OCULUS – Spotlight Podcast 5:15.1

This scene, featuring stars Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, appears NOWHERE in OCULUS.
This scene, featuring stars Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan, appears NOWHERE in OCULUS.

How frustrating is it when a film has all the stuff it needs — promising premise, good production values, decent cast, director who can twist filmic reality in imaginative ways — and just… doesn’t … grab… you? Pretty damn frustrating, it turns out. OCULUS tells the tale of an orphaned brother and sister who reunite as adults to destroy the mirror that turned their father into a homicidal maniac, yet despite casting DOCTOR WHO’s Karen Gillan in the lead, finding unique ways of styling flashback sequences so that past impinges on present and vice versa, and stuffing its scenario full of such spooky stuff as hostile, spectral presences, mind-bending hallucinations, and a guest walk-on by the Weeping Angels, the whole winds up decidedly less than the sum of its parts.
The Cinefantastique Online team of Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons get together to express their fascination about a film that has so much and falls so short, and to try to figure out what prevents this latest Blumhouse (or as it’s now being called, BH Productions) release from rising to its potential. Click on the player to hear the show.

[serialposts]

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 5:1.1

The creeps just keep comin' (but not fast enough) in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES.
The creeps just keep comin' (but not fast enough) in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES.

Thyurl Varpenshield shouldered the mighty broadsword, NapeSplitter, and double-checked his provisions bag. “Old man!” he cried good-naturedly into the depths of the household.
From out of the kitchen, a gnarled, ancient figure emerged, wiping his hands on a dish towel. “What be on with ye now, yon whippersnapper?” he snarled cantankerously.
“Father, I am off!”
“Good with ye, then,” the wizened figure chortled crankily. “What be it this time? Giants? Orcs? Or be it that comely serving wench over at the Bard’s Uvula?”
“None of those,” Thyurl responded jovially. “I go to confront a motion picture: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES.”
“Be it that spin-off chapter of the franchise I’ve heard tell about?” the old man groused darkly. “The one conjured specifically to court the Latino market, members of whom follow the series most assiduously?”
“Indeed it is!” Thyurl chirruped happily.
“Sounds impressive.”
“Not at all,” Thyurl mused sunnily. “I fear this may be my undoing. I hath spoken upon my colleagues, Steven of the Biodrowski, Lawrence of the French, and Dan of the Persons, of the kingdom Cinefantastique Online, and they beheld bad tidings. Said Daniel, “Steve and I have checked out the first film of 2014, and found it ushers the New Year in not with bang, but with a decidedly derivative whimper.”
“Oddly worded,” the old man surled snarkily. “But such is the lot of the pre-technology movie critic.”
“‘Tis true,” Thyurl keened brightly. “This bane may prove my final match.”
“Pffft,” the old man spurted gnarledly. “Ye shall have a good snooze, and emerge refreshed, if not at all enlightened.”
“From your mouth to the great god Lowarken’s thorax,” Thyurl barked wittily, as he gathered his provisions. “Fare ye well, Father, I am off!”
“Hold up!” the old man snapped grouchily. “Have ye brought enough adjectives with ye?”
“I do believe so,” Thyurl replied replyingly, glancing within his sack. “I have mighty, vast, imposing, dark, twisted, menacing, gnarled, beautiful, bewitched, enchanted, bedeviled, ensorcered, and chipper.”
“That be enough for such a quest,” the old man cranked nonchalantly, waving an arthritic paw. “Off with ye now.”
Thyurl grasped the sack, and strode determinedly from his home, out into the bright sunlight of the kingdom of Thyrystia. Whereupon he was promptly run over by a runaway manure cart and died painfully several days later of dysentery.

