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.
★★ / ★★★★
The main actress for an upcoming play for “Macbeth” was hit by a car. Betty (Cristina Marsillach), much to her surprise, was offered and almost immediately accepted the role despite her reluctance due to the popular curse that surrounded the production of the play. It wasn’t long until a sadistic killer emerged and started murdering members of the crew. Dario Argento, the writer and director, had a strange fixation for the bizarre. For instance, he would constantly move his camera to achieve an extreme close-up to revel every drop of emotion from his actors and animals, in this case, crows. I also noticed that he had a penchant for playing soothing music directly after a scene in which someone was killed in the most gruesome way. The way he used opera and heavy metal music reflected the contrasting elements between opera and horror. Without a doubt, the film was stylish but I’m afraid, when I look underneath its technical achievements, it was just another slasher flick. Finding out the identity of the killer was the main purpose. Was it the play’s director (Ian Charleson)? The detective (Urbano Barberini) in charge of solving the killing spree? Betty’s fiesty publicist (Daria Nicolodi)? Betty’s harmless romantic interest (William McNamara)? It was also mentioned that Betty had dreamed of the killer’s activities ever since she was a child. However, the identity of the killer, his or her motives, and the childhood nightmares did not come together in way that made sense, let alone in a meaningful and rewarding way. When the characters struggled for their lives, their common sense were out the window as they tried to weigh the pros and cons between, for instance, trying to get the telephone sitting in a dark corner and getting out of the apartment. The obvious answer would be to get out of the apartment and run like one was competing in a 100-meter dash in the Olympics. No one in their right mind, when pushed in a corner to be gutted, would waste time thinking about the “smarter” decision. It’s all about instincts. However, I did enjoy some moments of creativity. I thought it was creepy how the killer forced Betty to watch the murders by tying her up and taping needles under her eyes to “motivate” her not to blink (if she does, her eyelids would touch the needles) and the way the crew found out the killer’s identity. Still, I can’t quite recommend “Opera” because its lack of cohesion in terms of its story made it painfully average.
Scream 4 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ten years had passed since Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was stalked by Ghostface. She had written a bestseller based on her experiences and Woodsboro was the last stop of her book tour. Dewey Riley (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) had gotten married. And while Riley, now a sheriff, was happy with the marriage, Gale was less than ecstatic because she missed being out in the field as a sassy reporter and solving crimes. It must be Gale’s lucky day because it seemed like there was a new killer in town. Directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, “Scream 4” felt fresh. That is an important quality because sequels tend to run out of ideas over time. This film was an exception because it took advantage of what social networking sites and fame meant to the new generation. The eleven-year break felt necessary. The challenge our beloved trio had to overcome was to quickly learn how to adapt to the new rules. Failure to do was tantamount to being a big-breasted dumb blonde who decided to investigate a strange noise upstairs. We all know what would eventually happen to that character. There were new horde of sheep ripe for the picking. Jill (Emma Roberts) was Sidney’s cousin but they were never really close. She had two spunky but good-looking best friends (Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe), an ex-boyfriend (Nico Tortorella) who cheated on her, and two horror movie geeks (Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin) who had a crush on her galpals. There was also Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), openly flirtatious to Dewey while on the job and Sidney’s assistant (Alison Brie) who was actually elated when she found out that teenagers were being butchered. Needless to say, all of them were suspects. After a self-satirizing and highly enjoyable first scene (with a nice cameo from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell), I immediately got the feeling that no one, including Sidney, Gale, and Dewey, was safe. After all, they weren’t getting any younger. Perhaps the writer and director decided that it was time to pass on the torch. Furthermore, the teens were very similar to the characters in the original picture. What I loved was Craven’s awareness of that suspicion. He held onto our expectations, turned it upside down, and shook it with purpose. In doing so, the story actually felt unpredictable for a change. I paid more attention to where the story was heading next instead of the horror movie references or how knowledgeable the characters were about scary movies. I felt like there was more at stake this time around. Most importantly, “Scream 4” had something to say beyond the fences of horror pictures. Admittedly, the idea wasn’t fully developed but it’s far superior than torture porn where the violence depicted on screen were done simply for shock value. After a decade, the knife still felt sharp.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
