A perfectly imperfect organism: The beautiful metamorphosis of the ‘Alien’ quadrilogy

“Strange fascination, fascinating me / Changes are taking the pace I’m going through” – David Bowie, Changes

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

“The saddest journey in the world is the one that follows a precise itinerary. Then you’re not a traveler. You’re a f**king tourist.” – Guillermo del Toro

“Do what you haven’t done is the key, I think.” – Ridley Scott

Over the past few days there has been quite the influx of retrospectives regarding the Alien franchise. Such is the cycle of a franchise, particularly one that’s been around as long as this one.

Surely there will be much to be said of the first two film’s influence. There will be in-depth histories into the making of each, focusing once again (most likely) on the first two films and rightly so. Both Alien and Aliens are absolute masterclasses, representing the pinnacle of what can be achieved in their respective genres and their influence is obvious in just about subsequent, similar film that came afterwards. Released in 1979, Alien remains the standard of the wonders of horror and science fiction. Its sequel, Aliens, bares one of the distinct honors of being a rare sequel that meets the level of success its iconic predecessor if not wholly surpassing it. Much can also be said about the franchise’s refreshing and outright progressive steps in showcasing a genuinely badass female protagonist in the form of one Ellen Ripley, who actually showcases characterization outside of “badass female protagonist.” -COUGHJYNERSOCOUGH-

Reviewers will be quick to praise the success of these two films, all while quickly dismissing the two films that followed them (Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection respectively). Now while these films are far, far, FAR from perfect, I argue they are also very far from terrible and in some respects even almost secretly phenomenal. Now you are well within your right to argue to the contrary but I posit that each and every one of these movies have merit and that’s what I’m here to convince you of here and now.

I’m here to put forth that this franchise deserves commendation for a reason I don’t see cited all that often by critics or fans and if I can somehow convince you to see this series out, then I call that a win for both of us.

The first four Alien films stand singularly as a franchise benefited by multiple cooks in the kitchen, not least of which is the fact that each sports a different director at the helm with Ridley Scott tasked with the first film, James Cameron the second, David Fincher the troubled-third and Jean-Pierre Jeunet bringing in the rear with the utterly insane (once thought to be) final chapter. The utterly unique thing about them combined is that none remotely resemble each other in regards to their tone. Each perfectly represents what their respective director brings the table and I absolutely love that. I’d argue it may just be the most director-driven franchise we’ve yet to see.

Much like the xenomorph itself, each entry adapts to the vision of its host or in this case, the director. Over the years, this monster has evolved and warped to whoever oversaw it. Like the Mad Max films, there isn’t too much of an emphasis on continuity but there is, at the very least, a through-line through the first four; that being Ripley (Signourney Weaver), the Weyland-Yutani Corporation and the xenomorph itself. So there is a cannon and I’m all for that, but there’s also wiggle room to take the story in directions free from the constraints of your typical, more episodic narrative. I’d almost argue the DVD/Blu-ray collection should be called the Alien Anthology rather than the Quadrilogy.

Now it’d be ridiculous to fully credit each of these movies to the efforts of a single person. As someone whose never fully subscribed to the auteur theory, I think the individuality of each entry can be attributed to small armies worth of folks both in-front of and behind the camera. Watch the bonus features on the Alien Quadrilogy box set (perhaps the greatest DVD/Blu-ray release of the past decade given the absolute wealth of material) and you’ll lose track of just how many people played in important part in each, a fact we often lose sight of with every movie. The BTS material on this set covers every single aspect of the production of each film, beginning with their origins and spanning all the way to the final product’s release and reception. Every individual interviewed is refreshingly candid, unafraid to share their personal thoughts regardless of whether it paints them in a pretty picture. The making of each entry is as interesting (if not more so) as the films themselves.

Also important to note that I’m really only going to get into the first four films as well as a little on Prometheus later on so that means no Alien vs. Predator or its equally terrible sequel.  I don’t really consider either of those movies to be honest-to-Ripley sequels because outside of featuring xenomorphs, they largely stand apart. The sooner I, and the world, can forget about scenes like the one below, the sooner we can heal.

Also those movie are lack any sort of merit beyond just being bad and I’m trying to bring us up rather than down…at least in relation to the first four films. There will be plenty of Prometheus-bashing soon.

I’m not divulging that in-depth in relation to the plot of these movies but there will be some frank discussion about plot points in each film in the series meaning of course the ending or major twists will come up at one point or another.

So yeah there are some spoilers, Nick.

Alien

The gist:

“After a space merchant vessel perceives an unknown transmission as distress call, its landing on the source moon finds one of the crew attacked by a mysterious life-form, and they soon realize that its life cycle has merely begun.” – IMDb.com

So here’s our template, the movie that sets the tone for all that comes afterward. Almost all the major beats that take place a viewer from today may pass off as cliché neglecting the fact this is the film that not only created the cliché but perfected it. Typically, when EVERYTHING about a movie is iconic, it’s because more than one person was doing their job.

But another thing it deserves all the credit in the world for is just how dadgum relatable everything is. Yeah, I know. It takes place in space. Yeah, I know. There’s a face-hugging, chest-bursting monster at the center of it all. But as with the rest of these films, it’s really smart in its execution.

Our crew isn’t a group of scientists like in Prometheus. Nor are they an elite group of marines as in Aliens (with the term “elite” being used very, VERY liberally in this instance). They’re space truckers, and only one of them makes it out alive by the end. Even then, it’s by the absolute skin of her teeth. I think a lot of this reflects on the time this came out in the 1970s, where there was this larger push for the realistic; where films began to mirror documentaries in their presentation. Like A New Hope, Alien does not exist in a pristine future. It’s a world that’s been lived-in, where dated technology still exists and the grime carries over. This goes hand-in-hand with the way our character’s talk to one another. A lot has been said of the subtle yet noticeable way the crew talks over one another, similar to the way large groups of people do in real life. This is due to Scott trusting his actors in this case, allowing them to play off one another rather than fully adhering to the script.

It’s also incredibly important to point out how simple the whole affair is. The original theatrical cut clocks in at 117 minutes, chump change compared to today’s standard tent-pole but by no means a breezy movie either. But I can count only one hand how many major plot points there are, and I stress that the movie isn’t filler. It all comes down to the power of good pacing, matched with clever dialogue and stunning presentation.

In more cases than not, simple is the best option. Scott was setting out to make Dune (an adaptation he was originally supposed to direct funny enough before opting to do Blade Runner instead). There’s a much larger world in Alien, yes, but it’s at the service of the characters first. Go back and watch Alien and make a point to notice how all (or most) of the world-building is subjected largely to the background. That’s because Scott, at his best, is a MASTER CLASS world builder. When matched with a great screenplay, I argue he works best. It doesn’t hurt that he had the insight to bring in Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger to form his monster but everything involving the alien, ensuring a visual consistency on LV-426 and the crashed Space Jockey ship. I could go on but YouTuber kaptainkristian spoke in-depth on the matter and I’ll pass the baton off to him.

Another reason just about everyone loves (snobs and paupers alike) is that it appeases everyone’s sensibilities without ever once being condescending. It’s moody and dark, building tension to white-knuckle levels (Dallas in the vents), and it provides the ever-important gore (the chest-burster). Science fiction fans love the hardware, but those who don’t are never bored with techno-babble. It’s progressive in how it doesn’t fit any of its character into a box. No one is a damsel or tasteless stereotype. 

It checks off every box, making for as perfect of a film as there ever has been. I’d be lying if I thought it even needed a sequel let alone a franchise. But seeing as it made an estimated ALL OF THE MONEY in 1979, a sequel was all but assured. The question was however would said sequel be more of the same, but on a bigger scale or a different experience altogether set within the same world. The answer was a resounding….yes/no.

Aliens

“Fifty seven years after Ellen Ripley survived her disastrous ordeal, her escape vessel is recovered after drifting across the galaxy as she slept in cryogenic stasis. Back on Earth, nobody believed her story about the “Aliens” on the moon LV-426. After the “Company” orders the colony on LV-426 to investigate, however, all communication with the colony is lost. The Company enlists Ripley to aid a team of tough, rugged space marines on a rescue mission to the now partially terraformed moon to find out if there are aliens or survivors. As the mission unfolds, Ripley will be forced to come to grips with her worst nightmare, but even as she does, she finds that the worst is yet to come.” – IMDb.com

Hard to ever really accurately gauge but if I were to make an informed guess, I’d say Aliens is the fan favorite. I’d certainly argue this as I’d say it is hands-down my favorite two films as well.

Something that’s been noted in recent years is that Aliens, for all its bells and whistles, is practically the exact same movie as Alien in that it hits a lot of the same narrative beats. The key difference is where Scott took us inward, favoring claustrophobia and paranoia; director James Cameron went much bigger, favoring action beats and encompassing scope. The connecting tissue (at least thematically) is that bigger themes weren’t lost in the shuffle.

Cameron took the mantle from Scott effortlessly, taking the world he had established without going too large. This is a tight-rope too many sequels fall short of, simply taking a “bigger is better” approach. Aliens growth all flows naturally. Informed by the insect-like design of the monster, Cameron built on that and made his monsters hive-based going so far as to have a queen. Informed by the treachery of Ash in the last film, Cameron plays with our expectations with Bishop and allows for ready-made tension. 

