Saturday Fright Night Fever #8 – “The Bay”

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As of 2014, there is definitely something to be said about the gimmick of ‘found footage’, especially in relation to the horror genre, which is well known for indulging the band-wagon mentality among the film makers. I don’t know exactly when and where the trend started, but it might be safe to assume that the first successful film in that sub-genre was “The Blair Witch Project”. Sure, one can argue “Cannibal Holocaust” doing that way earlier, but nevertheless it was the ‘noughties’ that brought the true onslaught of the found footage variety. Continue reading

Saturday Fright Night Fever #7 – “Paranormal Activity”

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Weirdly enough, my relationship with the entire “Paranormal Activity” series has been rather sparse… or I should say, inexistent. Somehow, due to some strange coincidences throughout the years, all of the now five instalments have come and gone well below my radar. Now, I’m not going to get bogged down in explaining my circumstances as a (at the time) young aspiring scientist with zero time on his hands, but the time has finally come for me to make amends and see what the hoopla was all about. Continue reading

Saturday Fright Night Fever #6 – “Curse of Chucky”

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I never cared much for Jason Voorhees… I used to find Michael Myers laughable… Freddy Krueger would only give me nightmares when I was a boy, but “Child’s Play” to this day can trigger some sort of a primal fear that would creep me out to no end. I remember (and these are not exactly fond recollections) how badly Chucky’s character could get under my skin – to the point of being physically afraid of my sister’s dolls… And I bet I’m not the only one with similar experiences. There was something peculiar about this baddie that spoke to my subconsciousness, and despite their progressively comedic character, all of the sequels shared that feature as well. I mean, I love those films and have rewatched them on multiple occasions, with the slight exception of “Seed of Chucky”, the now penultimate entry to the franchise, which I turned off halfway through – it was that boring. I have to admit I was somewhat excited when I first learned that Don Mancini (the writer of the entire series and the director of the last one) wanted to churn out another Chucky movie, but this time it was supposed to have more in common with the original, i.e. serious and scary. I couldn’t say ‘no’ to that… Continue reading

Saturday Fright Night Fever #5 – “House at the end of the street”

Well, this is awkward… It’s more of a standard nowadays to see that now well-renowned and acclaimed actors have started out in cheap genre flicks, but it sure looks odd when an Oscar-nominated (at the time) star shows up on a poster of what looks to be a run-of-the-mill horror. I mean, what could possibly entice someone like Jennifer Lawrence (with all the gongs she scored over these past few years) to look at a script for “House at the end of the street” and think it would be nice to star in it? Did she lose a bet or something? I know it’s not uncommon for big guys to do things like that, but there always is a reason for it, like a big-shot producer, an awesome genre-redefining script, or a fantastic director shooting a passion project, because he’s always wanted to do something like that.

I figured that “House at the end of the street” should be something else and with zero prior knowledge (not even a trailer) about it, I proceeded to watch it… Yeah, it was something else alright… Not that I expected much, but what I have just witnessed is simply reprehensible and we should ostracize the people responsible for letting this film happen, so that no-one ever makes that mistake again.

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Right, so “House at the end of the street” can be quickly summarized as a story about a mom (Elizabeth Shue) and her daughter (Jennifer Lawrence), who for whatever reason want to start their lives anew and in order to do that they move in to a nice little house on the outskirts of a small town. They clearly have some emotional baggage with them, which surfaces all too often during pretty much any conversation, but they want to be a happy family once more. Very quickly into the film, they discover that the place they’ve moved into lies just a stone’s throw away from an abandoned house where many years ago a brutal murder had been committed and a local urban (rural?) legend has it that the person responsible never got caught and still roams the local forests. The ladies don’t really buy into all those scary stories and continue on with their lives, but very soon they become aware that the house at the end of the street is not abandoned at all…

First of all, whoever labeled “House at the end of the street” as a horror should really rethink their actions (Netflix, I’m looking at you…). Well, it does start off very convincingly, but very soon into the film almost all the cards are on the table and the entire sense of mystery and danger dissipates in an instant. Basically, the whole premise of the story completely precludes any sense of threat from building up and we are stuck watching Jennifer Lawrence be an overgrown teenager for a while.

