Tuesday, October 29, 2013

REVIEW: The Exorcist (1973)

If I had a nickel for every demonic possession movie that came out these last five years or so, I’d be rich enough to make sure there was never another one. I mean honestly. What subset of movies has been sucked dry more than this? Let's just take a look at some of these wonderfully creative films which have so much of their own ideas...


...and the list goes on. It’s gone beyond beating a dead horse and more into beating a dead horse with the flogged carcass of another dead horse, while sitting on a third dead horse. Where does it end? Where did it begin?

Well, we can answer the second question.

Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn

Yes, The Exorcist, often touted as one of the scariest movies ever made. And rightly so. It’s a masterpiece. It is one of the most richly textured horror films out there, as much a drama as it is a horror film really. But at the same time, it also packs some of the blackest, vilest depths of evil you will ever see in a film. But to truly understand this masterpiece of cinema, we must call a priest and have him cast out everything from the movie so we can examine it.

The movie begins slowly, with an old man out in Iraq discovering some mysterious artifacts that remind him of something long-past that we don’t know about yet. We get some quiet build-ups that really just establish his character and the hesitation he’s going through. We fade out on a shot of him standing in the desert against a demonic shadow figure.

Pretty damn effective and ominous.

Then we get our main characters, Regan and Chris, who are both women born in that strange ambiguous time when men and womens’ names seemed to be interchangeable. Chris is an actress and spends her time trying to make her hairdo as gender-ambiguous as her name. When she’s not doing that, she hangs out with her British director, Burke Dennings, and plays with Regan in the evenings. Regan has made a new invisible friend named Captain Howdy, who I think used to hang out with the Devil’s Rejects cast before this movie.

Another difference between then and now: parents would immediately become suspicious in 2013 if their little girls started saying they were hanging out with Captain Howdy.

So the movie unfolds pretty slow and comfortably, taking its time to set up its characters. Shit – most modern movies would have had about twenty jump scares at this point. Some people might confuse this kind of pacing as sluggish, but I like it. It sets up everything very well and you get to like the characters pretty well. We get introduced to our other main character in Father Damien Karras, a priest in the city losing his faith while his ailing mother passes away under the gaze of uncaring relatives.

Here’s another thing this does so well – it really does a good job with those scenes of people trying to figure out what’s wrong with Regan. To start with, there really isn’t much of a transition into her getting sick. We get introduced to the character, she seems okay, and after we return from some of the Father Karras scenes, she’s just in the hospital – bam. No other explanation needed. I love how we find out a lot of the stuff wrong with her just through Chris talking with the doctors. There are no goofy over the top jump scares and no bullshit mythos – it’s all very grounded in reality at first, which is really the way to go. Unfortunately these days, we are so over-saturated with these kinds of stories and we have the Internet to contend with, so it wouldn’t be believable quite as much to have a scene like this in, say, The Last Exorcism III: The Dead Horse.

In The Exorcist though, we get some very good, detailed scenes of hard-working doctors trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with Regan. There are some expensive medical treatments and some very uncomfortable scenes. The film, again, takes its time. Remember in my Paranormal Activity review when I said research isn’t scary? This is the exception.

The reason is because it’s all so slowly built up – the film crawls toward its point by establishing that the characters really have no other options to turn to. Chris is pushed to her breaking point and simply cannot find any other explanation except the supernatural. She becomes so desperate that she ends up accepting the one thing she never thought she would: demonic forces from another plane of existence.

"Hmmm...my diagnosis is, you're fucked."

That’s really, really good, actually. If you’ve never seen this movie before, let me go back and explain a bit – in the middle of the research scenes where the doctors are puzzled about what’s wrong with Regan, one of the doctors asks if she or Regan has any religious beliefs. Chris replies that no, neither one of them do. Which would be a fairly commonplace thing nowadays – many people are atheists now and it’s not something to be ashamed of. Most people don’t even blink at that. But this was the 70s, when we as a country were just starting to come out of the long shadow of the Church and of religion in general. It was a confusing, transitional time and people were moving away from the old guard of religious beliefs – the world was changing.

And that’s the cincher right there – that’s why this movie is so scary. Because it takes a woman who, by all accounts is rational and modernistic in this world, and shows her that really, everything we know as sophisticated, civilized and modern is just a bunch of shit. Really, the old world never left and it never will leave – the old world is eternal and the Devil is real. That’s fuckin’ terrifying, man. That’s the pitch blackest horror there is. The Exorcist takes our changing, atheistic and unchristian world and turns it upside down.

The expression on their faces sums up the movie for me: pure fear masked by a shaky confidence in science and manmade inventions, even though what lies beneath the Earth is about to take over. Terrifying.

So yeah, I guess I should talk about the Regan devil-possession scenes…they’re pretty damned gross. I don’t think these scenes by themselves are anything that scary as much as they are disturbing. I mean, especially if you don’t like people vomiting up green bile. In that case, don’t watch Troll 2. You’ll probably have an aneurysm.

There's one for the family photo albums!

These scenes are just crazy. I mean, there’s one scene where she scuttles down the stairs backwards with her mouth bleeding. I don’t think there’s enough antibiotics in the world for that. Plus, this scene comes on the tails of Regan discovering that her director friend is dead and that Regan’s doctors can’t help her. Jesus. Can this woman’s life get any worse? Why not just add in the fact that she doesn’t get to appear in the sequel to the mix?

