31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween (2018)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Haluk Bilginer, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Virginia Gardner, Miles Robbins, Toby Huss, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, Dylan Arnold, Drew Scheid

Director: David Gordon Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Not only has masked killer Michael Myers lasted longer than a curious cat living next to a busy train track but he’s been revived just as often. Over the past 40 years the Halloween hellraiser from Haddonfield has been a brother to our heroine (Halloween II), an unwelcome uncle (Halloween 4 and Halloween 5), been used as a deadly tool by a cult (Halloween 6), and even missed out completely on one movie (Halloween III). He’s been resurrected (Halloween 8) and rebooted (Rob Zombie’s bizarre remakes) but the one thing that hasn’t truly happened to the Halloween franchise is the chance to revisit with any kind of integrity the characters that made such an impact on audiences four decades ago.

It’s not often a character gets to come back in two different timelines but Jamie Lee Curtis (Prom Night) has the unique distinction of rewriting her own character’s history for a second time. Though Curtis famously returned to the franchise in Halloween: Twenty Years Later (H20 for short…and giggles) the overall impact wasn’t what she hoped and the cleverness fully depleted in the follow-up to that movie. Now, at the urging of none other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Curtis has teamed up with director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and comedian Danny McBride (This Is the End) for a new film which ignores every sequel to John Carpenter’s landmark 1978 film and serves as a fine horror film as well as a glimpse into the lasting effects of trauma.  With Carpenter’s blessing and also his updated score, the three unlikely collaborators set out to continue Laurie’s story with a few unexpected turns along the way.

As the 40th anniversary of The Babysitter Murders in Haddonfield draws near, there is renewed interest in the silent killer Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, the girl that got away. A pair of podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) have come to Smith’s Grove Hospital to try to get Michael Myers to speak to them. His watchful doctor (Haluk Bilginer, Rosewater) has taken over for the late Dr. Loomis as Michael’s caretaker and doesn’t bat an eye when one of the interviewers hauls out that famous white mask and tries to use it to elict a reaction out of the aged murderer.  How the UK podcaster managed to get the mask out of the courthouse (sure, he says it was given to him but still) and not even in a plastic bag to preserve it is a detail no one seems to bat an eye at. Failing to get anything out of him, the two track down Strode (Curtis) in her protected compound on the outskirts of town.

Living in the woods like a survivalist with no apparent war to fight, Strode is damaged goods after two failed marriages and having her daughter taken away at a young age. Living with the trauma of what she endured has left her broken and bruised, unable to move on from a singular event in her life that still feels unresolved. Estranged from her daughter (Judy Greer, Jurassic World) but attempting to form a bond with her granddaughter (Andi Matichak), Strode is doing the best she can while self-medicating with booze and staying alert in case Myers breaks out and returns to finish the job. Of course, that’s what happens when the bus transporting Myers to a maximum security prison crashes and he escapes. Making a beeline to his hometown and leaving numerous bodies in his wake, Myers slices and dices his way through the town on October 31 while tracking down his main target. Unlucky for him, then, that Laurie has been preparing for this moment for 40 years and is not only ready for his return but willing to stick her neck out to be the one to take him down.

It isn’t a perfect film, there’s far too many extraneous characters that are introduced only to die without much care and there are narrative gaps and implausible leaps that feel outside of the grounded reality the filmmakers are going for. There’s one rather huge twist about ¾ of the way through that is so misguided I thought it was going to derail the entire film – thankfully (mercifully) the film gets back on track fairly quickly. It’s never explained how Myers was captured after the first film or why Strode didn’t just move overseas if she was that traumatized. Also…I still can’t get fathom why this was called simply Halloween and not given its own distinctive title. While it is a direct continuation to the original, it’s not a remake and should have had something to set it apart.  Also, I hate to be the one to break it to you but if you’ve seen the trailers for the film much of the surprises and scares have been spoiled for you.  It’s disappointing to see just how much of the movie has been shown already, way too many of the moments that could have held high suspense have been cheapened or outright ruined by advertisements that held nothing back.

