A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) – Film Review

This is one of several Asian horror movies that reached U.S. shores in the wake of RING (1998) and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003). Like those two Japanese efforts, this South Korean import received exposure in America around the time that rights were secured to film an American remake. Unlike its predecessors, however, it was not so obvious what DreamWorks hoped to make of the story when refashioning it for U.S. audiences. Unlike the majority of Far East supernatural thrillers to reach the our shores (including the entertaining if incoherent SLEEPING WITH THE DEAD from China and the excellent PHONE from South Korea), A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is decidedly an art house effort, rather than a popular entertainment. Writer-director Kim Jee-Woon makes use of techniques that will be familiar to fans of Eastern ghost stories (e.g., the ghost woman with long black hair obscuring her face); but the scare scenes, though quite effective, are not the film’s raison detre.
Rather, the story is a tragic family drama, in which the supernatural manifestations (when they crop up, which is only intermittently) are externalizations of dark family secrets buried in one of the lead character’s psyche. In fact, based on what is seen in the film, it is debatable whether any of the supernatural phenomena is meant to be real. As one character says:

“Do know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And… and it follows you around like a ghost.”

That pretty much sums up the film’s approach to the supernatural. Fortunately, despite his artistic pretensions, Kim Jee-Woon creates a mounting sense of dread as his tale unfolds: Two sisters return home after a stay in a mental hospital. Readjusting to “normal” life is not easy. Dad is distant and ineffective. Mom is dead, replaced by a step-mom whose attempts at looking cheerful seem almost psychotic in their forced exaggeration — until she drops her happy face and harasses her stepchildren mercilessly. As if all this were not enough, the family’s isolated house in the woods appears to be haunted.


One must emphasize the word “appears,” because most of the supernatural phenomenon is observed by the older daughter, whose stay in a mental hospital renders her perception of reality suspect. Kim Jee-Woon wants us to see the “haunting” as symptomatic of her state of mind and of the tensions within the family. The phantoms may be real, or they may be hallucinations; either way, their root lies in events of the family’s past that everyone would rather forget, and the supernatural intrusions are like literal examples of Freud’s “return of the repressed,” visualized as ghosts rather than neurotic symptoms
The result is an ambitious horror film that was taken seriously by American critics who had dismissed THE GRUDGE only a few months previously. To be fair, one must acknowledge that Kim Jee-Woon’s serious approach has its merits, but it also creates some problems that mar, without ruining, the effectiveness.
This is a movie that is in no hurry to get going. The editing lingers over long takes of the gorgeous photography — either because the images are supposed to be imbued with hidden meaning that takes time to figure out, or just because it all looks so pretty that no one had the heart to pare things down to a faster pace.
The story is also built around a double surprise twist that you will see coming if you pay close attention. The problem is not the surprise — the film plays fair, dropping clues so that you can make sense of what’s happening after the revelation hits — but that the whole point of the story seem to be to build up to this revelation and then stop. In effect, the story keeps its premise hidden from the audience until nearly the end. Then, the revelation of that premise is treated as the climax, even though the revelation does not resolve the story. (Imagine THE SIXTH SENSE if the ending had simply revealed the truth about Bruce Willis character without the character himself realizing it.)
Equally disappointing, after the truth is revealed, Kim Jee-Woon does not leave his viewers on solid ground. The final sequence may be a flashback revealing the source of the family’s grief, or it may be the distorted memories of an institutionalized character — even her wish-fulfillment revenge-justification fantasy.
The film is clever enough in its deceptions to remain an interesting intellectual puzzle that feels as if it is worth sorting out, but that is all it is. Once you have put the pieces in place, you may feel you know what happened. What is, unfortunately, missing is the answer to the obvious question: now that we know what happened in the past, what will happen next?
Presumably, the American remake will tag an upbeat happy ending onto the story. It’s to Kim Jee-Woon’s credit that he did not go for this easy option. It is nice when a director gives his audience credit for being able to sort things out on their own. But it would have been even nicer if he had dropped laid more groundwork for us to extrapolate into the future.

