Barrett & Wingard Deal Another Terrifying Blow with BLAIR WITCH

Blair Witch. 2016. Directed by Adam Wingard. Screenplay by Simon Barrett.
Starring James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, & Valorie Curry.
Lionsgate/Room 101/Snoot Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 89 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
posterThis movie was a loaded gun for me when it hit. First, since I first saw The Blair Witch Project I’ve loved it completely. In all honesty, the marketing got to me when it was released, and for those who experienced it in the early days of internet there’s this buzz that still gets you going every time the movie plays. You get taken back to those trailers, the opening scenes, all the faux-reality, but the terrifying faux-reality that gripped horror lovers.
Second, I dig Adam Wingard and his frequent collaborator writer Simon Barrett. They haven’t reinvented the wheel, yet every project they take on is unique. They have such an excellent rapport as a director-writer team, which translates well into each film. A Horrible Way to DieYou’re NextThe Guest; each of these, for me, was a thrilling experience, albeit in their respective ways.
When it came out finally that The Woods, their latest collaboration, is in actuality Blair Witch… well, needless to say, I got excited. Taking on a sequel to one of the most groundbreaking horror films ever made, after the first fairly miserable sequel Book of Shadows failed to impress, is a monumental task. Not everyone is going to love Blair Witch. People seem to fall into a couple categories: either they think it strays too far from the original (to which I smirk questionably), or they think it’s too similar (there goes that smirk again).
Me, I find Wingard and Barrett’s film admirable, in a lot of ways. It gets more intense than its predecessor, that alone is saying something; hard to beat, but this sequel gives many of the best scenes from the original a run for their money. More than that Barrett’s screenplay, as opposed to the improvised and looser style of The Blair Witch Project, does wonders for the tension and gives the actors good stuff with which to work, ultimately allowing for better performances. Not every last person is going to love this. I do, and I hope others were as thrilled as me when they sat through its terror.
screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-8-29-18-pmOne of the immediate aspects I noticed, and enjoyed a ton, is the great sound design, helping to put it above the intensity of the first film in specific moments. There’s a feeling of being lost in the woods alongside these people because of the sound; a hovering, pulsing sound wraps the audience up, as it surrounds the characters. This, in conjunction with the camerawork – chaotic and frenzied in the more mortifying moments – makes for good scares. The original movie does well with its bare sense of reality, having the actors sent out into the woods relatively on their own and manipulated into being scared. Blair Witch succeeds in its mission to creep people out partly due to the sound and the visuals together, plus the fact Wingard did things similar to The Blair Witch Project‘s directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.
Mainly, Wingard used an air horn in the background of scenes in order to attain the right amount of jump from actors. And some will say, “That’s what an actor is for, they should just act!” – I say nonsense. Sure, don’t go William Friedkin and fire a gun next to somebody to scare them. I feel like the air horn is fine, it did elicit appropriate reactions. There are honest places actors sometimes aren’t going to get simply because they need to be genuinely scared to get there, not pretend scared, and Wingard gets the actors under his care to that place, manipulating horror from them in an unexpected way. Moreover, the actors just haul you to the darkness of that woods and far too many times, in the best kind of sense, you’ll feel as lost as they do, disoriented, frightened, paranoid; the whole gamut of terrifying emotion.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-29-03-pmscreen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-30-23-pmThe acting is great, aside from any of the jump scares or the pure bits of scary madness. And it’s strange, because I’ve seen people complain that the acting is no good, or that it takes away from the tension. Totally disagree. Each of the actors gives it their all, as well as the fact a couple of them give absolutely awesome performances.
Wes Robinson & The Following‘s Valorie Curry as Lane and Talia, the would-be guides into the Black Hills woods, don’t only play interesting characters Barrett penned in addition to the others, they’re two of the best in the cast. Robinson particularly gets to the core of the paranoia driving so much of the story’s suspense. Once things progress to a certain point, both Robinson and Curry take us into a horrific space that gets eerier by the minute.
James Allen McCune (whose stint on Shameless was incredible) plays the brother of Heather Donahue, the catalyst of the adventure, and he does a nice job straddling between non-belief and belief until the situation becomes painfully clear near the end. I also can’t forget to mention Corbin Reid as Ashley. She plays a role that could’ve easily been lost in a bunch of blood and moaning and crying; while there’s a little of that, Reid brings an uneasy feeling to the gut when we see her character descend into the forest’s terror. Everybody involved brings their A-game, even the couple more minor characters. With a bigger cast this time, in contrast to the original’s trio, Blair Witch utilises every one of them to the fullest extent.
screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-36-52-pmI don’t want to spoil any of the best moments, although I have to mention one, hopefully without giving away too much. Just before the final half hour takes us into a frightening place, a scene involving the wooden Blair Witch figurines takes their presence to a whole new level. I can’t say much more – other than the actors’ reactions combined with the editing, and again the sound design, make for the moment that both shocked and pounded me into a state of horror.
Blair Witch is about on par with its original. Maybe a lot of others don’t think so, but damn it, I do. And I can’t deny that. I went into this expecting that there was a possibility I wouldn’t be thrilled. Regardless if Barrett and Wingard made this, two artists I admire and love to see working in any capacity (the latter’s stint with Cinemax and Outcast did wonders for the TV horror lover’s soul), I didn’t count out disappointment.
Yet no part of me was really disappointed. Barrett and Wingard did interesting things with the legacy of such a beloved piece of horror cinema. They refused to move too far from the film Myrick and Sánchez. Likewise, they branched out a bit, too; they didn’t retread too many paths. I loved the ending because it goes out on a similar note to the first, and in doing so almost shows us how the first actually ended. Dig it. As well, there’s an interesting conception of time in the screenplay; that’s all I’ll say. This does wonders in terms of writing to make the movie different, yet similar in a weird vein to the original film. If you want a good spoiler-filled look at this idea, check Screen Crush’s interview with Wingard here.
So even if there’s no general consensus, or even if that consensus is that this sequel doesn’t hold up, I dig this one. Barrett and Wingard confirm once again they’re worthy of helping to carry genre film forward, year after year. And who knows, maybe this will help a franchise get going, which I’d love to see. This didn’t wow at the box office, but it did make a profit for a relatively low budget film in today’s Hollywood system. I know that I wouldn’t mind seeing at least one more film surrounding the legend of the Blair Witch, no matter who takes it on. This movie proves you can update or reboot films years later without being totally derivative and without straying too wildly from what made the original so popular.

