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XX (2017)

XX is the first horror anthology comprised entirely of female writers and directors. That’s the most noteworthy thing for this relatively disappointing movie. None of the four main segments are that interesting and several don’t really have endings. The first segment has the most potential, “The Box,” about a child that stops eating after getting a peak inside a stranger’s wrapped gift. The family joins him one by one except for the mother. That’s it. There’s no resolution, one moment of shocking gore, and the rest is straightforward maternal ennui. The second is from musician St. Vincent (née Annie Clark) called “The Birthday Party” and it’s not really horror so much as it is dark comedy with a heaping helping of slapstick. Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness) is an overextended mother who discovers the dead body of her husband on the morning of their daughter’s birthday. She has to go to elaborate measures to hide the body while still juggling all the responsibilities others expect from her. It’s amusing in spurts but is often too obvious. The third segment “Don’t Fall” is the most professionally realized and has some nasty special effects, but it’s nothing more than another throwaway entry in the teens-meddle-with-forces-in-nature-and-are-swiftly-punished subgenre. It’s the shortest segment so that helps too. Finally, Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) writes and directs “Her Only Living Son” which intends to flip the script on the Rosemary’s Baby scenario. The segment reveals its secrets slowly, which makes it a more engaging short to digest. However, it too ends on a perfunctory note. I know there are many talented female filmmakers out there biding their time, waiting for their chance to show their mettle in genre filmmaking, an area that skews heavily male. That’s what makes XX so frustrating. There has to be better material and better filmmakers out there who would kill for this kind of showcase. Maybe next time (XX2?).

Nate’s Grade: C

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The Conjuring 2 (2016)

CJR2_1sht_Main_Vert_2764x4096_INTL_masterHorror is one genre where sequels rarely if ever satisfy. Usually the repetition is mind numbing and what was once scary has been eradicated. The true signs of great horror is the dread of what’s coming next, and to this end James Wan has shown tremendous skill at playing an audience and their fears. The Conjuring 2 isn’t quite the thrilling success that its predecessor was but it still upholds the best parts of what made the first movie frightening. We follow the Warrens once more, the husband and wife paranormal investigators, and this time to England where a malevolent spirit is haunting a family. One of the few miscues is delaying the meeting of the Warrens with the beleaguered family to almost an hour, pushing the running time to a needlessly overblown 133 minutes. The movie seems to be stretching out the ghost set pieces. Fortunately, Wan knows exactly how to build tension and let it simmer. The demon nun imagery is effectively unsettling, and there’s a brilliant sequence where Mrs. Warren (Vera Farmiga) has to slowly pull a light cord, all while the portrait of the demon nun hangs visibly in the dark. It’s a small scene that explains in full the clever construction of the whole. It sets up the parameters, develops them, and then lets the audience dread what it knows is coming. These are not cheap scares or lame jump scares but genuinely earned terror within a carefully constructed atmosphere. It might not be as good as the first one but The Conjuring 2 is still plenty good, which by default makes it possibly one of the greatest horror sequels of all time. Let’s hope the demon nun spinoff goes better than Anabelle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

I, Frankenstein (2014)

11177837_800Why wouldn’t Frankenstein’s monster (henceforth referred to as Adam) be the focal point in a war between heaven and hell? And why wouldn’t the angels really be gargoyles and live in cathedrals? And why wouldn’t the demons be trying to get their demony hands on Dr. F’s book on reviving the dead? And why wouldn’t we jump ahead 200 years to modern-day, where “Adam” should be a rotted corpse? Transparently an attempt to replicate the surprisingly enduring Underworld franchise, this secret supernatural war is a lame monster movie disguised as a lamer superhero film. It’s also absurdly idiotic in just about every capacity, as if no department had any communication with one another. Aaron Eckhart grumbles and trudges his way through this awful mess but you can feel his disdain for the entire enterprise. It’s not even deliciously campy, choosing to try and re-envision the classic monster in a modern and realistic setting. The action sequences are mundane when they’re not incoherent. I, Frankenstein feels like a movie version based upon the video game of some other source material. It’s loud and inept and campy but mostly outrageously dumb. I can’t wait to watch someone else in Hollywood recycle this cheap plot setup for a desperate supernatural franchise (“Okay, the Creature from the Black Lagoon finds itself in the center of a war between centaurs and…”). When people talk about the dregs of Hollywood, and the echo chamber of stripping away creativity, let I, Frankenstein be a prime example of the worst of us.

