Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nightmare (1981)

Title: Nightmare

Year: 1981
Director: Romano Scavolini

Nightmare is yet another horror movie that begins with a confused child experiencing a murderous psychotic break upon viewing a transgressive sex act of some kind, in this instance the kid's father enjoying an S&M session with a woman [one assumes she's a paid dominatrix but the IMDb cast list indicates she's the boy's mother!]. Fast forward to the present and the boy George Tatum (Scott Praetorius) is now a man (now played by Baird Stafford) haunted by nightmares of the experience yet just discharged from a mental institution after being pharmaceutically "cured."

Added to the story is the fact that George's treatment is part of a government sponsored behavior modification experiment. Of course, George takes advantage of his new freedom and embarks on a murder spree (even though it's apparent he didn't go off his meds), eventually making his way from New York City to Florida to target a family down there. The viewer doesn't discover until late in the film why the killer obsesses over single mother Susan Temper (Sharon Smith) and her three children, of whom C.J. (C.J. Cooke) is a complete hellion. As the body count rises before the final showdown, government agents are also closing in on George. At the very end, there's a big reveal that won't be spoiled.

An Italy-U.S. co-production, the film seems at first glance like typical sleazy low budget psycho-killer fare of the period (sweaty Joe Spinnel would have fit in well) but it does improve over the course of its 98 minute running time, which seems longer given the slow pace. Stylistically, the film is pretty much a standard genre creature, with many killer POV stalking scenes and rather predictably staged killing moments. Toward the end, George even sports a genre-staple mask and it's one of the better ones, a creepy hybrid of Sig Haig and Blacula. 

Gorehounds will really like what they see in Nightmare. After a tame start, effects guru Tom Savini ratchets up the splatter as the film progresses, the volume and explicitness of which is considerably greater than his work a year earlier in Friday the 13th. The plot itself, though it attempts to trade on 1970s issues like CIA mind control experiments and the widespread movement to de-institutionalize the mentally ill, is thin and the characters similarly lacking in depth (and acting skills). Details regarding the government program that treats George are underdeveloped and the means by which George is tracked down is reduced to an almost comical computer sequence. The twist at the end isn't entirely shocking but with some foreshadowing sprinkled about by side characters it deserves slasher film cred for not being a total cheat. 

Coming as early as it does in the slasher heyday, it's a bit unfair to criticize too heavily the degree to which Nightmare exhibits the serial killer movie tropes that would become so mind numbingly prevalent throughout the following decade and beyond but it's script weaknesses are difficult to overcome.  In an industry where most movies like this start strong, fade fast, and end terribly, this one at least takes a course that builds story momentum and maintains viewer interest through to the end.

Rating: 4/10

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Come Back to Me (2014)

Title: Come Back to Me
Year: 2014
Director: Paul Leyden

In Come Back to Me Young Las Vegan Sarah (Katie Walder) is recovering from a serious auto accident and working on her sociology dissertation while her husband Josh (Matt Passmore) works at a casino. Their relationship seems strong but since all movie marriages must have some major conflict to resolve they struggle to arrive at one mind over if and when to start a family.

Meanwhile, creepy Dale (Nathan Keys) moves into the foreclosed home across the street and immediate shows special interest in Sarah. Soon, Sarah is suffering from frequent blackouts, memory loss, and impossible bodily changes (e.g. a bad head scar heals overnight). Worse, she finds out she's pregnant, which causes Josh to understandably flip out since he's sterile and has kept that fact secret from his wife. Heartbroken over her husband leaving her and desperate to find out what happens to her each night, Sarah mounts a hidden camera inside her bedroom and discovers the horrible truth.

The low budget horror acting is above average but the material they have to work with clearly needs work. Any movie that relies on dog barking for cheap jump scares (twice, no less) has some creativity issues. The many "whew, it was only a dream" sequences are exasperating at first, but become less so in retrospect after you realize what they really represent and what's behind them. Long time genre viewers who believe they've seen it all will no doubt guess early on that Dale has found some way to enter his neighbors' home, rape Sarah, and cover his tracks (presumably through some kind of knockout drug with memory loss as a side effect). This explanation is only a rough estimate of the truth and there's additional horrible acts involved that no one will guess unless they've read the source novel. I won't spoil the big reveal but suffice it to say that Dale possesses an unfathomable power that he doesn't choose to wield on the side of Good.

