Review: Oculus (2013)

Oculus (2013)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan (screenplay), Jeff Howard (screenplay)
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff

Oculus (not to be confused with the recent virtual reality headset) starts out as an incredibly strong entry in the contemporary ghost story genre. However, as polished as the surface appears to be, it’s too ambitiously heavy to be supported by the lack of foundation lying beneath, eventually shattering by the uninspired ending. But let’s start with what works, shall we?

There’s an inherent flaw in most modern ghost stories. They tend to follow the same formula: weird things happen, one person starts to suspect a supernatural element, but no one believes them, things escalate, others begin to believe but it’s too late, they manage to dispatch the ghost but with some sacrifice. Not only does the formula begin to get old, but there’s a built-in passivity to the characters, at least in the first half. And passiveness is a character killer. We want to watch characters do things, be proactive, confront their problems head on. Even in the good ghost stories, I always feel like I have to put up with the first part to get to the good stuff at the end. We, the audience, know why the plants are dying and what the whispering is, but we have to watch the characters blunder around ignorantly.

Oculus deftly avoids this pitfall through the cunning use of a non-sequential narrative. In fact, the movie almost serves as its own sequel. We cut back and forth between Kaylie and Tim as children, being terrorized by their parents (or what’s possessing them) and the two in their early twenties, attempting to destroy the evil which caused them so much pain. This structure allows us to begin with the meat of the film, the characters on the same page as the audience, and all the obligatory set up told through incremental flashbacks. I can’t overstate how refreshing it was to immediately jump to the trying to outsmart the ghost aspect of the film. I really liked the aspect of the film that Kaylie has studied the possessed item and is trying to simultaneously document and prove its abilities, as well as destroy it. I always like it when characters in horror movies go on the offensive. Watching her detail the various steps she’s taken to safeguard herself is quite entertaining.

Much of that fun was thanks to Karen Gillan, who gives an exciting, feisty performance as Kaylie, a woman determined to defeat the ghost that wreaked so much havoc on her family as a child. Brenton Thwaites, who plays her brother, is a bit less engaging, but he does have the more boring part, playing the skeptic who doesn’t trust his own senses or memories. Their child counterparts are both capable actors, and look remarkably like them, helping form the link between the past and present.

In fact, the pacing of the two stories was woven together incredibly well. Writer/Director Mike Flanagan, who also did his own editing, gets full marks for deftly editing in and out of past and present. This technique in films can often go horribly awry. Spend too much time with one story and it feels jarring to jump to the other. Don’t spend enough time and you lose interest in it. I was fully engaged in both past and present of this film and never felt like one was overstaying its welcome.

So where does the film fall apart? Well, the movie deals with themes of perception, memories vs. reality, and the immutability of evil. However, it never really has anything to say about any of that. As the film progresses, we, the audience, are brought into the characters’ shoes, as we can’t really tell what is real or not. Time begins folding in on itself, past and present merging, reality and perception blurring. We’re never really sure if what we’re seeing is occurring or just part of the evil’s machinations. This is all well-presented, the dread and tension building nicely, yet nothing ever really comes of it. At times the film seems to suggest that we should rely on our memories, at other times it says that our senses can’t be trusted at all. It just feels like the movie could have gone somewhere interesting but seems content just to utilize these ideas to justify some scares and stylish sequences.

Another problem is that a horror film is only as good as its villain. Even the worst installments of the Friday the 13thNightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween series were worth watching because they had great villains, with pasts and motivations. The villain in this film is an evil mirror. Yes, not since Harry Potter was almost entranced by The Mirror of Erised has a mirror been so dangerous. It’s actually a cool, spooky looking mirror with a colorful past spelled out in a fun bit of exposition. However, what is blatantly not mentioned is why the mirror is haunted. Why it kills those around it. I don’t want it all spelled out, but some hint that there is a story there would be nice. There’s obviously a central figure which we see emerge from the mirror a couple of times but given no hint to who she is or why she does what she does.

Another storytelling cliché is that even the most fantastic stories have to have rules. Okay, I’m going to buy that we have a supernatural killer mirror, but I want to know that it operates under some set of rules. I don’t need to know what they are, but it should feel like there are things it can do and things it can’t do. This is also very muddled in the film; the powers of the mirror seem to be whatever the needs of the scene are.

So, despite a strong beginning, full of hope and promise of a new horror classic, the film finally shudders to an unsatisfying ending that somehow manages to come out of nowhere yet is also horribly predictable. What we’re left with is a stylish, spooky tale with a couple of unique elements and a bit of a shoulder shrug ending. There’s certainly been worse, and it’s worth the watch, but I fear it will soon be forgotten.