Nate’s Grade: D

Annabelle (2014)

MV5BMjM2MTYyMzk1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg2MjMyMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_The Conjuring was one of the breakout hits of 2013, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood fast-tracked a spin-off to take advantage of Conjurin’ fever. Enter John R. Leonetti, the accomplished cinematographer on The Conjuring and director of bad sequels like Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Now in the spotlight, little Annabelle is proving to be a star of her own as far as box-office grosses are concerned. It’s too bad her new movie is about as lifeless as she is.

In the late 1960s, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) is pregnant with her first child when murderous cultists terrorize her home. They are dispatched but not before one young woman slices her own throat holding one of Mia’s expensive porcelain dolls, the Annabelle one. Her husband (Ward Horton, who looks like a living Ken doll) is afraid to leave her alone and reaches out to the church to help his wife. Strange things are going on in their home, mostly concerning the infamous Annabelle doll.

ANNABELLEThe impact of Annabelle will depend directly upon your good will concerning The Conjuring and what your law of diminishing returns is with a creepy doll. To be abundantly clear, the Annabelle doll is one creepy looking thing. But how much can an audience take of a creepy looking doll that doesn’t have any articulation or expression? The character, and it feels like a stretch to label the doll as such, worked effectively as a prologue to The Conjuring due to the relative brief appearance. The doll was creepy enough for ten minutes and then the audience moved on. Now in a starring vehicle all to herself, Annabelle risks overexposure and the realization of just how limited this little demonic figure might be. A killer doll that comes to life is a genuinely unsettling proposition, one richly explored in a classic Twilight Zone episode that’s still spooky to this day. However, Annabelle doesn’t really do anything, and I suppose that’s the point. The doll is a conduit for the larger, invisible demonic force at play. We already know that it’s not the doll or a ghost but a demon posing as such. Ultimately, the doll isn’t anything more than a device to go back to again and again, a horror staple in place of true unnerving tension and dread. Hey, it’s hard to carefully manufacture and ratchet suspense, so why not just keep going back to a creepy looking doll instead?

With a lackluster antagonist, it’s no surprise then that Annabelle has to rely on all the hoary tropes of horror just to fill out its running time. The plot by writer Gary Dauberman plays out like the filmmakers watched Rosemary’s Baby, a documentary special on Sharon Tate, and said, “That’s it, we got out movie.” The Manson family-like cult is a plot element cast aside too quickly. They bring the demon to the doll, but the followers of this demonic presence never terrorize the couple again. It seems like one of many missed opportunities. Instead we get a slow series of events of the doll/demon messing around with Mia. There’s the kindly older priest that’s called into service, who does nothing. There’s a helpful neighbor mourning the loss of her own child who ends up an insulting plot device (more on this later with spoilers). And oh are there characters behaving stupidly, chief among them our heroine. She’s rather slow to realize the danger she is in and often leaves her baby alone to investigate said supernatural shenanigans. You know, the baby that is the object of desire for this demonic force. Rather than be proactive and have any sense of agency, Mia is that older type of horror heroine who runs around screaming and cowering in corners. It gets tired. There’s one scene where she’s trying to escape via an elevator that keeps opening on the same haunted floor. She literally hits the elevator button four times each time expecting something different, and the camera angle remains the same, leading to titters from my audience.

annabelle-1While The Conjuring certainly wasn’t a brave new direction in the realm of cinematic horror, it was skillfully executed and masterfully setup its scares. Annabelle does have a few decent boo moments, many of which were showcased in the trailer, but it cannot overcome the burden of all its clichés and wooden characters. Audiences are used to characters making poor decisions in horror films, but you still should have some level of believability or internal logic to their decision-making that doesn’t make your brain hurt. Sadly, Annabelle cannot rise above the limitations of its titular “monster” and so it has to rely upon an assemblage of familiar horror tropes to make due.

This paragraph is going into spoilers concerning the ending so I’d advise any reader wishing to remain pure to skip to the next paragraph. The great actress Alfre Woodard plays that grieving neighbor lady, the one who is joyously buying Mia baby clothes for her little one. During a climactic confrontation, Mia demands to know what the demon entity wants. It communicates via crayon scrawls on the ceiling: “Her soul.” One of the film’s creepier moments. Then the baby disappears and she wants to know what it will take to save her child. Mia looks to a window and written on it is, “Your soul,” just as it gently pushes itself open. Again, a creepy moment. I was starting to get the impression the film was picking up momentum. She’s about to sacrifice herself when she’s pulled back inside. This is where the film goes from bad to insultingly bad. I kept repeating under my breath, “Don’t do it, don’t do it,” and wouldn’t you know, they did it. Woodard realizes her purpose: she must sacrifice herself so this nice white couple will be safe. She dives out the window and evil is vanquished… sort of. It’s a stupid character arc made all the more unpleasant by the racial casting choices. I’d rather Woodard just save herself.