It's safe to say that one's appreciation of the film hinges on how well the supernatural aspect is taken. Those that like the movie will have taken the jarring absurdity of it all in stride while others (like this writer) will just groan. The movie does offer something of an info dump in the form of an asylum visitation of Dale's understandably disturbed mother by Sarah, but the source of Dale's extraordinary ability is completely unexplained as are the "rules" behind it's use. Some of this explanatory information would have improved the film greatly but absence of the latter does allow the movie's ending to be a shocking surprise. It's not genius-level screenwriting but it does make the film better than it deserves, which is something that's rarely the case in even good horror films.

Rating: 4/10

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Alien Abduction (2014)

Title: Alien Abduction
Year: 2014
Director: Matty Beckerman

Alien Abduction is a found footage film that exploits the Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon to craft (and I use that term loosely) a well worn tale of extraterrestrial kidnapping and procto-probing. The film begins (and ends — if the title doesn't make it obvious enough, the spaceship scene that bookends the movie makes it clear what happens to our protagonists so this isn't spoiling anything) with a jerkily held camera moving through a murky spaceship populated with aliens experimenting on screaming humans only to be dropped out of the ship's garbage shoot and back to earth [these aliens may be grays but they aren't green]. The camera's recovery by the USAF is the reason why we have the leaked footage for our viewing pleasure.

The footage itself documents a family camping vacation in the North Carolina wilderness. The day after a nighttime encounter with the Brown Mountain Lights, the family of five — parents Katie (Katherine Sigismund) and Peter Morris (Peter Holden) and children Corey (Corey Eid), Riley (Polanski) and Jillian (Jillian Clare) — gets misdirected toward a tunnel filled with ransacked cars, their occupants all missing. Soon gray aliens appear, taking the father and pursuing the rest, who flee to an isolated cabin inhabited by Sean (Jeff Bowser). After some initial misgivings, Sean agrees to help the family. Together they endure a night of terror, with the characters picked off one by one.

Dialogue and acting in the film is across the board bad, the epitome of these weaknesses being an unintentionally comical flip out scene by the father in the moving car once they realize they might be lost. Having autistic Riley's therapeutic attachment to the camera explain why everything is being filmed is a bit of a novel approach to the found footage genre but it's still ludicrous to imagine that anyone would keep the video running in the midst of being viciously attacked by aliens, especially when the camera's light isn't needed to see. Sean is an abrasive 'hillbilly with a heart of gold' straight out of central casting. The found footage trope of populating the film with exasperatingly irritating characters is thankfully a bit subdued in this movie, but if an Alien Abduction drinking game were to be played whereby viewers would be obliged to do a shot every time someone said "Riley, come on!" they would be all be dead in 20 minutes.

It wouldn't be a found footage film without shaky cam, but Alien Abduction takes it a bit further by establishing that the camera goes haywire anytime aliens approach. While this may benefit the limited special effects budget, it doesn't effectively build tension nor does it help viewers who might actually want to the see the aliens do their thing.

The bright lights and sound in the film borrow heavily from countless other alien abduction flicks. Instead of coming up with something original, the aliens make insectoid noises and their technology sounds like a blaring mating of foghorn and freight train. Though its spine cracking property is something different, the alien tractor beam is also genre standard. With the possible exception of the tunnel sequence, really there isn't a single scene or element of this film that stands above or apart from those present in other better alien abduction movies. Lack of chills can be compensated somewhat by a fun factor, but Alien Abduction distinctly lacks both.

Rating: 3/10

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Haunted (1991)

Title: The Haunted
Year: 1991 (Made-for-TV)
Director: Robert Mandel

Those of us that grew up in the 70s and 80s have fond memories of made-for-television movies and there were even some great horror ones like Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Salem's Lot, Don't be Afraid of the Dark, This House Possessed and many more. I missed 1991's The Haunted when it originally aired (apparently it still has no DVD release) but caught it recently on cable. It begins with the Smurl family [father Jack (Jeffrey DeMunn), mother Janet (Sally Kirkland), their daughters (there would eventually be four), and Jack's elderly parents] moving into their new home. Janet and the grandmother are the first to experience the antics of the house's smoky poltergeist but soon enough priests, demonologists, gawkers, and reporters arrive on the scene and turn the household upside down.

