Daily Film Thoughts: Ghosts, Ghouls, Girls + Gore

In the spirit of Halloween, why not make a post on the slew of horror films I’ve seen as of late? A mix of new releases and some thrilling classics. Enjoy!

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First up is the recently released (and praised) ghost film in Paranormal Activity. A film in which the the major critique seems to be “Far too normal and far less activity to entertain”. While I find this to be an apt statement on the feature for those that cannot immerse themselves in the commonplace and need their horror films to be more gruesome than appropriately atmospheric and brooding, I cannot myself entertain that notion for more than a few seconds as time is valuable and that criticism is not.

Shot with a handycam for almost the entirety, this debut feature by graphics designer Oren Peli is a very humbled take on the supernatural that we’ve not seen enough of in films as of late. I find it only fitting that exactly one decade after the film that brought horror into its more contemporary and realistic state in The Blair Witch Project (not too fond myself, but even I cannot debate its effect on the genre), this film comes to fruition and gets its theatrical release with the exact same type of public reception. However, with this tale of ghosts (or rather, demons), Oren Peli creates an atmosphere that is both intimate and rational.

On the down side, the formula Peli devises gets too tangible early on when its made apparent that you’ll only have reason to be scared during the scenes at night. Unfortunate because the majority of the film doesn’t take place under the cover of darkness.

The story and the characters themselves are very simple. Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a couple that have recently been experiencing abnormal events in their home. Be it an unfounded squeak or a slight knocking noise – they’re curious. Katie is the terrified one as this has happened to her on more than one occasion while Micah is the definition of a strong-headed boyfriend. An immediate issue the script has is its character structure. While Katie is fine. Her weakly defined, but easy to calculate backstory does the purpose of the story justice; she is a fleshed out character that acts mostly in the will of her character and only slightly undertaking an opposite route than one would assume, but that’s human nature, right? With Micah it’s a different story altogether. He has a one-track mind throughout the entire feature. This gets especially grating to witness when the occurrences worsen and his character doesn’t adapt to the situation or listen to his girlfriend. It’s only because of his daytime charm and adequate care for Katie that one would understand why their romantic dynamic has remained intact despite all of their worrisome quarrels.

All in all, I highly enjoyed this movie. There are a few turns down the line that keep me from being too irritated with how Peli wanted to go with the film and how he wanted to build his suspense during obvious times only. Film editing plays a crucial factor in the story and is utilized expertly to administer real suspense during the evening scenes. An inventive use of fabricating a ghostly presence that is often created with fancy CGI and an intrusive score.

Paranormal Activity is the most realistic horror film you’ll see in your life. It is also one of the few films that is equally as scary with a large group of people in the cinema as it would be all on your lonesome with just yourself and the film playing on the television in your room. As naturally authorized as it is reflective in its atmosphere, Paranormal Activity is a film that asks its viewer to negotiate prolonged moments of honest dialogue with its tense and burdensome night scenes. Not a film to ruminate over, but a highly engrossing one nonetheless. [7/10]

Next up is a horror film I caught on TCM called Mr. Sardonicus. Robert Osborne’s introduction was excellent (as always) that excited me tenfold just prior to watching the movie. Apparently the ending of the film was chosen by audiences after they watched it in the theater. They were given cards to vote if they’d want an uplifting or sad ending to conclude the film. For video release, he put in the most voted upon ending. Needless to say, this gimmick is one of the major reasons why I admire William Castle’s horror vision – and only logically – the film so much.

A simple story and gimmick is what the horror films of the 60s and 70s needed. If you didn’t know this, watch the film I’m currently reviewing for proof. As William Castle was an icon in his genre at the time – and still is to people even slightly educated in the field – it is no wonder to behold his talent today. You can see with this film how much he pioneered the horror genre for American audiences – taking a fair bit from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diabloques atmosphere with this film.

