[Review] THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

@craiggors

There’s no doubt that James Wan’s 2013 haunted house/possession chiller The Conjuring is one of the most important horror films in the last decade, and certainly a key moment in the history of the genre as a whole. Its 2016 sequel, The Conjuring 2, also directed by Wan, is a masterclass in how to follow-up a lauded frightfest with an equally terrifying outing. While the other films in the so-called Conjuring Universe have their own charms and quirks, none have quite matched the brilliance of their namesake films. As such, there was a lot for The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, the first film in the main franchise without Wan at the reins, to live up to; and while it’s a serviceable enough film, Wan’s absence is noticeable and rather than a horror hat trick, we’re left with a bit of a turkey.

Based on the real life murder trial of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, Devil once again reunites us with demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren as they exorcise a vicious demon from eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard) in the summer of 1981. During the chaos of the rite, Ed notices the demon switch hosts to David’s sister’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) boyfriend, Arne (Ruairi O’Connor), but before he can warn anyone he has a heart attack. By the time he wakes in the hospital, Arne has murdered his landlord (Ronnie Gene Blevins). The Warrens, feeling responsible, take on the monumental task of attempting to prove to the court that demonic possession is real and that Arne was not responsible for the killing. Their quest for evidence will lead them back into a dangerous world of witches, curses, and twisted supernatural entities.

There was a lot of speculation during production that the film would feature heavy courtroom scenes interlaced with horror, much like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), but screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and director Michael Chaves largely eschew the legal angle in favor of the “psychic medium aiding cops” trope as Ed and Lorraine use their gifts and expertise to uncover that there is a curse at work here, a curse placed by a witch that must be found and stopped before it can be completed. It’s all very Satanic Panic, which would have exploded onto the public consciousness a year prior, so in that sense it feels historically appropriate, and witchcraft/deals with the devil were a plot point in the original film so its not entirely uncharted territory for the Conjuring Universe, but does lend to this film feeling very different from its predecessors in more ways than one.

As in the first two films, Devil opens with the Warrens in the midst of a case, the exorcism of David Glatzel. Unlike those cases from the earlier movies, however (Annabelle and the Amityville Horror), the Glatzel case is the throughline of the film, as its characters (human and demonic) stick with us throughout the story, the curse transferring from David to Arne and setting in motion the main plot of the film. There’s some really effective, frightening moments during the opening, but it almost feels like the film throwing its best stuff out first to hook the audience, as the rest of the scares are somewhat tame compared to what we see in the first ten minutes. Beginning the story at the climax of Glatzel possession also renders the audience unable to know the characters outside of their demon-harangued lives. What were they like before this dark thing descended onto their lives? Were they quick to accept that something otherworld was tormenting them? We don’t know, because the characters are already so attuned to the mechanics of possession, so when it emerges that Arne is now host to the malevolent spirit, the fear of his loved ones is too familiar. They’ve been there, they know what to expect. We don’t see dawning terror overtake them, and as such, its hard to relate and or fear with them.

This lack of emotional investment is meant to be picked up by the Warrens, who become the central focus for the first time in the franchise. While Ed and Lorraine were always the charm and heart of the first two Conjuring films, their story was second to the respective haunting/possession. In this third film, they are the driving force, with Arne’s story meant to provide jump scares here and there to break up the Warrens’ investigation. Luckily, Wilson and Farmiga once more bring their A game and it’s thanks to their stellar chemistry that the film stays afloat amidst its weaker story moments. O’Connor (The Spanish Princess, Handsome Devil) is also great, conveying the immense psychological burden Arne carries as he wrestles with the dark force inside of him, and Hilliard (The Haunting of Hill House, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) once more shines as an adorable little boy beset by paranormal predators.

As for those evil forces, they’re largely forgettable, and don’t deliver that thick sense of dread so memorable from the first two Conjuring films. The Devil Made Me Do It has no clapping game or Valak painting to hang its hat on as its “Iconic Scare.” The waterbed scene so heavily featured in promotional materials is decent, but the overexposure eliminates any sense of suspense or surprise. The continuous story also means there’s no secondary demonic figure lurking about, a la Annabelle or the Crooked Man. The human nature of the villain isn’t a bad route to take, as a Satanic witch is always inherently scary, but she’s not all that difficult to take down in the end, nor does she leave much of an impression. You’re more likely to remember the plethora of homages to past horror films that Chaves inserts far too often, The Exorcist and The Shining being the most noticeable. It’s fine to borrow imagery and pay tribute, but if what sticks in your audiences mind the most from your film are nods to other, better movies…that’s a problem.

