Re Kill (2015)

Your standard found footage zombie film with one intriguing twist. Most zombie stories fall into the post-apocalyptic category of things, but Re Kill bases its premise on a deceptively simple question: what if society didn’t end when the zombie virus came and conquered? And from there, the story blossoms. Sure, the zombies came and sure they wiped out 80% of the population, but life goes on – looking disturbingly similar to the way it did before calamity struck. Commercials clog the airways, selling sex, luxury homes, and anti-zombie pills that probably don’t work.

Life goes on. That might be the scariest part.

Re Kill follows a reality TV show around, centered on a team of zombie killers as they go about their business. It’s Cops with the nasty habit of showing headshots and police brutality in perfect detail, while still pausing to blur out the occasional nakedness. Reality TV has standards, after all. Re Kill is following in the grand tradition of several horror films that touched on similar themes, including Series 7: The Contenders, Battle Royale, and more recently, The Hunger Games society. However, Re Kill seems more interested in developing the world that its story inhabits rather than the characters that ought to be driving the plot. All we’re given is snippets of backstory, prepped for TV and devoid of anything real. We don’t learn enough about these people to really care one way or another when they die – and most of them do, in the end. Re Kill isn’t interested in creating deep characterization or even much in the way of character development.

All that being said, it doesn’t really need to. The conversation that Re Kill wants to have is established by the world that the characters inhabit, rather than the people themselves. In many ways, it’s about the collective instead of individuals. The characters themselves don’t matter except in how they are representative of other people; for instance, it’s important that Louis is a member of R-team, and that he joined in order to get a green card, but his internal thoughts and character arc are – perhaps conspicuously – absent from the narrative. I wouldn’t say that Re Kill is a perfect film, but it accomplishes what it set out to do. Come for the social commentary, but don’t expect to form an emotional connection with anyone who appears on screen.

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Crimson Peak (2015)

A writer who can see ghosts marries a mysterious English aristocrat after the tragic death of her only living relative, and moves into his beautiful, dilapidated mansion. A story of love, tragedy, and ghosts trapped inside red clay unravels even as the house falls apart.

Guillermo del Toro has delivered another wonderfully creepy and exceptionally beautiful film in Crimson Peak. I had the pleasure of seeing in Imax, and would recommend that others do the same. It’s a few dollars more, but well worth the money to see it in the best possible quality. Crimson Peak is one of the most beautiful films that I have seen this year. The costumes, scenery, and sound design are absolutely wonderful. I especially appreciated the varied ways that the red clay appeared throughout the story. The story establishes its own personal style quickly, and with great confidence.

However, this should be said before you go in: don’t expect your standard horror movie, because that’s not what Crimson Peak is. At its heart, Crimson Peak is a reflection of the story it’s protagonist, Edith, is writing: a gothic romance that happens to have ghosts in it, both as metaphors for the past and something a tad more immediate. And in the world of gothic romance, logic and streamlined plot are sacrificed in order to maintain continuity in metaphor and themes. For instance, it makes sense for Edith to break her leg for the sake of continuing the metaphor at play, even when it doesn’t make logical sense with the events that follow. In essence, Crimson Peak is going back to a form of storytelling that involves elements of horror, but doesn’t necessarily operate on the expected, modern-day rules that audiences have come to expect. If you’re looking for a slasher or something along the lines of Poltergeist, you will be disappointed.

This is also quite different from the director’s other projects that have blended surrealism and fantasy alongside more “realistic” forms of storytelling. In Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance, the divide between the fantastical and the more realistic is clearly drawn. In Crimson Peak, the separating line becomes malleable – a suggestion rather than a hard rule. I’d go a step further and argue that it is also meant to reflect the novel that Edith is writing in subject matter, but also in style. Though clearly talented, Edith is also somewhat inexperienced as a storyteller – her writing is not as tight as it could be. I would argue that the fluidity of these elements in Crimson Peak are meant to reflect Edith’s own inexperience as a writer. This doesn’t make her story or any of her experiences any less authentic, but simply blends them together.

In essence, Crimson Peak feels more like a series of memories than a narrative composed years after the fact, when the emotions have settled. Everything is raw and immediate, forced into the now rather than situating moments in their proper context. In some ways, it reminds me of the Hunger Games novels, in that the narrative feels choppy in places, and the details that the protagonist fixates on don’t always make sense to the audience, who has the opportunity to step back and look at things objectively. Moments of relative banality are broken with sudden, horrific instance of violence with no warning or time to recover. I also find it interesting that the horrific nature of the ghosts never changed over the film, but that Edith’s reactions to them did. The ghosts remain terrifying and grotesque throughout the entire film – they never become entirely benevolent – but rather than urging them to change, Edith simply accepts them. It is her growth that drives the story, not the ghosts. These are stories about trauma, growth, and – of course – the ghosts of the past that refuse to die. In that sense, the style that Del Toro chose to tell this story makes perfect sense.

It does, however, require something of an open mind to accept. This is not your ordinary ghost story.

Exeter (2015)

A group of teenagers decide to party at an abandoned mental hospital and inadvertently summon an angry something that traps them inside. Being children of the 21st century, they try a DIY exorcism and employ all the tricks of Youtube and the Internet to survive. It’s old school horror versus the modern survivalist, and all the carnage in between.

