House on Willow Street - Movie Review - Shocktober 2017

Day 8 - House on Willow Street

The Pick: I've had to admit to being shallow on at least a few different occasions in my life, several of which were explaining previous movie picks for this Shocktober 2017 season. It should come as no surprise then, dear reader, that House on Willow Street was chosen based solely upon the strength of its poster art. More accurately, I chose this film based on the font choice on said poster. Look at that font!

The Film: House on Willow Street has quite the premise; do try to stay with me on this one. A group of criminals plot to kidnap the daughter of a business man who has access to diamonds. Said criminals successfully kidnap said girl, and bring her back to their warehouse lair where they go about filming a ransom video. The kidnappers then experience difficulty contacting the girl's parents. They return to the house from which the girl was kidnapped only to find that the girl's parents are dead. They also find a video tape which shows them that the girl is possessed by a demon and that she killed her parents and also a couple of priests. Then the girl suddenly starts acting possessed again. Also, there are other ghosts. Oh, and one of the kidnappers has a heart of gold. Guess who survives?

You cannot accuse House on Willow Street of not trying. From the overly complicated story, to the grotesque special effects, to the stylish and gritty cinematography, this film is really trying to hit on all cylinders. The only problems is it's trying way too hard to hit above its weight class. The acting can't quite keep up, and the story never resonated. Also, I have difficulty being sympathetic towards kidnappers, hearts of gold or not. The protagonists really earn everything they get.

That said, this is not a simple demon possession story. No, like everything else in this film, Willow Street has to up the ante to the extreme. There's nothing short but the FATE OF THE WORLD at stake! You see, the demon possessing the girl is a very bad, terrible demon! One that consumes the souls of people! And it grows EXPONENTIALLY more powerful for each soul it consumes! And it only needs FOUR SOULS to... to... WALK THE EARTH!

So despite the hamfisted exposition delivered via videotape, I never got the impression that the demon actually became more powerful with each soul it consumed. By the climax of the film, the demon needs only one more soul to complete its barbershop quartet of DOOM, but feels just as powerful as it did before. I mean, if you can choke a person with a super-strong, invisible force power, why not just hold them still while you eat their soul? Or, at the very least, why not use your Sith powers to break your restraints? Is this somehow breaking demon hospitality rules?

Also, I guess I don't understand how possession works in this film. The demon's stated goal is to consume four souls. Somehow this correlates with putting some sort of tentacle appendage down a person's throat to possess their body. I'll let this one go, and I will presume that in the lore of this film, possession equals soul consumption. However, one of the kidnappers is somehow possessed by playing tentacle-tonsil-hockey with the ghost of his dead mother. Admittedly, french kissing your mom, dead or not, is probably a sure-fire way to kill your soul, but how this counts as a soul consumed by our demon friend is never addressed.

Again, it could just be that my definition of demon possession is too narrow for the lore of this film. While the demon is said to manifest our worst fears to gain power over us, and it could be assumed the ghost of this guy's dead mother is a manifestation of the demon, this is the only possession in the film that works this way. No other possession is done via a proxy entity. No other possession is done via long distance. How this demon is able to possess a guy that is somewhere in the middle of the woods while the demon itself is chained up in some warehouse is never addressed. And, really, if the demon can possess people this way, why does it matter that it's physical body is chained up in a warehouse? Why not just possess four people via satellite and be done with it already?

You know what else bothers me? I don't like my own explanation that the dead mother's ghost is simply a manifestation of the demon created with the express purpose of possessing her son. There are other ghosts in the film and none of them ever try to possess anyone. In fact, one of the ghosts ends up being there to help.

You know what? None of this makes any sense, and I'm thinking about it way too hard.

One Bruce.

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The Void - Move Review - Shocktober 2017

Day 7 - The Void

The Pick: I found The Void on Netflix as I was flipping through, looking for Shocktober films. I quickly fell in love with the poster art; who doesn't love the promise of tentacles in their horror movie? Further, the backdrop of space hinted pretty strongly to me that I was in for some sort of cosmic terror story line that would likely do H.P. Lovecraft proud.

The Film: Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, The Void is clearly a labor of love. This is a low budget film that feels like a million bucks in terms of its scope, visuals, and practical effects. Interestingly, the film was partially crowdfunded on Indiegogo, where it raised $82,510 to help support its creature creation efforts. I couldn't find any records on the total budget of the film, but I find it unlikely that this crowdfunding was the sole source of financials for The Void, as  its entry on Wikipedia seems to imply. The film is simply too well produced to have not received any additional funding

The story begins when small-town police officer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) comes across a badly injured man limping down an old backroad. Carter delivers the unknown man to the local hospital, where his ex-wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) works as a nurse for the kindly old Dr. Richard Powell (Kenneth Welsh). There is an additional small cast of characters present, including Nurse Beverly, intern Kim, a pregnant girl and her grandfather, and patient Cliff. Not long Carter's arrival, the hospital is surrounded by a group of mysterious hooded figures, who seem bent on not allowing anyone to leave. Without giving too much away, the group inside the hospital soon discover that the hospital is also inhabited by slimy, tentacled creatures, and the race for their survival is on.

