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.

 

Barricade (2012)

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In which the hunky star of Will & Grace (Eric McCormack) gets the opportunity to go all Jack Torrance while snowed in at a remote cabin with his two nervous children. However, instead of chasing his kids around with an axe, he attempts to prove his mettle by protecting them against ghosts—and a really nasty case of the flu.

Terrance Shade (McCormack) is a recently widowed MD who’s never really bonded with daughter Cynthia (Conner Dwelly) and son Jake (Ryan Grantham). After his wife’s unexpected demise, he decides to take his estranged offspring to an isolated mountain cabin for Christmas. On the Bad Idea scale, this rates near the tippy top, because, as the kids remind Pops again and again, he’s not handy, hardy, or even barely competent at wilderness survival. The whole Shade clan comes down with a bug courtesy of the town sheriff/shopkeeper/landlord (Donnelly Rhodes), and Terrance begins to see and hear things that cause him to come unhinged in a big way.

The crux of Barricade becomes readily apparent all too soon: Is Terrance hallucinating or is there an actual evil spirit loose in the house that’s causing them no end of misery? Why does Terrance keep flipping in and out of consciousness? Are the family members being haunted by their own sense of loss and guilt over the death of the wife/mother?

It’s not really much of a mystery, but director Andrew Currie and writer Michaelbrent Collings make sure that the atmosphere is suitably tense and claustrophobic throughout, and McCormack delivers a first-rate performance as the hapless patriarch trying his best to keep his children out of harm’s way. A very watchable little fright flick.

 

The Task (2011)

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Filmed in Bulgaria masquerading as upstate New York, this faux reality-show-set-in-a-haunted-prison feature is severely lacking in just about every department.

From a generic, no-name cast to a predictable fake-out finale, The Task is a starvation diet of style and tension. And with precious little blood and guts—and no nudity—to distract our attention, the overall cheapness and absence of fresh ideas dooms the production from the get-go.

An assortment of reality show hopefuls are kidnapped and taken to an abandoned prison with a sinister reputation. Formerly under the rule of a sadistic warden who tortured and starved his inmates, the rambling edifice is rumored to be haunted, and the unlucky contestants must spend the night, completing a variety of unsavory tasks, in order to win $20,000.

Though the prison is wired with cameras, props, and spooky audio effects, the presence of a legit ghost throws a wrench into the works.

The Task is a total dud, no matter how you slice it. We’re never given a reason to care about any of the characters—and we don’t. If they were faced with an awesome battery of mind-bending horror and derangement, the blandness of the characters wouldn’t have made any difference.

As it stands, the stakes are never enough to draw anyone into the low-voltage action. As my former editor would say, when presented with uninspired copy, “it’s awfully so-whatty.”

The Eye (2008)

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Though it pales in comparison to the Pang Brothers’ original from 2002, the American remake of The Eye with Jessica Alba is better than I thought it would be.

I’d even declare it passable entertainment.

But be warned, it’s another one of those movies that depicts ghosts as peripheral static; a blurry strobe image that flickers in and out of the material plane in annoyingly herky jerky fashion.

Who decided that this is the way that ghosts manifest themselves? It’s become another tiresome horror movie cliche and it’s really starting to annoy the shit out of me.

The lovely Sydney Wells (the lovely Ms. Alba) is a blind concert violinist who regains her sight after a cornea transplant. Sadly, her field of vision now includes the spiritual world, so she spies recently deceased dudes all over the place; trapped fearful souls that are having trouble moving on to the Happy Haunting Grounds.

With the help of a handsome eye specialist with the world’s worst bedside manner (Allesandro Nivelo), she figures out her new peepers came from a young Mexican woman with the power to see into the future.

And now Sydney, like Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, is seeing impending disasters at every turn.

Some scenes are lifted practically verbatim from the original, like the pants-wettingly scary elevator sequence, but the frights are diluted here since we know Sydney will never succumb to the malign forces around her.

1. She’s Jessica Alba, the star of the movie.

2. Her character is practically a saint.

The ghosts simply don’t pack the eerie punch that characterized the earlier film.

My biggest complaint with The Eye co-directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud is their insistence on casting the always watchable Parker Posey as Sydney’s concerned sister Helen, a totally nothing part.

Helen isn’t funny, smart, or interesting. Why would you want an actress of Posey’s caliber to play such a one-dimensional character?

Smarten up, you guys.

The Attic (2007)

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I haven’t really watched Mad Men, so actress Elisabeth Moss is kind of a revelation to me. If you haven’t seen her in the miniseries Top of the Lake, directed by Jane Campion, I suggest you do so, because it’s totally brilliant, and so is she.

In The Attic, a younger Moss portrays Emma, the increasingly delusional protagonist in a rural-goth take on Polanski’s Repulsion. Wait, did I say delusional? Perhaps she’s just a curious insect that’s wandered into the wrong fly trap.

Emma lives in a house near the woods. Her father (John Savage) and mother (Catherine Mary Stewart; who could ever forget the classic Night of the Comet?) are hopeful that she’ll finally want to go to college, but Emma prefers traipsing around the house in her nightie or exploring the creepy attic with her developmentally disabled brother Frankie (Tom Malloy, who also wrote the script).

