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Looking Back at 2010s Films: Oculus (2014)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, my favorite thing about the 2005 dramatic thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is that it left everything up to the viewer’s interpretation, giving us different possibilities as to why something happened the way it did. Was it the supernatural or was it something simpler?

Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” did something very similar in its first hour. It involves two siblings who both went through a traumatic experience involving the death of their parents. The brother has been living in a mental institution since then, convincing himself that it was a violent domestic issue and not the cause of something supernatural he now believes his traumatized mind came up with as a coping mechanism. What was it he thought caused the tragedy? A haunted mirror that manipulates people’s minds. He’s now released and welcomed back by his sister…who now has the mirror and still believes it was what caused the horrible ordeal that killed their parents. So, she decides to bring her brother in as she documents her experiments with the mirror before she attempts to kill it.

(Why she doesn’t bring other people in as witnesses to this apparent supernatural presence, I don’t know, but…never mind.)

I love the first hour of “Oculus,” as the sister is dead-set to prove that her parents were victims of something that can’t be explained that dwells within the mirror itself and brother has spent years proving to himself that it’s not real. Now he has to convince her that things they went through did not happen the way they remember it, but she’s shocked to find that he has no recollection of what she believes truly happened. This is great stuff!

The rest of the film is good too (and you can even make the argument that what happens in the final act isn’t actually what happens). There are some very good chilling moments (including one involving an apple…yecch), some more insight into our main characters slowly but surely going crazy, and an effective way to show flashbacks and have them intersect with present-day events. But that first hour, which allowed us to consider one thing when another thing seemed too obvious from the start, is so damn good, it kind of feels like a different movie. But I still like “Oculus” overall, for challenging me as well as scaring me.

And it was the first film to give filmmaker Mike Flanagan some much-needed attention (he had another film before, a low-budget thriller called “Absentia,” but that hardly went anywhere). Little did he know that it would lead to more projects that would cement his status as one of the very best horror directors working today.

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Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Final Girls (2015)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films…I want a sequel to “The Final Girls!” Why is there still not a sequel to “The Final Girls”?? People will see it!…Or somebody will!…I will!

“The Final Girls” is a satirical horror film about a group of modern-day young adults who are magically teleported into a 1980s slasher film–think “Last Action Hero” meets “Scream.” And now, in order to see the end of the film and hopefully get back home, they have to help the ’80s protagonists fight off a mysterious masked killer. What complicates things is that one of the ’80s kids was played in reality by the deceased mother of one of the millennials, and she’s not ready to lose her again.

The film was co-written by Joshua John Miller (along with M.A. Fortin), whose father is Jason Miller, who was best-known for playing Father Karras in “The Exorcist.” I can’t help but feel like writing this screenplay was like a form of therapy for him. (And another fun fact: Joshua Miller was best-known for acting as the little punk from ’80s cult classics “River’s Edge” and “Near Dark”–I know he plays different characters, but c’mon, he’s still the same little jerk in each film.)

But even with its heart, it’s still a horror-comedy. Does the comedy work? Yes…for the most part. The deconstructing of the slasher-movie tropes is very well-done, including how even being genre-savvy doesn’t always save your life. The killer, named Billy, is obviously molded after Jason Voorhees and the “Black Christmas” killer (also named “Billy”). They try to work in as many types as possible for the disposable teens–the Stud, the Sexpot, the Virgin, the Final Girl, and more. And it’s also nice to see these millennial youths play parental roles to these ’80s stereotypes.

What I don’t like so much about the film is that the ’80s stereotypes don’t feel even like “’80s stereotypes.” They feel like millennials trying to play ’80s so they can have an excuse to be as impolitically correct as possible. Did they really expect me to buy Adam DeVine as a jock stud from the ’80s? Bullsh*t. I have the same problem with Angela Trimbur as the ’80s Sexpot–again, I’m not seeing as much of a type as much as someone trying to perform community theater. Even for an ’80s slasher film, you gotta try harder than this.

Though, I will say…they are more memorable than most disposable teens in real ’80s slasher films.

Speaking of which, the main characters themselves are likable enough for me to want to follow them. It’s not really an actor’s movie, but it is important to have appealing players in any film, no matter how satirical it may be. Taissa Farmiga is a fun protagonist, Alexander Ludwig is convincing as a sensitive jock, Nina Dobrev is funny as a conceited slutty type, Alia Shawkat is also funny at being Alia Shawkat, and Thomas Middleditch is irritating without being ear-numbingly so. Also, Malin Akerman as the ’80s Virgin who doesn’t know her character is played by someone’s late mother is very sweet and effective.

