ghost

The Toybox

toybox

An aging father buys an old RV to take his estranged family on a road trip. Along the way the family picks up a pair of siblings stranded on the side of the road. The road trip has barely begun before things take a turn for the worst. The group ends up broken down in the middle of nowhere, but they are not alone. There is something haunting the rusty old RV, and it’s out for blood.

The Toybox is an interesting blend of horror subgenres. The film is directed by Brian Nagel (ClownTown) and written by Jeff Denton, both also starring in the film. This is Denton’s debut as a screenwriter, and it is a strong start to his writing career. There are a couple scenes where the dialogue doesn’t quite feel true to life, but otherwise the dialogue and plot flow very well. Together Nagel and Denton create a film that is emotionally driven by the family members coming together during the terrifying events, while also giving audiences a frightening film.

For the most part the film is a spooky ghost film. There is an entity haunting the RV, and all it wants to do is maim and kill anyone who enters it. What makes the film a blend of horror subgenres is who is haunting the RV. The film does a great job of leaving little clues throughout the plot as to who the ghost could be, or at least the type of person they were when they were alive. As a film about ghosts, there are some very scary moments in the film as well. There is at least one decent jump scare that got me, but what the film does even better are some of the more subtly tense moments. The filmmakers set up many frightening moments where you can easily see what is going to happen, but they make you wait and wait and wait, building the suspense so you are at the edge of your seat before the trap is sprung. It is a very effective method, and it makes for some of the more memorable moments in the film.

The cast of The Toybox is a talented mix of actors, some of which horror fans will easily recognize. Likely the most widely recognizable actor in the film is Denise Richards (Wild Things, Starship Troopers) as wife and mother, Jennifer. Richards portrays Jennifer as the peacekeeper in the family, whether it be between her husband and his brother, the brother and his father, or keeping her daughter calm. The film also boasts Mischa Barton (The Sixth Sense, The O.C.) as Samantha. In the past few years Barton has been a prominent figure in indie horror films, and she does a great job in this role. She portrays Samantha as a strong, independent character who is also intuitive. Samantha is the first character to notice something isn’t quite right with the decrepit RV. The remaining cast also delivers strong performances including writer Jeff Denton (Inoperable) as Steve, director Brian Nagel (Ouija House) as Jay, Greg Violand (ClownTown) as Charles, Matt Mercer (Beyond the Gates) as Mark, and young Malika Michelle in her first film role as Olivia.

While overall the plot and performances are high points of the film, there are certain aspects that are not quite as strong. One of the lingering questions I was left with after watching this film is who did Charles buy the RV from. There are ways that it could have been done supernaturally or through the internet. Unfortunately, it is mentioned that a man sold the RV to Charles in person, but that person is never referenced again (so it is left unknown if he was somehow in cahoots with the ghostly entity). The other aspect that doesn’t quite fit with the continuity of the film is the appearance of a ghost girl. Based on the nature of the haunting, without giving away too many details, the ghostly young woman simply doesn’t make sense. She is also featured in a scene that is one of the more frightening moments. The issue with this scene is that the haunting is supposed to be limited to inside the RV, yet the ghost girl is scene in the desert landscape.

The Toybox is a tense indie horror film that combines ghostly thrills with a claustrophobic setting. There are a couple aspects of the plot that may leave the audience with lingering questions, but it is still a strong first feature film from screenwriter Denton. He and Nagel clearly make a great filmmaking team. The highlight of the film is how the filmmakers build anticipation and terror. Add compelling performances, especially from the two strong female leads, and it is hard to deny the strengths of the film. This indie horror film is one road trip horror fans won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

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Diane

diane

A wounded military veteran lives a solitary life. He goes through the same routine day in and day out, until something unexpected breaks that routine. He awakes one morning to find the body of a beautiful singer in his back yard. Before calling the police, he takes a picture of her. As the police investigation tries to prove his guilt, the image of the dead woman haunts the man, threatening to shatter his sanity.

Michael Mongillo (The Wind) takes the helm as writer and director of this haunting film. The film is a slow burn. It begins with a small amount of character development before the discovery of the body. From there the film focuses on many different factors affecting the protagonist as his obsession with the dead woman grows. Around him there is the police investigation, people in the neighborhood who think he must be guilty, and maybe even the ghost of the woman he found. All of these things unravel the man’s mind. At times he even talks to himself or has wild dreams and hallucinations, all revolving around the woman. The tension slowly builds until the truth is revealed, which almost comes as a release of that tension in a more therapeutic way than is typically found in horror films.

