★ / ★★★★
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) were graduate students who became increasingly involved in a series of murders in the projects. Word went around that if one said “Candyman” five times while alone in the bathroom, Candyman (Tony Todd) would appear and kill the daring summoner in the most gruesome way possible. Was it simply an urban legend designed to scare those who lived in the violent neighborhood or was there something darker that needed to be explored and revealed? Based on the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker, “Candyman” failed to generate genuine scares because it neglected to define what was fantasy and what was reality, and it was plagued by characters who were supposedly smart but almost always chose the stupid decision when the occasion called for it. Take Helen for example. Despite the murders, she decided to drag her friend to the scene of the crime without taking any sort of precaution. She had no knowledge about the people who lived in the projects or how to effectively communicate with those connected to the infamous murders. She only had one thing in mind: She had to take pictures in order to avoid a “boring thesis.” Nevermind the men who could easily get their way with them. Nevermind offending those who just wanted to move on from the grizzly incidents. When Helen seemed to descent into madness, there were a plethora of unintentionally funny moments. As she awoke covered in blood with no memory of how she got there, she decided to pick up a meat cleaver next to a beheaded dog. Did it not occur to her that what she just touched could potentially be the murder weapon and she was getting her fingerprints all over it? And were we expected to believe that a baby that Candyman abducted could live for over a month without food or water? After all, the film eventually implied that Candyman was only real in Helen’s mind. There were many glaring inconsistencies so I was constantly taken out of the experience. The writing was weak and the direction was no better. There were more than a handful of unnecessary shots of bees which were designed to give us the creeps, Candyman’s face appeared on the screen to make us jump out of our seats, and nonsensical decisions placed too conveniently to trigger one set of events to another. Directed by Bernard Rose, “Candyman” lacked genuine tension and suspenseful sequences that basic horror films should have. It would have been an entirely different experience if the writing was more focused and, more importantly, if the graduate students thought and acted like excellent detectives instead of blond sorority girls typically slayed early on in standard slasher flicks.
★★★ / ★★★★
Lovers Richard Loeb (Daniel Schlachet) and Nathan Leopold Jr. (Craig Chester) liked to commit crime and became sexually satisfied by getting away with them. But when Loeb decided to withhold sex from Leopold, the latter was willing to do anything for Loeb in order to prove his love which included kidnapping and murdering a Jewish kid. Based on a tragic true story in the 1920s, Tom Kalin’s “Swoon” was beautifully shot, adopting a cinematic style in that era which included a grainy black-and-white look with accompanying music common in silent pictures. However, the subject was very dark because we had to explore the mindsets of two monsters who were bored with their privileged lives. They claimed to know what love was but their inability to feel for the welfare of others begged the question whether they were able to feel anything at all. The main characters were fascinating to study because, after they were caught by the police, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was still all a game to them. I was certain that they believed they were smart enough to get away with murder, but I detected that they were simply playing with the cops as they were interviewed about the crime. They lied through their fingers, purposefully and strategically recalling incorrect details but there came a point when they started to take it seriously. I liked the fact that it was difficult for me to point at exactly where the game changed for them. “Swoon” is far from being a commercial film. There were images of cross-dressers that left me wondering about their purpose in the story, anachronisms such as the usage of modern telephones which I was not sure to be deliberate or due to the limits of the budget, and the connection of phrenology to the crime other than the fact that the two lovers were Jewish. I’m afraid such polarizing images would leave most audiences confused or frustrated. Furthermore, the picture ran a little too long. I sensed a handful of possible endings that would have worked better prior to the actual one which made me question if the director had a real control and a clear vision of his project. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film from the perspective of character study. Despite the film’s level of detail, I did not feel like I understood the two completely, but perhaps that was the point. Only an irrational and troubled mind could abduct an innocent child and murder that child for no compelling reason other than to prove a point. The story of Loeb and Leopold had been told on film multiple times (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion”). Maybe we’re not meant to fully understand.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
