Tales From The Dead (2008)

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An odd little film. It’s certainly J-Horror; the cast is Japanese, and so is the dialogue. I’m just not sure why. Writer-director Jason Cuadrado is American, his crew is American, and it’s filmed in California. A contract job for a Japanese studio?

Point of origin aside, Tales From the Dead is a reasonably engaging anthology of four tales spun by blithe medium Tamika (Leni Ito) to a stranded motorist whom she has rescued by the side of the road. Tamika spends most of her free time hanging out with earth-bound spirits in search of justice, helping to right the wrongs done to them in life. Her psychic powers came to her via a bite from a black widow while attending her father’s funeral, a “gift from beyond,” as it were.

Tamika’s first story is the richest, about a catatonic son returned to his family home, and the loving arms of his grieving parents who had thought him lost. After a few clever plot twists are revealed, the familiar feeling of domestic dread, that palpable sense of creeping evil anchored to a mundane location that serves as the foundation for the best J-Horror, escalates dramatically and disturbingly. The rest of the vignettes range from “meh” to “pretty good,” adequate storytelling from the same template utilized by Tales From The Crypt or The Twilight Zone. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but the time passes agreeably, bolstered by the life lessons imparted from the transgressions of the doomed souls depicted herein.

I Can See You (2008)

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Writer-director Graham Reznick has a whole mess of ideas (emphasis on “mess”). Some of them good ones; others not so much. In his “psychological horror” film (a term that always causes me to check and make sure my wallet is still in my pocket) I Can See You, he layers symbolism on top of metaphor on top of subtext with obvious care, but I’m not 100 percent convinced his bad-trip, camping-trip bummer premise pays off in any meaningful way. It’s certainly intriguing to look at, though.

Three Brooklyn advertising flunkies, working on a huge campaign for a very cheesy cleaning product, decide to go camping in order to clear their creative blocks. Kimball (Christopher Ford) brings his girlfriend Sonia (Olivia Villanti), who can’t stand Doug (Duncan Skiles), an extroverted horndog asshole. And then there’s Richard (Ben Dickinson), a confused artist with Daddy issues and a tenuous grasp on reality. Ah, you can almost smell those hot dogs and marshmallows…

Reznick attempts to fuse hazy jumpcuts from ’60s counterculture features like Easy Rider, with the paint-dry pace of WTF atmospheric horror oddities like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or Picnic at Hanging Rock. Truth be told, this audacious camp-stew concept did result in enough taut footage to keep me hanging in there. It’s slow and hallucinatory, with flashbacks, foreshadowing, and plenty of nonlinear interludes.

And it’s all mildly interesting, for the most part, but I question whether the average horror fan will have the patience to sit through all the film-school artsy-fartsiness to reach any definite conclusions. Is one of the campers a killer? More than one of them? Will they finally come up with a salable idea for their presentation? How come Richard can’t finish painting a portrait of his father? Is it a creative sin to use genuine artistic talent to sell useless consumer items? Lots and lots of questions, but the answers, my friend, are blowing in the wind.

Grave Encounters (2011)

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A ghost-chasing reality show crew makes the mistake of choosing a location that is actually, you know, haunted. The intrepid Grave Encounters team decides to investigate the laundry list of paranormal events at the old Collingwood Mental Hospital, where “thousands” of patients were lobotomized, neglected, and otherwise discouraged in their quests for a sound mind. Manic team leader Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), loaded down with the latest in ghostbuster technology, hopes they’ll find evidence of a real haunting. Careful what you wish for, dude.

It’s been a few moons since I reviewed a “found footage” feature, and I’m glad I found this one. Stylistic similarities aside, I dig Grave Encounters more than The Blair Witch Project. (Dig? Grave? See what I did there?) True, TBWP came first, but to me, the scariest thing about that particular film, was the inability of its characters to camp successfully. Frankly, it hasn’t aged well.

Grave Encounters is a much less “subtle” movie, and the fright factor is much higher. Sure, most of the time, less is more. The suggestion of terror is more effective than beating you over the head with a bag of ghosts (see the original version of The Haunting, and the vapid remake with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or better yet, just watch the original.) Here is an exception to the rule. The Vicious Brothers, who wrote and directed, like to reveal their spooks, but they do so in an artful manner, staggering the flow of genuine frights in unpredictable ways. Some scenes build to an expected payoff—and then it doesn’t happen. But it will. Later. When you’re not looking for it. Original premise? Hell to the no. Fun? Affirmative.

Triangle (2009)

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I have to say, Triangle is a nifty thriller—albeit one that’s more like a cruise through the Twilight Zone, rather than an in-your-face horror spectacle. It’s a fairly compelling riff on the concept of converging realities, duover days, and a rip in the time/space continuum, that forces one woman to relive the events of one unfortunate afternoon in a seemingly endless loop.

H-o-t single mom Jess (Melissa George) climbs aboard a spacious sailboat with a bunch of reasonably attractive Australians pretending to be Americans (it’s supposedly set in Florida, but this is an Aussie production complete with slippery accents) for a weekend of pleasure boating. Somehow they get blown off course by a freak storm and end up capsized. The waterlogged survivors scurry aboard a deserted ocean liner/Flying Dutchman that just happens to be steaming by, and the stage is set for something sinister.

Jess tries desperately to repair their fate, even as she and her friends are hopelessly caught up in a Moebius strip of action, while we gather up the clues that are dutifully dropped by writer/director Christopher Smith. Lines of dialogue are repeated throughout, as multiple versions of Jess look on from different perspectives each time she rewinds back to their boarding of the ghost ship. Hint: The myth of Sisyphus is discussed briefly.

Triangle is another film that suffers from a slight case of the wanders (i.e., characters spend far too much time poking around like tourists in an antique mall), but even so, it’s an effective piece of genre entertainment, in which the Groundhog’s Day rules of reality result in the cast being murdered several times in various ways. Saving money on the number of actors that need to be paid by having them slaughtered over and over, makes good economic sense—and helps shape a subtly scary seafaring saga, as poor Jess comes to the slow realization that she’s been running around this damned ship for a helluva long time. And there’s not even a shuffleboard court or a wave pool.

Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)

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It’s a lesser effort than the first Quarantine, but I consider it a worthy sequel nonetheless, because most of the time, sequels suck ass. Why would I be interested in an inferior distillation of an original formula? (Go back to Halloween II and work your way toward the present; the exceptions being Romero’s Dead films.) However, I must wag a stern finger at writer/director John Pogue, for blowing an opportunity to make his movie substantially better.

I was sold on the premise right away. The same virus that caused the apartment dwellers to go berserk with a case of the man munchies in the original movie, breaks out again. Only this time on a plane. That’s right: Zombies on a Plane. And not the slow, shuffling kind, either. These guys are strong, agile, and ready to rock and roll at 20,000 feet. My point is, if Pogue had contained the action to the cabin of a plane, he could have ratcheted up the tension tenfold. In addition to zombies, you add the possibility of the plane plummeting to the ground—not to mention claustrophobia.

Instead, Pogue chooses to let his harried cast land the plane, and then hide in the basement of an airport, where, for the rest of the movie, they walk around a featureless industrial landscape in the dark. The place is surrounded by soldiers who shoot anyone who emerges, but that’s not nearly as frightening as the prospect of a plummeting plane. Pogue even had a formidable lead zombie in Ralph (George Back), an overweight, drunken golfer who proves extremely difficult to bring down once he’s succumbed to the virus. Big boy can wreak some serious havoc!

Despite some wasted potential, Quarantine 2 is a very watchable feature, with gallons of gore, that moves along at a brisk clip—until everyone gets lost at the airport.