I have an enormously, wretchedly conflicted relationship with the Conjuring franchise.

On one hand, I love everything about the first movie.  Ghost stories are my favorite of basically any kind of narrative ever, and I adored just about every detail of The Conjuring – from the glorious Lili Taylor and her sympathetic family, to the amazing bond of love and faith between Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, to the completely believable performances from everyone involved, to the sheer creepiness at every turn.  I have watched The Conjuring a dozen times and I never get tired of it.

On the other hand, all this love for the first movie doesn’t play well with my utter blood-in-the-eyes rage at the fact that Ed and Lorraine Warren are (or were, in Ed’s case) real people who made their living selling vulnerable, frightened, superstitious people a crock of particularly evil bullshit.  It’s really almost exactly like watching a movie that casts an amazing actor in the role of Donald Trump and takes enough storytelling liberties to turn him into a deeply sympathetic and lovable character, possibly saving kittens from trees and single-handedly preventing 9/11.  As much as you might adore the character onscreen, you can’t get around the fact that it’s supposed to be Donald fucking Trump, and the cognitive dissonance is not pleasant.

So it was with trepidation that I queued up The Conjuring 2.  Would it, like The Conjuring, be awesome enough to make me forget I was watching a whitewashing of the Donald and Melania Trump of the paranormal world?  Could my heart-deep love for Farmiga and Wilson in anything they do keep my “BUT ACTUALLY NO” rage in check for 134 minutes?

Well, the answer is yes and no.

The whole thing with the Amityville Horror tie-in just pissed me off, as Amityville Horror related things are wont to do.  Because: you know who else were real people?  The DeFeos.  And an unfathomably horrible thing happened to them, and they still have living family who lost loved ones, and those children who were gunned down in their beds by their own brother deserve better than to be a punchline or a plot device.  You want to talk about the Lutzes and their campaign to bilk the mortgage company out of an astronomical loan?  Open season.  Have at it.  But for fuck’s sake have the decency to leave real-life murdered children, real little corpses buried in real graves, out of it.

Eventually, though, the Amityville nonsense went away, and I was reminded of how in love I am with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga and the amazing relationship between their characters.  Basically, Patrick Wilson did an Elvis impersonation and sang “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” and Vera Farmiga stared at him all melty-eyed, and that was it for my resistance.

Oh, wait.  There was a plot here.  And to be honest, it wasn’t that awesome a plot.  There was a nun whose scariness seemed limited to glaring at people, and a Crooked Man whose scariness was limited to, I guess, snarling at people, and a hapless old dude, and a foreboding-looking tree trunk of the Poltergeist variety.  There’s also the whole story of the Enfield Poltergeist, which is mostly just an unconvincing frame for Vera Farmiga vanquishing a demon.  The plot was okay, I guess, but not a patch on the first movie.  Also, if I were Vera Farmiga, I would have beaten the living fuck out of a husband who chose the life of a random kid who was probably faking it over our daughter’s right to grow up with her father.  All in all, it was fine, but not a patch on The Conjuring.

So what’s the verdict?  Three stars.  It just barely kept me from projectile-vomiting rage blood all over my TV at the sheer assholery of the real-life Warrens.  A tiny bit less well-crafted, cast with actors the smallest bit less talented and believable, and this would have been an utter exploitative cluster-fuck of a movie.  James Wan seems to have a gift for crafting movies that avoid catastrophe by the narrowest of margins, and this was one, but I hope the next movie in the franchise serves him better than this one.

PS:  I am totally single, Patrick Wilson.  Just saying.


We Are Still Here (2015)

Posted: September 17, 2016 in 4 stars, Reviews, We Are Still Here
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mv5bmjqwmzgzmjczov5bml5banbnxkftztgwndk2mtuxnte-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_We Are Still Here is a slow creeper of a movie that ratchets up to a gorefest of an end that is weirdly, viscerally satisfying.  Paul  (Andrew Sensenig) and Anne (genre veteran Barbara Crampton), grieving over the death of their son in a car accident, move into an old farmhouse outside a small town.  Weird Things begin happening, and shortly we are introduced to the Dagmars, a relentlessly nasty family of ghosts who want their house back.  Which would be bad enough… except that the townspeople want Paul and Anne as sacrifices to whatever dark forces are buried beneath the house.  Faced with ghosts on one side and murderous townspeople on the other, Paul and Anne are in a world of hurt.

