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

The Devil’s Candy (2017)

Heavy metal & horror seem like an obvious, foolproof combination, but mixing the two comparably macabre mediums for easy cinematic terror without backsliding into clichéd cheese is actually a very difficult balance to strike. For every successful metal-themed horror film, like the recent triumph​ Deathgasm, there’s a thousand corny hair metal & nu-metal failures that make the entire enterprise feel like a cheap, half-cooked financial ploy. As with most hyper-specific fandoms, such as superhero comics or pro wrestling or video game cultures, there’s always a sense with metal that inauthentic outsiders will be eaten alive by those in the know if they aren’t coming from the knowledgeable starting point of a true fan. The metal in Deathgasm and even Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny feels true to the culture in ways that less successful (but enjoyably campy) features like Shock ‘Em Dead & Trick or Treat (1986) don’t and through that authenticity they build a more long-lasting, dedicated fan base. I believe The Devil’s Candy will also strike a chord (heh, heh) with true metal fandom in the same way. It makes a strong case for itself as a title worth being championed by the legions of black leather-clad headbangers out there who’re hungry for authentic metal-themed horror. It even does so without acknowledging the basic silliness of that combo the way the more comedic titles Deathgasm & Pick of Destiny do.

A young family moves into what’s quickly revealed to be a haunted house. The gloomy teen daughter struggles to find footing in her new school, but bonds with her work-at-home artist father (Can’t Hardly Wait/Empire Records‘s all-growed-up Ethan Embry) over a shared love of melt-your-face metal riffs. The mother (UnReal‘s Shiri Appelby) doesn’t share their passion for ear-shattering monster riffs, but the family functions well as an insular unit. This cohesion unravels, of course, as the demons that haunt their new home show themselves as an artistic muse both for the paterfamilias painter and for the mentally disabled man who formerly occupied their home and is revealed very early in the proceedings to be a self-conflicted murderer. The painter loses time while feverishly working on increasingly disturbing art in his new studio space, dropping the ball on his familial obligations while sinking into a hypnotic state. This leaves his wife & daughter vulnerable to the cursed home’s former resident, who’s similarly compelled to hypnotically riff on his candy red, flying-V guitar at unreasonable volumes . . . as well as to chop up children with a hacksaw. As the painter reflects on the young figures that suddenly populate his increasingly violent works, he explains, “It’s like these children are inside of me, begging, screaming to get out. And I don’t know why.” Presumably, the child killer feels the same way about his own unsavory passion, but he much less eloquently states that children “are the sweetest candy of all.” It’s an effectively creepy line.

Story-wise, The Devil’s Candy is a fairly standard haunted house creepshow, not much different from other recent low budget horrors like We Are Still Here or I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House. The film is slickly edited, however, especially in scenes where Ethan Embry’s painter loses time in a trance while images of his intensifying artistic process mix with the equally haunted killer’s own mode of expression: dead children. It’s an eerie device for depicting possession, one where ghosts & demons are only felt onscreen through the artistic muse of the people they torment. The metal soundtrack that flavors these scenes is only ever disrupted by the always-creepy sounds of Catholic mass (I feel comfortable saying that as someone who was reluctantly raised in the Church), which pushes the central hauntings beyond basic artistic obsession into a religious (if blasphemous) zealotry. Character actor Leland Oser (who recently killed it as the lead in Faults) appears occasionally as a priest on the killer’s personal collection of VHS tapes to explain that Satan is very much real and that humans are His demons who walk the Earth, allowing Him to express His evil through their bodies. Sometimes this takes the form of oil on canvas; sometimes it looks like hacked-up dead children. The basic premise of the film might be an overly familiar concept, but the way it’s expressed onscreen as artistic muse is still chillingly effective.

Initially premiering at the Toronto International Film Fest in 2015 and being quietly dumped to VOD two years later, The Devil’s Candy isn’t likely to make waves outside eagle-eyed horror circles. Within these clusters of people who obsessively pick over every new horror release, however, the film’s likely to find a significant, dedicated audience, especially with folks who regularly listen to metal. The Devil’s Candy‘s haunted house premise is far from a game changer, but its slick editing style and authentic heavy metal aesthetic is likely to win over a very specific, very dedicated audience in the long run. They might award the film two devil horns way up \m/ \m/ instead of the traditional Siskel & Ebert thumbs, but the sentiment will be all the same.

