Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, AHS Coven: Season Wrap-Up

Three big genre shows all ended in the last couple of weeks: Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, and American Horror Story: Coven. So how did it all pan out?

Sleepy Hollow turned out to be a very fun and entertaining show week after week. It fell in to a customary "monster-of-the-week" show for a while but with only 13 episodes, the main mythology quickly regained focus. The two leads, Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane and Nicole Neharie as Abbie Mills, were incredibly charismatic and harken back to the days of Scully and Mulder. The incredibly satisfying season finale was rich with revelations and callbacks from the entire season – and left us with a doozy of cliffhanger for all the leads. THAT is how you do a season finale!

Dracula was a beautiful show with a unfortunate casting, muddled plot, and a languid pace. Even though this was only 10 episodes long, it dragged on and on. I admired that it was a period piece (in theory) and the steampunk sensibilities, but all the set dressing didn't make it more interesting. Unfortunately, as time wore on, it was also clear that the main lead, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Dracula, would not carry the weight of the show. The character had no sense of gravitas and seemed harmless as a kitten, until things went bad in the last 3 episodes and Dracula finally expressed some danger. Dracula should always be dangerous, unpredictable, and ruthless – not a domesticated house pet.

American Horror Story: Coven came to complete and tidy wrap-up and left you with a smile. It was a very different season, and as promised it was "lighter" in tone (which made the gory bits even more unsettling). There was a lot going on, lots of characters and lots of stories – too many in fact. I would have preferred a more focused season (either voodoo & New Orleans OR witchcraft, although I understand the overlap). Unlike last year's Asylum, I felt this season was less character-driven and more plot-driven (hence less heavy and more filling). But I don't feel I knew most of the main characters this time around like I knew Sister Jude, Lana Winters, or Kit Walker. Alums Taissa Farmiga, Evan Peters, and Lily Rabe were thoroughly underutilized, and guest stars like Patti Lupone and Stevie Nicks felt like unnecessary stunt casting. This season belonged to Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie, Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie, and Frances Conroy as Myrtle Snow. The show is always unpredictable and highly entertaining (their versions of hell were hilarious/sad) which makes for an overall great show and still one of the best genre shows on TV.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Favorite Scary Movies of 2013

With 2013 firmly behind us, it's about time to list my favorite Scary Movies of 2013. As usual there's an assortment of mainstream, indie, drama, comedy and sci-fi. I've rewatched most of these films and it's surprising how much a second viewing improves my overall experience (Insidious 2, Evil Dead) or ruins it further (sorry World War Z, Room 237). Second viewings allow you to really study the film without the expectations, internet chatter, or misleading trailers that can impact the initial enjoyment.

1. The Conjuring
This is the scariest film of 2013. The actors are fully committed. There is no trace of satire, comedy or other distractions that keep horror movies from achieving a full impact. And best of all, it's an original story not a sequel, remake, reboot or reimagining. Read my review

2. You’re Next
It's almost as funny as it thrilling and clever. As someone who doesn't like home invasion themed movies, I found this one to be almost enjoyable in a disturbing way. This is the kind of film where you stand up and root for the hero. Read my review

3. Evil Dead
Remakes rarely make anyone's best-of list since many fans refuse to accept that a cherished film is modernized. I found this remake to hold the gleeful, dark spirit of the original intact and it was by far the bloodiest, and goriest film of the year. Read my review

4. This is the End
A meta-comedy that delivers both frights and laughs. The cast plays versions of their celebrity selves making this one of the most enjoyable end of the world movies ever. Read my review

5. Gravity
Although this sci-fi thriller is not necessarily a genre movie, it was the most heartstopping movie of the year. Sandra Bullock gives a gut-wrenching performance as an astronaut stranded in space. Director Alfonso Cuarón brought the same intensity and darkness that he brought to Children of Men and the arguably the best of the Harry Potter series, The Prisoner of Azkaban. It's a technical marvel that must be seen in 3D to be fully appreciated, and it reminds us that space is equally awe-inspiring and deadly.

6. Warm Bodies
Zombie movies have been done to death so its refreshing to see an original perspective. This one tells a story from the point of view of the zombie who has impaired motor skills but can still think, reason, and yes, feel. Read my review

7. Grabbers
This foreign film is a fun and sometimes silly monster movie that echoes films like Slither and Tremors. Sea creatures descend upon an island community during a terrible storm, and the only way to avoid being eaten is to get thoroughly pissing drunk. Read my review

8. My Amityville Horror
The Lutz family experienced 28 days of terror in their infamous Long Island home. 30 years later – and after his parents death – the eldest son agreed to take part in this documentary to tell his side of the story. Whether or not you believe him, the effects of that experience appear in every wrinkle on Daniel Lutz face. It's a fascinating study in what happens to people after a haunting, and the lasting impression it can leave on a scarred soul.