This small prequel has proven to be a smash at the box-office, so where does Annabelle go from here? Another prequel seems unlikely considering the events of this movie cover the birth of the demonic doll and lead directly to the prologue of The Conjuring, where this spunky little doll met her match with the married paranormal investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. The real Annabelle is encased in a glass prison. The only direction seems to be forward, with Annabelle breaking free of her prison and having a night on the town. Maybe she can locate Chucky and that Twilight Zone doll. I just hope future adventures with Annabelle, and its box-office grosses almost assure there will be, veer away from the overload of uninspired genre clichés. There’s not enough effort on display to warrant this solo side project for a creepy doll that mostly just remains creepy. Annabelle the film could have used less of Annabelle the doll. Then again an unblinking and silent doll was still the most interesting character on screen.

Nate’s Grade: C-

V/H/S/2 (2013)

220px-V-H-S-2_PosterThe second entry in the found footage horror anthology (and less than a year after the first to boot) is not as clever as V/H/S but more polished, better paced, and full of enough ingenuity to recommend, especially for horror fans. In my review of the first film I championed a shorter format, giving an audience the thrills they crave faster rather than slogging through an hour of slow buildup. The results are still fairly hit or miss, though none of the four segments is a misfire per se. The weakest is probably the last, “”Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” where the poor camera quality makes it hard to tell what is actually going on. The best, by far, is The Raid director Gareth Evans’ “Safe Haven” about a team of journalists picking perhaps the worst day to tour a creepy cult’s compound, notably during the apocalypse the cult predicted. This one takes a bit to wind up but when all hell breaks loose it goes nuts with glory. The wraparound segment tying everything together is more palatable and points to a promising mythology around the collection of these haunted VHS tapes that people keep watching and then dying over. All together, this is a concept that just works for horror and I’ll welcome presumed sequels as they come off the assembly line. This is found footage done right, with faster payoffs, more variety, and greater focus and ingenuity. If you enjoyed the first film, or are a fan of horror anthologies in general, then pop in V/H/S/2.

Nate’s Grade: B

V/H/S (2012)

The found footage subgenre seems ripe for overexposure at this point. Just this year we’ve had a found footage party movie, a found footage superhero movie, a found footage cop movie, and this week will open Paranormal Activity 4, the latest in the popular found footage horror series. I understand the draw for Hollywood. The movies are cheap and the found footage motif plays into our culture’s endless compulsion for self-documentation. There are definite benefits to the genre, notably an immediate sense of empathy, a sense of being in the fray, and an added degree of realism. There are plenty of limitations too, notably the restrictive POV and the incredulous nature of how the footage was captured. With that being said, I think the people behind V/H/S finally found a smart use of this format. V/H/S is an indie horror anthology that offers more variety, cleverness, and payoffs, than your typical found footage flick.

Normally, found footage movies consist of 80 minutes of drawn out nothing for five minutes of something in the end. Usually, the payoff is not worth the ensuing drudgery of waiting for anything to happen. Watching the Paranormal Activity movies has become akin to viewing a “Where’s Waldo?” book, scrutinizing the screen in wait. V/H/S has improved upon the formula by the very nature of being an anthology movie. Rather than wait 80 minutes for minimal payoff, now we only have to wait 15 minutes at most. I call that progress. I haven’t seen too many found footage films that play around with the narrative structure inherit with a pre-recorded canvas. I recall Cloverfield smartly squeezing in backstory, earlier pre-recorded segments being taped over. With V/H/S, this technique is utilized once and it’s just to shoehorn in some gratuitous T & A. Plus, the anthology structure allows for a greater variety. If you don’t like some stories, and chances are you won’t, you know another one’s just around the corner.

For my tastes, the stories got better as the film continued. I was not a fan of the first few stories. The wraparound segment (“Tape 51”) involves a band of delinquents who are hired to retrieve one VHS tape in a creepy home. The guys are annoying jackasses, and our opening image involves them sexually assaulting a woman and recording it to sell later, so we’re pretty agreeable to them being killed off one by one inside the creepy home. I just don’t know why anyone would record themselves watching a movie. It’s not like it’s Two Girls One Cup we’re talking about here. I found the wraparound segment to be too chaotic and annoying, much like the band of idiots. It ends up becoming your standard boogeyman type of story and relies on characters making stupid decision after stupid decision. Why do these idiots stay in the house and watch movies? Why do these people not turn on the lights?

