Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

I hated the first Annabelle film. The second was passably okay. This movie eventually bests them both, but jeez is it ever an exhausting journey getting here. The problems that hinder this series from fully blossoming into the Evil Doll splatter fest it so easily could be are consistent throughout each entry. Firstly, despite her effectively spooky visual design, Annabelle herself is embarrassingly underutilized. She’s a cursed doll who does not move or stab or kill or speak on her own accord, robbing the series of the usual payoffs of the Evil Doll horror genre. Instead, Annabelle is a talisman used to extend the reach of The Conjuring franchise’s function as the Spooky MCU. Her titular homecoming here refers to her arrival in the basement of the paranormal-investigator couple The Warrens, who tie this loose extended universe of undead creepy-crawlies together with a bookended cameo in each picture. From there, Annabelle is sidelined in her own movie, as always, to make room for non-doll creatures to be brought in to individually audition for their own spin-off series, expanding the Conjurverse even further instead of paying off their full potential in the moment. Unless you’re crafting soap operas or wrestling angles, it’s an awful approach to storytelling, as it always promises satisfaction next time instead of emphasizing in-the-moment, self-contained stakes. Thanks to every single movie production company wanting what Marvel has, though, it’s now the norm in commercial filmmaking, which is getting increasingly frustrating.

All that said, Annabelle Comes Home at least openly accepts its role as a franchise brand extender whereas previous entries in its series have downplayed that function as much as they can – saving teasers for Conjuring spinoffs like The Nun for their post-credits stingers. Here, Annabelle operates as the Nick Fury of the Warrens’ basement, assembling undead ghoulies like The Ferryman, The Killer Wedding Dress, and The Werewolf Ghost to torture the teens she shares a house with, effectively auditioning each of them for their own Spooky MCU spinoffs. She’s contextualized as a “beacon for other sprits” within the movie to justify this indulgence, but that throwaway dialogue does little to reconcile with the fact that this is an Annabelle movie where Annabelle disappears for long stretches of time to make room for another Conjurverse monsters. Once again, this is an evil doll movie that has no interest at all in being an evil doll movie, which is maybe Annabelle’s true curse. The good news is that Annabelle Comes Home eventually does pack the screen with plenty of non-doll spookies off all shapes & sizes. Once all of Annabelle’s fellow spirits are set loose around the Warrens’ house to torture the Generic Teen Babysitters inside, the movie does reach a few blissful moments of midnight movie mayhem. It just takes a lot of franchise place-setting effort to make it to that point, when you could just watch a standalone free-for-all like Hausu or The Gate and get ten times the payoff for 1/10th the effort.

I don’t care about the Warrens. I rarely tune into dispatches from The Conjurverse unless the individual film in question happens to touch on a subgenre I generally have a weakness for – like the killer doll movie. All I wanted to see here was a creepy doll torture some teens, and I was made to settle for the swerve of a decent haunted house movie instead, just like how Annabelle: Creation was a ghost story and the original Annabelle was a Rosemary’s Baby bastardization – not one genuine killer doll movie among them. It’s disappointing, then, to see this potentially bonkers free-for-all dampened so extensively by its franchise-building requirements. We eventually make our way to a very simple, contained haunted house story but not until after a lengthy frame story wherein the Warrens take a joy ride through an Ed Woodian graveyard only to disappear until the film’s conclusion. Also, because each monster’s appearance here is just an appetizer for a possible future spin-off, we only get a small taste of creatures like Werewolf Ghost so that we’re hungry for more Werewolf Ghost Content the next time it’s offered to us; and the cycle continues. Annabelle Comes Home is an adequate enough mainstream horror flick. It may even be the best Annabelle film to date, once it fully warms up. It just also participates in the worst tendencies of franchise filmmaking of the 2010s, which is getting more exhausting the more ubiquitous it becomes.

-Brandon Ledet

Kill, Baby, Kill (1966)

I got a fair amount of enjoyment out of the recent Helen Mirren haunted house Gothic horror Winchester that most audiences did not seem to share. It’s a critical reaction that did not really surprise me, as the best example of the Gothic horror in recent memory, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, was also met with an unenthused shrug. I suppose it’s a subgenre that’s grown long out of fashion in the decades since its heyday in the Hammer horror & the Corman-Poe Cycle era of the 1960s, but I’m glad there are at least a few minor modern attempts to keep its undead spirit ”alive.” It’s foolish to maintain a tradition without looking back to the heights that make its practice worthwhile, though, which is partly why I felt compelled to seek out Mario Bava’s Gothic horror classic Kill, Baby, Kill for the first time. Like Roger Corman’s intensely colorful nightmare The Masque of the Read Death, Kill, Baby, Kill is an over-the-top stylistic indulgence that plays beautifully into the heightened atmosphere of the Gothic horror template, making the genre appear as ripe for directorial experimentation as any slasher, space horror, or psychedelic subgenre you could name. Bava brings to the Gothic horror the same aesthetic obsessions that helped define the giallo as a medium in films like Blood & Black Lace and carved out the atmospheric space horror vibes later perfected in Alien with Planet of the Vampires. Kill, Baby, Kill is not his first or best-known experiment in the genre; Black Sunday might be the premiere example there. It is likely his most intensely colorful & idiosyncratically personal, though. It also stands as proof that the Gothic horror can be done exceptionally well on a miniscule budget, further encouragement for keeping the tradition alive.

