by Craig Thomas
Since the success of the low-budget “found footage” phenomenon, The Blair Witch Project, such films have been a pound a penny. And since the technology to actually make a film has become much cheaper and far less unwieldy, they seem to have become even more popular. And even though most of them are terrible, they, like far too many terrible horror movies, make enough money to keep the cameras rolling. Some even spawn sequels. In fact, the Paranormal Activity franchise is currently up to four and number five is out later this year. There is even rumors of some kind of spin-off. The question must be then, why do those people keep filming if such dreadful things continually keep happening? It is that question that will forever remain a mystery.
Yet not all such films are terrible. [Rec], a Spanish take on the genre offers genuinely scary moments and is pretty unpredictable. So, obviously this unexpected hit now has two (and probably three) sequels, along with the obligatory awful American remake and even worse sequel. As a sub-genre it has about as much credibility as the rom-com whose protagonist is fascinated by clothes and shoes, of which there are also far too many.
So it is difficult to accurately judge the quality of films in the genre. On the one hand you have the knowledge that these films are almost universally terrible, therefore preparing you with the mindset that it is going to be terrible and you pick up on every little problem. On the other hand, you have the knowledge that these films are almost universally terrible, therefore you are overly-generous to any film in the genre which isn’t mind-numbingly dull, in one or both senses of the word.
And so it is with what is now the Grave Encounters franchise. The first, which is not particularly well known, is an ok, if sub-par, film in which a small TV crew are making a show about supposedly haunted buildings. They are not totally serious, nor are they total skeptics. They go around looking for paranormal activity, whilst hyping up non-events and bribing people to tell scary stories to maintain ratings. They then go into an old mental hospital which, surprise surprise, is actually haunted and find themselves locked in a Blair Witch-esque maze from which they are unable to escape. In the end it was a decent little film with the premise being the most interesting part, even if it didn’t live up to its potential.
What it didn’t need, and what no-one was crying out for, was a sequel.
But this is the 21st century, a century in which cinema cannot help but eat itself. Sequels, prequels, spin-offs, remakes and reboots are the order of the day. If it was a successful book, it will be a successful movie (and vice-versa with movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy getting the novelization treatment, so bitterly condemned by Woody Allen all the way back in Annie Hall). So when there is an opportunity to make money off a sure thing, rest assured, that opportunity will not be overlooked.
Which brings me to the utterly unnecessary Grave Encounters 2, which, in a list of films people didn’t want to be made, ranks only below Transformers 4 and Ghostbusters 3, (though for completely different reasons).
So what of the film?
The premise is similar to Human Centipede 2, or so I’m told. In the latter, a man becomes obsessed with the first Human Centipede film and duly sets out to recreate it, but on an even bigger scale. In Grave Encounters 2 a similar thing happens. A man becomes obsessed with the original Grave Encounters and sets out to reproduce it. I’m not seen either of the Human Centipede films, but I’m pretty sure that’s where the similarities end.
Grave Encounters 2 takes the first film as its starting point and adds another layer of meta onto it. The main characters are all in film school and are making their own horror movie. The protagonist also does video reviews to boost his profile, one of which is of Grave Encounters. He receives a message about the film and they start investigating whether or not it was “just a film”, which includes recording their investigations supposedly for his thesis, whilst another guy is recording everything for a documentary he is making about himself. It’s a bit silly, but from the outset this film clearly does not take itself too seriously, which makes the mostly horror-free exposition actually entertaining, which is a rarity in modern horror films.
The biggest problem with this film is the structure. It works on the premise that the audience has seen the original, which let’s face it, most people haven’t. If you are one of the few that did, then there will be no shocks or surprises for you, outside of the occasional jumpy bits. It is set in the same place, with the same ghosts and the characters set up the same cameras in exactly the same places. Once inside the building, the plot is basically the same, though a lot sillier and all the attempts to create unease fail spectacularly, instead generating a fair amount of laughter. Once you’ve seen a giant killer ghost thing running about, a floating camera (or even a fleet of floating cameras) is not particularly scary. In fact, it just falls into the category of overkill, as all sequels tend to do in order to one-up the predecessor.
In that case, you might think it would be better not to have seen the first film (which you probably haven’t) and delve straight into this one. Well, you would be wrong. Due to the fact it works on the assumption that you’ve seen the first one, it gives away all of the secrets and potentially scary twists that made the first one at least interesting. It shows a number of clips from the first film and exposes (and mocks) the biggest demons in the cold light of day, meaning that once they’re in the hospital, nothing is particularly surprising as you’ve seen it all in the build-up.
The best part of the film is the first 40 minutes, which is before they enter the hospital and it becomes a bigger, sillier rehash of the original.
But for all that it isn’t a bad film. It certainly isn’t good, but by the standards of the genre, it is at least entertaining, if not particularly scary. It is amusing, sometimes unintentionally so, but even when it is at its most ridiculous, at least you aren’t bored to tears.
What is most irritating about the film is that they hand themselves a perfect opportunity to shake things up and genuinely surprise the entire audience and they choose not to do it. That might have very well have made it an interesting film, which this is most certainly not.
The only thing this adds to the original is that it is more entertaining, though it does mean a proportionate level of scares are removed, though that didn’t necessarily need to be the case. If you want to see a silly movie with a couple of jumpy parts then this is the film for you.
