Unfriended (2015)

APRIL 18, 2015


I often say that I don't dismiss any horror movie for a lack of scares, because I don't frighten easily and thus it wouldn't be fair (it'd be like David Ortiz criticizing little leaguers for failing to strike him out), but I have to make an exception for Unfriended, because it simply has NO SCARES. I don't mean effective ones, I mean none at all - good, bad, earned, fake... however you want to categorize a "boo", it's safe to assume this movie doesn't have enough of them. There's one kinda effective moment where it seems like the Skype image of one girl is frozen until they see her phone rattling to her (meaning SHE is frozen, not the image), but it's not well executed. And then there's a bit where the ghost suddenly loads an ironic song on Spotify, but it's played more for laughs than a fright moment; even in the annals of "loud noise = scare!" it's hardly a great example.

You might notice I'm listing things you've heard of: Skype, Spotify, etc. What the movie DOES do well, and why it works at all, is that it doesn't make up a bunch of fake apps that were clearly inspired by ones you know of - it just uses the real one. No "Friendspace" or "Twiddle-Book" or whatever the hell, our heroine Blaire goes to the same sites and uses all the same programs you yourself have on your computer (including VLC, which seems to be a bit advanced for someone who doesn't know how to use keyboard shortcuts), which is a huge relief as I've never fully understood why people go to the trouble of inventing a fake search engine in a movie just to look up things like "Nightmares" or "Telekinesis" (it makes a bit more sense when they're looking for fictional people, in order to control the search matches). This grounds the movie into our reality, rather than distracting us with cheesy simulacrums of the world's leading programs.

And, for better or (often) worse, the filmmakers accurately reflect what it would be like to be in a Skype conference call with six teenagers. They talk over each other, they laugh at two others getting into a row, and Blaire, whose laptop screen is what we see for the entire movie, often minimizes the program to play songs on Spotify, iChat with her boyfriend, look at Facebook, etc, while the conversation(s) continue in the background. Sure, if you want to get really anal you can spot some fakery in the background, such as the curiously high numbers for bland (fake?) Youtube videos alongside the one that serves the plot (12 million views for a 25 second video titled "Lake Tahoe vacation"?) or the fact that her iChat log keeps disappearing every time she clicks back to it, but where it matters, it's accurate and believable.

It's also fun to see things like "greyed out contextual menu options" become part of the plot. If you were unaware, the film is about the supposed ghost of a girl who killed herself joining on a group Skype chat and demanding that whoever posted an embarrassing video of her (which led to the suicide) own up to what they did, killing someone every now and then until the guilty party outs themselves. So naturally the solution would be to disconnect them, but the ghost is apparently in the machine, and so attempts are futile - the option to do anything that you'd think to do has either been greyed out or disappeared entirely. Again, this is where the film's realism helps matters greatly, as our familiarity with the programs lets us instantly know that something is amiss. When the ghost sends Blaire an email for her eyes only and one of the others demands to see it, it's fun to see that Gmail's "forward" option - which we all know where it should be - has been wiped out. This wouldn't work with "Fast Email 2000" or whatever nonsense the filmmakers would usually come up with, making it a far more effective moment.

The other thing that makes it feel more genuine is Blaire's legit activity when typing. We see her write things with the occasional typo, some she corrects and others she leaves. We see her pause, hovering over the send button as she reconsiders what to say, many times rewriting it before finally being satisfied. This actually offers us information that the other characters never learn; when the dead girl's history is asked about, Blaire writes several drafts of the reply, and we can piece together what appears to have left her messed up (an uncle did something) before she finally settles on something noncommittal. We're so used to seeing the absolute fakest representation of online communication in movies (i.e. people saying every word they type) that it actually feels somewhat genius to just show it like it actually is.

BUT WHY CAN'T IT BE SCARY? The ghost has no physical presence to speak of (unless you count the innocuous Skype logo - I hope a sequel can find the protagonists being terrorized by the Twitter egg), and all of the kills are mostly off-screen (the most explicit is the one in the trailer - the kid shoving his hand into a blender). And it takes forever to know what exactly the video showed that made her a target; revenge movies of this sort (it's basically Terror Train or Slaughter High or any other "victim of prank returns to exact revenge" horror) tend to work better when the prank kicks the movie off, not when we gradually learn what it is (and it's kind of goofy; the ads tried to suggest it was some sort of sexual act but it's actually... well, you'll see). So it's hard to really sympathize with the ghost as we're not even sure what they did until after she's already killed a few of them - it'd be nice to have that "well they deserved it!" feeling for a while. I know cyber-bullying is a horrible thing, but since they're kind of making light of the seriousness of it by having a ghost exact revenge (as opposed to a tech-savvy parent or sibling of the deceased), it's easier to judge it along the lines of its horror brethren as opposed to "modern film tackles a growing issue".

