Category: Supernatural Horror


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Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

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When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

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Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

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The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

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As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I watched this film last night at work at the bar. Beyond the usual interruptions that come with watching this film at the bar like having to pause it any time a customer wanted a beer or something, I also had to stop it for hours at a time not once but twice when old ladies came into the store and I felt it was probably wise to turn off the R-Rated movie. If I thought the pauses would have overly affected my review, I just wouldn’t have written one. But I figured I should be up front about it since as a horror movie, I kept regularly escaping the tension and atmosphere of the film).

In Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining (though I suppose it’s equally true in Stephen King’s book), the Overlook Hotel was as much a character as Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance. Kubrick’s camera lavished fetishistic attention on every nook and cranny of the secluded hotel, and with a decided Mid-West Native American meets 1920s art style, it’s impossible to forget the time spent within its haunts (pun most definitely intended). Genuine atmosphere and tension are becoming a lost art (though 2009’s The House of the Devil is a brilliant exception). And while 2001’s Session 9 may have a somewhat muddled central story, no one can deny the suffocating atmosphere and unease at its core.

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That The Shining-centric introduction is not without reason. Session 9 is cut very much from The Shining‘s same “haunted house” cloth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that they’re less “cut from the same cloth” and more, “The Session is a wide-eyed homage that occasionally borders on stylistic plagiarism” (but, thankfully, it’s borders on that line. It never crosses it.). And if the Overlook was the secret star of The Shining, then the real-life Danvers State Hospital (which an asylum for the criminally insane that was the inspiration for Arkham Asylum in the Batman universe) steals every second of Session 9. Though the film has actual quality performances and tension, the abandoned and supremely terrifying Danvers State Hospital is the star of the show.

Shot almost entirely on location in the hospital, Session 9 is a creepy and atmospheric modern spin on the classic “haunted house” horror trope. Struggling haz-mat removal contractor Gordon Fleming (War Horse‘s Peter Mullan) is desperate for work. He’s just had a child and his business is on the verge of going under. So, the opportunity to remove the asbestos from the Danvers State Hospital is too good to pass up even if it means seriously underbidding the competition and agreeing to do the job in one week when it should take three at a minimum. And, when he and his partner Phil (David Caruso) cross the threshold of the hospital for the first time, it’s immediately clear that this job will be more than they bargained for.

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But, despite the overwhelming creepiness of the hospital (and the fact that Gordon may or may not have heard voices when he first entered), they take the job and bring on three workers for the crew. Petulant and obnoxious Hank (You Can Count On Me‘s Josh Lucas) is banging Phil’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason than he can and he knows it pisses off the hair-trigger temper of Phil. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendon Sexton III) is new to asbestos removal and terribly frightened of the dark which is probably the wrong phobia to have in this hotel. And law school drop-out Mike (Oz‘s Stephen Gevedon) labors away at this job despite being way too smart to spend any time with manual labor.

And, as the crew passes the time in the hospital, they get an almost hilariously miniscule of real work done as each member of the crew (except for Phil and Jeff) splits away from the group as they discover secrets and scares lurking in the shadows of the asylum. After accepting the job, Gordon has a fight with his wife though you don’t learn til later on what it was about and Gordon slowly starts to become unhinged over the week. Hank finds a cache of old coins behind a loose brick in the walls and concocts a scheme to steal them and get rich. All the while, Mike discovers a series of recordings of a former patient in the hospital with split personality whose tale is linked to the inevitably lethal turn their work takes over the course of the week.

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Perhaps the most shocking element of the film is that (beyond Brendon Sexton III’s Jeff) the performances are almost uniformly excellent, particularly Stephen Gevedon and Peter Mullan. Peter Mullan is wound immensely tight and is a bundle of nervous, desperate energy that you’re constantly left wondering when he’ll finally snap. And Stephen Gevedon (who I know from his Season 1 turn on Oz as Scott Ross) captures Mike’s morbid curiosity and intensity. There’s an especially memorable moment where he teases/abuses the new guy, Jeff, by explaining the practical applications of a lobotomy with a chop-stick millimeters away from Jeff’s eye.

But, beyond any other element of the film, what makes Session 9 work (when it’s central mystery is obvious from the start) is how “lived in” the film feels. And, of course it would feel lived in because Danvers State Hospital was a working asylum (and one of the most notorious in the country) up until 1992. Even if the members of the crew didn’t start getting murdered halfway through the film, the hospital itself would have been scary enough, and like The House of the Devil and The Descent, Session 9 wisely holds off on any jump scares or real horror so long that when it arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat.

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The only time where the film falls apart is at the ending which is both open-ended enough to invite speculation over whether the killer is crazy or possessed (which is good though I tend to lean towards possessed) but it’s also handled in such a muddled way that certain things simply don’t make sense within the continuity of the film itself. They are minor complaints because Session 9 is one of those rare horror films that relies more on an audience’s over-active imagination and paranoia than gore and violence. If you don’t like slower paced horror, you will probably find Session 9 to be a snooze, but I thought it was a treat.

