—to look however and say anything in order to garner a giggle or a laugh, one cannot feel as though there ought to have been a freshness injected to each their characters. Although the self-awareness runs rampant, it does not strive to go beyond its usual bouquet of jokes. I grew tired of the self-awareness eventually.
At least one really good scare is absent—which is a miscalculation. The best of horror-comedies tend to fluctuate when it comes to its tone—a juggling act among fear, disgust, suspense, amusing one-liners, and laughter that makes the stomach hurt. The majority of this film is composed of amusing one-liners and occasional unexpected turns—which ultimately feels rather flat as a whole.
Still, “The Final Girls” offers a few moments that are strong. It does, however, need to reel in the visual acrobatics—one standout sequence takes place in the beginning and the other toward the end—because these just look silly, crazy, and trying too hard to impress. ’80s special and visual effects may be dated but at least there is a charm about them.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Tom (Kevin Bacon) learns that he and Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) are having another child, his insecurities about not becoming more than he had planned are brought to the surface. While at a neighborhood get-together, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), Maggie’s sister who hopes to convince others of the powers of hypnosis, jokingly says that Tom is not open enough to embrace things that are not so familiar to him. Though he tries to hide it, it is obvious that he is offended. In order to prove Lisa wrong, he agrees to go under.
What makes “Stir of Echoes,” based on the screenplay and directed by David Koepp, an effective horror-thriller is that it uses supernatural elements just enough to keep us curious about its rules. The first two acts of the picture depend largely on trial-and-error: Tom experiences visions and hallucinations and blindly follows the ghostly clues involving a missing girl believed by the neighbors to have ran away. So it is very disappointing that the third act fails to match the creativity and energy of the rising action.
It is difficult to figure out where the story is going so the element of surprise is consistent. It summons typical horror tropes like intercutting gruesome images as the camera focuses on the lead character suffering from intense headaches and confusion. When an important clue graces the screen, the score makes sure that we are paying attention.
And yet somehow, unlike other movies that follow a similar conceit, these are not problematic for two reasons: the events are increasingly bizarre and the plot is never stagnant. The hallucinations hold an excitement because they blend seamlessly into the family’s every day lives. Part of the fun is questioning whether what is on screen at the moment is fantasy or reality. Once it has been established, I found myself thinking about how the given piece of information fits into the puzzle.
At times the plot moves too quickly. It has a habit of presenting an idea but the writer-director does not linger to explore it deeply enough. For instance, there is a strand involving a man in the cemetery (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.) who reveals to Maggie that he is aware of the strange happenings in her household. There is an accompanying scene involving an unwelcome visit but that is it. It feels as though too much has been excised in the editing room.
The third act, when Tom is most erratic, threatens to derail the film. While Bacon is very sympathetic in portraying a husband who feels as though he has allowed himself to get in the way of giving his family a better life, moments when he is supposed to be angry made me snicker. Several more takes might have helped him turn the whininess down a notch and amped up the threat, that his character’s newfound ability has really taken a toll on him. Also, the story sort of just ends. For all the excellent build-up, one cannot help that it should have had a more graceful bow.
Still, “Stir of Echoes,” loosely based on Richard Matheson’s novel, is a good time for the most part because there is an active attempt to avoid cheap scares and to allow an ominous mood to build until the release.
Green Inferno, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of young activists, led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), go the jungles of Peru to protect an indigenous tribe from a company that wishes to eradicate them. This is because the land of interest offers plenty of natural resources ripe for the picking. After a seemingly successful mission, however, the small plane’s front engine malfunctions and so the plane begins its violent descent. Just as quickly, the tribe comes to collect the survivors. One of them is going to be served for lunch.
There is a right audience for movies like “The Green Inferno,” directed by Eli Roth, and, admittedly, I am included in that group. It is very bloody and unrelenting, often goes for shock value just because it can, and there is something about it that is highly watchable—especially scenes where the villages are allowed to speak in their nature tongue and the camera simply observes. However, it is not a potent horror picture.