-Brandon Ledet

Sickhouse (2016)

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threehalfstar

I’m a huge sucker for throwaway details from internet-specific visual palettes being employed in my cheap genre cinema. Titles like Unfriended, Nerve, #horror, and Beware the Slenderman have all incorporated bullshit, disposable internet imagery in their visual aesthetic to terrorize audiences with social media alarmism in a way that feels fresh & fascinating to me, making for some of my favorite cinematic experiences in the past few years. I honestly believe that these films, although instantly dated, will serve as a great time capsule of where our culture is currently at mentally & spiritually a few decades down the line, the way slashers defined the 80s & torture porn ruled the 00s. The dirt cheap, smart phone-filmed found footage horror Sickhouse joins the recent trend of social media-obsessed genre cinema by pushing its premise even further into verisimilitude. Released over three days last Spring via a series of posts on the Snapchat app, this hour-long cheapie actively participates in the social media platform it openly condemns. By adopting the format of its critical target right down to its mode of release, Sickhouse emerges feeling like a newly exciting filmmaking innovation, despite easy complaints that could be lobbed its way in terms of narrative ambition. Admittedly, the film doesn’t stray too far from its Blair Witch But With Snapchat premise in any narrative sense, but as an experiment in genre film technique, that formula was more than enough to generate some interesting results, especially for those as enamored as I am with films like Unfriended and Nerve.

“Have you ever seen The Blair Witch Project?” A character bluntly asks his fellow teens this blatantly silly question over a campfire, knowing full well that they’ve already been living the exact plot of that late-90s milestone. A handful of young, overconfident fools venture into the woods to investigate an urban legend about a haunted house, documenting their every move with an ever-present smartphone. Like with Blair Witch, their dialogue is mostly improvised, one character is blamed for getting the whole crew hopelessly lost, and there’s an excess of extratextual material backing up the central folklore to make it feel legitimate (visitsickhouse.com). According to that smokescreen website’s account of the True Events, the titular Sickhouse has three defining rules: 1) Don’t make any noise, 2) Don’t go inside, 3) Leave a gift on the porch. Like with Blair Witch, our dumb teen protagonists turn their noses up at genuine engagement with the local legend, laughing off the danger of the scenario and breaking every single rule set before them. Also like Blair Witch, they’re punished within the house they clearly should have avoided venturing inside in the first place, but there is no gore or violent end shown onscreen. Anyone looking for more than a brief flash of a face or a hand from the teens’ supernatural tormentors is going to be disappointed by what’s delivered. The film instead attempts to creep the audience out through pure folklore & mythology. Have I mentioned The Blair Witch Project enough to get the general vibe & narrative of the film across? Because it’s exactly like Blair Witch.

What’s most important here is form, not content. Sickhouse is shot entirely through the rectangular aspect ratio of a vertical smartphone video. Onscreen text & MS Paint quality doodles overlay the imagery in the way most Snapchat videos would be hastily edited. Because shots cannot extend past 10 seconds in length due to Snapchat’s formatting, the film finds kinetic energy in a never-ending series of rapid fire shots. Characters philosophize about the nature of Snapchat and social media at large at length. When our smartphone-toting protagonist is admonished for posting too often, she’s told, “Snapchat’s not a documentary. It’s just . . . stuff.” As an audience, we all know that it’s carefully curated “stuff,” though. Even when the two girls that drive the plot are sleeping, camping, or running for their lives in a haunted house, they’re always wearing make-up and always attempting to choose the most flattering angles for their omni-present faces. One of those two girls is played by *shudder* “YouTube personality” Andrea Russet, who brings a kind of authentically false persona to the role of a narcissistic brat who obsessively cultivates online fans, but will also chide friends for using their phones too often. Russet’s real life YouTube Channel features bafflingly popular videos with inane titles like, “Dying My Hair Purple,” “Cuddling With My Ex-Boyfriend,” and “My Morning Routine,” so her onscreen presence, as painfully inauthentic as it feels, actually has a lot of credibility to it that makes Sickhouse feels as close to the genuine thing as possible.

