Friday, March 24, 2017

The Babadook

The Babadook is a fairly divisive film. It's not hard to see why. The monster of the film is clearly intended as a symbol of mental illness, and it's not entirely clear whether or not the creature actually exists. However, I've heard a number of people suggest that the film would have been better off nixing the monster, and focusing on the purely literal struggle with mental illness. While the movie remains strong, it's not hard to see their point.

The movie opens with a new mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) losing her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) in a car accident. Six year later, she's trying to raise her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) by herself, despite his ongoing behavioral problems that make him virtually uncontrollable. He builds weapons out of things he finds around the house, orders firecrackers online, and talks openly about death and monsters to such an extent that he freaks out everyone around him.

Amelia's grief, as her social and personal life fall apart, attract a creature called the Babadook. Throughout the film it's very difficult to tell where the activities of the Babadook begin and end, but among it's powers seem to be giving people visions, and possessing parents in an effort to kill their children.

Over the course of the film we see Amelia become more and more frustrated with her son, until the Babadook is finally able to gain complete control over her. Prior to that moment, however, she'd already displayed extreme cruelty, and it's not totally clear where her anger ends and the Babadook begins. Even after her possession, she shows moments of clarity that may or may not be faked.

This movie is very hard for me to watch, because I relate so much to Samuel. I'm autistic, and wasn't diagnosed until college, so I know what it's like to have something undefinable wrong with you. I was certainly not as uncontrollable as him, but I definitely didn't think like anyone else, and I certainly made people uncomfortable.

I remember being in Kindergarten, wondering what my testicles were for, and getting an “I don't know” from every adult I asked. I also to this day struggle to find the words to make people like me, or to understand why they don't. Quite frankly, Samuel's story-line is painful for me to watch without breaking into tears.

Watching Samuel fight his mother with improvised weapons after her possession is a painful sight to witness. You can compare the scenario's to Home Alone, but simply inserting the mother into the role of the aggressor makes the child hero far less funny. I honestly can't imagine having watched this film a second time if not for my review.

The movie's greatest weakness by far, though, is it's ending. Amelia frees herself of the Babadook by finally dealing with her grief over her husband, and keeps it satiated in her basement by feeding it worms. Samuel suddenly becomes controllable, and they have a wonderful relationship.

The idea that mental illness can be dealt with so easily and so quickly is pure Hollywood fantasy. Quite frankly, I do not think that a few good days proves that this woman is not an ongoing threat to her child. I've known far too many people suffering from mental illness, and the solution is never this simple.

For a movie like this “recommend” isn't really the right word. It's a type of movie for a very specific type of person. If you're an art-house buff, there's a good chance you might like it. Also if you don't mind being depressed, or you have no reference for relating to people with mental illnesses, you can probably deal with it. For me, though, the film is just unbelievably depressing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Grudge 2

Going in, this movie has two things working against it: Firstly, it's the sequel to a movie that wasn't very good in the first place. Secondly, the first movie at minimum told us more-or-less what we needed to know about the haunting. There was a final shock to provide room for a sequel, but I feel this movie horribly under-uses that opportunity. If the ghosts are no longer bound to the house, then why are we still going back to the house at all? Why not have them rampage all over Tokyo? Or follow Karen (Sarah Michelle-Gellar) home to America?

This film did give me the creeps with at least one visual. A girl slowly drinks milk straight from the carton, then throws it up right back into the carton, then begins drinking again. I imagine this was a metaphor for the karmic cycle of the haunting. I don't deny that the movie has had thought put into it, it's just not thought that I especially care about.

In this film Aubrey (Arielle Kebbel), Karen's sister, is told by their bedridden mother (Joanna Cassidy) that she must go to Japan to retriever her now-insane sister. I suspect Gellar didn't want to be in this film, because her screen time is fairly minimal, and she kills herself fairly early in the movie. Instead, Aubrey teams up with a journalist name Eason (Edison Chen).

