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Horror Movie Review: Oculus

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As I learned very early on in my life, the way the horror genre works is that one mega-successful movie begets 1,001 that are just like it. The same way that George Romero’s ‘Dead’ movies paved the way for endless copycats, Friday the 13th kick-started the 80s slasher craze and Saw ushered in the era of ‘torture porn,’ Paranormal Activity sparked a big-time resurgence in ghost stories, which have been dominating the box office ever since the film’s widespread release in 2009.

The company that produced Paranormal Activity, Blumhouse Productions, has unsurprisingly been at the forefront of the movement, to the point that very few horror movies seem to make it into theaters, without the Blumhouse name attached to them. A list of their recent films reads like a recap of the last few years of theatrical horror releases, which includes Sinister, The Purge, Lords of Salem, Insidious: Chapter 2, and of course, the many Paranormal Activity sequels.

Simply put, Blumhouse has taken over the horror genre, and the company is absolutely dominating its theatrical landscape. Hell, even non-Blumhouse releases, films like The Conjuring and Devil’s Due, are very much cut from the Blumhouse cloth – in other words, I had to look them up on Wikipedia because I wasn’t even sure if they were produced by Blumhouse or not.

Though I am a fan of many of the films I’ve listed thus far, I must admit that I’ve grown kind of tired of the whole paranormal/supernatural craze. Like all horror genre fads, this one has more than worn out its welcome, and it’s gotten to the point where every theatrical horror release has blended together, due to the fact that they’re all so similar. Each new one feels like an indirect continuation of the last, and I quite frankly miss the days of going to see horror movies on the big screen that don’t have to do with ghosts and supernatural entities.

It’s kind of enough already, isn’t it?

That brings us to Oculus; a supernatural horror movie, brought to us by… you guessed it… Blumhouse Productions!

Directed by Mike Flanagan – who became somewhat of an indie darling with 2011’s AbsentiaOculus centers on siblings Tim and Kaylie, who didn’t exactly have the greatest childhood. When they were kids, a creepy old mirror in their childhood home wreaked absolute havoc on their lives, forcing their father to brutally murder their mother. Young Tim managed to get a hold of his dad’s gun and end the madness before he and his sister became the next victims, and he spent the rest of his childhood in a mental institution as a result.

At the start of the film, Tim is released back into the world and he reunites with Kaylie, who is hellbent on not only proving that the mirror was to blame for their father’s Jack Torrance-inspired rampage but also on killing the mirror once and for all. While Tim was being reprogrammed with years of therapy, you see, Kaylie was investigating the history of the mirror, and she’s 100% sure that it’s the evilest inanimate object in the world.

Oculus shifts between events of the past and the present, showing us what exactly happened during Tim and Kaylie’s childhood, while also documenting their present-day battle with the supernatural force that resides in the haunted mirror.

Due to the split timeline, Oculus essentially plays out like two different films rolled into one, and it almost feels like you’re watching Oculus: Part 1 and Oculus: Part 2, at the very same time. The problem is, neither side of that coin is interesting in the least, with the flashbacks playing out like Paranormal Possession 101 and the present-day sequences making you wish that the present-day sequences weren’t even a part of the film.

The best way I can describe it is that Oculus is a sort of weird hybrid between a silly episode of the Goosebumps TV series and a serious horror movie, and since it takes itself way too seriously to ever be fun and is far too goofy to ever be taken seriously, the mixture of tones – whether intended or not – just doesn’t work. It’s not fun and it’s certainly not scary, which results in it just plain being dull, uninspired, and downright boring.

Worst of all though, Oculus is a wholly unoriginal effort, with the haunted mirror and fractured timeline both being used as gimmicks to tell what is ultimately a story that we’ve already been told a million times before. There’s literally not a single shred of an original idea on display here, and unless you’ve never before seen a movie driven by things like paranormal possession, CG-enhanced ghosts and jump scares fit for teenage consumption, then there’s really nothing to see here that you haven’t seen before.

