Cabin Fever: Patient Zero (2014)
★ / ★★★★
What’s supposed to be a fun bachelor’s party for Marcus (Mitch Ryan) turns grim when his brother (Brando Eaton) and childhood friend (Jillian Murray) go snorkeling in the virus-infected shores of a remote island that happens to contain a secret research facility. Inside the facility, a man named Porter (Sean Astin) is being held against his will. He is believed to be immune from a new strain of flesh-eating virus which means his blood can lead to a vaccine and prevent a pandemic.
Based on the screenplay by Jake Wase Wall and directed by Kaare Andrews, “Cabin Fever: Patient Zero” is supposed to be a prequel to the first entry in the series and yet it does not provide much information about the virus itself. Instead, it recycles information that we already know, from how it is spread to the initial symptoms upon exposure. It offers no new ideas and so it is a bore to sit through despite the impressively yucky, gory special effects and makeup.
Its ambition only goes as far as telling two stories that must intersect eventually. Neither of them work. Marcus getting married and his friends being not-so-happy that his spouse is someone rich is so laughably bad, I thought at first that the picture is going to traverse the route of spoofing the series—which would have been interesting because Eli Roth’s original and Ti West’s “Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever” are already laced with humor. Instead, there is barely any genuine comedic touches in the dialogue—most of the attempts at humor are generalizations about stupid things early twenty-somethings might say. I found it quite insulting, really.
Equally insulting is its portrayal of the scientists (Currie Graham, Lydia Hearst, Solly Duran) who are supposed to be figuring out how to make a vaccine against the disease. We are forced to sit through interminable scenes where the scientists sit around and argue—essentially doing nothing to progress the plot. Never once did I believe that they are intelligent let alone people who really know what they are doing.
The original film is enjoyable to watch because most of the time the events are unfolding either in daylight or a well-lit cabin. Here, the second half—where the majority of its money shots are revealed—takes place at night, inside a poorly-lit building, or underground that we are not given much time to appreciate the rashes, blisters, and raw tissues. These elements need to be front and center, preferably under a magnifying glass. Audiences who love horror movies about disease outbreaks are looking for the details. If we are not given exactly that, then what is the point?
The challenge with all film series is that each installment must offer something fresh or something so memorable that its existence is ultimately justified. “Cabin Fever: Patient Zero” offers no suspense, horror, and thrill. On top of that, it gives us no further understanding of the virus. Instead, it gives us a string of clichés, an egregious script, and eye strain—for having to squint so hard in order to appreciate the gnarly wounds.
★★★ / ★★★★
Desperate for inspiration to write another book, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true-crime novelist, knowingly moved his family into a house whose past owners were murdered. Move-in day proved promising for the author when he found a box of Super 8 family movies in the attic which contained clips of five different families spending time with one another and eventually being killed in gruesome manners. Despite the images he witnessed, Ellison proceeded to research the crimes and write the book, all the while keeping his family unaware of their house’s history. Right from its first images in which not a word was uttered, “Sinister,” written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, commanded a darkness that captured and retained my attention until it dropped its intense promise with such an uninspired final act often expected from weaker haunted house movies. The build-up was quite impressive because there was an uncertainty as to whether the strange incidents could be attributed to human factor as opposed to something otherworldly. For example, the first big scare involving a box and what came out of it was deftly handled because it played upon a phenomenon that a lot of people had most likely heard of but not necessarily understand. That scene, which I suspected to be just another cheap attempt to get any reaction from us but turned out to be the complete opposite, reflected the filmmakers’ first-rate ability, if they wanted to, to create increasingly tense situations as the anxieties we felt in our guts swirled and swirled until a perfectly timed grotesque image, coupled with a loud noise, triggered our uneasiness to burst, sending jolts down our spines and limbs. However, its techniques in establishing dread was not its only weapon that drew us in. Hawke was convincing as a writer whose passion threatened to swallow him and his family whole. Ellison believed that he had another hit novel inside him just waiting to be written given the proper fire. Though he somehow convinced himself that the act of choosing to endure the house of horror was for his family, everyone knew except him that it was really about his ego. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t have stayed in that house, given what he learned about the crimes, and risked his family’s safety. The one argument between husband and wife (Juliet Rylance) may feel like it came from a marriage drama but, in this case, it felt right because it kept the story grounded. Meanwhile, the film’s more amusing segments involved Ellison and a local deputy (James Ransone) forming a sort of partnership, the latter expecting to have his name credited once the book was finished. We were given a chance to see very clearly the extent of how Ellison viewed himself so highly compared to a fan that behaved like a drooling dog, desperate for a pat on the head for each thing he got right. Unfortunately, the last act of “Sinister,” directed by Scott Derrickson, proved dull and uninspired, not at all worthy of the material that came before it. One of the worst feelings while watching a movie, despite the genre, is when we begin to suspect that the filmmakers had given up to provide us something that they genuinely believe is worthwhile. The final act felt rushed, silly, and at times laughable with its repetitive gestures of silence. It made me want to scream at the screen–out of frustration, not fear.
