One of the strangest films of the '70s, and of Larry Cohen's, GOD TOLD ME TO strikes at belief, faith, & Christianity.
Area 51. 2015. Directed by Oren Peli. Screenplay by Christopher Denham & Oren Peli.
Starring Reid Warner, Darrin Bragg, Ben Rovner, Jelena Nik, Roy Abramsohn, Frank Novak, and Glenn Campbell. Aramid Entertainment Fund/Blumhouse Productions/IM Global/Incentive Filmed Entertainment/Room 101.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Right back to the supposed McPherson Tape, later given a bigger budget and made as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, there have been plenty of found footage films dealing with alien encounters. We’ve also got Jason Eisner’s segment from V/H/S 2, the 2014 film Alien Abduction, then there’s Apollo 18 with a bit of pseudo-revisionist history. There are more, but I won’t ramble on into the night about every last one.
Area 51 is not necessarily the same as the others. Right from the beginning, not many films involve the actual infiltration, or attempted infiltration, of Area 51. There are some, but not a great many. Plenty of mentions, though, in film and television about Roswell, New Mexico, Area 51, and areas around Nevada. In some respects, Oren Peli’s latest film is much different than anything else. At other times there’s nothing different at all. Mixed bag mostly.
Peli is someone I’ve enjoyed far more as a producer than director. His two films as director, Area 51 and Paranormal Activity, aren’t that much different than one another except for the fact they’re completely different settings. Mostly I like that he produced the three Insidious movies, The Lords of Salem, as well as both Chernobyl Diaries and The Bay of which I’m a fan despite what others might think of them. With this film – originally completed around 2009 or so and unreleased until 2015 – Peli doesn’t do much else other than try to show new ways of incorporating found footage, techniques which aren’t necessarily fresh or innovative but above all else just fun to look at.
Three friends – Reid (Reid Warner), Darren (Darrin Bragg), and Ben (Ben Rovner) – head to a huge a party. There, Darren and Ben lose track of Reid briefly. They see him staring into the sky. Later, they find him again in the road – quiet, but fine.
Three months later, Reid has planned a trip for them: to Vegas. Or, more so Area 51.
Once on their journey, they meet with Jelena (Jelena Nik) whose father worked in the base for a time before getting fired for prodding into things too far; he later committed suicide. The four head out to try and make it onto the legendary base.
However, once they arrive and start to move further and further inside, they come to understand perhaps it’s better off the American Government keeps their findings under wraps.
An aspect of Area 51 I really did enjoy was the plot of how they managed to snag the old guy’s ID and the bottle of his cologne in case they required any fingerprints. That was pretty slick! While I think once inside there’s a lot of lapse of judgement on the part of the writing, in turn affecting the characters, much of what I liked about the movie was its build-up and the first half where it’s almost more like a thriller than anything. We’ve seen plenty of this type of stuff in other movies, I dig that Peli injects the found footage into something with which we’re familiar.
Another extremely fun part were the effects. I think, despite of how mediocre I found its scares, Peli’s Paranormal Activity at the least introduced the movie industry to new aspects found footage could carry: such as special effects. In this film, Peli takes that on to different levels. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Once Darren, Jelena, and Reid enter the Area 51 facility, there are a host of interesting effects the movie introduces. The alien technology this trio comes across is impressive. I totally loved the small, smooth craft Reid gets into; from the outside it’s almost a big oval, an egg-like structure, inside Reid is soundproofed yet the whole ship is transparent. Honestly, regardless whether you like the movie overall or not, I can’t see how you wouldn’t enjoy these moments. Seeing special effects with the found footage done well, such as they are in this case, is a treat for me because it isn’t often we get to see that in other movies.
There’s a genuine creepshow of a sequence after Jelena and Reid end up in a tunnel system underneath the Area 51 facility itself. In these few scenes, Peli brings us back to straight horror filmmaking. Not in a bad sense. There’s the obligatory slow shots of the camera, light shining, moving through the darkness, but a sense of real tension is happening. I’d honestly expected, after Darren has a quick run-in with the facility security, the finale of the film was going to be an extremely big, loud chase sequence, and the effects would come fast, barely noticeable, and the film would go out on a bang. Instead, the screenplay slows things down in pace for awhile. We get these very quiet bits before the REAL chase gets on. Then we switch back to see how Darren is doing, there we get the big chase, the loud sound design, alarms, and so on. Not a bad thing, however, I thought Peli might’ve done well to keep with the subtlety through to the end and create a more effective scare for the audience. Sadly, what was built up loses its steam with a big shift between Darren/Jelena and Reid. Peli should’ve left Darren and his situation unknown, it’d be more unsettling that way instead of spelling ever last thing out visually for us. Keeping with Jelena and Reid could have created an insanely tight tension that would not let up until the finish. It still has suspense and it keeps you on edge, no doubt there, but I don’t think it reached what it could have been with more focus.
