The latest instalment looks at visual references from Season 6 ("Roanoke") of American Horror Story.
Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett take us back to the Black Hills in search of answers. But their camping adventurers end up discovering more terror than anything they ever expected.
There's a little to enjoy. But mostly, DARK MOUNTAIN rips off THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.
The Descent. 2005. Directed & Written by Neil Marshall.
Starring Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Oliver Milburn, Molly Kayll, Craig Conway, and Leslie Simpson. Celador Films/Northmen Productions/Pathé.
Rated 18A. 99 minutes.
Personally I’ve enjoyed Neil Marshall from his debut, Dog Soldiers, and then he came on with this film and it all but cemented him as a solid horror filmmaker; hell, filmmaker in general. Since then he’s done two underrated movies – Doomsday and Centurion, neither of which are amazing, though, they are better than their reputations – a couple episodes of Black Sails, Game of Thrones, and one whopper of a Hannibal episode in the 3rd season “The Great Red Dragon“. He’s also got a segment titled “Bad Seed” in the upcoming Tales of Halloween I cannot wait to see!
What I enjoy about Marshall is that he’s not just a director with a neat way of looking at things, he’s also, what I think is, a pretty wonderful director in terms of form; he simply films things in an interesting way. There’s nothing boring about his films or the episodes of television series’ he has directed. The reason so many filmmakers, particularly in the horror genre I must say, fail to really get over with their work is because their style is either a) too bland in terms of story/character/et cetera, b) too flashy (with no substance), or c) it’s just not overly enjoyable to experience visually. With Marshall, and I’ll single The Descent out from his work as the best example, he doesn’t opt so much to jump scare you here in order to create that feeling of action, or horror (or whatever he happens to be going for at the moment). His visual style helps to keep you rooted and then everything else just builds on – the drama, the horror, the suspense and tension. In this film, there’s plenty of imagery, a good lot of horror, and the characters help make things fun (even in the grim sense). Marshall’s movie can easily be considered as one of my top 10 horror movies since 2000, I’ll say that without hesitation.
A trio of friends – Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) go rafting on the river; their idea of vacationing. On the way home, Sarah sits in the passenger seat of a vehicle while her husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) drives, and their daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) sits in the backseat. All of sudden, though, they meet head-on with another vehicle – Sarah survives, but Paul and Jessica are horribly killed.
One year later, Sarah, Beth, and Juno, along with a bunch of other adventure seeking women, go on an expedition to a cave system in the Appalachians, somewhere in the U.S. Deep in the woods they eventually find their cave, making their way in. However, after a little while things start to get dicey. First, their climb starts to go wrong little by little. But then soon enough it’s apparent to the women they aren’t alone in the caves.
Deep underground, stuck beneath the vast and reaching Appalachians, the group of friends find themselves in a fight for their lives against terrifying, human eating monsters, adapted to their environments below the earth. They’ll have to fight hard in order to make it out alive; if that’s even possible.
So for me, and no doubt many others, what makes The Descent so incredibly effective is the sense of isolation and claustrophobia almost built into the setting. Furthermore, once the women get trapped after a tunnel caves in, this gets even worse as – plot point – Juno (Mendoza) has taken them all into an unknown cave, not in the correct system they’d all planned on, and so essentially even without any outside forces these women might have never made it out of the caves regardless. I think that’s one of the most interesting parts about this film is that you could easily have seen this as simply a dramatic thriller about a bunch of women heading into the caves, including the dynamics between Sarah (Macdonald) and Juno, in terms of what happened to the former and her family and how it connects with the latter.
Instead of being simple and dark, Neil Marshall has written a fantastic screenplay. Whereas a movie like The Cave (which I honestly enjoy as a popcorn flick even though it isn’t great) is lower common denominator for horror, more like a Michael Bay equivalent in the genre, The Descent opts to be more cerebral, and in turn when the visuals and the horror get thick things become pretty visceral, too. The characters here are complex, they aren’t one-dimensional type women. Which is another point, that Marshall has given us a bunch of excellent female characters and the man character, dare I say the heroine, she’s an ass-kicker. I like that it’s not the typical formulaic horror including women, such as the male dominated film with a “Final Girl”. Even though, yes, Sarah can be considered that “Final Girl”, it’s not the overused scenario, the same tired place where we’ve expected the plot to develop. Marshall brings all these women together, each different, and doesn’t need any men in order to instigate the horror, or any of the action. The faceless/featureless crawlers in the cave only bring further terror. Even while that whole KILLER V. VICTIM dynamic is playing out, as it usually does in one shape or another throughout the horror genre, I like that these female characters can inhabit a filmic space where these featureless monsters are the attackers, not some slasher, a deranged male who hates women; rather they’re simply the horror beneath, the unknown below.