The first actual segment (“Amateur Night”) has a solid premise: a bunch of drunken frat boys plan to make their own porn with a pair of spy glasses. They bring the wrong girl back to their motel room and get more than they bargained for. Despite some interesting commentary on the male libido (interpreting a woman’s spooky actions as being sexually aroused), this segment suffers from a protracted setup. There’s a solid ten minutes of boys being boys, getting drunk, that sort of thing. And when the tables are turned, the spyglasses lead to shakier recording, which is odd considering they are pinned on the guy’s nose. The horror of the ending is also diminished because it’s hard to make sense of what is literally happening. The weakest segment is the second one (“Second Honeymoon”), which is surprising considering it’s written and directed by Ti West, a hot name in indie horror after The Innkeepers. West’s segment is your standard black widow tale, following a couple on their vacation to the Southwest and their home movies. However, a stalker is secretly videotaping them while they sleep. Borrowing from Cache, this is a genuinely creepy prospect, and the sense of helplessness and dread are palpable. It’s surprising then that West concludes his segment so abruptly, without further developing the stalker aspect, and tacks on a rather lame twist ending that doesn’t feel well thought out. “You deleted that, right?” says one guilty character on camera washing away blood. Whoops.

The second half of V/H/S is what really impressed me, finding clever ways to play upon the found footage motif and still be suspenseful. The third segment (“Tuesday the 17th”) begins like your regular kids-in-the-woods slasher film. The very specific types of characters (Jock, Nerd, Cheerleader) are set for some frolicking when they come across a deranged killer. However, the slasher monster is a Predator-style invisible creature that can only be seen via the video camera. When recorded, the monster creates a glitch on screen. I think this is a genius way to cover the biggest head-scratcher in found footage horror: why are you still recording? With this segment, the video camera is the savior, the protector, the only engine with which they can see the monster. The fourth segment (“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”) is shot entirely through Skype conversations on laptops. Emily is convinced her apartment is haunted and seeks support from her boyfriend, away on business. This segment’s co-writer and director, Joe Swanberg, is more known for being the mumblecore king than a horror aficionado, but the man makes scary good use of the limitations of his setup. The story might be a bit hard to follow, especially its ending, but there are some great jolts and boo-moments. There’s even a fantastic gross-out surprise as Emily shares her own elective surgery/exploration.

But it’s the last segment that takes the cake, ending V/H/S on a fever pitch of action. The wraparound segment isn’t even that, since it ends before the final segment, “10/31/1998.” It’s a haunted house story about a group of guys who stumble into the wrong house on the wrong night. Initially they think the human sacrifice in the attic is part of the show, but then weird things start happening like arms coming through walls and door knobs vanishing. This segment is a great example of how effective atmosphere can be aided by smart and selective special effects. When the madness hits the home, it feels just like that, and the rush to exit the house is fueled with adrenaline. You don’t exactly know what will be around the next corner. The CGI effects are very effective and the lo-fi visual sensibilities give them even more punch. The frenzied chaos that ends “10/31/1998” would be apt for a feature-length found footage movie, let alone a 15-minute short. It’s a satisfying climax to a film that got better as it went.

With all found footage movies, there’s the central leap of logic concerning who assembled this footage, for what purposes, and how they got it. With movies like the abysmal Apollo 18, I stop and think, “Why do these people assembling the footage leave so much filler?” V/H/S doesn’t commit a sin worthy of ripping you out of the movie, but when it’s concluded you’ll stop and ponder parts of its reality that don’t add up. The very idea of people still recording onto VHS tapes in the age of digital and DVD seems curious, but I’ll go with it. Several segments obviously had to be recorded onto a hard drive; the Skype conversations would have to be recorded onto two perhaps. So somebody transferred digital records… onto a VHS tape? And it just so happens that this tape then got lost.

While inherently hit-or-miss, V/H/S succeeds as an anthology film and generates new life into the found footage concept. Not all of the segments are scary or clever, but even during its duller moments the film has a sense of fun. There’s always something new just around the corner to keep you entertained, and the various anthology segments give a range of horror scenarios. The lo-fi visual verisimilitude can be overdone at times, but the indie filmmakers tackle horror with DIY ingenuity. I don’t know if anything on screen will give people nightmares, but it’s plenty entertaining, in spots. V/H/S is an enjoyable, efficient, and entertaining little horror movie just in time for Halloween. If you’re going to do a found footage movie, this is the way to do it.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Devil Inside (2012)

