The Ring

Trivia question: what horror movie remake grossed a quarter of a billion dollars and helped spawn a horror subgenre in the U.S.? I am of course talking about the remake of The Ring, starring Naomi Watts. I would have watched Ringu – the original – but I can’t find it anywhere.

The plot: intrepid reporter Rachel hears an urban legend about a cursed videotape that will supposedly kill you seven days after viewing. After tracking the videotape down and watching it, Rachel’s hardboiled skepticism quickly turns to complete belief. Despite the danger, Rachel makes a copy of the videotape and shows it to her ex, who comes to believe her but isn’t angry that she, you know, showed it to him.

The videotape itself is a bunch of disjointed images that don’t seem to make any sense, and most of The Ring is devoted to deciphering them. Following a trail of lighthouses, falling ladders, dead horses and hidden wells leads our heroine to the ghost of a creepy little girl. Can Rachel decipher the angry spirit’s secret before her seven days are up?

Two things struck me about The Ring. The first is that certain plot elements of this movie most likely inspired It Follows. The second is the lack of jump scares; J-horror is infamous for its creepy children and jump scares. With the exception of the ending, The Ring isn’t all that scary. When it comes down to it, not a whole lot happens in this movie.

I also didn’t like Rachel, The Ring’s main character. If you found a cursed videotape that is supposed to kill you seven days after viewing, would you watch it? A lot of people might, especially skeptics. Would you make a copy and show it to your ex? Maybe, if you didn’t like your ex. How about bringing the videotape home and leaving it around the living room so your curious child can watch it? Thoughtlessness is one thing; blatant stupidity is something else.

I bought The Ring fifteen years ago. After watching half the movie, I hit the Stop button. Now I remember why I did it. Unfortunately, this movie just doesn’t hold up.

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Shivers

A good parasite wants to keep its host healthy. I know that because I read Parasite Rex, and you should too! So why not use parasites in medical research? I’m sure this is not an original idea, but as far as I know David Cronenberg was the first to use it as a plot point in a movie (way back in 1975). If I am wrong, please let me know. I just learned how to use the strikethrough feature on WordPress.

The plot: Doctor Hobbes decides that people are too uptight, man, so he develops a parasite that turns its hosts into sex-crazed maniacs. He inserts the parasite into his personal guinea pig, a nineteen-year old girl who proceeds to infect a number of men in her apartment complex. Remorseful, the doctor strangles her and then kills himself, a scene that manages to be both violent and sexual.

Cut to our hero and heroine: Dr. St. Luc and his sidekick, Nurse Forsythe. The good doctor works at that selfsame apartment complex, located on an island and thus cut off from civilization. Dr. St. Luc isn’t a very effective hero, twiddling his thumbs as the parasite gets cracking, multiplying itself and finding new hosts. Doc St. Luc knows that the Love Bug is on the loose, but doesn’t react very quickly. Maybe he’s surprised at the speed in which the parasite metastasizes and reproduces, or maybe he’s just not the action-hero type.

Things start getting hairy. Barbara Steele is infected by the parasite in a bathtub, a scene that has since become a horror cliché. A love-crazed middle-aged woman drags the equivalent of the pizza boy into her apartment. Bizarre sex and orgies abound as crowds of passion pilgrims roam the hallways in search of their next love fix. Can the uptight Doc and his nurse girlfriend escape the Sexual Revolution?

The plot of Shivers is similar to Cronenberg’s Rabid, but Shivers is a less polished movie. Please note that there are several scenes of sexual assault, which mostly consist of panting, fully dressed men flopping on top of women.  Be aware of this before watching.

Recommended for body horror and Dave Cronenberg fans.

Dark Water

Dark Water is a Japanese movie based on the novel written by Koji Suzuki and directed by Hideo Nakata, creators of The Ring. There are two movies titled Dark Water, the original and a remake starring Jennifer Connelly. This is a review of the original movie, which is available on Amazon Prime.