More than that, these creatures also represent a symbolic sort of theme. Clearly the buried secrets between Juno and Sarah, concerning the former’s relationship with the deceased Paul (Milburn), are being unearthed; it’s possible without their predicament, the descent into the cave and into madness, this might never have come out. So in a way, these crawlers down in the cave are the literal, material embodiment of the ideas surrounding those buried secrets. They say secrets can eat you alive, right? Well in The Descent, this sentiment comes alive, in a brutally literal sense with secrets making their way out of the realm of ideas and into reality.
There are a few wonderful bits of imagery in this film, both in terms of symbolic/dreamy images and straight up horror visuals.
Right after the opening sequence, where Sarah’s husband/daughter die, there’s the beginning of a dreamy moment which crops up over and over, though not to overkill. Sarah has these short visions of a birthday cake with her daughter’s name on it, the candles lit up – I love the way these shots come to us, brief, really dark with what looks like natural lighting, and it has this eerie quality to it. What I enjoy is that these dreamy bits don’t feel particularly happy, more like the morbid remembrance of a dead child instead of anything happy. So there’s this really melancholy feeling I find struck in the character of Sarah without even much effort from Macdonald as an actor, although she’s great in spite of that making the role better for it. This is a striking visual Marshall uses a few times throughout the film, and while I say it’s melancholy there’s still part of it which sort of drives Sarah at the same time. Great, great stuff.
When it comes to the horror of Marshall’s film, several scenes and moments stick out ahead of the pack. I love how Marshall includes the first very close-up view of a crawler through the perspective of a camera in night vision. Why do I love it? He doesn’t use the camera as a gimmick other than, really, two or three times in the entire movie. It comes into play organically, with purpose, instead of simply being a way for Marshall to creep us out without doing the legwork. In opposition, the choice uses of the night vision camera shots make things creepy, knocking us off balance and in the case of the first time it’s used the effect amps the film’s pace up to a roar. The next couple times, again it’s not forced into the plot and works well. If the night vision was being used more frequently, as is the case in many found footage efforts trying to capture The Blair Witch Project magic in a bottle, there’d be a case for saying it was gimmicky, that it served no purpose and got jammed in for lack of ideas. Instead, Marshall uses this technique to his advantage and creates tension with how the handheld camera captures the monsters in the dark and the creepy environment of the cave. Plus, this is a director who doesn’t need any kind of trickery, he does well enough with his own sensibilities in terms of shot composition and overall visuals without having to settle for cheap scares.
Once the crawlers are out in the open, being seen full-on by both characters and viewers alike, there are some almost trippy visuals happening. There’s one incredibly tense scene where two of the women are hiding together, a crawler moving along by them, and their watch eventually goes off – all the while Juno is wandering alone, calling out to the others – and there’s this green filter over the two women/crawler (not really a filter; they’re using a huge glow stick), then for a few seconds we cut to Juno whose shot is bathed in a red light. There’s something about this which raises the tension. Not only that, the angles at which Marshall has things framed specifically while the two women hide from the crawler, it’s an unsettling, unstable sort of feeling it draws out; literally, the frame is askew, we’re off-kilter, not balanced, and the crawler coming at them sort of feels like he’s coming right at the viewer.
Furthermore, I have to say the effects – blood and gore, the monsters, et cetera – were at times really subtle, and other times (think: pool of blood scene) totally gnarly and in-your-face. My favourite honestly is the scene where Sarah finds herself in the blood pool, fighting off the crawler and stabbing it in the eye. Not only is it just wildly savage and bloody, the low lighting and the blood casts everything again in that red glow, so you’ve got two types of imagery – very visual in the sense of colour and visual in the way of actual physical nastiness, the blood and kills.
Overall, though, it’s the way Marshall manages to use the darkness to his advantage and he doesn’t make it dizzying. While some horror, mostly found footage these days, has your head swirling with the darkness too often being used to cover up a project’s low budget (or lack thereof), unless used correctly, Marshall manages to make things claustrophobic but doesn’t annoy us with how he accomplishes this feeling. It’s because, even when shots are frantic and full of chaos, he’s not making it seem so by having the camera itself being shaky, only the characters, their lights in the dark create the effect. He keeps in tight to the characters, putting us with them and in their perspective as much as possible without, for instance, putting us right in their video camera’s view while they run from the crawlers. Again this comes back to Marshall using that video camera perspective sparsely, when a lesser director may have exploited it too much to try and immerse the viewer. The way this film plays out in the dark and uses it appropriately is a big part of its effectiveness as a tensely frightening modern horror movie.
