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The Frighteners – 8

January 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Peter Jackson

Cast – Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne

Release Year – 1996

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Horror consumes my life, but even then I have not seen every major horror film there is. The Frighteners is the most recent notable effort to be remove from such a list, and it was as good as I expected it to be. Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a man who attained a unique ability to speak to the dead after the sudden death of his wife. Frank does not use his abilities lightly though, and has since become a con man who employs spirits to haunt unsuspecting / potential “customers” and leave them no choice but to call him to remove the “evil” presence. However, when a real demonic spirit invades the town and starts killing at will, Frank becomes the only hope in saving the living from the dead.

The story kicks off right away and gives you the impression that this is going to be a really scary movie, then you realize you are being fooled just like Frank’s “haunted” customers. It is then that you realize this flick is going to be more “fun” than scary, which I expected because over the years I never heard this film referred to as scary. The first act is highly comedic, with fun characters and consistent jokes for you to enjoy. These jokes come from both Frank Bannister as well as his restless undead companions, each with their own unique personality. Nearly all of the main characters was colorful in their own right, with FBI Special Agent Milton Dammers taking the cake as the most outlandish. He was written superbly awesome, in the weirdest of ways, and left me laughing in my seat on several occassions. During the second act the kills begin to hit the screen, with a Grim Reaper-esque being delivering death via squeezing the life out of his victim’s heart. Frank’s unique abilities allow him to see, in sequential order, who the demon’s next victim will be, but only moments before they are to be taken from this world. This gives him little time to save the person’s life, or even convince them that they are in danger, which of course increases the conflict and tension. A fair amount of kills are written into the film and paced at just the right times, but don’t expect much when it comes to gore. There is ONE kill that will leave gorehounds happy, which was added when the filmmakers realized they were going to be tagged with an R-rating with or without the kill. When the third act hits we are provided a unique development where Frank goes through a drastic measure to make himself closer to the demon. This was done because he was powerless beforehand, but now he can fight. Jackson and his longtime co-writer Fran Walsh include constant developments over what is going on behind the killings, and while not overly shocking I did find the revelations towards the end of the film enjoyable.

Jackson’s direction is as good as his writing, although if you are expecting this to be like his previous horror flicks, Bad Taste and Dead Alive, you are in for a rude surprise. He sets the fun tone early on with great performances from Michael J. Fox and his ghastly companions, however horror legend Jeffrey Combes steals the show as Milton Dammers. It was incredible to see Combes deliver such an odd yet wonderfully executed performance unlike any you have seen in his filmography. Several other notables provide supporting roles, like R. Lee Ermy, Jake Busey, and another horror legend – Dee Wallace. Jackson’s horror was good, and while not scary it definitely kept me entertained. I enjoyed the look of the antagonist and the kill sequences, while tame on the surface (heart attack via a squeezed heart) were executed in strong fashion. Sadly, the antagonist and everything that has to do with him comes via CGI effects, which naturally lessens the severity. The CGI was not terrible, but it was not good either. With Jurassic Park debuting a few years earlier it is obvious that good technology was out there, but it was not in The Frighteners. Thankfully, there is so much more going on in the film that you learn to forgive it for the CGI blasphemy. Just look at Peter Jackson’s works since then, his Hobbit trilogies are nothing without computer-generated imagery.

Overall, The Frighteners is a great 90s film that provides a fun story with great execution from one of the genre’s masters who has sadly refrained from returning. You won’t find many scares here, but this is a flick that you can enjoy with a group of friends.

Rating: 8/10

…Additional Stills…

Jeffrey Combs

The Damned – 5

January 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Victor Garcia

Cast – Peter Facinelli, Sophia Myles, Nathalia Ramos, Carolina Guerra, Sebastian Martinez, Gustavo Angarita, Juan Pablo Gamboa

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

Don’t you just love stories where unsuspecting know-it-alls believe they are doing a good deed, only to find out that their deed proves to be the worst possible decision they could have made? I love those stories, and that is the case with The Damned. When a group of family and friends barely survive a flash flood, they beg for refuge in a secluded inn. They find a young girl locked in the basement, and without pause they let her free…unknowingly releasing an ancient spirit that will consume them all.

