Thursday, October 23, 2014

#1,529. From Within (2008)

Directed By: Phedon Papamichael

Starring: Elizabeth Rice, Thomas Dekker, Kelly Blatz

Tag line: " If you believe in the light, you've got to believe in the dark"

Trivia: This movie was nominated for a 2010 Fangoria Chainsaw Award for Best Screenplay

Angry over the death of his mother (who was killed by religious fanatics because she dabbled in witchcraft), Sean (Shiloh Fernandez) shoots himself in the head, which, unbeknownst to everyone, unleashes a curse on the small community of Grovetown, one that causes otherwise normal people to do what Sean did: commit suicide. As the death toll mounts, Dylan (Kelly Blatz), the son of the town’s most respected preacher, confronts Aidan (Thomas Dekker), Sean’s brother, who many believes is also responsible for the current situation. While most of the town is against him, Aidan is befriended by Lindsey (Elizabeth Rice), who objects to the way he’s being treated. But when it looks as if Lindsey herself is going to be the curse’s next victim, Aidan makes a startling confession, then promises to do everything he can to protect her.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of From Within is its premise. Launched by black magic, the curse (which spreads one person at a time) invades the psyche of its potential victim, convincing him or her that their doppleganger is out to get them, then tricks each person into hurting themselves instead. In an early scene, young Molly (Amanda Babin) comes face-to-face with an entity that looks a lot like her. Confused and frightened, she attempts to run, but to no avail. The look of these “duplicates” is also one of the film’s strong points (they’re exact replicas in every way except the eyes, which are lifeless), and some of the scenes where they’re facing off against their human counterparts are exceptionally tense (being supernatural in nature, these entities aren’t bound by physical laws, and can appear anywhere, at any given time).

Unfortunately, the payoff of each encounter is far less satisfying than what preceded it. Take, for example, the sequence I mentioned above, where young Molly is on the run from her doppleganger. After a nerve-racking chase, the duplicate corners Molly and cuts her wrists by rubbing them along the broken glass of a windowpane. Yes, it’s a violent end, but it’s also not a very creative one. In fact, none of the deaths that result from the curse are anywhere near as interesting as the encounters themselves, taking the edge off of each one at the precise moment it should have been at its strongest. I also didn’t much care for the movie's religious angle, where stereotypical Christian zealots spew hate and sanction violence all in the name of God. Characters such as these have become a tired cliché, and in my opinion, From Within would have been just as good without them.

The above weaknesses aside, From Within is a decent, well-made horror film with thrills, chills, and a surprise or two to keep you on your toes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#1,528. Beyond the Wall of Sleep (2006)

Directed By: Barrett J. Leigh, Thom Maurer

Starring: George Peroulas, Fountain Yount, Gregory Fawcett

Tag line: "I wake with bad things"

Trivia: This movie was based on a 1919 magazine article

After the impressive The Call of Cthulhu I wanted to check out another indie movie inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which led me to Beyond the Wall of Sleep, a 2006 motion picture co-directed by Barrett J. Leigh and Thom Maurer. Unfortunately, this film was a major disappointment in every way imaginable.

Based on Lovecraft’s 1919 short story of the same name, Beyond the Wall of Sleep introduces us to Edward Eischel (Fountain Yount), a medical intern at the Ulster County Psychiatric Asylum who’s been conducting experiments designed to tap the full potential of the human brain. His curiosity is piqued by the arrival of a new patient; a backwoods murderer from the Catskill Mountains named Joe Slaader (William Sanderson). His simplistic nature aside, Joe has a deformity on his back that fascinates Eischel, who longs to make Slaader his next test subject. But when the arrogant Dr. Wardlow (Kurt Hargen) interferes, Eischel is forced to take extreme measures to see his project through.

Beyond the Wall of Sleep fails on just about every level, including the acting (which ranges from inept to over-the-top), sound (whenever a character in the background speaks, his or her dialogue is inaudible), special effects (when they’re shown in close-up, the “growths” on Joe Slaader’s back look as if they’ve been taped on), and even basic storytelling (there are entire sequences that have nothing whatsoever to do with the main story, and were created solely to pad out the running time). Perhaps most frustrating of all is the film’s visual style; early on, we’re treated to sequences featuring multiple images and rapid-fire editing, designed to give the viewer the impression they’ve wandered into the nightmare world of insanity. Far from sending a shiver up my spine, these erratic scenes only managed to give me a headache.

