Tag: horror

Before I Wake


Before I Wake (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

“Before I Wake” combines dark fantasy and horror with mixed results.

On the one hand, there is an interesting story involving a foster child, Cody (Jacob Tremblay), who has the ability to turn his dreams into reality, but he is not yet able to control it. There is a curious dynamic between the boy and his most recent foster parents (Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane) because there is immediately a question in our mind whether the couple would choose to use Cody’s double-edged gift so that they could see and interact with their recently deceased son (Antonio Evan Romero). The screenplay by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, the former directing the picture, does not shy away from human nature—even at the expense of putting a child in danger.

The picture invites the viewer to look at it closely, especially during dream sequences. We are provided peaceful images of butterflies fluttering about in well-lit, well-decorated rooms yet the tone can pivot just as quickly toward darker territory. This is where horror elements come in. Silence is used effectively, particularly during tension-building early in the picture when the audience does not yet have an idea of the threat Cody mentions: The Canker Man, how it appears in his nightmares sometimes and eats people. Notice the careful use of shadows to prevent the viewer from seeing too much too soon. Flanagan has an understanding of how horror pictures work—not a surprise considering he helmed the excellent but largely undiscovered “Absentia.”

On the other hand, the film can be quite repetitive. Jessie and Mark trying to stay awake in the living room by drinking loads of coffee just in case Cody dreams of their son suffers from diminishing returns. Must we really endure yet another discussion regarding how much the couple misses their son? Must we look at yet another family picture with the smiling dead child in it? Perhaps the point is to establish a molasses-like pacing in order to communicate the crippling depression of the household. Repetition can work but the wrinkles in the formula must be introduced with great energy to keep the material from becoming stale.

Although the screenplay gets to it eventually, there is not enough investigation into Cody’s interesting past in order for the mystery to be resolved. For example, the reason why Gore Verbinski’s interpretation of “The Ring” works so well is because it works as a detective story. Time is utilized to soak us into its deepest secrets. Here, only about fifteen minutes is dedicated to stealing official documents, talking to the right creepy people, and going through red tape. As a result, the final third comes across as rushed and superficial.

With a few more passes of revision, “Before I Wake” might have offered a superior experience. The right elements are there, but fat needs to be shed in order to make room for meaty details. As is, it is tolerable but not particularly memorable.

Amityville: The Awakening


Amityville: The Awakening (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another horror film with a standard premise of a family moving into a murder house, a standard execution of hauntings occurring at night, and a standard resolution in which nothing new is discovered or resolved. One gets the impression that writer-director Franck Khalfoun has never helmed a project in which horror, suspense, and thrills must be juggled in order to create a semblance of entertainment. Considering that he has “P2” and “Maniac” under his belt prior to this film, it is apparent he has learned nothing from them. The stench of mediocrity can be swallowed in every square inch of this lame horror outing.

The Amityville murder is a fascinating case because what had occurred in 112 Ocean Avenue was so horrific, the paranormal was employed to try to make sense of what had happened there. But the picture is not interested, not even slightly curious, in putting a new spin on a familiar territory. While it is somewhat fresh that the characters are aware that horror movies have been inspired by the house they now live in, the self-awareness is not matched by an intelligent or clever script. Due to boredom, I wondered how someone like Wes Craven might have carved the screenplay like a pumpkin so that the viewer can taste a distinct flavor on three fronts: the real-life murder, the current story being told in connection to the previous pictures, and as an exercise of the horror genre.

One of its many awful mistakes is treating the heroine, Belle (Bella Thorne), like an object to be desired rather than one to empathize with. Although Thorne is not the most versatile performer, it is not her fault that the person in charge behind the camera is adamant on making her look beautiful, always sporting cosmetics, unblemished, even when the character is supposed to be having the harshest days of living in an extremely stressful environment. Paranormal occurrences is one thing. Her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) becoming increasingly obsessed with her twin brother (Cameron Monaghan) waking up from his two-year vegetative state is another beast entirely. There is even room for genuine human drama here but Khalfoun could not be bothered to strive a little more.

