Horror Spooktober

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)
Director: Beom-sik Jeong
Writer: Beom-sik Jeong, Sang-min Park
Cast: Wi Ha-Joon, Yoo Je-Yoon, Seung-Wook Lee
Genre: Horror
Country: South Korea

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

You may have caught from my review of The Power, which immediately precedes this review, that I am a fan of horror movies in hospitals. I can hedge on that despite being generally inconsistent as a person, proven by how much I enjoyed Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum almost entirely on the principle that it’s set in the most decrepit hospital imaginable. So try to further imagine how joyed I was when I found out it had other things going for it, too.

The title does not mislead, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum does revolve around a haunted asylum named Gonjiam. Following the disappearance of two teenage boys who broke into the abandoned place, Ha-joon (Wi Ha-Joon) seizes the opportunity to prop up his YouTube channel “Horror Times,” enlisting a number of folks to help his venture and explore Gonjiam on a livestream. And since writer/director Beom-sik Jeong and co-writer Sang-min Park are thankfully not under any pretence that this movie is anything more than it is or needs to be, that about sums the plot (in keeping with its title, the movie is efficient), and from there we just watch this group of people get fucked around with for our delight, as these things tend to go.

More delightfully, Gonjiam manages to overcome many faults other found footage movies fall into by understanding an elemental rule in horror: simplicity is gold. This is not a movie with needless arcs or burdensome, contrived plot threads – we know why we’re here, it knows why we’re here, it doesn’t complicate things. Hell, it even understands we’re meant to like the characters – of whom one presumes a significant portion will face death or trauma of some sort – and so spends the first little bit establishing these characters and building their personalities, showing them doing everyday things and just being everyday people. Many a found footage film falls painfully flat when trying to get us to care for its expendable meatsacks, so all the better that such scenes in Gonjiam actually do endear us to this cast. They jive with each other quite pleasantly, and Charlotte (Ye-Won Mun) easily qualifies as a modern horror icon – of this I am certain.

But this isn’t a John Hughes film, we’re not here to see a tale of youthful camaraderie. Gonjiam, keeping in spirit with its aforementioned efficiency, shepherds us right to the namesake asylum and gets things going in earnest, starting us off with some light spooks and gradually getting more unsettling. This is mostly successful, though we get some House on Haunted Hill riffs that are admittedly a tad tired, as if we haven’t been subjected to the grand irony of “these characters are setting up fake scares, but we the viewers know the ghosts are actually real” over the last handful of decades, consequently making it feel like a narratively okay detour, though a detour nonetheless (it’s not the biggest deal, but for a movie so eager to get things going it feels like an unsatisfying cockblock).

When we do get to the ghosts they’re largely excellent – one particular scene with a Silent Hill-esque ghost creature, slowly stalking us through back-and-forth POV shots, is as intense as any horror scene the past decade – and Gonjiam typically opts for steadily mounting dread over outright jump scares. The movie’s nasty abandoned asylum set gives it an easy advantage: it frankly doesn’t have to do a whole lot to be exquisitely creepy, and cinematographer Yoon Byung-ho has an eye for optimal angles within the asylum’s spaces, the best of which being Room 402, warping reality and harbouring the majority of the film’s malevolent entities. The editing’s fairly decent – everyone’s outfitted in cameras and we’re constantly flitting from person to person, yet we maintain a consistent sense of where we and every character is, plus there’s discernible flow to everything. Thank god for this, as found footage movies have a tendency to go bugshit towards the end, usually culminating in an editing catastrophe.

Of course, it’s worth noting that what this all amounts to when said and done is textbook boilerplate. Gonjiam isn’t doing anything particularly novel, although one can argue – and I will – that it has no desire to, and functions more so as a case study on how good production design and a game cast and crew can take common, simple ingredients and present them in a satisfying way. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an annual haunted house: creepy and familiar, a bit of a fleeting memory afterward, yet a pleasure all the same.

Horror Spooktober

The Power (2021)

The Power (2021)
Director: Corinna Faith
Writer: Corinna Faith
Cast: Rose Williams, Emma Rigby, Shakira Rahman
Genre: Horror
Country: United Kingdom

Rating: 3 out of 5.

