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Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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2009

Movie Review – Antichrist (2009)

Movie Review – Antichrist (2009)

When Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) was shown at Cannes in 2010 it divided opinions immediately. While many praised the film’s artistic merits, its explicit violence and sex caused some to walk out of the viewing and the ecumenical jury, composed of Christian filmmakers, to grant it an “anti-award” for its perceived misogyny. Von Trier’s rather arrogant and abrasive personality, naturally, did not help matters.

Antichrist is an experimental horror film, heavily reliant on symbolism and disturbing images, that seeks to generate strong reactions from its audience. Basically a two-person play (starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe), it begins with a couple having sex while their toddler son climbs out their apartment window and falls to his death. It is shown in gut-wrenching slow motion while one of Handel’s arias plays dreamily over the scene. We are then shown the grief of the parents as they try to cope with their loss. The wife is especially distraught, and the therapist husband decides the best way to treat her is to bring them to their woodland cabin where she had spent the previous summer alone with their son while writing her thesis.

For Antichrist, the forest is not a place one goes to to feel at one with nature. Thoreau be damned. One must defend against it as nature is cruel and self-consuming. The death of their child is reflected in their surroundings, from a hatchling falling from its nest to acorns raining down upon their roof. As the story slowly progresses we add witchcraft lore and learn that deeper troubles are brewing beneath the wife’s already cracked surface.

Antichrist 2009 still

Truly, the film is an adult one, and not only in the sense that the sex is graphic. The themes dig into the fears of adults and particularly of parents – we have not only the fear of losing a child but also of failing as a parent, that we will not act as nature should demand when our child needs us most. We also have the fears of lovers, that when we are naked before another, exposed and vulnerable, we trust that that confidence will not be betrayed. All these and more Von Trier exploits with an impressive artistic hand.

But is it, as the ecumenical jury proclaimed, misogynist? No. The film deals heavily in misogynist themes, but just as a film can deal with racism without being racist, Antichrist explores the history and reality of misogyny without itself being misogynist. However, it is not for the faint of heart and certainly not a movie meant for date night. Though we see a lot of sex, it is never sexy. This is the type of movie that leaves you feeling weighed upon after viewing, even if it does give you a lot to think about, and perhaps even more that you wish you could unsee. Nevertheless, it is a unique experience that the brave among us should experience at least once.

Grade: B-

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Movie Review – Creature of Darkness (2009)

Movie Review – Creature of Darkness (2009)

Horror is a genre that, when a film is done badly, can easily morph into comedy. Perhaps if I had watched Creature of Darkness (2009), directed by Mark Stouffer, with some buddies and a few judgment-impairing drinks it may have been funny, but viewing it alone and sober was nothing short of painful.

In it, we see a group of campers being slowly picked off by an alien known as The Catcher – and it makes me shudder to think just how wrong the direction of a masterpiece like Predator (1987) could have gone. Apparently, this cloaked and hooded creature has the ability to travel through time and across light-years in an advanced ship with the purpose of collecting human specimens for an intergalactic museum. However, its weapon technology is effectively limited to sticky spit and tripping tongues, some terrible CGI openings in the ground, and a hand-axe that it takes from the campers. There are some capable animatronics in the (overly used) close-ups of the monster, but the CGI is subpar even for the video-games of a decade ago.

The performances are confused and awkward (as I imagine the actors must have been and felt) and the long expositions are ridiculous, and I’m someone who has watched televangelists for laughs. The film is subpar even for SyFy originals. It would be one thing if this was all done intentionally for laughs, but there’s no reason to think this.

There are two 90s teen stars in the cast, being Matthew Lawrence and Devon Sawa, who many will remember from Final Destination (2000). As a bit of trivia, Sawa played this film’s director, Mark Stouffer, in the 1997 biopic Wild America, about the director’s childhood. Indeed, Stouffer is an award-winning nature film-maker. Unfortunately, that talent doesn’t cross genres here.

