A waste of a slasher. All the more frustrating for the potential it held.
Berberian Sound Studio. 2013. Directed & Written by Peter Strickland.
Starring Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Guido Adorni, Cosimo Fusco, Tonia Sotiropoulou, Eugenia Caruso, Susanna Cappellaro, Lara Parmiani, Chiara D’Anna, Jozef Cseres, & Pal Toth. UK Film Council/Film4/Warp X/ITV Yorkshire.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Peter Strickland is a director and writer filled with ingenuity. His films are odd, striking, intense. Only recently did I get the chance to view Katalin Varga, his first feature debut. I’d heard of it for a couple years, then was finally able to get hold of a copy. It is a tensely written ride into the darkness of grief; a low budget examination of what the past can do to mangle the present of a wounded person. Recently he directed and wrote an all-female film titled The Duke of Burgundy; I’ve put it to the Bechdel Test, it passed with flying colours.
Although before that Strickland moved on to this film, Berberian Sound Studio, a spectacular little movie that’s equal parts creepy and mesmerising. Each one of his directorial efforts looks different. Yet they’re all visually eye-catching, marked by a certain flair. This film calls to mind, obviously and deliberately, the giallo films of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, even some of the works of Lucio Fulci, among others. The film within a film itself is also a giallo. Therefore, the imagery and the sound design of Strickland’s work mimics those which came before, and creates a hypnotic sort of atmosphere. The perspective of the main characters becomes our perspective, as is the case in all good psychological pieces. Whereas the plot is slow burning, Strickland keeps the pace up by making things feel thrilling. Such a psychologically based piece of work can either go hard for drama, or turn itself towards being an outright thriller. Berberian Sound Studio finds a way to straddle the line, dosing us with lots of head-tripping atmosphere from imagery to sound, and further making the latter part of the plot just as exciting as it is strange. This could have become a mess. At times it feels incredibly energetic in a way that doesn’t help, but it does. Give it time. Once the finale rolls around all that madness comes to serve as an overall metaphor for the way we make and engage in horror movies, all through the perspective of a man actually working on one. The metafiction of Strickland’s writing increases the surreal feeling of the story, as well as allows us a look inside ourselves as purveyors and fans of the genre alike.
Really dig the look at sound engineering for film, as well as a nice view into the world of the Foley artist, the ones who create that vivid world of sound behind the visuals of a film. All of this is unusual, simply due to the fact this is a view into the world of movies that we’ve rarely gotten over the years. Other than documentaries or featurettes on the Special Features of DVDs and Blu ray discs, you won’t see the Foley work of these sound wizards explored much through fictional stories. Outside of Blow Out, there are barely any movies I can think of that even touch the world of the sound effects artists and engineers. Giving us insight into the film industry is a fun way to make things even more metafictional than just the film-within-a-film aspect; we actually watch the Foley artists ripping, stabbing, smashing, punching fruits and vegetables and all kinds of objects in order to get the right sounds for the scenes. So right off the bat Strickland gives us something unique, a world that’s rarely ever understood by the general viewers who go to see movies (those of us who love film to death are already lovingly aware of the work that goes on behind-the-scenes to make cinema into what it is). Whether this succeeds in doing anything interesting for the movie as a whole, that is up to the viewer. Personally, there’s enough to at least be intriguing in that way that it’s a foreign job to most, and something that’s fun to watch. I’m still not sure if the pay off to the entire story is worth the journey. I do know the plot can sustain an audience’s interest with the story and its characters alone.
The psychological angle of the screenplay is what gives us something different than the thriller elements of a movie like Blow Out, for instance. That was much more a full-blooded thriller. Strickland’s film is further in the realm of the psychological, the psychedelic, the full-on weird. And that’s just fine. The character of Gilderoy (Toby Jones) finds himself falling through the cracks of reality and fiction, which is precipitated by the headlong dive into sound work – creating these fake sounds for real actions onscreen, his own reality begins to slip away. Moreover, Gilderoy is squeamish, he didn’t expect to be doing a violent horror film, one calling for so many nasty sound effects. So his morality is tested, questioning our own as the viewer and whether watching this type of stuff is also doing some sort of damage, even at the most basic level. Or perhaps it’s a question of whether these types of films, the down and dirty horror, are truly only meant for some people. Regardless of what the main theme or question at hand is, Gilderoy’s psychological state is affected by this division in reality he faces whilst working on the gruesome sounds of the giallo film for which he’s been hired. And the further he gets into the film’s production the worse off his sanity becomes.
That brings me to Toby Jones. He is a fine, talented actor whose star has only begun to shine really bright in the past so many years. He’s been in all kinds of movies, though so many moviegoers probably wouldn’t recognise him in some of those roles. This is a performance of his that I love dearly. Jones has the typical sheepishness of some other characters he’s played. But he is more tortured than ever, gradually tumbling into another level of reality while trying to do his job, while the job only makes things worse. It’s a solid character and one that Jones latches onto. He makes us feel that this is a real man going through a genuine psychological break, away from home and feeling lonely, wanting to do the job he loves but finding it increasingly difficult with the psychological strain bearing down on him.
