Archive for the ‘horror movie reviews’ Category

What Lies Beneath “Cabin in the Woods” ?   Leave a comment

RULE No. 1: Never visit a remote cabin with no cell phone reception. Rule No. 2: Never go in the basement. Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and his pals commit horror no-nos.

By C. Michael Forsyth

Ever wonder why characters in horror movies choose the worst possible time and place to have sex? Why they descend into the pitch-black basement of a house that’s obviously haunted? Split up so they can be picked off one by one? All these questions and just about every other you’ve asked yourself while munching popcorn are answered in The Cabin in the Woods.

Produced and co-written by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Cabin in the Woods is a tour de force that works as a horror film, workplace comedy and genre-demolishing satire. It’s Westworld meets Wrong Turn meets Evil Dead, to mention just three of the innumerable movies to which it plays loving homage and/or gleefully skewers.

In the movie, five young college students fitting neatly into recognizable types vacation in an isolated cabin where horrific events begin to unfold. Unbeknownst to them, everything is being orchestrated by a cadre of puppet masters in a vast underground complex. The staff includes managers, technicians, accountants, maintenance workers and even geeky interns. (I don’t consider all this a spoiler since it’s revealed within the first three minutes — if you didn’t already figure it out from the trailer).

MONSTERS, INC. Horror is all in a day's work for company guys and gal Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker & Bradley Whitford.

The film derives much of its humor from the high jinks of these Dilbert-type drones. At one point, the bored-out-of-their-skulls staffers organize a betting pool on what horror the hapless vacationers will face first. En route to the cabin, the students ignore the cryptic warnings of a creepy old gas station attendant. When the guy later calls in to report, the staff puts him on speaker phone and giggle as he continues to drone on ominously.

WHO watches the watchers? Holden (Jesse Williams) happens upon a one-way mirror as Dana AKA The Virgin (Kristen Connolly) strips.

The concept is thought-provoking. What we generally think of as stereotypes – the Virgin, the Whore, the Jock, the Brain, the Comic Relief — are elevated to archetypes. It’s the best deconstruction of the horror genre since Scream, on a level that would impress Bruno Bettleheim, the celebrated analyst of fairytales.

RULE No. 3: Never allow yourself to be trapped in a siege situation.

Some critics describe the movie as an allegory for the process of filmmaking itself. How can you argue? The staffers even call their mysterious boss “The Director.” Beneath that layer of meaning, there’s also a wry commentary about our surveillance society. Marty, the wisecracking pothead paranoiac and “The Fool” of the group, points out that “Society isn’t falling apart, it’s coming together.” As he puts it, the “cracks are filling in” as technology devours privacy and living off the grid becomes increasingly impossible.

DUMBED DOWN: Jules (Anna Hutchinson) shows poor judgement after going blonde.

Tropes of the horror genre are simultaneously observed and lampooned. Sexy pre-med student Jules (Anna Hutchison) has just dyed her hair blonde when the story begins and it’s later revealed that a chemical secretly placed in the dye makes Jules, AKA “The Whore” act stupid.

While not likely to make you quiver in fear, the movie meets the basic requirements of a horror film: Suspense, characters you root for, formidable dangers and enough gore to satisfy fans of traditional horror flicks.

POTHEAD Marty (Fran Kranz) wields an unlikely weapon.

Brawny Chris Hemsworth (Thor in The Avengers) delivers a winning performance as Curt, the brave Jock. Fran Kranz earns plenty of chuckles as Marty, the Fool. He fills the position Shaggy did in Scooby Doo and looks the part as well. But the real stars here are Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as the world-weary managers of the operation. Whitford, best known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on TV’s The West Wing sends up his in-control, seen-it-all image with obvious relish. And Jenkins, looking like a worn-out NASA engineer, is even more droll and cynical than he was as the disembodied dad in HBO’s Six Feet Under.

The climax of the film is in keeping with its blend of humor and horror — way, way over the top, in a good way.

SPEAKING OF JOSS WHEDON…

HORROR and comedy were perfectly blended in Joss Whedon's TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

No one mixes comedy and horror better than Joss Whedon, as I’m learning right now as I watch TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time on Netflix. Somehow I managed to miss the series when it debuted in the late ’90s. I’m blown away by how good it is – one of the handful of TV series, along with Highlander, that is far superior to the film that inspired it.

The playfulness is pure joy. In the episode I saw last night, Xander believes Willow has turned into a vampire and thrusts a crucifix in her face. When she fails to recoil, he shakes it like a flashlight that might need its batteries jiggled.

WHEN Angel was good he was good and when he was bad, he was very, very bad.