Quibbles aside, Green and McBride (with fellow screenwriter Jeff Fradley) have crafted a supremely satisfying film, pleasing the fans of the original while injecting enough humor, scares, and gore for audiences of today who aren’t content with the slow burn terror Carpenter created in his original masterpiece. Nothing could ever match that and their Halloween doesn’t truly try to outdo its big brother, it just wants to get on the same playing field and it gets the job done. Curtis is wonderful in the role, unlike the character she returned to in H20, I very much believed this Laurie Strode is the same one we first met 40 years ago and she seems to be having a ball giving her most famous role a proper ending. I liked that the majority of the movie focused on the relationship between three generations of Strode women — Greer fits in nicely as Strode’s daughter harboring resentment at the seeming loss of her childhood and I quite liked Matichak who felt like a Laurie for a new generation. There’s already sequel talk and as much as I’d love to see what Green and McBride would cook up next (they originally wanted to film this movie and its sequel back to back) I almost hope they leave well enough alone and let these characters rest in peace.

Movie Review ~ Split

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.

Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I hate to say it, but M. Night Shyamalan brought it all on himself.  With a succession of movies, the writer/director (producer, cameo, etc.) introduced sophisticated ideas wrapped in a mystery to less and less fanfare.  Known more for his twist endings than the sum total of his accomplishments, the director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs began to lose himself in the inner-workings of his storytelling. Sacrificing plot, good dialogue, and characterization for that one moment, “the twist”, that would entice an audience into sticking with the film despite the absurdity of it all, it wasn’t long before Shyamalan’s name stopped being the selling point and instead became an Achilles Heel.

Laying low for a few years and producing the occasional movie or TV show, Shyamalan emerged from the shadows with 2015’s The Visit, a tight little scare fest made for a small fee which wound up doing surprisingly good business.  Showing he wasn’t entirely beholden to his twist endings (though that film did have one), good will led Shyamalan back into the conversation and it felt as if his second act in Hollywood had begun.

The first thing I’ll tell you about Shyamalan’s Split, and to keep spoilers squashed I won’t tell you much, is to do your best to go in without thinking of this as the horror film its being falsely marketed as.  True, the film boasts a few nerve jangling moments and an overall sense of dread usually reserved for films with a high body count, but I made the mistake of expecting a thrill ride when in reality Split is more like an uncomfortable Sunday drive.

A trio of girls celebrating a birthday at a local mall are abducted in the parking lot and held captive in an underground compound by a man (James McAvoy, Trance) with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  While two of the girls (Jessica Sula & Haley Lu Richardson, both largely forgettable) plot a way of escape, the third (Anya Taylor Joy, Morgan & The Witch) takes a different approach, recognizing their captor could be manipulated depending on which of his 23 personalities they are talking to.  Time is running out, though, for several of the identities talk of a 24th personality, The Beast, that’s “on the move.”  Meanwhile, the man’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley, Carrie), disturbed by a concerning change in demeanor for her patient, attempts to lure out the new personality that’s been causing trouble.

To me there are two short films going on here with overlapping ideas that Shyamalan couldn’t quite stretch to feature length.  The first is the kidnapping plot with its increasingly desperate attempts at escape from the teenagers and the second is a film centered on the psychiatrist exploring the inner workings of DID.  Both have some value and are staged nicely by Shyamalan with tight close-ups that give the film a claustrophobic feeling but to really take on discussions of mental illness Split needed to choose which story to tell and it never can decide.

Taylor Joy’s saucer-eyes look great in a Shyamalan close-up and the actress keeps a sense of mystery along the way that’s as interesting as it is slightly creepy.  Through flashbacks we see her as a child spending time with her father and uncle; there’s something off about these memories and as the film progresses, we begin to see why.  Shyamalan throws a lot of unspoken feelings at Taylor Joy and asks her to fill in the blanks which she winds up conveying quite convincingly.

