BLAIR WITCH (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, Terror and some Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Adam Wingard

Written by: Simon Barrett

Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson & Valorie Curry

In 1999, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT burst onto the independent scene with rave reviews from critics and divisive reactions from audiences, all while popularizing a found footage subgenre of scares. It’s 2016 and we’ve been flooded with handheld horror for over a decade, but somehow director-writer pair Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett managed to craft a sequel to the most successful found footage horror flick of all-time! However, it might be argued that BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was lightning in a bottle and trying to capture it again might prove to be a fool’s errand.

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James Donahue (James Allen McCune) lost his sister Heather to a failed documentary in 1994, but a recently uploaded YouTube video gives him hope that she might still be alive in the creepy Black Hills woods. Accompanied by a group of three friends and two guides/Blair Witch believers, James ventures into the thick forest to look for his long missing sibling. All of this is recorded as one of his friends is looking to make a pretentious documentary for her college course, but the group find themselves in over their heads as it appears the legend of a woods-dwelling witch is very real and deadly…

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1999’s BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was a low-budget indie that generated chills from a less-is-more approach and an unusual method of filmmaking. The directors messed with the actors every night and as a result, the three performers seemed legitimately close to having a nervous breakdown. With 2016’s BLAIR WITCH, the budget has been raised to 5 million (over 83 times the original film’s price tag) and more on-screen terror occurs. Rest assured, there’s still a slow build up to the scares, though fans of the first film may find themselves getting restless as we’re treated to details being rehashed for newcomers. Do we really need to hear about Coffin Rock again, or a serial killer who made his victims stand in the corner, and other local folklore that was already covered in the first film?

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BLAIR WITCH starts getting interesting when it sets up distinct rules for the titular monster herself and also dishes out new disturbing details about her past. The on-screen witchcraft and demises (which I won’t spoil), provide creepy moments and spooky fun. However, not all of the deaths in this movie are created equal, with two early demises feeling lame and rushed. There’s build-up to one character that seemed to be going in a disturbing body-horror direction and that’s never capitalized on. It certainly doesn’t help that the performances feel like, well, scripted performances, instead of the believable realism that made the first film so damn effective.

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The “found footage” is edited together from multiple sources this time around. We get drones, small headset cameras, traditional handheld footage, and surveillance bits. This adds a more creative flare to the sequel and separates it from the two-camera predecessor, but the movie also falls victim to cheap jump scares. There are slow moments of quiet suspense and a relentless climax of suffocating dread, but the movie frequently has characters suddenly popping into frame with a loud noise…which gets really annoying and lazy. This complaint is lessened when people start dying and the extent of the Blair Witch’s powers are revealed with cool ideas, even if they are directly lifted from other better found footage horror flicks (mainly GRAVE ENCOUNTERS and the ending of [REC]).

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BLAIR WITCH is far better than it could have been, just look at BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 if you don’t believe me. Still, this sequel never reaches the terrifying heights of its predecessor. There’s fresh creativity, effective scares, and an insane finale that’s damn near perfect! However, the characters are weak with performances that feel too forced, the build-up doesn’t gives us anything new until the witch has almost made her presence known, and cheap jump scares annoy during the first half. BLAIR WITCH becomes great when it simplifies itself into a tense supernatural game of cat-and-mouse. In an age where we’ve seen hundreds upon hundreds of found footage horror flicks, 2016’s BLAIR WITCH isn’t nearly as fresh and terrifying as it should have been…but satisfies as scary, entertaining and flawed piece of handheld horror.

Grade: B

THE ABCS OF DEATH (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by, Written by, and Starring: Too many to list

When ABCS OF DEATH was announced, anticipation was through the roof in the horror community. This sounded like an epic undertaking. 26 different directors (most of which had already carved out a well deserved reputation in the genre) were given a letter of the alphabet and $5,000 to make whatever they wanted. There were two rules: it had to involve death in some way and the death had to be related to a word starting with that letter of the alphabet. Can you see why many (including myself) were absolutely stoked to see this opus of violence, gore, and death run for two hours? Unfortunately, that’s not quite how it turned out. Free reign on creativity made for a film that’s very hit-or-miss. Some shorts are funny, some are creepy, a couple are downright nightmarish, and a lot range from bad to awful. The positive is that if you don’t like one then another is coming in a matter of minutes. However, there are only a handful I’d say are really worth watching. So I’m going short-by-short and awarding a grade for each. The final grade is the average for the entire film…