Final Score: B

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. Besides my Glee essay from yesterday, you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Three weeks in fact. Sorry about that. After beating Grand Theft Auto V, I decided to finally buy Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Although the Final Fantasy series has had its share of missteps these last four or five years, this game had gotten pretty good reviews so I thought I’d check it out. And it’s been a major addiction ever since. Anyways, I just wanted to assure everyone that I hadn’t abandoned this blog, and hopefully, I can try to keep updating this regularly in the future although I am also working on a new screenplay so that is taking up some of my time as well. Also, there are more or less two reasons for why I’m reviewing this particular film. It’s Halloween officially and I wanted to watch a scary movie and the main actress of the movie kept favorite tweets I made about Terrence Malick films [I’m assuming it’s related to the fact that she’s been cast in his next film, Knight of Cups]. Anyways, it was a good decision to watch it.)

What is the single thread in every quality horror film? It isn’t clever meta-humor ala the Scream franchise or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (though that certainly helps). And it isn’t genuinely disturbing supernatural phenomena ala Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist (though once again, that certainly helps). The best horror films are the ones where the audience has a legitimate emotional stake in its heroes and heroines. If you want to elicit a visceral emotional reaction from the audience, they have to care whether someone lives or dies. Let the Right One In placed character development ahead of the horror and there are days where I think it’s safe to it’s more a coming of age tale with horror elements than a conventional horror film and The Descent delivers nearly 45 minutes of group dynamics and character development before the crawlers arrive. 2009’s indie gem The House of the Devil is steeped in that same tradition.

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While The House of the Devil is clearly one of the most delightfully self-aware horror films this side of the original Scream and Cabin in the Woods, it has so much more going for it than its loving homage to the slasher/occult horror of the late 1970s and early 80s. The House of the Devil is an undeniably masterful exercise in Hitchcock-ian tension and Tobe Hooper atmosphere. In the very best sense of the word, The House of the Devil is a slow-burner and though the movie makes you wait for the pay-off, you will find yourself clinging to your blanket/pillow/significant other as the tension becomes nigh unbearable.

In the early 80s, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is just your average college girl. She’s looking for a new apartment (with a great one-scene turn from E.T.‘s Dee Wallace as her new land lady) because her dorm mate is constantly having loud, obnoxious sex and Samantha can’t get any work done. But, like most college students, Samantha is low on money and even after convincing her land lady to drop the deposit requirement, Samantha still doesn’t have enough money to pay her first month’s rent. And after declining an offer from her rich but smart ass best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to have her father help out, Samantha has one week to scrounge up some cash quick.

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And, like the most evil deus ex machina imaginable, Samantha finds a flier advertising a baby-sitting job. And despite every shred of common sense saying the caller is creepy and not at all normal, Samantha and Megan drive out to the creepy Amityville Horror style house in the middle of the country side where the elderly Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) live. And, with an unsettling urgency, Mr. Ulman reveals to Samantha that she won’t actually be babysitting a child but rather his elderly mother. And, so after the departure of Megan and the Ulman’s, Samantha settles into an evening in a home where a Satanic ritual is soon to be underway with her as the key to its success.

Some people are going to be put off by how “little” happens in The House of the Devil. The typical moments of murder, mayhem, and gore that are the bread and butter of the horror genre occur twice: once in the middle and once again at the very end. But, in the sequences before the arrival at the house, The House of the Devil makes you genuinely care about Samantha and Megan. This isn’t Kenneth Lonergan character development but there’s enough personality between Samantha and Megan that when things inevitably turn sour, it hurts.

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And, then, once they get to the house itself, Ti West’s direction and ability to create suspense is superb. Like Quentin Tarantino before him, Ti West manages to simultaneously declare his love to the cheesy and borderline exploitative horror films of yesteryear while also being clearly of a different artistic league than them. By subverting, inverting, and deconstructing all of the tropes of those films, Ti West skillfully plays on and against audience expectations and pulls the audience along, scene by scene, teasing the big finish so that when it finally arrives, the audience has almost stopped breathing.

The film’s attention to period detail and the visual style of the era is impeccable. With her high-waisted jeans and feathered hair, star Jocelin Donahue looks like she just walked off the set of an old John Carpenter or Wes Craven film. She even carries around an absolutely massive Walkman to play her tapes in (which leads to one of the film’s best moments, an exuberant dance to Robert Palmer’s “One Thing Leads to Another” that is arguably one of the most tense dance scenes in film history). The movie was shot on 16mm film to add that extra layer of graininess and seediness and it even incorporates a cheesy freeze frame title card system at the very beginning. As far as classic horror authenticity goes, The House of the Devil is beyond question.

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And you can’t forget the performances of the cast which are both an evocation of what has come before as well as stylistic statements in their own right. Jocelin Donahue’s performance as Samantha seems to be a twist on the classic “last girl standing” trope of horror films because she’s far more active and bad-ass than the Jamie Lee Curtis’s that preceded her, and after seeing her in this film, I’m excited for her role in Terrence Malick’s upcoming feature. And, Greta Gerwig’s turn in this predates her big break in Greenberg, and even with what little time she had on screen, she marked herself as a natural. And, it will be a while before I encounter a horror villain as creepy as Tom Noonan’s Mr. Ulman.

