We Are Caught Up In Your Love Affair

It’s been a decent year for independent film, what with such gems (and likely Oscar contenders) as The Way, Way Back, Inside Llewyn Davis and Fruitvale Station on the roster, but today I’d like to focus on two others that have received far less publicity but surely deserve their moment in the spotlight.

You're Next movie posterFirst up is the best horror flick of 2013.  You’re Next hit theaters in August between the year’s two big budget horror films The Conjuring and Insidious Chapter 2, though I’m sure it grossed far less in the box office, which is a damned shame because it is a nearly perfect example of a film that may not reinvent its genre – the premise isn’t anything new or original – but excels so much in its execution that it stands out as a shining success among its peers.  In other words: Finally! an example of a horror flick done right!  It begins with some actual character development, not merely introducing the Davison family but really showing the dynamics between them at play.  They’re a wealthy family celebrating mom and dad’s anniversary in their large, rural home.  Within the first 15 or 20 minutes, we learn a great deal about them, but not more than we need in order for the stage to be set.  Once all the adult children arrive with their significant others, tension builds, fingers are pointed and right at the peak of a rather heated argument, a living nightmare begins with an arrow shot through the dining room window and into one of the dinner guests.  The inept family descends into confusion and futility as more arrows fly into the house, killing some, wounding others, but revealing them all as targets of the murderous intruders lurking outside.  It seems they won’t stop until they’re ALL dead.

There’s only one wildcard yet to be played and she is the girlfriend of one of the sons, an Aussie named Erin, superbly played by Sharni VinsonSharni Vinson.  While the others practically flail about, clueless to what’s happening or why and entirely unprepared to deal with it, Erin immediately responds with practical, useful and effective ideas of not only how to protect themselves and each other, but also to fight back.  You read that right: not only do we get a character who kicks ass (and well), but – bonus! – she’s female!  She is the stand-out here, acting not as a scared little girl trying to find her inner strength but as a strong and capable woman who reacts intelligently from the initial sign of danger, determined to survive and using every available tool around her.  And, boy, is she creative.  From here, the flick is perfectly executed with enough violence and suspense to truly scare its audience without ever overdoing it.  It is a slasher flick, which means there is a fair amount of blood, but it never feels excessive or gratuitous.  And there are several clever and well-placed props which are later used as weapons but they aren’t forced; they actually serve the story.

Bottom line: you won’t find anything groundbreaking or genre-defining in You’re Next but what you will see is a well-written, well-acted and damned well-executed hack ’em up intruder movie.

The other is a little ditty called Drinking Buddies.  I’m hesitant to call it a romantic comedy because, while it does have the feel of the genre, it fails to follow its basic structure as well as avoids its numerous traps.  It centers around Luke (Jake Johnson, aka, my new crush) and Kate (Olivia Wilde giving her best performance to date), two buddies who work together at a brewery.  The two drinking-buddieshave intense chemistry and as the story progresses we see they’re basically two versions of the same person.  Luke is in a long-term relationship with the lovely Jill (the always charming Anna Kendrick) and Kate is less seriously involved with Chris (Ron Livingston), who, admittedly, seems an odd fit for her.  The four take a camping trip and the two couples’ dynamics come more into focus while the dynamics between Luke & Kate and Jill & Chris further develop as well.  This isn’t the story of two mismatched couples trading spouses, however, but more an exploration of a scenario: how an attraction that is further enhanced by alcohol can disrupt an otherwise healthy and stable relationship.  Throughout nearly the whole of the film, Luke faces the choice between a woman he loves and another he knows he could love and Jake Johnson plays the role with such genuine feeling, the audience can’t help but feel his dilemma with him.  In another actor’s hands, Luke could easily have become an unlikable character.  But Johnson has the perfect blend of easy charm and real heart, making the audience sympathize with his situation instead of judging it.

I read online that there was no real script for Drinking Buddies, merely an outline, when they started shooting.  Which means that almost all of the dialogue is improv.  I can’t imagine making or acting in a movie without a script but somehow, it served Drinking Buddies well.  Because it forced each actor to behave as though the situation was real.  What that gives us is a genuine and truly authentic look at a scenario that very well could be real.  Combine that with the charm and charisma of the actors and their lively chemistry with one another and what you’ve got is one enjoyable, often funny and entirely relatable film.

