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Insidious – Review

Insidious – Review

Apr 3, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by James Wan, 2011

The writing and directing dynamic duo of Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the pair who changed horror movies with their 2004 release Saw, are back in a low budget haunted house film called Insidious.  It will scare the pants off you.

The title card is perhaps the most stunning, effective, and uncomfortable sequence I have seen in any horror movie.  No other film comes to mind that better captures the anticipation of the viewer than Insidious’ opening title sequence.  As a matter of fact, and acknowledging the danger of taking this too far, the movie as a whole can be summed up by the title card:  Eerie, artistic, fun, and at times, cheesy.

The movie is about Josh and Renai, a young couple who have three children and are moving into a new, spacious home.  Renai is a composer and has taken a sabbatical from a “real job” to pursue her music and stay home with Callie, the infant.  Josh is a school teacher who seems to roll with the punches quite well and begins staying late at the school to grade test papers.  Their son, Dalton, begins to complain of being scared and uncomfortable in his room.  Then, after an ill-timed trip to the attic, Dalton falls into a deep coma that no doctor can explain.  Three months later, Renai begins hearing strange noises and seeing incredibly spooky people in her house.  One scene involving the baby monitor will bring you out of your chair.  Josh, although reluctant to believe Renai at first, eventually becomes convinced that not-good-things are happening – being suprised that his mother is taking Renai’s side through all of this.

The couple, on the advice of Josh’s mom (played by Barbara Hershey), hires a psychic to come into their home and investigate.  She immediately grasps the weight of the situation and explains to Josh and Renai that Dalton is an “astral” traveler, meaning that his spiritual person can go places without his physical person.  This time, unfortunately, he has traveled too far and is lost in a place called “The Further.”  Here is the one glaring problem with the film – Wan opts to reveal to the audience exactly what is happening through the means of a 10 minute exposition on the part of the psychic.  Think of the last 5 minutes of Hitchcock’s Psycho and you have that concept in the middle of this film.  I personally do not mind explanations like this, but it is very noticeable and does erode the possibility of giving the film a superb critical recommendation.

From this point, we learn that Josh used to be a “traveler” in his young days as well, something he has suppressed, and must now return to the “further” in order to save his son.  What follows are scares, delights, and a world of fun for any horror fan.

Wan is a special talent.  He uses zero special effects for the ghosts, they are just solid-bodied people (he didn’t have the money for effects!), and yet they are some of the more spine-tingling images on film I have seen in a long time. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the actual face of the lead demon in the “further” as it appeared that George Lucas brought Darth Maul back to life for this film.   Wan goes way overboard in some areas, staying consistent with his over-the-top style as seen in Saw.  For example, in once seance-type scene, the psychic is wearing a gas mask with a long tube extending from the mouth that is attached to her assistant’s headphones.  He writes down her words.  This takes a very normal and mandatory “seance” scene for any haunted house movie and adds a fun, dramatic, and spooky touch.

I found it interesting that a movie so focused on possession, afterlife, and “other” world activity never once mentions religion, the name of God, or the concept of Christ.  There is one priest that makes a very brief appearance, but that’s it.  Instead of “May the power of Christ compel you”, we get “leave this vessel.”  I don’t have any problem with Wan opting for a religionless possession film, but it is unusual and worth mentioning.

Finally, the movie teeter-toters between beautiful, manicured imagery with genuine scares and downright cheesiness.  In some strange kind of way, when the cheese happens, we are relieved to know that cheese can still be cool and Wan bats 1000 every time.  Of this I can promise you – if you view Insidious in the theater, you will get spooked, you will jump, you will yell at the screen, and you will smile.

Yep, for that alone it is worth 10 bucks.

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Asylum – Review

Asylum –  Review

Mar 6, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by David Ellis, 2008

The idea that places can have memories is a powerful one.  We often hear of acts that are so awful, so unbelievable in their evil that it is easy to imagine them leaving a permanent impression on their physical surroundings.  Some great horror films have been based on this concept;  unfortunately, Asylum isn’t one of them.