Oh, well, that last one – probably a plus…but still:

So we get some scenes of this detective guy who looks like a drunk, out-of-work Paul Newman investigating Father Karras – ironically, he says Father Karras looks like Paul Newman. Maybe having Paul Newman in this movie wouldn’t have been a bad idea. You could have had him be the possessed one. That would be something…especially if he played the role of the daughter just like Linda Blair does. I’m not going to post a picture of that, but just let it sit in your mind for a while: a little girl contracts an otherworldly possession and turns into Paul Newman. Terrifying.

And yes, I fully realize the above passage will never be entered into the annals of my all-time funniest jokes on the blog. Shut up. The detective guy’s only character seems to be inviting the people he interrogates to go see movies with him. I guess it’s supposed to be a way to try and bribe them, but I dunno; I’m more inclined to think he just has no friends after letting the killer in 12 Angry Men go free.

Well I never!

Either way he doesn’t get very far, and the movie mostly focuses on Chris’s attempts to save Regan. She finally consults with Father Karras, who has become a tortured soul after his mother passed away. Karras takes her seriously enough to start an investigation into whether or not Regan’s case merits an exorcism.

This is yet another difference from most other movies that took influence from The Exorcist: these scenes actually take their time and feel realistic. The Church above all is not just some transparent entity that lets people do whatever they want – there are rules. And very few times – much less in films like The Possession, The Devil Inside or The Conjuring – would they actually just allow an exorcism. But here we have the exception: this is the case that throws everyone for a loop, that proves the Church wrong after years of nothing, here’s another exorcism they have to do, nestled in this modern agnostic world.

Movies today just treat exorcisms like any other everyday thing: “Oh, damn, time for another exorcism again. Want to meet for coffee after?” Just try and tell me with a straight face that any of the scenes in The Conjuring that try and make this idea suspenseful are any good. Fucking please. This is the real deal. Here it feels like things matter. You, the viewer, feel the weight of Karras’s discovery and of the decision to perform the exorcism. That matters a lot.

They recruit Father Merrin, who was the old man from the opening, to come and help out. Apparently because Merrin has so much experience after almost dying the last time he did an exorcism. How do you think that conversation went? “Hey, Father Merrin…remember that time you almost died doing that extremely dangerous exorcism? …Want to do it again?” How rude.

So then we get the exorcism scenes, which are great in part just because any movie that can make two guys standing over a wrinkled Muppet reject and shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” suspenseful is doing something right.

"And for my next trick, I'll make a sequel without any logic or sense in it whatsoever!"

But we quickly find out that it doesn’t work as well as they’d like. Karras tries, but the demon in Regan just won’t let him forget his dearly departed mother, channeling her at every turn to rattle him. Karras has to go downstairs, and when he comes back up, Father Merrin has been killed by the demon. Losing control, Karras goes and strangles Regan until the demon leaves her and comes into him instead. Then he jumps out a window and dies, ending the demon’s reign of terror forever…or until the two sequels came out. But either way, hurray!

The ending does raise some interesting questions though – they went through all that ritualistic bullshit when the real way to beat the demon was just to strangle it out with your bare hands? How stupid they must be feeling now! Ha ha…a good man just lost his life. But seriously though. I really do like the subtext here: religion isn’t all-powerful, the Church isn’t all-knowing. In place of a holy, sacrosanct ritual, it’s blunt violence that wins the day in this movie. That’s pretty important.

And it’s a very important movie. As gruesome and unpleasant as The Exorcist can be, it really is a prime example of horror working outside its bounds and making something artistic and meaningful, while still being scary and suspenseful. It’s the best of both worlds, and an all-time classic. If you’ve never seen this, and are enamored with its pale imitators…well, you need to treat yourself to this movie this Halloween. Whether or not you agree with me that its modern-day imitators are crap, there is no denying the power of The Exorcist.

Happy Halloween!

Images copyright of their original owners.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Double Feature: House of Wax (1953); Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Hey guys!

For those of you wondering why I have not posted anything in almost a year, I should formally announce that I have retired from Cinema Freaks. What I mean by that is that I am no longer posting reviews on a regular basis. I am in a new stage in my life, and I simply do not have the time or the energy to write full scale critiques of movies. I realize the irony of this statement since I would usual go months at a time without posting anything even when I was active. However, I will still keep my account going in case I ever feel inspired to write about a movie or movie-related event I love (or hate). In other words, if I do reappear, it will only be on a rare occasion, which I think is a more appropriate relationship for me to have with the site at this point in time. Fortunately, I am confident that Dr. Doctor and whoever else decides to join will more than make up for my absence. So do not worry, you are in good hands.

All that being said, I have decided to dig up and finish up something that has been in the works for a really, really, REALLY long time. Remember way back in October of 2011 when we had "Month of Terror" theme? Remember how I didn't do anything for it? Well, things did not go as planned and this project was put on the shelf for a while. Anyway, since Halloween is coming up again, I might as well make up for it by completing and publishing the review that I had meant to show, which also happens to be my first double-feature review. While it has been a while since I have seen the films, I wrote down most of the stuff that I had seen (I mostly just added a few more pictures, plot points and jokes), so I do not think I skipped over any critical details. But just in case, I am sorry if I did. Anyway, without further ado:

Starring: Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk
Director: Andre de Toth

Haven't had your fair share of "House of Wax"? Really...you actually want more after the Paris Hilton version? Well...okay then...

