Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dwelling

Dwelling

Dwelling tells the story of a young woman named Ellie (Erin Marie Hogan) who knowingly moves into a haunted house with her daughter and boyfriend. Consumed by an incident from the past involving her sister River (Devanny Pinn), Ellie accidentally releases an evil spirit that dwells inside a black mirror that works as a doorway to the other side. I love a good haunted house story. There's something very scary about an unpredictable evil spirit or an item that works as a portal to another dimension. Dwelling hits the mark in both atmosphere and story to create an entertaining movie. The film takes it's time setting up the uneasy presence in the house and establishing the relationships between the characters, which creates a bigger payoff at the end. Along the way we are treated to some nightmarish and very creepy imagery. The way the film handles the evil presence that is dwelling in the home is very effective and shown in a way that gives enough to see what it looks like, but leaves enough mystery to let the figure linger in your imagination. Erin Marie Hogan gives a very focused and compelling performance. She embodies perfectly a character not only consumed by a past mystery, but haunted by it. It's become an obsession with her character to a fault, and Hogan's loving yet somewhat chilly portrayal is spot on for the character. The constant sense of Ellie putting herself in danger makes you feel for her and Erin Marie Hogan very like-able in this. While she exudes a reckless sadness, I found myself rooting for her. Mu-Shaka Benson as Gavin is a great compliment to Hogans' Ellie as her boyfriend. He does an excellent job of portraying a man who is both supportive and scared of the situation that is unfolding in his home. Benson gives a strong performance as Gavin portraying the conflict he feels between supporting his girlfriend and questioning her actions and the danger they might be putting the family in. Devanny Pinn makes the most of her screen time and gives a very strong performance as River, Ellie's institutionalized sister with a troubled past. She channels Brittany Murphy in Don't Say a Word and is simply captivating. River wants to get better but can't and Pinn expertly let's the viewer know she is truly haunted and trapped by her horrific past. I'd recommend Dwelling because it doesn't just throw a bunch of nonsensical jump scares at the viewer. The film unfolds slowly and adds layers along the way, telling an effective story. It also creates characters we care about that are given life with strong performances from the cast. Kudos to first time feature film director Kyle Mecca for creating a solid film. Check out Dwelling if you get the chance, it's a creepy good time.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Passing

The Passing

When a mysterious man named Stanley rescues a young couple from a river after a car crash, they are taken to a secluded, ramshackle farm. As events unfold, the truth about the young couples' past as well as the identity of the mysterious figure come to light. Right away we are shown the beautiful and imposing atmosphere of the farm and the lonely life that Stanley must lead. It's a life dictated by its rough environment, a life of routine and a quiet life of hard work. The somber music and dreary weather coupled with the vast thickets of surrounding trees give the farm an eerie, forgotten feel. This feeling permeates almost every scene in the movie. In this way The Passing plays out like a poem, where the feeling of the imagery shown is essential to the story. Playing further on the feeling and tone of the film, it has a saturated, Earth tone based color palette that gives it a deep, lived in feel while hinting at its rich (and perhaps chilling) history. The Passing is a film of exploration with Stanley consistently exploring the past, the young couple (Iwan and Sara) exploring the farm and the viewer exploring the tone and imagery of the film itself, looking for clues to solve the mystery at its core. It's a beautiful piece of work filled with the silence of people and the sounds of objects and nature; the sounds of secrets. The Passing is a film that requires your attention and patience. The film takes its time, unfolding the story and showing the characters in a confidently slow and steady pace. But as much as the film takes its time, there is a riff that happens between Iwan and Stanley that seems to happen with little context to support it. For the sake of avoiding spoilers I'll remain vague, but while a couple incidents are shown there is a scene at the end of the second half that felt unwarranted and a bit confusing based on the events leading up to it. Minus that slightly disjointed scene, the story plays out in a mesmerizing way with the actors all doing great work. The Passing is ultimately a ghost story and a dark drama/thriller that is beautifully and painfully told through stellar filmmaking. The style has a lot in common with a Gothic horror. The sprawling house with heavy, gaudy d├ęcor that is so featured in Gothic horror is replaced here with the sprawling landscape and heavy, overbearing feeling of loss, sadness and incompleteness. The Passing is a bleak tale that may be too depressing for a second viewing any time soon, but it is worth a watch and I look forward to what director Gareth Bryn does next.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Never Open the Door