Horror is a dried up well and then some, and though good films have started slipping through the cracks with delightful frequency lately (even deeply flawed films like The Last Exorcism still had promise and atmosphere), it takes something special to make me remember the visceral promise and thrills the genre can offer when done right. The House of the Devil may not be a great film by non-horror standards, but as far as horror goes, it’s a magnificent accomplishment and a true breath of fresh air. If this is what director Ti West is capable of, I look forward to seeing what the rest of his filmography has to offer.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review: Long time readers may remember me mentioning about a month and a half ago that I had decided to remake the master list for my blog. After realizing that I had been accidentally deleting entries into the list [and not being sure how to fix it in a long term way because I use Google Docs and save things in the cloud], I knew I had to make my list all over again which was as painful as it sounds. It took me a month and a half but I finally finished it so maybe I’ll actually have time to focus on my screenwriting again.)

Before I settled on this path for this review, I wrote a whole paragraph decrying the “torture porn” subgenre of horror before I realized the irony of what I was about to do. Buckets of blood and disgusting brutality have become the norm for so much modern horror in lieue of actual atmosphere and plot.  The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ushered in the Dark Age of Comics by birthing predecessors who couldn’t match the political/character subtext with the darker storytelling devices utilized by Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Similarly, good horror films with gore were aped by films that thought disgusting visuals were the sole element in a truly scary movie.

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Nobody is ever going to mistake 1987’s Hellraiser from horror luminary Clive Barker as high art, but as an example of how atmosphere can define the horror genre and of how a unique attempt at world-building can make a film distinct, Hellraiser remains enjoyable despite the film’s sillier conceits. Set in a world that is sadomasochism meets H.P. Lovecraft and dedicated to pacing that allows characters to grow and develop (at least by most horror standards), Hellraiser feels worlds apart from many of its 1980s peers and reminds us that you can be extremely gory (it is) and still have time for actual storytelling.

After moving into a house that was once occupied by his half-brother Frank, boring white-collar everyman looks to reboot his life with his wife Julia, who was once Frank’s lover. However, the house’s disgusting state when Larry and Julia first move is, in fact, a reminder of the sordid uses Frank was giving it and of the evil core still remaining at the heart of the house (almost literally). Frank had summoned a transdimensional race known as the Cenobites with a supernatural puzzle box to find the ultimate pleasure. But, pain and pleasure are synonymous to the Cenobites, and ultimately, Frank is ripped apart and only his soul remains in the house.

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And, one day, as Larry and Julia are moving into the house (with the help of Larry’s daughter, Kirsty), Larry cuts his hand on a rusty nail and bleeds onto the attic floor. This act returns Larry to a corporeal form, but his body is only half-finished. He’s a disgusting blob of meat and sinew, and he needs more blood to become whole again. So, Larry enlists the help of his old lover Julia to bring him more bodies so he can become a human being again. But the clock is running out for fear that the Cenobites may return to claim his soul once and for all.

While the film may avert a lot of the bad tropes of 1980s horror, many others are still there in full affect. The acting is bad. It is Friday the 13th sequels bad, except for possibly Clare Higgins who plays Julia who grows accustomed to killing in order to bring her man back to life. The camera angles Clive Barker chooses to use can be absolutely silly at times, and occasionally (though thankfully rarely) things that are meant to be terrifying just turn out to be silly instead.

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Though the effects may seem cheesy by modern standards, I was actually fairly impressed by the make-up work done for this film. When you see the various stages that Frank goes through as he tries to become human again, the make-up is quite detailed and quite disgusting. The different cenobites are all distinct and horrifying (particularly the Chatterer), and I can’t really understand why they decided to only use Pinhead in the sequels (though Clive Barker had no involvement past the second one). All in all, the film’s make-up work constantly upped the sadomasochistic horror subtext of the film’s main story.

I would never really call Hellraiser a “good” movie in a traditional sense. The acting is bad, the story is silly, and it’s psychosexual overtones are all over the place. But, if you judge films on there ability to evoke actual emotions, Hellraiser is genuinely disturbing and though the cenobites are underutilized for much of this film, when they finally appear, it gives Hellraiser a truly distinct flair. It’s easy to see why this film has acquired a cult status among “horror heads.”

Final Score: B

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I’m going to posit what I’m sure will be an unpopular opinion. The very first The Evil Dead is not a good movie. The Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness are beloved cult classics because they combined cheesy B-movie horror tropes with a witty self-awareness and intentionally campy sensibilities. Despite some of the revisionist history surrounding the first entry, it is a straight horror film, and it is neither scary nor particularly disturbing nor well-made in the slightest (though it’s clear even then that Bruce Campbell is brilliant and Sam Raimi has a distinct eye as a director). Simply put, 1981’s The Evil Dead isn’t so bad, it’s good (Rocky Horror-style); it’s so bad, it’s almost unwatchable (Valley of the Dolls style). By no stretch of the imagination does 2013’s Evil Dead remake meet the magic of the sequels, but it is also, simply put, a better constructed film than the original even if it ultimately lacks any of the magic that would make the original sequels so brilliant.

I used this metaphor on Facebook after I watched this film Saturday night with my sister and her room mate but it’s good enough that I can use it again. On a “fucked up movie” scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and 10 is Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, the Evil Dead remake clocks in at a solid 9. I have a friend who passed out, like literally fainted, when she saw this movie in theaters. My sister’s roommate started getting nauseous during the film. Gory barely begins to cover this movie, and while I’m a fairly vocal advocate of hating the “torture porn” genre of horror, Evil Dead (which is no way a “torture porn” film; it’s just extremely violent) has to get points for crossing the line not once or twice but like five or six different times. That it manages to mix sadistic violence with the franchise’s established dark humor is very impressive.

