Horror. Worldview. Faith.

The Girl Next Door – Review

The Girl Next Door – Review

Feb 17, 2010

reviewed by Danny
directed by Gregory Wilson, 2007

Gregory Wilson’s The Girl Next Door is based on the novel by legendary horror writer Jack Ketchum (which was, in turn, based on the true case of Sylvia Likens, a young girl who, in 1965, was brutally raped and murdered at the hands of her aunt and cousins).  It is one of the most disturbing horror films of the past few years.  It is also one of the most difficult to review.  I watched it a few weeks ago, and I have started this review a half-dozen times since then.  Why is it so problematic?  I’m not sure I can say.  Part of the reason is the film seems to expect the viewer to be entertained by the vile acts of a monster of a mother, her children, and many of the children in the film’s fictionalized suburban neighborhood.  Though I, like many horror fans, have no problem with graphic violence and gore, seeing the violence done to the young girl in the movie is vastly more disturbing than watching Jason killing a slutty teenager in some comically exaggerated way.  On top of that, I wonder at the emptiness of the film.  Its only message seems to be that people are capable of some sick stuff, alone or in groups.  I’m not sure that message is original enough or that the execution is good enough to make that a compelling.  Still, I did find the film compelling, specifically because I could not understand the actions of the protagonist who, despite not participating in the torture, rape and murder and actively trying to help the girl escape, might be the film’s true villain.

After a modern day prologue, the film opens with our protagonist, David, cute-meeting Megan while catching “crawdaddies” in the river.  We soon learn that Meg and her younger sister (who is crippled by polio) have moved in with their aunt and his next door neighbor, Ruth.  Ruth’s house is where all the neighborhood boys hang out and drink beer and watch television.  David thinks of her as his cool neighbor, but it is clear from these early scenes that there is something wrong with the relationship between Ruth and the girls.  It isn’t long before we see Ruth abusing Meg and her sister verbally and physically.  There is constantly an sexual undercurrent in her words and actions.  Eventually things escalate and Meg ends up tied to the rafters in the basement where she is tortured by Ruth, her sons, and some of the kids in the neighborhood.

Throughout these events, David tries to help Meg where he can.  He loosens her ropes to make her more comfortable, he acts as the voice of reason when the boys want to jump start the inevitable final acts, he turns away when Ruth has her stripped nude.  In the end, he unties her and attempts to allow her to escape.  The problem is that he never really does anything to stop the torture.  In truth, he seems fascinated by what is going on.  He wouldn’t participate in those kind of acts, but one gets the idea that he might be wrestling with the fact that he is sexually excited by what he sees.  It is not hard to imagine that he is placed in the story to represent us, the viewers of the film.  We are disturbed by what is done to Meg, but we do not turn off the film.  We keep watching.  In this way, the film seems to be exploring similar territory as Funny Games though in a much less self-referential way.

I can’t give The Girl Next Door my whole-hearted recommendation.  The film isn’t boring and, other than some amateurish acting, it is well made for low-budget exploitation fair.  It isn’t, however, likely to be all that enjoyable for the average horror film fan. There just isn’t enough here outside of whatever fascination there is in the David character, and that is certainly a “your mileage will vary” kind of situation.  If you are interested in the psychology of cases like the Likens one this is based on, then the film is interesting.  If not, it is probably one you can afford to avoid.

