Archive for the ‘4 stars’ Category

janedoe_I’m going to be up-front about my biases here: any movie that plays the Gratuitous Animal Death card gets on my shit list and has a whole lot of digging to do to get out.  Not only do I just not like seeing animals die onscreen – or offscreen, for that matter – but I think it’s the horror equivalent of a Hallmark movie – a cheap and insultingly obvious bid for emotional investment that never, ever works to the benefit of the movie.  The Autopsy of Jane Doe plays that card early on, and while I admit that the topic was handled with more respect and care than is usual for horror movies, it put the movie ten strokes down and nine to play, and in the end, the movie couldn’t afford to lose the points.

Now, I hate writing that.  It sucks that I didn’t like the movie more than I did, because my love for Brian Cox knows no bounds and Emile Hirsch was  fantastic in what might have been a pretty thankless role.  And crazy applause is due to Olwen Kelly, playing the eponymous Jane Doe, not only for having the sheer physical stamina to lie naked on a metal table for umpteen days of shooting, but for the skill involved in making Jane’s blank, milky stare look more and more malevolent as the movie goes on.

(While I’m handing out plaudits, here’s one for whoever decided to use that horrifying “Open up your heart and let the sun shine in” song as a running theme.  It was grotesque in the movie; then I looked up the lyrics and it was one thousand times more awful.  And I found it on grandparents.com, which asserted with a straight face that “the only thing happier than this song is hearing all the lyrics crooned by your grandkids.”  If my grandkids started singing it, I’d be on the phone with an exorcist in less time than it takes a nanny to jump off a roof with a noose around her neck.)

My issue was with the second act, when I thought the movie went off the rails.  It starts out looking like it’s going to be a formidable movie.  Jane Doe is found half-buried in the basement of a bloody crime scene.  She gets sent to the makeshift morgue in the basement of the Tilden funeral home, a setup so weirdly sprawling that it looks more like it was intended to be an underground bunker that could hold the whole town in the event of a nuclear bomb.  Cox and Hirsch are a father-son coroner/medical technician team shaken by the recent death of Cox’s wife, ordered to find a cause of death for Jane Doe by morning.  The problem, of course, is that as the autopsy proceeds, fewer and fewer things add up, and the number of things that seem flat-out impossible grows.

I would have loved the first half of the movie if it hadn’t been for the aforementioned Gratuitous Animal Death, and I nearly loved it anyway. Autopsies, as puzzles to be solved, fascinate me, and The Autopsy of Jane Doe goes full-bore into the technicalities.  I loved the characters, even if I never quite managed to become invested in the whole dead-mother grief plotline.  I really, really wanted to know what was going to happen.

Then, as Cox and Hirsch start to actually figure things out, the movie spun into a place that left me squinting at the screen and going “…But why, though?”  Why are the dead in the morgue suddenly walking?  What are they trying to do?  What was the purpose of that one scene in the elevator, and how, from a logistical standpoint, did it even happen?  I feel like half of the Things Intended to be Scary could have been cut out and the movie would actually have been scarier.  (One bit toward the end, involving the ghastly song previously discussed, was a hundred times more horrifying and effective than anything else that had happened in at least the last half an hour).  Cox and Hirsch suddenly turned into Exposition Bros, and the explanation for what was going on left me feeling inexplicably unimpressed and dissatisfied.

In short, I think this was a movie with amazing potential that suffered from a second half in which the director seemed to just give up and throw horror movie tropes at the wall to see if something would stick.  It’s entirely possible, though, that this is one of those movies that gets better with subsequent viewings.

So what’s the verdict?  It took me a long time to decide on this one, just because of that second half.  Four stars, but if it had had lesser actors it would have been a three-star.  Do I think you should see it?  Yes.  But it’s not unproblematic and the whole last half would have benefited from a tighter hand and more coherent writing.  There are four producers and three executive producers (and one co-executive producer, whatever that is) listed on IMDB, which is never a good sign.  I’m curious to see what the director’s cut will look like.

