Friday, March 30, 2012

Give Up The Ghost

I have my first horror movie smack-down of 2012, people! That's right, in one corner we having indie street cred horror darling Ti West's The Innkeepers and in the other corner we have one of the big horror releases of 2012 and a return from Hammer Horror The Woman in Black. Now....

Okay... not exactly... but we're dealing with similar films. One I liked because it legit scared me and still gives me the heebee jeebies a few weeks on and the other I just thought, really?! Can you guess which is which?

A quick preface. Ghosts, demons etc scare the effing bejesus out of me. Give me a shadowy figure that doesn't move and tell me that it can physically harm me... well, by that point I'm just trying to hide my eyes. 

The Innkeepers (2011) was written, directed and edited by my non-namesake Ti West which has all the throwback elements of any good ghost stories while incorporating the current trend of the need to catch something on tape. On the Yankee Pedlar Inn's final weekend of business the two employees in charge, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) set themselves up for a weekend of living in the hotel in one last attempt to capture something on film. With the hotel only hosting a few customers (a mother and son, a former actress and now healer played inexplicably by Kelly McGillis and an old man intent on staying in one room in particular) Clair and Luke seize the opportunity to get some footage of the ghost of Madeline O'Malley who killed herself after she was jilted at the alter. West uses all kinds of well trotted out tropes to indicated that a ghost is there. Look, a figure that dissapears! Hark, a weird noise! Zoinks, a piano playing Chopin by itself!

Just, y'know, another really exciting scene in The Innkeepers
Claire becomes convinced that Madeline is trying to communicate with her while Kelly McGillis tells her NOT to go into the basement. Claire then almost immediately proceeds to the basement dragging Luke along with her. Luke freaks and runs away while Claire stays and investigates further. I think both Paxton and Healy do great work fleshing their characters and Paxton in particular creates a really well-rounded, consistently dweebish person, but unfortunately I was rooting for Madeline to slap her and tell her to get a grip. Unfortunately, all the details and set up come to naught as we're left with an astonishingly inconclusive ending that made me wish Madeline O'Malley had hanged herself in a place that hired more discerning employees.

The Woman in Black (2012) scared the living daylights out of me. By no means am I saying this is a great film, it's not. But it is definitely effective. The story follows Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliff) a young solicitor as he travels to the north of England to settle the paper work at the Eel Marsh house after the death of the owner. The townspeople are wary and try to stop him going but he makes his way to the house where he spies the aforementioned Woman in Black. Whenever the Woman in Black is seen, the children of the town die. Kipps then decides to investigate and see if he solve the mystery of the Woman in Black.

So, a dark shadowy house. Check. A woman with an obscured face. Check. She can hurt people. Check. The Woman in Black is a much simpler film than The Innkeepers. The Woman in Black is a straight forward ghost story about an anger and need for revenge that literally won't die.

I think what raised The Woman In Black head and shoulders beyond The Innkeepers was that WIB focused on the darn ghost which is waaaaaaaaaaaaay creepier to me than minimum wage employees. The ghost effects in The Innkeepers were great but I didn't know anything about the ghosts. They became like pop-up scares in a haunted house. Give me an angry woman any day.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Horror Mysteries: Evil Dead 2, Dead By Dawn - Remade or Repackaged?

This is a mystery with a direct answer. But we're going to delve into some theory and analysis on this one because it's ...... groovy. That's right, we're talking about everyone's favourite Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn.

I came to the Evil Dead franchise in a round about way. I saw Army of Darkness first. In theatres. With my parents. I would have been 7. Yeah, my parents rock.  Then I believe it was my Dad that rented the first Evil Dead for me one Halloween a few years later and watched it with me, partly to make sure I was okay and partly because he likes that kind of thing. And a few weeks later at my local video store I saw it, Evil Dead 2. Evil Dead rocked my ankle socks off, and there was a sequel? WTF, so to say. But then things got more WTF-ier upon my first viewing of it. Wasn't this basically the same movie? Why didn't Ash remember that he'd done allllllll this before? What happened to the blood and body parts remnants from the first film? WHAT???????????????

