Last Shift (2014)

It’s rare that I find a film, horror or otherwise, that embraces its own weirdness so eagerly. And let’s be clear, Last Shift is really, really strange. The plot is fairly simple, following Jessica, a rookie cop on her first shift at a soon-to-be demolished police station, alone except for empty cells and an evidence room filled with bloody clothes. Weird things start happening, possibly connected to the suicides of three cult members who were held there almost a year ago. Is it supernatural? Is Jessica having a nervous breakdown? Or are the local cops playing a nasty trick on their newest member?

Not to spoil anything, but weirdness ensues. Bloody, morbid, fascinating weirdness. And all it took was allowing the characters to have understandable, human reactions to their situation. It’s fascinating how many times a character will come face to face with the “situation” at the station, stare, and then resolutely try to ignore it. Because if you can’t explain something, then you should ignore it until the problem goes away. Right? Right? I was surprised at how many people ended up knowing about the haunting, though it’s never called that in the story, and the way Last Shift made their motivations for not doing anything about it understandable – and even sympathetic, to a point.

Last Shift plays its premise for everything it’s worth, the effects are solid, the sound-design excellent, and the screenwriting as tight as could be. Juliana Harkavy puts forth an excellent, sympathetic performance as Jessica, alternating between near complete silence, mania, and quiet, humanizing moments. Really, just a solid production all around. Last Shift pulls out all the poltergeist tropes we’ve seen fall flat a hundred times before and makes them work. I’m a longtime fan of director Anthony DiBlasi’s work, and this is one of his strongest films yet. The only place that Last Shift stumbled was with the ending, which didn’t deliver a payoff quite strong enough to match the buildup. All and all, an excellent production that’s received very little attention.

We should fix that. Go see it. See it twice, if you can.

Maggie (2015)

So, here’s another of those film’s that been on my watch-list ever since the trailer dropped. I finally traced down a copy from the library and sat myself down with it this afternoon. Going in, I had high hopes – I’d read a lot of positive reviews for Maggie, and the production stills I’d seen had an interesting, almost southern-gothic feel to them.

Then I actually watched the damn thing, and….

Yeah. It didn’t really work for me. Part of this comes from my inability to take Arnold Schwarzenegger seriously in a drama, and his massive presence in a film that’s trying so desperately to be small. Though fairly standard as far as zombie flicks go, Maggie never really describes what caused this particular apocalypse, opting instead to focus on the story of the Vogel family after their oldest daughter is infected. Through a longstanding friendship with the quarantine doctor, the titular Maggie is allowed to return home to die among her family. It’s a decent premise, and would have worked with a different cast, and a more realistic portrayal of rural life. For a film set primarily on a farm, Maggie doesn’t seem to understand how these things are operated, how farmers live, and what their homes look like. There were several scenes that had me convinced I was watching a period picture, instead of something set in the present. Maggie’s set design reminded me strongly of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, only with a few cellphones thrown in for good measure. It’s a remarkably dreary film, even considering the subject matter, and never quite strikes the right emotional cord to really say anything of meaning. Certainly the characters have interesting things to say, and the metaphor of zombies and real life infectious disease hasn’t lost any of it’s power, but rather that Maggie has an eight-year-old sprouting philosophical one-liners about morality and dying on your own terms. I can only suspend my disbelief for so long.

Granted, this is my personal opinion. A lot of people love this movie. Certainly it had its moments – the conversation between Wade and his neighbor in the woods was haunting and tense in just the right ways – but the production as a whole missed the mark.

 

Intruders (2015)

 

A trio of robbers enter a house only to discover that the agoraphobic owner is still home – and has a very interesting security system. Intruders has an excellent setup, surprising amounts of character development, a fun and creative set, and functions almost like a haunted house film. Just what ghosts are hiding under all the clutter – and what’s in the basement? The characters were well cast and gave strong performances all around. Especially notable was Beth Reisgraf as Anna, whose silence spoke volumes.

All that being said, the conclusion fell flat towards the end – it just wasn’t creative enough to match the excellent setup.

Intruders is an intriguing watch almost until the ending, which could have used an additional draft or two. It tries, hits most of the marks, and has some interesting things to say. Give it a watch.

Pod (2015)

Two estranged siblings, Lila and Ed, journey to the family cabin in order to convince their troubled brother to accept medical help. Only it turns out that Martin, a veteran with a long and sordid history of psychiatric problems, has the windows covered with tinfoil, bloodstains on the walls, and somebody – or something – locked in the basement. What results is a long-winded conspiracy that ruins a perfectly good plot.

Pod tries. It really does. The cinematographers pulled out all the old tricks to make a dark, cluttered interior look interesting, and the actors work double-time to give their characters any semblance of depth. Unfortunately, the script really doesn’t give them enough to work with, thrusting them into a chaotic moment without enough backstory to give the audience a reason to care about what happens to them one way or another. There’s some vague sadness in watching someone in crisis while their family members struggle to try and help, but the audience just doesn’t have enough of a hold on who these characters are to find their struggles compelling. Which is a problem, since the plot leaves so many wonderful opportunities for character development that just never come.

