grave-encounters-posterI find those shows about Ghost Hunters amusing. Half the cable networks-including Animal Planet has them. Their overly dramatic reveals of nothing but camera lens flares and static sounds that they pass off as evidence.

Of all the ideas for a found footage film, this is the greatest setup ever. A ghost Hunter show films in an old asylum…a things go to hell. The idea explains why you have all this footage that is grainy and shaky. It is a perfect set up for jump scares and real freakiness.

And aside from a goofy opening, where some guy explains that this is a found footage film, Grave Encounters starts off spectacularly. Sean Rogerson’s Lance Preston is the quintessential snake oil salesman. He and his crew conduct interviews with no regard for fact and flair for the dramatic. When Lance announces he has brought in “psychic” Houston Gray (McKenzie Gray) we are treated to a wonderful sequence of over acting. Houston is clearly a sham (McKenzie Gray is terrific in this role).

The film does a great job as it sets up the scams. The interviews before they are locked in for the night establishes the creepiness of the asylum’s history. Granted, it borrows heavily from the plot of the 1999 House On Haunted Hill in that regards. But, a haunted asylum formerly run by an evil doctor? Winner horror movie concept. After they are locked inside, they start wandering the asylum in the dark. Noone is all that scared, until little noises and shadows and slamming doors start freeking them out.

And that is where it gets messy. The crew starts freaking out…as the events get crazy. But things start to happen that do not make real sense. One guy is pulled into a tub of blood and is suddenly gone. Smoke fills the room and someone disappears. The ghosts rely on the whole warped face effect that became popular on Web videos meant to scare the crap out of you.

The ending is the final point that takes a great idea and strives for no attempt at freshness. It references rips off a sequence from House On Haunted Hill. It squanders this wonderful idea, which could have given the Paranormal Activity films a run for their money falls woefully short.

The film looks good, it really could pass for outtakes from any number of paranormal investigation shows. The actors do a terrific job. Much of the film really works. It is frustrating to me as a viewer that a film that starts out so truly promising could muck it up so far along into the film. It is the final twenty minutes or so that takes this film off the rails.

greystone-park-posterA bit of advice to aspiring found footage filmmakers.  STOP SETTING YOUR FILMS IN HAUNTED ASYLUMS.  I AM NOT KIDDING.  EVEN IF YOUR DAD IS OLIVER STONE.

You readers might think that last line is a joke.  And that is probably because you have not seen Greystone Park.  Sean Stone, son of Oliver Stone, brings us a film that borrows liberally from it’s predecessors.  Sean has worked mostly in the realm of documentary and shorts… But I do not think you should cut a filmmaker new to a genre so much slack that you ignore things that are not excused by being new to the genre.

And yet, Sean Stone thought the cool idea for a horror movie is to do a found footage film set in an abandoned and haunted asylum with a tragic past!  And I get it.  My  hard reaction here is not because the “People Trapped in Haunted Asylum” is a bad idea.  It is not.  It is a very strong idea.  Unfortunately, it has become a crutch for the found footage industry.  Grave Encounters 1 & 2, Paranormal Incident, Episode 50 all used this notion.  And it predates the found footage genre as well…There were films like GothikaHouse on Haunted Hill and Return to House on Haunted Hill and the excellent Session 9.

So, now that I got that off my chest?  Lets begin.

Using the Cloverfield style of footage taped over footage introduces us to Sean and his friends conversing about fear over dinner with his father “Oliver”-played by Oliver Stone…and there is problem # 1.  Yeah, I was not familiar with all the actors…but it was not hard to discover that Sean is Oliver’s son.  So, it begs the question, are we supposed to think this is a story about Sean Stone, son of Oliver Stone, famous film director?  Or was it simply easier for the filmmakers to not have to remember character names?

Anyways, Sean and three of his friends go into the abandoned asylum (Greystone Park was an actual abandoned asylum that looks creepy as hell) to face their fears.  We get quick snippets of old footage of the asylum, which I am unsure how they got to be part of this found footage.  As they explore, they run into scary sounds, dolls and a dining area.  Soon, it becomes apparent they are victims of a practical joke perpetrated by the friends from dinner.

