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Jessabelle – 7

January 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Director – Kevin Greutert

Cast – Sarah Snook, Mark Webber, Joelle Carter, David Andrews, Ana de la Reguera, Amber Stevens, Chris Ellis, Brian Hallisay, Vaughn Wilson, Larisa Oleynik

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

I personally feel that we do not see enough horror films involving voodoo/hoodoo, and seeing that Jessabelle was such a flick I was stoked to give this a watch. While not exactly similar to The Skeleton Key, aside from its location and voodoo, I was hoping for a familiar feel set in the spooky swamps of the deep south. From Saw VI and VII director Kevin and the writer behind the silly Night at the Museum films, Jessabelle is a good film but not one that I personally enjoyed very much. The horror is there, and it is good at times, but in the end this is one of those “good” films that I will not watch again.

Returning to her childhood home in Louisiana to recuperate from a horrific car accident, Jessabelle comes face to face with a long-tormented spirit that has been seeking her return – and has no intention of letting her escape. – Lionsgate

Writer Robert Ben Garant kicks things into gear right away, throwing us face-first into a terrible tragedy that claims the life of someone close to Jessabelle. On top of this, she is severely injured and must remain bound to a wheelchair during her recovery. We see the first hint of superantural terror only 10 minutes into the film, and four minutes later she finds what I thought to be the most interesting element of the story: video tapes her mother recorded for her when she was a child. Jessabelle lost her mother at a very young age, and only now did she realize that her mother left her the tapes. Before this she had only seen pictures of her, never video, so she is quite elated to finally experience her mother’s voice and personality. The videos consist of her mother using tarot cards to predict Jessabelle’s future, and her future does not look bright. Elation turns to terror when her mother’s predictions ring disturbingly true about a supernatural presence in the home that wants Jessabelle out at all costs. Nobody believes her, and she is stuck to a wheelchair, so she is not going anywhere. The first really good horror hits at the 31 minute mark, and to me it was the scariest scene the story had to offer. At the time it makes little sense, but nonetheless it was highly effective. For the majority of the film we are left to wonder whether the horror Jessabelle is experiencing is internal/psychological or supernatural/malevolent, and I am glad to say that the scarier of the two is eventually revealed as the answer. There are constant developments and revelations regarding Jessabelle’s past, which is now haunting her present day life, and I credit them with keeping things interesting when the horror subsides. For such a simple film there sure is a lot going on, and I know that seems like a contradiction but it is something that is hard to explain and must be experienced yourself. At times I felt like the story was losing me. It dragged at times and the horror, while good, was too infrequent and its effect did not last long enough until the next scare hit the screen. On top of this, I found none of the characters likable. I don’t need likable characters. I am just fine with every character dying because I hated them all, but when a film drags or the content loses your interest an enjoyable character is a remedy to keep you engaged. Thankfully, while I have said before that I would not watch this again, I do feel like it offered a really unique premise to the “horror in the swamp” scene, so props to Garant for breaking away from lame Night At The Museum movies.

Director Kevin Greutert is a big reason behind why I am giving this film a positive rating despite some writing faults. A swamp setting provides awesome atmosphere for a horror film, and while this was filmed in North Carolina (set in Louisiana) the sets and locations were employed well. I loved the spooky old home Jessabelle was forced to reside in during her recuperation, and Greutert’s dark and gloomy cinematography made the simplest of scares more effective than they should have been. There are some scares, though, that will be remembered as some of the best I have seen in 2014. The first and last attack sequences are amazing. From the shaky-cam, to the extreme audio, to the utmost in live-action gore, these scares are incredible and make the film worth viewing at least once. Trust me, if you watch the film wearing over the ear headphones like I did you will jump in your seat. Guaranteed.

Overall, Jessabelle is a film that gets things right and wrong yet still delivers a solid experience in the end. The horror is there, and while the supreme scares are infrequent they are superbly executed and will leave a memorable impression. Like I said, this is worth at least one watch.

Rating: 7/10

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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

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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

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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

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The Pyramid – 6

December 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Director – Grégory Levasseur

Cast – Ashley Hinshaw, James Buckley, Denis O’Hare, Christa Nicola, Amir K, Faycal Attougui

Release Year – 2014

Reviewed by John of the Dead

When As Above, So Below debuted a few months ago I was beyond excited for a storyline that involved a film crew traveling deep within the mass underground grave referred to as the Catacombs. The effort had its positives, namely atmosphere and sets, but ultimately it failed to deliver on the interesting, downright haunting, setting. Then I saw a trailer for The Pyramid and thought the same thing – awesome storyline that sends the crew into a creepy setting. Because this comes produced by French maestro Alejandre Aja and directed by his longtime writer Gregory Levasseur I had hopes that this would fare better than As Above, So Below…and it did. The biggest difference between the two is The Pyramid actually has a payoff while the former leaves you hanging. This effort has its faults and is a basic, run-of-the-mill found footage flick, but the payoff and scares associated with its unique antagonist made this a worthwhile watch for me.

Tall tales have been told of curses placed on the explorers who enter ancient Egyptian pyramids uninvited by the mummified royalty they were meant to protect. When a team of US explorers discovers a long-lost three-sided pyramid they defy orders to vacate the area prematurely and ultimately become loss in the dark, endless underground enigma. Searching for a way out, they soon realize they are not simply trapped – a beast long thought to only be a myth is hunting them.

The intro sucks you in by setting us up for the discovery of a lifetime. Never before has a three-sided pyramid been uncovered, and the crew is showcasing the immense satellite technology used to discover it. Nora, following in the footsteps of her renowned explorer father, teams up with her father, boyfriend, and a documentary film crew to trek into the pyramid before a government-imposed order to vacate the premises goes into effect. Early events lead us to believe that there is a sinister presence lurking within the shadows, but we soon learn that this antagonist is not the force that the crew should be afraid of. Around the halfway point of the film the crew is running for their lives as they one-by-one fall victim to brutally gory deaths. I was pretty surprised at how much horror was written into the film, especially because this was full-frontal horror. Typically, with found footage films you get a lot of off-screen action that leaves us wondering what is going on, and ultimately annoyed if there is no payoff. That is not the case with The Pyramid, and I applaud writers Nick Simon and Daniel Meersand for their inclusion of solid horror. I will say that the majority of the scares are jump scares, but hey, I jumped for once – twice actually.

Gregory Levasseur’s direction is pretty good for his debut effort. What sucks you in to this film is its location, which is might just be the first in the genre to feature a pyramid without a mummy. Anyway, the sets used are incredible and were built for the flick as such a three-sided pyramid does not exist in the real world (yet). The atmosphere is perfect, with dark shadows at every corner and a heavy sense of ever-present dread. Levasseur’s execution of the horror is great, starting off minimal but building up to at least one of the best jump scares I have experienced. As a whole the horror is cheap, but that is far from a bad thing. The horror we saw in 80s slasher films is “cheap”, it is good execution that makes the kills/horror worthwhile. This execution is not without its flaws, it delivers on the atmosphere and gore, which are two elements that are very important to me.

Overall, The Pyramid is an effort that I mostly enjoyed. I did go in with low expectations thanks to doing the opposite with As Above, So Below, so if anything I would recommend that you do the same if you give this a watch. It is not a film I would recommend to everyone, but if you want an atmospheric flick with a fair payoff then this may be worth your time.

Rating: 6/10

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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…

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