The soundtrack never leaves any ambiguity to the scenes, the dialog is solidly delivered but never provides any depth beyond the surface details, and the characters end up screaming incoherently at each other far too often. To be fair, screaming is an understandable and common response to trauma, which Pod has its share of, but unfortunately it’s a behavior that becomes repetitive and annoying when displayed on film.

Brian Morvant did excellent work as Martin, providing the strongest and most interesting performance of the film. Sadly, Pod doesn’t give him much of a character arc or even personality – he’s defined entirely by his illness. It’s a credit to Morvant’s acting ability that he managed to give a compelling performance despite this. I would have loved to see more of him than the little that Pod provided. It might not be enough to watch Pod just for his performance, but it’s worth taking a look if you’ve got the afternoon off.

Tiger House (2015)

 

Kelly’s been having a string of bad luck. First her boyfriend accidentally shoots her with a crossbow and ends her gymnastics career – and, incidentally, any chance she had of raising her economic status. Her boyfriend’s mother hates her. And that pregnancy test is raising some uncomfortable questions.

Tiger House is perfectly passible in every regard as a home invasion horror film. It’s well acted, surprisingly well written, and just creative enough to keep the audience engaged. And if it wasn’t being compared extensively to a much better film, then Tiger House might actually be considered a pretty solid entry into the subgenre. Unfortunately, nearly every review I’ve come across has connected Tiger House to Adam Wingard’s You’re Next. To be fair, the films have their share of similarity, both involving a young, poor female protagonist whose much wealthier significant is the target of a home invasion, and who utilize violence and common sense in order to best their opponents.

Yes, You’re Next is better. And despite the fact that Tiger House came out four years later, it’s still going to look bad in the comparison. Sadly, there’s not much that can be done about that. Let’s move on.

Tiger House follows the usual home invasion plot, with all the expected turns and a few twists I didn’t see coming. The characters are much more developed than I’ve come to expect from a home invasion horror film, well cast, and exceptionally well written. Screenwriter Simon Lewis deserves kudos for this one. There are several moments of silence and several monologues from unexpected characters that elevate the story from your standard slasher to something more. That being said, Tiger House isn’t quite smart or unique enough to rise above the crowd. Home invasion horror is a well-established subgenre at this point; to be good, you have to be really good, not just better than average. For better or worse, Tiger House has a lot of competition in the genre, and hasn’t established itself enough to stand on its own.

That being said, I’m curious about Tiger House’s storyline as it concerns violence as baptism/rebirth. Now, this is something that shows up a lot in horror films, and in stories that even vaguely follow the Hero’s Journey. Going into darkness and emerging victorious usually means the protagonist will quite literally have to fight somebody with knives. Look at basically every slasher ever made for examples. I’ve written extensively about this before, but essentially, home invasion films are different. Nearly every home invasion horror film treats violence as a corruptive force inevitably places the protagonist on the same moral level as the villain if they show even the slightest competency at killing people. This is not common in horror films on a whole, but it’s a trope of home invasion horror. There are several reasons for this, which are interesting to discuss, but that’s another discussion.

What’s interesting is that violence isn’t seen as a corruptive force in Tiger House, but rather like a natural disaster; it’s shattering, but also a force for change and renewal. Consider the crossbow that symbolically killed Kelly’s gymnastics career is the same weapon that she uses to defend herself from the armed invaders. It’s particularly important that not only is the same crossbow involved with all of the incidents, Kelly also saves and reuses the same bolt that maimed her. The bolt that ended one aspect of her life acts quite literally as the tool of her salvation. Here, like with the majority of horror, violence is presented as a life-altering force. However, unlike with most home invasion films, it is not an inherently “bad” one – and Kelly is never seen as corrupted because she survives by using it.

I do wish the rebirth metaphors had been explored a bit further – it’s important, for example, that Kelly’s new life will involve a child – because Tiger House had the subtext and metaphorical “meat” to be a really good film if it had gone a few steps further. Sadly, the subtext doesn’t really do much other than just…be there. Briefly.

As it stands, Tiger House is good but not great, worth looking at but perhaps not a repeat viewing.

I’m still not sure why it was called Tiger House. At first I thought I’d missed something, but after looking up a few other reviews, I can only conclude that something was lost in the transition from script to screen. Oh well.

Howl (2015)

So, this one shall be short and sweet. Your basic late night b-movie with some added fun. A late night train gets derailed in a forest and find themselves on the dinner menu of the resident werewolf. Come for the werewolf effects, stay for the surprisingly nuanced character development, and try to ignore Howl’s strange obsession with masculinity. It’s fun if you don’t think too hard about the plot details (train security does not work like that), the monster effects are decent, camera work is excellent, and I like it more than I expected. Howl isn’t going to add anything memorable to the genre, but suspend you disbelief for a while and enjoy the ride.