Granted, in the very beginning I was thinking “House at the end of the street” could make a half-decent slasher between Jennifer Lawrence as the unlikely heroine and all the genre references to “Friday the 13th and other classics. Hell, I even thought we might have a supernatural element on our hands in here and however dumb it would come across, it would still provide the much needed atmosphere in this otherwise bland and lifeless spectacle. However, in spite of all my good wishes, “House at the end of the street” decided not to grow up to become a full-fledged horror, but rather to fall off the wagon and after a string of affairs with one too many genre clichésto end up a mediocre tasteless thriller with vestigial atmosphere and only a handful of pretty predictable scares, to boot.

The way I understand it, “House at the end of the street”  must have been conceived as a twist that needed to be garnished with some sort of a story. Well, while I do appreciate the effort and the twist on its own is just fine (not quite original, but it works), the idea of building a run-of-the-mill generic story around it, filled with one-dimensional characters and sappy dialogue is never going to make it look like a good movie. Sprinkling some scares won’t help either, because if there’s no build-up, no threat, no mystery or danger, then the scares are just annoying.

 

I have no problem with horrors being rather predictable as such, so long as they play on my emotions. Well, this one doesn’t, which immediately made me notice all the conveniently placed props and plot devices (malfunctioning flashlights and other Chekhov’s guns) and register them as eye-gougingly irritating. As a result, all the scares are all the more predictable, the twist doesn’t really catch you unawares, and you end up laughing at the characters’ poor decision-making and their shoddy development.

At this point, I don’t even know whether this film would have worked had it been for some minor changes here and there. As it stands, “House at the end of the street” fails across the board in creating an experience worth watching. It doesn’t matter that the film sports a top class cast if the dialogues, the pacing and the story progression are simply dumb. Some films are unsalvageable and will remain stupid with or without Al Pacino. Sure, it’s my responsibility for agreeing to sit through all of this, because I somehow believed “House at the end of the street” would have something more to offer in the end, but it doesn’t. It was just a playground for some really good actors to have a little break from all the heavy-handed dramas aimed at the Oscars and such. It’s official: flickering lights in a basement, an old house, a mad person on the loose and five (!) jump scares don’t make a horror and this is something Mark Tonderai needs to learn if he wants to direct genre films.

Saturday Fright Night Fever #4 – “The Cabin in the Woods”

At this point I think I am forced to call ‘bullshit’, because I am having a real difficulty understanding, why “The Cabin in the Woods” is being universally hailed by the critics as the most magnificent and genre-redefining horror in recent history; the 92% critical score on RT is not an easy feat to achieve. I have to say that during its theatrical release, I almost ended up buying the ticket to see it, but was instead coerced to see “The Hunger Games” and given my indifference bordering on disdain towards the latter, now I can safely admit I am glad to have seen Jennifer Lawrence run about with a bow in this mediocre young-adult version of “Battle Royale”.  That’s right, because “The Cabin in the Woods” sucked so bad, I couldn’t believe anyone in their right mind could enjoy watching it, let alone praise it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to pay diddly-squat to watch it, as it is available on Netflix – not that you should go and watch it anyway…

Right, so I decided to give this film a go, sat down in the dark just after midnight, put my headphones on and pressed ‘play’. So theoretically, I had everything one would possibly need (darkness, solitude and sensory exclusion from the outside world) to watch a horror film and get the most of it, but by the end of this 95-minute-long ordeal I couldn’t stop laughing – and not for good reasons – as I could only think in memes that involved Patrick Stewart as captain Picard.

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Plotwise, “The Cabin in the Woods” is basically “Evil Dead” with a twist. You’ve got your bunch of friends (Kristen Connoly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, and Jesse Williams) who hop into an RV and head for the mountains to spend a weekend in a secluded titular cabin in the woods. Normally, in a horror scenario, there would be demon, a family of inbred cannibals, a serial killer, or a deadly virus waiting for them, but this is where “The Cabin in the Woods” serves you a twist to the genre. It turns out that their weekend excursion is a meticulously devised ploy to trap them in the middle of nowhere and rain horror on their heads. You see, beneath the cabin there’s an underground command center of some sort ran by God-knows-who, whose employees find young people, make them come to the cabin and unleash something bad onto them for some weird reason.

