This comes as one of the better adaptations of a King story, bringing along with it some fun, frightening terror, as one man's memories become a haunted house in a creepy hotel room.
Darling. 2015. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Young, Larry Fessenden, Helen Rogers, John Speredakos, Brian Morvant, & Al-Nisa Petty. Glass Eye Pix/Alexander Groupe.
Unrated. 78 minutes.
Mickey Keating is one of my favourite writer-directors over the past few years in indie horror. While the low budget charm of his pictures now and then needs a little boost, most of his work is incredibly engaging because of his willingness to attach a very human element to the themes in which he traffics. His second feature film, Ritual, is what initially drew me to his body of work. That was a great little flick that worked despite any of its flaws. From there he moved on to even bigger dread with the family drama-cum-alien horror Pod – a tight little indie that draws you in then drags you through its terror, including an excellently accomplished alien design that is both eerie and also impressive considering the film’s budget.
This past year Keating released Darling. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, the film hinges largely on the central performance of Lauren Ashley Carter, whom many fans of independent horror likely remember from Jug Face, a fun, freaky movie in its own right. Using Carter’s talents, the haunting cinematography of Mac Fisken, and his own horrific screenplay, Keating gives us the hypnotic, savage vision of a woman unraveling, the influences of everything from The Shining to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion to Eraserhead shows. But don’t be fooled – any influence on or homage by Keating is only aesthetic. This is a terrifying psychological horror crafted around Carter’s performance and a screenplay that facilitates a descent into paranoid madness.
Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) is a young woman living in New York City. She’s all on her own in the wide city landscape of darkened alleys, crowded streets, neon lights. Soon, she becomes the caretaker for a large, old mansion with a long history of supposedly being haunted. Madame (Sean Young) sets her up with the job, introduces her to the house, and then Darling is left all alone, once more. Except now she’s there with the house, its possible ghostly or demonic presence lurking all around her.
And as the time whittles on, Darling discovers the whispers in the halls follow her outside into the world. When she meets a man at a bar, one whom she recognizes from somewhere, the mansion’s influence begins taking hold. What follows is a dive headlong into the darkness of the human heart, what trauma and mental anguish can do to a person, as Darling fears she may be losing her mind.
Aside from the obvious black-and-white, the aesthetic of Keating’s film is aided by two major, impressive elements: score and editing.
First, the editing is where I’m reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It doesn’t rip off anything, but Darling captures pieces of the same mental deterioration Lynch had examined in his 1977 midnight movie classic. With completely different subject matter, editor Valerie Krulfeifer (whose other work includes previous films of Keating; so obviously they work well together) conjures up reflections of Lynch, while not directly taking anything from him. Whereas thematically this movie matches up closely to what Polanski did with Repulsion, the actual atmosphere, to me, feels closer in kin with Eraserhead. The editing helps keep us on edge. Nothing is ever certain for a minute of the film’s runtime, and that’s in big part due to the style of editing. It doesn’t always go a mile a minute, but sometimes it does and that creates the frenetic feeling of being stuck inside Darling’s noggin.
Added to that is both sound design and score. Not all movies get it right, and certainly there are many indie horrors which focus too closely on blood, gore, or exploitation to pay any attention to the aspects that help make a film become beyond mediocre. Composer Giona Ostinelli steeps almost every last moment of Darling in tension. The suspense is incredible, and Ostinelli makes you jump more than Keating and the cinematography together. Even the ringing of a phone becomes something nerve jangling, something that unnerves and throws us off balance. Again, in this way we’re placed directly in the mind of Darling, whose reality isn’t particularly stable. So we’re constantly offset by the score, as well as the sound design. Ostinelli’s music is the sort that burrows beneath your skin and totally keeps you imagining something horrible behind every coming corner. There’s even some nice electronic work steeped into the mix that rears its head now and then, above the uneasy string arrangements and the ominous little piano keys banging around.
But the cinematography – oh, it is gorgeous. Mac Fisken helps Keating achieve a really gorgeous to look at black-and-white picture. Even better, between them both there’s such a beautiful symmetry to many of the shots, it’s hard not to also be reminded of The Shining and Kubrick’s attention to symmetrical shot setups. Moreover, Fisken keeps Carter’s face so perfectly close at many moments, which is another way her perspective becomes the audience’s own, further drawing us into her world of paranoia and terror. There’s this one scene after certain things have happened when Darling’s world is literally turned upside down (as seen in the picture above), it completely captivated my soul; Fisken has the world flipped, the city is upside down, in the black-and-white with a fog in its distance it is one of my favourite shots in any film of recent memory. So beautiful and haunting all at once.
