Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Grudge 3

The Grudge 3 is a case of the filmmakers trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.

Ju-On is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. It's effective, subtle, creepy, and absolutely merciless. It's one of my rainy day go-to films. It's comfort food.

I liked the American remake, though not enough to own it on DVD. I enjoyed the American sequel for what it was. But every instinct told me to avoid The Grudge 3. I saw the panel for it at Comic-Con and they had a couple of the fresh faced young actors talking up the movie. The clip they brought along was the boyfriend returning to the haunted apartment. The room is pitch dark, he stumbles forward for a few seconds, there's a heartbeat of eerie silence, then Kayako reaches forward in the darkness. Cue soundtrack-spike jump effect and the lights go back up.

Objectively it all worked very well, especially that creepy moment of silence before Kayako strikes, but there was something off about it. Maybe it was the fact that actor was too pretty or the moment felt too rote, but the scene felt a little off. Adding to my ambivalence was the fact that it was a direct-to-DVD sequel with no direct involvement from Grudge creator Takashi Shimizu. I wound up giving it a pass.

I've been on a huge yurei kick lately. I'm tinkering with a ghost story and I'm reading the excellent Suicide Forest miniseries from IDW so it felt like a good time to revisit the Saeki family.

The story begins with the last surviving kid from The Grudge 2. He's locked up in an insane asylum and terrified that Kayako is going to kill her. The doctors don't believe him and lock him in a padded cell. Unfortunately, he's not alone...

The intro to the movie is actually really scary, due in no small part to the kid's acting talent. I've seen a lot of poor souls lead to their deaths because no one believed them, but this kid was spectacular. He really pulled the scene off. The doctor feels responsible for his death and returns to the apartment that the Saeki family are currently haunting. In the meantime, the landlord's sickly kid sister starts seeing Toshio and a mysterious Japanese woman moves into the building. It doesn't take long before chicks start crawling down the stairs.

As a basic creepy ghost story, The Grudge 3 works perfectly fine. The actors are surprisingly good, the atmosphere is suitably eerie, and it hits all the right notes. The problem is that it doesn't really feel like a Grudge film.

My first problem with the movie is we see WAY too much of Kayako in it.

The original Ju-on keeps her mostly out of sight. She's an indistinct shape in the window or a shadow on the wall or an out-of-focus lurker in a background. The only time we get a long extended look at her is when she's crawling down the stairs. That scene still stands as one of the creepiest things I've ever seen on film. Here, she shows up waaaaay too often, that crawl thing is overplayed, and you see that it's just a women with a lot of white make up on.

The second big problem I had with the movie is that Kayako just doesn't belong in Chicago. I get that yurei aren't necessarily bound to a single physical haunted location, but the logic for having her jump national boundaries was a little bit flimsy. A bunch of dead Japanese people haunting a run-down Chicago building full of attractive white actors feels discordant.

Finally, one of the things I loves about the original Ju-On was the way it told its story in little vignettes. The whole story takes place over a couple generations and we see how the evil in the house affects different people in different circumstances. That makes the horror of Kayako leaner and more graceful and frees the tale from the typical narrative tropes that haunt the ghost subgenre. Here, the story has a straight forward narrative almost lifted out of screenwriting 101. The characters have relationships laden with issues they don't discuss until they are brought to a crisis point. It's actually pretty well written and acted, but sticking to a formula sacrifices some of the intensity of the horror.

Despite all my harping, I enjoyed The Grudge 3. It's got a decent story, some solid scares, and I was engaged in it from beginning to end. It's a good horror film, but I don't quite think it's a good Grudge film.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Call of the Dead Trailer

I take back EVERYTHING I said about being sick of zombies.

Dibs on (Buffy) Machete!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Scream 4 (SPOILERS)

You know, I have complained before about movies that wink too much to an audience of presumed horror fans, but Scream 4 takes it to a whole new level. In Roger Ebert's suprisingly positive review, he described the characters in the movie as being "preternatural in their detachment." Every character in the movie is so savvy and self aware, they become essentially audience surrogates commenting on themselves. They act so far removed from people genuine danger that the effect is disconcerting. The only person who is an actual character is poor, tormented Sidney Prescott.

