Sunday, February 23, 2014

Movie Review: Haunter (2013)

Of course I was attracted to this movie for the obvious ghost reason (yeah, I really love ghosts) and because not-so-little-anymore Abigail Breslin is absolutely darling. And maybe it's the ghost bias talking, but I really found Haunter to be more than just a decent little ghostie flick - it's actually really good with a well-thought out, if not at times cliche, story and the whole thing is carried wonderfully by Breslin.

Fifteen-year-old Lisa is stuck in a loop of reliving the last day of her life over and over again, knowing that she and her family are all ghosts while they don't. Soon Lisa starts connecting with the living girl who now resides in her house and tries to figure out the mystery of the place so her family does not suffer the same fate as Lisa's.

So as you can see, the typical ghost/haunted house story is a bit backwards here because the ghost is the main character but it makes more sense than most other ghost stories out there. Instead of the living person trying to solve the mystery of some long-dead person in order to save their souls or something - which I've always thought was sweet but rather pointless - there is a much more pressing reason for finding out what's going on. The living girl, Olivia, is going through the same thing that Lisa's family did before they died so both of the girls are doing some research on their ends of the time spectrum in order to save Olivia. I seriously love that kind of story because for me a lot of the time, it's more the story than the scares that really draws me into and makes me love a supernatural movie. 

And with that being said, there are no real scares in Haunter. The imagery is good, and is actually well complimented from some CG work to mix some of the different worlds that Lisa moves through, but there are no real stand-out scenes that made me jump or feel even the least bit creeped out. Or if there were any scares here, they were of the PG-13 variety that might scare an 8-year-old - if Lisa's the dead one, what does she really have to be afraid of, right? I said that story is usually more important, though, and there are movies that can give both scares and story equally. Haunter doesn't need the scares, and is perfectly engaging enough without them. Odd and sudden changes in the routine of the day that Lisa is used to start to make things more interesting, just not necessarily terrifying in any way. There are a couple times when the movie is starting to get a little tedious and frustrating and then something (or someone) will show up that throws everything we've seen for a loop. 

Like I said, Abigail Breslin is a doll, and has really grown up from her Little Miss Sunshine days. Her angsty teen act in the beginning is cute and easy enough, and the naturalness she's always had about her help through the rest of the movie. Stephen McHattie is delicious as always as the movie's bad guy. Sometimes his voice is all that's needed, you know? I also really enjoyed Peter Outerbridge as Lisa's dad Bruce, who himself is able to be quite creepy when the time comes. 

Haunter also has some very cool imagery that mostly stems from the time jumps that occur. There's a great scene where Lisa is able to contact Olivia and take her place for a bit, and we get to see the stark contrast between the dark 1985 that Lisa lives in and the light and modern look of Olivia's 2013. There's also a little bit of a funny moment where Olivia leaves Lisa video message on her iPad and where the play button is confuses Lisa for a second. I also liked the opening credit sequence. The butterfly in the jars imagery is a great symbolic metaphor for the way the killer keeps all his victims, or his victims' souls, trapped in the house with him. 

There are times where Haunter feels a lot longer than it is. It takes a while for each piece of the puzzle to finally fit together and when it does all come together, it is a fairly anticlimactic conclusion, but I'm cool with that. I loved the new approach that Haunter took to my beloved ghost stories and that it was well made enough and had great actors to bring the idea to life. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Movie Roundup: Zombie High, Resolution, and Shadow

Zombie High (1987)
Damn you, misleading titles. If you're thinking about watching Zombie High, let me just tell you now that there are no actual zombies here. Why use the name in the title then? Well, "zombie" is used more metaphorically than literally to describe the goings-on at a private school. Virginia Madsen plays one of the first female students to attend the school who starts to suspect something fishy when some students start to change personality-wise. Most of the movie is pretty uneventful until the conclusion, playing out like a mystery thriller but that doesn't mean it's not still a fun 80s flick with a wonderful tone that sets you up not to take it too seriously. The reveal of the mystery of Ettinger Academy - that the principal and teachers are actually over a hundred years old and are making a serum from the students' brains to keep them alive - is ridiculous but strangely given just enough scientific credibility, by the movie's standards that is, to be plausible in this situation. The conclusion is the best part, when all the old start to literally fall apart and decompose because they haven't had their serum, and the special effects are pretty rad, I gotta say. A nice surprise from a movie that didn't have anything like that to offer in the first 70 or so minutes. The ending is also great because of the end credits song which boasts a rousing chorus of "Kiss my butt!" Seriously, it's kinda great.

Resolution (2012)
Ah, sometimes I hate thought-provoking movies. I wanted to see Resolution because another writer said that she's watched the movie several times since her first viewing. Has to be good, right? Yes, it is and I really liked the movie, it's just that it is another one of those movies that I haven't fully gotten yet and it is freaking frustrating. The basic story is that meth head is squatting in a house in the woods and his friend holds him hostage there for a week to help him get over his addiction. The two main characters, Michael and Chris, are wonderfully acted by Peter Cilella and Vinny Curran, two guys that sorta seem like they shouldn't be friends but who actually have a wonderful rapport and bounce off of each other easily. So that part of the movie was awesome and fun to watch - trying to figure out the rest of the plot... not so much. One of the guys keeps finding strange pictures and videos in and around the house and meets up with several strange and mysterious people in the area. It's eventually sorta explained that there's some kind of entity that wants to tell or create stories using the people that enter the woods, including Michael and Chris. In the end, when the entity reveals itself and doesn't like the resolution (ah ha! the title of the movie) that they come up with, you're left to believe that it only wants a bad ending. So my confusion comes from the clues left for the guys which allowed them to escape death twice, by presumably supernatural means. Still assuming that this entity wanted them to die, did it leave them the clues? And why? If not, who did? Does the entity have anything to do with the Indian reservation that it preys on? Or the religious cult that lives nearby? Argh!  So many questions about what all this means. I wish my brain was smart enough to figure it out in a way that would satisfy me. I think another viewing might be in order for this one...

Shadow (2009)
Another viewing is definitely not needed for this one, however. Shadow is a fairly pointless movie, to put it bluntly. The first part of the movie is a boring chase sequence when a guy biking through the mountains meets up with another pretty biker girl and they piss off two rednecks who hunt them through the woods. Then the movie spins off in a completely different direction when everyone is captured by a really skinny and scary looking dude who has some fun with them in his chamber of torture. But even THAT'S not the end. I don't have a problem revealing spoilers especially for a movie like this that no one should care too much about. The twist? It's all a dream, probably while the main character was under anesthesia at a hospital in Iraq. Psshaw. What a disappointment. I can't give Shadow too much crap because it is beautifully shot with great use of the landscape and location, and the acting isn't too shoddy. It's just that there's nothing there that hasn't been done before in one form or another. Some of the images are really great, though, and there's a pretty crazy scene of one of the guys basically getting roasted on the skinny guy's surgical table. But all in all, I'm not feeling it. Boring movie with a lame ending that doesn't really have anything to say.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Movie Review: Stake Land (2010)

I've had this movie in my queue for freaking ever it seems like. I kept Stake Land there because of its 3 and a half star rating but was still weary of it because I was afraid it would be just another post-apocalyptic voyage tale. And, to a point, it is that kind of movie. However, the technical skill and emotional focus is what sets apart this little gem from some of the rest.

After saving teenager Martin from the vampire that slaughtered his family, mysterious hunter Mister takes Martin under his wing in the fight for survival. The two head north to the safety of a place called "New Eden," stopping in several locked-down towns along the way and picking up new members to add to their group. The vamps are not their only problem, though, as they soon run afoul of a religious cult called The Brotherhood.

The world, post-apocalypse, in Stake Land is much like you've seen in other movies, although those probably had zombies instead of vampires. And actually, the vampires are much like zombies in this film, insofar that the way they are portrayed is as simple monsters with no human side at all. No explanation is given for the appearance of the vampires in the first place but that doesn't matter. The film is more centered on the characters and the journey they take with the vampires in the background, mostly because they are only a threat during the night. The new world that Mister and Martin travel around in is just desolate and dreary enough, giving the movie a nice atmosphere all the way through.

Though none of the characters are given much of a backstory (if any), the actors all manage to make each character their own and give them their own personality. There's no shortage of talent either, both from seasoned and well-known actors like Kelly McGillis and Danielle Harris, and from newcomers and unknowns like Nick Damici and Connor Paolo who play Mister and Martin respectively. Mister is the most interesting character of the bunch, which is why his lack of backstory was so frustrating. The way Damici plays him as the typical hardass with a heart gold begs for more information on how he came to be the man he is, but no help is given there. Paolo is pretty impressive even though he still needs to work on his emotional range a bit. Martin's voiceover is not exactly bothersome, it's just not needed. All of the sometimes flowery and philosophic things he VOs are represented even better by the movie's visuals, so I don't know why they even bothered.

Speaking of visuals, Stake Land is a pretty movie. There's obviously some real skill behind the camera with director Jim Mickle, who surprisingly only has four movies under his belt. One is the remake of We Are What We Are, which I wasn't too excited about before but now I am if it involves this kind of talent. The story is relatively small, staying with our characters, and Mickle doesn't rely much on showing sweeping views of the landscape. The coloring and lighting changes to match the tone of the scene, and there are some really beautifully composed shots that I wish I could get stills of to show here.

If we gotta talk vamps, I say that they look good in Stake Land. They do look a bit like the Buffy vamps from season 7, though. Just saying. The special effects are pretty much awesome looking all around. From the vampires themselves, to the staking deaths, to burned up bodies strewn around the street, this is not some shitty independent movie with ketchup for blood. The one really horrible thing they show is right at the beginning, in the flashback scene of the death of Martin's family. The vampire is slurping down on Martin's infant brother or sister and then casually drops the body when its done. That's just not right.

Normally my biggest problem with apocalypse movies is the requisite group of crazies who only exist to rape and murder all the nice people in the movie. We do have one of those groups in Stake Land - the aforementioned Brotherhood, whom we first meet when we see two of them chasing after a nun who they either raped or tried to rape. Mister brutally kills the two men without question, and this is what sets off their vendetta against them for the rest of the movie as one of the men he killed is the son of the Brotherhood's leader, the crazy Jebedia Loven. I didn't mind the use of this crazy group trope so much here, though, because they are the only bad people in the movie. The groups of survivors Mister and Martin meet in these lockdown towns are good people trying to make a life, and there's none of that crap about not being able to trust anyone just because you don't know them. Based on their actions that continuously get more fucked up as the movie goes on, it's clear that the Brotherhood is more of a threat than the vampires. I mean, Jebedia has a tattoo on the back of his bald head. He has to be evil.

Stake Land is another one of those movies that doesn't get mentioned all that much, and it really should.  Maybe you've seen movies similar to it before, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that Stake Land is impressively shot and acted. I'd definitely watch it again.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Movie Review: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

I don't know why I don't listen to my fellow horror lovers more when it comes to movies like this. I've been seeing Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon mentioned for years but never thought it was one I should rush out to see. Dang it, I hate being proven wrong. Behind the Mask was pretty sweet, and the first movie I've seen in a long time that had me incredibly impressed with its writing, both for its cleverness and its ability to get me to really laugh out loud.

A news crew is following around budding serial killer Leslie Vernon as he carefully prepares for his night of killing off a group of nubile young kids until only that one "survivor girl" is left. Both fascinated and repulsed by his dedication and explanation of his methods, reporter Taylor Gentry follows Leslie to the very end of his story - an end that none of them saw coming.

Behind the Mask is in part shot in the found footage style but it's not really a found footage movie at all - it's mostly described as a mockumentary, which works for me. The use of the camcorder footage from the news crew is more like the method or reason for why the audience is getting a look at the behind-the-scenes of serial killer-making. And actually, that part of the plot helps remind you of the comedic purpose of the whole film, because it is absolutely ridiculous that a news crew would be following around a serial killer in the first place.

This method gives us a very creative approach to the typical killer legend, wherein we get to see the monster create every minute of his night of carnage. Leslie shows Taylor and crew how he prepares his physical self for picks his victim gang, how he chooses the one to be his survivor girl, and how he turns the girl onto his legendary story so she will be knowledgeable about him and help empower her. Then we get some hilarious stuff as Leslie sabotages the abandoned house where the bloodbath will take place - putting dead batteries in the flashlights, pre-cutting the woodshed tools and tree branches, rigging up a device that will allow him to cut the power, etc. He also walks Taylor through exactly how the events will take place that night - all those horror movie tropes of finding dead bodies and changing locations while still having the killer know exactly where you are and where you're going. Because he's planned it all out, geddit?

Nathan Baesel is perfect casting as Leslie Vernon. For much of the first of the movie, Baesel is incredibly charming and likable with a sweet smile and the ability to deliver his lines in a way that made me laugh almost every time he spoke. Some of the best parts are when Leslie gets all giddy and jumps around like a little boy as he gets excited about what he's going to do, or when he finds his "Ahab." At the same time, Baesel is also able to be effectively creepy and menacing when needed to remind you that he is, in fact, a serial killer.

