‘Blair Witch’ Review

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Director: Adam Wingard

Writer: Simon Barrett

Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, and Valorie Curry

Synopsis: After discovering a video showing what he believes to be his sister’s experiences in the demonic woods of the Blair Witch, James and a group of friends head to the forest in search of his lost sibling.

 

*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*

 

It might be a little hard to believe that The Blair Witch Project came out more than 15 years ago, but now we have a proper sequel – get out of here Books of Shadows – to the film that, at the time, was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Say what you will, despite how you feel about the film in general, The Blair Witch Project made a lot of waves the way it was presented, and it changed the way horror films would come to be in the future. Now, all these years later, we have a proper sequel that was kept hidden from us until Comic Con when it was revealed that The Woods was really Blair Witch. So, have Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the men responsible for great films like You’re Next and The Guest, given us a proper sequel to a film that changed the landscape at the time so much? Let’s take a walk through very familiar woods and find out.

Blair Witch follows James (McCune), the younger brother of Heather Donahue, one of the leads from The Blair Witch Project, who is the focus of a documentary by his friend Lisa (Hernandez). The reason for the documentary is because James thinks he sees his sister in a mysterious video that was sent to him that seemingly shows her running through the house at the end of the first film. James convinces Lisa and their friends Peter (Scott) and Ashley (Reid) to go with them to search for his sister, or at least find out what really happened. Along the way, they meet up with the people that sent him the video, Lane (Robinson) and Talia (Curry), who tag along to find the legendary Blair Witch.

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The buzz for Blair Witch was pretty big from the people that got to see it early, so it had a lot to live up to. Of course, the horror film community is very hard to please, but I’m sure some of them will agree that this year big studio horror films have been better than expected, and way better than years past. So there was a chance, whether it be a slim one, that Blair Witch would continue the trend, and for most of the film it does. However, Blair Witch does have pitfalls that fans of the original film, and in general, may cause to lose interest and question this sequel, and they are justified.

If you didn’t realize that Blair Witch was a sequel to Project you could make the argument that this film feels like a reboot/updated version since the film used better technology than the first film. Of course, the first film was made for cheap and used cameras to make it look even cheaper. Blair Witch uses a drone, an updated camera, a webcam, and head cameras, so the PUT THE CAMERA DOWN AND RUN IDOITS mantra goes out the window and leads to some interesting shots and lets the actors – and mayhem – cut loose a little more. That being said, the updated-ness both hurts and gives the film a sense that this is a sequel. It helps in the sense that if you wanted to see how Project looked with good quality visuals, here it is, also again, it lets the actors and mayhem take a different approach and cut a little more loose. For example, when characters go off on their own, you don’t know what’s going to happen – in fact anything can happen, which is how the updated-ness works.

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However, it hurts in the sense that it takes away some of the charm, albeit terrifying charm, of the original, because the original film felt like we were watching something we weren’t suppose to be watching. This is why it worked and has become a touchstone in not just the horror genre, but the found footage genre. Ultimately, that is what hurts Blair Witch because it looks more polished.

Speaking of the updated-ness (I’ll stop using that word), the film does follow some of the same beat-for-beat moments of the first film. The group gets lost, they argue, they hear weird noises, and ultimately start disappearing. Of course, different things happen along the way – for the better – and some of the original myth is expanded in a respectful way to the first film that could please fans and helps build the tension more as the film progress. Does it help if you watch the first film? Probably, but the film does a good job of summing up facts from the first film for you. The cast of mostly unknowns also do well, but considering by the end they’re running around screaming, all of that kind of goes out the window.

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All in all, Blair Witch does have its moments that make it a worthwhile and deserving sequel to The Blair Witch Project. It does have pitfalls and makes decisions that it probably shouldn’t have made that hurts its overall execution, and what made the first film so successful and memorable. Blair Witch does have some descent scares, but it’s the decisions it makes that kills a lot of what could have been a better film.

