by Steve Habrat
It’s extremely rare for Hollywood to muster up one semi-decent horror movie a year. Sure, there is always one or two that manage to generate a little bit of buzz before coming out, but once its on the market, they always seem to fall victim to mediocre reviews and lukewarm audience reception. It doesn’t help that most horror movies today are just recycled clichés hidden behind a sleek new mask and wielding a different power tool or kitchen utensil. It appears that 2013 was bound and determined to deliver for horror fans, as we’ve been blessed with three awesome horror movies so far. Earlier this year, we had the good-looking gorefest Evil Dead, a satisfying remake that, yes, could have been spookier. A few weeks ago we got James Wan’s The Conjuring, one of the most solid and terrifying haunted house movies to come out in years. Now we have director Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, a sick, twisted, and totally hilarious spin on the home invasion horror movie. With a giddy cast of unknowns, a script that packs a twist that is sure to have M. Night Shyamalan kicking himself and wondering why he didn’t come up with it, heaping doses of heart-pounding suspense, and some seriously extreme violence, You’re Next refreshes the home invasion horror movie and gives genre fans a brand new heroine that is destined to become as iconic as The Evil Dead’s Ash, Halloween’s Laurie Strode, and The Thing’s MacReady.
You’re Next begins with the wealthy couple, Paul (played by Rob Moran) and Aubrey (played by Barbara Crampton), inviting their four adult children, Crispian (played by AJ Bowen), Drake (played by Joe Swanberg), Felix (played by Nicholas Tucci), and Aimee (played by Amy Seimetz), and their significant others, Erin (played by Sharni Vinson), Kelly (played by Margaret Laney), Zee (played by Wendy Glenn), and Tariq (played by Ti West), up to their secluded country mansion for their wedding anniversary. The family members begin trying to reconnect but their fun-filled weekend is violently interrupted when three men in animal masks suddenly attack the family. With the group in hysterics, the masked maniacs believe it will be easy to pick the family members off one by one, but they get a huge surprise when the sweet little Erin shows off her survival skills and turns the tables on the killers.
Earlier this summer, audiences flocked to the futuristic thriller The Purge, a film that advertised itself as a razor-sharp, politically charged home invasion thriller, but quickly revealed itself to be nothing more than a by-the-number morality tale that borrowed heavily from Sam Peckinpah’s haunting classic Straw Dogs, but with none of the bite. It didn’t help that The Purge never even considered having any fun with its premise, especially after coming in the wake of the unblinking 2008 film The Strangers, a piece that was inspired by the Manson family, and the forgettable 2011 remake of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. Thankfully, You’re Next never falls victim to the same clichés that The Purge did and it does dare to have a bit of fun with its premise. Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett certainly do know how to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and they are certainly skilled with the placing of their jump scares, but every single time You’re Next seems to be veering onto the beaten path, Wingard and Barrett spring some sort of surprise twist on the viewer or broadside us with a clever belly laugh right in the thick of the horror. They’re also completely game to play into their hard R-rating, willing to chop, cut, slash, smash, shoot, and…um…. blend their victims with maniacal glee. In the final stretch of the film, Wingard and Barrett unleash a truly unique death sequence that will have viewers everywhere screaming, laughing, and applauding all at once.
Further setting You’re Next apart from the group of home invasion thrillers is the actors and actresses that filmmakers decided upon. There is no Liv Tyler, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgard, or Ethan Hawke anywhere near this secluded mansion. The cast is made up of several independent actors, horror and mumblecore directors, and, yes, one Australian R&B singer. The star of the mayhem is R&B singer Sharni Vinson, who brings the house down as the resourceful survivor Erin. She is excellent early on as a sweet, semi-shy, and slightly mysterious college gal who melts when she exchanges glances with boyfriend Crispian, but when the arrows start flying through the windows, she morphs into cool, clam, and collected bad ass for the ages. When the heat is on, Wingard and Barrett really let the viewer get to know her and, boy, do they leave you wanting more out of this little firecracker. Rising horror star AJ Bowen is great as the pudgy Crispian and he has some hilarious exchanges with indie director/actor Joe Swanberg. Swanberg threatens to steal the film as the sarcastic pill-popper Drake, a guy who always has a zinger for the chaos. Tucci’s Felix and Glenn’s Zee are bizarre as a gloomy couple looking to spice up their relationship in the most twisted way possible. Laney’s Kelly and Seimetz’s Aimee are hilariously over the top as the typical hysterical girls driven to tears and shrieks when the masked madmen come calling. Horror director Ti West also stops by for a chuckle-worthy cameo as the starving artist Tariq, a documentary filmmaker who has made only one film… back in 2008.
