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Freaky Firsts Day 5: Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Beautiful CreaturesNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Richard LaGravenese

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone

Plot: Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenager in a small South Carolina town, is plagued by dreams of a beautiful girl he’s never met. His town is crushing him – oppressive and overbearing, driving him to read banned books like To Kill a Mockingbird (this is how you know he’s edgy, kids). When he gets to the first day of school, he meets a new girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) who looks mysteriously like the girl in his dreams. People in town gossip about Lena, even accusing her and her uncle Macon Ravenwood (seriously, that’s his name, and he’s played by a Jeremy Irons who chews so much scenery he probably got lockjaw) of being devil worshippers. When the crowing of her catty classmates becomes too calamitous, Lena accidentally causes the large windows in the room to shatter, convincing everyone she’s freakier than they thought.

Ethan gives Lena a lift home from school, and they grow closer, which Macon doesn’t approve of at all. Eventually, Lena confesses to Ethan the truth: she and her family are “casters” (because “witch” isn’t a politically correct term anymore), and on her 16th birthday she will be driven to embrace either the light or dark nature of her power. Because this is a movie and the plot requires it, she fears that she’ll fall to the darkness. To make matters worse, her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) shows up, aiding Lena’s long-lost mother Sarafine, who has possessed the Bible-thumping Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson, who along with Irons clearly made this movie as a lark). Sarafine wants to drive Lena to the dark and use her power to exterminate all the humans in the world.

Ethan and Lena discover their ancestors during the Civil War were in love, and when Lena’s great-great-ish grandmother used a forbidden spell to save Ethan’s great-as-sour-candy grandfather’s life, she cursed the Duchannes women in some way that isn’t entirely clear but, I believe, has something to do with their stupid southern accents. In order to undo the curse, someone Lena loves must die. To protect Ethan, she gives him a snowfall for Christmas and wipes out his memory.

During the town’s annual Christmas Civil War reenactment (who the crap knows?) Ridley arranges to Ethan to be shot by a real bullet. When he lies, dying, Ridley and Sarafine try to turn Lena to the dark, but fails when Ethan reveals himself to be a magically-disguised Macon, whose death satisfies the terms of the curse and lifts it. He dies telling Lena to “claim yourself.” She rips her mother from Mrs. Lincoln’s body and traps her, but still isn’t really sure if she’s good or bad. Six months later, Lena runs into Ethan – still with no memory of their time together, and she gives him a book to take on a college tour. As he rides away, he reads a passage that triggers his memory of her and calls her name. She hears him, and wrenches herself free of the darkness.

Thoughts: I’m a high school teacher, so I’m usually aware of what books are popular with teenagers at any given time. For a few years there, that Beautiful Creatures series was on a pace to perhaps outstrip Twilight as the pseudo-horror romance of choice. As such, I pretty much stayed away from it. When the movie came out last year, I was somewhat amused to see how violently the book’s fans seemed to react to it, saying it “ruined” their beloved novel. It just goes to show you, doesn’t matter if it’s comics, books, TV, video games… hardcore fans are all the same.

It would be easy to write off Beautiful Creatures as just one of the dozens of Twilight knock-offs out there, but based purely on the movie, there aren’t as many similarities as one would think. There’s no creepy stalker vibe, first of all – Lena is actually 16 years old and not a century past her sell-by date. There’s legitimate tension within her family. There’s no attempt to paint either Ethan or Lena as perfect, and in fact, they both take strong, decisive action at various points in the movie in an attempt to protect the other, something that Bella Swan couldn’t even imagine doing.

None of this is to say that Beautiful Creatures is a good movie, mind you, just better than Twilight. There’s still a lot about this movie that’s just plain goofy, and not really in a fun way. The nonsense about calling witches “casters,” first of all. In The Walking Dead, we’re asked to accept the conceit that this is a world where there were never any popular zombie movies, books, TV shows, etc., and that the word “zombie” does not exist, so it’s okay to call them “Walkers.” Silly as that is, at least it’s an effort. This movie has several people straight-up accusing the Ravenwood family (whose name we need not even begin to discuss in terms of pure goofiness) of being witches, but they somehow can’t quite embrace the term.