Originally, I’d put this down as mediocre. Upon watching it the first time the whole thing didn’t catch me. Now, seeing Berberian Sound Studio for a second time, I feel this is much better than what I’d remembered. What I once found sloppy and a weak attempt at homage for the giallo films of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s actually a wonderful examination of the exploitation inherent in those movies, writer-director Peter Strickland opts to examine our relationship with horror and its often nasty imagery (and in this case, sound) and he tries to make us confront what sort of people we are when engaging in the act of viewing (or making) horror. Does it affect us? Is it really as innocent as we like to assume? I don’t believe horror affects us the way conservative minds might like to think. However, I do like exploring these types of ideas, and fictional stories are a way for us as a society to indulge those thoughts. Like good literature, film helps us understand and comprehend life, ourselves. This movie takes a sincere and eerie look at the effect movies can have on those making them, and in turn the audience that later watches them. Berberian Sound Studio is ripe with all kinds of beauty, darkness, excitement, and will bring you back to all those old giallo movies of the masters from decades prior. Love this movie and can’t believe I once thought this wasn’t any good. Just goes to show you, time is the measure of all things.
Paranoid Park. 2007. Directed & Written by Gus Van Sant; based on the novel of the same name by Blake Nelson.
Starring Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Dan Liu, Lauren McKinney, & Scott Green. MK2/Maximum Films/IFC Films.
Rated 14A. 84 minutes.
Gus Van Sant is yet another American director by which I’m enthralled. Not every last project he undertakes is as spectacular as his greatest, though there’s always a sense he pays attention to the minute details of his stories, that he wants to whittle life down to the nitty gritty. Each Van Sant film usually explores people on the fringe, characters living at the edges of society in one way or another, often the types that are sensitive to the world and its plights. No matter what his focus, Van Sant’s eye is always catching the beauty of the situation.
Paranoid Park examines the guilt (and paranoia which comes as a packaged deal) of a young skater kid, whose thoughtless action one night leads to the accidental murder of a security guard on the local train tracks. Based on a Young Adult novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant adapts the screenplay into a psychological piece of cinema that looks at the hubris of youth and the disaffected attitudes of a young man, as well as ponders deeply the meaning of morality, how we live with ourselves when something challenges it, and most importantly how we either repent or forget our actions. Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li help Van Sant cultivate his flawless look and feel, which fits so perfectly in the world of high school. As we float along with the camera, we’re given a peek into a time of life everybody’s been through. Although, the boy in the middle of all this experiences a far more adult situation than his brain, his morality, his will power can ultimately tolerate.
The flowingly beautiful cinematography is amazing. So many sequences I could mention, though it’d take forever. I love how the cinematographers slow certain things down, scenes you’d likely not imagine in slow motion. And in this way, they capture the gravitas of the situation, the plot. We can see clearly how devastated emotionally the main character becomes, as the camera lingers on him, on his movements, his face. Every little morsel of detail gets captured and in an extravagant way. To the point high school and teenage life seems more glorious and grand than it ever did in real life. There’s a heightened realism which hooks you. The visuals root the emotional experience of this film’s journey with the main character, taking you on a ride that feels at times as if it has you over the top of the clouds, gliding without care yet at the same time with the weight of the world upon your shoulders.
There’s great use of music, too. There’s this very classical sense about the film overall, as if it were made with adults in mind yet a story concerning teenagers. Lots of big band type stuff, pieces of music that’ll harken back to the 1940s and 1950s both in terms of music at the time, as well as in the sense of the movie itself feeling like one of those yesteryear classics. This in part plays into the feeling that Paranoid Park is similarly themed as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, that these teenagers – mostly the main character Alex (Gabe Nevins) – are ahead of their time. Perhaps that’s not a good thing, perhaps Alex is too ahead of himself and doesn’t realize the destruction he’s wreaking upon his own innocence. Nevertheless, there’s an old timey atmosphere in some of the shots.
Other wise, Van Sant continues on with his impressive style. Gorgeous, sweeping tracking shots, slow motion moments where time feels stalled and we’re watching Alex try and keep his mind straight while walking through a world filled with distractions and danger. The quiet and thoughtful style of Van Sant helps us feel involved in the plot, and most importantly we’re engrained in the perspective of Alex while he holds onto his sanity, trying to salvage his morality; if the latter is even possible.
When it comes to the plot and the characters, everything feels so natural. I love the scene where police officers come to talk with skateboarders at the high school because you can hear them talking lightly over him, making comments, laughing and carrying on. There’s a real sense of disaffected, disconnected youth. When the cop passes around a picture of the murder victim and everybody sees him cut in half on the tracks, most of the young boys laugh, blown away by the brutality yet seeming utterly undisturbed. Certainly there’s a hint of something in Alex’s eyes, but even he doesn’t appear overly moved. At least not until later. But all the characters, the setting, the way high school kids feel throughout the screenplay and how the skaters interact with people and one another, is every bit organic. Couple that with the wonderful cinematography and there’s a highly realistic quality always present that makes us feel initiated into the world which Van Sant shows us.
Front and centre, Nevins puts in a spectacular performance. He is the crux of it all. In some cases, young actors are not my favourite. If we’re being honest. Only some are able to attain the level of emotionality necessary for fiction; others rarely hit that mark and always feel as if they’re acting, never like they’ve slipped into the role. Nevins has a natural quality that’s always there, through each scene and situation. His emotional depth is vast. We see him in the shower ready to break down, juxtaposed with his otherwise calm demeanour. We watch him go over everything in his mind, pieces of memory and slivers of guilt. This is a great role and Nevins uses it to the fullest. At times I want to shake him. Sometimes I’d like to throw my arm around him, say it’s going to be okay. Either way, the character of Alex and his moral dilemma comes across well through Nevins, pulling us in until we’re so close that the suffocating guilt and paranoia the character feels is nearly our own.