As to the original conundrum of evaluating this sort of movie, what I have to say is this. If you go in expecting a good film then you will be sorely disappointed, if you go in expecting a terrible film you be pleasantly surprised. It generates enough goodwill in the 40-50 minutes that it will carry you through the rest of the ridiculous plot. It is around this time that a plot twist is revealed and if you can accept that for what it is then the rest of the movie will be nice enough. If you balk at it and find it too stupid for words then I’d recommend you stop watching at that point because it doesn’t get any less silly.
It is not essential watching and is little more than a cash-in on the apparent success of the original, though it is not without its charms. If you have to watch one of them then personally I would recommend the original because at least it has some creepy moments and surprises, both of which are lacking in the follow-up.
This original was an interesting, if flawed take, on the genre and this is an interesting, if flawed take on the original. The core idea at the heart of both films is interesting, though the execution leaves something to be desired.
Grave Encounters 2 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Raymond Esposito
Echoes in a Quiet Room
When Steve asked me to write an article for Anti-Film School, I was honored. When he said, the topic was “my” top five horror movies I thought, “Perfect. Two things that I love…horror and my opinion. I can write that in about ten minutes.” It took me almost five weeks…not to write the article but to choose the movies. For a horror fan and dark fiction author, asking me to pick my five favorites is like asking me to eat a single potato chip…I can do it, but it’s really difficult. There are, after all, so many great horror scenes spread out across so many movies. The challenge loomed even larger when I considered all those scenes that filled me with dread, but didn’t actually belong to a horror film. Take for example, Saving Private Ryan. It’s a war movie true, but there is one scene in that film that disturbs me more than most horror scenes I’ve watched. Near the end of the film an American soldier fights a Nazi. The Nazi gets the upper hand, pins the American’s arm and so begins the short struggle with a very large knife. The American soldier pleads while the Nazi slowly impales him all the while softly whispering. I always skip it. I’ve watched hundreds of other knife scenes that had no effect on me, but this one is different. Perhaps because there is nothing more frightening than watching another human plead for their life – not in screams of horror, but in the soft voice of reality.
So that was my dilemma. How does one decide the “best” or the “scariest”? Is it based on how many times one jumps in fear? Do you have to spend the entire film cowering in your seat? Does it matter if you were five or forty-five years old when you watched it? Can a movie from the seventies scare anyone these days? These were all difficult questions I needed to consider. I mean I can’t just “rank” things without a proper criteria – that’s anarchy. I spent a number of weeks contemplating these and many other questions. It was a quest not for my five scariest movies, but for the criteria to reduce a list of at least twenty five choices. (Steve said be creative, but I was certain he didn’t mean go ahead and make up my own rules.) Five. I needed just five.
Resonance. That was my final criteria. I decided it did not matter when the movie was made, how old I was when I saw it, or even if it was the overall scariest movie. It had to be a film that resonated long after I watched it. And resonate in a “bad way.” By that I mean I had to find myself in situations where I remembered the movie and maybe ran a little faster up the stairs, or closed the door a little quicker…and locked it, or actually decided not to do something because I remembered “that scene.” Now that level of fear may seem a little extreme for a forty six year old guy who writes horror stories. All I can say, in my own defense, is that an active imagination is both a gift and a curse. I feel sorry for people who are so pragmatic that a horror film could never scare them or those who can dismiss the darkness as just the world without light…people with imaginations understand that the darkness is so much more than just daytime’s counterpart. Those pragmatic souls may lead a braver life than me, but I don’t think they’re having as much fun. When it comes to horror, well I’m still ten years old.
Resonance. Like that scene from Saving Private Ryan. That helped. It brought my list down to eight films. Did I want to cheat? Hope that Steve would overlook my three “extra” films? Maybe he just threw out a number and didn’t really care about the actual count. I considered it. I realized however that not all eight films ranked the same in their resonance. I mean, The Strangers left me as enraged over the characters’ stupidity as I was filled with dread. That single line from the darkened doorstep, “Is Tamara here?” was creepy but it’s not like it made me pause each time the doorbell rang (well maybe for a couple of weeks.) The randomness of why the killers choose that couple, “Because you were home,” certainly confirmed my belief that the world can be dangerously random, but hey, that’s why I have a gun and a 135 pound dog. So The Strangers didn’t feel like top five material. So seven it was. And while I’ll admit I was a big fan of keeping the lights on after that opening scene of Darkness Falls, today it is hard to recall why I found it so frightening…it no longer resonates in emotion or in memory…so I was down to six.
I turned to the three films competing from my long spent youth. One was a keeper because it changed me so fundamentally that it had to be number one. The other two presented a real problem. The first film stayed with me for years and I can still recall that fear. Forty years later the “idea” still resonates. The other by and far was the scarier film and if I wanted to be popular, this would be the choice. The Exorcist should be on anyone’s list of scary films, but for me it would be number six because as crazy as it sounds, The Omega Man gave me more nightmares than the young Linda Blair and her friend Captain Howdy. It resonated longer and broader too. The hooded “white” people. Those crazy eyes. Jumping from windows onto Heston’s car and that primal requirement to “get inside before the sun set” were all the perfect fodder for my five year old imagination…and eight…and ten. Perhaps it was the combination of my age in 1971 (5), the fact that I saw it at a drive-in, and that my brother and I kept the scare alive by taking turns screaming… “Watch out for the white people,” while locking each other out of the house at sunset or in the dark basement. Today it can’t hold up to new films…but when I was five…oh boy!