Never Open the Door

When six friends get together to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner they think they're in for a good time with lots of food. When an unexpected knock at the door brings in an uninvited guest, their relaxing night turns into a nightmarish fight for survival. 
From the opening title sequence I could already tell I was in for a good time with Never Open the Door. The film has a wonderful and spot on B-movie tone and style that was consistent throughout. It really felt like a late night flick you'd find on cable and end up watching to the end. The score tops off the tone like a cherry on top with a loud and telling horn section that has a classic sci-fi/adventure/thriller vibe reminiscent of 1950's visitors from outer space movies. 
The music dovetails nicely with the black and white cinematography and practical effects that recall Hammer horror of the 1950's and sixties. The filmmakers did their homework when it comes to classic horror/science fiction and it shows. Not only does the black and white picture add to the style the film is going for, it's also a nice symbolic reference to the good happening in all of the character's lives (weddings, babies) and the random, unpredictable evil that can takeover the lives of people in the blink of an eye. 
What is also noteworthy is not only do the filmmakers use classic horror to set the tone of Never Open the Door, but how they also bring it up to date with modern dialogue and speech patterns. The opening scene has the group of friends eating dinner and engaged in conversation. The conversation is remarkably natural sounding with constant overlapping dialogue. The whole scene has a modern improvised feeling to it and this approach, for the most part, feels noticeable throughout the film. I say that as a good thing as it made several moments truly feel spontaneous and real with actors repeating some of the same lines a few times in a row just as any one would in a surreal and distressing situation in real life. 
Once the unwanted visitor is in the house, the character of Tess (Jessica Sonneborn) begins to have startling and scary visions and this is when the melodramatic, old school horror, twisty Twilight Zone-like fun begins! There's a wonderful movie from writer/director Isaac Ezban called The Similars or Los Paracidos (find it on Netflix) that would make the perfect companion piece to Never Open the Door for a double feature. Both have a wonderfully nostalgic science fiction melodrama tone laced with an underlying horror that grips the viewer and leaves them questioning everything right up until the end credits roll. A very interesting and entertaining film.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Blackcoat's Daughter

The Blackcoat's Daughter

The Blackcoat's Daughter tells the story of two girls, Katherine and Rose, who stay at their boarding school over Winter break while all the other students go home. When mysterious things begin to happen, it appears as though the girls may not be alone. Meanwhile, a girl named Joan is making her way towards the boarding school from a few towns away as things build to a terrifying climax.
The moment this movie opens you already feel like you're in a place you aren't supposed to be in. The Blackcoat's Daughter drips with a cold and eerie tone right from the opening frame and creates a disorienting atmosphere with wonderfully simple yet effective camerawork. Many shots are very still, close, slightly off center, a little skewed and obstructed and all have a touch of subtle shifting blurriness in backgrounds and foregrounds. Characters and objects appear on the edges of the frame, half in or half out of view. There are a lot of doors, almost in every scene and a lot of mirrors appear on screen. The whole theme of The Blackcoat's Daughter is that of an evil fun house filled with reflections and dark openings. Simply put it's a cold, snowy, very dark and very beautiful film.
Kiernan Shipka simply blew me away with her performance as Katherine. With her hair pulled back and up in braids she appears intensely proper while the labored body language of her small frame coupled with her slow, quiet speech pattern suggests a lonely and shy girl. In short, she's a fragile powder keg. With her physical choices, Shipka does incredible work in this film. Her face and eyes move with swift and seamless ease, changing from a blank, innocent expression to a mischievous smile in a way that recalls Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. Yes, she's THAT good. 
The simultaneous emotional depth and emptiness portrayed by all 3 leads is simply astounding. Shipka, Emma Roberts and Lucy Boynton all perfectly embody and reflect the tone and feeling of the film. James Remar and Lauren Holly (who hasn't aged a day in 20 years) round out the impressive performances with Holly delivering a truly chilling, mid film monologue. 
The Blackcoat's Daughter is as perfect as films get. A bold statement, I know, but I can't stop thinking about this movie and how everything within it worked so well together. The bleak, unsettling and powerful music, the steady pace that expertly builds the story and mystery with each passing scene, the powerful and haunting performances (especially Shipka) and the creepy tone had me thoroughly engrossed in every moment. In my opinion, The Blackcoat's Daughter is a modern classic that should be seen by all fans of horror, especially those under the misconception that the genre is in an anemic state. Writer and director Oz Perkins has masterfully created something wonderful and scary and memorable. See this movie.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Plank Face

