Saturday, January 5, 2013

Horror Film Review

A Haunting in Salem (2011):  Direct-to-video, haunted house flick that capitalizes on the popularity of the A Haunting TV show and the feature film The Haunting in Connecticut.  Hey, who am I to judge?  Have you seen the name of my blog?  Unfortunately, AHIS has more serious problems than coattail riding.

You know the history.  17th century Salem, Mass.  Women falsely accused of witchcraft and hanged (no, they were not burned at the stake).  It was a travesty.  And, apparently, those 19 women are still pretty pissed off about it.  For the purposes of this film, the women were hanged on the grounds where now stands a truly grand Victorian mansion.  It's where sheriffs and their families live and have always lived.  Kind of like a church parsonage but creepy.  So the film opens with an unseen person drowning a teenage boy in a bathtub, suffocating a woman with a sheet of plastic, and tossing a sheriff out of a second-story window.  Flash-forward to new sheriff Wayne Downs (Bill Oberst, Jr.) and his family moving in to said creepy-ass home.  Now, I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking this film will follow the tried and not-always-true haunted house formula we've all seen a million times:  each family member experiences paranormal activity, someone goes batshit crazy, someone else researches and learns the truth, and at least one person dies in the final battle with the evil entity.  Not so much the case here.  This is one of the darkest plot lines I've run across in quite a while, and I think it would have worked OK if a shred of common sense had been used when creating the bad guy (well, bad girls, actually).  The annoyed spirits of all 19 hanged women manifesting into one person?  Um...nope, can't buy it.  My disbelief can be stretched and  suspended but it's not taffy.  And the filmmakers broke one of my cardinal horror movie rules by killing kids (which is acceptable only in zombie flicks and films made from Stephen King stories).

Because I'm certain you're just dying to know, my other two cardinal rules were not broken.  That is to say, the movie was shot on film stock instead of video and the acting isn't embarrassingly cringe-inducing.  Case-in-point, Emmy Award-winner Bill Oberst, Jr. plays Sheriff Downs with severe intensity.  This gravitas works for the role, but I can't help but think he's simply not enjoying himself very much.  As opposed to his pitch-perfect turn as the president in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, where you can tell he's having the time of his life.  (A side note here:  Oberst publicly apologized for his performance in AHIS, saying he let horror fans down.  This is rubbish.  The man is a very good actor and while his Sheriff Wayne may not go down as his greatest performance, it was by no means detrimental to the film.  I've reviewed hundreds of horror movies and am the genre's biggest fan so believe me when I say AHIS couldn't have been saved if the sheriff had been played by Jack Nicholson.  Apology not accepted, sir.)

One last complaint.  The setting for the story is Salem, Massachusetts.  I've been to Salem, Massachusetts.  This is not Salem, Massachusetts.  At one point, I think I saw vineyards in the background.  Yeah, it was filmed in California.  This isn't a huge deal since most of the important scenes are interiors.  It just bothers me that they would try to pass CA off as MA when it's so obvious.  Pet peeve.  Sorry.  Anyway...

Illogical story, location, and dead kids notwithstanding, AHIS isn't a total bust.  The positives, and yes, there are a few, will be discussed in the Breakdown.

Breakdown

Acting:  To be blunt, no one sucks.  Oberst does well, whether he likes it or not.  Courtney Abbiati and Jenna Stone as Wayne's wife and daughter, and Nicholas Harsin as son Kyle turn in better performances than a cheap horror flick deserves.  I really liked Carey Van Dyke as Deputy Goodwin, although I can't really explain why.
Story:  Oh, just all kinds of stupid.  Writer H. Perry Horton would have been better served if he'd focused on one angry spirit and then expanded on her history and specific motivation. 
Direction:  At the helm is Shane Van Dyke who wastes no time getting the action in gear.  However, some scenes feel awkward, like the cameras are too close or angled funny.  I don't understand the nuts and bolts of movie directing, I admit, yet I do understand how the end result affects my film-going experience.  In this case, the direction left me off balance. 
Production Values:  I don't know how much money they had to play with, but it doesn't feel like a low-budget, B-grade flick.  On film, lighting and sound are decent.  No real complaints. 
Gore/FX:  Some blood, no gore to speak of.  The make-up used for the dead/undead person possessed by the witches is...effective.
Scares:  Yes.  There are two that got me and got me good.  And as you know, I don't easily get got.  Very nice.  I think a few drops of pee may have come out...
Ending:  Right.  Well, it's not happily ever after, that's for damn sure.  A little too contrived and more than a little clich├ęd, but at least it didn't leave me wanting to throw things at my TV.  There is that.
Verdict:  Should you see A Haunting in Salem?  The negatives outweigh the positives, I'm afraid.  If you can put up with the silly story, you'll be rewarded with some "gotcha" scares that may have you reaching for a clean pair of underpants.

Rating:  2 out of 5

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