Canadian horror — and I don’t mean when a Zamboni breaks down just before your ice time, but the kind of scary movies we make — tends to go against the grain. Movies like Ginger Snaps, Cannibal Girls and the squirmy body terror of David Cronenberg bring fresh points of view to established mythologies to breathe new life into old genres.
In 2008 director Bruce McDonald did just that with the bio-terror freakout, Pontypool. The story of a God Bug that turns people into zombies barely gives us a glimpse of the walking dead, instead replacing the gore with brain matter, making it one of the smartest undead movies in years.
He’s genre-bending again, this time in Hellions, a home invasion survival tale with a demonic twist. McDonald says Canadian filmmakers mess with traditional formulas for two reasons. The first is practical.
“The script, when I first read it, read easily like a 40-day shoot, $5-million movie,” he says. “But then you get the news that you only have 20 days and less money. There’s no choice but to subvert and say, ‘We have to now begin with this established premise and show a world we kind of know, but subtly we have to make some different kinds of choices.’
“Hellions was much more of an action picture, in a sense, but you need time to make action. A sequence will work much better in 25 shots than in three shots. That’s the practical nature of handmade Canadian cinema. We don’t have the big machine but we do have some smart people and we know how to do it. That does create a spin on things. You’re outside the gates of Hollywood and when the parents are away the kids will play.”
The second reason? “Canadians are naturally mischievous and like to f— with people,” he laughs.
McDonald’s extensive resume includes Canadian classics like Hard Core Logo and Highway 61, but it’s not heavily weighted to horror, even though he says Oct. 31 gave him his “Mr. Entertainment Gene.”
“I have loved Halloween more than any other holiday since I was young,” he says. “I think it was my first theatre. My first way into this entertainment world I love so much. I wasn’t Catholic so I didn’t get to the ceremonies of the Catholic Church and the robes and the incense and the priests and visions of hell. For a little Protestant kid from the suburbs, Halloween was the best.”
Perhaps the overriding lesson learned from “Hungry Hearts,” a new thriller starring Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher, is that it may not be a great idea to marry a person you meet in a public washroom. From that opening scene—the “meet cute”—that brings these two twenty-somethings together, director Saverio Costanzo takes the audience on a ride that is part “She’s Having a Baby,” part “Rosemary’s Baby.”
It’s a whirlwind romance for Jude (Driver) and Mina (Rohrwacher) after their initial lavatory love-in. They marry, move to New York and soon enough are expecting their first child. After giving birth Mina starts to exhibit strange, controlling behaviour. Concerned about pollution she refuses to take the child outside and her attitude toward doctors and vaccinations makes Jenny McCarthy seem tolerant. When the baby’s health is compromised Jude knows he must take steps, but how do you tell someone they are killing their child with too much care?
“Hungry Hearts” isn’t a traditional horror film, it’s a slow burn look at the fragile nature of the love of an over protective mother. Director Costanzo gradually builds the tension, visualizing Mina’s claustrophobic world with subtle visual tricks that create a sense of unease. The stale air of the apartment becomes palpable as the story of Mina’s suffocating love continues.
What sets “Hungry Hearts” apart from typical horror is Costanzo’s refusal to treat Mona like a monster. She is killing her child, but Jude still loves her, so Mina’s actions can be interpreted as a whirlwind of desperation and hysteria rather than evil. Rohrwacher’s mix of fragility and steely resolve brings Mina’s neurosis to vivid life. Driver’s Jude is all controlled anger and frustration, often seen up-close-and-personal through Costanzo’s super tight close-ups. Both give remarkable performances in a film that reverberates with themes first explored by Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock but given a new surreal twist here.
This prequel to “The Conjuring” proves that you can’t keep a good doll down. It tells the story of Annabelle, that movie’s creepy, possessed doll before she was safely locked away in ghost hunter Ed and Lorraine Warren’s cabinet of curiosities.
The story begins in the late 1960s with a gift from John (Ward Horton) to his expectant wife Mia (Annabelle Wallis). “There’s something I want to give you,” he says. “Oh no,” she laughs, “the last time you said that I ended up pregnant.” He gives her Annabelle, a seemingly harmless vintage doll, decked out in a lace wedding dress. “She fits right in,” Mia squeals. The quiet peace of John and Mia’s life is broken by a Manson Family style home invasion, and even though Mia and John survive, strange things start happening in the wake of the attack. “Crazy people do crazy things, ma’am,” explains a detective before everyone starts to realize that Annabelle has something to do with the weird goings on. Barbie she ain’t.
