"Shall we begin?"

Dread Central has the first trailer for the much anticipated Death Note movie helmed by Adam Wingard. The trailer is a perfect teaser, giving you a sense of the style (dark, bold, Wingardy) and literally 15 seconds of what the premise is. 1

Unfortunately, Dafoe’s character Ryuk ends the trailer with an eye-rolling: “shall we begin?” The original manga and numerous anime adaptations were burdened with melodrama and over the top cliches, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge this too harshly, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Death Note is due to drop on Netflix on August 25.

  1. There’s a note. When you write people’s names in it, they die. Willem Defoe is a floating, spiky monster. ↩︎

They’re All Dead: In Defense of Horror

Brian Jay and Sheldon Positive’s horror and science fiction spin off from their main wrestling podcast this past week includes a thoughtful discussion about the status of the horror genre in the wider world of film, sparked by the conversation ignited by Get Out, and it is definitely worth checking out.

Sheldon and Brian veer off into a discussion over whether Get Out is a horror movie 1 and I think they mostly get this wrong. Sheldon claims that Get Out is not in the same genre space as Evil Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre—which it is not—and that if Get Out is a horror movie, then it is treading in uncharted waters.

First, I think anyone who has seen Get Out will say that it is definitely a horror movie. And there have been plenty of horror movies that were direct influences on Get Out. Movies like Rosemary’s Baby, and now Get Out, are quite distant from slasher fare like Hostel, but they can still comfortably share space in the genre tent. One of the most compelling aspects of the horror genre is the wide space it has for different aesthetics, storytelling, and cultural views.

Horror is a feeling—a sinking feeling, an adrenaline rush, an urge to look away, a perverted desire not to—that connects us back to our shared humanity. We all understand fear, just in different ways, and that is what makes for such variety and experimentation in the genre.

  1. Without having seen it… ↩︎

Netflix Continues to Tease Stranger Things Seasons Two

Bloody Disgusting reports:

The second season hits Netflix on October 31st, 2017. What can we expect from the return of “Stranger Things” this Halloween? As teased in the Super Bowl spot, it looks like a (massive) new monster is arriving in the town of Hawkins, Indiana this coming season, which is set just about one year after the events of Season 1. Joyce Byers has a new boyfriend (played by Sean Astin!) and Eleven, well, she’s apparently still alive.

We’ve even learned that Dustin will have a pet monster from another dimension!

In a chat with NME, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos spoke briefly about Season 2, revealing they’ve seen the premiere and are very happy with it.

Said Sarandos:

I have just seen the first episode of season two. It’s fantastic – it delivers on everything that every fan wants. We have a sense that it’s going to be really big.

I loved the first season of Stranger Things and I felt like it said everything that needed to be said about Hawkins, IN and our heroes and heroines. Obviously, with the critical and fan acclaim, a second season was inevitable and from all reports it will be more of the same but bigger/better/beyond, i.e., “everything that every fan wants”.

What I wanted to see in a Stranger Things season two was the same cast, crew and creative team playing around with the same themes and ideas but with a different story. By putting everything in the same story box as season one, I’m afraid that things will become limited. We’ll see how far the creators can push things within the framework of this world—which I am is quite far—but I still wish that they had been more bold in choosing the direction of season two.

'Shin Godzilla' Destroys Japanese Academy Awards

In other news, Goodnight Mommy won its face-off in the Austrian Oscars, Australian Academy voters could not get rid of The Babadook, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night took a bite out of the Iranian Academy Awards.

In all seriousness, though, Shin Godzilla was a great movie with some pretty deep reflections on the modern bureaucratic state and how it reacts to extreme stress. Worth a watch, if you can find it.

(Via Horror Freak News)

John Squires Should Call Out BS Reviews of Get Out

John Squires at Bloody Disgusting has a good article decrying fawning reviews of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Squires sees these reviewers as fundamentally misunderstanding the horror genre and its history of social commentary and satirism:

What’s so frustrating about these articles, as a longtime horror fan, is that social and political commentary has been an inherent aspect of the genre since the very beginning – much to the surprise, apparently, of many horror fans, who have been insisting in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration that politics and horror should be kept separate. The flaw in this way of thinking is that politics and horror have been intertwined from the start; in other words, Get Out isn’t the first of its kind, it’s merely the latest in a long line of great horror films with something important to say.

Longtime genre fans frequently disdain mainstream attention and acclaim because it is so often outside of our experience of horror movies. Of course horror has had, and will always have, a strong thread of cultural criticism. To look down at that is elite, misinformed bullshit.

However, Squires does not link to any particular review in his piece and is speaking about a general feeling. This does a disservice to his argument. Which reviews does he see as a problem? Who is not understanding the genre and Get Out’s place in it? Call them out.

Update: He did.

Get Out

I have only seen two movies in the past year where the audience spontaneously applauded at the end: Hidden Figures and Get Out. Both outbursts were well deserved and both movies accomplish similar missions by wildly different means: shining a bright light on racism and inequality in America. They also happen to both be wonderful films. At the end of Hidden Figures, you feel proud and uplifted. When the credits roll on Get Out, you probably will feel the opposite.

Get Out is great genre and great cinema and it deserves to be seen, so I will keep some plot points and major third act spoilers out while we unpack what is so great about this film. If you like thrillers, satire, cultural commentary, or just good movies you should see Get Out.

Get Out is Jordan Peele’s feature debut as both a writer and director and his skills behind the camera are on point. Scenes are blocked and composed creatively and there is not a scene or shot out of place. You can tell just from the trailer that Jordan Peele has a knack for crafting memorable shots and his handiwork is all over the final product. Peele wonderfully realizes the sense of being detached from oneself in scenes of hypnosis by placing characters visually in a “sunken place”: a black, gravity-free void where characters float, suspended several yards below a screen showing their perception. The film grabs you right in the first scene and does not let go from there.

Peele went with a cold open that is unfortunately too familiar to many today in America. A black man is walking down a suburban street, seemingly lost. A car begins tailing him and he realizes that he needs to try to keep his head down and avoid an uncomfortable exchange. Before he can get away, a masked person incapacitates him and tosses him in a trunk. We are then introduced to Chris Washington and Rose Armitage, an interracial couple visiting Rose’s white parents’ rural manor in upstate New York. Chris is understandably concerned about how her parents will react while Rose insists that they will be fine with the situation. At every beat, the story ramps up the discomfort and the disease in delightful and interesting ways.

The couple is interrogated by a state highway patrolman after hitting a deer and the officer demands Chris’s ID, even though he wasn’t driving. Was it racism, an overly aggressive cop, a reasonable request given the circumstances? By the time we can grapple with that, we are at the Armitage’s estate and confronted with the hired black help and Rose’s father’s uncomfortable comments about the couple and a strange throwaway about how Rose’s grandfather was beaten by Jesse Owens to compete in the Berlin Olympics. Is he just making dad jokes or is he foreshadowing something more sinister? Before we can get to the bottom of it, we are dealing with Chris's unresolved guilt over his mother's death, menacing hypnotherapy sessions, a truly strange backyard barbecue, and Chris’s increasing paranoia around too many white people.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris and Alison Williams as Rose are perfectly cast and bring a sincerity and reality to their performances that ground the film. Directors and producers of horror and other genre films should take note of this. When you have a story as out there as Get Out’s (and it gets pretty far out there), you have to rely on the actors to make your story feel real. If we don’t care about the characters, we don’t care about the story, regardless of how fantastic it may be. In fact, the reverse is true: the more outrageous the story, the more you need competent, natural actors to give you a sense of stability and an emotional connection. Kaluuya and Williams provide this in abundance. Their young romance, stressed by a family encounter and some uncomfortable but everyday racism, is believable and relatable. Rose’s constant lampshading of the police and her own family’s racist remarks and attitudes feel familiar, as do Chris’s perfunctory and subtle (and not-so-subtle) deflections.

The supporting cast is just as strong with performances by the always funny Bradley Whitford as Rose’s father Dean, Catherine Keener as a devilishly unnerving hypnotherapist and Rose’s mother, and finally Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend and TSA agent Rob. Howery steals the show with his hilarious, over the top, and genuinely touching performance as Chris’s buddy who turns into the main investigative force as Chris contends with the increasing paranoia and insanity of the Armitage’s estate.

I have found myself returning again and again to the striking title track: Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga. Composer Michael Abels combines a plucky, minor-chord inflected banjo with whispered Swahili, imploring us to “[watch] your back. Something’s coming, and it ain’t good.” The track recalls the Bayou and plays under disjointed shots of dying fall trees. You don’t need to understand Swahili to know that something bad is coming. The rest of the score serves the film equally well, from the lovely but slightly melancholy “love theme” for Chris and Rose to the punctuated, driving horns and bass that carry us through the action scenes.