For all intents and purposes Aliens is an action blockbuster but as with a majority of Cameron’s films, it is an exceedingly intelligent one. Too often I see folks criticize the space marines for being one-dimensional, but Cameron and the cast do an incredibly skillful job at characterizing them all. Who is to say we really need to hear the life-story of all of these guys and gals? There’s a great deal many more of them than there were Nostromo crew members, so efficiency is key. Largely, we get all the info we really need within a few seconds of meeting each new squad member.

I love, love, love that most action-oriented of the series is the most about female empowerment as well. The image of Ripley we so often see is the one she becomes in this movie, and the great thing is that it doesn’t just happen. Ripley just barely survived the film and it had a great deal to do with luck. This is Weaver’s best outing with the character by a large margin reflected by the fact she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her efforts; something typically unheard of for science fiction and horror.

She plays Ripley as a woman looking to find her footing in an unfamiliar world. In the Director’s Cut, we learn that her daughter died while she was floating around in space. The only thing left to her is her cat (who really needed an epilogue now that I think about it). Deciding to return to LV-426, she finds a new purpose in Newt and in doing so reclaims that lost motherhood.

This plays larger into her conflict with the Alien Queen during the film’s climax (given Ripley saw fit to torch all of her babies), which boils down the movie to a knock-out, drag-down war for motherhood told through the prism of an old-fashioned war story.

It’s easily the most accessible of the four as well. Where Alien and Alien 3 may (wrongly) be accused of being “boring” and Resurrection too weird, Aliens is just the right mix of action/horror/comedy that reaches a wide audience. It’s no coincidence that, in many cases, some saw this movie before Alien.

And that accessibility without sacrificing genuine storytelling is something I don’t think Cameron gets nearly enough kudos for.  He’s been credited for raising the bar of where effects can take us time and time again, but he always does so in a way that compliments the story too. Sure, he can be written off as unoriginal but more often than not he’s falling back on the grand tradition of acquiring a previous work and running with it.

Aliens represents a sequel done not just well, but perfectly. Anything that followed would have considerable shoes to fill. Unfortunately, the series really never recaptures the glory of its first two films. But as I said before, that doesn’t mean the two final films were failures. In fact, I argue they’re secret successes.

Alien 3

“After escaping from the alien moon, the ship carrying Ellen Ripley crashes onto a remote and inhabited ore refinery. While living in the ore refinery until she is rescued by her employers, Ripley discovers the horrifying reason for her crash: An alien stowaway. As the alien matures and begins to kill off the inhabitants, Ripley is unaware that her true enemy is more than just the killer alien.” – IMDb.com

When I talk about Alien 3, I get kind of defensive due in no small part to the involvement of director David Fincher, a man for whom I give a great deal of admiration to.

I’ll concede that the theatrical cut is a bit of a mess, a clear victim of retooling and cuts. The effects are also a series low point when it comes to seeing a dog-like xenomorph (or a cow as is the case in the Director’s cut) fully in motion. This is something I think speaks more to the limitations of technology at the time and its an admittedly a cool idea to give us a new type of creature, enhanced by a canine rather than a human. It branches out the mythos in a subtle way rather than immediately throwing elephant xenos or tiger xenos. That said the effect looks pretty bad even by early 90’s standards and probably could have used some re-tooling.

I’m mainly drawing from the 2003 Assembly Cut, a version of the film that is exactly what it sounds like. Adding in about 37 minutes of new or unused footage, this version fits in line more with Fincher’s original vision. Now it too isn’t a perfect movie, but I’d wager it’s a much more complete, comprehensible of the narrative. Not that I fault the studio all that much for making the cuts they did.

If one watches the BTS features on the Quadrilogy set (something I once again whole heartedly recommend), you’ll pick up on the fact that making each one of these movies was an absolute nightmare. Based on the production stories from Alien 3‘s surprisingly frank making-of documentaries, it’s a minor miracle that the either cut of the film is watchable at all.

Where Aliens was a big, loud, bombastic statement, Alien 3 brings everything inward; it cleans the slate, bringing everything back to a simplistic core. What it lacks in scope however it more than makes up with lofty ideas and imagery. It’s the closest the series has to an art film, something I attribute to Fincher and the early involvement of Vincent Ward, who brought forth a lot of religious context and themes to his original vision before Fincher took over. Fincher, to his credit, scaled things back considerably in favor of taking the series back to its roots. 

The last film sought to build Ripley up, elevating her to the badass we see often in the iconography.  Too often we neglect Alien 3 however, the movie that brought her right back down to lowest point we had yet to see her.

I think a lot of the hate this movie receives deals largely with the fact it is almost nothing like its largely revered predecessor. It’s in no way a fun movie and it isn’t a summer blockbuster. Hell, our movie opens with the death of Newt and Hicks. In the Assembly Cut, Newt’s autopsy is a critical scene for Ripley. There are very, very few scenes of levity to balance everything out so it is a really long, dour affair at the end of the day. I argue Fincher’s best stuff is pretty bleak though. He’s dabbled in darker comedy (Fight Club) and even prestige, feel-good whimsy (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but his greatest movies (Seven, Zodiac, Gone Girl) match his (presumably) dark soul.

In Fincher’s hands, Alien 3 is an excursion into nihilism on a dilapidated, claustrophobic prison planet populated by celibate fundamentalist prisoners so it at least removes the immediate threat of sexual violence where they’re concerned which is refreshing. The xenomorph, in all its forms, is kind of one big sexual allegory any way so to add that unpleasant layer would have in no doubt been a major detractor given this series is sort of built upon “subtle” sexual imagery due in no small part to the involvement of Giger.

However I must concede that Alien 3 never fully recovers from just how bleak it is. Still there is a lot to be said about its stylistic bravado and the courage it has in taking the series’ darkest turns. Killing of Ripley was a bold, fitting move and one almost wishes this had been the final chapter. She and the xenomorph go down together, their fates forever entwined and closed.

But alas, nothing ends in Hollywood as long as there is money to be made.

Alien: Resurrection

“200 years after the conclusion of Alien 3, the Company is able to resurrect Ripley through the process of cloning and the scientists successfully take the Queen Alien out of her. But, Ripley’s DNA gets mixed up with the Queen’s and she begins to develop certain alien characteristics. The scientists begin breeding the aliens, but they later escape. Soon the Xeno-morphs are running amok on the ship, which is on course to Earth. The Queen then gives birth to a deadly new breed of alien, which could spell disaster for the entire human race. It’s up to Ripley and a band of space pirates to stop the ship before it reaches Earth.” – IMDb.com

At last, we arrive at the black sheep of the family.

Alien: Resurrection is hands down one of the most insane wide-releases I think a major studio has put out in the past 3 or 4 decades. It’s just so utterly bizarre it deserves a litany of think-pieces examining just how this storm came together.

Weirdly enough, it’s also the one that seems to have gotten the least amount of studio notes.

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had only done two movies at this point and had yet to complete the film for which he will forever be associated: Amélie.

Suffice to say, he doesn’t automatically scream franchise material. Let alone the million dollar behemoth that the Alien franchise represented at the time and unlike Fincher, I don’t think the studio hired him to be some puppet to blindly accept notes. I think this movie really only represents Jeunet’s single stab at making a Hollywood movie, and it’s really fun to see what exactly he brought to the table having since seen him find his groove outside of the system.

Oh and did I mention the screenplay comes from nerd messiah Joss Whedon? Now this may seem like an odd fit, but if you actually watch the movie you see Whedon’s finger prints all over the damn thing with all of its quippy dialogue (at inopportune times) and playful jabs at genre conventions. There’s even a pre-Firefly wacky family dynamic with the crew of the Beatty; not to mention Whedon inherits one of the most empowered female leads in cinematic history, something he made a staple throughout his work. (That said, it makes no logical sense to have Ripley be in this outside of just finding an excuse to include Weaver and the reason provided for Ripley’s “resurrection” is quite the stretch. Then again, a stupid cloning aspect fits in perfectly with all of the other stupid shit celebrated therein.)

To be fair to Whedon, he’s gone on record more than once that he’s not a fan of the final product. He’s quoted as saying:

“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines…mostly…but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There’s actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script…but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”

All credit to Whedon and he is fully entitled to his own opinion (it is a screenplay he wrote after all), but I humbly disagree. I think this a movie exudes a confidence that a lot of others of its scale at the time lacked and in that we find the spectacle.

You can almost get the sense Jeunet wanted to go crazier but was limited by plausibility and budget…probably the studio to a degree as well. This is the rare entry that probably could have used a bit more supervision to be sure. Frustratingly enough however, its utter insanity is what most elevates the movie from a forgettable chapter to arguably the most memorable if only for what your mind is assaulted with. It carries an odd integrity, consisting more of half-formed ideas combined with the ambitions of a French madman.

The one (of many) stupid things that probably could have used a touch up was….this stupid thing.

Look at its stupid face.

And my problem is more of nitpick because this…thing is supposed to be a half xenomorph/half human hybrid….even though the xenomorph is already supposed to be a half human hybrid. That said, I give it a pass because we get to see it die in a fashion that remains unmatched in the annals of cinema.

