Quality Contemporary Horror
By Kristin Battestella
Amid all the craptastic new horror pictures this past decade, there are precious few demented diamonds in the rough. Here, however, is a quick quartet of recent, worthy, quality scares and frightful films.
Drag Me to Hell – Sam and Ivan Raimi (Evil Dead, Army of Darkness) present this 2009 tale of curses and consequences starring Alison Lohman (White Oleander) as the likeable and realistic Christine. She’s trying to change her accent, forget her ‘porker’ past and family issues, and keeps doubting or compromising herself, yet she’s also trying to pin her problems on someone else. Lohman carries the increasing paranoia nicely with honest pace and progression as her true colors come forth amid the good jump moments and the not so gruesome that it’s overdone gore and grossness. Justin Long (The Apple Guy), however, is annoying and simply not believable as a college professor; his Freud versus paranormal debates and supposed love for Christine are unconvincing. Reggie Lee (Prison Break) and David Paymer (Mr. Saturday Night) are jerks, too, but their antagonism helps the plot along against the stereotypical gypsy curses as Lorna Raver (The Young and the Restless) makes for a very creepy, gross old lady thanks to that weird eye and a variety of vomit, bugs, and won’t say die dead body encounters. But if she can do all this summoning evil goat demons, why couldn’t she just pay her loan? Although it’s okay to laugh in some scenes – and props for bemusing stapler uses – there is a bit too much sunshine, modern trappings, and a decidedly CGI feeling. This isn’t quite as dirty or desperate as it should be, and we know what’s going to happen the whole time – even the title and poster reveal the predictable twist untwist endings. Fortunately, most of the scares and suspense are well done what you don’t see shadows and wind effects, and the Spanish spins and multi language mythos add flavor along with Dileep Rao’s (Avatar) unique take on the usually clichéd psychic. There are subtle Evil Dead references, of course, but one can certainly laugh or be scared by this entertaining little flick - eyeball in the cake at the dinner party and all.
The Innkeepers – A lovely, historic atmosphere and setting accent the brooding suspense of this 2011 thinking person’s haunted hotel tale starring Sarah Paxton (Darcy’s Wild Life) and Kelly McGillis (Top Gun). The situational scares, ghost investigations, touches of quirky humor, and genuine conversations feel much more realistic than those so-called reality ghost shows. The subtle fears, whiff of gore, and shock scares are quality, but the what you don’t see whispers, overnight isolation, unknown paranormal activity, and psychic reactions are better. The simple lack of a camera and reliance on EVP gear for the onscreen investigation forces the audience to pay attention. While some modern viewers may dislike the slow burn pace or find the unambitious characters annoying, the lack of easy explanations and typical boobalicious scream queens is refreshingly honest. We need to see the personal normalcy so we know when the scares push people to the extreme. Yes, people don’t listen, let the paranormal go to their head, and go into the forewarned basement – but people close to death also see things differently. Granted, writer, director, and editor Ti West (The House of the Devil) wears too many hats and should have someone else sit back objectively and say, “Clarify this.” Perhaps there’s nothing fancy here – just a straightforward curiosity killed the cat self-fulfilling prophecy. However, today’s increasingly too in your face fancy horror films are becoming a problem, and this well-done little picture is more than worth a look.
The Moth Diaries – This 2011 adaptation of the Rachel Klein novel has some very slow early scenes with video game trappings, prep chick shenanigans, and jealous lesbian subtext. The title connections are loose and uneven shades of Carmilla, vampire clichés, ghosts, suicide, blood, and psychosis or any and all of the above go unanswered. The flashbacks and a few stupid dream sequences are too obvious, with a predictable one by one elimination – the audience is immediately aware of what’s going on while the characters remain juvenile and can’t piece together the evidence. Viewers also excited by the promised girl on girl vamps will be disappointed by the lack of boobs, for there is only one unnecessary yet not gratuitously filmed sex scene. Audiences will expect the hot teacher switcharoo, definitive twists, and clarification on the supernatural rules, but these also go unfulfilled. Either be a Carmilla spin or use your unreliable narrator - you can’t have both if you are going to drop the ball and not define your own film or its audience. Fortunately, Sara Boldger (The Tudors), Sarah Gadon (A Dangerous Method), Scott Speedman (Underworld), Lily Cole (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), and the rest of the well-acted cast make up for any flaws – as does the creepy hotel turned school locales, literary touches, classy mood, and spooky atmosphere. There are a few good scares, too, and no overabundance of computers, phones, or modern technology. Of course, vampire fans will be disappointed in the lack of vampness, but psychological horror fans will be annoyed by enough vamp and ghost trappings. Though entertaining, the trouble here is that it just never decides what it wants to be.
The Ward – Director John Carpenter (Halloween) keeps the suspense, mystery, and twists going in this 2010 psychological thriller. Yes, I would have liked more sixties in the 1966 setting beyond a few cool cars, some music, and old school nursing. Granted, Amber Heard (Pineapple Express), Mamie Gummer (Evening), Danielle Panabaker (The Crazies), Lyndsy Fonseca (Desperate Housewives), and Laura-Leigh (We’re the Millers) do well for the most part but still seem too modern for the decade onscreen. Absolutely, wise horror viewers will shout at the television over the physical impossibilities, obvious connections, unoriginality, clichés, and plot holes from writers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (Dark Feed) – if I say what films this is almost exactly like, it will spoil the whole thing! Fortunately, Jared Harris (Mad Men) is a quality, ambiguous mix of helping and hurting as the therapist of the hour, and there is some sharp editing, smart camerawork, and a hint of mid century fashion to set the scary mood. The sinister mental hospital with drugs, hypnosis, vengeful ghosts, undead possibilities, and of course, electroshock therapy also adds to the creepy atmosphere. Perhaps some of Carpenter’s tense scoring or an elder classic horror actor might have brought the heavy needed here, but I feel this should also be seen twice for full effect. Though there are still too many recent horror hang ups keeping this from being Carpenter’s best, the action doesn’t resort to today’s expected major gore, sex, or nudity and remains a step above recent slice and dice crazy pictures thanks to his stylized mental explorations, crisis, and fears.
However, I must again say, why do recent horror movies all have slow, fancy smancy, and effects laden opening credits wasting precious time? Hardly any films these days have opening credits and simply start cold. Why do horror films only delay and pad their runtimes like this? Do they think it is cool? It’s not. Give us the extra two minutes of scares and story, please!