Kill, Baby, Kill was afforded a much smaller production budget than Bava was used to working with by the mid-60s. A critically acclaimed director with most of his best works already behind him, Bava found himself in the unusual position of running short on funding & working with an incomplete script mid-shoot, making it a miracle that Kill, Baby, Kill was ever completed at all. Reportedly, the director’s crew completed the shoot partially unpaid for their efforts, out of respect for his art. You’d never be able to tell anything was out of the ordinary, though, as the Gothic horror template is very forgiving to low-budget enterprises. All you really need to pull one off convincingly is an old, spooky set and creative imagination for how to achieve a ghostly atmosphere. Bava worked around his limited resources through inventive, practical techniques: setting most of the story in an accessible European castle; creating distorted imagery in-camera via panes of glass; employing a seesaw where he couldn’t afford a camera crane, etc. A lesser director on the same time & budgetary constraints would’ve delivered an incomprehensible, glaringly incomplete mess (see: the infamous Roger Corman cheapie The Terror), but Bava pulls through by sheer will. Some of the most violent, jarring details of the film are his intense giallo lighting choices and the rapid zoom-ins & whip-pans to character’s stone-cold faces. He even fudged his ability to properly cast the ghost girl central to the movie’s plot on time & on budget by dressing the son of an employee in femme clothing. You’d never notice that production detail if you were never told—partly because young children are essentially genderless, but also because Bava finds a way to make it work. Kill, Baby, Kill is a kind of low-budget alchemy that turns shitty production conditions into horror classic gold.

Like most Gothic horror tales, Kill, Baby, Kill is a traditional ghost story about a haunted manor. In this case, the ghost of a little girl terrorizes an 18th century European village that’s deeply rooted in Old World superstitions. In a Dracula-style plot, an outsider doctor is called into town to perform an autopsy on the ghost’s latest victim, disregarding the locals’ warnings that the practice will only exacerbate the ghost’s curse. Of course, his rational view of the world is proven to be ineffective as the ghost’s attacks on the townspeople only get increasingly worse and he starts seeing her spooky visage himself. It’s not an especially novel plot and its mysterious twists aren’t nearly as compelling as its aesthetic interests—something the Gothic horror shares with the giallo genre that Bava helped pioneer. Kill, Baby, Kill is less interested in the ghost story’s potential metaphor as an expression of unresolved trauma or even its own premise of New World logic bucking against Old World wisdom than it is in crafting a beautiful image. Delicate child shoes & white lace dangle from a tree swing outside a graveyard to the sound of playful laughter. Creepy doll faces superimpose over twisting spiral staircases. The doctor erotically peers in on a witch’s homeopathic flogging ritual. A silver coin is pulled from a dead woman’s heart. (Is that last one already a giallo title?) Kill, Baby, Kill leaves an impression through intensely artificial lighting & imagery and then rapidly zooms in to single out an isolated detail as a kind of unconventional jump scare. I never fully bought the significance of the ghost girl’s vengeance on her townspeople victims. I did, however, get a huge kick out of watching her play with her creepy dolls and menacingly peer into the villagers’ windows, freaking everybody out. I imagine Bava’s own interests were on a similar wavelength.

The remarkable thing about Kill, Baby Kill’s scrappy resilience as a seemingly doomed project is that it isn’t even a cult classic that was reevaluated after the fact. Critics were willing to gush about Bava’s directorial touch in the film immediately upon its release. You can feel its influence trickling down through projects as varied as FearDotCom (which also features a white lace-dressed ghost girl playing with a white rubber ball) and The Love Witch (which boasts very similar witch costuming, just with better eye makeup). Kill, Baby, Kill is Mario Bava at his best, intensifying the effect of every creepy doll, ghost girl jump scare, and witchcraft ritual as best he can in any given frame. The only things holding the movie back from perfection are a slashed budget and a lackadaisical sense of pacing. It’s genre heights like these that make the efforts of a Winchester or a Marrowbone worthwhile in keeping the Gothic horror tradition alive, even if they aren’t as well appreciated in their time. Any director hoping to visually experiment within an extremely limited budget can look to this film as inspiration for how to establish a memorable atmosphere on the cheap. All you need is an interesting location, a vague story about a ghost, and strong personal aesthetic. Having a crew that’s willing to starve for you is likely also a plus.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghost Stories (2018)

It can be amazing how much an ambitious, go-for-broke ending can raise a horror film out of genre-faithful tedium. Every now and then a potentially so-so horror film like The Boy, Marrowbone, or The House on Sorority Row will go so deliriously off the rails in its final stretch that its conclusion will elevate the entire middling picture that unfolded before it to a retroactive artistic high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film pull that trick off as well as the cheapo British horror anthology Ghost Stories. For most of its runtime, Ghost Stories pretends to be a very well-behaved, Are You Afraid of the Dark?-level horror anthology with open-ended, unsatisfying conclusions to its three mildly spooky vignettes. It turns out that dissatisfaction is deliberate, as it sets the film up for a supernaturally menacing prank on an unsuspecting audience. As its individual pieces start lining up into a clear, distinct gestalt, the film devolves into a playfully bizarre, sinister mindfuck. Ghost Stories had me shrugging off its minor charms as a cheekily funny horror anthology for nearly 2/3rds of its runtime, and then somehow turned the experience around in its final half hour to make me reconsider it as one of the more cleverly conceived genre films I’ve seen all year.