Asylum is the story of Madison, a college freshman with considerable baggage.  When she was a young child, she witnessed her delusional father kill himself while battling imaginary foes.  More recently, her older brother has killed himself—at the very college she is now going to.    Those facts alone would make for a pretty rough freshman year, but then she arrives at her “dorm.”

Apparently, business is good at Richard Miller University because they have had to remodel an old mental hospital on campus and convert it into a co-ed dorm.  Well, they converted half of it.  The rest is left as is, connected only by a single door at the end of a dorm hallway.  A note: rarely in the history of film have establishing shots and interior shots looked more disconnected than they do here.  At no point did it feel like the action of the film was actually taking place in the buildings they were showing on the outside.  As a young kid, I did a short film that used the outside of our local hospital as an establishing shot and then cut to an interior shot that was just my bedroom with no attempt to make it look like a hospital room.  I got the exact same feeling watching Asylum, which is odd considering they apparently shot the film at a real university and presumably used the actual exteriors and interiors.

Back to the plot—we soon learn that bad things happened in the dorm/hospital in the past.  The doctor who was supposed to be helping troubled teens was actually mutilated and torturing them in order to “heal” them.  His spirit (though we are assured it is not a ghost at one point) still roams the building where he can “get inside” students heads and manipulate them.

Madison quickly hooks up with a bunch of students as troubled as she is, forming a perfect little group of victims for the evil doctor.  The problems exhibited by her new dorm mates read like a list of troubled-teen cliches.  Biff’s a drug addict.  Buffy’s boyfriend used to abuse her.  Brainy is so smart he is an outcast.  Rocky used to be fat and now is addicted to fitness.  Yes, I’m making those names up.  They should work as well as the real names for characters as flat, stereotypical and uninteresting as inhabit this film.

We are soon treated to a series of “dream” sequences as the evil doctor gets inside the heads of the co-eds, causing them to face their worse fears.  For entertainment’s sake, this is a good section to play a little game.  Pick a character, consider his or her psychological problem and then guess what the dream sequence will consist of.  If you are right, give yourself a cookie.  If you are wrong, you need to watch more horror films.  The only real surprise here is just how blatantly one of the scenes rips of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

As I saw how these sequences were going, I began to hope that when we got to the jerk with an eating disorder that we would get an homage to the scene with the walking pastries from Young Sherlock Holmes.  No such luck.  Just a fat mom yelling at her fat kid to clean his plate.

There are more cliches and rip offs of better movies as the film progresses and it culminates in one of the most overused cliches in all of modern horror—the releasing of the souls of the victims when the bad guy is killed.

Asylum isn’t just bad—it is depressingly so.  This is the point in the review where I usually point out a group of viewers who would like the film.  In this case, I’ll demure.  There are simply too many better options out there to make this film even worth a rental.

Click Here to purchase Asylum

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9 Dead – Review

9 Dead – Review

Mar 1, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Chris Shadley, 2010

Chris Shadley, who has several appearances in Hollywood blockbusters as a video assistant, tackles his first directorial debut with the Saw knock-off 9 Dead.  Nine seemingly random people are kidnapped, locked in a room with no windows, and are forced to discover why they are there.  If they are unable to come up with the answer, one of them will be killed every 10 minutes.  As you would expect, the group has a difficult time getting along with each other and wastes all kinds of time with needless jabber or drawn out storytelling.  They finally manage to figure out the reason, which unfortunately is not as fantastic of a tale as we would have hoped, with three of them still alive.  One of the three survivors, Kelley, is a female prosecutor who is unwilling “at all costs” to let her secrets get out.  So, she ends up killing the kidnapper and remaining survivors.

9 Dead takes place almost entirely in a small room where the group are chained to poles.  Because there is virtually no action or much body language, this film lives or dies by the acting and script.  Neither are exceptionally good.  Melissa Joan Hart, who is most famous for successful “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “Clarissa Explains It All” is the female lead and only survivor.  This is certainly not her best performance.  She is accompanied with other mediocre performances leaving the film feeling a bit flat.  Although the dialogue is fast paced and the urgency of the 10 minute recurring deadline is always looming, somehow the movie still feels to slumber its way through the story.