I felt like the attempts to expand the story in this film seemed fairly ineffective. We discover that Kayako (Takako Fuji) was trained by her mother (Ohga Tanaka) as an exorcist. Apparently this has something to do with why she and her family became ghosts, because dying in a horrible way wasn't sufficiently terrifying enough.

This is shown in parallel to the story of Allison (Ariell Kimble), a Japanese school girl who enters the house on a dare, and what happens to her and the bullies who entered with her. While Allison might learn far less, I'd say most of the actual scares come from her story. A series of creepy things happen because she's under attack by ghosts.

...oh, and pretty much everyone dies...duh...

As with the last movie, I feel like this movie tries far too hard to be subtle. Some extended scares would have gone a long way. As it is, it's probably marginally better than the first Grudge, but only marginally.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Grudge

Time can change our perception of movies. When The Grudge first came out, Roger Ebert said of the opening “I'm not sure how this scene fits into the rest of the movie, but then I'm not sure how most of the scenes fit into the movie.” Now, in the year 2015, with the benefit of Wikipedia I can easily figure out how the various scenes fit into the narrative...I simply don't care.

To summarize: A Japanese man named Takeo (Takashi Matsuyama) killed his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji) and son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki), because he read his wife's diary and realized she was having an affair with an American professor (Bill Pullman). After this, their spirits killed him, and the three of them haunt their home and attack anyone who comes inside.

I haven't seen the original Japanese film this is based on, but I'm torn on the decision to set this film in Japan. Rather than setting it in America, the creators apparently decided it would be easier to justify the use of English by having a bizarrely disproportionate number of Americans involved in the story. Not only was the Professor an American, but the next residents of the apartment were an American couple and the husband's aging mother (William Mapother, Clea Duvall, and Grace Zabriskie).

Even more bizarrely, after the couple are killed, the mother, apparently suffering from Alzheimer's, remains in Japan for some reason, being cared for by caretakers who come to see her daily. When her regular caretaker (Yoko Maki) is killed by the spirits, an American Exchange Student named Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is sent in her place. Even if the woman had no family back in the US, I strongly suspect that the Japanese government would send her to a nursing home in the States rather than pay for her care.

That's three independent trips to Japan by Americans who all end up as part of this story, to say nothing of Karen's boyfriend (Jason Behr). For the love of God if you're that determined to have Americans in .your film, just set the film in the US of A. I don't see anything difficult to culturally translate about “people who are murdered violently become violent ghosts.”

Putting that aside, however, I've tried hard to put my finger on why most of the scares don't work. My best guess is that it's a combination of factors. Most of the scares are fairly generic, and the movie is far too willing to show the ghosts. The build-up to the horror isn't especially tense, either.

All of these problems can be easily seen in the portrayal of Toshio: he seems to just exist around the house, and periodically say hello to someone, who typically doesn't even realize he's a ghost...oh, and he occasionally meows in the voice of his dead cat, who his father also killed. How are we supposed to be afraid of something treated with so little awe or reverence. Granted, most of the attacking is done by Kayako and Takeo, but having a ghost so open about his own existence cheapens the concept.

More significantly, though, the scares passed too quickly. The ghosts show up, then they scene. I found myself mentally comparing the film to The Woman in Black, a film that had a truly dazzling extended ghost attack (if you've seen the movie, you know exactly what I'm talking about). There were a number of sequences here that could have been frightening, if they'd been given proper time.

A perfect example of this is the famous shower scene. Karen is showering, and we see a hand start to emerge from the back of her head. She feels it, and...that's it. She's scared, but we're still anticipating. We're hungry for more, and we're not being fed.

The movie ends with Karen burning the house, and the implication that she inadvertently freed the evil. I intend to review the sequel (the first one, at least) next. I certainly hope it's an improvement over this entry.

