Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Curse of the Shortening

Thwarted, once again. 

Let me tell you folks, I had some grand big but-not-in-a-vertical-way plans for this month, yet once again, the hustle and bustle of the real world (minus Puck) reared its head to complicate my February coverage.

Also, there was a kitten.

No, concerned Animal Hoarders viewers with the call-in number on speed dial, I did not bring this adorable little feline into the already crowded 4-cats, 2-people apartment I call home. But I did find this little fella squatting in my apartment building hallway on a cold winter's night, which led to a few days of converting my bathroom into a highly secure foster home undetectable to the rest of the brood. Perhaps it was fitting that my real-life February would be crashed by a tiny yet mighty creature. But it was still a tad inconvenient.

Also, I won't lie (mostly for fear of being karmically repaid/punished in the style of last year's most terrifying February entry, Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio): I like the Olympics. A. Lot.

Sochi strays, opening pomp, Bob Costas' eyeballs bravely fighting a losing battle to that smarmy and sneaky Matt Lauer and his presumed conjunctivitis planting, and most of all, A TERRIFYINGLY ICY RUSSIAN PRODIGY DOUBLE AXELING WITHOUT IRONY TO THE THEME FROM SCHINDLER'S LIST.

Not to mention the glory of Pairs fashion, shockingly outdoing the typically Vogue: Slovakia caliber of Ice Dancing dresses.

Anyway, my point is that I just didn't get to go the distance I was hoping for this month, but that's what fellow bloggers are for!  Thankfully, good pal Elwood Jones of From the Depths of DVD Hell picked up some slack with a few Shortening-minded reviews. Check 'em out!

Curse of Chucky
Piranha 3DD
The Brood

Want more? Head on yonder to Pearce's Horror Movie Reviews for his thoughts on one of the hallmarks of '80s Shortenings, Ghoulies. Because you can never have too much of a little thing!

As always, we'll be back shortly with some less specially small tales of horror. Until then, stand tall!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Drop Dead Stevie!

Come The Shortening, we like to take chances here at the Doll's House. Note that 'taking chances' really just means 'watching something that might possibly have a vertically challenged villain streaming on Netflix Instant.'

I'm a wild one.

Quick Plot: Claire and Adrian are a well-to-do couple with some secret heartbreak residing in an impossibly awesome three-story home. They're thrilled to adopt Isabel, a pleasant little girl with some darkness in her own past. Before you can say Is This An Orphan Sequel?, Claire discovers her own Isabel may have brought a menacing imaginary friend into their lives.

It's fairly simple to guess where things go from here. Well-intentioned but too logical husband thinks Claire is going crazy? Check. Social worker checks in with terrible backstory on seemingly angelic daughter? Check. Distrusting grandma? Check. Careers being damaged? You betcha!

A lot of the turns are spelled out like an alphabetical magnet set on a refrigerator (literally, in some junctures) but that doesn't necessarily take anything away from this surprisingly taut little thriller. As Claire, Catherine McCormack is somewhat stuck with the same role shaken through by Mia Farrow, Ellen Burstyn, and even Vera Farmiga, but like those actresses, she has a wonderfully strong presence that easily sells her stakes. 

Stevie is directed by Bryan Goeres, who has mostly worked in television save for a rather glaring second unit credit for Anna Nicole Smith's infamous Skyscraper (to quote Lifetime's biopic, "the movie is called Skyscraper. It takes place in a skyscraper"). Despite the somewhat confusing, sort of addressed oddness of every character speaking with a different accent, Goeres does some very sleek work in building tension around what evil force is after Isabel and Claire. Writer David Markus (whose even MORE exciting IMDB resume includes credits for the Sweet Valley High TV series, of whose theme song I sing every other day or so) gets stuck with a few of the same old patterns (particularly with the husband character) but a few third act mysteries involving the possible source of Isabel's unwanted pal take the film on an interesting path.

What's most successful about Stevie is that it's ultimately a very earnest film. Claire and Adrian are good people who really want to give the charming Isabel a loving home. Even secondary characters like Adrian's stuffy mother prove to be much, well, NICER than a lazier film may have made them. We like these people, and therefore, want the titular imaginary friend/ghost/invisible demon to simply leave them alone. That he doesn't makes us as tense as we should be.

