Wednesday, January 28, 2015

American Horror Story: Freak Show ~ Season Review

Hit shows have greats odds against them. They have to maintain a fresh appeal, keep fans happy, find new audiences, and explore new territory. American Horror Story reboots each season with a self-contained story and new characters so the fresh part is easy. But dealing with fans is not. Since the brilliant first season viewer expectations seem to have spiraled out of control. It doesn’t help that months of internet speculation, hidden clues in episodes, and unofficial fan art fuel the fire. When it was announced that Season 4 would have a carnival theme, I immediately thought of scary clowns in the sewer, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the endless haunted carnival attractions at Halloween. I admit that I had a difficult time keeping my own expectations in check, so perhaps that's why Freak Show seems like an overall disappointment. Or maybe it was the hodgepodge approach of throwing everything on the wall to see what sticks. There were so many characters, so many stories, so much going on, and only 13 episodes – the storytelling got lost. And so did the horror. Instead of being scary, thrilling and fun, it was morose, humorless, and depressing. The Pepper episode was the most sorrowful hour of TV in years. From the technical standpoint, the production this season was absolutely astounding: the circus sets were grand, colorful and gorgeous; the costumes and makeup effects were perfect and disgusting; and the digital wizardry that gave one actor two heads was almost mind-bogglingly seamless. Maybe now that the season is over and expectations have been put to rest, this chapter can be put back on the shelf to revisit later. Maybe time will bring a new perspective and reveal details lost in the first viewing. This does seems to be a pattern with AHS. The third season Coven definitely improved after a second viewing. However, one thing is certain: no matter how “disappointing” this season of AHS seemed, it’s still better than most of the genre shows on TV, and is filled with the best actors on TV – regardless of whether they have three breasts, distracting accents, or musical numbers.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Favorite Scary Movies of 2014

It's that time of the year to recap my favorite films from 2014. I wouldn't necessarily call this the best "horror" movies of the year, although there's a strong component of frightful stuff. As a fervent fan of the genre, I believe horror resides in many realms from family to science fiction to drama movies. Horror's many sub genres is what makes it so unique as a category and I enjoy reveling in it's many facets. Below is a list of my favorite Scary Movies of 2014. Unfortunately there's always more movies than time, so I've also included a list of some favorites praised throughout the community – and I will see at some point in 2015!

Mr. Babadook fan art from Eemeling!

1. The Babadook
This Australian film has done what few could do: tell an original story in a compelling way with the perfect amount of surprise, tension, and emotional impact. This is a truly frightening film that takes one back to childhood fears of the dark, and parents to the darkest thoughts of childrearing. It has also given rise the best boogeyman since Freddy Krueger. I dread the thought of three sharp knocks – BA-ba DOOK! DOOK! DOOK! – knowing you can never get rid of Mr. Babadook.

2. Snowpiercer
This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi juggernaut was a limited release and one of the best films of the year. Set on a train that circles the globe continuously after an ice age sets in, the survivors of the planet form all elements of society the ill-fated back of the train to the upper crust at the front of the train. The cast including the marvelous Tilda Swinton is top notch, the action is riveting, and it’s an original and inspired thriller. At 2 hours and 6 minutes, the movie does sag in places but the ambitious storytelling and outright audacity more than make up for it.

3. Under The Skin
Hypnotic, bizarre, and ultimately moving film about an alien putting in long days and trying to get food on the table like the rest of us. Along the way she/it discovers humanity. The mindtrippy visuals, unsettling high pitched score that evoke Kubrick, and the repetitive droning tone is not for everyone, but give in and the black mirror-floor room will haunt you for months. 

2Oth Century Fox
4. The Book of Life
The first major motion picture about Dia De Los Muertos turned out to be charmingly romantic, visually stunning, and highly original take on the Mexican folk holiday. It was entertaining from start to finish and though it relied a little too much of pop culture, it set itself apart from most animated films in dealing with death straight on. 

5. Oculus
This movie dripped with dread from scene one and quickly established itself as a horror movie with no rules, to the dismay of many. Letting go and getting lost in it’s absurdity definitely heightens the tension. If you can’t believe what you see, what can you believe. And where did this haunted mirror come from? Many questions are raised, few answered, and yet it’s one of the best rides of the year with a great performance from Karen Gillan. 

6. Godzilla
As a lifelong fan of giant monster movies, Godzilla is the one that rules them all. Part dino, part kick-ass, the Godzilla movie we’ve been waiting for was finally unleashed. Yes, Godzilla is fashionably late to his own film and didn’t get enough screen time but when he’s here, he’s in charge. I watched the destruction in awe, with amazing production values and dark gloss missing from so many other versions.

7. Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi 
(Released in the US as Witching & Bitching)
If acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar made a horror movie, this would be it. Outlandish, over-the-top, and zany, this horror comedy is an entertaining battle of the sexes involving a gold heist and a coven of witches up to no good. It's wonderfully weird, gratuitously gross, and subversive filmmaking that Hollywood would never dare to make and often reminded me of the young Peter Jackson/Sam Raimi days. Don't let the subtitles deter you! This is perfect example of VOD releases are saving the horror genre and giving these rough diamonds an audience.

8. The Boxtrolls
Trolls are typically monsters that live under bridges, but these trolls live in boxes and “steal children” at night to the dismay of the townsfolk. Thus sets up the battle between the citizens and the monsters in this touching, visually dazzling, and offbeat film. The English accents may deter some audiences in America but those willing to oversee the thin story and unhurried pace will definitely discover its heart and soul.

9. The Guest
The director of You’re Next turns this drama thriller into a quiet home invasion film that morphs into something else entirely by the end. It’s insane and mesmerizing, especially when you realize the lead actor is Dan Stevens - the former fop/pudgy frump from Downton Abbey. Whoa. This guy has piercing eyes that perfectly convey an unhinged mind. Extra credit for being set during Halloween, featuring the official new scream queen of 2014: Maika Monroe.

10. Killer Legends
This documentary explored four urban legends and their possible origins. From poisoned Halloween candy to killer clowns, this interesting documentary (from the makers of Cropsey) all-to-briefly covers the stuff that our nightmares are made of. Interviews with first hand-witnesses, former detectives, and actual crime scene photos add an air of authenticity and mounting dread that leave the viewers wanting to know more. The narrative style and connection with the viewer also keeps the audience engaged and thoroughly unnerved. 

Honorable Mentions of 2014
Mr. Jones
Starry Eyes
The Sacrament
Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead
The Strange Color of your Body's Tears
The Taking of Deborah Logan

Noteworthy in the Horror Community (and in my Queue)
The Houses October Built
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Late Phases
Willow Creek
The Borderlands
The Canal
Cheap Thrills
Big Bad Wolves

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seth Grahame-Smith on Beetlejuice 2, Gremlins, IT, and more

The January 23 issue of Entertainment Weekly has a great feature on writer Seth Grahame-Smith. If the name is not familiar, he's the author of the brilliant mash-ups Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He's just released a sequel to the Lincoln novel titled The Last Vampire Hunter which follows a rebellious vampire from the first book through 1963. (See the book trailer below.)

Grahame-Smith is also producing, screenwriting and even directing a slate of films sure to interest any scary movie lover. Here's a quick recap:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
On the movie front, his film-adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is in post-production and getting a 2015 release. It's produced by Natalie Portman who was originally slated to star as the formidable Elizabeth Bennet.

Beetlejuice 2
Grahame-Smith first worked with Tim Burton on the screenplay for Dark Shadows and has been tapped to write the screenplay for Beetlejuice 2. Michael Keaton is interested and Winona Ryder will be back.

Something Wicked This Way Comes
Grahame-Smith will make his film directing debut this remake of the classic Ray Bradbury novel about an evil carnival that arrives at a small town to collect souls. His hope is to retain the feel of the original novel but update the setting to the 80s and capture some of Spielberg-like childhood innocence feeling of movies like E.T. and The Goonies. It shoots this fall if all goes well.

Stephen King's IT
Grahame-Smith is also producing a two-film adaptation of King's masterpiece. The book is set up perfectly for two films with the first part focusing on the group of kids' first encounter with Pennywise, and the second having them face Pennywise as adults. The first part is being directed by Cary Fukunaga who is behind 2014's highly-acclaimed True Detective series.

It sounds like the much-rumoured reboot of this horror classic is gratefully/sadly on hold. It will eventually get remade so it's not a matter of "if" but rather "when" and I'd rather see it produced with loving care by Grahame-Smith.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Woman in Black 2: Review

I have a soft spot for period horror movies, especially since they often feature old haunted houses and restless spirits. Add an English accent and it practically earns a free pass. That said, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death is a good but not great follow-up to the original film. This is a beautifully filmed, unnerving, and spooky return to Eel Marsh House but unfortunately lacks the gravitas, pace, and a compelling story to satisfy expectations.

The actors are charming and the performances are solid, yet it was difficult to be fully invested in the lead characters plight. The writing left their actions and many unnecessary backstories stranded with too many leaps in reason and direction. Very little made sense including what may have been a reveal in the third act. Ultimately the storytelling ends up being as murky as the waters that fill the causeway.

