Thursday, October 23, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #23: DEVIL'S PASS (2013)

The Story: One night in February 1959, nine hikers mysteriously died in the northern Ural mountains of Siberia. Investigators were unable to determine the cause(s) of death, but two of the victims suffered fractured skulls and two had broken ribs.  Also, the hikers appeared to have torn open their tents and run out into the snow, barefoot.  Why?  Russian investigators couldn't find any answers, so they restricted the area to public access, prompting much speculation and building the legend of the "Dyatlov Pass incident."  DEVIL'S PASS is about a group of reckless college students who decide to follow in the footsteps of the dead hikers... and, of course, document their adventure for posterity.  Because, ever since THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, that's what reckless college students do.

Expectations: The first thing that intrigued me about this found footage flick is the fact that Renny Harlin directed it.  Horror geeks like me will always remember him for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, but his real claim to fame is a string of memorable (if not all praise-worthy) action movies: DIE HARD 2, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, CLIFFHANGER, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, DEEP BLUE SEA, etc.  Then he made that godawful EXORCIST prequel.  Since then he's had a slightly lower profile, but has it really come to this?  Banished to found footage movies?

The other thing that appealed to me about DEVIL'S PASS was similarities--at least on the surface--to a few other stories I have loved, namely Jon Kracauer's book Into Thin Air, the 2003 documentary TOUCHING THE VOID, and the (non-found footage) indie horror flick YELLOWBRICKROAD.   The first two are truly harrowing, and deeply human, stories of survival.  The third is a modern-day TWILIGHT ZONE episode that draws its strength from our undying fascination with the Great Unknown.   

Reaction: For the first two-thirds of its running time, this is basically BLAIR WITCH with snow (and the threat of a Yeti instead of a witch).  The characters, led by an overambitious female director, bicker much like the characters in BLAIR WITCH, but their search is less interesting and the dangers less tangible... which is very surprising since they're hiking in the mountains of Siberia, not just wandering through the woods in Maryland.  The hardships and grandeur of nature are not much considered.... until the end of the second act, when the characters experience a terrifying avalanche in the middle of the night and are forced to take shelter in a mysterious underground bunker.  At that point, the movie ceases to be a mediocre version of BLAIR WITCH.  And becomes a mediocre version of THE DESCENT. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: The sound of the avalanche--combined with one brief shot of the mountains moving in the darkness--made my stomach turn.  And, honestly, those first few minutes in the tunnel were truly terrifying, because I had no idea what was down there.  Then the filmmaker opted to show exactly what was down there, and I got bored again.  I probably should have just watched TOUCHING THE VOID.  Even though it's not a horror movie, it's still a better psychological horror movie.

PS: If you're looking for real-world inspiration for an indie horror film, try THIS

PPS: While I'm griping about found footage movies, check out this short film that some friends of mine made...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #22: APARTMENT 143 (2011)

The Story: Paranormal investigators set up their equipment in the haunted apartment of a widower and his two children.  Mayhem ensues.

Expectations: I'm always hopeful about paranormal horror movies.   It's a subgenre I know well, and generally like.  Still, I must admit that the more of these I see, the less interested I am.

Reaction: This movie starts the way all found footage horror movies start, by introducing a group of quirky characters who are meant to be our tether to reality as increasingly weird things happen.  Usually the way this works is that the paranormal events start small and slowly escalate over the course of the film.  It's a delicate art -- the subtle, gradual manipulation of an audience's subconscious beliefs.  In this case, however, the "ghost" gets physically violent about twenty minutes into the film.  For me, that was too much too soon.  It kept me from being able to suspend my disbelief for the next hour as the filmmakers struggled to make every paranormal event bigger and badder, using mostly loud noises and a shakey camera. 

For me, the only real tension in the first two thirds of the film came from interpersonal dynamics, specifically the overwhelming hostility between a father and daughter which suggests that something bad has already happened between them.  To be fair, there was also a genuinely suspenseful sequence involving a stroboscopic light.  The third act likewise had a couple of brief scares, but by then the film was routinely going over the top in a way that I found more ridiculous and annoying than scary.  Some viewers will undoubtedly have fun with a balls-to-the-wall variation on PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, but I'm inclined to point those viewers toward GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, a more effective version of the same basic ghost-hunter story.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: As I said, there are a couple of genuinely effective moments... especially the stroboscopic light sequence and the possession sequence involving the male "sensitive." Too bad these scenes weren't in a different movie.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

30 Days of Nightmares #21: JUG FACE (2013)

The Story: A teenage girl in a backwoods community is secretly marked for ritual sacrifice, but refuses to accept her fate.  The result is a very angry "god."

Expectations: None really, although I was hoping that this film would redeem Lucky McKee's good name after ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE.  (McKee served as an executive producer on this one.)

Reaction: I can usually tell in the first minute or two whether or not I'm going to like a horror movie.   Either I'm intrigued right off the bat or I'm not.  JUG FACE has a compelling opening credit sequence comprised of simple fairy tale imagery and a equally simple but haunting score by Sean Spillane.  It sets the scene for an unusually straightforward and relatively subdued horror film, something more like an ancient myth than a commercial splatfest (although there are definitely a few moments of splat).  At its core, JUG FACE is a pagan morality play about an individual's responsibility to a larger community.  It also quietly begs the question of how willing any of us are to surrender our lives to a higher power that we can't understand or rationalize with.  Those we don't live in a backwoods community that worships a mysterious "pit" may think the question is irrelevant... but the "pit" is just this film's correlative for God and Death.  This is a universal tale, told in a way that it should appeal to fans of indie horror.  The ending is nicely understated.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Oddly enough, I think the thing that made the biggest impression on me is the music from that opening scene -- a track called "With this Knife."  It's as elegant as an early John Carpenter theme, and sets the eerie mood perfectly.