Becky (Tracy Arnold) recently left her husband so she decided to live with her brother Otis (Tom Towles) and his roommate Henry (Michael Rooker) for the time being. She immediately developed a crush on Henry, not aware of the fact that Henry and her brother stalked and killed unsuspecting women as their extracurricular activity. Directed by John McNaughton, it was easy for me to see why “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” became a cult classic. I admired its cold detachment from its subject just as Henry and Otis treated their victims as less than animals. They obsessively videotaped their conquests and Otis was even sexually aroused as he repeatedly watched the tapes in their apartment. However, I found the first half to be a bit amatuer filmmaking and the project only found its identity half-way through. While the first forty-five minutes’ purpose was to establish the cruelty and analytical nature of Henry’s actions, it eventually repeated itself too often. I wanted to learn something new about the main character who was plagued with the need to kill. The movie came alive when Henry talked about the importance of not having a signature in terms of murdering people. He claimed that a signature was the key to getting caught so it was important to use various weapons when taking a life. That scene was memorable to me because Rooker described it in such a way that it was like a surgeon talking about the instruments he was about to use prior to an operation. The film was able to look the character in question in the eye and note a total absence of humanity. Another scene that stood out to me was when Becky and Henry tried to share something very personal from their past. When Henry shared about his abusive home when he was a child, Becky seemed moved and was able to completely sympathize with him. But when it was Becky’s turn to share, I was convinced that Henry did not feel a thing, that he could only pretend to care about her past. I think much of the movie’s power was the fact that it chose not to paint Henry’s story so that we could understand him better or feel sorry for him. It treated us as smart audiences because Henry was essentially a textbook serial killer. While both Otis and Henry were murderers, there was an important difference between them. Based on a true story involving Henry Lee Lucas’ confessions, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was unsettling movie to watch because there were times when the pointless murders felt downbeat to the point where it felt almost too authentic. It argued that there was nothing romantic about killing in cold blood.
★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene of the Spanish film “Eskalofrío” depicted Santi (Junio Valverde) desperately running away from the sunlight as if he was a vampire. When he woke up from the nightmare, we learned that he wasn’t a vampire but had a condition in which his skin had an acute sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Direct contact to sunlight weakened Santi and could potentially kill him so the doctor recommended that Santi and his mother (Mar Sodupe) move to an area where the sun did not appear for very long. Coincidentally, when the mother and son moved to an isolated village in the mountains, grizzly murders started to occur. The film successfully generated genuine thrills and scares. Even though the movie felt small due to the budget, it had confidence in putting characters in really scary situations and allowing them to extricate themselves from painful deaths. Santi was someone we could immediately root for because he craved the life of normalcy but instead had no choice but to only be active at night due to his strange condition. He was outsider in the city and he was still an outsider in the small village. For a horror film, it was extremely fast-paced. Quick cuts were abound but I did not find them distracting because each scene was straight to the point, one rising action after another up until the first murder in the woods. Was the murderer a person, a monster, or perhaps both? Once the movie forced us to ask questions, its momentum and sense of dread consistently increased. What I loved about the film was once it reached a boiling point, it delivered one or two terrifying scenes, and would continue to build again. The most memorable scene for me was when Santi was alone in the house and he started to panic about the murderer possibly wanting to break in. It was very funny to watch because he did exactly what I would have done: Run like the wind and lock all the doors and windows, block the fireplace using a couch, grab a weapon, and sleep in the biggest area of the house. But it was also scary because we knew nothing of the intruder other than it was very strong and capable of killing in a heartbeat. Another great pay off was when Santi and his friends went into the woods à la Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez in “The Blair Witch Project,” video camera and all, in hopes of catching the killer on film to prove to everyone that Santi was not the murderer. “Eskalofrío,” directed with quiet power by Isidro Ortiz, is one of those gems that worked as a thriller and a horror film. It had a small twist in terms of monster flicks and it made me wish that American horror and thrillers would aspire to be just as inspired and imaginative.
