Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mirror, Mirror: Oculus is a Wild Ride through a Warped Reality

Co-produced by Blumhouse and WWE Films, Oculus is the latest effort from Absentia writer/director Mike Flanagan. The film premiered at TIFF in September and has had a successful run on the festival circuit, earning itself  a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With the combined star power of Flanagan and Blumhouse Productions behind it, as well as two female stars who bring immense nerd-cred (Doctor Who's Karen Gillan and Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff), horror fans have been chomping at the bit to catch this one on the big screen. I myself stood in line for almost three hours with a group of other wristband-less fanboys and girls at South By Southwest to get a look at this one. Unfortunately, this meant that I watched the entire film from the neck-breaking angle afforded by the front row, far stage left, but it was nevertheless a great little film.

Oculus tells the story of a sister and brother (Gillan and Brendon Thwaites) whose lives were nearly undone by the tragic murder of their mother at the hands of their father. In fact, young Tim (Thwaites) was forced to kill their father, a decision for which he spent a decade in a psychiatric facility. The film picks up with Tim's release back into the care of his loving sister Kaylie, now an antiques dealer with a handsome fiancée and an almost-perfect life. But while Tim was working hard to forget the events of their childhood, Kaylie never let go of the notion that their father's actions were the work of a supernatural power, and that the source of that power was an ornate antique mirror that hung in his office.

The events of the film take place over the course of one harrowing day in which Kaylie and Tim set out to prove the mirror's terrible power and clear their late father's name. Using her position dealing in antiques, Kaylie is able to get the mirror back to their childhood home one last time and set up a series of clever experiments in the hopes of catching some of the mirror's sinister effects on camera. These effects include killing houseplants, causing lights to burn out unexpectedly, and, of course, influencing the actions of the two siblings. But they get more than they bargained for when they come to the realization that the mirror has an uncanny ability to warp reality, and soon, they are not safe from the mirror, or themselves.

The pacing of Oculus is superb, flitting back and forth between the present day, flashbacks from the siblings' childhood, and Kaylie's recountings of the mirror's dark history. As the mirror grows more and more powerful, characters and viewers alike lose track of which events are real, and which have been engineered by the mirror to drive Tim and Kaylie closer to the brink of insanity. The film's tagline, 'You see what it wants you to see,' could not be a more apt description of the experience of watching Oculus. In the end, past and present begin to merge into one, and our protagonists seem doomed to repeat the monstrous events of the past. Sackhoff and Rory Cochran round out the very real and sympathetic cast of characters as the two parents, seen only in flashbacks, and James Lafferty also stars as Kaylie's well-meaning fiancée.

Throughout its 105-minute runtime, Oculus maintains the atmosphere of a classic haunted house film, though in this story, the ghosts are not what our characters should be worried about. Oculus delves deep into the darkest acts of which man is capable, and poses some interesting questions about the nature of insanity and man's responsibility for his actions. This film delivers on classic jump scares, and Flanagan lets the tension build up to the point of edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting nerves until the very last scene. There's also just a touch of well-appointed gore that drives home the film's most shocking moments.

Oculus opens in wide release next Friday. Check your local theatre's listings and help give this one an opening weekend for the record books.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

SXSW World Premiere: Among The Living (Aux Yeux Des Vivants)

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the world premiere of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's latest film, Among The Living (Aux Yeux Des Vivants), at the SXSW Film Midnighters series. Maury himself was on hand at Austin's Stateside Theatre to answer audience questions after the screening, and gave some great insight into this third film from the directorial duo. Maury stated that he and Bustillo do, in fact, consider their three films to date (2007's Inside [Á L'interieur] and the 2011 Livid [Livide] together with Among The Living) to make up a trilogy of sorts, though the plots and settings of the three differ greatly. Viewers of all three will find some definite thematic similarities, starting with the fact that all of the films deal with family and parenthood through a warped lens. According to Maury, Inside was their love letter to the slasher genre, while Livid owed more to the Gothic atmospheric horror of the mid-20th century. Among The Living, however, pays clear homage to American horror films of the 1980s, with obvious nods to films like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. 