Surprisingly, it’s Buckley that nearly steals the show…though considering her storied history on stage and screen it’s not that surprising at all.  Her therapy sessions with McAvoy’s character(s) give the film it’s most crackling edge and I kept wondering if these intimately crafted scenes hadn’t originally been written for the stage.  Buckley doesn’t appear on screen as often as she should but her performance here makes you wish she would.

At the end of the day, though, this is McAvoy’s picture and he walks away with the whole kit and caboodle.  There’s such a very fine line between honest and camp when it comes to playing a character with multiple personalities but McAvoy approaches each with a level of dignity and respect.  True, there are some moments McAvoy got too actor-y for my taste but overall it’s a dynamic, full-bodied performance that goes far beyond simply changing his voice or how he holds himself.  With each new personality introduced, McAvoy seems to change appearance entirely which makes the impending arrival of the feared 24th identity even  more ominous.

Audiences familiar with Shyamalan have been well trained to prepare for a twist but my advice would be not to look too hard.  There are a few late-breaking turns that won’t come as a total surprise and one big shocker at the end you’re either going to love or hate (the audience at mine was an audible mixture of both) but Split is less concerned with fooling its audience and more interested in bringing them into the mind of trauma victims coping with their past in the present.  It’s not an entirely successful film (and at nearly two hours, a too long one at that) but it’s stuck with me just like Shyamalan’s earlier work did.

Movie Review ~ The Visit (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents.

Stars: Kathryn Hahn, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Olivia DeJonge

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I remember seeing the preview for 2006’s Lady in the Water and when director M. Night Shyamalan’s name appeared the entire audience squealed with terrified delight.  By that time, Shyamalan had become synonymous with twist endings and scary tales more interested in the human side of horror than blood and guts.  After The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village Shyamalan was riding high but he’d wind up drowning with Lady in the Water, a self-serving bit of poppycock that felt more like an ego trip than a fully formed movie (Shyamalan wrote, directed, and had a significant role in the film…an ill-advised move).

It was all downhill from there as Shyamalan followed up Lady in the Water with his first R-rated flick, the hysterically terrible The Happening in 2008 featuring a too-serious Mark Wahlberg having a conversation with a plastic plant he thought was out to do him and his family harm (!).  Things only got worse with 2010’s The Last Airbender before he hit rock bottom in 2013 with After Earth, starring Will Smith and his son Jaden, two actors with possibly even bigger egos than Shyamalan.  In the span of several years, Shyamalan’s name went from being the top selling point of a movie to a moniker that spelled box office poison.

I’m not sure what happened in the last few years but Shyamalan must have taken a long hard look at his career and made some changes for the better.  He scored as the producer and occasional director of Fox’s eerie mystery show Wayward Pines and he’s back in top form with The Visit, a keep-the-lights-on at night thrill ride that could have gone very wrong but winds up hitting (almost) all the right notes.

I must admit that when I heard The Visit was a found footage film my heart sank a bit for Shyamalan…what was he doing tapping into the genre that has two feet, hips, and a chest already in the ground (see the wretched The Gallows if you don’t believe me)? While I still marvel at the fact that even in moments of high horror the person holding the camera manages not only to keep a hold of the device but also frame things like a recent film school grad, I have to say that Shyamalan makes good use of the found footage angle and finds a few new ways to exploit the trope.

Opening with Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers) nervously sending her kids off to her estranged parents’ house for a week, Shyamalan offers just enough back story to push off from, choosing not to linger too much in history.  We know that Hahn’s single-mom hasn’t seen her parents in 15 years and her two children have never met them.  They’ve tracked her down and want to meet their grandchildren and, as a way to make-up for her behavior when she left home, she agrees.

That’s fine and dandy for her kids Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day) because they want their mom to spend time with her new boyfriend and also to help build a bridge between the grandparents they’ve never known and their mom who carries a heavy burden of guilt that she won’t speak about.  It’s nice to report that DeJonge and Oxenbould are not only good child actors but that Shyamalan didn’t sketch them in the typical annoying kid kinda way…these are normal, decent kids with big hearts.

