Friday, September 30, 2011

The Haunting (1963)

A KFP Guest Review by Nathan Sharp

NetFlix 3.6/5
IMDB 7.7/10
Guest Reviewer Rating: 4.5/5
(My Rating: 10/10)

A professor of the paranormal assembles a team of people with psychic experience to study Hill House, a rambling mansion with an evil history that was "born bad".

This is another KFP guest review, this time of my favorite haunted house movie of all time.  Yes, I am unabashedly a Haunting fanboy and it's one of the few perfect horror films ever made, in my opinion.  I will probably write my own review of it eventually, and have a couple of comments to add here (in blue), but for now let's turn you over to our guest reviewer, Nathan Sharp:

The unwritten rules of horror movies have changed drastically over the years. The horror comedies of the 1980s gave way to Scream and Scary Movie, polarizing horror: either a film was a ruthless deconstruction of horror in an often-mocking tone, or it was a barrage of jump cuts, mirror scares, and sudden noises or musical stings. This latter category moved horror movies from scary to merely startling - the ghost jumping out of the dark and shouting vs the gradual realization that something is following you, matching you step for step, stopping when you pause, and only making itself known when you start walking again. 

The Haunting is a film from a much better time in horror movie history, one in which the audience is expected not only to pay attention (rather than being fed exposition) but also to care about - and know about - its players. This is a movie where the characters matter more than the ghost or special effects, and the film is all the better for it.

Nell, our heroine, is all but trapped in a toxic environment and sees her trip to Hill House, where she will help investigate suspected paranormal activity, as a vacation and escape from her life. Seeing Nell, a caring, sweet, but incredibly fragile woman, run headlong into terror and refuse to leave because it's better than what she left behind, is heartbreaking. Nell is helpless, not because of the horror movie tradition that things are supposed to be scarier when the victim is a woman, but because she's spent her entire life being emotionally abused and has no idea how to take care of herself.  The audience is genuinely concerned for and invested in Nell, and seeing The Haunting play out leaves us just as afraid for her and the other characters as they are for their own safety.

(Nathan touches on something here that I have always loved about The Haunting - That there are no "cannon fodder" characters.  No one is there specifically to die, and the viewer becomes invested in the heroine hugely because... unlike so many horror films... she is fully developed and we believe in her as a person.  But then, they all are - There's Markway, so brilliant and bold and yet emotionally a dunce.  Luke, dashing and wisecracking yet ultimately fragile.  And my favorite, Theo, so worldly wise and savvy and caustic and sharp.  The relationship between Theo and Nell could spur an entire analysis on its own.)

This is a movie that sets a clear tone and pace and refuses to deviate from it, expecting the audience to remain invested and pay attention. The technical limitations of the 1960s mean the movie relied on sets, lighting, and very dramatic and impressive camera angles. Because all the sets had to be built, they are used to their fullest potential and it is a great success. The camera movements especially are fun to watch for anyone else who is interested in how movies are made. The film also has great sound design, and really is best watched alone at night, in the dark.

The writing and acting are both very impressive, as should be expected of a character-driven movie of any kind. The film succeeds on both a technical and personal level: it draws you in the way Hill House itself does, and I consider it far superior to most of the horror films made since its release.

(Needless to say, I agree with all of the above, and if I were ever to make out a list of my top horror films, The Haunting would certainly be in the top five, maybe top 2...  There have been other great haunted house movies, like The Legend of Hell House, The Changeling, The Others, The Woman in Black, heck, even Aiden Quinn's little-known Haunted...  but for me, The Haunting will always be the unrivaled king of such films.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Children of the Stones (1977)

NetFlix 2.8/5
IMDB 7.2/10
My Rating: 7.5/10

An astrophysicist and his son investigate the standing stones of secluded village Milbury and find the people eerily happy and under the control of the creepy Hendrick.