I’m not convinced writer-director Hannah MacPherson knows exactly what to do with all of this internet age narcissism & over-sharing except to represent it onscreen. There’s nothing to Sickhouse‘s social media themes that are explored too far beyond maybe a character ironically declaring, “Social media is a plague” while obsessively uploading short-form videos to Snapchat or a few online “followers” becoming stalker-level followers in a much more literal, physical sense. Still, the way MacPherson applies the visual & narrative techniques of broadcasting a curated personal aesthetic on social media to a standard obnoxious teens getting punished for smoking weed & having sex horror structure make for some really exciting results. I have my own stray complaints about some of her individual choices (the ending could’ve been more jarring, the third act body horror of the teens becoming ill could’ve been pushed further, there really was no need for any non-diegetic music), but for the most part I was delighted & energized by what she pulls off here. Many will brush off Sickhouse as a gimmick, an act of frivolity, but I think it’s secretly a doorway to the future of filmmaking. Not the long-term future, mind you, but certainly what’s soon to come. Even Sickhouse‘s phone screen aspect ratio makes it feel as if you’re peeking in on the film through a doorway and that space-conscious tension allows for an unnerving feeling in images like a mangled deer or a well-arranged still life of “gifts” left on the titular house’s porch. That won’t be enough of a payoff for everyone who tunes in, but I at the very least found it to be an entertaining experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

EPSON MFP image

twohalfstar

I’m a huge fan of ambient, abstracted horror, but it’s a difficult formula to pull off. The quietly unnerving thrills of titles like Evolution, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Under the Skin, and The Witch are a lot more difficult to pin down than the inventive kills, gruesome creature designs, and effective jump scares more conventional horror films rely on for easy success. It’s always a bigger risk, then, for a horror picture to reach for that atmosphere over genre thrills ethos and I greatly respect I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House for its ambition in chasing menacing abstraction. Unfortunately, though, this straight to Netflix cheapie never quite commands the confidence & soul-shattering dread needed to make its abstracted, intangible terror worthwhile. Instead of dealing in unnerving ambiance, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House winds up feeling like a studied exercise in emptiness. It’s an admirable stab at abstract horror, but the blade misses its mark and the audience walks away dazed, but entirely unharmed.

Part of the reason this small scale ghost story fails to connect with its atmospheric target is that its central victim never feels like a real person. A live-in nurse caring for an aged horror novelist finds herself alone for days on end in an ancient home. She explains several times in her near-constant narration that “A house can’t be bought or sold by the living. It can only be borrowed from the ghosts who stayed behind.” Although an ostensibly modern character, she always speaks in this measured, inhuman way, breathily peppering her dialogue with phrases like “Heavens to Betsy,” and explaining herself to be a notorious scaredy cat. What follows is a low rent version of Guillermo del Toro’s revivalist Gothic horror Crimson Peak, with the scaredy cat nurse investigating a possible murder committed in the house, one hinted at in her patient’s novel The Lady in the Walls (a nod to the similar in tone short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” no doubt). Her fascination with this mystery slowly ramps up tension in a series of increasingly bizarre hallucinations, but never culminates in a satisfying way, mostly because the audience never really gets to know or care about the one character who quietly witnesses them.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House very nearly reaches a worthwhile sense of menacing, abstracted dread in its third act hallucinations. Body horror scares mix with characters plucked from costume drama murder mysteries and a score of eerie hums to hint at the better movie this could’ve been with a better-defined lead character or more of a climactic playoff. Less-patient horror fans will be immediately turned off by the film’s whispered narration & representations of ghosts as feminine figures stalking blurred, black voids, but I don’t think that dedication to stillness & quiet is necessarily its worst impulse. I just think the movie fell a little short in achieving something memorably unnerving. The most immediately significant aspect of the film that comes to mind as I mull over its distinguishing details is a bit role from Bob Balaban, who was barely in the picture. This kind of abstract, loosely held together horror requires a lot of concentrated dedication from its audience’s end, which means that when it fails to make the effort worthwhile it’s easy to feel frustrated with its more glaring shortcomings. I respect I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House for reaching for such a lofty, intangible goal, but it never quite met me halfway in achieving it.

