For the first time in 10 years, we as a nation have endured an October movie season without any Paranormal Activity or Saw episodes. The two most successful, prolifically ongoing horror franchises of the new millennium are taking a knee this year – Paranormal 5 and its Spanish spinoff The Marked Ones were pushed back to 2014, and until they reboot the Jigsaw Killer Saga around 2016, torturously bad torture porn is on vacation. Discounting Carrie: The Remake because everybody agrees that it blows, it looks like Hollywood skipped Halloween this year, despite the massive success of the horror genre in virtually any given month on the calendar. With the found footage gimmick and grimy snuff film aesthetic helping keep scary movie budgets at bay this past decade, it seems you couldn’t lose money putting a new horror movie in theaters even if you tried, yet unless you found the 3 theaters across America willing to screen the now-seven-year-old, heretofore unreleased Amber Heard-starring cult-flick All the Boys Love Mandy Lane or enjoy watching classic movies re-made with new actors and a fresh polish (Carrie), then you were better off getting your Samhain cinematic kicks any other month of 2013 besides the one where it actually occurs. There was no shortage of horror this year – reboots, Leatherface, Rob Zombie, Victor Crowley, zombies, hauntings, anthologies – but now, I guess winter, spring, and summer are the new seasons of the witch. Maybe that means we’ll soon be watching The Santa Clause 5 in June, and the perennial Easter franchise will deliver Hop 2 it just in time for Thanksgiving, but until signs of that apocalypse begin to occur, at least we have TV (lots of marathons on AMC, SyFy Channel, ABC Family, etc.), Netflix, Hulu, that new Hulu-Fangoria channel, YouTube, your local Blockbuster assuming it isn’t already a haunted abandoned warehouse, video-on-demand, going out and having actual Halloween adventures instead of watching fictional ones, sitting around campfires telling ghost stories, uh the possibility of nightmares every time you fall asleep…seriously, what do we even need movie theaters for? Just kidding, I love you, cinemas. But surely you can get back to scheduling more fright flicks to coincide with our brief annual celebration of spookiness. It’s not too much to ask. Meanwhile, here are a random bunch of scary movies I watched for the first time recently in order to help keep myself in a deranged state of mind.
CURSE OF CHUCKY (2013)
Okay, technically this was the other horror movie that came out just in time for Halloween, but it was disqualified for having premiered directly on DVD, a tragic progress report for the ’80s icon. Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, and Leatherface have all managed to keep their killing sprees on the big screen these past 30+ years despite box office lulls nearly equal to (or in Jason and Leatherface’s sequels, actually far worse than) Seed of Chucky‘s minor misfire back in 2004, so why the low budget, unceremonious release? Who knows, but hopefully this less ambitious route will at least yield more than one sequel per decade from here on out. Even with its limited production values – tiny ensemble cast, drably lit cinematography, taking place entirely within a remote home (basically the movie could be re-created on an off-Broadway stage for about $70) and an absolutely wretched franchise tie-in cameo by Jennifer Tilly, this is still an effective little exercise, re-emphasizing tension and dread over the past two sequels’ (admittedly fun) black comedy streak, while using the comfy old-school framework of a dark and stormy night in a big dark house. Attempting to retcon the origin story wasn’t the best idea, but using continuity from part 3 of all places pays off in a post-credits tag that’s the highlight of the whole movie. Looking forward to Child’s Play 7. (GRADE: B-)
V/H/S/ 2 (2013)
Our own Drew already carved into this one when it came out a few months ago, but I had to see it for myself, and it turns out I’m an easier sell than he. Both V/H/S/ movies are hit-and-miss anthologies of novelty found-footage (this time, there are cameras built into a guy’s glass eye, one on a bike helmet, one attached to a dog during the whole segment), and just as the first one had a couple disturbing stand-out sequences (“Amateur Night”, “Tuesday the 17th”), the sequel boasts its own pair of inventive highlights with “Safe Haven”, aka a satanic Indonesian cult, whose extended climax is epic, and “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”, a self-explanatory tale playing like the ruthless R-rated nightmare version of an ’80s kids’ movie (think The Goonies by way of Dan O’Bannon). The other two short films are just fine on