Today we are going to look at the two pictures that inspired the 2004 film. Or at least the title because the plot for that movie has absolutely nothing to do with the two previous ones! And even though it is the younger of the duo, let's first start out with the Vincent Price version since it is the first one I saw and it is the movie that most people are familiar with:

It starts off in 1902 with a sculpture named Henry Jarrod, played by Price, who has a deep love for his wax creations. However, he is seemingly meets his end when his greedy business partner torches the place for insurance purposes, leaving him inside to burn. Several months later, mysterious occurrences begin to unfold, as the partner is found dead and a number of bodies are stolen from the local morgue. When a local girl finds her roommate murdered and she is stalked by a strange-looking being, she is convinced to go to the opening of the new wax museum to get her mind off of things. The man in charge is actually Jarrod, who survived the fire but is now partly paralyzed. Bound to a wheelchair, he is unable to sculpt himself and relies on the help of others to complete his work. The girl soon begins to suspect that the wax figures are a little too lifelike for their own good...

This movie was...okay. I think one of the biggest problems it has is that, despite being a thriller, it has no sense of, well, suspense. Almost everything is shown immediately, and you can pretty much determine what Price's plan is and how it is done. The loud, blaring music that is featured throughout the picture does not really help matters either.

Despite these problems, Price does manage to give an impressive performance. When introduced, he is shown to be a man who is very passionate about his work as he talks about his creations in a very calm yet highly articulate manner. You can tell that he believes that they are actually alive in his eyes. Therefore, despite only knowing him for a few minutes, you feel genuinely bad for the guy when his museum is burned down. But you also get a sense of his inner demons by observing the work that he designs after the accident, which show his anger at those who wronged him, and as he slowly drifts into madness.

See, he became so mad that, almost 40 years later, he was still doing the same damn thing!

Unfortunately, the other characters are kind of bland. Nothing really stands out about them in any way that transcends the usual stereotypes: the main suspicious female protagonist, the first female victim, the determined authority figure, etc. There is also a mute guy who works for Jerrod and is depicted as a simpleton. I think I am suppose to be offended by this, but I am not sure. Oh, the mysterious figure that goes around? Well, he looks like this:

HAHAHAHAHAHA! Are you serious?! What the hell is that?! It looks like the evil version of Sloth from "The Goonies" if suffered a server accident at a Silly Puddy factory! How is this guy suppose to be subtle anyhow?!

Then again, he could just be the grandfather of the Toxic Avenger...

Granted, subtlety was never really an option for this film. It was one of the first 3D movies released in theaters, and the first one in color by a major movie studio. Almost needless to say, I did not see the movie in 3D, but no worries: it very conveniently points out which parts you are suppose to be impressed by! The first scene is when the wax museum opens up and a street performer almost breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the camera, though he is still technically speaking to the crowd in the film. So what does he do to astound us?!!!:

Why, he bounces a paddle ball in our faces!!! Gee, in any other circumstance that would have been pointless and annoying, but its in 3D, so ooooooooo!!! That's really what "Avatar" could have used!!! Some asshole trying to deck you with a paddle ball!!!

So what else gets the 3D treatment? A can-can dance...no explanation needed...

I think there was one or two other things that were suppose to be 3D, but I forgot what they were. To be honest, they were so minor it was hard to tell it. So...thanks "House of Wax"! You helped inspire a whole generation of directors, producers, and executives that you do not need story or character development as long as you have crazy images and sexually overtones!

Well, I guess the one other good thing about the movie is that the mysterious figure, despite how ridiculous it appears, is the only part of this film that possesses even somewhat of a mystery. But when it is revealed who it is, its kind of a mixed bag. The film does play tricks on you so there is some ambiguity about its identity and the revelation is kind of impressive. However, it also opens up a lot of questions that make the logic behind it very flawed, not helped by the fact that the films ends kind of abruptly. Kind of describes the film overall: a lot of potential, but improper execution.

When I was done watching this film, I discovered that the other movie featured on the DVD was not some cheap sequel like I originally suspected, but actually the 1933 film that this was based on. Yes, even in the 1950s, Hollywood was doing rip-offs of itself. Oh well, its not like I am going to find out that there is a 1925 silent version of "The Wizard of Oz" with campy slapstick and racist overtones! HAHAHA...oh, wait...

Anyway, I decided to watch it and this is what I got:

Starring: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell
Director: Michael Curtiz

Directed by Michael Curtiz, who would go on to do classics like "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Casablanca," this movie has a somewhat similar set up as the Price version. It starts off in 1921 with a sculpture named Ivan Igor, played by Lionel Atwill, who has a deep love for his wax creations before his greedy business partner torches the place, leaving him to die. Twelve years later (which technically puts it in the present day), the partner is found dead and bodies are stolen from the morgue. A local reporter begins to investigate the issues and it leads her to a wax museum. The man in charge is actually Igor, who survived the fire but is now partly paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair, unable to sculpt himself and relying on the others to process his work. The girl soon begins to suspect that the wax figures are a little too lifelike for their own good...

Apparently this was the last of the two-color Technicolor films to ever be released. So, let's start off with the obvious: the picture quality is terrible! It is like they took the film reel and left it out in the rain for several hours! To be fair, the Wikipedia entry says that when it was converted to a DVD format, the people messed up the print job, giving it an appearance that is different from the original film, hence the bad quality. There may be a better version of it, but it is most likely not for the general public, so we are stuck with this. Oh well...

Visuals aside, the film is a lot lighter than the 50s version. I wouldn't even call it a horror film necessarily, its more like a relatively light-hearted mystery thriller, bordering on a comedy even. This is apparent when viewing the main characters. Atwill does a decent job. Unlike Price, he seems less obsessive and more quirky. But he also appears more bitter about his disabilities and has a more human quality. Despite this, I have to give the acting award to Price; he just has more of a presence and a subtle sinister nature that really brings the film together. Atwill just seems more like a wacky old crank by comparison.

