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The Revenant Review

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2014

Movie Review – The Houses October Built (2014)

Movie Review – The Houses October Built (2014)

The Houses October Built (2014) is a found footage horror about a group of friends on an RV road trip in search of extreme haunted house attractions, until they are stalked by some of the more unnerving performers and the scares start coming to them. Directed by Bobby Roe, who also stars, and co-written by him and some of the others who also star, the movie begins with an intriguing premise. Halloween haunted house-like attractions are a surprisingly under-utilized setting for horror films, with the main exception being Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981). The film is part found footage, part docu-style, and although the film is sometimes creepy but not terribly scary, it does actually do a good job of making one apprehensive about visiting such attractions – it unsettles the security one feels that they will be untouched. Who exactly are behind those masks? Have there been background checks? What’s to stop a killer from dressing up and taking people out, hiding them amongst the fake body parts and theatrical blood?

As has been mentioned, there are some creepy parts to The Houses October Built, particularly one involving a girl in a porcelain doll mask. And if you’re afraid of clowns, there’s plenty of them around. The narrative actually owes a lot to The Blair Witch Project (1999), with thuds on an RV standing in ruffles on tent fabric.

However, the movie falls into some of the unfortunate traps of found footage that ironically could have been fixed with a few more lessons from Blair Witch. Firstly, we’re never given a convincing reason as to why these people would be filming everything. They say they’re documenting their trip, but real people would forget about the camera after constantly being approached by hostile locals and being terrorized by strangers in frightening Halloween costumes. Had they been documentarians committed to the craft, we might have believed their persistence in filming. Also, it would have helped to have more camera perspectives rather than the single hand-held cam and a few stationary shots from mounted cameras (and why was there a camera facing the front of the RV?).

Lastly, Houses pulls its punches far too often, having much of the violence take place off camera. Blair Witch can get away with this because of the mythology it was building and the supernatural nature of the antagonist. But in Houses they’re people in masks and what we have is the equivalent of a slasher film that turns the camera away every time someone is killed. The ending is also abrupt and anticlimactic, and the creepy characters we’ve been seeing are inexplicably replaced by henchmen in skull masks who basically all look the same. There’s simply no pay off, and I for one was left feeling very disappointed.

The Houses October Built does not reach its promising potential, but I could easily see it fitting into a rotation of Halloween films. As said before, there’s really no onscreen violence, and though it’s unrated it could easily be shown on television with very little editing. On its own it’s generally avoidable, but just before going to a haunted attraction it might serve to set the mood perfectly.

Grade: D+

Movie Review – WolfCop (2014)

Movie Review – WolfCop (2014)

WolfCop (2014), written and directed by Lowell Dean, is a Canadian comedy-horror that consciously stays within the bounds of B-movie fare. In the film, a lazy alcoholic small town cop named Lou Garou (“loup-garou” means “werewolf” in French) is abducted by Satanists and turned into a werewolf, to be used towards their own nefarious ends. Finding that he stays conscious while transformed, Garou decides to clean up the town. But things aren’t what they seem and people close to him may not be who they appear.

WolfCop earnestly tries to be a cult classic, but such a status is bestowed, not made. There are some funny sight-gags, especially one involving a genital-first transformation and another with a bloody face being thrown on a windshield. Also, I appreciated the nods to past werewolf myths and classics, from Garou’s name to the use of the pentagram (1941’s The Wolf Man) and a shop called “Stiles Autobody” (1985’s Teen Wolf).

However, WolfCop ultimately does not deliver on its promise. The acting ranges from adequate to amateur, the story moves along slowly, and a lot of the comedy falls flat. At one point Garou decides to modify his police car into something akin to a cross between the Batmobile and Knight Rider, yet the changes are purely cosmetic and never play a part in the rest of the movie. It’s symptomatic of the film’s larger problem – ultimately, there’s simply not enough here.

WolfCop is overall entertaining. It had potential and it tried to be something fun and memorable, and it sometimes succeeded in the first goal but never really attains the second.

Grade: C

Movie Review – Stage Fright (2014)

Movie Review – Stage Fright (2014)

Stage Fright (2014) is a Canadian musical slasher film written and directed by Jerome Sable. It attempts to meld the sensibilities of Glee with the post-Scream (1996) teen slasher. Starring Allie MacDonald and Meat Loaf, it opens with a brutal kill and rolls to the opening credits, then entering into a campy musical number with genuinely hilarious lyrics:

Sam Brownstein: [singing] All of us have heard these names of hate, but let me get one thing straight: I’m gay, I’m gay, but not in that way / Musicals move me and touch me in ways I can’t say.

Liz Silver, Sheila Kerry, Bethany: [singing] He’s gay, but not in that way.

