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.

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.

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?”

The Oregonian (2011)

I’ve been employed as a writer and editor in Portland since 1994 (more or less). So when I saw that a new horror entry on Netflix had the same name as our daily newspaper, I just assumed it was the terrifying story of an aging copy editor with limited skills trying to remain employed in the face of career obsolescence.

For better or for worse, this is not the case. Instead, writer-director Calvin Reeder works awfully hard to create a minor-league David Lynch nightmare—with marginal results.

The Oregonian opens on a girl (Lindsay Pulsipher, from True Blood; think Reese Witherspoon’s disturbed kid sister) driving away from a farm (and a drunk abusive father figure). This is followed by a a vague car accident in which “the Oregonian” (Pulsipher, I guess) smashes a couple of unlucky picnickers into pickle relish.

When she regains her senses (if in fact, she ever does), the titular damsel finds herself lost in a weirdly malign universe that bears a striking resemblance to David Lynch’s subconscious.

Looking for help, and finding nothing of the sort, the girl meets a menacing witch (more of a ticked-off art teacher, really); a guy in a truck who doesn’t speak (much) but gives her a ride, and then collapses after taking a long, multicolored leak; and a tall guy in a green fuzzy monster suit who seems to represent some part of her life that she’s trying to repress.

Again, it’s Lynch, Lynch, Lynch. The soundtrack is crammed with shrieks, radio static, buzzers, voices, and other annoying artsy distractions. The lonely, rural, rainy sets could be Twin Peaks B-roll, even down to a shot of the girl walking across the same railroad bridge that poor Ronette Pulaski wandered over, lo those many years ago.

Reeder gets a few points for being a dexterous (though derivative) visual stylist, but his fevered homage is more endurance test than entertainment.

I could hack films like The Oregonian back when I was young and my head was still supple; now I just want my 90 minutes back.

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!

Tales From The Dead (2008)

An odd little film. It’s certainly J-Horror; the cast is Japanese, and so is the dialogue.

I’m just not sure why.

Writer-director Jason Cuadrado is American, his crew is American, and it’s filmed in California.

A contract job for a Japanese studio?

Point of origin aside, Tales From the Dead is a reasonably engaging anthology of four tales spun by blithe medium Tamika (Leni Ito) to a stranded motorist whom she has rescued from the side of the road.

Tamika spends most of her free time hanging out with earth-bound spirits in search of justice, helping to right the wrongs done to them in life. Her psychic powers came to her via a bite from a black widow while attending her father’s funeral, a “gift from beyond,” as it were.

Tamika’s first story is the richest, about a catatonic son returned to his family home, and the loving arms of his grieving parents who had thought him lost.

After a few clever plot twists are revealed, the familiar feeling of domestic dread, that palpable sense of creeping evil anchored to a mundane location that serves as the foundation for the best J-Horror, escalates dramatically and disturbingly.

The rest of the vignettes range from “meh” to “pretty good,” adequate storytelling from the same template utilized by Tales From The Crypt or The Twilight Zone.

It’s all formula, but the time passes agreeably, bolstered by life lessons imparted from the transgressions of the doomed souls depicted herein.

Grave Encounters (2011)

A ghost-chasing reality show crew makes the mistake of choosing a location that is actually, you know, haunted.

The intrepid Grave Encounters team decides to investigate the laundry list of paranormal events at the old Collingwood Mental Hospital, where “thousands” of patients were lobotomized, neglected, and otherwise discouraged in their quests for a sound mind.

Manic team leader Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), loaded down with the latest in ghostbuster technology, hopes they’ll find evidence of a real haunting.

Careful what you wish for, dude.

It’s been a few moons since I reviewed a “found footage” feature, and I’m glad I found this one. Stylistic similarities aside, I dig Grave Encounters more than The Blair Witch Project. (Dig? Grave? See what I did there?)

True, TBWP came first, but to me, the scariest thing about that particular film, was the inability of its characters to camp successfully. Frankly, it hasn’t aged well.

