I Watched So You Won't Have To

Well, OK, you might want to watch some of them. It’s really up to you, innit? (All these are currently on Netflix Instant.)

The Bay (2012)
Another found-footage workout, this time involving some sort of ecological disaster in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay that embeds parasites in people, leading to gruesome deaths and community panic. The main and perhaps only point of interest for this film is how a director as renowned as Barry Levinson (Diner; The Natural; Good Morning, Vietnam; Rain Man) could helm such a titanic bowl of horseshit. I’m not too fond of gross-out horror anyway unless it’s done well, and this one certainly is not.

I know it seems like a copout, but I just don’t have anything else to say – this movie is an utter waste of time.

The Possession (2012)
A girl buys a dybbuk box at an estate sale and soon finds out, you know, that it houses a dybbuk. The girl becomes obsessed with the box and subsequently possessed by the dybbuk. One of the things I hate most about horror films is the fractured-family formula (fff): divorced/alcoholic/emotionally unavailable parents + anxious/emotionally troubled kids = bad stuff. There must be hundreds of films that follow fff or some variation of it, as if you couldn’t possibly conjure up scares without its comforting parameters (total hooey, of course). And this film follows fff so urgently it’s like the filmmakers think such a construction is their idea alone. So yeah, the premise and overall framework are dumb. The execution, though, is actually rather effective. As I wrote here, I’m intrigued by otherwise stale movies whose money shots nonetheless pack a solid punch, and that’s what happens here. You’re affected by the scary scenes even though you rightly could not give a frog’s fat ass about the story or characters. The actress who plays the possessed girl does a first-rate job of seeming alternately terrified and demonic, the special effects that manifest the possession are judiciously and skillfully used (especially in the MRI scene), and the Orthodox-Jewish-exorcism subplot is interesting (plus: Matisyahu makes for a likeable ʻqsʻrsʼast despite some of the worst dialogue ever). Not really a good movie per se, but I enjoyed watching it twice.

Twixt (2011)
Val Kilmer is a writer on a book tour when he stumbles into the mystery surrounding a young girl’s murder (ghosts, the woods, etc.). I could give you plenty more detail about the story, but I won’t. This is one of those films that simply shouldn’t exist: not because it’s so bad, but because it’s so goddamn pointless. It contains not one interesting thing – not the clunky E.A.-Poe-dream-sequence subplot, not the silly goth kids across the lake, not the paint-by-numbers crustiness of Bruce Dern’s sheriff, not the fact that Francis Ford Coppola (YES THAT FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA THE ONE WHO MADE THE GODFATHER I/II AND APOCALYPSE NOW) directed it – nothing interesting except perhaps the opportunity to marvel at how jowly Kilmer has become, as witnessed in this before-and-after:

(Many people get jowly – I know this from my own mirrors – but when you start as the svelte bastard on the left and turn into Beau “I Just Ate My Brother Jeff” Bridges AND you still make a living onscreen, well, you’re a target, pal.)

If you were to watch The Bay, one logical thought that’d cross your mind is “Nothing could be a bigger waste of time than this.” And you’d be right, until you watch Twixt.

Grave Encounters (2011)
A film crew for the fictional reality show Grave Encounters goes to shoot an episode in the also-fictional and allegedly haunted Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, and you can probably guess nearly everything that happens next: skepticism, skepticism-but-WTF-was-that?, disbelief, false alarms, crew members disappearing one by one, gradual explication, blood and gore, et al. Yet, I actually like this movie. Its setup and framework are as stupid as stupid gets, but there’s something about the way the hospital turns into an architectural Möbius strip that lures me in and gets me hooked – plus I like the scary faces the ghosts make.

Dumb overall but worth your time for the sturdy scares. (Stay away from the shit-stupid sequel, though.)

Apparitions (2008)
This British miniseries about a priest/exorcist battling the devil, demons, doubt, and Vatican hegemony is fantastic, and it’s only six episodes long, so the story is lean and tight, full of superb acting and genuine frights. I’m not even going to tell you any more than that. Just go watch it.