TRIVIA

At least one other character (besides the one who has been in a mental hospital) claims to see a ghost in the house. The dialogue takes place during a car ride, during which a colorful tent is somewhat improbably seen, pitched in the middle of the road. The surreal juxtaposition of images seems to indicate that this scene is meant to be taken as another fantasy, imagined in the mind of the mentally disturbed character.
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (a.k.a. “Hanghwa, Hongryeon,” 2003). Written and directed by Kim Jee-Woon. Cast: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Su-jeong Lim, Geun-yeong Mun

The Ring Virus (a.k.a. "Ring," 2000) – Film & DVD Review

Derived from the Japanese film RING (a.k.a. RINGU, 1998) and the novel that inspired it, this 2000 film from South Korea is more or less an equivalent of America’s THE RING (2002): that is to say, it is a remake that does little artistically to justify its existence; mostly, it simply rehashes the original with a new cast speaking the language of its target audience. THE RING VIRUS has some good moments, along with some of the novel’s plot points that were omitted from the previous film, which are enough to make it interesting for fans of the franchise (or for cinefiles interested in seeing how the same story is filtered through the lens of a different set of filmmakers), but overall it is a negligible achievement.
As in RING, the lead character is a female reporter Sun-Joo (Eun-Kyung Shin) who investigates the mysterious death of her niece, uncovering a fatal videotape that kills all those who watch it, after seven days. In RING VIRUS, Sun-Joo is aided not be an ex-husband with psychic powers but by an obnoxious doctor/coroner who likes to make snide, sexist remarks.
There is a little bit more scientific-sounding dialogue (mention of viruses) that is perhaps supposed to seem more realistic, and the cinematography opts for colorful pastels, instead of foreboding shadows, downplaying the element of supernatural horror that always seemed prevalent in RING (even when nothing overtly scary was happening).
The result is a film that looks good but which often lacks tension. To be fair, writer-director Dong-bin Kim does pull off some nice scenes, including a quiet exterior (sort of the calm before the storm) filled with beautiful swirling snow (which is probably the work of a CGI team).


THE RING VIRUS does include some elements from the source material (a novel by Koji Suzuki) that were not in 1998’s RING: the male lead is not the ex-husband of the lady reporter but a somewhat unlikable creep; the evil ghost (Sadako in the original, here called Eun-Su) is somewhat older; she worked for a time with a small entertainment group, and was murdered after a would-be rapist discovered that, despite her female appearance, “she” actually has masculine characteristics. Despite this, the Korean film clearly is a remake of RING, again featuring a single-mother female reporter (instead of the married man of the book) and using the famous ghost-out-of-the-television tube shocker at the climax. (In the book, the “cursed” characters die from heart attacks brought on by tumors, apparently created by a literal virus with a seven-day gestation period.)
Curiously, THE RING VIRUS includes a few moments not in the original RING which nevertheless found their way into the American remake: In flashback, we see Eun-Su’s mother leaping off a cliff. Later, our heroes find photographic images that were created directly on film by Eun-Su’s psychic powers, foreshadowing her ability to imprint images on the lethal videotape. And, perhaps in an attempt to portray Eun-Su as a more human character (rather than a just a threatening ghost), the director shows us her face several times during flashbacks. (This undermines the famous climax: like director Hideo Nakata in RING, Dong-bin Kim films the actress with her face hidden by long black hair when the ghost climbs out of the television set; unfortunately, since we already know what her face looks like, hiding her features seems like a pointless vestige of the original).
Despite its flaws, THE RING VIRUS does have odd unexpected elements that make it a mildly interesting variation on the familiar story; unlike the Americanized THE RING, there are one or two interesting surprises, plus a visual style that at least tries to establish itself on its own terms (even if it is not fully successful in this regard). As such, the film is of interest to fans of Asian horror films. Most casual horror fans will probably find themselves better off if they stick with the original Japanese version of RING.

DVD DETAILS 

In the U.S., THE RING VIRUS is available on DVD in two different versions.

  1. Tai Seng Video’s DVD is a bare-bones, single-disc edition that offers a decent transfer of the film, without bonus features. The cover features the sinister (though not particularly frightening) face of Eun-Su.
  2. Tai Seng’s Special Edition DVD adds some bonus features and cover art featuring the famous scene of the ghost emerging from the television set.

THE RING VIRUS (a.k.a. “Ring,” 2000). Directed by Dong-bin Kim. Screenplay by Dong-bin Kim, based on the novel “Ring” by Koji Suzuki and the film “Ring” (1998).