This actually has quite a simple answer, which is.....:
A sequel, DESPITE the first 7 minutes of the film distorting the continuity between the two movies; this has merely been provided as a re-cap. It is said that Sam Raimi had lost the rights to the first film and had to re-shoot the beginning in order to provide said re-cap so new footage was shot. The second film really begins when Ash is propelled into the air by the deadite forces as seen in the first film. Originally it was to have all 5 members of the group traveling to the cabin, but for budget and time considerations it was edited down to just Ash and Linda. (Source) 

So it's a remake right, well the first 20 or so minutes are but then we're onto sequel land for the rest of the movie. So here's my burning question: What happened to Ash between Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2? For this one we're going to have to tread into the territories of my own warped, tiny mind since the internets refuse to answer my letters about this.

So, what's different between the two? Well, according to said internets, I'm told Ash is 21 in the first film and 29 in the second. In Evil Dead he goes up to the cabin with a bunch of friends and in Dead By Dawn it's him and his girlfriend, also Linda, and the other characters join them throughout the film. So what happened during the years in between?

1. Ash never left the cabin after the first one. I didn't see him leave, did you? The woods, with the evil now unleashed, holds onto Ash or draws him back to use him for more victims.

2. Ash is a schizophrenic mass murderer. The physical Necronomicon and body count are real. The rest ain't.

3. The events of Evil Dead trigger a deus ex machina to come into effect. The Necronomicon is sooooooo evil that the good forces in the world are forced to right the wrongs brought about by the events of the first film and winds up continually intervening.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Horror Mysteries: The Ring (2002) - Who is your Daddy, and what does he do?

The horror of a film like The Ring lies in its ambiguities. There is only one known way to stop yourself from falling victim to the evil Samara which is almost as horrific as Samara herself, you have to pass on the tape. The Ring has succeeded in becoming a generation defining horror film by assaulting our imagination and memory. There was no reprieve, no ability to hide once you'd seen the tape.

The film no longer scares me as it once did but the initial impact of seeing a film where the characters became part of the legend only served to give The Ring a rightful place in the horror cannon. (oh, and full disclosure - I greatly prefer this version to Ringu... Apologies to any purists this might offend...) Sure it's a film that relies greatly on suspension of disbelief, but it's done so with a confident hand which is quite rare. I never felt as though Gore Verbinski was hurrying things up because there were gaping plot holes. For instance, one big question in the series is how the hell did Samara make that first tape? Well, he's a suitably logical answer:

The movie doesn't fully detail Samara's backstory. It is given that Samara was a long awaited for child of a childless couple, Anna and Richard Morgan, and that she possessed the ability of nensha, also known as projected thermography or the ability to imprint her thought images like photographs onto specific surfaces. Her unusual ability, coupled with the fact that she never sleeps, eventually resulted in the townspeople of Moesko Island, including her own parents, feeling very uneasy around her. The more Samara felt alienated by the townspeople, the more she used her powers (another "ring"). Anna finally snapped, suffocated her daughter, and threw her into a well. Years later, Shelter Mountain Inn, specifically Cabin 12, was built over the well. When Katie and her friends stayed at the cabin, they tried to record a football match. However, since the reception is very poor up in the mountains, nothing actually recorded on their tape. Seizing her chance, Samara (whose remains and spirit were trapped in the well beneath the cabin) used her powers to imprint various images onto the tape. She also incorporated a curse: either copy the tape and pass it on or suffer your own death in seven days.

Duh, right? Ok, maybe not. But in the world of that movie, I totally buy it. But... the first couple sentences of that entry detail a much bigger question in the film. What the hell is Samara?

Quick catch up for those of you that haven't seen the film in a while - after you see a video you are told you will have 7 days to live. Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) sees the video after her niece falls victim to the curse and uncovers the story of Samara Morgan.  The meat and potatoes of the piece is that the Morgans couldn't naturally conceive a child and one day returned to their home with a baby. As the baby grew into a child there were problems on the island where they lived, crops wouldn't grow, horses committed suicide.... the usual. Turns out her adoptive mother semi-suffocated her and threw her down a well. Samara was not actually dead and survived for 7 days at the bottom of the well. Rachel excavates the body thinking she is freeing the soul of a mis-understood child when in reality she has released something much more evil. The only way to survive the second day curse is to make a copy of the tape and show it another person creating a cycle (or ring if you will) of horror!

But this still doesn't answer, what the hell is Samara and why is she so powerful?!

As one person pointed out to me she is a YĆ«rei a ghost from Japanese mythology that still has some business to conduct on earth and is not able to rest until that work is done. The Ring sets us up to believe that, but after Rachel recovers Samara's body she learns all too late that she has just unleashed an evil entity rather than saving the day. Suck it, Naomi Watts. This also only partially answers the question of what Samara is. She was wreaking havoc on people's lives well before she died. 

In the The Ring we learn Samara is adopted. In the Ring 2 Rachel finds Samara's birth mother, Sissy Spacek, who doesn't help matters much because she still just says Samara is evil. However, we are still never who the father is. Here are some revealing theories as to who and what Samara is. 

Theory #1 - The Morgans (Samara's adoptive parents) made a deal with an evil force to have a child.In the Ring 2 we learn that Evelyn (Spacek) tried to exorcise her baby. She is stopped, sent to a mental institution and Samara is put up for adoption. There is a clear sense that whatever or whomever impregnated Evelyn was eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil. Think of it as a sequel to Rosemary's Baby....

Theory #2 - She's a demigod. Specifically a water demigod. This is explored in Ringu (original Japanese novel and film) and it's an interesting example of East vs West adaptations and brings together a lot of water imagery in a neat way.

Theory #3 - She's a misunderstood child. This is put forth that Samara had supernatural powers but because Anna and Richard Morgan were unable or unwilling to understand her she became evil. She was a product of her environment. This is also explored in the Japanese prequel.

You weren't supposed to help her.
To be honest, I don't think it really matters. Like other Horror Mysteries I've explored the ambiguity in these movies is half the fun. If we could explain away Samara's evil  that would indicate we could explain her away. And who would want to do that?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Horror Mysteries: The Blair Witch Project - Who Done Did It?

Back in 1999, I went to see the Blair Witch Project. At the tender age of 14 I was desperate to see that darn movie. I'd taped the special "The Curse of the Blair Witch" off TV, I'd taped the trailer off TV, I was set. An avid entertainment journalism reader, I already knew the film was faked but I was desperately intrigued by this notion of asserting realness in horror films. (so much so it was actually a topic in a paper I did for my MA)

Since it's on Netflix I recently re-watched it. Well, half re-watched it. It certainly didn't scare me nearly as much as it once did but it was a nice trip down Nostalgia Lane. One thing I always loved about The Blair Witch was the ambiguous ending. You didn't see anything for sure. Who knows what happened down there. I always assumed it was Elly Kedward aka The Blair Witch, some deformed half-alive entity tormenting the young filmmakers. But lo, there are entire theories that involved other characters and people in the demise of Heather, Mike and Josh.

Before we begin traipsing down Theory Avenue (adjacent to Thesis Crescent) let's do a quick recap. The town of Blair was terrorized by a woman named Elly Kedward who kidnapped children and took them to her home in the woods to kill them. The townspeople had enough and strapped her to a wagon and left her in the woods for the elements to claim her. But the problem when you burn a witch is they tend to like to come back and torment the town. Y'know, for fun. And revenge.

In any event, horrible things have been happening in Blair (now Burkittsville) including a mass murder named Rustin Parr who also lived in the woods and claimed he was taking orders from the Blair Witch. The town has pretty much returned to normal but the locals still fear the woods. As one "resident" put it, "I believe enough not to go in there."

So Heather, Mike and Josh go into the woods and it all goes horribly wrong. In-fighting, getting endlessly lost and at the climax Josh goes missing. As they keeping looking for him, stranger and stranger things begin to happen until they wind up at a house in the middle of the woods after following what they believe are Josh's cries for help. Mike follows the sounds to the basement and Heather goes after him. Once she reaches the basement we catch a glimpse of Mike facing the corner. Heather screams, the camera drops and the footage ends.