In terms of overall feel, I was reminded of John Carpenter's The Thing in several respects. The understaffed hospital is isolated and, although this film is not set in Antarctica, it becomes quickly apparent that our group of protagonists are just as effectively cut off from the outside world. Like Carpenter's classic, claustrophobia permeates this film, building an excellent sense of dread. Thankfully, Gillsepie and Kostanski never veer into spoof territory, and The Void is played completely serious and deadpan.

As a final comparison to The Thing, The Void is full of the moistest practical creature effects that any horror fan could ever want. The majority of effects are done in camera, and look phenomenal. The camera work isn't trying to hide anything, and there are a good many long, steady shots of the creatures on display. You might be able to accuse them of intentionally under-lighting some of the effects, but given the overall confidence in their effects on display, I am personally happy to forgive this slight transgression.

Horror genre fans will likely be pleased by The Void. It is not often that cosmic terror is depicted on film, and rarer still when these films are as well-made as is this one. The claustrophobic setting and the gratuitous creature effects kept me occupied for the film's duration, and I was left wanting more by the time the story came to its end. I don't think you can ask for much more from a film.

Four Bruces.

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Lights Out - Movie Review - Shocktober 2017

Day 6 - Lights Out

The Pick: Lights Out began life as a 5 minute short film, which I had the pleasure of stumbling across on one of my many journeys across the vast wilderness that is the internet. So impressed by the originality and execution of this short film, that I even wrote a quick blurb about it in a much earlier article on this very website! That said, I've been interested in this particular film for longer than I ever knew a feature-length film was to be based upon it. This Shocktober season seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally catch up.

The Film: In some ways, the feature-length Lights Out film follows in the footsteps of classic supernatural slasher films, like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is doubtlessly good company to keep. I really adore the underlying conceit at the heart of Lights Out, that of a monstrous creature that only physically exists in the absence of light.

I thought it was interesting for the film to give its other-worldly shadow monster the name Diana. This alone makes it difficult to not want to draw comparisons to other named slashers, like Michael, Jason, and Freddy. It's that last one with whom Diana shares the most common ground, but even still, she remains a fresh and original entity throughout the film. The central conceit of the character remains a great concept, and it allows for some fun visual tricks that are well-mined throughout the length of the film.

Still, the movie falls flat for me when it comes to basically everything aside from the basic nature of Diana. To be more specific, I really adored that concept in the Lights Out short, but was less fond of the complicated backstory added in the feature length film. Frankly, the medical science explanation of how and why this creature exists was a bit too goofy for my tastes. Still, Diana did get quite the upgrade if you're considering her appearance in the short as compared to the film.

Further, I found most of the characters relatively one note and, frankly, boring. The main protagonist of the film also makes some off decisions once the nature of Diana becomes better known to her. Arming yourself with only a crank-operated flashlight with short battery life seems like a poor choice, especially when there has to be a Walmart with all the giant LED lanterns and size D batteries you could want within a 20 minute drive.

Finally, and this may be verging on spoiler territory, but I also didn't care for the "relationship" that Diane shares with one of the other characters in the film. Namely, having Diane's physical manifestation be somehow linked to the expression of another character's mental illness. Admittedly, this isn't a story I've seen before, so while it does feel like original territory, I'm not sure a goofy slasher movie is the exact right cinematic vehicle for what is ultimately a pretty heavy message about mental illness and suicide.

Between the two, I'd probably just watch the short again. Two Bruces.

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I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House - Movie Review - Shocktober 2017

Day 5 - I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House

The Pick: This particular film has been on my radar for some time now. I remember watching a full trailer for it around the time that it originally dropped on Netflix, and I recall being intrigued by it even then. I think I may have read some less favorable reviews for the film, which resulted in delaying my watching of it, but that's what Shocktober was built for!

The Film: I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House begins with the introduction of our protagonist, Lily Saylor. Lily is a twenty-eight year old hospice nurse that has come to an old country farm house to serve as caretaker for the elderly Iris Blum, a famous author of horror and mystery stories. We know that Lily is twenty eight years old because she tells us soon after we first meet her in a sort of narrator voice over, which becomes the primary method of exposition delivery throughout the film. Chillingly, after telling us her age, Lily also tells us that she "will never be twenty nine."

