★★★★ / ★★★★
Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) was one week away from retirement when he was thrusted into a case that involved an obese man who seemed as though he ate himself to death. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an ambitious man of the law who was supposed to replace Somerset. In the meantime, the two had to work together in order to catch a killer who was intent on personifying the Seven Deadly Sins. That is, turning each sin against the sinner in grotesque and often very violent ways. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher, “Se7en” was about the two detectives as well as the crimes the killer inflicted on his victims. The contrast between the two detectives went beyond their age and the way they perceived their role in law enforcement. Somerset was the patient intellectual who bothered to read between the lines in search of deeper meaning, while Mills was the mercurial brute arm who had less proclivity toward delayed gratification. As the duo got deeper into the macabre case, we came to observe their strengths and weaknesses as well as learn about their histories. Despite their differences in personality and the way they approached problems, they made a good team. And like all good teams, sometimes they made game-changing mistakes and created repercussions that they just couldn’t walk away from. By allowing us to observe Mills and Somerset as they explored the increasingly cryptic assignment, the film argued that in order for a person to understand evil, one has to be willing to, if necessary, be an agent of the thing he is fighting against in hopes of ultimately overcoming it. Yet nothing was certain and the picture offered no easy answers about motivations, revenge, or redemption. I admired the film’s cold detachment in terms of the details of the crime. I’ve always been a curious person but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed when Fincher allowed the camera to be as close to the subject as possible. For instance, when the obese man was in the morgue coming off a post-mortem examination, we could clearly see the various discolorations on the man’s skin, every fold of fat and fibrous vein, as well as the points of incision. When such details were so precise that my nervous system couldn’t help but react so strongly, that’s how I know I’m watching a master at work. The picture could easily have been a gimmick about the cardinal sins. But notice that with each passing victim, the camera spent less time on their mutilated bodies. Increasing attention was directed to the two detectives’ varying reactions. Take Mills as an example. He was easy to crack jokes about the corpses. He didn’t do it to be mean or disrespectful. It was his own way of coping with what he just saw so that at the end of the day he would be able to go home and sleep next to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). “Se7en” had respect for its complex story and, more importantly, it respected us as an audience. Its willingness to stare into the ugly depths of the psyche as well as the bleak streets and underground alleys of sin made it a harrowing and rewarding experience.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of college students were driving up to the mountain to have some fun when they encountered two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), in a gas station. Having seen a lot of scary movies and heard of stories about grizzly murders in the woods, the college kids couldn’t help but translate Tucker and Dale’s every action as a possible chance to kidnap or kill them. In truth, the duo were only there because Tucker had recently bought a vacation home, a cabin, and they could use a bit of relaxation before heading back to work. “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, directed by the former, had a chance to really sink its teeth in horror movie clichés about hillbillies being nothing but churlish, incestuous, often cannibalistic, folks but it ultimately felt superficial because the one-liners and the physical stunts lacked range. The set-up was this: The young men and women were so stupid, they ended up killing themselves by accident. Cut to Tucker and Dale’s shocked and horrified reactions. The material was very funny during its initial gags, but the filmmakers failed to detach from the formula, ironically constructing its own clichés by making fun of clichés. The title promised the two friends fighting evil. After they rescued Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, Allison’s friends thought that she was kidnapped because they observed from afar. This triggered Chad (Jesse Moss), innately irascible and shamelessly sporting an ugly popped collar, into a state of rage to the point where he ended up being as ruthless as the murderers his group of friends feared. The movie wasn’t specific in the “evil” that Tucker and Dale had to fight. Was it the negative stereotypes regarding hillbillies that became embedded in the genre’s bones over the history of cinema? Was it the apocryphal placidity in hateful individuals, who lived in the suburbs or cities all their lives, and their secret yearnings of violence just waiting to be unleashed? Furthermore, it failed to acknowledge that stereotyping can be a good thing; it helps our mind to process information faster than it normally would. For instance, they allow us to respond quickly to potential dangers. Relying on stereotypes and neglecting to put more thought into them, hence failing to sympathize with others who are different, is the real tragedy. If the screenplay had focused more on that message, tragedies even outside of horror movie conventions could have been effortlessly highlighted. The story really shouldn’t have been about the body count. Allison was in the process of getting her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, hoping to establish a career as a counselor. I expected her to be more self-aware. The subplot involving Dale and Allison falling for each other was a nuisance, almost worthy of a dozen eye-rollings. Wouldn’t it have been too much to ask if they didn’t pine for each other so profusely? With every bloody confrontation between the hillbillies and the college students, it was interrupted by Dale having to explain to Allison what had transpired. Given that we just saw what happened, the little summaries felt repetitive and I started to wonder if the filmmakers were simply biding their time to push the material to a typical ninety-minute mark because the script became indigent of fresh ideas that cut deeper than boning knives.
