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"Cabin in the Woods"
This Drew Goddard-directed effort, co-scripted by genre auteur Joss Whedon, ranks among one of the most wryly self-aware works of American pop culture entertainment in years. Relentlessly toying around with a meta story, "The Cabin in the Woods" is sometimes too clever for its own good. However, by successfully analyzing tired formulas, it gives them new life. Criticwire grade: B+ (Available on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD)
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A batshit insane and wildly discursive horror satire, this surprisingly entertaining genre mash-up from "Torque" director Joseph Kahn follows a group of high school students evading the rampage of a masked killer inspired by the onscreen antics of fictional movie franchise "Cinderhella," but that's not really what it's about at all. Instead, Kahn churns out a breathless work of sarcasm that literally never slows down to contemplate its silliness. Shanley Caswell stars as alienated teen Riley, a smarmy outsider routinely ignored by everyone around her, save for her neighborhood pal (Josh Hutcherson), who's currently taken by Riley's ditzy ex-friend (Spencer Locke). That's the only normal ingredient in a plot that also includes mind-swapping time travel, alien bears, a mean-spirited and foul-mouthed principal played by Dane Cook (so that's where he's been hiding!) and a creepy math genius trapped in detention for nearly two decades. Smarter and more insightful than the "Scary Movie" franchise, "Detention" is an earnest spoof that embraces the vapidity of teenage culture even while savaging it. The relentless stylization occurred to me as a cross between "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and "Scream" even before I saw it listed that way in a topic on IMDb. Criticwire grade: A- (Available on DVD/Blu-ray)
Emerging horror auteur Ti West, who demonstrated a penchant for extensive build-ups in "The House of the Devil" and "Trigger Man," continually makes it unclear if the inn in question actually harbors a ghost or if his heroine (Sara Paxton) has simply imagined it. Both she and her hilariously frazzled co-worker (Pat Healy of "Great World of Sound") want to believe in supernatural affairs for the thrill factor alone. For its first half, "The Innkeepers" is less scary than hokey, but that's by design. Finally arriving at a mortifying climax, "The Innkeepers" makes the case that even people eager to encounter supernatural beings wouldn't be able to cope with the dreadful reality of coming face to face with death. Criticwire grade: B+ (Available on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD)
French directors Julian Maury and Alexandrew Bustillo first caught the attention of the genre crowd with their bloody home invasion story "Inside," which infamously climaxed with a forced abortion. "Livid" proves there's more than gory stunts behind their work. The movie starts as an annoyingly familiar haunted house story before transforming into a beautiful, moving gothic fairy tale. Alternately eerie and lyrical, "Livid" revolves around the experience of twentysomething Lucy (Chloé Coulloud), tasked with working as the caretaker for a comatose elderly woman in her mansion. Lucy becomes obsessed with finding the homeowner's treasure and invites two friends to help her with the task, only to uncover a ghostly secret lurking in the walls. "Livid" takes several bloody supernatural twists before changing things up by allowing Lucy to become emotionally invested in mansion's ominous past. The final shot is simultaneously creepy and elegant. Criticwire grade: A- (Available on DVD)
As writer, director and editor of "Lovely Molly," Eduardo Sanchez -- aka one half of the duo behind "The Blair Witch Project," as it must always be noted -- has maintained the DIY approach that first put him on the map. But now he has also demonstrated that his filmmaking talent extends beyond the faux-documentary style that he helped commercialize. Featuring a breakout performance by newcomer Gretchen Lodge, the new movie revolves around a recovering drug addict and newlywed living in her deceased parents' isolated home, struggling with the demons of her past as well as the literal ones of the present: Something ominous is haunting Molly, a strange and possibly supernatural presence with unquestionably evil intentions. Steeped in understated creepiness as Molly slowly becomes aware of an invisible presence in her house, the movie conveys a remarkable amount of atmospheric dread. Sanchez spends so long building up the tension that it's a supreme letdown when he finally concedes with a comparatively uninspired finale in which much of what has been implied slovenly shows up onscreen. Still, over a decade after his smash hit, Sanchez has proven he's anything but a one-hit wonder or a horror shock jock -- and that's no small feat for "The Blair Witch" guy, even he still can't shake that association. Criticwire grade: B+ (Available on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD)
Calvin Lee Reeder has been churning out intensely psychedelic short films for several years, borrowing liberally from vintage grindhouse movies while turning the genre on its head. In concise wonders like "The Farm" and "The Rambler," Reeder places his elaborate, unsettling audio-visual design on par with plot, combining a dark comic sensibility with legitimately frightening images. Unsurprisingly, "The Oregonian," Reeder's first feature-length project, extends this bizarre stylistic proclivity, although the director's familiar approach doesn't make this zany midnight movie any less delectably strange. The story of sorts opens with a woman (Reeder regular Lindsay Pulsipher) waking up in front of the wheel of her car in the immediate aftermath of a car accident. Soaked in blood and noticing two bodies nearby, she wanders down the woodsy road in shock, screaming for help. A loud shrieking sound dominates the soundtrack as she drops to her knees in agony. Everything fades to white -- and then she's walking again, following a road to nowhere, populated by nobody, save for the occasional horrific apparition. It just keeps getting weirder. Reeder excels at creating an organic drift between these scenes, exploring subconscious associations and hideous encounters with morbid events disassociated from any discernible context. Criticwire grade: B+ (Available on DVD)