I had NEVER heard of this before, and for some bizarre reason it has only been rebroadcast once since its original airing in '77, but it's now out on DVD and Netflix has it for rental. If you can pick up the single DVD (all 7 eps are on 1 disc), I recommend it highly, providing you are a patient viewer and well-attuned to the sort of no-budget ambiance of 60's-70's British TV.  Fortunately, it eschews FX for the most part and depends instead on a smart screenplay and a slow-building atmosphere of tension that makes it seem much more than just "kid's telly", as it was originally marketed.

It's the story of a professor and his son moving to a small village that's completely surrounded by a circle of standing stones, and populated by strangely cheerful villagers under the thrall of the Tall Man... excuse me, Hendrick, the town's Big Hat. He's the guy in the poster above and geez, what a performance. His resemblance to the Tall Man from Phantasm is unnerving, but Hendrick is a happy fellow, no Scrimmian growls of "BOYYYY".  In fact, he's positively delighted that we've come to visit him in his weird little village with its weird little customs.   This is the first clue that our intrepid leads should run away screaming, but then we wouldn't have this disturbing tale to revel in.

It's a lot like 70's Doctor Who in style - plot-heavy, talky, lots of running back and forth to the same few sets, few FX, mood-heavy - but it's still enjoyably creepy and really well done. I have to give special bonus points to the soundtrack, which is composed entirely of human voices - it's a chorus doing moaning and wailing and multi-level harmony, rather than the usual instrumental music, and it works great to give the whole thing a really disturbing feel. Here's the music from the intro and the first few moments of the series opener, which nicely sums up the feel of the whole show:

Much is made of the old Doctor Who shows sending kiddies hiding behind the couch, but I never found them scary.  This, on the other hand, is a little unsettling even to me as an adult, and despite being marketed as a YA show, in many ways it's perfectly enjoyable for adults also...  In fact, probably more so, because I doubt you could get modern kids to even sit still for this, given how slowly it moves.  ADD teens will nod off during the long scenes of characters standing in the library and talking - Static cameras, puzzle-solving, debate, etc.  Imagine, if you will, The Wicker Man recreated as a miniseries for children...  with perhaps a bit of Stepford Wives stirred in.  The village's "Happy Ones" are Prisoner-eerie, and the mix of science and folk magic and space/time distortions give it a prototype-Lost ambiance.  I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who's a fan of off-kilter television such as old Who, Twin Peaks, and the like. 

And as a tidbit of personal info, I was much inspired by the show's logo shot when I designed the title graphic for our workshop's Ligne Bretagne pipes - Spot the similarities!

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The KFP Calendar is up!

Hello everyone!  This is your humble narrator here, with news that the long-in-the-process KFP Horror & Fantasy Calendar is now posted and free for subscription.  Get it in time for Halloween season!  You know you want to be able to look at your iCal or Google Calendar all through October and know exactly which date Halloween was released on, or Black Christmas, or The Day the Earth Stood Still, or just which day is Edward Van Sloan's birthday.  The KFP calendar will give you enough movie-watching suggestions to keep you busy half the year.  To get it, just click on that new banner over to the right to go to our calendar page, where you can subscribe, send/leave suggestions, and get banners to share.  I look at this as a community project, so PLEASE grab one of our banners and tack it up on your own site, and send in your suggestions for dates we've left off - It will make the calendar more fun for everyone!

Fragile (2005)

NetFlix 3.4/5
IMDB 6.2/10
My Rating: 6/10  

An American nurse is assigned to help transition a group of children from an old hospital to a new location, but becomes aware that a menacing and ghostly "Mechanical Girl" does not want the kids to leave.

What this movie does right:
A creepy, old-style ghost story with limited FX and disturbing undertones set in a dilapidated children's hospital full of helpless victims for the haunting, and an incredibly disturbing ghost.