But then it goes horribly wrong and the real ghosts go on a killing spree.  This is all because one character declares that “Ghosts can’t hurt you, right?!”  That is like asking “But…dinosaurs cannot eat you, right?” in Jurassic Park.  The film is an unfortunate mess of cliches taken from other films.  It brings nothing new to the asylum or found footage genres.  The characters are not engaging, so it becomes hard to become invested in the story.

Ignoring traditional found footage rules, they use a musical score and it is not helpful.  It simply hints that these character’s experiences cannot draw you in, so the music tells you the needed beats.  While the visuals are okay, nothing about the film manages to set it apart from other films of the same genre.  It adds nothing, while borrowing nothing.  The film commits the worst of movie sins.  It got boring.  The “exciting parts” were dull.  I had seen this before in movies that suddenly looked better to me in comparison.

Oh yeah…one other bit of advice for aspiring filmmakers?  STOP ADVERTISING YOUR FILMS AS “BASED ON A TRUE STORY”!  IT IS A FILM ABOUT GHOSTS MURDERING PEOPLE IN AN ABANDONED ASYLUM AND WE KNOW THAT HAS NOT HAPPENEDNOT EVEN TO OLIVER STONE’S KID.

Oren Peli made his name with the found footage genre-specifically the Paranormal Activity franchise. With the Chernobyl Diaries, he leaves found footage behind. First, the idea of setting your horror movie in Chernobyl is really a stroke of genius. If you have ever seen photographs from Chernobyl, you know there is a sad and haunted feel to them. To use a place that is so shrouded in an unknown quality (mainly since it is uninhabitable) is a terrific notion for a scary film.

chernobyl_diaries_posterThe Chernobyl Diaries is about three young adults visiting a friend living in Russia.  He convinces them to take a specialty tour of Chernobyl.  Along with another tourist couple, they are taken by Uri (an ex-Russian Military special forces) to wander around Chernobyl.  The deal seems a bit shady, as Chernobyl is not open to tourists for pretty damn good reasons.

Uri plays a practical joke at the edge of a small creek, before they find a strange looking fish lying dead on the ground.  Uri had made a comment earlier in the film that nature was reclaiming the land and it starts to look like this is very true.

Uri leads the group around  to various buildings, ever conscious of radiation via a small detector.  As the day starts to draw to a close the group returns to Yuri’s van.  They discover the fan’s engine is destroyed.  As it grows darker, they start hearing strange noises coming from the buildings.  Uri goes outside with a gun, and after hearing gunfire, two of the young men rush after him.  They soon return, one of the young men wounded from an attack by rabid wild dogs.    However, dogs are not the primary threat.  The friends are not alone.  When the sun rises, they decide to try and make their way to the nearest checkpoint to get help.  They leave behind their wounded friend and his girlfriend.

As they try to find Uri, they slip deeper inside the buildings.  Eventually they discover Uri’s remains and find themselves on the run from something else.  They start losing light and return to the van to find it it completely totaled.  They find that a video camera is still running and watch the footage.  Something has taken their friends.  They hear screams, so the survivors run towards the noise.  They find the girlfriend, and the chase begins.  It turns out that Chernobyl was not abandoned overnight after all.  Some people stayed behind and became mutant hillbilly cannibals.

And that is where it just starts to fall apart.  It turns out that they were inside one of the reactors, causing the leads to rapidly fall ill with radiation poisoning.  How have these mutants survived so long apparently living in the reactors and apartments nearby?  And cannibal mutants?  Hasn’t that idea pretty much been rammed into the ground?  The sense of mystery seemed loss.  It would have been more interesting had the mutations been something other than diseased humans.

It is also a bit hard to follow, at times you would think you were watching a found footage film in the jerky camera moves where it seems like the cameraman is rushing to catch up with the characters.  It certainly has it’s entertaining moments (Uri is a fun character) but the story becomes less compelling as you start to know more of what is happening.

the_final_girls_posterYou can go one of two ways with a horror comedy.  Either you can show your disdain for the genre by mocking it…or you can pay a generous homage to it.  Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls goes the second route, and it pays off.