Ehrenreich and Englert, our star-crossed lovers, both put in passable performances, but never really heat up the screen together. There’s as much chemistry here as any high school production of Grease (and here I am specifically referring to the chemistry between Kenickie and the high school principal), and while you can kind of see why they’re drawn together, the script works way too hard to convince us they’re right for each other than the end result puts on display. Their mutual love for “banned books,” for example, is pretty heavy-handed… almost as heavy-handed as the scene in English class where one of their classmates says she can’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s been banned by the church and that she doesn’t think she should have to be in a class with non-Christians like Lena anyway. As if that weren’t enough, she immediately starts a prayer circle, which the teacher impotently warns her she can’t do in school. Between the Christian-bashing and the mocking of the politically correct crowd, I’m not entirely sure who the movie was trying to slander, but it succeeded mostly in making the viewer wish they’d rented Hocus Pocus rather than convincing anybody of anything of substance.

The accents in this movie are so over-the-top that you want to climb into the screen, look behind the camera at the director and shout, “Okay. They’re southern. WE GET IT.” The only ones who even come close to selling it are Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, who are in fact both treasured actors and way the hell too good to be in this movie. One can only assume that each of them either has a teenage daughter that really wanted them to take the part or that they’ve reached that blessed pinnacle of their careers where they’ve made all of the award bait they can handle and they feel like just screwing around for a few years making fluff.

While not a horrible movie, there’s not an awful lot to recommend Beautiful Creatures either. You won’t need to set your TV on fire if it happens to show up when you flip to HBO, but there’s no real reason not to switch to HBO2 and watch a rerun of Game of Thrones either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 34: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

blair-witch-projectDirectors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Writer: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams

Plot: The movie opens up with a title card informing the viewer that three film students disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, and that what we’re about to watch is their footage, which was found a year later. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (using their real names) pack up their equipment and begin walking around town, asking locals questions about the mysterious legend of the Blair Witch. The locals of Burkittsville – formerly known as Blair — weave a story about a lunatic in the 1940s who kidnapped and murdered seven children, claiming to be compelled by the spirit of an 18th-century witch named Elly Kedward, who was hanged by the people of Blair. The three of them go into the woods to seek out Coffin Rock, supposedly a spot where five men were bound together and murdered over a century earlier. They make camp, and in the morning Josh reports waking up in the night and hearing some cackling sounds from the woods. Friction begins to grow between Mike and Heather – Mike insisting she keeps getting them lost – and Josh tries to play peacemaker. As they wander, they find stones and branches arranged in strange structures that seem to echo something told to them in town by a woman they dismissed as a lunatic. They hear more sounds in the night, and wake up to a rainfall and an angry Mike, who believes locals have followed them into the woods to toy with them. They try to walk back back to where they left their car, but are unable to find it before nightfall and finally make camp. That night, they hear more of the strange sounds outside the tent, and in the morning they find three piles of rocks that weren’t there before. Before they leave, Heather realizes she can’t find the map, and the three of them all begin suspecting each other of taking it. After some time, Mike laughs and confesses he threw the map into the creek, and Heather and Josh attack him in a rage.

Later, calmer, they find figures made from sticks dangling from the trees, and eventually, they decide to make camp and not light a fire, terrified that someone is tracking them through the woods. In the night, there are more strange sounds and the tent begins to quake, driving them out. When they return, their belongings have been rifled through, and Josh’s recording equipment has been damaged. The next day, despite keeping a southern course for 15 hours, the find themselves back at a log crossing a creek they’d already passed, and their frustration and desperation increases. The next morning, Heather and Mike cannot find Josh, and eventually are forced to go on without him. That night they think they hear him in the woods, and in the morning Heather finds a bundle of twigs wrapped in the bloody tatters of Josh’s shirt. She freaks out, but hides her discovery from Mike. That night, alone, she records herself apologizing to her parents and those of her crew, and takes the blame for everything that has happened, certain she and Mike will die in the woods. They hear Josh again and follow his cries to a house in the middle of the woods. As they search, Mike thinks he hears Josh downstairs and runs there with a camera, finding odd writing on the walls. As he walks, there’s a thumping sound and the camera falls. The footage begins again, Heather screaming, until we see Mike standing with his face against the wall. There is another scream. The camera falls to the floor. And the screen goes black.

Thoughts: The filming of The Blair Witch Project has become something of a moviemaking legend. With a mere $20,000, Myrick and Sanchez took three unknown actors into the woods and made a movie that was largely improvised, giving them notes about what to feel or how to behave rather than being strict about the lines they spoke, and often not even telling the actors what they were going to do to scare them, trying to capture a realistic feeling to their reactions. The resulting film made nearly $250 million, making it by far one of the most profitable movies of all time. The film is also notable for being one of the first – if not the first – movie marketed heavily on the Internet. A web page was established that went viral on the conceit that the film was real, with lots of articles, videos and photographs presented to support the film’s premise.

