Blair Witch (2016)

 

Another one of those movies that I wanted to see in theaters but somehow never had the time to. Blair Witch was initially filmed and marketed under a different title, The Woods, essentially following the opposite media strategy of its famous predecessor, The Blair Witch Project. The original gained something of a cult following due to its unique marketing techniques – namely, pretending the entire thing was indeed real – and it’s almost single handed revival of the found footage genre. Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project was a game changer in the American horror scene. Following a lackluster sequel that most fans refuse to consider canon, the series waited a full seventeen years to  produce a follow up, announcing Blair Witch with little fanfare and even less information about where the story would be going – only that it was going to be updated with modern technology and Adam Wingard (You’re Next and The Guest), would be directing.

So, how does Blair Witch stand up next to its predecessor?

Unfortunately, the film starts out strong – introducing new concepts and characters, and addressing questions raised by the original – but rapidly loses steam even before the closing of the first act. Despite updated cameras and technology – including smart phones, GPS, and a drone – Blair Witch produces what is essentially a retooling of the original, almost shot for shot. Whatever novelty or new information might have been gained from the new technology – including the criminally underutilized drone – is lost before the end of the second act. It’s a shame too, as it’s clear that the people working on this project had ideas they wanted to play around with, especially concerning the nature of the woods, the power of storytelling, and how technology and hype can play into modern myth-making, but for whatever reason their efforts fell short. Adam Wingard has proven himself as a thoughtful, convention-breaking filmmaker with his past work, and it’s unclear why this particular project adhered so stringently to the original work even when the original itself was flawed.

Ultimately, Blair Witch was an interesting and even timely idea that just couldn’t find it’s footing. It’s worth discussing in terms of film studies and the history of American horror cinema, but unfortunately doesn’t hold it’s own weight. It has ambitious ideas but no payoff, strong visuals and sound without the story to back them up. As much as I was looking forward to this one, it just didn’t work.

The Good Neighbor (2016)

Hello, good readers. Some of you might have noticed my absence from the internet, though I imagine most of you are busy with your own lives and have no cause to think of mine. However, I have returned! In the haze of graduate school and political chaos, I live. I have returned to the world of horror criticism tinged with angry feminism. Witness me

And with that introduction, I return to the first review of 2017

The Good Neighbor starts out in the same vein as Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the more recent Disturbia (2007), and other horror films about the complications of observing a stranger from a distance. Though its inspirations are clear, The Good Neighbor quickly evolves into something quite different. The premise is deceptively simple. Two teenagers, armed with an abundance of time and an absent father’s money, have decided to convince their cranky neighbor he’s being haunted through a combination of technology, special effects, and petty meanness. For posterity, they have broken into the old man’s house and rigged the entire thing with cameras – except for the basement, strangely the only room in the entire house with a lock on it. Hilarity ensues as the pranks and cruelty escalate. Exactly who is this old man? Who or what is locked in the basement? And exactly how many lines will these teenagers cross before they realize they’ve gone too far?

It’s a fun ride. The Good Neighbor has plenty of ideas it wants to work through and the patience to develop them in unexpected ways. Exactly who the “good guys” are in the story isn’t immediately apparent and the film makes great use of scenes where the characters misinterpreted what they see on film and run wild with the conclusions. In a lot of ways, The Good Neighbor is a story about the limitations of film, the conclusions we draw about strangers without knowing them, and – intentionally or otherwise – how devastating the narratives people construct about their lives can become if unchallenged

All and all, The Good Neighbors is a hell of a lot smarter than it looks. It’s tightly paced, well written, and doesn’t include anything excessive. Despite the premise, it’s a tight and sparing film, limiting itself to only three main locations. It does wonders with a sparse set, James Caan gave a wonderful and unexpected performance as the cranky neighbor, and its ending was beautiful and devastating in all the right places. The only complaint I have was that the timeline tends to jump around and while this works as a narrative device, the changes aren’t always clear, which leads to some confusion in a few scenes.

All and all, four stars. Go see this one. It deserves a watch.

 

Holidays (2016)

 

I’ll start this off by saying that there’s been a trend recently of making short horror films with a similar theme and then sticking them together into a single anthology, The ABCs of Death and V/H/S being the most prominent examples – and both with multiple, full-length films in each series. And while I’m hugely in favor of this trend, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s brought forth a mixed bag. It’s hard to call any of the anthologies good in their own right when the shorts are so radically different from each other. Each story has its own director and production team and despite sharing a general theme, rarely mesh well when shoved into a completed product. Some of the stories are brilliant, a few downright genius, most are decent, and a few are awful. It’s great that filmmakers have the opportunity to explore genre ideas like this – and, for those new to the business, a notch on their belt that doesn’t necessarily carry the financial burden of a feature length project – but again, just because two short films might be brilliant on their own merits doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily mesh when paired in an anthology. For better or worse, anthology films are a difficult beast to conquer and – regardless of the merits of the individual shorts – rarely come together in a cohesive way. It’s an endeavor that’s often undertaken and rarely successful.