I heard all about The Devil Inside earlier this year, when supposedly midnight screening audiences were so incensed that they practically became a riotous mob, throwing items at the screen, loudly booing, some even destroying theater equipment. If that doesn’t sell this movie, then I don’t know what will. I wasn’t expecting much from this faux documentary about one pretty girl’s (Fernanda Andrade) search for her crazy mom who may or may not be possessed by demons. She enlists the help of two exorcists and a camera crew and goes searching for answers. Never mind that the movie is absent any scares outside the sudden jump variety, ignore the empty characters and nonsensical plotting and poor pacing and choppy editing, as well as some bad Italian accents, and let’s get down to what makes this movie so notorious – the ending. Just when it appears that The Devil Inside is gearing up for a climactic showdown between good and evil, just when it seems like the movie is finally getting somewhere, it ends in the most abrupt, ludicrous fashion (note to self: when transporting possessed people, stow them away in the trunk). You’re left dumbstruck, shocked that the filmmakers cheated you out of an ending. It’s a nonsensical and cheap thing to do, and I can understand why it inflamed audiences (it still made over $50 million, so I think the filmmakers are feeling fine). Only those easily spooked by demonic possession would find this movie scary. Everyone else will just find it upsetting, not because of its content, but because of its lack of a workable conclusion.

Nate’s Grade: D+

11/11/11 (2011)

Here’s a lesson for you. Not all elevens are the same. Case in point, the apocalyptic horror film 11/11/11, picking this eleven-friendly doomsday. That’s because there are two movies released in 2011 that have this exact same concept. The other movie was written and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the man behind three Saw films and Repo: The Genetic Opera. That one, actually released on 11/11/2011, has a bit more publicity to its numerological case. The only thing separating the two movies is their choice of numerical separation. You see there’s the direct-to-DVD 11/11/11 and the theatrically released, Bousman-directed 11-11-11. It’s dashes or slashes, folks. I’d have to imagine that the dashes movie is better than this, the slashes movie, just on Bousman. But then again, expecting a better movie from the guy behind the middle section of the Saw franchise might be asking for too much. Still, I’d have to assume that a blind monkey could make a movie better than 11/11/11, a horror movie that could only scare you with how bad it is.

The basic plot is that a family moves into a new home. Jack Vales (Jon Briddell) is teaching a college course, taking over for a professor who killed himself. The professor’s widow just happens to live next door, and she’s batty. Melissa (Erin Coker) has found out that she’s pregnant again. The town’s doctors are keeping her sedated an awful lot. Then there’s 10-year-old Nathan “Nat” (Hayden Byerly) who is turning eleven on November 11, 2011, and it seems like everybody wants to celebrate. The neighbor lady knows the truth: on that date (Veteran’s Day?) the gates of hell will open and Nat is the key. The boy must be stopped, though there is a whole nest of Satanists trying to arrange events so that Nat does bring about the end of the world as we know it.

To call this movie low-rent is a disservice to grungy pornographers, exploitation peddlers, and inept amateur filmmakers. This movie is pathetic on just about every conceivable metric of filmmaking. First off, the premise is vague. We have this magical date looming, but what exactly happens? We’re told later that hell will open and maybe it’s the apocalypse or the rise of Satan or whatever. The kid, Nat, which by the way is the most annoying nick-name for somebody named Nathan (what was wrong with “Nate”?), is never made clear what role he will take. He’s the key to this whole deal but is Satan going to take over his body, as we see when he does some dastardly “no no” activities, or is Satan going to use him to release himself from hell? It’s never made clear, like much in the film, so the screenwriters make sure to cover their bases. Nat’s a demon child. Nat’s possessed. Nat’s scared of what’s under his bed. Nat’s mute. Nat can see into the future. Nat’s everything you need him to be. You’ll watch this movie constantly scratching your head, trying to get a feel for the rules or the boundaries of the narrative, grasping for nothing.

What you will be able to identify is the stupidity, which this movie has a never-ending supply of. Let’s tackle this numerological boogeyman thing head on. The shaky premise of 11/11/11 is that on that fated day the devil will rise up and… something. I’ll let the crazy old neighbor lady explain it best: “11 is God’s perfect number. One plus zero equals one [Editors note: Then shouldn’t one be the perfect number?]. Eleven is Satan’s number, it shows his arrogance, one more than God. Don’t you see? 11! Your son must die!” Well, I don’t need to hear anything else, pass the sacrificial blade this way. So I guess 666 just became passé and now 11 has become the new Satanic number of choice. Has anyone ever heard about this change? You know what, I’ll even go with this stupid idea. Let’s say what she said is true, so why does that mean that the year 2011 is the ultimate date of Armageddon? What about 1911, or 1811, or the first year 11 AD, or, God help us all, the year 1111? If eleven is Satan’s favorite integer then he missed a golden opportunity with that savory Middle Ages palindrome. Never mind the fact that our calendar is actually years off, but I’ll just assume that 11/11/11 takes place on its stated date even if people don’t know when that was. As a result of this numerological fanaticism, we’ll see lots and lots of clocks with some form of 11, like the very appearance of this number is meant to fashion fathomless dread. Oh no, the clock says it’s 11:40! Oh no, the clock says it’s 3:11! The clock face you dread the most is your own watch indicating that this movie is still not over. I thought we covered this numbers-are-evil nonsense with The Number 23. Once again, we have characters bending over backwards to try and make numbers fit into a pre-ordained pattern, supposedly enlightening us on all the spooky coincidences. So we have a character saying stuff like, “Flight 92 on September 11. 9 plus 2 equals 11.” Let me try: Wal-Mart has a special on PopTarts for $3.99. If you buy two, now 2 times 4 is 8, plus 10, divided by 8, times .5, and take the square root of who gives a shit?

