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

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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 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

Stop Falling

It happened again.  When will I learn, dear readers?  When will I learn.  Here’s how it goes: I see a movie trailer.  An intriguing, thrilling scary movie trailer and it fills me with hope.  With promise.  With the kind of optimistic expectation I’ve felt before and once again, it sucks me in.  Somehow it makes me believe that against all odds, against years of experience, against the better judgment of my own black, jaded heart, this one will be great.  It will rise above the others in plot, in character development, in its story arc and it will scare me.  And once again, the movie itself lets me down.

Sinister appears to have it all – a driven, distracted lead character, a couple of precocious children, a distraught spouse, an eerie, seemingly haunted house (in which atrocities have taken place), the dead souls of children past, and one fierce-looking villain.  And the truth is, Sinister does have it all.  It has it all and even a bit more.  It just doesn’t know what to do with any of it.

It begins with the Oswalt family moving into a new home.  Ellison (Ethan Hawke, who now sounds like he smokes ten packs of cigarettes daily – his voice is wrecked), we soon learn, is a true crime writer.  He finds some interesting, unsolved case, moves into the neighborhood where it happened, conducts his own investigation and writes a book about the whole thing.  He’s done this thrice – the first time actually managing to solve the murder and bring about justice – the other two times, he got it wrong and led officials down the wrong path, all but ensuring that justice would never be reached.  This time around is different, he assures his wife, Tracy (played appallingly badly by Juliet Rylance).  This is the book that will redeem his career, that will get him a movie deal, the National Book Award, a talk show circuit, wealth, fame, prestige.  This book will be his legacy.  Without his family’s knowledge or consent, he moves them into the very home in which the murders have occurred.  Four members of the family who’d previously inhabited it hung in the tree in the backyard and the young daughter, Stephanie, missing since that day.  Ellison sets up his office and begins work that first night, ready and eager to claim his ticket to stardom.

And then, roughly 15 or 20 minutes into it, Sinister slows down.  Like, way down.  It gradually becomes painfully, boorishly slow.  The majority of the story unfolds through home movies Ellison finds in the attic – reels of super 8 film watched on a projector.  Which wouldn’t be terrible in itself if there were just a few minutes devoted to this, but nearly ALL of the action occurs in these home movies.  Which gives Sinister the feel of watching a movie about watching movies.  I very quickly grew tired of watching Ethan Hawke stare at the projections on his wall.  There are a few cheap shots throughout, sudden loud noises or flashes of a demonic face that might make you jump.  But Sinister never gains enough momentum to make you really afraid.  There is no real suspense because most of it is time spent watching Hawke watch amateur snuff films.  This kind of detached slow reveal prevented me from connecting enough with the story to ever feel scared.

The villain – an evil demon called Bughuul dating all the way back to Babylonian times – is hardly even in it.  We catch a few mere glimpses of him during the home movie-watching and a couple more flashes later on but there is no interaction between Bughuul and Ellison and only one very brief encounter between Bughuul and one of Ellison’s children at the very end (literally, the final scene).  Which, again, kept me so detached from him that it was impossible for me to find him frightening or intimidating in any way.

The end is the film’s only saving grace.  Or, it would be if I hadn’t seen it coming from an hour away.  If you plan to see Sinister, please stop reading here.  I’m about to unfold the entire not-so-complicated plot.

So, a family is murdered in the backyard and a little girl is missing.  Ellison sits down to watch a reel marked “Hanging Out, 2011” and after a few minutes of family fun in the backyard, the film cuts to four people being hung from a sturdy branch.  Little Stephanie and the probable killer are not in sight.  Ellison jots down the obvious questions: “Who’s running the projector?” and “Where is Stephanie?”  These seemed like stupid questions nearly from the beginning to me.  Isn’t it obvious?  Okay, at the immediate start, I thought it was the killer taping the grisly scene and the abducted kid was off-camera somewhere.  But shortly after Ellison’s first video chat with Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio in a brief cameo) wherein we learn that the demon is Bughuul – eater of the souls of children – I began to think that the abducted child must be the one running the show at Bughuul’s bidding.  And surprise, surprise – I was right.  We never see Bughuul interact with either of Ellison’s children but we do see a painting of his face made by Ellison’s daughter, Ashley, on her bedroom wall.  Which, of course, leads one to believe she is his next chosen victim.  But she never seems afraid or taken in with him.  In fact, she and brother Trevor appear entirely unaffected by the move into the new home (with the exception of Trevor’s night terrors, which have increased in frequency since moving in, but, which, he never remembers).  Why are they unaffected?  Oh, that’s right.  Because NOTHING HAPPENS to anyone.  Ellison watches some disturbing home footage and hears a few bumps in the night.  His wife freaks out for no reason I can fathom and they pack it up and leave.

Which is where it finally becomes mildly interesting, now roughly 85 minutes into its 110 minute-length.  Or, it would become mildly interesting, if you haven’t already guessed at what’s to come.  Ellison realizes it’s the missing kid running the camera but only moments before being drugged by his baby girl, who promptly ties him up with her mom and brother and kills them all with an ax.  She’s then carried off by Bughuul into the netherworld to join his other claimed souls.  And that’s the most we see of him.

I like the ending.  I like the story itself and I even like the main character, a man so driven by his desire for success and recognition, he risks his family and marriage to achieve it.  And I like the idea of Bughuul, ancient demon-like entity who feeds on the souls of children.  What I don’t like is the story’s execution.  It leaves its audience too detached, too removed from the characters, the villain and the story itself to ever evoke a proper scare.

So, for now, my bitter, disappointed heart and I shall await Hollywood’s next attempt.  And try not to get our hopes up.

~Nikki

Bury My Heart In The Cold

Two weeks until Sinister hits theaters and in the meantime, check this out:

Guillermo del Toro.  Two little kids abandoned in the wild.  One vicious, maternal ghost.  Jessica Chastain with black hair.  Mama isn’t scheduled for release until January but I can wait.  Something tells me it’ll be worth it.

~Nikki

Come Into Your Nightmares

Halloween is a mere ten weeks away and already the horror flick trailers have begun.  I may be jumping the gun here but it seems this scary movie season might actually have something to offer.  Check this out:

Okay, so they’re obviously using the word scientific very loosely and the tagline “Once you believe, you die” is ridiculous, but otherwise, this could be promising.  No, seriously… did you see the wall consume a person?  And the dead, grey hands engulfing the chick at the end?  That’s some creepy imagery, if nothing else.

Not sold, huh?  All right, look at this one:

It looks like a hybrid of The Amityville Horror, Fallen and Insidious.  Again with the imagery – those dead children sitting in a circle in the attic made my skin crawl.

I’m not quite ready for summer to end but fall is my absolute favorite and one of the reasons for that is the rush of scary movies that hits theaters.  You know ghost stories trump all and I’d say The Apparition counts as a ghost story.  Demons may be less cool but Sinister looks pretty damn, well… sinister.  Man, I love a good scary movie.

~Nikki

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