DVD Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Katie Holmes explores a seriously creepy house.

Katie Holmes explores a seriously creepy house.

There are a few moments in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, an effective but flawed frightfest written and produced by first-class scaremonger Guillermo del Toro, that shred the audience’s nerves like cat claws on curtains, but many more that fall disappointingly flat.

All of the best scares center around the various horrors suffered by pint-sized protagonist Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) as she investigates a creepy Victorian manor being restored by her apathetic father (Guy Pearce) and his concerned girlfriend (Katie Holmes). Contrary to what the film’s title suggests, she is and should be very afraid of the house’s dark corners, where hundreds of nasty little creatures lurk with sinister plans for Sally.

It’s a solid premise for a horror movie, but also where Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, adapted from the 1973 ABC TV movie of the same name, hits its first snag. Though the film’s setting lends it a nicely spooky atmosphere, the movie’s resident monsters are not nearly as terrifying as they’re meant to be. Part of the problem is that they are rendered in truly egregious CGI far too often, and this robs them of all mystery. The creatures would be much scarier antagonists if they weren’t shown so clearly and instead stayed in the shadows, making only one or two appearances throughout the entire movie. As it is, they’re painfully overexposed and ultimately no more terrifying than Spiderwick Chronicles-style gremlins.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark also suffers from a glut of groan-inducing horror tropes, aside from lazy writing and B-plots abandoned almost as soon as they’re introduced. Flashlights never work when they are supposed to, doors never open when they need to, and smart protagonists uncharacteristically make boneheaded decisions when the script calls for it. Too many scares rely on cheap, predictable jump-out ploys. That being said, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t rest on its laurels; it at least tries to make something out of those tropes, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels as the film enters its final act.

Madison is the film’s ace in the hole, expertly communicating Sally’s curiosity, naivety, loneliness, and anger in just a few glances whenever she’s on screen. She’s a lively, three-dimensional character with believable strengths and weaknesses. Thanks to Madison’s emotive performance, Sally is the only character audiences will be hoping gets out alive. Unfortunately, not so much for Holmes and Pearce. The two are resigned to bland, static roles, though Holmes tries harder to make her reluctant mother character admirable and sympathetic than Pearce, who simply chews the scenery.

Despite some nerve-fraying scenes and a palpable sense of dread that permeates the entire movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark never breaks away from its script’s piled clichés to become a bona fide horror movie on its own terms. The most disappointing thing about the film is del Toro himself. Though his name is slapped across the cover, his influence is nowhere to be found. The creatures hold none of the majesty, beauty, or mystery of other del Toro creations, and the film’s scares are never as effective or thoughtful as those in his other projects.

Though its ability to build tension is admirable, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark squanders a promising premise with a lousy script and lacks the richer psychological scares of the original TV movie. Madison and Holmes give it their all, but their performances are undermined by the script’s mediocrity and lackluster special effects. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is ultimately an example of a perfectly serviceable horror flick that could have been so much more. B-

 

Image Courtesy: Miramax.

DVD Review: Hansel and Gretel – Witch Hunters

Arterton and Renner have a bone to pick with the world's witches.

Arterton and Renner have a bone to pick with the world’s witches.

Reviewing a movie like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a fool’s errand. Anyone who can read knows that this dark fantasy, starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, is not aiming to win any awards or make picky critics happy. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters wants to be exactly what it sounds like – a bloody, fun, and unapologetically loopy revenge fantasy, starring two very attractive people and a whole lot of nasty-looking weapons. And there’s something to be said for a movie that gives its audience exactly what it promised them in the first place. For most of its short (88-minute) running time, it’s a shamelessly simple, delightfully disposable take on a classic story. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The movie picks up the tale of two extremely gullible siblings fifteen years later; evidently lacking access to therapy, they’ve dealt with their trauma by becoming formidable bounty hunters, hunting down every witch in sight with a stockpile of crossbows, shotguns, and pistols. Both still bear serious psychological and physical scars from their imprisonment (Hansel’s a diabetic as a result of his forced candy binge, a nice touch), and their mission to destroy all witches is a very personal. When they arrive in the town of Augsburg, where children are going missing, Hansel and Gretel face their toughest challenge yet: a coven of witches led by the powerful Muriel (Famke Janssen).

Director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) pulled off a major casting coup with Arterton and Renner, two stars typically found in higher brow fare than this. The two are game and have an easy chemistry both in their conversations and their witch beat-downs. They do a decent job of bringing to life their certifiably badass characters, no easy task. Their performances are intentionally serious, and while that does work with the film’s tone, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters would have been more entertaining if both the script and the actors had loosened up a bit instead of playing it straight. Arterton seems to be having a better time than Renner, whose scowl never recedes for a second, but neither one of them truly runs with the absurdity of the movie’s central concept.

