Why are there so many found footage movies out there, and why are most of them so awful? The answer to the first question is money; they’re cheap to make. Of course, the plot usually consists of four or five bad actors walking around the abandoned hospital/lunatic asylum/haunted house in Technicolor GoatGreen light, waiting for the evil spirits/demons/ghosts to kill them all. I’ve reviewed a number of movies like this in the past year, and most of them are bad. Grave Encounters is the exception to the rule, but much to my surprise Bad Ben – contradicting its own title – is pretty good also.
Made with security cameras and an iPhone, Bad Ben cost $300 to make (according to IMDB). Compared to most low budget found-footage, this is a masterpiece. The main character has agency and does more than wander around the abandoned house/hospital/mental institution for an hour and twenty minutes. There is actual suspense, thanks to a few jump scares.
Tom Riley buys a house cheap at a sheriff’s auction. His plan to resell it and make tons of money hits a speedbump when it turns out the house is haunted. Doors open and close, furniture moves around and a shadowy figure stalks the grounds. Using the security cameras installed in every room of the house, Tom tries and fails to catch the culprits in the act. Undeterred by the locked room in the basement, the satanic altar in the attic and the creepy kid’s drawings in the living room Tom soldiers on, deadpan, a middle-aged guy with a habit of filming himself in his boxer shorts.
Tom has a dilemma. As he tells us, he can’t leave because he’s sunk every penny into buying the house. So he tries to deal with the escalating craziness, with mixed results. Nothing works but luckily not much seems to phase Tom, who apparently has aspirations to be a vlogger. Why else record yourself? Tom – the only person to appear in Bad Ben – talks to the camera as if it’s another person (‘why are the lights off? I left them on.’) and generally underreacts when most people would run screaming for the door.
If you like found-footage movies, give Bad Ben a try. It’s better than 90% of the found footage movies out there, a number I just made up. Bad Ben’s success (???) spawned a prequel and a sequel, neither of which I’ve seen. Warning: if you want to see Bad Ben, don’t watch the trailer.
We Are Still Here is a sneaky movie, starting with brooding shots of the desolate New England landscape that scream arthouse horror and ending with the bloodiest gore sequences this side of Lucio Fulci. This movie has been in my Netflix Queue for months, mostly because it stars Barbara Crampton. Full disclosure: Ms. Crampton is my favorite Scream Queen, which made me predisposed to like this movie. I still remember seeing her in Re-Animator and From Beyond, way back in the 1980’s.
Anne and Paul are a middle-aged couple whose college-age son just died in an accident. For reasons I can’t fathom they move to a house in the middle of Nowhere, New England. To escape the memories, I guess? They’re visited by a pair of locals who seem shocked they’ve been in the house for two weeks and are still alive. The locals tell them a story about the first-ever people to live in the house, a family of morticians accused of selling the bodies. According to local legend, the townspeople drove them off. Hint: take a look at the movie’s title.
Anne believes her son’s ghost has followed them because she senses a presence in the house. She’s right, sort of. There are several presences in the house, and they aren’t friendly. When the electrician comes to fix the boiler he’s attacked by one of the ghosts living in the basement. Soot black with chalk white eyes, these ghosts are literally burning up.
Anne invites a second couple, Jacob and May, to visit. May is a self-proclaimed psychic who might be able to contact the entities in the house. May’s son and his girlfriend arrive when the couples are out enjoying a wild night in town (i.e., eating at the local equivalent of Applebee’s). They get frisky on the couch, which stirs up the cinder ghosts.
It is at this point that We Are Still Here goes gonzo. The wild car ride, cold-blooded murder and disastrous séance culminating in Jacob eating a sock are only the beginning. When the locals join the party the blood and brains really start to fly, including a great scene with a knife and a sickle. Yet the movie’s center holds. The end credits are a must because they fill in a few plot holes.
I liked We Are Still Here as much as It Follows, probably the most critically acclaimed horror movie of 2015. The acting and effects are good. This is a simple story, well-told, which is why it succeeds so well.