I always try to find positive things to say about movies I didn’t care for, and the best thing I can say about Oculus is that it briefly flirts with the idea of presenting interesting ideas, on a couple of occasions. At one point in the film, the validity of childhood recollections is called into question, and at another, the idea of how two different people can deal with the same situation in far different ways is touched upon. Again though, both ideas are only briefly explored, as the name of the game here is making teenage girls scream, above all else.

As far as the narrative structure is concerned, which eventually results in the two main characters essentially interacting with their childhood selves, even that idea is never all that interesting, and it’s overplayed to the point of actually being pretty damn annoying. On top of that, it never seems to actually serve the story in any way, coming off like a gimmick that was intended to make audiences think the movie is smarter than it actually is. Phenomenally stupid, is what it truly is.

And don’t even get me started on the character of Kaylie, who is one of the most irritating in the genre’s recent past. I’m not going to say Karen Gillan is a bad actress, but her matter-of-fact line delivery and way of acting in this film absolutely irritated the living hell out of me, and as a result, there was absolutely no chance of me being emotionally invested in her plight. Not to mention her plan to document and destroy the evil mirror doesn’t really make sense, if you actually think about it, but that’s a whole nother paragraph that I don’t feel the need to write.

Though it’s a mirror that’s haunted, rather than a house, and though the jumps back and forth in time give the film somewhat of a unique presentation, Oculus is at the end of the day just another movie that paints by the paranormal numbers, and stays so far inside the lines of predictability that the journey to its incredibly expected destination isn’t fun, scary, surprising or even entertaining. What’s the point of such safe storytelling, you ask? Well, I guess it makes money, and I guess that’s all that matters.

With Oculus, Mike Flanagan has proven something that most of us were already quite aware of, going into it; mirrors just aren’t scary, nor do they make for good villains in horror flicks. It’s yet another reminder that theatrical horror has become the Buzzfeed of cinema; quick, dumbed-down, and made with mass consumption in mind.

Random Final Thoughts:

– Yes, Tim and Kaylie’s possessed father is indeed played by the same actor who played the pot-smoking Ron Slater in Dazed and Confused.

– As if there weren’t enough Apple products on display in the film, a memorable scene features both main characters eating… apples. Clever product placement, I must admit.

– Despite the fact that WWE Studios was involved with the movie, there are no wrestlers in it. Sad face.

Amityville 1992: It’s About Time did a much better job with the idea of a haunted object distorting time and reality inside of a home. Go figure.

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SXSW Review: ‘Evil Dead Rise’ is a Non-Stop Gorefest Party That Never Lets Up

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Campbell

Klaatu Barada Nikto! Are the words used to conjure up Kandarian Demons have never let us down. It inspires chainsaws, boomsticks, and fun to explode across participating screens. From Sam Raimi’s game-changing 1981 film to the Starz series Ash Vs Evil Dead. Now, a host of deadites return with the latest blood-soaked experience, Evil Dead Rise. The latest entry in the franchise pumps new life and death through its veins by jumpstarting the film anew.

Evil Dead Rise begins with that familiar POV shot of the Kandarian force roaming the woods. As it picks up momentum, we are suddenly pulled out of the POV to realize that we are looking through a drone’s lens. The shot lets us know that we are in for a new era of the Evil Dead while having a bit of fun with expectation. The sequence brings us to a bunch of vacationing people having fun at a cabin by the lake. The introduction to these folks doesn’t last long before the possession of a Kandarian demon makes its self-known. Scalps are pulled blood is shed and the Evil Dead Rise in the short intro. We are then pulled back to the city a few days before the events at the lake.

Rise

We are then introduced to a small family with mom, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) her two kiddos (Morgan Davies, Nell Fisher), and her sister, Beth (Lily Sullivan) all living in a high-rise apartment building. When a major earthquake manages to open a hole in the floor the small family discovers The Book of the Dead.

It doesn’t take son Danny long to play the vinyl records that accompanied the book. Once again the Evil Dead is set free and within seconds all hell breaks loose and enters the body of mom, aka, Mom.

