V/H/S

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A number of obvious positives came from the onslaught of found footage films – it opened the door for new voices in genre cinema who could make a legitimate movie on a shoestring and cash in on the trend (counterpoint being every fool with a camera thought they could do it); studios and directors could make movies with little budget and almost guarantee a considerable profit (counterpoint being that it encouraged a host of copycats with a reduction in quality); it offered both long-standing and original voices a new creative outlet along with near full creative control thanks to the money involved being so low and the inherent restrictions forcing filmmakers to think outside the box (this didn’t last long). VHS came in the middle of the Found Footage run of infamy and ticks each of the positives above in some way. Up and coming directors such as Adam Wingard, Ti West, David Bruckner, and Radio Silence had a podium to shout from, showing us what delights and horrors lurked under their kilts, and a near certainty that they would reach a larger audience than they had up to that point. Did they use that power for good?

VHS is an anthology film, and as such there is a mixed bag; different stories, different styles, some segments good, other segments not so good. The gristle tying it all together is the use of found footage, each story peppered with gore and shocks. The wraparound conceit follows a group of hoodlums who, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial KIller style film their adventures. Their latest mission is unusual – an unseen benefactor pays them to break into a house to steal a single VHS tape. The gang discovers a corpse in a room filled with screens, and videotapes by the box load scattered around the house. While they start collecting the tapes, one guy decides to pop one in and watch. Each tape reveals a new story, and at the end of each new story one of the gang members vanishes – maybe that corpse isn’t so dead?

As with most wraparound stories, there isn’t much substance or payoff, but given the short running time there’s still intrigue and scares. It’s far from the worst wraparound, and it actually tonally fits with the rest of the content. The first story – Amateur Night – follows a trio of scumbags who bring a couple of young women back to a motel room with the intention of secretly filming them having sex. They quickly find their chauvinist ways turned back upon them as one of the women has plans of her own. It’s a fun, masochistic twist on the ‘boys will be boys’ events of recent history, it’s a sleazy tale with a sting. Ti West, probably the most accomplished director of the bunch, gives us a simple near – one room story as a married couple head on a Second Honeymoon. In their motel room, a disoriented woman knocks and asks the husband if he can give her a ride the following day – he refuses. Later that night the woman breaks into the room, turns on the camera, and films herself on the sleeping couple’s bed with a knife, before stealing some money. The next night she has followed them to their next destination. Again, there’s not much to it, but Ti West makes anything watchable and as always there is a twist of sorts.

Tuesday The 17th may be my favourite of the bunch – a camping trip gone wrong like so many others in Horror history. A group of friends has been convinced to go on the trip by a new friend and on the trip the new friend begins to tell them of how all her friends were killed at the same place one year earlier. Before long, a near-invisible killer, cloaked almost like the Predator begins picking them off. The killer is called The Glitch, and it’s a great idea, a figure which literally glitches across the screen, appearing suddenly behind characters, wobbling in and out of vision in static waves. The plot is light, but the idea and execution of the creature is good fun. The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger is a Joe Swanberg helmed Skype chat style short. It details the chats Emily has with her boyfriend James as she becomes increasingly unhinged – believing her room is haunted and that the lump in her arm is something sinister. I’d forgotten about this segment more than any other, but it has its moments.

The final story is the effects and tricks bonanza. Radio Silence’s 10/31/98 follows four friends heading to a Halloween party, but ending up in the wrong place. Stumbling upon some sort of, what they believe to be, demonic ritual or exorcism the boys fight back against ghostly arms and unseen forces. It’s a lot of fun but again there’s some sort of ‘women cannot be trusted’ vibe going on –  running theme in a number of the shorts. The wraparound concludes and the film ends. As a whole, I didn’t find any of the segments notably weak – each has a charm and each is solid, with some being more inventive or interesting than others. I don’t know if the woman thing was intentional or sub-conscious or me reading too much into it, but it becomes noticeable. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll probably see it or go looking for it. On the flip side, the men in several cases are portrayed as dicks or morons too, though each segment is brief enough that the strength of the idea overrides the dislike of any character. The Found Footage approach is used differently in each piece and it doesn’t becomes tiresome or nauseating, each director making sure there’s a stylistic and relevant reason for it. Anthology films are quick and easy watches and can make for a decent introduction to horror. Also, you shouldn’t get through Halloween without watching at least one or two. If you haven’t seen V/H/S, it’s one of the stronger recent efforts.

Let us know in the comments what you think of V/H/S!

