Monday, February 18, 2019

Horror Film Review

Suspiria (2018):  Some of the most disturbing and iconic horror films were released in the 1970s. We were treated to The Exorcist, Halloween, The Omen, Jaws, Alien, The Texas Chainsaw MassacreDawn of the Dead, and of course Dario Argento's 1977 masterpiece Suspiria. A hallmark of Italian horror is gratuitous and graphic gore and while Argento did not disappoint in that regard, what made his Suspiria so unforgettable was his use of eye-popping colors and music that gave you a serious case of the creeps. On the downside, the acting was stilted, occasionally venturing into the realm of the bizarre, and character development was not exactly a priority. So when I heard a remake had been greenlit, I felt both hope and dread. Was it even possible to recreate Argento's Technicolor tension and also pay equal attention to providing well-layered performances? Short answer - no. A better question might be, is that a bad thing? Long answer to follow.

Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson), an Amish girl from Ohio, travels to Germany to attend a world-renowned dance academy managed by her ballet hero, Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). No time is wasted in showing us that Blanc and her staff are up to no damn good and may, in fact, be a coven of witches. And I'm not talking Sabrina or Samantha or Glinda here. We learn much from a subplot involving elderly psychiatrist Dr. Josef Klemperer (also Tilda Swinton) who has been seeing Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), a former student of the academy who's obviously gone bat-shit crazy. After Patricia disappears, Klemperer discovers her journals which describe a fantastic web of deceit and horror at the prestigious school involving a trio of ancient "mother" witches, Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum and how their influence affects the actions of Blanc and the academy's owner, the reclusive Helena Markos (Tilda Swinton again).

Meanwhile, novice dancer Susie attracts Blanc's attention and quickly becomes the star pupil. Unfortunately for the unwitting Susie, we know she's being groomed for something unspeakably evil. Her new friend and fellow student Sara (Mia Goth) harbors suspicions and in a fit of either courage or stupidity, decides to investigate. Sara discovers Patricia's records are missing as are the records of many other students who mysteriously disappeared over the years. Susie brushes off her friend's concerns and continues to improve under Blanc's overly intimate tutelage (I got the vibe that Blanc was crushing on Susie but I could be wrong).

The climax of the film is as bat-shit crazy as Dr. Klemperer's patients. In a cavernous space deep under the academy, a ritual begins to transfer Markos into her new vessel, Susie. All students and staff, naked and rhythmically writhing in either agony or ecstasy, are in attendance. Klemperer is tricked into coming by a witch pretending to be his dead wife Anke (Jessica Harper, Suzy from the original film). Blanc, wrapped in a blood red ceremonial robe looks on with an increasing sense of unease. Markos, who looks like a half-melted Roy Orbison, cannot suppress her giddiness. The ritual begins by disemboweling Sara. Susie watches with such detachment that Blanc instinctively knows something is very, very wrong. Blanc, it turns out, is correct for Susie came not to be a vessel for Markos but rather a vessel for Mother Suspiriorum herself. Everyone freaks out when Mother Susie raises a zombie-like creature that stalks the room searching for Markos supporters. And what happens to these supporters once found? Imagine the outcome of placing a lit stick of dynamite into jack-o-lantern loaded with blood. I have to say, it was wonderfully epic carnage.

The 2018 version of Suspiria is not so much a remake of the 92-minute original as it is a re-imagining. Its 153-minute run time includes not only the Klemperer subplot but also Susie's backstory, which is as revealing as it is disturbing. Psychedelic cinematography and spine-chilling music are replaced with nuanced character development and riveting performances. Not to mention a completely different denouncement. Argento purists were probably soiling themselves in outrage after watching this updated version but I enjoyed the new take on the 1977 classic. The trick is to stop yourself from comparing the two as you watch. None of this, "Hold on...THAT didn't happen in the original" or "Where's the blind piano player and that weird albino kid?" business. If you take it for what it is on its own terms, you'll enjoy it, too. 

Of course, there are a few issues to address. For reasons I can't properly explain, Susie's long red hair bothered me. I was also bothered by the constant coverage of the German Autumn events. We know it's supposed to be Berlin in 1977. No need to ram it down our throats every ten minutes. I also wish the filmmakers had stuck with telling the tale from Susie's perspective instead of using Dr. Klemperer. The shock ending would have been much more effective had we been allowed to empathize with her rather than the shrink who at the end, is naked and cowering in terror on the floor.

Nevertheless, the question must be asked.  Should you see the new Suspiria?  Yes, yes you should. Despite being longer than Avengers: Infinity War, it's well worth the effort, although I wouldn't watch it alone, at night, with the lights off.