What else is stupid in this movie? Where do I start? The conspiracy of Satanists feels like a terrible rip-off of Rosemary’s Baby, as these people form the worst neighborhood watch imaginable. They’re scheming to get Nat to unlock the End of Days, so they all do their checking up on the Vales family and eliminate any neighbors who say too much. This cozy little neighborhood is replete with death, including the fact that the Vales home was the scene of a massacre. One skittish neighbor informs Jack and Melissa that somebody had an “accident” on the block. “Is he okay?” Melissa asks. “Well, he fell and got impaled on his fence. So, I’d say… no.” I kid you not, that’s his exact wording. This skittish neighbor is also murdered later. This band of secret Satanists includes the new Vales nanny, Denise (Aurelia Scheppers, looking like a poutier Denise Richards). This new nanny murdered the other prospective nannies, which is one way to move ahead of the competition. This nanny is bad news. She teaches Nat all sorts of bad behavior, from frying butterflies with glass to hurling rocks at joggers. And the dumb kid does it with glee, making me lose all interest in whether or not he is Satan’s seed/host/whatever. Then Denise gives the kid a birthday present – an old, spooky-looking comb. To demonstrate, in case Nat is unfamiliar with comb technology, she drags the teeth across her arm and draws blood. Then she gives it over to him to do the same. What? What kid is like, “Oh, wow, a way to ritualistically injure myself? That’s the best birthday present an eleven-year-old could want.” I’m pretty sure the kid would have liked an Xbox over a strange demonic comb. And wouldn’t you know it, this comb makes a return appearance when our Satanic neighborhood watch collects to conduct their business in, I kid you not, a station wagon parked on the side of the street. It’s literally a station wagon with eight or nine people crammed in it, and it’s there all hours of the day.

Then there’s our crazy neighbor lady, whose name I can’t even recall. The screenwriters want us to distrust her from the beginning, and that’s fairly easy when we see how weirdly creepy she’s behaving. She’s obsessed with luring young Nat into her shed, and she keeps offering promises of toy trains, glasses of (poison) lemonade, and promises of cool, fun things. If only she knew a comb was all it would take. This woman is trying to lure Nat with all the verve of a child molester. She’s frantic to kill Nat, even calling Jack at work to lecture him on the necessity of killing his son. Why does the Satanic neighborhood watch let this woman slide on by when they kill any other neighbor for the slightest slip-up? Anyway, this woman just so happens to have a machete in her shed and you can imagine what happens from there.

One more scene of ridiculousness, please indulge me. After Jack sees his son covered in bloody scratches, he accuses the nanny and has her arrested. In a scene of great hilarity for myself, we cut to a scene where the cop and nanny are already in the home, and Denise is dressed like she’s going out for a night on the town, and she’s twirling her hair in her fingertips. The image is so absurd. She gets arrested and thrown into the cop car. “You’re going to regret this,” she warns. Then, magically, wasps come out of a crevice in the side door and the car fills up with a swarm. The cop tries swatting them away and drives headfirst into a telephone pole. I need to note that the editing is so bad in this scene, cutting back and forth between the cop swatting and the car swerving, that the shots never match, so it seems like the longest reaction shots. The car crashes and mysteriously this has caused Denise to magically remove her handcuffs. She strolls out of the car, down the street, and then the car takes its cue and promptly explodes. If this wasn’t dumb enough, we then see different shots of characters around the block reacting to the explosion, heard over and over. One of the Satanic neighbors, still sitting in the damn station wagon, has adept hearing: “That must have been that cop car.” You see, her sense of hearing is so sharp that she can distinguish the make, model, and employability of the car via explosion. Just imagine how useful/useless she’d be in a Michael Bay movie.

