haunting

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel

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Eight years after the Hell House LLC tragedy, and the subsequent disappearance of a documentary film crew, the mystery of the Abaddon Hotel remains unsolved. An anonymous tip sent to a journalist claims all the evidence of what happened is hidden inside the hotel. The journalist and her crew, along with the only surviving member of the original documentary crew, decide to go back to the hotel to find the truth. They will have to sneak past police and break in, but the real battle will be getting out.

The highly anticipated sequel to Hell House LLC hit Shudder just in time for the Halloween season. Stephen Cognetti returns as writer and director of this found footage haunted house flick. The sequel is filmed similarly to the first film. There are documentary filmmaker shots, videos from phones and handheld devices, news reports, and interviews. This allows the filmmakers to include multiple different perspectives outside the main cast of characters. The scares are also done in a very similar way. They are subtle, and generally lack jump scares. This makes the film itself terrifying, but the fright factor has a lasting effect even after the film is over. Fans will recognize a couple of the more iconic frightening faces, including the absolutely creepy clown mannequin and the haunting ghost woman.

Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of the plot that make Hell House LLC II less successful than its predecessor. One of my only critical notes in the first one was a few unanswered questions. In a haunting film it is fine to have those, but there were some parts left a little too ambiguous. This film goes in the polar opposite direction. Not only does the plot try to tie up every loose end in this film, but it even goes on to answer the questions I had from the first film. The filmmakers end up putting everything into a neat package that is almost too clean. The film goes into so much explanation that it slows the climax to a crawl, taking any suspense out of the moment. The suspense leading up to that moment makes up for the sudden halt, but the climax still comes across as lackluster.

The performances are a bit of a mixed bag. Vasile Flutur (Far From Here) gives the strongest performance as Mitchell. He is intense, skeptical, but he also strives to find the truth behind the disappearance of his friends. A less enjoyable performance came from Jillian Geurts (The Algebra of Need) as the journalist, Jessica. This is partly due to writing and partly the performance itself. In terms of the writing, Jessica is just a generally unlikeable character because of her unwavering need to get the scoop on the history of the hotel. Geurts’ performance comes across as a bit over-rehearsed and her delivery is sometimes a bit exaggerated. It almost feels like a performance for the stage, which doesn’t fit well with the tone of this film. Kyle Ingleman (Attack of the Slime People) delivers a similar performance to Geurts, but it works better for his role as the psychic, Brock Davies.

One common theme amongst all the characters, perhaps with the exception of Brock Davies, is that the motives behind their actions don’t quite come across. In a found footage film it is so important to convey why these people would put themselves in these situations and film the entire time. The first film did this successfully, but it doesn’t hold up as well in the sequel. Davies can be written off because he is a TV psychic, so communicating with the spirits in the Abaddon Hotel and getting it on film would be huge for his career. As for the others, some of their motivations for going to the hotel make sense, but their reasons for staying and continuing to film are a bit hazy at best.

With the use of simplistic scares the filmmakers wisely went with simple effects as well. As I mentioned before, the eerie clown mannequin makes an appearance in this film. Not only is this the most frightening and simple look, but it is also the source of some of the most spine-chilling scares. There are other makeup looks done for some of the ghosts seen in the hotel that are the same as in the previous film, but they are more visible in Hell House LLC II. This may not have been a wise decision, as I am a firm believer in less is more when showing ghosts/creatures in horror films. The brighter lighting makes it more obvious that these characters look as if they are from a Halloween haunt, but that also lends itself well to idea the of this location being the ultimate haunted house.

Hell House LLC II: The Abaddon Hotel has many hits and misses. What works well is the subtle scares, which start earlier in the film than fans saw in its predecessor. It is also great to get some of the answers I was looking for in the first film. What doesn’t work as well is the film’s overall lack of direction. It doesn’t flow quite as well, likely because a lot of effort was put in making everything clear and obvious to the audience. It results in a subdued climax that should have packed more of a punch. Fans who enjoyed the first film will likely be disappointed, but this sequel is still likely to give you chills and make you avoid any abandoned hotels for a while.

OVERALL RATING: 5.5/10

 

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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

Blair Witch

Over 15 years ago James’s sister went into the woods to film a documentary about the Blair Witch. Her and the two friends she was filming with were never seen again, but their footage was found showing some unsettling events. Now, a new video has been found in the woods and posted online. James believes it is his sister in the video and that she is still alive. In hopes of finding his long lost sister, James and his friends decide to head into those same woods to try to find her and film their entire experience.

