HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986) / Horror

Running Length: 82 minutes
MPAA Classification: Unrated, but originally released with an X rating for strong graphic violence.

Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles
Director: John McNaughton
Producers: Malik B. Ali, Waleed B. Ali, Lisa Dedmond, Steven A. Jones, John McNaughton
Screenplay: John McNaughton, Richard Fire

Often cited as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a dark and unflinching look at the killings of a pathological mass murderer loosely inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Originally filmed in 1986, Henry was not released until 1989 due to its controversial content, despite receiving rave reviews from critics.

The hoarse-voiced actor in the role of Henry is Michael Rooker, who was unknown at the time of the film’s release. In the film, Henry lives in a dank apartment with Otis (Tom Towles), a dim-witted parolee with whom Henry shared a cell in prison. With the arrival of Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), things begin to move ever-so-slowly downhill.

Henry largely works due to two particular elements: Michael Rooker’s performance and John McNaughton’s direction. There is no story to Henry. McNaughton delivers his film as an uncompromising look at real life. We merely observe as Henry and Otis perpetrate their murders. There is no method to how they choose their victims; it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than having a motive, Henry and Otis do it out of sheer boredom with no regard for human life.

Rooker’s performance is the more effective of the two. As Henry, his deadpan approach is bone-chilling and so realistic that, at times, Henry seems as if it could almost be happening. He rarely utters more than a few sentences of words and carries an expressionless face, providing us with one of the most eerie portrayals of a serial killer in cinema.

As well, McNaughton’s minimalist direction works. He doesn’t focus as much on the other aspects of storytelling as he does on generating mood. Mood is key in Henry and McNaughton accomplishes this fairly well. From the grimy Chicago streets to the haunting techno score, Henry is a film all about atmosphere.

Of course, Henry is not as powerful today as it was back at the time of its release nor is it as gory as many have been led to believe. Nonetheless, it still succeeds in providing those who watch it with a harrowing experience that they’re unlikely to forget.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

ZOMBIELAND (2009) / Horror-Comedy

Running Length: 88 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for horror violence/gore and language.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Producer: Gavin Polone
Screenplay: Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese

I get Zombieland. I get where it’s coming from. Nowadays, most of the horror films that come out are just no good. They’re not scary enough, plain and simple. They rely on the standard clichés of the horror films of the past and in this day and age, those clichés are so overused that they’re no longer effective. That’s where Zombieland comes in. Granted, it can be scary at times, but ultimately, Zombieland is not a horror film, nor does it ever really try to be. It’s a comedy with horror elements, and I’ll admit that most of the time it works.

The zombie comedy genre experienced a revival upon the release of the critically-acclaimed Shaun of the Dead, which I still feel is a bit overrated. (Nonetheless, I found it somewhat enjoyable and occasionally funny in the mildest sense.) Like Shaun of the DeadZombieland is a zombie comedy as well and for some odd reason the two are often compared, even though they are different in almost every aspect aside from the fact that they both deal with zombies in a humorous manner. That’s the absolute extent of their similarity. Of course, this is irrelevant and doesn’t really matter, but I just find the entire ordeal annoying.

Anyway, the story of Zombieland transpires in a post-apocalyptic America, where most of the nation has been “zombie-fied” due to a mutated strain of mad cow disease. Unlike other zombie films of the past, this is an entirely plausible and logical epidemic, which is something I have rarely seen. Our hero is “Columbus” (Jesse Eisenberg), a college student whose name is derived from the town in Ohio that he is traveling to. He’s on his way home. Along the way, he encounters “Tallahassee” (Woody Harrelson), a redneck and certified zombie-killer on his way to Florida, and the two take up as traveling companions. Eventually, they come across “Wichita” (Emma Stone) and her little sister “Little Rock” (Abigail Breslin).

From here, Zombieland becomes little more than your average road movie. The gang finds themselves headed towards Pacific Playland, a zombie-free amusement park on the West Coast. Now, how the park remains so free of the undead is a mystery to me; a mystery that logic will undoubtedly spoil. But that is neither here nor there because while I found particular moments of Zombieland not to my liking, I enjoyed the film as a whole.

My fondest performance came from Woody Harrelson, and it’s definitely one of the best that he’s had in years. (Who knew that it would be in a movie like this?) He can switch from being funny to being emotional to just kicking ass and not once does his acting ever falter. Jesse Eisenberg does a good job as the lead, creating a likable and reasonable character, and Abigail Breslin is her usual self, but I had a hard time with Emma Stone. I suspect that it’s mainly because I find her to be such a cold actress, even though I liked her in Superbad. Here, she’s monotonous and delivers her lines without emotion.

