Friday, October 24, 2014

In Boston? Spend this week with William Castle at the Brattle Theater!

William Castle is the godfather of schlock and gimmicky film marketing. Though the quality of his films is arguable, the innovation and attention he brought to the horror genre is undeniable. He knew how to pack a crowd in and reveled in the screams of his audiences. Castle was best know for enhancing the cinematic experience by adding elements of the film right into the theater itself. 

We do not typically post about repertoire screenings around Boston (though there are plenty of good ones!), we wanted to let everyone know that starting tonight, Harvard Square's Brattle Theater is running a Castle retrospective, including the gimmicks that accompany each film!

  • 13 GHOSTS featuring Illusion-O! Are you brave enough to face the ghosts on screen? Or do you need a way to hide from these frights? Every theater patron will be given a viewer to either enhance or delete the terrible ghosts you see throughout the film. 
  • THE TINGLER filmed in Percepto! When Vincent Price tells the audience "scream – scream for your lives!" certain seats in the theater are wired to buzz and add extra frights. 
  • HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL will be played in the original Emergo!  A plastic skeleton will fly over the audience during the screening, just as Castle planned.
You can see the full line-up here, as well as read Deirdre's article on 13 GHOSTS here.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

OUIJA is bad, and it should feel bad

Ouija (dir. Stiles White)

I have never once in my life been accused of being a ray of sunshine. But even with my often sour disposition, I always try to find the good in any film. Heck, I even enjoyed THE MONKEY’S PAW for what it was. I do this because I love film and I especially love horror film. Even when all of the elements of success are not there, I try to pull out what does work and convey what clearly had good intention. This is why films like OUIJA don’t only disappoint me, they make me angry. 

OUIJA is the kind of film which lacks passion, inspiration, and any shred of respect for the audience. It is exactly the crap that non-genre fans cite when they claim that there are no good horror films anymore, and it angers me that Hollywood studios give these mundanes the evidence to support that assertion. 

There are plenty of spoilers below. I warn you as a courtesy, but a) I would be shocked if you are planning on seeing this film, and b) the predictable plot means that spoilers don’t actually spoil the film. 

First of all, the film was funded by Hasbro Studios and the beginning of it comes across like a commercial for the board game. The young girls playing with the Ouija board spend the first scene explaining the rules of the board, just as if they are reading the game instructions on the back of the box. One character even plainly states later in the film, “C’mon guys, it’s sold in toy store,” thus pointing us directly towards the retail location of the board, in case there is any confusion. I’m actually surprised that there was not a QR code on the screen that lets the audience funnel money directly into the pockets of the toymaker turned horrible movie producer. 

Looking past the sponsors (film funding is a complicated issue, and I can understand that tie-ins can be necessary) the film itself barely makes sense. Characters act illogically and often say one thing but do another. My most noted issues are: 

  • Laine’s (Olivia Cooke, who can actually act, though avoids doing so in this film) boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff) refers to her father as overbearing as they try to formulate a plan to get away for a weekend together. Within a week her father flies away on business, and it is made clear that his absence is a regular occurrence in the house. Being simultaneously an absentee father and helicopter parent is not possible.
  • Trevor and Laine have zero chemistry on screen. They are called “the perfect couple” by a friend, but we never even see them hold hands, or even each other’s gaze for that matter.
  • After the mysterious suicide of Laine’s best friend Debbie (Shelley Hennig), Debbie’s family leaves town for an undetermined amount of time. The family leaves Laine in charge of watering the plants in the very house where Debbie committed suicide. This conveniently eliminates all of the adults from the film, but makes no logical sense whatsoever.
  • When Laine starts investigating Debbie’s suicide she asks Debbie’s boyfriend if he noticed anything strange in Debbie just before her death. Her boyfriend brushes off the question and makes it seem like it is odd to be asked such a question. This is the boy whose girlfriend committed suicide with zero warning signs. Asking how Debbie was leading up to her death is a completely normal thing to do, and even a boyfriend stuck in denial would know that.

I could look past these distracting issues if there was anything else redeeming in the film, but there really is nothing. The plot barely limps along down a completely uninspired path. The film takes itself way too seriously, and yet is horribly boring for long stretches of time. 

