Unfriended (2015) – Levan Gabriadze

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A successful horror movie is a very fragile thing. So much can go wrong that will spoil the effect. One of the best pieces of advice I could give a horror filmmaker (from the perspective of an asshole critic with no experience whatsoever) would be to keep the narrative simple. As a member of the audience, getting bogged down with a complex or convoluted plot distracts me from the feeling of fear. If I have to stop to remember who that character is or wonder why they’re doing something, it takes me out of the moment. And that simplicity is the main strength of Levan Gabriadaze’s 2015 offering Unfriended.

The film is no masterpiece, but it certainly achieves what it sets out to do. Just think I Know What You Did Last Summer meets Blair Witch, but on a computer. Unfriended is part of a modern sub-genre of the Found Footage movement. The whole thing takes place on the computer screen over a series of Skype video chats, emails, Facebook messages and YouTube videos. The point of view is that of our main character Blaire. We’re seeing her screen out of her own eyes. So we see what she sees, types, reads, etc.

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Throughout the film, Blaire chats with her friends in a group video chat but they soon realize that there is an unwanted visitor online with them. They can’t seem to get rid of this person and unexplainable things start to happen like messages from a dead friend’s Facebook account. And things just escalate from there. As the film unfolds, we see this group of friends unravel as strange events take place and deceptions and betrayals are exposed.

And that’s it. That’s the whole movie. It’s admittedly gimmicky, but it sticks to a very simple formula that gets the job done. I actually thought the acting was pretty spot on. Most of which is just a group of teens reacting to various frightening things they’re seeing over each other’s webcams. The dialogue seemed pretty realistic to me, but there are a few cringe-inducing moments where it becomes painfully clear that the writer is not a 16 year-old girl.

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I’m not sure if the Unfriended is meant to be a commercial for Skype or Google products, or if it’s supposed to be a morality tale about cyber-bullying. And while it’s not the scariest film I’ve ever seen, it was fun to watch and it held my attention for 82 minutes, which is not an easy thing to do these days. Maybe it was the constant switching of windows, opening of new tabs, sending of messages, switching of Spotify songs, etc. – so reminiscent of how we actually spend time on computers – that helped this film progress despite simple plot.

Is it scary: 3 – There are some spooky scenes and there’s a growing feeling of suspense throughout but nothing that will keep you up at night.

Originality: 5 – This one is tough. It’s a spin-off of Found Footage and we’ve even seen this kind of thing before (Open Windows). Still, I think we’ll see more of this format based on this film’s execution.

Blood: 2 – Almost no blood. There are just a handful of violent scenes and only one or two even actually show anything explicit.

Believability: 8 – Overall, I thought the writing and acting were on point. I felt like the film was happening right on my computer screen.

Setting/Cinematography: 5 – Again, this one was tough to score. There really was not much setting to speak of and the cinematography was intentionally limited to webcam footage. I think a solid 5 is fair. Like taking a college course Pass/Fail.

Final Score: 23/50

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The ABC’s of Death (2012) – Various Directors

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Have you ever been to one of those little self-serve frozen yogurt places? You know, those “healthy”, “don’t worry, it’s fat-free yogurt” places. You pump out your own fro-yo from the soft serve machine and then you get to pick out your own toppings from the little candy-salad bar. Next thing you know your “fat-free” desert has gummy bears, Oreos, Butterfingers, peanut butter cups, skittles and little marshmallows on it. And you have a full blown case of diabetes. The point is, mixing too many good things together takes away from the whole. That cup of yogurt and candy is probably pretty good, but you would have done better to stick with one theme and do it really well.

That awkward metaphor, and this awkward transition, represents my thoughts on the 2012 horror anthology The ABC’s of Death. 26 letters in the alphabet, 26 horror films  created by 26 different directors from all around the world. I do have to give them props for ambition and for originality, but it’s very difficult to make 26 two-five-minute films work cohesively together. The only theme connecting them was that each film was about something from each letter in the alphabet, for example, “Z is for Zombie”. The cool part is that you don’t get the title until after each short is over.

