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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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2002

Movie Review – Below (2002)

Movie Review – Below (2002)

One of my favorite horror subgenres can perhaps be classified as historical period horror (“period horror” sounds too much like something else entirely). As a student and educator of history I am always on the lookout for great historical period dramas – it even allows me to enjoy romance movies with my wife as she can concentrate on the budding love story and I ogle at the historical details of the sets, props, and costumes. Of course, these details usually mean larger budgets, something Hollywood is very rarely willing to bestow upon horror. So it is with excited anticipation each time I sit down to watch a blending of these two genres.

2002’s Below, directed by David Twohy, infuses haunted house tropes into a WWII submarine thriller. Written by Twohy, Lucas Sussman, and Darren Aronofsky, the film takes place in 1943 and follows a United States Navy submarine that experiences dangers both supernatural and temporal while on patrol in the Atlantic Ocean.

With interior sets modeled on the World War II-era U.S. Navy submarine USS Silversides, and using exterior shots on the actual vessel, the film effectively creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, using an incredible sound design to sustain the sense that there is never much room behind the camera’s lens. Truly, the film excels as a wartime thriller, making the most of its setting. One scene in particular stands out as “splashers” sink down from an attacking vessel, exploding charges all around them, and one that has yet to explode can be heard bouncing along the submarine’s hull. In that confined space, every sound is amplified and becomes uncanny, from items scraping against the exterior to whale songs drifting dreamlike into their cramped little world. I am largely ignorant about submarine operations, though I have been on a few vessels, yet the mechanical explanations throughout the film were rational and intriguing, at least for me.

below still

The cast is strong and the characters are given distinctness, though one might expect a real crew to be comprised of younger men than what we see. Holt McCallany is an intimidating figure on the vessel and Zach Galifianakis provides some brief comic relief in an early role as Weird Wally. The scene in which the men surmise that they may be in the afterlife is a particularly good one.

The supernatural elements are largely secondary to the plot and, when present, are executed with uneven success. Some scenarios build great tension while others fall flat, and the film never quite fulfills the potential of its premise. That’s a shame, because the idea of a haunted submarine is scary as hell, yet the ghosts never seem as threatening as the Germans or the very ocean in which they travel.

Below is a taut historical thriller with some supernatural smatterings. Despite some minor quibbles, it remains an effective and overall satisfying experience.

Grade: B-

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Movie Review – Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

Movie Review – Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002) is the sixth installment in the Hellraiser franchise. Directed by Rick Bota, it marks the return of Ashley Laurence as Kirsty Cotton, heroine of Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), albeit in a small role. It is also the last Hellraiser film to have any input from Clive Barker, who was outspoken in his dislike of its predecessor, Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) and the direction in which Scott Derrickson took the mythos. In small ways this story seeks to correct the moralizing direction of that entry and focus once again on the dualities of human existence, notably good and evil and pain and pleasure.

As Pinhead, played once again by Doug Bradley, asks Dean Winters’character, “Which do you find more exhilarating, Trevor, pain or pleasure?” As I prefer pleasure, we’ll start with the positive aspects of this film. Though her role is small, it’s great to see Kirsty again, and the direction her character takes, while very dark, is also entirely consistent with her actions in the first two movies, particularly her penchant to bargain. She’s a survivor who’s not above sacrificing a scumbag to save her own skin, and the skin of her loved ones. Truly, the film could have used more of her.

Likewise, Pinhead is neither the windbag bore speechifying solely about pain nor is he an agent for divine justice. He treats the main character Trevor as a character study – a curious plaything – and his intentions are purely business. The movie does not attempt to point its finger at the audience for our transgressions, but instead tries to show metaphorically that the potential for the sublime or the suffering or the noble or the cruel are within us in equal measure, and it’s up to us to balance these aspects. Those souls who fall victim to the Cenobites do so seemingly not because their sins damned them, though they may be morally bankrupt, but because they ran afoul of a very human vendetta.

