Tag: horror

Dead Night

Dead Night (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Screenwriter Irving Walker and director Brad Baruh ought to take a Horror 101 class in order to really take a look at classic horror films—especially those with wild ideas—and study why they work. It is astounding that their project manages to get nearly every single element wrong, from mashing together a hodgepodge of ideas that do not complement one another to the truly awful execution in which suspense is nearly absent. Halfway through, it becomes clear that it is all about the splatter—like how an axe cracks the skull, how limbs are torn so easily. Is it supposed to be darkly comic? A throwback to B-movies of the past? It doesn’t matter—it is intolerably boring.

This would-be horror film is titled “Dead Night,” but it might as well be called “Dead on Arrival,” both because it offers nothing better than bottom-of-the-barrel junk as the family on vacation is terrorized and killed by supernatural forces mere hours after their arrival at the cabin in the woods. Observe how the dialogue is so scripted, no one sounds like an actual person but movie characters designed to be killed should the plot demand it. The awkward beats between lines only amplifies the hollowness of it all; the performers themselves do not look sold on what they’re saying, let alone be bothered to actually feel what their characters are feeling. At least they got paid to be in a bad movie rather than having to watch themselves appear in one.

We are shown fragments being inserted in unsuspecting people’s bodies. Somehow these curious, ancient-looking objects allow the victims to get possessed or to come back to life (it isn’t clear) equipped with rather robotic-sounding demonic voices. But the thing is, they’re not strong or smart or even remotely threatening. They release guttural growls, their bodies undergo involuntary shaking, and their eyes whiten. (Of course, bad CGI must be employed since this is almost a pre-requisite in terrible horror flicks.) These zombie-demons appear to understand orders but they don’t accomplish anything. They are useless, worse than zombies that are barely able to walk, and one must wonder at their function. Are they meant to serve merely as ugly decorations against the pine trees and snow? Are we even supposed to feel creeped out by them?

At least Barbara Crampton, the unconscious woman whom the patriarch (AJ Bowen) finds in the snowy woods, seems to be having a great time. Her approach once her character is resuscitated: overact, turn the enthusiasm knob to eleven, raise her voice at every character who challenges her even just a little. The surge of energy she provides is like a defibrillator to a body that had been dead for a week. While her attempt to revive the material is ultimately useless, at least she tried. That is more than can be said about the filmmakers’ efforts. I got the impression that they wanted to make a movie just to have something on their resume. What results is a work that is lazy and not at all entertaining.

If I were a film professor, I would hold an optional lecture for “Dead Night.” It would be a good lecture to attend because it shows how not to make a film—no matter the genre. And it would be optional because sitting through the picture itself is harsh punishment. I would rather stare at a wall for an hour and fifteen minutes than having to watch this drivel again.

6 Souls

6 Souls (2010)
★ / ★★★★

In the middle of the would-be supernatural horror picture “6 Souls,” I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Julianne Moore, playing psychiatrist Cara Harding who is presented a bizarre case of what appears to be dissociative identity disorder (DID), because despite her efforts of elevating the material, the screenplay by Michael Cooney falls flat every step of the way. Whether it be discussing ideas within the realm of science, particularly abnormal psychology and behavior, or craft when it comes to scaring the audience witless, the approach is painfully pedestrian, lacking in energy, creativity, or even a modicum of personality.

It suffers from an identity crisis. On the one hand, because our protagonist is a woman of science even though she believes in God, the first third of the film attempts to be somewhat realistic. We spend a lot of time in an interview room where Dr. Harding asks David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) a range of questions meant to trigger a response. During these scenes we are supposed to gauge how the patient with DID processes information, but the writer forgets that these sequences, too, are an opportunity for us to observe how good Dr. Harding is at her job. Although Moore excels at emoting even the most minute emotions since she is a dramatic performer first and foremost, nothing interesting is revealed about her character until an hour into the picture. Instead, she is reduced to just another career woman who becomes obsessed with cases. Boring.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Meyers. I did not believe any of the “personalities” that take over. At first I thought it was due to Meyers’ limited range of facial expressions. Notice that when a personality of a different gender or vastly different age is in control, he relies on changing his voice without an effective body language to go with it. Eventually, however, it becomes obvious that there is a deeper problem: Because each personality is introduced only on a surface level, the changes that unfold before our eyes are neither interesting nor horrifying. I am convinced the filmmakers are aware of this shortcoming because nearly each time something “scary” occurs, we are pummeled by loud music as if the intent were to beat us into submission. It is an annoyance.

The special and visual effects are third rate at best. The supposed spirit that floats in the air and goes on attacking people looks like it is made using a computer program in the ‘90s. It looks so grainy, almost unfinished. In order to hide the more laughable textures and other subpar qualities, a lot of shadow is employed. As a result, not only do these scenes look ugly and uninspired, it becomes a struggle to appreciate the images on screen. At least B-movies are proud of what they have to offer. In this film, one that is meant to be taken seriously, the filmmakers appear to be ashamed of what they paid for. If so, then why showcase the effects in the first place? The reason is because it takes more work on a script level to leave something in the viewers’ imagination.