What this movie does wrong:
Calista Flockhart

I will be the first to admit open bias here.  I absolutely loathed Ally McBeal.  My wife and I started watching it in its first season, when it was a really clever and funny show about a clever and funny young woman and her overactive imagination as she grappled with 20-something life.  However, the series played a bait-and-switch on us - Over the course of its run, it hooked us with engaging secondary characters who were empathetic and enjoyable to watch, while at the same time transforming Ally herself into the worst sort of histrionic, bitchy, self-sabotaging harpy.  Ally spent the last half of the series feeling terribly sorry for herself despite being a high-powered lawyer with a big city apartment in her 20's, because she was lonely and yet could not help but screw up every relationship that she fell into with her latent insanity.  She was the sort of woman that men do not just avoid, they actively run from, and the more the show tried to tell us that Ally was just a beautiful, sensitive soul with too much emotion for this world, the more I wanted to shake her and slap some sense into her.  So what the hell does all this have to do with this film?  It's simple - Calista Flockhart carries all this baggage into this movie and while I was hoping to see some different acting range from her, by the end of the film I was as unsympathetic to her as I was to Ally.

The character problems are the same - In Fragile, Flockhart plays a nurse with a troubled past, who comes to the Isle of Wight to help look after a group of hospitalized children during a big relocation.  While taking the night shift, she begins to have unsettling visions of ghosts and hears strange noises.  Events begin to escalate as the moving date nears, and our heroine realizes that there is a malevolent force in the building determined to keep the children there, and willing to break them into splinters to get what it wants.  Unfortunately, Flockhart handles the situation in a very-Ally way, by bonding closely with the kids while being a bitch to everyone else, including characters who are openly trying to help her, and insists on the primacy of her emotions and feelings over any actual logic... For instance, when she realizes that the kids need to be moved ASAP, she doesn't go to her boss and point to obvious threats like the near-disastrous elevator breakdown, but instead insists that she has "a feeling" about "something awful" in the place and that everyone should bow to her feelings.  I'm not sure how the NHS works in the UK, but I have my own feeling that this approach would not be likely to take one very far up the chain of command in terms of actually accomplishing your desired goal.  The fact that she is clearly a bit unbalanced herself, and has some sort of mysterious bad baggage in her nursing career past, does not incline to help her case.  So, being Ally again, she becomes spiteful and nasty to everyone, even those who are doing their best to be friendly to her.  She only shows any sort of kindness to the children, but here her progress beggars belief, as she manages to befriend and bond with a withdrawn orphan girl within only a couple of days.

So, if the heroine is so unpleasant, why did I give this a 6? It's because it does so much else that's right.  In fact, if they'd had another lead actress with a different approach, I'd have most likely rated this one a 7 or 8, because story-wise, it was most marvelously creepy.  It's a very old-school ghost story that for the most part feels more like something from the early 70's instead of the 2000's...  No wretched CGI distractions, no overdone Playstation ghost FX, no Japan horror ripoff girls with black hair over their faces.  In short, it's just a great little ghost story.  The setting is terrific - The hospital where events take place is a remote country building, now half unused, with a deserted second floor that's been empty and abandoned since the 1950's.

It's pretty much impossible for an abandoned hospital wing not to be creepy, and the setting makes for an eerie "Late night shift at Precinct 13" feel as our heroine patrols the quiet halls full of shipping boxes, listening to disturbing sounds from above and catching furtive movements in the shadows.  Some reviewers have complained that the movie is dull in the first half, but in my opinion it built perfectly, a slow and steady increase of supernatural tension that leads to a chaotic climax where Ally (GOD DAMN STOP SAYING THAT) has to brave the deserted floor and face down the menacing ghost.  And the menacing ghost, it must be said, is pretty freaking menacing - One of the scarier spooks on film and one that resolutely does not fall into the usual expectations of modern ghost behavior.  No staticky film, no sudden jumps from one spot to another, no stuttered movement, no CGI transforms - It's just one pale figure wrapped in mechanical splints that will unnerve you by its very presence.

In the end, I'm torn.  My personal bias against Calista Flockhart kept me from sympathizing with her character in the way I've been drawn into other haunting victims, like The Haunting's poor doomed Eleanor or even that so-typical suburban 80's family in Poltergeist.  On the other hand, it was a good concept wrapped around an unappealing character, and I give everything else about the the movie high marks.  Indeed, Ally fans might even consider this a great scary movie, but for myself, the best I can say is that it was a creepy and enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes, but I didn't come away from it with any desire to see it again or think much about it afterward.  It was, however, an enjoyable "filler" movie for the oncoming Halloween movie season.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Woman in Black (1989)

NetFlix N/A
IMDB 7.5/10
My Rating: 8/10

A young lawyer is sent to an isolated village to settle the affairs of a recently deceased woman, and finds the area haunted by a mysterious woman in black.