Again, not an actor’s movie. But give credit where it’s due.

And judging from the entertaining blooper reel at the end, it looked like everyone had a fun time making this flick. If I were involved, I’d probably have a blast too. I definitely had fun watching this film…and I’d undoubtedly have fun watching a sequel if they would just make one already!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

How did this happen? How did a prequel to a subpar horror film turn out to be so good? It’s as if the first “Halloween” movie to be released was “The Curse of Michael Myers” (the sixth, and arguably worst, of the franchise) and then it was followed up by John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

That’s how impressive “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is.

This is the prequel to 2014’s “Ouija,” which was about a group of teens who play a Ouija board game to communicate with spirits, and of course, evil demonic forces take hold of their lives and slowly but surely kill them off. “Ouija” was overwhelmingly panned by critics, calling slow and nonsensical.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil,” its follow-up, was given the opposite reaction, with highly positive reviews from critics who noticed the significant amount of improvement over its predecessor.

Here’s how I think it happened. Director/co-writer Mike Flanagan (who had already impressed me with quality horror films such as “Oculus” and especially “Hush”) was focused on making a good movie as well as compromising with the studio system. What did the executives want to see?

They wanted to see kids playing the board game, like in the original film. Fair enough–so, Flanagan wrote in a scene in which one of the leads, a teenage girl, plays with her friends and introduces the audience to the rules of the game.

They wanted a jump-scare early into the proceedings. Ugh, fine–but Flanagan, who hates fakeout jump-scares as much as I do, used it for comedic effect.

And he had to tie up all loose ends from the original. How do you do that, when it seemed the ending twist of the original “Ouija” didn’t seem to make sense? Well…Flanagan found a way to fix that too.

And surely there were more studio notes like that, but Flanagan chose not to fight against them but to use them as a benefit. You know what? Freaking KUDOS to this guy!

So, now that Flanagan used the studio notes, what was he going to give us in “Ouija: Origin of Evil?” Story! Characters! Atmosphere! Caring! He thought of giving us all of that before throwing in the terror! By God, it’s A MOVIE!

Thus, what started as a deplorable work-for-hire turned into one of the most surprisingly good horror films of the decade.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Sacrament (2014)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

I stated before that I’m a supporter of the found-footage/faux-documentary format (again, when it’s done right). One of the inspirations I turned to when making my own fake-documentary feature was Ti West’s “The Sacrament.”

“The Sacrament” is a faux-documentary thriller in which a small VICE camera crew (played by AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and Joe Swanberg) travels to a secluded religious community, where people who were down on their luck come together to live in peace and serve the community founder, simply called “Father” (Gene Jones). Everything seems fine, until they come across some members who beg them to take them away from here. With that tension comes the paranoid possibility that the crew will return home to reveal too much about the community. And with that…comes complete chaos.

The trailer tried to be clever in hiding where this whole ordeal is going, but even if you haven’t seen the movie already, you can tell where this story is going: it’s based on the Jonestown massacre.

But even so, “The Sacrament” is a gripping thrill ride. Once everything goes to hell, it’s just a question of which of our main characters could survive and how long it will take before they finally make their way out of this horrible experience. And unlike most first-person-perspective movies, I’m not wondering why the characters keep filming everything–they’re a media group getting as much of the story as they can in the hopes that they can get out of this situation with their lives and reveal it to the world. I buy that.

And because I buy that, I’m constantly on-edge when everything goes from bad to worse, because we’re seeing things mostly through the eyes of our protagonists, whether they’re hiding from armed guards or running to a new location. We even get disturbing footage from the antagonists as well, after they take one of the cameras–the most brutal scene that comes from this is a static-shot scene in which someone is forcibly poisoned and dies in his sister’s arms. The poor guy…

Oh, and I should also mention that because our heroes are camera operators & documentarians, that creates a perfect alibi to keep shots steady, except for when they’re running for their lives while filming! It’s the little things that prevent criticism…except for when it comes to people who claim the idea of exploiting the Jonestown massacre for horror-movie purposes is in bad-taste. (It’s just a movie.)

