by Kristin Battestella
Literary paranormals, writerly investigations, isolated forest frights, and wooded vacations gone awry – nature time and being an author don't bode well for the pen-wielding or the backpacking in these recent scarefests.
The Eclipse – Widower Ciarán Hinds (Game of Thrones) encounters a horror writer and ghosts in this surprisingly charming 2010 Irish tale. The accents or slang may be tough for some, however candlelit receptions and picturesque churches add an ethereal pleasantness to the town literary festival and talk of nearby haunted places. Celtic chorales, seaside isolation, ruined abbeys, graveyards, and rainstorms invoke an off-kilter, sleep with the lights on, in limbo feeling where the creepy is possible amid the real world bustle. Pretty greens and almost black and white visuals echo the metaphorical light and dark schemes – our single father lingers over pictures of his late wife while trying to mend his relationship with his ailing, in a home father-in-law. Are the scary dreams, voices in the night, and sleepwalking grief or something more? Is it just wishful thinking when jumping to a paranormal conclusion? Screams outside and unusual dog behaviors suggest something is really afoot, but what? Conversations sharing childhood ghost stories recall the supernatural as both terrifying and an intriguing curiosity, creating tender but eerie moments as visions of the dead and soon to be deceased mount. Are these premonitions or attachment to past happenings? Do we go about our lives with unseen spirits about all the time – or do we make up a ghostly connection to feel better? There can be closure and even writing inspiration with this mature blend of adult themes, but drunken bore and miserable hack Aidan Quinn (Elementary) adds romantic conflict as a rival author. Here men are allowed to be weak louses or have frank comfort in crying or sadness. There are several dark, driving transition scenes, however these lead to character revelations and dramatic plot builds. Such quiet and personal makes it all the more scary when perilous apparitions do jar the melancholy. Viewers can believe the spiritual line is blurred, and we have to decide whether to let it be, move on, or despair our dreams away. At times, the pace may seem slow or uneven – perhaps this should have been either a straight drama or more overt horror. Fortunately, the supernatural potential is heartfelt and realistic, making for a hopeful, lovely little film.
Sinister – Writer Ethan Hawke (Training Day) researches a local murder and missing child case in this 2012 supernatural thriller. While the punk tween son, whiny little girl, and unwelcoming sheriff are typical, old photos and authentic reel footage accent the testy banter, marital strain, and tense family dynamics. Finances hinge on this next book being a success, and their new house is realistically modest – save for the hanging tree in the backyard, of course. Ironically labeled Super 8 reels found in the attic feature pool drownings, lawn mower mishaps, fiery bound and gagged victims, and more murders through the decades and across the country. Who could be committing and filming these crimes? Should our desperate author turn over the snuff evidence or keep going deeper, drinking and obsessing over this scoop? The pulsing music is unnecessary, as are extra shocks, loud bangs, and breaks in character point of view just to call attention to the jump scare for the audience's benefit. Power outages and blackout scenes add to the ominous investigation, however the picture is often too dark to see anything. Child attacks, night terrors, creaking doors, and suspicious movements about the house add better fears, and Hawke's performance keeps the viewer invested as the fantastic possibilities slowly build over the first hour. Snakes or scorpions indoors, eerie film figures, and fire burning away critical frames match the parallel kid drawings and supernatural incidents consuming the home. While meandering ancient information and occult lessons via Skype feel ham-fisted, the frightening photos, unexpected twists, and footage playing by itself seem more organic. Our writer forces himself to watch the gruesome to solve the crime, unaware or too fanatical in his research to see the surreal to which he's subjected his family. Granted, some audiences will like the paranormal turn while others may wish this stayed a straight thriller. The nearer two hour time could have been tighter rather than shoehorning in shock value try hards – triggers aside, the killer footage won't be that shocking to desensitize viewers. Can kids today even appreciate the whir of a film projector versus digital laptop transfers? It's also surprising old notions on the camera stealing the spirit or more recent smartphone instant videoing isn't discussed. Fortunately, the in the can framing story is much nicer than found footage gimmicks, and this is a fine puzzle where the audience must pay attention to the rising paranormal undercurrent. Despite some quibbles, this remains an entertaining little piece. I mean, why would a Babylonian deity need to move into the new millennium by filming his victims in the first place? Ancient gods be waiting for the invention of Super 8, booyah!
