I’m not sure who decided that February 3 would be "Horror Film Friday 2012," but if you’re a fan of wetting your pants out of fear in a theater, it’s cause to rejoice. There are four solid genre entries slipping onto screens this week and each one of them is actually worth seeing.
The first two return to the oldest horror trope in the book, the ghost story. There’s the Daniel Radcliffe-starring Victorian ghost story throwback, The Woman In Black, as well as new horror directing star Ti West’s walk through a haunted hotel in The Innkeepers. Of course, if haunted house tales sound too traditional, then there are also two impressive genre mash-ups that qualify as horror movies for lack of any other appropriate genre label: the found footage/psychic superhero flick Chronicle and the grueling British hitman/occult film Kill List. Both movies are unpredictable surprises that will blow your mind with an incredible climax in two very different ways.
So, I hope all you folks out there feel like getting scared this weekend, because that’s kind of the only option you have at the movies. Fortunately, you’ve got four great choices for how to specifically get your genre-jollies. It all depends on what you’re in the mood for, I suppose.
The Horror #1: The Woman in Black
This week’s first horror movie comes from the formerly deceased Hammer Horror Studios that legendarily produced the Christopher Lee Dracula movies and other period monster romps throughout the '60s and '70s. Their new movie is a period ghost story starring Daniel “I’m not Harry Potter Anymore” Radcliffe. Based on a popular novel that has previously been turned into a chilling BBC movie and a long-running West End stage show, the film is about a depressed widower and barrister sent out to settle the affairs of a woman who died alone in a crumbling mansion that is separated from a small village by an ever-moving tide.
Of course, once Radcliffe’s impossibly young lawyer/father gets there it turns out that the mansion is haunted by the titular woman in black, the ghost of a spurned mother who takes the life of a village child every time she’s spotted. Radcliffe claims not to believe in ghosts when he gets there, but skeptics have a way of changing their beliefs in these types of movies.
The film is a good, old fashioned jump-scare spook-out, directed with flair by burgeoning British genre auteur James Watkins (who previously made the excellent horror romp Eden Lake). It’s a simple story designed to do little more than make you jump from your seat whenever the lady ghost gets up to no good, but it works fairly well. Radcliffe is decent in another stoic role (even if he’s a little young for the part) and the surrounding cast of British character actors play the pained and terrified villagers well.
The only downfall of the flick is Jane Goldman’s screenplay. Goldman previously cranked out scripts for Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class and while she’s a major writing talent, she’s perhaps a little too good at ADD entertainment for this movie. Goldman amps up the story, at least quadrupling the scare and body count. The only problem is that these types of ghost stories are more about teasing and atmosphere than the spooky payoffs, so about an hour in all the jumps start to get exhausting and lose their power before reaching a somewhat cheesy ending.
The film still works quite well and should please horror and Potter fans alike, but it could have been a new ghostly classic had things been dialed back ever so slightly. Still if the worst thing you can say about a horror movie is that there are too many scares, it’s really not that big of a deal.
The Horror #2: The Innkeepers
This second horror movie dropping this week is Ti West’s The Innkeepers and, if anything, it has the opposite problem of The Woman in Black (though it’s still a better movie). This haunting flick centers on a creaky old hotel that’s about to go out of business. The two aimless 20-somethings working the front desk are convinced the place is haunted and decide to live in the hotel over the final weekend hoping to catch a ghost (spoiler alert: this is a horror movie, so they find that ghost, alright).
West is one of the finest young horror directors working today. If you’ve seen his 2009 cult classic The House of the Devil, you’ll know that he’s a man who loves the suspenseful build-up of horror movies more than the payoff and The Innkeepers is no exception.
For the first 40 minutes to an hour of The Innkeepers, West merely observes his charming characters with the occasional mysterious closing door or nightmare to keep the audience’s blood boiling. Then in the final frantic half hour it all pays off with some pretty damn effective jumps 'n' freak-outs and another spurned lady ghost. I’m sure many people will complain that The Innkeepers is all tease and no release, offering not nearly enough scares for a horror movie. However, this approach is deliberate and if you’re willing to actually put in the effort to pay attention and be charmed by West’s delightfully comic lead characters exquisitely played by Sara Paxton and Pat Healy (Paxton in particular is adorable and deserves to be an awkward comedy star) the payoffs are tremendous.
Unlike The Woman in Black you never feel excessively prodded or manipulated by the filmmakers here. West carefully constructed his horror tale so that every scare hits harder because you’re not overwhelmed by the overuse of the effects and you care so much for the characters that it’s even harder to watch them slide into peril. The Innkeepers certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you’re tired of having your intelligence insulted by lowest common denominator horror swill like the Saw series, this is a thrilling breath of creepy fresh air. Think of it as a horror movie for people who don’t like contemporary horror movies.
