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.

 

Annabelle (2014)

 

Before I see The Conjuring 2, I thought I ought to look up the other entry in the series. Quite honestly, I didn’t come in expecting much. The Conjuring didn’t impress me and the killer doll storyline has practically been done to death, but I figured why not. Better go in having a complete feel for the world, right?

Final verdict: meh. Annabelle has a few interesting visual tricks up its sleeves – the basement scene in particular was much smarter than anticipated – but largely relied on underdeveloped characters, an overabundance of jump-scares, and made no use of the thematic subtext. For a period film set during the Manson murders, when occult paranoia was at its highest, Annabelle has nothing to say about this. With one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, it didn’t have anything interesting to say about race or gender either. The entire point of period films in any genre is that they hold a mirror up to modern times and give the audience a new way to look at whatever themes and issues the characters are dealing with. Given that cults aren’t something we think about much in 2016, how would a family contextualize the violent events that happened to them in 1969, and how strange would that seem to the audience? It matters that these events happened to a stay at home mom, it matters that she’s white, and it matters that she’s middle class.

Or at least it should. Annabelle presents these facts, but doesn’t do anything with them. Visually, the film works as a period piece. It looks nice and the sets get the job done, but there aren’t any visual motifs or themes to dig around with. With the exception of the basement sequence, Annabelle is not an interesting film to look at. This isn’t a dig at the crew – it’s perfectly serviceable and its clear that everyone involved did their jobs – but just to point out that creating a world that looks like 1969 really isn’t enough to make a good film. A period film has to be made purposefully, with clear intent, and this one simply wasn’t.

All and all, Annabelle is underwhelming and forgettable. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but it doesn’t do anything exciting. It does have the dubious honor of being inspired by true events, but that’s about as interesting as it gets.

Except for when it comes to the character of Evelyn, played by the wonderful Alfe Woodard. Evelyn is introduced in the second half of the film, a tenet in the building that Mia and her family move into, as well as the owner of a bookshop that happens to have a suspiciously large section on the occult. She’s a quiet, understated character, notable for her kindness and tragic backstory – the death of her young daughter, Ruby. Evelyn survived the accident that killed her daughter and fell into despair several years before the events of the movie, eventually attempting suicide. She survives but is left with a distinctive scar, claiming that she heard her daughter say that it wasn’t her time yet.

Thematically she works as a foil to Mia, both mothers who deeply love their daughters, but find themselves in disturbing situations because of that love – the impact of grief and depression in one case, and demonic possession in the other. It’s possibly Annabelle‘s only moment of thematic reflection, and their friendship gives the story weight that it otherwise lacked. And it could pass without comment except for a single fact.

Evelyn is black. Mia is white.

Now, I don’t think this is a case of the filmmakers trying to be racist or hurtful. I’ve seen that before. Unfortunately, I’ve even seen it recently. And if Annabelle weren’t part of a larger trend, then it really wouldn’t matter that Mia survives the film and Evelyn doesn’t.

Let’s look at that, shall we?

The climax of film is a tense standoff with the demon and the various parties involved, in an attempt to get the demon to give back Mia’s baby. The demon wants a soul – any soul, as it turns out, and not necessarily the baby’s – but that still requires someone to die. Mia attempts to do so, but is pulled back by her husband. Then Evelyn steps forward, declaring that this is what she’s meant to do, and kills herself.

Satisfied, the demon gives the baby back. Mia and her family have their happy ending. Yay!

Now step back and think about that for a second.

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a black woman giving up her soul for a white woman. Evelyn literally states that this is why she survived her suicide attempt – so she could eventually sacrifice herself for Mia, a woman she’s known for less than a month. Annabelle treats this as an acceptable – even admirable – move, and the ending is presented in a positive light. The demon has been defeated, Mia and her family are implied to live out the rest of their lives in peace. There is no mention of Evelyn after her death. Sure, a demon ate her soul and she’s probably going to suffer in hell for all eternity, but gosh, that cute baby survived! All’s well that ends well, right?

Well…not really.

The thing is, movies don’t exist in a vacuum. The stories we tell and the values those stories extol have a real and powerful impact on the world around us. And what Annabelle and other films like this say is that the lives of black women are somehow worth less than the lives of white women. I honestly don’t think this was done on purpose, but it’s another example of a harmful trend that has been in circulation for a long time.

As filmmakers, we have a duty to think about the stories we tell and the impact they’re going to have on the world. We have a duty to look at how we treat race in all films – horror and otherwise – and really think about what our stories say. These things don’t exist in a vacuum and if a narrative is repeated often enough, then it has a tendency to get absorbed into the popular consciousness.

The lives of black people – especially black women – cannot be devalued like this. Unfortunately, horror does not have a good track record on this count.

This is a notice. We are filmmakers and we have a responsibility to our craft. We can and should do better.

The Fog (1980)

One of John Carpenter’s lesser-known works, The Fog is nonetheless an excellent example of his visual and cinematic skill. Like with many of Carpenter’s works, The Fog struggles a bit with its script and pacing, but more than makes up for it with the visual motifs and special effects that, while they may not have aged particularly well, were excellent for their time and remain striking on screen. Like its opening scene, The Fog is a late night ghost story, a tale of betrayal and revenge and lingering debts that asks – though doesn’t quite answer – exactly how culpable are people for the misdeeds of their ancestors? Should six innocent people die in penance for the horrific crime their ancestors committed a hundred years ago? Especially if it was a crime motivated by greed and prejudice, from which they all ultimately profited? An interesting question, but one that neither The Fog nor its unfortunate remake (which shall not be spoken of) really answers.

