Movie Review: Backcountry (2015)

July 24, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Backcountry

Contrary to what many people have asked me when I tell them the title, this is not a sequel or prequel to Brokeback Mountain.

Backcountry is a actually low budget (wo)man-versus-wild thriller that is supposedly inspired by a true story. The premise is simple: a young couple head into the wild on a hiking trip and get lost. They eventually find themselves being hunted by a giant grizzly bear who seems really hungry for flesh, especially the tasty human kind.

I admit I was sceptical. Man vs wild films (like The Grey), or more specifically, man vs bear films (like The Edge) are usually anchored by a big-name star and have a more intricate plot and/or more characters to kill off. Here, it’s mostly just a typical couple walking through the woods, talking and bickering and not doing much else.

Surprisingly, the simplicity of Backcountry actually works to its advantage. There’s not a lot of distractions, allowing audiences to focus on the characters and their relationship, and the small cast enhances the feeling of isolation and dread.

Both Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop are pretty good as the couple. They don’t play likable characters, but you feel like you get to know them well enough to empathise with their situation and their fate. It’s a fairly cliched relationship, but at least the script is well written enough and the performances are solid enough to sustain the film through its slower moments.

These moments are necessary, because the film relies on the build-up of tension to deliver a sense of unease and creeping dread. Much of the horror ultimately comes from the bear, though an argument can be made that the most chilling part of the movie is an earlier encounter with a mysterious stranger played by familiar B-grade star Eric Balfour. I don’t know how good his Irish accent is, but the performance is a fantastic one.

As often is the case with simple yet effective horror/thriller flicks like this, I preach reasonable expectations to avoid disappointment. For instance, I can definitely see how some viewers mate be bored by the couple’s relationship, while I myself was frequently annoyed by their stupidity in the face of mortal danger. Flaws notwithstanding, Backcountry is a solid, more-than-serviceable thriller with the potential to satisfy a lot of unsuspecting audiences.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

July 6, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

poltergeist

I don’t remember much of the original 1982 Poltergeist save for a few iconic scenes and phrases. You know the ones I’m talking about. I haven’t seen it for probably 15-20 years, but I do remember it was scary, though I’ve been hearing lately that it wasn’t really that good and was vastly overrated.

Still, it must be a lot better than this hilariously bad remake, which had zero scares but a lot of WTF moments and unintentional humour.

The story is a familiar one. A family moves into a new home that turns out to be haunted by malevolent spirits. Ghost hunters are called in and a kid must be saved.

The biggest problem with the film is its complete lack of subtlety and knowledge of how to scare an audience. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) seems to know, nominally at least, what is supposed to be scary, such as TV static, closets and clowns, but he doesn’t understand how to elicit genuine scares out of them.

It’s basically a handful of predictable “boo” moments most horror lovers would be numb to by now, and the rest is just completely over-the-top nonsense that is closer to Ghostbusters than anything else I can think of. I’m not even exaggerating here.

There’s no build up of tension or atmosphere, as Kenan obviously does not subscribe to the less is more doctrine in horror, going all out and throwing the entire bag of tricks at the audience from the get go.

What makes it worse is that the tone is all over the place, splicing humour and horror in an awkward manner that damages the effectiveness of both. Serious scares and wisecracks rarely work well together, especially when they come at the same time. As a result I was often left wondering whether it was trying to be scary or funny, but what I do know was that it managed to be neither. I’m stunned that some people thought it was scary.

It’s so bad that the ordinarily awesome Sam Rockwell, who plays the father, appears depressed by just how awful a film he managed to get himself into. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife, seems to be putting in a little more effort, but even she is clearly disinterested at times. They have three kids in the film, and the two younger ones, who experience the most of the haunting in the beginning, are not very good actors, further reducing the scariness of the whole affair.

The ghost hunters are played by Jared Harris and Jane Adams, who I find difficult to imagine as anyone else but the pathetic girl from Happiness. They’re not nearly as creepy as the short old lady with the weird voice from original (Zelda Rubenstein).

I don’t know what I’d think of the 1982 original now if I saw it again, but I’d be shocked if it’s worse than this laughable remake.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Area 51 (2015)

June 14, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Area 51

There was a time I was semi-obsessed with Area 51, the alleged secret US military base in the Nevada desert where alien secrets dating back to Roswell are said to be stashed. And so I thought I’d give the film Area 51 with an attitude akin to how I approach UFO sightings these days — sceptical but hopeful.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be even worse than what I thought it would be. In short, Area 51 epitomises everything wrong with the found footage sub-genre. It uses every trite tactic in the book, looks cheap, feels cheaper, uses little-known actors to play stock characters spewing pathetic dialogue, and most of all, offers zero scares, thrills or creativity.

The premise is as formulaic as you imagined. A bunch of young people decide to break into Area 51 to uncover the alien conspiracy and government lies. Despite been terrified of getting caught and going to jail, they do a lot of stupid illegal stuff and record it all on cameras while complaining about it the whole time.