I don’t want to spoil Get Out, so I will not go any further than the trailer does. Something is going on with a rich white family, hypnosis and brainwashed black people. The truth that Peele unveils in the third act is a twist and a strange one at that, but it is not altogether unexpected and it feels at home in this film. Peele’s writing and direction–so spot on for a freshman effort–coupled with the adept performances of Kaluuya, Williams and the entire supporting cast make everything believable, even as the tension and insanity ratchet up scene after scene.

Get Out functions in some ways like modern conspiracy theories. The dark core of the plot is a man with a plan. There is a comfort in knowing that there's a hand behind the crazy actions in our world, however invisible it may be. And there's something to be done. Plug your ears, grab a weapon, steal a car and hope Rod’s TSA skills can handle. Conspiracy theories satisfy our natural urge to explain the unexplainable. Unfortunately, the world is not a clockwork machine and things like structural inequality and inherent bias, while all too real, are not the products of a single mind and cannot be defeated by a single, dedicated hero.

I have almost† no complaints about Get Out. It is singularly well-made from top to bottom. From the direction to the performances, the story to the score there is almost nothing wrong with Get Out. The only knock against the film is that it is too real and will make audiences, black and white, face uncomfortable thoughts about their society and themselves.

After the movie while waiting for the subway, a black man came up to me, smiling. He asked about my new headphones, complimented me on my tie and then invited me to a Bible Study. I politely declined and made sure to get on the next car from him, unable to hide my discomfort.  My head was still swimming with the thoughts that Peele had implanted and I couldn’t help but wonder: who felt more uncomfortable during this exchange? And if someone had been brainwashed was it him or was it me?

† OK, I can’t help myself: the Microsoft product marketing is over the top. Sure, maybe some people have Surface tablets and I guess there are three or four Windows Phones still in circulation. But a Bing, search? Really?

A Cure for Wellness

Gore Verbinski's A Cure for Wellness is an assault on the senses. It is impossible to ignore the rich and often brilliant cinematography, the Byzantine story and the extreme running time. Verbinski forces the audience through the same program that Dane DeHaan's Lockhart endures: extreme excess followed by disgust and exhaustion. By film's end, Lockhart is transformed by the experience. I'm not sure if the same can be said for the audience. Below, we will examine this regimen and see if it is possible to find some sense in this brash cacophony. Spoilers throughout.


No one can say that director Gore Verbinski did not imprint every scene and shot with style. He lifts ordinary exchanges of dialogue to grand heights by blocking them around a mirror-finish cistern with an expansive view of the Swiss Alps. Character entrances are revealed in the reflection of stuffed deer's eyes. DeHaan's mother ominously predicts "you'll never come back" while the camera stares up at a Dutch angle, her eye bulging through a magnifying glass.

Every shot is meticulously framed and composed. The color choices and extensive color timing combined with these frames produce a visual delight in an Andersonian mold. Every scene is painterly and gorgeous to watch. Verbinski juxtaposes the beauty of his filmmaking with crudeness and insanity of the story.

The plot is a cinematic gourmand's feast. After a brief set up in high finance New York, the story quickly moves to the Swiss Alps with Dane DeHaan's Lockhart on a single-minded mission to find his Kurtz, Harry Groener's Pembroke, in the heart of Dr. Heinreich Volmer's (Jason Isaacs) baroque wellness center and return him to complete an important merger. DeHaan has enough time on the train to suitably impart that he is a business school frat boy with compulsions verging on the obsessive, popping Nicorette and juggling a cell phone while maniacally adjusting numbers in a spreadsheet, before learning the sordid past of Château Volmer.

Centuries ago, the original baronial landlord tried to marry his sister to preserve a pure bloodline. Outraged peasants razed the property and burned the sister alive, removing her unborn daughter and throwing her into the aquifer. The castle has been rebuilt over the aquifer and is home to Dr. Volmer and his staff who administer a mysterious treatment using the restorative properties of the spring water. Lockhart fails to retrieve Pembroke and is, utterly predictably, waylaid and becomes an unwilling patient. He is admitted to fix his dubiously broken leg while the staff try to convince him that he is deeply sick and in need of Herr Volmer's "cure".

Bear in mind that this all happens in the first thirty minutes, the amuse-bouche, of this two and half hour banquet. The plot takes detours through the crossword puzzle sleuthing of one of the more suspicious patients, Lockhart's meandering down endless hallways in Volmer's facility, some color from the local townsfolk, a toilet handle that won't stop jiggling†, several scenes of Lockhart getting to know the mysterious and ethereal Hannah, played by Mia Goth, and a sensory deprivation tank full of eels.

The eel tank deserves some additional attention. Lockhart is lowered into a massive tank for sensory deprivation treatment while submerged under forty feet of water. Verbinski carefully frames DeHaan's pale body on the pitch black of the tank as the water begins to rise and bubbles form from the respirator obscuring DeHaan's face. While Lockhart begins to flash back to memories of his father's suicide, a nurse emerges and partially disrobes to distract the on-duty technician. Dozens of eels appear and Lockhart panics, unsuccessfully attempting to escape before blacking out. His body slowly sinks back into the swirling mass of eels. Every moment of this scene is beautifully realized, but really consider what is happening. DeHaan is wrought, sick with guilt and depression over his father's suicide, and then is engulfed by vicious eels. While he suffers in the tank, the technician furiously masturbates in front of the nurse. This is merely one example of the lengths A Cure for Wellness goes to plunge the audience into the depths with Lockhart and the rest of Volmer's patients.

DeHaan very ably shoulders the burdens of making us believe he is a prick who's only out for himself and handles his turn into a broken man trying to save himself and Hannah very well. His one-and-a-half note performance against Goth's floaty Hannah and Jason Isaac's sinisterly friendly Volmer make up the bulk of the film and they are more than capable of holding things together along with a decent supporting cast of various helpers and townsfolk.


So much stylistic and narrative excess leads to an overwhelming feeling of disgust. During the final third of the film, a feeling of tightness had entered my chest and my stomach. It was literally hard to watch Verbinski put these characters through so much physical and mental torture.

While plumbing the depths of Volmer's Gothic Road to Wellville, Lockhart is caught by Volmer. Explaining that he was having some dental problems (he literally pulled his tooth out minutes before), Volmer insists on an extensive examination without anesthetic, leading to a close up shot of a drill destroying one of Lockhart's front teeth. Lockhart eventually escapes the Marathon Man treatment and returns to the town to find help. After alerting the local authorities, he discovers that the chief of police is in league with Volmer and is returned to the facility. Lockhart knows he is being driven insane and there is very little he can do about it. If DaHaan has one go-to expression throughout the film it is disgust. How can he not, given the horrors he has and will continue to see?

The film's climax includes two deeply disturbing physical violations. Lockhart finally learns Volmer's secret—he is the baron from the distant past, kept alive by murdering patients to distill the essence of the eels into a youth serum—after which Volmer forces a large tube down Lockhart's throat and into his stomach, pumping a gallon of sewer water and infant eels into his body. My eyes are tearing up just typing this, it disturbed me so deeply.

Verbinski saves the worst cruelty for the finale, though. Hannah is revealed to be Volmer's daughter, kept young through the centuries by the serum, and, having finally had her period, Volmer intends to marry her and use her to have the pure-breed children that were taken from him. The scene is not easy to watch. Mercifully, a weak but defiant Lockhart breaks things up before Volmer can consummate the act, setting the place ablaze while Hannah crushes her father's head (unmasked to reveal a repulsive mess variously scarred by burns and eel-like), pushing him into the aquifer to be devoured by eels as the château burns to the ground once more.


Leaving the theater, I felt no sense of relief. The visual and narrative assault having finally abated, and DeHaan and Goth's characters riding off both literally and figuratively, I expected to feel catharsis. And Verbinksi no doubt expected it as well, after having put his characters, and us, through this experience.

I expected to feel angrier at having been subjected to the explicit and troubling rape scene. I expected to feel more invested in the future for Lockhart and Hannah. I expected to be more exasperated by the utterly bizarre story. I expected to have a stronger opinion, good or bad. But, truthfully, I felt nothing but exhaustion and emptiness.

Other films have a similar narrative arc and deliver as much, and more, excess and torture (Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream and Laugier's Martyrs come to mind). But those films had a reason for their cruelty. Their torture was not mindless but in service to stories of transformation, the watching of which transformed the viewer. You are not the same person after watching Requiem for a Dream or Martyrs that you were before.

Am I different person for having seen A Cure for Wellness? What did I get for watching Dane DeHaan's front tooth drilled without anesthesia and a scene of attempted paternal rape? Some interesting visual ideas and able filmmaking perhaps, but, in truth, all I got was two and a half hours older. And I will never be able to look at a jiggling toilet handle the same way again.

