March 29, 2013
March 23, 2013
March 19, 2013
When I was a kid, I was once in the middle of an earthquake. It's hard to believe that I, a mid-Iowan farm boy, could have been caught up in an earthquake in my natural habitat - only 13 earthquakes have ever been recorded in the state, and none within a three county radius or a 15 year time span of my childhood - but I remember it vividly.
Well, actually, I remember my parents telling my sister and I that there was an earthquake after a glass that my sister was holding fell and broke. What actually happened, as far as I assume, is that my younger sister dropped the glass, which shattered and made her cry like a little girl. (In fairness, she was.) My parents, trying to shut her up, told us that there was an earthquake and that was why she dropped the glass. And we bought it. Or at least I did, I think. Heck, maybe this never even happened. Maybe I dreamed it and just assumed it was real. I don't know. I was a kid.
So when I consider how gullible I was as a kid and/or how my memory may be playing tricks on me, it makes me naturally skeptical about My Amityville Horror, a new documentary that revisits one of America's most notorious hauntings through the memory of a childhood survivor. Daniel Lutz, the son of Kathy and the adopted son of George Lutz, was the oldest of three children living in the infamous house, and now he's the guy telling us about his life and his childhood experiences at 112 Ocean Avenue.
Daniel Lutz, now in his 40s and working for UPS in California, comes off as a volatile man with that stereotypical "New York" accent and attitude, and his distaste for any doubt of his story would probably make him mad at this reviewer already. While it seems like I'm making light of Daniel's story by pointing out that children are a) susceptible to manipulation and b) not the most trustworthy folks at remembering things, I don't mean to condemn the person as much as I want to cast doubt on our faith in human memory. There's a reason why most Psychology professors and doctors and generally smart people will tell you that eyewitness testimony isn't generally reliable - because it's not.
Horror hounds might find themselves a little bored with the early stories told by Daniel in this documentary, as they seem to follow the events we've seen immortalized in print and on film far too closely. Who's to say that Daniel's memory hasn't been influenced by the public versions of what happened inside his childhood home? Some of the second hand accounts of other peoples' experiences and the experiences of the few people involved that are left - mainly a former TV investigator and an elderly woman with connections to the supernatural - corroborate Daniel's story, but it's hard to really buy in to new accounts from 35 year old memories, especially when they are based in the supernatural.
Despite all of the reasons to be skeptical, it's actually pretty darn fascinating to see what has become of Daniel Lutz. I don't know if what he says happened is what actually happened, but I am certain that Daniel Lutz believes that it happened. At the same time, the character is most fascinating when he talks about his relationship with George Lutz, who we all are still afraid of thanks to James Brolin, and there's a lot to read into when it comes to Daniel's hatred of his stepfather. What we think about Daniel Lutz is immaterial, because the story that Daniel tells is told with such frank honesty.
Though I'm cautious about the implications of My Amityville Horror - which insists that a story that was generally debunked 30 years ago might still be true based on testimony of a child - I still found myself enamored with how it told its story. The production slickly moves between reminders of the events in the Amityville house and accounts of Daniel Lutz' life since then, and it's easy to feel sympathy toward a man who's had to deal with something - whether it's supernatural or criminal - of this magnitude for most of his life. My Amityville Horror inspired a lot of internal debate within me, but that added perspective on The Amityville Horror is more than welcome.
I may not believe the Amityville story is true, but I'll listen to Daniel Lutz talk about it just in case. If you're interested in the book, the film, or just hauntings in general, you'll probably be interested in hearing his story too.
March 16, 2013
In my professional life in the real world, I've heard the word "snitch" used as one of the most damning insults of a person's character more often than I can count. I get the mindset behind the "snitches get stitches" mantra that has permeated the culture of drug use - it's the same as playing in the playground as kids, when mom doesn't see it it doesn't happen unless someone tells her - but it always amazes me at how much this ideal is accepted. You walk into a room with a bunch of potheads - and comparing potheads to meth users is like comparing toddlers on a tumbling mat to Olympic gymnasts - and they're going to tell you that snitches get stitches in the same tone they would use to tell you the sky is blue. It's become a fact in drug circles, and it's an almost unwritten part of The Salton Sea's tense plot. No one ever says "Hey, this guy's a snitch, he's in danger" - but it's understood from the first time we learn about Danny Parker's role.
(By the way, that's an awful trailer. The movie doesn't have the plot or tone it implies. Think noir!)
March 8, 2013
March 4, 2013
Twin sisters with degenerating sight are the centerpieces of Julia's Eyes, an atmospheric horror film from Spain that is most noticeable from a distance because it has the blessing of horror hero Guillermo Del Toro. The blessing of a top notch director doesn't always mean much when it comes to quality, but I'm happy to say that Del Toro seems to have backed the right horse with this one.
