Suburban Gothic (2014)

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It took me a few minutes to figure it out, but Suburban Gothic appears to be a piss-take version of Zach Braff’s Garden State. Yes, that decade-old cinematic testament to post-grad honky malaise that helped coin the term Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (Google it), and gave the Shins a modest career boost. If this is indeed the case, then my sombrero is off to writer-director Richard Bates Jr. Well played, sir. *Golf clap*

Matthew Gray Gubler (aka, Dr. Jeremy Reed on CBS procedural Criminal Minds) is both droll and goofy as Raymond, a latent psychic with an MBA, forced by circumstances to boomerang home to live with emotionally fragile Mom (Barbara Niven) and asshole football coach Dad (Ray Wise). Shortly after his arrival, the Mexican landscaping crew at his parents’ house uncover a child’s skeleton in the backyard—and a-haunting we will go!

When Raymond isn’t mowing the lawn or dodging bullies, he gets booze and sympathy from Becca the bartender (Kat Dennings, hubba hubba!) a former classmate with a former weight problem, who becomes his foxy, wisecracking Watson in the Case of the Kid in the Ground in the Yard.

Idiosyncratic auteur John Waters has a small part in Suburban Gothic, which should give you an idea of the farcical low-budget aesthetic that’s in play here. Fellow fringe dwellers Jeffrey Combs, Sally Kirkland, and Mackenzie Phillips show up as local color, but it’s the haunted-house action that remains the most intriguing element, with Raymond and Becca making one of the wittiest team of mystery solvers since Nick and Nora. Can they please have their own series on Showtime? It would be way better than the current season of True Detective.

The Abandoned (2006)

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As that well-known horror movie critic Tom Petty used to say, “The waiting is the hardest part.” If this is true, then The Abandoned, a slow-burning haunted house puzzler co-written and directed by Spain’s Nacho Cerdá, will certainly test the patience of the average viewer. However, my advice is to stick with it. Cerdá, a confident visual stylist, has constructed an eerie, alluring tableau frozen in time that awaits to snatch up the twin sibling protagonists who are curious about where they came from.

American film producer Marie Jones (Anastasia Hille) returns to her homeland of Russia at the behest of a lawyer (Valentin Ganev). Once arrived, Marie is informed that her long-lost birth mother has been found, the victim of a 40-year-old murder. She also inherits the decrepit family farm, that’s been vacant since the time of the killing. The farm is in the middle of Nowherezistan, surrounded on three sides by a river, with a rickety bridge serving as the only point of access. It’s here that she’s reunited with her twin brother Nicolai (Karel Roden), shortly before the trap springs shut.

Much of The Abandoned‘s 99-minute running time is spent establishing that there is apparently no escape from this damned farm, as Marie and her brother test every available route. To be fair, this does get a little monotonous. But during this time, Cerdá is designing a meticulous metamorphosis of the farmhouse, from ruined wreck to a vengeful living thing, that never meant for the twins to leave in the first place. My patience was rewarded; your results may vary.

Neverlake (2013)

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There’s nothing wrong with a competently executed film, and Neverlake certainly qualifies. In terms of acting, setting, pace, tension, and professional camera work, I’ve got no complaints. The story itself springs from a well-chewed gothic template, namely, young girl in remote location discovers terrible family secrets and thus becomes imperiled. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few nits to pick.

Curious teen Jenny Brook (the improbably named Daisy Keeping) arrives in rural Tuscany to visit her estranged father (David Brandon), a taciturn doctor who shares a capacious (though austere) stone villa with his assistant Olga (Joy Tanner). Jenny’s mother is deceased (or—is she?). Anyway, she’s not around.

Since Dad is too busy studying Etruscan sacrificial rituals (Clue!) to show her around, Jenny takes to rambling though the woods to explore nearby Idols Lake (Clue!). Here she meets a motley assortment of disabled kids living in a dilapidated hospital who take to her instantly, except for the brooding Peter (Martin Kashirokov, who presumably has “The Russian Robert Pattinson” written on his business cards). He takes two whole scenes to warm up to their cute new friend.

Complaint Department: Dr. Brook, as played by David Brandon, can be pegged as the villain from the moment he materializes on camera. There are no other suspects. Stevie Wonder could very quickly tell you that Dr. Brook is a cold, scowling (mad) scientist who is obviously up to something nefarious—least of all, boinking his stern, Eastern Bloc assistant. The painful obviousness of this development somewhat diminishes the suspense that director Riccardo Paoletti, and writers Carlo Longo and Manuela Cacciamani were hoping to create.