Another critical misstep is the lack of genuine horror. The rising action is mainly composed of nightmares and hallucinations which carry minimal consequences. Even putting this miscalculation aside, when one takes a closer look at the approach, experienced viewers are likely to see the jolts from a mile away. For instance, a scene almost always begins in a dark room and Belle feels compelled to investigate a noise in another darker room. Of course there is going to be a punchline—which is almost always an overused jump scare. The writer-director’s lack of creativity and inspiration gets exhausting after a while. What is his goal of making a pointless movie like this?

“Amityville: The Awakening” is dead on arrival, an iteration to be completely forgotten after several days—a well-earned sentence for being so ordinary that it dissolves in the mind the moment its images are processed in the brain. I would say that at least it is only approximately eighty-five minutes long but, thinking more about it, it is eighty-five minutes too long.

FirstBorn


FirstBorn (2016)
★ / ★★★★

“FirstBorn,” based on the screenplay by Sean Hogan and Nirpal Bhogal, lacks the depth necessary to create a horror picture with a fascinating mythos involving a little girl born with a special ability. Instead, it concerns itself with the usual, expected, exhausted tricks in the book. For instance, there are far too many occasions in which it attempts to make the viewers jump by belting out sudden, loud noises. It is a horror film that feels saddled by movies that came before instead of one that dares to forge its own path.

Most fascinating about the story, about halfway through, is when the little girl named Thea (Thea Petrie) is sent to an occultist (Eileen Davies) so that she can be trained to manage her gift of seeing those from the world of evil. These scenes provide an eerie feeling because there is something about Davis’ interpretation of her character that one feels shouldn’t be trusted. And yet later scenes show that the training does help Thea in putting the monsters at bay, protecting her parents from being attacked by invisible creatures. Clearly, Davis is the picture’s secret weapon because she infuses subtlety in a screenplay that lacks such a critical element.

I found it strange that the filmmakers are afraid to show the creatures without the need to employ quick cuts and extreme closeups. From the glimpses presented, the special and visual effects team, as well as the makeup artists, do a solid job in creating spooky, menacing villains. The lack of willingness to keep the camera still when the monsters make an appearance communicate an absence of confidence in the images. In horror movies like this film, the creature begs to be seen. After all, numerous scenes are shown using the child’s perspective. It doesn’t make sense that we do not see what she sees; what terrifies her should also terrify us.

There is an angle worth pursuing but the writers neglect to provide enough dimension to the characters involved since they are too busy embracing clichés. From time to time, Charlie (Antonia Thomas) and James (Luke Norris), young parents of a six-year-old, are shown as being completely exhausted from having to take care of a child with special needs. Aside from the first few scenes, once Thea is born we no longer see them living a life of their own, together as a couple or apart. Focus is on one confronting occurrence after another. Charlie talks about abandoning her child so she can have her life back. While an interesting admission, the material brings it up and just as quickly pushes the revelation under the rug as if it never happened.

Directed by Nirpal Bhogal, “FirstBorn” is wildly uneven but most egregious is a lack of resolution. It just ends—invoking a feeling that it had run out of ideas. Obviously inspired by classic horror-thrillers involving children potentially being possessed or are evil attempting to possess children, the filmmakers needed to have looked further into what made those pictures work in terms of their mythologies as opposed to providing cheap, easy, forgettable jolts. Here is a work with some good ideas but one that limits its own potential.

The Thing


The Thing (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★

John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” based on the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, does not waste any time inspiring viewers to ask questions: Why is a man aboard a Norwegian helicopter intent on shooting a sled dog dead? Why does it appear as though the canine understands precisely what it is that’s going on amidst the utter confusion, following prior shooter’s death, in the American research station? What happened exactly at the Norwegian research base before being burned to the ground? What is its connection to the charred remains of grotesque corpses that resemble a fusion among man, animal, and beast?