With truck loads of horror, both blood/gore and emotional terror, an impressive visual style, a solid script with real and well-written female characters, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is pound for pound a 4.5 out of 5 star film. There’s very little to say, in my mind, against this movie. There are so many other horror movies out there in the post-2000 landscape of film which go for bargain basement plots, silly characters with even sillier and less thought out dialogue, cheap jump scares and pointless (as well as badly done) gore. Marshall doesn’t do anything typically here, he crafts a genuinely scary, emotionally testing and at various points traumatizing horror. There’s a feeling in me each time I watch this, for a little while afterwards, as if I’ve been through an ordeal. It’s one of the closest experiences I’ve personally had to the one I have when viewing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is still my pick for scariest horror movie ever made, and pretty much my top favourite.
So if you’ve not yet seen The Descent, do yourself a favour and search it out soon because it’s worth your while to experience its dread and tension, its inescapable horror and wild plot. I also thought the sequel was an all right movie, though, it’s not near as amazing as this one.
Paranormal Activity. 2007. Directed & Written by Oren Peli.
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, and Ashley Palmer. Solana Films/Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 86 minutes.
When done correctly, I am a huge fan of found footage. Whether it’s using the thriller style, as I recently enjoyed in the film 419, or horror (The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal Holocaust, Home Movie, and many more), I believe that if a director uses the sub-genre appropriately then it can be extremely effective. Particularly, horror movies using found footage can end up having a huge impact if it isn’t simply a gimmick, or a wasted tool in the director’s arsenal.
Even further than that, a writer (or writers) needs to know the limitations of the sub-genre, as well as where it can go. Too many writers seem to let the screenplay of a found footage film fall by the wayside, like it isn’t an important aspect so much as the visuals prove to be. Very bad way to look at ANY genre or sub-genre; you always need a good script, or at least an impressive idea to work from.
There are things I do love about Paranormal Activity, while I’ve got a gripe or two, as well. Mostly, I think Oren Peli really did an excellent job as director in cultivating an impressive piece of modern horror. He singlehandedly changed the found footage game, in my mind, after the originals left their highly impressive (and better) mark – like The Blair Witch Project and the infamous, controversial Cannibal Holocaust. Now there are plenty of others, since this film’s release in 2007, trying to work off the simple yet excellent format Peli landmarked.
This is not a perfect horror, nor is it my favourite found footage film. However, I’ve got to say that when I first saw Paranormal Activity – and to this day – there were elements and scenes which really unsettled me greatly and left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think, as a veteran in watching films and TONS of horror, that I’m easily frightened. But genuinely, at times, I found myself clenching up. Not to say I wept in terror or curled into a ball. Though, I can readily admit my muscles tightened and my heart rate pumped fast in several scenes, which is all due to the acting of the two leads and the good work of writer-director Oren Peli.
I won’t waste time relating the plot. This is one of those movies we ALL know about; if not, head over to IMDB or Wikipedia and it’s laid out pretty well. I’d like to just move into the things I liked/disliked about the movie.
An aspect of the screenplay I truly do love is how the character of Micah antagonizes the presence in their home. Starting early on, within the first fifteen minutes even, Micah begins to make fun of the whole concept of some spirit (or whatever) in the house; he plays creepy music, saying he’d like to make the presence feel at home. I always like when a story incorporates scepticism in an interesting way; Micah is a part of that, as he pretty much riles up the thing in their house.
Otherwise, one of the greatest parts in my mind about Peli’s Paranormal Activity is that the effects really started to push the envelope for found footage. Since 2007 there have been plenty more found footage films which used effects to a greater degree, but at the time this came as sort of revolutionary for the sub-genre. Before this movie, and those which followed it (both sequels and other films imitating this style), most found footage horror tended to go for the lost in the woods scenario, adding in tons of shaky cam and screaming and blood/gore here or there. Peli came along and decided to keep the camera stationary almost all of the time, which really helped, and on top of that he tried as best he could to do as much practically as possible, as well as the great majority of the film is centred so much on the relationship between Katie and Micah.
Keeping the camera in one place the way he does, Peli is able to let us relax a bit and get more into the characters and the story/plot than other found footage allows us. As I said, the shaky cam is prevalent in many other films similar to this. Even the amazing Blair Witch Project, there are a couple nearly nausea inducing sequences where the characters are running, screaming, and the camera is jostling around along with their movements; to the point where it’s tough to follow anything. Luckily, that was one of the first real found footage horror movies where shaky cam became a thing, so at the time it wasn’t really overdone.
