Rings (2017)

It’s no secret that I love all things Ring. Even when I’ve hated the movies, I’ve continued to love the conceit of them. The first films (both the Japanese original and the remake) remain among my favorite scary movies ever. And as I’m sure I’ve said before, the Japanese prequel, Ringu 0: Basudei was pretty good too.

The originals had that bizarre eeriness, that slow burn, that weird high-pitched sound effect in the background, and that totally delicious atmosphere of dread that only the best genre films seem able to evoke. They were scary without being garish–with perhaps one or two exceptions in Verbinski’s American version.

Rings, the 2017 nobody-asked-for-it sequel, unfortunately bucks the trend by being a complete piece of irredeemable shit. It’s guilty of the worst sins of popular film making. It’s lazy, it’s transparently derivative, it’s written like an episode of the worst teenage drama dreck, and worst of all, it cynically attempts to cash in on the love of franchise fans.

The plot is garbage: Julia and Holt just graduated from high school. Holt goes off to college while Julia stays at home, apparently to help her parents with some pressing family issue that’s never identified. (Or if it was identified, I just didn’t care enough to catch it.) Julia and Holt talk online every night, until suddenly Holt goes MIA. Then Julia has a weird interaction with another young woman through Holt’s Skype account, which prompts her to drive to Holt’s school to track him down. She learns that Holt has been sucked into a nebulous research project involving the cursed video tape, led by college professor Gabriel, who apparently took his PhD in Screwing Around with Outdated Media and Also Ghost Hunting. The project involves tricking lots of students into watching the video, but providing them with “tails,” people to whom they can show copies of it. (As you’ll recall, this is the way to avoid being killed by the vengeful ghost, Samara.) Apparently this will somehow help Gabriel eventually prove the existence of the soul, because Hollywood.

Julia of course watches the video, because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, and then naturally decides that She Is Going to Get to the Bottom of This. Cue the usual sequence of “research,” i.e., frantically running from one obscure-and-isolated-but-conveniently-accessible place to another, collecting spooky scribbles that inevitably constitute the clues to the supernatural mysteries, and witnessing hallucinatory visions of supernatural significance because the ghost wants to help pad out the film’s run time. It’s the formula boiled down to its purest and stupidest expression.

Why stupid, you ask? Well, pull up a chair.

Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz is terrible as main character Julia, utterly one-note and emotionless, acting almost exclusively by proclamation: “That’s where we need to go.” “She’s in there.” *pause to open a sealed crypt* “Someone moved her.” Gag. Alex Roe, who plays boyfriend Holt, is at least sufficiently similar to actual college students to get a pass, but that isn’t really praise. The one known actor here, Johnny Galecki, plays a college professor who apparently speaks entirely in Smarm, even outside the classroom. Secondary characters are universally awful.

As always, though, it’s hard to say how much of the blame lies with the actors, and how much with the writers, who have turned in a script so full of teeth-grindingly stupid dialogue and horror cliches that no actor could possibly spin it into a decent film. And the truly aggravating thing is that it’s not stupid. I mean, it’s grammatically correct, and more or less complete as a narrative. It’s just  cheesy and melodramatic and awful by virtue of completely failing itself, its franchise, and its genre. As is so often true, this could have been something good. And as is also often true, it doesn’t seem like it really even tried.

The film also attempts to bring a kind of closure to Samara’s story, explaining her origins and the real reason behind her haunting. This is stupid and cheap and insulting–not the idea of finishing a story per se, but the way in which it’s executed. And of course it doesn’t bring any real closure, because they can’t foreclose the possibility of more sequels. 

Its only redeeming trait is that it has the sound effects and music from Verbinski’s original. But then again, these are just lifted straight from that far superior film as a kind of shorthand to remind you that, hey, this is The Ring! Only it’s really not. It’s the awful 2018 Slender Man movie with a swapped-out supernatural baddie. I guess if you watched this with the sound off it might be good as a generic Halloween background. Otherwise, don’t bother.

 

 

“Pet Sematary” (2019)

Church is murderous and hateful and the Avatar of All Cats

Dearie me, what to do with this?

