Dario Argento's Dracula – review

dracula3d

Would be more accurately titled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (as the title appears on screen) is nowhere near as laughably ridiculous as his previous foray into costume bedecked Gothic Horror, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), but that is still a long way from good. Fans who take a look out of a misguided sense of loyalty may find a few drops of gory glory in Luciono Tovoli’s luscious cinematography, but like the titular character, the film itself presents a handsome appearance hiding a corrupt, empty soul – animated by blood but devoid of any true life.
The screenplay, loosely cobbled together from Bram Stoker’s novel, feels as if it were written by someone who had read the original text, then scribbled down some fragmentary notes while half awake after suffering a fever dream in which bits and pieces of the source were jumbled together with other adaptations. That may sound off-the-wall enough to be interesting; unfortunately, the finished film feels as if it did not go before the cameras until the fervid dreamer’s mental state had been counter-acted with a heavy dose of valium. Dario Argento’s DRACULA is not only insane; it’s insanely dull.
The story restricts itself to the environs surrounding Dracula’s castle, including a village that owes its prosperity to the Count (though at a terrible price). Jonathan Harker (an unimpressive Unax Ugalde) shows up to catalog Dracula’s library (a plot device lifted from 1958’s HORROR OF DRACULA), but it turns out that the vampire is not really interested in getting his books in order. What he is interested in does not emerge until various other stuff has happened, little of which shows Dracula acting in a way designed to bring about the goal he eventually reveals: getting Mina Harker to his castle because she is the reincarnation of his lost love.
That’s right: Argento re-roasts the old garlic-laced chestnut previously used in DARK SHADOWS; SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM; Dan Curtis’s 1974 telefilm version of DRACULA; and Francis Ford Coppola’s overwrought (and embarrassingly mis-titled) BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. That, however, is not the real problem.

Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!
Exactly why did Dracula need to seek victims in Van Helsing's mental hospital? Don't ask!

The real problem is the same one that plagued THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Argento randomly inserts a series of expository scenes and violent set pieces that overshadow the original narrative. You would think that a story about blood-drinking vampires that can be destroyed only be staking and decapitation would provide ample opportunity for sanguinary delights, but that is not enough for Argento, who takes time out to show Renfield splitting someone’s head open with a shovel and another Dracula acolyte hacking someone to death with an ax. As if that were not enough, Van Helsing (Rutger Hauer) is given a back story via flashback, in which he first learned about vampires when he witnessed Dracula attacking the patients of his mental hospital (um, why?); and later Dracula manifests as a giant praying mantis that impales a human victim on its pinchers before eating his head – a scene whose irrelevancy suggests the film should be retitled “Dario Argento’s Whatever Popped into My Head.”*
Consequently, when the scenes from Stoker’s Dracula do arrive (such as the staking of Lucy, played by Asia Argento) they are anti-climactic, their impact diluted by the gore that came before. At times, these bits seem simply shoe-horned into the film at random, as when the famous scene from the book of Dracula, scaling the castle wall like a lizard, flashes by for a second – just long enough for us to wonder why it’s in the film. (For dramatic effect, he pauses to hiss – at nothing in particular, unless perhaps it is the audience.)
It’s not only the onscreen blood that’s thinned by this approach; Stoker’s narrative beats are dulled as well, rendered as obligatory after-thoughts. A major element of the novel is Lucy’s transformation from innocent British lass to sultry vampiress. Argento’s DRACULA, however, begins with a local village girl, Tanya (Miriam Giovanelli) bitten by Dracula and turned into the vampire bride who greets Jonathan Harker when he reaches the castle. Since we have already seen this human-to-vampire transformation take place once, when Lucy’s turn arrives it has a been-there-done-that quality to it, with Argento tossing it off as quickly as possible.
It hardly helps that Argento goes out of his way to sexualize Dracula’s female victims before they fall under his spell: Tanya gets lusty sex scene with her married lover; Lucy and Mina Harker (Marta Gastini) get a nude bathing scene (yes, Dario films his daughter naked once again).  With the women already sexy, there is no opportunity for a startling transformation from virginal innocence to voluptuous wantonness, further undermining the story. (This might have worked if Argento had deliberately inverted expectations, suggesting that the more sexually liberated characters are less likely to be seduced by Dracula’s erotic allure, but no such luck.)
All of this underlines one of the film’s major failings: the story has been ripped out of its original context, robbing scenes of their effectiveness, and little if anything substantial has been added to replace what was lost. Stoker’s Dracula is about an ancient evil that invades modern London, transforming everything it touches with a bloody version of the Midas Touch, spreading a contagion that could potentially sweep the entire country. Argento’s DRACULA is about some guy who wants to get back together with his old girlfriend and doesn’t mind who he has to kill to do it.
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)
This Dracula is a sloppy eater. (The grizzly effect recalls a similar moment in Argento's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.)

