Marriage Changes Things: A Review of Honeymoon (2014)

Directed by Leigh Janiak; Starring Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway

Netflix is full of hidden treasures from the horror genre, whether overlooked-but-quality efforts from the past, or from more contemporary independent offerings that flew under the radar upon release.

It’s also full of crap. I end up quitting more movies than I finish, but every now and then, I find a diamond in the rough.

Honeymoon (2014) is a competent, paranoid, suspenseful little horror movie that knows its limitations and does a good job of telling us a simple yet disturbing tale of early marriage.

Bea and Paul (Rose Leslie and Harry Treadaway) tell us, through their recently-shot wedding video, the story behind their relationship. It’s full of cutesy/gross anecdotes about their first date, and populated with semi-sweet (or saccharine, depending on your level of cynicism or expectations of the script) narratives about their coming together in holy matrimony.

Whoops
Whoops

Having characters talk directly to a camera within a camera is a lazy conceit, and had me worried this would be another found footage clunker. Luckily, the film abandons this narrative model almost immediately, and we find the couple taking their honeymoon at an old cabin on a lake (once frequented by Bea’s family when she was young).

Leslie and Treadaway do a good job building up the couple’s dynamic, and they both have several opportunities to shine as actors. The film starts off more as a hopeful drama than a science fiction-horror movie. I can see why the scores and reviews of the film are generally mixed—there’s not a lot here for hardcore horror fans—at least, not at first. And that’s okay.

The weirdness within the woods soon encroaches, however. We see a strange light shining in through the cabin’s windows while they sleep. Soon after, Bea runs into a childhood friend who seems to be having anger issues, paranoia, and committing domestic violence against his frightened shell of a wife.

Then Bea wanders off in the middle of the night—losing her clothes in the process—and her husband begins to suspect that all might not be well in Marriedville.

That’s most of the plot, in a nutshell. Rather than ratcheting up the tension with a series of increasingly weird events—although there are a few of those—the focus of the film is trained firmly on the dynamics of the newlywed’s suddenly-fraying relationship. Memory, meaning, sexuality within marriage, and the core of who a person is and sometimes becomes are the real stars of the show. This is a drama trapped within the mythos of some high strange events, and the script’s tension with itself and the limitations of budget (few locations, lots of close ups and medium shots) can sometimes bog down the drive of the film.

Yes, this is a film that I would categorize as high strange. There’s some spooky stuff happening in the woods, and most audiences will likely chalk it up to a certain memetic pattern prevalent in our culture, (“I’m not saying it’s aliens … but it’s aliens”) but the paranormal elements are actually more in line with authentic high strange events than those of Hollywood. They don’t have clear-cut explanations, and nothing is quite as it seems.

I don’t want to fault a horror film for attempting to emphasize pathos and characterization over scares, but some scenes—one of the dozen or so interplays between Bea and Paul—tend to drag. There’s a fine line between focusing on character and focusing on plot, and Honeymoon doesn’t always quite thread the needle, if I’m allowed to mix metaphors. Leslie and Treadaway turn in good performances considering the film’s limited scope and resources, but the “Talk to me!” / “No …” dynamic wears thin very quickly.

I didn’t enjoy The Babadook for the same reason. That was a film with perpendicular themes of family paranoia. At some point we get it, and it’s time to move on. Another four or five scenes emphasizing the same message isn’t dramatic; it’s indulgent. Give me more spooks and scares to balance out the messaging.

And what message are we to get from Honeymoon? Marriage changes a relationship, especially when those married suffer from emotional damage, doubt, and their past. Paul gradually distrusts Bea as he learns more and more about what happened that night she went sleepwalking, and the lies she tells to cover up the truth are meant to keep their marriage normal and without conflict—an impossible task, considering what has happened to her within the woods. White lies meant to protect the relationship ultimately harm the relationship. There is a lesson from all of this, for sure, and the film should be commended for trying to say something beyond the scares and gore.