ABC A

A is for APOCALYPSE: A woman tries to kill her husband in a variety of ways and he doesn’t quite go down as easily as expected. This short shows off really awesome practical effects, but that’s about all it had to offer. The ending feels convoluted. Not exactly the stellar opening that one would hope for in a massive anthology about 26 ways to die. C

B is for BIGFOOT: A young couple are trying to get a little girl to go to sleep so they can have sex without being interrupted. Their solution is to tell her a scary story, but things don’t exactly work out in their favor. This segment was just alright. Had a good idea behind it, but it doesn’t exactly come off as well-done. The incorporation of the word “Bigfoot” also feels forced. It’s slightly better than A, but doesn’t exactly offer a whole lot either. C+

C is for CYCLE: A guy is hosing off his sidewalk and spots a puddle of blood. Trying to figure out where it came from, the guy finds himself in a waking nightmare. Though the ending sort of gives up before diving into anything mind-blowing or cool, the main idea is kind of neat. B-

ABC D

D is for DOGFIGHT: Shot in slow motion and lacking dialogue, DOGFIGHT is an awesome five-minute horror tale that delivers! A boxer is forced to fight a vicious canine in an underground fight club. Director Marcel Sarmiento makes the most of his limited budget and every single shot looks beautiful. Between this short and DEADGIRL, it seems like Marcel Sarmiento is a master storyteller of complex horror that is more than meets eye on surface level. This is the best segment of the entire film! A+

E is for EXTERMINATE: A guy encounters a fake-looking CGI spider on his wall and bad things happen. It’s a quick, predictable take on a well-known urban legend. This one is nothing special, new or fun. C-

ABC F

F is for FART: Many will argue that this is the absolute worst short of the bunch. While I can’t debate that it’s one of the worst short films I’ve ever seen, the crappiest segment is yet to come. This tale concerns a teacher and schoolgirl who love flatulence and things enter truly WTF territory about midway through. F

ABC G

G is for GRAVITY: Seriously, what was that?!? There’s nothing I can really say about this one because this segment doesn’t give me much to work with. D-

ABC H

H is for HYDRO-ELECTRIC DIFFUSION: Definitely one of the more creative letters of the bunch. Thomas Malling has an awesome imagination as seen in this live-action cartoon that incorporates stop motion, CGI, and absurd costumes. A WWII pilot dog is drinking at a bar only to be wooed by a dancing Fox who may have some dark ties to the enemy. This is as over-the-top as over-the-top can get, but it’s really frickin’ fun. B+

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I is for INGROWN: An underwhelming segment about a guy and a woman in a bathroom with a syringe. It’s pretentious, overly artsy, and tries to signify deeper meaning with an inner monologue. I just wasn’t digging the vibe this one was throwing my way. I wasn’t scared, creeped out or disturbed. This was just plain mediocre and annoying. D

J is for JIDAI-GEKI: Some of the Asian shorts in this anthology are terrible due to either not focusing on a horror vibe at all or just veering off completely in stupid WTF territory. This is actually one that I liked for the sheer absurdity of it. A samurai is executing one of his own, but keeps getting distracted by the silly faces his victim is making. It’s bound to be weird fun for some and awful for others. I found it to be fun. B

K is for KLUTZ: One of two animated segments, this one relies on childish potty humor. A woman takes a dump at a party and finds that her poo won’t flush. That’s the short and it’s just as terrible as it sounds. D-

ABC L

L is for LIBIDO: One of the best letters in the film and definitely the scariest (at least, for me). This demented little ditty comes from the sick mind of Timo Tjahjanto (of the best segment in V/H/S/2 and the upcoming KILLERS). A man wakes up half-naked and bound to a chair. Turns out he’s being subjected to a grotesque masturbation contest where losing means a horrible death. The kicker is that it becomes even more difficult and depraved with each passing round. This one goes into SERBIAN FILM territory at one point and is absolutely nightmarish. A graphic mini-masterpiece that’s sure to turn more than a few stomachs! A+

