Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Why ZOMBIES & SHARKS? Well, those are the two things that I’ve had the most nightmares about. It’s the reason I rarely swim in the ocean. It’s the reason I have an escape plan from my apartment just in case of a zombie apocalypse. Now if you’ve ever had those fears or fears like them, inspired mainly by nights upon nights of watching films of the frightening kind, this is the place for you. So look for AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS every Friday for the foreseeable future, horror hounds, where we’ll be covering horror in all forms: retro, indie, mainstream, old and new.
So INSIDIOUS comes out this weekend. My review of the film can be found at the bottom of the column, but to celebrate the release of this haunted house flick, I took a look at a few other films with similar themes. But before we check out these creepy abodes, here are a few things you all might find interesting.
FAMOUS MONSTERS Imagi-Movies Film Festival is going on in LA at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills located at 9036 Wilshire Blvd from April 8-10th. This three day film festival will celebrate films Forrest J. Ackerman loved and any fan of this column in the area should get their tickets now by going to the imagimovies website. Check out a trailer for the fest below.
God, I wish I could make it to this. I love festivals like this. Unfortunately, I’m stuck in Chicago. Anyone who goes and wants to send me a report for this column, please do so!
And now, let’s check out some prime haunted real estate!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
THE INNOCENTS (1961)
THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982)
THE BABY’S ROOM (2006)
8213: GACY HOUSE (2010)
THE INNOCENTS (1961)Directed by Jack Clayton
Written by Henry James (novel), John Mortimer, William Archibald, & Truman Capote (screenplay)
Starring Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, & Megs Jenkins
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Having seen THE OTHERS and THE ORPHANAGE before seeing THE INNOCENTS, I have to say, the power behind those two amazing haunted house films isn’t completely lessened knowing that a film much like the both of them existed almost fifty years before it. But it does let me know that they might not have been as original as I originally thought. THE OTHERS is almost an outright remake when it comes to the performance given by Nicole Kidman and the one here by Deborah Kerr. Both play well to do women with good intentions in their hearts and minds. Both also play frail women who raise hand to mouth and brow when something frightening happens. These dainty flowers are always good to cast in a horror film because a) the look of horror on their faces often escalates the horrors they are experiencing and b) the horrors seem all the more terrifying when pit against a protagonist so fair.
In my interview with James Wan & Leigh Whannell, they cited THE INNOCENTS as a major influence to INSIDIOUS. I had heard of the film over the years, but had yet to see it. But if this column has done anything, it’s made me seek out films I’ve wanted to experience for years. In this case, I was treated to a classic tale of paranoia and the supernatural, where the lines between what is real and what isn’t are blurred. THE INNOCENTS begins with a little girl singing a haunting song as our star Deborah Kerr is praying for the safety of the children. This juxtaposition of a haunting lullaby set to dark tones of desperation has been done since this film many times, but here the mix of sound and image sets the table for spooky things to occur.
There are plenty of scenes where a shadow is seen crossing a hallway or a ghostly image is seen by Kerr in the distance. The fact that this film is grainy and in black and white only intensifies the scares as these forms are just out of focus enough to be read as human, but lack the distinction of a solid form. Every time Kerr sees one of these forms is a chilling moment and as the apparitions appear with more frequency toward the end, the film gets all the more disquieting. In the end, this adaptation of Henry James THE TURN OF THE SCREW written by the one and only Truman Capote is a meticulous and thrilling descent into madness tale. I love the ambiguity of the film where you really don’t know if the ghostly images exist or if it’s all in Kerr’s mind. This is a horror film sophisticated and ahead of its time. There’s even a somewhat uncomfortable romance of sorts between Kerr and the young boy that is creepy beyond belief. This film had balls to pull off some of the stuff it did in 1961.
Wan and Whannell cite THE INNOCENTS as inspiration for their attention to sound and ghostly encounters in INSIDIOUS. I can see that. But I liken this one more to THE OTHERS in its use of children and a frail yet stern central figure, with the latter half resembling THE ORPHANAGE in the manner that woman confronts the ghostly images in the end. THE INNOCENTS is definitely a frightening tale and if you’re like me and loved THE OTHERS, THE ORPHANAGE, and INSIDIOUS, you may want to seek out one of the films that started it all.
THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS (1982)Directed by Kevin Connor
Written by James Hardiman (novel), Robert Suhosky (screenplay)
Starring Edward Albert, Doug McClure, & Susan George
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Wow, this film takes the cake on batshit craziness. Though it owes a lot to THE BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979), and THE SHINING (1980) which were released a few years before it, THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS certainly gets points for originality. Sure there’s the usual haunted house scenario where shit starts flying off tables and lights flicker on and off while the male lead (played by Edward Albert, son of GREEN ACRES Eddie Albert, here) gets possessed and attacks his family, but the weird stuff that goes on in between makes this film one you might want to seek out for some unintentional laughs.