† It was eels, by the way, in case you were wondering.

The Forest

"If you see something bad, it's not real, it's in your head." That's what Natalie Dormer's character Sarah repeats as the spirits of The Forest menace her. But it also might be what the creators were saying over and over as they greenlit the series of mistakes that come together in this lackluster January horror flick. Horror movies dropped off in the dead of winter are often the dregs in one respect or another (see: Paranormal Activity The Marked Ones or Woman in Black 2), whether that is because of a weak script, weak direction or just general weak sauce. January does not auger well for the horror genre and The Forest does not change that trend.

The story is pretty straightforward: Sarah--ably portrayed by Natalie Dormer who plays identical twins Sarah (the main character) and Jess (the troubled sister)--flies to Japan to rescue her twin sister from a forest where people are known to commit suicide. Sarah knows that Jess is alive through their connection as twins and enlists the help of the handsome but mysterious Aiden (Taylor Kinney) and his park ranger pal, Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa).

No fewer than three characters tell Sarah to not go into the forest with sadness in her heart, otherwise the forest will play off of her insecurities and cause her to see things and do things. Possibly bad things. Naturally, that is exactly what happens. We are treated to a basic procedural plot into Sarah's past and a secret guilt that lies at the heart of her relationship with Jess. It's not actually all that shocking, but the moment of the reveal is surprisingly interesting due to Dormer's compelling performance and the way director Jason Zada cleverly juxtaposes her narration with a flashback.

As Sarah is confronted with her past she becomes increasingly suspicious of Aiden, who at best is using her story for his work and at worst may be complicit in Jess's disappearance. We follow Sarah through a series of events that may be supernatural or may just be her fears and anxieties. Things come to a head when Sarah and Aiden stay overnight in the forest. Truths are told, scares are jumped and we get a predictable ending. I won't spoil it, but you probably have a good idea of how things will unfold anyway.

Doing what it says on the tin, The Forest's principal location is a forest: Japan's Aokigahara Forest which give's the film a "based on a true story" mythos. Despite some initial scenes in Tokyo, the script seems to completely forget that the movie takes place in Japan. In fact, outside of the short Tokyo scenes, The Forest was largely filmed in Serbia (and in a studio/warehouse). This is a problem for the movie, but not in the way some have made it out to be.

Of course, The Forest served as the usual grist for the never-ending outrage mill for mishandling the delicate topic of suicide, particularly by using this actual location. But, however you feel about the optics, The Forest pays little homage to the actual locations and culture and that is where the ball was truly dropped. This story really could have taken place anywhere and the lack of place and sense of reality is the big problem because it shows a lack of care in constructing a feature story.

Zada competently executes the paint by numbers script and even constructs some genuinely creepy, if all-too-fleeting, moments and images. His direction falls down the worst in the opening and closing scenes, which are composed of odd cuts and injudicious under-cranking. But where things really fall apart is the story. It doesn't imagine its characters and its situation as anything more complex than a forty-four minute teleplay. The Forest resembles nothing more than a one-shot monster-of-the-week X-Files storyline played out over ninety minutes with all of the pacing and character problems that implies. And, naturally, it ends with a jump scare--because that's how God intended horror movies to end, apparently.

If you're looking for anything of substance you won't find it in The Forest, but, should you have been looking there in the first place?

A New Year's Resolution for Horror Film Makers:

Speaking of final jump scares. Horror movie producers, writers, studio executives, or whoever is responsible for tacking jump scares on to the ends of movies: please stop this madness. 

Take a perfectly competent and actually pretty engaging horror film like Unfriended. In the very last seconds you rip the viewer out of the movie by inserting a cheap jump scare. After ninety minutes of Agatha Cristie-lite plotting bounded by the frame of a laptop monitor, you throw out your central conceit so the spooky ghost can jump at the screen.

You do it in a not-so-great movies like The Forest and you do it in a fantastic ones like Sinister. You are destroying the integrity of these movies and for what? What does that one last bullshit "scare" do other than say: "We don't respect this audience and we don't respect this film"?

For 2016, why don't you challenge yourselves? No more final jump scares. Let horror movies end where they end. Respect the story and respect the audience. Make it your #NewFearsResolution.

Paranormal Activities

We are two days away from the concluding chapter in the Paranormal Activity franchise (disappointingly titled “The Ghost Dimension”). Producer and indie horror maven Jason Blum insists that this last entry will wrap up the storyline and answer lingering questions posed by the previous films.

I have been a fan of the franchise since its beginning in 2009 and, despite its flaws, consider it a modern classic. I am thrilled that it took the place of the Saw franchise as the go-to Halloween horror flick for the past six years. As a huge fan, I have seen these movies dozens of times and have constructed an outline of what I think is occurring within the Paranormal Activity universe based on the facts as we have them.

I do not claim that this is authoritative and this may be overturned in whole, or in part, with the forthcoming film. However, I think what I will describe is the most plausible and straightforward understanding of what is going on in the Paranormal Activity franchise and I attempt to reconcile everything we have seen with as few logical leaps as possible.

Naming Conventions and Errata

For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the Paranormal Activity movies with the abbreviation “PA” followed by their order in the franchise. Paranormal Activity (2009) being PA 1, followed by PA 2PA 3PA 4, The Marked Ones (2014) as PA 5 and The Ghost Dimension as PA 6.

Additionally, it seems like the Paranormal Activity writers and producers backed away from using last names, but they did establish that Katie’s last name is Featherston in PA 1 (her actor’s last name). I will refer to Katie and Kristi’s family as the Featherstons.

Finally, I am going to assume baseline knowledge of the plot of PA 1 through PA 5. A deep understanding and familiarity is not necessary to follow this outline, but you should have seen the movies or at least skimmed their Wikipedia pages to follow along.

The “Normal” Process

The Paranormal Activity movies revolve around demonic activity that is focused on a person with the express intent being the possession of that person. This activity is also linked to a coven of witches that seem to be led by Lois, the matriarch of the Featherston family. All of the films, with the exception of PA 3, have followed this process.

A woman, either an adult (as in PA 5) or a child (as is hinted at in PA 3), is brought to one of the coven and is consecrated with the circle-within-a-triangle symbol on her stomach, literally and symbolically “marking” her and her family.

Traditionally, this has been a transactional relationship between the demon and the woman, as Micah discovered in PA 1. In return for the first male descendant, the woman will be given power or wealth. This seems to be what happened with Lois — although, it is indicated that it might have been her mother who initiated the process. Lois’s house is fairly opulent and she seems well off and occupies some kind of leadership position within the coven.

This may or may not be what is happening with the other women that are bearing “marked” children as Aly Rey (the only survivor of the events of PA 1 and PA 2 and now an expert in demonology and the coven) says the coven is building an army of possessed men and not just using the transaction for personal gain.

Once the male child is born, he becomes the bearer of the “mark”. At eighteen, he will begin to exhibit signs of demonic influence, including a bite mark on his body, and will eventually become possessed, although he will continue to remain in control up to the moment of possession (as Oscar was in PA 5).

PA 4 laid out the process in three steps:

  1. Actuation, in which the host will begin to exhibit signs of preternatural ability.
  2. Affirmation, in which the host has to prove its preternatural ability to the demon.
  3. Sacrifice, in which the host must spill the blood of an ‘inviolate’.

PA 5 indicates that either this sacrifice occurs in a sacred location (such as Lois’s house) or that there is another, final ceremony performed there.

It is unclear whether the man is literally possessed by the demon or is merely in its thrall in some way — I would argue that the evidence is that the demon does not directly possess these men, but there is evidence that some kind of spirit may be attached to them. Either way, the man will never be the same again. The only known way to avoid this is through suicide.

The “Emergency” Process

The “normal” process has been thoroughly documented in PA 4 and PA 5 and aside from one major anomaly, discussed below, it is clear that this is a process that turns young men into thralls when they turn eighteen and that the coven is gathering them into an army. But that is completely different from what we saw in the first two Paranormal Activity movies.

Clearly, there is an alternative possession vector that the coven can take. I call this the “emergency” process. In this case, a demon is released on a person (in the PA timeline, this would be Kristi at first and subsequently Katie). In this state, the demon is weak and needs to progressively increase the level of anxiety and fear in a household through supernatural occurrences. The demon feeds on these negative emotions in a vicious feedback loop.

At some point, the demon will become strong enough to “mark” the target (both Kristi and Katie receive bite marks similar to Jesse in PA 5) and complete the possession process. The target is then in thrall to the demon similarly to how the possessed men are. In the PA movies, we presume that this demon is Toby.