THE END


[serialposts]

Insidious: Chapter 2 – review

Insidious: Chapter 2 teaser poster

A guided tour through a haunted house you have visited once too often

I’m a boy, I’m a boy,
But my mother won’t admit it.
I’m a boy, I’m a boy,
But if I say I am, I get it.

from the song that should have been on the  soundtrack, “I’m a Boy” by the Who

Those Paranormal Poltergeists are back; no, wait – I mean those Sinister Spooks are back; no, wait – I mean those Insidious Spectres are back, in the latest horror opus from Blumhouse Productions. Malefic forces once again display a remarkable aptitude for malevolently lurking in shadows, ominously opening doors, eerily activating toys, and judiciously picking just the right moment to jump out and say, “BOO!” However, their supernatural shtick is outwearing its welcome, and this sequel to INSIDIOUS (2010) has little to add to its predecessor, except back story – and story ain’t exactly the strength of these films, is it? Consequently, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 feels like a guided tour through a haunted house you have visited once too often:you see the same old scares, and the guide keeps boring you with background details you don’t really need – or want – to know.

BACK STORY: WHEN MORE IS LESS

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 falls prey to the dilemma that afflicts much of supernatural horror: the mysterious, the uncanny, and the unexplained provide a special frisson all their own, but the unexplained can also be dramatically frustrating; haunted house movies almost inevitably risk exorcising their own ghosts by explaining them away.* This problem is exacerbated in INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 because a sequel, by its very nature, is required to give us something we did not get before.
So now we learn that the haunting of the Lambert family did not begin with little Dalton (Ty Simkins) a few years ago; it began with his father Josh (Patrick Wilson in present day, Garrett Ryan in flashback), whose memories were wiped clean to erase the trauma. We also learn the identify of the ghost that Josh brought back with him at the end of INSIDIOUS and learn the murderous back story, involving enforced transvestism and a domineering mother, none of which really matters except to help pad the film out to feature length while avoiding the story that should be told: the story of how Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) reacts to the dawning realization that her husband is not, in fact, her husband.

Family life just won't return to normal for the Lamberts.
Family life just won't return to normal for the Lamberts.

In case you forgot [BRIEF SPOILER], unlike the father in “Little Girl Lost” (Richard Matheson’s episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Josh never made it back from the limbo world he entered to rescue the soul of his child; Josh’s spirit was left behind, replaced by that of the murderous “Bride in Black,” who turns out to be Parker (Tom Fitzpatrick), who killed only because his mother forced him to. The first act of the possessed Josh was to strangle psychic investigator Elise (Lin Shaye), because having found a foothold in the world of the flesh once again, the first thing a returning spirit wants to do is commit a crime that, in any logical universe, would put him behind bars for the rest of his unnatural life.
With the lamest of lip service, the police investigation of this murder is scuttled in the first reel of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2; even though Josh was the only person in the room with Elise when she was murdered, and even though the house was filled with other people who could attest to this, the police feel they need something more, such as a match between Josh’s hands and the imprint on Elise’s throat. Inexplicably, a phone call from the investigating officer later tells us there is no match, even though nothing in the film indicates that the size of Josh’s hand is physically altered by the spirit possessing his body.
All of this is just an excuse to circumvent the ending of the previous film, so that the screenplay (by Leigh Whannell) can get the Lambert family back into a haunted house again. Things predictably start going bump in the night, but rather absurdly, possessed Josh manages to silence everyone’s fears on this score; for some reason, his wife and his mother (Barbar Hershey) are too stupid to see that there is something wrong with a man who can blithely dismiss the supernatural – after all the havoc it wrecked on their family in the previous film.
"No wire coat hangers - ever!"
"No wire coat hangers - ever!"