★★★ / ★★★★
Four people (R. Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover, Keith Chambers) decided to rob a bank and were relatively successful except that one of them had been shot. They divided into two groups. A mother (Samantha Dark) and daughter (Courtney Bertolone), on their way home from a softball game, were taken hostage by one of the robbers because he was caught stealing their van. The man took his hostages to a remote house and waited for his three accomplices. Meanwhile, there was a serial killer next door patiently waiting for his next victim. Written and directed by Stevan Mena, “Malevolence” was quite effective in delivering violence and scares. There was nothing particularly original about it but it didn’t need to because I was consistently fascinated with what was happening on screen. It was obviously influenced by John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” When characters were on the foreground, the masked killer would sneakily appear on the background and just… observe. The creepiness was elevated by the film’s score. I liked the way the picture took place at night and, since the abandoned houses were in the middle of nowhere, electricity was rarely used. Darkness hid certain corners, perfectly designed for something to jump out from them and I always expected that something would. There were times when I was actually caught off guard. When fluorescent lights were used, they flickered. Surprisingly, I found it scarier when lights were on because every flicker could potentially reveal something that wasn’t there just a second before. As much as it was violent, I loved that the environment was very detailed: House A had no decoration other than thick dust that invaded the air when there was sudden movement, while House B had all sorts of strange things like blood in a tub, a month’s worth of unwashed dishes, and possible signs of satanic ritual. The scenes outdoors were quite impressive, too. When the daughter attempted to escape from one of the bank robbers, she had to run and scream across a field. There was something quite unsettling with the way it was shot. However, I wish we knew more about the killer prior and during his killing sprees. What made this film’s inspirations so effective was the fact that we knew something disturbing about Michael Myers and Leatherface, something scary beyond the stabbings and chopped up bodies. Furthermore, the acting could have been stronger. Some scenes needed to be reshot, especially toward the beginning, because the lines uttered did not complement the actors’ facial expressions. It was somewhat amusing to watch. However, once it got to the meat of the conflict, when acting became less important, the material held my attention like a vise-grip. Most importantly, the writer-director did not allow his project’s low budget to get in the way of his vision. Instead of succumbing to limitation, he saw inspiration.
