The People Under the Stairs (1991)
★★ / ★★★★
Dexter (Brandon Quintin Adams), nicknamed Fool, just turned thirteen. His family was on the verge of getting kicked out of their home and their mother requiring surgery didn’t help out their financial matters. But Leroy (Ving Rhames), the man staying with the family, had an idea: They would break into a mortician’s house because word went around that there was valuable gold inside. Unbeknownst to them, the suspicious couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) who owned the house kept people in the cellar against their will. The house was designed like a fortress equipped with secret compartments and booby traps. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The People Under the Stairs” was inspired by stories of parents who kept their children hidden in their basements for years. Although an obvious exaggeration from what could be the truth, in some ways, the film worked because it spent the majority of its time in allowing Dexter to navigate himself through the tricky walls and threatening empty hallways. Not only did he had to deal with a menacing dog with a craving for human flesh but there seemed to be no way out. The windows were locked from the outside, screams of help led to no avail because the house was sound-proof, and the front door was rigged with electricity. However, what I found to be less effective was the picture’s inability to separate unintentional humor and satire. For instance, the man of the house liked to wear a leather costume, from head to toe, when hunting down people who broke into his home. He was supposed to be a scary figure, with spikes and all, but it just looked ridiculous on him. Watching him parade around in that outfit made me feel like I was stuck in a bad haunted house walkthrough. Obvious comedic scenes consisted of Dexter using bricks to disarm his enemies or a delivering a punch to the groin. It didn’t quite fit into the idea of two sick minds kidnapping children (A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen) and sending them to the basement when the couple’s expectations weren’t met. And why were all of their faces deformed? The movie neglected to explain. Maybe it was supposed to scare us but it just turned out to be bad make-up. “The People Under the Stairs” started off relatively strong because it made us curious about what was happening in the creepy house, but it grew weaker over time because it got bogged down into trying to amuse us instead of answering the questions that caught our interests in the first place. It certainly had potential because it had classic fairy tale elements, like the evil parents and the treasure in the house, but the film lacked enough focus for the fairy tale and horror to coincide and deliver something unique.
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.
Scream 2 (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two years had passed since the Woodsboro murders. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was now in college majoring in drama, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) became a best-selling author, and a movie known as “Stab,” inspired by the aforementioned killing spree, had just been released. But when a couple (Jada Pinkett Smith, Omar Epps) was murdered during one of its screenings, Dewey (David Arquette) quickly, despite the limp, ran to Sidney’s protection and movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) was present to explain the rules of horror sequels. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, “Scream 2” was able to defy the odds by pointing its fingers on bad scary movie follow-ups without being one itself. The film worked on multiple levels because it had more than one joke that worked. For instance, it acknowledged the idea that horror pictures seemed to be lacking in African-American characters and other minorities. Aside from the doomed couple in the memorable first scene, we knew the joke made a lasting impression when a minority was randomly placed next to one of the main characters and we couldn’t help but chuckle. However, it didn’t feel forced because the story took place in college. While the murder scenes were less creative–but more gory and elaborate as Randy stated–than its predecessor, they retained a level of cheekiness, especially when Sarah Michelle Gellar was given the chance to shine as the “sober sorority sister,” so it was fun to watch. We knew that her decision to go upstairs, as we learned in the first film, was a very bad idea but she did anyway. Downstairs, it seemed like she knew how to defend herself so maybe, despite being blonde and pretty, she would be lucky enough to escape. But it wasn’t just about murders on campus. Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), the man Sidney wrongly accused of killing her mother, had just been released from prison. The fact that he had motive to take bloody revenge and his thirst for fame warranted serious suspicion. It was a reminder that we couldn’t always trust Sidney’s judgment which was a small twist from typical slasher flicks where we take comfort in the virgin making all the right decisions to make it to the very end. The film spent more time on the characters and worked on the undeveloped strands from the first installment. What remained the same was everyone was a suspect. From Sidney’s pre-med boyfriend (Jerry O’Connell) and sassy friend (Elise Neal), Randy’s movie-loving classmates (Timothy Olyphant), to the reporter (Laurie Metcalf) desperate for the latest scoop. “Scream 2” was a vat of self-awareness; I relished every witty line and irony within an irony. Most impressive was sometimes the joke and horror came hand-in-hand.