The movie is all about confession, which is fitting since one of the victims is a priest.  If they are willing to dive deep inside their souls and reveal their darkest secrets, there is a chance for survival.  It seems the movie is attempting to say that for some, death is a better option than revelation.  Kelley is willing to murder the father of her son and another “innocent” victim just to keep her secret a secret.

9 Dead tells a decent story with a fair amount of suspense, par-for-course acting, and a horrifically bad ending.  I wouldn’t completely stay away from it, but it should go pretty low on your updated “movies to see” list.

Click Here to purchase 9 Dead

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1408 – Review

1408 – Review

Feb 25, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Mikael Hafstrom, 2007

1408 is a film based on the Stephen King short story of the same name found in the audio book collection “Blood and Smoke” and in the written form collection “Everything’s Eventual.”  The movie boasts of being on the same creepiness level as the immortal classic The Shining and certainly shares some similar themes with the iconic King masterpiece.  1408 is a visual playground of supernatural and “evil” activity that, although stunning and entertaining, could unintentionally mask the true power of the film’s core message:  The love of family.

The story follows Mike Enslin, an author who specializes in the supernatural genre, specifically writing of his experiences staying in  “hotels with spirits” and other alleged haunted vacation spots.  Despite his above average success as an author, Mike is a skeptic and does not truly believe in ghosts or spirits, making his work a daily battle of drudgery.  We discover throughout the story that Mike is separated from his wife and has lost his daughter Katie to cancer, only adding to his pessimistic and, at times, offensive attitude toward nearly everyone he encounters.  Mike receives a random postcard from the “Dolphin Hotel” with a simple but chilling message on the back; “don’t enter 1408.”  Attracted to the postcard, which offers something more enticing than the mountain of hotel brochures he received, he gives the Dolphin Hotel a call to book a room in 1408, only to be turned down at every request.  After learning from the legal department of his publishing agency that a hotel cannot refuse a room to anyone if it is vacant, Enslin returns to the Dolphin with more power in his punch and is eventually granted access to room 1408.  However, he is not given the key before being urged by the hotel manager Gerald Olin, played beautifully by Samuel L. Jackson, to change his mind.  Olin tries everything imaginable to convince Enslin to stay away from room 1408, from offering him a Penthouse suite, Knicks tickets, and the like.  He then pulls out an archive of the multitude of people who have died in room 1408.  The more famous stories Enslin had already researched, but he is taken aback when he learns of the 40-some odd people who died of “natural causes” in the room that never made the local paper.  Still yet, Enslin is determined and eventually secures the key and makes his way to the 14th floor.

From this point, the room, which Olin refers too simply as “an evil room”, begins to work on Enslin’s mind.  First, subtle occurrences happen like chocolates appearing on the pillows and the toilet paper being folded and replenished.  But quickly more alarming and disturbing events take place, such as Enslin slicing open his hand when the window randomly shuts, ghosts walking across the room and throwing themselves out the window, and most horrific, Enslin begins to hear and see images of his daughter.

The madness continues until we finally reach a place of sensory overload – the room is being flooded with water from a painting of a ship that hangs on the wall, the temperature goes to below freezing and the room fills with snow and ice, and the walls begin to crumble and bleed.  Enslin is near insanity when he finally is able to make a connection on his laptop computer through Yahoo messenger and a webcam to his wife.  Although she is reluctant at first, she eventually tells Enslin that she will “be right over.”   The movie has one “false ending” where it appears that Enslin’s experience was all a dream (thankfully it wasn’t).  Finally, Enslin decides that the only “real” thing he knows of for sure is fire.  So, he sets the room on fire in hopes of destroying it once and for all, taking himself down if need be.  Enslin ends up surviving and is reunited with his wife.  The film ends with Enslin listening to the tape recorder he was using to record his thoughts throughout the night.  On the recording both Enslin and his wife hear their daughter, Katie, talking with Enslin.  And the movie ends.