The plot: Yoshimi moves into a creepy apartment complex with her six-year old daughter Ikuko. Soon strange things start happening: a little red book bag that keeps coming back, the spreading stain on the ceiling, glimpses of a little girl dressed in a yellow raincoat. The little girl doesn’t seem to like Ikuko, who is drawn to the water tower on the roof (water is a recurring theme in this movie). How far will Yoshimi go to protect her daughter?

There are a few things left unsaid: Yoshimi is fragile, maybe suicidal. She has no money and is in a nasty custody battle with her ex-husband. There’s no question of the reality of what happens here, but the events that occur in Dark Water mirror Yoshimi’s downward spiral, which is the best type of horror. Yoshimi does some stupid things in this movie, but when your life falls apart that will happen. She’s holding on by tips of her fingernails, so she clings to Ikuko, but she also resents her daughter. It’s no coincidence that the monster of Dark Water is a child who wants love.

Dark Water has lots of good jump scares, but that’s not the point. This movie reminds me of a tragedy in a L.A hotel involving a water tower. There was footage of a girl in an elevator, which I’m not going to link to, because it’s easy enough to find on YouTube. People seem to think the video is spooky and that the woman is talking to ghosts, when what we’re really seeing is a person in the midst of a breakdown.

Highly recommended!

 

Horror Hotel/City of the Dead

I learned about Horror Hotel, aka City of the Dead, in an article I read about folk horror. To be honest, I’d never heard of this movie and thus didn’t expect much. I was pleasantly surprised. Released in 1960 in black-and-white, Horror Hotel is one of the better horror flicks I’ve seen in the past few months.

The plot: college student Nan Barlow travels to the town of Whitewood, Massachusetts on the recommendation of her professor (Christopher Lee) to research witchcraft. She goes despite the protests of her boyfriend and her brother, who are so obnoxious I think she makes the trek to get away from them. Nan picks up a hitchhiker named Jethrow enroute to Whitewood. When Jethrow vanishes upon arrival Nan doesn’t blink an eye, which means she either doesn’t believe in the supernatural or isn’t too smart. She definitely didn’t read the script.

Whitewood is the type of place that would make most sane people turn around and drive away. It’s always foggy and dark. The blind priest warns Nan off. Ghostly singing voices drift up from the trapdoor in our heroine’s room. The woman who owns the Raven’s Inn looks just like Elizabeth Selwyn, burned for witchcraft almost three hundred years ago. Clueless Nan soldiers on, at one point reading a treatise on human sacrifice to the head witch, who does a fine job keeping a straight face.

Horror Hotel is not perfect. Neither of the movie’s titles fit. The jazzy bebop soundtrack doesn’t work. Mr. Lee is great as usual, but some of the other acting is dreadful. However, Horror Hotel is well written and atmospheric, with a few genuinely disturbing scenes and a riveting ending.

Recommended!

Vampires

Be warned that this review contains spoilers.

A mockumentary about creatures of the night, Vampires is as good an example of this axiom as I’ve ever seen. Do not confuse this movie with What We Do In the Shadows, another pseudo-documentary about bloodsuckers. Set in Belgium and Quebec, Vampires is in French with English subtitles and is more satire than horror movie. I didn’t laugh at  the jokes, but I might not have understood some of the cultural references. If you think vampires slaughtering minorities, children and handicapped people is funny, then this is the movie for you.

The plot: a film crew documents the exploits of a vampire clan – family head George, his wife Bertha and their two children, Samson and Grace. The kids aren’t George and Bertha’s biological children. I think ‘children’ means that they’re of the same bloodline, although this is never explained and I never saw the movies or TV shows the filmmakers are referencing. Sloppy writing is a problem throughout Vampires – dumb characters, dangling plotlines, unexplained incidents and utter impossibilities.

Bad writing aside, the main problem I had with Vampires is that George and Bertha are boring. They behave like middle-aged swingers who think they’re cool and end up embarrassing their kids in front of their friends. George is a self-satisfied prick and Bertha acts like she’s high on prescription meds. I will say that the nosferatu couple that lives in their basement is even worse.

