Tag Archives: Horror

“IT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Be afraid.

Stephen King is a master at personifying fear. Whether it’s with haunted hotels in The Shining, or rabid animals in Cujo, or even with female puberty in Carrie, King always finds a way to scare us in the most unorthodox of ways. Most horror writers are content with scribbling in the clichés of the genre (the teenagers that have sex dies first, group gets picked off one by one, female survivor is the only one to live at the end) and calling it a day. But like a literary sadist, King feeds off of his readers and their absorption into his material. And like any skilled predator, he likes to play with his prey.

In It, Stephen King gives us his most terrifying personification of fear yet in Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgard), an omnipotent apex predator who comes out of hibernation every 27 years to feed off of children’s fears. If you were terrified of clowns before, you don’t even want to see what Pennywise is like. This is a creature that can take the appearance of any fear that you possess, from decapitated corpses, to zombies, to even paintings. If you can think it, Pennywise can be it.

His victims mostly consist of one group of children who dubbed themselves “The Loser’s Club.” Their leader Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) lost his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to the clown months ago during a rainy afternoon. One by one, the kids meet Pennywise and his many different forms as he terrorizes them using their own fears against them. As they continue to learn more about Pennywise and the history of Derry, the Loser’s Club decides to unite together and put an end to Pennywise’s villainy once and for all.

One of the most terrifying things about It is that we don’t even know what “It” is. Throughout the film, we see Pennywise use different approaches to terrify the children and to make them more susceptible to his manipulation, but even after finishing the film we still don’t get a clear idea of who or what he is. Maybe that’s the point. When we’re confronted by a threatening force, do we really care about what it’s supposed to be? Are we more interested in the facts surrounding our fears, or are we only caught up in surviving them? I thought about the animals in the natural food chain while watching this movie. When a gazelle is face-to-face with a lion, does he care about what exactly is hunting him, or is he more concerned about getting out alive?

In that sense, Pennywise does not inspire fear like his horror icon counterparts (Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, etc.) but rather embodies it, filling it with our own emotions, anxieties, and perceptions of fear and subverting them against ourselves. Bill Skarsgard, who is the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor), demonstrates an impeccable understanding of Pennywise and appropriately embodies the madness and bloodlust that a being like him would possess. Any other actor who would have taken on the role might have mistaken Pennywise as evil or insane. Skarsgard rightfully doesn’t make that inference because Pennywise is not human like any of the kids are in this movie. To human beings like us who possess moral compasses and value of life, we obviously see Pennywise as an evil that must be destroyed. But to Pennywise, a natural predator, there is just his meal and the meal he’s having after that. If beings like Pennywise are beyond concepts such as right and wrong, does that mean that he’s still quote-unquote “evil”, or is he immune to such labels because of his ignorance to the concepts? Circling back to the lion metaphor for comparison, is the lion evil for killing the gazelle, or is he only acting off of his instincts?

These are endlessly complex concepts here made simple by director Andy Muschietti, who years ago helmed the eerie and unusual horror film Mama. In It, Muschietti smartly juxtaposes human nature with that of a predator’s nature, and in that sense asks us if these two concepts can exist in the same society. After seeing the film, I’ll admit I have no answer to his query. I just know that I’m terrified of Pennywise and that I never want to see him again. That is, until the sequel comes out a few years from now.

Technically, the film is immaculate. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (2003’s Oldboy) is smooth and calculated, following the action while never getting distracted by it. The child actors all give passionate performances, with Lieberher demonstrating the most layers as a kid grappling with the guilt and grief of his brother’s death. And the makeup work done on Skarsgard is among the best I’ve seen in years. I actually saw Skarsgard earlier this year in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde. Yet in the first moment when he appears on-screen as Pennywise, I didn’t even recognize him.

