Summer of Horror: Part 1 (1920’s)

It’s the Summer of Horror. What this means is that my brother ( and I will be teaming up to tackle a list of horror movies we’ve deemed worthy of our viewing and criticism. For the next several weeks, I will be updating my site to include my ramblings and opinions on horror classics I had yet to see, ranging from different genres and starting with the earliest era of popular horror movies: the 1920’s. The three movies from this section that I watched were Nosferatu (1922), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Rather than reviewing each individual movie, I’ve decided to give my general impression of the three movies as one large example of horror in the 1920’s.

The first movie we watched was Nosferatu, which I was curious about but also hesitant due to its age and infamy as being an “unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. I didn’t expect to actually be entertained by it and was in a purely educational mindset, but I was pleasantly surprised. The imagery was creepy and I was actually involved in the story. The pacing wasn’t painfully slow for a 90 year old movie, but there were some noticeable lulls.

After watching Phantom of the Opera, the limitations of Nosferatu became much more apparent. Phantom just appeared so much more polished, even though it was made only 3 years later. For example, the music in Nosferatu was horrendous and really distracted from the atmosphere. Often, during a particularly morbid part of the story, the accompanying music would be bright and chipper like what you might hear in a Disney cartoon. Along with this, the editing was inconsistent. Being a silent movie, the only way for the audience to know what’s going on is to read the intermittent dialogue on the screen, but often one sentence would appear on the screen for 15-20 seconds whereas a whole paragraph would disappear after only ten seconds or so. It’s things like these which I chalked up to growing pains as Nosferatu belongs to the very beginning generation of horror movies. However, Phantom of the Opera didn’t have any of these problems. In fact, presentation-wise, Phantom seemed to have aged the most gracefully; the mood was only enhanced by the image of the old, grainy footage and the music was spectacular of course. Also, not having ever seen any version of The Phantom of the Opera, the story kept me engaged throughout.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was the last movie I watched from the 1920’s, and after seeing it, I felt more at liberty to admit that Nosferatu seemed inappropriately choppy. Again, the editing and sound issues weren’t at all apparent in Caligari, which is in fact 2 years older than Nosferatu. The imagery in Caligari is downright disturbing at times and I found myself thinking about it hours after having watched it. It’s that kind of very atmospheric movie that really sits with you for a while after it’s over. 

One question which was continuously batted around between my brother and I during the viewing of all three movies was: “what’s going on?” As can be expected from such an early and unexplored art form at the time, the narrative backbone just felt weak. Major turning points in the plot would occur within seconds and in such a nonchalant fashion that you could miss the climax of the movie just by taking a sip of your drink. 

It was really interesting seeing what is essentially the beginning of horror. I’m aware that there are one or two horror movies just a few years senior, but the roots of my favorite genre of film were still present in each of these films, which are often considered hallmarks of their generation. For movies of a genre so different and controversial to a still blooming industry, I’m happy to say that the 80-90 year old seeds of all of my favorite modern movies are in fact unexpectedly entertaining and even quite scary at times. 



Look out for a rundown of four Universal horror classics, coming in the next few weeks. 

Review: Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

When I asked my brother if he wanted to see Texas Chainsaw 3D with me, he asked “Is it just an old movie that’s been re-released in 3D, or is it actually a new movie?” I let him know that it is in fact a new movie with a new plot and characters. After having seen the movie, I told him I had changed my answer. While Texas Chainsaw 3D is indeed new in the sense that it was filmed presumably some time last year with a new crew and actors, it lacks originality, uniqueness and ultimately, a point. That being said, it managed to work in a few cheap scares and even a bit of suspense, barely failing to create any desire to see it again.

