Tag: horror

Demon


Demon (2015)
★ / ★★★★

The late Marcin Wrona’s debut picture “Demon” tells a story of a man from London named Piotr (Itay Tiran) who goes to a rural area of Poland to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) a woman he met online. The day before their wedding, while digging in the yard, the visitor comes across what appears to be human skeleton. Although alarmed by what he has seen, he decides to keep his discovery a secret out of fear that it might derail the wedding. Late that night, due to heavy rain and mud, Piotr manages to fall into the pit. He wakes up the next day in his car with no memory of what happened after he was swallowed whole.

Although it is obvious that Wrona wishes to make a respectable and low-key horror film about the Polish’ relationship with the Jews before and after World War II, the work is far from cinematic. It is a bore for the most part because the exposition is so drawn out—there are images on screen but none of them are particularly unique or interesting. We learn about the wedding and we are introduced to some colorful personalities, but we never get to know any of them, particularly Piotr, in a deep or meaningful way. And so when the usual razzle-dazzle regarding demonic possessions move toward the forefront, it comes across like another inert horror movie meant to be forgotten even before the end credits roll.

It is especially frustrating to sit through because the director proves to have an eye for capturing images so stark that at times it feels like looking at old forgotten photographs. Notice shots of the outdoors. For instance, we see miles of grass… but there is no cattle grazing on meadows. There aren’t even birds making their way across the sky. There is construction in the middle of walls of sand and rocks… but there is minimal human activity, if at all. A similar observation can be made indoors. The house Piotr is staying in looks extremely run down. It gives the impression that the place is being renovated… but there are actually pictures hung on walls and decorations sitting on various corners. This Polish town is a depressing place. I would go as far as to claim it is meant to be a dead place, where people go to die. If only the screenplay by Pawel Maslona and Marcin Wrona functioned on the same level as the latter’s observant photography.

Events happen during and around the wedding, but not one is particularly compelling. There is a lack of balance in tone. Right after the wedding ceremony, Piotr begins to experience visual hallucinations. Eventually, he starts to lose control of his own body. These are meant to be terrifying. Sandwiched in between Piotr’s suffering is Zaneta’s father (Andrzej Grabowski) and brother (Tomasz Schuchardt) trying to cover up Piotr’s “embarrassing mishaps,” like his seizure, which is supposed to be darkly comic. There are also tablespoons of absurdist humor in how wedding guests behave after having seen apparent medical emergencies.

However, there is no synergy established between horror and dark comedy. Usually, in order for the two to work together effectively, we must understand the characters thoroughly. In black comedies, for example, we laugh not at the events necessarily but at the people whom we know so well that we are tickled by their desperation. Within that desperation we recognize a part of ourselves. And so we laugh because perhaps we feel uncomfortable precisely because of that recognition. Here, the dark comedy is purely circumstantial. It becomes highly repetitive.

The spirit that possesses our protagonist is categorized eventually. I will not reveal it, but I can say that it has been introduced and explored in other, better horror movies. I enjoyed that the spirit is not the kind that inspires jump scares. In fact, it is treated as a rather sad entity. This is another avenue from which Wrona could have separated his work from other horror films. I’m afraid that by the time viewers get to this point—which is in the last twenty minutes of the picture—either they would be sleeping due boredom or given up completely that they’d have decided to walk out of it. And I wouldn’t blame them for doing either.

Underwater


Underwater (2020)
★★ / ★★★★

Following the destruction of a massive underwater drill station, the remaining survivors (Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick) decide that their only hope for survival is to walk across the seafloor for about a mile and reach an abandoned station where escape pods can be employed to transport them to the surface. The goal is clear and the premise is straightforward, so it is no surprise that “Underwater” is able to capture the viewers’ attention right from the get-go. It proves to be another challenge, however, to keep our attention. It is most disappointing that the picture ends up adopting the usual tricks of modern horror movies in order to generate reaction: shaking the camera, obfuscating the action, turning the audio way up. It suffers from diminishing returns.

The funny thing is, an argument can be made that the elements cited above need not be utilized at all. There is already something inherently creepy about living and working in an underwater facility where is no day and night cycle. Hallways tend to look the same. At times the only thing that can be heard are the beeping of machines. When the movie plays it quiet, it is when its star, Kristen Stewart, who plays Norah the mechanical engineer, shines like a candle in the dark. It is without question that she shines in introspective roles. When we meet Norah, the sadness about her is almost palpable—despite an off-putting narration. Stewart’s approach is to play a dramatic character in a disaster movie that just so happens to be a monster flick, too. It could have been a killer amalgamation.