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DARK MOUNTAIN: Blair Witch Feels in the Arizona Mountains

Dark Mountain. 2013. Directed by Tara Anaïse. Screenplay by Anaïse & Tamara Blaich.
Starring Sage Howard, Andrew Simpson, & Shelby Stehlin.
Superstitious Films.
Not Rated. 82 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★1/2
posterAh, found footage! I love thee. I love thee not.
There are times the sub-genre is used to great advantage. I’m going to talk a bit in this review about the movie which put it right in the spotlight: Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project. Now, not all found footage is emulative of that 1999 breakout hit. There’s no shortage of movies that try and capitalise off its success by cherry-picking moments to homage – or straight up rip-off. Sometimes that’s not so bad, as long as within the framework somewhere you can find a nugget of originality. Even if it’s tiny, now and then it’s worth it. But not too often.
Dark Mountain is a movie that relies too heavily on its Blair Witch influence. The movie teeters on a precarious edge, where the filmmakers fall into copying Myrick and Sánchez too much while also having enough originality to do interesting things. They fall over the edge rather than spin their spooky little tale into gold. And it’s a shame. Using the jumping off point of the legendary Lost Dutchman’s Mine, director Tara Anaïse (and co-writer with Tamara Blaich) had the potential to make a truly scary found footage flick. Leaning too hard on the movie that obviously was a huge influence – not only this film but so many others, as I already mentioned – really hinders even the best efforts and tricks up Anaïse’s sleeve.
img_3981img_3983One thing I really do enjoy is that the Lost Dutchman legend is a central part of the screenplay. While the movie devolves into Blair Witch rip-off at too many turns, this real legend (oxymoron?) makes things eerily fun. Named after a German immigrant, Jacob Waltz, the mine was supposedly discovered in the 19th century, after which Waltz kept the location secret. Lots of other macabre details weave through this odd story, including deaths and disappearances of those who went out searching for the Dutchman’s fabled gold only to come across something sinister.
Where the writing falters most is they never come to a clear decision on what kind of presence is in and surrounding the caves. It goes from ghostly spirit-like activity to possibly extraterrestrial presence to plain old madness. Fine to leave parts of the plot ambiguous. To my mind, they went a little too deep on the ambiguity and didn’t do the plot any favours. There’s a good deal of paranoia, some nice tension. Ultimately, without anything more concrete in the story none of it goes anywhere spectacular.
img_3984There were creepy bits, despite those flaws. An early moment sees Kate (Sage Howard) witnessing a mist-like apparition in the caves, which nobody else sees, and that starts her fright. Of course that’s just like a stutter step before the more chilling moments. Perhaps the more unsettling is when Paul (Andrew Simpson) goes insane during the night, speaking in a strange, otherworldly voice before collapsing to the ground. This leads into the more suspenseful stuff when Paul’s paranoia runs out of control, believing Kate and Ross (Shelby Stehlin) are getting unusually close. My favourite is a little later once the trio stumbles across an ominous diary and even more disturbing tape recorder.
But again, the Blair Witch influence crosses over into infringement of artistic ideas. Paul disappears into the night, sending Kate and Ross on their inevitable, fateful journey into the night after him. Although they find him in a much stranger place, eating a bloody organ. This is a little less of a rip-off. Kate and Paul nearly get swallowed alive by the caves. Gold gets pulled away by an unseen force, scary and prophetic visions of death; Paul briefly appears, for a split second, with blood coming from his eyes. So we don’t exactly get the influence being copied totally. Some of these moments divert away into their own territory. Yet when the finale comes, The Blair Witch Project courses much too heavily through Dark Mountain‘s DNA.
The end is very much like that of Myrick and Sánchez’s, and worse it doesn’t feel as scary. Except that it genuinely could’ve been! Really. Maybe if we got some kind of quick glimpse of the Lost Dutchman, or someone dressed in 19th-century period clothing, there would be a bigger impact to the finish. I dig the lead up to the last few minutes. There are a couple spooky images on the way. Just feels like a let down once those final frames play and you realise this movie borrowed way too liberally from a supposed influence; yeah, more like a template.
img_3986I gave this a 2&1/2-star rating because I do feel that Dark Mountain was enjoyable. Problem is it’s only barely enjoyable. Because of the need to copy Blair Witch at too many turns, Anaïse’s movie never gets where it wants to go. The Lost Dutchman’s Mine is a super fun story to involve in the plot of a horror. I wish that Anaïse and Blaich were able to craft a better screenplay without having to glom onto what Myrick of Sanchez created. Part of why that was so good is because the legend of the Blair Witch was a fabrication on their part; the mythology was entirely created. So that gave them more to work with altogether.
Dark Mountain struggles towards its own thing and can’t ever amount to anything beyond medicore. There’s a handful of good stuff, at least worth one watch. Don’t expect anything more than a copy of a movie you enjoyed more. It’s too bad. As I said, the legend they opt to use for the backdrop is awesome. Perhaps next time Anaïse can do something better because I was rooting for her.

