© 2015 Focus Features
You Can’t Always Get What You Haunt
And so we gather once again at Fields Point Manor, to munch on the macabre. As before, we have a three-course horror marathon lined up to tide you over as the Halloween excitement really starts to build. Remember, a good scream is the best way to ease the grip of fear, keeping everything else inside you where it belongs.
Last week we dined on blood and lots of it, in the company of vampires and other thirsty ghouls. But not every nightmare scenario can be solved with stakes, garlic or sunshine. Sometimes evil oozes out the very walls, floors, furniture and doors we count on to keep bad things away.
James Wan scored a victory this summer with The Conjuring, a haunted house thriller with modern intensity and classic storytelling sensibilities. The fear that we are not safe in our own beds is a timeless and potent soft spot on the human soul, and filmmakers of all sorts have eagerly probed that spot for decades.
Thinking outside the box on this topic was a challenge. Haunting stories make up a goodly portion of almost any top-10, desert-island horror movie countdown, and great ones have been made to suit every taste. The Shining is bleak and lavish, Poltergeist playfully hideous, The Haunting and The Innocents each a parade of good old-fashioned dread, and even those in the mood for the madcap have choices ranging from William Castle’s The House On Haunted Hill to the surreal Japanese freakout known as Hausu (House). If you have not had the pleasure, stop what you have going on and make room for these movies in your life, too. Meanwhile, we adjourn to the brandy and popcorn lounge for tonight’s features.
by Dan Fields
© 2013 FilmDistrict / Stage 6 Films
Earlier this year, James Wan scored beautifully in the horror market with The Conjuring (also starring Patrick Wilson), and while this script comes from a different imagination altogether (that of Saw scribe Leigh Wannell), Wan must have known better than to try competing with himself. The sardonic silliness poking through the seams of Insidious: Chapter 2 gives it such emotional distance from the dour, convincingly earnest peril of The Conjuring that by comparison, this gets to be the director’s “fun one” of 2013. Continue reading
by Dan Fields
First published October 31, 2012 by the California Literary Review
And so we bid a fond farewell to Halloween Home Video (2012 edition), and here’s hoping you found just the right set of screams for your best Halloween ever. Gather the treats, pour the punch, and settle down for one last ghost story.
© 2012 IFC Midnight
Even so, this movie deftly combines numerous classic horror themes in surprising ways. It is a mystery, a family drama, and a ghost story all in one. In a typical thriller or horror movie, the final act reveals either a rational explanation for seemingly supernatural events, or vice versa. Seldom does the audience get to enjoy both, at least in any coherent film. In the case of The Pact, ghostly activity is only part of the puzzle, pointing crucially to very real physical dangers lurking in unexpected places. It all fits together very nicely.
Annie (Caity Lotz) is a young woman toughened by a difficult childhood and the subsequent trials of drug addiction and hard living. She and her sister Nicole (Agnes Bruckner) grew up with a cruel and unstable mother, after whose recent death they now face the task of sorting out the family estate. Clearly neither one of them relishes the prospect of rekindling bygone memories. Annie is reluctant even to show up for the funeral, but at the urging of Nicole and their cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins), she consents.
By the time Annie shows up at her childhood home, Nicole has arrived at the house and gone missing under mysterious and frightening circumstances. Annie and Liz are worried, especially with Nicole’s young daughter in tow, and before they can settle on a plan of action, Liz goes missing from the house as well. Unlike your average, easily victimized horror movie heroine, Annie grabs her niece and gets the hell out right away. Unfortunately, she has trouble getting her story believed. A single rough-shod local cop (Casper Van Dien!) takes a tentative interest in her case, but clearly Annie will have to do most of the detective work herself.
Although by now she is terrified even to set foot in the house, she does her best to get to the bottom of the disappearances. Even as the ordeal taxes her stamina and self-possession, clues begin coming her way from seemingly otherworldly sources. It should come as no surprise that the house is haunted, but by what or whom? Furthermore, is the haunting the root of the problem, or merely a means by which to seek the underlying evil of Annie’s creepy little house?
The Pact is exceedingly dour and moody, but keeps things moving at an engaging pace. It prickles with long moments of dread and does not overindulge in cheap scares, although director Nicholas McCarthy could not resist a few here and there. The performances are good and the threads of the mystery elegantly twisted. It will be harder than average to guess the ending of The Pact, and even if you do it will be a delightful shock to watch the last loose ends unfold.
