As a moderate fan of the first, THE CONJURING 2 - though based on a debunked story - is utterly haunting, holding a high level of tension almost throughout the entire runtime. Be prepared.
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.
Beetlejuice. 1988. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Michael McDowell & Warren Skaaren.
Starring Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Winona Ryder, Annie McEnroe, Glenn Shadix, Patrice Martinez, Sylvia Sidney, Robert Goulet, Dick Cavett, and Susan Kellermann. The Geffen Company. PG. 92 minutes.
Tim Burton doesn’t always appeal to everyone. His style, as far as I’m concerned, makes him an auteur. Even in his less cartoony, gothic-styled films, there is always an ever present sense of Burton and his unflinching vision of the stories he tells. Most of his movies I do enjoy, though, some I’m not huge on. Either way I can’t help deny my major love for a few of his movies.
One such title is the 1988 fantasy, quasi-horror, full-on comedy Beetlejuice, which later toned down into the 1989-1991 cartoon series of the same name. This is one strange piece of work, at the same time it’s amazingly near perfect in other ways. With a refreshingly innovative take on the afterlife, hauntings, the “life” of ghosts on the other side and tons of fun Burton-like imagery and makeup effects, this is one hell of a fun film. Beetlejuice has a bit of everything: death, suicide, laughs, calypso music and dancing, and Micheal Keaton.
After a tragic car accident, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin/Geena Davis) find themselves back at their house… only a little removed from reality. They find a book in their attic – The Handbook for the Recently Deceased – and then eventually discover a way into the waiting room of the afterlife, where a case worker named Juno (Sylvia Sidney) explains they’ve died and are contracted to remain in their old home for many, many years. Tasked with scaring out the new owners – Charles and Delia Deetz (Jeffrey Jones/Catherine O’Hara) along with their young daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) – Adam and Barbara eventually come across an unethical ghost named Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) who would much rather kill the new owners than just scare them out. And once Betelgeuse sets his sight on Lydia to be his wife, the newly deceased couple have to decide whether they’re ready to give up their home, or give up the life of an innocent young girl.
So much to enjoy about this slice of Burton work.
One of my favourite sequences of the film happens early on when Adam (Baldwin) and Barbara (Davis) try to scare the new owners, before they’re initiated into the world of being dead. First, Barbara hangs herself in the closet, then rips the skin off her skull when Otho (Shadix) and Delia Deetz (O’Hara) look inside, yet to no avail. Then, Barbara stands – knife in hand – with Adam’s bloody, decapitated head in the other, trying to look sinister. Nothing works! But the kicker is when Adam tries to run up and lock the attic door, with no head, and he’s banging into things, bumping every object nearby. Riot, love it. Awesome few scenes here, especially in terms of makeup effects and horror imagery; the skin off skull bit is nasty and cool.
The waiting room scene is another perfect bit. We see the various dead people sitting around until their name is called: one man is a hunter of sorts, his head shrunken to a prune; another merely charred remains of a man smoking a cigarette; a guy who choked to death, chicken bone still sticking through both sides of his neck; an attendant showing patients in whose body is hung on strings, flattened out from tire tracks; and a man hung by the neck, on the same track as the other attendant, passing files off to a secretary while he’s carted about the office building. What a great and also tragic sequence. This is also part of why I’m so in love with Beetlejuice; because of its unique charm in the face of death.
Lydia: “My whole life is a dark room; one… big… dark… room.”
What I dig most about Beetlejuice overall is its take on the afterlife. On one hand, you’ve got all the “regular” ghosts who are merely regular people moving onto another plane. On the other hand, there’s Beetlejuice himself. But it’s the little handbook, for the recently deceased, the waiting room, the giant sandworms, and so on, which intrigues me. Such a neatly cartoonish and macabre world for Burton to play around in. At the same time, I find the way it portrays ghosts pretty unique. So underneath all Beetlejuice’s gnarly exterior and vulgarity, beneath the story of a haunting, there’s a genuine attempt here to dissect what a true afterlife might be – instead of the idealized heaven or hell, Burton’s film taps into a more satirical approach to being dead and trying to move on. Plus, seeing things from the side of the deceased doesn’t hurt either. While we’re right alongside the Deetz family, even in the scarier moments after the Juice runs loose, much of our perspective comes from Adam and Barbara, as well as later a similar yet different perspective from the still-living Lydia. All in all, the way this movie presents death and the afterlife is both hilarious and fresh.