Unlike London in the novel, the European setting of the film, the village of Passburg, is mere background; Dracula’s impact on it barely registers. There is talk of a pact between the villagers and the Count – presumably a non-aggression pact, though what the villagers get out of it is not clear, and the idea seems to exist only so that there can be a scene wherein some villagers talk about breaking the pact, whereupon Dracula kills them all, providing another opportunity for carnage not related to the main story (including a grizzly throat-ripping and a nicely rendered though completely gratuitous scene of the Count telepathically inducing a victim to blow his own brains out with a gun).
I know what you’re saying: It’s a Dario Argento film – who cares about the plot? It’s the bravura visuals that count! Aye, there’s the rub. Argento’s DRACULA superficially simulates the look and approach of classic Hammer horror films, with a familiar narrative dressed up in colorful new accoutrements, erotically charged and splashed with blood, but the similarity ends there. The staging of the action is lethargic, lacking the gusto of director Terrence Fisher’s work in HORROR OF DRACULA (compare the Count’s interruption of Harker’s brief encounter with vampire bride in both films, and you’ll see what I mean).
In fact, with its more overt sex and nudity – not to mention directorial indulgence – Argento’s DRACULA more resembles a Ken Russell film, but the flamboyance here seems more scatter-shot than enjoyably excessive. The same pictorial beauty is there, the same unfettered urge to overthrow MASTERPIECE THEATRE-style reticence in favor of explicit eruptions of disreputable imagery that would be proscribed in more “respectable” fare. The difference is that, as wild as he was, Russell usually seemed to have a point, and unlike Argento, he knew when he had overstepped the boundary of outrageousness into deliberate camp, inviting the audience to laugh along with him at the material (e.g., THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM).
Argento, on the other hand, seems merely clueless. As a result, DRACULA feels like a more lavishly produced version of 1970s Euro-trash, or a more beautifully photographed version of a Paul Naschy film (think FRANKENSTEIN’S BLOODY TERROR) but without the joyful exploitation energy that made that kind of cinema fun, regardless of whether it was “good” by conventional standards.
Perhaps it’s needless to say that this approach drains the actors of any dramatic blood. Not only do the English-language vocal performances sound phoned in by bored thespians; the cast tends to act as if they never read a script but simply had it explained to them over the phone, after which they arrived on set and Argento simply said, “Do that thing we talked about.” If you hadn’t seen Thomas Krestschmann, Rutger Hauer, and Asia Argento doing better work elsewhere, you might think they were the most untalented actors on the planet. Krestschmann (who was frighteningly deranged in Argento’s THE STENDHAL SYNDROME) is most ill-served, rendering a static Dracula who lacks the hypnotic seductivness of Bela Lugosi, the predatory dynamism of Christopher Lee, and the romantic allure of Frank Langella; hell, he even makes Gary Oldman look good!
For all the film’s faults, DRACULA does feature Claudio Simonetti’s best non-Goblin score, an orchestral work that ditches the composer’s usual synthesizers in favor of theramin and violin solos; sadly, he squanders the dramatic effect of the background music by adding a goofy song over the closing credits, “Kiss Me, Dracula.” which borders on the embarrassing.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.
Forget the quality of the CGI. The sudden appearance of this praying mantis suggests it wandered in from the set of a sci-fi film.

Also, there are a few nice old-fashioned effects – simple jump-cuts and dissolves, used to depict Dracula’s appearances and disappearances – mixed in with more modern computer-generated imagery that turns the count into an owl, a wolf, and an insect (but never a bat, strangely enough – guess that was too old hat). The computerized effects are variable, at times bad. Probably the best use of the digital process is that it allows Argento to fool around with the visual palette in a way we haven’t seen since the post-production Technicolor trickery of SUSPIRIA. On this level only – creating a surreal dreamscape of wooded forests worthy of an adult fairy tale – can Argento’s DRACULA be reckoned a success.
Argento’s career has been hit and miss since the mid 1980s (starting with PHENOMENON). After the dreary low-point of the 1990s, he at least somewhat returned to form in the new millennium, with SLEEPLESS (2001), THE CARD PLAYER (2004), and MOTHER OF TEARS (2007). If we can take any solace from this erratic trajectory, it is that a sharp downswing need not be permanent. If Argento could recover from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, then perhaps he can recover from DRACULA.
[rating=1]
On the CFQ scale of zero to five stars: a strong recommendation to avoid.