In addition to the performances, the sickening violence, and the clever twists, You’re Next is ripe with a claustrophobic and isolated feel that makes you wonder if there truly is any hope for the characters. It effortlessly clears all the hurdles (the whole cell phone reception cliché is smartly tackled here) that most horror films take a tumble over. It should also be noted that as the film progresses, it takes on a retro feel that made this horror fan grin in delight. It begins to feel like Wingard and Barrett were shopping at a garage sale when they happened upon some long-lost horror film from the 1980s and decided to show it to the public. There is candle-wax blood spurting from sliced necks and a synthesizer score that will make you shudder. Another miracle here is that the film is wildly consistent, getting better with each passing second before arriving at one final twist that is sure to have your jaw on the floor. Overall, if you were one of those people who were letdown by the lackadaisical approach to The Purge, You’re Next is guaranteed to simultaneously scare you silly, have you yelling at the screen, and have you doubled over in laughter. For best results, go in with very little knowledge of the film and bring a barf bag. Those with touchy tummies may need one.
by Steve Habrat
Over the past few years, the tanking horror genre has been desperately searching for a way to make itself scary again. For a while, it turned to “torture porn” and the Saw franchise in the hopes that people would tremble in fear, but Jigsaw and his merry band of copycats soon wore out audiences with their gore-drenched games (When the singer from Linkin Park is starring in your movie, you know you’ve hit rock bottom.). With interest diminishing in torture porn, Hollywood then turned to the “found footage” subgenre to instill fear in the hearts of every man, woman, and child. The result was the lackluster Paranormal Activity, a film that grew increasingly frustrating the more one thinks back to it. Naturally, Paranormal Activity was a huge success and three pointless sequels and more copy cats emerged in its wake. There is no doubt that the “found footage” well is running dry, but miraculously, a handful of up-and-coming horror directors (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence) found a way to put a relatively creative spin on the subgenre. Acting as more of a Tales from the Crypt anthology, V/H/S is a flawed but surprisingly devilish “found footage” flick that will certainly impress but not totally floor horror fans looking for a decent scare. These days, it really doesn’t take much to impress us, even if you deliver a film that is half good, it ends up being a winner. V/H/S is bound and determined to win us over, bringing everything from ghosts to aliens to slasher killers to vampires to the party.
V/H/S picks up with a group of small time thugs being asked by an unknown employer to break in to a secluded home and steal a mysterious videotape. The thugs are not told what is on the tape, only that the will know it when the see it. As the thugs explore the home, they stumble upon a room with a dead body propped up in front of several television screens and a VHS player. Curiosity gets the best of them and they begin watching the video insider the player. The thugs witness a bizarre string of videos that include three obnoxious guys trying to pick up girls at a local bar, a married couple on their honeymoon, four friends on a camping trip, a video chat between a disturbed young woman and her boyfriend, and a Halloween video of four friends exploring what they assume is a staged haunted house. All the videos seem to start harmless enough, but each segment soon erupts into unspeakable horror and carnage.
V/H/S is the type of film that gets by with the element of surprise. You can’t wait to see how each of the segments, which all last about twenty minutes, will play out and spiral out of control. Being an anthology, the segments end up being hit or miss, which ends up throwing the entire project off. The strongest installment is without question Ti West’s unsettling “Second Honeymoon,” which relies on eerie knocking on a hotel door and a staggeringly realistic murder to spook the audience. It was easily the strongest twenty minutes of the entire movie, unsurprising because West is certainly a talented guy (See The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers for further proof). Perhaps the lowest point of V/H/S was Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th,” a Friday the 13th style slasher with perhaps the goofiest killer ever conceived. This is where the quality really dips and the lull carries over into Joe Swanberg’s bizarre “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger.” This segment starts off creepy enough but manages to completely fall apart as it goes on, even though it unleashes an impressive twist in the final few minutes. The other two installments, David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” and Radio Silence’s “10/31/98,” are wicked fun, especially the Twilight Zone-esque “10/31/98.” The arching story, Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56,” which follows the thugs on their quest to find the tape, is also a real creep out even if it seems a bit anticlimactic (wait for the scene in the basement).