“6 Souls,” directed by Björn Stein and Måns Mårlind, offers a hollow and depressing experience. There is not one effective scare, let alone one that is memorable or inspired at the very least. The picture can be summed up by its ending: nonsensical, frustrating, lazy, entirely predictable. Perhaps the filmmakers were not convinced themselves that their work is anything more than a straight-to-DVD endeavor. Maybe they just needed to make something—anything—to pay the bills.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” based on a book series by Alvin Schwartz, tells the story of a group of friends who come across a book in a hidden room inside an abandoned mansion—a place with a reputation for being haunted. The teenagers realize later it is no ordinary book; whatever is written on it, in blood, comes true. Although the work, directed by André Øvredal, offers a watchable cast who share good chemistry, the monsters are memorable, and some scares manage to land, as a whole it remains a disappointment because one cannot help but suspect it is holding back.

The target audience are those in their early to mid-teens. I found this to be quite strange because the story takes place in 1968 on the eve of Richard Nixon becoming president. We see posters of Nixon all over the small town of Mill Valley (he is not liked there) and the subject of the Vietnam War is broached several times. “Night of the Living Dead” is shown at the drive-in theater. While I admired its specificity in terms of images, music, and dialogue, the work does not commit fully in delivering scares. It is a shame because it is strong when it comes to establishing build-up, but when gruesome violence is required, for instance, it only shows about half of what feels right. As a result, the experience, too, is halved. Clearly, the picture is tailored to receive a PG-13 rating.

The young cast is composed of memorable faces but not performances. Zoe Margaret Colletti plays Stella, the only girl in the group who is so obsessed with horror that she decides to take the mysterious book home so she could study it further. (Stella aspires to become a writer.) Gabriel Rush and Austin Zajur portray Auggie and Chuck, respectively, and their characters are meant to provide comic relief. Last but not least, Michael Garza takes the role of Ramon, a Mexican-American who happens to be passing by Mill Valley, an outsider who must endure racism from some of the white residents and authority figures.

Each actor is given a moment to shine exactly because every character is provided a demon or monster to face. We may not know Stella, Ramon, Auggie, and Chuck in a deep or meaningful way, but we always hope for their safety when pressure is up. Unlike mean-spirited horror films, the audience is consistently on the side of those being hunted.

I found the creatures to be inspired. It is expected that when actual masks and body suits are utilized, the encounters feel all the more effective. However, I was surprised that even the CGI creatures are almost as powerful, especially the so-called Jangly Man that is capable of taking apart its limbs at will. It is one thing that The Jangly Man looks and sounds demonic. It is another that we become convinced it is unstoppable. I also relished Harold the scarecrow who appears early in the film. The manner in which it lumbers about leaves an imprint in the mind. Notice the picture’s appropriate use of silence as tension increases. At times hearing only the wind caressing the cops can be just as deafening as desperate screams for help.

There is an undercooked backstory which involves the former owners of the aforementioned abandoned house. It is the weakest link in the film; it doesn’t help that the repercussions of their actions propel our characters into a drawn-out investigation. The problem is, however, Stella, Auggie, Ramon, and Chuck are not written to be especially resourceful, intelligent, or pragmatic. They are simply ordinary teenagers who just happen to get caught up in something bigger than themselves. Thus, the investigatory sequences come across painfully contrived.

Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

The second reimagining of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” is better than the first—but not by much. It is composed of the same mistakes that modern horror movies tend to make: a noticeable score designed to tell the audience what to think and how to feel, silly jump scares that can be predicted beat by beat, laughable instead of genuinely horrifying violence, and a rushed final act that offers minimal catharsis. The viewer is likely to walk away feeling cheated because of the generic nature of the experience.

I found the exposition to be safe but tolerable. Hoping to spend more time with their children, Louis (Jason Clarke) and Rachel (Amy Seimetz) decide to uproot their family and start anew in rural Maine, away from the hustle and bustle of Boston. In Ludlow, Louis will work in a clinic instead of a hospital while Rachel will stay home with the kids. But when the family cat, Church, dies in an accident, their friendly neighbor, Jud (John Lithgow), has an idea: to bury the cat in the woods where the land has a reputation of bringing the dead back to life. About a third of the way through, although the pacing is slow, each step is purposeful. There is a sense of foreboding. We even learn about Rachel’s relationship with death, particularly the guilt and trauma that linger in her regarding her sister’s passing.