These aspects work… mostly. Now for the pain. Like the last film, this one takes way too many notes from the excellent Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Trevor loses part of his memory after his car goes into a river, his wife Kirsty now missing, and hallucinations, dreams, and fragmented memories constantly intrude on his mind in a surreal manner. Yet Jacob’s Ladder knew when to stop. There are so many of these sequences that by the first act I knew that each time a moment of horror came on screen it would be revealed to be a delusion. You know the old horror trope of the horrible event that turns out to be a nightmarish dream sequence, the character sitting up in bed in a cold sweat? If you’re tired of those, imagine an entire film of it. The writers lean on this technique like a crutch – when they seemingly don’t know how to end a scene, they have Trevor grab his head in pain and forcibly transfer him to the next one. In addition, these transitions are so frequent and awkward that we have no sense of how much time is supposed to be passing. The twist ending partly explains this, but it makes it no less frustrating to watch.

Speaking of Trevor, all of this is not helped by Dean Winters’ flat performance. As a character who is a partial amnesiac, when he talks to people it’s difficult to tell what is supposed to be being conveyed to the audience: Does he remember this person? Does he remember sleeping with this person? Does he remember his lines? It was a performance I was unable to connect with, especially as his reactions to the endless hallucinations are so subdued – if he doesn’t seem to care, why should we?

There are also plot elements that don’t add up and in order to present them here spoilers will be found in this paragraph. For those wishing to avoid them, skip to the next one. Firstly, did Kirsty and Trevor live together in that shabby apartment? It looks like a bachelor pad and considering how women just show up to get boned, I have to wonder if this married couple ever lived under the same roof. The second plot problem lies in Kirsty’s bargain with Pinhead, which is to bring him five souls in exchange for her own. How is she bringing them to him? She may kill them but if they don’t open the Lament Configuration can Pinhead still claim them? It makes no sense that she could collect these souls for Pinhead simply by shooting people in the head without tricking them into opening the puzzle box, thereby rightfully making them the property of the Cenobites. The deal between Kirsty and Pinhead is a twist I actually really like but it simply does not hold up to any amount of scrutiny.

Thematically, I like Hellseeker, and I love seeing Kirsty again and following her along on her character arc. Nevertheless, it is a jumbled, frustrating movie and the plot doesn’t hold up to any degree of inspection. It’s an improvement from Inferno in spirit only.

Grade: D+

Movie Review – Irréversible (2002)

Movie Review – Irréversible (2002)

Films associated with the New French Extremity movement, by their transgressive nature, evoke strong reactions from viewers, most of which are negative. When 2002’s Irréversible was released at the Cannes Film Festival some fainted and hundreds walked out. Nevertheless it won the top award at the 2002 Stockholm International Film Festival and no less a critic than Roger Ebert, whose distaste for violent horror was generally well-known, gave it a positive review.

Irréversible is a work of body horror which early on shows unfettered perversity with a graphic murder of a man in a night club. Worse still, halfway through there is a minutes long rape and beating of a woman named Alex, played by Monica Bellucci. Throughout most of the film the camera sways and swirls, always moving and floating through walls like a ghost as a dolphin might come up for air. For the first thirty minutes a low hum is heard, designed to inflict nausea on the audience. But during this terrible violation the scene is continuous and the camera is still, locked on the attacker and his victim in each moment of agony. We hear all too clearly the grunts and muffled screams echoed in the red-walled underpass. It dares the viewer to confront the reality of rape by not allowing any means of escape. Like The Last House on the Left (1972) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Irréversible is not a film you are supposed to enjoy while watching. It’s a visceral experience that is meant to showcase violence in its true ugliness.

These elements are reason enough for most people to steer clear from this movie. However, for those willing to dig deeper there is an undeniable artistry in this film that moves it beyond gratuitous exploitation. Director Gaspar Noé, Bellucci, and co-star Vincent Cassel conceived of the story together. Only the framework of the tale was completed before filming and the dialogue one hears is almost entirely improvised.

