Tagged film

Pan’s Labyrinth and the Dark Fantasy of Guillermo del Toro

Pan’s Labyrinth. 2006. Directed & Written by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo, Manolo Solo, César Vea, and Roger Casamajor. Estudios Picasso/Tequila Gang/Esperanto Filmoj/Sententia Entertainment/Telecinco/OMM. Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Drama/Fantasy/War

★★★★★
pans_labyrinth_ver3Guillermo del Toro has one of the most consistently fascinating minds in film today. Ever since I saw his feature film debut Cronos – a unique take on vampire mythology – I knew he’d go on to do a lot more great work. Even the 1997 Mimic was fun, though marred by studio interference and the fact del Toro’s father was kidnapped during that time. He went on to do another fascinatingly original type of ghost story with The Devil’s Backbone in 2001, which really came back to his exciting from the first feature. Afterwards, he added a good entry to the Blade franchise with its second installment and then did a funny, engaging adaptation of the Hellboy comic in 2004.
Pan’s Labyrinth is most certainly one of del Toro’s best works to date. It is highly original, while at the same time having its roots in old folklore, fairy tales and fantastical stories such as Alice in Wonderland. Even further, there is a darkness which is present in other fantasy storytelling but becomes pronounced through del Toro as a writer and as director. Perhaps the best part of this film is how he so elegantly weaves dark fantasy through the real life drama at the heart of the story, creating a perfect hybrid between the main character’s reality and her dreamworld.
pans-labyrinth-movie-2006During 1944, the post-Spanish Civil War phase has begun. Although there are rebel troops still fighting in the mountainside against the Falangist army troops.  Captain Vidal (Sergi López) orders his wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) brought to live in a country mill within the forest. At first, Ofelia finds it hard to deal with her new life as the daughter of Vidal, whose fascist tendencies do not stop at his soldiers; rather his family is just as much a part of his rule as anything or anyone else.
Once a strange faun draws Ofelia into the labyrinth in the courtyard of the mill, she discovers a whole other magical world existing right under the surface of reality. When the faun tells Ofelia she is actually Princess Moanna, she is given several tasks to complete before the next full moon, which leads her into the other world adjacent to our own. However, it may not be enough for her to escape the hardships of the tragic reality in which she finds herself living with Vidal.

It’s no wonder Pan’s Labyrinth won Academy Awards – three of them. There is such an incredibly craftsmanship about the entire film. Certainly when you look at all the individual aspects, it’s hard to imagine anybody hating this film; sure, you can not be totally into it, but I’ll be damned to hell if you can’t admire this movie for all its efforts.
First, there’s the impeccable cinematography of Guillermo Navarro. Anyone who has read my blog before knows I’m a fan of Navarro. I knew him from his work with del Toro first and foremost. Though, when he directed a couple episodes of NBC’s Hannibal I was truly impressed – those episodes were titled “Coquilles“, “Trou Normand“, and “Rôti“. He captures the light and the dark in equal measures, the latter coming out beautifully in terms of shadow particularly. I think, above all, he and del Toro have very similar sensibilities, which helps in this case because though the story is awesome what I love most is the film’s look. What I imagine is that del Toro and Navarro, as director and cinematographer respectively, came together to find the visual presence of the film; effectively forming a dual director of photography. While del Toro no doubt had an entire aesthetic in mind, I can tell Navarro’s touch lands heavily on Pan’s Labyrinth because of watching his own directing on Hannibal, as well as in the two episodes of Narcos he helmed.
Almost better than the cinematography itself is the film’s intensely detailed art direction. From the look of the old mill, to the forest locations and the darkly fantastical settings inside the labyrinth with the Pale Man and Pan, there are too many different places where the art direction is on the level of a masterpiece. There’s such an effortless feel to the way del Toro and his team take us back to the mid-1940s in Spain. All the while, you know this movie took a ton of work to complete, it’s actually mind boggling at times when I think of it. Every location you see in Pan’s Labyrinth looks like it’s been pulled straight from a picture.
1354132431_pan_s.labyrinth.2006.1080p.bluray.x264.dts.rus-eng1 pans-labyrinth 1280x720-GR6To make it all the more magical, the makeup in this film is just downright jaw dropping. The pinnacle, of course, has to be Vidal’s knife wound through the cheek. Absolutely raw and looks so natural! Its look is something out of a horror film and I found the makeup had a super visceral effect. I’m not normally a cringing sort – I watch a ridiculous amount of horror – however, the part when Vidal patches himself up, sewing the wound, then drinks a shot of liquor: it got me. But in the right sort of way. This part is only one amazing instance of excellent makeup work. Pan and the other creatures have such an innovative design about them, it’s some of the better makeup effects in fantasy over the past 20 years. Hands down. Without all these elements together, the fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth wouldn’t juxtapose well enough with the reality-based drama in its script. The look – in cinematography, design and direction – is perfectly dark and simultaneously vibrant. Add to that the painstakingly created makeup/effects and del Toro’s genius comes alive – although he wrote the script and obviously came up with a massive amount of stuff to throw into its story, as evidenced by the plentiful notes and sketches he creates over the course of every production, such a vision does require an entire team able/willing to go the extra mile to make this what it was meant to be.