Adapted from a stage play by the same name, Ghost Stories is about an “arrogant & disrespectful” celebrity skeptic with “modern disregard for the spiritual life,” who’s achieved minor fame as the host of the (fictional) television show Psychic Cheats. His life’s work is called into question when his aging hero, another famous skeptic who he’s been worshiping since he was a child, reveals himself to now be a true believer in the paranormal. The older skeptic offers a challenge to the younger one in the form of three unsolved case files he could not himself prove to be hoaxes. Anchored by recognizable Brits Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, and The End of the Fucking World’s Alex Lawther, these three case files are laid out in rigidly segmented vignettes that slowly chip away at the younger skeptic’s sense of reality. Their stories of psych ward hauntings, ghostly apparitions, and woodland demons are a little too toothless in their shocks & gore to leave much of an impression individually. However, as strange, menacing details build up & recur around the skeptic as he investigates the cases, a cold undercurrent beneath the film’s deceptively well-behaved horror anthology surface begins to pick up strength & speed. By the end of the film, the individual case stories cease to matter as a much more sinister narrative builds around the details lurking at the edge of the frame.

As a genre, horror is built on the foundation of disruption. Whether supernaturally or via a real-world force, there must be a break in the daily routine of reality for a film to qualify as horror in the first place. Following titles like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound that have been playing with the structure of the horror anthology as medium in recent years, Ghost Stories presents its own disruption of reality by way of disguise. The film boldly masks itself as a middling, decent enough supernatural picture for most of its runtime, exploiting audience familiarity with the horror anthology structure to lure viewers into a false, unearned comfort. I’ve never had a film border so close to outright boredom, then pull the rug out from under me so confidently that I felt both genuinely unnerved & foolish for losing faith. That kind of patience is not going to work for everyone. Without the distraction-free environment of a movie theater, I can see many VOD viewers walking away from Ghost Stories mid-film or scrolling through social media throughout, feeling like they’ve already seen everything it has to offer before. The ending only works if you stick with the film’s minor visual details and moments of unexplained pause, affording it patience & attention. It’s a glorious, surprisingly heady prank of a conclusion, though, one of the best horror film turnarounds I’ve ever seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Marrowbone (2018)

It’s difficult to gauge how wide of an appeal the straight-to-VOD sleeper Marrowbone might hold for a contemporary audience. As an obedient participation in the tropes of the Gothic horror genre as a cinematic tradition, the film starts off with a slight disadvantage in its aesthetic’s commercial appeal. As demonstrated by del Toro’s Crimson Peak, the modern Gothic horror is often dismissed & unacknowledged even when it’s done exactly right, so a much cheaper, small-scale production like Marrowbone doesn’t have much of a chance to make an impression. To make things harder on itself, the film also adopts a distinctly literary, romantic tone that invites more cynical audiences to not take its emotional core seriously, the exact same way the tragically undervalued Never Let Me Go undercut its own potential commercial appeal as a sci-fi genre picture. For fans of the Gothic horror as an onscreen tradition, Marrowbone offers a wonderful corrective to the year’s other major offering in that genre, Winchester (which I’m saying as the only person in the world who got a kick out of Winchester). It’s an oddly romantic, admirably deranged entry into the modern ghost story canon. It’s frustrating for the already-converted to know that the film’s unhinged charms will be met with more shrugs than enthusiasm on the contemporary pop culture landscape, but its choice of genre at least lends it to feeling somewhat timeless, even if not an instant modern hit.

Although it’s set in 1960s small-town America, it’d be understandable to mistake much of Marrowbone for 19th Century Europe. Its haunted house narrative and feral children aesthetic feels like the lore of 1800s peasants, which makes the occasional intrusion of recognizable modernity almost surreal. The most frequent representation of this modernity is a girl-next-door sweetheart played by Anya Taylor-Joy. In her introduction she’s teased to be a kind of woodland witch (appropriately enough), but it turns out she’s just a darling small-town librarian with an A+ 1960s wardrobe. Her calm provincial life is upturned by the arrival of a small English emigrant family (including familiar faces Charlie Heaton, George MacKay, and Mia Goth) who are obviously in the process of escaping a troubled past. This is one of those immigrant stories where American is framed as a cure-all reset button meant to heals old wounds in a battered family’s identity. The past continues to haunt them, though—at first figuratively, then literally in the form of a ghost that stalks the attic of their new home. As the hauntings worsen, the family becomes more reclusive, never leaving the house to venture into town. Only the sweetheart librarian and her petty, jealous suitor have any interest in the goings-on of the cursed home, the family’s mysterious past, and the well-being of the four children who’re left to face their demons alone within that insular space. It does not go well.

Because Marrowbone is so obedient to the tropes & rhythms of a long-familiar genre, most audiences will clue into the answers to its central mysteries long before they’re revealed. However, the details of those mysteries’ circumstances and the effect of their in-the-moment dread carry the movie through a consistently compelling continuation of a Gothic horror tradition. Creepy dolls, cursed money, miniatures, bricked-over doorways, a covered mirror, a menacing ghost, a pet raccoon named Scoundrel: Marrowbone excels in the odd specificity of its individual details and the deranged paths its story pushes to once the protective bubble of its central mystery is loudly popped. There’s also a delicately tragic sense of romance that guides the picture’s overall tone, both in the librarian’s love life and in the children-fending-for-themselves literary imagination. If you’re not especially in love with the atmospheric feel of the Gothic horror genre, these aesthetic details and the film’s bonkers third act might not be enough to carry you beyond the sense that we’ve seen this story told onscreen many times before. The tempered response to both Crimson Peak & Winchester suggest that will be the case for many viewers. More forgiving Gothic horror fans should find plenty of admirable specificity to this particular story, though, the kind of tangible detailing that allows the best ghost stories to stick to the memory despite their decades (if not centuries) of cultural familiarity. It’s a shame that tradition isn’t currently profitable, but we’ll eventually come back around to it as a culture and Marrowbone will still be oddly, wonderfully unhinged in its menacing details.