Clearly, with Beyond the Wall of Sleep, directors Leigh and Maurer thought they were making an art house movie, but in the end, all they’d managed to produce was a jumbled, incoherent, and flat-out dull motion picture.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

#1,527. 100 Feet (2008)

Directed By: Eric Red

Starring: Famke Janssen, Bobby Cannavale, Ed Westwick

Tag line: "Accused of Killing Her Husband, Confined To The Home He Now Haunts"

Trivia: In Brazil, this film was released as Hostage Spirit

After several years in prison for murdering her abusive husband (who also happened to be a cop), Marnie (Famke Janssen) finally heads home, where she’s to spend the next 12 months under house arrest. Thanks to the electronic tracking device attached to her leg, Marnie is restricted to a 100-foot radius (if she moves beyond that point, she risks being returned to jail), yet despite the limitations, she does her best to try and lead a normal life. Unfortunately, she’s not alone in the house; the ghost of her dead husband Mike (played by Michael Paré) resides there as well, and needless to say, he’s pretty pissed off. In fact, he picks up right where he left off, and begins beating his wife regularly. With the abuse starting all over again, Marnie turns to Shanks (Bobby Cannavale), her husband’s former partner; as well as Joey (Ed Westwick), the delivery boy for the local supermarket, for help. But will anyone believe her story, or is she doomed to spend the next year being victimized all over again?

What I found most impressive about director Eric Red's 100 Feet was the performance delivered by Famke Janssen, who plays Marnie, the once-battered wife who continues to suffer at the hands of a deranged ghost. Yet what makes her character so fascinating isn’t that she’s living with a spirit, but the manner in which she approaches the entire ordeal. As portrayed by Janssen, Marnie is tough-as-nails, a no-nonsense woman who refuses to allow the ghostly presence to drive her from her home. There are even times when she has a few choice words for her late husband (after being attacked in the kitchen, Marnie defiantly shouts “You had it coming”, and reminds Mike that it’s his own fault he’s dead). From start to finish, Janssen coveys her character’s inner strength, and does so is a way that’s entirely convincing.

Horror-wise, 100 Feet is a bit more hit and miss. Mixed in with its effective shocks (the sequence where Mike first makes his presence known to Marnie is abundantly creepy) are a few cheap ones (yet again, we get a screeching cat, a time-honored jump scare that’s been done to death), but the real problem is the ghost itself, which is somewhat inconsistent (while it usually appears in full form, there are times when we can’t see it at all). There’s even a scene in which Marnie takes a swing at it that actually connects, something that had me scratching my head when, later on, she tries knocking it down with a baseball bat, which simply passes through it). These issues aside, 100 Feet is a movie I’d recommend (Famke Janssen really is that good). But if it’s wall-to-wall scares you’re looking for, you might want to look elsewhere.

Monday, October 20, 2014

#1,526. Amusement (2008)

Directed By: John Simpson

Starring: Katheryn Winnick, Laura Breckenridge, Jessica Lucas

Tag line: "Your fear. His amusement"

Trivia: This was was the last film to be distributed by Picturehouse Entertainment before their closure in 2008 and relaunch in 2013

After being mercilessly teased as a child by three girls in his class, a mentally disturbed man (Kier O’Donnell) who spent many years locked away in a psychiatric ward comes looking for revenge. To this end, he stalks the three friends individually (none of the young ladies have seen each other in years) and abducts them, dragging the trio off to an abandoned underground facility where he sets up elaborate pranks designed to frighten and confuse them. Can these former childhood friends band together to escape their psychotic kidnapper, or will he finish what he started?

Amusement, a 2009 direct-to-video movie, kicks off strong, giving us three segments, each named after one of the girls, which reveal how the lunatic (the credits refer to him as “The Laugh") managed to kidnap them. The first segment, “Shelby” (a character played by Laura Breckenridge) is set on the open road, with Shelby and her boyfriend Rob (Tad Hilgenbrink) heading down the highway late at night. The trouble begins when Rob joins a small convoy, leading to a series of events that result in a tense chase and a plot twist I didn’t see coming. Next up is “Tabitha” (Katheryn Winnick), who’s just arrived at the home of her aunt and uncle (who are out of town), finding her young cousins all alone (the babysitter apparently left early). This segment, a home invasion-style tale, is easily the movie’s best, and is sure to frighten anyone with an aversion to clowns. Finally, there’s “Lisa” (Jessica Lucas), who, with the help of boyfriend Dan (Reid Scott) tries to determine the whereabouts of her roommate Cat (Fernanda Dorogi), who failed to come home the night before. Their search leads them to a dilapidated hotel, where the kidnapper lies in wait.

Each of the above segments is presented with their own look and feel, making the first half of the movie a sort of “mini-anthology”, an approach that works to the film’s advantage. Performance-wise, Kier O’Donnell shines as the deranged kidnapper, whose distinctive laugh will send a shiver up your spine, and Katheryn Winnick (whose Tabitha seems to be the focal point of it all) is also quite good, playing a basically strong character who, on occasion, is scared out of her wits. The final segment, where “The Laugh” has assembled his victims together, has its moments as well (the best of which sees two of the girls tied up, one on each side of the room, as the third looks on in horror at what’s been done to them).

Amusement does have several plot holes that never get filled in (the most blatant of which occurs in the “Shelby” segment, and involves a truck driver and his female companion), and the final abduction (aka the “Lisa” segment) feels rushed, and isn’t nearly as good as the first two. And for those of you expecting a creepy clown movie (which is what the poster art and trailer seem to be promising), you’ll be sorely disappointed (the clown only figures into a small portion of the overall film). Perhaps most frustrating of all is the fact the filmmakers don’t show us the supposed teasing and ridicule “The Laugh” suffered at the hands of the 3 girls, making his motives seem entirely random, and ensuring our sympathies are with the victims at all times (whether they deserve to be or not).

Even with the above problems, Amusement offers enough thrills and chills (as well as a few surprises) to make it worth your time. It’s not a perfect horror flick, but it’s definitely a good one, and has a moment or two where you get the feeling it could have been great.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

#1,525. The Loved Ones (2009)

Directed By: Sean Byrne

Starring: Xavier Samuel, Robin McLeavy, Victoria Thaine

Tag line: "You don't have to die to go to hell"

Trivia: Robin McLeavy prepared for the role of Lola by researching the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

I usually have a high threshold for violence in movies, but there was a point in 2009’s The Loved Ones where I’d had enough. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a tremendous motion picture; a tense, often unsettling film that had me poised at the edge of my seat. Still, the brutality is so relentless, so extreme, that I often had to look away. I admire the hell out of The Loved Ones, but I’m not sure I like it.

It’s the last day of school, and Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy) asks classmate Brent (Xavier Samuel) to accompany her to the end-of-year dance. Unfortunately, Brent already has a date: his girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine). But Lola isn’t about to take “no” for an answer. Knocked unconscious by Lola’s doting father (John Brumpton), Brent is dragged off to the Stone homestead, which has been decorated to look like a dance hall. It seems that Lola’s father, who’ll do anything to make his little girl happy, is hosting his own shindig, and Brent is there to serve as Lola’s “date”. Continuously tortured and beaten by his captors, Brent tries his damnedest to escape, but the more he struggles to free himself, the harsher his “punishment” gets.

The violence in The Loved Ones is tough to watch, mostly because it’s inflicted upon someone who hasn’t done anything to deserve it. Not only is Brent an innocent (he wasn’t the least bit nasty or condescending when he told Lola he couldn’t go with her to the dance), but is something of a victim himself (as the film opens, Brent and his father are out driving. Suddenly, a bloodied young man appears out of nowhere, causing Brent to lose control of the car and crash it into a tree, killing his father instantly). This makes what happens to him all the more tragic, and the torture he’s subjected to is, at times, quite awful (at one point, Brent manages to escape, only to be chased down and captured again. To ensure he stays put, Lola’s father nails Brent’s feet to the floor with a couple of steak knives).

Robin McLeavy turns in a remarkable performance as Lola, a psychotic teen with an adolescent’s mentality who’s always gotten her way. Also strong is John Brumpton as Lola’s dad, an emasculated figure who’s nonetheless capable of doing terrible things. The dynamic between these two characters, complete with an underlying sexual tension, is as fascinating as it is grotesque. Equally as impressive is how writer / director Sean Byrne ties everything together before the movie’s over; a seemingly unrelated side story in which Brent’s pal Jamie (Richard Wilson) , accompanies the distant and strange Mia (Jessica McNamee) to the school dance isn’t as random as it first appears. All of these elements blend wonderfully, making The Loved Ones a movie I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. Odds are, I’ll probably watch it again myself.

But not right away.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

#1,524. The Echo (2008)

Directed By: Yam Laranas

Starring: Jesse Bradford, Amelia Warner, Carlos Leon

Tag line: "Do you hear it?"

Trivia: This is a remake of a 2004 Filipino horror movie of the same name

If movies like Ju-On and The Ring have taught me anything, it’s that kids can sometimes be creepy as hell. The Echo, a 2008 film directed by Yam Laranas, has its own little demon urchin, and while its story is nothing new, the movie features a handful of scenes that are sure to get your pulse pounding.

Bobby (Jesse Bradford), who’s just been released on parole after serving time for manslaughter, moves into the apartment of his recently deceased mother. Before he has a chance to settle in, however, he begins hearing strange noises coming from the apartment next door, which is occupied by a policeman (Kevin Durant) who spends his evenings beating up his wife (Iza Calzado) and child (Jamie Bloch). Hoping to put his own life back in order, Bobby gets a job with a local garage and even contacts his old girlfriend Alyssa (Amelia Warner), but when the noises continue, he finds himself drawn into a perplexing mystery that grows more horrifying with each passing day.

A remake of the 2004 Filipino film Sigaw, The Echo is a well-shot, strongly acted horror movie that, despite taking things slowly, is unsettling from the word “go”. By way of a series of deliberate tracking shots (most showing off the apartment and the surrounding complex), director Laranas (who also helmed the 2004 original) introduces a sense of menace early on, which only gets stronger as the story unfolds. Shortly after moving in, Bobby makes the startling discovery that his mother spent a great deal of time in her bedroom closet (aside from the empty cans of food scattered throughout, he finds the closet door has been equipped with a latch, which allowed her to lock it from the inside). From that moment on, things get downright spooky (Bobby experiences several visions, including one of his dead mother asking for his help), culminating in a finale that, at times, is absolutely terrifying.

Many of the standard features found in Asian-style horror in recent years are there for the taking in The Echo (a high dosage of jump scares, a haunting as the result of a tragic backstory, etc.). Yet they’re presented with enough skill to make them effective nonetheless. The Echo may ultimately travel familiar territory, but it’s a journey that’s well worth making.

Friday, October 17, 2014

#1,523. Final Destination 2 (2003)

Directed By: David R. Ellis

Starring: A.J. Cook, Ali Larter, Tony Todd

Tag line: "For every beginning there is an end"

Trivia: All of the news anchors featured in the movie are actual news anchors at local Vancouver-area stations (the film was shot in Vancouver)

I wasn’t all that impressed the first time I saw Final Destination 2. Not the second time, either. For some reason, the movie didn’t click with me like Final Destination did, and while it had its moments (i.e. the kill scenes), Final Destination 2 felt like an inferior follow-up to the entertaining original.

Well, I guess it’s true what they say: “The third time’s the charm”. I had more fun watching Final Destination 2 tonight than I’d ever had before.

It’s the one-year anniversary of the Flight 180 disaster, and Kimberly Corman (A.J. Cook) is driving to Daytona for Spring Break with a few of her closest friends. While waiting to get onto the expressway, she has a premonition that a terrible crash is about to occur, and blocks the on-ramp in an effort to save the lives of those lined up behind her. The accident does, indeed, happen, and many who were supposed to die are saved. But as the survivors of Flight 180 quickly learned, fate has a way of catching up with you. Before long, the people that Kimberly “rescued” start dying off. Hoping to make some sense of it all, Kimberly pays a visit to Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), the last remaining survivor of Flight 180, who agrees to help her and the others find a way to cheat death. But how long can they keep the Grim Reaper at bay?

One of the main problems I had with Final Destination 2 prior to this most recent viewing was the way it tossed Clear Rivers back into the mix. In an effort to stay alive, Clear checked herself in to a mental institution, not because she thought she was crazy, but because it was the safest place to be (she was living in a padded room). Having taken every precaution, she decides, rather abruptly, to risk life and limb yet again in order to help a group of people she’d never met before! It didn’t make any sense to me. This, coupled with the fact that those who survived the highway pile-up, all of whom were strangers to one another, suddenly became inseparable throughout the remainder of the film, was all a little too forced for my tastes. This time around, though, I kinda liked the mix of characters, and felt Ali Larter’s Clear complimented them perfectly. Don’t ask me why I had this change of heart, because, frankly, I’m not 100% sure myself!

One aspect of Final Destination 2 that I always enjoyed was its various kill scenes, some of which are truly horrific. Kimberly’s “vision” of the pile-up kicks the movie off in brutal fashion, and is followed by a handful of very memorable deaths (one of the most elaborate involves a magnet in the microwave and a plateful of discarded spaghetti). We even get a few “fake-outs” along the way, where fate seems to be setting up a character or two to take the fall, only to pull back at the last minute (at times, these “mock” deaths are just as exciting as the real thing).

All in all, I’m happy to report that Final Destination 2 is a solid sequel to the original film, even if it did take me a while to figure that out!