This is a guest post by my long-time handsome friend Noah Tilsen. When it comes to movies, I value his input above all others. Notice that I didn’t say opinion, Noah doesn’t have “opinions” about movies. Only the truth. He has been watching movies since before you were born. Oh yeah, spoiler warning. ~Alex
I’m the kind of guy who expects a creepy man to be looking back at me when I look out the window at night. I’m the kind of guy who triple checks if the door is locked before I can fall asleep. For the beast resides in us all. It is the primal fear of the dark, of falling, of things that creep and slither. Who knows what unknown thing could enter through my door if it weren’t locked. Only I can imagine, and I don’t like giving my imagination that kind of power.
KUBARK, the CIA interrogation manual states: “The threat to inflict pain, for example, can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain.” and, “Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression.” Such the goal of any good horror film is to have us reduced to our base fears. It can even be a therapeutic catharsis reverting back to a more primal self. In this era where we can so easily be detached from our animal instincts, we subconsciously look for releases: exercise, sex, movies.
I like movies that could have happened. “Based on a True Story” is so overused, but it’s a good way to start a movie. Like any good ghost story, it is told like it really happened. You can give me all the gore and torture porn you want, all day, but rarely will those movies make me sleep with the light on if I – in some way – don’t believe it could happen.
So it’s midnight. I’m all alone. I should go to bed. I gotta get up early to make sure the kids make the bus. I know it’s the wrong choice, but I open up the laptop and put on a horror film. I must have a fetish with freaking myself out, and being tired all day. I am definitely one of those people who quickens my pace and rushes upstairs when I turn of the lights in the basement. I’m the kind of person who hears bumps in the night, and gets spooked looking in dark corners and windows that only show your reflection at night. I suffer for you, dear reader, so that you don’t have to watch horror movies all by yourself in the middle of the night with the lights off.
I don’t know where I stand compared to the populous as to how susceptible I am to these types of films. I’m drawn to them over and over because something in me wants to be scared. It’s a terrible and glorious feeling all at once. I’ve seen enough to know what scares me. I’m looking for the scare after the movie. The movie that gives me a reason to not sleep well, the movie that let’s my overactive imagination run wild and make me not want to look into darkness, that is my kind of movie.
I have viewed and reviewed a smattering of recent horror movies from worst to best. Although some get a 0 out of 1, none of these will be a complete waste of your time if you have a hankering for horror this October.
The Theatre Bizarre
I cannot recommend this film to the everyday movie-goer. First off it has the raw feel of independent filmmaking (acting, lighting, sound). Second, it has some graphic violence in a not very fun way. Third, some of the shorts in this compendium are just complete duds. Fourth, this movie isn’t as much meant to scare as it is to disturb.
That being said, there are merits to The Theatre Bizarre. A few of the shorts explore the human condition in interesting ways: jealously, possessiveness, weakness, infidelity. “Sweets” was my favorite of the tidbits, which was so gross to a point where it made me squeamishness. A pathetic man ate candy and begged his girlfriend to keep him, all the while she holds on to a melting ice cream cone in a filthy room filled with dirty candy. Unlike V/H/S, the interlude story arc wasn’t intrusive.
I first got excited for The Theater Bizarre when I heard “Cutting Moments” director Douglas Buck was doing a short for it. His was interesting and by far the most subtle and non-violent of the short films, which was a far cry from his inadmissible “Family Portraits Trilogy”. Many shorts were just too generic to enjoy this piece as a whole, especially the first installment, “The Mother of Toads”. At least there were plenty of tits and each segment gets a little bit better.
The Woman in Black
I hold a mildly negative opinion of The Woman in Black but I must say that I didn’t give it due justice, as I was watching it in the morning with another person. I don’t usually go to horror films at the theater, I believe they are best witnessed alone, at night, with no lights on. The cheap scares work far less well during the day.
The Woman in Black is a period piece set in early 1900’s England, starring Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). It was pretty generic, the holes became more apparent, the mood it was trying to accomplish was dampened. Harry Potter is a single father and still grieving the death of his wife. He’s sent to do the business of selling some estate out in the country where the previous owner died, with the warning from his boss that if he botches this job he’s fired for sure. Turns out the house is haunted!
Where it errs is the lack of mystery and believability. Yes, especially in a paranormal movie, believability is key for the long scare. I know there was some catastrophe at the house. I know Potter is going to try and solve the riddle. I like a good haunted house movie, but I still need to believe in it. This is accomplished by blending paranormal with paranoia to a point where I’m not sure if the character is crazy or the house is. That is where the true mystery lies, in Lady there is none of that. It’s obvious from the get go that it’s haunted. Potter sees some stuff so paranormal that the only explanation is the unexplainable but he believes it almost unquestioningly from the beginning.
