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Session 9, One of the Best Horror Films You’ve Probably Never Seen

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Session 9 centers around a group of asbestos abatement professionals looking to make a hefty bonus on a bid if they can complete a monster job in a week.  The job?  Get the notorious Massachusetts Danvers State Hospital clean and ready for renovation.

The team is a group comprised of old friends Gordon, Phil and Mike (Peter MullanDavid CarusoStephen Gevedon respectively), new enemy Hank (Josh Lucas), and fresh meat, Jeff (Brendan Sexton III).  The group dynamics are enough to make the film interesting, but throw in an atmospheric mental asylum, mystery, and some eye catching cinematography and you have the hidden horror gem, Session 9.

Phil and Hank are working through some things, mainly the fact that Hank slept with Phil’s girl and now the two are together.  Gordon’s a new dad, not getting much sleep, and money’s tight meaning this job means everything.  And Mike?  Mike is the law school dropout son of the State’s Attorney General, with an intelligence that puts his curiosity into overdrive.

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On the first day inside, the group splits up, each man taking on a different task.  When Mike finds a box marked “Evidence” in an area he is working, he can’t help but look inside.  He finds data pertaining to patient #444, Mary Hobbes, aged 37.  The box contains 9 session tapes which include audio recordings of Mary’s interviews with a Danvers’ State Hospital doctor, photographs, and the general details of her dissociative identity disorder.

Mike, curiosity running wild, sits down and immediately starts playing the tapes.  As the interview unfolds, all but one of Mary’s alternate personalities appears.  All of them reference an alternate named “Simon” who is supposedly responsible for a violent, traumatic event occurring 22 years prior on Christmas in Lowell, Massachusetts.

The intensity of these interviews, and the manner in which they are slowly revealed to Mike like ghostly voices from a dark and violent past, is enough to make for a Brad Anderson's SESSION 9terrifying tale.  But, director Brad Anderson refuses to relent there.

As the long days of stressful removal work continue, each team member begins to show wear and tear.  Hank, finds a hidden stash of coins, jewelry, and assorted personal effects behind the wall of the hospital’s crematory oven.  He comes back that night and, while he’s heading out with the loot, befalls a mysterious fate.  The next day, when Hank fails to show for work, Phil finds out Hank may have split town for casino school in Miami.  No one is particularly surprised, especially Phil who is still bitter over losing his ex-girlfriend to him.

Down a man and with the deadline for their bonus looming, the guys seemingly begin to buckle under the stress.

When confronted about his odd behavior, Gordon, the crew leader, confesses to Phil that he hasn’t been sleeping, that he hit his wife.  Concerned, Phil tries to rally the crew to take on another guy.  Gordon flatly refuses, a move that threatens to jeopardize the entire contract.  Meanwhile, Mike, our law-school dropout continues delving through the session tapes for Mary Hobbes until finally, he arrives at the tapes for session 9.

Brad Anderson's SESSION 9This is when things go haywire.  On the recording, Simon, Mary’s alternate, finally appears.  He begins, for the first time, to engage with the interviewing doctor.  Interspersed with this eerie repartee are scenes that reveal the true nature of what’s been going on with Gordon and his crew behind the walls of the Danvers State Mental Hospital.

Session 9 was a modest film that didn’t enjoy commercial success.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t a terrific horror film.  Rich with atmosphere, mystery, and moments of absolutely hair-raising tension, Session 9 is a film that continues to “get me” viewing after viewing.

The Climax Golden Twins provide a brilliant, nerve-twisting score.  The lack of light, the filth and dilapidation of the building are like a physical manifestation or reflection of the state of the crew’s mental and physical decay.  It may sound weird to call Session 9 a gorgeous film, but it is.  Carefully framed and lit, each scene looks as good as any art house indie film, made all the more special by the fact that you’re watching a scary film.

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Session 9 is a horror-lover’s treat.  A rare, deliciously mind-bending, terrifying treat.  Tasty.

Shock Waves – Nazi Zombies, 70s Hotties, & Peter Cushing

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It’s the 70s, baby.  Six strangers on a reef diving adventure are about to get more than they paid for when their boat’s engine starts acting up and they run into the remains of a gnarly shipwreck.  Forced to disembark their water-filled boat, the group heads for a nearby island for help.  Their presence awakens something dark and deeply sinister from the bowels of the ocean – the Nazi Death Corps.   This group of undead soldiers, long forgotten by the outside world, rises to do the only thing they know how to do – kill.

Shock Waves is the 1977 film directed by Ken Wiederhorn starring a very dishy Brooke Adams as Rose, John Carradine as the boat captain, Fred Buch as Chuck  (or “Porno Pete” as I’m fond of referring to him), Luke Halpin as Keith, Jack Davidson and D.J. Sidney as the bickering married couple, Norman and Beverly.

Zombies.  Nazis.  Strangers, shipwrecked to a tropical paradise.  A grand old resort hotel, long deserted and past its prime.  A voluntarily exiled high ranking Nazi shock-waves-introscientist.  I mean, come on!  How much more of a set up do you need to create one of the most comically beloved cult classics in horror cinema?

