Category: Teen Screams


TheHouseofTheDevil1

(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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TheFaculty1

I think that every movie lover that grew up in the 90s has a soft spot in their heart for the Scream franchise. None of the sequels were as good as the original (though Scream 4 was a very clever lambasting of modern horror tropes) but even they all had that self-referential, pop-culture obsessed magic that made the first so special. I used to think that part of the reason why they were so good was because of Wes Craven, but as hit or miss as the man has been in his career, I’m actually starting to be willing to give more credit to the franchise’s screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, and 1998’s sci-fi horror gem The Faculty has confirmed that suspicion.

I say this because even before I knew that The Faculty was written by Kevin Williamson (a fact that I didn’t discover until the end credits rolled), the film felt so similar to Scream yet I had trouble putting my fingers on exactly why. The Faculty is a science fiction horror flick in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not a teen age slasher flick. It’s protagonists aren’t obsessed with horror movies. But, it’s clever self-aware protagonists felt related to Neve Campbell and her kin, and they had their own pop-culture saturated conversations. A film where the heroes weren’t easily replaceable drones, The Faculty was the hip sci-fi equivalent of Scream elevated even more by the tight direction of popcorn auteur Robert Rodriguez.

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After discovering that their high school is ground zero for an alien invasion, a ragtag group of high school students including geek Casey (Elijah Wood), goth Stoakely (Clea Duvall), and drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett) decide to take the fight to the faculty of their school, who are quickly being replaced by alien imposters. When they discover that they may be the last pure human beings left in their town, the group has to find the original alien queen and destroy her to save the town but they quickly learn that not everyone in their group is as human as they think.

Much like the first Scream film, what makes The Faculty so immediately enjoyable is the instantly endearing and sympathetic cast. Although it’s quickly apparent that the film’s high school has a lot more problems than just an alien invasion (like almost psychotically violent bullies and cliques), the main characters seem well-rounded and smart. They act the way you’d act if your high school had been invaded by aliens. They aren’t just immediately setting themselves up to die. A key to a good horror film is that you care about the fates of the protagonists, and I found myself invested in seeing if Casey and the rest of the crew would make it to the end of the film.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film has an almost ridiculously deep field of supporting players. I could name all of the future big talent in the film and take up several paragraphs in the process. To wit: Robert Patrick (Terminator 2), Laura Harris (Warehouse 13), Famke Jannsen (X-Men), Salma Hayek (Dogma), Piper Laurie (Carrie), Jon Stewart. And those are just the teachers. Well, Laura Harris is one of the kids now that I think about it. Throw in Usher, Jordanna Brewster, Wiley Wiggins, Danny Masterson, and others and this film was veritable who’s who of 90s talent. And they all delivered but special props must be given to Elijah Wood and Laura Harris.

Also, for a film from the late 90s, the special effects in the film aged remarkably well. Although there was occasionally an air of camp in the film, it was always in a fun tongue-in-cheek way and you had to know that certain moments were intentional visual throwbacks to classic sci-fi flicks like The Thing and Species. Very rarely did I find myself pulling out of the film because something was cheesy or particularly fake looking. As a matter of fact, I lost track of the number of times where the film made me say “holy s***” because of one especially gruesome moment or another. The film knew how to use gore to good effect.

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At the end of the day, The Faculty is pure smart popcorn fun. Much like last year’s criminally under-appreciated Cabin in the Woods, The Faculty proved my suspicion that one of the only ways to successfully do horror these days is to verge on deconstructing the whole genre. The Faculty isn’t exactly scary but it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s smart. Razor smart and while it may not have had the lasting cultural impact that Kevin Williamson’s Scream franchise had, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that The Faculty is just as good as the first Scream and one of the last great gasps of the 90s horror renaissance.