The Last Exorcism

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Horror moves in ever decreasing circles; one big idea comes along, is successful, and then breeds ever more numerous and more inferior spawn. The same can be said for other genres, and film and art in general, but it’s rarely more true, obvious, and barrel-scraping than in horror. As the genre dragged itself from the tattered, splattered remains of Torture Porn, the spectre of Handheld began to loom large. Paranormal Activity brought back the low budget innovation and shocks of The Blair Witch Project and updated its post-grunge malaise into the tech-obsessed, tech-scared new millennium. The ever decreasing circles rapidly became a noose to the point that shaky-cam and found-footage became terms which strangled imagination and left viewers dangling in disappointed, unexpected boredom. In general, I’m more forgiving of these films, even those which rely on obscure jump-scares and long periods of quiet before sudden deafening bangs in lieu of genuine tension and frights – as long as the premise is good, the idea interesting, and the filmmakers work with heart rather than greed. But like those long periods of quiet, every so often after a long period of similarly uninspired dross there comes the sudden deafening bang of quality.

The Last Exorcism looks from its trailer, from its premise, like just another found-footage film. It bears all the hallmarks of the sub-sub-genre, and it has its fair share of shaky camera work. However, thanks to some genuinely stunning performances and an honest attempt at tweaking the tropes and conventions and doing something more than just ticking boxes, it ends up being one of the best horror movies of the last few years. We have periods of silence but also genuine tension, and we have jump scares working along side surprising frights and moments that will chill. We have a strong cast and an assured director in Daniel Sturmm who knows exactly when to give a glimpse of what’s lurking inside his box or tricks, and when to rip the lid off.

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The film follows a loose documentary style formula, with a disillusioned Minister who has lost his faith plying his trade as a travelling exorcist. Sick of himself, sick of the people he meets, sick of religion, and sick of tricking people into believing he is saving them and thereby perpetuating their beliefs he decides to bring a film crew along on his last exorcism – he is going to show the world that he, and many like him are, a fraud. Accepting a request from a backwater town, he and the crew travel to the Sweetzer family farm to cast out the demon Abalam who, it appears, has taken over their sweet and innocent teenage daughter, Nell. Marcus explains to the camera that he has seen many patterns and similar cases over the years, and as he prepares for his mumbo jumbo and ritual, he tells us how to perform a fake exorcism. Having done his job and headed for home, things take an unexpected turn as Nell somehow tracks him down and is in a worse state than before his exorcism. From this point, the film unleashes all manner of scares and tricks as we are left to second guess motives and next steps. The plot twists and turns, offers a few red herrings, and nothing is clear until the final moments.

What I enjoyed most about the film is the performance of Ashley Bell as Nell. This is clearly a highly talented actress who should go on to future stardom. Her performance is visceral and charged with emotion, filled with subtle little ticks and looks, and she easily conveys naivety, fear, and possessed rage. It’s a performance which reminds me of Weaver in Aliens, Hamilton in T2, and Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me in that it is full blooded, wildly energetic yet focused, and almost takes on a life of its own outside of the confines of the film. She deserved an Oscar nod for her work here, and it’s a shame she wasn’t recognised. Horror fans may be sick to their guts of found footage and exorcism films, but The Last Exorcism is the cream of the crop and shows what can be achieved in this style.

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Let us know in the comments what you thought of The Last Exorcism and how it ranks alongside other exorcism movies.

Grave Encounters 2

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Picking up shortly after where we finished on the first film, GE2 is that curio of the horror genre – the sequel, which acts as both a sequel and a remake. The film largely treads the same ground as the first, albeit with a different group of characters, but at the same time ties together a few loose threads from the first, offers some new mythology, and attempts to propel the series in a new direction. It doesn’t always work, and the film threatens to lose its way towards the end, and while not as frightening as the first due to a variety of similar scare techniques, it hits more than it misses and is well worth a watch.

Grave Encounters 2 is a meta spin on the shaky-cam sub genre; The film opens by telling us of the surprise success of the first film, showing a bunch of vloggers and reviewers giving their thoughts on it. We flip to one such fan, film student Alex, who decides to make a documentary about the first film with the conceit being that he believes the events of the first film to be real. It’s like a reversal of the real life events which followed the release of Cannibal Holocaust (with the filmmakers having to prove to Courts that they had not made a snuff movie). Alex investigates further and finds out that everyone involved in the first film has either gone missing or died (aside from the directors and producer). After some online probing, he receives an invitation to the abandoned asylum where the original movie was shot. With his film student friends in tow, he sets of to make his own film.