9aef86b7f0c4b873ed069faf13d1d342There’s no argument on my part, Guillermo del Toro has several masterpieces under his belt and Pan’s Labyrinth is no exception: a 5 star film, from start to finish. The screenplay itself is enough to warrant a full rating. With all the different and various elements of this film coming together, working in favour of one another, del Toro’s dark fairy tale is something you might imagine coming out of the great literature from history. Honestly, I truly believe if del Toro had written this as a novel it would’ve been just as well received and perhaps could’ve gone on to rank among some of the big works of fantasy in the literary world. That being said I’m glad he chose to make this as a film. The visual qualities added to the masterful storytelling of del Toro made this into one of the great fantasy epics that will ever be in cinematic history. If I’m alive 50 years from now I’ll still be raving, and hopefully my eyesight will have lasted me until then; hell, even if I’m blind I’ll still ask someone to throw this on so I can listen to its beautiful music, all the sweet sounding Spanish words and the overall magical sound design. If you’ve not seen this one, please, do yourself a huge favour and take this in soon. It’s a pleasure of a movie even with its bits of creepiness and tragedy.
* As of writing, this title is available on Canadian Netflix.*

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Beauty in the Breakdown: Alex Ross Perry’s Perfectly Uncomfortable Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth. 2015. Directed & Written by Alex Ross Perry.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, and Kate Lyn Sheil. Washington Square Films.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★★★
queen_of_earth_ver2_xlgOpening with such a tightly framed shot of Elisabeth Moss’ Catherine, Alex Ross Perry completely submerges us immediately into her world. Not to mention she’s in an absolute state of disarray and her temper is flaring, her makeup smeared and running. There are plenty of tight close-ups on Catherine moving on through the film, but it’s this almost shocking, jarring opener of her face, in our face, vulnerable and weeping, angry, emotional, which sets the tone of the film. Furthermore, I love how Perry has the title card come up in a hot pink colouring, as it sort of gives things an interesting little twist – as if everything’s fine on top, the pink like the makeup, yet underneath things are wrecked. A nice start to an oddly beautiful film.
From there, Queen of Earth descends into a spiral of broken friendship, jealousy, treacherous relationships, and a general atmosphere of dread and madness. For a movie that isn’t horror, it’s awfully scary. A lot of filmgoers seem to see this is as partly a comedy, though, for the life of me I cannot figure that one out. There’s nothing funny to me here. Not even in the darkly comic sense, which is the type of comedy I personally love most. Mostly this is full of terrifying reality, perched upon two vastly different but equally impressive performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Above all else Perry crafted an excellent and classic style thriller out of a mess of emotions and psychological torment.
10293697.0A big problem I have is that I see so many people online bashing this movie because, supposedly, nothing happens. First of all, it troubles me how many of these same people also admitted they’d pirated it. So right away, I honestly have no regard for that opinion; you stole it, didn’t enjoy it, well fuck off. Honestly, if you can’t shell out a couple bucks to watch a movie online as opposed to going to theatre, which yes is damn expensive these days, well why should I care what your opinion is? It’s the same as if you start to heed the opinions of people who don’t actually pay to go to art galleries but rather they look at Polaroids of the artwork and then critique it. Regardless of what you thought about this film, a lot of people worked on it, just as you work at your job, and then people go ahead and pirate that hard work, giving nothing back, what does that say? It’s sad, whatever it says.
Secondly, I have to say that it’s fine if you don’t dig this type of film – the quiet, slow burning style that’s more focused on dialogue and character than action, whether big or small. Queen of Earth is more like a play, as we’re focused mainly on two characters – a couple others sort of in the wings in smaller supporting roles – and the bulk of the plot takes place in a single claustrophobic type of location. That’s part of what I love, as those who say “nothing happens” are SO WRONG. You really think nothing at all happens? Maybe you didn’t listen to all the fascinating dialogue between Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, or did you miss all the palpable tension going on during scenes with Moss and Patrick Fugit? I don’t know. Might do well with seeing the film again. Because for me, a ton happens in this movie and the plot pops right out of the frame, grips ahold of your neck, and refuses to let go until the very last shot. A movie doesn’t have to have a ton of action – by action, I don’t solely mean car crashes and explosions, I mean action as in big sequences – and I think Alex Ross Perry knows that, more than well. I’ve not actually seen any of his other films, but now I’m determined to go back and watch them. They’re surely not all like this, as there’s a genuine air of old school psychological thriller throughout Queen of Earth, but it’s obvious in this one film alone he knows how to focus in on character, as well as relationships between characters, and how to draw out the tension in normal, everyday type situations; so much of that happens here from beginning to end.