Grade: F

Movie Review – The Fourth Kind (2009)

Movie Review – The Fourth Kind (2009)

The Fourth Kind (2009) partly employs the successful found footage approach of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2009) to the largely neglected horror subgenre of alien abduction. Splicing supposed “actual footage” with Hollywood quality dramatizations, often in split screen, the film manages to create a unique and effective viewing experience that really allows the audience’s imagination to run wild.

Most of the genuine scares are relegated to the “archival” footage which the film claims was taken in 2000 (my reason for using quotations marks will be explained below). This includes the psychiatric therapy sessions conducted by the protagonist, Dr. Abigail Tyler, which eventually show disturbing body-bending levitations. Assumingly due to magnetic disruptions of some sort from the aliens, each time the footage begins to show the evidence of an abduction the video will distort and obscure the audience’s view, leaving only glimpses of what is transpiring accompanied by an unsettling audio. Those hoping to see advanced CGI or monstrous aliens will be disappointed, as the director wisely leaves the majority of the thrills up to the viewer’s imagination, understanding that what we envision in our minds is always more frightening than what he could show us.

The film opens with Milla Jovovich, who plays Dr. Abigail Tyler in the dramatizations, talking directly into the camera, telling us that the story we are about to see is based on actual (though conveniently unspecified) case studies and that what we ultimately believe is entirely our choice. This potentially sets the audience up to be more accepting of the scenes that follow – the possibility that what they are seeing is real likely increases the terror factor considerably. The strong performances by the cast help in pulling the audience in (although Jovovich, who I credit as a good actress, can be distractingly attractive).

Of course, this is all a Hollywood gimmick to make the experience more potent (and it’s admittedly more sophisticated and cheaper than William Castle’s vibrating seats), and all of the events are in actuality fictional. The “actual” Dr. Abigail Tyler who is seen in the interview session throughout the film with the director, Olatunde Osunsanmi, is in turn merely another talented, though lesser known, actress.

While I commend the film for taking this psychological approach, and executing its scares with a less-is-more attitude, the director unfortunately does not follow that same wisdom when it comes to selling his story as being based on actual events. He is too heavy-handed in beating it over the viewer’s head. Particularly in the end, which is understandably abrupt considering the movie’s nature, when we are told of an imaginary character still missing, given the current whereabouts of fake people, and then are still told to take the “evidence” into account and make up our own minds. There is a point at which a film asks us to suspend disbelief for entertainment purposes and a point in which it flatly begins to lie and mislead, and the line begins to be crossed in the last moments of the film, which I will not spoil here. It can lose people just when it really has them. Osunsanmi should have started the credits a minute earlier before he showed us too much.

The Fourth Kind is a creative film that works best when it centers on the fears of invasion and violation, where not even one’s locked home is a refuge. (There are also allusions in the film linking alien abductions to demonic possessions and religious experience – i.e. the intervention of a deity – which is an interesting idea that I wish they had explored further.) However, just when I think a director understands and trusts his audience enough to be confident that his scares will resonate, he instead relies too heavily on exhaustively selling the truthfulness of his fiction, and in turn distracts us from enjoying what could have been a more effective story.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – The Unborn (2009)

Movie Review – The Unborn (2009)

2009’s The Unborn brings with it many reasons to expect a satisfying horror film, just two being that it stars the incredible Gary Oldman and is written and directed by David Goyer, one of the writers of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). Unfortunately, these expectations only add to the disappointment. Goyer’s previous directing forays, The Invisible (2007) and Blade: Trinity (2004), might have foretold this, though I had hoped that after the Batman reboots he might have learned a few new tricks. He might have, but far too few.

This film had some promise. The cinematography is appropriately moody, some of the creature effects are impressive (if not entirely original), and the story, though deriving inspiration from Kabala mysticism, nobly attempts to not be confined by any one religion or creed.

However, in the end The Unborn is formulaic and forgettable. After a decent first third the movie loses steam and becomes dull and convoluted. It relies on tired clichés and ineffective jump-scares to irritating degrees. These tactics have been rehashed countless times that even casual horror fans are completely desensitized to it. Rather than make the audience jump it instead clues us into the fact that what we are about to watch is stale and unimaginative. When this is done over and over early on in a film, before we even know the characters or what we’re supposed to be afraid of, it becomes infuriating. Sadly for The Unborn, the characters are so thin and clichéd that we never fear for their well-being or care for their fate – tension and true horror is therefore lost. It does not help that the acting is also poor, including the uneven performance by Odette Yustman, who plays the lead, Casey, a role that has her posing between scares in her underwear just to keep our attention.