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was left home alone because her father had to travel for business. That probably wasn’t a good idea because one of her friends, Casey (Drew Barrymore), had just been butchered by Ghost Face, a masked figure who had a penchant for calling women and asking about their favorite scary movie. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, “Scream” solified its place in the horror genre because it successfully parodied slasher flicks that plagued the 70’s and 80’s without becoming another forgettable bloodbath. Or worse, turning into something it wanted to poke fun of. Half the fun of this film was that the characters had seen a bunch of scary movies. References from Paul Lynch’s “Prom Night” to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” most of the characters knew that running into a dark room and asking, “Who’s there?” meant a gruesome death. And deservingly so. Horror movies, in essence, is survival of the fittest. The colorful characters were aware of the rules (yet ironically breaking them) and by acknowledging such rules, the audiences had a feeling that anything could happen. Everybody was a suspect. There was Casey’s father who had gone missing, an ambitious reporter named Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) who was willing to do whatever necessary to deliver the breaking news first, and Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) who was never taken seriously as a cop because of his boyish good looks. Sidney’s friends were suspects, too. Sidney’s boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich) was very frustrated because she wouldn’t give up her virginity, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and his love for horror pictures was a red flag, Sidney’s sassy friend (Rose McGowan) was perhaps too supportive of her, and Stuart (Matthew Lillard) was just too strange and energetic–perhaps he needed an extracurricular activity which involved running around and cutting people up. Or maybe Sidney was just losing her mind because she had not yet moved on from her mother’s murder which happened to be exactly a year ago. What made the film even better was the finer details. Some of the characters’ names were references to other famous horror movie characters (like Billy’s last name being Loomis, a nod to Dr. Sam Loomis in John Carpenter’s “Halloween”) while others were chuckle-inducing images (like the school janitor’s name being Fred and wearing red and green striped shirt, a wink at Freddy Krueger in Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”). It was clear that the director loved the movies he cited. By highlighting the unspoken rules and exposing their formulaic silliness, Craven reminded us why we enjoyed being scared and then laughing at ourselves (after a couple of days) for being so scared once we got home to the point where we rushed in turning on all of the lights so we could feel safer. “This is not a movie,” Sidney claimed. I wouldn’t be too sure.
Donkey Punch (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
Donkey Punch is the term used when a man and a woman are engaged in anal sex and the man punches a woman on the back of the head. Supposedly, the anus tightens and it gives the man more pleasure. Now that we have the definition out of the picture, I wished I would have enjoyed the film a lot more because its nightmare-at-sea backdrop reminded me Phillip Noyce’ thrilling “Dead Calm.” In “Donkey Punch,” three girls (Sian Breckin, Nichola Burley, Jaime Winstone) met four guys (Tom Bluey, Julian Morris, Jay Taylor, Robert Boulter) in a bar–who were obviously looking for sex–and the girls almost immediately agreed to go aboard a yacht. After one of the guys donkey punched one of the girls, he accidentally broke her neck. The rest of them had to decide what to do with the dead body. All of the characters lacked common sense and moral compass. Honestly, it didn’t surprise me because they were rich and (arguably) good-looking and that’s a common conceit when it comes to thrillers like this. But what I didn’t expect was its lack of ambition to turn the genre around and deliver twists that worked. After the borderline pornographic sex scene that went terribly wrong, it was a standard turning-on-each-other picture and it was a matter of guessing who would make it until the very end. I became so bored that I wished the shark from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” would have appeared to eat them all up. (The film did have nice shots underwater where the shark could’ve appeared from an angle.) I wanted to see blood and carnage with a little bit of imagination and intelligence on the side. I was sick and tired of their whining and “Oh, my gods!” When the two girls were locked in a room, they spent their time crying and arguing instead of formulating a plan to outsmart those stupid and indecisive men. And when the girls were out and about in the yacht, they didn’t bother to look for weapons. The kitchen was not that far. They didn’t even need knives or guns. It would have been so much more fun if the characters were smart enough to use chemicals or fires or electricity. In a nutshell, the film being set at sea was utterly useless. The script got stuck in delivering creativity that the story might as well have been set in Woodsboro like in Wes Craven’s “Scream.” Written and directed by Oliver Blackburn, “Donkey Punch” is a one-joke, straight-faced, non-thrilling thriller that glorified sex and drugs. As far as survival story goes, the film lacked tension and therefore it was no fun. I wished I watched an episode of “Gossip Girl” instead.