Based on the events of PA 2, the cold open of PA 3 and Anna possessing the Featherston family tapes in PA 5, we can make the following supposition. The coven broke into the Rey household in early August 2006 removing the incriminating videotapes. They also unleashed Toby. He began the emergency process on Kristi, finally infecting her on August 25th, 2006. Daniel Rey and his former maid, Martine, forced the spirit out of Kristi and attached it to Katie. The same cycle then occurred in Katie and Micah’s house, leading to Micah’s murder and Katie finally becoming a thrall. As of 2011, in PA 4, she is still possessed (we do not see Katie in present day in PA 5, so we cannot be certain of her current status).

I use the word “thrall” for both the normal and emergency processes intentionally. It does not seem that through either process the victim becomes literally possessed by the demon. For instance, Toby is still “active” in PA 4 while Katie is also on the scene. At the very least, it does not seem that it is Toby itself that possesses these people.

The Hunter Anomaly

The mythology fleshed out in PA 4 and PA 5 make one thing abundantly clear. Whatever the normal process or plan is, it has been completely thrown out with Kristi’s son, Hunter. Jesse was allowed to grow up largely independent of the coven as, presumably, were the other marked men. The witches felt completely safe in the knowledge that at eighteen the normal possession process would take its course and they would embrace a new drone in their ever-growing demonic corps.

So, what is the deal with Hunter?

Actually, what happened with the entire Featherston family?

We don’t have any evidence that demons, like Toby, watched over other consecrated women or their children. Jesse does not remember or mention any previously unexplained events in his past, for instance. But the events of PA 3 and dialogue between Katie and Kristi in PA 2 prove that Toby was present in their youth and possibly continued to be around until Katie and Kristi left their home (Katie indicates that unexplainable events happened throughout her youth in PA 1).

I am not certain, but I am convinced that after Hunter’s birth, the coven not only broke into the Rey house but they also dispatched Toby to gather Hunter. Why? They risked exposure in order to get a child that the evidence suggests would have come to them anyway in eighteen years. There must be something particularly special about Hunter and the Featherston family to deploy the emergency process (in the events of PA 1 and PA 2) and to trigger Hunter’s possession approximately twelve years early (in PA 4).

Unexplained Mysteries

That’s all the further I can go without starting to speculate more than the evidence allows. However, I will detail a few of the more interesting questions still unanswered and offer my hypotheses.

  1. Why does Micah mention Katie’s mother in PA 1 (and Katie and Kristi allude to her in PA 2) if she is killed in PA 3? And what happened to the fire that was mentioned in PA 1? Likely just a plot hole/oversight. However, an in-universe explanation is that Lois murdered Julie and Dennis and the coven took their bodies back to their home and burned it down to cover up the evidence. Lois then brainwashed and adopted Katie and Kristi as their last remaining family member and raised them as if they were her daughters.
  2. Who is Robbie in PA 4? I believe that Robbie was emergency possessed. Katie, the coven, or perhaps Toby in some self-directed way, attached to Robbie’s household, made Robbie into a thrall and the family is likely dead. It is much more plausible that this happened than that Katie, while on the run from the authorities, somehow had a child. Robbie, now a thrall, gathered intelligence on the Nelson household for Katie and Toby.
  3. What happened with Hunter/Wyatt between PA 2 and PA 4? Katie, as a thrall of Toby, murdered her and Kristi’s families and took Hunter. Everything was recorded and available to the police, so she had to abandon Hunter who was subsequently put into foster care and adopted by the Nelsons in Nevada. Katie had to go underground to avoid the police and it took time for her to track down Hunter. Once she discovered his location, she had Toby pull an emergency possession on Robbie’s family so they could have a base of operations to prepare to take Hunter back. Why they also triggered Hunter’s normal possession is still unknown. The more interesting question is why didn’t Toby just make Katie turn herself in? Presumably, she would have gone to prison and Lois could have adopted Hunter as she probably did with Katie and Kristi.
  4. What was the child-shaped specter in PA 4? This is quite possibly the most baffling thing in the franchise. It is possible that this was Toby, but that does not square with young Kristi’s description of him being tall and “old like grandma” in PA 3. My guess? This was the demonic spirit that will enthrall Hunter, which is separate from Toby.
  5. What’s going on with the time travel doors? They may deal with this in PA 6, but I think this was just a writing element that will be abandoned. It was there to allow for stories that now won’t be told since the series is ending. I wouldn’t be surprised if one is used in PA 6 to travel back to young Katie and Kristi, but I don’t think it is integral to the story.
  6. What is the endgame of the coven? This is my wildest speculation. I believe that for generations, perhaps centuries as PA 4 points to the ancient Hittite civilization as a starting point for this activity, witches have made deals with demons for wealth or power. The result of this was a possessed man who had supernatural powers and abilities. At some point, they realized that instead of just accumulating power through the demonic pacts, they could start bringing in unsuspecting women and offer their children to the demons to build an army out of these men. What is the purpose of this army? Perhaps just greater power for the coven. But, armies are meant to go to war and that would seem to imply that the coven has an enemy.
  7. Why does everyone film themselves? Because there wouldn’t be any movies otherwise. But seriously, there may be a reason why everyone is filming stuff. I have floated a theory elsewhere that there is a reason for the recordings and that they are important to the activities of the coven (and may even implicate us, the audience, in their work). Possible? Sure. Likely? Probably not.
  8. And, finally, what is so special about Hunter? Could he be the demonic general the coven needs to lead their army? An anti-Christ figure that will usher in an apocalypse? Just one more drone in the army that the coven needed to be extra careful with? Something else entirely? If Jason Blum is to be believed, we should find out on October 23rd…

Shorts Thoughts

More than two hours of short films is not everyone’s cup of tea, so it was no surprise that the 4.15pm showing of the International Short Film Showcase was somewhat more lightly attended than the rest of the features. But, those who skipped missed some real gems. Short films, like short stories, are qualitatively different from features and allow different types of stories to be told, and the creators showcased in this years shorts program delivered on that promise. None were alike and all were worthy entries, even if some were not to my taste.

Below are some brief thoughts on each short film, in descending order of my enjoyment. I have included trailers where available. More details on each short are available on the Toronto After Dark website.


I’ll give “Manoman” this — is was ambitious and very different. An awkward, besuited man attends a primal scream therapy group and his inner monkey-man literally comes out to play. Together, they wreck havoc on the town. Simon Cartwright’s silent (except for the screaming) puppeteered short was definitely not for me (which is why it is at the bottom of this list), but it was a solid, if divisive, entry all the same.


It was exciting to see a rotoscoped short, but other than that, Morgan Galen King’s “Exordium” left me pretty underwhelmed. Strongly evocative of Heavy Metal, “Exordium” follows two knights battling against the elements and a guardian in search of the secrets of the universe. Technically impressive but pretty derivative. Probably a good short to watch on mushrooms.

Myrna the Monster

I wanted to like Ian Samuels’s short more, but it fell a little flat for me. The creativity and technical chops on display here are pretty remarkable, though. Samuels blends animation, puppeteering and live action segments seamlessly to tell the story of an alien captured by astronauts and now living the life of a struggling actor in Hollywood. Myrna’s inadvertent porn audition was a highlight.

Awesome Runaway

Everything clicks for Benjamin De-Los Santo’s s “Awesome Runaway”, but it was still mostly a middle of the pack film for me. The short is a “single take” (I would have to go back and look more closely, but I’m pretty sure there were subtle edits throughout) action beat ’em up that features a pretty hilarious ending.


At 23 minutes, “Boniato” was by far the longest short of the program and it feels like a screen test for a feature-length film. It tells the story of migrant workers held captive by their situation and malicious creatures. Boniato has strong camerawork, an interesting and provocative story, believable performances and surprisingly effective creature design on what must have been a shoestring budget. It is in the middle of my list mostly because I would have liked to have seen an actual feature made out of this story.

The Guests


“The Guests” was the first short of the afternoon and it opened the program with a bang. Our main character, Anna, is home along with her newborn baby when guests start unexpectedly arriving… and arriving. Beautifully shot and realized, Shane Danielsen’s short amps up the tension as the party grows louder and more raucous and Anna continues to lose her sense of reality.

The Black Forest

Paul Urkijo’s darkly humorous fantasy tells the story of a knight in shining armor rescuing the virginal maiden from the evil monster in the titular black forest, but with ample helpings of Army of Darkness-style camerawork and story elements. This was a definite crowd-pleaser and while the twist ending was completely telegraphed, it was still a joy to see unfold. Watching the knight flex and pose in slow motion was particularly tickling.