The tv-budget level effects in The Haunted are quite well executed and actually wouldn't be much out of place in a theatrical release of the period. The obligatory scenes of objects and bodies flying around are well shot and the physical manifestation of the demon haunting the Smurls, a swirling column of black smoke that can speak, pass through walls, and even leave the house altogether, is much more chill inducing than it probably had any right to be. The eerie effect of the haunting is enhanced by the fact that sound is used with great restraint in the movie. Cold silence, rather than wailing or shrieking or any kind of nonsense like that, creates considerable unease in the viewer. The movie does have a very weird rape scene, weird in that Jack is the victim and the attacker switches in the middle of the act almost comically from young female seductress of sorts to fat bearded man in terrible makeup. You definitely didn't see that every day on 1990s primetime television, horror movie or otherwise!

As one expects in made-for-tv material, there's a large dose of family drama to go with the haunting but it's not at all excessive, the content leaning heavily toward the horror elements. Thankfully, Jack's initial skepticism doesn't drag on at length either. In terms of other characters in the movie, of particular note are the famous paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were recently introduced to a new generation of genre enthusiasts in the runaway hit film The Conjuring. In The Haunted, the Warrens are brought in to help the family but they disappear from the story pretty quickly and don't return on camera.  The ending is abrupt, cutting to black and closing with an expository intertitle explaining what finally happened to the family and their unwelcome friend.

If left wanting for anything, the movie really skimps on the backgrounds of the haunting entities (according to the Warrens, one demon and three ghosts).  Much of the fun surrounding any haunted house or poltergeist movie is the backstory reveal and there just isn't much of one in The Haunted. Janet makes a trip to the library for research but only discovers a brief snippet about a long ago mine collapse below the house lot.  That's a fairly minor complaint, though.  If you can catch it on cable, it's definitely worth a watch.

Rating: 5/10

Thursday, May 7, 2015

At the Devil's Door (2014)

Title: At the Devil's Door
Year: 2014
Director: Nicholas McCarthy

It had flaws of its own (especially with its handling of the story's supernatural aspect), but Nicholas McCarthy's first feature length film, 2012's The Pact, was more than good enough to make the release of his next movie a highly anticipated event. However, whereas the earlier film masterfully built tension and told an engrossing story with genuine chills and thrills, At the Devil's Door represents a major step back, a quintessential sophomore disaster.

The movie begins with lovestruck Hannah (Ashley Rickards) doing her creepy boyfriend a favor by playing a parlor game with his even more creepy "uncle." Winning means passing "the test" and in return for $500 Hannah places her everlasting soul at the disposal of the Devil via the classic crossroads transaction made famous by the Robert Johnson tale. Now, most of us would ask for more money, but it seems reasonable that Hannah wouldn't believe in such superstition and see the whole thing as a gag, albeit an unsettling one. Unbeknownst to Hannah, passing the test also means that she's the chosen one for delivering the Devil's spawn but this fiendish plan is derailed as she commits suicide before that treasured moment can occur.

So exit corporeal Hannah and enter spirit Hannah and sisters Leigh (Catalina Sandino Mareno) and Vera (Naya Rivera). Leigh is the realtor charged with selling the house where Hannah and her family lived and Vera is an up and coming hipster artist. The sisters are devoted to each other but because every movie requires some sort of major emotional conflict Leigh (who cannot bear children) constantly pressures resistant Vera to settle down and start a family. So the Devil needs another bride. Who will it be?

McCarthy seems to have lost (temporarily, one hopes) his narrative and scene creation skills in between The Pact and At the Devil's Door. At best, there are effective pieces of scenes in this movie. The story is a muddled mess, as if script pages from Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, Don't Look Now, whatever possession movie was popular at the moment, The Grudge, and the Devil knows what else were placed in a screenplay blender and sprayed across the screen with little thought spared toward filtering and arranging such influences into a cohesive whole. Much effort is directed toward creating story rules to follow only to have them broken willy nilly [ex. Hannah had to pass a test and consciously agree to a pact before the Devil could plant his seed within her but Vera is just raped without warning in her loft] and characters are killed or spared at random. Some scenes, like Hannah's bizarre babysitting night and her ghost playing hide & seek in the kitchen cabinets, have no discernible reason to exist beyond random time filling scare creation. The script needed several more rewrites.  Skip this one, but don't quit on writer-director McCarthy altogether. Watch The Pact instead.