Let Us Prey (2015)

Posted: November 24, 2016 in 4 stars, Let Us Prey, Reviews
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downloadThis is how little I pay attention to things: I just now, watching Let Us Prey, realized that there is an entire subgenre of horror that I will call “Hell Comes to Improbably Small Police Stations.”

There’s Let Us Prey.  There’s the unfortunate Val Kilmer vehicle The Traveler, and the slightly less unfortunate Robert Englund vehicle Inkubus.  There’s Last Shift, Dark was the Night, and you could even stretch a point and include the security guard and empty building in The Abandoned.  Someone’s always a rookie; this someone is probably a woman.  It’s somebody’s first shift, or their first shift at a new station.  There’s a character actor in the central role who is imbued with some sort of vague and sinister religious overtones; he appears to be either having more fun than anyone else in the movie or counting the days until he can retire and go sit on a beach.  You could actually put together an entire film fest of movies that cannot be distinguished from one another by plot or character descriptions alone, and it would not even involve half-naked teenagers in the woods, which is kind of an impressive achievement.

So what does Let Us Prey bring to the genre?  Well, a lot, actually.

This is one of those movies that I put off watching, because between the admittedly pretty awful title and the “Am I sure I haven’t watched this before?” plot, I wasn’t sure I’d be all that interested.  The opening scene cast doubt on that assumption, because it’s gorgeous – the wild Scottish sea crashing against rocks; a driving, eerie score that’s reminiscent of Carpenter’s Lost Scores album but actually better; Liam Cunningham, playing the nameless central character, apparently rising out of the sea with a murder of crows and slouching off toward the hapless village to birth some mayhem.  It’s effective, stylish, and attention-grabbing.

However, I have been fooled by opening scenes before.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Ghost Ship.

The rookie on her first night here is Rachel (Pollyanna McIntosh), and wow, are her co-workers awful.  It’s her, two other cops (Bryan Larkin and Hanna Stanbridge) who apparently exist only to be hideously awful people and then die horribly, and their creepy, twitchy sergeant, MacReady (Douglas Russell, who morphed into Simon Keenlyside in my head every time he was off-screen).  In the cells are a smarmy teenage drunk driver (Brian Vernel), a wife-beating teacher (Jonathan Watson), and a doctor (Niall Greig Fulton).  

It turns out everyone in the station, of course, has Dark Secrets, and Liam Cunningham knows exactly what they all are.  They’re spectacularly awful.  Liam may or may not be to blame for this, depending on who you think his character is supposed to be; there’s ambiguity left around that, wisely in my opinion.  Gross discoveries lead to a third act so flamboyantly bizarre that it might have derailed a film with less solid performances, but here it’s best to just enjoy the ride.

And the performances are well worth watching.  I’m not sure Cunningham can actually do wrong, acting-wise; he’s a rock-solid center for this movie, and beautifully sinister.  Russell keeps tight reins on a role that could easily have descended into camp and pulls it off impressively well.  Vernel is weirdly sympathetic, Fulton manages his shockingly abrupt descent into batshittery with elan, and Watson is just really damn creepy as the living avatar of every high school student’s suspicions about what their teachers are really thinking.  McIntosh holds her own as a Final Girl, and she’s compelling enough in the role of the traumatized Rachel.

Larkin and Stanbridge, while not bad exactly, could have been cut from the movie entirely without doing it much damage – their characters are grimy little evils, banal and unimaginative, oddly tedious in the middle of everyone else’s flamboyant psychotic plumage, without a redeeming feature or shred of complexity.  I applaud the stylistic decision, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t tiresome to watch.    Other than the two of them, however, the ensemble cast makes for a tight, cohesive unit of claustrophobic looniness.

