Tag: horror

Countdown


Countdown (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another supernatural horror film that takes a specific concept—this time a phone app called Countdown that predicts when a person is going to die down to the very last second—and does nothing special or memorable with it. Comparison to the “Final Destination” franchise is easy but a big mistake, an insult to the series because 1) those films offer rather creative, brutal, and occasionally amusing or ironic deaths and 2) the concept is turned into a minefield of twists and turns. The “Final Destination” films, especially the first two, actually try to be innovative. They’re entertaining.

In “Countdown,” written and directed by Justin Dec, we sit through highly repetitive scenarios in which an eventual victim almost always ends up panicking because his or her time is almost up, followed by a cloaked figure—often spotted on mirrors—being seen looming in background, and the victim being pushed, dragged, and tossed around by an invisible presence. Cue the neck-breaking and skull-crushing. It is exhausting to sit through because everything is so uninspired.

Dec’s idea of what makes a horror film effective is questionable at best. When someone’s body is thrown through a glass mirror, it feels like an action movie because of the way it is shot. When a person falls to his death headfirst from a couple of hundred feet, it feels like an exercise of visual effects due to its in-your-face approach to violence. So often the punchline is a person getting hurt or killed. Why? What’s the point of it? We might as well just sit through a YouTube video that has compiled movie death scenes from the past fifty years.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” This picture is heavy on the bang to the point where horror flatlines eventually. There are some attempts at humor, however misplaced, which, for instance, involves a priest (P.J. Byrne) who dresses like a priest but doesn’t talk or act like one (he has tattoos and he listens to hip-hop—ha-ha, get it?). Father John offers some knowledge about the devils in the Bible and how their stories might be relevant to the app that cannot be deleted. The picture comes alive because Father John’s knowledge offers hope against a seemingly insurmountable villain.

The protagonists are neither charming nor interesting. Quinn (Elizabeth Lail), who earned her nursing license just recently, is a bore at home and while at work. When faced with the app problem, she acts like any other person. And so it begs the question why she is our heroine when she herself is unable to think or act outside the box. What makes her worth rooting for? What makes her special? The writer-director fails to answer the most basic questions of creating a character worthy of our attention. He was too busy, I guess, thinking of ways to make a death look gruesome so viewers would flinch at the sight of a neck being broken.

Friday the 13th


Friday the 13th (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

By around the twenty-minute mark, the final girl (Amanda Righetti) is in the hands of Jason Voorhees (Derek Meers), the deformed son of woman who went on a killing spree at Camp Crystal Lake almost thirty years prior, and the title card finally makes an appearance. By doing so, this remake of “Friday the 13th,” directed by Marcus Nispel, makes a promise that the film will strive to be more efficient, more violent, and more intelligent than the sequels, perhaps including the original, that came before. After all, slasher films have evolved, been dissected, and spoofed over the years. In the end, however, it is just another disappointment.

It is a mistake to relegate the final girl’s brother, Clay (Jared Padalecki), who remains actively looking for her around the camp after her sudden disappearance six weeks ago, as just another one-dimensional character. But unlike the fresh batch of friends (Danielle Panabaker, Travis Van Winkle, Julianna Guill, Aaron Yoo, Ryan Hansen, Arlen Escarpeta) designed to be gutted like cattle during the second half, he is meant to be the obvious good guy with whom we are supposed to root for to make it to the very end. But good guys in horror films, especially when they are not written well, get boring real quickly—as is the case here.

For instance, there is not one convincing scenario in which Clay is confronted with the possibility that his desperate search may be for nothing. And so we never get a chance to see or measure how he might cope in a situation that challenges his expectations. What is a villain like Jason, after all, but a metaphor for a seemingly unstoppable monster living in all of us? Instead, we are given a few confrontational scenes between Clay and the leader of the sheep to be slaughtered because the latter cannot help but to feel threatened when there’s a low-key alpha dog within a one-mile radius. Not only is it preposterous, it’s empty. It does not tell us anything of value about the protagonist or the figures we don’t want to see murdered in brutal fashion.

Or perhaps we do. An argument can be made that one of the points of slasher films is to provide catharsis in the form of violence. While the movie does provide blood and violence by the bucketloads, these are not particularly inspired. I enjoyed the scenes where characters find themselves getting dragged underground or being stuck there and must then find a way out, but a lot more deaths take place out in the open where a rigid formula must be followed prior to the killing blow. It gets old even before the title card is shown.

During my occasional boredom and consistent disappointment, I thought of ways how the screenwriters—Damian Shannon and Mark Swift—might have played upon the formula with minimal effort. Perhaps the most effective way is to tease with suspense. The closest it gets is a scene where a man can be heard begging for help outdoors as his remaining friends cower in fear indoors. This scene could have had a much stronger emotional punch had the material dragged out the man’s misery for one or two minutes. It is human to want to help… but it is also human to choose self-preservation. In other words, the writers have chosen to limit themselves when it comes to changing up the type of horror being tackled at a given time.

