An impressive found footage film that strikes at the heart of the everyday family.
This film never gets the credit it deserves. But it's one of the best post-2000 crime-thrillers out there, directed/written by the one and only James Gray.
Trigger Man. 2007. Directed, Edited, & Written by Ti West.
Starring Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb, James Felix McKenney, Seth Abrams, & Larry Fessenden.
KINO International/Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix/CCR Productions.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
This is a slightly unusual film out of Ti West’s filmography. He is a great director, in my opinion. You either dig him, or you don’t; no middle ground. And that’s fine, if everybody liked the same thing we’d be a boring lot of humans. For those of us who enjoy West and his brand of horror, Trigger Man comes as a surprise. I remember listening to an interview he did talking about how this film sort of came up on a whim. He wrote a script, brought it to Larry Fessenden, and then they had time to shoot it, so a real indie shoot came about. Ultra low budget. Almost rogue-style filmmaking.
Apart from the visual feel and the actual use of digital rather shooting on film, West looks at a more dramatic thriller angle than anything horror. Sure, the horror of humanity comes out. That’s a huge element. Most of his movies, aside from recently with The Sacrament, tend to go for classic horror elements while he does his best to subvert expectations, keeping with the spirit of indie film. Trigger Man works because it doesn’t necessarily try to change anything. It works by building up an atmosphere of dread, each scene slowly, steadily amping up the feeling that at any moment a horrible event is about to take place. True to what later became signature to his personal directorial style, West slow burns through his plot before reaching a nicely executed finale. Then if the terror isn’t enough for you concerning real people and their sometimes hideous actions in this raw look at a story that’s not unbelievable in the slightest, maybe I’m weak. Maybe I should hang up the ole horror hat.
Nah. I dig this one. It isn’t near perfect. However, West makes me sweat enough throughout this sparse flick that I can’t help watching it now and then. It’s a tough one to find on DVD, but luckily I picked it up last year. I’ll always support West’s films and I can admit when there are faults. I refuse to not acknowledge a solid low budget thriller when it’s in front of my face. You shouldn’t expect his best, though don’t sell West short here.
This movie was never intended to be on a grand scale. West had the time and wanted to make something with a very minimalist take, so instead of opting to shoot on film (as he usually does) he went digital. The entire film is much different from any of his other work, even his early feature The Roost. With a handheld and kinetic style, West uses this feel to create as much tension possible. If anything, this is a nice exercise in suspense. You can judge this for being low budget and all that, but it wasn’t ever meant to be anything more. Larry Fessenden, a mentor of West’s in the industry, gave him about $10K to make it. They found some nice locations, kept the cast to a bare minimum. West had a small story that worked for the basic needs. Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of the genre. Part of me enjoys Trigger Man because West isn’t exactly swinging for the fences, as he so often does with his other brilliant features. Here, he does his best at cultivating a specific mood of tension that worms its way through the short 80 minute runtime. Many might not find the finale rewarding. I do. The tension pays off in an excellent way and I find it properly horrifying. Along the way we’re treated to a couple smatterings of blood, one particularly chunky, gross practical effect honestly looks real. I found that one unsettling, in the best kind of horror way.
Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s even a lick of truth to the concept that West claims this is inspired by a true story. If so, I’d love to see what the real scenario was, how it played out, what exactly went down the whole time. But forgetting all that this is still a real-feeling situation. These guys essentially wander into the path of something over which they have no control. Then it’s a sort of city dweller v. backwoods story that descends into utter nastiness. Part of the ultra-realism is the sound design by Graham Reznick. When these guys are out in the midst of the forest, near the river, running for their lives, we get the feeling of being right next to them, as the river rushes and their voices carry. Some likely find that annoying, which I totally understand. To me, these elements only add to the extremely raw atmosphere. There’s also not so much a score as there is this wonderfully ambient noise from Jeff Grace . At times that does morph into something more musical in terms of short pieces that accompany specific moments. Still, the best parts Grace offers up are these brutish shrieks and hypnotizing swirls of sound that wrap you up then rattle you; almost representative of the mental processes going on in someone’s head were they in such a life threatening, insane situation as these guys. Everything is minimal. The story is contained. The blood is gruesome when it comes, but only comes in a couple little bursts. The camera work consists of digital handheld shooting, nothing fancy; only once or twice do we get shots that are motionless, everything else keeps the chaotic pace by wavering and keeping on the move with the characters, zooming from the landscape to their faces and expressions of fear. The music is kept down to a handful of places where it’s nearly perfect. Through and through, Trigger Man is a utilitarian production that if anything knows how to use its bare necessities and structures itself accordingly.
You’ll either dig it a bit, or find it unappealing. There’s really nothing halfway about Trigger Man. Similar to the way people seem to feel about its director. Personally, Ti West is someone I find incredibly talented. He and I are close in age, so part of my affinity for his work has to do with the fact many of the movies he seems to admire and have grown up watching are the same ones as myself. Because of that they reflect in his own work, in turn capturing my attention. Not only that, though. West is simply a great director. He makes interesting choices, as well as the fact he’s an interesting writer. Preferring to take things slow, his films are sometimes categorized as being boring. A word I’ll never use in reference to any of his features. But to each their own. For me, he’s a fascinating artist that often takes a genre story we know and brings his unique vision to a story in order to freshen things up. Trigger Man doesn’t necessarily liven the survival thriller sub-genre. It does excite and keep you on edge, or at least it does for me. Give this one the chance, it’s a taut piece of work. Ignore the flaws and get past the handheld stuff. West is a scary guy, no matter if he’s working within the walls of a haunted hotel, dealing with vampire bats that turn people into the living dead, or wandering the forest with people running for their lives. It’s all spooky.
Zodiac. 2007. Directed by David Fincher. Screenplay by James Vanderbilt, based on the book of the same name by Robert Graysmith.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Richmond Arquette, Bob Stephenson, John Lacy, Chloë Sevigny, Ed Setrakian, John Getz, John Terry, Candy Clark, & Elias Koteas.
Phoenix Pictures/Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.
Rated 14A. 157 minutes.
In terms of people who’ve been making movies since the ’90s, David Fincher is one of those whom I’d consider as an auteur. He doesn’t necessarily tackle any abstract subjects – perhaps The Game and Fight Club are closest to being abstract – but he definitely has his own style, a look and feel all his own. His hand is on every last portion of the finished film. He’s plain and simple an auteur.
So even Zodiac, which is part procedural and part dramatic thriller, has all the earmarks of his genius on it. Everywhere. Not to mention the loaded cast, right down to spectacular character actors such as John Carroll Lynch filling out the back end. There’s enough intrigue in the Zodiac Killer case from real life to fill out a dozen movies, and it certainly has over the years with actual people like SFPD Inspect Dave Toschi having served as inspiration for other films like Bullitt, as well as both he and the Zodiac inspiring Dirty Harry. What Fincher does, using a solid screenplay from James Vanderbilt and based upon the identically titled book by Robert Graysmith, is create a dark, compelling piece of crime cinema that weaves through the enigma which is the Zodiac Killer case with a slick flow.
July 4th, 1969: an unknown man shoots two people in Vallejo, California, with only one surviving. A month later, someone calling himself The Zodiac starts writing encrypted letters in a strange code to the San Francisco. Soon, political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts to get interested in the case, as big shot crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr) is set to cover the case. At first, Avery thinks Graysmith is foolish. But soon he realizes the young cartoonist may actually know a thing or two.
A couple week laters, a San Francisco taxi driver is killed in Presidio Heights. Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his partner Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case, and it becomes Toschi’s personal mission to track the sick bastard down. But the Zodiac keeps on killing. And when he threatens school children, other citizens, even Avery directly, things get very serious.
Though we know how the story ends, or has kept going on, the darkness of the Zodiac and his story is all too engaging, as his grip on the city of San Francisco remains a still existent shadow to this day.
The Zodiac was a scary genius. Assuming it was intentional, he killed across jurisdictional lines, which in turn landed all the various police departments scrambling trying to keep themselves coordinated. Zodiac‘s screenplay by James Vanderbilt is surprising. He hasn’t really done anything else that I’m personally into, though he has done a ton of successful stuff. This script does a great job of laying everything out and even while it is complex, intricately laying out a bunch of characters and major players in the search for the Zodiac, as well as casting doubt and questions over the identity of the killer himself. A story and plot such as this runs the risk of getting tangled up at some point, but Vanderbilt keeps it well on track. The pacing is solid, the character development is extremely solid and well fleshed out. In particular, the main two characters of Graysmith and Toschi are written to near perfection, as we start to see how they sort of became victims of the Zodiac, in that their lives were dominated and ultimately determined, in a sense, by his crimes and the pursuit. Another thing is that the ending comes at the right time. This is a long film at almost 160 minutes, and it’s never boring. But certain writers might not know how to, or when to, cap things off. Vanderbilt manages to cauterize the story at the appropriate time. As there’s a natural mystery to a case we all (should) know is unsolved to this day, the way the plot finishes is just right.
Fincher and Vanderbilt together never glorify the violence. Yes, there’s a slow motion moment near the beginning as two people are shot, and we see much of the violence in a fairly upfront, raw manner. However, Fincher handles it so that there’s no glorification. It is most certainly stylized, just never put on show as violent erotica. I’m a horror fan, but have an appreciate for all film, especially anything that’s well executed, well composed. And Fincher manages not to make a spectacle of The Zodiac. Rather, we get deep into the psychological territory of the crimes getting drawn into long, dark takes that make us feel as if we’re right there with the victims, the near victims, and those hoping to catch the killer. For a movie that’s stylized, it also has a realism to it. Because it’s not played off like some serial killer of the week. The Zodiac is real, frightening, and the mystery of his true identity is played out impeccably via intelligent writing and, as usual, classic directorial choices on behalf of Fincher.
The soundtrack is amazing, everything from Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” to Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye and Vanilla Fudge, to Three Dog Night, Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher”, and a bunch more. Great period specific soundtrack that helps give authenticity to the era, alongside all the excellent costume and set design, the locations, and so on. Great stuff. In addition, there’s an eerie piano score which comes in now and then to punctuate dark moments: one of my favourites is the terrifying moment an unseen Zodiac tells a woman he’ll throw her baby out the window of his car before he murders her, then everything goes quiet except for a dreadful pounding piano note. Just everything at play comes together in a spooky tapestry to make this an unsettling film disguised as a crime procedural. Combined with the directing, the soundtrack and score, cinematographer Harris Savides (Birth, The Game, Last Days) captures everything in an almost classic sense, as he and Fincher craft things in slick, rich frames to give things a gritty yet pristine look. What another filmmaker might process into mediocre fare Fincher turns into a masterpiece of crime cinema.
This movie is built on good performances, solid directing and writing, as well as an interesting, enigmatic story of a real life serial killer. The Zodiac murders will linger on in the collective memory of Americans, particularly those in San Francisco, even the world. Because of the mystery involved, we’re often inclined to wonder exactly how he slipped away. David Fincher’s Zodiac doesn’t so much try and answer that, so much as recreate many of the events surrounding the case. Again, as I mentioned concerning the lead characters, much of this has to do with how it wasn’t only the dead left in The Zodiac’s wake. Toschi, Graysmith, all of them to an extent were sucked into the undertow of his unsolvable case. Maybe it was nobody’s fault, or maybe a big part was because of jurisdictional breakdown between departments and precincts, the stubbornness of cops, the bureaucracy of the law, so many things. Perhaps it was all due to the scary fact The Zodiac was smarter than anybody trying to stop him. Regardless, Fincher’s film is a contemporary classic in the crime genre. Many might expect further focus on the actual serial killing, as a lesser project might try (see: 2005’s The Zodiac starring Justin Chambers and Robin Tunney which actually felt all around like a lesser version of Fincher, or Ulli Lommel’s atrocious Curse of the Zodiac). Instead Fincher gives us little bits and pieces, then fills the rest of the film with a thrilling crime investigation, the odd real life characters involved in the case, and much more. This is definitely one of Fincher’s great films, as they’re all pretty impressive. But if you want a creepy serial killer flick that isn’t full-on horror and focuses more on real life, atmosphere, story, then Zodiac is always a safe bet.
Hostel: Part II. 2007. Directed & Written by Eli Roth.
Starring Lauren German, Roger Bart, Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips, Richard Burgi, Vera Jordanova, Jay Hernandez, Jordan Ladd, Milan Knazko, Edwige Fenech, Stanislav Ianevski, & Patrik Zigo. Lionsgate/Screen Gems/Next Entertainment/Raw Nerve/International Production Company.
Rated 18A. 94 minutes.
I’m unabashedly one of Eli Roth’s biggest fans. When Cabin Fever came out, I couldn’t enjoy it enough while all my friends bashed it. But then again, I was always the biggest horror fan of my close friends. Either way, his career was on my watchlist. Then once Hostel came out I considered it the first post-2000 gore horror that was actually worthwhile. And truthfully, not many gory movies since have been as effective; albeit there are definitely a few as good, possibly a bit better. Not many, though.
Roth is a unique guy. He has his own sense of humour. His predilection for Italian splatter films shows, as does his interest in the B-movie feel. However, those aren’t a detriment to his talent. He’s ripe with fun ideas and his ability to shock yet shock with substance is visible even through the thick coat of blood covering his films. Don’t just look at the Hostel movies (forget there’s another one past the first two) and think it’s all about the gore. It’s about the secret impulses below a thin veneer of humanity in society. Maybe at times things are campy. That’s just Roth’s sensibilities that come from, like myself, a lifetime of watching any and all films you can get your hands on. No matter what, Roth brings the visceral grip necessary to keep Hostel: Part II fresh in your memory a while – the reasons for which may vary from person to person, even gender to gender.
I’ve always loved the score in both Hostel films. There are these creeping string pieces that spell ominous, slowly scaling behind scenes. Great stuff. Reminds me of some classic bits of horror cinema, which adds a nice air to this gore film (and though I say gore film I mean it in the best sort of sense here). The ominousness of Roth sits over everything, as the score makes things more tense and suspenseful at times. It almost lures us in like the poor traveling souls that get roped into being meat for the hunters.
The special effects virtuoso pairing of Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, along with their wonderful team at KNB EFX Group, provide Roth with the appropriate nasty practical effects which make the original and its sequel into top notch horror. If you’re having gore, have it right. Berger and Nicotero have the right stuff, giving all those brutal bits a proper punch. The blood is plenty, and it looks great! You need a chopped off head or some even more disgusting effects? Greg and Howard are your men. And they’re unreal at their jobs.
One thing I dig, in terms of killing and gore, is that Roth opts to include a woman engaging in the murder this time. The Erzsébet Báthory-style lady, whose predilections involve draining the blood of other women apparently. This shows that Roth is an equal opportunist, giving women just as much fun as the men. In sick, murderous terms. Furthermore, even just the fact this film is a bunch of women on a trip instead of men is pretty excellent. Roth isn’t afraid to try killing off a trio of women, as opposed to the horny young men from the first outing. Another part of this is that Bijou Philips plays a sort of horny character herself, though, this is offset by Jordan Ladd and Heather Matarazzo, as they play more subdued roles, women with heads on their shoulders; for the most part. It’s just nice to have a different group, instead of Roth merely switching the genders. He creates whole new, interesting characters out of these three women. And having one of them meet their demise at the hands of the Báthory substitute? Sweet horrific perfection. Another fun bit – the three women we follow are introduced in an art class, where a male model hangs dong; objectified enough? Perfect response to those who complained about women objectified in the first film. They were, in a sense. But they were more femme fatale than anything. Here it’s just a man being drawn, while also having his dick ogled by a bunch of women. Love it.
Also, Roth’s screenplay is almost better here than the first film. I dig how the original only barely touched on the secret society of human hunters. But the way it’s expanded upon here makes things so much more sinister. One of the greatest scenes out of Hostel: Part II is when all the big businessmen are bidding on victims – it not only shows us the vast, wide reach of the company, it puts us into the sick perspective of seeing many of these men in wholesome type situations, all the while flicking on their smartphones to find the perfect victim to suit their nasty needs. A well-written and executed sequence all around. Going further into the company, especially focused on the two men planning on engaging in a kill, is a real great way for Roth to move on in the sequel. If it were just another story of people going away and getting killed, which plenty of it still is, then things would be dull, and quick. Rather, Roth chooses to switch back and forth between the victims and the soon-to-be killers, providing a look at both sides of the operation.
I love the look and feel of this film’s aesthetic over the first. Even though the original is a favourite of mine from the last 15 years in horror. Part II has an almost Gothic style. Particularly in the different chambers where people are being murdered. I love the sequence with Mrs. Bathory, as she’s listed in the credits. It is so god damn disturbing, and Roth films it in such low, flickering light that it takes on the feel of a dungeon. Later on, once we move further into the warehouse of kill rooms, it becomes even more Gothic in its darkness. Cinematographer Milan Chadima worked with Roth on Hostel, and again does good work here. The look of this sequel is slightly darker, it seems. More of a blue-ish hue over things casting many scenes in a dismal light, making each moment bleak. And does it ever get bleak. In fact, Chadima works with the girls from the beginning while they’re in the sun, enjoying a vacation. By the time he’s finished with them, the frame is almost always wrapped in shadow. Lots of close-ups that capture some amazing looks, some pensive stares, as well as a few spectacular wide shots I cannot get over (ex. when they walk into the big murder factory with its rundown and Third World look; amazing shot). Overall, the cinematography is even better here than the first.
WARNING: spoilers ahead in case you really care.
Eli’s writing may almost be at its best here. In my humble opinion. Because he takes on a whole bunch of things. Of course there’s female nudity again in this one, yet things have changed. Like I mentioned, a woman is part of the secret hunting society, and she kills brutally before bathing in blood. Then there’s the part I love most – one of the men, the one who showed the most bravado leading up to the event, ends up being a total fake. Or at least he ends up losing his courage, whatever. And better yet – the literal castration that happens is the ultimate thumb in the eye to any accusations of fragile masculinity on the part of Roth. He goes for broke on that one. And I love how Roth, likely unknowingly (because I’m being overly nerdy here), parallels – pardon my pun here – two balls. First is the eyeball of a woman burned up in Hostel, here it’s the dick and balls detached from a man. Just the fact that Ladd’s character turns the tables on the man torturing her is enough for me. She’s a bad ass.
The Ruggero Deodato cameo as an Italian cannibal is classic. Such a nice nod, and love how Deodato plays the character. The briefest sort of appearance, yet memorable. How he just smiles, cuts up some dinner then heads back over to his table.
A masterfully horrific 4-star affair. Roth is a modern horror man, whose influences show. Yet unlike Tarantino, whom I love but who borrows too liberally at times (mostly in the past), Roth translates his influences into his own passions. The fact Takashi Miike did a cameo in the first and Deodato does on here is testament to that; he literally throws his heroes in the mix. But the gore, the story, and the violence turned against men brutally for a change makes Hostel: Part II and underappreciated horror sequel in the post-2000 genre landscape. Roth is a modern master of horror, I continue to follow his work and will do so until he finishes his career; a long one, hopefully.
Halloween. 2007. Directed & Written by Rob Zombie; based on the original screenplay by John Carpenter & Debra Hill.
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, Tyler Mane, Daeg Faerch, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Richard Lynch, Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Danny Trejo, Lew Temple, Tom Towles, Bill Moseley, & Leslie Easterbrook. Dimension Films/Nightfall Productions/Spectacle Entertainment Group/Trancas International Films/The Weinstein Company.
Rated 18A. 109 minutes.
I never imagined, listening to White Zombie in the ’90s, that Rob Zombie would go on to be one of my favourite horror directors working. He always appeared imaginative, but I couldn’t have guessed his love of the horror genre ran so deep. He’s given the keys to the slasher horror castle here, reinterpreting the original screenplay for Halloween in 1978 from John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Instead of providing lackluster jump scares and unnecessary gore to overcompensate, Zombie crafts a new vision of Michael Myers. No more is Myers so much a force of evil, like some wandering, unkillable spirit. Now, he is a boy with a face, a child not just hidden behind a mask, who eventually grows into his skin and becomes the ugliest, most vicious serial killer in America (well, the fictional one anyways).
Switch the subtle techniques of Carpenter for a throwback aesthetic mixed with gritty realism, and you’ve got Zombie’s film in a nutshell. Although many want to try and pick one over the other, they’re different movies, different stories centered around the same characters. You can say what you want. But for me, Carpenter and Zombie both have their merits. No matter if the original is my favourite, and a perfect piece of horror cinema, Zombie brings savagery to the table, plus an interesting style of directing. This makes it more than worth the watch.
Michael Myers (Daeg Faerch) is a young boy with a fairly awful life day to day. Although his mother Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie) loves him, her sleazy boyfriend Ronnie White (William Forsythe) treats him like shit, all the while sizing up Debbie’s daughter Judith (Hanna Hall). At school, Michael gets pushed around and harassed, specifically about his mother being a stripper at a local club. But at home, alone, Michael dissects animals, getting blood all over his hands. Then once a kid at school finally pushes him over the edge, Michael beats him to death in the woods. The transition begins.
On Halloween night, Michael kills Ronnie, then Judith and her boyfriend. This shocks the town of Haddonfield. The law puts Michael in an institution, where Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) picks his brain to try and determine why evil lies in such a young mind. There’s also orderly Ismael Cruz (Danny Trejo) who talks to the boy often, trying to relate with him.
Only after 17 years go by, an older Michael gets a visit from a new, less friendly orderly by the name of Noel Kluggs (Lew Temple). He and his equally disgusting hillbilly cousin take advantage of having keys to the place. They rape a female patient after bringing her into Michael’s room, when Noel underestimates the now 27-year-old man. Michael kills the men and then begins on a path of destruction carrying him back towards Haddonfield, where his reign of terror is about to begin. As if it already hadn’t.
Love the metafictional quote from Dr. Loomis’ book. Like a post-modern version of Carpenter and Hill’s classic, early slasher. The whole character of Loomis is much different from that of Donald Pleasence’s version, and of course that’s mostly the way it’s written. In the original film(s), Loomis is an underrated psychiatrist whose knowledge of evil, and particularly that of Michael, is unparalleled. Here, McDowell’s Loomis is a good man initially. Then he morphs into a fame-seeking, fame-whoring doctor who made his fame and fortune off the dead corpses of a bunch of people in Haddonfield. He’s treated as such, too. So apart from the other liberties Zombie takes, or should I say aside from the expanded history Zombie creates, there’s this totally new role for Loomis, which I love. Pleasence is a classic, though, Loomis is a completely new beast under McDowell and I dig him, as well.
I don’t agree with the stance of people saying oh well we don’t want to see Michael Myers as a child, that’s the scary part. But wait a minute? Doesn’t the original Halloween, which I adore, start with that POV from the perspective of a young Michael? We already see that. Far as I’m concerned Zombie doesn’t really leap too far in reimagining Carpenter here. He takes what we’ve already seen, then elaborates largely. So yeah, maybe you don’t want to see the childhood of Michael completely played out, but the seeds were there in the original. So honestly, if Carpenter really wanted to keep his Myers as the almost supernatural, mythical Shape, then there’s no need to even show us the beginning of the child Michael; may as well jump right in. Not a criticism against him – I love that film, and it’s perfect. Period. That’s a criticism against those trying to rationalize their need for a theory on why Zombie shouldn’t have done it this way. For me, the best thing Zombie does here is humanize Michael. Because for all those people saying something is scarier about an unstoppable force of almost supernatural strength, I believe there’s nothing scarier than human evil, it never stops either. And personally, imagining Michael as a human killer, a kid who grew like weed out of hatred, is far more terrifying.
Carpenter wins overall, obviously. The techniques he used directing, some of those shots they achieved, plus the writing from him and Hill; everything in that movie is perfect. While Zombie’s film is not perfect, it wins on horror. There’s a more brutal aspect to this Halloween that hooks me in. It’ll never beat the quality of Carpenter’s original, but Zombie does a fine job crafting a gritty, raw remake. One of the better remakes that’s come out of the big Hollywood machine. Probably because Zombie isn’t exactly a Hollywood director, he just has the popularity to draw the Weinsteins and such. Regardless, this is miles better than the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes, and that glossed over Texas Chainsaw Michael Bay-produced affair.
As I’ve mentioned, there is a stern brutality to many of the kills in this remake. Part of why I still enjoyed some of the later Halloween sequels is due in large to the fact they started to up the pure strength of Michael. In one, he simply jams his thumb right through a victim’s forehead. After that, he became relentless in power. So even better that he’s a real humanized type killer here, coupled with the way he straight up just beats a few people to death. And I’m talking absolutely demolishing people. When he kills the orderly Noel, he repeatedly slams him against the concrete wall until blood starts to fly. It is a savage death. Then he drowns Danny Trejo’s character Ismael, which goes to show how brutal he is – no longer does Michael even care for people who show him any compassion. His heart is dead: “I was good to you, Mikey,” sputters Ismale while trying not to drown. Then a television gets dropped on the guy’s head. So if you didn’t already know this is a remorseless killer, he does not discriminate. Doesn’t matter who or what is in his way, not anymore. Since his mother died, the last of his humanity left, too. Lots of great kills after this, which Zombie captures in perfectly nasty fashion.
Some of my other favourite moments – the fight with Big Joe Grizzly (legendary Ken Foree) that is just pure unadulterated hypermasculinity, though oh-so-horror-good, and once more showcases that sickly strength in Myers; when Michael makes his way into the neighbourhood and goes mad on the young people it gets bloody and unruly; and when Michael goes to see the Strodes awhile before that, things are pretty rough, as well as creepy, and sad.
On top of everything there’s Scout Taylor-Compton in the old Jamie Curtis role. She does a solid job, as she’s cute and personable and she plays a nice good-girl, at the same time she’s got attitude and can be funny. Also, proper at showing fear. Danielle Harris is great, too, even if she doesn’t have a massive role; nice to see her back after the performances she gave as a child in a couple of the original movies. Then there’s a bunch of cameos, such as Ken Foree, Zombie alumni Bill Moseley, Sid Haig, Leslie Easterbrook, Sheri Moon Zombie (though hers is more than a cameo really), William Forsythe, Micky Dolenz of Monkees fame. Brad Dourif is awesome as the sheriff in all his scenes, too. Love seeing him anywhere, solid character actor.
All in all, I’m giving Zombie’s remake a 4&1/2-star rating. I don’t care, man. Dig it so hard. Lots of brutal violence in slasher tradition. Good, old school style filmmaking that both technique-wise and design-wise throws back to the 1970’s. But it’s the reinvention of Michael Myers and his story that draws me in consistently. I can always watch this, right alongside the original. And while I love Carpenter’s Halloween most, this one is a solid modern remake that gives us blood, thrills, and even some sly laughs.
Paranormal Activity. 2007. Directed & Written by Oren Peli.
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, and Ashley Palmer. Solana Films/Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 86 minutes.
When done correctly, I am a huge fan of found footage. Whether it’s using the thriller style, as I recently enjoyed in the film 419, or horror (The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal Holocaust, Home Movie, and many more), I believe that if a director uses the sub-genre appropriately then it can be extremely effective. Particularly, horror movies using found footage can end up having a huge impact if it isn’t simply a gimmick, or a wasted tool in the director’s arsenal.
Even further than that, a writer (or writers) needs to know the limitations of the sub-genre, as well as where it can go. Too many writers seem to let the screenplay of a found footage film fall by the wayside, like it isn’t an important aspect so much as the visuals prove to be. Very bad way to look at ANY genre or sub-genre; you always need a good script, or at least an impressive idea to work from.
There are things I do love about Paranormal Activity, while I’ve got a gripe or two, as well. Mostly, I think Oren Peli really did an excellent job as director in cultivating an impressive piece of modern horror. He singlehandedly changed the found footage game, in my mind, after the originals left their highly impressive (and better) mark – like The Blair Witch Project and the infamous, controversial Cannibal Holocaust. Now there are plenty of others, since this film’s release in 2007, trying to work off the simple yet excellent format Peli landmarked.
This is not a perfect horror, nor is it my favourite found footage film. However, I’ve got to say that when I first saw Paranormal Activity – and to this day – there were elements and scenes which really unsettled me greatly and left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think, as a veteran in watching films and TONS of horror, that I’m easily frightened. But genuinely, at times, I found myself clenching up. Not to say I wept in terror or curled into a ball. Though, I can readily admit my muscles tightened and my heart rate pumped fast in several scenes, which is all due to the acting of the two leads and the good work of writer-director Oren Peli.
I won’t waste time relating the plot. This is one of those movies we ALL know about; if not, head over to IMDB or Wikipedia and it’s laid out pretty well. I’d like to just move into the things I liked/disliked about the movie.
An aspect of the screenplay I truly do love is how the character of Micah antagonizes the presence in their home. Starting early on, within the first fifteen minutes even, Micah begins to make fun of the whole concept of some spirit (or whatever) in the house; he plays creepy music, saying he’d like to make the presence feel at home. I always like when a story incorporates scepticism in an interesting way; Micah is a part of that, as he pretty much riles up the thing in their house.
Otherwise, one of the greatest parts in my mind about Peli’s Paranormal Activity is that the effects really started to push the envelope for found footage. Since 2007 there have been plenty more found footage films which used effects to a greater degree, but at the time this came as sort of revolutionary for the sub-genre. Before this movie, and those which followed it (both sequels and other films imitating this style), most found footage horror tended to go for the lost in the woods scenario, adding in tons of shaky cam and screaming and blood/gore here or there. Peli came along and decided to keep the camera stationary almost all of the time, which really helped, and on top of that he tried as best he could to do as much practically as possible, as well as the great majority of the film is centred so much on the relationship between Katie and Micah.
Keeping the camera in one place the way he does, Peli is able to let us relax a bit and get more into the characters and the story/plot than other found footage allows us. As I said, the shaky cam is prevalent in many other films similar to this. Even the amazing Blair Witch Project, there are a couple nearly nausea inducing sequences where the characters are running, screaming, and the camera is jostling around along with their movements; to the point where it’s tough to follow anything. Luckily, that was one of the first real found footage horror movies where shaky cam became a thing, so at the time it wasn’t really overdone.
Nowadays with so many less exciting films than that trying to read in its huge footsteps, we get too many horrors using found footage and throwing in the shaky cam as a legitimate portion of the film when in fact it only detracts from the end product; we’re tired and sick of the shakiness, it’s not simply low budget and realistic it makes things look lazy. In Paranormal Activity, Peli foregoes that nonsense and allows us to get into the relationship between Katie and Micah, watching their lives unfold instead of constantly having one of them manipulate the camera, moving it around, and so on. Though Micah absolutely holds the camera at times, it’s not him running around and catching nothing except blurs. Whenever he does move it, the moment is brief, or at the least Micah is usually standing in one place. I think, albeit probably an obvious touch, Peli does his film a great service by allowing the camera to stay still a lot of the time. That way, his story comes out further, the characters are more interesting, and the plot is able to move along without the audience becoming totally unnerved (not in the right way) by the camera movement constantly shaking us out of touch with what’s happening in the film.
For this reason, as well as the fact effects are incorporated in a fresh way (not saying they’re spectacular; merely they were slightly new to this sub-genre), I truly feel Peli broke new, interesting ground with his found footage horror movie. Not only did it spawn a series of sequels, a whole franchise, Paranormal Activity – in a different way from its predecessors – had other filmmakers looking to do a low-budget horror almost copycatting everything about it.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery; in this case, I think it’s mostly about cashing in.
Finally, it’s the acting from Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston which truly got to me. I think Sloat did a good enough job, especially in terms of being the sceptical and doubting boyfriend; he isn’t completely ignorant and arrogant in his speech, mostly he brings this aspect across through his coy, annoyingly playful demeanour. He certainly acts like a bit of a douchebag, but I think that’s almost definitely the right way for Micah to seem, as a character – it brings out that doubt very clearly for all to see.
Above all else, it’s Featherston who sells this film from start to finish. I like the character herself; she’s been followed all her life, basically, by some kind of spirit, an entity. Not that it’s a new idea. It’s how Featherston plays the character, the innocence she always seems to display and this naive but concerned nature in her. While Katie is the one who believes in it all, there’s still this naivety about her in that she’s holding onto the innocent part of herself, even while this demon/spirit/entity has latched onto her and won’t leave her, or Micah, alone. The way Featherston performs is incredible, unbelievably actually in the final half hour. Once things start getting very intense and claustrophobic in their little house, Featherston does a perfect job portraying all the terror Katie is feeling; there’s one moment where she tells Micah she feels something in the hallway, and I honestly got a fright just out of the urgency in her voice, the look in her eyes. Amazing job and makes Paranormal Activity all the better for it; anyone else would probably not have been enough. Featherston pushed this film above a ton of other found footage out there with subpar acting and lazy characters.
With an undeniably horrifying final 15 minutes, I can definitely say this is a 4 out of 5 star film. There could’ve been a little more in certain parts, but overall this is an excellent modern horror. I’m not saying this will send you to bed cowering under the covers like when we were children. What I am saying is that Oren Peli did a good job directing this, as opposed to so many shaky useless found footage efforts, and he tried to instil the film with as much practicality (from plot to effects) as possible.
This is a slow burn type of horror film, in my opinion. It does well building up tension, in part that’s due to excellent actors, and in the end there’s a massively satisfying and creepy conclusion. Love the end and watching this for the first time since its release 8 years ago, I must admit I like the film more than I’d originally thought.