One might also want to seek out THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS because it features the late great Susan George (who plays an American housewife possessed by a slutty Asian whore). You read that parenthetical bit right; the thing that really sets this apart is that it is about a haunted house in Kyoto, Japan. Much like a more recent hit, THE GRUDGE, it takes the hauntings international minus the croaking children. The house was the site of a terrible murder suicide as a husband finds his wife in bed with another man, then chops the both of them to bits with a samurai sword, then turns the sword on himself.
Flash forward 100 years and the three ghosts are still haunting the place. George’s character Laura, her husband Ted (Albert), and their daughter move in with the help of Ted’s friend Alex. Soon, the slutty ghost possesses Laura who begins having an affair with Alex while Ted is busy writing his novel. Fans of the modern haunted house drama will recognize a lot of the stuff going on as the ancient ghosts threaten the modern family. But just when you think this is going to be your typical haunted house film, it jumps right into the river of crazy headfirst and doesn’t come up for air.
Most of the craziest shit in the film happens to Laura and Ted’s daughter who is haunted by a ghostly bowl of soup (Ted, possessed by one of the ghosts, later forces her to chug the piping hot bowl) and then is attacked by giant, evil, moaning crabs! If those events didn’t screw the kid up for life, just you wait until the film’s ending which ensures that she’ll be needing heavy therapy for the rest of her life.
After a kick ass, bloody samurai opening, the film slows to a crawl for about 45 minutes (though the multiple scenes of Susan George whoring around in the buff was pleasant to sit through), but the last half hour of this film rocks. THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS is one of those insane films that is meant for midnight screenings or just watching it with a group of buddies and multiple drinks and shots. Though not as amazing as his simply classic MOTEL HELL, mad bastard director Kevin Connor continues to pump out the insanely fun ideas in THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS. Gory, fun, and so randomly insane you can’t help but love it, THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS is one haunted house film that, despite its similarities to others of its time, stands out as the loopiest.
THE BABY’S ROOM (LA HABITACION DEL NINO) (2006)Directed by Alex de la Iglesia
Written by Jorge Guerricaechevarria & Alex de la Iglesia
Starring Javier Gutierrez, Leonor Watling, & Sancho Garcia
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
There’s a particular scene in INSIDIOUS that is extremely effective. It takes place as Rose Byrne is playing the piano during the day with her baby is upstairs in her crib. A baby monitor rests atop the piano and when she stops playing the piano, she hears something peculiar--a strange voice on the baby monitor. This scene strikes at that primal fear of being a parent, being in one’s own home, and having one’s child be in danger. Now I don’t have children myself, but I’ll bet folks who do will find this one of the more haunting scenes in INSIDIOUS. And if they found that scene to be too frightening for them, they need to steer clear of the fantastically scary Spanish film, LA HABITACION DEL NINO aka THE BABY’S ROOM.
Now, I’m not going to say that INSIDIOUS did an outright lift from THE BABY’S ROOM (there’s more to INSIDIOUS and this is but one scene in the film), but THE BABY’S ROOM bases its entire story on the premise that a young family who recently moved into a home keep hearing voices on their baby monitor. When the father (played convincingly by Javier Gutierrez) buys a camera to place in the room, he is astonished to catch a shadowy figure sitting next to his child’s crib.
I’m getting the shivers just writing this.
THE BABY’S ROOM is such a well paced, slow chill of a film. It sucks you in with a premise that is palpably frightening, and is performed brilliantly by the Spanish cast. As the danger heightens, the father desperately tries to save his family from an otherworldly evil. Director Alex de la Iglesia doesn’t go for the cheap scares and fills this haunted house flick with images that are both original and chilling to the bone. Though one particular scene in INSIDIOUS owes a lot to the scares found in this film, THE BABY’S ROOM stretches those fears out for the entire film. I guarantee this film will scare the shit out of you. THE BABY’S ROOM was released a few years ago with five other Spanish horror films in a box set called 6 FILMS TO KEEP YOU AWAKE. Having seen two films from that set (THE BABY’S ROOM and THE XMAS TALE), I’m looking to seek that set out for more intense chills from the land of Spain.
8213: GACY HOUSE (2010)Directed by Anthony Fankhauser
Written by Anthony Fankhauser (uncredited)
Starring Jim Lewis, Matthew Temple, Michael Gaglio, Brett A. Newton, Diana Terranova, Sylvia Panacione, & Rachel Riley
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
A lot of folks roll their eyes at another found footage horror film, but I think that's because there's been a glut of them in recent memory. It's not a new concept and a lot of times, in this day and age of first person shooter games and reality television, it seems to be yet another way for the audience to become that much closer to the film. In horror, it's uncomfortable to get in this proximity to a horror film because it's likely to pull you in close, then yell in your ear or show you something startling. Yet, I love this feeling and I'm sure those of you who read this column feel the same way about being scared. I'm not going to say that 8213: GACY HOUSE is a standout in this subgenre of found footage horrors, but it is worth a scare or two and since this column is dedicated to haunted houses, I figured if I was going to focus on a found footage film, I might as well focus on one we all haven't seen.