Plank Face

Plank Face tells the story of Max (Nathan Barrett) who goes on a camping trip with his girlfriend Stacey (Ellie Church). When Max is captured by a family of feral, wood dwelling cannibals, they are determined to transform him into one of their own. Will Max escape? Or will he become one of them... The movie opens with the very familiar 'have sex and die' motif executed so often in horror films that involve college age characters and take place in the woods. It's nicely filmed and makes good use of car headlights to shine light on the evil that waits in the darkness of the woods. But don't be fooled, this is not your average 'cabin in the woods' movie. Not at all. 
The opening scene gets the viewer ready for familiar territory and then does a complete turn into uncharted waters. Plank Face is a fascinating tale that shows the ability of people to adapt to new surroundings, no matter how bizarre. The film is a disturbing combination of man and nature. The evil antagonists are not simply inbred hillbillies or an unexplainable, evil presence in the woods, but rather a morphing of the two. 
The father of the family wears a plank of tree bark on his face and one of the daughters wears a filthy old rabbit mask and none speak any kind of recognizable language. It's the worst of man and nature in a twisted blend that creates seemingly crazed and animalistic antagonists out of the feral family. Think the woods in The Evil Dead mixed with the family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's nature personified, and vice versa. 
The music has a wonderfully off-putting playfulness to it and a fairy tale like chimey-ness that gives some of the scenes a dark carnival sideshow like feel. Other scenes have an ominous and airy, atmospheric sound that effectively creates a confusion of reality and fills scenes with a dreamlike quality. While we see the strange, ritualistic goings-on on screen the music asks us, "is this really happening?" 
The most brilliant part of Plank Face is that most of the film happens without any dialogue and the story is carried out through actions and observing the everyday rituals of the family. Experiencing such a life shattering event, we see the mind of Max slowly break as he struggles to realize his new situation while at the same time we see the strengthening of the family as their new member adapts to them. It's a voyeuristic and artistic approach that successfully puts the viewer in the same shoes as the protagonist; we learn as he learns, we adapt to the family as he adapts. 
This style will no doubt turn some viewers off but I found it to be completely engrossing and fascinating. I was beyond impressed by the commitment of the filmmakers to the tell the story of Plank Face the way they did, it comes across as uncomfortable, full of unexpected humanity, and wholly unique. Definitely check this one out for something completely different.

Havenhurst

Havenhurst

Havenhurst tells the story of Jackie (Julie Benz), a troubled young woman who takes up residence in a Gothic apartment building where her best friend was living when she went missing. During her stay, Jackie must confront a terrifying evil and try to find the truth about her best friend's disappearance.
The film does a fantastic job of sucking the viewer into the story from the very beginning. The opening sequence features horror favorite Danielle Harris as Jackie's best friend Danielle, and sets the tone as the bloody mystery of Havenhurst is presented. With Danielle missing and a detective named Tim (nicely played by Josh Stamberg) on the case and Jackie experiencing the mysterious and terrifying happenings at Havenhurst, the movie unfolds as an effective slow burn house of horrors film noir.
The filmmakers create a wonderfully dark and heavy atmosphere within Havenhurst complete with creaking floors and doors and dark wood paneled walls. The rich color palette of the cinematography gives a muted vibrancy to the fabric of the rugs and furniture through the musty and stale looking air. The film is a beautiful cross between the colorful look of Hammer films of the 1960's and the black and white film noirs of the 1940's.
The building that is Havenhurst is a darkly dominant and imposing building shooting high and heavy into the air, topped with sharp and spear-like Gothic style spires. It's a large, tomb-like building with locked up secrets and a deep, violent history. Havenhurst is full of plenty of horrific surprises and the building becomes a fun character in and of itself.
As for the cast, Belle Shouse is fantastic as Sarah, the young victim of her drunken, abusive foster father living in Havenhurst and Julie Benz is solid, if not a little one note, as Jackie. Her rough history and sad current life is good reason for her character to be a bit numb as a person and I'm glad the script was strong enough to set that up. It's hard to show the dynamic Danielle Harris and her strong screen presence for the opening sequence and have to follow that up. As a viewer, I was left wishing Danielle Harris were the lead character. That's how revered Harris is within the horror genre; using her as a cameo is almost distracting and dangerous because you end up missing her when she's no longer on screen.
As the mystery of Havenhurst unfolds, we get to see some pretty impressive looking gory effects and set ups, I only wish there were more of them. I appreciated the slow burn approach to the film and the patience the script took to lay out the story and flesh out the characters, but the gory horrors looked so good I would have liked to see a bit more because they felt a little few and far between. With that said, it's a beautiful looking film with a solid story and strong characters. I definitely recommend Havenhurst to any fans of the genres I mentioned because there's a lot to like and enjoy. 