Chaves was faced with a difficult task, and should be applauded for stepping into Wan’s shoes to follow-up two of the most well-received horror films in recent years. He’s a fine director, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It isn’t bad by any means. There are solid performances, some great shots, and a decent score from series veteran Joseph Bishara. Put in context with the other spin-offs in the Conjuring Universe, it’s a respectable middle of the pack entry, but it’s nowhere near the edge-of-your-seat nightmare machines that Wan directed. Terrible? No. Average? Frustratingly so. It’s certainly not a death-knell for the franchise, but you do have to wonder if it’s worth further films if this is what they’ll look like. I guess when the devil makes you do something, it should be no surprise if it ends up damned.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021)

@craiggors

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but like any conscious American I know that it’s a city with a reputation for being both a glittery, glitzy haven of overindulgence and pleasure-seeking and a sleezy, scuzzy monument to mindlessness and braindead, gluttonous consumerism. Zack Snyder‘s Army of the Dead takes that braindead moniker quite literally, producing an epic zombie film that bites off a bit more than it can chew while still being an enjoyable enough ride through post-apocalyptic desert mayhem.

Co-written by Snyder (Justice League, Dawn of the Dead ’04), Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3), and Joby Harold (Awake), and directed by Snyder, Army of the Dead explores what happens when an undead infection takes hold over Las Vegas and decimates those that live there. After a rapid spread, the City of Sin is quarantined to prevent further contamination. Cutting their losses, the U.S. government prepares to annihilate the city and its entire walking dead population with a nuclear bomb set to drop on the Fourth of July. Thirty-six hours before detonation, casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuka Sanada) recruits ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to put together a ragtag team of misfits to infiltrate the barricaded city and retrieve five hundred million dollars from the vault in Tanaka’s casino. Tempted by the thrill of one last job, Ward and his rough-and-tough cronies drop into Vegas, unaware of the true danger that lies ahead of them…

Heat stroke, obviously

Snyder, who directed the well-received remake of Dawn of the Dead, is no stranger to both zombie movies and big, flashy, look-at-this-cool-shit films, so you’d think this would make for a pleasing combo, but the magic of his earlier entry into the genre is missing here, and though the colors and the gore pop, the rest of the movie is dull and uninspired.

It’s a shame, as the movie starts strong with a gorgeous opening sequence depicting how the outbreak happens (road head is involved, so it’s automatically an A+ origin story) that segues into a credit sequence montage of Vegas getting overrun and falling into glorious zombie chaos. Oh and there’s zombie strippers in the montage at one point because Vegas. Also because Zack Snyder. I don’t know, it works. It’s a high energy, balls-to-the-walls type of opening, and it sets the stage for what should be a thrilling heist story set against the brain-eating background but instead becomes a string of quasi-decent action sequences broken up by scenes full of halfhearted dialogue exchanged between uninteresting cardboard characters.

Honestly the money has more personality than like six of these characters

Arguably, Snyder has always been a director that favors style over substance, and that’s certainly the case with this film. The neon-infused aesthetics of the posters and promo materials carries over into the film, but isn’t pushed nearly as much as it could have been. In that same vein, there’s a few choice set pieces, but the desolated Vegas wasteland remains underused. We see almost nothing of the plethora of iconic Vegas landmarks and locations, the film containing itself to bland hallways and unremarkable hotel lobbies. It’s an odd production decision, especially because when we do get the occasional well-crafted set, often between action sequences.

As to the action, there’s certainly some blood-pumping chases, fights, and explosions. Snyder has always been adept at delivering on Big Movie Action. The trouble here is there’s too much downtime between each throwdown. The film pushes 160 minutes and its characters just aren’t interesting enough to justify that runtime. The “getting the band back together” sequence takes almost an hour, and by the time they’re finally equipped and ready, you’ve forgotten half their names. Tig Notaro’s helicopter pilot Peters and Matthias Schweighofer’s safecracker Dieter do stand out, but as is the running theme of this film, they’re underused.