It was the 70s and it seemed like everything was fair game.  In an era before everything had been done, filmmakers seemed to draw inspiration from everywhere (and anywhere).  And while the zombie genre had been long since established, Shock Waves differentiated itself by throwing Nazis into the mix.  It was one of the first – and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  In the years and decades to come, Shock Waves would give way to films like the 2009 Norwegian film, Dead Snow and this year’s The 4th Reich.

brooke_shockWavesThe film stars Brooke Adams in an early role as the sole survivor of the events that unfold once the diving party is shipwrecked.  Adams would go on to star in larger, more commercially successful films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Dead Zone.  Adams’ onscreen presence in Shock Waves is undeniable … or, maybe, it’s just that she spends a good portion of her screen time in a string bikini.  Either way, she is definitely the star of the film.

Though it pains me to admit it, I’ll just come out and say what we’re all thinking.  Shock Waves is not going to be the kind of film you’re going to watch to be scared.  It has an almost excruciatingly slow build up characteristic of films from the period.  But if you allow yourself to go along for the ride – after all, I imagine that’s why Adams’ is scantily clad – you’ll enjoy some of genuine eeriness the film provides.

Forget for a moment that the diving party is being stalked by the newly risen undead Death Corps.  They’re still stranded on a remote island with a strange, and shockwaves_peterCushingstrangely loyal, Nazi scientist in the form of Peter Cushing.  Cushing plays the Nazi Commander responsible for the creation of the Corps and for keeping them available, if you will, for the creation of future devastation.

The addition of the slow moving, stonily malevolent Death Corps works because they seem to stalk the island’s new inhabitants rather than converging on them, en masse, all at once.  The filmmakers made a great decision to show these Nazi troops rising from the ocean in small groups over and over, throughout the film, so that, by the end its audience has no idea how many of them there really are.

It’s strangely unnerving, in retrospect, to think of the diving party being hunted and picked off one by one.  Given more time to consider their options, the party begins to lose confidence in the odds of their survival.  After one night on the island, they begin to realize they need to take the situation into their own hands.

shockWaves_2One of my frustrations with the film is that many things go relatively unexplained – whether that’s intentional or just a gap in the narrative of a low(er) budget film, remains to be seen.  The strange solar flare that happens while the party is still aboard their boat may or may not have caused the Death Corps to rise.  Regardless, it’s stylish and super fun.

So many questions.  I mean, how was Peter Cushing’s character, the Nazi Commander, surviving in this old resort?  Who are these people?  Who is Rose and why is she on vacation alone?  Where the hell are the Captain and Keith taking their guests?  Why do the Nazi troopers seem to “die” when their googles are removed?  Most importantly – why make Shock Waves in the first place?

I hate that most of the characters are completely undeveloped.  As a result, their motivations – beyondshockWaves_4 those for survival – are unknown to us.  Told in a flashback narrative style, maybe it’s unimportant to give the audience any information.  After all, we know that only Brooke Adams’ Rose survives the experience.  Maybe we’re not supposed to give a damn about the rest of the cast.

Even if you can’t bring yourself to go all in for the film’s subject matter, the underwater cinematography is actually quite beautiful – if Nazi Zombies emerging from the tangles of various reef formations can be called beautiful, that is.

Made available on DVD in 2003, Shock Waves is worth a watch on an early Saturday afternoon, especially if you make it campy.  Throw on a pair of your shortest shorts, mix up some Sea Breezes, and embrace the grand 1970s doom vibe.

Trailer:

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Remember Why You Love Vampires with Let the Right One In

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Twelve year old Oskar is a mess.  Bullied at school and coming to terms with the separation of his parents, Oskar is at a crossroads.  He can either lay down and take what the world seems intent on feeding him or he can stand up for himself.  With the arrival of a mysterious young girl, Oskar realizes he is stronger than he thinks.

Let the Right One In is the 2008 Swedish horror film directed by Tomas Alfredson starring Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, Lina Leandersson as Eli, and Per Ragnar as Eli’s guardian, Håkan.  The film is based on the 2004 novel of the same name written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (who also penned the screenplay).

Let the Right One InLet the Right One In is easily one of the best vampire horror films ever made.  It’s so good, I’d go a step further and say that, regardless of its genre, it’s a hell of a film.  I’ve heard people call it their favorite romantic drama and I wouldn’t disagree.  One thing is for certain – Let the Right One In is a unique and subtly nuanced film.

Despite the human dramas unfolding within the story – a divorce, school bullying, puberty, relocation – there are some darkly sinister themes threaded within the very touching story of discovery and first love.  Yes there are vampires, but there are also pedophiles and sadists.

The film’s subject matter is complicated in a way that has a tendency to make people feel uncomfortable.

I’m talking specifically about the relationship between Eli and guardian, Håkan.  Håkan – who is a middle aged man – has a (suggested) sexual relationship with Eli.  And while it later becomes clear that Eli – as a vampire who does not age – has known Håkan since he was a young boy, there is something very unsettling about the notion that the two have an intimate relationship.

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In the book, it is clearer that Håkan is meant to be seen as a pedophile.  Lindqvist, I think, made some very smart moves in adapting his work to the screen – dulling the edge of the relationship between these two being one.

The suggestions about their relationship are enough to provide motivation and drive without unnecessarily exposing the audience to the unsavory reality.  It’s important, pivotal even, to have this knowledge about their affair because, without it, it’s let_the_right_one_in_4avery difficult to understand how Håkan is able to take a human life, night after night, for decades without question and without complaint … until this very moment when he realizes Eli has set sights on their young neighbor, Oskar.