It was clever to set this film 40 years after the first and use WWII as the backdrop. There was a possibility to explore themes about war, loss, and living in fear although that didn't happen. At one point the action leaves the dreaded house and what could have been a grand opportunity to springboard the story simply fades into the mist. Speaking of action, this story is a real slow burn and not altogether successful in holding the viewers attention. A great horror film knows how to ratchet up the tension and release it at the right moment. Here we are treated to desperate startle scares that cheapen the otherwise perfect ambience and mood it winningly creates.

To their credit, the filmmakers showed some backbone in allowing the woman in black to fulfill her curse without wincing – even the most hardened viewer will find these scenes disturbing. The movie needed more of that kind of audacity, and a willingness to explore the darkness of this malevolent spirit head on. Nonetheless, compared to other horror movie dreck in wide-release this old-fashioned spook show might be a good way to kill a Sunday afternoon – if you keep expectations in check.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 Horror Movie Preview

Happy New Year! With the start of the new year comes the prospect of great new horror movies – and this year looks to be full of high-profiles remakes/reboots, some long-awaited sequels, and new films from Guillermo del Toro, Michael Dougherty, James Wan, Kevin Smith, Rob Zombie... and M. Night Shayamalan? Really?!

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (January 2)
Set 40 years after the first film, a group of children are evacuated from London during WWII to the desolate Eel Marsh House.

[Rec 4] Apocalypse (January 2, VOD)
The final in the Spanish "trilogy" concludes the story from [Rec 2] as the virus-afflicted tv reporter leaves the ravaged building in Barcelona to a remote quarantine facility.

The Vatican Tapes (February 27)
An ordinary girl begins to have devastating effects on anyone close to her from serious injury to death. After a local priest believes she is possessed Vatican experts are called in to face a terror beyond their experience.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (March 13)
Nothing is known about this fifth sequel but the best ones have been the odd ones (the first one & part 3).

Insidious: Chapter 3 (June 5)
A new tale unfolds with the fabulous Lin Shaye returning to the role of the psychic helping a new family unlock the mysteries of The Further.

Yoga Hosers (June)
Kevin Smith's latest horror comedy pits 15-years-old against an ancient evil and stars Johnny Depp, Justin Long, and a grown up Haley Joel Osment (from The Sixth Sense), and it's a sort-of-sequel to 2014's Tusk!

Jurassic World (June 12)
The fourth installment is produced by Steven Spielberg, stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, and has dinosaur hybrids. Nuff said.

Poltergeist (July 24)
From the director of Monster House comes this inevitable remake of the suburban house under siege by malevolent spirits, starring the Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jared Harris.

Sinister 2 (August 21)
That creepy character from the original film is back to terrify a mother and her 9-year-old twin sons.

The Final Girls
Taissa Farmiga (of American Horror Story) and her friends get sucked into an 80s slasher film that her mother starred in.

Regression (August 28)
A young girl (Emma Watson) accuses her father of unspeakable crime and its up to a psychologist and a detective (Ethan Hawke) to unmask the horrifying mystery.

The Visit (September 11)
M. Night Shyamalan returns to horror in this secretly shot film about a brother and sister who are sent to a remote farm to discover their grandparents aren't quite what they seem.

Crimson Peak (October16)
Guillermo del Toro returns to full horror in this classic set tale starring Charlie Hunnam and Jessica Chastain.

31 (October)
The latest from director Rob Zombie promises to be about our favorite holiday, Halloween, and features a terrifying clown.

The Last Witch Hunter (October 23)
An immortal witch hunter (Vin Diesel) teams up with a witch to stop a coven from unleashing a plague on humanity.

Scouts Vs. Zombies (October 30)
From one of the creators of Paranormal Activity comes this horror comedy about a troop of scouts attempting to save their town after a zombie outbreak.

Friday the 13th (November 13)
Is it a sequel or a reboot? Some speculation suggests a winter setting instead of the usual summer setting so the blood should contrast nicely on the snow.

Krampus (December 4)
Christmas will never be the same when America discovers the evil demon sidekick that travels with Santa to punish the bad kids, from director Michael Dougherty (Trick 'r Treat).

Also this year:

Maggie (2015)
Abigail Breslin and Arnold Schwarzenegger (!) star in this zombie drama about a father who brings his infected daughter home in this heart-wrenching tale.

Amityville: The Awakening (2015)
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a single mother who moves into the infamous house unaware of its infamous history.

Demonic (2015)
The James Wan produced thriller starring Maria Bello follows a detective and psychologist trying to unravel the mystery of a college massacre – all of whom were amateur ghost hunters.

The Final Girls (2015)
Taissa Farmiga (of American Horror Story) and her friends get sucked into an 80s slasher film that her mother starred in.