The Theatre Bizarre (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Enola Penny (Virginia Newcomb) curiously entered a dilapidated movie theatre and was welcomed by Peg Poett (Udo Kier) and his colleagues, a group of performers who moved like marionettes. She was presented six movies of varying strangeness, from a couple (Shane Woodward, Victoria Maurette) who met a suspicious old lady (Catriona MacColl) while vacationing in France to a party of gluttony where guests vomiting on each other seemed to be the norm. While “The Theatre Bizarre” featured about two or three segments with solid ideas, the rest failed to measure up either due to a lack of energy or originality. “The Accident,” directed by Douglas Buck, stood out, arguably the best of the bunch, because although its premise was simple, it had emotional resonance. After a mother (Lena Kleine) and daughter (Mélodie Simard) witnessed an accident while driving through a forested highway, the daughter kept asking questions about mortality and what it meant to die. The script was involving because the mother had to struggle in terms of whether or not to fully disclose the finality of death to her child in order to prevent further trauma. The segment was bathed in a yellow-reddish glow, quite beautiful because it captured the feeling of innocence through the little girl’s eyes. When the dead bodies were shown on that highway, it didn’t feel exploitative. There was meaning behind showing a dead or dying body: one minute with life, the next an empty shell. There was human drama underneath the horrific images. Another segment worth watching, “Vision Stains,” directed by Karim Hussain, involved a woman (Kaniehtiio Horn) who specifically killed junkies and homeless persons, all of whom were women. As her victims were on the verge of death, she injected a needle into their eyeballs and extracted the fluid from them. She was convinced that the liquid contained memories. The killer’s motivation held my interest because she saw herself as some sort of savior. She claimed that by killing those who “wanted” to die, she freed them by granting them a voice. That is, she jotted down the women’s memories as she experienced a high after she injected their eyeball fluid into her left eye. Unfortunately, despite its fascinating premise, the resolution failed to make sense. I was given the impression that its potential was short-circuited by a limited running time. The story would’ve been stronger if it had the time to construct a proper arc since it was all about internal motivations. Strangely enough, I found myself having a mediocre amount of fun with “I Love You,” directed by Buddy Giovinazzo, because it was marriage drama with terrible acting. It was a good decision to keep the horror at a minimum and placed only toward the end. I was uneasy throughout because I suspected that the horror would arrive any second. The segment involved a wife (Suzan Anbeh) confessing to her husband (André Hennicke) that she was leaving with another man. The broken couple sat in the living room as the wife went through a list of things she didn’t like about her husband, from his bad habits to how bad he was at sex. I found the cruelty darkly amusing and I wanted to hear more juicy punches to the gut. However, like “Vision Stains,” it suffered from an underwhelming ending that appeared without context. It felt out of place. “The Mother of Toads,” “Wet Dreams,” and “Sweets,” directed by Richard Stanley, Tom Savini, and David Gregory, respectively, were fat that needed to be trimmed. If they were excised and the remaining three were expanded, “The Theatre Bizarre,” framing segments directed by Jeremy Kasten, would most likely have been bizarre and worthwhile instead of just bizarre and overlong.