-Brandon Ledet

Dementia 13 (1963)

Before the New Hollywood movement busted up the established dinosaurs of the Studio System, one of the best ways for young outsiders to break into filmmaking was through the Roger Corman Film School. Because the maniacally frugal producer would hand off cheap, quick film shoots to anyone he suspected might be competent enough to handle the task, many young filmmakers who would later define the New Hollywood era cut their teeth with on-the-job training making films for Roger Corman & AIP: Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda, Hopper, Demme, etc. There was a kind of freedom to this pedal-to-the-floor cheapo genre film production cycle, but many projects Corman handed to his de facto “students” were . . . less than ideal, considering their art cinema sensibilities. That’s how the world was gifted weird mishmash projects like Peter Bogdanovich getting his start directing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women by smashing together scenes of over-dubbed Soviet sci-fi films with new footage of beachside bikini babes. Another future New Hollywood upstart, Frances Ford Coppola, got his foot in the door recutting & dubbing those same Russian sci-fi films alongside Bogdanovich in the editing room. Coppola also got his own start directing “mainstream” narrative features (as opposed to his earlier nudie cutie work) through a hodgepodge project Corman handed to him in a rush. Hastily slapped together on the back of $20,000 of budgetary leftovers from another AIP production, Coppola’s Dementia 13 is one of those Corman projects like Blood Bath or The Terror that are left almost entirely incomprehensible by their corner-cutting, behind the scenes shenanigans. The film afforded Coppola the opportunity to experiment with his sense of craft on the job, though, as he strived to make a more serious, artful picture than what’s usually expected from Croman fare. The results were mixed, but worthwhile.

Urged by AIP to deliver a quick, cheap riff on Psycho, Coppola filters a Hitchcockian mad-killer plot through a Gothic haunted house template. Packed with axe-murders, underwater doll parts, badly dubbed performances, and gradual descents into madness, the film often feels like a cheap black & white take on giallo surreality. Like giallo, it values imagery over narrative coherence, requiring a Wikipedia read-through of its basic plot after the end credits roll. It opens with a Psycho/Carnival of Souls-style setup of a lone woman in flight from her past crises. In this case, she’s a money-hungry schemer who pretends that her late husband is still alive so she can ingratiate herself to his mother for inheritance money. She moves in with the “not” dead husband’s family in their Gothic manor, which is lousy with hidden passageways and dark family secrets. The family is unhealthily obsessed with the drowning of their youngest daughter years in the past, a weakness the woman hopes to exploit to con them out of their money. What happens from there is up for interpretation, as the past drowning death and a series of current axe murders open the film up to hazily-defined mysteries befitting of the world’s most incomprehensible gialli. Although the producer afforded Coppola total freedom to write & direct the film he wanted, Corman was frustrated with its incomprehensible plot, which he decided to punch up with a series of changes that dampened its art film appeal: Irish accents dubbed over with unenthused American ones; Jack Hill-directed inserts of comic relief; a runtime-padding intro that administered a mental stability test to the audience in a William Castle-style gimmick. Corman didn’t clarify the plot of Coppola’s film so much as he compromised its overall artistic vision. If there’s any consolation, it’s that it’s clear the film would have would have been a total mess either way.

What an interesting mess, though! Although not as fun as similarly incomprehensible horror cheapies like Blood Bath or A Night to Dismember, Dementia 13 at the very least provides a stage for a young Coppola to test out his visual experiments to varying success, without any real stakes for them having to pay off (it wouldn’t be the first or last time someone wasted AIP money). As it opened on a double bill with the excellent sci-fi horror The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, possibly Corman’s best directorial effort outside The Masque of the Red Death, it’s clear that the student had yet to become the master. Like many other future New Hollywood film nerds, though, Coppola was better for the Roger Corman Film School having afforded him an opportunity to gain mainstream experience behind the camera, even if the immediate results weren’t as compelling as a Targets or even a Death Race 2000.

-Brandon Ledet

Winchester (2018)

The writer-director duo The Spierig Brothers tend to hit the same genre film sweet spot for me that Mike Flanagan’s work seems to for other people. They’re churning out formulaic genre pictures that do little to innovate in terms of visual craft or structural narrative, but still endear themselves to me despite my better judgement. Their vampire picture Daybreakers and (even more so) their time travel mystery thriller Predestination are clearly their most accomplished works to date, but I’m always at least intrigued by whatever latest project they have cooking, no matter how generic. I even allowed their involvement in the latest Saw sequel to trick me into revisiting that franchise for the first time in over a decade, God help me. The genre du jour for The Spierig Brothers is a haunted house horror with unearned pretensions of being a historical drama. You’d think that a period film starring Helen Mirren and “inspired by actual events” could elevate itself above the usual Spierig Brothers mold, but Winchester instead glides by as yet another by-the-books genre exercise from the duo, for better or for worse. Anyone looking for a show-stopping performance from Mirren or some historical insight into the troubled times of the real-life Mrs. Winchester are likely to leave the film frustrated. Instead, the Spierig boys bend those potentially extraordinary elements to their genre faithful will, delivering pretty much what you’d expect based on their past efforts: a well-behaved haunted house picture that somehow entertains despite its instant familiarity.

Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, a wealthy 1900’s widow & heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. Mirroring rumors of her mental instability in real life, her mental health is being questioned in the film by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to drive her out of her business & her fortune. The lynchpin in their argument against her sanity is a bizarre mansion she keeps under constant, ever-shifting construction, another real life detail. In the film, the Winchester house is described as “a gargantuan, seven-story structure with no apparent rhyme or reason” to its design, an M.C. Escher-esque 3D jigsaw puzzle that requires construction crews to work 24/7 to keep up with Sarah Winchester’s instructions. Mudbound’s Jason Clarke co-stars as a laudanum-addicted doctor/alcoholic hired by the Winchester company to legally assess the widow’s mental health as a guest in her bizarre home. Since this is a PG-13 horror film instead of an Oscar-minded biopic, however, that investigation shifts to instead determining whether the unexpected spooky beings the doctor encounters there are laudanum-induced hallucinations or a collective of malicious ghosts. Spoiler: it’s ghosts. Once “the difference between illusion & reality” is broken down, the doctor and the widow team up to calm the house’s ghosts, for whom the widow builds an ever-expanding labyrinth of rooms for them to haunt & feel at home in. The usual balance struck in “the house that spirits built” is violently disturbed by a slowly-approaching supernatural event, something much more potentially catastrophic than a lost fortune or a laudanum addiction, two conflicts that fall by the wayside. It all wraps up pretty much how you would expect it to, with very few surprises along the way.

Judging by the weirdly unenthused response to Guillermo del Toro’s similar, but far more masterful Crimson Peak, I doubt many audiences will fall head over heels for this simplistic gothic horror throwback. You’d have to be really stoked about watching Helen Mirren glide down spooky hallways in Helena Bonham Carter drag to enthusiastically love this movie; any personal affinity for haunted house horror or real-life insight into the bizarre case of the Winchester house is not going to cut it on its own. This is a very talky, muted haunted house movie where two too-good-for-this-shit actors discuss at length the value of gun control and the practice of locking ghosts in boxes. Even for all its exploitation of a real-life tragedy & total waste of an Oscar-winning actor, however, Winchester at least has the decency to search for a moral center & a thematic point of view. The ghosts in the film are described to be “spirits killed by the rifle,” and Sarah Winchester’s agitated mental state is framed as guilt from profiting from gun violence, a theme that obviously holds modern significance (and, again, mirrors legends & rumors surrounding the real-life heiress). The way that theme expresses itself through machine-like jump scares, creepy possessed children, and endless exterior shots of a spooky house may not be the most morally delicate approach to adapting the Winchester story, but fans of mainstream horror should be well-accustomed to that kind of exploitative tackiness by now.

The Spierig Brothers did little to pay attention to how the genre tropes of a haunted house picture might distort or trivialize the story of a real-life widow with a tragic history of mental health struggles. Instead, they filtered the Sarah Winchester curio through a one-size-fits-all ghost story lens, with all the minor thrills, chills, and PG-13 kills that accompany it. It’s not likely to win over new fans to their genre-faithful, utilitarian brand, but it’s still a continuation of their pattern of making well-behaved, but surprisingly entertaining pictures out of formulas we’ve already seen repeated hundreds of times before.

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Much like the NFL, WWE, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, Disney has always had a knack for obsessively promoting & examining its own legacy. It wasn’t until the past few years that the insanely massive media conglomerate owned every single major player intellectual property imaginable, but judging by the way the company has publicly patted itself on the back since its inception, you’d think that was the case for decades. One of the more amusingly tacky ways this self-celebration has manifested itself is in Disney pop culture media’s synergy with the brand’s amusement parks – Disneyland, Disney World, and beyond. I totally understand the appeal, both for creator & consumer, of turning Disney’s most popular properties into theme park rides fans can physically visit & interact with. By the late 90s, though, that wasn’t enough for Disney’s insatiable need to publicly glorify itself. In the last two decades the company has begun to make movies based on its theme park rides in an an absurd act of reverse engineering. This started small enough with a Disney Channel made-for-TV original starring a late-in-his-career Steve Guttenberg, but eventually ballooned into a five feature film series starring one of the world’s most famous (and most despicable) movie stars, Johnny Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean series has been the biggest financial payoff in Disney’s gamble to market its theme park attractions on the big screen (recent diminished returns notwithstanding) and there have been a couple great Disney Ride films accidentally made along the way (Tower of Terror & Tomorrowland, namely), but for the most part people (mainly critics) have not been buying what Disney had been selling in those films: itself.

The first few attempts to adapt a Disney park theme ride for the big screen were meek acts of testing the waters. The 1997 Tower of Terror film was made for broadcast television. The 2000 space adventure Mission to Mars somehow nabbed a big name director (Brian De Palma, of all people) and went into wide theatrical release, but was based on a long-forgotten ride that had closed almost a decade before the film’s release. The ill-conceived (but oddly fascinating) 2002 Country Bears movie was marketed only for the smallest of children, to whom we shovel irredeemable garbage on an annual basis (i.e. Minions, The Emoji Movie, etc.). It wasn’t until the 2003 Eddie Murphy horror comedy The Haunted Mansion that Disney released a major motion picture meant to appeal to the entire family that was based on one of its currently visitable theme park attractions. The Haunted Mansion was an interesting experiment in the way it asked loyal fans of the Disney brand to fall in love with a feature-length advertisement for its own product: a haunted house “dark ride” you could visit at any one of its major theme parks. The experiment succeeded commercially, (rightfully) failed critically, and openly participated in the dual nature of Art & Commerce that always plagues the movie industry, although typically in a more hushed tone. Directed by nobody workman Rob Minkoff, who also helmed The Lion King & Stuart Little with an equal absence of passion, The Haunted Mansion is no more vibrantly alive than any of the CG spectres that torment Murphy’s family in its haunted house plot. The movie plays like a series of boardroom decisions that spiraled out of control into a family-friendly horror comedy that is neither funny nor scary and feels about as genuine in its genre nerdery as The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Just about the only interesting thing about The Haunted Mansion is its pioneering nature as a feature-length advertisement of a currently-operational Disney Park ride, the lowest of artistic ambitions.

