Blair Witch (2016)

★★

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Blair Witch PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: 15th September, 2016 (UK); 16th September, 2016 (US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Callie Hernandez, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry

Netflix, for all of its cultural zeitgeist curating — yes, Stranger Things is wonderful and, yes, we should ramble on about it forever (or at least until the next new series hits in a few weeks) — is at its best when fulfilling the promise of its roots. In other words, when it functions as a library of untapped gems. I watched one of those gems a few weeks ago, a found footage film with a science fiction setting and horror proclivities, and a good one at that. Aside from strong performances and an increasingly eerie atmosphere, Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report champions a found footage style that minimises the head-spinning amateur wobbliness we often have to endure, but which also maintains the unsettling sense of privacy invasion that found footage, at its best, should enact. Europa Report, released in 2013, struggled to find a theatrical audience.

Yet, here we are. Another found footage horror release towing the subgenre line, another mainstream commodity (though surprisingly not another box office victory). Filmmaking team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett have cultivated, certainly in my eyes, an admirable reputation for undercutting genre tropes and flavouring their films with semi-satire. You’re Next isn’t perfect but it does throw bombs at horror clichés with amusing success. Even better, The Guest upholds taut thriller tendencies as it encourages us to revel in the villainy of its not-so-cookie-cutter lead. Therefore it is odd that Blair Witch, the duo’s newest offering, often falls so far by the witty, intelligent wayside.

We’ll start with the story: a group of nice-looking adventurers with age on their side travelling somewhere they shouldn’t because they reckon it is a good idea when everyone sat in the screening room and standing in the foyer knows it isn’t. The GallowsAs Above, So Below. Area 51. That sort of thing. Blair Witch sees the brother of The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue head to the forests of Maryland in search of his missing sister whom he reckons is still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is joined by documentarian pal Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid).

The film revisits the final moments of The Blair Witch Project at the beginning, instantly alerting us to the grainy aesthetic of the original horror; in fact, one of this instalment’s redeeming features is its occasional use of an old camcorder to document events, a visual reminder of what came before. Elsewhere, the film uses up-to-date high-definition technology including earpieces embedded with mini cameras and a drone to shoot from above (the drone is never used to its full potential, barely fluttering above the forest foliage). Very little happens for half an hour, the characters merely learning how to work their equipment before heading to their destination. Although this isn’t time spent particularly interestingly, these minutes do at least paint those on-screen in a fairly genial light. James and Lisa are particularly amiable, neither pushy nor arrogant, both a far cry from genre caricatures.

It’s not until we the reach the Burkittsville creep-land that things begin to take a turn for the haphazard. The group arrange to meet with a couple wielding knowledge of the area in the hope that they will lead them to their desired location and then depart. But of course Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), indiscreetly hiding their collective kookiness, want to stick around as part of the deal. Because every scary excursion has to accommodate someone (or some people in this instance) willing to spout his/her supernatural inclinations at every opportunity. I should also note that by this point we’ve already heard one member of the party poke fun at the idea Heather is still alive. And shortly thereafter, another member of the party injures her foot. Which effectively means no running from The Bad Stuff.

There are spooky campfire tales, noises in the night, Wicker-Man-esque stick symbols, and folks wandering off alone. The inclusion of so many blatant tropes would be fine if the film then countered with either some brazen self-awareness (like in You’re Next), or at the very least a handful of genuine scares. But it’s not scary, in part because the camera contorts too violently in moments of would-be tension, disorientating us — yes — but never affording us the chance to engage with or understand what is happening on-screen. And I don’t think there is an awful lot of self-aware hilarity going on either. When the proverbial hits the fan, Lisa et al. appear much too freaked out for any of streaks of amusement to stick. I suppose the actors do offer the infrequent helping of light relief (Scott’s reaction to an infected cut), but in truth there is nothing for us to be momentarily relieved from.