There’s plenty of creepy horror stuff going on, but the dark and sometimes raunchy comedy is very much happening here. For instance, even in the morbid scene where Lydia (Ryder) contemplates her suicide writing a note for her family to find later, there’s a downright funny, laugh out loud moment as she rearranges the words, choosing better ones to put in place to make the note sound more appealing. The whole character of Lydia is fun and funny at once. She’s simultaneously deep and gothic while also playfully satirizing the whole goth lifestyle.
When it comes to comedy, though, obviously Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice is the centrepiece of this entire thing. Clearly, right? Even more than you think. For those who don’t remember properly, Beetlejuice is a dirty dude, both physically and in his speech. In the original screenplay, the character was much darker and more violent; he wanted to rape Lydia, here it’s toned down slightly to a creepy crush. But the darkness all around, from his actions to his comedy, is still quite present. Keaton brings Beetlejuice to life from one moment to the next. He’s mostly hilarious, yet always with the chilling side directly under the surface, every now and then coming out into the open fully. Some of my favourite bits are when Beetlejuice is still stuck in the tiny model town, in its cemetery; Keaton did a nice bit of improvisation, if I’m not mistaken, which is awesome because he did a great job with the character.
Beetlejuice: “I’m the ghost with the most, babe.”
Even with the changes inflicted upon the original screenplay, the toning down, the film’s finale remains pretty dark. Regardless of the cartoon-ish, at times, quality Burton gives the story and its visuals, there are equal amounts of very macabre and eerie sequences. When Beetlejuice is called back into reality by Lydia the final time, in order to try and save Adam/Barbara, the movie turns into a dark carnival. This section starts out in a sort of lighthearted horror-comedy way. Then, slowly, it moves towards treacherous territory, as Beetlejuice attempts to take Lydia as his bride. I mean, it’s sketchy! Very creepy, unsettling stuff. Delia’s sculptures come alive to hold the witnesses in place for their impromptu ceremony, which are super weird and gothic through Burton’s eyes. Just cannot get enough of this effective finale. Also, the very last couple scenes are a whole ton of fun capping things off on a more lighthearted ghost story note.
Totally a 4.5 out of 5 star film for me. Always loved this and truly feel it’s an effectively dark comedy using shades of horror in the best way. Plus, it’s a satirical look at the traditional ghost, which makes the comedy work that much better. Combining the eccentric talent of Tim Burton with a couple of great performances, namely Michael Keaton as the titular ghost with the most, Beetlejuice elevates itself from just another comedy to something near legendary.
I’m beyond excited there’s going to, hopefully, be a sequel with Burton, Keaton, and Ryder all supposedly onboard for the ride! With that team, as well as the spirit of the original at heart, I bet a sequel could be almost as spectacular this time around as it was the first. Watch this for Halloween; great to put on any time, but even better around the fall season as the 31st approaches on the calendar.
The Pact. 2012. Directed & Written by Nicholas McCarthy.
Starring Caity Lotz, Casper Van Dien, Mark Steger, Sam Ball, Haley Hudson, Kathleen Rose Perkins,Agnes Brucker, Dakota Bright, and Petra Wright. Preferred Content.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
I’ve got to confess, I really have a thing for Nicholas McCarthy’s films. Of course I saw this before Home a.k.a At the Devil’s Door (which I’ve reviewed).
The Pact took me by surprise. There’s nothing here which reinvents the wheel, changing the horror genre. All the same, I feel like there’s good suspense in this movie. There is something to say for having a nicely executed film when it comes to tension.
Personally I enjoy the slowburn film, and The Pact is certainly one of those. McCarthy doesn’t just give it all up quick, revealing everything at once; there are motions to get to where he is headed. There are plenty of comparisons to the cult TV movie Bad Ronald, a classic in its own right, but I don’t feel like there’s anything ripped off here. Similarities at one point in the plot, otherwise it’s nothing to seriously consider for long.