their own, the first, Adam Wingard’s “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” bottling the oft-unsettling atmosphere of quiet, aimless nights spent at home, and the second, “A Ride in the Park” as helmed by the Blair Witch filmmakers, an equal parts goofy and nasty first-person zombie attack that packs more entertainment into 12 minutes than the like-minded Warm Bodies did in 97. Neither covers new or compelling territory, thus paling in comparison to the superior parts later on, but for mild chills, setting the mood, and some wicked gore, they’re just right for the occasion. Too bad V/H/S/2 couldn’t find a fifth tale to pad out its length to 2 full hours like the first one did, and the frame-work set-up is just as predictable as the last film’s (anthology horror in general really needs to re-think its wrap-around contrivances, identical as they all seem to be throughout the years), but the batting average is actually higher this time, and the found footage novelty hasn’t outworn its welcome just yet. (GRADE: B)
HATCHET III (2013)
What began in 2006 as a gleefully exaggerated, proudly tributary monster movie-cum-slasher flick faithfully took its cue from the sophomore entries of its ancestors Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween and drooped into a wheel-spinning tedium by its second film, before finally realizing its true place among Z-grade series like Leprechaun and Phantasm and coming out with a simply atrocious part 3. Thanks to some clever closure for first film protagonist Joel David Moore, the in-joke reappearance of Parry Shen (cast in every movie so far, despite his mutilation in the first two), and a self-deprecating attitude, this isn’t 100% crap, but the acting in these movies just keeps getting lousier, the stories thinner, the dialogue stupider, the filmmaking itself lazier, and even Victor Crowley’s showstopping maimings less impressive. He pulls out someone’s spine with their head attached, removes limbs one at a time, beheads plenty, impales someone on a tree branch, leaves a guy’s ball-sack hanging from a tree, and cleaves a head cleanly in half allowing the brain to fall out, all the while roaring like a lion. Horror lover’s paradise, isn’t it? In writing, sure, but the obligatory, let’s just get this over with manner in which it’s all staged makes it painfully dull to watch. (GRADE: D-)
For those lucky enough to have lived this long unaware of the dank 1980 serial killer movie of the same name, here goes: it’s about a greasy middle-aged psycho who stalks NYC scalping women and adorning mannequins with their flesh. It was enough of a cult sensation to earn its own reboot, though not theatrically, given how little crowd-peasing elements there are to the source material. Frankly it’s one of my least favorite movies, not for its harsh violence (which sent Gene Siskel fleeing from the theater after only 30 minutes) but for the worthlessness of its skin-crawling aesthetic. Unlike Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, there are no psychological insights or artistic statements at work to levy the brutally unpolished realism. It’s like watching this degenerate’s home movies, plain and simple, and that’s not scary or fascinating to me in the least. Much as I would rather die than enter that bathroom stall from Desperado, my reaction to the 1980 Maniac steps beyond creeped-out into the back rooms of just plain revolted. No thanks. So naturally the well-scrubbed, seductively lit, Elijah Wood-starring, Alexandra Aja-written remake goes down much easier by comparison. The events haven’t changed – scalping, stalking, raping, killing, traumatic childhood involving his prostitute mother, using bloody mannequins as friends – but the lubricated presentation makes all the difference. There’s no doubt that the original will have a stronger impact on anyone watching, for better or worse, since the only thing that distinguishes this remake from a million other fetishistic serial killer pics made since 1980 is that it employs the first-person POV of Elijah Wood himself from start to finish (with a couple cheats here and there), like, does everyone have to do the found-footage thing all the time? It makes sense for getting inside the maniac’s head, probably because the screenplay merely pays lip service. As unnerving as Elijah Wood’s piercing blue eyed stare and eternal youthfulness can be, he did a better version with even less screen time and no dialogue in 2005’s Sin City, and this movie, however long on atmosphere (the ominous old-school synth score and classical music cues go a long way towards sustaining overlong, inherently predictable scenes of him pursuing his victims), comes up much too short on substance. The superficial deviations from the 1980 script aren’t really worth it, and the carry-overs threaten to render this remake moot anyway. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if you really want to watch a freaky movie about a maniac, the otherwise virtually offensive 1980 original is going to upset you more than this adept performed yet too sterile cover song. (GRADE: C-)