M is for MISCARRIAGE: Insulting in its pure laziness. Ti West is probably sitting somewhere with $4,999 dollars in his pocket, because it looks like this was shot on a cell phone and used noodles as a special effect. Godawful! F

N is for NUPTIALS: Short, sweet and to the point. This Thai segment focuses on a guy who buys a talking parrot for his girlfriend, but this backfires in a darkly hilarious way. You can probably guess how this one plays out from that one sentence description alone and you’re not far off. However, it’s still pretty entertaining. B

O is for ORGASM: Arthouse to its core, but haunting and beautiful. The gist of this segment isn’t fully given until the last few seconds. It’s an incredibly designed series of close-ups, quick shots and colors that winds up being one of the best segments of the film. A

P is for PRESSURE: A woman finds herself in a rough patch of life when her boyfriend doesn’t turn out to be the kind of person she thought he was. Told without any dialogue at all, this segment is headache inducing in the shaky camera work and quick editing. Simon Rumley crafted one of the best human horror stories in the last few years with RED, WHITE & BLUE, but this plot is also far from that level of quality. D+

Q is for QUACK: A super meta-segment about Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett trying to figure out how to make their short centered around the letter Q. It may not work for certain crowds, but I found Q to be very witty and an especially good use of the letter that everyone was probably hoping they wouldn’t get. B

ABC R

R is for REMOVED: The guy who made the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen (A SERBIAN FILM), which is quite a feat I’ll have you know, disappoints in this utterly underwhelming piece of body horror. Surgeons are mutilating a guy and making film strips out of his flesh. I’m sure there was some deeper meaning aimed for here, but the entire segment is just plain middle-of-the-road at best. C-

S is for SPEED: From the guy who made DOGHOUSE, this short was just all around awful. Shaky camera work, a forced Grindhouse-ish feel to it and a bad twist that was a bit silly to say the least. A woman tries to outrun a hooded figure with a captive in the trunk of her car. It’s just plain bad. D-

ABC T

T is for TOILET: When his project was announced, there was a contest put into place for fans to submit their own short films for a chance to be featured in the final cut. The letter given to those entering the contest was T and these videos were all placed up on a website for viewers to vote on. It’s easy to see why Lee Hardcastle’s morbid claymation tale about a child’s fear of potty training was the winner. A lot of love, effort, and creativity was put into this darkly hilarious segment. I love it and it’s one of the absolute best letters! A+

ABC U

U is for UNEARTHED: A monster tale told from the point of the monster, this segment is downright awesome! It’s shot through the POV of a certain well-known beast of folklore and we never see a concrete view of this ghoul. Instead, Ben Whealey (KILL LIST) shows the viewer everything through the monster’s eyes. The effects used are impressive and there’s a heavy atmosphere hovering over the whole thing. The last perfect letter of the film! A+

V is for VAGITUS: In a technologically advanced future, a police officer is tasked with taking down unusual criminals. This segment almost seemed like a short film that was pitched to producers for a feature. The effects were so-so and the story itself is silly. This might have actually worked better as a feature rather than trying to compress all of these ideas into the span of five minutes. C-

W is for WTF!: It’s like a lame version of the letter Q. A group of filmmakers struggle over what the topic of their short for the letter W should be. Completely stupid and an utter failure. It literally seems like the filmmakers filmed themselves pitching ideas for W, added a few effects and called it a short. F

ABC X

X is for XXL: Goriest of the bunch, this segment is downright hard to watch at points for its sheer brutality. An overweight woman finds herself mocked wherever she goes, so she uses some home remedies to lose weight (namely a few sharp kitchen utensils). It’s purely torture porn, but succeeds in being beyond disturbing and very well-made! It almost feels like a really solid short story committed to film in a haunting way. A-

ABC Y

Y is for YOUNGBUCK: A boy goes on a hunting trip with a creepy old janitor. It doesn’t end well for either one of them. Stretching the name of good taste in this short for truly uncomfortable material at the center, it’s almost like Jason Eisener is playing a genuinely disturbing topic for laughs in a Grindhouse style (complete with synthesizer score). It’s not only offensively bad, but it’s also downright insensitive. D-