Acting isn’t something that should be relied upon in a movie like Zombieland. It’s more about style and the millions of ways that zombies can be killed and it does a good job in both areas. Ruben Fleischer, the director, is a man unknown to me and I know none of his earlier work, but he contributes a good sense of direction here, especially for a first-timer. Now, while most of the humor and events are premeditated, there are certain elements that are original, both visually and in the script, and let’s not forget — let’s not forget — that hilarious cameo. I can guarantee that that scene will generate the most laughs.

It does end the way that you expected it to, but there is enough room left open for a possible sequel, which would be a definite delight. Zombieland is fun, harmless entertainment, but certainly not for the weak of stomach.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

Review: SESSION 9 (R)

One of the many terrifying scenes in Session 9.

U.S. Release Date: August 10, 2001

Running Time: 102 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: David Caruso, Peter Mullan, Stephen Gevedon, Paul Guilfoyle, Josh Lucas, Brendan Sexton III, Larry Fessenden

Director: Brad Anderson

Producer: John Sloss, David Collins, Michael Williams, Dorothy Aufiero

Screenplay: Brad Anderson, Stephen Gevedon

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 23, 2011

When it comes to twenty-first century horror, not many of them manage to scare quite as much as they should. They’re always the same thing over and over again, repeating the same mistakes that their predecessors did. Once in a blue moon, you’ll get a horror film that will get it right, and this time that horror film is Session 9.

It stars Scottish actor Peter Mullan as Gordon, a father who runs an asbestos cleaning company with close friend, Phil (David Caruso, from TV’s CSI: Miami). Gordon is desperate to keep his company running, so he takes the contract on an abandoned mental hospital and even offers to clean it out in a week’s time.

He uses his usual crew to help him out. The lack of time and hazardous surroundings don’t quite contribute to a peaceful environment, so the group of men don’t really get along as well as they should. As time progresses, they begin to learn what used to happen at the hospital. One of the men, Mike (Stephen Gevedon), uncovers a set of tapes that talk of brutal and primitive forms of punishment. In a particularly terrifying sequence, Hank imagines people walking around in the basement. And the more they begin to find out about the hospital, the more they begin to find out about each other.

Minus a shaky final act, Session 9 is a thoroughly effective horror story that uses its haunting atmosphere as the source for most of its scares. While it didn’t manage to flat-out scare me, it kept a pretty consistent creepy tone and I’ll admit that it did get under my skin from time to time. Plus, there’s a couple of jumpy parts for you Paranormal Activity fans.

Really, I was surprised by how very absorbed I was in this movie. It never quite takes off like it should, but it’s so utterly and hypnotically watchable that it’s near impossible to take your eyes off the screen. If you look away for a second, there’s a chance that you’ll miss something, and that something could be a definite game-changer.

The cast does a great job. These are not all “big name” actors. Peter Mullan is relatively famous, but not to the American crowd. He works as the lead here and really convinces for the most part. I mostly pleased with Josh Lucas, who did an excellent job. He supports the film quite nicely and had me quite convinced during that certain “basement” scene. Also, it was nice to see David Caruso in something other than CSI: Miami.

Overall, this seems to be an overlooked gem. You rarely find a well-made horror film, so its kind of an small achievement when you do.

RATING: 3/4

Review: PONTYPOOL (R)

Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy.

U.S. Release Date: March 6, 2009

Running Time: 95 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Boyd Banks, Rick Roberts

Director: Bruce McDonald

Producers: Jeffrey Coghlan, Ambrose Roche

Screenplay: Tony Burgess

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 20, 2011

Pontypool is an extraordinary film. Not extraordinary as in it’s one of the best films out there, but extraordinary as in it’s amazing how much it accomplishes in the time and space it’s given. The movie stars Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy, a radio DJ in a small town in Ontario, Canada called Pontypool. On his way to work, he experiences an odd encounter with a mysterious woman, who approaches his car when he decides to make a stop, then abruptly disappears.

He arrives for his shift at the radio station, is greeted by his two counterparts, Sydney (Lisa Houle) and Laurel (Georgina Reilly), and the day continues to unfold as any normal day should. But things begin to slowly go downhill when Mazzy and his radio crew catch wind of a disturbance in town from their helicopter reporter. Apparently, people are gathering by the hundreds and rioting against a doctor’s office. Soon, the riot begins to escalate into something else. Violence rings out, people begin to die. Rumors of cannibalism make their way to the radio station. There is not control over anything anymore. What could be the cause for all of this?