Yes, there are scares—but they are of the more subtle variety, rather than jump scares. The filmmakers wisely decided to show us only shadows, light, and implication. I was fearful that What Crept In The Darkness would be revealed in some awful, CGI-laden final scene—but this was not so. The film does imply a particular explanation, but never really spoon feeds it to us, which is refreshing and far more effective. By putting the creepy-crawlies in the background, the emphasis is on the drama. As I’ve said, this balance doesn’t always work, but it’s better than the inverse, certainly.

The special make up effects are simple but disturbing. “Vaginal horror” is a term thrown around a lot in science fiction-horror, and this film definitely takes that angle. But it’s never gratuitous or lazy, although there are a couple of straight-up “gross out” moments toward the end of the film.

Watch the trailer here
Watch the trailer here

Ultimately, this is a story about marriage, relationships, and the alienation that can occur therein. I really appreciated the filmmakers’ dedication to these themes, but couldn’t help wanting to see more of the high strange events surrounding that lonely cabin in the woods. That, I suppose, is a compliment, and a testament to the filmmaker’s restraint in deploying fictional spookies to tell us some hard truths.

If you enjoyed films like Xtro or Almost Human but are in the mood for something a bit more character-focused and restrained, make the trip into the woods and enjoy Honeymoon.

4/5 Cabins In the Woods

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Film Review: Poltergeist (2015)

Directed by Gil Kenan; Starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt

Review by Billy Lyons

Here in the mountains we have a saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s a saying that Sam Raimi would’ve done well to consider before moving forward with producing his 2015 remake of Poltergeist.

There was a time when I genuinely looked forward to classic horror movie remakes, and couldn’t wait to see how a fresh set of eyes might interpret some of my favorite films. This anticipation very quickly turned to dread, however, after I suffered through one disappointment after another.

It seems that the writers and directors responsible for the vast majority of horror re-boots believe they can achieve success by simply filling their films with tons of gratuitous gore (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are good examples of this) or infusing them with shoddy CG animation (see The Haunting or Fright Night). The remakes got so bad that after I endured the embarrassment that was Evil Dead (2013), I swore off them completely.

I managed to keep my promise until a couple of weeks ago, when I found myself with a rare afternoon off and decided to take in a movie. Nothing at the local cineplex looked vaguely interesting except for the new Poltergeist, so I decided to throw my better judgment to the wind and give it a try. Recent years have seen a welcome return to genuinely scary horror movies (films such as Insidious, Annabelle, The Conjuring, and The Last Exorcism), and I hoped that the new Poltergeist might follow the trend. Sadly, it didn’t.

Poltergeist is the story of a happy suburban family that is thrust into the middle of a supernatural nightmare when a malevolent force invades their home. At first, the manifestations that plague the family are little more than amusing parlor tricks. Chairs stack themselves onto the kitchen table when no one is looking, and the youngest member of the family, Carole Anne, hears voices coming from the television set at night. Things quickly turn serious, however, when Carole Anne is abducted by the same spirits that once seemed so harmless. The beleaguered family seeks help from a team of paranormal investigators (a rare thing in 1982, believe it or not) along with a very eccentric medium, and together they successfully exorcise the spirits and secure Carole Anne’s safe return. The movie ends with familial happiness restored (at least until the sequel).

The original Poltergeist was a welcome relief from the slasher movie craze that characterized the horror movie scene in the 1970s and 80s and became an instant classic, thanks to strong acting (Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams), a great screenplay (penned by Steven Spielberg) and a talented director (Tobe Hooper).

So why did Poltergeist 2015 fall so short of the original?

One major factor is the over use of CGI. One scene, in which the son is dragged through the house by a supposedly menacing tree, is more laughable than scary. And then, of course, there is the obligatory scene in which one of the children is lifted by the leg and pulled away by an invisible hand. This might have been scary when it was first seen ten or fifteen years ago, but now? Not so much.

The latest version of Poltergeist also exhibits very poor character development. This is very much at odds with the original, which took the time to introduce the characters in such a way that the audience got to know them, liked them, and actually worried about them when all hell started breaking loose. In the remake, the family members are little more than stereotypes, and the relationship between them is forced and flat.

