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Final Destination 3 (2006)

06/13/2011 1 comment

One of the most intense fears humanity has, one that is almost unique to our species, is the fear of losing control. This fear can run under the surface of many disorders, like OCD and its milder cousin, the “control freak” instinct. Of course, no matter what people do to control their environment, to make things as safe as possible, all that gets tossed out the window when Death points a bony finger in your direction…

Final Destination 3 is a horror film directed by James Wong, the third movie in the Final Destination series. It stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ryan Merriman, Kris Lemche, Alexz Johnson, Sam Easton, Jenne Moss, with Tony Todd providing the voice of the Devil (no, really).

Six years have passed since the Flight 180 tragedy (see also Final Destination). A group of high school students visit an amusement park as a last huzzah before graduation, and they decide to ride a roller coaster called the Devil’s Flight (with a giant fiberglass devil out front hawking the ride). Control freak and school photographer Wendy has a premonition that the ride will crash and kill everyone aboard, and freaks out enough to get herself and a bunch of her fellow riders removed, while her boyfriend rides on in another train. Hilarity ensues as she foresaw, and as she mourns the loss of her boyfriend, life goes on. She plans to pick up her diploma and get the hell out of McKinley and its tragic memories, never to look back. Of course, this being a Final Destination movie, the laws of physics and narrative horror have other plans in mind, as the people scheduled to die in the roller coaster crash start getting picked off in the order they would have sat on the roller coaster train, Wendy finds herself in a race against time to unlock the clues in her amusement park photos and save people from the laws of physics…

The overall concept of the third movie remains sound within the FD-verse, opening with the roller coaster as a metaphor for loss of control and the “safe” scares of horror movies in general. This time, though, the cast of victims are unconnected to Flight 180 aside from knowing about the events surrounding it (whereas the bunch in FD2 had been saved in roundabout ways by the initial survival of the cast of the first movie), and therefore their place in Death’s plan is incidental at best; they were supposed to die, and they didn’t. Regardless, Death seems to be getting a little peeved at people surviving the disasters he cooks up, so the deaths are becoming more brutal: death by burning in a tanning booth, an engine fan to the back of the head, death by nailgun, and so forth. After the engine fan death, Wendy even notes that the accident seems pretty vicious. It seems that this time around it is less about balancing Death’s books and more about punishing the escapees. Cleverly, though, if you pay attention during the opening, an alert viewer will notice that every single death is foreshadowed at the amusement park, and not just through Wendy’s prophetic photos.

Of course, escalating the level of violence in a horror movie can still work, if you have a good cast of talented actors portraying sympathetic characters. Here, you have three fairly sympathetic characters (Wendy, her sister Julie, and her boyfriend’s best friend Kevin) alongside a couple of snobby Paris Hilton clones named Ashley and Ashlynn (urgh…), an oversexed douchebag with a video camera named Frankie, an arrogant football star named Lewis that cares more about the game than the harbingers of doom, and the Wonder Goth Twins Ian and Erin, who call each other Zip and Pip. However, amid the expected failures in failsafe devices and basic common sense, Ian is briefly redeemed by following basic safety procedures on the forklift at the hardware store where he works with Erin, narrowly avoiding turning that sequence into a rehash of Forklift Driver Klaus and instead turning it into a freak-accident shout-out to The Nailgun Massacre. Then he snaps out after Erin’s death and we start waiting for him to die horribly. However, while FD3 tries hard to put the fear of freak accidents into its viewers, and at least one of the death sequences does offer a nod to urban legend (the tanning bed sequence), it appears that the Final Destination franchise is starting to lose steam in this installment, relying more on gore and shock value for its scares than building suspense.

While Final Destination 3 is starting to show signs that the franchise is going a bit stale, fans of the first two installments and slasher movies in general should largely enjoy this contribution to a world where mechanical safeguards can be rendered moot by a force of nature. Afterwards, why not go to a park this summer and ride the roller coasters? After all, they’re perfectly safe…

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Van Helsing (2004)

04/22/2011 2 comments

Here’s a story
Of a man named Stoker
Who wrote a monster story just to scare
And because every great monster needs a hunter
He also wrote Van Helsing in there.