Along the way in the story, we also meet Leslie's friend Eugene, someone in the same business as Leslie but who has since "retired." Eugene is played by Scott Wilson and just like Baesel, he is able to bring just the right amount of hilarity and menace to his character (menace which is also in turn hilarious) while being completely charming and lovable. Angela Goethals is Taylor, the protagonist who doesn't really do a good job of showing Leslie and everyone else just how uncomfortable she is with the whole situation, even though she eventually goes along with it every step of the way. Horror fans will also be happy to see appearances by Zelda Rubinstein as the librarian and Robert Englund as Doc Hallorann, Leslie's Ahab, a character modeled after Dr. Loomis from Halloween.

I see Behind the Mask as sort of the second step in some of these self-referential horror movies that we've seen over the years. The first step was Scream, wherein it was the victims who realized that they were in a horror movie and though they didn't really use their knowledge of horror tropes to survive, they at least acknowledged that the situation they were in was much like horror films past. Behind the Mask would be the second step because this time they took it one step further and had it be the killer who knew he was creating a horror movie, actually preparing the sets and props to his own advantage during the big killing spree. I'd say that The Cabin in the Woods is the third step, where a whole corporation and eventually the victims use and play by genre cliches.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (ha, it even has a documentary-like title) is a delightfully fun and creative look into how a horror movie legend is created. It's on the low budget side but doesn't show it that much - the casting and acting are what really sell the story and draw you in from the very beginning. Can't wait for the sequel or prequel!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Movie Roundup: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Rites of Spring, and Ritual

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
Wait, what? That's it? That's the movie people have been waiting some seven-odd years for and are calling a great "throwback" to the classics? I must have missed something because all I saw was something so boring, tedious, and melodramatic that I wonder why they even bothered trying to get the movie a US release date in the first place. It wasn't really worth the wait because this just wasn't my kind of movie. The story is thin and unrelatable, and the characters... man, they couldn't die fast enough, and that's including the ones that are supposed to be all sympathetic and shit. Why do all the boys love Mandy Lane? Why? I don't get it, and I don't get what the whole point of this movie was. It tried to be very arthouse and maybe a bit smarter than other movies with a similar plot, and just doesn't deliver. Some of the kills are deliciously nasty and unexpected, and that was nice but not enough. There's no tension, mostly from the fact that the killer is revealed way too soon and it is way too obvious even before that. The twist? Don't even care. Sorry to any diehard fans of Mandy Lane, but I just wasn't feeling this movie at all.

Rites of Spring (2011)
Though Rites of Spring is quite different and atypical of other horror movies, I quite enjoyed what it had to offer. It deals with two parallel stories happening at the same time - one about a couple deep in debt who decide who kidnap the daughter of a wealthy business man, and one a typical horror story about two girls kidnapped and offered up as sacrifice to some kind of harvest demon. As the stories go on, more is revealed that connects the characters in both of them, and I thought it was interesting to watch this unfold. Rites of Spring is not overly gory or action-filled, but rather it is more of a quiet and methodical approach that is both well shot and acted. One of my new favorites AJ Bowen plays one of the reluctant kidnappers, and I loved his approach to the character - he makes a great opposite to his greedy and sadistic friend who helps them with the deed. The appearance of an actual creature that The Stranger (who kidnaps the girls at the beginning) is sacrificing virgins to was a bit off-putting because I was hoping for a more realistic story, but it's handled in a mature way so it's not too crazy or ridiculous. I also really love the retro look of the poster, which is what first attracted me to the movie, actually. Rites of Spring won't be everyone's favorite, but if you think you'll like something a bit different, I say give this one a chance.

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual (2006)
Ritual is an odd duck of a movie. I only wanted to watch it because it is one of the three films created as a spin-off movie to the Tales from the Crypt series, the others being Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood. Now those two movies are great, but Ritual, first released in internationally in 2002 and not out in the U.S. until 2006, is something entirely different. Mainly, the tone of the movie is all wrong and it doesn't feel like a Tales from the Crypt story at all. We don't even get to see the Cryptkeeper doing his little introduction or anything (at least in the version that I watched) and that was mighty disappointing. The story definitely had the potential to be campy and hilarious like we love from Tales from the Crypt with all the stuff about voodoo, but Ritual was sadly not funny at all. I don't even really know how to categorize it if I had to, maybe as more of a thriller or mystery. Definitely not action because absolutely nothing happens worth talking about. I got excited during the nasty and bloody, albeit hallucinatory, death of the doctor at the beginning, but nothing as cool happened after that and the movie just got more boring instead of better. The characters are all fun and interesting, though, and having competent actors play them does help the movie some. Other than that, Ritual is pretty forgettable and uninteresting.