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 Devil’s Dolls (2016)

 

Honestly, watch the trailer and you’ll know what you’re getting. The Devil’s Dolls is your run of the mill “child in peril by strange occult object” story, minus any meaningful character development or tangible villain. The actors give admirable performances but unfortunately can’t save the film from a predictable and bland script. Nothing happens here that you haven’t seen before. The film’s only saving grace would be it’s better than average cinematography and setting – utilizing rust and urban decay in interesting ways – but unfortunately it’s not enough to really save the film. The end result is a film that while technically serviceable, is unfortunately too bland to leave much of an impression. Skip it.

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Set two years after Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year concerns a world very similar to ours. There is, however, one very big difference. On one night a year, all crimes – including murder – are legal for twelve hours. By the time Election Year rolls around, the Purge has been a staple of American culture for going on twenty years. This entry in the series concerns Senator Charlie Roan, the first person to seriously threaten the existence of the Purge, and the people who get sucked into her orbit on the titular night. It’s a wild, nasty ride all the way, and entirely unafraid to target American politics – and politicians – with its story.

I’ll be honest up front: the Purge series is one of my all time favorites and I think Election Year is the best horror movie I’ve seen this year. Whether it holds up past July is another thing all together.

Election Year is an ambitious feature, tackling on more world-building , characters, and carnage than ever before. Previous entries in the series had focused on the experiences of individual characters versus society as a whole, an ambitious jump for any film – let alone horror – to make. Election Year switched mostly to hand-held cameras and an abundance of close-up shots, keeping the viewer focused tight on the characters even as the story stretched out further with its implications. For the first time in the series, the characters have a chance to do more than survive the night: they have an opportunity to strike back. The means in which they chose to do so create the central conflict of the story. Do the people, largely poor and non-white, wait for politics to eventually turn? It’s already been twenty years. Or do they resort to the same violence that has been used against them? Can peaceful resistance ever work against a foe that is gleefully unafraid to murder their opponents, and any attempt at resistance is labeled as an attack on both national sovereignty and individual freedoms?

As I said, the allegory in this film is about as subtle as a hammer. And you know what? That’s good. Election Day has something to say and doesn’t beat around the bush.

This is a film about a female presidential candidate fighting against the systematic oppression – and indeed execution – of poor, marginalized people. She is standing up to a system that justifies itself through religion and by adopting a historical narrative that distorts the facts for their benefit. Throughout the film, she is repeatedly saved and protected by a black businessman (and former gang member), a Mexican immigrant, and a black woman. Hmm. What could the filmmakers possibly be gong for here?

Well, let’s just say it’s no coincidence that the tagline for Election Year is “keep America great.” Remind you of anybody?

I could take a long time going through the minutia of Election Year‘s politics, but that will be for another time. Sufficient to say that it’s interesting, and very relevant to the current political climate.

However, as interesting as its ideas are, Election Year gets bogged down by them in spots, choosing to develop concepts rather than people. The weakest link in the story is the character meant to draw everything together: Charlie Roan. The problem is that she’s not a character so much as a concept that the film – and characters – can build up or demonize as they wish. The fact that she happens to be a person underneath her ideals is brought up briefly, but never really explored with any depth. This becomes a problem later on, when she meets up with some of her constituents who are carrying out her politics in a decidedly violent fashion – and using her name to justify it. There would be an excellent place for Senator Roan’s politics to collide with Charlie Roan the character, except that the latter never really shows up. She’s sympathetic enough, but never undergoes any character development or arc. This is frustrating, since the film is centered on her and follows her storyline at the expense of far more interesting characters.

In essence, what was Anarchy‘s greatest strength is one of Election Year‘s bigger problems. The Purge series has done its best work as a character piece that explores larger societal themes through the experiences of individuals. The audience cares for the characters, thus they become invested in the world that those characters inhabit. In Election Year, it feels like the filmmakers became more interested in the world than the people inside it, focusing on an underdeveloped lead and Frank Grillo’s Leo Barnes, already established from Anarchy.

While I’m a fan of Grillo’s, I didn’t find his character as compelling this time around. Like Roan, Barnes simply doesn’t have a character arc. He has some interesting moments of reflection and banter early on – especially concerning his personal history with the Purge – but those threads are never tied together.

All and all, Election Year isn’t quite as well written or polished as Anarchy. It’s good, it’s a hell of a lot better than most horror films you’d see in theaters these days, and it’s got some interesting things to say. The action is solid, there are some genuinely well-timed jump-scares, fun characters (just not the leads), and some truly excellent cinematography. The costume department also deserves a shout out for delivering a lot of understated but genuinely horrifying pieces. The Purge: Election Year is a good movie. But, for better or worse, the ideas swallow the story in more than a few places.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Let Us Prey (2014)

A rookie police officer comes back to her childhood home to start her job, only to discover that Murphy’s Law applies even harder in small towns filled with ugly secrets: everything that can go wrong, will. In spades. PC. Rachel Heggie starts what should be a quiet night bringing in a teenager for hitting a pedestrian – only for said pedestrian to vanish without a trace, leaving only bloodstained headlights behind. As the night goes on, the stranger appears again and again, connected to a series of violent crimes that he seems to know too much about. Being the rookie, Heggie is left alone at the station to watch over the inhabitants of the jail, with the mysterious pedestrian who seems to know far more than he should about their darkest secrets, and a flock of screaming ravens that seem to gather right before disaster strikes.