Grace and Samson are more sympathetic than their ‘parents.’ Samson goes to vampire school to watch torture porn movies and practice his bite on a CPR dummy. His best friend is an ex-member of The Doors, who died and was reborn speaking fluent French. Grace likes pink and has a pink coffin because her dad spoils her. She keeps trying to kill herself because she can’t die, although she can die: just step into the daylight. So it’s not clear if Grace  wants to die or if she wants to be human. She has a human lover, who appears in the middle of the movie and just as suddenly disappears.

Samson has sex with the head vampire’s wife, which gets the whole family banished to Quebec. George has to get a real job. Samson falls in love with a human woman and becomes a subway busker. Grace starts transforming back into a human, for reasons way too muddled to go into. That’s one of the utter impossibilities I was talking about, and I’m not going to waste another hundred words describing why. Trust me on this one.

Not recommended.

General Cemetery

General Cemetery is the second Peruvian horror movie I’ve seen in the past week; the first was Secret of Evil. I watched both flicks courtesy of Netflix Streaming and will say that General Cemetery is a better movie than Secret of Evil, which is not the same thing as saying it’s a good movie. General Cemetery is a hard movie to classify, part found-footage, part young-girl-possessed-by-Satan and part evil-demon-wreaks-bloody-vengeance-on-a-gang-of-dumb-teenagers.

The plot: Andrea is a fifteen-year old girl whose father dies. Luckily, she has her friends and schoolmates to support her: Gabriel, who we know is a jock because his hat’s turned backwards; Julito, who everyone calls ‘Fatso’ and whose only personality trait is that he’s heavy; and Pablo, who films everything. Finally there’s Andrea’s best friend Mayra, whose aunt has given her a Very Special Ouija Board. Pablo is our main character. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to come across as sympathetic. At the movie’s start he tries to film up a girl’s skirt, so to me he seemed creepy rather than likable.

Andrea and her friends attempt to contact her father with a homemade Ouija board. It doesn’t work. They then decide to take a road trip to the cemetery where he’s buried and try again, this time with the Very Special Ouija Board. For some reason Andrea brings her little sister Evita along. Unless Andrea read the script, there’s no sane reason for her to do this. The ritual at the cemetery produces results, if you call Evita becoming possessed by Satan results.

The possession scenes are hilarious. The Scooby Crew chases after the possessed Evita. When they catch her she hisses and they turn tail and run away. This chase sequence is repeated three or four times and you can clearly see a few of the characters laughing. We soon learn that everything that’s happened is the result of a revenge plot, which I will not reveal because spoilers.

Besides a few jump scares, General Cemetery isn’t scary. The cemetery itself is certainly large and impressive, but I didn’t think it was scary. That might be because I don’t believe in ghosts. The plot is fairly complex but falls apart at the end. As one of the characters says – ‘but I didn’t do anything!’

Too bad life’s not fair.

Grave Encounters

You know you’ve watched a special movie when there’s a disclaimer at the end saying: no rats were eaten during the course of this film. Grave Encounters isn’t the best haunted insane asylum movie I’ve seen – that would be Session 9 – but it is fun, especially if you like found-footage.

Grave Encounters does not break any new ground. The cast and crew of paranormal reality show Grave Encounters spend the night in the Collingswood Psychiatric Hospital. They set up cameras to record spooky footage and talk to people about how the abandoned hospital is haunted. When the groundskeeper locks them in for the evening they are never seen again…until the footage of their Night From Hell ™ is found by the authorities.

One of the best things about Grave Encounters is how the characters are in on the joke. The Fourth Wall stays intact, but the cast and crew are engaged in the act of creating fiction. Lance and co-host Sasha don’t believe in the supernatural, so they’re just making shit up as they go. Lance slips the landscaper a twenty to say he’s seen a ghost. His actor friend Houston Gray does a schmaltzy psychic act. T.C. and Matt are the crew.