I bought Paranoid Park years ago on a whim. I love Gus Van Sant, even if I don’t love every one of his films. Though, most I do. I’m glad I picked this movie up because it pays off incredibly. There’s a nice sense of slow burning drama, almost to a point of thriller-like tendencies. Although what Van Sant does is keep things dreamy, perpetually enclosing us in the psychological space of our main character, the troubled young skater Alex. Using excellent cinematography, fun choices of music, and riding on the important performance of Gabe Nevins, Paranoid Park tries to get at the heart of morality, how it operates in the idiotically naivety of youth. Mostly, it presents Alex’s moral dilemma and then asks us to speculate about what sort of person he is, and what kind of man he will be eventually. Moreover, Van Sant attempts to peer inside how we connect with the world in our youth and the various ways in which we’re meant to act, versus all the ways in which we want to act and how we hope to connect with the world. A scene late in the film involving Alex and his girlfriend epitomizes his disconnect from life and the world around him, from a sense of normality. It’s easy to see that Van Sant, as well as novelist Blake Nelson, understand the trials of youth. Placed in an extreme situation, these trials are even more intense, and this film opens them up in front of us in all its psychologically scarring glory.
The House by the Cemetery. 1981. Directed by Lucio Fulci. Screenplay by Lucio Fulci/Giorgio Mariuzzo/Dardano Sacchetti, from a story by Elisa Livia Briganti.
Starring Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Anioa Pieroni, Giovannia Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Giovanni De Nava, Daniela Dora, Gianpaolo Saccarola and Carlo De Mejo. Fulvia Film. Rated R. 87 minutes.
I came to Lucio Fulci about ten years ago, after seeing City of the Living Dead. His classic look, the effects, an insanely nasty sense of style – how could I not enjoy his films? After that one, I found The Beyond, which is tied with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin as my favourite of his work. So I made my way through everything by him I could find. Though his movies aren’t perfect, I find them perfect for me, for horror. They’re not full of grand metaphor, they aren’t even particularly complex in plot. What Fulci offers is a visually pleasing aesthetic, crossed with the brutal qualities of his own personal horror movie madness.
The House by the Cemetery isn’t his best, though, it’s nowhere near his worst. While many might have you believe it’s overrated, or that it’s “typical Fulci”, I say that’s nonsense. Especially those who think it’s “typical” of him – what’s wrong with typical Fulci? He’s a classic horror filmmaker, his style is all his own. Added to that, there are always solid gore effects, you can count on that. This film has all the earmarks of Fulci with a bit of inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft and other sources.
Essentially, this is Fulci’s version of the haunted house horror.
Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco/Catriona MacColl), along with their young boy Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move into a home belonging to a colleague of Norman’s who committed suicide; he plans on researching the house itself, as well as the other previous owners. Soon enough, Bob sees a young girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina), but only he can see her. She tries to warn him of the danger in the house. No one will believe him, certainly not his mother. Eventually a woman comes to take the position of babysitter for Bob – Ann (Ania Pieroni) shows up out of nowhere for the job.
Things slowly get scarier in the old house, as Norma and Lucy discover a Dr. Freudstein once lived in their new home, around the turn of the century. He was a Victorian era doctor who performed illegal surgeries and experiments. This leads to more gruesome discoveries around the property, as the past comes alive and tears its way into the present.
When the movie’s filmed in English, yet still dubbed in post-production for some odd reason, you can’t expect it to be an outright masterpiece. Can you? No. So, when you watch The House by the Cemetery I’m not saying you’ll be blown away by all the technical aspects. Nor am I saying the story makes perfect and complete sense. Not in the slightest. What I am saying is that Fulci manages to do excitingly eerie things with atmosphere, as well as the fact he does his best to include some proper gore to wet the whistle of all those gore hounds out there.
My favourite part of this film is that atmosphere. The overall tone is grim. There’s something common to Fulci, I think. Every movie feels hopeless, not an ounce of actual happiness and figurative light manages to make its way into these stories he tells. Which is perfect for horror, and why I’m always inclined to enjoy so many of his films. The House by the Cemetery has the pretense of having those happier moments in the beginning, but the immediacy in Fulci’s presentation of the horror going on inside the house sets the tone quickly. It reminds me of how George Romero starts Day of the Dead with that neat, brief little dream sequence; sets us on edge from the start, almost like a visual manifesto. From there, Fulci works on us with his imagery alongside an unusual and exciting score from Walter Rizzati. The aesthetic of the film is, again, very Fulci.
I mean, even the scene where Norman (Paolo Malco) gets attacked by a bat becomes something intensely horrific. It latches onto his hand for what seems like ages. Finally, after a tough wrestle with it as everyone watches in horror, Norman stabs the things, blood pumping everywhere. The mark it leaves is savage. Such a normal event like finding a bat in the basement – something which happens plenty to people around the world – transforms into the stuff of nightmares. Such is the power of Fulci. He doesn’t have to be doing anything extraordinary in terms of plot or story in order to make things interesting, or in this case pretty nasty.