The film tells the story of Max (Taissa Farmiga) whose mother Nancy (Malin Ackerman) is a struggling actress whose biggest claim to fame was a slasher film from 20 years ago.  Upon losing her mother in a car wreck, Max has quietly moved on as best she can.  She is begged by Duncan (Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley) to attend a special screening of the first two films in the franchise that made her mother famous.

In a freak accident Max, her friends Gertie (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development), Vicki (Nina Dobrev, the Vampire Diaries), Chris (Alexander Ludwig, the Hunger Games and oddly enough a completely different film called Final Girl) and Duncan find themselves trapped within the original Camp Bloodbath.  As they try to survive the film, Max finds an opportunity to reconnect with her mother through her character Amanda.  This is a lot more effective than I expected.  Farmiga and Ackerman connect quite well.

The film manages to have fun with the tropes of the genre and earn their laughs.  Rather than go for Scary Movie Parody, the jokes are smarter and more fun.  Also, while acknowledging the exploitation elements of slasher films, the film itself tends to avoid cheap nudity.  There is a gag where a way to attract the killer of the film, Billy, a woman needs to just start stripping.  Plenty of directors would have used this as a cheap excuse for gratuitous nudity, yet the nudity is all off-screen.

The Final Girls is a horror comedy worth seeing.

cooties_posterKids are mean.  We all know that.  Cooties just takes that to the next level.  Cooties opens with the most gruesome images possible.  Chickens being ground into chicken nuggets. Because tainted chicken nuggets will cause stuff.

Then we meet Clint (Elijah Wood), an aspiring writer making ends meet as a substitute teacher.  He has no real heart for it…he uses his class to get notes on his horror novel.  In the midst of a reading, the class bully is attacked by by a girl he was teasing, getting a severe bite.

Soon, the teachers find themselves trying to survive in a school of zombie children.  They hope to hold out in a room, but this is a horror film.  Mayhem cannot be avoided.

And a hilarious massacre it is.  The film’s zombie still behave like kids, they run, they jump, they play with grown ups by ripping them to pieces.  Just like my nephews.  But seriously, the film takes an absurd premise and has a lot of fun with it.

While there is nothing truly original in the setups, the writing makes great use of cliched things like love triangles, absurdly overbearing gym teachers, clueless adults, etc.  The film has fun with it’s cliches, rather than hiding behind it to pretend to have a plot.

Along with clever writing, the film is populated with terrific comedic character actors such as Rainn Wilson, Nasim Pedrad and Jack McBrayer.  Elijah Wood and Alison Pill are terrific fun as well.  And Leigh Wannell (one of the few actor’s known for his straight up horror roles) is entertaining as an oddball science teacher.  Oh yeah, and Jorge Garcia from Lost is quite entertaining as a stoner school crossing guard.

Much like Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, the film is quite gory, yet somehow manages to not overpower the comedy.  The effects are solid and help sell the horror side of the film.  Simply put, I was laughing throughout the film, and was engaged by the characters through the entire film.

Sinister Times (Sinister, 2012)

Last year, a movie called Insidious was released.  Director Scott Derrickson saw that and set about discussing ideas with the guys who produced Insidious.  What Derrickson and his team have produced is Sinister.  What exactly is it?

Ethan Hawke is Ellison, a real crime writer who  hit it big with his first novel (partially because it helped expose shoddy police work and free an innocent man) but has seen decline in the years that followed.  This is hot home in that the only book people ask him to sign in the film is that first book.  He believes that if he can just find that one story for a new book…he can return to that former glory.

To this end, he moves his family into a home where the previous family was murdered and one of the children disappeared.  Ellison hopes to crack the mystery, maybe even help find out what became of the missing child.  To make this possible, he moves his family into the very home where the previous family was killed.  When setting up his office, he goes into the attic, and discovers an old box marked Home Movies.

In the box, Ellison finds a set of super eight films and a projector.  This discovery sets in motion a series of events that leads to a most inevitable ending.  As he watches each film and starts to research what he sees, he finds the story growing and growing into something…terrifying.

