388 ARLETTA AVENUE is a chilling reminder not to get too complacent about security in the suburbs.
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Flanagan's 2011 indie ghost story is a modern Gothic, destined to be a classic of the genre in years to come.
Rundskop (English title: Bullhead). 2011. Directed & Written by Michaël R. Roskam.
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy, Barbara Sarafian, Tibo Vandenborre, Frank Lammers, Sam Louwyck, Robin Valvekens, Baudoin Wolwertz, David Murgia, Erico Salamone, Philippe Grand’Henry, Kris Cuppens, Sofie Sente, & Kristof Renson. Waterland Film & TV/Savage Film/Eyeworks Film & TV Drama.
Rated R. 129 minutes.
Michaël R. Roskam is an interesting filmmaker. His talent lies in drawing out the intense human heart of his stories. Whether it be a tale of gangsters and farmers in the Flemish Region of Belgium, or the inner workings of the little cogs in Brooklyn’s mob. He’s able, as a writer-director, to find the interesting human elements of so many different characters and their various plots.
Bullhead is loosely based on the real life murder of government livestock inspector Karel Van Noppen who’d been investigating illegal farming practices in Belgium during 1995. But what Roskam does is weave his based on a true story crime plot in through a highly emotional story of a young man whose life was indirectly altered by his own father’s involvement in the so-called “Hormone Mafia”, to a paint of tragedy.
And that’s one of best parts about Bullhead; it plays like a modern Greek tragedy, which unfolds madly, intensely, even dream-like from one minute to the next. Until finally, you’re confronted with an unexpected ending that surprises, as well as weighs down your heart. Personally, this is my all-time favourite film. Featuring one impressive transformation and central performance by Matthias Schoenaerts, Roskam proves with his first feature film that he plans on telling real stories with real stakes, real characters, and most importantly raw, honest truths at the core.
Obviously, Jacky directly parallels the bulls, the steroid injected cows. Only for Jacky it’s an absolute necessity. Because of his assault years ago and its results, he had to start injecting the drugs to get through puberty. In order to have a normal male life, or at least part of one, he had to take steroids. But later on Jacky tells Diederik (Jeroen Perceval) he’s always felt like the cows, those used for the meat, in that he hasn’t had the chance to protect anything – no wife, no children. This takes us back to a moment where Jacky watches his brother Stieve with his wife and child, their happiness is in stark contrast with the bleak tone of the film and the overall dreary emotional state of Jacky himself. And this is a large part of the film as a whole: fate and the return to past events.
Like any Greek tragedy, the past always comes back to haunt the present in many ways, shapes, and forms. Even from the very beginning the structure of a Greek tragedy is present and the past is readily apparent, as the prologue speaks specifically to the film’s themes re: memory, past and how it affects the present, so on. Here’s the quote from a narrator who sounds familiar but whose character I’m still not sure of (another instance of emulating the Greeks as perhaps having a Narrator outside of the main cast feels similar to the Chorus of their tragic plays): “Sometimes in a man‘s life stuff happens that makes everyone go quiet. So quiet that no one even dares talk about it. Not to anyone, not even to themselves. Not in their head and not out loud. Not a fucking word. ‘Cause everything has somehow got stuck. There, deep in the fields, under the trees and the leaves, year after year. Then, suddenly it all comes back. Just like that, from one day to the next. No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure. You‘re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time. Fucked.” Right from this first quote, Roskam calls to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy where he writes that “[w]e are to recognize that all that comes into being must be ready for a sorrowful end; we are forced to look into the terrors of the individual existence” (Basic Writings of Nietzsche 104).
Bullhead takes on a Euripidean tragic structure, which at times imitates themes from the classical author’s The Bacchae. Because of his effective castration via assault as a young boy, Jacky is unable to execute his desire, his lust for a woman. He can build himself up and he can have the muscles, the so-called manly look, but for all that energy there’s no release. He can’t do what nature has “intended“, as he says. Therefore, like The Bacchae we see the opposing nature of man; at once a civilized being, also one that is instinctive and longs for the sensual. This inability to get physically close with a woman, because of his injury, it permeates every last aspect of Jacky’s existence.
At a bar he sees two cute girls, admiring them, but soon their boyfriends arrive, kissing hello, and this drive Jacky outside, huffing, puffing as he does like an animal. This animal-like behaviour and way of carrying himself defines Jacky – we see this through his progress in how he responds to people physically. At the start, he pushes and pokes a man with whom his family/farm operation are having a disagreement. Later, like a bull, he charges at people: he headbutts a friend that makes an offhand comment about him having “no balls“, right afterwards Jacky tries intimidating Diederik by pushing his head at him, using it almost like a battering ram the way a bull would. When Jacky goes to see a grownup Bruno, the one that caused his castration, he likewise headbutts him in the face – not hard, but tense, solid, as if goading him into a challenge of masculinity. So at all times we see that animal physicality come out of Jacky.
And what it all comes down to? In the world of constructed masculinity, the physical body makes a man a man. It is the sexual identity, the genitals which mark masculinity, as well as the overall power of a man. A doctor warns Jacky’s mother and father he will “never be a man” unless they start injecting him with hormones and steroids to spur on puberty, after the brutal loss of both testicles; an erection, ejaculation, these are the only things supposedly able to define him as masculine. So this moment also leaves an indelible mark on young Jacky, as he hears them talk, and registers that his manhood is judged by the presence of testicles. This basically robs Jacky completely of his manhood to hear this; his male identity is erased doubly, both physically and mentally. This is the ultimate danger of the screenplay, as Bullhead descends into savage tragedy in its final act. Those last moments are the effect of the cause in breeding a treacherous ground built on faded notions of masculinity. A man like Jacky, whose unfortunate clash with a violent young man left him forever damaged, is driven to a terrifying fate because of the anger inherent in his injury, the harshness of the construction of masculinity on his condition. And so that desire, the lust, it builds to a point where Jacky realizes, for many reasons, he will not get the girl for which he longs. From there the Dionysian element of this tragedy bursts forth, in the most explosive of ways, bringing Bullhead to the ultimate point of no return.
This is a 5-star masterpiece. Michaël R. Roskam’s writing is both thrilling in terms of its crime and the noir-like tendencies, as well as it is profound on the level of Greek tragedy which I’ve suggested. Everything comes together and makes this perfection, from the wonderfully heavy cinematography to the score that makes this really feel theatrical in the best sort of dramatic ways. The entire production is flawless, to me. We’re led from one moment to the next because of a starmaking performance out of Schoenaerts. Not only did he pack on about 60 lbs naturally to beef up and make Jacky look like he’s actually on steroids, but the emotional resonance of the character is always evident; we watch Jacky lumber from one scene to the next with a swaggering gait, one that feels very similar to the steady, slow walk of the cattle he farms, and each last second Schoenaerts is onscreen his brilliance as an actor is riveting. If you aren’t a fan of subtitles, this is one film I urge you to buck the trend on. Because this is what cinema is all about. Roskam went on to do another solid movie, The Drop, and I hope more of this caliber will continue to emerge from his directorial/writing mind. He is a talent that ought not go without proper attention. This movie displays so many things. Yet at the forefront is the dangerous notion of masculinity, its outdated significance, and the effects it can draw out in the most vulnerable men.
Silent House. 2011. Directed by Chris Kentis & Laura Lau. Screenplay by Lau; based on the original screenplay by Oscar Estévez for the film La casa muda.
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Julia Taylor Ross, Adam Barnett, & Haley Murphy. Elle Driver/Tazora Films.
Rated R. 86 minutes.