An element worth commendation that the movie never really executes is how it finally somewhat explores  the series-long thread of weaponizing the xenomorph. There’s a truly unsettling scene early on where the military is “farming” the aliens with live, human hosts they’ve essentially kidnapped. Unfortunately really never goes too in-depth with this aspect. It’d be interesting if a future movie examined this further.

While Resurrection is probably the weakest movie of all four, it features enough strong scenes like the one I just mentioned to keep it from devolving into simple schlock. It’s a roundtable movie, demanding discussion that all fall prey to it.

So while far from perfect, the Alien franchise had submitted its place as perhaps the most diverse cinematic franchise up to that point in that each entry represented something new, something different, something exciting. No two entries were ever the same. They didn’t always land, but they were distinct. In a world where studios are more concerned with consistency and inter-connecting episodic threads rather than something so risky, these movies would be downright revolutionary. 

Then Ridley Scott came back and fucked everything up…

Perhaps it’s unfair to join the masses in beating a long dead horse, airing my complains about a movie I’ve made sure to harp on in the past so I’m going to be as concise as I can before I send you out on your way. I could dedicate more than a few thousand words regarding plot holes, but that would be screaming into the abyss at this point. Add in the fact redlettermedia took on that task much more eloquently and concisely than I ever could.

Unlike AliensPrometheus doesn’t take risks with tone. It plays things safe, something no other entry had done up to that point. I can’t really stand on a chair above it, pretending I know what would have made a better movie or even that it’s a lazy movie. The production design and effects, for what they’re worth, clearly had a lot of effort put into them. It’s nice to say basic effort at least carried over where the visuals were concerned.

It would be unfair to say the movie is without merit and had it nothing to do with the world Scott helped begin all those decades ago, I’m sure my displeasure with it would have been tempered. In fact, I may have even enjoyed it a little bit more…not by much, but at least a little. The notion of Scott returning to a genre he helped define was enough to make one giddy. However it instead came off as Scott painting-by-numbers rather than be the innovator we all know him to be.

It was Alien but with a shittier coat of paint. Sure, it looks nice and new but the old layer hadn’t remotely begun to chip yet. There’s nothing distinctly praise-worthy about Prometheus outside of its visuals, a couple of half-baked unanswered questions and Michael Fassender’s turn as the android David, a character so developed and nuanced he’s a disservice to everyone else who comes off as flat and one-dimensional.

The comparisons to its forebear would have been there with Scott’s involvement alone but instead its hitched its trailer to a franchise it initially appears to share very little connective tissue with outside of its hard R-rating. I think this can possibly be faulted to pre-release build up that really wasn’t clear whether the film was indeed a prequel rather than a science fiction in the same vein as Alien. Given we now know it is a prequel, I believe comparisons are completely fair.

I hate accusations that a lot of hardcore Alien fans dismiss this movie because it “breaks from the formula.” This is something Scott has said in promoting the newest film, adding this is what led to said film’s creation and implying he’s “giving us what we want to see.”

I’ll get into it more in a bit, but this is probably the thing that enrages me most about Prometheus as a whole. It suggests we want to be spoon-fed rather than surprised. I could be wrong given how much money movies like the Beauty and the Beast remake make every year. It suggests audiences typically only want the same thing time after time. Sure, we love familiarity but there’s room for new stuff too…he said kind of simplistically.

Well if you want the same thing, look no further than Prometheus; a movie that could best be described as if Alien thought its audience consisted of nothing but morons. Where Alien had characters that felt like actual people, Prometheus “elevates” itself with dialogue no human being (not even a scientist) would utter.

Maybe it just falls back to personal preference. Where the characters in Alien were largely concerned about things like overtime and pay checks, the Prometheus crew are concerned with intangible concepts. “Is there a God?’ “Who made us?” “Why did he/she/it make us?” “Did I leave the stove light on?” These are not inherently boring ideas. They could be pretty interesting if framed properly. But Prometheus doesn’t really go for that. It largely hinges on the mystery. But in asking so many questions, it never really feels the need to answer any of them, leading to frustration. In a way, it undermines what made the original so great in the first place, complicating things that shouldn’t be all that complicated.

And it extends to matters beyond just dialogue as well. Whenever a new threat presents itself, the crew of the Nostromo make a point to map out to a degree their next course of action and in turn this allows us a chance to know them specifically as characters. The Prometheus crew, which I must remind you we are led to believe is a group of trained scientists that represent the highest potential in their respective fields (otherwise why else would they be recruited for potentially THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT DISCOVERY OF ALL TIME), lumber around like idiots, never really taking any time to discuss any intimidate action. We’re granted plenty of questions, but literally no payoff.

Hence my lack of excitement for the impending release of Alien: Covenant, yet another entry by Scott. From the grapevine I hear word that it is a soft reboot, meaning it is a reboot in everything but name so therefore could also be considered a prequel and/or sequel. There’s connective threads to what came before, but everything else is entirely new. Think of the Force Awakens, Jurassic World or the movie I just got done bitching about Prometheus as recent examples.

I have yet to see it, but I predict my reaction may be akin to how I gradually felt about Jurassic World, another soft reboot. I’m excited at first, seeing a franchise return to its roots but cools every single time I watch afterword.

Given it’s attached to Prometheus (thereby….sigh….attaching the two franchises), I also assume it’s a prequel. If there’s anything I didn’t need it was where the xenomorph came from. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but this is a monster that was much more interesting when my mind was allowed to fill in the gaps. Given they’re creatures that we’re not really ever asked to feel sympathy for (well, most of the time), in what instance is an origin needed.

One of the great joys in Alien is our characters land on LV-426, find a downed space ship they know nothing about. All we know is some insane parasitic creature has killed everyone on said ship, thereby making the jump to humans. Who is to say what they originally looked like? That’s never been a question lingering in my mind. I always viewed as this brilliant/terrifying coincidence that humans ran into this species at all. And as kaptainkristian pointed out so truthfully in his video essay, this is a creature we understand without any explanation. Thanks to the design, we fundamentally understand all three life stages of the xenomorph without all our characters gathered around a table to exposit each stage’s purpose.

And that’s why it sucks (to me) why Scott has saw fit to apparently take this series back under his wing, favoring a unified vision rather than experimentation. I fear we’re only going to get the same variation of the same movie year after year, joining the rank-and-file series it once set itself apart from. This isn’t to say I’m not in favor of a director overseeing an entire series. Without going down the entire list we have Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, James Gunn with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy for some prime examples. I’m simply arguing we could use more room for franchises that mix things up by letting new directors with different visions mess around and not in the same way as the James Bond series does, a franchise so beholden to its own formula it’s a point of humor in later installments.

Imagine how much more interesting if the Pirates of Caribbean series would have been if it ditched an over-arching narrative in favor of new directions with each entry? Much like the Back to the Future films, it dedicated its second and third to go hand-in-hand, leading to two movies that just sort of bleed into another without each really making a substantial impression. Whereas I argue the latter BtF films are marginally better, Pirates kept going after its original trilogy and appears to be going for something I’d initially consider a step in the right direction. Unfortunately it kind of comes too late. On Stranger Tides was so forgettable I struggle to remember a single thing that happened in or if I saw it all, and Dead Men Tell No Tales looks to be in the same vein. What that series could have benefited from is a new director each time, maybe focusing on someone other than Jack Sparrow and ditching a traditional arc; opting instead to bring us to new locales and adventures each outing.

This all wraps into why I’m here today, making a case for a series many dismiss as formulaic when in fact it’s a franchise (that once) was something special, something that changed from movie in the way a musical artist plays around with different genres; artists like Kanye West, Childish Gambino, Lady Gaga, David Bowie, Gorillaz and Bob Dylan.

I think we’ve largely grown complacent with sequels that barely register as mildly entertaining, and for what’s worth that’s not exactly the worst thing, but it also doesn’t really get the blood-pumping in a serious way either.

When you look back at the original four Alien films, you see a new vision each time. You see risk rather than safe, lazy imitation. For all its faults, Fox inadvertently created a highly, unique franchise (something that’s clear given they kept trying to bring back Scott and Cameron throughout the years), set apart from just about anything else of its scale in the Western studio system.

Does everything work? No. Not by a long shot but in a cinescape dominated by the “safe” and “episodic” there should still be room for a series that doesn’t adhere to a code, and mixes things up even if there are mistakes. So what if every beat doesn’t always land when the jump was completely watchable?

I argue these movies are anything but formulaic. There may be beats you expect, but tonally they could not be any more different. They match the tastes of four incredibly masterful and diverse directors, each sporting an entirely different feel than the last.

I can’t sit here and tell you what I want out of an Alien movie because my “dream Alien film” is one that I wouldn’t expect or at the very least one that is set apart from its predecessors. It would be one that does what this series and its monster (used) to do best: evolve.

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“The horror…the horror…”: 13 scary scenes (not in scary movies) SPOILERS…OBVIOUSLY

 

We are right in the thick of October and for any one on the internet claiming to know a thing or two about movies is coming up with some sort of “Best of” in relation to horror films. Scariest movies ever. Scariest movies of the past decade. Scariest scenes. Scariest kids’ movies. It goes on and on. Well, I’m here to add to that cavalcade because I have a one post a month quota to fill and there aren’t too many promising films I want to review scheduled for the month so why not a list?