Eddie Murphy stars as a money-obsessed Business Dad who spends too much time trying to grow his real estate business and too little effort connecting with his wife & kids. This stock Kids’ Movie Conflict is complicated when he interrupts his family’s vacation to check out a potential property purchase, the titular haunted mansion. The plot doesn’t develop much from there, besides the gradual reveals of every inhabitant of the home being a ghost with unfinished business who failed to cross over to the other side. The ghostly lord of the home mistakes Murphy’s wife for a long-lost love of his own, who can be seen in various oil paintings throughout the mansion, another Stock Movie Conflict employed by countless vampire & ghost pictures. Given that the ghostly home owner & his various ghost servants are white people from a bygone century, this interracial romance angle raises a few interesting questions about the racial dynamics of the house’s past, questions the movie isn’t interested in exploring. Instead, Murphy has to hurry to both prevent the most handsome, wealthy ghost from “getting jiggy with” his wife (kill me) and to save his kids from the other supernatural threats crawling all over the home: spiders, skeletons, a surprisingly effective Terrence Stamp. The rest of the ghostly cast is rounded out by the comic relief of the always-welcome Wallace Shawn & a Jambi-type performance from Jennifer Tilly. Will Eddie Murphy have time to save both of his children’s lives and prevent his wife from getting sexually assaulted by a handsome ghost? My guess is that you already know the answer, but are coming up short with a reason to care, which is more than fair.

Plot is not nearly as significant here as recreating the holographic ghosts & ghouls of the Disney theme park ride source material, which the movie actually does fairly well. The introductory title cards feel like a haunted house initiation, warning “Welcome, foolish mortals . . .” before recreating the ballroom of dancing ghosts that constitute the theme park ride’s centerpiece. Besides the CG ghosts that recall the live action Casper movie in tone, The Haunted Mansion also employs special effects master Rick Baker to provide some tangible atmosphere. A Harryhausen skeleton army & swarms of threatening spiders look especially great, with other haunted house effects like Videodrome-esque breathing walls, a Billy Bones-style zombie, and visual references to suicide by hanging tilting the story towards genuine horror. Singing barber shop quartet statue busts (an integral part of the ride) and a musical instrument seance straight out of an Ed Wood film (Night of the Ghouls, to be specific) are much more in line with a cutesy, safe-feeling horror comedy vibe, which is totally fine given the film’s nature as a cynically commercial Disney property. Terrence Stamp’s presence as an evil, ghostly butler cuts to the core of what’s wrong with the film at large. He’s genuinely creepy on a scene to scene basis, but often has to pause his schtick to deal with Eddie Murphy, who aims to annoy at every possible turn. At one point, Stamp even bellows, “If I have to listen to another word from that insufferable fool, I believe I’m going to burst,” which was the one line that got a legitimate laugh out of me. Listening to Murphy run lame bits about whacking spiders with magazines & ghosts “getting jiggy with” his wife into the ground for minutes at a time completely poisons any atmospheric mood or comedic ambition built by Baker, Shawn, Tilly, or Stamp. Murphy simply isn’t funny, which is a major problem considering how much screen time he’s allowed to devour.

Guillermo del Toro has stated publicly that he’d love to remake this film without the Eddie Murphy angle and, after Crimson Peak, it feels as if he already did. It’s easy to see what the director may have connected with on its basic level of being a haunted house dark ride attraction adapted into a feature. The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite Disney World rides, but I have no real problems or reservations with the way it’s been adapted to the screen, personally. How could I? The idea of believing your own hype so completely that you think your theme park attractions deserve a The Movie! version is so absurd that it’s kind of a miracle every single one of these Disney Ride movies isn’t as much of an artistic failure as The Haunted Mansion turned out to be. If it weren’t for the success of the Pirates debut just a few months later this could’ve been the end of the Disney Ride movie as we know it today, a fate that would’ve been very much deserved.

-Brandon Ledet

Tower of Terror (1997)

Expectations can make or break a movie-watching experience if you allow them too much headspace. I try to approach every film with an entirely blank slate, but it can be difficult to achieve that intellectual distance. For instance, watching a mid-90s Steve Guttenberg helm a made-for-TV kids’ movie based on a Disney World theme park attraction comes with its own expectation baggage that’s difficult to leave at the door. To be crassly honest, I expected a pile of shit. 1997’s Tower of Terror movie is a thoroughly pleasant surprise, then, shirking the stench of its compromised pedigree in nearly every scene. Even as a cheaply made VHS era kids’ horror starring The Gutte, the film is a massive improvement over Disney’s other haunted house amusement park ride adaptation, the miserable Eddie Murphy comedy The Haunted Mansion. It’s a charmingly silly, mildly spooky comedy that delivers just as much genuine entertainment as it does unintentional camp. I can’t parse out how much of my enjoyment was a surprise result of setting my expectations low, but that ultimately does not matter. What matters is that, against all odds, Tower of Terror is a good movie.

Steve Guttenberg stars as a sleazy photojournalist for a National Enquirer type publication, where he publishes hoax stories of alien autopsies & ghostly apparitions. Child actor (turned indie darling) Kirsten Dunst co-leads as his accomplice & niece, helping The Gutte fulfill his obvious destiny as a Goofy Uncle archetype. The pair get in over their heads when a mysterious old woman rope them into investigating a real life paranormal mystery, a 1939 incident at the infamous Hollywood Hotel that occurred on Halloween night. That evening, during a glamorous Halloween party (complete with big band swing music) a Shirley Temple/Baby Jane Hudson archetype mysteriously disappeared along with her drunk parents, her nanny, and a bellhop when the elevator car was struck by magic lightning. The answer to the mystery of what caused this supernatural event is explained upfront with the old lady’s tales of evil witchcraft and a Book of Souls MacGuffin. As Dunst & The Gutte search for this all-powerful talisman in the haunted hotel, however, the source of that witchcraft is called into question and the ghosts of the missing weigh in on what really happened that Halloween night. It all has very little to do with the actual Tower of Terror ride, but as a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by way of Hocus Pocus or Jumanji plot, it all works out as a perfectly entertaining children’s creepshow.

