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.
Ever briefly get stuck in an elevator thats messing with you, malfunctioning and seems to almost have a mischievous mind of its own? That’s the premise of Down, also known as The Shaft. It concerns an elevator in a huge residential/office building that has gone homicidally haywire. It traps, drops and tricks people no end, raising and lowering the interior temperature to dangerous effect and generally just being a great big meanie. No one seems so know what’s going on with it though, especially the mechanic who installed it (Twin Peak’s James Marshall). The incidents accumulate, attracting a perky tabloid reporter (Naomi Watts having a ball) who makes up all kinds of tall tales to explain the situation in sensationalistic terms. This infuriates the CEO of the elevator company (now there’s a job title) played by a snarky Ron Perlman who gets a rant towards Marshall that walked in from a way better script (which leads me to believe it was the spawn of Perlman’s legendary improv skills). There’s also a cop played by Dan Hedeya who can’t seem to figure it out wither. The truth is a lot more interesting than you might expect and has nothing to do with ghosts or spirits at all, but centers around a deranged research scientist (Michael Ironside, whacked out to kingdom come). It’s not the least bit scary, but it’s worth a watch simply for the fact that it’s a movie about a fucking elevator that kills people lol. Cujo and Christine ain’t got nothing on this bitch. The scene where a gaggle of pregnant ladies enter the thing is just priceless in its blatantly gross out manner. Fun, fun stuff and great research to embarrass Watts with sometime down the road if you ever find yourself interviewing her on the red carpet hehe.
Haunted is an atmospheric, valiant yet frustratingly uneven ghost story effort, in the tradition of stuff like The Awakening and The Haunting. If the plot seems close to last year’s Crimson Peak, it’s because it is, and I’d bet that Del Toro had this forgotten entry in mind when he embarked on that journey. I say frustrating because there’s a certain few absolutely terrific moments of gothic horror that truly shiver your timbers, but they’re hopelessly mired in a mucky moor of a plot that unfortunately is not as effective as those key scenes. You David Ash is rough housing around wit his sister in the English countryside when she hits her head on a rock, and drowns in the pond below. He grows up soaked in guilt, dedicated to disproving the existence of paranormal phenomena. As an adult he’s played by Aiden Quinn, who is an average dude with slightly wild looking eyes who is always effective in the sense that he seeks out challenging, odd projects which test his everyday aura nicely. In the early 1900’s he is summoned back to rural Britain by an elderly woman (Anna Massey) who is convinced that she is surrounded by ghosts. He is greeted there by the luminous, attractive Christina (Kate Beckinsale), a friendly young thing with a distinct untrustworthy vibe and a penchant for getting creepy close with her two strange brothers (Anthony Andrews and Alex Lowe). She lives out there in isolation with them as well as their disturbed mother, and one gets the sense right off the bat that something is wonky. I suppose that’s the point though isn’t it? Beckinsale has carved a path of playing either somber, distraught women or tough, silent warrior chicks. This is the most animated work I’ve ever seen from her, and the most radiant she’s ever looked as well. It’s aslso to date the only nude scenes she’s ever put forth, and I don’t use the term lightly… she really bares it all here. The middle portion of the film meanders around with these characters, not revealing enough to push the plot forward enough, until the curtain is whisked away jarringly in the third act, cementing it’s pacing issues for good. It’s a picturesque enough journey, I just wish we had something to latch onto besides that, some substance and a consistency in the creepiness factor to keep us invested. Alas. It’s got a spookily wonderful beginning, and an electric, full blooded ending, the only two instances where it shows true feeling and commitment. The rest is, well… stale. It’s worth a peek for a few reasons though, including Beckinsale’s solid performance and that one uber-scary scene in the opener.
Mutant Chronicles is a solid gem, as both a b movie and a legit exercise in bloody high concept fantasy. It’s got a sci fi vibe meshed nicely together with a grinding steam punk sensibility, and it’s pure visceral gold. The vague plot, as I best remember it: Some form of extraterrestrial intellegience takes up residence deep within the earth’s core, using a gigantic machine to turn humans into mindless, rabid killing machine with nasty, pokey, king crab looking things for limbs. The warring corporations who control the remaining resources on the planet commission a crew of dirty dozen style bad asses to venture deep into the earth, stopping the mutants and their makers, and silencing the evil contraption forever. Thomas Jane is Major Mitch Hunter, the stoic tough guy leading the group with grit and guts. He’s also searching for his missing superior officer Nathan Rooker (Sean Pertwee). Along with him is strong, silent monk Brother Samuel (Ron Perlman), his mute daughter (Anna Walton), and other assorted warriors including Benno Furmann and Devon Aoki. That’s pretty much all you get for a plot. The rest is screaming zombie esque hordes that ambush them at every turn and provide especially grisly action set pieces. There’s a really impressive journey in a rickety spaceship that looks like a cross between a hot air balloon and a toaster, and a cameo from an extremely bored looking John Malkovich. Jane and Perlman use their tough guy charisma to bring the story to life, and the special effects are pretty damn cool. This one has bite, imagination and buckets of gore, particularly in a frenetic finale deep within the earth’s interior. Great stuff.
