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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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Movie Review – Unfriended (2014)

Movie Review – Unfriended (2014)

2013’s The Den was a horror film that took a novel approach, being told entirely through web-feeds, computer and phone screens, and security cameras. 2014’s Unfriended, from director Levan Gabriadze  and writer Nelson Greaves, embraces a similar scenario, taking place entirely on a teenage girl’s laptop screen as she uses social networking to talk with friends, all of whom become the target of a vengeful spirit haunting their computers. If that last sentence made you want to entirely avoid this film, I deeply sympathize. However, if you can overcome initial skepticism and endure shitty teenagers for around 80 minutes, Unfriended does certain story aspects incredibly well, making the film ultimately worth checking out.

Though The Den was first to adopt an exclusively technological approach in its storytelling, Unfriended actually succeeds in making the process more fluid and natural. It’s a film that understands and utilizes the technology to surprisingly effective degrees, and teen viewers especially are likely to have no problem following the busy laptop screen. Filmed in one house with each of the cast members located in different rooms, the actors acted out their roles in single long takes and were encouraged to improvise. The result is believable performances and some clever story elements and scenarios.

What Unfriended does best is address the devastating, unrelenting nature of cyber-bullying while also showcasing how people will be cordial when speaking face-to-face but vindictive and malicious when communicating through a social media platform, often in the same moment. The laptop screen we follow is Blaire’s, performed convincingly by Shelley Hennig, and we learn about her character through her digital footprint and those times in which she begins to type something before thinking better of it and deleting it. It is these elements which are the strongest.

Unfriended isn’t as strong when it comes to the horror elements, and some of the scares come off as a bit too tame and unintentionally goofy, but they’re forgivable hiccups for a film that rises above its simple subject matter and treats its story with more thought and insight than is generally expected from a teen horror film.

Grade: C+

Unfriended is available on streaming and Blu-ray.

Movie Review – Tusk (2014)

Movie Review – Tusk (2014)

In an early scene in Kevin Smith’s Tusk (2014), Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) tells his girlfriend that it was worth it for a guy who lost his leg because he became famous for it. By the middle of the film, Bryton, who had let fame go to his head and now found himself at the mercy of a mad man bent on making him into a walrus, would no doubt wish to retract his former position. This is the overlying message of the film –that personal relationships and being a decent person are more important than money or fame – but one could be forgiven for not seeing past the odd antics that Smith puts on display.

Tusk began as a conversation on Smith’s SModcast podcast where they riffed on an idea inspired by an actual news article and reached out to listeners to decide if a film should be made about it. This is certainly not the strongest basis on which to found a film, but it makes for an interesting experiment, and an experiment is perhaps the best way to approach the movie.

Smith has a legion of loyal fans who will defend him to Judgment Day as well as detractors who are equally as vehement in their opposition. Smith’s movies were an important part of my formative years in the 90s, and of his films that I’ve seen and had occasion to revisit, I’ve liked about half of them. This puts me about dead-center in the Smith debate, which is a way of saying that I was neither expecting to love nor hate this film upon sitting down to watch it. I’d certainly heard strong opinions on both sides, but I cleared my mind as best I could and was determined to give it as fair a chance as possible.

There’s a lot in this film that works. Firstly, it’s well-cast: Justin Long does a convincing job in his reactions and emotional transitions and Michael Parks as the Dr. Frankenstein-like walrus-lover Howard Howe commands the screen each time he’s present. Smith appears to take some inspiration from Quentin Tarantino with long scenes of dialogue between animated characters, and those between Long and Parks really work, especially when Howe is recounting his oceanic adventures to a slowly drugged Bryton. Some of the absurdist comedy sticks, and I admit to laughing aloud at a few scenes, particularly at an unexpected walrus battle late in the film.

All that being said, there is just as much in the film that doesn’t work, and these closely relate to what has already been said. The long dialogues which come later in the film drag on too long and pale in comparison to the former. A certain flashback scene involving an overly-acted Québécois detective and the killer is painful to watch. Also, the humor involving Canada and the “ugly American” stereotype falls flat. Lastly, Smith should be commended for going “full walrus” in this film, but the narrative begins to stutter and scenes feel more and more like filler as the film shuffles to its rather unsatisfying conclusion.