Among The Living gives viewers the opposite of what they expect from the very first scene, setting an uneasy tone that lasts the full 90 minutes of the film. We follow a group of early trick-or-treaters up the steps of a run-down home in a rural town, and meet a husband and wife whose unhappiness is palpable. The wife, evidently about nine months pregnant, waits on her husband hand and foot while he watches a news program about known birth defects in the children of soldiers subjected to a particular form of chemical warfare. In a subtle bit of exposition, his dog tags glint at his chest and a vein throbs at his temple, and he is struck by a bizarre attack that involves strange and disturbing images flashing behind his eyes one by one. The audience is forced to join him for this, and when we return to reality, we've almost completely forgotten his hapless wife, who appears suddenly behind him with a bat and cracks him several times on the head.

 Leaving her husband for dead, she trades the bat for a rather large kitchen knife, and ascends the stairs to the bedroom of another child the audience has hitherto been unaware of. We watch through the child's eyes as his mother advances toward him, slashing wildly with the knife. Somehow, his father makes it upstairs just in time and puts a stop to the attack, but his wife, in her desparation, turns the knife on the unborn child in her belly. Father comforts young Klarence, and the two make plans to disappear and start a new family, among the living. True to their roots in extreme gore, the directors make sure that we stop to take in the wound where the woman's fetus has been removed and taken away.

Exposition behind us, we now move into the true first act of the film, and meet our protagonists, three junior high school-aged boys whose classroom antics earn them detention on the last day of the school year. But instead of serving their sentence, the three decide to ditch campus and smoke cigarettes in a picturesque field abutting the barn of a cranky old man. When a misguided attempt at arson goes awry, the three flee to a far more interesting place to hide out and avoid the consequences: the nearby Blackwood Studios, an abandoned lot of film sets that have been left to vandals for many years. It is here that the boys encounter a hulking figure in a clown mask who has a woman bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. When they bring the police back later to check it out, their story is written off as some sort of boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, and they return to their homes for varying degrees of punishment. 

But Klarence and his father have been found. Their hideout and bizarre rituals at Blackwood Studios are threatened, and so Klarence must pay each of the boys a visit, in turn, to ensure that they never bring any more police to investigate. The remainder of the film unfolds as one of the most unique home invasion horror thrillers you'll ever see, with a monster that will haunt you long after the film concludes. The actors playing the three boys are quite good, and their on-screen chemistry with the other characters in their lives makes it hard to watch as the body count rises. However, the directors have found a rare balance in evincing sympathy for the attacked as well as the attacker, and Klarence comes with his fair share of pathos. But don't think for a moment that this film does not bring to the table some very creative and shocking violence. Bustillo and Maury show a great understanding of body horror in some key climactic scenes, with excruciating pacing that had the premiere audience squirming in their seats.

One of the things I found to be most unsettling about Among The Living was the film's insistence that our protagonists were not safe even in the daylight. So many films allow viewers to feel secure in the fact that the daytime is safe, but as soon as the sun goes down, to expect things that go bump in the night. In this film, several of the tensest sequences take place in broad daylight, which means that the audience never gets a chance to relax back into their seats. Composer Raphael Gesqua's score is equally relentless, and so original as to remain stuck in your head for hours after you leave the theatre. The first two acts of the film feature whimsical, almost carnival-like melodies, tainted with slight hints of discord that portend bad things ahead. The climactic scenes, on the other hand, are swept along with a brisk and almost lilting score that is both classic and fresh, and wouldn't be out of place in one of James Whale's original Frankenstein films.

As of now, this film has a release date of April 10th in Belgium, where much of the shooting took place. There doesn't appear to be a US release planned just yet, but if you're in Austin for SXSW, you'll have two more chances to catch this one screening at the Alamo Ritz, tonight at midnight, and again Friday at midnight. Keep an eye on Metaluna Productions who may have further information about a much-needed international release for this striking film.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Grand Piano Delivers Symphonic Thrills

Fresh off his win of Fright Meter's Best Actor award for his role in Franck Khalfoun's Maniac remake [read my review here], Elijah Wood stars in Grand Piano, an unconventional thriller from Spanish director Eugenio Mira which opens in a limited US release this Friday. Wood gets to be the good guy this time, portraying a brilliantly talented but nervous and cynical piano prodigy, Tom Selznick. We meet Selznick and his A-list actress wife Emma on the eve of his first concert in five years, following a very public failure that nobody will let him forget. But Selznick soon learns that a little stage fright is the least of his concerns, when he settles onto the piano bench only to find a series of threatening annotations scrawled across his score. "Play one wrong note and you die," reads the first. "Do you think I'm kidding? Look to your right."