I didn't really realize it until I watched this movie, but I think that Sidney Prescott is one of my favorite final girls of all time. She's definitely damaged from three encounters with film nerd serial killers, but she's got real steel in her spine. She stands up for herself, she fights back, but she never comes off as invincible or fearless. My favorite scene in the movie is the bit where her cousin's friend is being attacked next door and Sidney rushes out into the night to save her. Me, I'd be running the opposite damn direction. My only complaint with her is that I can't help but wonder why Sidney just doesn't leave town every time the killings start. Screwing with Sidney seems to be priority one with the Scream killers and leaving them derails their primary motivation.

I sat on the edge of my seat all through the movie, waiting for Sidney or Dewey or Gail to get it. It makes a mean sort of sense that the movie would bump them off to make way for the new generation. I was expecting it and I was really pissed about it. I came to realize that I really liked Scream's intrepid trio. Horror has very few memorable non-monster heroes and the trio didn't deserve to go out to service such a mediocre story (see: the death of Laurie Strode in that awful Halloween: Resurrection movie.)

Anyway, big spoilers here, Sidney's niece and one of the film nerds are the killer duo.

The film nerd is pretty dismissible. He's watched too many movies, can't tell the difference between right and wrong, and is snookered by his partner at the last minute. He's also got an incredibly slight frame and, like Sidney's cousin, it's very difficult to believe that they have the physical strength necessary to commit the murders.

Sidney's cousin is a much harder sell. Killer motivations in Scream movies are usually pretty lousy, but the idea that she is so enamored with Sidney's legacy that she's willing to kill her mother AND cousin to take her place is too farfetched. That's Hollywood-crazy, not real people crazy, and that's when the whole self-awareness thing stretches too far. It also doesn't help that she plays the final reel in histrionics worthy of a Justin Bieber crowd.

There's also one difference in the methodology of the new murderers: they're filming the killings as they take place, essentially making their own snuff film. This seems like a natural progression of the movie's themes, but ultimately very little is done with it. Scream movies exist in a very strange universe where the line between true crime and gory fantasy is very thin, and the public seems to crave more real world violence to happen so they can fictionalize and revel in it. I would have LOVED to see this played up more, but it's barely touched.

I get that Craven and Williamson were trying to comment on the remake craze sweeping through horror and the way that they do it is fairly clever, but the jokey self-referencing thing feels very 90s and stale. As I was watching the movie, I thought to myself that the only way to really reinvent the movie is to have a Ghostface with an entirely different motivation and voice. I want to see one who isn't playing to the camera, but one who is silent while his predecessors were chatty. There are still meat on dem bones, but not if they keep redoing the same thing over and over again.

I keep talking about the negatives of Scream 4, but ultimately I enjoyed watching it. Craven's movies are seldom bad and this one had enough wacky slasher antics to keep me entertained. It ultimately felt a bit disjointed. The film moved from set piece to set piece with little connecting them. It was fun to reunite with the heroic trio of Scream survivors and watch them beat up the two stupidest killers they've encountered yet, but it's not quite all there.

The big problem I had with Scream 4 was I'd just seen Insidious a week before. Scream 4 is basically fine and I don't feel cheated out of my money, but Insidious was a much more intense experience. Neither are particularly original films, but the raw craftsmanship and terrifying muscle behind Insidious won me over. It shaded my experience with Scream 4. I never jumped, never felt tense, and it never really got under my skin. It was fun to watch though.

Also, it ain't saying much, but Scream 4 was a lot better than Scream 3.