First up, this movie is available on DVD from Amazon but sadly, is not for rent on Netflix, so interested viewers will have to track down a purchasable copy.  That said, it is worth the effort for anyone who loves a good ghost story, because it's one of the best.  Based on the novel by Susan Hill, this is easily among my favorite ghost story films ever.  I review it here specifically with the knowledge that it's about to be remade in 2012 by the newly-reconstituted Hammer Films and given the track record of most modern remakes, I want to promote the original version as much as possible.

I am a huge fan of a good haunting movie.  My all-time favorite is The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, but others include The Changeling, The Legend of Hell House, The Ring, Haunted, and the more recent The Eclipse (reviewed by me here).  As a longtime fan of the classic British horror story, this was made just for me.  It's a slow moving, slow burning, gothic nightmare that builds gradually and without hurry to its horrific conclusion.

A young lawyer on the way up is given his "big assignment" - Travel to a remote village to settle the affairs of a regular client of his firm.  On arrival, he finds that the deceased woman had no friends among the locals and was generally regarded as mad.  The entire first half of the movie is all foreboding, and despite the 80's date it is straight out of a 40's ghost story complete with wary villagers, suspicious innkeeper, and plenty of conversation-stopping mentions of the dead lady in question.  Something is clearly amiss and our hero is eventually forced to relocate to the dead woman's isolated home on the coast, which is accessible only by a daily-flooded causeway.  As he investigates her house and records, he uncovers a terrible tale of tragedy and hate that puts him in fear for his sanity.

The recreated early 20th century sets are beautiful and not overdone, as so many modern remakes tend to be (Compare the disturbing and believable Hill House in the original The Haunting with the insipidly overblown funhouse sets of the 90's version).  Overall, it's a low budget film with more of a TV movie look than a feature film, but that works in its favor because it keeps the situation grounded.  The Woman in Black does not appear in swirls of smoke or staticky stutter-cam, she's just... there...

The low budget means we don't have gobs of FX weighing everything down, and like the best ghost stories, more is accomplished with an eerie sound in the night or a creaking door than with CGI monsters.  I'm virtually certain the upcoming remake is going to CGI the WIB into some sort of stretchy-faced demon, probably with long wet hair over her face, which will be distracting and pointless compared to the original WIB's relentless stare.  As our hero declares to a confidant, "I could just feel the most relentless hate coming off of her in waves." 

This is not a film for the attention deficit crowd.  It moves slowly and quietly, and it takes half the running time before the first odd occurrences are experienced.  It's a bit of a period drama this way, and fans of Jane Austen books and Wuthering Heights will feel right at home.  The Masterpiece Theater style also works well because it sets you up like a tourist at a table of card sharks - When THE SCENE comes, it will knock you for a loop. Yes, this is one of those rare movies with a "THE SCENE".  I noted with amusement that on the IMDB boards, everyone refers to THE SCENE and everyone who's seen the movie knows exactly what they're referring to.  Not a lot of films out there like that (Though again, I'd say 2009's The Eclipse also has at least two THE SCENEs in it that qualify).  It isn't gross, graphic, or violent, yet when this movie's THE SCENE hits, you'll want to crawl into the back of your couch.  Overall, The Woman in Black is the perfect fog-shrouded period ghost story, and the perfect way to kick off an Autumn season of spooky films.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Alone in the Dark

NetFlix 1.8/5
IMDB 2.3/10
My Rating: 1/10

Christian Slater fights aliens or monsters or something, while Tara Reid does science.  None of this lives up to the poster at left.