The plot follows Casey as she begins to be haunted by a ghost child who repeatedly tells her, “Jumby wants to be born now.” Casey begins having a pigmentation change in her eye, leading her to discover that she was a twin and that her brother (said Jumby) died in utero from her umbilical cord. We assume that the ghost child is Jumby until we meet Casey’s long lost grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, who tells her it is a dybbuk, an evil spirit wanting to inhabit this world. Actually, the grandmother seems to be living across town in a nursing home, though for unexplained reasons nobody, even her father, seemed to tell Casey. The grandmother explains that her own twin brother was possessed by the dybbuk, perhaps after the experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele (though he is not named), in the concentration camp before she had to kill him. It’s telling in a supposed horror film when not even Auschwitz looks scary. The dybbuk has been haunting the family ever since, even driving Casey’s mother to suicide.

So just forget about all that Jumby stuff, I guess. As the story progresses, it becomes ever more of a struggle to buy into it, and makes me think that Goyer started off with a good idea but ran into a wall when he needed closure. Not even Gary Oldman as an exorcist rabbi can elevate this movie. There are so many clichés and borrowed elements that it is difficult to know when Goyer is paying homage to the genre’s alumni or plagiarizing them. With so much missed potential, The Unborn lives up to its name.

Grade: D

Movie Review – Autumn (2009)

Movie Review – Autumn (2009)

Autumn (2009), a Canadian film directed by Steven Rumbelow, is a film that, though showing promise in some respects, is unable to break free from its low-budget confines. In the beginning of the movie we see a mysterious virus kill off most of the human population and watch as the survivors try to come to terms with their new world as the dead begin to rise. The zombies (though they are never called this in the film) are benign at first, but slowly begin to become more cognitive and dangerous, giving time for tension-free character development for the first half of the story. Autumn is a slow-burn, which is partly what makes it almost work, and there is certainly a noble effort to become more than a simple zombie film, but it never quite achieves this. Even the make-up effects, which do their job in making the zombies look progressively rotten, do little to help.

Choppy editing, overly long sequences (which make it difficult to gauge the passing of time), and a lack of focus on the main characters work against the final product. The acting, too, ranges from adequate to Community Theater, and some performances are out of place with the mood of the film. There is also the curious mix of accents which makes it difficult to place the setting. The main characters consist of an American and two Brits, and early on there is a character who sounds like an Irishman attempting an American accent (note to such actors: Americans don’t say “bloody” unless we mean the red stuff). It is not until a good way into the story when a character speaks of visiting American cities that one can assume that the U.S. is the setting. This is not helped by the lack of location shots, as the movie essentially concentrates on a single devastated street on which we see the characters traveling a half-dozen times throughout the film – obviously another drawback to a low budget. We never really feel the scope that the film attempts to convey.

Unfortunately, even if the finances had been unlimited this film still would not rise above the superior zombie films which came before. Indeed, had this film come at the forefront of those competitors it may have been more relevant, but as it stands there is nothing new offered here. It is not scary, gory, dramatic, well-shot, or even terribly interesting. The script, which is based upon the David Moody novel of the same name, is predictable. We have seen it all done before, and we have seen it done better. Without giving away too much, the movie even culminates with a besieged farm house, offering us little variation even on Night of the Living Dead (1968), the classic film which established the modern zombie over forty years ago.

There is certainly a lot of heart in this film, but it is ultimately an unnecessary work that contributes nothing new to the genre. Nor is it able to recreate familiar genre elements in a way that warrants its viewing. It is easy to respect the efforts made in this film, but that unfortunately is not enough to recommend it.

