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Craig's Movie Club
Film/Video Reviews

Horror films reviewed with a discerning eye.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) and
Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2001)

Originally published in somewhat different form in The Green Man Review.

In 1994, local Montgomery College film students Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams came to Burkittsville, MD, to make the definitive documentary on the legend of the Blair Witch. They set out into the forest with several cans of film, primitive camping equipment, and very little patience for each other. They were never seen again. A year later, some anthropology students found a duffel bag filled with the lost students' equipment buried under the foundation of a century-old cabin in the woods.

The Blair Witch Project is a scare-fest from the old school. There are none of the nausea-inducing ingredients of the slasher genre (except perhaps for the handheld camera work, which left many viewers motion-sick); everything is suggested. Also at play here is the immortal fear of the dark and the unknown. Other than being irretrievably lost, nothing eventful happens to Heather, Josh, and Mike...in the daytime.

It is the night that brings out the terrors. The three hear strange noises--like the far-off laughter of a child--and wake up to strange stick figures and rock piles having been placed just outside their tent while they were asleep.

The tension increases steadily, with the three constantly blaming each other for being lost, until one morning... Josh is gone. While looking for him, they come upon an old house in the woods. In their search, Heather and Mike are separated, which leads up to the eeriest ending on film.

The story of the witch is barely explained, and she never appears at all (detailed backstory is available at the website). We are given just enough information to follow the film's story and be absolutely freaked out at the right moments. The natural acting of the leads is what really carries us. These people look and act terrified in a way that feels real. As annoying as they may be, sometimes, I feared for them.

As a horror film, The Blair Witch Project reaches heights of terror that can only be achieved on a low-budget, where the imagination has to be used because the filmmakers can't afford to show anything. This film taps into childhood fears--like a campfire story--fears we may think we've outgrown, but that merely were no longer being tested.

Its sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, first of all, plays its cards right by not even attempting to repeat the success of the original. A repeat of the original--while expected--could not have come close. Therefore, on its release, it met with ferociously mixed reviews simply because it was not what was expected--a soulless retread of the beloved original. What we got instead was a multi-layered film that comments on society in the guise of a horror film.

Five people, all fans or students of the phenomenon that is The Blair Witch Project, meet on a Blair Witch Tour of Burkittsville to see the town's sights made famous by the first film. These are Jeff, the tour guide, who we find out has just been released from an institution; Kim, the goth chick cynic; Erica, the sweet-natured Wiccan out to clear the witch's name; and Stephen and Tristen, a couple who are writing a book on the subject.

The entirety of Book of Shadows' plot lies in its commentary on the phenomenon that accompanied The Blair Witch Project's initial release. These characters are all obsessed with the mythology of the film. Though they know it is fiction, they react to it as reality, one of them even going so far as to set up a Blair Witch Tour of the locations used in the film--specifically the remains of Rustin Parr's cabin in the woods, where the important action of the film takes place. Signing up for this tour is how they all meet.

As part of the tour, Jeff takes them--complete with film equipment--out to the cabin--or what's left of it--where they meet up with another tour group. There is some argument as to who is going to sleep at the cabin, but "our" group wins and proceed to have one of the biggest drug and drink benders five total strangers can have with each other. Come morning, they wake up to find they don't remember much of what happened and the equipment is missing. They first suspect the other tourists, but when Kim finds it hidden under a pile of rocks, they decide the only way to find out the truth is to go to Jeff's place (an abandoned broom factory) and watch the video.

The rest of the film consists of their watching and rewatching the video, and finding out things they didn't want to know. During the viewing, snippets of footage (or is it memory?) find their way onto the video, and since we see the events from the characters' points of view, it is left up to us to decide whether what we are seeing is real or the product of a shared delusion. The acting is solid, and the discoveries are made in a well-done manner. Very scary and surreal. Even the discovery of who was in charge was done slowly and subtly. I was surprised by every twist and turn and the director should be commended for making what could have been a simple slice-and-dice into a thought-provoking, well-written, scary film.

x As with the first film, the characters have the same first names as the actors but, in this one, they have different last names, giving the film a sense of not-quite reality. Also contributing to this surreal experience are several "ghost images' that appear throughout the film, but are deliberately not brought to our attention. (The DVD, however, offers visual tricks and obscure hints to their meaning. Door. Rug. Grave. Mirror. Water.) One realizes at the end that the entire film is a commentary on the first one and the public's response to it. This commentary is multi-layered and includes the last line spoken.

