Category Archives: horror
“Horror is always the same. It just changes with the culture and changes with the technology. The stories are always the same. There are just two basic stories in horror, two simple ones – evil is outside and evil is in here [pointing to his heart]. That is basically it.”
The Innkeepers (2012), the newest horror movie from director Ti West, combines the world view of Kevin Smith’s landmark working-class comedy Clerks (1994) with the precise visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s glacial, blood-freezing The Shining (1980) and emerges, rather commendably, as a new genre masterpiece.
West’s previous film, House of the Devil (2008) was one of the finest horror films of its year because West slowly, methodically, and determinedly generated an atmosphere of escalating, suffocating tension and anxiety. He repeats that accomplishment to great effect in The Innkeepers, unexpectedly transforming what could easily be a shaggy dog story into an impressive character piece that reminds the audience of the fact that we’re all connected, and that death is inevitable.
That very vibe has been picked up, developed, and updated well in The Innkeepers, particularly in the depiction of the two lead characters: hotel clerks at the soon-to-be-closed Yankee Pedlar Hotel. Sara Paxton plays Claire, a fetching young woman of admirable intelligence and wit who is nonetheless wasting time at a dead-end job. She tells a guest in the house she is “between stuff,” and that description suits the character and her ennui perfectly. Claire could indeed write her ticket, if she so chose, but seems to be waiting for something…for a signal, perhaps, that her life should begin in earnest. Her cohort on the job is laconic, vaguely hostile Luke (Pat Healy), an anti-social geek who spends his spare time looking for ghosts in the hotel, and designing a web site related to paranormal activity. Luke has a crush on Claire, even though she is a good deal younger, and is also totally uncommitted to the job at hand.
The Innkeepers does a good job of charting the exigencies of life in the Yankee Pedlar Inn. One scene has Claire wrestling a recalcitrant garbage bag, trying to get it inside a dumpster on the street. The scene might as well serve as a metaphor for life and its inherent frustrations. At times, we all feel like we’re the ones hauling around that messy garbage bag, and not quite getting it where it’s supposed to go.
Other scenes explicitly involve Luke’s anti-social nature. He’s the more distinctly “Randal” component of the duo. He can’t seem to remember to bring his guests their towels, no matter how often he is asked. And worse, he actively insults the guests, revealing his true contempt for them.
Throughout the film, these two clerks banter, drink, and occasionally search for the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, the spirit believed to be haunting the premises. Claire relates to the myth of O’Malley more than even she fully understands. “Imagine how she feels, being stuck here forever?” Claire asks at one point, drawing an explicit comparison between her dead end job and O’Malley’s dead-end afterlife.
What could be worse than spending eternity in the place you died? Perhaps spending eternity in the low-paying job you absolutely hate…
Soon, an element of the unknown enters the clerks’ lives when a new guest, played by Kelly McGillis, stays at the hotel on closing weekend. She’s a dedicated psychic medium, one who believes she can contact the spirit world. More than that, she informs Claire that there is no present, no past, no future, and that all humans — throughout time — share a membrane of connection. Rather dramatically, this psychic, Leanne, reveals to Claire that there are actually three spirits inhabiting the hotel, not one.
She also reveals, incidentally, that Claire should – at all costs – stay out of the basement…
Naturally, since this is a horror movie, Claire does finally go down into the basement, and her decision to defy the medium’s instructions presents the film it’s hair-raising, spellbinding and absolutely scarring climax.
The last ten minutes of the movie are wholly terrifying, and they actually troubled my slumber the night my wife and I screened the film. I’ve heard some people describe the film as boring, but what this comes down to, I suspect, is the kind of horror fan you are. If you’re in it just for the kicks and the gore, The Innkeepers won’t be your cup of tea. It’s too deliberate, too precise (like The Shining) to appeal as a visceral thrill-fest. Oppositely, if you’re into the horror genre because you appreciate a slow burn and spine-tingling suspense, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. This film delivers.
From The Shining and Kubrick, Ti West adopts much of his visual template. The Innkeepers is dominated by long, slow, quiet shots of empty hallways, dark corridors, and vacant rooms. West patiently erects a sense of suspense around these still moments so that when the ghosts “appear” (and boy do they appear…), the feeling of shock is palpable. Also, West breaks up his narrative into separate, almost self-contained ”episodes” (The Long Weekend, Madeline O’Malley and The Final Guest), much in the way Kubrick broke up segments of The Shining to present a sense of routine and boredom; a distinct contrast to the film’s final, violent action.