 

Things get worse from there.

 

Given the religious imagery at play in the trailer, I went into Let Us Prey expecting to see a film choked full of biblical righteousness, but that’s not the direction the story goes in. The stranger – identified only as Six, in reference to his cell number – even has a discussion with Heggie over the expectation that dogma is influencing his actions. At its heart, Let Us Prey wants to talk about vengeance – the biblical sort, minus any specific religion or even belief to back it up. Though the film never explicitly states who – or what – Six is, his self-described “job” is to gather the souls of the wicked, usually by causing their horrible death in retribution for whatever vicious secret they’re hiding. And this small town has so many. Interesting, Six never seems inclined to justify himself or excuse any of the things he allows to happen. That is not his role in the story. He has the opportunity to save people throughout the film, save them from horrible fates, and never does. Instead, Six is a figure of brutal vengeance, striking down with look and the twirl of a wooden match. There is no nuance there. Six represents vengeance; nothing else.

 

That alone is fascinating. Revenge is a popular theme in all kinds of stories, especially film. However, I’ve noticed that the stories tend to go in two directions: the vengeance is justified, or the vengeance makes the victim just as bad or worse than the target of their rage. There is little to no middle ground. Let Us Prey is one of the few films I’ve found that explicitly explores this. While the people that Six targets clearly deserve what comes to them, his actions have a tendency to cause extensive collateral damage – or if not directly cause it, then allow their deaths to happen. At least eight people died over the course of Let Us Prey who – so far as the audience knows – didn’t do anything wrong, except for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, is vengeance right or wrong? Or, more specifically, is violent retribution – the messy, biblical kind – ever justified?

 

Well, that’s up for interpretation. Nearly every character in the film has an opinion. Let Us Prey gives us a figure of seemingly righteous vengeance who also causes immense harm to the people around him, and leaves the audience to decide where they stand with him. In that way, Six is one of the more interesting horror movie villains – what he represents isn’t simple. And there may not be one answer. I appreciate that Let Us Prey didn’t try to force one on the audience, even though the characters eventually came to their own conclusions within the story.

 

In short, Let Us Prey gave me a lot to think about. It developed its own sense of mythology and iconography without getting stuck on a warped understanding of Christianity, and created some truly horrifying moments with a sparse set. Let Us Prey is beautifully shot and edited with a thoughtful touch. It also has one of the most beautiful, understated openings of any movie I’ve seen recently. This is also director Brian O’Malley’s first feature length film, which belies its tight production. This is not a film that stumbles often. I look forward to seeing more of O’Malley’s work after finishing Let Us Prey; he’s one to watch.

 

See this one. It’s worth the time.

Kristy (2014)

A young college student at the end of her rope finds herself alone on campus during Thanksgiving Break, and under siege by a violent cult. A dark, moody twist on the home invasion subgenre that can’t quite manage to find its footing before the end.

To be sure, Oliver Blackburn’s film is a technical achievement; the shots are beautifully composed and Haley Bennett delivers a smart, understated portrayal of the lead, Justine. The soundtrack felt a bit on the nose at times, as did some of the camera work, but I thought it made for a compelling visual image. It’s rare that I see a film that manages to convey such an eerie sense of isolation and silence in an industrial space like a college campus. Again, the camera work and some of the sound effects pushed a little too hard – the audience can make its own conclusions, people – as if the director thought that the point was too vague to catch. A scene that comes to mind is the close up on a collage of photographs with the eyes scratched out, which the camera lingers on for several seconds too long to really add any atmosphere.

Which, if we’re being honest, indicates a larger problem with the film.

See, Kristy has things to say about isolation and appearances, but doesn’t trust that the audience will understand the point. Justine is targeted because on the surface, she appears to have it all. She goes to a fancy college (she’s in horrible debt and afraid of losing her scholarship), drives an expensive car (it belongs to her roommate), and has a circle of good friends (who leave her alone on the holidays). Kristy seemed more interested in giving fragmented, confusing views of the beliefs that the cultists chasing Justine hold without really exploring any of the themes it has brought up. We have a “blessed” victim targeted by cultists who resent her apparent success – except that the victim’s life turns out to have some darker undercurrents. This should have made for some excellent tension.

Only problem? Kristy doesn’t do anything with this. The themes just sit there, leaving the film as an extended cat and mouse chase as Justine eventually outsmarts her pursuers and – as expected – triumphs over them. Yay? Justine is sympathetic enough as a protagonist and has an excellent screen presence, so the audience wants her to survive, but Kristy doesn’t really have anything to say after she does. Its interesting when compared to other home invasion films, especially with it’s themes about appearances and privilege, but doesn’t explore them enough to stand on its own. It’s worth seeing if you’re interesting in home invasion films and where the subgenre is going, but don’t expect anything mind blowing.

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.