The Descent: Female Driven Psychological Horror

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.
Adventure/Horror

★★★★1/2
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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 SailsGame 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.
vlcsnap-2012-10-15-17h08m59s91A 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.
the-descent-cavethe-descent-claustrophobiaSo 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.
1200x1000px-LL-9b3ed840_ScreenShot2013-11-25at9.17.40PMThere 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.
descent-2005-09-gOnce 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.
thedescent1With 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’s Modern Hauntings

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.
Horror

★★★★
paranormalactivity_posterWhen 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 HolocaustHome 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.
paranormalactivity1I 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.
Paranormal-Activity-3Nowadays 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.
still-of-katie-featherston-in-paranormal-activity-(2007)-large-pictureFinally, 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.
Paranormal-ActivityWith 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: A Documentary of Hell on Earth

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.
Adventure/Horror

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Grindhouse Releasing DVD)
cannibal-holocaust-poster
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.
why-cannibal-holocaust-is-an-essential-horror-movie-looks-like-the-film-crew-made-a-go-293867The 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.
FoundfootageCannibal-HolocaustI 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.
1280x720-cuMSo 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.
big_thumb_7804f4ee5bb0b1fc731a0eefe69ade55Most 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.
cannibal-holocaust-e1380713512864Something 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.
Cannibal_Holocaust_1I’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: Wasted Opportunity & Wasted Youth

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.
Horror/Thriller

★★
the-gallows-posterFound 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.
1280x720-bgLStarting 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.
the-gallows-movie-image-1There’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.
Horror-2015-The-Gallows-MovieEven 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.
maxresdefaultOne 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.
1280x720-uqwA 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.
qjtA9NJI 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.

YellowBrickRoad is An Uneven But Interesting Psychological Horror

YellowBrickRoad. 2010. Directed/Written by Jesse Holland & Andy Mitton.
Starring Cassidy Freeman, Anessa Ramsey, Laura Heisler, Clark Freeman, Lee Wilkof, Alex Draper, Tara Giordano, Michael Laurino, and Sam Elmore. Points North. Rated R. 98 minutes. Horror/Thriller.

★★★1/2
Yellowbrickroad_MoviePoster There’s always something fun and interesting about a horror movie that tries to take a part of literary history and craft it into a real story. While of course this is not a documentary, the premise of the film tries to take an element from The Wizard of Oz and involve it with supposedly true events. Now, Friar, New Hampshire is not a real location. It is a fictional place. But what I do enjoy about YellowBrickRoad is that, within its own universe, it attempts to bring that old familiar L. Frank Baum tale into a real life situation.
I don’t think that this is necessarily a great movie. However, I also don’t believe YellowBrickRoad is without its merits. The ending is a slight letdown. All the same, there’s a decently creepy atmosphere throughout much of the film, as well as the fact at times I found the plot to be unpredictable, in the best sort of way.
yellowbrickroad3According to the film’s own folklore, in 1940 every last man, woman, and child in the settlement of Friar, New Hampshire – 570 odd people – walked up through a trail heading into the mountains and the bleak wilderness. They left everything behind, from personal possessions to money, only taking the clothes on their backs. No one understands why, as they were never heard from again. Until a few hundred were found dead, most frozen to death; many others were mysteriously butchered. The remaining citizens have still, to this day, never been found.
Then in 2008, the supposed coordinates to the “Yellowbrickroad” trail were released. Researchers plan on heading up to the trail. A sizeable group pack their things and head out into the trail, moving towards the heart of the woods, but what they will face is nothing any of them could have ever prepared for. Instead, they all begin to hear old music seemingly playing out of a gramophone, unseen in the forest, and the further in they go the stranger things become.

What if the people of Friar believed this was the road to some god? Some Wizard, or something to stop the war from ever coming.
You can ask the Wizard for anything, can’t you?
IMG_1398In her book The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness, Bernice M. Murphy says this: “the horror [in films like YellowBrickRoadThe Blair Witch Project] pivots on the desperate fear of losing oneself in the wilderness. The further the characters stray from ‘civilization’ and towards the intangible something that lurks at the heart of the American forest, the further they stray from their daylight, or rational ‘original‘ selves” (p.1).
This perfectly describes what happens throughout YellowBrickRoad, as each of the people on the expedition begins to experience a separation of self. We begin to witness, after a certain point, the dark side of each individual, as if the further they go on down the trail the worse they become.