It took me a while to warm up to We Are Still Here.  This is because there is exactly one sane person in the entire movie: the hapless husband Paul, who not only has to deal with the fact that his son has died in an accident but also has to put up with his batshit wife, who is convinced her son is haunting the 1800s-era farmhouse they bought to get away from the trauma of his death.  Everyone else in the movie – from the townspeople to the Woodstock refugees (Lisa Marie and Larry Fessenden) who come by to have ill-advised seances and drop the obvious news that Something Is Wrong in the house – is straight-up nuts, and that made it hard to really find anyone to identify with right out of the starting gate.  Mostly I spent the first part of the movie wondering what in the fuck I was watching.

I’m glad to report, however, that the cray grows on you.  First Marie and Fessenden, whose “OMG THE WEIRD ENERGIES” schtick actually becomes sort of endearing.  Then the nutty townspeople, who are the personification of pretty much everything that terrifies urban dwellers about small-town America, reaching their creepfest culmination in Monte Markham’s horrifying town elder, who is willing to do pretty much anything to appease the Lovecraftian darkness apparently dwelling underneath the farmhouse – including making excuses for the mysterious disappearance of the Dagmar family, who are the real ghosts still inhabiting the house.  Then the Dagmars themselves, who I was waving the pennant for by the end of the movie, because those people know what the hell they are about and even the kid disembowels people with style.  I even finally – admittedly in like the last ten minutes of the movie – made my peace with Anne, whose weepiness and slightly bulgy eyes were irresistibly reminiscent of a low-rent Shelley Duvall in The Shining.

We Are Still Here feels like an homage to 70s horror – oddly enough, I got a real Burnt Offerings vibe from it – and its affectionate campiness culminates in a gloriously over-the-top slaughter that fades skillfully down into a quiet, ambiguous ending.  There’s really something for everyone here.  If, like me, you give it the side-eye for the first hour or so, keep going; everything comes together beautifully by the end.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  This movie is a lot like an old house itself; it might smell a little fusty at first, but there are so many little architectural grace notes, so many unexpected and charming rooms and hallways, and overall such a sense of satisfaction and homecoming, that you won’t even be mad about having to replace the boiler.

Twixt (2011)

Posted: December 30, 2013 in 1 star, Twixt
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I’m just going to admit this up front: I love Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.  I love it deeply, abidingly, and unironically.  I love the cinematography, I love the costumes, I love the sets, and not even the occasional dubious casting decision can shake my devotion.  So when I saw that Coppola had written and directed a film billed as gothic horror, I was pretty pleased.

Then I saw that Val Kilmer stars in it, and I made a sort of “Eeeeennnnngh” sound. 

Let’s face it: Val Kilmer was never that amazing an actor to begin with, and now he makes his money as a sort of paid mourner at the mausoleum of his own career – his job is to show up every so often, remind us that he was in some pretty good movies back in the ’80s, collect his paycheck, and go home.  Nonetheless, I queued up the film in Netflix anyway, hoping for a movie that, if it couldn’t wrest the thick red blood of a good performance out of the turnip that is Kilmer’s acting skills, was at least good enough to carry him instead of the other way around.

Looking at IMDB, I do not see that this movie had any US release outside of the San Francisco International Film Festival.  I am sorry, Coppola, but that is because it sucks out loud.

There isn’t much of a plot.  Kilmer plays a washed-up writer named Hall Baltimore, a name that miraculously will become even stupider as the movie wears on.  He’s at a book signing in Rural Bumfuckistan, where nobody buys any books; his agent is mad at him, and his wife is threatening to sell his first edition of Leaves of Grass if he doesn’t man up and get an advance on a book.  So he’s under the gun and needs to come up with a story fast.

So the faintly creepy sheriff takes him to the morgue, where there’s a body with a stake through its heart.  He says it’s the work of a serial killer.  Kilmer is weirdly uninterested, until he goes back to his motel, falls asleep, and starts dreaming about a strange little girl (Elle Fanning).

And Edgar Allan Poe (Ben Chaplin).  No, I’m not joking.  Poe is the ostentatiously pallid Virgil to Kilmer’s Dante, serving as the font of all exposition for what frankly silly plot there is.

