“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Review: Some ghoulish fun with enticing ideas

From its opening moments, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” takes the nightmarish bluntness of its title – also the name of the yestercentury horror anthology series that inspired it – to heart, painting with broody aesthetics a late-1960s suburbia ripe for treachery, murder and spooky goings-on. Much in the vein of Guillermo del Toro, that master of the macabre and dark fantasy here lending his post-Oscar victory hand as producer, it’s a touch of the supernatural that brings the terror lurking underneath beds and in the twistedly imaginative minds of young children to the fore.

I didn’t have the experience of staying up all night fervid and sweaty after reading the novelettes the movie is based on, but judging from the legacy of a series that managed to puncture pop culture in a slightly darker vein than “Goosebumps,” this André Øvredal-directed adaptation is a more or less faithful recreation of its more intimate brushes with terror, of the isolation in anticipating some neglected evil incarnate that has its sights set on you and only you (the familiar concept of “It Follows” may owe something to Alvin Schwartz’s imagination). Early on in “Scary Stories,” however, these frights – appropriate as a supposed gateway horror for younger audiences, but it’s not like many of them won’t also be absorbing the upcoming, much more sinister “IT” sequel – barely function beyond the borders that contain them in specific scenes. Continue reading →

Review: ‘It’ a thrilling, if flawed, big-budget horror offering

There hasn’t been very much in the way of blockbuster horror lately.

Instead it’s been a tale of two extremes for the genre; either we’ve had the student film-esque, cheap scare formula made popular by Paranormal Activity that resides in cheese territory, or arthouse offerings like It Follows and The Witch with subtext that is sometimes scarier than anything manifested onscreen.

The Conjuring comes closest to representing a compromise of the two sub-genres, with its sense of bigger-scale, crowd-pleasing terror that doesn’t forget about the importance of character. Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Witch’ offers complex themes, frights

(This review first appeared in the Daily Lobo, and can be viewed here.) 

 

At first watch, there isn’t much meat on the bones of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” On a superficial level – thanks to its incredibly simple premise, small production scale and what could be interpreted as an ambiguous ending – it’s a skeleton of a movie, with small bits of flesh clinging to its ribs in the form of the occasional jump scare.

Don’t fall into that trap. It’s easy to think that the final product far outweighs the expectations that a horror lover may have for “The Witch,” but you’d be doing yourself a disservice in the process.

So how do you get the most out of the film, and experience it the way Eggers intended the audience to?

Step 1: Don’t go into “The Witch” thinking of it as a horror movie, but rather a period drama.

In a vein similar to how “Silence of the Lambs” is viewed by many cinephiles as a drama rather than a straight fright flick, watching “The Witch” through a lens that doesn’t call for scares, but rather deep examination of the themes that Eggers sets forth, will help moviegoers appreciate it much more.

Of course, there are horror elements here. The film is chilling throughout, the themes of paranoia, the occult and isolation manifesting themselves in ways that assures the audience is never really at ease.

thewitch2

But at its core, “The Witch” is an analysis of 1600s Puritan America, and the overzealous sensibilities of its religiously devout and fanatical society. When viewing the movie in that way, it becomes a film with exponentially more depth, its statements on the dangers of physical and psychological isolation at the forefront and, yes, manifested in a titular witch.

Step 2: Prepare to be uncomfortable.

Eggers is merciless in the methods he utilizes to make the audience feel as uneasy as the family experiencing more and more supernatural occurrences. It’s not as much cringeworthy, nor is it perpetually eerie for the sake of being eerie. And while there aren’t any A-listers in the film, the cast is plenty powerful with their performances as the on-screen family becomes more and more distant. Anya Taylor-Joy in particular shines in a convincingly distressing performance, one that hopefully gets her many more offers for other dramatic roles.

From the intimate cinematography to the score reminiscent of a creeping, hooded danger following us on a lonely road at night, “The Witch” excels at providing a very different level of fright. The film mimics a slow, energy-draining ride to the top of a roller-coaster with your eyes closed – the audience knows a drop is coming, and a big one, but not quite when.

It’s a decidedly unorthodox type of horror, one that won’t work for those seeking superficial jump scares. But taken on a metaphysical level in tandem with the film’s motifs and themes, it all works together to create a symphony of dread, right up until the moment when it all comes to a head, and real blood is shed.

