The Woman in Black (2012)

Also known as Harry Potter and the Angry Mother’s Ghost.

OK, I made that up, but The Woman in Black is noteworthy for reasons other than the presence of Daniel Radcliffe.

The movie marks the return of the Hammer Films imprint. As a lineal descendant of stately Brit-horror celluloid like The Brides of Dracula and Night Creatures, The Woman in Black is a worthy addition, with an expansive sense of dread invoked by proper gothic storytelling.

True, it comes rattling with haunted house tropes that are as well worn as Jacob Marley’s chains, but my admiration for its almost-gentlemanly ability to coax scares remains undiminished.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a morose young attorney with a broken heart, who apparently has been slacking on the job after the death of his wife. Kipps is told by a less-than-sympathetic boss to get his lawyer ass to a remote village to sort out the paperwork of a recently deceased client.

Problem 1: The villagers remove the welcome mat upon his arrival.

Problem 2: The paperwork resides at Eelmarsh House, a decaying mansion that appears to be sinking into a swamp.

Problem 3: The house is fiercely haunted by the ghost of a woman who lost her son due to the negligence of the house’s previous occupants.

Problem 4: Whenever the ghost gets restless, village children start dying.

Problem 5: The ghost is restless now, so Kipps takes it into his head to play ghostbuster and lay the spirit to rest, perhaps in an effort to come to terms with his own tragic past.

The storyline advances in predictable fashion, but even so, it’s a reliable yarn that crackles like a fresh log on the fire. Rather than recalling vintage Hammer stock, I was reminded of The Changeling with George C. Scott; a familial tragedy with a supernatural revenge motif that’s told earnestly, but with skill and vigor.

However, I must point out one incredible scene that makes me wonder what director James Watkins and writer Susan Hill (based on her novel) were smoking at lunch break.

Kipps hits upon the outré idea of recovering the body of the young boy who drowned in the marsh, in an attempt to appease the pissed-off apparition.

So he and his friend Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds) go gamely splashing around underwater near the boy’s grave marker until they find and retrieve the muddy little bugger from his aquatic resting place.

For some reason, this sequence reminds me of poor Bela Lugosi in Bride of the Monster, forced to wrestle with an inanimate octopus in a cold tank of water.

I would just like to ask Watkins and Hill, who in the hell would ever entertain such an outlandish scheme for even a moment? Nobody, that’s who, and certainly not a clever young wizard.


Splintered (2010)

I’m recommending this British horror flick, but with some reservations. In terms of style, originality, and watchability, Splintered is definitely a worthwhile experience. The acting is thoroughly professional, it’s handsomely photographed, and the story sails along at a tidy clip.

So why did I feel so underwhelmed at the end? Maybe because the movie turned out more like a gothy episode of Law & Order: SVU than the mind-blowing terror that I eternally crave.

Sophie (Holly Weston, who demonstrates considerable dramatic ability) is a teen suffering from bad dreams about a childhood monster that stalks her at bedtime. What this has to do with her desire to track down a legendary beastie that’s been terrorizing the Welsh countryside is anyone’s guess, but there you are.

She and her feckless Scooby gang drive out to the woods, drink beer, get stoned and hope for the best. Sophie stumbles upon an abandoned Catholic orphanage that looks like Buckingham Palace and gets imprisoned by Gavin (Stephen Walters) a feral weirdo who lives there.

Turns out Gavin is the civilized one—it’s his brother Vincent that’s got major aggression issues; these include tearing people’s throats out and a bad case of hot pants for Sophie.

I had this one pegged as a werewolf movie. There are numerous references to the full moon and at one point Sophie is seen reading up on the subject.

Well, it isn’t a werewolf, a golem, a ghost, a ghoul, or even El Chupacabra. It’s just a nimble cannibal boy raised by dogs. Once that shoe drops, I felt like I was wasting my time, though director Simeon Halligan does his best to keep the frights flowing.

It’s a bummer to wait out a movie for the “big reveal” only to discover that the “monster” is only mildly monstrous. Sorry, but my imagination is mightier than the pen that wrote Splintered.

Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Autobiographical side bar: I am old, old, old. I am not Li’l Sharky, Teen Sharky, or even Adult Contemporary Sharky. I’m Ol’ Sharky, an ancient relic from a cooler and weirder world. I carried Agamemnon’s sword; argued with Aristotle; and dogged Cleopatra like she was made of bacon. I shit the pyramids and danced with dinosaurs. I used to carpool to work with Gilgamesh, and even he called me “Gramps.” So when I tell you that I don’t go to the movies much anymore, you’ll begin to understand why. It’s too risky. I can’t be away from my climate-controlled condo for lengthy periods or my aorta will explode. I tried once, and the Visigoths that run the multiplex refused to let me pitch my oxygen tent in the theater. Bastards. All bastards.

Even so, I found myself in the vicinity of a theater with time to kill yesterday, so I purchased a ticket for the moving pictures and saw Cabin in the Woods. I’m very glad that I did. Joss Whedon is getting justifiably blown by critic and fanboy alike for hitting a box-office home run with The Avengers, but that’s no reason to overlook this marvelous muffin basket of a monster movie that he produced, co-wrote, and (second unit) directed. Sadly, the specifics of the story arc prevent a detailed critique, but let’s just say that this is a horror movie on a grand “meta” scale that dwarfs Wes Craven’s Scream series.

What Whedon does with Cabin in the Woods is place the late 20th century horror movie, and more specifically the subcategory known as Hack and Stack (a.k.a. Doomed Teenage Campers), into a miraculous context, one that weds the most dreadful aspects of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick. Whedon has created a horror movie mythos that dares to explain why its characters make such monumentally bad decisions, and why it’s imperative that the fools suffer before meeting their (mostly determined) gruesome fate. It’s a groovy concept, but really, just this once.