The other, relatively minor, changes from page to screen involved the muting of horror/vampire elements to bring the primary focus of the story to the main characters of Oskar and Eli.  Both eleven years old at the time they were cast, Hedebrant and Leandersson turn in enviable, layered, and rich performances.

The horror elements are all so well incorporated that they lend a subtle, and more realistic unease to the atmosphere of the film – a point I cannot praise enough.

hakanDuring a panel with creators of Dark Horse horror at this year’s Rose City Comic Con, we discussed – at length – what makes horror content work.  The thing we kept coming back to was subtly – when the audience expects a thing to behave in a certain way and it suddenly, only slightly doesn’t, it sets a stage of discomfort.  That discomfort can then be built upon to create a greater tension and ultimately, a very real, palpable terror.

Throughout Let the Right One In, you have a sense that something about Eli is just not right.  This is elegantly constructed through character design (Eli goes from being clean to being dirty, from smelling good to smelling rotten) and by controlling what the audience knows about the character’s “condition”.  It’s brilliant storytelling because while you’re already aware that something isn’t right about Eli, it isn’t until much later that the characters finally have the courage to discuss Eli’s true nature.

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If you’ve been paying attention, you’d have noticed I’ve been overly cautious when (not) referring to Eli’s gender.  There’s a reason for that…

Despite being performed by a girl, the character of Eli is actually a castrated boy – an act of violence perpetrated upon the character centuries before the events of the film.  The filmmakers chose not to expound on this fact, choosing instead to simply let_the_right_one_in-207782hint upon it during a scene in which Eli is changing clothes and Oskar happens to see a nasty scar.  I feel this is a twist that helps make Let the Right One In a truly special story about people – not genders – attraction, and identity.

Some films are defined by their special effects, their story arcs or through a profound and final reveal.  Others, like Let the Right One In, become known for their atmosphere and their ability to evoke (very tangible) feelings in their audiences.  Beyond its genius screenplay and strong performances, part of the film’s success is thanks to the environment in which the film was set and the unique and creative sound engineering employed.

The ice and snow are crucial to providing an environment that is as simultaneously as quiet as the tomb and as peaceful as an uninterrupted, rejuvenating sleep.  It provides a stillness that 936full-let-the-right-one-in-screenshotmakes the violence more profound.  The landscape of winter may be an obvious simile to death, but its stark beauty feels like the only plausible companion to a character as complicated and poetic as Eli.

The sound engineering is perfection.  A voice actress (Elif Ceylan) provides all – yes ALL – of Eli’s spoken dialogue.  Leandersson was an 11-year old girl with an 11-year old girl’s voice at the time of shooting and the filmmakers wanted the character to sound older (like 200) and more menacing.  The solution not only works it soars.  The voice – and the noises Eli makes when attacking – are terrifically unsettling.

If you’re one of the few people who have yet to see the original version of this film, I encourage you to check it out.  And do yourself a favor – be brave enough to watch it in its original form, in Swedish with English subtitles so you can savor the full, intended effect.

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They’re Still Here, Poltergeist 30 Years On

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When a malevolent force decides to claim their young daughter, pulling her into another dimension, everything the Freeling family knows about life, death, and the energies lingering between is forever changed.

Starring JoBeth Williams as Diane, Craig T. Nelson as Steven, Heather O’Rourke or Carol Anne, Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as Robbie, Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh, and the indelible Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina, Poltergeist is directed by Tobe Hooper based on a story and screenplay by Steven Spielberg (along with Michael Grais and Mark Victor).

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The Summer of 1982 belonged to Steven Spielberg.  Released just a week apart in June, Spielberg’s E.T. and Poltergeist took the American movie going public by storm.  Both films were family-centric at their heart with major plot points revolving around young children, but otherwise, the films were worlds apart.

Poltergeist is a darkly entertaining vision of modern day suburbia, in which a young family of five is pitted against an otherworldly protagonist.  That the family turns to a team of collegiate paranormal investigators rather than the police in the wake of the abduction of their child speaks volumes about Diane and Steven and what their family has already experienced in their Cuesta Verde tract home.

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The interactions with the paranormal forces inside their home begin as little more than playful pranks; chairs stacking themselves on the kitchen table and objects being slid across the floor.  By the time the events begin to occur, we have already spent a significant amount of time with the Freelings, seeing their day-to-day life.  They feel real to us, we can relate to them.  By extension, the inexplicable events seem somehow easier to accept as real because they are happening to them.

Like any good horror film, this look into how these interactions are perceived, when the stakes are relatively low, reveals deeper truths at the heart of the family and the story.

Diane, who playfully engages with the forces by placing her own daughter on the floor to be slid across it, embraces the experience as a kind of miracle.  Steven, who, even after witnessing the activity first-hand, refuses to openly accept what’s happening as paranormal, is shadowed by a kind of lurking hesitancy.  It is Steven’s hesitancy and guardedness, and Diane’s unshakable belief and love that ultimately carry the family through the crisis about to unfold.

Poltergeist captured imaginations and terrified audiences, but it is not a film about a haunted house.

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The Shining: spoiler alert

I cringe every time Poltergeist is referred to as a haunted house film, especially since the characters central to the plot repeatedly inform the audience to the contrary.  The energy in the Freeling home is focused on Carol Anne (a plot point further explored in subsequent franchise sequels), not the house.  Even after the home is destroyed at the end of Poltergeist and the Freelings move, the energy that plagued the family follows them.

