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.

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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.

He Never Died (2015)

So, this one’s a throwback. And an interesting one at that. He Never Died doesn’t concern itself as much with the plot (though there is one) as it does with following its brooding, strange lead character around as he ambles through his seemingly meaningless life. Exactly who is Jack? Who knows. He spends his days sleeping, playing bingo, and haunting the local diner – but he can’t seem to avoid getting involved, however accidentally and much to his annoyance, with other people’s lives. He’s got a trunk full of money and knives, a strange hearing problem, and can shrug off a gunshot like a mosquito bite. Which comes in handy now that the local mafia happens to be gunning for him. Why? Jack can’t remember and doesn’t especially care. Things only get more complicated with the introduction of a daughter from a long-past fling. It’s a return to the 90s anti-hero with updated one-liners and an appreciation for history’s many and varied boogeyman legends.

He Never Died is a fun experiment of what happens when you drop the archetypal 90s anti hero into a more realistic 2015, a place where Jack’s casual acquaintances try vainly to empathize with him and incorporate him into their lives, and the line between sociopath and boogeyman becomes increasingly thin. Jack doesn’t belong in this era. No one knows it better than he does. Though he calls himself Cain (“I’m in the bible, if that means anything“), Jack’s backstory and powers almost fit better with Beowulf’s monster – better known as Grendel. A lot of the film’s power comes from this ambiguity – Jack doesn’t know what he is and neither does the audience – and how the other characters react to him. He’s accused of being a lot of things, including a sociopath and a vampire, and it’s never made clear exactly where he stands.

Two things are clear. First, Jack is a murderer. And second, the plot desperately wants him to be a hero.

Jack disagrees with the hero bit. The best pieces in the film come from the divide between his cynical worldview and the film’s stubborn insistence on trying to redeem him. There’s a hilarious couple of scenes where Jack staggers around in the middle of the night trying to provoke the local thugs into attacking him, only to discover that none of them are in the mood to fight with an old man. His indignation and shock when he’s treated politely by the people he’s trying – not at all subtlety – to provoke is a testament to Henry Rollins’s wonderful acting skills. Jack would love the world of He Never Died to be as cynical and mean as he is. The fact that it’s filled with characters who – though deeply flawed – are essentially kind, empathetic people proves the film’s best moments.

On the technical end of things, He Never Died is well made, though I’m not fond of the choices made with the sound design. Jack seems to go through life with the soundtrack to an old battle playing in his head at all hours, which might have been interesting if it had some narrative weight backing it up. Instead it’s just…there. The story does falter in a few areas and takes a bit to really figure out what sort of tone it’s going for. But the acting is excellent (Booboo Stewart stole more than a few scenes) and the story goes in interesting, unexpected places. Give it a watch.

Indigenous (2014)

Every few years, some enterprising horror director decides that they’re going to tackle a story and do what no director has done before – manage to make the Chupacabra legend scary. Director Alastair Orr is the latest in a long line with Indigenous. To be fair, the film makes a solid attempt. The acting is decent, the locations well shot even if the editing gets chaotic towards the end, and the monster effects look good when shot from a distance or in silhouette – less so in the climatic battle, which featured too many close-up shots for its own good. The plot is your standard idiot tourists in peril story, where our group of intrepid and vaguely likable characters set off into the jungles of Panama while on vacation in search of a mythical waterfall – despite the warnings of the locals that the place is dangerous and off limits for a reason.

Up until the last twenty minutes, that is.

See, it turns out that one of our otherwise forgettable heroes is working on a social media app. And the SOS message he’s sent out has gone viral.

Now, this part had the potential to make Indigenous something special. For about twenty minutes, the film takes a good look at the power of the viral video – and the responses that the locals take to the events that have propelled them into accidental fame. The fact that the locals – including the police force – already knew about the monsters but didn’t do anything until a group of wealthy Americans go missing – with the entire world watching the situation – could have been an opportunity to discuss the role of privilege in disasters, as well as the politics behind public sympathy. Which tragedies get media attention and which are ignored? Might race and economics have something to do with that? Hmmm.

Unfortunately, this development comes too late in the film to really add anything to the story the conclusion feels as chaotic and forced as the editing. Indigenous has some interesting ideas, but sadly doesn’t spend the time to come to any conclusions about them. While I’m glad that these questions were posed in the first place, I do wish they’d been explored a bit as well.

In all honesty, Indigenous is a solid B offering. A decent film, but not quite creative enough to merit a second viewing.

 

 

12 Days of Terror (2004)

A shark terrorized a New Jersey shoreline for twelve days during the summer of 1916. These events eventually led Peter Benchley to write the novel that would, in time, inspire the first summer blockbuster – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and one of my all time favorite horror films. Standing up against the strange but inescapable truth of the historical record and the cult following of Jaws – loyal to this day – it would seem that 12 Days of Terror would be swamped by its competition. Especially for a made-for-TV movie, with the subsequent budget, actors, and special effects one can come to expect from such a project. And yet, despite all its competition, 12 Days of Terror puts forth a solid effort. The acting is a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but the costumes are wonderful, the writing acceptable, and this movie really does work as a period piece. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into making this movie feel like it takes place in 1916. On that note, I cannot praise 12 Days of Terror enough. It manages to include a great deal of world-building and subtext in small but effective ways – a feat that many large budget films with similar topics simply fail to address in the first place.

Whether intentional or not, the cinematography and set design work as a homage to Spielberg’s earlier work – 12 Days of Terror and Jaws share a similar aesthetic and composition style. In other films it might come off as copying, but 12 Days of Terror makes the comparison feel like genuine tribute – attempting to expand the legend and feel of Jaws without creating an entirely new world.

On the other end of things, the acting in 12 Days of Terror isn’t great, the characters don’t have much in the way of story arcs, and what were likely intended as perfectly reasonable lines become soap-opera like clichés in the delivery. It’s not a great movie, but 12 Days of Terror packs a heavy bunch for a film created solely for TV. The costumes are great, the set design is some of the best I’ve seen, and the plot isn’t half bad. It’s no Jaws, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

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.

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.