Camera Movement in Fear of the Dark

Film Criticism can be applied anywhere and a salient, valid point can be found in nearly any film whatsoever. A case in point would be the film Fear of the Dark. It’s a 2002 independent Canadian production and co-stars Kevin Zegers, best known from Transamerica, and Jesse James, best known as Helen Hunt’s son in As Good As It Gets. It’s a low-budget horror film with deals with a very simple concept, which is “What if there are beings in the dark to be feared, and what if they can hurt you?”

This was a film I recently re-viewed and what struck me was the amount of movement the camera made in the course of the film. It’s all to build tension and was effective but what was striking is that since handholding wasn’t exactly as in vogue when this film was made as it is now so the movements were almost all controlled dollies, pans, pushes, and tilts.

In all, the estimate is 225 shots in the film in which there is significant movement. The film runs 86 minutes so that’s an average of 2.6 moving shots per minute. That is dedication to a stylistic decision. What’s more the shots are very creative such as:

10. Tracking shots following skateboards.
16. Vertigo shot pushing down the stairs.
66. Reflection shot in mirror pull back and create an in-mirror Two-Shot/OTS combo.
76. Swish Pan.
91. Sped up dolly shot.
93. Crane down on house.
103. Push in reverse.
123. Circle shot.
211. Tracking and Reverse Tracking.

These are just some of the examples. Kudos to Marc Charlebois the Director of Photography and Director K.C. Bascome for daring to move the camera with a purpose and with effect and not whipping it about willy-nilly.

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61 Days of Halloween- House (1977)

House directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi is a film which makes one glad simply because of how inventive it is – even if it’s not great. Never have so many cinematic techniques been crammed into one small film: still montages, wipes, irises, superimposition, distortion, black and white; the list is seemingly endless. It not only uses them but uses them correctly, well and never without some justification.

The second technical thing of note to House was that as the film was about to start it became clear by the side masking sliding in that the film was shot in 4:3. This is an interesting and effective decision for a number of reasons. It’s interesting because with the advent of Cinemascope shooting full-frame quickly became passé but this decision is incredibly inspired as it gives you a myopic glimpse into a kinetic world that holds your gaze completely.

The tone of this film is an interesting one. While it is great that it does build up the protagonist, and we get to know her and her friends, the tone shifts radically many times which shift focus away from her character later on. In terms of differing tones, there is a very tender scene between the protagonist and her father, several slapstick portions reminiscent of silents, comedic portions in the open and Kung Fu; then as they arrive and stay at the aunt’s house it will stay mainly horror but blend all that came before in and more. While the tale is one of witchcraft and occasional gore, it’s never what you would call terrifying but always entertaining even if predictable in terms of its end result.

It’s ultimately a very fun movie to sit and watch, even if you’re not in to counting techniques. It is, however, better if you are not thrown by things which come out of left-field because almost everything does.

To watch this film you will also need a very high tolerance for bad pre-1980 effects work because there are times you can taste the green screen so much it’s nearly nauseating, but in a way it adds to the charm of the film because it never seems to take itself too seriously.

However, if you like great cinematography this film is definitely for you. The aforementioned conversation between the daughter and father alone is nearly worth the price of admission with the supernaturally saturated background and the shots through the glass. The camera work is always appropriate for the tone at current, as is the lighting.

Ultimately, the greatest treat was in being able to view a previously unseen film in the States on the big screen where it belongs. Any film disappearing from public knowledge or not being known is a sad thing and kudos to Janus for finding a genuine original and putting it on display for the world to see.

House which was originally released in Japan in 1977 slowly made the theatrical rounds here in the U.S. and is available from Criterion on home video.

8/10

For Dario Argento Filmmaking is A Family Business

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a horror convention that Dario Argento was attending. The following is a repost based on questions that I and a friend of mine were able to ask.

A friend of mine asked Dario Argento during a Q & A session at this year’s Monster-Mania on March 13th if he found it challenging to work with family. His answer was quite insightful and rather great.

He said it’s like a “bottega nascimentale,” which is roughly translated as a family business. He said it’s easy his grandfather was a distributor his father and brother are producers. Now his daughter Asia is a actor and director. He called it the “Italian style” and it is truly the only way he knows how to work and it’s worked well for him.

Dario Argento Says No to Prequels

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a horror convention that Dario Argento was attending. The following is a repost based on questions that I and a friend of mine were able to ask.

While at a Q & A session at Monster-Mania I managed to ask a question. It was as follows:

Considering that the flashback that acts as a frame in Deep Red is one of my favorite flashbacks have you [Argento] ever considered expanding that story into a prequel?

The answer was short, sweet and pretty funny.

“No, no, no. That’s a joke; for money. The movie is the movie.”