The music is what precipitates all the weirdness which begins to happen. Once they first hear this, afterwards follows memory loss, disassociation, and complete, utter madness.
Slowly what happens is that they start to see the forest itself an evil, malevolent force. But again, as Murphy points out in her book they’ve “gone looking for trouble in the forest, and [have] been horrified to find it” (p. 2). This movie almost speaks in a way about our curiosity in regards to stories such as this – we are curious, we want to find something horrible and terrifying in the little rural towns, in the forest trails and abandoned locales, just as the researchers here are hoping to find horror and insanity somewhere along the trail in the forest. When they do come upon it, of course, they’d never thought what happens could ever possibly happen. Yet, still it does.
yellowbrickroad-yellow-brick-road-movie-berries-woodsAs far as the horrific elements in YellowBrickRoad, things pick up quickly. I was actually surprised when things kick off between brother and sister duo, onscreen and in real life, Erin and Daryl (Cassidy & Clark Freeman). Things got insanely vicious and also bloody, so I’ve got to give it to the filmmakers: this movie is far from amazing, but still has some punch.
Naturally, once this happens they all realize the horror of what the “Yellowbrickroad” trail may hold further along.

I’ve got to say that the acting wasn’t particularly incredible stuff. A few of the actors held their own, however, for the most part this is where the film is really lacking. Perhaps if the actors were a tad stronger then it may have helped things overall. At the same time, it isn’t all bad. The actors give it their best shot and some scenes come off well. The problem is that with a plot needing tons of emotional weight in certain sections, you really need the actors to elevate the material in order to grasp an audience, and in turn then hold onto them for the rest of the film. If not, you sort of get lost and bored with the emotionality of it all. I found myself wanting to skip through a bunch, honestly, but I never do that. I always trick and stick with a movie, just for the sake of it; takes a lot of people to put together a film, tons of time and effort, so the least I can do is watch the whole damn thing, no matter how good or bad. If YellowBrickRoad had a more solid cast I feel as if the script would’ve come out better onscreen and the weight of the story might have resonated more.
Do need to mention Anessa Ramsey, though, as I’ve enjoyed her ever since first seeing The Signal; a kickass movie in which she’s excellent. So I’d say she is probably the most solid out of the cast here, which is good because we see some decent and intense at times scenes out of her character.
IMG_1399Most of all, though, the ending puts a terrible damper on this movie. As of late, I’ve reviewed a couple movies – The CanalThe Last Broadcast – which both suffer from the tragedy of poor endings, albeit the latter more than the first.
YellowBrickRoad does itself a huge disservice with the ending. While I do enjoy an open ending, there’s also a way to do it effectively and without making you feel as if you’ve watched a whole 98 minutes only to discover nothing at all. There’s a difference between an open end and a complete lack of resolution in any sense; you don’t have to tie everything up in a neat little bow, at the same time you can’t expect to make your film enjoyable with a poorly thought out conclusion.
My problem with the ending is this – even if you want to make things feel circular, or as if they’ve wandered completely into another world of some kind, the way this ended did nothing for the rest of the film or the plot. I just don’t dig how they brought things back to that theatre.
IMG_1397I have to say I loved some of the visuals and camerawork. For an independent film, this really did a good job with a few trippy scenes. For instance, at one point there’s this screeching sound that knocks them all over. During that sequence, there are neat visuals which throw you off-balance. Plus, nice shots of the landscape looking all at once bright and shadowy, both gorgeous and ominous all together. There are plenty more indie horror films which don’t have near this amount of decent cinematography. They could’ve easily went for another found footage style horror movie, but the work from cinematographer Michael Hardwick is a much better option; what probably would have ended up as shakiness, screaming, and other typical fare of the lesser found footage films is instead real nice to look at. This is something that at the very least lifts YellowBrickRoad above all the general trash out there.
IMG_1396In the end, I think YellowBrickRoad is a 3.5 out of 5 star film for me. It would be much higher, if not for the ending, and if there had been some better performances aside from that of Anessa Ramsey. Though the actors hold their own enough, it could’ve had more of a heavy impact if the plot played out through some nicer acting. Regardless, it’s mostly the ending I’m not a fan of. If it weren’t for the finale, I’d probably say this was awesome. As it stands, it’s decent. That’s enough, though. I’d definitely watch this again some other time, as I had fun.
My biggest rave about this one is how it incorporates Baum’s Wizard of Oz in a bunch of different ways. It’s a fun twist and puts this a head above of a lot of modern horror. With improvement it could have came off much greater. It’s still an enjoyable hour and a half despite all its issues.

The Last Broadcast Builds You Up to Let You Down

The Last Broadcast. 1998. Directed & Written by Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler.
Starring David Beard, Jim Seward, Stefan Avalos, Lance Weiler, Rein Clabbers, Michele Pulaski, and Tom Brunt.
FFM Productions.
Unrated. 86 minutes.
Horror/Mystery