ABC Z

Z is for ZETSUMETSU: Without a doubt, ABCS OF DEATH goes out on the worst note imaginable. Incomprehensible and beyond stupid, I don’t think words can properly portray my hatred for this final segment. F

ABC Overall

As a whole, ABCS OF DEATH takes about 15 minutes to get going and then shows off it’s best short first (DOGFIGHT). From there on, it sporadically gains and loses momentum only to go out on two pretty awful final shorts. The only A-grade shorts I’d recommend checking out are: D, L, O, T, U, and X. Definitely avoid: F, G, K, M, S, W, Y and Z. The others range from solid to disappointing (as you can see in the paragraphs above). Overall, ABCS OF DEATH is a severe mixed bag. Just watch it on Netflix or Amazon Video and skip to the worthwhile shorts while avoiding the garbage.

Grade: C

THE GUEST (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language, some Drug Use and a scene of Sexuality

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Directed by: Adam Wingard

Written by: Simon Barrett

Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser & Lance Reddick

Adam Wingard is a director whose projects either hit or miss. I was not a fan of his early films (HOME SICK and POP SKULL), but I’ve grown an appreciation for him thanks to a rise in quality and a knack for Simon Barrett (his constant screenwriter) putting a unique spin on old movie tropes. Their unconventional serial killer film, A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, and simply balls-to-the-wall entertaining YOU’RE NEXT are both great. The duo’s segments in V/H/S and V/H/S/2 were genuinely frightening too. THE GUEST is their first foray into thriller territory and the results aren’t quite in the vein that one would expect.

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The Petersons are recovering from the loss of Caleb, a beloved son and sibling to his family, in the Iraq war. Then comes the sudden arrival of David, a charming young man who served in Caleb’s squad. Offering comfort to the mother, a drinking buddy to the father, a protector for Luke (the bullied son) and a watchful guardian for Anna (the rebellious daughter), David becomes everybody’s best friend. However, not all is as it seems. When Anna begins digging into David’s past, it looks like he’s not who he claims to be. In fact, David may be someone whose presence is a danger to the family in many ways.

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The story is executed in two very different styles, depending on which half of the film you’re watching. The former offers an almost Hitchcockian level of set up with some real entertainment value to boot. The latter is where things begin to fall apart at the seams. This isn’t a horror film, much like the ones the duo have become so famous for in the independent scene. Props to Wingard and Barrett for exploring some unfamiliar territory, but that’s no excuse for the level of clichés and silly moments that litter the second half of the film.

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The film has professional production values and sports the least amount of shaky-cam of Adam Wingard’s films (which is usually a pet-peeve of his detractors that I’ve noticed). Some of the action scenes are fairly well done and the build-up in the first half is massively entertaining. That’s about all the positives I can say about THE GUEST, because the script is a mess and the execution is downright bad. There’s no beating around the bush on this one. The explanation of the true identity of David is vaguely given. In another movie this may not have been a problem. However, when so much shit is hitting the fan and the mystery of who he is has been plaguing the audience for the first hour, I find this to be a pretty big problem.

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Then there’s the performances themselves. Again, it depends on which half of the movie you’re viewing. For the former, it’s decent enough. Dan Stevens comes off as a likable stranger harboring something dark inside, as hinted at by the long sinister stares that end a few scenes to ominous music. In the second half though, he goes so far off the edge into over-the-top territory. The same can be said of the other cast members, who either become idiots or annoyances (in the case of Brenden Meyer’s character, Luke) in the latter half of the film.

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My main issue with THE GUEST is that it seems to do a switch-flip in tone halfway through the movie. It’s half Hitchcockian suspense thriller and half predictable action B-flick. The combination doesn’t work well for the film as a whole. It seems as though, despite the superior production values and lack of handheld camera work, Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have taken a step backwards in every respect. The ending doesn’t do the film any favors either. This might be a somewhat serviceable effort from a first time director, but from the pair that brought us YOU’RE NEXT and two segments in the V/H/S series, this should have been so much better. It felt like they weren’t trying and gave up entirely by the time a slow-motion shootout was taking place. A disappointment to say the least.