It has been a pleasure to offer you the fruits of the Halloween season, and I look forward to more spooky delights next year. It is my sincere wish that you and yours have a fun, safe, and relentlessly terrifying Halloween.
by Dan Fields
First published October 19, 2012 by the California Literary Review
It is almost Halloween, which means time for one more Paranormal Activity at least. This year the ghost train (or demonorail) has broken out of Carlsbad and turned up in lovely suburban Nevada. Apart from that, little has changed. In most respects, this franchise has even gone back a few paces. So much for the train metaphor.
For those who came in late: Paranormal Activity is the continuing saga of a family whose long history with the occult has led to a spate of possessions, polter-violence, and vigilant home surveillance. Series creator and producer Oren Peli constructed the concept around handily placed cameras capturing “true life” hauntings with a seemingly bottomless barrel of visual tricks. Now, however, one can hear distinct scraping sounds as the bottom comes into view. Continue reading
by Dan Fields
First published October 17, 2012 by the California Literary Review
© 2012 Arclight Films
Grave Encounters is the brainchild of the the Vicious Brothers, also known as Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz, who reached into the “found footage” horror genre – a market teeming with derivative second-rate junk – and pulled out a genuinely scary and satirical work. The film frames its footage as the final, never-completed episode of a popular “ghost hunter” television show entitled Grave Encounters. Host Lance Prescott (Sean Rogerson) brings his crew to an abandoned Canadian mental hospital with a history of… you guessed it… ritual abuse and horrific secret experiments. We find out the following things in rapid sequence: The show is a total sham, the hospital is really haunted, and these showbiz folk are completely doomed.
With its lo-fi effects and melodramatic performances, this film achieves nothing new but manages to be truly scary and fun. The pace meanders, as will happen without fail within the genre, but the Vicious Brothers pull it off with much more grace and subtlety than you might expect. This is not a garden variety Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch ripoff. It has something of its own to contribute to the Halloween feast.
Deftly exploiting the polarized reactions to the first film, the Vicious Brothers wasted no time in penning a sequel. Be warned: if self-referential isn’t your thing, Grave Encounters 2 will irritate you. The film leads off with a number of amateur fan reviews both praising and lambasting the various aspects of Grave Encounters until we zero in on Alex (Richard Harmon), a lone fan who has begun to wonder if the events of the movie might have happened for real. This is a sequel in which the first film exists within the world of the second film. But don’t worry, nobody is going to get centipeded to anyone else. (Spoiler/Promise)
Alex is an aspiring director of horror films, and bears all the hallmarks of a film student in his most insufferable phase. He writes scenes that ape the most popular conventions of the genre, then curses them for their artlessness in the middle of shooting. He proclaims himself a spiritual heir to the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven. He even goes so far as to tell his ingenue/prospective girlfriend that he’s going to make her the next big scream queen. I mean, we were all like that once, right?
In his pursuit of the truth behind Grave Encounters, Alex sees an opportunity to achieve overnight importance in the horror genre. He scraps his slasher and assembles the same cast and crew for a guerrilla documentary based on the expedition in the first Grave Encounters. Considering what may have befallen a trained television crew of adults in the halls of the mysterious hospital, imagine what a bunch of teens without shooting permits or clearly defined goals have in store for them.
Viewing and enjoying the original Grave Encounters is not absolutely essential to appreciating the sequel, but it makes the experience a good deal richer. And frankly if you don’t care for 1, you probably won’t like 2. It is definitely not the stronger of the two films, but it achieves several blood-chilling moments that are more than sufficient payoff for the investment of time and energy. The third act of Grave Encounters 2 spirals into improbable silliness, even compared to the rest of the movie, but along the way you will find your hungry nerve endings rewarded. That nasty Apex Twin monster from the poster is not just a promotional tease. He will be along eventually, as well as an ECT scene that will put you right off radical brain treatments.
The best way to see the Grave Encounters films, if you can manage it, is as a three-hour double feature. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but they complement one another nicely. There may be more promise in these movies than substance, but even in the dangerously clogged drain of B-horror, clever ideas continue to lurk.
by Dan Fields
First published February 04, 2012 by the California Literary Review
In one of the most basic types of horror story, an outsider arrives in a small country village on business, only to find himself treated with suspicion and quiet hostility by the locals, until he discovers that they are living in fear of something they dare not mention. In these situations, it pays to listen to the superstitious, the bereaved, and the seemingly mad. But nobody ever bothers until it’s too late.
The new adaptation of Susan Hill’s beloved ghost story The Woman In Black hearkens to a bygone age when many of the best horror films hung on this no-frills premise. The third or fourth major effort by newly revived Hammer Film Productions, this is so far the most reminiscent of its studio’s golden age. Continue reading