The filmmakers also go way overboard with the glitches. Even more unrealistic than the idea of a ghost using Skype is the chances of a seven way call going for over an hour (the movie plays out in real time) without anyone getting disconnected because of a poor signal or whatever, but every 7 seconds someone is victim of that weird video glitch where the shape of a person remains in one side of a screen even though they've moved to the other (I don't know what the name for it is, pixelated smearing?). Like film damage filters on faux "grindhouse" material or digital hiccups on found footage movies, the editors and directors simply forget that less is more, taking what could be used well/natural and making it ridiculous. The movie was shot in long takes (even going through the entire movie in one go, from what I understand) and is seamlessly edited together, so it's obvious that they put time and energy into the presentation, so it baffles me that they'd be so careless with glitching the footage so often (and on that note, why they wouldn't clean up some strange mistakes - like Zombie's Halloween II, they seemingly can't decide if it's a year later or two, so we see evidence of both).

So here we have a unique situation (especially for a horror film) where they get lots of "side" stuff right (and mostly good performances too, I should mention) but fail on the basics: no scares, not even that much suspense, and a vastly underutilized villain. Usually it's the other way around; we overlook the flimsy reality and lousy acting as long as the scares work and/or the villain is memorable, but here it's like the best things about it have zero to do with being a horror movie. Perhaps if they opted to switch screens, or condense the timeline and see it play out from one perspective before rewinding to see it from another (like Rec 2), the suspense factor could be improved, but with everything being told from one POV, it's not even a spoiler to say that whatever REALLY pissed her off was the fault of our heroine and thus she'll be saved for last. Padding it out with other secrets between the group (including, yet again, a love triangle involving someone sleeping with their best friend's S/O - can we give this plot point a rest in our modern horror films?) doesn't help matters either; all it does is remind us that this is a great premise that can't sustain itself for a full feature.

What say you?


An American Terror (2014)

APRIL 15, 2015


I recently saw Class of 1984 for the first time, and while it's got its hokey elements and B-movie trappings, it's still a fascinating look at a then "possible future" that not only came true, but got worse. Nothing in the movie is as bad as what's actually happened at Columbine, Sandy Hook, etc., which is what makes it hard to remember that at the time it was made, the movie's vision of metal detectors in high schools wasn't yet a reality. It's "dated" in the most peculiar way, which is why movies like An American Terror can manage to hit those same nerves even though it's not particularly good. The attempt at blending a disturbing "the outcasts strike back" scenario with a Hostel-esque torture dungeon is admirably unique, but it never quite gels, and the epilogue is so laughably bad it mostly undoes whatever message the movie was trying to get across.

For the first 20 minutes or so, it's only "horror" in the scary real world sense - our protagonists are a trio of typical outcast stereotypes: the chubby nerd with glasses, the emo kid, and the skater punk. The popular kids call them fags, deface one of their cars, etc., and they decide they've had enough and will get revenge at the upcoming homecoming dance. The nerdy one builds pipe bombs at home while the other two go out to some remote junkyard to secure guns, where they poke around and miraculously discover an underground lair. At this point it becomes your average horror movie from 2008, with our protagonists getting chained up, tortured, running around dimly lit corridors, etc. One of them is killed pretty quickly, the other one engages in cat-n-mouse struggles with the villain, a 400 lb half naked guy wearing what looks like a gas mask outfitted with a beak.

Somewhere in there the surviving kid finds a cheerleader that has been kidnapped as well, but seemingly left alone while Birdman watches cartoons and molests a toy doll (no idea). This is where the movie starts to falter; not only is it baffling that the killer hasn't done anything of note to her, but of course she just happens to be one of the "nice" popular kids who doesn't pick on him and (gasp!) even remembers his name. It'd be far more interesting if it was one of the worst of the worst trapped in there with him, a girl (or guy) who would gladly leave him for dead and not care that he saved her. Instead (spoiler!) she is so grateful to him that she promises him "cheerleader pussy" in front of the jocks at the film's conclusion, which manages to make Jordana Brewster's character making out with Elijah Wood at the end of The Faculty look plausible in comparison. There's a great moment a few minutes earlier, where it's the next morning and he's sitting at the breakfast table with a half-smile on his face as his parents scream at each other - THAT'S the ending. He survived, he stopped his friend from blowing up the dance, and his problems don't seem so bad anymore. Or even right before the "cheerleader pussy" line, when he stands up to the bullies and walks away - that too would have been acceptable. But the movie is already asking us to suspend our disbelief quite a bit, so that moment just doesn't work at all. At that point the movie transitions from "slightly happy ending to a grim movie" to "let's change the tone completely in favor of total fantasy". The director might as well have had the local Porsche dealership give him a brand new car and a million dollars while he was at it.