So nine hundred and something words later I arrive at my top four. Number four is a little odd, for two reasons. The first is that once they cleaned up the film quality for DVD, the effects were sort of lost…I mean the gore looked fake.. The second, and bigger issue, is that following The Evil Dead were the Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness and both films turned the original into a sort of “horror-comedy trilogy.” This was not how I felt in my first viewing of The Evil Dead and I don’t believe Sam Raimi intended it as a comedy. Nonetheless, my seventeen-year-old self loved this movie and I still do, at least in memory. It stayed with me for a long time. Partly because of that “demon in the basement” scene…that is one of my primal fears…basements. But mostly because of the texture of the film and those cackling demons. Demons can talk, they can scream, hell I don’t care if they sing, but that damn giggling…that’s creepy and I want it to stop.
The film Paranormal Activity is more dividing than a presidential election. Audience opinion on Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 56%, which demonstrates that this film has only two camps…love it and hate it. The biggest criticism I hear from the haters is “it was stupid.” I’m not sure what that means, but perhaps they wanted more special effects. Maybe they needed to “see” the demon. Granted this low budget Indie only used a bag of flour and an old photo, but for me it comes in firmly in the number three position. It resonated. I jumped several times during the film and actually felt something I don’t often experience during horror films…fear. Sometimes it’s what we don’t see that frightens best. Years later I still worry that I may awake to find my wife standing over me in the darkness (I’m not worried that she’ll be dragged down the hall because I see that as my escape opportunity.) I thought about setting up a camera to assuage my fear but then thought, “wait I saw that movie…everybody dies.” We have an attic hatch in our laundry room. It’s a low ceiling attic, more like a crawl space and I’ve never been up there. I have no desire to come face to face with a spider in a place that I can’t run. (I have no facts to support that spiders live in our attic, but it’s prudent to err on the side of caution.) Sometimes at night when I pass that dark laundry room, I think about that hatch. I wonder if there is a photo of someone I know sitting amongst the installation. I often pick up my pace as I pass and try to keep my eyes forward, but at times…it’s just so difficult not to steal a glance.
Six months after I saw my number two film I was in a hotel traveling on business. Every now and again I get it in my head to take the stairs just to burn a few extra calories (I pretend twenty steps will offset that coffee cake muffin I ate). On this particular night, I took the two flights up to my room. It was a well-lit and well maintained stairway at the Hilton. Absolutely nothing to conjure thoughts of creepiness. Halfway up I remembered The Grudge and thought, “this is exactly why people die in horror films you idiot…now run!” I don’t often take my own advice, as my pragmatic self can be a real f-in kill-joy, but that night I did. Later… after I locked the door, turned on all the lights, checked under the bed and in the closet, and pulled back the bathtub curtain (don’t invite trouble leaving that closed) … I felt foolish for running up those stairs. The Grudge had so many great moments. Probably the “under the covers” scene was the worst, followed closely by “meow boy” and “whatever the hell that mouth noise was.” I still like to think about it from time to time. It doesn’t scare me as much today, but I can still remember how much it did frighten me. It still resonates at least in memory.
When a film touches a “primal” fear, when that film changes how you experience an activity, when it can transfer to any body of water…that is the ultimate definition of “resonates.” Before the summer of 1975 I was a water rat. We lived in Connecticut about thirty minutes from the beach and I loved the ocean. At the age of nine, I was certainly aware of sharks, but seldom thought about them beyond science class. After Jaws my love of the ocean was forever tainted. Besides being frightened of the sea, my nine year old self began to question the safety of ponds and lakes…and swimming pools. Several times I had a dream that my bed had been washed out to sea and the waves kept threatening to toss me into that dark green water where Jaws waited. I guess being in the ocean is like that attic crawl space…not much chance of escape. I live in Fort Myers Florida now and still go to the beach and I still swim in the warm gulf. Never though without consideration that perhaps at that very moment, a black-eyed death is charging silently towards me. And all these years later I still take a quick look at the deep end of my pool before I get in, I pretend I’m checking for snakes (they get in sometimes) and in part I am, but in truth I’m also looking for that fin. Jaws may not be a horror story in the classic sense, but its attack on primal fears, the way it forever changed my thoughts on the ocean, and for being an iconic symbol, it earns its place as number one on my list.
So those are my top five horror films…with some creative cheating to add the others…and it is what I love about the genre. It’s a personal experience – some things scare universally but most just individually. I don’t believe special effects cause fear. I’m not even certain it is the monsters on the screen. I believe the truly haunting moments, the terrifying things are just a reflection of the stuff we brought with us to that movie. The dark little thoughts our imaginations create and our rational minds work to hold at bay. And when every so often, if we’re lucky, a story stirs those fears, we hear the sounds like echoes in a quiet room, and they whisper to us… Yes, I understand.”