The Blair Witch Project is one of the few films that still scares me, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. This leads me to have pretty high expectations for this latest installment. When I heard that Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S) was directing Blair Witch, my expectations were set even higher. Taking on a sequel to a very well known found-footage film was quite a different venture for Wingard. After seeing Blair Witch I can say it is the scariest film I have seen so far this year, and it’s all thanks to Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett (You’re Next, V/H/S).

The first film focused primarily on the fear and suspense of being lost in the woods for days. It relied heavily on the more subtle kinds of scares that give you goosebumps. Blair Witch focuses much more on big scares and being stalked in the woods by a supernatural entity. There are many aspects of the plot that make this film a great sequel, especially when you consider how many years apart the two films were made. The plot of course reminds audiences of the mythology we learned from the first film, but it then expands on that mythology. We get to learn a bit more about the witch herself, which was very interesting. Along with the mythology, the filmmakers do an excellent job of playing with time. As things unfold it becomes clear that time moves very differently in the deep dark of the woods.

The entire film keeps you at the edge of your seat. As soon as the group enters the woods, the fear and tension only continues to get more intense. I’m the kind of person that has to ball up and cover my ears when watching a terrifying film. I was so tensed up during the entire film, that by the time the credits rolled, my arms were sore. Blair Witch has a lot of the creepy subtle scares like its predecessor, but there are a lot more jump scares and being chased in the woods than ever before. Wingard also includes some claustrophobia-inducing scenes that are terrifying. He does a great job of making you expect one thing to happen, and while you’re focusing on that, something else pops out to shake your nerves. The climax of Blair Witch even goes to an extreme level of scares and surprises that I never saw coming. There are really only one or two things that I can say I thought weren’t a great fit, although I didn’t necessarily dislike them. There is a part of the climax where there are these alien-looking bright lights. I think I understand what the purpose of those lights were, but it just isn’t explicit enough when you’re watching the film for it to make sense. It ends up detracting a bit from the terrifying situation. This film also falls into an unfortunate stereotype involving the order in which characters tend to die in horror films (if you catch my drift) which seemed a bit beneath Wingard and Barrett.

I appreciated that the filmmakers made the decision to cast lesser-known actors for this film, much like in the first one. All of the actors are absolutely phenomenal. The two leads really stand out. James Allen McCune (Shameless) blew me away in what is arguably his biggest role yet as James. His determination and belief that his sister could still be alive is quite touching and something that McCune emotes well through the camera. Calle Hernandez (From Dusk Til Dawn: The Series) is also fantastic. She has some of the most demanding physical scenes in the film, and it makes you empathize with her more than any of the other characters.

While nothing will ever be quite as good as The Blair Witch Project, Blair Witch definitely exceeds my expectations in creating a compelling sequel. This film meets every standard I have for a sequel: great directing, very well written story that builds on the mythology, and everything is bigger (the scares, the technology, the effects, etc). Wingard and Barrett are truly a dream team of horror. It seems like there is nothing they can’t achieve when they partner up. I can’t wait to see what these two do with future projects. If you want to see a film that will curdle your blood, then be sure to run to the theaters to see Blair Witch.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

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

Under the Shadow

A mother gets left alone with her daughter in post-revolution Tehran in the eighties. Everyone is on edge because of the constant threat of bombings from Iraq. With tensions already running high, things only get worse when an evil entity begins to haunt the apartment the mother and daughter call home. Life gradually become more dangerous, both outside their home and inside. Which threat should they be most fearful of?

This was my first Iranian horror film, and there were so many things I loved about it. While this is a horror film, it focuses quite a bit on what life was like for a more liberal family living in post-revolution Iran. Not only do we see the oppression that the lead character goes through as a woman in that time, but we are also shown a glimpse of what it was like to live with the constant fear of a bomb coming through your ceiling. As if this isn’t terrifying enough, the mother and daughter also have to deal with something evil. This evil is known as a “djinn,” which is a supernatural spirit from Islamic mythology. Using the ancient evil in a modern, war-torn landscape created an excellent juxtaposition.