However, the film generally focuses on the reporter, played by Fay Wray, who would star in "King Kong" later that year. She spends a good portion of the movie having a love-hate relationship with her boss, and the two do have good chemistry. It is also kind of fun to see her get other people annoyed but keeps on doing her thing. My major problem with her: she talks WAY too fast. A lot of actors in the olden days spoke with machine gun-style delivery (including others in this film), but she REALLY needs to chill out! Thank God for subtitles! Still, its a decent performance overall and as much as I love the original "Kong" its nice to see Wray in a role where she actually has a personality and is not screaming half the time she is on screen.

The rest of the characters do not fair as well. They are basically the stereotypes that you picture in your mind when you think of movies made in the era: authority figures in hats and coats walking around, acting tough and demanding answers while speaking really fast and in a lingo that no one uses anymore. It is almost like they are doing a parody of themselves!

So how does the creature in this movie compare to the one in the 50s version:

Mmm...not bad. A little more realistic that the 1953. It still looks kind of silly (this photo makes it look a lot creepier than it actually is), but again, not bad.

The only other thing I can really add is that the picture, at 77 minutes, speeds by really quickly, particularly the ending, which says a lot given how quickly the 50s version (only 88 minutes) ended. The Price version was at least tiring to conger up a feeling of suspense; this one simply does not have any time to do it.

So that concludes the two "Wax" movies. Which one of them holds up? Well...neither, to be honest. They both have cheesy special effects, a host of bland characters and a sometimes awkward plot. Simply put, they are pretty dated. But if I had to choose which one was the best? I would go with the 50s version. It has Price, the picture quality is better, its runs smoother, and it has a darker tone. A lot of this has to do with the fact that it had twenty years to improve itself, which may seem unfair, but hey, there are plenty of remakes that don't take advantage of that, so I have to give credit where it is due.

I won't say that either of these films are necessarily bad; they are okay for what they are. They are just not very high on my list of recommendations because there is better stuff out there. Still, if any of this stuff appeals to you, feel free to go and see them. You will probably like them better than the Paris Hilton one at least...

And that will do it. It has been great doing this blog, guys. Maybe I will see you again sometime...

The images and links in this review do not belong to me and are for entertainment purposes only. As always, please do not sue me.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

REVIEW: Paranormal Activity (2007)

Of all the movies in the horror genre these last ten or fifteen years, nothing has changed the landscape more than the Blair Witch Project. Something about the concept of attractive young people with cameras filming themselves as they wander around in the woods just really caught on. I guess it’s like I said in my “Why do modern horror movies suck?” post a few weeks ago – we’re the Do It Yourself generation. We just love filming, documenting and recording every aspect of our lives as if we are important. And thus, one of our newfound fears is extremely close personal eye-level accounts of horror – we want to see up close what’s killing us.

And though Blair Witch laid the foundations for all of that, Paranormal Activity really took the idea to a new level and brought the fear into peoples’ own homes and everyday lives. It was also the series that showed us how cool everything looked in that dark blue lighting. Since the DVD box proclaims it “a scary at-home viewing experience,” who am I to contest the Confucianistic wisdom of DVD box covers? Let’s review Paranormal Activity.

Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

We start right off with a guy named Micah who I think has some kind of new sexual disorder – he loves cameras almost as much as his girlfriend.

"Don't worry, Camera! I was just pretending to still be in denial!"

Seriously, this guy is obsessed with cameras. He carries it around everywhere just to talk to her while she’s brushing her teeth or reading on the couch. Like he couldn’t just do that without carrying the camera everywhere.

Seriously though, here’s the basic plot of this thing, if you haven’t been living under a rock the last four years: he wants to use the camera because his girlfriend Katie has been experiencing paranormal activity (TITLE DROP!) since she was a little girl and hasn’t been able to stop it. She tells a story about how when she was a little girl, she used to see a dark hooded figure standing at the foot of her bed which wouldn’t go away. Then her house lit on fire. Uh, I don’t think that’s a demonic spirit. I think that’s a drunk member of the KKK who got the wrong house.

But the movie maintains that it was a demonic spirit. For some reason it’s getting worse just as the movie is starting. Katie wants to go to an exorcist, but because Micah saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he decided cameras were the better way to go.

"Allow me to make sure you never have a private moment to yourself ever again..."

The first twenty minutes or so are pretty basic set-up type stuff, which mostly consists of Katie telling Micah to turn the camera off. Which is one of the main things about this movie that imitators ended up copying! Isn’t that awesome? Most of the dialogue in this is actually well done, and feels realistic. But one of the main problems with this movie is just how many excuses they have to make to have the camera in every scene, because, you know – otherwise we wouldn’t have anything at all. So we get tons of scenes that would otherwise be entirely natural and effective, broken up because the actors have to shoehorn in a line about the camera being there – it gets kind of old after the first three or four times.

Seriously, what guy really loves shooting home movies this much? I mean, I get it – sometimes he’s just horsing around and experimenting with the camera, but what about the other scenes, like the talking in the bathroom ones, or just the random bits where she’s sitting on the couch or hanging out with her friend? Did he need to have a camera for all of those moments?

"You could've just come and told us without the camera, you kn---"

It makes me think the film would have been generally more effective if they’d just reigned in the camera stuff to the really effective scenes at night when stuff really happens. It’s more original the way they did it, but there are only so many ways to say “get that camera out of my face!”

Then we get the bedroom scenes, which are the ones the movie is often remembered for. If you like dark blue lights and scenes of nothing going on while the timer fast-forwards to show us that time is passing, you’ll be in heaven with these. Look out for the special unrated version where they don’t fast forward through these scenes. The movie is 28 hours long! You can also see snippets of the cameraman flashing the audience if you look close at the scene transitions. Buy it at your local Walmart today.