Anyway, here's an interview with Wes Craven. Also, below is the AV Club's video review. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

John Carpenter Interview in the AV Club

The AV Club just posted an interview with John Carpenter where he talks about the ups and downs of his career. It's a fascinating look at the way he views himself, but I can't help but feel sad for the guy. A lot of the things he's done only earned acclaim long after they were box office failures and that clearly wore him down. He's done with directing. Thanks for some of my favorite movies.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I keep trying to like James Wan's work more than I do.

There are moments in his movies that scare the utter shit out of me. There are few people working in the genre today who can do the drawn out, tense silence and the sudden sharp shock as well as he can. He's also a master at creating deeply unsettling images that drill themselves deep into my skin. I lost a good hour of sleep last night around five AM envisioning the creepy grandma from Insidious lurking under my bed. I think he's got the chops and I like that he sticks with the genre.

Yet despite his chops, I can't really get behind his movies. The screenplays are full of unengaging characters, weird tonal shifts, and frustrating plot holes. As a purely visceral experience, the movies are fine. As stories, they tend to be lacking. I've seen most of his major films, but I usually check them out on DVD.

Still, this season has been very dry for this little horror enthusiast and the word of mouth around Insidious has been surprisingly positive. I watched the movie last night and I can honestly say that Insidious is my favorite James Wan movie.

Insidious tells the story of a family who move into a haunted house. After the eldest child falls into a mysterious coma, the family becomes the victim of terrible hauntings. They flee their new home, only to discover that the ghost has followed them. In desperation, they turn to a psychic with an odd connection to the family.

The general consensus among all the reviewers I've read is that Insidious attempts nothing original, but it does the classics with style and verve. There are a lot of glib people out there who are saying that this movie is an all-but-in-name remake of Poltergeist, which isn't entirely untrue. It follows a similar narrative structure, with a slow set-up that puts the family in danger and targets a child, followed by the introduction of some comedic ghost hunters and a wise psychic who helps the family get through it all.

Insidious, however, has teeth. Between the long, creepy shots of silence and isolation and the genuinely terrifying ghost scares, this movie scared the bejeezus out of me. This is gonna be one of those movies I come back to, but only in well-lit rooms. I especially liked the now-famous eerie old lady in black, which reminded me of a similar creepy creation in Wan's deeply flawed Dead Silence film.

The movie's one point of genuine originality is the hero's journey into the Further, a shadowy reflection of our world where doomed souls wander. As he searches for his son, the father sees enough ghastly tableaus to fuel a dozen different horror films. It reminded me of the doomed landscapes of White Wolf's Wraith: The Oblivion role playing game. I loved seeing the world from the ghost's perspective, and the chilling images still make my skin crawl. Really, I could have spent an entire movie exploring the Further and it stands as the highlight of the movie for me.

As much as I enjoyed Insidious, it suffered from a few problems. The first was that there are three very large tonal shifts in the movie. The movie starts as a very conventional haunted house story, moves into a VERY exposition-heavy ghost hunter bit, and ends as more of a fantasy film. Each transition is very jarring and a lot of character threads get lost in each jump (most of the family disappears from the narrative by the second act.)

Second, the lead characters aren't particularly likable. Haunted house movies always have one person who doubts and the audience surrogate goes through the frustration of trying to convince them. In Insidious, this scene comes after a huge chunk of exposition that any rational person would have had a difficult time swallowing. Suddenly I felt tremendous sympathy for the poor, beleaguered rationalist who doesn't automatically believe in unquiet spirits and faraway lands of the dead. It didn't help that the wife came off as self-indulgent and high strung.

Insidious ain't perfect. People ding it for being unambitious, the writing is inconsistent, and the characterization is bland. But it succeeds on craft alone. It's a genuinely scary movie, done with tremendous style on a limited budget, and it stayed with me long after the final credits finished. I am probably going to come back to it, and I recommend it for anyone who likes a solid haunted house movie as well as anyone who likes Alice In Wonderland stories of people exploring strange places.

Finally, you ever notice how Wan's movies always have incredibly dark endings? Granted horror isn't exactly an optimist's genre, but his movies always have a sharp kick at the end. If you want a nice little final scare, wait until after the credits end.