Always a sucker for films that attempt to work outside the box, in any degree, the original version of this American remake, La casa muda, was pretty damn good. Seeing a film of this nature with sly editing making everything look like one long shot is ambitious, especially considering it works to great effect. When I heard the remake was coming I didn’t feel too confident it’d turn out near as good. However, with directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the latter also adapting the screenplay) planning on replicating the real-time feel of the original, there came further hope. It isn’t simply a gimmick. What this technique does is pull the viewer into the perspective of the lead character, Sarah, so that as she turns a corner we’re not exactly sure, like her, if something terrifying lies around it. Further than that, the way this interrupted take technique presents itself lends to the story, as a lot of the time you’re busy following Sarah – too busy to try and suss out what’s really going on. Not to say this is a brilliant twist, nor is it unique or original. But as a smart viewer, I like to believe I’m able to sometimes get ahead of the plot. Here, I felt mostly too concerned with riding next to Sarah in the almost P.O.V style filming. With eerie sound design, a dreamy and almost nightmarish feel, Elizabeth Olsen does her part by nailing the lead role and keeping us fettered to terror, as her character navigates the shadowy, silent house.
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) heads out to the lakeside summer house she spent time in as a little girl. She and her father, John (Adam Trese), are packing the place up, as it’s about to be sold. They pack up boxes, throw things together, and try to get all the last minute chores finished up. Soon, they’ve got John’s brother Pete (Eric Sheffer Stevens) there to help, although the two brothers don’t exactly always get along. Later on, Sarah runs into a girl named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) who says they knew each other once upon a time; at first Sarah doesn’t remember, then says she does but her memory is just a little spotty.
The longer they stay at the house by the lake, Sarah begins to start seeing people lurking in the darkness. When Pete leaves, things get worse. Eventually, John is found bleeding, unconscious, and Sarah sees more people, hears them, including a little girl standing by the road outside. The situation spirals into madness. When Pete comes back he finds Sarah delirious. But as he investigates the house it becomes clear there is something definitely sinister in the making.
Cinematographer Igor Martinovic (D.P on House of Cards, as well as some great documentaries such as The Tillman Story and Man on Wire) gives us a frenetic style almost akin to the found footage genre, but there are also times where the camerawork creeps along with Sarah, as it puts us directly in her perspective. So the balance between nice steady frames and the more bumpy handheld style is pretty good. Because we get that feel of being right alongside Sarah yet there’s also that chaos together with it, and it works to make things unsettling. The lighting is really spectacular here, too. Seeing as how the film is sort of experimental, in that it’s made to look like an entirely uninterrupted take (edited keenly for that effect), I’m amazed they were able to work the lighting out at all. Let alone make things look so dark and gloomy. At a certain point, it feels as if we’re in a dream and floating along through the darkness in the halls of this house, lost and bewildered just as much as Sarah herself.
Adding to the suspense and tension of the cinematography is the sound design, courtesy of Glenn To. Morgan, whose work spans everything from 9&1/2 Weeks to The Crow to Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday. Without a score, Silent House manages to wrap itself around you using ambient rumbles, the pulse and swell of noise, combined with all the regular noises of a house amplified due to the near constant silence – doors closing, floorboards underneath the feet, and so on transform into near characters themselves at certain points in time. Whenever a production is able to create such an all around atmosphere of dread by both its use of visuals and also the overall sound design, there’s a good chance I’m at least going to be affected a slight bit. What happens in Silent House completely unnerves me, from the top on down.
In a film where there’s basically only one performance that matters, Elizabeth Olsen brings a theatrical sort of quality to the character of Sarah. Apparently the directors wanted someone with a stage presence, as the demands of long takes and so much focus on Sarah at all times (she’s in every last scene) required that type of disposition. Honestly, no matter how you ultimately feel about this movie as a whole, you’ve got to admit Olsen gives a quality performance. If a lesser actor were in her place it may not have even held my focus for its sparse 86-minute runtime. With only a couple other people in the film, the central cast itself only consisting of three people, Silent House is totally minimalist, and Olsen carries so much of the film’s weight by immersing us into Sarah’s perspective. Especially once the plot details are revealed and the nasty details come out, Olsen depicts the realization of Sarah, the pieces fitting into place in her mind so perfectly; it’s a mix somewhere between astonishment and confusion. But the best of her performance is that she really does not let on anything to the viewer, so that the first time around when you watch this it’s easy to get blindsided with the truth, just as Sarah ends up. Part of that is the writing, as well. Most of it, though, is Olsen. She deserves better recognition, this could’ve turned out terribly misguided were she not cast.
Never afraid of being in the realm of unpopular opinion, Silent House is a 4-star affair. While I try not to be too hard on remakes for no reason, often they never reach the excellence of their original versions. La casa muda was great; so is the remake. Olsen gives herself over to the role wholly. Backing her is a bunch of solid camerawork, as well as the fact it’s edited smoothly to feel like one single take throughout the entire film. The movie is quick, dreamy, disturbing. I can’t spoil any of the plot further than what I’ve said because this finale really ought to be seen without knowing anything; like many films. But the impact of the plot’s conclusions here are part of what makes everything worth it, part of why the whole affected me. Moreover, this one deserves a second watch after you’ve seen what happens, as there are plenty of opportunities to pick out foreshadowing moments, brief pieces that lay out the way forward. Give this its chance and perhaps you’ll be unsettled, if that’s what you’re looking for like me.
The Innkeepers. 2011. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, Brenda Cooney, George Riddle, John Speredakos, and Lena Dunham. Glass Eye Pix.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
Every time I’ve got a particular bias going into a review, one that I can recognize, I always like to take a moment to recognize that. Such is the case with myself and Ti West. I love his work, even when others tell me personally they don’t like a movie of his I can’t help but find myself thinking “Why the hell not?”. I just love his movies. Years ago I got the chance to see The Roost, which I thought was a clever genre film and a gnarly creature feature horror movie. After that I had him on my radar, then as soon as I’d seen that out he came with The House of the Devil, and that one floored me; an overall amazing aesthetic, harkening back to the best of the 1980s, this is a slow burn horror with that Satanic Panic edge. After that I secured a copy of Trigger Man and, while much different than his other films, I enjoyed it. Even later, after he did this movie, his segment in the first V/H/S was probably my favourite – “Second Honeymoon” – his “M is for Miscarriage” out of The ABCs of Death was a saucy piece of raw, reality driven horror. Perhaps my favourite of all his work, The Sacrament is an obvious re-telling of the Jonestown Massacre yet using found footage and the VICE News name he makes it into so much more, something visceral and savage.
So, have you got an understanding of how much I’m a fan of Ti West? Maybe that paints my view of The Innkeepers a little too subjectively. Who knows. Either way, I think this is a fun little ghost story in a spooky location. It’s got a good atmosphere, something to which West is no stranger at pulling together. As well as the fact Pat Healy and Sara Paxton give good performances which are effective and at the same time quirky, but not so quirky you want to roll the eyes out of the back of your head. This film has charm, darkness, and even a few good old fashioned horror jump scares.
In the last few days before the Yankee Pedlar Inn closes down forever, two employees – Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – attempt to find evidence of the ghost of a woman named Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney) who supposedly haunts the halls. They’re amateur ghost hunters; Luke runs a website about Pedlar’s apparent hauntings, Claire just dropped out of college.
As the last few guests arrive for a stay at the Pedlar, Claire in particular gets closer and closer to the spirit of Madeline, whose story is a sad one; how and why she ended up trapped at the hotel in the afterlife. But once Claire gets a little too close, things may change – and definitely for the worse.
One unique little scene/shot I love is when Claire (Paxton) is using the recording equipment. The first moment is so cool, as the camera tracks along as if on a soundwave, moving slowly around almost wandering. The music and everything make this a creepy little bit, even with nothing creepy happening. I think this is the first scene where Ti West begins to set up a definitive atmosphere and tone for the scarier bits of the film.