One of the biggest problems with the “found footage” subgenre is the unconvincing acting, which is meant to seem realistic but often comes off as strained or staged. These directors are forced to turn to relatively unknown actors and actresses due to the idea that a well-known face will instantly drain all the “realism” from the experience. V/H/S naturally turns to a cast of relatively unknowns and the results end up being a mixed bag. The best acting comes from Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal in West’s installment and the thugs in Wingard’s segment. I really disliked the thugs of “Tape 56,” who enjoy ambushing young women and lifting up their shirts for the camera. Just hearing the woman scream in terror as they charge her was enough to make this viewer very uncomfortable. The worst acting is definitely found in “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” especially from Daniel Kaufman’s James, a guy who seems to be completely unfazed as an apparition (or is it?) runs into Emily’s bedroom.
If you are someone who likes plenty of gore with their scares, V/H/S has you covered, never shying away from a grisly shot of entrails being ripped out of someone’s chest or a severed head rolling around on the ground (just to name a few). For a film made on a shoestring budget, the effects are absolutely incredible. “10/31/98” is an effects heavy offering and “Second Honeymoon” features a grisly murder that seems a bit too real (there is barely a cut to be found). “Amateur Night” features a nifty shape shifting character and even a brief glimpse of a monster gliding through the air. This proud beast is drenched in darkness to make it extra creepy, relying on the idea that the less is actually more. If you’re the type who favors plenty of gratuitous sex and nudity, you’re also in luck because there is plenty to go around. Boobs are flashed, people film themselves having sex, and the girls are even treated to a full frontal of one terrified male character. Overall, for all the hype surrounding the film, V/H/S actually lives up to all the positive word-of-mouth surrounding it. It certainly would be better if “Tuesday the 17th” and “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” were cut from the middle section of the film but we’re stuck with them. It would also have been nice if the filmmakers found a way to tie everything up in a more satisfying manner, but there is still plenty of creativity to keep this one lodged in your nightmares for quite some time.
V/H/S is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After 2009’s The House of the Devil, I was curious to see what director Ti West would do next. Turns out, he returned to the horror genre and made a film that was even better than his awesome if a bit flawed 2009 retro offering. The Innkeepers improves upon what West did in The House of the Devil, still brandishing the slow burn intensity but here, West doesn’t begin to fall apart in the final stretch like he did in The House of the Devil. The Innkeepers is old school horror, one that pokes fun at the jump scare approach in the opening moments and then quickly assures us, by the distant thumping and ghostly whispers, that this isn’t that kind of a horror film. Sure, West does slip in the obligatory fake out scare once or twice but it’s his images, ones that are incredibly spooky and borderline traumatizing, that really make this a film that you will hesitate to watch when the sun goes down.
The Innkeepers invites us into the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old hotel that has been in operation for over one hundred years. We are introduced to the two slacker employees, Claire (Played by Sara Paxton) and Luke (Played by Pat Healy), who moonlight as amateur paranormal investigators, determined to find out if the Yankee Pedlar Inn lives up to its haunted reputation. The hotel is in its last days of operation and Claire and Luke are determined to find hard evidence of Madeline O’Malley, the woman they believe is their resident ghost. After a handful of old guests return to the Yankee Pedlar Inn, strange noises are heard and Claire has one hell of a close encounter, sparking the two amateur paranormal investigators to double their efforts. The more they begin to uncover about the hotel’s undead inhabitant, the more they put their lives in danger.
Director West knows how to expertly pace the events within his film, leaving us hanging on what will come in the next frame. He teases us here and there, a whisper is heard, a piano key suddenly plays, and then he backs off and dares us to ask for more. Like fools, we do and that is when he REALLY delivers the goods. The Innkeepers has a ghostly encounter that almost that turned me into an icicle. This scene let me know that West means business and in every tense scene after, my knuckles were white. To some, The Innkeepers may be boring or too slow, but the patient pace adds to the old school feel to the film. Throughout the run time, I was reminded of such otherworldly creepouts like The Innocents, The Haunting, The Changeling, and The Shining, all films that would be incredibly proud of West’s effort here and compliment The Innkeepers on a double feature night. West also pulls off the impossible and gives us a climax that doesn’t completely underwhelm or fly wildly off the tracks. The film remains consistent, something that most horror films of today fail to do, and boldly resists giving in to overkill, which was a trap that West himself tumbled into with The House of the Devil.
