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.

Mr. Jones (2013)

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The consensus opinion on writer-director Karl Mueller’s feature-length debut is that it has all the makings of a first-class frightener—but falls apart at the end, like a child’s first soufflé. I think the finale boils down to two possibilities, neither of which ruined the experience, in my opinion. In Mr. Jones, Mueller has created a vivid, found-footage nightmare that runs its course effectively, before running smack-dab into an ambiguous conclusion. Ambiguous, in this instance, does not mean half-assed or inexplicable.

Nutshell: An attractive couple severs its ties with civilization and sets up housekeeping in a remote mountainous locale (The Sierra Nevada range, if I had to guess). Scott (Jon Foster) is intent on making a nature documentary, that fizzles out before it starts. Girlfriend Penny (Sarah Jones) is worried about her partner, who’s gone off his medication and lost interest in the film project that would undoubtedly make them both rich and famous. (Add sarcasm font to the preceding statement.)

They soon become aware of a mysterious neighbor who gambols around in a hooded cloak, and Penny deduces that it is none other than Mr. Jones, a reclusive artist famous for creating unsettling life-sized scarecrows that got shipped out to seemingly random recipients around the world. And now their documentary has a new subject!

As the couple investigates Mr. Jones further, it becomes apparent that the artist is some sort of sorcerer or shaman who’s guarding the borders where various dimensions overlap. Penny’s convinced he’s benign, but Scott isn’t so sure. During a massive storm, all hell breaks loose and the fledgling filmmakers lose each other in the chaos. Queue up an ending that leaves us with more questions than answers, and roll credits.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Jones. It successfully keeps us off balance, unsure of anything that’s taking place before our eyes. As for the ending that got stuck in everyone’s craw, there are two possible explanations. The first is that Scott, upon abandoning his meds (for what condition, we’re not told) has a reality break from which there is no return. The footage they’ve shot suggests that Mr. Jones is Scott himself, but this is hard to verify since there seem to be good and evil versions of both characters running around.

The other theory is that Scott did something to screw up the wards that Jones had put in place to protect our world against impending evil, resulting in the latter’s death. Now it’s up to Scott take his place as the new dimensional guardian. Which is only fair, if you ask me.

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.

 

The Battery (2012)

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I suppose The Battery qualifies as a zombie movie—but just barely. Until the finale, you can count the number of undead appearances on one hand. First and foremost, it’s a post-apocalyptic road movie that owes more to Samuel Beckett than it does George Romero. Gorehounds with ADD are going to hate this film because it’s slower than a senior citizen’s square dance and probably a lot less bloody. It’s also an extremely frugal production. Seriously, the budget was probably less than what I have in my checking account. (I am currently unemployed—thanks for asking!)

Even with so many things stacked against it, I have to give an admiring thumbs-up to The Battery and to writer, director, and star Jeremy Gardner, who bravely ran with the idea of having very little money at his disposal, and used that freedom to create something unique: a bleak, absurdist buddy movie about two minor-league baseball players dodging the dead on the backroads of Connecticut.

After months on the road, our two main characters have become a study in contrasts. Ben (Gardner), the team’s catcher, is a bearded outdoorsman, a brawny survivor-type who does most of the heavy lifting (hunting, fishing, zombie-killing) in the relationship. Mickey (Adam Cronheim), a relief pitcher, is a sullen romantic who spends most of his time lost in thought with a pair of headphones fixed over his ears. Despite the presence of the jovial and optimistic Ben, Mickey is depressed and desperately misses his old life.

One fine day, the pair pick up some stray communication on their walkie-talkies, leading them to believe there is a fortified community in the area. Ben, who is content with camping and living outside, wants to steer clear. Mickey wants a home. A bed. A roof over his head. And maybe a girl.

This is the doomed conflict at the heart of The Battery—the terrible necessity of freedom, as personified by Ben, who refuses to be trapped in any situation, and Mickey’s need for comfort and security. In the end, freedom trumps comfort, as one might expect given the dire circumstances. But Gardner’s excruciatingly lengthy scenes of Ben and Mickey brushing their teeth, playing catch, listening to music and generally farting around, seem to imply that it takes two souls to make a life worth fighting for. Positive and negative, yin and yang, pitcher and catcher.

Fun Fact: “The Battery” refers to the pitcher and catcher in ye olde baseball vernacular.

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