I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the story, like the plot is completely nonsensical. Not sure why so many complaints. There’s not much going on here to really need to comprehend. It’s a haunted house style horror movie, there are reanimated corpses in the house – chaos and supernatural terror ensue. What’s so tough to get? Not saying that everything is tied up into neat little packages and the screenplay rounds off every edge it fashions. But seriously – I don’t get the labels of incoherent other reviews have put out there. Does not make sense. There’s a surreal nature to this creepy house of Fulci’s, I feel The House by the Cemetery is like a fever dream full of haunting images. As I said earlier, this is like the past meets the present. The visceral entities of the house’s past come alive to keep taking lives, to keep Dr. Freudstein in business and corpses for experimentation, surely. Is that not the whole point? Just can’t get my head around why people feel the need to criticize Fulci here when the movie isn’t trying to be anything more than it is: a creepfest with nasty kills and a grim tone.
Despite all my love for this Lucio Fulci film, I do find a lot of the acting – aside from Catriona MacColl who is always fabulous – pretty damn bothersome, and tiring most of the time. Regardless, I still say this is a 3.5 out of 5 star horror movie. It’s got a nice dose of gore, the typically awesome and gnarly horror expected of Fulci. Not only that, the story is creepy enough to keep things going; no matter what people say about its supposed incoherence. Mainly, it’s just not an overly complex plot or anything. It has the goods to satisfy a haunted house movie craving, on top of that the blood and vicious bits will keep the hounds at bay. Not Fulci’s top horror, but like I said it’s light years away from being the worst. This is a good flick for Halloween and it’s a generally good one to take in if you’re getting into Fulci, or if you’re into him and have yet to see it because of Negative Nancies and Davie Downers saying this is overrated, or yadda yadda whatever else they say. Judge for yourself! Let me know what you think in the comments, I’d love to hear other perspectives, as long as you’re civil – then this Dude abides.
The Inhabitants. 2015. Directed/Written by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen.
Starring Elise Couture, Michael Reed, India Pearl, Vasilios Asimakos, Danny Bryck, Judith Chaffee, Erica Derrickson, Edmund Donovan, Victoria Nugent, and Rebecca Whitehurst. Lascaux Media/Sinister Siblings Films. Unrated. 90 minutes.
A few weeks back, one half of the filmmaker duo the Rasmussen Brothers (writers of John Carpenter’s The Ward) contacted me in regards to their new film The Inhabitants. Now available on VOD, the Rasmussen Bros were kind enough to give me the Vimeo link and password to watch the movie ahead of time. Only now getting around to it – busy man here – I must say, the depressingly low rating on IMDB is exactly that: depressing. Now, to start, I don’t go by what IMDB tells me; it’s a site I use, I rate things on my own scale to try and balance so many of the unfair ratings of decent to good (sometimes to great) films. However, it’s not something I gauge films by, as I leave that to my own sensibilities and taste. There are, yes, certain aspects of film you can objectively look at and say “This is well done” or “This is bad”, yet so much of how we experience any art, film included, is entirely subjective. You’ll never separate yourself entirely from the subjective part of your mind because in all your opinions you’re coming from some place, a location. I always keep that in mind with my reviews and ratings, so should you if you’re reading mine or anyone else’s opinion on a film – I recognize my reviews are from a subjective place.
That being said, The Inhabitants is not a great film. Though, it has some really great aspects. Not breaking any fresh ground particularly, the Rasmussen Bros do create a pretty decent aesthetic from their use of the camera itself to the nice spooky sound design. Perhaps a meatier plot would’ve done the film well – it feels a lot like the skeleton is there, the story itself, just not enough actual plot points other than vague elements through which the characters allowed to walk. Still, I found this indie haunted house-style movie effective in terms of its mood and the generally solid atmosphere of creepiness the filmmakers were able to build from start to finish.
When Jessica (Elise Couture) and Dan (Michael Reed) purchase a quaint little bed and breakfast in the New England countryside, it seems like the American Dream – idyllic forest and sprawling landscapes. Then they start to find problems, such as the nagging legend of a witch and the strange occurrences happening throughout the old house.
In the beginning, even the weird moments Jessica experiences aren’t too threatening. Slowly as the couple get acclimated to the bed and breakfast, its surroundings, the nearby Witch Museum, it is painfully clear the house’s own history is much darker, more terrible than any real estate agent would ever be willing to admit.
What I do enjoy about The Inhabitants is the aesthetic overall. The sound design itself adds a wonderful layer of spookiness. There’s no score so much as there are a few small pieces, plus a ton of the sound design in terms of very dark, brooding and destabilizing sounds; it puts you on an edge, even if there’s nothing exactly threatening or sinister happening the at times dark ambient noise in the background makes everything feel uneasy.
Something which makes the sound design better and more effective is how the Rasmussen Bros don’t opt for a bunch of jump scares in order to spook us. Yes, there are some in there, but it’s not a relied upon method the director-writer pair are interested in exploiting. I love a good jump scare, if it’s properly done and doesn’t become a trope within one movie itself; nothing worse than a technique overdone, regardless of what it is in the end. So most of what the Rasmussens are able to create here is a genuinely unnerving mood, with the visuals shot pretty beautifully alongside the sound design’s low, creepy swell.