Try to forgive the first third of Howl for its instance on exploring the protagonist’s adventures in failed masculinity and its decision to kill off all the interesting characters. It’s fun if you don’t think too hard. This one’s on my list for popcorn night. Bring the cheese. This one’s gloriously full of it.

Sinister 2 (2015)

 

Sinister 2 is one of those rare sequels that actually works as a follow-up to the original, adding on additional information and thematic stuff without losing any of the elements that made the original so compelling. To be fair, though, Sinister 2 isn’t the sort of film that could stand on its own; it relies too heavily on the mythology and “rules” defined in the original. Anyone coming in cold will find themselves very confused. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just an observation. The story told in the original film was already concluded. Sinister 2, while heavily influenced by those events and characters, is more interested in exploring a different angle. And you know what? That’s just fine. I’m not usually a fan of sequels, since the original movies are rarely written in a way that lends itself to an interesting and well-rounded multi-chaptered story. More often than not, sequels are filmed in order to make money and end up confusing the themes of the original to the point where the story becomes very close to incomprehensible. Consider the Saw and Insidious series as examples.

The story in Sinister 2 is thus: a mother and her two sons are hiding in an abandoned house from their abusive father. Deputy So and So from the first movie, reeling from the violent murders, is attempting to track down and destroy the evil responsible – with a limited amount of success, it must be said, and a whole lot of old-school arson. Unfortunately, the hideaway the family has picked happens to be the site of a horrific series of murders – and guess what’s hiding in the basement with a trunk full of snuff films?

The pacing isn’t as tight here as it was in the original, but for the most part, Sinister 2 works on a technical level. The setting is interesting and dynamic, hinting at darker tensions just below the surface. The camera work is excellent, the sound-design intriguing, and the characters well cast. Unfortunately, Sinister 2 does share the original’s propensity towards jump-scares, which was – and remains – a cheap tactic that wears its welcome well before the end. And while the ending felt forced, Sinister 2 did a great job of rounding outs its characters – all interesting, most likable, some redeemable, and a few too far gone to save. It’s also not afraid to give its protagonists realistic and deep flaws – these people make mistakes. Horrible mistakes, sometimes. But always for very understandable and – unfortunately – human reasons.

However, the same question I had for the original also popped up in the second. It’s established early on that the demon – or whatever Bughuul is – lives inside artistic representations of violence; songs, drawings, radio recordings, and film. Bughuul then gains power by corrupting children through said pieces of art, and can survive inside them for years. The Sinister series clearly understands that representations of violence and traumatic events are compelling, but doesn’t really go into why these pieces of art are so powerful. This seems strange to me, as Sinister is – in essence – a horror film about the impact of horrific videos. The characters seem to argue that the pieces of art – most, but not all of them made on film – were created to document tragedy, and then go on to “infect” later witnesses who stumble across the evidence. Except then we have the audience watching a horror film, about characters watching horrible events captured on video. So….what is Sinister’s opinion on horror, class?

Honestly, at this point I can’t say. It’s not that horrific images will inevitably corrupt the people who see them, because this is – again – a horror film. Horror films are scary, they’re full of shocking imagery and nightmares projected up on screen. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. This is what horror movies do. Except, I’m still not sure what Sinister, either the original or the sequel, means to do. It’s not even that Bughuul’s motives are hard to understand – he’s hungry, and that’s what monsters do – but rather that Sinister doesn’t seem to understand how it’s philosophy fits into the larger world.

Because here’s the thing: artistic representations of horrible events, of trauma and pain and nightmares, are everywhere. They’re timeless. Powerful. And in a lot of ways, I would argue that they’re necessary. What do human beings use this art for?

To remember. And, in many cases, to work through our own history.

See, people write about horrible things not because they want to celebrate awful things that happened, but because it’s human nature to try and come to term through things by way of art and storytelling. You could argue that these were the first coping mechanisms. Sometimes people create scary stories and creepy paintings because it genuinely helps them deal with their past, and from the confusing thoughts that result from it. Former soldiers have made masks to help them come to terms with their PTSD and war experiences.

Some of these pieces are quite beautiful. Some of them are horrific. And all of them are incredibly, painfully, honest.

Sometimes, art can be horrific and hard to look at. That doesn’t mean it’s without impact or importance.

And that’s the part that Sinister as a series seems to struggle with. It acknowledges that these images have a power – supernatural and otherwise – but seems unable or unwilling to consider that sometimes, horrific imagery does have a practical purpose. People create this art for a reason. And people watch horror movies for a reason.

I walked into Sinister 2 without expecting very much. I came out with a lot to consider. Watch the original, then follow it up with the sequel. They’re well worth looking at.