Sam Brownstein: [singing] I sleep with women but musicals make me feel gay!

David Martin: [singing/butting in] I’m gay, I’m actually gay. I don’t get hard when I see T and A / Could be my DNA or how I was raised.

Liz Silver, Sheila Kerry, Bethany: [singing] We don’t distinguish here at Center Stage.

Entire Camp: [singing/dancing] We’re all gay, we’re gay in all kinds of ways!

Sheila Kerry: [singing] Some in the bedroom.

Sam Brownstein, Liz Silver, Sheila Kerry, Bethany: [singing] And some ’cause of musical plays!

It is a great opening and a promising start.

Alas, the rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to this opening. It doesn’t effectively maintain either the campy humor or the slasher violence. This latter aspect, especially, falls flat. Nevertheless, the film is entertaining throughout and Meat Loaf in particular gives a committed performance. Truly, the movie is a better musical than horror film, and Sable undoubtedly has an ear for melody. Even when I was yawning at the kills I was tapping my finger to the songs and smiling at the gusto with which some of the young actors were singing them. Had Sable pushed the horror farther, and at least threatened to have that horror visited upon the earnest young campers, it might have made the film far more potent.

Stage Fright doesn’t offer much beyond the novelty of mixing the two unlikely genres, but it makes me hope more filmmakers will attempt the marriage and succeed. It comes close but comes up short, but if another filmmaker digs a little deeper they may hit real pay dirt.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

Movie Review – The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

In the spring of 1946 the Texas town of Texarkana experienced an odd string of unsolved serial murders, known collectively as the Moonlight Murders, by a masked assailant. In 1976 a docudrama based loosely on the murders was released. The Town That Dreaded Sundown was something of a proto-slasher, and the hooded killer it depicted would go on to influence later horror films, especially Jason’s sack-mask in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981).

After watching the documentary Killer Legends (2014), which dealt in part with the Moonlight Murders, I felt it was time to look at the remake/sequel to the 1976 film. Carrying the same name, 2014’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, takes place in a world where both the Moonlight Murders and the 1976 movie exist, and a copycat is now stalking Texarkana, killing people in the same manner as the original film. An intriguing basis for a film, no doubt.

What results is an attempt at self-aware meta-horror in the style of Scream (1996). Unfortunately, the film stays too closely to the formula perfected by Wes Craven and the movie becomes predictable and lackluster. The film-makers seem more interested in sweeping camera movements than improvements to plot. The kills are derivative of typical slasher fare, being sure to insert gratuitous sexuality before most of the kills. I’m not one to complain about sex on film, but these scenes are pointless.

I know full well that many, if not most, slashers fans will disagree with me. I enjoy the subgenre, but more its earliest entries from the late 70s and early 80s, when it still took itself seriously, before it became a formulaic shadow of its former self. This film has been referred to as a return to form for slashers, but it’s not the form I prefer. I have fun watching the mindless popcorn variety, and it’s no secret that these are the overwhelming majority that were made, but I have no desire to see it reborn. I’d prefer to see the slasher movie forward instead of retread well-worn paths, and this movie doesn’t do that for me. Let the old formula go the way of Aqua Net and legwarmers. Even the meta angle, after the Scream movies, is tired.

This is all not to say that The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a bad film, because it’s not. It’s a good slasher, but the bar is so low that such a compliment isn’t high praise, and that’s partly the problem. It doesn’t try to move the subgenre forward, but merely tries to conform in the best way possible to what we already have come to expect. Given the movie’s meta-sequel status it could have been something deeper and cleverer, but it settles for the middle of road and doesn’t have much to say. If you’ve seen the Scream films, you’ve seen all that this film has to offer.

Grade: C

Movie Review – Killer Legends (2014)

Movie Review – Killer Legends (2014)

A few years back I watched the horror documentary Cropsey (2009). It began with an exploration of the urban legend of Cropsey, a child-killing maniac who lived in the woods of Long Island. He was a campfire tale told at sleepaway camps throughout the 70s and 80s, one which even inspired the slasher film The Burning (1981). The film then found connections with a real child-killer in the same area and to the infamous Willowbrook State School. The tale which unfolded was unsettling and fascinating and it made me wish there were more documentaries like it.

In 2014 the same filmmaker, Joshua Zeman, obliged and released Killer Legends for Chiller. Instead of focusing on one urban legend, this movie delves into four of them: the hook man, the babysitter killer, the poisoned Halloween candy, and the killer clown. It seeks out the real life events which may have inspired them and attempts to test their validity. The stories are disturbing, but also informative. Rather than reinforcing our fears the investigations tend to have the effect of relieving them and revealing them to be exaggerated or misplaced entirely. Nevertheless, the film doesn’t hold back from showing actual crime photos and other unsettling primary sources.