There are worse films out there? Sure. But, honestly, this movie kind of made me wish I was watching them. I'd rather see amusing trash than this overly slow bore-fest.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Old Dark House

When dealing with films from the early 1930s, even classics, what you get is a crap-shoot. It was a time when the art of film making was still in its infancy, and it varied from director to director just how well the process was actually understood. Many films were shot in ways that just seemed slightly off, and the editing was often sloppy. A great example of an otherwise good film marred by this is The Black Cat, which was little more than a filmed stage play.

On the flip side, there were films that seemed well ahead of their time. Most of the classic Universal Monster films fall into this category, with Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy showing visual skills equivalent to movies that came out at least two decades later. These are probably the films we’re most likely to see today.

The Old Dark House seems like a strange hybrid of these, giving it a possibly unintentional surreal feel that makes it truly terrifying to behold. I don’t want to discount the possibility that the film itself may have deteriorated with time. Either way, it’s the film I watched that I have to review, and the poor sound quality and odd lighting, in a film that’s otherwise competently shot and edited, works perfectly to create fear.

The movie is set off when a couple, Phillip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart), and a veteran traveling with them named Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), are forced by a storm to take shelter in a large house. I’m not entirely sure why Mr. Penderel was with them, as he doesn’t seem especially familiar with them. My best guess is he was supposed to be a hitch-hiker. I’m not sure what to make of him personality-wise either, as the opening scene makes him out to be somewhat shell-shocked, using humor to cover it up, while the remainder of the movie portrays him as quite suave.

The house is home to the Femm family, and they’re “greeted” by elderly siblings Horace and Rebecca (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore). Their interactions are truly hilarious. Rebecca is an old nag with selective hearing who keeps repeating the same things over and over again, while Horace is an utter coward. They’re served by a hulking mute named Morgan, (Boris Karloff, going through a period of his career when he was briefly type-cast as hulking mutes).

During dinner, the guests are joined by Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his “friend” Gladys (Lillian Bond). Honestly, these characters deserve a film to themselves. This was among the last of the pre-code films, and they likely would have been presented as much more villainous if the movie had been made a few years later.

Sir William comes from a humble background, but his wife passed away after being jilted by members of High Society. Sir William pledged to become rich solely to gain the money and power needed to ruin the people he blamed for his wife’s death, and for the most part has succeeded. We’re told quite openly that Gladys is a showgirl, and the two have no shame about their casual relationship. She, while fond of him, wants his money, and he simply wants her for momentary affection. When she finds herself falling in love with Penderel, he has no objection, although he thinks she’s “mad” for falling in love with a penniless man.

During the storm, Morgan becomes drunk and frees the third Femm sibling, Saul (Brember Wills), who had been locked in the attic due to his pyromania. There’s a very strong build-up to Saul, with appropriate tension as the characters scramble around in utter fear. The character himself is quite affable. I’m not entirely sure if it’s an act, or if his madness is compulsion rather than malice. I prefer to think the latter, as it makes the story far more tragic. He claims that Morgan beats him, and that his siblings killed a fourth child, Rachael, and locked him away to conceal the truth. I wouldn’t put any of this past them.

The movie ends, predictably enough, with Saul setting fire to the house, but he’s stopped with surprising efficiency. Morgan seems to sober up enough to sadly cradle Saul’s body and carry it up the stairs. Whether Saul dies, or is simply knocked unconscious, is left ambiguous. If he does die, he’s the only casualty of the film, which either way has an amazingly low body-count by modern standards. It’s awe-inspiring just how much tension they can get without a single death.

This movie is tense, and definitely worth the hour and twelve minutes. On a final note, seeing Melvyn Douglas in this was awesome, since I had to review The Changeling for my 100 Scariest Movie Moments reviews. Seeing the actor still working 48 years later, just a year before his death, creates a truly astounding contrast.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Wednesday Review: Get Out

I’m deeply annoyed that I didn’t get to review Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and A Cure for Wellness. I might write a late review of the latter at least next week. But, now, Get Out.