Click to view on demand
Click to view on demand

If you ignore our suggestion, you can view the film via Amazon Video on Demand, or purchase it on Blu-ray or DVD through the Cinefantastique Online Store.

TRIVIA

For those interested, here are some bloody bits that Argento’s DRACULA culls from other Dracula movies – not from Stoker’s text:

  • Dracula wears an outfit that suggests NOSFERATU (1922).
  • Jonathan Harker comes to Castle Dracula not to wrap up a real estate transaction but to catalog the Count’s library. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).
  • Jonathan Harker is bitten by Dracula in Transylvania. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA. Something similar happens in DRACULA (1931), but it is Renfield rather than Harker who travels to Castle Dracula.
  • Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire who is destroyed by Van Helsing. This happened in HORROR OF DRACULA and in the 1974 telefilm DRACULA with Jack Palance.
  • Count Dracula has only one vampire bride instead of three. Taken from HORROR OF DRACULA.
  • Count Dracula is seeking the reincarnation of his lost love. This happened in the Jack Palance telefilm and in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992). The concept had previously been used in DARK SHADOWS and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. Its origin goes back to THE MUMMY (1932), a sort of unofficial remake of DRACULA, starring Boris Karloff.
  • The action never moves to England, instead remaining in Europe. Again, from HORROR OF DRACULA.

FOOTNOTE:

  • This is not entirely a joke. In my interview with Argento regarding MOTHER OF TEARS, he summed up his goal as a filmmaker by saying, “This is my purpose really. To [make] real my imagination, my fantasies.” As if his goal were simply to take what was in his mind and put it on the screen.

Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")
Dracula shows Mina the tomb of his lost love, Dolingen of Gratz (a name taken not from Stoker's novel but from the short story "Dracula's Guest")

DARIO ARGENTO’S DRACULA (a.k.a., ARGENTO’S DRACULA, DRACULA 3D, 2012). U.S. Release theatrical release in October 2013, home video release on January 28, 2014; distributed by IFC Midnight. Directed by Dario Argento. Screenplay by Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori; based on the novel by Bram Stoker. Music by Claudio Simonetti. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Cast: Thomas Krestschmann as Dracula; Marta Gastini as Mina Harker; Asia Argento as Lucy Kisslinger; Unax Ugalde as Jonathan Harker; Miriam Giovanelli as Tanya; Rutger Hauer as Van Helsing. 150 minutes. Not rated. In 3D.

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.

Paranormal Activity 4 Blu-ray review

click to purchase
click to purchase

An extended “Unrated Edition” and a single bonus feature (30 minutes of “Recovered Files”) do little to enhance a sequel that seems to have given up the ghost.

When PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 appeared in theatres last year, it suggested that the franchise’s modus operandi had shifted from formula to template: whereas a formula allows for varying the ingredients, a template completely pre-defines the form and structure, allowing only for minor variations in the text being slotted in. The spooks were back, with new victims reprising the basic story line of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2; despite further hints of a cult worshiping the demon responsible for the hauntings depicted in the films, little new emerged, leaving less-forgiving viewers frustrated. The release of an unrated, extended edition of the film – first on VOD, then two weeks later on DVD and Blu-ray – conjured a glimmer of hope that additional scenes might fill out the story and bring PARANORMAL ACTIVITY a step closer to standing on its own rather than merely reprising the same old routines. Alas, that hope was exorcised by the simple expedient of watching the longer version.
Although the Blu-ray disc promises over 30 additional minutes, only nine of those minutes found their way into the unrated edition; the remaining footage is included as the disc’s only bonus feature, under the title “The Recovered Files.” The relative significance – or lack thereof – in the restored material will leave you wondering why certain scenes were deemed worthy of being included in the new cut while others were dumped into the bonus feature. None of these scenes enhance the film much, but the cumulative impact provides a hint into the filmmakers’ method, which apparently consisted of shooting endless variation on the same theme, then whittling it all down in the editing room.

THE BASICS

The PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 Blu-ray disc offers English, French Spanish, and Portuguese language tracks in 5.1 surround sound. The English track is DTS; the others are Dolby. There is also an English Description audio track for those who are visually impaired.
There are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The film is broken up into 15 chapter stops; however, there is no way to access them from the main menu, which offers you options to play either the theatrical cut of the extended version; selecting either options starts the movie, without offering you a scene selection.
The only bonus feature is Recovered Files.