But drama is equally well handled. The brilliant storytelling is displayed when Buffy loses her virginity to good-guy vampire Angel. Following convention, love might cure him of vampirism. Instead, in an inversion of Beauty and the Beast, he becomes evil, his soul ejected from his body. In the hands of a less talented writer, the next scene would be Angel bursting into Buffy’s room, fangs bared. Instead he simply acts like a jerk, humiliating her by showing her the night of passion meant nothing to him. Far more sadistic. And, since this is an experience many a young woman will recognize, it helps to ground the series in reality, keeping it a coming of age story as well as a butt-kicking action/adventure show. The more you watch Buffy, the worse Twilight looks by comparison.

The intensely dramatic and horrific is always leavened by wit. In the episode in which fellow vampire slayer Kendra dies tragically she first gives Buffy her “lucky stake” — which she has nicknamed “Mr. Pointy.” In the same episode Buffy’s watcher Giles sheepishly admits that he’s been using the crystal orb that can restore Angel’s soul as a paperweight.

BOYFRIEND PROBLEMS weren't the only things Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had to worry about.

I’m only midway through Season 3 and have already met so many wonderful characters, most memorably Spike, the cockney vampire with the Billy Idol hair and penchant for puppy love. By turns terrifying and laughable, James Marsters is absolutely magnetic in the role. (He won the poll of Sexiest Male Screen Vampire on this site by a landslide). Speaking recently to a publisher who uses Marsters for a lot of audio books, I was surprised to learn the star isn’t even English!

Spike (James Marsters) is the bloodsucking blond British punk you love to hate in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

I love how characters are allowed to evolve. A pitfall of many series is that characters remain exactly as originally written and are unaffected by the events that befall them. Most infamously Dana Scully in X Files, who is skeptical of werewolves even after battling vampires.

DROPPING his English reserve, Giles became a father figure to Buffy.


Buffy’s mentor Rupert Giles (Anthony Head) could have been a thankless role: a character like Bosley in Charlie’s Angels who does little more than provide exposition then step out of the way to let the girls swing into action. Instead, he develops a tender father-daughter relationship with Buffy that is the backbone of the series. He’s allowed to have romances. And the shy British librarian is not above opening a jar of good old English whup ass to save Buffy’s bum from time to time.

ANY role in which you get to wear an eye patch ain't all bad. Nicholas Brendon as Xander.

In fact there are no thankless roles in Whedon’s world. Xander, initially merely a goofball, becomes an increasingly heroic figure, always willing to charge into battle though lacking any special powers. This “geek” eventually gets to kiss almost every girl on the show. Wesley Wyndham-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), who briefly assumes the role of Buffy’s watcher and is even stuffier than Giles, is insufferable. And rich-bitch Cordelia is intractably airheaded. Yet even they get a chance to evolve into heroes themselves in the Buffy spinoff Angel.

ANNOYING Wesley and Cordelia developed into interesting characters in the spin-off series Angel.

Though the show premiered nearly 15 years ago, it doesn’t seem dated – you barely notice that the teens don’t text. Some aspects of high school are universal. You will always have good girls, snobs, class clowns and nerds. As in Cabin in the Woods, there are some archetypes that just don’t die. Or sometimes die violently.

Copyright C. Michael Forsyth

C. Michael Forsyth, the author of this article, has written a critically acclaimed horror novel Hour of the Beast. Plans for a major motion picture are now in the works!

To check out Hour of the Beast visit Amazon.com or save $4 by clicking HERE. The Kindle version is just $7 and the eBook is a mere $5.

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At the End of Her Rope: A Review of “The Silent House”   Leave a comment

REAL TIME TERROR: Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) plays cat and mouse with a mysterious menace in an isolated lake house.


By C. Michael Forsyth

“The Silent House” is the most harrowing horror movie I’ve seen in years, suspenseful and technically brilliant with an extraordinary lead performance and a disturbing finale.

The story unfolds in real-time — 88 minutes — and the film appears to be a single uninterrupted shot. (Some edits are snuck in, but they’re invisible to the untrained eye).

Unlike “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” the conceits of which allowed for roughshod camerawork, this movie needed a director with technical skill. No one without a great deal of cinematic prowess would even attempt something this bold – since it would only take one screw-up along the way to ruin the long take.

Co-directors Chris Kentis and wife Laura Lau fill the bill. They are best known for “Open Water” (2004) about a couple stranded in shark-infested waters. That was another movie made on a low budget with a tiny cast but with major technical challenges. (Every film student is taught to avoid shooting on water).

Filming "Open Water" also presented challenges for the cast and crew.

It’s a testament to their meticulously thought-out choreography that had the single-shot gimmick in “The Silent House” not been highly publicized, most movie goers wouldn’t consciously notice it. The camera always seems to be in just the right place. Yet the technique produces a powerful effect: unrelieved tension from the first frame to the last.

In the movie, a young woman named Sarah, her father and uncle Peter are fixing up their secluded summer house to sell it. Soon after her uncle stomps out in a huff, Sarah becomes separated from her dad and she finds herself trapped in the house — stalked by someone or something. The danger swiftly escalates, as does Sarah’s terror.