Fortunately, Elise’s late co-workers, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) make contact with the other side and start to figure out that something is not right. This leads to a long trip down memory lane – long enough to blame Parker’s homicidal habits on Mother (yes, just like Norman Bates) without ever really making Mother out to be anything more than a caricature. When she finally appears in the flesh (metaphorically speaking), Danielle Bisutti plays the character with an over-enthusiastic relish more suitable to camp than horror, as if channeling the ghost of Joan Crawford – or more precisely, Faye Dunaway playing Crawford in MOMMY DEAREST. (As she slaps her son for refusing to act like a little girl, you have expect her to start yelling “Wire coat hangers!”)
By this time, Renai is kinda, sorta getting a clue that her husband is not really her husband anymore. It is symptomatic of the script’s problems that she must explain this in the dialogue to her mother-in-law, because we never really see the moment on screen. We are left to wonder what took her so long, and the more unseemly possibilities (i.e., living on intimate terms with a man who is in reality a total stranger) are ignored completely.
Eventually, a few modestly interesting ideas arise: Parker and his mother, far from being evil conspirators, are at odds, Parker hoping for a chance to live the “normal” life his mother denied him. Some of the haunting in the house is due not to Parker and his mother, but to Josh himself, who is waiting helplessly in limbo, hoping to reconnect with his family. And the spirit of Elise lurks somewhere nearby, no doubt waiting for an appropriate moment to intervene.
The last two elements at least provide a break from the current horror formula, in which only malevolent forces have any supernatural power. Unfortunately, the script never thinks through the implications, so the relative strengths of the dearly – and not so dearly – departed vary according to what would keep the good guys at a disadvantage: for example, Ghost Josh can only tinkle a piano keyboard, but Parker’s ghost mother can levitate objects and knock Renai unconscious. Why is Parker’s mother so much stronger? Because she’s evil, I guess.
Shh! Ghost mom does not want you to tell potential ticket buyers how much INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 sucks.
Shh! Ghost mom does not want you to tell potential ticket buyers how much INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 sucks.

That really is about as much thought as Whannell put into the story. We also learn that Josh’s body is decaying because of the dead soul inside it. His mother’s ghostly spirit tells him he can prevent this by killing the Lambert family, although why this should help is never explained. Is she lying? Or did the script just feel the need to motivate Possessed Josh’s final-reel shift from incognito intruder to homicidal maniac?
In any case, lke Jack Torrance in THE SHINING, Josh goes full-blown psycho for the final reel, threatening to murder his entire family (he uses a fire extinguisher rather than an ax to break through the door his wife has locked). In one of the film’s few nice touches, Dalton realizes that the astral projection that caused him so much trouble in the first film can enable him to make contact with his real father and bring him back to this earthly plane.
Meanwhile, in another moderately interesting bit, Elise and the real Josh are in limbo, seeking the answers that will exorcise Parker’s mother. Limbo, it seems is not only beyond space but also beyond time, allowing Josh to ask  a crucial question of his boyhood self. Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t really reveal anything that will be crucial in defeating the evil spirit, but who’s keeping track?
At least INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 resists the temptation to deliver another last-minute twist that makes nonsense of what came before. However, it succumbs to the urge to dangle a thread intended to set up CHAPTER 3.

AESTHETICS AND ATMOSPHERE

As in INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, director James Wan shows an agile hand when it comes to manipulating the elements that go into making an atmospheric horror film. In this case, unfortunately, the familiar nature of the material and the script’s refusal to focus where it should, undermines the shudders, rendering one of Blumhouse Productions’s least effective fright films. As uninspired as the recent PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels have been, not to mention SINISTER and DARK SKIES, those films at least delivered some good scares, here and there.
But little of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 matches the shivery sense of menace the infused its predecessor almost from beginning to end; in fact, you have to wait till midpoint for the first decent scare scene, when Specs and Tucker investigate Parker’s old childhood room – and find a child-size version of his spirit haunting the premises. (How this disembodied version of his spirit can be lurking in his old room, while Parker’s actual spirit is currently lodged in Parker’s body, is a question the film never bothers to address, because who cares?)
The cast is nice, but as hard as Patrick Wilson tries, he doesn’t quite have what it takes to suggest a sinister intelligence lurking behind a smiling facade: he’s at his most sinister, when showing up unexpectedly, framed in shadow; when he actually has to act scary, he’s okay at best.
Several of the characters appear in both old and young versions, with greater or lesser success. Older viewers probably know Barbara Hershey too well from her earlier work to buy Jocelin Donahue in flashbacks. Lindsay Seim, on the other hand, is so perfect that you immediately know she is the younger version of Elise, even if you don’t catch the name; the only problem here is a slight awkwardness about the dialogue, as if Seim were lip-synching to words recorded by Lin Shaye.
The emphasis on achieving scares with practical effects is welcome; for example, the afterlife is not some tour-de-force of CGI but essentially void, with faces and bodies appearing out of the darkness. But simply avoiding an over-used technique is not enough; you need to replace it with something else – something better. There was certainly potential here: INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 could have been an ominous exploration of ambiguity, if it had focused on the reactions of Josh’s wife and children as his strange, new behavior forced them to ask, “Is this the man we know and love, suffering from post-traumatic stress, or is it a demonic entity in his guise?”