Nightmare (a.k.a. "Gawi," 2000) – Horror Film Review

This 2000 release is the work of South Korean writer-director Byeong-ki Ahn, who went on to make the excellent PHONE, but it is not quite up to the level of that subsequent work. NIGHTMARE (whose Korean title translates as “Scissors”) plays out like a supernatural-slasher-film murder-mystery, with lots of flashbacks, little detective work, and some unconvincing red herrings. The result is an interesting (though unsatisfactory) hybrid of Asian horror motifs (as in 1998’s RING), combined with giallo-style gore of the Dario Argento variety. The result, like oil and vinegar, has its appeal, but the elements do not necessarily mix well. Continue reading “Nightmare (a.k.a. "Gawi," 2000) – Horror Film Review”

Tales of Terror (1962) – A Retrospective

TALES OF TERROR 1962 vertical posterProducer-director Roger Corman’s fourth Poe film (the third starring Vincent Price) benefits greatly from the anthology format, which allows Edgar Allan’s Poe’s stories to reach the screen with relatively less embellishment; consequently, the strengths of the previous films (atmospheric camerawork and production design) are retained, while the weaknesses (limited settings and padded stories) are overshadowed. Price is given three distinct characterizations to show off his range, including one that showcases his comedic talents; the script by Richard Matheson (who previously dramatized HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM) introduces a touch of comic relief, an element that would emerge more fully in the follow-up THE RAVEN. Also, the success of the previous Poe films led to a budget increase that allowed for a stronger supporting cast, which included horror veterans Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Overall, the film is a lavish-looking, stylish piece of work that can still hold an audience’s attention. The fear factor, however, is decidedly mild, mostly taking the form of a general sense of dread and decay; the two major shock sequences (Morella’s attack on Locke and Valdemar’s attack on the hypnotist) are not bad, but neither one is a match for the pendulum sequence in PIT AND THE PENDULUM.
Three half-hour episodes are linked together with brief snippets of narration from Price: “Morella,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Case of M. Valdemar.” The first segment plays out like a condensed version of the previous version of Matheson’s first two Poe scripts, with Price as Locke (his name in the credits, which is not heard on screen), yet another obsessive agoraphobic (a la Roderick Usher), locked in an old house visited by an unwelcome guest, in this case an adult daughter whose birth caused his wife’s death decades ago. Locke’s late wife returns to possess her daughter and take revenge on her husband—a variation on a plot element from Poe’s “Ligeia”—before the ancient manor inevitably burns down (using stock shots from HOUSE OF USHER).

Vincent Price as Locke with Leona Gage as Morella
Vincent Price as Locke with Leona Gage as Morella

The episode exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of Corman’s previous Poe adaptations: nifty tracking shots, good sets (by Daniel Haller), atmospheric photography (by Floyd Crosby), and Price’s performance; counterbalanced by the weakness of the supporting players. Maggie Pierce, who plays Locke’s daughter, is adequate, and Leona Gage is stunningly beautiful as Morella, but she is unable to register a convincing level of menace on screen (where, oh where, is Barbara Steele when you need her?).
“The Black Cat,” which incorporates elements from “The Cask of Amontiallado,” was an intentional effort by Matheson to inject humor as a change of pace in the middle of the three-part film. Peter Lorre (the title character in Fritz Lang’s M) plays an inebriate whose search for wine leads him into a tasting contest with Fortunato Lucresi (Price). Forced to bring the drunken Montresor Herringbone home, Fortunato begins an affair with his wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson). Realizing what has happened, Montressore kills Annabel and walls her up, along with Fortunato who is still alive. Unfortunately for him, he also walls up the titular feline, whose screeches reveal the hidden bodies to the police. Price and Lorre, along with co-star Joyce Jameson, do a good job of playing the script for laughs. The tasting contest, in particular is a highlight, thanks to Price’s outrageous facial contortions as he savors each mouthful of wine, which contrast with Lorre’s off-handed throwaway lines (e.g., “from the better slopes of the vineyards”).
Of working with Lorre, Roger Corman recalled, “It was great! I must say Peter Lorre was one of the funniest people you would ever meet. And highly intelligent and very well educated. So you’re talking with a man who could come up with great ideas for full-out farce, and at the same time justify it intellectually and thematically in terms of Poe. It was immensely stimulating. Peter Lorre’s background was different from Vincent’s. Vincent had gone to the Yale School of Drama; he was very much trained as a classical actor. Peter came out of Germany, had worked with Bertol Brecht, and was very much into the German version of the Stanislavsky method, which was very close to the American. Their styles were distinctly different, but they were both intelligent and very sensitive actors, and they were able to work together very well, particularly in the wine-tasting sequence. In that scene, I said, ‘Peter, it is totally improvisational; you’re off the wall. Vincent, you’re totally classical.’ When the film first came out, that scene got a great reaction from the audience. I said to the semi-expert [wine taster], whoever he may have been—I don’t even remember—‘Talk to Vincent; stay away from Peter.’”
Peter Lorre and Joyce Jameson with the titular black cat
Peter Lorre and Joyce Jameson with the titular black cat

