Saturday, September 07, 2019

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

I get why some people didn't like this. It's so very studied and ponderous. And maybe a little pretentious. It reminded me of the old Christmas horror films we'd get in England, years ago. Too female-centered to be too much like M. R. James, but possessing a similar climbing, quiet horror of thumps in the night and mold on the walls.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Before I Wake (2016)

Yet another title that's been on my list for some time - I can't remember how I even came to add it? Perhaps because it's Mike Flanagan (OculusHushGerald's GameThe Haunting of Hill House series and the forthcoming Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep).  I like Flanagan's "voice" and style - Oculus being the weakest I've seen, and I feel like I'm in the minority there - and was eager to see where this one fell in my personal spectrum of hits and misses of his work.

Some spoilers incoming!

We join Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) as they near the end of an adoption process, after the tragic accidental death of their son. The little boy they bring into their home is named Cody (Jacob Tremblay) and he has a special gift: when he sleeps, his dreams and nightmares manifest as tangible apparitions in the vicinity. 

At first this is something spellbinding, but soon the bogeyman (known as the "Cancker Man") who stalks Cody's nightmares appears, and we learn that it has the power to hurt and kill.

This reads as quite a basic plot, and it is, but there are some little touches to it that kept me invested. Jessie goes through a spell of manipulating Cody's gift in order to see her dead son again; filling his mind with anecdotes and visuals then drinking coffee all night to stay awake in case an apparition appears.

Her decision to give Cody sleeping pills and make excuses to husband Mark how this was helping them was so cold! And Jessie is the one who ultimately survives! Poor Mark (and poor Thomas Jane for having to wear that bad wig, honestly) didn't have much to do but manages to be both common sense and conscience to Jessie, before being startlingly "absorbed" by the "Cancker Man".

Two moments stick out in my mind after watching this. That of a vision of the deceased son Sean, eyes wide, repeating the same words over and over again; and the scene of Cody's previous foster father hugging a vision of his dead wife - only, as the camera shows her face, his voice over explains how Cody was too young to remember (and therefore dream) her correctly. The woman we see is a terrifying facsimile of a human.

Flanagan has a lot to impart about grief, doesn't he? Oculus and ...Hill House were both heavy with sadness along with chills. Before I Wake fits into his oeuvre pretty well, with muted tones of set design and characters listless in beautiful houses that feel too cold and somehow too big for their occupants. 

I did call the reveal about 5mins before it was explained, but the flashback was heartbreaking enough for me not to mind. Maybe because I lost my dad to cancer, I don't know... Adults can barely deal with that reality, so I can't imagine a small child trying to comprehend it. Your mileage may vary on this aspect of the film especially, but I found where it could have lost me with a potentially silly and/or overly sentimental explanation, this was awful in just the right way.

For a movie that comes across a little Conjuring-universe in its marketing, I enjoyed this more than I expected to. There are some moments that lean into the "simple summer blockbuster" horror vibe (as ever, no judgement, it has its place) like jump scares and eyeless ghosts... but there's also an interesting story woven through this. It's a great concept, and even if this didn't reach its full potential, it was still absorbing enough to keep me watching.

Streaming on Netflix at time of writing!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Last Shift (2014)

Oh hey Paimon! Listen, I know we had a rocky start with that first viewing of Hereditary, but I'm here now and I'm ready to listen.

I guess Last Shift doesn't really bury the lead here. There's a demon in this! If you're into cult-y, demon-y shenanigans then this little flick directed and co-written (along with Scott Poiley) by Anthony DiBlasi, is surprisingly unsettling and... full disclosure... I had to turn it off 30mins in the first time, as I was alone downstairs in my house and got freaked out. For that reason alone it gets points!

And so attempt #2, with company and knowing a little more about what to expect, I checked out this story of rookie cop Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy) spending the night in a soon-to-be abandoned police station. The old Assault on Precinct 13 location treatment.

There may only be a single locale for Last Shift - apparently it was an actual redundant police station - but it's used fantastically. Loren, initially bored and then increasingly on edge, wanders the empty halls and rooms of the precinct; experiencing strange noises and visions of a spine-chilling, violent past that played out within its walls.

We learn along with her that it may be more than just bad luck placing her on this doomed shift, in this doomed building. Her father's time - and death - as a police officer may be relevant, too.

The scares are often of the jump variety here, and there is at least one moment of that once heavily-relied-upon effect of sped up ghouls being ghoulish (that kind of 90s/early 2000s music video editing thing... yawn). However, the cult/demon visuals are pretty jarring and disturbing when they come, so this lends some heft to the proceedings. Despite some questionable paths getting us there, I found the scares and creepiness ultimately successful.

I am the dancing flame.
John Michael Paymon

So, I mentioned Paimon earlier. His incarnation here is as a Charles Manson-esque cult leader called "Paymon" (Joshua Mikel). I'm not well-versed enough in my occult history to have recognised the name without the help of Hereditary, but I thought it was pretty cool to see him featured in something else. 

According to Wikipedia these are the only two films with a plot where Paimon comes up. Demon-specific double bill, anyone?* Though I think Last Shift would pair better with Let Us Prey for strong female police officers getting more than they anticipated during their first night on the job.

 *See my "double bill idea" tag. Maybe one day I can actually make use of all these?!

I caught this on Shudder but as usual, it's probably pretty easy to find. A movie that's smaller in scope, but with atmosphere and nastiness (that ending!) to feel like it deserves a seat at the table.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Ruins (2008)

For another movie about dumb white tourists misunderstanding and/or disrespecting native culture to their peril, The Ruins ain't so bad!

Two couples are on the last days of a holiday in Mexico when they're invited to trek to Mayan ruins "off the beaten path". As one might expect, terrible things happen until horrifying tragedy wipes out nearly the entire group. This apparently departs from the novel upon which the film was based, that culminated in everybody dying (which honestly, I would have preferred... though I suppose cosmically speaking this one is scarier).

Directed by Carter Smith and written (novel and screenplay) by Scott B. Smith, who also did the same for the story/film of A Simple Plan, this is short, sharp and competent horror. It's not a complicated tale but it keeps you interested and decently unfolds the dread over its 90mins.

I was also pleasantly surprised at an early assumption I'd made plot-wise being proven wrong. Guessing narrative twists and turns is an occupational hazard but it's nice to be fooled where possible!

Four Americans on a vacation don't just disappear!
− Jeff (Jonathan Tucker)

I suppose if I had one complaint, it was the clumsy handling of the introduction of "mimicking" early on. Would these kids use that phrasing? It seems to be done purely to put that word or action in the minds of the audience for later. But I really don't think it was necessary - in fact, it would have been roughly 5% more shocking coming out of absolutely nowhere.

"But Jo", I hear you ask, "does this film have gore?" And to that, I say yes, yes it certainly does. 

The Ruins gives realistic, skin-crawling moments of body horror. From broken bones, to open wounds and amputations, this one isn't for the squeamish in that respect.

At dead on 1hr30 The Ruins is worth the runtime for some genuinely uneasy and hopeless moments of peril and solid bloodiness. I had always assumed this movie was a sub-standard Turistas-type affair; a great concept but ultimately the makers balls it up in a variety of frustrating ways. This is not the case! I'm pleased I gave this one a chance (better late than never).

I watched on Tubi but I'm sure it's fairly easy to find other places, too.