The Theatre Bizarre (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.
The Woman in Black (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young father and a widower, was assigned by his London-based law firm to go to the country and peruse through the documents that Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova) left upon her death. If it was certain that the firm had her final will, her gothic mansion, known to everyone around it as the Eel Marsh House, would be ready for clean-up and sale. Arthur assumed it would be a relatively easy job. When he arrived at the village, however, the residents were very unwelcoming and keen on sending him back to where he came from. Soon enough, he had a chance to visit the supposedly abandoned house and began to see a woman observing him from the grounds. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and screenplay by Jane Goldman, the greatest strength of “The Woman in Black” was its understanding of the importance of building suspense prior to delivering a genuinely scary moment that either left its audience startled or horrified. I enjoyed the way it kept me interested as to why the distressed townsfolk were so opposed to Arthur’s visit. While we suspected that it probably had something to do with his assignment at the secluded house, we weren’t sure as to how that was related to the three seemingly happy children who jumped to their deaths in the first scene. By not giving us immediate answers, I actually ended up wanting Arthur to finally get to the house and do a bit of investigation in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. The creepiness increased tenfold when the camera loomed over the estate. It was surrounded by a marsh in which tides came and went depending on the hours. At times the road was unavailable which meant that Arthur wouldn’t be able to escape when his encounters turned grim. When he was left alone to look around the house, the picture was at its best because the filmmakers highlighted the stillness that surrounded our protagonist as well as when the stillness was threatened by supernatural forces. Typicalities occurred such as a ghost appearing behind Arthur when he wasn’t looking but a handful of them were executed so convincingly, the clichés were almost negligible. The most chilling scene involved a nursery room with a rocking chair that seemed to defy physics. It was enjoyable on more than one level because while the direction forced our senses to focus on sounds and images, the horror elements–like dolls moving and stopping on their own, the eventual reveal of the malevolent ghost and the like–also challenged us, if we wished, to recreate an image of an unhappy life that had driven the woman in black to do the things she did. This could be connected to the moment when we first met Arthur as he held a blade to his neck but changed his mind for his son’s sake. This led to the picture’s main weakness. I wasn’t totally convinced that Radcliffe was a young father who was grieving for his wife’s death. Although he had no problem conjuring emotions like sadness, the angst behind his eyes and actions weren’t quite there. I felt that a certain level of realism within the character to be important because the reason why Arthur decided to take the job and continued to perform the job despite eerie warnings was because he wanted to provide for his son. Instead of an engaging beginning, since certain emotions didn’t feel true, I found it rather languorous. “The Woman in Black,” directed by James Watkins,” could have also used an ending that didn’t feel so saccharine that it derailed its consistently minacious tone. It was an example of how toxic a cliché can be if there was nothing else behind it other than lazy or confused writing.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.
★ / ★★★★
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.