The picture works as a high-level science fiction and horror hybrid because it tickles our deepest curiosities. Questions are brought up and answers are provided—at times almost immediately. But then some answers pave the way to new questions, and some of them do not have easy answers. The men at the American research facility must face a parasitic extraterrestrial life form that infiltrates another organism, assimilates with its host’s cells, and then imitates the host’s body. There is some evidence that the so-called Thing is able to retain the host’s memories: it knows how to perform daily tasks, to converse, and to recall details of events it has no way of knowing prior to infiltration. But the screenplay by Bill Lancaster is astute enough to refrain from answering this mystery directly because it is far scarier to have an understanding or appreciation but without knowing for sure.

There is a dozen men in the facility, and each one is given a spotlight. We learn about their jobs as people of science in addition to those who support these scientists to get the job done and to keep the facilities running smoothly. Some of their personalities may clash, but there is a sense of community among them. We believe that they have known each other for months, possibly years, in the way they have learned to tolerate one another’s eccentricities. Now is the time for their bonds, as strong or as tenuous as they are, to be tested in most unimaginable ways. Can you shoot a colleague or friend in face pointblank? How about with a flamethrower? Do you have it in you to cut someone else’s guide rope and leave him out in the Antarctic snowstorm?

The helicopter pilot, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), serves as our central protagonist not because he is smartest or strongest but because he is able to keep his cool, and therefore think clearly, during the most intense situations. Notice how the other men are written: already ill-tempered even before first alien reveal, trigger-happy, excessively nervous or anxious, overly suspicious, gutless. Their personalities and quirks are in total contrast against MacReady’s.

And on the occasional moments when MacReady does lose control out of sheer terror, his reactions are played for laughs occasionally. The decision to provide comic relief, as evanescent as they are, is correct because tension generated reaches unbearable levels at times. There is a memorable scene, for instance, when men—suspected of being infected—are tied up and right next to them is a colleague, actually infected by the Thing, undergoing horrifying convulsions, tiny tentacles protruding from his face and body. There is the confined room… and then there is being tied up in that confined room with the boogeyman.

The star of “The Thing” is Rob Bottin’s unforgettable creature and special effects. It feels like the macabre images have been ripped right out from our nightmares: giant mouths with teeth that could chomp through a grown man’s wrists with ease, spider legs coming out of a decapitated head and then crawling about, dogs’ melted faces and bodies fusing into one big, bloody lump with long tentacles coming out of it and whipping about, bodies breathing in amniotic sacs… Blood and guts are generously thrown about, but notice they come in different colors and textures, too. Transformation from man to Thing is observed unblinkingly. It is without question that the filmmakers are willing to do whatever is necessary for us not to look away, mouths agape in gleeful horror.

Rattlesnake


Rattlesnake (2019)
★ / ★★★★

With a premise that brings Stephen King stories to mind, it is a disappointment that “Rattlesnake,” written and directed by Zak Hilditch, fails to take off after the first act. Instead, we are subjected to repetitive sequences of a character running about all over a Texan town with one goal in mind but few inspired ideas on how to reach it. Because we find ourselves smarter than the protagonist, following her is a chore and a bore. The picture might have benefited from a major rewrite—not of its premise but of the details that make up the story.

A flat tire on a desert highway forces Katrina (Carmen Ejogo) to pull over and deal with the matter. Her daughter, Clara (Apollonia Pratt), explores from a few feet away but eventually finds herself bitten by a rattlesnake. Panic-stricken and desperate to save her daughter’s life, Katrina spots a nearby trailer, sprints toward it with Clara in tow, and enters. A woman (Debrianna Mansini)—preternaturally calm—agrees to help. She claims that payment for her service will be discussed at a later time, but for now Katrina must fix the flat tire so when her daughter regains consciousness, she could be taken immediately to the nearest hospital.

While at the hospital, the girl in recovery, the mother gets a visitor. The man in the suit (Bruce Davis) claims that for the soul that was saved, Katrina must offer the same in return: She must murder another person. She has seven hours—until sunset—to pay the debt in full. Should she fail, Clara’s soul would be reclaimed.