As thrillers and horror films go, Sinister is a strong story.  It uses some risky devices, and in a lot of hands, this might have become a Hostel style gore-fest.  Instead, Derrickson will often shy from graphic violence in favor of unnerving the viewer.  In one scene, we are focused on Hawke- causing the screen behind him to be blurry-we know what’s happening, but Hawke’s horror is telling us what we need to know.  And another nicely shot reflects a portion of the screen in Ellison’s glasses.  The film quickly will cut away from possible gore, yet not hide from the horror.

The audio of the film really absorbs the viewer.  It is hard to tell where sound effects and musical queues are ending or beginning.  Music will be punctuated with a sound that relates to the (silent) super 8 image (such as a lawn mower).  You will hear woven into the music the sound of the super 8 projector.  The sound department and composer Christopher Young provide support to Derrickson’s story that pull you inside the story.  There are musical moments still worming through and haunting my brain.

Derrickson, his cinematographer Chris Norr and film editor Frédéric Thoraval create an incredibly strong visual sense.  The repeated choppy shots of Hawke splicing film or threading film through the projector creates a frenetic sense of urgency and he works his way through each horrifying film reel.  There is a wonderful shot of Hawke falling asleep on his couch and the scene going from night to day.

Throughout the film, Hawke’s Ellison talks about his legacy, his desire to have one more shot.  His wife struggles to reach through that to get him to see his family should be his center.  The problem is, he thinks that is exactly what is driving his desire to break down the wall of success.  It’s for his family.  We get to see footage of a younger Ellison being interviewed where he argues bringing justice trumps any feelings of fame and the importance of family over fortunes…we see he has lost his way these things…or maybe he never believed them in his heart.

Along with Ellison’s struggles between the hope of fame and his family, there are metaphysical questions regarding spiritual things, media and how it changes the nature of human kind.

In light of the various themes, the film’s final spoken line is both tragic, chilling and apropos.

Sinister is a powerful experience.  Along with the visuals and audio, Hawke is compelling in his role as a man unraveling.  He is grasping for a hand to grab hold of, but he’s being dragged further into a despairing abyss.  I would have to say this is probably the best serious horror experience I have had this year.

Also, a movie monster that is a snappy dresser.  Love those.

Into the Mire (Muck, 2015)

Muck_posterMuck opens with a group of friends who just survived an attack on St. Patrick’s Day in a marsh.  They apparently got separated in the chaos, but they came together again and hole up and a random vacation home.  Once there characters go off for help, others stay and wait.  They discover they are not alone, and the carnage begins.

The film is only about an hour and a half, and yet, it feels much longer.  It is slow moving, and has to many false starts to potential scares.  The camera focuses on, say, a doorknob on a half open door, closing in on it with “scary music” playing.  Then the scene ends.  There is a long and drawn out scene at a bar where the guy who ran for help runs into a bunch of people and nothing happens.  He does not call the police or anything.  The bigger question is…if it was that easy to get to the bar?  Why didn’t everyone just go walking off with him?

Most of the women in the film seem to be there for how they look in push-up bras or even topless.  There is one character who just wanders through the swamps topless…we never see her face and in the final indignity in the credits?  The actress is unnamed.  They show her (cutting her head from the frame) and block out her name.

The film tries to be meta and clever.  They are in the town of Wes Craven.  When the friends get to the house one of the guys goes on in a speech explaining how this is a text book horror movie.  none of this is done well.

The real carnage is in the story.  It is not a problem to start in the middle as the film does.  But you have to offer clues and fill in the blanks.  If you don’t you just leave the viewer confused.  It is unclear the connection between the creatures attacking the friends and Kane Hodder’s Grawesome Crutal.  They look similar, but that appears to be lazy design.  They are all caked in a white make-up with some scar designs.

The monsters of the film do not seem to have a specific goal or purpose, at least not one the film hints at.  Is the setting on St. Patrick’s Day Significant?  It does not appear to be.  Kane Hodder’s character is lacking any definition.  It is as if they hired Hodder on the promise of an iconic Jason type role…and then never actually thought about what they wanted him to be.  Leaving Hodder with little to work with beyond being big and imposing.