WHAT I LEARNED

Evil ghosts are more powerful than good ghosts.
Baby monitors are scary.
Children’s toys are scary when they move by themselves in a dark room, especially when there is fog inside the room.
Even with a dead body and a houseful of likely suspects ranting about evil spirits, the police will not arrest the man who is obviously guilty.
The guilty party’s wife will be in denial about her husband’s guilt – which is almost understandable – but so will the murder victim’s ghost-hunting associates, who should – maybe, just maybe – consider the possibility of demonic possession.

THE FINAL TALLY

Lacking  originality or inspiration, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is slow and tedious; even the occasional well-executed scare-scene is not enough to bring this tired old ghost back to life. Sad to say, the new INSIDIOUS is hideous.
[rating=1]
On the CFQ Review Scale: a strong recommendation that you avoid this one.
FOOTNOTE:

  • J-Horror avoids this problem by eschewing explanations – a sore point when those films get remade for Western audiences.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. Blumhouse Productions: September 13, 2013.  105 minutes, PG-13. Directed by James Wan. Written by Leigh Whannell. Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Andrew Astor, Hank Harris, Jocelin Donahue, Lindsay Seim, Danielle Bisutti, Tyler Griffin, Garrett Ryan, Tom Fitzpatrick.

Blumhouse Productions will Purge again

THE PURGE 2013 smiling masksWhat do you do after you spend $3-million on a movie that makes back more than eleven times that much money on opening weekend? You make a sequel! Blumhouse Productions has already announced that they will be making a follow-up to THE PURGE. No details have been announced, but the basic premise of an annual 12-hour period of condoned criminality provides a wide canvas for stories that would explore aspects that did not fit into the fairly narrow focus of the first film.

CFQ Video Review: The Purge

A video review of  THE PURGE, including film clips and excerpts from the trailer. The film’s premise  (an annual 12-hour lawless free-for-all) is incredible, but THE PURGE stands as an effective political parable, earning 3 out of 5 stars on the Cinefantastique Review scale – that is, recommended viewing.
Please note: If you are wondering why the video shows up twice in this post, the second version is necessary in order to make the video show up in  Cinefantastique’s podcast feed for iTunes.

Insidious: Chapter 2 in theatres September 13

Film District releases the latest creep-show from Blumhouse Productions, a sequel to INSIDIOUS (2010). The SAW-team of director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell are back, along with cast members Rose Byrne, Patrick WIlson, Barbara Hershey, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, and yes, Whannel himself.
The previous film left no doubt the evil had triumphed, taking possession of Josh Lambert after his trip through limbo to save his son from supernatural forces. The trailer suggests the the sequel has been jiggered to suggest that Josh is haunted but not controlled by something that followed him back from his trip to the other side. It’s just as well: a direct sequel to the original would have consisted of Josh being tried and convicted of murder – probably not what the audience wants.
Theatrical Release: September 13, 2013
title treatment

The Purge: review

Purge posterTHE PURGE is a tense thriller with a novel if incredible premise that combines bits of THE STRANGERS, PANIC ROOM, STRAW DOGS, the STAR TREK episode “Return of the Archons,” and Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (or at least an echo of the short story’s underlying concept, as inspired by the William James essay “The Moral Philospher and the Moral Life”). By reconfiguring its old formula – eliminating some elements, adding others – Blumhouse Productions (working in conjunction with Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes) has crafted its best film in years, erasing memories of the terminally declining PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels and spin-offs. The result may not be perfectly satisfying, but the film earns the overused praise, “thought provoking.”
The usual Blumhouse spooks are gone, but the company’s traditional running time (under 90 minutes) and low-budget setting remains the same: the majority of the action plays out inside a single-family dwelling, a homestead under attack, the family within buffeted by brutal forces that cannot be kept at bay by locked doors. The premise this time is that, nine years from now, the United States is enjoying an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity, thanks to the annual “Purge,” a twelve-hour period in which crime, even murder, is legalized, allowing the populace to release its simmering tension and hatred before returning to blissful normality for the rest of the year.