Pet Sematary is back again, because maybe remakes remind us of a time when the world wasn’t literally burning and we weren’t ruled by a syphilitic madman. I guess I could make the obvious resurrection joke, but I’m better than that. Unlike this film, alas. (Ohhh, snap.)

I don’t get why we needed this, but I was still looking forward to seeing it because I love the conceit of Pet Sematary. But what directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have done here is something wholly unlike their wonderful Starry Eyes. That film played smartly with genre conventions, riffed on David Lynch, and gave us something wholly absorbing and unexpected. Pet Sematary, on the other hand, feels like the product of an out-of-touch board meeting, stale and unnecessary and not at all what people want. If you saw the 2015 Poltergeist remake, this feels very similar. There are no drones, but there is a similar failure to justify releasing a remake in the first place. And, like Poltergeist, this remake features a few gimmicky shout-outs to the original. The effect is something like opening a fast food mustard packet to find it full of ketchup, and vice versa. Unexpected, yes. Pointless, entirely.

For example–as you’ll already know from the trailer–it isn’t baby Gage who dies this time, but big sister Ellie. There’s no clear reason for this change, and it seems (perhaps unfairly to Ellie) less horrific, simply because Gage is a baby and there’s nothing more horrible than a baby dying. The scene where Gage is running toward the road ends with Lewis snatching him at the last minute, only for Ellie to take a truck to the face instead. (Mustard when you expected ketchup.) The change also means that we’re subjected to some very generic and unconvincing “evil” acting by the resurrected Ellie, all monotone and gravely and eeeeeeevil because she’s, you know, eeeeeeeevil now. (Bland, generic, yellow mustard.)

John Lithgow is John Lithgow with a beard. I like John Lithgow, so, there’s that.

Jason Clarke as Louis channels Dale Midkiff, who first played the role, in weird ways. Specifically, the two share a strangely flat gaze that seems to persist regardless of what the rest of their faces are doing. There are some moments where Clarke’s Australian accent pokes through, begging the question: in 20-freaking-19, why not just make the character Australian? Australians can marry American people and move to Maine. You want us to accept undead cats, for chrissake. I think we can accept Ozzie ex-pats.

In the end, Pet Sematary lands among the most “meh” of films. It isn’t terrible, but it’s far from good. Watch it when it’s streaming, but don’t pay the dozen+ dollars it takes to see it in a theater. If we want movies like this to stop, we have to stop paying for them.

Slender Man (2018)

If you generally didn’t like horror films but wanted to make one that cashed in on a sweet, sweet Internet trend from nearly a decade ago, this is the one you’d make after reading a Wikipedia article about it and maybe a quick Googling of recent successful scary movies.

It truly is the epitome of lazy genre work. Once again, the director’s mental checklist practically leaks out of every scene:

Unlikable group of idiot teenagers (not because all teenagers are idiots, but these ones sure are!)
Scary drawings
People with distorted faces
Fake-out jump scares (nothing’s behind you), followed by real jump-scares (it’s in FRONT of you!)
Misunderstanding-based jump scares (e.g., it’s just a normal person lurking in the dark and now wondering why you’re screaming in the library, you weirdo)
“I looked up a tutorial on Lynda.com”-level computer animation at every goddamned opportunity ✓✓✓

There’s hardly a story to speak of. Some teenagers hear about Slender Man and decide to summon him, which apparently is accomplished by watching a stupid YouTube video. Of course they don’t think it’s real, just a stupid game, and of course it actually is real, and predictably monstery things happen.

Slender Man genuinely isn’t worth summarizing beyond this, because it’s so unbearably generic. I left the theater to use the bathroom at one point and missed precisely nothing of importance. A few years ago I wrote up a list of what I think are the most common, essential steps in contemporary horror plots. Going by that formula, Slender Man progresses thusly: 1B, 2B, 3A, 4B, 5B. (In this case, it could perhaps be argued that “something happens” first, and then the characters find out that there’s an established pattern. It could also be argued that shut. Up.)

As is often the case, there’s nothing outstandingly wrong with this film. Visually it resembles a Hollywood release, if not a Blumhouse blockbuster. It’s just immensely boring. It borrows from countless better movies, but does so poorly, without any real awareness of what made the tropes it so gleefully steals scary the first time around–if they ever were scary at all. Droopy black-eyed demon faces superimposed on random people no longer have the same punch they did back in the days of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. They didn’t have a huge amount of punch even then. (And I love Emily Rose.)