THE LAST SHARK (aka GREAT WHITE) (1981)
Because my life will not be complete until the fear of killer sharks fused into my psyche from countless childhood viewings of all the Jaws movies has been purged via a thousand confrontations with every campy creature feature about them, I am beholden to scouring the history of cinema for evermore examples. Unfortunately, it became obvious years ago that the only other tolerable, halfway rewarding shark movies out there are Deep Blue Sea and Open Waters, if you can even count that one (it’s more about the fear of the ocean itself, and of being lost). Like the Ghost Rider, though, I am cursed with my fruitless pilgrimage unto eternity, so I watched The Last Shark, which isn’t just a Jaws cash-in; it’s a Jaws forgery. I shouldn’t even bother pointing out the similarities, but here are the main ones: a douche-y city official refuses to close down the
beach upcoming regatta despite numerous shark sightings, the heroes attach a barrel buoy to the shark in order to track it, the shark takes down a helicopter (actually I think that was Jaws 2), there’s a trio of protagonists, one of whom is a grizzled loner with a vendetta (whose accent, amusingly, rotates from Scottish to Italian to Brooklynese), and the final showdown concludes when the main guy, stuck on a sinking vessel, uses a device lodged inside the shark earlier to blow it up (spoiler). Aside from the rip-off factor, it’s lifeless, albeit not totally incompetent. To its meager credit, unlike most shark movies, this one does bother to design an over-sized great white that looks like an actual monster, but the very Bruce-like model only appears in above-water shots when it pops out in the exact same way every time exactly like the Universal Studios tour. The rest of the shots are stock footage of noticeably smaller sharks, some who don’t even seem to be the same species. They do include a sequence where a diver hides in an underwater cave while the shark tries to break in to eat him, which strikes me as something no other shark movies, not even the seminal Jaws family, have ever tried (unless you count The Chipmunk Adventure). Future killer shark entertainment should spend more time pitting man vs. beast beneath the waves – clearer opportunity to see the shark, and less repetitive than just waiting for it to lunge out of the water at someone. (GRADE: D+)
VISITING HOURS (1982)
A Canadian slasher in which a deranged killer (Michael Ironside, born to such roles) tries to finish the job of slaying a hospitalized activist (Lee Grant) for spotty reasons (he hates her stance on femininity..?). The hook is that it’s mostly set in a hospital, even though 1981’s Halloween II got there first and didn’t stray nearly so much with extraneous subplots (Ironside gets distracted pursuing a nurse off duty to her home, probably to insure a bigger body count; that this off-site tangent provides the movie’s only suspenseful scenes and its one great jolt reveals how mistaken the filmmakers were to focus on a hospital setting for which they spared all possible imagination). Incidentally, this also feels like a copy of Maniac, in that it’s another studied, austere portrait of a near-silent lowlife on a misogynist mission to hunt down all women. The movie doesn’t give him any catch-phrases or big monologues to explain his plans, or even flair in his personality. He’s just a cold-blooded killer, and Ironside makes it work with his threatening visage and commitment to simmering minimalism. It’s kind of a drag whenever he’s not on screen, though. (GRADE: C-)
THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND (2013)
With digital cameras a DIY replacement for film stock and the increasingly prohibitive expenses of theatrical distribution, the direct-to-DVD market has incurred such a rampant overpopulation problem that unless you devote your life to monitoring its output, it’s impossible to know which titles deserve a chance and which are just factory-line, ultra-low-budget atrocities. I wouldn’t normally bother with a movie like Echo’s Pond these days – DTDVD horror is the least reliable genre of all, and this one doesn’t even have good reviews to back it up – but it received a small run in theaters a while back, which automatically piques my curiosity. Somebody must have thought it was a cut above the usual DVD fare, to say nothing of it co-starring oddball