If you want to finetune a horror movie to my taste, you can either make it a period piece or set it in a hospital. The Power does both these things, so we’re off to a sterling start.

Better yet, writer/director Corinna Faith hinges the movie’s entire atmosphere on 1970s set dressing and accompanying hospital rooms and corridors, each littered with doors leading into seeming voids, and in darkness seem off-puttingly long. It’s the correct choice, a perfect environment to take the pure Val (Rose Williams) and ruin her evening. And what a setting! London, 1974, during the miner’s strike that led to evening blackouts – and Val, ever earnest and wishing to further understand the links between poverty and wellbeing, must prove her worth as a nurse to the hospital’s matron (Diveen Henry) by working the “dark shift.” As this is a horror movie, we can assume the barebones staff working through the darkness aren’t going to bide their time playing chess.

The Power‘s bones are very good, and the first 15 minutes or so do an excellent job establishing a general sense of ‘off-ness’ within the hospital, and establishing that Val is a protagonist I will feel quite bad for when terrible things start happening. There’s immediate tension, helped by an excellent motif in the sound design wherein the soundscape fills with crackles and droning noise as Val approaches dark closets and rooms.

Things get exciting when the hospital’s lights shut off, quickly enveloping Val in a darkness we’re well aware probably contains unsavoury things, and The Power keeps things in a consistent unnerving mode. Val’s an endearing protagonist, and has a purity that makes anything terrible happening to her all the more affecting. Unfortunately, this is also where The Power runs into something of a wall – you see, it never achieves much beyond that mode, and in fact becomes gradually less scary as the movie starts showing its true hand. Faith has a grim story to tell, but there’s a lightness to everything, it all feels a bit less serious and grave than the themes suggest it ought to. Case in point: most supporting characters are eclectic and theatrical, usually speaking in quips – and while that’s good for a haunted hospital movie that wants to be fun, it’s considerably less effective for ones that delve right into “oh shit” topics like The Power does.

There’s also the problem that we don’t have a sense for what’s happening narratively until the last half of the film. I don’t mean this as in it’s a slow-burn, unravelling a grand narrative that pays off in the end. That would be reasonable and something I can’t clock as much. Rather, The Power feels like it’s going through a rolodex of things that could each be The Point. At the beginning, you think it’s going to be a tale of poverty and the effects of political ineptitude, tying into the blackouts themselves and suggested as much by Val’s motive for becoming a nurse. Then you get the sense the movie will tie into the misogyny of the time period. It kind of ends up doing all that by the end, but somewhere around the midpoint the movie becomes about child abuse and plows full steam ahead on that, largely abandoning those prior two topics. It examines abuse in a fine though superficial way, relying more on the inherent horror of it than much else.

Aside from that, the hospital sets are terrific and fine-tuned for scary times, and Val’s face is often softly lit amongst the blackness, emphasising her routinely terrified expressions, and it all works to conjure that tense atmosphere I mentioned before. I ran into an issue – and I don’t know whether this is a Shudder (of which The Power‘s an exclusive) fault or a filmmaker fault – where said darkness was quite compressed, making its varying shades of blackness distractingly pixelated. I’d like to say this added a sense of grittiness to the proceedings and therefore heightened the movie’s spook factor, but alas, it just ended up bothering the hell out of me and making me yearn for glorious smooth gradients.

None of this is to say that The Power‘s bad. It isn’t. It’s competently made and boasts some excellent sequences of growing tension. It’s bursting with great ideas, the potential for something great is staring us in the face, but its too light on its feet to buckle down and manifest these ideas into something special in the horror realm. I found myself wanting more, and that can interpreted in both a good and bad sense.

Horror Spooktober

Candyman (2021)

Candyman (2021)
Director: Nia DeCosta
Writers: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfield, Nia DeCosta
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I wanted to love Candyman. The 1992 original stands as a rare gem in 90s horror – genuinely scary and bursting with theme in a remarkable way not oft seen – and it’s certainly a classic overall. Candyman ’21 acts as a direct sequel to Candyman ’92, continuing this trend of sequels to excellent horrors that show their sequeldom with neither numbers nor subtitles, but rather copy/pasting their predecessor’s title, ala 2018’s Halloween. I guess that’s the state of affairs these days. Regardless, here we are – Candyman, the sequel to Candyman.