It takes far too long to get to the gore. Although exposition is necessary in almost every story, establishing Justine’s (Lorenza Izzo) motivation in joining the activist group is executed in a dull and unintelligent manner. The screenplay by Guillermo Amoedo and Eli Roth touches upon the idea that there are dangers in uninformed activism, but it fails to provide the necessary layers to make a compelling argument. Thus, the first thirty minutes are a bore and I found myself wondering when it would finally deliver what I signed up for. That is, the body count and in-your-face cannibalism.
When it does get to what the film is really about—gratuitous graphic imagery—it is somewhat of a disappointment. The plane crash survivors spend too much time locked up in a cage instead of revving themselves up to fight for their lives. This is gamble—ultimately one that does not result in great rewards—because a clog is created in establishing characters who the audience would want to see to survive. While it is obvious that Justine is the protagonist, film may have been stronger if it had been more ambitious, creating doubt in our minds that she would make it through to the end.
In between arguments and horrified expressions, however, are moments when the camera simply watches a lifestyle. I enjoyed looking at the tribe, from their red paint or dye that covers their bodies to the type of piercings and jewelry they wear. I noticed that the higher one’s rank, a person tends to wear more decorations. This is why the children almost always look very similar. One may also notice how the tribespeople use their tools—like spears, horns, and bones—very often with forceful meaning. Using a real Peruvian tribe to act in the film works wonders because everything their characters do look natural. Because they are convincing, the horrific elements are amplified.
“The Green Inferno” does not break new ground but it does deliver—to an extent—the components that connoisseurs of this sub-genre are looking for: the bloodshed, the screams of agony, and the body count. What surprised me, however, is how beautifully the film is shot when the camera focuses on the tribe, their lifestyle, and their land. The tribe eating human body parts that had been torn into pieces has a comedic quality to them, too.
Pact, The (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nichole (Agnes Bruckner) telephones her sister, Annie (Caity Lotz), to convince her to come down to San Pedro, California for their mother’s funeral. Although the two are not especially fond of the woman who raised them due to an abusive household, both feel it is their obligation to give the deceased a proper farewell.
When Annie arrives at the house, however, Nichole is nowhere to be found. Since Nichole has a history with hard drugs, Annie figures her sister has relapsed and ran away. While Annie waits for Nichole to return, a ghostly presence in the house becomes increasingly noticeable.
“The Pact,” written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy, is an effective horror-thriller because the mystery behind the supernatural goings-on is, surprisingly, rooted enough in reality to be believable and interesting. Most of the techniques employed that lead up to the big scares are inspired by John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” at one point our protagonist ending up trapped in a closet with nothing but a hanger as a weapon.
Like its inspiration, the writer-director takes advantage of the structure of the house, especially its enclosed spaces, each room potentially masking a threat. Every time someone walks around the house, night or day, pace brisk or slow, the film feels joyously alive. It relies on simplicity such strange noises, objects being moved out of place, and flickering lights to get its audience in the mood to get startled. I felt my eyes so engaged in examining different parts of each room (and furnitures that can serve as hiding spots) in an attempt to notice something alarming before the inevitable music cues—which, had they been utilized less often, would have created a superior film.
Lotz is easy to root for as Annie because there is a lovable toughness in the way she speaks and moves her body. When the issue of childhood abuse is brought up, it makes sense why the protagonist is the way she is: ready to take on the defensive stance and not letting people in quite so easily.
The film is not without small ironies. Bill (Casper Van Dien), a cop who shows a genuine interest in Nichole’s disappearance, does considerably less detective work than Annie. At times I questioned why he was even introduced to the story. I wondered if it was intentional, McCarthy taking an opportunity to comment indirectly on the stereotypical roles of men and women in the genre. This, however, does not take away thrills from the picture.
