Thursday, March 21, 2013

When the Lights Went Out

I came to When the Lights Went Out with absolutely no fixed ideas or suppositions – something rare in this age of information saturation. With somewhat misleading posters and hooks (based on a true story is probably one axiom in the horror climate certain to provoke distrust), I was somewhat surprised to find a domestic ghost story that is both intriguing and alternative: light years away from the usual forged glamour peddled out every time a major studio attempts to translate something rooted in truth.

When the Lights Went Out is based on The Black Monk of Pontefract (a 1974 British poltergeist haunting occurring in the home of Joe and Jean Pritchett). The real-life case in Yorkshire – although never reaching the lofty global proportions of The Amityville Horror – was still devastating to the local community as a whole. One of the greatest strengths of this film is a viewer’s curiosity will be piqued enough to seek out the true story for themselves. Thankfully bereft of any found footage tropes, the makers have still managed to craft a sobering reality reflective of working-class life in Yorkshire during a time of industrial recession and constant electrical blackouts.

As a haunted house tale, the beginning is a familiar one: the Maynard's have purchased a new suburban house in the pursuit of new beginnings. Len, Jenny, and daughter Sally are an archetypal working class family. Hauntings begin subtly but then quickly dovetail into abrasive acts singling out young Sally at the center of the maelstrom. Momentarily stagnant and with no way to escape their dilemma, Len turns to the local media in order to make some quick cash. At this juncture, other residents of the town are drawn into the family’s plight: most notably Sally’s best friend and her high-school teacher ... a man who then becomes charged with discovering the identity of the presence in residence.

What other reviewers have pointed out (and what is outwardly obvious), is there is nothing here we haven’t seen before. Instead, it excels in other avenues – markedly how the production has brought to life the aching nostalgia of a certain period. Here all things seventies have been evoked with an uncanny attention to detail: retro cars, flairs, haircuts ... even the carpets and wallpaper. Merge all of this with the cockney accents and you have a fitting movie even without the supernatural overtones. Although things are measured and leisurely in this regard (the supernatural), there are just enough key moments of genuine creepiness to make this Yorkshire ghost tale worth the telling. When the human element of the haunting comes into play (relationships ripped asunder because of doubt and suspicion), we see a vulnerable side of the family bordering on heartbreaking. The climax, though riddled with unnecessary special effects, is surprisingly one of hope ... something all too rare among the current crop of modern supernatural cinema.     

All told, this is an excursion that will not go down among the pantheon of classics; however, I can recommend it for the domestic component alone. Dark, diverse, and above all atypical, When the Lights Went Out is subtle viewing for those of us exhausted by the franchise mill.   

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Collector

A script originally intended as a SAW prequel, The Collector is undeniably a film falling into the same sub-genre as that particular franchise. Although there are certainly elements of torture porn here (a now much-maligned turn of phrase and one I hesitate in using), this 2009 outing raises the bar slightly higher in terms of style and keeps the physical suffering at a level explicit enough to be subtle. 

Detroit, Michigan: the Chase family has moved into an isolated mansion far from the city. Renovations have begun in earnest, and taking work at the property as a handyman is troubled Arkin – an ex-con who is now walking the straight and narrow. Though loose ends abound in life ... namely that of large sums of money owed to his ex-wife. If payment of the debt is not made swiftly, his ex-wife’s creditors will soon inflict pain upon the entire family ... including Arkin’s young daughter Cindy.

During the course of his work, Arkin becomes privy to every nook and cranny of the Chase estate, learning its stairways and floorboards intimately - including which wall-mounted piece of art hides Michael Chase’s combination safe. With the life of his family at stake, Arkin must make one last (final and desperate) heist to secure freedom for his daughter.

At first everything seems textbook for the robbery ... but it soon becomes evident another has targeted the family on this particular night. With the entire house rigged with sophisticated booby-traps engineered for maximum suffering, our would-be thief becomes an unwilling witness to his employer’s slow demise at the hands of a masked psychopath. Flitting from room to room in a locked house of horrors and trying desperately to save a family in the process, Arkin’s almost total anonymity now becomes his only way out.

One thing I noticed almost right off the bat: there are a lot of parallels in this narrative and Dean Koontz’s 1995 book Intensity. Both feature an unseen hero in a game of cat and mouse with a similar antagonist. Our ‘collector’ here is a kind of human predator mimicking the world of arachnids by trapping humans in a literal ‘web.’ That’s not to say there isn’t originality; for such a small budget the overall sound and visual aesthetic is unique. Like a dark music video, a heavy atmosphere is married with strobe sequences to create a kind of ‘snuff’ ambience. When the action takes over, the director employs the use of excessive slow motion that might be over the top anywhere else, but somehow feels right at home here. We have the distinct impression this is a film that takes itself seriously. Suspension of belief is required, but it almost always is when dealing with a new threat in the genre.

Although we do not have a lofty horror icon in the offing, there are just enough small highlights to guarantee an extended franchise.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


As a sub-genre of science fiction and horror, alien abduction films will always be here to fill a niche. Whether they are under a fictional guise (Signs) or marketed as a true story (Communion), the ever pervading fear of a genuine unknown entity entering a domestic setting seems to be a notion as ancient as the stories themselves. Ranging from the primeval folklore tales of succubus and incubus to the modern phenomenon of ‘the Grays’ coming into our collective consciousness in the latter part of the twentieth century, there is no shortage of descriptive physical characteristics and theories as to who they are or what motives compel them to engage with the human species. In Dark Skies, writer/director Scott Stewart takes an average American family and subjects them to his own dark interpretation of a modern alien encounter.

When the movie first came to my attention, I thought it was perhaps a film version of the eighteen-episode science fiction series that debuted in the late nineties, riding on the coat-tails of a certain successful show called The X-Files. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case – and a quick perusal of the director’s previous forays into cinema revealed someone who (although achieving questionable results in the past with Legion), was looking to be setting up shop in the horror genre, but had yet to hit his stride or find quite the right project to call home. However, despite a few problems - mainly due to the unoriginality of the story – it seems Dark Skies as a working whole will win some critics over and give the director just the kind of clout he needs to branch out in future endeavors.

The Barnett family are white, middle-class suburbanites. Their existence is mundane if relatively happy. Lacy (Keri Russell) works as real estate agent and although an unemployed architect her husband (Daniel) is optimistic about his future. Their two sons, Jessie and Sammy, communicate at night through a set of walkie-talkies in separate bedrooms. Soon, the family experiences some common tropes of poltergeist activity: fridges are raided, furniture is rearranged, and in one instance the entire mosaic of their photo collection is filched with the frames entirely intact. The authorities are sought, but with no hard evidence, Daniel takes matters into his own hands by putting the house under surveillance with security cameras. When the terrors escalate into missing time, implants, and the manifestations of otherworldly creatures on camera, it soon becomes apparent the events are merely a precursor to a countdown or ‘final moment’ of unknown agenda.

It all sounds a tad formulaic, doesn’t it? And (at least on paper), I’d agree. However, there is a simple ambiance in Dark Skies that works. The soundtrack is used sparingly and sometimes not at all; silence itself becomes a sound. When each member of the family experiences dangerous fugue states, all actors (including the children) give credible performances that give the whole outing a genuine feeling of unease.

Lastly, it should be noted there are more than a few similarities between this movie and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. Whereas one dealt with the alien abduction phenomenon in a rural setting, this one transports us to an urban environment - and ultimately we have the same mixed results. If anything, Scott Stewart proves he has learned one important lesson from the successful director who tackled the subject matter before him: that in any suspense film, no matter the size of your budget, the biggest scares always come from what is suggested ... and not from what is shown.