Now I am in no way claiming to be outside of the box on this one. Given my outlet is the internet, I’m well aware hundreds of better written lists like this one exist.

So what makes mine different, you may ask?

Well…

Um…

This one…

This one is…um…

Mine?

Yeah!

This one’s mine!

Also, as you may or may not have surmised, I’ve pulled from non-horror films.

As an added condition, I’ve also avoided the typical “this scared the pants off me as a kid” scene you often find such as the boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Large Marge in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. That isn’t to say any of these movies aren’t scary. No one here is arguing that. No one.

The point is I wanted more of a challenge. To think OUTSIDE of the box as it were. In other words, I had to think on this one. It was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be once I set out. Like many, I go to horror movies to get scared. For whatever reason, I never assume fear is something that’s necessarily going to translate into other genres which is inherently absurd.

There was also an effort on my part to avoid documentaries as well. I could probably dedicate an entire, separate post on frightening documentaries. No real defense to their lack of representation here other than I wanted to keep things simple.

Now as we navigate this cinematic myriad, it may be important for me to preface with the notion that most, if not all, of these scenes are going to relate back to what I personally find frightening.

Words you’re going to see again and again will be “realistic” and “relatable.”

And possibly even….EXISTENTIAL. Ooooooooo scary.

So yeah there will probably be more than one moments while you scroll down where you find yourself asking, “Really, Tyler? Really?”

Then I’ll look down out the ground and get really quite for a bit.

I’m going to do my best not to ramble in the descriptions even that’s kind of like my thing at this point. I highly recommend you watch every one of the scenes because…they’re great. I’ll add a little commentary but kind of just want them to speak for themselves.

It’s also important to note that I am in no way arguing these are the scariest films of all time. They’re are just 13 that I happen to think of off the top of my head. If you have any to add, I’d love to read about them in the comments section.

Quotas. Am I right?

Why 13?

Um…

13 is unlucky, right?

That’s kind of spooky.

….

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO SPOOOOKY NUMBERSSSSSSSSS!

1) “Not quite my tempo.” – Whiplash (2014)

It speaks volumes that I’ve had nightmares just like this after seeing this movie.

We’ve all had that one person we want to impress. Whether it be a parent, professor, boss or what have you. There’s always going to be THAT person who’s validation you’re going to be perpetually fighting for.

We all also harbor deep-rooted fears of failure. Failing in front of your person of reverence AND being called out on it by said person? Well, you have yourself one dandy of a nightmare cocktail.

Through in being an introvert, you have why this scene (and whole movie, really) got deep down in my psyche.

I almost thought it was a comedic scene the first time I saw the film because in as is oft the case when faced with any form of conflict, tension or general uncomfortableness, my immediate instinct is to laugh as to hopefully ease tension.

But this is not a funny scene. There really isn’t any aspect of it that is treated as a gag.

It could even be argued that the scariest aspect of all of this how it seemingly works in the long run. Fletcher’s methods of pushing someone to the very precipice of their limits through psychological (and even physical) torture comes back in a big, bad way by Whiplash‘s finale and it is as unsettling as it may be triumphant.

2) Plane crash – The Grey (2012)

We’ve seen a lot of plane crashes in film.

We never LEAVE the plane. Director Joe Carnahan and Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi don’t give us spectacle. Instead we’re right there with Ottway (the camera never trailing too far from his perspective) as the vessel goes down. It’s many of our worst nightmares brought to terrifying reality.

It’s scarier than anything with the wolves because it’s such a universal fear. I’m pretty damn sure anyone who has stepped foot on a plane has had this exact scenario in the back of their head. Many easily conquer that fear. After all, if they didn’t we probably wouldn’t have many airlines.

3) A festering pit of NOPE – King Kong (2005) 

By this scene’s inclusion, I think you may be able to ascertain that I am not OVERLY fond of bugs. It’s clear director Peter Jackson isn’t either.

Sharing his entomophia in interviews before, Jackson GETS what makes bugs scary. For those paying attention during Return of the King, Shelob acts and moves just like an actual spider. Moving lightening fast and then abruptly stopping. Waiting. Waiting. Then moving in an unanticipated direction. (Least we forget, spiders have eyes on every side of their heads.)

Jackson’s ode to creepy crawlies is no where expressed better however than in the revitalized Spider-Pit sequence in his 2005 remake of King Kong.

It’s surface-level horror, (not to mention a complete deviation from the main conflict in an already overstuffed film) but it works. All the bug designs are unsettling, with the meat-weasels and massive weta’s being the true-standouts.

To me, this is all the fears I had about jumping into a leaf pile or the mud made manifest.

4) The red dress – Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Requiem for a Dream is a movie I never need to revisit.

It’s a very good movie, don’t get me wrong. If you haven’t seen it, I fully recommend you do so at the nearest connivence.

It’s just a real bummer. Like, a HUGE one.

There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for anyone in it.

I know that’s kind of the point. It’s a film about the horrors of drug addiction after all.

Moving along though, this is the most “traditional” scary sequence in the film, and it’s pretty damn effective. That fridge gets me every time. There are a number of creepy drug sequences (some of the most famous come from this very film) but this is the one that I’d argue is the scariest.

Sara’s descent is probably the one that hits closest to home for many viewers as it’s hard not to project our own mothers on to her. Where she ultimately ends up is another key reason I avoid the film. Without getting too personal, it hits too close to home in things I worry about almost on a day-to-day basis. My mom is NOT a drug attack, but she deals with things and every time I see this film (or just this scene or this one), I’m compelled to give her a call.

5) “He’s coming towards us.” – Zodiac (2007)

Almost all of David Fincher’s cannon appears to have at least one memorable frightening moment in them. So many in fact, that is was hard limiting myself to just two (the other we will get to momentarily).

Murder is common element of any crime film. Other it’s dramatized via gore, score, or all of the above. In Zodiac, Fincher takes a different route.

The murders are so startlingly real, that you don’t recognize they’re taking place initially. There’s no build up to the violence. It just happens. No pomp or circumstance. Random violence is often the scariest as it cannot be defined. To cope with senseless death, we as human often do are best internally “make sense” of things. “Oh, he was crazy,” or “Of course that she killed them. We saw the warning signs.” But the Zodiac Killer(s) were never “found out.” To this day, we don’t know who he, she, they were or why they committed such heinous deeds, adding another layer to just how unsettling this scene is.

6) Sloth – Se7en (1995)

I’ve gone on record through multiple avenues to declare my undying love for Fincher’s Se7en.

I went with Mills’ and Somerset’s discovery of Sloth because, as with the last scene, it exemplifies Fincher’s knack for taking a well-worn troupe and making it fresh. In this case, it’s the jump scare.

The scene draws you in with every little detail. Much like the unnamed SWAT-member, we are drawn to this body under the assumption that of course it’s dead.

Fincher doesn’t even bother with racketing up tension. The cough comes out of nowhere and we’re flat on our asses once again.

7) The Pale Man – Pan’s Labyrinth  (2006)

I mentioned I avoided scenes that scared me as a child; opting instead to focus on those I still found frightening as an adult. This is the one main exception I made as it successfully plays to those fears we all had as a child but placed in an adult setting; something director Guillermo del Toro appears to have an absolute hard-on for.

Ever a slave to detail, del Toro builds up his monster masterfully through silent clues throughout the set.

As with any good movie monster, the Pale Man is slow, quasi-methodical. It doesn’t need to move fast because it nows the playing field. Run as fast as you like. It’ll get you. One way or another.

8) “LOOK AT ME.” – The Dark Knight (2008)

The initial horror in this scene is on-the-nose.

The Joker is on a crime spree as he attempts to goad Batman into facing him; a part of his larger scheme to bring the Caped Crusader down to his level and show that ANYONE can fall. Typical Joker scheme.

A common thread you’re going to see, and may have already noticed, is “real.” Joker’s tape is a video that could have easily been leaked to reddit, 4chan, or any other social sharing site. I’ve seen ones before, much more violent of course, that could have served as the inspiration.

Look to the on-air murder of Alison Parker and Adam Ward last year. That is but one of many examples.

It’s the most frightening aspect of Heath Ledger’s Joker. He isn’t about elaborate death traps.

9) Curb stomp – American History X (1998) 

I really wrestled with including this scene. Not because it isn’t scary. It’s why it’s scary, and that gets into a touchy space that is a breeding ground for contempt and hurt feelings.

I hate how racists have recently begun to appropriate this movie. As if they only take certain scenes (like this one) without context. As if to say, “See, we were right! Ed Norton was right at the beginning!” And I hate that. Of course, there are multiple ways to view a movie but revising a movie altogether and making it out to be representing something it isn’t is moronic and insulting.

The main message of the film, at least in my opinion, is how hate is taught from one generation to another. It’s not the glorification of one man’s racist ideals; it’s the deconstruction of them altogether.

This scene could easily be considered a “fuck yeah” moment in a piece of action junk.

It isn’t though.

It’s horrific, and director Tony Kaye treats it as such. Yeah, these guys were robbing Danny but we’ve seen the chain of events that led them there. No one is innocent truly innocent in the instance.

Violence begets violence. It’s a cycle that continually loops.