Looking Back at 2010s Films: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2013)

14 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” is a horror slasher film that is best known for its long-awaited release. It generated a ton of positive buzz at festivals in 2006, including TIFF and SXSW, and then…the studio that bought the rights decided not to release it for some reason. (Damn it, Weinsteins.) Then after it had already had a UK release long before, it was already released briefly in limited theaters before hitting VOD and DVD in late 2013 (thus barely making it qualify for my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films). And then the film that garnered a ton of good press at these festivals didn’t seem so special, with many reviews that said there’s hardly anything special about it apart from the gritty, grindhouse-like cinematography is top-notch.

What do I think of it? Well, at first, I didn’t think it was anything too special (though the cinematography was pretty nifty)…but that didn’t stop me from revisiting it again a few more times on Netflix. Much of the reason I like to watch it again has to do with the ending (which I’ll get into in a moment).

The film is well-directed, by Jonathan Levine. This was Levine’s first film, and while it’s a shame his debut got shelved for seven years, I am glad he made three well-received films (“The Wackness,” “50/50,” “Warm Bodies”) while waiting for this one to get released. By the time most of us got to see “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” we already knew it’d be well-directed. It’s well-acted, from actors who’d go on to other things in the waiting, including Amber Heard, Michael Welch, Whitney Able, Edwin Hodge, and Luke Grimes (who I’ll always know as Enoch from “War Eagle, Arkansas”–Fifty Shades of what?). But what did throw a lot of people off upon seeing it for the first time in 2013 was that up until the ending, it’s…well, let’s be honest, just another horror slasher film–a bunch of teens go partying at a secluded farmhouse, try to get their hookups, drink, do drugs, and then get slaughtered by an unknown psycho. (Though, unlike most modern horror films, it was shot on film and given a gritty aesthetic that calls back to horror films of the ’70s.) So why did it get all that hot buzz at festivals? I think it has to do with the ending and what the film means in hindsight–that’s why I revisited it myself. It seems like a teenage coming-of-age story disguised as a slasher film–it’s like “Dazed and Confused” meets “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

The “Mandy Lane” in the title refers a high-school girl (Amber Heard) who was very awkward before she blossomed over the summer. Now, every guy wants her and, as evidenced in an opening scene, will do anything for her. Some guys invite her to a ranch out in the country, and some other guy starts to kill them one-by-one. Is there some kind of connection between the killings and Mandy Lane? Is she next?

SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Mandy was a social outcast before every jerk on campus wanted to sleep with her. When her friend Emmet (Michael Welch) convinced one of them to jump off a roof to impress her, Mandy started to realize the lengths these jackasses would go to for her. Watching the film again, a few looks she gives early in the film actually did hint that she was more devious than she was letting on (it’s also hinted that she had a messed-up childhood, though it’s not really explained). In the end, it all turns out that this night was part of a murder-suicide pact, with Emmet enacting all the murders of the partygoers, most of which were guys who were trying to one-up each other for the alpha-male position in attempts to seduce Mandy. They’re all like predators…only they didn’t realize Mandy was the predator, manipulating everyone’s emotions, both the guys’ and the girls’, everyone who thought they had a chance at scoring with her, getting her to try some other things, etc. But when Mandy and Emmet reunite, she realizes that Emmet did all this for her, showing her that he’s no better than the rest of them. So, Emmet dies, while Mandy survives, with the local farmhand, Garth (Anson Mount), getting her out of there…and it seems she can control his emotions too.

Seeing the film again with that knowledge made it more interesting, as I realize there’s more on this film’s mind than graphic violence (there isn’t even that much gore to be found). It actually captures both male and female insecurities (guys trying to one-up each other, girls’ body issues) in a unique way that could actually speak well and directly to high-school teens. The characters aren’t bad people; they’re just dumb, naive, insecure high-school kids, which makes their tale all the more tragic.

“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” deserved more than it got. It definitely didn’t deserve to spend seven years on the shelf, when all the studio execs could’ve done was sit on it for a little bit, rather than let their minds be influenced by a negative test screening…ONE negative test screening…did they forget all the positive press from some of the highest-ranking film festivals in the country??

Again, nice move, Weinsteins.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Creep Movies (2014, 2017)

14 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

I’m a supporter of the found-footage/fake-documentary format, but I should emphasize that I’m only a fan of it *when it’s done right.* When it is, it can make for an effective thrill ride in putting the viewer in the shoes of the character holding the camera, and thus making the viewer an inactive part of the story.

