Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Rite – Review

The Rite – Review

Feb 8, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Mikael Hafstrom, 2011
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Horror has always been the most schizophrenic of genres—at any given time both parochial and subversive.  This division is most obvious in the way horror films deal with religion, especially Christianity.  We are all well aware of the puritanical leanings of the average slasher film, with conservative values being reenforced and thinking and behavior outside the norms being punished, but equally prevalent are films that mock religious belief and present the representatives of organized religion as anything from buffoons to monsters.  Going into The Rite, I wasn’t sure which side of the hammer I was going to get pounded with, but I knew an assault was coming.  The Rite is about exorcism, and there are few film topics that highlight the religious vs. sacrilegious dichotomy of the horror genre better than exorcism, a practice that is divisive even within religious communities much less when mixed with the decidedly secular world of Hollywood.

The Rite is the story of a young, Catholic priest in training who has entered the seminary not because he has felt a particular calling but, instead, because it was what his father and late mother expected of him (though his father might have preferred he stay in the family’s mortuary business.  At the end of his years in seminary, Michael decides that he must decline the taking of vows.  The church isn’t inclined to let him go so easily.  Using the threat of commuting his scholarship to student loans (the most horrific concept in the film), his supervisor gets Michael to travel to Vatican City to be trained as an exorcist.  As a side note: nothing in Colin O’ Donoghue’s wooden performance suggests the kind of charisma or promise that everyone in the film senses in him which may be why every other character in the film feels the need to vocalize something along the lines of “I sense great potential in you.”

Up until the setting switches to Rome, it is hard to tell where Michael or the film stands.  He is having a crisis of faith, but it isn’t until we see him participating in the exorcism classes that we learn that he may be a full-blown skeptic.  He challenges the priest who teaches the seminar constantly, using rhetorical questions to suggest that there is no proof that demons are involved in the episodes that are being discussed, or that demons or even sin actually exist.  After a few such exchanges, he is sent to Father Trevant, an accomplished exorcist, in hopes that he will see things to re-affirm his faith.

What he sees isn’t enough to re-affirm our faith in Hollywood for sure.  Michael is brought in pretty quickly on an exorcism-in-progress involving a young pregnant woman.  As her story plays out, we are witness to scene after scene that are copies of similar scenes from better films (mostly The Exorcist, of course).  Does the demon knows something about the young priests past? Check.  Does the demon mock the priest? Check.  Does the demon attempt to use the body of the possessed to seduce or scandalize the priest? Check.  Head turning? Check.  Bones and ligaments popping? Check?  Speaking in Latin and other unknown to the victim languages? Check?  I could go on (and, boy, am I tempted to), but you get the point.

The only thing surprising about the film is how long it takes Michael to start believing in possession.  The young Italian girl quotes, in English, something his girlfriend has said to him the night he announced he was going to the seminary.  His explanation:  she’s probably listened to thousands of American rock songs.  This might explain her knowing some English words, but I’m not sure how it explains the stuff she actually said.  Of course, coming around to the belief that a person is possessed by an actual demon can’t be easy even for someone of great faith, much less someone whose faith is wavering.

Still, he comes around to it eventually, but not until he if forced to perform an exorcism on Father Trevant himself, now the host of the demon that once possessed the young pregnant girl.  The climatic exorcism isn’t bad;  it might even be good.  Certainly, the performance by Anthony Hopkins as Trevant is a cut above any other victim of possession in recent memory.  I’d actually have to go back to Jason Miller’s turn in The Exorcist III to think of a more effective performance.  Michael redeems himself in these scenes also, drawing on the faith instilled in him by his parents (and possibly the undeniable presence of the unholy) to get the demon to give up his name and, therefore, his power.

With the relative strength of its final scenes, The Rite ends up in a good place.  Unfortunately, getting there is a trip full of cliches, tropes, and over-used conventions.  A little originality in the way the possessions and exorcisms in the film are portrayed would have went a long way toward turning this into a film of some interest to horror fans in general and fans of religious horror films in particular.  Instead, I can’t recommend the film to any but the most diehard Anthony Hopkins fans.  His work here is worth a rental at the very least.