The Funhouse – Review

The Funhouse – Review

Feb 11, 2010

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Tobe Hooper, 1981

Atmosphere.  Successful horror films, those movies that keep fans coming back for more, are built on the groundwork of atmosphere.  If the perfect plot, perfect dialogue, perfect acting, and perfect scares are not placed in the context of a film that “feels” right, then those elements lose a grand portion of their punch.  This is what sets great directors apart from good directors; knowing how to get that right feel to a movie.  I can reflect over some of my favorite movies from different genres and there is usually one or two scenes that define the feel of  the movie as a whole and weaves all the other elements inside that atmospheric universe.  John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween is my favorite horror film.  Horror fans might be surprised to know that my favorite scene is not the tilting of Myer’s head after nailing Bob to the wall with his knife.  It’s not the classic chase scene between Laurie and Myers.  It’s not even the memorable speech by Dr. Loomis (from which this review site is named).  All of those are incredible moments in horror.  But they connect so perfectly because of the simple scene where Laurie Strode sits on her street corner waiting for Annie to pick her up.  While there, Carpenter takes just enough time, not too much and not too little, to allow Laurie to gaze across the subdivision and watch trick-or-treaters do their thing.  Without that scene – the establishment of the atmosphere – Halloween would not be near the movie it is.  Thus, the mastery of proper atmosphere in a horror film can make what would otherwise be a mediocre movie into something special.  The absence of it can make what would otherwise be a terrific movie only average.

With that, I turn my attention to The Funhouse.  Director Tobe Hooper, who taught the horror world a thing or two about atmosphere with his classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which is why all the remakes are not near the movie the original is), turns a simple, unimpressive horror plot into one of my favorite films all because of the feel of the movie.

Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge, best known for playing the wife of Mozart in Amadeus) is a typical teenage girl with a good heart but a desire to experience life beyond the stale, comfortable home in which she seems trapped.  The cure for that disease is a rebel, an older man in her life named Buzz, with whom Amy’s parent’s are not thrilled.  Despite her parent’s admonition to stay away from the local carnival because of ill reports, Buzz convinces Amy to check it out anyway.  They, along with another couple, set out for the carnival.  Once they arrive, the atmosphere begins to pile up in ways that can only be experienced by watching, not by writing.  Marco the Magnificent, an alcoholic magician, performs a spectacular trick with his assistant while recounting the history of Vlad the Impaler.  It is probably the best 20 second history of Dracula ever to be recorded.  Hooper masterfully captures the sights, sounds, and smells of a traveling carnival with all the rides, games, and sideshows.  But it is actor Kevin Conway who receives the top award.  In addition to the playing the main antagonist who operates the Funhouse, Conway also performs the roles of all the barkers for the attractions we meet at the carnival.  So, he is the guy standing outside the two-headed cow attraction barking “Alive, Alive, Alive.  There are creatures of God, not man!”  He stands outside the Funhouse, luring people into the haunted attraction.  And he stands outside the pseudo-strip club tent, urging guys to come check out the girls.  In all three of these scenarios, Amy is captivated by the barker for some reason.  And all three times, the barker makes eye contact with Amy in ways that is just downright creepy.  There is nothing special about it, but it makes the movie feel right.  The best part of the film comes when Amy is standing outside the stripclub tent and is listening the barker.  He is saying, “they wiggle and they dance.”  At one point, he catches the eyes of Amy and in what is just the most amazing scene, lets out one more the time the line, “they wiggle and they dance” while starring at her.  It is incredible.  How Hooper knew to include what seems like the most ridiculous line and scenario in his movie is a mystery, but it properly sets up everything else that happens in the film.

So, the group gets the wild idea to spend the night inside the Funhouse.  They take a ride on the attraction only to ditch out of the car halfway through.  Once inside, they start doing what teenagers do when the lights go out.  But, they are distracted by the shenanigans of the guy in the Frankenstein mask who helps operate the Funhouse and the fortune teller (played by Silvia Myles).  When she makes fun of the young man, he flips out and kills her – all while the group of teenagers watches through a crack in the floor.  Conway comes in to see what the fuss is all about and notices the dead fortune teller.  At this point we see that under that Frankenstein mask is not a normal human, but a strange kind of deformed monster.  We flashback to one of the sideshow attractions where the teenagers saw a weird fetus inside a jar.  This must be part of that genealogy.  Of course, someone in the group drops their lighter through the crack in the floor, alerting Conway that he has guests in the Funhouse.  What follows is a series of scares, chases, and killings that keeps us entertained and at times, spooked.