Grade: D+

CONTRACTED (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

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Directed by: Eric England

Written by: Eric England

Starring: Najarra Townsend, Caroline Williams, Alice Macdonald, Katie Stegeman, Matt Mercer, Charley Koontz, Simon Barrett, Ruben Pla, Dave Holmes & Celia Finkelstein

Sex is something serious. It’s more than just a human need and means far more when there is a strong emotional connection between partners. This world is full of sex-crazed young people, so it’s easy to forget the unexpected consequences that might come with the act of mating. I am not speaking of pregnancy. That’s actually the best case scenario compared to what you could contract from a partner. STDs are the stuff of nightmares and it’s about time that a horror film comes along takes control of this surprisingly unexplored territory for this genre. CONTRACTED is a professionally made independent production that has a wicked premise and a twisted execution.

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Samantha is a young party girl living with her domineering mother and getting over a painful breakup from her former lover. While drunk, Sam is approached by a mysterious stranger (Simon Barrett in a brief role) and the two of them get it on in his back seat. Waking up the next day with a vague memory of the one night stand, Sam finds herself feeling severely hungover. It’s not the alcohol that’s making her queasy though. After a visit to the doctor, a veiny rash, and some vaginal bleeding, Sam discovers that she is carrying an STD. It’s unlike anything the doctor has ever seen and Sam begins to fall apart (both mentally and physically).

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Taking place over the course of a few days, CONTRACTED is a disturbing slice of body-horror that would rank near ANTIVIRAL as a modern vision of body horror that would make David Cronenberg green with envy. It’s not just a body horror film though, because there’s actually a more popular subgenre here under the disguise of the sick modern makeover. I won’t spoil the surprise. Even though I wasn’t a giant fan of what the virus ultimately suggested it was, I still found the movie to be an uncomfortable experience (which is a big compliment when you consider this is a horror film).

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The character of Samantha is likable enough, but also makes a few stupid decisions through the course of the film (one in particular made me roll my eyes in disbelief). The film has a couple of weak actors, but the rest of them hold their ground. The material is treated with respect and never wavers from a straight-faced presentation. There are some amazingly disturbing scenes of body horror that made me nauseous too. The 84 minute running time is well-paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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Eric England’s previous film, MADISON COUNTY, was a lame backwoods slasher flick. I wrote him off as just another guy making horror movies in his backyard with his friends. CONTRACTED shows that England can actually pull off some cool ideas with grisly gusto. The film has some problems (as evidenced before in some shaky side actors, a couple of dumb decisions from the protagonist, and it actually being a form of a popular subgenre), but it also showcases a possible emerging talent in the horror genre.

In the realm of grossing you out, CONTRACTED excels. In the realm of being creepy, CONTRACTED is freaky beyond reason. This is an effective body-horror flick. For extra incentive, show this one to kids going through puberty and I guarantee that a whole lot more people will be keeping their virginity. That’s the best kind of praise for a movie like this!

Grade: B

V/H/S/2 (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Graphic and Bloody Violence, Grisly Images, Sexual Material, Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Gareth Huw Evans, Timo Tjahjanto & Jason Eisner

Written by: Simon Barrett, Jamie Nash, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans & John Davies

Starring: Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abbott, Adam Wingard, Hannah Hughes, Jay Saunders, Fachry Albar, Hannah Al Rashid, Zack Ford & Samantha Gracie

V/H/S/2 is one of those rare sequels that improves on the original. With a better team of directors and a ton of creative ideas, this second installment of the newly formed V/H/S franchise is a more cohesive experience than the great, but uneven, predecessor. The original focused on moody less-is-more horror tales, but this sequel shifts the focus onto being in-your-face scary and over-the-top fun! V/H/S/2 is the best anthology film since TRICK ‘R TREAT. This time around the found footage is four stories contained in a wraparound segment that has nods to the first film scattered throughout.