The music gives way to more of a silence, a dim hum, some static, while watching Claire listening in another room than the one previous. This also leads into Claire discovering a presence in the big dining room, a piano playing softly amongst the hum of the static in her headphones. Nice little scene following her as she finds the piano itself around the lobby and watches it play by itself. Or rather it bangs the keys by itself. Spooky and an effective jump scare.
Really dig the score for The Innkeepers. Sure enough, when I looked up the composer it was Jeff Grace. For those who may not know, Grace has worked on some incredible stuff. Most recently he’s composed scores for Jim Mickle’s Cold in July and We Are What We Are, Night Moves, Mickle’s Stake Land, Meek’s Cutoff. Then he’s done other probably lesser known films – though they ought to be more recognized – such as Bitter Feast, The House of the Devil, The Last Winter, Joshua, and another of Ti West’s again The Roost.
Part of any great horror, in my opinion, is a solid score to help with the atmosphere. Grace’s excellent music feels very haunted house worthy. This is, essentially, a haunted house horror movie. Instead of a house, we’re getting the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is just as creepy in the end. Grace does a good job with ambient noise, strings, and some electronic sounds in aiding the direction of West to supply a nice feeling from start to finish. At times it grabs us, gripping hold and not letting go, other times it lulls us into a spooky mood or a false sense of security before a nice scare; proper horror score.
Aside from the lead characters played by Healy and Paxton, I couldn’t get enough of the fact West included Kelly McGillis in the cast. What a wonderful surprise. Most known for her work in the ’80s like Witness, Top Gun, and The Accused, in the past few years she’s been a part of the indie horror revival. Particularly, after being cast in Stake Land by Jim Mickle, McGillis put in a performance here, as well as in the remake of We Are What We Are again from Mickle. So I love that she’s been a part of these films. She adds a great air of authenticity, I’m not sure what it is, but there’s an elegant quality to her; no matter the character. One of those classy older women with a lot of grace, at the same time there’s something sassy and fun about her, too. Here her turn as an actress turned psychic is a good show, wonderful addition and she works great opposite Paxton.
Which leads me to Pat Healy and Sara Paxton. They’ve got real good chemistry in their scenes, reminding me of employee-employee relationships I’ve had at jobs in the past. What I love is that they aren’t two characters of the same age, like two young people. Having the character of Luke (Healy) as a bit of an older guy compared to Claire (Paxton) made for a more interesting relationship between the two, in opposition to so many horror movies featuring all young, teenage-ish characters with the same attitudes, same inflections in their voice, same problems and lives. Not saying it’s some revolutionary tactic, but I do think it was a smart writing move on the part of West, who could’ve easily strayed into complete typicalness. Rather, here he gives us two fun, weird characters who’ve got an equally fun, weird relationship.
Paxton is my favourite, though. Because so often horror movies have characters that do not feel real. Claire, on the other hand, feels real to me, she’s a new college dropout, she works at an old school hotel that’s shutting down after one last weekend. There’s a sort of angst built up inside Claire that I understand; a lot of people could understand her. Yet she isn’t some snotty young girl or anything, merely she gives me that sense of being a woman who is straddling the edge of being young – a woman, maybe not totally prepared to become one.
Most likely the greatest part of The Innkeepers is how Ti West shot it on film. I mean, I don’t have anything against digital, not in the slightest. That being said, there’s something to be said for movies still shot on film. There’s a depth to it, perhaps that’s the best way I can describe it – a fullness – that isn’t always present when shooting on digital. I don’t know, I could be talking out my ass. My love for the look of film has to do with a richness, a broader spectrum of what it can capture. This provides West the opportunity here to frame so many wonderful shots and catch every last bit of it in lush, dark detail. Makes a haunted house horror movie creepier. Honestly, I think that’s part of why so many found footage horrors ultimately fall flat is because on digital the exposure issues end up blocking out so much of a frame that, at times, this renders much of what’s in the frame not as creepy as it might have been had the movie been shot with film. With this movie, it helps West insisted on using film because there are a lot of wonderfully constructed shots here which pull their style from out of every corner of the frame.
I think some of the complaints about The Innkeepers seem to revolve around the fact there’s not a HUGE amount of ghost activity or full-on horror. However, I’d say to those detractors that it isn’t mean to be that sort of film. If you want that type of haunted house horror, stick with even something more like Insidious – West works more here at mood and tone than anything else, and I think that’s totally fine. There are most CERTAINLY a few classic horror movie scares, both of the jumpy variety and real tense, suspenseful moments. They don’t come in spades, it’s a slow burn film. Regardless, to me the all-out scary stuff here pays off because West does a good job slowly cultivating a spooky atmosphere.
With a slow and deliberate style – aided by great editing – a creepy backstory that isn’t served up for us like a prequel within the movie itself but rather alluded to appropriately, and good writing/directing, Ti West’s The Innkeepers is a pretty solid haunted house horror. 4.5 out of 5 stars on this one, all the way. Again, as I started out in this review, I could be biased towards West and his films because I’m such a hardcore fan of his. I don’t think so, though, because there’s just something special about his filmmaking to me. He has old school sensibilities while also bringing a modern, fresh edge to his subjects at the same time.
If you haven’t yet seen anything by West, I suggest starting with The Roost if you can find a DVD copy; worth it. Afterwards, move on to this, The House of the Devil, The Sacrament, and see if there’s anything about him you’ll agree with me on. I know others who feel he’s decent but nothing special. Me? I think he’s one of the new hopes for horror cinema and genre filmmaking, right alongside Adam Wingard (The Guest, You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die).
FX’s American Horror Story
Season 1, Episode 1 – Pilot
Directed by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Running With Scissors, The Normal Heart)
Written by Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy
* For a review of the next episode, “Home Invasion” – click hereYou’ve got to admire a series that opens things up in the way Ryan Murphy introduces us to his world with this pilot episode. Not only is it creepy, Murphy lays out the familiar pattern we see running through the entire series: flashbacks which speak to the present day events. Plenty of shows and films use flashbacks, but the way American Horror Story overall as a series uses them is such an intriguing technique, which the writers and directors pull of elegantly, as well as quite horrifically. What I love so much about this aspect is the fact that Murphy has only directed 3 episodes of the series – including the first episode of the newest season, Hotel. So, although he is a creator of the show along with Brad Falchuck, it’s still amazing to see how much influence he has had over the entirety of the series. It’s a continual thing we see in each season, how the flashbacks all come to bear on current day events we’re seeing.
With the opening of Murphy’s pilot we get to see a young Adelaide Langdon watching a creepy, and no doubt haunted, house all by herself; we’ll get to know Addie plenty as the season wears on. Up come a couple redheaded little shits, twins, who are mean to Addie and head inside to cause havoc.Immediately, there’s this eerie sense about the house. Of course, once inside the redhead twins find much more than they bargained for upon entering. There’s this absolutely horrific, brief image of a figure in the dark – awful hands and terrible looking teeth, gnarled, vicious coming at them. I thought that was an excellent start to the horror.
Then there’s an amazing tonal shift. We meet up with Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) who has recently miscarried, as is expected the experience was horrible. After a doctor’s appointment, Vivien heads home to her beautiful home. But in the kitchen she thinks there’s a noise from upstairs. Calling 911 and taking a knife from a block in the kitchen, she heads upstairs only to find her husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) obviously in bed with another woman. Though, we never see her. Outside the room, pleading for forgiveness, Ben gets cut on the arm by the knife Vivien is holding. More words from little Addie echo out of the past, words she’d spoken earlier to the twins: “You’re gonna regret it.”
Love the opening theme; quite creepy. Also, as we go on through these reviews just know I’m all the way caught up – I watch the episodes as they come on, it’s only now I’ve started to review them. So, what I really dig is how Murphy has another opening done for each one to go with the theme of every season. Anthologies, when done effectively, are so much fun in so many ways! American Horror Story is at the top of the anthology heap, as far as I’m concerned.
Lots of fun characters introduced here in the Pilot. Soon, we see the family move into a new home – the creepy house from the episode’s opening scene. Vivien and Ben, along with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), move on in and then we get to meet more of the cast.
The always amazing Jessica Lange plays Constance Langdon – a Southern belle living in Los Angeles. Not only that, she is the mother of Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), who just so happens to barge on into the kitchen and frighten an unsuspecting Vivian with more prophetic creepiness: “You’re going to die in here.” From these two, expect tons of craziness throughout Season 1.
Evan Peters is Tate, a troubled kid sent by his mother to see the new therapist in the city, Ben Harmon. They talk about death, dreams and visions of death and blood and murder. Sick things Tate has inside him. Meanwhile, Tate sees pictures of himself with blood running down his face – other shots show him walking down the hallway, just as the dream he has described, with a macabrely painted face, skull art, and a black trench coat. Very cool and disturbing stuff already! Tate, from the get-go, was always one of my favourites in Season 1.
I love the imagery right off the bat, all the visions going on every which way. Also, the scene where Ben all of a sudden goes downstairs, lighting the fire, only to have Vivien interrupt him wondering what he’s up to. It’s such a weird, dreamy scene, and even Ben doesn’t realize if he’s awake or dreaming. This begins more weirdness to follow.
Furthermore, there’s the fact Moira O’Hara (Frances Conroy) shows up – she was the maid of the house. It seems she pretty much comes along with the house. But there’s something else about Moira, she’s a shapeshifter.. of sorts. While Vivien Harmon sees an older Frances Conroy, Ben Harmon sees Moira as Alexandra Breckenridge – a young, taut, sexified girl in a French maid’s outfit, legs up to her throat in fishnets. So I love the duality here and the dynamic this introduces into the Harmons’ lives.
It’s as if the house is pushing them all, further and further. With every single turn.
Certainly, the tension between husband-wife duo Vivien and Ben Harmon sets up so much of what we’ll see going on throughout Season 1. What I enjoy about this whole angle is that, similar to a movie like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, not only is the family inside the house contending with the house’s evil, they’re battling their own demons.
While I love Dylan McDermott, his character Ben is the type you hate to love. He’s obviously flawed, as he cheated on his wife in her weakest moment. Then he tries to blame her saying that it was him in his weakest moment, that “you got a dog” when she ought to have been cuddling up with him at night.
So the intensity of their family situation, the anger Vivien has towards Ben and the perceived hostility he has in his head towards his own wife, it all adds to the already supernatural forces so obviously at work in the house.
The creepiest, of course, is when Vivien has sex with who she believes to be Ben, dressed up in the latex-looking suit they’d found hanging earlier in the attic; a weird S&M, tight black getup. All the while, thought she sees visions of Ben, her husband is downstairs holding his hand over the oven’s burner. Immediately we know that American Horror Story means to get up to some awfully strange, intense business.
As well, we get views of the evil looking person/thing from earlier in the episode’s opening sequence. Tate has Violet bring a girl over – the one who slighted her hardcore during her first day of school – and in the basement he intends to scare her. However, Violent sees it all, too. Something horrible, ugly, fierce. It’s balding, stringy hair, and the teeth in its mouth look yellow, jagged. I LOVE THIS! So terrifying.
Denis O’Hare plays Larry Harvey, a man who has obviously been in a terrible fire – half of his face is burned, better yet it’s melted. He warns Ben about the house, after lurking around, skulking at the edges of Harmon’s peripheral vision. Larry claims he killed his family and burned down the house, all due to the house, the voices of the house inside his head – he said he was like “an obedient child.”
We’ll watch how his character plays further into the plot of Season 1 as it moves along. Nice introduction to this character.
Two fantastic actresses – Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy – have the chance to go head to head. However, it’s brief. Yet within those few moments they share a great scene, as Constance (Lange) tells Moira (Conroy): “Don‘t make me kill you again.” This is another relationship we’ll see more of once the episodes roll on. Intriguing to say the least.
One other thing I love in this first episode is the use of the music from James Wan’s Insidious. A neat little touch. This technique is employed time and time again in Season 1, which I find is a nice nod to the genre fans out there. It says that Murphy not only understands the horror genre, he is also a fan.
Great episode. We’ve seen so much setup in less than an hour, it’s almost overwhelming. But not quite!
Stay tuned for the next episode, “Home Invasion”.
Megan Is Missing. 2011. Directed & Written by Michael Goi.
Starring Amber Perkins, Rachel Quinn, Dean Waite, Jael Elizabeth Steinmeyer, Kara Wang, Brittany Hingle, Carolina Sabate, April Stewart, and John K. Frazier. Trio Pictures.
Unrated. 85 minutes.
There are a ton of different found footage horror movies hitting the market in the past 5-10 years. Especially now since Paranormal Activity absolutely ran its premise dry with a bunch of sequels and spin-offs and whatever.
Sometimes it’s hard to wade through the ocean of shit that comes out from independent filmmakers trying to break into the business with a cheap, effective little horror that draws on realism to make things scary.
Problem is, there are certain filmmakers who end up just crossing over from realism into exploitation. They take a subject that could be effective if they were to do it as a normal film, and instead create something that crosses the borders of where it needs to go and where it really ends up going.
Megan Is Missing most definitely is one of the films that becomes exploitative instead of being properly scary. There’s no real suspense or tension here, it feels like everything is just being milked for all its worth – especially the sexualization of these teen characters. Supposedly based on a true story, Michael Goi takes on the guise of trying “warn of the dangers on the internet”, as if that needs to be harped on any more than we’ve already seen before. What bothers me is that part about being based on/inspired by a true story. There is very little here based on the true story; I won’t waste my time explaining, but search out the case of Ward Weaver III who murdered two young girls. They met a similar fate to the girls in this film. Apart from that tiny detail, mostly at the end of the movie, there’s nothing else resembling the two. So much of what Goi does is a desperate attempt to make the story found footage, which is never good because the whole concept is forced in and this whole thing could’ve been much more interesting crime-drama/thriller than a sub-genre horror film.
Most of this movie revolves around a fear of internet predators. Now, don’t get me wrong – they are out there. By the hundreds of thousands, even. Maybe more. I just feel like Goi, as a writer/director, has exploited that whole angle of things. I mean, linking this to a ‘real story’ feels to me a desperate plea in order to involve people in the supposed realism of this found footage film.
There are scenes where girls are at a party, making out, there’s a blowjob performed by Megan (Rachel Quinn). Then in another scene, Megan recounts in great detail how she gave her first one at the age of ten, to a camp counsellor; she and her friend Amy (Amber Perkins) giggle and Amy asks questions. I mean, I’m not saying movies can’t be made about teenage sexual issues. Not at all. I just feel like this is totally making the essence of the film seeing how these girls, mostly the character of Megan, are young, sexual women ahead of their time. It focuses so much on the sexuality of these girls that I’m actually disgusted. Again, not saying these types of people don’t exist. It’s just ridiculous how much of a focus Goi hones in on the aspects of her sexuality.
Worst example: even as Megan is on the news reported missing, one of the photos onscreen is of her, tongue out, licking a butter knife full of peanut butter. I mean – really, Goi? Why even include that one? Constantly painting the character of Megan as “slutty”. It’s like a bit slut shaming the whole time. Then, it’s as if her friend Amy is a victim of her own friend’s perceived “sluttiness”. I couldn’t handle it. I thought the way Goi wrote/handled the material as director was just so bad and shameful.
There’s absolutely a way that Megan Is Missing could have been an effective horror. Or even as I said, this could’ve played out just as well/way better if it were filmed as a normal movie, not found footage, and played as a crime-drama with thriller elements. I mean, it could’ve even had a Gone Girl-esque vibe in terms of the whole disappearance in Fincher’s film – there could be built, with a tweaked script, a solid movie out of what Goi had in mind.
Unfortunately somewhere along the line Goi’s intentions were mixed and the lines crossed. It’s like he wanted to make this as a part of wanting to add commentary to a found footage horror. Instead, he began to focus too much on the overt sexuality of the character Megan, he pushes too much then – especially in the final 20 minutes or so – to make things totally exploitative. There could’ve easily been culled a good deal of tension, lots of suspense and dread, however, there’s none of that.
All we get in terms of horror is a shocking finale. Really, it’s just too much. I’ve seen plenty of disturbing movies. This is not one of those that works in an effective sense. Just a load of flashy shock horror trying to lull us into calling this some sort of good horror movie. It isn’t.
I can only give this movie about 1 star. There are elements to this which I thought worked, but only a couple. For instance, I think Amber Perkins did a swell job acting the part of Megan’s friend Amy Herman. It was a tough role and she did what she could with it; not a great script, or dialogue, yet she pulls off the little part of the film she could. Other than that, nothing worth seeing. The barrel shock sort of got me, it’s disturbing, but ultimately there is no substance at all. No style either.
A forgettable, rotten movie that I’ll never ever watch again.
The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence. 2011. Directed and Written by Tom Six.
Starring Laurence R. Harvey, Ashlynn Yennie, Maddi Black, Kandace Caine, Dominic Borrelli, Lucas Hansen, Lee Nicholas Harris, Dan Burman, Daniel Jude Gennis, Georgia Goodrick, and Emma Lock. Six Entertainment Company.
Unrated. 91 minutes.
I’d always known from the subtitle of First Sequence in the first film, Tom Six would continue on to do more work on sequels. I think that was always his plan because it seems that subtitle intended right away there would be further films in the series.
That being said, I’m not particular thrilled that Tom Six decided to keep going. While I do find the premise of The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence, I think Six would do far better moving onto something else and putting his unique touch on another film. That’s his choice, however, and I’ve got nothing to do with it.
It only frustrates me because the first movie was a decent horror, and the beginning of this movie sets up an interesting premise, yet Six squanders the potential.
There’s a bit of a deeper idea behind this sequel. Certainly it’s meta, beyond the concept of meta, which is actually something I love. Though it’s only a bit of shock horror, much unlike the method Six went for in the first film, I feel like Six has a bit of a message here. It’s still just blood and gore and depravity, but the main character sort of speaks to the obsession people have with horror. I don’t know if, ultimately, Six is mocking people who think horror/disturbing films have an overall negative effect on people, or if he’s saying there are some twisted fucks out there who might be sitting at home or at their dead-end jobs plotting to use horror movie scripts as their own M.O. Not sure, but regardless, I think beyond all the cheap horror Six brings for this lacklustre sequel, there is some kind of commentary on horror movies, and how we as viewers interact with that horror as either detractors or fans.
Meet Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) – he’s a loner, mentally ravaged by his parents, living with his mother in a terrible sort of flat on a dreary housing complex. He is a nightshift security guard in a below ground parking lot. There, he watches The Human Centipede: First Sequence, fantasizing about applying the fictional Dr. Heiter’s methods to real life and making himself a real Human Centipede. At home, he is plagued by his mother’s hatred, tough guy neighbours who want to play their music however loud they feel, and a creepy doctor who seems to take an affection to Martin, though, the wrong kind.
Slowly, Martin begins to collect victims so that he might eventually create the fabled Human Centipede. It isn’t only a will to kill and hurt. Martin is beyond turned on by the prospect of connecting all his victims, mouth to anus, anus to mouth. He is a vile, wretched human being.
Thus begins the vicious and menacing sequel which is: The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence.
Before I let loose on what I don’t like about this sequel, I’ll start with the few portions I actually really do enjoy about Full Sequence.
There’s something about the choice to film this in black-and-white that interests me. Not sure what Six was attempting to accomplish. Perhaps it’s because of how hardcore the gore and sick imagery is in the film, Six decided to go with black-and-white to try and counteract how vicious things look; if it were colour, I can only begin to fathom how brutal it might end up being. Black-and-white can really give off a natural feeling when used appropriately. I think Six does well with this concept, though, it does not help to really tone things down in the end because there’s just so much rottenness happening. Taking the colour out so that the blood and guts and nasty bits don’t look as vibrant and in your face, for this film, does nothing to lessen the blow. Maybe that’s not why Six chose to do this black-and-white, maybe he just imagined it would look a bit artsy and give the film some credibility. I don’t know.
I do think that at times this really works. The scenes at home with Martin and his mother, all those bits, they were spectacular as black-and-white. Honestly, if the depravity level weren’t skyrocketing into the outer atmosphere near Mars, this movie would have done well with the black-and-white scheme. I don’t think it hurts the horror, it does not detract. I just feel as if the horror here is for horror’s sake. I know that the story itself dictates how much blood and gore will come out – it’s all based around Martin’s obsession and sick lust over the original film. But still, I loved the first Human Centipede because, though highly disturbing subject matter, it felt like it was more restrained than I’d expected, and Six really put together a decent horrifying film.
The black-and-white idea is really something when it comes to a lot of scenes. Even that savage moment where Martin kills his mother, drags her to the table, then has a little bit to eat before egging on the musclehead upstairs and subduing him to add to his Centipede; I found this a chilling bit of horror. Honestly, if Martin hadn’t succeeded to even put together the Centipede, this might’ve worked. Then I guess that would defeat the purpose, there has got to be a form of the Centipede somewhere throughout the film. The end result doesn’t spoil the good black-and-white scenes, but I wish Six could’ve done something better with it all.
My big problems with The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence have to do with the excess of gratuitous EVERYTHING. Not only does Six go for more disgusting sequences of nasty gore, he pulls in a lot of sexuality. Now, I’ve just finished with reviewing the Wrong Turn series (I, II, III, IV, V, VI), and part of my problem especially with the later entries was that there was a lot of sex and nudity brought in to either fill time, or from some perceived notion that there needed to be some sex in order to be true to “horror roots” (which is nonsense; I won’t go any further on that). Six does exactly this with his sequel. While Martin (Laurence Harvey) could have been just as sick and maniacal without so much of the sexual aspects being played up, and graphically most of the time onscreen, Six still opts to pile it on when it comes to the sex, as well as nudity.
The whole aspect of Martin obviously being abused by his father is fine. That’s understandable, especially dealing with a psychopath like Martin; he’s bound to have a history of sexual abuse, or any abuse. But Six lays it on way too hard. There’s enough outright and graphic imagery here without having to full-on show us every last single little thing.
C’mon, Tom! You can leave bits to the imagination while still having your nasty fun.
Basically, I think it comes down to Six’s lack of worry as a screenwriter. I hate to say that, and it’s not to say he can’t write, but I just feel like too much of this sequel (as opposed to the first film) relies on shock horror and the “torture porn” aspect of his story instead of going for real tension and suspense. The first had some excellent moments of tension that worked, but here that’s almost non-existent. Six has the ability to write, it’s just as if he doesn’t want to at times.
This is one of those horror movies that goes way over-the-top with its excessive blood, gore, and overall nastiness. I know that’s probably exactly what Tom Six set out to accomplish, and perhaps that’s the total of his expectations for the film. Unfortunately, for me anyways, I really did think that the first Human Centipede was a good horror – for all its flaws, it was effective and it didn’t need to go far over the line. It gave enough to get enough of the reaction needed. Here, Six surpassed was is needed to effectively communicate the disturbed world of Martin, the loner security guard and Dr. Josef Heiter obsessive fan. I think the combination of all the ridiculous gore while Martin creates his Centipede and the depraved sexuality that’s going on at certain points (worst case: Martin humps on one of his victims collected for the Centipede and it is horrifyingly sickening) really made things too much to even enjoy. For the people who love shock horror, and dare I say it “torture porn” (again I fucking hate that label), I guess it’s really enjoyable.
But to me, this goes beyond shock horror, or whatever you want to call it. Martin shits himself, he farts and he makes disgusting noises, and at certain times during the film I was saying aloud, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Once again – maybe that’s the point Mr. Six is trying to get at, maybe that’s what he wants from me as a member of his audience. I just don’t find it to be good horror, nor is it enjoyable on any level when things get to the point of ridiculously staged debauchery and murder.
Don’t even get me started on the fact that, without all the proper medical equipment and knowledge, I don’t see how a guy like Martin, dumb and fucked up in the head as he is, could ever manage to successfully staple and tape together a Human Centipede. Not even touching the fact he had what, twelve people, ten? I mean, that’s just brutal.
I can only give Full Sequence a half of one star. Honestly, I really did dig a lot of what Tom Six did in the first film, but this one is just an absolute mess – as we say here in Newfoundland, Canada, it’s a real fuckin’ state. What a brutal movie – and in no way do I mean that as complimentary. I thought a lot of the black-and-white was great when it involved the scenes at Martin’s flat, with his mother, et cetera. Even a few of the moments with him in the parking garage complex, before his big creation began, I found fairly well done and the black-and-white helped its creepy atmosphere. However, that does not keep up long.
In the end, there’s too much gross-out horror at work. The shock horror, the “torture porn” is all too evident. Some might say, “What did you expect?”. Well, frankly, I expected Six to follow up his decent start of the series with something near equal to what he’d done. What he did was try only to gross us out – nothing more. Maybe that’s fine for some, but even with the gory horror (think more modern like Martyrs – tons of gore and a great story) I often like to have at least some semblance of well-intentioned writing and coherence. Here, Six cops out, and instead of writing something that could’ve worked terrorizing wonders on his captive audience, all we get is the full toilet humour most jokes about The Human Centipede films cover. There’s no attempt at creating genuine horror. Here you’ll only find the disgusting, the nasty, and the wretchedly vile.
BEWARE: in the last fifteen minutes there is some truly atrocious stuff happening – I’m not one to get disgusted, I have seen so many rotten and over-the-top disgusting horror flicks, but this one really took my stomach for a whirl. It’s not that which ultimately bothers me, it’s the fact this stuff has no real purpose other than shock. In the first film, there was at least an attempt on Six’s part to come up with something that was uniquely terrifying, this is just nothing but cheap gross-out horror and failed attempts at (crazily) dark humour.
P.S. Why does that mother step on her baby? Did I miss something? I get it – she wanted to get away. But would a new mother who’d just traumatically popped out her child really just go ahead and step on the gas pedal, crushing her infant child? Is that actually plausible? She couldn’t pick the thing up, toss it in the passenger seat with the umbilical cord and drive away?
Come on, Tom – you can do better. Or I don’t know, maybe the “What did you expect?” crowd is right – maybe I should expect nothing more than perversity and needless gross-out horror from you. I’m about to watch the third instalment, who knows what it holds in store for me!
Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings. 2011. Directed & Written by Declan O’Brien, based on characters by Alan McElroy. Starring Jennifer Pudavick, Tenika DAvis, Kaitlyn Leeb, Terra Vnesa, Ali Tataryn, Samantha Kendrick, Victor Zinck Jr, Dean Armstrong, Sean Skene, Blane Cypurda, Dan Skene, and Scott Johnson. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Rated R. 93 minutes.
★★1/2Declan O’Brien did not impress me with the previous instalment, Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead, but I’ve got to say I like this one at least a little better than that.
Bloody Beginnings doesn’t particularly pull out all the stops, it isn’t a masterpiece – not by any stretch of the imagination – but aside from the acting, and some of the dialogue, the blood and gore pleased me for a good slasher, and the kills were vicious. This is by all means a slasher movie; a little different from run-of-the-mill horror. I think slashers need to be judged a little differently than other sub-genres of horror, that’s why this one gets a little better of a rating than the previous Wrong Turn disaster under O’Brien’s care.
The premise of Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings is the origin story of the inbred cannibals in the West Virginia Mountains. We start off in 1974, at the Glenville Sanatorium in W.V, where the three cannibal brothers are patients, locked away for their own safety and that of others. They manage to escape, killing anyone and everyone in their path. Cut thirty years later – a group of friends go snowmobiling in the woods, eventually ending up at the now supposedly abandoned Glenville Sanatorium. A storm rages outside. After not too long, the friends discover someone is still checked in at the old asylum, and the brothers emerge from the depths to carve themselves up a bit of fresh meat to throw on the fire: nothing like a bit of lunch on a quiet, stormy winter’s night.
Immediately, I loved the first scene when I saw it. You’ve got some great elements going on: the creepy asylum, the West Virginia deep woods, patients going wild, and then the three brothers. The use of classical music over the end of the opening scene is excellent, I love when filmmakers put classical or old style music over horror, or any intense situations on film; the juxtaposition makes for something interesting, you almost want to smile until you remember what’s going on in front of you. There’s just utter madness throughout the opening bit. When the three brothers kill the doctor it is a great, wild kill, and certainly sets the tone. It looks good, too. I was afraid O’Brien would pull out a kill like the first one in Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead, which looked horrible – and not in any sort of good, practical effects type way, it was cheesy and CGI’d to death. This one was gory fun.
I don’t like that O’Brien felt the need to go for nudity again right off the bat. I’m fine with sex scenes, if they serve their purpose; I don’t need to watch a movie for sex. And yeah, it’s a staple of 1980s slashers, but the 80s this ain’t, and the nudity in this was just silly. The first scene with the main characters came off needless, when O’Brien could’ve used that time to really jumpstart our emotions towards the leads – instead, you don’t really care about any of them, not at the start, not much in the end.
Furthermore, the acting in this was not good. A couple people held their own, but much of the acting came off wooden, very stilted. The only real emotions I bought from anyone of these characters was fear; development-wise, they didn’t do much for me. I honestly felt bad a little for the Daniel character [Dean Armstrong] because he was the only sensible, nice guy of the males in the film. Unfortunately Armstrong’s acting is a bit stiff, and he didn’t pull me in far enough with the empathy. The other guys I certainly did not relate to because they were foolish characters. This is the biggest problem for Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings, the characters don’t catch us and make us care enough for the kills to pay off in the way they are meant to for a slasher; we should care about them, so when they die it’s either a shock or it makes us emotional. The script isn’t perfect, though, it wasn’t so bad a group of solid actors could’ve have made things work. These actors aren’t the worst, but they’re far from the best. Horror needs good acting, or else so much of the framework of a horror film will fall flat on its face.
The kills are my favourite part of this entry in the series.
When they first killed the doctor I anticipated there might be some better deaths in this movie than in the last one, which relied too much on computer generated-looking junk that ultimately does not sell itself. Here, there are some great practical style effects. Those types of kills in horror always come off more effective because it’s visceral, you can see and almost feel the skin peel off, slice open, bleed, and it makes for a better reaction.
In the auditorium of the asylum, one of the girls is killed (one of the couple pictures above), and it works so well. The blood is plenty, and the reaction of the guy trying to grab onto her feet as she hangs from a barbed wire-like noose is perfect: he screams a wild, high yell, his face getting covered in the blood running faster and faster with every second from her open wound of a neck. You almost want to laugh at the scream this guy lets out, but it is perfect. It struck me as absolute shock and terror. Plus, the blood work is incredible. Great stuff.
I hate the term “torture porn”. So silly. I understand what it means, and the intentions of such a term in trying to describe the types of films that run under that banner, but – aren’t slashers meant to be full of blood and kills and carnage? Yeah, I get that some of it is overkill, what I don’t get is how relevant that is to anything. A slasher is a slasher is a slasher. You can try to spice things up – I loved You’re Next and thought it was a fresh new slasher flick for the modern era – but a slasher will always be made up from some basic elements: one of which is gore. What else do people expect a bunch of cannibals stuck in an asylum out in the deep woods of West Virginia are going to do? You think they’re going to all of a sudden start hunting? No, they’re going to eat people, they’re going to chop them up and make new dishes out of them – stir fry and all kinds of crazy concoctions – and it’s going to be a big, bloody, rotten mess. That’s what I came here for, anyways.
People will say I’m mental, but I’ll give this a 2.5 out of 5 stars. There is effort here, regardless if you can’t seem to notice right away. The horror element of this movie really works, for me at least. All the gore and the kills and the creepiness pays off. Whereas in Wrong Turn 3: Left for Dead there’s a lack of both good horror and any decent acting, this entry into the series gives us some worthy terror, packed with savage, bloody murder, and plenty of brutality to make things worthwhile. If that isn’t what you’re looking for, then go watch a ghost story, or a haunted house movie – or anything else than a slasher. Because if you’re looking for a slasher… there will be blood.
Madison County. 2011. Directed & Written by Eric England.
Starring Colley Bailey, Matt Mercer, Ace Marrero, Joanna Sotomura, Natalie Scheetz, Nick Principe, Dayton Knoll, Adrienne Harrell, and Katie Stegeman. Image Entertainment.
Rated R. 81 minutes.
★1/2One of the young characters asks the question “where did he get the ideas if they weren’t true?” at an early point of the film while inquiring about a local legend the locals say is only just that – nothing more. This really represents the sort of tired dialogue and story inherent in Madison County. Granted, the character speaking the line isn’t exactly the brightest seeming sort of guy, I still find it a really rough portion of dialogue. At least Eric England had the sense enough to let the old woman who’s asked the question explain it to the young man. Still, it is a bad piece of dialogue.
Other than this film, I’m actually a fan of England after seeing his most recent effort, Contracted, and I really would like to see his portion of Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear. He definitely has his own unique vision, I just don’t think that vision is most fully realized in the mediocre effort of Madison County.
This movie tells the story of a young group who head into the backwoods of Madison County. They’re looking for an author of a book which details the real life account of horrible murders that took place there years before. Unfortunately, Madison County is much, much more horrifying than any book could ever make it seem. Once they’re in the small town, things escalate from one thing to the next, and as the day wears in it’s more than obvious they’ve stumbled across more than the author of some book. And they will be lucky to ever make it out of Madison County alive.
The plot description I’ve given could really sound like that of any other basic slasher movie taking place in the backwoods country of any state on the map. It’s real formulaic setup. I can’t really say much for how it developed, either. There isn’t much going on in Madison County to make me feel like England put a new spin on slasher material. When I said the dialogue is lazy, as well as the story, I don’t mean everything is totally a waste – there are moments of good dialogue, and also a few scary bits now and then. However, it’s the laziness which really overtakes the entire film. For instance, on their way into Madison County, the group encounters the archetypal “messenger” character many horror films include – the old man, often, who gives directions that lead a group into horror territory. On the contrary, here the group opt to not take the road mentioned, as it will most likely get them lost. This subverts our usual expectations for horror movies with this sort of setup.
The first time we see the man wearing his pig mask, I thought that was done pretty well. I was sort of expecting something would eventually happen, but regardless I found the shot itself where he is introduced pretty chilling. We see a nice wide shot of the victim standing on top of a tiny waterfall, getting ready to hopefully jump in the water with two naked young women, and then – BAM – pig mask killer. There’s nothing revolutionary going on here. It’s just a really effective opening to the killing, which begins in full throttle after this scene. Also, the inclusion of the two girls is key – after the victim is stabbed and dumped in the water, the girls casually get out, as if their job was done – and it was, certainly. We get a lot of information here because if there were any hesitations as to whether or not the town itself were all in on the killer’s secret, those are completely dispelled after this death scene. Honestly, this is probably my favourite scene in the film. Effective and creepy.
My problems with this film are the problems I have with many horrors, and slashers in particular. I try not to judge a lot of characters in these movies in regards to real life – you can’t judge how you would react when confronted with a pig mask killer, or Leatherface, or any of these horror movie killers. That being said, if I’d seen my close friend with a baseball bat jammed into his mouth, blood spurting, a man in a pig mask standing over them, I would run until my breath ran out. Instead, the girl here runs until she finds one of her friends. Then the action slows down – she is crying, she can’t complete a sentence. Sorry, but this is just awful. I mean, anyone would probably just run, even after meeting up with the friend. Yet we’re treated to another real mess of a horror because of ridiculously stupid decisions coming out of very tired writing. If that’s not enough, England has the pig mask killer creep up on the two friends moments later, right behind them on a dirt road nonetheless – but of course neither of them hear him. Somehow he manages to be quiet enough to wait for a really good swing, and still he misses. It’s just situations like this which do nothing for the slasher sub-genre. It makes the characters look stupid. Most of all, though, it makes the writer look sloppy. Basically, after the creepy introduction to the pig masked man, it loses the appeal and reverts back into the same old garbage. The whole section where he is chasing the two girls really grated on my nerves – so many bad choices, not only by the girls but also by the killer. Another example is when one of the girls decides to lure the killer away. I still don’t understand, at all, why the killer didn’t just take a nice swing at the one girl’s neck, kill her, and then chase down the other one. This movie makes no one out to be smart – neither the killer nor his victims. Too many missteps on every side.
For a slasher, there are a few nasty bits. On the whole, however, I wasn’t overly impressed with any of the horror gags. I like the first knifing, but that was mainly due to the introduction of the killer, and how nice the shot itself looked; pretty aesthetically pleasing overall. Aside from that, the blood wasn’t anything spectacular. Most slashers try to go for an interesting kill or two. Madison County sticks mostly with a lot of axe-work and things of that nature. Not that I don’t like to see a good axe murder on film – don’t get me wrong, I do. I just think a slasher really needs to try and do something different to set it apart from the usual, typical pack. Even if it’s a few neat little bits of blood and guts, or a couple visually cool kills – there needs to be a defining element if the filmmakers want it to go above the hordes of low budget slasher horror movies out there stinking the place to high heavens. I feel like England could have done something much better. His latest film, Contracted, was really great on all fronts – innovative, gross, creepy. This is his second feature, so I don’t expect him to have been a master, but I do wish there was something more to this than the regular fare so often pumped out.
I give this a 1.5 out of 5 stars. There were a couple moments I enjoyed, mainly due to the level of violence, which helped it as a slasher. Unfortunately there were not enough of these to make this anything memorable. I can guarantee I will not be watching this again. I’d seen it once before, and watched it today for review purposes. After this, I won’t revisit Madison County. It’s a by-the-numbers slasher, set in the backwoods, and there’s really nothing special here to take away. If you want something at least more creepy, maybe check out Just Before Dawn or even Deliverance, because this just does not deliver as a backwoods horror. I hope to see more from England, and maybe wouldn’t mind seeing him take on a slasher movie again. If he does, there will hopefully be better characters, dialogue, and all around a more complex, original story than this altogether unremarkable slasher outing.
A Horrible Way to Die. 2011. Dir. Adam Wingard. Written by Simon Barrett.
Starring A.J Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Joe Swanberg, Brandon Carroll, and Lane Hughes. Anchor Bay Entertainment. Rated R. 87 minutes. Horror
★★★★ (Blu ray release)
I’ve been a longtime fan of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. Though, I did experience Barrett’s writing in the eerie Civil War-era horror film Dead Birds before I experienced his recent partnership as a writer-director team with Wingard. They are a really great pair. I think Wingard doesn’t just work well with Barrett in the sense they’re probably good friends, he seems to get what the writer is saying, or at least they appear to have the same sensibilities. This translates really well onto film. I don’t think they’ve exactly reinvented horror, but I do think they continually succeed in breathing new life into tired genre filmmaking.
Always hesitant to say it myself, Wingard belongs to the small group of horror filmmakers people like to dub with the yawn-worthy label “mumblegore” – an offshoot of “mumblecore, what I see as a silly labeling of films concerned with more natural approaches to dialogue, story, or any aspects really, as opposed to a lot of the fake, plastic genre filmmaking pumped out of Hollywood. “Mumblegore” then are simply horror films that look to achieve these sorts of aesthetics. A Horrible Way to Die is a new look at the serial killer horror movie, which is presented to us through Wingard’s unique eye from a script by Barrett. The whole thing might seem, to some, as an aimless sort of method towards telling a story and visually showing us the film. On the other hand, I think Barrett and Wingard present a truly humanistic version of what could be a simple story about the psychology behind that of a serial killer balancing his home life and his criminal life on a razor’s edge. It also doesn’t hurt there’s a nice little twist in the finale.
A Horrible Way to Die tells the story of Garrick Turrell (Bowen), a convicted serial killer operating in the southern United States. He escapes custody while being transported from his prison facility. He starts to kill his way back towards home. There, his former girlfriend Sarah (Seimetz) is drying out. Sarah spends her nights now trying to kick the alcoholism she adamantly believes caused her to overlook Garrick’s true personality. Through Alcoholics Anonymous, Sarah ends up meeting a guy named Kevin (Swanberg) with whom she begins to get close after slowly letting down her guard. All the while, Garrick continues a path of destruction trying to reach Sarah once more.
I think one of the reasons this movie came across so well for me is due to the amazing cast. First of all I’ll mention Joe Swanberg because his role is the smallest in comparison to the two leads. His character starts out feeling sort of awkward, but not because Swanberg’s acting is bad; he conveys Kevin as a bit of an odd guy, obviously struggling with his own alcohol problems. Eventually, however, you start to sense something about him is not exactly quite right. You just can’t put your finger on it. I think Swanberg did a lot of subtle acting with this character and it really worked well for the plot. I think not enough focus is given to how well he plays off Amy Seimetz here. Partly because she is really great.
Seimetz does a great job playing a very conflicted women in A Horrible Way to Die. I think a lot of people, who just want to complain, might try and say Barrett writes her poorly as a strong female role. I disagree. Women don’t have to be perfect. Just as they don’t have to look pathetic and near complete helplessness like Stanley Kubrick’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance in The Shining. Sarah is a complex woman with difficult problems on her plate. If there hadn’t been such a great performance by Seimetz perhaps this character may have come off like a real pushover. Instead, I get the impression she’s someone who doesn’t want to give up. One scene shows her having a bit of a relapse and then proceeding to pour all the rest of her liquor down the toilet; you can tell, while she fell off the wagon briefly, a realization set her back in place. Unfortunately for Sarah, there are other, higher powers at work threatening to undo everything. It’s a really great role and I think nobody else but Seimetz could do it. She fits in very well with the style of Wingard.
The ultimate best part about A Horrible Way to Die is absolutely A.J Bowen. I’ve been a fan of his for awhile now ever since I first saw a movie called The Signal; he was fantastic in it, and ever since I’ve paid attention to anything with him in the cast. Here, his portrayal of Garrick Turrell really does something for me. He’s a lot more dapper and charming than Michael Rooker’s titular character from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Still, there is something about him in this film which reminds me of Rooker. Underneath Bowen’s boyish good looks and disarming voice lurks the presence of evil – Turrell can barely go fifty feet without seeing another person he wants to kill. It’s like this part of him is engrained into his DNA, hardwired to his brain. He can’t forego the urges.
I think casting Bowen really helped this character. Very well-written, but Bowen brings the Ted Bundy-ish charm to Garrick Turrell. I can see how this guy would get away with things so long if he were being careful, just as Bundy himself was doing until he went even more insane than he initially was and got himself caught – the charming nature really takes people off their guards and leaves them vulnerable to Turrell’s sick whims.
I really loved the opening scene of the movie when Garrick is sitting in his car; he snaps awake, as if out of a nice nap, gets out and opens a trunk to reveal a woman bound and gagged. He apologizes and tells the lady he must have dozed off. It’s the way he says it which really sets the tone for things to come. There are a few interactions Turrell has with people that speak to his chilling character, such as in a flashback scene to a night when he gets home to Sarah late, and naturally she has questions; coupled with what we know about him already and what we’ll learn more of soon after, the ease with which lies come out of his mouth to explain his otherwise unexplainable whereabouts is astonishing.
Again to reference real life, I imagine this might be how many serial killers have sounded to their significant others. Specifically I think of a man like Dennis Rader, a.k.a B.T.K (Bind Torture Kill), who went home to his wife and children every night while also going out to do heinous things, maybe after they all went to bed or maybe he made up a story like Turrell to explain his absence later. I imagine Rader probably sweet talked just like this. It’s very chilling. Bowen is amazing in this movie, and in general. His casting is genius here.
As a film, I absolutely give this 4&1/2 stars. There’s nothing wrong with A Horrible Way to Die. Admittedly, some may not necessarily enjoy all the cinematography Wingard chooses to use. I think while the story tries to distance itself from the typical outings we usually get in regards to serial killers, as there are tons, the handheld camerawork Wingard does in this movie really sets it apart from what we’re used to – apart from a few unique slashers, Se7en, as well as more recent works like the Red Riding trilogy and HBO’s True Detective, there aren’t too many really fresh takes on serial killers floating around. A lot of the same old meal. I have to at least admire, above all else, the effort on the parts of both Barrett and Wingard to try and subvert expectations a little while still somewhat working with a formula familiar to audiences.
Most recently, they’ve moved into action-thriller territory with a fabulous film, The Guest, attempting to do the same thing with a different genre. I will always keep my eye on either of them, whether as a team or not. Great director and great writer.
The Blu ray release from Anchor Bay Entertainment I have also comes with three other films: WWE Films’ No One Lives, Hatchet, and The Alphabet Killer. While it does have a bit of extra content, it’s less than you might expect from a single release of the title. That being said, I really, really enjoyed the commentary with Barrett and Wingard. Lots of valuable insight not only into the film, but also into their thought process, both personally and artistically. They’re genuine guys from what I can tell, so it’s always nice to hear an audio commentary where the people talking are concerned first and foremost with discussing the film, and not themselves. Also, there’s a nice little featurette, “Behind the Scenes of A Horrible Way to Die” where you get to see a lot of fun little bits from the production of the film. I admire Wingard a lot as a director because he really loves to be hands on, and you get to see a lot of small bits where he’s basically doing the job of director, as well as director of photography (for those who don’t know – this would be the individual in charge of the camera/lighting crews). While it is a small movie, it’s still great to see how much of Wingard’s vision is really coming across in the finished film.
This is absolutely a fresh film on an old subject. If you’re a fan of Wingard’s earlier work, or even his latest, you should definitely see this – likewise with Barrett [Dead Birds is the first of his movies I saw & I really love it – own it on DVD – so if you’ve seen his other stuff please check that out also]. There are lots of visually interesting scenes in this movie. Some might not enjoy the frenetic look of the camerawork. I think it really fits the tone and subject of A Horrible Way to Die, and brings a unique perspective to the serial killer sub-genre. Not to mention the score of this film is totally ominous; this is one of those dark, brooding scores where the music really crawls under your skin, rattles your bones and teeth, and generally unsettles you. Everything works together here to provide horror with, at the very least, something different. A Horrible Way to Die is a great and non-typical experience amongst so many other movies trying to do the same thing while failing to actually do so. There’s an atmosphere and mood about this one that will haunt you for days. It haunted me. Still does.
For my review of You’re Next, the home invasion horror-thriller by Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett, click here.