The near-flawlessness of the cast is what keeps me from asserting that the real stars of the movie are the cinematography and the score.  The movie is beautifully shot, a shadowy, pall-covered, blood-splattered joy to watch (the cinematographer is Piers McGrail, also cinematographer on the gorgeous and underrated The Canal, who looks to my great relief to be doing the same job on the forthcoming We Have Always Lived in the Castle.)  The score, by Steve Lynch, is reminiscent of Carpenter’s both in its power and its elevation of the scenes; too many horror movies forget that the score should enhance the movie, not just jangle along behind it like your teenage brother belting out Fallout Boy in the shower while you’re trying to read the news.  Even if you don’t like the genre, the movie is worth watching for the cinematography and the score alone.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  That’s a little on the high side given the film’s flaws, but its virtues outweigh them just enough to tip it out of the three-star category.  It’s an underpublicized gem that shows there’s nothing wrong with following a genre script if you can do it this well.

Just… you know, maybe give it a better title next time.

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.

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.

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.

Man, the reviewers either love Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or hate it, don’t they?

The negative reviews seem to come in two varieties.  The first is best described as a thinly veiled letter to the reviewer’s editor expressing extreme bitterness over having paid a small fortune for a journalism degree only to be sent out to sit in a theater and watch a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  I have nothing to say to those people except “Wow, it must suck to be you when Adam Sandler season rolls around.”

The second variety is on a theme of “But… where’s the nod nod, wink wink?  A movie this ridiculous, there should be all sorts of meta self-awareness!  WHERE MA NODS AND WINKS AT?”

To the second variety of reviewers, I say: at the bottom of a fucking well weighted down with stones, with a mouth full of garlic  so it doesn’t walk, is where – God willing and the creek don’t rise – your nods and winks are.

Look.  The self-aware meta thing was awesome in Scream, when it first really came onto the horror scene as a thing well done that genuinely added an integral element to the movie.  Scream, may I point out, came out in 1996.  Children born the year Scream was released are legally able to drive now.  It was well done in Scream and for a while afterward, but every year it got more and more stale, until at this point self-aware meta nod-nod wink-wink crap fulfills exactly the same function as a laugh track on a ’70s sitcom.

Do you really need a laugh track to tell you when something’s funny?  Do you need someone poking you in the ear and loudly yelling “Look how clever we’re being!  Look!  Do you see it?  Also it is time to laugh at the absurdity now!  Laughter and admiration- go!”

What’s that you say?  You don’t?  Good – take that mindset into Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and you’re going to enjoy the movie a lot more than the reviewers who were apparently waiting for someone to tell them the movie is gloriously absurd.

AL:VH is played admirably straight, as a history of the life of Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) that somehow includes vampire-related carnage and physics-defying action scenes.  As a child, Lincoln – already full of righteous wrath over the horrors of slavery – witnesses his mother being murdered by a vampire (a freakishly unrecognizable Marton Csokas).  Come to adulthood, Lincoln sets out on a Mission of Vengeance that very nearly results in him being eaten himself before being saved by a mysterious Englishman named Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper, whose Sting sunglasses and cockatiel hair don’t look nearly as anachronistic as they should).

Henry trains Lincoln as a hunter and sends him out into the world on vampire-slaying missions.  No sooner is Lincoln out of Henry’s sight than he gets distracted by the awesome Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), decides that  he can better serve the world in politics than in slaying, and manages to run afoul of the Big Baddies: vampire overlord Adam (Rufus Sewell) and his sister Vadoma, the Enforcer (the glorious and criminally underused Erin Wasson, who if she ever tires of being a supermodel has a nice career in looming menace ahead of her.)  He also gains sidekicks:  Will (Anthony Mackie) and Speed (Jimmi Simpson), who could have carried the movie all by themselves.  All this leads inexorably to the Civil War, which unbeknownst to the history books was actually a power grab on the part of vampires, who were using slaves as a readily available food supply.

AL:VH is one of those movies where just the supporting cast is worth the price of admission.  But Benjamin Walker brings a charm and gravity to the role without which the movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well; there are amazing (and awesomely over-the-top) action set pieces; and God be praised, the vampires are finally sort of scary and awful, instead of camp and “humorously” self-aware.