As much as West masters the inner-space of the gloomy, creepy Yankee Pedlar Hotel, he likewise masters the psychology of his lead characters. Right now, we seem to be on the cusp of another “lost generation,” especially given the Great Recession and the slow recovery.
If you think about it, Clerks really did emerge from an analagous historical context, only there it was the Recession after the first President Bush, rather than the Recession after the second President Bush.
Accordingly, The Innkeepers plays in the uncomfortable terrain of economic uncertainty: of hotel closings and dead-end jobs that you don’t dare quit…because you know there’s nothing else out there. The narrative deals with people who have changed careers (Leanne used to be a TV star), who are losing their jobs (the hotel is closing) and are looking for a second or third act (Luke, with the webs site). The uncertainty of our times plays well with the uncertainty of the film’s text, and you must assume this is exactly what West intended.
Sara Paxton, Paul Healy and Kelly McGillis all do extraordinary jobs of creating quirky, intriguing and most of all, real people in this all-too-familiar context. Paxton and Healy also share some great chemistry, and their scenes together are alive with wit and humor. These clerks of The Innkeepers are – like the immortal Randal and Dante — two people you feel you already know in your life.
Which, of course, makes their ordeal in the film all the more harrowing, and affecting. As it should be.
I would like to write much more about The Innkeepers, but I really shouldn’t. The film’s conclusion is so intelligently wrought, so perfectly executed, that I don’t wish to do the film (or West) the disservice of over-explaining or over-analyzing before many people get to the chance to see the thing.
Suffice it to say that Ti West’s The Innkeepers unfolds with a sense of inevitability that is, simply, mind-blowing. The Innkeepers is a triumph, one of those rare and wondrous horror movies that you must watch twice just to pick up all the clues, and to see how everything holds together. This “ghost story for the minimum wage” impressed me on every level, and and makes me look forward to West’s next film with tremendous excitement.
Unlike Hatchet, Frozen settles down immediately in a well-drawn locale, and Green here reveals a fine eye for detail, nuance, and character. In the first fifteen minutes alone, the director imbues his film with an authentic sense of anticipation and dread.
Because of a simple misunderstanding and shift change, however, the employees at the lodge shut off the ski-lift while the threesome is in mid-passage to the distant summit. The machine grinds to a halt, and the three students become trapped on the lift.
Worse, a storm is coming. If they don’t find a way down from the immobile air-lift (where they sit side-by-side like sardines), they are certain to freeze to death.
Dan suggests jumping to the ground far below, but that avenue carries significant risk of grievous bodily harm…
So forget the colorfully-named Three on a Meathook (1973), this is Three on a Ski-Lift.
While watching Frozen, I was pleasantly reminded of Open Water (2004), another take-no-prisoners horror film about unlucky people attempting to survive in an inhospitable location, in that instance the deep blue sea.
Both films represent the brand of horror film I really and truly admire the most: those which deal explicitly with the cruel application of random fate. As if to suggest the wheels of fate or destiny forever spinning, Green commences his film with close-up views of the ski lift’s whirring, over sized gears. These gears work efficiently and endlessly, but also without consideration for human concerns, these compositions appear to assert. Much like Mother Nature herself.
To put this bluntly, Frozen revolves around the big, unanswered questions of our human existence (and the reason why so many people seek the comfort of religion): why do terrible things happen to us , or to the people we love? How can a seemingly perfect day turn on a dime and become a horrible nightmare? What does it all mean?
Likewise, in Frozen, the three intelligent and likable protagonists could not — at the beginning of the day – have possibly imagined where they would be at the end of the same day. They embark on a rather terrible “wrong turn” and must suddenly reckon with their very mortality. Their previous concerns, which include Joe acquiring and remembering a girl’s telephone number, suddenly seem incredibly trivial. This is a reminder that we take our lives pretty much for granted every single day. We go about our tasks and our hobbies without real regard for the fact that, out of the blue, it could end. The shadow of death is upon us, whether we see and recognize it or not.
As Dan, Lynch and Parker grapple with their rapidly worsening situation on the ski lift, drastic measures eventually become necessary, and it’s fascinating — and terrifying — to watch as they broach such life-and- death decisions. For me, this aspect of Frozen represents the very beating heart of the great horror movie aesthetic. When you separate the genre from its mitigating and ameloriating fantasy elements like vampires, monsters or aliens, this is precisely the equation you’re left with: a palpable recognition and fear of impending death.
The battle for survival is all, and intractable, uncaring nature itself is the enemy. All along, watching a film such as Frozen, the audience meaningfully ponders the idea “there but for the grace of God go I…” because any one of us, could, reasonably speaking, end up in a similarly dangerous situation, forced to make painful choices.