~Nikki

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If You’re Tired Of The Same Old Story, Oh, Baby, Turn Some Pages

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Here’s something that’s been weighing on my mind: it shocks me that Cabin In The Woods doesn’t have a much stronger following and I genuinely cannot come up with a reason for its lack of one.  I saw it twice in theaters and have watched it 3 times since it’s been an instant watch on Netflix.  I LOVED it during the first viewing and have found that even after a few more, it totally holds up.  The thing about it is that it’s fun and at times hilarious, while at others, really scary.  It’s a must-see for fans of the horror genre, like myself, while others who could take or leave horror will also enjoy it.

Longtime lovers of scary movies like me can appreciate all of the clever shout-outs to horror flicks of old.  In fact, Cabin In The Woods is kind of a tribute to the whole horror genre.  Writers Josh Whedon and Drew Goddard take every cliche and stereotype we’ve come to associate with scary movies and puts them all together AND supply a fun and interesting explanation for them.  They very smartly and creatively find a way to BOTH strictly follow the formula and make something completely original.  They somehow manage to make a horror flick that is every bit a generic horror flick, that is like every other horror flick ever made, while, simultaneously, taking that seemingly generic premise and using it to disassemble and reconfigure the formula we’ve seen in horror flicks since the spawn of the genre.  This film is so much more than a zombie movie or a slasher flick or even a supernatural story.  It is everything all at once.  And IT WORKS.  It even has some social relevance while still managing to never take itself too seriously.  In all honesty, I think it’s kind of perfect.

The acting is mostly good (I say mostly because there is one actor whose performance is slightly sub par – but hers is the ONLY one), good enough, in fact, to give these stereotypical characters surprising depth.  Like every other aspect of this film, they are two things at once: the cliched caricatures we’re used to seeing in scary movies and very much, well, not.  And in addition to the scary stuff, which is often pretty scary, there’s an abundance of excellent humor that lightens it up.  For this reason alone, it is definitely a crossover film: it appeals to fans of the horror genre and those who usually shy away from it.  There’s eye candy for all (I could make a sandwich with Chris Hemsworth and Jesse Williams) and even one completely awesome cameo by a woman who has become an icon in the sci-fi world.  Like I said, perfect.

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There’s also a big, big, big, big surprise ending that, for me, sets it apart from damn near every other film (horror or otherwise) I’ve seen.  It takes a lot of balls to end a movie in such a way and for that, kudos to Whedon and Goddard.  I’ve read that before the first screening, Whedon told the audience something like, “Enjoy it and then keep it to yourself.”  Because it’s very much like Fight Club in this way; the first, second and third rules about Cabin In The Woods are: You don’t talk about Cabin In The Woods.  To be less vague and disclose any more detail than I already have is to rob you of the sheer joy you’ll feel when you realize that this film is irrevocably and unapologetically going balls-to-the-wall, batshit bonkers.  This moment first shows itself in a scene in the second act that I call “The Purge” which is quite possibly the coolest fucking scene in any scary movie, EVER.  As well as frightening and funny and thrilling and wildly fun in a shit-yourself giddy kind of way all at the same time.  Which is in itself a rarity in any film and even more rare, is that I could use that same sentence to describe the movie itself.

If you’re a fan of horror flicks, you have to watch this.  If you’re not, you still should watch it because whether you care about all the details that pay homage to the genre or not, Cabin In The Woods is one wicked fun ride.

~Nikki

Blood On The Dance Floor

Carrie-1976Earlier this week, I gave my take on the novel Carrie by Stephen King.  While I had seen brief segments of the 1976 film adaptation starring Sissy Spacek in the lead role, I had not watched it in its entirety until just a week or so ago.  I liked it and recommend it to all fans of the horror genre but for anyone interested in a better story, I’d have to say: read the book.

The movie, while sticking fairly close to King’s novel, missed the mark on many accounts.  The piercing Psycho-esque music distracted from the story.  I assume it was used in an effort to create suspense and scare its audience but instead was so loud and overbearing, it overshadowed events and details that should have been more prominent.  The omitting of Carrie’s full path of terror in favor of death with her mother rather than in the city streets seemed unnecessary and anti-climactic.  The only reason I can come up with for this tremendous blunder is that perhaps they simply didn’t have the money for it.  For whatever reason, it’s a crying shame.  Most of the story’s drama occurs in the last hour of Carrie’s life when she successfully destroys many of her town’s prosperous businesses, churches and even brings down its whole electrical grid.  The film omits almost all of this in exchange for a quiet bath at home and a vicious encounter with her mother that inexplicably ends in their house caving in on the pair of them.  This may be the first (and perhaps the last) time Hollywood took the less dramatic route.  And the watering down of villainous characters Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) and Billy Nolan (an impossibly young John Travolta) served to weaken their vindictive roles in Carrie’s demise.  Chris’s pompous my-daddy-is-a-lawyer shtick is missing and Billy’s sadistic nature is lost entirely, reduced to a mere run-of-the-mill high school asshole.

