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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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2014

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 cyberbullying 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+

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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.

a girl still

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.

a girl still 3

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.

a girl still 2

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.

13 Sins 2014 still

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-

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