See, there’s a group of Goth Caricatures living across the lake.  They’re vampires.  There’s also a creepy priest who for some reason ran some sort of orphanage or something, and killed all the kids because he didn’t want them to become vampires.  He almost killed Elle Fanning too, but she ran off and became a vampire.  And… well, that’s pretty much it.  Nothing gets resolved.  The ghost kids are, I assume, still ghost kids.  Elle Fanning is still a vampire.  Kilmer gets his book advance.  I can’t figure out if he’s supposed to be a vampire or not, since in the scene before Elle Fanning was gnawing on his carotid artery.   Seriously, the movie ends like somebody realized at the eleventh hour that you can’t tie up plot threads when there’s pretty much no plot except “Val Kilmer keeps falling asleep.”

So what’s the verdict?  It hurts me, but one star.  There is no plot.  There is no acting.  The special effects look like somebody did them in Microsoft Paint at three in the morning.  This movie avoided the coveted zero-star rating only because Coppola has earned the right to produce the occasional stinker, but I don’t recommend watching it anyway.  It’s so bad that its badness is actually confusing, like it’s secretly a brilliant parody and I’m just not getting the joke.

Dear Francis Ford Coppola: if this is really supposed to be funny then I take it all back.  Except that it wasn’t actually funny either.  So until someone explains to me where the brilliance is hiding, this is a one-star movie.


Dead Silence (2007)

Posted: August 10, 2013 in 4 stars, Reviews
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I’m a big James Wan fan, so I was pleased to find that Dead Silence is a tremendously underrated piece of Gothic awesomeness.

From the opening sequence, illustrating the process of creating a ventriloquist’s dummy (which is FUCKING HORRIFYING and  reinforced my conviction that only someone with several screws loose would be party to such an abomination), the cinematography is full of beautiful desaturated blues and greys and splashes of vivid red.  The score is ominous and effective.  The visual effects are a delight and never serve as a meaningless distraction from what’s going on in the scene.  This is just a damn well-put-together film.

But is it scary?  Well, yes.  It probably helps if you hold the correct viewpoint, which is that ventriloquist’s dummies are inherently evil offenses against the very fabric of the universe, but it’s scary.  Though honestly a better word might be creepy, because while the scary parts only come once in a while, the creepiness is unrelenting from the first frame to the last.

Our hero, Jamie (Ryan Kwanten), has escaped his small-town childhood to move to the Big City, only to have his childhood track him down in the form of a ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy who is delivered to his door in an unmarked package.  Jamie’s wife (Laura Regan) thinks this is hilarious – for about the fifteen minutes that it takes Jamie to go get takeout and come back to a bloodbath in his apartment and a dead wife missing her tongue.  This all ties in to the local legend of Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts, who is ridiculously beautiful without the cadaver makeup and amazingly terrifying in this role), a ventriloquist who died mysteriously and had all her dolls buried around her in little graves like dead children. Now she’s a ghost haunting the small town and killing off entire families, and if she catches you with your mouth open, she rips out your tongue.  (This poses a particular problem for Jamie, bless him, who appears to have adenoids and as far as I can tell never closes his mouth during the entire movie.)

Needless to say, Jamie’s determination to find out who killed his wife takes him across Mary’s path pretty fast, with disastrous and not entirely predictable results.

Jamie is that rarest of horror movie heroes – the guy who, when a creepy old lady tells him what to do to stop the killing, does it immediately and without question.  Unfortunately, it’s just as promptly undone by the cop (Donnie Wahlberg) following him around trying to pin his wife’s murder on him.  I liked Jamie; he was sympathetic and not unintelligent, and though he shows the occasional lapse in judgment, they’re largely because he’s having a hard time believing that a ghost and a ventriloquist’s dummy are actually running around carving people up.  Bob Gunton and Amber Valetta are excellent as Jamie’s estranged father and his faintly disturbing new stepmother, and Wahlberg is surprisingly watchable as the hapless New York cop who by halfway through the movie probably had just as awful a phobia of small-town America as I do.

The movie’s only real flaw was its ending.  The alternate ending is on the DVD, and I’m not sure I don’t prefer that one.  The ending that made it into the film is a little puzzling – it comes across as “I have spent the entire movie telling people not to do Thing X, but now I’m going to do Thing X myself for apparently no better reason than that it’s time for the movie to end,” and then the credits roll while you’re staring at the screen wondering if you missed something.  The alternate end needed some editing, but maybe something halfway between would have been better.

So what’s the verdict?  Despite the shakiness of the ending, I’m giving Dead Silence four stars.  It’s actually more like three and three-quarters, but I’ll round up.  Insidious is a better movie, but Dead Silence is a worthy precursor, and has the virtue of not containing Darth Maul.