The timeline is confusing and messy.  It is never clear when the time is jumping back.  It is a clear attempt to show us something and then see it from a new perspective.  But instead of being illuminating?  It just leaves it it feeling more confused than before.  The film’s lighting works against the film.  The lighting is often muddled and resulting in hard to understand pictures.  The only time there ever seems to be any attention to lighting is to make sure you can see when the girls  are posing.

The film wants to be an eighties throw back, but they seem to think that mainly means “lots of Boobs.”  Practically every single actress appears topless or naked.  I personally think that is setting the bar low.  But when you have Kane Hodder in your horror film and give second billing to a Playboy Playmate who is in about ten minutes of the film?  Clearly your film has problems.  I realize that horror films in the 80’s actually did that all the time (hyping centerfolds appearing in the film)…but here it just feels like the filmmakers miss the point of “throwback”.  80’s horror tends to have at least a minimal plot.

Muck has somehow garnered a sequel for 2016 called Muck: Feast of St. Patrick.  Will it answer the questions?  If it does?  Probably very badly.

Freddy-vs.-Jason-2003-movie-posterFor about a decade Newline tried to come up with a movie bringing Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees together in a single film.  There were a lot of false starts.  It had been awhile since we saw film franchises cross (Aliens v Predator was still a year away).  You had to expect that in the end, this would probably be terrible.  When they announced Ronny Yu would be directing, that offered some hope, as his Bride of Chucky was actually quite entertaining.  The news that while Englund was back, Kane was not left more than a few fans disappointed.  Watching the completed film?  I actually had fun. Sure this ain’t high art. But it was funny, energetic and kind of interesting. The effects were pretty solid overall, though some moments were clearly computer generated. And the Jason Mewes clone(I kid you not…I expected him to yell “Snootchie Bootchies!”) was a bit ridiculous.

I think Kane Hodder brings a bit more personality to Jason than Ken Kirzinger did.  Part of that is that Kane is a six foot, broad wall of muscle.  His Jason is large and powerful looking.  Kirzinger is a bit taller and less broad…his Jason look much taller and sleeker.  The same can be said for Derek Mears from the 2010 remake of Friday the 13th.  These guys were not bad…but they were not Hodder.

There was a generous amount of nudity, for those who feel that is important to a slasher flick(I do not fall into that camp I am afraid). This is clearly more of a carryover from the Friday the 13th series…there’s nudity in the Elm Streets of course…but not to the degree that there is in a Jason flick.

For Jason, this is a redemption of sorts from the painful Jason X. Thankfully, that took place far in the future and this movie could happily ignore it.  The writers found a pretty interesting way to bring the characters together.  Freddy had lost access to his power, the kids of Elm Street are drugged and no longer dreaming.  So to cause them to fear again, he resurrects Jason and sends him on a murder spree.  but when Freddy is finally strong enough, he finds Jason out of control-killing Freddy’s intended victims.

So Freddy embarks on a mission to take down Jason so he can get back to his own killing spree.  Meanwhile, Lori (Monica Keena) and her friends are trying to figure out how to stop Freddy and Jason with the help of a local cop (Lochlyn Munro) who transferred in from the Camp Crystal Lake area.

Englund slipped right back into the role of Freddy. Cracking wise and being generally vicious. But he pulls it off…Freddy seems a little darker than in the sequels that followed the original. Not a comedian who kills…and some of the facial reactions he pulls off under that makeup is great.  There is a great moment where he suddenly realizes he has been pulled into the real world, and Englund’s expression is that of genuine fear.

As I said towards the beginning, this is a fun movie with a lot of energy, mostly for fans of the franchises, but horror fans in general should be able to find stuff to like.

friday-the-13th-remake-poster2009 one of those reboots, much like 2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street.  And, to an extent, you know…maybe a franchise should get a fresh reboot every few years.  But the only fresh thing about the 2009 reboot of Friday the 13th?  They compressed the entire first film into a two minute opening sequence.  It follows the basic trajectory of  a Jason based movie.  No new take.  Just more CW actors, lots of gratuitous nudity of the female variety (unlike the Nightmare reboot, girls drop their tops for things like wake boarding).