Arriving in a rural Pennsylvania town, they’re greeted by Nana (Deanna Dunagan, excellent) and Pop-Pop (character actor Peter McRobbie) and aside from some awkward first meeting jitters, all are soon settled in a quaint farmhouse near a frozen lake.  Nana makes good meals and Pop-Pop seems interested in the kids and what their life has been like.  It all goes swimmingly until…well, things get weird.

Over the next several days and nights red flags start to pop up that give the siblings cause for some concern.  I have to be careful what I say because the last 2/3 of the movie is full of spoiler-heavy turns that keep you on the edge of your seat as you try to figure out what exactly is so off about the grandparents. The “big twist” that Shyamalan is so well-known for is fairly easy to predict, but even if I did have some notion of how it was all going to turn out Shyamalan throws in interesting curveballs that throw you off along the way.

And did I mention it’s scary?  Like, legitimately scary.  I’ll easily jump as much as the next person if there’s a jolt of loud music or something leaps out at you, but Shyamalan has cleverly crafted sequences with the kind of sustained scares rare to not only the found footage genre but the horror genre in general.  More than once I had a rash of goosebumps emerge and felt my cheeks flush with an uneasiness that was exciting/scary/fun all at the same time.  Amidst all the expected shrieks there’s one highly effective scare and another gross out moment that had our audience rightfully speechless.

If the film has some flaws, it’s in a few more light-hearted moments that can throw off the balance of the tone of the film.  I can absolutely see why Shyamalan would want to toss in a few comedic moments to ease some of the tension (Oxenbould’s rapping skills are put to good use…maybe one too many times) but they are oddly placed in the middle of some fairly frightening moments, creating the feeling that it’s all one big joke to the director.

No matter, even these small moments don’t detract from a film that winds up being about more than just scaring you but manages to teach a small (if heavy-handed lesson) before the credits roll.  If this is the new Shyamalan, then I welcome him back with open (and slightly petrified) arms.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (June)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHastaWe did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

June

If May was the month that studios dipped their toe in the summer waters, June was a time when they waded in up to their waists. The first weekend in June saw three high-profile releases, each catering to different audiences to mixed results.

After last summer’s disaster Tammy (my worst film of 2014) I was mighty suspicious of Spy, Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig’s action comedy. After having such success with Bridesmaids the duo reteamed for the underwhelming The Heat so it was a 50/50 shot at how well Spy would do. Lucky for us, it was McCarthy’s best performance to date and by far her most enjoyable film as a solo star. A great, game supporting cast helped make this highly entertaining.

I never watched HBO’s Entourage but felt like I knew what I was getting myself into when catching the big screen outing for the California guys navigating their way through Hollywood and a bevy of beautiful women. It was pretty on par with my expectations but I wasn’t lost in the wilderness with its plot. It was nicely made and an adequate diversion for the time I spent in the theater.

Scary films are usually left for early in the year or around Halloween but several studios were willing to gamble that audiences were ready to be spooked in the summer. First up this season was the third entry in a diminishing franchise:

                                                   Movie Review ~ Insidious: Chapter 3
insidious_chapter_three_ver6The Facts
:
Synopsis: A prequel set before the haunting of the Lambert family that reveals how gifted psychic Elise Rainier reluctantly agrees to use her ability to contact the dead in order to help a teenage girl who has been targeted by a dangerous supernatural entity.
Stars: Lin Shaye, Stefanie Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Hayley Kiyoko
Director: Leigh Whannell
Rated: PG-13
Running Length:  97 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I’ll say this for the third chapter of the Insidious franchise…it’s a lot better than the meandering second outing which strayed a tad too far away from its original mythology. A prequel to the two films, Chapter 3 focuses on a motherless girl that becomes the target of a pretty nasty specter of evil. It’s all fairly standard stuff but not quite as chilling as it thinks it is. The performances sat well with me and I loved that Lin Shaye, an actress that’s been in the biz for quite some time, was brought front and center because she ably carries the picture. I think it’s time to close the book on these films, and it didn’t go out as a total embarrassment…but it could have been handled better.