If 11/11/11 was just a supremely dumb movie it might work as camp, but it’s also inept as a scary movie. I don’t think director/co-writer Keith Allan could find an interesting looking shot if it held up a giant “11” sign. There is nothing scary about this movie whatsoever. All the shots of things with 11, it just doesn’t work, yet Allan keeps hitting it ad infinitum, mistakenly believing that while not effective on attempt 51, perhaps it will become effective on attempts 52-68. There’s a scene where Jack is standing watch at his son’s bed and the camera takes turns focusing on every stupid stuffed animal in the room, and Allan’s brilliant idea is to play a sound of the animal as we see its stuffed iteration. The stuffed bear is followed by a bear growl, etc. The fact that this series of animal noises continues for over a minute shows that Allan has no concept of what can scare or even what can entertain. His handling of actors is atrocious, as every single actor just bounces around the place, unmoored, unsure of what direction to take, so they take the wildest one. The actors are either monotone and flat or over-the-top, never believable for a second. Then there’s the “gotcha” ending which makes no sense considering Melissa is only three months pregnant and very much incapable of giving birth to a child, even if that unborn child is an unholy demonic terror.

11/11/11 is a date that will live in infamy, birthing this laughably awful, painfully ridiculous, atrociously inept movie, even by low-budget direct-to-DVD standards. The only entertainment you’ll find with this movie is the derisive sort, yukking it up over the unintended comedy bonanza that awaits. The movie is vague, silly, and overwhelmingly dumb, beholden to an inane numbers conspiracy that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I know my expectations should be kept at the minimum when dealing with this kind of movie, but that doesn’t mean I just ignore and excuse every artistic blunder, especially when I feel assaulted by them. 11/11/11 did bring on the apocalypse, and every audience member has left to go to a better place – the bathroom. Bousman should take some comfort knowing that the production house behind this movie, The Asylum, is somewhat notorious for rip-offs. I give you The Asylum releases: Battle of Los Angeles, Paranormal Entity, Transmoprhers, and The Day the Earth Stopped. 11/11/11 can hold one more numerical distinction: it’s the worst film of 2011.

Nate’s Grade: F

Insidious (2011)

Insidious is like a fresh coat of paint on the old haunted house movie. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Wannell, the team that birthed the grisly Saw franchise, are working in a completely different realm of horror, tying together familiar genre elements (creaky doors, séances, possession, demons with a lipstick fetish?) into one seriously effective spine-tingler. This PG-13 frightfest is well paced and methodically constructed, giving you pause whenever a character ventures offscreen. It finds a way to make old fears scary again. Wan and Wannell find ways to get under your skin. The final act lacks the precision of the rest of the movie, settling on too many explanations and a jumble of action, but the movie works. There are plenty of memorable, deeply creepy images afoot, the score of shrieking violins is a great addition to the ambiance, and the characters seem, given the outlandish scenario, fairly realistic and relatable. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson make a rather sweet married couple. Insidious is something of an old school horror film, using clever tricks and avoiding obvious clichés while building a genuine atmosphere of trepidation. The movie got me to yell at my TV, which is an achievement in itself for a horror flick. I lost my sense of place and reverted back to a participant, spooked at what may be lurking in the dark. Not too bad for PG-13.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Season of the Witch (2011)

No actor has amassed a higher output of spotty choices than the reigning king of the paycheck film, Nicolas Cage. The man has a habit of appearing in mediocre trash, only notable because a star of Cage’s stature is participating. He’s in late Marlon Brando territory and Cage hasn’t even hit 50 (or blown up to 300 pounds). Every now and then he’ll make a movie that reaffirms how talented an actor he can be, like Adaptation. or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But mostly what we associate with Cage nowadays is tic-filled performances, exuberant weirdness, funny hair, and bad movies, two of which are so bad they’re skipping theatrical releases this year (Trespass and Seeking Justice). Season of the Witch will do nothing to change this association.

During the 14th century Crusades, warriors Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) are the best killing machines the Church could hope for. They desert their positions after becoming disillusioned with the Crusades. The duo ventures into a city where a girl (Claire Foy) has been chained in a dungeon. In an airtight piece of impenetrable logic, she’s being blamed for bringing the plague. Behmen and Felson, along with a former knight, a priest, and a young upstart, are tasked with bringing the girl to a monastery where she can be properly dealt with. This secluded monastery is the only place left with a copy of a rare manuscript that contains a spell that will end the pestilence. They put the girl in a cage with wheels and get rolling to that monastery, though not everyone is convinced that the girl is a witch.