Rewind Review – Let Me In

If there’s something I try to avoid, and most of the times succeed in doing, it’s comparative analysis as a film review. In the case of Let Me In, that is nearly unavoidable seeing as how, in my humble opinion, Let the Right One In, the film upon which it is based, was the best film of 2008. However, owing to the fact that many reading this will not have seen that film I will attempt to keep most of my comments to germane to the latter version alone.
First, to allay fears of the devotees. Gus Van Sant set a very dangerous precedent in the world of remakes by choosing to reshoot Psycho a feat of little to no merit considering what Hitchcock’s opinion of principal photography was that “it’s all mechanical.” This remake is not like that. Being faithful and reverential will undoubtedly get you similar shots but it is not a shot-by-shot remake. Some scenes are not there, some scenes are re-arranged some things are altered entirely to make the tale more American.
My main concern was making the story an American one without forcing it. I think a lot of attention was paid to finding a way to make the story elements seem American and to actually retell as oppose to changing for changing’s sake. There were actually some inspired brilliant touches in that regard.

Is it very similar to the original and will you be anticipating certain scenes and be analyzing via comparison whether you want to or not? No question. Does that make it a difficult watch at times? Yes, but it does draw you in and stand on its own two legs and in the end it does become emotionally engaging and not feel like it was a waste and thus the antithesis of the Psycho remake. Not only because there are certain parts of the film excised to make it a more myopic version of events within the story but also there was a literal change of pace in certain parts, certain parts played more languidly other sped up. It was like a reinterpretation of a classical music piece rather than a crass cover by a hack pop artist.

The film, of course, would never work without the right cast in place and the two most important characters in this tale are the kids: Owen, a picked on loner who is dealing with a divorce at home and Abby, a girl who is new to the neighborhood who has a gruesome secret. If you’ve seen either Kodi-Smit McPhee (The Road) or Chloe Grace Moretz Before (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Kick-Ass) you know some of what their capable of but this film blows it out of the water. They are astounding and shoulder the tremendous burden of this film with ease.

This film’s horrific elements shine through quite a bit even though it is not high on the typical gruesome, gory scene that we are so accustomed to. Knowing both these characters so well their revelations carry weight and heightens the few instances that do occur. Yet the film is also taut with real human emotion as the coming of age aspect is not buried. There is the divorce, the bullying the awkward kinship that slowly Owen and Abby start to build.

At one point Michael Giacchino’s score becomes too lilting and circular like an anti-Philip Glass such that it wasn’t ambient anymore and made me pay careful attention to it the rest of the way, which is unfortunate because the rest of it was much better and quite good. It just became a distraction when it couldn’t afford to at all.

The cinematography by Greig Fraser was very noteworthy and looked fantastic. The playground scenes were as opulent as shots with negative fill could be and in much of the scenes the intimacy or claustrophobia of the tale was heightened by the framing and the lighting.

There will always be those who hate a remake just because it’s a remake. It is human nature to pick and choose. The bottom line as a fan of this story was that once I heard this was announced all I could do was cross my fingers because it was going to happen whether anyone liked it or not. I am glad it came out this way and kudos to Matt Reeves for tackling a leviathan of modern horror.

9/10

61 Days of Halloween: Daybreakers

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Daybreakers

Daybreakers is yet another vampire movie who may have fallen victim to an overexposed genre in terms of box office. While it does have a good premise, and creates a seemingly true to life realistic future world that never seems hyper-real, it is by no means perfect. The positive is that there were at least three legitimate very good scares and shocks in this film.

What is interesting to note in the film is that directors Michael and Peter Spierig not only wrote the movie but were also lead effects artists, which allows their vision to be total in the film, and the effects work is most definitely up to snuff. It is in story that the film lacks at times. There is definitely a visual signature to this film, which possesses the rare quality of being desaturated much of the time yet still being interesting to look at. Their future work will be something to be on the lookout for.

Willem Dafoe steals the show in this film, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand he’s a great performer and it’s great to see him work, but on the other hand as soon as he enters the picture everyone else becomes less interesting even the protagonist, which of course is never good. He and his character are such large personalities that they dominate scenes he is in. Thankfully the good doctor of this tale, Ethan Hawke, does get some alone time so we can still follow him distraction free.

The second act is without question the hardest act to execute in a film. First and third acts it is often said are a piece of cake. There are struggles with pace, motivation and logic through the second act as the film nears its conclusion.

One of the central conflicts of characters is between Dr. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) and Frankie Dalton (Michael Dorman). The former being an altruistic doctor seeking a blood substitute for the vampire world and the latter being a soldier. Towards the end Frankie informs Edward why he infected him. It is difficult to tell whether or not Frankie is lying and if he is truthful as it’s a pretty flimsy excuse that is not compelling at all.

While there is the rare effective use of slow motion the ending conflict does get a little bogged down, however, the cure that is thought of in this film is clever.

The movie avoided ending on time and decided to close with a cheesy scare attempt failing to notice that the last impression we get of the film is as important, if not more so, than the first. Conversely the first impression we get is a little odd. We get an inciting incident, a well-done dramatic little scene, featuring a character who has no bearing on the rest of the film whatsoever.