Break me open, Daddy

No one seems to know quite what to do with the zombie genre these days, and I do applaud the film for experimenting with some different narrative approaches, namely the idea that some of the undead are intelligent and that the Alphas like Zeus (Richard Cetrone) can somehow “make” other smart zombies who are capable of communication and strategic thinking. As many horror fans know, grandfather of the modern zombie George Romero originally intended to have semi-intelligent zombies wielding weapons in Day of the Dead (1985) and the fast-moving, quick-thinking zombies of Snyder’s film feel like a fruition of that discarded story idea.

All in all, Army of the Dead delivers enough hyper-stylized action, gore, and grit to please the average zombie lover. It’s overlong and carries no emotional weight, but it’s entertaining enough if you’re having a lazy afternoon that could use a shot or two of undead adrenaline. While the overall gamble doesn’t pay off, there’s not a whole lot to lose, so you might as well play.

Army of the Dead

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW (2021)

@craiggors

Where do you go with the ninth entry in a franchise? Change directions? Stay the course? Perhaps a little of both? It’s a question that’s plagued the Saw franchise before, when the series took a hiatus after the dismal reception of Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) and again after the lukewarm Jigsaw (2017). The series has never been shy about evolving its storyline and taking the narrative down new paths, but Spiral: From the Book of Saw may be the biggest departure yet, while also borrowing the most from the original 2004 film that started it all.

Twelve years after turning in a crooked cop, detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is a pariah at his precinct. Hounded for being a rat, a snitch, and a traitor, Zeke has hardened into a lone-ranger-type trying to get out from under the shadow of his hero dad, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), the former police chief. When he’s paired up with eager rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke expects to wear him down with the drudgeries of being a homicide detective. But then the mutilated body of a Jigsaw copycat victim is discovered–a fellow detective–and it becomes a race against time to stop a psychopath using John Kramer’s legacy to target cops and wipe out corruption in law enforcement.

Oraetta, is that you?

Directed by franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, & IV) and written by Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger (Jigsaw), Spiral starts strong then gets tangled up in its own web during the third act. As per tradition, the film opens with a gruesome, bloody kill in one of the most squirm-in-your-seat traps of the franchise. It’s a great setpiece, but it’s not quite classic Jigsaw. Then again, it’s made clear from this prologue that we’re not dealing with Jigsaw as we know him anymore. Despite executing games from beyond the grave for four or five films, John Kramer is well and truly gone in this film and what we’re dealing with now is a certified copycat. Unfortunately, this means that the gravelly, chill-inducing voice of Tobin Bell is gone as well, replaced with a warped, high-pitched warble that’s anything but intimidating. Also nowhere to be found? Billy, the iconic rosy-cheeked puppet. In his place is a pig puppet that, while creepy, isn’t nearly as unique as little Bill on his trike.

These changes take some getting used to, but they’re not detrimental to the film as a whole. The pig puppet becomes a symbol of the film’s primary theme: corrupt cops. Law enforcement has always been central to the through-line of the Saw series, but Spiral truly puts “the force” under the microscope, and the blade, for the first time. Dirty cops get their comeuppance in this film, a wish fulfillment for so many in our society fed up with the abuse of police power and subsequent lack of consequences. It’s not a subtle critique by any means, but nuance isn’t exactly what we sign up for with these movies anyway, right?

Congratulations trainer! Jigsaw has awarded you the PIGGY BADGE!

Narratively, Spiral eschews the standard formula of a main game A plot alongside an investigative B plot and instead has the traps play out in “real time” as cops disappear and are tested one by one, the killer taunting Zeke all the while. It’s an odd choice, giving the film the feel of a standard police procedural as opposed to the gritty, grimy cat-and-mouse chase of the original film, which it’s clear the filmmakers were trying to emulate here. Zeke and William also don’t do a lot of actual investigating. It’s mostly waiting around for the next detective to disappear and creepy package to show up at the station leading to the next murder site. When the traps do appear, they deliver on gore, as a good Saw trap should, but not as much on tension. They don’t quite feel like “games” even if they are some of the more memorable torture scenes in the franchise (one in particular will have you curling your fingers in phantom pain).

Happily, Rock is a standout and carries the film through its foibles. He expertly flips between biting, comedic monologues and weary, rage-fueled outbursts. His best scenes are with Jackson, who is severely underused, unfortunately, and there’s a great dynamic there between the respected hero chief and his estrange son, forever an outsider for doing the right thing. Both men believe in justice, both men know the system is failing, but tension arises over their perspectives on how to fix that failing and wipe away the grime, symbolized by the film’s nauseous yellow and green hues, a return to the color schemes and dirty, sweaty looks of the original films.