The familiar POV of the Kandarian forces pushes across the city streets before finding the tenement building. Once inside it doesn’t take long to find its first possession victim, Alyssa. Once possessed Alyssa makes her way back to her family in their apartment home and as you could have guessed it doesn’t take long for souls to begin being swallowed and for blood, guts and viscera to begin flying.

Evil Dead Rise does a great job of keeping its evil foot pressed firmly against the gas pedal.  Once we are introduced to this poor family and their apartment home, the horror, action and fun doesn’t stop coming.

Director, Lee Cronin, (The Hole in the Ground) fits perfectly into the Evil Dead family. He manages to create enough of his own vision of the Kandarian Demon hellscape to make it his own while also giving us cornerstone moments filled with boomsticks, chainsaws, over-the-top horror, and the classic Demon voice that Sam Raimi fostered in his films. In fact, Cronin takes that Kandarian demon voice even further. He manages to create a full-on character by way of possessed Ellie that resonates and becomes more incendiary throughout.

Cronin manages to create that new villainess voice by way of Alyssa Sutherland. The actress goes through the motions going from struggling mother to a terrifying and completely memorable deadite queen. She remains throughout the film. Each scene sees the actress meeting the physical challenges of the role as well as the all-out evil villainess parts of the role with exceeding perfection. Not since Bad Ash has a Kandarian Demon stood out as memorably as Sutherland’s mom breaking Evil Dead bad. Hail to the Evil Queen.

Cronin also manages to create a world that may contain the other two Necronomicon books that we have seen in the past. He leaves room in the story to believe that both Bruce Campbell’s Ash and Jane Levy’s Mia may all exists with their own respective books of the dead. I love the idea that there are more than one Necronomicon in play and the director bravely opens up that possibility.

Rise

Beth (Lily Sullivan) becomes our knight in bloody armor here. Sullivan steps into the blood-soaked role of our new heroine with gusto. It is easy to love her character early on and by the time we see Sullivan bloodsoaked, with chainsaw and boomstick in tow we as an audience are already head over heels and cheering.

Evil Dead Rise is a full on non-stop gorefest party that starts up fast and doesn’t let up for a second. The blood, guts, and fun never stop or give you a chance to breathe. Cronin’s high-rise nightmare is an exquisite chapter in the world of The Evil Dead. From start to finish the party doesn’t let up for a second and horror fans are going to love every second of it. The future of The Evil Dead is safe and ready for more souls to swallow. Long live the Evil Dead.

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‘Dark Lullabies’ Film Review

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Dark Lullabies is a 2023 horror anthology film by Michael Coulombe consisting of nine tales creating a run time of 94 minutes; Dark Lullabies can be found on the Tubi Streaming Service. The film’s tagline, “Guaranteed to tuck you in and rock you to sleep,” is clever and suitable. I am a sucker for anthology films and series, so I was very excited to check this out. I had seen a few of the short stories already, but it was a real treat to revisit these gems.

So let’s dive right into it; this isn’t a film loaded with special effects, so if that is what you’re looking for, you may want to wait for the new Transformer film to release this year. Dark Lullabies is a film that allowed its creators to spread their wings and produce content, which I am sure was on a shoestring budget.

I’ve heard that the most popular obstacles for any production are time and money. Out of the nine tales, a few have an emotional hold over me, for many reasons, from the story, the acting, and the direction. A similar trait that these horror tales held was that I wanted to see each as a feature, as I felt there was more story to tell, and now it was up to me to use my imagination to fill in the blanks, which is never a negative.

Before I get into what I specifically enjoyed, I will point out a few flaws I had with the overall film. I understand at times, because of the powers that be, certain decisions are made, it is out of reach for the creative minds, and they can’t specifically make certain decisions. I believe the entire film would have flowed better if the title cards were placed at the beginning of each segment (some were). This would avoid confusion about one segment ending and another beginning; at times, the viewer may think they are still on the same segment because of the transition.