A little about Raymond:
American novelist, Raymond Esposito lives multiple lives. He is a husband, father of five, the executive vice president of an international professional services firm, proprietor of the website Nightmirrors.com, and when time allows, the voice of Graveyard Radio. His debut novel, “You and Me, Against the World,” is book one of his Creepers Trilogy and provides his own spin on the zombie apocalypse.
To purchase “You and Me, Against the World,” click here.
by Steve Habrat
A few years ago, I happened to catch an episode of Sy-Fy’s Destination Truth, the reality show where obnoxious douche bag Josh Gates hunts down paranormal entities and other beasties around the world. In the episode, the extremely unfunny Gates and his crew traveled to Ukraine to investigate the ghosts of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The episode claimed that many of the guards who man the multiple checkpoints into the abandoned city have seen ghostly apparitions and various other creepy things that you’d most likely not want to see in the dark. The episode did catch a handful of “evidence” and whether it is authentic or not is anyone’s guess, but I will say that what the group supposedly caught was pretty unsettling. It’s hard for me to believe that a paranormal reality show with an irritating host could actually creep me out more than director Bradley Parker’s new horror throwaway Chernobyl Diaries but that’s the truth. Chernobyl Diaries has plenty of atmosphere, enough to pass out to a slew of other lame Hollywood spookfests, but the lack of any character development, sharply written dialogue, and a payoff that seems like it was ripped off from The Hills Have Eyes contaminate what could have been a decent little horror movie. At least we get a free tour of a fake Pripyat complete with lots of blood!
Chernobyl Diaries introduces us to Chris (Played by Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Played by Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Played by Devin Kelley). While on a tour of Europe, the group stops by Kiev, Ukraine, to visit Chris’s brother Paul (Played by Jonathan Sadowski), who is delighted by their visit. The group goes out clubbing and doing things that the kids in Hostel did way back in 2006. After a night of boozing, Paul asks the group if they have ever heard of “extreme tourism” and then asks if they are familiar with the Chernobyl disaster. The group mumbles that they are somewhat familiar with it but they don’t seem too sure (Kids today! Tsk, tsk.). After meeting up with their sketchy tour guide Uri (Played by Dimitri Diatchenko) and Australian backpacking couple Zoe (Played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and Michael (Played by Nathan Phillips), the group piles into a rusty Mystery Machine-esque van and heads for the abandoned city of Pripyat. Uri finds an unguarded back way in to the quarantined city and begins exploring the radiated ruins. When the group goes to leave, the van refuses to start, stranding the tourists in the thick darkness that falls at night. The group soon discovers that they are not alone in Pripyat and they start disappearing one by one.
Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli produces Chernobyl Diaries and it shows in the way the film is shot. A good majority of the shots are the shaky, hand-held approach but the film never falls into mockumentary territory. Using a great location, the early parts of Chernobyl Diaries, the ones where the group snoops around the abandoned buildings and gets fed little fun facts by Uri is really interesting, especially if you aren’t familiar with the disaster. The shots are unforgettable, a little girl’s doll lies near the twisted skeleton of a playground, a Ferris wheel stands eerily still surrounded by barely recognizable bumper cars with weeds sitting in the driver’s seat. At times, it does feel like a “found footage” type film, especially in these early, documentary/tour style sequences. When the lights go out and things start going bump loudly in the dark, the film really takes on a Paranormal Activity feel but it becomes repetitive and the spine-tingling effect quickly wears off.
Chernobyl Diaries suffers from unconvincing acting that never once comes off as natural. The dialogue is fake and forced, coming from characters that are not particularly likable and who make one dumb decision after another. The early scenes between Chris and Paul are a little too sugary sweet (“I’m so happy you’re here, little bro!” *the two wrap each other up in a big bro bear hug) and offer little to no background about their characters. About the only things we do learn is that Chris plans to propose to Natalie and that Paul is constantly getting Chris into trouble. I really didn’t care for either of their characters, Chris constantly whining and in hysterics over their situation and Paul acting like an illogical hardass. The three gals all resort to screaming, crying, and running away from shadowy tormentors we never really see. They are all there to just look hot for the male audience members. Uri is a fairly entertaining character but his role is tour guide and it stays that way. Phillips and Berdal do a passable job as the Australian backpacking couple but we barely hear a word from Berdal. Phillips’s Michael is the only one who uses any form of common sense and the only one of the characters I actually was rooting for.
Chernobyl Diaries refuses to offer up any clear explanation about the shadowy figures that have been attacking this pretty group of morons for an hour and half. Normally, I would say that is a good thing, especially in a horror film. In a horror film, the less we know about the monsters, the creepier they are (Original Halloween anyone? We know next to nothing about Michael Myers!), but here, it would have been nice to know what these things are. We don’t even get the luxury of that and all we know is that they seem to bark! The final forty-five minutes of Chernobyl Diaries is basically the group running around different parts of the city, giving us an extended and up-close tour of the underbelly of Pripyat. Director Parker does do a fantastic job recreating the restricted city (the film was not actually filmed in Pripyat), one of the only aspects of Chernobyl Diaries worth praising. Parker and Peli end up leaning too heavily on the chilling atmosphere, paying more attention to that than the people we are supposed to be rooting for (Or are we?). Overall, if you really want to be chilled to your core, Google pictures of Pripyat or even check out that episode of Destination Truth (that is, if you can stand Josh Gates for more than five minutes). The real incident is far more unsettling than any pricey CGI mutant or sudden loud noise that Hollywood can throw at us.