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TAPE 49 (Wraparound): Two private investigators are assigned to look into a missing college student. Upon arriving at his home, they find a plethora of flickering TV screens and VHS tapes strewn all over the place. While one of the private investigators searches the house for any clues, the other begins to stuck in the VHS tapes and watch the contents. This brings us to the four segments/tapes contained in the movie. While the first film had a pretty creepy wraparound, I found this one to be superior as far as the scares go. Just before the next tape is shown, a little more is revealed about the hell that the investigators just walked into. It pays off greatly in the twisted final minutes. A

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PHASE I: CLINICAL TRIALS: The first segment is directed by Adam Wingard (of recent YOU’RE NEXT fame). Wingard plays the central character: a man has lost his eye in a car accident and gets a bionic implant. This implant allows him to see, while scientists are recording through the bionic eye for a trial period. It turns out that there are “glitches” in the man’s vision and these may actually be ghosts that mean him harm. This story was pretty a spooky ride from beginning to cringe-inducing end. There are some solid scares throughout and I was really disturbed, but satisfied, by the way it concluded. A-

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A RIDE IN THE PARK: Even the weakest story here is great, which shows just how strong V/H/S/2 is as a whole. A man is going for a bike ride in the park and straps a camera to his helmet in order to capture his “extreme tricks.” When a screaming bloody woman runs out of the woods, the man attempts to help her, only to be bitten. That’s right. She’s become a zombie and the man has just been infected. Executing an original idea, the camera is still rolling on the man’s helmet as he succumbs to the zombie virus and we see his shenanigans as a flesh-eating ghoul. This one isn’t scary in the slightest, but it’s so ridiculously entertaining! The biggest laughs come in where the zombies actually end up, which employs the use of multiple cameras. Really cool stuff! B+

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SAFE HAVEN: The best of both V/H/S films belongs to this entry. Directed by the creators of THE RAID and MACABRE, this segment follows a documentary crew who have been invited to film a cult in their massive temple. It soon appears that they’ve arrived at a very bad time and things literally go to hell. Wall-crawling maniacs, reanimated ghouls, satanic rituals, mass suicide, and all sorts of gory mayhem ensue. This is by far the darkest segment and feels like a literal nightmare captured on film. It’s the longest segment in V/H/S/2 and I wish it had been a full feature. This was terrifying and ends with one of the coolest looking demons I’ve seen in a long time. Amazing segment and one of the best short films I’ve ever seen in my life! A+

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SLUMBER PARTY ALIEN ABDUCTION: Demonstrating why anthology films are so much fun is this final segment. While the last one went for nightmarish, this one goes for thrills and chills in a fun way. While their parents are away, a group of teens and their friends are having a massive slumber party. The older and younger siblings pull pranks on each other that escalate, but they have no idea that an otherworldly menace is waiting to take them. As the title suggests, aliens arrive and try to abduct the kids. The whole segment is a wild cat-and-mouse game done with adrenaline-pumping speed! The look of the aliens themselves is neat and the young cast is entertaining to watch (as well as realistic too). A

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Taken as a whole, V/H/S/2 is an infinitely better film than its predecessor. There aren’t significant drops in quality and no weak segments at all. The film jives as a whole, far better than the disjointed (but still great) V/H/S. For those who say that there isn’t any magic left in the found footage subgenre, I challenge you to watch V/H/S/2 and not be impressed by at least one of the segments (cough, Safe Haven, cough). I can easily see this film going down as a future horror classic. At times creepy, other times entertaining as hell, and finally nightmarish when it wants to be, V/H/S/2 showcases many different threats of the genre (ghosts, zombies, cults, aliens) and winds up as one of the absolute best horror films of 2013!

Grade: A

V/H/S (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, Strong Sexuality, Graphic Nudity, Pervasive Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg & Radio Silence

Written by: Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Nicholas Tecosky, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid & Radio Silence

Starring: Calvin Reeder, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Drew Sawyer, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Norma C. Quinones, Helen Rogers, Daniel Kaufman & Radio Silence

V/H/S is one of the many anthologies that has hit in recent years, but this one is different for one key reason. It’s an anthology where the stories are told through found footage. For those who complain that found footage has run its course and that nothing ever happens until the last 15 minutes, I have good news! V/H/S boils down to the key ideas of each segment while scaring up some legitimate frights. The stories themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, much like any anthology. As a whole, the film winds up being a great thrill ride that delivers the scares and some really cool stories told in the found footage format.

