ParaNorman is a film that’s just about as close to perfect as you can get. Released by a low profile studio called Laika that specializes in gorgeously crafted stop motion animation adventures, this one has the irresistible flavour of retro Universal Studios monster movies put to use in a smart, engaging story full of well written characters, maturely imparted themes and wonderful pathos. Young Norman (Kodi Smit McPhee) can see, hear and converse with ghosts, and that generally makes him a bit of an outsider in his town. When the spirit of a deceased relative warns him of some vague impending doom encroaching on the region, it’s up to him and his merry gang including best buddy Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) his ditzy sister (Anna Kendrick), and Neil’s hilarious jock brother (Casey Affleck) to solve the spooky mystery of a centuries old witch who has risen the dead. It’s a brilliantly told story with boundless animation, a sharp script full of subtle, off the cuff humour, heartrending sadness at the core of its narrative and some of the most dazzling animation this side of Burton/Selick. The voice cast is peppered with carefully chosen talent like Jeff Garlin, Bernard Hill, John Goodman, Christopher Mintz Plasse, Leslie Mann, Elaine Stritch, Alex Borstein and more. Jodelle Ferland voices Aggie the witch as a tragic character with the same haunted complexity she brought to the role of Alessa in Silent Hill. Laika studios is also responsible for gems like Coraline, The Boxtrolls, Corpse Bride and last years Kubo & The Two Strings, they are a brilliant bunch who are trailblazing storytelling in exciting new ways. ParaNorman has to be my favourite though, it’s an enthusiastic love letter to golden age horror and an emotionally mature study of what it means to be different, how people react and the damage that can be done simply by not accepting someone for who they are. Trust an animated film to inject themes like that and explore them thoroughly while still having a blast of a fun time. I can’t say enough good things about this film.
Nothing beats the sheer adventurous spirit and eerie primal mythos that fuels Stephen Hopkin’s The Ghost And The Darkness. It’s a go-to comfort movie for me whenever I’m feeling down or stuck inside on a rainy night. It’s like a campfire tale told on a quite windless night on the Serengeti, and like all the best scary stories, this one has roots in fact. In 1898, production of the East Africa Railroad along the Tsavo River was stalled for weeks, the workers suffering repeated attacks from two savage, mysterious lions. Acting against instinct, killing for sport rather than food and disappearing back into the night as quickly as they came, they were so ferocious and relentless that locals gave the eerie nicknames “the ghost and the darkness.” The story has film written all over it, and Hopkins chooses the swashbuckling, Universal style horror route, and an irresistible tone. Val Kilmer, in his heyday, plays Patterson, an engineer sent by the boorish railroad tycoon Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson, chewing scenery like steak) to speed up production and pick up the slack in order to finish ahead of schedule. Not on the lions watch. He’s scarcely arrived when they begins their endless tirade of horrific attacks, forcing him to trust in the skills of leathery game hunter Remington (Michael Douglas), sort of like Van Helsing crossed with Indiana Jones. The film clocks in under two hours but it seems longer somehow, like we’re stuck with them in real time as the hopelessness of the situation sets into our bones, raising the stakes for our hunters and hammering home how terrifying an ordeal like this must be. Casting is on point here, watch for Bernard Hill as the sympathetic camp doctor, the late Om Puri and a brief early career cameo from Emily Mortimer as Patterson’s wife. Occasionally straying into the realm of melodrama is this one’s only fault, for the most part it’s a hair raising, nightmarish account of adventure and terror told with style, packed with atmospheres and primed to get pulses racing.
Matthieu Kassovitz’s underrated chiller Gothika is thick with a horror atmosphere that goes straight for the jugular in terms of scares, a psychological ghost story that actually raises hairs a frightens, or at least did for me. It sometimes sacrifices logic for style, but what style it’s got! Any horror flick set in an asylum just has to to be cloaked in workable atmosphere to be effective, and this one is positively dripping with it, hence the evocative title. Halle Berry plays a laid back psychiatrist who wakes up one day in the asylum she works at, only now a patient. She’s told she brutally murdered her husband (Charles S. Dutton) yet has no memory of the act. As if that weren’t a terrifying enough situation for her to be in, she starts having waking nightmares, haunted by a gnarly ghost of a girl (Kathleen Mackey) with mysterious ties to the facility’s past. Her colleague and friend (Robert Downey Jr. gives the dour proceedings his usual chipper pep) seems unable to help her. A guard (John Carroll Lynch) is hostile towards her, angry at the loss of her husband who was his friend. An erratic fellow patient (a de-glammed Penelope Cruz) seems to know more than her vacuous babbling would suggest. The asylum Director (Bernard Hill, excellent) is perplexed by the whole situation. It’s a twisty funhouse of a plot that probably piles on one stark plot turn too many, they’re nevertheless fun to be left aghast by as the rattle by with little regard for plausibility. Berry is convincing in her tormenting position, radiating desperation and resilience that claws at the cobwebs of insanity. Kassovitz piles on the gothic atmosphere relentlessly, and it really works, until we have a visual palette that looks like the dark underside of Tim Burton’s unconscious mind. The ghostly scenes have a threatening, intense edge to them and feel unnervingly realistic, putting us right in the hot seat with wide eyed Berry. Style over substance? Maybe. Okay, probably. But I care not. If the style, composition and palette are enough to draw me into a story, I can roll with it. This one imprints troubling negatives on the celluloid which latch themselves onto your psyche. Maybe it works well because it’s got a European director, and they’re more in tune with the supernatural in general. Maybe it just does a nice job at being effective horror. Either way, I enjoyed.