The screenplay comes written by Thirteen Ghosts writer Richard D’Ovidio, and shares a story credit with David Higgins (Burning Bright). The events come rolling in pretty quick, with the traveling band of naïve individuals ignoring the pleas of a local police officer and suffering a dangerous crash when their vehicle is swept away by the tremendous rainwater. They wind up at the hotel pretty early, and right from the get-go we are informed that there is something very “off” about the place. There have been no guests in 30 years, the phone lines have been cut, and it is obvious the caretaker, Felipe, is not keen to strangers and does not want them snooping around. Sure enough, they snoop around and let the girl out at the 28 minute mark, sealing their fate. From then on out the horror creeps and eventually develops into a possession film with nowhere to run but plenty of space to die. The writers include an interesting element for the possession, where the only way you can become possessed is if you kill the possessed person. Naturally, one would say “well don’t kill the person”, however the person is still trying to kill you, or someone you love, so in a sense there are situations where you have no choice but to make the kill and leave yourself as the possessed individual. I did not necessarily enjoy this method, as I prefer more typical methods of possession (they’re creepier), but I’ll give credit for being different.

So how is the horror? It’s OK. It’s a possession film, which is cool, but as I mentioned earlier the possession scenes aren’t as creepy as standard possession tactics. Those possessed talk in cheesy demonic voices and eventually develop a decayed look, but it appears that only happens when they get angry, which is silly. We are provided plenty of kills, but sadly some of them occur offscreen and are nowhere near as gory as one would expect for such a film in the possession / Spanish sub-genres – both known for good gore.

Mirrors 2 and Hellraiser: Revelations director Victor Garcia directs this piece, and he a fair job. The atmosphere is great and he sets the tone early with gloomy cinematography (exposure, desaturation) and solid sets for the home and underground prison. When the horror gets going I felt his execution should have been better. The voices were too cheesy (not the good kind) and the look of the possessed was not the least bit scary, or cool. His kill sequences were pretty tame as well, with little gore and seldom were they filmed in a frontal fashion. There was much potential for good horror here, but it failed to surface.

Overall, The Damned is another mediocre flick out there that you should pass over for better efforts.

Rating: 5/10

The House at the End of Time – 8

January 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Alejandro Hidalgo

Cast – Ruddy Rodriguez, Rosmel Bustamante, Adriana Calzadilla, Simona Chirinos, Gonzalo Cubero, Guillermo Garcia

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I had been waiting for this film to release on Video on Demand formats ever since its many positive reviews after debuting (in the US) at the Frightfest Film Festival earlier this year. This marked my first time viewing a Venezuelan horror film, and pardon my ignorance but I was unaware that Venezuela put out horror films to begin with. Going into this flick I was expecting a supernatural tale heavy in ghosts and paranormal activity, but what I was given turned out to be so much more than that. The House at the End of Time uses its supernatural elements in a manner I was not expecting, which is partly my fault because I expected the usual cliches seen in other Spanish language horror films. What we are given here is an emotionally absorbed story that moonlights as a typical spookfest, excelling at both, and making this one of my favorite horror films of 2014.

Thirty years ago Dulce suffered the effects of a supernatural presence that left her husband dead. Convicted of his murder, she has been released to spend her remaining days in her old home, where she will once again face the forces that haunted her thirty years prior.

The opening sequences takes nearly seven minutes to complete, and it will leave you sucked in for everything else writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo has to offer. To begin the film the older, post-thirty-year-incarcerated Dulce is released from prison and reluctantly brought to her home. It is obvious that she is uneasy about returning to the location of such despair, and it is also obvious that the demons, which she referred to as “intruders” have been waiting for her. With the unsolicited help of a local priest who took an interest to the strange circumstances behind the murder, she begins to piece together what exactly happened that night, and how she can fix the past. I mentioned before that this is much more than a supernatural film. Without giving too much away I will say that the story uses time in a very unique manner. For the first two acts you will likely be confused about what is going on, but the third act ties everything together in what I can only describe as a “beautiful” manner.