The Woman in Black (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young father and a widower, was assigned by his London-based law firm to go to the country and peruse through the documents that Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova) left upon her death. If it was certain that the firm had her final will, her gothic mansion, known to everyone around it as the Eel Marsh House, would be ready for clean-up and sale. Arthur assumed it would be a relatively easy job. When he arrived at the village, however, the residents were very unwelcoming and keen on sending him back to where he came from. Soon enough, he had a chance to visit the supposedly abandoned house and began to see a woman observing him from the grounds. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and screenplay by Jane Goldman, the greatest strength of “The Woman in Black” was its understanding of the importance of building suspense prior to delivering a genuinely scary moment that either left its audience startled or horrified. I enjoyed the way it kept me interested as to why the distressed townsfolk were so opposed to Arthur’s visit. While we suspected that it probably had something to do with his assignment at the secluded house, we weren’t sure as to how that was related to the three seemingly happy children who jumped to their deaths in the first scene. By not giving us immediate answers, I actually ended up wanting Arthur to finally get to the house and do a bit of investigation in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. The creepiness increased tenfold when the camera loomed over the estate. It was surrounded by a marsh in which tides came and went depending on the hours. At times the road was unavailable which meant that Arthur wouldn’t be able to escape when his encounters turned grim. When he was left alone to look around the house, the picture was at its best because the filmmakers highlighted the stillness that surrounded our protagonist as well as when the stillness was threatened by supernatural forces. Typicalities occurred such as a ghost appearing behind Arthur when he wasn’t looking but a handful of them were executed so convincingly, the clichés were almost negligible. The most chilling scene involved a nursery room with a rocking chair that seemed to defy physics. It was enjoyable on more than one level because while the direction forced our senses to focus on sounds and images, the horror elements–like dolls moving and stopping on their own, the eventual reveal of the malevolent ghost and the like–also challenged us, if we wished, to recreate an image of an unhappy life that had driven the woman in black to do the things she did. This could be connected to the moment when we first met Arthur as he held a blade to his neck but changed his mind for his son’s sake. This led to the picture’s main weakness. I wasn’t totally convinced that Radcliffe was a young father who was grieving for his wife’s death. Although he had no problem conjuring emotions like sadness, the angst behind his eyes and actions weren’t quite there. I felt that a certain level of realism within the character to be important because the reason why Arthur decided to take the job and continued to perform the job despite eerie warnings was because he wanted to provide for his son. Instead of an engaging beginning, since certain emotions didn’t feel true, I found it rather languorous. “The Woman in Black,” directed by James Watkins,” could have also used an ending that didn’t feel so saccharine that it derailed its consistently minacious tone. It was an example of how toxic a cliché can be if there was nothing else behind it other than lazy or confused writing.
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.
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.
★ / ★★★★
Suzy (Jessica Harper) moved from America to Germany to study bullet in the prestigious Tans Academy. Just as Suzy stepped at the front door, a blonde girl, in complete panic, ran out of the school yelling complete nonsense. Suzy could only make out the words “secret” and “blue.” In the morning, students, teachers, and staff heard that the panic-stricken girl died in a gruesome fashion. The police had no suspect. “Suspiria,” directed by Dario Argento, was an unfocused and unexciting art-horror bathed in glorious primary colors. For a film about a witchcraft coven possibly hiding in the school and getting away with doing all sorts of terrible things, the majority of the scenes lacked tension. The only scene I thought was rather unsettling was when Suzy and the other girls found maggots in their hair. The way it unfolded had a certain cheekiness and it brought a lot of questions in such a short period of time: why were the girls suddenly scratching themselves? Was there some kind of voodoo involved? Were did the maggots come from? The scene worked because all the questions were answered with urgency. The rest did not measure up. The score was particularly annoying. I felt like it was on all the time even though nothing was happening. It could be just a scene of Suzy and Sara (Stefania Casini), Suzy’s only friend, gossiping about boys and the score would suddenly hit a high note. I wanted to get to know the characters, even in a minute sense, but the score was too busy, actively preventing us from doing so. That’s not good filmmaking; it’s called lacking control over the material. If Argento did not want me to pay attention to what was being said between the characters, don’t let them converse at all. The feeling of sitting through a terrible movie is one thing. The suspicion that I’m wasting my time is another. I did not like the way the women were handled here. One man was murdered: it was silent and rather quick. When women were being inflicted with dark magic, it was slow, torturous, and they were made to scream a whole lot. I took no pleasure in watching them suffer because there was an underlying sexism in the kills. In horror movies, especially slasher flicks, I can have fun watching women characters meet their demise if men were also allowed to suffer in the same degree. That’s just part of the fun; that’s why we watch horror movies–for the most part, violence equals excitement. But watching women crawl through wires, get stabbed over and over and get hanged was just mean-spirited. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and ugly images in my head. Watching “Suspiria,” written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi, was a maddening, humiliating experience. I believe horror films can be beautiful, which can be measured aesthetically, thematically, or by just watching characters you want to see survive or even fight for. The colors of the curtains and walls were pretty but it was deeply hollow inside. A filmmaker can have hundreds–even thousands–of movies under his belt, but if the sculptor doesn’t breathe life and heart into his art, it means absolutely nothing to me. A movie can be badly dubbed to the point where it’s completely laughable. I may not hear every single word uttered by the actors. And the scares may not be scary at all. But if I feel that the filmmaker loves his work and wants me to love it as much as he does, I take notice and I give the work, even if it’s a “bad movie,” my respect. This movie does not deserve an iota of my respect.
