Saturday, October 31, 2015

Movie Review: "Poltergeist" (1982) by David Pretty

This is gonna be a fairly in-depth analysis and, as such, I'm gonna dip inordinately deep into spoiler territory. Watch first and then read this later!  

Along with the original Night of the Living Dead, Poltergeist was one of the first horror movies to scare the bejesus out of me "thanks" to a pay cable free trial Halloween weekend back in 1983! Although it's often dismissed as a "horror movie with training wheels", the film is still pretty intense and never fails to give me the wiggins every time I watch it.

Right off the bat, the film lures us into a false sense of security with its ample humor and scenes of suburban bliss. In fact, there's nothing more nefarious at first than a biker being pranked by some kids and an intense television remote control battle. It feels as if the events of E.T., which came out that very same year, happened just up the block.

In fact, between the dramatic shots of artificially-roiling inbound clouds and chaotically-familiar dinner scenes which evokes shades of Close Encounters, many cinephiles still maintain to this day that Steven Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist and not Tobe Hooper. A very strong case can be made for this, if only because the low-fi sensibilities that characterized Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre is scarcely evident here. Having said that there are quite a few sequences in Poltergeist which are downright grueling but I'll talk about that a little later.   

Pretty soon we're introduced to real-estate developer Steven Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams). They're typical Eighties parents, enjoying a casual puff of weed while reading such scintillating classics as Reagan: The Man, The President. In spite of these contradictions, you get the distinct impression that these are good people, mainly because the two actors have such perfect chemistry together. Between their authentic banter and a complete lack of pretension, it actually feels as if we're eavesdropping on a real-life married couple.    

A dated biography certainly isn't the only thing that makes Poltergeist a visual time capsule. Witness the bedroom of the two youngest Freeling kids, which is a treasure trove of Eighties-era kitch forever preserved in celluloid amber. Every time I re-watch the film I have a blast doing an inventory of the C-3PO light switch, the Rubik's Cube, the vintage Clue game and all of the classic Star Wars swag. This level of detail and authenticity never fails to immerse me in the film and within fifteen minutes I feel like a nervous kid again. 

Speaking of kids, they're just as well-cast as the leads. Oliver Robins is appropriately awkward, vulnerable, imaginative and inquiring as Bobby. Dominique Dunne is a coiled bundle of attitude as the Freeling's teenage daughter Dana. And little Heather O'Rourke is sweet and lovable beyond all measure as Carol Anne. Her performance during Tweety's burial starts out heartbreaking but before things threaten to become too saccharine she blurts out "Can I have a gold fish now?" with the sort of turnabout, unrestrained sunniness that only a child can muster. 

When odd things start to occur, they're rolled out with tremendous restraint and discipline. The skeletal tree just outside the kid's room looks like it's alive. Bobby's drinking glass spontaneously explodes and his cutlery looks like it was molested by Uri Geller. Kitchen chairs start sliding around and self-stacking. Stuff like this keeps adding up and adding up like a creeping, dread-filled version of Chinese water torture.     

I love how the conduit for all of this spookiness is the omnipresent television set, which was literally the centerpiece of every single household in the Eighties. Sure there's some none-too-subtle social commentary about television being a negative influence and how it creates a disconnect between parents and kids, but that's not the point. The point is that every single nuclear family in the Eighties gathered in their living rooms together every single night for a daily dose of low-grade radiation. And after seeing Poltergeist, people didn't look at their T.V.s quite the same way ever again.

I gotta take a moment right now to give props to the film's impeccable sound design. I love how creepy, disembodied voices start to bleed into the television's white noise static. It's very minimal at first, almost unconscious, but as soon as you hear it, it'll send shivers down your spine, especially when Jerry Goldsmith's super-creepy sing-songy lullaby kicks in. By the time little Carol Anne turns back to her bleary-eyed parents and proclaims "They're here!" you'll be completely invested in what happens next.

When things start to go south, it happens quickly and without reprieve. Between the harrowing tree attack and the closet-portal sequence, your nerves will soon be shot. There are some really good practical special effects used to achieve these things and, for the most part, it works. Only when the script tries to over-reach with the haunting of Carol Anne's room, do the limits of optical compositing fail the script. Nice audio touch with the T.I.E. Fighter fly-by, though.

It might seem like a cliche now, but the appearance of Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her team of paranormal investigators was both a welcome and unexpected addition to the film upon my first viewing. The best part is, Spielberg and his co-writers Michael Grais and Mark Victor use this as the perfect excuse to dish up some spooky lore. Zelda Rubinstein is such a powerful character that Beatrice Straight tends to get overshadowed, but this is a mistake. She great in her own right, serving up the perfect mix of gravitas and conviction to make a potentially silly role seem perfectly believable.

