★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Lamberts, led by schoolteacher Josh and musician Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), recently moved into a new house with their three kids (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor). In the beginning, there were small incidents around the house like books being put out of place but no one ever touching them. Then the changes started to become more noticeable like Renai hearing malevolent voices from a baby monitor when no one was supposed to be upstairs other than the sleeping infant. One night, one of the children, Dalton, went to explore in the creepy attic and fell from a ladder. He was hurt but there was no serious injury. The problem was, the next morning, Dalton wouldn’t wake up. Doctors claimed he was in a coma but they couldn’t explain why. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, “Insidious” was a creative, thrilling, old-fashioned haunted house film. When you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, you start to feel as though you’ve seen everything in the genre, that nothing can surprise you anymore. But there are times when movies like this would come and take you completely by surprise. From its title card in gargantuan red text designed to summon 70s and 80s cheesy horror nostalgia down to its chilling soundtrack, it immediately showcased its knowledge of horror conventions. I got the feeling that maybe it was going to poke fun of the standards. In some ways it did, but I was happier with the fact that it took the known conventions and made them better by altering them just a little bit. In a wasteland of bad remakes and cringe-inducing adaptations, a spice of modernity feels like a new breed. The first half worked as a horror picture because of the way it patiently built the suspense. The ghosts were scary but they didn’t go around following the family (depending on how one sees it). They were just hanging about, taking up the same space as the living. The director was careful in revealing too much. Sometimes the ghosts were on the background and the characters didn’t see them. But the audiences certainly did. Sometimes the apparitions were on the foreground and we had no choice but to scream at the images thrown at us. Because the director varied his camera angles and the types of scares, the film held an usually high level of tension. Each situation was a potential cause of alarm. In a dark room, we knew that something was going to happen but it was a matter of when. “Insidious” also worked as a horror-comedy. Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a geek tech duo who seemed to have been plucked from Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters,” provided required tension-relievers as they attempted to get bigger weapons to detect the ghosts. Meanwhile, the addition of Lin Shaye as the concerned psychic was an excellent counter-balance to the more comedic moments. Her character reminded us that “Insidious” was a horror movie first and foremost by allowing us to see what she saw in a dark room via Spec’s drawings. For an old-fashioned horror flick, “Insidious” felt progressive, even fresh. Sitting in a packed theater, I felt like the film continually threw snakes of increasing size onto my lap. I screamed louder each time.
★★★★ / ★★★★
A spacecraft containing a crew of seven (Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto) was supposed to be on its way to Earth. After waking up from hypersleep, the crew discovered that they were nowhere near Earth because their ship, known as Nostromo, received a transmission. One of the rules of their mission was if the ship received some sort of signal, it was requisite that they investigate the source which most likely could be extraterrestrial. This film held my attention like a vice grip right from the opening credits. There was something eerie and cold in the way the camera scanned the darkness of outer space. It made me feel small and almost insignificant. Even though I knew that Ripley, Weaver’s character, was the hero of the story, I liked that I didn’t immediately notice her. Her character only began to grab my attention when one of the three crew members was infected with an alien larvae and she refused to let them inside due to a risk of infection. Naturally, their leader ignored her sound reasoning and it was only a matter of time until the crew met their gruesome demise. Ridley Scott’s direction took the film to the next level. Stumbling upon an alien planet could have been done in a cliché manner such as showing too much disgusting slime and, worse, showing too many alien creatures in the beginning of the film, taking away some of the effective scares found later in the picture because we would know exactly what the alien looked like. Instead, Scott used the alien planet’s environment to mask certain corners but at the same time highlight the areas closer to a light source. Since it didn’t show too much, it took advantage of my imagination, making what I didn’t see much scarier than what I did see. (But what I was still horrified when I saw the alien in larvae form.) Granted, most of the crew members made some bad decisions. But I think the unwise decisions they made were not equal to brainless teenagers in a slasher film. It was different because the crew faced the unknown and the usual rules did not apply. For instance, there was no way they could have known that the alien’s blood was so acidic to the point where it was able to eat through metal. A major theme I focused on was human instinct being pitted against animal instinct. Both were different because human instinct, represented by Ripley, is capable of being controlled, to an extent, given that the person actively takes a moment to evaluate a situation. On the other hand, animal instinct, represented by the alien, cannot. However, both are similar in that instinct has one goal: self-preservation. “Alien” is an intelligent science-fiction film that expertly mixes wonder and horror. Undertones which comment on feminism and technology can be found but it doesn’t get in the way of first-class entertainment.