Grave Encounters is a much less “subtle” movie, and the fright factor is much higher. Sure, most of the time, less is more. The suggestion of terror is more effective than beating you over the head with a bag of ghosts (see the original version of The Haunting, and the vapid remake with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or better yet, just watch the original.)

Here is an exception to the rule. The Vicious Brothers, who wrote and directed, like to reveal their spooks, but they do so in an artful manner, staggering the flow of genuine frights in unpredictable ways.

Some scenes build to an expected payoff—and then it doesn’t happen. But it will. Later. When you’re not looking for it. Original premise? Hell to the no. Fun? Affirmative.

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.

The Legend of Bloody Jack (2007)

If the cover blurb, “Based on the the terrifying true events behind America’s scariest campfire story,” is accurate, then I must confess that I’m really out of the loop on my lumberjack legends.

Is there really a ghost story about an ax-wielding hayseed who practices black magic? I must have missed that one. If the campfire tale is anything like this low-wattage lump of shit, I’m glad I did.

A pair of quickly dispatched investigators summon the spirit of the swinging sorcerer. Two days later, a van bearing seven soon-to-be-butchered mannequins from Abercrombie & Fitch arrives for one of those idyllic camping trips that never seems to materialize.

Whether it’s the abysmal acting, the seemingly random and feckless decision-making of the characters, or an irritatingly banter-filled screenplay that sounds like it was written by a miserably untalented college freshman, there’s plenty of blame to be shared for this stink bomb—but since it was written and directed by Todd Portugal, the lion’s share should be reserved for him.

The questions accumulate as the action (I guess you could call it “action”) slowly unravels like a third-generation Santa sweater. Why are the doomed 35-year-old kids who are trapped at the cabin in the woods waving flashlights around? The entire film takes place in bright sunlight.

How come when Tom (Josh Evans) disappears, his supposed “best friend” Nick (Craig Bonacorsi) won’t go look for him because “it’s too dangerous,” but later he decides that they should go in search of Deputy Vince (Jeremy Flynn), whom they saw drive away in a truck about 15 minutes before?

Why is Lisa (Jessica Szabo) so blasé after seeing her boyfriend George hacked into jerky? Why? Why? Why?

On the positive side of the street, the gore is plentiful (though amateurish), and there are three nude scenes by the 30-minute mark. That’s about it.

There’s also a nitwitted “surprise” ending that feels like it was hurriedly tacked on after Todd Portugal looked at his footage and smelled dead fish.

And what the hell is up with the title? Unless I was really asleep at the switch, I didn’t hear a single mention of anyone called Jack, bloody or otherwise, during the interminable 84-minute running time.

YellowBrickRoad (2010)

This indie entry has such an unsettling premise and buildup, that I’m actually going to forgive the WTF ending. It wasn’t easy, but the first 75 minutes are skillfully constructed and hint at so much awful, otherworldly potential.

Filmmakers Andy Mitton and Jesse Holland effectively borrow the premise of The Blair Witch Project—research team goes into scary woods to investigate a local mystery—and successfully create a movie in which the viewer is constantly bombarded with possibilities and forced to invent scenarios that explain the increasingly bizarre circumstances.

A writer (Michael Laurino), his wife (Anessa Ramsey), and a handful of other science-y types go traipsing off into uncharted New Hampshire forest land to find out what happened to the entire population of the nearby town of Friar.

Seventy years previous, everyone inexplicably left Friar and followed a trail into the woods and were never seen alive again. The modern-day explorers find the coordinates of the trail and the expedition begins. What no one realizes until it’s far too late, is that it’s a doomed expedition leading only to—MADNESS!

It’s a subtle transformation that takes place in YellowBrickRoad; the further the characters travel on the trail, the more things break down. Tensions arise, their instruments cease to work, and worst of all, they are loudly serenaded with old-timey jazz music day and night, as if the entire forest is wired for sound.

After all this slow-baked agony, the ending is a rather pale payoff compared to what Mitton and Holland have put us through for most of the film, but credit must be given for the power of the journey itself, which at times resembles a low-budget take on Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God rather than the aforementioned Blair Witch.

And that’s good company.