Made in 2009, “The Revenant” finally finds its way to the big screen with a resounding thud. Special effects artist D. Kerry Prior (“The Abyss”) turns writer-director for this ill-conceived horror movie, which excels solely on the strength of its special effects and impressive make-up designs. A convincing talking decapitated head provides one of the film’s finer moments. Insufficient narrative preparation gives way to an Iraq war soldier — Bart (David Anders) — who rises from the dead after his body is returned to his hometown of Los Angeles. Looking worse for wear, Bart seeks assistance from his best friend Joey (Chris Wylde). Joey deduces that Bart has been turned into a “revenant,” aka a vampiric zombie if you will. Many audiences won’t.
Lacking any sense of the “Shaun of the Dead”-style humor to which this movie ostensibly aspires, the story goes through a series of hackneyed gyrations wherein Bart and Joey get into confrontations with criminals. Of course, crime busting isn’t really what the duo is really up to. They’re just looking for a steady supply of blood to keep Bart “alive.”
The filmmakers finally play their trump card in the third act, when they let the special effects go wild. Even that winning hand gets diminished by a truncated dystopian coda that lamely attempts to slap a momentous chord on all that has come before.
Rated R. 110 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
“The Awakening” is an old-fashioned haunted house story with a couple of neat twists. Rebecca Hall’s bewitching portrayal of Florence Cathcart, an early 20th century ghost-busting novelist working in post World War I England, gives debut director/co-writer Nick Murphy plenty to work with. In keeping with such suspense-teetering thrillers as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “The Others,” chills and spills come as much from a ghostly atmosphere of uncluttered spaces as from sudden shocks of paranormal activity.
Florence garners fans with her novels, and enemies by assisting police in busting up phony moneymaking séance rings around London, circa 1921. At a time when nearly all of England’s population has lost relatives in the war, people are desperate for any kind of contact with the dead — however hokey that connection might be. A visit from private boys’ academy headmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) invites Elizabeth to investigate the rural Rookford School for evidence of a young male ghost who has been busy terrorizing its students and faculty. A young student recently died there. As well, a murder occurred on the estate several decades ago. Mallory carries battle scars from the war, which cause him to stammer and limp. Nonetheless, he has a romantic connection with Elizabeth, whose professional approach to her work doesn’t hinder her emotional availability. An especially curious scene finds Florence spying on Mallory as he tends to an unhealed wound on his leg after a bath. Florence and Mallory each have secrets that need airing out.
Hall’s ghost hunter is one sexy creature. Cinematographer Eduard Grau (“A Single Man”) balances the film’s potentially suffocating drab color-scheme with vibrant compositions that keep the eye moving. His teasing depiction of windswept Gothic isolation is the stuff of an alluring horror-fantasy.
Imelda Staunton spices up the Gothic drama as the school’s personable doyenne Maud. A fan of Elizabeth’s books, Maud is a supportive foil for Elizabeth against the school’s creeping horror, which also comes in the very physical form of a threatening groundskeeper named Joseph (Joseph Mawle).
The narrative isn’t without a few cobwebs. The malevolent groundskeeper comes across as a gratuitous device used to rev up suspense late in the story. The one-dimensional character isn’t awarded any kind of inner-life to bring meaning to his violent actions.
Although the all-boy student body is away on vacation, one boy — Tom Hill (well played by newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright) stays behind. Florence and Tom strike up a friendship upon which the plot twists. The story finds itself playing catch-up when the proceedings are brought to a close with a barrage of backstory exposition designed to tie the narrative up with a neat bow.
Still, the ensemble performances go a long way toward masking the script’s less persuasive aspects. “The Awakening” is all about mood and tone. Peepholes, poison, and long dim hallways with ghosts at the end of them never get old.