You can really track the legacy of this movie in two ways, neither of them having anything to do with the weak sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Although the film did not create the “found footage” genre – the idea that you’re watching a movie constructed of footage filmed by the characters themselves – it sure as hell made it popular. As is always the case, some of the movies that have used this concept in the years since have been critical successes, some have been commercial successes, and some have been outright flops. But unlike most other films that spawn a rash of imitators, only Blair Witch can lay claim to creating a subgenre that is immediately repulsive to anybody who gets seasick easily.

The second – and, to my way of thinking, more important – legacy of this movie the way it change how movies are marketed. In 1999, the Internet was still relatively new to most people, and nobody quite understood yet the power it would one day have. The Blair Witch website, combined with a few other tie-ins like a Sci-Fi Channel special and a comic book from Oni Press, turned a movie made on a microscopic budget into an international sensation. Now, it would be insane to make a movie that doesn’t have a website, it would be ludicrous to not create viral content that fans can find, enjoy, and share with other people in the hopes of generating new fans. If you were on Facebook earlier today, watching the trailers for The Muppets, try to wrap your brain around the fact that such a presentation has its origin in The Blair Witch Project.

In terms of what actually makes it scary, I don’t think it’s the supernatural elements that do the trick. Yeah, the piles of rocks, the little twig-construction stick figures and the other weird things they find in the woods all help contribute to a culture of fear that exists in the film. What makes it work, though, is the way the characters slowly break down. When the movie begins they’re lively and enthusiastic about making their movie. As the film progresses, they get antsy, they get belligerent, and they begin to turn on each other. The suspicion that infects them, the way their little society completely falls apart after a while is pretty scary by itself, because that could happen to anybody. Strip away the witch, take away the manufactured scares, and look at it just as a story about people crumbling just because they’re lost and scared. And it works. Heather’s breakdown near the end has joined the ranks of iconic horror movie scenes for very good reason.

The Blair Witch Project gets a lot of crap today. Like many things which reach enormous popularity very quickly, there was a backlash afterwards by those who feel like it’s uncool to like anything mainstream, and a bit more by those who didn’t care for the style of filmmaking. (Out of the two, the second is by far the more legitimate complaint.) People complain that they feel like they’re watching somebody’s home movies – which, of course, is part of the point. My favorite argument, though, is those who were angry that we never see the witch. My response to this is simple: what could they possibly have shown you that would be scary enough to match what you built up in your own mind?

And of course, there are also many people who react because the whole “found footage” thing has been overdone. Again, this is legitimate – the third Paranormal Activity movie using the same concept just hit theaters as I write this, and frankly I haven’t found them to be remotely frightening – but I think it’s unfair to put the blame for that on Blair Witch. It’s not the fault of this movie that others copied it badly, and as far as this one goes, I think it does what it does very well. I watch this today and get the creeps just as easily as I did back in college. And to me, that’s what makes a movie memorable.

Tomorrow the first stage of Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen (yes, first stage) reaches its conclusion with the most recent film to change the way horror movies are made… so far. We’re going to take a look at Saw.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 21: Susperia (1977)

suspiriaDirector: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Alida Valli, Joan Bennett

Plot: Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, is attempting to enroll in a prestigious dancing academy in Freiburg, Germany. When her flight in from Munich arrives late on a terribly stormy night, though, she is unable to enter the school, and must spend the night around town. As she searches, a student who has been expelled from the academy, Pat Hingle (played by Eva Axén, although I find it hysterical that the character has the same name as the actor who played Commissioner Gordon in the Tim Burton Batman movies), takes refuge with a friend, but both girls are brutally murdered by a strange, largely unseen creature. The next morning, Suzy returns to the academy and meets Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), as the school is buzzing about Pat’s death. Suzy is sent off-campus to live with another student , Olga (Barbara Magnolfi. When a dormitory room is made available, she declines the offer. In her first dancing class, Suzy suffers a fainting spell, and wakes up to find that she’s been moved into the dorm room anyway, and the doctor wants her to eat bland foods with a glass of red wine at every meal for a week. When maggots suddenly fall from the ceiling, supposedly due to a box of spoiled food in the attic, the girls are forced to sleep in the academy’s practice hall. There, Suzy’s friend Sarah (Stefania Casini) recognizes a whistling sound as the snore of the school director, who is supposedly out-of-town. Suzy and Sarah search Pat’s room for notes, but Suzy falls asleep, leaving Sarah to be lured, alone, into a trap of razor wires, where the unseen creature returns and slits her throat.

