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.