-Brandon Ledet

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

ghost

threehalfstar

campstamp

Between Battleship, Clue, and now Ouija: Origin of Evil, I can honestly say I’ve never seen a movie based off a board game that I did not enjoy. It’s a strange feeling, considering how many awful movies based on action figures, video games, and comic books have been released over the years. My best guess as to why the board game movie has a fairly high success rate, besides not having a large number of chances to shit the bed, is that there’s a playfulness inherent to the sub-subgenre that calls for a kind of in-on-the-joke campiness that deflects a lot of potential criticism with a casual wave of the hand. The trailers for Ouija: Origin of Evil signaled to me, “Hey, we’re just having fun here. No pressure,” and the film itself followed through on that cavalier attitude. I’m not saying that Origin of Evil was the kind of lazy, winking affair you’d find in a Sharknado or a Lavalantula, but it did have a playful smirk in the way it chose to deliver its genre thrills, one that undercut any of its generic formula and made me wonder if I might be a fan of the board game movie as an artistic medium.

If there’s anything unfortunate about the ad campaign that hooked me into watching Origin of Evil, it’s that it revealed a little too much. Not only was every potential scare up until the last half hour thoroughly spoiled in the trailers, but the film’s few major narrative reveals were also spelled out in the campaign. Since we know ahead of time that a family of scam artist “psychics” who fake communication with the dead will be taught a harsh lesson by actually communicating with the dead through the titular haunted board game, there’s not much room left for the film to surprise in terms of unexpected story beats. Worse yet, the ads revealed that the youngest, most adorable member of the family would suffer a Linda Blair-style demonic possession that causes her to do & say all the freaky Creepy Kid Horror things we’ve been seeing on film since all the way back to Village of the Damned (if not earlier): spooky voices, inhuman contortions, ice cold precociousness, etc. Where Origin of Evil makes these already-expected tropes worthwhile, then, is in how willing it is to have fun with the very familiar space it carves out for itself.

Like with a lot of recent horror films, Origin of Evil sets its haunted house/board game horrors decades in the past, this time opting for the 1960s instead of the well-worn temporal setting of the 70s (like in The Conjuring & We Are Still Here). This not only makes room for beautiful sets & costuming in its production design and removes pesky horror-prevention inventions like cellphones & Google from the scenario; it also harkens back to a time when the ouija board was new & sacred. The religious adherence to rules like “Don’t play by yourself” & “Never play in a graveyard,” makes it all the more significant when they’re inevitably broken and violators are punished accordingly. Visually, the film also has a lot of fun with the detail allowed by the setting, digitally recreating “cigarette burn” reel changes & indulging in the most split diopter shots I’ve seen since Blow Out. There’s some fun touches in the dialogue that are specific to the era as well, like when a teen boy mansplains to a group of girls why we could never land on the moon & in the general Brady Bunch precociousness of the evil little girl at the film’s center as she gleefully channels the restless spirits of the dead. If set in 2016, Ouija: Origin of Evil might have been a generic, by the books blur (which, by all accounts, its 2014 predecessor Ouija was), but something about a rock ‘n roll 60s familial melodrama being invaded by an evil board game allowed a lot of room for camp horror efficiency & the film had a lot of fun playing around in that space.

It’s difficult to say exactly what I’m looking for when I go see a modern generic horror at the theater, but Ouija: Origin of Evil delivers it with ease. It’s got exactly what I felt was missing from other 2016 titles like The Darkness, The Forest, and (the worst of the bunch) Lights Out, bested only by The Boy in putting a smile on my face while supplying what I want from Modern Big Studio Horror, whatever it is. Director Mike Flanagan, who also helmed Hush & Oculus, has a great track record with making gold out of standard horror fare so far, so surely he should be given some significant credit for crafting an enjoyable prequel to a film I never plan to see here, but I also think there’s something to the board game movie as a novelty subgenre that made his playfulness possible. Using the ouija board as a centerpiece opened up a goofy-spooky playground for Flanagan to let loose in and it’s fun watching him gleefully run in circles with his camera within that environment.