The problem is that Collingswood really is haunted. Wheelchairs move. An invisible entity pushes T.C. down the stairs. Invisible fingers play with Sasha’s hair. Matt the camera guy vanishes. When the groundskeeper doesn’t let our heroes out in the morning they break open the door and find endless miles of corridors. Soon afterwards, the ghosts start to manifest physically, and that’s when the real jump scares start.

Grave Encounters does a fine job of poking fun at found-footage tropes. None of the characters believe in the supernatural. The interviewees are awkward, with one guy asking where he should look while another curses on-camera. A bored Matt and T.C. toss a football back and forth. The words Death Awaits are spray-painted on the entranceway and instead of being scared, everyone laughs and thinks it’s hokey.

Recommended for found-footage fans.

Secret of Evil

Set in Lima, Peru, Secret of Evil is found footage. The plot: four idiots vanish after spending the evening in a haunted house; afterwards, the authorities find the footage of their night from Hell. There are about a million of these types of movies out there. Sometimes it’s an insane asylum, sometimes it’s an abandoned prison, in this case it’s a haunted house. The IMDB entry for Secret of Evil says that the movie cost $300,000 (est.) to make, which might explain the popularity of this subgenre.

The story begins with a dude in a lunatic asylum. Lunatic asylum dude stares at the camera, babbles nonsense and then starts throwing stuff around. We then cut to our youthful (college age?) heroes, who interview a bunch of actors playing historians and folklorists. They learn three stories about the evil infecting the house. The stories are garbled and I had trouble telling them apart, but that might have been the subtitles. Or maybe I was tired. Or I might have been playing Chess on my phone because parts of this movie are really dull. Anyhow, we learn the house is a Bad Place.

To be honest, I’m not even sure why our youthful heroes want to go into the house. One of them mentions a school project, while the other makes it seem like they are budding reality stars. They  bribe the guard to get in. That didn’t make much sense until we learn that the house is across the street from the American Embassy, so I’m guessing the Americans pay the guard to ensure nobody sneaks into the house (like they’re doing) to spy on them? The house is a piece of crap in the middle of a modern city, so I don’t even know why it’s still standing. One of Secret of Evil’s many unanswered questions.

The usual hijinks ensue. If you watch found footage movies, you know the routine.  They set up the cameras, which shows us things the kids don’t see. Check. The characters have very basic personalities; they’re mostly annoying, so that we’ll root for them to die. Check. There’s the woman who yells at everybody, the surly camera guy, the quack psychic. I kept expecting the psychic – who is twice the age of our youthful heroes – to say ‘Come into the light, Carol Anne.’

Our heroes wander aimlessly around the house. The quack psychic opines. There are some good jump scares, but a few of the effects made me laugh rather than shriek – not a good sign. The scariest part of Secret of Evil is the creepy nursery, because ghost kids. The last ten minutes dragged, because who cares? The Boss Ghost looks like the malevolent spirit from The Woman in Black.

Secret of Evil is available on Netflix Streaming. If you enjoy found footage movies, there are worst ways to spend an hour and twenty minutes of your life. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Fascination

Directed by my favorite Euro Trash director Jean Rollin, Fascination is an interesting twist on the story of Countess Bathory. Filmed on a zero budget, Mr. Rollin’s movies feature awful acting, minimal plots and lots of semi-nudity and soft-core sex. His films are almost always visually striking and Fascination, filmed at a chateau, is no exception.

Fascination opens with a montage of bizarre images. A female hand opens a book, almost fondling the pages. A pair of women dance on a bridge to the tune of a gramophone. Two overdressed ladies stand in the midst of a very bloody slaughterhouse, where we learn that in 1905 ox blood was a popular cure for anemia amongst the rich. They drink a toast in champagne glasses while one of the young women rubs the blood all over her lips, the first of a series of not-so subtle hints that everyone in this movie is crazy.