The group settles into the cabin, we get to know the characters and identify the archetypes here and there, so that we have a better idea who dies first and why. Soon thereafter, the guys find a ‘hidden’ cellar filled with various knick-knacks and they end up reading a passage from an old diary that somehow brings a family of zombies wielding farming tools to murder them… and the hunt begins…

I said it once and I’ll say it again: I have no idea why this film scored so many gongs. First of all, it’s not even a horror film, because there’s maybe one scene that made me feel not indifferent and it had nothing to do with the violence, the hunt, the zombies, or any other shenanigans that ensue in the third act; and let’s face it – by the end of the movie everything goes bananas and “The Cabin in the Woods” loses any shred of decency by the time the credits start rolling. And cheap-looking werewolves, Jabba the Hutt miniatures, or poorly designed CG giant snakes and spiders are not really helping… So, in the interest of clarity, “The Cabin in the Woods” fails terribly in delivering a horror experience. I understand that certain films within the genre don’t intend to scare like haunted house films would, but what I have just seen here is beyond reproach. I don’t want to draw any parallels towards this year’s “Evil Dead” remake, which would make a perfect example how a secluded cabin scenario can be played, so that the viewer ends up overdosed on adrenaline, but I think it would simply come across as cruel.

 

I didn’t care about wooden acting, as I see it more as a staple of the entire genre, but it’s the story and execution that made this film such a torment for me. What I was looking for, was an adrenaline rush filled with tense moments, a hefty amount of violence and a fast-paced survival horror. Well, I got nothing… “The Cabin in the Woods” is not scary at all and the violence it sports is far from what you’d want to see in a horror movie. It’s all cheap thrills and red sauce (and I’m convinced that most of the blood and gore was CG) punctuated with attempted comedic relief served in a salad that’s simply inedible.

I think I understand what the creators were trying to achieve with “The Cabin in the Woods”, with the not-so-subtle references and the overall comedic tone of the film, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t work for me. It seems that every now and again somebody out there will try and come out with a film that’s intended as pastiche that turns the genre on its head and plays on clichés and archetypes commonly associated with it to create a new and refreshing look at a horror film. But there’s a line which should not be crossed.

A perfect example of a genre-redefining pastiche is “Scream” by Wes Craven, which plays all the notes a movie geek will recognize, tells a story that’s very typical and filled with your standard character types, but serves the genre justice. The film stays true to its roots and retains seriousness, so the violence is real, gore is real and the scares are real. On top of that, we are all engaged in the story by trying to figure out who the killer is, and while the plot is simply a variation on the icons of the genre, “Scream” never ever crosses the line and descends into pointless comedy. Sure, I had a laugh or two while seeing it, but laughing with the film is completely separate from laughing at the film – which I did profusely whilst watching “The Cabin in the Woods”.

Whoop-dee-flippin-doo, “The Cabin in the Woods” not only crossed the line between a pastiche and a downright mockery, but pretty much danced a cha-cha on it, as if to piss me off. Simply put, this film is “The Scary Movie” of the survival horror sub-genre, because it comes really close to being disgustingly stupid and not at all funny. It’s a cheap hunk of poor horror that wants to be smart but isn’t. I am seriously considering taking the time and effort to track down all the critics who called this piece of garbage ‘genre-redefining’ and throw feces at their houses – that’s how terrible this film was. I get that it was supposed to be a joke, but some jokes are so stupid you actually feel sorry for the poor schmuck who came up with it while at the same time you feel annoyed at yourself for actually agreeing to listen to it in the first place. A waste of time – that’s what this film is…

And one more thing: Sigourney Weaver should really consider retiring… Just saying…

 

Saturday Fright Night Fever #3 – “Sinister”

This time round, my new weekly habit of delving into horror territory is going to be uncommonly fresh in the fact that I have just about finished watching “Sinister”, and I have to admit that apart from a handful of pretty predictable scares, this film was… really creepy.