And here’s a story
Of a man named Sommers
Whose monster movies often entertained
He wanted to refurbish old Van Helsing
To make a brand-new franchise self-contained.

Van Helsing is an action horror film written, produced, and directed by Stephen Sommers, intended as an extended homage to the old Universal Studios monster films of the 1930s and 1940s. It starts Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, and Kevin J. O’Connor.

Van Helsing is an amnesiac vigilante monster hunter working for the Knights of the Holy Order, stationed at the Vatican. After returning from a mission to capture kill the murderous Edward Hyde, he is given two new tasks: Kill the fabled vampire Dracula, and while doing so prevent the last of the Valerious family from being trapped in Purgatory due to a vow one of the Valerious ancestors made. With the assistance of Q Branch Friar Carl, Van Helsing loads up on the cool toys he will need to take down the powerful vampire and sets out for Transylvania. When he arrives, he discovers that, with the recent death by werewolf of Velkan Valerious, the sole remaining heir is one Anna Valerious, who is determined to fulfill her family vow to kill Dracula. When Dracula and his three brides attack the village, they are forced to team up, and make a few chilling discoveries: 1. Velkan is Not Quite Dead, having been transformed into a werewolf under Dracula’s control. 2. Dracula has been trying to bridge the gap between life and undeath and bring hordes of little vampire babies, his offspring, to life. 3. He might be close to finding a way, if he can just get his hands on the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein. 4. Dracula also remembers Van Helsing from a past encounter, and may hold the secret to unlocking his lost memories. Now Van Helsing is torn between stopping a cunning monster and discovering his own past, between his mission and his growing love for Anna, as he seeks a way to end Dracula’s menace once and for all. Again.

I found Van Helsing to be a neat little reimagining to a character who, in the original novel, was an old professor who had studied the ways of vampires in order to figure out how to kill Count Dracula. Here, he is a younger action hero who studies the ways of all monsters in order to determine the best ways to kill each. When you add this inventor sidekick Friar Carl, this vision of the vampire hunter becomes somewhat of a steampunk James Bond (complete with Bond Girl Anna Valerious). Like the Bond movies, this movie is mainly about the action sequences and the charmingly evil villain, and less about Van Helsing’s hinted-at background or, indeed, any meaningful character development. However, Van Helsing does manage to come off as a complex character. His mysterious past and the way he chafes at the rules and regulations of the Knights of the Holy Order echoes with Jackman’s other role at the time, Wolverine, but it heads in a slightly different direction here. Van Helsing grows cynical with his work, particularly as he recognizes that not all monsters are necessarily evil, and as he is set up as a fall guy when he kills otherwise innocent people who happen to have a monstrous alter ego. Unlike the antihero Wolverine, Van Helsing appears to be a genuinely good man whose implied horrible past seems to have trapped him in this role. The comic relief character Friar Carl balances out Van Helsing’s angst with much needed breather moments, particularly when his High Intelligence Low Wisdom antics result in explosions (to be fair, one of the explosions did save Van Helsing and Anna from a whole mess of vampires). Unfortunately, Anna Valerious manages only to be a typical Bond Girl, for despite her apparently tragic background she has about the emotional depth of a puddle, something for which I fault the writers less than the actress.

The plot of the movie, fortunately, was overall engaging, both as a standalone story and as the extended homage to classic Universal and Hammer Horror films that it clearly was. It hits all the traditional notes, with the mad scientist and his Igor, werewolves (which looked… just okay), Count Dracula and his three brides (whose flying forms were original and harpylike, but rendered in laughably bad CGI), all set in Transylvania, the place from which all European monsters hail. It’s a rule, that’s why. Most of the monsters are as expected, though they did try hard with the man-wolf forms of the werewolves, and a very steampunk take on Frankenstein’s creation. In essence, this is a reimagined crossover of classic monster movies, and it works mainly because the result is so much fun to watch.

