Evil Dead II (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ash (Bruce Campbell) took Linda (Denise Bixler), his girlfriend, to a remote cabin in the woods. They found the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, or the Book of the Dead, and a recorded message which read the Sumerian excerpt and woke up the evil spirits in the woods. Meanwhile Annie (Sarah Berry), with her boyfriend (Ed Getley), had taken ahold of the missing pages from the book. She was expecting that her mother and father were still in the cabin where Ash was struggling to keep alive. Written by Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel, “Evil Dead II” was aware that it was essentially the same movie as its predecessor. But Ash was not the same Ash in “The Evil Dead.” This Ash was a version of that original character. In its first five minutes, it brilliantly summarized what happened in the first by showing us scenes that were different yet familiar: the significance of the necklace between the couple, the beheading of the girlfriend, and the unpleasant lack of sound in the woods before the kill. I had more fun with it because it was aware of what was expected so it challenged itself by delivering its audiences something new. That is, it still had elements of horror but it focused more on the dark comedy that came after the jump-out-of-your-seat moment. Strangely, it had a hint of science fiction that involved time travel. My favorite scenes had something in common: a significant movement of the camera. Ash, outside at the time, was driven back to the house and the camera, embodying the evil force that wanted to possess his body, followed Ash from behind. Once inside the house, there were a number of corners and unexpected passageways that became increasingly claustrophobic. Ash’ reaction throughout the chase was somewhat amusing but the feeling behind the camera suggested something more malevolent. The contrast worked well and it set up the tone for the rest of the picture. Another stand out scene was when the inanimate objects suddenly started laughing. I thought the moose (or was it an elk?) head hanging on the wall was genuinely scary. If reckon kids would have nightmares with just that scene alone. The blood in its mouth was a nice touch; it looked like it was recently beheaded and set as decor. Once again, Campbell did a terrific job playing Ash. The crazy look in his eyes and the constantly raised right eyebrow was a reminder that none of it was supposed to be taken seriously. When I noticed small things like a scene having too much fog, especially when was coming from inside the cabin, or a ridiculous amount of blood coming out of one man or a specific body part, I had to admire its audacity. “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn,” directed by Sam Raimi, was a successful horror-comedy because it was creative with its visuals and the jokes often had witty punchlines.
The Evil Dead (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
Five friends (Bruce Campbell, Betsy Baker, Richard DeManincor, Ellen Sandweiss, Theresa Tilly) decided to drive up to a cabin in the mountains for some fun and relaxation. But when they played a recording of a man claiming that his wife had been possessed by evil and continued to listen until the man read an incantation off the Book of the Dead, spirits in the forest woke up from their slumber. Written and directed by Sam Raimi, “The Evil Dead” was only successful in tiny little pieces. I didn’t think it was effective as a whole because its straight-faced horror approach paled in comparison to the accidental comedy. I understood that the picture had a low budget and inexperienced actors. The script was hilariously one-dimensional. Those elements were not the problem. In fact, those were the reasons why I kept watching. Despite its setbacks, I loved Raimi’s unwavering confidence in delivering a movie that was close or, quite possibly, matched his vision. He wasn’t afraid to move the camera even though it looked silly. Sometimes the aggressive camera movements worked especially when something would pop out of a dark corner (or cellar). In its goriest form, I couldn’t help but wear a smile on my face because it was so obvious that the flesh being torn apart was a prop. The blood looked very fake and the voices of the demons sounded like women with a very bad case of the flu and attempting to sound like a burly men. The claymation was inspired and I wondered, when the zombies met their doom, what the solid green substance was supposed to be. I’m familiar with the human body and I still don’t know what it was. While it was enjoyable to watch, I found the material repetitive. Ash (Campbell), our protagonist, spent too much time confronting and dismembering his possessed friends. They just wouldn’t die. By the third time a friend turned back to life, it was still somewhat amusing. But by the fifth time, the joke had outgrown its welcome. The problem was we didn’t know anything about the forest. Why were the spirits so angry? Why did the so-called Book of the Dead end up in the cabin in the middle of nowhere? What happened to the man and his wife in the recording? There were too many unanswered questions. If the director had taken off a scene or two of Ash trying to get his head around the fact that his friends were dead and provided some background information about the horrific happenings, “The Evil Dead” would have felt more balanced. Campbell was wonderful as Ash. His facial expressions when looking at something horrific were absolutely priceless, but I felt a smidgen of sensitivity during his more quiet moments. Maybe being green is not so bad.