Lastly, I would have liked to have seen some creepy or slapstick funny host; some of my favorite anthologies had horror hosts, and I believe it would have added that final gloss over to the film. None of this was a deal breaker, just something I would have liked to have seen. I enjoyed all of the segments in Dark Lullabies; there are a few that I would like to mention specifically.

“Dark Lullabies is a culmination of 9 of my short horror films; each segment dealing with the horrors cause by people and the choices they make. Horror is not always a monster or a man in a mask. Jealousy, ego, abuse, cruelty, cheating..there are all kinds of subtle messages throughout Dark Lullabies.” – Director Michael Coulombe.

Segment – ‘Love Me Not.”

First up is the segment “Love Me Not.” I was particularly keen on this one because actress Vanessa Esperanza seamlessly delivered a lengthy monologue for nearly the segment’s duration. Jenny has experienced a broken heart countless times but will teach all her ex-boyfriends a deadly lesson on Valentine’s Day. I would have loved to have seen more of the story focusing on where Jenny’s story began and what the final straw was bringing this character to her breaking point. This segment was well-written and directed.

Segment – “Bag of Tricks.”

Second, on my list is “Bag of Tricks.” With a run time of sixteen minutes, this segment delivers a satisfying blend of terror, exceptional acting, and cinematography that’s on point and makes for that perfect story to tell on Halloween. This will satisfy your Halloween craving and is watchable any time of the year.

The segment focuses on a couple answering an ordinary Halloween evening knock at the door, turning the night into a chilling ordeal for both lovers as they meet Timmy, the ghost. I must say, the presence of the ghost costume is downright hair-raising! I hope that at some point, Writer Brantly Brown and Director Michael Coulombe will deliver us a feature, as I know so much more can be told.

Segment – “Silhouette”

My third mention is “Silhouette.” It is amazing how being polite to someone could have paid off for the gentleman in this segment. With a run time of about eight minutes, Silhouette delivers a powerful punch, and again, the concept, if expanded on, I believe would make a great feature. I am always in the mood for a good ghost story!

Segment – “Stalk.”

My fourth and final mention is “Stalk.” This story was clever and simple, which made it very unnerving. Do you ever feel as though someone is following you? What would you do if that was your reality and someone was stalking you? Would you run, hide, or fight back? Stalk will be sure to leave your appetite howling for more!

Dark Lullabies is a decent anthology that allows these talented individuals to showcase their art, and I hope to see more of this in the future. From the planning, coordination and management, directing, and editing, I know a lot of heart and thought went into producing each of these nine shorts. Remember to check Dark Lullabies out on Tubi.

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REVIEW: ‘Scream VI’ Is an Action-Packed, Galvanizing Tour de Force

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I kinda wish I could say that the Scream franchise has jumped the shark with this latest chapter — we all know that day is coming — but it hasn’t. Not this time.

We might have the “core four” to thank for that. The “core four” consists of last year’s survivors, Sam (Melissa Barrera), Tara (Jenna Ortega), Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown), and Chad (Mason Gooding). That accolade doesn’t just go for the on-screen characters, but Scream VI has some of the best damn young actors in Hollywood today.

L-r, Hayden Panettiere (“Kirby Reed”), Jasmin Savoy Brown (“Mindy Meeks-Martin”), Jack Champion (“Ethan Landry“), Melissa Barrera (“Sam Carpenter”), Jenna Ortega (“Tara Carpenter”), Mason Gooding (“Chad Meeks-Martin”) and Courteney Cox (“Gale Weathers”) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream VI.”

Easter Egg Hunt

This review is going to be somewhat short because I don’t want to give away any spoilers or inadvertent clues to this edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. But I will move forward as if you have already seen the last film, so if you haven’t, check it out before you see Scream VI, there are a lot of things you should know that are going to make your experience a lot richer.