Silent House (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
In order to sell their lakeside home, Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and her dad, John (Adam Trese), were required to clean the place and pack memorabilia they wanted to keep. Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), John’s brother, lent a helping hand and the two fixed up the basement while throwing playful insults at each other as most close siblings tend to do. As Sarah lit lanterns and began sorting through boxes, there was a knock on the front door. It was Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), Sarah’s forgotten childhood friend, and the two eventually decided that they would hang out and reminisce old times. Sarah got back to her work. There was another knock on the door. There was no one there. Based on Gustavo Hernández’ “La casa muda,” the film followed every step that Sarah had taken from the moment we laid eyes on her as she stared placidly across the lake up until she was finally allowed to walk away from the house–all supposedly taken in one take. I’m not sure if such a claim was true, but even if it was an illusion, it was executed convincingly. The picture demanded prodigious patience. There were no shocks that forced our hearts to jump out of our chests every five minutes. The images were supposed to get under our skin and make us believe there was something odd around the corner. Since there was no electricity, every room looked menacing because boxes, plastic bags, and random pointed objects created shadows that suggested there could be something there if one looked closely enough. There were also plenty of mirrors. In horror movies, we’ve been conditioned to expect our protagonists to pass by a mirror, preferably old-looking, without noticing a ghost or whatnot staring right at them. While I will refrain from saying whether or not that cliché was implemented here, the material was able to construct an increasing amount of dread with every creaking door nearby, strange tapping in the room, and deafening thuds next door. Olsen was required to be more than a girl cowering in fear. While her character was fearful of every little thing, which, admittedly, I found quite annoying in the first few minutes, Olsen had way of combining terrified expressions with confusion and anticipation. Turning the doorknob was a challenge for Sarah. Most of us would find ourselves leaning back just in case something on the other side was waiting to go, “Boo!” Since Olsen’s performance had subtle variations, I believed that Sarah was consistently doing the best she could to try to get out of the house and find help. What I didn’t enjoy about the film, however, was its payoff. Imagine being in a roller coaster as it climbed higher and higher up until you just wished it would just reach the top, finally go down and shrill screaming began. But once it reached the top, the unexpected happened: the descent was languorous and very controlled. It felt unnatural so you couldn’t help but feel out of place. That’s how I felt while watching the final act: there was nothing scary, suspenseful, or thrilling about it. Directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, “Silent House,” at its best, made me gasp once or twice. At its worst, however, I shook my head in frustration that it believed it could get away with a cheap resolution just because the supposed single take style looked impressive.