In all, it is a simple ghost story with plenty of scares and lots attention to mood and less to creativity and plot. The house blows its paranormal load too early and it’s pushing rope by the end. What’s scary is ultimately the unknown – what I can leave for my imagination, and The Woman in Black left little to none.
The Tall Man
The Tall Man is a prime example of the “paranormal or reality” mystery gone awry. I can only recommend this for the Halloween viewing guide because of its brazen ridiculousness. With so many twists and turns with no regard for my intelligence. This movie could have ended about 13 times, but it refuses to give way, giving no evidence toward either paranormal or reality, managing to flip flop me into apathy with a mild hint of curious agitation waiting for the final reveal.
Children are going missing in the little town of Cold Rock. No one knows where they’ve gone but the town has given the abductor the moniker of “The Tall Man”. The movie starts with inter-titles giving info on missing children, then to a flashback, then to a narration by a little girl who sets us up for the title of the film, but instead of a title we get little fake tv interviews of people talking about their children going missing. Then we get some opening credits, a birthing scene and a balls to the wall child abduction /chase scene. This is all in the first 20 minutes.
Tall Man did a good job of duping the audience (me), but once some key points were revealed the twists kept happening and plausibility was lost. It isn’t too heavy of a film nor really frightening, it does hold a sense of fun to it, slightly aware of its absurdness. It ends with some more narration by the little girl, asking us a supposedly ominous question that has a really obvious answer.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
If you are looking for the best movie involving a cabin in the woods, go see Cabin in the Woods, but if you are looking for a some good chuckles, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil will deliver. First let me get this out of the way, this movie is crap, it has the common pitfalls of a comedy that gives up on being funny in the second half to satisfy the ridiculous, yet generic plot line it has gotten itself into. It is a gag movie mocking the specific genre of horror by turning the camping group of college frat boys and a couple of hotties into the accidental killers. If only they wouldn’t have been so afraid of the two dirty hicks, maybe all this wouldn’t have happened.
As Soul Plane or any of the Madea movies would be considered “African-American Comedy” (“Black Comedy” was already taken) Tucker and Dale would fall under the “Redneck Comedy” subgenre. Ultimately, it is a Redneck Horror Comedy, obviously targeting the “Git-R-Done” demographic. I can’t rightly say when the comedy-horror subgenre emerged in film, (Bride of Frankenstein, can’t be?) but they most always seem to play off the clichés of the horror genre itself. Tucker & Dale is certainly no exception, but it only has one gag that makes up the entire premise of the movie and it wears thin about halfway through.
It was silly enough though, and as much as I wasn’t expecting to laugh, I could not help myself. The characters are likeable yet lacking in depth. The shallowness was a forewarning for the standard “shy ugly guy gets the hot chick” romance plot line taking over. By sticking to the one gag, the characters and their actions become so unbelievable that the jokes sacrifice themselves, taking less priority for sake of a plot no one cares about. It was the writings on the wall, man.
Why is this movie called VHS? Why do criminals take time in a house they’ve just broken into to watch movies? Why don’t people in trouble ever call the police? Why, in found footage films are people still holding onto the camera? Good thing these questions don’t matter as much with short films.
VHS is an anthology movie, showing five short scary films and one short that acts as the MC with a weak main story arc to it. The “tie them all together” short really wasn’t necessary and weakened the whole. In it, these hooligans break into a house and eventually watch VHS tapes, and then we watch them, only every single one is obviously shot on digital.
I’d say the standout short for me was, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” bringing the most creepiness, style, and mystery. All the shorts were fun and enjoyable, except for the one that gives this movie its namesake. They all involve young people and all hold little weight to them, for better or worse. Found footage pieces, like it or not, are here to stay. This genre is a reflection of our times. They are also cheaper to make and don’t require high paying talent, yet we still pay money to see them (Paranormal Activity 4?), so doubly so a reflection of society.
The Slender Man
The Slender Man is a prime example of a found footage project working correctly. I first heard about it in passing. I looked it up on youtube and found not one but several documentaries focusing on the history of the Slender Man throughout ancient and not so ancient times. The myth preceded the actual clips. It freaked me out too. The thought of some unnaturally tall being lingering outside your house in the dark is an unpleasant one that plays upon my fears and overactive imagination.
To be clear, it’s not even a movie, it’s just little clips on youtube averaging about two minutes in length. This actually lends to the believability of a found footage “movie” being only on the internet. To actually watch the Slender Man series, you’ll need to look up “marblehornets”. Marble Hornets was the title of an abandoned student film project that a fellow classmate found the raw footage of and got more than he bargained for. From what I can tell it’s made by a few kids who have a camera and use the POV shaky camera and dark to their advantage.
