Saturday, October 7, 2017

Horror Film Review

Hell House LLC (2015):  One might imagine that by now the found-footage/mockumentary craze would have burned itself out, that every conceivable plot has been shot with the telltale shaky camera.  Ever since The Blair Witch Project, I estimate that 87% of these films are stinky.  I’ve certainly reviewed my share, and now usually avoid them as earnestly as a vampire avoids the sun.  So when my boyfriend wanted to watch Hell House LLC, I fully expected it to fall into the stinky 87%.  It didn’t.  What can I say?  Thirteen is my lucky number.

As her subject, a documentary filmmaker has chosen the unexplained massacre that occurred at a haunted attraction 5 years ago.  No one, not the police, not the survivors seem to know what really happened on that opening night that cost the  lives of 15 people.  Some murky smartphone video shot by a survivor offers no answers and only shows a logjam of panicked customers trying desperately to flee the basement.  Chilling, yes.  Helpful?  Not so much.  The filmmaker lucks out when the only surviving member of the attraction’s staff a comes forward to not only be interviewed but also to hand over video of what really took place. 

And so in that video…

Every Halloween, Alex (Danny Bellini) and his friends find a location in or around New York and create a haunted house attraction to make some dough.  This time it’s a dilapidated hotel, abandoned decades ago, in the small town of Abaddon, NY.  Why was it abandoned?  Bad things happened there.  Very bad things.  Unfortunately, neither Alex nor his friends, Sara (Ryan Jennifer Jones), Paul (Gore Abrams), Tony (Jared Hacker), and Mac (Adam Schneider) bothered to research the history of the site.  Although one would think the pentagram on the basement wall would have been a clue.  Nevertheless, they get the lights working and for a month, live in the creepy place while they work at transforming it into a world-class haunted house.  During that month, weird shit goes down.  Shit that would drive any sensible human away…screaming.  But no, money and some inexplicable loyalty to Alex (who’s kind of a douchebag) prevents such a logical course of action.  And boy do they pay for it.

During the month of preparation, they record everything.  So what’s some of the weird shit that goes down?  A clown mannequin, no…a fucking terrifying clown mannequin moves from the basement to a variety of unexpected places, usually at night.  Sara sleepwalks and speaks in tongues.  Paul encounters what can only be a ghost in his room and vanishes.  He’s later found in the basement, catatonic.  The video of a dress rehearsal reveals more monsters in the shadows than there should be.  And then there’s the unexplained shrieking.  The show, however, must go on.  Apparently.  Morons.  There is a nifty twist toward the end that I did not expect.  It kind of makes the whole 93 minutes worthwhile.

I must rant about one thing.  After one particular bizarre occurrence, Tony, utterly terrified, comes unglued and raves at Alex, shouting that he must call it off.  Of course Alex refuses and Tony quits and storms out.  Mac catches up with him, says there’s something he (Tony) doesn’t know.  Cut to Tony sitting in a field, just staring.  Mac comes over and Tony tells him that yes, of course he’ll stay, how could he not?  What did Mac tell him that could have swayed Tony so quickly and decisively?  That’s my complaint:  We.  Don’t.  Know.   How does keeping this answer from us enhance the story?  It doesn’t.  Do we ever find out?  Hell, no.  Grrr….thinking about now pisses me off all over again.

The Skinny

Acting:  Not exactly theater in the round but they’re all passable as real people.  The documentary filmmaker is annoying.
Story:  About as unique as a man named John Smith eating vanilla ice cream.  That being said, it’s not the script but the execution.
Direction:  This really could have been a mess.  A documentary within a documentary within a documentary.  Fortunately, it was all cobbled together in a manner that squeezed out the maximum amount of thrills and chills.
Production Values:  Ironically, the film was shot in Pennsylvania at a real haunted attraction that had once been a hotel.  So that’s groovy and most definitely adds to the realism.  On the downside, the lighting is muddy on occasion and the sound…well, I recommend turning on the subtitles.
Gore/FX:  There is a itty bitty bit of blood but that’s about it.  No CGI that I could see.  They did their f/x old school. 
Scares:  There are.  Too many to count, if I’m honest.  My boyfriend, also a horror nerd, hid behind a pillow for half the movie if that tells you anything.
Ending:  Expected but in an unexpected way.  There’s this twist, see…
Verdict:  Should you watch Hell House LLC?  You really should.  It's a surprisingly fresh take on an overused sub genre.   

