Thursday, June 4, 2015

On the Big Screen :: A Trio of Recent Fright Flicks that I Saw and Finally Got Around to Writing Up.

I saw Poltergeist (2015) in a near empty theater with four different knots of teenage girls who were primed and ready to scream. So it was a small but a good, lively crowd; too bad there was nothing really to scream at.  

Still, this remake wasn't that terrible. And despite the fresh angle of a family in a terminal financial crisis relocating to a new house due to the Great Recession, it felt really by the numbers, plot-wise, as you could almost hear someone scratching a check-mark for each nod and rehash of the original that was quickly airbrushed over by a tweak that, alas, worked more not than often; and it seemed the faster they could check things off the better. In fact, the whole film felt like it was in a hurry for no appreciable reason. It was also plagued by a ton of sloppy edits that weren't helping the cause. Also, SQUIRREL!

And as my friend Tim Gerlomi so rightfully pointed out, static shocks aside, the film was sorely missing the establishing scenes of the family playing with the strangeness in Spielbergian wonder before Hooper brings the hammer of annihilation down on them. The cast almost elevates things up a notch, but I think it would've been better to focus on the ghost-hunting team of Jarred Harris and Jane Adams instead of the family -- the elder sister needed about three more rewrites, and Sam Rockwell appears to be sleepwalking through the whole thing, which was a huge disappointment. 

One of the smartest things the original Poltergeist (1982) did was shuttle off the kids once the ectoplasm hits the fan. That is not the case here, as the telegraphed climax is about the scaredy-cat brother finally getting over the bump-in-the-night hump. Also of note, I'm not sure if filmmakers are finally learning how to use 3-D properly or the local theater finally has the projector in focus but that was two topographical films in a row (this and Fury Road) that worked the process really well. The F/X were top-notch, but they were doled out very frugally, as if they were waiting for something big that never really came.

So, yeah, not that great, not that terrible, and totally unwarranted; and so, a hearty I'd wait for rental to all my fellow ghostbreakers out there. Next up...

On the one year anniversary of Laura Barns' (Heather Sossaman) very public suicide -- a very public suicide that will live forever thanks to a smart-phone video, six of her friends log-in for a Skype chat, which quickly devolves into mayhem and mass murder when an anonymous user hacks into their conversation.

Thus, the stage is set for Unfriended (2014), which is less of a found footage, after the fact reconstruction, but a real-time exercise in suspense. The entire film is told through the laptop screen of Blair Lilly (Shelley Hennig), the late Laura's best friend. And as the terrorizing hacker slowly but surely winds everyone up, revealing (not so) hidden online secrets, turning all the participants against one another, its revealed that Laura committed suicide after a brutal smear and shaming campaign after someone posted an anonymous video of her completely wasted at a party -- and so intoxicated on alcohol and Rohypnol, she passes out in a pool of her own vomit, soiling herself in the process. And for the killing to stop, all the ever-dwindling knot of cybernauts must do is reveal who shot and posted the "Leaky Laura" viral video.

Originally, the killer was supposed to be someone seeking vengeance for Laura but I think the filmmakers made the right decision to go the supernatural route and make it a vengeful spirit, solving several logistical and logical problems -- like simply logging off. (Though the borderline parasitic relationship we have with our tech makes one wonder if it really would be that simple. I mean, Click to find out what happens next, amIright?) 

This film wasn't as terrible as I thought it would be, judging by the trailer. I'd even almost tag it as pretty good. Almost, but not quite. I find it odd that they went for an R-rating (which is unjustified), as this subject matter and approach seems tailor made for a PG-13 crowd. 

Kudos to Leo Gabriadze for pulling off the online gimmick. (And how the hell they ever cleared the use of Facebook, Skype, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube is beyond me.) The execution is quite brilliant, I just wish all the effort wasn't wasted on a rote plot of horrible people doing despicable things to each other -- well, in this case, themselves, thanks to the buffer of online anonymity. (Our 'final girl' isn't what we expected, nor the original victim.) 

Thus, the true horror of Unfriended is not the bloodshed but the behavior of these selfish, amoral and desensitized turd-nuggets, which earns them a harsh lesson on the consequences of one's own actions. And then...

I had to drive 160 miles, round-trip, to catch this. And what this all boils down to, kids, is David Robert Mitchell's loving tribute to John Carpenter (especially the industrial synthesizer soundtrack), Dean Cundey, and a vintage STD hygiene film. Moody and highly atmospheric, I'll give them that, but It Follows (2014) kinda forgot to be scary. And yet...

It didn't really need to be. At least the kind of scary you're thinking of. No. This film was aiming for something a little higher than that. The trailer already gave away the plot, but, to sum up, basically, our heroine has sex with some jerk and now a malignant supernatural chameleon is out to get her and everyone in the chain who transmitted whatever the hell that thing is from one sex partner to the other, starting with the latest casualty (Maika Monroe), and then working its way back to patient zero. And when I say 'get', I mean turn them into a bloody pretzel.

There is no apparent cure for this. You can't reason with it. You can run but you can't hide or get away from it. And it can look like anyone. All you can do to keep from dying is to spread the 'curse' even further, and hope whoever you gave it to spreads it around even more, to give yourself some breathing room.

From there, a knot of friends do their best to help delay the inevitable by staying one step ahead of the relentless entity that only those who are infected can see. I really liked how we're not sure when this is happening -- with the vintage clothes and furnishings, a mix of new and older cars, no cell phones (except for the first victim), and that funky kindle, like we're devolving -- or slouching back to the 1980s. Suburban decay is also huge motif in this flick, as well -- the city is already dead, the rest is witheringly on its way, leaving a demilitarized husk to wander through.

The film that plays out in these surroundings is very deliberate, patient, and requires you to pay attention, ratcheting the tension up several notches if you, like the protagonist, keep your eyes open. (That set-up for the attack on the beach was ah-mazing.) And as it progresses the film raises more questions than offering any answers -- though I found the lack of finding a convenient 'expert' to explain it all away and how to stop the entity kinda refreshing. The nominal hero has seen one too many 1950s era creature features and just wings it from there.

A couple of twists and turns are kind of ambiguous as to what really happened and how far our heroine will go, and went, putting other people in jeopardy, to save herself, making It Follows kinda frustrating as it played out and then ends rather abruptly.   

But having an 80 mile drive to stew on what happened and what Mitchell probably intended with that ending (eventually) put this one in the win column for me. To say why would spoil too much. I liked this enough initially -- but It Follows keeps getting better and better the more I think about it.

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