Like a shoddily stitched walrus suit, Tusk is an uneven amalgam that manages to remain interesting even when it’s struggling to remain afloat. There’s some good filmmaking on display, but to enjoy it requires considerable viewer patience and good will to see it through.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – Annabelle (2014)

Movie Review – Annabelle (2014)

2013’s The Conjuring, directed by James Wan and based upon the claims of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, was a massive hit. Wan’s smart direction elevated even the hokiest script elements and made even my personal distaste for the Warrens palatable. One of the most memorable images of the film was of the “possessed” doll, Annabelle. The real Annabelle is a Raggedy Anne doll that resides in a glass case in The Warren’s Occult Museum, but Wan decided to instead create a porcelain doll with a sinister smile and deathly pallor. I have an aunt at whose house I slept over many times when I was young, and I would often bed in a room filled with antique porcelain dolls, their ghostly pale faces staring at me in the moonlight. It’s likely due to my largely skeptical nature that I ever closed my eyes.

Of course, the inevitable Annabelle spinoff was expected, because… Hollywood. The film is directed by John R. Leonetti, who has only two other films to his directorial name, one of them being 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, panned by critics and fans alike and often listed as among the worst sequels in history. While this leaves little promise for the viewer, what Leonetti has lacked in directorial craft he has made up for in talent as a cinematographer, bringing a wonderful mise en scène to multiple Wan films, including Insidious (2011) and The Conjuring.

Annabelle is a prequel to The Conjuring and follows a young married couple as they expect a baby. The doll is given by the husband to the wife and soon violent events transpire to attach a hippie demon to the doll. I’m not kidding. The script for the film is unfortunately lackluster and tends to meander. Also, right from the beginning it is inconsistent with The Conjuring despite recreating that earlier film’s opening scene with the nurses talking with the Warrens about the doll. In that scene, the film clearly displays on the bottom of the frame, “Annabelle Case – Year 1968”. Therefore, because we can count, we expect this prequel to take place either in that year or prior. But instead in Annabelle we see news footage of the Tate-Labianca murders by the Manson Family, which took place in August of 1969, and several months pass throughout the film which would put us safely into 1970, at least. This may seem like a minor quibble to most, but when basic chronology is ignored so blatantly is serves as an ill omen of what may come. There are other anachronistic elements, but I’m so anal as to list them all here. I don’t expect historical fidelity in films, despite my wishes to the contrary, though I do expect a franchise to follow its own timeline, especially when evoking the period is such a characteristic element. However, one plot hole which bothered me that I believe bares mention is that we are multiple times drawn to the fact that the couple can hear the people who live above their apartment, but we see many times, in many ways, that the couple lives on the top floor.

The beginning of the film makes several references to the societal changes of the 1960s, with mention of the neighbor’s daughter running off with “the hippies” and talk of keeping the door locked because “it’s a different world.” The Manson murders serve to further illustrate this. However, the cumulative effect, while perhaps unintentional, is to depict hippies in an exclusively negative light, as the only ones we see are of Manson’s ilk. Had these real life murders not been introduced, the movie may have in fact been improved, not to mention more chronologically sound. It may be in keeping with the contemporary fears of more conformist factions, but viewers having no knowledge of the peace movement or of the benign character of Woodstock could easily come away thinking 1960s counterculture was about murderous cultists out to destroy the lives of clean-cut, church-going, Barry Goldwater-loving Americans. With The Conjuring beautifying the Warrens, both their dubious paranormal claims and their staunchly Catholic approach, I can’t help but feel that the franchise is destined to be very politically and socially conservative, whether by inspiration from its source material or by design.

Annabelle Wallis does fine as the main protagonist, Mia Form, and the rest of the cast also are serviceable. Many nods are made to 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but the film forgets to surround their main girl with interesting characters and dynamic actors, which that classic film did so well, making the goings feel overly drawn out. As I watched I kept asking myself if this young couple has parents or friends, for their inclusion may have added a desperately needed dynamism to the story or presented further opportunities for scares while allowing the couple to not suspect the doll sooner without appearing overly dense. The ending of the film, too, is rather drab.

However, there are some impressive set pieces that Leonetti is able to orchestrate, particularly a well-paced home invasion early on in the film and a few effective jump scares, none of which are, thankfully, fake. Also, Wan returned to direct a tension-filled elevator scene. There also some less effective, and unintentionally funny, scares along the way, but they’re not so pervasive as to ruin the film.

Annabelle is, like a knockoff doll, a film of varying quality. There are some finely crafted pieces held together with cheap stitching and seams which continually show, ever threatening to come undone.

Grade: C

Movie Review – Oculus (2014)

Movie Review – Oculus (2014)

Mirrors have been a favorite prop of filmmakers going back to the very beginning. In 1913’s The Student of Prague, the first feature length horror film, a malicious doppelganger is culled from the title character’s reflection. Mirrors symbolize self-examination, often resulting in fears of our own terrible potentials, and portals to other realities, making them a superb storytelling element which is all too often squandered by directors looking for a tired, silly jump scare. Occasionally horror filmmakers will make the mirror the focus, sometimes giving it malevolent agency, such as in 1945’s Dead of Night or 2008’s Mirrors, though rarely are such attempts successful.