“Hate is baggage. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it.”

10) “Hi, this is Nikki. Leave a message.” – Swingers (1996)

Well, well, well.

My old nemesis.

To many, Swingers may be nothing more than a comedy and it truly can be experienced as just that. I love the movie, but I rarely re-visit it, largely due to this scene.

It’s so frighteningly real, particularly as a guy who continues to struggle with forming relationships. I’ve been in this exact position with women I liked in which I had a little voice saying, “Leave it be,” but another, much louder one saying “No, don’t make it weird. KEEP GOING TO MAKE SURE SHE KNOW’S YOU’RE NOT WEIRD.” I don’t think I’ve ever left quite this many voicemails, but we are in the texting/Tindr age.

Last night I just found out about “ghosting.” If I’m relating this correctly, this is when one half of a relationship abruptly stops communicating with the other.

Every time I sit through this scene, I’m verbally yelling, “STOP IT” at the screen before it’s over.

Relationships are scary.

Actually getting into one is a whole other beast.

11) “Is it safe?” – Marathon Man (1976)

I guess this scene is pretty much a given. But classics are classics for a reason, right?

To be honest, I don’t remember the rest of this movie all that well. It’s been a while since I sat down and watched it. It seems to be on TV every time I visit one of my parents (who have cable) so I definitely could point out where it is alternatively. I just couldn’t relate specifics to you…the main exception being this fucking scene that plays through my head every time I have to go to the goddamn dentist.

There are a lot of torture scenes I thought about including on this list which is a statement that sounds really creepy with or without context but I went with this one because it pinpoints a fear I think a lot people share and that’s an evil dentist given full-reign to do whatever they want with your mouth.

12) The other side – 50/50 (2011) 

Behold, another comedy. Like Swingers50/50 is a fairly consistent comedy (jokes land more than they miss) that nails frighteningly realistic situations. In this case, it’s dwindling minutes before we are put under the knife.

You may be thinking,”Tyler, you coward. This scene is relaxing. If anything it’s melancholic.”

I’ve never been diagnosed with cancer, nor have I had to have a life-saving surgery. I have, however, had more than one procedure. Ranging from outpatient to several days in the hospital. Every. Single. One. Stressed. Me. The. Phunk. Out.

You’re kidding yourself if you think that any time you go in for ANY surgery, you’re guaranteed to wake up. The odds are minimal, but that doesn’t stop your brain from going to darker places right as the needle is hooked into your arm or the mask slipped over your face. And being alone sucks. You want someone there. Whether it be a parent or friend.

The conversation with the mom here has played out with me and my own mother every time I’ve laid on that bed in my gown.

 13) The war begins – War of the Worlds (2005)

Having grown into adulthood in the post-9/11 landscape, I’d argue it’s very easy for someone my age to become…how do I put it…detached from the 9/11 imagery that utterly dominates popular culture’s depiction of mass destruction.

I argue that imagery has largely fallen flat for me with the key exception being Steven Spielberg’s take on the H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The War of the Worlds. As with any good science fiction, the book zeroed in on contemporary anxieties. In Victorian England, that was the threat of foreign invaders. Wells, clever as he was, took those fears and flipped them on them right back around on your average English Joe, making the book a clear commentary on imperialism.

“For that moment I touched an emotion beyond the common range of men, yet one the poor brutes we dominate know only too well. I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow, and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer master, but an animal among animals; under the Martian heel.”
Flash-forward to 2005. You’re 4 years after two planes struck the Twin Towers, 1 hit the Pentagon and another a field in Pennsylvania. Two years into our dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The anger is still palpable. Fear of outside invaders striking again is ever present.
Spielberg, like Wells before him, is using his craft to give us a skewed view of our present through the prism of science fiction. In this case, America’s post 9/11 anxieties as well as our various dealings within the Middle East that took place in the early 2000’s. Some are a bit more on the nose than others. (Tom Cruise frantically attempting to cleanse himself of the dust of those unlucky enough to be vaporized, a boy screaming “WE HAVE TO GET BACK AT THEM,” a girl literally screaming, “IS IT TERRORISTS?!,” etc) but it all services a point. Spielberg isn’t exploiting a tragedy in the same way Zack Snyder did in Man of Steel. He’s actually making a point.
The first tripod’s assault is a clear allusion to a terrorist attack, sadly given new relevancy month after month with conflicts in Syria, the terror attacks in Paris and so on. I picked this scene because it highlights how well science fiction be in representing real life, skewed just enough to allow some distance.

Favoring tension over jump scares, ‘Don’t Breathe’ joins the growing pantheon of new horror classics

I love talking about what makes a good horror movie. Maybe more than any other genre (possibly tied with comedy), horror divides people in so many ways that thesis after thesis could be written on what one person finds scary, why, why not and so on and so forth. You can find more than one example of me harping on the topic on this very blog if you look hard enough.

There’s been a small but noticeable trend in horror over the past 3 or 4 years. It isn’t momentous but a substantial bar has been raising year after year in wide-release horror films, meaning we generally better horror films put out in local theaters more frequently. And by better I mean recent films like It Follows, The Babadook, the 2013 Evil DeadGreen Room, Cabin in the Woods, The Witch and The Guest. Even The Conjuring films, which I wasn’t overtly impressed by, are by-and-large better than many of their big-budget counterparts. There is still an overwhelming majority of better material in the on-demand rack, but its nice to see studios Oft times the best stuff is hidden among the pack of the worst of the worst you go looking for at 1 in the morning because you’re stoned and need something to watch/laugh at. All of those movies I previously mentioned I was lucky enough to see in the theater and I live in the Midwest, a part of the country where art house and indie theaters are hard to come by.

After Evil Dead (a movie that had no business being even half as good as it was), I am completely on board with whatever director/writer Fede Alvarez has to dish out particularly if it’s a horror film. Upon seeing the trailer for Don’t Breathe, it shot almost immediately on the higher end spectrum of movies I NEEDED to see before the end of the year. I’d put it even higher than Rouge One and a good number of the remaining major (sure to be disappointing) franchise films the remainder of the year has in store for us.

Now, I never want to “oversell” any movie, particularly one that operates like Don’t Breathe.

Part of a reviewers job should be to levy expectations. Otherwise those that read said review may go into a movie with a pre-determined bar that no one film can ever reach. That’s not fair to audience or the film itself.

Don’t Breathe isn’t going to change your life, or at I at least don’t think it will. Not many movies are really ever going to do that unless you worked on them or they motivate you to improve on who you are as a person. (That was The Social Network for me, for example.)

What it will do however, is take you on an absolute ride; something this summer has sorely lacked at least where the local cineplex is concerned. Whether that comes at the film’s determent with subsequent viewings is something I’ll get to momentarily.

I’m going to keep this review relatively short because I’d love to keep a lot of the surprises in tact and it’s just so good I don’t want to simply place my nose firmly up its ass. Better to keep my fingers rested for the next flop I see….

The plot: 

Author’s note: I typically pull from IMDb for a film’s synopsis but their’s for this film is way too spoiler-y for my tastes so I’m going to reword it a bit. 

Rocky (Jane Levy), a young woman wanting to start a better life for her and her sister, agrees to take part in the robbery of a house owned by a wealthy blind man (Stephen Lang) with her boyfriend Money and their friend Alex. But when the blind man turns out to be a bigger threat than anticipated, the trio, they’ll experience a night more deadly than the could have ever imagined.

The review:

Many, many decades after the Audrey Hepburn classic, Wait Until Dark pitted a blind heroine against the three crooks trying to break into her home, along comes Don’t Breathe to go above and beyond in terms of successfully reversing the scenario. Now we have terrified criminals as our heroes hiding in plain sight from a psychopath the should never have crossed. Their obstacles? Creaky floorboards, unsuppressed breathing, narrow thin hallways, bumping into objects and any other sounds we take for granted. 

It was this very basic yet intriguing premise (combined with Alvarez’s involvement) that were enough to get my ass in the seat. Having now seen this, the highest compliment I can pay the man on how much of an emphasis making cinema an experience. Where the script may be lacking, he makes up for in every sense going into overdrive and exercises every trick in the book to make sure the audience feel rewarded for providing their funds and time to his product. He aims for the stars, ensuring you never forget what you just saw. In other words, he makes movies that remind of what a singular experience watching a movie is. They just happen to be horror films.

His last film literally relied on buckets and buckets of blood and mountains and mountains of practical effects for its thrills, which is 100% A-Okay as it was a fucking Evil Dead remake.

It makes sense that he’d opt for a complete 180 on his next film in terms of scale which is impressive given the earlier film also revolves around a single location. Whereas that movie was about keeping the monsters out, Don’t Breathe is all about escape, both literally and figuratively.

Right off the bat, I feel safe in saying this just may be the most technically efficient film I’ve seen all year. Not a moment is wasted and everything builds towards an the climax.  For example, we maybe get 15 minutes with our three leads before they set out for the score of a lifetime. In hindsight, that’s really all we need to get a sense of who these people are. Sure, some are favored over others but it’s incredibly efficient to keep things relatively simple on a movie build around such a basic concept. Once are “heroes” are in the house, there isn’t going to be a single second your at ease for a good reminder of the movie. 