9. Maniac 
This remake stars the slight Elijah Wood as a serial killer who loves mannequins. It's dark and bleak, and the movie is mainly told through the eyes of the killer making the audience a participant in the brutality. The experience is unnerving, stark and for experienced horror movie fans. Read my review

10. Stoker
The director of the original Oldboy brings a very foreign and beautiful aesthetic to this story of a very troubled family led the icy queen herself, Nicole Kidman. The performances are brilliant and this family drama quickly turns into an unsettling study of the psychotic mind. Read my review

Honorable Mentions

Insidious: Chapter 2 – a good follow-up wraps up the story but ultimately isn't very scary
John Dies at the End – bizarre, funny and entertaining hallucination of movie
American Mary – a great story and cast but fails to drive home a fully satisfying ending
Escape From Tomorrow – another bizarre fever dream of audacious guerrilla filmmaking
Carrie – great performances and effects but still felt too familiar and unnecessary
The World's End – a funny sci-fi film that pits the Simon Pegg against a robot invasion
Byzantium – an atmospheric and bleak take on vampire story worth seeing

Unfortunately, I have not seen the following well-reviewed films, so they too may make it onto an amended list: The Battery, We Are What We Are, The Banshee Chapter, Twixt, and Anti-Viral.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Devil's Due ~ Good vs. Bad Marketing

The new movie Devil's Due opens in theaters this weekend and reviews have been fairly negative from general film go-ers (36% on the Tomatometer) and fairly positive from the horror websites Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central and FearNet. On the plus side it's from an indie filmmaking duo called Radio Silence who directed my favorite segment ("10/31/98") of V/H/S. On the negative side, it's a found footage movie, an overused gimmick that is limiting narratively and mostly unbelievable in practice.

The Good
As part of their marketing plan, the studio put out two attention-getting publicity stunts. Over the last week they released a hilarious prank video featuring a runaway baby stroller which must be seen. This was definitely marketing at it's best since it captured so many views already, and pranks like these are always fun to watch. Everyone loves a good startle scare!

The Bad
On a more questionable note, the Devil's Due website features a "special offer" to visitors. All you have to do is convert to satanism on your Facebook page. There's fun and scary, then there's crossing the line into the extreme and off-putting. I love horror movies but I was also raised with a belief system. Even as a publicity gimmick, this marketing angle is somewhat repellent and distasteful. You are messing with people's belief systems in a very social way and everyone has family and coworkers on Facebook. Do you really want to announce to mom that you now pray to the hoofed one because you had to see a 20-second clip on a website? Maybe kids who don't ever consider the long-term consequences of social media might find it funny and subversive, but really it's just unpleasant and ruins the fun of a horror movie.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Helix: Review

SyFy’s new sci-fi/horror show Helix has created a startling first impression. It’s incredibly well-made, tense and briskly paced. A CDC team is called into an unregulated research facility in the Arctic after a group of shifty scientists unwittingly unleash a strange and deadly virus that threatens the entire base (and possibly the world). The cold, isolated and claustrophobic setting is reminiscent of The Thing, the slowly unravelling mystery echoes the rich mythology of Lost, and the enraged virus-controlled victims feel like something out of 28 Days Later.

The production values are remarkable for the the Sharknado-network. It’s beautifully shot with sweeping cameras, the out-of-focus slow-mo, and artistic close-ups. The soundtrack is pulsing with muted electronica that creates moody and ethereal soundscapes (juxtaposed with eerie spells of cheerful elevator music). The top-notch cast, lead by the always affable Billy Campbell, is committed, tuned-in, and believable as scientists! And when the goo hits the fan, it’s not pretty.

This is one of the most intriguing and chilling new shows of the season – intense, full of dread, serious to the bone, and action-filled. I hope this kind of quality can be maintained throughout the season and hope the big reveal will be truly mind-blowing, as the stunning promo poster below suggests.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Stoker: Review

Korean director Park Chan-wook has made some unsettling films including Oldboy, Three...Extremes, and Thirst, but for his English-language debut he choose the very adult-oriented Stoker. Written by actor Wentworth Miller and produced by Ridley Scott, this deeply disturbing and atmospheric film starts with very stylized shots and odd angles lingering on a dreamy summer day and India Stoker (played with mysterious aplomb by Mia Wasikowska). There's a jarring cut to funeral scene where Nicole Kidman is already worked up into a full lather of mourning. At once you know this will be some sort of unsettling ride but the pace is agonizingly sluggish letting every unnerving and awkward moment settle on a the screen like a feather wafting onto a sticky floor. Little by little the plot gurgles and thickens as India's enigmatic uncle – an astonishing performance by Matthew Goode – makes good a promise to his now dead brother. You never quite know where it's going, but the turns are surprising. Ultimately what starts as a family drama becomes a psychological thriller then a horror film that stands as a direct ode to Alfred Hitchcock. Highly recommended as an art house film for grown ups who scoff at horror.