S.S. Prawer, in his Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror, writes of the effectiveness of mirrors in horror films: “Here claustrophobic and agoraphobic motifs come together. The mirror experience is claustrophobic when it hems us in and throws our own face back at us… It is agoraphobic when… the mirror opens out into an unfamiliar space, reflecting a room quite different from that in which it hangs.” The mirror may also “assert dark energies, allow glimpses of a repressed part of the personality, a world of violence and sexuality with which the characters cannot come to terms.” However,

“the mirror may be most disconcerting of all when it reflects nothing, registers an absence: the absence of a reflection, das verlorene Spiegelbild, an uncanny motif that runs from popular superstition via the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann to the vampire films of the thirties and sixties.

As has been often noted, mirrors have a relation to cinema-experience itself; their shadow-images admit us to what Cocteau called la zone, the realm between dream and reality, the tangible and evanescent” (pgs. 78-79).

2014’s Oculus effectively embraces and utilizes all of these aspects to impressive ends.

Oculus 2014 still2

My first viewing of the film, written and directed by Mike Flanagan, was thoroughly enjoyable. My wife and I were impressed and the movie gave us a lot to talk about afterward. My second viewing was a solitary one, and as I sat in a dark room with only the dim glow of the television to keep me company I went to press play… and I hesitated. I don’t often get scared by horror films – it’s their macabre phantasmagorical quality that attracts me more than the frights – but Oculus unsettled me in ways I hadn’t appreciated the first time around. I had wanted to revisit it for a while, to see if it held up to a second, more scrutinizing viewing, and I was silently thankful that no mirrors adorned the walls in my room as I did so.

The plot centers on two adult siblings, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who come together to fulfill a vow they made as children – to kill the haunted mirror they believe is responsible for the deaths of their mother (Katee Sackhoff) and father (Rory Cochrane). The film continually shifts back to an earlier timeline when Kaylie and Tim were kids, revealing as the story progresses their prior experiences with the mirror. The narrative effortlessly alternates between the two timelines, and as the story progresses and the horror gets ramped up the timelines begin to converge in clever ways, ways which become an artistically viable way of allowing the audience to experience the characters’ disorientation without losing the plot. As the minutes pass the doom becomes ever more palpable.

Oculus 2014 still

The mirror manipulates and alters its victims’ perceptions, and our own fallible minds are a central theme in the story. Our understanding of the world is unreliable – our senses deceive us, our memories can be insufficient or even false, and our self-analysis can be our own worst enemy. Sackhoff as the mother, in a magnetic performance, embodies this in another way, through suggestions of body dysmorphia. Sackhoff is a beautiful actress of strong, stellar physique, yet her character’s self-esteem is teetering on the edge as she becomes overly conscious of her weight and a scar which she fears is becoming more visible. The mirror exploits fears and weaknesses to steadily grind down its targets, ultimately showing its beholders that which they fear. The father is seduced by the mirror and becomes convinced of his own maliciousness. “It is me,” he says as he looks at his own twisted reflection, “I’ve met my demons and they are many. I’ve seen the devil, and he is me.”

All of the performances are strong, including the actors who play the younger Kaylie and Tim. Truly, this is one of the best “children in peril” films I’ve seen, setting up an arc for the kids as they try their best to overcome the mirror and their dangerous parents while dedicating themselves to saving each other. For children, the notion of the adults you trust turning on you is terrifying. I recall being disturbed by Tobe Hooper’s remake of Invaders from Mars (1986) as a kid for that very reason. Oculus excels at this. Nevertheless, a powerful message of the importance of family runs throughout, and this makes the audience root for young Kaylie and Tim even more. Oculus is highly recommended; it is a smart, well-told horror tale with fantastic images and a continually growing sense of dread.

Grade: B+

Movie Review – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Movie Review – A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was tagged upon its release as “The first Iranian vampire Western,” and that turns out to be a very apt description. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, an Iranian-American filmmaker in her feature film debut, the film blends the styles of various genres into a stunningly beautiful black and white presentation, seen through the lens of an Iranian immigrant sensibility. While the language of the film is Farsi and the location is set in a fictional Middle Eastern town which the characters call Bad City, the actual filming location was the town of Taft in southern California with a cast of fellow Iranian-American actors.

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The film follows the parallel lives of Arash, a young man dealing with a drug addicted father, and The Girl, a vampire who stalks the night and feeds upon the lower dregs of Bad City. Both are lonely figures who find something attractive in the other, and the movie, in addition to the other genres mentioned, is very much an understated romance.