Don’t get me wrong–there are some terrible ones; but the ones that make us wish they’d go away only make the good ones good enough to make us wonder what else could be done with the approach. Some of my favorite examples include not only the popular ones like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” but also “The Sacrament,” “The Visit,” “Chronicle,” “V/H/S,” “REC,” and…the “Creep” movies.

“Creep” was a microbudget indie thriller created by Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice, who just decided at one point to go out to a cabin in some woods and make their own movie in which a videographer may or may not be in danger of his “creepy” subject. This was a brilliant setup for the first-person perspective setup, with our main character being a videographer named Aaron (played by Brice, who also directs the film) and filming his experience in answering an ad for a strange man named Josef (Duplass) who asks him to follow him around with his camera for a couple days. When Josef who’s already shown to have very strange qualities becomes even more disconcerting, we have no idea where this film is going to go and neither does Aaron–we ourselves are with it along with him, trying to piece some things together. THAT is how you do a found-footage/faux-doc movie!

OK, now I have to talk about the ending so that I can talk about the film’s sequel, “Creep 2″…even though “Creep 2” itself is already a spoiler for “Creep” anyway. So, SPOILER ALERT!!!

The whole film, this whole time, has been edited by Josef long after he took Aaron’s footage for himself…after killing Aaron and filming himself doing it. It turns out Josef is a serial killer who loves to make movies out of his murders, with beginnings, middles, and endings…..yikes.

Again, THIS is how it’s done with the subgenre! It’s chilling and disturbing in all the right ways.

“Creep 2,” I think is even better. Brice & Duplass didn’t just remake “Creep”; they continued the story with something that I can’t recall having seen in any horror film–Duplass’ serial-killer character, whose real name is NOT Josef apparently, is going through a midlife crisis…the serial killer is going through a midlife crisis…

That’s just oddly fascinating.

This time, the videographer he’s brought on board for his next project is amateur web-series creator Sara (Desiree Akhavan). As soon as she arrives at his cabin, he makes it quite clear to her that he’s a killer, and he announces that he asked her to come make a film about his own end, thus creating his “magnum opus.” Sara is smart enough to keep on-guard but isn’t quite sure exactly where he’s going with this. Where this goes…let me just say I’m curious to see “Creep 3,” if it does go anywhere.

And yes, there is a “Creep 3” in the works. I’ll be interested to check it out!

Both “Creep” movies are on Netflix–I recommend you check them both out for a good scare or two!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Guest (2014)

14 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, here’s the setup to “The Guest”: a stranger named David (Dan Stevens) arrives to a family’s house, saying he was a friend of their late son who served and died in combat, and after he earns their trust, he slowly but surely reveals his true colors as someone diabolical…

It sounds familiar, but it doesn’t feel familiar. But unlike “The Gift,” which also did something different with a familiar setup, “The Guest” isn’t interested in providing psychological insight into human behavior while providing a familiar setup. Instead, it’s just a good fun time, with action, comedy, horror, and occasional drama. And it never takes itself too seriously–it’s like if “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” combined with “The Terminator.”

There’s more than a handful of good, memorable scenes in “The Guest.” One of my favorites is when David protects the youngest son (Brendan Meyer) against some school bullies, follows them to a bar where they’re too young to be drinking, and totally trashes them, blackmailing the bartender not to say anything. Both “The Guest” and “John Wick” were released in the same year–I’d easily rival this scene in “The Guest” with the club scene in “John Wick.”

Of course, things are not right with David, who turns out to be sinister (though thankfully vague in his reasons as to why). And it leads to a fight to survive…in a Halloween funhouse maze…with ’80s-’90s techno music playing throughout! What a way to end a thrill ride, right?!

Well, at least, the climax made me forget my little gripes I have about the film, like a few slow portions (particularly in the middle act) and some poor acting from side roles. And there’s also Dan Stevens. This was my introduction to him, having not seen one episode of “Downton Abbey,” and he’s fantastic in this film. One moment, he’ll be a cool guy to have a beer and chat with…then the next, he’s hurling grenades in a diner, killing all inside.

Side-note: there’s a little pet-peeve I have with these movies, when someone tries to tell someone else some horrible news and the response is “You’re just saying that.” Why would somebody just say something like that?? It’s right up there with “it’s only the wind” as one of my biggest pet-peeves in horror movies.