Don’t Breathe (2016)

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There’s much to admire about Don’t Breathe, a nasty, audacious thriller directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez and released by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. The technical finesse demonstrated throughout adds considerable impact and Raimi-esque style to the action, which unfortunately becomes increasingly preposterous under the weight of too many plot points.

Rocky (Jane Levy) is a hardworking single-mom burglar with dreams of relocating to sunny California from her blighted hometown of Detroit (actually filmed in Hungary—way to save money, team!). She and her coworkers Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) tumble onto a caper that looks like a piece of cake: bust into a blind man’s pad and steal a pile of cash that is supposedly on the premises, the result of a huge settlement he reached after a rich girl killed his daughter in a car accident.

The little old blind man (a superb Stephen Lang) turns out to be a chiseled combat veteran with a Rottweiller and a labyrinthine basement full of dangerous secrets, and the bad-ass burglars are soon trapped in a dark house with an even badder-ass “victim.”

The twists and turns that ensue range from deft and effective to downright ludicrous. If Alvarez didn’t feel the need to pad the script with unnecessary dramatic tropes (dead daughter, bad mother memories, male suitor rivalry, pregnancy), he might have had a lean, mean survival flick in the tradition of John Carpenter or Wes Craven. To his credit, he almost pulls it off.

The contrast between the lithe tracking shots of abandoned neighborhoods being slowly retaken by nature, to the tightly focused and creeping claustrophobia of the blind man’s lair is skillfully rendered, and Alvarez earns bonus points for keeping tensions taut.

What really detracts from those tensions is the director’s penchant for telegraphing every development well before it happens with a barrage of cutaways to objects that will play a significant role further down the line.

It’s an annoyingly condescending move designed to eliminate any obligation on the viewer’s part to pay attention. Alvarez cheerfully introduces us to a hammer, a piece of glass, a crowbar, a remote, a couple pairs of shoes, and a pistol hidden under a mattress just so we aren’t surprised when they reappear later. Raimi can get away with this chicanery in his own movies, but here it falls flat and goes splat.

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Sleepaway Camp (1983)

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Where do I begin? Probably where most people do—the ending. The finale of Sleepaway Camp is crazier than Andy Dick on bath salts, and accounts for about 90 percent of the mystique that surrounds this camp-killer relic. There is also fun to be had watching an amazing time capsule of hideous ’80s hair and clothes. One kid wears an Asia (the band) T-shirt!

Though not a particularly gory movie, the kills are inventive, and writer-director Robert Hiltzig (a film student at the time) somehow sustains enough tension with his amateur freak-show cast to carry us through to the aforementioned ending. Which, in case I didn’t make myself clear, is the stuff of afternoons whiled away on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Introverted Angela (Felissa Rose) and her boisterous cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) are shipped off to Camp Arawak, a substandard bucolic retreat for horny teens. (Much of the discomfort encountered in Sleepaway Camp comes from virtually all the campers behaving like hormonal nitwits, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that most of actors look like they’re 12, tops. Ewww.)

Since she’s the quiet type, Angela naturally gets picked on by her bitchy bunkmates, but does successfully attract the attention of Paul (Christopher Collett), a nice boy, whom she soon finds in a compromising lip-lock with her chief tormentor, Judy (Karen Fields, who, in her own bored, flirty way, is the film’s real monster). A series of deadly “accidents” ensue, as one camper drowns and another gets stung to death by bees.

Let’s meet the staff! Counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo) is an Italian body builder who ambles about in horrifying shorty shorts; the cook (Owen Hughes) is a brazen sexual predator, and Mel, the cigar-smoking, hopelessly middle-aged camp director (Mike Kellin, who’s been in about a zillion movies since 1950) is a man increasingly worried about the camp’s financial bottom line, once the corpses start piling up. However, he’s not so worried that he can’t find time to make indecent proposals to Meg (Katherine Kamhi), a counselor that apparently craves the attention of old homely men in knee socks.

My suspicion here is that Hiltzig, a novice filmmaker, caught some Ed Wood juju in a jar. Somehow, through a combination of luck, desperation, and naive audacity, he made a cheap, traumatic slasher flick that people still talk about. The ending, anyway.