cult movie stalwarts Danielle Harris and James Duval and the (probably thankless) curiosity of its release having been delayed four years. Even with that demon on the poster, though, and initially promising hints of Satanism, this is one of those sneak attack hoodwinks that eschews a tangible villain for pitting the characters against each other, as a board game in a haunted vacation cabin elicits violent expression of everyone’s suppressed hostilities. Old grudges and jealousies turn into torture and dismemberment. It’s a vicious morality play disguised as a monster movie, and is unexpectedly the better for it. Watching teens picked off by a shadowy predator gets old; inciting conflict from character development gives this the semblance of a real movie, not just a quickie gorefest. Naturally, both said attention to ensemble dynamic and the performances wrought thereof are hardly sophisticated; this remains a not-very-bright B-movie. But the inverted approach makes it more watchable, and for cost effective slasher thrills, you could do a lot worse. At least this one is trying. (GRADE: C+)
THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)
Rob Zombie’s best live-action effort yet, admirably controlled and restrained. Virtually nothing happens during the movie, but that’s always been Zombie’s storytelling touch: it’s just that the inertia behind House of 1000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects, and the Halloween pair was always disguised by ostentation. Here, Zombie shows an affection for the narrative understatement of Ti West and the sinister aural atmospherics of Dario Argento. Theoretically impressive, and I absolutely prefer this low-key menace to the curdled swagger of his earlier work, but the writing sounds damp (this isn’t stab-out-your-eardrums-with-a-screwdriver Devil’s Rejects bad, more trite and uninspired), the acting is just above amateur height (Sheri Moon Zombie is passable in the lead but her and everyone else act like they’ve been forcibly subdued and fail to draw out any finer detail from these quieter characters), and the movie adds up to nothing, no matter how you slice it. Although minimalistic exposition can be a virtue, and inevitability isn’t necessarily a flaw, the way Lords of Salem combines both by way of only a modestly effective accentuation of mood yields a forgettable and, sorry to say, kind of boring end result.
There are good ingredients here, though – overcast setting, a lurching, simple and unsettling music theme by John 5 (the Lords’ record that sets the story in motion), the aforementioned blanket of calm that envelops the whole movie until its operatic payoff, and said operatic payoff, however fleeting and, really, rather insufficient as a climax, is as horrific as the movie gets, a music video montage of nightmare imagery (some of it animated, some goofy, all pretty cool) set to the grandly ominous Velvet Underground track “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (alas not in its entirety). A lot of directors could’ve made this a way more memorable sequence, but give Zombie credit for solid intentions. He’s not much of a cook, but he knows how to compile a great recipe. (GRADE: C+)
A Chilean-American joint production co-written and co-produced by the always redoubtable Eli Roth, this may be the first disaster-horror hybrid, but I won’t hold its terribleness against the devilish wherewithal of that concept. It could still be done right, just don’t invite Roth next time. Actually his one and only storytelling mode (casual, unassuming first act in which friends venture out on vacation and party, then stupidly get involved with some shady locals and end up gruesomely dying one by one) could’ve been just the right, easy set-up this idea needed to justify its inevitable destructive mayhem, if only it weren’t guided by such a tacky, misanthropic dope. Once again, the characters are vile, the set-up is pointlessly long (even longer than his other movies, even though this is his shortest film yet), the eruption of violence and terror ill-paced and barren of imagination (the tagline: “the only thing more terrifying than mother nature is human nature” sounds like Roth and director Nicolas Lopez’s way of saying “we couldn’t think of any cool disaster scenes so we turned most of the human characters into murderous animals in order to supply the horror and then called it social commentary”), and after a while it all starts to feel closer to nihilism than sadistic fun. Even the inclusion of a tsunami, possibly the most terrifying of all natural disasters (see Hereafter, The Impossible, Take Shelter, and that alternate ending from The Abyss), fails to satisfy, arriving as it does as one last, dumb joke on the idiots we were forced to spend 88 minutes following around. (GRADE: D-)
