Horror. Worldview. Faith.

Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Review

Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Review

Oct 13, 2012

reviewed by Hallo
directed by James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, 1949

It was the very witching hour of midnight when Ichabod pursued his travel home
The sky grew darker and darker as one by one the stars winked out their lights
The driving clouds obscured the moon from sight
Never had the schoolmaster felt so melancholy. . .so utterly alone

And with those words from the legendary Bing Crosby who narrated this timeless classic, Ichabod Crane begins his journey through the dreaded wooded home of the headless horseman.

Disney’s adaptation of  Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was originally packaged in a film called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and coupled with a version of The Wind in the Willows starring Mr. Toad. After its initial release, Disney cut the two segments to run individually. It was not until a later home video release that the two were packaged together once again in the form of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It was one of those individual showings of Sleepy Hollow that I, as a young boy, first viewed the story with wide eyes.

Disney has made a career of walking the line between funny and scary in all of its “haunted” endeavors. For the Haunted Mansion attraction lovers out there, the stories are legendary of how creators Marc Davis and Claude Coats slightly disagreed on whether the attraction should be more spooky or kooky. When it was all said and done, it seems they created a perfect balance between the two (interestingly, one of the first design concepts for the Haunted Mansion was a continuation of the story of Ichabod Crane). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow also finds the perfect balance of fright and delight. The image of Ichabod himself lets the viewer know we shouldn’t be taking this too seriously, but the build up to his encounter with the Headless Horseman is, at times, very creepy. Children will be scared just enough to keep watching, perhaps with one eye covered. Could this animated feature be a reason why I love horror so much today? Very possible.

One of the best features of Disney’s Sleep Hollow, and perhaps one of the most surprising, is its remarkable faithfulness to Irving’s original story. It is not exaggeration to suggest that this little animated feature from the Walt Disney company is one of the most faithful to the original story of any movie ever produced on Ichabod’s fight with the headless spectre. Two of the essential elements remain in this version, those being a romantic telling of the story and an ambiguous ending. Disney actually leaves the viewer wondering whether or not Ichabod survived the flaming pumpkin head being hurled at him across the bridge of safety. Such a conclusion is a rare thing for an animated children’s tale.

The visual payoff is well worth the wait in Sleepy Hollow. From start to finish the animation is crisp and effective, but the animators give us something special at the unveiling of the Headless Horseman. I’m not sure there is a more visually engaging scene in any animated feature. Although technology has certainly advanced the options for animators today, I would put Sleepy Hollow up against any modern feature in terms of its effectiveness and mood.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the song Brom Bones sings at the Van Tassel farm during the famous Van Tassel Fall Festival (incidentally, Brom was the inspiration for the famous Disney character Gaston from Beauty and the Beast). His song occurs just before the end of the party when Ichabod would be traveling home through the forest. It takes the viewer about 6 times watching the movie to finally catch on that the background singers, mostly female, are an essential part of the song. Unfortunately you cannot make out what they are singing very well. This is significant because at one point these background vocalists sing the most important part of the story:

Brom:  “For once you cross that bridge my friends…..”
Background Voices:  “the ghost is through, his power ends.”
(Watch the video below at 3:00 to hear this part of the song)

So, without those background voices, we would miss that the Headless Horseman loses his power across the bridge. That is my only complaint with the film, although after you know what the background voices actually say, it becomes a fun part of the movie.

Disney’s version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow remains, after all these years, the best. Do yourself a favor – go watch it.

The Familiar – Review

The Familiar – Review

Oct 6, 2012

reviewed by Hallo
directed by Miles Hanon, 2009

I so badly want to like this movie. It has all the themes of a horror film I would enjoy – the most dominant being an issue of identity either in Christ or in Satan. Unfortunately the film is so poorly written and directed that any appreciation of its subtext is rendered impossible. This is a bad movie.

I was not aware of The Familiar’s explicit Christian context when I dialed it in on Netflix. This is a movie made by Christians for the purpose of sharing a Christian message. I’ve got no problem with that; we have previously argued on TheBlackestEyes.com that many horror films carry with them Christian overtones regardless of the authorial intent. Sadly, it seems those elements are more precisely and effectively captured when the film is not deliberately trying to be faith based.

The Familiar is a story about a widower named sam who has turned his life away from God and disappeared in a bottle. One fateful day his sister-in-law, Laura,  pays a visit and asks to stay for a while. Come to find out, she is possessed with a demon who Sam dealt with as a child and this demon is back to finish what he started. It all comes down to a “final showdown” between Sam and Laura where based on his courageous statement, “I belong to Christ”, Sam wins the battle.

The biggest problem with The Familiar is the lack of action. Nothing happens. I mean nothing happens. NOTHING. The film has about 3 set locations and 80% of the movie is boring, lackluster dialogue between Sam and Laura in one of these three settings (the living room, his bedroom, just outside the house). There is zero chemistry between Sam and Laura and when you add in the horrific acting, this is a movie darn near unwatchable. I really don’t know what else to say. The film looks cheap, sounds cheap, has an awful soundtrack, and provides no scares. Even when Laura is possessed, she looks exactly the same. I mean exactly.

This might be one of the more scathing reviews I have written which is too bad – the movie has a great message to share. But people are going to be too busy breaking things because of how bored they are to receive it. Trust me, stay away from this.

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.

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.

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.

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