Sleepaway Camp inspired a bunch of sequels, but I can’t speak to their quality.

Beneath (2013)

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Not to be confused with Beast Beneath, this cold-sweat skin crawler from director Ben Ketai, plunges us into some seriously subterranean depths for claustrophobic goosebumps not seen around these parts since Neil Marshall’s The Descent (a below-the-surface horror highwater mark).

Filmed in a very realistic coal mine (no location info available) operation, a group of unlucky miners, along with their boss (Jeff Fahey) and his plucky daughter (Kelly Noonan), find themselves stranded 600 feet below ground after an unexpected tectonic turn. Searching for a way out, they come across an older tunnel that leads to the abandoned outpost of a mining crew that disappeared nearly 100 years earlier. Meanwhile, their emergency supply of oxygen canisters is dwindling faster than free drinks at a wedding reception. Wait! Did you hear something?

Since Beneath is “based on actual events,” the likelihood of mole men, ghouls, or trogs appearing out of the stonework seems remote at best, but to their credit, Ketai and writers Patrick Doody and Chris Valenziano keep a firm hand on the reins and the threat levels high. I myself experienced the same sense of impending doom (and fear of tight spaces) that I felt while getting to know the colorful company of marines in Cameron’s Aliens.

I wish I could have contributed to the marketing of this movie, because I have a can’t-miss tagline. “The poisonous atmosphere left them—OXYGEN DEPRAVED!” (The written content of Horrificflicks.com is my intellectual property, by the way.)

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.

Don’t Blink (2014)

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If I ever needed a lesson in cinematic contrast, a whiplash-inducing transition from sublime to sucky, it could be had in seeing this Nothing Burger after my epiphany experience with The Babadook. “Nothing” is our word for the day, as in, “There is NOTHING happening in Don’t Blink and it has NOTHING to recommend it.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Ten reasonably attractive friends arrive for a Rocky Mountain winter holiday at a tacky, pressed board condo that looks like it was built from a kit an hour before filming started. There is no one around to meet them. The loser lodge is a veritable Marie Celeste, with meals left half-eaten on the table. And they can’t leave because all three cars are almost out of gas.

One by one, the vacationers start to vanish. Once that happens, you can choose your own adventure, and it will undoubtedly be a big improvement to the dramatic course charted by writer/director Travis Oates.

Don’t Blink stinks. It stars Brian Austin Green and Mena Suvari and is easily one of the most half-baked, pointless exercises in film I’ve seen this century.

The Babadook (2014)

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Simply put, The Badadook is one of the most emotionally devastating horror movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a brilliant film that manages to be both a dark, heroic fairy tale and a grimmer-than-grim slice-of-life family drama about an overworked mother who tries, but can’t cope with her eccentric son’s disturbing behavior anymore. It’s also about a terrified young boy who’s mother might be going insane.

Amelia (Essie Davis, who shines like a young Jessica Lange) is the harried widowed mother of Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a clever but damaged young boy who doesn’t fit in at school or with friends. Amelia’s husband died in a car accident on the way to the hospital the night she gave birth, so she too has a dark cloud of unresolved issues that follows her around like a nervous dog.

Mother and son clearly love each other, but their life is difficult, to say the least. One night, during the evening bedtime story, Samuel selects the wrong book and an evil spirit is loosed in the house. As if they didn’t have enough trouble…

The combination of Amelia’s waking, working nightmare of a life, and the additional strain placed on her by the malign presence that’s settled in her home creates an unrelenting pressure cooker that would crumble a commando. The Babadook is a film without gore and very little violence, that is nonetheless brutal, recalling both Polanski’s Repulsion and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for its merciless plunge into the realm of madness.

Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent presents us with a tale that cuts uncomfortably close to the bone, because she had the nerve to invent two characters who are believable, likable, sympathetic—and profoundly haunted. True, in the past, I’ve griped about movies that waste time on character development when all we really want is mayhem. The Babadook is exactly the opposite. It’s a realistic character-driven story in which we hope that misfortune can be averted because we’re emotionally invested in the protagonists. The bottom line, that bad things happen to good people, is more horrifying than a thousand dead campers.

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.

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