I’m only 20 or 30 episodes deep into it and I think there is at least 80 of them out there and it’s starting to get a little cheeky and obvious, which definitely has taken away from it. It’s still a clever and interesting project, they even added their own fabricated response videos to further the mystery. There is somewhat of a narrative emerging that is playing out like a resident evil video game, going to investigate houses and finding tapes and pill bottles that give a few clues that leads us to new places etc…
Regardless of what happens with this series, this is a subtle milestone for found footage horror. If a filmmaker’s goal is to make something that leaves the audience completely unsure of whether or not it is real, something of this style would be the best route. If you leave a person wanting your creation to fiction, you have succeeded.
The Devil Inside
Yet another found footage movie. This one isn’t particularly special but it has an unfair advantage over me from the get go by simply being an exorcism movie. It certainly didn’t have the hollywood pitfalls of actually revealing red leathery skinned demons running around or turning into some action movie where they have to put some key in some hole in the nick of time to make stuff go boom.
The Devil Inside follows the daughter of a woman who murdered a bunch of people during an exorcism back in the day. Present day she hires a documentarian to follow her to the Vatican so she can meet with her mother, who is being held in a Catholic mental hospital. She meets up with some rogue priests who perform exorcisms that the Church doesn’t sanction. The cameraman plays the cynic throughout; it’s always good to have the cynic in the group to keep things grounded, even if you know it’s going to get crazy evil eventually.
Compared to the Exorcist, the unholy grail of exorcism movies – which takes its time on one single exorcism as a poor girl slowly turns into a monster before our eyes – “Devil” seems a little light and airy. It does all the clichés well enough: painfully and scarily contorted girl, check; possessed speaking in different languages, check; possessed knowing things about people that she shouldn’t know, check; demons transferring bodies, double check. Alas it doesn’t do more than doing well what has been done before.
So nothing is done wrong here but it brings nothing new either. It lingered with me a bit, but I’m thinking more so because after the movie I started reading about exorcisms on the interent and freaked myself out. Also, three times in a row when I came upon this pic there was a loud unexplained bang in my house.
Hailing from South Korea, I would classify Bedevilled as a feminist revenge flick. It starts with an uppity career woman who is forced to take a vacation after an incident at work. She heads back to her home island where she grew up. There we meet her childhood friend Bok-nam, who really steals the show as a weak woman who manages to keep up a happy appearances as she is raped, cheated on, and lied to.
Bedevilled also tells the story of the dying island, possibly representative of the dying rural life and their isolated cultural ideals. There are only two middle aged men left on the island, along with Bok-nam, her daughter, and a slew of elderly woman who keep up with the farming and beekeeping. It plays out in a Kafkaesque fashion; Bok-nam’s suffering is almost absurd, as no one listens to her pleas for help and her escape attempts thwarted, she still manages to keep her sanity on an insanely hopeless island.
What is more sinister about Bedevilled is the terrible adherence the inhabitants keep to their own lies. They all reaffirm their own brainwashing, but deep down they seem conflicted and know what they are doing. When the little girl is accidentally killed during a fight, the whole village bands together to lie in order to protect the men, who under normal circumstances would be jailed on the spot.
Bedevilled builds slowly with methodical pacing. We know something is off about this island and eventually we learn everyone is guilty, but not obviously; there is no pure evil here (although pretty close), these people are just used to a certain way and when isolated from the mainland slowly become out of touch. Even Bok-nam, who should’ve left long ago or have toughened up and become a modern woman, like her old friend from Seoul advises, has lost it. The payoff delivers, not quite as well as the build-up. By the end, no one is right and a lot of people are punished.
I saw this one in the theater with my children. I think my son willed himself asleep after about 30 minutes or so because it was too stimulating for his three year old sensibilities. My daughter really liked it and could relate back to me the basic plot points of this film. I think I liked it even more than her.
Paranorman follows a boy who sees the dead. He is definitely an outcast in his town. He is bullied and made fun of and likes to be alone. He is approached by his uncle who also has the same gift and gives Norman a task to read a book at the old witch’s grave site. His uncle dies soon after so Norman must figure out why this task is so important.
This movie drives home a good lessons for kids and adults, that holding onto your anger only makes things worse, hurting people back will rarely make you feel better and being alone isn’t always the best choice. It also deals with some heavy themes when we find out the witch was just a little girl killed by people who were scared of her back in colonial times. Norman must face his own fears and prove to his family and town that being an outcast doesn’t make him less of a person.