UNRATED EXTENDED EDITION

Clocking in at 1:37, the extended cut of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 runs approximately nine minutes longer than the theatrical version’s 88 minutes. The actual amount of restored footage probably comes closer to ten minutes; the nine-minute difference in running time is partly due to the deletion of the confusing post-credits teaser that appeared in theatres (a lead-in to a planned spin-off series, to be set in the Latino community).
Paranormal Activity 4 extended version trick-or-treatThe unrated version begin interestingly, with a a few brief scenes related to Halloween: Alex taking Wyatt trick-or-treating; Alex’s mother decorating cookies; Ben dressed in cowboy costume and sitting on alone in the living room, talking to Alex’s cat; Alex in her flimsy fairy costume (Dad jokes about where the rest of the costume is); and Alex and Ben out together at night, catching a glimpse of Alex’s spooky new neighbor Robbie, who will be the cause of so much trouble later. The sequence adds little to the story, but it establishes a mood of fun and safe scares that will gradually be usurped by the horrors that follow.
After the exterior scene in the park (minus the title card noting the date and location: Henderson, Nevada; November 11, 2011), with which the theatrical version opened, there is an unnecessary bit with a character named Jake showing his “palate expander” (a dental device) to Alex and Ben. The scene seems to be establishing Jake as a friend who will share the adventures to follow, but we never see him again (unless you catch a glimpse of him in the background of the sleepover party that takes place later).
The remaining additions are as follows:

  • Alex’s brother Wyatt and the spooky neighbor kid Robbie watch a brief online video that scares Wyatt but not Robbie (who obviously has a higher tolerance for horror).
  • Alex wanders around the house, glimpses Robbie (who mysteriously disappears), then suffers a false scare when a door suddenly opens, revealing Mom.
  • A bit of Wyatt wandering from his bed in the middle of the night is intercut with Alex awakening as if sensing something is wrong. Alex goes downstairs to the living room, where a book mysteriously falls off a shelf twice, and she puts it back (foreshadowing a similar event that will befall her mother later in the picture).

The new scenes provide a few more moments of the patented PARANORMAL ACTIVITY spookiness, but none of them add much of anything that was not already in the film. The inclusion of the book-falling scene is redundant, since almost the exact same action is repeated later in the film.

THE RECOVERED FILES

The confusion does not end there, however. Moving onto “The Recovered Files,” we see scenes that connect to the restored footage or attempt to fill some of the plot holes in the theatrical version of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4. Why were these scenes left out? Many of them are redundant, but no more so than those that were restored. Though most of the lost files simply offer more of the same, one or two of the scens might actually have improved the film, if only slightly.

  • The first recovered file is fairly typical of what will follow: an additional comic interaction between Alex and Ben, punctuated by a small scare; in this case, they hear a sound in the backyard.
  • When the motion-sensitive lights go on outside, Alex sees Robbie creeping around her driveway.
  • Alex does her geometry homework. Her door mysteriously closes behind her.
  • Paranormal Activity 4 recovered files hide-and-seek with Jake and AlexAlex, Ben, and their friends play a length game of hide-and-seek inside the house while Alex’s parents are away. Predictably, the scene is loaded with fake scares of the spring-loaded-cat variety; it ends with the friends finding the front door open while the chandelier swings overhead. Jake, the character introduced and then forgotten in the Extended Edition of the film, is featured prominently here.
  • Ben films Alex playing guitar while an electric fan blows her air, creating a music video effect.
  • An additional video chat with Alex; after a fade out and fade in, we see Robbie enter (as seen in the film)
  • Ben films Wyatt and Robbie playing in the sand.
  • While Alex sleeps, the bedroom door opens, revealing Robbie’s silhouette.
  • Alex shows the surveillance videos to her mother and asks when Robbie will be leaving.
  • After the chandelier crash seen in the film, Alex argues with her parents, insisting that something strange is going on.
  • At night, a toy falls on Wyatt’s bed.
  • Ben plays Foosballwith Robbie and Wyatt.
  • In a brief comic scene, the kids play on a slip-in-slide.
  • Dad comes down stairs to sleep on the couch. A shadow appears, which turns out to be the malevolent Katie.
  • Mom gives sedatives to Alex, to calm down her fears.
  • Mom and Dad argue about Alex’s fears. Dad almost seems to believe them, or at least think they should not be dismissed.
  • At breakfast, Wyatt calls himself Hunter (indicating his falling under Robbie’s influence). Mom and Dad shut him up.
  • Mom and Dad talk about Alex again. Dad does not believe his daughter is crazy.