The next morning, finding Sarah missing, Suzy seeks out a psychologist (Udo Kier) who tells her that the academy was actually founded by a Greek woman believed to be a witch, and that her coven cannot survive without their queen. Suzy returns to the school and finds that all of the students are missing, having gone to the theater. She follows a mysterious set of footprints to Blanc’s office, where she finds the staff plotting her death in a horrible ritual. She flees, encountering the school’s director – the original witch who founded the school . The witch sends Sarah’s reanimated corpse to kill Suzy. Suzy fights her way out, and the building burns to the ground with the witches inside, Suzy barely escaping the horror.

Thoughts: This is one of those times where I really must stress the importance of taking care of and pride in your work. Susperia has a place in the hallowed ranks of horror, but its effectiveness was seriously damaged for me by the shoddy presentation. The DVD release available through Netflix was absolutely terrible, with picture and sound that both appeared to have been ripped directly from some ancient VHS tape that had long since begun to degrade. If a movie like this doesn’t deserve a quality restoration, why even release it on DVD?

This isn’t the fault of the film, of course, but it does detract from one’s enjoyment. Trying to get past that, we look at the strong points of the film. Sadly, considering how poor the video quality of my copy was, this is a movie that is largely remarkable for its visual style. Dario Argento sets the film in bright, primary colors –red hallways that have an almost velvety texture to them, blue walls in the main hall, and ubiquitous use of yellow in the dance studio and other places. When the deaths happen, the precise shade of red is so bright and eye-popping as to be almost unrealistic, while at the same time giving the film a very different look that most of the other films we’ve discussed on this list. The blood in, for example, Last House on the Left probably looks more realistic, but the blood in this film is more memorable.

The makeup is also impressive towards the end of the film. Sarah’s corpse, done up in a horror mask for her terrible attack on Suzy, is in fact the stuff of nightmares. Although Sarah isn’t really referred to as a zombie, she’s not far off from the original Haitian concept of the creature: a deceased person brought back to a semblance of life to serve the bidding of a master. In this case, it also plays on the most evocative fears of the zombie trope, the idea of taking something familiar and safe and transforming it into something horrible and deadly.

One of the weaknesses, though, is that the movie often tries too hard to inject fright in mundane scenes. Suzy’s constant encounters with creepy members of the staff at the ballet academy are often punctuated with loud, hypnotic music that succeeds in creating the desired mood. When combined with the looks of the characters, though, it starts to feel a bit much, like we the audience are being beaten over the head with the fact that something EEEEEEEVIL is going on around here, consarn it, and we’re gonna take notice whether we like it or not. Back to the music for a moment – it’s really very good. It’s scary and evocative, and I could imagine it being a Halloween standard like the themes to Psycho and Jaws if not for the fact that the main theme is played approximately 18,921 times throughout the course of the 92-minute film, robbing it largely of its effectiveness.

What’s more, the story isn’t particularly strong. Go back and read my synopsis again. Does it seem like a kind of bizarre, disjointed story here things happen for no reason and nothing really seems to make sense in the context of anything else? Excellent: I have successfully conveyed the feeling of watching Suspiria.

Contextually, I find it interesting that 1977’s great Italian horror film goes back to witches, a topic which had largely lapsed in the United States at this point. Perhaps I’m projecting – I’m an English teacher, remember, and at the time I write this particular analysis my 11-grade class is deep in study of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – but it’s difficult to think of an American audience of the late 70s putting this much stock into the concept of witchcraft. In Italy, who knows? Maybe it was different.

The marketing certainly was different – look at the tagline on the movie poster. “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92.” Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but isn’t that essentially saying the end of this film isn’t as good as the rest of it? If that’s the case, it’s true. Except for the creepy attack by the ex-Sarah, the ending is horribly anticlimactic, with a weak appearance by the head witch and Suzy pretty much just waltzing out of the academy just before it bursts into flames for no apparent reason.

Except for the visuals, honestly, I’ve got nothing to recommend this movie. Thank goodness tomorrow’s film is, for me, a proven commodity: John Carpenter’s classic Halloween.