Price, on the other hand, recalled his co-star as “a sad little man,” adding. “He wasn’t very happy: he’d put on too much weight; he was not well. He never really learned the script; he felt he could improvise and make it better, and in many cases he did. He had been an actor once, but by this point he had become a caricature: he’d do his own imitation by holding his nose. He’d become this character, ‘Peter Lorre,” and he figured that’s what the audience wanted to see, so that’s what he would give them.”
The final episode, “The Case of Mr. Valdemar,” features Basil Rathbone (famous as Sherlock Holmes in films and on radio) as a mesmerist who hypnotizes Price’s character on his deathbed, thus prolonging the actual moment of death. The script adds a twist, with the mesmerist using his influence over his patient to try to gain control of Valdemar’s wife (the beautiful and desirable Debra Paget). Fortunately, Valdemar comes out of his trance and manages to throttle the evil mesmerist before melting into a “liquid mass of loathsome…detastable putrescence.” Despite decades as a horror star, this appearance as a living corpse represents Price’s first supernatural monster character. The eerie sense of death delayed but not averted is effectively conveyed, and the resurrection scene is reasonably well done, with some blurry lap-dissolves preventing the camera from viewing the makeup too closely; the scene feels slightly truncated, however, and therefore anti-climactic (the camera cuts away before Valdemar actually gets his hands on the hypnotist). The script shows some evident Matheson touches (Valdemar thanks his wife for sharing “the sweat measure of her soul” with him—a line Matheson would paraphrase in his novel WHAT DREAMS MAY COME), and David Frankham and Paget provide solid support in the acting department, making this a reasonably powerful climax to the three-part film.
Vincent Price and Basicl Rathbone in THE CASEOF M. VALDEMAR, the final epiode of TALES OF TERROR (1962)
Vincent Price explains the dangers of mesmerism to Basil Rathbone.

Price recalled that his co-star Rathbone had changed over the decades (Price and co-starred with Rathbone and Boris Karloff in 1939’s THE TOWER OF LONDON). Rathbone, like many aging actors from Hollywood’s Golden Era, found it difficult to keep working in an industry now looking to appeal to the drive-in youth market.
“I think he was very disillusioned, very bitter, because he really had been a great star. People forget that, because they think of him as Sherlock Holmes, or they think of him as a villain. But he had been a great Shakespearian actor, a great star in the theatre and in movies. And he suddenly found himself—as we all did when Jimmy Dean and Marlon Brando and those people came out, and there was a kind of speaking in the vernacular, and all of us spoke with trained accents and trained English—if you wanted to stay in the business, you bloody well went into costume pictures. And Basil rather resented that.”
Roger Corman had this to say about working with Rathbone: “Basil would be immensely well prepared, with a fully developed performance and would play the script to the letter, so that just a small amount of discussion [was needed]. A very meticulous and a very consistent actor—from take to take it did not vary.”
The deleted limbo sequence from THE CASE OF M. VALDEMAR, the final sequence of TALES OF TERROR (1962)Also shot, but never shown, was a brief sequence of Valdemar’s soul trapped in Limbo. “It didn’t work,” Corman has said. “I shot it, put it together, and for whatever reason I made the decision to take it out. It was a short sequence, and I was dissatisfied with it, and I don’t even remember why. It may have been for this reason: these pictures really were rather low-budget films. We tried to make them look more expensive than they were, but they really were quite low-budget. I think when I looked at the Hades sequence, for five minutes, it really didn’t look right.”
Corman added, “We used certain colored gels and filters. The work we did, we thought was good for the 1960s; it pales by comparison to what can be done with the press of a button with computer graphics today. There were two reasons for the Hades sequence: one was to illustrate what Valdemar was going through. Also—and this was a problem with all of the Poe pictures—they were very much interior; they were shot in one or two rooms, and I was always worried about a claustrophobic feeling, that you were almost having a stage play photographed. I would take any possible way I could to break out of the confines of those rooms. That is the reason for some of the [dream/hallucination] sequences and one of the reasons for the ‘Hades’ sequence.”
Although successful, the profits did not match those of previous films. “TALES OF TERROR did well, but not as well as the others, and we felt it was because we had gone to the trilogy format,” Corman recalled. “We did a little research and found that in general the multi-part films had not been a successful genre. In the age of television, the audience maybe—I don’t know—thought they were seeing three half-hour television shows.”