Due to the lack of daring and imagination, this remake of “Friday the 13th” is just another forgettable entry. It has the budget for gore, cosmetics, and neat special effects, but it lacks the aforementioned elements that matter most. Forget the bad or non-existent acting. This is a film that has learned next to nothing from previous entries—why one or two of them work and, more importantly, why most of them do not.

The Invisible Man


The Invisible Man (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

I have always considered invisibility to be one of the lamest superpowers, and although Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” did not change my mind, it is an effective horror film nonetheless because the filmmaker behind it clearly loves the genre and has an understanding of the idea that in order for something visually undetectable to be scary, the suspense must be turned up to eleven. Pair the enthusiasm and understanding from behind the camera with a strong leading performance by Elisabeth Moss, what results is a work that demands attention.

Right from the opening sequence, the project is a nail-biter. Cecilia (Moss) must make her way out of her abuser’s posh home by making as minimal noise as possible despite Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a highly intelligent and financially successful tech entrepreneur, being drugged asleep. Although not one word is uttered yet, there is a certain level of desperation in the air, that Cecilia’s escape is in fact a life-or-death, one-chance situation. Notice how the sequence is protracted; within this high-risk scene, there is set-up, rising action, climax, and falling action. It is a strong introduction to a story that offers quite a few number of surprises.

Naturally, Cecilia must make it out alive in the opening scene. But what makes her character worth following? Cecilia is written in a way that represents different types of domestic abuse survivors while maintaining an identity of her own. More overt moments of distress or threats are contrasted against silent and still moments in which we languish in gray and pale blue colors. We watch her struggle to walk outside and fetch the mail, deathly scared for her safety.

Moss is more than capable of delivering a spectrum of emotions by employing her highly expressive face and body language. She goes all in. Even supporting characters—literal figures of support like Cecilia’s sister Emily played by Harriet Dyer and Emily’s ex-husband James played by Aldis Hodge—tend to reflect at times what our heroine needs or wants when she herself is unable to express what she needs or wants. This is a story of a deeply traumatized woman in recovery. But she must face her monster and destroy it in order to have a real chance of moving on with her life. The story just so happens to be told through the context of something that looks, sounds, and feels supernatural despite the screenplay offering a scientific explanation regarding the subject of invisibility.

When the invisible figure attacks, is it scary? To me, the answer is no. Still, I couldn’t help but feel impressed in the fact that in this movie a person thrashing about against an unseen force does not come across as silly. The reason is because a strong enough context is provided by the screenplay so that viewers have an appreciation of the literal, physical conflict. In addition, there are three or four neat visual effects meant to amplify the horror (like a floating knife—simple but effective: it is not enough to show the knife hanging in the air… it is actually utilized as a weapon to wring out horror from the audience). We forget we are seeing CGI—the complete opposite of modern horror films in which CGI is supposed to the spectacle.

The Wind


The Wind (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Western horror picture “The Wind” tells the story of a woman (Caitlin Gerard) who claims there is something sinister on the remote land that she and her husband (Ashley Zuckerman) have moved onto, but he does not believe her, consistently dismissing her concerns as mere superstitions. When another couple, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee), move into a cabin about a mile away, the supernatural presence appears to intensify, especially when Emma becomes pregnant.

Told with elegance, class, and patience, the film, directed by Emma Tammi and written by Teresa Sutherland, reveals its secrets like an engaging horror novel. It tasks the viewers to juggle details of two timelines: before and after Emma’s death, while pregnant, due to a gunshot wound to the head. The former is utilized to lay out the foundations of the four characters’ relationships and the latter is used to question and challenge the validity of Lizzy’s claims. Is there a psychological explanation to the increasingly bizarre occurrences or is there truly a supernatural presence that haunts Lizzy’s every waking hour?

The picture commands the most power when it relies on sounds or images to bring about goosebumps. Particularly creepy is how the isolation of these characters’ lifestyles are conveyed. At night, Lizzy and Isaac are able to see Emma and Gideon’s cabin only when there is fire inside their home. In between the two cabins is near-total darkness. Appropriately, the contrast between light and dark is employed to create eerie shadows: moving through a window, slithering on the ceiling, remaining still right next to a person’s bed while she sleeps. I admired its old-school approach to create heart-pounding situations. I believed that I was experiencing a specific story set in nineteenth-century American frontier because of the simplicity of its approach.

Less intriguing is how the new couple is portrayed. Hailing from the city, it is expected they do not know a lot about planting crops or maintaining a cabin in preparation for winter. There is supposed to be a sort of friendship that has developed between the couples during the flashbacks, but this is not convincing. When two characters converse, particularly the women, it is difficult to buy into their connection—a real friendship, a neighborly courtesy, or a test of tolerance. As for the two men, it is noticeable that they barely say twenty words to one another throughout the film. Perhaps words is not the point since it is not the picture’s strength, but at the very least Lizzy and Emma’s interactions must command believability and heft.