Atmosphere to the extreme…

So is this even a horror film? Heck yes it is. The first act plays off like the traditional haunted house flick, but as the story progresses it loses that element and ventures into a time / reality-bending theme that had me glued to the screen. We are still provided scares during this progression, but keep in mind they are of a different nature. It would be safe for me to say that the horror is toned down a bit after the first act, but the tension remains high and that should do enough to keep you on edge. I keep saying it, but this story is more than what it appears to be. It is an emotional film as much as it is a ghost flick, and to be honest this is one of the few genre films to make me genuinely sad. I would call this a good kind of sad, but nonetheless…it’s not often a flick leaves me feeling this way. Bonus points for the unique experience.

Alejandro Hidalgo’s direction is equally as good as his story. From the get-go he portrayed this like the creepy paranormal tale this was disguised as, giving me chills with even the simplest of scares. Good execution will do that. He employs amazing atmosphere and a creepy home to sell the spooks and keep the tension high, and I believe this visual appeal helped keep my attention during the film’s slightly confusing (eventually not confusing) moments. The actors deliver solid performances too, making this an all-around great film from a first-time filmmaker in a country not known for horror films.

Overall, The House at the End of Time is one of my favorite flicks of 2014 and an experience I highly suggest to you. Watch, pay attention, and you’ll enjoy.

Rating: 8/10

…Additional Stills…

At the Devil’s Door – 6

January 7, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Nicholas McCarthy

Cast – Catalina Sandino Moreno, Naya Rivera, Ashley Rickards

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I am sure we have all seen numerous films where a strange person shows up to someone’s front door, they let them in with good will, and the decision turns out to be a disastrous one. On the surface it looked like At The Devil’s Door would be this type of film, but I was wrong. While something similar does occur, writer/director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) delivers a truly unique experience that is unlike the majority of horror films we see these days. With such a story comes a few faults that kept it from greatness, but thanks to mostly-positive direction At The Devil’s Door provides a few good spooks.

When ambitious young real estate agent Leigh is asked to sell a home with a checkered past, she crosses paths with a disturbed girl whom she learns is the runaway daughter of the couple selling the property. When Leigh tries to intervene and help her, she becomes entangled with a supernatural force that soon pulls Leigh’s artist sister into its web – and has sinister plans for both of them.

McCarthy’s story begins with an engaging intro where a young girl makes the hasty decision to sell her soul to the Devil. The man who aids her in this transformation informs her that “he” will call for her soon, and soon enough he does. We are given some spooky scenes early on, about 12 minutes into the flick, where inanimate horror is used to taunt the young girl, and the viewer. I really enjoyed this sequence because its simplicity was highly effective, and inanimate horror has always been spooky for me. At the same time, we are also introduced to Leigh, and the hit/miss relationship she has with her sister Vera. Leigh first comes across the mysterious girl in red at the 20-minute mark, but she, and the viewer, are left to not think much of it. However, bout 15 minutes later we are exposed to an extreme development that changes everything we know about the girl in red. Hold on though, there is more. Less than ten minutes after this we are given another development that changes the scope of the plot, and this is a character-related one that I did not see coming. It is at this point that the horror begins to manifest greatly, giving us some surprising creature action and solid spooks until the flick’s love/hate climax.

I liked the story, but at the same time there was always something missing. It had the spooks, and they were paced very well, but the end result did not align with the horror seen beforehand. There is a payoff, but it is hardly a payoff worthy of the positive terror seen early on. I also was left a bit unengaged with the character play. The two sisters dominate the plot, but neither was really likable and that naturally leaves me not giving a damn about what happens to them. The same can also be said for the girl in red, so really, there is nothing to look forward here except for the horror and that is not always a good thing.

