Friday, 30 August 2013


Popularity is a curse in film making. The necessity to be unique but do exactly what the audience want creates a near impossible challenge. So when something like handheld video films became popular, how do you make your self stand out? Paranormal Activity did it by scaring audiences senseless and blowing up bank accounts, Chronicle did it with kids with super powers, and Blair Witch Project did it before it was cool. But can today's film do it? This is Grave Encounters.

Grave Encounters starts with a typical cliché for the film style: a television executive claims they have got their hands on the footage about to be shown but little is known about it. But it all soon becomes clear. We are introduced to an amateur film team desperately trying to make a hip, cool, ghost hunting TV show. We see the out-takes, the behind the scenes, and the spooky, but completely fake, world that these hunters present. They lock themselves in an abandoned mental hospital with some horrific past with the intention of staying the night. They set up their cameras and go to explore. However, it seems ghosts are not as fake as they have believed and it seems that the paranormal entities within the hospital are more intent on keeping the crew within the walls than even the chains on the doors. At least it will give them good footage right?

At least the ghosts are polite...

There is no doubt that the acting in all forms of this particular sub-section of horror often falls short of critically acclaimed. Trying to present real life realistically whilst searching for invisible monsters can often come across as cheesy but Grave Encounters cast do not fear this, they revel in it. All of their performances are meant to be parodying shows like Most Haunted UK and the like with their overtly dramatic introductions to a very mundane location. Ben Wilkinson - as team leader Jerry - really emulates this with several takes of the simple introduction with exasperated sighs as tiny things go wrong. Paying off groundsmen to tell stories of ghosts in windows shows the ridiculous nature of these 'totally real' television shows. And their entire personalities change when things start becoming too real. The parody is dropped and, though the cheesiness remains, we feel the fear of the characters showing through.

Welcome to the Criss Angel of ghost shows.

As previously stated, this is a wonderful parody of ghost hunting television shows. It highlights the absurdity of these shows and how they are undoubtedly created. The scares, when they come, vary between the psychological and jumps. There are haunting images, dramatic irony, and a powerful use of the universal human fear of the unknown. Yes, it is cheesy, and yes it is nothing revolutionary but it will no doubt cause a chill down your spine like few other handheld horrors do. The characters are not likeable. Truth be told, they are sleazy but the audience are never encouraged to dislike them. They are human, totally accessible, and we can easily sympathise, even if we recognise their hubris.

A good horror. An old idea executed with authority and command. It will not haunt you forever but it may well make you uncomfortable when watching.

Best Bit? Possibly one of the more well known images of this unknown film, a girl cries in a corner and, when approached by the crew, turns to reveal an uncomfortably dark face which transforms horrifyingly before our eyes. A strong image and a scary moment.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Darkness, Dolls, And Demons.

James Wan. The modern master of horror. With such films as Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious to his name, there is no doubt that he knows how to get people sitting in cinemas waiting to be scared. But with the announcement that he is leaving horror behind him, it may seem these days are soon to be gone. So how is he bowing out of the horror genre? Let us see. This is The Conjuring.

The year is 1971. Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters - Andrea, Nancy, Christine, Cindy, and April (Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Kyla Deaver respectively) - move into an old farm house. Their dog, Sadie, refuses to enter the house and the next day, after the discovery of a boarded up basement, Sadie is found dead in the garden. During the nights, the kids experience some peculiar events. Cindy sleep walks and slams her head into a wardrobe, and something keeps grabbing at Christine's feet. Carolyn eventually seeks help from paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) who agree, reluctantly, to perform an investigation. Despite initial thoughts that there is a very simple explanation for the family's experiences in the house, the happenings get worse and soon the investigating team are not looking to find the problem, but get rid of it.


Patrick Wilson, now working with Wan for the second time (excluding the upcoming Insidious: Chapter 2), and Vera Farmiga are really the main focus of the film. While the build up towards their inclusion in the Perron family's situation is wonderfully chilling, it is only once the investigation is under-way that any real plot begins to settle. Much of the attention is on Famiga's Lorraine from all angles. Wilson's Ed shows a true affection and care for her well being as she approaches the danger, becoming transfixed in horrifying visions and nightmarish scenarios. Fear is possibly the hardest emotion to present with authenticity with Hollywood horror's often over doing it and all subtlety thrown away but Famiga commonly has beautiful moments when you can essentially feel her muscles tense up and her heart stop. There is a realism in that that is regularly missed in horror nowadays. In terms of the child actors, young Joey King, playing Christine, excels over her film siblings. A look of sheer terror into the darkness, seeing something we have not, but her eyes tell us it is there. A fantastic performance from such a young actress.

'Is THAT what I look like today?!'

But The Conjuring is not without its flaws. Like Wan's last outing, Insidious, The Conjuring starts with some absolutely fantastic moments in horror. Suspenseful build up with a terrifying pay off and revisiting of innocent material from earlier in the film makes for some good scares, however, these dwindle out when a complex plot is introduced. That is what happened here. The mindless scares were thoroughly engaging, playing with the unknown, the most universal of human fears, but once more context was added, the fear stopped. Once a threat is understood, a solution is closer and The Conjuring introduced the hope of a resolution far too early. Though, it must be emphasised that the first half is fantastic cinematic horror, there is just nothing revolutionary in the latter half. It is not bad horror, just not special. Of course, it could be argued that the horror, while not revolutionary, is based on fact and that is where true fear should be derived from. This would also explain the unneeded side plot of the Annabelle doll, a murderous possessed toy that is introduced at the beginning of the film as if it were the main evil of the film only to be simply pointed at constantly in the film with exasperated mentions of 'Don't touch that'.