The movie is a remake of the Uruguayan film “La Casa Muda,” which in turn is “inspired by a true story” that took place in the 1940s – in other words, the whole thing is made up.

"Next time, let's hire a contractor." Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Steven) Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) and dad John (Adam Frese) find that mold is the least thing wrong in their old summer home.

The filmmakers build tension from the very opening scene and never quit. You don’t feel Sarah is safe for a single minute and you don’t feel you can trust anyone. Is Uncle Peter staring at Sarah’s top a bit too long when he tells her how “grown up” she looks? What about this mysterious former boyfriend who, as her father John learns by checking her Facebook page, wants to come back into her life? Isn’t there something “off” about the young neighbor who drops by claiming to have been Sarah’s childhood playmate – yet whom Sarah can’t seem to remember? Even dear old dad has a creepy streak. Why is he snooping on her FB page in the first place?

And of course, what about the unseen squatters who may or may not have taken up residence in the boarded-up home?

The movie benefits from a compelling performance by Elizabeth Olsen, the non-anorexic kid sister of the Olsen twins, as Sarah. Projecting fear so intense that she can sometimes scarcely breathe or bite back screams, she invites us to share her terror.

COLLEGE professor Jimmy Stewart begins to suspect two of his former students have committed murder in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Rope."

This isn’t the first movie that takes place in real time. In “High Noon” the suspense of the countdown to the gunfight is enhanced by the fact that the passage of time on the ticking clock on screen matches the one in the movie theater. Nor is this the first use of the single-take technique. Alfred Hitchcock pioneered it famously in “Rope” in 1948. But in “Rope, the gimmick didn’t add much to the story telling – you merely appreciated the difficulty and applauded Hitch for pulling off the tour de force. The legendary director himself later dismissed the movie as an “experiment that didn’t work out.”

Here, that unblinking camera delivers a heightened sense of realism and bonds us intimately with Sarah as it follows her every move.

The New York Times ran a story on the making of the film that throws light on the intense preparation involved. For weeks prior to filming, the directors roamed the house plotting and rehearsing the camera moves and action.

“Laura would play the part of Sarah,” Kentis told the paper, “and I’d follow her with the camera and record. We would work out all the choreography and the possibilities before we brought the crew on.”

The planning paid off. But success with the immensely long take is only one aspect of the brilliant cinematography on display in the film. The small Canon 5D chosen for filming allows for creative manipulation of focus – sometimes characters or things become unnervingly blurry.

“It’s that camera’s shallow depth of field and the lenses we used that helped us tell the story,” Mr. Kentis explained. “You could use it to draw the audience’s attention to something within the frame or you could use it to reflect a character’s state of mind.”

The murky lighting that permeates the house adds to the ominous mood – rooms filled with little more than old mattresses somehow appear nightmarish. Sarah briefly makes it outside and the scene in which she runs for her life is so hyperkinetic, the effect is impressionistic. As simple an image as the shadow of a man standing behind a sheet of plastic is unsettling in the adept hands of the cinematographer Igor Martinovic.

In one highly inventive sequence, the lights go out and the only illumination is the periodic flash of a Polaroid camera Sarah uses as a makeshift flashlight. Needless to say, what she sees in those flashes isn’t very reassuring.

Sound is used just as effectively as image — mysterious footsteps; rattling in walls; the thump of a body hitting a floor. What’s happening off screen, what Sarah can’t see in this house of horror, is more terrifying than what she can see. And let’s not forget the art direction. The mundane yet somehow not-quite-right junk piled up in the rooms of the maze-like old home make it as scary as any amusement park haunted house.

The Academy is stingy about doling out Oscars to horror movies (“Silence of the Lambs” and just 13 others have earned awards) but “The Silent House” deserves consideration in more than one category.

Now, I’m not saying the picture is perfect. About halfway in, you’ll groan when you see what appears to be The Classic Bone-Headed Move. You know, when characters put themselves in danger when they have a clear chance to escape? A few minutes later, you’ll think the KILLER is making The Classic Villain Bone-Headed Move (not finishing off the victim). Relax, there’s an explanation.

The resolution of the movie is one that fans of the genre will not exactly find fresh. Without spoiling the ending, let’s just say you’ve seen it before. In this case, it does fit the story and wraps things up in an emotionally satisfying (though stomach-turning) way. My complaint is not so much that it’s become a cliché as that it always leaves me as a viewer feeling betrayed. And because of the unique manner in which the story is filmed, the sin is even more egregious. Frankly, I’d have been happier if the police just showed up out of nowhere to save the day.

What the heck am I talking about? Well, you’ll have to see the movie – and I recommend that you do.

Copyright C. Michael Forsyth

C. Michael Forsyth, the author of this article, has written a critically acclaimed horror novel. The Horror Fiction Review raves that Hour of the Beast is a "rip-snorting, action-packed sexy college romp."

To check out Hour of the Beast visit Amazon.com or save $4 by clicking HERE. The Kindle version is just $7 and the eBook is a mere $5.

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