As he does so, the scope of a sniper rifle finds him, and directs him offstage where he finds an earpiece has been left for him. Donning the earpiece, Tom enters into a frenzied game of cat-and-mouse that lasts the rest of the performance, in which he must continue to play flawlessly or risk the life of his beautiful wife, who watches unknowing from a box seat. The voice on the other end of the earpiece belongs to John Cusack's character, whose motives are unclear, but seem to have something to do with the missing fortune of Selznick's late mentor, an eccentric and brilliant composer.

For an avid fan of the horror genre (he recently founded The Woodshed Horror Company, which has three films in the works), Wood has been cast in surprisingly few roles on the darker side of cinema. Fans were suitably impressed with his portrayal of silent, cannibalistic serial killer Kevin in Frank Miller's Sin City, and glad to see him land a starring role as the psychopathic Frank in Maniac. The role of Tom Selznick, however, bears a lot more similarity to one of his earliest roles, the skittish high school newspaper photographer in the 1998 sci-fi send-up The Faculty. Selznick has a fear of flying, is a chronic nail-biter, and, as multiple characters remind him within the first act of the film, has a history of being frozen by stage fright in tense situations. In the end, however, he must find a way to turn his frantic nerves from a crutch into a weapon, and play the piano like his life quite literally depends on it.

The electric energy that drives Grand Piano forward can be attributed in large part to its sweeping original score, penned by Mira himself, who is a composer first and foremost. The constant crescendos and brash, discordant notes begin during the credits, setting the soundtrack to a series of close-up shots of piano parts that are made to almost resemble some strange weaponry. The intensity of the score rarely lets up through the film's 90-minute runtime. The music is almost a character in and of itself, with Selznick's late mentor's 'La Cinquette,' believed to be unplayable, starring in the final, fevered sequence of the film.

What is perhaps most notable about Grand Piano is the way the camera seems to follow along with the score, as if the same conductor is leading both. As the tempo of the film builds, so too does the speed of the camera movements, along with the intensity of the colors and drama of camera angles. The film instills a palpable sense of dread from the first scenes, in which slow-panning, voyeuristic shots show Selznick from a distance. We move closer to our hero as his heart rate speeds up and a sweat breaks out on his brow, the intimacy of the camera seeming to echo his paranoia perfectly. As Selznick and the orchestra play, the camera lilts along, following each crescendo, highlighting a section at a time, and traveling in a constant musical arc around Selznick himself. As the action becomes more tense, the camera becomes more frantic, showing Selznick tilted at 90-degree angles, then spinning quickly in a circle as the lighting fades to blood-red.

You'd be hard-pressed to categorize Grand Piano as a horror film, but it just might be the most artistic entry into the thriller sub-genre in many years. Riding along on the waves of Mira's phenomenal score, the film's brief 90 minutes feel like 20, and you the viewer are thrown right into the middle of the most unusual mystery you'll see this year. Grand Piano opens in limited release this Friday.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Devil's Due: Motion Sickness Overshadows a Compelling Plot and Characters

Now three weeks into its theatrical run, it's safe to say that the feature film debut of Internet wunderkinds Radio Silence (the Los Angeles collective formerly known as Chad, Matt & Rob) has proven a critical and box office flop. The film currently holds a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Fandango's review aggregator tells us that both fans and critics say "NO!" Despite the abysmal reviews describing Devil's Due as derivative, a complete ripoff of Roman Polanski's classic Rosemary's Baby, and no more than another cash-in on the found footage craze reinvigorated by the Paranormal Activity franchise, I went to see this one in theaters because as a horror fan, I learned long ago not to trust the critics to understand or appreciate a good entry into the genre. My verdict? Radio Silence are a talented and insightful group of filmmakers, and Devil's Due had great potential to launch them into the mainstream for good. However, the found footage shooting style was an albatross around their necks, and if the intensely shaky camera movements that rarely let up throughout the film's 89-minute runtime made me physically ill, I'm sure I was not the only viewer who found it hard to sit through Devil's Due to the end.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to add my voice to those of the writers at FearNet and Bloody Disgusting, as well as Eli Roth, in defense of this film. As off-putting as the shooting style was (and don't get me wrong, I experienced motion sickness so bad at points in this film that I had to look down from the screen to calm the nausea), Devil's Due demonstrates some real originality in a sub-genre that has become completely over-saturated in the last decade. To make a new film dealing with demon possession or the Antichrist at this point in time is to attempt to reinvent the wheel, but this film used some very creative devices to set itself apart. Though the plot arc is familiar, the characters are fresh and real, and there are moments of genuine shock as the predictable set of events unfolds. The same was true of the segment Radio Silence produced for V/H/S, '10/31/98,' which focuses on a group of friends who go in search of a Halloween party and find that much more sinister activities are afoot at the given address. '10/31/98' shone as one of the most disturbing segments in the film, and demonstrated an effective use of the found footage style that makes Devil's Due all the more disappointing.