Nowadays with so many less exciting films than that trying to read in its huge footsteps, we get too many horrors using found footage and throwing in the shaky cam as a legitimate portion of the film when in fact it only detracts from the end product; we’re tired and sick of the shakiness, it’s not simply low budget and realistic it makes things look lazy. In Paranormal Activity, Peli foregoes that nonsense and allows us to get into the relationship between Katie and Micah, watching their lives unfold instead of constantly having one of them manipulate the camera, moving it around, and so on. Though Micah absolutely holds the camera at times, it’s not him running around and catching nothing except blurs. Whenever he does move it, the moment is brief, or at the least Micah is usually standing in one place. I think, albeit probably an obvious touch, Peli does his film a great service by allowing the camera to stay still a lot of the time. That way, his story comes out further, the characters are more interesting, and the plot is able to move along without the audience becoming totally unnerved (not in the right way) by the camera movement constantly shaking us out of touch with what’s happening in the film.
For this reason, as well as the fact effects are incorporated in a fresh way (not saying they’re spectacular; merely they were slightly new to this sub-genre), I truly feel Peli broke new, interesting ground with his found footage horror movie. Not only did it spawn a series of sequels, a whole franchise, Paranormal Activity – in a different way from its predecessors – had other filmmakers looking to do a low-budget horror almost copycatting everything about it.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery; in this case, I think it’s mostly about cashing in.
Finally, it’s the acting from Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston which truly got to me. I think Sloat did a good enough job, especially in terms of being the sceptical and doubting boyfriend; he isn’t completely ignorant and arrogant in his speech, mostly he brings this aspect across through his coy, annoyingly playful demeanour. He certainly acts like a bit of a douchebag, but I think that’s almost definitely the right way for Micah to seem, as a character – it brings out that doubt very clearly for all to see.
Above all else, it’s Featherston who sells this film from start to finish. I like the character herself; she’s been followed all her life, basically, by some kind of spirit, an entity. Not that it’s a new idea. It’s how Featherston plays the character, the innocence she always seems to display and this naive but concerned nature in her. While Katie is the one who believes in it all, there’s still this naivety about her in that she’s holding onto the innocent part of herself, even while this demon/spirit/entity has latched onto her and won’t leave her, or Micah, alone. The way Featherston performs is incredible, unbelievably actually in the final half hour. Once things start getting very intense and claustrophobic in their little house, Featherston does a perfect job portraying all the terror Katie is feeling; there’s one moment where she tells Micah she feels something in the hallway, and I honestly got a fright just out of the urgency in her voice, the look in her eyes. Amazing job and makes Paranormal Activity all the better for it; anyone else would probably not have been enough. Featherston pushed this film above a ton of other found footage out there with subpar acting and lazy characters.
With an undeniably horrifying final 15 minutes, I can definitely say this is a 4 out of 5 star film. There could’ve been a little more in certain parts, but overall this is an excellent modern horror. I’m not saying this will send you to bed cowering under the covers like when we were children. What I am saying is that Oren Peli did a good job directing this, as opposed to so many shaky useless found footage efforts, and he tried to instil the film with as much practicality (from plot to effects) as possible.
This is a slow burn type of horror film, in my opinion. It does well building up tension, in part that’s due to excellent actors, and in the end there’s a massively satisfying and creepy conclusion. Love the end and watching this for the first time since its release 8 years ago, I must admit I like the film more than I’d originally thought.
Cannibal Holocaust. 1980. Directed by Ruggero Deodato. Story by Gianfranco Clerici.
Starring Robert Kerman, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes, and Carl Gabriel Yorke. F.D Cinematografica.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
★★★★★ (Grindhouse Releasing DVD)
Nearly two decades before The Blair Witch Project horrified audiences with its low budget realistic techniques, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust shocked horror filmgoers to their core; the first found footage horror movie. While this movie is a solid horror, much of its legacy comes from controversy – where it be from the graphic onscreen violence depicted throughout its runtime, or the explicitly depicted killing of real animals, this movie is infamous rather than famous.
Plenty of famous horror filmmakers have expressed their love for Deodato, this film in particular. Most notably as of late is Eli Roth whose film The Green Inferno is finally making it into theatres and is heavily inspired by/an homage to Cannibal Holocaust.
However, aside from the controversy and praise of other filmmakers, as well as the cult following it has developed consistently over the years, I think the realism of Cannibal Holocaust succeeds due to its use of found footage (the whole thing is not done in shaky cam style as has become the trend in the past 15-16 years), the inclusion of Native peoples in the Amazon, the makeup effects, and the ability of the actors to make everything feel very visceral.
