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V/H/S Series – Review: Part 1

16 Apr

Found footage horror movies were a huge deal up until recently, and there was a good deal of bad mixed in with a handful of good. I firmly believe that if found footage is done correctly, it can be very effective, but the film makers who attempt this walk a fine line to make it seem realistic without making it look cheap. Perhaps one of the most recognizable series that implements the found footage style are the V/H/S films. These were mostly seen on the festival circuit before being released On Demand and then put on home media. I’ve never seen these movies, but I’ve heard plenty about them, so let’s dive right in.

Let’s start with the original 2012 film, V/H/S.

A gang of criminals is hired by a mysterious source to break into an elderly man’s house to retrieve a single VHS tape. What’s on the VHS tape is not explained and is deemed unimportant, so the thieves take the job. They easily break into the house but are shocked to find the old man dead and his house covered in an assortment of VHS tapes. In order to root out the correct tape, they start to watch what this man has in his collection, but are horrified at what they find. What is on these tapes are documented cases of horror that include a mysterious murderous entity, a siren that forces herself on men to feed her bloodlust, webcam footage that shows an unspeakable lie, a stalker hunting a couple on vacation, and a house that holds a deadly secret. While the thieves watch these tapes, they become aware of strange things happening around them that may have some connection with the dead man and what he has on these tapes.

So, I definitely have some things to say about V/H/S. Some of it’s good and some of it isn’t so much. Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First off, this is a found footage movie, and I believe that if found footage movies are done right, they can be a real success. This one takes that gimmick and goes a bit too far with it. The frame story of the thieves breaking into the old man’s house to find the VHS tape is fine, but it’s almost destroyed by these glitches in the tapes they’re using. This happens for the first few minutes, which didn’t really bother me, but they just kept happening. It drove me crazy. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, this is a horror anthology filled with short films. That being said, some of these shorts really didn’t do anything for me. The one that sticks out for being the most bland is the one titled Second Honeymoon. These shorts run close to 20 minutes long, so when one is really boring, it feels way longer than it actually is. This one leads absolutely nowhere, and it’s followed up by another short that also falls pretty short. This makes for a middle section of this movie that seems to drag on forever, but that’s the risk you take with anthology movies like this.

WhenV/H/S decides to get good, however, it gets real good. The general consensus from the critics I’ve heard from is that the first short and the last are the strongest, and I’m certainly inclined to agree. The first short called Amateur Night is a terrifying trip that has an excellent build up and an even better payoff. The final short called 10/31/98 isn’t the scariest of the bunch, but it does feature some pretty cool special effects that is the perfect climax to the style and mood that this movie has been building. There’s something startling about some of the imagery that’s used in this movie, and that’s probably what I’m going to remember the most about it. Since it is a found footage film, there are select elements that can’t be seen, which works since whatever you concoct in your imagination can be way scarier than the reality, but what is shown is brutal and has a style all its own.

V/H/S didn’t set a new standard of horror films when it came out, but the ripple that it made was well deserved. Comparing it to something like The Witch or It Follows isn’t really fair, but for what it is, it’s a pretty impressive low budget scare fest. There are certain segments that don’t hold up nearly as well as some of the other ones, and the acting can be a bit off at times. What does hold the movie up are some genuine scares and cringes that the scarier portions of the film provide.

Final Grade: B-

A year later, the sequel, simply titled V/H/S/2, was released. If this isn’t one of the most badass sequels I’ve seen in a while, I don’t know what is.

When two private eyes are hired to find a missing college student, their investigation leads them to a house that seems abandoned, except for a set up of televisions, a laptop, and a series of VHS tapes. The investigators begin to watch the tapes which seem to show unspeakable horrors. A man sees the vengeful undead through a new high tech prosthetic eye, a man on a bicycling trail is bitten and turned into a zombie, journalists witness a violent cult hit the climax of their worship, and aliens wreak havoc on kids having a slumber party. While the tapes don’t appear to be linked, it becomes clear to the investigators that something is very wrong with the house they’re in, and terror soon strikes them as they become part of their very own VHS tape to add to the collection.

Take everything you liked about V/H/S and turn it up to 11, and that’s how you get V/H/S/2. This really is one of the strongest sequels I’ve seen in a while, and certainly one of the strongest sequels in the horror genre. There are so many memorable moments in this film that it’s hard to wrap my head around all of them. If you want to talk about real horror, I’d be in trouble if I forgot to single out Timo Tjahtjhanto and Gareth Huw Evans’ segment titled Safe Haven. I have yet to watch the next film in this series, but I can say that this segment is going to be the strongest in the whole series. Take the real world horror of a Jonestown situation and add the supernatural, plus make it found footage so you’re smack dab in the middle, and you got some excellent moments of terror. I also want to single out Eduardo Sánchez’s and Gregg Hale’s A Ride in the Park, where we see through a zombie’s point of view via a Go Pro on his helmet. This is works as a zombie horror movie, but also a sort of wacky dark comedy.