IMG_1976I’ll get to Elisabeth Moss and her performance as Catherine afterwards. I’d like to talk about Virginia to begin; the character wonderfully played by Katherine Waterston. While clearly, painfully obvious that Catherine has some deep issues, it seems to me certain filmgoers are ignoring altogether how damaged Virginia is in her own right. Starting out early on, within the first 15 minutes, there’s a flashback scene between Virginia and Catherine, the latter with her saccharinely sweet boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) around – they talk about codependency, needing the other person in a relationship and what would happen if there was a breakup, et cetera. This is very telling. What we come to see is that not only does Catherine seem to be highly codependent
One way we can see the already glaringly obvious parallel in the situations of Catherine and Virginia is the boyfriends. Though the Kentucker Audley and Patrick Fugit characters are vastly different, the obviousness lies in the women themselves. They’re like a figurative tennis match, each of them batting the ball with equal force, mirroring the charge of the other. For instance, at the beginning we see James (Audley) calling Virginia ‘Ginny’, which she continually says is what close friends call her and advises him not to; not long after, James again calls her Ginny, she once more chastises him for it. A year later, once the situations have been reversed, Rich (Fugit) does the exact same thing to Catherine that James did – he calls her ‘Kay’, over and over despite the fact she tells him not to. What’s most interesting is that it’s not something initiated by either of the women, it’s something springing organically from these people, as if Catherine and Virginia are somehow willing it out of the universe.
Or is it? I also wonder if Virginia provoked Rich into taunting Catherine with the ‘Kay’ nickname in retaliation for how she perceived her friend to have treated her that year before. Because something strikes me as highly childish about Virginia. Each of these women are somewhat spoiled in terms of money – both of them have/had parents you’d most likely classify as rich – and so I think they’ve got their individual tendencies. But what’s telling in terms of why I think Virginia is especially childish is a scene where she and her boyfriend Rich (Fugit) are laughing in their room – when Catherine comes up quietly towards the door, Virginia won’t look at her and Rich goes to the door, without a word, closing it in Catherine’s face. Virginia and Rich giggle behind the door like two children, as Catherine stands for a moment outside, hurt, confused, then walks away. I thought this moment spoke VOLUMES in regards to Virginia particularly.
Because essentially, we’re seeing a back and forth duel between these two, supposedly, best friends who wound one another like a violently psychological and emotionally unstable game of tag. Instead of standing together, they fall harder and harder apart as the scant 90 minute runtime of Queen of Earth rolls on. This relationship is what sets up so much of the incredible tension within. Bottom line it comes down to the fact these two women are more interested in boosting their own egos than helping each other, neither wanting to be the bigger person and instead tearing their friend apart even worse at the seams.
IMG_1974 IMG_1973 IMG_1975Not only is the perpetually depressed and anxious character of Catherine written well by Perry, the way in which Elisabeth Moss inhabits the character is out of this world. I’m not a fan of Mad Men. However, after I saw Moss in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, I became really impressed with her abilities as an actor. She has this very quiet and subtle presence about her, yet there are scenes where she has the ability to take hold of everything near, hauling the scenes down around her and just scorching the earth; I mean this, if it’s not clear, in a hugely positive way. I’ll say it: my top favourite performance of 2015. There is no doubt about it. Starting at the first frame, closed in tight on her weepy, angry face, I was utterly taken with Moss and her portrayal of Catherine. There’s a feeling going into this film you might be expecting something big, loud, brash, yet she surprises by keeping things low-key. Still, there is always a gripping sense of tone when she’s onscreen, whether she is being emotionally intense or quiet and withdrawn. I do love Waterston in this movie. There’s simply an undeniably awesome quality to Moss and her performance, throughout every last scene; not once did I find myself watching her and wanting more, or feeling there ought to be less, rather I continually felt impressed with everything she did.
IMG_1977The score from Keegan DeWitt lays just beneath the surface, like a thin layer of skin beneath the outer edges. At times the pieces are genuinely unsettling, others it’s like a swell is happening and at any moment things might burst, shattering the world in Queen of Earth to pieces. Most of all, the music fits so well in every scene of the film. For me, it’s DeWitt who adds so much of the uneasiness and terrible feeling inherent in the atmosphere of the film, he gives the screenplay and Perry’s direction a dream-like and also nightmarish quality. It’s amazing, really. Even in one scene as Virginia is out running, faded into a scene of Catherine generally not taking care of herself (eating crackers/chips and drinking pop in the morning), there’s a haunting piece with a flute riff on top of some electronic style sounds which sucks you into a weird state and kind of sticks to your skin a while. Great, great score. I think my favourite bits are the extremely foreboding pieces – you’ll know which ones – full of the horns and low woodwinds, then undercut with these deep and growling electronic rumbles.
Music and cinematography can go together hand in hand as lovers if the work is done correctly. Queen of Earth has that with DeWitt’s compositions pairing together with the camerawork of Sean Price Williams. One thing I love in terms of Williams’ cinematography here is how the close-ups really pull the viewer directly into this world. In particular, there’s a great scene with Catherine and Virginia where they’re recounting past relationships, bad ones, and there’s this great profile-like set of shots of the two talking, listening; reminds me very much of an Ingmar Bergman film at times, honestly. These perfect shots, peppered everywhere throughout the film, make the emotional and psychological weight of the screenplay resonate long and wide. Without such gorgeous looking visuals, I don’t think the film would have near as much depth, so I’m glad the look of the movie fits so well with the screenplay and its themes.