If you want a fun, fresh take on an old character and classic monsters, I recommend Van Helsing. It’s a typical Stephen Sommers film, which means you can expect monsters and excitement, and a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

04/19/2011 1 comment

Some horror movies work because you don’t know why things are happening. Of course, humans are curious creatures, and when faced with terrifying, inexplicable phenomena, we try to figure out what is going on and why. This is both a minor failing and a major boon for the species, as it helps us understand the world when we risk getting eaten by it. A number of horror movie sequels try to explain what happened in the first one. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. How does this one fare? Let’s find out.

Paranormal Activity 2 is a supernatural horror film directed by Tod Williams, serving as both a prequel and a sequel to the original Paranormal Activity. It stars Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Seth Ginsberg, Sprague Grayden, and Micah Sloat.

In the year 2006, new parents Kristi and Dan Rey find themselves faced with a chilling event: their house has apparently been burglarized, with every single room ransacked save for the nursery. However, the only item that has been taken is a necklace belonging to Kristi’s sister Katie. Justifiably spooked, Dan installs a number of security cameras around the house, through whose neutral eyes we witness the events that unfold throughout the film. Over the next few days, Kristi and Ali, Dan’s daughter from a previous marriage, start to hear strange noises and see items moved by an unseen forces, and their housekeeper and nanny Martine is convinced that they are being tormented by evil spirits. Dan is skeptical, and fires Martine after her repeated attempts at spiritual cleansing. All the while, though, the security cameras continue to record, until it becomes apparent that the spooky activity is centered around baby Hunter, and it might be connected with a secret in Kristi’s family’s past…

I enjoyed this one about as much as I did the first movie. In haunted house franchises like this, too often the attempts to explain or justify the haunting makes it something lame, but not so here. While the collective plight of Katie and Micah from the first movie is given an explanation, the reason behind it makes their situation seem so much worse. This, paired with the stinger at the end, combines to chilling effect as you see the ultimate result of Dan’s final decision. Watching the first one along with this one helps a lot, especially as the timeframe of the second one is established relative to the first. The ending definitely leaves you with an “Aw, crap!” feeling that sticks with you.

As with the first, the characters here feel like real people. Dan’s attempts to reckon with the mysterious activity mirrors Micah’s from the first movie, but he’s less of a dick about it and he genuinely comes off as wanting to protect his new family. The role of poking the demon with a stick falls to older daughter Ali, who believes in the paranormal but doesn’t recognize the danger of the hauntings until much later, and her boyfriend Brad, who thinks the whole thing is a joke. Ali parses out a likely reason for the demon to torment their family through her research, and in the context of the tale it appears chillingly plausible. Her attempts to contact the thing with an Ouija board get half a pass here, as she had no psychic to warn her against such a thing, but even so she seems like she should know how stupid that would be. At least she doesn’t make their situation (much) worse with her messing around.

If you liked the first Paranormal Activity, you will likely enjoy Paranormal Activity 2. It expands on the overall story and explains some of the unseen spectre’s motives, without ruining the perceived menace. I do recommend watching the first movie before watching this one, so things make sense, but this one is a pretty spooky movie in its own right.

Poltergeist (1982)


For the longest time, haunted house movies took place in old, well-worn edifices – places with a long history of Bad Things happening, and generally places that looked haunted. You don’t expect your brand new house, built last summer, to have any sort of supernatural wonkiness going on. Then Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg got together and made a little movie and scared the crap out of people with a new brand of daylight terror.

They’re heeeere…

Poltergeist is a horror film directed by Tobe Hooper (the guy who made people afraid of chainsaws in 1974) and produced and written by Steven Spielberg (the guy who made people afraid of the beach in 1975). It stars Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Heather O’Rourke, and Zelda Rubenstein.