Another weakness is the final three to five minutes. I think these closing sequences, particularly the final shot, is meant to be open to interpretation, but—to me—the answers are clear enough to warrant a solid conclusion of what really happened. Shots of our heroine looking distant, disheveled, and drained of energy do not fit the central idea that Lizzy is a character worth following and rooting for since she is strong, resourceful, and knows how to think for herself. There are undeniable feminist ideas coursing through its veins. And so it comes across as a cheap way to end an otherwise terrific, slow-burn entertainment.

Gretel & Hansel


Gretel & Hansel (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a film that takes the Brothers Grimm fairytale as inspiration and forges an identity of its own. Unlike modern, lazy, and generic horror movies, Oz Perkins’ “Gretel & Hansel” is not interested in delivering the usual jump scares. Instead, the horror lies in its thick and portentous atmosphere. It takes its time to present beautiful and creepy details of being lost in the woods while starving, desperate, without parental supervision. There are figures in black watching from a distance. Wolves can be heard howling in the night. When siblings Hansel and Gretel (Samuel Leakey, Sophia Lillis) inevitably cross paths with the witch (Alice Krige), their interactions feel like icing on the cake already. The plot has not even taken off yet.

This is a movie with potential to earn a cult following five to ten years from now. The reason is because of its careful attention on how images are showcased. The horror is not always overt, but take any random scene and notice there is almost always something worthy of pause and admiration. A shot of a pointy roof—which likens a witch’s hat—with the moon hanging sadly in the background, how branches of trees appear look like old hands in the darkness, a delectable feast sitting on the table waiting to be ravished by unsuspecting victims. It is an inviting movie—even though the plot involves child kidnappings, human sacrifices, parental neglect and abandonment, witchcraft.

Lillis shines in this bleak, unforgiving movie about self-discovery. As Gretel, Lillis is convincing as a big sister who loves her little brother more than herself and must serve as his protector. Father is dead and mother seems to be driven to insanity; life is so tough for them that at one point mother knowingly sends her young daughter to a whorehouse—Gretel under the assumption that the place is simply hiring for a housekeeper of some sort.

Lillis evokes a relatable toughness, a warmth, resourcefulness, and intelligence and so her Gretel is interesting to watch when attempting to outsmart Holda the witch. (By the same token, I was mesmerized by Krige’s interpretation of the witch—her evil is multidimensional; this is not a stereotypical witch full of warts who cackles while making concoctions in her cauldron. This witch is like a snake waiting in the bush for prey to pass by. She has her own story.) Lillis’ Gretel is not the kind of girl who runs away while screaming for help. (Or worse, tripping on a branch and getting caught.) Life thus far has forced her to look at problems in the face and try to overcome them with the limited tools she does have.

I wished the picture had spent about fifteen to twenty minutes to expand the final act. It goes into an interesting direction regarding the fates of the siblings, but instead of exploring these curious ideas, the movie, in a way, promises a sort of sequel. That gave a slightly bitter impression. An argument can be made—not a strong one—that the story is incomplete. I think the story is complete—but it is just short of becoming fully satisfying.

I wondered if the filmmakers felt some pressure to stay within the ninety-minute mark in order for the work to be more digestible. It didn’t need to be precisely because it is not a commercial horror film. It is for those who value good storytelling regardless of duration. While stunningly beautiful throughout, I wanted more substance.

Annabelle Comes Home


Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Gary Dauberman’s “Annabelle Comes Home” is a series of missed opportunities. Instead of developing a fresh story surrounding a young girl who appears to have inherited her mother’s ability to communicate with the dead, the screenplay proves to be more interested in delivering the usual tropes and tricks of generic horror pictures. What results is a two-hour slog, a literal house of horrors in which the characters run around screaming as things pop out of dark corners, but not one of them ends up seriously hurt, dead, or even remotely traumatized. Here is a scary movie without consequences. By the end, one cannot help to ask, “What’s the point?”

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprise their roles as Lorraine and Ed Warren, demonologists who travel the world and keep items that are cursed, possessed, or have been a part of rituals right in their own home. Although they retain their wonderful chemistry since their first appearance in James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” a significant difference can be felt in the obvious and simple script. Notice that no matter how hard Farmiga builds the mystique of her character, it is impossible to take Lorraine seriously because there is no subtlety in the words the performer is required to say. The beauty about Wan’s original film is that there is so much left to discover in the unsaid. I felt as though Dauberman did not understand this. It does not help that Farmiga and Wilson are only in this project for a total of about fifteen minutes—tops.