Book of Shadows is not a scare-fest, but it is a creep-fest. The atmosphere from the beginning is one of uncertainty, one that takes us on a journey that we're sure is not going to turn out right. But its subtleties--especially those ghost images!--are almost overwhelming. Visually, there's too much going on for us to be able to concentrate on the storyline and its resolution. But that simply makes for a feeling of unease, which fits here perfectly.

Deep in the Woods (2000)

A French slasher film. Who would've thought? And it's quite good.

To start, this thing is moody as all get out. The one thing I kept thinking was that it most reminded me of Suspiria, and other Dario Argento films. Probably just the European connection.

The plot is simple (always a plus in this genre): five college kids drive out to an old mansion in order to put on a surreal stage version of Little Red Riding Hood for the owner's creepy son (and, boy, was this kid creepy!). After a few tokes (and a gratuitous--although not unappreciated--Lesbian scene), they run out into the woods. After they return to the house, they notice one hasn't come back.

Then they start dying one by one.

For a slasher film, this one really held my interest. I kept wondering who was going to die next. And who was doing the killing. But all that doesn't really matter. The real star here is the direction. The moody eerieness never lets up from the beginning. Plus, effects like the use of after-shower steam as a vision obstruction brought a novelty to a tired field. And then there's that creepy kid. It doesn't take much, just for the kid to stare with wide open eyes, but it works.

The acting I can't really say much about. The English was dubbed instead of subtitled (I guess this was not marketed to foreign film fans, but horror fans), so it's hard to tell whether the acting was being done by the bodies or the voices. I was not disappointed in either, however.

I would definitely recommend this for fans of Argento (or other European horror filmmakers), or anyone looking for fresh ideas in the slasher subgenre.

Hollow Man (2000)

Director Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct) puts out another stinker, this time a sexually explicit (although tamer than usual for Verhoeven) look at the Invisible Man genre.

Kevin Bacon stars as Sebastian Caine (with that name you know we're in for it), a research scientist working on an invisibility potion for the military. After a (just barely) successful experiment on an ape, he (against the cries of partners Elisabeth Shue and Josh Brolin) decides to take the next step and inject himself with the serum. The plan is to bring him back in three days, but after the rejuvenation serum fails, he is stuck invisible for over a week.

At this point, Hollow Man veers from mediocre effects thriller to sexually deviant mediocre effects thriller. Caine begins exhibiting the behavior of a teenage boy on the loose, with violent consequences. Bacon does manage to breathe some life into the character, especially at the beginning, but Shue and Brolin are nothing close to believable in their roles.

On the plus side, the special effects are marvelous, particularly with "minor" ones like the latex mask Caine wears to give his face some visible form. You can see through the eyeholes to the back of the mask. Actually, all the "invisibility" effects were stunning, but you can't expect effects to carry a film with a weak storyline. Hollow Man might be good for a late night TV viewing, but I wouldn't suggest paying money for it.

Session 9 (2001)

This has to be the creepiest movie I have seen since The Changeling. Don't be turned off by the presence of David Caruso, he gives a solid performance. But the star of this film is the little-known Peter Mullan, who plays Gordon. His character is in almost every scene, and he is entirely believable in all of them. He never hits a wrong note.

The setting is an old asylum where the guys are hired to remove the asbestos. As soon as they get there, weird things start happening that they can't explain. Comparisons to The Shining are inevitable, but--I believe--are misplaced. Where that movie was merely icky, this one is terrifying. I was exhausted after watching this movie, and I realized how tense I was throughout, but couldn't help it--I wanted to keep watching.

Gore and violence are minimal here, the mood is all that is needed. It starts out eerie and never lets up, even until the end.

If you are tired of all the slasher films masquerading as horror, and are looking for something that is genuinely scary, this is a good bet, especially if you are a fan of The Changeling with George C. Scott. They don't really make them like this one much anymore, so when they do, it is a real treat.

Single White Female (1992)

After the artistic and critical success of Reversal of Fortune, director Barbet Schroeder somehow came to the conclusion that a cheesy suspense film was the next logical step. Oh, well.

Bridget Fonda plays a girl so bland I can't remember her name, a newly single girl searching for a roommate after splitting up with her boyfriend, Sam (Steven Weber in a barely-written role), because he cheated on her. Enter Heddy (Jennifer Jason Leigh)--the opposite of Bridget--dark and brooding to her cheerful and sunny. As must happen for the story to continue, they hit it off immediately. Except that Heddy is a little possessive. We see this unfold in a series of unsubtle ways such as when Bridget comes in after a night out and Heddy rumbles, "where the **** have you been all night?" Of course, I've seen movies like this before so I know this is a harbinger of things to come. But I guess Bridget doesn't watch the same movies I do. In any case, that wouldn't be much of a movie. Then again, neither is this.