The opening sequence sets the stage for this secondhand flick as we’re treated to scenes from the original film by Tobe Hooper, with nifty 3D effects added to the opening credits. I found it to be an odd choice that they didn’t simply include a few seconds of highlights from the film, but rather about 5 to 10 minutes worth of rehashed footage. Afterwards, the actual movie begins with just about the most stock group of horror-movie-young-adults gathering together to visit the inherited estate of our main character, Heather. Not long after, the killing begins, making up for lost time spent watching the recycled opening sequence.

While I’m on my soapbox, I’d like to bring to attention some of the more glaring technical problems with the film, particularly in consistency. The original film was released in 1974 and the story took place in the present (1973-1974). In Texas Chainsaw 3D, the story follows Heather, a woman who by no stretch of the imagination is over 26 (which is the age of the actress). Well, our Heather is revealed in the beginning of the movie to be an infant who was present during the events of the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, making her at least 38 years old. Further, this would mean Leatherface is somewhere in his 60s or 70s. What’s worse is that I’m not just assuming the movie takes place in 2012; the year is shown at an extreme closeup on a grave stone within the first ten minutes of the movie, not to mention the presence of the iPhone 4, which the cop uses as a flashlight and camera to navigate through a house. Unacceptable.

To avoid ruining any surprises (which there are very few), all I’ll say is that the story is stale. You have Leatherface, you have a group of deserving young adults, and you have a few walls in between them. There is a semi-twist at the end, but it’s underwhelming and creates more problems than it solves.

Beyond the dull premise and a couple narrative roadblocks, the film throws a few surprises in the scare department and manages to get a jump or two out of the audience. There were a few cheap scares, which automatically force me to subtract a point or two in quality from my book. However, most of the time when you jump, you’re jumping because a guy with a chainsaw is running full force toward the camera, which is good. The acting leaves a lot to be desired though, which doesn’t at all contribute to the effectiveness of the movie. Here, even Leatherface just seems like he’s made for TV.

If I haven’t completely turned you away from this movie yet, I’d still say wait for the DVD release and rent it. Don’t expect anything new or even a solid, complete movie, but it can be a fun time if you’re with friends just looking to kick back and watch some blood. As the 3D does little more than project a torture device toward your face here and there, you wouldn’t be crazy for waiting for the Red Box release.


Review: V/H/S

Earlier this year, word began to spread about another so-called “scariest movie ever”, which, unconditionally, attracts my attention to an obsessive degree. About ten grueling months later, the movie finally achieved a national release and I excitedly rushed out and got my hands on V/H/S, despite lukewarm critical reception. While I was kept thoroughly entertained through the duration of V/H/S and will likely watch it again, its inconsistency in quality and sometimes far-fetched concept place this film just a notch above “guilty pleasure”.

The movie is an anthology of “found footage” which is discovered when a group of criminals is sent to retrieve a v/h/s tape from an apparently empty house. The overarching story is pieced together between the mini-movies and involves the group of criminals dividing into separate locations in the house to search for the tape more effectively. Meanwhile, the body of a man is found in front of a powered-on television with a v/h/s tape already in it, which the criminal decides to sit back and enjoy. We then see five short horror films, each attached to different directors, which may be the reason for the lack of consistency in the quality of the film as a whole.

Once part one ended, I was pleasantly surprised and had high hopes for the remainder of the film. It was fun, fast-paced, cleverly directed and best of all, scary as hell. However, I’m still wondering if my enjoyment at all was encouraged by the fact that I hated every one of the characters with a deep and fiery passion. It’s always a bad sign when you’re not really sure who you want to win; the evil, flesh-eating monster or the college kids who like to go around ripping shirts of women in public and tearing apart abandoned houses.

V/H/S never fails to amuse, but the effectiveness of the anthology diminishes significantly after part one, and never seems to recover. However, each short film is unique and the concept is truly successful in keeping the audience’s attention, as it’s kind of difficult to become bored when an entirely new story begins every twenty minutes.