The special effects, when they finally show up, are passable. The CGI is obvious, but there are a couple decent practical effects mixed in. The jump scares were effective on the audience and briefly interrupted their unintended laughter. 

The best parts of the film are the small part given to Lin Shaye (INSIDIOUS, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY) and a cameo by Robyn Lively (the TEEN WITCH herself). Both of these actresses were a welcome sight in the dreariness of Ouija. 

Many bad horror films leave me disappointed. I want to be able to champion them because I can see the glimmer of the filmmaker’s love of horror somewhere in the bad effects and lazy storytelling. But Ouija left me angry. I’m angry that this soulless film gets lumped into my beloved genre, and I’m angry that it is one of the only horror films in theaters this Halloween.We deserve better. 

JOHN WICK: Keanu is back and he is pissed

John Wick (dirs. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski)

Though Hollywood does not seem to be paying much attention, Keanu Reeves has been cornering the market on action films recently. Following up on last year’s MAN OF TAI CHI and 47 RONIN comes this week’s release JOHN WICK. It may be just a mindless shoot ‘em up action film, but hot damn it is really fun to watch. 

The premise of the film is a simple one. John Wick’s wife has recently passed away. He (Reeves, naturally) is heartbroken, though before he begins to imagine his life alone she sends him a gift. She died of a long and painful illness and arranged for John to be posthumously sent a puppy for company. In the sweet hand-written note she says that John needs to love something and to be loved and his car does not count. It is really cute to watch the mourning John bond with this tiny and amazingly adorable beagle puppy. It is obvious that he loved his wife very much, and based on his instant attachment to the dog it is apparent that she knew John well enough to anticipate his needs in this rough time. 

Unfortunately John’s road to emotional recovery is a short one. When a Russian gangster’s son tries to buy John’s car from him at the gas station John’s life begins a tailspin. Refusing to sell him the car, the son finds John’s home and visits in the middle of the night. This spoiled gangster wannabe has his henchmen beat John, steal the car, and he personally kills the sweet baby puppy. Thankfully the film does not focus too much on the violence against the animal or in John’s disposal of it. What the film smartly does is turn its attention to John’s revenge. 

John is no ordinary widower. His reputation precedes him wherever he goes, and with it comes bad omens. John used to be involved in the violent underworld of gangsters and hit man, and with his next mark he has decided to come out of retirement

The rest of the film is a predictable but excellently executed mix of hand to hand combat and bullets flying while the body count piles up. Each new fight scene is perfectly matched in tone with the set, lighting, music, and occasionally weather. The fights are all shot in wider angles so that the action is easy to follow, and you are never left wondering who just got shot by whom. In this regard the film almost feels like a video game; John must kill all of the gangsters in each venue before he is allowed to move to the next. 

One delightful surprise in the film was the creation of the hit man subculture. When John rejoins his old profession it is clear that he was as deep into the criminal underworld as you can imagine. When he reenters this world he takes us on a journey to a hotel where everyone pays in gold coins and everyone is a gun for hire. They have rules and etiquette, and a fascinating loaded history amongst the members. As I was leaving the screening I heard some murmurings that the film should have featured more of the hit man domain. While I concede that it is absolutely the most interesting part of the film, I loved that we did not learn all of the secrets of this world. Hinting at the expansive underbelly was much more fun than spoiling all of its details. 

This is not the type of film that makes you ponder life. The film also has all of the typical shortcomings of early Bond films in terms of the lack of logic in the plot. If you leave the film wondering why the Russian gangsters don’t just shoot John when they have the chance then you are missing the point. You go to e Keanu Reeves action film to watch the blood flow like wine and the bullets fall like snowflakes, and JOHN WICK absolutely delivers this. Asses are kicked and fun is had- What more can you hope for? 

SUBURBAN GOTHIC: Delivers A Scathing Black Comedy Under A Supernatural Guise (Telluride Horror Show)

For his followup to Excision, Ricky Bates crafted a smart, stinging, satirical comedy that lampoons the dying American dream of white, well-to-do, upper middle class families living out their days in perfectly manicured suburban homes. The success of his latest work proves two things. First, Excision was no fluke, and Bates remains a director on the rise. Second, Ray Wise, seen here doing his best Archie Bunker impersonation, should be in ALL the things.