As always, I don’t like all of the violence and the trauma that these kids go through, and some scenes I think would be difficult to stomach even for adults. And of course the kids swear it up in typical R-rated fashion, as if they’re trying to meet the F-word quota by the end of the month. Yet none of these things change the thoughtful concepts being explored here, the scares that the film builds up to, or the great demonstration of acting and art on display here. Take caution while watching It: you don’t know which of your fears Pennywise will use against you.

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“SPLIT” Review (Zero Stars)

24 personalities to hate.

I hate acts of violence committed against children. I hate it, hate it, hate it. Now you know. Besides it’s obviously unsettling and disturbing nature, there’s no purpose to inflict this type of trauma on children of any age in a movie. What good does it do? What does it contribute to the story, really? Would it really have killed the film if any of these actors were at least five years older? Three?

Split is a sick, disgusting, cancerous movie that mistakes little girls’ suffering for entertainment. Those girls are Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula, all of them playing high school classmates. After attending a birthday party, the three girls are kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy), who gases the girls in their car until they pass out. Hours later, they wake up in a small room that looks like prime territory for an experienced rapist. Kevin never does anything, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if he ever did.

The girls eventually find out that “Kevin” is not exactly one person, but multiple. Suffering from Disassociative Identity Disorder, Kevin has 24 personalities in his head, and the girls converse with all of them. The one that kidnapped them is named Dennis, an OCD clean freak that will rip your clothes off if you so much as have a smudge on them. There’s Clarissa, an almost-motherly figure were it not that she (he?) ordered Dennis to kidnap the girls in the first place. There’s a nine-year old named Hedwig, who’s the most friendly to the girls out of Kevin’s personalities. And then lurking in the back of Kevin’s mind is the 24th personality, who the other personalities refer to as “The Beast.”

First of all, I need to address Kevin’s disorder. The film’s portrayal of the disease is inaccurate at its best, demonizing at its worst. There are multiple inconsistencies with the film’s portrayal of the disease, including:

  • The different personalities having conversations with each other (they don’t).
  • Kevin’s body composition and appearance changes based on what personality has taken over (it doesn’t).
  • Kevin’s original personality can be summoned forward if you say his full name (he can’t).
  • The different personalities can get so extreme that it can make Kevin bulletproof and have super strength (definitely not).

That, however, isn’t even the worse part of Split’s portrayal of DID. With Kevin kidnapping, torturing, and brutalizing these young girls, the film portrays the victims of this disease as dangerous and threatening, when in most cases they’re relatively harmless to anyone except themselves. As someone who personally suffers from another mental disorder, I’m offended by the movie for demonizing Kevin’s disease and for making it look more dangerous than it actually is. It makes people suffering from this disease look like horrible people, when in fact they’re suffering in ways none of us can understand. These people deserve to be sympathized with, not apathized.

But hell, forget about it. This is a movie, after all, and filmmakers are allowed to take artistic license for the purpose of advancing their art and storytelling. At least, that’s the excuse I would give if this movie had any sort of art or storytelling to it. From start to finish, the only purpose of Split is to see little girls get hurt by a megalomaniac who tortures them differently with each of his personalities. Seeing anyone being tortured by one assailant is enough. Seeing three girls being manhandled by 24 assailants in one body is revolting.

A few things these girls are forced to go through after being kidnapped include: dancing, urinating on themselves, fondling, being stripped from their clothes, separated into other rooms, taunted by a knife, forced into small spaces, psychologically tortured, having their intestines ripped out, and eventually eaten alive, although by what exactly I won’t say. I’m watching all of this absolutely mortified, not only by what I’m seeing on-screen, but also knowing that this movie was rated PG-13. My mind raced, wondering how many teenagers might have also watched this atrocity and told their friends about it enthusiastically afterwards.

The violence against these girls serve no purpose. None. It is not fun. It is not thrilling. It is not exciting. It is ugly, twisted, and demented, and it’s even worse when you think about studio executives approving of this sort of on-screen torture porn against children. How can you look at everything Kevin is doing here and think “Hey, this teenage suffering is worth some money. Let’s market it to teenagers.”

