Movie Review: The AWAKENING

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the awakeningCohen Media Group
2011
R

“It’s never darker than when we close our eyes, and yet we keep them shut. Why is that?”

The year is 1921, and author Florence Cathcart is a famous debunker of supernatural tomfoolery and the bane of charlatans in England. She’s contacted by a teacher from a boys’ boarding school, where there have been sightings of a ghost of a young boy at the school, which may have contributed to the death of one of the living boys. He wants her to investigate, to which she initially refuses…but, then she gets all soft-hearted because she, too, was an orphan once, and all that. So, she arrives at the school, and sets up her various equipment she uses to prove whether or not there’s a haunting. Doing her best detective work, she deduces the real culprit in the death of the young boy…and it’s not a ghost. Surprise, surprise. But, even though her job is done and she’s about to leave, something happens that causes Florence to question her sanity and remain at the school a bit longer during the holiday break. She’s beginning to see things, things that may tie back to her past. And also question whether or not there really is a ghost that wanders the halls of the school.

Overall, I found The Awakening to be an interesting old school style Gothic ghost story that has the same slow-burning feel of The Others and The Woman In Black, has a very creepy atmosphere and heavy bit of tension, and unravels as a pretty good supernatural mystery. Rebecca Hall is mesmerizing as the skeptic with a sad past, and I may have developed a bit of a fanboy crush. It tends to happen. I do admit that the way the story unraveled was a bit on the predictable side, adhering to the early 20th Century ghost story formula, but that’s kind of par for the course. The Awakening was a good movie, a decent way to kill a rainy Autumn afternoon (for effect).

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Movie Review: INSIDIOUS: Chapter 2

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insidious chapter 2Blumhouse Productions
2013
PG-13

“In my line of work things tend to happen when it gets dark.”

I have to admit, I was a bit slow on the uptake to watch the sequel to one of the better horror flicks to come out in the 21st Century. I was kind of on a strictly limited budget at the time, which was mostly focused on the marriage that ultimately never happened. Obviously I spaced out on this and the third entry in James Wan’s Insidious franchise. But, with the upcoming fourth entry coming up in January 2018, I figured now would be a good time to play catch-up.

After a bit of a flashback to a young Josh Lambert getting an exorcism by a young Elise Rainer, Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up right when the first movie ended, with the younger son of Josh’s family saved from The Further, but resulting in the death of Elise. After a police investigation, the family moves in with Josh’s mother, hoping to try and put the events from the previous movie behind them. Soon, though, the bad dreams begin coming back, Josh’s wife Renai keeps hearing the piano playing by itself and begins to see a mysterious woman in white going after the baby, and Josh seems to be…not himself as of late. Meanwhile, Specs and Tucker–Elise’s assistance from the first film–stumble upon the videotape of Josh’s exorcism from the flashback in the beginning, and they, along with Elise’s long-time friend Carl, begin piecing together the truth: Josh wasn’t the one who came back from The Further, but the spirit of a deceased serial killer called The Bride in Black. Also, the real Josh has been trying to send messages to his loved ones from The Further. Soon, there’s a showdown between the possessed Josh in the real world, as well as the spirits in The Further. Do they succeed in putting things back to where it once was? Will the movie end with another booga-booga-booga shock take? Does Jason Voorhees love his hockey mask / machete fashion combo?

When I decided to watch Insidious Chapter 2, it was the first night of my annual self-imposed seclusion trip, wherein I spend an extended weekend in my aunt and uncle’s camper out by their pond. It was storming, lots of lightning, thunder, howling winds and torrents of rain beating down on my cozy dwelling. In other words, the ambiance was perfect for watching horror movies. And the whole thing helped in the amplification of my enjoyment of Insidious Chapter 2 greatly. Because, otherwise, and I’m rather sad for saying this, but I don’t think that Chapter 2 would have been as effective a horror movie as the first one was. Mind you, the story is a good one, the atmosphere builds up the tension nicely, and the effects were very good. Overall, a well-made ghost story with serious teeth. That doesn’t stop the nagging feeling that I’ve been there, done that already. Still, very much worth a rental some night. In the same kind of weather conditions I managed to watch this in. Trust me, it works.