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In the litany of reasons why this film is in nearly every technical way better than the first, the characters actually have meaningful backgrounds and personalities in this entry (even if they’re still horror movie thin). Mia (Jane Levy) is a heroin addict who retreats to a cabin in the woods (side note: I really need to review Cabin in the Woods, the best horror movie since Let the Right One In) with her friends and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) so she can kick her habit. True to the original, the group finds a book in the basement of the cabin with warnings to not read it and pictures of demonic rituals on the inside. Ten bucks if you can guess what they do with this book (not really paying anyone). And when demons begin to possess the campers one by one, a bloodbath (often literally in this film’s case) begins.

I really can’t oversell how outrageously violent this movie is. It is at a Rob Zombie or Planet Terror level of cinematic sadism (though it’s not nearly as funny as Planet Terror which is the ultimate B-Movie horror throwback). I am pretty desensitized to violence in any media (whether that’s movies, television, or video games, especially video games) and I was consistently shocked at Evil Dead‘s ability to shock me with it’s level of violence and gore. But, once you get past the initial shock (though, like I said, the film constantly finds new ways to top itself), you realize that the movie becomes almost comically macabre. It enters such a range of over-the-top spectacle that there’s simply no way the film is trying to be serious. It begins to poke fun at the own shock tactics it’s been using. Still, if you have a low tolerance for blood, guts, bones, and brains, stay the hell away from this movie.

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While I have a very low opinion of the original Evil Dead, it did have some things going for it. Bruce Campbell was rough in it, but you knew he was something special despite all of that, and Sam Raimi brought technical and cinematic wizardry on such a tight budget. In virtually every regard, this remake is a better, more structurally sound film than the original, but it never has that magical moment where you think, “man, this could really be something special.” There’s no stand-out element of the film other than just how far they’re willing to push the button (and the test the audience’s stomachs). I spent the whole movie thinking, “This could really use Bruce Campbell.” And, boy, if the movie had more of the comedic undertones of The Evil Dead 2, it could have been a modern cult classic in its own right.

As it is, 2013’s Evil Dead (so far the only film I’ve reviewed from this year; more will arrive I promise) is an astonishingly consistently fucked up movie that gets points for just how much it was able to get under my presumed to be desensitized skin. I’m not much of a horror fan because 95% of it is garbage. Evil Dead is probably garbage but it is entertaining/disturbing/blood-drenched garbage and you have to admire the cajones it takes to push things that far. When so much of the horror genre is brain-dead and formulaic, Evil Dead‘s willingness to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable at least makes it a semi-refreshing alternative to its genre peers.

Final Score: B

(Don’t watch this trailer if you’re sensitive to the issues I’ve outlined. It’s the Red Band trailer.)

 

2007’s Paranormal Activity remains one of the rare horror gems of the 2000s, alongside Let the Right One In and The Descent. Grasping the idea that “less is more” for supernatural frights and that an audience’s imagination can be scarier than any gore-obsessed monster or murderer, Paranormal Activity provided real scares and is a shining example of how a miniscule budget indie film can go on to be a massive commercial success without sacrificing good storytelling. And then Paranormal Activity 2 was released and much like The Descent: Part 2, that film showed how poorly 99% of horror sequels fare when stacked up against the original. Too this day, I can remember almost nothing about the plot or characters of the movie even though it’s only been a year since I watched it. I didn’t have high hopes for Paranormal Activity 3 after the first sequel, and although it’s not quite the modern classic that the original film was, the series manages to find its voice again.

Paranormal Activity 3 is a the “origin story” of the Paranormal Activity franchise and provides the context for the events that happen later in the series. And for those worried that trying to actually explain the happenings of the first film would ruin the magic, you can rest easy. They handle it well and with the right amount of ambiguity. We find Katie and Kristi, the two sisters from the first two films, back in their childhoods in the late 80s living with their mother and step-dad in a fancy California home. The stepdad, a wedding videographer, begins noticing strange, unexplained noises and movement in the home, and it’s not long before it’s clear that they’re victims of a haunting. When the youngest daughter, Kristi, begins to have an unhealthy relationship with her imaginary friend Toby, the haunting takes a turn from harmless to violent.

I don’t think the series will ever be able to capture an on-screen chemistry as great as the one that Katie and Micah shared in the original film, but I felt more attached to this film’s family than I did in the sequel, and most of it rests on surprisingly endearing performances from child actors. Even from the adults, Christopher Smith does a warm job as the husband who knows something out of the ordinary is going on. Once again, he doesn’t make the same impression as Micah Sloat from the original, but I actually cared about his fate. But the real star is the scene-stealing performance from Jessica Brown as the young and tortured Kristi. She reminded me of the precocious and adorable Heather O’Rourke from Poltergeist, but with a darker more menacing side when she needed it. Chloe Csengery had less screen time as Katie but she brought the heat when needed as well.

Much like the original, Paranormal Activity 3 is a great example of how to build tension, slowly but surely over the course of a 90 minute film. I thought the second movie never really found its pacing and then ended abruptly with a forced twist at the end. That’s not the case for entry number 3. It finds that magic formula which made the original so special while managing to up the ante without seeming like it’s trying too hard. You finally get to see more of this figure that’s haunting this family for twenty years, but much like the shark in Jaws, the film-makers know the right moment when to deploy these blink-and-you-miss-it images and to not show for too long. And by the time the film was drawing to a close, I was in a paranoid, edge-of-my-seat state of mind as I nervously awaited what ever was coming my way next.