A psychiatrist (Thomas Jay Ryan) is called in by the parents, but Emma proves to be a patient with more layers than a blooming onion.

Moss is riveting as Emma, an unmoored girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Is she going insane? Has she been possessed by a malevolent house spirit? Are Mom and Dad conspiring against her?

Like Rover with a new soup bone, you’ll be chewing on the possibilities for a while. That said, The Attic is by no means perfect: Director Mary Lambert (Pet Semetary, lots of Madonna videos) definitely built this one to be a slow burner—rich in atmospheric dread but with the action (and bloodletting) more strategically rationed.

Twixt (2011)

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Distinguished filmmaker (and winemaker) Francis Ford Coppola returns to his horror roots!

As we all know, one of his first films was the 1963 gothic thriller Dementia 13 for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures.

And like his earlier film, Twixt is an eerie, dreamlike story with revolving color/black and white scenery, and a narrative that shifts gears between reality, dream world, and the mind of a desperate writer trying to get in touch with his long-lost muse.

Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), described by one fan as “a bargain-basement Stephen King,” is out on an aimless book tour for his latest hack-job horror novel.

He rolls into Swann Valley, a sleepy little California community, and is immediately pounced upon by wannabe writer and town sheriff Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern), who wants to collaborate on a new book. “The whole town is haunted!” he tells the writer with glee.

Baltimore is an alcoholic, an indifferent husband, and a grieving father who’s clearly at the end of his rope, so he agrees to let the loony lawman show him the town.

And soon a new story is born, featuring a corpse with a stake through its heart, the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe, a dangerously pale girl with braces, a haunted hotel, and a clock tower that’s inhabited by “the devil himself.”

Obviously, Twixt is not on a par (or scale) with Coppola masterworks like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. Plot points come and go, some resolved, some disappearing like lint in a stiff breeze.

But it’s a consistently intriguing little flick that’s both a horror whodunit and a tale about a tapped-out artist who needs to reconnect with his talent in order to survive.

For rabid cinephiles, the movie includes appearances by the likes of David Paymer, Joanne Whalley (Kilmer’s wife), Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci!) and Elle Fanning, not to mention an introduction read by Tom Waits.

Ultimately, though, it’s Coppola who makes all the right moves, perhaps signaling a return to more creative endeavors than stomping on grapes.

The Conjuring (2013)

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The most recent production from Saw-teur James Wan reaped over $130 million at the box office—and with good reason.

The Conjuring is a ripping ghost yarn that is subtle and suggestive in its creepiness and, when necessary, opens the taps into a full-tilt Good vs Evil battle royal (in the Judeo-Christian tradition) culminating in a no-holds-barred exorcism showdown.

It also re-introduces fright fans to Ed and Lorraine Warren, a formidable tag-team of real-life ghost-busters, played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.

This particular haunted house party takes place in 1971, in the 19th century Rhode Island home of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingstone and Lili Taylor).

The Perrons and their five daughters get tossed around by sinister forces, necessitating the intervention of the Warrens, who set up cameras, tape recorders, and other vintage ghost-hunting paraphernalia.

Lorraine deduces that the central spook is a witch that tried to sacrifice her baby to Satan before hanging herself some 150 years prior, and whose modus operandi is to possess the mother and compel her to kill her child. In this case, Carolyn Perron has five to choose from!

The Conjuring doesn’t break new ground, but it serves up all your favorite ghost tropes piping hot, with top-notch special effects, a great cast, and expert escalation of terror. Here, the haunting is like a vicious tar baby, ensnaring any poor fool that comes along.

Even the Warrens, who are professionals and should know better, get swept up in a Satanic tsunami that poses a direct threat to their own daughter, who the couple left at home in the care of Grandma.

Speaking of which, the Warrens’ story is worth investigating. They’re the founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, and claim to have been involved in “10,000” haunting adventures.

Old Sharky says check ’em out!

The Uninvited (2009)

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Based on the 2003 Korean ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited is a taut, effective spook show that’s told with admirable restraint and subtle finesse, with an ending that will likely pull the rug out from under you. Yes, you’ll be able to figure out some of the plot twists, but probably not all of them.

Traumatized teen Anna (Emily Browning, who’s excellent) is released from a mental hospital almost a year after the night her bedridden mother died in a fire at the boat house of her family’s ocean-view estate. Upon her return, her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) fills her in on current events, namely, that their writer father Steven (David Strathairn) is knocking boots with Mom’s former caregiver Rachel (Elizabeth Banks). The sisters suspect Rachel had a hand in their mother’s fiery demise, and set about proving it, before the wicked nurse can become their wicked stepmother.

There’s nothing revolutionary going on in The Uninvited; it’s an Asian-flavored family fright-fest that never bogs down. The ghosts are suitably frightening, the actors tackle their roles with bravado, and in the end we’re left to piece together a tragic story that’s considerably more than meets the eye. It’s old-school scary and a good choice for a mixed audience of genre diehards and those who under most circumstances don’t dig the whole “horror thing.”