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Bad City is the Middle Eastern industrialized equivalent of the American frontier town where law and order are of pure vigilantism. If the allusion weren’t made clear enough, the music that is played several times as Arash drives through the streets will remind audiences of a Sergio Leone Western, and we even see a cross-dresser playing with a balloon wearing a kitschy, tasseled cowboy novelty shirt. The Girl wanders the night wearing a black chador, and as the wind catches the fabric it spreads to evoke a bat spreading its wings. Her targets are predominantly abusive men, and the commentary and criticism of the misogyny of many Middle Eastern countries is certainly not accidental, nor is the use of the chador as her predatory attire. She is the stand-in for the lone gunman in this lawless land.

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We see oil pumps continually rising and falling, like the pecking of hungry hens, drawing oil from the earth symbolically as The Girl draws blood from her victims. Both can be viewed as addictions, and the themes of dependence and moral conflict are strong. We see characters trying – and often failing – to maintain an ethical standard while also maintaining a standard of living. Eventually, one must give way to the other.

Amidst these ideas is a gorgeous, largely quiet film. The aesthetics draw inspiration from teen cultures of the 1950s and 1980s. Though Arash and The Girl look like they’re from different decades, the combination somehow works and adds an additional quirky layer to an already eclectic film. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night makes something distinctive by borrowing from familiar elements and employing them in new, unique ways.

Grade: B+

Movie Review – Haunt (2014)

Movie Review – Haunt (2014)

Haunt (2014) is the directorial debut of Mac Carter and tells of a family who moves into a new house with tragic past. The teenage son begins a physical relationship with a neighbor girl and together they use an EVP box to discover that the house in haunted and try to appease the increasingly dangerous spirits.

Aesthetically the film takes its cues from James Wan, invoking elements of Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013), to varying success. Story-wise there isn’t much new here and some of the plot elements, like the EVP box or the subplot involving the younger sister seeing the ghosts, are clunky and not well explained. We get some effective scenes, like a possessed teenager getting up like a marionette, but we also get an overabundance of creepy music and loud audio cues to let us know we’re supposed to be scared. Clichés as well as ghosts haunt the tale.

The perspective of the film is a decidedly teenage one. The two protagonists are the main focus and the adults are, as per genre tropes, either disbelieving of them or unwilling to assist. However, credit should be given for treating the teenagers with a modicum of intelligence and respect. The young characters are seen as morally responsible, caring, and to a small extent philosophical about their situation. Because of this, even though Haunt has nothing to really recommend it to an adult audience or to experienced horror fans – we’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it done better – this is actually a decent option for teenagers to watch who are just getting into horror. There’s an element of sexual awakening but nothing overtly sexual and teen viewers will likely not feel demeaned or insulted by their depiction throughout the film. In a genre that often offers their age group condescendingly shallow movies, Haunt at least allows the characters to talk through their problems and to treat those around them with dignity and concern.

Grade: D+

Movie Review – Animal (2014)

Movie Review – Animal (2014)

2014’s Animal, directed by Brett Simmons and produced by Drew Barrymore, is a creature feature whose formula is about as imaginative as the title would suggest – a group of friends go hiking and get attacked by a creature, joining with another group inside an abandoned house before being picked off one by one.

Despite being generic to a fault, Animal still manages to make the most of its obviously limited budget with a decently designed creature and competent direction. The movie looks good and the film provides for some effective jump scares as well as at least one tension-filled scene involving portable two-way radios, no doubt inspired by 1979’s Alien (a film that proves a basic title needn’t necessitate an unoriginal plot). The cast, too, is generally capable: Keke Palmer plays a strong role as Alissa and Paul Iacono as Sean gives a good performance, particularly in a well-acted but ultimately unnecessary scene where his character is cracking under the pressure and wishes to reveal painful secrets before it’s too late. The film tries to create some depth with the characters, which is appreciated, even if it doesn’t always succeed.

Yet it could have been more. We never learn about the lore of the creature, and certain aspects are hinted at but frustratingly undeveloped.  For instance, the friends are going hiking to enjoy the forest because it’s going to be cut down in a few years. Then a road is closed due to “forest regeneration,” which suggests that the forest was already cut down and is now being allowed to re-grow. We then get a quick bit of dialogue about how they’re uncertain the trees will be cut down at all. Perhaps there was a conspiracy plot point that was dropped. It’s no matter, because it all goes nowhere.

While Animal doesn’t excel in originality it also doesn’t have much to offend. Unlike its characters it sticks to the well-worn trail and it gets where it needs to in the end, and provides a passably entertaining experience along the way.