The plot of Cannibal Holocaust sees an American film crew disappear while filming in the Amazon rainforest. They were there to do a documentary on an indigenous tribe, one that still engages in the act of ritualistic cannibalism, as well as violent acts of torture used for punishment.
Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), an anthropologist, takes on the task of travelling to the Amazon and encountering the tribe in order to determine what exactly happened to the original film crew.
Eventually, once Monroe is able to in effect assimilate himself slightly into the Ya̧nomamö tribe by imitating some of their behaviour – mainly bathing naked in a river with some of the women – he ends up coming across the picked clean remains of the film crew, along with some of their remaining equipment. Monroe is horrified, as well as disgusted. Through participating in a cannibalistic ritual with the tribe, they agree to give him reels of footage.
But the real horror lies in what happens with the footage, as Monroe brings it back to New York where executives from the Pan American Broadcast Company say they’ll be making a documentary out of the footage; one which they hope to have him host. Unsure whether the true atrocities lie in the jungle or the city, Monroe shares footage of what the film crew experienced at the hands of the Ya̧nomamö and no one is close to prepared for what they will see.
I can’t say that I enjoy the animal cruelty bits. While I believe a lot of it ended up being eaten by natives – I know for sure the monkey brains did because the tribe actually requested those not be faked because they’re considered a delicacy in their tribe – there’s still no way to feel good about watching the animals killed onscreen.
That being said, part of me does believe it served a purpose. Not condoning it, so don’t fucking jump down my throat or anything over it. But the film crew were there watching this tribe, they were exploiting every moment of their existence, anything they could film, so I see the whole movie as dealing with how the media loves to glorify and sensationalize violence, atrocities, murder, blood, death, et cetera. Plenty of other films do this in a way that does not involve animal cruelty. However, it comes to bear on how the film crew are just as savage as they deem the Ya̧nomamö to be. They want to film every last bit, they want to see it and have it put on television back in America and have everyone enjoy their documentary.
Seeing them both film the animals being killed, and in the case of the turtle consuming the meat for dinner, we’re led to understand how little difference there seems to be between these indigenous tribes and the curious, exploitative American film crew.
Worst of all is when their guide Felipe (Ricardo Fuentes) gets bitten by a snake. The amputation does not save his life. Still, the camera rolls on and captures everything; Felipe’s dead face in a nicely framed shot. They don’t even seem particularly upset that Felipe dies, only determined to continue on into the jungle.
So let’s forget about the animals for now. I don’t like that this is included, but hey – on the DVD release I own, you can actually watch an Animal Cruelty-Free version, so that’s a plus!
The makeup effects used in Cannibal Holocaust are really something to behold. There’s no wonder people were actually under the impression that people were killed, or died during the making of the film, because for 1980 this looks INCREDIBLY REALISTIC. Very raw, very gritty. You’d swear it was a documentary. We can’t see that now, most of us anyways, because our society is incredibly deep into found footage and we’re so used to it that nothing seems to phase us any more. But in 1980, man – if I were a little older and had seen it when released, I’d probably have been blown away. I’m still blown away today.
Even the scene where Felipe has his leg amputated, it looks as if it were a true documentary watching a man have his snake-bitten leg cut off. The blood, the noise and the feverish movement of everyone around him trying to help, it’s extremely raw and serves to make things feel terrifying.
Of course there are a ton of instances where the makeup effects really get the visceral nature of the film pumping in our veins. The now infamous woman impaled on a spike scene is VICIOUS! I mean, some say they don’t understand how it could’ve appeared so real to an audience, but I say they’re blinded and can’t look at things in hindsight. There are many images, such as the poor impaled lady, which appear torn right out of reality and that’s ultimately why so many people find the movie unsettling. Even when you watch this on the Animal Cruelty-Free version, you realize that aspect isn’t what’s so upsetting about Cannibal Holocaust: everything just looks so god damn real.
Most of all, I think people look solely at the controversy of Deodato’s film and they don’t pay enough attention to the social commentary behind all the blood, horror, madness, and mayhem onscreen.
This all culminates when the film crew actively decides to start messing with the tribe, in order to illicit some type of reaction. A misguided notion all around, and disgusting, which is what leads to the film crew’s disappearance, as well as the hostile Native reaction when Professor Monroe (Kerman) and his team initially arrive as the search party.
When the crew burns down all the huts, with the villagers screaming and trying to escape, you can see so blatantly how Deodato is aiming his horror film at the media. It’s already obvious, but this scene has such a scary aesthetic: that beautiful music playing in the background, the fire, the sounds of the tribe screaming, the film crew each laughing and having fun terrorizing these people; all that makes for a heavy impact.