Surprise, motherfucker

Spiral certainly gets points for attempting to resurrect the mystery components of Saw and for cracking open an entirely new storyline, but it plays it safe just as it should go big, and any Saw fan worth their salt can spot the twist from a mile away. Taking into account the missing iconography and uneven pacing, the film fails to make an impression. Were it not “from the Book of Saw” it may have been a better film, but as is stands it’s just missing too much to be a solid Saw film. There’s some hard and fast rules to this franchise, and if Jigsaw’s taught us anything, it’s that the rules should never be broken.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening

2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] GRETEL & HANSEL (2020)

@craiggors

Don’t go into the woods. It’s a moniker so deeply imbedded in the human psyche it’s almost primordial. As Miss @melmoy has explained on the podcast, these words of caution harken back to a time when danger, specifically supernatural danger, was thought to be more prevalent the further one journeyed from the home, and this often manifested in journeys into the woods. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Dark canopies, flitting shapes, mysterious sights and sounds–who knows what hides behind the trees, under the rocks, in the underbrush? The forest as threat is an old storytelling element, often used as the setting for folk and fairy tales where strange, magical events took place. Almost every Brothers Grimm story involves the mysterious wood, and Hansel and Gretel is no exception. In Osgood Perkins‘s take on the German classic, the fairytale gets a vibrant update and the woods become more deliciously sinister than they’ve ever been before…

Sixteen year old Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is turned out of her mother’s home when she is unable to secure a job as housekeeper to a local creep. She takes her eight year old brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) with her, planning to fend for herself by finding other work or throwing themselves at the mercy of a nearby convent. After heading off into the woods and receiving some helpful advice from a kindly Hunter (Charles Babalola), the siblings find themselves drawn off the path to the home of an elderly woman named Holda (Alice Krige), whose table is full and whose beds are warm. But something is wrong in Holda’s house, and Gretel begins to suspect that these sweet gifts are not given freely.

It’s always tricky taking established stories, particularly fairy tales, and giving them a fresh spin, and there’s numerous methods employed to make them longer, more surprising, or more enticing for a modern audience. Rather than padding the Grimm story with additional fluff, Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, The Blackcoat’s Daughter) and co-screenwriter Rob Hayes keep the bones and add depth to the themes and character motives suggested by the original story. The result is a sleek 87-minute feature that tackles a well-trod tale through a contemporary lens that engages notions of female empowerment and the agency of children in a world where social constructs allow adults the unchecked ability to severely diminish that agency. Despite the brief, and appreciated, runtime, the film can feel a bit slow at times. It’s far from plodding, but Gretel & Hansel is nonetheless a restrained film that invites you to soak in the atmosphere being unspooled on screen.

And, to be fair, it is a sumptuous atmosphere. Gorgeous, lingering shots and gauzy reds and yellows make the film feel like some sort of cross between ghostly tableau and Argento dreampiece. Much credit is due to cinematographer Galo Olivares (Roma) and production designer Jeremy Reed (Hard Candy) for their seamless blending of beautifully unsettling camerawork and anachronistic sets to conjure sensations of unease and enchantment in the viewer, often within the same frame.

Lillis carries the film well, bringing equal parts warmth and weary determination to Gretel in a vein subtle though perhaps more subtle than her turn as Beverly Marsh in It (2017). Newcomer Leakey is a bit awkward with his delivery most times, but he and Perkins are careful never to let Hansel slip into the realm of supremely annoying child characters in horror, and for that I’m grateful. Krige delivers the most tasty performance as Holda, being fantastically creepy and hissing out the film’s best lines like some sort of bewitched serpent. Given that the film is rated PG-13 and is clearly meant to function as gateway/intermediate horror for a younger audience, it’s impossible to think that Krige’s Holda won’t leave a memorable impression on the minds of any youth in attendance.

While the ending might feel a bit rushed or anticlimactic for some, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of last weekend’s The Turning (2020), and it provides room for a satisfying denouement that should sweeten any bitterness left by the relatively mundane final confrontation. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste, Gretel & Hansel is doubtless a beautiful film with a striking mood that doles out its pleasurable imagery and wicked sense of framework slowly and effectively. Though it does not shatter expectations when it comes to fairytale horror, it more than meets them, offering up a buffet of mesmerizing cinematography and spellbinding colors. Come and feast.