The actual Tower of Terror at the Disney amusement park is also shaped like a 1930s hotel and was actually utilized for the film’s frequent exterior shots to establish setting & mood. The ride is Twilight Zone-themed, however, which is a licensing choice this made-for-TV venture couldn’t afford to make. Instead, the hotel is utilized as a kind of standard issue haunted house contraption where headless figures brandishing meat cleavers, singing child ghosts dressed like the twins from The Shining, and elevators full of hellfire pop up from around corners to startle the audience. Instead of treating the film like a single trip through this haunted space like an amusement park ride, however, its ghostly mystery & fascination with witchcraft is spread over several days. This allows for long, bizarre speeches about “banishing children to the underworld” and how the lightning “half-zapped” everyone in the elevator, trapping them in limbo. Director D.J. MacHale doesn’t have many credits to his name, except that he helmed twenty episodes of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which almost makes him overqualified for the task. For better or for worse, the movie plays like a feature length episode of that show that just happens to star two recognizable faces (along with exciting bit players like Melora Hardin & John Franklin) and is based off an amusement park ride (complete with mimicking the ride’s elevator drops at its climax, naturally). Expectations aside, it’s a form of entertainment I’ve been trained to appreciate for nearly my entire life.

Somewhere around 2015, as with all Disney properties (including The Haunted Mansion, somehow), there were talks of remaking Tower of Terror as a new, presumably better-funded feature. You can easily see how the studio would find easy potential in that idea, even if they nuke this original version out of existence & return to the property’s Twilight Zone roots. If that idea is dying along with the theme park attraction (which is gradually being replaced with some kind of Guardians of the Galaxy ride), however, the original will still persist as a perfectly entertaining, family-friendly haunted house tour starring Dunst & The Gutte. Even that kind of a modest success exceeds expectation, which is as good of a litmus test for a movie’s worth as anything, I suppose.

-Brandon Ledet

The Open House (2018)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

A Netflix Original thriller set in a big, spooky house deep in the mountains seemed like the perfect first 2018 film for me to watch. I made a cup of hot chocolate with whole milk just for the occasion. For the majority of The Open House, I was on the edge of my seat. My anxiety levels were at an all-time high as I waited for the killer to be revealed so I could get some closure. Unfortunately, that never happened. Not only was the killer’s face never shown, but the two individuals being hunted by the killer both die in the end. I’ve never been more disappointed in the ending of a film in my entire life. Concluding a film with unanswered questions is quite common and even enjoyable if done properly, but The Open House doesn’t leave many clues for viewers to come up with their own version of who the killer was or why was he/she so set on killing our main characters. It’s a damn shame because everything leading up to the ending was actually entertaining.

The Open House gets its cheesy title from its setting: a mansion in the mountains that is on the market. After the sudden death of her husband, Naomi (Piercey Dalton) and her son Logan (Dylan Minnette) are forced to move into her sister’s mountain mansion until it sells due to financial reasons. From the moment they settle in, strange things start to occur. The pilot light turns off while Naomi takes showers, Logan’s phone goes missing, the basement door randomly opens, etc. Their creepy neighbor, Martha, makes an appearance a handful of times, and each one is more peculiar than the next. There’s even a scene where Dylan is in the pitch black basement and Martha’s face appears behind him. For a good while, it seems as though Martha is responsible for the mysterious happenings, but then Chris (Sharif Atkins), the friendly salesman Naomi meets in town, randomly shows up at the house. He claims that he noticed the open house sign in the front of the road, and he is interested in taking a look inside. Naomi lets him in, and while she isn’t looking, he disappears into the basement with a unsettling look on his face. At this point, he becomes a suspicious character as well.

The film’s pace picks up quickly when Naomi is out on the town and receives a call from her sister informing her that someone broke into the house. Once the police arrive, they aren’t much help and basically blame the break in on local kids pranking around. Chris is then invited to spend the night to provide some comfort to Naomi and Logan since there scared shitless. Because Chris had this artificial kindness to him, I really thought that he was going to reveal himself as the person responsible for all the strange activity, but Logan ends up finding him with a slit throat in their family SUV. Was Chris’s character purposely supposed to seem suspicious or was Sharif Atkins a crappy actor? We may never know.  Logan then gets his head bashed into the window and is doused with water while passed out in freezing temperatures by what appears to be a man. With Chris scratched off my suspect list and the killer not matching Martha’s physique, I assume that this person may be Martha’s son or husband.

The unknown killer then gets into bed with Naomi with his hands in prayer position across his chest. This was probably the most bone chilling part in the film for me. Naomi gets up to use the bathroom and gets back into bed with him! I’m assuming this is a California king size bed for her to not even flinch before getting in. As soon as she realizes the creep in the bed, he captures her, ties her up, and breaks her fingers one by one. Frozen Logan makes it back into the house, and accidentally stabs his mother, which then led me to believe that he was going to get Final Boy status because one of them would need to survive in the end, right? Nope. Just when I thought Logan escaped, he meets his death by the still unknown killer, and the movie comes to an abrupt end.

The ending just felt so lazy. There were so many cool elements in this film that could’ve been used to create a jaw-dropping conclusion, but all the buildup in the film’s last 20 minutes led to nothing but disappointment. I feel like I’ve been ripped off, even though the film is available on Netflix. Watch The Open House only if you enjoy frustration and disappointment.