- Cameron Harrison 3 out of 5

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Review: Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

Director: Ellory Elkayem / Warner Bros. Pictures

(Originally published on 3/3/2013)

                  From David Arquette’s Things-To-Do list…

1)     Gain some fame from Wes Craven films.
2)     Land Courtney Cox, lose her later.
3)     Make people remember I starred in Airheads; Make them forget I was in See Spot Run.
4)     Become WCW champion, ruin Eric Bischoff’s career.
5)     Make a monster movie that needs a hyphen in the title.
6)     Do some more Wes Craven Films.
7)     Check into rehab.

There’s something about David Arquette that David Arquette doesn’t quite understand: people like him. He’s the sort of guy you’d want to go for a beer with (if he still drank) and who you could just watch horror movies and wrestling with whilst sharing a pizza. He’s a lovable goof of a guy who oozes that “everyman” charm that Hollywood hates so much. Thankfully, he’s exactly what this B-movie homage needed to make it work.

The story is pure hokum: The down-on-it’s-luck mining town of Prosperity is shipping toxic waste about and a barrel falls into the local river. A farmer of exotic spiders captures some irradiated bugs and feeds them to his arachnid chums, and they promptly grow to colossal size, kill him and escape, wiping out all manner of animals (including ostriches) before setting their sights on the local townsfolk.

Thankfully, Arquette has arrived back in town convinced that his dead father’s tales of the mines housing a fortune in untapped gold are true. Before you know it, he’s the unlikely hero who’s romancing the town sheriff and climbing radio towers to try to get a signal to the outside world for help. The rest of the citizens (the ones who survive, anyway) take refuge in the local shopping mall and arm themselves as best as possible.

Of course, you can see the end coming a mile away. They explain early on that the mining tunnels are full of methane gas that could blow at any time, and we know that the spiders have made those tunnels their home. Three guesses for figuring out the ending of the movie, and the first two don’t count. Of course, the important thing is that everyone’s having fun here and you can just go along for the ride, right? Wrong.

This is a film that has as many cons as it does pros. It’s hard to tell if it’s a homage to monster B-movies or just an insult. What makes those old junkers so lovably funny is that the filmmakers were trying so hard to be serious. Instead, we’ve got a monster movie that set out to be funny, by putting silly squeaky people-noises on the spiders and by having set-pieces like a cat take on a spider inside a wall that shows the imprints of the fight like a cartoon.

For all that, it’s a fun romp. The townsfolk are bumbling morons and seeing them defend the local mall is brilliant. The effects are good, and things like the spider attack on some “Xtreme” bikers are well handled. Arquette is ably assisted by Doug E. Doug, Kari Wuhrer and a young Scarlett Johansson, and the film rolls along at a good pace.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work as a horror film no matter how fun it is, it’s just too silly. If you’ve got a hankering for a scary spider movie, you’d be better off watching the far superior Arachnophobia, and if you want a good tribute to monster movies then watch Cloverfield or The Host. This movie is like Arquette himself: it just doesn’t quite understand itself.


Review: Jack Frost (1997)

Jack Frost (1997)
Director: Michael Cooney
Writers: Jeremy Paige (story), Michael Cooney (story)
Stars: Scott MacDonald, Christopher Allport, Stephen Mendel

As a young child in snowy Minnesota, this movie not only horrified me but, to my mother’s dismay, caused a severe aversion to venture outside in the winter months. Watching it again, now I’ve realized that while this movie is technically a horror flick it, like the chest burst scene from Freddy’s Revenge, is only scary in my adolescent memory.

Jack Frost, a 1997 so-bad-it’s-good horror/comedy, features serial killer Jack Frost (Scott MacDonald) who, through a Marvel-worthy accident, involving a genetic research vehicle on the way to his execution, turns into a mutated snowman. Freed from his death sentence and given a new body, Jack travels to the fictional small town of Snowmonton in order to extract revenge on the sheriff (Christopher Allport) who sent him away. As you can imagine, death, destruction and even a mild conspiracy plot involving the FBI ensue.

The technical aspects of this film aren’t anything to get excited about, the acting isn’t that great, and the effects are cheap at best (the snow looks more like coconut flakes than anything that could have ever come out of the sky) but it’s all of that cheese, along with the comical editing and over-exaggerated expressions from the actors, that makes it so fun to watch. There are more puns in it than an episode of CSI, and the amount of foreshadowing is near nauseating, not to mention the film seems to drag on forever (who knew a mutated snowman would be so hard to kill) but that’s all easy to forgive. From the intro alone, it’s obvious that this movie isn’t to be taken seriously and by the halfway mark its status as a cult favorite becomes inarguable. It’s no Silence of the Lambs but considering the basic plot you shouldn’t expect it to be.