With his MBA in hand but no employment prospects on the horizon Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) is forced to move back home with his doting mother (Barbara Niven) and racist, clueless father Donald (Wise). Raymond's long dormant ability to see into the spirit world is reawakened when the Mexican landscaping crew Donald hired to fix the lawn stumbles upon the skeletal corpse of a young girl. As an aside, this ability also rears its head after Raymond's childhood doctor (the always welcome Jeffrey Combs) discontinues the prescription for his anti-psychotic medication (which he's told is for high blood pressure) as a means of retaliation for Donald's being late on paying his bills. Enlisting the local barmaid/former school chum Becca (Kat Dannings) to help him put the troubled spirit to rest, Raymond also has to contend with a trio local bullies for whom high school is their Vietnam (a war that never ends) and a father that is committed to having Raymond committed to an insane asylum. Phew. That's a mouthful.

Honestly, the plot is incidental to your enjoyment of the film. Gubler is a real treat to watch as a rubber faced, unconventionally handsome beanpole of a lead. Playing the role of the Bud Abbott straight man, he has balances zinging one liners with being a grounded force that stabilizes the film and holds the variant plot points together. Bates takes his comic cues from the biting, satirical comedies of the 1970s, invoking John Waters, Mel Brooks and Jon Landis during his Kentucky Fried Movie days. At other times it fells like Heathers updated for those who found post-grad school life not all it was cracked up to be. I found myself laughing partly because this style of humor is so rarely evoked nowadays, when there seems to be trepidation to offend anyone with a joke that might be off color. Yes, it is laugh out loud funny to hear Wise's racist dad apologize to his black football players that his wife forgot to “buy the grape pop.” Gothic offers a scathing takedown of the privileged class that believe just because they won the genetic gene pool they are everyone's social betters. There's no better moment of this in the film than when Gubler leans over a snarky high school girl and, staring directly into the camera's lens eviscerates her in brutal fashion for her small minded, provincial ways.

I'm comfortable laughing art this, or the dozens of other instances of dark humor because Suburban Gothic is smart enough to deride individuals who think they're bettering society by “telling it like it is” instead of celebrating them as anti-status quo truth sayers. That's part of the genius of Ray Wise's performance. In lesser hands his words would come off as mere hate speech. Yet Wise gives his father character a buffoonish air not unlike that of a twice removed uncle you only see around the holiday season. It's the air of a man that doesn't know time has passed him by, that his best days and timeof relevance have both long passed.

The weak link of Gothic is Kat Dannings as Becca. It's the umpteenth time we've seen her play a sullen, disaffected character with a propensity for snark. It's a role she's snoozed her way through so often one has to wonder if anytime a producer has an aspiring young actress up for the role, Dannings hunts her down and snuffs the life out of her, burying the remains in a drainage ditch somewhere outside Hollywood.

That qualm aside, Suburban Gothic remains one of the sharpest comedies I've watched all year. At the moment it is tearing its way through the festival circuit, but much like Excision, Bates' film will surely find a larger audience sooner rather than later. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BACKWATER Puts A Fresh Spin On Back Woods Horror (Telluride Horror Show)

Christopher Schrack's indie take on backwoods horror is further proof that a well executed good idea does not need millions of dollars behind it in order to entertain. Schrack takes a story we have seen countless times before-a young couple heads out to the woods for a romantic retreat only to find themselves hunted by an unseen threat-and tweaks the formula in a manner that keeps his audience engaged and on the edge of their seats throughout.

Cass and Mark (Liana Werner-Gray and Justin Tully respectively) are out to enjoy a weekend at the secluded lakeside Cass used to enjoy as a little girl. Their idyllic time away is shattered when they hear a cry for help in the wilderness. Torn over whether to seek them out or leave well enough alone, Mark's good samaritan side kicks in while Cass gives up the ghost early. Separately they encounter a lone fisherman with a suspicious lack of equipment and the town's sheriff that seems to have questionable motives for patrolling the woods. It comes as no surprise then that later in the night Mark and Cass find themselves attacked by and on the run from an unseen assailant. With their car disabled and their supplies strewn about the campsite, the duo are forced to hideout in order to survive the night.