Hostel: Part II (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Affluent Beth (Lauren German), debbie-downer Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and brassy Whitney (Bijou Phillips), American art students in Italy, decided to go on a trip around Europe over the weekend for some relaxation. While on the train, one of the models (Vera Jordanova) they had the pleasure of sketching just hours prior recommended a gorgeous must-visit hot springs in Slovakia. It seemed too good to refuse so the trio happily accepted. Little did the girls know that just minutes after they checked into a hostel, there was an auction, held by Elite Hunting, a murder-for-profit group, in which rich men bid on women where the winner could do whatever he wanted with his winnings. Written and directed by Eli Roth, I give a little bit of credit to “Hostel: Part II” because it tried to do something different from its predecessor. Instead of focusing solely on the would-be victims, it actually spent some time with the men who wanted to experience something they’d never forget. Todd (Richard Burgi) was gung-ho about killing something with his hands while Stuart (Roger Bart) was more reluctant. The way Todd and Stuart talked about committing an act of unimaginable violence to another human being was disturbing because certain phrases they uttered, like a joke or a snide remark, reflected an underlying struggle in attempting to make their victims less human. For instance, while sitting in the car on their way to the torture factory, Stuart asked his friend if he thought what they were doing was sick. Todd answered the question as one would express strong dislike toward a certain type of food. Furthermore, the picture allowed us to peek inside the business. We saw the important figures who made the negotiations when something went wrong. We discovered some of the requirements stated in the contract if one chose to be a part of Elite Hunting. We also learned that certain rules were allowed to be broken for the right price. Although it had potential to be a good sequel because it strived to expand its universe, the film just wasn’t good enough. Because there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to Todd, Stuart, and their relationship with the business, watching it all unfold was like observing a drowning person: an occasional gasp of air came hand-in-hand with its desperation to keep afloat. For the sake of so-called suspense, the material had a natural tendency to relegate to the three girls trying to run away from the burly bad guys in leather yet we knew all along that they had no chance of outrunning them. That was a crucial difference between this film and its predecessor. Part of the fun of “Hostel” was we actually believed that Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who made an appearance here, was able to escape despite his odds. There was technique, tension, and, most importantly, humor, in the manner in which he had to camouflage with the environment to avoid being detected. In here, a character ran into the forest and we expected her to trip. And she did. Lastly, I was especially sickened with the scene in which an adult pointed his gun on several children’s heads. One of them was shot in the face. But for what? Some could argue that the adult intended to teach a lesson. I argue it was for mere shock value. It felt cheap. “Hostel: Part II” was plagued with boring protagonists and lackluster execution. I wanted to find dark humor in its extreme nature but I ended up just sitting in my chair, depressed with all that was happening.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Donna (Dee Wallace), along with her son (Danny Pintauro), drove the barely functional family car to be fixed, but the mechanic (Ed Lauter) and his family weren’t around. The only thing waiting for them was a rabid St. Bernard that attacked when a loud noise was present. Stuck in the car for a couple of days, Donna had to go to great measures to prevent her son from death due to a lack of food and water. Based on the novel by Stephen King, “Cujo” was particularly impressive because the story was rooted in drama. The Trenton household was on the verge of collapse because Donna informed her husband (Daniel Hugh Kelly) that she had been having an affair with one of their friends (Christopher Stone). On top of that, their comfortable way of life was threatened when the husband’s business was marred by bad publicity. The strain in their marriage, though much of it was undiscussed, affected the child in such a way that Tad was convinced there was a monster, equipped with a long snout and yellow eyes, in his closet. The horror aspect was quite clever. Aside from the first scene which involved the child preparing himself to turn off the light, race across the room, and land on his bed, which I often did as a child because I loved to watch scary movies, the horror elements were temporarily pushed to the side. From the moment Cujo attacked the mother and son, we realized that the dog symbolized the invisible monster in the room whenever the husband and wife shared the same space. They could barely look at each other, let alone carry a meaningful conversation. After the dog’s initial attack, I was floored when the child screamed and hysterically asked his mother how the monster got out of his closet. The connection between the child’s fantasy and the reality of a potentially broken marriage took the form of a beast so ferocious, we ultimately didn’t care about Donna’s transgressions. At least I didn’t. It became a matter of survival of an unhappy woman and her innocent son. The scenes inside the car were very involving. Under the sweltering sun, I felt like I was in there with them as they sweat and suffered the shortage of basic necessities. When Tad eventually had trouble breathing, Wallace’s performance was front and center. Her desperation, and eventual determination to save her son, swept me away. I wanted to help her. It made me consider what I would have done for my child if I was placed in a similar situation. “Cujo,” directed by Lewis Teague, was efficient, smart, and thrilling. I admired it most for its details and how the meanings we placed in them pulsated with rabid energy.
