Tag Archives: horror movie

Review: ‘Oculus’ Merges Paranormal Activity and Psychological Trauma

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in 'Oculus' (Relativity Media)
Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in ‘Oculus’ (Relativity Media)

A methodical psychological drama that reaches for more than the usual jump scares is a tough sell for modern audiences.

Oculus is not, by any means, a traditional thriller. It doesn’t build suspense so much as it occasionally releases tension. Set in a house that is apparently haunted by a dark force residing within an antique mirror, the film proceeds to dissect the two main characters and questions whether it is they who are haunted by past actions, rather than the mirror itself.

Eleven years ago, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaits) survived traumatic events in the family home. Kaylie now works at an auction house with her understanding boyfriend Michael (James Lafferty). Tim has been confined to a mental hospital ever since the inciting series of events, but he is now declared “cured” and thus released on his 21st birthday.

Kaylie is happy to reunite with Tim, yet she barely allows him to breathe the fresh air of sanity before rushing him back to their former family home, where she has re-installed the accursed antique mirror. She is determined to do something to rid them both of their nightmares, yet Tim is resistant to her scarily-detailed plans.

The whys and the what-fors subsequently unfold in unexpected, quietly executed twists and turns. Events of the past and future waltz the narrative backward and forward in time, as more family secrets are unveiled and the “truth” is given a severe beating about the head and face.

The film, directed by Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard (based on a short screenplay by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman), does not stint on explicit bloodshed and eyebrow-raising shocks, though they are rarely delivered at the front door. Instead, they come sneaking into frame, sidewinder-style, often catching the viewer off-guard.

Gillan and Thwaits make for an unlikely pair of siblings; she is assured even when she is expressing pitiful emotions, while he is unsteady and sounds more mechanical. At first, I thought that Thwaits was simply not up to Gillan’s level. But, given the long gap of years when the siblings were separated, it makes perfect sense that the ease of their relationship might have hardened. As their younger versions, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan create aptly different personalities. As their parents, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane bring unusual and disturbing shadings.

With its dry, sober approach and languid pace, Oculus rows against the tide of popular horror movies. Moments of levity are few and far between, and post-modern wisecracks are nowhere to be found. Relying on an unsettling atmosphere, a menacing tone, and clashing characters who do not obey the rules, Oculus goes bump in the night and leaves many bruises.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, April 11.

Review: ‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’ Explores New Territory, Gets Lost

'Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones'
‘Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones’

The fifth entrant in the Paranormal Activity found-footage series picks up its home video cameras, moves to a new location, and introduces a new set of characters with the same old problem: How do you make things that go bump in the night a compelling experience for audiences that have already seen all your old tricks?

The makers of this film decided to approach the story from a different cultural perspective. Officially titled Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, I think it’s fair to call it PA: Cuatro y Medio, reflecting its setting in a working-class Latino neighborhood in Oxnard, California. Rather than the spacious suburban dwellings depicted in the first four films, the action takes place largely in two apartments in a small but typical two-story complex. On the second floor, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) lives with his sister Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh), and their grandmother. Jesse has just graduated from high school and received a video camera as a present, which is the only justification the film needs for everything to be presented from a (very) shaky-cam point of view.

Jesse and his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz) hear strange sounds coming from an apartment on the ground floor, prompting them to snake a camera down through the ventilation ducts in time to catch a glimpse of a naked woman being painted with an odd symbol (a triangle inside a circle) on her belly. Anna (Gloria Sandoval), the woman who lives there, has long been suspected of being a bruja, or witch, but her subsequent murder, apparently at the hands of her son, Jesse and Hector’s schoolmate Oscar (Carlos Pratts), catches everyone off-guard, especially when Oscar ends up dead as well.

Curiosity leads Jesse and Hector to sneak into the dark apartment, leading to Jesse becoming one of the titular “marked ones.” He begins acting strangely and then, well, the “paranormal activity” part of the title becomes manifest, and it’s off to the races, so to speak, except that the action is doled out in a haphazard manner, with the story stumbling forward like a drunk in search of the floor.

The screenplay is credited to Christopher Landon, who also wrote the previous three installments and directs this one as well. His scripts have been more interested in fleshing out the demonic mythology conjured up by the original film’s writer/director, Oren Peli, then in spending much time tending to the characters. That’s fine if the picture builds tension over the course of its running time or at least depicts unexpected moments of fright, the more sustained, the better.

For my money, the first film and Paranormal Activity 3 did that very effectively, while the second and fourth installments fell down badly, the latter resorting to a series of cheap fake scares. This time out, Landon adds welcome, intentional levity to early scenes, and eliminates the knee-jerk, “boo!” cheats. And the decision to explore a Latino environment — complete with snatches of conversations in Spanish without subtitles — is a good one, though the story falls back on less-welcome cultural stereotypes in search of a good scare.