We’re seeing something that has become even MORE prominent nowadays, more so than even when Cannibal Holocaust was filmed and released – certain pockets of the media (and also religious groups) want to go in an antagonize cultures, peoples, and they want to try and spread their ways of living to supposedly uncivilized places. Of course the film crew here is a bit of an extreme example, but these are the types of vultures we see more and more with the new forms of media erupting.
Most telling in that regard for me is when Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) and his film crew stand by and watch a pregnant woman have a tiny child, barely older than a fetus, ripped out of her belly – it’s put in a hole in the mud by the river, drowned, suffocated, then the woman is beaten bloodily to death. All the while, Alan gladly films and gets the best shots of the so-called ritual on film, all the misery. Yet it’s constantly described as some sort of informational process, as if they’re learning great stuff that’s worth sitting through the horror to see. All the horror captured on tape in the name of anthropological knowledge, except really it’s aiming towards ratings, views, money, funding, and so on.
Even worse than that, the film crew – aside from Faye (Francesca Ciardi) – rapes a member of the Ya̧nomamö tribe while filming. It’s bad enough they sexually assault this poor young Native girl, they go ahead and film it all. They went far beyond even just terrorizing this tribe, they actively assaulted and raped a member, which then prompts the infamous impaling. Sickest of all is how Alan turns on the horror for the camera, pretending to have no idea why this girl would’ve been executed in such a fashion when obviously being raped is what precipitated her death, sadly. Another moment where you can see how Deodato is taking hard shots at the media and how they wish to sensationalize pain, suffering, and certainly violence.
Something I forgot to mention but cannot: the score. It is beyond unsettling. There’s something both very 1980s and also incredibly effective about the score. At times they have the beautiful score playing, even juxtaposed with brutal acts of savagery by both the tribe and the film crew; a technique I enjoyed a ton. Then we get deep, dark electronic sounding bits where it makes your pulse pound thick. I think without the score, many of the moments wouldn’t have properly come off, so this goes to show how a horror can effectively use a score and music to push along a feeling. Such is definitely the case here, as the music really gets under my skin; I always noticed it and each time I see the film I make a comment, to someone, anyone who will listen, that I find the score one of its best elements.
I’m going to give Cannibal Holocaust a 4 out of 5 star rating. If Ruggero Deodato hadn’t opted to include such graphic and horrifying animal cruelty onscreen, I’d be more inclined to say this is near the perfect horror film. So many incredible makeup effects are included here and the gritty, raw nature of the look makes everything work better than I’d ever have imagined. While it is a tough movie to sit through, even for some of the most initiated horror hounds out there (of which I include myself as a card carrying member), I do think Cannibal Holocaust belongs amongst the most classic horror movies of all-time. It is nasty and at times unnecessary, however, Deodato has a message behind all of the terror and the gore about how the media derides violence yet at the same time choose to focus in on it, zoomed, close-up and tight on the horror for your viewing pleasure.
The DVD, which is a double disc set, from Grindhouse Releasing is a spectacular release! 5 stars all the way. There’s a good few hours of extras, including behind-the-scenes featurettes on the filming, as well as interviews, and everything from the music to the effects. I have to say I’m more than pleased with the DVD. I hadn’t gone through all the Special Features until now, but it is well worth the $25 I paid a few years back. You can dive in and learn all sorts of stuff about Deodato’s film with the second disc of the set, totally dedicated to the extras.
I recommend that if you’ve not seen it, and think you can handle it, watch Deodato’s notorious horror classic. As I said, on the DVD release I own you can watch a version completely devoid of the animal cruelty. So if possible, I’d say view it and judge for yourself whether this is exploitation at its worst or if it is a cult horror that deserves all the recognition it gets.
The Gallows. 2015. Directed & Written by Travis Cluff/Chris Lofing.
Starring Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford, Travis Cluff, Price T. Morgan, Theo Burkhardt, David Herrera, Gannon Del Fierro, Mackie Burt, and Adrian Salas. Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 81 minutes.
Found footage is a sub-genre I do enjoy, honestly. That being said, there is still a fine line between what I enjoy and what I find crap. Some people say it’s all crap; that’s just dismissive, to me. I’m a fan of Cannibal Holocaust, unapologetically I love The Blair Witch Project, and then there’s newer stuff I’ve enjoyed like the V/H/S trilogy (I got a ton of online shit on an IMDB message board for my love of all three especially the third), Lovely Molly, and the terrifyingly unsettling Home Movie. There are other titles, I just don’t want to go on. You get the picture: if something is done right using found footage, I believe there’s no reason it can’t be enjoyable. Certain people seem to think the whole sub-genre is useless, but again, I say that’s nonsense. Found footage needs to be used effectively, otherwise it’s simply another gimmick. To say there’s no good found footage is ignorant.