The two most significant scenes are the ones in which Alex’s mother and father discuss their daughter’s growing fears about Robbie and possible supernatural phenomena. One of the major flaws with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 is that the parents seem absolutely clueless, despite the video evidence that Ben and Alex are gathering. In these two scenes, we see that Alex’s parents are not completely oblivious to the situation; including them would have filled one small plot hole. (Of course, the parents still don’t actually do anything about Alex’s concerns, so including these scenes would only half-fix the problem.)

CONCLUSION

The Blu-ray disc of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 presents the film with good image and sound, along with additional footage that could please fans who want more than what they got in theatres. However, none of the additional scenes do much to improve a sequel that merely resurrects the same old ghosts.
Note: The unrated version of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (minus “The Recovered Files”) is also available on DVD and on Instant Video. You can purchase the disc here or watch the film instantly here.

SINISTER (2012): Review

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I might as well say it right at the top: SINISTER – the new film from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY producer Jason Blum – is not very…well…sinister. If we define the word as meaning, “ominous, forbidding, portending of doom,” the film starts well enough, with suggestions of dark and sinister events to come; but soon other words creep into mind: stolid, sluggish, tedious. Unfortunately, the word that will seldom if enter occur to you is scary. From opening titles to closing credits, SINISTER turns out to be a long, dull trek, with shudders that are few and far between.
It is not as if the screenwriters did not try. The opening scenes set up the story very well, cleverly using a confrontation with a local sheriff to lay out necessary exposition without resorting to any obviously expository dialogue. The sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) is unhappy that true-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is moving into town, with plans to dig up details on an unsolved murder that the local population would rather forget. Oswalt, we soon learn, had his fifteen minutes of fame ten years ago, with a book titled Kentucky Blood, and in a desprate bid to recreate that success, he has moved his family into the actual house where a mass murder of a family took place. (Three guesses on how well this will turn out!)
In a novel twist on the “found footage” genre, Oswalt actually finds some footage – old Super 8 millimeter films in the attic, portraying not only the murder of the family but other, earlier murders. With the help of a local deputy, Oswalt traces the connections, which eventually lead to suggestions of the supernatural: a child-like drawing indicates the presence of “Mr. Boogie” at the scenes of the crimes, and Oswalt sees a shadowy figure in the background of the home movies. This eventually leads to a Skype conversation with a college professor (an unbilled Vincent D’Onofrio) who serves as the traditional “Johnny Explainer,” elaborating on the mythology of an obscure diety known as Bughuul – known for spiriting children off to another realm and devouring their souls.
Unfortunately, the script of SINISTER trips over its own honesty. In laying out the clues, it provides a virtual roadmap for the conclusion; anyone paying attention knows exactly where the story is headed. Which might not be so bad, except that Oswalt for some reason cannot see what is obvious to us.

Oooh - scary, kids! Or maybe not so much.
Oooh - scary, kids! Or maybe not so much.

Seriously: each murder is distinguished by the fact that one family member, a child, went missing. Add that with the childish drawing of the murder, and the fact that Bughuul is known for corrupting children – and what conclusion does that lead you to? Similarly, Oswalt early on realizes that the victims in his current home had lived in a house where the previous set of murders took place. So is there any reason to be worried when Oswalt finally decides he’s had enough, and moves his family out of the haunted residence? Because, you know, if PARANORMAL ACTIVITY taught us nothing else, it’s that ghost are not restricted to specific locations; they target people, wherever they may go.
I’m sorry if all this seems spoiler-ish, but in fact this is just the way SINISTER is laid out. Morever, we have ample reason to see that Oswalt is setting himself up for a fall. Despite much talk about wanting to provide a good life for his family, and also about wanting to see justice being done, it is abundantly clear that the author’s real motivation is greed – a point underlined when he decides not to share his found footage with the police. You just know that kind of moral transgression cannot go unpaid. (And if you think there might be some sort of dramatic arc in which Oswalt learns his lesson, then you probably have not watched any horror films for the past fifteen years.)
Even with a running time stretched to interminable legnth, SINISTER never manages to tie all its elements together. Why Super 8? you ask. But you will not find out. Presumably we’re supposed to assume it relates to the time when the first murders took place, but why did the murders begin then? (One keeps supposing that the timeline will be pushed even further back, suggesting that these killings have been going on for centuries, but nothing every materializes.)
SINISTER is also plagued by the usual inconsistencies seen in the horror genre, in which things happen just because we need them to. So after learning that Bughuul is little known today because most images of him were destroyed by early Christians, we see Oswalt burn Bughuul’s home movies, only – you guessed it – to have them miraculously reappear. Guess Super 8 celluloid is more resilient than ancient frescoes and canvases!
All of this might have been at least partially forgiven if SINISTER had at least offered a few memorable scares, or at least a shiver or two. Instead, the 110-minute running time is padded with endless scenes of Oswalt wandering through the dark corridors of his suburban home, while the audience waits for something – anything – to happen. More often than not, the pay-off is the sight of the Super 8 projector running by itself, suggesting that Baghuul really really likes to watch his old movies again and again. The only truly disturbing scare is not directly associated with Mr. Boogie: Oswalt’s son Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) is genuinely unnerving during a sequence in which, suffering from night terrors, he emerges unexpectedly from a box, as if undergoing an epileptic seizure. This one moment easily upstages everything else in the film.
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Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) watches home movies of the murders.