★★★ / ★★★★
I love spiders. I used to capture and raise them when I was a kid. When I was bitten, it didn’t stop me from wanting to capture more, make them battle, and observe the way they ate. In “Arachnophobia,” an undiscovered killer spider from Venezuela hitched a ride in a coffin to terrorize a small town in the United States. The killer spider mated with a typical house spider and lived in the barn next to the house that a doctor (Jeff Daniels) and his family recently moved into. It didn’t help that the doctor had a great fear for spiders. Despite my adoration (and respect) for spiders, the film gave me the creeps. The director, Frank Marshall, craftily balanced horror and comedy. As the picture went on, it became scarier but at the same time the laughs were that much more pronounced. The comedy scenes worked because it relieved a lot of tension such as when a spider would sneak up on someone taking a shower. John Goodman’s performance was a catalyst because his mere presence elevated the funny bits. The picture expertly and confidently took advantage of vulnerable situations such as when a character would reach into a cereal box and expect to get food or when they would sit in a toilet. I didn’t find those scenes cheesy because the film established how dangerous the spiders were within the first few minutes. But at the same time, we were aware that these spiders did not take pleasure in killing; their actions were simply means of survival and colonization. What impressed me most was the final duel between man and spider. The filmmakers did a fantastic job weaving three elements that scared people most: darkness, enclosed spaces, and bugs. It was terrifying to watch but I couldn’t look away because I wanted to see how the protagonist could wiggle himself out of another dangerous position. The scene was relentless. I caught myself holding my breath when the doctor did not know where the spider was and voicing out advice about what he should have done next to lure or trick the spider. The jump-out-of-your-seats moments were efficient. Lastly, but most importantly, the film had an after effect. After I finished the movie, I headed to the bathroom and from the corner of my eye, I saw a black figure on the floor. For a split-second, I thought it was a spider and I became very alarmed. For a person who normally adores spiders and then suddenly be scared of them, that’s when I know the film had done something right.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) agreed to have his last exorcism to be documented on camera. In the first few minutes, he admitted to us that exorcism was only real in the minds of religious Christians plagued by something they cannot explain. In other words, the placebo effect guided the effectiveness of an exorcism. Despite Reverend Marcus being a sham, strangely enough, I understood why he made a career out of it because he had an obligation to provide for his family, especially his son who had difficulty hearing. Understandably, people feel the need to compare the movie to Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’ “The Blair Witch Project” and Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” because of its faux-documentary style. But I say it was more like John Erick Dowdle’s chilling remake “Quarantine.” However, I think “The Last Exorcism” had its own identity and therefore its own strengths and weaknesses. The film was its best when it described the history of the practice, the circumstances in which one should get an exorcism, and the religious heretics so willing to go to the extreme to the point where they became blind to more conventional explanations such as the so-called possessed person having an undiagnosed disease or mental disability. I was also happy with the fact that it acknowledged the cruel act still happening today in various forms depending on the culture. The picture thrived on the build-up of strange information especially when we finally met a farmer (Louis Herthum) with a creepy son (Caleb Landry Jones) and “possessed” daughter (Ashley Bell). The rising action of the girl sleepwalking, killing animals, being violent and making strange noises was unsettling and sometimes downright horrifying. However, the movie’s weakness was its own conceit. The faux-documentary style did not always work because there were times when the daughter, in an altered state, would pick up the camera and we saw what she saw and did. I loved that the film was purposely comedic, especially in the first half when the techniques of the scam were revealed, but the comedy and horror did not always complement each other in one scene. Instead of feeling scared, I felt detached and I almost felt the need to laugh because there was an underlying message that the devil despised the constructed false (if not almost illusory) reality like in movies mentioned earlier and reality shows on television. I also found some inconsistencies such as the addition of music during the scarier scenes (it was supposed to be a found footage!) and camera angles that only one cameraman can normally accomplish. Although I give kudos to Daniel Stamm, the director, for infusing a sense of (sort of campy) fun and intelligence in his project, I wanted more scenes where I find myself cowering in my shoes. I suppose that’s the reason why a lot of people did not like the movie: they wanted to feel more scared. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed “The Last Exorcism” because it was concise, confident with where it wanted to go and what it wanted to achieve, and its constant build-up was elegant. It made me think of respectable horror pictures from the late 60’s and ’70s.