Haters of the original film aren’t going to be won over by this entry. It’s ultimately the same “found-footage” and jump scares franchise that it’s always been. Doors open and close. Furniture gets re-arranged and occasionally someone’s going to get grabbed by an unseen entity. But, if you were able to suspend your disbelief for the first entry in the franchise and get lost in its low-budget scares, Paranormal Activity 3 is the exact right steps the franchise needed to take after losing its way for the second film. I probably won’t ever watch the fourth entry in the series which just came out because of its absolutely abysmal reviews, but if I’m allowed to look at the franchise just as the original trilogy, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying ending.

Final Score: B+

As a long-time apologist for the endings of The Sopranos and The Dark Tower saga, I’m a firm believer that fictional journeys (and life) isn’t about the destination. It’s the journey we took to get there. While I may not share the same vitriolic response that others do to those two particularly controversial endings, they obviously left me less than satisfied. However, they fit the themes of the series and didn’t completely subvert or ruin the series themselves. They may not have offered all of the closure we desired but they made sense within the context of the universes they took part in. What happens when an ending almost completely destroys whatever credit you were willing to give a film in the first place? 2010’s The Last Exorcism had the makings (til the final five minutes) of an excellent and modern look at religious superstition and to be a deconstruction of the “possession” genre. It didn’t quite make it.

Filmed in the increasingly popular “mockumentary” style (which is an improvement over the overdone “found footage” style. actually now that I think about the ending, it still is found footage. son of a bitch. ), The Last Exorcism is the tale of snake oil salesman preacher Cotton Marcus. Called into the ministry at a young age by his father, Cotton is a master of the “entertainment” and “theatrics” side of religion. He makes his living as a traveling exorcist though he’s more than willing to admit to the cameras that his services are placebo only and that he doesn’t believe in demons. After a different exorcism performed by other religious figures results in the death of an autistic child (Cotton’s son is autistic), Cotton finally realizes that his “services” could one day do more harm than good and wants to hang his hat up. He calls in a documentary film crew to expose to the whole world the sham that is modern exorcisms by performing one last “exorcism.”

Cotton’s final exorcism takes him to the home of the Sweetzer family. The fundamentally religious Louis Sweetzum (Louis Herthum), who has become a drunk and zealously religious since his wife’s passing two years ago, believes that his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by a demon. Their cattle has been mutilated and Nell wakes up every morning with her clothes covered in blood with no recollection of how it happened in the first place. Although it’s obvious that Nell is a disturbed little girl, Cotton and the documentary crew firmly believe that she is suffering from some type of repressed trauma. When they perform their first “fake” exorcism, they leave the farm believing their work is done. However, when Nell shows up at their motel room five miles away (with no way to know how they were there) later that night, it’s obvious their problems are bigger than they thought.

The film is more than a little “talky,” and the first 2/3 of the film aren’t afraid to openly ridicule religion and superstition (especially in regards to outdated practices like exorcism). It’s easily the most commendable part of the film. As you’re walked through the world of Cotton Marcus, the scam artist, you get a myriad of details on how he uses misdirection and illusions to trick not only his “marks” for exorcisms but also his congregation (where he utilizes cheap card tricks as part of his sermon and even proves that he can ramble about banana bread recipes and still get thunderous applause). There are great jump cuts as Cotton is performing the fake exorcism on Nell where he walks you through all of the smokes and mirrors that go into the noises that play during the exorcism as well as how he can get the “possessed” to convulse and to have the furniture shake. It’s fascinating stuff for all of the skeptics in the room.

Patrick Fabian was a wonderful fit for the shim-sham artist Cotton Marcus. While he obviously has a conscious and he goes into detail about the regret he feels about the scams he’s run over the years, he’s got a natural hustle. While he can’t quite deliver as electrifying a sermon as Walton Goggins in that classic episode of Justified, you can see why people have been falling for his schtick since he was a kid. It’s the little things in his performance. It’s the way you can see how Marcus takes pride in the slickness of his routine even though he knows it’s bullshit. It’s the stubborn way he clings to his belief that nothing out of the ordinary is occurring despite the increasing evidence to the contrary (i.e. Ashley suddenly speaking Latin or finding his motel) even though the lines of doubt are written all over his face. I’m not saying the man deserved any industry awards but he was great for the part.

Ashley Bell received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her part as Nell Sweetzum, and she too is a young starlet with plenty of talent. She has to play several different roles in the film. There’s sweet, innocent normal Nell. There’s catatonic and/or terrified Nell. And there’s demonically possessed evil Nell. She transitions wonderfully into all of these parts. When she’s still normal, there are quiet moments where she gets a new pair of shoes (that cost more than she spends on clothes for two years) from one of the documentary people or she shows off her skill with the recorder to Cotton. There’s a legitimately disturbing moment at the motel before Nell is murderous where she tries to molest the female documentarian. Then finally, there’s a great scene where what may or may not be the demon has taken over her and she taunts Marcus and everyone else. Ashley Bell was able to switch between creepy and adorable on a dime.