Exploring the Paranormal: Astral Projection

20 Myths About Astral Projection
We all dream, and at one time or another we've experienced flying or falling sensations. In rare cases, parapsychologists believe, that some people may be having more than a lucid dream – they may be experiencing an episode of astral projection.

This out-of-body experience happens when your conscious awareness (or soul) leaves your physical body to travel about your house, city, continent or even other planes of existence. Some believe it's a hereditary trait, while others believe you can train yourself. WikiHow has put together a nifty guide to explain the process: How to Perform Astral Projection – but do so at your own risk.

Some believe there are inherent dangers to astral projection and contend that a growing awareness of other planes of existence lures malevolent entities to you. One of the major concerns is possession, but experts in the field say that's impossible. Whenever your consciousness travels it is connected to your body by a Silver Cord that no one (or thing) can break. Unless of course you die at which point the cord is cut.

This is the main premise of Insidious and Insidious: Chapter Two (which was recently released on disc). In the movie, a father and a son both involuntarily travel into a place called The Further and demons attach themselves upon their return. Of course, one of them ends up getting possessed.

So the next time you dream of falling or flying, ask yourself if it's just a dream or if you are exploring the paranormal.

This article is a part of my 2014 Exploring The Paranormal series. If you are an expert in any particular field of parapsychology, please contact me using the form (Contact the Dead) on the right column of the page. I would love to interview you for possible inclusion in the series. – Scary Jerry, Editor-in-Mischief

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2014 Horror Movie Preview

Bloody Disgusting posted their 2014 Horror Movie Preview last week. These are the scary films I'm most looking forward to:

Nurse (2/7) - Sex, blood, and one crazy nurse with access to surgical equipment

Oculus (4/18) - A haunted mirror terrorizes a family - no, really.

The Quiet Ones (4/25) - inspired by true events of a paranormal scientific experiment gone wrong. 

Godzilla (5/16) - He's a big green mother from... where is Godzilla from?

Maleficent (5/30) - Disney's darker take on Sleeping Beauty

Deliver Us From Evil (7/2) - A renegade priest & a police officer team up on a demonic case

Jessabelle (8/29) - after an accident a girl returns to her childhood home to face ghosts

The Boxtrolls (10/17) - The latest stop animation film from the makers of Coraline & ParaNorman

The Book of Life  (10/17) - Guillermo Del Toro produced Dia de los Muertos animated film

Dracula Untold (10/17) - Luke Evans stars as the man who would become Dracula in this prequel

Interstellar (11/7) - Christopher Nolan's scifi thriller about wormholes and alternate dimensions

Other indies making their VOD/Disc debut:
Bad Milo (1/20)
Hellbenders (1/17)
Here Comes the Devil (3/17)
The Sacrament
Willow Creek
The Banshee Chapter
We Are What We Are
Big Ass Spider
The Vatican Tapes (TBA)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones ~ Review

A new year and a new batch of scary movies to review. January has become the dumping ground for horror movies that are not quite good enough to hold their own during the more appropriate months of September/October. First up is the latest Paranormal Activity film.

The Marked Ones is a supposedly a spin-off from the series but really it's just more of the same with a Latino cast. It is a vast improvement over part 4 but the same formula that runs through all these films remains painfully intact. I was hoping the new setting would lend itself to better storytelling but until the series ditches the "found footage" angle, the plot will remain tied to the unbelievable conceit that someone – even in peril – will continue to point the camera at a horrific event.

The action has moved from the lily-white, rich homes and into the barrios of Southern California. The cast is superb and makes this the most entertaining, fun and watchable entry of the series. And the humble setting feels much more genuine and realistic. When the supernatural stuff happens, the effects are so seamless that they defy logic and add an unsettling eeriness. There's definitely more action here – we're not watching pool cleaners or bored millennials on their laptops – which helps make this a more entertaining entry.

Yet even with so many positive things going for it, the last act devolves into the greatest hits of Paranormal Activity (out of focus running, gasps and screams in sudden darkness, figures pop up out nowhere and lurch, etc. etc. ) Schtick-and-shocks instead of real scares or storytelling. And then the dreaded ending: fade to black. UGH. Seriously? Again? Apparently found footage means you never need to finish the story.