Battle of the found-footage horrors: Devil’s Due (2014) vs Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

May 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

My disdain for found footage horror films is well documented. But as often is the case, I am gullible and always get sucked into watching more because people tell me “This one’s good”.

Apparently, two new ones released this year, Devil’s Due – basically a found footage version of Rosemary’s Baby — and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — the gazillionth entry in the worst movie franchise of all time, are “good”, or at least “better” than the other ones, given the trash we’ve seen in recent years. To me, that’s like asking which animal’s turd smells the best.

And so I am surprised to say, both of these films are actually, genuinely, “better” than most found footage horrors I’ve seen over the years. Not to say they are good, but they’re not hair-pulling terrible for once. I’ve decided to pit the two against each other to see which one is less bad.

Devils Due (2014)

devil's due

I don’t agree with the idea that you can’t remake a classic like Rosemary’s Baby, and  I don’t have a problem with a semi-remake in the more contemporary found footage style. After all, I’ve seen the new Zoe Saldana mini-series remake that was released recently and it was atrocious, so I’m not against taking a fresher approach.

The premise is fairly typical — a young married couple head to the Dominican Republic for their honeymoon and are tricked/drugged by locals before participating in some kind of satanic ritual. And boom, the wife is pregnant, and the rest of the film plays out plot points that are eerily similar to Rosemary’s Baby, complete with the paranoia and the raw meat eating. The ending, to the filmmakers’ credit, is different, going for the sensational climax as opposed to Rosemary’s Baby’s muted horror. But it’s not better, with the special effects on the low-budget end, and the final scenes are about as cliched as they come.

If you haven’t seen Rosemary’s Baby then there might be something to take away from this film, even though the ending is nowhere near as chilling. The acting is not bad and there are some genuinely creepy moments that are by and large better than the scares you get from the Paranormal Activity franchise. And while it is strictly speaking a straight-up horror flick there is a sense of fun and humour injected throughout.

But my two main problems with the film are: (1) the story is too derivative; and (2) it struggles, like most found-footage films do, to justify the constant use of hand-held cameras. I liked the idea of splicing the footage with CCTV and security cameras, etc, but there’s just no logical explanation why anyone would keep filming in circumstances the characters find themselves in. It takes away the realism the film is trying so hard to achieve.

2.5 stars out of 5

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

Paranormal-Activity-The-Marked-Ones-Poster

I don’t know what’s more frightening: the fact that they’ve made yet another Paranormal Activity movie or that the franchise is so successful that they are now making spin-offs. Either way, we’ve got one, and it’s arguably better than all the other ones.

As I understand it, The Marked Ones is the first in the franchise that departs from the same old “haunted house” formula, but it still could not help itself from being somehow tied to the convoluted storyline that involves the woman with the big boobs (Katie Featherston) from all the other entries in the series. The reason they made it was to appeal to the Latin American market, but the vast majority of the film is in English.

The plot focuses on a bunch of Latino teenagers in California who break into a neighbour’s apartment following a murder. In there they find some weird shit, including VHS tapes and journals containing spells. Of course, strange things start to happen to the characters from there, including superhuman strength, behavioural abnormalities and other paranormal activity ripped straight from the X-Files. They investigate, stuff gets escalated, and eventually the shit hits the fan. What a surprise.

The reason I liked it a little more than the others is because it feels different. I never found the original Paranormal Activity all that scary, but there were at least some decent moments. By the time you got to the second, third and fourth films, there was never anything new. It was always the boring formula of filler, filler filler, false alarm scare, filler, filler filler filler, false alarm scare, filler filler filler, crazy screaming ending. Always.

The Marked Ones throws a bit more of a curved ball at audiences, with hints of witchcraft and occurrences that take place outside of the usual confined space of the family home. The tricks are not all that creative — it’s the typical gradual “possession” narrative — but at least they breathe life into a franchise that never really had much to begin with. There were a few more unexpected scares as well, plus the occasional successful attempt at generating a creepy atmosphere, though on the whole I still feel like I wasted 84 minutes of my life.

It’s not clear why the kids had to film everything even when they are scared out of their pants, but by this stage it’s pointless to ask.

2 stars out of 5

PS: I’d avoid both, but if I had to make a decision I’d say Devil’s Due gets the nod over The Marked Ones (but at least it still earned the best rating I’ve ever given to a Paranormal Activity film).