And it doesn't help matters any that the torture dungeon sequence (which is basically the movie's 2nd act - they escape with quite a bit to go as they race to the school in order to stop the other kid from blowing it up) is pretty forgettable. The killer passes the action figure test (molested toy doll sold separately), but without anyone else trapped in there with them it's basically one long chase scene with few stakes, as we know they'll both be OK. There's a brief bit where it seems like things will get more interesting, when the hulking, previously silent killer reveals himself to be able to speak quite normally (a move swiped from The Hills Run Red, but still a fun one to pull out), but it goes nowhere, and when this segment of the film wrapped up with over 20 minutes to go, I couldn't help but feel that it was basically just padding. Sure, it's the thing that makes our hero decide NOT to massacre his school, but anything could have done that. And fans will likely feel ripped off about it too; the DVD cover showcases Birdman (albeit a much skinnier version) and the plot description focuses mainly on this element, but it's really only like a 35 minute segment in the middle of the movie. Not only is that less than half, but since it's over with and forgotten with an entire act to go, it doesn't even count as something it's building toward - it'd be like promoting The Conjuring entirely around Annabelle (or Annabelle around, uh, the creepy kids in the hall or something). I guess we can give them a few points for not bringing the killer back and following the kid to the homecoming (he's pretty definitively killed; it's actually awesome in theory but marred by poor CGI), but even that would at least marry the two plots together in a better fashion than "the kid gets scared and changes his mind about something else."

So in that regard it feels episodic; there's one or two cutaways to the kid that stayed behind to build bombs, and annoying titles reminding us what time it is, but otherwise it's easy to forget about the real plot during the would-be Hostel sequel in the middle. The more gung-ho kid is the one that gets killed within seconds of entering the dungeon, and there isn't all that much dialogue for the next half hour. So the first half hour is about some tormented kids deciding to strike back, the 2nd half hour is about an unlikely pairing trying to escape a mad killer, and the third is about a kid who does the right thing. The hero kid isn't a bad actor or anything, but his journey is so scattershot that it's hard to really get into it (and, lest we forget, he puts himself into this situation because he's part of a would-be terrorist plot, though to be fair he's a bit hesitant about it from the start). The editing doesn't help, either; the director was also the editor, and he had a real hard-on for slow fades, and thus uses them oh, eleventy billion times or so during the 82 minute film. He also frequently cuts to similar angles (particularly during the brief climactic struggle between hero and now ex-friend), which is a maddening technique I have zero tolerance for. I'd rather see boom mics or something in the shot than feel like the editor is trying to cut that sort of gaffe out of the image.

Ordinarily I'd feel a bit bad about slamming an indie; the credits end with a personal thank you from the director to everyone that helped him accomplish his dream, which suggests this was a labor of love and maybe even something personal. And hey, he made a movie and got it released - he should be proud. Plus it's not even THAT bad, just sloppy and awkwardly structured (this is one case where a flashback structure might have actually improved things), and commits the sin of sending you off on the movie's worst moment. But then I looked on the IMDb page to check something halfway through writing this review, and saw not one, not two, but THREE 10 star reviews from people who otherwise never review anything, which means they are fake. This drives me up a wall even when I see it on movies I really like, so no guilt here. If they want to mislead people by comparing it to Halloween and Friday the 13th (which doesn't even make sense - it's not a slasher film), then it's only fair folks like me balance it out with an honest take. I really don't get why these plant reviews don't set their bar a bit lower so they're less obvious; I do not doubt folks like it (Dread Central gave it a nice review, in fact), but when you toss around terms like "best of the year candidate", you're only setting people up for disappointment - IF they believe you're a real viewer in the first place. Have a little tact, plants!

What say you?


The Babadook (2014)

APRIL 12, 2015


I forget if I've mentioned it here, but right around the time HMAD was ending the daily routine, I started working part time for Netflix as one of their taggers, which means I watch movies and enter in all the data that helps them make their recommendations ("if you like Exorcist, you may also like Omen" - they know that because someone before my time had probably noted that they were both 70s horror movies with religious overtones and creepy kids, and the computer matched them, same as an online dating service or whatever). On one hand this is great, because not only is it extra money (basically, daycare gets paid for), but also if I see something terrible like Wrong Turn 6 at Screamfest, and say "You'd have to pay me to watch that again!", it actually happens. On the other hand, that means I'm watching movies the totally wrong way, counting up the F-bombs to determine its profanity tag, keeping an eye out for license plates in case no one actually says what city/state they're in (the location gets tagged), and other things that distract away from how a horror movie like The Babadook works on a normal audience.