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Hellraiser – Review

Hellraiser – Review

Jan 30, 2011

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Clive Barker, 1987
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Horror legend Stephen King was quoted saying, “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.”  Offering a rather different interpretation, famed film critic Roger Egbert retorted, “Maybe Stephen King was thinking of a different Clive Barker.”  I find the name alone of Clive Barker to be one of the most interesting in the horror industry.  I think most horror fans would be surprised to know that Barker has only directed 6 films.  He has written and produced many more, but several of those, especially from a producer standpoint, was more for name recognition than it was anything else; we wonder how much influence Barker has actually had with many of the films his name is attached to.  Even those he has written and directed, the only two that really come across as “legendary” from an all perspective view is Hellraiser and Candyman.  I don’t find Lord of Illusions or Night Breed to be talked about near as much as the other former two films.  Still yet, regardless of the merit, the name Clive Barker carries with it a powerful punch and a heavy factor playing into his legacy is the fan reaction to one film:  Hellraiser.

The movie, starring Andrew Robinson as Larry (who is very good, but unfortunately was the police captain in Stallone’s Cobra, the all-time cheesiest movie ever made, and I have trouble getting those images out of my mind) and Clare Higgins as Julia, is about a married couple who moves into a house that has a rather unfortunate history in its attic.  Larry’s brother Frank, who was having an affair with Julia, took the love of sadomasochism a bit too far after stumbling upon a puzzle box that, once solved, would open the door to another world (hell?) and summon the arrival of the cenobites, the most famous of which being Pinhead (a name that was attached to him by fans of the film, he is never called Pinhead in the movie).  The cenobites ultimately torture and kill Frank, dragging him into their cenobite world forever.  However, when Larry and Julia move into the house, Larry cuts his hand and drips blood on the attic floor.  That blood is “soaked up” by Frank and partly resurrects him.  The more blood Frank receives, the more human he becomes.  This is where Julia enters the picture.  Upon learning that Frank is still alive, even in a horrendous, disgusting body, she is once again captivated by his strong will and agrees to lure men to the attic so Frank can feast on them, bringing him closer to the world of the living.  The conflict arises when the cenobites learn of Frank’s escape, thanks to the tattle-telling of Larry’s daughter, from their grasp and decide they want him back.  The rest of the film centers around that pursuit.

Hellraiser is a movie all about obsession.  Human nature as it is, a little of a good thing just isn’t enough.  We demand more and more until the good thing become our worst enemy.  This is why the cenobites rightly say about themselves, “angels to some, demons to others.”  That, of course, reminds me of the great Metallica song “My Friend of Misery” with the all-too-true lyrics, “one man’s fun is another’s hell.”  Barker does a convincing job of trying to provide a window, even if a small one, for the viewer to partly understand the attraction of the sadomasochist lifestyle and how Frank wound up in a horrific setting.  That, I think, is what Barker should be most applauded for with this film.  Despite the gore and over the top torture scenes, I am still left with a bit of a strange attraction for what Frank was privy to.  I am always appreciative of a director who can shows us the most ruthless of acts and still leave us a bit sympathetic with the antagonist.  I get that from Hellraiser.

Although the special effects hold up pretty well (until the very end where they become nearly unwatchable), the movie does have some “what was Barker thinking” moments, the most absurd being a ridiculous looking creature who chases Larry’s daughter through a hospital wall.  This creature unfortunately reappears at the end of the film and leaves a bit of a distaste.  I also was a bit put out by the ease at which Julia meets her end at the hands of Frank.  After spending the entire movie luring guys for Frank’s resurrection, he nonchalantly puts a switch blade into her tummy, as if this was just another peripheral character.

Fan reaction to Hellraiser was strong, creating a slew of sequels (7 to date with an 8th coming) and a remake (big shock) that is to be released in 2012.  I think it is a must-view for horror fans simply because it is Clive Barker’s essential movie and has had lasting impact on the horror genre.  Don’t believe the hype though – the film is not quite as good as its reputation would lead you to believe.

Click Here to purchase Hellraiser.

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House of Fears – Review

House of Fears – Review

Jan 18, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Ryan Little, 2007
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Let’s be honest, is there any better genre of horror than the “break into a dark ride to spend the night with a group of teenagers?”  Funhouse by Tobe Hooper is the dark ride movie by which all others are judged.  Interestingly there seems to be a revival of these movies in the last few years and I am pretty pumped about it.  House of Fears is exactly that.  A new local haunted house is holding their grand opening, but the night before the big event a group of young people decide to spend the night inside the creepy haunt.  The trespass is made possible because one of the participants actually works at the haunt doing odd jobs, so he has a key.  Once inside, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that things aren’t quite right.

