From Alexandre Aja

[The Twisted Parallels of Cinema] Edition #11: American Horror Story (Vol. III)

The latest instalment looks at visual references from Season 6 ("Roanoke") of American Horror Story.

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Jack Bauer v. Supernatural Forces in MIRRORS

Mirrors. 2008. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur; based on the film Into the Mirror by Sung-ho Kim.
Starring Keifer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Cameron Boyce, Erica Gluck, Amy Smart, Mary Beth Peil, John Shrapnel, Jason Flemyng, Julian Glover, and Ezra Buzzington. New Regency Pictures.
Rated 18A. 110 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★
Mise en page 1 (Page 1) For starters, I’ve been an Alexandre Aja fan for a long while now. Ever since I first saw Haute Tension (English titles: High Tension & Switchblade Romance) I thought that Aja had a sense of old school horror in him.
I continue to feel that way. While some people really might not agree, I think even his lesser films have things worth enjoying, worth taking away – sometimes that may just be the effects, parts of the script, or the story. Regardless I think that Aja carries with him some old school horror movie sensibilities in terms of his use of practical effects (though at times he does opt for some shitty CGI I must admit), as well as the stories he chooses to film.

Mirrors is the most supernatural horror that Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur have written together. It still has a bit of a realistic feel because of where the story goes eventually, however, there’s always that strong supernatural vibe going on from start to finish. In this way, it’s a little different from almost anything else that Aja himself has directed (of course since then he’s also done the fantastic Horns).
While it is not particularly great, I think the movie has merit mostly because of a creepy and weird story, and at times amongst some bad CGI effects we’re treated to a handful of really awesome practical make-up effects shots courtesy of Howard Berger, Gregory Nicotero, and some other wizards from KNB.
Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.55.32 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.55.56 PMBen Carson (Keifer Sutherland) is a former NYPD detective. He killed a man in a shooting some time ago after falling into a downward spiral of alcoholism; disgraced, he retired from the force. He’s cut off from his children most of the time, as his ex-wife Wife (Paula Patton) has custody of them both.
To try and make ends meet, Ben works as a security guard. Now he has a new job as the nightwatchman for the Mayflower Department Store which had been partly wrecked with fire years before. There, he begins to experience strange phenomena. Worse is the fact the last nightwatchman cut his own throat with a piece of glass from a mirror in a subway station bathroom.
Eventually Ben starts to feel as if the mirrors aren’t being looked into – they are looking out. And he does not like what they’ve started to project, as it slowly begins working its way out of the Mayflower Department Store, into him, into his life. Things get worse, until soon enough the things in the mirrors are following Ben home, to the home of his ex-wife and children. Unfortunately for Ben, at first nobody believes him because of the medication he takes while trying to stay off the booze. That all changes once the things in the mirrors reveal themselves to everyone else around him. Then, nobody is safe.
Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.57.54 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.58.18 PMI really do love the opening sequence. An unwritten horror movie rule is that you need one of those opening scenes that POPS, usually a murder – maybe even the murder that begins the whole story. Doesn’t have to be that, but you know what I mean. There are many variants, yet a ton of horror movies all start out that way with a scene that’s meant to get our adrenaline going, getting the terror started. Mirrors does a fine and bloody job of starting things out. A worthy opening scene to the many that have come before it.