Blair Witch

3 out of 5

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‘Found Footage 3D’ Review

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Director: Steven DeGennaro

Writer: Steven DeGennaro

Cast: Carter Roy, Alena von Stroheim, Chris O’Brien, Tom Saporito, Jessica Perrin, Scott Allen Perry and Scott Weinberg

Synopsis: A group of filmmakers sets out to make the first 3D found footage horror movie, but find themselves IN a found footage horror movie when the evil entity from their film escapes into their behind-the-scenes footage.

 

*Reviewer Note:  This will be a spoiler free review.*

 

This will be the first review of films I had the pleasure of watching recently at the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival here in Chicago. First up is Found Footage 3D, the winner of the Jury Award. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “a found footage movie in 3D?” Yes, I had the same question and doubt you had hearing the idea. However, what director and writer Steven DeGennaro was able to do with his feature-length directorial debut was highly impressive, and worthy of your time.

The film follows a group of filmmakers in director Andrew (Saporito), writer and male lead Derek (Roy), female lead Amy (von Stroheim) who also happens to be Derek’s estranged wife, sound technician Carl (Perry), assistant Lily (Perrin) and behind-the-scenes camera man Mark (O’Brien), who is Derek’s brother. They are working on their found footage horror film called Spectre of Death, but Derek has the master idea to set their movie apart from other found footage movies out there by, wait for it, making it in 3D. Derek drives the group out to the middle of nowhere to a creepy looking house that may or may not be haunted, and as the shoot goes on things start to grow eerie around the house and finally leads to a grand finale.

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Found Footage 3D isn’t your typical found footage movie, and I’m not just talking about 3D element. The film is a completely super-meta comedy film that slowly turns into a horror film in the best way possible. A term that I saw thrown around by a couple people, and something I completely agree with, is Found Footage 3D is the Scream for found footage movies. The characters know all the tropes and clichés that these movies do, and talk about them openly even making fun of them at times. But instead of it sounding like they are bashing found footage movies – in a way they are – they are bringing up things we all ask while watching these movies like “WHY ARE YOU STILL RECORDING DUMBASSES?”

Another big thing the film takes a shot at is the easy cash-grab studios try to trick people into thinking their film is much better because it’s 3D. But, Found Footage 3D does make the 3D work for the film instead of against it. The 3D works here, and as director Steven DeGennaro pointed out during the Q&A afterwards, they filmed it in 3D which helped, and they cameras they used added layers to the every shot in the film, so it actually feels like you’re there and not just looking at a single flat image with something or just a few things sticking out at you.

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However, the big reason the film works is because of the cast. Each of the characters have their moments to shine, and you really get to know them so you feel a sense of dread for them when things start to go crazy. I don’t even want to say too much about their performance because experiencing everything for the first time is a good way to go into the film. I do want to note Scott Allen Perry as Carl, who is by far the best character in the film and is probably the most “fan-like” character in the film. And yes, Scott Weinberg – a writer on multiple websites – is in the film playing “himself,” that’s all I’ll say.

All in all, Found Footage 3D is one of those rare films that come along that every fan should watch. The cast is great, it’s funny, scary and is an all around smart and good found footage movie that yes, is in 3D. Also, if you’re thinking the 3D would be disorienting with the found footage element – something the film does briefly make fun of – it surprisingly doesn’t. Seriously, give Found Footage 3D the chance it deserves when it comes out.

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Found Footage 3D

4.5 out of 5

‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’ Review

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Director: Gregory Plotkin

Writers: Jason Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, and Gavin Heffernan

Cast: Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Ivy George, Dan Gill, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Don McManus, and Michael Krawic

Synopsis: Using a special camera that can see spirits, a family must protect their daughter from an evil entity with a sinister plan.

 

*Reviewer Note:  This will be a spoiler free review.*

 

I was one of the many fans here in Chicago to see the first Paranormal Activity when it finally came out in theaters in its first limited run, before it finally came out in a wide release. I had heard the buzz surrounding the film from the film festivals, and how it had a troubled timed getting into the right hands so people can actually watch it. So, to my delight, I loved the first film, and is actually one of best movie theater experiences ever. The crowd was into it, I was into it, and I couldn’t wait to tell people to go watch it. The first movie was something special. It felt like an old school horror film and one that didn’t rely on buckets of blood, gore, nudity, or stupid teenager characters. Instead it was a slow build to an impactful and chaotic ending. Paranormal Activity restarted the trend of found footage films which took off like wildfire. However, the series has taken a slump in quality, and The Ghost Dimension which is labeled as the “final film” promised to answer all the questions that have arising in the series. If this is truly the last film in the series, then it wasn’t the best ending, nor the ending I would have wished to see this series go.