Inkubus (2011)

Posted: July 3, 2013 in 2 stars, Reviews
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InkubusLet’s get this out of the way first: Inkubus is in fact not a very good movie.

That it’s not a good movie is honestly a little mystifying.  Robert Englund is a joy to watch in anything he does and appears to have a good amount of snarky fun here.  Joey Fatone is effective and affecting as the hapless detective into whose precinct Englund wanders, carrying a severed head.  The redshirt station cops were all eminently watchable in their small parts. Kevin DeCristofano (who has no picture on IMDB so I hope that’s who I’m talking about) is a joy as the guy unjustly arrested for the death associated with the severed head, who spends the rest of the movie explaining to the cops that they’re all going to die in the tone of voice I imagine Mark Zuckerberg uses with small dim children.  Put together, their performances should have added up to a good movie, and yet.

There’s just no there there, ultimately.  Part of the blame for that has to go to the script, which is uninspired – Englund plays an incubus who apparently has to find a new host in the next few hours before he dies, but this is alluded to in one line and then dropped, leaving the impression that all he really wanted to do was go out in one last gory hurrah.  There’s some attempt to provide him with a nemesis in the form of William Forsythe as a retired cop whose family the incubus killed, but it falls flat – Forsythe is given almost nothing to work with except a Stereotyped Tragic Past and a bit of clumsy family drama, and he makes nothing at all of the material he is given to work with, preferring to do the Paycheck Walk from one end of the movie to the other.  I can’t say I blame him, but it didn’t make for much of a subplot.

It’s an excellent setup – an incubus walks into a police station, carrying a severed head, and sits down at the table.  What happens then?  It’s a damn shame that the answer is “Not much, particularly.”

So what’s the verdict?  Two stars.  It’s not a bad movie, at all;  it’s just not a good one.  Watch it if you have the chance, but don’t expect much.  I did enjoy it, more or less, but mostly I just wanted to send the story and cast back to the filmmakers and tell them to start over and give it another try.

Continuing Philadelphia’s grand tradition of outdoor movie fests, Awesomefest presented a double feature of Fright Night and Child’s play.  This was the first time I’ve seen either on the big screen since back in the day when you could take a family of four to the movies without having to take out a second mortgage, and it was a lot of fun.

So how have these two ’80s classics aged?  Well, surprisingly differently.  Fright Night is as flawless now as it was the day it was released, even allowing for the inevitable goofiness the 80s left behind on everything they touched.  (The dance scene in the club, oy.)  Child’s Play, not so much.

The problem is that once you get past the conceit of a killer doll – and let’s face it, after 25 years of the Chucky franchise, we’re all pretty over it – you’d better be able to fall back on the performances to make the movie worth watching.  And the performances in Child’s Play are just bad.  Oh, they are bad.  Chris Sarandon, who knocked the ball out of the park as the smirky and charismatic vampire in Fright Night three years earlier, here can’t get off a convincing line reading to save his life; he sounds (and acts) like he’d rather be doing drain cleaner commercials.  Catherine Hicks seems like she’s doing an okay job at first, but fails so singularly to differentiate her character in Child’s Play from her character in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home that I left the movie convinced that in a couple of years her son was going to die in a tragic accident, leaving her determined to make a new life for herself in California where she will pursue her lifelong interest in marine biology.

As for Alex Vincent, the child actor on whose shoulders and reactions half this movie is carried… well, he was like six years old.  The lesson here is: do not put your movie on the shoulders of a six-year-old.  They can’t actually act and it’s only going to be painful to watch them try.

Not, in fairness, that Fright Night gets away scot-free on the bad acting front.  Amanda Bearse, who did a perfectly good job on Married With Children, here can’t seem to figure out how to recite her lines in a way that won’t make her sound like she’s doing a cold read off cue cards, while Stephen Geoffreys, despite a number of inspired moments, works the Evil Ed schtick far too hard.  (Granted, his try-hardness is half the point of his character, but it’s so unrelentingly cringe-inducing that it distracts from the rest of the film.)  But Fright Night has so many other advantages in the casting department that it almost doesn’t matter: Roddy McDowall of blessed memory, who never met a scene he couldn’t steal; William Ragsdale, who should have had a much bigger career than he’s had, and whose only flaw here is that he doesn’t seem to actually like his girlfriend very much; and even Sarandon gives off sparks every time he’s on-camera.  The energy of the cast draws you in and charms you, where Child’s Play‘s unrelenting lack of energy, charm, or humor just made me tired.