That being said, it isn’t wholly without merit.  Director Brian De Palma proved more than capable of creating characters more than the one-dimensional puppets we usually get in scary movies, characters his audience will actually care about.  Sissy Spacek does an excellent job of playing the terrified, downtrodden whimpering puppy with her mother, the social outcast desperate for acceptance by her peers with her classmates (especially with her unfortunate prom date, Tommy Ross, played by William Katt wearing a hilariously glam-rock hairdo) and eventually, the vengeful super-human spilling over with rage at the end.  Piper Laurie is adequately psychotic as Carrie’s obsessive, delusional and appallingly abusive mother and Betty Buckley gives Carrie’s gym teacher, Miss Collins, more depth and likeability than her literary counterpart.

But even the good performances and the decent direction couldn’t overcome the shortcomings when compared to King’s book.  Where was the explanation of her telekinesis?  This bit of background in the novel gave the story the semblance of credibility and realism that the movie lacks.

Soon, a new film adaptation will be in theaters, this time with Chloe Grace Moretz in the lead, Julianne Moore as her mother and acclaimed director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop-Loss) behind the camera.  I hope the details that made the book a horror classic will find their way into this version.  Judging by the trailer linked below, I’d say with almost-certainty that the full extent of Carrie’s revenge will.

~Nikki

When Emptiness Is All You Know

CarrieThere are certain emotions and experiences universal to being human.  Awkwardness and insecurity during adolescence is one of them.  Stephen King seems to channel these feelings effortlessly, putting a level of realism into the descriptions of his teenaged characters that rings so true, it damn near hurts to read.  Such is the case with Carrie, the story of one troubled teenager whose pitiful life culminates in destruction of epic proportions.

Carrie White just happens to be born the daughter of a man and woman so over-zealously, fanatically religious that she is convinced the world is nothing but one temptation of evil after another and her only means of salvation is to spend her energy repressing her basic needs and wants.  Carrie is never informed about menstruation (and she lives in a time (1974) and place (Chamberlain, Maine) where such things aren’t taught in school) because her mother believes as long as her daughter stays pure, she won’t be cursed by God with a monthly period.  So when Carrie does start her period for the first time, she thinks she’s dying and shrieks in terror.  At the time, she happens to be showering in the girls’ locker room after gym and her classmates take the opportunity to viciously taunt and humiliate her by throwing maxi pads and tampons at her, all the while shouting things like “Plug it up!”  They, of course, don’t understand her melodramatic terror and she doesn’t understand one damn thing about the situation.

Carrie also happens to be a born telekinetic, a condition that is later found to be a recessive genetic disorder resulting from a mutation on the X chromosome, incredibly rare and only affecting females.  (Since it’s recessive, two X chromosomes with the mutation are needed for the disorder to be expressed.  A person with one X chromosome with the mutation is a carrier.)  All of this creates a kind of perfect storm of circumstances under which Carrie White becomes a monster – a confused and tortured teen capable of horrific doings.  After becoming the victim of a cruel and degrading prank at her senior prom, Carrie’s limit for humiliation is surpassed and she uses her supernatural ability to wreak havoc on her town.  In particular, she sets a fire to the gymnasium housing her prom that kills over 400 students and faculty members.  She goes on to murder her own mother, set more fires that destroy several of the town’s local businesses along with one of its central churches and eventually takes down the city’s entire electrical grid.

King reveals the aftermath intermittently via excerpts of books written about the tragedy, radio and news broadcasts transmitted during or immediately following it, transcriptions taken from the hearing on the official investigation and memoirs from the one survivor, Carrie’s fellow student and a girl who played an indirect but significant role in it, Susan Snell.  For the most part, these asides add depth to the relatively Stephen Kingsimple story and give great insight into Carrie’s life and background and the consequences of the incident but the sheer volume of them seem a bit much.  It gets to be distracting from the central story.  Or at least, they should interrupt the story less often.  Placing the bulk of them at either the beginning or end of the central story, perhaps, would have been more to my liking.  I found they interrupted too frequently, breaking my train of thought and interest in the narrative.