The Innkeepers features some incredibly convincing performances from its young leads. Sarah Paxton is a real treasure, possessing a cute girl-next-door pep while also sighing through disgust and exasperation over her dead-end job. She is incredibly charismatic and will charm your pants off. She works great with Pat Healy’s Luke, who slumps over the check-in desk and sips Schlitz beer while tinkering with his paranormal website. Luke seems like the American twin brother to Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun of the Dead, as I kept getting the strangest feeling that they would have a ball together chattering on about video games, zombie flicks, and pot, all while Healy informs Pegg that he has red on him. Their performances coast on the waves of West’s solid dialogue that rolls off the tongue like real conversation. Their highlight moment comes when they decide that they are going to investigate the ominous basement, Claire calling out questions to Madeline O’Malley as West’s camera vacillates back and forth between Luke’s face, the recorder, and Claire’s face. West doesn’t give us multiple fancy camera angles or any flowing movement around the room. West jumps back and forth until finally he freezes on Claire’s wide-eyed stare at something behind Luke, just off screen for our imaginations to be sent into overdrive. Luke asks if she is here and Claire informs Luke that she’s right behind him. Talk about a new classic moment for the horror genre! The Innkeepers also welcomes in Witness’s Kelly McGillis as a former star with a drinking problem and who may have more of an understanding about what is going on in the hotel than the two kids do.
Throughout The Innkeepers, West paints terrifying images that will lock themselves into your brain until it is time for you to shut the lights off to go to sleep. His ghost has got to be one of the creepiest apparitions to haunt the screen in recent memory (and I was fairly convinced that the spook in The Woman in Black was pretty darn creepy). This thing is the stuff that nightmares are made of and West keeps her just hidden enough in the shadows, only showing her briefly so we can never truly process her. At one point in the film, Luke describes a paranormal experience that he once had and he says that it is hard to remember exact details of what he saw. West applies Luke’s description in the final frames when the guests who never left the Yankee Pedlar Inn come out to play with Luke and Claire. West either douses them in shadows or only briefly illuminates them with Claire’s trembling flashlight as they reach out for her to come join them.
Unlike The House of the Devil, I really didn’t find any aspect I was disappointed in while watching The Innkeepers. Usually, newer horror films let me down in some way, shape, or form, but The Innkeepers is an exception. With all the hype that surrounded this film, I was afraid that it would fall short of my expectations but I was steadily impressed every step of the way. The Innkeepers joins the ranks of some of the best recent horror films that I have seen and West is a new hero of the genre. I hope that he continues to operate just outside the major studio system, making smaller and tighter pictures than CGI laced garbage for the preteens to see on a Friday night. It’s safe to say that West knows how to really scare us, to leave out firm explanations that other horror films of today are so fond of. With The Innkeepers, West has earned my full respect and in the process, he has made a film that down the line will become a celebrated horror classic. Trust me.
The Innkeepers is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Director Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a fussy tribute to 1980’s horror films, would have seemed right at home in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Perhaps Grindhouse was supposed to be a triple feature and this is a long lost entry?! From the retro opening credits to the coarse camerawork, all the film needed was some digital scratches added in and this could have been a long lost film from the 1980s. For a good majority of its runtime, The House of the Devil is all superb build up. West mounts tension like a pro and leaves the viewer wondering where the film is going to go. Those who have no prior knowledge about the film are in for a shock when the finale roars onto the screen. The climax is both a blessing and a curse for The House of the Devil, satisfying the monster movie crowd while also driving the film into excessively bloody territory. It is the go-for-broke finale that also makes the film seem like it was the forgotten addition to Grindhouse.
