Saturday, April 07, 2007

Ghost House

[EDIT: Some of the links below are hard to see. If you want to watch any of the films discussed, click on the first occurence of their title in their own paragraphs. Or swing your mouse about and keep a look out for the cursor changes. Apologies for any inconvenience]

I have a confession to make. I am a movie wimp. Horror movies leave me sniveling and whimpering like a baby.

It’s not the gore. My parents let me watch
Temple of Doom before I was even in school, so blood stopped having an effect on me very early on. It took Braveheart to really make me physically ill. After that, all bets were off and everyone looks a bit frightened when I applaud a good beheading in 300. But ghosts, aliens, monsters under the bed, the occasional knife-wielding maniac--you’ll find me curled up in a ball on my theatre seat. It might be due to early trauma—my parents also let me watch Poltergeist when I was roughly the same age as Carol Anne and it’s a wonder I sleep at night. Occasionally, I don’t. Signs kept me awake for two weeks straight and my friends and family knew the way to freak me out was to come up behind me and do a clicky alien sound. Let’s not even talk about what they did to me in a corn maze one Halloween....

But when my dear editor sent me these horror films to mini-review, I blew it off. Whatever! They won’t be scary. 3 minutes, what could possibly happen in 3 minutes? They’ll all be zombie flicks and zombie flicks are just silly.

I watched the first one,
Caller Unknown. I rolled my eyes because it featured that horror movie cliché, the blonde bombshell in a bikini. Her phone rings with an incoming picture. Uh oh. Telephones scare me as a rule (I’ve worked too many receptionist jobs) and how freaky would it be to receive a picture from an unknown caller? I’m not going to spoil it for you, but this director made a tense use of their 3 minutes. Yes, there’s more than one cliché here, but it’s self-knowing without verging into Scream territory. When combined with a new device like the cell phone camera, the blueprint works well. Of all four, Caller Unknown could probably be adapted into a feature length and be a lot of fun.

I stopped whimpering and thought “Bah!” This one just got to me because I’m scared of telephones. Let’s try the next one. I got roughly 30 seconds into watching
Night Waking when I decided watching these little things at 2am while alone in the house wasn’t such a good idea.

I returned to them in the daylight. It didn’t help.
Night Waking also features a common horror movie device—the babysitter. Sharp filming angles prevent you from seeing anything and as every good horror director knows, that’s where the true horror lies. The sound effects are particularly good in this one. Don’t bother to yell at the screen—the babysitter does it anyway....

Oddly, the next two try harder to look professional with title cards and actor billing, and yet come off a bit more amateur.
Mouse Trap is a bit reminiscent of Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye and works pretty well into the last frame. But the initial “Oh, sick!” jump is quickly replaced with a bit of eye-rolling because of the cheap gore.

Saving Face falls into the same pitfall. If you watch all four of these in a row, you’ll start picking out horror movie patterns. Horror films of all subjects, lengths, and budgets rely largely on people creeping along a wall. You know it, and yet it doesn’t stop you from sitting on the edge of your seat. Saving Face knows it, and relies mainly on a girl tip-toeing down a hallway and into a bathroom. You know she’s going to find something awful there, but it doesn’t stop you from getting a good jump. (Shame on Ghost House’s website for the major spoiler on the site—these guys have 3 minutes to scare you, don’t take away their money shots!) Unfortunately, like Mouse Trap, the director didn’t subscribe to the same “less is more” philosophy that the first two so effectively did. The glimpse of the villain is scary enough. Showing everything veered it into low-budget slasher. There should be a golden rule to low-budget horror--if you can’t afford the make-up, stick to the psychological, or at least do some quick edits of your gore to hide your peeling latex.

Overall, these little films are worth a watch the next time you need to jumpstart your heart. As I mentioned earlier, my tolerance for horror is low (send someone creeping down a hallway and I’m peeking through my fingers) but I think they are all remarkably effective. Whether they are about ghosts, serial killers or aliens, horror movies rely on a lot of build-up for their scares. These films have only a few minutes to accomplish that. All four films do and deserve praise for their tight shots and creaking floors. Sure, they all have plot holes, but horror movies are built on improbability (“Hey kids, we burned the school janitor alive and now he haunts your dreams, crazy, huh?”). I would genuinely like to see what any one of them could do with two hours and a budget.