When it comes to this movie, just lower your standards, turn off your brain and allow yourself to both laugh with it and at it while you decorate your Rocky Horror themed gingerbread men or try to get hammered off eggnog. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to watch Jack Frost for scares or thought-provoking dialogue (although some of it is surprisingly clever), putting it into your Holiday movie line up is a must.   

 - Marysa Storm


Review: The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger (1983)
Director:  Tony Scott
Writers:  Whitley Strieber (novel), Ivan Davis (screenplay)
Stars:  Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon

This movie had me at Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie play a pair of vampires.  It's also directed by the late, often great Tony Scott, who always knew how to make a good popcorn flick.  The Hunger is a surprisingly entertaining vampire movie, given it's probably the most un-vampire like vampire movie in existence.  It's as though it's in a state of genre denial, and for some may come off more an erotic thriller than horror film, but the final product delivers enough blood and gothic imagery to whet the appetite of any horror fan.

Deneuve plays Miriam Blaylock, a gorgeous ancient vampire who every 300 years or so must acquire a new immortal lover of her choosing.  At times it's gory and disturbing, especially the turning point in the film when Miriam’s current lover John, played by Bowie, takes the life of a young child, the child Miriam plans on having as her next partner in crime. It's an unsettling moment with significant repercussions, and this is when the plot really thickens, as Martian must scramble for a replacement.  The big finale, when the mummified corpses of Miriam’s past lovers rise from their caverns, is a genuinely frightening sequence, if not a bit too reminiscent of the Poltergeist finale a year earlier.  But this climactic moment is the most visually stunning of the film and really shows off the amazing special effects work, which look better in '83 than most stuff nowadays.  

The Hunger was not initially well received but has since found its audience and over the years developed somewhat of a cult following.  It's easy to see why, based on the credits alone: Deneuve and Bowie are icons in their own right, Sarandon offers an early and quite edgy (and rather nude) performance, and it’s Tony Scott’s first major work and one of his only horror films.  There is a classiness to The Hunger you don’t find in many other horror films and its unique atmosphere is unlike any vampire story I’ve ever seen.

Peter DiGiovanni


The Horror Delight of 1991: A Closer Look at POPCORN

Unveiling the Horror Delight of 1991: A Closer Look at Popcorn

In the vast realm of horror films, the year 1991 introduced a hidden gem that remains a cherished cult classic among genre enthusiasts – Popcorn. Directed by Mark Herrier and released by Studio Three Film Corporation, this horror flick delivers a unique blend of scares, thrills, and a meta-narrative that sets it apart from its contemporaries.

Popcorn unfolds its eerie tale within the framework of a horror movie marathon hosted by a film school. The plot revolves around film student Maggie Butler, portrayed by Jill Schoelen, who discovers a dark secret about her family's past while organizing a horror film festival to raise funds for her school. As the festival progresses, the line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred, leading to a series of spine-chilling events.

One of the film's standout features is its self-awareness. Popcorn doesn't shy away from acknowledging and celebrating the horror genre. The movie within a movie concept allows it to pay homage to classic horror tropes, offering a meta experience for viewers. This self-referential approach adds a layer of depth, making Popcorn not just a horror film but a love letter to the genre itself.

The setting of the film, an old, decrepit movie theater, adds a haunting atmosphere that heightens the overall sense of dread. The use of the theater as a backdrop provides ample opportunities for suspenseful sequences, as the characters navigate darkened corridors, hidden passages, and creepy prop rooms. The eerie ambiance of the setting contributes significantly to the film's effectiveness in creating a genuinely frightening experience for the audience.

The strength of Popcorn lies in its ability to blend horror with humor seamlessly. While the film explores genuinely terrifying elements, it also injects moments of levity, keeping the tone engaging and entertaining. The juxtaposition of horror and humor is a delicate balance, but Popcorn manages to pull it off, providing viewers with an enjoyable and unpredictable ride.

The practical effects and creature designs in Popcorn deserve special mention. In an era dominated by CGI, the film's reliance on practical effects showcases the creativity and craftsmanship of the special effects team. From grotesque monsters to eerie illusions, the practical effects contribute to the film's nostalgic charm, harking back to a time when horror relied on tangible, in-camera effects to terrify audiences.