Actually, in retrospect, I’m sort of surprised at how little humor I found in Child’s Play, since snarky black humor courtesy of Chucky is supposed to be the hallmark of the franchise.  It has its moments, and I wasn’t expecting it to actually be horror comedy a la Shaun of the Dead; but an awful lot of the humor seemed to depend on the situational absurdity of a doll doing things like screaming obscenities and stabbing people.  This is a lot like trying to build comedy from children screaming obscenities and stabbing people.  Sure, those things can be funny; but things aren’t inherently funny just because children do them, and they’re not inherently funny just because dolls do them either.  You have to work a little harder for it than that.

So what’s the verdict?  Fright Night gets four stars, and only misses five because it exists in the same universe as The Lost Boys.  Child’s Play gets three stars.  The internet appears confused as to whether or not a Child’s Play reboot is in the works; usually I take a dim view of reboots, but that’s one I’d like to see.  I think there was a lot of creativity in the movie that was hamstrung by a lackluster script and acting so bad that even Brad Dourif couldn’t bring up the average, and I’d like to see someone else give it another try.

There’s a regrettable tendency among filmmakers, even ones whose name is not Ti West, to confuse “slow build-up” with “exactly jack shit happens until the last ten minutes of this movie, when all of a sudden there is running and screaming.”  Those filmmakers should, as penance for the hours of tedium they inflict on the moviegoing public, be forced to sit down with a notebook and pen and watch Lovely Molly over and over until they can prove that they’ve learned something.

Now, on a certain level, no one is more surprised that I’m saying that than I am; because Lovely Molly was written and directed by Eduardo Sánchez, who is best known for the granddaddy of all jack-shit-happens movies, The Blair Witch Project.  I don’t know what he’s been doing in between the two movies, but by God, he’s been learning things.  Lovely Molly is both a more mature movie than Blair Witch Project and a more effective one; not as groundbreaking, but Sánchez is nonetheless the first director since, well, himself, to move the found-footage conceit forward in terms of its function in the movie.  Here, it’s more than just a gimmick – the home-shot video is integrated into the film in a way that’s purposeful and laden with meaning, not to mention creepiness.  I’m not usually one to haul out the liner notes and start pontificating on the arc of a filmmaker’s career, but when you draw a line from Blair Witch Project to Lovely Molly, it’s clear that Sánchez has cruised miles down that road in the right direction.

Newlyweds Molly (Gretchen Lodge) and Tim (Johnny Lewis)  move into her childhood home after her father’s death.  That never seems like a good idea to begin with, but it’s worse here.  Creepy things start happening, like the alarm going off in the middle of the night and the back door standing wide open.  Molly, alone in the house while Tim is away driving his truck, hears a child crying in a closet; she also takes to wandering around outside in the woods with a night-vision camcorder, humming creepily.  As the scariness of the house ramps up, Molly’s sanity starts to break down, and her history of drug abuse and mental illness comes to light, as well as a history of horrific abuse.  By halfway through the movie, it’s hard to tell which is scarier – the house and the weird things happening in it, or Molly herself.

Lodge, a newcomer to film, does wonders in a role that requires her to retain the audience’s sympathy while engaging in a series of increasingly batshit insane behaviors.  Alexandra Holden is also amazing as Molly’s long-suffering sister, who desperately wants to help her but has no clue even where to begin.  Lewis isn’t in the movie all that much, but considering that not long ago he (apparently) murdered his landlady and then killed himself during a psychotic episode, possibly the less said about him the better.

The movie has one of those open, let-the-audience-decide endings that, again, are murderously difficult to do well.  I think Sánchez pulled it off, but I know others disagree.  Agree or disagree, though, I think it’s clear that he at least knew what he was about, as opposed to movies that really look like they end because the filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner and gave up.  The question that remains when the movie is over is what exactly happened.  Was Molly possessed?  Was the house haunted?  Or did she just fall through the ice into a spiral of addiction, mental illness, and paranoia?  I have an opinion on that.  You’ll have to watch and figure out what yours is.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  Okay, it’s a low four stars, right on the three-star border.  But Lovely Molly made me think, which horror movies rarely even attempt to do; it did a number of very difficult things well, including a number of things that could have been done lazily, and days later I’m still thinking about it.  It’s not for everyone, but if you’re in the mood for a movie that’s creepy, uncomfortable, thought-provoking, and never boring despite the slow pace, this one’s for you.