But then everything gets super serious the next morning when Katie finds that – gasp! – her keys have been moved a couple inches off the counter and wound up on the floor! The horror!

And not only that, but when they look at the tapes later, they see that the ghost also added moving a door a few inches to its resume of blood-curdling terror! Nooooooooo!

So yeah, this is your scares for the first act of the movie: doors moving a few inches, and keys on the floor. Can you just feel the horror? I guess it’s serious enough to warrant some exorcist doctor guy coming over though. He talks about some stuff that the movie needs for the trailer: “it’s not human,” “you can’t run from this,” etc, etc, etc…it’s all pretty bland, and the guy is a fairly inconsequential character otherwise. I mean, do we really need a guy sitting on the couch to tell us the thing haunting us isn’t human? Seems pretty self-explanatory to me. What, do they think it’s Dennis the Menace? Is that suddenly a convincing alternative?

We also get some scenes of Micah researching demons and whatnot – it’s not too long of a scene, and I don’t mind it, but it does point out a chief difference between this and the old movies of the 70s and 80s. It’s just too serious and orthodox. The film takes its religious demon science as just that – a science, and endows it all with a sort of dogmatic fervor that doesn’t really lend itself to the kind of cool, bizarre and spontaneous feel that I liked so much in movies like The Beyond, Suspiria or Evil Dead – those movies didn’t need to explain so much what the evil things haunting us are.

Which is scarier - this, or...
...this, with just the bare minimum of explanation?

Now, I am not trying to compare Paranormal Activity to those films as some kind of a basis to slag on PA. They’re very different movies and they have different ways of expressing themselves. But there’s one fundamental flaw in the methodology of a film like this: research is not scary. It’s just not. Having Micah flipping through a book and giving us exposition on the demons sheds light on what should be shrouded in shadows, waiting to scare us. While I won’t try and claim the film after this is bereft of scares, it would have been even more chilling if the movie didn’t feel the need to explain itself and bring in all this super-serious, dogmatic stuff. Horror is scarier when you have no clue what it is you’re dealing with. As this is all obviously fictional and made-up, you don’t have to really go into detail on the science and history behind demons – sometimes it may be beneficial, but most of the time it’s better just to go for the throat and scare us, rather than wasting our time with exposition and explanation of what everything is.

But I digress; you know what’s TRULY scary? A bug in the bathroom! AAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!!!

The true manifestation of evil...really....

Yup, another of this movie’s invaluable contributions to the world of horror – Katie screams for Micah about a spider in the bathroom, because you know; a girl who’s been haunted by demonic hooded figures standing at the foot of her bed would really be afraid of fucking insects. And I also love how Micah goes and grabs his stupid camera before going to help his screaming girlfriend – just imagine if she’d really been in danger. He’d be a real dick in that case! Ha ha ha! What a card.

Then we get some more scenes of sleeping with blue lights. There are some loud noises and Micah shouts at the demon like a deprived pro wrestler laid off for too much contact with the opponents’ genitals. Then they go back to sleep and Katie decides it’s time to go for a little possessed walk down the stairs!

You know, I’m having some trouble seeing into the logic of this demonic creature stalking them. I mean, what has it really done so far? Moved some keys, moved a door a few times, and now made a girl walk outside and sit down. It doesn’t try to harm her, or kill her or anything – it just makes her walk down some stairs and sit outside. Pretty weak there! I bet this demon is the laughingstock at the annual demon convention…the Evil Dead demons and the guys from Poltergeist laugh him out of the hall.

There’s a quite effective scene where Micah sets up some powder on the floor to try and track the demon’s footprints. It leaves the footprints but then leads them to the attic, where Micah finds a picture of Katie as a little girl at her old house which burned down. This is a good, effective horror scene because it’s so inexplicable and chilling – why would that picture be there? It’s very nature is threatening. For that this scene is very well done.

So the demon is that creepy guy from down the street who used to sit outside your house in a white van because "there was no parking by his house."

Then we get the scene where, even though Micah promised he wouldn’t buy a Ouija board, he does it anyway. His reasoning is that he didn’t buy it, he borrowed it! Ha ha ha! What a card, yet again. Somebody get this guy a spot on Comedy Central. Or maybe a seat in Congress.

"What do you mean I'm a lying jackass?"

So we get some pretty good scenes of them arguing and what not; the scenes where you can see how worn out these two are, and the strain it’s putting on their relationship, are quite effective. They try to call back that exorcist doctor guy, who just tells them he can’t help and leaves. He never shows up again even though he says he wants to try to help – so I guess that’s the culmination of that subplot…that guy was a fuckin’ fraud the whole time.

Then because the movie doesn’t seem to know how to explain things aside from turning to the Internet, we get some more backstory awkwardly shoehorned in: apparently some girl named Diane in the 60s had the exact same thing happen to her that Katie has now. What does this tell us? Let’s play a guessing game:

If you selected Answer C, “Nothing,” well, you win a million bucks and the chance to keep watching the movie! (The million dollars is taken back through taxes to pay for the movie.)

If the past few scenes have seemed entirely pointless to you, well, let’s just cut to the chase…we then get the final scenes where they’re planning to just leave, after everything that’s happened. Katie is despondent and weak, and at the end she decides she doesn’t even want to leave anymore, the demon perhaps finally having control over her mind. So they stay for one final night until Katie gets pulled out of bed by the demon:

Then you get perhaps the greatest horror movie scream in the last twenty years from Katie – I’m serious; it is fucking chilling how good this scream is. It’s completely blood-curdling and insane, and most importantly: we never see anything. For once the camera gimmick pays off, because we never see what’s happening to Katie to make her scream like that – we just use our imagination, and that is scarier than anything they could have put on screen. I think they should have just ended the movie right here. Just fade out and give us the credits right now, you bastards!


