by Kristin Battestella
Zombies, ghosts, cults, fanatics – daughters, grief, moving, and politics are frightful enough with out these recent good, bad, and ugly horrors.
Maggie – Sad voicemails, outbreak news reports, desolate cities, quarantines, and martial law immediately set the bleak outlook for infected daughter Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) and her gray bearded father Arnold Schwarzenegger in this 2015 zombie drama. Wait – Arnold? In a drama movie? About zombies? No choppers?! Nope, this is not an action horror movie, and gruesome gurneys, gangrene encounters, and blackened decay are not played for scares. Here the body horrors and social breakdowns go hand in hand – science can't put a dent into the virus fast enough, and loved ones must wait as the vein discolorations and white out eyes spread toward heightened smells and cannibalistic tendencies. Minimal technology, chopping wood, rustic generators, cassettes, and older horseshoe phones accent the isolated farmhouse as insect buzzing, infected neighbors, and animal dangers mount. Younger siblings are sent away, and step-mom Joely Richardson (Nip/tuck) struggles with her faith, strength of conviction, and the promises they've made despite the deadly risks. How does a teenager keep it together when she has nothing better to do but sit around and die? Do you call friends for a last hurrah? This flawed father won't send his daughter to die in quarantine with strangers, but he can't give the painful lethal injection at home or make it a quick end, either. Creepy doctor visits amplify the stigmas and paranoia regarding these in between infected, and nice teen moments soon give way to growls and necroambulist changes. Where is the line between siege removal authorities and family compassion? Someone has to take control and there's no time for sympathy – just the inevitable breakdown of families desperate to stay together. Governator Arnold produced the film sans salary, and the off-type surprise provides heart wrenching results and must see performances. Granted, most audiences probably expected zombie action thrills a minute and there are unnecessary artistic shots, long pauses, and plodding direction at times. However, this is a strong story with hefty goodbye conversations, and it is surprising such realistically upsetting and horrible circumstances rather than horror went unnoticed. Without mainstream box office demands, indie releases are free to tell their story as it needs to be told, and this tearjerker delivers a great spin on the flooded and increasing derivative zombie genre.
We Are Still Here – Grieving parents moving to an isolated country home only to find a deceptive paranormal force may seem like nothing new to start this 2015 eighty odd minutes. However, it's lovely to see older protagonists with a lot to say yet little dialogue. Clearly this couple is disconnected over their loss, and this situation is already tough enough before the snowy bleak, creepy noises, and horrific basement. Exterior blues contrast the warm, seventies orange patterns, record player, and glowing lamps inside – the classic cars and country setting should be quaint but we know better. By being period set, there's no need to bother with technology explanations, either. How do they find the place without GPS? What's the cell phone reception? It doesn't matter, but retro psychics and hippie highs add to the simmering build, fire crackling, and shrewd use of light and dark schemes. The small cast and simple locations are well shot with no shocks and jump scares, just a tight camera focus on people feeling the suspicious or reacting to ghostly smells. Recent horror movies try to scare the audience by calling attention to the gag rather than making us feel the discomfort of a character in peril. Without such orchestration, the viewer is allowed to gasp by paying attention to the suspect baseball and glove, moving photographs, and every other part of the frame. This looks great on blu-ray, and rather than yawning at the usual predictability, it's more fun inching toward the screen for what happens next. Here, creepy neighbors sharing about the Victorian funeral home history is the closest thing to the cliché person who knows research moment, and the awkwardness over cocktails and cryptic warning notes works. The creepy crawlies aren't shown clearly at first – conversations are peppered with words like souls, demons, aura, and hot as hell instead – and our at odds husband and wife need to be on same page to best these horrors. Yes, it takes a half hour for something to happen, but the excellent twists and experienced cast do not disappoint. A superb séance is done with nothing but voice, and the nightmares escalate into siege terrors, plenty of blood, and nowhere to turn. I don't want to reveal everything, but this little picture does all it sets out to do in telling a darn good ghost story. Why isn't this kind of horror movie in the mainstream cinemas instead of the rinse repeat trite?