Even so, Neverlake gets a lukewarm recommendation from where I’m sitting. It doesn’t take much to buy into the drama, and thankfully, despite a well-worn path, there are still some surprises lurking in these woods.

The Red House (1947)

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This is one of those crazy old movies that I must have seen five or six trauma-inducing times as a kid, and had heard nothing about since. Thanks for reuniting us, Hulu Plus! Warning: This film is in glorious black and white; no need to adjust your sets.

Written and directed by Hollywood utility man Delmer Daves (The Petrified Forest, Dark Passage, A Summer Place, Destination Tokyo, 3:10 To Yuma, among others) and based on a novel by George Agnew Chamberlain, The Red House is a legitimately creepy, rural gothic, coming-of-age mystery. It’s also a master-class in acting taught by Edward G. Robinson, a man mostly remembered for his iconic gangster roles, such as the sadistic Johnny Rocco in the Bogart/Bacall thriller Key Largo.

Amidst a wild and bucolic countryside sits the sprawling Morgan farm, where we find Pete (EGR), his sister Ellen (Dame Judith Anderson), and their (more or less) adopted ward-daughter-person Meg (Allene Roberts), who has a crush on the new hired hand, her high school classmate Nath (Lon McCallister).

One night, Nath decides to take a shortcut home through the woods, despite some frantic warnings from his boss, Pete. While the lad insists that he must go into the woods to save time, Pete has a convincing anxiety attack, warning him about screams in the night coming from… the Red House! (dun, dun, Dun!)

Meg continues to moon over Nath, who’s in an unsatisfying relationship with Tibby (Julie London), a trampy rich girl who seems to have eyes for the brutish town poacher (Rory Calhoun, who wears an Elvis Presley pompadour almost 10 years before the King). Meg and Nath find themselves thrown together, and decide to find that mysterious Red House in the woods.

While not horror per se, The Red House is thoroughly marinated in dread, with atmosphere to burn—including a surprising amount of smoldering teenage lust. Certainly one could read Meg and Nath’s obsessive quest to find the “red house” in the woods as the buildup to a sexual awakening. (I’ll have you know, I studied this shit in school!)

There’s also an outré ending that actually haunted my sleep for years. Or months, maybe. OK, once. And Edward G. Robinson? He is sublime as a basically decent man with too many secrets—and a very slippery grasp on reality. The Red House is the perfect movie to pull out on a night when everybody swears they’ve seen everything.

Shrooms (2007)

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If you can get past the movie’s ludicrous premise, Shrooms is actually a fairly tight little thriller about another camping trip gone to hell. But that premise is a real whopper. Allow me to vent for a moment.

WHY THE HELL WOULD A GROUP OF FRIENDS WANT TO TRAVEL ALL THE WAY TO IRELAND—where five out of the six have never been—TO PICK MUSHROOMS AND TRIP BALLS? EVEN BETTER, THEIR GUIDE TAKES THEM TO A BLIGHTED WILDERNESS THAT’S INHABITED BY TRAUMATIZED FORMER INHABITANTS OF A HOME FOR WAYWARD YOUTH THAT WAS RUN BY A CRACKPOT RELIGIOUS SECT THAT TORTURED AND ABUSED ITS INMATES? AND NOW, IT’S RUMORED TO BE HAUNTED BY THE GHOST OF A SADISTIC MONK AND THE LITTLE SACK-HEADED FERAL CHILD WHO TRIED TO KILL HIM. WHY, THAT’S PERFECT! THAT’S EXACTLY WHERE I WOULD WANT TO CHOW DOWN ON HALLUCINOGENS, ALONG WITH MY BEST BUDDIES THAT I DON’T REALLY LIKE AND WHO DON’T LIKE EACH OTHER. SHEESH! WASN’T THE HAUNTED ABATTOIR AVAILABLE? OR A REALLY VENGEFUL AMERICAN-INDIAN BURIAL GROUND?

To their credit, director Paddy Breathnach and writer Pearse Elliott deliver enough shocks and shivers to keep us on full alert. But this trip was doomed from the get-go and this little troop of backpackers never stood a chance.

 

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.

 

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