home invasion

They’re Inside

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An aspiring filmmaker and her estranged sister travel to a remote cabin with a small film crew. The plan is to make an emotional film about an experience the filmmaker had with her husband. Not long after settling in, strange things begin to happen. What starts as noises during the night quickly escalates as two deranged killers have other plans for the film crew.

They’re Inside is directed by John-Paul Panelli, making his feature film debut with this film. Panelli also co-wrote the film with Schuyler Brumley, also in his feature-film debut. The film begins with a delightful cold opening. It shows a man on New Years Eve attempting to record what the audience can assume is his YouTube channel. As he goes through different takes trying to film the perfect video, unexpected visitors crash his video. Honestly, this opening is my favorite part of the film. It not only gives an interesting look behind the scenes at recording the perfect video, but it also uses some great framing to build tension.

From there the film goes to the two sisters reconnecting as they attempt to film a movie in a remote cabin with a small group of actors and crew. As small happenings lead to larger scares and growing paranoia, the group eventually realizes they are being watched by people with murderous intentions. To add some interest and mystery to the plot, the filmmakers interspersed clips of animals on the hunt and of the lead actress. It is unclear when or where these clips of the actress take place and it makes the viewer question her level of involvement in all that is happening. These elements make it unclear what is truly happening and keeps the audience guessing right up to the fairly unique climax of the film.

While They’re Inside has a great cold opening and interesting plot points that are unexpected, the film feels like many films that came before it. Home invasion films featuring creepy mask-wearing psychopaths are quite common. While this idea has been done time and time again with varying degrees of success, this film falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. The crew behind They’re Inside do make an attempt to bring something different with the various surprises thrown into the mix. This makes an otherwise forgettable film stand out in the viewers’ mind, especially with how the filmmakers chose to end the film.

In general, the performances in They’re Inside are very well done. Karli Hall (Being Charlie, The Hollow Point) stars as the aspiring director, Robin. What makes her performance stand out is the uncertainty she builds around her character. Along with the small scenes cut into the film, Hall’s performance forces the audience to question whether or not Robin is somehow involved with the horror inflicted on her friends. Amanda Kathleen Ward (Fate) plays Robin’s estranged sister, Cody. Ward’s performance becomes more compelling as the plot progresses and Cody’s paranoia intensifies. As the events intensify, it seems as though Cody’s sanity might completely unravel. The rest of the cast also deliver great performances including Sascha Ghafoor (Rift, The Wedding Invitation), Chelsea D. Miller (Big Time Rush, Spaceman), and Jake Ferree (The Baxters, Loop).

They’re Inside makes attempts at creating a unique home invasion and found footage mash-up, but it doesn’t have quite enough to truly stand out. Panelli and Brumley create compelling and complex characters while also adding interesting elements to their film I haven’t seen before. On top of that, the film is helped by compelling performances from the cast. The opening of the film and the end are the standout moments, but what happens in-between doesn’t do enough to break away from other successful films in the subgenre. There are moments that will be memorable, but as a whole They’re Inside is a film that will fade from peoples’ minds by the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Trespassers

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Two couples meet at a vacation rental home in the desert. What was supposed to be a weekend getaway to recharge and rekindle romances quickly turns sour when a strange woman rings the bell late at night. From the moment they open the door, the night spirals wildly out of control resulting in lies, violence, and death.

This thrilling spin on a home-invasion flick is written by Corey Deshon (Shine) and directed by Orson Oblowitz (The Queen of Hollywood Blvd). The filmmakers waste no time in setting the tone for the bloody time audiences are in for. The relatively simple plot of Trespassers is made more interesting in the way it quickly builds tension and manages to subvert expectations. From the opening scene it is clear that anything can and will happen to these unsuspecting couples. For the two couples renting the home it starts with the stranger ringing their bell. After that the film is jam-packed with shocking and unsettling twists that go from bad, to worse, to outright catastrophic.

The most successful aspect of Trespassers is the building of chaos. While each new turn doesn’t always exactly go the way one might expect, the turns are still believable within the context of the plot. Some of these turns are more subtle, some of them come into the plot with a bang. It keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, never fully knowing what could possibly happen next. The only true problem with the entertaining plot is the characters. In a home-invasion style film one of the most important aspects that helps maintain the suspense is creating characters the audience cares about. While there is one character that is endearing, the rest of the characters are all horrible people. The plot was thrilling enough to hold my interest, but I really didn’t care if anyone except Sarah died.