The Evil Within

The Evil Within

The Evil Within tells the story of Dennis, a lonely, mentally handicapped man who lives with his brother, John. When John brings home an old antique mirror, Dennis immediately doesn't like it but reluctantly begins to befriend his reflected image, a demonic figure that tells Dennis to single handedly kill one by one the people he loves most. 

The movie throws itself onto the viewer with confidence from the opening scene; a surreal sequence aided by voice over that lets it be known you have to pay attention. The Evil Within is largely told from the perspective of the main character, Dennis. In fact, most of the time we are experiencing what's going on inside his mind in what is ultimately a character study. The end result is an absorbing and dark, cerebral fantasy. 
The Evil Within is an unique and sad story that drips with a nervous tension. You get the feeling something could happen at any moment, but you don't know what. It's creepy, unsettling, sad and strangely beautiful. There are several sequences that boast frightening, nightmarish imagery along with great camera work that captures reflections and distortions in mirrors. The film seems obsessed with the co existence of good and evil and has the running theme of a mirror can hold two separate images but we can see only one at a time with our eyes. 
Frederick Koehler is fantastic portraying both sides living inside of Dennis. The journey of the evil within slowly invading and corrupting the innocent part of Dennis is both heartbreaking and fascinating to watch and Koehler just absolutely nails it in his performance. His switching between characters with quick vocal and physical transformations are very impressive and he manages to portray both characters evenly throughout the film. I was very impressed by Frederick Koehler. 
Sean Patrick Flanery is also good as John, the overworked and stressed older brother forced to care for Dennis. There's an interesting parallel between the two brothers as John is losing his identity caring for Dennis, Dennis is finding his within the mirror, for better or for worse. 
Michael Berryman is perfect as the evil incarnate within the mirror. Thanks to The Hills Have Eyes, Berryman is horror's familiar Boogeyman and seeing him here was like remembering a scary dream as a kid and feeling the fear all over again. His staring, unblinking eyes are scary, hypnotic and unsettling. The story behind the making of The Evil Within is an interesting one. Writer and director Andrew Getty labored on his passion project for an astounding 13 years, with stop and go filming from 2002-2008 and spent years editing it attempting an impossible perfection. Getty passed away in 2015 with a still unfinished cut. The film was finished to the best of its ability and released this year on digital platforms. And this troubled production does cause some considerable misfires in the film. I clearly noticed different hair lengths on Flanery between some scenes but it is the end that suffers the most. There's very awkwardly edited and written scenes towards the end in a hail Mary attempt to tie things up. With a bizarre new character being introduced in the final act and conclusions being drawn and then re-drawn all in the same scene, it's an unfortunate and very messy little bit of the film. Overall, The Evil Within is a mostly carefully paced and hauntingly focused character study with slasher and supernatural undertones that leads to a twisted and bizarre freak show of an ending that was both unexpected and entertaining. Definitely give this film a watch, there's a ton to like here with a great story and a lot of unforgettable imagery that will please horror fans. 
To read an in depth account of the troubled production of The Evil Within and the troubles of writer and director Andrew Getty, check out the article at Blumhouse here.