The opening of the film is a bit odd. It starts with a somewhat awkward, drawn out song sung by the woman who will eventually be found dead. This is followed by a sort of “day in the life” sequence showing how the main character typically spends his days. The discovery of the body comes after the screen flashes “one month later.” In all honesty, the song and the “one month later” come across as quite unnecessary. It isn’t until the climax of the film that these cinematic choices by the filmmakers fall into place. The “one month later” becomes more significant, as does the song. I still believe the song borders on uncomfortable to watch, especially with how long it goes on, and the film would have benefited by simply starting with the day in the life of the main character.

Slow-burn horror films only work if the performances can carry the intensity and intrigue throughout the plot. There isn’t a large cast, so most of that responsibility is on the shoulders of the protagonist. The star of the film is Jason Alan Smith (Before I Wake) as Steve. Smith portrays Steve as a silent, brooding wounded military veteran who primarily keeps to himself. This character portrayal works well in the film. The military background specifically works well because it makes it more believable that a man would become so invested in what happened to the woman he found. The mental effects of combat would also explain his issues with memory loss and seeing things, even though the things he sees could also be supernatural.

There are many different color schemes used throughout the film that add some visual interest. The color schemes are used to differentiate between the present, memories, dreams, and hallucinations. The present has a rather bleak color palette, favorite washed out colors and greys.  It lends to the rather bleak existence Steve lives. The past is more vibrant and has more lifelike colors. In the dream sequences the primary color used is red, making it simple to determine when Steve is dreaming. When the hallucinations, or ghostly apparitions, appear they have a staticky appearance as if watching through an ancient television. Generally speaking this technique works well for the purpose of storytelling throughout the film. I personally have never liked the grey-scale, washed-out color scheme commonly found in small budget horror films, but it clearly has a purpose in this film.

Diane gives viewers a haunting mystery that blends psychological thriller with the supernatural. The plot presents an interesting puzzle to be solved and that puzzle is solved rather nicely by the end of the film. The color palette makes sense for the plot, despite my personal dislike for the grey-scale which is most commonly used. If the colors had been a bit more true to life, and the opening scene was cut, the film would have been more appealing. Yet this film still has a compelling story with a strong performance from Smith.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Show Yourself

showyourself

An actor, Travis, is grieving the sudden loss of his friend. To honor him, Travis goes to their favorite childhood camping spot to scatter his ashes. As Travis works through his grief in the woods, strange things start to happen. It becomes clear that he definitely isn’t alone in these woods. Is it the ghost of his dearly departed friend? Or is it something much more sinister?

This film is not only an interesting character study, but it also offers a deep look into grief and guilt. Writer and director Billy Ray Brewton (Dead Ahead) really excels at giving the audience a compelling character that they care for, even with his flaws. The film weaves home videos throughout the plot in order to help build on the character development. What makes this aspect more successful than other films that may use the same tactic is that many of the things the audience sees in these home videos become relevant to what is happening in the present. There is a lot of time devoted to character development in this film. While some may argue it is too much time, and not enough on any really scary stuff, I think it works for the tone of the film. It’s by no means a very scary film. Instead, Brewton gives audiences an eerie and emotional film that shows how Travis works through his grief and personal guilt by incorporating supernatural elements. The resulting film ends up being something that even people who don’t like horror can enjoy.

Another successful piece of this film is how Brewton leaves just enough up to the imagination of the audience. There is really only one scene where the audience gets a clear view of whatever is in the woods. For the most part it is implied, left in the shadows, or just out of focus. This is actually brilliant for two reasons. The first is the budget. With a low budget indie film it makes sense to utilize these methods so they don’t have to blow the budget on crazy practical or CGI effects. And honestly, in an intimate film like this, it is entirely unnecessary. The second reason this is a smart idea is because it lets the audience decide what the entity is. It is mostly out of view, and never fully explained, so each individual can get something different from the film. Is it the ghost of the dead friend? Is it a demon? Is it a physical manifestation of Travis’s guilt? Personally, I think it’s the latter, but the great thing is that you can decide for yourself when you watch the film.

When it comes to the acting in this film, the clear highlight is Ben Hethcoat (The Babysitter Murders) as Travis. Losing a friend is difficult, and watching Travis go through his journey is quite compelling. Hethcoat does a great job of portraying Travis as he goes through the complicated emotions relating to grief. Travis reacts by pushing some people away while he tries to reconnect with others, he lashes out at people, he clearly feels some level of guilt, and he feels like scattering the ashes is his sole responsibility. Considering Travis is the only character on screen for almost the entire film it is important to have a strong actor in the role, and Hethcoat fills that role very well.

Show Yourself uses the supernatural to tell a tale about grief. Brewton shows that he is clearly a skilled storyteller who can write compelling characters. In a film like this that focuses so much on a single character, a compelling character is exceedingly important. Hethcoat also gives the audience a fantastic performance as the lead, Travis. While the film blends the supernatural elements well with the plot, for many horror fans it might not be enough. I can already hear the complaints saying it isn’t a horror film simply because it didn’t scare you. If you’re a person that often makes that complaint, then this film isn’t for you. Yet I highly encourage everyone else, even people who don’t typically enjoy horror films, to seek this film 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 Wailing

A strange Japanese man arrives at a small village in South Korea. Soon after, people begin to go mad and kill their families. A local cop is assigned to these strange cases. His own daughter eventually starts to exhibit the same symptoms as the others who went mad. With the help of his friends, a priest and a shaman, the cop does whatever he can to stop the Japanese stranger from harming his daughter, or anyone else in town.

The Wailing is the second great Korean horror film I have seen this year. Similarly to Train to Busan, the focus of this film is the relationship between a father and his young daughter. Once the daughter is thrown into peril we see the father grow as a person and try to rescue her. The father adds a comedic aspect to the beginning of the film up until the point when his daughter gets sick. From there the film takes a more serious turn. It also does an interesting job of blending different types of mythology. There are satanic rituals, shamanism, ghosts and spirits, a zombie-like illness, and possession. The filmmakers expertly weave all of these aspects together into a chilling, and often times humorous, story. The only issue I had with the plot is that the ending felt a bit convoluted. It seems like the filmmakers are trying to insert too many twists and turns to the point where the audience is left with one too many questions.

This film has multiple amazing performances that lure the audience into the story. One standout is Do-wan Kwak (The Berlin File) as the cop and father, Jong-Goo. The fact that his portrayal of Jong-Goo shows him as a rather dopey and fearful cop who finds his strength when his daughter is in danger feels natural and compelling. Do-wan Kwak manages to make me laugh and make me feel compassion for Jong-Goo and his family. I also love Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill: Vo. 1 and 2) as the stranger. He doesn’t have many speaking scenes until later in the film, but it is hard not to feel his presence. With just a stare, Kunimura is able to send chills down my spine and add to the unsettling ambience of the film.

The effects of this film are subtle, which works well with the story. The infected people first get strange rashes. These rashes eventually cover the whole body, and the eyes of the infected turn white before they become violent. The rashes are grotesque and very well done. One scene involves an infected person having a convulsive fit that results in a bone protruding from the skin. It is disgusting, but also beautiful in how they are able to achieve it with the practical effects. There is another scene at the climax of the film that involves a different kind of transformation. This one I can’t get into too much detail for, but it is one of the most unnerving scenes in the entire film.

While The Wailing isn’t my favorite Korean horror film I have seen this year, it is definitely a memorable one. It has a unique and intricate plot that will keep you hooked through to the end, which is impressive considering it is over two and a half hours long. While the climax does get a bit tangled and confused, it still makes for a riveting mystery. This is another film to add to the rather long list of great foreign films that have come out in the past year. It will appeal to a multitude of horror fans and non-horror fans alike.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

A young nurse gets a new job caring for an elderly horror author. The nurse, who is afraid of everything, is unfamiliar with the author’s work. This includes her most famous book about a woman named Polly. The nurse moves in with her charge to provide around the clock care. As time passes for the nurse living in the elderly woman’s home, it becomes more and more clear there may be someone (or something) else in the home with them.

This is the second film by writer/director Oz Perkins I have seen this year, the first being The Blackcoat’s Daughter. While I loved his previous film, this one left me feeling underwhelmed and unsatisfied. The essential premise is a nurse going to live with an elderly horror author to take care of her. The problem is that this nurse is terrified of everything. She can’t even get through the first chapter of one of the books the horror author wrote. On the first night living in the author’s house the nurse has a small experience with what may be a ghost, but then there aren’t any other happenings for almost a year. There is an interesting idea in this plot. The problem is that the story is underdeveloped, and the primary focus is on the house rather than the characters.

The main issue I have with this film is the writing. While the monologues are beautifully written and interesting, there is just too much dead space throughout the rest of the film. The only character that really has any lines is the nurse, which leaves a lot of time in between any speaking parts. It also means that the main character primarily talks to herself. The film ends up feeling one-dimensional and lacks any true depth to keep the audience interested. Perkins is known for leaving some aspects of his films ambiguous, which worked well in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but in this film things were a bit too ambiguous. The “why” of what is happening is left unclear, and it felt like hints were scattered throughout the film that never came to a satisfying conclusion. This just adds to the somewhat empty feeling of the film.

One thing Perkins did better with was the style of the film. It felt unique in that much of the film consists of the inner monologue of the lead character. The film was very visually interesting, using light and shadows, as well as some beautiful blurred effects. The set of the house is also gorgeous. It often times feels like the house is its own character during the film, and it is actually one of the more well-developed aspects of the film. This unfortunately seemed to be where all the focus of the filmmaker’s efforts went. The film is quite stunning, but the lack of substance makes me wish this had been made as a short consisting of about thirty minutes as opposed to a feature length film.

Because there were so few speaking parts in the film it is very difficult for me to truly judge the acting. Ruth Wilson (The Affair, The Lone Ranger) starred as the nurse, Lily. I know Wilson is a good actress from her other work, but her performance in this role gave the impression that she didn’t put much effort into it. The way the character is written is partly the problem. The fact she is afraid of everything and spoke like an 80-year-old woman created a very unrealistic character. I couldn’t help but cringe when she said things like “Oh, heavens no.” The character is supposed to be in her late twenties, and as someone that is the same age it is hard to imagine a single person my age who speaks like that (no matter how timid they are). The highlight of Wilson’s performance is the monologue she recites at the beginning of the film, and that is also the highlight of the entire film.

As a whole I am vastly underwhelmed by I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. It is stylish and beautiful, but lacked the substance to make it a complete story. The film is also plagued with unrealistic dialogue and underdeveloped characters. I know Perkins can do amazing work, so I look forward to seeing what he does in the future. This is just a bit of a stumble on his road to becoming a successful writer/directer.

OVERALL RATING: 4.5/10

The Conjuring 2

In 1977 a single mother and her four children living in the London borough of Enfield began to experience a haunting. All the activity seemed to be focused around the daughter, Janet. As things begin to get worse the Catholic church reached out to Ed and Lorraine Warren, who are paranormal investigators, to look into the case and see if it is a true haunting or a hoax. As the Warrens dig into the haunting, they soon realize there is much more to this case than meets the eye.

James Wan has brought another compelling true story to terrify audiences. What makes the Conjuring films so fascinating is the simple fact that they are based on truth. Add to that Wan’s unique style and his talent for creating scares, and you get a very frightening film. Part of the reason that the scares are so successful is because Wan utilizes many different kinds of scares. There was of course a good number of jump scares, but there were also more subtle scares and times when your attention is drawn elsewhere only for a scare to pop out somewhere else. The Conjuring 2 delivered on bigger scares, while still keeping the classic eerie feeling that we know and love from the first film.

When making a sequel, it is important to not only go bigger than you did in the first one, but you must also build on the mythology that was started. The Conjuring 2 definitely delivered on both points. As we follow the Warrens on their investigation we are reminded of events that happened in the first film. Then of course those events are expanded upon in this film. It creates a cohesion between the two movies and it resolves some of the unanswered questions.

As I previously mentioned, the scares were definitely bigger, but they also used imagery that took the film to another level. You may have noticed from the trailer that there are some more classic makeup effects in order to create the look for the Enfield poltergeist, as well as the possession makeup for Janet. I especially loved Janet’s makeup because it felt like a nod to The Exorcist with the veins across the face and haunting eyes. Then of course there is the nun character. The look they did was so simple with pale white skin and black around the eyes, yet it was probably one of the most terrifying manifestations of evil in the entire franchise. Unfortunately this is where I have to bring up probably the only thing I didn’t like about this film. This is a story that is very much rooted in actual events that took place. That being said, there was one manifestation that the evil in the Enfield home took on that did not feel at all real to me. Without giving too much away it was very big, scary, and could not have been pulled out without the help of CGI. The CGI was well done, but it just didn’t seem to fit in with the film and took it to a realm far outside what I could believe to be real. One could easily argue that the entire film is fantasy, but it is based on truth and the advertising wanted you to know that. If this CGI evil being had been in a different film, I likely would have enjoyed it much more.

The acting in The Conjuring 2 was just as good as it was in the first film. Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring, Bates Motel) and Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring, Insidious) were fantastic as Lorraine and Ed Warren. Of course they are incredibly talented actors, but their chemistry on screen is what draws viewers in and makes us fall in love with them. The biggest surprise in this cast was Madison Wolfe (Joy, Trumbo) as the focus of these hauntings, Janet. When I looked her up to see what other acting gigs she had. I was shocked to find that she has been in many great films and TV shows. She isn’t even English and she looks COMPLETELY different in real life than she does in The Conjuring 2. Her performance was so powerful and disturbing. She is a young actress that I can’t wait to see more of.

The Conjuring 2 keeps audiences cowering in their seats while delivering one of the most frightening films in the past decade. It has the scares, the story, and the performances to push the film into the relatively small club of horror movie sequels that are actually great. There have been many who have said that The Conjuring 2 was better than its predecessor. While I disagree with that, I still believe this was a near perfect sequel. If it wasn’t for the addition of CGI that seemed out of place I may have agreed that this film surpassed the original. James Wan has created yet another masterful film that will go down in history with other classics such as The Exorcist and the Shining. Run, don’t walk, to the theaters so you can experience the frights and scares how they were meant to be seen; on a big screen with a theater full of people to scream and jump with.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10