Rating:  4 out of 5

Monday, April 9, 2018

Horror Film Review

Demon House (2018):  Documentary horror from Ghost Adventures creator Zak Bagans that details his  unnerving experience with a house in Gary, Indiana.  Allegedly a portal to hell, the house was the site of a widely-reported demon possession and exorcism.  So of course Zak buys the place sight unseen.  Through extensive interviews with everyone from squatters to the local police, we hear harrowing, if not outlandish, tales of paranormal activity.  Thing is, as disturbing and downright scary as these stories are, what cranks them up to 11 is the fact that you know they're all true.  This isn't a mockumentary or fictional found-footage flick, folks.  It's the real deal, and that's why I found Demon House so unsettling and, frankly, terrifying.

The film begins with a warning.  We're told to watch it at our own risk because it's cursed.  Zak explains the troubled production took four years to complete due to complications and setbacks that were, to coin a phrase, legion.  The warning is a clever marketing ploy but I feel the "cursed" label was well earned given the crazy shit that went down.  The family at the center of possession/exorcism media frenzy agreed to be interviewed by Zak but then changed their mind.  It seems Hollywood wanted to make a movie based on their experience and so deals were made, money changed hands, etc.  Then Zak was threatened by lawyers representing the movie people.  If you've ever watched Ghost Adventures, you know Zak doesn't threaten easy and this time was no different.  He moved forward and lucked out when another family who used to live in the house showed up unannounced.  They walked through the house while Zak interviewed them.  Later, Zak received a call from the mother saying one of her daughters began acting strange after they left and subsequently attempted suicide.  They contacted the local priest who had conducted the original exorcism.  Whatever darkness attached itself to the daughter bailed in a hurry when the padre started in with the ritual.  The girl remembered nothing.

Zak's crew installed cameras throughout the house and most everyone carried a hand-held whenever venturing inside, thus we're witness to the odd behavior displayed by members of the crew as well as invited experts.  Zak expresses sudden and violent mood swings while others fall ill and still others become disproportionately fixated on the basement where someone died years earlier and evidence of rituals and digging was discovered.  A scientist specializing in geo-electromagnetic fields is called in to discern if there could be a non-paranormal explanation for what the residents experienced or thought they experienced.  He found the readings to be normal for the most part but his instruments went ballistic around Zak at the times when Zak felt not himself.  Eventually, the scientist begins to fall ill and leaves.  We later learn he was hospitalized when all his organs began shutting down.  The doctors had no explanation as the man, prior to entering the house anyway, was perfectly healthy.  The number of mishaps and misfortunes that plagued those who stepped foot in that house are alarming and not possibly coincidental. 

Finally, Zak decides to spend a night in the house alone.  In the dark.  With all the windows and doors boarded up from the outside.  Stupid?  Brave?  I know I sure as hell wouldn't have done it.  And if Zak could have known the outcome, I don't think he would have either.  Not much happens in the first few hours of his solitary investigation.  Then something does happen that will test your bladder control.  Sitting on a bed with a hand-held camera in the dark, Zak hears noises and his camera captures a giant shadow pass in front of the doorway.  He recoils in terror, drops the camera, and screams at it to leave him alone.  We next see Zak in the kitchen complaining of a terrible headache.  He's later examined by top specialists who discover he's inexplicably developed a rare condition affecting his vision and must now wear special glasses in order to see.  They can't explain how it happened.  In the end, Zak decides the house poses a threat to anyone who enters and has it razed.

Demon House wormed its way under my skin and gave me a case of the willies.  In the nearly 300 horror films I've reviewed, only a handful have managed to do that.  Fewer still managed to genuinely freak me out.  This documentary did both.  Kudos to Zak Bagans for his directing skills but also for his tenacity in bringing this story to our attention.  I look forward to his next project. 

Rating:  5 out of 5

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Horror Film Review

Haunted (2017):  Italian horror that contains nary a doll's head nor a creepy white-eyed girl, so you can ignore the poster.  It does, however, contain some of the most frightening scenes I've ever encountered in a movie.  Unfortunately, it also has some of the worst acting I've ever witnessed.  If you are able to endure the pain of these awful performances, the reward is spectacular.

Aspiring horror writer Max reluctantly agrees to cat-sit for his sister Anna who must take her troubled son to a clinic for testing.  Anna's husband committed suicide in the house but Max isn't bothered.  Well, not at first.  It starts with front door knocks he thinks are kids being little assholes.  Then he begins to find the front door standing open despite locking it.  The strange activity slowly and inexorably escalates until he starts seeing terrifying apparitions.  And I'm not kidding when I say terrifying.  These scenes will seriously test your powers of bowel and bladder control.  Unnerved and at his wit's end, Max begs his friend Chris to stay with him at the house.  Chris, a sex addicted man-child who still lives in his mother's basement, agrees but dismisses Max's claims of paranormal activity out of hand.  Chris changes his tune in a pretty damn big hurry, though and suggests Max contact a professor of demonology he knows. 