Hawke manages to acquit himself as well as can be expected, in the largely unsympathetic role. Especially in the early scenes, he captures the desperation of a man deliberately exposing himself to abominable horrors – hoping that he can make a buck without losing his soul (or at least his mind) in the process. Also noteworth is James Ransone as the helpful deputy, known only as “Deputy So-and-So” because he offers to be the guy whose name you always see on the acknowledgements page at the beginning of Oswalt’s books, the “Deputy So-and-So, without whom this book could not have been written.”
The rest of the cast are professional enough, and Dalton does a good job of looking disgruntled but legitimately so – not just a one-note antagonist. Unfortunately, much of the action the characters perform is hard to believe, and many of them drop out of the action for so long it is impossible to guild credible character arcs; Oswalt’s wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) is particularly hampered by inconsistencies.
In the end, all SINISTER has to offer are a few standard-issue scare techniques: shadowy figures in darkness; a freeze-frame image of Bughuul that comes to life when Oswalt is not looking, etc. But when director Scott Derrickson (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) tries to pull out all the stops, he plays a bum note: the souls of the children pursuing Oswalt (during his umpteenth trip down the dark corridors) just are not terribly terrifying, and their closeups only emphasis the lack of shivers. (They all look like kids dressed up for Halloween, and you want to say, “Oh, how cute! Now go have fun trick-or-treating.”)
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Mr. Boogie is ready for his close-up

As if sensing the dearth of horror, SINISTER offers one final “shock” shot of Bughuul’s face lunging into frame before the closing credits. It’s almost funny: in its desperate attempt to deliver a good scare before sending the audience home, the scene virtually defines the cliche: “too little, too late.”
SINISTER (2012). Produced by Jason Blum. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Rile, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, and Nicholas King as Bughuul.

Sinister in theatres October 12

Summit Entertainment releases this “frightening new thriller from the producer of the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films and the writer-director of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE.” Ethan Hawke stars as a true crime novelist who discovers some disturbing home movies that plunge his family into a nightmarish experience of supernatural horror.
Director: Scott Derrickson. Script: C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson. Cast: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Fred Dalton Thompson, Michael Hall D’Addario, Juliet Rylance.
Rated R.
Release Date: October 12 (pushed back from October 5)

Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan)