I don’t anticipate a rash of imitators, because this looks to be a genre only big enough for one. And Cabin in the Woods is it. At the same time, I can understand why some horror fans didn’t care for it. To them I would say, don’t think of this movie as an attempt to subvert the genre in a contrived or overly clever way—it’s more of an elegant novelty, an intricate lark that stands as a singular testament to outside-the-box thinking. In other words, Whedon’s laughing with us, and not at us.

Vampire Bats (2005)

It’s always a treat to see the lovely Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess) in front of the camera, even if it’s in a throwaway rabid critter movie like Vampire Bats.

She’s such a beguiling screen presence (and I love her so much) that she could bring grace, good humor and glamour to anything, including a car insurance commercial.

Sorry Flo, your days are numbered.

Lawless stars as Maddy Rierdon, a plucky animal behavior specialist who teaches at Tate University, a campus nestled comfortably somewhere in Louisiana bayou country.

A bunch of forgettable students (can we please invent some new collegiate stereotypes? I’m bored with these!) stir up the local bat population by blasting shitty techno music at weekend swamper parties.

The helpful Maddy informs the authorities that the bats have mutated into double-fanged killers by feeding on insects that have hatched near a contaminated sewage treatment plant. (Like we give a shit, perfesser!)

We the audience are treated to several scenes of bats wreaking havoc at parties (biting, flying, chewing, sucking, etc). For some reason, Brett Butler (the actress, not the ball player) and late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson have teensy parts, and Timothy Bottoms plays a mayor that looks like George W. Bush.

I shall now damn Vampire Bats with faint praise: It’s not boring or incompetently filmed. That said, there’s not much to recommend it either, other than Ms. Lawless.

Whether or not that’s sufficient to sustain your attention during the 90-minute running time is a question you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Seems to me there was a fair amount of interchat about this slick remake of a revered 1973 made-for-television movie—and most of it wasn’t flattering. “Not Del Toro enough,” was the general consensus. “Horror by numbers.”

Guillermo del Toro, director and writer (he co-wrote and produced this one) of such treasured titles as The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy flicks, certainly carries a weighty pedigree.

But I don’t agree with conventional wisdom.

To me, Are You Afraid of the Dark is textbook Del Toro: a lonely, uprooted child moves into a creepy, dangerous environment and must confront an evil presence.

Any of that ring a bell?

The child in this case is Sally (Bailee Madison), a petulant and defensive kid who’s being shuffled off to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pierce) and his girlfriend Kim (the cute-as-a-button Katie Holmes), while they fix up a sprawling baronial country estate in Rhode Island.

Editor’s Note: If I was a petulant and defensive child I would have wet my pants at the prospect of living in this friggin’ castle. It even has ruins! Eeeeee!

Anyway, Sally soon becomes aware that the house is infested with mean little varmints that live in the basement who want her to “come and play with them.”

However, as the introductory flashback reveals, these are murderous wee folk—vicious furry anthropoids about the size of rats who carry blades, whisper dark threats, and snack on the teeth of children.

They also hate light. The story builds slowly (perhaps too slowly, for some), as Alex believes his daughter has gone bonkers, while the more sympathetic Kim finds Sally’s tale has the ring of truth.

And then their construction foreman turns up sliced to ribbons, to really complicate things.

While it’s true that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark moves at a leisurely pace, I really didn’t mind, because newbie director Troy Nixey obviously stuck pretty close to Guillermo del Toro’s script (co-written with Matthew Robbins), so the mood and tension are deftly elevated, as our heroine Sally descends, a centimeter at a time, deeper into the bowels of the awful house and its fiendish inhabitants.

The blood and guts are doled out sparingly, but that’s to be expected in a movie that’s more a grim fairy tale than a body count buffet. It’s also a very, very handsome film and unusually absorbing.


Shark Night (2011)

The budget for Shark Night was reportedly somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million. So where did the money go?

My guess is $24 million went to the 3D effects (which don’t magically appear on my TV—I even tried wearing an old pair of glasses, but all I got was a migraine) and the rest was divvied up between fake blood, a few hair metal songs, and (hopefully) a decent payday for one of the coolest character actors going, Donal Logue.

Judging by the results, Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg probably got a case of beer and a couple frozen pizzas. For cryin’ out loud, this even had a theatrical release and it’s only marginally better than something from the Asylum crew, who would have at least had the decency to throw in a little nudity.

The story (such as it is) concerns a group of reasonably attractive Tulane college students who decide to drop the books and have a wild weekend at Sara’s (Sara Paxton) McMansion on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain—a body of water that’s allegedly got enough salt in it to sustain gangs of roving ravenous sharks.

In case you’re interested, the prevailing theory is that the sharks arrived as the result of a particularly tempestuous hurricane season, but this notion is quickly discarded when local rednecks Dennis and Red (Chris Carmack and Joshua Leonard) confess to stocking the pond with 45 varieties of shark (out of a possible 350!) in order to shoot footage of idiots getting eaten for “a cable channel.”

Really? That’s the best we can do?

There’s gallons of blood, but not much gore in Shark Night, and the effects (which include sharks leaping balletically out of the water to chomp people in trees and boats) are ludicrous and lame enough to be for Crockasaurus Meets Robo Squid (Hey, I have a script!), on SyFy Channel.

The previously mentioned Donal Logue is always worth watching (especially in his late, lamented FX series Terriers), and he manages to sneak off with a couple of scenes as a metalhead sheriff, but the rest of the cast is unremarkable.

And the sharks? Those fish should go back to school.