-Brandon Ledet

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

three star

One year after the Art Deco silent horror masterwork The Bat made the jump from stage to screen, Universal Studios got their feet wet in the horror game with an adaptation of a very similar play, The Cat and the Canary. Along with the much lesser trifle Midnight Faces, The Bat & The Cat and the Canary combined to establish what would become a very popular subgenre of early horror: the “old dark house.” In the “old dark house” story, guests at an ancient, spooky mansion are terrorized by seemingly supernatural events & a mysterious killer. At the story’s natural end the killer’s identity is revealed and all of the preceding supernatural events are explained to be their doing. This was a very popular murder mystery/horror plot form the 30s throughout the 50s until the murder mystery aspect was dropped & the supernatural elements were played up & developed into the “haunted house” genre. By the 1970s & onward the “old dark house” plot was spoof fodder for properties like Murder by Death, Clue, and Scooby-Doo, but in the 1920s it played remarkably fresh, with The Cat and The Canary standing as a prime example of the horror genre’s merits as an artform. Unfortunately, in retrospect the film feels a lot less special & a little more flawed than it did to the audiences it floored in 1927, especially with the towering presence of The Bat casting its shadow over the ordeal.

A wealthy eccentric on his death bed bemoans the fact that his family hungers after his money like a gang of cats circling a caged canary. In order to fight them off, he sets the reading of his will 20 years into the future, when the family returns to learn that the money has been willed to his most distant relative. There is then a conspiracy to drive this distant relative insane as a means to strip them of their newfound wealth due to incompetence. In the meantime anyone foolish enough to get in the way is mysteriously murdered and, because the mansion setting is so very spooky, their deaths are blamed on “ghosts.” The Cat and the Canary boasts a very straightforward plot structure that calls a lot of attention to its stage play origins, but what the film lacks in a unique narrative, director Paul Leni makes up for in pure atmosphere. The German Expressionist filmmaker brings an incredible eye for visual play to the big screen, a bridge between art house Europe & the more rigid spectacle of Old Hollywood that I believe would guide the heights of Universal horror productions for decades to come. Leni unlocks the silliness of the film’s stage play origins and allows the camera to move in subtly haunting ways, as if exploring a crime scene with a flashlight (quite literally in an early moment). He also relies heavily on German Expressionism’s penchant for drastic lighting & dreamlike imagery. Gigantic cats & medicine bottles tower over a dying man. Overlaid images like a doorknocker, an envelope, and a gloved hand shift large in perspective, foreshadowing the deep focus technique Citizen Kane would pioneer in the early 40s. Just examining gorgeous, isolated frames of the film, it’s no wonder that The Cat and the Canary was known as the definitive  & haunted house movie,  inspiring no less than five other feature film adaptations of the same play & influencing horror giants like Alfred Hitchcock with its visual style.

The problem with The Cat and the Canary is a fairly common one with old school horror productions. It’s actually the sole reason I had to knock a half-star off my rating for the otherwise flawless The Bat. In order to soften the cruel blow of the film’s supernatural (and potentially blasphemous) terrors, old fashioned horror was often mixed with hokey yuck-em-up comedy, particularly in American productions. In The Bat, a dopey, dim-witted maid makes an ass out of herself by continually mis-guessing the true identity of The Bat. In Midnight Faces, the “old dark house” genre’s other founding father, the comedy takes the ugly form of racial caricature in a scaredy cat black sidekick. The Cat and the Canary, unfortunately, stretches the comedy element across as many characters as it can, turning what is otherwise a beautifully-constructed art film into a painfully hokey farce. Now-tired gags like a scared character stuttering, “G-g-g-g-ghosts!” & incomprehensible relics like, “It’s about time you climbed on the milk wagon,” (what?) drag a lot of what makes The Cat and the Canary special down into the depths of eyeroll-worthy comedic tedium and it’s honestly a damn shame.

There’s certain old-world cheese that I can forgive given this film’s ancient release date, such as the way it hammers home the central cat & canary metaphor that gives it a title over, I believe, three separate repetitions. That I can live with. The way the film’s hokey comedy routines drain the blood out of its supernatural horror, however, is a true bummer. The Cat and the Canary is ultimately a film at war with itself. As a cornerstone of what American horror would come to look like in it wake, the film is an indispensable artifact and an occasionally breathtaking one at that. It’s also a failed comedy, though, which is up there with the most difficult kinds of films out there to enjoy. This is a problem made even worse by the fact that it’s bested by The Bat in every single possible regard, especially in the look of its central killer antagonist, which is not at all catlike in his visage in comparison to the other film’s humanoid creature. The result is a flawed work that I admired, but also found a little disappointing. I hope somewhere else in Paul Leni’s career there was a film that made proper use of his stunning cinematic eye without cheapening it with broad humor.

-Brandon Ledet