One of my favourite moments come just barely past the 1-hour mark – Dan has this dream, a terrifying image of Jessica comes to him: she’s breastfeeding a small child, then when he gets closer it appears as some dead corpse-like thing, a skull for a face. It’s so brief that it works wonders for the scare factor! Not even a jump scare so much as it’s a quick little WHOA. Very cool and grim stuff.
My only big legitimate problem with The Inhabitants is the plot, as I mentioned earlier. Not that I feel the plot is bad, there just isn’t enough. The bones of the story exist – it isn’t innovative or new, but at least there’s a story in place which could be used to flesh out a scary plot and some decent characterization. Even further, we get bits and pieces of the main characters, who they are, their personalities. Though, I don’t feel as if there’s enough of Jessica or Dan to truly care and become involved in their personal plight. Ultimately, issue being, in all the wandering of the characters – through the darkness of the house, et cetera – the screenplay wanders about a great deal.
The actors do a fairly decent job with their characters – Couture and Reed do a solid job for the most part with the two leads. It’s simply a problem of character. Sure, we get lots of nice stuff happening as the house sort of takes hold over Jessica in particular. There’s even a part earlier when she finds a sonogram, a few little clever lines thrown in without too much overt and talky exposition. However, none of it pays off in the right sense. The characters aren’t dull, I just wish we could’ve gotten more of a sense about who these two were before the plot of the film begins. As it stands, they’re just two people in a haunted house being affected by all its eeriness, like there’s no way to gauge how the effects are running wild on them because all we get really is a look at the post-haunting couple. But I’ve got to make it clear, I think the Rasmussen Bros do well with the characterization and plot present by at least not going hard on the exposition. Too many films, horror specifically, try to heavy hand the dialogue in and let you know EVERY LITTLE THING THAT IS HAPPENING/HAS HAPPENED, and then there’s absolutely no mystery left. At the very least, the screenplay keeps an air of intrigue instead of hamfisting the plot and story down our esophagus. There are pieces which go nowhere, there are also no pieces where I felt a few morsels ought to bed. Overall, I’m just glad that – while too overly vague at times – the writing isn’t completely spoon fed to the viewer, and the writer-director brothers still try to leave some of the legwork to their audio/visual aesthetic.
I’m not going to be a pessimist about this film and say it’s no good at all; it is good. There are some excellent things happening and I feel, as directors, the Rasmussen Brothers know how to properly create a sense of dread, an atmosphere full of creepy, spooky mood and tone. This is, to me, a 3 out of 5 star film. Definitely could use more work on the plot itself, I would’ve been even more impressed with this independent horror movie if the writer brothers cultivated better characters. Still, the acting wasn’t typically atrocious like a lot of indie horror, and the palpable atmosphere from the first scene right to the last is enough to keep you glued. Plenty of gorgeously dark imagery and the house/the forest is captured visually with such eeriness it’s hard to deny. With a little more work, though, the Rasmussen Brothers are on their way to making really solid horror movies. I hope they’ll keep it up.
Pod. 2015. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Larry Fessenden, Lauren Ashley Carter, Brian Morvant, Dean Cates, John Weselcouch, and Forrest McClain. High Window Films.
Rated R. 76 minutes.
If any of you may have read my reviews before, you might know that I’m a big fan of films which are of a specific genre and still they have the ability to cross over genres. The classic example is Alfred Hitchock’s adaptation of Psycho by Robert Bloch – the way we think the story is all about Marion Crane, but then Norman Bates shows up and the story takes on a different air. Same goes for Proxy, a viscerally intense horror thriller from Zack Parker, which I believe took much inspiration from Hitchcock and his classic horror film and seems to move between genres in a similar fashion.
So, for all its faults, I do like the way Pod starts out with an opening scene that’s very horror-ish, or at least highly suspenseful, then moves for a while into an extremely serious, often dour family drama before coming back to its horror elements.
Pod tells the story of Ed (Dean Cates) and his sister Lyla (Laurence Ashley Carter) who are heading up to a cabin in the winter in order to retrieve their out of control brother Martin (Brian Morvant). He needs an intervention of some sort. When they arrive, though, things are far worse than they’d ever anticipated. Ed is already worried, having received a frantic and terrifying call from Martin.
Once there, Martin tells his siblings he has something trapped in the basement, that there is a “pod”. He reveals scratches all over his body, infected and sore.
But after the worst happens, Ed and Lyla must confront what really is down in the basement. It most certainly is not of this world. Suddenly everything their crazy brother Martin had told them seems to be horrifying true.
I’ve been a huge fan of Larry Fessenden now for a good 14 years probably. I remember I saw his film Wendigo, an eerily low budget psychological horror, on some television channel late at night. Totally floored by it, I sought out anything he’d done before then kept my eyes on him afterwards.
What’s great about Larry is that he’s a fun horror director, while also popping up in the films of others as an actor. I think he likes to take on roles with young filmmakers he finds interesting, or just any filmmakers in general, young or old, he thinks has some talent. So to see him in this film is pretty great. He was in Mickey Keating’s previous directorial effort Ritual, which I’m planning to see soon, so I gather Fessenden must enjoy Keating and his filmmaking to have signed on for another of his films. He isn’t in this one much at all, though, to see him show up a little is enough for me most times.