Movie Review: The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)

January 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

dyatlov

In the winter of 1959, a team of nine experienced hikers ventured into the northern Ural mountains in Russia on an expedition. Days later, they were all dead. Soviet investigators found that the hikers tore their tent open from the inside and ran out into the -30 degrees Celsius temperatures in socks and bare feet. While there were no signs of struggle, two of the bodies had fractured skulls and two had broken ribs, though there were no signs of external trauma. Another was missing her tongue. Oh, and there were traces of radiation found on some of the bodies. With no rational explanation for the bizarre deaths, investigators concluded that the hikers perished from “a compelling natural force”, and the mystery became to be known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident.

More than 50 years later, a UK-Russian production decided to make a film about the incident, with famed filmmaker Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Deep Blue Sea) signed on as director. Instead of making this a movie about what happened during the incident itself at the time, however, the producers decided to make a modern “found footage” movie about a bunch of American college students who decide to make a film of themselves retracing the steps of the fateful hikers.

The result is a mixed bag. As a low budget movie with no-name actors and a director still reeling from The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996, The Dyatlov Pass Incident is actually quite clever, entertaining and occasionally frightening — relatively speaking. Renny Harlin still has some tricks in his bag and knows how to create tension and scares that don’t keep relying on the same tactics.

Much of the intrigue, however, stems from the crazy mystery itself and the script’s creative take on what happened to the hikers, which is not bad given that none of the theories (from avalanches to Yetis to aliens to secret military weapon tests) have been accepted as foolproof. I won’t give away what this film speculates, though all I will say is that it is fresh and no less stupid than what’s already out there.

On the other hand, the decision to turn this into yet another lame found footage flick in my opinion backfired by making the movie less real and authentic. What it means is that we have to deal with the wobbly cameras (though not as bad as in some films), the irrational reasons to “push on” with their expedition despite massive warning signs, and forcing the characters to hold on to their cameras when they are running for their lives. It makes the film campy and silly. We’ve seen so many of these attempts since The Blair Witch Project that this approach mostly annoys and irritates rather than create more tension, and it’s baffling why studios keep doing it.

The acting from the cast, especially the five American students, also leaves a lot to be desired. They just aren’t very likable or believable, and we just can’t wait for them to do meet their inevitable gruesome end. Part of that is the fault of the script, which is solid from a big picture perspective but doesn’t do much for the characters. The low budget also means the special effects are fairly poor and often look video gamey (and as a result they had to utilise a lot of darkened shots).

On the whole, The Dyatlov Pass Incident feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity because it is such an intriguing mystery. With a more conventional format (as opposed to found footage), a bigger budget, more bankable stars and some tweaks to the finer aspects of the script, this could have been a great film. At best, it’s a surprisingly entertaining DVD rental or on-demand flick (which is how I watched it), and I suppose that’s not a bad thing given its humble ambitions.

3.25 stars out of 5

PS: The film is titled in some regions as Devil’s Pass, which is generic and completely uninteresting, whereas its original title, The Dyatlov Pass Incident, is far more intriguing. The stupid poster for Devil’s Pass also has a naked woman with her back turned to the camera, which also makes no sense if you’ve seen the film. Go figure.

PPS: Trailer below, though I should warn that there are major spoilers from about the 1 minute mark. Never ceases to amaze me how trailers like to ruin everything.

PPPS: If you are interested in reading more about the incident, including the most prevalent theories, check out the links below.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyatlov_Pass_incident

http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2012/01/mountain-of-the-dead-the-dyatlov-pass-incident/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2401175/Dyatlov-Pass-Indicent-slaughtered-hikers-Siberias-Death-Mountain-1959.html

http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/dyatlov-pass-incident-strangest-unsolved-mystery

http://amnationalistcouncil.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/the-dyatlov-pass-mystery-solved/

Movie Review: Carrie (2013)

January 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

CarriMoretz

I guess it was only going to be matter of time before they attempted another remake of Carrie, the classic 1976 horror film based on Stephen King’s first published novel of the same name. Technically, this is just another adaptation of King’s novel (there was another TV movie version made in 2002, and an ill-advised “sequel” in 1999), though the standard it will be compared against will always be the version that made Sissy Spacek famous and boosted the careers of Nancy Allen and John Travolta.

This time, the film stars Chloe Grace Moretz as the bullied but “gifted” school girl Carrie White and Julianne Moore as her religious fanatic mother. Judy Greer plays Carrie’s sympathetic gym teacher, which is unfortunate for a horror movie because I will always think of her as the crazy secretary in Arrested Development.