I say all this knowing full well that I have praised other horror films with teenage protagonists, including Halloween, Scream, and Nightmare On Elm Street. Other horror films, such as Poltergeist, Sinister, and The Shining have had even younger children in them. So how come I’m more forgiving of these movies and not Split?

I think it has to do with intentions. In the aforementioned films, the children are either ignorant or unsuspecting of the overlying threat looming over them, whereas the adults are fully aware and terrified of it. That enhances the horror experience and makes us bite our nails at the action happening on-screen. And in the case of Halloween, Scream, and Nightmare, the screenplay says they’re teenagers, but they look more mature in their on-screen appearance. It’s not hard to see Jamie Lynn Curtis, Neve Campbell, or Heather Lagenkamp as seniors, maybe even as college students.

But the girls in Split look very much like young girls, as in 12 to 13. Even though they’re all older than 20, they all look like somebody’s kid that just came out of recess. To see them like this and have the camera watch them eagerly as they’re being tortured with very little clothing on is sickening and disgusting. It makes me wonder if the actresses parents were bothered at all while watching them. If they weren’t, what does that say about them?

What caused these personalities to emerge in Kevin? The reason implied is sexual abuse, as Kevin’s mother always grabbed a coat hanger any time she saw mess in her house. There’s sexual abuse implied for another character too, although I won’t spoil by saying who. Kevin refers to himself and the other individual as “pure”, saying that they are the special ones who will inherit the Earth. To imply that you have to be sexually abused in order to become genetically superior is both disgusting and insensitive. I would love to hear some sexual assault victims opinions’ on this film, and I would love the studio heads to sit down and listen to it as well.

This is a new low for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, unmatched by most of his recent failures. The Happening. The Last Airbender. After Earth. And now Split. At least with the previous films, they were just poorly made or insulting to our intelligence. But Split fails with something far, far worse. It insults our dignity, it insults what the PG-13 rating allows into theaters, and it insults what consumers consider as “entertainment.” This can’t fairly be labeled as the worst film of the year because it’s technically immaculate. But it’s the film with the worst intentions, and that matters more.

I recognize James McAvoy as an outstanding talent, and the fact that he can brave through all of these different personalities and perform all of them enthusiastically speaks to his range as an actor. But I’m not here to review his performance. I’m here to review the film. And the movie is poisonous, harmful, and disingenuous, no matter how great of a performance may be in it.

Split is an immoral, abhorrent waste of film, made all the more worse because we’re seeing kids suffering no less in it. The studio heads were wrong to make a movie like this, and they’re damn wrong if they think we’re supposed to accept it as entertainment.

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“ANNABELLE” Review (✫)

Barbie is scarier than this. 

Remember how I wrote in my review for The Conjuring that the Annabelle doll was one of the creepiest elements of the movie? I take it all back. Annabelle is not creepy. Silence is creepy. Moving objects are creepy. Unexplainable sounds, noises, or occurrences are creepy. The unexpected is creepy. A rotted doll turning its head around to stare at you is not creepy, and it doesn’t get creepier as you repeat it 15 more times in a movie.

I realized this while watching Annabelle, a terrible prequel that is the complete antithesis of its predecessor. The Conjuring was masterfully orchestrated in its suspense. Annabelle is haphazardly assembled. The Conjuring knew how to exercise its elements conservatively. Annabelle throws them at the screen like a toddler with temper tantrums. The Conjuring understood the importance of silence and subtlety. Annabelle scoffs at these as it vomits out flashy effects and useless images that do nothing to intensify the plot or its stakes. If The Conjuring advanced the horror genre a few steps forward, Annabelle slowed it down to a baby crawl.