Movies in Space

This was an unexpected delight. Chris Smith’s sci-fi/comedy genre-bender “Movies in Space” was a standout of the shorts program. An astronaut, Travis Shepherd, in the not-too-distant future becomes Earth’s ambassador to an alien race. Along the way, he moves in with an aspiring filmmaker and inadvertently becomes the most famous production mogul in history. But, as with any rise, there is a fall and Travis struggles with space drugs, space sex and space fame. The jokes are densely packed, the comedy both broad and ironic, the effects outstanding and the story compelling both comedically and emotionally.


Holy shit, this movie. I am currently about sixty percent through all of the shorts and features at After Dark, and this is comfortably in the lead as the scariest. Vicious is the story of a woman, Lydia, living alone in a London flat after her sister has died. Her sister was haunted by something, and discovering the front door open upon returning home late at night, Lydia must confront her own anxieties, and possibly something living in a pile of clothes, before she goes to sleep.

The tension was almost unbearable throughout this 12 minute short. As Lydia continues to search her house, I could hear people groan and see them physically tense up in apprehension. When the credits rolled, there was an audible wave of relief through the audience as the harrowing experience ended. My heart was literally pounding afterward. Head and shoulders above the rest of the shorts (and most of the features) in terms of technical competence, storytelling and shear, unnerving terror.


Night two was Sci-Fi night at this year’s Toronto After Dark, and was largely occupied by Rooster Teeth fans in attendance for the Canadian debut of Lazer Team. That left a small, but diehard, crowd of festivalgoers for Synchronicity, a time travel romance in the style of Blade Runner produced by the creators of 2007’s The Signal. And let’s not beat around the bush, this is meant to look like Blade Runner.

During the Q&A, the moderator tried to dance around this fact while asking a question and the production designer cut him off, saying, “Jacob [the director] said up front that he wanted this to look like Blade Runner”. That means we’ve got high technology next to reel-to-reel players, Venetian blinds and beautifully composited shots of the Atlanta skyline with dozens of spotlight-wielding helicopters on patrol. The production design is practically another character in the film and it is wonderful to the watch. The script, however, is somewhat less inspiring.

Chad McKnight (who strongly resembles a young Mark Ruffalo) plays Jim Beale, the kind of scientist who wears a three-piece suit while inventing time travel. He and his team — Chuck (played by A.J. Bowen) and Matt (Scott Poythress), both of whom are great side characters — have created a stable wormhole device that can be used to send matter through space and time.

In one of the more inspired pieces of writing, their technology acts as both a wormhole broadcaster and receiver. They only have one sample of the MacGuffin — a kind of ultra-nuclear fuel called MRD controlled by Michael Ironside’s Klaus Meisner — so, Jim will initially use the wormhole device as a receiver, in the hopes that something uniquely identifiable will come through, proving that the wormhole works and setting up a causal loop that the team will fulfill in the future. After verifying that whatever object came through is genuine, Meisner will supply a second sample of MRD to the team to use to send the object back to themselves in the past, closing the loop.

After their first test, a dahlia under a glass case appears, as well as a brief flash on the monitors. Jim is convinced that a person also came through the wormhole and initially believes that it is Abby (played by Brianne Davis), a woman who shows up outside the lab moments after the test. While she insists that she is not a time traveler, the dahlia is in fact hers. Jim realizes that he must have some kind of relationship with Abby in the future and chose the dahlia as the object to send through the device because of it.

This leads to a romance between the two, which is short-lived because of Jim’s insecurities and belief that Abby is either romantically involved with or working for Klaus Meisner. Because the dahlia is actually a rare collector’s item licensed to Abby by Meisner, Jim has to sell him a 99% ownership stake in the wormhole device in return of use of the flower. Jim agrees, but when they use the device the second time, he also goes through to try and fix his mistakes with Abby and see if both his work and his relationship can coexist. This is the end of the first act.

Wait — the first act? Yes, there is still about an hour of movie left as Gentry’s script wanders through paradoxes, shifting timelines and the potentialities of parallel universes. I’ll stop the summary here, though, because while the script is very convoluted and ultimately a bit disappointing, this is definitely a worthwhile film for hardcore science fiction fans to check out and to continue would spoil the more intricate plot points.

There is no question that this is a confusing movie. Jeffrey Pratt Gordon, the production designer who spent his time on the shoot dumpster diving and breaking into hotels to achieve the awesome retro-future style, was in attendance and mentioned that this was actually his first time seeing the entire cut of the movie. When asked during the Q&A what his first reaction to Synchronicity was, Gordon replied simply: “confused”. To paraphrase him slightly,

I’ve read the script a hundred times to figure out how to dress the sets and what the tone should be, and I’m still really confused by it.

Me, too, Jeffrey. But, despite my confusion, I was charmed by Synchronicity. It is far from perfect, but the strong performances, inspired production design and the interesting ideas left me mostly satisfied.


  • The director was clearly intent on achieving an 80s feel throughout the film, and this comes through in the production design, the wardrobe and also the choice of the film style. This means that the whole thing looks like a bad VHS to DVD transfer. I get what they were going for, but it really just makes the whole thing look shitty. There are several shots where there is clearly a digital zoom being used and it looks terrible. The wonderful realization of the production design is really held back by this choice.
  • I can’t decide whether I loved or hated the wormhole sequences. They are bold, yellow-orange soaked frames evoking fractals and lava lamps and burst on to the screen with deep resonant tones and thrums. But, I couldn’t help but think they also looked a lot like early iTunes visualizers.
  • A critical plot point is that the MacGuffin has to be rotated by Matt to the left in the device or it will fail and Matt can’t tell his right from his left. It is beyond belief that Jim and Chuck would stake their reputation, millions of dollars, and perhaps the fate of the universe on this. How hard would it have been to pick a more believable problem? Say, the MRD is unstable and needs to be constantly manipulated during the wormhole process and because it creates large and shifting magnetic fields, a machine can’t do it, only a human can.
  • Another script problem are the changes in the timeline. Without spoiling too much, things are subtly different after Jim goes back in time. Some of the differences are just slightly extended scenes that are otherwise the same. I couldn’t tell if we were just seeing a slightly different angle on the same events. Other things are definitely meant to be different, such as a bartender played by two different actors, but are mostly too small to notice before the film spells them out for us with some Sixth Sense-style flashbacks.
  • All of the driving scenes and hero shots of Atlanta during Golden Hour were pretty to look at, but they remind me of something. I can’t quite put my finger on it…
  • Based on cheers and applause, the highlight for the crowd was McKnight, Gordon and producer Alexander Motlagh revealing that they basically snuck an entire film crew into the W Hotel in Atlanta for some guerrilla shooting.
  • “Klaus Meisner” is perhaps the best bad guy name ever.

A Christmas Horror Story

George Buza (Santa Claus) entered the Scotiabank Theatre fifteen minutes before the show. Decked out as Saint Nick and with two elves in tow, Santa stalked the halls, encouraging festivalgoers to shout “Down with Krampus!” in return for candy canes and tee shirts. Thus began one of the more unusual, but nevertheless enjoyable, film experiences at Toronto After Dark so far.

I did not know that A Christmas Horror Story was an anthology movie until the last twenty minutes of its screening. During the Q&A, one of the directors mentioned that the creative team felt that they had the option to make a straight up anthology film, with distinct, self-contained segments, or they could weave them together to make an entire feature. In this, they were not successful.

Yes, the stories all take place on Christmas Eve in the fictional town of Bailey Downs and, yes, not unlike the more satisfying Tales of Halloween, they are glued together by a radio DJ — played by William Shatner — but beyond some superficial connections, there is no overarching story. This presents real problems for A Christmas Horror Story. Since the stories are not self-contained, we bounce between four largely un-related stories, which are never given a chance to shine on their own.

The four stories are:

  1. Santa and Mrs. Claus deal with a zombie outbreak at the North Pole hours before Christmas Eve deliveries are to start.
  2. A police officer and his wife cut down a pine tree from an ancient forest and get more than they bargained for when they discover they have brought home a changeling.
  3. Three students break into a school to document a grisly and supernatural double murder that occurred last Christmas and find themselves trapped as history begins to repeat itself.
  4. A wealthy and vapid family arrives at a distant relative’s to pull a scam but instead is menaced by the anti-Santa Claus: Krampus.

Because I did not know these stories were meant to be separate, I kept waiting for them to be tied together and did not realize until the last twenty minutes that they were not going to be. The creators mentioned in the Q&A that they tried to find some connections between the segments (such as having the police officer from the changeling story be the same officer that investigated the ghost story murders). But the primary rationale for making the film as four separate stories was for efficiency’s sake. With only a few months to write and shoot the film the producers divided the work between four writing teams and then found ways to connect the works.