The Gallows has a fun premise and I haven’t seen any found footage so far to use this setting. The majority of what I enjoyed about this movie is the atmosphere, most of which came from the location of the school’s auditorium/theatre. Otherwise, I found almost all the characters to be stiff; the high school dramatics felt real, I did think Reese Mishler and Cassidy Gifford were pretty decent throughout the movie, but overall the cast wasn’t very solid. With only a little to enjoy, The Gallows feels more like a wasted opportunity than an absolutely useless horror.
Starting with a recorded home video from 1993, we see a boy named Charlie Grimille accidentally hang to death during a high school play. Worst of all, it happens in front of an audience who watch on in absolute fear and horror.
The present day in The Gallows sees a new production of the play being put off. In one of the main roles, a jock named Reese Houser (Reese Mishler) tries his best to play his part opposite a girl he has a crush on named Pfeifer Ross (Pfeifer Brown). At the same time, Reese’s jock budy Ryan Shoos (that’s also his real name) films everything behind the scenes, supposedly helping but doing nothing except make a mockery of the production while others work hard and passionately to make it the best they can.
In an effort to supposedly save his buddy Reese the shame and failure of going onstage, Ryan suggests breaking into the school’s theatre at night and trashing the set. That way the production would be halted and Reese could ‘comfort’ Pfeifer. Misguided and foolish, Ryan, Reese, and Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) head into the school through a door said to never be locked, due to it being broken for years.
However, once they run into Pfeifer inside – who wonders why they’re even there in the first place, as they wonder the same about her – they discover the door is now locked, out of the blue. What follows is a horrifying night for the group of friends while they begin to figure out all about what happened 20 years ago to Charlie Grimille, and why he’s still lurking in the shadows of the school.
There’s certainly an innovative aspect to The Gallows in its premise. I think beyond that, there’s not much to distinguish it from other found footage horror movies. However, the whole concept is pretty fun. Theatres in general all have their own spooky nature; there’s something eerie about a theatre, all the history and the many people who’ve graced both the stage and the seats. Add in a school and it’s even creepier, as old schools all have their own history, many lives passing through its halls and corridors, as well.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the filmmakers used this premise enough to their advantage. As I said, most of The Gallows sticks to the bargain basement techniques of Found Footage 101. For instance, there’s an early and needless jump scare – that you can’t even fully call a proper jump scare – which involves Ryan (Shoos) just popping up in front of his camera in his bedroom; not even horror, simply him trying to pull a gag. Stupid, and also gets your heart pumping for no good reason. A jump scare is effective if there’s a reason, if there is purpose to it, however, if you simply make people jump without any substance whatsoever then it’s a piss off. For me, anyways. There’s always the “trick jump scare” in horror movies, but this is not one of those at all. It’s just a dumb addition; in fact, the scene in which it’s involved serves no purpose itself, so the whole 1 minute or so could’ve easily been trimmed out of the film.
Even though the movie uses so much of the shaky cam style, there’s still a decent atmosphere all the same. As someone who acted a great deal from a young age up until my early twenties, I spent a massive amount of time in theatres; specifically the big one at the Gordon Pinsent Centre for the Arts back in my hometown, which partly resembles the auditorium of the school in this film. There’s something inherently spooky about the cold, sterile like hallways in the basement, the darkness of the theatre behind the stage, which immediately makes things unsettling.
If this were done in straight style, using some more steady handheld work even, I think it would’ve benefited greatly. Now I know, Blumhouse most likely wanted to try another lower budget found footage effort and try to make big bucks; the estimated budget is only$100K, which by industry standards in Hollywood is a minuscule production. But still, this is where the concept of the entire film becomes wasted. I’m confident had the filmmakers chosen to do this without found footage, a ton more emotion would’ve come through, the backstory might’ve benefitted – as well as the ghostly presence of Charlie – and the scares could’ve been ten times more effective.
Sadly, The Gallows comes out much like so many of the low budget indie efforts in the found footage genre – the ones unable to rise up to the weight of their premise.