So what exactly happened? Who else was there? And why?

Well, I found a pretty sweet Angelfire website that, I think, has every possible theory. Seriously. It took me the better part of an afternoon to get through them all. In any event here are some of my favourite theories but if you'd like to take a gander yourself, here's the the site.

Theory the first - Mary Brown did it. I'm starting with this because it blew my fucking mind. For those of you that don't remember, Mary Brown was the old lady who the filmmakers spoke to at the beginning of the film who stated that she actually encountered the Blair Witch when she was a child. The theory goes that Mary Brown is actually the Blair Witch's Familiar. (a person under the control of a supernatural entity who does their bidding) No, it doesn't make sense that an old woman would traipse through the woods following some punk-ass filmmakers but what if she had some awesome witch powers?  If you really want to blow your mind check this out.

Theory the second. Josh did it. If you follow the film closely, Josh is the first one to hear noises at night and what does the Blair Witch loooooooooooooooooooove to do? Posses people. Let's say she could infiltrate Josh first because he was the most suseptable or whatever. The rest of the film is him throwing a wrench into the whole shoot, picking fights with Heather etc. After he leaves the camp site he screams bloody murder knowing Heather and Mike will come looking for him and finally it is him that hits Heather in the head in the end.

Theory the third. Mike did it. If you listen to the dialogue early on in the film, Mike volunteers to come on the shoot. And clearly anyone who volunteers is eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil. He also seems to react to things in fear before he knows the full story. See: Heather finding the rock piles.

I still like to believe it was the Blair Witch doing all this. No ghosts or other serial killers. Some decomposing, powerful, vengeful witch who's still out there and doesn't need to rely on possession to harm you.

I think I'll be sleeping with the lights on tonight.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Horror Mysteries: Jason Voorhees - Man Boy or Boy Man?

A quick pre-ramble before I get into the meat and potatoes of this post:

I was alllllllllllllllllllllllll excited to see Silent House this weekend. I had some time off and boy, oh, boy was I excited to see it. But then I came across this quote: 

“I've seen some real crap movies, but this was worse than Tree of Life and The Talisman combined. I’m not sure who is writing this crap, but whoever it is I’m sure a ten year old could do better. In fact, I think this movie gave me cancer.”  (Source)

So... yeah... I did some more reading and to be honest I couldn't fathom paying $10-$12 to see that movie. So what would I write about? Surely you must banging your computer screens like the filthy apes that you are, refreshing Scare Tactic's home page every 30 seconds and staring at it in hopes of a new post.... 

So here I am with a new little series exploring the unsolvable mysteries of our most beloved movies. First up, WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED TO JASON VOORHEES BETWEEN PART 1 AND PART 2?!?!?!?!??!?hgulirkanlf v;mmjdsopao;vo;vo;vo;vo;vn n io8yt 49326guithuwefoijDSOAGJKCV

Um, anyway.... To quickly recap, this is how we see Jason at the end of Part 1: 
 And here he is in Part 2... 2 months later: 

Final Girl from Part 1, Alice, refers to him as a boy at the end of Part 1 and is then killed by him two months later at the beginning of Part 2 and he is somehow now a full grown man. 2 months later. WTF, indeed. 

Now, some people might say that screenwriters and producers are lazy and are just writing films to appease the masses. Poppycock! Everything happens for a reason. EVERYTHING! Like an abstract painting, Jason's sudden growth into a full fledged man is open to years of interpretation and debate. Here are some of my favourites:

1. Jason is psychic. Yup, Mongoloid, slow-witted, killing machine has psychic abilities. He escaped drowning and has been living in the woods. When he witnesses his mother's death at the hands of Alice, the boy jumping out of the water is an emotional manifestation brought about from the trauma of his mother's death. 

2. Alice's guilt. Somewhere along the line, possibly while Mrs Voorhees was giving her James Bond villain explanation, Alice sympathized with her. She realized her friends were behaving in a similar fashion to the ones that had let Jason down. Her guilty conscience at having killed someone became a nightmare of being pulled down into the lake. As stated in the Pit of Horror's FAQs "Dead men can't grow".