The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in the 1980’s, “The House of the Devil” was a horror film about a second year college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who took up a babysitting job from a husband and wife (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) so she could pay the rent for her new apartment. Desperate for the money, she still took the job despite many weird signs that perhaps the people she was babysitting for had something up their sleeves. I was surprised by how good this movie was. Written and directed by Ti West, the film had a sense of authenticity; it looked and felt like it was made in the 1980s because of the music, the fashion and hairstyles and even minute details like the lighting, the lead character’s plucky and funny friend (Greta Gerwig), and the font used during the opening and closing credits. During the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I was very curious how West managed to get such various elements together to make such a convincing small horror film. I loved that this picture had such a great sense of timing and well as rising action. This is not the kind of movie for teenagers of today because it doesn’t have jump-out-of-your-seats moments like in more common slasher flicks. This is a patient movie that thrives on the details. Strangely enough, like Sam, I found myself becoming more and more paranoid the longer she stayed in the house, especially when she started hearing odd noises in the kitchen sink. Although built on the classic false alarms and increasing sense of dread without actually showing anything, I was also impressed with the fact that it could turn grizzly if it wanted to. Those moments pulled the rug from under my feet and I couldn’t help but voice out my thoughts. I really rooted for the character because she was a very nice girl who just really needed the money so she wouldn’t always rely on her parents. She wouldn’t even take a little harmless revenge earlier in the film when someone stood her up. The last twenty minutes of this film was pure terror. All the tension it built up finally burst and I found myself having no idea where it was leading up to. “The House of the Devil” is an effective exercise in giving its audiences small bits information and chilling us to the bone. I think people who have no idea what to expect will love this film the most because of its ability to surprise. With a little bit of patience, one will come to realize that this small picture is really one of the better horror flicks of 2009. I just hope that more people will seek this out on DVD. It’s not very often that horror movies assume that their audiences are smart. I’ve seen a plethora of horror movies from the 1980s and “The House of the Devil” was a really good homage.
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of casual movie-goers were disappointed with this movie because they expected more jolt-inducing scenes that remained in their spine for some time. Meanwhile, critics loved its realism and labyrinthine-like mystery. I wasn’t disappointed with this film nor did I love it as much as the professional film critics when I saw it for the first time. I simply liked it for the following reasons: the two-and-a-half hour span of this movie symbolized the grueling, long-term challenges the real-life detectives went through and Jake Gyllenhaal’s mature performance (as Robert Graysmith who wrote a book about his experiences) about a man’s journey down the rabbit hole. I was fascinated by his obsessive personality; as he got closer to the identity of the killer, the more he neglected himself and his family. But after watching it for the second time, I almost loved it because of the amount of detail that David Fincher, the director, put into the film. There was a certain crispness with how everything was shot yet still remained very atmospheric and implemented the classic Fincher awkward camera angles. I loved how first part of the movie focused on Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. as a cartoonist and writer (named Paul Avery), respectively, for the San Francisco Chronicle. They had great chemistry because they were so different from one another yet they had a common goal. That is, to catch the very elusive and mysterious Zodiac killer that plagued the San Francisco Bay Area. The second act focused on Mark Ruffalo as Inspector David Toschi as he interviewed possible suspects. I believe this was Ruffalo’s most complete performance to date because I got to see him change from an enthusiastic man to a man who became so defeated from getting close to the killer but not quite catching him. And the third act was how Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo worked together to get even closer to solving the mystery. I was impressed with the level of suspense this film had despite not having huge explosions and extended chase scenes. Although the violence was brutal, I found that the scenes that left something for the imagination were more haunting, such as the scene when a woman and her baby got into the car of the notorious murderer. Its craft was in the dialogue as we wade through important and unimportant pieces of the puzzle, the unpredictable twists and grueling passage of time as the characters became more and more worn out trying to chase Zodiac. Since I’m from the Bay Area, I think this picture is special because the possibility that Zodiac still roaming around and passing as one of us just chills me to the bone.