The main performance from Carter is wonderful, delightfully devilish. We disintegrate alongside her character, feeling our brain wash away with hers, too. More and more with each passing scene her grip on what is real and what is not slowly loosens. We’re never sure exactly what has happened, or what is about to happen either. But best of all, Carter genuinely makes the character’s experience one of horrific nature. Seeing her go through the motions of her own mental breakdown helped along by the idea of being caretaker in a haunted mansion is a scary process. Like Polanski’s protagonist in Repulsion or that of The Witch Who Came From the Sea, the boundaries of reality stretch for Darling, opening wide, as we’re tasked with figuring out exactly what’s really happening. Of course those two films are very different, with completely other end results than this one, but their female leads are all highly reminiscent of one another, in an appropriate way. In these movies, Darling included, women are pushed to the brink by the men in their world, or simply the male-dominated world they inhabit. In addition, the main character in Keating’s film contends with a very present ghost story, so the supernatural is an element that can’t totally be written off. It’s up to the audience in the end to decide whether Darling went crazy on her own. Nevertheless, each step on the journey towards the film’s haunting and violent conclusion is paved by a strong, daring performance from Carter.
Another worthwhile film out of Keating. Darling is a 4-star horror. It has a quiet and creepy essence, which at times flares up in horrific, violent ways. But Keating and his band of merry friends create a truly hypnotizing picture with a solid screenplay, black-and-white visuals that will stick with you for days, and a score to compliment all the various macabre scenes to which there will feel there is no end in sight. Definitely my favourite of Keating’s movies so far. Can’t wait for Carnage Park and more of his work.
Last Shift. 2015. Directed by Anthony DiBlasi. Screenplay by Anthony DiBlasi & Scott Poiley.
Starring Juliana Harkavy, Joshua Mikel, J. LaRose, Natalie Victoria, Sarah Sculco, Kathryn Kilger, and Mary Lankford Poiley. Skyra Entertainment.
Rated R. 90 minutes.
Marketing has dubbed Last Shift as a cross between Satanic style horror and John Carpenter’s amazingly tense/low key thriller Assault on Precinct 13. Now it’s not a copy, regardless of how the trailer might have you feeling. Absolutely the setup to this film is directly mirroring Carpenter, but that’s about where the similarities end. The premise itself stands as something lifted from that movie. After all the initial bits of the story stand in place, the foundation of what’s to come, things change and drive further into horror than Assault on Precinct 13, which was savage in its own right but more in the vein of nasty thrillers.
As far as Anthony DiBlasi goes, I’ve personally enjoyed some of his previous work. At least what I’ve seen. I absolutely LOVE his screenplay adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story “Dread”, the film as a whole is chilling and effective. Furthermore, I thought Cassadaga was an equally nasty follow-up; not without faults, but an interesting horror movie. Having not seen his other films, such as Missionary and the segment “Mother May I” from The Profane Exhibit, I can’t say I’ve been a fan of all his work. However, I think he’s a decent hand in the modern horror game. Not at the top, though, he’s certainly got a lot of strengths as a horror filmmaker.
Last Shift has flaws, the writing is not as good as it could be, nor is the acting from Juliana Harkavy or Joshua Mikel always at the level of emotionality and range it needs to attain in order to match the horror aspect’s intensity. Either way, this is a solidly unsettling horror movie that wears its bloody entrails on its sleeve, and even when the swings for the fences strike out, I think DiBlasi does a real good job crafting a unique film. Part homage, part haunted house film, Last Shift might get to you at times.
If you let it.
A rookie cop, Officer Jessica Loren (Juliana Harkavy) is left on duty at a police station overnight. It’s closing time for this cop shop, the one already ready for operations. By herself, Loren needs to wait for a pick-up by the Hazmat team; they’re coming to take something out of the station’s armoury.
What Officer Loren does not know about is that the station is haunted. A year before, cult leader John Michael Paymon (Joshua Mikel) and a couple of his followers killed themselves – a year to the day. Loren is forced to confront the terrifying presences at work in the station, all by herself on the last shift.