Gretel & Hansel

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] THE TURNING (2020)

@craiggors

While I think the horror industry is slowly but surely re-marketing January releases from “dumping ground” to “decent films,” there’s still a long road ahead before that shift in public perception can take a justifiable hold, and The Turning (2020) is a certainly a stumbling block on the path of this noble quest. It’s a shame because the film keeps ahold of itself for the majority of its runtime and only truly drops the ball in the final act; but it’s a fumble so disastrous there’s absolutely no way to save the game afterwards.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) from a screenplay by Chad and Carey W. Hayes (The Conjuring, House of Wax) and based off the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), the film follows Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) as she accepts the post of live-in nanny to Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and Flora (Brooklyn Prince) Fairchild in their sprawling, palatial estate in upstate Maine. Kate is excited at the chance to help two orphaned youngsters flourish and grow despite their hardships, but she soon discovers that neither of the children is as innocent as they appear and that they, and their dark, foreboding home, are sheltering dark secrets.

Negative reception of the film aside, no one can fault the acting. Wolfhard is solid if a bit strange channeling his creepy, pervy side as Miles, and Prince is an energetic scene-stealer who can hold her own against Davis, who delivers a convincing, relatable performance of a woman with all the best intentions going up against a dangerous situation she can’t fully comprehend. Davis is one of those actresses who knows her craft and what she needs to do in order to amp up subpar material, yet still can’t seem to get a foothold in Hollywood proper. I fear this movie may not do her any favors, though from a technical standpoint it’s far from abysmal.

There’s some good work going on in The Turning outside of the performances, as well. Cinematographer David Ungaro frames some interesting, well-constructed shots throughout, and the production design of the house and the spirits make for some cool, spooky imagery. Sure the movie is chock full of tropes, and the majority of the scares are easy-to-predict jump ones, but at least it’s fun to look at. As others have pointed out, the true fault of the film is the screenplay, though I think it may be more accurate to pinpoint the ridiculous ending. It’s honestly not an awful film for the first two acts to the point where I caught myself in the theater wondering why the early reviews were so dismal and then the “ending” hit and I chided myself for being too trusting.

I use quotation marks not out of a sense of snobbish disdain, but because the closing moments of The Turning are some of the worst excuses for an ending I’ve ever seen. I can see what Sigismondi and the writers were going for–attempting to put a twist on the ambiguity so essential and infamous from James’s original novella–but they fail spectacularly. Instead, we’re left with an illogical and inane closing that feels like a poorly timed joke your least favorite uncle tells over Thanksgiving dinner. It’s so nonsensical and just plain dumb that it brings what would have otherwise been an average if watchable movie down into the depths of horror’s “worst of” category. The only thing I’ll give it is that it elicited physical reactions from almost everyone in my theater, though it was mainly groaning and exclamations of phrases one shouldn’t use in polite blogging.

The Turning is a movie with a good cast and a strong foundation ruined by an ending so baffling it leaves one irritated and wondering what could have been if original producer Steven Spielberg had stayed attached and brought forth a proper adaptation of one of the greatest psychological horror stories of all time. Instead, we’re left with a tropey showpiece that wasted time and talent, not to mention money. Mike Flanagan’s upcoming The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix lessens the sting somewhat, but it’s still best to turn away from this one and pretend you didn’t see a thing.

The Turning

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

[Review] UNDERWATER (2020)

@craiggors

You’d be forgiven for taking a glance at the trailer for William Eubank’s Underwater (2020) and assuming it was an Alien rip-off in the ocean. It’s a well trod plot structure familiar to even casual genre fans: humans push too far against the borders of the natural world and are met with monstrous, cosmic consequences for their hubris. Underwater doesn’t stray too far from that formula, though it does incorporate a bit more Lovecraftian elements than one might expect from this particular corner of the genre, and that adds some spice to an otherwise standard January horror release.

Tian Industries has pioneered the technology that will allow them to drill seven miles deep into the Mariana Trench. At the Kepler 822 station, where the drill is set up, mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) is reflecting on life under the waves when an earthquake hits, nearly destroying the facility and sending Norah scrambling for her life, picking up a few other straggling survivors along the way. After they assess the damager, our heroes realize that the only way back to the surface is to don diving suits and walk two miles across the trench floor to reach the escape pods at a nearby outpost. But there are other things than algae lying in wait in the deep, deep dark…

Underwater wastes no time inciting the action, with the earthquake hitting barely five minutes into the film and the danger and chaos never letting up for the entire runtime. As such, it’s a fast paced film, and any moments of character development or reflection are left to snippy quips of dialogue that the viewer must strain to catch amidst the never-ending adventure sequences. To be fair, this is not a film that requires its characters to be noteworthy or two-dimensional; it’s all about the riveting survival story, though the cast is game enough to do their best to give each of their characters some depth. Stewart in particular draws on her years in the indie film circuit to tap into some beats of raw vulnerability to balance out Norah’s frightened yet determined survivalist instincts.