Devil's Due takes viewers off guard in the first five minutes, as an anonymous cameraman breaks into the second floor of a house filled with laughing young women. However, far from a malicious intruder, our cameraman is revealed to be doting groom Zach McCall (Zach Gilford), surprising bride-to-be Samantha McCall (Allison Miller) on the eve of their wedding. The early scenes of the film unfold like a typical romance, as the pair go through their dream wedding and travel to the Dominican Republic on honeymoon, up until the moment he carries her over the threshold into their marital home. One of the great strengths of Devil's Due is Gilford and Miller's compelling portrayal of a young couple very much in love, which makes it difficult to watch the physical and psychological torment they endure as the film progresses. Their romance also provides the narrative framework for the found footage filming style used throughout the film, as Zach documents every moment of their relationship on a handheld camera.

Viewers are taken along for the ride as Zach and Samantha explore the Dominican Republic together, sightseeing, laughing, and falling deeper in love as they share the experience of traveling a new country. However, their shared sense of adventure turns out to be their undoing, when they accept a suspiciously friendly taxi driver's offer to take them to an underground party for a taste of the local nightlife. It is there that Zach's camera captures the unsettling progression of events from a party curiously populated by English-speaking newlyweds, to a strange and supernatural ceremony that neither Zach nor Samantha will remember upon waking, extremely hungover, at their hotel the next morning. At this point in the film, viewers will relish the sense of knowing what's ahead for Zach and Samantha, which is part of the fun of watching a film that uses such a tried-and-true subject matter. In their naivete, the young couple return to the U.S. and are overjoyed when Samantha immediately becomes pregnant, despite being on the Pill. 

Things turn ugly quickly, from the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of Samantha's obstetrician, to a really uncomfortable scene in which an amniocentesis is administered to rule out complications with the pregnancy. But the most ominous changes are in Samantha herself, who goes from devouring raw meat in the supermarket despite being vegetarian to punching out car windows with superhuman strength and speed. At her niece's first communion ceremony, the same priest who performed their marriage rites falls suddenly and violently ill under suspicious circumstances. And all the while, the audience knows that the young couple is under surveillance, after a team of Spanish-speaking men comes into their house to install hidden cameras one afternoon while they are out.

Everything comes to a head on Samantha's due date, when Zach steps outside to find small piles of ash placed all over their front porch and windowsills. Disturbed, he calls the local police, who prove as unhelpful as police typically do in the horror genre. When he leaves Samantha alone with his sister to go out and find the people harassing them, things escalate quickly to a bloody climax that is guaranteed to satisfy gore lovers. Miller gives a harrowing performance throughout the final scenes, and viewers are truly made to feel for Gilford's character as he suffers undeserved tragedy.

I believe that the commercial and critical failure of Devil's Due can be attributed almost solely to the found footage shooting style, and the intensity of camera motion that made viewers feel physically ill. The Paranormal Activity films in particular avoid this pitfall by including plenty of steady shots - cameras mounted on tripods, stationary security cameras, and so forth. It's really a shame, because there is a lot to love here, from the likeable characterizations of the leading roles, to the fact that Radio Silence made a concerted effort to stick to practical effects almost entirely, only using CGI for a key physical scene and to touch things up in post-production. Sadly, by starting from a script that was written to ride on the wave of found footage's popularity with today's audiences, all of that has been overshadowed, rendering Devil's Due almost impossible for the motion sick to watch. Here's hoping that 20th Century Fox gives Radio Silence another shot, because I, for one, feel that these guys have the vision and the potential to create some amazing films.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

You're Next Is One Twisted Laugh Riot

Last night I was fortunate enough to snag a pair of last-minute passes to an advance screening of You're Next, the latest effort from Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. I have to say, I went in with the expectation of watching The Purge again, but with less sociopolitical commentary and more gore. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself watching a deliciously tongue-in-cheek, fucked up black comedy that went far beyond any plot twist hinted at by the trailers. Having premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, this little gem is finally seeing a well-deserved wide theatrical release on Friday.