That’s pretty much the synopsis of Pontypool, one of the few recent horror films that is actually scary. Not scary in the “Gotcha!” sense of the word, but more in the genuine, skin-crawling sense. The kind of scary that slowly builds in gut-wrenching tension instead of being abrupt and shocking. And here in Pontypool, that kind of scary is manufactured entirely by dialogue. Now, isn’t that impressive?

Aside from the beginning, the whole story set entirely in a single building, and most of the violence is kept off-screen. This way you’re never quite sure what’s happening. You’re stuck with the main characters inside the radio station, only getting information from the outside. It’s just terrifying not to know what’s going on.

Alas, Pontypool does lose its hold on you as it progresses. The final couple minutes or so are somewhat ridiculous, but no so ridiculous that you get bored. And I just couldn’t believe in the reasoning behind why everyone was acting so strangely. It didn’t seem possible.

The performances are fairly routine for characters of this genre, but McHattie is something to behold. He’s got that look of familiarity, like you’ve seen him before somewhere, but you’re not quite sure where. He brings a needed gruffness to the role and pulls off the character fabulously. I wouldn’t doubt it if he starts getting more lead roles in the future.

In the end, you won’t be blown away by what Pontypool has to offer, but you’ll be highly impressed by bits and pieces of it. Fans of the claustrophobic-horror genre beware: this one’s pretty good.

RATING: 3/4

Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (R)

Things go bump in the night. Or not. Maybe.

U.S. Release Date: October 22, 2010

Running Time: 99 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden, Seth Ginsburg, Micah Sloat

Director: Tod Williams

Producers: Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Akiva Goldsman

Screenplay: Michael R. Perry, Christopher B. Landon, Tom Pabst, based on characters by Oren Peli

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 16, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2 is a half-hearted attempt at horror. It’s got a lot of “Gotcha!” moments and all of them failed to spark any sort of thrill inside of me. The plot is the same as the first Paranormal Activity, except Paranormal Activity 2 acts as a prequel and a sequel at the same time. It’s the second installment in the franchise, but happens before the first one. That’s about the most interesting thing that Paranormal Activity 2 has to offer.

People have got to learn that pop-ups are not scary. They do not define the word “horror”. Most modern horror films that you see on Netflix or at the movie theater use pop-ups as the main way to scare the audience. And almost ninety-nine percent of the time, they completely and utterly fail. These moments are referred to as “Gotcha!” moments. They usually involve characters hearing a noise, venturing into the darkness, and then, when they’re least expecting it, something bursts into the frame with a loud and unprecedented noise. But we almost always expect it. And it’s never as scary as its should be.

But besides not being scary at all, Paranormal Activity 2 is just plain stupid and boring. We switch between about six different camera angles for most of the movie and nothing really ever happens during the scenes. Sure, I get it. This supposed to give the audience suspense, so that when something does happen, they’re not expecting it to and it freaks them out. Normally, that sounds like a good idea but here, it doesn’t work. Nothing ever happens and something does, it’s usually something really small and minute or something really, really unbelievable. A certain scene involving a woman being dragged downstairs comes to mind.

Movies like Paranormal Activity 2 make me sad for this generation. Whatever happened to the good horror films of the sixties and seventies? Whatever to horror being manufactured with suspense, instead of loud noises and gore like it is nowadays.

Of course, Paranormal Activity 2 will attract those looking for a scary time. Of course, they will jump a few times, but leave slightly disappointed. Of course, there will be a third one. Of course, they will rely on “Gotcha!” moments as their source of terror. And if they choose to do so, I can guarantee you that the third one will be even worse than this one.

RATING: 1.5/4

INSIDIOUS (2011) / Horror

Running Length: 102 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language.

Cast: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye
Director: James Wan
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli, Steven Schneider
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell

It’s nice to see up-and-coming filmmakers pay homage to classic horror films like Poltergeist andThe Shining. While Insidious is scary from time to time, it is never terrifying, but there is a childish heart at the center of it. The director, James Wan, never flat-out steals any of his tricks from those films, but instead comes up with his own and, because of this, Insidious makes for an interesting ride.

It begins on a family as they are just relocating to a new home. The parents, Renai and John (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson), are young, still a bit naive, and have three children. Like any good horror film, there are a good deal of spooky and unexplained moments at the beginning, such as boxes that keep taking themselves off of the shelf and noises in the attic. One of the sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), decides to investigate, but hurts himself when he falls off of a ladder. The next day, he’s in a coma and is taken to the hospital.