Eubank (The Signal) and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (A Cure for Wellness) do the best they can to create a stylized, eerie sea world and bring Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad’s (The Legend of Tarzan) screenplay to life. There’s some cool set pieces and a solid sense of color in the production design, and Eubank knows exactly when to start showing the monsters, and how much, to maximize tension. That being said, the film still relies too heavily on its predecessors even as it strives to become its own beast.

What’s nice about Underwater is that it’s a horror film made specifically for horror fans, a trend in recent years that only seems to be getting stronger. It’s more than serviceable as an average popcorn movie that’s light on character and heavy on action. The script could have used another round of polishes, but an able cast, clever camerawork, and some properly ferocious monsters allow the film to tread water. You won’t exactly be riding the waves with this one, but you won’t be coughing for air either.

Underwater

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #29: BOYS IN THE TREES (2016)

@craiggors

A coming-of-age story all taking place over one night–Halloween night, to be specific–involving ghosts, werewolves, bullies, creepy forests, life, love, romance, death, and the power of imagination. Interested yet?

Halloween, 1997. The last night of high school for Corey (Toby Wallace), his domineering friend Jango (Justin Holborow), and their skater gang. Childhood is over and the world of adulthood beckons. But Corey’s past has unfinished business. Business that must be resolved tonight. When he encounters Jonah (Gulliver McGrath), a former childhood friend now victimized by Jango’s cruel and insatiable bullying, Corey takes pity on him and agrees to walk him home for old times sake. The two estranged teenagers find themselves reviewing memories, dreams, and fears with one another in what soon turns into a surreal and dangerous game that will leave them both drastically altered.

Boys in the Trees is a nostalgia-fueled Halloween romp that will speak to the spirit of all true 90’s kids, fans of Stranger Things, and lovers of the spookiest time of year, no matter your age. The story unfolds slowly, revealing truths and mysteries to us as we progress. From the beginning, there is a promise of conventional horror thrills that is denied in favor of delivering something decidedly different and unexpected, but it achieves the same effect. Suspense is still generated in surprising and meaningful ways. The final turn loses a bit of the film’s careful balance and leaves the ending feeling a bit uncanny but not full-on phony. It’s not the most well-calculated move for the story, but it’s not a hole in the ship either.

In many ways, Boys in the Trees is a love story. Not romantic love, perhaps (though there are a few subtle hints that present the possibility and sexuality is a running theme), but the deep and sweeping love of first friendship. Corey and Jonah’s bygone kinship is something we come to understand was once binding, special, and powerful; something lost to the winds that echoes on this Halloween night, this night of the dead, as all lost things do. We’re treated to a few flashback scenes that confirm this and play out an important plot point, but not until late in the film do we really come to understand this based solely on the performances of the actors playing Corey and Jonah, both of whom are phenomenal, committed, and real. Toby Wallace, in particular, does an excellent job at communicating a mixture of surprise, guilt, and confusion as Corey discovers how much he still has in common with his old friend and pain at the buried truths that come to light during their time together.

The film isn’t heavy on scares, and the ones that do pop up are more creepy than frightening, but it’s all in keeping with the tone and thematic overhaul of the film’s message. It’s more focused on showcasing the trials and tribulations of growing up set against a Halloween backdrop. Nicholas Verso is a confident and assured filmmaker who conjures up surreal scenes and dreamscape imagery that wavers back and forth between sinister and ethereal, chief among them a memorable Day of the Dead-themed house party. The runtime might be a bit long, and the melancholic metaphors might seem obvious at first but by the time things wrap up and come full circle, the emotional imprint becomes deeply affecting.