Throughout the movie there are definitely a few instances of terrible looking CGI shots. I think that’s overall one of my biggest problems. When you’re doing a supernatural film, especially, you really need to either do practical effects the whole way through, or you’ve got to be able to put up some quality CGI that doesn’t make things feel so fake and awkward.
Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.56.58 PMOne of the worst, to me, is when Ben Carson (Sutherland) thinks he’s on fire, looking in the mirror; he drops and rolls around, the fire consuming him all over the length of his body. Though, he is not on fire it’s meant to look and seem very real. In opposition to that, it doesn’t look any bit real. I’m not saying you’ve got to put someone in danger by lighting them on fire to get the shot, but does the alternative have to be awful effects? Either do it right or forego doing it at all. It was like watching Keifer Sutherland wriggle around in a green-screen blanket or something. Really rough to watch.
I don’t want to lay any blame for this scene on Grégory Levasseur especially. Unfortunately for him, Aja had to leave set to be with his wife who’d prematurely gone into labour, so Levasseur took over duties on this scene. I guess ultimately he didn’t have either control or say over the special effects in that scene, but either way he could’ve been part of the problem. He only recently directed The Pyramid, which I enjoyed yet was not great, so at this point in 2008 he probably didn’t have too much experience behind the camera as a director.
Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.57.44 PMWith that being said, I’ve got to commend the really well-executed make-up effects on the part of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, as well as other artists from the KNB EFX shop. These guys have done so many films and shows, everything from The Walking Dead to Day of the DeadMiseryEvil Dead IIPhantasm II, and so many more between them all.
A great and classic horror movie death happens in this film. BRIEF SPOILERS AHEAD!
Angela Carson (Amy Smart) dies while in the bathtub: her reflection grabs the top and bottom of her own jaw, starts ripping, tearing it open, upward until the whole thing just starts hanging loose, tongue out, bloody and gore everywhere. The water is full of blood. One of those real gory horror scenes that is enough to satisfy a lot of gorehounds out there! The effects in the beginning as she starts tearing involve a slight drop of CGI, however, the after effects and midway through the process are all practical; looks amazing. I thought so, anyways. Some true gore.
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Not a huge fan of the acting, I must say. Mostly it’s only Sutherland who impresses me, and even he doesn’t exactly swing for the fences in a full-fledged, honest effort. I’m not saying he’s bad, at all, I just think that at times he’s a bit too flat. He plays that broken down guy well, there’s no doubt. But it feels like he doesn’t go from one place to another, there’s always this stagnant feeling to the Ben Carson character. Neither is he meant to go and turn into some new person, I just feel like there’s not much range here in Sutherland. Maybe that isn’t his fault, either. Could just be the script from Aja and Levasseur didn’t give Carson enough life on the page. Because I certainly think Sutherland is a good actor – not a fan of his Jack Bauer turn but I love him in Stand by MeFreewayA Time to Kill, and more. So he’s capable of range, I just don’t see much of it in the character itself, therefore we don’t see much out of Sutherland. Though, what he is given he plays well. As I said, I buy him as that sort of broken down, washed up/disgraced former cop figure. With that bit, he does what he can.
Otherwise, as I said, no one else truly grabbed me other than a couple of the supporting actors with creepy parts to play. Paula Patton certainly did not do anything for me; I find her bland and could take her or leave her, preferably she’d be left.
Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 12.03.37 AMScreen Shot 2015-08-01 at 12.04.05 AMBy far, my favourite part about Mirrors is the backstory of what’s going on inside the Mayflower Department Store. Once the film gets to the 1 hour 20 minute mark and Ben Carson is starting to unravel the Esseker mystery, this is where things get fairly creepy and unsettling. Not that it’s like blow your socks off scary, I just enjoy the mystery, the creepy moments when Carson goes to see the nun, tracking down information, it’s all pretty disturbing. I dig that whole final half hour. It’s by no means perfect, but it has that macabre backwoods element which I really love. To tell you the truth, I could’ve gone for a prequel where Aja explored the origin story in fuller detail, showing the Esseker girl and the lead-up to everything, her ‘possession’ or what not and that whole angle. The execution leaves something to be desired, all the same I thought Aja and Levasseur did a decent job with the story as opposed to the lacklustre work they did with dialogue and character development.
Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 12.03.24 AMScreen Shot 2015-08-01 at 12.04.44 AMScreen Shot 2015-08-01 at 12.05.36 AMIn the end, I’ll give Mirrors a 3 out of 5 stars. It’s not the worst of what Alexandre Aja has to offer, however, I also can’t say it’s one of his best. A mid-range effort on his part. Mostly, it’s the CGI and nonsense in the plot that throws me off, coupled with not a whole lot of stellar acting. The writing could’ve been done much better. There’s not only bad dialogue, there is a major lack of character development, as well as just some parts that didn’t feel to make a whole lot of sense even when it comes to the movie’s own internal logic. The finale was my favourite part, yet even some points there I said to myself “Hmm what?” and didn’t exactly feel like things went where they needed to go ultimately.
Also the ending sets things up for a sequel. I hate that. You can go for a downbeat, horrific ending that doesn’t have to be a lead-in to a sequel, which it feels like here. This would’ve worked with a haunting, open end but instead it’s like Aja just wanted to set it up so that someone else could spin this into another film.
Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 12.06.51 AMAside from those points that I thought were lacking, or were downright bad, I do enjoy the backstory of the film. There’s a lot of creepy things going on in that story and even if they were not represented as accurately and effectively as possible to maximize the horror/terror in the final product, I still think Aja did a decent job at trying to draw out some of the creepiness that was there. All in all, this is not something I’ll probably watch again, though, I did enjoy it enough to seek it out to review it and then watch it for a second time. This will be my last. I much prefer Aja’s remake of the Wes Craven classic The Hills Have Eyes, his French gore horror masterpiece High Tension and his film adaptation of Joe Hill’s novel Horns, and still there are a good deal who think the latter of those two is garbage; maybe some even don’t like the first. But me, I love Aja, and even though this is far from a great horror, I still give him credit for trying to instil a bit of old school-ness into his films, whether it be classic style supernatural ghost story stuff or the presence of some wild practical make-up effects.
Just search elsewhere to find his best work, you aren’t going to find it in this film.

THE PYRAMID’s Filled with Terror & Poor CGI

The Pyramid. 2014. Directed by Grégory Levasseur. Screenplay by Daniel Meersand & Nick Simon.
Starring Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O’Hare, James Buckley, Christa Nicola, Amir K, and Faycal Attougui. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★1/2
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There’s no way that I can honestly say The Pyramid is a great horror – most of the CGI alone warrants enough criticism to put it out of the running.
However, what I can say for my personal take on Grégory Levasseur’s film is that I enjoyed it simply because it’s fun.

A movie does not need to be perfect to be enjoyable. You don’t have to either love or hate a movie; not in the real world. It’s silly to think that movies have to be flawless in order to be enjoyed.
By the same token, you can both criticize a film for its flaws while simultaneously you’re still able enjoy what you’re watching.
The Pyramid is enjoyable for me because it’s fun. It isn’t the same old found footage movie of people going out into the woods, or a tv show presented and his crew get trapped inside a haunted building. At the very least, we’re treated to a location and situation that isn’t often touched on through found footage (the only similar film is another one I enjoyed though plenty seem to hate: As Above So Below).

The Pyramid takes place during 2013 as the protests in Egypt against President Mohamed Morsi were heating up big time.
Father-daughter archaeology team, Dr. Miles Holden (Denis O’Hare – of whom I was a big fan already but especially since his genius turns on FX’s American Horror Story) and Dr. Nora Holden (Ashley Hinshaw) are on a dig where a pyramid with only three sides, as opposed to the four contained on the pyramids in Giza. Once the structure is unearthed, a robot is sent in – as soon as the pyramid was opened, toxic air inside killed a man in a near instant. After the robot goes offline, the Holdens, as well as their team – along with Sunni Marsh (Christa Nicola), a documentary host, and her cameraman Terry “Fitzie” Fitzsimmons – all head inside, geared up, ready to discover what they can.
Unfortunately, the area is being cleared out due to the protesting in Giza and surrounding areas. Quickly the team enters the pyramid quickly as possible without alerting any of the authorities.
Inside there are dark and dangerous things lurking amongst the shadows, things that have spent centuries feeding, and waiting for the arrival of fresh meat.
the-pyramid-2014Stop being an archaeologist for a second and start being a human being” – I keep seeing people cite bad dialogue, using this as a source. I mean, why? What makes that such a bad line? Denis O’Hare’s character was just saying he didn’t want to destroy a wall because it had been put there, however long ago, by people who’d built that pyramid, so much historical hard work. Instead of wanting to get out of that place, he was more concerned with preserving things for historical and archaeological purposes. So I don’t understand how that line comes off as poorly written dialogue. Someone please explain to me why that line written on paper is bad because I don’t see it. Maybe the delivery isn’t perfect? Either way, this is not, to me, an example of bad writing. You don’t think someone would ever say those words? Try being trapped in an ancient, underground pyramid with a guy who’d rather just suffocate alive than bust up any of the old artifacts down there. Then perhaps the line might feel more ‘natural’.
gallery-thepyramid4-gallery-imageNow, I’m not saying that The Pyramid avoids all the tropes of the found footage genre, or that it’s perfect – as I said starting out, it’s far from a perfect horror.
Typically there are always the arguments of “You lead us here”, et cetera. This moment comes, of course, after things start to get really hairy and one of the members, MIchael (Amir K) on the expedition is killed. Sunni flips on Miles and blames him for leading them down there, but as he points out she has to take responsibility because nobody forced her into the pyramid. I guess you can’t really avoid these types of arguments in found footage, as usually there is a ring leader. Most often, though, it’s usually the person insisting on keeping things filming – SO THAT THE WORLD WILL KNOW WHAT HAPPENED! If anything, at least they don’t go for that exact scenario. There’s a reason to keep filming here, as just being in the pyramid alone is a pretty amazing feat. I’m just glad there isn’t the same series of arguments over “Get that camera out of my face” and “Stop asking me questions – what is wrong with you?”, and so on. Might not be all fresh, but it does still avoid some of the familiar nonsense of the sub-genre.
6_zpsbcexgskw.jpg~originalThere’s no part of me that will deny the CGI throughout The Pyramid is pretty bad. Almost all of it, honestly.
I guess when it comes to certain stories, characters, et cetera, in horror films there’s only so much you’ll be able to accomplish with practical effects beyond the blood and the murders. That being said, there’s no reason CGI has to look atrocious. I think, had the filmmakers somehow come up with a way to costume an actor instead of draping them in CGI, the Anubis creature could’ve been much more frightening.
Problem is that when bad CGI dominates the screen, there’s a real smack in the face for an audience. You go from seeing these big sets, this giant pyramid and all these hieroglyphics around, statues, to this hulking presence of bulbous CGI pushing through the frame. It’s too much of a contrast from the real look of everything else to the fake look of Anubis, as well as the other little creatures and things. I liken it to looking a nice painting then throwing a bunch of cartoon cutouts on top and acting out a scene. There’s already suspension of disbelief with a horror like this, but that doesn’t mean things need to look fake and silly looking. I’m sure it’s easier said than done to balance the budget of a huge film, especially when there are so many costs. However, with Alexandre Aja (director of such films as the fantastically gruesome High Tension, the stellar remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and another I enjoyed which others hated – adapted from Joe Hill’s novel, Horns starring Daniel Radcliffe) backing this project, you’d think there would be some way to make sure the CGI came out looking much better. Really dropped the ball on this aspect, which is one of the reasons so many people did not enjoy the film overall, I think.

SPOILER ALERT – HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!
One effect I did like, or at least the second half of it, is when Dr. Miles Holden gets his heart ripped out. The first part looked a bit cheese-filled, but when the hand is sticking out, Miles is staring wide-eyed at it, and then it pulls back out of him, I thought that piece of the effect went really well. Because it didn’t look completely CGI built, it had at least a fraction of practical effects. Another bit I liked was the first night vision bit with Fitzie where he sees Dr. Holden get his face melted off – Anubis is all CGI, but the face melting still looks pretty damn gnarly!
For me, I love the practical make-up effects instead of big nonsense computerized junk – any day of the week. Most horrors will at least get a star or two alone from me if there’s an effort on the part of practicality. If not, I find it hard to engage with. Some horror does have pretty good CGI, but the good ones in that arena are those that don’t overuse it either – they know when to employ it, sparse, and they recognize all the other times where there’s no need of it at all. So, if The Pyramid was able to include more effects of a practical nature there might have been a better visceral reaction to all the other.
The Pyramid 2014 HD WallpapersI can’t recommend The Pyramid in that way I would recommend other horror movies I’ve enjoyed. Simply because I don’t think this is a great movie.
But like I said in the beginning – you don’t have to think a movie is perfect to have a good time watching. There are fun bits in The Pyramid. While the CGI is far from anything I thought worked, there’s adventure to this horror-thriller. We don’t have to watch a bunch of young people running around in the woods, constantly screaming – both in terror and at one another – there’s actually a different story here than the same old tripe with which we’re presented.
The Pyramid does not need to be perfect. Sure, I would’ve loved to see a lot of changes because this could’ve been an absolutely excellent horror movie if there were better practical effects and not so much reliance on the bad CGI. Especially the final 10 minutes – Anubis looked the worst when the red flare lighting was glowing and you could seem him terribly clear. Before, he skulked around in the dark, so there were times it didn’t look as glaringly bad.
So there is plenty of room for improvement. I don’t deny that at all.
What I’m saying is, just because a movie doesn’t work as a 5-star film does not mean it has to be without merits. There is at least some decent acting, a halfway sensible script (despite what others might say), and an intriguing location/plot to work around in. See this for a bit of fun – don’t expect something on the level of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, but don’t expect a complete piece of trash like some reviews might have you believe.

Enjoy – or don’t! That’s up to yourself.

Horns – A Story of Love & Satan

Horns. 2014. Dir. Alexandre Aja. Screenplay by Keith Bunin; based on the novel of the same name by Joe Hill.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Juno Temple, James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan, Heather Graham, and David Morse. Mandalay Pictures.
12
0 minutes. Rated R.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★

53382Horror can often look like a tired genre. The heyday of 1970s psychological horror and 1980s slashers passed quickly, while birthing some extremely talented artists. This period gave way to a fairly unoriginal decade throughout the 90s. However, since the year 2000 there have been some new horror directors stepping out of the shadows to reclaim the genre.

One in particular is French director Alexandre Aja. He got his first big break with his French horror Haute Tension (English title: High Tension), which brought him to the attention of American horror master Wes Craven. Aja was given the privilege of remaking Craven’s own The Hills Have Eyes: one of the only worthy horror remakes in recent memory.
Horns, based on the best-selling novel by author Joe Hill whose famous father happens to be Stephen King, is Aja’s newest film, and for the most part it is a very fun, very wild ride.
_DSC7841.NEFHorns is about a man named Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) who recently lost his girlfriend Merrin (Temple). She was brutally murdered, and everyone thinks Ig did the deed. After some time Ig caves and sleeps with an old friend of his while drinking heavily. The next morning, to his horror, Ig discovers two horns have started to sprout out of his temples—all of a sudden people start telling him things he never asked to hear. From one person to the next, Ig hears everyone’s dark, dirty secrets. At first it seems more of a burden, but soon he decides to use his newly discovered persuasiveness to root out his girlfriend’s murderer and prove his innocence.

The story itself is wonderfully weird. I’m a fan of Stephen King myself, and knowing now Hill shares his father’s predilection for the macabre I will most certainly be picking up a copy of Horns to read, as well as other books.
There’s just enough horror to keep it in the genre, but this story really works because of its humour. Ig hears his share of disturbing tales and sadness due to the horns, but it’s the comedy that comes out of a few conversations that really got to me. I’m not a huge horror-comedy fan, but this script worked well enough with both elements.
Though Hill did not write the screenplay, it’s easy to see he and his father are drawn to similar stories; the flashbacks to Ig’s childhood are reminiscent of some scenes from King’s novel It, both in setting and tone.  While the comparisons are there, Hill is most certainly his own man.  I’m hoping some of his other work will end up being adapted soon enough.
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My personal favourite part of Horns is Daniel Radcliffe. For one, the guy does a near flawless American accent. A lot of British actors play Americans on film, but Radcliffe is one of the few who can slip into the accent and never waver. Juno Temple does a fine job as well. This film, though, is all Radcliffe. His performance is incredible.  Always determined to shed the perpetual image of Potter, here he hurls curse words, strips down to nothing, and conveys every shade of emotion on the spectrum. But more than that, he’s natural. Nothing about his performance feels forced.

I was always a fan, but after Horns I can definitively say I think Radcliffe is one of the best young actors out there. In the final act of the film he acts circles around everyone else on screen.
horns-1024x576I would highly recommend this film to anybody. If you’re a horror fan, Aja provides a few creepy little bits to satisfy true genre lovers. For those who aren’t so inclined, Hill’s story is actually a beautiful romance disguised as a horror-comedy. If you let it, Horns will grab hold of you. My only complaint about the film is its use of CGI. Though there are a few really graphic bits where Aja sticks to practical effects, a lot of the film’s finale was very plastic looking.  There was no other way to really do it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t look all that good. Unfortunately, these few effects near the end really take away from some of the film’s emotional weight. I found myself not caring as much about what happened in the last five minutes as I did about just making it to the end credits. That being said, it did not ruin the film. It’s another great step in Alexandre Aja’s career as an interesting and important director of modern horror.