Under the Shadow was shockingly successful at keeping you tense from start to finish. By the time the film ended, I had a horrible headache from clenching my jaw and tensing my muscles in anticipation of what would come next. On top of that, the filmmakers managed to have a few excellent jump scares thrown in to add to the suspense. While the film is generally what would be described as a “slow burn,” the last 15 minutes manages to keep you at the edge of your seat and peeking at the screen from behind your hands.

While there are some periphery characters, there primarily is just the mother and the daughter. Shideh, the mother, was played by Narges Rashidi (Aeon Flux). Rashidi delivered a powerful performance. It is hard to imagine what it would be like living as a woman in warn-torn Iran in the eighties trying to take care of your daughter alone, while at the same time combating an evil that you don’t even know is real or not. However, Rashidi does a great job giving us a glimpse into that world. Dorsa, the daughter, was played by Avin Manshadi. This was Manshidi’s first acting role, and she definitely delivered. As many horror fans know, children in horror films can easily lean towards a more annoying performance. Luckily, this was not the case for Manshidi. She was very talented, and her performance was truly believable.

Being more of a suspenseful film, there aren’t that many special effects. Most of the effects enter at the end of the film, which of course I will not give too much detail on. The effects are primarily CGI, which from a practicality standpoint was the only way to achieve the climax of the film. The effects are simple, especially in the styling of the djinn, but they are highly effective. The simple design managed to send chills down my spine and make something seemingly harmless absolutely terrifying.

When I went to see this film in the theater, I went in blind. The only thing I knew about it was that the film was from Iran. I’m thrilled I didn’t pass up the chance to see it on the big screen. The atmosphere of the film left you in a perpetual state of dread. This feeling was only amplified by being in a dark theater. Under the Shadow gives you a glimpse into the old and new aspects of Iranian culture, while also giving you a fright you won’t soon forget. This is the kind of film that will appeal to many viewers, not just because of the scares, but also because you learn things you may not have known about a different culture while watching it. It’s a horror film and a history lesson all in one.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

The Boy (2016)

Greta (Lauren Cohan) is an American nanny looking for a job in the English countryside. When she arrives at her new job she is shocked to find that the “boy” she is supposed to care for is actually a doll. Even more bizarre is that the doll was made to look like the couple’s deceased son, Brahms, and they treat the doll as if it was their son. The parents strongly urge Greta to follow Brahms’ rules while they are away. When she doesn’t follow the rules, strange things begin to happen. Is Greta losing her mind living all alone in the secluded house, or is the doll actually alive?

I am so pleased to be able to tell you that I enjoyed this film. Going into the theater I was expecting this film to be dull and lacking in any substance. One of my favorite aspects of this film is that the trailer made you think the plot would go in a different direction than it actually did. This may have been a disappointment to some simply because the film was a bit slower than the trailer made it appear, with the exception of the climax. I agree that the film definitely moves at a leisurely pace, but what the film lacks in speed and excitement it makes up for in ambiance. It creates a very unsettling, creepy feel. There were times where it was unconformable to watch the odd relationship between the parents and doll Brahms, and even more uncomfortable to watch that relationship develop between Greta and doll Brahms.

This film also exceeded my expectations by having an amazing twist. It was exciting, made sense with everything that led up to the climax, and I did not even remotely see it coming. Even as the twist was being revealed it took me a second for it to click in my brain. Not only was the twist an unexpected one, but it made everything that you had just watched even more creepy and disturbing than you thought possible. Unfortunately, there is a down side to this exciting twist. While I thought it worked very well and added a ton of excitement to what could have been a slightly dull plot, it also felt like the twist was a complete rip off of another horror film that came out in 2014. I don’t want to say what that film is to avoid spoiling the end of this film (or the 2014 film for those who haven’t seen it yet). I’ll just say that, while the motivations for the entities are different in the two films, the general idea is the same. I’m going to give the filmmakers of The Boy the benefit of the doubt and say it is just a coincidence, especially since the 2014 film was a much smaller production that many people probably didn’t see.

The two leads did an excellent job. Many of us have seen Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead, Chuck) in several TV shows, primarily in a supporting role. While she has always been amazingly talented in those roles, she has never had the opportunity to really shine as the main character in a large production film. It was great to finally see her as a leading lady. Cohan held her own and proved that she can carry a film along in the main character. Rupert Evans (The Canal, Hellboy) was as charming as ever playing the lovable grocery boy, Malcolm.