But the screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozard is only somewhat interested in our heroine’s inner turmoil. And so little connection, if any, is established between Norah and the dismantling of the drilling facility as well as Norah and the ancient, eye-less deep sea monsters with terrifying teeth and mini-talons along their tentacles. As expected in disaster flicks, the survivors perish one by one—dry, formulaic, tiresome. It also embraces a cliché that I find to be most intolerable: attempting to drag a useless, emotionally fragile character to the finish line. Nobody wants to watch a weakling take up space, especially when everyone around this character so desperately wishes to survive the ordeal.

Showing the station falling apart from the outside does not look impressive. Structures falling on top of one another, for example, appears to be made by a cheap computer program. Perhaps it is due to the presence of underwater debris; it is so thick that we are required to squint in order to appreciate finer details. Meanwhile, the monsters are hit-or-miss. There is a marginally effective sequence in which a creature is placed on a table and one of the survivors attempts to examine it. At one point, she actually touches it with her bare hands. But when these creatures are shown underwater, feelings of dread and horror are lessened. Maybe it is because the filmmakers decide to show them far too often to the point where mystery is no longer present.

There is a simplicity and a directness to the film that can be appreciated. But the longer one observes and peels through the layers, it becomes glaringly obvious there isn’t much there. Even its awkward attempts at humor is wan; there is not one memorable line. When the clownish character, who we are supposed to like, faces mortal danger, we feel nothing toward the threat; we simply accept the idea that characters must drop like flies before the third act. While tolerable overall, the movie fails to offer a consistently captivating experience.

Sweetheart


Sweetheart (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

A creature-feature with enough expected elements to scratch the itch of those invested in the sub-genre, “Sweetheart” tells the story of a young woman named Jennifer (Kiersey Clemons) who finds herself washed ashore on a small deserted island. Not only must she contend with hunger and exposure, it seems there is a monster living in a hole just off the island. It tends to come out only during the night. Co-writers J.D. Dillard (who also directs), Alex Hyner, and Alex Theurer possess an understanding of the genre. They keep it short and sweet with just the right amount of tension, violence, and gore. It’s a good flick to watch during a rainy day.

Clemons does plenty with what she is provided. It is a role not reliant on words or dialogue and so she is required to communicate thoroughly using her eyes and body language. Right when we meet Jenn as she regains consciousness on the beach, Clemons plays the character with a level of alertness, intelligence, and grit. Because she portrays Jenn with a high level of urgency from the get-go, even though we already have an idea regarding the initial elements she must come up against, we become interested in how the character might fare on this island. I enjoyed moments of humor, particularly when our heroine is learning how to open coconuts, how to fish, to trap larger prey. Desperation can be played for suspense and thrills. But it can also be played for humor.

The monster living in the ocean is terrifying precisely because not much of it is shown. We learn a number of things about the creature (Andrew Crawford), like how it sounds, how it prefers to hunt, how it moves on land versus water, how sensitive it is to sound and smell, what it prefers to eat, if any. It is a formidable enemy not just because of its incredible speed, strength, and body size; Dillard drenches the monster in mystery. It is the correct decision not to explain the creature’s origins or whether it has a special weakness. The only thing we know for certain is that it must die in order for Jenn to live or possibly even escape the island.

The picture’s weakness involves additional human characters introduced about two-thirds of the way through (Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence). I will not reveal who they are, but I found them to be of great annoyance. I was particularly surprised by how generic Cohen portrays his character since he is a character actor. I felt no inspiration from him this time around. Clemons completely overpowers her co-stars nearly every second they share the screen. And when Clemons is not in the frame, I caught myself wondering where Jenn is and what she is doing.