Given the constraints, I feel that not cutting between the segments but instead playing each of them in their entirety and then moving to the next would have the served the film far better. The film opens in medias res with the Santa Claus segment and then returns to the beginning and the ending works well by telling the North Pole story this way. By cutting between the North Pole but keeping the other segments whole (stitched together with Shatner’s DJ shtick), each story would have been given more space to work and not have to vie as much with the other segments for tonal consistency.

In fact, one of the writers in the Q&A said that many of the comedic elements in the Krampus story had to be pulled back or cut entirely because they did not fit the overall tone of the other segments. Additionally, I felt that the more dramatic and serious tone of the changeling segment did not fit well with the other stories. Had it been a more self-contained story, it could have more comfortably occupied its dramatic space. By letting each segment stand on its own the film could have avoided these problems.

A Christmas Horror Story is also somewhat bedeviled by low production values. The CGI for the North Pole was very disappointing, to the point that I would have preferred that it be cut entirely in favor of a more mysterious setting (which would have served the ending better, in my opinion). Also, many of the action scenes were disorienting and almost nauseating to watch due to shoddy camera work and editing.

Despite these problems, A Christmas Horror Story was still an enjoyable experience. I can’t say that the festival crowd didn’t have an influence on me, and I am a little skeptical that I would have enjoyed the film as much on a small screen (it probably will feel right at home on SyFy). But, ultimately, the over-the-top Santa action scenes, genuinely spooky elements and the delightful William Shatner pulling everything together left me drunk on the joy of the season (and zombie elf decapitations). Perhaps we will return to Bailey Downs in the future — maybe for a Boxing Day Horror Story?


  • William Shatner’s booze-soaked performance (presumably it was a performance…) as he delivered increasingly troubling notices of some kind of disturbance occurring at the Bailey Downs mall was wonderful, especially his one-sided banter with the off-screen “Susan”.

“No no, Susan, I’m gonna talk about Jesus on the radio and you know why? Because it’s his birthday tomorrow!”

  • The ghost story was a real stretch to fit into the Christmas theme. The only connection was that the murders took place on Christmas. Honestly, this story could have been in any horror anthology and was probably the weakest of the four.
  • For a pretty low-budget flick, the Krampus creature design, used in both the Krampus and North Pole segments, was excellent. The filmmakers were lucky to discover their Krampus performer, Rob Archer (who was in attendance and is about as wide across the shoulders as I am tall).
  • Olunike Adeliyi and Adrian Holmes’s performances in the changeling segment — the second changeling story at this year’s After Dark after The Hallow — were particularly strong and emotional. Their more serious performance and story often felt at odds with the rest of the segments, though.
  • The final twist was both unexpected and hilarious. It brought laughs and cheers from the After Dark crowd at the Scotiabank.
  • Maybe I’m crazy, but shouldn’t this movie be called Christmas Horror Stories if it’s an anthology?

Tales of Halloween

How do you open a festival like Toronto After Dark? Do you want to start with a bang or a slow burn? Should you celebrate something new and rising or lift up those who have been long laboring in independent horror? Apparently, you can have your treats and eat them too with Tales of Halloween.

Tales of Halloween is a collection of ten semi-related segments set in the same suburbia on Halloween. The frame story, insofar as there is one, is of a radio DJ played by Adrienne Barbeau (perhaps reprising her role from another film?) setting the scene and the mood for the whirlwind tour we are about to take through Anytown, USA on this, the most spooky of nights. Barbeau is the connective tissue that joins the segments together. She opens the film, which starts with a somewhat overlong, but still very cool, animated credits sequence and lends some interstitials over the radio as we move from segment to segment.

The narrative beds that open and close the segments lend to the overall feeling of a 2015 version of an EC Comics horror anthology. As do the beautifully crafted shorts, which all have premises that would be at home in Tales from the Crypt. I won’t describe each short — you should just go see Tales of Halloween for yourself, it’s a delight — but I will highlight some standouts.

Barry Bostwick in Demon Horns

My personal favorite short was “The Night Billy Raised Hell”. The titular Billy (dressed in a demon mask and cape) is out with his older sister and her boyfriend before the sun has fallen on All Hallow’s Eve. Billy is literally egged on by the boyfriend to prank the house of a recluse who never participates in Halloween festivities.

Moments before letting loose with an egg on the front door, Billy is caught by the owner — played to a tee by Barry Bostwick in bespoke suit, fedora and demon makeup. It seems that Billy is in over his head as Bostwick sits the boy down in his house (bedecked with all sorts of demonic paraphernalia) and tells him that he’s going to show him what Halloween is really all about.

The next five minutes is a comic tour-de-force as Bostwick and Billy proceed to terrorize the town. Bostwick whittles a toothbrush given to Billy by a well-meaning parent into a shiv, which Billy jabs into the man’s stomach. The duo hold up a convenience store, rob a woman of her car and spray-paint the town with tags showing Billy’s rise to infamy. The entire sequence is set to music and includes hilarious, Hanna-Barbara-style sound effects, particularly under all of Bostwick’s over-the-top antics. The short ends with an unexpected, and delicious twist, putting a neat bow on the proceedings.

Grim Grinning Ghost

Axelle Carolyn (who also is the lead producer on this project) directed one of the more straight up terrifying entries with “Grim Grinning Ghost”. Lin Shaye makes her industry-required cameo as the mother of Alexandra Essoe of Starry Eyes fame.

Shaye recounts to some Halloween guests, including her daughter Essoe, the story of a disfigured woman who was mercilessly taunted while alive and now haunts the living on Halloween night when the dead walk among us. Late at night, when you are alone on the street, you might hear the footsteps of the Grim Grinning Ghost and her cackling, but whatever you do — don’t look behind you.

After Essoe leaves the party, the rest of the short is one sustained burn of tension as you wait for the ghost to show up. Every time it doesn’t, or Essoe narrowly escapes, the tension ratchets up another click. By the end, Carolyn has built things up to a fever pitch and does not disappoint with the finale.


  • The After Dark crowd was a little more subdued than I would have expected at 7pm when the festival opened, but by the closing credits of Tales of Halloween, everyone was definitely in the mood for the next ten days of films. This was a great choice to open the festival and I expect Tales of Halloween to be a top contender for the audience choice award based on the cheers, clapping and all-around revelry we all felt after the credits rolled.
  • While it was not my favorite, the short that got the biggest laughs and cheers was definitely “Friday the 31st”, a send up of the Friday the 13th franchise that includes both a nearly perfect encapsulation of the series and the most adorable little animated alien you ever saw. His little, lispy “twick-oh-tweet” was a highlight of the night. As were the brutal decapitations.
  • There were a few duds: “This Means War” (a battle of lawn decorations between an old-school fellow and some metal heads) was strong on premise but weak on execution and “The Weak and the Wicked” (a Western-influenced story of revenge and demons) never seemed to really land. But, even these weaker entries were far from terrible and didn’t detract from the overall quality of the project.
  • Special mention has to made for “Ding Dong”, a truly strange retelling of Hansel and Gretel that seems like it should be a hot mess but actually was one of the most enjoyable and interesting entries. It has a relentless pace, even for a short, and has some of the most out-there style of the whole joint. The sound effect every time the woman/witch adjusted her boobs was a crowd-pleaser.
  • John Landis’s (pretty extended) cameo was delightful.

99 Problems but Problematics Aren’t One

A quick Google search for “The Green Inferno” + problematic yields tens of thousands of hits. Not surprisingly, Eli Roth’s newest entry into the cannibal horror sub-genre has generated criticism on all sides of the cultural divide. Conservatives are crowing over the satire of slacktivist liberal elites while Amazon Watch has denounced the movie as racist.

Despite all the ink that has been and will be spilled over how “problematic” The Green Inferno is (and yes, it really, really is), Roth commits much deeper cinematic sins. The real problem with The Green Inferno as a film is that it is horribly unsure of its tone. It also has a major audience letdown that I will save for the end.

In order to discuss these problems, I’m going to have to spoil the good parts of The Green Inferno (insofar as there are any). Honestly, though, there’s so little going for this film other than the extreme cannibalism that I’m not really giving away much. But, fair warning, if you are not interested in being spoiled perhaps try something else?

For all the lengths Eli Roth went to make a “subversive” film, he did not go nearly far enough in terms of making an actually horrifying movie. The only truly disturbing scenes were watching Jonah be dismembered and cooked and the truly disturbing (and probably misguided) female genital mutilation plot line. While they both were horrifying, they were two fairly brief scenes in a 100-minute movie. If you are horrified by drum circles and liberal elitism you will surely be disturbed by The Green Inferno — Roth belabors those plot points much more than the actual blood and guts.

We see Justine (very ably played by Lorenza Izzo), a freshman student whose father is a lawyer for the United Nations, slowly get initiated into the student activist group led by the charming but ultimately deceitful Alejandro (played by Ariel Levy).