For some time now, the film I’d been most looking forward to was Jurassic World and on June 12 the film was released to thunderous acclaim from audiences and critics. It quickly broke box office records around the world and squashed any fears that the franchise had run its course. I loved it and happily saw it a second time in 3D IMAX, enjoying it even more on a repeat viewing. Now the wait begins for the next one…and I’m intrigued to see where it’s going next!

Halfway into June two dramas were released to good reviews but audiences didn’t quite seem to find them and I can only hope that they’ll find more success when they become more available via streaming services or rentals.

                                        Movie Review ~ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
me_and_earl_and_the_dying_girlThe Facts
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Synopsis: High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
Stars: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, Bobb’E J. Thompson
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I hardly expected to well up with tears at a movie from the director of the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown and several episodes of American Horror Story. But I did. Eschewing the gauzy mawkishness of the disease of the week melodrama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a creative tear jerker that will make your mascara run…but maybe for not the reasons you expect. It’s almost worth the price of admission to see the titles of the parodies of classic films that are produced by our lead characters…but there’s much more to love about this sweet, knowing film that had a tender heart around its rough edges. Very much worth your time.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Love & Mercy
love_and_mercyThe Facts
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Synopsis: In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
Stars: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Bill Pohlad
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I almost let this one slip of out theaters before catching it and I’m so glad I did. It’s one of the best biopics (music or otherwise) that I’ve seen and features uniformly excellent performances…and this is an especially big accomplishment considering I’m not a fan of the three of the four lead actors. I normally find Paul Dano to be a bit like a marshmallow, puffy and flavorless but he presents a deeply nuanced portrait of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy that suffered from mental illness and madness for most of his life. His brilliance is expertly captured by Dano, less so by John Cusack as the elder Wilson that enters into a relationship with a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) while being treated by a therapist (Paul Giamatti) with questionable morals. Banks is great as always and whatever annoyances Cusack, Giamatti, and Dano have provided in the past are forgiven in director Carl Pohlad’s riveting look into the mind of a troubled man.

Now that I think about it, June was a month with movies that gave my tear ducts a run for their money…never more so than the one two punch of Pixar’s latest and greatest.

Before Inside Out even started, I was wiping my cheeks thanks to their moving short Lava. Entirely set to the music of the Hawaiian islands, it’s a heartfelt tribute to love, dreams, and destiny. I bought the song from iTunes and yes, was moved to tears just listening to the beautiful melody again.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Inside Out

inside_out_ver13The Facts:
Synopsis: After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
Stars: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 94 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Stumbling a bit in recent years by focusing more on sequels instead of original material, the genius minds at Pixar came back in full force with Inside Out, their little lesson to audiences young and old that having emotions and showing them is natural…and a good thing. It’s difficult to present a message like that in a way that will speak to young children as well as the adults in the room but by George they did it. Growing up isn’t easy and feeling the loss of childhood is painful, but the gentle hand guiding the film helps us come to terms with those emotions in the best and brightest way. The waterworks started early and kept on going through the credits. A lovely film.

STAY TUNED FOR JULY & AUGUST!

CHECK OUT MAY!

 

Movie Review ~ The Gallows

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The Facts:

Synopsis: 20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

Stars: Cassidy Gifford, Ryan Shoos, Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown

Director: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofling

Rated: R

Running Length: 81 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Unlike most of my critic colleagues I haven’t been able to fully ring the death bell for the found footage horror genre that reached its critical mass about five years ago.  Made on the cheap with the ability to make a profit based on its open weekend haul alone, it’s not hard to see why these types of films produce big dollar signs in the eyes of movie studios that don’t have to spend a lot to get something big in return.  It’s clear though that the found footage fad is down to its dying breath (see The Devil Inside, Paranormal Activity 4, and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones for proof), and The Gallows is the most recent example of its drawn out death rattle.

