V/H/S (2012) Fantastic Found Tape Fear

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I had thought that I was pretty much burnt out on “found footage” films. But my excitement levels rose after this film got into its second vignette  out of the six “mini” films on offer here.

Although the film really falls into the anthology genre, a few horror films do this really well but the ones who can really pull if off are all Asian film makers, who have yet to make an anthology film that could be classed as a stinker.

This anthology of “found” footage horror films had been written and directed by some of the most impressive new names in horror today:  Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and the directing quartet known as Radio Silence.

The film opened January 2012 at the  2012 Sundance Film Festival  and was then  released on demand on August 31, 2012. V/H/S then had a limited  theatrical premiere in the United States on October 5, 2012, in the UK on January 18, 2013, and in Argentina on February 7, 2013.

I will not go into any of the films except for the one that ties all the segments together. A group of young men are hired to steal a video tape from a house. They accept the job and find that the house is full of video tapes, video players and a dead man. As the film moves forward, the action keeps cutting back to the room with the dead (?) man and all those tape players.

Tapes are put into a player and watched, by both one of the young men and us. The dead body on the chair behind the film’s video watching character appears and disappears. It is a brilliant way to segue the different films together in a cohesive manner.

Each of the six films are entertaining. Each one has a separate theme and they all feature a type of almost “guerrilla” film making. The other thing that the films all have in common, is that they don’t don’t suffer from what I like the call, “The Cloverfield Effect.”

In the 2008 film, Cloverfield, when the character in the film who was “filming” the events put the camera down, even in a stressful or scary situation, the camera was always right side up and always in focus. The found films in the anthology don’t do that. Cameras seemingly wind up where they, “wind up,” if you get my meaning. It doesn’t feel like a “movie” so much as actual found footage.

The news that a sequel is due out this year, actually has me quite excited. As I said above, I thought I was burnt out on this particular genre, but apparently,  a well made “found footage” film can still get me excited.

This is a real 5 out of 5 stars as all the stories were original and in most cases, I couldn’t see the twist coming. Of course I might be too obtuse, but as a rule, I can usually see the twist a mile away. Great little film here that won’t disappoint you.

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Open Graves (2009): Sizzling Dushku

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Directed by Álvaro de Armiñán and written by the Father/son duo of Roderick and Bruce A. Taylor Open Graves is like Jumanji on PCP or alternatively for grown-ups.

There’s nothing new here on offer. An old board game that “magically’ comes alive to inflict horrible deaths on the losers and maybe give the winner their ultimate wish. Sort of like Jumanji on acid or PCP.

One complaint about the film on IMDb was that, “The board game was created in 1465 Spain, so how come all the directions and cards are in English?” Fair point I suppose, but if the game is magic doesn’t it stand to reason that if English-speaking folks play it, the game switches to…oh…say, English? So if Spaniards or some French folks start to play, then the cards and directions would be in Spanish and/or French, respectively.

Just a thought.

I will openly admit to liking the film. Mainly because it features the sexy, sultry, and sizzling hot Eliza Dushku (who was obviously on break from the 2009 telly series Dollhouse) who plays the love interest in the film. But the lovely Eliza had a little competition from actress Naike Rivelli  who, if they ever film Ava Gardener’s life story could play The Barefoot Contessa quite easily, she could be Ava’s twin.

The male “love interest” is Mike Vogel whom you might recognise from Cloverfield. He makes a pretty fair romantic match for Dushku’s character.

The film opens with scenes of torture. A lot of nude women being cut, maimed, burnt, et al; all in the pursuit of proving their innocence or guilt in the area of witchcraft. All this murder and mayhem before the opening credits. The end result of all this “Witchfinder General” type activity results in one of these unfortunates being found guilty of witchcraft.

The lady in question, one Mamba by name, is skinned alive for her poor career choice and her skin and organs are used to make a “cursed” game. Somewhat similar to  the board game in Jumanji,  cards are drawn that state (in rather morbid prose) what the player’s fate will be after their “token” lands on a certain space.