The film certainly delivered it’s fair share of creepy moments. I watched the film alone in the dark in my first night in my new attic bedroom, and I won’t lie. I certainly jumped quite a few times. The film was far more disturbing when the nature of whether Nell had really been possessed or not was a little more ambiguous. The film was a little too reliant on “jump” scares which means it’s scare factor goes down significantly with repeat viewings, but for your first go, the sight of Nell hiding on top of a tall shelf she should not have been able to reach or making creepy poses through a window should unnerve everyone in the audience. Much like The Exorcist, the film is able to create a unsettling dichotomy between the innocence and sweetness of Nell with the horror that she is forced to go through as some force beyond Cotton’s explanation ravages her.

However, the film totally falls apart in the final five minutes. Even more so than my regular complaint that no Hollywood film ever seems willing to allow the “possessed” to simply be suffering from dissociative personality disorder rather than an actual demonic possession, the film’s ending is absurd twist that seems more forced than the ending of an M. Night Shyamalan film. Without wanting to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film yet, it comes off as a rather poorly done homage to Rosemary’s Baby. The ending doesn’t so completely ruin the film as to make it unrecommendable. If you like “possession” films, The Last Exorcism has a great premise which it sadly doesn’t live up to. It’s a mixed bag, but if you’re looking for a decent scare, you could do worse.

Final Score: B-

All directors have to start somewhere. Some debuts are a little more impressive than others. When Terence Malick sprung the visual poetry and tragic love story of Badlands on the world, he was instantly marked as a man to watch (even if his output is minimal at best). I’m not sure anyone would have expected that the man behind Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg) could have gone on to make something as magnificent and devastating as Schindler‘s List. Sam Raimi falls more into the Spielberg camp than Malick (not that he ever reached the heights of either). As director of the Spiderman franchise (especially Spiderman 2), Raimi proved that popcorn entertainment could have mass appeal while still touching your heart and mind. It’s a shame then that his debut picture, The Evil Dead, is more of a chance for Raimi to show off his technical prowess (which is apparent beneath the film’s many flaws) than a watchable movie in its own right.

The zombie horror genre (which The Evil Dead inhabits while simultaneously flirting with demon possession films) is rife with movies that are so bad they’re good. Because of how The Evil Dead II embraced an almost slapstick level of humor with its over-the-top gore and campy presentation, it’s enjoyable because it pokes fun at the innately awful nature of the B-movie (in much the same way as the Grindhouse films). If you took Planet Terror seriously, it would be unwatchable garbage, but because it satirizes the genre (while also being a perfectly serviceable B-movie), it works. The original The Evil Dead is more of a case of “It’s so bad, it’s meh.” The acting is a mess (and not always intentionally), the story is a convoluted bit of nonsense, and it fails to be scary whatsoever. However, an always endearing Bruce Campbell and early signs that Sam Raimi was a gifted director keep the film from being a total failure.

Five friends, led by the goofy and charming Ash (Burn Notice‘s Bruce Campbell), decide to go for a weekend away in a remote cabin in the woods .Things move around on there own even as they first arrive and one of the girls is momentarily possessed and forced to draw an eerie book in her bedroom. Yet, they still think it’s a good idea to stay here. After a mysterious force blows open a hatch leading into the basement, the group finds a book (and an audio recording) that appears to be sewn with human flesh. The audio recording reveals a scientist’s research into the occult and how a demon possessed his girlfriend after he read a specific phrase from the evil book (which is then read over the recording) which starts a frenzy of murderous supernatural rage when demons slowly but surely possess Ash’s friends and girlfriend as he has to fight tooth and nail to stay alive and to stay sane.

On virtually every front but Raimi’s camera work, the film is a disaster. There have been some retroactive claims that this was meant to be a horror comedy, but I call bull shit because this is clearly meant to be a somewhat serious horror affair, and nothing about the film is scary. It is certainly as gory as you can imagine (especially impressive considering the film’s miniscule budget), but the supernatural aspects of the film are laughable at best (even the most traumatic moment, a tree raping one of the female characters, is too campy and cheesy to make an impact). The acting is genuinely awful, and although Bruce Campbell shows at least some level of professionalism, it’s painfully obvious that the rest of the cast are just doing Sam Raimi a favor. It doesn’t help that the characters are given zero development (not even Ash), and the story is laughably thin.

Despite the film’s myriad flaws, Sam Raimi manages to pack the film (especially the early moments before he lets absurd levels of gore do the speaking) with tons of great shots. Whether it’s wide-angle lens close-ups, low shots, fast moving dolly shots, and great tracking shots, it’s obvious that Sam Raimi was an artist who was getting to play with a big box of toys he never had access to before. The use of smoke, shadows, and even lighting were well implemented despite the film’s shoestring budget. Raimi succeeds in creating a moody, eerie atmosphere, but when the zombies/possessed friends finally make their big appearance, he abandons any pretense of seriousness and goes for as much gore as humanly possible. His great camerawork draws even more attention to the film’s flaws because it reminds you what kind of film Raimi could be making.

I honestly have very fond memories of The Evil Dead II, but no matter how many times I watch this original, I can’t get over just how bad it is (and how actively grating certain sequences with a laughing zombie are). My sister watched part of the film with me and eventually had to find something else to occupy her time with because she thought the film was so bad. And it is bad. It’s almost irredeemably awful. Yet, those of you who can appreciate the technical aspects of film making will immediately mark Sam Raimi as a gifted auteur, and even if The Evil Dead doesn’t live up to the standard that the rest of his career set for him, it’s worth it to see young talent developing.

