Box of Horror #1: Apollo 18, Insidious, V/H/S

It’s October, which means it’s time to binge on horror movies. I plan on doing a few batches of mini-reviews this month, and I’ll have a handful of horror-related entries in the 50 Movies Project as well. Here’s batch #1:

Apollo 18 [2011]
Apollo 18 [2011, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego]
— this review contains possible spoilers —
Apollo 18 is a found footage film that proclaims that the canceled Apollo 18 mission did in fact land on the moon in 1974 but never returned. The film, marketed as a documentary of sorts that had its content culled from “over 11 hours” of recently discovered videos, admittedly has a great concept. Unfortunately, it fails miserably in its execution. Focusing primarily on two astronauts, Ben Anderson (Warren Christie) and Nate Walker (Lloyd Owen), the film takes its sweet time getting anywhere. In fact, its short 86 minute running time feels twice as long.

After a series of tedious clips of the men traversing through space, they arrive on the moon only to discover they aren’t alone. Now here’s where the film goes off the rails: the mysterious “aliens” on the moon are actually rocks. Yes — moon rocks. This payoff is as insipid as it sounds, and it takes a lot of effort to continue watching after this point. I’ll give López-Gallego credit for making the best of his low budget — the grainy footage and presentation of the moon are believable enough — but the overall result is sci-fi horror at its most bland. 4/10

Insidious [2010]
Insidious [2010, dir. James Wan]
Insidious is a ghost story that is anything but conventional. What’s funny is that it starts off as a paint-by-numbers take on the genre before going in a completely different direction during its second half, one that will make or break the film for most viewers. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as a married couple who have moved into a new home with their three children. One night, their oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is playing in the attic when he falls off a ladder, hitting his head on the ground. He goes into a deep coma, and the doctors are clueless as to what is causing this. Shortly after this accident, the family begins experiencing a number of paranormal events in their new home. Doors open on their own, alarms go off, and the youngest son claims to hear his comatose brother walking around at night. In a neat twist, at least compared to most horror films, the family actually moves out of their house and into a new home.

The problem is, the hauntings follow them. This is when the film goes elsewhere, as the family brings in a psychic as a last ditch effort to figure out just what the hell is going on. I won’t get into explicit details, but the film gets a lot more supernatural at this point, going in a direction that I absolutely loved. It seems that most prefer the more traditional haunted house approach of the film’s first half, but for me it kicked into high gear near the end. This transition, albeit over-the-top, turned Insidious from an average ghost story into a memorable, creepy affair. 7/10

V/H/S/ [2012]
V/H/S [2012, 10 directors]
Here is a found footage film with a killer concept — a group of dudebros break into an old man’s house to steal a VHS tape, but what they find is a collection of home videos, each one more gruesome than the last. Nevermind that most of the videos we see are completely implausible to have been transferred to VHS — how likely is it that a Skype video chat would make its way to a tape? V/H/S is an anthology collection comprised of six different short films, each directed by a different filmmaker (including Adam Wingard and Ti West). All of these clips are linked in that they share the same atrocious handheld “shaky cam” techniques, with the added “bonus” of buffering and unwanted jump cuts. This is just about the worst possible film for anyone who gets motion sickness to watch. Normally I can tolerate shaky cam movies like this, but this one gave me a nasty headache after just ten minutes.

As it goes with any anthology, some segments work better than others. Unfortunately, most of the ones presented here are instantly forgettable. There is just one that I found interesting — the aforementioned Skype video chat, which was blessed with an unexpected twist. The others usually amount to partying, a number of bros getting wasted and then people dying with gratuitous gore. The special effects, when we can actually see them, are well done but they aren’t enough to save what is ultimately a dull and often infuriating experience. I feel there is potential for a good film in this, but the lack of captivating moments and the ridiculous plot holes are just too much to overcome. Too bad, because I really wanted to love this. 4/10

Movie Project #30: Carrie [1976]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Carrie [1976]

Carrie [1976]
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Stephen King (novel), Lawrence D. Cohen (screenplay)
Country: USA
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travolta, Nancy Allen
Running Time: 98 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is one of my biggest horror blind spots.

Accolades: Two Oscar nominations (Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress), Golden Globe nomination (Best Supporting Actress), #46 on AFI’s 100 Thrills

It appears that I watched Carrie at the best possible time, and not just because we are rapidly approaching Halloween. No sooner than the very next day after finally seeing Brian de Palma’s seminal 1976 adaptation of the Stephen King novel, I was forced to watch the trailer for its upcoming remake. Not only did the trailer give away the entirety of the film’s plot (complete with multiple shots of the penultimate prom scene), but it just reinforced the idea that a remake is entirely unnecessary.