You're Next sets a pretty dark tone from the get-go, with the opening sequence showing the graphic deaths of two neighbors, a middle-aged rich guy and his young trophy wife. Soon after, the Davisons pull up to the door of their country home, next door to the two corpses, and begin preparations for what will naturally be a very tense reunion of their four children and their partners. As the family members arrive one by one, their every move is watched by anonymous villains hiding in the trees. But the Davisons, squabbling over trivial things and rehashing old family arguments, remain oblivious to the eyes on them. Only the sister's boyfriend, independent filmmaker Tariq (played by Ti West in an amusing cameo), notices the movement in the woods outside, and when he approaches the window to get a better look, he gets an arrow to the head.

The next twenty minutes of the film play out much like a standard home invasion thriller, with the family hysterical and running around in circles, making the worst possible decisions about their own survival. After a couple more deaths, we meet the Davisons' anonymous assailants - the men in animal masks so prominent in the film's marketing campaign. The violence escalates gradually, as the Animals come after them with crossbows, machetes, razor wire, and more. But what The Animals didn't bargain for is Aussie hottie Erin (Sharni Vinson), girlfriend of brother Crispian Davison, whose survivalist upbringing make her the perfect final girl for this unconventional slasher tale. Erin is the voice of reason, keeping the family members away from windows, contacting the police right away, and setting gruesome traps for the Animals. The second half of the film consists largely of Erin kicking ass and owning the Animals in a hilarious gorefest. That, and, of course, the answer to the film's big question: who are the Animals, and why are they doing this to the seemingly innocent Davisons? You'll have to buy a ticket and go check out the film for that one.

This is a film with a huge amount of atmosphere, having been shot entirely on the premises of one large, remote old house. From the Davisons' perspective, we see out the house's many windows into the dark of night in a heavily wooded area, where anything could easily hide. Every so often, the camera changes hands, and we see into the house as the Animals, tracking the Davisons from room to room as they move in the lighted windows. The film makes great use of some slasher film tropes and traditional jump scares, because as much as the avid horror fan may seem them coming, it just wouldn't be as fun without the face under the bed, or hiding behind that open door.

I found one scene in particular to be especially gorgeous and well-executed. Erin, hiding in the basement and unsure of who might be left alive upstairs, springs a trap for one of the animals who has pursued her downstairs. She sets up a camera to illuminate her assailant, shocking him into blindness as he crosses the room. The camera flash repeats at intervals, breaking the darkness into quick shots of light. Not only was it a clever device for our crafty heroine to utilize, but the visual effect was unique and stunning.

The entire cast gives great performances as a family with a lot of skeletons in their closet. There is a genuine quality to the familial interactions - the competitive siblings, doting parents, and nervous significant others come across perfectly. Joe Swanberg shines as the most irritating and condescending of the brothers, and he is gifted with some of the film's most hilarious lines of dialogue. A.J. Bowen, on the other hand, gives an endearing performance as the academic black sheep of the family, whose professional failures are irresistible to his brothers and father. Barbara Crampton plays the drug-addled and somewhat tragic matriarch in a very classic style.

You're Next really does have something for every horror fan. Lovers of everything from The Purge back to John Carpenter's Halloween will find something to enjoy, as will fans of the Evil Dead films and Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. Without revealing too much and spoiling the juicy twists and turns of a really solid film, I absolutely urge you to check this out when it opens Friday. Support horror releases from major studios like Lionsgate, and we'll continue to see quality work like this make it to the big screen.

On a side note, the final installment of Edgar Wright's Blood and Ice Cream trilogy, The World's End, also opens this weekend. Check out my review here.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Purge: What Would YOU Do?

Earlier this summer, Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Sinister) released James DeMonaco's second major directorial effort, dystopian horror thriller The Purge. The film performed well at the box office, but received mixed reviews from critics, with Entertainment Weekly saying that it 'clearly has a lot on its mind, but it never really manages to express it.' However, a lot of the questions The Purge asked its audience to ponder were never really intended to be answered by the film's resolution. The Purge simply chronicles one family's horrific night as the government sanctioned Purge makes its way into their home, and forces audiences to ask themselves: What would YOU do if there were absolutely no consequences?