It’s actually that last point that raises AL:VH from a solid three-star use of an afternoon to four stars.  I am so glad to see scary, mostly unglamorous vampires that I’m awarding the movie an extra star just for that.  Tip for the movie industry: vampires should be scary.  They shouldn’t be “humorously” self-aware (unless they’re Barnabas Collins), they shouldn’t be tragic and tortured souls (unless they’re Eli, who gets a pass for also being scary as shit), and for fuck’s sake they should not sparkle.

Sparkly vampires, Jesus take the wheel.  Vadoma would pick her teeth with Edward Cullen’s bones.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  I was so, so hopeful that AL:VH would be awesome, but I also feared.  The book and screenplay were written by Seth Grahame-Smith, otherwise known as the author of the bewilderingly tedious Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I don’t know how the hell the hand of any writer, be he never so unenthusiastic about the assignment, can make something tiresome out of the combination of Lizzie Bennet and the walking dead, but Grahame-Smith surely managed it.  Maybe he liked this topic better or something, because this was an awesome story and it made for an awesome movie, if brought down a little by uneven pacing.  Go see it; it’s fantastic, goofy fun.

Dear Daniel Radcliffe,

I apologize for saying that you were such an atrociously wooden actor that you could have been swapped out for your polygon figure from the Harry Potter video games for three movies on end before anyone noticed.  Clearly that was a bias of mine formed back when you were ten years old and still had Chris Columbus telling you to act with your eyeballs.  Now that you have discovered that there are more facial expressions in an actor’s toolkit than bug-eyed-and-vaguely-bored and squinch-faced-and-vaguely-bored, you do pretty damn well.

I look forward to seeing you in more films.  Please do not dress in Victorian garb.  You are disturbingly attractive in it, and the cognitive dissonance is a bit more than I can handle.

Sincerely,

Larissa.

It’s a shame that the newly-resurrected Hammer didn’t come out of the starting gate with The Woman in Black, instead of leading with the direct-to-video Wake Wood  and the universally unloved The Resident.  That would have smashed off the coffin lid with a bang.  Woman in Black is a throwback to the gorgeous foggy creepiness of the best of the Hammer films, a claustrophobic gothic thriller that doesn’t rely on gore but on seriously disturbing imagery to keep the audience’s attention.  If it has a fault, it’s the ill-judged tendency to build up suspense with care, skill, and elegance, and then bring it crashing down with a cheap jump scare; but that’s easily forgiven in the sheer wonderfulness of seeing a good old-fashioned haunted-house story play out this beautifully on the screen.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a struggling attorney unable to get past his wife’s death in childbirth four years before.  He’s sent out to the creepy Drablow house in the middle of a marsh to collect the widow Drablow’s papers after her death.  (There are a million of them.  I wanted to sneeze just looking at the huge stacks of parchment.)  The house is creepy, the townspeople are terrified, and after Kipps sees a mysterious woman in black in the graveyard outside the mansion, children in the village start dying in horrific ways.

The last movie I watched that largely consisted of someone wandering around a creepy house was House of the Devil, a movie that bored me so badly that I still resent the fact that it exists.  The Woman in Black didn’t bore me for a minute; partly because this house genuinely was one of the creepiest houses ever committed to celluloid, and partly because Radcliffe has against all reason managed to grow into a charismatic and compelling, if travel-sized, screen presence.  The cinematography is deft and in places astonishing to watch – this is probably the only movie I’ve ever seen that manages to make handwriting terrifying.  It’s definitely a blu-ray buy, both for the quality of the performances and the sheer visual spectacle of it.