I must admit, I am a sucker for GHOST HUNTERS. I love the show and have been an avid fan for years. I know most of the time, they are chasing shadows and the episodes are cut to amp up tension that most of time isn't there. But for some reason, when the Ghost Hunters are there Scooby-ing around in the night vision filter and stop to listen to a sound they may or may not have heard, I'm riveted. Sue me. It gets to me. 8213: GACY HOUSE follows a team of fictional ghost hunters as they wander around a house once owned by infamous child molester and murderer John Wayne Gacy. Now, I acknowledge the inappropriateness of centering a fictional story on a real life murderer. It's pretty tasteless and I'm sure there are relatives of Gacy's victims that would probably take offense to the tale, but as a film, I kind of liked this one. Up to a point, 8213: GACY HOUSE hit all the right notes, giving the audience a slow build through the first hour of the film with just enough of the paranormal to entice the hunters deeper into the house.
To its credit, 8213: GACY HOUSE does go full on with the found footage motif. There are no credits at the beginning or end, just a disclaimer stating that John Wayne Gacy was a killer, then giving the history of the owners of his house, and finally stating that six bodies were found in the house along with this footage. The DVD views as if you did just happen upon this film pieced together from multiple hand held and stationed cameras set up by the team. The team is made up of some likable characters: the noble leader, the wizened professor, the antsy cameraman, the flighty psychic, the hot assistant (actually two of them), and a snarky cameraman who's just in it for the money. The actors are able to pull this off as if they were just regular people and not actors, going unscripted and reacting the way most would if thrown into this situation.
The problem with all found footage films is justifying why the characters would continue filming when everything starts going to hell. I don't know what I would do in such a situation, but my dedication to documenting these bizarre events would go out the window when the ghost or the cannibal or big monster or whatever starts attacking. In the case of 8213: GACY HOUSE, of course, even after people start disappearing and the cameraman is lifted in the air, the hand held camera is utilized. Not sure why because with a bit of creative camerawork and writing the stationary cams the team put up in the story could have told the rest of the story. Up until all hellz breaks loose, though, 8213: GACY keeps it together with some good moments of suspense.
Director Anthony Fankhauser does have a creepy movie here with enough single moments of creep that turned out to be pretty effective. Shots of a portly ghost running toward the camera in infrared, a cameraman who has his pants torn down which sounds kind of funny but is played as more of a horrific molestation, and the endless black of the crawlspace underneath the house all factor in to making 8213: GACY HOUSE one of the more effective found footage horror films that fully embrace that feeling you get when you're walking around your house at night in search of a sound that may have been the foundation shifting or may have been something more sinister.
INSIDIOUS (2011)Directed by James Wan
Written by Leigh Whannell
Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Ty Simpkins, Lyn Shaye, Leigh Whannell
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
Haunted house films are a favorite genre of mine and while INSIDIOUS may not fit perfectly fit into that category, it does have all of the elements of a good old fashioned ghost story. There may be those who might not like INSIDIOUS, saying that it is too derivative of other ghost stories of the past. It seems director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell's favorite ghost stories might be very similar to my own. Though there are scenes that remind me of POLTERGEIST, THE INNOCENTS (reviewed above), THE OTHERS, and THE BABY'S ROOM (reviewed above), PAN'S LABYRINTH, and other films, I think with the strong performances by its stars, some creatively crafted scenes, and music that is equal parts mood and punch, INSIDIOUS holds its own as a strong and original addition to the subgenre.
The strongest part of INSIDIOUS is the cast. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne both give fantastic performances as Josh and Renai Lambert, the couple whose son inexplicably falls into a coma and whose house appears to be haunted. Byrne does a fantastic job throughout the first three fourths of the film establishing herself as a loving mother, a struggling musician, and a distraught housewife. By the time her son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is comatose, you feel her pain in having her child in peril and the desperation she feels to grasp at anything to help her son. Wilson acts as Byrne's counterpoint in every way, playing a role that may cause some folks to not like him. He's avoidant, distant, and defensive when Byrne attempts to convince him that something is wrong. But to Wilson's credit, you do end up rooting for him to save his son in the end. At times, the narrative of INSIDIOUS is a bit uneven. You're not sure whose story this is; is it the distraught mother's? It appears so for about three fourths of the film because we follow scenes of her having numerous encounters with the supernatural. But in the last act, Josh becomes the central figure with a revelation that makes the negative aspects of his character sensible. In the end, this is the story of a family trying to pull together in a time of crisis.