Movie Review: ELOISE

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Movie Review ELOISEVertical Entertainment
2017
R

Four friends break into Eloise, an abandoned insane asylum, in search of a death certificate which will grant one of them a large inheritance. Unbeknownst to these four trespassers, what begins as an in-and-out adventure will evolve into their darkest nightmare in a place haunted by evil doctors, tortured spirits and unspeakable memories.

Here we are with yet another Abandoned Haunted Medical Facility type movie, this one featuring the likes of Elza Dushku and Robert Patrick as actors. My track record with movies like this one is rather dismal, and I only end up watching them more out of morbid curiosity, almost daring the movie to do something different–some kind of creative twist to a tired movie trope–to make me like it even a little bit. Does Eloise manage to do this? In a word…nope.

So, the movie involves a young, 20-something blue collar man who just learns of the death of his father. While at the insurance office following up, he’s then made aware of a long-forgotten aunt who was interred at the Eloise insane asylum decades prior, and has bequeathed a large sum of money to him. Though she’s been presumed long dead, the kid (sorry, I’m in my 40s, so 20-somethings are looking like kids to me) needs to get the official death certificate to prove her to be dead-dead, so he can get the money awaiting him. And the certificate is located in one of the abandoned buildings of Eloise, naturally. So, he enlists the help of an old friend of his, a bartender he met the night prior, and the bartender’s brother, who happens to be a fount of information on Eloise, to break into the abandoned facility and try and find the death certificate. The inside of this place is creepy enough as it is, especially in the dead of night; but soon the standard set of supernatural shenanigans begin happening, progressing predictably to what you would expect in something labeled as a “horror movie”.

Well, now…this was an unsurprisingly boring movie to sit through. Most independently shot horror flicks involving haunted asylums or hospitals of some sort usually are, as they all seem to go the route story-wise. You know the drill: bunch of young adults break into the abandoned structure for whatever reason, said abandoned structure turns out to be haunted for realsies, wackiness ensues. Usually off screen. Nothing new to see here, folks. Move along, move along.

Mind you, there are several things going for the movie’s favor, like being shot on location at the defunct Eloise mental institution outside of Detroit, Michigan, and capitalizing well with the eerie atmosphere of the interiors of said building. The history behind the facility also lends to the atmosphere and amps up the dread when they’re inside the place. This being director Robert Legato’s first film–a guy who is better known as a long time VFX specialist for several well-known Hollywood directors, as well as helming a few Star Trek episodes in the 90s–he did a very good job shooing and editing the movie itself. And the story does start off with a promising premise. But, once they finally get inside the titular building, it goes the route every modern haunted asylum movie has gone before, and not very memorably I should hasten to add. The actors were all adequate in their respective rolls, with Eliza Dushku being the default standout of the bunch. The worst part is about two-thirds of the way in, when the movie introduces the dimensional time-shift aspect to the plot, in an attempt to answer the mystery behind the evil of the…

Ah, forget it. I give up trying to explain things about this movie. Eloise has flashes of good ideas, but ultimately falls flat. So far, the only good abandoned asylum movie in existence is Session 9, and you would do well to watch that one again instead.

Movie Review: IT (2017)

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itWarner Bros.
2017
R

“This isn’t real enough for you, Billy? I’m not real enough for you? It was real enough for Georgie.”

Seven young outcasts in Derry, Maine, are about to face their worst nightmare–an ancient, shape-shifting evil that emerges from the sewer every 27 years to prey on the town’s children. Banding together over the course of one horrifying summer the friends must overcome their own personal fears to battle the murderous, bloodthirsty clown known as Pennywise.

I’ve been sitting here now, for quite a bit of time, trying to figure out how I’m going to lead off this particular review of the new big-screen adaptation of one of Stephen Kings more notorious novels in his repertoire, It. There were several ways I could have approached this, really: talk a bit about the book; talk about the first adaptation, the TV miniseries from 1990; a bit from both columns maybe. But, the biggest thing that hit me the prior night, after watching the 2017 movie, was that the new It was released 27 years after the TV miniseries. I see what you did there, movie. Was that deliberate or mere coincidence? Probably coincidence. Unless it was deliberate. It’s enough to make me paranoid. Well, more so.