How boring is this movie? So boring that even attempting to write a synopsis for it nearly drifted me to sleep. Dear reader, I tried. I truly did. But what do you need from me? What do you need to know besides that this movie is a prequel? You already know there’s a family, a demented spirit, a doll, and too many jump scares to count. Where else have we seen this before besides in The Conjuring, The Exorcist, The Last Exorcism, The Amityville Horror, The Shining, and every other horror movie in existence, ever?

Talking about the characters is a waste of column space. Why waste talking about them, when the writers make them so plain and dull? In The Conjuring, we cared about Ed and Lorraine Warren because they were so different from the typical horror protagonists. They’re paranormal investigators, arguably the most equipped to handle demonic threats, and yet, they’re still fearful of the forces against them in that movie. The fact that they were strong characters and were still afraid made The Conjuring all the more potent in its dread. These characters, in comparison, are just lining up for the slaughter. You have the made-for-TV housewife, the ignorant father, a helpless priest, and a clueless child, all of whom you don’t care about or even feel slightly interested in. Actually, I retcon my statement: they’re all clueless, helpless, ignorant, and made-for-TV.

The pacing is as sluggish as its cast is. The score, stock and overused. In a movie like this, you would expect its only strength to lie in its visual effects, but even those are garbage. In one laughable scene, the heroine is running down the stairs from… lightning. Yes, dear reader, blue lightning. We go from dolls to demons to lightning, and it looks just as cheesy as it sounds. It looked so bad on the screen that the film’s editor might as well just have drawn blue crayon over the frames. It would have looked just as unconvincing, but at least you wouldn’t be wasting the budget. 

And then we get down to the movie’s biggest offense: poisoning the chilling nature of Annabelle. In The Conjuring, she provided the movie’s more unexpectedly scary moments. That’s because director James Wan knew how to save her, use her, conceal her, then reveal her in shocking moments that surprised you. Wan understood, more than anything else, that the doll by herself was unsettling, but with the right moment when the audience’s guard was down, she would pop out and frighten you with her mysterious and malicious nature.

Our guard is down when we watch Annabelle too, and it stays down after we see her tricks repeat over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. Director John Leonetti took a great element from The Conjuring and thought that copying and pasting it would have the same effect. It didn’t. Leonetti even worked as the cinematographer for The Conjuring. Couldn’t he see through the camera lense that it wasn’t Annabelle that made the film scary, but rather its deliberate pacing and dreary mood? Couldn’t he see that the film didn’t frighten its audiences because of one doll, but rather, because of all of the elements in the picture? Wan understood his cohesion of lighting, editing, and timing and how it delivered the movie’s biggest thrills. Leonetti, in comparison, is a one-trick phony.

Annabelle is a reaffirmation of why I hate horror movies. In good horror movies, like the original Halloween or The Conjuring, they use their premises as a springboard to build up to bigger moments of suspense and eeriness. Annabelle’s mistake was thinking that it’s flimsy premise was the suspense and eeriness. The result is a movie that is long, overbearing, tedious, tiring, and boring. I hope Annabelle stays in the glass jar that the Warrens trapped her in. Putting her in a woodchipper isn’t a bad idea either, along with this movie’s film stock.

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“THE CONJURING” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Be afraid of what you can’t see.

The Conjuring is a revelation in horror cinema: a genuinely creepy and disturbing movie, infesting every nerve of your body with consistent tension, anxiety, and unease. In a long failing genre that mistakes horror for sick images and macabre violence, at last we find a movie that gets it. True horror does not come from the gruesome things we see on the screen: it comes from the things that we don’t see, the things that we suspect are hiding in dark corners, quietly leaning over our shoulders.

The fact that The Conjuring is based on two real-life paranormal investigators, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) makes the film’s events all the more unnerving to watch, and it makes you question how much of it is fiction. In the film, the Warrens are investigating the Perrons, a family that recently moved out to a house in Rhode Island where they think they will be able to peacefully raise their five children. It doesn’t even take a day for unexplainable occurrences to start happening in the house. The clocks always stop at exactly 3:07 in the morning. Picture frames fall to the floor all at once. Strange clapping can be heard in the house every now and then. And after a while, the Perron’s youngest daughter Christine (Joey King) persists that she sees a malevolent spirit late at night. The Warrens commit to the case to find out what is causing the occurrences and help the family before it is too late.