Rated R. 107 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Heavy on suspense but light on story or character development “The Pact” is a throwaway low-budget horror movie. Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy expands on his short film of the same title, but doesn’t magnify the material nearly enough. The film’s strongest asset Agnes Bruckner (“Blue Car”) gets lost in the shuffle as Nicole, a young mother returning to her Los Angeles childhood home to attend the funeral of her detested mother. Nicole’s butch sister Annie (Caity Lotz) arrives by motorcycle with a chip on her shoulder that promptly gets knocked off by a ghost that’s busy bumping around inside the family house. A disappearance sends Annie on a fact-finding mission that leads to evidence of a serial killer connection to her mother’s relationship to the home. Caity Lotz gives a credible performance that carries the film, but Casper Van Dien’s portrayal of an LAPD detective is laughably awful. It seems the actor best known for his part in “Starship Troopers” has forgotten how to act. Drab monochrome lighting and production designs don’t do the film any favors. “The Pact” is a horror movie with training wheels. It’s for audiences who have never seen one before and don’t want to be too scared./span>
Not Rated. 91 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Ed Gein's legacy of a body-flaying serial killer, which also provided Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with its inspiration, gave novelist Thomas Harris the unsavory elements he used to build “The Silence of the Lambs.” The fact that director Jonathan Demme turned Ted Tally’s screenplay adaptation into a masterpiece of film horror reflects an array of ingenious choices: fully developed characters, exquisitely fulfilled by the actors in each of their roles. The unusual storyline boasts two sets of opposing protagonists and antagonists.
Jodie Foster’s character, FBI trainee Clarice Starling, makes for a highly empathetic central character. Headstrong yet engaged in a constant battle of insecurity, Clarice isn’t about to squander the opportunity to track down a serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” when Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, assigns her to interview convicted serial murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, in an iconic role).
“Hannibal the Cannibal” is the ultimate anti-hero. A hyper-intelligent former psychiatrist and highly skilled painter, Dr. Lecter has been laying in wait for a visit from someone like Clarice, whom he can mentally dissect and manipulate. Lecter knows his chance to kill will come again. The audience knows it too. However, unlike our disgust at Buffalo Bill’s crimes, which targets overweight women whom he murders for their skin, we secretly want to see the charmingly malevolent Dr. Lecter in action. Hannibal’s alternately cheerful or crass demeanor has a knowing wink about it that Anthony Hopkins milks for every drop of diabolical ingenuity available. The bizarre mentor/apprentice relationship that develops between Clarice and her criminally insane subject makes for a compelling mix of visceral —almost sexual — tension and dark humor. For all of her naiveté, Clarice is perfectly capable of matching wits with the demented doctor, even though it takes her some practice to get it right.
Anthony Heald’s Dr. Frederick Chilton is a petty bureaucrat whose ambitious political goals put him at odds with Clarice. His character presents a different type of villain. Even Clarice’s trusted FBI mentor Jack Crawford fails to come through when Clarice most desperately needs assistance. She is always on her own.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is indisputably dynamic in every technical detail. Jonathan Demme uses high camera angles to create chilling visual compositions. The film constantly seems to change direction. A tense subjective sequence seen through Buffalo Bill’s night-vision goggles ramps up the suspense with an organic filmmaking technique that puts the audience temporarily inside the mind of the killer. For a few brief moments we, know the fear of the would-be victim and her lurking attacker. The effect is petrifying.
Winner of five Academy Awards, “The Silence of the Lambs” is the only horror film to ever sweep the Oscars.
Slicing & Dicing Slasher Horror Feigns Reinvention By Cole Smithey
Back in 2005 Renny Harlin directed a winning little slice-'em-and-dice-'em slasher flick that upped the stakes on James Mangold’s “Identity” (2003), itself an average addition to the subgenre. I mention this because, for all the unwarranted praise being slathered on “The Cabin in the Woods,” each of those efforts represent much better movies.
Much like the mechanically operated environment of “The Hunger Games,” the setting for “The Cabin in the Woods” is a remote-controlled “killing floor” where a group of youthful characters do battle for their lives. A stereotyped psychotic serial killer even shows up for an ill-defined cameo. As with “The Truman Show” (1998), there isn’t a sufficient amount of context and background to allow for a satisfying story to be told.
Joss Whedon and co-writer/director Drew Goddard go lazy-style from their days spent writing for television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and paste together five pigeonholed characters. We have the letter-jacket-wearing jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth), along with air-headed sorority chic Jules (Anna Hutchinson), an African American nice-guy (Jesse Williams), and a requisite white-boy stoner who has just a pinch more common sense than anyone else.