Rating:  4 out of 5

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Horror Film Review

It (2017):  After all the hype, the wait is finally over!  It is here; the remake that's taken the internet by storm and one that impressed Stephen King himself enough to say his fans will love.  I am a Stephen King fan and I will admit the man was not wrong.  I was impressed, although not for the reasons you might expect.

We all know the story.  Kids in Derry, Maine are going missing, including Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), the boy in the yellow rain slicker who just wanted to sail the paper boat made for him by his beloved older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher).  Unfortunately, the boat slipped into a storm drain and into the hands of the evil monster clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgaard).  As this is an R-rated film, we are not spared from witnessing Georgie's fate.  It's disturbing and pretty gross.  Months later, school is out but instead of enjoying summer vacation, Bill and his friends, the neurotic germophobe Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), shy and skittish Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and comedy relief master Richie (Finn Wolfhard), decide to search the sewers under Derry for some sign of Georgie.  They run into the new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) who's fleeing from psychotic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his goons.  The Loser's Club is rounded out by the tough talking Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) who lives with her creepy abusive father and orphan Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who very reluctantly works with his grandfather killing sheep with a bolt gun.

Each suffers terrifying encounters with Pennywise which are tailored to their deepest fears.  The Loser's Club disbands after internal fighting, mainly between Bill and Richie but when Beverly disappears, they regroup and decide to fight the monster for her sake as well as for the sake of all of Derry's kids.  Research of Derry's history leads them to the entrance of the clown's lair, which of course is an ancient well in the basement of what is possibly the creepiest and most dangerous haunted house on the planet.  Once down there, they find Beverly and learn what it means to float.  And it's not what you think.  All seven friends overcome their fears and go toe to toe with the clown in an epic final battle.

Everyone will compare this version to the 1990 mini-series.  Don't.  They're simply too different for a viable comparison.  Skarsgaard's Pennywise is more insane than Tim Curry's sarcastic jokester, more flat out malevolent, and it works almost too well.  That is to say he will scare the crap out of you.  As for why I was impressed, it's all about the actors.  These child actors are nothing short of phenomenal.  You'll recognize Wolfhard from Stranger Things but I'd never seen the others before and truthfully feel each one deserves an Academy Award nomination.  Also impressive is the way the theme of empowerment is incorporated.  Beverly stands up to her father in a brutal yet satisfying manner.  Eddie stands up to his suffocating and overprotective mother.  Mike stands up to Henry Bowers and of course they all stand up to Pennywise.  There's also a deep thread of pathos woven into the story that keeps you emotionally invested from beginning to end.  You find yourself rooting for these kids as if they were your own or as if you were a member of the Loser's Club, too.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about It is the humor.  I swear, it's as funny as it is scary.  That they somehow managed to perfectly blend humor and horror is astonishing.  Well done.