And that extends to the camera work as well. Cinematographer Pedro Luque glides through each room, between people, giving a sense of painful urgency as if we too are trapped in this nightmare house. There’s a masterful shot early on that takes across the house, room to room, setting up important bits along the way.

Often times the use of “Chekov’s gun” can be a little obnoxious, particularly in a horror movie. This movie had several and each and every one of them worked. Even the use of a dog, usually an element that gets tossed off unless it’s the main monster, feels important and shocking here. I loved how Luque gives his location a sense of scale, importance and detail that ultimately work far in favor to the film’s success. By the end of the take, we know just about every nook and cranny as well as the Blind Man does. The film uses long takes to give it immediacy and pitch perfect sound design that makes every gunshot sound like a cannon going off and uses silence as a key to building tension. And breaking that silence will almost certainly mean death.

The only section of the house we aren’t made privy to in the aforementioned tracking shot is the basement, which leads to perhaps the best sequence of the movie in which all of our characters are placed upon an even playing field. It harkens back to a similar sequence in Silence of the Lambs…

Like our young thieves, we have no idea who or what’s around the next corner. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the scariest scene any movie has pulled off since the much cited introduction of Mr. Babadook. Which brings me to a quick point I don’t know if I’ve harped on in the past or not but perhaps the most underrated aspect of the horror genre is sound design. Well placed sounds can go a long way in term of creating mood and spiking tension. Knowing when to cut music, add music, amplify noises, dull them and more is a talent in an of itself and a lot of the most successful scares in Don’t Breathe stem straight from sound design. If this were a just world, horror films (those that use sound in such a strong, concise way as this film) would lead the pack for the awards come Oscar season.

You can easily pick away at this film’s plot. It’s a horror movie after all and character’s make stupid decisions. If we were dealing with certified geniuses you’d end up with something like this…

That isn’t to say the characters are one note, or even the meat bags we’ve grown accustomed to in modern horror. Quite the opposite actually.

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Teaming up once again with Jane Levy, Alvarez puts his leading actress through the same emotional and physical ringer he did with Evil Dead. One can’t help but draw parallels between Sam Raimi (another returning Alvarez collaborator) and Bruce Campbell. The two truly brought out the best in one another and the same could be said of Levy and Alvarez.

By and large, Levy’s Rocky is given the most to do in terms of actual depth and characterization. Her two cohorts (played by Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) still feel important, albeit a little less developed. This isn’t really a fault; more of an observation. It’d have been nice to get a better sense of who the other guys are, but for what it’s worth, they make their mark.

While we’re on the subject of the film’s cast, let’s talk a little bit about our monster….

dont-breathe-stephen-lang

It wouldn’t be fair to say Stephen Lang’s role as The Blind Man (he is never formally named in the film) is a “star-making” performance. The man has been putting out solid work for decades, not to mention he is a major player in a little movie called Avatar you may or may not have heard of from a few years back.

However, I am fully comfortable in saying that this is most he’s popped in a role in a few years; Avatar included. He utters hardly any dialogue and yet you feel like you know this character from the get go, that is until Alavarez flip those expectations on their collective heads in the third act. Still, Lang never loses sight (haha) of the humanity of our monster. He’s a man unable to deal with a horrific amount of grief he’s suffered both at war (he’s a veteran) and at home, all of which has calcified into complete and utter insanity.

I can already foresee Lang’s character sticking in the craw of more skeptical viewers. The Blind Man’s disability is more of a device than something that should be henpecked to the death. Yes, one minute, he’s realistically impaired. In another, he may as well be Daredevil. It’s a way for Alvarez to toy around with conventions of the home invasion genre, creating whole new ways for establishing  tension.

Look, as with any horror film, there are some additional tiny logic nitpicks. Cynics are going to have a blast picking apart why one aspect doesn’t make sense or what have you. I participate in those conversations rather frequently, but when the logic leaps ultimately service a good film by making it better, I argue: why ruin a good thing? Yes, characters are going to make dumb decisions. It is from this we derive conflict, or you know, a basic fundamental element of story-telling.

The final twist regarding Lang’s character is utterly creepy and horrific. No spoilers, but chances are you’re not going to see it coming, at least not specifically. I certainly didn’t and I’m not sure how I felt about it. On one hand, it gets the reaction it sets out for. On the other, it’s the closest the movie comes to “over-doing it” so to speak. There’s never really a dip into “torture porn” territory (i.e. relying heavily on human misery to conjure either scares or enjoyment from an audience which filmmakers like Eli Roth seem to exclusively operate in rather than craft a genuinely scary film), for which I was thankful.

Back in the preface, I mentioned that the excitement I have for this movie may dwindle upon subsequent viewings. I say that because, and this ties in with what I actually like most about Alvarez as a filmmaker, because you can only have an experience so many times before it grows stale. I can never experience this film for the first time again and I work that it won’t be able to walk as confidently on its two legs once all the shocks and surprises are mapped out in front of me. Upon a second, third and fourth viewing, I’m sure the razor thin tension I felt the first time will surly have faded at least somewhat but my ultimate hope is it still operates as a compelling movie I’ll actually want to revisit, examine and find new things each and every time I watch it again.

What I will say is seek this movie out while it’s still showing on the big screen. It’s one of those rare movies that actual is serviced better by the communal experience of sitting in a dark theater. Once you’ve seen as many movies as I have (not many at all when put side-to-side with actual professional review), it’s sometimes easy to forget how much fun of an experience a movie can be. To actually lose yourself in a movie, forget that what you’re watching is fake and let the magic only cinema can provide is a diamond in the rough; ironic since we’re slowly but surly moving to an age that favors immersion through bells and whistles. Then along comes Don’t Breathe, a low-cost thriller that sucked me in more effectively than Avatar and Gravity combined and I didn’t even have to pay extra for 3-D glasses.

I will warn you that seeing this in theater theater comes with some cons however. The theater I saw it in – that would be the Cinemark Tinseltown in Oklahoma City – saw one of the most involved audiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting through a movie with, culminating in one of the best/worst theater experiences of my entire life…thus far. In some instances its great to have an audience gasp, squirm, laugh and scream alongside you. It’s another to have certain members text during the film or talk to the movie as if there is a participation round in which we, the audience, effect the outcome. I sure the Alamo Drafthouse did something extra special by warning death by blind man should any member of the audience feel the need to talk or text. I sure as hell wish mine did.

‘The Witch’ is the best horror story Nathaniel Hawthorne never wrote

I’ve ranted many a time on this very blog about my thoughts on the modern horror genre as a while. (You can find said bitching here.) The gist is: studios, filmmakers and even mass audiences en mass equate horror to a jump scare roughly every 5 to 7 minutes. To actually build tension would equate to a boring movie to many. Not to sound pretentious, but too few actually work at building up scares.

In other words, they do this…

…when they should try more of this…

I should stress though, this is just something I prefer. To each his or her own in terms of what you find scary…but I’m the one writing this so my opinion is the right one.

Something I neglected to get into (but have elsewhere) in that blog is that at the heart of any good horror movie, there needs to be a half-way decent story that would stand on its own two feed should the horror elements be erased. This could be said for ANY genre film but its crime committed time and time again by cash-in horror fodder.

The Witch is a story that harkens back to days of old…and I don’t mean old movies, I mean like stories from about 200 or 300 years ago. A story writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Charlotte Perkins, Henry James, Washington Irving, and the like would have told. Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in particular seems to have been a pretty big influence given the themes, mood and general direction of the story. In fact it’s so in line with those older stories that I’m quasi-shocked it’s not based anything specific.

To be brief. “Young Goodman Brown” is story about a young man leaves his wife Faith (subtle) and ventures off into the woods for an unknown errand and along the way he encounters some strange folks for lack of a better terms, some of which may or may not be witches. He awakes the next morning questioning whether the previous night was a dream or reality. Like many of Hawthorne’s work, it examines the hypocrisy of Puritan culture as Brown’s view of a community he once thought was idealistic is as corrupt and dirty as the rest of the world. Brown’s loss of faith in his wife…Faith is reflective of his loss in faith in his community and his religion. This movie is similarly about a pious family driven to the woods and have their faiths tested. Along the way, we get to the bottom of what aches at the heart of each of these characters hearts, what sins consume at them and whether their faith can survive in a reality hellbent on shattering it.

Before I start waxing smart about Gothic lit (I took one college class so pretty damn far from expert), let me direct you to me pretending to be smart about the subject in my Crimson Peak review.

Not only heavily influenced by the stories of the American gothics however, first-time writer/director Robert Eggers pulls from both early American folk stories and real life accounts, such as the hanging of Ann Glover and the possession of Elizabeth Knapp in the 17th Century. It’s a hodgepodge of truth, legend, heresy and what have you, complied by Eggers in one neat, little package. Speaking of 17th Century, the production design is breathtakingly intricate for what I assume must have been a very meager budget. Bravo to the costume and set designers for creating a Puritan pre-America that looks like it was ripped right off of a wood-carving.

Not everything is old-fashioned as it were as Eggers however pulls in modern horror troupes to create a movie unlike any I’ve seen before which should a pretty big indicator of what side of the positive/negative side this review will ultimately fall. Gather round, kiddies. There’s a Witch on the prowl and it needs reviewin’.