That being said, I found the final ten minutes – in regards to scenes involving Jelena and Reid – pretty damn spectacular at times. SPOILERS AHEAD! When the two of them appear to abducted there’s an amazing scene/series of shots, as they’re sort of lifted up inside this white space, no gravity, and the camera gets sucked out of a tube only to fall down to the ground. BONUS – if you watch until after the credits, which you should as respect to all the various artists who work on a film (not to be a dick but I have many friends in the industry + I’m an aspiring screenwriter so it’s always nice to spend an extra couple minutes watching them), there is a POST-CREDITS SCENE. Pretty nice little add-on.
Only for the fact that this scene may negate the found footage aspect. An old man – the same one poking around the group’s vehicle earlier in the film – finds the camera Reid dropped in his abduction, or whatever you’d like to officially call it. So my only beef is: how did the footage get “found” then? It seemed to me like this old guy was a part of the conspiracy, in some way. Perhaps I’m wrong and he was another intrigued mind, maybe the reality is he came across the tape while trying to find his own evidence of some sort. Then it’s VERY clear how the footage made it out. So I can’t knock Peli for this last bit, as I’m not sure how exactly it was intended to play off. I’d like to believe the old man was another person prodding around for tangible proof of Area 51 and its contents, just as Reid and his friends; the knocking on their door in that one scene would then be seen as him probably warning them, attempting to steer them off a course of danger.
I don’t think Area 51 is anything special, but it’s also not as terrible as some seem to be making it out to be, as if there aren’t worse instances of both aliens/Area 51 and found footage out there (which there most certainly are).
Overall, it’s about a 2 out of 5 star film. The build-up is marred by too much jumping back and forth in the finale. Oren Peli instead tries to lean hard on the exposition, spelling out the fate of each and every character perfectly without leaving any sort of room for imagination. This isn’t always bad – you don’t have to NOT answer questions to be a good film. But Peli is too heavy handed, and any of the mystery he’d cultivated throughout the first three quarters of Area 51 disappears over the closing fifteen minutes. There are a few great scenes, honestly, from scares to interesting uses of the found footage sub-genre. The acting isn’t awful, but it’s by no means anything to write home about. Especially in the finale of the film, all the emotions and intensity of those scenes could’ve come off WAY BETTER if the actors pulled their weight, or in turn if the actors were replaced with better actors.
I’m not even that big on Paranormal Activity, other than the fact it was slightly innovative for found footage, but I’d absolutely recommend seeing that one over this directorial effort from Peli. See this if you’re looking to burn off an hour and a half. Plus, you might enjoy a few of the special effects the way I did. Who knows; stranger things have happened.
FX’s American Horror Story
Season 2, Episode 1: “Welcome to Briarcliff”
Directed by Bradley Buecker (The New Normal, Glee)
Written by Tim Minear
* For a review of the next episode, “Tricks and Treats” – click here
The beginning of Season 2 is a lot of fun because, as opposed to Season 1 where we’d get decades old flashbacks from 1968, 1922, and so on, the main action of Asylum is taking place in 1964. However, we get to jump forward, as well as back a bit, and the framing narrative of the season itself takes place in current day. This seems a bit confusing what I’ve said, but as the episodes wear on you’ll really get a feel of what’s happening. In fact, the present day framing device isn’t exactly very clear until a few episodes in. But once it starts to become clear, the wide and reaching sprawl of Season 2 becomes apparent and it makes the episodes all the better for it.
Beginning in present day, we see Leo and Teresa Morrison (Adam Levine/Jenna Dewan Tatum) on their horror honeymoon – they plan on visiting the twelve most haunted places in America, plus they want to have sex in all the buildings because y’know, they’re wild. Only when they arrive at the infamous Briarcliff Asylum there is more inside the walls than they’d bargained for, and certainly there is nothing sexy about the madness, the pain, the mayhem and murder that is trapped inside that building.