 

Holidays is probably the first one that actually succeeds. Not only are each of its shorts well-made, strongly acted, and shot with a keen eye, as well as an appreciation for the horror genre, they actually fit together – visually, thematically, and tonally – as a cohesive whole. Despite not knowing the process behind its creation, it’s clear to me, as an observer, that the directors of the various shorts were in conversation with each other so that their projects wouldn’t look jarring when put together in the final product. To be sure, each story is self-contained and has its very own visual style – some weird, others conventional, and more than a few recovering a fairytale aesthetic rarely seen these days – the themes in each story complimented each other without creating continuity errors or WTF moments for the audience.

 

It’s hard for me to pick a favorite out of all the shorts here. Quite honestly, I liked all of them. St. Patrick’s Day blended balls to the wall weirdness with a genuine sense of uncertainty and empathy for its protagonist, Father’s Day ran miles with an incredibly sparse set and lone character, Easter managed to combine some graphic weirdness and seeming contradictions into a surprisingly heartfelt meditation on what it means to interrogate the beliefs and traditions of your culture, and Halloween – one of the more subdued entries – pulled absolutely no punches in getting its story across, accessing age-old tropes and unveiling them in unexpected ways. Even the shorts that stumbled in places – Christmas and Mother’s Day – still had interesting things to say, and fascinating ways of going there.

Holidays is one of those rare anthology films that is a genuinely good movie across the board – each of the shorts stands on its own merit, while still working together as a cohesive whole, and it takes the holiday theme in places that even I, a seasoned horror fan, didn’t expect.

Don’t miss this one. It’s great.

Still, I feel I would be reminisce without giving a shout out to the films that inspired Holidays. I stand by my assertion that on a whole, The ABCS of Death and V/H/S were a mixed bag, but there were a few gems that ought to get their minute in the spotlight. Here are two of my favorites. And though I could go on extensively about them, I will let the films speak for themselves.

First up is the entry for A in The ABC’s of Death. Thankfully, youtube has been kind enough to upload Apocalypse in its entirety.

Next up is a clip from V/H/S. Unfortunately, the entire short is still too long to be uploaded, but you can get an idea of what the story is working with.

 

Feed the Gods (2014)

Brothers Kris and Will – plus Kris’ fiancée – travel to a remote town looking for their birth parents only to discover a more literal kind of tourist trap. Feed The Gods has its moments of humor, mostly from older brother Will’s complete lack of tact or sensitivity, and his boyish enthusiasm over literally everything. His ongoing narration of the events, delivered in a great – and perhaps mildly offensive – Russian accent, elevate a lot of the quieter moments. The backstory and subsequent character development are slow in coming, but well worth the wait. There’s a great scene towards the end where the brothers are trying to escape the monsters and Kris is tearfully apologizing for all the bad things he’s ever done to Will – such as accidentally kicking him in the head during baseball camp when they were twelve. Later, Will asks the befuddled villain – an underutilized Aleks Paunovic – if there’s going to be a “bad guy speech”.

There is, eventually. It’s gloriously cheesy.

Unfortunately these are small moments of black humor in a largely humorless film. Feed the Gods works best when it sticks to the humor. Even the nasty, black humor scenes have more depth and feeling than the dramatic ones. Count the number of times that Will accidentally maims someone, or obliviously walks in on his brother and fiancé just as they’re about to get it on. Feed the Gods might have been an interesting film if it had let its string of black humor play out to its nasty and inevitable extreme. As it stands, the movie has some good moments, but remains unremarkable on the whole.

Technically speaking, Feed the Gods had a lot of issues. The first act was shot without regard to depth perception and no one got around to fixing the lighting issues that plague entire film. None of the nighttime scenes are legible, leaving the audience to spend long stretches of time listening to the characters speak while staring at a curiously black screen. This also removes the emotional impact of a scene where Will’s propensity for accidental maimings has real, tragic consequences. Filming at night takes a special skill set, one that was unfortunately not present here. A problem that obvious should have been seen and corrected during production, but sadly that was not the case.

On the whole, Feed the Gods is unremarkable. It has its moments, but not enough to warrant a second viewing.

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.

Unfriended (2014)

I saw this one back when it was in theaters and recently decided to check it out again. First impression? It plays much better on a big screen. I had trouble reading some of the text on the screen with the smaller version, though to be fair, that might have been because the DVD I had was scratched. Sadly that’s the risk of buying movies second-hand. I looked at some of the reviews on Amazon.com and no one else seems to be having this problem, so I’m inclined to say it’s my version. Oh well.

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Unfriended is a pretty simple ghost story. A student named Laura Barnes commits suicide after a humiliating video of her is posted online. A year later, a group of her surviving classmates are having a nighttime Skype call when they find themselves besieged by someone – or something – using Laura’s Skype account to reveal their darkest secrets. Things go from petty meanness to outright murder in due time, and the longer Laura waits to find out who posted the video that led to her suicide, the more bodies she’ll drop. Almost the entire film takes place on a computer screen, which is its most notable feature.