THE PURGE (2013)
We can all agree that this movie is founded on a tantalizing hypothetical: what if the government solved the crime rate by allowing citizens one night per year to legally “purge” any and all criminal desires? But now that I’ve seen it, I’m confused by the critical smackdown that ensued (38% on Rotten Tomatoes, 41/100 on Metacritic), because the movie version of that pitch that I watched was an engrossing, thought-provoking, legitimately tense, tidily efficient socio-political thriller. Despite five too many deus ex machina resolutions, an annoying character or two, and a heavier hand on the rich vs. poor preachiness than they needed, the movie doesn’t misstep elsewhere. Even on its micro-budget it looks just fine, it doesn’t waste any of its time, it raises some questions about human nature and the imbalance of our economy, and even throws in a few jarring plot turns. It also revives the fine art of masked villainy, last seen in The Strangers and then borrowed later this year for You’re Next. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhies didn’t get famous just by lumbering towards their victims with a blade. The mask is both iconic and twice as eerie as a scary face for all that it doesn’t reveal about the person about to kill you. The Purge capitalizes on this classic motif all the while performing on about three other platforms simultaneously. It’s an impressive little movie; hopefully time will absolve it of its bad reputation. (GRADE: B)
I took this one for the team, just to have another recent release to add to this article. Mama became one of 2013’s highest grossing horror movies, so I wanted to learn why. Even more than found footage fare, ghost stories like this are modern times’ answer to the ’80s slasher surge, an undying multitude of indistinguishable, sloppily assembled (why didn’t “ed claptrap contrived contrived to deliver the same cheap thrill ad nauseum (in this case it’s loud “boo!” shots of some poorly animated apparition in lieu of watching teens get hacked up). Whoever wrote Mama just filled out the standard spirit-haunting-people mad-libs and thought they were really contributing to the genre’s knack for subtext by adding half-baked maternity themes. The protagonist comes into possession of something haunted (usually it’s by moving to a new place or obtaining a strange object, but here it’s “adopting his late brother’s feral daughters”, so I guess they were having some fun with that mad-libs), experiences more fake scares and partially-glimpsed supernatural shenanigans than any viewer can stand, is nearly attacked by the J-horror mimicking ghost enough times to break any credulity (why didn’t “mama” just kill off the characters it’s threatened by right away? Oh yeah, required full-length runtime), initiates a draggy procedural investigation, gets a colleague or two killed in the process, and finally confronts the malevolent force in a melodramatic climax that makes very little sense. Just because they got the exceptional Jessica Chastain to play the lead and she’s a totally non-maternal punk rocker (betcha can’t see where that’s going!) doesn’t revive this corpse of a movie premise. If I have to say something nice, I’ll acknowledge that at least in its outdoor scenes, there’s a striking clarity to the lensing (maybe these guys should work for music videos or car ads instead of whole films), and there is an earnest investment in the dark-fantasy poignancy of its Cliffside ending, however overwrought it was. (GRADE: D)
Sharks being their own category for me, I figured I still owed it to myself to watch a real “attack of the killer ___” monster movie this season, and I couldn’t have chosen worse than Grizzly, unless we’re talking the infamously unfinished sequel Grizzly II: Predator: The Concert. Another exaggeration of nature made in the wake of America’s fear of killer sharks from Amity Island, Grizzly follows the titular bear as it terrorizes the hikers and picnic parties of a national park. The best part of the movie is the opening credits, an endless montage of helicopter shots soaring over the scenic mountain range as the musical score promises pure, uncut…whimsical adventure? It takes the fun theme from John Williams’ Jaws suite – the one used during the triumph of Brody, Quint, and Hooper first attaching the barrel to the shark – and uses it to suggest that Disney-flavored escapades are afoot, rather than a goddamn savage bear eating people alive. If only the following 91 minutes were so merrily rousing, yet while the movie never does slant hard toward horror (even if the cinematographer, editor, and composer cared at all about stirring up some mood, which they don’t, they’d