Wirkola keeps the pace moving quickly, likely to hide the undercooked script, and it’s not a bad choice, because with such tight direction, the film never wears out its welcome. The director also embraces his film’s darkness, maxing out the gore and griminess in his action sequences.Unfortunately, the movie’s serious tone is a poor choice given how close the movie’s concept is to falling over the edge into parody. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is at its heart a revenge fantasy, about two screwed up adults with a bone to pick, and that refreshingly simple concept would have served a goofier film better. Even as blood and guts splatter the screen, it’s all should be tongue-in-cheek, never grim or morbid.

The film is positioned as the start to a series, which gives me both hope and concern. There isn’t much to Wirkola’s concept, enough for one movie, sure, but probably not enough for a series. Then again, with subsequent installments on the way, perhaps the leads and the script can loosen up and tell a fun story, instead of getting weighed down with introductions. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters doesn’t take place in any particular time period and accuracy was clearly not a concern in this first film, so the sky’s the limit for what they can do with follow-ups. One thing I do know is that Arterton and Renner are a team I’d watch anywhere. B

Image Courtesy: JoBlo.

Review: The Purge

Ethan Hawke expects some unwanted visitors.

Ethan Hawke expects some unwanted visitors.

Is mankind inherently evil? If murder was legal, would you kill someone? Is the letter of the law the only thing preventing carnage on a massive scale? James DeMonaco’s micro-budgeted horror thriller The Purge has a lot of big questions on its mind. What a shame that it’s never given the opportunity to answer them.

The Purge imagines America in 2022 as “a nation reborn.” Poverty and crime are at all-time lows because, for twelve hours a year, citizens are given carte blanche to kill, rob, rape, destroy, you name it, in the name of purging all of their most angry base instincts. It’s a neat concept, perhaps one that doesn’t completely hold up under close scrutiny (the impoverished and starving don’t feel hungry enough to steal any other time of the year?), but one that’s innovative nonetheless.

The film narrows its scope too much by focusing on the Sandins, a wealthy family living in an affluent suburb. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) works as a home security developer, while his wife Mary (Lena Headey) deals with the difficult kids, Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder). They live an idyllic life, until the Purge starts, and stupid/innocent Charlie momentarily lifts the fortifications to allow a man running for his life into their home. As the man’s pursuers attempt to break into their home, the Sandins find themselves fighting for their lives, and the film  begins to dissolve into horror-movie cliches.

Hawke clearly embraces his ‘action-hero’ role, and he pulls it off for the most part. His fight scenes are exciting and believable. Hawke lacks the physical presence of Liam Neeson, for one, but he succeeds in holding the audience’s attention. Headey is also well-cast, showing off a dramatic range typically reserved for higher-caliber movies than this. A psychotic Rhys Wakefield plays his small part well. No one else stays on screen long enough to make an impression.

After its promising beginning, as DeMonaco showcases some of the horrific violence perpetrated during the Purge, the film becomes disappointingly bogged down by its plot, which refuses to allow The Purge to move past the home invasion subgenre to address its most compelling ideas.The film’s bigger themes are buried by ceaseless, senseless violence, frustratingly so.

Faceless baddies lunge from the shadows, blood spurts everywhere, there’s a predictable third-act twist, and none of it sticks after the credits roll. Inexplicably, the film’s only original aspect – its thought-provoking premise – is sidelined in favor of cheap, gory, toothless kicks. The audience gets few answers, and with a running time of only 85 minutes, The Purge is too slight to pull off the thoughtful social commentary it’s striving for.

The Purge is a serviceable home invasion thriller, but it gives hints that it could have been more. With such an intriguing central idea, it should have been much more. For a high-concept movie about a society reliant on heinous violence, The Purge is dismayingly tame.  C+

Photo Courtesy: The Hollywood News.

DVD Review: Piranha 3DD

One park-goer has an unfortunate encounter with a piranha.

One park-goer has an unfortunate encounter with a piranha.

I should have known better than to go into a movie titled Piranha 3DD expecting anything less than a trainwreck, but after Alexander Aja’s gloriously bloody, hilarious, and entertaining guilty pleasure Piranha 3D surprised me back in 2010, I was hopeful.

Sadly, the follow-up proves that lightning never strikes twice. Everything that was enjoyable about Piranha 3D – the campy characters, over-the-top gore, and tongue-in-cheek script – is missing from this shockingly awful sequel.