The owner of the haunt had purchased an ancient small statue that apparently carries with it the power to animate your worst fears.  When this statue came in contact with the atmosphere of the haunted attraction, it was a match made in heaven.  The group begins to see their fears materialize right in front of them and from there it is a race to find a way outside the haunted house and avoid the worst kind of death.  Fears that are included among the group are clowns, being buried alive, scarecrows, suffocating (similar to buried alive), and electrocution.

Director Ryan Little certainly takes cues from Hooper with the direction of the film, even going as far as to create a bit of tension between daughter and father at the beginning of the film, just as in the movie Funhouse.  However, House of Fears carries with it more of a supernatural undertone than do most movies of this sort.  Whereas the villain in most “locked in a dark ride” movies are just psychotic killers, House of Fears uses the presence of this unholy statue as the source for all things creepy.  Toward the end of the movie, we get a feeling of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as the lead character, Samantha, boldly tells her fear (a scarecrow) that she is not afraid of him, thereby severely limiting the power of the scarecrow.

One of the weaknesses of the film, and something I probably should have gotten over quicker than I did, was the lack of exits in the haunted house.  Being someone who has a fairly broad knowledge of haunted houses and their creation, I kept chuckling at the idea that these kids had to “go back to the front” to get out of the house.  In reality, there would have been 25 exits leading outside in a dark ride attraction like this.  The finally do discover a blueprint of the facility and locate another exit in the very back!  The film managed to get around the solution of simply calling for help on their cell phones by allowing one of the members of the group to notice how thick the walls were in the attraction; there was no cell service.

This is a fun, humorous, entertaining horror movie.  It certainly isn’t great or even very good, but it is a great movie to watch with a date and a bag of popcorn.  The ending is unbelievably predictable, but it is the only way to make possible a sequel!  My guess is we won’t be seeing one any time soon.

Click Here to purchase House of Fears

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The Gravedancers – Review

The Gravedancers – Review

Dec 31, 2010

reviewed by hallo
directed by Mike Mendez, 2006
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There is a universal creed among horror movie lovers as it pertains to unknown films:  We live to stumble across that rare gem of a movie that nobody seems to know about and that delivers on all counts.  Let’s face it, for every 15 unknown horror movies we watch, we are lucky to find one that actually is worth the 90 minutes of viewing time.  I took a chance on a movie called The Gravedancers.  I was smiling at the end.

Mike Mendez, a director you have never heard of, takes a fairly bland idea of bringing the spirits of the dead back to life, and has a lot of fun with it.   Three old college buddies are mourning the death of their close friend and decide to visit the cemetery late at night for one last goodbye.  Drinking a little too much and stumbling across a card someone left behind with a rather bizarre poetic sentiment, the trio recites the poem and dances on three random graves.  That recitation (think Evil Dead) and dancing were not so good ideas since the ghosts of those three dead bodies are now out to kill whoever was dancing on their grave.  For Harris, it is an ax murderer.  For Kira, it is a rapist.  For Sid, it is an arsonist.  Once the three collectively realize they are being haunted, they consult some paranormal researchers.  Come to find out, they recited an ancient Irish curse that has now brought the spirits of these dead upon them and they won’t stop until the living are dead.  Actually, it seems that the dancing is really what ticked the dead people off, but I guess the poem was equally effective.  Anyway, after a lot of creepy interactions with the spirits, they finally discover the way to end the curse; dig up the bones of the dead and re-bury them.

This is old-school horror film making done pretty darn well.  I don’t care how many times you see it, whenever an old lady is playing a creepy tune on the piano with her back to you wearing a blood-soaked white gown, you just don’t want her to turn around!  Classic haunted house scares abound in this film, aka The Changeling, but they are not overdone and come across with a glitter of fright.  Mendez also makes sure he covered every possible location for filming that horror movies have been built around for year.  We find the trio being haunted in their house, in a hospital, in a cemetery, and in a Gothic looking mansion in which they get trapped.  One of the highlights of the film was the appearance of Tcheky Karyo as one of the ghosthunters.  Karyo is probably best known for his role as the French military hero in The Patriot alongside Mel Gibson.  He brings a mature and grounded element to The Gravedancers.