McCarthy’s film is interesting – it weaves aspects of the haunted house sub-genre with very raw, serial killer-esque horror. The fusion is definitely creepy, and I found it a whole lot of fun. I’ve seen it a couple times now since it first came out, I was excited to see it when it had been first announced, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again – watching it once more as I review. There are faults, like a lot of horror out there, there aren’t so many that it ruins anything. One of the better indie horror movies I’ve seen over the last 5 years.
Nichole Barlow (Agnes Bruckner) goes back home with her daughter Eva (Dakota Bright) for the funeral of her mother. Her sister, Annie (Caity Lotz) hates their mother; it’s clear she was an abusive, possibly insane woman. Annie has too many residual feelings to go back to their old house. Finally, Nichole is able to convince Annie to come home, but when Annie does her sister is suddenly missing. With Nichole up and disappeared, Eva is sent to live with cousin Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins). However, when Liz vanishes as well, Annie experiences a strange, supernatural event in the childhood home she hates so much.
The police, of course, are involved, but naturally they don’t believe a supernatural entity is causing the disappearances. One cop, Detective Bill Creek (Casper Van Dien) gives Annie the benefit of the doubt after they work past an initially rocky introduction. They go back to the house, looking for clues; Annie finds a hole in the wall, like a peephole, but not too much else. Annie tracks down a girl she knew from high school, Stevie (Haley Hudson), who acts as a ghost medium of sorts. Stevie is brought to Annie’s childhood home, where she channels the spirits – she also cries out “Judas!” over and over in a fit, until her handler Giles (Sam Ball) ushers the girl away, literally beating Annie away from them.
From there, the discoveries Annie begins to uncover are less supernatural, more real, more threatening and violent than she could’ve ever imagined.
SPOILERS AHEAD – Don’t blame me for ruining a film if you’re here mining for clues about it before watching; that’s just fucking nonsense.
There is plenty of debate over whether or not Charles Barlow (Mark Steger), a.k.a Judas, is a ghost. People often cite the fact there is one scene where Dt. Creek visits the Barlow house and his camera catches an apparent ghost on the screen. First of all, there’s no real way you can say for sure that the ghost-like apparition on the camera screen is Judas; it’s a blurry shot. People try to argue about the screen of the lens, the shot of the camera on film, yadda yadda. Look – it could easily be the ghost that’s already established to be in the house: the mother. We shouldn’t have to mull over a part of the film that can easily be explained without getting stuck on a small shot, that seems, to me, fairly obvious in its intention. Sure, it may be a little trick to some, but I don’t think it points to the fact that Judas is a ghost. He is not a ghost, in my opinion. He is a real killer, still alive, and still killing.
I mean, look at this way – if Judas was a ghost, like the mother was a ghost, they wouldn’t be seen, right? Then why didn’t he just wreak havoc on the several people in the house when Annie brought Stevie over?
Logically if Judas is a real living, breathing person, he’s not going to come up and start trying to attack three people at once. Even with a knife, there’s no guarantee he would make it out of there without at least one of them getting a good punch/kick/something in on him. Judas clearly had to be somewhat intelligent enough to come up with an intricate way of snaking around the house unsuspected, killing people all those years and remaining hidden away from the outside world – so, a smart killer would know when to kill, when not to kill.
Not to mention, Stevie the ghost medium picks up on the mother; she can feel the bad things, the abuse which happened, because she hovers around the closet, which is where so much of the abuse clearly took place at the hands of the mother. Stevie doesn’t say anything that could definitively make the case that Judas is a ghost; it doesn’t seem she comes out with any indications that his is the ghostly presence being felt in the house. Could be I’m wrong, I just don’t see anything pointing directly that way when it comes to her character. A decent indication, in my mind.
Some cite when Annie sees him on the bed in the motel, I believe that’s the scene. That also does not fly. She was having some serious dreams going on, she saw a decapitated woman; don’t forget, she jumped in the air towards the door as it closed and everything froze. I mean, do we really need to start to break down such obvious dream sequences? No. We do not.
