Sunday, October 19, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #19: HERE COMES THE DEVIL (2012)

The Story: A family vacation goes awry when an adolescent brother and sister disappear overnight.  When they turn up again the following day, they're... different.

Expectations: THE BAD SEED (1956), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960), WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1976), CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1983), THE CHILDREN (2008)... "Creepy kids" never go out of style.  I wasn't sure if anything new could be done with this subgenre -- but the distributor, Dark Sky Films, has had a pretty good track record of late (DEADGIRL, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, WAKE WOOD, STAKE LAND, THE INNKEEPERS).  So I figured what the hell.

Reaction: This edgy-but-often-frustrating film starts with a hot and heavy lesbian sex scene that's interrupted by a machete-wielding madman carrying a box of severed fingers.  But that doesn't really have much to do with the story that follows, which is about a mysterious hill that might or might not be plagued by an Indian curse, and might or might not be inhabited by ancient creatures or alien body snatchers or the Devil himself.  Something there causes supernatural earthquakes and electrical disturbances, levitations, seizures, abductions, rape, incest, possession?, psychokinesis?.... you name it.  Further complicating this litany of unholy possibilities is the presence of several local weirdos, including a voyeuristic mute who may or may not be a pedophile.  And then there's the dysfunctional family at the center of this otherworldly tale: a paranoid mother, a violently angry father, and a pair of creepy Stepford children who barely say a word to anyone.  All of this to say: This is a very weird movie.  Its general weirdness will undoubtedly appeal to those who like midnight movies, and annoy those who prefer more coherent narratives.  One thing is for sure: It's not dull.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The scene where the mother sits in a middle school office, listening to a guidance counselor awkwardly warn her that her son and daughter are getting a little too affectionate with each other, is pretty damn uncomfortable to watch.  The eventual threat of aliens and demons pales in comparison.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #18: THE AWAKENING (2011)

The Story: A professional debunker investigates the alleged haunting of a rural boys school in post-WWI England, and finds clues to unravel mysteries in her own past.

Expectations: An old-fashioned ghost story, along the lines of THE OTHERS or THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE.

Reaction: The milieu of this story is interesting.  Just as BANSHEE CHAPTER is built upon 1960s American ideas about consciousness-expanding drugs, so this story is rooted in the culture of early 20th century British Spiritualism.  The main character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a scientist devoted to exposing charlatans who make money off of people's need to believe in ghosts... a refreshing novelty in 21st century America.  Early in the film, a committed spiritualist barks at her: "With sceince, people believe in nothing."  Cathcart responds: "Without science, people believe in everything." 

Some time ago I read a book called The Believing Brain, written by a neuroscientist who says that the human brain evolved to seek patterns -- even where there are no patterns.  He writes: "The problem we face is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old.  Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training."  That's one way to explain why our modern, supposedly rational culture not only still believes in ghosts, but finds them everywhere.  

THE AWAKENING being a traditional horror movie, it says that ghosts are real and the skeptic is the irrational one. "I can't live with fear," Cathcart admits, which is why she has repressed her memories of a childhood horror.  Supernatural agents bring those memories to the surface, and the ghost story plays out as an extended metaphor for PTSD.  (This angle is amplified by the presence of a secondary character played by Dominic West, a WWI veteran who is haunted by his own "ghosts.")  The result is a vaguely Freudian version of THE TURN OF THE SCREW.  Unfortunately, this makes the film sound more interesting than it is.  The story is routine, the characters are flat, the scares are tame.  It looks great, but lacks frisson. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The setting is a reminder of better English ghost stories of yesteryear... It made me want to re-watch THE INNOCENTS (1961).

Friday, October 17, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #17: BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)

The Story: A female journalist investigates the mysterious disappearance of a friend who was last seen experimenting with a goverment-engineered drug called DMT-19.  During her investigation, she crosses paths with... Hunter Thompson?!  Why not.

Expectations: My wife actually picked this one, because she said it sounded like more of a "thriller" than a horror movie.  The Netflix synopsis claims that it is "based on a true story."  Gee, where have I heard that before? 

Reaction: I was really intrigued by the "true story" elements of this movie.  First of all, it is rooted in documented CIA experiments in mind control in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- a subject that would make for an interesting documentary film, and a natural jumping-off point for an X-FILES style horror film.  Second, one of the main protagonists is a thinly disguised version of the late gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, a leading authority on America's drug culture (and a defiant anti-authoritian on everything else). Third, the film introduced me to the strange phenomenon of shortwave radio "number stations," which I assume must factor heavily into a lot of UFO / alien abduction theories.  (Writer/director Blair Erickson, however, leans more on H.P. Lovecraft's "From Beyond" than on the usual stories about little green or grey men.)   In short, BANSHEE CHAPTER has more than enough material to appeal to anyone even mildly fascinated with America's ex-hippie "lunatic fringe"... and I am more than a bit fascinated by with such modern-day mysteries.  

That said, not everything about this film worked for me.  Early on, it succeeds in creating a compelling aura about the unknown--but increasingly it relies on cheap shocks (DMT-19 essentially turns people into J-Horror kids) and found footage interludes that disrupt the flow of the narrative.  And despite the use of Lovecraft's brilliant concept of otherworldly monsters, the mystery never goes much deeper than a casual X-FILES fan would expect it to.  Maybe it's the case that stories about vast government conspiracies and alternate dimensions will always deliver less than they promise... The speculations always seem to be greater than the reality.  (This, admittedly, coming from someone who has never tried LSD.)  Like Mulder, I wanted to believe in the world this film presents, but I was underwhelmed by the hodgepodging of familiar elements, and by Katia Winter's lead performance.  I will admit that Ted Levine's take on Citizen Gonzo kind of grew on me... although that character's final scene seemed to be in poor taste. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: In a film like this, the type of scenes that work best for me are the ones that make the most of audience anticipation.  For example: In the beginning, one character takes DMT-19 and waits nervously to see what will happen... Later, his journalist friend drives out into the desert at 4am and waits nervously for a predicted message from an unknown source... Finally, toward the end of the film, the same journalist visits a secret room in abandoned house, and watches a recent video recording showing her that she's not alone in there... In each instance we know something is going to happen, but we don't know exactly what or when.  For my money, this type of suspense is the key to a good horror movie.