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Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension starts off like every other entry. A new family is introduced in the Fleege family. Ryan (Murray) and his wife Emily (Shaw) along with their young daughter Leila (George) have moved into a new house around Christmas time. They also have Skyler (Dudley), Emily’s sister, and Ryan’s brother, Mike (Gill) living in the house for the holidays. Ryan and Mike eventually discover a box of VHS tapes and a modified video camera that picks up strange things and shapes in the house. When Ryan and Mike watch the tapes they find even stranger things as they see young Katie and Kristi (Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown reprising their Paranormal Activity 3 roles through a mixture of old and new footage) as they are put their some sort of initiation. Of course, strange things start to happen around the house, Leila starts to act strange and out of character, and the family eventually figures out that the house may have something sinister.

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As you probably guess with the opening of the review, I’ve been a fan of the Paranormal Activity series, well, for the most part. I really liked their first three movies, and The Marked Ones – which is considered a spinoff – but the fourth film and this last film are the weakest of the series. The Ghost Dimension is also the first movie of the series to go 3D, which is keeping with the trend in horror that the final installment is in 3D. I didn’t watch the movie in 3D, but it looked like the biggest 3D moments where in the end and unfortunately it didn’t really help with the mix of really crappy looking CGI.

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Speaking of the CGI, I think this is the most heavy-filled CGI installment, due to the fact that the series introduced a camera that can finally see the demon that has been terrorizing families from the start, Tobi. However, what could have been a cool effect actually comes out as wonky and not as scary as you would think. In fact, I would have been okay with Tobi being the unseen force, especially seeing what they did with him. The unseen presence was one of the best parts and what made the Paranormal Activity movies just a bit more terrifying. Finally seeing the force behind it makes it a bit more “real” and takes away the effectiveness of it all.

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The new family does okay, but as the supposed final family that Tobi will terrorize they aren’t the best family the series has had, nor does it serve any real purpose to the overall series. Murray’s Ryan as the father figure and puzzle solver of everything is protective of his daughter, but doesn’t really stand out too much. Shaw’s Emily doesn’t really do anything until the finale but by then it’s too late. Gill’s Mike has one of the best lines of the movie, but comes off as obnoxious the rest of the time. Dudley’s Skyler has her moments, but is underutilized like Shaw. Ivy George’s Leila is equal parts innocent, adorable, and creepy as hell, so she actually is arguably the best part of the movie.

Nothing against the new cast, but if this was going to be the last installment of the series, I had hoped the family would have more of connection to the overall mythology the series was creating. In fact, The Ghost Dimension essentially ignores the last film and feels like a direct sequel to Paranormal Activity 3, the prequel. That to me, besides the overall movie, is the biggest disappoint of the film. Even the connections the film makes to the past films are only mentioned in passing or just lackluster. For the final film in a series, it certainly doesn’t do much to tie up loose ends. Even the answers we were promised felt clucky, rushed, and unsatisfying. Hell, with a series like this, they could have kept going for another year or two, but stop while you’re ahead right? Or, in this case, stop when they start getting crappy.

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There are some moments where I though the film was going somewhere, but it just ended up cutting everything at the knees and those brief moments of potential go nowhere. Even the concept of the special camera is done well at first and could have been something awesome and fresh and a good way to go, but they completely dropped the ball. Even the finale is a little more over chaotic for my liking and for the series, but it makes a tad sense. Doesn’t mean it should’ve been done.

All in all, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is a lackluster and disappointing end to the potential end of the series. Having been a fan of the series since the beginning I saw the ups and downs, and unfortunately this is a massive let down of could have been a potentially good – or at least descent – ending.

