© 2015 Focus Features
You Can’t Always Get What You Haunt
by Dan Fields
Gear up, campers! This week, we salute the ominous convergence of the summer holidays and a real live Friday the 13th. If you are striking out into the wild with your pack and lantern, don’t forget to throw in a snakebite kit, a guitar to ward off bad vibes, and a working knowledge of the following films. Knowing the paths to avoid may save your life. You’ll be fine, of course. Just count your tent stakes and pitchforks before going to bed. And if you were planning for a weekend of fooling around in the woods with someone special, you may want to reconsider. Abstinence and meditation might be better ways of keeping your head attached.
More prolific than Halloween or Hellraiser, or even A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday the 13th originated one of the longest-running film series in popular horror. Much credit is due to the creation of Jason Voorhees, an undisputed icon among movie killers. Another probable reason for its longevity is that among well-known movie franchises, its content is the cheapest and easiest kind to mass produce.
by Dan Fields
In 2011, Welsh director Gareth Huw Evans left scorched bootprints on international cinema with his third feature film, Serbuan Maut, also known as The Raid, released widely as The Raid: Redemption. Many of us had never before seen the elegant brutality of pencak silat, the martial arts of Indonesia. An action thriller chronicling a police raid on a crime-infested slum, The Raid transcended expectations with its deft juxtaposition of sustained, extreme violence and the satisfying rhythm and artistry of a well-staged ballet. True, it was a ballet of broken backs, split skulls, exit wounds and shattered glass, but the results were astounding. Now, with the running time nearly doubled and a full cast of bizarre characters lined up to scrap, The Raid 2 (subtitled Berandal, meaning “rogue” or “thug”) blows the storm of justice from an isolated fracas to the merciless cleansing of a city gone to hell.
The Raid 2 begins on the same day as the events of the previous film. Elite cop Rama (Iko Uwais), still battered from the catastrophic siege, has brought his corrupt superior officer and a cache of incriminating evidence to Chief Bunawar (Cok Simbara). Bunawar, the head of a task force to root out corruption in Jakarta’s police force, enlists Rama to infiltrate the highest ranks of the city’s criminal class.
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
In record time, the subspecies of horror film known as “found footage” was done seemingly to death. In contrast to a staged “mockumentary” like This Is Spinal Tap or Woody Allen’s Zelig, this term most commonly refers to a movie purporting to have caught supernatural or other scary events on camera, and the footage assembled by unknown parties after some grim fate befell the characters depicted. Think of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity. Although features like The Last Exorcism, Grave Encounters, Project X, Chronicle and Evidence have proven that the found footage format has better creative uses than staging cheap haunted house tricks and generally inducing headaches, the gimmick invariably becomes tiresome by the end of a feature length film. It requires too many broken rules of perspective and visual storytelling to last out the running time. All in all, found footage seems best suited to shorter films.
This is the idea behind V/H/S an experimental project with now two installments to its name, and the potential for many more. A program of short films in anthology form (hearkening to the memory of films like Creepshow), V/H/S/2 boasts more energy, more cleverness, and a higher grade of grim entertainment than its passable parent. Opting for economy of form and maximum punch, the movie focuses all its energy on twisting a tired, easily dismissed moviemaking trick in new, exciting, thoroughly unsettling directions. 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 August 13, 2011 by the California Literary Review
To begin with, the makers of Final Destination 5 want to impress upon you the advantages of seeing the film in 3D. The opening titles feature a series of large objects hurled through plate glass directly at the screen — lumber, fire extinguishers, iron poles — as if to tell us “last chance for 3D glasses!” The sequence runs on to an absurd length, dispelling illusions that this film will be about anything besides flying objects and the nasty things they can do to people. Just as we begin to enjoy the credits as free-standing abstract art, the actual movie begins.
A young man on a crowded bus witnesses a horrifying chain of accidents, in which he and many others die violently on a collapsing bridge. But thank goodness! It was all a premonition, and he has time to save a handful of his friends and co-workers before the disaster happens in real life. Which it does.
by Dan Fields
First published October 30, 2010 by the California Literary Review
Saw 3D was one blow to my Halloween spirit I would sooner not have taken.
Let me say off the bat that they sent the wrong guy to this movie. Your enjoyment of it presumably hinges on your appreciation of prior Saw installments, and the series never made a fan of me. However, when the franchise took off I did watch the first two films a couple of times each, searching for hidden dimensions that I had initially missed. Instead, I found that the story actually loses depth with successive viewings. After that, the series got so convoluted and ridiculous that I only glanced at parts three through six with half an eye and ear – no grisly wordplay intended, I assure you.
by Dan Fields
First published October 23, 2010 by the California Literary Review
If you are investigating Paranormal Activity 2, either as an audience member or simply a reader of reviews, you probably exposed yourself to the original Paranormal Activity, a monumental disappointment made in 2007 and unleashed on most of America during the summer and fall of 2009. There are two ways to look at a franchise like this. The first is to wonder why audiences keep falling for the “scariest movie ever made” marketing campaign. The less cynical (and probably more correct) attitude is to consider the appeal of getting a bunch of friends together to act rowdy and ridicule a film like this. The audience seems to be in on the joke, but I don’t think the makers of the movie are. I think they sincerely intended this film to be taut, edgy, and full of terror.
The director establishes the familiar false documentary format with home videos of a family moving into their new home. Meet Kristi, the sister of poor Katie from the first Paranormal Activity. She has a lovely house, a clean-cut teenage stepdaughter, a generally inoffensive dork of a husband, a faithful German Shepherd, and a sweet new baby boy named Hunter. It’s the modern, upper middle class ideal family, perhaps like the ones in your own neighborhood. We know these are real, ordinary people because they talk and act just like real, ordinary people, not like carefully written movie characters. Because that’s interesting, right? Wrong. People trying hard to act like regular people is boring and stupid. There, I’ve said it. It was the biggest failing of the first Paranormal Activity, and it doesn’t help here.
A long-anticipated creative reunion between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, this latest Indy adventure arrived with all the proper fanfare and fuss. However, for all its size and epic trappings it runs well short on substance compared to its ancestors, and the plot is a watery disappointment.
To start with, Lucas weighs his own story down with the same compulsion for “clever” references to the previous films that so heavily plagued his last three Star Wars efforts. Perhaps blame for this hangs more heavily on screenwriter David Koepp, but anyone who has seen Star Wars will understand that Lucas set himself up adequately for such an accusation.