Recent Horror Pros and Cons
by Kristin Battestella
Sometimes new and unique independent horror rises up and surprises you with its impressiveness, and other times the scary intrigue leaves you wondering what could have been. Here's a recent horror quartet with some varying degrees of success – from thought provoking interest and clichés made fine to rehashing redundancy and mishmashed missed opportunity.
The Babadook – Up close screams, distorted past accidents, bad dreams, and checking under the bed make sleep uneasy for mother and child in this 2014 Australian thinking person's horror. Kid gadgets, magic tricks, a locked basement filled with memento mori, and the wonderfully freaky eponymous but anonymous book have us believing in gruesome children's stories once again as the pop up contents become a bit too interactive. Forget school and social pressure, a boy has to defend himself and his mom against those monsters! The youthful fears, wise for his age, and natural innocence are immediately endearing, as is the much lauded Essie Davis (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) as our kind, relatable, working widow. Her life has been difficult, lonely, and getting worse– a scared kid climbing into bed all the time ruins the 'me' time, doesn't it? Paging Doctor Freud! Close cut, intimate editing builds suspense, keeping the pent up, internal focus as the child's play turns dangerous. Instead of desensitizing thrills, we feel the real life fears as the seemingly supernatural blends with seven years of escalating grief. Family abnormalities, paranormal possibilities that psychiatry can't handle, monsters that manifest on such daily traumas – is our pair too attached to each other in this battle or fighting alone? Where is the line between evil possessions and their own warped reality? Dark corners and a depressing, monochromatic home allow for unseen horrors to brew and fester over the 94 minutes alongside a progressively unkempt style, insomnia haze, here or not there bugs, overnight gaps in time, and floating under the covers apparitions. A lack of sisterly help, snickering police, and truant officers accent the late night television parallels, further blurring the lines between monsters and actuality. In the absence of empty shock moments, immediate adrenaline, and jump scare spectacles, the scary sounds and shadows simmer. Some viewers may predict the dog worries and a bit of the tables turning, but the intense times and maternal power use horror to say what can't be said and create discussion as good scares should. Female-centric horror not done for the titillation, who knew?
Would You Rather – When Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) says he can make your sick brother better if you win a dinner party game, run people, run! The intercut interview slash opening credits of this 2012 dare-fest inexplicably lengthen exposition that was cleverly shortened, making for a redundant, overly ominous start – we know they are in a horror movie more scary than Clue even if they don't. Unnecessary flashback snips and more jarring editing stilts a first half hour that keeps explaining the game before finally providing some electrocutions, gunplay, whips, and ice picks. Forcing a vegetarian to eat meats or a recovered alcoholic to drink scotch is only the beginning of the discomforting desperation and morals versus money at stake, and Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect) is believably mature as a twenty something fallen onto tough family times. John Heard (Home Alone) and June Squibb (Nebraska) add fine elder pleas, and unlike other recent torture porn trends, upscale interiors and sophisticated dread accent the titular question. This isn't dumbed down to a teen party boobs and gore fest, yet cliché character expositions linger alongside some stupid actions, a few loose ends, and one trite prick. Our game players must ally and do no harm or comply and compete. None apologize for playing, however, and that depravity hampers some of the entertainment value. After all, people really get off on this kind of pain – look at that dumb and dangerous Kylie Jenner lips dare – and longtime horror viewers will find the unexplained, gruesome generosity predictable. Thankfully, the built in ticking clock and process of elimination keep the smartly congested parlor panache moving, and the crafty cynicism carries through to the end.
Polite Split Decisions
As Above So Below – The disorienting, chaotic start to this 2014 found footage tale compromises the danger of all its tunnels, statues, catacombs, and artifacts because we can't see much less appreciate them thanks to the sideways camera or off and on flashlights. Young and reckless Perdita Weeks (Lost in Austen) rattles off her credentials and always assures the documentary is paramount while risking harm to others. She heeds no warnings, argues with the more experienced, and audaciously accuses others while she destroys priceless discoveries for her own transformative gain. Instead of Dante food for thought, the wrongfully determined, spelunking hipster plot comes off ala National Treasure – complete with a first clue action start, a break in to inspect the back of a marker, begrudging allies who only want gold, going underground via a tomb, and following historical riddles through one hidden chamber after another. Our cameraman is also a wise cracking, injury prone, token black guy whom we hardly see. His future bodes so well! And hey, there's no cell phone service underground, obviously. Parisians inexplicably speaking English instead French, obligatory claustrophobia, Indiana Jones rats and knights, and random cult worshipers add to the borrowed contrivances, and it's tough to make the cliches and busy footage both work due to the increasing demands on our suspension of disbelief. The finest parts here are when the camera remains still with one person in panic. Creepy old phones and broken pianos below add to the dread and maze like inability to escape, creating enough forlorn without the gimmicks. Real cave interiors add to the Egyptian booby traps, however the jump scares, supernatural hell horrors, and a much too much rushed finale abandon the established rules. Was all the metaphysical worth it? Are we supposed to be glad that one got the rectification she desired at the expense of others? This is entertaining for viewers who fall for the frights in the Halloween fun house, but despite attempts at literary and historical allusions, longtime horror audiences and wise cinema fans will see everything coming.
Deliver Us from Evil – Hectic explosions, desert warfare, and soldiers discovering an ancient tomb get this 2014 supernatural thriller off to a rocky start before more random restarts further delay the actual horror. Important snippets given early are better reiterated later, making this opening a redundant fifteen minutes that could have been cut. A creepy nighttime power outage at the zoo and a spooky house where candles won't burn reset the chilling mood, but ridiculously weapon happy, trumped up macho, backwards hat wearing cops who look more like ball players chomping on chewing tobacco make us feel like we're in the wrong movie again. The cinematic realism is also styled like a cop show, which would be fine except the nighttime seedy and flashlight lighting is too damn dark to see anything. An annoying score also ruins the viewer immersion, as does convenient, all seeing HD surveillance footage and easy smartphone cameras with on hand evidence – not to mention there is never any back up or proper police procedure. Though not miscast per se, what kind of Australian doing Bronx Italian accent is Erica Bana (Troy) trying? Please don't. And Joel McHale? Of The Soup? As a bad ass cop in a horror movie?! Fortunately, The Doors' music signifying gateways to hell is much more fun, and Sean Harris (The Borgias) is always a delightfully gruesome creeper. Too many genres are combined and condensed here, making the balance and pacing uneven, and the potential for digging deeper motivation in the intriguing one on one dialogue and good versus evil debate remains superficial as a result. Tighter editing would have stopped the meandering, but this might have been better as a longer serial where time could be taken for the Iraq fallout, our guilt ridden ex-faithful cop with terrorized family tropes, and the buddy sergeant meets noble padre religious investigations. Is this all just too many clichés tossed at the screen? There's a great exorcism before a somewhat limp finale, but cops and a priest battling possessed veterans with devilish clues from Jim Morrison? If you don't expect much from the mixed vision, this may actually be crazy enough to see through to the end.