From 2011

URBAN EXPLORER: Confronting Germany’s Buried Nazi History

URBAN EXPLORER's not a good movie, but it has plenty of things to say about how we sometimes choose to hide the past rather than confront it.

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Elizabeth Olsen Braves the Silent House

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.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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Haunted Historical Horror: Ti West’s The Innkeepers

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.
Horror


★★★★1/2
The-Innkeepers-2011Every 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.
sara-paxton-claire-and-pat-healy-luke-inIn 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.
sara-paxton-as-claire-in-the-innkeepers-2011One 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.
the-innkeepers-movie-image-02Really 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 AreNight Moves, Mickle’s Stake LandMeek’s Cutoff. Then he’s done other probably lesser known films – though they ought to be more recognized – such as Bitter FeastThe House of the DevilThe Last WinterJoshua, 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.
the-innkeepers-2011-ti-west-sara-paxton-pat-healy-kelly-mcgillis-19Aside 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 WitnessTop 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.
sara-paxton-as-claire-in-the-innkeepers-2011 the-innkeepers-2Most 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.
the-innkeepersWith 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 DevilThe 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 GuestYou’re NextA Horrible Way to Die).

American Horror Story – Murder House, Episode 1: Pilot

FX’s American Horror Story
Season 1, Episode 1 – Pilot
Directed by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Running With ScissorsThe Normal Heart)
Written by Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy

* For a review of the next episode, “Home Invasion” – click herescreen-shot-2016-11-11-at-9-22-59-pmYou’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.screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-9-25-18-pmImmediately, 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.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-9-33-52-pmAs 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): “Dont 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”.