Candyman has pros, quite a few in fact, but it has some exceptionally glaring problems, many of which stop the movie right in its tracks. Before anything else, though, the particulars: Cabrini-Green, an affordable housing project in Chicago rife with problems (it has a fascinating history and I encourage you to read into it) and where Candyman ’92 took place, has since been rezoned into upscale living. Artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director, have moved into one of these upscale developments, where Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), regales them on Cabrini-Green’s history. Anthony, struggling to make further headway in the Chicago art scene, meets Billy (Colman Domingo), who teaches him the legend of the Candyman – a hooked supernatural killer who, as you probably already know, can be easily summoned by saying his names five times in a mirror. Inspired by this legend, Anthony imbues the Candyman in his next exhibition, to which he receives decidedly mixed reception. However, Anthony’s exhibit handed out pamphlets inviting naïve visitors to summon the Candyman, and that bit got me particularly excited. Plus, Anthony got stung by a bee prior to meeting Billy, and it’s turning pretty nasty, and Anthony himself is becoming a tad unhinged. Off we go.

Credit where its due, exploring the gentrified neighbourhood where Cabrini-Green once stood is a brilliant idea for a Candyman sequel, and the idea of legends providing purpose – for better and for worse – and how that intersects with one’s capacity for violence is an excellent framework to hang the movie’s themes around. In fact, if you were to just read the entire story on Wikipedia or wherever you’d probably be impressed and think it sounds great.

So how the hell does Candyman drop the ball?

Candyman‘s conspicuously a Message Movie, that’s never not been in question, but it’s perhaps too conspicuous about it. It’s one of the worst types of message movies: patronizing in its inability to trust your sense of nuance, brimmed with expository dialogue that sounds like characters reading out dictionary definitions of the movie’s themes – and believe me, every theme gets its moment in the sun this way – and it’s all to the point where I’m thinking that DeCosta and company had no faith in the story itself to convey the ideas they wanted to express, and so had to add these stilted ‘assurances’ from the characters that, yes, we indeed understand what’s happening and the theme du jour. I get that in the year of our lord 2021 the notion of metaphor’s out the window, but it holds Candyman back quite a bit in that we’re spending more time spelling out these themes than, you know, actually diving into them.

The characters functioning like exposition/plot vessels than people don’t help. They more or less speak in tweets, with a kind of airy wit that sucks the gravity out of most scenes (much of the first half feels more like a Velvet Buzzsaw sequel than anything else). Everyone’s acting at the same register of lightly sassy with the notable exception of Abdul-Mateen II, who greatly succeeds at portraying somebody inching ever closer over a mental cliff, harbouring some primal, violent energy within that manifests in sporadic body movements and facial expressions. So there’s that if little else.

And, of course, one does not see a movie called Candyman without some expectation of hook-related slayings. This iteration has some splendid deaths, particularly one in an apartment window as we pan out on the Chicago skyline, the frame illuminated with a bunch of people going about their high-rise lives while the victim meets their fate, just excellent all around. The other kills are quite good, like a slaying in an art gallery with a brutal bloody throat slash, or a bathroom scene that’s conversely bloodlessly brutal. On top of this, we have Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s terrific score guiding us through these moments, playing on dissonance than Philip Glass’ bleak compositions, though Glass’ original theme makes some well-timed appearances. Alas, these kills aren’t perfect – Candyman relies on neon red blood that looks more like juice than actual blood, and some especially artificial-looking prosthetics, that take much away from the shock inherent to these killings and the occasional strides into body horror the movie makes.

Which, frankly, speaks to Candyman‘s broad problem in that its stylistic leanings tend to get in the whole movie’s way. The blood’s a simple example. More so, the polished visuals are too polished to invoke a sense of oppression and danger, something Candyman ’92 accomplished exquisitely well. Make no mistake, Candyman has some beautiful visuals and DeCosta has an eye for assembling very pleasing compositions, many of which play with colour and shadow, usually pushing the Candyman into the back of the frame (there’s a shot of the Candyman imposed in the dark next the soft neon of an art gallery that is simply A+), but these, again, are more pleasing than they are conducive to creating a sense of horror.

