Posts Tagged ‘awesome setting’

In every found-footage movie I’ve ever seen, there comes a point when the scriptwriters, “cleverly” anticipating audience objections, have one of the characters demand something to the effect of “Why are you still filming, you freak?”  There has not been a single instance in found-footage-movie history where someone has produced a satisfactory answer to that question.  I would like to suggest that maybe in future films we should just skip that exchange and stipulate that someone will always be That Freak Who Keeps Filming.

I actually wasn’t going to watch Grave Encounters, mostly because of the whole found-footage thing.  I am so done with found footage, Hollywood.  Unless your name is actually Jaume Balagueró, please stop using it.  The odds that you will actually do anything original or clever with it are vanishingly small.

However, both Unkle Lancifer from Kindertrauma and Andre from The Horror Digest reported that Grave Encounters was great fun, and I have a huge weakness for abandoned mental hospitals, so I queued it up on Netflix.

Right out of the starting gate, Grave charmed me with a hilariously spot-on parody of risible network reality-show intros.  The basic plot of the film is that a team of “ghost hunters” – who don’t seem to actually believe in ghosts, but do any of them? – are filming a ghost-hunting reality show in the abandoned Collingwood (ha) mental hospital, the history of which seems to borrow pretty liberally from the “Asylum” episode of Supernatural.  There’s some truly amusing setup in which they interview various people about ghostly goings-on (the gardener steadfastly denies having seen anything weird until he gets a cash payment, and then there are ghosts all over the place).  Then they’re locked into the hospital for the night, which turns out to be a bad move.

The first hints of weird happenings are both relatively subtle and great fun – things move when people’s backs are turned, doors slam unexpectedly, and so forth.  Then the haunting stuff started in earnest, and I was reminded of the second reason I don’t like found-footage movies: they mostly involve running and screaming (the characters) and motion sickness (me).

What I saw of it after that was pretty good.  There were places where the special effects fell down a bit – the ghost photos had more of gravy than of grave about them, and one guy apparently dies when he’s thrown down a hallway at a speed and distance that wouldn’t have seriously injured me, let alone a man half again my size.   But the actual ghosts are fun and creepy, the group’s descent into the freakout zone is well paced, and the show’s host (Sean Rogerson) shows a reserve of spine and determination entirely unexpected from someone who does reality shows for a living.  I think I would really have enjoyed it if the camera work hadn’t made me as sick as a dog.

So what’s the verdict?  Honestly?  It depends on how prone you are to motion sickness.  There were some good scares, some clever shots, a funny send-up of the reality-show industry, and fewer unlikeable characters than one might expect.  On the other hand, it almost made me lose my lunch.  If you get motion sick, I can’t entirely recommend it; at the least, you’ll need to start pacing yourself with the amount of time you actually spend looking at the movie fairly early on.  I’m giving the movie three stars on its own merits, because if you can overlook the nausea it induces it’s a pretty fun movie.  If you’re easily nauseated, though, knock off a star and weigh costs versus benefits carefully.  Or at least take Dramamine first.

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.

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.

One of the horror genre’s most profound and inexplicable mysteries is why The Uninvited has yet to rate a US DVD release.  It’s a classic that in places is capable of holding its own against the 1963 The Haunting; beautifully shot, gorgeously candlelit, and utterly creepy.  If it has a flaw, it’s that the romance plot is weaker than the ghost story and has a tendency to arrive on the doorstep as a distraction just when the fear factor is starting to ramp up.

But that’s if you concede that the film has flaws.  Which I do not, because: Flawless.

Siblings Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey)  fall in love with a mansion off the coast of Cornwall and buy it more or less on impulse.  The owner is a crotchety old bastard named Colonel Beech (Donald Crisp) whose one redeeming feature is his granddaughter, the adorable and dorky Stella (Gail Russell, reminding me weirdly of Shanna Collins in last night’s disaster-of-the-week, The Haunting of Molly Hartley).  It was Stella’s mother who owned the house, until she took a header off the cliff.  Stella hasn’t been back since because her grandfather pitches twenty kinds of assfit every time she goes near the place.

I try not to be bitter when people in movies are somehow able to afford to live in places like this.  It doesn’t usually work.

Rick goes back to London to make his telecommuting arrangements and returns to find an AWOL dog and a freaked-out sister.  Also, the housekeeper’s cat refuses to go upstairs and nearly takes Rick’s arm off when he tries to push the issue.  Soon enough, Rick finds out that the reason his sister is a bit on edge is the ghostly weeping that echoes through the house right before dawn.

The scenes with Rick and Pam standing at the top of the stairs looking down into all that dark, listening to someone crying in an empty house, are remarkably effective considering that (or because) the only special effect involved is some sort of echo around the audio.  I love those scenes because the two of them are so clearly at a loss.  They do pretty much what any of us would do under the same circumstances – stand around going “Um, I feel I should be doing something about this.  I just don’t know what.”  You can’t quite believe it’s a ghost, and yet; down there in the dark, something is crying.

Inviting Stella over for dinner proves disastrous.  She gets upset in the creepy studio that depresses everyone and nearly flings herself off the cliff.  She comes out the other side convinced that the ghost haunting the house is her mother.

