We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need To Talk About Kevin is like one of those nightmare scenarios where the babysitter (finally) figures out that the phone calls are coming from inside the house. In this case, the phone calls are coming from inside the family. Much of this movie’s acclaim comes from Tilda Swinton’s bravura performance as the long-suffering mother of a burgeoning sociopath—and justifiably so. But let’s not overlook writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s achievements, as she raises a ton of tricky questions about parental responsibility. The lovely Barbara and I stayed up well past the credits discussing all the uncomfortable implications. Interestingly enough, we came to the same conclusion: we would have smothered the kid with a pillow and chopped him up in the bathtub. And that is why I love the lovely Barbara.

In nonlinear fashion, we become acquainted with Eva (Swinton), her not-very-observant husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and their obviously malevolent offspring, the titular Kevin. The viewer lurches between the past and the present (a surprisingly smooth ride!), watching in growing alarm as Kevin seems to take an immediate dislike to his mother, torturing her through his formative years by crying incessantly, refusing to learn the mechanics of potty training, and by feigning good-natured amiability around the clueless Franklin. You don’t need a house call from Dr. Plotspoiler to quickly intuit that at some point, Kevin will go down the rabbit hole and emerge as a fully formed monster.

Once the story is set on its inevitable course, the questions start coming hard and fast: Is Kevin just Satan in a diaper? That’s the easy answer, but as Kevin grows into a handsome teenager (Ezra Miller), we get the nagging suspicion that Eva and Kevin are more alike than we’d first thought. Mother and son greatly resemble one another, and during a night out together (a date?), look more like a couple than Eva and Franklin ever do. One of the only times in the movie that Kevin approves of his mother is when he discovers that her wit is every bit as vicious as his own.

The finale of We Need To Talk About Kevin is also maddeningly ambiguous. Does Eva continue to visit her son in prison because: 1) She feels responsible for his crime? 2) She’s punishing herself for her failure to socialize the little fiend? 3) She is tormenting him in return? A very provocative, original, and disturbing movie—even more so because of the depth of skill and artistry that went into its making.

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.

Most importantly, the movie marks the return of the Hammer Films imprint. As a lineal descendant of elegant 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 from such familiar material, 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 during childbirth. 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 haunted 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.

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

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.

Recommended.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)

I suppose it’s a little early for Christmas revelry, but this uncanny Finnish import written and directed by Jalmari Helander is reason enough to get in a (twisted) holiday mood. Creepy and often hilarious, Rare Exports has the look and feel of a wondrous Spielberg project (E.T. meets Super 8?), right down to the charismatic leading moppet (Onni Tommila) who intuitively understands that a certain unearthly entity (in this case, Santa Claus) does not come in peace.

On Christmas Eve in the remote hinterlands of Finland, a corporate-sponsored archeological expedition digs up a towering, horned creature frozen in ice. Pietari (Tommila) deduces it to be the “real” Santa Claus, a fearful demon who brutally kills naughty children. Meanwhile, his father (Jorma Tommila) and his fellow reindeer hunters have captured a vicious, wizened old bearded man, whom they wish to exchange with the corporate bosses for enough money to get them all through the winter. Chaos reigns for a time, leading up to a left-field ending that works once you give it a chance to sink in.

As one might expect, given the Spielberg sensibility, the key to the story is the relationship between a boy and his widowed father, the latter trying desperately to protect and provide for his son—who at the same time is hoping to prove to his dad that he’s a brave and resourceful young man, and perfectly capable of protecting himself. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age fable replete with an evil giant Santa and a whole bunch of murderous elves. Given that premise, it’s mostly gore free, but the disturbing picture of jolly ol’ St. Nick depicted here, is more than enough to inspire Christmas nightmares in the heads of impressionable children of all ages. I approve this message.

The Messengers (2007)

Please tell me if there’s an existing category for this well-chewed cinematic scenario: Family suffers urban-based trauma and decides to relocate to a nice, quiet, haunted house in the boonies.

The Shining is the most obvious example, but there are dozens of pale imitations, including this quaint little Kristen Stewart vehicle from five years back.

Directed by Hong Kong power players the Pang Brothers (The Eye films, Bangkok Dangerous, among others), The Messengers is first and foremost, a serviceable platform for Stewart’s photogenic petulance, brought to the screen courtesy of the boffo box-office returns fromThe Twilight saga.