 The Purge is set in the not-too-distant future, when American's 'New Founding Fathers' have instituted an annual 12-hour 'Purge' in which all crime is legal and Americans can exercise their aggressions. The film focuses on a wealthy suburban family, the Sandins, who have made their fortune selling security systems to other wealthy suburbanites since the Purge was conceived. Every year, at 7:00 p.m., the Sandins lock down their home for 12 hours along with many other families who do not wish to participate in the violence, but support the event nonetheless. But this year takes a turn for the dangerous when their young son, Charlie, hears cries for help in the street, and opens the doors of their house to a homeless African-American man pursued by sinister gang of masked marauders. The family faces a difficult decision: uphold the right of every American to Purge and surrender the homeless man, or protect him and risk their own lives?

The film plays out like a good old-fashioned home invasion thriller, with a very normal family that audiences grow to like over the 85-minute run time. Charlie is the most compelling, a technological wiz-kid who has built a remote-controlled spy camera to give him eyes around the large house. It is also Charlie whose dialogue prods at the film's larger themes, like when he asks his father why the homeless man deserves to live any less than they do. And another interesting side plot revolves around teenaged daughter Zoey, whose romance with an older boy seems lighthearted until boyfriend Henry uses the Purge as an excuse to go after her disapproving father. Ethan Hawke delivers an earnest if rather bland performance as the patriarch of the Sandin family, and his staunch support of the Purge results in an interesting conflict with his otherwise kind nature. But it is mother Mary Sandin, played by Lena Headey of Game of Thrones fame, who ultimately holds the family together and stands up in support of nonviolence (though not before committing a grisly act with a letter opener).

The mask is a time-honored horror device, and The Purge makes excellent use of some very creepy grinning ones. Other than their so-called 'Polite Leader' (Rhys Wakefield), the murderous gang threatening the Sandins do not remove their masks as they commit brutal, terrible acts against their captives and gleefully destroy their home. This lends a surreal effect to the climactic scenes of the film, and underscores the notion that these violent young people represent every young American who has ever felt a surge of aggression and had a dark fantasy about letting it out. Because ultimately, The Purge is a film that seeks to set you, the viewer, in a stranger's shoes, and leave you wondering if you would do the things that they do, if there were truly no consequences. If you would stand up, like the Sandins, to defend not only your family, but also an innocent stranger. Or if you would seize the opportunity to harm others with impunity, out of unchecked aggression, envy, or just pure hatred.

The film also touches on some themes relating to racism and classism that strike a chord in today's economic climate. Early in the film, a voice over on a television news broadcast describes how The Purge came about as a way for Americans to purge their aggression, but is in fact regarded by many as purging society of its weaker members, those who are unable to defend themselves, or can't afford a safe place to wait out the 12-hour event. The masked people continually dehumanize the homeless man by referring to his as 'The Swine' or 'pig,' and espouse the belief that people like him can only be useful by serving the group's need to Purge. We also see in the film's first scenes that the Sandins' neighbors have no love lost for the family, when neighbor Grace Ferrin jokes with Mary that the neighborhood's security systems paid for the Sandins to put an extension on their home. The envy of the neighbors has festered for some time, and rears its head in the film's final scenes.

Whether or not its themes resound with you, The Purge is a fun little thrill ride in the dark, and will certainly make excellent fodder for this year's Blumhouse Halloween Attraction, The Purge: Fear the Night. The live, interactive experience, which starts September 27th and runs through Halloween week, will put attendees in the shoes of the New Founding Fathers of the dystopian future depicted in The Purge. Tickets are available now at

The Purge comes to DVD October 8th.

Monday, August 5, 2013

V/H/S/2: Found Footage Never Looked This Good

Back in 1999, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick's The Blair Witch Project used a cutting edge online marketing campaign to successfully dupe many viewers into believing they were watching actual footage of three young people's supernatural experience in the Maryland woods. The manner in which the movie was filmed supported this conclusion: shaky handheld camerawork and a documentary-style narrative all contributed to a very real atmospheric horror film that went on to gross almost $250 million. Given that the film was purportedly shot on a budget of about $25,000, The Blair Witch Project popularized a style of filmmaking that although not entirely new (Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust pioneered the style almost 20 years earlier), promised to turn record profits for filmmakers and production companies.