An American horror movie that came out in 2012, The Pact is yet another recommendation of English horror novelist Adam Nevill. The link to the article is here. I watched The Pact for free on Netflix streaming.
The plot: when Annie and Nicole’s mother passes, the sisters must reconcile their differences in order to solve dear ole Ma’s murder. No wait, that’s a Lifetime movie. In this movie Nicole disappears in her mother’s house in the first ten minutes. Annie, who hates her mother and the house she grew up in, nevertheless shows up on her motorcycle. Annie isn’t too concerned about Nicole’s disappearing act because she’s pulled this crap before, even though this time she left behind her little girl.
Staying in her mom’s creepy house, Annie starts hearing and seeing weird shit, ending with her being attacked by an invisible entity and her cousin Liz disappearing. Annie, showing great strength of character, goes back into the house to retrieve Nicole’s daughter Eva when she hears her crying. However, this ghost isn’t a quitter; it simply follows Annie to her hotel.
Determined to find out what happened to her sister and cousin, Annie doesn’t give up either. Plot abounds: a headless ghost, a hidden nook in dear ole’ Ma’s house with peepholes to every room in the house. Soon Annie discovers ghosts are the least of her problems…
If The Pact were a shitty movie, I’d say that the house’s wallpaper was the scariest thing about it. While it is true that dear old Ma’s house oozes creepiness, this isn’t a shitty movie. It’s a solid entry with plenty of jump scares. The Pact has lots of thriller/haunted house tropes: the good-looking cop, the ghost, the serial killer, the freaky looking psychic, but they never veer into cliché. The elements all blend, creating a movie that’s spooky as hell. Oh yeah, I also like the fact that they don’t explain the title; if you’re paying attention, it’s obvious. Recommended.
I’ve seen hundreds of bad horror movies in my life, and I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of most of them. After awhile movies like Dead Girls (girl-band murdered by a psycho), Highway to Hell (pizza delivery boy vs. Hellcop), Syngenor (Syngenor!) and Satan’s Princess (the title says it all) take their toll. Unfortunately, most bad horror movies aren’t scary or even funny. They’re just dull. I’m sorry to report that Rabid Grannies isn’t as good as it sounds; the guys at MST3K wouldn’t touch this direct-to-video crap.
But once in awhile a very, very special movie comes along.
The Conjuring is the Disney Haunted Mansion of horror movies. It takes all the beats, tropes and dumb clichés of the genre, creepy dolls, possessed mommies, kids talking to their invisible friends, things that go bump in the night, stupid people who descend into the basement saying ‘who’s there?,’ and rolls them into an overstuffed Greatest Hits version of a haunted house movie.
The plot: if you’ve seen The Amityville Horror or any other haunted house movie, you know the plot. The Perron family, mom, dad and five (!) daughters, move into their new house, only to discover it’s haunted. They ask acclaimed (?) demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren to help rid them of evil spirit Bathsheba.
The point when I knew I was watching a very special movie came when one of the older kids – it’s hard to tell them apart, because the writers never bother giving them actual personalities – is awoken by her sleepwalking sister trying to walk into the standing wardrobe. When the cranky teen goes to help her sister we pan up to see Bathsheba, looking like Linda Blair on a bad hair day, crouching atop the wardrobe, whereupon she leaps upon the dumbstruck teen with a great shriek.
((A side-note: Bathsheba must have been one happy spirit. She has FIVE kids and their hapless Mom to torment, an embarrassment of riches.))
The Conjuring is set in the 70’s. Ed sports a pair of rockin’ sideburns and Lorraine favors big collars. Indeed, the movie is full of 70’s touches. There are station wagons, VW bugs, even a Brady Bunch episode. The attitudes are delightfully retro. When Mrs. Perron mentions their frantic dog outside, chained to a tree, Mr. Perron waves it off, saying something like ‘the dog will be fine (Spoiler: the dog isn’t fine).’ Today the pooch would have his own air-conditioned doghouse. In other ways The Conjuring falls down on the job. If you watch any 70’s flick, you will know that all the characters smoke like chimneys.