Rising to the challenge, the spunky teen actually carries the movie. Of course, when you’re costarring with bored stiffs like Dylan McDermott (Dad) and Penelope Ann Miller (Mom), you needn’t have been Lee Strasberg’s star pupil to dominate the screen.

To her credit, Stewart gamely steps up to the plate, exuding Buffy confidence while delivering her lines with Locklearian panache.

BTW, am I the only one who confuses Dylan McDermott with Dermot Mulroney? Surely not!

In The Messengers, Stewart stars as Jess, the rebellious progeny of McDermott and Miller, who are leaving the temptations of Sodom and Gomorrah in the rear-view mirror in order to get back to the land, specifically as sunflower farmers in rural Saskatchewan.

You gotta admit; that’s a new one.

Sure enough, the family’s optimism for a fresh start is soon crushed to crumbs when it appears that their rustic farmhouse comes with creepy crawly specters of the previous occupants, who fell victim to a case of Jack Torrance Syndrome, also known as Daddy’s Got The Ax, Again.

This was a Ghost House production and Sam Raimi was one of the executive producers. The Pangs do a decent job of combining their talent for weaving blankets of dread with Raimi’s trademark splashy spook-tacular shocks.

The Messengers is a 100 percent sustainable movie, since the entire plot consists of recycled materia. Even so, the filmmakers went to considerable effort to pique our interest, and we don’t have to work too hard to swallow the Ghoul-Aid.

Please read the last sentence in a Crypt Keeper voice. It sounds better.

At the moment I’m leaning toward “Buyer Beware” as the name of this genre. “Real Estate Gone Wrong,” maybe? “Glengarry Glen MURDER?”

Atrocious (2010)

I’m quite good at suspending my disbelief. Trust me, when it comes to horror, I have a very limber set of standards in that department.

And as much as I liked Atrocious, a found-footage frightener from Spain, I had some serious reservations believing that central characters July (Clara Morelada) and her brother Cristian (Cristian Valencia), would continue to schlep their camcorders around after figuring out that a fiendish killer is stalking them at their family’s rural retreat.

“Oh my God, there’s a fiendish killer in the house with us! Do you have a spare battery pack?”

Uh huh. It’s a shame too, because Atrocious has the makings of a crackerjack movie.

Teen siblings July and Cristian are spending their vacation with Mom (Chus Pereiro), Dad (Xavi Doz), and adorable kid brother Jose (Sergi Martin) at a Spanish country estate that comes equipped with its own massive hedge maze.

The pair fancy themselves as intrepid ghost-hunting, mystery solvers so they bring along two video cameras, which is a stroke of luck for the cops when they discovery that everyone’s been murdered about a week later.

After sifting through 37 hours of footage, the final cut serves as the movie itself. If you surmised that there would be an abundance of chaotic night scenes frantically shot by the protagonists whilst lost in the hedge maze, give yourself a gold star.

There is some first-rate fright footage here. And the actors playing July and Cristian are very good, very natural. Atrocious is worth the time it takes to watch, but the surfeit of film (not to mention battery power) is a contrivance that each viewer will have to sort out for themselves.

It doesn’t ruin the experience, but you may find yourself (as I did) shouting, “Oh come on, already!” at the screen on several occasions.

A Haunting in Salem (2011)

Take a teaspoon of The Shining, a sprinkle of The Amityville Horror, stir in a tiny budget, and garnish with an intense, odd-looking little actor as your leading man, and what have you got? I’d say a “C”, maybe a “C+”.

New sheriff Wayne Downs (Bill Oberst Jr.) moves his super-hot wife (Courtney Abbiati) and two kids to Salem, Massachusetts, and settles into an old Gothic manor house that comes with the job. (Nice perk!)

As luck would have it, the joint is haunted by the ghosts of 19 pissed-off witches who were burned and hanged back in the the late 1600s—by the town sheriff— and were subsequently laid to rest on the property where Downs and his brood are currently taking up residence.

The house also comes with a brain-damaged gardener (Where does he live?) who mumbles dire warnings about the ghosts and is soon dispatched by same.

The Realtor neglected to mention any of this, but it does have a lovely bonus space that could be converted into a guest bedroom or a cathedral for your Black Mass, your Satanic rituals, or whatnot.