To whoever thought that “Sinister” was a terrible film and bashed it thoroughly in their reviews I can only say the following: go and do what I just did – watch it alone in the bloody dark. I understand that when you watch horrors with friends, or in the cinema, the experience might not be the same, the reason being that “Sinister” as a horror does not rely on jump scares at all to get inside your head. The scares are still there (and maybe one of them is actually crafty), but the reason it was so effective lies completely elsewhere.

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“Sinister” starts of as your bog standard ghost story would, with the Oswalts, a family of four, moving into a new house. But it’s not just a regular house (of course), as we learn early on that Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) has chosen this place for his family to move into with a very particular reason in mind. It turns out that the family that used to live there before them was brutally murdered in the back yard in very mysterious circumstances. You see, Ellison is a semi-successful true crime writer hoping for his big break and he thinks that trying to solve this mystery would just be it. He quickly learns that what happened to that murdered family was not exactly normal, as he uncovers a box of Super8 films in the attic that seem to contain really disturbing footage of multiple families being slaughtered. Ellison’s investigation into whether these events are somehow linked (as well as the possible nature of said link) puts a really creepy set of events in motion and as a result no-one in his household can feel really safe…

If you look for any review of that film, you’ll immediately learn that it is supposed to be a found footage horror. Well, it isn’t… Or it is, depending on how you look at things, because Ethan Hawke’s character actually finds footage that is crucial to the plot development. Plus, the contents of the Super8 films set the disturbing, creepy tone to the whole film and provide the overwhelming sense of threat. But if you’re thinking about the ‘found footage’ subgenre of horror, you’d be gravely disappointed here. Apart from the Super8 thingy, “Sinister” is more of a variation on a haunted house story. It has all the usual devices a ghost story would consist of, with traversing the house in complete darkness, spooky children, attic-related jump scares, creepy noises and so forth. However, if you’re a seasoned horror veteran, you’ll be able to pinpoint the ‘scary’ moments precisely, which somewhat diminishes the net effect.

 

The scares are nicely placed and they work very well with the pacing of the film, so that “Sinister” doesn’t suffer from the fear fatigue of most recent horrors, like “Mama”, or “Insidious”. At no point during the projection I could say I was comfortable with what I was seeing, because the story is paced in such a way, that the suspense is kept at a steady level all throughout. There’s no ramp-up, no crescendos that make the viewer completely immune to the scares in the final act (which is more disturbing than scary in its own right), so all I can say is that “Sinister” does its job rather well.

One of the ways one can find to create a good horror story is to tap into our primal fears. And what is it that we fear the most? I’d say that ‘the unknown’ would be high on a list like that and the creator of “Sinister” (Scott Derrickson, both director and writer on the project) has found a nifty way to bring those fears to life. While I didn’t care for the jump scares all that much (they weren’t too creative, or at least most of them weren’t; and most of them were featured in the trailer anyway), it was the grainy Super 8 footage with creepy images and blurry details that really set the wheels in motion for me. Even when we’re eventually informed (as usual, there has to be someone proficient in the subject that will shed some light on the nature of what is going on) “Sinister” retains the sense of unnamed supernatural threat slowly but surely creeping onto our protagonists. Therefore, I think it’s vital for anybody who wants to enjoy this film to dim the lights, cut the chatter and immerse in the story – it really makes a difference this time.

Saturday Fright Night Fever #2 – “Insidious”

Following a prompt discussion with myself (accomplished exclusively in my head without coming across as a raging lunatic) I decided that before reviewing the result of this weekend’s cinema excursion I’d like to quickly lay another brick in the bridge over the gap in my knowledge of modern horror.

I was really looking forward to finally watch “Insidious” (late at night again, as one should) – a James Wan’s departure from gore to explore the more classical nooks of the genre. I do realize the film didn’t reap the best reviews out there during its cinematic release, however upon my own private screening I have to admit it wasn’t all that bad. Although it ended up being miles away from what I hoped it would be, I think there’s some merit in calling “Insidious” a horror.