Less enjoyable are the physical theatrics like when a person is flung across the room by an invisible force. Because it happens too early on, the build-up not quite ripe for picking, I was not sure whether to buy it or laugh. It is too showy, a desperate scare tactic, which does not at all match the overall downplayed rhythm of the material. Had it occurred later, maybe it would have felt right. When the ridiculous acrobatics are minimized and the small discoveries are allowed to trickle down our goosebumps like cold sweat, “The Pact” is very good entertainment.
Lords of Salem, The (2012)
★ / ★★★★
After signing off from the air, Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a night DJ, is informed by the receptionist that there is a package waiting for her. It is a wooden box that contains a record. There is a note saying that it is from “The Lords” which Heidi and her co-worker, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips), assume to be a band. Back in her apartment, the record is played. Heidi begins to feel tired and sick to her stomach just as the song starts playing. Despite this, the next night the song is broadcasted for everyone to hear and a handful of women are induced into some sort of catatonic state.
Written and directed by Rob Zombie, “The Lords of Salem” is a trial to sit through. While the first few minutes hint at a possible decent horror movie about witches and satanic rituals, there is not enough material in the screenplay to produce a full-length picture that is worthy of our time. A lot of the scenes run for too long which diminishes some of the tension generated by disgusting and disturbing images.
The writer-director has an eye for capturing snapshots that demand attention, from masked figures holding a woman down and putting a creature with tentacles inside of her to the darkly lit hallways of an old apartment complex. Because what we see on screen range from subtle less-is-more approach to ’70s drive-in gorefest, it is like peering into a house of horrors. Some of the camera angles employed are eye-catching, too. They complement Heidi’s increasing out-of-body experiences.
However, story-wise, though it tries, it fails to take off. As Heidi’s mind and body start to give into the effects of the record, two subplots arise. First, there is an author, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), who has recently published a book about the infamous witch trials. He is convinced that there is something evil about the song and so he investigates. Second, Whitey suspects that the decline in Heidi’s health has something to do with her taking drugs again. As a friend, possibly more, he wishes to help her through it.
These two strands are underwritten and so when they are front and center, they feel forced. Neither Francis nor Whitey are interesting enough to be worth rooting for. Their subplots function pretty much like band-aids on and around an increasingly leaky story. The film might have been better without any subplot.
It is not short of overacting especially during the final twenty minutes. There is a lot of anger expressed through screeching, praying to Satan, characters looking directly to camera, and things of that sort. It felt silly, like I was watching a rehearsal for a play that is fated to bomb. And then the movie just ends.
“The Lords of Salem” is a music video stretched long enough to resemble a movie. Though it has some level of artistry when it comes to the visuals, the screenplay is a tired jambalaya of influences that were executed much better, bolder, and with more creativity in other work.
★★★ / ★★★★
Right from its first few minutes, “Goosebumps,” directed by Rob Letterman, overcomes a major concern of having the quality of a direct-to-DVD piece of work but was released in theaters anyway because it boasts household names: Jack Black, R.L. Stine, and the “Goosebumps” brand.
Looking at the first scene closely where a mother and son, Gale (Amy Ryan) and Zach (Dylan Minnette), move into their new home, there is a warmth in their relationship and yet there is a hint of sadness, too. We learn that they migrated from the city to the suburb partly so that they can move on from the death of a family member. Then it makes sense: their bond is especially close because the memory of the passing remains fresh.
The screenplay avoids the expected, tired scenario of a teenager being or acting annoyed toward a parent for having been torn away from friends or a familiar milieu. Instead, the focus is on the love the two characters share and what they are willing to sacrifice to make the transition easier for one another. Notice that Dylan is able to make fun of himself just so there is laughter in their new home. The screenplay by Darren Lemke is surprisingly efficient in establishing likable characters who are of substance, worth following through whatever story is going to be told.