Final Score: A-

As a life-long native of West Virginia (not counting the summer I lived in Italy and the four months at the beginning of this year that I lived in New York City), I am always wary of fictional portrayal of my home state. We’re either portrayed as the dirt-poor bumpkins we used to be (Matewan and October Sky) or we’re made out to be psychopathic in-bred killers (Wrong Turn et al). The only film I can name where taking place in West Virginia was just a random, not important part of the setting was the under-rated Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. The low-budget indie horror comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, with it’s West Virginia setting and hillbilly protagonists, had the potential to be another West Virginia set film to offend all of us mountain children, but with its consistently hilarious tongue-in-cheek sensibilities and inversion of the college kids vs. evil redneck stereotypes, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil was instead a B-Movie blast.

Simple but lovable rednecks Dale (Invasion‘s Scott Labine) and Tucker (Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk) head up to their isolated vacation home in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. Camping not far from their site is a group of obnoxious college kids, including the sweet and innocent Alison (30 Rock‘s Katrina Bowden). The big-boned and big-hearted Dale takes a fancy to Alison but his backwards demeanor and country look scare the college kids. When Alison falls and hits her head on a rock while swimming, she’s rescued by Tucker and Dale, but the college kids think they’re in a horror movie and that Tucker and Dale are going to kidnap and murder their friend. As the college kids try to “rescue” their friend, Tucker and Dale’s lives take a turn for the complicated as the kids rescue attempts end with death and destruction and every one becomes certain that Tucker and Dale are psychopathic killers.

Fans of Firefly and Serenity (or even his scene-stealing bit as “Pirate Steve” in Dodgeball) don’t need anyone else to tell them that Alan Tudyk is a terribly under-appreciated comic actor. He plays the redneck Tucker perfectly straight, but he still manages to get most of the biggest laughs in the film. Combine his deadpan and dead serious delivery with the gut-bustingly funny things he has to say, and you have the recipe for a great performance, and Alan Tudyk delivers. Tyler Labine was consistently the second best part of Invasion (behind the commanding William Fichtner) and he turns a stock horror stereotype like Dale into a loveable and very endearing lead. Katrina Bowden is one of the most gorgeous women working in television today, but I’m not sure if her comedic chops are up to keeping up with Labine and Tudyk, and the other college kids were either forgettable or outright bad actors.

The humor in the film comes from constantly flipping traditional horror storytelling devices on their head and playing with perspective in a way similar to Atonement (although obviously not as well done or artistic as that film). While the college kids are your stereotypical horror protagonists, Tucker and Dale break the mold in almost every way imaginable. Their just real, actual rednecks that I would know and go to high school with. They drink too much beer. They go fishing. They wear really unfortunate clothes, and they’d give the shirt off their back to strangers in need. And as they try to help Alison throughout the film, it is their appearance and a lack of complete information that drives the crazy college kids to think Tucker and Dale are killers. Which leads to hilarious moments like Tucker trying to explain to a cop why a college kid would just jump into a wood chipper.

The film succeeds when it goes for a winning brand of stupid but still funny sophomoric humor and genre satire. But when, by the end of the film, it tries to play the horror even just a little bit straight, it begins to feel like the terrible B-movies that it’s making fun of. The twist at the end seems especially unnecessary but the film is a loving homage to terrible B-films so perhaps it felt the need to throw in those types of ridiculous plot twists. But when the film is running all cylinders, it can be an almost endless set up of visual gags and gross-out humor. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil does not shy away from the gore that is part and parcel of the horror series, and few films have made carnage so hilarious.

It’s not a perfect movie, and if you’re one of those types that can’t enjoy films that are so dumb they’re brilliant (i.e. Idiocracy, early Adam Sandler, the first Dumb & Dumber), you probably won’t understand why I thought this movie was so hilarious. Still, tonight’s Halloween (although I watched the movie at like 1 AM this morning), and is there a better way to celebrate the holiday than a good horror film? Plus, I’m going to be watching Rocky Horror Picture Show as well before I go to bed. So, there will be a review for what I still think is one of the best B-movies ever made. My last work on Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is that for fans of horror and for fans of witty satires, this film will provide a lot of laughs.