Despite the many shortcomings, there are a couple of bright spots. Sam Rockwell does a solid job portraying the head of the family, and provides some good comic relief, especially at the beginning of the film. There are a few scenes that make you jump, and I liked the creepy clown, which could’ve easily become just another tired horror movie cliché, but was actually kind of scary.

I’m sure that Sam Raimi, who has some great horror movies to his credit as both a director and a producer (Drag Me to Hell, 30 Days of Night), had the best of intentions when he set out to oversee a remake of Poltergeist, but in the end, the film is nothing more than the latest example of a horror remake gone awry.

As for me, I’m back on the wagon, and from here on out, no matter how bored I am, or how convincing the movie poster may be, I’m going to just say no to any future horror movie remakes.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Billy Lyons started reading at age three and fell in love with weird tales soon after. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology from The Citadel and George Mason University, respectively. His influences include H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Peter Straub, and Stephen King. His first published story, “Cell 334,” is a tale of three inmates who construct a makeshift Ouija Board and the terror that ensues, published in Another Realm magazine’s November 2014 issue. His story “Black-Eyed Children, Blue-Eyed Child” appears in High Strange Horror. He is seeking a publisher for his debut novel, The Junkie Vampires, which he loosely describes as True Blood meets Trainspotting. Billy lives in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia with his brother and their two cats.

Film Review: Banshee Chapter

Directed by Blair Erickson; starring Katia Winter, Ted Levine

Winners don’t use drugs. And people who don’t want their skin to be worn like a ratty old t-shirt by monsters from beyond should definitely stay away from secret government hallucinogens.

We all learned this in Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes, though, right? Well, the characters in Blair Erickson’s intriguing and unique Banshee Chapter seemed to have skipped those lessons, because there’s no shortage of people willing to take DMT-19, a special chemical compound that has extremely unpleasant effects on all those who ingest it—and everyone around them.

Banshee Chapter is very much about drugs—and CIA mind control experiments, extradimensional reality, counter culture, number stations, missing persons, the NSA, and so much more. Long story short, this is a movie I loved—it hits a diverse array of subjects, cloaking a not-so-subtle allegory of government malfeasance and existential threat in the wool of a fun horror movie. Watch it, and be scared and entertained. Or, watch it, be scared and entertained, and learn a thing or two.

If I’ve done a poor job of summarizing what this film is about, that’s only a reflection of the film’s diverse and schizophrenic (literally) nature. This is anything but a criticism—Banshee Chapter is a lot of things, but it’s never boring.

The film is inspired in part by the MK Ultra mind control experiments of the mid-twentieth century, wherein the CIA experimented on American citizens, using a combination of drugs and psychological conditioning techniques that crossed into unethical territory. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, is perhaps the program’s most notable graduate, although conspiracy theorists are still considering the program’s legacy to this day. Laugh all you want at this line of thinking—but then go look up how many mass shooters have been on SSRIs or other mind-altering drugs.

tax dollars at work

Your tax dollars at work

In an abortive found-footage opening (one of my few criticisms of the film is its inconsistent narrative style), we see James (Michael McMillan) taking a rare form of DMT (a real, naturally-occurring hallucinogen that often produces transcendent experiences in its users) sent from his “Friends in Colorado”. Soon the radio starts playing a number station broadcast, and something comes to visit.

With James missing, Anne Roland (Katia Winter), a reporter and James’ best friend from college, decides to search for him. She picks up the bread crumb trail of his recent work—a research project on MK Ultra and a sinister government conspiracy involving DMT-19, pirate radio signals, a mysterious desert compound, and a gonzo counter-culture writer.

Does this sound like a lot to keep up with? It is. The film is not afraid to dive off the deep end. Twisted monsters, a monologue on H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, Ted Levine playing a Hunter S. Thompson-type author and paranoid drug user (“Buy the ticket, take the ride!”), creepy real-world conspiracy implications, and a healthy mix of slow-burn tension and well-executed jump scares keep the movie interesting. Its limitations in budget and the occasionally-flat dialogue are forgiven because the movie is so diverse and interesting; each scene adds something new to the film’s mythos or carries us along a tense and disturbing plot arc. We jump across multiple narrative threads, learning more about the history of MK Ultra, number stations, and possibly-supernatural evil, while dealing with the paranoid anxiety of Anne’s present circumstances.