High Points
Creepy crayon drawings man. They always get me

Low Points
I'm not sure if this is a spoiler, because I was never quite sure how much of it I was supposed to know: see, Stevie plays a little with its timeline, something that isn't explicitly said, but seems clear enough. But maybe it's not supposed to be? We eventually get a rather important, long-teased out reveal, but I can't quite decide if the occasionally confusing time jumps is supposed to serve that

Lessons Learned
Garbage disposals are awesome, unless you happen to be residing in a horror film where they will inevitably cause doom

In mystery European land where everyone has their own accent, barbecues are generally held in chilly weather that requires autumn jackets

Even the most loving German Shepard will scoff at an unwanted imaginary friend

Stevie isn't necessarily that special a film, but it's executed well enough to make its 90 minute running time worth a dive. The film packs a few genuinely effective scares and is served by a strong cast that overcomes some of the more predictable plot points. If you're in the mood for something solid, if not shockingly game changing, here you go.

Shortening Cred: Any specifics could be spoilery, so we'll just add up what you already know from the Netflix description--creepy little girl, imaginary friend, letter magnets--to say yes, this qualifies. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hands Up

I knew it would happen eventually, but that doesn’t make me any less happy that we are finally living in a time where the ‘90s are considered retro. On one hand, it certainly makes me feel old; on the other, it sure is fine to giggle at how attractive my generation found skater culture and moppy haircuts!

Quick Plot: Anton (Caspar incarnate Devan Sawa) is a lazy teen stoner who takes a few days to discover his parents have been murdered, maybe even by him. After smoking a mixture of spice rack leftovers, Anton's hand becomes possessed by an evil murderous spirit.

First to suffer are Anton's buds Pnub and Mick (Oz himself, Seth Green). Anton's hand sends fatal deathblows to both but since Pnub and Mick are too lazy to walk towards the eternal white light, both end up stuck in a cheerful state of zombiehood that's mostly tempered with duct tape. 

Anton, meanwhile, finds some use out of his condition by sending effective bad boy vibes to his hot neighbor Molly (Jessica Alba, in the typical Jessica Alba role of looking great and acting like imitation wood). Across town, Druidic priestess Vivica A. Fox (go with it) hooks up with local bad boy Jack Noseworthy (best known as 'that guy playing a dick' in every late '90s movie ever made) to help hunt down the possessed appendage.

Directed by Rodman Flender (he of another alum of The Shortening, 1990's The Unborn), Idle Hands was a box office flop that eventually found a minor cult following on video. Part of its initial failure is fairly attributed to its timing (the film was released just a few weeks after the Columbine massacre) but in another way, this is the kind of movie designed for teenage genre fans to pass around in their parents’ basements. Much along the lines of something like Billy Madison, Idle Hands is just a silly comedy that I can see getting a little funnier with repeat viewing. Add in the fact that this is dripping with ‘90s nostalgia and you’re left with a more hit-than-miss comedy that has aged like a nice cup of Surge.

High Notes
Tragically, he only gets the film's prologue, but I would give five stars to the film-stealing talents of the always wonderful Fred Willard. Just listen to how he pronounces "Halloween" in the opening and tell me he doesn't deserve an Oscar

Low Notes
Sure, Anton is supposed to be pretty worthless, but having your protagonist be so jerky that he doesn't even care too much about his parents' slaughter isn't the most endearing aspect of your film

Lessons Learned
It's incredibly easy to give CPR to druidic priestesses

Duct tape: never not the answer to everything

A cornucopia is like a horn of plenty

Electric pencil sharpeners make quite handy (pun somewhat intended) tools for clawing up your nails

Idle Hands is a dumb horror comedy, but let's face it: some dumb horror comedies are an awful lot of fun. Sort of like a slightly less ambitious Jennifer's Body, this is a good little watch for a kick-back-with-a-beer kind of evening. '90s enthusiasts will appreciate some of the timeliness of its references ("I'll make sweet love to you Red Shoe Diaries style," for example) and horror nerds might dig its play on conventions. A peek under the bed AND blatant cat scare in the first five minutes? Yeah, it gets itself.

Shortening Cred: The titular hand (really it's just one) won't be riding any rollercoasters any time soon.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Effigy In a Turtleneck

The laws of the universe are very clear when it comes to horror anthologies, and even more Windex-sprayed crystal when said anthologies are included in February’s Shortening:

You must have a doll story.

While past entries here at the Doll’s House include the ventriloquist laden Dead of Night and punchy puppet tale Screamtime, this year’s installment comes to us in a more subdued format with only a minor brush of dolldom. Let’s see if 1974’s From Beyond the Grave survives the month:

Quick Plot: Based on the stories of Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, From Beyond the Grave tells four tales carefully linked by Temptations Limited, an intriguing little antique shop run by the great Peter Cushing. With the motto “Offers You Cannot Resist,” Temptations Ltd. attracts a varied clientele of a slightly disingenuous nature.