3. Camp Crystal Lake is Haunted. Just like that darned island in Lost, there's something not quite right with the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake. Does the lake hold special powers that released an infantalized Jason after his mother's death and his rapid growth was the evil lake preparing him to keep on killing? 

What do YOU think? I like to believe that Jason was always down there (as Part 7 indicates) and it's him that pulls Alice down at the end of Part 1. I think it's creepier, more effective and more fun.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Needful Things - American Horror Story Season 1

Horror is the natural reaction to the last 5,000 years of history.
-Robert Anton Wilson

Spoilers below

I think this font is 25% of the reason I love this show.
I had been avoiding watching American Horror Story. This was in part due to my hatred of Glee and anything to do with musical theatre. There was a sense that no one could possibly create something all-encompassing enough to be called American Horror Story. The notion that AHS could actually be scary while on a TV network. Could something that was packaged as a commercial, serial entity be scary and enjoyable? Quick answer, yes. It's mean and nasty while being compassionate at the same time. What eventually spurred me to watching it was a couple friends' recommendations and the hatred with which it was being treated with by television critics. I've spoken  before about my dislike of hating a genre for genre sake. (yes, I realize the irony of stating that I hate musicals, I will say I hate 97% of musicals - for the 20 Rent-like shows, there's a Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

A quick catch up on AHS if this is new to you - Ben and Vivien Harmon are a married couple escaping their collective past; Ben cheats, Vivienne has a late-term miscarriage. They move to Los Angeles in hopes of starting a new life with their melancholy teenage daughter in tow. Unfortunately for them, their new start is in the Murder House, a house so full of violent deaths that there are 12 episodes worth of ghost stories. AHS functions as both a dramatic horror series and a horror anthology. We follow the Harmons as they become more integrated with the house and its history. (two words: ghost rape) Each episode serves to illuminate some aspect of the "A" storyline (the Harmons) with a revelation from the "B" storyline (the house's history). Nothing revolutionary but for all the ambition of AHS it wraps up a lot of stories using this technique which is not always easy when your subject matter is the fantastic. (see Lost, X Files, Walking Dead et al)

Now, I will say that it's crazy over the top. There are rubber body suits, lots of sex and some truly odd dialogue. But the cast is so wonderful that I'd watch them paint this flipping house (which they do). As the beleaguered wife Vivien Connie Britton is awesome. She's lovely to watch and if I were in her shoes I feel as though I'd act that way. One of the things that bugged me, her hair. It's gorgeous. Even on a day where she's been terrorized by ghosts her hair is still glossy and perfectly blown up. Needless to say, it ate me up inside. I wasn't expecting to like Dylan McDermott's Ben but a couple episodes in I realized that the character's a slime-ball who doesn't know he's a slime-ball. He does shitty things but honestly wants to do right by the people he loves. He's just kind of an idiot. (Also, when he fights Tate wearing only a towel.... rawr) Jessica Lange is suitably fantastic. If you ever wondered what happened to a Tenessee Williams' Violet Venable from Suddenly Last Summer I think we've got a pretty accurate approximation in Lange's Constance Langdon. In the plethora of guest stars one really stands out for me, Zachary Quinto's Chad Warwick. In the past year Quinto starred in one of my favourite contemporary movies, Margin Call which he also produced. As a gay former owner of the house Quinto's over the top dialogue feels grounded and real, he's a wonderful actor and I'm happy to hear he'll be back for season 2 as a different character but a bigger part. Love Quinto, love his story line, I love the whole goddamn thing.

Yup, AHS may be the tawdry over the top show I get hooked on. It's not revolutionary. In fact it works like a puzzle with visual allusions to Halloween, Rosemary's Baby, Beetlejuice, Psycho, The Ring and countless others. For horror fans it's an ode to our favourite freaky movies and tropes wrapped in a juicy psychopath's melodrama with the icing of some really terrific performances. It's just like Glee, but instead of musical numbers there's profanity, sexual transgression and lots and lots of blood.