Cheap Thrills (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Congratulations, writers David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga as well as director E.L. Katz, for creating one of the most depressing, deplorable, and dimwitted movies I have had the displeasure of coming across.
“Cheap Thrills” is a would-be dark comedy that, at its most elementary, is about degradation and humiliation. People who will run to its defense may claim it is “social commentary” and “all in good fun.” No, it isn’t. If it were, more thought would have been put into the screenplay. There would have been a punchline behind the satire. There would be have been wit alongside ironic touches. There would have been a sense of energy and joy despite the misery unfolding on screen. No, let’s call this what it is: trash.
Craig (Pat Healy) has a wife and a newborn. He finds an eviction notice posted on the door. He and his family have seven days to vacate the apartment. Already worried about his finances, at work, Craig learns that he has been fired. Later, Craig meets up with a friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), whom he has not seen for five years. Their friendship will be tested by Colin (David Kouchner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a couple who is practically giving out money to those willing to participate in little dares.
I was able to predict the picture’s trajectory very clearly. With movies like David Guy Levy’s “Would You Rather” (terrible) and Daniel Stamm’s “13 Sins” (surprisingly decent), one comes to expect physical torture, characters supposedly feeling disturbed by what they are about to do, and potentially eating something that will likely make a person’s stomach queasy. What new idea(s) does this film have to offer? Absolutely nothing—and that is exactly what’s wrong with it.
The dares are neither creative nor is there any joy in the execution. I felt like I was spending time with a group of creepy men who desperately need a hobby in order to avoid making other people miserable. The writers had forgotten to answer a few fundamental questions: What makes these characters interesting? Why is their story worth telling? How is the story being told connected to the real problems we are facing as a modern society where money is overvalued and violence sans repercussion passes as entertainment?
As the movie unfolded, I sat in my chair like a wilting vegetable. It offers no entertainment value. It has nothing to say about anything. The gruesome images are presented to us for the sake of shock value. And then it brazenly ends with the title, in bold and white font, filling up the screen as if to communicate that it was inspired by Micahel Haneke’s “Funny Games.” What an insult to a great filmmaker—and to the audience who are fully aware that the film is nothing but a cheap, recycled imitation of less than mediocre movies that came before.
The Innkeepers (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Since their boss was on vacation in Barbados, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) thought it would be a great idea to capture a concrete paranormal activity, via audio and video recordings, in the Yankee Pedlar Inn, its last weekend being open for business due to a lack of customers. The place had a reputation of being haunted by the spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a woman who committed suicide after her fiancé stood her up on their wedding day. The inn had only three guests: a woman (Alison Bartlett) with her son (Jake Ryan) in tow because she had a fight with her husband and an actress, Leanne (Kelly McGillis), who was supposed to attend a convention. During Claire’s graveyard shift, she might just get her wish of encountering a ghost as she started to hear sounds of someone playing the piano on the first floor. What I found most curious about “The Innkeepers,” written and directed by Ti West, was its willingness to spend time with its characters instead of focusing on delivering one scare after another. Because their job was not much of a challenge, Luke and Claire played practical jokes on one another and eventually we began to question whether their friendship was strictly professional. Both the flirtation and the old-fashioned inn had its charms to the point where I started to think it may not be too bad actually working there. Claire and Luke seemed to be fun people to hang out with, mainly in that they were able to deliver and endure pranks, and the place reminded me of an infant version of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” By focusing on the minutiae of the job: delivering towels, escorting a guest to his room, taking out the trash, our subconscious were able to create a mental map of the haunted inn. Inevitably, when the characters started to run away after encountering something rather unexplainable, we had an idea of where they may be running toward. The picture was so detail-oriented that we were even given a chance to explore, even for just a bit, Luke’s website, an archive of paranormal happenings in the Yankee Pedlar. The website, too, had its charm, resembling a now-extinct Expage template that reminded me of my former Lizzie McGuire website, tacky icons and all. The scares were scant but most were executed effectively. I enjoyed that they had variation. Sometimes we were able to see a ghost in the background. At times, though, it was front and center. But then there were other times when only the characters saw something. For instance, in one of the most effectively drawn-out scenes, Luke faced Claire as they sat in the basement and summoned Madeline. Claire began to look increasingly terrified and Luke asked, even though he might have had an idea, what was wrong. We were left to wonder whether it was just another prank or if there really was something behind Luke. However, the ending could have used some work not necessarily in terms of content, though it could have been much stronger, but pacing. It felt too rushed, Horror 101, which did not match the elegance and organic feel of the rest of the picture. Nevertheless, “The Innkeepers” was a nice treat because it treated us like we didn’t have ADD. It’s a fine example that subtlety mixed with charm goes a long way.