Rating: 3/10

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Title: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Year: 2014
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Bad City, Iran looks and feels like a dying town, literally so given the scale of the municipal open air body pit that no one seems to regard with much apprehension or even notice. With Bad City as a depressing backdrop, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is composed of two parallel narratives, that of The Girl (Shela Vand) and Arash (Arash Marandi), whose paths inevitably intertwine. Both lead intensely dissatisfied lives, she listening to music by day and feeding on the blood of men by night and Arash a manual laborer dealing with a heroin addicted widower father. Arash's car is taken in payment of his father's drug debt by repulsive pimp/drug dealer Saeed (played by a ridiculously McConaughey-channeling Dominic Rains). After The Girl dispatches Saeed, Arash reclaims his car and appropriates the dealer's money and drugs. He  becomes the new pusher, presumably to make enough money to skip town.

The relationship between the two main characters is strange to say the least. They regard each other warily but feel some kind of mutual attraction, also sharing a love of Iranian and American music. Deep conversation is alien to both and they never say anything particularly revealing about their feelings for each other or anything else. Other viewers might beg to differ but not much really happens during the movie, its title a quite accurate representation of much of the action. Communication is maintained mainly through long silences and meaningful looks. Perhaps they are doing the best they can in Bad City but both individuals are unsympathetic characters. Arash deals drugs and banishes his admittedly infuriating father to the streets and The Girl (obviously) murders for sustenance. It's not known for certain but the film seems to suggest that all of the bodies in pit are her victims. While she does make some effort to kill bad men, a symbolic avenger of Middle Eastern societal misogyny and oppression, The Girl seems to have few qualms about opportunistic feasting, on the homeless for instance.

The directorial choices the UK born Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour makes are weirdly compelling. The movie was filmed in and around Bakersfield, California but the dialogue is spoken entirely in Farsi. Sense of place is odd, as the appearance of Bad City evokes US-Mexican border town far more than an Iranian locale. The intended meanings behind movie Western inspired scenes and direct references to American classic car, music, and food cultures are open ended but contribute to Amirpour's clearly intentional genre and culture blending aims.

Filmed in sharply focused, high contrast black and white, the film is beautiful to look at, especially the ways bright light and shadow play upon characters and objects during the many night scenes. The Girl skateboarding or dreamily stalking her victims on light flooded night streets in her flowing black chador certainly add new imagery to cinematic vampire lore. There's even a moment when the chador and the classic Dracula cape and high collar appear together in the same scene. The B&W filming choice along with the movie's lingering camera, genre-mingling qualities, unhurried pace, offbeat music, and lonely, laconic protagonist(s) all seem richly inspired by the works of Jim Jarmusch.

An interesting mood piece in an unexpected setting, the minimalist story nevertheless falls flat at an overlong 101 minutes. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a worthwhile contributor to the subset of recent independent movies seeking to reinvent or reinvigorate the vampire film genre, but it doesn't quite match the upper tier achievements of Let the Right One In, Only Lovers Left Alive, or even Byzantium.

Rating: 5/10

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Strangler (1964)

Title: The Strangler
Year: 1964
Director Burt Topper

In similar vein to Psycho's Norman Bates, The Strangler's demented protagonist, Leo Kroll (played by well known character actor Victor Buono) is a young man who has struggled his whole life with no father and a passive-aggressive shrill of a mother who inculcated in her son a hatred of other women. By the age of 30, Kroll is a lab technician by day and gentleman neck wringer of nurses by night, his use of the victim's own nylon stockings a direct reference to "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo's murder MO (minus the sexual assault). Why nurses are specifically targeted early on is unknown, but Leo's mother is under constant nursing care and perhaps he's pathologically jealous of their intimate relationship.

As if that weren't enough Kroll also has an obsession with dolls, the winning prizes of an arcade ring toss game he frequently patronizes. The operator, Tully, played by Davey Davison in her first movie role, is the object of his unrequited affection and one suspects his outwardly wholesome desire for her company is the only thing keeping his life from going completely off the rails. Kroll associates each of these dolls with a victim, removing their clothes after the murder is committed and storing the naked dolls all together in his locked desk drawer at home. The origin of the doll fetish is unexplained and isn't really important, mainly serving as a plot device to connect the characters and aid the police investigation. With the homicide squad finally closing in, Tully, by rejecting Leo's desperate marriage proposal, sets in motion the movie's denouement.