It is now “present day” and a group of twenty-somethings are on holiday in Spain. Jason (Vogel) and his mate Tomàs (Ethan Rains) are at the beach when Jason notices Tomàs chatting up a gorgeous beach babe (Dushku) whose name is Erica. Jason is immediately smitten and Erica reciprocates the emotion.

These two lovebirds decide to play a game that Jason has found called (appropriately enough) Mamba. Erica seems to know an awful lot about the game and the two of them talk the rest of the gang into playing.

The end result is that the losers die gruesome deaths not long after getting bumped off the board. Jason and Erica must complete the game in order to save their friends.

Despite the low score on IMDb (4.0 if you’re interested) I thought the film was pretty enjoyable. The pacing was good, the effects impressive and the story, while not blazingly original, did not insult the audiences intelligence too much and there was a good old sense of urgency to the groups survival.

I’d love to go into the films “nuts and bolts” a bit more but that would be skirting dangerously near spoiler territory and I don’t want to go there.

The film is available on Netflix at the moment, which is where I saw it (on UK Netflix) and it was worth the time spent to watch it. So pop yourself some popcorn, prepare a big glass of your favourite beverage and sit down to enjoy this ‘board’ game adventure, you won’t get ‘bored’ I promise.

And on a sad note; Film critic Roger Ebert passed away today and while I quite often did not agree with his views on film, I will miss his often acerbic possessions on films and can only wonder what he would have made of this film. If I’m correct, I don’t think he would have thought too much about its relevance or value. I guarantee though, that he would have stated his views vociferously and scathingly as only he could.

RIP Roger Ebert (B: 1942 – D: 2013)

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Atrocious (2010): A Horror Film by any Other Name…

Written and directed by Fernando Barreda Luna, Atrocious opened to mixed reviews most notably from Rotten Tomatoes. I will admit to having passed over this particular film several times on LOVEFILM. The thumbnail combined with the films short description did nothing to peak my interest. The film’s title also did nothing to help sell the film. I am still at a bit of a loss to understand why it was titled Atrocious.

Finally curiosity forced me to give the film a try and I’m not sorry I did. The film was edited very well and the guerilla style of film-making helped to bring the events to life. I was afraid that the film was going to be another ‘Blair Witch‘ or ‘Paranormal’ or even ‘Cloverfield‘ and that it just would not be worth the time it took to watch the film.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. The film may have borrowed a little from each of the three mentioned titles, but they borrowed so little that it wasn’t readily noticeable.

The film’s plot is quite straight forward. The Quintanilla are going to their summer home for a holiday. Once there the two older children, Cristian and his sister July, continue to work on a video they started making before they arrived at the summer home.

Intrigued by an urban myth about the forest surrounding their summer home, they decide to focus their video on the woods and the myth itself. The myth says that if you are lost in the woods the spirit of a girl called Melinda will guide you or show you the right way out of the woods.

Cristian and July decided to explore the forest and see if they can get to the heart of the myth. In the meantime their younger brother Jose must keep himself entertained and mother keeps busy doing things around the house. Their father has been called away on business.

When mother finds out that they have been filming in the woods, she freaks out and forbids them from entering the forest. They pretty much ignore this new rule and when the family dog goes missing, the first place the kids go to look is the forest.

Despite the fact that this is Luna’s first feature length film, he proves that he is more than capable of using suspense in the best way possible to make some of the scenes excruciating to watch. As the suspense mounts up, it takes very little for your imagination to take over and send you into a child-like state of fear.

Luna has also opted to use the absolute minimum of music in the soundtrack. The absence of ‘mood’ music helps to build the unease that we feel watching and puts the audience into an almost ‘fly-on-the-wall’ position.  When the final twist is exposed to the kids and us, we are shocked, confused and left slightly breathless. I certainly did not see the twist and it took me completely by surprise.

The film opens stating that what we are watching has been compiled from a police evidence tape. The entire family was found murdered and this the only footage of what happened. So even though you fully expect the family to die, when it happens, you are still surprised.

I  kept expecting the victims to get killed off much earlier. So that there was a ‘building’ body count. Luna decided not to take that route and chose instead to shock us all at once.