The Skinny

Acting:  Excellent bordering on perfection.
Story:  New take on an iconic tale of terror that works on all levels.  Should not have been possible.
Production Values:  The $35 million budget seems like a lot for a horror flick, but the money was put to good use.  The locations, sets, everything looks great.
Gore/FX:  Yeah...there's blood and many of the kids' fears brought to life are totally gross, and therefore groovy.  The CGI is incredible, not to mention terrifying.
Scares:  Oh, one or two...or ten.  I don't scare easy but they got me.  For me, the two biggest scares are in the library with Ben.  They're not jump scares either.  When Ben is leafing through the history book, keep an eye on the librarian in the out of focus background.  I mean, damn.  All in all, you may be best served by wearing extra thick underwear.  There is a real possibility you may pee or poo yourself.
Ending:  They cut their hands and make a blood pact to return if It comes back.  Foreshadowing?  Well, sure.  That and the filmmakers using "Chapter One" for the end screen.  Like we didn't know they battle Pennywise again as adults.  You didn't know?  What, you been living under a rock?
Verdict:  Should you see It?  This is an absolute must see for horror fans as it's one of the best horror films ever made.  I don't make this statement lightly and will defend it till my dying day.  It ranks up there with The Exorcist, Poltergeist, Halloween, and even The Evil Dead.  Yes.  It's that good.

Rating:  5 out of 5

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Horror Film Review

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016):  This third film in J.J. Abrams' loosely connected trilogy (Super 8 and Cloverfield being the first two) is part horror, part mystery, and part sci-fi and just all kinds of groovy.  This is a movie Alfred Hitchcock might have directed.  Or John Carpenter.  Or M. Night Shyamalan.  You get the idea.  It's tense and scary with twists I never saw coming.  Just like that flying umbrella lady from the U.K., it's practically perfect in every way.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fled the city and her douchey boyfriend (voice of Bradley Cooper) and is driving in a bucolic area of Louisiana.  A pickup runs her off the road, she crashes, and then wakes up in stark, cement room hooked up to an IV.  Her captor/savior Howard (John Goodman) explains he saved her life, they're in his bomb shelter, and a global cataclysm of unknown origin has rendered the air poisonous.  She's dubious because Howard acts more than a little nuts at times.  He's a paranoid doomsday prepper with a legion of personality disorders.  Although when she meets the third occupant Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a seemingly normal local who knows Howard and backs up everything he's said, Michelle begins to believe a little.  When she tries to escape and witnesses a woman outside the bunker die from what appears to severely contaminated air, Michelle believes a lot.  However, as the days go on and she and Emmett begin to fully grasp the extent of their host's insanity, the two plan an escape regardless of how deadly the environment above may be.  SPOILERS.  Michelle creates a hazmat suit from a shower curtain and a gas mask that would make MacGyver jealous.  Howard knows something's up, kills Emmett, and we learn just how crazy he, Howard, is (he abducted a local girl and kept her prisoner in the bunker and pretended she was his daughter).  Michelle grapples with him, spilling a barrel of acid on him (method of disposing of the girl and Emmett) and starting a fire.  She finally reaches the surface just as the bunker explodes only to find a perfectly normal farm setting.  Birds are flying, insects are buzzing, the crops are...cropping.  She removes her mask and discovers the air is just fine.  But when she hears aircraft and climbs atop a pickup truck's roof for a better look, we realize the air is not the problem.  It's the aliens that have invaded earth that's the problem.  She then gives the best line of the film.  "Oh, come on."  The last 15 minutes are super exciting with Michelle fighting for her life against evil E.T.s.

You'd think a movie with Cloverfield in the title would have tipped me off to the cause of the cataclysm.  Howard's madness and Michelle's struggles against it cleverly distracts the viewer from that so when it's revealed, you're like, "No fucking way!"  But it's a good "No fucking way!"  And the filmmakers do it without you feeling manipulated.  There is a bit of a common sense problem regarding Howard's bunker, though.  A design flaw.  To access the air filtration pump, you have to crawl through duct work that's way too narrow for a normal sized guy much less someone as girthy as Howard.  And in case you're wondering, I looked it up...the acid in the movie, perchloric acid, is indeed flammable.  Yay, science!