A wonderfully thrilling first half with some genuinely chilling moments, it is just a pity the second act does not reflect the first. An almost impossible fight to win in horror film-making, though. Too many scares and no plot is classed as superficial, too much plot and not enough scares is simply not scary enough. The balance is extremely hard to strike. The Conjuring is, however, still a better horror than many other films that try to slip into that genre, there is just too few moments of brilliance - another thing that only gets harder to complete with every new horror.

Best Bit? It is, sadly, also in the first trailer. Upon checking out the newly found basement, Carolyn strikes a match to see into the silent dark. An eerie pair of hands appear over her shoulder and clap twice. A simple but extremely striking moment of horror cinema.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

On The Airplane - Part 3: Hypnosis

The world loves films about the psychological nature of humans. Things like psychotic episodes, dreams, even psychopathic killers. Look at the popularity of Inception a few years ago. So let us explore the human mind all over again. This is Trance.

'Anyone can steal a piece of art,' we are told immediately. Simon (James McAvoy) works at an art auctioneers and the first rule, should a robbery take place, is do not try to be a hero. But when criminal Franck (Vincent Cassel) attempts to steal a £20 million piece of art, Simon breaks that rule. He rescues the painting and storing it somewhere but he is beaten into a state of amnesia directly afterwards. Simon finds himself in hot water when he can no longer remember the paintings location  but maybe with help from hypno-therapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), all the secrets will be revealed. Perhaps too many secrets. 

Question reality...

Trance's cast is one of the bravest, boldest, and most brilliant of recent years. Cassel, known mostly for his harsh ballet teaching in Black Swan, is a triumph here as Franck. His character portrayal is so shady that it impossible to tell when Franck is truthful and when he is not. A charming antagonist and a wonderfully wicked character to watch. Dawson portrays Elizabeth such unnerving calm, again, raising questions about how trustworthy she is. Why unnerving? When you cannot trust your therapist, who can you trust? And McAvoy. A truly fantastic actor putting forward a truly fantastic performance as the lost, dazed, and confused Simon. His slow descent into madness (or possibly ascent to sanity) as his mind is manipulated until breaking point. Fear, anger, aggression, confusion, love; McAvoy gets it all spot on. 

What is real?

Danny Boyle is no stranger to making great films. He is the rare breed of director that can seem to do no wrong. He even directed the Olympic Opening Ceremony! Where is this man's flaw? Trance is not it. Firstly, it is visually gorgeous. The colour palette is tremendous, bringing out the most vibrant aspects of the rainbow. It is also extremely bold and brave, like the cast. Lots of sex and violence. The latter will cause fearful, squeamish cringing, the former may cause drooling. Another hit for Boyle, though the film itself is not without its issues. The problem with the a film with a complex plot as daring and mind boggling as Trance is that it does not come without its fair share of confusion. The plot twists will excite all the audience, but on the way, they will find themselves questioning what is really happening. No one wants to be made to feel slow by a film. 

It is smart, sexy, and completely psychotic. Hold on to your hats and keep your attention up. It needs is, but by golly is it worth it. A fast paced trip through the human mind. 

Best Bit?  As the film twists more than a roller coaster, it is difficult to say too much without spoiling anything. Go see it and find your own best bit. 


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

On The Airplane - Part 2: Russia Explodes

With four films leading up to this (reviewed here and here), the first being one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, there will forever be a sceptical frame of mind towards a franchise on its fifth adventure. But can this prove all those cynics wrong? This is A Good Day To Die Hard.

The unlucky, unusual, and downright unfortunate police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) is on the search for his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who has just turned up in prison in Moscow. John takes a vacation to see what is up and accidentally interrupts his son's CIA mission. Oops. Whilst trying to get a file from government whistle-blower Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch), John slows the CIA down, with good intentions, of course, but causes them to miss their extraction. Having to move to plan B, which also goes sour, the CIA have little choice but to allow John's involvement, but who can the McClane duo trust, and who will turn against them?

You may think this scene is unnecessary...
You would be completely right.
There is no doubt that Willis is still the same Mclane that he has always been, though slightly more chirpy than the fourth instalment. The constant yells of, 'I'm on vacation!', before doing something extremely stupid remind us that, whilst he is still an awesome badass, he is getting old. His son, played by Jai Courtney, brings the youthful spirit into the film, leaping around n slow motion but showing no positivity for his father. Unexplored trauma that no one dares develop much. Really, all of the performances feel a bit forced like there is no passion in anything. The bad guys do not seem to evil, there is no evidence that John has done enough to make Jack hate him, and Willis is simply resorting back to an old recipe that has always worked. It is rare to expect an Oscar worthy performance in a Die Hard film, but at least in the past there has been some notion that all the cast members are trying. Here, everyone seems to have rolled out of bed, read their lines, and gone home.

John was very proud of his son's ninth Doctor cosplay...

Of course, these are not the only issues with the film. One thing that is critically underdeveloped is a small little thing commonly known as the plot. After half an hour of thoroughly enjoyable action packed mayhem, the audience are left with a question: what was it for? The antagonist switches more than a strobe light turns on, and none of them are developed in any shape or form - their motives extremely vague. There is plenty of father and son bonding and lots of things explode but questions are raised and never answered. It is like the creative team thought the only worthwhile thing in Die Hard was the explosive violence and so simply discarded the story this time round. Even the badly received Die Hard 4.0 had a solid story line, even if it was ridiculous. Maybe the franchise should take some advice from the film's title.

The action is fantastic, even if it has no real purpose, but, sadly, the film does not explode off the screen in the same way the cars do. Maybe it is time for McClane to finally retire.

Best Bit? The first half an hour of mayhem. At that point in the film, an explanation simply is not needed. Mindless carnage with some of Willis best lines and some genuinely inventive destruction.