Yup, we get an ending with Micah getting thrown at the camera like a drunk game of college football and then Katie comes up and bites his neck like a vampire who’s watched The Grudge too many times. It’s a hundred times scarier than anything that shitty ass movie series could do, but it’s still pretty weak. I remember seeing this ending in theaters and the whole theater burst out laughing at this bit. I mean how lame can you get?

Fortunately for those among you who, like me, thought this ending was horrible, we get an alternate ending. In this one, she wakes up, goes downstairs and screams just like the theater ending. The movie unfortunately still does not end right there. Instead, she comes back up with blood on her and a knife in her hand, because I guess we really needed to see that or else we’d just assume Micah used his super powers to beat the devil out of her. Really, this scene isn’t a horror movie ending – it’s a promo for the next episode of hit internet TV sensation Hot Girls with Knives!

Unfortunately her time in the spotlight is cut short:

So that’s Paranormal Activity. Was it good? Well…yes. Yes it was.

When this first came out, I thought this movie was a joke. I walked out of the theater disappointed. And for a long time, while I acknowledged the impact it had on the horror world, I just scoffed at people who said it was really anything all that scary. But watching it again, all these years later, I do think it’s good. It’s got some pretty silly and lame parts to it, but overall it’s more good than bad. I see why it scares people. The idea of having no control over your body and surrendering to this demon over such a long period of time is pretty scary. And the movie, despite a few lame bits, has some very good scares as well.

Maybe it’s watching this at home that did it – it really seems to work better in that context, surprisingly enough. Very few movies do. While Paranormal Activity has its share of limitations and flaws, it’s a well done flick and has its merits, too. It influenced a whole new generation of direct-to-video “found footage” films and helped to make that style more prominent in the mainstream. With all the garbage in this subgenre right now, it can be hard to find good shit, but I hope people keep doing it. I hope we get some good movies out of this gimmick, because I really think the potential is there.

Hmm, well, I’ve reviewed all the influential modern horror films I can think of. Hostel isn’t worth my time, and I’ve done the main two. I’ll be damned before I review any of the sequels to either this or Saw. So what’s left for my final October review this year?

Of course! The actual most influential modern horror movie of all time! Why didn’t I think of it before?

Images copyright of their original owners.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

REVIEW: Saw (2004)

A couple of years ago, I finished up watching the entire Saw series, even reviewing the last two. And I still stand by what I said about those movies back then: they are garbage. But far be it from me to deprive the Internet of my opinions on the very first Saw film and the one to kickstart a modern revival of the horror genre.

Director: James Wan
Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannel

I remember seeing this right after it came out. I was about 13 or 14 and I had never seen most classic horror films – I was just getting started on the genre. I remember sitting in my house and watching this on our big screen TV. I also remember being spellbound by just how crazy this shit was – I mean for someone my age back then, this was pretty hardcore. As I continued to get into horror films that summer, this one stuck with me.

And it was quite a revolution back in 2004. Back then, when all we had was shitty sequels to low-grade American parody-slasher films and remakes of Asian horror films, something like Saw was a big breath of fresh air. Looking back with the knowledge I have about the genre now, I really think this was a good thing for the genre. It was a unique concept for its time and really set the stage for…well, a whole bunch of crappy direct-to-DVD torture porn films. But the point stands – for its time, and in the climate of horror films at the time, this was a refreshing change.

But does it hold up now? Let’s find out.

We start off with two guys waking up in a dingy, dirty old bathroom. Because all good horror stories start in the same manner as your average drunken trip through the underbelly of Europe. But as Hostel was a few years off, we actually see something else is going on – there’s a dead body in the room with them. Chained up and unable to get out, they find some tapes that inform them of why they’re there: Dr. Lawrence Gordon, played by Cary Elwes, is there because he never did anything as good as The Princess Bride again. Adam, played by writer Leigh Whannel, is there because he helped to spawn this entire series. And both of them are there because they didn’t value their acting lessons enough to actually apply any of them in this movie.

Oh, OK, those aren’t the real reasons – could you tell? But it does point out another thing about this movie…the big theme behind it is that the Jigsaw Killer, the series’ villain, wants to show people the folly of their ways and make them see why they should appreciate life more.

Some tapes in their pockets reveal the objective of the whole game: Dr. Gordon has to kill Adam by 6:00, or else Gordon’s family will be killed instead. Also, apparently, the dead guy on the floor was poisoned and shot himself in the head because of it. They figure out they’re being watched through a two-way mirror with a camera behind it and break the mirror, revealing the camera.

We then get to see some of Jigsaw’s impressive resume. Through flashbacks we see some of how Cary Elwes’ character Dr. Gordon was involved with the case, as they suspected him of being Jigsaw after his pen was found at a crime scene. Apparently Gordon’s sins included being a condescending jackass to the orderlies at the hospital just for saying they knew the patients’ names:

How dare you care about people, you sniveling snot-wart?! Allow me to laugh at you and mock you in front of everyone! I WAS IN THE PRINCESS BRIDE! I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT! MUWAHAHAHA!

And we get some of Jigsaw’s finest moments, sure to make it into the family album, such as putting a man who cut himself into a pit full of barbed wire and forcing him to crawl through them to escape…


Putting a guy who claims to be sick to get out of going to work into a room full of broken glass with a flammable substance smeared on his body, and then forcing him to hold a burning candle as he has to read letters on the wall…

Poor John Cusack, never had a chance after he made Identity...