★★★ / ★★★★
A family (led by Russ Grieve and Virginia Vincent, the patriarch and matriarch) got into an accident in the desert while on their way to California. It happened during the most unfortunate time because the area in which their vehicle broke down was a nuclear testing site and was occupied with deformed cannibals. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The Hills Have Eyes” was a horror film with a simple premise but it expertly embodied an animalistic tone and gathered momentum until the final shot. For a slasher flick, I found it strange because I was able to extract a lot of meaning from it. I enjoyed the way Craven framed regular well-meaning folks and forced them to eventually become like the monsters that terrorized them in order to survive. While it was very violent, especially the events that transpired in the trailer which consisted of murder and rape, it was far from gratuitous. I felt Craven holding back in terms of showing certain images that might glorify the terrible things that there happening. It was successful at allowing us to feel anger so that we could root for the remaining members of the family to not just seek revenge but also obtain something that meant a lot to them. The heart of the picture was arguably the siblings Brenda (Susan Lanier) and Bobby (Robert Houston). Brenda was unhappy about her father’s decision to take an unknown route while Bobby almost immediately sensed that there was something wrong about the environment they had no choice but to occupy. As the title’s anthropomorphic title suggested, the environment was like a creature that lived, capable of defending itself when threatened. However, things such as rattlesnakes and the possibility of dehydration and starvation were the last elements the characters had to worry about. The animalism and savagery became a trend. One angle was when the characters eventually got over their fear and sadness and decided to fight back even if it meant losing their lives. Another was using the family pet, a dog that was normally friendly unless threatened, as a figure readily able to attack and kill. Perhaps Craven hoped to suggest that the deformed cannibals living in an isolated world were really no different than regular people that successfully integrated in society. Lastly, I thought its abrupt ending was a smart decision. There was no explanation about how the characters would end up. It did not need to because the situation in which they were thrusted upon was beyond reasoning. Its main goal was to show whether or not the cannibals would get their comeuppance. “The Hills Have Eyes” did have its flaws, such as characters who whined too much for no good reason, but the quality of horror was consistent and it ended on a very high note.
Scream 3 (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
Post-college life was tough for Sidney (Neve Campbell) as she moved away from her friends and family to live in a house deep in the woods with her dog. Who could blame her for being traumatized after a masked killer, or killers, exhibited a fixation for murdering those she was closest to? “Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro,” a successful horror franchise, was in production in Los Angeles but the actors were attacked and killed by Ghost Face. It seemed like the killer’s plan was to murder the actors in which they died in the movie in order to attract Sidney’s attention and come out of hiding. The two obviously had issues to resolve. There was only one problem: Sidney, Gale (Courteney Cox), and Dewey (David Arquette) had no idea which script Ghostface had in hand because three versions were written. It meant there were three different order of kills and three different endings. Still directed by Wes Craven but the screenplay helmed by Ehren Kruger instead of Kevin Williamson, “Scream 3” had potential for excellence but the execution was too weak to generate enough tension to keep me interested. What I enjoyed was Sidney, Gale, and Dewey’s doubles (Emily Mortimer, Parker Posey and Matt Keeslar, respectively) because they were exaggerated versions of the real ones. What I didn’t enjoy as much was they weren’t given very much to do other than waiting to die in a gruesome fashion. And while the material played upon the actors’ self-centeredness despite being second- or third-rate celebrities, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. What made the first two movies so enjoyable was the fact that the comedy and horror were connected in a smart way. In here, the material relied on spoiled celebrities as a source of comedy and Ghostface’s hunt for Sidney as a source of horror. Since the two failed to connect, the script felt painfully stagnant. I wondered where the story was ultimately heading. Furthermore, the chase-and-stab formula became less exciting over time. It was awkward how the film would stop in the middle of the suspense and cut into a less exciting scene. In doing so, the scares lost considerable amount of momentum. And when it finally decided to return to the murder scene, it just looked silly and gruesome. It began to feel like a standard slasher flick. “Scream 3” still winked at itself, like the villain in a trilogy becoming seemingly superhuman, but it lacked the edginess combined with other necessary elements to bring the movie to the next level. It just didn’t feel fresh anymore. When the unmasking arrived, I just felt apathetic. It’s not a good sign when you’re looking at the clock every other scene to check the remaining minutes you have to sit through.