Final Score: B

Here’s the thing about the horror genre. Due to the fact that 99% of the genre is complete and utter shit, the rest of the genre is immediately taken far less seriously. As original and entertaining as I found the first Saw film (though perhaps original is the wrong word since it was essentially Se7en for the 2000’s), the slew of sequels that are nothing more than torture porn have tarnished the original product. Freddy Krueger’s original scares in A Nightmare on Elm Street are weighed down by its braid-dead predecessors. Modern audiences are so turned on by gore and admittedly creative ways to kill people that they’ve forgotten classic horror was defined as much by its characters and psychological mind games as much as by blood. Probably the only great horror film to come out of the 1990’s was the original Scream (The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs are more accurately labeled thrillers). With a wickedly sharp wit and the most articulate and memorable main cast in decades, it served as both a vicious satire of the slasher genre as well as a welcome return to legitimate scares. While the two sequels weren’t awful, they notably failed to meet the high bar set by the first film. Wes Craven wisely chose to wait a decade to revitalize the classic franchise, and while Scream 4 isn’t nearly as good as the original film, it’s still a wicked sharp horror movie from one of the genre’s true legends.

Set ten years after the events of the third film, Scream 4 picks up with our heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returning to Woodsboro on the anniversary of the murders from the first film. Now a critically acclaimed self-help author, Sidney has returned to town to promote her wildly successful book. However, Sidney can’t go anywhere without trouble following, and her return to Woodsboro is immediately greeted by a slew of new murders that mimic the style of the original Woodsboro massacres. As Sidney tries to remain the survivor we know and love, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), whose career has been put on hold after entering domestic life with her husband, now Sheriff, Dooley Riley (David Arquette), decides these new murders are the perfect opportunity to revitalize her stagnant career. We’re also introduced to a new group of high school students meant to parallel the original cast which includes Jill (Emma Roberts), the niece of Sidney as well as Kirby (Hayden Panatierre), Jill’s horror savvy best friend. As the murders quickly spiral out of control, it becomes readily apparent that anyone could be the murderer and that no one is safe.

The original film set the bar pretty high for classic horror film openers, and while this one doesn’t quite have the shock and/or horror value of the original opener, it gets serious points for being incredibly hilarious and metatextual. Ever since Scream 2 introduced the “film-within-a-film” concept of the Stab series based off of the Woodboro killings, Scream has used those to create meta-jokes about the cliches and tropes of the horror franchise in even more comedic fashion than the first film. I don’t want to ruin anything about the opening of the film because it’s one of the best parts of the whole movie (for better or worse), but needless to say Kevin Williamson’s (the screenwriter for the franchise) trademark dialogue and self-aware nature is taken to its logical and hysterical extreme. I was legitimately laughing my ass off. Every aspect of the horror genre that has come and gone since the last Scream film (in particular the rise of “torture porn” and Japanese horror re-makes) gets viciously skewered. Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell get serious props for achieving so much in such a short period of time.

At it’s core, this film is an attempt to renew the (now) old-school sensibilities of the Scream franchise into the modern horror market, while simultaneously retaining the self-aware and chatty nature that makes the movies so unique. For the most part, in those respects, it’s a success. Modern horror films are far more gruesome and bloody than the original Scream films (which were in turn my introduction to the horror genre and scared the hell out of me when I was younger), and this was easily the bloodiest of all of the Scream films. It was quite gruesome and should satisfy the most gore-hungry in the audience. Simultaneously, the gore doesn’t seem there simply to satisfy that “torture-porn” instinct popular in modern horror films but to try to add legitimate shocks to the scenes, which it doesn’t quite deliver in that respects. The film isn’t scary or suspenseful in the slightest. It’s just ridiculously violent, and in that regard, Wes Craven failed to reach the heights of the original film. However, the film is so damn smart that it almost isn’t a problem.

