Theatre Bizarre, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Enola Penny (Virginia Newcomb) curiously entered a dilapidated movie theatre and was welcomed by Peg Poett (Udo Kier) and his colleagues, a group of performers who moved like marionettes. She was presented six movies of varying strangeness, from a couple (Shane Woodward, Victoria Maurette) who met a suspicious old lady (Catriona MacColl) while vacationing in France to a party of gluttony where guests vomiting on each other seemed to be the norm. While “The Theatre Bizarre” featured about two or three segments with solid ideas, the rest failed to measure up either due to a lack of energy or originality. “The Accident,” directed by Douglas Buck, stood out, arguably the best of the bunch, because although its premise was simple, it had emotional resonance. After a mother (Lena Kleine) and daughter (Mélodie Simard) witnessed an accident while driving through a forested highway, the daughter kept asking questions about mortality and what it meant to die. The script was involving because the mother had to struggle in terms of whether or not to fully disclose the finality of death to her child in order to prevent further trauma. The segment was bathed in a yellow-reddish glow, quite beautiful because it captured the feeling of innocence through the little girl’s eyes. When the dead bodies were shown on that highway, it didn’t feel exploitative. There was meaning behind showing a dead or dying body: one minute with life, the next an empty shell. There was human drama underneath the horrific images. Another segment worth watching, “Vision Stains,” directed by Karim Hussain, involved a woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) who specifically killed junkies and homeless persons, all of whom were women. As her victims were on the verge of death, she injected a needle into their eyeballs and extracted the fluid from them. She was convinced that the liquid contained memories. The killer’s motivation held my interest because she saw herself as some sort of savior. She claimed that by killing those who “wanted” to die, she freed them by granting them a voice. That is, she jotted down the women’s memories as she experienced a high after she injected their eyeball fluid into her left eye. Unfortunately, despite its fascinating premise, the resolution failed to make sense. I was given the impression that its potential was short-circuited by a limited running time. The story would’ve been stronger if it had the time to construct a proper arc since it was all about internal motivations. Strangely enough, I found myself having a mediocre amount of fun with “I Love You,” directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, because it was marriage drama with terrible acting. It was a good decision to keep the horror at a minimum and placed only toward the end. I was uneasy throughout because I suspected that the horror would arrive any second. The segment involved a wife (Suzan Anbeh) confessing to her husband (André Hennicke) that she was leaving with another man. The broken couple sat in the living room as the wife went through a list of things she didn’t like about her husband, from his bad habits to how bad he was at sex. I found the cruelty darkly amusing and I wanted to hear more juicy punches to the gut. However, like “Vision Stains,” it suffered from an underwhelming ending that appeared without context. It felt out of place. “The Mother of Toads,” “Wet Dreams,” and “Sweets,” directed by Richard Stanley, Tom Savini, and David Gregory, respectively, were fat that needed to be trimmed. If they were excised and the remaining three were expanded, “The Theatre Bizarre,” framing segments directed by Jeremy Kasten, would most likely have been bizarre and worthwhile instead of just bizarre and overlong.
★ / ★★★★
Suzy (Jessica Harper) moved from America to Germany to study bullet in the prestigious Tans Academy. Just as Suzy stepped at the front door, a blonde girl, in complete panic, ran out of the school yelling complete nonsense. Suzy could only make out the words “secret” and “blue.” In the morning, students, teachers, and staff heard that the panic-stricken girl died in a gruesome fashion. The police had no suspect. “Suspiria,” directed by Dario Argento, was an unfocused and unexciting art-horror bathed in glorious primary colors. For a film about a witchcraft coven possibly hiding in the school and getting away with doing all sorts of terrible things, the majority of the scenes lacked tension. The only scene I thought was rather unsettling was when Suzy and the other girls found maggots in their hair. The way it unfolded had a certain cheekiness and it brought a lot of questions in such a short period of time: why were the girls suddenly scratching themselves? Was there some kind of voodoo involved? Were did the maggots come from? The scene worked because all the questions were answered with urgency. The rest did not measure up. The score was particularly annoying. I felt like it was on all the time even though nothing was happening. It could be just a scene of Suzy and Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy’s only friend, gossiping about boys and the score would suddenly hit a high note. I wanted to get to know the characters, even in a minute sense, but the score was too busy, actively preventing us from doing so. That’s not good filmmaking; it’s called lacking control over the material. If Argento did not want me to pay attention to what was being said between the characters, don’t let them converse at all. The feeling of sitting through a terrible movie is one thing. The suspicion that I’m wasting my time is another. I did not like the way the women were handled here. One man was murdered: it was silent and rather quick. When women were being inflicted with dark magic, it was slow, torturous, and they were made to scream a whole lot. I took no pleasure in watching them suffer because there was an underlying sexism in the kills. In horror movies, especially slasher flicks, I can have fun watching women characters meet their demise if men were also allowed to suffer in the same degree. That’s just part of the fun; that’s why we watch horror movies–for the most part, violence equals excitement. But watching women crawl through wires, get stabbed over and over and get hanged was just mean-spirited. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and ugly images in my head. Watching “Suspiria,” written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi, was a maddening, humiliating experience. I believe horror films can be beautiful, which can be measured aesthetically, thematically, or by just watching characters you want to see survive or even fight for. The colors of the curtains and walls were pretty but it was deeply hollow inside. A filmmaker can have hundreds–even thousands–of movies under his belt, but if the sculptor doesn’t breathe life and heart into his art, it means absolutely nothing to me. A movie can be badly dubbed to the point where it’s completely laughable. I may not hear every single word uttered by the actors. And the scares may not be scary at all. But if I feel that the filmmaker loves his work and wants me to love it as much as he does, I take notice and I give the work, even if it’s a “bad movie,” my respect. This movie does not deserve an iota of my respect.