 

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

2.5 out of 5

‘The Gallows’ Review

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Dir: Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing

Writer(s): Travis Cluff & Chris Lofing

Cast: Reese Mishier, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, and Cassidy Gifford

Synopsis: 20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

 

 

*Reviewer Note:  This will be a spoiler free review.*

 

I’ve mentioned it before, but I don’t feel comfortable reviewing horror movies. Not because I don’t like them, because I do, but because half of the fun of watching a horror movie is experience it and no matter what people tell you – myself included – that experience does need to be experienced and not told. Moreover, it’s harder to review a movie that you also didn’t like entirely. If I don’t review a movie on here it is for a few reasons. One, I feel like it needs to be experienced. Two, I don’t have time or Three, I don’t like. However, since I’ve skipped a few reviews on movie I’ve seen and never really posted a review to a movie I didn’t really enjoy, here’s my review of The Gallows. Don’t worry, it’s not going to be a complete bash.

 

The Gallows is shot in the found footage style so the movie opens up in an old video tape playing from 1993. The recording is from the high school play, “The Gallows” which ends in the accidental death of lead Charlie (Jesse Cross), as he’s being hanged in front of an audience and what we assume is his family. We jump forward to 2013, and the current students at the school somehow managed to convince the school board to revive the play in honor of Charlie.

 

We are introduced to our main characters from here. Reese (Reese Mishier), a former football player who is the lead in the show in the part that killed Charlie. Pfeifer, the leading lady of the play and the “theater girl”; Reese’s friend Ryan, who is a “joker” and the movies camera guy at the beginning of the movie, and Cassidy, Ryan’s cheerleader girlfriend. Reese is having a hard time getting into character and delivering his lines so Ryan gets the idea to ruin the set for the play the night before the play is set to, each means going in the middle of the night. Reese is reluctant, but eventually agrees and Cassidy tags along. While there they experience weird banging and then find Pfeifer. Of course, everything goes to hell.

 

It very clear from the drama club involved and some of the parents that Ryan “interviews” early in the movie that Charlie’s death has become something of an urban legend – the movie says it’s based in Nebraska – in terms of the school having weird things happen like; locked doors, weird noises, lights going on-and-off, etc. That already sets us up for what’s to come.

 

Thankfully, The Gallows is only 81 minutes long, because the movie doesn’t have a lot to offer. The movie is like your run-of-the-mill found footage movie. It follows the same beats and fake-out moments that we’ve seen in other movies with the same concept, but doesn’t do anything to make it their own. It does nothing to reinvigorate the subgenre and even with its “different” approach in terms of cameras, which could have been a good way to try some awesome stuff, all it does is make the process of watching the movie harder with overused aspects.

 

What made the movie harder to watch is the cast. The filmmakers probably tried to add something to them by making them use their real first names, but their delivering in lines is just bad. They clearly feel scripted and at some points the characters and the actors playing them feel wooden. The only expectation really is Pfeifer, who is by the default the best actor in the movie. Even worse than that, the characters are unlikable – especially Ryan. He doesn’t come off as funny or cool, he actually comes off as a dick and bad friend. Reese is conflicted, but you can tell with a scene at his house why he’s supposed to be distance, but that’s an excuse. Cassidy is just kind of there.

 

I will give The Gallows some credit. There are a few, and I do mean a few, cool and eerily shots that I really liked and worked well with the environment. One scene in particular worked really well with the lighting and the sudden visual that you know is coming, but when it happens it surprisingly works.

 

The execution of story, if that’s what you want to call it, is frustrating. Some of the setup never pays off, maybe to the fast pace and short runtime, but none of things that are supposed to be surprising work because of the weak story and the fact that it is so contained within itself and the characters. The Gallows has very brief moments of what could lead to great storytelling or even a cool moment, but then it takes it away and goes back to the genre’s tropes which make you angry because you want to see how that could be done.

 

My main problem with the found footage subgenre is that, most of them, are the same. Without getting too much into, The Gallows has what we’ve seen in other films before it. And if you’ve seen enough found footage movies, you’ll know what I’m talking about. You even forget about it, because it reminds us at the beginning and, of course, with the constant recording. But, the worse part is the rushed endings, which The Gallows suffers from.