The scenes in the forest at night were extremely well done and even had the odd bit of comedy thrown in which helped to make the footage seem more real. The young actors playing Cristian and July (Cristian ValenciaClara Moraleda) really felt like a brother and sister with the way they interacted with one another.

Overall this film was a lovely little surprise that, despite the somewhat confusing title, really delivered as a horror film. I can say that Atrocious is one of the better horror films I’ve seen this year.

If you go into the woods today…

Chronicle (2012): With Great Power Comes Great Problems

Directed and co-written by Josh Trank (Max Landis was the other writer on the film) Chronicle is a brilliant example of what film making should be.  The three actors who play the main protagonists in the film, Michael B. Jordan (Steve), Alex Russell (Matt), and Dane DeHaan (Andrew) really sell the film. It is not surprising though, Jordan and DeHaan have both been working for a while in the business and Jordan has been popular in television for some time now. Russell is the youngest in terms of screen time, but it does not show in his performance.

The Readers Digest version of the plot is as follows:

Andrew has started filming his life. Although as we initially get to know Andrew, we can only wonder why? Andrew is one of life’s social outcasts. His life, pretty much sucks. His mother is dying slowly and painfully from cancer. His dad is drinking to dull the pain of the expense of caring for and the eventual loss of his wife. Unfortunately a by-product of dad’s drinking is physical and verbal abuse of Andrew. At school Andrew is pretty much friendless except for his cousin Matt. He is a figure to be picked on by bullies and shunned by the girls in his school.

His cousin Matt invites Andrew to a Rave. The idea is for Andrew to meet more people and work on his social skills. Alas, Andrew meets the same personality types in the Rave as in his school. He is thrown out of the Rave along with his video camera.

He is approached by Steve, a friend of Matt’s, who asks Andrew to come and film something that he and Matt have found. What they have found is a hole in the ground that contains a large crystal-like object that exudes light and a humming sound. The three boys are affected by this crystal thing and it affects the camera as well. After apparently passing out the boys leave the crystal and the hole.

The boys discover that they can do special things since their encounter with the crystal.  Andrew who is filming everything, records the new ‘powers’ that the crystal has given them. The boys have seemingly developed super powers. They can fly, are pretty much impervious to pain, and can use telekinesis to control and move objects. Out of the three boys, it turns out that Andrew is the most capable and the strongest.

Andrew begins to change. Matt talks him into entering the school’s talent show. Andrew will use his powers to put on a magic act. Steve and Matt both help Andrew. The goal is to improve Andrew popularity at school. The plan seems to be working great until they go to a party after the talent show. Andrew disappears upstairs with a girl to ‘pop his cherry’ and it goes very badly. Andrew vomits on the girl and himself. Humiliated Andrew leaves the party.

Andrew’s Mother is getting worse and his father is becoming more abusive. These combine to make Andrew’s mood very dark indeed. He decides, in the depths of his misery that he is a Apex Predator and that he can harm or kill who ever he wants to.

This film caught my attention from the first frame and did not relinquish it until the final credits rolled. Trank and Landis have created a brilliant picture of what life is like from the viewpoint of a loser. They also show that being a loser has a lot to do with your state of mind, not just your circumstances. Andrew is one of life’s losers, so much so that even after he gets ‘super-powers’ he is unable to rise above the set backs he is presented with.

Andrew is so full of rage at the way his life is, he cannot accept that he alone change it. It makes his character just as doomed as if he had never gotten his super powers. Both Steve and Matt try repeatedly to help Andrew overcome his social ineptness and increase his popularity with everyone. Unfortunately Andrew is so bogged down in his misery that he never really stands a chance.

The film is brilliantly shot and the CGI is perfect. The scenes where the boys are first learning to fly and then mastering the skill of it are amazing. The entire film is helped by the Blair Witch  and Cloverfield approach. We the audience see everything through the lens of Andrew’s camera and it is done so well that we can really identify with Andrew and his frustration and anger. If I had to hazard a guess, I think the message that the film is trying to convey is this: No matter how much power you have, it means nothing if you can’t rise above yourself.

Chronicle is a brilliant film that enjoyed a positive reception from both critics and the audience. I would highly recommend seeing this just for the flying scenes alone.