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From this point on the movie follows the same process as the first movie – the gang are locked inside, freaked out by some subtle events, and are unable to escape. Things quickly get out of hand, lives are lost, and the survivors try to get out at any cost. Many of the scares are the same -same style, same rooms from the original, but in some cases with a bigger oomph. Even when they are telegraphed they’re still effective, and I have to admire that I had a lot of fun with this one too. It was enjoyable to revisit the sets we were familiar with, and the film plays a lot more with reality which was one of the aspects I loved about the original. There is a section of Grave Encounters 2 when it genuinely seems like everything is going to be okay, that they have genuinely escaped (leaving you to wonder what the rest of the running time will consist of), only for the rug to be pulled away once more. The mythology is expanded upon, we meet a familiar face, and the film takes a final twist towards the end leaving things open-ended enough for another entry.

Although the cast isn’t particularly notable, I do feel it is better this time around, or at least we learn a little bit more about this group. Richard Harmon and Leanne Lapp are both good, as is a performance by one of the original’s cast. The effects are again a mixture of old fashioned magic tricks and CG – the CG looking a little better than the original but still fairly silly. That sense of inevitability, joined with the pace mean a fun time all round like the first. If you liked the first there shouldn’t be a reason why you wouldn’t get a kick out of this too – unless you don’t like the potentially confusing meta and mythology expansion.

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Let us know in the comments what you thought of this sequel – did it live up (or down) to your expectations or did it surprise you?

The Dinosaur Project

Note* Written in 2012.

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There’s a case to be made that my love of horror films, and film in general comes from my first exposure to old dinosaur movies from the 50s -70s. I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was younger, and books about dinosaurs were among the first I fell in love with. In short, I love movies with dinosaurs, and even if they’re mostly shitty I’ll still enjoy them. I went into Dinosaur Project with low expectations – I knew none of the cast, it seemed uber-low budget, and the trailer wasn’t great. If anything, I was expecting a Scyfy Channel disgrace in the vein of Sharknado. Imagine my surprise when the performances were good, when the effects where pretty great, and the story was as riveting as those I used to enjoy. It may not be the highest praise considering the competition, but The Dinosaur Project is the best dinosaur film since Jurassic Park.

 The film follows a group of explorers and scientists led by Jonathan – a man who has dedicated his life to trying to prove the existence of specific cryptids – animals who may have a basis in mythology or literature or historical documentation, but for whom no actual scientific proof exists. His latest expedition will take him to the Congo, where he wants to investigate the myths and rumours of the area’s own Loch Ness Monster. Jonathan’s group includes the sponsor/money man Charlie, a local guide called Amara, Doctor Liz, a pilot, and two cameramen to catch any footage. To add in some drama, Jonathan’s sort-of-estranged-son Luke stows away for the journey. In a similar event to Jurassic Park 3, on route to their destination their plane crashes after apparently colliding with a flock of flying reptiles. Naturally the movie depends on you to suspend your belief, but my only real problem with the movie is this first meeting – I’m pretty sure planes fly over this area fairly frequently, so why has no-one spotted these creatures before?

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The group crash lands, lost in the Jungle. Their pilot is dead, and much of their equipment is broken. When they find that a nearby village has been destroyed, the group theorizes what could have happened, but it isn’t long before the truth becomes known – they appear to have stumbled upon a Lost World where dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes are frolicking about. From here the action heats up as the group fragments, argues, and get picked off one by one. Father and son grow close, tempers fray, yet the urge to keep exploring and documenting weighs heavily – will anyone get out alive, and if not, what will become of their footage?

The film obviously is done in a shakey-cam style, but in most cases this is much less disorienting and annoying than you would expect. The dinosaurs appear early in the movie, and often after that. The cast each do a great job and though I hadn’t heard of any of them before the movie, they are people I would love to see more of. None of the characters are particularly annoying even if they do stick closely to the standard genres tropes of leader, villain, red shirt, guide etc. I highlighted the effects in my introduction, and while they can’t compete with the billion dollar big-hitters, they are still very impressive – all the more so due to the small budget. I liked the ambiguity in the movie – the fate of certain characters is left hanging, though this doesn’t seem like a cynical attempt at leaving the door open for a sequel. It seems more reasonable to assume that in a situation like this, you would not capture every second of every person’s movements, motivations, and decisions.

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All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Dinosaur Project – a rip-roaring example of how to make a tight adventure movie with a small budget, and one which I would recommend to fans of found footage or dinosaur movies, or anyone looking for a quick and exciting 90 minutes. Let me know in the comments what you thought of the movie, and if there are any others in a similar vein which you have enjoyed over the years.