I knew the general plot going into Carrie, and I had seen clips of it over the years, but I was surprised at just how sad of a tale this is. While still a horror film, it’s not really what I expected of the genre, as it plays out as more of a drama/thriller.

Sissy Spacek (in an absolute jaw-dropping performance) stars as Carrie White, a timid and awkward 17-year-old high school student. She is an outcast at school, almost entirely due to the extreme religious views her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) forces on her at home. Poor Carrie is forced to learn about puberty on her own (i.e. her first period, which horrifies her and is shown in the very first scene of the film), and her mother dubs her a sinner for this. The 17-year-old is constantly bullied at school, further making her life miserable.

Carrie [1976]

However, things start to look up when one of the girls, Sue (Amy Irving), has a change of heart, feeling guilty about her role in the bullying. She convinces her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt), one of the most popular guys at school, to invite Carrie to prom. Reluctant at first, fearing this to be a joke, Carrie eventually accepts his offer. Everyone appears to be genuine in their attempts to help Carrie; well, except for two students. Chris (Nancy Allen) and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta, in one of his earliest roles) just want to torment her some more, and they set out to ruin her evening.

Oh, and there’s one other slightly important bit that Carrie is discovering about herself: she has telekinetic powers. Her effects are subtle at first, such as moving a small object, but as she learns more about them, she begins to realize that hey, maybe she can fight back on the constant abuse after all.

Carrie [1976]

The film itself is a bit of a slow burn before reaching the chaotic final act, but it still presents itself as a fascinating character study. We can’t help but empathize with Carrie, and her character is a strong encapsulation of the life of a teenager (albeit a bit more extreme than most). All of the praise given to Sissy Spacek’s performance is well-deserved — those eyes will haunt me forever — and Piper Laurie is also terrific as her religious nutjob of a mother.

Carrie truly does stand the test of time, and while the fashion may be dated, the tale itself is not. This is a damn good horror film and one of the finer de Palma works that I have seen. It’s a shame that the remake will likely be the next generation’s introduction to this classic story.


Video Game Review: Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC, Mac OS X and Linux)
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Superflat Games, Curve Studios
Publisher: Superflat Games
Price: $12.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: September 24, 2013

In a world where most modern horror games rely heavily on action and frantic combat, Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut is a breath of fresh air. This is a game that manages to crank up the suspense while providing an intense, creepy atmosphere, all while being presented in a pixelated 2D environment.

The game tells the story of You, an unnamed protagonist (in his words, his name “doesn’t really matter anymore”) who is seemingly the lone survivor after a disease wiped out the rest of the population. Tired of being stranded in his apartment, he decides to head out in hopes of finding someone, anyone, who might still be alive in this post-apocalyptic world.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Of course, our hero isn’t really alone. Just outside of his apartment, he finds a truly repulsive, faceless monster whose presence is punctuated by piercing static and muted screams. Initially armed with nothing but a flashlight, the only way to get past this ghastly creature is to hide in the shadows and attempt to sneak past it. This is a common occurrence, as the monsters become more and more frequent in their appearances. Eventually, you’re able to get a gun, providing an alternate method to deal with enemies, but ammo is so scarce that it is often best to be as stealthy as possible.

Much of Lone Survivor takes place in the dark, and strategic use of the flashlight is necessary in order to find your way around. Again, supplies are scarce, so it’s best to conserve the battery. This can make it tricky when scoping out an unfamiliar location, as even the slightest glimpse of light will cast the creatures into a frenzy, chasing you until you reach a new room.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Perhaps even more frightening than the relentless enemies is the rapidly deteriorating mental health of the protagonist. In order to stay in good (or at least acceptable) shape, you must eat often while also getting a proper amount of sleep. There are food items scattered throughout the in-game world, some good (fruit salad), some bad (squid on a stick), but all are beneficial for keeping your stomach full. There are no health bars or other HUD reminders — the only way to know if you need to sleep or eat is through random text prompts. Wait too long to do either and you will begin to hallucinate, which is never a good thing. You can also talk to plants and stuffed animals to keep your sanity, and if you play your cards right, you might even be able to befriend a *real* cat.

The frequent reminders to eat and get some rest only add to the already riveting tension, and with a possibly insane protagonist, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s merely in his head. As such, the game has an intriguing cerebral element, becoming something of a psychological thriller in its own right.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Now, while the game absolutely succeeds in providing a haunting atmosphere, it does have some noticeable issues with its core gameplay. For one, there is a lot of backtracking. In order to save progress, you have to frequently go back to your apartment and rest, although this is helped somewhat by teleporting mirrors scattered throughout the building. Many of the doors are also locked at first, requiring you to explore and find their keys in order to get through them. This can be a tedious affair at times, especially when you find yourself going back and forth between the same two locations. There are also concerns with the game’s combat, as using the gun feels clunky and occasionally unresponsive. The gun can be aimed in three directions, but it’s difficult to actually fire off a good shot in the way you want to. This does make enemy encounters even more disturbing, though it feels like kind of a cheap tactic to do so.

Still, flaws aside, this is a very unique horror experience that is an especially excellent fit for the PS Vita. As the Director’s Cut, this is the definitive edition of Lone Survivor, and it includes new locations, dialogue, music, endings and even a New Game+ mode. The campaign can be finished in just 3-5 hours, but multiple playthroughs are warranted in order to discover new endings and learn more about the game’s narrative. As such, there is a solid amount of value here for horror buffs. Just make sure to play this in the dark and with headphones on… if you dare.


(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Movie Review: The Conjuring [2013]

The Conjuring [2013]

The Conjuring [2013]
Director: James Wan
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Running Time: 112 minutes

The real-life couple of Ed and Lorraine Warren gained notoriety as the founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, a paranormal investigative group that attempted to help with thousands of ghost and demon-related hauntings. The Conjuring tells the tale of one of the couple’s investigations, which the opening credits describe as their most extreme case ever.

Set in 1971, the film focuses on a family of seven that moves into an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The parents, Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters, are happy-go-lucky during their big move-in day, though they find it peculiar that their dog, Sadie, refuses to enter the house. The very next morning, Carolyn wakes up with a huge bruise on her leg, and poor Sadie is found dead outside.

The Conjuring [2013]

The paranormal activities only get worse from there, and they grow more and more frequent. Items are thrown across the house, doors are open and shut on their own, and children are pulled from their beds while they sleep. To top it off, the youngest daughter claims to have made a new friend, Rory, who no one else can see.

Eventually, the family cannot take any more of the abuse, and Carolyn reaches out to Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren for help. As soon as they arrive, Lorraine immediately notices multiple presences within the house. It’s clear to them that there is a demon that has latched onto the family, and they will have to gain evidence in order to pursue an exorcism on the entire house. The Warrens set up an elaborate system of cameras and audio recordings in order to obtain enough proof, but this quickly becomes a race against the clock as their presence seems to infuriate the demon inside the house.

The Conjuring [2013]

The general concept for The Conjuring feels familiar, and the film itself doesn’t really break any new ground within the horror genre. However, the overall package is well put together, offering a chilling atmosphere with a relentless sense of dread and plenty of scares. The attention to detail is impeccable, as director James Wan nailed the 1970s setting, right down to the household items on display. Wilson and Farmiga are terrific in the lead roles, and the children do well at looking scared out of their minds. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston make for a great couple as well, though the latter looks surprisingly emotionless during the film’s batshit-crazy climax.

The fact that The Conjuring is based on a true story adds even more to its freaky nature. Sure, extreme liberties were taken with some of the paranormal disturbances, but they help make the film even more entertaining. As someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, demonic possessions or the like, I still found this to be an incredibly entertaining film. Perhaps best of all, it’s intelligent as well, something we really don’t see much of in the genre anymore.


Movie Review: World War Z [2013]

World War Z [2013]

World War Z [2013]
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof (screenplay), Matthew Michael Carnahan & J. Michael Straczynski (screen story), Max Brooks (novel)
Genre: Action/Drama/Horror
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 116 minutes

World War Z seemed to be doomed from the start. With production delays, a burgeoning budget and multiple script rewrites, Marc Forster’s film struggled to get off the ground. In fact, it took a good 5+ years of development before the final product came together. Surprisingly, even with these miscues, the film isn’t half bad, though it does fall into some familiar traps.

Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former UN employee who, after the zombie outbreak hits, is called upon by The Powers That Be to help investigate the source of the virus. Forced to leave his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters behind, Gerry embarks on the desperate journey that takes him all over the world in order to (hopefully) save mankind.

World War Z [2013]

World War Z crams a lot into its two hour running time, as Gerry and company travel to South Korea, Israel and Wales. With so much globe-trotting, the film never really finds its footing, instead opting to use these jaunts as action set pieces with increasingly unrealistic outcomes. Some characters are seemingly invincible, surviving disasters that would swiftly kill “real” people. Many in the film also act like complete tools (i.e. forgetting to shut off a cell phone while sneaking past a group of zombies), and they are often getting into cheap predicaments meant to rivet the suspense.