Heddy increasingly shows herself to be rather unstable. She buys clothes identical to Bridget's, has her hair done like her (including creepy, lightened eyebrows), and starts flirting with the returned Sam...

(Let's skip ahead a bit, shall we?)

Okay, so Bridget finds out that Heddy used to be a twin, and that her name is really Ellen Besch and this somehow means she's nuts, got it? Leigh, hard-working actress that she is, has, of course, been showing us this all along, but Bridget is too caught up in her own problems (isn't that always the way?) to catch on.

At some point--I forget when, but it doesn't really matter--Bridget decides that she is going to move in again with Sam, so Heddy's out, right? Heddy tries to get Bridget to dump Sam again, because he cheated before and he'll do it again, you know? Oh yeah, and Heddy has taken to dressing up like Bridget, even getting her hair done like hers (yes this is important, read on), and they do look alike. (It's especially creepy when you think that Eric Stoltz dumped one to take up with the other, I forget the order.)

So, Heddy sneaks in to his room one night (dressed as Bridget) and--how can I say this?--pleasures him from below. He balks upon discovery of her identity, so she kills him with a high heel to the eye (ouch!). Meanwhile, she has already beaten senseless the gay neighbor of Bridget and left him in his bathtub. I say senseless although we're supposed to think he's dead. Even though when he is shown lying in the tub, my first thought was "his color's awfully good for a dead guy."

So, anyway, Heddy tries to kill Bridget in a long and drawn out "suspense" scene where nothing surprising happens, except that stupid Bridget wins in the end. Now is that fair? Why kill off the more interesting character?

But, Heddy's dead now, okay? You would think that would be the end of the movie, since everyone else is dead, too, but, no, there's an unnecessary epilogue where--since Heddy was crazy--Bridget decides to forgive her, and Sam, and herself, and the cat, and the dead dog. And the director, I hope.

I wish I could forgive myself for watching this.

Soul Survivors: The Killer Cut (2001)

I never saw this in the theater, so I don't know the difference between the original version and this one. All I know is that this version of the film walks the line between entertaining and preposterous, more often falling off the side of the latter.

To begin, the lead actress (Melissa Sagemiller) is certainly cute enough to hold one's attention, but she isn't given much to do. She continually sees her dead boyfriend, Sean (Casey Affleck), around campus. Yeah, okay, but isn't three times enough? And Affleck gives a performance that is so low-key one wonders if he thought his character was dead even before the fatal car crash.

Eliza Dushku (character name forgotten and unnecessary) plays Sagemiller's best friend, who just happens to be going out with Sagemiller's ex-boyfriend (Wes Bentley) who just happens to still have a thing for her. Dushku's character is the most interesting of the bunch, but that's probably because she is the archetypal "bad girl with some Lesbian tendencies" and walks around in revealing tops throughout the film.

Bentley is clearly the best actor here, making even his worst lines smack of sincerity. I never once laughed at him. And speaking of sincerity, Luke Wilson plays a priest who is the most *sincere* character I have seen in a movie in years. You keep waiting for him to come on to Sagemiller or something, but he never does anything reproachable. I mean, why have a priest in a horror movie if he isn't going to be villainous?

Some of these situations and character motivations actually make some sense once you know the ending of the film. Some. But, that is not to say I would recommend watching it more than once--or even once for that matter.

Thirteen Ghosts (2001)

When the best thing about a DVD is the extra telling you the back stories of all the ghosts, you know you're in trouble.

The cast tries hard, though. Matthew Lillard is the standout here, but only because of his usual histrionic line-readings. Poor Tony Shalhoub tries to turn in an actual multi-layered performance and just gets lost in all the proceedings. He simply can't compete. Shannon Elizabeth is only there as eye candy in a scene where her top is shredded by one ghost, but only because the script doesn't give her anything else to do. And their black maid (they can't pay their bills, but they can afford a housekeeper?)--whose name, fortunately for her, I can't remember--is only there to spout unfunny one-liners about "crazy white people." F. Murray Abraham also appears as the obligatory overacting Oscar winner responsible for it all (see Geoffrey Rush in House on Haunted Hill--or, better yet, don't).

This movie is nothing but an excuse for a lot of visual effects--which are done well, but are not a good basis for a movie.

(For some reason beyond me--except the fact that it's trendy--the cover of the DVD spells the title as "Thir13en Ghosts.")

  • Halloween -- Forget the sequels, John Carpenter's masterpiece is best left to speak for itself.
  • Psycho -- Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of minimalism. Shot on a TV budget with a TV crew, it's amazing that it holds up as well as it does, even after you know the surprises.
  • ...more to come...