Grade: D+

Movie Review – Alien Abduction (2014)

Movie Review – Alien Abduction (2014)

You arguably can’t get a more generic a title than 2014’s Alien Abduction (well, okay, Alien is certainly more generic). Its blandness lets you know exactly what you’re in for and the lackluster poster leaves little to whet one’s interest further. That this is yet another found-footage horror is reason enough for most genre fans to pass on it. Despite all that’s stacked up against this film, I still gave Matty Beckerman’s directorial debut a shot after hearing Dr. Shock (of DVD Infatuation) favorably review it on Horror Movie Podcast, and I must say I’m glad I did.

Alien Abduction follows the Morris family as they camp on Brown Mountain in North Carolina. Their journey is being documented by the autistic son Riley, who uses the camera as a coping mechanism to help him focus. This clever justification allows the filmmaker to answer the question so often posed to found-footage films, being why anyone in their right mind would continue filming when their life is in danger. Beckerman allowed the actors to adlib most of their lines, helping to generate a mostly natural dialogue between the characters. The acting isn’t stellar – nothing about the film is – but it’s certainly adequate enough to not be a distraction. When the family’s circumstances become ever odder and the extraterrestrials make themselves known, pursuing their victims relentlessly, the film moves quickly and provides for some very well-crafted jump scares.

Ultimately, Alien Abduction adds nothing new to the genre, but what it sets out to do it does well. It seeks to create a fun ride for viewers and it succeeds. As a first-time director, Beckerman is entirely competent and shows some promising creativity. If you’re looking for something light and entertaining, you could do a lot worse than Alien Abduction.

Grade: C

Movie Review – 13 Sins (2014)

Movie Review – 13 Sins (2014)

13 Sins (2014), also known as 13: Game of Death, is a remake of the 2006 Thai horror-comedy film 13 Beloved. Directed and co-written by Daniel Stamm, the story follows Elliot (Max Weber), a nice guy who is drowning in both debt and personal responsibility. One day he receives a mysterious phone call claiming he can win money by completing thirteen tasks, but soon the tasks become more destructive and criminal, transforming Elliot from a meekly passive person into an assertive individual who begins to wrestle with serious moral questions as the game delves into ever darker territory.

Already anyone reading this is likely to recognize elements of the story from many other films. Truly, the film’s strong point is not originality. However, what it lacks in new plot points it makes up for in great execution and a strong performance by Weber, who makes Elliot’s transformation, which Stamm meant to reflect drug addiction, sympathetic and convincing. Elliot finds his self-image continually compromised for the promise of wealth, but slowly begins to question whether that wealth is worth it.

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In a movie like this, predictability is inevitable, yet even when I saw a scene coming it’s generally done so well I didn’t mind. There are some twists at the end which, although not entirely surprising, are pulled off perfectly. Good practical effects help to ramp the horrific aspects of this mostly psychological thriller, and there is just enough humor infused to make the watching highly entertaining.

13 Sins’ only sin is unoriginality. Nevertheless, it manages to rise above this shortcoming to offer a fun, wholly satisfying viewing experience.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Movie Review – What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) is a horror-comedy mockumentary that doesn’t try to break new ground with vampires, but retread old tropes in funny, inventive ways. Directed and written by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who both also star in the film, it’s backward looking in the most endearing way, paying homage to the vampire’s various on-screen forms via the unlives of four vampire flatmates living in Wellington, New Zealand. There is the foppish Viago, played by Waititi, something of a Hammer Films Production dandy, who loves his antiques and pines for a woman he let go many years ago. There is the youngest, Deacon, a New Romantic who takes many of his vampiric cues from the rebels in The Lost Boys (1987). We also have the medieval-minded Vladislav the Poker, played by Clement, who represents a Gary Oldman-style Dracula who has lost his mojo. Finally there is Petyr, an 8,000 year-old feral rat-like figure in the vein of Orlok in Nosferatu (1922), who lives in the basement (which may be a comment on where the traditional vampire now resides in current cinema, thanks to films like Twilight).

Unable to leave their flat during the day, the quartet have been unable to adjust to twenty-first century life and mostly bumble their way through their various bloody conquests. Along the way they meet a young, reckless vampire and his friend Stu, a human IT tech who they inexplicably gravitate towards as he teaches them about new technology.

Stu: [Showing the vampires Google] “Anything you want to find you type it in.”
Viago: “I lost a really nice silk scarf in about 1912.”
Deacon: “Yes, now Google it.”

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Shadows is fast-paced and fun, and even when you see the jokes coming their execution is still effective and hits just the right amount of silliness. Like a This Is Spinal Tap (1984) for vampires, the movie wants these characters to succeed despite their ineptitude (and the fact that they’re serial killers). Some of the funniest scenes involve their rivalry with werewolves (not “Swear-wolves”) who appear to be part of some kind of twelve-step program. There are also many choice lines, such as when Deacon admits, “I think we drink virgin blood because it sounds cool.” To which Vladislav adds, “I think of it like this. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.” It’s one of those films that feels like it will get funnier with repeat viewings.