I was left hoping for more cohesiveness between the different stories. It was very apparent that they were each fronted by a different personality. For example, the question “why is this being recorded?” was satisfyingly answered in part one by use of the hidden camera eye glasses which were worn to capture women having sex. Again, the implementation of Skype in part 4 to give reason for the footage we are watching was acceptable. But the rest of the time, I was left completely disconnected from the experience because no one in their right mind would continue recording themselves being chased around by a possessed exorcist.

I won’t delve too much further into the plots of each individual story and I’ve attempted to reserve such mysteries for my reader’s enjoyment, because there really is a lot to enjoy. The bad guys (and girls) are scary, the pacing is brisk but suspenseful, and it’s still rare to find a horror movie with a rating above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s worth checking out. It’s only a shame that they couldn’t have tied together the anthology any more cleverly and kept the audience from wanting to kill the victims themselves.



Review: Paranormal Activity 4

Ah, Paranormal Activity… so, we’ve come to this. You’ve finally become that horror franchise that continues to release annual installments in your name, without so much creativity as the successive numbers placed at the end of the title. In this tradition, you are the successor to the Saw series and in many ways you’ve trumped that franchise by proving that you can scare the daylights out of people without spilling a drop of blood, and that two sequels in, you can still provide quality material. Unfortunately, the third sequel, Paranormal Activity 4, not so much shows its age as it just doesn’t try anymore.

Back in 2009, the words “paranormal activity” brought anxiety into me. The brilliantly crafted indie sleeper hit rushed its way into theaters and nightmares like a tidal wave. Within weeks of its unexpected release, people everywhere were talking about how it was “the scariest movie ever”. I am confident in saying that personally, I wouldn’t begin to argue with that statement. Three years later, original director Oren Peli has handed the directorial gloves to Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who were also responsible for last year’s Paranormal Activity 3.

The film begins with a recap of the events from the second movie and reminds us that the possessed Katie has abducted her nephew, Hunter, and that their whereabouts remain unknown. Skip to 2011, and we’re introduced to a brand new family very similar to the other families we’ve seen in the series. Especially remarkable is the comparison between the second film’s teenage girl and boyfriend, and this film’s teenage girl and boyfriend; they look alike, sound alike, and both represent the rightfully suspicious character in the films.

The writing here is as sharp as ever, and this film is probably the funniest of the series. This is what’s most intriguing here: the script is great, the characters are strong, the acting is superb as usual and the plot advances appropriately in comparison to the other films, so why isn’t it scary? One reason is that their new gimmick of explaining why everything is being recorded is pretty weak. In the second film, everything was being recorded through security cameras, in the third film it was home movies, and in the fourth one it’s a bunch of laptops. Not very inventive. Also, both previous sequels introduced a new gimmick to enhance and create new scares, such as the ingenious idea to mount a camera on an oscillating fan in the third film. Here, we get the Xbox Kinect. Anyone who has seen the trailer knows exactly to what extent they are going to take advantage of this technology, and trust me, they don’t go any further.

While the plot now involves the mystery behind the possible inclusion of Katie and Hunter, it is essentially the same concept as all of the other films: there’s a demon following around someone, they don’t listen, bad things happen. Where the similarities between Paranormal Activity 4 and its predecessors end is in tactical suspense. What made Paranormal Activity such an engrossing experience was its slow build-up of suspense that eventually led to overwhelming dread, and what the newest installment tends to rely on is shock and fake-out scares.

The first time I saw Katie get pulled off of her bed and dragged down the stairs, I was paralyzed with fear. While this was certainly shocking, it wasn’t the event alone that contributed to its effectiveness. It was the powerful snowballing of tension that was so carefully created through smartly-paced storytelling. And that’s exactly why I don’t blame the dip in quality on the age of the series, and instead on laziness. Rather than coming up with a unique new way to scare audiences, we are subjected to the same, tired old tricks that we’ve now seen too many times. While I realize that this review is on the more critical side of popular opinion, it has been written with sincerity from a true fan who hopes that this is a momentary pitfall and possibly even the setup for a greater, more hauntingly satisfying movie.