★★1/2
the-last-broadcast.27402 Ever since I’d first seen The Last Broadcast a little over ten years ago, I’ve been conflicted by the film. Unlike so many failed fake documentary styled found footage horror movies these days, I find that The Last Broadcast genuinely culls the air of being real for a lot of the time. Long before stuff like Grave Encounters, Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler came up with an interesting little faux doc about a paranormal style show. What I find so good in this sense about this movie is that their show really feels real, it has that old school internet show feel to it; the acting is slightly stale, but in a way that they make the Fact or Fiction show feel like it’s these two dudes just filming things out on their own, beyond low budget. So that’s one of the things I do truly enjoy about this movie.
However, in the finale, the last act, Avalos and Weiler completely let this movie go off the rails. Personally, I was so into what was happening and I’d hoped that ultimately the explanation of what was being attributed to the Jersey Devil might end up being either unexplainable or just straight up supernatural. Instead, the creepiness and suspense, all the tension Avalas and Weiler built up for the first half to three-quarters of the film is squandered by a flimsy and awful climax, which does nothing but frustrate me.
While there are some excellent bits to The Last Broadcast, it’s hard to ignore how terribly fumbled the ending came out and it leaves a stain on everything else the filmmakers had tried to do up until that tipping point. At least this movie has something to boast about – it’s the first film to be filmed, edited, and screened entirely digital; no film was involved. While I’m a huge fan of film, I do enjoy digital in certain ways, so if anything this movie can say it pioneered new ways to make extremely low budget horror. Even if the movie shits the bed just as it could’ve turned into something spectacular.
IMG_1392The Last Broadcast tells the story of two local access cable filmmakers – Steven (Stefan Avalos) and Locus (Lance Weiler) – whose Fact or Fiction television show leads them around to various places in search of supernatural and ghostly entities. In a hunt for the legend of the Jersey Devil, Steve and Locus hire an assistant to help them – Jim Suerd (Jim Seward) is a self-styled psychic of sorts. They also plan to stream things on the internet through IRC, over radio, all sorts of things, and they’re armed with tons upon tons of equipment.
After heading into the woods, things begin to get more and more intense until finally only Suerd emerges from the woods, the other two disappeared. Suerd becomes the number one suspect. At the same time, a filmmaker named David Leigh (David Beard) starts to pour over the piles of tapes from Fact or Fiction’s filming in the Pine Barrens, and he seems to believe it was possibly not Suerd who was responsible for the disappearance of Steven and Locus after all. It may have been someone, or something, entirely different.
IMG_1393First of all, I find this film holds a pretty decent tone throughout its runtime. Starting early on there’s this great feel of tension, and I think at least until the terrible ending it holds up entirely. My favourite part about any horror film, or even any film in general, is when there’s a genuine atmosphere cultivated through music, direction, and the script.
There’s some interesting music in the movie, courtesy of director/writer Stefan Avalos (who apparently was a child prodigy with classical violin) and A.D. Roso. At certain times, the music is so damn creepy. It has this haunting quality which helps to make the tension hold in a lot of scenes. Great stuff. There’s just a ton of ominous sounds in the score, so often sitting right beneath the surface of the scenes and slowly seeping under the skin. If only the finale’s payoff were worth it, the music would’ve helped to make this incredible. Unfortunately, the script fails every other aspect of the film by simply petering out into nonsensicality.

Before I get to the writing, and then the terrible ending, I’d like to mention that I do think some of the acting was pretty well done. For instance, I found Jim Seward – who plays Jim Suerd – to be fairly unsettling most of the time. Especially when he early on, after meeting the Fact or Fiction hosts, has a psychic fit then ashy words appear on in his arm; putting these guys on or not, this scene was extremely creepy. His whole demeanour in general is spooky and I thought this helped the film immensely. Not all the acting was particularly stellar, but I do think Seward did a fine job with the material for his character. There’s a craziness and sadness all around about this character, which I found intriguing.