Grade: D-

Movie Review – Triangle (2009)

Movie Review – Triangle (2009)

I knew nothing about 2009’s Triangle, a film by Christopher Smith, before watching it, and I must say that that is probably the best way to approach this movie. If you plan to watch it, don’t even watch a trailer, as it gives too much away. Triangle is a mind-twisting mystery which smartly employs both supernatural and slasher elements while never venturing too far into either subgenre. Each time I expected the movie to take a turn for the worse, it only became more interesting.

Triangle is about a group who board a seemingly deserted cruise vessel after their yacht is capsized by a freak storm. To say any more about the plot would be giving too much away, making this review torturous to write as this is the kind of movie you want to share with others and discuss.

Melissa George in Triangle.
Melissa George in Triangle.

The script is tight and intelligent – don’t blink or you may miss something – and supposedly took two years to write. The casting is great and the cinematography beautiful, filled with appealing, vibrant colors. The direction reveals an expert storyteller on the rise in the mold of Christopher Nolan, who similarly messed with our sense of time and perspective in films like Memento (2000). Smith’s love of the horror genre is apparent as Triangle conveys a veiled homage to Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining (1980). Additionally, Melissa George ties the film together in a terrific lead performance, playing a distraught mother trying to get back home to her son.

For fans of shows like The Twilight Zone, who like to bend their minds to wrap around an unfurling mystery, I recommend Triangle most highly.

Grade: B

Movie Review – Sorority Row (2009)

Movie Review – Sorority Row [remake] (2009)

It doesn’t take a great stretch of the mind to anticipate what a slasher movie entitled Sorority Row will offer. Cute girls? Check. Bare breasts? Check. College parties? Double-check. Oral fixations? Quadruple-check. Said cute girls being taken out one-by-one? You get the idea. This is an unoriginal (it is a remake, after all) and formulaic entry into the slasher genre that will largely be forgotten in the years to come (if it hasn’t been already).

However, while this usually works to the detriment of a horror film, it becomes a rather endearing quality here. This loose remake, directed by Stewart Hendler, of the 1983’s The House on Sorority Row has no delusions about what it is and what it plans to offer. The script is fast-paced, the kills are entertaining and bloody without being gratuitously excessive, and the dialogue offers jokes based on well-rounded character interaction. The capable cast certainly helps in this regard. There is no pretension here; the movie practically begs its viewer to relax, enjoy, and to not read too much into what is going on. If one can do this, even a discerning horror fan like me can enjoy the film.

Had other aspects of the film been better, this could have been more memorable. Much of the movie’s appeal rides on the satisfaction of seeing snobby, shallow individuals being disposed of with extreme prejudice. That’s a start. The killer, unfortunately, is a bland figure stalking his/her prey cloaked in a graduation gown. The weapon of choice is a tire-iron which, in the words of one of the catty characters, has been “pimped-out,” though it could be more accurately described as impractical. The film-makers seemed conscious of all other aspects of exploitation slasher films except for what is perhaps the most important element – the creation of a visceral killer that will stay engrained in the audience’s minds for years to come. In slasher films it’s the killer’s show, after all.

Grade: C

Movie Review – The Uninvited (2009)

Movie Review – The Uninvited [A Tale of Two Sisters remake] (2009)

I was thoroughly impressed with Kim Ji-woon’s 2003 horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, known in South Korea as Jangwa, Hongryeon. It was an effective psychological thriller that weaved the supernatural and natural in unexpected ways, creating an almost suffocating, dreamlike world. As with most PG-13 American remakes, I expected 2009’s The Uninvited, directed by the British-born Guard Brothers, to butcher the strengths from the original story and delude them with tired Hollywood jump scares and clichés. Despite my low expectations, or perhaps due to them, The Uninvited is actually a well-done horror targeted to teens that is, on most levels, a superior entry when compared to the horror films generally offered to that demographic. It tells of a girl named Anna, played by Emily Browning, who returns home from a mental hospital and tries to hold onto her sanity as she comes up against her new stepmother and a possible haunting.

The script does indeed stray from its source material – the characters are quite different and the plot plays out more like a simplified mystery/thriller, and it does not demand the attention or intelligence that its predecessor did. Certain elements have been added that allow a few more surprises, and the twist plays out in a way different enough to warrant a viewing by fans of Two Sisters. One scene which stands out features a broken back, and the effects and lighting make for an effectively intense scenario.