I do have a few complaints about this movie, and they really just have to do with the strength of a couple of the tapes. The frame narrative with the investigators really doesn’t seem like much, but the end pay off makes it all worth it, so that one gets a pass as a positive. The first short titled Phase I Clinical Trials has a good idea if it were an episode of The Twilight Zone. For a movie that has shorts like Safe Haven in it, I expected a little bit more. It has some scares, but it’s over before it begins and there’s really nothing to it. The last short called Slumber Party Alien Abduction also doesn’t hold up as well as the two that come before it. There’s some interesting sound work and the aliens have cool reveals, but it feels underwhelming after the gems that have already been shown.

V/H/S/2, despite some of the segments being weaker than others, is a really good horror anthology film that is even better than its predecessor. It takes the scares, the gore, and the ideas and turns them way up to create a horror film that I may never forget. All the film makers that worked on this movie each had a specific task, and some of the made gold while the others follow up with silver. Never was I bored during this movie and it’s one that I’d love to watch again.

Final Grade: B+

So there’s the first two entries of the V/H/S series. Both were solid movies, but I have to give the edge to the sequel. Stay tuned for my next review where I’ll talk about V/H/S: Viral and the spin off movie, SiREN.

The Witch – Review

28 Feb

Horror movies have been in a pretty sad state recently with the constant remakes, sequels, and reboots. Does the world really need another Paranormal Activity? No, it really doesn’t. There have been some diamonds in the rough with critically successful movies like It Follows, which is one of my favorite horror movies to be released in a long time. Now we can add another intelligent and beautifully made horror movie to the rankings of modern horror classics. This movie is Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch. Without rambling too early on in the review, let me just say that this is exactly how horror movies should be made.

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In the year 1630, a Puritan man named William (Ralph Ineson), and his family are removed from a religious plantation. The family decides to start a new life by building a house near a large forest and living off the land and the blessings they believe to receive from God. The entire family dynamic is thrown when baby Samuel is kidnapped and killed by a witch lurking in the woods near the house. After another incident in the woods harms William’s middle son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), William’s wife Katharine (Kate Dickie) places the blame of witchcraft on their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). As the days press on, the black magic of the witch torments the family more until the morning they finally reach their breaking point.

Like I said before, The Witch is a prime example of how horror movies should be made. Since the very first frame there’s a feeling of dread and claustrophobia. I’m not talking about claustrophobia in the sense that the family is constantly in an enclosed space, but claustrophobic in the sense that they are completely walled in by the literal interpretations of their religious beliefs. Throughout the course of the movie, the characters all make these incredibly naïve and outlandish choices and accusations, all because they depend so heavily on God’s divine intervention and judgement. This extremist mind set is almost as scary as the witch that is cursing the family, and it mirrors real life in eerily similar ways.

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What I think really makes this movie is the subtlety of it all. Scenes in The Witch very rarely get loud. Instead, the intensity and feelings of terror come from the silences, what can’t be seen, and the inability of the family to escape the tortures that are destroying them. Isn’t the monster lurking in the dark scarier than the one that you can see plain as day? Sure it is, because your imagination never fails to show you the most horrific possibility. Isn’t the overwhelming feeling of dread and helplessness more terrifying than a jump scare that you could see coming a mile away? Once again, of course it is. The Witch doesn’t rely on getting your adrenaline pumping to keep you entertained. Instead it completely infects your body with a spirit of uneasiness that may come back to haunt you when you least expect it.

Something became quite clear about this movie within the first five or ten minutes. I’ve didn’t watch the trailer for this movie, so maybe it was in there, but I had no idea that all of the dialogue in this movie is written in and spoken in old English. It took a little bit to get used to it, but once it did I really appreciated the effect that it had on the movie. It gives The Witch a very authentic feeling, along with the costume design and cinematography. It’s also really impressive that all of the lines were delivered with such ease. At no point was I confused about what they were talking about. I have to give much respect to all of the actors in this movie, but mostly to the younger actors who pulled off the dialogue just as well as the adults.