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It’s unfortunate that this plot point is often confused or muddled or ignored, because I think the idea that something as malevolent as what focuses its attention on the young Carol Anne would follow her, and not be restrained to one particular location, is far more dubious and terrifying.

There’s nowhere to run to, baby.

What brings me back to Poltergeist time and again is the intimate portrait of a pair of high school sweethearts, clearly still deeply in love, that pull together in the face of an ethereal threat – one that cannot be reasoned with, stopped, or even seen – and overcome everything that is thrown at them.

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JoBeth Williams’ Diane was the mother every little girl dreamed of having; with a love pure enough to span an abyssal void in order to reclaim you from the clutches of evil.  And Craig T. Nelson’s Steven was the strong, unshakable father we all wanted to sit with us during a thunderstorm.  Steven and Diane are the heart of the film.  And while a lot of focus on Poltergeist and the franchise now resides on the unfortunate passing of Heather Rourke, that she was such a powerful presence onscreen only sweetens with each viewing.

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Trailer:

Remake Madness – Why Carrie Is Still Relevant

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It’s 1976.  Two years after Stephen King has published his first novel, Carrie, it’s being adapted to film.  Though it may be difficult to now imagine, King was struggling to make ends meet.  Working as an English professor, the $2,500 he was paid for the film rights to the novel must have been a Godsend.

Directed by Brian De Palma, Carrie  is the story of a shy and friendless young girl who, in the final year of high school, has been the center of bulling and abuse by nearly all of the student body.  The film starred a bevvy of young talent from Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, John Travolta, Nancy Allen, PJ Soles, and William Katt.  De Palma’s  imagining went on to be named to a host of 100 Best of Lists (The American Film Institute‘s Movies, Thrills, Heroes and Villains lists).

carrie2013Carrie was a critical and box office success, grossing more than $33M in ticket sales.  The film also garnered Academy Award nominations for both Spacek and Piper Laurie.  By many, it is considered a horror classic, the story itself serving as a kind of eternal warning to be careful who you piss off.

So why, nearly 40 years later, has MGM decided to remake the film?

Dollars, ya’ll.

Yes, the story is still compelling – maybe more so in the wake of tragic tales of bullying and sprees of rage-filled madness – but it still comes down to money.  Released just two weeks shy of Halloween, Carrie is sure to have at least a modicum of audience interest through the holiday.  And with good reason.  My attraction to this remake was fueled, in part, by the casting of Julianne Moore as Margaret White, the role originated by Piper Laurie in 1976.  When Kimberly Peirce was added to the mix as director, I felt this was just possibly one remake I’d have to check out.

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Peirce, who directed Boys Don’t Cry, has nothing to prove.  Not to me.  But, to a larger audience, Peirce may be mostly unknown having only directed one other feature – Stop-Loss back in 2008.  For them, Peirce’s reimagining of Carrie may be nails in a premature coffin.

While Peirce’s adaptation begins on a startling strong note – with the traumatic birth of Carrie White to an unsuspecting Margaret, alone in her bedroom – the differences between the two films are disappointingly slim.

Peirce has modernized the content of Carrie to include social media – a wise, but obvious choice.  As the girls yell at Carrie to “plug it up!”, she is being filmed.  That video could have been used to greater effect, but it ends up being a tepid plot driver to get us to the point where Chris Hargensen (played here by Portia Doubleday) will be suspended and barred from prom.  Chris is the meanest of the mean girls and her maliciousness feels strangely superficial in this version of Carrie.  (Groan. Weak!)

Peirce has also deviated in the development of Carrie’s character.  We get an earlier and more complete look at the character as she goes through this process of discovering who she and learning about her powers of telekinesis.   Early scenes capture a kind of wonder and amusement as Carrie sits in her bed and levitates books, her bed (with her on it), and anything else in the room she can manage.

Casting for Peirce’s Carrie may have cost the director a no-brainer Halloween hit.

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Spacek gave us a meek, shy girl for whom – despite killing everyone in her class, teachers included – we still feel sorry as the house crashes in around her and her dead mother at the end of the film.  Empathy, or even the slightest by of sympathy, is absolutely pivotal for a horror film.  Without it, there are no consequences, no rules, no moral lesson, and no emotional loss when the body count begins to rise.  Without it, means there is no horror to be found.

Chloë Grace Moretz, on the other hand, gives us a twitchy, socially awkward and naturally violent Carrie.  The moment Carrie begins to understand her powers, she uses them without remorse or thought to the consequences.  It becomes increasingly difficult for the audience to sympathize with the character as the story unfolds because she herself turns malicious and, in a way, power hungry.  Even the abuses suffered at the hands of her religiously inclined mother couldn’t excuse the behavior.

This brings me to Julianne Moore.  It’s no small feat for me to make this declaration.  I have many favorites, but Moore tops the list in nearly every genre so I’ll just comemooreVSlaurie out and say it.  Moore is my favorite actress.  I’ll see anything she’s in.  When I learned Moore had signed on to star as Margaret White – the self-maiming, half crazy mother of Carrie – I could barely wait to see how the actress would portray her.  Would she be stark raving, or that out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye sort of crazy?  Would she have the energy of a religious zealot or would her devotion to a higher power feel quiet?  While Moore’s presence cannot be denied – you can take away the makeup, the wardrobe, the hair stylist but Moore is an absolute stunner – it also feels very familiar.