For the first ten minutes, you swear you’re watching a buddy comedy transported to the era of the Crusades. Cage and Perlman are in the front lines of “God’s army” but they’re trading competitive quips like, “You take the 300 on the right. I’ll take the 300 on the left,” and then they preposterously debate who is going to buy post-battle drinks while in the heat of battle. They’re literally slaying enemy soldiers and would rather be arguing over who buys. It’s like they have no attachment to anything happening. This opening Crusade sequence takes us through 12 freaking years of battle locations, but it’s only at the final battle that Cage and Perlman come to the realization that women and children might also be getting slaughtered as they siege city after city. It’s at this point that they get on their moral high horses and stick it to the Catholic leaders: “I serve God, not you. This is not God’s work.” Why did it take them 12 years of fighting to figure out that innocent people may die when you lay waste to cities? Naturally this epiphany only happens after they kill off a European looking innocent. The opening sequence is meant to introduce us to these characters, but it jars the viewer in mere minutes. These guys don’t feel a part of their place or time, and it only gets worse from there. Their nonchalant anachronistic behavior makes the movie seem like a Hope and Crosby vehicle.

This is one thunderously boring movie, putting me to sleep three separate times. I had to rewind what I had missed, and each time I came to the conclusion that I really had missed nothing at all. The problem with the plot is that it makes a mystery pretty obvious. The group is carting around a teen girl in a cage. You’d think this would be something of a conversation starter, perhaps even an opening for a critical analysis of the Inquisition and religious fanaticism at this perilous time. Nope. The whole of the Bubonic Plague is being blamed on a teen girl and nobody seems to bat an eye at this. Sure there’s a few passing references to how killing is wrong (again, remember this took at least 12 years of slaughter to sink in), but the movie’s central storyline seems to shift to a “Is she really a witch?” query. Judging from what kind of film this is, you’d probably be safe betting on “yes” and, well, you’d be partly right. The reason this is no spoiler is because it’s revealed at like halfway through the movie. The girl’s chief defenders suddenly jump on the “burn her” bandwagon. Strange things are following the troupe, so it’s pretty obvious who is at play. However, the girl is no witch but is inhabited by a demon, which seems like splitting hairs. When the super cheesy CGI demon/gargoyle shows its face, the creature actually speaks English but in a really speedy and comical voice that makes it hard to be taken seriously. An earlier cut of the movie did not involve this dumb CGI demon but the girl herself. At least that route would have saved the producers some money and unintentional laughter.

The movie should be far more entertaining, even in a dubious fashion, than it finally is. Season of the Witch flirts with some messages (religion can exploit, women were unfairly persecuted) and silly genre elements amidst a Medieval setting (witches, demons, plague). That sounds like the makings for a campy treat but that treat never materializes. The boring plot lumbers, with the company encountering some setback that picks off their numbers one by one. It’s hard not to feel the drowsy effects of the dull repetition. They encounter killer wolf creatures. Then they encounter a rickety rope bridge, and you better believe that there are rotting boards and fraying ropes. Who keeps building these rope bridges that appear in so many movies, and why do they keep getting hired after continually doing substandard work? Do the regulators get fat payoffs from the rope bridge lobby?

The road to the monastery is a long trek and the movie’s momentum seems to lag with every step. There should be more internal conflict rather than this superficial “killing is wrong” moral that every warrior seems tormented with. The premise should be a ripe opening for a discussion on the perversion of religion for political and personal gain, for the abuses of power, for the archaic view of women as subhuman beings who will seduce men to destruction. There’s even a priest along the way to provide a counterpoint. But alas, Season of the Witch goes hog wild for the cheesy supernatural spooks and even at that it fails miserably.

As of late, the saving grace in a Nicolas Cage paycheck movie is a gonzo performance and some wacky hairdo. We don’t even get that much with Season of the Witch. Cage is oddly subdued throughout the whole movie despite all the swords and witchery. Even his hair is subdued. Without Cage’s typical nutty antics, the movie loses any chance of entertainment it might have ever hoped to have. The shame is that Cage and Perlman both have an easygoing chemistry. You like the two of them together; you just wish they had a better reason to trade insults and one-liners.

Far from bewitching, this movie is ponderously dull. It misses camp by a mile and just lands on mediocrity. There’s nothing about this movie that will stand the test of time, good or bad. This is the definition of a paycheck movie. It flirts with going darker before it settles on a messy monster-heavy ending. The special effects are cheesy, the scares are cheap, the plot is repetitious, the characters feel wrongly transplanted from a modern movie, and Cage sleepwalks through his role. I can’t say I blame him. Season of the Witch put me to sleep and I only had to put up with it for 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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