And putting a drug addict into a room where she has to stab another guy in the gut to get a contraption off her head that would have ripped her head in half.

Oh stop crying, at least you don't have to be in the sequels!

…okay, so they’re all pretty unrealistic and elaborate traps. And honestly, they only tenuously seem to have anything to do with the alleged “crimes” these people have committed. Frankly it makes Se7en look like a down-to-Earth True Crime story in comparison.

The violence in this got its bad rap as torture porn and needless violence, but really, this movie doesn’t have a lot of that. The sequels get way more over the top, but this one remains pretty squarely focused on telling a story and on having a message to it. The amount of actual gratuitous gore and violence is fairly low in comparison with other movies of its kind. The implication of the violence is really what the makers of the film were going for – plus the dingey, dirty settings add a very grisly atmosphere to the whole thing. It really does create an atmosphere of being stuck in a run-down, shit covered bathroom.

So most of the movie that isn’t flashbacks is just Gordon and Adam trying to figure out how to get out of there. These parts are actually fairly good, and as bad as their acting is, I like the characters well enough to be invested – and seeing them try to figure shit out is fairly entertaining. It’s actually a fair bit more character driven than any other Saw film would ever get, which is nice – it’s nothing amazing, but the characters are at least characters, rather than compilements of cliché like in later films. They find some rusty old saws (TITLE DROP!!!1!!!1) in the toilet and also a great family picture of Gordon’s wife and daughter:

Aw, how sweet; the best Manson Family photo ever.

Then we get another flashback to show the last time Gordon saw his family. Apparently Gordon was a giant jackass who, when confronted with the reality that his daughter had a nightmare about a man being in her closet, doesn’t even look at her and instead keeps typing on his computer.

"I'm almost done with this level of Candy Crush Saga!"

To his credit, I guess he goes and comforts her afterwards, so it’s not too bad. Then he and his wife have the most generic, nonspecific argument ever as she accuses him of not being happy. He says he is, she says “I’d rather you just break down and tell me you hated me; at least there’d be some passion in it.” I really hope Leigh Whannel doesn’t try his hand at writing romantic dramas any time soon. If somewhere in the world, there exists a superstore for phoned in, generalized movie arguments, this one would be the best seller.

Gordon leaves and then we get a shot of the daughter in her room. And you remember when I said she was scared because of a “nightmare” about a man in her room? Wellllllll…

What happens when Linus from Peanuts grows up and goes insane...

Heh heh…that’s actually pretty funny. Apparently the kidnapper is Zepp, that orderly from before who Gordon made fun of just for knowing patients’ names. He wears all black and likes to hold stethoscopes to his captives’ chests while holding a gun to their heads to see if their heartbeats get faster. How interesting…and utterly pointless…

We see later that he's being forced to do this. Which is odd because it sure looks like he's enjoying this shit much more than any normal person would under the circumstances.

Meanwhile in Not Flashback Land, a note on the back tells Adam to turn off the lights. Despite his confusion, Gordon does and they find an ‘X’ on the wall that leads to a box full of bullets, two cigarettes and a note that tells Gordon he can use the poisonous blood on the floor to put in the cigarette and kill Adam with. Instead, Gordon turns off the lights and they make a plot to pretend Adam is dead. But then the Jigsaw Killer whips out his secret weapon, electrocution:

Should've had this sign in the room with them.

We also see that Danny Glover is playing a washed up, obsessed cop character who slowly goes crazy over the whole Jigsaw case. Danny Glover playing an old cop? How unique. That kind of thing has never been done before and is totally original for an actor like Glover!

So, yeah, if you want a realistic portrayal of a man’s descent into insanity, you might want to stay far away from this movie. Because unless you think decorating your apartment like John Doe from Se7en and talking to yourself in a raspy voice while laughing like a child molester is captivating, you may be disappointed. But how did he get like this when he used to be a pretty straight detective?

"I'm so obsessed! I'm an obsessive cop to END all obsessive cops! LOOK AT MY OBSESSIVENESS!"

So apparently Glover and his partner, Ethnic Stereotype to Show We’re Not Racist, went to this warehouse where they suspected Jigsaw called his home. Because of the Law of Movie Implausibility, they’re of course exactly right, and he has all his killer contraptions and what not just laid right out in the open for any random loser passing by to see through the windows. Since it’s right in the middle of the city, what are the chances that’s never happened before? Apparently pretty high.

So now we come to the portion of every horror movie that I like to call “We Don’t Understand Anything About Policework.” Here we have several different items to check off. Usually I just do a long paragraph of ranting and swearing about it, but honestly I’m just so tired of that. Sooooo it’s checklist time.

[x] Not calling for back-up or even bothering to get a search warrant? Check! Even when they realize it is Jigsaw’s lair after all, they still don’t!

[x] Waiting for him to get further inside the building and even far enough to activate a trap and slit Glover’s fucking throat because “they want to see his face.” Uh. See his face AFTER you arrest or shoot him? What’s the logic there? They could have just shot him right when he came in the door, but nooooo, so Glover’s throat gets cut and we get the next item on the checklist…

[x] Activated a trap that almost killed a guy.

I hope this guy got a nice spot on Jay Leno and a lawsuit settlement with the city police force after this.

But hey, I get it. It’s tough fighting a guy who has the foresight to tie some guns to the roof JUST IN CASE some cops happen to be chasing him down that specific hallway, with a trip wire designed to shoot the guns automatically if someone runs into it. Wow, that is specific.