Review: Sinister

Every Halloween season, a slew of horror movies arrive at our theaters. Usually, there are one or two satisfying ones and a whole bunch of awful ones. The new ghost story from Scott Derrickson, director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the producers of the Paranormal Activity films just barely makes the cut for the “satisfying” category, making it the first one of its kind this season to make wide theatrical release. Where it doesn’t necessarily shine in originality, Sinister makes up for in genuinely haunting frights and one of the most terrifying-looking entities in recent horror history.

The opening scene wastes no time establishing the disturbing setting of the movie. What we’re exposed to immediately is the scene of six people hanging by their necks from a tree, shot through super 8 film. For such a simple scene, it really is dreadful to watch, in a good way. The best part was the deadening silence which abruptly overtook the previously chit-chatting, Friday night movie theater audience. Well played, Sinister.

Other than the first scene, Sinister’s exposition is about as stock and familiar as horror movie beginnings get. We’re introduced to Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a struggling novelist trying to reclaim the success he achieved from his first novel, written ten years prior. Seeking inspiration for his new true-crime novel, Ellison decides to move him and his family into a suspiciously cautious neighborhood, where he is immediately warned by locals to leave and never come back. Needless to say, if it weren’t for the opening scene, I’d be snoring by this point.

We soon find out that the house where he has moved his family into is actually the same one where the hangings from the first scene took place. While Ellison is looking through his new attic, he finds a miscellaneous box of super 8 film and decides to project one of them against his wall. Here, we once again see the scene of the hanging from the beginning of the movie. Rightfully disturbed, Ellison watches the other films in the box and begins to make connections between them all, based on a horrifying figure obscured in different ways in each film. The first sight of our monster is truly shocking and demonstrates the capacity of ingenuity the visual effects department possesses.

The characters in Sinister aren’t one of its strong suits. You have Ellison (the dad), the mom, and the kids, one of which starts drawing creepy images on the wall that relate to the videos, because as any horror fan knows by now, kids have a stronger connection to the supernatural than adults… whatever. Then there’s the comic relief, manifested in the form of an awkward deputy and fan of Ellison’s work. Please take the phrase “comic relief” with a grain of salt. A comedy writer, Scott Derickson is not.

The movie builds up suspense in a fashion similar to Paranormal Activity, where you know that something awful is going to happen, but you don’t know what exactly that will be. Every night, the setup to the following scare is Ellison watching another one of the films he found, and the established routine of events is effective because every night the events get bigger and scarier.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t expand quite enough to warrant further explication. Scene after scene reminds us why movies like The Ring, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were so popular. While they weren’t all the very first of the their kind, they certainly weren’t massively overdone at the time of their release. Without preparing, I could probably drum up a solid ten movies that follow closely the structure, and even the story of Sinister.

Thankfully, when Sinister does shine, it shines brightly in its effective sequences of creative scares and visually frightening antagonists, and if those elements were enough to keep the eyes open of a horror fan as desensitized to the modern horror movie bag-of-tricks as myself, I’d say it’s worth seeing.


About me

I thought long and hard about creating a blog, conflicted about whether or not I wanted to allow myself to be technically identified as a “blogger”. So, the only thing I could think of to give myself justification is to create a “blog” that is exclusively dedicated to the most awesome and non “bloggy” thing there is: horror movies.

I write semi-weekly reviews for horror movies in my university’s newspaper, and since I realized people are using the school’s newspaper more for cleaning out the inside of their windshield, I figured I would publish my thoughts through a more public source. 

Since I was very young, the scrutinizing viewing of just about every horror movie to come out in theaters and that I could get my hands on at a video store was something I took pride in, probably because no one else cared so much about horror movies. However now, here for your pleasure, are those very thoughts laid out for you to determine which horror movies you should see in theaters, wait for to come out on DVD, or forget that ever existed. Enjoy!