Vladislav: “Leave me to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
Viago: “What are you bidding on?”
Vladislav: “I am bidding on a table.”

Grade: B+

Movie Review – Starry Eyes (2014)

Movie Review – Starry Eyes (2014)

Starry Eyes (2014), written and directed by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, was partially funded by Kickstarter and made a big splash at film festivals in 2014. The film follows Sarah, played by a very talented Alex Essoe, whose desperation to become a Hollywood starlet leads her to the influence of movie studio Satanists and a dark, especially gory transformation. We meet her as she teeters on the edge, having fits of self-loathing anger and yanking her hair out, and follow her down as she falls ever deeper.

Starry Eyes is well-cast and displays some impressive cinematography, and has an electronic score that is reminiscent of John Carpenter. There is a lot to admire about the film, particularly its striking visuals and its use of metaphor. Sarah’s transformation is itself a metaphor for the ugliness of Hollywood made flesh. As her occultist producer tells her, “Ambition: the blackest of human desires. Everyone has it, but how many act on it?” He goes on to say, “This industry is a plague, Sarah. A plague of unoriginality, hollow be thy name. Yes, it’s a plague all right… You cut through the fog of this town and you get desperation, plastic parishioners worshiping their deity of debauchery. But that’s what I find interesting, Sarah. That’s what I want to capture in this film – the ugliness of the human spirit… This world is about the doers, the people who don’t just talk about what they’re going to do, they just do it! And that’s you.” This speech is key to understanding the changes in Sarah that come after, especially in how she views the mostly supportive friends which surround her. She is told that if she wants to succeed she must kill her old life and be reborn, not realizing yet just how literal this recipe is. The film takes a graphic, brutal turn in the final act, which employs some very impressive practical effects.

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The film as a whole is strong, though some aspects could have been better represented to strengthen it further. The influence of 1960s and 70s Satanist films, seen clearly in the design of the opening title as well as in various plot points, is underutilized. Sarah’s physical transformation, while compelling to watch, stalls the storyline instead of invigorating it. Also, we never really sympathize with her, our central character. We also don’t get to know the friends that surround her and how far back their connection with her goes, so when the story takes a dark turn towards them we’re left to simply marvel at the gore instead of feel emotionally affected. Also, we never see the filmmaking process even though it’s widely referenced – or do we? It’s difficult to discern if Sarah is preparing for a role or already starring in it, or both. Admittedly, this last point may not entirely be a weakness.

Starry Eyes has many strengths and its perceived weaknesses are likely to be more subjective to the individual viewer. It is certainly good filmmaking which comments effectively on the underbelly of its own industry, and it should undoubtedly be praised for that.

Grade: B-

Movie Review – It Follows (2014)

Movie Review – It Follows (2014)

David Robert Mitchell’s second film, It Follows, inspired by a recurring nightmare which the filmmaker experienced, made a big splash with both fans and critics when it was released in early 2015. Filmed in the Detroit area, the movie follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl experiencing sexual awakening who contracts a supernatural sexually transmitted disease. The boy who gives it to her, Hugh (Jake Weary), informs her that the entity will follow her wherever she goes, always walking slowly toward her, and if it reaches her will kill her. It can appear as a stranger or someone she knows. All she can do to save herself is pass it on to another. On the bare surface, the film appears like a teen’s cautionary tale about sex, and the complete lack of prophylactics would support that reading, but like a real STD there appears to be more going on beneath the surface.

Horror films, especially slashers, are often described as inherently moralistic cautionary tales. Teens are butchered for sexual and chemically-induced transgressions, and the slasher is God’s wrathful hand. However, I feel this misunderstands the purpose of horror and misinterprets its methods. Horror doesn’t seek to instill new fears into viewers, but rather to examine and exploit those already present, if sometimes unrecognized. It doesn’t say “don’t do this or this will happen,” but rather “here’s where your fears and insecurities lie, now get ready to confront them.”