I went into The Witch not really knowing what to expect. I was just curious about it because all of the hype it got at the various film festivals. Now that I’ve seen it, I can definitely say it’s one of the better horror movies released in a very long time. It’s a very smart approach to the genre, both in the writing and execution. Robert Eggers has made a great start to his feature film making career, and I really hope he explores the horror genre some more. Plain and simply, The Witch perfectly encapsulates how a horror movie should be made.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – Review

14 Sep

There are times when I’m really excited about seeing a movie only to finally watch it and realize it’s garbage. Fortunately, there are also times where movies are better than I expected them to be, no matter how excited I am. Ever since watching the trailer for David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I was set and ready to watch it. Of course, it takes me forever to finally getting around to watching a movie, but I have gotten to it at last. I was really worried that this movie was going to let me down, but luckily it’s a refreshingly gorgeous looking movie with an interesting take on the Bonnie and Clyde type of story.

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Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara) and Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) are two young lovers who make their living as thieves. When one particular robbery turns violent, and Officer Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster) is shot by Ruth, Bob puts an end to the shootout and gives himself up, saying he was the one who shot the officer. He does this so Ruth can stay free and give birth to their baby girl, Sylvie (Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith). Years later and as promised through letters to Ruth, Bob escapes from prison and begins making his way back to his family with hopes that they can run away together and start their lives over. What Bob doesn’t realize, however, is that that way of life has become distant from Ruth, who is now dedicated to raising Sylvie. When Bob does finally return to town, he brings with him his dangerous past and a lot of dangerous people.

Like I said before, I was really worried that I was going to hate this movie because I’ve been so excited and set on watching it for a really long time. I do that to myself a lot, but this one met the high bar that I set for it. It’s not only a movie about crime, but also about love, maturing, and finding what is truly important in your life. The film also succeeds at feeling like a sort of western movie, the main characters being thieves on the run. David Lowery also seems to have a keen sense on how to use subtlety and metaphors to make his story even stronger. For example, Casey Afflecks character can be seen as a metaphor for Ruth’s past, a past that’s trying to make its way back into her life, even though she knows it’s time to look forward.

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Watching and listening to this movie is an experience all its own, even if you take out the story. Bradford Young, the cinematographer, is known for using mostly just available light to light a scene, which is not an easy thing to do. There are parts in this movie when Bob and Ruth are walking through fields with the sun shining right into the lens. This lighting makes these scenes feel unearthly, like something you’d fine on the heavenly plane. The music also adds a lot to the movie and follows the same form of subtlety that I mentioned earlier. It’s quiet and atmospheric but still has a Western vibe when the scene is appropriate.

Probably the main draw I had to this movie at first was the cast. As far as actors go, Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Ben Foster all stand out as outstanding performers. Casey Affleck actually gave one of my favorite performances as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford. He proves himself more than capable once again in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and that goes the same for Mara and Foster. Rooney Mara nails the role of playing someone at a difficult transitioning point in her life, and you can’t help but sympathize with Foster’s character for trying to be a good person in world that’s easily corruptible.

I can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints didn’t disappoint me. It’s a modern retelling of a classic story that blends genres together that often times couldn’t seem farther apart. Everything from the beautiful cinematography, the ambient score, and excellent performances by the entire cast makes this movie not only an emotional ride, but one hell of an entertaining film. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves.

 

The Rambler – Review

31 May

Here we have one of those movies that I found for an insanely cheap price at a Best Buy and I thought, “Why not?” I picked it up solely based on what I read on the box, but other than that I had absolutely no idea what I was buying. While it wasn’t released in theaters, The Rambler did have screenings at festivals like Sundance and the SXSW Film Festival before it was released on DVD and blu ray. From the reactions I’ve read of other critics, be it amateur or professional, people either hate this movie or sort of like it. It’s pretty fair to say that I didn’t really have high expectations going into it.

 

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After getting out of prison, a man only known as the Rambler (Dermot Mulroney) returns home to his less than faithful and loving wife, Cheryl (Natasha Lyonne). The Rambler soon finds himself kicked out of his trailer, but finds a glimmer of hope when his brother invites him to come work on his ranch. The Rambler sets off on the the road across the country and finds himself face to face with some of the most bizarre and depraved people you could possibly imagine, like the Scientist (James Cady) whose machine that records dreams to VHS is more than likely to make someone’s head explode and the Girl (Lindsay Pulsipher), who may be the Rambler’s downfall as she keeps meeting him and dying in many different scenarios and ways.

Let me just start by saying that I totally understand where some of the hate towards this movie came from, but I can’t really say I understand why there’s so much hate from a good portion of those people who have seen this movie. Before anyone goes into The Rambler it may be worthwhile warning them that what they are about to see is extremely weird. Like aggressively weird. This weirdness may be part of the reason why a lot of people were not into this movie at all, at least amongst other things. I was really expecting to be bored, annoyed, or both with this movie and I even started asking myself what even came over me that made me purchase it in the first place. Honestly though, this is a pretty cool movie that I would actually CAUTIOUSLY recommend people who have any interest in film makers like David Lynch or weird movies in general.