Killer Legends is thoroughly enjoyable and watchable, even if it’s not as hard-hitting as the filmmakers sometimes try to make it seem. I enjoy documentaries in general and I appreciate having ones which cross into my favorite fictional genre.

Grade: C+

Movie Review – Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (2014)

Movie Review – Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (2014)

2009’s Dead Snow, by Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola, told of a group of students fending off attacks from Nazi zombies at a cabin in the Norwegian mountains. The film was humorous and gory, but at the time I missed the overall joke, which is that these students were so enamored with American cinema that they mistook the undead Nazis for Hollywood zombies rather than as a draugr, a revenant of Norwegian folklore obsessed with protecting its treasure. Had they been more educated about their own culture, they may have fared a little better against the undead. Dead Snow is a cultural lesson that is easily lost in translation for foreign viewers.

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (2014), filmed in Iceland, picks up right after the first film, and it does so with gratuitous gusto. It’s lighter in tone and heavier on gore. Want to see Nazi and Soviet zombies do battle? Want to see three American nerds – including a Star Wars fan girl and a Trekker – team up with a gay Norwegian to kick some zombie ass? Want to have hilariously disturbing images stuck in your head hereafter each time you hear Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”? Of course you do! And Dead Snow 2 brings it. It’s one of those movies where you keep asking yourself, “Are they really going to go there?” And the answer is almost always YES, and you’re glad that they did. Plus we get the hulking Derek Mears, who played Jason in the 2009 reboot of Friday the 13th, as the reanimated Soviet leader Stavarin.

Dead Snow 2 still
Stig Frode Henriksen in Dead Snow 2.

The references to American cinematic culture are more endearing this time around. Instead of lamenting its prevalence, it embraces and revels in it. My only real gripe with these movies is that I never felt a connection to the main protagonist, but the second film solves that by surrounding him with likable allies that we gladly root for. The first movie was filmed only in Norwegian, but this sequel was filmed in English as well. While I certainly recommend the first film, the plot is so thin that you don’t really need to see it to watch this movie, and if I could only recommend one it would be this sequel.

Grade: B

Movie Review – Doc of the Dead (2014)

Movie Review – Doc of the Dead (2014)

Doc of the Dead (2014), written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, who also directed 2010’s The People vs. George Lucas, is a documentary which focuses on the zombie subgenre and its cultural impact. Made with the help of Red Letter Media, whose YouTube channel features one of my favorite shows, “Best of the Worst,” and having interviews with the iconic Bruce Campbell and some of horror’s other greats, this film should have been a home run.

However, at least for my tastes, Doc of the Dead is too light on film history and too bloated with cutesy zombie-culture consumerism filler that I found myself quickly getting bored, and I don’t have a particularly short attention span. It’s not a bad movie but it’s about twenty minutes too long and about twenty IQ points too shallow to be really engaging. Not to mention, the perspective which it examines is purely American, missing the chance for some cross-cultural insight. In an era where we have superb horror culture documentaries like 2010’s Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, horror fans can and should expect more from documentarians who choose to cover our genre. Doc of the Dead is light nonfiction that can be watched with the family around Halloween, but you won’t come away with a more than superficial understanding of zombies and their place in culture after viewing it, and for a film that markets itself as “the definitive zombie culture documentary,” that kind of misses the point.

Grade: C-

Movie Review – The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

Movie Review – The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014) is a sequel to 2012’s The Woman in Black and the first Hammer Film Productions sequel since 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. Directed by Tom Harper and written by Jon Croker, the plot is adapted from a story written by Susan Hill, author of the original The Woman in Black novel. In it we follow Eve Parkins in WWII, played by Phoebe Fox, who as deputy headmistress is charged with escorting and caring for London orphans whose homes were destroyed during the Nazi blitz. With housing scarce and the attack of bombers ever-present, the government commandeers the abandoned Eel Marsh mansion as a makeshift orphanage, unknowing that the place is inhabited by a malevolent entity that targets children.

In my review of Hammer’s previous offering, 2014’s The Quiet Ones, I praised the detail of the period set designs while condemning its over-reliance on fake jump scares. With Angel of Death, Hammer moves further into both territories. The period setting of the film is beautiful, brought to life by crisp cinematography, nice costumes, and impressive set design. However, sometimes scenes are so dark and murky that making anything out, scary or mundane, was an unnecessary chore. The war is incorporated in interesting ways, especially in regard to the character of Harry Burnstow, played by Jeremy Irvine. Performances are generally strong, with Helen McCrory as Headmistress Jean Hogg being the notable example.