In a movie full of many tricks and underlying meanings, perhaps none is bigger than the family’s goat, Black Phillip. Without giving away too much (and believe me, it’s hard not to), Black Phillip represents what might be the most uneasy but majestically dark use of an animal in recent film history. He’s memorable, to say the least, and it’s easy to see him becoming an icon in the genre.

“The Witch” won’t please everyone. Indeed, the majority of movie watchers probably wouldn’t understand what makes it so appealing to others. Multiple viewings would certainly help, as would the understanding that sometimes the things that are implied in a film can keep you up at night as much as any slasher movie could.

 

“The Witch” is rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie 

Directed by Robert Eggers

2015

Guillermo’s latest effort is a visual treat from a previously forgotten genre

Crimson Peak’s director, the unique and visionary Guillermo del Toro, has said that he wasn’t out to make a horror film with his latest effort, but rather a gothic romance.

That he has done, to the effect of a visceral product that, while somewhat run-of-the-mill, stands apart from other fright flicks being released this with a tense ambience, stern attention to detail, and del Toro’s trademark undertone of morbidity.

In Crimson Peak, we meet Edith, a young writer with a desire to be published who – yes – has had encounters with ghosts. She comes across the ostensibly charming Thomas Sharpe as he arrives in America seeking funding from Edith’s father invention proposal, capturing Edith’s heart in the process and beginning the chain of events sending her to the titular mansion.

And that’s where the fun begins.

The house is unquestionably the star of the show, itself a nuanced but deadly character in its debilitating state. While not as emotionally complex as some of del Toro’s previous offerings (i.e. Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage), Crimson Peak may be his greatest visual effort, as del Toro’s keen eye for detail of the macabre variety is constantly apparent in the many rooms – secret or otherwise – of the mansion. Set production and cinematography are the film’s greatest strengths, the latter providing some of the most absorbing scenes you’ll see in any movie this year.

That’s not to take away from the film’s spookiest element however – the ghosts are definitely from del Toro’s fantastical mind, apparitions of torment that the audience won’t be able to take their eyes off of, no matter how much they might want to.

All the elements of Crimson Peak’s visual aesthetic factor into del Toro’s vision of a modern gothic horror, something rarely seen, or even attempted, in modern film.

When you just really, really want Hot Pockets.

When you just really, really want Hot Pockets.

Its story is also in tune with the old-fashioned genre, which is to say it’s relatively standard, reminiscent of a demented version of Wuthering Heights. You might know where the story is going next, but that shouldn’t diminish the strong acting that Crimson Peak has to offer.

Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, I Saw The Light) is downright mystifying as Thomas Sharpe – charming, conniving, tender, and suspicious all at once, resulting in Sharp being by far the most unpredictable and, to put it plainly, interesting characters. Jessica Chastain (The Martian, A Most Violent Year, Zero Dark Thirty) plays Lucille Sharpe, a clichéd figure but one portrayed so well by Chastain that it doesn’t matter. Even in a role seemingly out of her element, it’s as if del Toro wrote the script with her in mind. She continues to establish herself as a consistently powerful force in Hollywood.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) is comparably average as Edith, but then again, the story feels so familiar that we know her motivations and feelings by heart.

The titular mansion, level: The Haunted Mansion.

The titular mansion, level: The Haunted Mansion.

Crimson Peak breezes through its running time of over two hours, but in a way it’s welcoming. Del Toro takes careful consideration of the kind of film he’s producing and makes sure it isn’t too jarring for the modern audience, preventing what could have been a painfully slow behemoth of a film for an audience all-too used to immediate satisfaction.

That being said, when it’s time for del Toro to pull out all the stops and give the audience what it wants, he does it in droves…or buckets. He pushes the boundaries of Crimson Peak‘s R-rating in more ways than one as the story reaches its climax, a memorable and visceral roller coaster ride through deception and gore, fully living up to the film’s title.

At the very least, certainly enough to remind us that the director behind the more action oriented Pacific Rim and Hellboy films sometimes has a more mature craving to fulfill, and his hunger is visualized beautifully.

 

In a Nutshell

Crimson Peak is a refreshing work from a director who made a name on putting out refreshing works. Despite its standard plot, and some questionable logic by some of its characters, its visuals are a sight to behold, and the film’s atmosphere is as unnerving as it’s ghastly creatures.

7.5 / 10

 

 

Crimson Peak is rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

2015