Our first customer is none other than David Warner in the form of a slippery bargain hunter who slyly talks Cushing down on the price of a valued antique mirror. As you might guess, holding a séance revolving around an antique mirror that you conned out of creepy Peter Cushing is not going to have the happiest of conclusions.

The next tale is titled “An Act of Kindness” and beings cheerily enough as Christopher, a bored office manager with a miserable wife and distant child, befriends a poor veteran selling matches. Since said poor veteran is played by Donald Pleasance, Christopher finds himself desperate to impress the man, lying about having served in the war with the help of a military medal bought under false pretences from our new favorite antiques shop. Such service claims help worm Christopher into the heart of his new friend’s daughter Emily (played by the Juliet Landau-esque Angela Pleasance).

It’s here where the tag ‘doll’ probably found its way into From Beyond the Grave, as An Act of Kindness sees miniature wedding cake toppers as key in its big finish. There’s also a brief, but well-executed act of violence involving a miniature effigy wearing a turtleneck. ‘Miniature effigy wearing a turtleneck’ is, as you’d imagine, close to being the greatest word sequence ever typed. The fact that this segment has a naughty twist is really just gravy.

Next up is “The Elemental,” wherein the jerky Reggie tries to swindle Mr. Cushing by switching price tags on an inexpensive snuff box. This leads Reggie down a possessed path of sorts that forces him to enlist the aid of a kooky psychic and her exorcism skills.

Last but not least is “The Door.” In the final tale, a young man named William buys the titular hinged fixture from Cushing and debates dipping his British hands into the open and full cash register. Not surprisingly, said door seems to open an entryway into a netherworld of sorts haunted by a genuinely creepy murderous occultist.

A late Amicus production, From Beyond the Grave was the first feature film directed by Kevin Connor, a man who went on to work steadily in television after the memorable Motel Hell.  While this film steers fairly clear of the all-out camp of that film, it does manage to have quite a healthy dose of naughty humor about it. The stories have a pleasant (or Donald Pleasance) balance of winks and scares, making From Beyond the Grave a nice little treat for the anthology enthusiast.

Lessons Learned
An office manager is just a jumped up clerk

A woman hath a more enduring quality

Subways are generally packed with evil elementals (not that we didn’t already know this)

Don’t ever try to eff with Peter Cushing. Not only can he slit your throat with those cheekbones, but he also most likely has supernatural control over everything he touches and will ensure you suffer a grisly comeuppance

It’s surprising that From Beyond the Grave doesn’t come up more often in discussions about anthologies. While it’s far from the great entertainment of something like Creepshow or brilliant twistiness of its closer peer Asylum, this is a tight little ride with no real dull spots. Throw in a cast of genre-friendly faces, a few true surprising twists, some effective moment of eeriness, and an effigy wearing a turtleneck for a darn good night of atmospheric horror.

Shortening Cred: Though the dolls of “An Act of Kindness” didn’t quite prove to be the driving force behind some of the terror, From Beyond the Grave remains the most recent film in my memory to feature an adorable effigy wearing a wool turtleneck. Happy February!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Conjure Me Some Shortening

James Wan is a true and deserved success story.

Starting out with a low budget, big idea'd little film called Saw that changed (for better and a lot worse) the very nature of the theatrical horror genre, this is a director with has only improved with each foray into the genre. While he leaves us lowly horror fans behind to carry on the rather fertile (though now rather uncertain) legacy of The Fast & the Furious (or Fast/Furious or Fasurious or whatever the new not-numbered sequels will be called), let us hope he makes the occasional visit back to us.

You know...because the guy clearly has a thing for creepy dolls.

Quick Plot: We start with a fun little prologue of sorts that qualifies The Conjuring for The Shortening. In the early '70s, a pair of roommates report their experiences with a possibly haunted, probably evil, and most certainly ugly doll named Annabelle to Ed and Lorraine Warren (the impossibly handsome Patrick Wilson and the impossibly awesome Vera Farmiga). The Warrens are the country's most esteemed pair of psychic investigators and deal with Annabelle as you do: lock it in a glass case inside your Friday the 13th: The Series-esque basement of haunted chotchkes.

