Recent Horror Split Decisions
By Kristin Battestella
When watching horror across the decades, one thing always seems to stand out: most recent macabre movies are kind of iffy. Whether it’s a case of miscasting, poor effects, or weak scripts, here’s a quick look at a few 21st century films full of undecided ho-hum or what could have been.
The Divide – Michael Biehn (Aliens), Rosanna Arquette (Desperately Seeking Susan), and Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) star in this freaky and dirty dystopian tale with a conflicted identity. It takes several starts to get going- a disaster, credits, black outs, frenetic camera work, strobe lighting, and action that’s so fast the audience can’t tell what’s happening. Somber music notes capture the desolation as people go nuts early in this crappy, dusty basement; but these depressing montages conflict with the in your face photography. Everyone freaks out as expected, but one critical twist happens too early and is subsequently never touched upon again. Is this SF action or social serious? The Unrated Version may polish the character development, but it is frustrating to the viewer when the plot can go either way and there are two cuts of the film. The two full hours here are both not enough thanks to the confusion and too long over the slow motion breakdown onscreen. I understand the attempt at substance, but the editing is poor and the plot unbalanced. It’s tough to tell who is who, and all the titular division, paranoia, and desperation can’t exactly be highly stylized with such dirty subject matter. The breakdown of an already fractured group of people is nicer than the herky jerky action start, but the story still degrades into mindless shock value and becomes forced as weak and crazy men create the need for an action woman and veiled political statements. The make up and plausible collapse of health and social systems may be good, but who wants to watch a disaster movie where the assholes end up in charge? This could have been a fine film, but even if a final explanation was given or the ball not dropped on such a significant twist, this one simply can’t end well. What’s an audience to do?
Evil Eyes – The writer-within-a-film-frame aspects of this 2004 thriller intrigued me, but considering it’s a video direct from that pesky low budget embarrassing genre grist mill The Asylum, one can’t expect glory. Already dated thanks to old cameras, phones, laptops, and headphones, the VHS and newspaper clippings in the plot further detract from this contemporary-set film and make it seem even more low budget old. Weird colors and dream photography, jagged angles, unflattering up shots, and music cues are a little too on the nose. Several breakings of the fourth wall are also too obvious. Sure, the premise is a bit familiar, but it’s sound and doesn’t need all these over the top misses. Simple shots of a blank screen with a blinking cursor in the corner are chilling enough. Udo Kier (Shadow of the Vampire) is a perfectly slick and shady Hollywood executive, but Adam Baldwin (Firefly) is tough to believe as a down on his luck screenwriter to start. Somehow, we expect him to be bad or crazy not the everyman, and the character improves as the twisted action, suspicion, and madness intensify. Is it coincidence that he writes and bad things happen or is it fate? Unfortunately, there isn’t enough mood or atmosphere despite some good gore. Except for overboard plugs for Dreamworks, the tone here is all about the on the cheap and it just doesn’t go far enough. It’s not all bad, but everything turns out a little too trite with a dumb ending.
Jennifer’s Shadow – Also called Chronicles of the Raven stateside, this 2004 spooky has a lot going for it. Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest) looks classy as always and has fun with all the freaky birds and macabre. The music is moody, adding to the disturbing atmosphere and scary night terrors. Although a full on gothic feeling might have been better served had this been a complete period piece, silent, demented action and chase scenes build the sinister intensity. The language beats, however, feel weird. There’s a stilted English and Spanish mix that should have been one or the other, not a “No habla espanol bien” bumbling. We never get a real Argentine flavor, either. The dark photography and muted palette are also tough to see at times, and the audience can figure out the curse exposition and obvious twists before their fairly late appearances. Nonetheless, all that could have been forgiven except for one major pitfall: Gina Philips (Jeepers Creepers) is a completely unfeeling and unlikable ‘pretty American girl in a foreign country’ waste on two legs. Not only is there an additional lookalike cliché tacked on, but thru either bad acting or poor scripting, the audience can’t like such a bitchy and selfish protagonist. It’s tough to enjoy a film when you want something bad to happen to the lead! There are great surroundings here to chew on, and one really wants to like this little thriller. However, the ridiculous characterization does not make it easy.
The Wicker Tree – A chaste Christian couple from Texas (Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett) is thrust into the naughty Scottish countryside for this 2011 revisit of The Wickerman. Our young leads lay it on thick with some annoyingly bad acting, and though creepy, Jacqueline Leonard (EastEnders) and Graham McTavish (The Hobbit) simply aren’t as juicy as Christopher Lee was in the original. Sub par cast notwithstanding, the very premise from writer and director Robin Hardy (also of the original) feels off. The young missionaries are written as brainwashed by their religion, too naive to live, and almost deserving of the mocking of their beliefs. Then the preachy pendulum beats the viewer over the head with evidence of how most Christian elements grew from pagan roots, making this not-a-sequel potentially offensive to audiences on either side of the fence. Both cultures are portrayed as oppressive or negative throughout the film, and the mix of country sassy turned gospel turned Celtic music also won’t be for everyone. The ridiculous subtitles during a sex scene and weak TnA here barely earn an R rating, too. Lee’s brief appearance does add a touch of class; his voice carries a wonderful alluring question- but it isn’t enough. Likewise, the scares and sinister in the final act here can’t redeem all simply because we know what’s going to happen. Rightly or wrongly, this one makes more statements than modern run of the mill slashers, and perhaps it isn’t that bad in and of itself. Unfortunately, it’s just not the original.
And Do Avoid
Bride of Chucky – I thought this 1998 sequel was more recent that it actually is, and the dated music and fashion really shows. While Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings) as the voice of Chucky is always fun, the line up of Jennifer Tilly (Bound), the late John Ritter (Three’s Company), and a very young Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy) is also too of the nineties, and the entire horror comedy plot turn comes off as a little impractical to say the least. It’s a little weird that we’re watching two dolls arguing- or worse, having sex! Tilly keeps it bemusing, but if you want true scares instead of puns, this tone just doesn’t work. Perhaps Bride isn’t a bad film on its own, and at the time, it was a good way to revitalize the Child’s Play franchise with a gimmick towards the follow up Seed of Chucky. However, the series has nonetheless ended up in direct to video and reboot territory, having traded in its original childhood fears for self-referential stupidity.