King may not write for a broad audience but his ability to slowly weave together a story and create characters in extraordinary circumstances but with whom his readers can relate and empathize has given him a large and faithful community of fans.  Pet Sematary still remains my favorite of the handful of Stephen King novels that I’ve read but I enjoyed Carrie and would certainly recommend it.

~Nikki

When The Blood’s Run Stale

Mama movie posterI am desperately close to giving up on the horror genre.  Scary movies have been my favorite since I can remember (I watched Halloween when I was literally 7 or 8 years old) and I’ve always been okay with the fact that the bad ones far out number the good, or even decent, ones.  Because however rarely they come along, the good ones make it worth it.  Films like The Ring and 28 Days Later may be the outliers but they’re enough to keep me hanging on through all the campy, awful scary flicks in between.

With all that in mind, I am occasionally duped.  I first saw the trailer for Mama months ago and thought I’d burst at the seams with excitement.  A ghost story wherein the ghost is a possessive maternal figure lingering in the wild?  The idea is rife with possibilities.  However, after the monumental disappointment that was Sinister, I worked damned hard not to get my hopes up.  And what a good thing that turned out to be because Mama is nothing to get excited over.  Like Sinister, it could have worked.  It could have been great.  It had enough tension, enough eerie imagery and a good enough idea to be one of the good ones that keep fans like me holding on.  But director Andres Muschietti simply couldn’t avoid the classic pitfalls of all cheesy horror flicks and his final product is merely mediocre.  It isn’t totally without merit, though, and I’ve broken it down into what worked and what didn’t.  What worked:

  • The fine acting.  The whole cast gives solid performances.  Even the young girls played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse commit to their roles as Victoria and Lily, respectively, as fully as their adult co-stars, which is particularly noteworthy given how young they are.
  • The tense family dynamic between Annabel and the girls.  Setting a ghost story against the backdrop of a new, awkward and relatively unstable family unit is refreshingly un-cliche and creates a wonderfully anxious atmosphere.
  • The whole set up of the girls being raised in the wild by a maternal ghost.  These two girls are abandoned in a shabby old cabin in the woods, itself apparently abandoned by its owners, left to fend for themselves after the vicious deaths of both parents.  They grow feral and animalistic, surviving on cherries and insects and the affection of the protective spirit who finds them, the one they call Mama.  It’s an excellent idea and it works.  At first.
  • The girls “wild” behavior and coping mechanisms.  From a sociological/psychological point of view, watching the girls interact with the psychologist shortly after they’re found and rescued is damned interesting.  And it seems to me their behavior and mannerisms are fairly realistic.  They move on all fours, hide under beds to avoid contact with strangers and young Lily clings to her older sister with an Mama - girlsunrelenting co-dependence that feels impossible to undo.  Similarly, Victoria accepts the role of protector over her little sister with the kind of innate responsibility found in all first-borns.
  • The visual imagery.  I love the use of trees/wilderness at every opportunity – even in the house Annabel and Lucas attain to raise the girls in a conventional family setting, the art work reflects haunting photos of trees.  It reinforces the feeling of isolation, bringing a tinge of dread into every scene.  The images of Mama herself before she’s fully revealed are sufficiently creepy and her means of mobility when she isn’t merely gliding through the air – living in black, necrotic holes in the walls and dissolving into something the size and shape of a scarf to skitter along the floor – give her an ethereal quality, as impossible to pin down as smoke.

What did not work and effectively ruined the whole damn thing:

  • Mama.  Once she’s wholly shown to us, Mama is so poorly done that any hint of of a scare evaporates.  I’m not a visual effects snob – I don’t need the CGI to be on the level of Gollum, but the animation here is so entirely artificial and lazy, I found myself wishing they’d just left her as nothing more than a blurry, dark shadow.  In this case, less would have certainly been more.
  • Mama’s back story.  It’s an embarrassingly simple and trite origin story to begin with and way too much time is spent on it.  It would have been better without it entirely.  It adds nothing to the feel and tone of the movie and slows its pace enough that for me, it actually dragged at times.  The worst part of this is that it keeps its audience from really becoming hooked into the story.  The creepiest, most exciting scenes are cut short or interrupted by the filler of Mama’s history, rendering them less effective.  It made me feel so frustrated, I could have screamed at the screen to just end the damn thing already.  (Which leads me to…)
  • The ending.  That’s right – the end, when it finally came, turned out to be the worst part of the movie.  It is painfully drawn out and absurdly melodramatic and, worst of all, not even remotely scary.