Jay and her friends are in a transition period, confronting the realities of sex and entering adulthood. Jay believes the act of coitus will be freeing, but instead she finds it is a rather banal part of the human experience. Sex is neither celebrated nor condemned in the film – it simply is. It becomes another element of their mundane existence, just as taxes will one day be. Nevertheless, its introduction into their lives marks a loss of innocence, and the film’s mood emits a somber gloom regarding this. Hints of it abound: the first victim is seen apologizing to her father on the phone for being so difficult; when Jay asks Hugh who he would like to trade places with he chooses a young boy, happy and without adult worries; when Jay runs from her home the first time by riding a bicycle, she seeks the refuge of a nearby playground – a symbol of a more innocent time. The pool we see Jay floating contentedly in at the beginning, also symbolic of her childhood, is dried up after she may or may not have seduced three boaters to pass on the disease. Even though the characters are sexually active, the plan they hatch to kill “it” is the sort a child might come up with after taking too many notes from Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

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Sexual anxieties are also explored in various forms. Jay and her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) reminisce about finding porn magazines as kids and not understanding them. Later, Paul finds porn magazines in the abandoned house and thumbs through them, understanding them all too well, surrounded by discarded tissues. Will they too be used and discarded sexually by another? When we see what “it” does, in an especially Freudian manner, those fears are confirmed.

Loss of innocence is also explored in terms of class. As Yara (Olivia Luccardi), another friend, states, “When I was a little girl my parents would not allow me to go south of 8th mile. And I did not even know what that meant until I got a little older. And I started realizing that. That was where the city started and the suburbs ended. And I used to think about how shitty and weird was that. I mean I had to ask permission to go to the state fair with my best friend and her parents only because it was a few blocks past the border.” They live in a middle class neighborhood in the suburbs and, to escape, go either to the dilapidated neighborhoods of Detroit, whose abandoned decrepitude serves as a reminder of their own privilege and probable fate, or to the comfort of nature which, be it a cabin or the lakeshore, is a place associated with childhood memories. However, their escape to these settings, especially to nature, is partly out of practicality. Despite their relative economic privilege these are latchkey kids whose parents care only when they take the rare opportunity to notice. They have no adult guidance to assist them through their transition. Jay’s mother is mentioned but scarcely seen and is not viewed as a figure upon which to depend. When we see Jay drive off to the lakeshore and sleep on the car hood we are reminded that she is without income – there are no hotels to stay in, no plane tickets to buy – and she must eventually return to the comforts of the suburb.

Aside from being rich in subtext and symbolism, It Follows is also beautifully shot with an effective electronic score reminiscent of the synth scores from the early 80s or of John Carpenter’s early work, and which will likely be running through the viewer’s head long after the movie has ended. The era is purposefully indiscernible, mixing visual cues from the last few decades in a manner that keeps the viewer off kilter while allowing audiences who were born in different decades to relate in some way to the world which Mitchell has created. Yara reads off a technologically modern clam-shell e-reader, but we see the teens passing time watching old movies on an old television set or playing cards – the kinds of activities typically seen engaged by teens in movies of the late 70s or early 80s.

It Follows 2014 still

Another strong element which Mitchell uses is the camera’s gaze, which is decidedly male, lingering on the girls to emphasize their blooming sexual nature and, at times, unconscious desirability. As Hugh says of Jay, “It should be easier for her, she is a girl. Any guy would be with you.” Here he is openly acknowledging Jay’s physical desirability to those around her. Also, at one point the camera lingers on Yara’s legs, a character who throughout the film appears to have not viewed herself as particularly attractive. Ready or not, these girls are sexual objects.

The movie succeeds on many artistic levels, giving the viewer a lot to ruminate upon long after the movie has finished, and it is effectively creepy. It’s certainly one of the smartest films to come out of the genre recently. Personally, I appreciated the ambiguous ending, which may frustrate those viewers looking for concrete closure. Whether or not It Follows has the strength to maintain its longevity only time will tell.

Grade: A-

Movie Review – Zombeavers (2014)

Movie Review – Zombeavers (2014)

Zombeavers (2014) – wait, read that title again. If that word combination does nothing to spark your interest in seeing this film, you are obviously not the target audience. Clearly, the film is a horror-comedy, and it is one which combines The Killer Shrews (1959) with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Evil Dead II (1987). The first of those films is often a title mentioned when one feels the need to deride the terribly cheap drive-in movies of the 1950s (e.g., dogs dressed up as giant shrews), while the latter two movies are held as a modern classics, and rightly so. But I enjoy them all and love the idea of combining them into a modern, campy B-movie. In this respect, Zombeavers, directed by Jordan Rubin, doesn’t disappoint.

While most of the characters are unlikable and obnoxious, the beaver hand-puppets, ample gore, and practical effects are enough to satisfy any good-humored genre fan, and a few of the many jokes are actually quite funny. Plus, just when the notes begin to grow stale, especially as tired horror tropes are played for comedic effect, the script is smart enough to add some twists to keep things interesting, getting increasingly absurd in a comical, entertaining way.