tokaido 2There is a tradition in Japan to present ghost stories during the warm summer months. An 18th century kabuki play by Nanboku Tsuruya provided the most popular and durable storyline – that of an ambitious, would-be samurai named Iemon who marries and then murders Iwa, whose ghost returns to wreak revenge on her faithless husband.The story has been filmed numerous times; director Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 version THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan) is, many feel, the best filmed adaptation of this classic Japanese tale.
Though most versions of the tale follow the same basic storyline, there are interesting variations. There were several silent adaptations, now mostly lost, including Daisuke Ito’s silent YOTSUYA GHOST STORY NEW EDITION (Shinpan yotsuya kaidan, Nikkatsu, 1928), which starred Matsumoto Taisuke as Iyemon, & Fushimi Naoe in a double role as Oiwa & Osode. Other silent versions include Inoue Kintarou’s IROHAGANA YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1927), Nakagawa Shirou’s TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1927), one by film pioneer Shozu Makino from 1912, and over a dozen others. Early talkie versions were done in 1936 by Furumi Takuji and in 1937 by Onoe Eigorou. Keisuke Kinoshita did a two-part political version in 1949 that did its best to eliminate the ghost elements of the tale, making Iemon sympathetic.
Masaki Mori’s 1956 version featured Tomisaburo Wakayama, best known as Itto Ogami from the Lone Wolf and Cub movies. Wakayama starred also in the 1961 version directed by Yasushi Kato known as KAIDAN OIWA NO BUREI (GHOST OF OIWA). The same year as Nakagawa’s color version, Kenji Misumi did a black-and-white version released in the U.S. as THOU SHALT NOT BE JEALOUS, starring Kazuo Hasegawa.
Kazuo Mori, best known for the Zatoichi series, did YATSUYA KAIDAN: OIWA NO BUREI (CURSE OF THE GHOST aka GHOST OF OIWA) in 1969. 1981 brought the release of MASHO NO NATSU: YATSUYA KAIDAN YORI (aka SUMMER DEMON or SUMMER OF EVIL) from Yukio Ninagawa. Kinji Fukasaku (MESSAGE FROM SPACE; BATTLE ROYALE) contributed the notable CREST OF BETRAYAL version in 1994, that actually manages to combine both the Yotsuya ghost story with the tale of the 47 Ronin, two of Japan’s most popular tales.
Nakagawa is considered by many to have been Japan’s first great horror director. In addition to his version of THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA, he also directed  SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (Kaidan Hebi-Onna, 1968), JIGOKU (“Hell,” 1960), LADY VAMPIRE (Onna Kyuketsuki, 1959), THE GHOST OF KASANE (Kaidan Kasane-ga-fuchi, 1957), BLACK CAT MANSION (Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, 1958), and others.
A few things that distinguish Nakagawa’s version of the tale is that this Shintoho production was the first in color and widescreen. Shigeru Amachi, who also starred in Nakagawa’s famed evocation of Buddhist hell JIGOKU, gives a strong performance as Iemon Tamiya, a drunken, libertine ronin (i.e. a samurai without a lord to serve). At the start of the film, he accosts some nobles and asks one of them, Samon (Shinjiro Asano), for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Samon has a low opinion of the wastrel and turns Iemon down flat, infuriating the ronin so that he takes his sword and kills the entire group as they flee from his rage.
Iemon, realizing that murdering his intended bride’s father will not endear him to her – not to mention how the constabulary is likely to react to multiple homicides – conspires with his partner-in-crime Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi) to lay the blame on a local bandit Usaburo, claiming that they valiantly fought a band of ruffians who got away. Iemon promises Iwa (Kazuko Wakasugi) that he will avenge her father’s murder, securing her hand in marriage and her fortune for himself.
Naosuke becomes attracted to Iwa’s sister Osode, and threatens to expose Iemon if he will not assist in eliminating the sisters’ suspicious brother. When the brother goes to a sacred waterfall to pray for justice, the rogues stab him in the back and push him off the cliff. They return to town with a story about how they were attacked by the same bandits as before, and the pair split up to seek the non-existent bandits.
Iemon and Iwa have a child, but Iemon proves a poor husband, spending most of his nights out drinking, while Iwa begins to suffer from ill health. Iemon gambles most of his wife’s money away, but one night he inadvertently foils a mugging, causing the robbers to flee and the nobles to thank him effulsively, while Iemon instantly falls for the nobleman’s lovely daughter Ume (Junko Ikeuchi). The nobleman offers Iemon a reward, and Iemon ironically responds with the same speech about honor that Samon had given him right before Iemon had murdered him.
Meanwhile, Naosuke is frustrated that Osode refuses to marry or sleep with him until he makes good his promise to avenge her father’s death. When Iemon happens to bump into Naosuke, Naosuke wonders whether he can pull off the murdering bandits gimmick a third time, but resolves that he’ll need another plan. Naosuke comes up with the idea of procuring some poison to kill Iwa to make way for Iemon to marry Ume. Because the portly village massues Takuetsu (Jun Otomo) is constantly coming by to see the ailing Iwa, a rumor has sprung up that the pair are having an affair. Naosuke sees how Iemon can claim to have caught the pair in flagrante to justify the murder of his wife. Dishonorable to the core, Iemon readily agrees to the plan and conspires to make Takuetsu his patsy.