Hills Have Eyes, The (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★
A family (led by Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent, the patriarch and matriarch) got into an accident in the desert while on their way to California. It happened during the most unfortunate time because the area in which their vehicle broke down was a nuclear testing site and was occupied with deformed cannibals. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The Hills Have Eyes” was a horror film with a simple premise but it expertly embodied an animalistic tone and gathered momentum until the final shot. For a slasher flick, I found it strange because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. I enjoyed the way Craven framed regular well-meaning folks and forced them to eventually become like the monsters that terrorized them in order to survive. While it was very violent, especially the events that transpired in the trailer which consisted of murder and rape, it was far from gratuitous. I felt Craven holding back in terms of showing certain images that might glorify the terrible things that there happening. It was successful at allowing us to feel anger so that we could root for the remaining members of the family to not just seek revenge but also obtain something that meant a lot to them. The heart of the picture was arguably the siblings Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston). Brenda was unhappy about her father’s decision to take an unknown route while Bobby almost immediately sensed that there was something wrong about the environment they had no choice but to occupy. As the title’s anthropomorphic title suggested, the environment was like a creature that lived, capable of defending itself when threatened. However, things such as rattlesnakes and the possibility of dehydration and starvation were the last elements the characters had to worry about. The animalism and savagery became a trend. One angle was when the characters eventually got over their fear and sadness and decided to fight back even if it meant losing their lives. Another was using the family pet, a dog that was normally friendly unless threatened, as a figure readily able to attack and kill. Perhaps Craven hoped to suggest that the deformed cannibals living in an isolated world were really no different than regular people that successfully integrated in society. Lastly, I thought its abrupt ending was a smart decision. There was no explanation about how the characters would end up. It did not need to because the situation in which they were thrusted upon was beyond reasoning. Its main goal was to show whether or not the cannibals would get their comeuppance. “The Hills Have Eyes” did have its flaws, such as characters who whined too much for no good reason, but the quality of horror was consistent and it ended on a very high note.
Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Flickan som lekte med elden,” or “The Girl Who Played With Fire.” was the second installment from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series which took place about two years after computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) solved their first mystery. A freelance writer (Hans Christian Thulin) was hired by the “Millenium” magazine because he claimed to have names of high-ranking officials within the government who were involved in sex trafficking. But prior to the anticipated publicity of the article, the writer and his girlfriend were murdered in cold blood. Lisbeth was framed for their murder. Despite the film not having the same level of tension and intrigue as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” I still highly enjoyed it because it did not feel like a carbon copy of the first film. Instead, we had a chance to observe the two main characters apart from each other and see how they attempted to solve problems laid before them. Its strength remained in being a character-driven, gritty crime procedural. More importantly, it answered big questions I had about Lisbeth’s past and why she did not enjoy the company of men who saw and treated women as less than their equal. Furthermore, the story remained fresh. In some ways, it was a nice surprise. Since the mystery involved sex trafficking, I thought the protagonists were up against some sort of an underground society where a number of interconnecting companies were involved. Instead, the climax felt small and when key information were revealed, it almost felt muffled and understated. It also had enough time to introduce fiery new characters such as a prostitute, a professional boxer, and a hitman with a rare genetic disorder. However, there were some plot points where I thought the picture could have improved upon. I was curious about Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and her obvious sexual and possible romantic relationship with Mikael. When she was on screen, I could not help but feel like there was something about her character that was overlooked or did not translate from novel to screen. I hope she will become a prominent character in the final installment because Endre had such elegance about her. “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” directed by Daniel Alfredson, successfully separated itself from its predecessor in terms of tone and pacing. Nevertheless, it made itself necessary by giving us new information which complemented pieces that did not quite fit prior.