Exeter tries, it must be said. It obviously wants to talk about the modern age, sibling relationships, and how teenagers deal with the sins of the previous generation. The film and the characters use humor – sometimes off colored, sometimes outright cruel – to deal with the situations they find themselves in, situations they aren’t prepared for in the least. These are ambitious themes for any project to take on, but horror seems like an especially suited genre to tackle them with.

Unfortunately, Exeter isn’t as smart or as nasty as it needs to be to pull off that sort of commentary. Certainly the film has its moments, but isn’t willing to give the characters enough depth for the themes to have any resonance. Even the sibling relationship between two of the characters, easily the most nuanced and interesting dynamic in the film, falls short at the end. Exeter can tell us that the brothers have issues and hint at why, but it doesn’t want to explore the issue fully and risk its lead character appear unsympathetic.

Visually, Exeter pulls out all the stops. This is a film that looks very nice in every shot. The lighting is spot on, the costumes work, and the setting manages to convey the essence of chaos and decay that come with abandoned places (they have a lot of junk in them) while not cluttering the scene. It’s a delicate balancing act, though one that Exeter has mastered. Still, it’s not enough to watch a film based on its looks, and I can’t honestly recommend Exeter on its content. It tries, but falls short.

The Beast of X Moor (2014)

A pair of documentary filmmakers team up with an unhinged guide to hunt a mythical black panther in the remote New Devon moor, only to accidentally stumble – or perhaps not so accidentally – into a serial killer’s dump site. A great idea with a not-so-great execution. Most of these problems are technical, though a lot of the lore and history in the film refuses to acknowledge its origins.

The Beast is a proud member of a time-honored tradition that attributes the horrific crimes of human beings to fantastical monsters. Even before the term “serial killer” entered the popular consciousness, crimes committed by men and women who would eventually fall under that category were largely considered to have been committed by werewolves. Among that category we have Gilles Garnier, a hermit convicted of killing four children and accused of about fifty more, who was executed in 1573, and Peter Stumpp, a Roman farmer who was accused of killing eighteen people and executed in 1589. There was also the man known only as the Demon Tailor, or the Werewolf of Chalons, who murdered and cannibalized an unknown number of children. All records of his life were destroyed after the execution. None of these people were actually werewolves in the traditional sense; they were human beings who committed, or were accused of committing, horrible crimes – mostly against children. Gilles Garnier claimed to have made a deal with the devil that allowed him to transform into a great wolf, and Peter Stumpp confessed to something similar after being tortured. Allegedly, the Werewolf of Chalons never considered himself to be a wolf of any sort, but the moniker was attached to his legend due to the brutality of his crimes, of which he was supposedly unrepentant.

Now, a lot is unknown about these crimes. It’s entirely possible that some of the men accused were innocent and picked as convenient scapegoats due to the political climate of the time, something that has been theorized extensively about Peter Stumpp’s case. He was a wealthy Protestant in a country where Protestants were not well liked. On the other side of things, Gilles Garnier was a poor man, mentally ill, and disliked by his community. It’s possible that these men were serial killers in a time before people had come up with a word for that, but it’s also possible that they were simply caught up in a situation over which they had no control, and condemned to death by communities that had no love for them. This far in the past, it’s nearly impossible to tell. We do know that the confession that condemned Peter Stumpp was extracted under torture, and also condemned the rest of his family to execution along with him. We know next to nothing about the Werewolf of Chalons. Even his name has been lost to history.

What we do know, however, is that people have been attributing the bloody acts of men to those of mythical monsters before we even had the words to describe a serial killer. In that sense, The Beast of X Moor is only playing on an age-old tradition. However, the film doesn’t acknowledge that in any way. There’s a brief conversation about cryptozoology, and how it’s easier to go hunting for Bigfoot than to understand that the monster hiding in the dark “drives a Land Rover.” Which is a good point, but doesn’t acknowledge that this conundrum outdates cryptozoology by a long margin. The Beast of X Moor doesn’t have that much to say about cryptozoology either, only to laugh at it. This could have been an opportunity to look at why certain people are so invested in searching for myths to explain horrific events, but it devolves into your traditional slasher without pausing to examine the origins of these ideas, or even explore them in any meaningful way.

When a film brings up a concept with such a rich and nuanced history as this, the least it can do is, you know, talk about it.

The Beast of X Moor does not.

The scenery is beautiful and gloomy in the daytime shots, but unfortunately the majority of the film takes place at night, with little to no lighting. One of the unfortunate facts of video cameras is that, in certain situations, they’re actually weaker than the human eye. The human eye can adjust quite well to almost complete darkness under the right circumstances. A camera?

Yeah, not so much.

There were several sequences in The Beast of X Moor that were so dark that I literally couldn’t see what was happening. I fully believe that the actors and crew could see, but that doesn’t mean that the camera did.

To put it simply, this movie had issues. The ending was the worst kind of deus ex machina, I really don’t know why one character was introduced or what purpose she served in the narrative, and the characters weren’t as developed as I would have liked. That’s not even getting into the frankly strange costume choices that were made because damn, it’s not a real horror movie unless we see a woman running around half naked! The Beast of X Moor has an excellent premise and moody sort of creepiness that can’t quite make up for its less than stellar execution. See it, but don’t come in with high expectations.