Again, this is a scenario we've seen done countless times in film. If the above summed up the entirety of Backwater, it may not have been enough to sustain interest in the film. However, just at the stage the campsite invasion angle seems to grow stale, Schrack pulls a pair of out of left field turns that provide a jolt of momentum that sustains the rest of the picture. To say more is to give away crucial plot points of Backwater, but trust me when I tell you that the twists are smartly executed and make perfect sense with the information provided in the film's first act.

Werner-Gray's performance as Cass deserves special mention. From the outset she comes off as a cut above your typical horror movie heroine. She's comparable with Sharni Vinson in You're Next-smart, capable and better prepared for her environment than her somewhat hapless partner. At the same time Backwater takes turns which call into question Cass' motives and make it difficult if not impossible to root for her. It's a testament to Gray's ability to tap into a very vulnerable side of herself that the audience shouldn't turn their back on her completely in the run to the end of the film.

Fans of survival horror should seek out Backwater as it makes its way through the festival circuit. While the film has not been picked up for distribution as of yet, it should only be a matter of time before something this smart, tense and cleverly executed finds its way to reach homes everywhere.

Backwater makes its Boston premiere Saturday November 29th at the Somerville Theater 

It's Alive! Edgar Allan Poe Bronze Bust Photo Released- Unveiling at the Boston Public Library Next Thursday

Press Release
On Thursday, October 30 at 6pm, the Edgar Allan Poe Bronze Bust Project will unveil the recently completed Poe bust to an audience of literary fans in the Abbey Room McKim Building at the Boston Public Library. Sculpted by Bryan Moore, the bust is the endgame of a successful Kickstarter funded in part by prestigious donors and creators at the top of their games, such as Guillermo del Toro, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Peter Straub. Attending will be Moore; Boston filmmaker Izzy Lee; Boston College English Professor and Poe expert Paul Lewis; and Jeffrey Combs, the talented character actor who plays Poe in “Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe,” which Moore and Lee are co-producing. The play runs for one performance the next night at the Somerville Theatre on October 31st at 8pm.

On creating the bust, Moore quotes the great Leonardo da Vinci: "Art is never finished, only abandoned.' That's very apropos of my feelings whenever I finish a portrait, and Poe is no exception. Spearheading a project of this magnitude is always such a monumental task. My producing partner Izzy Lee and our incredible project team truly allowed me to shut off the business of running a fundraiser and focus solely on the sculpting. Long hours in the workshop were often accompanied by the usual bugbears of any artist; doubt and the inevitable insecurity of wondering if it will ever be "good enough." While I think so, the ultimate judgment lies with you; the project supporters, donors, and kind folks who offered encouragement and never allowed me the luxury of settling for second best.

"So for all of you, the fans of Poe, I hope you'll forgive me for walking away and abandoning our beloved Edgar, as I could keep sculpting his arresting countenance forever. It's my sincere hope that you'll give me permission to do so, and return him to the city of his birth and whisper: 'Welcome home, sir."

The author of The RavenThe Tell-Tale Heart, Annabelle Lee, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Black Cat, Edgar Allan Poe died a pauper, but became a celebrated literary figure after his death. Now part of the canon of American literature, Poe is taught in schools, adapted by filmmakers and theatre companies, and beloved worldwide. On the evening of October 30th at 6pm, fans, onlookers, and the modern day literary elite will see Poe return to the city in which he was born—welcomed, acclaimed, and in bronze for all time.

For more information on Nevermore and the Edgar Allan Poe Bronze Bust Project, visit:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

American Horror Story's Ryan Murphy Claims To Invent The Horror Comedy, Is An Idiot

GLEE creator Ryan Murphy is prone to saying stupid things, and yesterday's announcement of his newest series SCREAM QUEENS gave him just the occasion to once again stick his foot in his mouth. When discussing the tone of the show, Murphy credited himself for inventing a never before heard of hybrid of genres: We hope to create a whole new genre – comedy-horror – and the idea is for every season to revolve around two female leads.”