In a related note, JoBeth Williams is one-hundred percent convincing in the ghost staircase scene when the spirit of Carol Ann passes through her. I absolutely adore the quiet scenes she shares with Dr. Lesh and her on-screen son Bobby. Not only do these moments provide stellar little tidbits of character development, it also lulls the audience into a false sense of security. Indeed, these moments are a little oasis of calm to  contrast with the next set-piece of ooga-boogery.

And let me tell ya, folks, the next scene is a really doozy. When Marty (Martin Casella), one of Dr. Lesh's assistants, goes into the Freeling's kitchen for a midnight snack I never in a million years expected to be subjected to what I witnessed next. Poltergeist was rated PG after all, so thirteen-year-old me really wasn't really expecting anything particularly gory. But when that leftover streak started crawling along the counter top and Marty start to pick a fight with his own face, I nearly lost my lunch.

"No fair!" I remember shouting at my television set back then. It wasn't haunted but it certainly felt like a Loki-esque liar, tricking me into seeing something that I really shouldn't have seen at that age. When I learned years alter that Poltergeist was supposed to get an "R" rating but Spielberg used his clout to get a PG without so much as a single trim, I wasn't surprised. Eventually this would catch up to the wunderkind director when the trifecta of Poltergeist, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom eventually necessitated the creation of the PG-13 rating two years later.

We do get a slight reprieve not long after when Steven Freeling is dragged to the top of a beautiful vista by his unscrupulous boss Mr. Teague, played to slimy perfection by James "Return of the Living Dead" Karen. Craig T. Nelson is great in the scene, conveying a palpable demeanor of mental and physically exhaustion with a healthy dollop of skepticism. Set in the incongruous backdrop of pre-fab, cookie-cutter suburban perfection nestled in the cradle of some gorgeous rolling hills at dusk, Teague's inadvertent hints about the dark nature of Cuesta Verde real estate development really gives this scene a palpable sense of creeping dread.      

Another quantum leap of terror occurs when Zelda Rubinstein shows up as the diminutive, cartoon-voiced southern belle medium Tangina Barrons. If you thought that all of the the tree attacks, spooky manifestations and face-rippings were terrifying then just listen to a few of her spiritual monologues. They're delivered with such conviction and intent that they put all of the previously-seen spectacles to shame. Honestly, she's like a horror movie version of Yoda.

The final delve into the closet portal is powerful and intense. As the movie goes on, you begin to realize that the whole thing is like a high-mast version of the classic Twilight Zone episode "Little Girl Lost". With just a few simple touches, like the nasty coating of ectoplasm on the rope, Hooper and company completely sells the effect. The first time I saw this I was like "I know nothing about ghosts but, y'know, that totally makes sense". I was completely on board.

Speaking of being on board I had no concept of a false ending back then. I love that the screenwriters had enough respect for the audience to show us that the Freelings were still planning to move out of the house. But then I started to wonder why they weren't getting out of Dodge RIGHT THE FUX NOW. Sure, Tangina proclaimed earlier that "This house is clean" when Diane retrieved Carol Ann from the afterlife but then I started to wonder why the movie wasn't over.

But then it really hit me: 'Oh...My...Gawd', I thought to myself. 'IT'S NOT OVER YET.'

And it wasn't. Hooper, Spielberg and the rest of their evil minions then proceeded to bludgeon my fragile eggshell mind with fifteen more minutes of unrestrained terror. The spirit dominating the house makes one final bid to pull the kids into their realm. They're aided by a possessed clown doll that permanently warped my appraisal of any adult that voluntarily chooses to walk around in public wearing white face paint and red squeaky noses. That's right, it wasn't Tim Curry's Pennywise that ruined me on clowns, it was that fucking harlequin doll in Poltergeist.   

But that was nothing compared to what happens next. Diane is nearly killed with the classic rotating room gag which was later used to great effect in 1984's Nightmare on Elm Street. When Diane barely manages to escape with her life she runs next door get help but slips in the mud and falls into the muddy stew that is their partially-dug in-ground pool. She quickly discovers that she isn't alone in a truly disturbing scene that harkens back to Karen Allen stumbling into the Hall of Mummies in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released just one year prior.

Yes, the Spielbergian influences are clear but the sustained level of torture that JoBeth Williams goes through at the end of Poltergeist brings the trials and tribulations of Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the forefront of my thoughts. Also, witness the amazing rack focus used by Hooper and his cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti when Diane finally manages to get back upstairs and is forced to run what looks like a marathon to get to the end of the hall and rescue her kids.

Was Spielberg more responsible for shots like this and not Hooper? Honestly, who cares? What matters is that this collaboration resulted in a classic horror film. It balances fanciful and occasionally humorous whimsy with unremitting horror better than any other movie I've ever seen.