To describe the story much further would spoil the fun. The narrative unfolds piece by piece, with liberal scares, atmosphere, and plenty of humor to keep the audience off guard and interested. This was my second viewing of the film, and I enjoyed it more than the first. It rewards repeat viewings with little clues and Easter eggs for diligent viewers. While the ending leaves something to be desired—and is about as clear as mud in its implications—the film is, overall, a strong, unique, and refreshing little horror film.

If any of the subjects mentioned above—counter culture, conspiracies, mind control, number stations, Lovecraftian horror—interest you, you’ll have a great time with this movie. Banshee Chapter is the rare direct-to-video horror movie that, despite its limitations, manages to be smart, scary, funny, and socially relevant in its commentary, themes, and technical execution. Fans of high strange events, conspiracy theories, and well-executed horror will find all that and more.

5/5 Intelligence Agency Swine

Film Review: V/H/S: Viral – One Tape Forward, Three Vlogs Back

V/H/S: Viral (multiple directors)

by Jonathan Raab

I’m a big fan of the V/H/S series. The first two films are the exception to the universal rule: found footage movies are boring, bad, and the last refuge of movie studios hoping to trick horror fans into shelling out their hard-earned money in exchange for an unprofessional product.

I’ll spare you the history lesson of the subgenre since The Blair Witch Project (a film that deserves recognition and acclaim as both an experimental film and a milestone in horror, even if it doesn’t quite have the same impact anymore), and say that the majority of found-footage movies have degenerated into shaky-cam addled, formulaic snoozers. There’s a few exceptions for me—the Paranormal Activity movies are usually good for one watch—but on the whole, I’ve learned to avoid these movies like the plague.

But not the V/H/S series.

The first film’s opening ten minutes are boring and tired—meant to shock us with violence, sexuality, and coarse language—but it soon gets into high gear, with a series of memorable and creative vignettes, all supposedly contained on weird VHS tapes found in a mysterious stockpile. The second film follows suit, with slightly better stories, effects, and payoff, and a subtle building of the mythos behind the supernatural snuff films.

The first two V/H/S movies have a ton of fun moments, cool creatures, and genuine jump scares. The series was, to my mind, a love letter to both anthology films and a testament to the (albeit limited) utility of “found footage” as a concept within horror cinema. They had their moments, were entertaining, and showcased a variety of directors trying new things.

It’s with great disappointment to announce that V/H/S: Viral feels like a cheap knock off of these movies. There’s a complete abandonment of the VHS concept—something that made the idea of an underground supernatural snuff film circuit seemed real, as it was limited almost exclusively to a dead technology. Want in the club? Go find a working VCR from the pawn shop. You can’t see this stuff online, or anywhere else.

It made what you were seeing seem exclusive, as if your entrance into this coven of extreme video had to be kept secret, because it was special. In the first two movies, you saw things that you shouldn’t have seen, things the rest of the world would never accept.

Not so here. The overarching narrative that bookends the different pieces is confusing, a semi-coherent series of somewhat-interrelated vignettes. It’s not clear how this footage was assembled—or if we’re supposed to think it’s been assembled—and it’s a mishmash of lazy social commentary about everyone being on their phones, filming when they should be helping.

He's tilting his head so you know he's looking at you, because you're stupid.
He’s tilting his head so you know he’s looking at you, because you’re stupid.

“See you bitches on YouTube!” sneers some faceless clown trying to get a good angle on the action, before predictably falling to his death.

Get it?

GET IT?

It’s not clear how the framework narrative—which was one of the more interesting parts of the first two films—connects the shorts together.

Some images from each do show up during the disappointing conclusion in a ham-fisted attempt at pulling it all together, but at that point the film has devolved into a teenager’s bright idea of metaness that left a sour taste in my mouth.

I knew I was in trouble when the film started with a boyfriend filming his girl’s lady parts. Get it? He’s a horny guy with a camera. He’s also a douchebag.