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A few of these movies were really fantastic, either for being genuinely scary or just very clever and well-done short films. Some of them were funny, some were confusing, and some were really just pretty stupid. Obviously I can’t do a synopsis of each film, and quite a few of them have really great twist endings so I don’t even want to go too far into any. There were 3 films that stood out as my favorites though. There’s one about a kid who’s afraid to sit on the toilet, one about a man and a dog in a fight to the death, and one about the end of the world. Other less remarkable films include topics such as deadly farts that engulf a whole city, vampires, zombie clowns, a masturbation contest, and a piece of shit that just won’t flush.

A lot of the films are overly grotesque and shocking. We don’t have a lot of time for build up so we need to dive right into the good stuff. Most of them have subtitles. A few have no dialogue whatsoever.

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From what I understand, each director was assigned a letter and really given carte blanche to just make a film about something that starts with that letter. It was great to see 26 different answers to essentially the same question. The film as a whole is a tribute to ADHD and a not so gentle reminder that people from Japan are fucking crazy. Well actually people from all over the world are pretty crazy, but the ones from Japan are the best at it.  

To sum up, I think this was ambitious and it was a very cool experiment. We got a chance to see some of the best current horror directors show off their chops in a condensed format. I hear there’s another one in the works. I’ll be interested to see how it turns out. I think there is a lot to improve upon, but I really like the idea.

  1. Is it scary? 4 Overall, not that scary, there were a few films that got under my skin but mostly they went for cheap, gross-out stuff and bad humor.
  2. Originality: 10– I have to give them credit here. The whole project was pretty original and there were lots of very cool and original ideas throughout, regardless of how good each film was.
  3. Blood: 7- Some had lots and lots of blood, some had no blood, Most had at least some, so I think this is going to skew towards the high end of the score.
  4. Believability: 5-It’s very difficult to give a believability score here. Some of the films were intentionally over the top. I think we’ll stick with average and call it a day.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 7- Overall, we saw lots of cool settings and there was some amazing cinematography. One of my favorites (the one about the dogfight) was shot entirely in slow motion with some really cool close-ups.                                             

Final Score: 33/50

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Halloween II (1981) – Rick Rosenthal

Have you ever bought a gallon of ice cream that melts a little in the car on the way home and then you refreeze it but it’s just never the same? That’s what most horror sequels are like. Just with more blood, and fewer chocolate chips. They usually add some plot elements that make it more complicated and less scary. In the sequels, they generally ramp up the murdering and you tend to get a nice big juicy body count. You’ll also probably get to see some new and creative deaths. If you’re lucky, the director, writer, and main cast will remain intact, but don’t hold your breath.

Now, even though Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 Halloween II (John Carpenter co-wrote this one, but he only directed the first one) falls into most of these traps, it still stands up as a solid slasher, and a solid horror movie in general. It’s a little unfair to hold it up against the original, because that is one of the best horror movies ever made. Unfortunately, that’s what I’m going to do for most of this review, so suck it. It’s basically like comparing the store brand “Honey O’s” or whatever to real “Honey Nut Cheerio’s.” Close, but no cigar. Thanks for playing. But all comparison aside, this movie is awesome. It’s bloody, nasty, and suspenseful. Rosenthal holds on to a lot of what we loved about Carpenter’s directing and cinematography. And they’ve added some interesting elements to the story. It’s debatable as to whether these things make the story/better or worse, but they set the stage for the rest of the franchise.

The story picks up right where the first film left off. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is being brought to the hospital, and Michael Myers, who was just shot a half dozen times and fell out of an upstairs window, has somehow survived and is on the loose again. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) and the cops are searching the town for the killer after the bodies of the kids from the first movie are found all strung up and hidden around the house. Michael overhears a radio broadcast saying that the survivor of the massacre is being brought to the hospital and he heads there to finish the job. On his way he chops up a few more people for no reason. Just to be a dick, I guess.