Do I have to write my own damn scary movie just to get a decent one in existence?  What was the last good ghost story – The Sixth Sense?  Come on, Hollywood!  I don’t want to give up on you but you have to give me something to cling to!

~Nikki

If Only My Eyes Were Not Pinned To Your Page

Being the intense fan of the horror genre (in either visual or literary form) that I am, I’ve recently decided to read a Stephen King novel in honor of the upcoming, most hallowed of contrived holidays.  I’ve actually only read two and a half of King’s works: Pet Sematary (one of my favorite books, EVER), Under The Dome and half of The Stand.  I’ve always wanted to read countless more but the list of books I plan to read is ever growing and his novels just seem to continuously get pushed to the side.  But not this October!  I’ve endeavored to read Salem’s Lot and now, slightly more than half-way through it, I know I’ve made one damned fine choice.

Not only have I not read Salem’s Lot before now, but I’ve never seen the film on which it’s based and haven’t really heard anything about the story except that it involves vampires.  Not the wimpy pseudo-vampires of Twilight fame but real, dangerous, predatory, blood-sucking, life-taking creatures of the dark.  As they were meant to be written.

What stands out more than anything, though, and no doubt what has made King the iconic author that he is, is King’s ability to slowly weave together a story.  His sense of timing – the pacing of the tale’s unraveling is sheer perfection.  It is damn hard to make words on a page scary but King has had no trouble.  He times it perfectly, giving enough suspense, enough eagerness, enough slow-burning interest to ignite your imagination and immerse you into the scene.  I’ve read a few books in recent years that made me wonder how the hell their author ever got published, let alone gained enough momentum to make a buck or two.  Never do I wonder such a thing while reading a Stephen King book.  Whether his work is for you or not, there is no question of talent.

I’d love to know which of his many, many novels is your favorite.  It’s too soon to tell how Salem’s Lot will rank on my short list, which means Pet Sematary is still number one for me.  What’s yours?

~N.

You Are The Night Time Fear

You may remember from our podcast on the subject that I was pretty damn excited to watch The Orphanage as part of our 50 movie challenge.  I’m pleased to report that as much as I looked forward to watching this, it did not disappoint.

Allow me to preface the rest of this post with a brief description of what it is I want from a horror film.  All I really want from any scary movie is for it to scare me.  Many people harp on the genre because it’s unrealistic, predictable, campy, etc, etc.  I get it.  But I don’t go into any horror film with the expectation that it will reflect real life or even make sense.  I just want it to make the hairs on my neck stand up!  I want to squirm in my seat and glance around at the shadows around me!  I want chills to run up my spine!  I want it to make me have to remind myself that it’s only a movie!  If it manages to do any of that at least once or twice, I’m reasonably satisfied.  If it makes me do all of that and more (surprises me, makes me ponder life’s bigger questions, scares me so much I have trouble sleeping – that hasn’t been done since I was a child – you get the point), I’ll love it forever.

Back to the matter at hand.  The Orphanage centers on main character Laura, herself an orphan who grew up in an orphanage with five other children until being adopted.  As an adult, Laura adopts a son with her husband and together, they move into the now-closed orphanage where she lived as a child, with the intention of re-opening it as an orphanage for handicapped children.  Shortly after moving in, their son, Simon, makes a few new invisible friends (something he’s prone to) and begins to act out.  Some general creepiness ensues and escalates, leading to Simon’s disappearance during the orphanage’s open house.  Laura desperately searches for her son and in doing so, unravels a long-held secret about her first home.

The Orphanage may not have the most original premise in its genre, but it did scare me.  I jumped a couple of times and there were several long stretches throughout which I sat tense and anxious, completely absorbed by the story and eager to know how it would end.  It is creepy and spooky and contains all the ingredients a ghost story should: a distraught lead character, one or more possible ghosts, an unsolved mystery at the heart of it all, and an eerie old house full of dark shadows and closed doors.  And, while the secret Laura discovers is somewhat predictable, the story’s resolution makes up for it.  Belen Rueda gives a convincing performance as Laura and director Juan Antonio Bayona effectively uses imagery to create a haunted and cryptic feel.

You all know by now that ghost stories are my absolute favorite in the horror genre and an original one that gets under my skin is a rare and precious find.  The Orphanage is one such find.  It certainly is one of the best ghost stories I hadn’t seen and I recommend it for any fan of the genre to see.

~Nikki