My Soul to Take (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Abel (Raúl Esparza) suffered from dissociative identity disorder (DID). On the night seven children were born, he learned that one of his personalities was the serial killer that prowled the streets of Riverton. This caused a break in his mind and it allowed the personality to take over and kill his family. Luckily, the police (Frank Grillo, Danai Gurira) arrived just in time before he had a chance to murder his three-year-old daughter. Before his death, he promised that he would return and claim the children who were born the night he died. Exactly sixteen years later, the seven teens, collectively known as the Riverton Seven (Max Thieriot, John Magaro, Denzel Whitaker, Zena Grey, Nick Lashaway, Paulina Olszynski, and Jeremy Chu), started to die in the hands of a murderer. There were three people worthy of suspicion: Bug (Thieriot) who seemed to be experiencing a psychotic break similar to what happened to Abel on the night he died, Abel’s daughter nicknamed Fang (Emily Meade) who ruled the high school, and the physical manifestation of Abel himself. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “My Soul to Take” was a post-modern horror hybrid of slasher flick and ghost story. In general, I enjoyed it because Craven had an interesting take on the genre. However, the more I pondered about the film, the more I felt disappointed because it failed to explore several important components in order for us to feel like we were actually in the increasingly paranoid Riverton. Craven managed to accomplish this difficult feat in “Scream” as the Woodsboro murders started to unfold. There was no reason why he couldn’t pull it off here. The film spent too much on time on the teenagers as some of them bullied Bug. Didn’t they have anything better to do like, oh, I don’t know, maybe do their homework or worry about the SATs? As for those who Bug considered to be his friends, they either had some sort of handicap, emotional or physical, or was a religious fanatic. It was amusing, which I’m sure was the point, but it took away considerable amount of time that could have been spent placing us from the detectives’ point of views, the same duo who encountered Abel all those years ago. One believed in science but the other offered another explanation. The latter claimed that in her culture, people with multiple personality disorders didn’t have multiple personalities. Rather, they had multiple souls. It was a fascinating perspective and we could surmise that maybe Abel’s “souls” were transfered to the newborns after his death. After all, in some documented form of DIDs, the personalities were at war. The film had many ideas and there were a handful of implications if one were to look closely. But the closer I looked, the more I was convinced that the story and script lacked focus. Instead of working synergistically, they seemed to derail each other. One glaring mistake was the confusion between DID and schizophrenia. One can blame it on nothing else but ignorance.
Black Christmas (1974)
★★ / ★★★★
A series of obscene phone calls terrorized a group of sorority girls during Christmas break. Little did they know that the person making the calls was hiding in their attic and he was just waiting for the right opportunity to kill them one by one. The three main girls were Jess (Olivia Hussey), reluctant to tell her boyfriend (Keir Dullea) that she wanted to abort their child, Barb (Margot Kidder), the one who did not seem to take anything seriously, and Phyl (Andrea Martin), the geek-chic with a funny haircut. I watched this film with incredulity. Chances are, if one had seen a lot of slasher flicks, one would not find anything particularly new from this picture. First of all, if I get multiple prank calls, I’l just unplug the phone. I’m not quite sure why such an action did not occur in the girls’ minds. The characters made one bad decision after another and I would not have put up with it if they weren’t so funny. I particularly liked the house mother (Marian Waldman) of the sorority who seemed to hide alcohol everywhere. She even used booze to wash her mouth after brushing her teeth! There were times when the comedic angle outshined the horror aspect which could not have been a problem for me if it wasn’t so hit-and-miss. At times I felt like it tried too hard to be amusing and it took me out of the experience. Like in most slasher flicks, the incompetency of the police force was highlighted. There was one obvious decision that was overlooked. When one of the girls from the sorority went missing, I was astounded when the police failed to search the sorority house from top to bottom. The girls had informed the police that the last time they saw the girl in question was when she headed upstairs, possibly to her room. A good detective knows where to start looking first. Since such an important piece was overlooked, I felt like the whole picture was merely a gimmick, to capitalize on the fact that the caller was actually in the house. Undoubtedly, “Black Christmas,” written by Roy Moore and directed by Bob Clark, influenced movies like Fred Walton’s “When the Stranger Calls” and Wes Craven’s “Scream” franchise. It did have its truly creepy moments such as the extended silent confrontation in the basement toward the end. I also liked the fact that certain questions remained unexplained so I could not help but think about it afterwards. But in the end, it felt too convenient. I’m just glad John Carpenter’s “Halloween” came out 4 years later to redefine slasher pictures or else “Black Christmas,” despite its good intentions, might have taken its spot.