Which is to say, when I watched it a while back for tagging, I wasn't as impressed as many of my peers. Even factoring in my usual "I don't scare easily" problem for a movie that was mainly winning people over for being scary, I just didn't get why it was touching such a nerve - the recent The Canal was far more effective to me, also offering a supernatural/psychological blend for a tale about a single parent becoming unraveled. It wasn't until this week, when I watched it again the RIGHT way (i.e. not concerning myself with things like "Does that count as innuendo?" regarding sex), that I started to get why the likes of William Friedkin sung the film's praises during its theatrical run earlier this year. Of course, by now some of the power had been diluted because it was a 2nd viewing, but I was able to at least PRETEND I was seeing it with fresh eyes, and thus I'm happy to report that this is indeed one of the year's better fright flicks (though I still like The Canal better!).

Its first hour and change works best, which is kind of remarkable because it only takes about 10 minutes for you to fully understand the gravity of the situation. Our heroine is Amelia, a very tired/frustrated single mom played by Essie Davis, and her kid is... different, but not in the usual horror movie way - to put it gently, he's a giant pain in the ass. Eventually we learn that his father/her husband was killed in a car crash on the way to the hospital to give birth, which has understandably left his mom with a bit of resentment that she tries to bottle up and choke down, and also left HIM without a father figure. As I'm learning now with my own son, there are things that I can do my wife can't, and vice versa (not limited to breastfeeding), and while obviously many single parents have produced amazing, normal kids, I'm pretty sure mine will be left a bit messed up without both of us. We each have our pros and cons, so we know who the go-to person is for certain things, a system that will (hopefully!) ensure he turns out OK. Not that he will turn out like this friggin nightmare of a kid either way, but I certainly get the idea now better than I would have a year or two ago. Sometimes I have to watch him solo for the bulk of a day, and while it's fine for that rare occasion, if I had to do it every day, without her much better skill at putting him to sleep, getting him to eat solid foods... yikes.

Now, to be fair he's not like Problem Child or whatever - he's just hyperactive and maybe a little bit "on the spectrum" as they say ("he speaks his mind", his mother often says, in response to the way he can casually offer exposition to complete strangers - a nice shorthand to deliver the backstory, really) which of course makes everyone think he's weird. He's obsessed with magicians, seemingly has no friends, and makes homemade weapons to protect him and his mum against the monsters he's convinced are after them. This fear intensifies after he reads "The Babadook", a terrifying bedtime story (a pop up book to be exact) that he finds in his collection one night - neither of them recognize it but the mom goes ahead and reads it anyway. Side note here - the movie frequently employes jump cuts, and the one that transitions between his unknowing mom reading him this awful thing and him sobbing his eyes out as she tries to comfort him with a traditionally calming bedtime story is amazing. From then on they are terrorized by the titular monster, who she believes is just his overactive imagination at work, but eventually she starts seeing things too...

And this is where the movie starts falling apart a bit for me. Her growing belief in the Babadook (which, of course, might be the manifestation of her own frustration) plays great, but the climax itself goes on forever, and it's simply not as interesting to me as the numerous scenes of the kid driving his mother to the breaking point, watching her unravel more and more as his behavior gets increasingly obnoxious. Her sister starts to distance herself, she screws up at work, etc, and the kid just WON'T. SHUT. UP. Her lack of sleep becomes an ongoing plot concern (Ms. Davis sells it beautifully; one quick look at her face tells you everything in any given scene), with several scenes where she just finally gets to lay down and the kid instantly starts screaming about something again. I'm not sure if non parents can appreciate how great these scenes are - it's rare I identify so well with someone in a horror movie as I did at these points, as I myself have literally gone to bed only to have to get back up within a second or two (not an exaggeration) because the sleeping baby had already woken up. You might be so exhausted that you can barely move, and yet you HAVE TO GET BACK UP. And he's just crying for some milk; this kid's problems clearly can't be solved so quickly or even temporarily. Writer/director Jennifer Kent does a fantastic job of letting us feel her exhaustion, loneliness, etc - while still delivering a few scares and other traditional horror elements.

