Monday, July 30, 2012

Indie Horror Round-Up!

There are criticisms you could make of the Paranormal Activity franchise. I guess. I'm sure it's far from perfect but it gets so much right that I just don't care. It's like a good punk song in that respect. And like punk, it's birthed a legion of imitators. Some good, some that just don't get it - again, like punk.

The best of the lot is Grave Encounters, which not only borrows the found footage concept and ghostly goings on but takes the piss out of Ghost Hunters, the worst thing to happen to the Sc-Fi Channel besides renaming themselves "SyFy." It's supposed to be the final, un-aired episode of some knock-off ghost hunting show called, natrually, "Grave Encounters." We see a minute or so of previous episodes cobbled together, establishing it as the sort of spooky but safe fare so popular with credulous dolts and then it segues into this latest episode - spending the night in a haunted mental hospital.

Ding-ding-ding! Victim!

Like Paranormal Activity, this film does a good job of slowly building to the horror. You meet the characters - a not entirely unlikable lot - as they go about the usual pregame, interviewing locals and such about just how spooky the old place is. This is unedited, including lots of scenes of show MC Lance instructing the interviewees and a hilarious bit where they actually pay the latino landscaper to make up a ghost story, which he delivers as flatly as possible - "I saw a ghost. Over there. It was scary."

The behind-the-scenes, uh, scenes heavily imply this sort of "We don't really believe this stuff" attitude is SOP for ghost shows and our merry band of future victims are all excited about what a great show this'll be. They're less merry after some weird things happen but as it's only the usual self-opening door or two, it's still all fun and games.

Then the ghosts get mean. They shove one camera man down the stairs - he survives - and grope the token female, lifting her hair on camera. Then it goes from "Hey, this is kinda neat" to "Screw it, let's go" real fast. Though they can't go yet, the caretaker having locked them in for the night. So they wait it out and when morning comes...

Nothing. No caretaker. No daylight. They break down the front door and it just leads into another hallway. Forever. Good times.

A similar "found footage" PA knockoff, Skew dispenses with the ghosts and demons to make the camera itself the monster. Maybe. Three friends take a road trip to a wedding or something - it's never made all that clear and you won't care anyway. Along the way, total strangers caught by the camera appear for one brief moment with their features distorted. The characters naturally think nothing of this until said strangers start turning up dead soon after in more grissly and outlandish ways. I'm pretty sure the darkness blows a sheriff's brains out at one point.

And this guy was strangled by those cigarrettes.

Skew is actually a fun concept because it's left intentionally ambiguous whether or not the camera really is cursed like this. Only the one filming ever notices and he may not be all there, as subsequent rweinding and watching of the same scenes shows the distortion to be missing. Problem is, he and his two buddies - Greasy Bro and Token Chick - are just so goddamn boring. It makes what is actually some pretty sparse horror much more riveting... Because you so desperately want something to happen already. An okay effort but a cautionary tale on the dangers of making a film with your idiot friends.

8213: Gacy House attempts to one up this by not just presenting found footage of a haunting but a haunting by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Which seems like a good idea at first, before the movie starts. I've already explained how scene-setting is the most important factor of making these sorts of films work and the crew at Asylum Films utterly suck at it. Every time the camera goes wobbling through the not-so-dank basement or the forgettably common and well-lit hallways, it only serves to remind you that the house not only isn't scary but isn't much of anything. It doesn't help there's one scene where an Army photo is clearly visible on the wall behind one of the equally forgettable actors. An Army photo sporting the uniform that came out in 2005. In a house no one's been in since 1994.

VectorPress presents a montage of morons!

That's a laughably amateur mistake. I should know, I've been on enough amateur sets. And amateur really is the most polite thing I can say about the cast, who consist of interchangeable nothings, an old professor-type, a nerd who gets pantsed by Gacy's vengeful spectre, and some New Age airhead who looks like this is her first acting job outside Vivid Pictures. For which she tries to compensate  for by having the most ridiculous scenes - first she presents an "offering" of her fifteen-year-old nephew's shirt to Ghost Gacy. Jesus, why is America so chalk-full of pedophiles!? Later while wiggling her hippie sticks around like she's looking to dig a well, she gets ghots-bitten on the tit just so they can do a close-up. And then gets her shirt and bra pulled off during the climax because boobs. There's a thermal image of a fat man intended to be Gacy at one point but I just described the bulk of the special effects budget.

Megan is Missing ditches the supernatural shenanigans entirely, using new media - primarily webcams, news reports, and vlogs - to tell the old serial killer story. The problem is it's titular Megan is a teenager and teenagers are despicable. And while the movie agrees with this assessment, it goes out of its way to play things up exploitation style, rather than the mindless moronic evil that's so much more common. Megan, a vicious vixen dreamed up by some screenwriter who never touched a boob in high school, has her behavior excused by some ham-fisted abuse story in her background - that's mentioned all of once, as if they remembered "Oh right! We want the audience to sympathize with her!" And because on some level they realized it wasn't working, they include a respectable best friend named Ally who exists as a sump for bathos. There's really nothing else to her character, she's just constantly sweet and put upon by everyone else until the end when she's buried alive by the never identified guy who makes Megan go missing in the first place.

The one on the left is the one on the left.

It's a shame because - preachy as it is - the subject of serial killers trolling chatrooms is something worth discussing. And to it's credit, the film takes an unflinching look at just what these sorts do to their victims without devolving into Saw-style torture porn. If the lead up weren't so alarmist and two-dimensional, this would be a triumph. As it is, it's just a mess.

But still better than what may be the king of failed rip-offs, Episode 50. Without even the balls to plagiarize Paranormal Activity directly, this takes the haunted hospital concept from Grave Encounters and the lazy cinematography from Gacy House. Really, it starts out as found footage but frequently drifts into ordinary movie shots. It creates a sense of fakeness, which is the one thing you want to avoid in this genre even more than uninspiring assholes as your leads.

And it's proof of something I've suspected for a while - loudly religious Protestants just aren't creative. That's the driving force behind this flick, a rival film crew lead by a constantly grinning youth pastor type takes the other side of the hospital so they can capture proof of the supernatural and of Pastor Cheesedoodle's excorcisin' skillz. Which initial Grave Encounters knock-off crew has to help him with so they can find their faith or something. And then they go confront the "demon" - a big black guy - in front of the gates to hell which exist in the basement of some abandoned paper mill or something. Fucking Prods...

I couldn't find a picture of the Pastor, so here's his counterpart - Douche McTool.

So that's one win, two draws, and two losses. Lousy stats on their own but not half bad in the context of contemporary American film.

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