Anyway, at this point I should make the obligatory mention of me being a long-time fan of Stephen King, having read the book It in the late 1980s at the age of 15, and watching the original broadcasts of the TV miniseries adaptation and then renting the VHS releases more than once back in the day. And while I loved the miniseries adaptation (the first part was better than the second part, but that seems to be a universally held opinion on the whole), it still seemed to lack a certain bite that would have really made it a scary tour de force. I realize that there were limitations due to being shown on network television back in the very early 1990s, but still. Getting a proper big-screen movie adaptation was something that was announced every other year or so since the mid-1990s, but took quite a while to actually find ground and get made. Long enough for me to take a “I’ll believe it when I’m sitting in a theater and seeing it” kind of stance with any news report of one.

And now, here we are, with what is reportedly the first chapter in a two-part big screen adaptation of It. I saw it. I believed it. And, wow, let me tell you, the wait was definitely worth it.

There’s a couple of things I need to point out here before I forget: First, best use of an Anthrax song in a movie, ever. The other movie that I know of that utilizes Anthrax was Last Action Hero. At least, they had an Anthrax song on their soundtrack. I haven’t seen that movie yet, so I can’t verify if it’s in the movie itself. But, yeah, It cranks out “Antisocial” at a key point in the movie. Metal horns up. And on a side note, one of the antagonists wears metal shirts. Awesome. The other point I wanted to make, most importantly, is that, if you have an aversion to clowns–even if they just make you the least bit uncomfortable–this It is definitely not for you. Trust me on this one. Because the Pennywise here makes Tim Curry’s Pennywise from the miniseries look like he was a member of Clowns For Jesus.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. With something like this, it could have been very easy to skip past a lot of the source material and just focus on “there’s a creepy clown, BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!” kind of narrative. This movie wisely takes the time to build up the main characters, to give them depth and make you care about them. The fear and terror here doesn’t stem from some supernatural harlequin; the actual terror is from each of the character’s real life, what they most fear. The clown–or, more to the point, the entity behind the clown itself, more on that in a bit–just happens to amplify those fears to get to them. But, what makes it so effective is that you’re given time to get to know everyone in the Loser’s Club, to care about their situations and home lives. Heck, even the main antagonist, one Henry Bowers, is given a scene that makes you sympathetic for how he came to become such a monster. Very good job picking out the right child actors to carry the story.

Now, a bit about Pennywise. For me, clowns are no problem. I have no fear of them. They don’t even make me uncomfortable…unless they invade my personal space, but that goes for everyone on this planet. Bill Skarsgård’s take on Pennywise is the first instance where I was genuinely creeped out by a clown in any media. This can be chalked up to two things: 1) Bill Skarsgård’s mannerisms and style he went for (he wisely chose to not just imitate Tim Curry’s iconic version), and 2) the effects that made Pennywise off-putting and unnatural, and not just when the fangs came out. I’ve read and heard complaints that Pennywise didn’t seem real…and I think that was the whole point. As I touched on, and for those of you familiar with the source material, Pennywise is just an avatar that It uses, and I would think that, to wring the maximum amount of fear from a child, an ancient entity of pure evil that may or may not be a Lovecraftian elder god would use that to great effect. And I found it used to great effect, here. Especially in the final confrontation.

Anyway, I’ve been gushing about this movie for far too long, now. I’m just going to leave off with this: While I do admit that there were times when the story seems a bit disjointed and unfocused, keep in mind the source material. To say there were some issues with pacing with the book would be to understate things considerably. Also, to that end, anyone who may be expecting a faithful word-by-word adaptation of the novel…nope. Not getting it here. The very fact that they set the year this takes place with 1988 and 1989 instead of 1957 and 1958 tips you right off the bat. And really, I am not only okay with the changes, but I think it makes the story better.

Overall, despite the gang of 11-year-old boys sitting behind me freaking out every five minutes over the littlest things (seriously, what was that father thinking?), I enjoyed this It immensely. Easily the second best film I’ve seen in theaters this year. I would highly recommend you seeing this as a matinee, with a bunch of friends and a goodly amount of popcorn at the ready. Red balloon optional.