The Cottage (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), a daughter of a successful businessman, and took her in a house out in the country. If Andrew (Steven O’Donnell), Tracey’s brother, delivered the money on time, it was promised that Tracey would be released without question. But when the four realized that the disfigured farmer who lived closest to the house they occupied had a penchant for killing and mutilating his victims’ bodies, the four had no choice but to team up if they wanted to keep their lives. “The Cottage,” written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, was a creative exercise in horror and comedy. David and Peter were probably two of the most incompetent kidnappers I’ve had the pleasure to watch on screen. There was a formula that led up to the funny moments. When David told Peter what not to do, Peter promised he would obey. But since Peter was inexperienced in committing crimes, somehow he managed to do exactly the opposite of what he wasn’t supposed to do. It got to the point where Tracey, a big-breasted blonde who could easily take down her captors, found out David’s name because Peter was so nervous around her. We even found out that Peter’s biggest fear was moths. But the film gradually changed in tone as it went on. The middle portion had a high creepiness factor, notably when Peter and Tracey investigated a seemingly abandoned house. There was a putrid smell coming from the closet, hands were nicely stacked in the freezer, and there were metallic noises underneath the trap door. I loved the fact that horror came in not only when the murderer appeared but when the characters, often as a pair, discovered something while occupying different rooms. One character faced a false alarm, while the other faced true horror. When a new pair entered the creepy house, the room which gave us a false alarm earlier was completely changed. There was a sense of continuation and it was easy to tell that the writer-director considered it important for his material to have cohesion, intelligence, and a spice of cheekiness. What I thought the film could have used less was the two Asian hit-men (Logan Wong, Jonathan Chan-Pensley). The way in which their accents were used for the sake of humor was borderline offensive to me. I was aware that offense was not Williams’ intention but it sometimes came across as exploitative. The duo could have easily have been played with Asians without “funny accents” and the final product would have been the same. “The Cottage” is a solid example of why I love independent movies. It wasn’t afraid to experiment with its tone. I was amused with the way it effortlessly switched from one type of humor to another while still dealing with the macabre. Since it was so confident with what it was doing, its out of left field ending actually carved a smile on my face.
Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
★★ / ★★★★
Lake Victoria was the place where college students gathered to spend their Spring Break. But when an earthquake caused a rift on the lake floor, a subterranean lake was revealed which happened to house the original piranhas once thought to be extinct, it was up to Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue), Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), and a seismologist (Adam Scott) to warn the party-goers to get out of the water before they became fish food. Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha,” an out and proud B-movie, is difficult not enjoy because it embraced bad horror movie elements with open arms while paying genuine homage to movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Joe Dante’s original “Piranha.” I was particularly impressed with the film’s climax involving a school of piranhas attacking hundreds of barely clothed college students. When panic finally set in, I enjoyed that human error (or desperation) was taken into account. Like the piranhas that ate each other for millions of years to ensure the survival of the species, if a person was desperate enough to live, he wouldn’t think twice of putting someone else in harm’s way. It’s instinctual. The film’s self-awareness worked to its advantage; it knew it wanted to attract mostly heterosexual males so it delivered big breasts and long legs. It even had an extended scene of naked women making out underwater. As I watched with incredulity, I couldn’t help but laugh at what I was seeing. It was like watching two seals making love on Discovery Channel. More amusing was the fact that all the guys were far from attractive. Just when I thought it had no more surprises under its sleeve, a male organ was bitten off. Moreover, its over-the-top nature was enjoyable due to its exaggeration of how college kids spend their Spring Break. (When probably only about 5% celebrated this way.) Enter Jake (Steven R. McQueen), the sheriff’s son, who was somewhat of a social outcast because he listened to music like The Ramones and The Pixies. According to the movie’s logic, people who listen to that type of music were just not cool. But Jake wanted to belong. He wanted to party at the lake, drink alcohol, and maybe even win over a girl (Jessica Szohr) he was obviously attracted to. Instead, he was stuck babysitting his younger brother and sister. Perhaps the lesson Jake learned at the end of the day was underage drinking led to death. At least there’s some truth in that. “Piranha” had some suspenseful moments but I wish the writers, Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, had spent less time making fun of college culture and more time on the science behind the piranhas’ survival mechanisms. And was it too much to ask to have at least one smart and resourceful teenager? Jake had potential but he didn’t primarily think with his brain.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Dead Snow (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The Norwegian horror-comedy “Død snø,” or “Dead Snow,” told the story of eight medical students (Lasse Valdal, Vegar Hoel, Stig Frode Henriksen, Charlotte Frogner, Evy Kasseth Røsten, Jeppe Laursen, Jenny Skavlan, Ane Dahl Torp) who decided to go to a cabin up in the snowy mountains over Easter break. Little did they know that the land covered in ice had a history of Nazi occupation and that those Nazis turned into zombies. They only found out about the land’s history when a creepy stranger (Bjørn Sundquist) dropped in on them in the middle of the night. I love zombie flicks so I just had to see this movie even though the synopses I read sounded a bit cheesy. As cheesy as the movie was, I did like it in parts because I thought it managed to capture the eerieness of being in the middle of nowhere and all we could hear was the wind and all we could see were endless land of ice. In a way, the very isolated environment reminded me of a hybrid between “The Thing” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Unfortunately, the setting and the occasional effective scares toward the beginning were the only elements that kept this movie afloat. Perhaps I was lost in translation (I did see the movie with subtitles) but I just did not find the jokes to be funny. In fact, I felt like it was trying too hard, kind of like the American teen slasher flicks. I’m not quite sure if the movie was trying to be ironic by featuring medical students who are not very bright or lacking survival skills and instincts. But what I am sure of is the fact that it became the kind of movie that it was trying to poke fun of. A lot of horror-comedies fall into that trap and this one is no exception. I found the middle portion too stagnant–it felt like it didn’t know where it was going. Nazi zombies that could think and take orders was an original idea but the execution lacked tension. I really hated it when the characters would make jokes at each other when they were aware that a zombie was only a few feet from them. It worked for “Shaun of the Dead” because it wore its cheekiness on its sleeve but it did not work in “Dead Snow” because there were times when it aimed for seriousness. If I saw a zombie, I would either try to kill it (depending on its size and what kind of killing tool I have in my hands–yes, I’ve thought about this) or run like I’ve never ran in my life. Perhaps fans of gore and limbs flying everywhere might enjoy this zombie film. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite buy the universe that the characters were in. “Død snø,” written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, should have just been a straight-up horror picture. If it did, I probably would have liked it a lot more.