The Siren Song of Spin Offs: A Review of SiRen

Review by Billy Lyons

Horror anthologies have always been my favorite.  I cut my teeth on the 1970s classics, movies like Torture Garden, The Uncanny, and The Vault of Horror. What made these films so special was their extremely high quality. The majority were produced by industry giants Hammer and Amicus, written by folks like Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, and performed by masters such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Continue reading “The Siren Song of Spin Offs: A Review of SiRen”

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Contrarian: A Positive Review of The Visit (2015)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Review by Billy Lyons

Shyamalan burst onto the movie scene with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, a hit with moviegoers and critics alike. The Sixth Sense was followed by Unbreakable and Signs, which also enjoyed success, but to a much lesser degree. Later Shyamalan movies such as Lady in the Water, The Village, and Devil (all seriously underrated films, in my opinion) were panned almost unanimously, the general consensus being that Shyamalan’s work had become pretentious, and that his trademark surprise endings were forced, desperate attempts to recapture the spirit of The Sixth Sense.

I happen to be a fan of both Shyamalan and found footage movies, so I was thrilled when I heard about his latest project, The Visit. My excitement grew when I discovered that the film was produced by Jason Blum, whose credits include some of my favorite horror movies of the last few years, films such as Insidious, Sinister, and The Lords of Salem. It has been a long time since I’ve geeked-out so hard over a movie release.

The Visit is the story of Becca and Tyler, two young siblings who travel far from home to stay with the grandparents they’ve never met. An ancient argument over a boyfriend led Becca and Tyler’s mother to leave home and cut ties with her parents, but when they contact her after many years and ask to see their grandchildren, she agrees and puts them on the next train out.

Becca, the older of the siblings, decides to document their trip on camera in the hopes that when their mother watches the video she will forget past disagreements and make an effort to reconcile with her parents. Tyler agrees to help, and the kids begin their journey with great excitement and high expectations. Almost as soon as they walk through the front door, however, things start to get weird.

Pop Pop is the prototypical Crotchety Old Man who likes to complain incessantly about how old he and his wife are, and when he isn’t complaining, he’s hiding out in the barn, getting up to God knows what. Nana is the spitting image of any kindly grandmother found inside a fairy tale, but this cozy appearance is at direct odds with her bizarre behavior, such as the time she asks Becca to clean the oven, but insists that she crawl all the way inside to do it. Things aren’t any better at night, when Becca and Tyler are kept awake by weird noises coming from just outside their bedroom door.

At night they set the camera on a shelf overlooking the family room downstairs, a la Paranormal Activity, to discover who (or what) is making all the strange noises. When they view the footage their worst fears are quickly confirmed, and they find themselves thrown in the middle of a brutal struggle to escape the terror that surrounds them on all sides.

A great deal of The Visit’s success has to do with the strong performances given by Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, who portray Becca and Tyler. DeJong, as the precocious Becca, sets out to make her film much like a young Fellini might, and throws around terms like mise-en-scène with the same enthusiasm other kids her age use when discussing Kim Kardashian’s ass. At the same time, Oxenberg provides welcome comic relief that does a great job of cutting through the considerable tension found throughout the movie. A great example of this is when Tyler, who is determined to stop swearing, decides to use the names of popular female musicians instead of curse words. My favorite part of the movie is when he falls unexpectedly and shouts “Sarah McLachlan!”

Along with The Visit’s strong characterizations, there is a thick, creepy atmosphere throughout the movie, one filled with horrors more psychological than supernatural. Shyamalan understands, and effectively conveys to his audience, that the terrors associated with such maladies as mental illness and dementia are just as scary (if not more so) than any possessed doll or haunted house could ever be.

And yes, there is a surprise ending, and it’s quite a good one, as a matter of fact.

The bottom line is that The Visit is typical M. Night Shyamalan fare: sympathetic characters, unique plot, heavy mood, and a twist at the end. If you liked his other films, chances are you’ll enjoy this one as well. Those who don’t will use The Visit as their latest proof that Shyamalan fizzled out long ago. But don’t just take it from me. After all, I’m the biggest Patriots fan on the planet, so what do I know? Go see it yourself and make up your own mind.

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