IMG_1979One of the 5 star films of 2015 and one of my favourites. It’s hard to talk about Queen of Earth without giving away the ending, even though some will still bark “nothing happens”. To them I say, go watch something else. Lots happens, it’s just not full of big sequences where a ton of characters are jumping about, each spewing expository dialogue to further the story. Instead, Alex Ross Perry’s latest film is a deeply unnerving and raw snapshot of the nervous breakdown of one woman, as well as the breakdown of a long relationship between two old friends, accompanied by an astounding score composed by Keegan DeWitt and the lush visuals of Sean Price Williams.
If you’re not into slowly paced pieces of film with all its focus centred on character and emotionality, then I suggest to not even bother. Really. Because if not, you’re only going to find yourself bored. However, if you can handle a slower pace for 90 minutes, and you’re able to sit through the brutish reality of two friends falling to pieces, one far worse than the other, then this is for you! It can get tough to watch at times if you let the plot and story sink into you, but the rewards are well worth the effort. This film brought me back to some of Bergman’s work, even one of my favourite movies of all time Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and yet it’s a completely separate and unique masterpiece all on its own.
The ending has stuck with me. Even the entire final half hour is UNBELIEVABLE and at times intensely creepy, as well; that whole party sequence calls back to Polanski in a way which left me jaw dropped for a second or two. The last two shots, switching between an astounded Virginia and a scarily ecstatic, laughing Catherine, they’ve still not washed off me. I watched Queen of Earth, after picking it up through iTunes, twice in the matter of about 12 hours. Each time I was floored beyond belief and those final moments will not find their way out of my head.

Sightseers a.k.a Caravan Holiday Massacre

Sightseers. 2012. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Screenplay by Alice Lowe & Chris Oram; additional material by Amy Jump.
Starring Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Eileen Davies, Roger Michael, Tony Way, Seamus O’Neill, Monica Dolan, Jonathan Aris, Aymen Hamdouchi, and Tom Meeten. BFI/Big Talk Productions/Film4/Rook Films/StudioCanal.
Rated 14A. 88 minutes.
Adventure/Comedy/Crime

★★★★★
sightseers_ver4
I’m a hardcore fan of Ben Wheatley. Some say he’s the best thing to happen to British film in a while. I say he’s one of the best directors to come along in a while, period; not just British, but all over. I think there’s something I enjoy about Wheatley because all of his films are, at their core, fairly simple. Not meant in any way negatively. What I enjoy is that he can take those simple, smaller premises and turn them into something big and exciting.
Even in this case a couple’s week-long trip in caravan, under direction of Wheatley, becomes an intriguing and unexpected story. What could easily be something dull – and I’m sure there are detractors who say it is – turns into a tense and weird ride alongside an equally tense, weird two lovers. Not only is there tension happening, Sightseers is one hell of a riotous black comedy.
Until now I had no idea Edgar Wright was an executive producer on this film. Turns out the screenplay by stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram had been turned down for years – too dark, they said – and Wright came along to greenlight the project. I think this fits so well with Wright’s own style as a director that it’s no surprise he was willing to get onboard.
With the purposefully awkward and tense atmosphere, dark laughs, added to excellent directorial choices, I really think this is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in the last 5 years. A highly underrated film, at least on this side of the pond. I’m sure the British film fans have been ALL over this already.
sit2Little moments which make this so funny, often in a dark way, make the movie so memorable.
For instance, even right after they’ve cleared everything with the police following Chris running over a stranger by accident, killing him, Chris tells his girlfriend Tina “he’s ruined this trip for me“.
Later while Chris and Tina are having some fun, getting the caravan all setup at the campsite, they all of a sudden notice a bright splash of blood on one of the hubcaps, abruptly interrupting their laughs. It’s in the way Chris responds I get a kick, how casual and unassuming he is about the whole thing. Gets me every time.
Then there are the tensely awkward bits of which I can’t get enough. Like the first encounter Chris and Tina have with another couple out in their caravan. Right from the beginning it is so incredibly painful to watch, but in the right way – these two are socially inept, they’re both on the fringe of life in so many ways. However, as the caravan holiday wears on, Chris and Tina find themselves becoming less and less awkward, while becoming more and more sinister. The comedy coasts along with them, only it gets progressively darker and more unsettling; at the same time, it also gets foolish with great effect.
The whole bit of the film with Martin testing his mini-caravan is ABSOLUTELY HILARIOUS! So awkward and weird and way too funny. Even from the first scene, as Chris leaves after talking with him and then Martin gets into the mini-caravan only to roll away down the hill chaotically; I burst laughing at this moment. There are a bunch of these great bits.