The best scene actually involves said cut and, you guessed it, an unhealthy serving of oozetastic body-horror. Kudos to the prop masters and makeup artists for provoking legitimate yelps of disgust (at least that’s how the scene played with most of the audience in my screening). Elsewhere, a tree-climbing sequence places Foley workers in the foreground, branches creaking and murmuring to delightful effect, part of an OTT noise-fest that would make Toby Jones proud.

As the story advances, Blair Witch adopts more of a monster movie mantra, distinguishing itself from the paranormal tensions of its predecessor. We see glimpses of the creature, removing the disconcerting veil of uncertainty that covered the original and boosted its chilling potential. The ingredients fail to click, or maybe they just aren’t strong enough. Any potshotting nods, instances where the filmmakers look to knowingly nudge their well-versed audience, translate poorly. Besides, the film’s overabundant use of familiar genre commands would almost certainly render satirical swipes moot (see Deadpool). Wingard and Barrett will doubtless be back with something devilishly sweeter. This one just irks because it is a sequel to the prototypical found footage horror, the one that reinvented the game for better or worse, and it is timidly generic.

Blair Witch - Valorie Curry

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

The Guest (2014)

★★★★

The Guest PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: September 5th, 2014 (UK); September 17th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Thriller

Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Munroe, Brendan Meyer, Sheila Kelly

Hot on the heels of their inverted slasher jaunt You’re Next, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett are back with another bold outing. The Guest moves along purposefully, fuelled by a pulpy beat that adds to its wholesale allure. In some ways it’s one of those that is difficult to consume in a single sitting — there are so many astutely placed kinks to pick out and admire.

Yet, the story is simple. A generally agreeable tale that would undoubtedly flounder in lesser hands. Wingard and Barrett are too committed to let matters evade them and The Guest thrives as a result.

As she opens the door to a stranger whom we later come to know as David (Dan Stevens), mother Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelly) is still wiping from her face the fresh and presumably frequent tears brought on by the thought of her son’s death in Afghanistan. David claims to be the deceased soldier’s squad mate, having stopped by in order to uphold a promise and offer his condolences. His presence immediately fills a gap and the popular David finds himself around for the long haul. Only, something about the visitor doesn’t sit correctly with daughter Anna (Maika Munroe).

It’s obvious that the director cherishes each and every frame afforded to him as the screen is relentlessly tinged with meaning and inquisition. We’re gripped from the get-go, unable to shake of the taut dinner table ambience or Dan Stevens’ malice-sprinkled gaze. The Guest isn’t a conventional thriller because it doesn’t rely on snappy movements or authoritative language. There is a lot of weapon speech (“I’m a soldier, man. I like guns,” David reassures us) but the tension here lies almost universally upon the brow of the lead actor.

The Downton Abbey star is far from lord-like on this occasion, though Stevens does retain a resolute posture, unmoved and unflinching. When we first meet him he manifests as a fairly ordinary guy, a former soldier about to make his way back into society. A peculiar glance is at first distracting, and then nerve-jangling. Stevens gives off an impression of suppressed power; his character is always in control and, to make matters worse, the Stevenson family are completely unaware. They are caught in a charisma spell. So are we.

Frankly, the actor is brilliant, his simple delivery layered with complex volume and mysterious motives. It’s almost as if Barrett penned the character with Stevens in mind. Superseding said performance is the actor’s ability to consistently engage the viewer, to make us like him even though we are unequivocally aware that the chap before us is a dodgy guy. His iffiness pours from every crevice and, somehow, we cannot help but egg David on. This element centres the film and effectively pulls the various pieces together. Part thriller, part mystery, part character study, an immediate need to like David infects proceedings with a darkly comedic underbelly.

It’s dark. It’s devious. It’s horrible. And it’s bloody delightful. As Robby Baumgartner focuses his camera on David, carefully edging closer into his nasty glare, we become the devil on the wanderer’s shoulder and indulge in helpings of fun as a result. Wingard knows he is appeasing the genre audience every step of the way. The director has history, rewriting the pillars of horror to accommodate something different in You’re Next, and this mantra is once again capitalised upon here.