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Paradise Lost 2: Relevations,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, picked up four years later after three former teens were convicted to go to prison–two (Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin) for life and one (Damien Echols) on death row. Most of the victims’ families declined to participate in the documentary except for the stepfather (John Byers) of one of the slain kids who, after the first movie, people began to suspect for killing the boys. There were a lot of changes that I thought were fascinating. First of all, the three guys who were sent to prison grew up so much and it really made me sad because it showed me that they were essentially just boys when they were convicted. Unlike in the first movie, they were much more willing to talk to the camera and they were much more eloquent. I liked the way the directors showed scenes from the first film such as asking a question to one of the boys and not getting an answer and the way it asked the same question but getting an answer this time around. What’s unfortunate was the fact that the lawyers from both the prosecution and the defense did not allow the filmmakers to record scenes inside courtroom because the first movie gained so much notoriety. It would have been much more compelling if we were actually there alongside scenes where Byers tried to prove his innocence using a lie detector test. I thought the project sometimes became too convoluted because it spent too much time focusing on Byers and his anger. I understood that there was a lot of suspicion surrounding the man and it was important to provide a psychological portrait of him, but I would rather have spent more time watching and hearing more about Misskelly and Baldwin. By showing Byers and his strange mannerisms and tendency to lie on camera, it painted him as a monster. I didn’t think it was a correct decision because what if the man did not have anything to do with the murders? It could possibly lead to another tarnished reputation all for naught. Instead, the movie had to rely on the result of the lie detector test (which had its own red flags) and the overlooked bite marks on the victims’ bodies. Were those really bite marks? How did the medical examiners miss such critical information that could have helped exonerate the three so-called satanists? Was there some kind of a conspiracy within the small town that they were willing to withhold important information for the sake of easy answers? I had a million questions and I genuinely worried about the results of the case (I tried not to read too much about it prior to seeing this film) because I believed that Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols did not receive a fair trial. In year 2010, the three guys are still in jail and the real killer–or killers–is still out there. They’ve spent practically half of their lives in jail not because of hard evidence but because of people’s stereotypes. That, too, is another tragedy.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The documentary opened as it showed three eight-year-old boys’ naked and mutilated bodies in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. The main suspects were three teenagers (Jessie Misskelly Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols) who were labeled as devil worshippers by their community because they liked to wear black and listen to death metal music. I found this film scary not because of the suspects actually being into satanism (I believe they were curious about it but weren’t actually engaged in its practice) but because of the community willing to put the teens in jail for life (or even put to death) for the sole reason that they needed someone to blame. Since word-of-mouth and the media labeled the suspects as satanists, the jury became blind to the cold hard facts. For instance, they failed to put into account that Misskelly had an I.Q. of 72 and being cornered by the police’s leading questions would most likely result in a forced confession in hopes that the problem would “go away” as soon as possible. I’m assuming that since the jury did not have sufficient background with people who were mentally challenged, they couldn’t fully understand that the confession should be taken with great consideration. Furthermore, the lack of physical evidence was staggering. Since the victims were buldgeoned beyond recognition, I found it unsettling that blood was not found at the scene of the crime. No murder weapon was found aside from a knife conveniently found by the cops in a lake. A strange man with blood all over him was found by a pub owner at the night of the murder but the police didn’t bother to show up to investigate. I suspected foul play. If I was on that jury, there was no way I could have passed a guilty verdict on my part because so many things from the prosecutor’s side did not fit together. What I believe is that the community needed an easy, immediate answer. In the end, we don’t know for sure who murdered the children. It could have been the three teens. It could have been a family member of one of the kids. It could have been a serial killer who happened to pass by West Memphis that night. We don’t know. But what I know is that evil was committed in the community by means of injustice in the legal system. If the case was tried somewhere else, I strongly believe that the outcome would have been different for Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols. I may have sided with the defense on this case but what I admired most was that the film spent equal time with both sides. I understood the bereaved parents’ anger toward the three demonized teenagers. They claimed they wanted to kill the suspects or hurt them in some way. I didn’t blame them for it because if I were in their situation, I would most likely feel the same. “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, is an excellent documentary about skepticism and how powerful it can become if one is willing to listen and look beyond the obvious answers.