Then there’s also the talented Lauren Ashley Carter who I’d first seen in The Woman and enjoyed. Then I caught her on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in a decent role. However, it wasn’t until the film Jug Face, which I own and love, that I saw what Carter is really made of. She has great range, as is evidenced by watching her across a couple films.
Here she plays a young woman whose family clearly has issues. She’s an alcoholic, her brother Martin (Brian Morvant) is most obviously a man with drug problems and all sorts of other compounded issues. It’s intriguing to watch her here, as opposed to Jug Face in particular, because this character is even more complex.
I really found the chemistry between Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her brother Ed (Dean Cates) worked very well. The beginning of the film for the first 10-15 minutes is a lot of them, alone together as they travel to give Martin a sort of impromptu intervention. It’s definitely a rocky relationship, though, we’re able to glean a sense of their family, their past, and it doesn’t require a huge amount of expository dialogue. There’s definitely some of it, but we get tons simply from how Ed and Lyla interact with one another. Once Martin actually comes into the picture, there’s plenty more family tension and further dynamics at work.
We get bunches of history about the family, especially Martin. Turns out he did something pretty terrible to a woman named Edith – flashes of a couple Polaroids with a VICIOUS BLOODY injury to her face come up really quick – he thought she was feeding him arsenic, that she was a spy of some sort. So it’s obvious why Ed, and to a lesser extent Lyla, is reluctant to initially believe anything Martin is saying. No matter what horror may come later, at the time it’s certainly relatable and understandable; Martin’s got psychological issues, plus the fact he was in the military and who knows what he truly saw, but it’s affected him in some highly real ways due to delusional thought.
A while later, Ed reveals to Lyla that the woman named Edith was a nurse. Martin tried to essentially rip her face off and escape from the hospital. So again, we see more of why the siblings – mostly Ed as Lyla seems to believe Martin slightly – have a tough time trying to trust anything Martin might say.
This all sets up the drama of the family, but what that serves to do is make all the thriller and horror aspects of the script come out even more intensely, as we’re sort of riding alongside Ed and Lyla listening to the insanity of Martin before – BAM! – everything kicks in.
Loved the style of how the film was shot. Not only that, the sound design and the score helps the suspense and tension of so many scenes. One awesome bit is just before the 30 minute mark, as Martin retells the story of waking up in a government lab; he’s a soldier who’s clearly seen some SHIT. But what I love is the score, the sound design with its crackling fuzzy noises slamming loud with the music at the right intervals, and all the while we’re closing in on the door of the cabin Martin has locked. There are scratches around the door, near the locks, it’s clear something is in there whether brother Ed wants to believe it or not. Definitely creepy style.
This sets up a really great atmosphere, another aspect of what I love about good horrors and thrillers; any films really. If a nice atmosphere and tone can keep up throughout a movie, then there’s a good chance no matter what I’ll walk away with something positive to think and feel about it, even if not every aspect is great. What Pod absolutely has going for it is a tense atmosphere throughout, a dark and sketchy tone.
One amazing, brief shot is after Ed pulls Lyla off to talk in private. There’s an excellent slow motion style shot, as Lyla stares wide-eyed at Martin while heading upstairs; she sees her brother grabbing his head, like a million voices are pounding his brain, and he looks so tortured you can almost feel his pain.
There’s a genuinely shocking moment near the 50 minute mark. I knew Martin was pretty crazy, despite the obvious weird happenings at the cabin, however I couldn’t see what he did coming. Not by a long shot. I don’t want to spoil anything too much, so I won’t say exactly what it was, but be prepared! It’s not vicious, definitely gory though. Mostly it’s just a good, solid shock that puts the final half hour into a really thrilling frame.
Once Ed and Lyla open up the padlocked door in the cabin, I thought the room itself was superbly creepy. It’s cast in this reddish light, there are drawings and doodles everywhere, writing on pages just tacked to every open space on the wall – the set design and anyone who worked on the room sure spent a nice bit of time making the place look like the stronghold of an insane man. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, but the way Keating directs these scenes it’s definitely tense and has a spooky air of mystery.
My most exciting moment, personally, during the film is when we get the first bits in the basement. Ed is walking around with a flashlight, and at first it seems like we’re simply watching an angled shot of him, when in reality it’s a view from the eye of the pod, or whatever it is hiding down there. VERY VERY EFFECTIVE! I loved this moment because it was a nice touch, unexpected and a little unnerving at the same time, too.
I’m not saying that Pod is a perfect movie, not at all. My problem is that when I went online to see what people were saying, so many moviegoers – likely many of whom pirated the film instead of paying for the pleasure – seem to say “Oh it’s like an hour of arguing and screaming”. There is plenty of arguing, definitely some screaming at points, but what did you expect? This is a riveting family drama for the first quarter or so, then it plunges into a mystery thriller before hitting the horror stride full-on within the last half hour. I mean, there’s no real doubt Ed and Martin would be yelling at one another. First of all, Martin’s psychologically damaged, he’s probably taking some drugs, Ed is completely fed up with his brother. Naturally there will be some fighting. So I just can’t agree with anybody saying this is ALL arguing and yelling. It’s not. Plus, this is a horror film and there are intense scenes of – you guessed it – horror. So I don’t see it as totally unrealistic that maybe people would be yelling at certain points. You don’t think you’d be frightened? Not even when a hideous, terrifying creature of some sort is coming up the stairs out of the dark after you? I call bullshit.