Though not a radical game-changer like some of Carpenter’s other works, The Fog is a solid piece of filmmaking and should be celebrated. Go watch it. See where the genre learned its tricks.

The Other Side of the Door (2016)

So, this movie wasn’t as horribly racist as it could have been. It feels a bit ridiculous that this is a thing that’s said, either as a compliment or a statement of fact, but here we are. Despite having its white, American protagonist dealing with Indian superstition and ghost stories, The Other Side of the Door avoids the deeper pratfalls that some of its fellows (I’m looking at you, The Forest) this year have fallen into concerning racial stereotypes and producing the nonwhite “other” as the strange, malevolent force that must be battled and that eventually the white people are infected by and succumb to. At its heart, The Other Side of the Door wants to be a meditation on the devouring power of grief and the lengths people will go to in order to try and come to terms with said grief – or avoid it entirely, to the point of extreme, uneasy measures.

An attempt is made, to be sure, but the film falters in too many places for the story to ever find its footing. The pacing is confusing, especially in the beginning, and it feels like several establishing scenes were cut from the narrative that should have been kept in. Aside from the lead, none of the other characters have much of an arch or enough screen presence to make me remember their names. They exist to further the narrative and not much else. The notable exception is a wonderful, subdued performance by Suchitra Pillai, who was criminally underutilized. In all honesty, Mrs. Pillai was the best thing about this movie – despite having about ten minutes of screen time. Her character arc was subtle and tragic, and had more emotional resonance than any of the conflict that drives the main characters that the audience is supposed to care about.

The cinematography has some moments of brilliance, but The Other Side of the Door is a confused, disjointed mess. It desperately wants to say something about the pull of grief in the wake of tragedy and sets up the platform to do so, but falters once it actually gets to that point. A tragedy occurs. The characters are sad. And…that’s about it. That’s the narrative. Setting the story in India could have made for some interesting dialog about the cultural conventions of grief and mourning, but those conversations just never happen. To its credit – I really can’t believe I’m saying this – the film isn’t as racist as it could have been. Though the supernatural forces are clearly racially Other, the malevolence is related more to grief in general than any culturally specific evil. Or at least that’s the attempt. Still, there is a great deal of cultural appropriation and the prioritization of white grief and white stories, over the narratives of characters like Piki, who’s own loss is brushed aside once its narrative purpose has been served.

This story has been done before. It’s been done much better. I can provide examples. Go watch something else.

The Forest (2016)

 

Decently paced and with an interesting aesthetic for the first third, The Forest stumbles when it comes to plot and character. It desperately wants to have something to say about the weight of sibling bonds – good and bad – and the devastating nature of mental illness, but fails to understand the reality behind either, leaving a flattened yet somehow overblown tale of supernatural woe as the result. Though I like the camera tricks that allowed Natalie Dormer to play a pair of identical twins, I’m disappointed that an actress of her caliber chose this to be her first feature film as a lead. The Forest does its best work in the beginning, letting the gloomy atmosphere and nearly oppressive silence do the work. The moment it dips into the supernatural – or indeed, anything to do with mental illness – it loses both momentum and credibility. This movie is not good and I’m not surprised it did so poorly in theaters.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of the problem.

Consider an unrelated ghost story: Mark Danielewsk’s House of Leaves. The dedication page always stuck with me. It reads simply, this is not for you. It’s advice I wish the filmmakers behind The Forest would have taken.

The story of the very real Aokigahara forest is not for Americans to dissemble. This is not to say that horror films shouldn’t be used to explore the reality and complexity of mental illness – not at all – but rather to recognize that these things don’t exist in a void. Setting The Forest in Aokigahara is a move better suited to the older days of colonialism, something I really wish America as a society had moved beyond. This is not for you. By making the lead characters both white and American, The Forest states – intentionally or otherwise – that it has the right to coopt this place of tragedy for its own purposes. This isn’t even to say that horror should stay away from using real life tragedy as a source of inspiration, but that we, as filmmakers, have an obligation to realize that not all these stories belong to us. Aokigahara is a tragic place, and a symbol of how mental illness is seen and treated in Japan. It is not for Americans to take. To whitewash this place means to cover up issues that Japan faces concerning mental health and reinforces the “model minority” stereotype – that only white people could possibly deal with trauma or illness, that Japanese people are somehow untouched by it.

I doubt The Forest intended any of this, but intent doesn’t matter nearly so much as impact. This film is racist and doesn’t even realize it, filled with scenes of the lead standing oppressed by the strange, superstitious “other” as she traverses across Japan – the level-headed foreigner surrounded by savage weirdness and homicidal mythology. Horror as a genre has made some great steps forward in the past few years concerning its representations of race, but it’s far from perfect. The Forest is an excellent example as to why. This project shouldn’t have been made in the first place, yet here it stands, coopting tragedy and whitewashing a very real place as this narrative has no power to hurt real, living people.

This is not for you. And that is the end of it.

 

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.

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.