1408 spoke to me on a level that was rather gut wrenching – not so much because of the scares or imagery, but because of the true horror hidden away in Mike Enslin’s heart; the death of his daughter.  Room 1408, although certainly scary and menacing on its own, showed its true horrific nature by the way it brought to the forefront of Enslin’s life the absence of the thing he most desperately wants – his family.  In an even deeper sub-theme, Enslin is wrestling with the legitimacy and effectiveness of how they treated Katie during her last days.  They affirmed Katie’s questions about being with God and an afterlife, assuring her that “they would see her again” and so on.  Now that Katie is dead, Enslin is bothered by their lack of encouraging Katie to fight for her life, instead of filling her head with “pipe dreams.”  The performance by John Cusack is so well done that I was driven further into his sorrow and guilt than I was deeper into the concerns of room 1408.  Whenever a horror movie, while watching it, causes you to reflect on your own life without worrying too much about the on screen carnage, something special is happening.  The look of contentment on Enslin’s face in the last few seconds of the film when he audibly hears the voice of Katie perfectly sums up the entirety of the movie.  Enslin finds at least a modicum of peace in life because he knows Katie, in fact, lives on.

The direction, cinematography, and sound of 1408 were all brilliantly done.  If I were looking for any negative criticism, I would offer two small points:

1.  I felt the “evil” of the room was a bit exaggerated in its visual telling.  In other words, it was just a little too much.  Although creative and very well done from an effects standpoint, I think it could have been dialed back a few degrees and been even more effective.

2.  At the end, Enslin decides rather certainly that fire is the only “real thing.”  Why?  He has experienced everything under the sun, from heat to snow and ice to crumbling of walls.  Why is fire the one things he knows is real?

It doesn’t matter though because the movie is so well acted and directed that the “escape” of Enlsin from the room takes second place to the emotional heartache he has endured.  This is a very good movie.  Take a look.

Click Here to purchase 1408

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Black Swan – Review

Black Swan – Review

Feb 23, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2010

For my money, the most disturbing horror sub-genre has always been body horror.  Many of the most indelible images from my thirty-plus years of consuming horror literature and film come from works of body horror.  Belial raping Duane’s love interest in Basket Case, Jeff Goldblum as the disintegrating Seth Brundle in Cronenberg’s The Fly, the “prick” test in Carpenter’s The Thing, Billy Halleck wasting away in King’s Thinner—all of these and more are perma-burned into my brain, and I haven’t even got around to watching The Human Centipede.

Black Swan, the first horror film nominated for a major Academy Award since Silence of the Lambs in 1992 (or Jaws in 1976 if you are one of “those” people) takes the abuse that ballet dancers put themselves through on a daily basis, adds to it a Poe-like protagonist whose mind is degrading alongside her body, and finishes it off with a dash of Grand Guignol moments that would make Argento proud.  It is a heady piece of work.

The film is the story of Nina Sayers, a ballerina finally getting her shot to dance the lead role in a New York ballet production of Swan Lake.  The pressures of the job and extra stress heaped upon her by an overbearing mother and a conniving dance troupe member begin to chip away at what appears to be her already tenuous grip on reality.

She starts imagining things, or are they actually happening—at first there is some question.  Lily, as the whore to Nina’s Madonna, provides the film with a worth while antagonist who may, or may not, be trying to drive Nina crazy.

As her psychosis builds, we are exposed to many horror tropes and, surprisingly, a handful of attempts at “gotcha” kind of scares.  There are some great moments throughout and I’m loathe to spoil them here, but I will say that her eventual transition into the titular black swan is simply beautiful.  There, as throughout, the make-up, physical and digital effects are top notch, as we have come to expect in Aronofsky’s films.