TRIVIA

Price, Lorre, Rathbone, and Jameson would reteam, along with Boris Karloff, in the 1963 film COMEDY OF TERRORS, also written by Matheson.

The two-part Poe anthology TWO EVIL EYES, from Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA) and George Romero (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) is virtually a two-thirds remake of TALES OF TERROR, featuring episodes based on “The Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Black Cat” (although done in contemporary, not period, settings).

DVD & HOME VIDEO DETAILS

Click to purchase.
Click to purchase.

TALES OF TERROR has never been released on Blu-ray. Fortunately, the film is available as a stand-alone DVD and also as one of MGM’s Midnight Movie Double Bill DVDs, paired with TWICE TOLD TALES (an obvious imitation, with Price starring in three episodes based on stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne). The disc offers TALES OF TERROR in a good widescreen (2.35 aspect ratio) transfer. The soundtrack is monophonic with English dialogue, with options for Spanish, French, and German subtitles. The only bonus features are coming attractions trailers for both films. TALES OF TERROR is also available on Netflix Instant View.
TALES OF TERROR (AIP, 1962). Produced and directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Joyce Jameson, Debra Paget, David Frankham, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, Wally Campo. Allen DeWitt.
NOTE: This article copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski. Some of the material herein is derived and adapted from the cover story on Vincent Price that Steve Biodrowski co-authored with David Del Valle and Lawrence French for the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique magazine.
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The Sixth Sense (1999) – Film & DVD Review

1999 was the year that the horror seemed to rise from the dead, thanks to the success of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT; unfortunately, that film was more box office phenomenon than a good movie. Thankfully, THE SIXTH SENSE came along to offer ample evidence that the genre’s resurrection was more than just a fluke. This film proved that a supernatural spook show, combined with solid drama, could appeal to a broad, mainstream audience, without downplaying the horror. The film benefits from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s low-key, realistic approach, which mixes the supernatural with sentimentality. Yet, it is much more than a mere manipulative crowd pleaser that struck box office gold by combining guaranteed commercial elements; it is actually a thoughtful, expertly crafted piece of entertainment. The film achieves both sophistication and scariness, without short-circuiting on its own ambitions. Best of all, the thrills are of the creep-up-the-back-of-your neck variety that work on the individual psyche, as opposed to the simple shock sort (which is Shyamalan would descend to in later work, such as LADY IN THE WATER), which really only works a receptive audience eager for cheap thrills.
Shyamalan achieves a brilliant sense of dread by completely convincing us of the everyday believability of his situations — and then, in the great tradition of ghost stories by M.R. James, allowing the supernatural to intrude gradually, thus creating a sense of the uncanny that had been long absent from the genre. Neither a self-reflexive comedy like SCREAM nor a contrived gimmick film like BLAIR WITCH, this is a film as strong in the characterization, dialogue and acting department as any mainstream drama from its year, including the Best Picture Oscar-winners AMERICAN BEAUTY.


Perhaps the story’s greatest coup is its amazing twist ending, which (like the ending of PSYCHO) turns out, in retrospect, to be no twist at all. In other words, the revelation makes sense of what preceded, without any cinematic cheats to keep you from guessing the truth; in fact, you realize that what appeared to be typical movie cheats are actually dramatically justified by what we learn at the end. The proof of this is that, like PSYCHO, the film works perfectly during a second viewing: you reinterpret events in light of what you didn’t know the first time through, and you realize that the story makes even more sense than you realized.
To list the film’s virtues would be to turn this review into a laundry list of almost every single element on view. Suffice to say that it well warranted its six Academy Award nominations. In addition, one should give credit to Bruce Willis for abandoning his movie-star action-hero persona in favor of giving a genuine acting performance. His scenes with Haley Joel Osment (which comprise most of the movie, you realize after the fact) feature some of the best screen chemistry every captured on film. And the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto, with its dark, imposing shadows and the recurring red motif, works to excellent effect.
It’s a shame that THE SIXTH SENSE walked away empty-handed on Oscar night, but don’t let that diminish your perceptions of the film’s excellence. THIS SIXTH SENSE ranks among the greatest ghost stories ever filmed.