LastBroadcastConcerning the found footage sub-genre, I think The Last Broadcast, while highly low-fi, doesn’t employ too much shakiness in the camerawork. There’s a lot of it, but there isn’t a string of scenes where they’re running through the woods and you can’t see anything whatsoever. While I love The Blair Witch Project wholeheartedly, the few real shaky scenes in that nauseated me; they didn’t take away from that movie, but it’s my only single complaint. At least, for all its faults, The Last Broadcast doesn’t go for much of that. The video quality – being an ultra almost non-existent budget film in 1998 – is pretty rough almost all of the time, yet there’s not scene after scene of rattling camera shots, bouncing up and down as someone holds onto it and runs for their life. So, in that manner, I do find the low-fi video plays well into everything because the whole Fact or Fiction show, their journey into the woods, it all feels quite natural and real. Essentially, I really feel like I’m watching some documentary slapped together by a bunch of amateur filmmakers, but it doesn’t make me not like this movie – that’s something I found genuine and enjoyable about the whole thing.
IMG_1394Now, I’ve got to get into the writing and the script. There’s an awesome story in here, and up until the finale’s ruination there is solid plot. For the first three quarters, maybe a little less, I think the story of The Last Broadcast holds up. While they’re going through all the motions – getting ready to go into the woods, Jim Suerd gets a little stranger than normal, then they finally get into the woods – I think the writing is well done. Something again regarding the found footage sub-genre is that we don’t have to go through a bunch of moments where someone is yelling “Turn off the camera”. While it works in some films, such as the aforementioned Blair Witch Project, I think it gets forced into too many other movies. This is because a lot of found footage movies go too formulaic, trying to add all the elements they feel need to be in there in order to make it correctly. Luckily for this film, it came before The Blair Witch Project and its success caused an absolute avalanche, still raging to this day, of found footage sub-genre efforts. So it avoids some of the pitfalls which are now associated with so many bad found footage movies today. In the process, I find The Last Broadcast more interesting than others because it’s not as typical. As I’ve mentioned several times already, the real feeling of the tapes and the characters/situations makes it work well.
thelastbroadcast2Finally, we come to the ending to ruin all endings. I’ve got nothing against a seemingly supernatural horror turning out to be something more down to earth and real in the end. Not at all. For instance, though I love Stephen King’s book The Shining I find Stanley Kubrick brought a touch of family dynamics and real horror to an otherwise supernatural story. But here, there’s none of that. The ending works against everything else interesting happening throughout the film.
WARNING: To discuss fully, I have to spoil the ending. If you’ve not seen this yet, don’t go forward. If you do and you haven’t seen it, do not complain about spoilers. I shouldn’t have to warn people about this: I review films, this is a film review blog. I’m not giving previews, I’m reviewing after the fact. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
By having the finale basically take aim at the media and how we relate to/are affected by media, by making the David Leigh (Beard) character responsible for everything – murder and all – Avalos and Wiler take everything else tense and suspenseful and eerie about the script and obliterate it. The Last Broadcast could’ve ended in a much better fashion – even an open ended finish would’ve been incredible, to me! I would’ve walked away from this, had it closed with a more ambiguous finish, and thought this was one of the better early found footage films to have come out. Instead, I constantly bemoan anybody who says this is an excellent movie. It is not. The possible greatness is torn apart with the last 20 minutes or so, I just can’t even describe how ill handled the script becomes in the last quarter. Sad this hadn’t turned out better. So much potential.
IMG_1395 IMG_1391Much like a recent film I enjoyed until the final 15 minutes The Canal, I was devastated to have invested so much in the story/plot of The Last Broadcast only to be fooled with the ending. Certainly I enjoyed a lot of what came before the finale – plenty of creepy scenes full of mysterious writing, ominous music, and low-fi terror tiptoeing around so many scenes. I’ve just had it, fed up, with movies that ruin their potential by copping out on an ending. It’s as if they either couldn’t think of anything else, or they were too afraid to leave the film on an open end, so rather than contemplate the best possible ending they could’ve drummed up the filmmakers find the path of least resistance. Instead of being shocking or unnerving, the end makes me roll my eyes into the back of my skull until it hurts.
I can only give this movie 2&1/2 stars. If the ending was better, this could’ve easily been a 4 out of 5 star horror. With the mashed in finale, The Last Broadcast is only a mediocre, if that, found footage horror effort. If ever a movie needed a good remake, it’s this one. Someone should pick up the rights and fix the ending; this could be one killer film if the writing were handled better.