The real strength in this film, however, lies in the performance of Elizabeth Banks. Admittedly, when she was cast in the stepmother’s role I was skeptical, but her acting goes against type and perfectly treads the fine line between sinister and sincere in a role that demands the delicate balance of ambiguity. Likewise, Emily Browning pulls off the lead role without difficulty and Arielle Kebbel, who plays the other sister, steals several scenes. Pulling the whole film together is a haunting musical score that adds an atmosphere of whimsical sorrow.

With all these strengths going for it, the truth of the matter is that there is not much new here to offer the genre, and it rather succeeds more in not screwing things up. What it excels at, however, is being a stepping stone for teens into the world of horror that genre fans won’t have to cringe at, and in that respect it is most welcome. It is not a great film, but it is an adequate one, and considering its peers, that definitely counts for something.

Grade: C

Movie Review – Orphan (2009)

Movie Review – Orphan (2009)

I really expected to dislike Orphan (2009), directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, though he had previously helmed the underrated House of Wax (2005) remake. What appeared from trailers like a rip-off of The Bad Seed (1956) and The Omen (1976), trying to profit from yet another “creepy kid” story, offered little to whet my appetite. It tells the story of a couple who adopt a little girl who, of course, turns out to be a psycho. I was pleasantly surprised to find, then, that Orphan too turns out to be much more than I had anticipated.

The film’s biggest asset is the convincing performance of its lead child star, Isabella Fuhrman, who plays the cunning and murderous Esther. This talented young actress carries the film and really does exude wisdom and understanding beyond her years, and creates a worthy counterbalance to Vera Farmiga in her role as Kate, Esther’s adoptive but suspicious mother. The rest of the roles are also well-cast, particularly the adorable Aryana Engineer, who plays the deaf and mute Max, the couple’s youngest daughter.

Orphan’s script has many strong elements within it. The film opens with a dream sequence that plays on its illogical nature through set changes and by having Peter Sarsgaard play both the doctor and the husband simultaneously as Kate is in labor. In the title credits the letters change from traditional print to chaotic, black-lit smears, in a way which ties nicely into the story later on. Also, the relationship between Esther and Max is very believable, and the use of sign language is implemented throughout the plot to great effect.

When scenes take a turn for the macabre they do so with a vengeance. Kids are not always scary in horror films, even when they’re supposed to be, for it is difficult to imagine a kid being able to accomplish too many grisly tasks before being stopped by a well-placed kick to the head. However, it is Esther’s cunning which is her greatest strength. She is smarter than those around her, expertly manipulating people and situations to her advantage – and the best part is that her plans sometimes go awry and she must think quickly to resolve new threats.

However, despite all these strengths, the film is not without weaknesses. For every great scene, and there are many of these, there is an awful one, or at least enough which are so mediocre and clichéd as to bring down the intensity of the film. How many times are we to watch someone close a medicine cabinet only to find someone standing next to them in the mirror’s reflection, providing yet another tired and ineffective jump scare? We even get the cue music to let us know we were supposed to be scared just then, in case we missed it. This happens, mind you, in the beginning before anything remotely creepy has happened. Likewise, when one of Esther’s bullies sees that she is no longer on a swing she suddenly feels threatened and creeps through a playground structure cautiously. The audience knows that Esther is dangerous, but there is no reason for this character to believe so. The tension of the film gets comically cranked to eleven as we see quick shots of kids on monkey bars, and a boy coming down a slide is used as yet another jump scare, and the whole scene comes off as fairly ridiculous. I claim no deep knowledge of filmmaking, but as a viewer these tactics signal that the director lacks the confidence that he has effectively captured his audience. Other scenes, and especially the final one, tumble into ever more Hollywood clichés, and this is unfortunately after a very creepy, effective twist.

I can’t help but imagine what a masterpiece this could have been if characters and their personal demons had trumped the Hollywood ending and fake scares. Orphan is a movie worth seeing and deserving of respect, but in the end it is a missed opportunity.

Grade: C+

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