McCarthy’s direction fared much better than his writing. I enjoyed the atmosphere he provided and found its gloomy exposure and “temperature” to be fitting for the subject matter. His horror, especially the inanimate horror, left me very impressed as it gave me chills that I was not expecting. He managed to keep good tension as the film progressed, with the latter sequences of horror still spooking me despite some cheap CGI. The performances from the main actresses were fair, but that is about it. They were nothing special and nobody stole the show here, which is the one element of McCarthy’s direction that mimicked his writing.

Overall, At The Devil’s Door is one of those flicks that gets the good things right but at the same time lacks the elements that make for a good film. I enjoyed the horror, and you probably would too, but is it worth sitting through the rest of the film? You’ll need to watch and decide for yourself.

Rating: 6/10

…Additional Stills…

The Babadook – 8

December 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Director – Jennifer Kent

Cast – Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Barbara West

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

This low-budget Australian film has made waves across the genre since its Sundance debut in January of this year, and after much waiting it is finally available to the masses. Filmed on a very low budget that included crowd-funding via Kickstarter, Jennifer Kent’s (yes, a woman) debut horror film is this year’s greatest genre accomplishment. The Babadook excels in ways that 90% of other horror films do not – it legitimately scares the viewer. Refusing to rely on gore and cheap jump scares, this experience left me goosebump-riddled and in awe over what should be one of the genre’s spookiest antagonists.

Amelia, a single mother widowed after the violent death of her husband 6 years prior, has her hands full with her out of control son, Robbie. When he is not building makeshift weapons to fight monsters he is getting into serious trouble at school, but such antics become the least of Amelia’s worries when her son comes across a mysterious book titled “The Babadook”. As if things were not hectic enough, Robbie’s negative behavior grows in severity now that he believes The Babadook is lurking within their house. Robbie has pushed Amelia to her wit’s end, and little does she know…he’s telling the truth.

Jennifer Kent begins her story by setting us into the life that Amelia is forced to live. We learn right away that she lost her husband when he suffered an automobile accident while driving her to the hospital go give birth to their son Samuel. Since then, Amelia has remained a lonely soul with a dead-end job and a son who is an ever-growing problem in more ways than one. Soon enough the book turns up and Samuel’s insistence that The Babadook is real only increases the severity of the trouble he causes. With her life a wreck, Amelia is now susceptible to the demon’s (or whatever he is) influence, and 26 minutes into the film we get our first decent taste of horror. We continue to see the horror surface very 10 minutes or so, and it grows in intensity until you hear The Babadook speak and find yourself covered in goosebumps. After this the story took a turn that I was not expecting, focusing more on Amelia’s inner demons and not as much on the demon/Babadook itself, but that is not a complaint on my end. At the end of the film you will learn that the shift on focus was not really a shift in focus after all, as this is a story that deals with the consequences of living a life of grief and never recovering from it. I don’t want to go too into detail because it is possible that I could ruin some of the surprise and the payoff at the end of the film. If anything, just know that this story is so much more than the typical haunted house effort. It is a breath of fresh air.

Kent’s story is what makes this a unique watch, and it is her direction that makes it a scary one. She sucks us into her story early on by giving us a full-frontal take on what it is like to live in Amelia’s shoes. We are forced to deal with Samuel’s tantrums as well, and I guarantee that you will hate him as much as I did – which is exactly what Kent wanted. When the horror hits we are treated to simple spooks here and there, but at the 49 minute mark when we hear the Babadook’s voice I guarantee you I had goosebumps going up my legs – a rare occurrence reserved for the scariest of films. His voice was so simple yet highly effective and definitely my favorite moment of the film. There are other scares of equal quality, but given I watched this with my Sennheiser headphones his voice filled the perceived space around me as if he was actually there (hell…maybe he was). Kent’s atmosphere helped make these scares as great as they were, employing dark shadows and a spooky home that will prepare you for the scares that you won’t be able to beat.

Overall, The Babadook is an incredible accomplishment for Jennifer Kent and probably the best 2014 horror film I have seen so far.