Silent House (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In order to sell their lakeside home, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her dad, John (Adam Trese), were required to clean the place and pack memorabilia they wanted to keep. Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), John’s brother, lent a helping hand and the two fixed up the basement while throwing playful insults at each other as most close siblings tend to do. As Sarah lit lanterns and began sorting through boxes, there was a knock on the front door. It was Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah’s forgotten childhood friend, and the two eventually decided that they would hang out and reminisce old times. Sarah got back to her work. There was another knock on the door. There was no one there. Based on Gustavo Hernández’ “La casa muda,” the film followed every step that Sarah had taken from the moment we laid eyes on her as she stared placidly across the lake up until she was finally allowed to walk away from the house–all supposedly taken in one take. I’m not sure if such a claim was true, but even if it was an illusion, it was executed convincingly. The picture demanded prodigious patience. There were no shocks that forced our hearts to jump out of our chests every five minutes. The images were supposed to get under our skin and make us believe there was something odd around the corner. Since there was no electricity, every room looked menacing because boxes, plastic bags, and random pointed objects created shadows that suggested there could be something there if one looked closely enough. There were also plenty of mirrors. In horror movies, we’ve been conditioned to expect our protagonists to pass by a mirror, preferably old-looking, without noticing a ghost or whatnot staring right at them. While I will refrain from saying whether or not that cliché was implemented here, the material was able to construct an increasing amount of dread with every creaking door nearby, strange tapping in the room, and deafening thuds next door. Olsen was required to be more than a girl cowering in fear. While her character was fearful of every little thing, which, admittedly, I found quite annoying in the first few minutes, Olsen had way of combining terrified expressions with confusion and anticipation. Turning the doorknob was a challenge for Sarah. Most of us would find ourselves leaning back just in case something on the other side was waiting to go, “Boo!” Since Olsen’s performance had subtle variations, I believed that Sarah was consistently doing the best she could to try to get out of the house and find help. What I didn’t enjoy about the film, however, was its payoff. Imagine being in a roller coaster as it climbed higher and higher up until you just wished it would just reach the top, finally go down and shrill screaming began. But once it reached the top, the unexpected happened: the descent was languorous and very controlled. It felt unnatural so you couldn’t help but feel out of place. That’s how I felt while watching the final act: there was nothing scary, suspenseful, or thrilling about it. Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Silent House,” at its best, made me gasp once or twice. At its worst, however, I shook my head in frustration that it believed it could get away with a cheap resolution just because the supposed single take style looked impressive.
Hostel: Part II (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Affluent Beth (Lauren German), debbie-downer Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and brassy Whitney (Bijou Phillips), American art students in Italy, decided to go on a trip around Europe over the weekend for some relaxation. While on the train, one of the models (Vera Jordanova) they had the pleasure of sketching just hours prior recommended a gorgeous must-visit hot springs in Slovakia. It seemed too good to refuse so the trio happily accepted. Little did the girls know that just minutes after they checked into a hostel, there was an auction, held by Elite Hunting, a murder-for-profit group, in which rich men bid on women where the winner could do whatever he wanted with his winnings. Written and directed by Eli Roth, I give a little bit of credit to “Hostel: Part II” because it tried to do something different from its predecessor. Instead of focusing solely on the would-be victims, it actually spent some time with the men who wanted to experience something they’d never forget. Todd (Richard Burgi) was gung-ho about killing something with his hands while Stuart (Roger Bart) was more reluctant. The way Todd and Stuart talked about committing an act of unimaginable violence to another human being was disturbing because certain phrases they uttered, like a joke or a snide remark, reflected an underlying struggle in attempting to make their victims less human. For instance, while sitting in the car on their way to the torture factory, Stuart asked his friend if he thought what they were doing was sick. Todd answered the question as one would express strong dislike toward a certain type of food. Furthermore, the picture allowed us to peek inside the business. We saw the important figures who made the negotiations when something went wrong. We discovered some of the requirements stated in the contract if one chose to be a part of Elite Hunting. We also learned that certain rules were allowed to be broken for the right price. Although it had potential to be a good sequel because it strived to expand its universe, the film just wasn’t good enough. Because there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to Todd, Stuart, and their relationship with the business, watching it all unfold was like observing a drowning person: an occasional gasp of air came hand-in-hand with its desperation to keep afloat. For the sake of so-called suspense, the material had a natural tendency to relegate to the three girls trying to run away from the burly bad guys in leather yet we knew all along that they had no chance of outrunning them. That was a crucial difference between this film and its predecessor. Part of the fun of “Hostel” was we actually believed that Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who made an appearance here, was able to escape despite his odds. There was technique, tension, and, most importantly, humor, in the manner in which he had to camouflage with the environment to avoid being detected. In here, a character ran into the forest and we expected her to trip. And she did. Lastly, I was especially sickened with the scene in which an adult pointed his gun on several children’s heads. One of them was shot in the face. But for what? Some could argue that the adult intended to teach a lesson. I argue it was for mere shock value. It felt cheap. “Hostel: Part II” was plagued with boring protagonists and lackluster execution. I wanted to find dark humor in its extreme nature but I ended up just sitting in my chair, depressed with all that was happening.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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.