One particular scene I did find effectively creepy, regardless of the found footage style (mostly because the phone camera being stationary for the shots), was when SPOILER ALERT Cassidy (Gifford) is in the red lighted hallway; behind her in the dark creeps the figure, hooded like the Hangman from the play. What I find most scary here is how there’s a moment where you don’t see anything, then all of a sudden – as if magic – the noose is around her neck. An unseen force drags her away through a door in the background of the shot, and it slams shut behind her. Very good and creepy scene, I found it wasn’t jumpy it was simply a nice shock to the system. A solid scare.
Furthermore, there’s a scene where Reese (Houser) and Pfeifer (Brown) are running from the ghostly presence of Charlie, clad in the suit of the Hangman, and they’re climbing up a ladder – we get an excellent, terrifying look at the Hangman mask/suit up-close. It’s again not a jump scare, so much as it’s one brief look that gives you enough to make you go WHOA. I’d almost love to see a slasher now set in medieval times, or before, with a hangman as the slasher – it’s just the first thing that popped in my mind when I saw the mask. Awesome little shot, not too long and not too short.
A part of the plot I did like was when everything returned in a circular fashion to the stage, as Reese and Pfeifer act out their scene together, and the camera turns on. The lights go up as well and the stage is set.
However, after that sequence I found things started to fall off. What I don’t like is how Blumhouse is basically setting things up right at the end for another movie. That’s essentially what happens, can anyone disagree? It’s like a mash of things happening right at the end. There’s simply too many reaching connections. So SPOILER ALERT AGAIN we’re meant to believe that Charlie’s girlfriend – the woman who continued to sit in the same seat and watch the practices, waiting for another performance of the play which killed her boyfriend 20 years ago – is also Pfeifer’s mom? I’m pretty slick most of the time, so I apologize if I’ve misunderstood. But the finale is pretty much tell us all that. I found it very mixed and matched, like puzzle pieces not intended to fit together which were simply mashed into a pile for the sake of trying to turn The Gallows – and Charlie – into an iconic style horror movie.
But this is another problem I have, I feel like Charlie is made out to be this slasher type killer. Instead he’s a ghost with a noose. That’s fine. At the same time, the movie is being marketed in a sense that Charlie’s supposed to be aimed toward becoming the next Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. I think not. First of all, the movie itself is nowhere near good enough to become anything like either John Carpenter’s Halloween or Friday the 13th. Second, Charlie just doesn’t come across in that way. There are most certainly a couple creepy scenes, there’s not enough viciousness for me to say Charlie is a bonafide slasher. Maybe had he really done a psychotic job on one of the high school kids, I could give in and say there are elements about the character which fit the bill. I can’t say that at all because most of what happens is ghostly creeping in the background, supernatural deaths, and nothing in the way of any blood. It’ all about the noose. Certainly no gore anywhere to be found. Is there really any way we can call Charlie a SLASHER if he did no slashing? Something to think about. I guess that’s partly the marketing’s problem. Still, I feel as if the filmmakers were also pushing towards that, particularly with the ending. There’s just no way I can get with that.
I can give The Gallows a 2 out of 5 star rating and feel okay with that. Some people say this is utterly trash. That’s fine, I respect anyone’s opinion as long as they’re not trying to force it on me as if I should feel the same way. However, I don’t think every last piece of this movie is bad. There are spots I thought were incredibly unsettling – one scene where Ryan slowly discovers there’s a body hanging up in between the walls in this tight crawlspace-like room I found to be VERY CREEPY. Ultimately though what makes The Gallows fall short is a reliance on horror cliches and tropes to the point of retreading too deeply through the footsteps of so many other found footage horror efforts, as well as the fact I found much of the acting (aside from Cassidy Gifford and Reese Mishler) extremely wooden. Not to mention I found the ending poor, beyond rushed, and it felt as they were forcing everything down our throats. While I did find parts of it scary, that finale did nothing for film overall and only served to make me actually say aloud once the lights came up: “Oh wow – that end was rough”.
Like I’d mentioned before, I think The Gallows would’ve made a better film if it went without found footage. Alas, Blumhouse – while doing exciting things on other ends – loves to go for the low budget shots in the dark like this after their huge success with bleeding dry the premise of Paranormal Activity. So it’s no wonder they went for a found footage style here instead of filming it regularly. Maybe more money would’ve been pumped in, but it still could’ve told the story more effectively, creeped people out in a much more visceral way than they accomplished here, and perhaps the performances might’ve also benefited from having a solid style. I can’t recommend this much, however, it isn’t as terrible as some critics and people online are making it out to be.
See it if you want to judge for yourself, and I urge you to do so – I’m no one to be listening to, really. Just don’t believe all the trashing, while at the same time you need to remember you won’t find anything more than a generic found footage horror. There are tons of better found footage movies out there to get you creeped out.