Their interminable preparation for the Peruvian expedition to shut down a mining operation threatening a native village plays out in nearly real time as Justine struggles to be embraced by anyone other than the portly Jonah (Aaron Burns), who harbors an obvious unrequited love for Justine.

When we actually arrive at the horror, not only is it limited, but it is punctuated by an oddly comic sensibility. Perhaps because Roth could not decide if he wanted, or was even capable, of making this a truly horrifying movie, he slides into weird slapstick again and again compromising the overall tone.

For some reason, when Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) becomes sick with diarrhea he not only shows her squatting and relieving herself but accompanies it with foley sound that reminds me of Chef’s literal pants-shitting death from South Park. After Amy’s death, the crew decides to shove marijuana down her throat so that when the tribe cooks her, they might get high enough that they won’t notice the crew escaping. Alejandro calls it “Scooby Doo” level antics, which it is.

The most illustrative example of this is a scene near the end of the second act. One of the women, Samantha, has attempted an escape and the crew doesn’t know what has happened to her. The next day, as they are eating offal from clay bowls, Amy realizes that they are eating Samantha. Overwhelmed with disgust and horror, Amy breaks her bowl and slices her throat open. Alejandro then proceeds to immediately put his hands down his pants and masturbate while he calmly explains that everyone has their own way of dealing with stress…

Jimmy Sangster, the prolific Hammer Horror writer and director, said, “You have to give the audience time to relax before scaring the shit out of them.” That is as true today as it was in Sangster’s era. You can accomplish this by having quiet moments of character development (like in the original Poltergeist), or through alternating between intense horror and more grounded plot (like in The Ring), or even through introducing some levity — in fact, sometimes introducing a bit of levity can develop into much deeper, more troubling horror (like in The Blair Witch Project). One of the best examples employing all of these techniques is the Paranormal Activity franchise. The intensity of the horror in those movies follows a dynamic, nonlinear path upward so that by the end you are at almost unbearable levels of terror (if you’re in to that sort of thing).

The Green Inferno botches this job entirely. Not only does Roth seem to spend all of his MPAA ratings credits in just a handful of scenes, instead of spreading things out to ratchet up the horror and intensity over time, he punctuates what he does have with totally inappropriate moments that take you out of the film. More than anything, it feels like Roth had about two and a half ideas (cannibal tribe who eats people + slamming so-called “social justice warriors” + maybe some FGM?) that would have been better served as a short and in order to play them out over a feature length he diluted them of any real power that they had.

All of these plot elements weigh the movie down and contribute to the overall muddled tone, but Roth’s cardinal sin is this: he lets Alejandro live.

Alejandro, the man who tricked Justine into coming to Peru, and nearly killed her, to leverage her father’s UN connections. Alejandro, who engineered the entire operation as a PR stunt for his organization and knew that the village would be destroyed anyway. Alejandro, who blew off Jonah’s death by saying at least they’d be spared longer because he was fat. Alejandro, who pulled his dick out and masturbated immediately after Amy’s suicide because “c’mon bro, just chill”. This horrible example of humanity lives through to the end credits (which includes a baffling teaser for a sequel). After all of this set up, horror movie audiences not only deserve but ought to demand to worst death of all for Alejandro. Don’t we get to have a release, too?

In the end, what Eli Roth has created is basically a motion picture South Park episode about “social justice warriors” who get eaten by the people they were trying to save. Honestly, a 22-minute South Park episode would probably have been a better vehicle for that type of satire. In a 100-minute film, it becomes tired and quickly played out. But the satire and cruelty towards these types of activists isn’t what held the movie back. It is Roth’s own uncertainty about what kind of movie he wanted to make.

Twist and Shout

Of course there is a twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie The Visit. There are plenty of good reviews of The Visit out there that sum up my feelings, but, briefly: it’s good, not M. Night’s best, horror film fans ought to see it.

What I want to review here is not the movie but the twist itself, because it’s one of the most complex that a mass-market film has pulled off in recent memory. Shyamalan accomplished this in three steps:

  • The marketing campaign
  • The story and tone of the first two acts of the movie
  • The actual third act twist

This should go without saying, but I am about to utterly, hopelessly spoil The Visit. If that’s something that will bother you, perhaps you should try something else?

Step One: “There’s Something Wrong with Nana and Pop Pop”

The marketing for The Visit was the most important element in constructing the architecture for the twist. It all starts with the trailer.

Almost anything would seem scary edited like this and set to scary music…

The key point of the trailer is Becca’s plea to her mom: “there’s something wrong with Nana and Pop Pop”. Oh yes, there’s something wrong with Nana and Pop Pop — did you see her scurrying after Becca in what must be an evidence dungeon? Unraveling that mystery will surely be the plot of the movie. Are they aliens? Pod people? Possessed? Perhaps they are the last real people in a town occupied by supernatural forces? What devilry is at play here and how spooky can M. Night Shayamalan make it?

All of the marketing was pitched at this level. The Visit is a straight up horror movie, folks, listed with the likes of Insidious and Sinister. Old people doing weird things are scary. Blood-covered knick knacks and threatening cookiesare odd and make you feel weird. Horror movie. Got it.

Step Two: “Swerve, Girl”

Being primed with this high-octane marketing, I was prepared for some nightmare fuel. What I got was a pretty charming, wistful and at times uproariously funny dramedy… at least for the first hour and ten minutes.

Tyler (played by Ed Oxenbould) is a pretty typical thirteen year-old boy, although he is an amateur rapper and shows off his skills on no less than three occasions, impressing even Nana and Pop Pop (played by Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan). Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is a cinematic auteur of the highest, or at least most pretentious, order, with qualities reminiscent of the heroine of another found footage film.

With Becca, Shyamalan has found more than adequate shoulders for this found footage conceit. Becca and Tyler’s mother, Paula (played wonderfully by Kathryn Hahn), ran out on her parents at nineteen to be with their biological father and has been estranged from them ever since. Their dad subsequently left them for a barista in Palo Alto and the family has never recovered. Finally, after all these years, Paula’s folks want to see their grandchildren, even if there seems to be no room for rapprochement with Paula herself.

Becca decides to stretch her directorial skills by documenting the visit and trying to engineer “the elixir”: a moment of catharsis and forgiveness that will repair the relationship between Paula and her parents and bring the family back together again. And her naive attempts at Sarah Koenig-esque interview set-ups and use of words like “focal length” and mise-en-scene come off simultaneously annoying and endearing. We don’t know what it was that so fundamentally broke the relationship between Paula and her parents — Nana breaks into hysterics every time Becca brings up any specific moments from her past — and Becca has made it her mission to try to discover it and put right what once went wrong.

This ninety degree swerve from the marketing seems like it must be the twist. A more subtle and interesting twist than Shyamalan has ever constructed before. And for the first two acts, it is. When placed in their proper context, most of the shots from the trailer are either funny or sad, but most are not actually all that scary. Yes, Nana chases Becca under the house, but it’s actually hide and seek. Yes, Becca and Tyler are supposed to stay in their room at night, but it’s because Nana has a sleep walking condition. And yes, the stove thing happens, but the way it plays out is perhaps unnerving but it is definitely not scary.

This subversion of expectations was a brilliant play on its own — but it also serves as misdirection. Once you’re bought into the movie, you follow Becca and Tyler trying to understand Nana and Pop Pop, their mother and the increasingly unusual events that occur at their grandparent’s farm.

The movie goes out of its way to take us down every imaginable explanation before it finally gives away the big secret. Is Nana afflicted with a degenerative mental condition? Is Pop Pop hiding something in the shed? Are they just lonely old people experiencing normal alienation from the world? Is there a white monster with yellow eyes that Pop Pop saw at work that is still haunting them? Whatever it is, it definitely has something to do with that well, right…

 Moments before this shot, Tyler runs back and forth imitating Nana’s sleep walking behavior. It’s pretty funny.

Moments before this shot, Tyler runs back and forth imitating Nana’s sleep walking behavior. It’s pretty funny.

Whatever is wrong with Nana and Pop Pop comes to a head when Nana discovers a camera Becca and Tyler planted to see what’s going on at night. This somehow triggers Nana and she grabs a kitchen knife and unsuccessfully tries to break into Becca and Tyler’s room. The kids see this footage and decide that this is too much for them and they have to leave early, although Becca does finally walk Nana through giving her the “elixir” by constructing a make believe story that Nana can fill in with details. It’s the emotional center of the movie as Becca gets Nana to finally forgive Paula. It really seems like there shouldn’t be much more movie left, except for the fact that there’s over twenty minutes remaining.

Step Three: “They’re Hiding Something”

The trailer did give away a key element of the twist: did you notice that the webcam on Becca and Tyler’s computer is covered with something in some of the shots?