The obvious question, of course, is why? Why make this movie now, so long after Slender Man was relevant in a way that would seem to justify a major motion picture release? Even if the filmmakers were cynically trying to capitalize on the emotional furor surrounding the Waukesha, Wisconsin stabbing, that much-publicized event happened over four years ago. The question hangs over Slender Man, lending the proceedings not a sense of dread but of Hollywood desperation. Tedious is the best word to describe this film, and it’s one of the most damning words in a horror critic’s vocabulary.

You may know that in my day job I’m a folklorist, and I’ve researched Slender Man at some length. My disdain for the film isn’t based on any sense of professional ownership. It’s just not a good film.

Horror News (2014?)

Well howdy. Been awhile. Life’s gotten busy lately. But I’m still watching scary stuff, occasionally. Here’s one I just discovered via Crunchyroll. Seems interesting so far. A middle school student who loudly proclaims his disbelief in the supernatural starts receiving a ghostly newspaper every night at midnight, accompanied by weird ghostly happenings and voices and other fun things. He’s living the life I dream of living.

Hope you’re all doing well. Spring is almost here, which feels hopeful, despite our social reality just being a pile of garbage. Onward!

Recent HorrorTalk Reviews (September 2017)

The pointless, tragic deaths of so many innocent people in Las Vegas make me feel shitty for posting anything just now. If you’re pro-guns, go ahead and unsubscribe from this blog right now. I know nobody comes here for politics, but this is far more than that. So let me be clear: fuck guns, and if you’re a gun nut, fuck you. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Anyway, we can’t let terrorism paralyze us, so on we must go.

I have a few more reviews up over at HorrorTalk:

  • Bear With Us: A goofy, funny comedy in the vein of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
  • Cold Moon: An awful, awful waste of a movie, this is about ghosts in Florida, or something.
  • The Limehouse Golem: A flashy period piece with more style than substance, but still worth a watch if you like Jack the Ripper-like murder mysteries.
  • The Howling: Revenge of the Werewolf Queen #2The second installment in a comic sequel to the original film. I know, I didn’t think anyone cared either. But so far the comics aren’t bad.

Don’t despair, even though our nightmarish political reality gets worse each day. Resist, take heart, and since it’s October, try to watch a scary movie with someone you care about.

A Horror Confession: “It” (2017)

I’ve been pretty upfront about my Stephen King newb-ness. So I’ll just get it out now: I never read It, and as of this writing I’ve only seen little pieces of the 1990 miniseries. The first Stephen King anything I think I ever saw all the way through was Pet Sematary, followed by The Shining. I’ve since read both of those novels, along with the Shining sequel Doctor Sleep. In the intervening years I’ve seen bits and pieces of other films, like The Night Flier, Cujo, and probably some others. But that’s about it.

I remember the 1990 TV version happening, vaguely. I remember adults talking about it, though that may have been after the fact; and I remember somebody (my father?) having a copy of the novel, which was enough to frighten me. (I was eight at the time.) I knew that Pennywise was the villain, and that he was actually some kind of spider-demon thing, and I think I knew that he ate kids. That’s where my knowledge ended.

So now, in 2017, I didn’t have a ton of prior knowledge or expectations going into this. That said, I’ll just get this other thing out of the way right now: I really liked this movie.

Something about the vague knowledge of It as a source of fear from my youth (even, again, without having read/seen it myself), coupled with the powerful imagery of a child-eating monster, really got me. It’s just so awful. The opening scene has poor Georgie–and really, poor Georgie!–getting his arm bitten off by this awful Lovecraftian clown-monster in the sewer. Today I watched that scene in the original Tim Curry version, and it lacks the awfulness of the new one. I was frankly stunned that they showed a six-year-old kid getting mangled by a sewer demon.. I don’t know if I should praise the film for that, but it was definitely an affecting scene.