One thing I’m always harping on about in my reviews is atmosphere, mood, tone. I’m a big fan of all these things; some might say atmosphere is mood and tone, I think they’re different things. Regardless, Last Shift does an excellent job from the start in terms of atmosphere – even in the first scenes between Loren and the sergeant, I thought there was this spookiness about everything, a sort of sterile look to the station and just this lingering air of dread about these moments. This continues on, as some of the things we see starting out are shots of Officer Loren walking the halls of the station alone, the cold and lifeless halls around her – very quiet and subtle bits.
A great eerie scene comes quick before we’re even 20 minutes in. Loren finds herself in the locker room of the station. First, she picks up a picture of her and her father in a locker, she ends up placing it back behind the shelf. But secondly, as she turns, Loren almost smacks into an open locker door right next to it… only to discover every locker door is open in the whole room. It’s a really easy scene, yet I found the quietness of it all chilling. The way Loren sort of pauses, looking around, the moment lands and sets under the skin. Also, it’s not played as a jump scare, like it may have typically been done under direction of another filmmaker, or in another script. Instead it’s a nice little thud in the chest. Afterwards Loren has to go on about her night, but both she and the audience can feel the tone of the film really setting in with these creepy build-ups.
Lots of people have their opinions on what’s scary or what’s not. Personally I don’t get jumpy when terrified, no movie has ever lifted me out of the seat I’m in. However, I’ve walked away from plenty films (and I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of horror movies) feeling like I really want to check behind the shower curtain, or make sure my doors are locked, windows are shut, and so on. I’ve crept around with a knife once or twice from being so unsettled by horror. Not afraid to admit that. If you’ve never been affected that way, at least ONCE, then you may be dead. Seriously: check your pulse.
What Last Night does effectively is use the atmosphere of dread DiBlasi conjures up and levels you at times with legitimately eerie imagery. At times the dialogue lags, as does the plot, but I think just about every solitary second of horror comes across as vicious. It’s excellent, most definitely my favourite part of the entire movie.
Like the moment when Officer Loren realizes SPOILER AHEAD BIG TIME Officer Price (Matt Doman) is dead, a hole through the back of his head. END SPOILER!
I found that one real top notch moment. Mostly because I honestly didn’t expect it. There was a genuine moment between Loren and Price, as if they were bonding like two real police officers over the job, its duties, the daunting tasks it requires often. Yet it took a whole other turn, which was well done.
After this the horror imagery continues in large doses. This is probably the ultimate turning point in the film, where the screenplay takes things down the rabbit hole, so to speak. Officer Loren basically descends into a hellish place after her meeting with Officer Price. A sound of voices leads her down the hall to where a group of women sing together, sitting in a half circle wearing strange bloody masks made of white sheet. But a second later… they’ve disappeared. From there things get progressively more horrific for Loren.
What’s so fun, to me, about this movie as a whole is that it takes the beginning of Assault on Precinct 13, subtracts a blood oath from a relentless street gang and adds in a Charles Manson rip-off cult, a dash of Satanism, and makes it into a haunted house styled horror movie; set, of course, in a police station. So the station is like our everyday haunted house, Officer Loren the unfortunate soul who has to “spend a night inside”. This is obvious to everyone, but it’s still one of the major aspects of Last Shift which appeals to me.
The screenplay could have been better, as well as the acting overall. Still, I think Last Shift deserves 3.5 out of 5 stars. It has definite claws, and I found myself unsettled at times. If only the acting and the characterization were a little better, I think this could’ve been an amazing horror movie. There’s no doubt either way, but I wish Anthony DiBlasi worked out some of the dialogue better, as well as added a bit more character to Officer Loren; she wasn’t a helpless female archetype, however, I thought with her being a police officer and all she might have been a bit more tough of a character than she ended up being. Not saying you can’t have a weak police officer, I just think at times it would’ve been more interesting to have her be tough, hard headed, and not falling so much prey to the ghosts and the horrifying images haunting her.
Ton of nasty, excellent horror here! Despite any reservations about the script and the acting, and they’re only slight, Last Shift proves to be a solid horror film with savagely effective makeup effects, nice atmospheric mood and tone throughout, and some disturbing psychological thrills set inside a claustrophobic location used to the director’s advantage.
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.
Every 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.
In 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.
One 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.
Really 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 Are, Night Moves, Mickle’s Stake Land, Meek’s Cutoff. Then he’s done other probably lesser known films – though they ought to be more recognized – such as Bitter Feast, The House of the Devil, The Last Winter, Joshua, 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.
Aside 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 Witness, Top 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.
Most 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.
With 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 Devil, The 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 Guest, You’re Next, A Horrible Way to Die).