Eventually, things begin to get so out of hand in the house that the family assumes it is haunted. They move, but after a short time, things start happening there as well, including a short demonic boy that dances around to Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” A woman who deals with paranormal activities name Elise (Lin Shaye) is invited over to their house, and she learns that Dalton has a strange, strange ability.Then a period of time passes. Three months, actually. Dalton, still in a coma, is moved from the hospital back to the house. This is where Insidious starts to get a little creepier. The wife, Renai, begins to actually see hear and see people in her house, walking around. One of the scariest scenes involves a voice yelling over a baby monitor. Of course, when Renai tries to tell Josh about what’s going on in the house, he doesn’t believe her.

Let me start off by saying that Insidious is one of the creepiest films that I’ve seen in a long time, and that’s saying something in this day and age. At the beginning, Wan keeps most of the eerie elements off-screen. He fools us into thinking that it will remain that way until the end, but it doesn’t. Slowly, the demons and ghouls are brought onto the screen, into our line of vision, which is something that we didn’t expect. Granted, the overall effect isn’t as creepy, but it’s weird to have the strange noises actually belong to something.

The biggest problem that Insidious has it that it goes from being decidedly creepy to being too over-the-top, and it loses a lot of the fear factor that is so steadily maintained. The tone changes a short time after the family moves into the second house, where Insidious becomes less of a horror film and more a generic thriller. There is a scene where the father, Josh, ventures into a dark world to rescue his son and must engage it what looks like a boss battle from a video game. The ending is a chaotic mess of so-so special effects and heavy editing.

And I’m not exactly calling it bad. The ending is not particularly good, but it is not an utterly pathetic attempt to close an otherwise good film. Wan had something going in the first half, where he grabbed our attention, but he loses it all by the end. The second half is not terrible, but it’s lousy when compared to the first.

James Wan shows some promise here as a director of thrillers, as he also did in the Kevin Bacon vehicle, Death Sentence.He has a very unique vision, which is something that most directors lack, and he certainly incorporates a lot of unprecedented style into most of his work. For Insidious, all that he needed was a better way to wrap it up and he would’ve had a good film on his hands. It’s almost sad to watch everything go so steadily downhill.

But for the most part, you’ll get a kick out of Insidious. It’s a breath of fresh air into a room of stale horror films that makes for a spooky haunted house ride.

Final rating: ★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

ANGEL HEART (1987) / Horror-Drama

Running Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong violence/gore, disturbing images, language, nudity, and a graphic sex scene.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro, Charlotte Rampling, Stocker Fontelieu, Brownie McGhee, Michael Higgins
Director: Alan Parker
Producers: Alan Marshall, Elliot Kastner
Screenplay: Alan Parker (based upon the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg)

Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is an immensely creepy viewing experience. It’s not flat-out scary. It doesn’t go “Boo!” and laugh as you shrivel back into your seat. It will not have you clinging to the person nearest to you for dear life. But it will get under your skin. It will horrify you. And I guarantee that when it is all over, you will have nightmares.

The film transpires in the 1950s, starting off in Brooklyn then moving to Louisiana. Our hero is Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), a small-time gumshoe who smokes so many cigarettes you could make a decent drinking game out of it. Angel is contacted by an attorney named Winesap, who instructs him to meet with his client, Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro). Cyphre is quite a sight with his long, black hair and manicured fingernails. He hires Angel to locate a crooner named Johnny Favorite that disappeared before a debt was settled between the two. Though hesitant at first, Angel accepts the offer.

Now, one would expect for Angel Heart to be rather routine as most noir is, but in truth, it’s actually very complex and unorthodox in the way it goes about presenting itself. Parker uses noir as a way to get the story in motion, but once it really takes off, the story delves into much more complicated territory, taking on elements of horror, surrealism, and the occult. One moment, he’ll lead you down a path of familiarity, expecting you to assume what’s most predictable, but will take the outcome and flip it on its ear, catching you by complete surprise.

Rourke is good in this kind of role. He makes the character of Harry Angel likable and innocent, though entirely competent. Parker fashions Angel Heart in the way that we pick up on details as Angel does, inflicting a double-dose of confusion on both the audience and lead character. His film relies so heavily on mood and atmosphere in order to be bizarre and horrifying and Rourke does a great job in making his character feel what we’re feeling. The direction is exceptional, and feels strangely to Parker’s previous outing Mississippi Burning. (Both deal with the bayou country of Louisiana.) Parker knows exactly how to grab our attention, how to make us ask questions, and then how to make us cringe when we get the answers.

As expected, the ending is a little weak. Now, this is routine for these kinds of motion pictures, and I get that. For the most part, the story in Angel Heart picks up in places and never seems to lag, but the final twenty minutes or so just kind of go all over the place. The “twist” is abrupt, not very logical, and even somewhat absurd, but, if you’re like me, you won’t let an unsatisfactory ending ruin an otherwise good movie.

Final rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest