Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Hell Night – Review

Hell Night – Review

Oct 14, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Tom DeSimone, 1981

The main reason I sought out Hell Night when it was first released was the presence of lead actress Linda Blair.  As ridiculous and horrible as John Boorman’s Exorcist II was, it was good enough to give teenage me a huge crush on Ms. Blair.  I still remember stumbling across the VHS release of Hell Night in the little video store that provided me with most of my cult cinema.  The lurid cover with a painting of the cleavage-showing Blair being dragged off a gothic metal gate by a pair of monstrous hands nearly leaped off the shelves and into my stack of weekend rentals.  Though I watched it often during the 80’s after securing my own copy, I hadn’t seen Hell Night in nearly twenty years when I noticed that it is one of the horror films available for streaming on Hulu.  That, plus the fact that I had dedicated myself to reviewing a coffin-load of films during October, lead me to re-visit this old favorite of mine to see how well it had aged.

Hell Night was one of the slasher films that took advantage of the hunger for the genre generated by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th,, but the set up for the film is straight out of the earlier horror-film tradition of the haunted-house flick.  Those films often involved a group of people convinced to spend a night in a house with an evil history for a big reward.  Here, four co-eds who are pledging a brother/sister fraternity and sorority are forced to stay in a mansion where a man, supposedly, killed himself after being unable to cope with a multitude of deformed, damaged children.  The prize for staying: membership in the respective Greek houses.  I, for one, would much rather have the cash prizes at the heart of most of these haunted-house flicks.

Our four co-eds are cut from familiar cloth: slut, jock, virgin (Blair), and nice guy.  Added to the potential victim list are the heads of the sorority and fraternity and the fraternity leader’s lapdog.  Of course, the idea is to scare the co-eds.  Also, of course, real threats soon reveal themselves.

It is hard to argue that Hell Night is a standout from the period or even that it is particularly good or original in any way.  Still, even stripped of my nostalgia for the early days of the genre (slashers, not horror), Hell Night is an enjoyable experience.  It has the giddy ultra-violent deaths that are the signature convention of the sub-genre, and they are done pretty well with glorious old-school technical trickery (I think I’ve seen too many digital ghosts lately).  I particularly like the film’s version of the Godfather’s horse head in the bed scene, and the chase through the tunnels under the house is claustrophobic and  convincing.

None of the leads stands out, though Blair exudes a kind of amused indifference during most of the scenes that says she knows that the film isn’t great but she’s enjoying the ride.  I also enjoyed the scenery-chewing, no-holds-barred performance of Vincent Van Patten.  His flip-out when he comes back to the room and finds a decapitated head in his bed is simply the most realistic reaction I’ve even seen in a horror film (Well, maybe second to Bill Paxton’s Hudson in Aliens).

I think fans of slasher films and pre-ironic horror will find a lot to like in Hell Night.  If I was making a list of the top 100 horror films of the 1980’s, it likely wouldn’t make the list, but it would be high up on the list of the films from the period that I enjoyed despite their flaws.  Let’s call it one of my guilty pleasures.

Red State – Review

Red State – Review

Oct 10, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Kevin Smith, 2011

It is always interesting to me when directors from outside the genre try their hand at horror films.  Which of the horror conventions will they adhere to?  Which ones will they re-interpret?  Will they come to the genre with enough of an understanding of its motifs and themes to produce a film that fans of the genre will embrace?  When the carpetbagging director is Kevin Smith, who has exclusively directed increasingly mainstream, raunchy comedies, things are even more interesting.  Red State, Smith’s first genre film, unfortunately, is a mixed bag.  It does a decent job at mimicking a recently popular horror sub-genre, but that sub-genre is close to played out even in the hands of experienced directors.  Sadly, what Smith brings in terms of humor and subversive point of view does little to raise the film above the level the typical direct-to-video horror film.  On a more positive note, there does seem to be a respect for the genre and Smith at no point seems to be slumming.  He saves his mocking tone for the “Christian” group at the heart of his exploitation piece.

Early in the film, we get a glimpse of the church people that are at the heart of the horror of Red State.  Clearly modeled on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, our protagonists see the church members protesting at the funeral of a gay teen, and we learn that most of the town sees the national attention they are bringing in as an embarassment.  As targets of satire and ridicule go, it’s hard to find more obvious and deserving ones than a group that regularly stages protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers who have died serving their country.   When three teenage boys out for a night of debauchery fall into the hands of the church, we learn that insensitivity is far from their worst sin.

Targeting a fringe group as it does, Red State didn’t come off as nearly as anti-Christian as I expected it to be.  Most of the film’s anger is aimed directly at the Phelps stand-in, Pastor Abin Cooper, played by Michael Parks.  Parks is brilliant here, giving one of the best performances is a horror movie that I’ve seen in years.  The performance is key as it keeps the film from being a shotgun blast at religion and instead makes it a sniper shot to the head of those that would use a cocktail of religion and charisma to lead their followers astray.

Parks’s performance aside, the best thing that can be said about the rest of the film’s actors is no one really embarrasses themselves.  I like John Goodman, but he is given so little of interest to say or do in the film that he blends in to the background.  The three teens that get themselves captured by the cult at the beginning of the film are competent, but interchangeable.

The direction and photography of the film are also simply average.  It is Smith’s best shot film to date, but that isn’t saying much.  The writing is, as we should expect, well above that of the average B-grade horror film.  Parks is given some great dialogue and nearly everyone gets off a couple of good lines, and Smith fights off what must have been a strong urge to put “funny” lines in the character’s mouths.  There is humor here, but it is satirical, ironic, and surprisingly subtle.

I’m a huge Kevin Smith fan and, obviously, a horror enthusiast.  I wanted Red State to be great, but it is simply average for a decently-budgeted, independent horror film.  It isn’t the catastrophe some critics accused it of being after the early screenings, but there isn’t much in Red State to recommend it over any other B-grade horror romp.

Them – Review

Them – Review

Oct 5, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2006

The French-language film Them is a part of the seemingly rapidly growing horror sub-genre commonly referred to as home invasion movies.  There are older examples (Wait Until Dark, most importantly), but the genre really seemed to enter the public consciousness with Haneke’s infamous Funny Games (1997) which was remade in Hollywood by the same director ten years later and was controversial even then.  Them shares a number of plot elements and themes with Funny Games, but where Funny Games was a meditation on the influence of violent cinema, Them seems more of a concession to mankind’s animal natures and the banality of evil.

The film opens with a effective prologue wherein a mother and daughter are murdered after a minor car accident by unseen killers.  We don’t know who the killers are,, and we don’t know if they caused the accident on purpose or simply took advantage of weakened prey.  When Clem, a French expatriate teaching at a French-language school in Budapest, passes by the accident the next day, we know that whoever killed the mom and daughter are close by.  That is all the threat we need for the film  to start building its suspense.  We see Clem return to her dilapidated, isolated country home to her writer husband, Lucas.

It isn’t long before the couple is under attack.  As they attempt to fight off the intruders, Clem is revealed to be vastly more competent and quick-thinking than her husband. Lucas is a man of words, not actions and is soon nearly incapacitated, but Clem quickly recognizes the danger they are in and starts to formulate an escape plan.  It was nice to see the role of protector and helpless victim reversed for much of the film.

Once the killers are on the scene, Them becomes a tense chase film that gave me the kind of nervous expectation of the worst possible outcome that I got from Spielberg’s tight chase film, Duel. The pursuers in Them remain faceless for most of the film, as seems to be a common theme in home invasion horror films.  More than their facelessness, I was disturbed with the killers’ lack of voices.  The film has very little in the way of a score or soundtrack, but the sound-design gives us a world filled with creepy noises (creaking doors, screeching animals, slamming doors, the white noise of a television).  It is, however, the bug-like clicking sound made by one the killers that really got under my skin.  It kind of sounded like a man calling a dog, but more mechanical and inhuman (tick-tick-tick-tick-tick).  We learn late in the film how the killers are making the noise, but that revelation makes the sound more creepy, not less.

Them doesn’t have the most controversial elements of Funny Games because the focus is on the chase, not the torture and psychological terrorism of the victims.  Still, once the killers are revealed, the film forces us to ask serious questions about society and human nature. I have seen it suggested that the film is an allegory about the fears French people have of their “primitive” neighbor Romania.  There are certainly some stranger-in-a-strange-land tropes, but considering that the fake “based on a true story” elements claim to be about a an Austrian couple in France, it seems more likely that the film is a response to and iteration on concepts from Funny Games, an Austrian film about a German family in Austria.

I highly recommend Them. The film is intense from start to finish and has a deep and disturbing theme that I can’t really talk about without spoiling the ending.  I think it is safe to say that, like many horror films, Them argues that human beings capable of awful violence are all around us and that we may never understand what drives someone to kill, especially if what drives them is simply boredom.

The Innkeepers – Review

The Innkeepers – Review

Oct 2, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Ty West, 2011

The Innkeepers has a pretty unique exposition.  Claire works at a inn that is going out of business.  The owner has left town and fired every employee other than Claire and the nerdy Luke.  In order to be able to cover all the shifts for the final weekend, Claire and Luke are forced to sleep at the inn while switching out every so often to work the desk.  The inn, we learn early on, is possibly haunted by former guest who “never left.”  That is the film’s simple concept, and it is a good one.  From there, it is easy to imagine any number of ways Ti West, who both wrote and directed, could take this film.  Unfortunately, The Innkeepers doesn’t live up to its promise, at least not to the extent that West’s wonderful debut, The House of the Devil did.

Like House of the Devil, The Innkeeprs is deliberately paced.  We spend the entire first act of the film watching Claire and Luke going through their mundane duties and dealing with needy guests.  Sure, we get introduced to a few details we will need later—for instance, Claire and Luke are building a website about the inn’s ghostly history.  One current guest is a former television star turned psychic healer.  Claire and Luke are trying to capture EVP in order to prove that the inn is haunted.

Despite these horror tropes, The Innkeepers really doesn’t build any sense of dread, even after ghostly events actual start occurring. West did a masterful job in House of the Dead with slowly ratcheting up the tension so that the bloody ending came as both a shock and a kind of release.  Here, I didn’t really become engrossed until the blood really hits the fan in the last twenty minutes of the movie.

I think West sneaks in a symbol of what he is trying to do in his films early on. Luke says he has an amazing video from a “real ghosts” website to show Claire.  We watch the video as Claire does.  On screen a camera slowly pans toward a static rocking chair.  Since it is a ghost website, Claire and we are all waiting for the rocking chair to move.  Eventually a ghostly face pops into full view accompanied by a loud scream.  The video scares Claire (you mileage may vary), and it is easy to see the video as symbolic of West’s style.  Get people ready for something to happen then hold off on it long enough that when they finally get to see it, it feels like a wonderful present.  That worked well for House of the Devil but less well here because early on it feels like we are watching a movie about the working-class doldrums, not a horror film.

Another reason it might not have worked for me is the paucity of characters.  Horror films need potential victims that we care about, like Claire, but they also need fodder so that we can see that there really is threat in the world.  The Innkeepers just has too few characters and we only ever see the world from Claire and, to a much lesser extent, Luke’s eyes.

I really wanted to like The Innkeepers, and I did like the concept and the last act very much.  There is a scene in the basement near the end where Claire reveals a ghost in the searching beam of her flashlight.  It is one of the most frightening and creepy ghost reveals I’ve seen (probably my favorite since The Devil’s Backbone first shows us Santi).  Still, in the end, it is hard to recommend The Innkeepers because it’s a horror film that just isn’t scary for 3/4ths of its length.  The good parts are still good enough that I’m interested in seeing what West does next.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil – Review

Tucker and Dale vs Evil – Review

Feb 2, 2012

reviewed by Danny
directed by Eli Craig, 2010

It’s possible I have said this so much it is becoming my mantra, but horror comedies are a very difficult thing to pull off.  To do it well, the director and writer have to mock convention while maintaining a reverence for what is good in the genre.  Well, at least that is what I’m looking for.  It is why the original Piranha worked for me and the sequel not as much.  And, it is the reason stuff like the Scary Movie franchise are anathema to me.  When I got a hardy recommendation of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil from two horror-movie-fanatic friends, I knew that the film likely got the mix of comedy and horror right.  Turns out, they were right.  Tucker and Dale is horror-comedy done right, and it is the best slasher film parody to date (sorry, Student Bodies and Pandemonium).

Tucker and Dale plays on two slasher film sub-types, the killer hillbillies and teenager campout.  Both of those sub-types are ripe for parody, and Tucker and Dale does a good job getting right to it as we are introduced to the titular characters, the two nicest rednecks your ever likely to meet.  Tucker, played by the always great Alan Tudyck,  has just bought himself a vacation home, and he has brought his best bud, Dale (Tyler Labine) with him to help with the “fixer-upper.”  We simultaneously are introduced to a group of college kids on their way to camp out.  This group, led by the arrogant Chad (genre regular Jesse Moss, who, if his career doesn’t quite work out, can already probably survive on the horror convention circuit for the rest of his life).  Dale immediately takes a liking to the beautiful Allison (30 Rock’s Cerie).  In what will go down as one of the most awkward cute-meets in film history, Dale manages to cement in the student’s minds that country-folk are strange and dangerous.  The rest of the plot and humor of the film is based on that misconception as the redneck and college-kid paths continue to cross coincidentally.

The sight gags and specific deaths in Tucker and Dale are too good to spoil.  Suffice it to say that in an effort to escape the “killer” rednecks, the college kids manage to kill themselves in an escalating variety of ridiculous ways.  Just when it is all getting too ridiculous, the film reveals that there is a crazy killer in the mix, and the remainder of the film flips the ratio to eighty percent horror, twenty percent comedy.  There is a real threat in the denouement and our main characters take some real punishment.  I wasn’t expecting the tonal shift, and it was a pleasant surprise.

In the end, Tucker and Dale succeeds because of its tone and some great performances by the four main characters.  Tyler Labine and Jesse Moss are especially good here, with one playing it straight and the other in full scenery-chewing mode.  I highly recommend the film for horror buffs who can tolerate a bit of mockery (and I know not all of us can).

Paranormal Activity 3 – Review

Paranormal Activity 3 – Review

Oct 24, 2011

reviewed by Danny
directed by Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, 2011

I was very excited last year when previews revealed that the second Paranormal Activity was going to stick to the “found footage” formula of the first film and not take The Blair Witch Project approach of attempting to shift the franchise onto a more traditional horror film path.  And, though I didn’t find the film to be as intensely jump-inducing as the first film, Paranormal Activity 2 was a solid follow up which was a big hit with audiences if not with critics.  The huge box-office take meant we were nearly guaranteed a part three that stuck to the formula, and it has arrived, only two years after the nationwide release of the first film (but four years after the original began making the festival circuit in an effort to find a distributor).  Paranormal Activity 3 is a prequel to the first two films that revolves around the two sisters from Paranormal Activity 2.  I was interested to see what the writers came up with to explain the events of the previous films, but my fear going in was simply that the “been there, done that” feeling would be overwhelming.  I need not have worried.  Handing over the directing reins to Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, directors of the intriguing “documentary” Catfish proves to be a good move as they manage to inject a fair amount of fresh ideas and energy into franchise.

Setting the film in the 1980s means we leave behind the multi-camera, full house (and even poolside) coverage of the second film.  Instead, Dennis, a wedding videographer, is forced to choose just a few locations to investigate the noises and strange happenings in the home he shares with his girlfriend, Julie, and her two young daughters, Katie and Kristi—the sisters from the second film who make a brief appearance early on to tie the event of that film to this one.  The film attempts to use Dennis’s obsession with finding out what is going on combined with his voyeuristic impulses to explain why there is always a camera filming, even in the most mundane moments.  It doesn’t work entirely.  There are times when you can’t help but wonder why he has the camera out.

The big innovation for the film comes from Dennis mounting one of his huge 80s video on the base of an oscillating fan.  The back and forth motion of the camera gives us a break from playing creepy Where’s Waldo with the images from the static camera, and there is simply a great tension waiting for the camera to swing back to something that was only hinted at on the previous pass.  This device is put to best use in a tense scene with a horror film staple, the babysitter.

There are more scares and jumpy moments here than in the first two films but the director’s manage to work them in without compromising the tension that comes with each jump cut to another camera position.  I watched this with a packed crowd and, if the screams and laughter were any indication, the formula is still working.

I’m happy to say that if you liked the first two films, you are almost guaranteed to like this one.  Even if you weren’t quite sold on those films, the improvements here might make Paranormal Activity 3 at least worth a rental.