A Haunting in Salem isn’t a memorable film. It’s a painfully familiar tale and director Shane Van Dyke (one of Dick’s grandchildren; another, Cary, plays a local cop) doesn’t have the money or the chops to bring anything new to this haunted house party.

The frights, in addition to being rote and predictable, are few and far between. The story is set in a huge, historic mansion, but it looks like the cast and crew were only permitted to shoot in a couple of the rooms, which becomes distracting once you notice that every scene takes place in either the kitchen, the bathroom, the hall, or the daughter’s bedroom.

It’s only the earthy presence of Bill Oberst Jr. as the determined sheriff that gives the flimsy plot a solid grounding. He’s a sawed-off plug of a man with curiously scarred features who perpetually looks like he’s on the verge of a very messy nervous breakdown.

Thus, he’s perfectly cast as the husband and father that the rest of the family believes is going cuckoo, so their unease around him is palpable.

Also, the body language between the sheriff and his tall gorgeous wife Carrie reveals that they’re definitely not comfortable around each other.

Any tension is good tension, I always say. Now make it work!

Savage Island (2005)

Here’s a drinking game you can play as the credits roll. Down a shot of whiskey whenever the name “Lando” appears. Between the efforts of writer/director/stunt driver/pianist/editor Jeffrey Lando and his brother (?) Peter, you’ll be shitfaced by the time the movie starts, and then again at the end. It will probably help.

Unlikeable yuppie pricks Steven (Steven Man) and Julia (Kristina Copeland), along with their squawling infant, take a trip to a remote island in British Columbia to visit Julia’s parents. After Julia’s idiot brother Peter (Brendan Beiser) runs over a child belonging to a family of grubby squatters, the yuppie pricks find themselves besieged by vengeful hillbillies (let’s just call them that) who demand their squawling infant as recompense. It goes downhill from there.

While the writing in Savage Island is nothing less than terrible, I have to drop a few props on Jeffrey Lando for his consistency of vision. He finishes what he starts, a third-rate, low-budget riff on Deliverance and Straw Dogs. The Savages (the appropriately named island hillbillies) are nicely fleshed out, and I appreciate that Pa (Winston Rekert) and Ma (Lindsay Jameson) look like Merle Haggard and Sarah Palin, respectively. For that matter, the yokel clan is far more interesting—and sympathetic— than their whiny bourgeois captives.

Bonus: The part of Julia’s stubborn father Keith is played by Don Davis, who was memorable in Twin Peaks as Major Briggs, the father of rebellious teen Bobby, one of Laura Palmer’s many swains.

Wicked Little Things (2006)

The moral of Wicked Little Things is a little elusive, but upon my second viewing, this is what I came up with: If you have a terminally ill spouse, make sure you’ve got insurance up the wazoo.

Just another horror movie where the real monster is corporate America…

Filmed in Bulgaria, but set in Pennsylvania mining country, Wicked Little Things opens with one of those sepia-toned flashbacks that explains the premise.

In 1913, a heartless mine owner (See? A capitalist villain!) forces poor local children to work deep in the bowels of the earth. After an unplanned tectonic event, a bunch of the miserable waifs are buried alive.

We are then magically transported to the present, where MILF Karen Tunney (Lori Heuring), and her two daughters, Sarah (Scout Taylor-Compton), a surly teen, and Emma (Chloe Moretz), an empathetic moppet, are relocating to this blighted area after the death of Karen’s husband.

Pop’s long, withering illness ate up the family funds, so his dependents are forced to occupy a spacious, but dilapidated family home. Karen’s plans of flipping her fixer-upper are dashed when she finds out that she doesn’t actually own the house, and that the surrounding forest is chock-full of voracious zombie kids, who have emerged from their graves, dressed like cockney street urchins.

Maybe they should have called the movie Hungry Little Things.

It’s not a work of art, but Wicked Little Things maintains a firm hand on mood and tension throughout. I’ve never thought children the least bit horrifying (unless I’m at a restaurant trying to enjoy a meal), but these zombie rug rats are a silent, relentless, and bloodthirsty band that makes mincemeat out of dependable character actor Geoffrey Lewis (Really? You don’t know Geoffrey Lewis?) and a host of bit players.

The real tragedy is that the whole mess could have been avoided if Karen had a better insurance policy.