Even to this day, Poltergeist is a very tricksy and subversive flick. It isn't excessively gory and tends to comfort the viewer somewhat with ample humor and familiar domestic scenes. But when it takes the kid gloves off, were subjected to enough eerie lore, self-mutilations, ghostly apparitions, real-looking corpses and chill-inducing lore to make for a fun and memorable thrill ride.

   Tilt: up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movie Review: "Dracula" (1931) by David Pretty

With its beautiful Gothic sets, florid performances and creepy atmosphere, Universal's Dracula is an elegiac and haunting classic. Having said that, you can't help but wonder how much better it could have been if a different director had been at the helm. Although Tod Browning did a serviceable job, quite often the story feels disjointed, the pace and is stiff and stagey and the movie lacks a distinct visual style.

Like The Mummy which followed a year later, the picture opens up to the haunting strains of "Swan Lake". As one of the earliest "talkies", Dracula didn't have wall-to-wall music like today's films. Even though a soundtrack can really heighten the impact of on-screen scares, sometimes the action can be made spookier by its absence. Prior to Dracula, Tod Browning was a successful silent film director, and many posit that he was uncomfortable with soundtracks and dialogue scenes. Whether it was deliberate or not, large swaths of the film tick by in complete silence, producing a genuinely disquieting effect. 

We follow the course of a carriage as it winds it way through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. Along the way we're treated to some gorgeous black and white photography by legendary German cinematographer Karl Freund, who'd already worked on a lot of classic movies including the sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis. The highly-detailed sets and matte paintings look incredible and within minutes a creepy atmosphere is firmly established.

We soon meet Mr. Renfield, played by the inimitable Dwight Frye. When it's revealed that he's en route to Castle Dracula to conduct some business the locals start freaking out, claiming that the place is infested with vampires. As if to leave no doubt of this, we immediately cut to a creepy underground crypt. Freund comes through again with a wonderful dolly shot that creeps up on Dracula's coffin. The lid slowly shifts to one side and a gnarled and twisted hand with long fingernails slowly emerges from the darkness.

This whole sequence is a veritable symphony of horror and within a few short minutes we're completely invested in what's going on. Soon Dracula's three spectral, silent and slightly-hunched vampire brides emerge from their respective coffins and start drifting through this dusty labyrinth. This is followed by a series of inexplicable and unsettling images involving a giant bug crawling out of a crypt and some pissed-off possums milling around. Through it all this eerie mise-en-scène is well-sustained and perfectly convincing.

And then we're hit with a close-up of Lugosi's corpse-pale face and hypnotic, penetrating eyes. Whatever you want to say about Lugosi's acting chops, he's certainly fascinating to look at. Pretty soon he's masquerading as his own coach-driver, guiding Renfield to his estate after all of the villagers bail on him. During this sequence, Lugosi just oozes malevolent command. Eventually our nominal hero reaches the castle and ventures inside where we get Dracula's grand reveal. 

When Lugosi descends from the staircase in that decrepit and authentic-looking castle set, it's an iconic and legendary cinematic moment. By all accounts, Lugosi was still trying to master the English language so a lot of his deliveries were done phonetically, leading to a truly off-kilter and memorable performance. This line alone still gives me chills:

Another nice touch: when Renfield tries to follow his host upstairs he finds the path inexplicably blocked by a thick wall of spider webs. Sorry, but if I'd just seen Dracula drift right through that shit I would have turned around and run screaming back towards the village at top speed. Not that it would have mattered much since Drac would have just changed into a wolf, run me down and ripped my throat out.

Indeed, in the very next scene, Dracula transforms from eccentric, dignified aristocrat into a rabid animal right in front of our eyes. The predatory look he gives to Renfield after he mistakenly cuts his finger open is still super-creepy. When you add in the hyena-like approach of his three vampire brides the effect is particularly disconcerting. Between Lugosi's riveting presence and his thick Hungarian accent, he was, and still is, the personification of pure evil and the best Dracula to date.

Even though most of the production design is impeccable there are a few "special effects" that show their age including a goofy, rubbery bat and a "ship" that looks suspiciously like a kids toy being thrown around in a bathtub. Tod Browning quickly atones for this in the following scene. When the now completely bat-shit insane Renfield rouses Dracula from his slumber the Count wakes up in a pretty foul mood. The next thing we see are the authorities inspecting the derelict ship with Dwight Frye's maniacal laughter as the only soundtrack. I swear, the first time you hear this it'll be burned into your memory forever. 

After the ship makes landfall, Dracula is soon prowling the streets of London wearing a cape, top hat, white gloves and carrying a totally pimp Dolemite cane. He chows down on a Cockney flower girl, which brings to mind shades of Jack the Ripper which, at that time, had only happened about forty years prior. Between the authentic sets, the pea-soup fog and Lugosi's practiced body language, the scene is downright eerie. Fun fact: Lugosi's hypnosis is a forerunner of the vampire's "glamour" ability in modern fare such as True Blood.    