However, the Cohen and Lawrence cardboard cutouts introduce an idea: that Jenn is a person with whom others find difficult to believe. Is it because she has a history of lying and getting caught? A simple case of being a poor storyteller? Is there something in her life back home that contributes to a potential attention-seeking behavior? The screenplay fails to delve into this curious topic—which I think is a big mistake. But putting these planks of wood into the mix long enough to broach the subject allows the creature to function as a metaphor for the story.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged


47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

“47 Meters Down: Uncaged” is not unlike its predecessor in that attempting to survive a series of grizzly shark attacks is an indirect way of solving a personal crisis on land. Specifically, stepsisters Mia (Sophie Nélisse) and Sasha (Corinne Foxx) not only do not get along, they do not consider each other as sisters. This is established during the opening scene in which the former is bullied by schoolmates and the latter chooses to stand by with her friends in silence. Most of us will recognize immediately the story’s ultimate destination and so the journey there must be strong. On a few levels, it delivers. But it leaves plenty to be desired as a potent survival horror.

The movie is beautifully photographed, particularly the early underwater scenes that take place in the ancient Mayan city. Because the caves are unexplored for the most part, there is a certain creepiness in the solemn statues and obelisks, how corridors tend to get narrower the deeper one gets into the labyrinthine city. We even get to lay eyes on the catacombs, skeletons undisturbed for many decades. There is a sense of wonder and claustrophobia in these sequences which suggest that some thought and genuine care is put into picture instead of rehashing the same old scenario as the predecessor. It is apparent that this is not just a movie composed of jump scares involving sharks. Johannes Roberts co-writes (along with Ernest Riera) and directs both works; I detected a certain pride in making the work as good a genre piece can be.

But the characterization is a significant shortcoming. Aside from the superficial conflict between Mia and Sasha, we are never provided a genuine sense that they are family even during the later scenes when they finally learn to have each other’s backs. Perhaps it has something to do with the script, the fact that it never bothers to pause, to breathe, to allow its main players to connect. Once the scuba diving gear is on, it is all business—wonderful in theory if the material could find surprises, big and small, on a consistent basis. The work is fond of the following formula: new area to be explored, shark attack, panic and splashing about, escape. Once in a while an inconsequential character gets eaten (some gnarly deaths).

It should have taken a page from Jaume Collet-Serra’s “The Shallows.” In that film, although the script is barebones, it is so efficient in allowing the audience to understand how its character recognizes a problem and finds solutions. She is smart and resourceful. Early on in “Uncaged,” it is acknowledged that Mia is an experienced scuba diver. It is so disappointing that when the chips are down and the pressure is up, she, like the others, ends up panicking and screaming as if oxygen tanks would not run out of air. The previous “47 Meters Down” makes a point not to scream, breathe, or panic so much because every movement uses up oxygen. This fact is not brought up even once in this sequel. It’s Survival 101.

Is it unrealistic? A resounding “Yes!” But I enjoyed it enough, particularly the twist regarding the sharks. Since these creatures have been living in these caves for so long, surely they must have acquired abilities that typical sharks do not possess. Had there been a bit more research during the screenwriting stage, the level of creativity would have surged. Perhaps the characters struggling to survive against these sharks would have been forced to become more resourceful.

Black Christmas


Black Christmas (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Although Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” is not a straight remake of the 1974 cult classic, it is apparent that the work is without inspiration. The victims, most of them women, still behave as though they have never seen a horror picture and so they end up making the same mistakes as sheep destined to be skewered in slasher movies. You cannot help but groan when a sorority girl asks, “Hello? Is anybody there?” while seemingly alone. You know precisely what’s about to happen when another sorority girl decides to go upstairs to look for an item in the dark. Halfway through, I could not help but wonder about the point of it all. I came to a conclusion: Because slasher flicks are cheaply made—and this movie does look cheap—this is just another desperate attempt to make money. You’d be wise to avoid it.

Yes, it is also one of those “Girl Power!” movies. That is supposed to be its fresh take on this familiar story of sorority girls being terrorized by a killer, or killers, on campus during the start of Winter Break. But that is not enough to make a strong horror story. In a way, an argument can be made the original is already that kind of work. It just wasn’t so in-your-face about it. The feminist stance is utilized like a sledgehammer; notice how the final act is so similar to the final episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which aired fifteen years ago: Women, weapons in hand, rising up against evil. What was fresh and fun then is tired and lame now. It feels forced. Unlike the film, the show was given an entire season to develop its themes.