by Steve Habrat
Hollywood must have finally understood that America has had enough of the mindless torture porn horror films that they pushed upon audiences for years. I think the Saw franchise finally coming to end allowed multiple demonic horror and haunted house fright films to make their way back into local theaters. Sadly, these ghost films relied too heavily on the mockumentary/found footage technique that also worn out its welcome by the second Paranormal Activity. As far as straightforward horror films go, last year’s Insidious was a stand out and now we have The Woman in Black, a Hammer horror film that retains the gothic flourishes that was popular in films like 1959’s House on Haunted Hill and 1963’s The Haunting. Hammer Productions was famous in the 1950s for giving Universal’s Monsters alluring makeovers. Their hunger for style is alive and well in The Woman in Black as is a whole slew of good, old-fashioned bumps in the night.
Set in the early 1900s, The Woman in Black follows the young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Played by Daniel Radcliffe), who has found himself on rocky terms with firm he works for. Arthur carries a broken heart for his deceased wife who passed during childbirth and he also faces financial difficulties that have put a lot of pressure on his job. The firm he works for assigns him to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned Eel Marsh House, a marooned mansion that sits on an island in the northeast of England. Despite the protests of his young son Joseph, Arthur departs to a small village just outside of where the mansion is located. Despite warnings by the locals, who tell him to leave and forget about the mansion, Arthur stays to complete the paperwork and protect his job. Arthur also happens to become friendly with a wealthy local man named Sam Daily (Played by Ciarán Hinds), who fills him in on superstitions that run rampant through the village. After witnessing a bizarre string of suicides by several local children and the appearance of a disturbing apparition of a woman in all black, Arthur begins uncovering family secrets that are buried in Eel Marsh House.
Carried by a damp, nippy atmosphere, The Woman in Black establishes an ambiance and it never budges. There is barely any sunlight in the film and few characters ever muster up a smile or grin. The film only pauses once to give the audience a quick chuckle before it shifts back into gloom. To director James Watkins, atmosphere is everything, giving the scares more oomph. The downside to all of this is that he accompanies most of the scares by loud blasts on the soundtrack to make us jump. To make it worse, half the time it is a fake scare that only turns out to be a raven or a carriage driver. When Watkins isn’t falling back on easy creeps, he composes an image that confidently gives you the willies. The woman in black stands in a graveyard and in the blink of an eye, she is gone. Arthur peers out into the trees from the porch of Eel Marsh House in a storm and he slowly discovers that a group of ghostly children stare back at him, only distinguishable by their silhouettes. Our title antagonist peers down at Arthur from a second story window, resembling a ghostly photograph. It’s these scares that give credibility to The Woman in Black, making the film an above average haunted house treat.
In his first starring role since Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe makes a smooth transition from boy wizard to distressed adult. I worried I would have a hard time taking him seriously, on the grounds that this film demands, and would instead still see him a kid. Radcliffe has grown up, folks, and here he gives a performance that is safe but allows us a glimpse of his range. I sometimes found him to be a bit stiff as Potter but here, he seems contented and confident, almost thrilled to be in something other than Harry Potter. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe is disconnected and distant, appearing drained and at times, he could be inches from collapsing from fatigue. There are moments when he’s courageous, racing into the decrepit mansion after an otherworldly sighting in an attic window or grabbing an axe and inching towards strange footsteps that creak behind a closed door. He plays nicely off of Hinds, who makes Sam just as emotionally wounded as Kipps but a bit wiser. He seems to be keeping Arthur level, warning him not to go “chasing shadows”.
The Woman in Black also makes a near fatal error with the haunted mansion it takes place in. It is never good when your friend leans over and whispers, “That house looks like the stereotypical haunted house in every scary movie!” There is nothing setting Eel Marsh House apart from every other haunted mansion expect the location. Sure it is an imposing structure, any given rundown structure will be, but there is nothing setting it apart. The inside resembles an abandoned haunted house that has been left until next Halloween. There are perfectly placed cobwebs and everything has a thick layer of dust covering it. One room does stand out and that is the room the most ghostly activity occurs in. Radcliffe spends most his time snooping around a child’s room, crammed with creepy clown dolls that suddenly burst with chirping music box tunes and a rocking chair that will suddenly rock violently back and forth.
Better than many will give it credit for, The Woman in Black succeeds because it doesn’t embrace the found footage gimmick. Sure, the film has its fair share of flaws including minor plot holes and a final act that begins to flirt with silliness. With horror, I’ve learned to be a bit forgiving to films that get it even half right. Last year’s Insidious also had its fair share of problems, but it gave me the creeps, which is what it set out to do, so I overlooked the sputtering final act. The Woman in Black’s ending doesn’t fall apart that bad and it wisely ends before things can get more outlandish. Ultimately, the film manages to give you the chills and leaves images in your head that you’ll wish weren’t there. And it does it barely a drop of blood to be found! The Woman in Black will restore your fear in those bumps in the night and I promise that you will be sleeping with a night light on for more than a few nights.
by Steve Habrat
Of all the shock films, exploitation movies that bathe in depravity, and hardcore cinema I have seen in my life, no film has been as extreme as Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 Italian shocker Cannibal Holocaust. It is, in many respects, the best exploitation film I have ever seen because it is the one that goes all the way. In school, many people talked about Faces of Death, a staged exploitation film that supposedly features footage of real death scenes clipped together. Clearly, no one had ever heard of Cannibal Holocaust. This film features it all from authentic animal slayings, some of the most graphic sex scenes I have seen in a motion picture, rape, castration with a barely visible cut in the film, gruesome dismemberment, cannibalism, intimidation, and decadence. What is most shocking is the display of tainted ethics from the individuals who should be the cultured. Instead, the civilized are the savage monsters, the ones looking to draw blood, destroy, and exploit. I will warn you that after you watch Cannibal Holocaust, you will not ever be the same.
