Friday, March 4, 2016

The Witch (2016)

Genre: Witches
Director: Robert Eggers
Availability: Still in theaters

In the past, horror movies seemed marked by the decade they were made. When having a conversation about genre and appeal, many can state that they're drawn to a certain period of time which is reflective of the style of movie they tend to like. The gore and camp of the '80s. The psychological and Gothic horror of the '60s. The science fiction horror of the '50s. The teen screams of the '90s. The story-driven slow burners of the '70s. And it's this latter one that The Witch so harkens back to. Dripping with atmosphere, tension and dread, The Witch is a movie out of time, belonging stylistically in the past and thematically in the present, it is not only a complex piece of cinema for today's horror genre, but an important one.

The Witch never tries to be something its not. Instead its understated in almost every way. A sexuality runs through the veins of it without being salacious. There's a sense of impending doom in almost every scene, every wide angled shot that lords over the family, hovering with menace but never shouting in your face for a cheap jump scare. There is some blood and violence but it feels as necessary and natural as the violence of nature itself. And then there's the hysteria, which is the true terror of The Witch.

In a time where the whisper of witchcraft was enough to hang innocent young women, a family is struggling with loss, isolation, and starvation, and the only thing holding the threads of their humanity together is their fervent beliefs. Their damnation is real because they believe it to be, and so do you, and you fear for them. They pray with power, with urgency, with conviction. And any misstep in their day, in their manner, in their speech, is enough to offend God and shake their entire foundation of existence. And so after tragedy befalls them again, and again, there is a whisper of witchcraft in the form of a child's malicious musings, and it's enough to damn them all.

Stylistically The Witch is brilliant. Wide shots of the forest and of the family in prayer build the importance of both elements, while narrow shots of suffering and suspicion add to the claustrophobia that surrounds them as they are trapped by their own inability to survive. The music here is full of strings and vocal crescendos that was so prevalent in the Italian giallo horror of the '70s. This method of music has a way of filling a scene so completely with dread that it's a relief when the inevitable terrible thing that follows finally happens.

There is a strong theme of female empowerment that seems to supersede its witchcraft origin, and that is of a young girl slowly owning her womanhood and realizing there's a power and freedom that she may seize if only she has the will to. The father, who starts out tall and strong with a ruling fist and a voice like velvety gravel, slowly loses both his authority over his children and the love of his wife. The women here rule. With their grief, with their manipulation, with their disobedience, and finally with the sheer magnitude of their will. Breaking every shackle imposed upon them. Even with the small twin siblings, the boy twin seems as dull as background furniture as the girl twin sends chills up our spines with her taunts and her creepy nursery rhymes. It is only Caleb, the eldest boy, who is strong and good even though he is damned by his nature.

The entire cast here is outstanding. Performances that are so good you feel like you're catching a glimpse of the past, as it happened. The set, as simple as it is, is soaked in despair with mud and failing crops and the dark, looming wood that surrounds them. It is a movie that makes you wonder why genre movies aren't ever (or extremely rarely) nominated for the prestigious awards. It is that good.

Oh God my Lord I now begin. Oh help me and I'll leave my sin.
For I repent and thou shall be. Thru evil I will turn to thee.
Whom ever shall destroy my faith. For I repent and thou shall be.
Oh God my Lord I now begin. Oh help me and I'll leave my sin.
For I repent and thou shall be.
Thru evil I will turn to thee.

bah bah bah

5 out of 5 stars

Cabin Fever (2016)

Genre: Virus
Director: Travis Zariwny
Availability: VOD

Remakes. For good or evil they are as popular as ever. Sometimes we luck out and get a great re-imagining, like Evil Dead or Fright Night. Other times we end up with absolute garbage, like The Omen, or The Fog. And then there's the remakes that just seem completely pointless, they aren't good, they aren't bad, they aren't a new vision, and especially in Cabin Fever's case, they aren't a new voice. They just exist because. Because, Cabin Fever 4: Outbreak, fell through and so a remake was the next best thing.

But they couldn't even be bothered to write a new script, so they used Eli Roth's original script. Seriously. They used the same script. Well, a trimmed down 92 page version of the 134 page original script. Which makes sense because the one thing that made the remake different from the original is that it was lacking any sense of humor. Gone is the bizarre scene at the local store with the weird kid doing karate moves. Roth's original was not only gory and terrifying but it had an odd sense of humor to its characters, "the local color" as you will. There was also a tenderness to the romance angle, a very real sense of fear and doom with the virus angle, and a heart-wrenching feel to the abandonment and killing of friends scenes. The remake is just as gory with some solid young actors filling the spots but the spirit of the original is not there. It feels soulless. A resurrected, walking dead version of a classic, iconic movie.

And what's with The Shining nod at the beginning? (The Shining theme song plays briefly as the camera follows the car from above winding around the side of the mountain.) Maybe if the whole movie was peppered with classic movie fodder it would have made a kind of sense but just the one scene? Ugh, stop it. You're not some meta movie, you're a shameless unoriginal remake that is doing nothing for the genre aside from filling a slot on the metaphorical shelf.

Give me another cheesy Cabin Fever sequel any day of the week. I mean, did you see Patient Zero? That fight scene on the beach at the end... good stuff.

2 out of 5 stars

Hidden (2015)

Genre: Apocalyptic
Director: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer (The Duffer Brothers)
Availability: VOD

The horror movie title "Hidden" is one of those unfortunate choices that may lead to serious confusion when trying to hunt down the right horror movie. Because there's also a 2005 Hidden; a 2009 Hidden; a 20011 Hidden; and now a 2015 Hidden. (Much like there's about 6 horror movies called House.) Any alternative title would've worked here and it always makes me wonder when this happens if the people who made this movie are aware that the horror genre is inundated with their generic title choice already. Do these people watch horror movies or do they just not care? Luckily the title is the worst part of the movie because The Duffer Brothers' Hidden was absolutely terrific.

The majority of the movie takes place in a dark, underground fallout shelter. Its claustrophobic atmosphere and poor visibility adds to the tension that builds around the small family worrying about starvation, dehydration, and being discovered by "the breathers". For much of the movie we're unsure what happened that led this family to take refuge in the shelter, and why after all this time they still feel like they can't leave it. They're terrified of the things that roam the surface hunting them and they struggle to stay quiet, stay calm, and live day to day. Eventually though, as all things in horror movies tend to do, things go south. It's then that we learn about what happened on the surface, who the breathers are, and then... holy shit.  The last ten minutes of the movie I just did not see coming. As a seasoned horror movie aficionado it's hard to pull the wool over eyes that have seen over 1,000 horror movies, so I applaud any movie that takes an unexpected path.

Actress Emily Alyn Lind, who plays the daughter, reminded me so much of a young Dakota Fanning. There's a maturity and intelligence to her girlishness, as well as this beautifully open vulnerability and fear. She was a joy to watch. And Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd was as tall and as mesmerizing as always.

Let's petition that this movie's title be changed to The Breathers and then all will be well in the world of horror.

4 out of 5 stars