★ / ★★★★
Four friends developed psychic powers when they were kids after they rescued a boy with Down Syndrome, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), from bullies. They decided to camp in the snowy mountains but noticed an oddity. Animals seemed like they were running away from something and the military had quarantined the area. While Henry (Thomas Jane) and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) left to pick up some beer at a local convenience store, Beaver (Jason Lee) and Jonesy (Damian Lewis) invited a man inside their cabin, unaware that the man’s body encased an alien creature. Based on Stephen King’s novel, “Dreamcatcher” suffered due to a lack of flow. There were essentially three stories and their connections weren’t fully fleshed out. There was the aforementioned four friends dealing with nasty aliens in the woods, the flashback sequences when they were children and how they got their powers, and Col. Abraham Curtis’ (Morgan Freeman) desperation to solve the alien mystery, which he had been involved in for twenty five years, before he retired. The screenplay jumped one from one strand to another which often broke the tension. For example, when Jonesy and Beaver saw a trail of blood that came from the bedroom where the man slept, it was interrupted by a scene with the colonel delivering yet another speech about how driven he was to finish what he started. If the bloody trail scene had been allowed to finish without interruption, the horror would have been more effective. Adding a scene with a completely different tone allowed us to breathe and maybe even take a bathroom break. The CGI let the picture down immensely. I didn’t mind seeing the worm-like creatures (I have a weakness for creepy crawlers) but showing a full-bodied alien didn’t leave anything to our imagination. The aliens could take in any form because they had the ability to project what we wanted to see. One of the characters claimed that he had seen an alien in its natural form and it was horrific. The filmmakers should have stayed away from showing the extraterrestrials’ true form and let us wonder because I didn’t think they looked scary at all. CGI becomes outdated but the images we form in our minds do not. “Dreamcatcher,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, failed to answer a number of critical questions. For instance, why did the four friends eventually stopped seeing Duddits? Their gifts seemed more like a burden in their lives so did they feel some sort of bitterness toward their childhood friend? The film lasted over two hours so leaving out answers was no excuse. Perhaps if there had been fewer scenes of military men and more scenes of the four friends’ struggle, I would have cared more.
Lake Mungo (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
While swimming in a local dam with her family, Alice (Talia Zucker) was suddenly nowhere to be seen. After calling the proper authorities, a search began while the Palmer family anxiously waited for the grim news. Soon enough, Alice’s body was found. But that was just the beginning. Two days after Alice was buried, strange things began to occur around the house. The brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe), heard strange noises coming from the room of the deceased. The father, Russell (David Pledger), claimed that he saw his daughter going about her business as if nothing ever happened. Meanwhile, the mother, June (Rosie Traynor), had nightmares that there was a spirit in the house. Written and directed by Joel Anderson, “Lake Mungo” was a well-made faux-documentary about a family in grief who genuinely believed that there was a ghost in their home. Since the ominous presence was palpable, the family decided to set up cameras around the house to capture, if any, the entity that they felt was there. Naturally, comparison’s between “Lake Mungo” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” could not be helped because both had somewhat similar styles. However, I preferred this film in terms of realism because no one, like a possessed person, directly looked into camera and attempted to scare the viewers. It was straight-faced all the way through; there were no cheap punches designed to remind us that since what we were observing was scary, it meant that we were getting our money’s worth. I was completely in the moment. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but every time the camera zoomed in on a paused video footage which contained a (mostly blurry) ghostly figure in the background, my heart rate went up as I held my breath in anticipation. But the film wasn’t just about Palmer family being haunted by an inexplicable paranormal phenomenon. The second half was revealed to be about the secrets that Alice kept from her family and how, sadly, no one really knew who she really was when she passed away. The writer-director’s decision to change gears half-way through was a smart and brave move especially within the confines of the newly revived found footage subgenre. There was a natural flow in the way we learned about literal ghost that appeared in house. Initially, it was mild curiosity; then it was meticulously creepy; finally, it was unexpectedly terrifying. The other kind of ghost, our memories of a loved one when they’re no longer with us, was explored in a meaningful way. Interestingly enough, if the scenes when we were given a chance to see Alice’s ghost were taken out completely, it would still be a strong story of a family trying to cope and move on. That’s what a look for in a good movie: If I can take out one crucial strand and it doesn’t fall apart, I know that it has something special. “Lake Mungo” had many tricks up its sleeve. It challenged us to wade through the truths, lies, and possibilities. Though its budget was limited, it didn’t feel cheap because it understood universal emotions like fear and mourning.