The other performances are somewhat overshadowed by the excellence of the lead actor, but it is worth singling out newcomer Maika Munroe’s work as the entranced-cum-anxious daughter. Anna could very easily have stumbled over into annoying territory, but Munroe just about reigns in the mood swings and does enough positive rallying to see her through unscathed. Sheila Kelly’s performance as devastated mother Laura is also commendable. We believe in her plight to keep David around, though misguided due to the loss of her son, and we can therefore sympathise rather than judge. In between moments of ill-advised glee, we ultimately care about the family.

The sheer abundance of solid work done beforehand enables us to forgive the overly ironic haunted maze finale, and instead pass it off as a humorously cheesy side order. Everything else is so good. If such an anomaly exists in our ever diverging cinematic universe, The Guest is intelligent popcorn entertainment. And if such an anomaly exists, Adam Wingard might be on his way to mastering it.

The Guest - Dan Stevens

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Picturehouse

You’re Next (2013)

★★★

You're Next PosterDirector: Adam Wingard

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US); August 28th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Horror; Thriller

Starring: Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Ti West

You’re Next is like a chocolate pizza: it’s propped up by two flavoursome ingredients, each one carrying a tenancy to be tasty without the other, but ultimately the hybrid doesn’t quite mesh together. And that’s not the only problem, given the pizza is also undercooked. Perhaps I ought to digress from food-related similes and start making sense. Adam Wingard takes scares and humour and crunches them together without unconditional success, in an attempt to make a witty horror film. He’s a smart director with a knack for the genre, which is why the creative funny parts work so well. But as he winks at us with satirical gags and rule bending, Wingard also slips in a helping of bewildered frights. The result is quite a confused outing, but it’s not without merit.

As far as family get-togethers go, the Davison clan aren’t having much luck. It’s mum and dad’s wedding anniversary therefore the whole crew have been invited over to celebrate. Erin (Sharni Vinson) tags along with her boyfriend Crispian (AJ Bowen), the latter hoping not to be outshined by his more successful kin this time. During dinner and an all too familiar serving of familial squabbling, a rouge arrow zips through the window. Chaos ensues. The Davisons are under attack.

Wingard casts his mate AJ Bowen in the main role opposite the fetching Aussie import Sharni Vinson. Bro points, eh? That’s unfair, because Bowen is actually fairly good at the personally insulted son and brother shtick, but it’s his in-movie partner who exits to the loudest ovation. Vinson is effortlessly charming and likeable, traits not always compatible with female leads in horror outings. Yet it’s her steely determination that convinces most of all; Vinson wears an air of intriguing mystique that coats her character in a bit more depth than is usually on display in these ventures. You’re Next isn’t just one of those ordinarily drab slasher flicks hell-bent on counting change over quality though. Captain Wingard is too canny for that.

The signs are plain to see from the get-go. Mother Aubrey Davison, on medication of course, exemplifies the OTT caricature of paranoia as she squeals and weeps her way through intruder anxiety. Others follow suit; from Joe Swanberg’s older brother Drake channelling his inner-Phil Dunphy (if the Modern Family keepsake was a douche), to the bubbly and seemingly spoilt Aimee played by Amy Seimetz. It’s the haunted house, the home invasion, the slasher. But it’s also the family dramedy wrapped in horror and, whilst the horror part flounders, Wingard’s amusing take on tribal bickering within a horror context truly succeeds. Erin epitomises the antithesis of both a drama-contained girlfriend and a scary movie chick. She’s the organiser, someone whose forward movements give her centre stage rather than a background stint. In way she’s us, shouting at every horror cliché there’s ever been. (Don’t go down to the basement, always carry a weapon, keep the windows boarded.) At one point Erin is informed, “I’ve never seen you act like this before”. “It’s a unique situation,” she replies, the interaction an indication of dissolving horror commonalities.