With one whopper of a final 20 minutes, I can’t say that Pod is a bad film. Honestly when I go on IMDB and I see that a good indie horror film, with sci-fi elements, has a low rating like 4.5 (which would equate to about a 2 out of 5 star rating by my site’s terms), I’m consistently amazed at how lame a lot of people rating online have become. What’s so bad about this movie you’ve got to rate it THAT low? The acting isn’t bad. Lauren Ashley Carter does a great job as Lyla, Dean Cates is solid in his role as the caring and serious brother Ed, but can you really deny that Brian Morvant did a terrific job with the character of Martin? If you say he’s no good, I just feel you’re kidding yourself. It was a frenetic performance and it came off well.
I did love the inclusion of Fessenden, at the same time his character and how quick that aspect lurches into the film is one of my only big problems with Pod. I’m fine with the whole angle of someone protecting the pod, or having a part in the pod being there – whatever. The part I cannot abide is how swift that part came on, there’s no real buildup to this scene. I’m not asking to have things spelled out for me, though, there’s no way I can jive with how suddenly Fessenden’s character showed up and what he’s done (I won’t spoil it fully).
Ultimately, I’ve got to say this is a 3.5 out of 5 star film. There’s an intensely horrific final 30 minutes, beginning with a gory throat cut then introducing the alien/pod in the basement, which all ramps up to the creepy and messy finale as Ed faces off against whatever the thing is Martin had been warning him of all along. The effects are KILLER here and I thought the pod/alien design all around was so perfect! The sounds it makes at the end while fighting with Ed are outrageous, I loved it. Unsettling piece of horror with that small sci-fi twist.
See this and absolutely DO NOT pay attention to all the slagging going on over at IMDB and other online sources. People who probably don’t appreciate film are the ones commenting, I see many of them brag they’ve not paid for it in any way and downloaded it for free, so honestly I don’t take people that seriously if they’re not willing to pay for films. Just sours my view on someone’s perspective when they’re robbing filmmakers then shitting all over their movies.
So get a copy legally, watch it, then tell me how you feel. I’m not saying everyone will love it, merely I believe this deserves more attention than the people online are giving it. They’ve clearly not paid attention to the worthy aspects of Mickey Keating’s film because there are likeable elements which I enjoyed a great deal. Nice little indie horror film for a rainy day when you want to get creeped out.
The Amityville Horror. 1979. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Screenplay by Sandor Stern; based on the book by Jay Anson.
Starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, John Larch, Natasha Ryan, K.C. Martel, Meeno Peluce, Michael Sacks, Helen Shaver, and Amy Wright. American International Pictures. Rated 14A. 117 minutes. Drama/Horror.
When it comes to the haunted house movies that go for the possessed angle – the house driving someone crazy or literally possessing them – I still think The Amityville Horror is near the top of my favourites. Different than The Exorcist where that’s a demon, I love this even without all the true story aspects of it, which are likely a hoax as far as I’m concerned. But that’s a discussion for another time.
This movie just creeps me out. I mean, when the priest is in that room with the flies covering his face, then all of a sudden you here it softly first – “Get out” – the priest looks around in awe and it says once more, louder and raspier this time – “GET OUT” – every time I see that part, I know it’s coming, and consistently it freaks me out. Love it! Always enjoy a movie which continually scares me any time I watch it over the years.
Plus, there’s something about the idea of a house’s history affecting the people who live in afterwards that gets to me at my core. Because, although I don’t believe in any life after death, I’m forever sceptical at the same time. I’m always questioning. So, I can’t fully discount that there may be something we don’t know about yet, something that could be proven eventually. For me, watching horror movies is not always about realism. In this type of film, you have to try and remove yourself a little from reality, but at the same time you can still stay slightly grounded. Just imagine, what would you do if a house started driving you crazy? What could you do, really? When I watch horror, I’ll usually try to put myself in the shoes of the characters involved. That’s one reason this movie scares me because if I were in that house with James Brolin going slowly mad, I’d probably have been terrified right to the bone.
The Amityville Horror is based on the, supposedly, true events which transpired in the house of George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder) – where years before, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr. murdered his family in cold blood as they slept at night. Moving in with their children, the Lutz family find a great new home; spacious, a boathouse out back with a small dock, good land. Once moved into their house, strange things begin to happen. George begins to wake up every morning at 3:15 AM on the dot. The young daughter starts talking about an imaginary little girl named Jodi who actively becomes more and more involved in her life. Even a priest comes to the house trying to bless the place when Kathy sends request, but he is driven from the premises by some evil force, screaming at him, sending him away by any means. Things get worse and worse, and slowly George seems to be sucked into whatever terror lays beyond the veil between the living and the dead.
I think a part of what makes The Amityville Horror work is the family dynamic. When considering the real supposed story, George Lutz (Brolin) is the husband of Kathy (Kidder), but the children are his stepchildren. Apparently he was not exactly the perfect stepfather and he was a bit tough on them. He’s running a business and everything is on him, so while the house exerts its evil influence over George his business begins to suffer. Then Kathy is of course concerned about him, trying to figure out what’s going on. There are so many things at play within the Lutz family. It’s as if the house feeds off any already negative energy or presence within its walls, it uses that to generate more of the negative energy still left over from the past. That’s what makes this movie real interesting for me.