If I were to judge this movie solely on how thoroughly it deconstructs the notion of a horror reboot or its never ending meta-commentary on the horror genre, it would get an “A”. Alas, the fact that it does try to be a horror film (rather than say the horror satire of Shaun of the Dead), it’s lack of being scary costs it considerably. If you thought the original cast was a group of chatty teenagers who had spent way too much time watching horror films, you haven’t seen anything yet. It almost seems as if the entire point of the high school characters this time around (as compared to the returning characters) is to just serve as a graduate level seminar in modern horror theory and history. Not only that, but there are seemingly countless visual shout-outs to classic horror movies that any real horror buff will just eat up. Similarly, why the film isn’t especially suspenseful, Williamson and Craven did a superb job of keeping me on my toes about who the killers actually were (though I knew who one was about half-way through and figured the other one out a couple beats before I was supposed to as well). It’s a testament to their writing skills that I was actually convinced the killer could have been any of our returning survivors.

Besides the film not being remotely scary, the movie also suffered in that the new group of high-schoolers wasn’t remotely as memorable as the first group. Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, and Neve Campbell are such an iconic group of kids now that even understanding that their shoes would be incredibly hard to fill, this new batch just didn’t have that group’s natural chemistry. With the exception of Emma Roberts (who has really grown up since her Nickelodeon days and gives a fantastic performance in this movie), none of the other kids had any sort of star power. Even Hayden Panatierre, who is an actual TV star/rising movie starlet, gave an incredibly phoned-in performance this go around (although I always thought Claire was the worst part of Heroes). One of the great aspects of the original film was how real and authentic its characters felt. Scream 4 does not have the same sense of familiarity.

I just can’t believe I’ve devoted so many words to reviewing a movie that I’m only going to give a “B”. That’s the paradox of this film though. It’s surprisingly more complex and introspective than anything else on the horror market, but in that crucial area of actual genre execution, it unfortunately falters. For fans of the franchise, there is absolutely no question as to whether you should watch this because it scratches that itch for 90’s style slasher flicks that you had forgotten you missed. Simultaneously, it nails almost all of the aspects about the original films that you loved (except for the actual suspense and scares). When the rest of the horror market is another brain-dead and lifeless sequel, something this fun and this smart can’t be missed by anyone with the slightest respect for the genre. While it doesn’t disprove the notion that horror sequels are never as good as the original, it is easily one of the only fourth entries in a  film series that is actually good and not completely awful.

What’s your favorite scary movie?

Final Score: B

The Lost Boys

There’s a certain paradox in my tastes in movies. I adore art-house films and things that can be described as thinking-man movies. My favorite movie of the 2000’s was There Will Be Blood, a slow-moving character drama that played out like a Tolstoy novel on film. Yet, if a crowd-pleasing popcorn film is well-made and genuinely entertaining, I have no qualms in admitting that I enjoy them as well. A movie doesn’t have to make me think or look at life in new ways in order to be entertaining, and I think that is something film snobs often forget. With that in mind, I just watched The Lost Boys for the first time since, I believe, middle school and it was an entertaining nostalgic thrill rider back to the ridiculous excess of the 1980’s.

The film’s plot is pretty simple. Corey Haim and Jason Patric have moved to a new town that is crawling with vampires. Jason Patric gets involved with a vampire biker gang led by Kiefer Sutherland, and he starts to turn into one. It’s up to Corey Haim and the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and an actor I’m not familiar with) to fight off the forces of evil and save Jason Patric along with Jami Gertz, another local who is being turned into a vampire. What makes the film the cult classic that it has become is the fact that it seems like a perfectly encapsulated bit of 80’s Americana in the way it captures so much of what made the 80’s the 80’s from the fashion to the soundtrack to other little things that let you know this is from the Reagan Era.

I’m not saying this is one of the best movies ever made, but there’s a reason this film’s popularity continues long after the 80’s have finished. If you like vampire movies or campy teen horror flicks, check it out. I’m honestly surprised I enjoyed this film as I did since it’s a Joel Schumacher movie and he managed to single-handedly nearly destroy the Batman franchise. It’s not a perfect movie and I don’t even know if I would call it a great movie. But it’s entertaining and sometimes isn’t that enough?

Final Score: B