The story is dead simple: A family of five (a mom, a dad, two 7-8 year-old boys, and a baby girl) moves into a new house in order to jump-start their lives again after god-knows-what had happened to them and shortly thereafter weird events start to transpire. The usual patterns of things moving around, strange noises, whispers heard through the baby monitor is quickly followed with one of the boys – Dalton – suffering an accident while investigating these strange noises. As a result he ends up in a coma and the family has to deal with that on top of the seemingly haunted house. The increased activity of whatever is haunting the house forces the family to move home in hope to flee the horror that their lives have become. Little do they know (and the trailer kind of reveals it as well), it’s not the house that was haunted, so the horror begins once more.

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I have to say that I enjoyed the premise of “Insidious” wherein we are presented with a haunted house/poltergeist story with its usual genre set pieces and devices, but with a twist… I can definitely say I dig that approach, because it successfully threw me off balance in a way. Usually, everybody has some pre-existing notions about what to expect from a given film, which is especially applicable to horror. Therefore, when I sit down to watch a ghost story, I sort of expect a certain type of devices, certain type of jump scares and a very characteristic way of building up threat and suspense through a creative usage of sound, music, set design and camera work. What I thought James Wan was going for was to have me think I know what to expect and then drop me at the deep end by going from the poltergeist to possession. While the idea could be seen as viable, fresh and potentially scary, “Insidious” didn’t get anywhere close to using this device to its full potential.

Therefore, the composition of the story divides “Insidious” into two (almost equal in length) halves with the first one being more of a haunted house story with the mystery and threat, and the second being this really awkward mish-mash of demon possessions, other-worldly experiences and the confrontation with the malevolent being of interest. By the way, what separates the two is a tad-too-long soliloquy that explains far too much and introduces the twist together with explaining it – in short, it doesn’t really do its job.

Taking this little division into account, I have to admit that I liked the first half of “Insidious” far better  than the latter one. Why? The reason is simple again – it’s actually genuinely scary and plays out surprisingly fresh in the context of what has been done within the genre before. The scares are creative and not overly complex, the entirety of the shock factor is based on our own innate fears, which made the atmosphere more relatable in a way. As you’d imagine, “Insidious” was shot on a not so much shoe-string budget, but low enough to prohibit over-use of any pricy CGI, so most of the things you’d find there are old school practical scares – and good ones at that.

Unfortunately, whatever the first half of “Insidious” has accomplished for me, was wasted terribly in the final act. The premise was all over the place, the scares were scarce and the overall concept of the story became laughable – at best. And I am incapable of fearing something that I find ridiculous, I’m sorry… Without spoiling much I can only say that being exposed to that volume of ghosts and demons in a short space of time made me completely immune to them. In the end, “Insidious” spirals out of control and drops down to the level of a laughable second-rate horror flick that tries to be something it’s not; it looks to me that James Wan has clearly lost the plot some time into the story and even the scares stopped working altogether.

In the interest of honesty, I wasn’t completely displeased with “Insidious”. Sure, the actors (especially Rose Byrne) may have been a tad annoying, the story descended into chaos after a while and attempted CGI was adorable at best. But the bottom line is – was it scary? I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. There’s a good collection of scares in this film (sadly, mostly in the first half of it) and some of them are really crafty. On top of that, Wan very often doesn’t get you by complete surprise, but will hint at what’s going to happen, so that the scare works on a subliminal level as well and if you are observant enough, you can take pride in noticing it as well. On top of that, the film has a few winks to Wan’s earlier “Saw” franchise with the Jigsaw drawing on the black board, or with the rather predictable, but ultimately scary sequence reminiscent of the ‘flash photography in the dark scare’ I loved in “Saw” so much.

All in all, “Insidious” was scary enough to get me on board, despite the tragically disappointing final act. I don’t know, how the sequel is going to work though, but horrors can override the curse of sequels by providing good enough scary experience in place of the overall originality. Nevertheless, what I am looking forward the most, is “The Conjuring” hitting the screens this summer, as it is supposed to knock your proverbial socks off with the level of terror it carries.