Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Good, the Bad & the Darn Right Scary

Over the past week I have seriously indulged. Not only in copious amount of barbecued burgers and chicken, but also in horror. Yes, that genre, that's forever churning out remakes/reboots/reimaginings it would seem nowadays, is one that has dominated my past 7 days with a trio of, wait for it, original horror films.

It's true that horror flicks can affect an audience in completely different ways depending on the medium it's viewed in. The cinema offers (literally) the bigger scares, booming surround sound that creeps up from all corners and a general consensus that everyone else in the theatre is more than likely 'bricking it' just as much as you. Then you've got the home screenings. DVD or Blu-ray certainly has its advantages of a private screening, but can sometimes lack the atmosphere a theatre provides, but it's alright for those who have a pleasing set up of a home cinema complete with 50 inch TV... And of course, you thankfully avoid the nervous audience laughter that suggests they would prefer, instead, to be hiding under their covers crying themselves to sleep.

The horror threesome under review are The Unborn, REC 2 and, newly released, Insidious. The  latter having been revealed as the biggest earning film of 2011 so far, cost a mere $1m to make with it already making $45m so far in the US alone, could end up making worldwide sales of around the $90m mark. Not bad for small time director James Wan, comfortably out doing the likes of the Wes Craven's disappointing Scream 4.
Insidious - In cinemas now

There's been much talk regarding this movie. James Wan's Insidious is touted as a genuinely scary experience, but does it live up to frightening nature of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity? Granted, Insidious is a different kind of horror, it strays from the now common home made, shaky cam footage and instead opts for something that is overtly fictional without any ambiguity regarding its authenticity.

The story of a generic family who move into a new home and proceed to be haunted by supernatural nasties doesn't tread new ground, but surprisingly the style of the movie is its refreshing aspect here. It doesn't try to be anything it isn't. Simple shots, classic set ups and scares are what strangely gives it charm. It's obvious, from the over dramatic score and sudden reveal of the title, at the beginning that Wan's influence of 70's horror is apparent and continues to pay homage throughout. On a basic level, his genre clichéd techniques are intended to make audiences jump, yet one can pick up on a tongue in cheek approach to the film, which does confuse opinion as to whether it takes itself seriously or not.

Starring Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) and Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), the pair, along with their three kids, move into a new home where typically strange things begin to happen, suggesting something paranormal is lurking. The focus of the story is on their son Dalton who, after a ghostly encounter in the dark and spooky attic, falls into a coma. Cue a safe story that uses the most basic of plot devices to inform us of Dalton's out of body 'travels' in his sleep, wandering a realm between the living and the dead, which encourages demons to possess his body. It's that straight forward.

As discussed earlier, it's not your typical modern horror. References to Poltergeist and other such iconic horror flicks are evident, but what Insidious does do is to blend the modern with the classic.

It cannot be denied, there are some well executed scary moments but they are unfortunately too few and far between. Surprisingly these notable scares are not done for cheap frights either. Simple imagery works well rather than constructing cheap ways to terrify, which I found to be a pleasing approach. However, the too-few-and-far-between chilling moments are dwarfed by the inept nature of other aspects including the acting, or lack of it. Whether intentional or not, it ruins the atmosphere with desperately poor performances (specifically aiming criticisms towards the leads). Unless a wooden, awkward style was intentional, then it failed completely as it actively makes audiences aware they are watching a film. Performance wise, the only positives were enjoyable cameos from the duo of ghost busters Specs (Leigh Whannel) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) but sadly it's too little too late.

The story, as with most mediocre horror films, lets it down too. At times it borders on silly territory with a somewhat bizarre climax involving dark corridors, numerous candles and smoke machines. One almost anticipates the appearance of Meat Loaf walking on set to belt out a number- it's that kind of cheesy ridiculousness. The narrative continues to limp along whilst occasionally threatening to morph into a decent horror but loses its way and seems confused itself at times. The imbalance between tongue-in-cheek scary, intentionally scary and insanely silly becomes more unsure as it concludes; its narrative structure doesn't suffice nor sustain belief or momentum.

It's evident to see what Wan is trying to achieve. On one level his vision was to create a homage; a tribute to a beloved genre whilst also retaining credibility as an individual, modern, yet slightly tongue in cheek film and sort of works as a quaint, personal project . On all fronts though it's a shame to conclude that it doesn't quite resonate as planned.

