FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: TEEN HORRORS

 

 

Summer Teen Horrors

by Kristin Battestella

 

Prom, dolls, murder, and monsters – will teens never learn?

 

The Blackcoat’s Daughter Haunting melodies, terrible news, and subtitles like “silence” and “eerie ambiance” open this chiller from director Oz Perkins (I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House) along with suggestive lion and lamb lyrics, crosses on the wall, priestly substitutes, and father figure innuendo. Rather than emo angst, the bad girl pregnancy scares and awkward acting out are handled maturely, with a Picnic at Hanging Rock weirdness. Dark filming against bleak windows or open doors makes us unsure what side we are on, capturing the dreary mundane as two girls are stuck at school during winter break. The intertwining build of events may be slow to some, but each act follows one girl in distorted, compelling vignettes. Common bathroom echoes and creaking doors add to the spooky orange boiler room and what we think we saw contortions while change for the pay phone, maps, bus stops, and red tail lights create helplessness and traveling dangers. And you know, parents saying a teen can’t have one has to be the best excuse yet for a lack of cell phones. Who stole the laptop? Do you trust the stranger offering a ride? Is being happy an ulterior motive or will the god-believing good Samaritan find it is the devil that answers instead? These young ladies are filmed not for titillation as in slasher T-n-A horror but with a sense of innocence and fragility. Rather than in your face mayhem, suspect conversations, sinister changes, and non-linear storytelling give the audience intriguing pieces of creepy doubt. Is a crazy student after the headmaster’s attention or is that really a reflection of horns and a shadowy devil in the frame? The surreal atmosphere makes viewers peer deeper at the screen, wondering if the devil, possessions, or unreliable impressions are playing tricks on us. Editing splices match the bloody stabbings, with nonchalant mentions of forensics having to find which head matches which body. Static, distorted voices, and vibrating sound invoke more unease amid an isolating, hoodwinked power of suggestion. The audience sees the reaction on a police officer’s face rather than the terrible shocks he witnesses – doing the worst horrors imagined with a subtle reveal instead of pulling the rug out from under the viewer and calling it a twist. Although spoon fed audiences may want answers immediately instead of open to interpretation confusion and arty pretentiousness – Perkins may need an outside eye on his writing and directing to clarify this pizzazz for the masses – once you wrap your head around it, this is a straightforward story taking its time with a unique mood and special characters for full gruesome effect.

The Boy – Eccentric British parents hire a babysitter for their son – who just happens to be a doll – in this 2016 bizzarity. There’s padding opening credits driving the young American woman in a foreign country to the kid horrors, because of course, and there’s a no wif-fi, no neighbors phone call to her sister about a nasty ex, too. Fake boo moments, dream shocks, and phantom phone calls are unnecessary, as is the psychic grocery delivery man who reads gum and guesses wrong. I kid you not. The introduction to the little doll – err son is laughable as well, but our nanny must play along with the well paying delusion and make sure he sits up straight during their poetry lessons. Creepy portraits, strange noises, prayers, thunderstorms, and taxidermy create an eerie atmosphere for this warped hook while a great Canadian castle stands in for the cluttered English estate. Old toys, phonographs, candles, windows painted shut, and traps to keep rats out of the walls add to the freaky doll moments, but our babysitter waits until the doll uncovers itself and the stereo-typically locked attic doors open by themselves before following the house rules. She also never bothers to explore or investigate, but there’s an obligatory local who knows the dead little girl past and eight year old died in a fire back story – tossing in cliché details along with lost pregnancies, love triangles, and taking a shower trite. If you’re going to go into the ominous attic in nothing but a towel or have a doll listening to the sex in the next room, then don’t be a soft PG-13 but embrace that winking R. The eponymous frights should be stronger, and although we smartly don’t see any silly doll moving effects, the traditional filming style doesn’t do justice to the oddity. Rather than embracing the bizarre bonding afoot, the standard horror formulaic wastes too much time – this unusual premise could really shine if the flip flopping world rules didn’t detract from the aloof charm. A WTF siege veers the finale into something more preposterous, calling it a twist while holding back as late night horror lite for people who haven’t already seen any similar scary movies.