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The reason why I stress the word “cautiously” is because I don’t want anyone to think that this comes anywhere near a David Lynch movie. Let’s look at Lost Highway, for example. Lost Highway is a deeply unsettling and weird movie, but you can tell that there’s something really deep going on beneath the surface of the movie, even if it takes multiple viewings to get even close to figuring it out. The Rambler is a different story. I don’t know if I’m missing something, but it doesn’t feel like that deep of a movie with any sort of actual puzzle to solve, which is what makes movies like this so much fun. The theory that I have about the meaning of the movie is really weak, but it’s really the only thing I could extrapolate from what I saw. There were a lot of scenes where I thought writer/director Calvin Lee Reeder was doing weird stuff for the sake of weirdness, which isn’t really the right way to go about it.

There are some things in this movie, however, that actually saved it for me as a whole. First off, Dermot Mulroney, who is known mostly for his performances in dramas and romantic comedies, really hits it home as the stoic Rambler. He doesn’t talk much, but he really doesn’t even have to. I love characters like that. The soundtrack is also first rate, and the cinematography really isn’t bad at all. There’s also some scenes that really made me howl with amusement and disgust at the same time. The first time someone’s head explodes because of the dream machine is startling and hilarious. There’s also a scene that probably features the strangest game of poker I will ever see. So while not all of the movie really works, there are parts that hit it out of the park.

While I expected to be completely put off by this movie, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Rambler. It is in no way a first rate movie, but as a B-movie directed by an altogether unheard of film maker, it really isn’t bad. By the time I reached the hour mark in the movie, I was beginning to grow a little tired of it, and by the time the movie was actually over I had more than enough. Still, for anyone who likes movies that go places you would never expect and contort reality in nightmarish ways, it may be a movie you’d like to check out at least once.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Review

10 Jul

When a film maker has the ability to create a movie that infiltrates your mind, even when you think that all is right with the world, you know that you are truly watching something special by a very talented artist. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a vicious spectacle of subtlety and paranoia that will remain buried in your mind long after the credits have stopped rolling.

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Martha’s (Elizabeth Olsen) life all of a sudden doesn’t seem like her own anymore. For the past two years of her life she has been staying with a mysterious cult, led by Patrick (John Hawkes), in the Catskill Mountains of New York. One morning she decides to leave and go stay with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her brother in law (Hugh Dancy). Automatically, Martha’s behavior appears out of the ordinary to her family with an ever growing paranoia as the backbone of her whole mental discomfort. As the days go on, and more time is spent contemplating the past two years, Martha finds herself not knowing what is real and what is just her imagination.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the most pure psychological dramas/thrillers that I have ever seen. There are plenty of great psychological films that go way over the top with how the present the mental collapse of its characters (Dragonfly) and sometimes it really works well (Antichrist). The look into Martha’s head is much more subtle. As a viewer, I didn’t even know that there were times that my head was being messed with until I really thought about it. Then, I had to go back and re-evaluate major parts of the movie because more and more puzzle pieces were falling into place, even after the movie ended.

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Part of what makes this movie work so well is the pacing and how the shots and scenes are pieced together. Martha’s time with the cult is all seen in flashbacks and the rest of the movie is Marta trying to adjust to family life. These parallel story lines are triggered by the other with something happening in the present that initiates the jump to the past events. This mirrors Martha’s fragile state of mind and shows her regression and obsession with the past, along with her inability to escape what has happened. In one particular transition, the two story lines appear to converge without me even noticing. It’s brilliant film making that really makes Martha Marcy May Marlene work.

Finally, something has to be said about the performances. I first saw John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, which certainly isn’t a movie that I need to see again, but I do recognize that it’s objectively a good movie and the performances are especially something to admire, Hawke’s being one of them. He has this quiet and misleading attitude that hides his maliciousness, which really only comes out in a few scenes. But all my respect has to go to newcomer Elizabeth Olsen for not only taking on, but owning such a challenging role. Martha is one of the most complex characters I have seen on film, and Olsen completely sells it. I’d definitely like to see her in more serious roles in the future.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene, to me, is the perfect example of a psychological thriller. It’s subtle, yet jarring. The level of discomfort that I felt while watching this was enormous, and when the movie was over, I was so glad to find myself in my living room and no longer in this woman’s mind. For fans of the genre, this is a must see. It’s a slow burn that will leave you speechless.