Boys in the Trees is reminiscent of The Halloween Tree, a story about souls moving between places on Halloween night when spirits cross into this world with ease and if we are not careful, we may also cross into theirs. The narrative is dark, forcing us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our world and how toxic masculinity so easily traps boys and slowly destroys them, body and soul, before they’re even aware of themselves as functioning humans. Verso doesn’t let us look away from these hard truths, lingering on looks, songs, and feelings to make his point, but despite the heartbreaking turns in the story, the film ultimately ends on an uplifting note of hope and optimism. In Boys in the Trees, we are called to remind ourselves that no matter how deep our pain may be, we must still remember to dream. To dream very, very big.

Boys in the Trees

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #26: THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)

@craiggors

A strange, sinister, and melancholy descent into loneliness and tragedy, The Seventh Victim is an anomaly among the films of its time, even other Val Lewton productions. Instead of setting out from the real world and slowly finding ourselves drawn into the supernatural, this film peels away the paranormal bit by bit until we’re left with a very human source for despair, making the already baffling ending even more horrifying and morose.

A young woman (Kim Hunter) searches for her missing sister (Jean Brooks), her only remaining family, who, unknown to her, has become involved with a group of devil worshipers in upscale Greenwich Village. The Seventh Victim is part of the Val Lewton cycle, a series of horror films produced by RKO in the 1940’s that involved ordinary people drawn into the strange and supernatural; only this film eschews that formula to provide an all-too-human face for evil. It’s difficult to discern where the plot is going all the way up to the abrupt ending, but the uncertainty makes for a strangely captivating little movie.

The Seventh Victim is a complex and compelling noir mystery wrapped in a horror film. The mystery of what happened to Jacqueline, and later, how to untangle her from the Satanists’ web, is full of secret spouses, shady business dealings, and shadowy secret societies. The devil worshipers are an odd, kooky bunch who seem slightly remorseful that they’ve chosen to hail Satan, until a bizarre and tragic turn of events sucks the fun right out of our sophisticated group of villains. Then the film’s true core is revealed and it is one of genuine despair. About looking at life and looking at death and being unsure which of the two one prefers and which to choose.

Though plotted as a traditional noir mystery, the emphasis of the film is on atmosphere. A pervasive sense of dread hangs over the movie from the moment we’re introduced to the noose, and its shadow looms over the remaining runtime, a disquieting sense of inevitability tailing the characters at every turn. The characters in this film, whether hero or villain, are lost souls. They’re wandering around looking for meaning and grasping for answers. Some of them find safety at boarding school, others in psychological medicine, some in religion, and some in romance. No matter where these characters align, we know that reality is too depressing for them to handle, and so what we’re seeing play out is a confused, desperate grab for stability.

Even the Kim Hunter character, naive but mature Mary, is filmed and presented through a dreamlike gauze, making complete empathy for her character unobtainable. Hats off to director Mark Robson, the RKO production team, and Val Lewton for keeping this steady, ethereal aura throughout, maintaining that consistent tone of dread, especially since the film was mangled so much from conception to completion. Like most 40’s movies, the film hints at rather than shows, leaving the viewer to fill in jagged gaps with unseemly possibilities. Unlike other contemporary films of the time, however, it ends on an unsettling and unexpected note that is devastating, bleak, confusing, and brutally pessimistic.

The Seventh Victim is a beguiling and rewarding movie; unlike other films of its ilk at the time, like Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the heart of this movie is a black one. The arresting images and morose mise-en-scene undercut both the 40s melodrama in which this film existed amongst, and decades of future horror and experimental film-making. I’d bet good money David Lynch is a fan, as kernels of this movie can be observed fully popped in Mulholland Drive (2001)and Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017). Though the odd one out in terms of influential horror films from the 1940’s, it is still without a doubt amongst the greatest offerings of that subdued and curious decade.

The Seventh Victim

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #22: HELL FEST (2018)

@craiggors

Lovers of local haunts will find this bloody little gem to be right up their alley, and an excellent film to enjoy in October and bask in all the Halloween happiness that comes with it. It’s our time once again, Chatters. Let us fly into the dark, dark night…

Perma-studier Natalie (Amy Forsyth) comes to visit her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) during Halloweekend in the hopes that they can reconnect after drifting apart from attending different colleges. Natalie is dismayed to find that she won’t get to hang out with Brooke alone, however, as Brooke’s wild friend Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and her boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio) have secured six tickets to Hell Fest, a traveling horror carnival made up of rides, haunts, games, and other assorted frights. It’s all jump scares and cuddly moments with Gavin (Roby Attal) until Natalie realizes that their group is being stalked and taunted by a masked serial killer posing as one of the actors.

