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Movie Review: Insidious (2011) May 16, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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Well-made horror movies about hauntings are a rarity these days.  Genuinely frightening ones are almost impossible to find.  For me, Insidious was both.

Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan (the Aussie duo who kick started the Saw franchise), Insidious is a unique spin on the haunted house genre, something I didn’t expect and was pleasantly surprised by.

It tells the story of a young married couple played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, who move into a new house with their three boys.  Weird things start happening and a tragic event occurs — but that’s just the beginning.  At some point in the film the story takes a turn and takes us in a new direction.  Some will like the fact that we are being treated to something we’re not used to seeing.  Others will despise it.

You will have to either know a little bit about what I am referring to or be able to keep an open mind in order to truly appreciate it.  If you can’t, you’ll probably write off the film as silly and farcical.  But if you can (and I could), I believe you’re in for a real treat.

For those put off by the Saw reference, don’t be, because Insidious is nothing like those torture porn films.  It’s also nothing like Paranormal Activity (also referred to on the poster because it has common producers, including Oren Peli), which I thought sucked.  Whannell and Wan have shown their versatility with this one, using clever and authentically frightening situations, escalating tension and downright freakish moments to create one of the most suspenseful ghost films I’ve seen in years.  Sure, none of the tactics are necessarily original, but the execution was undoubtedly superb.

The film does have a few shaky moments, especially towards the end, but if it’s frights you are looking for, then Insidious definitely delivers.

4 stars out of 5

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Movie Review: Snowtown (2011) May 12, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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Snowtown is in cinemas 19 May 2011

In Australia, ‘Snowtown’ is synonymous with the infamous Snowtown murders, otherwise known as the Bodies in Barrels murders of the 1990s. And so I was very intrigued when I attended a screening of Snowtown, the new Aussie film that dramatises the horrific and somewhat bizarre events.

After the brilliant Animal Kingdom last year, I was ready to give any Australian film the benefit of the doubt, though I must admit I was slightly concerned because Snowtown is directed by a first-time feature director (Justin Kurzel) and stars a bunch of first-time feature actors.

Fortunately, those concerns were unfounded, because Snowtown doesn’t feel like the product of a group of first-timers. The film might be a little rough around the edges at times, but on the whole, it is solid cinema, and one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen in a long time. Frankly, Snowtown freaked me out.

The film is told from the perspective of young Jamie Vlassakis, who lives in the South Australian town of Snowtown with his mother and brothers. It’s a forgotten part of Australia, with people living barely above the poverty line and heavily affected by alcohol, drugs and sexual and domestic abuse. Enter John Bunting, a seemingly ordinary guy who befriends his family and becomes a father figure to Jamie. But there’s something about John that’s just not right, and Jamie soon finds himself falling too deep to get out.

Snowtown does have a bit of that Animal Kingdom feel to it in terms of style and the slower pace, but it is essentially a depressing horror film about one of the worst mass murderers in Australian history. It’s highly atmospheric, with some extremely graphic, visceral scenes that dare the audience to not look away — but at the same time there is a sense of authenticity and realism to it.

That’s the biggest strength of the film in my opinion — it’s ability to tell a story of such horrors without being over-the-top, cheesy or fake. The direction of Kurzel is actually very good, and the performances of the three main leads (Lucas Pittway, Daniel Henshall and Louise Harris) were all fantastic, miraculous really, considering this was their first feature film. Henshall, in particular, is outstanding as the terrifying, pathological Bunting.

Not all of the scenes worked, but my main complaint about the film is that it doesn’t explain some of the family/friendship dynamics very well. Bunting just appears in Jamie’s life — but we don’t really know where he came from. The same could be said for a number of the other characters. Who are they and how are they related to Jamie’s family? It wasn’t until I did some research after the film that I discovered who some of the characters were.

Ultimately, Snowtown is a strong film, technically and emotionally — not necessarily a pleasant one to watch, but if you enjoy dark, depressing films, being terrified and are intrigued by the type of people that stuff bodies in barrels (both apply to me), then this could be the film for you. To be perfectly honest, it unsettled, chilled, and scared the crap out of me, and I loved it because of that.