If you’re a horror buff, though, there’s one outstanding question: how well does it hold up to the original?  Well… that depends on what you thought the original’s strong points were.  I liked the original, but while it had a couple of seriously disturbing moments (which the 2012 movie has the good sense to allude to but not try to replicate), I didn’t think it was as scary as it’s usually built up to be.  I like Radcliffe’s Arthur better than the original’s – he’s more three-dimensional and less passive.  I can’t decide which version’s woman in black I like better.  The new one definitely has more going on and a faster pace, which may strike you as pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences or may strike you as better at keeping the audience wrapped up in the movie every step of the way.  I liked the original; I was going to say I like the remake better, but I like them for such different reasons that it sort of seems like comparing apples and oranges.  The only thing to do is to buy both of them, stock up on the popcorn, and spend a long winter evening comparing and contrasting.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  If you love gothic movies, haunted-house movies, or both, The Woman in Black is a must-see.

I loved Insidious, but man, does that movie ride on a catastrophe curve.  I can easily imagine circumstances under which it would really have pissed me off.  Without giving too much in the way of spoilers, the third act takes a pretty sharp left turn from the ghost-story genre to something closer to the dark-fantasy genre, and also switches POV characters. If you’re willing to take that left turn along with it, you’ll probably love the movie too, or at least not hate it.  If you’re not, Insidious will leave you in the dust with no real resolution to the great ghost story you were watching, and you’ll probably be pretty annoyed.

In a lot of ways the film feels like watching a sort of updated re-envisioning of Poltergeist with younger kids and creepier ghosts.  Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) and their three kids are the suburban Everyfamily, just moved into a new house; Josh is a high school teacher and Renai is a songwriter.  (Apparently a successful one, because no way did they afford that house on a high school teacher’s salary.  Five high school teachers living in sin with a Maserati salesman could not afford that house.)  I liked the Lamberts – they’re immediately engaging and have enough chemistry with each other that they feel like a real family.  And man, could I ever relate to Renai’s battles with voice-driven menu systems on customer service lines.  Those things hate me too, Renai.

Then the oldest boy, Dalton, falls off a ladder in the attic and whacks his head.  He seems fine, but in the morning he won’t wake up, despite the inability of doctors to figure out what’s wrong with him.  And then creepy things start happening in earnest, and man, are they creepy. I can’t even really describe them without spoiling them, but there are not just jump scares but some terrifically scary set pieces.  Eventually it reaches a point where the Lamberts are so freaked out that they do what I swear no horror-movie family has done before or since: they move out of the damn house.

Unfortunately for them, the creepy happenings just follow them.

Almost everything in Insidious just plain works.  The effects are good.  The sound work is amazing.  The scares are scary.  The soundtrack cost me a lot of money when I had to go buy Ludovico Einaudi’s entire collected works.  The Lamberts are sympathetic and convincing.  Barbara Hershey is amazing in the unexpectedly important role of Josh’s mother, and Lin Shaye brings a presence to the Obligatory Quirky Psychic role that somehow manages to minimize the role’s resemblance to Tangina in Poltergeist.  There’s a plot point reveal scene involving Josh looking through photos from his childhood that is genuinely one of the creepiest moments I’ve seen in a movie.

Unfortunately, what does not work – and it really does not work – is the main villain.  I, too, loved Darth Maul.  I just don’t know that I’d put a tribute character in the central bad-guy role of a movie in a completely different genre.  I’m just saying.

Still, the rest of Insidious works well enough to overcome even that not inconsiderable handicap.  And when your movie is working well enough to get people past not only the déjà vu caused by the resemblance to Poltergeist but also that moment of “What the hell is Darth Maul doing in this movie?” then overall you’re probably doing a whole lot of things very right.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  I might even have given it five, but I felt like something really needed to be deducted for the Darth Maul misstep and the abrupt switchover in POV characters.

Actually I almost deducted another star for the costume designer or whoever it was in the special features talking about how the creepy old woman was actually played by a man.  Because it’s creepy!  You can’t tell if it’s a woman or a man!  IT’S A MAN IN WOMEN’S CLOTHES, OMG, WHAT COULD BE ICKIER AND CREEPIER?

