Swimming Pool (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a British author of a highly successful detective series, decided to take up her publisher’s (Charles Dance) offer visit his home in France for some peace and relaxation. Maybe she could even write a book if inspiration came knocking. Sarah expressed that she was unhappy about her work as of late and wanted to do something different. When Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the publisher’s daughter, also visited the house, she just might be the inspiration Sarah needed to revitalize her passion for writing. Directed by François Ozon, “Swimming Pool” was widely criticized for having a slow burn of a start only to pick up its pace when the story reached its murder mystery. I couldn’t disagree more. What I loved about the film was its ability to make the mundane absolutely fascinating. When Sarah arrived in the isolated French house, the silence was deafening as she strolled around its humble magnificence. We could only hear her footsteps, the rustling of the sheets as she unpacked, and the furniture being dragged across the floor. It was as if the house was slowly being awakened from its deep slumber. With Sarah staring across the balcony, I could feel her thinking. I felt her worrying about her work and her strained relationship with her publisher. She was a confident woman but perhaps she was beginning to doubt herself. When she stepped outside of the house to go shopping or have some wine, there was joy in that as well because Rampling had such expressive eyes. She didn’t have to say a word yet I was able to extract so much emotion from her character. Like a very good book, the story unfolded effortlessly and I was curious what would happen next. On the other hand, Julie was the requisite spice to stir up Sarah’s ennui. Julie was sexy, had a proclivity for danger, and was very sexually active. Sarah was inspired by Julie, sometimes bordering on obsession, and perhaps there was a bit of jealousy there because our protagonist was aging. The beauty of the picture was not every emotion and every glance was explained so it was up to us to translate the images we were seeing. And like the best mystery novels, it assumed that we were intelligent, proactive, and mature audiences. It didn’t shy away from nudity and sexuality which were important components because it has been said that we are most physiologically alive when sex enters the picture. Sarah’s inspiration slowly came to life. The murder mystery was simply an icing on the cake. It provided an extra dimension because Sarah was able to make a career from writing murder mysteries. Ultimately, “Swimming Pool” was a story about an author and her muse. It had a beautiful cinematography, wonderful script, and subjects that were simply firecrackers.
My Little Eye (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Five strangers were picked to live in a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. If Matt (Sean Cw Johnson), Rex (Kris Lemche), Danny (Stephen O’Reilly), Emma (Laura Regan), and Charlie (Jennifer Sky) could stay together six months, they would receive a million dollars. It seemed like an easy task but living together became challenging when one of them ended up dead. If they stepped outside the premises or contacted the police, the game would be over. Directed by Marc Evans, “My Little Eye” was obviously inspired by reality shows like MTV’s “The Real World.” However, the film was more about the characters feeling isolated from society and the paranoia that resulted from cameras that surrounded the place instead of drinking, bar hopping, and engaging in all sorts of casual sex. The build-up from seemingly small pranks to a possible murder was executed nicely. Was there a killer among the five or was everything controlled by the company that chose them? The former was possible because there was no crew. Cameras were simply installed from a certain height and they moved according to someone’s motion. But the latter was also quite possible. Someone could just as easily sneak in the house as the five slept. They wouldn’t notice because the old mansion made all sorts of noises. Unfortunately, once the mystery was revealed, the picture lost the majority of its momentum. It became a routine running around the mansion until someone tripped or slipped. It wasn’t scary. Since it was so dark and the images from the cameras were blurry, I couldn’t help but adopt a passive stance. The editing was manic. Instead of lingering at one creepy shot, it would jump from one camera angle to another in attempt to show all the creepy shots. It’s better to have one very effective shot that goes for the jugular instead of having many less effective shots with questionable purpose. It wasn’t a good sign when I didn’t care who lived or died. We heard about Emma’s childhood story involving a friend who killed his family using a hammer but it didn’t reveal much about who she was. And as much as I appreciated the fact that the five strangers talked like regular people off the streets, I couldn’t help but snicker when a character would blurt out, “I’m scared!” or “I’m in it for the money!” Another unintentionally funny scene was when the remaining four decided to put the dead body outside, in the snow, right after one of them stated that they should leave the body where it was because it was a scene of the crime. For a bunch of mid- to late-twentysomethings, they lacked common sense. But then again, so are those who choose to appear on reality shows for the sake of fame that never lasts.
Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Tom (Richard Tillman), on leave for ten days from the military, decided to look for his brother in California after Jesse (Joey Mendicino) and Nicole (Julie Mond) had been missing for a year. Marilyn (Jessie Ward) and Jared (Graham Norris), Tom’s girlfriend and high school friend, decided to lend a hand. While loading their cars with gas, Jared noticed something that used to belong to Nicole. The gas station attendant (Steve Railsback) confirmed seeing the two lovers and suggested that the three stopped looking. Written by John Shiban and directed by Shawn Papazian, “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” had a promising first thirty minutes. The first murder attempt which involved Jared being tragically stuck in a porta-potty was darkly comedic, horrific, and downright disgusting. I was also excited of the fact that we actually saw more of the killer and how he abducted a person while the partner used the restroom. I even saw a pinch of ambition as Nicole discovered that the restroom seemed to defy time and space. I was very curious in how it would resolve itself. However, the film began to lose its promise when it relied on the ghosts to generate tension. The question stopped being about which of the characters would die next and how they would meet their demise. I became more concerned of whether the character on screen was indeed alive or simply a spirit. As a result, the tension of the serial killer and the manner in which he hunted his victims was no longer there. Moreover, Mond, who did not play Nicole in the first film, was especially weak. All of her scenes needed to be reshot. When she spoke, I could sense her about to burst into laughter. I was surprised her scenes made the final cut. I wondered why she was even cast because she looked nothing like her predecessor. The filmmakers should have been more critical because Nicole was an important character in the story arc given that she provided details that would lead to the picture’s climax. What I was most interested in was Tom’s desperation and rage. His sense of loss was explored only sporadically and in the most obvious ways. I didn’t get the sense that the two were really brothers. The emotions between them were mentioned using words but not actually shown in a meaningful or moving way. “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” felt cheap not because of its images or even the way it was shot but because it strayed too far from its original concept. Instead of resolving strands like the creepy family in the Winnebago and their twisted relationship with the killer, the film pulled a maddening last-minute twist. To me, it was evidence that the writer felt like he could have done more with the script. If he was happy with what he had, he wouldn’t have felt the need to add such an unnecessary thing.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.
★ / ★★★★
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.