The Cottage (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
David (Andy Serkis) and Peter (Reece Shearsmith) kidnapped Tracey (Jennifer Ellison), a daughter of a successful businessman, and took her in a house out in the country. If Andrew (Steven O’Donnell), Tracey’s brother, delivered the money on time, it was promised that Tracey would be released without question. But when the four realized that the disfigured farmer who lived closest to the house they occupied had a penchant for killing and mutilating his victims’ bodies, the four had no choice but to team up if they wanted to keep their lives. “The Cottage,” written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, was a creative exercise in horror and comedy. David and Peter were probably two of the most incompetent kidnappers I’ve had the pleasure to watch on screen. There was a formula that led up to the funny moments. When David told Peter what not to do, Peter promised he would obey. But since Peter was inexperienced in committing crimes, somehow he managed to do exactly the opposite of what he wasn’t supposed to do. It got to the point where Tracey, a big-breasted blonde who could easily take down her captors, found out David’s name because Peter was so nervous around her. We even found out that Peter’s biggest fear was moths. But the film gradually changed in tone as it went on. The middle portion had a high creepiness factor, notably when Peter and Tracey investigated a seemingly abandoned house. There was a putrid smell coming from the closet, hands were nicely stacked in the freezer, and there were metallic noises underneath the trap door. I loved the fact that horror came in not only when the murderer appeared but when the characters, often as a pair, discovered something while occupying different rooms. One character faced a false alarm, while the other faced true horror. When a new pair entered the creepy house, the room which gave us a false alarm earlier was completely changed. There was a sense of continuation and it was easy to tell that the writer-director considered it important for his material to have cohesion, intelligence, and a spice of cheekiness. What I thought the film could have used less was the two Asian hit-men (Logan Wong, Jonathan Chan-Pensley). The way in which their accents were used for the sake of humor was borderline offensive to me. I was aware that offense was not Williams’ intention but it sometimes came across as exploitative. The duo could have easily have been played with Asians without “funny accents” and the final product would have been the same. “The Cottage” is a solid example of why I love independent movies. It wasn’t afraid to experiment with its tone. I was amused with the way it effortlessly switched from one type of humor to another while still dealing with the macabre. Since it was so confident with what it was doing, its out of left field ending actually carved a smile on my face.
My Little Eye (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Five strangers were picked to live in a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. If Matt (Sean Cw Johnson), Rex (Kris Lemche), Danny (Stephen O’Reilly), Emma (Laura Regan), and Charlie (Jennifer Sky) could stay together six months, they would receive a million dollars. It seemed like an easy task but living together became challenging when one of them ended up dead. If they stepped outside the premises or contacted the police, the game would be over. Directed by Marc Evans, “My Little Eye” was obviously inspired by reality shows like MTV’s “The Real World.” However, the film was more about the characters feeling isolated from society and the paranoia that resulted from cameras that surrounded the place instead of drinking, bar hopping, and engaging in all sorts of casual sex. The build-up from seemingly small pranks to a possible murder was executed nicely. Was there a killer among the five or was everything controlled by the company that chose them? The former was possible because there was no crew. Cameras were simply installed from a certain height and they moved according to someone’s motion. But the latter was also quite possible. Someone could just as easily sneak in the house as the five slept. They wouldn’t notice because the old mansion made all sorts of noises. Unfortunately, once the mystery was revealed, the picture lost the majority of its momentum. It became a routine running around the mansion until someone tripped or slipped. It wasn’t scary. Since it was so dark and the images from the cameras were blurry, I couldn’t help but adopt a passive stance. The editing was manic. Instead of lingering at one creepy shot, it would jump from one camera angle to another in attempt to show all the creepy shots. It’s better to have one very effective shot that goes for the jugular instead of having many less effective shots with questionable purpose. It wasn’t a good sign when I didn’t care who lived or died. We heard about Emma’s childhood story involving a friend who killed his family using a hammer but it didn’t reveal much about who she was. And as much as I appreciated the fact that the five strangers talked like regular people off the streets, I couldn’t help but snicker when a character would blurt out, “I’m scared!” or “I’m in it for the money!” Another unintentionally funny scene was when the remaining four decided to put the dead body outside, in the snow, right after one of them stated that they should leave the body where it was because it was a scene of the crime. For a bunch of mid- to late-twentysomethings, they lacked common sense. But then again, so are those who choose to appear on reality shows for the sake of fame that never lasts.