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I’ve seen a couple horror films that take place entirely on computer screens, including The Den (2013) and a few of the V/H/S shorts, but have yet to find one that doesn’t wear out its welcome before the end – or at least not one that extends to feature length. This particular brand of found footage seems to work best when done as a short, under thirty minutes. It tends to wear thin around the last third in features, something that both Unfriended and The Den – clearly the superior of the two – suffered from. This isn’t to say that the format doesn’t do interesting things, visually speaking, but that all the examples that I’ve seen appeared to run out of ideas before the end. Maybe someone will come up with a version that doesn’t fade out during the final third, but I haven’t seen it yet.

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Still, I’m not discounting this format entirely, even for feature films. Unfriended does have some fun tricks up its sleeves, especially in the beginning. Just look at the popup adds that subtly foreshadow the mayhem to come, and the difference between what the characters are saying in the group chat versus what they’re texting to each other privately. Additionally, the main POV character, Blaire, has a habit of rewriting her texts before she sends them, giving the audience an insight into her thought process. For a film with an extremely static and sparse setting, Unfriended does a fair job of keeping the image dynamic and interesting – which is a feat, considering all we see are Skype videos and Internet searches.

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All that being said, Unfriended starts to stumble when the bodies hit the floor. For whatever reason, the Skype format just does not allow for dramatic death scenes. All of the deaths, to a one, felt comical and over-played, which ruined the tone that the film was clearly going for. The last third also saw the cast devolve into screaming caricatures of themselves, which just isn’t interesting to look at. All of the creative film work and camera tricks were done early on. It felt like Unfriended just ran out of steam at the end, which is a damn shame. The beginning was solid and not obvious about its creepiness – the tension built slowly as secrets were revealed, and it was interesting to try and see how the group worked together to try and deal with the situation, versus when they inevitably turned on each other.

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Which leads me to the bigger problem with Unfriended. It’s said multiple times by multiple characters that while Laura’s death was unfortunate, she was also a bully and a horrible person, disliked by everyone. The problem is, we don’t see any proof of this – all we have are the testimonies of people who the film proves several times over are pretty horrible themselves, with crimes ranging from starting rumors to raping a fellow student. These things aren’t implied: they’re stated directly. It’s one thing to have a film with unsympathetic protagonists, but Unfriended expects the audience to go along with the group’s assertion that Laura – or Laura’s ghost – is a horrible monster with disproportionate ideas about revenge. From what Unfriended shows us, Laura – however brutal her retribution may be – actually does have a point. Was she a bad person when she was alive? Maybe, but the audience has no way of knowing that. All I saw was a wronged spirit taking revenge on a group of teenagers who did horrible, awful things while maintaining their squeaky clean reputations. This could have been a debate about the culture of teenagers in the age of camera phones and Facebook, where mistakes and acts of seemingly petty cruelty have the potential to become something much worse, but Unfriended doesn’t delve deep enough to really have a conversation about any of the events it depicts. It begins with an interesting premise and ends with slasher stereotypes twenty years out of date. It tries, but it doesn’t quite get there. Unfriended could have used a few more drafts of the script to really flesh out its ideas, and try to articulate exactly why Laura’s revenge might not be justified – after all, she’s going after a group of cruel hypocrites, one of whom is an actual rapist, but whose ultimate crime in the film seems to be (consensual) sex with his best friend’s girlfriend.

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What the fuck. I’m really not in the mood to spell out what’s wrong with that for everyone, but what the fuck. This is why horror films get a bad rap. As filmmakers, we’re damn well capable of doing better than that, and the audience is justified in demanding more. Do not pass go, Unfriended, do not collect twenty dollars. You fucked up.

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In short, we have unlikable, unsympathetic rich white and presumably straight teenagers getting their comeuppance from an angry ghost, and no real reason to sympathize with the supposed victims. Still, despite its missteps, I do like what Unfriended was attempting to do, and the creepy setup at the beginning. Give it a watch, but be aware of its flaws. There are many.

Documenting The Grey Man (2011)

The premise is that a group of filmmakers, in an effort to look at how easy it is to fake supernatural events, decide to terrorize a family that believes their house is haunted in order to make fun of them on reality TV. They do this by exploring the local legend of “The Grey Man”, a ghostly figure who warns people of incoming hurricanes and other disasters, and who supposedly lives in the house the family owns. Only problem is, weird things start happening the moment the cameras are on, and the crew isn’t responsible. Could the house really be haunted?

The answer is pretty obvious from the start: yes. And why do we know this?

Because the camera crew, despite all their stated intentions, never actually get around to faking any of the creepy events. They do a lot of standing around and talking, and that’s about it.

It’s strongly implied that The Gray Man is protecting the daughter of the family from abuse, but shockingly none of the crew (or the parents) pick up on this. That could have made for an interesting story, with the protective ghost terrorizing the abusive father, clueless mother, and scheming camera crew ignoring an obvious human problem in lieu of exploiting the supernatural angle, but Documenting The Grey Man didn’t go in that direction. Instead you have your average Paranormal Activity rip-off, without any sort of creativity in acting, direction, or camera work. It’s boring, doesn’t look good on film, and isn’t scary. The subtext makes up the only horror in this strange little story and I do have to ask, what sort of people ignore child abuse in order to make a fake ghost story? Say something about that.

Skip this. It’s terrible.