Mr. Sardonicus is a great story about the descent of one man due to financial detriment. There’s a very gothic backdrop to the feature from the opening scene in which William Castle introduces the film to the final ending, as picked by the audience. The story is about a world famous doctor who is known for his experimental procedures that work on dire cases. He is Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) and he was knighted for his great medicinal work, for those curious. It’s the late 18th century, so most medication has yet to be discovered – in fact, the hypodermic needle has just been invented by none other than the doctor we’re watching ourselves. He gets a bizarre call from a lost lover, Maude (Audrey Dalton) who is married to a Baron named Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) who wears a mask to conceal his hideousness. She pleads with him to come as soon as possible and as we all know: In Hollywood, love triumphs over all else. Sir Robert arrives at the barren archaic village where the mansion of the Baron sits atop a eerie mountain and is welcomed by a daunting employee of the Baron in Krull (Oskar Homolka). While the story is entirely of the doctor’s, Mr. Sardonicus plays an important role and as the discomforting antagonist, his participation in the story is vital.

Midway through the story an impressive switch that seldom takes place in horror stories occurs. With it, the dramatic component of the feature changes drastically; an aspect that directly effects the titular character’s persona and how one would look at him and his actions. Of course I won’t spoil that for anyone willing to dig this one up, but it completely lifts what would be a typical cryptic horror into a much more complex and sympathetic feature. Ghouls (grave robbers) and lost romance play a key factor in this tonal shift, but none of the tension is lost afterward. The major flaw that is produced in showing the Baron prior to his facial detriment is that there isn’t enough drawn in-between the time that would make one believe he could be as monstrous as represented in later scenes. Avariciousness can only be taken to point before it seems unreal and tacky.

Mr. Sardonicus is as transcending in structure as its ending is exotic. As for the sweet, sweet cherry on top? Guy Rolfe’s masked performance surpasses anyone who’s played The Phantom, and his scenes without mask? As compunctious as any you’ll see produced in the 60s. [8/10]

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Initially meant to screen Repulsion, I instead watched one of my most anticipated of the year (if only for the lovely Greta Gerwig). There were multiple times where I was interrupted during the Polanski film, so I figured I’d throw on a film that, if disrupted, wouldn’t suffer as extremely as the one prior. Anyways, still a fitting choice for “girls”, as you may know, the story is about a girl in a spooky house.

Opening on kitsch 80s opening titles blaring that rock sound that was prominent just over two decades ago immediately sets the vintage tone. Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a sophomore college student who is eager to move out of her dorm room as her good friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) has the stereotypical college girl annoyance. Having loud sex during morning hours, neglecting to help Samantha and being strident in speech, director/writer Ti West gives you complete reasoning for why Samantha would go through the dire straits that follow to gather enough money to need not depend on an unreliable friend.

When Samantha comes across an oddly placed “Babysitter for Hire” poster, she takes the opportunity to see if she can grab some money (or, as much as she needs for first months rent) from the gig. She gets stood up, but when the docile spoken older man calls her student flat asking for forgiveness, she retakes the assignment and heads for the obscurely placed home in the middle of nowhere. Her friend Megan drives, and while driving, they lay down rules to avoid any spooky business (ie. if they’re weird, leave). Of course they’re weird (there’s no baby to sit, but rather an old woman and the fact that he is obsessed with the eclipse that is occurring that evening) but the deep voiced, but soft spoken Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) insists she stay and he’ll increase her pay to 400 for the 4 hours of work. Megan leaves in a “psht, you’ll get murdered, idiot” storm – giving the viewer a bit of a taste for the 80s parodying final act.

While the film is far from being heart-attack terrifying (even at 1am in a quiet and darkened home) or cosmically violent, Ti West sets an impeccable mood for the story to take place under. The home Samantha lays in anticipation in is viewed as ominous for its imposing girth and creaky rooms. In addition, West doesn’t fabricate a stupid protagonist like so many horrors before him, but rather one wise to the home which is satisfying in a plethora of ways if you’ve been subject to idiotic women running and falling (parts 1 to 100) over the span of the last few decades of slasher flicks. Watch her grab a knife early on, watch her work diligently around the house to get a better grasp of what’s going on – it’s an ambrosial wonder to behold.

Most go into this feature expecting a bloodbath, but how much can one person bleed? There’s only one woman in the house and you must lengthen her journey to extend the story into feature length – so as expected, the feature builds tension and breaks it with loud noises as per usual in horror. For those with an hour’s worth of patience, you’ll behold a final act that is as engaging as anything else found in the genre this year. Quickly edited, snappy suspense followed by satisfying violence and a slew of blatant stabs at the gimmicky horror films of yesteryear, the final 25 minutes will keep everyone on edge and should incite the scary senses.