We Are What We Are (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When the family patriarch (Humberto Yáñez) passed away while admiring mannequins, the matriarch (Carmen Beato) and her three children (Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Adrián Aguirre) were left to fend for themselves. Behind closed doors, as part of some tradition, they kidnapped vulnerable people in the streets, like homeless children and prostitutes, and ate them. “We Are What We Are,” written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, was an interesting hybrid of chamber drama and horror. The first half focused on the volatile relationship between the two brothers. Alfredo and Adriana wanted to prove that they were man enough to lead the family. The eldest, Alfredo, had the most complexity. It seemed as though he was almost pressured into eating people but couldn’t set himself free because he felt responsible. Alfredo was torn between expectations at home and the experimentation required to find his sexual identity. Since he couldn’t come up with a way to deal with the two spheres, he felt a lot of self-loathing. There was an intense scene in which he decided to follow a gay man around his age. I was engaged because it was difficult to discern whether the hunt was for business or pleasure. I enjoyed the film’s tone exactly because it lacked gloss. Grau made his project’s lack of big budget work for itself. For instance, when one of the victims escaped the house, there was no booming music to suggest that the victim was being followed. In fact, the sound was muffled. Since there was barely any sound to guide my expectations, I turned my attention to the images and the shadows that surrounded the escapee. I was that much more aware and transfixed on the screen. Unfortunately, the script introduced characters that took away focus from the topic of cannibalism. There was a detective (Jorge Zárate) whose sole motivation in capturing the cannibals was to earn the so-called respect of his colleagues. We saw him look disgruntled and angry, but we never really learned what made him special enough to break the case. He wasn’t especially creative, patient, nor brave. He just seemed like another cop who tried to find an easy solution to a complicated question. He lacked depth so I found it difficult to take him seriously. During a key confrontation, I found it strange that I actually rooted for the family to get away with what they did. If the writer-director had focused more on the details of the strange tradition and less on the detective, though above average in parts, “Somos lo sue hay” would have been a more a visceral experience. It left my stomach grumbling for more.
Dark Water (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moved in with Ceci (Ariel Gade), her daughter, into an apartment. The two hoped to start a new life but it proved to be a challenge. Ceci began to make an imaginary friend named Natasha, the same name of a little girl who disappeared from the apartment directly above theirs. On the other hand, Dahlia not only had to deal with abandonment issues from her own mother years prior, but she also had to worry about the increasingly large leak in their bedroom ceiling. The apartment attendant (Pete Postlethwaite) and the realtor (John C. Reilly) wouldn’t take the time to genuinely help her. Over time, Dahlia became in danger of reaching an emotional and psychological breaking point. Based on a novel by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Walter Salles, “Dark Water” was at its best when it explored the bond between a mother and her only daughter. I enjoyed the first few scenes when the mother and daughter evaluated the dilapidated apartment. Ceci insisted that she thought the place was creepy and didn’t want to live there, but it was all the mother could afford. Instead of immediately going for the cheap thrills, the material focused on the family’s sad circumstance. The first sign that there was something wrong was reflected in Ceci’s sudden change of mind after she stared at the dark spot on the ceiling. The supernatural horror was effective because it challenged the mother-daughter bond, the only strand that seemed to keep Dahlia’s mentality in a stable point. What didn’t work for me were the tired dream sequences. There were simply too many of them. In addition, it was easy to determine that we were watching a dream because the scenes had a certain glow. That lack of surprise ultimately worked against the film. The dreams were just an excuse to go overboard with special and visual effects involving water leaking out of the walls. There was nothing scary about it. While water was an important component in solving the mystery that surrounded the missing family upstairs, incorporating water with creepy details, like hair coming out of the bathroom faucet, was more engaging than a dream sequence with gallons of water that threatened to drown the character. However, I admired that the picture eventually focused on the ugliness of Dahlia and Kyle’s (Dougray Scott) divorce. More importantly, I was glad that, despite the former couple’s arguments, there was enough hint that they still cared for each other. It was another layer of reality which made the horrific elements stand out. I feel the need to give credit for Connelly’s strong performance. She made me believe that every stress her character went through was a threat to her or her daughter’s physical well-being. I knew she loved her daughter but I feared the moment when she would finally lose her grip on reality. “Dark Water” was a smart and confident horror film because it stayed away from simplifying its mature template. If only others of its type would follow.