This brings me to the screenplay.  Very little has been changed in terms of dialogue between De Palma’s 1976 version and Peirce’s 2013 version of the film.  Having just watched De Palma’s Carrie, I was shocked that so much of the dialogue remained the same in Peirce’s.  If the intent was to modernize the piece, it seems you’d want to change more than just the clothes and the kinds of music the kids listen to at the prom.

It makes me want to scream – You have the rights to Carrie, for God’s sake!  Make it yours!  Do something bold and daring!  Do something unique and creative!  Terrify us!!

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So, why remake Carrie?

Peirce has my respect.  So does Moore.  But, beyond the financial, there is no reason behind the remake.

It feels familiar and even comical.  In the 70s, the country as a whole hadn’t started to back away from organized religion.  Most people, if they weren’t church going folk themselves, knew someone that was.  A character like Margaret White wasn’t that far fetched.  Jump forward 40 years.  The way we feel about religion has changed.  People like Margaret White are rarely taken seriously.  It’s more difficult for a younger audience to understand her or her motivations.  The audience laughed at many of things Moore’s character was saying because they have no context for the crazy.  In short – the Margaret White of King’s Carrie just doesn’t work anymore.  Peirce needed to be more aggressive with the updating of this particular – incredibly pivotal – character.

Carrie opened October 18, 2013 but my advice to you?  Ask someone else to the prom, and save Carrie for a quiet night at home.

Trailer:

Julianne Moore Interview:

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The Amityville Horror – Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story

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“I just wish that … all those people hadn’t died here.  I mean … ugh!  A guy kills his whole family.  Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Well, sure, but … houses don’t have memories.”

The Amityville Horror (1979) caused quite a stir at the box office in the US the year it was released.  People flocked to see the film adaptation of an apparently true story of a supernatural event that rocked a family to their very core by a house full of demons.

The film tells the story of George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder), recently married and deeply in love, who decide to shell out $80,000 for a house on Long Island for their instant family of 5 (Kathy has three children from a previous marriage).  The house in question was the site of a grisly mass murder years before, 112 Ocean Avenue.  Regardless of the house’s disturbing history, the Lutz family decide to buy it.

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After the sale is final, the Lutz family spends the next several weeks attempting to move in.  Only, the house doesn’t really want them there.  Disembodied voices tell them to “get out!” and seemingly unexplainable events begin to occur at every turn.  A chair rocks itself.  Windows slam closed with no apparent cause.  The house never feels warm to George, who falls ill.  Doors close on their own volition and cannot be opened despite the fact they have no locks.

Kathy, who is a devout Catholic, begs her friend, a priest named Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) to bless the house, to help her rid it of its bad vibes.  Even the girlfriend of George’s business partner, Carolyn (the ever dishy Helen Shaver), feels the bad energy rolling off the house.  Though Carolyn initially refuses to go near the place, she eventually leads George to the discovery of the point of origin in the house.  An area in the basement where the spirits/demons come and go.  Come on.  We all know you don’t go in the basement!  That’s where the bad sh*t always goes down.  Always.

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Things continue to escalate and degrade until one night, during a horrible storm, the Lutz family flees for their lives, never to return or reclaim their possessions.

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“The truth never stands in the way of a good story.”

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The crux of The Amityville Horror lies in whether you are a believer.  A believer in God, in Christ, and therefore in the Devil, in spirits and demons.  As a child, my parents hauled me to Sunday school, religiously (pun intended).  I first saw the film in the 80s when it, no doubt, showed up on one of the local television networks, probably completely edited down and devoid of the bleeding walls that I went “nice!” to this viewing.

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But, 80s version of me, the child version, that is, the one that had been going to Sunday school and learning about good and evil, was terrified of that empty, rocking chair in Amy’s (Natasha Ryan) bedroom.  The 80s me was terrified at the idea of voices coming from no particular person, dispossessed.  Indeed, the 80s version of me was pretty friggin’ terrified of The Amityville Horror in total.

I think it’s true what they say, about not being able to go home again.  Additionally, I think that sentiment, that belief can really be applied to more than just the ideology of “home”.  In fact, it can certainly be applied to films that terrified us, films that we loved, or films that were just so amazing or original or fascinating to younger versions of ourselves.  Films with which, upon revisiting, we occasionally find ourselves disappointed, maybe even a little sad.  Of course, there are many factors at play here, including the fact that we are viewing the film through a new lens, one that has more experience.

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It’s not your fault.  It’s me.”

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Whatever the cause, The Amityville Horror definitely falls into this category for me.  Instead of fear, I found myself preoccupied with the religious angle of the film, of the role it plays in the fear and experiences of the Lutz family.  Instead of being terrified of the little rocking chair, I kept thinking how dishy Margot Kidder (and James Brolin, for that matter, damn!) was in 1979.

No.  The shine is definitely off the horror here, and not just because I’m older and don’t put as much stock in religiously slanted horror films anymore.  Like some of you I imagine, I found myself doubting the validity of any movie with the words (or some combination of the words) “based on a true story” associated with them.  I think it started with Fargo and it never relented, this doubt and mistrust.  Thanks, Coen Brothers.