Cabin Fever – Dead animals, buzzing flies, and rowdy coeds finally free of campus requirements disrupt the golden forest, fallen leaves, and lakeside sunsets of this 2002 scarefest along with too many pop cues, the obligatory drive to the inevitable, and padding opening credits. I'm not really a fan of writer and director Eli Roth (Hostel), and it is tough to like this cliché group of characters who use “gay” as an insult – a jerk in a ballcap, the horny couple, and an innocent guy trying to take it to the next level with his girl BFF. The sex and cozy cabin are intercut with humor and stupidity, but the dock make out scenes feel derivative of older seventies and eighties horror. Naturally, there are cell phones out of range, vehicle mishaps, and typical arguments over how to handle the contagiousness amid stalling flashbacks showing the campfire tales being told as an excuse for pointless gore and a quick boo moment. An assy appearance by Roth himself complete with pot lures our intrepid group, too. Fortunately, sick locals, slaughtered pigs, errant gunshots, a shady deputy on a bicycle, and a tainted water supply add interest. Blood in bed and drastic divisions step things up halfway through – crazy neighbors take matters into their own hands, and it's fun when folks turn on each other or get what they deserve. Who's infected? Who's next? This had a lot more potential, however red dream inserts and slow motion dogs call attention to a try hard aesthetic or become laughable. The dialogue is basic and not much happens as these vignettes and strung together scenes fade in and out – there's a lot of set up but no scary atmosphere. Gruesome body parts and shootouts are thrown at the screen, leaving nothing but distractions from the premise. Let's stumble upon a body torn in half! Let's hit a deer! Let's find yet another group of drunk coeds in the woods! Too many endings don't really go anywhere, with yet more tacked on in the final fifteen minutes – hospitals, cops, new infections, a town hoe down. This may have ushered in a new wave of indie, R-rated horror for new millennium, but today it seems fairly standard and amateur throwback in its haphazard. If that kind of midnight movie splatter is all you are expecting, then this fits the bill.
Preservation – Wrenn Schmidt (Boardwalk Empire) leads this 2014 cliché ridden wilderness romp written and directed by Christopher Denham – whom I loved on Manhattan. From a driving montage over the opening credits and pretentious cell phone love/hate to redneck jokes, redundant “Are we there yet?” questions, and lots of alcohol mixed with firearms pride; this horror of two brothers and one woman in the woods is going to be same old same old. All you need are a dog and a gun for emergencies – unless your wife isn't up for the experience thanks to a strained marriage, band-aid pregnancy, and a vegan excuse not mentioned until after the deer is being strung up for dinner. The immediately problematic script double talks with hollow quotes and cop out contradictions in an attempted hipster cool, laying it on thick with nostalgia the brothers repeat for the audience and protests from the missus reluctant to go hunting – after we've already seen her enjoy hunting. Viewers have no reason to like this trio, and pretty outdoor photography quickly turns into unpleasant killing footage and dead animal imagery hitting home the man kills for sport motifs. PTSD and kill or be killed for survival adds to the derivative and unbelievable turns. It's 100 degrees with no food or water yet a tiny pregnant woman can rough it just fine barefoot with no map? The conflict and creepy is lame – noises in the woods, unseen observations, missing gear, deceptive directions, and X marks on their foreheads suggest the real scares lie in the hidden killer perspective. However, distant Peeping Tom camerawork and baiting the unprepared yuppies can't compensate for the stupidity of hiding from your attacker in a port a potty or the bored, text messaging kids on bicycles who have nothing better to do but kill. Naturally, one needs an inhaler, they have to get home or they'll be in trouble, and a call from mom comes just in the nick of time! Meanwhile, our insipid heroine uses a dozen flares for a smokescreen rather than blow up a wrecked car as a mighty help signal – the turnabout here comes far too easy and Eden Lake did this better. Why do people turn away from the killers and never make sure the bad guys are dead?