In the early scenes as Brolin and Kidder stroll through the house, there’s some really excellent editing which truly caught me off-guard. I didn’t expect the quick cuts to, what ultimately are, the murders of Butch DeFeo Jr. These are the murders of course that happened in the now haunted house. I love how they’re incorporated here. As I said, some spot-on editing. Great stuff from editor Robert Brown, whose work includes Damien: Omen II, Brubaker, The Pope of Greenwich Village, The Lost Boys, and Flatliners. Kudos to him for the stuff in this film. He has a real touch for the horror genre, as far as I’m concerned.
All the little touches are creepy. Such as George’s waking up at exactly 3:15 AM. This is supposedly the time when Butch DeFeo killed his family in their beds. So even though the supposed hauntings are inspiration for this, and I don’t believe the real story in so far as I’m concerned, I still find the whole thing utterly unsettling. The movie stands well enough on its own for me.
Still, the part that has always gotten to me the most is the scene when the babysitter gets locked in the closet. Damn, does it ever work on my nerves. I always feel so bad for her because I don’t like closed spaces, so I think if I’d have been locked in there – by a child or a ghost or whoever – I would lose my mind eventually. Plus, the blood on her knuckles, rapping on the door, beating against it; such a vicious image. Then the light goes out, and to this day, no matter how many times I’ve seen it my spine will chill. From bottom to top and back again. Great, spooky stuff!
The reason my love for this movie endures is the atmosphere. Time and time again I’ve said it: atmosphere and tone, these are things which work for me. If a movie has those and can keep up relatively nicely with a bit of solid dialogue, add in some decent characters and you’ve sold me!
Stuart Rosenberg, as far as I’m concerned, is a classic director. Not everything he did was perfect, but I think he has enough wonderful pictures under his belt we can look back on his career to say it went well. He did some great ones – Brubaker with Robert Redford, Cool Hand Luke including the classic performance of Paul Newman, and The Pope of Greenwich Village featuring Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke in maybe the performances of their careers or at least close to it. So, I’d throw this film on the list. He’s good at crafting tension and suspense, in everything he has done. Most certainly here. There are a ton of moments that have me held close to the screen each time I see the movie. Some of the shots of the Lutz house are downright ominous and foreboding, I absolutely love them. That iconic red filtered shot of the Lutz house from the outside is KILLER! Dig that one, so much.
A particularly favourite shot of mine is at almost the 40 minute mark. George (Brolin) is putting wood in on the fire. The flames are crackling and licking up. You can barely see his features, but the fire casts on his face in a reddish glow; his beard/goatee looks as if it were the devil himself. Then, as he leans back, the glow leaves and he looks like a frightened man, losing his mind. Perfect stuff.
Not only do I love the shot, we get to see a great bit between Kidder and Brolin. The look in Brolin’s eyes is insanely perfect. He is one great actor, man. I’ve always thought that, anyways, aside from this movie. But there is something in his face, a great gift of expression, which works like a charm for the character of George Lutz. While I love a movie like The Shining, I’ve always agreed with Stephen King when he says that Jack Nicholson sort of starts off crazy; I mean, you get that typical Nicholson feel right from the very beginning in the opening car scene. Here, with Brolin’s depiction of George Lutz, it gives the genuine feeling that he is a man who is going crazy. At the beginning he’s definitely a sombre guy – I attribute that mostly to the fact he’s a bit of a serious guy, lots of stuff going on with his business, buying the house, probably how a lot of people might be in the situation. There’s something, however, which changes as time goes on, and as opposed to something like Nicholson’s performance – which I do enjoy – there’s that honest feeling something is going seriously awry in the Lutz house.
Margot Kidder is no slouch either. Ever since seeing Black Christmas and the under-seen/under-appreciated Brian De Palma horror-thriller Sisters I have been in love with this woman! Wonderful, talented actress. She is a true great. Her performance here matches the intensity of Brolin at the right times and we really get the feeling this is a woman who loves her husband, as she tries so hard to help him hold onto reality, but also works to the bone trying to protect her children.
Oh, and Rod Steiger – bad ass. Constant bad ass. I love him in this and I could watch it a hundred times just for his scenes because they’re enough to make you stand up and shout. He’s a classic actor and this is one role that will always, always come up when I think of his name. Solid stuff out of him, as is to be expected. He plays a typical role we’ve seen, a million times since, yet it’s one I would rank up there with Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist. Absolutely.
While I love this horror movie, tons, I’ll only be able to say it’s a 4 out of 5 star film. There are a few points of dialogue I’m not too keen on, mostly when it concerns other characters outside of the Lutz’s themselves. I think at times the script in general could’ve been tighter, mainly to compact things a bit more. Great film, in spite of its dubious “true” roots – still, I tend to find it’s a little longer than it needs to be. I think with Brolin and Kidder, with Steiger thrown in for good measure, this movie didn’t need to be close to 2 hours long. A solid hour and a half would’ve done the job quite proper.
Either way, it is a classic of the genre and will forever be a favourite of mine in the haunted house genre. Near the top. Great performances are what drives the best bits here, as well as good atmosphere and quality editing. Always recommend this to anyone who has to see it.