You see, in order for this film to be of any worth in terms of scaring its audience, that audience has got to believe it.  The audience has to buy it.  They have to give a damn.  And (sorry) I just don’t.  I think The Amityville Horror is still a solid film, and it will scare the hell out of people into the supernatural/religious horror genre.  James Brolin and Margot Kidder are terrific.  Brolin freaks me out if for no other reason than his unbelievable fixation on the ax he wields throughout much of the film.  And Kidder, well, she’s the perfect eye candy for a horror film, even if her character is a somewhat unsubstantial.

Bottom line?  After 30+ years, the effects in the film are still decent and the story of the Lutz family continues to attract people to the “original” home where the events supposedly took place (*see link below).

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*The REAL story behind The Amityville Horror (spoiler: is it really based on a true story?)

30+ Years On, Stanley Kubrick’s Masterpiece The Shining Still Mesmerizes

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Struggling to turn his life around in the wake of alcoholism and the abuse of his child, writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) agrees to take a 5 month long off-season caretaker position at The Overlook Hotel.  Completely isolated and left to his own devices, Jack’s young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), begins seeing things thanks to a unique psychic gift referred to as “shining”.  As a snowstorm moves in, completely cutting off the Torrance family from the rest of the world, Danny is plagued with visions of the future, events from the past, and is visited by ghosts who inhabit the hotel.

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Also starring Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance, Jack’s wife and Danny’s mother, and Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef and a man who shares Danny’s gift, The Shining is directed by Stanley Kubrick and is (loosely, very loosely) based on a novel of the same name by Stephen King.

The division echoed by the film reviewing community and filmgoers alike when mention of Kubrick’s The Shining is made constitutes an all too familiar sentiment when the work of a popular author (Stephen King) is adapted to film.  Kubrick’s 144 minute adaptation is a slow-paced, dream-state that often breaks with the underlying themes, subject matter, and overall tone of King’s novel.  In fact, King has been quoted as saying Kubrick’s vision of his work is the only adaptation he could “remember hating”[1] mainly due to Kubrick’s changes to the personality of the main character, Jack.

There is a litany of theories in print and online that would like to inject deeper (and potentially more sinister) meaning into Kubrick’s intentional variances to King’s original work; including one that would have you believe Kubrick’s The Shining is the director’s confession to having been a part to the staging of the Apollo 11 lunar landing (see below for a link to the full-length documentary).  Still others, would ask that you consider Kubrick’s lifelong obsession with the Holocaust, and his frustration at never having been able to find an adequate project in which the matter could be explored, as a reason for the director’s hijacking of the film’s subject matter. [1]

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Most of these theories are laughable, but strangely entertaining to investigate.  I, myself, lost many hours in a YouTube rabbit hole delving into such theories.  I invite you to do the same.  All of it, even the crackpot ideas, lend themselves to the Kubrick mythology and are relentlessly fascinating.  The documentary, Room 237, gives itself over to the investigation of such theories and we encourage you to take a look.

However you take Kubrick’s adaptation, a few irrefutable truths remain.  Kubrick’s The Shining is a multi-layered experience, replete with recurring motifs (Kubrick relies heavily on mirrors throughout the film), and shot construction as a method of revealing or concealing the true nature of the events taking place in the scene.

Is Kubrick’s The Shining a ghost story?  Not necessarily.  As film critic Roger Ebert pointed out, Kubrick’s The Shining lacks a reliable character from whose viewpoint the audience can be informed.[1]  It’s never exactly clear whether the ghosts depicted in the film actually “exist” or are just mental manifestations of Jack or Danny, both of whom have questionable mental health.

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This means, we are never given a context for understanding the motivations or the intent of the ghosts inhabiting The Overlook Hotel.  Nor can we trust that the ghosts actually “exist.”

Kubrick’s The Shining then becomes a story about choice, not of ghosts, predetermination, or reincarnation (don’t let the photo at the end of the film fool you).  All of the characters in the film have multiple roles.  For instance, Jack is a father and husband.  He is both good and evil.  He is simultaneously an abusive and caring father and husband.  It is up to Jack to choose which he wishes to be.

In a sense, then, this means Kubrick’s The Shining should be viewed through the lens of being a psychological horror film despite it’s supernatural elements.

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And that’s not a bad place to be, especially considering the most powerful moments in the film center around the mental fracturing, or unraveling, of its central characters, not the ghosts of The Overlook Hotel.  Even while the scene in which the room 237 “hag” chooses to reveal her true self to Jack is disturbing, it holds but a candle to the sense of “off-ness” you will feel when Jack is shown standing, staring out the window (see above photo).

Drenched in natural light, unshaven, with pink irritated eyes, everything about this single moment in Kubrick’s The Shining tells the audience things have just gone irrevocably off the rails.

Despite the inconsistencies between book and film, of which there are many, Kubrick’s The Shining remains one of my favorite films.  It’s difficult to admit, given the fragile, hysteria-prone depiction of Wendy who continually allows herself to be mentally and verbally abused by her husband, Jack.

The decadence of the Gold Room, the never ending hallways, and grand interior design of the hotel lend a visual opulence to the film that I find intoxicating.  Every viewing of The Shining reveals something new.  Arguably, Kubrick’s masterpiece.

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Okay that’s enough Gif’s for now.