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The plot: 

“New England, 1630: William and Katherine lead a devout Christian life, homesteading on the edge of an impassible wilderness, with five children. When their newborn son mysteriously vanishes and their crops fail, the family begins to turn on one another. ‘The Witch’ is a chilling portrait of a family unraveling within their own fears and anxieties, leaving them prey for an inescapable evil.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Let’s just get this out of the way now. The Witch is not the scariest horror film you’ve ever seen but it just might be one of the best ones you’ve seen in a good long while. At least that is the case for me. Something I dislike about horror movies that are even the slightest bit of good tend to get OVERHYPED. Now, I understand why this happens. Horror movies largely suck (especially now) and any time one actually shows promise, the excitement is almost palpable. So let me lower your expectations: while I loved this movie, it didn’t utterly shatter my world and I don’t want you to think that it will shatter your’s either.

I expect to hear a lot of people argue that it wasn’t scary. The argument I foresee in my head relates to the film simply being “weird” or “boring” because it doesn’t spoon feed its audience by jingling proverbial keys over our heads by shocking us awake with loud noises. Now, once again, I understand this isn’t EVERYBODY’S cup of tea so if you don’t like slow burn films that are more…measured in how they scare you, there’s a good chance you won’t care for this movie. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not here to convince why I think this is better or even scary. There’s really no wrong way to take in a movie. I’m simply here to tell you why you should give it a chance.

In many ways it belongs in the same conversation as recent horror hits The Babadook and It Follows in that it does a wonderful job in instilling dread in the audience. Dread, as defined, is to anticipate with great apprehension or fear. ANTICIPATION. The fear of what comes next. Building tension so high that you NEED to see what happens but you’re afraid to. You cover your eyes, but you peak between your fingers. You hold your ears closed, but watch none-the-less.

The movie pulls this off through a number of ways, but I want to highlight two specifically: the cinematography and the score.

Jarin Blaschke’s camera work is so good and so precise that it’s hard to describe why it works so well. I particularly liked when he would just linger on the woods on the edge of the farm.it’s so dense, you can see one or two rows of trees before it’s just darkness. This primordial wilderness threatens the family physically and spiritually, and it’s given some great visual substance throughout the film.

Like the camera, the Mark Korven’s score is often measured but often uneasy. There’s always something eerie when the score kicks in, even when nothing particularly creepy is going on. Continuing the film’s strict ‘just as it was’ philosophy, the film’s score was composed using period instruments as well as a utterly creepy female choir that kicks in at some of the film’s spookiest moments. I couldn’t find any samples via YouTube but I highly recommend seeking it out through (legal) channels such as iTunes or Spotify…just do so with the lights on. 

All of this isn’t to say the movie isn’t scary in the common sense either. There are truly terrifying moments in this movie and more than enough graphic and creepy imagery to fill up your nightmare bank for the next year. Let’s just say if you’re freaked out by goats, rabbits, crows, twins, old ladies and the woods (like I am), you’re going to have more than one thing keeping you up at night for the next week or so.

Outside of the technical elements, I was particularly impressed with the younger actors. That isn’t to say our two adult leads are anything to slouch at. Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie are superb; Inseon in particular seems destined to play the part of Puritan zealot with his well-worn features and weathered voice. It’s just that the younger cast members have a lot of heavy lifting to do given the subject material.

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Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the oldest of the family’s five children, who finds herself largely at the center of the witchy paranoia. I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything before this but I expect great things. She is not the troupe one would expect in that she is actively “ahead” of everyone else and doesn’t believe in witches. She does her own fair share of accusing and pointing fingers before all is said and done. Instead, she’s an actual character. You know, with like faults and personality. She’s a young woman in a time in which it was pretty terrible being a woman. There’s a lot of weight in that role as not only the oldest child and a woman, unsure and unready for the world outside of her community, and she does a very good job at playing a child forced into growing up very quickly.

The same could be said of Harvey Scrimshaw’s Caleb, the second oldest. He’s on the cusp of puberty and beginning to have impure thoughts about his older sister (icky but a different time and just an all around terrible situation to be discovering your sexuality) and must do some serious growing up now that his family is out on their own. He instills a lot of subtle emotions of guilt and confusion over his burdening hormones to a character who could have been pretty annoying if written and acted by lesser talents. No spoilers, but something rather unfortunate happens to his character and one of his later scenes is one of the finer performances I’ve seen from a child actor recently. He’s playing a lot of types in a role that is -on the page- very simple.

And that goes for the movie as a whole really. It’s spinning a lot plates and it does so in way that almost seems misleadingly simple. It’s a movie that’s dense thematically but not overtly complicated. It’s also refreshingly simple, not tied to any existing canon besides that of its genre.

There’s a feminist reading regarding the repression of female sexuality and its power. You can look into the purely psychological facet of the story and the time and place in which it takes place; a time dictated by religious fanaticism and suspicion in the unknown ruled the hearts of the common folk and place in which death was just around every corner. You can even take the movie at face-value as a simple spooky campfire story about a witch terrorizing a family of pilgrims. It reminded a bit of the The Revenant, a critical darling I was more lukewarm on. That movie was also very simple in regards to story but rich in themes and the like. Where that movie waivers and this one excels however is that the former movie is about two-and-a-half hours. This one is a breezy one-and-a-half.  You get that discussion, but with more of an urgency and without the density of a movie that drags from time to time.

SPOILERS

BELOW I WILL BE TALKING ABOUT THE END OF THE FILM.

IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM AND DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED, SKIP TO THE PICTURE OF THE HAPPY GOAT.

THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE.

YOU ARE NOW LEGALLY NOT ALLOWED TO BE MAD IF YOU HAVE BEEN SPOILED.

I really want to get into the last act of the movie because A) it gets really crazy (in a good way) and B) it’s one of the best horror movie endings I’ve seen in maybe a decade. A lot of people in my screening where audibly frustrated by it but I loved it.

As a quick aside, please hide your displeasure with a movie AFTER the final credits. More often than not, audiences for horror movies can be the most utterly obnoxious out of any other type of film because some think they are comedians and “cooler” than the movie by anticipating the scares or recognizing the troupes. When I have contempt for a movie (like The Choice), I keep it to a whisper at the most out of respect for others that also paid to be there. I don’t treat a movie theater like a goddamn open mic night.

There wasn’t some cheap twist nor ambiguity as to what the exact situation. There are fucking witches out in the woods and there is a deal to be made with the fucking Devil.

For the record, I LOVE that the movie commits to the witch angle and Black Phillip being a form of the Devil. Eggers even throws in the book in which to sign and stripping down and dancing by firelight. With the loss of her entire family, Thomasin is ready to join her sisters in what I can presume is a prequel to Hocus Pocus. (Only half kidding, but those witches fed on the souls of children too…I don’t think they murdered babies, mashed them into goo and proceeded to rub said goo on their naked bodies and brooms for flight…BUT WE DIDN’T SEE THEM NOT DO THAT, DID WE?!)

I think it succeeds is that it doesn’t go over-the-top insane. Sure, it’s utterly bonkers but it’s played straight and that works for this movie. We don’t see a talking goat. We hear the goat speak in the dulcet, unsettling tones of seductive evil. I had a friend point out the talking goat in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell as a comparison.

That worked well for that movie which was strictly a horror comedy. Like I said, the last 10 or so minutes of this movie are INSANE but the film does such a strong job at building to that insanity with subtle pokes and prods throughout that it doesn’t betraying everything that came before. It doesn’t lead you down one route and do a complete 180 much the ending of The Last Exorcism that came out a few years ago with one of the WORST endings I have ever had the displeasure to see. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with an ambiguous ending, but quite often ambiguous endings come off as lazy or (once again) favor a surprise.

I’ve heard a little (stupid) hubbub about the movie endorsing the puritans for burning/hanging/drowning individuals accused of being witches as this movie presents witches as an actual threat.  Well here’s a (delayed) news flash for those people: Satan and witches weren’t simply “boogiemen” at this time in history. They were very real threats to the religious lot. Eggers’ movie reflects this threat. The movie is subtitled, “A New England Folktale,” and its just that. A story in which witches exist; a story passed down from generation to generation to scare those into following God’s word and also you know staying out of the goddamn woods. It’s by no accident (I assume) it takes place decades before the infamous Salem witch trials. It’s a story that could instill fear and mistrust in the hearts of the god-fearing, turing neighbor against neighbor and precursor to the mob violence that carries on to this day.

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END OF SPOILERS

So…would I recommend The Witch? Yes…tepidly because I just know in my heart of hearts this is a movie that is going to divide people. Accusations of it being boring are already out there, and they are not completely unfounded. Like any Gothic novel, the scares could be interpreted as antiquated in today’s fast paced jump scare world. This is a movie that works hard at earning its scares and some people take issue with that.

If there is ANYTHING I learned in American Gothic Fiction, it is incredibly important to differentiate between horror and terror. Terror is the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. Horror is the feeling of revulsion that occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling you get after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a deeply unpleasant occurrence. To put it simply, horror is being shocked or scared (what you feel during a jump scare or what happens when you see something that scares you like a clown or spider or what have you) and terror is being anxious about what may happen next. The two often work in unison but can be classified as to separate feelings as well. The Witch often dwells in the realm of terror. (Yes, I wrote horror story in the title but you once you see it you’ll understand there is more than enough horror to confirm my choice in wording.) I felt legitimately uncomfortable during this movie during its relatively short movie. I never felt truly at ease, and to me that is what makes a good scary movie. Something that makes you look over your shoulder; something that makes you fear to turn off the light.