A brief summary for fellow newbies: It tells the story of a demonic being that stalks the children of Derry, Maine, preying on their fear (but also literally eating them). When poor Georgie disappears (in the film version–the novel’s different), his brother Bill launches a year-long campaign to discover what happened to him. Bill’s quest ultimately ropes in his friends, a bunch of unpopular kids who have all been terrorized by the monster, and they learn that “it” only appears every twenty-seven years, wreaking havoc and causing lots of grisly deaths for a year at a time before disappearing again. The creature is a shapeshifter, appearing to its intended victims as the things they fear most; but its preferred form is a clown called Pennywise. (I don’t happen to suffer from so-called caulrophobia, but if you do, this all must just be awful for you.)

Everything about this film was memorable. The central group of young actors were great, with every single one of the Losers’ Club giving stand-up performances. And Bill Skarsgård’s evil clown Pennywise is equally great, suitably creepy and weird and frightening, not so much to me, but to the children who are his prey. Little me would have absolutely died of fright.

It felt a tiny bit abrupt, and the monster talks too much–though that’s probably something to lay at King’s feet more than the film makers’. A few of the jittery running-at-the-screen scares were standard contemporary horror schlock, but they were used sparingly and integrated more organically into the plot than other recent examples. (Looking at you, every James Wan film.)

I don’t think I can do this adequate credit in a brief review, so I’ll just reiterate that I thought it was very good. The scares were genuine, the writing and acting were on point, the music was effective, and nothing felt forced or Wan-ish. I’m thrilled that Andy Muschietti, the director of the just horribly blah Mama, was able to pull this off. It’s inspired me to buy the novel, which I’ll undoubtedly review on here one of these days. You should see it.

 

 

 

 

 

Franchise Firsts: “The Omen” (1976)

Apples in my Happy Meal? Apples?! My dad will have something to say about this, madam!

Arguably outgunned by the inimitable The Exorcist, The Omen remains one of the greatest demonic horror films of all time. Here’s why!

Robert Thorn is an American ambassador in Italy. His wife is about to have a baby. At the hospital, a priest informs Thorn that the baby has died. The priest suggests that Thorn adopt another infant and not tell his wife about the switch, sparing her the grief of losing her own child. The new child is Damien, and as we all know, Damien is the Antichrist, the son of Satan, sent to usher in the devil’s rule on earth.

Skip ahead five years. Thorn is now ambassador to the UK, and Weird Stuff starts happening. At Damien’s fifth birthday party, his nanny hangs herself in full view of all the partygoers, a scene which traumatized me as a child. (Don’t ask me why or how I managed to see it.) Things escalate, with Thorn’s wife Katherine eventually concluding that Damien is evil. Her fears seem to be confirmed when he knocks her off a third-floor landing in their palatial home, leaving her hospitalized. As Weird Stuff escalates, people are gradually convinved of Damien’s satanic nature–though of course Thorn, the main character, is the last to accept it–and as the folks who know the truth start to die, Thorn is left with an unspeakable task: kill his own son, in a grisly way, in a church, for the good of humanity.

While not as pitch-perfect as The Exorcist, The Omen nevertheless manages to be just swell. It’s got Gregory Peck as the lead, for one thing; and although it suffers from what I’d (probably incorrectly) classify as an earlier style of acting–what I like to call Acting by Proclamation–it’s still a great, atmospheric, and intelligent thriller. There are some pacing issues, it’s true, but it perfectly captures the atmosphere of dread that is, for me, the sine qua non of horror. The scene where the reporter, Jennings, is decapitated by the flying sheet of window glass is just so weird, so unlikely and bleak, that it still creeps me out.

Another point I like about The Omen is that it provides a way for people to fight back. Thorn gets the daggers of Megiddo and has a chance to kill Damien and spare the world his reign of evil. As we all know, he fails; but he has the chance, and that’s more than a lot of horror offers its heroes. The biggest enemy, of course, is doubt. If Thorn had accepted the truth of Damien’s demonic nature just a bit earlier, he might have saved his wife and Jennings and countless others. But he hesitated, and, as they say, he who hesitates is lost.

It’s not the greatest horror film of all time, but it’s surely one of the greats. If you somehow haven’t seen The Omen, you really should. It’s one of the few creepy-kid films that really work, and its influence on the horror genre is still apparent today.