I was a theater nerd in high school so hearing that The Gallows concerned the spirit of student killed in a tragic onstage accident that returns for some vengeance I was amused and interested.  Talk to any actor that’s spent time onstage and they’ll tell you about ghostly occurrences they’ve witnessed or legendary tales of the unexpected that have been passed own from one actor to another.  There’s gold in them there ghost stories and I half expected co-writers/directors Travis Cluff & Chris Lofling to produce a scary bit of gold in a genre that’s pretty much all lumps of coal.

Sadly, ‘twas not to be and The Gallows is one of those forgettable blips on the summer movie scene, a shot-in-the-dark bit of counterprogramming that substitutes loud sonic jolts for honest scares and manages to waste a whole lot of narrative potential.  Actually, the biggest mistake from the filmmakers was making this a found footage film in the first place.  Yes, the handheld camera/phone bits may have added to the overall sense of dread and contributed to the dizzying delirium of getting lost in the underbelly of a high school theater but had it gone the traditional route I think the scares would have been an easier sell.

It’s been 20 years since a student was accidentally hung during a performance of “The Gallows” and, surprisingly, for the anniversary the school board has approved a recreation of the show.  The majority of the filming is from the perspective of Ryan (Ryan Shoos) as an obnoxious (that’s putting it mildly) class clown that’s joking his way through his required Theater 101 course with his best friend Reese.  Reese (Reese Mishler, a young Tom Cruise doppelgänger) has the leading role opposite Pfeifer but is unsure of his lines or his talent.  When Ryan convinces Reese that the only way out of embarrassing himself is to break into the school after dark and destroy the set, a night of terror awaits as the guys get locked into the school along with Pfeifer and Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, the daughter of Kathie Lee and Frank) and begin to be stalked by an unseen presence.

Many of the scenes seem to be improvised, an unwise decision because the four actors don’t have the confidence to move the story along with only a bare-bones concept of what’s happening next.  The dialogue is forced, phony, and crammed with endless bits of obvious exposition only present because Cluff and Lofling have no other way of indicating what’s happening.  At one point, another camera is introduced and the same sequence is repeated twice from different lenses…but they don’t match up with one another.

The film is crass with its stereotypes of jocks/populars vs. theater nerds/outcasts.  The more popular students are tanned, toned, and beautiful with the theater folk are geeky, oversized, and forgettable.   This is a school where theater practice happens during the day and students wear their costumes in the halls…though why the actors in the play were wearing Elizabethan costumes for a play set in colonial times is anyone’s guess.

Gifford and Mishler are relatively impressive in their performances while the aforementioned Shoos suffers from playing a character that’s so grating you’re praying for the moment he gets strung up (not saying he does or doesn’t…but I was ready and willing to let him go).  Pfeifer Brown (yes, the actors share the same names with their characters) ably screams her way through the finale that ratchets up the tension with a few impressive spooks but it’s too little, too late.  Even a nice head-spinner of an epilogue can’t acquit the rest of the film from its shortcomings.

The Gallows might make for nice viewing at cast parties down the road but don’t make much of an effort to catch this one during its brief run in theaters.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annabelle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A couple begin to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists.

Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Alfre Woodard, Tony Amendola

Director: John Leonetti

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  There’s just something so unsettling about dolls, isn’t there?  I’m not talking about Malibu Barbie or He-Man but those frilly dolls with big eyes and faces stuck in permanent, and often pained, smiles.  Creepy dolls have been the subject for many a nightmare in movies, most memorably in films like Magic (a ventriloquist dummy plays a devious role in murder) and Child’s Play (the spirit of a serial killer takes the form of a benign doll) but everyone seems to have some film they can point to where something meant for snuggling winds up being deadly.

In 2013 The Conjuring made a big impact with critics and audiences (not to mention at the box office) thanks to director James Wan’s clever turning of the screws as he told the tale of a family haunted by an ominous spirit in the early 70s.  The family was aided by two paranormal investigators, The Warrens, introduced at the beginning of the film handling the Annabelle case.  Supposedly causing mayhem for two pretty nurses, The Warrens wind up keeping the doll (Annabelle) in their Occult Museum where they can keep an eye on her.  Though she figures into some events later in the movie, Annabelle isn’t really the focus of the film.