REFERENCES:

[1] ”The Shining (film)” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Feb. 2013. Web.  17 Feb. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_shining_film>

 

Descend Into the Pits of Hell on Jacob’s Ladder

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Struggling to come to terms in the wake of his child’s death, a veteran of the Vietnam war finds himself in the middle of a series of inexplicable events.  Plagued by chronic injuries sustained in the war, Jacob Singer begins to confuse reality with dreams and nightmares.  He hallucinates.  He can’t sleep.  His health, what’s left of it, begins to decline.  Soon, he wonders whether the events that transpired during his final days in the service have contributed to a fate from which he cannot escape.

Jacob’s Ladder is the 1990 psychological horror directed by Adrian Lyne starring Tim Robbins as Jacob Singer, Elizabeth Peña as Jezzie, Danny Aiello as Louis (the chiropractor), Matt Craven as Michael and Macaulay Culkin as Gabe Singer.

jacobsLadder_1There are a lot of things about this film that even now, after more than 20 years, serve up some seriously twisted moments of extreme unease.  Moments when Jake is confronted by the faceless remain true despite their practical sfx basis.  The too-fast-shaking head of a party goer was visually arresting for 1990 and – since similar effects can be seen in countless contemporary films, video games, and the odd porno – you may be surprised to know that director Adrian Lyne was the first to employ it.

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If you want to know — the effect was achieved by the actor shaking his head at four frames per second.  When played back at the average 24 frames per second, the shaking produced a staggeringly unnerving effect – emulated repeatedly since, but never equaled.

I’ve always been drawn to films that blur the lines of reality.  While there are two terrific scenes in Jacob’s Ladder that convey a supremely surreal atmosphere (the orgiastic party and hospital gurney sequences), the film is as much about confronting mortality as it is about psychological decay.  Both subjects, on their own, are enough to hang entire horror films on.  The combination of the two, weaved masterfully in the film, is powerful, casting a spell on its audience, catapulting us into that gray place hanging between reality and the unseen.

jacobsLadder_3Adrian Lyne, who has since become more or less disinterested in the horror genre (sadly), does a genius job of giving us enough.   We’re thrown a look at the demons that beset Jacob and his old platoon – enough to make us confused, anxious, curious, and increasingly terrified of what’s to come.  Sometimes, the demons appear for less than a second of screen time.  Less than a second.  With this tactic, Lyne proves that sometimes, especially in horror, it’s the purposeful gaps that do the most to scare us.

Tim Robbins – love him or hate him – is perfect as Jacob.  In fact, there are many faces you may be glad to see among the cast – Ving Rhames, Jason Alexander (who would also appear in Pretty Woman the same year), Danny Aiello, and Mac Culkin (uncredited!) as Jacob’s son Gabe.  Watching it now, after so many years, I look at Tim Robbins – even as he is being more or less tortured on that gurney – and find myself thankful it is he, and not Tom Hanks, that was cast.  Tom Hanks, a front runner for the role, was still several years away from the two performances that would shape his career (Forest Gump, Philadelphia).  Up until this point, Hanks had focused primarily on comedies (barring Punchline, which was more or less panned by everyone) and the role of Jacob Singer may have seemed (forgive me) a stretch.

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Maurice Jarre’s score is haunting, sparse, understated where it needs to be and  arresting when it matters.  Jarre’s music – heard in iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Dead Poets Society – is sensitive, uplifting, and evocative.  It creates and supports the atmosphere carefully crafted in Jacob’s Ladder.

jacobsLadder_4_altThe film isn’t for everyone – it picks at a lot of scabs.  I’ve always felt that some level of discomfort is a necessary basis of evolution be that physical, emotional, or mental.  Jacob’s Ladder will have you feeling something even if it is just that – discomfort.  It’s worth a watch and know that LD Entertainment is planning a remake (even if it is loosely based).

Trailer:

Deleted Scene:

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Paint It Black with Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes

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“You’re awake now, Daddy.”

Tom and Maggie have just finished moving their growing family into a new house in a working class Chicago neighborhood.  Musician-turned-telephone lineman, Tom, asks his sister-in-law Lisa to hypnotize him at a block party.  A little drunk and more than a little puffed up, Tom thinks nothing will happen.  After all, everyone thinks Lisa is a bit of a quacky flake.  But something does happen.  It turns out Tom is one of the lucky 8%.  The small percentage of the population that is highly hypnotizable.  The experience changes him.  He begins seeing grisly images and is plagued by the feeling that something, or someone, is trying to reach out to him.

Stir of Echoes is the 1999 supernatural/paranormal horror film directed by David Koepp starring Kevin Bacon as Tom, Kathryn Erbe as Maggie, Zachary David Cope as Jake, Illeana Douglas as Lisa, and Jennifer Morrison as Samantha Kozac.

stirOfEchoes_4_altIt’s not uncommon for projects with similar themes to be released in the same year.  Think Armageddon and Deep Impact.  Think The Prestige and The Illusionist.  Think Volcano and Dante’s Peak.  Okay, that last one was particularly painful.  I still don’t understand how they drive that car over hot lava.  But, I digress.  It would seem that it’s typical for one to be widely embraced while the other is more or less panned by critics and/or moviegoers alike.

Unfortunately for Stir of Echoes, the phenomenally successful M. Night Shyamalan project The Sixth Sense had beat them to market by more than a month.  By September 10, 1999 when Stir of Echoes finally opened, The Sixth Sense had been #1 at the box office since its release on August 6th.  And while Stir of Echoes opened #5 at the box office, it would not enjoy the 40 weeks in theaters that The Sixth Sense would.  Does that mean Stir of Echoes is in some way an inferior film?  Read on.