Hell Fest accomplishes two feats that make it worth your time. One, it delivers an old school slasher story straight out of the 80’s slasher heyday, with heads getting pummeled by hammers, eyes jabbed with syringes, a group of relatable, obnoxious teens who are somehow all likable, and a creepy, silent killer with an equally creepy mask and a creative repertoire of kill tactics. Add in the themed, expansive-yet-contained amusement park setting, and it’s like watching a lost Carpenter or Cunningham film. The production team nailed the set design and clearly did their homework when it comes to professional haunts. The various mazes and rides look like they could have been lifted from your hometown haunt; colorful, crazy, scary, and detailed. And they’re pulling double duty as well. Not only do the sets and extras serve to establish a sense of authenticity, but they’re the source of a lot of the film’s scares as well. As such, Hell Fest becomes the one horror film where excessive jump scares don’t wear thin.

The leading ladies (Forsyth, Edwards, & Taylor-Klaus) shine, and their chemistry is natural and believable for college students. Taylor-Klaus in particular brings a perfect energy to her character and steals every frame she’s in (something she did in the Scream TV series as well). Any annoyance felt with the characters is due to the writing, not their portrayal, and it’s lucky that the performances are so strong because the writing is certainly the film’s weakest point. This clunkiness is likely due to the fact that there are three credited screenwriters and two story contributors, which is far too many cooks in the kitchen for such straightforward horror fare.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Hell Fest, however, is that it’s not actually frightening until the final scene; or rather, the implications of that scene and the resulting question of whether or not we are safe anywhere in society anymore. It’s a chilling coda to end the movie on, while also opening the door to a potential sequel or franchise, and I for one would not be opposed at all. As long as any future properties adhere to the standards of the original, they’re sure to be one hell of a good time.

Hell Fest

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #21: THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT 2 (2017)

@craiggors

Though the fount footage sub-genre and paranormal investigators motif had become stale by the mid-2010’s, The Houses October Built (2014) was a sleeper hit thanks to its realism and authentic presentation of the world of “extreme haunts,” full contact immersive experiences that blur the line between entertainment and psychological torture. And perhaps even physical torture. How does the sequel stack up? Let’s investigate…

Recovering from the trauma of their ordeal last Halloween–which involved kidnapping and apparent attempted murder–by the mysterious group the Blue Skeleton–who take “extreme haunt” to another level–five friends decide they must face their fears in order to move on with their lives. Heading back out on the road to visit more haunted house attractions, signs of the Blue Skeleton start appearing again and it seems that a new, fresh terror is just around the bend.

Houses 2, like its predecessor, is a meta-film. This go-around, it is also a love letter to some of the most famous names and faces in American haunt culture. The group travel to and namedrop real extreme haunted attractions, including Ohio’s “Haunted Hoochie” and Philadelphia’s “Terror Behind the Walls” (I’ve been, and I definitely recommend btw). There’s cameos from actual organizers, artists, and researchers that work with and in these haunts to create waking nightmares. It’s an illuminating peek behind the curtain for people who don’t know just how much organization it takes to put on these incredible attractions, and just how big their culture has become. In this fashion, Houses 2 is a send-up and celebration of all things Halloween, particularly in how this holiday can create a sense of community among artists, scarehounds, and horror freaks, much in the way the first film was as well.

There’s a fun turn the story takes this time around where our heroes’ documentary is inter-cut with voyeuristic footage of the group, letting us know that the true subject of this exploration is not the haunts anymore, it’s the people hunting them down. The retconning that resets the board opens the door to some inconsistencies and plot holes, and if you scrutinize too close you start to wonder why you should even care about any of these people because the film doesn’t make any sense but I think the trick here is to watch Houses 2 not as a horror film but as a horror documentary. It works far better this way, with each visit to a haunt just a chapter in a larger wrap-around story that the Blue Skeleton confrontation at the end ties up as neatly as can be expected.

The extreme haunt phenomenon is on the rise. It’s fascinating to experience, to read about in analytic texts like Margee Kerr’s Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (author and book both featured in this film), and to watch here in Houses 2. People are voluntarily paying to be subjected to potentially traumatizing experiences; the privilege to be emotionally rocked in the confines of a supposedly safe space. Is it a jaded mentality commonly attributed to millennials? Adrenaline-addicted experience-over-possessions mentality? Something else entirely? It’s titillating territory to explore, and The Houses October 2 is the perfect place to begin your hunt.

The Houses October Built 2

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror