curse

Stay Out Stay Alive

sosa

A group of friends goes on a camping trip. While on a nighttime stroll through the woods, one of the friends falls into an old mine shaft. When the rest of the group finds her, they also discover gold in the mine. They decide to mine what gold they can, but as each of them feels the power of greed and paranoia, it soon becomes clear something supernatural is at work.

Stay Out Stay Alive had it’s world premier at the Portland Horror Film Festival. While he is known for his visual effects work in films such as Iron Man and Star Trek, this is Dean Yurke’s feature film debut as writer and director. Stay Out Stay Alive is noted as being based on a true story. I was lucky enough to hear Yurke speak about his film at the festival (and he is an absolutely delightful human). He explained the true aspects of the film are almost split into two parts; half of the truth is a true Native American curse, the other half is people often disappear or die in caves and mines. This inspiration lead to a tension filled slow-burn with some great frights thrown in the mix.

The plot follows a group of five friends. When they stumble upon the mine, the girl who has fallen in is trapped under a rock, but they all choose to dig for the gold before finding help since what they are doing is illegal. What starts out innocently enough quickly escalates as the group becomes paranoid, greedy, and deadly. One of the things I really love about the plot in Stay Out Stay Alive is that there is a supernatural element, but it isn’t the true threat. The curse is only really a punishment rather than a murderous force. It is the friends who end up being the true danger as their lust for gold grows exponentially. This aspect of Stay Out Stay Alive is vital because it makes it clear the Native Americans are not the villains of the film. The film ultimately becomes a commentary on things like greed, the destruction of sacred land, and the murder of Native Americans.

Often times, smaller budget indie horror films are hit or miss when it comes to the acting. The performances across the board in Stay Out Stay Alive are fantastic. One stand out is Brandon Wardle (Frisky, Bumblebee) as Reese. Wardle’s portrayal of Reese is truly disturbing as he goes from a typical jock to completely paranoid as his greed takes over. The change can be seen through both his performance and also in his body language and facial expressions. Another strong performance comes from Brie Mattson (Eastwick, D-Railed) as Bridget. Similar to Wardle’s performance, Mattson shows Bridget as she goes from the stereotype of a ditzy blonde to the surprising voice of reason in the group. Equally entertaining to watch are Sage Mears (Half-Dragon Sanchez), Christina July Kim (Dropping the S Bomb), William Romano-Pugh (January Jaguar), and the ever-amazing Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) as Ranger Susanna. The way all the actors play off of each other helps to build the tension throughout the film.

With Yurke’s background in visual effect, it’s no wonder Stay Out Stay Alive has some stunning visual aspects. The first thing audiences will notice is the interesting camera work and cinematography. Yurke works in some unique angles and framing that is unlike what I have seen in other films. He perfectly uses nature as a mechanism to build suspense without the need for elaborate effects. The CGI effects Yurke does use are subtle. It allows for the supernatural elements to enhance the tension from the friends’ strained relationships rather than being the focus. There is one bigger effect saved for the climax of the film. It is still somewhat subtle, but it creates a compelling image for the audience that is spine-chilling.

Stay Out Stay Alive is a suspenseful descent into the power of greed that shows Yurke’s potential as a filmmaker. Not only is the film bubbling with tension, but it also sends a powerful underlying moral and social message to the audience. Yurke smartly opted for more subtle effect, despite his visual background, which allowed the characters and the suspense to carry the plot. The film also boasts a terrific ensemble cast, as well as the star-power of Barbara Crampton. This was not a film I went to the Portland Horror Film Festival knowing anything about, but it is definitely one I recommend horror fans seek out.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Rings

Rings-poster

Julia’s boyfriend, Holt, disappears after beginning a special assignment for one of his professors. She goes to his college to try to find out where he has gone. She discovers that the professor and Holt are involved in an investigation surrounding a mysterious tape that kills people seven days after watching it. Julia watches the tape, but something is different about the images this time. Julia and Holt race to find the meaning behind these images before Julia’s seven days have run out.

Rings is the kind of film one goes into with very low expectations. It is the third installment of the American franchise of The Ring, there was a large drop in quality between the first and second installments, the film is rated PG-13, and the two leads are played by relatively unknown young actors. This film has many flaws, but considering how low my expectations were I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. This installment of the franchise built a lot on some of the mythology that was slightly hinted at in the previous films. I really enjoyed how the filmmakers added different images to the tape we already knew in order to create a new and interesting investigation into Samara’s past.

While the expansion of the mythology was fascinating, the plot focused so much on this aspect that there was virtually no tension. Not only did the film lack any truly tense moments, but there weren’t even any good jump scares. Jump scares are a pivotal part of PG-13 horror films. There were scenes where the filmmakers were clearly trying to elicit fear from the audience, but they did not succeed. The film felt more like a drama or mystery that just happened to have a cursed tape and a ghost girl. Rings also had incredibly weak opening and closing scenes. The opening scene was just ludicrous. It attempts to set up what we already know about how the cursed tape works, but on such a ridiculously grand scale to the point where it is almost laughable. It is also unnecessary since shortly after there is another scene that acts in the same function with much more striking imagery. The end scene ruined the plot a bit for me because it felt all too familiar and didn’t really work with some of the implications from earlier events in the film.

There seems to be a recent trend with PG-13 horror films where the leading roles are filled by unknown actors that aren’t necessarily great at their job, and then lesser roles are filled by recognizable faces. In Rings there are two actors that not only do a good job in their supporting roles, but they are also people audiences will likely be familiar with. Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory, In Time) played the egocentric college professor while Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil, Jurassic World) played a blind man who managed the graveyard where Samara was buried. Both actors gave great performances and added hidden depth to their characters. In the leading role of Julia we had Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz (Summertime, L’Universale). There were two main issues with her performance; 1. There were many times where I could hear her Italian accent come through while she was portraying an American. 2. She seemed almost aloof through most of the events that took place, which was part of the reason why the film didn’t feel as tense. The role of Julia’s boyfriend, Holt, was played by Alex Roe ( The 5th Wave, The Cut). He also gave off a bit of a nonchalant vibe throughout the film. It’s difficult to say if that was a conscious choice by the director or if these two were simply inexperienced and unable to show true emotion. Together the two leads were completely lacking in on screen chemistry as a couple, and I did not find them even remotely believable as eighteen year old kids.

Rings provides an interesting expansion on the mythology of Samara, but offers little else. The intrigue was enough to keep my interest. The complete lack of scares, bad acting, and horrendous opening and closing scenes turned a story with potential into a mediocre film. I think the film was better than what the trailer led people to believe, but in the end it will likely be forgotten by the end of the month. If you are a fan of The Ring franchise then you will likely enjoy learning more about the curse. For the more casual movie goers, you may want to pass on this particular film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

The Pyramid

A two person documentary crew travels to Egypt to film an archaeological team. These archaeologists have discovered an ancient pyramid shrouded in mystery. The archaeologists and the film crew decide to venture into the depths of the pyramid. They soon regret their decision when they become trapped in its labyrinthine tunnels. What’s worse, something is stalking them in the dark depths. This pyramid may soon become their tomb.

There are many things I enjoyed about this film. Considering the fact that I studied archaeology in college, and it’s something that I love, I may be a bit biased about the story. I love the idea of following archaeologists into a site that has yet to be explored. The rich Egyptian mythology and burial customs throughout the film also made things very interesting. Towards the beginning of the film I definitely became concerned, because they kept referencing technology they were using on the dig and how this tech was also used on Mars. I was worried that they were going to turn this film into an aliens-built-the-pyramids conspiracy type story. Much to my relief, that never happened.

The fact that the film didn’t leave any loose ends also made me exceptionally happy. The writers did a great job of explaining what was happening so that everything made sense throughout the film. The only thing that was never truly explained was why this particular pyramid only has three sides while every other pyramid has four. This is clearly a unique pyramid with a special purpose, but why only three sides? Although it was never explained, once they are inside the pyramid you don’t even think about the shape so it wasn’t too bothersome.

Two other successful aspects of The Pyramid were the special effects and the set design. The CGI was wonderfully understated. It was restricted to only the living things within the pyramid, and done in a way that made sense for the film. Those in charge of special effects clearly paid attention to things like anatomy, evolution, the type of environment these things live in, and Egyptian mythology. The sets that made up the inside of the pyramid were also quite beautiful. Again, there was clear attention to detail here. They researched pyramids enough to know what would be found within the structures, such as the apex of the pyramid and the burial chamber, as well as where they would be found.

While the overall story was fun and interesting, there were several aspects that brought this film down. One thing that bothered me a great deal was the style in which it was filmed. It starts out as a found footage style film so the only camera angles are the ones provided by the cameras the characters have. Once they become trapped inside the pyramid, the filmmakers decided to drop this in favor of typical camera angles.  It’s clear that they decided to use both the found footage style of filming with more traditional filming once inside the pyramid so they could utilize many angles during the more intense scenes, but it made the film confusing at times. You are expecting two different points of view from the character’s cameras, then all of the sudden there are other angles. At first I was left feeling confused on which character was operating that camera, until I realized they had simply changed with filming style. It was an unfortunate decision that ruined the effect of the film by combining two filming styles (that should not be combined) as opposed to one style.

The Pyramid definitely made me jump multiple times, yet I feel it is a shame that the film relied so heavily on jump-scares. The simple fact that the film takes place in dark, underground tunnels where you are being stalked by some evil force gives the film plenty of intensity and a feeling of claustrophobia. Add in the toxic air issue and the claustrophobic feeling becomes even more pronounced. Having a few jump-scares to enhance this feeling makes complete sense, and is entirely necessary to keep up the excitement. However, having jump-scares around every corner actually detracts from the intensity and takes the film in more of a hokey direction.

Another disappointing aspect of this film was the acting. While part of this was simply due to the performances falling flat, it seems like a lot of it also had to do with the writing. I had stated before that I appreciated the writers explaining everything that was happening in the movie. While I stand by this statement, I believe the information was also conveyed in a way that felt very unnatural and forced. These people are fighting for their lives, but they have to stop what they’re doing to talk about some archaeological information. The acting did not help to make these situations feel any less forced. On an individual level, I was very disappointed by Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story, True Blood). I usually find him to be a great actor, but he was so monotone throughout the entire film and he just seemed like he was sleepwalking through the film.

Knowing that this film has not been well received, I can say that I probably enjoyed it more than most critics. This could be due to my love of archaeology and mythology. This is a film with many flaws, and any critic can spot that. Despite this, it is still a fun watch. Likely someone who has an interest in ancient history and mythology would enjoy it more than other viewers. If you are that kind of person, I would definitely say that this film is worth a watch. Even if you decide it’s not your cup of tea, just remember that it’s only 89 minutes long.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10