Movie Review: Ouija (2014)

October 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

ouija

You probably don’t need me to tell you that Ouija, this year’s Halloween supernatural horror release, is really really stupid. But I’m going to tell you anyway. Ouija is really really stupid. And I don’t mean the idea that a board can communicate with the dead — I actually believe some of that stuff is real. Oujia is idiotic because of the poor execution of the idea, the unsubtle and shameless horror cliches, the trite dialogue, and the utterly incomprehensible human reactions that defy all common sense and rationality.

Try to come up with the most cookie-cutter plot you can possibly think of for a horror movie involving a Ouija board, and chances are you have just come up with the screenplay for Ouija. A girl (Shelley Hennig) dies under mysterious circumstances. Her best friend (Olivia Cooke), best friend’s sister (Ana Coto), boyfriend (Douglas Smith) and others (Daren Kagasoff and Bianca A Santos) try to contact her with a Ouija board — the same one she used before she died — and they end up releasing some demonic spirit. The spirit haunts them and kills them off, one by one, while the survivors try and figure out the mystery behind it all. People with knowledge of how Ouija boards work are contacted, and they must figure out a way to save themselves before it’s all too late. Feel familiar?

To be fair, Ouija is not completely devoid of scares. It’s a film that knows what it is and who its audiences are, and it makes no attempt to be subtle. You’re likely to jump at least a couple of times, but only because that’s all the film is trying to do. The attempts at scaring viewers are typical and almost always the same — silence, silence silence, BOO! It’s always a loud noise, and occasionally it’s accompanied by something coming at the screen, being pulled away from the screen, or some ghastly sight. They don’t even try to mix it up a little with the occasional feint. There’s the obligatory scene in the bathroom, you know, the one with the mirror on the medicine cabinet, and of course, a convenient need to go into both an attic AND a basement.

I admit the tactics got to me at first, making me flinch a handful of times, but as the film progressed the scares just became more and more predictable. It’s one thing to know that a BOO moment is coming, but it’s another to be able to anticipate exactly when it will come, and even how it will come. Towards the end I even predicted how the plot would turn out, including the so-called “twist,” the “climax” and the “epilogue” scene. I hate spoilers, but can I just say I almost lost it when the protagonist’s suggestively Latino grandmother is conveniently revealed, right towards the end, as an expert on Ouija boards.

I wish I could say Oujia‘s problems end there, but it gets worse. First-time feature director Stiles White has some craftiness in his direction, so I’d say most of the blame goes to the atrocious script. I expected the dialogue to be sub-par, but here it’s quite perplexing. Apart from the cringeworthy exposition tagged to every second line, characters would say things that made no sense at all. When you pop out of nowhere and scare someone, you don’t then say to their face, “It’s me!” They know it’s you. You’re standing right in front of them.

More criminal than the dialogue is the actions of the characters, which are designed so that the next “scare” can be slotted in. It’s as though the whole film began as a collection of scare scenarios, and the rest of the plot was written around them. Doors to buildings are left open for inexplicable reasons just so they can slam shut to scare us. Doors are purposely left open so they can swing by themselves. A guy would ride a bike very fast, as though he’s in a hurry to get somewhere, only to get off it so he can walk extremely slowly through a dark — and extremely flat — underpass. He’ll even leave his bike so he can walk into the darkness to check out strange noises. Two sisters would leave together their house to go to play with a Ouija board, but only one of them would be seen returning home without any explanation whatsoever. Characters would be totally freaked out by something extremely small and potentially innocuous, but suddenly become brave enough to keep going in the face of something 10 times scarier and obviously demonic. They would even voluntarily separate in extremely frightening situations so characters can be alone. Sloppy, poorly thought-through stuff like this just frustrates me to no end.

I’m probably being harder on Ouija than I should be because I find the spirit boards fascinating and wanted it to be more than your run-of-the-mill supernatural horror flick. Unfortunately, it was even more unimaginative than I thought it would be. That’s not to say those looking for a cheap thrill or two won’t get their money’s worth, but for me this was a huge disappointment.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

annabelle-2014-movie-poster

In an era of crappy, derivative horror films, last year’s The Conjuring was a rare gem in the rough. Most people knew what they were in for — they just didn’t realize how effective it would be thanks to director James Wan’s big bag of tricks.

And so I was excited when I heard that they were going to make a prequel called Annabelle, named after the creepy doll seen briefly in The Conjuring. Haunted toys have been subjected to multiple film interpretations, and I was cautiously optimistic that the same crew from the conjuring would be able to deliver again.I was wrong.

Annabelle was nowhere  near as scary as the conjuring, nor was it anywhere close to being as well made. Instead of the definitive scary doll movie I had been hoping for, Annabelle ended up being yet another disappointment.

The film begins with a brief scene from the conjuring for taking us back to the 1970s, where we meet our lovely protagonists, pregnant young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Form (Ward Horton). For some inexplicable reason, John decides to get Mia the Annabelle doll to go along with her creepy doll collection (I mean seriously, have you seen the bloody thing?), and soon after that, a deranged woman from a Satanic cult decides to pass her soul into the doll shortly before her death. If you think that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same scenario happens in Child’s Play, the original Chucky classic.

From there, the progression is fairly predictable — we start off with little things which then escalate, prompting the couple to seek outside counsel, eventually leading to a climatic finish. If you’ve seen it once you’ve seen them all.

None of the predictability would have mattered if Annabelle was genuinely frightening. I admit, expectations were probably unreasonably high after I saw the trailer, which scared the crap out of me. Sadly, the trailer pretty much spoiled all the truly scary parts of the film, and what was left over turned out to be a bore. Despite a running time of just 98 minutes, Annabelle felt surprisingly slow. Unlike The Conjuring, which gave us a fine blend of atmosphere and “boo!” moments, Annabelle was dominated by cheap scares and obvious tactics.

It would be a lie to say the film wasn’t scary at all, but I guess that’s what happens when you follow up one of James Wan’s best efforts with a career cinematographer like John R Leonetti. To be fair, Annabelle does have some stylish scenes and is by far Leonetti’s best film, though this is not difficult feat considering his other directorial credits are Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Buttlerfly Effect 2.

One of the other major problems with Annabelle is the acting. It would be nasty to suggest that the doll was the least wooden performer in the cast, but going from established Conjuring veterans like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston to the likes to Wallis and Horton is a jarring experience.

Having said all that, Annabelle probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. It’s disappointing because of heightened expectations, though compared to the vast majority of other trash out there, the film is actually better than most. It’s a shame there couldn’t have been more creativity with the script and better acting, but if you haven’t seen the trailer there might be just enough scares to justify giving the film a try.

PS: For those wondering, Annabelle is even less of a true story than The Conjuring. Check out the real doll. If you’ve done any reading about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghostbuster couple from The Conjuring, you’ll know it’s likely a whole bunch of BS. Check out this article for more details.

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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

 
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