There are a few genuinely creepy moments in Angel of Death, but they’re diluted by a constant assault of irritating false scares. Remember the last time you were watching a beautiful scene and someone needlessly jumped out and scared the crap out of you? Remember how much fun that was for you? Me neither. Jump scares are fine in horror films when they are something we should be genuinely afraid of – after all, the thrill of being scared is partly why we watch them. But here we get a crow flying in front of a window, Parkins tripping over bells, people popping up quickly for no damn reason constantly, each time with the sound blaring to announce their arrival, as though we could miss it. It distracts us from the story. It’s annoying. It’s insulting. It ruins a tension-filled experience as the heart is sent racing for the dozenth time for no purpose at all pertaining to the plot. Towards the end we get a few jump scares used right, but by this point the viewer’s good will and patience has been worn too thin.

Please Hammer, don’t squander that good will. I love your sets and your attention to period piece horror. Your camerawork is beautiful and the stories have been promising. But lay off the damn fake jump scares; it’s beneath you. It makes the kind of movie that nongenre critics would be genuinely surprised by into exactly the sort of movie they lay hate upon the genre for, and in cases like this I can’t blame them.

Grade: C-

Movie Review – The Quiet Ones (2014)

Movie Review – The Quiet Ones (2014)

The Quiet Ones (2014) is another installment of the Hammer Film Productions revival, coming two years after the generally well-received The Woman in Black (2012). The earlier film dripped with superb sets and exquisite costume designs but was too reliant on jump scares, including those damned fake ones, to be anything truly remarkable for me. What could have been a new tension-filled Gothic classic instead became an incessant assault of things flying at the screen to the point where tension was too often lost. Directed by John Pogue, The Quiet Ones falls into many of the same traps.

The story is set in 1974 where an Oxford professor and three young people set out to use science to help a young woman tormented by what she believes is a spirit. It is loosely based upon the actual 1972 parapsychological Philip experiment which was conducted in Toronto, Canada. Philip was the name of a fictionalized ghost that the researchers sought to manifest by the sheer will of the experiment’s participants, helped by traditional séance conditions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the experiment was considered a failure by critics.

The film is largely seen through the eyes of the working-class local hired to film the girl’s treatments, and so the film continually transitions from traditional narrative to his docu-style footage. Once again, the sets are nicely done and at times the cinematography and lighting is very appealing. Additionally, the acting is good, particularly by Olivia Cooke, who plays the tortured girl. She’s able to transition from menacing to a sweet vulnerability in a convincing manner.

When the film is restrained it excels, but too often it seems to seek to meet a jump scare quota every three minutes. This is often achieved by ratcheting up the volume to an absurd decibel which stops being scary and quickly becomes annoying, making the movie’s title an irritatingly ironic misnomer. Plus, the film’s promising first two acts are squandered on a disappointing ending that is not really worthy of what came before.

I wish that these Hammer films, which show so much potential, would also show more confidence in their craft and allow the audience, meaning us, to immerse ourselves in the film. Instead they keep us at a distance by throwing things in our faces or battering our eardrums. By doing continuous jump scares, whatever tension that was built is immediately lost. Sure, the person watching the movie involuntarily jumped, but a second later they’re laughing and not at all scared.

A jump scare should be earned and it should be a part of the danger, such as in the way James Wan employs them in Insidious (2010). That film has plenty of jump scares but they are always something worth getting scared about. They increase the sense of danger because they are dangerous – they’re not cats or birds or idiot friends bumbling unexpectedly into the camera shot. Anything else is the stuff of amateurs or charlatans, in my opinion, with very few exceptions. It shows a filmmaker who is not confident that they have their audience, or one who is strictly making a film for teens looking for an assault on their senses. Either way, I’d like to see Hammer Film Productions do better, because they keep hinting that they have it in them to do so.

Grade: C

Movie Review – Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)

Movie Review – Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)

Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014) is another intentionally campy made-for-television movie and is the second installment in the Sharknado series. In sitting down to watch this I hoped that the second time around for director Anthony C. Ferrante would reveal that he has learned some new tricks in keeping the movie interesting and solving the slower, duller moments of the previous entry. Overall, he has, but Sharknado 2 is only slightly more watchable than its predecessor.

The kills are actually less numerous, but this time around the script writers give us things to watch in between, like E-list celebrity cameos (Wil Wheaton and Biz Markie) and horror homages that include the Twilight Zone and, of course, Jaws (1975). It’s still intentionally bad filmmaking and the gag always threatens to wear too thin, but it does a better job at ratcheting the absurdity to comedic levels.

Sharknado 2 still isn’t something I’d recommend, but for anyone who’s curious I’d say watch this one rather than the first one.

Grade: D

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