DVD DETAILS

THE SIXTH SENSE is a movie that rewards multiple viewings. It’s very clear that a lot of thought went into the making of the film, and it is fun to be able to go back and observe details that fly by during a regular viewing, even if you’re not obsessive about picking the film apart. This makes THE SIXTH SENSE a perfect candidate for a film to own on DVD. It’s been released on disc in a few different versions; unfortunately, none of them includes a director’s audio commentary. On the plus side, the Collector’s Edition provides lots of interesting extras.
The picture is enhanced for widescreen TV sets. If you don’t have a widescreen television, you need to adult the aspect ratio on your DVD player to get a letterboxed image; otherwise, you will be seeing a squeezed image. The Dolby sound works wonders for the spookiness of effect, bringing out James Newton Howard’s score and the sound effects as well.

Bonus features include storyboard to film comparisons, deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, two television spots, and several featurettes that cover topics like “Rules and Clues.” In this segment, the filmmakers discuss the rules of the afterlife, which had to be followed so that the film would make sense on a second viewing. These rules, along with clues dropped as to the truth about Dr. Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) set up the film’s surprise ending. (For instance, when Dr. Crow takes a seat with his wife at the restaurant, he does not pull the chair up to the table; the chair remains motionless.)
M. Night Shyamalan provides introductions to the deleted scenes, discussing what they were intended to achieve and why they were ultimately dropped. The deleted material is quite good when taken on its own, but its deletion clearly served the best interest of the movie.
Shyamalan also provides a brief interview to introduce a clip from a home movie he made when eleven years old. The writer-director expresses interest in making movies that enter into the cultural consciousness, becoming part of the shared experiences of millions of people around the world. (In retrospect, this sounds a bit like the first sign of the hubris that would lead him to cast himself in LADY IN THE WATER as a writer whose work will save the world.)
Despite the lack of audio commentary, the Collector’s DVD gives a good glimpse into the making of THE SIXTH SENSE. The chapter stops are very convenient when you want to pinpoint a particular scene or shot for close inspection. The interviews are entertaining, and the picture and sound quality make this film almost as frightening in your home as it was in the theatres.
NOTE: The subsequent Two-Disc Vista Series DVD includes all the bonus features from the Collector’s Edition plus several additional extras.

Mischa Barton as one of the film's troubled ghosts

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999). Written & directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Anthony Tambakis.

The Gravedancers (2006) – After Dark Horrorfest Review

There is a tradition of great ghost stories dating back to Sheridan LeFanue and M.R. James, in which hapless human characters are targeted for haunting after having committed transgressions that are slight or, sometimes, even non-existent. The supernatural stands in for the vagaries of fate, the ruthless indifference of random chance, or an arbitrary sense of moral order that allows no appeal for mercy on the grounds of ignorance, remorse, or regret. THE GRAVEDANCERS works squarely in this tradition, depicting the horrifying consquences of a relatively minor indiscretion that stirs up angry, ectoplasmic forces for whom no slight is too slight to warrant full-blown revenge.

The movie sets the scary tone with a nice shock sequence, perhaps slightly reminiscent of SUSPIRIA’s killer opening, featuring a helpless woman bedeviled by forces unseen and unstoppable, which bring about her violent demise. The story then follows a trio of college friends who reunite for the funeral of their former comrade. They make the mistake of taking the advice found on a mysterious sympathy card, a poem suggesting that life is for the living, who should dance on the graves of the dead. Somewhat predictably – but very effectively – this precipitates a trio of hauntings, one for each offender.

Confident that the opening shock has set the audience up to expect more of the same, the move wisely builds its tension slowly and carefully throughout the opening act, first establishing the characters and relationships and then hinting at the presence of unseen ghosts through camera movement and sound effects, before pulling out all the stops in the later portions.

The screenplay does a fine job of depicting former friends awkwardly reuniting after years have changed them and their relationships to each other; it also sets up the inner dramatic tensions that help drive the story, making the horror of the hauntings appear almost like an external manifestation of of their personal fears and concerns (e.g., the married woman, who fears her husband has rekindled a college romance, at first mistakes the ghostly intrusions as evidence of a female stalker).