The Birth of a Horror Fad: The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project. 1999. Directed/Written by Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez.
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.
Haxan Films.
Rated 14A. 81 minutes.
Horror

★★★★★
blair_witch_project_ver1I don’t know how people my age look back on The Blair Witch Project now 16 years since it first hit theatres and completely scared the life out of, most, everyone. Personally, as a 14 year old kid when this came out, I remember begging mom and dad to get it for my birthday. Actually it would’ve been on my 14th birthday when I officially saw this film because I believe it was released in the summer of ’99; I turned 14 that October. So honestly, the first I ever saw this the finale especially frightened me to death. I couldn’t go to bed without thinking of someone standing in the corner, facing inward, I was always thinking of that haggard basement, wondering who or what was lurking around its corners. I mean, say what you want but I think this is still one of the best found footage horror movies that has ever come out.
Now, I will concede to some people who say that The Blair Witch Project capitalized on being the first big, mass marketed found footage horror movie. Of course along with that is going to come some part of its fame; whether fame or infamy, time tells. Before this there was the savage horror Cannibal Holocaust – a film so nasty, raw and real in 1980 that  Ruggero Deodato actually had to prove he didn’t kill the actors during its making. That I guess is technically the first found footage. There are others after it and before this one. For instance, 84C MoPic is a little independent fake documentary styled film about a missing during the Vietnam War. Then only a year before Blair Witch, there was The Last Broadcast, which could’ve been one of the top found footage films along with this, however, the climax/end completely ruined everything to come before it; unfortunately so, really disappointed me because I thought it was going to be incredible all around.
So The Blair Witch Project is not necessarily overly innovative in its usage of found footage. That being said, this movie benefited from the way it was filmed in that the actors basically were just given minimal script direction, then sent into the woods to be messed with by the film crew and directors. As well as the fact this film was marketed perfectly. Just as the internet took real life and became an entity of its own, sprouting into a near living, breathing thing – right before Facebook and everything else was poised to come alive too – The Blair Witch Project sucked people in with websites, marketing campaigns, and a realistic feel to the film, all combining to leave a huge impact on us culturally in terms of how horror movies would evolve; from how low budget filmmakers would go on to begin breaking into the business in a new way, to how many horror movies would come to be marketed by production companies for years and years to come.
the-blair-witch-project-376471lThe film follows Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard – three student filmmakers – who during 1994 head into the Black Hills surrounding Burkittsville in Maryland to do a documentary. Their subject is a legend around those parts concerning an entity supposedly named The Blair Witch. Stemming from local stories involving a frightening old woman, as well as a man who committed murder by offing numerous children, Heather and her two companions collect interviews and stories about events that may have involved the witch.
After Heather, Josh, and Michael go missing, their footage is discovered one year later. Once the footage rolls and it is all over, the viewer will be witness to what happened on their fateful trip into the woods. As the three friends walk further and further, it seems they can’t find a way out from the trees, only falling deeper and deeper into unknown territory. First, Josh goes missing when the other two wake and find him gone. Moving on without him, Heather and Michael are scared of what may have happened. Then one night there comes screams from the darkness: it’s Josh. His voice calls out for them, but they can’t figure where it’s coming from. What follows is pure terror.
fullwidth.43a1f2f5 12826bFor me, ultimately, what I find so effectively scary about the film is that it does feel real. To me, anyways. I know it’s not, obviously. Man – if you can’t tell that, especially nowadays in 2015 onwards, then you ought to reevaluate how the hell you’re even watching films.
What’s most real to me are the relationships between Heather, Josh, and Michael. They’re three friends and they have a common bond, they want to go out and make a little documentary; they’re students and they want to do something artistic and fun and interesting and cool. I get that sense from them, as they go on the road, traipse through the woods. Then it’s clearly obvious when things start falling apart they’re friends, because friends always get so vicious and the like when friction like that happens between one another. It all comes full circle anyways, as Heather accepts the blame and gives her video confession. So I thought this was something that helped the film all around. Without a group of people who feel connected and who seem to have relationships – essentially without people who don’t feel REAL – then there’s no way for the suspense and tension of a found footage horror to play out properly.
projet-blair-witch-1999-07-gFrom the first time I ever saw this movie, right to now as I watch it again, the final scene kills me. When Heather and Michael head into the house, even the look of how rundown it is strikes me as creepy. Plus, there are all the handprints of children littered throughout; on the walls, everywhere. It’s definitely chilling. Not to mention you can hear the moans and cries of Josh somewhere within, but just like his two friends we’re lost and stumbling.
Right at the end, though, is where I’m always creeped out to the fullest lengths. We know about the story of the children being put in the corner, avoiding the eyes watching as he kills the other child – now Michael stands in the corner, facing in, as Heather approaches and then she also tips over, the camera falling and the screen going blurry. I’ve always thought that part came off highly unsettling. There’s some quiet and subdued in this part of the scene whereas before things get pretty chaotic. I like the little lull in pace and intensity as Heather and Michael enter the house and look around, just before the last punch of terror. It’s perfect, if you ask me. Quality ending. In fact, I’ve seen some say it was boring up until the final 10-15 minutes. Maybe to some, I just say the tension and suspense got treated correctly and built up in an appropriate way. Nowadays so many found footage horrors try and go for the jump scares when The Blair Witch Project uses virtually none – you might consider the final shot a jump, however, I don’t at all. Simply a jarring end. I like that this movie went for a slowburn approach. In my opinion it worked and continues to work on me today.
the-blair-witch-project-DI-02I’ve got to mention how awesome the production of the film is, in the sense that the actors were sent out into the woods and terrorized at points without really having full knowledge of exactly what was about to happen. I’m sure a ton of films have emulated it before in certain ways, and certainly plenty afterwards in their own right, but The Blair Witch Project is one of the first found footage movies to take that to another level. You can genuinely sense the fear in the actors at certain times as they’re careening through the woods, holding cameras, rattling at high speed while they push out into complete darkness with only the camera’s light to guide them. Honestly, if you can kid yourself into believing a ton of this is not real fear in their voices/faces/reactions, then you’re blind! I’m not saying every last bit is all natural, but you can bet your ass there is a good deal of the emotion in this film that came about honestly and in a genuine manner. That’s a big part of why this is such an enduring horror movie, and why it will always be touted as the forerunner of the found footage movement. Not because it was the very first – it was not at all – but merely because of the lasting impact it has had on audiences and the horror genre, as well as the way in which it was acted and filmed.
bl3From the moment I’d stopped watching this movie for the very first time, after the credits rolled and I was fittingly terrified, I knew this was a 5 star film for me. Tonight, as I watched again and revelled in the perpetual terror of those last 15 minutes or more, I counted this again a perfect horror. Maybe it isn’t for others. Maybe some, or many, have gotten plenty sick of The Blair Witch Project by now at this juncture in the genre’s evolution. My opinion is that this will last the test of time, this is always going to scare me and it’s always going to scare a lot of people.
I wish that I could come back to The Blair Witch Project with fresh eyes for the first time, all over again. This is one movie I’ll never forget where I was when I’d seen it, how I felt, so therefore I can’t deny its personal impact on me. It’d be incredible to experience that sort of thing over again, anew once more. Either way, I still get that same old fright with each and every viewing. Of that, I can never ever complain.

The Changeling is Pure Haunted House Terror

The Changeling. 1980. Directed by Peter Medak. Screenplay by William Gray & Diana Maddox; story by Russell Hunter.
Starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos, Barry Morse, Madeleine Sherwood, Helen Burns, Frances Hyland, Ruth Springford, and Eric Christmas. Chessman Park Productions. Rated 14A. 107 minutes. Horror.