When the Freelings moved into their new home in the recently-built neighborhood of Cuesta Verde, they thought they’d found their dream home, the place where they would raise their family. When five-year-old Carol Anne begins conversing with the static on the TV after the end of the broadcast day, Steven and Diane think their daughter might just be sleepwalking, until one night an earthquake shakes the house during one such nocturnal conversation, prompting Carol Anne to spookily announce, “They’re here.” “They” start to manifest as strange phenomena, such as objects moving around in their own, or unattended items bending or breaking. The activity seems to be centering on little Carol Anne, and at first the Freelings think their spectral visitors or benign and sort of cute, until one night the spooky tree in the back yard attempts to eat middle child Robbie, and in the confusion Carol Anne disappears, sucked into another reality through her bedroom closet. Desperate to get her back, the Freelings enlist some unconventional help to unravel the terrifying secrets of their new home.

Drawing upon elements from real-world investigations, Poltergeist was one of the first haunted house movies to use paranormal investigative techniques as a significant plot point. A group of secondary characters brought in to help find Carol Anne use techniques still used today by ghost hunters, including the capturing of electronic interference on special devices, the videotaping of visual phenomena, and listening for supernatural communications through white noise. The investigators also make the distinction between a poltergeist and a haunting clear, such as the tendency for a poltergeist to focus on a single individual (in this case, Carol Anne). This, combined with the decision to use unknown actors, helped to root the film in “our” world, even when things start really going to hell.

Both the acting and directing in this film are exemplary. As with many effects-heavy films, the primary difficulty comes when live actors are reacting to special effects that will be added later – particularly when one of your principal actors is only five years old. Everyone did very well here, portraying both the initial excitement at their new “invisible friends” (even when they do alarming but harmless things like stacking chairs just off camera) as well as the growing terror as they learn about the evil presence Tangina identifies as the Beast, and the parental desperation and determination Steve and Diane find within themselves as the Beast goes after Carol Anne and tries to snatch her away from them again and again. While Spielberg was nominally the producer, he happily got his hands dirty in the filmmaking process, comforting Heather O’Rourke after she was frightened by an effects sequence and jumping into the half-completed pool surrounded by film equipment to demonstrate to JoBeth Williams that if it was not safe, then he was willing to take that risk. In the end, the mutual genius of Hooper and Spielberg combined to make a very tight, enjoyable little haunted house movie.

If you’re looking for a good, scary horror movie that doesn’t rely on people getting horribly murdered for its scares, absolutely watch Poltergeist. While it doesn’t feature scenes littered with slashed-up victims, it will take you just far enough outside your “safe” zones to have you checking your closets before you go to bed.

Final Destination 2 (2003)


One year has passed since the disaster of Flight 180 and the series of bizarre freak accidents that picked off the survivors one by one. Now, only one of the Flight 180 survivors remains, and things are about to start all over again…

Final Destination 2 is a horror film directed by David R. Ellis and the first sequel to Final Destination. It stars A. J. Cook, Michael Landes, T. C. Carsen, Jonathan Cherry, and Keegan Connor Tracy, with Ali Larter and Tony Todd reprising their roles as Clear Rivers and Mr. Bludworth, respectively.

On the one-year anniversary of Flight 180, Kimberly Corman is about to embark on a road trip with several friends when she has a premonition about a horrific multicar pileup on the highway ahead, in which she and her friends are all killed. She blocks the entrance ramp with her S.U.V. to prevent the other potential victims from entering the highway, attracting the attention of a police officer in the line, and as he questions her the nightmarish pileup happens right on schedule. While those whose lives she saved are initially relieved as the collectively dodged bullet, it soon becomes clear that Death is going to be balancing the books again, with a twist: the ones saved from the impending pileup are all connected in a very specific way, and Death is working backwards to tie up all the loose ends…