It is worth watching but is does not quite live up to the expectation that is set up during a very clever and effective first act.

7/10

61 Days of Halloween: Frozen

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Frozen

Frozen is a suspense/horror film that speculates on what may happen if three twenty-something friends were caught on a ski lift overnight. Despite playing to favorable and classically hyperbolic reactions at Sundance this film, despite its promise, is deeply flawed. There are spoilers herein.

The three protagonists Parker (Emma Bell), Joe (Shawn Ashmore) and Dan (Kevin Zegers) are well set up in the beginning portion of this film, however, that beginning is too protracted and talky especially considering the plot and the nature of it.

The concept of the film, under attack by some, is not the film’s downfall. The fact that these three get caught on the ski lift overnight is, in fact, a good concept which is not fully explored and those parts which are explored aren’t very well executed. One means for escape is never attempted and the first attempted was bound to fail based on how it was done. Joe jumps from the lift, abandons his snowboard but still tries to land on his feet, which was bound to break his legs.

Considering the film is called Frozen, the most the characters ever suffer is a low grade of frostbite and not hypothermia as you might expect. Furthermore, the deaths are not due to the elements but wolf attacks. This acts sort of as the opposite of a deus ex machina, wherein the characters’ destruction is brought about by a seemingly divine, or demonic, plot element randomly thrown into the mix.

So far as the cast is concerned, the expression “two out of three ain’t bad” comes to mind. Emma Bell seems to be trying too hard in this part and goes over-the-top in her more emotional scenes. Kevin Zegers isn’t there very long but is serviceable when he is there leaving the standout and ‘the glue’ as Shawn Ashmore who did quite well but even his best efforts can’t keep this thing together.

After being trapped conversations the characters are engaged in are far too distracted from the situation to be believable. They seemingly forget the very real situation they are in for much too long. Breaking some of the backstory-filling up with quiet or renewed panic would’ve been better.

The characters in this story are placed in a situation with really only three outs and they only tried two. They could’ve been put in a slightly more advantageous situation. Despite the claustrophobia and occasional tension the film does build it is all torn down by the missteps along the way.

Despite a well-intentioned effort at a different kind of suspense tale Frozen is tepid at best.

4/10

61 Days of Halloween: Paranormal Activity

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is the kind of movie that generates so much hype that people are likely to end up on either extreme with regards to their opinion of the film. There are definitely kudos to be given to Paramount and their marketing scheme for this film. That, and that alone about this film, is pure genius and I am sure it made many more people want to see this film than otherwise would’ve wanted to – myself included. The expectations were then heightened by hyperbolic reviews like “scariest of decade” and references to “scaring the living hell out of” people.

As ingenious as it is, and one can’t really dispute that, it is ultimately a wolf in sheep’s clothing, meaning if you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project or one of its many first person knock-offs over the last 10 years then you’ve seen Paranormal Activity. This has a somewhat more definitive ending than most but even still it ends up being ultimately ineffective as whole.

It is undeniable that there is a sense of dread and foreboding throughout, after a certain point, but it is much too subdued for a while. There is much anticipation, and while the subtlety is to be appreciated, there isn’t enough escalation of incidents throughout. Many of the first few recorded events are very minor. In my opinion, a more incessant film out this year was a The Haunting in Connecticut. One might dispute the merits of where that story goes but it is incessant, you might call it cliché but no one is calling this film original.

It’s only 86 minutes long, and not only does it seem longer, but even while being that short it manages to be repetitive. There are several fights about stopping the taping, not buying a Ouija board and whether or not to contact a demonologist. Almost each and every incident needs to be reviewed on video or in audio and they feel it necessary for the audience as well as the characters because the shots aren’t clear, or the incident perhaps too subtle. So, in being redundant in its two most vital aspects, verbally and visually; it is doomed to fail.

While found footage, an updated cinéma vérité style, might more aptly be called progeny of the YouTube age, and believe me there is nothing wrong with that, as I note in another article, what it does create and perpetuate is bad framing. Framing is being turned into a lost art; however, it is fine if it exists through most of this film but there a moments in this film where you would have preferred a clearer shot of something even if that something was the book of demonic illustrations the likes of which we’ve seen in myriad horror films.

While this film cannot be knocked for keeping a consistent level of tension that level is far too low, and never really escalated. It’s a flat-liner, which is unforgivable. The acting is passable but not going to sink or save this film unlike its godfather The Blair Witch Project, which is elevated and believable due to the strength of the performances.

Ultimately, the good that will come from this film is from the marketing. While they tried to make the film seem like a real event with no opening title and closing title sequence, I doubt with the internet as ubiquitous as it is now that many people believe that as they did 10 years ago. However, the legacy it will leave is due completely to people wanting to see it due to buzz. I wouldn’t doubt if a similar tactic was used again and we can only hope it’s selling a better product.

3/10