James (Ethan Hawke) keeps a watchful eye on the strangers outside.
James (Ethan Hawke) keeps a watchful eye on the strangers outside.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a prime beneficiary of this status quo: he sells security systems to rich clients, who want to avoid being caught up in the Purge’s violence. Business is so good that he and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey) have added an extension to their mansion, incurring the envy of their neighbors. All is not well, however: son Charlie (Max Burkholder) is too young to understand the “necessity” of the Purge, and daughter Zoe (Adelaide Kane) is moody because her father disapproves of her older boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller). Shortly after James puts the house on lockdown, Charlie raises the defenses to allow entrance by a frightened “Bloody Stranger” (as the character played by Edwin Hodge is referenced in the credits). This draws the attention of a gang led by the Polite Stranger (Rhys Wakefield), whose preturnatural poise masks a murderous desire to Purge his soul by killing the man who has taken refuge inside the Sandin’s home. He offers James a terrible choice: either turn over the Bloody Stranger , or the Polite Stranger and his friends will find a way inside and kill not only their intended victim but the Sandin family as well.
THE PURGE promises a chaotic free-for-all of citywide wilding; what it actually delivers is smaller in scope but bigger in concept: social satire  that is sharper, and laced with far more conviction, than THE HUNGER GAMES. The film presents a clearly immoral situation that has been normalized and accepted, thanks to jingoistic patriotism, mixed with a touch of religious fervor. Those who benefit rationalize the Purge’s existence because of its benefits to society – by which, they mean benefits to themselves; those who stay safely locked inside, avoiding the ill-effects of the Purge, show their “support” by placing symbolic flowers outside their houses, as if that somehow forms a bond of solidarity with the less fortunate, who cannot protect themselves.
As drama, THE PURGE is built on an unbelievable premise: do we really accept that the population would let bygones be bygones after seeing loved ones brutally murdered by strangers and even acquaintances who were allowed to go free? Fortunately, credibility is not a problem, because the film works on the level of a parable, a variation on James’ theme that a blissful utopia where millions were happy at the expense of the suffering and torture of some far-off soul would be a “hideous thing.”
Purge neighborsIn the film, this suffering is inflicted on far more than a single soul, but it is embodied in the form of the Bloodied Stranger, a homeless black man (whose briefly glimpsed dog tags suggest a war veteran) whose plight moves Charlie to a human act of pity, with devastating consequences. For once, James Sandin is confronted with the reality that he has kept at bay, compartmentalized in his mind. At first, he is more than willing to sacrifice this lamb to the gang lurking outside like the zombies in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but his children are unwilling to accept the sacrifice their father is willing to make on their behalf, thus forcing James to rethink his assumptions.
The way this plays out is not always as clear and sharp as it should be. The geography of the Sandin house is never clearly established, which makes the action unclear (things in different rooms seems to be happening at the same time, but no one ever notices tell-tale voices or – more obviously – gunshots). Zoey’s moping catatonia is hardly endearing, and her schoolgirl outfit (skirt, white blouse, and tie) look less like a real uniform than a sexy schoolgirl costume. Last-minute reshooting may have left a few seams showing, with characters disappearing for extended periods: the Bloody Stranger (who clearly will have to have a large role in the film’s resolution) is sidelined far too long, even after James has relented his initial decision to toss him outside; meanwhile, James is given more STRAW DOGS-type action as he defends his home against the invaders. And writer-director james DeMonaco serves up approximately half a dozen variations on a scene that should never appear more than once in any film: a helpless, unarmed audience identification figure, about to be killed, is saved by a gunshot from an off-screen figure.
Ryse Wakefield as the smiling "Polite Stranger"
Ryse Wakefield as the smiling "Polite Stranger"