Lights Out This 2016 feature adaptation of the popular 2013 short is still a little short itself at eighty minutes and keeps restarting with a working dad on skype, mom talking to herself, a little brother not sleeping, and a bad attitude big sister with a sensitive rocker boyfriend. Fortunately, employees locking up for the night lead to crackling electricity and shadows that blink closer with each flick of the light switch. What would you do if you turned out the lights and saw a silhouette that isn’t there when the lights are on? We know something is in the dark, but not what, and the old school light means safety rule works amid the almost GIF-like now you see it now you don’t. Ominous tracking shots, red spotlights, neon signs flashing, and black lights create enough mood without unnecessary transition pans, bones cracking, and scratching sounds. A young boy with spooky afoot and a mother who may or may not be crazy are more interesting than time wasting millennial emo, and Maria Bello (A History of Violence) as the unstable wife dealing with shadows real or imagined a la The Babadook should have been the lead here. Naming the shadow, having her talk, and the constantly changing backstory gets laughable at times – as do slides across the floor and zooms on the ceiling. The research montage is a convenient home office snoop for a cassette tape from the doctor and a few photographs with retro jumpy footage snips patchworking the light sensitivity, skin disorder, institution experiment gone wrong, and psychic ghost happenings. There’s inconsistent UV light and physicality excuses, too, but if you aren’t going to give the audience a concrete explanation – i.e. saving it for the inevitable sequel – then there shouldn’t be any attempted information at all. Is this multiple personalities, a basement relative, or a childhood lez be friends BFF that won’t let go even in death? Why not call in the institution doctor or present your evidence to the sniffing child services instead of just yelling at your mother? There’s a kid so afraid he’s sleeping in the bathtub with the flashlight shining on his face, something’s tugging on mom’s sweater from behind the door, and quality under the bed threats rekindle timeless fears. There’s no need to add convoluted characters or ever leave the unique Tudor house standoff, yet one can tell where the trite dialogue and thin story were stretched to appeal to the mainstream teen horror public – complete with an L.A. setting, rich white blonde people, and a made stupid black cop and his Hispanic female partner. The short film didn’t have to explain its narrative the way a feature does, and this isn’t the worst recent horror film, but the good ending is a little too quick, playing it safe, serviceable, and ticking the standard contemporary horror boxes rather than really zinging. One should either stick with the original short or take this as a separate late night chiller for full bump in the night enjoyment.

 

Prom Night – Talk about kids being cruel! Morbid child’s play leads to deadly chases in this 1980 slasher – complete with one brat making the others swear to never tell, pathetic still seventies dudes, ugly vans a rockin’, station wagons, transistor radios, drive-ins, and obscene phone calls. Remember those? Although a few silly voiceovers could just be said out loud and some of the intercut flashes dump information in a quick reset, we know who is who for this eponymous anniversary vengeance. Six years later the killer has the names on his list and he’s checking them twice amid whispers of neighborhood sex offenders, creepy janitors, and mirrored innuendo. There’s terrible matching stripes, flared bell bottoms, knee socks, feathered hair, and side ponytails, too – not to mention escaped mental patients and a fatherly cop not telling the locals what’s afoot. This all must seem like Halloween deja vu for twenty-two year old high schooler Jamie Lee Curtis! Disco ball glows and red lights add flair, and there’s a sardonic humor with principal dad Leslie Nielsen (The Naked Gun) so awkward on the lit up floor before the big dance off, oh yeah. If there was going to be a Saturday Night Fever nod, they could have at least sprung for Bee Gees music instead of generic disco that’s honestly a little late. The prom king and queen ruses are i.e. Carrie as well, however these snob teens deserve what’s coming to them. How can a guy say he loves a girl when he helped kill her sister? We may laugh at some of the sagging datedness or bemusingly preposterous – violence in the gym showers and nobody in the school gives a hoot? However, a lot of horror movies and teen flicks are still using these borrowed staples. There’s a sense of small town swept under the rug paralleling the prom and sex calm as the ominous school hallways escalate to bloodied virgins in white dresses, lengthy slice and dice chases, rolling heads, light show disasters, and fiery vehicle attacks. This isn’t super gory and there’s no groundbreaking horror effects, but the well filmed checklist vignettes and shrewd cut corners editing build suspense alongside the red herrings and obvious killer guessing game. This isn’t super intellectual on the mentality of the killer or the full psychology of the crimes, either, but the misunderstood whys and psychosis seeds suggested continue the conversation long after everything plays out right on the dance floor with a power ballad topper.

 

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FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: SWEET RECENT SCARES

 

Sweet Recent Scares

by Kristin Battestella

 

Ghosts, vampires, and cults, oh my! This trio of recent tales get the scares right!

 

I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in The House – Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair) stars in this 2016 Netflix original written and directed by Oz Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter). Poetic voiceovers tell of a house being borrowed by the living while dark screens and period silhouettes come in and out of focus, creating an aged feeling for our colonial house, ailing horror author, and her jilted live in nurse Lily – who must always wear white, can’t be touched, and slaps her own hand for snooping. Certainly there are obvious implications with repeated phrases, solitary scenes, one side phone calls, whispering voices, and no outdoor perspectives to disrupt our attention from the suspect footsteps and undisturbed décor. Old music with ironic lyrics, cassettes, rotary phones, typewriters, static TV antennas, and Grateful Dead shirts also invoke a trapped in the past mood implying that the thin veil between life and death is soon to be broken. Shadowed, almost black and white shots and doorways framed in darkness make the audience question which side of the looking glass we are on – slow zooms peer into the dark frames or blacked out night time windows. There are shock moments, but the one woman play design is intense without being loud or in your face. Blindfolds, old fashioned dresses, mirrors, musty papers, and mysterious boxes increase amid moldy walls and suspicious characters from our author’s 1960 novel The Lady in the Walls – creating slow burn literary flashbacks, parallel self-awareness, ghostly uncertainty, and feminine duality on wilted old age blooms versus forever beautiful flowers. Is this a linear story or are the past, present, living, and dead blending together? Again, the answers are apparent with book titles and name hints hidden in plain sight. No one eats, sleeps, or bathrooms yet this ghostly rot and repetition may take multiple viewings for full discussion, interpretation, and analysis. Although there are some pretentious arty for the sake of it moments – not the papa Anthony Perkins scenes on the TV! – knocking on the walls, a flipped up rug, buzzing flies, and a will requesting another woman writer come to chronicle this “House of Stories” are atmosphere enough without run of the mill wham bam effects. This individual horror experience remains can’t look away intriguing for old school horror fans not expecting thrills a minute and those who enjoy a seventies, no concept of time mood.

 

Midnight Son – An aversion to sunlight, skin conditions, and the need for human blood make for a deadly quarter life crisis in this 2011 indie gem from Scott Leberecht (Life After Pi). There’s not much dialogue early – and the DVD has deleted scenes, interviews, and commentaries but no subtitles – yet the visual storytelling doesn’t need anything uber talkative. Interesting schemes denote the false night time light with yellow lamps, neon accents, string bulbs, blue kitchen designs, and choice reds as the doctor diagnoses anemia, jaundice, and malnourishment. Rare steak isn’t doing the trick, but the sight of blood on a bandage at the ho hum night security job gets the heart racing for something tasty. Early Google research moments get out of the way in favor of painting memories of the sun, solitary vampire movie watching, checking for fangs, testing for a reaction to crosses, and having a laugh at the clichés. Loneliness, street peddlers, deadbeats, and debt – life’s already down on its luck so what’s a little vampirism? The vampire vis-a-vis for drug use and life sucks may be trite today, but this allegory has an older, working protagonist stopping in the corner butcher for some blood by the pint to hide in his coffee cup. Companionship and fantastic possibilities can be found in unlikely places, and it’s neat to see just how many things a basement dwelling vampire can really do at night. Although I like his bed with the blackout curtains, this is a potential turned bleak world – the natural awkwardness is understandable and casually realistic. Jacob’s smart, talented, and just hampered by his…health problems…and an ER opportunist is willing to trade blood for a price. Rather than shock horror exploitative, we have an intimate, invested view for the increasing slurps, bloody makeouts, and desperateness. Quick camera flashes leave room for suggestion as bodily changes, night vision, infections, and love bites interfere with potential relationships, murder investigations, gallery possibilities, and you know, trying to get somewhere in life. Can you be a good and normal vampire or is amoral violence the only answer? Though plain to some with nothing super unexpected, the simple constructs echo the mature progression, honest drama, and self-aware focus without the need for horror spectacle. This is a fine story with a small but well rounded, multi-ethnic cast, and it’s one of the best same writer/director pictures I’ve seen in a very long while.