‘It Follows’ solidifies indie horror’s overwhelming superiority over a majority of the big studio BS

Before we dig in, let’s take a second to discuss horror as a movie genre. Not horror comedy like Evil Dead 2 or The Cabin in the Woods. I am talking about pure, unadulterated, piss-your-pants, terrifying horror movies. I don’t think I have to go into extended detail about how the state of modern horror on the big studio scale is pretty shitty across the board. That complaint is old enough to drive at this point. Sure, you have some good stuff sneak out out like the recent Evil Dead remake and Oculus but they represent a minority in a movie group that is largely beginning to be defined by an overload of shitty titles. At times my hopes are raised when movies like The Conjuring start off strong, but more often than not, they fall back to the same old tired troupes and jump scares that have almost come to define the genre to a point where a horror movie isn’t even considered a horror movie if it isn’t constantly screaming at you.

The two biggest recurring problems I have with horror films released over the past 15 years are as follows:

1) General audiences have been trained to believe that an endless stream of jump scares equal genuine scares.

Like comedy, scary stuff is largely going to be a subjective topic. What I find frightening may be completely laughable to another person, but one misconception that I need to clear up is that a loud noise is not scary i.e. you aren’t scared when something makes you jump during a movie. It’s your “fight or flight” instincts carrying over from when our great, great, great, great, great, great, great ancestors lived in the wild and needed to be prepared for sabertooth cat attacks.

When a movie constantly relies on going “BOO!” in order to amass scares and/or relevancy, it’s the cinematic equivalent of peek-a-boo.

Now please don’t mistake this as a case for movies like Paranormal Activity that actually have the exact opposite problem and move at a snail’s pace.

To me, horror is something that needs to be earned. It shouldn’t be spoon fed to you with an overflow of jump scares and it should equate to a Where’s Waldo book that makes you wait for what feels like hours to see a chair move slightly. What I think is truly scary can be best highlighted by this scene from The Babadook for example:

Not a single jump scare to be found, and it was perfectly terrifying. Why? A large part of it has to do with lighting and sound. These build tension which leads to a general uncomfortableness. Tension is the horror movie’s biggest and most important weapon. If you make a scene like the one above work, you’ll have your audience talking a lot longer than just doing the old mirror scare cliche. A scene like this makes the viewer scared to turn the lights off at night.

The main reason this scene (and the film as a whole) works however has to do with my second point which is…

2) We, as an audience, must know the backstory of the monster/ghost/killer/etc. 

It’s not exactly a bombshell to say that the horror genre is cannibalizing itself that is to say a great portion of horror films today are remakes and/or reimaginings of movies that came before. Horror icons like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, and the like are getting makeovers and with these makeovers come new backstories that give us “insight” as to how they became the monsters we know and love today.

I personally don’t need to know how or why a monster became a monster for the most part. Something I have only the vaguest idea about is infinitely more frightening because it allows my imagination to fill in the gaps. In other words, I don’t care why Michael Meyers became a mass murdering, immortal hulk. I don’t want to sympathize with him because I get all the information I need from Dr. Loomis. We don’t need 30 minutes explaining how he had an abuse father and how he was an annoying little shit. All that does is deflate any terror we had about the character i.e. the main reason we are supposed to be scared during this HORROR movie. Time after time I see a horror movie go out of its way to explain the source of evil. While you need to explain some things (otherwise you end up with an overly vague pile of shit -coughPrometheuscough-), you don’t need to give the audience everything. True horror isn’t seeing what’s actually under the bed; it’s sitting in bed, stressing out about what may be underneath waiting to get you.

Suffice to say, as long as major studios like Fox or Lionsgate continue to look at horror films as quick and easy cash grabs, they will continue to be as such. In the meantime, a great majority of the best stuff in horror films are off the beaten path. Recent winners include the aforementioned BabadookLate PhasesStarry EyesThe Guest, and ManiacAny writer or screenwriter looking to make a name for his or herself really should start with horror as it is one of the hardest types of films to get right. Not all of the movies I listed are from first-time directors, but none of them are household names yet and I’m excited to see where the go in the future now that they have at least one solid horror film in their catalogue.

I went into It Follows almost completely blind. It’s something I am trying to do more of these days so I can go into movies with a little bit of mystery still in the air. All I really had to go with was the 95% it currently has on Rotten Tomatoes and the good word of mouth from some friends of mine that had seen it.

It Follows

The Plot:

“For nineteen-year-old Jay, Autumn should be about school, boys and week-ends out at the lake. But after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter, she finds herself plagued by strange visions and the inescapable sense that someone, something, is following her. Faced with this burden, Jay and her friends must find a way to escape the horrors that seem to be only a few steps behind.”

The Review:

Right off the bat, this film nails down classic horror movie dread almost perfectly. It achieves this through often steady, wide-angle camera work (none of the shaky cam “found footage” bullshit) and a phenomenal 80’s throwback soundtrack. Both go hand-in-hand in creating a completely tense and unnerving movie experience. It reminded me of a movie Wes Craven, George Romero or John Carpenter would have made in their prime in the early 1980s. I’m honestly surprised to see this movie get as wide a release as it did. A common complaint I expect to hear is that it was boring and honestly I understand (not agree) where it’s coming from. Just look at this trailer for the….-sigh-….remake of Poltergeist. 

There is like a jump scare every few seconds here, and I expect the movie to follow suit. This is what mass audiences have come to expect from horror.

Like many other recent quality horror flicks, It Follows subverts a classic horror staple. This time it takes the rule that sex equates to instant death and flips it around. Here, you must have sex or you will die horrifically. An abridged version would be: there is a curse that has been passed around from person to person through sexual intercourse. The cursed person is then followed by an entity that manifests itself in the form of a person that then follows said cursed person. This entity may look like a person the cursed individual knows or a complete stranger, and only the cursed person can see this form. The cursed person must have sex with another person to pass off the curse and be safe however if the entity catches them, it will kill them and and then go back the line of cursed individuals. It’s a fairly simple set up that is orchestrated fairly effectively. We don’t know what “it” exactly is. It could be a giant parable about the dangers of STDs or even society’s growing anxiety over intimacy. Regardless, the sheer fact that their is that room for interpretation only strengthens the film as a conversation piece and gives it a renewed relevancy with each subsequent viewing or discussion.

Now let’s talk about the “it” What is “it” exactly?

“It” follows the grand tradition of being a slow mover, and it’s of course a lot smarter than its prey. I loved just how simple the monster was. It reminded me of Jason Vorhees or Michael Meyers. Its goal is to kill. Nothing more. Nothing less. There is no higher agenda for “it.” “It” also plays to universal fear that I believe a lot of us share and that is the feeling of being watched and/or followed by someone or something. How many times have you looked out into the dark at night and swore you felt something was there? It happens to me to this day. It’s an anxiety that is often exploited in movies but always to a degree that often hurts the movie in the long run. So the amount of restraint the filmmakers show here by using “it” in the ways that they do is rather impressive. “It” never runs, and really only screams once. For the most part, “it” just walks and combined with the score the scenes in which “it” appears are butthole-clenchingly tense.

One of the biggest compliments I can give the film are the sheer amount of little things they did right that added to my overall enjoyment. For instance, whenever the main characters are talking things out the situations felt real. When our heroes track down an important character they have an almost roundtable discussion outside in a backyard, with the main heroine playing with grass while the others talk. A good word for the movie is naturalistic. From the actors to the locations, everything just feels authentic. The neighborhoods the film takes place in feel lived in because they are probably actual suburbs in Detroit. It’s small details like this I appreciate more and more in a growing market for sets and green screens.

Most of the actors are unknowns with only lead actress Maika Monroe being familiar to me. She was also in last year’s surprise gem The Guest. In both that and this, she plays characters that could have easily been annoying and unlikeable in lesser hands. Luckily she is a very capable actress (and has been in two movies with solid writing), and elevates both respective roles into characters we actually sympathize and care about over the course of the films they appear in.

There were a couple of issues I had with the film, most of which related back to the script. I said before how horror movies should avoid over explaining things. For the most part this movie does a perfect job at giving us just the right amount of information (the rules of “it” and so on) but towards the end it almost becomes almost too ambiguous. Like almost confusingly ambiguous given how strait forward everything was beforehand. The kids come up with a way to fight “it” that has almost no reasoning behind it in that they decide to try and lure “it” to a pool and electrocute “it.” There was nothing really beforehand that would lead them to the conclusion that this would work. Then at the very end, we get open ending cliche that many horror films find themselves falling into. I have an idea of what the filmmakers may have been going for but it is none the less frustrating. It doesn’t drop the ball in the way movies like Tusk and The Last Exorcism did, but is it so much to ask for a horror movie to actually end with some finality?

My problems aside, this was a very solid entry in the “Indie Horror is the Best Horror” movement of the past few years. It certainly unnerved me, and I’m going to be paranoid about slow moving people walking towards me for a good long while now.