With the box office so big, the sequel ideas started flowing and the filmmakers wisely let their minds drift not just to continuing to follow The Warrens (a sequel is expected in 2015) but creating a spin-off centered on the origins of Annabelle. So that’s why we find ourselves a little over a year later with this sequel which maintains the same fine production values of The Conjuring while delivering some fine frights but which unravels just when it should all be coming together.

It’s the time of the Manson Family in California when we meet young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis, Snow White and the Huntsman), and John (Ward Horton, The Wolf of Wall Street) who are the picture of blissful perfection in their sleepy suburban bungalow.  She’s quite pregnant and content to spend her days watching soaps and sewing while he finishes up his residency as a doctor.  Mia (the first of many nods to Rosemary’s Baby) also collects dolls and after a minor squabble John’s mea culpa present to her is a familiar looking doll.

Unfortunately, the first big scare sequence in the film was largely given over in its entirety in the preview yet I still found myself squirming with a sense of dread.  Long story short, after a terrifying nighttime encounter in which the doll plays a factor things start to get pretty scary for John and Mia, prompting their move to a high rise apartment building where they have more square footage to get freaked out in.  It isn’t long before more strange occurrences happen leading to the true terror manifesting itself at the most inopportune of times.

All this is well and good and it gave me the appropriate dose of the willies but the movie starts to collapse in on itself at a rapid pace becoming highly disappointing in the process.  John Leonetti, the cinematographer of The Conjuring steps into the director chair here but doesn’t have Wan’s good instincts in knowing how to bring all of the elements together.  We can only have so many shots of the camera slowly pushing in on the doll’s face (which gets dirtier and more menacing with each passing event) or following Wallis as she slowly walks down a hall or sloooooowly reaches out to move a curtain aside to see what’s behind it.  The key word here is slow.  There’s a lot of repetition going on in the film and in the end Annabelle is merely a series of the same set-up repeated on a loop.

Wallis, for her part, has a nicely ethereal quality to her that helps her build to the frenzy she works herself into as we approach the finale.  She and the handsome Horton make for a nice couple and the acting is above par considering this was a prequel rushed into production.  I’ve always liked Alfre Woodard (12 Years a Slave) and though she may be slumming it here the actress never gives off the air that she’s an Oscar nominee in a barely realized supporting role.

So it’s not everything The Conjuring was…but it’s a lot better than the majority of the sequel trash we’re subjected to year after year.  Yes, it’s bloodier and less fully realized than the film that preceded it but it’s clear that some effort went into it and it’s far more effective than it probably should be considering how formulaic it all is.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

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Synopsis: 65 years after a masked serial killer terrorized the small town of Texarkana, the so-called ‘Moonlight Murders’ begin again. Is it a copycat or something even more sinister? A lonely high school girl with dark secrets of her own may be the key to catching him.

Release Date: October 16, 2014

Thoughts: I know, I know…another modern remake of a minor classic that will surely be gorier than the original, sacrificing mood for cheap thrills…ugh.  Right?  Still, there’s something about this one that has me wondering if a re-tooling wasn’t in order.  I only remember bits and pieces of the 1976 original but I do recall thinking it wasn’t anything to write to your horror pen pals about.  It does have that “We’re Going Retro” feeling to it and I’m a fan of a return to horror that’s less ‘torture porn’ and more ‘slow burn’ in the way it presents itself.  No doubt the film will feature copious amounts of flesh and blood but if it’s balanced with a strong narrative and decent acting it will all be worth it.  Bonus points for MGM resurrecting the Orion Pictures logo, something we haven’t seen for 15 years. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Jessabelle

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Synopsis: 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.