The Innkeepers (2011)

Posted: October 6, 2012 in 1 star, Reviews
Tags: ,

I can’t help feeling like The Inkeepers, like The Haunting of Molly Hartley, isn’t actually a ghost story; it’s a movie about hipsters a la Clerks that uses the trappings of ghost stories to showcase its Quirky Twentysomething Characters (TM).  Which would have been fine, I guess, except that the Quirky Twentysomething Characters (TM), while admittedly slightly more entertaining than the bog-standard horror-movie redshirts, were neither what I’d come to see nor interesting enough to warrant watching the movie.  And that’s a pretty damn big drawback in a haunted-house story where nothing even remotely supernatural happens until 45 minutes into the film.

I almost turned it off halfway through when I found out that it was directed by Ti West, who cursed the human race with the staggeringly boring House of the Devil.  Then the second scare – well, “scare” – happened, and I began to legitimately worry that there would be no scares in this movie that weren’t stolen directly from the Haunted House at Disneyland.  Then I started wondering if this was really supposed to be parody, a la Saturday the 14th, and it just… wasn’t actually funny.  Maybe, I said to myself, it’s supposed to be hip, self-referential humor, like the movie had aspirations toward being the ghost story equivalent of Scream.

Then I decided, no, it’s basically Clerks with ghosts, if Clerks was really boring and no one ever said anything clever.

The story, basically, is this.  A historic inn is closing down.  It’s down to two skeleton staff, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healey), and a couple of random guests.  Claire and Luke are vaguely obsessed with proving that the hotel is haunted, so they do things like carrying a recorder around in the hopes of finding EVP.  I’d give you more plot, but that’s basically all it is.  Aside from the aforementioned two scares, the movie doesn’t actually become a ghost story until the last half hour, and doesn’t become remotely scary until the last ten or fifteen minutes.  Until then, the movie contains only two types of scenes: scenes where Claire mugs and flails like a hyperactive eight-year-old trying to play Lady Macbeth, and scenes where Luke shows off the acting ability of his hair and hipster glasses frames.

While Luke is nothing but a stock hipster stereotype, I feel like Claire might have actually made a good main character if she hadn’t been directed with such a heavy and unsubtle hand.  Also, I really wish Carrie Fisher or Jamie Lee Curtis had been tapped for the role of the former TV star turned cranky medium, because that would have been fucking glorious.  And while I’m wishing for horses, they could have been given a better script.  In a better-paced movie.  With an ending that didn’t fall quite so flat.  That was directed by someone who doesn’t seem to believe that true horror is when great spans of time go by and nothing the slightest bit diverting happens.

So what’s the verdict?  One star. There was only one really disturbing thing about this movie, and that was the discovery that, while Tom Cruise apparently has a portrait of himself hidden in the attic, Kelly McGillis at some point became a bona fide senior citizen.  Now that was scary.

In a way, I don’t like reviewing Japanese movies I didn’t love.  I just feel like they’re too high-context and I don’t have the cultural understanding to judge their merits accurately.  Like, I don’t understand what’s scary about hair, in the first place, and now I have to try to figure out what’s scary about basketballs.  (Spoiler: I did not figure out what was scary about basketballs.)

White Ghost/Black Ghost is actually two short films, both of which are supposed to fit into the whole Ju-On mythos.  White Ghost involves a family moving into the Grudge house and coming to a nasty end at the hands of the oldest son.  The story’s told in a flash-forward/flashback framework that bounces back and forth between a number of characters, all of whom have had a glancing encounter with someone or something involved in the murder, and all of whom come to a bad end.  There are some good bits and some effective scares, but the movie as a whole balances precariously on the boundary between effective and ineffective.

It’s still sort of balancing there, unresolved.  It probably would have been a grim, unsettling little movie if the ghost hadn’t, bewilderingly, been a tiny little old lady carrying around a basketball like she was going to beat someone to death with it.  Every time she came on the screen I just sat there, staring at her, going “What?  No, seriously, what?

I mean, the rest of the movie I liked.  I didn’t love it, but I thought it was good at conveying the sheer random nastiness of how the curse can just screw up your life if you so much as walk past it on the street.  (The poor cake delivery guy, holy crap.)  If it hadn’t had a ghost who made me stop dead in my tracks and go “What? What in the hell can possibly be scary about a little old lady with delusions of being a Harlem Globetrotter?” then I’d probably have been a lot more impressed.