The Skinny

Acting:  Goodman steals the show as nutjob Howard.  Winstead and Gallagher deliver fine performances.
Story:  Uniquely layered and loaded with unexpected tension and suspense.  One hell of a script.
Direction:  Expertly handled from beginning to end.  Superbly crafted.  One hour and 44 minutes go by in a flash.
Production Values:  Its budget, $15 million, probably went mostly to the CGI folks.  Beyond that, detailed and realistic sets that are properly lit.
Gore/FX:  There is some blood and a few gory bits.  I'm somewhat surprised they got away with a PG-13 rating, to be honest.  The CGI at the end is all kinds of fabulous.
Scares:  Actually, yes.  More relentless tension than jump scares, though.
Ending:  Unexpected thrills and chills with the door left open for a possible fourth Cloverfield tale.  Fingers crossed.
Verdict:  Should you see 10 Cloverfield Lane?  Without question.  It's as close to cinematic perfection as you're ever likely to experience.  As good as Super 8 and Cloverfield were, and they were damned good, this is even better.

Rating:  5 out of 5

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Horror Film Review

Death Note (2017):  Confession...I haven't read the manga or watched the anime.  Or the Japanese live action movie.  So I feel my review should be fairly objective.  Death Note nutters, I mean fans, apparently hate it with a passion hotter than the surface of the sun.  Well...duh.  What did they expect when 37 anime episodes or 12 manga stories are crammed into a movie that's just an hour and 41 minutes long?  Be like trying to make one Inuyasha or Naruto movie.  That this Netflix production is fully Americanized also puts their knickers in a twist; in Seattle, Light is white, L is black, etc.  Again...duh.  How about this - if you're a massive fan of Death Note, do not watch this.  OK?  Arigato.

A leather bound book (kind of ledger-sized) falls from the sky during a freak storm and lands at the feet of high school student Light (Nat Wolff).  The cover simply reads DEATH NOTE.  In detention for standing up to a bully, Light finds the pages are old and yellowed and chock-full of numbered rules/instructions.  Other pages contain hundreds of names written by many different people.  There are also blank pages.  If he writes a person's name in the book, that person will die by whatever means Light chooses.  Or so it says.  He thinks it's a load of crap, of course.  Until Ryuk, a Shinigami or Death God shows up in the detention room and scares the ever-loving shit out of him.  Light screams like a girl, by the way.  Essentially, Ryuk is like a devil on Light's shoulder whispering into his ear.  Sure, it explains the the basics of how the Death Note works but conveniently leaves out a number of loopholes and other fine print details.  It is evil, after all.  So Light gives it a trial run, deciding on decapitation for the bully, and sees it happen right before his eyes.  Frightened yet emboldened, his next victim is the scumbag who was acquitted for his mother's murder.  Light now has visions of ridding the world of all scumbags, and being the teenage boy that he is, he must share his secret with the girl he's sweet on, Mia (Margaret Qualley), a person who had no interest in him until she discovered the power he wields.  Yeah.  She's one of those.  Anyway, Mia and Light go on a killing spree and convince the world it's the doing of a shadowy figure named Kira.  Soon, crime levels drop because bad guys are terrified that they may be next.  Light's dad, James (Shea Whigham), is a cop investigating this Kira vigilante with the help of L (Lakeith Stanfield), an eccentric and super rich independent investigator who's not much older than Light but possesses the deductive prowess of Sherlock Holmes.  With both Ryuk and now Mia pushing him to blur the lines of morality, and L snapping at his heels, Light must figure out if the Death Note will be his salvation or ultimately lead to his demise.  All I can say is thank God for loopholes and fine print.

As groovy as all this may sound, Netflix's Death Note has its problems.  The ease with which Light settles into his role as judge, jury, and executioner is disturbing.  You'd think he's the Punisher or something.  Even though the victims are deserving, one would think there'd be a minute or two of hand wringing or conscience wrestling.  Nope.  He knocks off folks with the glee of a true sociopath.  Another problem is L, or rather the lack of sufficient explanation as to who this guy is and why everyone in authority bows and scrapes to him.  Kind of acts like a spoiled punk to me.  And then there's Mia.  She's so obviously a power hungry bitch who cares nothing for Light that you want to scream at the TV, "WTF is wrong with you, Light?  Wake up, dumbass!"  Ah, well.  Teen boy hormones.  Whaddya gonna do?