11-11-11: The Prophecy (2011)
Joseph Crone, a famous author, loses his wife and son in a fire and soon realizes that the numbers 11-11-11 seem to be cropping up everywhere. Shortly after a car accident from which he escapes unscathed, his brother summons him to Barcelona because their father is dying. While there, weird things start happening that involve (a) his preacher-brother’s church, (b) his ex-preacher-father’s church-related legacy, and (c) 11-11-11, numbers that are still consistently cropping up. For much of this film, I didn’t know WHAT in the hell was going on (a good thing), but once I figured out the drift, not much else that happened was surprising, which is OK because I liked it anyway. Like others in this list, it’s not a great film or anything (the acting and dialogue are awfully wooden), but the atmosphere is effectively creepy, and some of the visual frights are well executed. Worth seeing.

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012)
Leon, an antiques dealer, arrives at his deceased mom's house to sort out her belongings, an insane amount of which are statues of angels and saints. We also see very early on that he’s simultaneously coming to terms with some fff-type demons, though he soon finds they’re not the only demons in the house. Most of the talking in the film is done by Leon’s titular mother as narration, and here’s why this film works: (a) the voice belongs to Vanessa Redgrave, who has the requisite and classically trained gravitas to make you care about her lonely fate, and (b) even her narration is limited, meaning much of this film is tense silence punctuated by tasteful swellings of score. Her fate has something to do with what appears to be a cult-like religious community, and I say “appears to be” because this facet of the story is only suggested (again and often, a wise decision). The key scenes with Leon and his demon are quite scary, and the ending doesn’t tie up too many loose ends. Nothing life-changing but a solid, interesting movie nonetheless.

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)
A recap of my case for PA 1-3 (again, made here): the usual genre qualms aside, PA 1 is a horror classic, PA 2 is a surprisingly worthy prequel that sometimes supersedes 1, and PA 3 falters but is mightily effective at times. Given this, it’s no shock that PA 4 fails to live up to its predecessors’ successes. One of the main problems with the found-footage genre is the ridiculous contortions to which filmmakers will/must resort to keep the cameras rolling – without a removed, omniscient, third-person camera, how else will the goings-on get captured? And while I’m apparently more willing or able than many to forgive such contortions, PA4 uses up all my forgiveness: once you resort to carrying around laptops (or hyperconveniently leaving them on) set to Skype/FaceTime, your well has run dry.

Or has it? One quick scene in PA4 is ingenious and effectively spooky. Katie, the demon’s target in PA1, now lives across the street from an unsuspecting family with the nephew she kidnapped in PA2 (then called Hunter, now called Robbie). Robbie befriends the family’s similarly aged son, and because the demon (who, we learn in PA 3, goes by Toby) sticks with Robbie now, Robbie brings Toby into their home. One night, while they’re playing a boxing game on Xbox Kinect (which employs no handheld controller a camera picks up your movements and incorporates them into the game), they realize there’s an extra “player” onscreen – one more, in fact, than there are people visible in the room. This realization occurs quickly, almost in an offhand or sidelong fashion, which, of course, increases its effectiveness, since Toby’s presence is implied rather than explied even though at one point this extra player looks straight into the Xbox camera. (Why isn’t “explied” a word? You know what? I’m saying it’s a word. Fuckin’ prescriptivists.)

Otherwise, the best thing about PA 4 is the image they used in the ads.

The Awakening (2011)
Let’s get this out of the way right now: even if this movie sucked, it stars Rebecca Hall, and you’re hard-pressed to find a better use of 107 minutes than simply looking at her.

Fortunately, it doesn’t suck, in part because Hall is an incredible actress (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Iron Man 3). She plays a famed 1920s debunker of the supernatural who’s invited to a supposedly haunted boarding school for boys, where she begins to see why they think it’s haunted. The story eventually delves into some hardcore fff, but this element comes near the end and is more than counter-balanced by the scary stuff’s effectiveness (and a few of these scary moments are VERY effective indeed). Highly recommended.

Be well! Eat pie! Bang your head!

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