Belen Rueda stars as the title character, who hopes to investigate the strange death of her blind twin sister Sara (also played by Rueda), which is detailed in a fantastic opening scene. Julia slips closer and closer to blindness as she tries to figure out who or what is responsible for her sister's death, and we
A palpable atmosphere of dread is the film's biggest asset, as director Guillem Morales takes the story into plenty of dark places as we follow Julia's investigation. Rueda is a more than capable star, and the supporting characters all seem to have a place amidst the film's twisty ride. The final result is a neat game of cat and mouse that should hold your attention.
Items of Note: Lots of blind people with zombie eyes. Naked old women with blind/zombie eyes. Commentary on the size and beauty of the universe. One creepy basement. Mouth knifing. Moments that remind me of the blindfold match between Jake Roberts and Rick Martel at Wrestlemania VII, which I thought was awesome when I was nine. An impressive dual performance in the lead.
The Score: 4 blind victims out of 5.
March 3, 2013
Ashley Bell returns to The Last Exorcism Part II, and by doing so she becomes the one great reason to see this film. The sequel to the 2011 independent horror sensation (which I pretty much love) seems like a studio cash in - especially after that film's much-maligned final twist - but with Bell leading the charge the film manages to pick up the pieces and run further into her character's battle against evil.
Both films are essentially about the damnation of "backwoods" teenager Nell Sweetzer, but the tone has changed from the first film to the second. In the first film, Bell's Nell was the innocent who has been possessed by a demon. Now, she's the survivor who's trying to move on with her life in a girls' home in New Orleans while dealing with young love, teenage girl drama, and the possibility that she's still the target of something demonic. You could almost look at the film as a rape survivor's story - in fact, that is an accurate leap to make - but it's clear to us throughout this film that Nell Sweetzer is troubled by more than just human problems.
This Part II is most interesting when it allows Bell to fill the screen, because every trial she faces feels legitimate. The film does a fantastic job of showing things that are out of her control - like silent masked observers and middle-of-the-night terrors - to the audience while keeping the girl unknowing. The film is entirely about Nell's attempts to figure out what is happening to her - one character spells it out, saying bluntly that she needs to choose her own path - but the film gives more information to the viewer than it does to the girl. There's some unsettling tension to be had thanks to this, especially because the actress seems so pure.
Those who saw the first film have already seen Bell do and say a lot of shocking things, and considering this we shouldn't be so surprised by the actress' range here. But Bell manages to restore our faith in Nell in her new environment, and her ability to present innocence in human settings sets us up to once again fear for her when things get out of control. I truly believe her performance in the first film was worthy of Oscar consideration (as was the performance by Patrick Fabian in the lead, but horror never gets the love it deserves) and her ability to take the lead in this sequel only cements my belief that she's a talent to watch out for in the future. The 26 year old is willing to buy in completely to the role and everything it requires, and the range she shows lifts the film above a lot of its problems.
Those problems are numerous, unfortunately. The found footage aspect of the original film is gone, and without another strong presence across from her Bell often has to carry too much of the film's weight. Nell wanders through her bouts with evil without much guidance - save a few scenes from horror veteran Muse Watson (I Know What You Did Last Summer) and the returning Louis Herthum as Nell's father - and when she finally stumbles into someone who will help her it seems like the script is just jumping to a conclusion. This leads to a final act that feels pretty forced, and some New Orleans-flavored voodoo takes away from the biblical battle that has been set up through the first film and a half.
The first film's ending was hated by many, but I've been impressed with its willingness to change directions and shuck audience expectations (while still making enough sense within the plot) since day one. Part II offers a similarly grand final act, but by the time it gets to it the twists that continue to one up each other have watered down the impact a bit. Also unfortunate is the cheap and ugly CGI work that bleeds into the conclusion. I shouldn't be so fickle, but the the final moments of the film offer fantastic ideas to think about and then distracts us from them by showing off some goofy developments that don't appear realistic in any way. I'm truly intrigued by the way the film wrapped up Nell's story (for now?), but the flaws in presentation take away from the effect that these developments have on us. If nothing else, the first movie got it right with its "less is more" approach to the climax.
I want to flat out recommend The Last Exorcism Part II, because I think Bell is that good in the lead and I think the story heads in a fascinating and engaging direction. The film had my attention piqued throughout and wasn't dull for a second, but it makes a lot of wrong steps that seem like shortcuts, particularly in the final act. Fans of the first film and Bell's performance there should at least get something out of this sequel, but I'm not sure viewers will be able to overcome all the little things that just don't feel right. Still, I'm glad I saw where Nell Sweetzer's story went, and if they brought Bell back for an (even more unlikely) Part III, I'd probably check in. This one's at least worth a rental for her work.