The pupil dilation argument will not stand! When a person dies, their pupils dilate immediately. Judas doesn’t have massive pupils, however, we don’t see him immediately after he dies. He lays on the floor, the door opens – we see another reaction shot of Annie – all before the camera zooms in on the dead eyes of Charles. So, we again cannot make a definitive judgement with that information because it doesn’t fully jive. The reason, I believe, that they zoomed in on the eyes is obviously because of the earlier shot of Annie – we clearly see her eyes have heterochromia. It’s visible in other shots, particularly one right near the end when she’s crying, looking in the rearview mirror of her car and wiping off the tears; both different coloured eyes are seen. What does that suggest? Well, as far as I know, heterochromia is an inherited trait, so that would come to suggest that Charles Barlow is simply an uncle – he is Annie’s own father. At least, that’s how I see it anyways. I think others out there have noticed this long before myself.
My bet is on Charles Barlow, the Judas Killer, being very much alive. Not a ghost. That’s also the dichotomous part of what I dig in this movie: one part supernatural entity horror, one part serial killer mystery-thriller. Maybe I’m wrong, and Nicholas McCarthy has this pegged as totally supernatural. Though, I doubt that. If it’s all supernatural, that sort of spoils my fun. I like the bits of ghost stuff we get with the mother – as if the pact she’d made with Judas was so wrong she couldn’t move on to death fully until it was made right – she fought to push her own daughter Annie away, even as a ghost, to try and make up for what happened in that house. It’s a real fun mix, that’s one of The Pact‘s biggest strengths as a genre picture; there’s a crossover between the types of sub-genres throughout the film.
I thought the acting was pretty damn great, especially when you consider that there are so many indie horror bombs out there saturating the market to the point of overflow.
Particularly, I found the central performance by Caity Lotz as Annie Barlow to be a knockout. She is a great actress. Certain horror films seem to want to delegate the Scream Queen role to women – not all, but a good deal. The Pact doesn’t make the man the saviour – even when Casper Van Dien rears his chiseled head to seemingly lend a helping hand (he only ends up with a slit throat for his trouble) – instead, Annie Barlow is the one who must solve the mystery, who has to confront all the worst that her childhood home has to offer; both supernatural, as well as far too murderously real. Lotz shows a good range of emotion.
This also has a good deal to do with the script. Nicholas McCarthy doesn’t make Annie out as the victim. Instead, she is a tough, maybe even hardheaded woman who won’t take no in her search for the truth as an answer. Mainly I’m just glad McCarthy didn’t make this a typical horror – even if some of the moves are cliched at times. There are predictable elements, but he avoids (most of) the pitfalls.
Also loved Judas – so damn creepy. Mark Steger did such a fucking perfect job embodying this nasty, weird killer. I was just so chilled by his love of murder, the way he moved, the way he looked. When he was crying on the bed in several of those scenes… wow.
My biggest complaint about this one is at the VERY FINAL SHOT when McCarthy cops out, going for this one last sort of freak out – an eye opens wide, peering (seemingly) through a hole in the wall. I’m not even sure what McCarthy wanted it to achieve. Most of all, I think the shot confuses his message. On the director’s commentary, I believe he actually said he regrets choosing this shot and leaving it there, if I’m not mistaken. Too bad he ended up putting it here, it really doesn’t do justice to any part of the film; cheapens the ending when I found it all effective enough. I’ve not yet seen the sequel, and don’t exactly intend to because I thought this was good enough as a standalone film without needing a follow-up.
The Pact is a 4 out of 5 star horror film. I really do love the mix of supernatural and serial killer themes. That being said, I think that’s part of what makes the movie suffer. It’s not Nicholas McCarthy’s fault if people don’t get what the movie is aiming for – except for maybe that dreaded closing shot of the eye; big mistake. I do see that mistake as being a mixed message on the part of McCarthy.
It does not ruin the movie for me. I can’t let something minor like that closing shot totally destroy all the mood and suspense McCarthy setup throughout the entire film. Great horror movie, and again, it’s one of the best indie horror movies I’ve seen in the past 5 years or so. I dig McCarthy, and hope to see more horror from him in the future. He seems to do well with supernatural elements, though, I’d like to see him also try something that’s totally serial killer-centric; those latter parts worked so eerily for The Pact, McCarthy executed them with finesse.
See this if you haven’t yet. Maybe you’ll have a totally different opinion. Either way, I could watch this even more often than I already have because it’s creepy, fun, and a little fresh – despite what some others might have you believe.