The Horror #3: Chronicle
Okay, so maybe it’s a wee bit of a cheat to call Chronicle a horror movie, but the Carrie influence is so strong and I enjoyed this horror theme so much that I’m going for it. This is the type of creative low budget studio movie made by young unproven talents that should be getting made constantly. However, now that the opening weekend gross dick-measuring contest defines Hollywood filmmaking, creating a small movie that needs to build an audience just isn’t on their agenda. It’s a damn shame, because a movie like Chronicle proves that you don’t need a few hundred million dollars and a handful of superstars to create a compelling blockbuster. You just need a strong idea and some talented folks to pull it off.
In this case that strong idea came from first time director Josh Tank and screenwriter Max Landis (the son of John "Animal House" Landis). Their clever concept is a found footage movie made by a teen obsessively documenting his life who, along with a few friends, stumbles into an underground cavern with a mysterious crystal that gives them all telekinetic powers.
At first they use their new skills to pull pranks like making stuffed animals walk in toy stores, but quickly they learn how to fly and start thinking a little better. Unfortunately the main teen with the camera has an abusive home life and starts using his gifts to act out a la Carrie, leading to a climactic super-powered battle that lays to waste many city blocks and is ingeniously captured through security cameras, cell phones, news copters, and dashboard police cruiser cams.
The movie takes overused contemporary Hollywood conceits (the found footage horror movie and the superhero blockbusters) and weaves them together into a thrilling genre mash-up that feels fresh. The young cast are great, the cheap effects look amazing through the hastily composed video images, and the story actually unfolds unconventionally, filled with surprises.
Is it perfect? No. There are a few cornball scenes and the found footage conceit is stretched a little too far at times (although having the main character film with a smooth floating camera operated by his mind to collect slick money shots was a pretty ingenious twist). However, the blasts of originality far outweigh the occasional familiar cheese. Fox has wisely built up a slow marketing campaign that doesn’t give this movie away, but my concern is that they’ve been too subtle and no one will bother to buy a ticket because they have no idea what it is.
If you enjoy B-movies and constantly whine about the fact that you don’t get any originality from Hollywood anymore, you have to see this movie. With any luck it’ll encourage Hollywood to take more risks on young talent. Or it will just lead to an onslaught of terrible found footage superhero movies. Either way, go see Chronicle while it’s still fresh.
The Horror #4: Kill List
Finally, the February 3 horror flick round-up concludes with the release of Kill List and oh boy is this a good one. I hesitate to give away too much because writer/director Ben Wheatley has a unique talent to constantly convince you that you’re watching one type of movie, only to pull the rug out from under you in the next scene. Let's just say it’s about a pair of working-class hit men who inadvertently bite off more than they can chew with their latest assignment.
Even acknowledging that Kill List is a horror movie seems unfair since it doesn’t seem that way initially. But the film is so grueling to watch at times and ends on such a harsh, disturbing note, that it’s kind of important to tip the horror label purely as a warning for squeamish viewers.
In a genre so deeply rooted in convention and the expected, Kill List breaks all the rules. You’re never left with comfortable footing as to what you're watching, which makes you feel uncomfortable as a viewer. Combine that with all of the genuinely upsetting images and ideas in play and you’ve got one of the most uncomfortable film-going experiences that you’ll see this year, but in the best possible sense. Horror movies like, say, The Innkeepers or The Woman in Black make you tense and make you jump, but in a amusement park thrill ride way, where you come out the other end feeling jolted like you’ve had a fun time. Then there are horror movies like Kill List that make you feel just as tense, while also pushing so hard that you leave feeling drained and destroyed.
If you genuinely enjoy the genre, you hunger for that latter experience because it’s so hard to pull off in an era where we’ve seemingly seen everything. And I don’t mean that just in the sense of seeing 90 minutes of disgusting imagery that’s hard to watch. Anyone can do that. No, this is a brilliantly executed and realistic story that cuts deeply because you’re invested in the characters and the world. I know I’m being vague, but I just can’t in good conscience spoil the surprises. It would lessen the impact of the film if I did.
Let’s just say that if you want to really, seriously have the shit scared out of you this weekend, Kill List is only choice. If you’re worried that you can’t take it, there are three other fantastic and lighter horror options this weekend to try instead. However, if you genuinely love horror movies and want to feel like a kid cowering behind the couch while watching a monster movie in your parents' basement again, check this out. Just make sure you have something cheery to do after the film or a stiff drink ready to go when you walk out of the theater. Trust me, you’ll need it.