Final Score: C

For horror film enthusiasts (which I do not especially consider myself to be one), there are generally two opinions about what was the creative hey-day of the genre. It’s either the 1920s and 30s at the height of the Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney era, or it’s the horror resurgence of the 1970s and early 1980s (also known as the rise of Wes Craven, George A. Romero, and Tobe Hooper). I don’t really think I have much of an opinion there because horror isn’t exactly my forte. Still, among my horror-loving friends (of which there are many) opinion is pretty evenly split. Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (with a script written by Steven Spielberg) is on the films that always comes up as a classic of the early 1980s horror genre. While I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I did when I was younger (it simply wasn’t as scary as I remembered it being, unlike say The Exorcist), I did pick up on some not-so-subtle social commentary that I missed the first time around. There’s certainly no denying that back in the 80s Spielberg was one of the all-time masters of capturing what it was like to be a child, and the way that Poltergeist fed on very literal childhood fears remains pretty impressive. Also, though some effects are obviously quite dated, the film managed to remain visually impressive despite being 30 years old (this year).

In an archetypical American suburb, the Freeling family are the poster-child for the well-adjusted and loving WASP family. Husband Steve (Craig T. Nelson) is a successful real estate agent for the realtors that built the entire development where the Freeling family (and dozens and dozens of others) lives. Wife Diane (The Big Chill‘s JoBeth Williams) is a loving stay-at-home-mom (who smokes the occasional joint in the evenings) that looks after the family’s three children ranging from 5 to 8 to 16. When the youngest daughter, Carol-Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke), starts hearing voices talking to her out of the static of the television, the Freeling house is quickly taken over by the supernatural. Though the incidents start off as seemingly innocent (chairs and people moving on their own across the kitchen floor), it isn’t long before the malicious side of the spirits break through and Carol-Anne is sucked through a portal into a limbo-dimension and the son is nearly devoured by a tree into the same dimension (or possibly another). Diane and Steve have to enlist the help of parapsychology experts who quickly learn that they too are in way over their head.

This film is not subtle whatsoever in making a statement about American consumerism and the hypocritical lives of the average WASP-ish suburbanite. It’s especially obvious during the scenes before the haunting gets out of hand. We see these people living in an almost disgusting level of comfort, and their biggest problem is that the remote controls of the Freeling neighbors are at the same frequency as the Freeling house and they get in a remote control war. They can waste food. There is a recurring visual motif about things that have been buried getting dug up (which is taken to its logical and horrifying conclusion in the film’s climactic final scene). All of these things are fine. While Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) directed the film, it was written by Spielberg, and all of his films operate on two levels. You have the story and then there’s the obvious allegory (i.e. E.T. is really about divorce and not actually aliens). And I’m always down for some good finger-poking at the suburbs. And when the film delivers the scares, they are often (though not always) pretty successful. Still, good lord, the exposition in this movie could have came out of one of the later Star Wars films. They would just talk and talk and talk and try to explain things in explicit detail that would have been better served by leaving more to our imagination. Poltergeist suffered from the one thing Spielberg usually gets right. It tried to tell more than it showed.

This is going to be my shortest movie review in ages (they’re usually more like 5 or 6 paragraphs instead of 4), but I still feel like I’m dying from my sinus infection, and my head is still buzzed on enough allergy medicine for me to float away on a wave of suphedrine. And I just think about Breaking Bad every time I take it (cause Suphedrine is a major ingredient in methamphetamine, although not in Walter’s cause he found like a work around in making it which is why his meth is blue. I think. I’m not a chemist). Slowly but surely, all of the energy I’ve been expending doing posts over these last couple days despite being sick has turned my mind into total mush. It’s not good. Anyways, if you’ve somehow managed to not see Poltergeist in the last thirty years, it’s still a really good movie. I’m not sure if I would call it a great film, but it’s fun, and it manages to deliver some legitimate scares. And for all movie buffs, it’s cultural legacy is pretty substantial so that alone would justify a viewing.

Final Score: B+

What does it say about a genre that the film that I consider the height of the market isn’t even a movie that I can give an “A+” to. I like horror (well, I like good horror. 99% of it is just fucking terrible), but I think that as a cinematic avenue, it might be an inherently inferior form. Because I truly believe that The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made (and it’s one of the only horror movies that I actually find to be frightening), but when I think about the other films on this blog that I’ve awarded top marks to, I just can’t put The Exorcist in the same league as movies like 8 1/2 or Tree of Life. I can name exactly one other horror film (particularly if we characterize The Silence of the Lambs as a psychological thriller) off the top of my head that I’d be willing to give an “A” too (Let the Right One In), and there are handful of other horror films that I’d be willing to give “A-“‘s to. And that’s really it. Maybe it’s the way that the vast majority of horror films put scares ahead of engaging character development and therefore sacrifice an ability to emotionally invest the audience in the fates of the film’s heroes and heroines. Great cinema is about great characters and great stories (and occasionally, if your name is Fellini or Lynch or Bergman, about great visual odes to your own medium), and with the exception of Let the Right One In, I can’t really name any horror films that allowed me to become fully invested in fleshed out, three-dimensional characters. Still, The Exorcist earns itself an immense deal of good will by being without question the most frightening film of all time and one of the few movies that can instill genuine disturbance into the mind of this vocal atheist and skeptic.