face an uphill challenge with a movie that takes place almost exclusively during the bright, carefree light of day), the shortage of both funding and competency results in a wooden experience akin to the static ambience of a documentary, regardless of its genre aspirations. Likewise, it’s impossible to credit whoever finagled the use of the largest grizzly bear in captivity to star as the killer beast, because whenever it isn’t merely a fake, furry forcep pawing at hapless victims, the full-body shots of this thing are never once included alongside the humans, leaving it to look just like a boring old regular-sized bear. Which would be scary enough by itself, granted, but dammit, it cheeses me how often we’re promised mutant, over-sized behemoths in movies like these, only to receive the old stock-footage-from-a-nature-show switcheroo. Don’t offer a killer bear unless you’re going to give us one to remember. If you can’t build a larger-than-average model, then shoot it from extreme low angles so it looks enormous, or have some blood running down its cheeks, rustle up its fur so it looks like a crazed derelict bear, make the teeth longer and sharper, furrow the brow so it looks mad, anything. Anything but this. (GRADE: D)
TOY STORY OF TERROR (2013 TV SPECIAL)
Important disclaimer: the Toy Story trilogy has brought a lot of joy into my moviegoing life, just as it has everyone else’s. They are pillars of the Pixar brand’s finest qualities, and though I’d rather they not risk the winning streak by going for a fourth chapter, keeping the characters alive and indefinitely part of our cultural diet through short films like this seems like a perfectly pleasing compromise. The problem is, their novelty has worn off after so many adventures, exposing their conventional (for a group of CG-animated goofballs) dynamic for the hacky comedy into which it has sunk (call it The Futurama Deflation, when everyone in a once engaging ensemble becomes an irritating, one-joke wonder), and without the devastating movie-length emotional arc that made parts 1 and 3 so special (or even a single whopper of a scene like Jessie’s flashback in part 2), these antics start to blur together like any other company’s signature clan. This could just as well be Shrek and pals, or the Ice Age animals, re-hashing their old conflicts under the pretense of a holiday special. The plot itself is straight from Toy Story 2 (evil collector trying to steal them), and Jessie’s fear of being boxed up again is a nice try but doesn’t resonate much at all. The low point is using Timothy Dalton’s Mr. Pricklepants (added to the series in part 3) as a mouthpiece for unenlightening Scream-style “rules of horror” meta humor at every turn, a weak ploy that feels even more dated than Scream itself. Even the “of Terror!” portion of the title is misleading; the 30-minute special gets off to a good start with them watching a black-and-white scary movie on TV during a nighttime drive that gets detoured to a remote motel…but then after a few suspenseful beats trying to figure out what’s going on, the story and tone switch to regular Saturday morning adventure style as the gang hatches a convoluted plan to escape, which by count has been done in every Toy Story movie so far. It was the entire story of part 3! The climax even takes places the morning after (nothing Halloween-y about scrambling around a hotel in the daylight) and just does more riffs on their size disparity and desperation to prevent some bad guys from separating them from their owner (now Bonnie, still cute). I wish I could say this at least had witty lines like the movies used to, or goes all the way with its the Halloween theme, but honestly, I think even Scared Shrekless had more fun with the holiday than this. DreamWorks: 1. Pixar: 0. Never thought I’d see the day. (GRADE: C)
GRIM PRAIRIE TALES (1990)
This is one of those obscure flicks whose VHS cover art has haunted my memory ever since I was a kid, when I passed by it so many times at my local video store (RIP). It’s not even a memorable cover, but the allure of a horror anthology set in the dusty plains of the old west stuck with me long after that shop closed, and until this year, my various attempts to locate a rent-able copy were fruitless. Well, I wish I’d honored my 7-year-old self’s instinct not to pick it up, because after Scott Valentine’s Deadtime Stories and maybe Creepshow III, it might be the worst of its kind ever made. Uptight businessman Brad Dourif sets up a campfire out in the desert and is soon joined by mysterious bounty hunter James Earl Jones, and they pass the time by impressing each other with stories that we are told are scary and also “good”. No joke: strangely, an inordinate amount of time is devoted