It's likable as much as it is throw away. Something to pass an evening, but ultimately rewards you with very little. Aside from the odd decent moment of horror, the rest fails to gel as a film. Never does it gather sustainable pace or evoke much interest or intensity thanks to the cheesy and heavy handed approach. There's a fine line of success when a director chooses to tackle a film the way Wan does- you either nail it with conviction and credibility or fail it with characters and plot that feel terribly clichéd - Insidious isn't great nor is it dire, it sort of floats in a realm in between.

The Unborn - Available on DVD & Blu-ray now

There's not much to say regarding this formulaic, cheap scares-and little else-horror flick, so I'll get right to the point. The acting is weak and, coupled with a dull story, becomes a bit of a drag in places. Towards the latter half hour- motives chillingly unknown- Gary Oldman joins the cast but sadly doesn't alter the dynamic of a dire story that plays out as clichéd  as a Disney narrative, only with more disturbing imagery.

Admittedly the trailer was cleverly cut to connote a terrifying, decent looking film, revealing rather a lot of terror during its daytime airings, which lead me to believe the actual film would succeed in scaring the pants off me. Sadly it failed to materialise into anything one may deem credible as a horror film, thus ruining my intrigued anticipation.

Aside from the story, it was the special effects that let it down so severely. What was surely intended to replicate an Emily Rose-cum-Silent Hill style nasty turned out to be an ineffective, shambolic attempt. Most disturbing (ironically) of all set pieces was a hilariously awful crash scene and the amateur nature of its editing. Any tension The Unborn did muster is quickly extinguished by dim characters and their illogical reaction to something crystal clear supernatural phenomenon. At least lead female Odette Annable is pleasing eye candy, but is that really enough to make you sit through this drivel?

REC 2 - Available on DVD & Blu-ray now

The third and final review will be, I promise, a lot more positive than the above. Following directly on from the  terrifyingly atmospheric REC, we find ourselves back in the same building literally seconds after the first film ends and the transition is frankly effortless without breaking the fantastic tension its predecessor oozed. From the start the directing is tight and extremely claustrophobic, which works perfectly as we creep down narrow corridors and burst into dark rooms with the SWAT team that have now entered to control the 'situation'.

The performances of the squad are both efficient and well as nervy, which forms believable, real characters. As well as following the SWAT team, a group of curious teens (somehow) sneak in, armed with only a video camera, after witnessing the commotion outside the sealed off building. Again, the acting is naturalistic and develops intensely before both groups inevitably run into one another.

Thankfully the story is strong; it develops at a steady pace and successfully adds to the gritty realism which makes the scares all the more terrifying. The 'sweep and clear' approach of the SWAT team only increases the tension with every breached room, as you wait for the moment until contact is inevitably made.

The plot intends for the team to retrieve a stored blood sample from the source of the outbreak; a young girl who, apparently, is still located in the building. After a rendez-vous with Dr. Owen who escorts them through their mission, all hell (almost literally) breaks loose and the sample is lost, prompting a far more dangerous search for the girl. When the intensity of running-into-the-unknown is met head on with the beasties that lurk in dark corners, the action explodes with a chilling authenticity that will tip you towards the edge of your seat.

As the scenes develop, the plot progresses nicely too, revealing the origins of the nasties that are loitering down dimly lit corridors and in cluttered lofts. An intelligent narrative compliments the acting and fast pace of the film. You're constantly on full alert and are genuinely unsure what will happen next. The downside is the overuse of the shaky cam in some scenes and the film, as a whole, would benefit from some calmer, static scenes to regain ones breath, but in honesty is a minor criticism. It's obvious that the aim from director/writer Jaume Balagueró is to rev up the intensity, induce the panic and fear factors and frankly, fail to cease until the climax. The result is that REC 2 throws you in at the deep end placing you in exactly the same position as the characters.

Whilst REC 2 consistently pushes a story that can be construed as realistic, it does sway a little too much into a religious motive and explanation which I found mildly disappointing. However, coupled with the stylistic direction and a story that, one point towards the climax turns the realism ideal on its head, REC 2 comes together sublimely to leave viewers shaken and on edge.

As sequels go, this not only lives up to it's predecessor but actually improves upon it in places. It also sets up further intriguing possibilities for the franchise to expand and has a nice twist right at the end. If you enjoyed the first, then this is a must.


Photos : Google Images