On top of this, West’s feature boasts an excellent cast that many may be familiar with. Newcomer Jocelin Donahue does a solid job at encapsulating the afraid demeanor of young women in horror films – a decent beginning to what I’m sure will be a fine career. For those more familiar with the independent scene, you’ve Tom Noonan (who got his fair share of appraisal for his performance in Synecdoche, New York last year) in a role that he made truly unsettling (he may give you legitimate nightmares – yes, he is that intimidating in the role) and Greta Gerwig (who I personally love a lot for her work in the mumblecore movement) who plays off stupidity as if it was in her natural essence. A delightful mini-ensemble and one that undoubtedly raises the bar for horror films.

For a film that spends its majority in silence – working on establishing an atmosphere, as well as alluring its viewers into participating in the dangerous home – The House of the Devil is exemplary in what it aims to achieve. It is only because it restrains its intentions to fit around the cliche mold of films such as Halloween III (or any variation of “women scared in a home” with a Satanic spin) that it finds itself lethargic in stretches. Nonetheless, Ti West’s most professional film to date is a rollicking good time – especially for those seeking exploitative Halloween fun. [7/10]

And finally, we come to ‘gore’. After being hooked on cinema in early 2005 after watching Saw, I knew I was indebted to Leigh Whannell and James Wan from there on out. Unfortunately their contribution to the series died out right around the same time the series stopped being original and intriguing – in 2006.

Since Saw III (which was by no means great when compared to the first two, but a fine horror/thriller in its own right) the Saw series has taken dubious turn after dubious turn – almost crafting the once menacing name of Jigsaw into a self-parody; a man lacking true motive. Although this latest installment is admirable in concept – trying to connect all the jigsaw pieces to form something coherent out of the last two installments – it is far and away from being a legitimate feature in the eyes of anyone; fan of the series or not.

So here we are with Saw VI. If you’ve been keeping up with the series thus far (God bless you for your patience) you know that Jigsaw has a new apprentice that is quite the polar opposite to the man who started it all. His name is Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) a rough, arrogant and self-serving police detective whose source of paranoia comes from the police force trying to figure out who is carrying out Jigsaw’s latest traps. He – along with Jigsaw’s wife Jill (Betsy Russell) – are out to do “more good”. This would be all fine and dandy if several of the traps didn’t contradict the whole ‘do you appreciate life enough to do harm to yourself’ and end up killing more innocent people than harming the actual ‘bad’ guy.

Switching intermittently between Hoffman’s sleuthing about is the several stepped game health insurance CEO William (Peter Outerbridge) is facing – primarily because he turned down Jigsaw’s proposal of flying himself to Denmark to undergo an experimental procedure (lol, right?). The traps range from “Why?” to “Oh wow, that’s completely stupid”. Here many innocent people die and ‘Jigsaw’ believes its all to test the health insurance boss. Alright…

Regardless of the inadequacy of the feature, there are quite a few entertaining moments. These are mostly thanks to Tobin Bell’s continuation of creating a formidable bad guy (even if the writing wants to keep him from being so). He has a few great scenes – look for the back and forth between him and William in a climactic scene that spouts the line “Piranhas!” – in an otherwise slackened interpretation of the villain. Actually, Peter Outerbridge does a decent job with the character arc he’s given as well, but cannot do much to surpass the stereotypically layered health insurance default thrown his way.

Of course you’re bound to enjoy yourself on some level with this film if you like complex traps and violent climaxes that are a means to an end (in some way).

Saw 6 is as abysmal as the last two features that followed it. There has yet to be explained a purpose for these features apart from increasing the filmmakers cash flow. In creating this, the story does more harm to its predecessors than the good it wants to accomplish in lacking the fortitude of resisting gratuitous violence and working solely on a reasonably captivating feature.

The worst part of all of this? The sixth installment doesn’t bring a conclusion to the series and sets up for a final showdown between, get this, Jigsaw’s wife and Hoffman. Boy, oh boy – I cannot wait to see how that one turns out. Really. Skip this unless you want to laugh at some stupidity for 90 minutes or if you’re devoted enough to the franchise to see it through to its completion… like me. [3/10]

A big bloody thank you to anyone who checked in on this Halloween edition of movie reviews. Have yourself a good scare – I hope I could be of some service with your night of bloody cinema. I leave you with a classic Youtube video: HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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