to each man praising or critiquing the other’s stories, as though this were a creative writing class, not a horror movie. And the stories, sweet Jesus, are so bafflingly simplistic that I wondered more than once if I’d gotten a severely edited copy, but I’ve checked, and no, this is exactly what the filmmakers intended. It’s confusing how little horror factors into any of them, or why anyone would want to share these out loud anyway. They might work if you’ve never heard a story before in your life, but once you have, you’ll be offended on a primal level by the destitution of creativity and entertainment value in this rightfully buried piece of junk. An embarrassingly bad performance by James Earl Jones might lend this cult consideration, but even a reputation like that is far too generous. (GRADE: F)
THE CONJURING (2013)
Not all current ghost stories are duds, just most of them. I mean, can anyone keep track of all these bland inbred attempts? The Apparition, The Possession, Sinister, The Unborn, Case 39, The Uninvited, Shutter, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Eye, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, The Abandoned, The Messengers, An American Haunting, White Noise, Boogeyman, The Order, The Gathering…are any of those good movies? Having regrettably seen about half of them, I can prematurely guarantee that no, none of them are. And since movies about hauntings are fundamentally somber tales, unless you have somebody who gives a crap like Conjuring director James Wan, your clichéd, assembly line version of it won’t provide any alternative kicks, either, whereas the slasher genre, for one, often offers a variety of substitute pleasures while you sit through the same redundant movie again and again, like potential for wild acting, glorious gore, colorful madmen, and diverse settings. There may not be anything even resembling a fresh new idea throughout The Conjuring, and like most recent ghost movies (except, perhaps ironically, the aforementioned and other much inferior Mama), it trails off into a dully noisy anticlimax, but all the other elements – implied terror lurking behind doors and within inky darkness, proficient but not showy cast, jump scares that are better crafted than by merely turning up the volume all the way when you “least” expect it, a terrifically potent lakeside house – are accounted for and keenly situated for a spooky good time, and it’s all thanks to Wan’s leadership. As he flaunted with the aesthetic of Dead Silence and the more-or-less prequel to this movie, Insidious, James Wan is serious about his horror fandom; he’s not in it only for the money, and even without an exceptional credit to his name just yet, has already proven more consistent than any period of Wes Craven’s career. Maybe not as adventurous, true, but at least he’s brought the goods for three straight movies now. It’s a shame he’s moving on to the “big leagues” for next year’s Fast & Furious 7, because I’d like to see how or if he could develop his chops as a horror maven. After covering haunted house fiction pretty thoroughly, he could find something new on which to leave his mark, like werewolves. We need a good werewolf movie again. Anyway, maybe it’s the ’70s decorum, or the curiosity of its true-story basis, or the suspicion that this is essentially, at long last, the first quality version of The Amityville Horror Hollywood has managed to produce (after 34 years and 11 different movies), but overall The Conjuring is a bit preferable to the Insidious series. A predictable but well-oiled, often very unnerving funhouse ride. (GRADE: B)
EVIL DEAD (2013)
In light of how poor and numerous horror remakes have been in the past decade (seriously Hollywood, the ’80s has been horribly exhumed by now, please stop before you get to D-list “classics” like Terror Train), that Evil Dead 2013 is engaging at all probably explains why it’s so hyped at the moment. Forgive my negativity at the outset, but this reboot is not particularly scary, hardly original, and in fact incidentally highlights some of the Raimi film’s shortcomings by repeating them (mainly the recycled “freaky imagery” of a ghastly-faced demon girl croaking out obscenities a la “The Exorcist”, a device that didn’t work for me in that film nor Raimi’s nor this one, although most people I know seem to think that the image in all the advertisements of the grinning demon sticking her head out of the basement trap door is genuinely disturbing, so what do I know, maybe I’m in the minority). It’s not a great movie, but in the annals of horror reboots, it is superior to most, thanks to the palpable zeal and skill of the filmmakers. You can tell this was made by people who loved The Evil Dead as much as we did.