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple, because The Uninvited is gothic horror from start to finish.  There are deep secrets about some sort of strange menage a trois between Stella’s parents and one of her father’s models.  There’s Stella briefly being shunted into a sanitarium run by a batshit insane former nurse with a creepy obsession with Stella’s mother.  And there’s a seance scene that all other movie seances could benefit from studying, because it is seriously unnerving.

Back in the day, we didn’t have those newfangled Ouija boards.  We made do with wineglasses and refrigerator magnet letters.  And we were GRATEFUL!

The Uninvited is one of the classics of the haunted-house genre for good reason, and more filmmakers should study it.  You can watch the 1999 remake of The Haunting by the hour and never be more than vaguely impressed by the sheer level of effort that must have gone into the CGI, but The Uninvited has only one thing that even looks like proto-CGI: the ghost, which is only seen a handful of times and is weirdly reminiscent of the things that came out of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders.  The rest comes from the viewer’s imagination and a handful of trick shots.  Candles gutter for no reason.  Flowers wilt before your eyes.  Pets want nothing to do with the upstairs.  Something keeps making the rooms smell like flowers – or making them cold as ice.

I’m not going to lie, The Uninvited was made back before everyone in the country needed Ritalin, so if you prefer fast cuts and jump scares to slow builds, this movie might not be your speed.  But if it is, and if you have a chance to catch it on TNT at Halloween, don’t miss it.

So what’s the verdict? Five stars.  Gorgeous, creepy, flawless. I feel all restored and ready to jump back into the gauntlet of iffy indie movies and craptacular big-studio releases.  Now how about a digitally remastered DVD release?

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I first watched Ghost Ship when a friend came up to visit me and my daughter.  Knowing my love of terrible horror movies and also Karl Urban, she brought the DVD with her.  Armed with a Bloody Mary apiece and a solid supply of Diet Coke for my daughter, we sat down to watch.

GHOST SHIP:  “BRRRRRZIP*SPLOOSH*!

US:  :O

GHOST SHIP: *drip drip drip*

US:  :O

GHOST SHIP:  “Pretty cool, huh?”

US:  “JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL, I GUESS THAT HAPPENED.”

I’m really not much of a gorehound, and even I had to concede that Ghost Ship started out with a pretty darn effective bang.  I think we might actually have paused the DVD to stare at the TV for a minute, and also to make our Bloody Marys a bit stiffer.  Unfortunately, we didn’t really need to bother.

I wanted this movie to be good.  I really did.  For one thing, Karl Urban.  For another thing, a haunted luxury ocean liner ought to be just about the coolest thing there is.  Salt-crusted chandeliers!  Mysteriously abandoned staterooms!  Eerie big-band music coming from nowhere!  Pools of creepily reflecting water!  For God’s sake, how can you go wrong?  Well, like this, apparently.

Not many things annoy me more than an awesome setting being utterly squandered.

Watching Ghost Ship is like watching a little gem of a five-minute short tacked onto the front of an Uwe Boll movie.  It’s like the opening scene was done by a completely different director and crew who then – feeling that they’d made a pretty good showing for themselves – walked off and left the set there to be cannibalized by someone far less competent.  The plot setup starts out reasonably enough – a marine salvage crew gets hired by a guy named Ferriman (did you catch that subtle hint?  Huh?  Did you?  DID YOU?) to loot an abandoned cruise ship called the Antonia Graza.  The crew – headed by Gabriel Byrne (oh, Gabriel, dude) and Julianna Margulies – find any number of strange things, including the ghost of a little girl, a bunch of gold, and the ghost of a torch singer who lures Isaiah Washington to a gruesome death.  (He’s supposed to be engaged but apparently figures that a bit of ghost nookie won’t count against him at the altar.  Don’t be That Guy, Isaiah.)

Anyway, their own ship blows up, leaving them stranded on the ocean liner.  Ferriman (Desmond Harrington) continues to be creepy.  Karl Urban falls afoul of some sort of machinery and gets turned into a cheap, folded-up Karl Urban Halloween costume complete with the shabby plastic mask with the elastic string that breaks as soon as you look at it.  In between, the ghost kid shows Margulies a bunch of flashbacks that come together into a really improbable plot that involves the crew killing every one of the passengers so they can steal the gold (because apparently there was no easier way to do that), then turning on each other and killing each other off.  Finally only the torch singer is left alive; and Ferriman, who is revealed to be some sort of demon or something (INORITE WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED) kills her off by swinging her from a meat hook.  So all these souls are trapped in the ship, because apparently Ferriman has some sort of trapped-souls quota to meet, and it’s up to Margulies to free them by blowing up the ship.

Of course, it turns out in the end that all she manages to do is annoy Ferriman, who now has to start over with only the spirits of her crew, but whatever.  It’s not like the movie wasn’t sort of pointless anyway.

Screwing the dead chick is not ever going to be a good idea.  You’d think that would be pretty obvious, but apparently it isn’t.

So what’s the verdict? Ghost Ship is bad.  There’s just no sugar-coating it.  This is a bad, bad movie.  The plot is ridiculous, the acting is sort of awful even from ordinarily unobjectionable actors, and the action is tedious, formulaic, and predictable. (You named the character Ferriman? Really?  Did you think no one would notice or something?  Also, thanks for earworming me with that asinine “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” song.  Really.  The ’80s just were not bad enough the first time around.)  The first scene gets three stars, the rest of the movie gets zero stars, and on weighted balance it’s a one-star movie overall.

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