Sometimes Tod Browning's directorial choices work and sometimes they don't. While the newspaper clippings about the fate of the Vesta pays homage to the original novel, it's one of many lapses which hobble the film's visual appeal. When the action moves to London things get particularly disjointed. From the theater, to Lucy's bedroom, to a surgical ward to Seward Sanitarium these scenes get thrown at us in rapid succession with precious little connective tissue to unite them.

The camera set-ups for the dialogue scenes are particularly static and uninspired. Indeed, whenever the characters are just shoveling expository dialogue at us it's usually done in a pretty boring shot / reverse shot manner. Whenever you see a camera set up that's the least bit ambitious, such as a crane used to establish Dr. Seward’s sanatorium, we can likely credit Karl Freund for these rare and highly-welcome visual flourishes.   

But for every stylistic miss-step something really cool and creepy happens on-screen. When Dracula invades Lucy's bedroom and creeps closer and closer to her in her sleep the effect is still chill-inducing. As comedy relief goes, Charles K. Gerrard is actually pretty funny as Renfield's über-cockney handler Martin. And with his hard-to-place accent and measured delivery, I still consider Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing to be one of the best.

Indeed, whenever Van Sloan and Lugosi are on-screen together the tension is palpable. Employing the good old "vampires-don't-cast-reflections" shtick, Van Helsing tricks Dracula into looking at a mirror. I love Lugosi's reaction to this: he goes from rage to composure to contrition to regret in the space of thirty seconds. I don't know what's more satisfying: Lugosi's recovery or Van Sloan's juicy look of self-satisfaction. Regardless, this is one of the most iconic confrontations in cinema history.

Supposedly the original plan for Dracula was a lot more ambitious, but the stock market crash forced the film-makers to scale back on the production. As such, Garrett Fort delivered a script that was little more then an adaptation of the Dracula stage play. Consequently, a lot of things happen off-screen. For example, when Dracula turns into a wolf all we get is Jonathan Harker looking stage right and exclaiming "What's that? Running across the lawn? It looks like a huge dog!" This happens again when Martin reads a newspaper account of an attack on some kids and when Mina relays a story about a harrowing encounter with her now-undead pal Lucy.   

There's only one instance when this decidedly anti-cinematic technique actually works, and sole credit for this belongs to Dwight Frye. As Renfield recounts a visit from Dracula it results in one of the creepiest moments in horror film history:

The next time Dracula and Van Helsing face off the Count is ready. After hitting his rival with an hypnotic whammy it looks as if the Professor will succumb to the vampire's will but Van Sloan does a great job showing us how his character finds his way out of this mental fog. I also love everything that Lugosi does in this scene, between his twisted, skeletal hand, his stern countenance and his dead-pan utterance of "Come...hur." It's great to watch these two powerful actors indulging in this intense battle of wits.

By contrast the the two romantic leads are rather dull. David Manners is strident and protective as Jonathan Harker, but almost to a fault. With his firmly-set jaw and highly-starched upper lip, Manners spends most of his time strutting around, acting skeptical and whining about Mina. Don't get me wrong, someone had to play the part of the lunk-head fiance and Manners does a good job in this thankless role.

At first Helen Chandler is equally annoying as Mina Seward, acting as if she's constantly under threat of a fainting spell. But things get a lot more interesting when she starts to vamp out. The wanton, lustful persona she takes on after stepping out with the villain really highlights the nascent sexual overtones of the film. If nothing else, Dracula is the perfect allegory for sexual promiscuity. The Count would never think to limit himself to just one biting partner; hell, he had three willing playmates in the basement of his castle! And, as it turns out, there's a large part of Mina that would prefer some variety instead of a lifetime of monagamy with the boring and white-bread Jonathan.  

As the film races to it's breakneck conclusion you begin to realize just how intense this must have been for audences back in 1931. On an epic spiral stone staircase, Dracula stalks and murders Renfield with the enthralled Mina in tow. The rising sun forces him to take a dirt nap and not long after Van Helsing and Jonathan arrive to try and track down the Count's coffin.

Movie-goers back then must have been on the edge of their seat as the ever-resourceful Van Helsing broke up the lid of the coffin, fashioned an impromptu wooden stake and prepared to impale the sleeping vampire. Even though Dracula's death happens off screen, Mina's distinctly sexual reaction to his demise must have caused viewer's heads to explode back then. It's moments like that which remind us that certain themes, especially those explored in the horror genre, are pretty universal and, by the same definition, eternal.      

Dracula might not be a perfect film but it's influence is still felt to this very day. Granted the wonderful performances and the atmospheric first reel does segue into a stagy and relatively-drab second half, it's still the prototypical vampire flick for the ages.