Our hero is Marc, who is a thief. Dressed in a bowler hat and red-and-black striped jacket, Marc is the picture of sartorial splendor. Alas, the ne’er-do-wells he’s working with try to pull a double-cross and he takes the lone woman of the gang hostage. She pulls off her shirt, offering herself to him, and our hero responds by bursting out laughing. Insulted, she knees him in the balls and runs off.

Marc hides in a chateau populated by a pair of crazy women. At first they act normal, but as the movie progresses it becomes obvious they’re toying with him. Part of this is Marc’s own fault. Although a sharp dresser, he isn’t a killer. The return of Marc’s murderous ex-partners puts a crimp in his plans of escape. One of the crazy ladies brings the loot out to the thugs, which leads to the best sequence of the movie.

Thinking that the gang’s left with the money (they haven’t), Marc’s free to leave the chateau, but after hearing the crazy ladies talk about a midnight gathering he decides to stay because…I’m not sure why. My best guess is that he’s curious, thus echoing the movie’s title. If you want to know what happens next Fascination is streaming on Shudder.

I wouldn’t call Fascination a good movie, but I liked it. It’s not scary and there’s not much blood, but there is lots of sex and some stylized violence. This film looks good and even sort of has a plot. Please note that this is a French movie with English subtitles. Fascination isn’t for everyone, but I had fun watching it.

Hostage to the Devil

Hostage to the Devil is not a movie about exorcism, nor is it based on Malachi Martin’s book “Hostage to the Devil,” which deals with exorcism. This is a documentary about Malachi Martin himself. Full disclosure: I read Mr. Martin’s book “Hostage to the Devil” last year and formed definite opinions about the author.

Hostage to the Devil makes no claims to being unbiased about its subject. The movie is full of sincere people talking about what a great man Malachi was, making it clear that Mr. Martin attracted a band of devoted followers. Demonologists (Lorraine Warren) and conspiracy theorists (Art Bell) make appearances or pay tribute. There are clips of Mr. Martin being witty. The lone dissenter states that Mr. Martin was a huckster who started believing his own horseshit; he also thinks Mr. Martin had an affair with his wife, making it unclear if he’s a lunatic.

Mr. Martin was no longer a Jesuit when he wrote “Hostage to the Devil” and cashed in on the success of “The Exorcist,” but if this documentary is to be believed he and his posse went around performing exorcisms in New York City for years. The movie shows us footage of a few ‘possessed’ people being exorcised, which is disturbing in that we are watching the mentally ill being exploited. Mr. Martin does not appear in this footage, so I don’t know if he participated in these exorcisms.

Unless you are obsessed with Malachi Martin – and apparently some people are – Hostage to the Devil is a bore. The documentary tries to build suspense by reenacting an encounter Mr. Martin had with The Devil in Connecticut, and there are those who believe Satan murdered him. What can you say to that? I’m sorry Mr. Martin passed away.

If you want to learn more about Mr. Martin’s beliefs concerning exorcism I’d recommend his book “Hostage to the Devil.” Mr. Martin was a traditionalist, in that he thought Vatican II turned back the clock (before Vatican II, the Catholic Church conducted its services in Latin) and unleashed Satan upon an unsuspecting world. The book rails against such social ills as belief in evolution, sexual expression, self-exploration, yoga, the counterculture, women’s rights, etc., etc., etc. It’s quite a long list. Mr. Martin also believed The Satanic Panic of the 80’s really happened. Ironically, despite Mr. Martin’s professed hostility to New Age beliefs, the book “Hostage to the Devil” is at its core a New Age book because of the author’s willingness to believe anything couched in religious jargon.

I’ve seen a number of good horror documentaries over the past few years, including Cropsey, The Imposter, Killer Legends, Lost Soul and Room 237. I’ll even throw My Amityville Horror in there, because of Mr. Lutz’s onscreen charisma. Unfortunately, Hostage to the Devil was not one of them.

Not recommended.