I am not going to get into whether the Warrens were hucksters, but will note that The Conjuring is based on the True Case Files of the Warrens. Fair enough. There are those who say Godzilla’s based on a true story, also. The Warrens ARE bad parents, keeping a treasure trove of demon-infested relics in their study. At one point Ed finds his young daughter wandering around the study and mildly scolds her.
((Side-note #2: it would be remiss to not mention the presence of Annabelle, the Creepy Doll From Hell Who Should Have Her Own Movie, in The Conjuring. I must confess that I think haunted dolls are way overrated. Annabelle is creepy, yes, but I bet I could kick a five-pound doll’s ass.))
Nobody in The Conjuring has much of a personality. Ed’s concern for his wife is cute, but he’s such a pushover we know he’ll just roll over whenever he tries to put his foot down. The Perrons are so full of domestic bliss that it’s almost a relief when Bathsheba starts her antics. At one point Mrs. Perron asks her husband if he feels up to christening the house, i.e. fucking, and my high hopes were immediately crushed by a cute domestic scene.
((Side-note #3: you have to wonder about Mr. and Mrs. Perron’s family planning skills. At first I figured they were good Catholics. Makes sense, since they have five kids, but it turns out they never got around to baptizing those kids, which doesn’t sound very Catholic to me. Maybe they’re the type of people who drift through life hoping things will turn out okay. Please note that these are the type of people who end up in haunted-house movies.))
The Conjuring has two direct inspirations: Poltergeist (the original) and the TV series Friday the 13th, about three dumb jackasses trying to retrieve an antique store full of cursed items. The monkey doll and staticky TV are direct shout-outs. Bottom line: The Conjuring is well-made, but it most definitely is not a good movie. Four out of the five flicks I’ve seen so far are better. But, honestly, I will remember this movie when the others are dim memories. The Conjuring is a true rarity, a good bad movie, and I can’t wait to see the sequel. Highly recommended!
Bizarro author Jeff Burk mentioned Ghostwatch in a blog post he wrote about horror movies you probably haven’t seen. The post has a bunch of interesting choices and is worth reading. I chose Ghostwatch, a 1992 British made-for-TV faux-documentary (PG or PG-13), and watched it for free on YouTube (update: it might not be available anymore).
The plot: the BBC investigates a claimed haunting. To heighten the atmosphere, they do the investigation on Halloween night, splitting time between their studios and a housing project. The show starts slowly. Host Michael Parkinson (played by himself) and parapsychologist Dr. Lin Pascoe (played by an actress) take phone calls from people who claim to see a shadowy figure in early footage of the girls’ bedroom. Craig Charles of Red Dwarf fame plays himself, interviewing people outside the house. Reporter Sarah Greene (playing herself) enters the house to talk to the mother and her daughters.
Pamela Early and her two daughters claim they’ve been tormented by poltergeist activity for months. The name of the ghost in question is Pipes, who got his name because that’s what the mother said when her daughters asked what was making the awful sounds. Starting with thumps and bumps, the ghostly activity quickly escalates to spooky voices and physical phenomena, with unexplained scratches appearing on the older daughter’s face.
More people call in, claiming the figure in the bedroom is an old man or woman wearing a black dress. The mother tells a spooky story about getting stuck in the glory hole, the little room beneath the staircase. I’m not sure if Ghostwatch’s writers knew what a glory hole is, but from what we learn about Pipes later on I’d say they did. The plot chugs along the way you’d expect, before veering off course.
Loosely based on the Enfield hauntings, Ghostwatch is utter fiction but apparently a number of viewers didn’t know that when it aired. The BBC reporters play themselves, but everyone else is an actor. Despite being made-for-TV, Ghostwatch is a scary movie. We only catch glimpses of the really disturbing stuff– the half-seen pictures Pipes drew in the older daughter’s school notebooks, the ghost’s guttural voice and of course Pipes himself. We never see the elusive spirit clearly, but he’s around. You can do a Google search to find out where he appears.