Cold Open

First, let’s start with the ubiquitous cold open. Scream VI has the weirdest and most satisfying prologue since four. Again, it is better that I don’t mention what it involves because that’s part of the fun. But I will tell you that Easter has come early because there are eggs everywhere. If any movie can get you to watch it twice, it’s this one. Once, for the main action, and again to for the IYKYK treasure hunters.

Ghostface in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream VI.” © 2022 Paramount Pictures. Ghost Face is a Registered Trademark of Fun World Div., Easter Unlimited, Inc. ©1999. All Rights Reserved.”. Ghost Face is a Registered Trademark of Fun World Div., Easter Unlimited, Inc. ©1999. All Rights Reserved.”

Actiony

Scream VI has the most action sequences of the first three films combined. This is like the Die Hard of horror. Again, giving anything away is not going to make us feel good so we’ll move on. But suffice it to say that there are some real nail-biting showpieces that never had this much bang in past films. I found myself yelling at the screen amongst my journalistic colleagues and I never do that. This is a fun ride in a full theater so don’t go through all your popcorn in the first 30 minutes.

L-r, Melissa Barrera (“Sam Carpenter”) , Jenna Ortega (“Tara Carpenter”), Jasmin Savoy Brown (“Mindy Meeks-Martin”) and Mason Gooding (“Chad Meeks-Martin”) star in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream VI.”

Family & Core Four

In Scream (2022) there was a heavy emphasis on family. We got to see Sam’s slow descent into madness while trying to stave off Ghostface. Eventually, her psycho superpower was enough to beat the killer with the help of Master Yoda…er, Daddy Billy Loomis. Scream VI is forged on the strength of extended family. As Dom Toretto would say, “I don’t have friends, I have family.” And of course, there is the sisterly relationship between Sam and Tara. Only a year has passed since the events in Woodsboro and they haven’t had time to heal, let alone understand how to move forward. Both Barrera and Ortega have so much talent.

Ghostface in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream VI.”

Recall Factor

I said before that you should watch the 2022 Scream before Scream VI. I would also recommend you watch all of the Scream movies before heading into this one. Whereas in Scream (2022) fandom was cut down to size, Scream VI is an Oscar speech to aficionados of the franchise. It is going to be helpful as a fan to have a refresher, and helpful to people who only casually watch for reference points.

Let’s put it this way: if you have never seen a Scream movie you will still have fun, but you run the risk of ruining your date’s post-movie high by asking a lot of questions. Don’t do that. Do your homework.

L-r, Melissa Barrera (“Sam Carpenter”), left, and Jenna Ortega (“Tara Carpenter”) stars in Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Media Group’s “Scream VI.”

Sidney?

Scream VI has such a solid backbone it can stand on its own. Enough can’t be said about this talented group of actors. They really appreciate the franchise.

You have to remember some of these actors weren’t even born when the first Scream was released. In fact, Ortega wouldn’t come into the world until seven years later. That means everything Wes Craven did by re-inventing the horror rules back in 2009, a refreshed generation has entered the picture and re-invented their own. Just as we millennials appreciated what the original movie did back then, a whole new crowd is going to appreciate what it does today. Craven is applauding from the grave.

So yes, Sidney might be missed in spirit, but you’ll hardly know she’s gone. Or is she?

The Unmasking (No Spoilers)

As with all the Ghostface movies, there comes that element of anticipation as you try to figure out who is holding the knife and wearing the mask. That final 10 minutes when the killer is revealed and the audience lets out a collective “ooohhh…!” If the filmmakers have done their job, the reveal leaves us with “that tracks” rather than “I knew it!” Scream VI follows that same formula where it’s not so much the destination as it is the journey. I won’t say anything more about that.

Final Thoughts: Scream VI

Bloodier than the ones before it. With more action than in recent memory, and a cast full of talented actors, I bet Scream VI is going to float to the top of franchise favorites. While the formula is relatively unchanged, the movie still has tons of surprises. This can’t be said for vintage slashers of the past.

Scream continues to change the game (and the rules) and so far, it has worked; no sharks have been jumped. Until that day comes, the king of slashers still reigns supreme.

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