I’ve always felt that horror and comedy are peanut butter and jelly. We need moments of levity to punctuate the dread. In his directing debut, Jordan Peele has found the perfect rhythm of fear and laughter, combing human drama with biting social satire. Granted, this was probably satire intended to criticize the limousine liberalism of a Clinton administration, not the rampant White Nationalism that’s seen such revival under Trump. But, limousine liberals haven’t disappeared under Trump, so the satire still rings true, even if it lacks urgency.

I went into this movie excited. Not just because it holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Rather, I was intrigued by so many critics implying that the movie ended with a twist. Having seen the trailer, I was straining to think of what additional twist there could be. A young black man goes to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, and finds that her parents are hypnotizing black people into subservience.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The twist absolutely blew me away. I’m quite impressed with Peele, as the sheer scope of the twist could have been catastrophically silly in the hands of a lesser director. Here, however, the tone of the film feels consistent, even as we veer off into an entirely different genre of horror.

Even if there had been no twist beyond what’s shown in the trailer, however, the movie would still be excellent. The actors are all top-notch, the dialogue is solid, and we have a subplot about our protagonist’s friend in the TSA becoming suspicious of the family that takes up just the right amount of time to not get boring. Even when we all is revealed, the actors are able to spin on a dime and play their characters in totally new ways, while still making you believe every minute of it.

Jordan Peele says that the movie was inspired by the discomfort he often felt being the only black person in the room. I’d like to say that the movie is somewhat exaggerated, but given the age of the parents, and most of the friends encountered in the Garden Party scene, maybe “black is fashionable” really is the kind of thing you might hear. Certainly, I know even as a man of 30 I’ve let a few comments slip in my life that sounded quite ignorant.

All that said, check this movie out. You won’t regret it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Idle Hands

It's a bad sign when I watch a horror movie and my first thought is how badly the romance is written. I have literally no idea why Anton (Devon Sawa) and Molly (Jessica Alba) end up together. It doesn't even qualify as a male fantasy, since those usually require the man to do something impressive to secure a romantic interest. Anton grabs her ass while under the control of his demonic hand, and she's suddenly into him.

I like horror comedy, and this is a film that has plenty of laughs. It actually avoids the End of Days mistake of assuming that supernatural forces work on whatever time zone they're in. That said, the film fails when it tries to go into horror movie territory, mainly because it's entire premise makes the most blatantly useless character our protagonist.

Anton is a stoner teenager, possessed by an evil force that takes control of the hand of incredibly lazy people. I somewhat suspect they came up with a title, and then a story. Under the influence of his hand, Anton begins committing murders. He's initially unaware that he's doing this (presumably carrying out the murders in his sleep), but he eventually realizes the truth, and his hand begins to act more openly.

He also kills his fellow stoner friends, Mick and Pnub (Seth Green and Elden Henson), who come back as zombies. The explanation is simply that they chose not to go to heaven. Why they're the first of countless billions to just decide they prefer Earth I have no clue. Especially since they go to heaven at the end of the film anyway, simply becoming Anton's guardian angels.

Also, in a side plot a druid named Debi (Vivica A. Fox) is hunting for the hand-possessing force. This goes nowhere. She shows up at the very end to finish the hand off, but she doesn't even bother with any exposition explaining what it is. If you're going to leave the supernatural force unexplained, then don't put a Van Helsing in the film at all!

Literally any of these other characters would be a better protagonist than Anton. Even the other stoners are, at minimum, witty and charming. I'm not sure if my dislike for Anton is due to the character or the actor lacking charisma. The character is shown to be so lazy that doesn't notice his parents missing for four days, and is reluctant to get up from the couch even to get more weed.

Mick and Pnub openly criticize him for his complete lack of goals in life. Whether this is intentionally a more optimistic portrayal of stoners, or a commentary on how lazy Anton is I don't know. Either way, the point is clear: Seth Green stoned off his ass would be a better hero.