Levelheaded college student named Samantha (Played by Jocelin Donahue) is desperate to get out of her dorm where she shacks up with her messy and inconsiderate roommate. Samantha finds the perfect apartment but she is unable to afford the pricey security deposit. The sympathetic landlady agrees to let her have the apartment for just the first month’s rent, which is still slightly a problem for Samantha because she has very little money in her checking account. Samantha soon discovers an odd babysitting job for the vague Mr. Ulman (Played by Tom Noonan), which promises to pay a large sum of money for one night of work. Much to the protests of her best friend Megan (Played by Greta Gerwig), Samantha agrees to take the job, even though the description is slightly suspicious. The babysitting job also happens to line up with a rare lunar eclipse, which has the whole college town buzzing. As the night goes on, Samantha begins to suspect that there is more to the babysitting job than she has been lead to believe.
Director West refuses to hold our hand through much of The House of the Devil, leaving us stranded alone with the protagonist Samantha. West understands that by limiting the amount of characters, it ups the horror ante. We aren’t given the reassurance that multiple characters bring to the table, allowing us to take shelter in the thought that at least a few of these people will make it through the horror. Oh no, Samantha endures a night of terror alone with basically no hope for help, a touch that I really loved. It harkened back to the first time I watched Evil Dead, and the agonizing experience of watching Ash fight to see the morning all by himself. But West also refuses to spoon feed the many plot points to the audience, an approach that both aids in the horror of The House of the Devil but also hurts the payoff. One character’s identity is largely unknown to the audience (although you should be able to pinpoint who he is rather quickly if you are pay attention) and the bloody ending is a bit incoherent and left up for debate with what was actually happening. The incoherent ending does have a plus side, mostly because our lack of information at the end does add to the spookiness of the events that we witness.
West also deserves credit for what he does with set direction and accomplishing the task of transporting us back to the eighties with just a few costumes, a car, an old television set, and a dated pizza shop. It’s obvious that the budget was tight on The House of the Devil, something that always is beneficial because when horror gets a lot of money, valid scares and atmosphere are replaced with CGI monsters. Yet with some high-rise jeans, a Walkman, some clever song usage, and the actual appliance of make-up of the climax’s monster, West achieves a lot with very little. It genuinely feels like it is from the heyday of horror, when things were a lot more restrained and we were a much more patient audience. West allows the style to almost work as a third character, allowing it to grow on screen as the film moves along. I was almost anxious to see what little touch he would throw in next. It culminated in a horror movie special on the local channel that plays George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Very cool, West! I call the style in The House of the Devil a character because it is something that older viewers who lived through and clearly remember this era can relate to, have fun with, and reminisce over. West clearly isn’t doing it just because he thinks its hip.
The acting in The House of the Devil is also top notch, always serious and never hammy. The credit falls on the shoulders of Donahue, who does much of her acting alone. She’s a bit geeky but in a cute way. She is studious, driven, and organized, aspects of her personality that we gather both visually (from her dorm room) and verbally (she is kind of a worrywart). I found myself genuinely fearing for because I found her to be such a sweet girl. I also loved her interaction with her pal Megan. Gerwig gives Megan a feisty side, laying on the opposites attract device rather thick. It’s all in a friendship way in this film. Megan seems more interested in going out and having a good time where Samantha seems like more of a shut in. Tom Noonan as Mr. Ulman is heavily suspicious from his first appearance, playing a tense and faintly sympathetic bad guy. Mary Woronov shows up briefly as Mrs. Ulman, who seems like more of a threat than Mr. Ulman. AJ Bowen shows up as a mysterious bearded man who stalks the home that Samantha is watching.
The House of the Devil is for the diehard fans of the horror genre. Those seeking a fast paced thrill ride will be severely disappointed with what West serves up. The resourcefulness is focused and regimented and the build up is the work of someone who knows how to generate dread in anticipation, something largely missing in mainstream gorefests. When researching the film, I found out that the film was released in VHS form for the promotional side of the film, something that adds to the character of the style and adding to the forgotten gem from the early eighties feel. West did a great job making me feel like I found the movie on the dusty shelves of a run down video store. I wish that West had tweaked the final twenty minutes of the film and toned down some of the absurdity of it. The House of the Devil is scary; that I promise you (one scene near the end really freaked me out and all that you see is a hand coming out of a cracked door) and it is perfect to watch late at night with all the lights out (which I did). Despite its flaws, it’s the perfect sleepover movie or midnight flick for those who long for a time when horror actually had some balls.
The House of the Devil is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.