Rating: 8/10

…Additional Stills…

Housebound – 5

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Director – Gerard Johnstone

Cast – Morgana O’Reilly, Rima Te Wiata, Glen-Paul Waru, Ross Harper, Cameron Rhodes, Ryan Lampp, Mick Innes, Bruce Hopkins

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

For the past few months I have been coming across nonstop praise for Housebound, a New Zealand horror/comedy, so I was admittedly pretty stoked when I finally rented the film on Amazon. It was a cold early afternoon and I figured a supernatural tale with a few good laughs would be my chicken soup for the soul, but I was wrong. Housebound is OK, but that is as good as it gets for me. Maybe I need to be from New Zealand to appreciate the film (although I did love Dead Alive), but this effort is far from the incredible horror/comedy genre fans are claiming it to be.

After her most recent run-in with the law, Kylie Bucknell is given a punishment worse than prison time – house arrest. Forced to live with her mother Miriam – a superstitious woman who claims to have had an encounter with a ghost in the home – Kylie brushes her off as a blabbermouth with nothing better to do than tell tall tales. However, when things begin to go bump in the night (AKA grab her)…she realizes her punishment just became even more severe.

By now, if you’ve been following me, you know that I love nowhere-to-run scenarios. Being forced to remain in a home against your will counts as such a scenario (for the most part), and I enjoyed that element of this story. Kylie is portrayed as the cliché pain in the ass who constantly scowls at everyone and is an utter waste of life. Of course, this is a comedy so the clichés are naturally more aggressive than if this were a serious effort. The first horror hits at the 23 minute mark, but don’t expect anything more than a cheap jump scare. We continue to see the horror show up here and there, but I was honestly disappointed at how tame and dull it was. The horror never manifested into an otherworldly presence and instead teased at a supernatural element that never surfaced. Instead, the horror derives from the actions of humans, which…in a ghost story…it just boring. At least this time it was. Also, much to my surprise, the film was not very funny either. There were a few moments where I laughed at a subtle joke, but in the end I felt the humor was always on that fine line between funny and serious, like a significant other who can’t be without you but can’t be with you either. For what it is worth, though, I did enjoy some of the colorful characters, with Miriam stealing the show. Her good-intentions are overwritten with comedic outcomes, whereas Kylie is that unlikable bitch who eventually opens up to the seriousness of her situation…while remaining an unlikable bitch.

First-time filmmaker Gerard Johnstone both writes and directs this effort, and I cannot say that his direction is much better than his writing. He sets up good atmosphere early on, but the home used is far from spooky. Typically, haunted homes will exhibit dark corners covered in shadows, creaky floors, etc., but that is not the case here. You do hear a few thuds and bumps, but they are hardly scary and sound more like me banging my head after watching a film from The Asylum. He DOES achieve good performances from some of his actors, with Rima Te Wiata making a name for herself as Miriam. Morgana O’Reilly did her job, which was obviously to be mediocre, but I can see her doing well with efforts that better suit her abilities. Earlier I mentioned that horror being tame /dull, and sadly so is the execution of the horror. There is a scene where an inanimate object exhibits some supernatural activity, and while a scene like that would normally scare me it proved to be a big disappointment. How someone can screw up such a scene is beyond me, but the execution of this scene and those related to it was downright poor. The rest of the horror is basic at best, with cheap scares and uneventful outcomes thanks to a lack of frontal cinematography. Housebound is in fact well-shot, and that may be why I managed to sit through the entire film without fidgeting, but when everything else is mediocre there is only so much good film quality can do for you.

Overall, Housebound is a letdown for me. I did not find it scary, which may be considered typical for a horror comedy, but I also did not find it funny either. Humor is subjective, but I have seen enough horror comedies to appreciate the sub-genre and know what makes it good/bad. From what I understand, most of those who loved the comedy in this effort hate horror comedies in general, so if you are that person then maybe this is for you. If not, then don’t believe the hype. If anything, watch this with an open mind and tell me if you agree or if I am just out of touch here.

