Monday, August 1, 2016

Three Short Reviews: Oculus; It Follows; He Never Died

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet

I’m home with a bad cold, so I thought I would do some catching up. Normally, I rarely watch mainstream films, meaning those that have theatrical runs, ‘cause I’m an indie guy. Given my choice, I tend to watch films that costs less than five grand over one in the millions range. But my brain is too sullied by snot to give close attention to the minors, so I figured it could be a good time to catch up to some theatrical releases I’ve missed. Now, although I don’t intend to give away salient plot point, I may talk about tones, but since these are mainstream films and this is a blog for horror films, the assumption is you’ve seen them. Trailers for the releases are at the end.

Directed by Mike Flanagan
104 minutes, 2013
I used to write for a now-gone punk fanzine called Oculus (using my birth name) at the turn of the millennium, so I knew I needed to see this at some point. While the film has some issues, it was better than I expected it to be, for many reasons. It’s rare to find a slow building story these days of body counts and gruesomeness. The way the plot is presented in a dual time frame that flips back and forth and yet also manages to overlap them without it being a complete mish-mosh is worth noting. Sure there is the occasional confusion, but that’s built into a tale where things are not always what they seem, which is presented in an easy explanation thanks to a playback of a video late in the first act.

A mirrors as a doorway is certainly not new, such as (and this is a minor taste) Mirrors (2008), John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987) and Candyman (1992). They even did a porno version called Pandora’s Mirror (1981). If you wanted, you could go all the way back to the Brothers’ Grimm’s story about Snow White, which was actually a horror tale if you think about it. For this one, it has a bit of that trapped feeling presented in the first season of American Horror Story (2011), though in that case it was a house rather than a mirror.

Katee Sackhoff
The cast is relatively small so the film’s body count is not ridiculous, but the intimacy of the gore is extremely effective. While the stars are the brother and sister leads, played by Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, both of whom do the roles justice, the takeaway for me was Katee Sackhoff: she plays the mom at various stages of duress, and gives it full tilt. I was duly impressed.

There are more than enough jump scares, which become almost expected hence losing their appeal, and certainly the ending is highly predictable, but what bugs me is the assumption that the evil must survive for the inevitable sequel (none has appeared as of yet, but…). Used to be that the hero(ine) would prevail and defeat the powers of darkness, but since the introduction of the franchise in the modern horror cinema cycle (amped up by the trinity of Jason, Michael and Freddy), evil doesn’t die, it gets to reoccur, sometimes even in prequels (e.g., Insidious). Even though I enjoyed the film, it’s bowing to sequelitis, whether there is another one or not, makes it end on an oh, c’mon rather than a yeah!

My biggest gripe, though, is the length. Horror films, more than any other kind, work best in the 90 minute or less format (in my opinion). After that it begins to be wearing and the adrenaline flow tends to works against the story rather than in its favor, kind of like when – and this does not happen in this film – the shots of people fearfully walking around a house with the audience expecting that jump scare, until it becomes tedious rather than nerve-whacking. Filmmakers, keep one eye on the story and one eye on the clock, please.

It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
100 minutes, 2014
This film made it to many of the Year’s Best lists, so seems like a good choice to view.

Sometimes a film wears it’s forbearers on its proverbial sleeve, and this sure is one of those. Just to name a few, there’s the suburbia of Halloween (1978), in one segment the naked huntress of Lifeforce (1985), the deadly spirit desiring death of any participant of The Ring/Ringu, the promiscuity of teens and deadly disease of Kids (1995), and the shift-shaping of The Thing (1982). While I’m at it, there are also clips of a number of other films on TVs, such as The Giant Claw (1957) and Killers from Space (1954). It’s nice that the director could give a nod to some previous sci-fi from his childhood, but in an overly long film, it feels a bit excessive (while making me smile as I knew most of them).

