Thursday, October 27, 2016

We Are Still Here (2015)

You know what I love? I bloody love a title screen that jars against what came before. When everything is quiet and still, and the audience gets kind of comfortable with that, and then BAM the title slams up. It's one of my irrational loves. It brings me an absurd amount of joy.

We Are Still Here is a slow burn haunted house film. And rather like its title screen described above, it gets us used to its subdued ways before going pretty apeshit at the end and being a big old surprise. It's amazing. 

That's not to say all the bloodshed comes in the final act. It doesn't. Leading us along the path of "oh god!" and "what the hell?!" (I said both of these things out loud: a recommendation in itself) are some well executed jump scares and quick, gory moments to punctuate the white middle class normality.

The plot centres around a middle aged couple who've just moved into a house in a snowy, apparently sleepy New England town. Having tragically lost their son in a car accident not too long before their relocation, they're attempting to heal as best they can from such heartbreak. 

Only... the house almost immediately reacts to their inhabiting it; photos fall, doors open and close, and wife Anne swears she can feel the presence of their son Bobby in the house with them. Her husband Paul is a cynic, sympathetically indulging her until witnessing things he just cannot deny, leading him to literally exclaim: "I believe it all!".

It transpires that beneath the house lurks a deep evil, one that wakes every thirty years and must be fed. If a sacrifice isn't made, the entire town pays the price. The words of a shifty neighbour sounded sinister at the time he uttered them, but then become all too clear: This house needs a family. (Also serving as the film's tagline).

Dark, charred figures stalk the house, appearing both as visions and as direct threats. If they touch you, you burn. They can devour you, and they can punch right through your chest - but why do they seem to be sparing Paul and Anne?

Boldly, the film shows these early and often, but benefits from doing so.

So I'm finding it interesting that I enjoyed this film so much and found the similarly slow-into-bonkers Starry Eyes from a couple of days ago somehow disappointing.

Maybe it's because We Are Still Here is set in the 70s - and I mean flawlessly set in the 70s, they nail the vibe in my opinion - and many of the protagonists are older? Paul and Anne are a rather normal couple, older but still affectionate and unsteadily (realistically so) dealing with the loss of their son. Maybe it's just there was more emotional meat there. 

The set-up of such arguably mundane characters facing not only rampaging townsfolk but also cruel ghosts is, to be honest, delightful. There's a reason this type of narrative set-up is used so often: it works. Barricaded in the bedroom with nothing but a handful of small knives, Anne fumbles and drops one of them before the couple arm themselves, hands trembling. It's just a great little collection of scenes; their nervous defiance.

I remember pausing the film not long after this moment with about 15mins remaining, and having no idea where this was going to end up. The final part of the final act is a gloriously batshit bloodbath. If the violence from earlier were shots, this bit is a full-on keg stand.

The walls are quite literally soaked in blood as heads are blown off, stomachs are torn open and in two of my favourite moments: blood is belched from the crawlspace in the basement and an unfortunate fallen townsperson is climbed upon by one of the ghosts; each hand and foot placement creating a hot hissing sound as they make their way up to his head.

The house is hungry, and it feeds. People are sucked right into the foundations before our very eyes!

Throughout the film there are many prolonged shots of the snowy countryside surrounding the house. Bare branches and empty roads stretch out all around, giving us a sense of the isolation and claustrophobia inside.

Not to mention working as a counter to how hot the house is for the time of year (early on they complain of the basement being abnormally hot, putting it down to a faulty boiler). It's a great line-drawing technique of "in here" and "out there" as well as a cheeky spin on the trope of ghosts lowering the temperature around them. These spooks actually burn hot.

The ending may require some discussion (online or otherwise) or perhaps another viewing to fully wrap your head around things, and without having done much of either yet, I'll state that to some degree it seems open to interpretation. However I don't think this detracts from what a solid and remarkably enjoyable film this is.

Here's the poster art, just because I think it's worth seeing what a great job they did of this, too...

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Starry Eyes (2014)

From the synth score to the retro looking titles, Starry Eyes seemed like a film I would really get into... but something about it just didn't stick.

Charting the questionable ascent into stardom of aspiring young actress Sarah Walker, this is a slow moving body horror... cult... slasher? (an argument could be made for any and all of those sub-genres). There is a lot of build up, a very grisly payoff and some gruesomeness along the way. But somehow the pacing seems off. We shouldn't have to wait until the last 15min to be fully engaged with this movie, right?

Sarah lives in LA and works a crappy job while going to auditions for acting roles. She's competent enough as an actress, that much we see - but she's not getting anywhere, and after each disappointing audition experience, she goes into a kind of... demonic, hair-pulling seizure. For one audition she's caught in the bathroom doing this, by the casting director and asked to return to the room and do it again, to order. After some initial hesitation, she complies.

It appears that these filmmakers are after something very special from their leading ladies.

I will concede that this poster art is gorgeous though.

I will give writer and director team Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer credit for not having this play out exactly as a run-of-the-mill Faustian tale, and there are some really arresting visuals throughout, particularly in the final sequence (even though what happens is kind of signposted about halfway through the run time).

The slightly hyper-real vibe about the movie also works to make everything feel off-kilter and nightmarish. Most of the film is shot in a cold, blue light; going against the warm tones of Los Angeles that we're used to in movies. This doesn't seem a nice place to be.

LA itself is shown as a sleazy, unfriendly place full of shallow young people with no clue what they're doing. And this fact specifically posed a problem for me.

For one thing, all of Sarah's friends are pretty shitty. One in particular had my husband yelling "Christ, just kill her already!" so yes, you know or at least hope that they are going to get theirs, eventually. The problem is that it takes sooo long to get there! At least with a conventional slasher (a good one anyway) you know kills are going to happen with some kind of regularity.

Ordinarily, films that are still and slow are more satisfying in their denouement than this. What was I missing?

I don't know... maybe I'm being too harsh. It had occurred to me that this might be good to watch in a double bill with The Invitation. Both are Hollywood hills-centric with a cult twist, and maybe a themed re-watch might make me appreciate it a little more...

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

I gotta get ready for a house full of ghouls!

As much as it pains me, reviews might have to be paused for a few days, while I prep for my Halloween party this weekend.

I'm confident I can pick the momentum back up again though, don't you worry. I've loved this challenge so far, so I'm looking forward to continuing.

In the meantime, check out this video a friend of mine linked me to. Remember my "there's a difference between being made to jump, and being scared" comment, a few film reviews ago? This expands on that in an interesting way. 


Technically it really should be titled "with most (or popular) horror movies today", but I suppose this one is punchier.