Who is going to live and who is going to die? Is there a pecking order in terms of survival? Who should be the one to jump from the chair?
Even, how am I going to take a piss up here?
One of Frozen’s best and most moving moments involve a character’s final act as he is set upon by a pack of very angry-looking wolves. Without a word, this character pulls his hat down over his eyes so he can’t see what’s coming, and the simple gesture feels very, very real. There’s little else to do in that moment, but to look away from the inevitable. Frozen is unblinking about death, but the film’s human protagonists, appropriately, are not. Again, this gesture is pretty darn metaphorical: we all pull the hat down over our eyes in regards to the fact that we don’t really control nature. Or the fact that one day, for each of us, this ride towards an unknown summit is going to come to an end.
So make no mistake, in reckoning with all of this existentialist angst, Frozen is unrelentingly grim.
The characters in the film inevitably debate the worst way to die, and then even discuss the traumatic horrors of 9/11.
By film’s end, the same characters are contemplating the fact that their pets could very well starve to death if they don’t get down from the lift. It’s not exactly a mood lifter.
The cast in Frozen is pretty terrific, but Shawn Ashmore as Lynch is the stand-out. Early on, we can see that Lynch feels guilty as the “odd man out” when the threesome must decide who should jump from the lift. He doesn’t want to be the one to jump, but it’s clear to him that he should, morally, be the one to do it, since he is not part of the “couple.” This doesn’t mean he does the right thing.
Later, Lynch deals with recriminations over his actions (and lack of action) and recounts some humanizing stories about the lost opportunities in his life. Rarely, if ever, do these revelations feel like the machinations of a writer, but rather like real life human expressions of regret as the end, inevitably, nears. Green utilizes a lot of close-ups to tell his tale which is an appropriate tactic for fostering empathy. We’re clearly meant to sympathize with these protagonists, and Lynch, Dan and Parker are not extraordinary in any particular way. They aren’t heroes and they aren’t assholes who “have it coming.” Instead, they are just like you and me: people who are living their lives, not really thinking about matters such as life and death.
As you probably know by now, I often very much enjoy films that accomplish a lot with only a few resources. The low budget Frozen is basically a three person show occurring in just one setting. But it’s never dull, the ending is never pre-ordained, and Green masterfully sustains tension throughout the full hour-and-a-half running time. This is no small challenge, but Green, in vetting his story well, reminds the viewer how all our lives hang by a thread (or a metal cable, perhaps). Sometimes, we don’t realize that fact until it’s too late.
A note to the squeamish: Frozen is pretty gory. There are only three primary characters, and one scene of intense gore proved so disgusting and upsetting that my (patient) wife actually leapt up from the sofa and refused to sit back down. I had to freeze the movie and literally talk her back down. I had to convince her to watch the rest of the movie with me…and — believe me – it wasn’t easy. My wife’s reaction was absolutely appropriate, of course. Something so awful happens to a truly likable character here that you’ll be tempted to tune out and say “enough’s enough.”
But of course, the chareacters in the drama don’t have that out, do they? Instead, they have a front row seat to a friend’s horrible and violent death, with no opportunity to protest the absolute unfairness of the situation. In exploring that situation — that human truth about our mortality – Frozen proves damned serious business.
After the film, my wife and I debated it rather heatedly. She said Frozen was depressing because it was just about watching nice people suffer and die. I countered that I never find a well-done horror movie about the human condition depressing, because at least it’s about something important: how we face existence and its inevitable end. The films that I find depressing are the ones that don’t mean anything at all; that just waste my time (like Hatchet).
Frozen definitely won’t waste your time. It won’t exactly make you happy, but it won’t waste your time, either.
Creatively-speaking, it grows exponentially more difficult across the long years, to make the same, familiar Bogeyman scary, and so horror franchises routinely lean towards comedy.
The good news is that as observational, gadfly commentator on the Facebook Generation, Scream 4 indeed impresses.
In fact, the psychologically-depraved climax of the film – which features the immortal line “I don’t need friends…I need fans!” – involves the most amusing (and most committed) talking killer in the franchise since Stu and Billy took turns stabbing each other.
Thus the old sting-in-the-tail/tale cliche (in which the killer just…won’t….die) gets resurrected and drawn out to ludicrous extremes here, and — literally – it becomes electrifying. Between the dedicated commentary on a narcissistic youth generation in love with its technological reflection, some timely jokes about celebrity-for-the-sake-of-celebrity (think: The Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, and Paris Hilton), and the audacious, viscerally intense final moments, Scream 4 ends at least, on a high note of ingenuity and wit.