The Boy was much more successful than I imagined it could be. There were so many elements that worked in its favor such as the acting and an interesting plot line. The marketing also worked in this film’s favor by not revealing too much of the story, which happens all too often these days. The twist was one of the best parts of the film, but it also is one of the reasons I had to dock a bit from the score. It was just too similar to the 2014 horror film I mentioned earlier to ignore. Looking past that, The Boy was still a creepy horror film that will leave you feeling quite disturbed about what you witnessed.

OVERALL RATING: 6.5/10

Crimson Peak

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has seen ghosts since she was ten years old. On her first encounter with a ghost, she was warned to stay away from a place called Crimson Peak. Years later, she meets a handsome baronet from England named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). After a tragedy, Edith marries Thomas and moves into his decaying family mansion in England along with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Edith soon realizes the place she was warned about as a child has now become her only home, and there are many ghosts within its walls.

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors. He has a masterful way of blending dynamic characters, haunting imagery, and completely unique looking creatures. Crimson Peak is another success. Probably the most successful aspect was how visually stimulating and stunning the entire film is. This is evidenced when Edith moves to England with the Sharpes. The mansion they live in is quite literally falling apart. It is unnerving and beautiful all at the same time. The house sits on deposits of red clay that seeps through the floors and the walls of the house’s lower levels. It makes it appear as though the house is bleeding. The director has essentially made the house another character in the film. The red clay seeping into the pure white snow is also a very vivid image. It alludes to the blood that has been spilled on this land.

Even the costume design added to the fantastic imagery. The costumes alone were quite beautiful, but the focus on color adds a certain depth. Edith, who is full of life and innocence, typically is seen wearing some kind of white, beige, or yellow dress. This makes her stand out against the darkness of the house and the blood red of the clay that oozes from the walls. By contrast, both Thomas and Lucille wear very dark colors. It is almost as if their clothes are meant to show Thomas and Lucille’s connection to the house. This is especially clear with Lucille’s wardrobe. She primarily wears a blue dress that is so dark it is almost black. She almost blends in with the house as if she is one with it.

This film had an original story that actually kept me on the edge of my seat. It is a mystery being slowly unraveled as Edith follows the clues being laid out for her. It’s always a good sign when I’m not constantly guessing what will happen before it occurs in the movie. That isn’t to say there weren’t some things that seemed fairly obvious early on in the film. It was more that the way everything was revealed kept it interesting, even if you knew what was coming. Some may feel that the film moved rather slowly. I will concede that based on the trailer, the film looked like it was going to be filled with non-stop intense scares. There was plenty of intensity and definitely some great scares, some that even happen very early on, but the film definitely focuses more on the mystery side of things as well as character development (which is very important in a film like this).

All three of the leads in this film were absolutely flawless. Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) was perfectly cast as Edith. She gives an air of youthful innocence yet she is independent and very intelligent. Wasikowska also excelled at portraying her character as terrified of the ghosts that haunt her, but also knowing she has to solve the mysteries surrounding these ghosts. I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing Thomas Sharpe except Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers). Hiddleston somehow manages to appear charmingly lovable and utterly sinister all at the same time. I don’t believe any other actor could achieve this. Finally, there is Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). It is clear from her past work that she is a talented actress. Until now, I never knew how disturbing she could be. The only acting that I was not convinced by came from Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy). I usually enjoy his acting, but his delivery in this film just fell a bit flat.

Yet another amazing aspect of this film was the various special effects. Guillermo del Toro is known for his amazing use of CGI. The look created for the ghosts was disgusting, frightening, and beautiful all at once. What I was even more surprised about was the use a practical effects. This film had some rather brutal scenes of violence, which I did not even remotely expect, with gorgeous practical effects for the wounds. There is one particularly graphic scene that takes place just before Edith goes to England that blew me away.

There are so many amazing aspects of Crimson Peak. This film was dark, intense, scary, mysterious, and sexy. It has pretty much everything you could ask for in a great ghost film that actually has substance. While it was a truly thrilling movie, there are some things that keep it from being perfect. The biggest being simply that the trailer leads you to believe the film relies much more heavily on scaring you with ghosts than it really does. This is one thing that will likely upset many viewers. Personally, the fact that this film had an edge-of-your-seat mystery makes up for the fact that the ghosts were more used as clues rather than ways to terrify you. It is still one of my favorite films so far this year. I truly hope that this will lead to Guillermo del Toro writing and directing more horror films.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10