Although there is a lack of genuine scares, there are a handful of well-executed suspenseful scenes with a beginning, middle, and a twist. Of particular standouts involve Zach and his new friend named Champ (Ryan Lee) breaking into a secretive neighbor’s home—so secretive that there are bear traps in the basement, facing The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena in an ice rink, and being hunted by The Werewolf of Fever Swamp in a supermarket. The varying energies in these scenes are spooky, fun, and infectious and so we look forward to the next paranormal encounter. With each new environment, one can expect a run-in with a creature or mysterious entity. Thus, the film moves at a constant forward momentum so it is never boring.
Although one-on-one encounters work, less effective are the scenes where the monsters converge in one place. The third act, although tolerable, is not strong. This is because the CGI is so overwhelming at times that everything begins to look fake. The more there is to look at, the less convincing the danger. It would have been preferred if the leader of the monsters, Slappy the Dummy from the “Night of the Living Dummy” books (voiced by Black), had a more active, cleverer role in terrorizing the mean neighbor, his daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush), Champ, and Zach instead of commanding creatures to do his bidding. Slappy is one of the more terrifying (and devilishly creative) characters in the “Goosebumps” series and so it is a slight disappointment that he is not written as more menacing here. Instead, he gets pun-tastic one-liners.
I found the ending to be disloyal to the “Goosebumps” brand and so, despite its aforementioned strengths, I was this close to giving it only a marginal recommendation. Each R.L. Stine story has a lesson. Here, it is being able to deal with personal losses. This is hinted at the beginning of the film where Zach is shown to be missing his father as he watches a homemade video.
However, in order to have a standard, kid-friendly happy ending, the last few minutes cheats, essentially, by circumventing the fact that sudden losses, grief, and sadness are a part of life. I felt offended by the decision. I would rather have a film that inspires conversation afterwards—especially between parent and child—than the audience forgetting about the experience almost immediately because the material fails to leave a lasting impression that feels exactly right to the story.
Blow Out (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
In introductory Neurology courses, we were taught that our brain filters out most of the information our senses absorb. That is why, for example, when we’re in the middle of a big city during rush hour, most of the sounds tend to blend together. The only sounds our brain process, at least in a conscious level, are the ones we will ourselves to pay attention to or a sound that is really loud to the point where our brain translates it as something threatening. Our relationship with sound was tackled in a smart and mature way in “Blow Out,” written and directed by Brian De Palma, about a soundman named Jack Terry (John Travolta), who recorded an assassination of a potential presidential nominee as the car skidded off the road and plunged into the icy river. Jack managed to rescue Sally (Nancy Allen), but the police wanted to cover up the fact that the political figure, married and with kids, had a female escort. Rumors about the politician drinking and driving spread like wildfire but Jack wanted to reveal the truth. The film wore its influences on its sleeve. The more serious side, the spying scenes, reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” On the other hand, the more comedic side was in the form of a slasher flick à la John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as we saw the murders from the killer’s perspective. The funniest running joke involved the filmmakers’ inability to correctly dub the scream of an actress who was about to get stabbed in the shower. The B-movie director and his associates were stuck in a Goldilocks and the Three Bears conundrum. The women hired tend to have screams that were either too deep or too shrill. Both sounded ridiculous and laughable without, but especially with, the shower scene image. Even though it didn’t have anything to do with the big picture, I was glad that De Palma didn’t remove those scenes. It showed me that he was confident with his work. The comedic scenes were solid tension-breakers and they never wore out their welcome. The film was almost obsessive with its images. Only in the last thirty minutes did we see the assassin’s face (John Lithgow) straight-on. And when we did, his dark intentions and strange fixations filled every frame. He moved like an animal; he knew about timing–when to hold back and when to go for the jugular. But the assassin’s meticulous nature was somewhat familiar. We saw it in Jack as he rewinded his tapes over and over again to find the most minute details of the crime. We learned about his past and his redemption arc came in the form of Sally, a girl who never watched the news because it was too depressing. He loved her but I loved that I wasn’t sure if she loved him back. I knew the film did a wonderful job because it made me want to know more. The ending was powerful but far from heavy-handed. When it comes to exposing the truth, sometimes you win some, sometimes you lose some.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.