However, once the typical horror elements begin to take over the plot, especially those normally found in slasher movies, the picture falls apart. One gets the impression that screenwriter Jeff Buhler has failed to find true inspiration and so he decides to utilize shortcuts as a substitute. The dead coming back to life should be a terrifying notion, especially if these beings are able to retain their memories and the ability to communicate. Already they are different from zombies who only wish to bite flesh and eat brains. Instead, there is more attention placed in the running around, the stabbings, and the struggles of getting to a weapon. It all just feels so tired and pointless.

There are watchable performances here by Clarke, Seimetz, and Lithgow. The actors who play husband and wife are believable in that the more recent changes in their lives are not easy for either of them. And yet they try to make it work. The widower, too, is a curious character. When he is finally invited for dinner, we feel his joy of being welcomed by the family, including the cat. However, the enthusiastic yet grounded performances still fail to save a screenplay lacking both strong vision and fresh execution. The entire work must be effective as a horror picture above all.

“Pet Sematary” is directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer in a most pedestrian fashion, especially when it comes to the scares. If anything, precisely because the work is both based on a book and a remake of an overrated would-be classic, every second should be dedicated to surpassing them. Instead, it appears to be content in delivering familiar tropes that lack imagination and tension. It feels like another cash grab.

The Unspoken

Unspoken, The (2015)
★★ / ★★★★

For a good while of “The Unspoken,” written and directed by Sheldon Wilson, it is a decent horror picture executed with deliberate pacing despite a familiar template of yet another family moving into house that is believed to haunted. But a twist offered during the final five minutes reveals that the picture could have been so much more intriguing because it actually offers something new to the genre. In this case, it would have been preferred had the surprise been revealed a little less than halfway through and then the rest of the time being devoted to exploring the daring idea it puts forth.

The mystery surrounds a house that sits away from an already isolated town where a family disappeared suddenly seventeen years ago. When the police arrived, it appeared to be a crime scene given the blood stains on windows, walls, and various appliances. And yet—not one body was found in or around the house. As it turned out, their clothes were still in their closets and drawers, the car was parked at its usual spot, even dinner remained on their plates. It were as if they simply vanished out of thin air. The only person who made it out of the house, with the help of a police officer, was the babysitter, clearly traumatized from what she had seen. But what did she see? When a mother and son (Pascale Hutton, Sunny Suljic) move into the Briar house, locals recall horrifying rumors and legends.

Jodelle Ferland plays the recently hired babysitter named Angela. Although not a well-written character, Ferland plays Angela with a certain wholesomeness and so we cannot help but root for her despite a dearth of information about who she is and why she is our heroine. Ferland commands the screen during the strange happenings around the house, but I wished that the writer-director had done more with the character since the performer clearly can do more. There are dramatic scenes thrown around here and there—such as her interactions with her father (Lochlyn Munro), friend (Chanelle Peloso), and three town thugs (Anthony Konechny, Jonathan Whitesell, Jake Croker)—but the exchanges lack gravity and intrigue.

The picture can be quite graphic. At its best, it uses actual masks, rubber, and other tactile elements to create gruesome imagery. At its worst, however, we see CGI flies, flying knives and other weapons, people being thrown across the room by an invisible force. Had the picture been stripped bare of such ostentatious mumbo jumbo, a much more grounded and believable experience might have been created. Modern filmmakers really must learn not to use inappropriate visual effects when attempting to tell a small horror story.

Still, I appreciated certain pieces of the film even though I cannot being myself to recommend it. There are a few scenes that show characters moving so slowly toward a suspicious noise. The camera follows with precise patience. We anticipate what it might be. Also note there is a certain eerie quiet to these sequences. Inferior pictures of the genre are afraid of silence. And while this piece offers a few jump scares, it does not use them as a crutch.


Crawl (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Like strong creature features of the 1980s, “Crawl,” based on the screenplay by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, strips away the fat and dares to focus on the survival aspect of the story. But in order to increase the ante, there is no creature that had undergone genetic mutation or a bizarre alien being that crash landed on our planet. Instead, it takes a realistic approach: a father and his daughter find themselves trapped in their Florida home during a Category 5 hurricane—alligators just so happen to be on the hunt for food. In a way, the alligators are simply trying to survive, too. The movie is fun, full of energy, and as it moves forward, I caught myself pulling my limbs toward my torso. Cue the alligator’s jaws snapping shut around a character’s arm.

It is exciting visually. While the storm does not look particularly impressive or expensive, the increasingly terrifying flood does. There are numerous before-and-after shots. For instance, in the beginning of the film, we get a chance to observe the water levels around town as our heroine makes her way through evacuated roads to check up on her father. Then we spend the majority of the picture under a house as our characters evade the hungry reptiles.

Later, when we lay eyes on the outside again, it is shocking how trees are now bent a certain way, cars are floating about, the wind at least twice as strong, and the water can be seen as far as the eye can see. Because there is attention to detail, we believe that there really is a hurricane ripping through the state. Just as quickly, our minds drift toward Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and Dave (Barry Pepper) who are increasingly tired, injured, and bloody. Alligators prove to be most patient hunters.