Sightseers2Something I love about Wheatley’s films are the way in which they’re edited. The are a couple other editors on this film, including Amy Jump and Robin Hill, aside from Wheatley. Hill and Wheatley have worked together ever since Down Terrace; the trio have edited together on Kill List, this film, and A Field in England. I totally dig how these three edit films. There are countless examples of how well they work.
WARNING! SPOILER AHEAD!
My favourite here, I believe, has to be the scene where Chris sneaks up on the writer he and Tina met; Vanilla Fudge’s excellent cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays, as Chris follows him along the highlands, creeping behind, then smashes him in the head with a rock. The great part is how it’s edited with cuts of both Tina, as well as the writer’s wife. In particular, the wife is interesting – she steps on a piece of broken plate, one Chris tipped over purposely earlier, then hauls it from her bleeding foot. I thought this was just a genius bit of editing, snapping between these quick cuts at times. Not sure what it means, other than Chris sort of hurting them both simultaneously – albeit one worse than the other; the writer husband more actively, the wife inadvertently. But either way, how the editing cuts here I find is extremely effective.
HERE ENDETH THE SPOILER!
sightseers-2012-003-tina-with-dog
For me, the greatest part of Sightseers is the juxtaposition of the comedy and its awkwardness with horrific murder at the hands of both Chris and Tina. Every excellently hilarious segment seems to come along with a heart dose of violence.
The best scene of murder, and in turn makeup effects, comes when Chris murders a man chastising Tina for leaving dog shit at a public historical site. Building up to the violence, there’s this funny moment when Chris and Tina sort of land on the same page; if only for a moment. Then Chris traipses up behind the man, who decides to walk away instead of pursue an argument with this manic couple, and proceeds to bash his skull in with a big, heavy walking stick. When we get slight glimpses of the leftover face, it is HEINOUS! In the best possible horror-ish sense.
But this leads me to another part of Sightseers I found interesting. There’s a strange sort of awakening in this scene, as Chris and Tina become closer. While Tina watches Chris bashing in the man’s head, though she appears to be slightly traumatized, not long after she seems to be totally in on it, willingly; a radio report they hear in the car prompts her, and Chris, to go mad with glee. Then later, Tina herself joins in on the murder without even being coaxed into by Chris (except for the dumb and thoughtless flirting he engages in). They become, tenuously, a murder couple.
So it’s this weirdly violent story undercut with a romantic tale. The ending is the ultimate undercutting of the romance, however, there’s still a love between Chris and Tina. It reminds me of the real life story of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley who committed the Moors Murders – as in, if Tina had never gone on that caravan holiday with Chris, she’d probably never have killed a person in her life. Yet Chris and his personality, his actions, draw her into murder. It’s no secret Tina is a bit slow, in many ways, so I’d venture to bet she would probably have lived at home with her mother until the end of time had she not met him.
sightseersThis is absolutely a 4.5 out of 5 star film. While at times it might seem there’s nothing going on, plenty happens under the surface and right in front of us. Dark comedy comes as immediately obvious, but underneath it all there’s the story of two damaged people. Chris and Tina are the victims of unfulfilled expectations – most of all, Chris hates himself and everyone around him who are either more competent or more successful than he is. This is where the violence originates from. However, it’s interesting to see how Tina latches onto Chris and sort of supports this vicious, animalistic side to him; for her, being a muse to his violence is equal to or even greater than being the muse to some writer. It’s only once Chris sort of messes it all up by shamelessly flirting that Tina turns against him, using her own violence to then turn the tables. Without ruining the ending, Tina gets a major last laugh that I’d not expected whatsoever, personally.
If you’re a fan of Ben Wheatley, then absolutely see this as soon as possible. Great black comedy, burnt like toast. As well as there’s a real horror aspect at times, between the violence and a trippy little dream sequence. I’m a huge fan of Kill List, as well as the vastly different A Field in England and Down Terrace. Ultimately, though, I’m beginning to think my favourite of his work is Sightseers. The performances from Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, also the screenwriters along with frequent Wheatley collaborator Amy Jump, are so unbelievable and it’s as if they’re being completely natural; so much so you’d almost have a hard time separating the actors from their characters’ personas. This has got a bit of everything, from a road trip-like feel of adventure, to awkward and dark comedy, and even a nice dash of horror for good measure.
What’s not to like?
If you’ve got any SENSIBLE and thoughtful comments about Wheatley’s film, drop one below and let’s chat!

The Roost: Ti West’s Zombie Bats Are Coming for You!

The Roost. 2005. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Tom Noonan, Karl Jacob, Vanessa Horneff, Sean Reid, Wil Horneff, Barbara Wilhide, Richard Little, John Speredakos, and Larry Fessenden. Glass Eye Pix.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★
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In my recent review of Ti West’s The Innkeepers, I mentioned being a huge fan of him generally. So just keep that in mind. Maybe I’m biased; I still try to be a little objective when considering how others might look at the same film I’m looking at.