      Tilt: up.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Movie Review: "Crimson Peak" by David Pretty


Aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) seems perfectly content with bookish spinsterhood, that is until a tall, dark, Loki-esque stranger named Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) enters her life. After some mysterious and tragic circumstances, she agrees to marry Sir Thomas and is whisked away to the cold and wind-swept environs of Allerdale Hall in England. The creepy and decrepit mansion is made even more uninviting thanks to the presence of Thomas's bloodless sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) who treats Edith like an interloper. In time, Edith becomes suspicious of their collective motives and when a childhood warning comes back to haunt her, escape from Crimson Peak becomes a priority. 


If you're looking for a hoary old ghost yarn in the vein of classic Gothic horror tales like Wuthering Heights, The Fall of the House of Usher, Dracula, or The Castle of Otranto then you'll enjoy this spooky and atmospheric picture. 

  • It's Gorgeous.  Art director Brandt Gordon, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, costume designer Kate Hawley and set decorators Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau have produced a truly gorgeous final product to look at. Add in some sweeping and sumptuous camerawork by cinematographer Dan Laustsen and you're got an incredible sumptuous visual treat that's a joy to behold.
  • It's Well-Acted.  With her distinctive looks and solid acting chops, Mia Wasikowska makes for a sympathetic and relatable heroine. Tom Hiddleston is as sure-footed and charismatic as ever, keeping his cards close to his chest and emerging as a slightly tragic figure. Charlie Hunnam is noble and tenacious as Dr. Alan McMichael, Edith's jilted love interest who also serves as the Dick Hallorann from The Shining role. It's also great to see Supernatural's Jim Beaver on hand as Edith's dad Carter, even though I really wanted him to call Tom Hiddleston's character an "idjit" at least once. Finally, Jessica Chastain deserves major plaudits for bringing duplicity, vindictiveness and bat-shit nuttery all together in one sultry package. Even though some people might dismiss some of the performances as over-ripe, I think everyone is well in-bounds given the melodramatic subject matter.    
  • It's Got All The Ingredients.  Between ghosts, virginal maidens, poison, secret agendas, stalwart heroes, creaky mansions, murder, mystery, spiritual foreboding and "Bluebeard"-style warnings, Crimson Peak certainly delivers as a Gothic romance. Bonus points: the central character's last name is Cushing, presumably in honor of the late, great horror icon Peter Cushing.
  • It's A Good Yarn. The script by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins unfolds at a leisurely pace, like a good novel should. By the end of it, you know the character quite well and understand their motivations, even if those motivations just so happen to be "Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs". Their patient investment in both the characters and the story helps bring everything to a logical, meaningful and satisfying conclusion.
  • It Sounds Fantastic. Working in tandem with sound designer Randy Thom, del Toro ensures that you hear every creaking floorboard, settling foundation, clanking pipe, phantasmal whisper and candle flame flutter as the camera whips by. The guttural, tortured exhalations of the specters are particularly effective. Throw in an alternately florid, cacophonous and moody musical score that brings Alien, of all things, to mind and you've got one creepy and engaging auditory experience.
  • It's Well-Directed.  For a relatively-talky Gothic horror piece, del Toro and his editor Bernat Vilaplana keep things moving at a brisk pace. Notwithstanding a vibrantly-shot and beautifully-choreographed dance sequence as well as Carter's brutal demise, the film really gets cooking when the action shifts to Allerdale Hall. From there on it we get a well-orchestrated escalation of dread, some truly harrowing haunt sequences and a brutal and unrestrained climax that features more than a few squirm-inducing moments.  
  • It's Respectable. Quick, disposable found footage flicks, remakes and slasher knock-offs only serve to cheapen the genre so it's nice to see a high-mast horror movie for a change. If nothing else, Crimson Peak honors the roots of the genre with excellent production values and keen aesthetic choices.

  • It Doesn't Break Any New Ground.  Sure, Crimson Peak is a well-made Gothic horror romance, but what new tricks does it have up its puffy sleeve? Unfortunately, not many. Sadly, the script is kinda predictable, to the point where none of the major "revelations" really took me by surprise.
  • It Isn't Super-Scary.  It's a darned good thing that I went into this knowing full well that it was a Gothic romance and not the unrelenting fright fest that the trailer would have us believe. Sorry, but compared to The Woman in Black, this one's actually quite tame. 
  • Digital Spooks? *YAWN*.  Before I go any further I want to state for the record that Crimson Peak is light years above and beyond CGI bore-fests like 1999's The Haunting. Del Toro actually wrings a lot of mileage out of his inventive ghost designs and their mournful manifestations, but, when everything's said and done, it still comes off as transparently- fraudulent digital trickery. 

As a former English Major I pretty much knew what to expect with Crimson Peak. Anyone going into this expecting a blood-soaked, action-packed, balls-to-the-wall horror thriller is going to be sorely disappointed. But if you're looking for a well-acted, gorgeous-looking, expertly-crafted little chiller that honors the roots of the Gothic horror genre, you'll be well-entertained.

Tilt: up.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Movie Review: "Sinister" by David Pretty


Ethan Hawke is Elliot Oswalt, a true crime writer who's career has hit the skids. Looking for the grist to inspire a new bestseller, he moves his family into a house that was the scene of a grisly quadruple murder. Not long after he discovers a cache of Super-8 home movies in the attic which turns out to be a series of snuff films made by the killer. After a series of seemingly-disparate homicides start to knit together, Elliot begins to realize that there's more to these horrendous crimes then just the sick whims of a deranged serial killer. 


Slasher fans, hardcore gore-hounds and torture porn freaks will probably find Sinister a bit too pedestrian. But for discriminating horror fans who dig good characterization, a decent story, fine acting, suspense, tons of atmos-fear and some bonafide shocks will all be predisposed to this one.

  • The movie snags your attention right out of the gate with some grainy Super-8 footage of four people standing next to a tree with hoods and nooses around their necks. A shadowy figure emerges from the underbrush and starts to saw through one of the bigger branches, creating a counterweight that hauls them into the air. The camera lingers dead-eyed on this as the victims kick and thrash until they're dead. It's a truly horrific grabber that ensures that you'll either press "STAHP" on your Blue-Ray remote or keep watching right until the very end.
  • Even though Elliot does does some truly heinous things, Ethan Hawke manages to humanize the guy. As a struggling writer, I know what it's like to have circumstances threaten to take away your sole raison d'être. But Elliot has more pressing concerns, like a frazzled wife, a sensitive daughter and a son with behavioral issues. By ignoring all of this, the character starts to drift into "irredeemable asshole territory", but over the course of one-hundred and ten minutes, Hawke delivers such a nuanced and tortured performance that he actually gets you into his corner. 
  • Juliet Rylance does a solid job as Elliot's wife Tracy, even though her performance is a tad schizophrenic. As written on the page, Tracy is super-skeptical about Elliot's plan but some of her early line readings are so over-the-top cheerful that she sounds like she's been eating Zoloft like bowls of Captain Crunch. Nevertheless, it's still a good showing, particular when Elliot's true motivations are revealed and the shit hits the fan.
  • Both of the kids are also great. Clare Foley plays Ashley, a sensitive, artsy, seven-year-old who mourns the life she was dragged away from and paints on her bedroom wall to assuage her sadness. Even though her character goes though a spectrum of emotional trauma, Foley gives a very measured, disciplined and mature performance. Not once does she come across as whiny or irritating. As her older brother Trevor, Michael Hall D'Addario doesn't get as much screen time but he's just as convincing, serving up one particularly freaky and memorable moment that will probably stay with you long after the film is over. In every scene they share together, Foley and D'Addario feel a real brother and sister duo, bickering and picking at one another mercilessly. 
  • In addition to Ethan Hawke's seamless performance, screenwriters C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson go out of their way to make what could have been a preposterous plot feel plausible. Since were told that Elliot's last few books completely tanked, we know that he's really desperate for a hit. This certainly doesn't excuse him for secretly moving his family into a macabre crime scene but it does give him a solid, if somewhat sketchy, motivation. He also redeems himself in our eyes somewhat when he seeks to determine what happened to Stephanie, the little girl who went missing after her family was murdered. Not only does this deepen the mystery of the film, it also gives Elliot a slightly more noble excuse to do what he does.
  • Just when the film threatens to unspool as yet another color-by-numbers true crime thriller, Derrickson and Cargill start throwing curve-balls at us. The first one, which is the discovery of the Super-8 films, immediately cranks the Creep-O-Meter up to eleven and then breaks the knob off. Between the use of scratchy and grainy "film stock", hand-held P.O.V.'s, vintage color timing and effective lighting, every one of these segments comes off as uncomfortably authentic. "Lawn Work '86" alone scared the ever-lovin' fertilizer outta me. 
  • When Elliot digitally imports the Super-8 films he starts to get glimpses of the killer. Throw in a few creepy drawings and a weird pagan symbol that pops up from time to time and you have the makings of a new modern horror villain that never lapses into parody.      
  • All of this ritualized stuff inspires Elliot to Skype with a local professor named Jonas, played by the consistently-awesome Vincent D'Onofrio. In so many horror movies, the "lore-delivery expert" has a tendency to over-dramatize their exposition but not D'Onofrio. Even though he's only seen on a computer monitor, D'Onofrio makes a great impression with his scholarly appearance, matter-of-fact deliveries and unique mannerisms. It's a brief but memorable appearance. Related to this, James Ransone is also solid as "Deputy So & So", a slavish fan of Elliot who digs up some pertinent facts about the case. Ransone's performance is so intense and awkward that he acts as a walking, talking red herring throughout the entire film. 
  • Director Scott Derrickson manages to wring a ton of suspense out of the last third of the film. Whenever that damned movie projector turns on by itself and Ethan Hawke starts creeping around the house with a baseball bat I'm immediately on pins and needles. 
  • Veteran genre music maestro Christopher Young serves up an audio palette of exceptional quality. His compositions are so unique, discordant and unnerving that they really do escalate the dramatic impact of the on-screen heebie-jeebies. 
  • How many horror movies have seen where the family stubbornly refuses to abandon their new house even though something really evil is clearly squatting there? in sinister, that cliche is set completely on its ear. At one point, Elliot sees something that freaks him out so badly that he wakes his family up in the middle of the night, piles them into the car and gets the fuck outta Dodge. Not only does this redeem the character in the eyes of the audience but it also gives Derrickson and Cargill an opportunity to completely fuck with our expectations.      