An attempt is made to make the viewers empathize with the lead character. She is named Riley (Imogen Poots), still traumatized from having been raped by a fraternity president. The authorities were not convinced that she was raped, and so he got away with it. We are provided no information as why the cops did not believe her, or whether they even performed a proper investigation. The screenplay simply insists that we trust the superficial dialogue. Riley copes by staying away from social events, but she does have a core group of friends with whom she feels comfortable to be around (Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady). We expect for these girls to start meeting gruesome deaths just about the halfway point. And they do.

Expository sequences suggest that fraternities are inherently racist. While interminable and preachy on occasion, the screenplay brings up an interesting discussion about legacy and why we as a society, especially us Americans, tend to have a difficult time letting go of certain histories or historical figures even though everybody knows what they stood for. Doing so perpetuates the oppression of people of color, of women, of the poor, of those who may not fit within the heteronormative sphere. But then the screenplay goes nowhere with the ideas it brings up. Instead, we are provided a twist so ridiculous we cannot help but laugh then ask ourselves, “Is this really where the story is going?”

It is ironic that despite its identity politics, “Black Christmas” struggles with staking an identity of its own. Co-writers Takal and April Wolfe should have strived to create a potent horror flick first and foremost. Scares must be present. There must be tension, build-up, suspense, thrills. Catharsis must not only be well-earned, it must make sense within the scope of the story. Instead, we are offered regurgitated material and we are expected to take it passively. It is junk entertainment without the entertainment.

Terrifier


Terrifier (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

The high on gore, low on scares slasher flick “Terrifier” may appeal to those who are simply in it for the gratuitous violence, but those looking for a solid story with (even marginally) interesting characters are advised to stay away. It is apparent that writer-director Damien Leone aims to deliver a work that pays homage to 1980s horror pictures. On the surface, an argument can be made that it succeeds. There is a high body count. The plot is straightforward. Even the ending hints a possible sequel. But it is lacking in ways that really count.

The story unfolds during Halloween, but it does not seem to serve much purpose. Sure, it gives the excuse for potential victims, often female, to wear sexy costumes. They scream, trip, and slither their way through confined spaces. They get stabbed, gutted, suffocated, and the like. Standard stuff. I grew tired of it by the third victim. It, too, provides the villain a way to blend into the environment. Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton) wears a black and white clown outfit with a death white mask to complete the ensemble. He carries around a trash bag. He sports a creepy smile. He does not say a word. He does not even scream even when a massive nail is impaled on his foot. There is a cartoonish quality behind the goings-on. But take away the holiday aspect and these killings could have occurred on any given night.

I was not amused by any of it and yet I was not able to look away. I was marginally curious whether either of the two friends, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and Dawn (Catherine Corcoran), on their way home from a Halloween party, would make it through the night. These two are archetypes: the sensible brunette and the dumb blonde. The only difference between these girls and their ‘80s counterparts is that they have a cell phone. Odds are the blonde will not make it halfway through the film. She fails to recognize a threat nearly every single time. Surely, the writer-director will attempt to modernize the tried-and-true formula… right?

And therein lies the problem: A case can be made that taking either route of the blonde or the brunette surviving is a cliché. In the post- post-modern era of slashing and stabbing, nothing feels fresh any longer. When Tara phones her sister, Vicky (Samantha Scaffidi), about twenty minutes into the picture, alarms going off in our heads suggest she is likely to be the final girl. She is the studious type. The girl who stays in during Halloween to prepare for a midterm the next day. We are constantly ahead of its maneuverings and it makes for a passive experience.

What makes Art the Clown terrifying? Is it because he relishes taunting his victims? Is it because he shows no sign of remorse as he mutilates his prey? Is it solely due to the clown mask and costume? He is provided no background information. The thing about the better ‘80s slasher flicks (“A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “Friday the 13th”) is that the antagonist is provided at least a semblance of substance. Although unsettling at times, Art the Clown is neither an effective nor a memorable villain. He is not terrifying. It would have been more appropriate to name the movie “Mutilator.” This clown will not be remembered twenty years from now. Not even five years from now.

The final ten to fifteen minutes shows the screenplay at its weakest. There are plenty of opportunities to slay the killer, but they are not taken. Characters appear to step out of danger just in time and then the very next shot is them dead or dying. The most minute common sense is thrown out the window altogether. Particularly idiotic is when the final girl finally makes it outside and yet… she runs back into the building of horrors where she can once again get trapped by the assailant. At the very least she should be screaming to the top of her lungs while outside so the neighbors could hear and call for help.

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.