Sunday, April 20, 2014
As children, Kaylie and Tim Russell (Doctor Who's Karen Gillan and Australian dude Brenton Thwaites) survived their father (Rory Cochrane) going psycho. He killed their mom (Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff) but came to his senses in time to off himself before dusting the kids. As adults, Tim has just been released from a mental hospital and Kaylie's obsessed with the mirror that caused Dad's meltdown. Her plan? Bring the mirror back to their old house, ask her emotionally fragile brother to join her, scientifically prove the mirror is behind 400 years worth of mysterious deaths, and then, finally, destroy it. What could possibly go wrong? Well...most everything, in fact.
One of Kaylie's many failsafe features is a boat anchor winched to the ceiling and set on a mechanical timer. If it's not reset periodically, the winch releases and bye-bye mirror. They play back video occasionally to see if the mirror influenced them to do things they don't remember. At one point, when that does happen, Kaylie tells Tim they need to stick together. Do they? Of course not. The rest of the film alternates between the past and present until the inevitable and predictable climax.
Of the legion of faults, the most irritating is the dearth of information about the mirror's origins. We're told of its dozens of victims but not where it came from. Is it haunted, possessed, a doorway to hell? No clue. We do know its victims' spirits are still attached to it and aren't terribly happy. Beyond that, we're in the dark. And that's a mistake of Biblical proportions. How can you hope to establish the proper tension and ultimately fear without it? Instead, we're left with gross things like Kaylie biting into a light bulb she thinks is an apple and the dad literally chewing his fingernails off. The only decent tension occurs in the flashbacks when we're following the plight of a pair of terrified children, although in my mind that's cheating.
Acting: Gillan's American accent isn't bad. Her performance is spacey and neurotic and therefore spot-on. (She's Scottish, by the way.) Thwaites plays Tim like a puppy you want to take home and protect. Young Kaylie is Annalise Basso, young Tim is Garrett Ryan. Both do as well as (if not better than) their counterparts.
Story: It's an evil mirror tale.
Direction: Bouncing back and forth in time could have been a convoluted nightmare. It wasn't, so color me impressed on that count.
Production Values: The budget was $5 million, which in the world of horror is a fortune. The upshot is that the sets are professional as are the sound and lighting.
Gore/FX: Some blood from the light bulb and fingernail munching. Oh, yeah...and when Mom breaks all her teeth eating pottery shards. The CGI spirits are adequate.
Scares: I didn't jump, but others in the theater did a few times.
Ending: Anchors aweigh!
Verdict: Should you see Oculus? If you're so inclined, definitely wait until it's on DVD or the internet. Even then, I'd only recommend it to serious Amy Pond or Starbuck fans. Or fans of hot young Australian studs.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Posted by Nate Dean at 10:58 PM
Sunday, April 13, 2014
It's 1985 and Lisa (Breslin) awakens every morning to the same day. Brother Robbie (Peter DaCunha), dad Bruce (Peter Outerbridge), and mom Carol (Michelle Nolden) are oblivious. Impenetrable fog enshrouds the house. The phone is out. The station wagon won't run. Each night is meat loaf and Murder She Wrote. Everything changes when Lisa begins hearing voices and seeing shadows. She finds a hidden door in the basement which leads to a subterranean hidey-hole complete with jars of personal items (rings, watches, etc.) and a massive crematorium. She also discovers a scrapbook of newspaper articles detailing 30 years worth of missing girls. Her snooping results in a visit from a telephone repairman (McHattie) who tells Lisa to knock off the snooping or else. Turns out the voices are from Oliva (Eleanor Zichy), a teenager from 2013 who's been trying to contact Lisa (who, of course, is dead) for help. Olivia's normally nice dad's gone psycho and she fears for her family's safety. Since Lisa's family and many others died in the house under similar circumstances, Olivia figures Lisa's trapped spirit can do something on her end. Yeah, seemed like a stretch to me, too. More of a stretch is when Lisa swaps bodies with Olivia.
McHattie, of course, is the spirit of Edgar, the serial killer who's trapped Lisa's family and keeps possessing fathers and forcing them to murder their wives and children. We are shown Edgar as a child (David Knoll) killing his parents but his motivations are not explained. Is he simply nuts or are demonic forces involved? Dunno. Anyway, in the end, Lisa begs all of Edgar's victims to "wake up" and help her stop him for good. She's like a dead Norman Rae.
This film is way more complicated than it needed to be. I wish I could expand on that, but it wouldn't make any sense if you haven't seen it. It's like with superhero movie sequels. They always add more supervillains and convoluted themes thinking more is better. That rarely works. Haunter tries to incorporate plot devices from at least six other films instead of focusing on just one and building around it.
Acting: McHattie, who you know from films like Pontypool, brings his usual A game. Breslin crawls close to the ham line but does not cross it. She does all right. I particularly enjoyed Outerfield's performance as Lisa's father.
Story: Overly complex conglomeration of tried and true supernatural plots.
Direction: Well executed despite the narrative challenges.
Production Values: I have no budget information, but it was made in Canada with Canadian government money so it looks anything other than cheap.
Gore/FX: No blood whatsoever. A bit of CGI here and there.
