Recent Horror Pros and Cons Round Two!
by Kristin Battestella
Well, say hey! Here's another debate on the mostly good, kind of bad, and disappointingly ugly thanks to this quartet of modern horror movies.
Altar – Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) and Matthew Modine (Memphis Belle) renovate a spooky, desolate estate on the English Moors in this 2014 Kickstarter scary full of fog, muted black and white style, and crisp, chilly moods. This family isn't feeling the “no signal” under construction living for the sake of mom's work, and Modine looks appropriately Vincent Price-esque as her increasingly tense, creepy, and obsessive American artist husband. Williams' Mrs. is in over her head before the scares begin, and though she explores, uncovers hidden doors, and takes pictures, Meg isn't seen doing much actual renovation and this design premise feels unnecessary along with a son who only appears as required by the plot. She also disbelieves their daughter by trying to be down with the hip lingo, deflecting by watching a movie on the iPad, and not wanting tweets about ghosts or dissing of her work reputation online despite her own suspicions. Rather than being a strong, proactive wife and mother, Meg takes a lot of crap from her husband and ends up in need of rescue because she ignores the obligatory superstitious handyman, her own internet research, and the local ghost whisperer. Distorted camera work and spinning panoramas are unnecessary as well, interfering with the innate, ghostly fears and appropriately askew one on one strangers. Seemingly innocent cuts, drops of blood, eerie apparitions, bones cracking, disembodied phones ringing, bugs, and coming alive walls do enough atmosphere building over the 95 minutes, and a one sentence history makes things bemusingly self aware: this bad happened, that bad happened, place should be torn down, fin. Granted, this isn't anything new and not a whole lot actually happens, but the seventies haunted house movie feeling and overall creepy tone provide a well paced burn to counter the usual horror contrivances like separated family members, lookalike ghosts, and going back into the house because you forgot your car keys – although the asthmatic teen has her cell phone but not her inhaler, talk about priorities! The repeating past events and titular rituals will be expected by wise horror audiences, and some of those haunting details should have been clarified, faults I again suspect are due to having a one in the same writer and director. I feel like I've said a lot of negatives yet this one was better than I expected thanks to its not reaching with sex and gore or a trying to be something its not pretentiousness. There's some same old, same old, but the time remains a pleasing escalation of ghostly possessions.
Dark House – Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) and Diane Salinger (Carnivale) anchor this laughable but creepy 85 minutes from 2010. Of course, the opening bloody stuffed animal titles and the long ass end credits pad what is actually a shorter runtime full of some bad acting and yuppie drama class millennial cliches – the ex-jock, a slut, the goth, and a token black guy. Shouting numerous curses is annoying not telling, the tech talk is already dated, and system critical virus visuals and CGI graphics are stinky, not to mention convenient when literal ghosts enter the machine. This a dimly lit, congested picture peppered with pointless jokes about unwanted lesbian advances, and the whoosh sounds accompanying flashback snippets are equally unnecessary. In your face gags are too Halloween attraction boo while the bad screamers aimlessly bumble from one trick to the next, splitting up for the attic or the basement, so wise. Just say no to that $300 a day horror movie actors within a horror movie haunt! Fortunately, Combs adds some much needed flair, and the eerie makeup, bemusing gore, and hammy zooms match his over the top haunted house holograms and fantastic mechanisms. Little girls, dead orphans, and a traumatizing garbage disposal add to the nightmares, therapy, pill taking, and facing fears, too. Apparently, the computerized research montage has now progressed to clicking through picture slideshows and watching news videos, because we all Google our past horror traumas to prepare for reliving that scary, sure. Although too many characters are needed to up the body count, the fun fakery sets up the humorous ease before the ghost scares increase, and our protagonists move along without knowing which deaths are real or part of the haunt design. Unchecked writer and director Darin Scott (Tales from the Hood) does unimaginatively play into every slasher movie expectation, including a tacked on finale switcharoo, and sophisticated horror fans expecting more will tune out long before a seriously goofy last image. However, if you can go with the fun and have a good laugh at it, this one isn't so bad.