Before John Carpenter’s Halloween, there was Black Christmas, and no it’s not a Tyler Perry holiday special. It’s a slick little slasher set in a 1970’s sorority house during Christmas break, when many of the girls have gone home. Suddenly mysterious phone calls start to plague the ones still there, and one by one a murderous, unseen prowler starts to murder them. The phone calls themselves aren’t overly threatening, but instead sound like the nonsensical babbling of someone who is a couple reindeer short of a sleigh, making them all the scarier. I remember watching this years ago and being far more creeped out at the phone calls rather than the actual murders. That is a perfect example of using atmosphere to get under your audience’s skin rather than straight up gore, and a testament to the fright films of the 70’s and 80’s, which really seemed to have all the atmosphere vs. gore dials in the right positions. This positively drips with tension and ambience. The silences in between screams are almost deafening in their vacuous anticipation of terror to come, and strange as it sounds, there’s actually a nice Christmas-y feeling in places where the fear hasn’t yet struck, despite it being a horror movie. Olivia Hussey plays Jess, the main target of the killer with appropriate wide eyed intensity, Margot Kidder is briefly seen as the house mother, and horror regular John Saxon shows up as a suspicious Police Chief as well. I’d say this one achieves a state of suspense and atmosphere that can step up to the same plate as Halloween any day, it’s just a little overlooked I suppose. The house they are in is the perfect setting, a sprawling Yuletide manor of creaky hallways, desolated basements, dark, dingy attic space and an uneasy thrum of awaiting gloom that gives the words Silent Night a new meaning. The poor girls just never know when a shrill telephone ring will slice through the eerie corridors, forcing them to answer it and hear an unnerving voice warble out “It’s me, Billy” on the other end.
PS: avoid the remake at all costs. It takes everything that was creepy and restrained about this classic and turns it into a disgusting nightmare.
David Lynch’s Lost Highway is a fuzzy, feverish portrait of a fractured mind attempting to make sense of extremely distressing circumstances that are both alienating and possibly self inflicted. Lynch is always keen on probing the cerebrally murky waters which border on the potentially paranormal occurrences, and the often frustrating line, or lack thereof, which is drawn in, around and between these two aspects. Psychological terror, ambiguous scenes that leave you scratching your head once you’ve caught your breath, identity crisis, elliptical narratives that leave us haunted and wanting more are all tools in his bag, ones he’s employed countless times throughout his monolithic career. Usually he implements that in an esoteric, earthy way, but there’s something cold, clinical and unsettlingly voyeuristic about this that somewhat separates it from a lot of other stuff he’s done. The term ‘Lynchian’ in itself has become its own genre, there’s no debating that anymore. It’s usually within this self made genre that he explores, but it’s almost like with this one he went in with a mindset to play around with a sordid, almost De Palma-esque style of genre, and then inject it with his trademark eerie weirdness, in this case to great effect. Bill Pullman stars as jazz trumpet player Fred, spending his nights belting out unnerving solos in smoky clubs. Pullman is an all American prototype, seen in a lot of generic, regular Joe roles. Seeing him venture into sketchy material is jarring and super effective (see his career best work in David’s daughter Jen Lynch’s Surveillance for an even better example of this). He and his gorgeous wife (Patricia Arquette) wake up one ominous morning to discover a packaged video tape on their doorstep, the contents of which show someone breaking into their house and filming them while they sleep. They feel both horrified and violated, and call the police who prove to be just south of useful. From there things get terrifically weird. Fred attends a party where he meets the Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who plays a mean spirited magic trick on him that will have your skin crawling out the door. This was one of Blake’s last two roles before the unfortunate incident that cut his career painfully short, but he’s perfect for Lynch’s stable and eats up the frames he inhabits, a pasty faced ghoul with beady black jewels for eyes and a piercing laugh that will stain your psyche for years. Before he knows it, Fred wakes up and is accused for his own wife’s murder, whisked away to a dank death row cell, plummeting the film into a new segment, Lynch’s way of letting us know this isn’t going to be an easy watch. Fred wakes up sometime later… And isn’t Fred anymore. He’s a young lad with amnesia whose been missing for a while, played by edgy Balthazar Getty. It’s a stark left turn for the plot to take, a stinging reminder that from there on out, we’re in for some nasty antics with no light at the end of the tunnel. Getty is released from prison, since he’s not Pullman who they arrested to begin with. From there he gets entangled in a hot mess of a subplot involving a volatile gangster (Robert Loggia), his seductive wife (also Patricia Arquette) and the ever present Mystery Man who lurks over both planes of the film’s narrative. I’m trying to be deliberately vague about the plot (lord knows Lynch did as well), both to not spoil any surprises for you, and partly because after many viewings, I’m still not sure exactly what it means for myself. It’s a great big clusterfuck of extremely disturbing sequences, surreal passages of auditory and visual madness and a frothing undercurrent of atmosphere that constantly pulls on your sleeve to remind you that something is terribly wrong, but never gives you the solace of telling you what that something is. Traumatic viewing to say the least. Lynch assembles an extraterrestrial supporting cast including Michael Massee, Jack Nance, Natasha Gregson Warner, Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins, Mink Stole, Jack Kehler, Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Pryor and the one and only Gary Busey (when Gary is one of the calmest, sanest people in your movie you know you’ve driven off the cliff). Some highlights for me are anything to do with Blake’s paralyzing spectre of a character who is one of the best Lynch creations ever, Loggia intimidating an obnoxious driver is priceless and the closest the film gets to comedy, and the final twenty minutes where the lines of reality, fantasy and the jagged planes of perception within the characters minds collide, providing us with a creepy non-resolution, part of what makes the entire show so memorable and affecting. A classic that begs countless re-watches before it can fully cast all aspects of its spell on you, and one of Lynch’s unsung best.