  • The movie's entire premise is predicated on the fact that Elliot willingly and surreptitiously moves his entire family into a house with more collective bad karma then the Overlook Hotel. As if that wasn't bad enough, he discovers and then systematically watches all of the snuff films and then proceeds to sit on them for the rest of the movie. Yeah, I get it that he thinks the movies can be parleyed into a bestselling book, but shouldn't a crime novelist know the repercussion of withholding evidence? If that was me, I would have put on the first reel, watched about two seconds of it, shouted "NOPE" loud enough for the neighbors to hear me, packed it all up, brought it right down to the police, moved out of the house that same night and then nuked the entire site from orbit, just to be safe. Actually, who's kidding who, I would never have moved into that house the first place. Sure, this would have made for a very short film, but also a much less infuriating one. 
  • Periodically I felt myself getting hooked up on things that just didn't make any sense. For example, Elliot clearly took great pains to omit the dark history of their new home but then he goes and sends his kids to public school. Did he seriously think that the local school kids wouldn't tell Ashley and Trevor all about their creepy new digs? 
  • As the movie transitions from true crime mystery to something more supernatural, credibility gets strained more and more. Mercifully, between the sure-handed conviction of the director and Ethan Hawke's litmus-test performance, I just kinda went with it. Having said that, when the final mystery is revealed I had to fight the overwhelming impulse to roll my eyes. Just the physical limitations of what's proposed is so improbable that it threatens to undermine the whole edifice. Thankfully the movie overall is executed so damned well that I was willing to forgive some of the more grievous assaults on logic. 

Sinister is a slick, stylish, taut, well-acted and reasonably-original horror movie. Yes, things get increasingly improbable towards the finale but there's nothing nearly as goofy on display here as the Poltergeist / Nightmare on Elm Street rip-offs which completely sunk Insidious for me.        

In a horror movie landscape dominated by shitty remakes and boring found footage schlock I feel downright churlish criticizing something that at least tries to do something different. Sinister isn't perfect but you get the distinct impression that the cast and crew actually give a damn and went out of their way to deliver the goods.

        Tilt: up.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Movie Review: "Evil Dead" (2013) by David Pretty

The 2013 remake of Evil Dead would be considered a top-shelf horror movie if the 1981 version didn't exist. Although it's vicious and creative in its own right, it's also overly slick, unintentionally silly, and the characters are far too bland to ever eclipse the original.

At least the screenplay by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues comes up with a few interesting tweaks, pun not intended. In an effort to kick her heroin addiction, Mia (Jane Levy) agrees to meet her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) and his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) at a deserted cabin in the woods. The plan is to keep her isolated so she can detox without any chance of a relapse. Along for the ride are two mutual friends, including a concerned nurse named Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and a skeptical hipster named Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci).

Unbeknownst by our heroes, the cabin was recently the site of a nasty demonic possession case which culminated in a young woman being burned alive in the basement. The source of the chaos, a demonic tome called the Naturom Demonto, turns up like a bad penny and, naturally, Eric reads a passage aloud from the book. Right away, Mia starts going nuts but the other characters assume that withdrawal is the reason for her psychosis.

By the time they realize that they're dealing with something a lot nastier, it's already too late. The rest of the story becomes a grueling ordeal of survival horror in which flesh is corrupted, stomachs are turned and very little humanity remains by the time the end credits roll. 

First off, the film looks great. Despite it being Alvarez's feature-length directorial debut, the final product looks incredibly professional and slick. Between his Kubrick-ian opening aerial shot of the jeep, the low-angle, depth-filled establishing pans, and the extreme close-ups, I'm confident that this guy is more than the sum of a few CGI-filled digital shorts. Cinematographer Aaron Morton does a tremendous job facilitating all of this. Even though the canvas he's working with is washed out with oppressive hues of brown and gray, everything is well-lit and punctuated nicely by periodic flourishes of nauseating color.