I just hope he didn’t forget to take the wire down when the owner of the warehouse or someone came to inspect it. “Hey, Jigsaw Killer, I’m here to install your wireless internAAAAAGGGGHHH!” *splat*

Tragic. But what’s even more tragic, is that the Jigsaw Killer seems to think wearing a robe more befitting of a female Marvel Comics villain is scary somehow. Dude, you look like Todd MacFarlane’s conception of the grim reaper. It’s not at all effective!

Back in the dirty old nasty bathroom, Gordon receives a call from his family at gunpoint, and they tell him Adam has known him the whole time and is lying about some things. This prompts a long flashback that tells the story of how Gordon got captured in the first place. Apparently while trying to call his family, he got snatched by a man wearing a pig mask – not on the all-time manliest ways to get kidnapped.

Is there a reason for the pig mask? I mean, wouldn’t any mask technically work? Personally I would like to see this mask on the kidnapper next time:

Some people tell me there are very distinct reasons I’m not in the horror movie making business. I never know what they’re talking about.

So yeah, I guess we get quite a lot of gunshots, wrestling and running around after that as Gordon is under the impression that Zepp has murdered his family. He then undergoes the fascinating and nuanced style of acting commonly known as “which accent do I have?” Really it’s been sort of a problem all movie, but here it just gets to staggering levels of silliness: basically Elwes does this thing where he gets angry and starts shouting like a drunken maniac, but then when he gets sad a few seconds later, he talks like a prissy little girl afraid to miss her first day of school.

The emotion is real, but the way he’s conveying it is just so silly. It totally throws off what should be a very tense moment. I mean jeez, the only way he could get even more melodramatic would be to do something totally over-exaggerated like cutting off his own foo---

Oh. Well. Erm. Hmmm.

I guess if I said this scene wasn’t effective, I’d be lying to you. It really was very shocking the first time I saw it, all those years ago when I was a kid. It did its job and established the horrible price Gordon paid for his indiscretions, namely being so apathetic about his family. And now he’s literally lost a foot for his family in the end. The problem here is that the character development wasn’t deep enough to really make this as effective as it maybe could’ve been, but even so, I don’t think the film was ever intended to be a character study or anything. It works for what it is.

Then Gordon crawls to the dead body, grabs the gun and shoots Adam in the shoulder. All I can think here is how funny it would be if this bathroom was actually in use and had just been abandoned for the weekend. Maybe it’s the bathroom of some corporate building. Then the janitor comes in Monday morning and finds…well…


After Gordon crawls off to be doomed to appear in the last movie in the series too (SPOILERS!!!111!!), Adam is bleeding to death and looking for a key in Zepp’s pockets to unlock his chains. However, he just finds a tape recorder in there that reveals Zepp was never the Jigsaw Killer at all. But you know who IS the Jigsaw Killer? That dead body on the floor the whole time!

This scene, where he gets up, is probably the best in the whole movie – most of the movie’s flaws are completely redeemed by scenes like this, as well as the ending climax in general. Good shit.

Through some snappy flashbacks, we establish that the Jigsaw Killer’s real name is John and he was the patient Zepp got made fun of for connecting to earlier. Apparently John has an inoperable brain tumor and thus wants to show people how much they don’t appreciate their lives, teaching them “lessons” through sick torture games where they have to fight to survive. Man, cancer can make people do some bizarre things!

He tells Adam the key to the chains was in the bathtub, which flushed down the drain as soon as Adam woke up and accidentally unplugged the tub. Whoops! Then Jigsaw leaves Adam in the dark to die, saying “Game over,” and that’s it – we close out on the credits with Adam screaming over top.

So that’s Saw. It has its moments, and while I don’t love it like I once did, it’s still pretty decent overall. The main problems it has are that it’s just too shallow to really reach the kind of depth it’s going for. It’s trying to tell a story about people who don’t appreciate their lives learning lessons. But I don’t know, I don’t really get a sense that these people would ever really learn anything from these. Shawnee Smith’s character did, but what the hell did hers have to do with drug addiction anyway? She has to cut open some guy’s stomach to get a bear trap off her head? C’mon. The one in the second movie about the syringes was a better representation of that, even if it was a lot dumber than what we got here. Mostly these “lessons” just come off as needlessly complex.

That’s the other problem: it’s just too convoluted. All these different variables, the elaborate set-ups, the traps…it’s fun, sure, but it doesn’t really instill fear in me. It’s too far-removed from reality to ever really feel like “gee, that could happen to me.” Which is the most important thing in any horror movie, bar none. The closest it gets is just the scenes where the people are unsuspectingly awaiting kidnapping in the dark of their homes, which isn’t the bulk of the movie.

I enjoyed the “one room” scenes with Whannel and Elwes the most, as those were by far the most original scenes, and the ones the movie should’ve focused on more – Danny Glover’s cop character got far too much screentime in comparison, and the story with the kidnapped mother and daughter wasn’t all that interesting. The Whannel/Elwes scenes were cool because, like I said, seeing them figure out why they were there was cool. The chemistry they had on screen was pretty good and their characters were the most interesting ones in the movie.

So this is still the best Saw movie. It’s got a sort of underground charm to it that the others did not have. It’s just ironic to me that this movie, which was so refreshing for being an underground, bloody horror film in an age of corporate sell-outs and “ironic” attempts at pleasing the mainstream, quickly turned into exactly what it was fighting against with the sequels. The sequels all got less and less interesting because the traps were harder to get out of and the films became less about storytelling and more about the amount of plot twists crammed in per scene. And as such, they got less entertaining over time.

But at least we have this one. It may not have influenced horror’s most honorable subset of films, but it did make a mark and at the time, it was important. Entertaining if nothing else.

Images copyright of their original owners.