This is a stop-motion style animated film. I think I liked it more than the classic Nightmare Before Christmas, though it will never have the staying power of that movie. It captures the right kind of balance of a family movie, that doesn’t talk down to kids while still keeping the adults entertained. It does get intense at the end, for a 5 year old.
This may be the best pure Haunted House movie since the Shining. It focuses on a male and a female pair of hotel workers on the last weekend of the hotel’s existence. First thing I enjoyed was the cuteness of the employees, they joke and are nerds together while dealing with the last few guests. They have purchased some equipment to aid in detecting any paranormal activity because of the inn’s sketchy past.
Accolades truly need to go to director Ti West (House of the Devil, V/H/S) for creating a real character out of the old inn. He creates an inn and it’s last remaining patrons with flavor. He knows how to play off of our fears without having to inundate us with creepy image after creepy image. I can recall each specific frightening scene. When those frightening images are vital to the story, they stop being simple scare-porn and actually affect me beyond the startle.
I can see The Innkeepers putting off your average horror thrill seeker, primarily because of its pacing (read: character and plot development over “boo!”). If you really allow yourself to invest into this film, the rewards are great. We’re left never knowing how much of the horror was paranormal and how much of it was in the characters’ allowing themselves to be taken over by the fear, a true accomplishment. Plus, it never gets too heavy and retains a sense of fun throughout picture… all the way to the tragic end.
The Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods is pure awesome. Everything about it screamed cliché to a point of ridiculousness. But that is its point, the mystery is, why is it so cliché? Just as Scream called attention to itself by allowing its characters to be aware of horror movie rules and conventions, Cabin takes it to the next level. We have college kids driving to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. On the way they stop at a spooky old gas station with hooks and chains dangling from the ceiling with a creepy old man giving an ominous warning about where they are headed. It’s all too obvious and even the characters say so. Cabin pays homage to just about every horror convention by the time it is finished.
So the twist, we find out early on, is that these kids are being monitored and also pushed towards their grisly fate by a team of “engineers”. A lot of comedy is derived from this large team of engineers watching and even placing bets on the college kids’ next decision. These doomed kids also bring humor and realism to the movie. They joke, tease, and behave, for the most part, rationally.
As the kids go further down the rabbit hole, we learn the lovecraftian reasoning behind why this seemingly super-rich, super-sophisticated team are on-the-clock to sacrifice innocents. The innocents do a good job holding their own, especially the character playing classic stoner role, or “fool” as they label him. He is paranoid but obviously for a good reason. Without spoiling too much, we eventually are introduced to about every “American” horror creature ever seen. Cabin goes beyond entertainment and shows us what scares us, how “meta” we’ve become, pokes fun at how common it is to be surveilled, and possibly even why.
My favorite of the bunch has to be The Woman. If you haven’t noticed I appreciate horror films that do more than just scare, but also try to say something more. I find the greatest horrors to come from within ourselves and what we are capable of. Truly, this is what all horror is, since we are the creators of it, and why believability is key. Although The Woman is somewhat of an absurd proposition, it still connects with me in odd ways.
The Woman is an anti-misogyny piece that starts us off at an all-American picnic with a dominating patriarch and his daughters, son, and weak willed wife. How controlling he is, we soon find out. During a hunt he finds a “wild” woman, who speaks no english and lives life as an animal akin to a wolf. This frightens the man’s sensibilities, which in turn arouses him. So he does what any logical, civilized, domineering man does, he captures her and chains her in the storm cellar.
Under the auspices of training her and civilizing her, he introduces her to his family. The family helps out in the chores of cleaning her, feeding her and so on. The son takes a peculiarly sexual interest in the chained up woman, who doesn’t look so bad after she’s been cleaned up by a pressure washer. The actress who plays “The Woman” does a bang-up job of communicating without words and the movie makes a special point to show the womanly connection between the women of the family and the wild one despite the language and cultural barrier.
This is another revenge picture, very similar in some themes to Bedevilled. While it took constant depravity and abuse for Bok-nam to become the animal, the animal in The Woman is already pure. She is something to attach to, a primal desire hidden in us, which is where the fear comes from in The Woman. Our primal urge for her to destroy her oppressors can be unnerving. She is not right or wrong, her priorities are simple, and being caged is not one of them. It is somehow the sickest of the movies I watched, but without losing any of its entertainment value. The only thing I question is the use of some of the indie-rock songs for the score.
The unknown is less horrifying when the magic is revealed. Like Rod Serling said, “There was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there when the lights were on.” But there are times when even the magician allows himself to be tricked. Keep lights off, my friends.