Let's assume for a moment that Murphy doesn't posses cahones the size of bowling balls and truly believes that horror and comedy have never had their peanut butter and chocolate meet cute moment. Anyone who has watched five minutes of one of Murphy's shows can be forgiven for thinking attention to detail does not fall under his strong suits. Personally, I gave up on American Horror Story midway through the second season because from a plot stand point it was about as coherent as a room full of dementia sufferers playing the “telephone” game.

Given his love for camp, one would think that he's at least familiar with James Whales' Bride of Frankenstein, which aside from being one of the best genre films ever made is uproariously funny and tongue in cheek. If that went over Murphy's head, perhaps he has a passing familiarity with Abbott & Costello and their entanglements with Frankenstein's Monster or The Mummy?

Let's say black and white films aren't Murphy's cup of tea. One has to wonder how he views the following films:

Evil Dead II-Procedural Drama

Army Of Darkness-Found Footage

Shaun of the Dead- Buddy Cop Comedy

Return Of The Living Dead Romantic Comedy

Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil- Documentary

An American Werewolf In London- Musical

Meet The Feebles- Western

Killer Klowns From Outer Space- Pixar rejected project

We could go on but you get the point.

"Open Windows" Is a Ludicrous and Incomprehensible Take on Voyeurism

A substandard cinematic exercise told entirely through the perspective of its protagonist’s desktop computer screen, “Open Windows” certainly conveys a go-for-broke sense of confidence in its attempt to render its story entirely through this particular visual style. Unfortunately, the film eventually feels like a one-trick pony in which its gimmick grows tiresome awfully fast, exposing the plot for nothing more than a series of ludicrous plot-twists; each one more baffling than the last.

Elijah Wood stars as Nick Chambers, a geeky administrator of a fansite dedicated to the fictional celebrity, Jill Godard (Sasha Grey). After winning an online contest in which the grand prize consists of going out to dinner with the lovely actress, Nick settles into his hotel room in Austin, Texas, a few hours prior to his date.

Jill attends a convention to promote her new film, and as Nick watches a livestream of the event from his laptop, he receives an online call from an ominous stranger, who claims to be in charge of the meet-and-greet that Nick’s won. At first, the mysterious caller states that he’s sorry to report that Jill has cancelled her dinner with Nick at the last second, eliciting feelings of confusion and disappointment from the zealous blogger. However, it’s clear that this man on the other end of the line has much more sinister, ulterior motives for Nick, using his desire to meet Jill as a way of manipulating him into committing a series of acts that result in terrible consequences for everyone involved.

Writer and director Nacho Vigalando (“Timecrimes,” “The ABCs of Death”) constructs this picture with a confident sense of control in regards to its visual format, and, for the most part, he’s able to effectively juggle all of the characters’ Skype windows and desktop applications in a coherent fashion as the camera pans and zooms across Nick’s screen. Yet, this compositional structure loses its spark very early on, subsequently feeling drab and monotonous far before the film reaches its climax.

The story is ridiculous right off the bat, relying on an abundance of absurd contrivances to get from one scene to the next, and I particularly love how the villain consistently yells at Nick not to close his laptop since he has to “guide him” to each location. Obviously, other horror films within the found-footage sub-genre such as “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” wouldn’t be nearly as effective from a third-person perspective, but the characters filming everything would still make sense to a certain extent. In the case of “Open Windows,” though, I couldn’t help but think about how hilarious it must be for the supporting characters to see Nick frantically running around while holding up a laptop uncomfortably close to his face. Then, in one scene, he places his computer in the passenger seat of a car and consistently takes his eyes off of the road to look into the camera, even during a high-speed pursuit with the cops.

By the time the revelatory twists and turns play out within the final third of the film, though, it flies off the rails to an extent so incomprehensible that I simply gave up trying to follow it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if someone put a gun to my head and asked me to rationally articulate exactly what happens in this movie, I’d be shot within seconds;  it's that much of a clusterfuck. Any of Vigalando’s earlier attempts to project a cautionary tale centered around cybernetic voyeurism within our celebrity-obsessed culture ultimately get lost in the shuffle of its various, inconceivable plot developments.