-Britnee Lombas

A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story is mostly dialogue-free in its slow, insular reflections on the vastness of time & the universe, so it’s strange to me that the one scene its most fervent fans seem to pick a bone with is its sole monologue. After watching a ghost solemnly haunt a single home in silence for, presumably, decades, the film pauses to allow Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy to pontificate about the nature of time & the human condition in an uninterrupted, minutes-long diatribe. In the middle of a house party, Oldham’s unnamed, beer-swilling philosopher explains that, because of the impermanence of the human race & the enormity of time, all art is ultimately insignificant. A great artist might be remembered for the merits of their most substantial work generations after their death, but since humanity & the galaxy that hosts it will ultimately collapse, it’s a temporary impact at best, a complete waste of time at worst. For me, this one speech that seems to be aggravating so many otherwise-enthusiastic audiences is one of the only interesting, honest ideas presented in A Ghost Story. It was one of the few scenes that actually made me perk up in my seat. Unfortunately, its nihilistic worldview also positions the movie as a solidly convincing argument against itself. If all art is ultimately insignificant because of the impermanence of humanity & the destructive forces of time, why should I waste my life watching somber, existential reflections on stillness & regret like the one A Ghost Story presents? It seems like I’d get more out of cheap, immediate thrills like Arnold Schwarzenegger delivering ice pun one-liners or Tom Green swinging a baby above his head in a circle by the umbilical chord. At least I’d have more fun while waiting to be crushed & forgotten by an uncaring universe that way.

Rooney Mara & Casey Affleck star as a visibly dour romantic couple whose main argument seems to recur around Affleck’s deep devotion to their lackluster home. Early in the first act, the poor sap dies in a car wreck mere yards away from the shit hole property he loves so much, then spends the rest of the film silently observing (as a ghost) the ways the home evolves as several different generations pass through it. He watches as Rooney Mara gradually processes her grief & learns to move on with her life. He throws a hissy fit when an eye-rollingly superstitious Hispanic family moves in to replace her, chasing them out of their home. He becomes even more bitter listening to the aforementioned Will Oldham speech, then sorta gives in to his despair as society moves on to bigger & “better” things. While time folds in on itself in the cyclical way the universe tends to go about its business, he’s still left standing in the same spot, stuck, and possibly forgetful of why he stayed behind in the first place. This is obviously a mostly visual narrative. A Ghost Story‘s square frame, with its rounded-off corners (recalling Instagram or an old-fashioned Viewfinder toy), commands much more power & attention than any of its traditional story beats as the centuries roll on and the same drab, Active Child-riffing song loops endlessly on the soundtrack. The still, intimate conflicts of its early scenes eventually evolve into decades-spanning sweeps in later sequences, suggesting a kind of narrative progression in a vague sense, even while Affleck’s ghost remains a fixed point. Excepting Will Oldham’s bloviating at the house party centerpiece, the movie doesn’t do much to perk up its audience outside the strength of its imagery, which is interesting, but never interesting enough.

Besides its 4:3 aspect ratio, A Ghost Story‘s main visual hook is the look of its titular ghost. Casey Affleck’s ghostly visage takes a page from the book of Beetlejuice, adopting the old-fashioned Halloween costume look of a white bedsheet with two cut-out eyeholes. Great costume design detail is paid to the folds & draping of that bedsheet and it’s honestly welcome to have a break from gazing at Affleck’s sexual harasser, Boston bro face for the majority of the movie, but the choice doesn’t amount to much more beyond that. There’s a Tumblr account I follow that adds ghostly bedsheets to old photographs via layers of white-out that does a lot more with this visual conceit in a single frame than A Ghost Story does in an entire feature. It even has the added bonus of not employing a known movie industry creep who seems to be falling upwards in Hollywood right now despite his entitled, abusive misbehavior. Affleck’s presence in the film is most effective when his inherent creepiness is actively put to use, like when he hides in children’s closets or smashes a Latina single mother’s dishes in a temper tantrum. Outside of a couple jump scares, this is no more of a horror film than Personal Shopper or, going further back, Ghost, but there’s still some potential here in the idea of Casey Affleck tormenting PoC families & the women in his former life from beyond the grave that I find more amusing & worthwhile than any of the film’s philosophical ponderings. It’s a shame neither Rooney Mara nor the nameless single mother were afforded as much uninterrupted dialogue as Will Oldham was in his single scene appearance, since their interactions with the ghostly Affleck were much more prolonged & substantial.

In accepting that all art is inconsequential outside its in-the-moment entertainment, the best I could hope to find in A Ghost Story was some sense of novelty. A few stray images like a prismatic reflection on a living room wall transforming into a galaxy or a sheeted Affleck floating through a massive office building were temporary reliefs, but mostly the movie felt like slightly more trouble than it was worth. In A Ghost Story‘s sole moment of true novelty, Rooney Mara attempts to suppress her grief by aggressively eating an entire pie in a single, unbroken shot before inevitably puking it up. I appreciate the dedication in forcing the audience to stew in the discomfort of that moment, but it’s difficult to not feel disappointed that she doesn’t even eat the whole pie before her body gives up. That kind of 75% follow-through corrupts the entire act of watching this film for entertainment in the first place. This is especially true once Will Oldham’s big speech rattles around in the air, questioning the point of watching something like this at all when you could be having cheap fun instead. It’s all meaningless & temporary anyway, so we might as well fill our time with the kind of pictures where, metaphorically speaking, Rooney Mara eats the whole pie.

-Brandon Ledet