Anyway, it’s hard for me review this new Carrie objectively as a standalone film because it is so close to the original film and fails to offer anything genuinely new apart from improved special effects and some updated technology in the lives of the students (such as smartphones and YouTube). This is not to say it’s a bad film, because it’s actually a pretty good remake driven by excellent performances from the two female leads. Moore, in particular, was absolutely freaky and helps you understand why Carrie turned out the way she did. The real question is why they felt the need to make it again when the original was so iconic and still remains effective. 

If you have not seen the 1976 film and don’t know what happens in the story then you could find Carrie a terrifying experience. There are some effective horror moments executed craftily by director Kimberly Peirce, whose previous works include Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss. For me, however, it was difficult to truly enjoy Carrie because I knew what was coming. Everything that happens in the first half of the film boils down to that one pivotal moment, that one key scene — and most people should know what I’m talking about here — so there was a sense of inevitability throughout the whole thing. It’s just not the same when you are expecting it.

I do have a few other problems with this version as well. For starters, Chloe Grace Moretz is just too damn pretty to be the Carrie White, even when she’s “uglied up”. Even if she’s brought up by a lunatic and socially inept it’s difficult to imagine her being such a target. Secondly, the “villain” of the movie, a girl named Chris, was too one-dimensional and evil, while her friend Sue, was too “nice”. I know that’s how the story goes but a little more nuance would have been welcome.

Carrie 1976 is widely regarded as a landmark horror film and garnered Oscar nominations for the two leads. Carrie 2013 is still a decent horror movie and a pretty good remake, but that’s all it can hope to be.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Purge (2013)

August 17, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Purge is essentially a home invasion thriller resting on an extremely far-fetched but chilling premise: every year, for 12 hours only, the United States government deems any criminal activity, including theft, rape and murder, to be legal. The rationale behind the Purge is that the world would be a much more peaceful place if humans are allowed to release their inner, animalistic rage, even if it’s just once a year. Indeed, in the opening sequence to the film, set in the near future, we are told that unemployment is at 1% and that crime levels are at the lowest they’ve ever been.

Ethan Hawke plays a successful security systems salesman married to Lena Headey (seriously, after Game of Thrones, who would want to mess with her?). Together they have two children — a rebellious teenage daughter played by rising Aussie star Adelaide Kane, and a creepy younger son played by Max Burkholder. They are the lucky ones because they are relatively well off, and can afford a security system to keep their family safe during the Purge. Or so they thought. Well, I guess it’s obvious something goes horribly wrong, or else it would make one very boring movie.

The Purge has its moments, even though it was frustrating at times because of the usual irrational human behaviour that has seemingly become a prerequisite for thrillers these days. But tonally the film is unsettling, and the threat of brutal violence keeps audiences on their toes.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of the cliched mask-wearing, knife-wielding deranged yuppies that represent the central antagonists in the film (that totally rip off the killers from the forgotten 2008 Liv Tyler film, The Strangers). Yes, they are creepy, but their attire and behaviour feel contrived, as though they were simply designed that way so they can creep people out but hold no other purpose or meaning.

The key to enjoying The Purge is accepting the implausible premise. If you can suspend disbelief and just pretend it is real, then the movie works as a tense, violent, psychotic home invasion movie about a man who would do anything to protect his family.

That said, the film never really addresses the whole concept of the Purge adequately from a moral, political, psychological or sociological perspective. There are a few fleeting attempts, but on the whole it feels like the waste of a fascinating idea. Take away the Purge concept and the film would probably work nearly just as well as a straight-up home invasion movie.

It’s a shame, because the potential for something special was there, but in the end The Purge will likely end up being just another forgotten thriller on our DVD racks.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Conjuring (2013)

August 6, 2013 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Generic title, generic poster, awesome movie

In 1971, the Perron family moved into a big old farm house on Rhode Island. What happened to them there was apparently so terrifying that the world’s most famous “demonologists”, Ed and Lorraine Warren, decided to keep silent about the haunting…until now.

At least that’s the way The Conjuring, directed by Aussie James Wan (Saw, Insidious), has been marketed.

Putting aside whether this so-called true story is a load of crap (and I have my views on this, which I will share after this review), The Conjuring is, hands down, the best haunted house/demonic possession movie I have seen in years. We’ve had a lot of similar films in recent years that have been good but flawed — from the aforementioned Insidious to The Possession to Sinister to Mama to The Haunting in Connecticut (also a Warrens’ case) — though none are as genuinely scary, consistently well-crafted and overall satisfying than The Conjuring.