Zombeavers is not high art and it doesn’t try to be. It’s a B-movie that wears its bloody beaver heart on its sleeve, and I can’t help but find that endearing.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – The Mirror (2014)

Movie Review – The Mirror (2014)

The Mirror (2014) is a British found footage film that was written and directed by Edward Boase. Boase was inspired by a 2013 news article that told of a mirror being blamed for its owners’ run of bad luck. Made on a micro-budget of only £20,000, the story centers on three flat-mates who buy a purportedly haunted mirror on Ebay and set up cameras in the hopes of winning The James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge, which until 2015 was a real challenge that offered one million dollars to whomever could scientifically demonstrate the paranormal. It was tool meant to debunk the validity of such claims and no one was able to successfully claim it.

Hoping to get rich quick, the three friends hang the unassuming mirror in their apartment and it isn’t long before one of them, Matt (Joshua Dickinson), begins sleepwalking and acting stranger and stranger. Essentially, this is the whole movie – we see Matt quietly wander the flat at night, sometimes being menacing, while those around him make profoundly stupid decisions. It becomes tedious and tiresome in equal measure, both from the film’s execution and from the thick-headedness of the characters. For instance, their apartment is broken into and they immediately blame the mirror instead of calling the cops, even though the front door was ajar when they returned and the mirror has thus far done nothing. Did the mirror trash the place and then run to the store for a pack of cigs? When their friend suddenly goes blind do they call an ambulance from the phone that is clearing mounted on the wall in the hallway? Nah, they just put him to bed and tell him to rest so they can fret endlessly about not knowing what to do.

Other questions abound: Do they work? Is Matt the only one who knows how to lock a door? Are they really going to run around the house panicking, searching for their lost and possibly homicidal friend with microphone equipment clipped to their pajamas?

So little happens with the lackluster mirror – I’ve seen creepier mirrors in Home Goods – that it becomes irritating each time they remind us it’s there and is supposedly causing these issues. We know that the mirror is, for the purposes of a horror film, supposed to be haunted, but this conclusion is continually reached through such asinine reasoning by the characters that they come to perfectly represent the very impressionable, superstitious people that The James Randi Educational Foundation seeks to expose and/or educate. I’m confident this was not the film’s intention. They may be right about the mirror because this is a horror film, but their methods in reaching this conclusion are anything but logical or reasonable. Consider their acquisition of the mirror – they purchase it on Ebay taking at face value the seller’s insistence that it’s haunted and then devote their time and resources to prove that unfounded claim. Clearly, they aren’t geniuses and would likely make very poor investment partners. With a little tweak to the script such as making the mirror a family heirloom with a legendary past their focus and dedication might have been a little easier to swallow.

While the actors do a decent job with what little they’re given, there’s nothing to recommend The Mirror. I applaud the filmmaker for making a movie with so few resources, but what is offered will be repetitive and stale to any but the newest of horror watchers. If you’ve seen the movie’s poster, you already know the lone possibly horrific scene in the movie. The same poster warns the potential viewer “Don’t Look…” That’s good advice.

Grade: D-

Movie Review – Killer Mermaid (2014)

Movie Review – Killer Mermaid (2014)

Killer Mermaid (2014), also known as Nymph and Mamula, is the first ever Serbian creature feature. The director, Milan Todorovic, also directed the first Serbian zombie film, Zone of the Dead (2009). A horror concept like a killer mermaid was once laughable, until of course we saw something like it in Cabin in the Woods (2012). Nevertheless, when you go into a creature feature like this, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect, and those expectations are never high.

Honestly, that may be to best way to approach this film, as it’s more well-done than one would at first suppose. The film begins like a B-movie exploitation flick, with a naked girl and a typical slasher-style killing, but this appears more like a ploy to get the audience’s attention as it tries to skirt away from a reliance on those tropes for the rest of the film. The first half of the movie is actually devoted to character development and flushing out their connections, which succeeds only partially. The mermaid doesn’t even enter in until the second half of the film, and her scenes are actually very impressive. The cinematography, too, is very appealing. It is shot on location at the island of Mamula, which is uninhabited and houses a nineteenth-century fort which, during WWII, was converted into a concentration camp by Italian fascists and became infamous for the tortures which occurred there.

This is all not to say that this is a great film. The acting is shaky and we spend a lot of time with characters just running around an island trying to hide from a crazed killer, sometimes making stereotypically poor decisions. Also, for some reason the movie focuses on two American girls, though one clearly has an accent (Ukrainian) which is never explained.

But really, the film tries harder than I would have given it credit for, and I was never bored while watching it. Instead, I wanted to see more of the mermaid, which is effectively only teased at for the majority of the film. She is actually creepy, which given the premise one can imagine is no small feat.

Killer Mermaid is an entertaining ride that just might surprise some genre fans in the mood for something light and fun. It’s a B-movie that doesn’t try to be an A-film, but that doesn’t condescend to its audience either.

Grade: C

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