Sure, the violence is slicker, the kills a bit more over the top.  But the story is no stronger, the humor falls slatt-uh-flatter…

In rebooting, they basically follow exact same formula.  Campers go out and party, stumble on Jason (or vice versa) and mayhem follows.  It’s the same old story.  Well, except, there are now underground tunnels.

Jason is “smarter” in this film, seeming to make plans and set traps. So, there is that.  The teens, on the other hand, are a mixed bag.  You have the first totally disposable group.  Jason offs them quickly so as to set up the plot of Jared Padelecki from Supernatural (now both leads from that show have a horror remake under their belts) as a concerned brother looking for his missing sister.

He meets up with a group of kids led by the requisite rich jerk that apparently hangs out with people who hate him-but want to take advantage of his awesome cabin conveniently located right on Camp Crystal Lake.  You have the funny black guy, the desperate virgin Asian guy, the hot free spirit, the hot sensitive girl and the hot sex kitten (who is almost indistinguishable from the hot free spirit), the rebel and the rich jerk.

Jared and the rich jerk do not get along-because Rich Jerks do not care about little things like missing and possibly dead family.  But Rich Jerk’s girlfriend-the hot sensitive girl- takes pity on Jared and they go walking through the woods.

Jason has set up shop beneath the old and abandoned camp in tunnels.  Because… why not?  (Real answer: it was a solution by the screenwriters to explain how Jason can just “show up” everywhere)  He has Jared’s sister chained up because…well, we do not really know, there is some indication she looks a lot like Jason’s mom.  So, like any good son, he chains his mother figure up in a cave.  What?  You wouldn’t?

There are a series of random deaths, as Jason works his way through the characters.  Eventually, Jason has whittle the cast down to Jared, Hot Sensitive Girl and Jared’s Sister.  They have a final showdown with Jason and dump him in the lake.  Then it’s time for the Sudden Scare.

The movie never makes any use of it’s potentially interesting aspects.  I mean, why not play around with Jason’s apparent mother fixation on Jared’s sister?  Maybe show Jason trying to be the good but homicidal son?  Not understanding why mommy is displeased with gifts like a human head?

What we are left with is a film that pretty much reinvents the wheel with a glossy finish.  There are kills, weak jokes, predictable jumps points, and zero surprises.  Some of the various sequels took bigger risks than this reboot.

But hey, white supremacist horror movie fans will be relieved to know that non-white people still cannot get out of one of these movies alive.

jasonxPretty much ignoring Jason Goes to Hell, Jim Isaac (director) and Todd Farmer (writer) give us Jason’s first (and to date only) trip to space.  Eat your heart out Neil Armstrong.

Granted, both the Leprechaun and Pinhead (from the Hellraiser films) had already gone into space about five years before, so it is not a wholly original idea.

The film begins with a top secret military base below Camp Crystal Lake (!) where Jason is being held until he can be transported by movie director David Cronenberg (!) and a bunch of military guys.  This goes badly, and Jason ends up trapped in cryogenic sleep along with a young woman named Rowan (Lexa Doig) who was trying to prevent his escape.

Decades later they are found by students on a field trip to a now barren earth.  The students bring them back to their ship and their teacher thinks he can get a lot of money for Jason.  They revive Rowan, then Jason wakes up and mayhem ensues.

The film has middling effects, the practical stuff looks good, but the digital looks very, well, digital.  The story is out there and includes all sorts of odd things like a girl android in love with her creator, Jason getting a chrome makeover, killing holographic campers, soldiers hanging out on the spaceship, terrible “Future Clothing Fashion”…there is a ridiculously high body count in this film.  It is full of stock characters (the stoner, the smart kid, the jock, the greedy guy, etc) who never amount to much.

This film never worries about explaining why Jason is not in hell.  It never worries about explaining much, actually.  Needless to say, this helped the studio push forward with a Freddy and Jason movie to wash the taste of this one out of fans mouths.