Like its predecessor, FD2 opens with what would become the series’ trademark – a horrific deadly chain reaction with a high death toll. This time around, it’s a pileup on the highway, a sequence that has been lauded for its sheer engineered chaos by everyone from New York Magazine to Quentin Tarantino. The other death sequences in this movie are also creatively engineered, as Grimmy toys with his victims, sometimes offering a promise of escape before kicking them in the nuts once and for all. The use of CGI, in addition to models and castings of the actors, strategically stuffed with bloodpacks and innards, enhanced the deadly domino effects, where lesser effects might have left them looking fake. This is still early in the franchise, to there is still a fair variety of “commonplace” freak accidents scattered between the deadly dominoes and step-and-die deaths, leaving even those who had seen the first movie guessing how a particular sequence might end, without violating the laws of physics too much. The only times when conventional physics were really “enhanced” for the sake of the story were the logs falling off the truck to start the pileup, and the flying barbed-wire fence.

The acting was still mostly good in this one. While the only familiar faces were Clear (who had committed herself to a long stay in a padded room after seeing Alex killed offscreen) and Mr. Bludworth (creepy as usual), the newcomers did well, with Kimberly conflicted and tortured by her visions of potential disasters even as she tries to convince the others that everything happening was not just a series of twisted coincidences, and there is enough variety in the other leads to offer variety without lapsing into horror movie victim cliches. Rory the ambiguous cokehead was the only really “standard” slasher victim, and even he was interesting enough. The characters reacted plausibly to seeing companions and loved ones massacred; Nora is believeably traumatized after seeing her son flattened by a sheet of glass, and the numb despair that starts to set in once the others start to believe that Death is out to get them is plausible.

I enjoyed Final Destination 2 almost as much as I did the original. While the easy way out would have been to just retread the plot of the first, FD2 manages to keep the concept relatively fresh without losing the spirit of the first. Fans of Final Destination and slasher movies in general will enjoy this sequel.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)


If you could go back and change any event in your past, would you? Can you imagine the consequences of doing so? What if your every effort to make things better only makes things worse? What if fate is just a sadistic bastard?

The Butterfly Effect is a drama-sci fi film co-directed and co written by Eric Bess and J. Mackye Gruber. It stars Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, Amy Smart, and Elden Hensen, andthe Director’s Cut sports one of the most depressing endings I’ve ever seen in a movie that wasn’t about the Holocaust.

Evan Treborn has long suffered stress-related blackouts during traumatic events in his childhood and adolescence. In an effort to get a handle on what is going on during the missing periods, he has kept a series of journals over the years from the age of seven to the present day. By age 20, it has been seven years since his last blackout, but he discovers that he can use these journals to mentally travel back in time to these traumatic events, thereby causing the blackouts in the first place, and in doing so he tries to alter his own past for the better. However, each time he tries to change things, he causes an unintended ripple effect to the present with unintended and unpleasant consequences for everyone involved.

So. Ashton Kutcher. Ashton “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Kutcher, in a dark drama about a guy’s messed-up past and progressively more mess-up present. Yeah. Fortunately, Kutcher does drama well, which can cause a bit of whiplash considering he was in three comedies immediately before this and went on to host Punk’d, but hey. Not many comedic actors can pull that off. I consider this movie to be the evil counterpart to Frequency from four years earlier, considering how much fate seems to enjoy kicking Evan in the balls every single time he tries to improve things. The overall plot is well-crafted, though, with only a few question marks left in the end that resolve themselves cleverly with some though. However, the way it steers him to his final depressing decision smacks of borderline sadism, as his intentions are perfectly selfless and there is no indication that Evan “deserves” his fate.

On the positive side, it is refreshing to see a time travel movie that doesn’t invariably work out for the better. Nearly every time travel movie I’d seen up till The Butterfly Effects release offered a happy ending as a consequence of playing with the timeline, even if the initial effects were nearly disastrous (like Marty McFly nearly writing himself out of the timeline in Back to the Future). This movie is well-written and well-acted, with none of the goofiness that might have completely ruined the effect. However, the ending is so far down in the shadows of Depression Land that I almost needed to watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to cheer myself up.