A film you will never find just tossed on the shelf of your local Best Buy or Barnes & Noble, Cannibal Holocaust is not exactly the easiest film to see, but it is out there and you can find it, but be prepared to do a little digging. I saw the film a couple of years ago on DVD and I never shook seeing it. I was disgusted by the real footage of animal killings, done in such cruelty it almost made me loose my lunch. When I stumbled upon the film on DVD and out on the shelf for purchase at FYE, I happily shelled out the money to own what is one of the most notorious films in the history of cinema. When the clerk saw what I was buying, she looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Are you sure you want this?”
“Yes”, I replied taken aback.
“Have you ever seen it?” She flipped it over and examined the back. Her face was contorted in repulsion at the fact she was touching it.
“Yes, I saw it a few years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. I collect films like this and it is a must own for my collection. I am a huge fan of grind house cinema, gore flicks, and hardcore exploitation movies.”
“You have an iron stomach and a strange hobby!”
I am very proud of my copy of Cannibal Holocaust. Call me sick, twisted, in need of a shrink, whatever you want, but it is one of my most prized DVDs I own and I will NEVER loan it out. I don’t want the awesome insert that folds out into a print of the original Italian poster to be ripped, torn, or desecrated. I don’t want either of the two discs in the set to be scratched, ruined, or exposed to dust. I don’t want the awesome slipcover that declares it is the “The Most Controversial Movie Ever Made” dinged up in any way. My copy of this horrific film is pristine. Truth is, there is actually one documentary I saw that topples Cannibal Holocaust called Death Scenes, a newsreel of real death footage spanning from World War II to the early 90s. Death Scenes should never be sold to the open public due to some of the footage included in it. That was a film I almost turned off, especially when the film showed us (with haunting sound) a horrific car wreck from the 1950s, the body horribly mutilated as what I am assuming is a surviving passenger or perhaps family member (?) screams and cries as the body is pulled from the twisted fist of steel. Be comforted that there is one film out there that can out shock Cannibal Holocaust.
Cannibal Holocaust follows a group of documentary filmmakers as they set out to film indigenous tribes in the Amazon Basin. These tribes, it turns out, happen to be cannibals. The documentary crew consists of Alan Yates (Played by Carl Gabriel Yorke), Faye Daniels (Played by Francesca Ciardi), Jack Anders (Played by Perry Pirkanen), and Mark Tomasco (Played by Luca Barbareschi). After no word from the crew, New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe (Played by Robert Kerman) sets out to find and rescue the crew. All that he returns with is their film canisters, which the media is anxiously waiting to air. After a screening of the footage, the film depicts horrors that no one could have imagined.
The film’s unblinking and alarmingly real violence caused quite a stir throughout the world when Cannibal Holocaust began its theatrical run. The film premiered in Milan and shortly after its debut, the courts seized copies of the film and had Deodato arrested for murder. He avoided a life sentence by presenting his actors in court and proving his innocence. The film has been banned in multiple countries since its release, further adding to the hype around it. Yet Deodato has not made a brainless ode to gore. No, he has offered up a critique on the violence lurking in what appears to be the most civilized of human beings. It also attacks the media for their relentless hunger to slap violence on television and make a spectacle out of it. The film also acts as a found footage film, one of the first films to inspire copies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and more. The way the cameraman refuses to put down his camera and help his crewmembers being pulled apart right in front of him is so authentic, it will scare the ever-living hell right out of you. It has been said that Deodato was inspired to make the film one day while his son watched the news and he noticed the way the journalists focused on violence and carnage.
The film also equates sex with violence, suggesting that we get sexual pleasure out of the violence. One graphic scene finds two of the crew members having sex on the ashes of a burned hut, which the crewmembers are responsible for. This is a sequence in motion picture history that I personally was never able to quite shake from my brain. It made me sick, squirm while seeing it, and actually cover my eyes. The worst part is the crew makes the tribe watch as they act out this vile display. The film also wields a bizarre hypnotic effect on the viewer, partly from some dreamlike camerawork and the swirling synths that compose the memorable soundtrack. Credit should be given to Deodato who pushes the boundaries of repulsive imagery while keeping your eyes on the screen. You will want to look away but you won’t be able to. It has been said that spaghetti western director Sergio Leone sent Deodato a letter praising the realism of the film.