Effects aside, the core of the horror in Black Swan is anchored in realism.  We witness the tremendous stress and injury that goes with the day to day activity of ballet.  It is a good thing the film is rated R.  If too many young dancers got a peak at the film, it would be hard to cast all those Nutcracker mice for the coming holidays.

For some reason, the image that affected me most was a simple one late in the film.  Our protagonist, after a hard day of practice, takes off one of her pointe shoes and reveals a bruised foot and toes scrunched together like a clenched fist.  She takes off the second shoe and we get a full-on horror shot of that foot with all the toes fused into a single mass.  I’m not sure the more realistic reveal isn’t the more horrifying of the two.

There will be some argument among horror fans and critics as to whether Black Swan is really a horror film.  I’ll let them hash that out for themselves.  For me, it is a nearly perfect example of body horror, and it is the best horror film I’ve seen since Let the Right One In.

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The Morgue – Review

The Morgue – Review

Feb 5, 2011

reviewed by hallo
directed by Halder Gomes and Gerson Sanginitto, 2008

I dialed in The Morgue knowing absolutely nothing about the film other than the title and 2 sentence synopsis offered by my Comcast On-Demand service.   The movie centers around Margo, a young college girl who is making ends meet by working the night clean up shift at a morgue.  Her only companion at night is George, the alcoholic night watchman who has apparently turned to the bottle over grief of losing his daughter.  The beginning of the film shows us Margo’s nightly routine, from vacuuming the office to scrubbing the bathroom, including her failed nightly attempts to clean off a blood soaked portion of the bathroom where a mysterious robed mortician apparently committed suicide (we never learn why or how that fits into the story).

One night, things get crazy.  Margo is interrupted by a family consisting of a mother, father, and little girl.  They ran out of gas and are trying to find a phone or lift to the nearest gas station.  Then, out of nowhere, two guys come crashing into the office, one of which is hurt very badly, bleeding from head to toe.  As the night moves on, all the characters begin noticing strange things happening and that their very lives are in danger from hooded figures.  Getting away from the morgue proves to be impossible as all roads lead right back to the front door.  This kind of chaos continues until the sun rises the following day.  The movie then takes about 10-15 minutes to explain itself, trying its very best to do a M. Night Shyamalan “gotcha” ending.  Come to find out, ala Sixth Sense, all the characters except George were already dead, having been killed in a car accident.  Their near death experiences at the morgue that night parallel the kind of wounds they inflicted in the car wreck.

Horrible.  I just can’t think of another word to do justice to the overall quality of The Morgue.  The first 20 minutes of the film, which were establishing the routine of Margo, were filled with double exposures, quick cuts, slow motion, and every other lame effect you can think of to let the viewer know that things are a bit off.  Yep, we got the picture after the first thousand attempts.  I felt like the film editor was sitting down in front of his editing software for the first time and was excited to play with the effects.  Some of the scenes designed to make us think, like the appearing of different mops and brooms in the storage closet, just didn’t make any sense with the ongoing theme of the film, except again to warn the viewer that things are not so normal in this morgue.  The performances were sub-par and I found one of the most annoying aspects of the film to be the extreme delay between the character’s “shock” at seeing something and the camera allowing us to see it.  There would be a reaction shot to something apparently horrific that stayed on the characters for upwards of 30 seconds before we get to see what awful thing they are looking at.  It just got old after about 5 times.

Then, the absurd attempt to make some kind “twist” ending was pretty noticeable from the beginning of the film.  The explanation of the “twist” went on for way too long and I found myself longing for the movie to be over.  More than once during the film I was toying around on my Android phone because I felt like I had nothing better to do.

I think the only redeeming value of the film was the attempt to work in a religious sub-plot, which really proved to be ineffective on all grounds, but at least they tried.  The notion of purgatory, a primarily Roman Catholic understanding of the state of the dead before heaven or hell, is what these characters were experiencing.  We are privy to that information thanks to one quick sentence by Margo early in the film, and then it is repeated at the very end.

Stay away from The Morgue unless you are celebrating “boring day” and must find a movie to coincide.

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