Seriously now, I’m about to spoil everything.

Nana “accidentally” covered it with adhesive oven cleaner the day the kids arrived. Becca brushed it off as one of the numerous benign gerontological quirks of Nana and Pop Pop that Tyler found more troubling. Until the last twenty minutes of the movie, Paula couldn’t see her kids or her parents. Becca managed to scrub the webcam clean Friday morning after she and Tyler decided to leave early. Upon finally seeing them, Paula reveals exactly what’s wrong with Nana and Pop Pop: she doesn’t recognize them.

At last, months of marketing and an hour and ten minutes of at times funny, at time tense plot come together. The audience feels the same sinking feeling that Becca, Tyler and Paula feel when it all clicks into place. A man in my theater summed it up perfectly:

“Holy shit! They’re not their grandparents!”


Yes, “Nana” and “Pop Pop” are mental patients from the facility that Becca and Tyler’s real grandparents volunteered at. They murdered the real grandparents, set up shop on the farm and have been masquerading as them the whole time. Now, every single scene, every interaction, every word that “Nana” and “Pop Pop” uttered in the first seventy minutes is cast in a wholly new and deeply disturbing light. The final twenty minutes contains its own disturbing moments and genuine horror as Becca and Tyler have to wait for their mother and the police to show up at the remote farm house while they are forced to play Yahtzee with two deranged strangers.

The genius of this set up is the misdirection. Since the audience was expecting a horror movie and got a dramedy, our minds were totally on board for believing any and all explanations for the odd behavior of Nana and Pop Pop. This is one of the few times when the trailer definitely did not spoil the movie, but was central to making the twist work. Going in cold with only the knowledge that this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you might be suspicious of Nana and Pop Pop from the beginning since you are no doubt expecting a twist. Setting us up with the horror-soaked trailer and marketing campaign and then immediately pulling the rug out with the charming and believable performances and touching story of family reconciliation was masterful and made the actual twist much more satisfying.

As I said, this is not M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie, nor is it the best horror movie of the year. But it is an absolutely fun ride and a return to form for Shyamalan after so many recent missteps. He plays his audience like an instrument from the marketing to the story all the way through to the end credits. Which you should watch as they contain a rap summary of the events of the film from Tyler (aka T Diamond Stylus). I told you I was going to spoil everything, didn’t I?

The Space Between Terrible and Good

Sinister 2 is currently sitting at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the worst reviewed horror films of 2015. The critical consensus is that it was ‘slapdash’ and not very scary. I agree that Sinister 2's story is somewhat of a mess, but it has plenty of good scares — of both the psychological and jump varieties — and it is a mistake to lump it together with the rest of the 2015 horror genre flops.

The Good

Although Sinister 2 is a sequel (insert hyperbolic criticism of sequelitis here), it actually takes the story and the ideas from its predecessor and extends them in a mostly logical way. For all the praise I’ve given the Paranormal Activity franchise in other places, it is mostly variations on a theme. Like the Saw franchise, they are formulaic exercises in set ups and pay offs. Sinister 2 does not escape this. Yes, there are 8mm snuff films. Yes, there is a twist-er-roo in who is the murderer. And yes, Bughuul pops out in the last frame to tuck you in and give you a good night jump scare. But Sinister 2 takes those formulaic elements and adds to them and even subverts them.

While most of the plot of Sinister was spent trying to unravel the mystery of the disappearing children — spoilers: they did it the whole time — Sinister 2 dispenses with the misdirection immediately and assumes you know the rules of the game. The spectral child thralls of Bughuul bedevil the mild-mannered Dylan and we follow him as they explain the initiation process that we must presume Ellison Oswalt’s little girl Ashley went through in the previous film. Dylan must watch the ‘offerings’ of the previous children in the murderous chain letter after which he will then be tasked with adding his own stanza.

Some reviews dismiss this focus on process as uninteresting and claim it makes the creepy children less scary as they are bumped up from jump scare fodder to actual players. But that assumes that little children in horror movies are only good for scares. Milo, the unofficial leader of the Bughuul cultists, serves an important role as the tempter of Dylan and delivers much of the new mythology as well as any child actor can. We see that Dylan is indeed tempted as he is abused by his brother Zach, who can also see the children and is upset that they didn’t choose him. The movie smartly pulls the rug out from under us when Dylan refuses Milo. Milo reveals that their real target was Zach all along and the escalating antagonism was a ploy to anger Zach enough to want to kill his family.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not praise James Ransone as Ex-Deputy So & So (You might think that I was making a clever joke at the expense of Ransone’s character, but, alas…). Elevating the comic relief character from Sinister to leading man could easily have gone terribly. Thankfully, the writers, Cargill and Derricksin, recognize that So & So is basically a Samwell Tarly character. He is not effortlessly brave and daring in the face of danger and watching him struggle with threats both real and supernatural is a treat. So & So and Shannyn Sossamon’s character, Courtney, have a delightful and believable interaction with one another as two broken people just trying to make it in a world that’s out to get them. And, let’s face it, his inherent incompetence is the only thing that makes the ending credible.

The Bad

Sinister 2 hits a lot of common horror movie cliches:

  • Too many jump scares.
  • A tacked on, jump scare ending — Jason Blum seems to be a fan of these.
  • Iffy child acting, although mostly from Dartanian Sloan. His brother, Robert Daniel, is the emotional core of the movie as Dylan and generally pulls off a complicated performance.
  • A trailer that spoils everything (no surprises here).

Most importantly, Sinister 2 is a bit of a mess of a story. It is trying to move So & So forward as the new investigative force, introduce a new family with a lot of emotional backstory, add on to the Bughuul mythology and explore the generational nature of childhood abuse. It’s all too much for a ninety-minute horror flick and it suffers from a lack of focus. Despite these problems, though, it still remains a largely enjoyable ninety minutes, carried mostly by the strength of the performances.

The Bughuuly

I found the underlying themes of abuse and its poisonous effects fairly ham-handed. The first two acts build up to a fever pitch as Sossamon’s Courtney desperately tries to evade the machinations of the mustache-twirling Clint only to lead to a single dinner table scene where Clint shoves mashed potatoes in Dylan’s face. The very next scene, he is immolated on a crucifix by Zach in the big finale.

Speaking of the ‘big finale’, it lasts all of forty seconds before So & So arrives to save the day. And boy does he ever — by driving his SUV straight into Zach. Movie over, right? How could a nine-year-old child survive being struck by a vehicle? Well, that’s unclear, but not only does he get up, he then grabs a sickle and chases So & So, Courtney and Dylan back into the house where they play hide and seek with the ghosts until So & So finally breaks Zach’s Super8 camera, condemning him to death and his sibling to any potential sequels.

Sinister 2 also earns its R rating not just through bloody violence but through cursing. In what is one of its most troubling scenes, the nine-year-old Zach tells Dylan, whom he has just previously given a bloody nose, to ‘fuck off’ and calls his mom a ‘cunt’. Although somewhat reminiscent of the obscenities uttered by Regan in The Exorcist, this was totally unnecessary and served only to cause members of my theater audience to gasp — not in horror but disgust.

There is also an incredibly large number of dropped plots and general puzzlements and oddities throughout Sinister 2. To wit:

  • If So & So burnt down the Oswalt house, where did this new chain come from?
  • Ellison and So & So seem pretty certain that it is leaving the house of the previous victims that triggers the next murder, but now it seems that soaking up enough home videos is the actual vector. Which is it?
  • How did Vincent D’Onofrio’s Professor Jonas die? Was he just doing time on Ryker’s Island…?
  • Why was Dr. Stomberg concerned about talking to So & So about Bughuul on the phone?
  • What on earth did Stomberg’s recording of the ‘Norwegian hell call’ have to do with anything? Is this a set up for a sequel?
  • Were the ghost children carrying out Bughuul’s orders or did they have their own motives?

Finally, for some reason the writers took their arguably questionable 8mm film conceit — how are the parents of these kids not wondering where they got such an unusual piece of filmmaking nostalgia? — and added a gramophone to it. This is not a joke. Sinister 3 will presumably require its prepubescent cultists to receive ironic tattoos as Bughuul becomes the hipster boogieman our cultural moment deserves.

The Space Between

Woman in Black 2 was terribleThe Lazarus Effect was terribleThe Gallows was terrible (although there may be a good movie to be found in there somewhere). Sinister 2, while certainly not good, was far from terrible. The characters are strong and likable, the story is a bit of a mess but still enjoyable and the scares are ably directed.

Horror movies shouldn’t get extra credit for clearing such a low bar, but in a genre overrun with actually terrible films and sorely lacking in truly good works, we should recognize the solid entries that occupy the large space between.