5 out of 5 stars
the-changeling-movie-poster-1980
Haunted house horror movies are a dime a dozen. There are great classics such as The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill, as well as newer ones like Insidious. Then we’ve also seen terrible ones, such as the remakes for those first two I mentioned. Plus, the haunted house sub-genre can sort of cross over into others where the house itself is something else. For instance, The Pyramid, while not great and full of awful CGI, is basically a haunted house movie, but instead of a house it’s a pyramid in Egypt. You could even go as far to say The Blair Witch Project is a haunted house found footage film; if you wanted to.
So it’s safe to say, the haunted house horror has been played to death. Though, every so often another great one comes up. In 1980, Peter Medak directed this incredible film and put a classic into the sub-genre. A great horror with interesting writing, a creepy atmosphere and equally unsettling setting in the old haunted mansion, as well as the fabulous George C. Scott in the lead role. All of these qualities puts The Changeling confidently in my top horrors of all time; one of the creepiest movies out there and best of all it came before so much of the CGI’d to death horror we seem to have been served up in the last decade or more.
IMG_1130After his daughter and wife are killed in a tragic roadside accident, as he helplessly looked on in horror, composer John Russell (George C. Scott) moves out of his old home and into a new rental. It just so happens the mansion has an awful, hidden history, which is why nobody seems to stay once they’ve moved in.
However, Russell, still grieving for his lost wife and daughter, feels drawn to the ghosts, as if they’re calling just for him. And soon he might fall in over his head.
IMG_1131I think when John Russell first sees the dead looking face and eyes of a child in the bathtub, that’s when I realized for sure this would be a well-crafted bit of horror. Not only is the image creepy, the way in which George C. Scott reacts to it is phenomenal; his face strained in horror, he backs away into the hall, further and further until the scene cuts.
That’s another thing. I love Scott, he’s one of my personal favourites – his two top roles, for me, are Dr. Strangelove and The Hospital. However, John Russell is one of his more subdued performances. Not that he’s an over-actor, I don’t believe that to be true. But Scott has played a lot of hotheaded, rough and tumble types, so to see him as Russell, a heartbroken, emotionally and psychologically ruined man, it’s exciting! He brings a lot of personality to the role, which is always great to have in a haunted house movie.
IMG_1132Minnie: “That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.
IMG_1133So many classic moments in this movie. For instance, the scene with the ball – man, it gets me every single time! Once more, it’s a case of Scott really putting the screws to the audience in the way he reacts. There are several perfect instances of subtlety out of Scott and when you get that sort of quiet-like performance in a horror film, it always helps to ratchet the suspense through the roof once the terror takes full hold. This is what happens throughout The Changeling.
I can’t talk about the atmosphere and tone of the film without making mention of the fabulous score. There’s nothing like a proper horror score paired with good writing. The music here comes to us from composer Rick Wilkins; surprisingly he hasn’t composed a ton of films. His score for this one is just perfect at every turn. Mostly, I couldn’t get enough of the piece during the seance, as Russell watches the medium scribbling away; a dark, ominous bit of music.
Then, coupled with that beautiful and eerie music there is the cinematography of John Coquillon – director of photography on Curse of the Crimson AltarThe Oblong BoxStraw DogsPat Garrett & Billy the KidCross of Iron and more. Coquillon’s work here is incredible. There are endless sweeping shots, careening through the old haunted mansion. One early on that I love is when we’re first treated to Russell playing his piano; Coquillon lets the camera sort of wander in through the house, finding its way eventually to John. Beautiful stuff. Then certain scenes remind me of Stanley Kubrick with the wide, symmetrical view, shots composed quite carefully, only to close in slowly, slowly. There are plenty of great shots like this, and many more.
Note: one of my favourite moments is actually nothing that spectacular, it just looks incredible – during the seance, a glass gets smashed against a cabinet, and the shot is MAGNIFICENT! The camera is close, tight in, and it’s so crystal clear that it feels of magic.
IMG_1134 IMG_1135 IMG_1136Of course, one of the scariest parts about The Changeling overall is the writing. The story itself comes off incredibly well. What I like is that this is one film which foregoes the need to have a character who is outright and defiantly against the supernatural. Sometimes that type of character works, others not so much. If you push the scepticism too much, especially if the character is obnoxious, then I find that it feels forced, as if we’re being TOO setup, almost tricked into feeling a certain way. That’s just not genuine.
With this film, John Russell is not a sceptic, however, he has recently experienced a devastating loss. The house sort of chooses him in a way – it tries to terrorize him, but instead Russell almost accepts the house’s challenge. Well not almost, he does. Instead of someone starkly against the supernatural, Russell accepts it, piece by piece as things fall together in front of him, and then he lets the house’s terrors lead him on a path towards the truth.
IMG_1137 Moreover, I think that’s another thing which makes me such a fan of The Changeling is that the house is not merely trying to scare off residents, it’s actually crying out for help. We always hear that ghosts are spirits with unfinished business, so instead of a bunch of ghosts trying to scare and/or kill everybody, here we see the spirits truly trying to reach out, waiting for someone like John Russell to actually listen instead of turning to run in fear. Luckily, Russell is susceptible to the ghosts, as he still longs for some contact with his wife and daughter, whom he lost at the hands of a terrible accident. These aspects play well together, and into one another, which is why I find the writing here pretty solid throughout.
IMG_1142 The backstory is creepiness defined. A flashback scene with the tub and the little boy is one of the SCARIEST scenes of all-time. If I were to do a list of the scenes which have scared me most over the course of watching the 4,100+ films I’ve seen so far, this would be high on the list. Very terrifying – and not a drop of blood. Mark of a horror masterpiece, if it can achieve such levels of terror while not having to resort to showing blood in order to get the job done.
IMG_1138 IMG_1139 IMG_1143No doubt, The Changeling is a 5-star film and one of the best, at the top, of the haunted house sub-genre in horror. There is no end to the amount of times I was impressed with George C. Scott in this movie. He’s a favourite of mine, as I mentioned earlier, and I’d rank this in his top 5 performances. What an incredible talent.
The finale of the film is excellent. I don’t want to go into any sort of recap that will spoil things. As I said, the backstory is creepy stuff. I love it and then how it all comes to bear on the current events with Russell and the house works wonders.
IMG_1152 IMG_1155 IMG_1156 I can’t recommend this film enough. There are chills and thrills, mounds of suspense, and a genuinely crafted atmosphere that makes you wonder what further terror lies behind each corner inside the sprawling, ancient mansion. Catch this whenever you can, as much as you can! They don’t make many like these.