Rating: 5/10

…Additional Stills…

Annabelle – 6

October 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Director – John R. Leonetti

Cast – Ward Horton, Annabelle Wallis, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola, Kerry O’Malley, Brian Howe, Eric Ladin

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

The Conjuring is one if the best horror films this millennium and my #1 for 2013, and a good part of its allure is credited to its frightening opening sequence about a haunted doll named Annabelle. The fans wanted an Annabelle film and now we have one. Of course, I wanted it to be filmed by James Wan himself, and was a bit disappointed to see him only producing the effort. My concern grew when I saw that the director’s previous works included such lesser films as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2. So, while hoping for the best, I went into this experience knowing it had the potential to suck. As it turns out, the film does suck in some ways – like comparing it to The Conjuring – however it was scarier than I expected and that counts for something.

When John presents his wife Mia with a vintage doll she has sought after for years, her delight is soon replaced with an emotion nobody expected: fear. When their home is invaded by two members of a satanic cult, the doll becomes a conduit to the evil entity the invaders brought to this realm…and it sets its sights on Mia.

I was unsure whether a full-length story was possible with so little known about Annabelle (unless you have read The Demonologist) but writer Gary Dauberman somehow made it happen despite writing complete trash before this. The story takes its time developing, slowly but surely establishing how Annabelle came about. Once that has been established then the haunting begins almost immediately. As with most films involving inanimate objects, the horror is tame for at least the first half of the film, then the horror manifests. If you have come here to see the creepy doll get up and attack Nia then you will be disappointed. While I would have preferred such a doll we are instead shown a possessed doll who caused horror telekinetically until she literally lets her demons loose. Much of her harassment / attention is on Mia, and she uses the still recovering (mentally and physically) woman’s weaknesses to her benefit. She makes those around her question her sanity, and she instills a constant fear that her child will no longer be hers for long.

There are plenty of scares written into the story and much to my surprise a few of them actually scared me. These occasions resulted in goose bumps spreading down my legs, which is my litmus test for a good atmospheric spook. As I mentioned earlier, we don’t see Annabelle physically do anything. Instead, the horror comes off very Paranormal Activity-esque where things are going bump in the night and even during the day. The majority of the scares are basic but there were momentary sequences of brilliance where highly effective simplicity stole the show – like the elevator sequence.

Story-wise I do feel like there could have been more to Annabelle. Her being static was a bit tame and the story did not fully make up for that. Surely if you were to experience such a situation in real life it would be terrifying, but in this film it was a bit underwhelming. The lead characters were also less-than-favorable. I never found myself caring about what happened to them, which is a shame for a story like this and the type of haunting that took place. Thankfully, the supporting characters, like bookshop owner Evelyn and Father Perez helped make up for the lack of motivating characters.

Director John. R. Leonetti did a decent job bringing this story to life. In a perfect world James Wan would have directed this effort and given us the immensely creepy execution he delivered during the Annabelle scene in The Conjuring. I feel that Wan did have a hand in Leonetti’s execution during the film’s creepier scenes, and he definitely laid down his influence with the film’s musical score, which should remind you of those heard in The Conjuring and Insidious. The atmosphere is good and the locations used for the two homes our protagonists live in allowed me to envelop myself into the experience. I believe that this played a heavy role in the scenes that gave me goose bumps because I imagined myself hearing the noises and experiencing the terror Mia would go through. The execution of Annabelle is OK, but that’s about it – it’s really basic. In The Conjuring the mere sight of her left me in awe, whereas in her own full-length film a lot of potential went to waste.

Overall, Annabelle isn’t a bad film but it’s not a good experience either. Sure there are a few creepy scenes, but they had little to do with the doll, and the doll is the reason most of us are giving this effort a watch. If you scare easily then I can see you enjoying this. In my case I found more joy than I expected because I went in with low expectations. You should probably do the same.

Rating: 6/10

…Additional Stills…

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