The film does well with suspense, as our heroine (Maika Monroe) ducks and covers for much of the story. However, the pace is as slow as the demon (or whatever it is), and sometimes for me the tension was more in the area of wanting to fast forward (I didn’t). Yes, there is some quality filmmaking going on here, like the metaphors of teen problems (leaves across a leg symbolizing cutting, for example), and at least one of the circular shots at the high school is well done. However, this really needed to be trimmed by at least 20 minutes to keep the suspense going. There are too many pointless dialog shots that don’t go anywhere, such as one between our heroine and a guy who obviously has a crush on her, talking about their childhood and finding porn; that could have easily been relegated to the Deleted Scenes section of the DVD, and not be missed in the feature.

Also, there are some occurrences I just don’t buy, including the obvious other passing on of the curse scenes to add a larger body count. I mean, there is something (as opposed to someone) following her to kill her, and one of her crew is going to take a chance? In one case, it happends in a hospital bed in a room full of internal windows to the hallway (that we see in another roundabout circular shot)?

Overall, I was disappointed in the heavy-handed direction where Mitchell tried to add in too many metaphors and symbolisms. Just look at the IMDB page under the Trivia section. I appreciate the ambitiousness of the project, but trying to do too much (“look what I can do!”) and not having a concept of what should probably stay and what should go (it makes me wonder how long the first cut was if this much stayed), made this drag in too many places. The body count was very low, and the first kill to Alice was definitely the best. There was some decent suspense, but really, it should have been tighter.

As for the ending, see my comment in the previous review.

He Never Died
Written and directed by Jason Krawczyk
97 minutes; 2015
Henry Rollins is having quite the post-Black Flag career, careening from singer, to print poet, to spoken word artist, vlogger, and screen actor. For the latter, his roles tend to lean towards bitter and especially angry people (come to think of it, so does his singing, poetry, etc.). Most of the roles I’ve seen him in have been either secondary or even tertiary/cameo ones, not counting his omnipresence in documentaries about punk music from the ‘80s). Here was a chance to see him as the focal antagonistic protagonist.

I realize this may technically be a relatively low budget film compared to the others, but hey…Netflix, if you know what I mean. As far as the film goes, it was quite the pleasant surprise. First of all, Henry is known for being somewhat stoic/sarcastic and very angry/clenched. Both of these work for him better than I have ever seen him before. His character is a non-classic vampire (“I’m the only one”) that has more of the qualities of a ghoul/cannibal, and who is old enough to be “mentioned in the Bible.”

There is a nice sized cast, and yet it feel intimate, with dark streets (though he’s not adverse to daylight in classic vampire tropes) in dingy areas, as Toronto takes the place of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York. After such a long life, Jack (Rollins) keeps his wits together, barely, by playing bingo, keeping to himself mostly, and eating at the same diner for every meal: always vegetarian as blood is like a drug to him, and he’s gone straight-edge. The question is, will those around him let him stay that way for long.

Into this mix comes a long-lost 19-year-old party-girl daughter, Andrea (Jordan Todosey, of Degrassi: The Next Generation) and a waitress who has a thing for him, Cara (Kate Greenhouse, of The Murdock Mysteries). There is also an extended “name” cameo of Jack’s “intern” (Booboo Stewart, of The Twilight Saga series and X-Men: Days of Future Past). And who is the mysterious man in the hat (not hard to figure out, really). Then there’s a long stream of Mafioso fodder that ends up being an extensive and gruesome body count. Yeah, there is a lot of blood, death and destruction.

There is also an incredibly strong sense of humor about the film, some of it played well by Greenhouse who easily steals some scenes from Rollins (check out the “Oh, c’mon” moment from the trailer). However, that is not to say that Rollins isn’t a force to be reckoned with here, as this is by far the strongest and best role, as if it were written for him.

While nearly as long as the reviews mentioned above, the time just went by incredibly fast. They left it so there could be a sequel, and in this case I’m hoping there is, as it’s also a film I will watch again, at some point.

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