While the entire cast is fantastic, it’s the ladies who completely steal the show in Trespassers. Angela Trimbur (Final Girls, XX) stars as Sarah. Sarah is the one who booked the beautiful rental in the hopes of reconnecting with her husband and her best friend. I’ve been a fan of Trimbur since seeing her in Final Girls. It was nice to see her take on a leading role with a lot of emotional depth and she delivered a compelling performance. Janel Parrish (Pretty Little Liars, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) plays Estelle. She is Sarah’s best friend, but they are complete opposites. Estelle is a wild child who really isn’t a great friend. Parrish’s performance stands out because, despite Estelle being a lousy person, she still manages to make me care just enough that I want her to live. Then of course there is fan-favorite Fairuza Balk (The Craft, Almost Famous) as the mysterious late night visitor. Balk steals every scene she’s in by perfectly straddling the line between innocent and creepy. She makes it so the audience second-guesses if she can be trusted or not. All three of these woman deliver strong and dynamic performances.

Arguably the best aspect of this film is the artistry. From the visuals to the effects to the music, it’s all absolutely stunning. The house is gorgeous and modern, but set in a remote area to allow for a more isolated feeling. When things really take a turn for the worst the filmmakers use gorgeous lighting in vibrant reds, blues, and greens to make each scene as beautiful as it is suspenseful. Trespassers also has a surprising amount of gore in it. With this kind of thriller I anticipated the kills would be well executed with practical effects, which they definitely are, but they are much more graphic than I expected. There is one specific kill that is quite shocking and is fantastically done with practical effects. Then, to top everything off, the film has a wonderful score by Jonathan Snipes. The music really sets the tone for the film and helps to get the audience excited in the more action-packed scenes. Snipes even effectively integrates the sound of the doorbell into the music, which manages to make both the doorbell and the music even more sinister. These elements intertwine to make this film stand out.

Trespassers is a series of unfortunate events that leads its characters down a dark and twisted path. Deshon and Oblowitz combined powers manage to create a familiar home invasion film, but with a distinct edge. This edge can be seen in the compounding suspense that builds in unexpected ways and an amazing score that helps to build that suspense. Trespassers even gives the audience some great eye-candy in the form of beautiful lighting and superb practical effects. While I wish the characters were a bit more endearing, the performances still make them fun to watch, especially from the three female leads. You won’t want to miss this entertaining flick.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Better Watch Out

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In a typical, quiet suburban neighborhood, Ashley goes to babysit twelve-year-old Luke. The cold, wintry night starts out like any other night babysitting, but then intruders break into the house. Ashley does what she can to keep Luke out of harm’s way, but this is no ordinary break-in. It soon becomes clear to Ashley that there is something much stranger going on and she is going to have to fight to survive the night.

It seems like every year there is a new Christmas-themed horror film released to the masses. Some of them become instant classics, while others fade into obscurity. Better Watch Out definitely has the potential to become one of those instant classics. The plot starts out like your everyday slasher. It has the standard formula of a babysitter being terrorized by a mystery person (or persons) and having to protect the child they are babysitting. The terrorizing begins with creepy phone calls and quickly escalates from there. Without going into spoiler-filled details, what makes this film stand apart from other films with a similar plot is all the surprising twists and turns. There is always something more going on than meets the eye and it keeps the audience guessing right up until the credits roll. Many of these surprises allow the filmmakers to inject humor in creative and hilarious ways. The film also gives nods to other holiday flicks that we all grew up watching.

Apart from having a great plot, this film also has fantastic performances. Olivia DeJonge (The Visit, The Sisterhood of Night) plays the babysitter, Ashley. While this character fits more into the usual archetype commonly seen in babysitter-slashers, DeJonge makes it her own. DeJonge especially shines in how she portrays Ashley’s strength despite the odds being stacked against her. The true highlight of this film is Levi Miller (Pan, A Wrinkle in Time) as Luke. While Luke tries to be serious and appear older, since he has a crush on Ashley, he often brings laughs when he gets exasperated and his puberty-stricken voice cracks. Miller delivers a performance that is equals parts shocking, hilarious, and intriguing. Both DeJonge and Miller carry the film and make it all the more enjoyable to watch.