The movie certainly has its flaws.  The acting is sub-par, the dialogue is even worse, the audio has issues, and Mendez’s camera seems like it is not always where it needs to be.  Still yet, the look of the film is beautiful, the scares are plentiful, and the build-up of the film works nicely.  By the end, we are thrust into a world of complete paranormal psychosis, which is probably overdone, but I applaud the filmmakers for their willingness to show us what these old friends were actually dealing with.  I found myself laughing, fist-pumping, and at times, flinching throughout the movie.  Really, what more could I want?

If you have Netflix, check it out On Demand.  You will enjoy it.

Click Here to purchase The Gravedancers

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Devil – Review

Devil – Review

Oct 3, 2010

reviewed by Skot
directed by John Erick Dowdle, 2010
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“If the devil is real, God, also, must be real.”  So says the narrator of Devil, the latest addition to the body of work of M. Night Shyamalan.  Shyamalan is the auteur behind Sixth Sense, The Village, and Signs, among others.  In this case, he neither wrote nor directed the film.  Instead, he came up with the idea and then produced it.  According to reports, Devil is the first in a series of films under the heading of The Night Chronicles.

One of the film’s promotional posters shows the outside of an elevator door.  A red light seeps through the cracks in the door in the shape of an inverted cross.  The image comes with this tagline: “Five strangers trapped.  One of them is not what they seem.” The red upside-down cross along with the title of the movie implies that one of the strangers trapped in the elevator is Old Scratch himself.  That is, indeed, the premise of this film.

Five people, each with something to hide, are stuck together in an elevator.  The mood darkens as the authorities attempt their rescue.  One at a time, the passengers start getting mysteriously injured (and worse) during intermittent light outages.  Building security officers notify the police when it appears a homicide has occurred.  The officers can watch on security cameras but the communication only goes one direction.

It’s a horror film with a whodunit twist.  Others have remarked on the similarity to the 1939 Agatha Christie book, And Then There Were None in which a group of people with guilty pasts are stuck in an isolated location and begin to die one by one.

According to a survey of the Pew Research Center dated September 28, 2010, Americans score poorly on general knowledge about religion.  While people seem to have less and less understanding of religious teaching, some basic religiosity still underlies our culture.  What can we make of it when one of Hollywood’s top filmmakers uses a verse from the New Testament to open his much anticipated latest release?  Before the first credits appear on the screen, the audience is given this passage to ponder: Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Is this just a prop to effective storytelling?  Or it could also be that, in spite of other evidence, Americans remain a God haunted people.

With the verse from 1st Peter in mind, the story follows the notion that the Devil comes into our midst, clothed in the garb of humanity, in order to torment those who have done evil.  Significantly, the one character who is able to see things clearly is the man of faith.  Not the man of science.  Not the man of evidence.  Science and reason can take you a long way, but only so far.  The man of faith was mocked and laughed at for his outdated superstitions.  But when the evidence was missing or misleading, it was the man of faith who could still connect the dots.  Like The Last Exorcism, another recent horror film, Devil also makes the claim that the reality of the devil is proof of the existence of God.  Looking into the darkness becomes an occasion to consider the light.

At the film’s promotion at this year’s ComicCon in San Diego, audience members giggled when the screen said, “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan.”  Not the intended reaction, I’m sure.  When Sixth Sense came out in 1999, fans and critics were excited by this new creative talent, a stylish horror director who created stories with twists to baffle Alfred Hitchcock.  As Shyamalan wrote and directed new tales, audiences had mixed reactions.  Some appreciated his trademark plot turns and his soft pedal approach to spirituality.  Others complained that he lost his horror edge and still others were just confused.  The question for many people has been whether Devil would mark Shyamalan’s return to chiller cinema or be just another misguided bait-n-switch attempt to appeal to large audiences while appearing to throw the horror fans a bone.