The artifice of Lily acting as our narrator, guiding us through this haunted tale, worked tremendously well for me. Although the styles are different, I was reminded of the sensibilities of noir, but here applied to a Gothic horror story. Much like a classic noir, much of the narrator's monologue lacks subtly but is delightfully hard-boiled, or on the nose. There is a sense of poetry to much of it: I have heard myself say / that a house with a death in it / can never again be bought / or sold by the living / it can only be borrowed from the ghosts / that have stayed behind.

There are dueling veins of wonder and terror running throughout this steadily paced film. The tale that unfolds is deliberate, and depending on your tastes, you might accuse the film of being slow. No doubt, this is a ponderous film, but it invites you to soak in its wonderful atmosphere and palapable mood. In modern horror cinema, films of this ilk are few.

From Lily's first night in the house, things are amiss. Small items are off: a carpet in the downstairs foyer is found with its corner constantly folded over; an ancient television can never quite find a steady signal; the receiver of a telephone is pulled by its cord and wrenched from Lily's hands; a troublesome mold spot begins to grow on one of the walls in the downstairs hallway.

I think to say much more regarding the events of the film would be to give too much away. I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is a finely crafted, atmospheric ghost tale. It won't appease those looking for a special effects showcase, like the Insidious or Conjuring films. Honestly though, there are enough movies like those. The best thing I can say about I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House is that I don't see nearly enough films like it.

Fans of Shirley Jackson need apply.

Four Bruces.

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Tales of Halloween - Movie Review - Shocktober 2017

Day 4 - Tales of Halloween

The Pick: It's Shocktober! That means Halloween! This movie literally has Halloween in the title! I hate to disappoint you, as I imagine you thought my movie pick requirements were far more stringent than that, but that's pretty much exactly the way it happened. Sorry.

The Film: Tales of Halloween is an anthology film with ten stories centered around, you guessed it, Halloween night. The ten stories are all wildly different in terms of the ideas on display, but each demonstrates a great sense of style that pervades the entire film. This really is all the more impressive given that each of the ten tales is written and directed by a different filmmaker, much in the vein of other recent anthology films like XXThe ABCs of Death and Holidays.

I rather enjoyed the first story of the film, entitled Sweet Tooth, in which a babysitter and her boyfriend tell her young charge a local legend about a young boy with an unhealthy obsession with his Halloween candy. In the legend, the boy has very strict parents that never let him eat the candy that he collects on Halloween. One night, after sneaking out of his room after begin sent to bed, the boy finds out what his parents have been doing with the confiscated candy, and thus the monstrous Sweet Tooth is born. Directed by David Parker, Sweet Tooth is a fun  take on a modern holiday boogeyman, not entirely unlike Sam from Trick 'r Treat, but still wholly original. Frankly, I found the entire concept to be pretty inventive, and yet obvious in that way that makes me wonder why I've never seen a similar idea on film before now.

Another story I enjoyed was Ding Dong, a unique take on the old witch's tale. This story, written and directed by Lucky McKee (All Cheerleaders Die), centers around a middle-aged couple that are unable to have children. The wife is particularly damaged by this, and is shown physically abusing her husband during a moment of anger. Fast forward to Halloween night and the couple tries to put on their best faces, dressing up as a witch and Hansel to answer the door and performing an elaborate skit for each child. The steady stream of children proves overwhelming, and we witness the gradual breakdown of the wife's psyche. As the situation deteriorates and violence begins to bubble up just beneath the surface, the husband begins to see his wife as a multi-armed, red-skinned demon. Beyond the striking, stylish makeup, it's an interesting physical depiction of the domestic violence that the husband endures.

The last story I'll tell you about, Friday the 31st directed by Mike Mendez, is a twist on a classic slasher horror film. We pick up near the climax of what could be any of countless slasher films. We join the final girl, here dressed as sexy Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, as she discovers all of her murdered friends in an abandoned barn. The disfigured killer emerges and chases her down and, contrary to the popular slasher formula, he succeeds in killing her. The story continues to surprise as the disfigured killer is then visited by an UFO and a little green alien that wishes to partake in some traditional Halloween trick or treating. Without any candy to appease the otherworldly creature, the killer and the alien go to war. This was an incredibly surprising and fun short, one which had me laughing throughout its duration.

Tales of Halloween transcends its low-budget, demonstrating a great sense of style and presenting a wide variety of original ideas. With so many stories, there is bound to be at least a handful that catch your attention. However, with only a 90 minute run time, I did feel as though many of the stories were too short and underdeveloped. Although I might wish that the film had decided to focus on 4 or 5 of the tales, the film does keep a quick pace, making it compulsively watchable. While I think I still have to give the nod of best Halloween anthology to Trick 'r Treat, I don't think that Tales of Halloween has anything to be ashamed of. Put it on for your next Halloween party.

Three Bruces.

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