Being a holiday thriller means there is a healthy amount of blood throughout the film. The filmmakers don’t shy away from blood, yet there is a noticeable lack of practical effects in the film. When a person is stabbed the audience is shown the blood, but the wound is never visible. Many of the shots are clearly deliberately set up to avoid showing any real gore. This seems like an odd choice for an R-rated film. Whether this is a conscious decision to not focus on gore or if it is a budget issue, I can’t say, but I believe by not showing any wounds, the filmmakers inadvertently draw more attention to them. When I watch a slasher flick, I expect to see when a knife enters a person’s body and that is one of many things not shown in Better Watch Out. This absence of gore is the one true drawback to the film.

Better Watch Out breaks the mold of the typical holiday slasher and is sure to be on everyone’s holiday must-watch list. It takes everything audiences love about the holidays and everything they love about horror to create a fun new Christmas movie. It is clever, entertaining, and exceedingly well acted. If there had been a bit more gore, I believe the film would have been a near perfect slasher. As it is, the film is still highly entertaining and one I would recommend to anyone looking for something different to watch this Christmas.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Don’t Breathe

Rocky desperately wants to take her little sister away from their abusive home. Together with her two friends, they begin robbing houses in order to get enough money to leave town. The friends finally decide to go after the perfect heist: a blind man rumored to have hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed in his house who lives alone in a deserted part of town. Everything starts out according to plan, but things quickly go south. The blind man is more than capable of protecting his home and the many secrets that lie within.

I’m happy to say that Fede Alvarez has once again proved he is an exceptional director. This is only his second feature length film, and already he is making quite the name for himself in the horror industry. While I absolutely loved his version of Evil Dead, I’m delighted that he went in a different direction with this film. The two films are really completely different sub-genres of horror, but the one thing they have in common (besides Alvarez and actress Jane Levy) is that both films have many instances that make you cringe. Don’t Breathe is raw, unnerving, and a true thriller.

A home invasion kind of thriller isn’t anything new to the genre. It is a simple idea, but Alvarez masterfully elevates the story to a work of art. One of my favorite shots in the film is when the kids first break into the home and are trying to find the money. It is all done in one continuous take as the camera goes back and forth through the halls following the different characters. There are also many different layers to the plot. Every time you think you understand what’s going on, the plot thickens and everything is thrown into chaos. The story also has aspects that are uncomfortable to watch in the best possible way. It adds a bit of shock value, but it remains relevant to what is going on. It is not a shock just for the sake of getting a reaction from the audience.

The actors in this film are not only well cast, but they all blow me away. When talking about the acting it’s impossible to not talk about Stephen Lang (Avatar, The Monkey’s Paw) as the blind man. Lang has played military characters before, but he takes it to a place of methodical insanity in this performance. His character is brutal, unhinged, and he will not stop until he gets what he wants. Lang’s portrayal of a blind character is fantastic. If I didn’t already know he could see I would assume he was truly blind. The other standout performance is Jane Levy (Evil Dead, Suburgatory) as Rocky. We already know from Evil Dead that Levy is an amazing young talent. She is no different in Don’t Breathe. She easily adapts to the role, and the audience is instantly drawn to her. Levy’s character is compelling because you know what she is doing is wrong, but her reason behind it is sincere. That is a common theme among all the characters. Their actions may be horrible, but when you know why they do these things it makes you sympathize with them.

There are very little effects to speak of in this film. The main practical effects center around the blind man character. The blind man lost his sight while in the war, presumably from some kind of explosion. Lang wears very unsettling contacts that cloud the iris and pupil. The clouding is even more disturbing because it is muddled and uneven. They also implement some facial prosthetic to create the look of burn scars across Lang’s cheeks and a bit around his eyes. The overall look is very well done. It is realistic enough that it’s almost hard to look directly at him.

Fede Alvarez has created another thrilling work of art that makes audiences squirm. The level of intensity is this film starts early and doesn’t let up until the grand finale. There is only one even remotely bad thing I can say about this film, and it is just that I noticed a couple of editing errors while watching it. Honestly, it’s something most people probably won’t notice (and sometimes I wish I didn’t). Aside from that Don’t Breathe has a great story, phenomenal acting, and it takes a relatively simple plot then ramps it up to a level few have ventured into. This is definitely not a film for the faint of heart, so consider yourself warned.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10