Moving on to our main narrative we meet the Perrons, a pleasant family of seven moving to a secluded country estate in Rhode Island. Just a few nights in the mysteriously low-priced real estate gives way to the usual trappings of any haunted house:

-Every clock inside stops at the same time each night

-Dog Sadie refuses to enter, only to find the backyard even less safe

-Dad (Ron Livingston) discovers a hidden basement loaded with antiques

-The temperature remains freezing despite the furnace being in working order

-Middle child's sleepwalking keeps leading to an antique wardrobe that seems to house something else

- Mom Carolyn (Lili Taylor, taking a better stab at being in a ghost film titled in the noun form of a verb in the present perfect tense) wakes up with unexplained bruises all over her iron deficient body

-The youngest daughter discovers a disheveled music box that reveals an imaginary friend

-There's a ghost and it attacks everyone

Forgive the Foxworthy routine, but if your home is never above 20ºF, your daughters report invisible things grabbing their legs in the middle of the night, and your dog has all but drawn a police sketch of an angry Casper with its paws, you just might be in a haunted house.

Thankfully, Carolyn is able to reach the Warrens for an investigation, something that comes loaded with its own history as the clairvoyant Lorraine is still recovering from a horrific exorcism gone wrong.

By now, you're probably thinking that all of this sounds very familiar. Patrick Wilson already trespassed through The Further in Insidious, Lili Taylor saw her share of The Haunting, and just about every detail thus far has a faint smell of a Long Island home in Nassau County. 

Except this one is better.

There is little new in The Conjuring, and that's almost the point. The opening credits blatantly style themselves on those of any '70s ghost film, while The Changeling's bouncing ball makes an adorable cameo. There are traces of The Exorcist and Poltergeist at play, but here's the thing: The Conjuring knows how to position them.

Ever since he stretched a low budget and short filming time for Saw, James Wan has been steadily growing as a filmmaker. I'm in the minority that appreciated Dead Silence both as a stylish throwback and clear attempt to toy with certain horror elements. True, maybe I just like Wan because he and I share a fascination with puppets and their like, but in watching his development from Saw to Dead Silence to the strong-til-its-last-act Insidious, you can see a filmmaker with a love and understanding of the horror genre finding his own way through it. Sure, Insidious and The Conjuring call back all the tropes of haunted house movies--the kooky psychics, the children's games gone wrong--but think of what they do differently than so many others: when investigating a mystery, characters TURN ON THE LIGHTS. The first instinct? MOVE OUT. Like us, James Wan has clearly watched his share of ghost stories and translated what I assume to be his mental checklist into an effective chill.

It helps that Wan is working with a seasoned cast that clearly cares. Farmiga has been one of my favorite actresses for years, and not JUST because she goes head to head with Isabelle Badass Fuhrman in Orphan. No one is phoning in a performance here, and the cast is aided by a clean and occasionally, quite funny script from Chad and Carey Hayes. Wan carefully builds his characters and the situation with deliberate care, making everything onscreen hit harder when the chairs start flying.

High Points
In addition to all the aforementioned strengths--good cast, script, ambiance--I should point out something that Wan and his crew do incredibly well: architecture. As we followed a character investigating a strange sound, it dawned on me that I knew exactly which bedroom it was coming from and where said room was located in the house. Because the layout of the set was established so clearly (and innocently) early on in the film, I as a viewer was put in the same place as the characters, bringing me one step closer to the action and horror. It's something that can be overlooked so easily in the age of quick cuts, and yet watching The Conjuring made me realize just how much this kind of precision can help a film

Low Points
It's simply a matter of taste, but for me, as soon as the demonic forces go from eerie suggestion to concrete existence, the scares become a little less throat gulpy and more 'eh, at least it's not CGI'-y

Gentlemen, I apologize for my crassness, but it must be said: whenever Patrick Wilson appears in a film and does not show his rear, the ladies are sad

Lessons Learned
We could make all sorts of easy jokes about how the REAL horror of the Perrons is being a family filled with five daughters, but let's face it: if The Conjuring has taught us nothing else, it's that wallpaper of the 1970s was truly horrifying

Listen to your dog. ALWAYS listen to your dog

Ghosts smell like rancid meat or REALLY bad farts

Like The Purge, I was incredibly satisfied with 2013’s OTHER big profit, low budget studio horror film. The Conjuring isn’t perfect and won’t necessarily get the jumps out of all audience members, but this is the kind of well-made little ghost story ideal for an evening of lights-out, cats-on-lap viewing. Good stuff.

Shortening Cred: Though the real threat is a fully grown ghost, The Conjuring has a nice supporting turn by doll (and possible distant cousin to Seed of Chucky’s Glen) Annabelle.

BONUS! The Internet has informed me that little Lili Taylor stands at a mighty height of 5'2. Since she spends a fair amount of The Conjuring causing a ruckus, we'll use that as added proof that this film does indeed belong here this February.