The settings and props contribute nicely to the creep-factor. I have no idea why the Necronomicon became the Naturom Demonto here; I can only assume that the Lovecraft estate finally got themselves a high-priced lawyer. Regardless, the hide-covered, blood-inked book looks irredeemably evil and you can't help but scream "NAIL IT SHUT!!! NAIL IT SHUT!!!" whenever Eric casually leafs through it like a copy of InStyle.

Almost to a fault, the cabin in the remake is a dead ringer for the cabin in the original. I say "almost to a fault" because I always thought that it looked way too small and borderline uninhabitable but, if the remake proves anything, it's that "creepy cabin in the woods" is still an effective mise en scène. Despite the fact that the decrepit old shack might as well be the horror-movie equivalent of the TARDIS, it's a different story on the inside. The trap-door, the expansive basement and a proliferation of shadowy hidey-holes makes for a disconcerting and scary environment.

More high testimony: this veteran horror-hound actually flinched a few times at some of the creative and convincing gore effects. CGI is kept to a bare minimum here, allowing for some artistically gruesome set-pieces that involve split tongues, partially sawed-off faces and dangling limbs. The Deadites look good but I still prefer the milky-eyed abominations in the original trilogy.

All of these factors combine together for a pretty harrowing horror experience. Olivia's attack on Eric in the bathroom is especially intense. For anyone like me who's squeamish about eye trauma, brace yourself. Alvarez and Sayagues also go out of their way to exploit the Deadite's ability to use their host's memory, voice and personality against their victims. This results in another stellar scene in which the possessed Mia lures Natalie into the basement, leading to a gruesome bit of self-mutilation that had me squirming in my seat.

Unfortunately all of the actors in the film look like boring, interchangeable models and no-one gives a performance that I'd characterize as star-making or even vaguely memorable. Shiloh Fernandez is yawn-inducing as David, Jessica Lucas is moody and bitchy right out of the gate as Olivia and Lou Taylor Pucci is, well, moody and bitchy right out of the gate as Eric. Also, Jane Levy's turn as Mia oscillates between unintentionally funny or just plain bland, especially in comparison to Betsy Baker's creepy possessed-little-girl shtick from the original. As for Elizabeth Blackmore, she spends most of her time drifting through the film as a non-entity but at least she gets to re-enact a classic Evil Dead II scene.

Some genuinely goofy things end up undermining the horror. I'm amazed how everyone just lets Eric waltz off with a plastic and barb-wire entombed flesh-covered book. I really wish that they'd collectively locked it up, forcing Eric to steal it in a moment of curiosity. The way it goes down in the movie you really want Eric dead right away for messing around with something that's clearly meant to be left alone. Also, the information that he effortlessly gleans from the book is way too detailed and specific. For the record, degrees in Dead Languages and Occult Studies aren't handed out with eyeglass prescriptions. Although I really, really wish they were.   

Another scene that ejected me out of the movie is when Mia tries to warn David about the evil forces that are infiltrating their ranks. Levy's performance is so over-the-top that it actually made me snicker out loud. And even though I really dug the whole "withdrawal symptoms as demonic possession" thang, it takes far too long for the characters to realize that there's something seriously nasty afoot. Also, Natalie's subsequent nail gun attack is undeniably thrilling but Eric's ability to absorb damage makes him look less like a real person and more like Rasputin.

And then the movie does something so supremely stupid I can barely talk about it. We all loved Ash's "I'm Handy With Tools" montage, but David suddenly exhibits a level of impromptu medical field knowledge that Hawkeye Pierce couldn't muster. He also inexplicably leaves a dead companion just a-bobbin' around in the basement, knowing full well that all dead people come back as a Deadites. All of this leads to a finale in which the prophesied and very underwhelming "Abomination" appears and our hero is forced to rip off their own hand when it gets "pinned" between the side of a jeep and some very squishy mud. Um, okay, whatever.

Remakes tend to suffer when compared to the original and Evil Dead 2013 is no exception. Fede Alvarez has a great eye but he's not as creatively innovative as Raimi was back in 1981. The cast of the remake is also no-where near as interesting as Bruce, Ellen, Hal, Betsy and Sarah. The lo-fi look of the original Evil Dead feels so much more convincing. Finally, the innovative, guerrilla-style special effects featured in the classic version still seem way more gross and slimy. 

Now, it sounds like I'm completely ragging on the film, but I'm not. I respect the fact that Alvarez and his writing partner came up with some original ideas. I love the fact that they used practical effects instead of CGI. The movie makes such a concerted effort to horrify and disturb the viewer while avoiding the same boring old found footage / zombie / slasher tropes that have watered down horror movies of late.

Yes, some of the creative decisions made in the second half of the film are inexplicably stupid, but I really can't question Evil Dead's commitment to shock and repel the audience. The remake doesn't eclipse the raw, innovative and grungy qualities of the original but it certainly goes for the jugular vein. Which is more than I can say for most modern horror movies.

 Tilt:  down.