Outside of Brad Pitt’s Gerry, none of the characters receive any real development, and they are merely there to fill the screen. Pitt deserves a lot of credit, however, as he is more than capable of shouldering the load. His portrayal of the near-perfect hero works well, and he helps keep the film entertaining even during its slower moments.

World War Z [2013]

World War Z is rated PG-13, and this raises some issues. I don’t have a problem with a film getting this rating, but WWZ so desperately wants to show the usual zombie gore and violence that it seems frustrated in not being able to do so. Zombies are shot in the head, impaled and otherwise brutally massacred, but all of this happens off screen. We know it happens, but the frequent cuts away from the action are distracting.

Now, that’s not to say World War Z is a bad film. In fact, it is quite entertaining, and it moves along at a very crisp pace. It’s just that it is also a remarkably generic zombie movie, one that has been done better in the past. In short, it’s pretty much what I expected from a summer blockbuster of this nature, for better or for worse.


Poll Results: Best Zombie Film of All-Time

…and the winner is:

Shaun of the Dead

– Shaun of the Dead: 11 votes
– Dawn of the Dead [1978]: 9 votes
– Night of the Living Dead: 9 votes
– Zombieland: 7 votes
– 28 Days Later: 4 votes
– Braindead (Dead Alive): 3 votes
– Return of the Living Dead: 2 votes

This was a close race all the way, but Edgar Wright’s hilarious 2004 comedy gets the hard-fought victory. Two bona fide George Romero classics finished second and third, and the relatively recent Zombieland put in a good showing as well. Might have to fire up Shaun of the Dead this week.. it has been too long!

This Week’s Poll: Monster’s University was tops at the box office once again this weekend. While I have yet to see the film, I do have a weakness for college movies in general. This week’s question is, what is your favorite college movie? Do you still think nothing can top Animal House? Are you a Will Ferrell junkie that swears by Old School? Or is there something else that you enjoy more?

Poll Results: Favorite Cast Member from This Is the End

Everyone’s favorite Moneyball supporting actor continues his winning ways:

Jonah Hill

– Jonah Hill: 6 votes
– James Franco: 4 votes
– Danny McBride: 3 votes
– Jay Baruchel: 2 votes
– Craig Robinson: 2 votes
– Seth Rogen: 0 votes

Poor Seth Rogen. Getting shut out of his own movie. Is everyone that tired of him already?

This Week’s Poll: The weekend’s biggest surprise at the box office was easily World War Z finishing second overall while making a cool $66+ million. After a number of delays, production problems and tepid reviews, the film surpassed most expectations, and there is already talk of a sequel. In honor of the film’s success, let’s take a look back at zombies in film. What are the *two* best zombie movies of all time? Are you a fan of the Romero classics, or do you prefer modern horror-comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland?

Movie Review: Evil Dead [2013]

Evil Dead [2013]

Evil Dead [2013]
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues, Sam Raimi (1981 screenplay)
Genre: Horror
Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore
Running Time: 91 minutes

Evil Dead is a horror film that means business. After a brief prologue set in the past, the film wastes no time diving headfirst into pure, unadulterated horror.

This reboot/remake takes the premise of Sam Raimi’s 1981 original film and kicks it up several notches. Once again, five friends are getting together for a weekend vacation in an old cabin in the woods. David (Shiloh Fernandez), Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) have arranged this little trip as an effort to help Mia (Jane Levy) kick her drug addiction. Within minutes of arriving, they discover a hidden door on the floor of one of the bedrooms. Downstairs in this room are dead, rotting cats hanging from the ceiling and bound in barbed wire. There’s also a burned corpse. Oh, and a book known as the Naturom Demonto. You may have heard of it.

Eric, ever so foolish, reads a short passage from this book aloud, awakening an evil supernatural force that begins haunting Mia. It doesn’t take long for the evil to spread to others in the group, causing a wild, bloody and gory affair.

Evil Dead [2013]

Oh, the gore. This film is not for the weak of heart. Skin is pulled in unfathomable directions, limbs are tossed aside like cigarette butts, and blood sprays everywhere. I usually have a strong stomach for this type of stuff, but I had to look away on more than one occasion. This is a gruesome, violent movie, and it’s bound to disgust those not suited to this style of horror.

For fans of the genre, though, Evil Dead is a real treat. Despite lacking a strong central figure like the original’s Bruce Campbell, the cast is solid enough to make the film work. None of the performances are exceptional, but Jane Levy does stand out with her well-played transitions from evil to innocent.

Evil Dead [2013]

The real highlights in Evil Dead come from the makeup and special effects. The film is essentially CGI-free, and it is all the better for it. The attention to detail with the blood and gore is a thing of sick, sick beauty. Again, I cannot stress enough that this is not for the weak of heart.

Evil Dead is a rare remake that gets it right. It’s extremely doubtful that it will obtain the same type of cult following that Sam Raimi’s film has achieved over the years, but it’s still strong enough to stand on its own. For that alone, Evil Dead can be considered a success.


Video Game Review: The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: The Game

The Walking Dead
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC, Mac OS X, iOS)
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: Throughout 2012

The last time I cried was at my father’s funeral five years ago.

There have been times since then where I would get choked up, particularly after some painstakingly depressing films (i.e. Grave of the Fireflies), but nothing has made the tears really start flowing. I don’t like crying, and I have a tendency to fight it even when it feels like a natural reaction. After completing The Walking Dead, once again I found myself holding back tears, albeit less successfully this time. No video game has ever come close to evoking this type of emotion in me.

It’s funny, I shouldn’t even like The Walking Dead. I tried watching the AMC TV show of the same name, and found it embarrassingly amateur. I gave up after the first season. I’m also burnt out on the whole “zombie” fad, as it reached the point of over-saturation long ago. Yet I found myself drawn to Telltale’s episodic video game series. It grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

My initial plan was to review each of The Walking Dead‘s five episodes individually — I wrote about numbers one and two last year — but it began to grow tedious. How could I possibly write about each episode without using spoilers? There are groundbreaking revelations within each episode, with characters coming and going at a breakneck pace.

At its core, however, two characters remain constant: Lee and Clementine.

Lee is the player-controlled protagonist who essentially “adopts” Clementine, the eight-year-old he finds alone in a treehouse during the first episode. With her parents missing, Lee becomes something of a father figure to the young girl (later episodes even give the option of introducing her as his daughter). The relationship between these two grows with every moment, and I found myself doing everything I could to protect her.

Every episode forces Lee to make crucial decisions, most of which offer two choices that essentially equate to “bad” and “worse.” After my playing sessions, I found myself questioning some of my choices. Should I have saved a different character’s life? Should I have really stolen food from that car? I tried to do everything in the interest of Clementine — in a world that has gone to hell, the only important thing was to help this little girl survive.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

In reality, that’s what The Walking Dead is about: survival. It’s near impossible to trust anyone else because that is ultimately their goal as well. Everyone is looking out for their own interests, as well as their families. Relationships are often forged but remain shaky as tensions flare up.

I was emotionally drained by the end of the game. This series really puts you through the ringer, never letting up at all. It’s fantastic storytelling, and it’s unlike any other found in a video game so far. The writing is excellent, the voice acting top notch, and the characters unforgettable.

I had never felt the way I did upon completing The Walking Dead. I wasn’t sure that video games as a medium could evoke that type of reaction out of me — hell, very few movies have, and I have seen a lot of ’em. For this alone, The Walking Dead is one of the most important games to come out in 2012, and I have absolutely no reservations about calling this the Game of the Year.


Poll Results: Best Horror Film from the 2000s

Our run of horror-themed polls has come to a close. Here is what was voted as the best horror film from the 2000s:

The Descent

– The Descent: 8 votes
– Let the Right One In: 6 votes
– 28 Days Later: 5 votes
– Paranormal Activity: 5 votes
– Saw: 5 votes
– [REC]: 3 votes
– The Ring: 3 votes
– Drag Me to Hell: 2 votes
– Ju-on: The Grudge: 2 votes
– The Mist: 2 votes
– The Orphanage: 2 votes
– Audition: 1 vote
– Dawn of the Dead: 1 vote
– High Tension: 1 vote
– The Others: 1 vote
– Session 9: 1 vote
– Trick ‘r Treat: 1 vote

Write-in votes:
– Ringu: 1 vote (1998 release, sorry)
– Shaun of the Dead: 1 vote (probably should have included this!)
– Surveillance: 1 vote (hadn’t even head of this one, but now I’m curious)

Awesome, awesome voting this time around! Very pleased to see The Descent win, as that was definitely one of my highlights from last month’s viewings. Always good to have a wide variety of votes, too.

This Week’s Poll: I had thought about doing a political-related poll this week, but I figured everyone is tired of hearing about politics lately. Instead, let’s shift gears to a more enjoyable topic: Studio Ghibli. Instead of asking for the “best” Studio Ghibli film, I want to know your favorite. There are plenty of great choices for this one.

Have a great week everyone!