 

Sacrifice – Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black), Rupert Graves (Sherlock), and David Robb (Downton Abbey) star in this 2016 adaptation of Sharon Bolton’s novel beginning with brisk New York pregnancy emergencies before moving to Scotland’s great mountains, rocky coasts, and end of the world island isolation for an adoption. Standing stones, jokes about mistaking “runes” for “ruins”, and talk of Druids, Normans, and ritual sacrifice pepper the scene setting job interviews, hospital tours, and dinner with the wealthy, well-connected, but secretive in-laws. A dead animal on the property reveals a buried body, and our lady obstetrician butts into the police investigation of this bog discovery, studying creepy photos and x-rays of the corpse to suggest the victim had recently given birth before her insides were excised. Quality science, Tollund Man references, and flood clues jar against trow myths, unique folklore, and inscription evidence. The authorities don’t want to hear any of that old sacrificial talk, but these mothers and lady cops are intelligent women talking about history and murder rather than men or gossip. While the well-paced, multilayered investigations may build the spooky versus facts with suspicions and tense cloak and dagger, this is not an overt horror picture. The story here feels caught in the middle when it should have been either a straight crime drama or gone with all out fantastics. There are some plot confusions as well – who is who and all the details aren’t totally clear, leaving an abrupt end with serious unanswered questions. Fortunately, surveillance, shadows, chases in the dark office at night, and lights going out add suspense. Late wives, a clinic full of pregnant but anonymous women – who doesn’t want this medical mystery solved and why? This is a small island, and not being in on its secrets can prove fatal with dangerous bridges or fiery car accidents. Body switches, clandestine interviews, identifying tattoos, hidden passages, and bagpipes tossed in for good measure seemingly tidy the case, and a likable, mature cast anchors the maternal fears and cult demands of this unique little thriller.

 

But Skip

White Settlers – A city couple moves to a too good to be true Scottish fixer upper on a medieval battle site in this 2014 British snoozer also called The Blood Lands. After the usual cool opening credits, are we there yet driving to the horrors, a somewhat shady estate agent, no phone signals, and a move in montage; the very unprepared wife realizes she’s afraid of being in an isolated handyman house without power. Of course, her jerk husband makes Scottish jokes, refusing to let up on his bullshit attitude even when there’s a scary break in and unseen attackers. The outdoor saucy, surprisingly immature and incompatible couple, and nighttime suspicious are typical clichés, and the divine scenery, historical references, and great house are never used to their full potential. When the description refers to ancient battles, one sort of expects something wild like ghosts or cults and past meets present horror – not guys in pig masks angry at the new neighbors. It’s tough to feel any of the supposed English versus Scottish subtext because the horror is so substandard. Eden Lake had better us versus them twists, and I swear I just saw this terrorizing hooligans in animal masks trope in at least three other horror house siege movies. Although flashlights and fog make it difficult to see much of anything here, and our wife has to apologize to her asshole husband for her being afraid even while she’s the superior fighter. Maybe this isn’t that bad on its own, but it’s certainly disappointing if you are expecting anything more than Brits chasing some other Brits through the woods in the dark. Nothing here is horror sentient – people go back to check the still body, bads talk rather than act to create a contrived victim escape, and who trusts the creepy little boy for help? Hello, McFly. If you didn’t want any English buying your Scottish property, why not blame the real estate lady who sold it to them? Or the bank that made the price so high? How is unrealistically terrorizing and ridiculously kicking out the new owners so you can move in going to get rid of any of the real world consequences?