Creep – I stumbled upon this 2014 thriller on Netflix before knowing it was found footage horror, which is admittedly not my favorite sub genre. The premise here is also weak – a cameraman who doesn't know he is in a horror movie answers a mysterious job offer to film for $1,000 a day at an isolated mountain cabin, why not. The trite drive up is videoed just so we can see our protagonist and herky jerky to and fro camera walking wastes precious time with transitions and travel. Too many scenes exists purely to build up annoying jump scares, and constantly changing locations undo the lone stalker atmosphere. First we are in the cabin, then hiking unprepared into the woods, then back in suburbia where the police laugh at the crimes because you've failed to show them all your ^%$#$# video evidence. Pick one entrapment and let it simmer rather than the pedestrian mobility of the camera. The obviously faux cancer video documentation scenes go on too long, becoming more awkward than endearing with bathtubs and wolf mask weirdness. That innate discomfort and titular feeling may be the point, however the creepy moments are left hanging and never built upon while the foreshadowing gives away everything. It's tough to focus on the obsessive sociopathy because the male on male stalker fears have a whiff too much latent homophobia. Attempts at humor or satire and self aware sympathy fall flat, missing the mark by fulfilling all the cliches. It takes 15 minutes for the barely there action to happen – trying to be dramatic confessions drag, gaining no traction as those aforementioned locations reset the scares. This should have stayed a taut short instead of a by the seat of the pants 77 minutes. Interestingly, the camera goes dark for audio revelations or silent for visual elevation, but the unique filming is undone by obvious editing and uneven pacing. Spooky phone calls add more confusion than suspicion, and nasty sexuality is just uncomfortable rather than risque. This attempted avante garde is too disjointed on top of stupid people being predictable, and the finale would be ironic except this kind of cynicism is commonplace today. A third perspective separate from collaborators Mark Duplass (The League) and Patrick Brice (The Overnight) or perhaps just traditional film making would have reined in the anchorless writing, trimmed the superfluous, and hit home the ominous potential here.
One to Skip
The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death – Blitz fears, raid sirens, and traumatized bombers open this 2014 Hammer sequel as teachers and orphans flee to the dilapidated, isolated Eel Marsh House – setting of the fine Victorian gothic of the first film. Oddly, the CGI London destruction lacks oomph, and the over saturated coloring is too dang dark. The mists and marsh fog can't build atmosphere if we can't see anything! The sounds here are also so quiet, the audience wouldn't know anything ghostly was afoot if not for the informative closed captioning. The supernatural setting alongside real wartime horrible is interesting enough, and Helen McCrory (Penny Dreadful) is appropriately kind but stern in her war at home refusal to break. The ladies look the period part, however Phoebe Fox (Switch) needs seasoning and unnecessary pilot Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is too chiseled and modern pretty. More throwaway stock characters, youth cliches, sepia tone strobe visions, eerie basements, contemporary jump scare editing, and shoddy reiterations of what we saw in first movie all make for too many modern horror tropes hindering what's supposed to be a simmering period piece. Handwritten notes would add old fashioned flavor, but the camera never stays still on the dang paper long enough to read anything – not to mention today's non-cursive versed viewers can't read it anyway even if we weren't already blinking and missing the hectic visuals. Double talk ghost semantics never let the audience get personally invested despite creepy dolls, dusty antiques, and flickering lanterns creating macabre mood. It's tough to compare thanks to the changed setting and while I enjoy the notion of the franchise moving the titular vengeance through unique times, this should have either been an unrelated release or placed closer to the prior film – perhaps World War I or the Influenza epidemic. You can't strive for a sunny London finale when you are still in 19fricking42! Calling this a sequel both puts off viewers thinking they need to see the first – you don't – and belies audiences seeking a continuation of its predecessor. I'm probably being nicer than I should be because I like the setting and the idea, but unfortunately, the un-scary cop out ending and opportunity turned run of the mill undoes any good here.