 

All in all, The Gallows doesn’t bring anything new to the found footage subgenre. The few good visuals are far-and-between in what is a easily going to be a forgotten movie by the end of the month.

 

The Gallows

2 out of 5

“As Above, So Below” Review

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Dir: John Erick Dowdle

Cast: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, and Ali Marhyar

Synopsis: When a team of explorers ventures into the catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, they uncover the dark secret that lies within this city of the dead

 

 

 

*Reviewer Note:  This will be a spoiler free review*

 

 

As Above, So Below is being advertised as another found footage horror movie, but as I sat there and watched it, it didn’t feel like a typical found footage movie, or even a horror movie. The movie feels more like a thriller and has bits of horror with the found footage aspect. Unfortunately for us, the movie fails at some levels but does have some redeeming qualities to it.

 

The movie follows Scarlett Marlowe (Weeks), who has made it her career to finish her late-father’s work; find legendary alchemist Nicholas Flamel’s Philosopher’s Stone. The stone is suppose to, according to Scarlett, “turn basic metals into gold and grant eternal life.” She gathers the help of a documentarian colleague Benji (Hodge), fellow archaeologist and former boyfriend George (Feldman) and some local thrill seekers Paillon (Civil), Souxie (Lambert) and Zed (Marhyar).

 

Scarlett, with the help of George, eventually find out that the stone might be held in some closed off portion of The Catacombs in Paris. The group heads down and of course, weird things start to happen. Of course being stuck in an isolated area like the Catacombs things like claustrophobia, confusion, darkness, creepy noise, scrapes and bruises occur that make the group uneasy continuing their adventure. They also need to confront their inner fears if they want to make out alive.

 

The movie, which surprised me, apparently got to film some of movie in the actual Catacombs, besides the big set pieces obviously, which is kind of cool. But the other big thing that sets this aside is the movie has the actors “film” it. The characters have mini-cameras attached to their headband lights so some of the movie is seen from their point-of-view, which adds to their suspense factor. This also makes the “why are they still filming all of this” argument become less of a problem since they need to light down in the Catacombs.

 

As Above, So Below already has the creepy factor in its set. The Catacombs is essentially a mass grave and could have been used in the movie more, but instead it is used more as a backdrop than its main attraction. The Philosopher’s Stone – which has been used in other movies like Harry Potter and Tomb Raider – is more of a MacGuffin and isn’t really that interesting as a plot device.

 

The movie though does have great sound design. Besides the obvious camera movements that make you know something is coming to pop at you, the sound design is the reason this movie is a bit unnerving and creepy. It’s the small creeks, crumbles, and random noises that raise your awareness and makes you nervous for the characters.

 

Thankfully, the movie has a descent lead in Weeks. She plays Scarlett as a bit obsessive about finding the stone, not just for herself, but also to clear her father’s reputation. She not as annoying as some of the leads in found footage movies, which for this is kind of movie is welcomed and she is somewhat likeable, when she’s doing things that are clearly wrong or life threatening.

 

Feldman as George is also descent, along with Hodge as the cameraman Benji. The rest of the cast is really just filler and at one point I forgot about a character and when he’s shown on screen I was surprised to see he was still alive.

 

But with all that said As Above, So Below does have a lot wrong with it too. I address the shaky-cam because there are moments when the camera does crazy, especially in the last ten minutes when everything goes to hell (no pun intended). It also falls into to some usual horror movie tropes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it loses some of its effectiveness when you know it is coming.

 

There are also some things that are bought up that really go nowhere, and are just added in to add to the creepiness, which is kind of disappointing. The last fifteen to ten minutes is where everything gets chaotic and the movie seems to start fall into the unwelcomed. There are some creepy moments there but it then starts to follow the usual found footage beats, but with outcome that I didn’t see coming.

 

All in all, As Above, So Below has some creepy aspects and while it is a bit different from over found footage movies, it doesn’t bring anything new. It also at the end of the day doesn’t make a huge amount of sense but it is a supernatural horror movie and has a descent lead in Weeks, that it could make a serviceable weekday movie if you nothing better to do.

 

 

As Above, So Below

3 out of 5