As knee-jerk practitioners of the quick-cut editing techniques that plague modern filmmaking, the filmmakers here are too insecure about their under-developed narrative to ever allow the movie to breathe. The movie is never scary. Neither is there ever a hint of sustained suspense. A viewing of something like Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” could go a long way toward providing a teachable lesson in this regard. A little "Rosemary's Baby" wouuldn't hurt while you're there.
Our predictable group of slasher-fodder experiences time-honored hints of looming violence from a redneck tobacco-chewing gas station attendant who points them in the direction of their vacation destination — a cabin by a lake. Once at the remote cabin, the narrative floor drops out, exposing the college kids to a bunch of zombies on the prowl for blood. That’s right, blood. Yawn. A lurking monster waits patiently for his less than necessary third-act appearance. Naturally, there’s some untold corporate or government entity behind the whole bloodbath. Like “The Hunger Games,” “Cabin in the Woods” is a high-concept story whose writers know nothing of the rigor required to fulfill the political objectives of dystopian films.
The would-be social satire opens with a couple of white-coated military industrial complex administrators goofing around in the secluded privacy of a colossal facility that serves as the headquarters from which all activity in and around the cabin is controlled. Jokes make for an inappropriately casual atmosphere. The clinically dressed employees are in fact homicidal torturers whose cloaked actions will exact excruciating deaths for the young people on the mean-end of their meticulously designed killing machine.
Before you waste your time and money on this cinematic mongrel, check out “Mindhunters.” It’s not a perfect slasher picture either, but it’s a damn sight better than “The Cabin in the Woods.” As for deconstructing the genre — as many easily excitable bloggers are wont to pretend occurs here — Eli Craig peed on that tree in 2010 with "Tucker and Dale vs Evil."
Rated R. 95 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
SPECIAL ADDENDUM: SPOILER ALERT! CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH? By Cole Smithey
It kills me when otherwise knowledgeable and savvy critics such as Matt Singer and Devin Farachi fall into naïve traps about things such as spoilers. Read any Roger Ebert film review, and you’ll get a good idea of what a film is about. A few specific plot elements will be discussed because that’s the only way for a reader to get a grasp of a film’s narrative terrain. It’s the nature of the beast. If you are a moviegoer who doesn’t want to have a critic’s ideas or revelations influencing your experience, don’t read any reviews before seeing a movie. Duh. Wait until after.
That’s not to say, however, that a critic should necessarily give away a key surprise a filmmaker builds into his or her story. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” — the original "slasher" film — is a good example. If the film came out today, you couldn’t — as a critic — reveal the narrative twist that comes late in the story. Hitchcock cleverly planted the twist to send audiences out of the theater shocked by what they had learned.
However, a film like “The Cabin in the Woods” announces its plot twist in the opening scene. As such, there is no “shocking surprise” for an audience, or critic, to contend with. There is merely a set-up, one that, in this case is not very well illuminated during the course of the movie. Nonetheless, it does present the entire groundwork for the story. To pretend otherwise is pure denial. The film wants to serve as a piece of social satire, but it fails so miserably in that regard, that no one seems to notice.
There is a dumbing down of film criticism occurring via the hive mind of aggregate culture that favors arcane commercial concepts such as RottenTomatoes’ “Fresh Certification.” Are you, as a critic or an audience member, really going to fall for that nonsense?
Any critic who complains in a review about how “hard,” “impossible,” or “unfair” it is to write about a movie is clearly not cut out for the job. It is so sad to read essentially the same review over and over again from so many “critics.” There’s a stupefying similarity between reviews of “Cabin in the Woods” coming from critics ranging from Ann Hornaday (The Washington Post), to Ian Buckwalter (NPR), to Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), and the list goes on. At least those critics don’t resort the strictly amateur maneuver of quoting from the film’s press materials as Michael Phillips (the Chicago Tribune) chooses to do.
But go ahead and believe the hype about “The Cabin in the Woods.” You are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Spoiler alert: "Silent House" is a truly disturbing psychological thriller that taunts and challenges its audience. Reminiscent of the nightmare sequences in Roman Polanski's "Repulsion," this surreal story is rooted in the sexual abuse of Sarah Murphy (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who returns with her father and uncle to an abandoned summerhouse where she spent painful vacations as a little girl. The film is a showcase for Elizabeth Olsen, who admirably carries every darkly lit scene with an increasing sense of panic-stricken terror. Behind “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene” and “Silent House,” horror has a new It Girl, and her name is Elizabeth Olsen.