Things really kick off when Leo sticks his hand into one of the cells with his cellphone, trying to get a night vision look at anything terrifying inside. Then, something comes at him and tears his arm off. Blood everywhere. INCREDIBLE! Turns out Bloody Face may actually be real, not just an old, outdated tale of murder from the haunted houses of America.
This moment kicks off Asylum incredibly well. It offers up enough of that psychosexual horror mashup we’re used to from the series, and so it’s already clear this season should follow suit with all the dark terrors of the first; maybe even more.What I really enjoy about the opener to Season 2 is how the entire aesthetic of the first season holds over. It’s more evident than even most regular tv series’ are with their style. As an anthology, there’s always a risk each season might either fall short or overshadow its predecessor. While certain seasons of American Horror Story are most certainly better than others, I think what helps them all glue together and what allows each of them to still be excellent, regardless of the others before or after, is the fact the cinematography, the editing, the score, it all compounds into a beautifully evident overall style.
So then we switch back to our main narrative of 1964.
First, we meet Kit Walker (Evan Peters). He’s a young, handsome man just getting by in the mid ’60s, working at a gas station and garage somewhere out in the boonies. At home, his wonderful wife Alma (Britne Oldford) waits for her husband. Unfortunately, in that time the Walkers had to remain underground with their relationship because interracial relationships were still frowned upon. We already get a threatening atmosphere from Kit’s friend Billy (Joe Egender) and a group of guys who show up at the station, giving Kit a very unwelcome feeling concerning his wife at home; a reference to chocolate becomes not so much racist as it feels scary.
But it’s not Billy and the boys Kit needs to worry about protecting himself, and his wife Alma, from ultimately. Lights flicker and the power goes off, on, the bedroom radio is on the fritz; things are not right. Then Kit seems to experience some kind of contact with… something. He thinks it’s Billy with some others, but it is far worse.
I thought this scene was awesome. So often the alien abduction angle is attempted in film and television, yet it’s not often things are treated correctly. Kit experiences something Other-ly. We only see it briefly, in a few flashes; sound design and visuals weave together creating an excellent moment. We know it’s aliens, but at the same time there’s none shown onscreen. Perfect.
Next we follow journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) into Briarcliff, as she heads to meet Sister Jude Martin (Jessica Lange) concerning the bakery at the asylum. Along the way we’re introduced to an interesting new character out of Season 2, Pepper (Naomi Grossman) – the nun, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), who accompanies Lana through her visit says that Pepper drowned her sister’s baby and sliced its ears off. Chilling, because Pepper seems so innocent; strange looking yet truly child-like and innocent looking.
Lana meets with Jude for a brief time, however, up shows the apparent newly caught Bloody Face – he is being admitted to the asylum until the lawmakers decide if he is fit to stand trial. This is the whole reason Lana Winters showed up in the beginning, under false pretences about the asylum’s bakery.
What’s most surprising is when we’re introduced to who the alleged Bloody Face killer is: Kit Walker. He’s lead in, chained from head to toe, then treated to the 1960s psychiatric hospital admittance – delousing powder, a shower by way of fire hose, then a good dose of intravenous drugs via syringe. Plus, after a bad meeting with Sister Jude, he’s even given a bit of capital punishment in the form of Jude’s favourite method – caning across the bar ass.
Already now with Kit especially, we’re treated to a look at how Briarcliff operates, and the sort of cruelty all around we’re bound to experience as Asylum wears on.
There are a ton of characters again this season. Probably even more than the first. What I like is that there are plenty characters, but the most important ones are singled out for us and we’re given a big view of them here in “Welcome to Briarcliff”. Of course, more come into play later. This is just a wonderful introduction to so many of the characters, as well as the sort of thematic elements we’re going to see come up over and over.
Kit briefly meets a woman named Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré), also an inmate at the asylum, who takes a liking to him. She helps him a little, from exposing him to the way the hospital works, to giving him a cigarette while he’s wrongly thrown into solitary confinement. This is one relationship, while brief here in the opening episode, that will expand in later episodes and eventually become a big part of the latter half of Season 2.
The character whom I find most interesting in Asylum is the ominous Dr. Arthur Arden (fantastically played by James Cromwell). First off, there’s a palpable tension between Arden and Sister Jude. I love how this second season has brought together Jessica Lange and James Crowmwell. Not enough older actors are given such incredible material as American Horror Story to explore through character; here, we get two downright iconic actors, in my opinion, chewing on luscious scenery and intense character scene after scene.