While I hail Cannibal Holocaust to be a rhythmic film that still resonates to this day, this is not a film for everyone. Know your limits, your sensitivity, and understand that this film should not be approached as just another ordinary horror film. It is the furthest thing from ordinary or simple. It never pulls a punch and I laud it for never even batting an eye at what it chooses to show you. If animal cruelty upsets you (I have a dog of my own and I have to say some of the violence towards animals really upset me.), stay far, far away from Cannibal Holocaust. Ranking as the second most upsetting film I have ever laid eyes on and chosen to subject myself to, I have to say it wins as a classic among exploitation pictures. The special effects crew has pulled off a mesmerizing bit of trickery with the violence, sometimes lacking no cut whatsoever. One of my film professors once told me, “If the film sparks any kind of intellectual conversation or debate, the film is not a bad one.” This statement stuck with me as I watched this film. Cannibal Holocaust should and does spark discussion, debate, and lures out emotions you never thought a motion picture would make you tackle.
Grade: A- (Be aware that just because I gave this an A-, you should still approach with extreme caution)
In these indolent times that are plaguing Hollywood, it’s such a refreshing experience seeing a film that is not a direct remake of an older, often times superior original. It’s usually an iconic film that studios use to simply milk money from our wallets. They repackage the film, tie it up with a big CGI bow, throw in half-baked 3D, and we flock to see it because we are familiar with it. If they aren’t desecrating an old gem, they are lifting the material from a book, comic book, or graphic novel. It makes me wonder if any of these writers or suits out there in the City of Angels remotely consider picking their own brains for a good story. The genre that especially can’t seem to help itself is the horror genre. It seems that absolutely no one can come up with an original and relentlessly scary little horror flick these days. Instead, studios just look to rebooting tired franchises whose knives and machetes are showing signs of rust (Yes, I am talking about you Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes!). It seems like every year we get one scary movie that is actually effective. Last year’s stylish American remake Let Me In was a standout. The year before saw the, in my humble opinion, good but not great haunted house thrill-ride Paranormal Activity. We’ve also seen an amped up remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the colorfully blood drenched Dawn of the Dead remake, the tribute to 50’s B-movie creature features The Mist, the claustrophobic monster movie The Descent, and the outstanding British zombie flick 28 Days Later, and the based-on-true-events chiller The Mothman Prophecies. That’s basically what we have had to work with since 2002. And three of those are remakes!!
While creativity is one portion of the problem, another reason why horror ultimately ran itself into the ground was the work of two men—James Wan and Leigh Whannell. They are the culprits who graced our movie screens with the torture porn clunker Saw. They ignited a frenzy of films that shamelessly bathed in body fluids and they also sparked a line of horrendous sequels that followed. While the only notable film in the series was Saw III, they influenced Hostel, Wolf Creek, and a slew of others that were less concerned about being scary and more concerned with making you squirm. And many of them were successful at making you cover your eyes but the genuine scares were non-existent. Yet in the past few years, torture porn has made itself scarce and horror has been attempting to embrace real fear again. It’s funny that the men who reduced horror to ashes, have played Dr. Frankenstein and risen it like a phoenix. Insidious is that phoenix.
Insidious is one of the scariest movies I have seen in quite sometime and is simply one of the best horror movies in years. Yeah, I said it. And it’s also original! Sure, it’s an unholy fusion of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, but these days, we have to be carful when we criticize something that attempts to break new ground. Alas, Insidious does not but it sure makes a valiant attempt. Instead, Insidious conjures up some truly hellish images that are guaranteed to linger in your head for days after witnessing them. The film follows Josh (Played by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Played by 28 Weeks Later’s Rose Byrne) Lambert and their three children as they move into their new home. All seems well until strange noises are heard throughout the home, objects are moved, and one of their children, Dalton, falls into a coma (Ya know, the usual!). But after a seriously spooky night in their home, they begin to wonder if the reason their son has fallen into this enigmatic coma is supernatural rather than medical. The Lambert’s call in a group of paranormal investigators who quickly determine that Dalton is trapped in a ghostly parallel universe called The Further.
If it sounds like you’ve heard all of this before, you have, as Wan has crafted a loving tribute to the horror films of old. He throws reference after reference at the audience and one could almost make the film into a game of spot that horror reference. It’s all quite fun but it’s the 180-degree shift in the quality of the work here that is really quite impressive. Wan’s chiaroscuro industrial aesthetic still lingers but the film itself is much more patient than Saw. It feels like there is discipline here and I think much of that may stem from the producers who were also responsible for Paranormal Activity. There is no over-reliance on blood and guts (The film is rated PG-13) and instead relies on loud bangs, growls, shadowy figures, and sudden music blasts to make you soil your shorts. But Wan also fries your nerves through some seriously haunting images; most striking of all is a shadowy apparition standing behind a baby’s crib and a demon lurking in the corner of poor Dalton’s room. Even Whannell’s script provides a few blasts of heebie-jeebies. One scene includes a character describing a dream that she had and all I will say is that it turned my insides to ice cubes. It gives me chills just think back to it! This scene demonstrates the beauty of your imagination getting the best of you.
What’s even more impressive about the film is the performances that Wan manages to capture. He has positioned two very talented actors at the core of the film and it doesn’t hurt either that Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) shows up as a concerned grandmother. Lin Shaye pops up and provides a fine performance as the psychic Elise Rainier. While sometimes the acting does dip and head into cheesy territory mostly from his child actors, it’s forgivable. What does end up hurting the film and causes it to loose some of its momentum is the final act, which falls victim to the you-never-show-the-monster syndrome. It causes the film to descend into the fun house realm. Someone should have explained to Wan that it’s what you don’t see that ends up being the most horrifying.