While the film begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq, where Father Merrin (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) stumbles across some ancient artifacts which may or may not be of demonic/Satanist origin, the actual film is centered in the otherwise quiet Washington, D.C. suburb of Georgetown. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful actress in D.C. to film a movie raising her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), by herself. Their life is normal and happy (besides Chris’ absent husband) until one day when Chris and Regan begin to hear strange noises coming from the attic. Regan also seems to be convinced that she has communed with a spirit through a Ouija board that she found in the home’s basement. Their terror only escalates when Regan begins acting strangely, starting out by peeing her pants in a nearly catatonic state in front of a party that Chris was throwing and then resulting in full on tremors and spasms where Regan’s entire bed is shaking more than any 12 year old girl could possibly cause. After a series of extensive medical and psychiatric tests, none of the doctors or psychiatrists can come up with a reasonable explanation for Regan’s behavior and in a last minute desperation, Chris enlists the help of a local father (in the midst of a crisis of faith), Father Karras (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on her daughter who is increasingly under the obvious control of something beyond the normal. Along with Father Merrin, Father Karras attempts to save this young girl but it might cost him his own life in the process.

The Academy Award for Best Makeup didn’t exist yet in 1973 (it wouldn’t be invented until 1980 specifically for the film The Elephant  Man) but if it did, it would surely have gone to The Exorcist. This movie is nearly 40 years old, but moments where I felt the film’s effects had aged poorly were few and far between. This was back before CGI defined every single sci-fi/fantasy/horror film and make-up artists had to rely on good old human ingenuity to create compelling images that were beyond normal human experience. And The Exorcist succeeded with aplomb. Once Regan starts to really succumb to her possession and her body is covered in lesions and sores and pustules and what not, she is incredibly difficult to look at and it’s all thanks to the marvelous make-up work of the film’s effects crew. Possessed Regan is one of the most iconic figures in the history of horror and the film really nailed that disturbing and grotesque feel that I’m sure the movie’s script asked for (as well as the source book material). I’m just praying (figure of speech since I haven’t actually prayed in years) that I don’t dream about her disturbing visage this evening. Her face or the rare glimpses we get of Captain Howdy. That’s pretty much the last thing I need.

The film’s sound design is also a marvel (considering it won the Oscar for Best Sound, that’s not shocking). There’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening in this film, visually and aurally, and the fact that there’s almost always something happening at the edge of your perception adds a lot to the overall creepiness of the film. I’m a firm believer that sound design is one of the most important aspects of any horror film. It can be used to up the inherent paranoia and tension of the genre to nearly unbearable heights. All of the best horror films rely more on the audience’s imagination and a philosophy that what we don’t see is more frightening than what we do. The Exorcist succeeds in the technical department because its’ unnerving score paired with the endless stream of ambient effects and the more brutal and perverse noises played when Regan/the demon are in full evil mode. It’s disorienting to an almost whiplash inducing degree. To make it even better, the film will often slip in a couple frames of some demonic image just long enough for your eyes to register what you saw but not long enough for you to make sense of the image. From virtually every behind-the-scenes perspective, The Exorcist was a resounding technical triumph.

That was all without talking about the film’s spine-tingling script once. The movie takes its time getting to the possession (because it wants you to become emotionally invested in Chris, Regan, and Father Karras [though I would argue it fails to really develop anyone besides Father Karras in an interesting way]), but once Regan really starts to lose it, the movie is a non-stop ride into the heart of darkness. By the film’s end, you’ll never be able to look at a crucifix the same way again, and outside of a Stephen King novel, I can’t really think of a single bit of horror that was so willing to corrupt the innocence of a child. However, the film’s script is where it falters and that’s not even counting the way that I felt the movie tried to be more character driven than it had the acumen to be. For a healthy portion of the film, an argument could have been made (and was made by most of the doctors) that Regan wasn’t possessed. She was just suffering from some particularly violent strain of schizophrenia. I just wish the film had waited a while longer to make it so obviously clear that she was in fact possessed by a demon. I think the movie played that trump card too early, and honestly, it would have been just as disturbing seeing this 12 year old girl shoving her mother’s face into her bloody privates whether she was possessed or crazy. Ambiguity and the power of one’s imagination is the sign of a great horror writer, and this movie just played it’s cards a little too obviously. It’s not something that ever really bothered me when I watched this movie when I was younger, but seeing it as an adult now, it just seemed a little too heavy-handed.

I’ve written a lot today (3000 words for Game of Thrones alone) so I’ll draw this to a close. Had you asked me what score I was going to give this movie before I actually watched the movie (based on my memories of the film), I would have said “A+” but it didn’t work out that way. I guess my tastes have matured a little bit since I was younger. I haven’t watched this movie in high school so I feel like I came into this film with the perfect mix of nostalgia and freshness to make a good, objective review. Still, I do honestly believe it’s the best straight up horror film of all time. I actually think in retrospect that Let the Right One In is a slightly better movie, but I almost don’t like characterizing it as a horror film. If you’ve somehow missed seeing The Exorcist at any point in your life (my sister watched it for the first time today and was decidedly not impressed), it’s one of those films that any self-respecting movie fan has to see. I think it’s survived the intervening years since it’s release like a champ even if I’m not quite able to call it a perfect movie.

Final Score: A