Immediately in this episode, Arden and Jude are set as complete opposites. There’s something sinister about Arden off the bat, as his scene with Jude is intercut with creepy shots of a bowl of meat being gnawed on and thrown empty into the corner of a room. It’s dark stuff and I think lets us in on his evil backstory right away without hesitation. Also, while we come to discover Jude is a little less than holy herself in more ways than one, Arden comes off quickly to us as being a foreboding presence; not only physically, as Cromwell himself is massive, but in the whole way he acts, speaks, sounds.
Now we’re already seeing how unholy Sister Jude is underneath that black habit. Preparing for her dinner with the younger Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), we can see Jude put on a blood red sex of lingerie, rubbing oil on her skin before getting dressed. She cooks dinner for the Monsignor, and even as they talk you can tell Sister Jude feels something – more – for the man. This little insight into Jude automatically makes her a conflicted character, as much as anyone else in Asylum. At first, Monsignor Howard seems on the up and up himself; we’ll see how true that holds as we move on through the season.
Great dreamy sequence here. Sister Jude imagines herself unbuttoning the habit, revealing her lingerie and sitting in the Monsignor’s lap, embracing him. Then she snaps back to their dinner and all is normal. Once more, like Season 1, that psychosexual feeling worms its way through the characters, the dialogue, the scenes.
Furthermore, Dr. Arden has his hooks in poor, fragile little Sister Mary Eunice. The bad doctor has her bringing buckets out into the woods, obviously to feed something; we don’t know what as of yet, though.
In the forest, Sister Mary is confronted by Lana Winters who is looking for a way inside the asylum. She wants an inside scoop. Scared and worried Jude may find out she was out there, Sister Mary brings Lana inside. This sets into motion something unstoppable and terrifying.
At the same time, Dr. Arden comes for Kit in his cell, injecting him in the neck with something and proclaiming: “You don‘t belong in here.” If I were Kit, I’d be awful worried. There’s nothing good about the feeling Arden produces as soon as he’s onscreen.
Kit’s story of “little green men“, as Jude calls it, comes back into play. Arden doesn’t know it right away, but he’s becoming drawn into a web of extraterrestrial technology. He believes it’s government work at first. Slowly it all will be revealed.
Worst of all, though, is the situation of Lana Winters. She’s found a way into the asylum, but in a time long before any professionalism found its way into the psychiatric world – especially the ones run by the Roman Catholic Church – she also finds herself in a terrible place once getting knocked out, poking about one of the cells. When she wakes up, Sister Jude has Lana strapped into a hospital bed, ready for treatment. Using Lana’s relationship with Wendy Peyser (Clea DuVall) – a lesbian relationship far ahead of the social times unfortunately – Sister Jude is able to have Ms. Winters officially committed, blackmailing Wendy into signing documents or else her homosexuality be revealed to the school where she teaches.
I love how American Horror Story is able to take on LGBTQ issues through a horror landscape. Something I’m a big fan of. It isn’t preachy in any way, it’s a very intriguing view and perspective into the gay issues facing us even today. But especially, with the 1964 main storyline, the whole aspect of having Lana and Wendy as a lesbian couple really goes head-on at how society treated homosexuality even just 50 years ago. Lots more where that came from! It gets better in further episodes, especially once Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) is introduced to help the patients.
Some awesome little references to other films I want to discuss briefly:
A Clockwork Orange – Kit hooked up to the eye-opening equipment of Dr. Arden with blue & red bulbs attached to a strap across his forehead. Very cool homage to Stanley Kubrick’s horrifying classic.
The Silence of the Lambs – Spivey throws semen in the face of Sister Mary Eunice just as Multiple Miggs did to Clarice Starling in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Awesome ending to this episode, as we see Teresa (Dewan Tatum) in present day trying to escape Briarcliff and get her husband Leo (Levine) some help. She runs down through the tunnels below, where Dr. Arden spends quite a bit of time this season, and then before the episode cuts she runs into – Bloody Face? It appears so, even decades after his reign of terror.
But we’ll learn much more about that later.
Next episode is titled “Tricks and Treats”, directed by Bradley Buecker again. I like that, helps keep the initial two episodes in a cohesive unit and sort of moulds everything together off the chopping block.
Stay tuned for more horror, sex, and all around savagery!!
