The Horror, The Horror
The Horror, The Horror (A Double Feature)
The “horror” section of Netflix Instant is pretty terrifying. It is a wasteland of direct-to-video slashfests that have little to offer in the way of genuine thrills with a few really great classics and some hidden treasures smattered within. If you’re someone who watches a lot of horror films on the regular, it can be tough to find something worth your time that you haven’t already seen a million and one times. This week we have two independent haunted house flicks that are smashingly fun and entertaining, treading a lot of well-covered ground, but in interesting ways—and providing the exact right amount of scares to remind you why you stopped by. Not to mention, they both take those over-produced monstrosities and remakes filling the box-office and school them with their tiny budgets, no-name actors, and inventive, thrilling scares. They aren’t without their warts, and they probably won’t be making any “best-of” lists anytime soon, but damn if they both don’t have a ton to offer.
You Were Supposed to Watch This But Haven’t Gotten Around to It: The Innkeepers (2011, Written and Directed by Ti West)
Ti West busted onto the independent film scene with the decidedly excellent The House of the Devil in 2009 (see next week’s Graveyard Shift for more), and has contributed to both The ABC’s of Death (2012) and V/H/S (2012). He has an absolute knack for taking our most tired and expected horror tropes and breathing fresh life into them, imaginatively distorting expectations and shattering conventions. While The Innkeepers is significantly weaker than its predecessor, not really spinning some of its moves into something truly transcendent, West proves once again that he is the absolute master of creating a chilling, jump-worthy atmosphere. This time he sets up in the real Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut on the hotel’s last weekend in business. The place is desolate, empty save for one very strange guest, the actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), and hotel staff Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healey) work to fight the boredom on their interminably long final shifts. Both, of course, are ghost-hunting enthusiasts, and they while away their shift swapping stories about the hotel’s history, like the tale of Madeline O’Malley, the bride abandoned on her honeymoon. As the hours stretch on, things start to happen: noises and whispers fill the air, and Leanne warns Claire not to go in the basement, and Luke breaks out his recording equipment to see if they can stir up any of the hotel’s notorious spooks.
The tension building in this creepy space is phenomenal—West keeps the creaking hotel tensed towards some genuine scares, and placing Claire in some terrifying spaces. You will spend a lot of time yelling at Claire—you get invested in her curiosity pretty quickly, she is, after all, just a horror fan—and these are the times when your own knowledge of horror canon can work against you. There are also some effects that fall flat (there is one in particular that will first elicit a jump and then hang around for just long enough to reveal that it is actually kind of un-scary), but for the most part, this one keeps you tense-ly on the edge of your seat—right up to the creepy, and unexpected, ending.
You’ll Never in a Million Years Watch This Without Someone Telling You To Do So: The Pact (2012, Written and Directed by Nicholas McCarthy)
While Nicholas McCarthy hasn’t had as much press, or as much time to impress, as Ti West has enjoyed, he also stepped briefly into the spotlight with a short film called The Pact in 2011—this film is the longer version based on that first outing, and it shows a lot of promise for this up-and-coming filmmaker. Though a lot of the beats that this movie hits early on seem to be your standard haunted house fare, it pretty quickly moves away from the expected and turns into something fabulously creepy and tense. The story opens with Liz (Kathleen Rose Perkins) returning to her childhood home after her mother’s death to take care of the place and prepare for the funeral. She leaves her daughter Eva (Dakota Bright) with her cousin Nichole (Agnes Bruckner), and packs up the home, while imploring her younger sister Annie (Caity Lotz) to help her out. But within hours of her arrival, Liz is plagued by the creeps, and disappears into the house, spirited away—and noted missing at her mother’s funeral. Nichole and a hesitant Annie take over the search, but when Nichole also disappears into the house, Annie realizes that she may be in over her head. Those pesky ghosts might have something to do with her decision to go to the police, where she meets up with Detective Creek (Caspar Van Dien, if you were wondering what happened to him) who is skeptical about her assertions of ghosts, but intrigued by the strange things they find around the house.
The story here is genuinely interesting—it really is quite a creative and twisty take on our expectations of a haunted house thriller—but what makes this worth your time (despite never, ridiculously, getting a theatrical release) is the imagery that McCarthy evokes out of the cramped spaces of the tiny ranch house where most of this is filmed. The camera work is particularly compelling, as are the special effects, but to say much more about what makes them work so well might give away what also makes this film so special, and so scary. The weakest link here is really the acting—Lotz, who you might recognize as Anna Draper’s niece from two or three episodes of Mad Men—is great in many of the scenes here, and is thoroughly scrappy as hell (you can’t help rooting for her) but in the quieter emotional scenes, she can’t sell “anger” or “frustration” without looking like she is acting. Van Dien is actually kind of good here, he has grown into a gravitas that suits his stature, but still isn’t able to push by some of the weaker dialogue. If you can make it past these few scenes without being taken out of the film entirely, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most fun, and most twistingly creative little horror flicks never to make it to the silver screen.