In a telling scene, Iwa cries tears of joy that her husband has started treating her kindly for a change, apparently attempting to see to her happiness rather than being thoroughly selfish all the time. Little does she realize that his thoughtfulness in giving her the medicine she requires is simply a ruse to provide poison in her cup of tea. Takuetsu comes to give her a massage and starts coming on to her because Iemon has suggested that she fancies the doctor: however, Iwa, innocent and loyal to her faithless husband, is shocked by Takuetsu’s behavior.
tokaido yotsuyakaiden1959Then it is Takuetsu’s turn to be shocked as the poison causes the skin on Iwa’s forehead to break out and become discolored, depriving her of her beauty. The shaken Takuetsu confesses that it was Iemon who asked him to seduce her. Realizing the extent of Iemon’s treachery, Iwa vows to kill their infant child rather than leave it to such a father. (Nakagawa doesn’t show this death, but the baby disappears from thenceforth, suggesting that Iwa did indeed carry out her vow).
When Iemon returns, he kills Takuestu for “betraying” him, and then with Naosuke’s help, nails the body of Takuetsu and Iwa to the shutters from his house, and has them carried to the local lake and cast into the water to sink. Naosuke finally sees the bandit that he had earlier blamed the other murders on, and proceeds to stab the bandit in the back so that he can finally marry Osode.
It is at this point that the genre elements now dominate the film. Iemon becomes haunted by visions of his dead wife nailed to the shutter. Naosuke snags Iwa’s comb and kimono with his fishing line and makes the mistake of taking them home to Iwa’s sister, who naturally recognizes these very personal items. When Iwa’s apparition appears in Naosuke’s home, he breaks down and confesses to helping Iemon kill Samon.
Iemon visits Ume’s parents, but when Iwa’s ghost reappears, he strikes out, killing his prospective bride and his prospective father-in-law when his blade passes through the ghost and strikes them instead. Osode finds that her brother wasn’t dead after all, but survived his attack, and the pair team up to get their revenge.
tokaido_yotsuya_kaidan3Nakagawa gives the film a very rich look, with beautiful art direction and lighting. Unlike  American or European horror films fo the era, however, there is not much attempt to build atmosphere — no creepy sounds, crashing thunderstorms, or howling winds to generate feelings of dread. Instead, the film is briskly paced and presents the supernatural elements rather matter-of-factly. Nonetheless, there is some terrific imagery in the latter part of GHOSTY STORY OF YOTSUYA, particularly the makeup on Iwa and the image of bloody water or bodies floating on shutters in the air.
The narrative very much fits into the Japanese tradition of critiquing corruption and the lack of honor among those most entrusted with upholding the honorable traditions. Iemon is a most thorough villain, as is Naosuke, and we know inevitably they will be paid to pay for their terrible crimes. Nakagawa does a great job of building our suspense in finding just how such vengeance will be extracted.
Nakagawa depicts the ghosts so that they may well be figments of Iemon’s wicked imagination – a sudden appearance of conscience in a hitherto totally immoral character.  As in THE GHOST OF KASANE, spirits provoke and enrage Iemon until he takes action that drives him to his own self-destruction. (A few years later, Mario Bava adopted a similar approach in such films as BLACK SABBATH and KILL, BABY, KILL, in which ghostly vengeance is staged so ambiguously that it appears the victims may actually be killing themselves.)
tokaido ph_GhostStory_mTHE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA isn’t a film for those with attention-deficient disorder. The characters are solidly portrayed and the psychologies are built up before there is much in the way of a pay-off. However, I must say that I find the conclusion far more satisfying than those endless horror films of the recent past which substitute a few seconds of explicit gore for interesting characterization or a plot worth paying attention to.
THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959). Director: Nobuo Nakagawa. Cinematographer: Tadashi Nishimoto. Music: Michiaki Watanabe. Producer: Mitsugu Okura. Cast: Shigeru Amachi, Noriko Kitazawa, Shuntaro Emi, Junko Ikeuchi, Ryozaburo Nakamura, Jun Otomo, Kazuko Wakasugi Writer: Masayoshi Onuki, Yoshihiro Ishikawa.

Insidious: April 1

FilmDistrict  releases this supernatural shocker the vein of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, about a family battling demonic forces intent on whisking their comatose child into another dimension (dubbed “The Dark Realm”). That Oren Pelli (writer-director of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) is on board as a producer should be no surprise, considering the spooky tone of the trailer; what is surprising is the presence of writer of Leigh Whannell and director James Wan – the godfathers of torture porn, having launched the genre with SAW (2004) – who apparently have forsaken gory mayhem for a subtler brand of shocks. Patrick WIlson, Rose Byrne, and Barbara Hershey head the cast.
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