“Annabelle” is like a Haunted House attraction at Halloween. There’s nothing that’s really, truly soul-scorchingly scary inside, but it will give you a few good jolts. It’s part psychological drama, part Paranormal Activity and is filled with good weird atmosphere, but where “The Conjuring” had the benefit of two strong leads in Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, “Annabelle’s” stars, Wallis and Horton, aren’t very compelling. She put me in the mind of Sharon Tate, which is appropriate for the time and story and Horton reminded me of… nothing much at all. More interesting leads might have made me care more about the story.
The actors may be milquetoasty, but the movie’s low key eerie atmosphere isn’t. Director John R. Leonetti works in echoes of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Repulsion,” amping up the tension without the use of computer generated special effects. Instead he relies on silence and everyday sounds to make your skin crawl. The Self-Operating Sewing Machine from Hell and Satan’s Popcorn are effectively used in a movie that may be the quietest horror film ever made.
SYNOPSIS: This prequel to “The Conjuring” proves that you can’t keep a good doll down. It tells the story of Annabelle, that movie’s creepy, possessed doll, before she was safely locked away in ghost hunter Ed and Lorraine Warren’s cabinet of curiosities. The story begins in the late 1960s with a gift from John (Ward Horton) to his expectant wife Mia (Annabelle Wallis). He buys her Annabelle, a seemingly harmless vintage doll, decked out in a lace wedding dress. “She fits right in,” Mia squeals. The quiet peace of John and Mia’s life is broken by a Manson Family style home invasion, and even though Mia and John survive, strange things start happening in the wake of the attack and it looks like Annabelle has something to do with the weird goings on.
Richard: 3 Stars
Mark: 3 Stars
Richard: Mark, Annabelle is like a Haunted House attraction at Halloween. There’s nothing that’s really, truly soul-scorchingly scary inside, but it will give you a few good jolts. It’s part psychological drama, part Paranormal Activity and is filled with good weird atmosphere, but where The Conjuring had the benefit of two strong leads in Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, Annabelle’s stars, Wallis and Horton, aren’t very compelling. She put me in the mind of Sharon Tate, which is appropriate for the time and story and Horton reminded me of… nothing much at all. More interesting leads might have made me care more about the story. Were you scared?
Mark: Yes I was, Richard, more from the expert filmmaking than what the actors brought to the picture. The director uses a lot of unusual camera angles and unexpected cuts to raise the suspense. And unlike so many horror movies that take place in dark, decrepit mansions, this one is bathed in light and uses a lot of California pastels. The story is familiar but the look of the movie kept me off balance. But it owes a big debt to Rosemary’s Baby, which you hinted at in referencing Tate, who was married to Roman Polanski. Horton looks a lot like John Cassavetes, the plot involves children and satanic cults and the couple lives in a penthouse. Do I make a decent case?
RC: It definitely has echoes of Rosemary’s Baby and I’d add in a taste of Repulsion in there as well. The actors may be milquetoasty, but the movie’s low-key eerie atmosphere isn’t. Director John R. Leonetti amps up the tension but without the use of computer generated special effects. Instead he relies on silence and everyday sounds to make your skin crawl. The Self-Operating Sewing Machine from Hell and Satan’s Popcorn are effectively used in a movie that may be the quietest horror film ever made.
MB: Yes, the movie is very good at making inanimate objects spooky. I also never thought of Cherish by The Association as being a scary song, but it’s just another example of how Leonetti twists conventions in this otherwise conventional movie. The part of the film that least impressed me was Annabelle herself. Not to malign the doll, but she’s no Bride of Chucky.
RC: She’s no Barbie either! She’s simply the prop that will allow producers to string together a series of prequels and sequels based on devil doll lore. Possessed or not, I’m guessing she works cheaper than the human actors.
MB: Wait! Barbie as devil doll! Talk about rebranding! Let’s get the pitch ready…
There’s an old saying that goes, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” True enough, but as Hollywood has taught us, you can add neighbors to the “cannot choose” list.