Not worst of all, but up there, the editing’s very choppy – surprisingly choppy – often lurching us awkwardly from scene to scene and usually missing the ideal cut points +/- a few seconds. It creates this sense of disjointedness that kills the movie’s momentum, making me feel like I’m watching a collection of scenes the filmmakers liked versus a cohesive story with an organic flow. These problems make it hard to feel arrested by Candyman, which is a deep shame considering there are key scenes, especially the excellent pre-credits scene (and the credits sequence itself, brilliantly toying with the 1992 version’s and reflecting the ominous mystery of a world that stretches well beyond our reach), that really do fire on all cylinders. It feels a bit like fan-fiction overall, like DeCosta, Peele, and company decided they wanted to add to the existing Candyman story but lack that certain zeal for the property their progenitors had.

That, and it feels like a movie for people who already agree to everything it has to say and already know everything it has to say, which makes its efforts to spell out everything particularly artless. It doesn’t pose many questions despite having many ideas; it doesn’t offer much to ponder and consider, and in that sense it isn’t even a landslide triumph over 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s Candyman: Day of the Dead (neither of which are achievements, to note). Again, the idea of gentrification is such fertile ground for a Candyman film, lending itself to so many plot arcs and visual storytelling tools, but this one barely cracks the surface. The themes are too conspicuous to be thoughtful, the characters too inhuman to be interesting but not so inhuman as to be strangely compelling, the visuals too precise on satisfying colour palettes but not on reflecting our increasingly unhinged protagonist and the horror of his circumstance, the gore plentiful but too stylized to be impactful. It’s all too much and not enough.

P.S. A quick moment to vent: Tony Todd reprising the Candyman role thrilled me much. I was just as deflated to find out he has no speaking lines throughout the film, and when he finally does the filmmakers opt to use wildly unnecessary CGI to de-age him. That is all.

Horror Spooktober

Hell House LLC (2015)

Hell House LLC (2015)
Director: Stephen Cognetti
Writers: Stephen Cognetti
Cast: Gore Abrams, Alice Bahlke, Danny Bellini
Genre: Horror
Country: United States

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Ever since The Blair Witch Project made a wild amount of bank for a group of folks shaking a camera in the woods, we’ve been inundated – or blessed, depending on your inclination, I don’t know you – with found footage horror. Some do novel things with the genre and are genuinely entertaining for it (e.g., Cloverfield), whereas most are gutter trash, and if you have even a passing interest in horror you’ve encountered these entities.

But, it is October, and that means there are many a horror film to watch, and after an extremely long absence I will be taking you on this journey, dear reader. Whether these movies are good or numbing, we will have each other.

All the above brings us to Hell House LLC, a very indie found footage film that doesn’t initially stick much from the pack, and with a title like that the chances are fairly high we’re in for a dire time, but it’s spawned two sequels, so obviously it must do something right. Right?

At any rate, Hell House tells the tale of a quintuple dressing the Abaddon Hotel, an abandoned squabble in upstate New York, as their annual haunt. Things go awry. Easy enough.

Off the bat, Hell House blows its load, informing us that a horrible tragedy occurred on opening night, fifteen people died, survivors are forever scarred, all that. We get some scattered footage and dramatic expert commentary, emphasising that Bad Things Have Happened, generally revolving around the basement. The movie very much wants us to know the basement’s important. A producer, Diane (Alice Bahlke), and her crew have nabbed Sara (Ryan Jennifer), the sole survivor of the Hell House company’s quintuple, who offers tapes of the event itself and what led up to it. And we have a movie.

None of this is exactly bad on paper. Hype up the tragedy so we’re always anticipating the impending Bad Things, that’s well and good. In doing this Hell House puts itself in a corner, though. Instead of relying on any organic buildup, which we would’ve gotten had we just followed the quintuple from the beginning, the movie sets itself an ultimatum: absolutely deliver on the basement and the tragedy or bust. We’ll get to that in a moment. In the meantime, we have the exploits of the Hell House company and their efforts to convert the Abaddon Hotel into something functional (the actual effort to turn it into a haunt is largely brushed past, which is probably for the best), all the while dealing with increasingly bizarre occurrences.