To its credit, THE PURGE does not lay out a moral to the story in a schematic way, leaving some room for interpretation. Although some characters are clearly bad, our “good guys” are no saints. James and Mary may not participate in the Purge, but they live with it happily – at arm’s length -and make a pretty penny off of it, even if they do not truly deserve their wealth. (One of the film’s sly jokes is that James is a bit of a con-man; his security systems are far from fool-proof, leaving even his own family at risk.) Despite the even-handedness, one suspects that the film is at least partially a jab at the concept of a religious right-wing political ascendancy. Rhys Wakefield’s artificially strained smile of politeness recalls Mitt Romney’s nickname “The Smiler,” and one briefly overheard news  commentator suggests that the real purpose of the Purge is to thin society’s ranks of the poor and the unemployed – i.e., the “Takers” so reviled by the Right.
In the end, the good, upstanding folk of the restricted neighborhoods turn out to be at least as blood-thirsty as the supposed criminal underclass; they pretend that their temporarily de-criminalized behavior is a cleansing spiritual act. Clearly, class and racial lines are being crossed in a way that breaks down the “us versus them” mentality behind the Purge. Those who survive are willing to reconsider the system, or at least refuse to abide by its immoral strictures, while the embodiment of that system must finally pay the piper. It’s not a bad moral at all, and it vastly improves on the usual Blumhouse “twist,” in which everybody dies because it’s “unexpected” – regardless of whether that ends the story satisfactorily.
Teenagers expecting to vicariously enjoy a feature length riot in the streets may be disappointed by THE PURGE, but the film does what good speculative fiction should do: it asks, “What if?” THE PURGE may not be absolutely brilliant, but DeMonaco is clever enough to let his intriguing question speak for itself, provoking us to consider our own answers.
THE PURGE (Universal Pictures: June 7, 2013). A Blumhouse and Platinum Dune Production. Produced by Jason Blum and Michael Bay. Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Rated R. 85 minutes. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French.

The Purge opens June 7

Universal Pictures releases this speculative thriller from Blumhouse Productions, which posits that on one night every year, laws are rescinded, allowing society to “purge” its violent tendencies and then live peacefully the rest of the time. (Sounds a bit like the “Festival” time from “The Return of the Archons,” a first-season episode of STAR TREK.)
James De Monaco wrote and directed. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey head the cast, supported by Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, and Tony Oller. Rated R. 85 minutes.
Release Date: June 7, 2013
The-Purge-Poster-services-suspended

DARK SKIES: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 4:08

Close Encounters of the Familiar Kind: Keri Russell (left), Josh Hamilton (second from right) and Kadan Rockett endure an alien attack in DARK SKIES.
Close Encounters of the Familiar Kind: Keri Russell (left), Josh Hamilton (second from right) and Kadan Rockett endure an alien attack in DARK SKIES.

If there’s one thing we know about a Blumhouse film, it’s that the producers of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise are convinced the American family just isn’t safe at home. In the case of DARK SKIES, the entities bedeviling a married couple (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) and their two young sons (Dakota Goyo and Kadan Rockett) aren’t restless spirits, but malevolent aliens, determined to put the suburbanites through the wringer for reasons unclear, even to alien expert J.K. Simmons.
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French and Dan Persons get together to see if spooky stuff is spookier with a science fiction twist, and how exactly a typically overextended, middle-class family manages to afford a comprehensive home security system and room-to-room video surveillance. (Possible explanation: selling the footage to Blumhouse Productions.) Plus: What’s coming to theaters this Friday.