Unlike so many other reboots, this one isn’t a meticulous replica, either. I still wish it had borrowed even less from its source than it did, but you gotta respect the excision of Ash – he’s the series icon (maybe it’s akin to writing Freddy out of an Elm Street reboot?), yet this version wisely recognizes that at least in the first Evil Dead, Ash was primarily just the Last Survivor, not so much a personality as the obligatory hero who outlasts his peers and endures the brunt of the torture but lives to see the dawn. So this movie creates its own protagonist and backstory (Jane Levy trying to kick an addiction), one that follows a less random, more meaty metaphorical narrative than Raimi’s did. Maybe she’ll get wacky and don a chainsaw appendage for Evil Dead 2013 II but for now they take it about as seriously (with pockets of wicked humor) as Raimi did. Overall the movie succeeds as an intense, grim ride, at least aesthetically – it’s extremely dark the whole time, the foreboding is jacked up, even the first act pre-possession is cloaked in wonderfully evocative, oppressive grey skies, fog, and bleak forestry. The mood is excellently set and sustained.
In terms of what happens, though, it does get redundant after a while – possessed character plays mind games with someone and/or attacks them until being struck from behind by another character, saving the day at the last minute, and later when the opportunity arises to destroy one of the demons, a protagonist has a foolish change of heart when the demon pretends to be the person underneath even though it’s obvious they’re still evil. This seems to happen over and over and over again, and it’s already a hackneyed, ages-old scene conflict. But hey at least it’s as violent as possible (the dim lighting makes it hard to appreciate, though – compared to the bright shots of Ash hacking his foes to guts and pieces back in the ’80s), and more effectively, viscerally painful – as viewers we’re numb by now to the straight stabbings and shootings, so there’s a shrewd emphasis in this movie on the specific slicing and puncturing of body parts, i.e. a blade misses its victim but manages to inadvertently dig excruciatingly into the top of her leg, or a nail-gun that doesn’t simply get somebody right between the eyes, but leaves a series of shots sticking out of a guy’s arm. The only missed chance was when a demon was furiously stabbing a guy in the face (even through his glasses) with a syringe – it looked awful, but afterwards he has only a single mark to show for it. C’mon movie.
And on that note, the movie ends in a blaze of glory – the set-up is right out of any Friday the 13th sequel (an extended one-on-one chase culminating with the bad guy approaching as slowly as possible to give the hero every chance to think of a way out, including a profane quip just as they gain the upper hand at the last second), which again is why this won’t be entering the upper echelons of its genre, but the moment takes survivalism to gruesome extremes and then climaxes with a money shot involving a face and a chainsaw that is just the coolest thing a horror fan could hope for. I kinda wish I could get a blown-up screen-cap of that shot to frame and put on my wall at home. Bravo Fede Alvarez. (GRADE: B+)
I didn’t catch any outstanding movies this year, but horror is a messy art, and a lot can be salvaged even from the garbage. I only regret a couple of these viewings, the abundance of bad grades notwithstanding. It’s a treat just to immerse yourself in their macabre worlds, especially this time of year. Plus I still have fairly high hopes for You’re Next, so maybe that will be 2013’s K.O., but even if there aren’t any future classics in this litter, it’s reassuring to see that there is still a steady flow of passionate horror directors influenced by the greats, exploring a range of scare tactics and disturbing subject matter. And on the fun side, that the seminal franchises of my youth like Chucky might never die. I was raised on dumb slasher films, and I aim to die on them, one way or another. Happy Halloween, everybody!