So Loomis and the cops finally figure out that Michael is hunting Laurie and they head for the hospital to save her. But it’s too late for most of the staff. Michael has sliced, diced, boiled, gutted, and injected a large syringe of air into nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, and security guards. If you thought he head count was too low in the original, don’t worry because it more than doubles in this one. They don’t even have time to show everyone getting killed. Sometimes we just show up and find bodies lying around. Anyway, Loomis and the cops show up and shoot Michael a bunch of times. Thinking he’s dead, the cop stupidly stands over him and Michael pops up and turns the cop into a giant Pez dispenser. There’s a big standoff at the end with Laurie and Loomis and Michael. There’s also a big twist which I’m not going to spoil.

In terms of scares, this one doesn’t quite hit the mark like the original. It’s still got a good creepy atmosphere but something’s missing. Part of what made the first movie so scary was that everything was super dark, shadowy, and hard to see. The times that we did see Michael Myers, he was halfway behind something. There’s something about that being hard to see that made him even creepier. Now, this movie was pretty dark too, but it wasn’t quite the same. I don’t think it packed the same punch visually as the original.

Halloween had a sort of charm to it that this sequel didn’t have. The first had a low budget but they made it work. The whole thing took place in just a couple of scenes. This movie was bigger, flashier, and more expensive. I guess you could say that the first one was untested, unproven and breaking new ground. While the sequel was a little self-aware. You can almost sense that the filmmakers had a certain confidence about things that wasn’t there in the original. This one felt more like a “movie” instead of a “story.” I don’t know if that makes any sense. You can even see (hear) this in the music. The second movie tried to make the music better, more electronic, and fancy, but for that extra level of production, they’ve sacrificed some of the basics.

Listen to the two songs and you’ll see what I mean. I think this sums up the two movies pretty well actually.

The point is that the movie is good, but not as good. The moral of the story is fancier doesn’t always mean better. And I’m pretty sure you can say that if John Carpenter had been behind the camera, this might have been even better.

  1. Is it scary: 6- It’s still pretty dark, scary, and, suspenseful. Though it doesn’t haunt you in the way the first one did.
  2. Originality: 5- It’s still pretty groundbreaking. It’s basically like the Ramones second album. It still did a lot for punk rock, but not as much as the first.
  3. Blood: 6- Probably the only category that will get this one more points than the original. Michael made up for lost time in this one. He racked up a nice little body count here. After the modest showing in the first one, he had his work cut out for him.
  4. Believability: 5–More characters, more plotlines to follow, more scenery to keep up with. This was still decent, but it was more complicated than it needed to be.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 6- Rosenthal did a pretty good job here. A dark empty hospital overnight is not a bad setting. He maintained a lot of the cinematography, lighting effects that we loved from the original.

Final Score: 28/50

The Loved Ones (2009) – Sean Byrne

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After watching Sean Byrne’s 2009 The Loved Ones, and having taken a semester of Abnormal Psych at a state college, I feel that I’m qualified to diagnose an internal struggle in the collective psyche of the Australian people. Think about films like Mad Max, Wolf Creek, Crocodile Dundee, hell, even the goddamn Rescuers Down Under. There is pervasive tug of war going on in between civility and a sort of off-the-grid-wild-west-badassery. Basically, in Australia, if you live in a city, you’re a pussy and you will probably get killed and eaten by one of these sadistic, psychotic, backwoods, home-on-the-range guys. He will gut you for the fun of it, make a hat out of your skin, and then do stuff to your butt when you’re dead. But these movies still somehow romanticize that violent and ruthless pioneer spirit. Usually, the city-folk win at the end, but only after they’ve tapped into that “state of nature” mindset and used it against the bad guy.

The Loved Ones definitely fits this model, but it also ups that ante with a vicious depiction of teenage angst, guilt, and self-pity, and revenge. It’s hard to watch for two main reasons. The first being that it’s just fucking brutal. I’m going to throw some words out there in no particular order: razor blade, fork, skull, syringe, power drill, boiling water, face, hammer, I think you get the picture. And secondly, there’s actually a pretty solid story about this poor girl who constantly feels rejected and overlooked. It’s too bad Live Journal isn’t popular anymore because I bet we could have avoided a lot of problems if this chick could have anonymously vented her feelings to the digital universe. Byrne does a good job of making you feel the way you did when you were 15 and every little relationship problem was basically the end of the world. Somewhere between the blood and dismemberment, it makes you want to listen to an old Smashing Pumpkins record.