But like I said, the climax isn't quite as effective. Oddly, it feels a bit like Poltergeist II's, of all goddamn things, with a parent being possessed by SOMETHING and being the tormentor before resuming their role as protector to a justifiably confused child. I don't care how good it is before then, if you remind your audience of Poltergeist II, you're doing yourself a disservice (unless it's specifically recalling Kane, then it's OK). Plus, unless Kent is cheating visually, we have our answer as to whether or not the Babadook is real, so part of the fun is deflated - the question of whether or not it was just the kid's imagination and/or the mom having a mental break (or both) was the selling point, and getting the answer is bound to be disappointing on some level. I don't know if never coming down hard either way would be any better, but again, The Canal did similar things and its climax is incredible. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't "ruin the film" or anything drastic like that, but if I felt stronger about the film's last 15-20 minutes I'd probably be as vocally supportive as Friedkin (I forget the exact quote but I think he basically said it was the scariest movie since Exorcist).

Another issue I had requires a SPOILER, so skip this paragraph if you don't want anything else revealed. For those still here, I think Kent needlessly obscures the fact that the mom was the one who wrote the damn book. At least, I THINK it's supposed to be a fact; if it's up to interpretation then our other option is that a random book appeared in their house before any sort of entity had been unleashed, which suggests... home invasion? No, it has to be that she wrote it, but there are only two signs pointing to that. One isn't TOO bad; she quickly reveals that she used to write children's books, but the subject is changed instantly, so the audience can't really let its implication sink in, if they pick up on it at all. The other is even more vague - at one point she has dirty smudged ink hands, and we later see that the book has had pages added to it. Putting those two things together is not something the average audience member will do on first viewing unless they are specifically looking for clues that the mother wrote it. So combined, it's not a very effective means of conveying what's kind of an important plot point. Unless, again, Kent didn't want that spelled out or didn't even want it clarified one way or the other, but if that is the case I can't really see what the motivation for that would be, beyond needless vaguery for the sake of vaguery. If you have theories, I'd love to hear them - the movie certainly has elements that are up for debate, but this particular one doesn't seem like it should be one of them, since you're left with the question of "If not her, who did?", which for a relatively grounded movie is something that demands an answer. It's not like this is a David Lynch movie.

If you're looking for any further insight from Kent, the vast collection of bonus features won't be of much help. Kent provides no commentary or anything of the sort; she appears in the hour-long collection of interviews but they're taken from the promotional EPK and thus are not very revelatory (and yes, she even says "I want the audience to decide those things for themselves"). These interviews are not broken up with chapters either, so if you want to skip past someone like the coworker who appears in like two scenes to get to Kent (who is smack dab in the middle of the sequence) you just have to fast forward them - kind of obnoxious considering the length. Since EPKs are largely worthless once you've seen the movie anyway, feel free to skip them (and the "behind the scenes", which is just the B-roll) and focus on the others, in particular the look at the set design (I was kind of amazed to discover the house was a set) and the creation of the pop up book. I've watched a million bonus features on DVDs/Blus for the past nearly 20 years (damn) and this is the first time I've seen one explaining how a pop up book is put together. The original short, Monster, is also included and is worth a look at what boils down to the movie's entire plot sped up into ten minutes. Some deleted scenes are also included; nothing particularly useful (and no explanation for their excision is offered), but I did like the bit with the neighbor - Davis once again effortlessly sells this woman's total exhaustion with just a few looks and words, and the neighbor lady's response to her is not only sweet, but reminds her of something that I myself have trouble remembering: asking for help is OK. We have no family around to help with the baby, and kind of feel isolated at times, but on those rare occasions we've asked someone to babysit so we can just go relax for a bit, it's amazing how UN-difficult it's been to find someone willing to lend a hand. As long as we don't forget that, we will be safe from the Babadook!

Speaking of the pop-up book, the limited edition of the Blu-ray has a scaled down version of the book's cover, which is very cool, and the special edition is the only way to get Monster and the better bonus features (the junky interviews are on the regular edition, I guess). So if you're a bonus junkie, you should spring for the pricier one, but it's nice that the "non" special edition still has SOMETHING added to sweeten the deal. It's a shame that Kent couldn't be roped in for a commentary (it's the rare Scream Factory release that lacks one), but based on her interview I guess she's not the sort that likes to spell everything out, so it makes sense that she'd opt out of sitting down and talking about the movie for 90 minutes. I DO wish I could get her to reveal whether I'm right regarding the film's title - if you flip the Bs and Ds (in their lowercase form) you get "dada book", which I have no further theory on but I'd like to know if it was intentional. I know the film's anagram is "A Bad Book", but that's boring to me. Team DADA BOOK!

What say you?


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