Yet Landon also jettisons the aesthetic of a still, observational camera, which initially set the franchise apart from other found-footage movies. Often, the insistence on “amateur-style” found-footage means that the camera waves around for no good purpose, which is not only annoying but also serves to undermine any tension that might otherwise have developed.

By the time the ending rolls around, veteran viewers of the first four films will either appreciate the multiple nods in their direction or roll their eyes in disbelief. I’m afraid that I broke into laughter at its narrative contortions. While I appreciated the attempt to reach out to Latino audiences and explore new territory, the film gets lost in its own mythology and is unable to stand on its own, failing to generate any suspense, much less horror.

Review originally published at Twitch. The film opens wide release across Dallas and Fort Worth on Friday, January 3, 2014.

Review: ‘Carrie,’ A Scared and Scary Little Horror Girl

Chloe Moretz in 'Carrie' (Sony)
Chloe Moretz in ‘Carrie’ (Sony)

The new Carrie is not the old Carrie, nor is it the original Carrie. Somewhat surprisingly, it is a reimagining of the source material, not simply a beat-for-beat remake.

The differences between the three key versions — we’ll ignore the ostensible sequel The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999), as well as the TV movie Carrie (2002) — can be laid at the feet of Kimberly Peirce, Brian De Palma, and Stephen King, respectively. King’s novel, the fourth he completed, though the first to be published, is the work of a nascent writer, one with a distinctive point of view, a developing voice, and raw talent to burn. He created characters and a setting that focused on a pitiful high school outsider and then gave her the ultimate power of life and death, well before she knew what to do with it.

De Palma’s 1976 film version, drawn from a screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen that arranges the events of the novel into a logical order, was a wonderfully florid affair, the first in which De Palma’s taste for gothic horror connected fully with young audiences. Less intense than Sisters, more relatable than Phantom of the Paradise, and less indebted to a particular antecedent than Obsession, De Palma’s Carrie ebbs and flows in harmony with the quiet subtlety of Sissy Spacek’s impersonation of a teenage girl who really just wants to be left alone.

Peirce is about 10 years older than De Palma was when he made his version of Carrie, and that’s relevant because Peirce brings another decade’s worth of life experience to the story. That’s life experience as opposed to filmmaking experience, in that Peirce has only made two features previously: the remarkably haunting Boys Don’t Cry (a 1995 short expanded into a feature in 1999) and Stop-Loss in 2008.

Unlike De Palma, Peirce doesn’t have any signature visual preferences to exploit or fall back upon; she sticks rigidly to telling a story in a fairly straightforward but unhurried manner; she allows scenes to play out with a minimum of noticeable edits, which keeps the focus on the characters. A disconcerting percentage of close-ups involve faces peering directly into the camera; it may only be a handful of shots like that, but it’s startling in its effectiveness.

Under her hand, and a screenplay credited (again) to Lawrence D. Cohen — is that because a surprising amount of dialogue is taken directly from the earlier film? — and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (TV’s Glee (?!) and Big Love), the 2013 version of Carrie White emerges as a young women with a developing sense of empowerment.

Chloe Moretz, who at 16 is the age of the character, does not have Spacek’s powerful ability to suggest what she is thinking by the merest movement of her eyes; instead, her strength is her control of her body, so that when her character shrinks back, her body holds itself still, or limits movement to the absolute minimum motor requirements. Later, when she gains confidence in her supernatural abilities, her body straightens and and flexes mightily, as though she were shedding an outer layer of skin and dancing in the sunlight for the first time.

Julianne Moore, stepping into the role that earned Piper Laurie an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, is homicidal from the moment she is introduced, determining to slay her infant while the little thing is still attached to her umbilical cord. Her homicidal instinct continues to manifest itself throughout the story, part and parcel of a woman who is far more dangerous to herself than to others; banging her head against the wall is evidently a commonplace maneuver on her part, so much so that he exasperated daughter has little patience for the gesture.

Now, it takes the balance of the film for these character traits to become manifest, and for the true nature of the conflict between mother and daughter to be resolved, and I question whether the film ever comes to grips with the most divisive issue at hand, which is: What does Carrie want?

But the fact that such a question is raised at all is a testament to the accomplishment of the filmmakers in tackling material that is so well-known. Peirce and company have not made a film that is better than De Palma’s, but neither have they made one that is demonstrably worse. (And let’s be fair, as memorable and enjoyable as De Palma’s film remains, it’s not an unassailable classic, without flaw.)

Really, the new Carrie proves to be its own thorny, gory little horror beast, a superpower heroine who wants to flex her muscles and see what she can do, a girl who loves her mother and could love all kinds of people, if only she were given the chance to figure what it is, exactly, that she wants to do with her life.

The film screens at selected locations beginning tonight, and opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, October 18.

Review: ‘We Are What We Are,’ A Family Comes to Grips with a Horrific Legacy

Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers in Jim Mickle's 'We Are What We Are' (Entertainment One)
Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers in Jim Mickle’s ‘We Are What We Are’ (Entertainment One)

Family is important in the mountain communities of rural West Virginia.