Black Ghost, about a girl with an ingested twin who’s thoroughly pissed off about not being born, is widely considered to be inferior to the first movie.  I can’t decide if I agree with that or not, but I’m leaning toward no.  Certainly it’s less clever and stylish, but a couple of the scares were far creepier, and the only thing that made me go “Okay, no, seriously now” was the throat-creaky thing the ghosts will insist on doing even though I did that all the time as a child and it wasn’t scary then either.  It also gets bonus points for containing an exorcist, thus instantly transforming it into a sort of live-action crossover between The Grudge and Tactics.

Black Ghost is a lot more straightforward a horror movie than White Ghost, which is both a strength and a weakness – there are no distractions from the story, but the story itself is a little banal, and it could be that some distraction wouldn’t have done it harm.  On the other hand, White Ghost is a prime example of how even a clever movie can be derailed by by that one thing that’s just a little too distracting.

So what’s the verdict?  I went back and forth between a low three-star rating and a high two-star rating.  In the end, though, it only gets two, both because of Grandma With a Basketball (seriously, what?) and because of the over-reliance on creaky throat noises.

The Echo (2008)

Posted: September 17, 2012 in 3 stars, Reviews, The Echo
Tags: ,

Well, damn.  Thank you, The Echo.

I’ve been on a real losing streak with regard to my choice of movies lately.  The Echo broke that streak nicely and provided me with an actually enjoyable viewing experience.  Behold:

1.  It looked like an honest to god movie, filmed with legitimate movie-filming equipment by people who had a production budget containing more than four digits.  (Unlike The Pact and Absentia.)

2.  The actors behaved like people receiving a paycheck to convince me that they are real human beings to whom strange and frightening things are happening.  (The Pact and Absentia again.)

3.  The movie made sense, and the action and pacing were tight, with no scenes that looked like they wandered in from a completely different movie.  (The Yellow Wallpaper.)

4.  I liked the characters.  Yes, even the guy who just got out of jail for manslaughter.  Not even once in this movie did I petition God to kill off one of the protagonists.  (Wicked Little Things.)

5.  The ending suited the movie and did not appear to be inserted in there at random.  (The Pact, The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Okay, so all this sounds like it’s damning with faint praise.  But I think even if I’d seen it after, say, Stir of Echoes, I’d still have enjoyed this movie.

East Village denizen Bobby (Jesse Bradford), newly released from prison on an involuntary manslaughter charge, comes home to the apartment where his mother died while he was in the joint.  He tries to reconnect with his friends, who largely want nothing to do with him now, and his adorable ex-girlfriend Alyssa (Amelia Warner), who sort of wants nothing to do with him but is willing to be convinced.  As he’s dealing with cleaning out his mother’s things and working through his grief, he starts hearing all sorts of unpleasant things – scratching, whispers, the guy next door beating his family.

Things just get weirder from there.  The things he hears and sees get worse.  He finds out some unpleasant things about the state of his mother’s mental health.  The family next door gets more and more disturbing.  Alyssa starts hearing things too.  Of course, it turns out that what’s going on is GHOSTS, and you know how pissy ghosts get if you don’t figure out what they want and give it to them.

The Echo is cut from the same cloth as Red Sands and Forget Me Not – it’s a low-budget, unmarketed, unassuming movie that you don’t have high expectations of until you watch it and it turns out against all expectations to be really good.  Bradford and the script between them did an amazing job of getting me invested in Bobby; the scenes where he’s wandering around sort of lost in his mother’s apartment, trying to figure out what to do with her things, are genuinely sad.  The creepiness factor starts early, ramps up slowly but inexorably, and carries through right until the end.  There’s just enough injection of social issues to give it bite but not enough to make it preachy, which is a balance almost no one ever manages to strike.

The tagline says it’s from the executive producers of The Ring and The Grudge.  I don’t know what executive producers do so I don’t know how significant that really is, but the movie does carry that faint vibe of a good American remake of a good foreign movie, so you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a remake or adaptation or something of a 2004 Filipino movie of the same name.  I haven’t seen the original, but that’s fine with me – the remake was satisfying enough.

So what’s the verdict?  Three stars.  Not only is it worth a watch, I may add it to my DVD library.