Almost Human. 2013. Directed & Written by Joe Begos.
Starring Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, Vanessa Leigh, Susan T. Travers, and Anthony Amaral III. IFC Midnight.
Not Rated. 80 minutes.
While this was made in 2013 and released in certain areas, this didn’t make its way to Canada until 2014, so it’s one of my favourite films of the past year. Though, I’m sure many will have their own issues with this film directed by Joe Begos (his first feature), this is one of the best alien abduction films in the past decade. It’s a lower budget independent film, but it packs all the solid punch of a really great big budget sci-fi thriller.
Almost Human tells us of the disappearance of Mark Fisher, who is sucked into the sky by a mysterious blue light, as he leaves behind a helpless lover and his best friend Seth (Graham Skipper). Almost two years later, lights in the sky appear just as they did that fateful night. All of a sudden, Seth’s small town suffers a rash of brutal killings possibly perpetrated by one man. It turns out Mark has come home. While he may be almost human, he is still far from it. He came back to take what’s his, and to help his abductors begin a reign of terror on planet earth.
Yes, there are a few instances where the acting in Almost Human is not perfect. I don’t always need an indie film to have stellar acting. I can’t handle bad acting, and there wasn’t any here, but certainly a few scenes could have been played better with more experienced actors. That being said, none of these small moments ruin anything in the long run. They do nothing to subvert the tension or the horror in any way. There’s just a couple “oops” moments where you’ll probably think to yourself they should have done another take or two – unfortunately, that’s not always hot things work, especially when it comes to indie film. Whereas some may think these bits detract from the overall film, they don’t. Just a few minor bumps in the road. Begos put together a really awesome little cast. The lead actors had chemistry together, and that’s one of the most important things. The opening scenes were really great suspenseful, tense moments and this really shows how well the cast work together, at their best.
I admire any film that tries to go for something less typical. While there are a few shots in this movie that will no doubt remind you of other alien abduction films, mostly it is some really fresh material. For instance, I know people will think of Fire in the Sky particularly, as that’s probably one of the greatest alien abduction films out there. Period. But this really takes on a much different angle, where the aliens aren’t merely abducting humans – they’re beaming them up and essentially arming them to go back to earth and either destroy or reproduce. Not only that, there are a few incredible effects that were very effective in making this a different film than the norm. One of the craziest moments is when Mark finally gets hold of his former girlfriend Jen – alien Mark latches onto her between the legs in order to fertilize her with the some more little alien babies. This was just wild and disturbing. The men are given similar treatment, but not anally, just through the mouth. I don’t know what that says about Begos or the aliens, but either way I thought it was a really unsettling and scary way to play out. It was bad enough watching Mark suction his alien mouth onto some of the men he implanted – this moment is just WHOA. I love it though, as sick as it is, because the whole thing works. This is a horrorshow for alien fanatics.
I’ve got no problems giving Almost Human a 3.5 out of 5 stars. Sometimes it frustrates me when people respond the way they do to new, fresh ideas. While this is a tale we’ve sort of seen before, it’s still different. We have a few movies dealing with aliens taking human form and hunting down actual humans, or just aliens preying on humans in general (everything from Predator to The Hidden), but this plot is really spectacular and original, as opposed to so many formulaic alien films. There are some incredible effects, which really drives things along in an alien-themed horror film. A lot of the ways people envision aliens are extremely played out, but Begos opts to mostly show the aliens in terms of them commandeering human bodies; we get their sounds, their bodies (the suction cup mouth-thing), all that sort of stuff, while the aliens are still inside human forms. So in that way, Begos doesn’t have to go ahead and give us any full-fledged looks at one of the aliens. This way, the budget isn’t overblown, and playing into the title, makes things much more human.
I’d recommend any fans of alien abduction films check this out. There are some fresh bits in here you don’t want to miss out on, and I think there are also a lot of great horror elements to make this a must-see. This is a great throwback to older horror movies, as well. It has a retro feel without really trying to pursue it – the whole mood and atmosphere sort of falls into place with everything else, all on its own. Begos is a talented young filmmaker. I hope he’ll continue to try and bring innovative ideas into horror – whether they be totally original, or interesting twists on familiar stories. Regardless, this shows a lot of potential. It also deserves a much higher rating than it has online, as well as deserves more praise in general. Great alien horror fun! Plus, the end was pretty savage. Some may call it typical, but it was pulled off better than most who go for the same sort of finale.