Red Hill (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) and his pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom) decided to move in a place where she could get some peace and quiet in order to keep her blood pressure under control. They moved to Red Hill, a small town whose inhabitants were very protective of their land. Incidentally, Shane’s first day as a police offer became his worst nightmare when a known murderer named Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) escaped from prison. It turned out Shane making a good impression on Old Bill (Steve Bisley), his superior, should be the least of his worries. Jimmy, with half of his face burnt which made him look like a serial killer in an ’80s slasher flick, made it his goal to assassinate Red Hill’s police officers one by one. Written and directed by Patrick Hughes, I found “Red Hill” to be entirely predictable. As a moviegoer with a critical eye for character development and understanding their motivations, I quickly figured out the picture’s major twist fifteen minutes into the killing spree. I surmised that the lawmen did Jimmy wrong in the past when the escaped inmate showed a soft spot for Shane. I didn’t know exactly what had transpired to make Jimmy hell-bent on taking bloody revenge but when the cards were laid out for us, it felt painfully ordinary. When Jimmy hunted the cops like animals, I thought it was strange that it lacked tension. The murder scenes followed an eye-roll worthy formula: the cop was caught off-guard by Jimmy, the cop begged for his life (sometimes a ruse to get to a gun), and Jimmy killed him anyway. My lack of feelings for the characters about to be slaughtered was proof that the filmmakers weren’t successful in creating an engaging story and characters with depth and complexity. Other than Old Bill and Shane, I could not recall any of the other police officers’ names. The film also suffered from a tired exposition. A panther, not ordinarily found in the Australian outback, killing horses was a heavy-handed metaphor for an outsider that threatened to tip the balance of power and cause change. In this instance, Shane was the outsider who entered a protected sphere governed by old men who desperately protected a secret. There were some amusing bits about Shane always losing his gun. However, it was difficult to root for him when he was always hiding, getting caught, or walking for miles. He would have been better suited as an awkward but funny supporting character who was killed somewhere in the middle. But as a main character, I wasn’t convinced he was strong enough to survive the raging madness and flying bullets. Not even with his luck.
Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back (2008)
★ / ★★★★
Tom (Richard Tillman), on leave for ten days from the military, decided to look for his brother in California after Jesse (Joey Mendicino) and Nicole (Julie Mond) had been missing for a year. Marilyn (Jessie Ward) and Jared (Graham Norris), Tom’s girlfriend and high school friend, decided to lend a hand. While loading their cars with gas, Jared noticed something that used to belong to Nicole. The gas station attendant (Steve Railsback) confirmed seeing the two lovers and suggested that the three stopped looking. Written by John Shiban and directed by Shawn Papazian, “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” had a promising first thirty minutes. The first murder attempt which involved Jared being tragically stuck in a porta-potty was darkly comedic, horrific, and downright disgusting. I was also excited of the fact that we actually saw more of the killer and how he abducted a person while the partner used the restroom. I even saw a pinch of ambition as Nicole discovered that the restroom seemed to defy time and space. I was very curious in how it would resolve itself. However, the film began to lose its promise when it relied on the ghosts to generate tension. The question stopped being about which of the characters would die next and how they would meet their demise. I became more concerned of whether the character on screen was indeed alive or simply a spirit. As a result, the tension of the serial killer and the manner in which he hunted his victims was no longer there. Moreover, Mond, who did not play Nicole in the first film, was especially weak. All of her scenes needed to be reshot. When she spoke, I could sense her about to burst into laughter. I was surprised her scenes made the final cut. I wondered why she was even cast because she looked nothing like her predecessor. The filmmakers should have been more critical because Nicole was an important character in the story arc given that she provided details that would lead to the picture’s climax. What I was most interested in was Tom’s desperation and rage. His sense of loss was explored only sporadically and in the most obvious ways. I didn’t get the sense that the two were really brothers. The emotions between them were mentioned using words but not actually shown in a meaningful or moving way. “Rest Stop: Don’t Look Back” felt cheap not because of its images or even the way it was shot but because it strayed too far from its original concept. Instead of resolving strands like the creepy family in the Winnebago and their twisted relationship with the killer, the film pulled a maddening last-minute twist. To me, it was evidence that the writer felt like he could have done more with the script. If he was happy with what he had, he wouldn’t have felt the need to add such an unnecessary thing.