This time around, the mayhem is set in the Big Wet Waterpark, a sleazy adult resort with ‘water-certified’ strippers, a year after the events at Lake Victoria. Protagonist Maddy (Danielle Panabaker), a marine biologist who co-owns the waterpark after her mother’s death, is shocked by how far her disgusting step-dad Chet (Anchorman‘s David Koechner) has gone. When she finds piranha in a nearby lake, she’s the only one who realizes that the prehistoric fish could make their way into the waterpark through pipes that Chet has illogically connected to the lake. Chaos ensues as hundreds of vapid hotties attempt to escape the bloodthirsty fish (somehow, “get out of the water” never occurs to many of them).

While its predecessor made fun of the sexploitation horror genre, Piranha 3DD is too puerile to be making fun of anything intentionally. The self-parody is upped to such an extent that the audience laughs at the film instead of with it. All of the actors are so inexcusably, hilariously bad that ultimately even the CGI piranha give more nuanced performances. Incomprehensibly, the filmmakers try to give the movie some dramatic heft when the blood starts spilling, and they fail without qualification.

Panabaker, 30 Rock co-star Katrina Bowden, and many nameless bombshells are nothing more than eye-candy to be bloodily dispatched by the fish. VIng Rhames and Christopher Lloyd, holdovers from the first film, give the Piranha 3DD its only entertaining moments but both only appear on screen for a couple of minutes. And David Hasselhoff’s appearance as a jerky, self-absorbed version of himself is funny for a few seconds before he opens his mouth and we realize that he’s just another cheap ploy meant to distract the audience from the idiocy of what they’re watching.

Nothing in the film makes any sense at all, particularly not the ludicrous way that the fish are ultimately dispatched. And the film’s final scare is so ridiculous that it made me want to beat my head against a wall in hopes of cleansing it from my memory. In fact, I wish I could expunge the entire movie from my memory, it was so utterly horrible.

With a title like Piranha 3DD (pronounced double-D in the trailers in case there was ever any confusion about the filmmakers’ intentions), one might think that the people involved were predicting what grade the schlockfest might be ultimately be saddled with. Shame I can’t comply: Piranha 3DD deserves nothing more than a double F.

Photo Courtesy: Impulse Gamer.

DVD Review: Paranormal Activity 4

The activity continues in 'Paranormal Activity 4.'

The activity continues in ‘Paranormal Activity 4.’

Let’s start off with the little good in Paranormal Activity 4, the fourth and slightest entry in Oren Peli’s breakout found footage horror series.

Lead Kathryn Newton is surprisingly strong, and she makes the audience care about her character Alex. The suburban teen’s interactions with neighborhood boy Ben (Matt Shively), laden with flirtation and humor, are the film’s only organic, truthful moments. Unlike previous main characters like Micah (Micha Sloat), Daniel (Brian Boland), and Dennis (Chris Smith), all irritating and irrational jerks, Alex is an innocent, and the audience is actually pulling for her to make it through. Newton and Shively give compelling, realistic performances, filled with teenage angst and awkwardness. The audience grows to like them.

Alex is recording strange occurrences in her house after her little brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp) grows close with creepy new neighbor Robbie (Brady Allen) and his ‘invisible friend.’ With Ben’s help, Alex is able to set up cameras all around her house in hopes of getting to the bottom of what’s happening. Predictably, she doesn’t like what she finds.

Sadly, with the exception of the film’s two leads, everything in Paranormal Activity 4 feels threadbare. The entire film is nothing but scraps from the previous entries in the series. Whereas the methods of found footage in the previous films felt believable and added to the suspense, here it feels forced. Why the main character is recording everything is never clearly addressed, nor are any of the plot points from previous installments. When the directors attempt to sexualize the 15-year-old protagonist with revealing clothing, it feels sleazy and uncomfortable, adding nothing to the film other than to reveal how desperate the franchise has become. The scares are minimal, and though there are a few jump-out moments, nothing is on the level of any of the previous films. XBOX Kinect tracking dots and video-chats are clever ideas to record more activity, but none of it really works, and it was my patience, not nerves, that was fraying by the end of the film.

Of course the demon-possessed Katie (Katie Featherston) shows up, but everything in this fourth entry is too meager to make a difference. After building the mythology of the series in Paranormal Activity 3, writer-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman add practically nothing in this installment, only tossing in a few related images at the very end of the film. The film’s ending is a cop-out, plain and simple, ruining the suspense that the film has built with a single, crappy-looking scary image and a ridiculous ‘twist’ that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Though it was billed as a sequel to Paranormal Activity, the fourth installment feels more like a teaser for upcoming entries. Paranormal Activity 4 is the least substantial one in the series by far, but it still feels overlong and tedious. The original’s spirit of innovative terror has been exorcised almost completely, leaving an empty shell with dismayingly few actual scares. It’s a ghost of its former self. D+

Image courtesy: Chocraisins.blogspot.