The one aspect of the movie that’s spot-on is its casting. Wood, who’s apparently stalked by a psychopathic killer in just about every film he stars in this year (his last picture being “Grand Piano,” Eugino Mira’s campy homage to the work of Brian De Palma), does a solid job of playing Nick as an endearing, if highly gullible, dope. And it’s no subtle coincidence that former pornographic actress, Sasha Grey, has been cast as the iconic female celebrity who’s ultimately exploited and reduced to being yet another woman-in-danger. Acting-wise, Grey’s pretty wooden here, yet, for the themes that Vigalando’s aiming to address, her on-screen presence intriguingly blurs the lines between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, though, “Open Windows’” insatiable thirst for manipulating its audience within every turn of its inane script nullifies any of its previous efforts to construct some striking form of social commentary. Vigalando’s clearly influenced by classic shockers such as “Rear Window” and “Peeping Tom,” but where those films compose chilling outlooks on perversion, this attempt at a contemporary update is about as horrific as peering through a window with its blinds down.


JULIA: Puts Rape/Revenge Through A Modern Noir Filter

Making its debut at SCREAMFEST this past weekend, Julia springs from the long line of the rape/revenge thriller, where a victimized woman returns the violence and dehumanization wrought on her by her attackers back in spades. In the tradition of Ms. 45, this new thriller finds its victim cutting a swath through the murky underground of New York, leaving bloodshed and death in her wake. Taking its cues from classic noir, with The Human Centipede's Ashley C. Williams transforming from a mousy victim to a femme fatale, Matthew A. Brown's first feature film hits many of the right notes of exploitation while raising some disturbing questions about the artistic choices of the film.

The film opens with a demure, socially awkward Julia meeting her date at his apartment. After he cozies up to her with just enough affectionate works meant to loosen the shy young woman up, he spikes her drink and invites his friends to use the nearly comatose woman for their sadistic and sexual pleasure. While one of the party shows a hint of a conscious, when the time comes to mount the girl, a little cocaine courage goes a long way to removing and moral inhibitions. The event leaves the woman justifiably traumatized, and we next see her trying to wash the blood, sweat and semen off while curdled in a ball under the shower nozzle.

It's not too long after that Julia learns of a therapy program for victims of assault that produces dramatic results through unconventional methods. It's a sort of primal scream therapy taken to exponential levels. Before long Julia has shed puffy turtleneck sweaters for sleek leather skirts and thigh highs. It's the femme fatale as seen through the ultimate male gaze. Even in her new form, Julia is beholden to the expectations of men, dressing in an overtly sexual way in order to lure them to their punishment. In her new role she lures men out of crowded bars in order to punish and humiliate them in front of their would-be jilted lovers. As her confidence builds, the violence escalates, culminating in a group castration. With no end to the violence in sight, and no real end goal that says Julia has gotten “better”, the film questions whether the ends justify the means or just turns us into the monsters that do us harm to begin with.

Shortly after Julia's first murder, the shower scene repeats itself. However, this time it depicts the woman from a position of strength. She's washing someone else's blood off her skin rather than her own, with the assistance of her trainer and new lover Sadie (Tayna Tozzi). It's a moment of rebirth, and a reintroduction of Julia as a woman who will no longer be anyone's doormat.

It's hard to view Julia as a feminist icon as even her path to revenge is given shape by the boundaries placed on it by her benefactor. When Julia tracks down the men responsible for the rape, she violates the conditions of her therapy program and is dealt with in severe fashion. While these restrictions pull the plot forward, it denies Julia the agency to seek out her own means of recovery. Even in seeking revenge she has limits imposed on her by a male superior. Williams performance is stoic, almost to the point of catatonia both before and after her psychological transformation. The way Julia underplays emotions as well as the neon red color scheme that washes over so many scenes suggests that Brown and crew took cues from Katherine Isabelle's look and performance in 2012's American Mary.

In fact, Julia serves as a nice companion piece to the Soska's film. Whereas Mary places its emphasis on a character study at the expense of a somewhat meandering third act, Julia does the reverse. While we understand Julia's motivations, we never learn too much about the woman, or the impact her actions have on her psyche. There's little change in her outward expression from the moment of introduction to the last frame. On the flip side, the film barrels forward using extreme violence and graphic body horror-so much castration-as a catalyst. It's always hard to label a film focused on rape and revenge as entertaining, but you will never be bored watching Julia. After that, the armchair psychology evaluation is up to you.