The Attic – A derivative prologue and picturing Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss as 11/17/83 young makes this one tough going alongside throwaway cameras and a giant family computer suggesting a setting older than 2007. Indeed, this melodramatic, diary writing teen daughter feels ten years late in her nineties mood – Emma wears wispy white but is fresh and flirty with older men as her crazy look escalates to a black slip and icky food substitutions. Jason Lewis (Sex in the City) seems dubbed with bad dialogue delivery, and although there would seem to be an internal reason for this, the nasty implications with dad John Savage (The Deer Hunter) also go unclarified. Annoying strobe ghosts, popping lights, dream flashes, and creepy mirrors are also shocks more for the audience than the characters. Ominous clues, symbols, and objects in different places do better gaslighting with doppelganger blinks and head injuries adding duality to the agoraphobia and filming through windows, open doors, and faces in the glass frame. Rattling doors and violent twists layer this spiraling out of control reality, making the viewer unsure if this a ghost, a dead twin, or all in Emma's head. Is she acting out over other hatred and abuse or just enjoying the attention? Brief scenes with parents and doctors away from Emma accent the who's telling the truth unreliable view. Which whispers are real or imagined? Numerous possibilities including Wicca and the occult or evil hauntings are left hanging with poorly edited, nonsensical montages beating the audience over the head with cheap effects and obvious suggestions. This picture both needs more time to explain itself yet pads the eighty minute duration. Did director Mary Lambert (Pet Semetary) not have the time or money needed to finish? One can really see the difference between the direct to video stigmas here compared to the theater quality on demand today. Confusing ghost physicality and figments of Emma's imagination logistics contribute to a weak ending with too many twists and no answers beyond a Matrix believe what you see, what your mind tells you, and what is real to you meta. Leaving the crazy up to the viewer isn't a free pass to throw everything at the screen but leave your premise unexplained. Why would a house spirit make her go crazy with an occult twin theory when it could just do creepy ghost stuff? Fortunately, the cast is good fun – including a looking great Catherine Mary Stewart (Night of the Comet) – and this is shout at the TV trying to be avante garde bad entertainment watchable if one can accept the crazy as an excuse to ignore the plot holes.
Red State – This 2011 eighty-eight minutes establishes its small town mood quickly with bigoted protests, homophobia, and rebelling against redneck Middle America ignorance and hypocrisy. The too chill classroom and modern teens are however immediately annoying – three dudes spewing gay slurs and lame, compensating gang bang talk deserve what comes to them and the audience never has a reason to care. There are smartphones and porn sites, but mullets, back road car crashes, a trailer in the woods, cages, and sex being the devil's business comments forebode a rural horror potential that instead gives way to misused hymns and Biblical quotes in uncomfortable cult dressings. Disturbing family congregation cheers and askew, from below camera angles are meant to reflect this warped, but the gross, in real time sermon steers the picture into heavy handed commentary. The first five minutes were already unnecessary and I really wanted to skip over this icky segment and turn the movie off all together in the first half hour. If I wanted to get disgusted by corrupt shit, I'd watch the news. Every fifteen minutes viewers are continually betrayed with a pulling the rug out bait and switch combining for some kind of clunky horror FBI raid meets zealot save the children siege. I see why stars like John Goodman and Melissa Leo were interested in the subject matter, but there's no finesse in the attempted statements or falling flat scares. Hate crimes and horror really don't mix. Trying to be witty dialogue ends up as corny misses – and I love Kevin Smith's humor in Clerks and social winks in Dogma. Once again, a one and the same writer/director really should have had another person tell him you can't squeeze a bigoted drama horror movie political action film together and expect something fulfilling. While I applaud the edgy approach and true indie notion of for the people by the people film making, the self promotional on demand distribution and lack of recognition here is not surprising. Not only does this toss in every taboo possible, but the wanna be shrewd controversial never makes up its messy mind.