While the ending suffers a bit, the film is still astonishing in how uncompromising it is in its attempts to send you screaming from the theater. It will get you at least once. The film sadly chooses the same path that the final minutes of Paranormal Activity did and embrace the CGI trickery. In Insidious, however, you overlook it because the final minutes of this demon are unpredictable. Just get ready for an I-did-not-see-that-coming twist. But the first three fourths of the film is so good, that Insidious haunts its way onto the must see list. The film also redeems any potential talent that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have and it leaves me intrigued for what they do next. I will leave you with is this: Any film that makes me walk into a darkened room and quickly flip on the light is one you have to see (Seriously, it really did that to me.). Insidious is an inspired creep-out that will haunt your dreams. Grade: A
Insidious is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Is it just me or is every single mockumentary horror movie that is “uncovered” a letdown to its audience? It seems like the individuals involved can’t quite help themselves in the final moments and add some unrealistic CGI scam that throws the whole film off balance. This is a problem that plagued Paranormal Activity, a film that had a stellar build up only to shoot itself in the foot with an out-of-place facial distortion that was achieved by CGI in the final seconds. It actually ruined this film for me. It doesn’t help that they made an unnecessary sequel that further clipped the wings of the somewhat effective original. Then we have horror master George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a film that used the same mockumentary approach. Diary acts as a restart to his famous Dead series that began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The film has some tense moments but it embraces camp with some CGI kills and blood spurts that suck the realism right out of the film. This one hurt because the film is supposed to be taking place at the exact time that Night of the Living Dead is and that film relied on it’s shoestring budget to create realistic scares. It lacked elaborate death scenes and silly weapons. Overall, Night achieved more of an atmosphere of realism that Diary can even dream of. Or Cloverfield, an action/sci-fi/horror mockumentary that has a jumpy tone that is ruined by showing the alien/monster up close and preposterously personal. It’s a classic case of never show the monster!
Apollo 18, a film that mixes history and fiction quite successfully, ushers the summer movie season out with a slight whimper. Perhaps you’ve seen trailers for this film, which was originally supposed to be out in the spring, then summer, and then settled for September. The film suggests that NASA put together a final hush-hush space mission in the 1970’s that sent three astronauts to the moon to set up sensors that alert the United States of an ICBM attack from the Soviet Union. Once on the moon, the two astronauts in the lunar module Liberty, Captain Ben Anderson (Played by Warren Christie) and Commander Nathan Walker (Played by Lloyd Owen), head out to complete their mission and also collect moon rock samples. In orbit over the moon aboard Freedom is Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Grey (Played by Ryan Robbins), who is the watchful eye for the two tough-as-nails astronauts below. Walker and Anderson soon begin hearing strange noises and bangs which naturally disrupt their sleep. Their moon rock samples begin mysteriously moving and they hear strange gargling static over their radios. They then stumble across an abandoned Soviet lunar module and a dead cosmonaut near the ship. As the events become more and more bizarre, Anderson and Walker begin to suspect that they are on the moon for an alternative reason—to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the moon.
The film is fairly uneventful for the first half-hour or so. The astronauts engage in bland conversation and complain about their cramped space in the ship. They groan over the meals provided for them and play practical jokes on each other. The film picks up once the two men stumble upon the Russian lunar module and this actually leads to one of the more disturbing moments of the film. While out investigating strange occurrences, a spider-like alien worms its way into Walker’s suit and burrows into his stomach. Walker slowly begins getting sick and becoming homicidal in the wake of the attack. The infection scene, which culminates in a surgical scene that nods to Alien, also manages to be one of the more fascinating sequences in the film.
Almost every critic under the moon has critically panned Apollo 18. They have criticized it for a lack of depth and complained that the film established no atmosphere or mood of any kind. They also cry that the film isn’t scary. I will agree that the film isn’t the most terrifying motion picture experience, but a couple of scenes will give you the willies. Yes, the film is slow moving and a bit droll at points, but in my humble opinion the subtly adds to the film. A moon rock twitches here and the American flag is shredded there. Apollo 18 does pack a few of the inevitable boo moments, but the film isn’t overly reliant on this cheap technique.
There is really nothing for the audience to connect with here. I’ll admit that. The characters are not relatable and the film is ultimately unremarkable. The climax is brief but thrilling and the few clips we see of the aliens are relatively creepy, mostly because much of them are left to our imagination (are you paying attention Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark?). There is a clip at the end of the film that, just like all the other mockumentary horror films before it, resorts to CGI overload and ruins what was otherwise a tense scene. The filmmakers did a good job mixing stock footage with the low budget stuff they came up with. The film’s premise is inspired and is a fresh idea to the countless other middling alien invasion films that have taken over the box office (Super 8 was the crown jewel). The film is worth a watch but you will never find yourself clamoring to experience it again. It does appall me that this film is actually receiving worse reviews than the abysmal Battle: Los Angles did. Perhaps we didn’t see the same movie. Apollo 18 is disappointing, that I will not deny, but it is also a disposable and fun gimmick. Grade: B-