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TAPE 56 (Wraparound): The wraparound segment follows a group of criminals that film their crimes. When one of the cohorts tells his buddies that he’s got a way to make a ton of money in a single night, they are interested. All they have to do is break into an isolated house and steal one rare VHS tape. Upon arriving at the house, they find a dead body situated in front of a multitude of flickering TV screens and VHS tapes scattered everywhere. They begin watching the tapes (the five segments) and weird things begin to happen.

This wraparound segment is intense and thrives off the subtle differences that change in surroundings of the characters as they watch the VHS tapes. At one point, something disappears that was there before. A shadow moves across the basement and the criminals begin to vanish one-by-one with each consecutive tape. This makes for an intense watch, especially when one of the scarier segments has ended. A very well-done wraparound segment! A-

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AMATEUR NIGHT: The second-best story of the entire movie is the first segment to start off the film. A trio of douchebags implement a pair of spy-glasses equipped with a camera hidden in them to record a porno. They go to clubs to pick up chicks and wind up with two girls in tow. One of which is drunk beyond reason and the other is a bug-eyed weird woman who keeps uttering “I like you.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one is going to be more than meets the eye.

Directed by one of the people behind THE SIGNAL, this segment builds up slowly and then becomes absolutely terrifying when the shit hits the fan. It’s a freaky bit of found footage that winds up being the second-best of the bunch and a great way to kick things off. A

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SECOND HONEYMOON: Ti West (a filmmaker that I’ve never really been a fan of) gives us a segment where his slow-burn style of storytelling actually pays off nicely. A couple is on a road trip and doing little mundane things, but there seems to be someone stalking them in the background. This someone actually breaks into their motel room one night and things get progressively worse from there. This story is based around tension that is non-existent at first and comes to a fever-pitch in the final minutes. Good stuff. B

TUESDAY THE 17TH: The third segment is without a doubt, the worst of the bunch. It follows a group of four young adults on a camping trip. A female member of the group knows more about the secluded area than she’s letting on. This segment basically plays out like a slasher movie done in 15 minutes with a killer that can’t be captured on video. Cheesy effects and some bad acting nearly ruin this one completely, but it still winds up having some enjoyable merits. C

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THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER: Picking up from that so-so story, this fourth segment winds up being great! Told through a series of Skype conversations between a long-distance couple, it details the accounts of a possible haunted apartment that leads to something far more strange and original. Revel in the sheer weirdness and some effective jump-out-of-your-seat scares! This one is a winner! B+

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10/31/98: Primarily known for their online comedy, Radio Silence sends V/H/S out on the highest note possible. Set on Halloween 1998 and recorded from a camera attached to a nanny-cam costume, four friends head out to a Halloween party at a spooky old house. They wind up at the wrong house and things go horribly wrong in supernatural style! Featuring some awesome effects and hilarious moments, this is the definitely the best of the six stories showcased here! Fantastic segment and I can’t wait to see what Radio Silence does with a found footage horror feature (which they’ve been slated to write and direct). A+

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Like any anthology, V/H/S has its ups and downs. There is only one really iffy segment as far as I’m concerned and none of them are outright terrible. The best ones hands-down go to Amateur Night (the opener) and 10/31/98 (the finale)! The wraparound also connects all the segments together in a creepy satisfying way. While it was initially overhyped upon release (I was one of many who went nuts after seeing the premiere at Sundance 2012), V/H/S is a solid anthology told in a really fun way!

Grade: B+

YOU’RE NEXT (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

Youre Next poster

Directed by: Adam Wingard

Written by: Simon Barrett

Starring: Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Nicholas Tucci, Wendy Glenn, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Rob Moran & Barbara Crampton

Why does it always seem to take so long for legitimately good horror movies to be released? CABIN IN THE WOODS was a three year wait, while TRICK ‘R TREAT was two years and dumped straight-to-DVD, and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sits on a shelf for three years before becoming the monster franchise it is today. It’s a pity, but good things come to those who wait and horror fans have been waiting two full years for YOU’RE NEXT. This independent home-invasion flick made huge waves at both Toronto International Film Festival and Fantastic Fest. So big were these waves, that there was a bidding war between distributors for the rights to release this movie to the masses. Lionsgate won and on the shelf it’s sat for the past two years.