"A truly terrible movie, the kind some people call painful, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored."     I'm stealing Doctor Markway's line from The Haunting because that's the sort of lure that really bad movies have for me, and usually I come out feeling a lot like Luke did by the end - "It ought to be burned down... and the ground sowed with salt. "

Way back in the early 90's, I was lucky enough to be of the right age and living in the right time during the evolution of the computer game, a drastically different and superior beast to those kiddie home consoles.  Because of this, I got to experience what many call the first official "survival horror" game, Alone in the Dark.  This game was terrific.  Prior to that, PC adventure games had been primarily studious, puzzle-solving affairs like the Sierra adventure games, and while there's nothing bad about that, AITD grabbed me like few games previous.  The early, very crude 3D rendering made characters and monsters alike into surreal creations, and its blend of puzzles, plot, and Lovecraftian beasties leaping after you made it a gripping playing experience.

Unfortunately, the charm of the original did not carry well into the inevitable sequels, and I'm not sure that any of the AITD games in the franchise have ever equaled the first one, despite their monumental increases in graphics quality.  So what the hell does this have to do with a movie?

At some point, legendary maker of bad films Uwe Boll got hold of the rights to do a movie version.  I'm not sure who thought this was a good idea when not even the direct game sequels could stand up to the original, but I'm not in Hollywood.  Or wherever this was filmed. It's a tough movie to review, because to be honest, I'm not at all sure what it was about.  The game starred Edward Carnby as a 30's era private eye investigating a haunted house.  The movie stars Christian Slater as Carnby, doing... Stuff.

He seems to be some sort of trained monster fighter, as best I could tell.  Unfortunately for him, he is paired with co-star Tara Reid, who is theoretically playing a scientist.  And if that isn't natural casting for a certified museum archaeological expert, I don't know what is.

AITD is a very weird film. The sheer clunkiness of the exposition and dialog are hilarious - you can really see the plot gears clanging against each other as they turn.

Delivery guy: "Here, sign for this ANCIENT RELIC OF LOST OETPICA."

Playboy bunny museum director: "Squee! Professor must have FOUND THE LOST CITY OF OEPTICA AND UNCOVERED THE ANCIENT ARTIFACT."

Delivery guy: "Hey, isn't there a CURSE THAT WILL DESTROY THE WORLD IF THE ARTIFACT IS MOVED? I think I saw that on the Discovery Channel."



And so it goes...

Eventually they give up on even this sort of subtlety and just have Christian Slater directly narrate what's happening in the plot via voice-over. "OK, here I am in the warehouse fighting the monsters that we mentioned fifteen minutes ago. I don't know what's around that corner yet but... Hey, wait, I'm suddenly realizing that the professor has been possessed by the little gem thing that was found back inside that golden box relic that killed all those guys when they opened it during the first six minutes. Bet you thought we forgot about that, huh?"

We were just sitting and watching this, and it was like being repeatedly poked by the director. "Nyah nyah! Am I touching you? Am I touching you?" The plot fit together like it was assembled solely by hammers.   I'm still confused. As near as I can tell, the bad guy found an ancient Aztec temple portal deep underground in North America and built a hospital connected to the gateway, then built an orphanage in the country AND a city junkyard on top of it, somehow connecting downtown Chicago and the green countyside via one room and a few tunnels. Then he put centipedes on the spinal cords of twenty random people for no reason I could decipher, but our hero's centipede sizzled when he was accidentally electrocuted as a child, so he decided to go into a career as a ghostbuster. The bad guy finally found the key to open the underground gate and shipped it back, the secret agency got involved, and then there was some sort of shootout with aliens in the junkyard and they blew up the gate to Mordor with dynamite, only to discover that overnight the entire city of Chicago had been either evacuated by the secret agency or devoured by invisible aliens.

I have NO idea what we just watched. There was a lot of running around and shooting things, and Tara Reid said science-y stuff. (As an aside, I think the Republican candidates this year should start incorporating the word "science-y" into their speeches, because I can totally hear that coming out of Sarah Palin or Bachmann.)