I personally prefer "Frankenweenie," another gothic stop motion tale released this year, but you've probably heard enough about it by now. "Paranorman," the latest creepy movie about kids who meet ghosts from the production company behind "Coraline," follows an alienated child whose ability to see dead people puts him in the unique position of saving the town from the demons of its witch-hunting past. The story sags in parts, but look for a spectacularly beautiful finale between the child protagonist and an angry ghost that ranks among one of the most expressionistic and otherworldly images you'll find at the movies this year. Horror buffs trying to acclimate their children toward liking the genre should look at this movie as a terrific gateway drug. Criticwire grade: B- (Playing in Theaters)
"REC 3: Genesis"
A lot of recent horror movies have appropriated the "found footage" mold, but few used it to quite the startling effect of the relentlessly claustrophobic Spanish franchise kicked off by "[REC]" and continued with "[REC]³." The first movie was so well executed that it was remade essentially shot-for-shot in America as "Quarantine." Both movies take place within the confines of a creaky apartment building littered with maniacal, slobbering zombie-like victims possessed by a demonic force that assaults all remaining humans with continuously morbid results made especially potent by the constant first-person POV. By those standards, "[REC]³" looks downright outmoded, once it inexplicably drops its own found-footage framing device 20 minutes into the mayhem and morphs into a subpar run-and-shoot-the-ghoul undead opus. If you can roll with the lower bar, however, it's still a basic blast: When the demonic possession invades an ostentatious wedding ceremony, the bride and groom fight through ample bloodshed to find each other again. Those unfamiliar with the earlier movies may not quite follow why the zombie attack happens in the first place, but "[REC]³" has in common with its prequels a pacing strategy that leaves little room to think things through. The finale, in which one gory moment is continually surpassed by an even gorier moment, deserves recognition for topping all the grisly imagery with a conclusive moment of sincere poignancy. There's enough freshness in those closing seconds to forgive the movie's dominant clichés, but if you make it that far you have probably already forgiven them anyway. Criticwire grade: B (Available on VOD)
Forget that "Silent House" is shot in a single, continuous long take and what do you have? A persistently terrified Elizabeth Olsen embodying a young woman even less in touch with reality than her brainwashed character in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." A few well-timed jump scares. One large, spooky mansion surrounded by equally foreboding woods where Olsen darts about like a trapped insect. Faceless assailants with ominous agendas. In all, a gripping but altogether unmemorable haunted-house movie. Mainly, though, "Silent House" is a showcase for that long take because, man, that camera can run -- and it knows how to scare you. Criticwire grade: B- (Available on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD)
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A dark and stormy horror movie of the Stephen King variety, "Sinister" steps carefully through familiar territory. Anchored by a moody Ethan Hawke performance and classically unsettling scare tactics, this icy supernatural thriller from director Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") and co-written by Ain't It Cool News contributor C. Robert Cargill (aka "Massawyrm") delivers on the promise of its title by boiling down its appeal to pure atmosphere. The movie makes up for uneven dialogue and pacing issues through sheer horrific imagery, starting with the first shot, a grainy Super-8 of a family hanging from a tree playing in reverse. That's one of several morbid death scenes discovered by true crime novelist Ellison (Hawke), a man on a vain mission to regain his popularity 10 years after his last hit. He's a little desperate: Derrickson leads his lambs to slaughter with ample skill. Using shadows and hyperbolic flashes of lightening with a powerful command over their implications. "Sinister" doesn't break any rules, but excels at following the spookiest of them. Criticwire grade: B (Playing in Theaters)
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"Tales From Beyond the Pale"
This one's technically cheating because it's not a movie. But the series of old school radio plays is produced by filmmakers who know how to scare up an audience's imagination. The second season, which you can find here, includes episodes scripted by "Habit" director Larry Fessenden, "Bitter Feast" director Joe Maggio and "You're Next" screenwriter Simon Barrett, some of the best names working in indie horror today. Listen to their innovative means of creeping you out and then dig further if you haven't seen their films. (Available online and on CD)
Too often, handheld camcorder footage provides an excuse to eschew cinematic storytelling in favor of sloppiness, under the assumption that the amateur quality fits the narrative. The anthology horror movie "V/H/S" is a sharp rebuke to this laziness, delivering the creepiest first-person horror movie since the original "Paranormal Activity" while pushing the genre in a fresh direction. The camera never sits still and neither will nail-biting audiences. "V/H/S" contains contributions from some of the more ambitious microbudget American filmmakers working today, not all of whom exclusively work in horror. The concept's parameters were developed by Brad Miska, founder of the horror fan site Bloody Disgusting: A group of young hooligans are tasked with stealing a mysterious tape from an ominous home. When they come across a heap of unidentified footage, the framing device begins as each cassette contains another morbid encounter. The resulting experience is their own private horror festival, with shorts by known indie filmmakers David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Ti West and the online filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence. (Adam Wingard, whose "You're Next" was a breakout hit on the festival circuit last year, directs the wraparound segment.) Despite the chorus of indie names involved in its production, "V/H/S" maintains a surprisingly fluid structure; the lo-fi video quality and foreboding atmosphere carry over into each chapter. Most segments have a fair share of cheap scares, but they also delve into the art of the build-up, as if delivering a series of grim jokes with bloody punchlines. Consider it a 21st-century take on "Tales from the Crypt." Criticwire grade: A (Playing in Theaters and Available on VOD)
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