Even Molly, who doesn't know about the evil forces for most of the movie, is shown to be clever and resourceful when running from them. But, Anton's the hero, so he has to save her. Then, he gets crushed by a car, and turns down heaven himself to be with Molly.

I'll say this: the make-up is good. Seth Green spends most of the movie with a bottle embedded in his skull, and Henson has to carry his own head around. When something violent or bloody happens, it looks pretty good. And about half the jokes hit home.

That said, it's not a film I'd recommend going out of your way to see. And it hits home far better as a comedy than as horror. That's not to imply that it does especially well as either.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Audrey Rose

Anthony Hopkins once had a full head of non-grey hair. That's the single most unrealistic thing about this movie for me. I think this is may be the only film prior to Silence of the Lambs that I've seen him in, so a 1970s Anthony Hopkins was quite a shock.

This is a movie that's subtle in it's horror. It's a film that deals with the fear of uncertainty, and the terror of human existence. Elliot Hoover (Hopkins) believes that his late daughter, Audrey Rose (not depicted, as far as I can tell), has been reincarnated as Ivy Templeton (Susan Swift), the daughter of Bill and Janice Templeton (John Beck and Marsha Mason). Obviously, this does not make for a happy situation.

To be more specific, Hoover's daughter died roughly a decade prior to the events of the movie, in a car crash where she was burned alive. Hoover became desperate for spiritual comfort, and came to believe in reincarnation. A medium described her spirit's current location to him, and Hoover was able to trace the location to the Templeton's apartment complex, and specifically to Ivy who was born on the same day as Audrey Rose's death. Eventually, he moves into an apartment in their building.

During this period, Ivy begins to experience intense nightmares and panic attacks. This becomes the driving conflict of the film. Hoover seems to be able to comfort Ivy by addressing her as Audrey Rose, something that deeply disturbs the Templetons, for obvious reasons. Janice seems willing to accept his assistance in dealing with their daughter, however, as long as it helps Ivy. Bill, on the other hand, sees him purely as an intruder in their family affairs.

Eventually, Hoover takes Ivy to his apartment to let her sleep, and refuses to open the door for her parents. Bill has him charged with kidnapping. This section of the movie confuses me deeply. Hoover's lawyer defends him by trying to convince the jury that Ivy is the reincarnation of Audrey Rose.. I'm unaware of any legal precedent that gives people custody of the reincarnations of their children, so it seems like an utterly moot point in a kidnapping trial.

It's notable that the movie doesn't attempt to make Hoover out to be the completely selfless, persecuted mystic that you'd typically expect in this story. He loves his daughter, yes, but he's also clearly prepared to manipulate the situation to get what he wants. I don't doubt for a second that if he could find a way to get full custody of Ivy he would do so without a second thought for her parents. He even tells his lawyer to put Janice on the stand, because he knows that she'll break down and turn on her husband.

Bill makes a good contrast to Hoover. He believes, not unreasonably, that Hoover is a master of suggestion, and that their daughter's condition is being made worse by his reinforcement. He doesn't come across as unreasonable, but he likewise doesn't seem to have any better solutions as Ivy's behavior becomes increasingly uncontrollable, and she begins making attempts to harm herself.

The ending of the movie seems too clean and simple for this story. Ivy dies in a regression experiment requested by her father that was, somehow, intended to “prove” she wasn't a reincarnation of Audrey Rose. The parents agree to let Hoover take her ashes to India, something I find rather baffling since Hoover's spiritual travels to India came after his daughter died, and I don't believe Audrey Rose went there in either of her incarnations. Apparently India is just where the body of reincarnated little girls are supposed to go.

This isn't a terrible movie, but it isn't exactly a classic either. I know it's adapted from a novel, so I suspect the plot made more sense in that context. As it is, it's a strong character piece, that makes little sense as a legal drama, and has little of value to say spiritually.