By grounding the story in this believable context, the film creates a solid foundation that gives the supernatural terror a wonderful sense of the uncanny when it begins to undermine our sense of everyday reality. This sensibility even survives – somewhat – the plot developments of the second act, which include the introduction of some psychic researchers who will provide the necessary know-how to defeat the disembodied antagonists.
As the evil spritual forces begin to manifest themselves visually and physically, the look of the maliciously grinning ghosts is at once distinctive and familiar, conflating a variety of inspirations, including Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH and Disney’s THE HAUNTED MANSION (the ride, not the film). The physical action even echoes moments in EVIL DEAD 2 and ARMY OF DARKNESS – these are not ghosts that simply moan and rattle chains; they come to grips with their victims in convincingly lethal fashion, providing plenty of violent action that gives the film a real visceral kick beyond the hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck horror of the earlier spooky scenes.

Only in the third act does the movie mutate into an out-and-out Hollywood-type effects show, in which believable action and characterization are usurped by the obligation to provide crowd-pleasing thrills. In order to prevent a too-easy solution to the puzzle (which would have robbed the film of its exciting third act), the screenwriters depend on an obligatory plot twist that undermines some of the conviction.

The shift from recognizable reality to genre movie conventions is ameliorated at least somewhat by the cast, who strive to play frightened people, not ass-kicking Hollywood heroes. Although Dominic Purcell’s attempt at playing stoicism occasionally comes across as simply stiff, there’s something undeniably unnerving about seeing him battered and tossed around the room by a female phantom – built like a linebacker, he hardly resembles the typical victim for this kind of movie, so seeing him overpowered has an extra visual punch. Unfortunately, actress Josie Maran is given little help by the script when it comes to confronting her sadistic supernatural attacker; she lapses into repetetively calling him a “bastard,” which soon grows tiresome.

Even if the third act becomes a bit too special effects heavy, creating an atmosphere that feels more fanciful than frightening, THE GRAVEDANCERS works as a creepy nail-biter that combines old-fashioned eerie supernatural tension with more contemporary phsycial horror. Even with only a couple of graphic (and somewhat gratutitous) moments in what is otherwise a PG-style film, director Mike Mendez delivers more than enough horror to satisfy thrill-hungry fans. This film is not disturbing or repugnant in the manner of recent horror efforts like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING; instead, it delivers effective if enjoyable scares for audiences who enjoy horror without the gross-out.

TRIVIA

The look of the film’s grinning ghosts was inspired by the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, by the “Drop of Water” episode from Mario Bava’s horror anthology BLACK SABBATH, and by a nightmare suffered by director Mike Mendes, in which he dreamed of walking up a staircase and turning around to see a monster looming over and grinning down upon him. For the film, he thought the idea of a malevolent force that was “really happy to see you” was more frightening than the traditional grimacing ghouls.

THE GRAVEDANCERS(2006). Directed by Mike Mendez. Written by Brad Keene & Chriss Skinner. Cast: Clare Kramer, Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Marcus Thomas, Robert Bartusch, Lulu Brud, Lonnie Burchfield, Reid Dalton, Tcheky Karyo

The Grudge 2 (2006) – Film & DVD Review

Though not nearly so ridiculous as THE HERETIC: THE EXORCIST II, nor quite so badly misguided as BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, this stands as one of the most disappointing sequels to a major blockbuster success ever made . The spooky stylization that worked so well in THE GRUDGE is carelessly recycled, chained to a pointless plot that twists together several story-lines without weaving them into a coherent thread, let alone a seamless tapestry. With no new interesting story to tell, few if any worthwhile revelations, and only a handful of decent scary moments, THE GRUDGE 2 is dull affair that, perversely, seems deliberately designed to take a successful formula and reduce it to the level of a direct-to-video franchise knock-off.
Amber Tamblyn takes the lead role of Aubrey Davis, who is the sister of Karen, the character played by Sarah Michelle Gellar in the first previous film. Her mother (Joanna Cassidy) sends Aubrey to Japan to track down Karen, but the family reunion is brief, ending with Karen’s fall off the top of a hospital building. Aubrey tries to unravel the mystery of what drove Karen to her death. Meanwhile the film intercuts other seemingly unrelated stories: one about another girl who encounters the lethal “grudge,” the other showing a famiy back in the U.S. that seems to be haunted by the “Grudge” at a later date. Continue reading “The Grudge 2 (2006) – Film & DVD Review”