Scares: One or two that will test your bladder control.
Ending: Not horrifying at all.
Verdict: Should you see Haunter? As far as haunted house flicks go, I've seen worse. And though I wouldn't label it as wholesome family entertainment, it's about as close as a horror film can get.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Posted by Nate Dean at 5:53 PM
Sunday, April 6, 2014
A Russian reconnaissance squad with a filmmaker (Alexander Mercury) in tow works its way through the German countryside. They're to call in enemy positions but the radio is on the fritz (so to speak). A sudden SOS call from another squad leads them to a village where they find a pile of barbequed nuns, empty graves, and a church crammed full of bizarre equipment...but no squad in danger. Not too much goes well for the recon squad after that. They are attacked by a number of abominations (the movie poster gives you an idea) and inadvertently herd themselves deeper into a hellish labyrinth where every new discovery is more horrifying than the last. We eventually learn that Dimitri the filmmaker has a separate, secret mission...to bring the doctor (Karel Roden) responsible back to Mother Russia, preferably alive. Yeah, that doesn't work out for either of them.
A great many things bothered me about this film. No one in the recon squad is likable (they kill German women and children just for the hell of it). I think their accents are supposed to be Russian. Hard to tell. As for the zombots (yes, the creatures are credited as zombots), the majority are too silly to be scary. The "mosquito" has a three-foot drill for a nose. "Propeller Head" has a, well, propeller for a head. And for reasons passing understanding, the slave girl Jabba the Hutt feeds to his rancor in Return of the Jedi makes an appearance. There's a scene in which the squad essentially feeds a 10 year-old boy to a zombot. If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times: don't kill kids. Even if they are Hitler Youth.
As for the film's title, the doctor is a descendent of Dr. Frankenstein and based his work on the original experiments. Thing is, this current doctor was so batshit crazy, his father had him committed. As for the work itself...let's just say any neuroscientists who watch this film will have eye strain from rolling them so much. I can't deny how jarring it is initially to see these grotesque mutations chase after the squad members. Add a klaxon into the frenetic action and it's pretty damned effective. For a while. Once Dimitri navigates his way into the doctor's inner labs, we're simply overloaded with nonsensical gore that I'm sure was intended to appall and disgust. Unfortunately, my thoughts were, "Oh, more severed limbs. Oh, a few dozen dead folks hanging from hooks. Oh, one of the squad's being used as food. Oh, he turned the 10 year-old boy into a walking tool box." Doesn't help that Roden plays the doctor with the subtlety of a cement truck.
Ultimately, I just wanted them all dead.
Acting: I mentioned Roden. The others won't win any awards, but the performances won't make you cringe either.
Story: It's well-known the Nazis flirted with all manner of insane schemes in WWII. From that standpoint, the idea is intriguing. The end product here, though, just seems goofy.
Direction: It's an 84-minute film that feels too long. Action revolves around a single conceit which wears thin fast. Once the novelty of the zombots runs its course, there's not much left to do.
Production Values: Filmed in the Czech Republic, the exteriors are gritty and realistic. The interiors are properly creepy. You won't for a minute buy that it was filmed with a handheld, though.
Gore/FX: Yes, yes there is. Whoever built the zombots must have had the time of their lives. If there was CGI, I didn't notice.
Scares: One or two zombot startle-scares.
Ending: Unbelievably, the one person I felt was the least evil lived. That never happens.
Verdict: Should you see Frankenstein's Army? I couldn't get past the silliness of the zombots. They make Doctor Who's daleks look hi-tech. I think I would have liked it better if the filmmakers had either gone for total camp or toned down the goofiness and shot a for super-scary, found footage movie.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Posted by Nate Dean at 11:57 PM
Saturday, March 22, 2014
The opening sequences with Simon Leach (Bill Oberst, Jr.) and his...associate Mary (Whitney Nielsen) paint a picture of bald-faced insanity. They discuss the finer points of filmmaking, shoot some folks (with shotguns, not cameras), and soon thereafter, set up a cult compound near the U.S.-Mexico border. Leach is not a religious fanatic. He's an imaginative serial killer with a flair for the dramatic; to whit, he covers the compound with security cameras and has Mary tote a handheld at all times. Serial killers do love their trophies. For Leach, it's the footage.
The lost and disenfranchised find the compound via Leach's website. One of them, however, is on a mission. Ellen (Hannah Levien) is investigating the death of her sister Janet who died mysteriously while in Leach's previous cult incarnation. Halfway through the film, she confronts Leach but the ever-eloquent "Father Simon" convinces her the police raid of his former compound was to blame. This, by the way, is how he explains all the cameras to his disciples - to protect himself against any potential accusations of wrongdoing. Yeah, right. Anyway, Leach spends the first few weeks brainwashing these poor bastards so when the "transitioning" begins, instead of fleeing in terror, they're pleased as punch for the victim. Going to a better place and all that. One guy drinks drain cleaner while another is stabbed Caesar-style by his fellow disciples. A drill, a rock, a shotgun, gasoline...like I said, flair for the dramatic. The weirdest by far is the lid off a giant can of peaches. One guy does manage to escape, which prompts Leach to "transition" the rest of his flock and, as they say, get the flock out of there.