I strongly recommend against watching this, or even trying to watch this.  Having said that, I realize that most of my readers will do exactly what I did when I read the first god-awful reviews of this thing, and rush right out looking for it.  Don't say I didn't warn you.  The biggest tragedy is that this came out 5 years after the end of Mystery Science Theater 3000, because this movie needs the bots in a big way. Bring back Tom Servo!

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Blithe Spirit (1945)

NetFlix 3.5/5
IMDB 7.1/10
My Rating: 6/10

During a lark of a seance, a twice-married Englishman accidentally has the spirit of his first wife summoned to live in the house with his second wife and himself.  Bowl of milk, perhaps?

If there is any theme at all to this blog, this is it - The search for cinematic oddities that are overlooked or forgotten.  Despite being a fan of older films, I'd never seen or heard of this until I stumbled across it in the Netflix streaming library, and it sounded like a perfect way to smoothly transition into the Autumn spooky movie season.  This isn't a horror film, though... Well, perhaps a bit, but it's more of a comedy-ghost story with some scary relationship undertones for both genders.  (Note - This film ranks high on the, "Likely to get you into an argument with your wife" scale due to the less-than-noble behavior of all the characters involved in this unearthly threesome)  So, what have we got here?

The film opens on the marriage of an upper-middle class English novelist.  Charles and his wife have invited local medium Mrs. Arcati (Irrepressibly fun and the best character in the film) to do a dinner seance for friends, essentially as a prank, as the husband's real interest is to observe a "faker" at work for his current novel.  As these things go, however, everyone gets more than they bargained for when the seance turns real and latches onto the ghost of his first wife, who ends up summoned into our world to haunt him and his current marriage.  The rest of the film unspools from there, as new wife Ruth matches wits with dead wife Elvira to see who will be the ongoing Mrs, while at the same time starting to wonder if either of them really want the unscrupulous Mr. Charles, or he them.

I have to give special marks to ex-wife Elvira, a bubbly lover of life who's simultaneously witty, wanton, cunning, catty, sexy, and completely untrustworthy.  Her performance is enjoyable every time she's on the screen, from her constant sniping at shrewish current wife Ruth to her merciless teasing of medium Arcati.  Also, not to overstate it in this age of bloody masked killers, but she looks marvelously creepy in her billowing gown and pale green everything.  It's a simple look that works well, from the age before computer FX, and the actors do a grand job of acting as if the floaty green lady isn't really in the room with them.

No one, except possibly Mrs. Arcati, comes off heroically in this.  Present wife Ruth is severe, unsympathetic, won't listen to her husband's obvious distress, and when she's eventually forced to accept the reality of the ghostly presence, she morphs into an embittered tigress defending a marriage she doesn't seem to love much anyway.  I've mentioned the foibles of ghost-wife Elvira already.  Charles himself is the iconic lazy upper crust type who views everything and everyone as accessories to himself.  I mentioned spousal arguments above - When Elvira first appears, I immediately liked her and my wife immediately hated her.  As the film progresses, the wife hate bent toward Charles and I began to dislike both of the women, even though Elvira is the sort that nearly every man will have a certain soft spot for, even if he wouldn't want to have to live with her.  The relationship becomes more and more strained until all parties concerned turn towards the "fake" medium again in desperation to put the errant spirit back where she belongs.

As a comedy, it's cute but never laugh-out-loud.  It's an understated drawing room humor with some fairly spicy and black jokes for its day, not the sort of comic hijinks of something like "The Ghost and Mister Chicken".  Unfortunately, the Netflix streaming video has some annoying drawbacks that detract from overall enjoyment.  It's a restored print of damaged stock.  There are a few points in the film where the frame rate goes very stuttery and uneven, and picture quality takes a dive.  Also, and no fault of the restoration, but the British RP accents and dialog are delivered so quickly and so crisply that I was often catching only half of what was said - And this is after 7 years of watching only British TV.  It's one of those rare English films where you'll wish there were subtitles.

Despite these problems, it's a fine and frothy way to ring in the Halloween season, especially for those looking for something a little more biting than the typical family-friendly ghost comedy.

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