So when the matriarch of the Parker family dies in a freak accident, the surviving members draw even closer together. Like other families in the community, the Parkers have a long history in the area. Unlike other families, however, the Parkers have a horrific legacy that they have kept closely guarded, and that legacy now threatens to expose them to scrutiny that they will not be able to survive.

Frank (Bill Sage) is respected, if not beloved, as the owner of a small trailer park. He is left to raise his three children alone: two teenage daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), and pre-pubescent son Rory (Jack Gore). Soon after the death of his wife, Frank speaks to his children about the importance of tradition and the survival of the family. He’s referring to certain responsibilities carried out by the matriarch; Iris understands and acknowledges that those responsibilities have been passed on to her, and accepts her duties, without needing to spell things out.

The family legacy is not disclosed until quite a bit later in We Are What We Are than in the film that serves as the source material, Somos Lo Que Hay (2010), so I won’t reveal it here. As a substitute for full disclosure, We Are What We Are emphasizes a ticking clock timetable that runs three days. Over the course of those three days, the individual family members fast; at the conclusion of the prescribed period of time, Iris is supposed to do something that we suspect is not pleasant in order to provide for everyone.

Jim Mickle directed and also wrote the screenplay with Nick Damici. Previously, the two collaborated on the highly-regarded horror films Mulberry Street (2006) and Stake Land (2010), and their experience is brought to bear in We Are What We Are, which moves the setting of the original from urban Mexico to rural America and flips the family structure from a patriarchy to a matriarchy. There are other changes as well, but the key is that Mickle has not merely fashioned a beat-for-beat remake, but instead reimagined the core elements of the story and the characters.

We Are What We Are is deliberately paced, creating an atmosphere thick with dread and dark foreboding. The well-tuned lead performances by Sage, Childers, and Garner are fully in harmony with the minor-key environment. Key roles played by Kelly McGillis (as a kindly neighbor) and Michael Parks (as a kindly doctor) add tension simply because they effectively represent the concerned, politely observant, and definitely not stupid community that surrounds the Parker family; it’s a pleasant surprise that Mickle avoids any stereotypes about rural West Virginia and the people who live there.

That setting — thick forests, cloudy skies, a drenching rainy season — contributes to the ominous dramatics as the story plays out and the prospects of the Parker family become more dire and desperate. Their secrets are uncovered, and the family’s future direction is determined. And it leads to a haunting finale that comes fully to grips with a horrific legacy.

We Are What We Are opens exclusively at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas on Friday, October 11.

Review: ‘The Innkeepers’

Sara Paxton in 'The Innkeepers' (Magnolia Pictures)
Sara Paxton in 'The Innkeepers' (Magnolia Pictures)

For its first 45 minutes or so, The Innkeepers (directed and writtten by Ti West) plays like the Seinfeld of horror movies.

Which is to say, nothing much happens — forcing us to turn our attention to the quirky characters populating the film, as opposed to any sort of actual otherworldly apparitions.

Chief among the corporeal players are Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (Sara Paxton), a pair of twenty-something college dropouts and would-be paranormal investigators. They also happen to be the resident caretakers of the locus of haunting: an historic east coast hotel called The Yankee Pedlar. Our two slacker staffers are presiding over the final days of operation of the old inn before it closes its doors forever.

Nerdy haunting-blogger Luke professes to have actually seen the establishment’s most famous ghost, Madeline O’Malley — aka The Widow — twice. Unfortunately, on both occasions he was alone and without his camera.

Manic, asthmatic, anorexic Claire envies her fellow employee’s close encounters of the spiritual kind, and is determined to make contact with the unquiet spirit before this doorway to another world begins its new life as a pile of rubble. When Luke retires to his room for the night, Claire mans the preternaturally quiet front desk, alert for any sign of spooks —  EVP recorder and microphone at the ready…

One of the hotel’s few remaining paying guests is former television actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), in town for a fan convention. She’s a prickly old bird who prefers keeping to her room — at least as long as the contents of the mini-bar hold out. It’s not until Claire’s first genuine paranormal encounter that we discover there’s more to this over-the-hill soap star than meets the eye.

The Innkeepers is one of those crafty, edgy, atmospheric films that develops slowly, then pulls the trigger on terror only after we’ve been lulled into a sense of complacency. There are foreshadowings of danger and doom involving shackled exits and ominous portents, and a curiously disquieting episode involving an elderly gentleman who checks into the hotel on its final night of operation, insisting to be put up in a particular room on the shuttered third floor.

Lovers of slow-boiling psychological horror — and Schlitz drinkers — will find The Innkeepers to be an offbeat treat.

Just one thing, though: don’t go into the cellar.

The Innkeepers opens tomorrow, exclusively at the Texas Theatre. Actor Pat Healy will participate in a Q&A session via Skype following the 8:00 p.m. screening on Saturday, February 4.