While the similarities between the projects are undeniable, each has its own style and way of telling similar story.  With Stir of Echoes, the thrust is more about a world beyond ours – the unseen – stirOfEchoes_3accessed through intent rather than circumstance.  When Bacon’s character is given a post-hypnotic suggestion by his sister-in-law to be more open, no one guessed it would open a door through which Tom would not only see the past but the dead.

I always liked the premise of the film – that this man, who never thought he would be so boringly ordinary, is suddenly changed, his world expanded beyond anything he could have ever dreamt.  He is a Receiver – a person that can see spirits.  That he becomes obsessed in search of the truth is as interesting, to me, as the motivations of Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense.

stirOfEchoes_4In the end, I believe the film’s underlying subject matter – unforgivable abuses suffered by a young woman at the hands of a group of protected teenage boys – made the film too tragic, sad, uncomfortable or disturbing for a majority of film goers.  I’d have to agree to an extent.  After watching the film for the first time, I found certain elements worming their way into my thoughts.  People that are put off by body horror (or those of you who enjoy it) should take note Stir of Echoes will unapologetically serve it up.

On the upside – the hypnosis scenes are incredibly well executed and are among the most visually strong for the film.  Even if Stir of Echoes gifyou don’t feel like watching the entire movie, check out this clip of the scene.  And Kevin Bacon turns in what is among his best performances.  Notable too are performances by Kathryn Erbe and Illeana Douglas – they are pitch perfect, adding touches of realism and comedy where needed.  Unlike its twin (The Sixth Sense), Stir of Echoes does manage to hold up to repeated viewings thanks to the cast’s nuanced performances and cinematographer Fred Murphy‘s camera work.  And, if you like the Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black“, all the more reason to check out Stir of Echoes.  The song acts as a unrelenting supporting cast member, adding a touch of the sinister to a film already populated by the eerie.

Trailer:

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The Anticipatory Dread Effect of Paranormal Activity

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When my nephews first approached me a few years ago after having first seen Paranormal Activity, they were literally terrified of the subject matter.  Not the film, per se, but the idea that someone (or some thing) might be watching them when they sleep.  The fear is not without grounds, although, as far as I can surmise, no recognized phobia yet exists for it.  Should it?  After all, sleep is a time of particular vulnerability.  A time when we are neither here nor there.  A time when secret things happen because no one is there to see them.

Director Oren Peli, having spent his entire life afraid of ghosts, said this: “If something is lurking in your home there’s not much you can do about it.”

It’s a primal thing.  If it doesn’t bother you, and you (like me) don’t subscribe to the existence of demonsParanormal Activity is going to be a snore.  There are long periods of time where nothing is going on except the director’s attempts to ratchet up the tension.  This technique is effective if not a little exhausting.  There’s only so much time a human being can spend in a state of anticipatory dread.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m particularly harsh on films claiming to depict, or be based on, “true events”.  Even though it does not expressly say it’s based on true events, Paranormal Activity falls into this category thanks to the use of found footage to emulate the vibe of a documentary.  This would be fine if the film didn’t attract a certain contingent of film goers believing the film to be a kind of proof of the existence of ghosts and demons.  This makes the film Paranormal Activity one of the most insidious (and, make-your-head-explode profitable) films of this nature yet made.

Paranormal Activity focuses on a young couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah, who are settling into a home and trying to have a life together.  When things start going bump in the night, Micah (Micah Sloat) decides to use a video camera in hopes of gathering proof and potentially, some answers.  After the incidents become more frequent, Katie consults a psychic, Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs) who tells her the thing in the house is not a ghost.  It’s a demon.  And what’s bad about that is it’s attached to Katie, not the house.  So, basically, there’s no sense in running.  It’ll just follow you.

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On and off for the remainder of the film, Katie begs to leave the house.  Wouldn’t you?

As the incidents become more harrowing, and the couple are now able to, in the bright light of day, watch the previous nights’ events unfold before their eyes, Micah decides to try to communicate with the demon via Ouija board.  He has been expressly told not to, first by Dr. Fredrichs and then by his pleading girlfriend, both of whom fear it will invite the demon in.

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And, by all accounts, it does.  One night, after Katie and Micah have left the house for a rare night out, the board catches fire.  After this, it’s game on for the demon who makes no qualms when it comes to expressing its hostility toward Micah.

Unable to escape the sometimes maliciously slanted torments of the demon, Katie slowly unravels.  Exhausted, terrified, and feeling hopeless, Katie begs to leave the house knowing full well it will do little to deter her tormentor.

Filmed in the director’s home and completed for about $15K, film goers rewarded Paramount Pictures with an astounding $193M in ticket sales proving yet again that people just really like being scared.  Me too!  Otherwise I wouldn’t be going through the Boston.com Top 50 Scariest Movies of All Time list film by film. This film, by the way, ranks 43rd.

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And although Paranormal Activity isn’t my piece of cake, there’s plenty going on here to make it a worthwhile film.  Paranormal?  Maybe not so much.  Supernatural?  Definitely.  Although, Supernatural Activity isn’t that catchy.

Katie Featherston’s performance, for example, is nothing short of perfection in this particular scenario, in this particular film.  Hell, even the moments when I was sitting there keenly aware of the fact that I wasn’t buying the film’s premise, I could still buy Featherston as a terrified college student looking for a little peace (and sleep).

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