Judy Warren (McKenna Grace) should have been a fascinating character since, based on the movie’s premise, she is essentially Lorraine’s younger self. Judy is an outcast at school not necessarily because she’s weird but due to her parents’ reputation of possibly being con artists. Either that or her classmates’ parents believe that the Warrens are all about death, evil, and demons. Grace is a good choice as Judy; she is wonderful not only at looking scared but evoking an aura of wise beyond her years. During quieter moments, it is impressive that the young performer is able to communicate Judy’s fear of her childhood slipping away—precisely because the screenplay does not bother to tackle this potentially fascinating insight to this specific character. She does it on her own. I think she is one to watch.

Scares are neither creative nor inspired—with the exception of one scene. It is established early on that the Annabelle doll is a beacon for spirits. And so when it is placed in the same room as the other occult collectibles—a bracelet, a samurai armor, a wedding dress, and the like—it is especially dangerous since it may animate the relatively inert items.

The most memorable sequence involves babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) finding her way through the dark as coins drop on the floor all around her. We know—and she knows—that the coins were from the Ferryman case. According to the file that Judy, Mary Allen, and Daniela (Katie Sarife) read while Ed and Lorraine are away on business, these coins are placed on the eyes of the deceased so their spirits can pay the toll and be allowed to move on to the afterlife. I enjoyed the build-up of this scene, particularly in the effects of shining coins floating about in the darkness. The only weapon that appears to keep the spirit away is a flashlight. But we all know what happens to flashlights during the climax of such encounters.

The work is also guilty of sudden tonal shifts executed so poorly, it threatens to derail the experience. In order to lighten the mood, attempts at comedy are made. This comes in the form of Mary Ellen crushing on a boy at a grocery store (Michael Cimino), vice-versa. I was so far from entertained by the horror elements to the point where I wished I were watching a romantic teen flick about Mary Ellen and Bob. At least then the awkward but cute chemistry they share could have been used for a better cause.

The Turning


The Turning (2020)
★ / ★★★★

Henry James is turning in his grave because the latest adaptation of his novella “The Turn of the Screw” is brazen in sucking out the compelling human elements of the story and leaving the scraps to be modernized in a most uninspired, boring fashion. Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes are credited for supposedly writing the screenplay, but not only did they forget to bring original ideas to table, they have forgotten completely to give the film a third act. It ends so abruptly—offering no conclusion whatsoever—that the viewer is forced to wonder if the writers and director Floria Sigismondi actually cared about their project. It is offensive and a disgrace.

It is also a shame because Mackenzie Davis is quite watchable as Kate, a woman hired as a live-in governess in a massive estate that, as of late, has been plagued by mysterious deaths. Initially, it is Kate’s job to take care of a gifted little girl, Flora (Brooklynn Prince), but soon her brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), comes home from boarding school. Davis’ expressive eyes is fit for a role like this because Kate is required to investigate various areas of the dark, creepy estate on more than a handful of occasions. Those eyes, too, must relate to the children she is responsible for—even though at times her warmth is not welcomed.

The usual ghostly presences in the corner, our heroine walking down a corridor followed by a jump scare, creepy crawlers, and strange noises from nearby unused rooms are executed with minimal energy or glee. But because the setting is quite beautiful, particularly the foggy grounds of the estate—the maze, the stables, the fish pond—I didn’t mind so much; I found my eyes glued to the screen anyway because I imagined on occasion how it must be like to live in house boasting a hundred rooms but only four people around. I appreciated Flora’s loneliness; she is an orphan, her previous tutor left without saying goodbye, and her brother goes away for school. Before Kate, it is only her and Mrs. Grose (the committed Barbara Marten), a longtime servant of the Fairchilds who is wary of strangers and the children, specifically Flora, leaving the estate for whatever reason—even as simple as getting ice cream or doing a bit of shopping.

On the one hand, the work aspires to be just another haunted house movie—and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I preferred this approach. On the other hand, it introduces the possibility that the supernatural goings-on may be happening only in Kate’s mind. After all, her mother (Joely Richardson) is committed to a mental institution. (We are supposed to believe she is clinically insane due to the unwashed hair, lack of eye contact with her own daughter, and the fact that she cannot help but to create art—so reductive.) It fails on this level because the screenplay is not written sharply enough so that the paranormal happenings that unfold around the estate could have, for example, scientific or evidence-based explanations. Since it does not provide room for reasonable possibilities, like the script, we go on autopilot.

“The Turning” should not have been released because it is not a finished work. For a more effective adaptation of James’ novella, consider watching Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents.” It is superior in every aspect, including its approach in introducing the idea that perhaps the governess’ mind is fractured. There is genuine suspense in the late-night investigations and we become convinced there is powerful evil in the house. By comparison, “The Turning” is a cheap play thrown by people who pretended to read the novella when in fact they simply glanced over SparkNotes last-minute and called it a day.