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With a long wait, comes a lot of hype. It’s a pity when films seem to collapse under the weight of their own reputations. Some reviews I read of YOU’RE NEXT called it downright original and a reinvention of the genre, awarding perfect scores and the highest of grades. To be blunt, YOU’RE NEXT isn’t perfect. It’s got a few problems that I will address in this review, but it’s so entertaining and a lot of fun. I jumped a total of two times during the film, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself through the entirety of the film.

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The Davison family are gathering at their enormous vacation home to celebrate their parents 35th anniversary. Some of the siblings haven’t seen each other in years and a few old grudges die hard. As rivalries begin to flare, an all-out attack is waged on the home from three masked psychopaths whose only interest is to kill them all. One of the guests of the family is Erin, a girlfriend to one of the siblings. Erin has a bit of an unusual background, one that makes her a survivor. She isn’t going down without a fight. So as the tension rises, so does the body count and the violence. This one is a blood-soaked blast of twisted entertainment and pitch-black humor.

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From what I’ve seen in message boards and podcasts, director Adam Wingard doesn’t have a whole lot of devoted fans, but instead a bunch of detractors. There are reasons for this, but I consider myself to be a bit of a fan. I thought his serial killer tale A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE was solid, I enjoyed his wraparound segment in V/H/S and his story in V/H/S/2, also his ABC’S OF DEATH short was one of the good ones. However, I found both HOME SICK and POP SKULL (his first efforts) to both be damn near unwatchable. This all being said, YOU’RE NEXT is Wingard’s most mature and professional work yet. Relishing in the sheer brutality of things in one scene and then milking every bit of possible quiet suspense from the next, Wingard is clearly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the independent horror world.

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Bonus points also are awarded to Wingard for finding a way to shoot Ti West (the pretentious hack whose only good thing came in the form of his segment in V/H/S, though I am holding out hope for SACRAMENT) in the head with an arrow. I felt like cheering, but those are my personal feelings against an overrated mumblecore hipster being hailed as a horror champion. AJ Bowen (from THE SIGNAL and A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE) also has a bit of a key role here, while Joe Swanberg (V/H/S) is a standout as well. This (and THE LORDS OF SALEM) is also Barbara Crampton’s return to acting in the genre she did so well in, horror films. It is odd to see the attractive young thing from RE-ANIMATOR playing a middle-aged mother, but she did the job well. However, some of the other cast members have a couple of shaky moments.

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Speaking of shaky moments, Adam Wingard still hasn’t quite kicked the habit of shaking the camera every now and then. It was annoying in A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE, actually fit the concept in V/H/S and V/H/S/2. In YOU’RE NEXT, it’s not unbearable but it detracts a bit from a couple of scenes. If the camera is shaking so noticeably that it takes me out of the scene, that is a serious detriment to the film.

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These issues addressed, the movie is stellar in nearly every other area. From a creepy opening (featuring an even creepier Larry Fessenden), the film opens with an eerie feeling that never quite drops. That is until the home invasion begins and then things just become a non-stop barrage of insanity. Violence is frequent, gore even more so, and even a few laughs work their way in. It’s not a comedy, but it does have some sick bits of dark humor. There are a couple of cool twists thrown in for good measure and it all concludes in a final 30 minutes that are simply incredible. This also includes one of the most original kills I’ve ever seen in a movie. You’ll definitely know it when you see it.

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Some shaky acting and moments of even shakier camera work aside, YOU’RE NEXT is so damn solid that I didn’t care about its flaws to a high degree in the end. Instead, I had a blast. I can easily see YOU’RE NEXT, SINISTER, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, and TRICK ‘R TREAT being considered as horror classics in the future. This is a solid scarefest that proves you don’t need a giant budget or mega-effects to be frightening or engaging. This is a horror movie made by people who love horror movies and they deliver! This is highly recommended!

Grade: A-

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