Movie Review: HELL HOUSE LLC

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Hell House LLCTerror Films
2016
NR

At this point, I don’t think I would need to explain again my thoughts on the “found footage” style of horror movies, but just in case this is your first time here let me give you the condensed version: I don’t really mind them, if they’re made well and offer something more than the standard same-old, same-old. In other words, pretty much how I view other sub-genres within the horror umbrella. There are good ones, and many many bad ones. It’s just that I find it easier to get burned out on found footage movies than on other genres, mainly because there’s not much going for it past the typical haunting or odd exorcism plot.

Which brings us to this movie, here, Hell House LLC. I came across this title while perusing what movies I could watch during my free trial of Amazon Prime (which I opted for to same some money on 2-day shipping of something I needed), and while I instantly knew by the quick blurb description that this was another one of those found footage movies, the premise really kind of intrigued me enough to stick it on my watch list. Because while Hell House LLC is technically one of those Found Footage From Inside A Haunted House movies, the haunted house in question is actually a haunted house attraction that turned out to be haunted for realsies. Not the most imaginative of twists, but to put things in context, in Omaha where I live there is a long-running Haunted House attraction that is run in an old building that is also purported to be actually haunted as well. It’s enough to arouse the imagination in someone like myself, who never really lost his sense of wonderment with things like this.

Anyway, Hell House LLC involves a handful of young entrepreneurs of the titular Hell House LLC, a professional haunted house attraction that originally was centered in New York city. In 2009, they decided to move things to a more atmospheric rural community setting, and set up shop in the long-abandoned Abadon Hotel. Go-Pro footage, along with some smart phone video as well as professionally shot film show the progression of the team setting up the old hotel leading up to the big opening night in October, putting up the decorations and effects, working out the kinks and making things just so, hiring the actors…and also all the weird things that start happening that aren’t part of the setup. Like the clown mannequins wandering off by themselves. Or one of the team members beginning to sleep walk. Or figures in black hooded robes popping up in the oddest places. But, despite the setbacks and stress, they all manage to make to to opening night…which ends in a bloody disaster that left several dead and even more injured and visibly shaken, some of the survivors committing suicide days later. Five years later, afer massive cover-ups and speculation, a documentary crew tries to piece things together…and you can probably guess how things turn out.

Overall, Hell House LLC was actually pretty good. It didn’t bore me, there was some genuine atmosphere and sense of dread built up, and I can attest that the clown bits actually creeped me out, and I’m not creeped out by clowns whatsoever. So, well done in that aspect. The characters manage to not be just a bunch of irritating cannon fodder, which made the impact of the events even more…um, impactful, I guess. The filmmakers really managed to squeeze as much effectiveness with this, with both the editing, cinematography styles and general effects uses, managing to mess with your head a bit.

I had a lot of fun with Hell House LLC. I would say it’s very much worth a watch some night.

Movie Review: The BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER

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Movie Review BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER, TheA24
2015
R

During the dead of winter, a troubled young woman embarks on a mysterious journey to an isolated prep school where two stranded students face a sinister threat from an unseen evil force.

Director Oz Perkins seems to be a name I should be watching out for, if his movie output that I’ve seen is any indication. So far, he’s only directed two movies: I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House and this particular movie here, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and I’ve only seen this one out of the two. But, just by watching The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I’m taken in by his rather potent slow-burning and intense style of horror movie making, something that has not been seen or experienced for a long time in this modern age.