There is human drama in the middle of this survival feature, but it is the correct decision to minimize it. Flashbacks are utilized to show how close Haley was to her father when she was a child. He was her coach and mentor. Haley is angry at her father but we do not know why initially. We do know, however, that Haley is unhappy right from the opening sequence during swim practice. She is the kind of person who has been trained to hide or mask her emotions. Did Dave push her too hard? Was there a traumatizing event? Is it something else entirely? The story can be seen then from the perspective of a familial anger that must exorcised through great violence in order for the relationship to move forward. Credit to the Rasmussen brothers for their efficiency.

The true stars of the picture are the alligators. Director Alexandre Aja has a knack for showing how beautiful these creatures are… then perverting that beauty into terrifying encounters. Underwater shots clearly serving to admire their sheer size and majesty are examples of the former. Latter examples are the gator attacks on land: how fast, smart, and powerful they are even when they are not in water. Most enjoyable is the fact that the filmmakers are willing to show how an alligator attempts to overwhelm its prey: how it uses its tail, its jaws, its own body weight, even its own surroundings. Each confrontation is different and that makes it exciting.

“Crawl” will tickle those who like their creature features short and sweet… but also dirty and bloody. Whether a chase sequence unfolds indoors or outdoors, it has a wonderful habit of placing the viewers close to the center of action for maximum impact. Every splashing of the water counts. Even tiny bubbles can be detected by these ferocious gators. It inspires us to clean closer yet remain guarded just in case there is a jump scare. In the middle of it, I wished more modern survival horror-thrillers were as lean and efficient as this experience.

Child’s Play

Child’s Play (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those looking for a creepy good time need not look further because this re-imagining of the 1988 horror classic “Child’s Play” is not just another slasher flick revived for the sole purpose of cashing in. In fact, right from the opening sequence it is proud to separate itself from the original by posing a technological question rather than an occult variety. In the 1988 picture, a doll is possessed by the soul of serial murderer; here, however, it is advanced technology gone horribly wrong, initiated by a mistreated factory worker in Vietnam. Yet it is not without dark but laugh-out-loud comic moments even when stabbings and slashing pervade the screen. I had a ball.

The plot is irrelevant: a tween-age boy named Andy (Gabriel Bateman) receives an early birthday present, a Buddi doll named Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill), from his hardworking mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), during a difficult transitional period of their most recent move. Andy, who is deaf, is having trouble making new friends. The screenwriter, Tyler Burton Smith, is smart to establish a relatively fast-paced exposition because it is entirely familiar. He knows that most of us are in it for the violence and the blood first and story second; at the same time, however, he is aware that the most effective horror movies must build up to bursts of violence rather than simply parading around one killing after another. It helps that Plaza and Bateman share genuine chemistry, some of their exchanges as mother and son are cute and amusing.

I am most uncertain about Chucky’s design, specifically its face. I was not scared or creeped out when, for instance, the camera fixates on the doll when a person is not around. (I was disturbed by the doll’s actions more than anything.) Perhaps it is due to the fact that it does not look like a doll that is sold in stores. It looks more like a prop. What makes the original so chilling at times is that Chucky, when sitting still and not emoting, looks like any other doll. (Followed by that killer score.) Furthermore, although this version of Chucky has a lot more expressions than its predecessors, the facial movements look too artificial or computerized at times. There is something about more ordinary-looking puppets that are far more frightening despite their innate limitations.

I enjoyed that the work bothers to show human relationships, whether it be the mother and son or the boy attempting to make new friends in the building. The neighbor (Carlease Burke) and her detective son (Brian Tyree Henry) are given a chance to shine, too. But what I think is far superior than any “Child’s Play” movies that came before is the relationship between the doll and its owner. Here, there is a short but sweet montage where Andy and Chucky are actually shown playing, laughing, getting along. We observe Chucky learning and then applying what he learned in inappropriate situations. It is so important, I think, for the work to communicate the bond between a boy and his inanimate friend first and then later smashing that connection into smithereens.

Directed by Lars Klevberg, I felt a wonderful energy from this model of “Child’s Play.” I felt it is free and full of life, not at all shackled by the past—that it is having fun with itself. This is how re-imaginings should be like. It is likely that newcomers to the series will enjoy this. For longtime fans, like myself, the work offers rewards like characters holding up certain household items or tools that previous Chucky movies had a good time with. While the gore is gratuitous at times, there is a story here worth looking into. I liked that, for example, it touches upon the defectiveness of the doll (it was returned by its original owner) and Andy’s feelings of insecurity precisely because he is deaf. I sense that a stronger sequel is in store for us should the same writer and director be given another chance and their willingness to entertain remain.