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The movie opens with our hero, Brent driving down a dirt road with his dad. They see a wounded man stagger out into the street and Brent swerves but hits a tree and the dad dies. Then flash forward 6 months and Brent is depressed, feeling guilty and his girlfriend is upset that he’s emotionally unavailable. There’s a big school dance and the quiet, nerdy chick, Lola asks Brent to go. He says sorry, but he’s going with his girlfriend. So after school, before getting ready for the dance, Brent takes an emo-hike out to the middle of nowhere to cry, smoke week and be angsty by himself. But then, out of nowhere, he gets chloroformed and kidnapped by some guy. We soon find out that its Lola’s dad and they’ve got some twisted and scary, albeit romantic plans for Brent.

He wakes up tied to a chair, wearing a tux and Lola and her dad are there dressed up like they’re going to the dance. There’s also this fucked up, mute, old lady there with what looks like a bullet hole in her head-oh yeah, she’s still alive though. She’s dressed for the dance too and she’s just sitting at the dinner table drooling and breathing heavily. Lola and her dad clearly have an inappropriate quasi-sexual relationship to and it’s not quite clear how Bright Eyes (the old lady) fits into it all. They torture Brent for a bit and then show him a photo album with pictures of a bunch of other guys who have apparently gotten the same special treatment. Meanwhile, his mom and his girlfriend try to figure out where he went. I don’t want to tell you too much more because last half hour or so is really intense and fucked up. There’s a cool Seinfeld-esque plot twist where everything loops back and links together. The ending is brutal but very cool.

This is the kind of movie that’s not fancy or pretty or overly stylized. There’s not a lot of symbolism or subtlety. It’s just on the surface, in your face, and fucked up. And you know in a lot of (American) movies, when, for example, someone is pointing a gun in the main character’s face, it’s suspenseful, but you know he won’t pull the trigger? Don’t expect any of that poetic, screenwriting mercy in this one. I kept thinking that and I kept being pleasantly/unpleasantly surprised. It’s sort of like Game of Thrones in that sense- nobody is safe.

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Overall this movie was great. It was crazy suspenseful and exciting as hell. Now, it wasn’t terribly scary, but it’s still definitely not for the faint of heart, or children, or the elderly, or anyone. Ever.  It’s even a solid step up from what I’d consider torture porn. There’s more to the story than just watching people get sliced up for no reason. There is always a good reason for slicing these characters up.

  1. Is it scary: 5- Its main scares come from the fact that, although it’s a little farfetched, these are things that real people could do at any moment. Also, it’s just flat out vicious and a little hard to watch.
  2. Originality: 7- Nice twist on the whole psycho prom queen thing. Not quite like anything I’ve seen before.
  3. Blood: 6- Not the bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen, but it was pretty respectable for what it was.
  4. Believability: 6- Like I said, it’s kinda farfetched, but ultimately based in reality. For the most part I agreed with most of they ways people reacted to the situations. “Princess Lola” might have been a little too over the top-but I think we excuse that by saying she’s raised out in the middle of nowhere by that iconic Australian psycho badass.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 6- It’s out in the middle of nowhere and you get that hopeless, isolation feeling. And Like I said, the way its shot is just balls-out and brutal. All steak, no sizzle, Which is fine for what this movie is. And definitely better than the other way around.

Final Score: 30/50

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Dead Snow (Død Snø) (2009) – Tommy Wirkola

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I can definitively say that this is, by far, the  best terrible Norwegian Nazi-zombie movie I’ve ever seen. Oh, that statement leaves you with more questions than answers? OK. Sorry, I’ll explain. From any logical, structural or cinematic standpoint this movie is awful. I mean it. It’s really bad. Its so bad that I actually want to hate it. But I can’t. Despite its many flaws, this movie is awesome. It even leaves me wondering if it was made intentionally shitty as part of its charm. Director Tommy Wirkola is definitely  a little self-aware in this one and there are elements of tribute to some classic horror films. This makes me think that the faulty construction of this movie is on purpose and that’s part of why I loved it.