4 stars out of 5

25 Films That Scared the Crap Out of Me When I Was a Kid May 10, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Entertainment, Misc, Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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When I was a snotty little kid, my older sister used to always borrow horror movies from the local video store.  Scary movies were all that she watched.  Scary movies and Stand By Me and White Fang (on loop — thanks to crushes on River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke).

I grew to like horror films too, but it wasn’t before they caused some serious lifelong trauma.  Without further ado, here the 25 that scared me the most (entirely from memory).

(to see the list, click on ‘more…’)

(more…)

Movie Review: The Rite (2011) March 16, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Paranormal, Reviews.
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I am a huge fan of horror films, and few intrigue me more than those with ‘possession’ and ‘exorcism’ angles.  So of course I was eager to see The Rite, which was apparently aiming to be this generation’s The Exorcist.  It stars Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins and newcomer Colin O’Donoghue (great screen presence), and tells the story of the young son of a mortuary owner (O’Donoghue) who almost drops out of seminary school and is instead whisked to Rome to participate in ‘exorcism’ class, and ends up learning from an unorthodox expert (Hopkins).

I didn’t have to see the film to know that critics were probably going to savage it — few horror films these days, especially those dealing with the supernatural, are likely to pass through unscathed.  However, I thought the previews looked pretty promising, so I was kind of hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

I’ll get straight to the point.  The Rite started off extremely well, almost too well for its own good.  It was atmospheric, intriguing, chilling and rather eye-opening.  It also asked some interesting questions about religion, faith and psychiatric illness, without coming off feeling contrived.  There were some fantastically effective scenes and sequences that made me recoil in horror.  It’s supposedly ‘inspired’ by true events, though I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about that.

However, at some point, around halfway through the film, The Rite takes a massive wrong turn.  I can almost pinpoint the exact scene where things start going downhill.  The point of view begins to switch awkwardly all over the place, and all subtlely flies out the window.  Instead of keeping you guessing, everything is spelled out and shoved down your throat, and genuine chills are replaced by cheap scares and special effects.  What began as potentially a new classic spiralled into just another uninspiring supernatural horror flick.

Sigh…

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the first half.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Last Exorcism (2010) December 6, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews.
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I guess it was only a matter of time before they did a mockumentary on exorcisms, but surprisingly, The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm and produced by Eli Roth, is actually very good.

It is an edited “found footage” movie in the vein of The Blair Witch Project that tells the story of Louisiana preacher Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who comes from a long line of “exorcists”.  Naturally, Marcus is not a true believer, and to prove his point, he takes part in this documentary (which explains the film crew) — and of course, the one case he picks up at random turns out to be a genuine case of demonic possession — or is it?

For the most part, The Last Exorcism comes across as pretty authentic for a film of this kind.  The screenplay is rock solid with great dialogue and compelling characters, especially the smug Reverend.  It does an excellent job of raising questions about the truthfulness of the possession (and possession and exorcism in general) and cleverly creates several alternative possibilities and suspects to keep audiences intrigued.

The scares were fairly good — not as terrifying as the original Exorcist (what film is?) but there is decent tension and the aversion to cheap scares only adds to the realism.  The best thing about the film is that the non-scary bits are also fun to watch and not just time-fillers for the next fright (unlike say Paranormal Activity).

However, I did say “for the most part” because The Last Exorcism could not entirely escape the tendency for horror films to fall apart at the end.  The film’s authenticity was thrown out the window as it headed towards the climax, with the single hand-held camera occasionally discarded for quick cuts and close ups from different angles, and additional sound effects added in for…effect.  If you’re really into the movie you probably won’t notice, but for the more astute viewer it’s a bit of a distractiion.

The final scenes were also an unexplained mess that felt rushed and incomplete — some might say it adds to the authenticity of “found footage” and promotes discussion, but to me it was unsatisfying and needed to be fleshed out more.

Having said that, The Last Exorcism is still one of the best-made horror films of the year.

4 stars out of 5

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