A lot of the scares of INSIDIOUS come from silence and then a BAM! of music. To fault this film for it is to fault the entire horror genre. It's a standby shockeroo that guarantee a jump/scream/laugh from the audience. In INSIDIOUS, it's used quite often, but rarely as a false scare. That pounding on the keyboard sound only serves to intensify an already frightening image. Music composer Joe Dzuban deserves mention for a score that really makes you jump out of your seat. Right from the get go, INSIDIOUS blares gothic music in your face which reminded me of the Hammer films of old. Plus nothing speaks creepy more than Tiny Tim, whose "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" is a song used to full creepy effect in numerous scenes in the film.
As I said above, while watching INSIDIOUS I almost could go down a checklist of films scenes were inspired by. The use of the baby monitor as a means to hear supernatural voices is the central scare in THE BABY'S ROOM. Here is it just one of many effectively scary scenes. Though not original, I'll bet audience members with children will be affected most by this scene in particular. Another scene involving the house alarm going off rattled me to the back of my theater seat, but I don't want to say anything more so as not to ruin it. A later scene when a pair of ghost hunters show up for comic relief is torn straight from POLTERGEIST (one of the investigators even uses an uncooked steak to cool off a bruise which reminded me of the rotting steak from Speilberg/Hooper's film). But being a huge fan of the GHOST HUNTERS TV show, I loved these scenes and the actors (writer Leigh Whannel cast himself in the role, as well as Angus Sampson) allow for an appropriate and not distracting break in high tension from the story around them. The narrative plays out a lot like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY if it were a film and not a mock-doc, though that isn't so surprising given that the producers of this film produced PARANORMAL ACTIVITY as well. Though there were scenes that steered me to other films in my memory banks, director James Wan does interweave these scenes technically and creatively well. Wan knows how to set up a tense scene and does so over and over in this film. Props should be thrown to this film for creating a truly terrifying villain. The Lip-Stick Faced Demon, as it is called in the credits, is an archetypal demon creature, but so original that the scenes involving him are by far the most frightening. The first scene we see the demon is set up in such a bone-chilling manner that it will stick with you long after the film and follow you into your nightmares.
INSIDIOUS is not a perfect film. When the explanation of the spooky events comes from psychic ghost hunter Elise Rainer (played by THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY's Lin Shaye), it is a bit clunky. The astral projection stuff is a fine hook to hang a horror story on, but Elise's knowledge of the world the Lambert's son is lost in had me asking myself "how does she know this stuff?" Shaye's character is there to provide exposition, though. Normally, I'm annoyed with the character in films who usually serves the purpose of skidding the narrative to a halt with a long-winded recap/explanation to those too moronic to follow the story so far. But here, Shaye offers an authenticity to her performance--a skill I didn't know the actress had since most of the things I've seen her in have been over the top comedies. Here, Shaye offers these explanations with enough passion and authority that she pulls these scenes off.
I hosted a screening of INSIDIOUS a few weeks ago in Chicago and got to talk with director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell afterwards in front of the audience. They commented on how small the budget was for this film. I have to say that despite budgetary restrictions, Wan and Whannell deliver a multi-million dollar final cut. INSIDIOUS is a film made by fans of haunted house films and throws just about every trick in the book in between opening and closing credits (by the by, the opening credits are fantastic and completely set a frightening tone for the rest of the film). Another reason I want to throw my support in INSIDIOUS' direction is that, despite the homages to other films, it is an original film: not a sequel, not a remake. For a horror film to be released worldwide these days without those aforementioned qualities is a feat in itself. If you're looking to see less remakes and sequels and more original horror in theaters, you best get your butt to the theater this weekend to see it. A more admirable feat accomplished nicely in this film is that, although it is stamped with the dreaded PG-13 rating, it does supply the scares and thrills that push that rating to the limit. With very little graphic violence shown, INSIDIOUS is a very frantic and spine tingling piece of cinema. To the filmmakers' credit, they offered up creative thrills and didn't go for the easy horror with gore or over the top violence. As with all ghost stories, the frights in INSIDIOUS lay in the anticipation--the running around in the dark, the turning of a corner. INSIDIOUS is a scary popcorn flick and is more fun than most films of its genre. If you're looking for some fun haunted house horror, hit the theaters this weekend and check out INSIDIOUS!
And finally, speaking of next week’s FAMOUS MONSTERS Imagi-Movies Film Festival, Mark Steensland, one of the creators of one of the short films featured in the fest contacted me this week and showed me his short PEEKERS. I loved it so much, I asked if I could share it with you guys. Be sure to check out the PEEKERS website after checking out the short. Enjoy PEEKERS!
See ya, next week, folks!
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole / wordslinger / reviewer / co-editor of AICN Comics for over nine years. Support a Bug by checking out his comics (click on the covers to purchase)!
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