Black Rock (2012)

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I must admit I had some misgivings during the credits of Black Rock when I saw that it was written by Mark Duplass (Jeff Who Lives at Home, The Mindy Project, Safety Not Guaranteed) and directed by his wife Katie Aselton (The League). I happen to love all of the above, but I was worried that a movie billed as an escape and survive thriller about three childhood friends camping on a secluded Maine island would evolve into some kind of lightly comic, ironic commentary on the genre. As it turns out, I was in good hands all along.

Sure, a camping trip! Nothing bad ever happens on camping trips! Sarah (Kate Bosworth) is attempting to reconnect with her lifelong chums Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Lake Bell) by arranging a weekend of drinking and roughing it on Black Rock, a remote island that served as their idyllic childhood playground—which is an important plot point. Lo and behold, the gals bump into a trio of poachers, one of whom (Will Bouvier) is a distant acquaintance from their youth. Not wishing to appear standoffish, Abby invites the hunters to share their campfire since they have “a shitload of booze.” A series of unfortunate events take place, and soon the ladies are fleeing for their lives.

Make no mistake, there are jarring scenes of naked brutality in Black Rock. But Aselton and Duplass avoid the well-trodden path to mere exploitation taken by so many in the “trespassing strangers” genre. The hunters here are not a bunch of degenerate hillbillies who want to take the women home and make ’em squeal like pigs. The events leading up to one group in pursuit of the other are a combination of misunderstandings and bad luck, as was the case in Eden Lake, another contemporary thriller that got a rave review here.

Black Rock is fascinating, fraught with tension, and not lacking in white-knuckle moments. It also manages to be, um, uplifting thanks to the desperate heroism displayed by some very flawed characters whose survival depends on burying longstanding enmity and banding together in the face of a common enemy.

 

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Haunter (2013)

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Can a plucky ghost solve a mystery and prevent a murder? A thoughtfully askew haunted house tale, Haunter tells the story of a fiendish serial killer (Stephen McHattie) through the eyes of one of his victims, a teenage ghost named Lisa (Abigail Breslin, who is excellent). She and the rest of her deceased family are tragically housebound in a time loop on the day that her father Bruce (Peter Outerbridge) succumbs to the influence of the murderer’s evil spirit and kills his kinfolk. Needless to say, all attempts to escape the house result in failure.

Lisa has “woken up” to the fact that she and her loved ones are doomed to relive the same day over and over, and she rightfully sees no future in it. Sensing another presence in the house, Lisa does her best Nancy Drew impression to figure out what’s going on and discovers that a different family (in the present day) is dwelling in the house and are in danger of repeating her family’s fate, as the killer’s ghostly presence is on the verge of causing another dad to turn homicidal.

Director Vincenzo Natali and writer Brian King bring a number of fresh elements to Haunter, particularly the idea that a lost soul can redeem itself by trying to save another. Breslin, nattily attired in her Siouxsie and the Banshees sweatshirt and Chuck Taylors, is winningly courageous as a sullen teen (spirit) who decides to quit wallowing in her own misery to battle the malignant entity that caused her untimely demise. Haunter is both compelling and reasonably horrifying without being accompanied by buckets of blood or resorting to tired tropes. It flows like a cracking good YA novel—one that’s dandy entertainment for the whole ghost family.

Oculus (2013)

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Speaking as a somewhat jaded horror buff, there are definitely times when the surfeit of unmitigated crap available on Fear.com, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu can weigh heavy on the soul. To make matters worse, it’s often the same unmitigated crap wherever you look! Sure, I enjoy revisiting familiar tropes as much as the next pinhead (A camping trip? What a lovely idea! I’ll bring my videocamera so we can capture each magic murder… I mean, moment!), but there are times when the self-imposed limitations placed on the genre can shred one’s patience. If boredom and burnout levels are approaching critical, I suggest spending an evening with Oculus, director/cowriter Mike Flanagan’s deceptively devastating homage to a haunted mirror.

Eleven years ago, Kaylie Russell and her younger brother Tim watched in horror as their father Alan (Rory Cochrane, from Dazed and Confused!) murdered their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff, from Battlestar Galactica!). Young Tim (Brenton Thwaites) grows up in a mental institution while Kaylie (Karen Gillan) reaches adulthood with a burning desire to banish the evil spirit that haunts the mirror in her father’s study that she believes to be responsible for his descent into murder and madness.

Tim and Kaylie are reunited when the former is released from the booby hatch on his 21st birthday, and she wastes no time in collaring her kid brother to help her destroy the cursed object. Much to her dismay, Tim has learned his mental health lessons well, and is currently convinced that his sister is cut from the same crazy cloth as Daddy.

Oculus works for the very reason that so many fright flicks don’t: the characters. Flanagan takes his time with the telling details that go into the construction of the doomed Russell family. Alan is a hardworking and caring father, but he’s a control freak and prone to rages. Marie adores her children, but doesn’t have the tightest grip on reality. Kaylie is the dominant child who simultaneously protects her brother and encourages him to take increasingly desperate measures fueled by her obsession with the evil looking glass.

The actual onscreen horror is judiciously portioned out; the movie is neither swimming in blood nor dry as a bone. The vast and vivid array of outré details are seamlessly stitched into the action—and the reason they will scare the soup out of you is because director Flanagan expertly mixes illusion, fantasy and reality to the point where we can’t trust the information that our eyes are transmitting. When that happens, it’s all over, baby. Enjoy! I know I did.

 

Horror High (1974)

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Oddly enough, this is NOT a prequel to Return to Horror High (1987) reviewed here a little less than a year ago. Instead, it’s a high school variation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde about a chemistry nerd that invents a potion releasing his inner maniac (who for some reason walks pigeon-toed). While I cannot recommend Horror High (a.k.a. Twisted Brain—what’s wrong with that title?) owing to its excruciatingly laborious pace, sports fans may want to check it out to see some pro football stars (“Mean” Joe Greene, Craig Morton, D.D. Lewis, Billy Truax) from a bygone era filling out the cast as assorted cops and jocks.

Vernon Potts (Pat Cardi) is a perpetually bullied four-eyed Poindexter who transforms into a somewhat hairier and nastier version of himself when he’s forced to drink his own formula by a crazy janitor bent on revenge after Vernon’s guinea pig, Mr. Mumps, kills the custodian’s cat.

It sounds complicated, but it’s mostly tedious beyond belief. Seriously, there is a scene in which Vernon phones his father, a wheeler-dealer businessman of some kind who is never at home, that leads to an interminable sequence of his dad arguing with his new wife/girlfriend that ends (finally!) with the two of them going for a drive! My question for director Larry Stouffer and writer J.D. Feigelson: WHY WASN’T THIS SCENE CUT DOWN OR EVEN REMOVED COMPLETELY? IT HAS NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH ANYTHING GOING ON IN THE REST OF THE MOVIE AND IS NEVER REFERRED TO AGAIN! Even as padding goes it’s staggeringly and mind-numbingly egregious.

Our boy Vernon eventually gets around to slaying his tormentors—and pitching woo to cute girl Robin (Rosie Holotik)—before Lieutenant Bozeman (Austin Stoker) deduces that the spindly kid is a part-time killer caveman. But oh, the tedium, the endless tedium! Horror High pushed me to my absolute limits; I’ve never been more tempted to fast-forward through a movie in my life. I really deserve a plaque. Or at least a comfy pillow.