The police procedural part of the film is largely forgettable, the killings rather too quick and sanitary, and the scenes with the archetypal domineering mother character (played by Ellen Corby of The Waltons fame) are by current standards tiresomely by the numbers, but taken as a whole the movie is quite good.  As mentioned earlier, Buono as Leo Kroll is the best reason to watch the film. Though Kroll is no master criminal mind, his dialogue and crafty delivery during scenes with the police, his co-worker, and the girls at the arcade are a cut far above typical drive-in shocker fare of the period.  Buono is believable as the killer (or "schizo" as the police psychiatrist calls him). He projects considerable egotism, sly menace, and emasculated vulnerability in equal measure, all in a big bear of a body.

While its attempts to exploit the success of 1960's Psycho and the real life Boston Strangler killings are striking and obvious, The Strangler nevertheless manages to succeed enough on its own to make it worthy of recommended viewing.

Rating: 6/10

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Babadook (2014)

Title: The Babadook
Year: 2014
Director: Jennifer Kent

Widely praised by genre audiences and critics alike, the Australian film The Babadook arrived on DVD with high (probably too high) expectations. Still grief-stricken seven years after her husband's death in an auto accident, Amelia (Essie Davis), who was pregnant with son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) at the time of the crash, has recurring nightmares of the incident and struggles with her life as a working single mother. Removed from school due to his erratic behavior, Samuel's violent outbursts also seriously harm his cousin and alienate his aunt, placing the entire burden of his care on his already stressed out mother. At home, the boy invents impressive weaponry that no real world child his age could make, each created to fight the monsters he sees in his room at night. The moviegoer is clearly meant to empathize with Samuel's situation but man is this kid a pain, easily one of the most annoying children in film history. The home environment worsens after Samuel chooses "The Babadook" (a selection Amelia doesn't recognize) from his bookshelf and is treated to the bedtime story from which nightmares are made. Inside and even outside the home, both mother and son begin to see and hear the threatening Babadook figure, a creature that feeds on disbelief and has the ability to inhabit the bodies of its victims. Mayhem both physical and psychological ensues.

First time director Kent is able to get fine performances all around out of her actors, even when Wiseman's character proves exasperatingly unable to comply with even the simplest parental request. Many of his antics are over the top, but his desperation to learn something about his dead father (about whom Amelia refuses to speak or acknowledge) is a believable motivation. To the degree that cinematic depictions of mental illness are realistic, Davis navigates grief, depression, murderous rage, and defiance with equal aplomb. From sound, to set design, photography, and cinematography, Kent surrounding herself with talent. It a great looking and great sounding film. The only real problem I had with the effects department was when the Babadook was crawling on the walls and ceiling. Second-rate CGI takes the viewer out of the film and that stuff could have safely been cut from the film altogether. For a movie lauded for not relying on jump scares, there sure were a lot of jump scares in The Babadook.

Some hints are subtly placed. Viewers wondering just where the book came from in the first place might recall the offhand comment during the children's party that Amelia herself was a published children's author. Also, during the police station visit, Amelia's blackened fingers can speak to at least two very different possibilities, either they got that way disposing of the burned book or she was the one that repaired and revised it.

As much movie character as prop, the Babadook children's book itself is a clever creation. Memorable imagery, mostly related to the Babadook in its various guises, also populates the screen. The movie isn't exactly filled with frightening moments but rarely can placing in frame a simple hat and coat inspire such viewer unease. Sometimes the camera is obviously focused directly on the image (at the police station, for instance) but they're also frequently incorporated into existing shadows on the sly.

From grief, guilt, and loss to pathological parental fears and childhood terrors, The Babadook's layered narrative exploits many (perhaps too many) themes common to the horror genre. Director Kent also leaves to the viewer's own interpretation whether the Babadook is indeed a supernatural entity or a very vivid hallucination brought on by severe mental breakdown. Either conclusion is supported by the movie and there's certainly no defined series of clues one way or the other from the filmmaker. This deliberate ambiguity is a strength in many movies but it's rather unsatisfactory when applied to the Babadook story. If he's meant to be a fearsome monster his ineffectualness leaves him in no danger of becoming a classic horror bogeyman and if he's a figment of mutually fevered imagination then viewers are completely denied the dark ending that the material naturally builds toward.

The Babadook is by no means a bad movie, and I look forward to seeing what Jennifer Kent comes up with in the future, but I just can't believe that it measures up to the considerable indie hype that's been built up around it. Some reviewers opine that we need to get fully behind movies like The Babadook if we want to break the cycle of endless mainstream Insidious and The Conjuring clones but unfortunately I don't see this film as meriting that much special regard.

Rating: 5/10