Both characters were cardboard cut-outs from INSERT NAME OF FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIE HERE and instantly unlikeable. Unfortunately, the same can be said about the rest of the cast. I’m not sure it was the acting that turned me off—it was probably the dialogue, which mostly consisted of people swearing, making crude sexual comments, or screaming.

Despite being the third film in a supposedly evolutionary series, the movie just couldn’t break out of established found footage movie tropes. “Are you filming me?” “Why do you have that camera?” and the like are heard over and over again. And there’s not one, but two creeper with a camera films a pretty girl’s cleavage sequences. Seriously.

Most disappointing of all is that the film ejects (pun intended) the found footage concept at times, seemingly at random. It’s not clear when we’re seeing something on a security cam, as footage from a documentary, on a handheld video, or even when we’re not seeing through a recording device. Yes, that happens in this movie on several occasions—it’ll switch from something on a camera, to supposedly objective perspective. I think. This is both disorienting and confusing, as even these sequences are shot like they are on camera, complete with shaky cam and Battlestar Galactica-style pans and zooms.

Visually, the film is a complete mess. Found footage movies have low standards to begin with, but close ups from helmet cams on gap-mouthed teens, digitized interference effects, and blood-soaked darkness creeping all over the lens combine to make the movie hard to sit through. Not only is slussing out what the film is trying to be difficult (documentary? a single tape? an online webcast? a film student’s pretentious art house project?), it’s visually grating. It gave me a headache.

The movie is not helped by its shorts. There’s the bookend narrative, which, while starting out with an interesting concept, devolves into nonsense by the end; a documentary (?) about a murderous magician; a scientist exploring an alternate reality; a boring stereotype-filled Mexican ghetto mass murder; and unlikeable male skater stereotypes fighting people in bad Halloween costumes.

The high point of the film is the short about a scientist who opens a door to a parallel universe—and meets his double. V/H/S: Viral is not worth watching, but this short definitely is. It does everything right: it starts with a simple concept, doesn’t confuse the viewer with too many perspective shifts, and ratchets up the tension until the inevitable, frightening climax(es). To say more would give it away—but let’s just say that the short gives you just enough information to freak you the hell out, while mixing it up with some grotesque and effective make up and production design.

As for the rest of the shorts, I couldn’t wait until they were over. The worst offender was the skate punks-go-to-Tijuana sequence. I couldn’t wait for them to shut up or die. Unfortunately, the creatures in this one literally look like people wearing surplus haunted house masks. I felt dumber just watching the confused, unfinished mess that was this bloody skateboarding/melee sequence. I suppose the crappy hip-hop music and skeleton guy giving the middle finger before exploding was supposed to be cool or funny or something, but I’m probably about twenty years too old to think so. Also, this sequence had some stylized still-frame, color-modified shots. I thought we were watching found footage, not processed music video crap. Oh, but look, blood, and he said the “F” word a thousand times.

“LOL!”

Every sequence is marred by horrific, cheap digital special effects. Even the blood is digital in some sequences. What, they couldn’t spring $6 for Karo syrup? I try to be forgiving for low-budget movies, but a little practical SFX can go a long way. Since most sequences look like they were filmed over a weekend by a bunch of drunk college students, I’m willing to bet that craft and quality were not motivations for the filmmakers.

Cool poster, great trailer, crap film.
Cool poster, great trailer, crap film.

I spent $9.99 to see this movie early on Amazon Instant Video, and I regret throwing that money away. What makes this all the more disappointing is that the producers work over at Bloody Disgusting, a great horror site that loves to emphasize quality (and practical effects! ha!).

I’m a fan of the series because the first two were fun, with some great “oh sh—!” moments. This film feels more like a lazy, cynical cash grab designed for fourteen year old boys. There’s nothing wrong with movies for fourteen year old boys, if you’re a fourteen year old boy.

But for the rest of you, you can spend your money better elsewhere.

Here’s hoping that the inevitable V/H/S 4 gets the series back on track.

1.5 Clunky Social Commentaries Out of 5