I don’t think this is a perfect movie, but it’s honestly one of my favourite horror feature debuts from a filmmaker in the genre. There’s a criminally low rating for this movie on IMDB – though, I personally don’t care about the ratings on any sites, let alone that one. While I spend a fair amount of time on there trying to even out the scores as best I can with my own, what I believe to be decent, ratings, I still don’t give much heed to it overall; mostly it’s a good database. You’ll see a lot of West’s films, most of them, have an underrated presence on IMDB. Because those people are sleeping, man. This guy is one of the greatest in horror today. He moves out from simple concepts, usually incorporating very personal relationships or at least characters who are relatable to an audience, then the horror takes hold. Basically, any horror writer – whether screenwriter or novelist or short story writer, et cetera – would tell you that’s part of what scares them: taking things to a personal level, the bringing on the horror. Many other horror filmmakers, particularly of the indie variety, try to do this, it’s no big secret. I believe, however, Ti West is simply better than the herd at making those types of excellent horror films.
While there’s a ton of old school sensibility in him elsewhere, I think so much of his 1970s/1980s influence comes through with The Roost simply because of the way there’s a frame narrative with the old school horror show on cable access and it leads into the real film itself. Right from then on, it feels like you’re watching an old school horror movie. That gives the movie a different style, something not entirely common these days, and within that I find it all pretty damn charming. Y’know, in that creepy horror charm sort of sense.
the-roost-movie-tom-noonan-horror-hostStarting with a late night horror t.v program on a local cable station, the host (Tom Noonan) introduces us to The Roost, the latest film playing on Cable 13.
A group of friends are on their way to see some friends get married. While heading along the road, they end up stranded. At a lonely farm out in the middle of nowhere, cornfields and the whole nine yards, the lost group end up coming face to face with what lays in the darkness of the farm’s barn.
Inside the old structure there are terrifying creatures of the night. Now, they seem to be waking up, and as night falls they’re looking for something on which to feed.
4503431_l2Something I love is how Ti West does these awesome edits with both visuals and sound. First, we get a SCREAM which happens during a transition from the barn out to the car, where and older woman is waiting for her husband to come back; it’s on the radio, but the way West crosses over to that bit is excellent. For a split second I honestly was waiting for someone to come running, or something. Effective, brief moment. Secondly another comes when the old woman wanders into the dark of the barn, then this sound starts to come that you almost feel is coming out of the shadows, yet it cuts to one of the friends standing behind the now broken down car revving, brake lights shining red in his face, and the sound has actually been the car the whole time. These are little simple bits people often don’t think of, however, when they’re used appropriately to put the audience on a tense edge, waiting for something, anything to happen, it’s a killer move. West uses these in a way other horror filmmakers might use jump scares – instead of frightening us, it simply ratchets up the tension and creates an unsettling, edgy mood.
the roost 2Being his first feature, I think West does a wonderful job creating atmosphere in The Roost. It’s something I find pervades all his films, even when he switched it up most recently in The Sacrament with found footage style. He’s great with setting up tension and executing suspenseful sequences in order to build up that atmosphere, setting an evident tone. Each of his movies have it, which is partly why I think he’s one of those important filmmakers in horror today; more than that, genre filmmaking in general.
Also, there’s a degree of playfulness at times I think is essential in certain horror movies. Creature features being one of them. I always love when a movie featuring killer-somethings (in this case BATS) has a good dose of dark humour. One little scene I love is when one of the guys sneaks up behind the girl, about to scare her, but he stops short as if disappointed she didn’t even turn around like she couldn’t hear him coming; then he lightly taps her, scaring her anyways. It made me cackle for a second. Good bit.
Moreover, the guy is a pretty good writer. In my opinion, anyways. As a fellow writer, I like the way he writes characters because I find them personable. I’ve seen a lot of people say his movies have all these “hipster” characters, this and that, but whatever man. I don’t see that at all. The way I perceive most of his characters is that they’re real people, genuine; not characters in that sense really, rather actual people. Not to sound cheesy. There are a lot of writers capable of doing this, he’s just one. It’s something I love in horror, though, as a believable character in a film is more likely to draw me into their emotions, the plot, and the overall story. Here in The Roost we get those inescapable dynamics of friendship, particularly it’s amplified with the upcoming wedding to which they’re all headed, and even further compounded by the fact the car breaks down and they find themselves stranded out in the middle of nowhere. Probably one thing I dig so much about the script and the writing, I think West sets up a great situation with which he can play around in with the characters before introducing the creatures and the HORROR and the BLOOD!
roostI personally dig the whole vampire bats turning people into zombie-like reanimated corpses. Some online seem to suggest it’s no good. Me, on the other hand, I thought it worked very well. Creepy stuff at times. One scene shows the old woman from early in the movie, now obviously bitten by the bats and taken over, just behind a character in the window. It’s a nice little moment where you dread what may be coming next.
This whole aspect also makes it more than a mere creature feature. The creatures are affecting the humans and then the whole friendship dynamic is tested, as they all try not to succumb to the murderous infectious bats flying all around the farm’s property.
Even better than that, Ti West treats us to a good helping portion of makeup effects. Lots of nice practical work here, as the effects fall in line with everything else old school-feeling about The Roost. Love the blood and gory stuff because it really does feel like an ’80s movie. The effects are good, they just bring me back to the older horror where most everything was practical and we didn’t have to suffer through movies made up of CGI blood and CGI green-screen’d stuff constantly. West does well with taking things back to a more simple time in several ways here, this being one of them.

Finally, I love the narrative framing device of the horror show. Tom Noonan is amazing, as always. Very unsettling and creepy. Simultaneously, he’s hilarious. I didn’t exactly like the end of this part either at the finale, however, the whole thing is good fun. Real nice way to showcase an indie horror adding in this cable access style show.

All in, I think this is definitely a 4 out of 5 star horror movie. While I don’t particularly care for the last shot, and not every actor was the greatest. there’s enough here in Ti West’s feature debut that I can say it’s a solid outing. The writing holds up, as well as the fact he relies on an atmosphere of tension and practical effects to sell the horror.
You can do A LOT worse when it comes to horror, certainly when it comes down to the creature feature sub-genre. This is a great modern creature horror movie. See it if you can; the DVD is pretty damn awesome. Love the look and feel of this film, and dig the horror it dishes out!

Haunted Historical Horror: Ti West’s The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers. 2011. Directed & Written by Ti West.
Starring Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, Brenda Cooney, George Riddle, John Speredakos, and Lena Dunham. Glass Eye Pix.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
Horror


★★★★1/2
The-Innkeepers-2011Every time I’ve got a particular bias going into a review, one that I can recognize, I always like to take a moment to recognize that. Such is the case with myself and Ti West. I love his work, even when others tell me personally they don’t like a movie of his I can’t help but find myself thinking “Why the hell not?”. I just love his movies. Years ago I got the chance to see The Roost, which I thought was a clever genre film and a gnarly creature feature horror movie. After that I had him on my radar, then as soon as I’d seen that out he came with The House of the Devil, and that one floored me; an overall amazing aesthetic, harkening back to the best of the 1980s, this is a slow burn horror with that Satanic Panic edge. After that I secured a copy of Trigger Man and, while much different than his other films, I enjoyed it. Even later, after he did this movie, his segment in the first V/H/S was probably my favourite – “Second Honeymoon” – his “M is for Miscarriage” out of The ABCs of Death was a saucy piece of raw, reality driven horror. Perhaps my favourite of all his work, The Sacrament is an obvious re-telling of the Jonestown Massacre yet using found footage and the VICE News name he makes it into so much more, something visceral and savage.
So, have you got an understanding of how much I’m a fan of Ti West? Maybe that paints my view of The Innkeepers a little too subjectively. Who knows. Either way, I think this is a fun little ghost story in a spooky location. It’s got a good atmosphere, something to which West is no stranger at pulling together. As well as the fact Pat Healy and Sara Paxton give good performances which are effective and at the same time quirky, but not so quirky you want to roll the eyes out of the back of your head. This film has charm, darkness, and even a few good old fashioned horror jump scares.
sara-paxton-claire-and-pat-healy-luke-inIn the last few days before the Yankee Pedlar Inn closes down forever, two employees – Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) – attempt to find evidence of the ghost of a woman named Madeline O’Malley (Brenda Cooney) who supposedly haunts the halls. They’re amateur ghost hunters; Luke runs a website about Pedlar’s apparent hauntings, Claire just dropped out of college.
As the last few guests arrive for a stay at the Pedlar, Claire in particular gets closer and closer to the spirit of Madeline, whose story is a sad one; how and why she ended up trapped at the hotel in the afterlife. But once Claire gets a little too close, things may change – and definitely for the worse.
sara-paxton-as-claire-in-the-innkeepers-2011One unique little scene/shot I love is when Claire (Paxton) is using the recording equipment. The first moment is so cool, as the camera tracks along as if on a soundwave, moving slowly around almost wandering. The music and everything make this a creepy little bit, even with nothing creepy happening. I think this is the first scene where Ti West begins to set up a definitive atmosphere and tone for the scarier bits of the film.
The music gives way to more of a silence, a dim hum, some static, while watching Claire listening in another room than the one previous. This also leads into Claire discovering a presence in the big dining room, a piano playing softly amongst the hum of the static in her headphones. Nice little scene following her as she finds the piano itself around the lobby and watches it play by itself. Or rather it bangs the keys by itself. Spooky and an effective jump scare.
the-innkeepers-movie-image-02Really dig the score for The Innkeepers. Sure enough, when I looked up the composer it was Jeff Grace. For those who may not know, Grace has worked on some incredible stuff. Most recently he’s composed scores for Jim Mickle’s Cold in July and We Are What We AreNight Moves, Mickle’s Stake LandMeek’s Cutoff. Then he’s done other probably lesser known films – though they ought to be more recognized – such as Bitter FeastThe House of the DevilThe Last WinterJoshua, and another of Ti West’s again The Roost.
Part of any great horror, in my opinion, is a solid score to help with the atmosphere. Grace’s excellent music feels very haunted house worthy. This is, essentially, a haunted house horror movie. Instead of a house, we’re getting the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is just as creepy in the end. Grace does a good job with ambient noise, strings, and some electronic sounds in aiding the direction of West to supply a nice feeling from start to finish. At times it grabs us, gripping hold and not letting go, other times it lulls us into a spooky mood or a false sense of security before a nice scare; proper horror score.
the-innkeepers-2011-ti-west-sara-paxton-pat-healy-kelly-mcgillis-19Aside from the lead characters played by Healy and Paxton, I couldn’t get enough of the fact West included Kelly McGillis in the cast. What a wonderful surprise. Most known for her work in the ’80s like WitnessTop Gun, and The Accused, in the past few years she’s been a part of the indie horror revival. Particularly, after being cast in Stake Land by Jim Mickle, McGillis put in a performance here, as well as in the remake of We Are What We Are again from Mickle. So I love that she’s been a part of these films. She adds a great air of authenticity, I’m not sure what it is, but there’s an elegant quality to her; no matter the character. One of those classy older women with a lot of grace, at the same time there’s something sassy and fun about her, too. Here her turn as an actress turned psychic is a good show, wonderful addition and she works great opposite Paxton.
Which leads me to Pat Healy and Sara Paxton. They’ve got real good chemistry in their scenes, reminding me of employee-employee relationships I’ve had at jobs in the past. What I love is that they aren’t two characters of the same age, like two young people. Having the character of Luke (Healy) as a bit of an older guy compared to Claire (Paxton) made for a more interesting relationship between the two, in opposition to so many horror movies featuring all young, teenage-ish characters with the same attitudes, same inflections in their voice, same problems and lives. Not saying it’s some revolutionary tactic, but I do think it was a smart writing move on the part of West, who could’ve easily strayed into complete typicalness. Rather, here he gives us two fun, weird characters who’ve got an equally fun, weird relationship.
Paxton is my favourite, though. Because so often horror movies have characters that do not feel real. Claire, on the other hand, feels real to me, she’s a new college dropout, she works at an old school hotel that’s shutting down after one last weekend. There’s a sort of angst built up inside Claire that I understand; a lot of people could understand her. Yet she isn’t some snotty young girl or anything, merely she gives me that sense of being a woman who is straddling the edge of being young – a woman, maybe not totally prepared to become one.
sara-paxton-as-claire-in-the-innkeepers-2011 the-innkeepers-2Most likely the greatest part of The Innkeepers is how Ti West shot it on film. I mean, I don’t have anything against digital, not in the slightest. That being said, there’s something to be said for movies still shot on film. There’s a depth to it, perhaps that’s the best way I can describe it – a fullness – that isn’t always present when shooting on digital. I don’t know, I could be talking out my ass. My love for the look of film has to do with a richness, a broader spectrum of what it can capture. This provides West the opportunity here to frame so many wonderful shots and catch every last bit of it in lush, dark detail. Makes a haunted house horror movie creepier. Honestly, I think that’s part of why so many found footage horrors ultimately fall flat is because on digital the exposure issues end up blocking out so much of a frame that, at times, this renders much of what’s in the frame not as creepy as it might have been had the movie been shot with film. With this movie, it helps West insisted on using film because there are a lot of wonderfully constructed shots here which pull their style from out of every corner of the frame.
I think some of the complaints about The Innkeepers seem to revolve around the fact there’s not a HUGE amount of ghost activity or full-on horror. However, I’d say to those detractors that it isn’t mean to be that sort of film. If you want that type of haunted house horror, stick with even something more like Insidious – West works more here at mood and tone than anything else, and I think that’s totally fine. There are most CERTAINLY a few classic horror movie scares, both of the jumpy variety and real tense, suspenseful moments. They don’t come in spades, it’s a slow burn film. Regardless, to me the all-out scary stuff here pays off because West does a good job slowly cultivating a spooky atmosphere.
the-innkeepersWith a slow and deliberate style – aided by great editing – a creepy backstory that isn’t served up for us like a prequel within the movie itself but rather alluded to appropriately, and good writing/directing, Ti West’s The Innkeepers is a pretty solid haunted house horror. 4.5 out of 5 stars on this one, all the way. Again, as I started out in this review, I could be biased towards West and his films because I’m such a hardcore fan of his. I don’t think so, though, because there’s just something special about his filmmaking to me. He has old school sensibilities while also bringing a modern, fresh edge to his subjects at the same time.
If you haven’t yet seen anything by West, I suggest starting with The Roost if you can find a DVD copy; worth it. Afterwards, move on to this, The House of the DevilThe Sacrament, and see if there’s anything about him you’ll agree with me on. I know others who feel he’s decent but nothing special. Me? I think he’s one of the new hopes for horror cinema and genre filmmaking, right alongside Adam Wingard (The GuestYou’re NextA Horrible Way to Die).