In some ways the film is a challenge to audiences, asking us to alter our perception and re-evaluate our willingness to accept and chew on genre staleness. A speech towards the end is a backhanded slap directed at those who gorge in genericism, who subsequently ignore the inventive pieces. Wingard has a palpable gripe. His first three films before this one — You’re Next is actually a 2011 piece — were all met with critical success, but aren’t at all well known. Home Sick? Pop Skull? A Horrible Way to Die? I’m certainly lost at sea. It’s time to rise from whatever rut we’re in and consider the hidden gems. Indeed, if they’re as perceptive as this ruby, Wingard has a point.

Unfortunately You’re Next falls flat on its morally-imbued face at times. It’s not scary yet it’s absolutely trying to be. The first attack scene around the dinner table wants desperately to be pulsating but ends up being too over-egged. We’re supposed to become enraptured in the immediacy of a horrifying ambush at home — shaky cam in full flow, drumming music beating emphatically, screams piercing — but it’s all too obvious. Comedy horror can work. An American Werewolf in London, for example, is as humorous as it is nerve-jangling. Here, exists a convolution of aim and execution. Wingard’s aim is valiant and he executes it with fifty percent triumph. The other half, the horror, is out of place. A case of the ‘quiet, quiet, quiet… BANG’ syndrome frequents proceedings. As characters are mercilessly slain we’re left in a state of flux: is this part of the satire, or a genuine attempt to frighten? Apparently the latter.

Having said that, the scare attempts do inevitably shower us with some moments of hearty gruesomeness. The film strikes as being a relative of Berberian Sound Studio, its audio effects as squelchy and excessive as they come. At some points the actors are quite literally swimming in pools of tomato-ey blood and guts. Throat slicing takes prominence, letting the soon-to-be deceased discover a cruel twist of fate in their final moment. It’s likely that the filmmakers are making a point about exorbitant amounts of red unfairly equating to disproportionate amounts of green. (That’s cash, as opposed to hash).

You’re Next fails to scare us because it leads us to believe that conventional horror simply isn’t scary. It’s a shame then that this falls on the conventional side of things when it’s not being astutely satirical. But Adam Wingard does a lot right and, even though his film mixes an incompatible broth too much, too often, it’s intelligent enough to warrant serious consideration. Who knows, this might even be the inaugural step in a new, smarter horror movement.

Maybe not.

You're Next - Baddie

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Icon Productions

V/H/S/2 (2013)

★★

V/H/S/2 PosterDirectors: Various

Release Date: July 12th, 2013 (US limited) October 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Various

If 2012’s V/H/S failed to capture the adulation of those brave enough to tough it out, then there’s not much hope for this follow up. A film as uninspired as the title shepherding it suggests, V/H/S/2 has five opportunities to succeed yet, more often than not, chooses to beckon forth eternal disappointment through dullness. In fact, only via the purposeful mind of Gareth Evans does this horror outing really imbue a horrifying tingle. Otherwise, a terminal sense of ‘been there done that’ seeps from the screen, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking the segments in this piece are outtakes from the first film. Having been given a measly 20 minutes or so to showcase their talents, each of the seven directors (some segments are co-directed) ought to have vehemently lived by the mantra that denotes a maximisation of their minutes. Somebody inform the postal service because that memo certainly got lost in the mail.

Sewn together by a frame narrative identical both in execution and content to its visual sibling from the first film, V/H/S/2 relays four other slices of spook, apparently. To begin we see Clinical Trials, a ghost story that haunts viewers solely by way of its surprisingly lacklustre content. Next, A Ride in the Park combines the visceral sheen of The Walking Dead and District 9’s moral pickings, though would bite the proverbial hand off for either’s ingenuity. Safe Haven is the film’s saving grace, and there’s absolutely nothing safe nor graceful about Gareth Evans’ co-offering. Finally, extraterrestrials meet pyjamas in Alien Abduction Slumber Party, but this one just ain’t as fun as it should be.

Undoubtedly, the least effective short is actually the one that plays most often. Tape 49, as it is known, is like that annoying bout of buffering that occasionally interrupts whichever film you’re watching on Netflix, increasingly fuelling frustration upon third, fourth and fifth rearing. Directed by Simon Barrett, the Whac-A-Mole invariably shines a light on Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his partner Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott), a pair of investigators doing some — wait for it — investigating into the disappearance of a college student. Upon reaching his last know location, a run-down and darkened house, the duo come across a series of televisions emitting static and ushering forth video tape viewing. Implemented as an anchor for the rest of the film, Tape 49 employs the exact same scare (or not) tactics as those seen in V/H/S, rendering the short exhaustingly ineffectual. Already, the remaining segments are at a disadvantage as they first must overcome the lingering cobwebs of Barrett’s effort, before advancing with their own agendas.

Admirably, Safe Haven complies in this regard. Malik (Oka Antara), news crew in tow, enters the residence of an unorthodox Indonesian Cult whose leader, the ‘father’ (Epy Kusnandar), has a severe ethics problem when it comes to the treatment of his followers. Inevitably, events suddenly go awry as the brainwashed group’s true intentions are revealed. Alongside Timo Tjahjanto, director Gareth Evans unleashes a tenacious bloodbath that supersedes every other piece of the V/H/S/2 puzzle. The directorial duo are productive in their utilisation of the found footage concept, generating an uncomfortable air of chaos through the style’s incorporation. Beginning fairly tepidly, you begin to worry that Safe Haven will conform to the generic inequalities of what has come before, but it’s not long before the horror short explodes (literally) into a viscous Jonestown rehash, carrying eerie imagery and brutal immediacy. This is what The Raid would look like if it was a horror movie: violent, relentless and utterly bonkers.

Adam Wingard’s Clinical Trials succeeds in conjuring up ghostly figures, but nothing else. Wingard was the overseer to V/H/S’s version of Tape 49, but his previous experience in the genre does nothing to aid proceedings here. The director also stars in his own segment, as a man who has chosen to take part in a social experiment that sees his sightless eye be replaced by a recording device. Upon returning home post-operation, the man is unceremoniously haunted by a ramshackle bunch of manifestations. Rather than coming across as an efficient stand-alone horror short, Clinical Trials plays more like the opening of Paranormal Activity 6. Though the eye-camera is a neat ploy in avoiding the often impractical continuous use of a handheld camera, there ain’t much to be seen through its lens. Jump-scares don’t frighten, nor do any of the creepily intended figures — conversely, one resembles the twin girls from The Shining, and another is unquestionably the overweight garden zombie from Shaun of the Dead. At one point, a woman shows up requesting a beer. Nope, me neither.

The remaining two slices of horror pie are equally average. Eduardo Sánchez of The Blair Witch Project teams with Gregg Hale and together they offer A Ride in the Park, or, The Walking Dead-lite. After trading dialogue more grotesque in its shallowness than any of the limb crunching about to occur (“You ride that bike more than you ride me”), a cyclist gets bitten by a zombie and subsequently becomes one. There are a couple of noteworthy elements to this piece: the directors’ twist on the found footage point of view, and an intentionally hilarious exchange of glances between a trio of undead — though, this humorous moment does jar with the tone of destitute dread set throughout the entire film. Jason Eisener’s Alien Slumber Party is comparable in delivery to A Ride in the Park, but rather than zombies attacking people, it’s aliens. While the creatures from outer-space do proceed broodingly, the segment is hampered by way of a retreat back to outdated scares through loud trumpeting noises and reddish-green flashing lights.

V/H/S sprung from the horror basements of talented pretenders to Craven, Lynch and Romero’s dark throne, and is a justified piece of cinema in that regard. Despite boasting a similarly talented array of budding directors, V/H/S/2 suffers from an overabundance in sameness. The effort is clearly there and, technically, most segments are delivered with verve. However, only the duo of Evans and Tjahjanto have something substantial to offer. Put simply, it’s not enough.

V/H/S/2 - Safe Haven