The Skinny

Acting:  No one sucked.  That's something.  Okay...Standfield as L could have been less annoying.  Willem Dafoe is the voice of Ryuk and he kills it.
Story:  American reimagining of the classic Japanese saga.  It works better as a Japanese saga.  The script steps on its own tail and fails to generate any real tension or pathos.
Direction:  It's not the easiest movie to follow.
Production Values:  One thing about Netflix, they don't scrimp on the budget.  I've seen big studio movies that look much worse.
Gore/FX:  Blood and gore reminiscent of the Final Destination films.  That is to say, lots.  They show the bully's decapitation by runaway ladder.  Nice.  And the CGI for Ryuk is properly done.
Scares:  None that I remember.
Ending:  Here's another problem.  It leaves you hanging.  Will he or won't he?  The last line of the movie, Ryuk saying, "Humans are so interesting," certainly doesn't help.
Verdict:  Should you see Death Note?  If you're not a fan of the anime or manga, then I'm leaning toward "Yes" but just barely.  If you are a fan of the anime or manga, spare yourself the righteous indignation that will no doubt give you the vapors and go find a new anime or manga.  I personally recommend One Punch Man.

Rating:  3 out of 5

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Horror Film Review

Annabelle (2014):  A film with that creepy ass doll from The Conjuring.  By the way, the real Annabelle is a large Reggedy Ann doll that's about as scary as a bunny rabbit.  Artistic liberties, I suppose.  Anyway, this little adventure takes place before Lorraine and Ed Warren lock the doll up in their bizarre museum of haunted objects.

Josh (Ward Horton) buys the doll for his pregnant wife Mia (Annabelle Wallis) who apparently collects creepy ass dolls.  Satanic cultists invade their home.  A violent struggle ensues, and before one of the cultists dies, she performs some kind of ritual that opens Annabelle up for demonic possession.  Or something.  The couple move and Josh tosses the doll in the trash at Mia's request.  Unpacking at their new place, Mia finds Annabelle.  They're surprised and confused but decide to keep it instead of trashing it again.  Probably not the brightest idea.  Paranormal activity follows shortly thereafter and escalates to the point where Father Perez (Tony Amendola) is called in.  He takes the doll back to his church, well, tries to anyway.  Kindly neighbor Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) steps in to help and really goes above and beyond the call.  You see, the demon demands that Mia kill herself or it will kill her newborn baby.  I know.  I was like, WTF?  Here's your spoiler warning.  Evelyn grabs Annabelle and leaps out the window to her death, thereby sparing Mia who was actually about to jump herself.  Josh, Mia, and baby all live.  Happy, happy, happy.

I don't like dolls.  It's not a phobia as such but rather they instill in me a deep sense of discomfort and mistrust.  Strangely, Annabelle failed to twang that string in me, so I could view this film from a more objective position.  Objectively, this film is pretty silly.  Oh, it certainly dishes out a fright or two but the whole Satanic cult business and a demon haggling like it's trying to get a deal on a used  My disbelief can only be suspended so much.

The Skinny

Acting:  Amendola is great as usual (loved him in Stargate SG-1).  Horton and Wallis try too hard.  It's as if they're forcing pathos down our throats.
Story:  Trite and tiresome.
Direction:  He made the most of it, although 99 minutes is too long.
Production Values:  Can't think of too many flaws here.  I would have guessed the budget to be much higher than $6.5 million.
Gore/FX:  Some good blood at the beginning with the cultist melee.  Not nearly enough carnage for the film to be rated R, though.
Scares:  There are, yes.  I will concede that much.
Ending:  I think it's goofy and manipulative.
Verdict:  Should you see Annabelle?  If you love creepy ass doll movies, then yes.  If you liked The Conjuring and think this will be as good, then no.  Just go watch The Conjuring again.

Rating:  2 out of 5