This weekend in Neighbors Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne star as parents of a new baby whose quiet suburban life is uprooted when unruly frat boys led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco move in next door. “Make sure that if we’re too noisy, call me,” says Zac. “Don’t call the cops.”
When a house party spirals out of control the couple has to call the cops, thereby violating “the circle of trust” and triggering a Hatfield and McCoy’s style feud between the households.
Terrible neighbors are nothing new in Hollywood films.
In his final role John Belushi starred as earl Keese in the 1981 movie Neighbors. He plays a cranky man whose regimented residential life is turned upside down by toxic neighbors, played by his Blues Brothers cohort Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty. “We don’t want any bad blood,” says Aykroyd, “especially since we’ll be living next door to you for a long, long time.”
The situation spirals out of control, but what begins as domestic warfare between the tow households soon takes a turn when Earl realizes his new neighbors are way more fun than the button–down life he led before.
The dark comedy didn’t satisfy critics or fans of Blues Brothers era Belushi and Aykroyd, but Roger Ebert liked it, calling it, “an offbeat experiment in hallucinatory black humor,” and giving it four out of five stars
Roman Polanski’s study of nasty neighbors, Rosemary’s Baby was a much bigger hit. After moving into the beautifully gothic Bramford apartment building (exterior shots were taken at John Lennon’s old home, the Dakota Building on New York City’s Upper West Side) Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and husband Guy (John Cassavettes) soon discover that the folks next door Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) have a satanic interest in their unborn child.
“Awful things happen in every apartment house,” says Rosemary.
The ‘Burbs may have the ultimate nosy neighbors. The action in the 1989 Tom Hanks movie really begins when one of the locals finds as femur bone in the backyard. “Our neighbors are murdering people,” he says. “They’re chopping them up. They’re burying them in their backyard.”
Rumours of a suburban cannibalistic cult spread through town, putting everyone on edge.
“Green sky at morning,” say Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman), “neighbor take warning.”
One of the most used film chestnuts is the “one last job” cliché. As a plot device we’ve seen it in everything from “The Sting” to “The Wild Bunch” to “Sexy Beast” to “Inception.” It usually involves a character’s search for redemption; a release that can only come after doing their usual job/gig/illegal activity one more time. Usually things don’t work out as planned but rarely have the consequences been as biblical as the climax of the aptly titled new thriller “The Last Exorcism.”
Staged like a documentary “The Last Exorcism” follows the exploits of Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a fundamentalist preacher and exorcist. I say exploits because Marcus makes a habit of exploiting the beliefs of his followers for money. He is, more or less, a God fearing man, but despite his fire and brimstone sermons, he doesn’t buy into the existence of demons. He’s like a slick salesman who doesn’t really believe in his product. He does however think the process of exorcism helps people who have faith He’s happy to take their money and business is good. “The Vatican gets the press,” he says, “because they have ‘the movie’” but he is called on to do dozens of exorcisms a year. After reading about a botched exorcism in which a young boy is killed, however, he decides to hang up his cross. He’ll do the fabled one last job for the benefit of the documentary cameras but that’s it. Of course, the demonic doings on the farm of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) in rural Louisiana test his faith—or lack thereof—more than he anticipated.
“The Last Exorcism” is part “Blair Witch Project” and part “Wicker Man” with a taste of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure. Despite some gaping credulity gaps—like a documentary crew who stays well past the point when any sane person would have run for the hills—it’s filled with enjoyably cheap and nasty b-movie thrills. By and large there are no special effects, just old school frights like eerie shadowy figures walking down hallways. The scares come from the situation, the characters and the layer of tension that director Daniel Stamm allows to build slowly as he nears the fiery climax.
As I said earlier, along the way credulity is stretched paper thin, and hardcore horror fans will likely see some of the twists coming, but Stamm compensates for that in the casting. One of the worst aspects of these “found footage” faux documentaries is the acting. Too often amateurish performances stand out like sore thumbs in these films, but with very few exceptions “The Last Exorcism” pulls it off acting wise. Particularly strong are Patrick Fabian as the sardonic know-it-all preacher and Ashley Bell as the 16-year-old demon child. Fabian brings some unexpected charm and humor to the role and Bell impresses as she careens from innocent to evil in the blink of an eye.
“The Last Exorcism” isn’t the most startling or original horror film to come along recently, but it is suitably creepy and should make you gobble your popcorn just a bit faster during the scary scenes.