As it turns out, security at Area 51 is worse than your local supermarket, allowing the teens to get in with ease. They see a lot of lame stuff they try to trick you into thinking is impressive with their fake excitement and shock, before — you guessed it — aliens break out and start killing people.

The film’s whole idea of horror is people running around with shaky cameras while breathing loudly. That and brief glimpses of a “monster” before people are suddenly snatched away are pretty much the only two tactics of the entire movie. I guess I should not have been surprised given that it is directed by Oren Peli, whose previous directorial effort was the first Paranormal Activity.

The characters do stupid stuff and say stupid things non-stop, such as “What’s that noise?”, “Where’s that sound coming from?”, and my personal favourite, “Do you think we should be here?”

Shamefully, the film doesn’t even offer much legitimate information about the real Area 51, or at least what sources believe the place is like. Come on, at least educate us a little.

So yeah, Area 51 is a flaming turd, a combination of everything that annoys me about movies. I disliked it immensely.

1 star out of 5

Movie Review: Demonic (2015)

June 13, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews

demonic-horror-movie-news

This is a weird one. Demonic is produced and concocted by Aussie legend James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, Furious 7), which is why the posters want everyone to know it’s “presented by James Wan.” It stars the reliable Maria Bello and rising star Frank Grillo from The Purge: Anarchy and soon-to-be Crossbones from the Marvel universe. It should be pretty good, right?

Well, it’s not. The warning signs were there. The project was supposedly announced in 2011 as House of Horrors, but went through developmental hell before getting its release date repeatedly pushed back from 2013 all the way to 2015. That’s never a good omen.

The story is about a bunch of young people who conduct a seance in an abandoned house where people once got slaughtered in an occult-related incident. It starts off after something has happened to the youngsters and one of them is left to tell a detective (Grillo) and psychologist (Bello) what happened, and they have to piece together the mystery from footage they took to document the experience.

Not exactly original, but the use of a non-linear format and a combination of traditional filming techniques and found footage is at least more intriguing than just found footage. And you can sense some of James Wan’s signature tricks throughout the movie, which does have a decent eeriness and unsettling atmosphere to it. I won’t deny there is a handful of effective moments horror fans should be able to appreciate.

But something obviously went wrong during the filming and production process because Demonic is all over the place. Whether it’s story, character development or tone, everything comes across as a fragmented, disjointed mess. At times I wondered if I had missed something important or wasn’t paying enough attention, because it felt like stuff that should have been there had been left on the cutting room floor.

The characters involved in the seance are also not very memorable, and neither Grillo nor Bello’s presence manage to change that. It’s unfortunate because Demonic appeared to have the potential of being one of the better cliched horror films in recent years. Instead, it’s no more than just an uneven experience littered with a few good moments.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: It Follows (2015)

June 7, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

it-follows

It Follows is more than just a punny title. It’s one of the most original, clever, terrifying and quite simply, best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. And yes, I’ve seen last year’s revelatory hit, The Babadook.

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the film follows Maika Monroe (who was great in The Guest) as Jay, a Michigan student who begins to suspect, to put it lightly, that a sexual encounter with her boyfriend has made her the recipient of a curse in which she is haunted by a malevolent supernatural force.

I don’t want to give too much more away, though suffice it to say that It Follows soon becomes a film about survival, as Jay, her sister, neighbour and friends try to figure out what is happening to her and whether her fears are even real.

It’s a simple premise but an intelligent and damn effective one. A lot has been made about its symbolism and how it could be construed as a parable about promiscuity, sexually-transmitted diseases and post-coital guilt and anxiety. With elements borrowed from The Ring, it’s also about death and the avoidance of death, and the moral quandaries involved in the prolonging of life. On another layer, it’s just about horny teenagers wanting to get some action with reckless consideration  of the consequences.

All the analytical stuff is just depth gravy — because let’s face it, what ultimately makes or breaks a horror movie is whether it’s scary or not. And in this regard It Follows excels as a masterclass in atmosphere, old-fashioned fright tactics and slick style.

At its core, It Follows taps into our primal fear and paranoia from being followed. That dread from seeing something terrifying coming towards you. The anxiety from never knowing when someone with evil intentions is creeping up from behind.

I could tell from the opening sequence that the film was going to be different to the teen horrors we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Mitchell is a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing and knows how to project his vision to the screen.

I like that there’s no mention of when the story is set, but it looks and feels like it’s in a different era. I like the minimalist approach that limits the use of special effects. I like that it relies more on its creepy atmosphere and growing dread than modern “boo” scares, and that even when it resorts to such tactics athey are implemented timely. I liked the great use of silence and complementing it with an eerie, occasionally blazing score that really gets the heart pumping.

The climax — which is more conventional than it should have been — could have been smarter and executed a little better, but on the whole it’s hard to find much else to complain about.

It Follows is a unique and unsettling horror experience you just don’t see very often, which is why this low budget gem wowed audiences at Cannes last year, went from a limited release to a wide release earlier this year, and is quickly gathering steam as a commercial success.

5 stars out of 5

 
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