The ever-moving camera, which could easily cause motion-sickness in some, is actually relevant to the narrative structure. The story told is non-linear beginning with the ending and working its way back, much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). As each scene ends we go back in time to the scene before. In terms of the narrative, the reason is suggested in what is actually the films first chronological scene where Bellucci’s Alex is reading the book An Experiment with Time by John William Dunne. Published in 1927, the book deals with concepts such as precognition and posits that all time is happening now and that past, present, and future are constructs of our mind’s inability to perceive it all at once. Therefore the camera may in fact be the perspective of a time traveler – it may in fact be Alex herself.

But there are artistic reasons for the structure as well. Each scene is given a weight that would not be there otherwise. With the gift of hindsight we see the decisions that the characters make that, while seemingly small in the moment to them, will have profound effects. As Roger Ebert in his review poignantly noted: “To know the future would not be a blessing but a curse. Life would be unlivable without the innocence of our ignorance.” Monica Bellucci is an exquisite woman, but already knowing her fate before seeing her in her silky, body-hugging dress makes her look more vulnerable than attractive. Sex features heavily in the story, and Noé gives us the terribleness of it in the first half, but he leaves us with the love and intimacy of it by the film’s end, if not the story’s. It’s a bit of salve to heal our mental wounds.

Irréversible has been criticized for its perceived homophobia, though Noé has been adamant that this is not the case, even going so far as to himself play a masturbating client in the seedy gay night club. Nevertheless, homosexuality is depicted as largely degenerate. Though I believe this is more to prey on the fears of insecure men who will no doubt be watching the movie, placing them emotionally in the sexually compromised position of all too common female rape victims, it will no doubt be yet another element that will rankle audiences.

The title can be applied many ways to the film, but like the name suggests, Irréversible is a movie you can’t unsee, and it’s not a film most will want to watch a second time. Regardless, it’s an abrasive yet interesting movie that is smartly conceived and manages to say something valuable about the human experience.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – They (2002)

Movie Review – They (2002)

Julia, a psychology grad student, meets a childhood friend, Billy, at a diner late at night who, after babbling about “they” and the night terrors they shared as children, unexpectedly shoots himself. At the funeral Julia meets two of Billy’s other friends who also had night terrors, and they begin to suspect that what terrorized them as children might be real and is returning to get them now. This is actually a great premise for a film, exploring childhood fears and what could lurk in the dark places. Unfortunately, They (2002), directed by The Hitcher’s (1986) Robert Harmon, never rises above mediocrity, despite providing a few jump scares and an atmospheric setting. It is a ready-for-cable, PG-13 horror movie that never really tries to break from the formula and trappings that so often plague movies of that rating.

They does well at creating tension-filled scenes without relying on sex and gore to keep our attention, and the CGI creatures are actually quite good, but the thinly-written characters and plot ensure that we care nothing for the fate of the victims. Julia is played by a capable Laura Regan whose performance nevertheless lacks the depth needed to empathize with the audience. Other characters do little except provide for a predictable body count. Indeed most of the scares, though some being effective, are of the clichéd variety. Nevertheless, rare moments of genuine creepiness, such as the face of a little girl paused on a television screen, rarely shine through.

The script is credited to Brandon Hood, but is actually the result of numerous rewrites by many authors, and it shows as it is, overall, uninterested in providing explanations for what is going on, and may explain the presence of so many plot points that go nowhere. Truly, the story continually forgoes following interesting plot-lines in preference for hitting the tired old horror steps. For instance, rolling blackouts are mentioned many times throughout the film, but they are never used within the script. The fact that the creatures can affect light makes the mention entirely pointless. Additionally, the characters make absurd decisions which ensure they put themselves in harm’s way even when they know danger is lurking. This is most illustrative when Julia abandons the security of her boyfriend’s well-lit apartment for a deserted subway at two in the morning, knowing full-well that the creatures coming to get her move in darkness. It is difficult to care for such a profoundly stupid character.

Similarly, Julia being a psychology student is significant in alluding to the possibility that the events she is witnessing are merely playing out in her mind, and that her sanity is in question. This aspect is explored more fully in an alternate ending which is ultimately more interesting and helps to fix some of the narrative shortcomings of the rest of the film.

They is a film that might have been promising, but is ultimately forgettable.

Grade: D

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