I'm not sure if revealing how evil and bat-shit crazy Leach is at the outset instead of allowing a ratcheting of tension that would naturally occur as the story unfolds was the way to go. Is it more horrifying to know ahead of time that a group of folks will be killed or to go in oblivious and be horrified because it's so unexpected? I prefer the latter, but that's just me. What else...oh, right. The desk drawer. A stark naked Leach appears to dangle his privates over an open drawer and then slam it shut. Repeatedly. Why? Well, he's nuts (pardon the pun). Beyond that, no clue. You should know the "graphic nudity" disclaimer is solely for Oberst and his full Monty.
I first saw Oberst play the title character in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. That performance was so well rounded and sincere that to this day I believe it to be if not on par with Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln, damn close. To then go 180 degrees and deliver an equally impressive performance as a blood-thirsty nutter only goes to reinforce my belief that this Emmy-winning actor is as versatile as he is talented. Stay tuned...he has over 20 more films coming out over the next few years. I guess I should have also said prolific.
Acting: If I'm honest, I was expecting much less from the supporting cast. In my own vernacular, no one sucked. Stand outs are Levien as Ellen, Galen Howard as Alan, and Liesel Hanson as Robin.
Story: It's a sound premise for psychological horror and, for the most part, succeeds. I wouldn't have minded fewer plot holes but since when does a script ever make it onto to film intact? I'd have liked a bit more background on Leach to explain why he's so fucking crazy.
Direction: Much has been made of the near glacial pacing of the action. Some complain of boredom. It's like this...the pace is appropriate for setting up the denouement. If you're bored, you're not paying attention to the acting. I will admit, though, that the editing was uneven.
Production Values: No budget information but it was no doubt of a shoestring variety. Filmed documentary style in the Mojave Desert. The interiors are just shy of pathetic but then again, they're supposed to look that way.
Gore/FX: Lots of blood, only hints of gore when Leach is disposing of corpses with what I believe is a reciprocating saw. No apparent CGI.
Scares: There is a jump scare when Alan is "transitioned." Otherwise, they were going more for tension and disgust than anything else.
Ending: Walt Disney would not approve.
Verdict: Should you see Children of Sorrow? It's worth a look if you're more into subtle, psychological horror than in-your-face, Hostel-style torture porn. Like me.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Posted by Nate Dean at 4:08 PM
Sunday, March 9, 2014
While trying to impress his friends, and of course a girl, nerdy college student Casper Galloway (Devon Bostick) accidentally breaks an urn in his grandfather's (Christopher Lloyd) occult shop. The curse that's unleashed is of their own making. See, Casper freaks out causing much of the following, "Oh, sure. A curse. Like anyone we make eye contact with will commit suicide and then come back from the dead to kill you." So they mock, and the mocking becomes the parameters of the curse. Silly things, like if you French kiss one of the undead (they call them zemons...zombies created by a demon), it will become your slave. And not so silly things like if they don't somehow reverse the curse by dawn, it will become permanent. To reverse it, they must locate a number of items around campus scavenger hunt style. Their rolling HQ is an old Winnebago. Weapons vary from a crossbow to a rolling pin to a few grenades (don't ask me why they'd have grenades). The climax finds them in a cemetery where they must dig up Casper's great grandfather. They need his watch for the curse reversal. Or something. The cemetery scene is weird. OK...weirder. Do they succeed? Yep. Does any of it make a lick of sense? Nope.
A couple of things: Bostick seems to be channeling Zachary Levi when Levi played a reluctant CIA agent in the TV show Chuck. It's really quite spooky. Christopher Lloyd as Grandpa finds occasion to say "Great Scott!" Shameless? Yes, but it still works for him. One thing that didn't work so well was how they dealt with the death of Casper's loved ones. Pathos in a horror-comedy works about as well as slapstick in a Shakespeare tragedy. "To be, or not to be...nyuk, nyuk, nyuk." Yeah...no.
Acting: Bostick anchors the uneven performances which, if I'm honest, could have been worse. Surprisingly un-sucky. Although the screaming in terror every five minutes wears thin in a big damn hurry. Kids In the Hall alum Kevin McDonald is fun as Professor Duffy.
Story: While it is a mash up of subgenres, it manages to find its own voice.
Direction: Actress turned director April Mullen reins in the chaos competently and keeps the narrative pointed in the right direction. As this was shot in 3-D, there are the obligatory scenes with stuff flying at the camera but it's not overly distracting.
Production Values: I have no budget data, but the sets look real and the sound and lighting aren't crappy. That's all that matters.
Gore/FX: Nothing excessive beyond a bit of blood and brains. That is to say, you shouldn't puke. There's a bit of CGI, and what there is isn't awful.
Scares: They try a few "gotcha" jump scares. I didn't jump.
Ending: Ever seen a horror film where no one dies? Me either.
Verdict: Should you see Dead Before Dawn? It's harmless enough, maybe worth a look if you're into hor-coms. If you were a fan of Chuck, see it for Bostick and his uncanny, if not unintentional, impression of Levi.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Posted by Nate Dean at 3:50 PM