And thank god for these occurrences, because they swoop in to save a movie actively on the verge of cratering. This is especially true in the first half, where I grew ever more impatient waiting for something to happen. Right before I was about to write off the entire thing, Hell House brings out an ominous clown mannequin stained in fake blood and everything becomes rosier from there, as though writer/director Stephen Cognetti snapped out of making mostly flatlining character moments and went, “Oh, fuck, right, I’m making a scary movie.” There are many elements in Hell House‘s favour, almost all hedged within its production design. The bulk of the movie’s set in the Abaddon itself, chocked with narrow corridors, shadowy corners, and a general sense of decay. Cognetti and cinematographer Brian C. Harnick are broadly aware of how to use this space and how our eyes will wander within, how we’ll examine for anything ‘off,’ and they use it to supremely creepy effect. Even when things stop happening, you get the distinct feeling things could resurge right away, leading to a constant, palpable sense of danger.

Hell House mostly keeps that momentum going, despite cross-cutting these events with more present-day expert commentary in a traditional documentary format, most of which choreographs unfortunate happenings before said happenings happen. It’s kind of like two different movies intersecting – one about the Hell House company, the other about the aftermath of their Abaddon haunt – and I’m not sure Cognetti possesses the directorial prowess to strike the perfect balance between them. The present-day stuff’s always on the precipice of sabotaging the rest of the movie in that it’s a) the least engaging part, and b) adds little to the horror factor, opting to hype us for scary things when they speak for themselves just fine (one journalist describes how a person in the Hell House company cut their own throat, and later in the movie the Hell House guy does just that, and the movie lingers on this like it’s quite a shocker). That said, it feels like an exercise in trying to make scares work despite pre-emptively showing their hand, and it’s kind of impressive that most of them indeed still work.

These scares aren’t all perfect, however. Hell House relies a lot on the “creepy entity suddenly there, suddenly not” trick, and clown mannequins can only go so far, although I’ll note these get more mileage than one might think. This leads me to the basement/tragedy finale, and oh my is it a little bit of a disaster. Rather than capitalizing on the drawn out dread the movie partakes in, it opts for full on chaos – this would be fine, but remember that this is a found footage film, AKA “chaos” means a ton of shaking and a general sense that you have no fucking idea what’s happening. It does not establish well why the haunted housegoers – or us – ought to be horrified by whatever’s going on in the basement, for the tragedy involves a hooded paranormal figure (that’s clearly some guy in what looks like a cheap Spirit Halloween mask) wandering around and doing what I presume to be bad things, but the movie gives us no concept what these bad things really are, there isn’t a “wow” moment. Hell House isn’t a gory movie, but the big basement blowout presented the ideal opportunity for some spectacle. It kind of needed that spectacle, as what we have now is a lot of screaming, general confusion, and a sense of slap-dashedness that isn’t so much scary as it’s deflating and occasionally annoying (Cognetti’s a fan of cheap distortion effects here that are supposed to give the impression the camera’s getting fucked with, but it ends up being overtly amateur). There’s a ‘twist’ at the very end that I think I like for its tackiness, and how it kind of hilariously abandons the notion we’re watching some documentary of a real-life event, but it still lacks that oomph the movie needed to cap things off.

That said, it mostly gets its spooks right, and if you take the movie at pure face value (and watch it well aware it’s low-budget and you shouldn’t have many expectations) it’s fairly enjoyable. The characters are appallingly dumb in the best way – my favourite recurring bit is the clown mannequin showing up in random places and each character freaking out every time, essentially going, “I sure hope that third incident was a one-off.” There’s even a moment where one guy, Tony (Jared Hacker), has the good sense to quit the Hell House quintuple, but we cut to a scene where him and Andrew (Alex Schneider), who looks broadly like Linguini from Ratatouille, are sitting in a field, where both parties are lamenting over some vague reason they can’t leave, and how Tony should’ve known earlier. Nobody follows up on this, it’s just an easy plot device to guide Tony to his death with everyone else, and I love how Cognetti doesn’t even bother to justify it. That’s Hell House for you; it doesn’t make much sense, but it doesn’t have to when it knows its dark hallways and creepy mannequins carry the show anyway, and it largely wins that gamble in spite of its botched finale and a narrative structure that seems designed to harm the movie. You could do worse – not a glowing critique, but one almost uniquely fitting for Hell House LLC.