Based on the Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda,” "Silent House" is a study in atmospheric displacement. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (“Open Water”) maintain a suffocating claustrophobic atmosphere inside the lakeside home. Cinematographer Igor Martinovic does a virtuosic job of tracking through the dark creaking house to chase down demons that pursue Sarah’s mind and body with unrelenting malevolence. This is some bad juju.
Sarah’s dad John (Adam Trese) and uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) need to clean up their derelict house in order to enable a quick sale. But something is not quite right about John and Peter. A strange sibling tension brews between the brothers. Sarah is none too pleased when Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), a local girl, appears on the doorstep to remind Sarah about their childhood friendship—a camaraderie Sarah doesn’t remember, or doesn’t want to remember.
Squatters have left marks on the property. The size of the house is more mansion than cottage. Toxic mold infests the walls. Every window is boarded up with plywood on both sides. Inside is pitch black. Peter goes on a run to the hardware store, leaving Sarah with her dad inside the locked home to wander around with flashlights. She’s supposed to be packing up any belongings she wants to keep. Dad is supposed to be tending to repairs. However, these are no conditions for getting things done, unless escape is high on the list.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of putting the audience inside the unreliable mindset of a girl grappling with terrible memories that greet her in the guise of an unraveling reality. Time seems to fold back on itself as things go from weird to bad to worse. Blood is spilled. You’re frequently drawn to the screen to study glimpses of supernatural phenomena. You wonder at the source of the evil just as you realize you are taking in more subtle filmic information than you fully comprehend. As with all great haunted house movies (see “The Others”) “Silent House” relies on tone, mood, sound, and lighting effects. The effect is transformative. Be prepared for chills and shocks in a well-crafted horror movie that may inspire nightmares for many nights to come.
Rated R. 88 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
In spite of the tremendous success he enjoyed with "Dracula" in 1931, Tod Browning's directorial career was effectively ruined after he made "Freaks" the following year. Informed by Browning's youthful experiences working as a performer with a traveling circus, "Freaks" broke cinematic ground by being the first film to feature performers with deformities. It was banned in Britain for over 30 years. “Freaks” only enjoyed theatrical success thanks to its rediscovery in the early ‘60s by cult horror film aficionados whose appreciation enabled it to be discovered again in the ‘70s during the Midnight Movie craze.
This Pre-Code movie is set amid a circus sideshow traveling through France. The story turns on a romantic drama that plays out between Hans (Harry Earles), an engaged midget, and a cunning trapeze artist named Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) whose warped sense of humor is matched by her twisted morals. Although Hans dearly loves his similarly-sized fiancée Frieda (Daisy Earles), he can't help falling in love with the full-sized Cleopatra when she seems to reciprocate his politely expressed affection. Little does Hans realize that Cleopatra is in league with the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) to separate him from his from his vast inheritance.
After significant cuts by censors Browning tacked on an opening scene with a circus sideshow exhibit where a master of ceremonies introduces a curious group of spectators to a deformed woman in a cage that resembles a large baby crib. He calls the unseen woman the “Feathered Hen.” Not until the film’s end will a payoff scene allow the movie audience to see what the circus crowd find so shocking. Although severely criticized at the time of its release as an "exploitation" film, "Freaks" takes every opportunity to humanize its characters. The story presents its group of human oddities-- a hermaphrodite, several microcephalics, conjoined twins, and several limbless characters--as performers whose real-life existence was hardly if ever addressed in the media. The real horrors in the story come at the hands of the "normal" people who attempt to take advantage of an oppressed group of people, who live by their own strict ethical code of conduct.
As happened to Michael Powell, whose brilliant filmmaking career came to an abrupt end decades later with “Peeping Tom,” “Freaks” is a unique horror film that was ahead of its time. It’s a testament to Tod Browning’s vision that even with 26 minutes removed by censors before its release “Freaks” stands up as a fully realized horror movie unlike any other.
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