Fast-forward to the present day. The found footage style of filmmaking is everywhere now, most common to the horror genre, but directors of science fiction and a couple other genres have also used the style to great effect. Films like the Paranormal Activity franchise, Cloverfield, and Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's REC series have seen enormous popularity, high critical acclaim, and have performed remarkably well at the box office. But with the popularity of found footage has come a fervent backlash amongst many genre fans who don't find the style effective, are put off by the often shaky and intentionally amateurish filming style, or have begun to feel the concept is overdone. Personally, I've sat dozens of friends down to watch The Blair Witch Project, turned the lights off for atmosphere, and insisted on absolute silence to try and make them see what I find so deeply unsettling about the film. Over time, I've come to accept that found footage just isn't for everybody. Some people don't have the patience for the slow burn. They like their horrror overtly terrifying, fast-paced, and splattered with gore. For those people, Bloody Disgusting and The Collective have teamed up to bring to the screen eleven of the best short horror films showcasing the found footage style, in anthology films V/H/S and V/H/S/2.

V/H/S/2 hit VOD June 6th of this year, saw a limited theatrical release on the U.S. last month, and is set for release on Blu Ray, DVD, and of course VHS September 24th. Though this second installment features a new group of directors, I found a lot of similarities between the stories in both, and a great continuity between both films' narrative frameworks.

Similar to the first film, V/H/S/2 begins with a pair of private investigators who are searching for a missing student, and stumble across a collection of VHS tapes that chronicle many different horrific occurrences. First comes Adam Wingard's contribution, Phase I Clinical Trials, starring the director himself as a rather unremarkable Los Angeles man who lost an eye in a bad car accident. Lucky for him, a local doctor has set him up with a false eye that will communicate visual stimuli not just to his own brain, but to a video feed that scientists may watch to get a sense of the implant's functioning. But when the patient gets home from the doctor's office, he starts to notice strange things almost immediately. The artificial eye has endowed him with a second sight he doesn't want, and it soon becomes clear that he is not alone in his own house. What I found most effective about this short was the use of distorted artifacts on the screen which appeared whenever an entity was present in the patient's line of sight. I was reminded of Glenn McQuaid's segment for the first V/H/S film, Tuesday the 17th, in which a murderous figure in the woods is continuously obscured on screen by video tracking errors.

Next comes Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale's A Ride In The Park. I found this segment to be the most light-hearted and funny out of the entire film, featuring three bicyclists in a state park who are attacked by zombies and join the mob to march on a child's birthday party nearby. Shot from the head-mounted camera of one of the zombified bikers, viewers are treated to the first-person perspective of a zombie lurching through the woods, devouring intestines, and getting bashed in the skull by frightened victims. It's obvious that the team had a lot of fun filming this one, and a comedic undertone runs throughout as, for instance, our zombie hero attempts to eat a victim's wallet, then tosses it aside with a 'blech' of disgust.

The fourth segment, Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's Safe Haven, was in my opinion the strongest of the entire film, and possibly the best out of both V/H/S anthologies. A documentary film crew is invited to film inside the compound of an Indonesian cult in which the leader, known as 'Father,' cleanses the impurities of his flock through sinister and questionably legal treatment of young girls. But the darkness in Father's compound runs even deeper than the film crew imagines, and soon the three young men and one woman are trapped in a ritual nightmare there's no escaping. The short is brutally violent, depicting the Jonestown-esque mass-suicide of the cult, as well as some really horrific supernatural happenings that I would hate to spoil for anybody. The acting is superb, especially on the part of Epy Kusnandar as the magnetic and ultimately psychotic Father. And viewers get a few glimpses of some really fun creature design toward the end of the segment that would not be out of place on a Black Sabbath album cover.

The conclusive segment of V/H/S/2 come courtesy of Jason Eisenberg, the man behind 2011 exploitation comedy Hobo With A Shotgun. Titled Slumber Party Alien Abduction, viewers know exactly what they're getting into, and Eisener delivers. The short begins as the raucous account of a teenage boy and girl whose friends come over for a party whilst the parents are out of town. But the sexscapades and back-and-forth pranking turn dark when the arrival of terrifying creatures from the sky interrupts their shenanigans. Filmed from the perspective of the family dog, who has a camera strapped to his back, the story dissolves into chaos as one by one the teenagers are taken up by the thin, grey men. Creature design is excellent, showing us just enough glimpses of the creatures to create terror, and sympathy for the naive and innocent kids strikes an emotional chord throughout.

Even if you think found footage isn't for you, the producers of the V/H/S films have done a spectacular job gathering some of the greatest minds of independent horror today, and these anthologies have something for everyone. Look for the DVD-Blu Ray-VHS three-pack this September.