I first heard about The Blackcoat’s Daughter in my standard way, from the rather good press given by some of the online reviewers I frequent. When I first heard of the title, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I thought it was going to be another period piece, like The VVitch. The word “blackcoat” is normally a disparaging term for a clergyman, so I thought maybe another Ye Olde Timey tale of Puritan shenanigans. Or something like that. But, instead, it’s set at a Catholic boarding school in modern-ish times. Either way, I watched it, and here’s what I thought of it:

In The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it’s break time at a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York, and all the girls there have been picked up by their parents…except young Kat and the older girl Rose, whose parents haven’t shown up yet. The later of the two just gave her parents the wrong information so she could tell her boyfriend she might be pregnant; the former has had some disturbing dreams about her parents getting into a horrible car accident on the way to get her, so that may be what’s keeping them from showing up on time. With only them and a couple of nuns that live adjacent to the school there, Rose is given the task of looking after Kat. And so she does whatever any older sister-type would do: Tells Kat a story about the nuns at the school being devil worshipers, then leaving her alone for a date. Meanwhile, an apparent escapee from a mental institution has arrived at a bus stop late at night, and hitches a ride with an altruistic man and his wife. Meanwhile, back at the boarding school, Kat has been acting rather odd, which may have something to do with acting out because her parents haven’t shown up or called…or maybe she got possessed by the devil. Anyway, evil shenanigans ensue, people suddenly find themselves losing their heads (literally), and by the power of non-linear storytelling, the twist is…underwhelming, but still effective.

Overall, The Blackcoat’s Daughter was a very effective, very intense and atmospheric psychological horror movie that was wisely allowed to build slowly, creating a very tense atmosphere that didn’t rely on jump scares or loud music stings to freak out the crowd. This movie gets under your skin, and takes its time doing so, much like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. The story is also written in a way that, like the classic The Turn Of The Screw, you don’t know if there really is a supernatural evil influencing things, or if the girl in question is merely mentally unbalanced. Admittedly, the “twist” ending probably won’t do much for you, but by the end of the movie, you will be left drained and quite effected by how things unraveled. This movie stuck in my head long after watching, which makes this one of the better movie’s I’ve seen in a while.

Highly Recommended.

Movie Review: BEYOND THE GATES

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beyond the gatesIFC Midnight
2016
NR

After their father’s unexplained disappearance, two estranged brothers reunite to sift through the contents of his stubbornly anachronistic VHS rental store. Among the inventory, they find an old interactive VCR board game. Intrigued, the brothers pop in the tape…and soon discover that this video is no ordinary game, but a portal to a nightmarish alternate reality: one with deadly consequences for anyone who dares to press play.

Like a lot of horror flicks I come across, I heard about Beyond The Gates by way of other online reviewers. There are some whose word of mouth have more weight than that of the professional movie reviewers everyone else listens to. In this case, it was a vlog by the Horror Guru and Count Jackula on You Tube where they gave Beyond The Gates a rather enthusiastic thumbs-up, calling it a great love letter to the 1980s style of horror movies. And since I am a child of the 80s and remember those horror flicks rather fondly, that was enough to send me out to watch Beyond The Gates.

The story involves two estranged brothers, sons of a video store owner who disappeared mysteriously, who are begrudgingly reunited to clean out the video store they grew up with to sell the property, due to their father being missing long enough to be considered not returning at least. One of the boys is fairly straight-laced if not a bit uptight, while the other is the wild child, getting drunk and essentially being the cooler of the two. Anyway, due to them both going through the memories of the store and staying at their childhood home, they bond a bit…and then stumble across an old VHS board game called Beyond The Gates that may or may not have something to do with the disappearance of their father. So, they begin playing, and weird things begin happening: the host of the video seems to be talking directly to the players specifically and knows about their father, certain portholes begin appearing inside the house, and then there’s the gruesome results of the side quests they’re sent on. All the while you have to wonder, are they going to succeed in getting their father back, or are they merely unleashing a literal hell on earth?

You know, thinking back, while I remember quite a few stories and some movies/television episodes involving a haunted game of some sort, I can’t recall any that dealt with a cursed VHS board game. Having never really played one of those kind of board games before, I don’t really know the dynamics of engaging in the game. But, that’s beyond the point, really. What Beyond The Gates boils down to is a fun, dark, spooky horror flick that, honestly, could have fallen flat on its face in the delivery, but managed to make things charming and effective throughout. The acting is passable, yes, and it takes a bit to get going. But when it does, it has some rather nifty fun with the ride.

Overall, Beyond The Gates is a fun, low-budget B-Movie horror flick that doesn’t pretend to be anything but that. I enjoyed this greatly, and thinking this can be paired up with a double head with the 1986 cheese classic The Gate some night.

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