The first twenty minutes command a high level of urgency. It buries the audience neck-deep with all sorts of information, questions, and assumptions. Most interesting is the magical element in the picture; it is unsettling that the faces we come to meet—those who are aware of what Katrina must do—are those who have passed on. We see their faces on missing persons ads and on online articles citing violent deaths. On the surface, Ejogo looks convincing as a desperate mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to save her daughter. It is in her eyes.

Less impressive, however, is how the character is written. Ejogo could deliver the most layered acting, but if the screenplay remains flat, the performer’s effort would amount to nothing. In the attempt to show Katrina as a good person, there are far too many moments that depict her hesitancy and guilt. They drag on and on—to the point by which the momentum of the movie is significantly impaired. In the middle of it, I wondered why the writer-director is so desperate for viewers to like the character, to see her as good. It isn’t necessary. What matters is that we understand the plight of the character, what she must do to save her daughter. I would rather have an interesting protagonist who is willing to partake in questionable things than a likable, boring one. Katrina is example of the latter and there is no excuse for it.

For a race against time story, there is an astonishing lack of urgency. Notice instances of Katrina measuring up her potential victims. She considers older folks, children, women who come across physically weak by comparison to her. This comes across rather… amusing instead of chilling. The reason is because, at this point, we do not know how she thinks. Because she is written to be so safe and so nice, it is difficult to imagine the extent of her dark thoughts—or if she is even capable of having such ideations. And so what we see during these moments is simply behavior. There is no tension, no believability to the whole charade.

“Rattlesnake” bites but it lacks potent venom. Not enough is done with the black magic angle of the story whether it be a constant, forceful, mysterious element never to be explained nor as a possible facet of the plot that must be explored thoroughly. Instead, it is used merely as a tool to propel the plot forward and brought up whenever convenient. I was annoyed by the screenplay’s fondness for easy solutions and so the work is never fascinating, just barely good enough to pass the time. I hold a higher standard than that.

The Lighthouse


The Lighthouse (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Psychological horror picture “The Lighthouse” is a step back for director Robert Eggers. In “The Witch,” he is able to take a period story, set in 1630s New England, and construct a deeply unsettling tale around that time and place. It peers unblinkingly into a dark folklore and we buy every second of it. It is told with clarity, relentless energy, and with a period dialogue so uncompromising at times that it risks frustrating most viewers. In his follow-up, however, co-writing with Max Eggers, although the story takes place on an island in 1890s New England, photography in black-and-white, it feels just like any other modern twisty tale of a man’s madness unspooling in an isolated, lonely location. I received little enjoyment from it.

It cannot be denied that Willem Dafoe’s performance is entertaining. As Wake, the ill-tempered supervisor of Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is prone to believing superstitions of the sea, he is extremely watchable when the camera places him front and center, recalling experiences he claims to have had and how he manages to tie them—no matter how tenuous—to the current predicaments that he and Winslow find themselves in. Although Pattinson attempts to match the veteran’s effortless magnetism—and there are a few moments when Pattinson is effective—he pales by comparison.

Histrionics, particularly toward the end when secrets have been spilled and blood has been spattered, are unconvincing and forced; I felt awkward during instances when the performer would go off-script because he is so into the moment. Particularly challenging when it comes to period films is that every second must feel and sound believable. I felt certain reactions to dire situations needed to be edited, cut short, or reshot altogether. Modern acting in period movies, unless this concept is meant to be the point, is most distracting. When it comes to Pattinson, who has been terrific in risk-taking roles prior to this (“The Rover,” “Good Time,” “High Life”), I felt I was watching an actor acting rather than being.