[serialposts]

Dark Skies: Review

Dark_Skies_PosterDARK SKIES proves once again (as if any proof were necessary) that Blumhouse Productions has codified its horror template to the point that their films are the cinematic equivalent of blues music: the lyrics may change, but not the subject matter or tone; and regardless of the writers and performers, you will hear the same 12-bar chord progression, hitting the same beats, with approximately the same musical arrangements. In this case, the innovation lies in the switch from unseen supernatural forces to unseen alien invaders; otherwise, the song remains the same.
In case you did not know it, the nuclear family is disintegrating. Mom and Dad cannot support their family’s suburban lifestyle. They argue – maybe not about money, but they argue because of money – or, more precisely, the lack of it. In fact, they are so busy arguing that they do not realize the greater threat lurking in the shadows of their home. Their children try to tell them, but hey – they’re just kids, and what do they know anyway? So the parents don’t listen; they just focus on financial problems, not realizing that even if Mom sells the property she is trying to unload, or if Dad gets the new job for which he has applied, that’s not going to solve the real problem.
I am of course talking about DARK SKIES here, but with a few changes the above paragraph could apply equally well to SINISTER or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4, both of which revolved around monsters attempting – successfully, as it turned out – to snatch children right out from under Mom and Dad’s nose.
Fortunately, the parents in DARK SKIES are not quite as absurdly oblivious as the clueless couple in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4. They actually figure out something is wrong and consult a self-styled expert (J.K.  Simmons, filling in for Vincent D’Onofrio, who performed similar service in SINISTER). Based on what they learn, they even try to do something about the problem, which generates a third act that almost resembles a legitimate piece of storytelling.
It’s nice to see DARK SKIES abandon the “Ignorant Plot” that fueled its immediate predecessors (in which ignorant characters wandered around for 90 minutes, seldom if ever getting a read on what was after them), but it is all for naught, since the conclusion is predetermined. (If that sounds like a spoiler, don’t blame me: DARK SKIES’ poster spells it out: “Once you’ve been chose, you belong to them.”)
As if sensing that predictability is a problem, writer-director Scott Stewart tosses in a last-minute – well, “surprise” would be too strong a word, as would “twist,” so let’s say “shift” – regarding the identity of the victim being targeted. This does not change the outcome in any meaningful way, nor does it lend any kind of dramatic frisson; it merely provides an illusion of the unexpected, a pretense toward actual plotting – as opposed to simply filling in the same old template.
I get the impression that Stewart intended a little bit more. Early scenes of the children’s pet lizard hints at some kind of foreshadowing – the aliens look down on us as we look down on animals – but nothing comes of the idea. The attempt to weave the alien scenario into the family drama suggests an attempt to provide a darker alternative to M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (which is echoed and quoted in several ways), but we never truly identify with the storytelling as anything more than an excuse to stitch together the scares, and any attempt at a dramatic resolution is short-circuited by the de rigueur denouement.

An alien makes a shadowy appearance behind Keri Russell.
An alien makes a shadowy appearance behind Keri Russell.

If you are a fan of previous horror films from Blumhouse Productions, you will probably enjoy the same old song one more time. The cast of non-stars do a decent job of portraying everyday people. As usual, the slow build-up of suspense is carefully calculated, and the creepy set pieces are effectively handled. If only the scenario could weave a more convincing plot thread, there might be a real movie here. (In one of the scripts more amusing moments of lip-service, the inexplicable – and frankly pointless – scare tactics of the aliens are rationalized by the claim that the invaders are exploiting our fears, for reasons unknown – presumably, it’s some kind of psychological behavioral experiment?)
I feel a bit treacherous for shedding so much negative light on DARK SKIES. After all, Blumhouse Productions strives to craft horror films that rely on subtlety rather than shocks, on atmosphere rather than action. Their commodity is rare in today’s cinematic marketplace, so they deserve recognition for proving that this approach can sell tickets, but as the lackluster debut of DARK SKIES shows ($8.9-million for a sixth-place opening weekend) Blumhouse needs to infuse its formula with a little more variety and creativity.
DARK SKIES (February 22, 2013). Written and directed by Scott Stewart. PG-13. In widescreen and Dolby Digital. Produced by Blumhouse Productions. Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Cast: Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J.K. Simmons, L. J. Benet.
[rating=2]