The pace really flags in the film too, in part because Williamson’s “next generation” of victims – a tally that includes Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts, Marielle Jaffe, and Cory Culkin – doesn’t get the screen time that Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, Rose McGowan, Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich did back in the original. As you might guess, this group scares center stage with Cox, Arquette and Campbell, and the final mix is somehow unsatisfying.
On one hand, seeing the hold-overs in action one more time will satisfy long time fans of the franchise. On the other, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future of the Scream films, which need fresh blood. By the end of the movie, we’re essentially back to square one, spending time with the exact three survivors we anticipated at the beginning of the film. By the next sequel (if there is one), the events of this movie will be rendered pointless.
Scream 4 also makes relatively poor use of Dewey, who is so late for all the film’s deadly action – even after notified of an attack by phone — that you’ll want to hurl your remote control at the screen. Comic ineptitude is one thing, but Scream 4′s killer endures for so long mainly because Dewey is conveniently M.I.A. Some folks may also complain about the fact that imperiled teens constantly text and phone one another when they should be focusing on escaping Ghost Face. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this aspect of the sequel, however, since we live in a culture in which people text while driving.
Texting-while-dying is merely the next logical step.
Meanwhile, Sidney’s cousin, Jill, looks to be one of the prime targets of the tag-team killers this time around. Could the culprit be her on-again/off-again boyfriend? A movie-obsessed geek? A new female deputy with the hots for Dewey, or some twisted combination of all of the above?
Then, when the actual story proper begins, the characters in that drama also express themselves in the exact same way.
This famimliar banter may indeed represent the snarky, trademark and staccato back-and-forth of Kevin Williamson’s canon and yet here — with “film within a film” moments coming hot and heavy – the movie simply doesn’t play fair with its surprises.
If every character speaks precisely the same way, dresses precisely the same way, and inhabits the same world of upscale, designer homes, even, how is it even remotely possible to guess which scene occurs in Scream 4 and which is happening in Stab 6 or 7?
The movie-centric riffs — what’s your favorite scary movie? — during that Barrymore sequence did not undercut the suspense or horror in any way. We were convinced of Casey Becker’s reality and the reality of her world, and the horror movie references proved delightful.
By contrast, the rapid-fire scene changes in the opening of Scream 4 (showcasing moments from multiple Stab movies) actively prevent audiences from investing in any one particular character or any one particular horror scenario. Again, you can commend the film for its abundant cleverness while simultanously regretting that it did not set out, once more, to really scare its viewership.
Despite the amped-up levels of gore in the film (a reflection, according to the dialogue, of the “torture porn” age), Scream 4 also noticeably lacks the killer instinct when it comes to the disposition of its long-standing and beloved characters. The film would have been edgier, more unpredictable and perhaps a gerat deal scarier had Craven and Williamson set out to violently and permanently eliminate at least one of the film’s three hold-over stars in the manner that the franchise eliminated Randy (Kennedy) back in 1997.
Now, I love and enjoy Gale, Sid and Dewey as much as the next Scream fan (and yes, I am a Scream fan…) but this new sequel, despite the gore, doesn’t feel as dangerous as perhaps it could. At their best, the Scream movies are cynical, wicked, calculating and heartless. Scream 4 is cynical, wicked and calculating but has too much heart. Bring on the slice and dice!
I must admit that as a longtime horror aficionado it’s almost silly to criticize Scream 4 too deeply, however, because it is, after all, a pretty solid “fourth” entry in a long-lived slasher franchise.
And truthfully, how many of those have we gotten over the years?
(The answer: almost none).
Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and just about any other horror franchise you care to mention certainly couldn’t keep their franchise continuity straight throughout four films, or otherwise maintain film-to-film quality, either.
In other words, Scream 4 is definitely more of the same, but not a blatant or brazen cash grab. With Scream 4, the franchise remembers its history and its metaphorical raison d’etre (social commentary on the rapidly-changing pop culture landscape), even if it doesn’t make a rousing or dedicated effort to keep Ghost Face terrifying. Still, at least one quirky death scene involving a police officer, a knife to the head, and an unusually lengthy duration of survival is probably worth the price of admission for the horror faithful.
In terms of the Scream series, Scream 4 is much better than Scream 3 (2000), but not as good as Scream and Scream 2. “One generation’s tragedy” is not exactly “the next generation’s joke,” to misquote Scream 4, but I’m not certain that this acceptable-but-not-always-inspired sequel will necessarily stand the test of time, either.