The Conjuring reaffirms an idea I’ve believed in for a long time now: ghosts by themselves are not scary. Neither are poltergeists, demons, monsters, psychotic murderers, serial killers, or supernatural entities. None of these things are scary on their own. What makes them truly scary is the environment around them, the sounds of feet shuffling, the crunching of leaves as they are being stepped on, the chairs creaking, the wind blowing out of nowhere, the chill running down your spine that you can’t explain where it came from. True fear comes from knowing that the threat is near, and yet, not being able to see or sense them.

Director James Wan plays on the senses brilliantly in The Conjuring. He doesn’t evoke sensationalism. He evokes moods, tones, feelings, paranoia, confusion, hopelessness, distrust, and dread. Because he relies on these things instead of the usually cheap jump scares, the picture lasts longer and leaves a heavier impact on you than most other horror pictures do.

Compare one of this film’s creepier antagonists, a small ceramic Annabelle doll, to most of today’s horror icons, such as Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. Maybe once they were scary, but nowadays they’re just big, brainless buffoons that groan at their victims, swinging sharp objects around, their brutish bodies invulnerable to every hazard imaginable. That’s not scary, that’s overkill. How are you supposed to get invested into a story where its main threats are indestructible? How are you supposed to be surprised or shocked when you can see them lumbering 50 miles away? In the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies, you don’t go to get scared: you go to watch teenagers get hacked to death, with no suspense or investment to supplement their bloody deaths.

Annabelle, however, is a different story. She’s not scary because of one specific instance: she’s scary because she represents something much larger than herself, which is the obvious risks of the Warrens’ career choice. In one moment, the Warren’s professional life crosses over into their personal life, and the threat that entities like Annabelle poses to the Warrens is truly frightening. It made me really think, if this story were true, and malicious spirits like Annabelle are really out there, what defense would we have against them? What would we do if our families were haunted by them? We would be truly helpless, just like one of Annabelle’s victims.

Some might argue that the pace is too slow or deliberate in this picture. I guess I would agree with you, if James Wan hadn’t made Insidious before this, which truly was a slow, deliberate picture that didn’t have half of the thrills as The Conjuring does. Most horror pictures take their genre for granted, thinking that they will be successful just by following conventions. Not The Conjuring. It cherishes its horror, lingers on it, and smartly builds up to unexpected moments, surprising you in the most profound of ways. Like a poltergeist, The Conjuring possesses you, and no incantation can lift the spell it has on you.

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“AMERICAN PSYCHO” Review (✫)

Sex, murder, and the decrease of the human condition.  

American Psycho is a vile, sickening experience, a gruesome and aching film incapable of human thought, feeling, comfort, or emotion.  This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering the book in which it is based on inspired this same controversy.  Regardless, its achievement cannot be denied: the filmmakers have somehow concocted an experience as brutal, uncomfortable, disturbing, half-lapsed, misogynic, and morally reprehensible as this that they’ve come to completely disconnect with their audience.  I rarely feel this upset about a movie like this.

American Psycho follows the story of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a successful businessman who works in his high-level office by day and parties fiendishly with his friends by night.  On the surface, Bateman looks like a normal upper-class bachelor.  He eats out at expensive restaurants, drinks exquisite martinis, has sex with beautiful women, enjoys swearing gleefully with his friends, and listens to a variety of experimental music.  In appearance, Bateman is the visible representation of the upper class: stoic, upright, eloquent, fashionable, and spoiled.