We learn that Anna's husband was into weird shit and somehow managed to conjure an ancient Sumerian demon.  Other ghosts, folks who died in the house, came along for the ride.  The professor, Chris and Max attempt a half-assed exorcism that at first blush, appears to work.  Yeah.  It really doesn't.  No happily ever after here.

I can't quite figure out how they managed to make Haunted so damn scary.  It genuinely bugs me.  The bad acting, the odd humor that's stilted and out of place...I don't know.  With so many things wrong with it, I should be ripping this movie apart.  Yet I just can't.  It's got the thrills and chills and peek-through-your-fingers tension that I haven't experienced in ages. 

If you're a horror movie fan and can handle horrible acting, you must see Haunted.  If you need more incentive, there are no subtitles and the cats are not harmed. 

Rating:  4 out of 5

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Haunted House Update

Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal.  This age-old line of crap apparently applies to ghosts as well seeing how the activity in my house has ramped up dramatically.  In no particular chronological order:

Getting ready for bed one night, a paperback flew off the bookshelf and landed in the middle of the room.  No, it wasn't a Stephen King novel.

A large portrait of my grandfather in his WWI uniform keeps falling off the wall when it's physically impossible for it to do so.  One time, I happened to be in room to witness it.  I was...surprised.

I recently woke up with inexplicable scratches on my neck.  My boyfriend had a long scratch on his knee that appeared to be from a branding iron.  Oddly, there was no pain for either of us.

There has been what sounds like someone pounding on the front door when no one is even remotely near the front door. 

While in the house alone, my boyfriend heard someone or something say, "Shh!" in his ear.

Lying in bed, I've heard footsteps coming from the next room as well as mumbling voices.

And we consistently hear creaks and knocks and taps that could be anything from the house settling to the ductwork expanding/contracting.  Or they could be from entities starving for attention. 

That's it for now.  I'll post updates if and when we experience additional activity. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Horror Film Review

The Monster Project (2017):  Where the hell are Sam and Dean Winchester when you need them?  In this interesting if not utterly terrifying movie, two partners who fake supernatural encounters for their YouTube channel decide to go legit and create a documentary about real monsters.  Why?  Fortune and glory, of course.  After all, they are in Hollywood.  The casting call goes out, applications are received, and the three most promising are chosen.  One is a Native American cop who claims to be a skinwalker (think werewolf), another is a tattoo artist who claims to be a vampire, and the last is a quiet and totally creepy Asian girl who claims to be possessed by a demon.  An abandoned Victorian house in the boondocks is rented, which is strange because all they're doing is a series of interviews.  Also strange is choosing the night of a lunar eclipse for the shoot.  Atmosphere and ambiance, the partner in charge reassures them ("them" being the production crew:  his video-faking cohort, his ex-girlfriend, and their recovering addict friend).

This may come as a galloping shock to you, but these three monsters are real.  After the initial interviews, the earth travels between the moon and the sun and then all hell breaks loose.  The cop morphs into a hairy beast that you'd swear hasn't eaten in months.  The vampire lady suddenly becomes terribly thirsty, and the hell-spawn living inside the slight Japanese girl decides it wants to come out and play.  Much screaming, running, hiding, and crying soon follows.  The terror and tension are palpable and incessant, which is super groovy.  There is, however, a major plot twist that will literally cause you to blurt, "The fuck...?" 

I'm gonna spoil it now, so you've been warned.

The director, the partner in charge, the guy who convinced everyone to join him is in actuality, a member of a Satan-worshiping cult.  It's their house.  They needed the three monsters and the ex-junkie's blood for a ritual to be conducted on the night of a full lunar eclipse.  A ritual that will allow Lucifer to escape from hell and destroy the world of man with his godless evil.  And it works.  No happy ending here, folks.  Except for the Satan-loving nutjobs, everyone dies.  Even the monsters.  Yay!

The Monster Project really is a lot of fun, despite the slightly depressing denouncement.  It's mostly in the found-footage style and the acting is first rate.  You will jump, you will be freaked out, and if you avoided the spoiler above, you will be blown away by the twist.  Still...would have been awesome to have Sam and Dean bust in toward the end and kick a little monster butt.  Just sayin'.

Rating:  4 out of 5