Personally, I have liked most of Shyamalan’s movies.  The exceptions being Lady in the Water and The Happening. Lady was just bad and wrong.  Happening had some cool moments but was dreadfully cast and fizzled miserably by the end.  I loved Unbreakable and have enjoyed all his other major pictures.  So I still get excited when I hear about his upcoming projects.  Devil was a good horror film.  It was contrived, but most things are.  And it was formulaic but I’m still open enough to be surprised by Shyamalan’s formulas.

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Circle of Eight – Review

Circle of Eight – Review

Sep 13, 2010

reviewed by hallo
directed by Stephen Cragg, 2009
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Originally released in ten-minute segments on MySpace.com, Circle of Eight tells the story of a New Year’s Eve tragedy that continues to be re-lived day after day.  Director Stephen Cragg, best know for his work on television, creates a movie short on action and heavy on dialogue, where 90% of the film follows the wanderings of a young lady through the halls of an apartment building.  Although there are plenty of reasons I should have walked away from the film with a bad taste in my mouth, I actually give the movie a favorable rating and if for nothing else recommend it for its incredible ability to pull of a plethora of non-sequiturs every couple of minutes.

Jessica is a young lady who is moving from the boring farming country of the mid-west to a more exciting life out west in the big city.  She is also moving away from a tragedy that has plagued her life – losing her younger brother in a drowning accident.  We learn that Jessica, in fear for her own life, let her brother drown.  She moves into the “Dante” apartment building and from about the 5 minute mark, we are greeted with a host of bizarre, creepy, and at times funny characters.  These folks seriously have issues, not the least of which is an tremendous indifference to the private life of Jessica as they will barge in on her at any given time, even while she is bathing.  Much of the conversation is difficult to follow, tipping the viewer off that we might have to wait till the end of the film for it all to make sense.  Evan is the love interest for Jessica, and although he certainly is not quite as whacked out as the rest of the apartment residents, he nevertheless comes across as mysterious and unique.  The dialogue during a majority of the film is at times downright hilarious – including unbelievably random lines in the midst of great turmoil.  For example, only seconds after Jessica discovers another murdered body, she and a few other people are greeted by Ed, the eccentric landlord, and he asks if anyone wants half of his uneaten burrito.  Nevertheless, apart from the funny moments, there is also an overall feel of uneasiness throughout the film that works very well.

Essentially, Circle of Eight takes the “Groundhog Day” concept to the next level.  The apartment building name is obviously drawing from Dante’s Inferno, the famous first part of the epic Divine Comedy.  We are left to think of the apartment as a certain kind of purgatory where the only way its residents will survive is if Jessica makes the right decision.  Unfortunately, after 90,000 plus days, she has yet to do so.  Unlike Groundhog Day where the other characters were unaware of the repeated day, all the residents know exactly what is happening and this explains some of their incredibly “off” behavior.  After all, when you are experiencing the same day 90,000 times in a row, you begin looking for new ways to live it.

The film has way – and I mean way – too long of an opening credit sequence, followed by what can only be described as yet another opening credit sequence without the credits.  That, combined with a completely unexplained and pointless lesbian make-out scene from two characters we never see or hear from again, shows that the filmmakers were needing to add some “stuff” to their film to fill it out.

Still, the movie makes the viewer think.  It does a pretty good job of providing enough detail to explain what is happening but leaving just enough for us to figure out on our own.  It seems that the “8th circle” could be a reference to the 8th circle of Dante’s Inferno, pointing to the concepts of purgatory and fraud.  It is a movie of second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances, and so on, until Jessica finally learns what she needs to do.  Our past experiences should and must shape us into people who learn from them and have the discipline to do the right thing.  The film ends with Jessica finally figuring it out and saving the residents of Dante.  Mysteriously, her and Evan’s body are never found.

The movie speaks to a crucial aspect of spirituality, that being second chances.  The character of Jessica mirrors all of humanity by knowing full well what she ought to do, but failing time and time again to actually do it.  In this way, the film accurately describes a Christian position that it is “never too late” to change.  The film also deals with the reality of Hell, although it does so in a way that uses Hollywood liberties.  Although we certainly have second chances while on Earth, the same cannot be said of the afterlife.  Thus, the film aligns more with a Roman Catholic view of eternity than it does a Protestant view.

Overall, I enjoyed Circle of Eight much more than I expected.  Take a look when you have 90 minutes and nothing much else to do.

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