As the plot progresses, however, we come to understand more about the darker side of Bateman’s personality.  He doesn’t just have sex with beautiful women: he mutilates them.  He tortures them and fantasizes about killing them in horrible ways and playing with their bodies after he’s done dismembering them.  His kitchen pantry contains axes, blades, and tools he uses for his killings.  He draws his victims in a notebook he leaves at work.  A female head sits next to his ice cream in the freezer.  If there wasn’t wine in his alcohol bottles, it would probably be blood.

Ugh.  Just talking about the premise nauseates me.  Why do we need to experience this?  Bateman is a sickening character, a man who would dismember the head of one unfortunate female and chew off the genitals of another.  Why?  For what purpose?  His motivations are never explained in the movie and his reasonings for murdering women are a mystery to us.  Is there a reason for this?  Is there a reason for being so non-inclusive with your audience? Why must everything be shrouded in secrecy?

This is the film’s biggest problem, besides the violence and the sexuality: Patrick Bateman is a deplorable character, difficult to understand and impossible to sympathize with.  You might think its impossible to sympathize with a murderer of women anyway, but it isn’t really.  We’ve ben asked to sympathize with deplorable characters before, including a psychotic war veteran in Taxi Driver to ruthless murderers and drug dealers in Goodfellas.  Sympathy and interest worked with those characters because one character was struggling to find a line of morality and righteousness to follow, and another was hesitant and even regretful over the actions that he’s done.

Bateman doesn’t regret his decisions nor chooses to change them.  He kills instinctively, almost like he’s trying to prove some territorial point to the people around him.  To put it out there in gruesome, violent fashions like this though is just torturous.  Who wants to sit there, eyes on the screen, watching him laughing as a petite blond girl in front of him cries pleading for her life?

But American Psycho isn’t just sickening, repulsive, and pungnent: the film’s logic is half-lapsed, incomplete, and flawed, incomprehensible to the viewer and extremely frustrating to those trying to figure out.

I’ll give you an example.  There’s one scene where’s Bateman is chasing one of his victims through the hallways of a hotel, half naked, screaming manically, and revving his chainsaw like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Someone explain to me how no one from the hotel hallway heard the ruckus from outside their rooms, or anyone from the two floors above and beneath him?  Here you have Jack Torrence running through the hallways screaming at the top of his lungs with a lawn mower, and nobody even bothers to call the police.  What?  Are the wooden doors sound-proof?  Who knows, maybe they’re afraid of poking their heads out the door so that they won’t get their heads chopped off.

Due to a revelation revealed later on in the plot, one could argue this is a “dream sequence”, or a “vision” Bateman had.  But how is there any way to know?  With Bateman’s maniacal, wretched mind, dreams feels like reality and reality feels like dreams.  How is there any way to read the subtext when you’ve made your narrative so damn hard to figure out?

And this is a movie that is being hailed as a dark comedy.  A comedy for what, exactly?  The film is two graphic hours of bloody, sickening, gruesome violence and pornography.  When, at any point, is it set up to inspire laughs?  In movies like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club we are at least given subtle moments of clever dialogue to clue us in to the humor, and even though stomach-curling things are happening on screen, we are able to suspend that  briefly in order to enjoy the humor.

American Psycho is not subtle, smart, clever, humorous, or any of the related adjectives.  There’s a point director Mary Harron is trying to express through the film, but that point is convoluted, vague and shockingly illiterate.  As a result, what we’re ultimately watching is an idle, pointless, and misconstrued film, and our reward for watching is hours of punishment, nudity, sexual immorality, blood, torture, macabre violence, and sickening indecency.  To be fairly honest, I probably need a second viewing in order to fully understand the picture, but the plain fact is that the movie doesn’t deserve a second viewing.  If I end the film feeling as punished and as mutilated as Bateman’s unfortunate victims, why on earth would I want to subject myself to that again?

At the end of the film, Bateman himself admits that he finds neither closure nor catharsis for his bloody, violent, sexually immoral and murderous journey.  For that matter, neither do we.

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