It’s a testament to the skill of Wan, who has to surely be Australia’s best commercial film director right now (no offense to “all-style, little substance” Baz Luhrmann). He picks up what is a essentially boiler plate concept — a family moves into a new home, strange things start happening, they escalate, and they eventually seek outside help, resulting in a climatic final confrontation — and turns it into an absolute frightfest. You know when the audience gets so frightened and nervous that they have to laugh after scary moments just so they can take the edge off the tension? The Conjuring is one of those movies.

In fact, the first gasp in the screening I attended came from the very first image. And the tension is sustained pretty much all the way through. Wan pulls out just about every trick in his horror director’s bag to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. To be honest, there is nothing particularly original or inventive in what he does — he just does it in a highly effective way, gradually building up the dread, creepiness and suspense and infusing it with the occasional “boo” moment, then milking your anticipation for more. You may scoff at some of the old tricks Wan employs (for example, he took the “doll” a little too far for my liking), but he is so relentless in his attempts to unsettle you that at least some of them have to work.

That said, there are some notable concepts in The Conjuring that set it apart from your average haunted house flick. The first is that the film is centered more on the ghost hunters, the Warrens, than the family being haunted. The screen time is probably roughly equal, but you get the feeling that the story is more about the Warrens (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) than the Perron couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters.

The second is that Wan seems to have figured out where to draw the line in deciding what to show audiences and when to show it. Horror movies tend to be scary because of what you don’t see rather than what you do see on screen. It’s that anticipation and the fear of the unknown that gets to us. Usually once the ghost/demon starts appearing and you can see them clearly the fear melts away. It’s a mistake that films such as Sinister and Insidious made, but Wan has cleverly avoided the pitfall this time around. You see just enough, but not too much, and not too soon.

The third is that, unlike most horror movies, The Conjuring has an excellent climax that keeps up the tension and doesn’t dissolve into silliness. Again, there is no new ground being broken here in terms of the plot, but it’s the execution that helps keep the film afloat all the way until the end.

Another point worth noting is that it was refreshing to see a family who isn’t sceptical. One of the most annoying things about haunted house movies is that no one ever believes the poor victims at first. In The Conjuring there is none of that crap. If my daughter tells me some crazy shit and I experience some crazy shit, I’m going straight to the ghostbusters.

If Wan deserves praise for his direction then the actors deserve recognition for their performances. It’s never easy to pull off a haunting victim (or demonologist), though the foursome of Wilson, Farmiga, Livingston and Taylor — all veteran actors — do a commendable job of making us believe in what they are experiencing. Taylor, in particular, is remarkable as the vulnerable mother and the most tormented of the bunch. I should also mention Shannon Kook, who plays the Warrens’ assistant, and John Brotherton, the police officer who serves an important function as the provider of comedic relief. Both of them are positive additions.

If I have any complaints about The Conjuring it’ll have to be the stupidity of the Warrens. For a couple known as the world’s most renowned demonologists (with a whole room of trophies, mind you), they were sure slow in figuring out what the heck was going on. I mean, come on, it wasn’t that hard to see what the demon was planning.

But all things considered, that’s a relatively minor quibble. Simply put, The Conjuring is the scariest, most well-rounded and satisfying “conventional” horror movie to hit the big screen in a very long time. Despite its stereotypical plot, cookie-cutter progression and standard fright tactics, The Conjuring is a visually impressive and surprisingly effective haunted house flick that will be hard to top as the best horror film of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: OK, so back to Ed and Lorraine Warren. This ghostbusting couple has given us The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut and now The Conjuring, so we at least have to thank them for that. But are they the real deal or are they just a couple of convincing fraudsters? After doing some research on The Haunting in Connecticut (and I wrote a lengthy post about it here), my opinion is that they fall somewhere in the middle, but probably leaning closer to the latter.

I just think there are real doubts on whether Lorraine was a real clairvoyant as she professes, and there have been some damning claims about their tendency to sensationalize the hauntings for publicity. You have to be curious why every haunting they attend to ends up having a demon who wants to anally rape someone in the family. My guess is that there was probably something in the Perron house that wasn’t quite human, but after the Warrens got there it suddenly became 10 times worse, and once Hollywood got its hands on the story it became 10 times worse than that. And look, if you’ve been terrified by a ghost, the least you could do is make a buck out of it.

 
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