Although you will not be blown away by the dialogue, acting, or even the plot of The Funhouse, all of those elements are strengthened because Tobe Hooper packed this movie with atmosphere in ways that work.  This is one that I pop in my dvd player all the time, it is very re-watchable.  I highly recommend it as one of the great “secrets” of horror.  Take a look.

The Plague – Review

The Plague – Review

Feb 2, 2010

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Hal Masonberg, 2006

Whenever you see the name “Clive Barker” attached to any horror film project there is a anticipatory sense of quality and creepiness.  Such was my expectation when dialing in director Hal Masonberg’s 2006 movie The Plague through my “On Demand” service.  Barker was one of apparently several producers involved with the film which is based on a epidemic that strikes teenagers at the same time all across the world.  Panic ensues as parents rush their children to hospitals to see what can be done about their coma-like state.  Nothing, of course, is the answer and the world has to patiently wait to see if not only the children will awake, but if there is a future for civilization on Earth.

The story follows the events through the eyes of Tom Russell (James Van Der Beek) who is a single parent of one son.  Tom has to wait ten agonizing years before he finally is able to see his son function on his own again.  Unfortunately, upon his son’s revival from the coma, Tom discovers that his precious boy only wants one thing – to kill Tom.  In fact, all the children of the world wake up at the same time and begin stalking humans in a zombie like manner, although unlike traditional zombies, the children move very fast and have normal coordination skills which makes them able to use weapons, etc.  What follows is a series of slasher-esque killings where the townsfolk are running for their lives from the deranged zombie-children.  Throw in a love interest for Tom, as well as a reunion with an estranged brother, and you have the completion of the plot narrative.  The story ends, as you might expect, with everyone succumbing to the terror of the children except Jean, Tom’s love interest.  What Jean discovers throughout the movie is that the children just simply want someone to be “ready” and “willing” to offer themselves to the zombies.   They apparently are able to “absorb” life and influence from the adults they touch.   Once this willingness is offered to the children, you apparently get to live in peace.

The beginning few minutes of The Plague shows great promise.  The action begins quickly and the momentum continues to build, especially when Tom rushes his drooling, coma-induced son to the hospital only to be told to “get in line.”  We then see the horror of hundreds of children experiencing the same fate as Tom’s son.  Even during the interim between the children’s reception of the plague and their coming out of it ten years later, the film provides some eerie imagery and perks the curiosity of the viewer.  One such example is when a nurse who is “on duty” and watching a gymnasium full of comatose children is unaware that every child in the gym, probably a couple of hundred, turn their heads and look at her all at once.  Pretty creepy.

Unfortunately, the children wake up.  And what follows is an incredibly disappointing series of deaths at the hands of the ticked-off children.  No explanation is ever given for the cause of the plague, a reality that does not by default ruin the movie since no real explanation is given for the zombies in Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead.   However, the social commentary in the latter is clear and poignant.  Not so in The Plague.  We are left guessing what the picture is ultimately trying to say, and probably it isn’t trying to say much except provide a creepy concept from which to build.  There are some indications of a religious theme hidden in the film when the core group of survivors has to hide in a church.  Some texts are read about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters coming against each other.  But if the filmmakers were trying to provide a concrete foundation for the horrific events that have transpired over the last ten years, they failed.

In light of this, I will make up my own social commentary which is admittedly peering too deep inside a simple, low budget horror film.  Having said that, there could be a hinting at the universal need and desire of all teenagers to receive influence from their parents and from adults.  Without the proper time and energy spent by adults to teach, discipline, train, and love our children, there is a risk of them turning to a cookie-cutter mentality of what seems appropriate, popular, and acceptable.  Thus, they lose their true identity and are a product of society, turning on the very ones they most long to receive attention from.  The only cure is to stop, re-prioritize, and give ourselves to the younger generation.

All of that is probably garbage.  But, it at least provides some help to a movie that has great potential but fails to follow through.  I liked it.  I just didn’t like it enough.