If you want a time travel movie with plently of mind screw and darker consequences for timeline manipulation, I suggest renting The Butterfly Effect, but keep some antidepressants or a comedy handy for afterwards.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)


H. P. Lovecraft knew a long time ago that there was a fate worse than death. However, this was not, as many believe, insanity. In the world envisioned by Lovecraft, everyone must remain slightly deluded in order to protect themselves from the more horrifying truths of the universe, and from truly comprehending our own place in it. Therefore, in Lovecraft’s universe the only fate worse than death is stark raving sanity.

John Trent is just looking for a few answers. He is about to find them… whether he wants to or not.

In the Mouth of Madness in a horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Michael de Luca. The third film in what Carpenter calls his Apocalypse Trilogy (following The Thing and Prince of Darkness), this movie stars Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, J├╝rgen Prochnow, David Warner, Frances Bay, John Glover, and Bernie Casey.

Insurance investigator John Trent is very good at his job, winnowing out the truth behind would-be insurance scams. When hideously-popular horror writer Stephen King Sutter Cane comes up missing, with his latest book still pending, Trent thinks finding the reclusive author will be a snap – a publicity stunt meant to drive up demand for the expected book. These books are already wildly popular, but can cause sanity-shredding effects in readers who might not have all their marbles to start. Trent doesn’t believe the hype, but when he starts reading Cane’s books to find out what all the hoo-ha is about he starts to suffer vivid nightmares of monsters and deformed humanoids. He also finds that the cover art of Cane’s paperbacks contain strange red-lined shapes that when lined up properly, form a map of the state of New Hampshire, pointing to a town that only exists in Cane’s novels – Hobb’s End.

Sensing a possible lead, Trent goes looking for this town with Linda Styles, Cane’s editor, sent along to assist Trent. Unexpectedly, he does find Hobb’s End – populated by the fictional characters and storylines from Cane’s books. However, little does he know that his terror is only beginning, as he discovers that Hobb’s End lies far outside the comfortable reality he knows…

Throughout the 80’s, John Carpenter became known for some really kickass horror movies, and In the Mouth of Madness is no exception. Starting off as a mystery, in the style of many of Lovecraft’s short stories (and if you know Lovecraft’s stuff, you already have a fair idea how Trent’s journey will end), the story soon starts down a very dark tunnel that will have you wondering how “real” Trent’s world is, and for that matter whether Hobb’s End is more or less “real” than the “real world”. Numerous authors have since played with recursive reality in this way, like Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but this is really damn hard to pull off in visual media. I am happy to say the Carpenter nailed it, with the budget and resources of an 80’s horror movie. There is no CGI, and truthfully you don’t see many monsters (and what monsters are on screen are dimly perceived at best). However, it is still clear that Hobb’s End infects those who live and visit there, until the veil of sanity is finally clawed away from Trent’s eyes, showing him the true nature of things.

This is one of two movies I’ve seen where Sam Neill’s character goes batshit crazy, and he does “insane” well. He doesn’t overact it, not even at that moment where you realize… yup, his cheese has officially slid off his cracker. Trent and Cane are the only two characters that get any sort of fleshing out – but that’s the point. The whole premise relies on taking writing conventions and batting them all over the floor like a cat with a toy mouse. The people in Hobb’s End are simultaneously fictional and real, in ways that cheerfully stretch the fabric of this movie’s universe, until something has to give. And if that isn’t mindbending enough, several characters even discuss their own fictionality, especially when they do weird things because “that’s how he (Cane) wrote me”. Of course, by the end the fourth wall is gleefully shredded, and… well, there’s a reason why this is the third movie in the Apocalypse Trilogy.

If you like a good, trippy horror movie that messes with your perceptions of “real” and “fictional”, check this movie out. John Carpenter ably pays homage to Lovecraft’s work in ways that few directors have been able to do before or since. And remember: Reality is only what we tell each other it is.