I don’t have a television, but when staying with TAG I sometimes have occasion to watch offerings on the Horror Channel. Here’s a few that I’ve viewed recently.
Five teenage friends on a plane and pilot Sara loses control, after which the situation grows increasingly desperate with evidence of the supernatural in play, as with passengers being grabbed by giant tentacles that come out of the sky. In fact events are being shaped in the mind of Bruce, the sole survivor of a plane crash in which his parents were killed. Cue a Twilight Zone moment, with the past and the present colliding. The tensions between the characters is handled well, with the confined and claustrophobic setting adding another frisson, and the idea of fiction (Bruce’s comic with its tentacled monster) impinging on reality is intriguing, with the final revelations not insulting viewers’ intelligence. Overall though it felt a little too cramped, a tad too packed with ideas, none of which are really explored in a satisfactory depth, rather like Triangle relocated to a plane. Nice trip, but not so hot on the destination.
Brit horror set in a large school at night. The ‘F’ refers to a low grade which the guidelines instruct teachers not to give pupils for fear it is humiliating them. Teacher Anderson was suspended after doing so. Returning to work he is a man with issues – alcoholism, estrangement from his wife and daughter (who attends the school and takes his classes), fear of pupil violence, which he has studied in some depth. His fears are realised when a gang of hoodie wearing teens invade the school at night and start killing off the staff, leaving Anderson to choose whether to save his ex-wife or his daughter. Tension builds up well in this film, with the hoodie clad attackers (we never actually see their faces, are left to simply assume they are disgruntled pupils) proving as relentless as they are merciless. At the same time it all felt vaguely dissatisfying. The theme of violence directed against teachers is raised but not really explored, just used as the pretext for some brutal and pointless slayings. And the hoodies are never satisfactorily explained, a touch of ambiguity that felt wrong in the context, as if somebody had tried to replay French film Them in an English setting but went for the gross out option instead of more cerebral scares.
The Possession (2012)
Young Em becomes fascinated by an old wooden box inscribed with Hebrew letters that she sees at a yard sale and persuades her father to buy it for her. However it contains a dybbuk, an evil spirit with demonic powers, that possesses Em, and only by seeking the help of a Jewish religious scholar can the entity be cast out. This is pretty much your bog standard demonic possession tale, here given a slightly different cast thanks to the Jewish elements. It also benefits from a bigger budget and higher production values – Sam Raimi is the producer, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick star as the estranged married couple whose tensions no doubt contribute in some way to what’s going on with their daughter, help to make her vulnerable to the dybbuk. There are all the expected jump moments, with the threat to a child playing on our susceptibilities, and some excellent special effects, especially the attempted exorcism in a hospital basement. The characters are all finely drawn and played well by the cast. While hardly a classic of this particular horror subgenre, it works very well and entertains the viewer without rubbing our noses in the feeling that we’ve seen it all before, even though we probably have. I liked it.
The Canal (2014)
There’s more than a tad of resemblance to Sinister in this outing. Like the writer in that film, our central character here, film archivist David, becomes obsessed by old film footage that reveals a horrific murder took place in the house where he now lives with wife Alice and son Billy. He suspects Alice of an affair with one of her work colleagues, and when she drowns in the canal David is at least initially a person of interest to the police. As he tries to construct a life for himself and Billy without Alice, David’s mental state becomes ever more unhealthy, with past and present overlapping. He claims to see ghosts and his irrational actions scare away the babysitter who has been hired to care for Billy. No doubt about it, we are heading for a fall. I liked this film for much of its length. There are some unsettling locations, such as the disused toilet block by the side of the canal, and moments that unnerve, as with the things that David sees on the film. And the director plays it right by having us uncertain if these things are really taking place or simply a symptom of David’s disturbed mental state. Unfortunately the longer it goes on the more tenuous the plot becomes, and eventually the film loses its way altogether, seeming to plump for the supernatural explanation instead of staying true to the ambiguity that has worked so well until this point. It’s good to have ambition, but not to overreach.
Grave Encounters (2011)
The team behind a TV show investigating the paranormal lock themselves inside a building that was previously a mental hospital and supposedly haunted. Before long they are being subjected to all manner of strange phenomena, with all the exits closed to them and an increasing feeling that it will end badly. This film is like a cross between Session 9 and the found footage presentation of The Blair Witch. Gratifying as it is to think of a bunch of Derek Acorah wannabes getting their comeuppance, in reality there isn’t really all that much to it, with a shitload of strange thrown at the screen, mystery deaths for our characters, and no satisfactory explanation for any of it. Of course, explanations are not obligatory, but all the same in this case the central conceit didn’t feel like something that was being held back to increase tension, but rather like something that had been largely forgotten or considered not worth bothering about. I didn’t get any real sense that the film makers knew more about what was going on than I did, and so we’re just left with weird shit, of varying quality in that some of the visual effects worked quite well, but weird shit alone does not make a compelling story. Initially you feel like you are travelling to a destination, but then realise that just like the characters in the film you’re only walking in circles.