Shark Night (2011)
★ / ★★★★
A group of college students (Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Zylka, Sinqua Walls, Alyssa Diaz, Katharine McPhee, Joel David Moore) visited a lake house in Louisiana for some fun in the sun after finals. One of them, Sara (Paxton), was from the area but she left her hometown three years ago and never went back. Her friends thought it was strange how Sarah, in all the years they’ve known her, never became intimate or even hooked up with a guy. Meanwhile, the barely clothed undergraduates, gleefully playing in the lake, were unaware that the water was infested with sharks. “Shark Night,” based on the screenplay by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg, lacked the courage to come off as completely ludicrous. If it had been more confident, it could have worked as a parody or even a satire. From its first scene involving a topless girl who had to search for her swimsuit in the water, it was obvious that the material wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. The shark attack lasted for about three seconds of choppy editing and it wasn’t scary in the least. While a handful death scenes, aided by CGI, were rather neat, the few seconds prior to the characters’ deaths felt almost like wasted time. There was no patience from behind the camera prior and during the attacks. The formula was this: The camera would go underwater and about five seconds later, someone screamed out of pain. Sometimes having a character just pulled from underwater by a very strong shark and its victim never having to scream for help could work just as effectively or even more so. Let the camera linger for about five seconds on the surface of the water. Doing so would give us a chance to observe waves created out of panic turn into utter quiescence–an illusion that a shark attack never happened. Moreover, the movie could have benefited from more extreme typecasting. For instance, Nick (Milligan) was supposed to be the geek who wanted to become a doctor. He had his MCAT coming up but the only reason he decided to come with was because he pined for Sara. They knew each other through other friends but he lacked bravado to ask her out on a simple date. He didn’t think he was good enough for her. Yet without his glasses, he looked like another jock who should have all the confidence in the world. How were we supposed to believe that he had something to prove? The one character I found most interesting was Blake (Zylka), the blonde Adonis obsessed with fake tanning. He wasn’t especially smart, even self-absorbed at times, but when tragedy struck, it turned out he was the most sensitive and relatable. Having a final girl, which inevitably just had to be Sara because it was her hometown, was anticlimactic and frustrating because the character wasn’t established as strongly as she should have been. As a rule of thumb, for horror movies that require a “final girl,” the protagonist has to be someone we will be behind no matter what. Sara wasn’t that person. Ironically, it was Blake. It could have been an excellent twist if the writers had been more aware of and fleshed out the inconsistencies in their screenplay. Directed by David R. Ellis, “Shark Night” was tame compared to other bloodfests like Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha.” It wasn’t even as fun.
The Last House on the Left (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
I’m not going to say that this was predictable because I saw the 1972 version directed by the legendary Wes Craven. Garret Dillahunt, Riki Lindhome and Aaron Paul star as the three criminals running from the law who eventually come upon Sara Paxton and Martha MaxIsaac. After a series of numbing humiliations and assaults, with the help of Dillahunt’s son (Spencer Treat Clark), Paxton’s parents (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter) find out what happened to their daughter and they crave bloody vengeance. I must say that this was more thrilling the 1972 version. It was smart enough to tweak some of the details from the original to keep those who’ve seen the classic guessing. I also liked the fact that Dennis Iliadis, the director, provided some sort of backstory of Paxton’s character so the audiences will be able to sympathize with her more during the more gruesome scenes she has to go through. It has a different feel than most slasher movies coming out in 2009 because the camera tends to linger on the characters’ faces in silence to fully get the picture on how a particular character is feeling after or while going through a trial. However, what I didn’t like about it was that it’s a bit lighter than the original. Some of the implications are gone because this modern version feels like it wants to garner a wider audience. In other words, it’s more commercial in its storytelling, use of music and violence. When the credits started rolling, I asked myself whether I liked the film. The answer would be a “Yes.” But I also asked myself whether this modern interpretation of the original was necessary in the overall scope of horror cinema. The answer would be a resounding “No.” Yes, the classic may be dated but an upgrade is far from necessary. For a horror picture, this “House” has the thrills, blood and suspense but watching that gruesome rape scene again made me sick to my stomach. (But then again maybe that’s the point: To place shame on the audiences due to their willingness to pay ten bucks to see something brutal.)