Lets start off with why it’s bad. The script is atrocious. These characters say and do things that are utterly ridiculous and unbelievable (and yes, I realize I’m using the words ridiculous and unbelievable to describe the faults with a movie about undead Nazis). There are serious continuity issues as well. In one shot, a character has a little  blood splashed on his face, then in the next shot he is completely soaked and dripping red, and then in the next shot, its back to a splatter or two. And a couple of times we’ll see bodies showing up in a shot when there were no bodies a second ago. And the editing is just a mess. There are times when we see characters showing up in different places than they just were in previous scenes with no explanation as to how they got there. These are the things you take for granted and don’t notice when they’re done right but when they’re wrong, it’s obvious. They’re like the offensive line of cinema.

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As I said, I’m not entirely sure if these flaws are actually intentional. But as you progress through the movie, and the rules of logic really start to unravel, it seems more and more likely that this is all part of the fun.

So the plot follows a group of Med school students out to a cabin for a ski-weekend. Of course, they are up in the mountains and they get no cell phone reception. In one of those self-aware/meta-film moments, they even comment on their situation being a perfect set up for a horror movie. Their fun gets interrupted almost immediately by a creepy but prophetic old man who tells the friends a story about a battalion of German soldiers who occupied this part of Norway during World War II. Supposedly these soldiers disappeared into the woods at the end of the war and that they still walk through the trees at night, preying on anyone foolish enough to go out there. So of course, they don’t believe him and they continue to commit horror-movie-no-nos – the best of wich is, when one dude goes out into the outhouse to take care of business, one of the girls goes out there, sits on his lap, while he’s sitting on the toilet, and fucks him. (Real classy, lady. Who raised you?)

Anyway, a bunch of Nazi zombies show up and start ripping peoples heads and arms and legs off and eating them. And their intestines. The people who made this movie were obsessed with intestines. They are literally all over the place- flying across the screen. I’ve always said, when it comes to intestines, less is more. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.  So as the survival rate begins to drop, the campers find ways to arm themselves and fight back against the horde of anti-Semitic undead monsters. We’ll soon find out that if the campers had paid attention to the old man at the beginning, they might have had a much more pleasant weekend.

Tommy Wirkola’s take on zombies is actually an interesting one though. These guys aren’t the mindless drones you’d expect to see in a zombie movie. Though they can’t really talk, and they clearly look dead and decomposed, they don’t really act much differently than they would have while they were living. They seem to have some reasoning power, they use weapons, and there is even a zombie chain of command. The general issues orders to his troops with a series of grunts, nods and gestures, all while breathing deep and sexy like Darth Vader. The one thing I didn’t like about the zombies was that they did a lot of punching when they should have been using the classic throat-bite. I’ve never really seen zombies punch before; It didn’t sit well with me.

At any rate, the point is, whether these flaws were intentional or not, I don’t care. This movie was really a lot of fun to watch. It didn’t really make a lot of sense logically or structurally, but neither does trying to apply logic to a movie about Nazi-zombies. This movie is great. I don’t know that it fully achieved everything that it set out to, but it doesn’t matter. It was tons of fun to watch. Also, I should mention that about 15 minutes into this movie I really said to myself “Somebody in this movie is gonna get his dick bitten off by a zombie.” And, spoiler alert, I was right. I don’t think it will fare too well on my scale here because it’s not really that scary, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing it.

  1. Is it scary: 3- There are some creepy moments but overall, this isn’t intended to be ‘scary’.
  2. Originality: 6- I’m definitely giving some points for the twist on the classic zombie, but again, this was intended to be a tribute of sorts rather than something new.
  3. Blood: 8- Jackpot. This thing is bloody and gory as hell- as it should be.  And in case you were worried, you’ll be able to have a discussion with your friends about which was your favorite method of zombie dispatchment, the chainsaw, or the snowmobile treads.
  4. Believability: 3- Um. Nazi-zombies. Do you really need me to explain this one?
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 5- In terms of actual scariness, the setting isn’t doing it for me. Most of the movie taks place during the daytime and out in the bright sun. There are a few interesting camera shots but nothing that really blew me away.

Final Score: 25/50

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