Well, you and your gross transphobic issues, is what.  But that’s on you, not on the movie, so the rating stays where it is.

One of these days I’m going to make a list called “Movies that scared the bejesus out of me and I can’t even figure out why,” and Fragile will be somewhere very close to the top.  Maybe it’s the combination of the inherent creepiness of abandoned hospitals and the fact that the ghost, when you finally see her, is so freakishly hideous that if she popped up in the mirror behind me I would genuinely have screaming hysterics.  She’s not quite as terrifying on a second viewing once you’re braced for the horror, but my God was she a nasty shock the first time around.

Fragile stars Calista Flockhart, who to her credit never gives off the vibe that she’s slumming in a genre film, or seems anything less than engaged with the story and her character.  She plays Amy, a nurse recovering from some sort of traumatic incident that resulted in a child’s death, and for which Amy blames herself.  (This incident is never completely elucidated, the filmmakers – in a show of restraint rare in the breed – having refrained from telling us about it in five minutes of “As you know, Bob” exposition.)  Apparently looking for somewhere quiet to recover, Amy takes a temp job as a replacement night nurse at a nearly-deserted hospital that’s being shut down and retains only a handful of pediatric patients on one floor.

Of course, there are Creepy Things going on at the hospital.  We know this because everyone is scared shitless of noises in the night.  Or at least the women and children are; hot doctor Richard “I know I’ve seen that guy before but out of Van Helsing and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which one do I least want to admit to having seen?” Roxburgh pooh-poohs all night-bumping things.  Soon Amy makes friends with Maggie, a little girl of unspecified illness who claims to have seen Charlotte, the “mechanical girl” who lives on the abandoned upper floor.

(Maggie is played by Yasmin Murphy, who is that rarest of cinematic unicorns: a child actor who can convincingly display all the emotions the script calls for, and who is adorable without inducing diabetes.  At some point, someone seems to have made the radical decision to direct and film her as if she were an actual person, as opposed to the more usual tactic of treating kids in movies like Generic Moppet #3 bought sight unseen from the Toys R Us catalog.  Actually, to their credit, the filmmakers made more than one unusual and gutsy decision about her character.)

Charlotte spends a lot of time being really pissed off.  Also, she can make people’s bones break, and does with alarming frequency.  Initial poking-around by Amy seems to indicate that Charlotte was a patient there decades ago, who had osteogenisis imperfecta – brittle bone disease – and had to wear those braces that are actually screwed into your flesh and don’t tell me those aren’t a bad idea because I saw what they did to that guy’s leg on Downton Abbey.

The bulk of the movie follows the “But what does it want?” plotline.  Charlotte is clearly angry, and gets angrier and more violent as the movie goes on.  Bones break.  People get flung out of windows.  Blocks with letters on them form irate messages.  Alarming things happen with elevators.  Amy tries to figure out what the hell’s going on.  Well, what’s going on, of course, is easier for the viewer to figure out than for Amy and the Hot Doctor:  Charlotte wants Maggie to stay in the hospital.  Forever.

I love ghost stories.  There aren’t enough of them.  Not real ghost stories like this one, that depend not on gore and jump scares but on the idea that the dead have come calling and they’re really pissed and couldn’t tell you why even if they wanted to.  Fragile does a wonderful job of evoking that slow, creeping unease of abandoned hospitals and asylums where misery seems to soak into the walls and hang around long after all the people are gone.  The build-up is both slow and interesting, unusual in a world where you generally get one or the other but not both, and the climax, which could easily have degenerated into “Rocks fall and everyone dies,” instead remembers that the movie has been focused on the relationships among the characters and keeps the focus there where it belongs.

[REC]‘s Jaume Balagueró directed Fragile, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised at its quality.  But I was, pleasantly.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  That might seem high for what on the surface seems to be a fairly conventional genre film, but I think it deserves them for creepiness, atmosphere, not a few genuine scares, and stubborn refusal to take the path of least resistance and fall back on genre cliches.