The relationship between the two men of vastly different ages and even bigger differences when it comes to how to approach the job they are tasked is meant to be rocky, a constant source of conflict. There are a handful of amusing moments when Wake would unfairly remind Winslow of his lower rank just because the old man can, but especially when Winslow broaches the subject of never getting to see the lamp of the lighthouse. Wake appears to be obsessed of being alone with that lamp. Why? Dafoe’s wicked performance suggests there might be a sexual component to it. One night, due to nagging curiosity, Winslow walks to the top of the lighthouse and sees his partner, lying naked, in the same room as giant, octopus-like tentacles. The movie gets more bizarre from there.

One of the Wake’s odd superstitions is it is bad luck to kill a seagull since each bird contains a soul of a sailor who had died. This idea ties nicely to the final shot of the film, but it commands little power or irony because the storytelling, for the most part, is muddled, composed solely of one peculiar happening after another: a mermaid encounter by the rocks, getting dead drunk and experiencing nightmares, hallucinations born out of guilt, and the like. The formula gets repetitive and exhausting after a while.

Although some thought is put behind these images, I was reminded too often of other generic psychological horror pictures in which an untrustworthy protagonist grows even more unhinged as the story moves forward. Remove the black-and-white photography in addition to the silent film aspect ratio of 1.9 to 1 and there is nothing special about “The Lighthouse.” Not once did I feel scared, or surprised, or thrilled by any of the plot developments. I found shots of ocean water crashing against the rocks during a storm to be far more hypnotic than the wild goings-on.

Eli


Eli (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Ciarán Foy’s “Eli” is yet another substandard horror film with little on its mind other than to deliver a big twist during the final fifteen minutes. The journey toward the destination is slow, interminable, and peppered with scares that rarely land on target. For a story that unfolds in an estate in the middle of the country—perfect for a haunted house movie—there is no intrigue, just clichés that pile on top of one another until the viewer is compelled to no longer care.

It begins with a curious medical case about a boy named Eli (Charlie Shotwell) who began to exhibit signs of an unnamed autoimmune disorder four years prior. When exposed to the environment, red spots appear on his skin aggressively and so he is forced to live in a bubble. His parents (Kelly Reilly, Max Martini) found a new hope: Dr. Horn (Lili Taylor), an immunologist who plans to employ viral gene therapy to repair the boy’s defective genes.

Although a mysterious premise, the science aspect of the picture is almost immediately thrown out the window from the moment the desperate family steps inside the palatial home. It does not help that the immunologist and her nurses are written as villains in the most obvious way possible: stern-faced, cold, impersonal, robotic. It does not provide the audience a chance to decide for themselves whether or not to trust the poker-faced trio. You see, the reason is because every decision must serve the rug to be pulled from right underneath our feet. If the screenplay by David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing really cared about engaging the audience, it would have been willing to entertain possibilities.

The middle portion drags to the point of futility. Every time day turns into night, you can bet that Eli would have a nightmare, get up from the bed, and explore the creepy facility. Sometimes he encounters ghostly figures that breathe on windowpanes, a few of them whisper clues, and one or two reveal themselves, CGI and all. It is formulaic, exhausting, and not at all scary. There is a lack of patience during the buildup and so the would-be payoffs are not at all impactful. Shotwell is quite convincing at looking terrified, but we do not believe the emotions on his face because there is nothing special about the craft propelling such encounters.

As for the drama between a desperate mother and seemingly cold father, I found it to be recycled fluff. There is a scene early in the picture which shows the family’s financial struggle due to the boy’s rising medical costs. However, this fact—this reality—is never brought up again. I think the movie could have used more searing honesty. It is common knowledge that family members tend to fight among one another when money is tight. People get desperate not knowing how to pay for rent or how to pay for the next meal. Pretty much everybody can relate or empathize with this. However, the movie would rather focus on parents fighting because one has lied, or has kept a secret, or some vanilla reason. Be direct. Deliver raw drama.

Admittedly, the twist is quite smart. I did not see it coming. But a good twist—even a great one—is not worth a recommendation when everything else around it is uninspired, from the unsubtle dialogue, forgettable set decor, down to a resolution that hints at a possible sequel should the movie become a success. It is pessimistic filmmaking.