The cast, led by Jill Schoelen, delivers commendable performances that enhance the film's overall quality. Schoelen's portrayal of Maggie Butler anchors the narrative, and her journey from an unsuspecting film student to the protagonist facing supernatural horrors adds depth to the character. The supporting cast, including Tom Villard, Dee Wallace, and Tony Roberts, contribute to the film's ensemble dynamic, each bringing a unique element to the table.

Despite its undeniable charm, Popcorn did not achieve commercial success upon its initial release. However, over the years, the film has garnered a dedicated cult following. Its unique approach to the horror genre, combined with the nostalgic appeal of practical effects and a compelling meta-narrative, has elevated Popcorn to a revered status among horror aficionados.

In conclusion, Popcorn stands as a testament to the creativity and innovation present in the horror genre during the early '90s. Its ability to blend scares, humor, and a self-aware narrative set it apart from its peers, making it a must-watch for fans of classic horror. As the film continues to find new audiences through the years, its legacy as a cult classic remains intact, proving that true horror gems are often discovered in the shadows of cinematic history.


Review: Patrick (2013)

Patrick (2013)
Director: Mark Hartley
Writer: Justin King
Stars: Charles Dance, Rachel Griffiths, Sharni Vinson

Summary: Behind the walls of Roget Clinic, which specializes in the care of coma cases, a supposedly brain-dead patient is subjected to brutal experiments.

At the time of viewing this movie, I was unaware that Patrick was a remake of a movie by the same name that was made in 1978. J.W. Brewer, if you were planning on doing a “Remake Vs. Original” of this franchise, I do apologize. But I am going to go out on a limb and just assume the original was better after having only watched the remake.

The movie starts with a nurse at the clinic snooping around in the basement and being killed by a needle to the eye from an unknown person. We then cut to the heroine of the story, Kathy Jacquard (played by Sharni Vinson), applying for a job at the clinic. She is a highly educated expert in the care of comatose patients and is hired by Dr. Roget (Charles Dance) immediately. He does warn her though, that what he is doing at the clinic is very avant-garde and that he is taking drastic steps to improve, perhaps even awaken at will, a person in a comatose state.

While Kathy is getting used to the hospital and its coma patients (who are all topless and in one single room), we learn that Kathy is on the run from something in her life which led her to Roget’s clinic. Her friends wonder on her (imitation) Facebook page where she is and why she is avoiding phone calls.

The only coma patient with his own room is Patrick, who strangely has his eyes wide open and has a muscle spasm where he randomly spits. This is Dr. Roget’s special project. And the method of testing he uses is…a little off. He basically puts two electrical probes to Patrick’s temples and electroshocks the shit out of his head. According to Roget, he is trying to awaken long dead neurons in the hopes that the patient will make a full recovery.

For the first and second act of this movie, it relied heavily on a build-up of jump scares and eerie settings to keep the viewer interested. And then…something happens. While Kathy is alone with Patrick after one of his treatments, she learns that Patrick can actually feel and can communicate through his spitting (spit once for yes, twice for no). She tests him by touching his face, his chest, his feet, and then…

Wait. What? Hold on. Is she trying to give him a hand job? Fortunately, Kathy is interrupted by the head nurse, but what the hell was that about? What was her end game there? It was such an odd thing to happen in the movie and was so out of character. From what we saw of Kathy previously, she is intelligent, self-assured and independent. So why the hell is she sticking her hand down Patrick’s pants? Was it medical? Was she looking for a reaction? Why not just tickle his feet? It was one of those things you couldn’t really disregard. If you think I am dwelling too much on the attempted hand-jibber, I wish I was, but this little moment turns into the crux of the third act.

Patrick will only communicate with Kathy and no one else, which causes Kathy to second-guess her sanity, especially when Patrick begins to communicate through the computer monitor in his room. At this point, I was wondering if the director was going to go for one of those clichéd, no-longer-a-twist endings where maybe Kathy is the one in the coma and all the events that she is experiencing were symptoms of her illness or random firing of neurons, some crap like that. The scene structure of the movie sets up for such an ending, as each scene just kind of appears with no set-up, much like a series of dream sequences. Whoever she interacts with seems to hurt themselves, and although it was not as frenetic and feverish as say, Jacob’s Ladder, there were some odd things going on. 

So, I was intrigued. I at least wanted to know if I was right about how it would end. There was some decent suspense and intrigue built up and leading into the last half hour of the movie. What will happen with the coma patient who is being experimented on by a desperate, half-mad doctor as well as a nurse who is struggling with bouts of delusions? And then I watched the movie shit all over the proverbial bed.

Telekinesis. They went with Telekinesis. Apparently, for each of Patrick’s treatments, he was getting stronger and was able to better control objects with his mind, even from miles away. Patrick is controlling cars, he’s taking over people’s computers, he’s making phone calls. Not only is he making phone calls, but he’s also controlling the people he calls through the goddamn telephone if they pick up the receiver. Why, he can make a man melt his hands in a sandwich press if he wants. At one point, he doesn’t even need to make the phone calls. He just wills himself into another’s body, whether they are alive or dead.

Toward the end, Dr. Roget gets so desperate for results from the testing that he literally amps up the treatment, giving Patrick all sorts of telekinetic powers. Because that’s how electricity works. Let that be a lesson to you, kids: If you’ve ever wanted to do a Jedi-mind trick, like Luke Skywalker reaching for his lightsaber, then all you need to do is grab your favorite fork and jam it into the nearest electrical socket.

This third act was so terrible, it felt like I was watching someone smear themselves with their own shit. Sweet little Patrick was actually admitted to the clinic right after he killed his mother and her boyfriend and tried to off himself. And now he was obsessed with Kathy. Why? Because she showed him some care and consideration. Oh, and the hand job. Patrick was really keen on getting that hand job. In order to convince her to finish the (hand) job, Patrick controls all of the coma patients by making them sit up straight and say, “Patrick wants his hand job.” No, I am not kidding.

Now, if Patrick could control multiple people at will, couldn’t he have just taken over Kathy’s body and finished his hand job then? It would have given a whole new spin on “the stranger” masturbation technique. And it would have saved me a lot of frustration watching this dreck.

The movie turned into such a farce; I hardly even noticed the ending. I was half-expecting Leslie Nielson to come into Patrick’s room and go, “I just wanted to tell you both good luck, we’re all counting on you.”

Kathy kills Patrick somehow, in a way that I didn’t really care about, but right after she does so, Patrick gives himself one last surge of electricity and flies his body out the goddamn window to kill himself. Again. And I couldn’t stop laughing.

- Michael Jenkins

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Review: Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

Alice Sweet Alice (1976)
Director: Alfred Sole
If you survive this night…Nothing will scare you again.

Set in the 1960s (which, due to lack of budget, was lost among more contemporary details) and heavy on anti-Catholic rhetoric, Alice Sweet Alice is definitely the odd one out of its time. It stars a young Brooke Shields as Karen, the first victim and younger sister of our deeply unnerving yet oddly likable antagonist, Alice. Between the constant whining and carrying on of Karen and the overt favoritism of children by the mother, it’s easy to sympathize with poor Alice.  Although the film starts right off with all kinds of emotional tension, the first death definitely sets the mood for the rest of the film.

Alice becomes main suspect in murder of sister. I mean, she did just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, have the same creepy smiling mask and yellow raincoat as the murderer, and have more than enough motive. Throughout the film, it becomes more and more apparent that Alice is less than innocent, but her involvement in the terrors to unfold would remain to be seen. However, there was much hinting at the idea that the ghost of Karen, back for revenge may be to blame.

One character, which we are introduced to briefly after the death of Karen, was the creepy apartment manager with all of the kittens. I feel he could have been explained or integrated into the plot a little more. He seemed to both hate and take a “liking” to Alice and reminded me a bit of a John Waters character. Alice seemed to return the favor, somehow possibly liking his creepy, pedophilic attention, adding to the Alice character as deeply troubled and demented. Indeed, a disturbing but weirdly compelling relationship.

Throughout the film, Mom refused to listen to anything and anyone, ready to fight everyone about her children, and was always hysterical and uncooperative. She was also kind of an enabling pushover. There was also the aunt. She seemed to always know what was up, but no one listened and came off as overzealous at times. Between the two of them, there was quite a lot of tension and screaming, especially in regard to the guilt of Alice, who later may or may not have stabbed her aunt several times. As you can imagine, the following scenes would be littered with yelling, denial, and hysteria. The estranged father played the role as the voice of reason, although he started off by being uncooperative and silly about everything. However, he begins to pull himself together and actively aid in solving the mystery of who attacked the aunt in the stairwell.

I do believe that had the film followed along the “disturbed little girl dodging everyone’s radar on a killing spree” path that it would have been more compelling. The final murder and the reveal of the real killer at the end were a bit of a letdown (although it didn’t not make sense). However, the notion of the idea that Alice could very well be capable of murder and was not completely innocent was compelling and would have made for a fine storyline in of itself. The fact that the ending seemed kind of thrown into place, for the sake of the element of surprise, was more frustrating than anything. Despite the fact that the plot was a little bit all over the place, I would say that this film is deserving of a gander for any horror buff.

- Jasmine Casimir