Release Date: August 29, 2014

Thoughts: Go ahead and roll your eyes at the trailer for this horror film set for a late summer 2014 release. Done? OK…well this one looks nice and spooky and I’m liking what the people at Blumhouse (The Purge, Insidious) are putting out: effective shockers that aren’t populated with huge casts or complicated locations. This bayou-set scare fest may not find itself on any list of classic horror but I’m always willing to give these films the benefit of the doubt thanks to a noble dedication to continuing to make audiences scream at those things that go bump in the night.

Movie Review ~ Oculus

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Stars: Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff, Brenton Thwaites, James Lafferty, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, Kate Siegel, Katie Parker, Miguel Sandoval

Director: Mike Flanagan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be forgiven if you were to dismiss Oculus as another haunted house horror flick made on the cheap and released in theaters right about the time that audiences are clamoring for some springtime terror. Further, the trailer for Oculus sells the film as a scream fest surrounding an old mirror that has dark secrets. What Oculus isn’t, however, is your run-of-the-mill fright flick that saves its best scares for the final moments. This mirror is polished.

I’ll take a good scare any way I can get it…be it slow burn (Sinister), all out gore-fest (Cabin in the Woods), or failed attempt to cash in on a better concept (Silent House, The Apparition, etc) so I went into Oculus willing to receive it however it chose to present itself. I’ll admit at first I didn’t quite know what to make of the film as it bounced back and forth between a brother and sister exorcising some old demons and a flashback to 11 years earlier when the siblings dealt with some deadly family issues.

At the center of it all is a majestic mirror, said to be responsible for the death of close to 50 people since the 18th century and highly valuable. How a software designer (Rory Cochrane) had the cashola to purchase such a coveted antique is a plot point best filed away under “Don’t Think Too Hard” but it isn’t long before the past and present collide with some seriously spooky sequences where the line between reality and imagination gets hazy.

With an adequate amount of gore that plays second fiddle to bump in the night style scares, the film has the feeling of a sequel to The Amityville Horror (actually, an Amityville TV movie did deal with a haunted mirror now that I think about it) mixed in with dashes of fractured reality of the bloody Mirrors from 2008. Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan has thought out his film well, introducing not merely themes of post traumatic healing but of mental illness brought on by a tragedy. The film isn’t quite sophisticated enough to tie everything together but the effort is clear and purposeful.

Dealing with a small cast, the film could have been a pain to sit through had Flanagan not assembled such a strong group of actors. Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent) ably handle the adult siblings while Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan (Insidious: Chapter 2) are impressive handling with their heavy lifting in flashbacks. The first shot of Gillan is her fire red ponytail swinging back and forth almost as if it’s possessed and both she and Thwaites work cohesively to build a believable bond. Cochrane and Katee Sackoff (Riddick) make good use of their slightly underwritten roles.

If there are cracks in Oculus, they are of the minor variety and truth being told I’m not sure if the film will hold up on future viewings. Though the ending rises to the occasion for making the goose bumps rise on your skin, a too short wrap-up left me feeling a little cold to the whole affair. Feeling just a tad long at 105 minutes, Flanagan working as his own edtior could have benefited from having someone else edit the film that was more objective to pacing.

More spooky than terrifying, Oculus earns points for restraint and solid performances. The scares are mostly satisfying and I appreciated that Flanagan developed material that felt fresh and not your average shriek-out.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Purge: Anarchy

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Synopsis: A young couple works to survive on the streets after their car breaks down right as the annual purge commences

Release Date:  June 20, 2014

Thoughts: A sequel to 2013’s The Purge was pretty much guaranteed when that very modestly budgeted film surprised everyone by raking in some serious cash during its opening weekend.  Sure, the film dropped like a stone in the weeks following but success isn’t measured in longevity anymore…it’s all about that critical first few days.  While The Purge was a movie with a diabolical concept, it suffered in an execution that didn’t know how to finish what it started in a satisfying way. I’m not expecting the sequel to be much different and can see future installments being a yearly occurrence ala the Paranormal Activity (Paranormal Activity 4 & Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and Saw films.